Yzebel and her squad lay on the tomb floor, sprawled in a parody of sleep. Like all Olori, they’d been born under the Great Conjunction and so were destined for greatness—not as spies but as poets; mathematicians; painters; chefs.
Now, Li saw, her lover and companions were so much meat, their organs pulped within their bodies or riddled with monstrous growths.
Nasrin draped a handkerchief over the teeth jutting from Yzebel’s orbital ridge. “One of the An-Astrae killed her,” she said as she stood. “Her destiny is in tatters, and her heart and liver are full of teratomas. The greatest necromancer in history couldn’t bring her back.”
“Will you look at the rest?” Li asked. They’d been her allies too, though she’d have traded them for Yzebel in a heartbeat. “I’m not asking for miracles. Just... look.”
Nasrin went down the line, examining each corpse in turn: Melqart; Elissa; Hiram; Zinn. “The same An-Astrae did for them,” she confirmed. “A master of the Rent Veil, I’m guessing, or she couldn’t have taken down five Commune agents.”
“What makes you think they were agents?” Li asked, keeping her tone carefully neutral.
Nasrin snorted behind her veil. “One Olori might be a tourist. But two Olori? At least one is a spy.” She produced another handkerchief and opened a flask of grain spirits, wetting the cloth. “Which makes me wonder: what was a Regime pyromancer doing with five Heroes of the Revolution?”
“We were a joint trade delegation.”
Nasrin laughed; trade missions were infamous for harboring spies. “Pull the other one.”
Li chuckled too, considering how to kill her. Nasrin was too knowing by half, and with Yzebel beyond the reach of necromancy, Nasrin’s usefulness was over.
“Before you do anything rash,” Nasrin said, cleaning her unlined hands, “there are two things you should know.”
“One,” Nasrin said, holding up a sun-browned finger. “Firestar IV just passed below the horizon. So you have a quarter of an hour before Firestar V reaches its zenith, and starting a fight before your stars are ascendant would be unwise.”
“Go on,” Li said, curious in spite of herself. An ordinary necromancer wouldn’t keep track of when the Regime’s satellites were overhead.
“Two,” Nasrin said, adjusting her veil and releasing two tiny obsidian moons from inside her chador, which rose to orbit her head, “we share common interests. Isn’t that right, Captain?”
“You have me at a disadvantage, magos,” Li said, eying the circling satellites. Of course. Nasrin was a Druzh sorceress, and individual Druzh were notorious for embroiling themselves in the Great Game, whether their order was involved or not.
“Please—just Nasrin. We’ll be working together, after all.”
“Will we?” Li asked dryly.
“Of course,” Nasrin said. “You’ll need assistance once you reach the dig site at Kyr-Nessus. As for myself, I have no desire to have one of the An-Astrae shatter my moons and unspool my destiny like a ball of yarn.”
“You think I can protect you?”
“Your future’s been burnt to a cinder. You’d fare better against the An-Astrae than I would.”
Nasrin’s reasoning was sound, as far as it went. The Regime made certain its agents had no destinies to be warped by the An-Astrae, or charted by other foes. But a master of the Rent Veil was still a deadly opponent. The last Rent Veil adept Li had faced could unmake bullets.
Dodging falling masonry had proved beyond him, however.
“Suppose I am headed to Kyr-Nessus,” Li said. “What’s in it for you? What do you hope to find there?”
“I want a piece of the Impossible Moon.”
“My. What did it ever do to you?”
“Funny,” Nasrin said. “But really, I want a chunk of the moon. Before you blast it into dust and gravel.”
“And what makes you think I’ll do that?”
“The Regime and the Commune would only join forces to keep the Impossible Moon from rising. The Great Game has too many players without Sakharia dealing itself in.”
“All right,” Li said at length. “An alliance. We protect each other, and you get as large a chunk of the Impossible Moon as we can contrive.”
Nasrin smiled, the skin around her eyes betraying the expression. “I knew you’d see things my way.”
The Valley of the Astrologers lay inside Kyr-Them, at the heart of the city’s necropolis. As Li and Nasrin emerged from the tomb into the sweltering night, gas lamps, reed torches, and coal-fired braziers lit the city’s distant thoroughfares, and a thousand voices and the clatter of mechanized looms reached them on the breeze.
“You were born in Sakharia?” Li asked, following Nasrin past a mortuary temple and dozens of cairns and broken kouroi. Ruddy light limned the shattered statues, and Li couldn’t help thinking that Yzebel would have wanted to paint the scene.
“Why the sudden interest?”
Li shrugged. “You have a local accent. I wouldn’t have guessed you were Druzh.”
“The Order has chapters everywhere,” Nasrin said, with an edge of bitterness. “Even here, at the ends of the earth.”
“Ah,” Li said. She waited several heartbeats before asking, “The Motherhouse views Sakharia as a backwater?”
Nasrin’s silence was more eloquent than words.
