In late summer of the fourteenth year of the reign of Fei-hu the Road-Builder, on a day when the portents suggested peace and prosperity throughout the city and all its territories, the warrior Aun-ki woke up and found that her skin caught fire at the slightest touch. Pale flickers of flame sprouted on her brown arms, almost invisible in the sunlight, then guttered out. Even the light drape of her dressing gown across her shoulders was like the grind of a blade on a whetstone, striking sparks. The fabric browned, and when her apprentice Jin-ho came in to help her bathe, Jin-ho’s fingers left streams of blisters in their wake.
“What’s happening, Aun-ki-gan? What is this?” Jin-ho clenched her hands around her own elbows, distressed.
Aun-ki grunted, unwilling to admit that she was afraid, and sent Jin-ho away. Then she bathed herself, gingerly, the water steaming off her skin. She gritted her teeth against the rough weave of her tunic and trousers, and she walked in her house slippers through the palace to the rooms of the Royal Physician because the tightness of her boots produced so much heat the laces frayed and smoked.
The Royal Physician examined every inch of Aun-ki’s body, then shook his head and admitted that he could do nothing to stop her skin from blistering. The Court Magician took one look at her and declared that despite all appearances, what had happened to her was nothing as scientific as wizardry; he couldn’t explain why the fire didn’t consume her. The High Priestess interceded with the Benevolent Goddess for three days, but her prayers didn’t lower the temperature of Aun-ki’s skin even one degree.
Aun-ki retreated to her rooms, and for a fortnight she would see no one, not even the king. Gossip raged through the city. In the palace hallways, courtiers whispered about the lingering magics unleashed by the sprites during the Ever-Summer War, in which Aun-ki had earned her sword mastership. In the marketplace, butchers and grocers worried that an acolyte of the Mad God had cursed her in revenge for the sacking of the Garnet Shrine. And in the classrooms and libraries of the Royal University, the astronomers and mathematicians suggested that it was a remnant of her battle with the Great Winged Lion Chiar-shu.
Everyone knew that when she’d plunged the Sword of Mr into Chiar-shu’s heart, she’d been so close to being burned alive that all her hair was singed off and the fine filigree on her gauntlets was melted into unrecognizability. In his death throes, Chiar-shu had flung out a claw and gouged down the side of her chin, leaving a dark raised scar. This was like that scar, they said. Like an after-image left on the eye after looking at the sun.
After fourteen days of silence, Aun-ki emerged from her rooms before dawn. She wore only a robe of the softest combed cotton, light leather shoes, and a scarf around her bristly new hair. Her hands and forearms were covered in burns, but her face was calm and resolute.
“Fei-hu-ban, Son of the Sky,” she said, “I request permission to depart the court. I am called on a quest.” She was the day’s first supplicant in the king’s audience chamber, but the whole court knew she wasn’t really seeking permission. She was the city’s champion, and the king couldn’t stop her from leaving.
Fei-hu looked troubled. “Where are you going, and to what end?”
“I go east to the Lake of Five Waters, beyond the Xianchal Pass. It is said that the waters cure many ailments, both natural and not.”
“Very well. Outfit yourself from my stores, and I will send an honor guard with you, for the pass is perilous.”
“No, Fei-hu-ban. I go alone.”
The whole court bowed somberly as she left the chamber, and out of respect for her pain and bravery they waited until she was almost out of earshot before they started placing bets.
Aun-ki sent Jin-ho to the kitchens to pack supplies, then returned to her rooms to rest for a little while longer before she set out on a journey that she knew would be torturous. When she opened the door to her room, she found a package on the table in her entryway, wrapped in undyed cotton and tied with a string.
She picked at the knot with her fingernails, untying it and earning only three new blisters on her fingertips. Inside was fabric, which revealed itself to be a shirt and trousers of cloth so fine it felt almost as gentle as water flowing over her hands. When she shook them so that they unfurled, a note fell to the floor.
You saved the lives of my parents and brothers when you stopped the sprites at the Battle of Taratau Forest. These garments are made of the smoothest, lightest silk the Ssalalah mulberries have to offer, with threads from the spiders in the caves of Garowe. May they be an armor against the elements in your time of need, and may you return to defend our city safe and soon.
Lou-ga the Weaver
The paper slowly browned and curled in Aun-ki’s grasp.