“It’s the same with the Regime,” Li said, watching a mote of red light—Firestar V—climb the arc of the sky. “If you’re born in the Annexation, you might marry one of the Cho, but you’ll never be one of them.”
Nasrin glanced at Li. “You’re not Cho?”
Li ran her hand over the stubble above her ears. “The Cho don’t have to shave their temples and necks on pain of death, or tie their hair in knots.” She felt her lip curl as she watched Nasrin re-evaluate the ethnicity of every Regime citizen she’d ever met.
“I didn’t know,” Nasrin said as they passed through a gap in the necropolis’s wall.
“Of course you didn’t,” Li said evenly. “You couldn’t tell a Huo amah from a Yue grandma or an Ain matriarch.”
“So,” Nasrin said. “What are you?”
Li shot her a scornful glance. “I’m Regime.”
“But you said...”
“I said you’re too ignorant to tell the difference. Besides, no one outside the Regime’s territory cares. If I told you I was Yue, would it make a difference that my ancestors ate millet and pickled cabbage?”
“It would mean you weren’t Cho.”
“I’m not Cho,” Li agreed. “But I might as well be. I’m the fist and the blade of the Regime. That’s all the world sees of me. That’s all it needs to understand.”
Li strode ahead, letting Nasrin scurry to keep up. She shouldn’t have said anything. She’d spent too long in Olor, where people like Yzebel wanted to learn about the Annexation for the sake of it, not because they thought they could turn her against her country.
“When’s the next train to Kyr-Nessus?” Li asked as Nasrin caught up.
“Two hours after midnight,” Nasrin said, panting for breath. “You don’t have luggage? We’ll want supplies...”
“Oh, I have luggage,” Li murmured, checking Firestar V’s position in the sky. “It should be going off right about... now.”
Halfway across Kyr-Them, the Kussite consulate erupted in a pillar of orange flame. Li smiled as she felt the explosion in her belly, and everyone in the street turned towards the fire.
Everyone except Nasrin, who stared at Li with dawning comprehension. “You did that,” she whispered.
Li inclined her head.
“To simplify an equation, you eliminate variables,” Li said, thinking of the Kussite geomancers who’d arrived that afternoon. “This is the Great Game, Druzh. Try to keep up.”
When Li headed off for Kyr-Them’s train station, Nasrin followed, visibly shaken.
The soldiers that had been posted at the station had run off to investigate the explosion, and Li raised the hood on her burnous and kept an eye on passersby while Nasrin bought two second-class tickets to Kyr-Nessus. The clocks on the platform had been made in Olor, but their faces were illuminated and protected from grit by lenses of Regime fire-glass.
Yzebel had pointed out the pairing to Li when they’d arrived two days before. It had amused her, for some reason.
“Nasrin,” Li said, taking her ticket. “Do you have a... pastime? A vocation?”
Li pursed her lips. “I suppose.” The word was too casual for the determination with which Yzebel had pursued her art.
Nasrin followed Li’s gaze to the clocks and shook her head. “Not the way the Olori do. I mean, I take tomb-rubbings. And collect meteorites.”
“Meteorites?” Li asked, prompting Nasrin to chatter about the chunks of sky-iron she’d gathered until their train arrived.
Once they were ensconced in a compartment and a conductor had defaced their tickets with a mechanical punch, Li settled into her padded seat and watched the starlit desert roll past. “Get some sleep,” she told Nasrin. “We’ll talk more in the morning.”
Nasrin made a show of obeying, but two more Firestars passed overhead before her obvious wariness gave way to exhaustion. As she slumped against the window and snored, Li drew a vial from her jacket and let a pinch of Seventh Wind dissolve on her tongue. She hated the stuff—it made her twitchy and impatient—but she couldn’t afford to fall asleep.
As the desert rolled past and satellites swept overhead, mimicking the influence of real and theoretical planets, Li reviewed what she knew about the excavation at Kyr-Nessus. Popular wisdom held that Sakharim necromancers had unearthed the tomb complex of an ancient king—perhaps Ramash the Stargazer, mythical founder of Sakharia.
Popular wisdom was wrong.
Like all the magical arts, necromancy was governed by physical laws. With sufficient skill, the dead could be revived and broken objects made whole—but the power required to undo the ravages of time increased exponentially the further one reached into the past. If the Amir of Sakharia had actually discovered a tomb several millennia old, sending necromancers to the dig would have been pointless. Li had done the calculations; mending a toothpick that had been broken three centuries before verged on impossible.
That meant the tomb and its contents weren’t being excavated out of the earth, but out of legends.
All necromancers are liars, Li thought. If you solved the equations governing necromancy for imaginary values, the term for time became belief instead. Convince enough people something was true, and it became easier to make it true.
Which was how the tomb of a king who’d never lived—along with the moon he’d never had buried with him—was being excavated outside Kyr-Nessus.