She needed more than silk; she needed steel and hardened leather. But the fire on her skin weakened all she wore and made her vulnerable; she was more naked to the sky than she had been in all the years since she’d earned her sword mastership. Silk was not what she needed. She should not be so fiercely glad to have it.
The journey over the Xianchal Pass to the Lake of Five Waters took much of the autumn; the heat of Aun-ki’s burning made the horses prone to overheating. Jin-ho grew fearless with smoothing the healing salve onto Aun-ki’s burns, and Aun-ki taught herself to repair her horse’s tack when the heat of her body weakened the leather. They learned that when the snow fell, Aun-ki could start even the wettest wood alight simply by clapping her hands together, but that the pain would follow her for days after and the burst blisters would leave tiny white scars that were slow to fade.
The Lake’s waters, when they arrived, were covered in a layer of ice as thin as the shell of a sparrow’s egg. Aun-ki stripped off the garments made for her by Lou-ga the Weaver and waded into the water, the ice melting before she touched it. Steam rose around her until she was buried in a thick white cloud.
Jin-ho waited for her on the bank, silently beseeching the Benevolent Goddess for a cure. But the steam did not dissipate, though Aun-ki remained submerged up to the nose until long after the sun set. Jin-ho waited, fireless and nearly frozen, on the shore. Aun-ki retreated from the water, silent, and when Jin-ho saw her face, she didn’t dare speak to her.
They arrived back in the city as the days began to lengthen. The watchers on the walls sent out runners to greet them, but Jin-ho shook her head at them, and when they entered the city there was no celebration waiting. Aun-ki reported to the king alone. After, instead of retreating again to her solitary rooms, she walked on soft leather shoes down the long hill outside the palace, down to the house of weavers.
“I wish to speak to Lou-ga,” she told the man at the door. “I owe her thanks for a gift.”
He leapt up at once and returned only minutes later with a round-faced girl in a stained smock, her hair pulled back in a tight practical braid. “Lou-ga the Weaver,” he announced, and bowed his way out of the entry-room.
“I thought you’d be older,” Aun-ki said, startled into rudeness.
Lou-ga laughed loudly. “I’m twenty-three,” she said. “I got my mastership two years ago. And anyway, I thought you’d be taller.”
“Yes, well. You’re not the first person to say that,” Aun-ki said, and realized that her mouth was remembering how to smile.
Aun-ki stayed with Lou-ga for weeks, and the smells of tannin and wood-ash rising from the vats of fabric dye became as familiar as the perfumes of the king’s court. But the fire on her skin continued to burn. When the morning cold invaded their breakfast table, she could wrap her hands around Lou-ga’s mug of tea to heat it, but the pain that small act caused her was more severe than she allowed even Lou-ga to know. The fire didn’t physically consume her, but there was more than one way to be consumed. She knew she must find a way to quench it.
So she called Jin-ho to her, and when the preparations were ready, they rode out together, this time for the Temple of the Burning Twins on the edge of the Kaparkent Desert to the southwest. Jin-ho rode behind her, Aun-ki’s swords in sheaths on her back. Aun-ki wore her trousers and shirt of finest silk, and in her saddlebags she carried a long, gauzy scarf, light as a brilliant green cloud.
Folded up small in the bottom of the saddlebag, underneath the scarf, was another note: I wish I could give you a kiss for luck. Until I see you again— Lou-ga.
The road toward the Kaparkent Desert passed through the Mirkek Wastes, and though Aun-ki rode as confidently as if she had an army at her back, she knew the king’s law did not extend to the stony wilds. On the morning they passed the last of the watchtowers, she tried to send Jin-ho back to the city. Jin-ho rolled her eyes, passed Aun-ki her swords, and loosened the spear strapped to her saddle.
A dozen bandits attacked that evening, as the setting sun cut into Aun-ki’s eyes. Jin-ho twirled her spear, pushing back the trio that advanced on her. Aun-ki swung her paired swords like a lightning storm on a dry summer night, pale flames licking from her hands up the blades.
As her swords crossed with the bandits’ weapons, the clanging was drowned out by her shouts. With each clash, the flames softened the metal of her swords until they shattered, spraying the bandits around her with needling fragments of molten metal. They scattered, screaming.