Li ran down a mental list of the Great Powers, crossing off those whose agents had been eliminated. The Olor Commune now joined Kussia, Verhalt, and the Yana Archipelago on the list of the defeated. That left the Regime, the Druzh, the Nayid High Church... and the An-Astrae.
Li wasn’t worried about the High Church. Their only satellite which used to cross this latitude had been torn out of orbit during the Peninsular War.
That left the An-Astrae, and the Sakharim themselves.
Li glanced across the compartment at Nasrin, who was drooling into her veil. It wouldn’t have surprised her if the Druzh had fielded a second operative, but she’d seen no evidence of it. And even a two-moon sorceress could be a formidable opponent.
Not for the first time, Li considered killing Nasrin. The young woman was too trusting; too confident in the persuasive power of her logic. But everything Li had seen of Nasrin told her she wasn’t a threat. At best, she was someone else’s catspaw.
But if Nasrin was a pawn, whose pawn was she?
Li went through her list a dozen times before the sky lightened in the east, but none of the answers satisfied her.
There were Royal Guards waiting on the platform at Kyr-Nessus. The black armbands they wore marked them as Sakhari nationalists.
“Vice-Consul Li?” their lieutenant called as Li disembarked. “If you and your companion could step this way?”
“What can I do for you, officer?” Li said, spreading her hands to show she was unarmed. The lieutenant had five troopers carrying rifles and collapsible spears, and he wore a revolver and a scimitar.
“We’ve been charged with investigating deaths in Kyr-Them,” the lieutenant said. “Would you assist us by answering some questions?”
Li could see Nasrin making quelling motions. She suppressed a sigh. Did the girl really think they could refuse and walk away? “We are at your disposal, of course,” Li said. “Lead on.”
“What are you doing?” Nasrin whispered as the guards fell in around them.
“Going somewhere less public,” Li murmured.
The lieutenant led them to a mud-brick barracks and motioned for Li to enter. The barracks had two rooms; one living area, for the troops posted there, and a cell with a wrought-iron door and reinforced walls.
“So,” Li said as the lieutenant gestured at a table, clearly expecting her to sit. “How can I assist the Amir?”
The lieutenant smiled without humor. “You know why you’re here, Vice-Consul Li. No one can interfere with the excavation.”
“Interfere with the excavation?” Li said. “Perish the thought. Nasrin and I are here on business.”
“Be that as it may,” the lieutenant said, “your business will have to wait. We have no desire to offend the Regime, but my orders are that any foreign citizens and their companions in Kyr-Nessus are to be interned immediately.”
“I see,” Li said. “Well. Orders are orders. But I have a personal request.” She placed a stack of silver dinars on the table. “You see, I spent the last few years at the embassy in Olor. If I’m to be interned, I want materials to practice my art.”
“That may be possible,” the lieutenant allowed. “What art is that?”
High above, Firestar III reached its zenith, and Li bared her teeth.
“Spontaneous human combustion,” she said.
Once Nasrin was done vomiting, Li took her elbow and led her past heaps of charcoal that had once been men.
“You burned their bones to ash,” Nasrin whispered. “What kind of monster are you?”
“The kind they train at the Crucible,” Li said, raising the hood of her burnous and steering Nasrin down an empty side street. “The kind the Regime sends to kill a moon.”
“You could have killed me in the tomb,” Nasrin said, looking ready to vomit again. “Even without a satellite overhead.”
“Probably,” Li agreed. “I didn’t want to draw attention.”
“And what you just did won’t?”
“Not immediately. Though we’ll need a place to hide.”
“I know a place,” Nasrin said after a moment. “But you have to swear you won’t kill anyone.”
Li studied her for a moment. “Your family?”
Nasrin inclined her head, her lips pressed into a line.
“All right. I won’t kill anyone.” Except in self-defense.
Nasrin’s family compound was on the far side of Kyr-Nessus. Though the day’s heat was oppressive, Li kept her hood up and her head down, and was glad of the empty avenues.
Nasrin had to hammer on the compound gate for half a minute, but eventually a veiled woman slid open a slat and peered out.
“It’s me, Irsa,” Nasrin said. “Let us in.”
“Young mistress,” Irsa said reprovingly as she let them in and barred the compound’s gate once more. “You should have told us you were coming.” She turned her attention to Li, who was staring at her feet. “Who’s your companion?”
“A foreigner,” Nasrin said, as if Li’s hands and unveiled face didn’t make that obvious. “Father will want to see her.”
Irsa grunted. “I’ll bring you tea in the clock room. You can wait for him there.”
Li reassessed her picture of Nasrin’s family as Irsa led them through two courtyards and up a flight of stairs. The Druzh recruited talent wherever they found it, but they didn’t usually make inroads among a nation’s elite.
The clock room was richly carpeted, with divans surrounding a central table. Clocks from three continents hung from hooks, stood against its walls, and rested in fire-glass display cases. Li recognized several Olori timepieces, a High Church prayer calendar, an ancient Sakharim sundial, and even a Yue water clock. Nasrin’s collection of meteorites no longer seemed surprising.