When the bandits were gone, Jin-ho hesitated to approach Aun-ki. Aun-ki knelt on the ground, her skin glowing as though at any moment the fire might burst her body open like an overripe fruit. Her breath came in short, whimpering pants, and tears sizzled on her cheeks. For many steps in every direction around her, the stones were scorched and the sparse grass was burned black. Jin-ho brought her water and sat as close beside her as she could bear, until the cool of the early morning contained the burning back inside Aun-ki’s skin.
Word of Aun-ki’s fearsomeness spread before them, and no one troubled them further as they passed through the Wastes. When they reached the Temple on the edge of the Kaparkent Desert, the holy men and women welcomed them with figs and cool water and a place in front of the figures of Sritanya and Srivushi twined together on a pedestal of flame. Aun-ki lay prostrate before the Burning Twins for ten days while Jin-ho brought her water and bread, but on the eleventh day the Temple Father came and knelt beside her.
“They have not spoken,” he said.
“I know.” Aun-ki’s voice was hoarse from disuse. The stone where her forehead rested was cracked like a dry lakebed baked in the late summer sun.
“No sign is also a sign,” the Father said. “You must seek your healing elsewhere.”
Aun-ki rolled her forehead against the stone in frustration and a flash of fire rippled upward, singing off her hair and blistering her scalp. But the powers maintained their silence no matter what pain she caused herself.
Aun-ki rode out early the next morning, Jin-ho two steps behind her. The green scarf around Aun-ki’s face shaded her tender burns from the desert sun.
When they reached the city, King Fei-hu welcomed Aun-ki with trumpets and an honor guard. The soldiers of the guard marched along the edge of the wide road while Aun-ki rode down the middle. Only Jin-ho approached within arm’s length of Aun-ki’s horse, and when Fei-hu greeted them he did so from the top of the long stairway that stretched from the foot of his throne.
“Aun-ki-gan,” he said. “Greatest of warriors! Tales of your magnificent prowess in battle against the bandits that plague our borders have preceded you. In three days’ time there will be a feast to celebrate the return of our faithful defender.”
“You honor me, Fei-hu-ban.” Aun-ki bowed and smiled politely, but at the earliest opportunity she slipped away from the noise of the court.
Like the rest of the city, the house of weavers was bustling with preparations for the celebration. The stink of boiling vats of dye wafted past the walls into the street. Before Aun-ki could even knock on the door, it swung wide to reveal Lou-ga, her sleeves rolled up past her elbows and her face streaked with purple dye where she had brushed back tendrils of hair.
“Lou-ga-ma, I hope I haven’t come at a bad time,” Aun-ki said.
Lou-ga stepped forward and raised her hand as though she’d forgotten how painful it would be for both of them if she were to caress Aun-ki’s face. Aun-ki refused to flinch, and Lou-ga refused to pull her hand back, but they didn’t touch. “The news of your journey is being told a hundred different ways all over the city. I’m glad to see that you haven’t turned into a walking statue made of volcano glass, or become an unsleeping avatar of the Burning Twins, or acquired an infant dragon. Unless—perhaps you’ve stabled your dragon so you don’t scare the horses in the streets?”
Aun-ki laughed, desperately glad that Lou-ga at least wasn’t afraid of her. “I have no dragon, although I do have a scale from the tail of Chiar-shu that I could show you.”
“Once I’m done dyeing this batch of banners, you can show me anything you like.” Lou-ga grinned and stepped aside from the door in invitation. “If you’re willing to wait while I finish up, I’ll cook for you.”
Three days later, the Festival of Aun-ki’s Return was the biggest celebration the city had seen in years. King Fei-hu sponsored food vendors and dancers who filled the streets with orange ribbons, and the skull of Chiar-shu, half as tall as an adult and polished to an obsidian shine, was displayed in the center of the forum. Children ran through the streets with paper masks painted orange and red like fire, and from every window hung fluttering banners. Alongside the king’s purple and blue banners were flags made to look like yellow and orange flames.
Aun-ki herself wore green silk that draped so that no abrasive seam touched her delicately smoking skin. She smiled, genuinely pleased, when the king himself presented her with a new set of finely crafted swords, and she sat very still while a troupe entertained the court with the story of how the Great Warrior Aun-ki-gan called fire from the sky and channeled it through her swords to burn a hundred bandits to ashes. Everyone clapped vigorously for the entertainers, but the lies made Aun-ki feel like a stranger in her own home, and she slipped away as soon as she could.