Li thanked Irsa for her tea and sipped carefully from her cup. It tasted of sugar, mint, and more sugar, but it took the edge off of Li’s exhaustion.
“So,” Li said once Irsa was gone. “What should I know about your father?”
“My father is Azad Rahimi.”
General Rahimi. Head of Sakharia’s intelligence service.
Before Li could reply, footsteps heralded the General’s approach. Nasrin’s father was not a large man, and his uniform lacked the trailing braid and shiny buttons that had festooned the Royal Guards’ uniforms. Li stood as he entered and bowed her head. She was startled to see General Azad offer her his hand.
“Captain Li, I presume,” Azad said. “Colonel Kim speaks highly of you.”
“I see,” Li said, taking Azad’s hand and squeezing it. Kim was her supervisor, back in Olor. Nasrin had guessed she was here to destroy the Impossible Moon. And if Colonel Kim had told the General about her...
“You want the excavation to fail,” Li said, releasing Azad’s hand. “So you cut a deal with Kim.”
Nasrin and her father traded glances. “Sakharia isn’t ready to contend with the Great Powers,” he said. “As you saw in Kyr-Them. So yes. I contacted the Regime to make sure the Impossible Moon never leaves the ground.”
“And what did you offer Colonel Kim to make her send me?”
Azad met Li’s gaze without flinching. “The last of the Five Who Broke the Sky,” he said. “Nadya Chernova of the An-Astrae.”
Li stared at him, suddenly wide awake.
Chernova. Yama’s Hells.
No wonder Kim had sent her.
Vilskiy. Stikhina. Kepva. Borodin. Chernova. Before Li had been chosen for the Crucible, before she learned to read, she had known the names of the Five Who Broke the Sky.
“They stole everything from us,” her grandmother said, eyes as black as the coal they couldn’t afford. “Everything.”
Li had learned the story at her grandmother’s knee. How the Regime’s geosynchronous satellites had risen over the Annexation and spread to the surrounding lands, making minor pyromancers mighty and masters into gods of death. How her great-uncle—the first soldier from the Annexation to achieve flag rank under the Cho—had led the Regime’s armies into the Gorod Federation.
And how the Five had ruined him.
“They cracked open the heavens rather than admit defeat,” Li’s grandmother said. “They made their homeland a frozen waste, where the sun and moon never shone, nor the stars.” Every time, her voice shook with fury. “And because they were too proud to kneel, our family was humiliated and my brother took his own life.”
The other Great Powers, reeling from what the An-Astrae had done, forced the Regime to sign the Broken Sky Accords, surrendering most of its conquests and banning geo-synchronous satellites. In accordance with the treaty, the Regime had detonated the original Firestars. Its prestige had never recovered.
And there had been no more generals—or ministers, or high officials of any sort—from the Annexation.
“What do you have on Chernova?” Li asked, finishing off the dregs of her tea.
“She’s getting old,” Azad said. “She was the youngest of the Five at the time of the Breaking, and that was four decades ago.”
“Hasn’t slowed her down much,” Li said, thinking of Yzebel and Melqart. It was just barely possible that there were two An-Astrae masters in Sakaharia, but Li’s gut told her Chernova was the one who’d murdered Yzebel. “Do you know when she plans to strike?”
“She wasn’t on the train,” Azad said. “So odds are she’s crossing the desert. Assuming she has a mount, she should arrive at the dig an hour or two after sunset.”
“That presumes she’ll rest during the day.”
“Not even the An-Astrae are immune to heatstroke. Or dehydration.”
“Mmm,” Li said. “So we have an hour after sunset to get into position. The guards on the dig site aren’t yours?”
“Only a handful.”
“Do you need any of them to survive?”
Nasrin flinched. “Li—”
“I wasn’t asking you,” Li said, her gaze fixed on Azad. “Be honest. Do you need them alive? Because if you do, get them out now. Once Chernova shows up, I can’t guarantee anyone’s safety.”
“There are three hundred guards at the dig site!” Nasrin protested.
“And come morning there will be the better part of three hundred corpses. The first thing Chernova will do is blot out the stars. Then she’ll kill a few dozen people on her way to the Impossible Moon. And then the real trouble will start.”
Nasrin went gray as she realized what Li was implying, but Azad was the one who put it into words. “She’ll try to unmake the Moon.”
Li inclined her head.
Nasrin’s veil bobbed as her jaw worked in distress. “But that means— Everyone around her will—- Doesn’t she care?”
“She’s An-Astrae,” Li snapped. “She tore a hole in the sky over her own country rather than let the Regime claim it. You think she cares about anyone who isn’t a part of her death cult? If she had to kill everyone in Kyr-Nessus and Kyr-Them, she’d call it a necessary sacrifice.”
“But she wouldn’t,” Nasrin murmured. “Kill them, I mean. At that distance from the city, indirect exposure wouldn’t be lethal.” She paused and corrected herself. “Not immediately.”
“You can live without a mouth,” Li agreed. “Or eyes, or limbs, or genitals. You even live without skin. One of my colleagues lasted a week.”
The only sounds in the clock room were the ticking of mechanisms and the slow drip of water. Finally, Azad spoke. “Can you kill her?”
Li smiled a crocodile smile. “Don’t worry,” she said. “I can kill anyone.”
Nasrin and her father let Li alone after that. Giving her time to prepare, Azad said, but his eyes told a different story.
Li snorted as Irza brought her a mirror and a razor, so she could shave the stubble from her neck and temples. Azad was no fool. Anyone with sense would be afraid of her.
But Yzebel hadn’t been.
Li quashed the voice that had ventured that thought, smashing it flat as an onion pancake. She couldn’t afford sentiment or regret: not now, not ever. She was fire, and if fire stopped moving, it died. She would not think of Yzebel’s face, jaw gone slack, eyes dull and lifeless.
She would not—could not—falter.
Li shook another dose of Seventh Wind onto her tongue and dry-swallowed the crystals.
She would sleep once Chernova was dead.
The dig site was a nest of shadows as Nasrin led Li past the pickets, muffling the sound of their footsteps by resurrecting the breeze of a minute before. They skirted the encampment that had grown up beside the dig and reached the main pit without trouble.
“Sure you don’t need my help?” Nasrin asked as Li surveyed the excavation. Guards were posted between the crypts and mortuary temples—and wasn’t that so very Sakhar, to think an ancient king would build and bury a temple complex?—but they were concentrated around two buildings. The smaller was carved with royal icons, which meant the Impossible Moon was in the other—the enormous vault with the partly caved-in roof.
“I’m sure,” Li said, studying the sheets of canvas covering the hole in the vault’s roof. Azad had told her the moon was unnaturally buoyant, and that its buoyancy had increased once it was exposed to the sky. Even the most fanatical Sakhari nationalists didn’t want to risk the moon shattering itself against the vault’s ceiling, so they’d covered the hole. Reports said the moon was tied to the ground like an airship.
Nasrin began to protest, but Li silenced her with a look. “We’ve been over this. You watch the camp with field glasses from outside the pickets. If you see a distortion field or teratomorphic effects, ride to Kyr-Nessus, tell your father I’ve failed, and keep riding. If you’re lucky, you won’t grow an extra nose inside your kidneys.”
“And if you succeed?” Nasrin asked.
“The explosion will be visible for miles,” Li said. When she looked up, Nasrin hadn’t budged. “What?”
Nasrin touched Li’s shoulder. “Thank you for trying to stop her.”
“She killed my friends,” Li said, moving to shrug off Nasrin’s hand. Before she could do so, a surge of energy washed through her. She felt rested for the first time in days.
“You should’ve slept,” Nasrin said, sagging as Li broke contact. “But this is almost as good. Better than your drugs, anyway.”
My drugs don’t require trust, Li thought. Nasrin could just as easily have stopped her heart instead of restoring her. Aloud, she said, “Thank you. Now go. This will be ugly.”
Nasrin ghosted away, and Li dropped into the pit, taking cover behind a crypt. She watched two flecks of red light ascend the vault of heaven—Firestar VII outpacing the planet that had given it and the rest of the Regime’s satellites their names—and settled in to wait.
As Firestar VII sank towards the horizon, a familiar chill ran down her arms. Li sat bolt upright and looked up. The Fire Star and every other star and planet in the heavens were gone, effaced by a single titanic brush stroke.
Rising, Li discarded her burnous, checked her arm guards, and headed for the Impossible Moon. The guards were focused on the sky, and no one paid her any attention as she slid between partially excavated tombs and sphinxes.
A strangled cry came from up ahead, and Li raced towards the sound. When she arrived, a guard lay in a small lake of gore. Steam and distortion rose from where Chernova had torn out his heart.
Li jogged toward the vault as more guards cried out and were silenced. A few got off gunshots, the sounds oddly muffled, and one of the sphinxes in front of Li shimmered and began to melt as Chernova unmade the bullets in flight. Li avoided the runoff. The sphinx seemed to have turned to ice, but there were several less pleasant alternatives.
There were corpses around the Royal Crypt; corpses strewn along the boulevard leading to the vault and the Impossible Moon. Most of them were primary casualties, with severed limbs, holes in their throats, or missing hearts. But a handful had died of teratomorphic effects. One guard’s head had been replaced by a glistening coil of intestines. Another had lost his skeleton and collapsed into a puddle of flesh. Li pushed on, momentarily grateful to have no destiny to warp. However she might die, it wouldn’t be like that.
The doors to the cyclopean vault were propped open, and Li followed Chernova inside.