As the servers filed into the hall with the fourth course, she begged a paper mask from a boy in the hall, to hide her face from the crowds of revelers in the streets. In spite of the mask’s lightness, it was singed at the points where it touched her nose and forehead by the time she made it through the crowded streets to the house of weavers.
Lou-ga’s fellow weavers were congregated on their balcony where they had a good view of the fireworks, but Lou-ga pushed her feathered mask back onto the top of her head and shepherded Aun-ki through the hallways into an inner room. The sound of the celebration sank to a distant hum. Lou-ga filled a basin with water so Aun-ki could press a damp cloth to her reddened swollen skin.
When Aun-ki pressed the cloth to the heat rash on her belly, she hissed. “They shouldn’t be celebrating,” she said. “They think this is a blessing, that I’m some kind of miracle. They don’t know how much it hurts.”
“They see only that you protect us, ma,” Lou-ga said. “Which is stupid of them. But don’t you forget that you do protect us.”
“I barely even fought those bandits—my swords failed me.” Aun-ki’s shoulders slumped. “By the end of that great victory they’re so elated about, I wished for death.”
“You’re going to seek out Yvgen the Curse-breaker, aren’t you?” Lou-ga sounded wistful. The journey to Oktyabasar Mountain would take a season even for a fast rider, and the road passed through territory controlled by capricious Ekibasar warlords.
Aun-ki looked at the floor. “I don’t know what else to do, ma.”
Lou-ga smiled sadly. “I have something for you.” She opened a chest and pulled out a stack of garments. Even folded, it was obvious that the material they were made from was no ordinary cotton or silk. “The aurochs of Zarafdak produce a fine wool that resists heat,” Lou-ga said. “That’s the gloves and doublet lining, there. It should protect your armor enough to keep it from weakening, and there’s a drape to protect your horse. Everything that might touch your skin is layered with water-silk, too. It’s fireproof, and as gentle as I can make it.”
“This is too much.” Aun-ki trailed one fingertip over the top layer of smooth fabric. When she lifted it, it was barely pinked.
“I’m not about to send you off without armor if I can help it. I worry, you know. Besides, one of the apprentices ruined this whole dye lot, that’s why it’s that awful, uneven shade of brown.”
Aun-ki smiled. “Thank you.” She lifted the mask from Lou-ga’s head and plucked the long feather off it so she could stroke her lover’s face without burning her.
The next morning Aun-ki rode out the city gates toward the frozen north, Jin-ho riding beside her. She wore her armor for the first time since she had begun to burn. The fabric woven by Lou-ga rested against her skin, and she was able to sit tall and straight on her horse. Awed spectators waved from the tops of the walls, and only Jin-ho knew that even Lou-ga’s finest work was not enough to keep heat blisters from forming on Aun-ki’s shoulders and back where the weight of her armor pulled at her skin.
The ride toward Oktyabasar began in the low rolling hills north of Aun-ki’s city. She had spent her years as an apprentice patrolling these roads, so she was expecting no trouble until they passed into the Chongbaqin Forest beyond the borders. After only six days on the road, however, Aun-ki saw that the village she approached had fields empty of farmers; fences fallen and not repaired.
She waved Jin-ho to stay behind and rode down the village’s main street, looking for signs of the people who lived in the silent houses.
Everything was deserted until she reached the smithy at the end of the lane. There, the villagers worked in wordless unfatigued harmony, trundling barrows of clay to the smith yard, pressing the clay into molds, and levering the molds into a giant yellow-brick kiln that radiated heat across the yard. On the edge of the yard, a man in a blacksmith’s apron outfitted giant baked-clay statues with steel swords, axes, and spears.
Aun-ki went from villager to villager, but not one of them replied to her greetings or questions. When she got down from her horse and shook the blacksmith by the shoulder, he twisted away from her and returned to his anvil without saying a word or flinching at the painful heat of her hand.
Aun-ki got on her horse and rode back out of town, troubled that such a strong enchantment had taken over a village so close to the city without any kind of warning. She met Jin-ho in a copse of trees near the road.
“While you were gone, a patrol passed by,” Jin-ho said. “At first, I thought they were only locals who were particularly tall and broad, but the road shook as they walked, and they carried massive steel axes like they weighed no more than grass. Whoever’s responsible for bewitching the villagers must also have brought the clay soldiers to life.”
“Where did that patrol go?” asked Aun-ki.
Jin-ho pointed to the largest house in the village where it sat on a small hill, two floors taller than the houses that leaned up against it. “They went in that house, and haven’t come out again.”
Aun-ki loosened her brand new swords in their sheaths, ignoring the biting sparks the hilts struck from her palms, and with Jin-ho at her side rode back into the town. Jin-ho watched warily for further patrols. This time, when they approached the great kiln at the smithy, the villagers all turned to them with expressionless eyes, then began to advance in unison, hands stretched out to grasp at the intruders.
Jin-ho cursed under her breath, and Aun-ki wheeled her horse around. They retreated at a steady pace, leading the villagers away from the smithy, along the twisting roads of the town and into a large barn on the village outskirts. Aun-ki and Jin-ho dashed back outside and slammed the barn door shut behind them. Jin-ho heaved the heavy iron bar into place to keep the villagers locked away.
“That was unsettling,” Jin-ho said, voice deadpan in spite of the white in her eyes.
Aun-ki nodded. “We’re going to have a story to tell. But first the kiln, and then we must destroy the sorcerer responsible for this.”
The steel door of the kiln was bolted and locked, but Aun-ki retrieved a hammer from the smithy and swung at the frame of the door until it fell from its hinges. The rush of cool air cracked the hot molds inside the kiln, and they fell to pieces with a sound like wind chimes in a storm.
As the cracking sounds from inside the kiln died down, the quiescent clay men leaning up against each other in the smithy yard also cracked and tilted. One by one, they stood and raised their weapons.
Jin-ho cursed more loudly this time.
“On the bright side,” Aun-ki said through gritted teeth, “if you live through this you’ll have earned your mastership.”
Though the clay men were strong, they were slow and clumsy. A stab to the chest didn’t kill them, but when Aun-ki and Jin-ho toppled them and smashed their heads open, they reverted to lifelessness. By the time all the clay men had been dispatched, Aun-ki was steaming with sweat and the handle of the hammer she held was charred.
The road up to the tallest house was clear and wide, and the dozen clay soldiers marching down it toward them made no effort to hide. Aun-ki and Jin-ho fought their way through to the house. Aun-ki’s skin glowed red as a hot coal, and the hammer weakened with each strike, each lick of fire up the handle, until the wooden handle crumbled into cinders.
Another squad of looming clay men awaited them in the courtyard of the house, and in the house’s doorway stood a tall thin woman wrapped in white. Her black hair brushed the ground at her heels, and her arms were raised in the air. When her hands danced like a puppeteer at a festival, her clay servants lurched forward. Aun-ki had heard whispers of a sorceress like this: Bírendan the Demon-Raiser, from far to the east.
Aun-ki drew her swords; the flames that sprouted from her hands danced along their flats. She leapt into action with a scream like a lightning bolt from the sky, all the more terrifying for its ragged edge.
The clay men came at her like oxen trampling reeds, and she cut her way through them, ducking and bending so that her strikes would cut cleverly and not require so much strength that her swords were destroyed. Nevertheless, after dismembering three of the clay men, when she struck the shoulder of the fourth, the sword in her right hand bent, and then as she smashed open its forehead the sword in her left warped and splintered.
The next clay man would have chopped her down if Jin-ho hadn’t jumped in with her long spear and tripped it. Aun-ki kicked open its face with her heel, and Jin-ho smashed the butt of her spear through its chest. In this way they killed the fifth and sixth clay men. Aun-ki thought the flames gave her an advantage, the heat making the clay men brittle, but it was difficult to tell through the pain. And beyond the clay men, the sorceress stood, smirking.
As Aun-ki approached, Bírendan called up a great wind, which raised the dust from the ground in a funnel cloud and surrounded Aun-ki. Aun-ki screamed as the flying grit abraded her red-raw skin. Step by step, she struggled forward through the storm. Flames burst from the ground every time her foot touched the dirt, but she didn’t stop.
Bírendan saw that her wind wasn’t powerful enough and raised a handful of magic to her mouth. She blew across her palm, and the magic turned to needles that flew at the joints of Aun-ki’s armor. Many caught in the armor lining woven by Lou-ga, but others stabbed straight into Aun-ki’s flesh at her knees and armpits and neck.