The Impossible Moon loomed in the center of the vault, lit from below by chains of lanterns. Spikes were hammered into its matte black surface, and cables joined them to improvised moorings. Other ropes ran over the moon’s upper face, pinning it to the earth.
Li ignored the friezes adorning the vault’s interior; the moon’s alien immensity; the guns and bodies cooling on the floor. Her attention was fixed on the woman running up a cable, in defiance of Yama only knew how many natural laws. Nadya Chernova was squat and stocky, with the build of a dockworker. Her hair was short and iron-gray, scars striped her arms, and her hands were black with blood.
Li conjured a jet of flame and severed the cable Chernova was standing on.
Chernova fell, and a heartbeat passed before she lunged for the severed cable. Though she had no traction, no way to alter her motion, the cable leapt into her hands, arresting her fall.
Li had expected that. The cable Chernova swung on was already alight, flames chewing away at its fibers. And as the cable disintegrated and Chernova dropped, Li charged across the vault, a sword of superheated gas in her hand.
Chernova was standing when Li reached her. “You’re Regime,” she said, snuffing Li’s blade with a single mudra. “Of course.”
Li hammered her fist at Chernova’s face; let Chernova’s block carry her into a kick. White fire trailed her hands and feet, but Chernova blocked Li’s strikes with her bare hands, suffering tiny welts instead having the flesh seared from her bones.
“Die,” Li snarled, throwing fist-sized fireballs as Chernova retreated from her onslaught. One of them struck a cable, setting it alight. “You walking atrocity; you inhuman disease. Just. Die!”
“Quit yapping, bitch,” Chernova said, raising her hand. Li bared her teeth as she felt the attempt at unmaking slide off her like water on oilcloth.
“Never,” Li said, and detonated the ammunition of the guard lying behind Chernova.
Chernova winced as shrapnel tore through the air. “Idiots,” she said as a thread of blood ran down her calf. “Using guns.”
Li rushed her again, and as they traded blows, she dropped into a sweep, aiming for Chernova’s injured leg. Chernova dodged backward and struck as Li stood up, rocking Li back on her heels.
“You’re too reliant on tricks,” Chernova said as Li threw flames at her face. “And your artificial stars. Just like those Commune brats.” She dodged sideways as Li detonated another soldier’s ammunition pouch. “The world has forgotten what strength looks like.”
“And what’s that?” Li said, dumping heat into a canteen at Chernova’s feet. “Killing your own country?”
Chernova shrugged. “Better that than letting you have it.” She dived to one side as the canteen burst, superheated steam gushing out.
Li reached Chernova while she was on her knees. She drove her boot into Chernova’s gut, sending her rolling. “Hold still,” she snapped, conjuring another blowtorch blade.
Chernova dismissed the blade with a gesture and rolled to her feet. As she rose, the thunder of dozens of booted feet came from outside the vault. “Your doing?” Chernova asked.
Li didn’t dignify that with a response.
As they circled, Royal Guards streamed through the vault’s doors. “In the name of the Amir,” one of them began, only to collapse, bleeding from the eyes, as Chernova bent a finger.
“Get out of here, you idiots!” Li bellowed. “She’s An-Astrae!”
“Kill the intruders!” a voice shouted, and Li swore as the guards inside the vault leveled their rifles.
Throwing herself flat, Li drained the heat from every lantern in the vault, plunging the chamber into darkness. At some point in the fight, her topknot had come undone, and her hair covered her face like a veil. She could feel Chernova’s proximity as an itch on her skin; a cyst in the fabric of the world. A few guards fired blindly, and Li winced as Chernova unmade their bullets. One of them screamed. Another began gurgling in a way that suggested he no longer had a throat.
“Illumination flare!” an officer’s voice barked, and Li smiled. Two years back, Sakharia had bought boatloads of surplus Regime flares. And Regime flares had several uses.
There was a loud report, and a distinctive red-white flare rocketed toward the vault’s roof. In the bloody light, Li could read the horror on Chernova’s face.
On its own, a flare couldn’t empower pyromancy. But if a Firestar was ascendant, a flare could transmit the satellite’s influence through the thickest clouds—even clouds made of darkness.
“That,” Li said as Royal Guards trained their weapons on her, “was a mistake.”
Then there was fire blossoming from their guns; igniting their ammunition pouches; erupting from their bones.
Li lashed out, sending a massive wave of flame at Chernova. Chernova shrugged it off, shielding her face with her arms, but by the time she had, Li was halfway to the body of the soldier with the flare gun. She’d set even more mooring cables on fire, but that wasn’t important. The flare gun was.
Li could feel Chernova pursuing her, so she ripped the heat from the ground as she passed, forming a slick of ice. As Chernova overbalanced and fell, Li tore the flare gun from the corpse that held it. There were two more flares in his bandolier.
Li only needed one.
“Fire rises,” Li told Chernova, and fired the flare at the hole in the vault’s roof.