Aun-ki screamed again, full of anger and pain and fear, and lunged for the sorceress. When her hands closed around Bírendan’s neck, fire burst from between them up to the dry wooden shingles of the house’s roof. Aun-ki’s grip tightened, bursting the blisters on her hands and searing the flesh of her palms.
Whatever miracle or curse protected Aun-ki’s flesh from being consumed by the fire was absent from Bírendan’s body. The sorceress scrabbled frantically at Aun-ki’s hands, mouth open in a soundless scream, the breath burned out of her.
Aun-ki squeezed tighter, and tighter, and then slammed her forehead forward into Bírendan’s face. A dazzling thunderclap rang out, as though they’d been struck by the lightning spear of the Benevolent Goddess herself, and Bírendan collapsed.
Immediately the wind calmed and the clay men in the house’s yard froze where they stood. The only sounds were the crackling of the house as it began to burn down around the sorceress’s body and the harshness of Aun-ki’s breathing. The smell of burnt flesh hung heavy and sweet in the air.
When Aun-ki turned around, she saw Jin-ho collapsed on the ground, blood leaking out of a wound on her thigh. Jin-ho’s teeth were bared brightly in victory even as both hands clamped around the muscle to stop the bleeding.
Aun-ki knelt beside Jin-ho and gingerly pressed her bare fingertips to the wound, cauterizing it. Then she put her gloves back on and bound Jin-ho’s wound as carefully as she could. The auroch-wool cloth of her gloves soaked up the red blood and then faded to brown as the heat set the bloodstains in the fabric.
Like the clay men, the villagers had been released from their stupefying enchantment when Bírendan died and were able to free themselves from the barn where they’d been trapped. When Aun-ki and Jin-ho dragged themselves down the hill to the village inn, a murmuring crowd welcomed them. The innkeeper insisted that they stay and rest for three days in a room that overlooked a courtyard shaded by pear trees.
When Jin-ho was well enough to ride, Aun-ki loaded their bags on their horses and turned her face to the south, away from the distant home of Yvgen the Curse-breaker and back toward the city she loved.
“Aun-ki-gan, this troubles me,” Jin-ho said. “I’ve never known you to concede defeat.”
Aun-ki sighed, and let her gaze linger on the northern road for a moment. “It’s been a year. The road to Oktyabasar is long, and our city is beset by threats. Our people depend on me to protect them.”
“Will you fight with your bare hands, then?” Jin-ho scowled. “Will you just—burn?”
“Yes.” After a pause, Aun-ki said, again, “Yes. For the city I will.”
Lou-ga met them at the gates, and after she and Aun-ki accompanied Jin-ho to the offices of the Royal Physician, she took Aun-ki home with her to her rooms in the house of weavers.
In the years after the defeat of Bírendan, many different rumors circled through the city. The courtiers said that Aun-ki had so pleased the Benevolent Goddess that She reached Her hand down and wicked the pain away; Aun-ki’s enemies burned, but she herself was blessed, immune—perhaps half-divine. The butchers and grocers whispered that Aun-ki fought their battles and then retreated to the tallest coldest tower of the king’s palace, where smooth marble and chilled fountains offered a refuge that would turn anyone else to ice. The astronomers and alchemists knew that Aun-ki still burned but, when they remembered it, were certain that with just a little more experimentation they could solve the riddle and rescue her.
The truth, as ever, was more complicated. King Fei-hu was pleased to honor Aun-ki for her service protecting their people, and after the death of Bírendan she came to his audience hall to ask him for a small house on the rise of the city’s third hill. Fei-hu ordered his architects to build a stone house just up the street from the house of weavers, with large windows that looked south toward the far-away sea.
Aun-ki lived in that house until she passed on to the Cloud Lands to take her place at the feet of the Benevolent Goddess. She experimented, not with cures but with weapons that might withstand the fire. Until she was old, she rode out to vanquish whatever forces threatened her home, but always she returned again. Lou-ga covered the floor of the house in the softest rugs and furnished the bed with silk sheets for them both and felt blankets for herself. In the winter she left the windows open so the air would cool Aun-ki’s burning skin. And at night, they lay together in bed and whispered to each other, though they could not touch except with the most delicate brushes of their fingertips.