As the flare punched through canvas, Li reached heavenwards and set the darkness Chernova had conjured on fire. The effect wasn’t complete—there were still patches of darkness blotting out the stars—but as the canvas burned and the flare reached its zenith, Li could see the original Fire Star blazing overhead.
“Now, where were we?” Li said as Chernova levered herself upright. “Right. I haven’t killed you yet.”
Chernova spat. “Come and try.”
Li flung javelins of flame at Chernova, one after another. Some sailed wide; some Chernova dodged; some set more mooring cables on fire. Li grinned as another pair of cables snapped, and the remaining ones groaned ominously.
Chernova looked between Li and the Impossible Moon, her expression stricken. “No. You wouldn’t.”
“Wouldn’t I?” Li said, and cut another rope.
This had always been the plan. If the Impossible Moon rose, Sakharia would be in blatant violation of the Broken Sky Accords. Even better, the moon had no failsafe. There was no way to detonate it, the way the Regime had detonated its stationary Firestars.
Sakharia would claim they hadn’t meant to break the treaty. But—so sorry—there was no way to bring the Impossible Moon down. The Regime’s diplomats would be sympathetic and argue that the Moon’s rise meant the Broken Sky Accords were a dead letter.
And one by one, stationary Firestars would return to the skies over the Annexation.
Chernova’s face contorted. “Do you know what you’re doing?” she said, her voice thick with loathing.
“Yes,” Li said. “Still proud of killing your own country?”
“You aren’t Cho. Why are you doing this?”
Li’s grandmother’s face swam across her vision. “Because,” she said, “you should have fucking surrendered.”
Chernova stared, uncomprehending. But Li wasn’t about to explain herself.
As she gathered another firebolt, Chernova ran for the nearest cable.
Li swore and lashed out, but Chernova had extended her fire resistance to the cable, so Li’s flames just charred its outer layer. In moments, Chernova would reach the top of the Moon, where she could unmake it at leisure.
“Like Hell,” Li muttered, and began to run.
Flames exploded from her boots, launching her into the air, and Li aimed for the hole in the vault’s ceiling. It wouldn’t do to smear herself across the vault’s roof or get crushed by the moon as it ascended.
The Impossible Moon was unevenly shaped, with several divots and craters on its upper surface. Chernova had occupied a crater near its summit.
“You’re as stubborn as a cockroach,” Chernova snarled as Li arrested her descent with a pillar of flame and tumbled to a halt.
“I am,” Li agreed, forcing herself to her feet.
They met in a flurry of hands and feet. Li smashed her armguard into Chernova’s nose, and Chernova knocked Li back, sending her vial of Seventh Wind flying. Li snatched it out of the air and flung it at Chernova.
It exploded inches from her face.
Glass splinters flew everywhere, and Chernova gagged on the noxious fumes. As she did, the ropes and cables Li had ignited on her way up snapped one after another, and the Impossible Moon surged towards the roof of the vault.
Li bowled Chernova over, kneeling on her as they skidded to the lip of a crater. She punched Chernova in the face, snapping her head back.
A heartbeat later, the Impossible Moon hit the vault’s roof, sending giant stone blocks and chunks of Moon rock flying. Pieces of burnt canvas drifted down like ashen snowflakes.
Chernova grabbed Li’s fist and shoved her off.
As she did, Li englobed Chernova’s head in flames.
She couldn’t hurt Chernova directly, Li thought as Chernova flailed at the flames covering her face. But beneath the open sky, with the Fire Star blazing overhead, she could blind her and starve her of air. Sooner or later, Chernova would have to inhale.
And Li would learn if the woman’s lungs were as fireproof as her skin.
The Moon shuddered beneath her as it tore its way through the vault’s roof. Li stood up, her hair trailing like a pennon, as Chernova fell to her knees, still flailing at her face.
“You think I’m a fool?” Li said, keeping her distance. It hadn’t even been a minute.
Kneeling, Chernova placed her palms against the Moon. Before she could try to unmake it, Li kicked her in the head. Opening a gap in the flames she’d conjured, she grabbed Chernova’s hair and smashed her face against the Moon. Once; twice; three times.
A ragged scream erupted from Chernova, and Li had her answer. As expected, Chernova’s lungs weren’t fireproof.
Li dismissed the globe of flames and dragged Chernova to the lip of the crater. Lifting Chernova’s head with both hands, she pointed it at the retreating ground. “See that?” Li said. “You failed. Take that knowledge with you to Hell.”
Chernova tried to speak, but it came out a croak.
Before she could try again, Li snapped her neck.
Chernova was still alive when Li kicked her off the Impossible Moon. She was still alive when she hit the ground.
Li landed on top of her. The column of flame she’d used to control her descent reduced Chernova to charcoal.
Colonel Kim’s office was separated from the dig in Kyr-Nessus by three hundred leagues and two months, but it felt like a different world. Li slouched in her chair as Kim flipped through her report, studying the pattern in the carpet. Some Yue woman had spent the better part of a decade weaving it.
“Good work,” Kim said, dropping the report on her desk. “First Minister Rahimi has already requested military assistance. We’re sending two companies of advisors.”
“You saw the note about the Moon’s shards?”
Kim grunted. “That they allow necromancers to ‘revive’ objects from the future? It’s a little far-fetched.”
“The math checks out,” Li said. She and Nasrin had reviewed it a dozen times. “We need to stay very good friends with the Sakharim, sir.”
“Well, you’ve made inroads there,” Kim said. “I’ll tell the General Staff, but...” She shrugged. Kim was part Ain, and the Cho didn’t like taking advice from half-breeds.
“Will that be all, sir?” Li asked, as Kim’s gaze wandered to the row of clocks on her wall.
“Right,” Kim said. “You wanted to visit your late liason’s mother. She’s the Assistant Deputy Sub-Minister of something tedious, isn’t she?”
“Agriculture,” Li murmured. She refrained from pointing out the only reason the Regime could feed itself was the small army of geomancers it contracted from Olor and Kussia.
“Go,” Kim said, waving her hand.
Leaving the embassy was like walking into a crowded, cacophonous sauna. The streets of the Olori capital were crammed with midday traffic, pedicabs mingling with pedestrians and velocipedes, but despite the crush, Li had never seen a serious accident. Everyone was destined for greater things.
Li flagged down a pedicab and gave the driver the address for Yzebel’s mother. Ten minutes later, she disembarked on a quiet side street, clutching a package. She didn’t need to check the house numbers. One house’s door was smeared with ash.
Li knocked on the door and waited. After a minute, a hard-eyed Olori woman opened it.
“Deputy Minister Tanith?” Li asked.
The woman studied Li for a moment. “Vice-Consul Li,” she said. “Do come in.”
Tanith’s home was full of sculpted plants. There were tiny trees in the entry hall and climbing roses attached to an indoor trellis in the parlor. She’d put a lot of work into them.
“My condolences on your loss,” Li said.
“You and Yzebel were close?” As if she didn’t know.
“Yes,” Li said. “We used to go to galleries and shows together.” She paused. “She deserved better.” From Li, and from life.
“You were there when she died?”
“No. By the time I arrived...” Li drew a ragged breath. “No. I wasn’t.”
The two of them sat in silence: Yzebel’s mother, and her lover. At length, Tanith spoke. “Why are you here, Captain Li?”
“I’ve read your poetry,” Li said.
Tanith’s shoulders tensed. “Oh?”
“I didn’t understand it,” Li said. “But you were a rising star when you stopped. And that fall, you were in Kussia when someone shoved a kebab through Vilskiy’s skull. Skewer and all.”
“Get to the point.”
“Your destiny had been scoured clean,” Li said. “You gave up your gift with language and your chance at greatness to fight the An-Astrae.”
Like me, she didn’t say. Tanith knew what Li was.
Li placed her package on the table. Tanith regarded it with a wariness usually reserved for venomous animals. “What’s that?”
“The orbits of the geosynchronous Firestars the Regime will loft over the Annexation,” Li said, and watched Tanith’s face go rigid. “As well as orbits for two additional satellites, which would make the Firestar network duplicate the effect of the Great Conjunction.”
“You aren’t serious.”
“‘A great destiny is the birthright of all humanity, and the only path to true equality,'” Li said, quoting the Olori Constitution. “Or did being human and being Olori become synonymous when I wasn’t looking?”
Slowly, tentatively, Tanith tugged the package open. She flipped through Li’s calligraphed equations, pausing to study a diagram of the position of satellites in the sky.
“Why are you giving me this?” she asked at length.
“Because everyone should have a life like your daughter’s, full of joy and music,” Li said. “And no one should have to live like us.”
She’d meant herself and Tanith. But Tanith stared at Li, as if trying to recall something important. “Of course,” she said. “You’re Hwa.” Hwa was the Cho word for the Huo people, who’d ruled the Ancient Regime.
Li didn’t bother to correct her pronunciation.
“The Regime was ours for a thousand years before the Cho,” Li said. And will be again. With or without your help.
After a silence of several seconds, she added, “Fire rises, Deputy Minister. I’ll show myself out.”
Tanith watched her go. Outside, Li hailed the pedicab driver who was idling at the end of the block. She knew him, of course; he was one of the Commune agents assigned to watch her. His handler had lunch with Tanith every month.
“Joy of the day to you, Vice-Consul,” the driver said, pedaling over. “Where to?”
“Joy of the day, Hanno,” Li replied. “The embassy, please.”
As Hanno pedaled onto a main road, burbling about the latest poet to burst onto the literary scene, Li closed her eyes and dreamt of a Grand Conjunction blazing over the Annexation; of every child in the Regime being born under fortunate stars.