For skeleton, steel and stone. For life, the edge of youth and command.
These are the things my daughter is made of. These are the things she leaves behind when the spell is gone and the wish is dead.
Sometimes I’d cup her chin and say that I wished her skin was like teak and her hair like the vestment of a crow, the natural shades of my lineage. And she would tell me, I would have been ugly and despised to the one whose wish bought my provenance.
Do you think me ugly, then?
Golem honesty, she answered. You aren’t beautiful. Neither are you ugly. And children, Mistress, must believe their mothers pretty—thus I do, imitating the limits and distortion of their perspective.
I laughed. It was glorious to have a child such as she, frank and strange. A child that was old when we boarded the exiles’ ship. A child my wife named Areemu, her last gift to me.
“Mistress Erhensa,” someone says. They’ve been saying that for some time, in the belief that shock has deafened me and robbed me of a voice.
My brow to the window, Areemu’s remains in my arms. The road outside is a black ribbon, wet-sharp with frost under the halo of my seahorse lamps. An empty road. This is not a season for visitors.
“Mistress Erhensa. The Institute of Ormodon is here to collect the golem.”
A girl purchased her some two hundred years past. A girl gold of hair and skin, eyes like the canals after a storm. “Tell them there is no golem.”
“But there must be, Mistress Erhensa.” This voice does not belong to my servant. “We detected the flux of its dissipation. I was dispatched immediately.”
It’s too dim for the glass to glare, and so I’m obliged to turn. The Ormodoni is ludicrously young, ludicrously freckled, and it is an insult they’ve sent this over a gray-haired officer. Her gaze severe, her shoulders high beneath the weight of pauldrons, her stance square despite the bulk of plating. Much too proud, before age has earned her the right.
“You must be tired from the journey,” I say, rote. There’s no journey—it is a step and a thought from the Institute of Ormodon to my domain, a requirement all practitioners must heed. Keep our doors open, or else. “We don’t often have visitors. Lais will find you a room and supper if you want it. In the morning we will talk.”
“I’m Hall-Warden Ysoreen Zarre.”
“I’m sure you are.” I did not ask.
“I am to bring your answer within the night.”
“Expectations have a way of being thwarted, Hall-Warden Zarre. Your superiors will have to understand. Over breakfast, we may discuss the golem. Or you may depart now and we may discuss nothing.”
Who defies Ormodon; delays its enforcers? Who dares? No one wise, but lately I am past wisdom.
“In the morning, then.” Hall-Warden Zarre turns on her heels. “I look forward to it.”
I watch her back and watch the door shut behind her, thinking again of the girl with the pale hair. A child with no real thought between one act and the next save her own pleasure. I consider the matter of remaking and redoing, of resurrection.
Her death is new. There is time. If one callow wish animated Areemu once, might not another bring her back?
Ysoreen’s gums burn, acidic, with the residue of golem death. Unlike most officers she doesn’t need Institute scryers to sense this. Gifted, they’ve always praised her; fine material for thaumaturgy. Instead she trained to understand golems, those double-edged creatures, those threats to Scre from within.
To think Erhensa—a foreigner living on sufferance—would treat an Ormodoni as she has; to think Ysoreen did not teach the sorcerer her place. This failure stays sour on her tongue and keeps her from tasting the foods. They are foreign: a tea red as garnets, pastry that crumbles at a glance, a smell of cardamom and tropical fruits. An island to the west, bordering turquoise sea under a gilded sky; so she’s heard. She does not believe, for if there exists such a paradise, why would Erhensa be here? The reality would be a patch of territory off the coast, mired in gray silt.
But Erhensa’s fancy has been given part-life in the piscine gazes blinking at her from between mosaic tiles, in the murals moving out of the corner of her eye. Figures in the distance balanced impossibly on the crests of tides; birds slashing through a burnished horizon.
Ysoreen sleeps against an unpainted wall, pulling the blankets over herself, breathing her own leathers and steel. Tomorrow she will confront; tomorrow she will demand. Ormodon assumes efficiency in its operatives, and she’s armed to subdue wayward sorcerers. In this house she is no one’s lesser.
She is up before dawn may warm the room and wake the fish. She straightens out the sheets and coverlets so no imprint of her may linger in the creases. She drinks from a bedside jug and rinses her mouth. When the manservant comes she is ready.
He takes her to the garden with its outland trees, its high walls of iron and lazuli. So high the world outside may not be seen; so high the house seems its own dominion, the islander its queen.
She comports herself like that too, as though the bushes are her throne and the scarlet ixora her maids. The sun glances off the darkness of her skin so she seems chiseled, more wood than life. Within the circumference of Erhensa’s power, the rime stays out and the flowers thrive.
The sorcerer does not rise; barely stirs as Ysoreen approaches. In her lap is a clear casket holding loose gemstones, platinum filigrees, a fistful of thread.
Ysoreen points at the box. “I’ll be taking that, Mistress Erhensa.”
“This is a collection of baubles, nothing more.”
“I am not unschooled.” This specific golem is a common choice of study for its unusual construction, and she has read the manuscript of its creation; more than can be said of the islander. “Nevertheless it is law, and by law the golem never truly belonged to you. As all constructs it belongs to the Institute, and so does its material.”
A smile on those thin, lined lips. “Technically I brought my golem with me when I came to Scre, but of course I’ve agreed to your laws. What do you do with their parts? It can’t be avarice that drives you to collect—were this one baked of mud and silt you’d have demanded the same.”
“Yours is not the place to question.”
“As you will,” Erhensa says. “Allow me to make you a gift, as amends for making you wait a whole night. Fox fur imparts excellent warmth and will make the season more tolerable.”
Ysoreen’s teeth click together. Protocols force her to accept tribute from any sorcerer, so long as the object inflicts no harm or malice. “Fox fur, in this weather?”
“I was hoping you would hunt. Inconsiderate of me to ask of a guest, but I’m no good at the business of tracking and conquering animal wits, a task that perhaps better suits you.”
The insult needles, but Ysoreen does not react. She is stone, Erhensa less than wind.
I watch her through the bright, clear eyes of a fox. You see the world differently this way, closer to the ground, sight plaited from smells, nose to soil and snow. A fox’s mind is so wide, made of simple geometry and immediate needs.
The fox sniffs and tosses its head. She comes.
I lied to the Hall-Warden: the hunt is no mystery to me. It is different here in a country that knows no frost, where predators and prey do not have to contend with a chill that would shrivel the lungs and bruise the cheeks. But there are certain principles in common, certain rhythms that aren’t so unlike. A need for subtlety, a requirement for finesse.
Ysoreen Zarre disregards them all. Her boots stamp deep prints, and she marches without care for tracks or stealth. She is unerring in her pursuit, and though I make the fox give her a good and worthy chase, she never loses the sense of where it is, where it heads.
It is fleet, but she is fleeter. It is clever, but she is cleverer. It tires long before she does, heaving on its legs.
When she has pierced its side with arrows, is she aware I am watching? Her knife cuts abrupt and efficient, opening its belly: entrails steaming in the snow and flecking her gloved wrist.
The fox’s vitals push their final beat, and my sight extinguishes in smears of blood and heat.
Erhensa nods when the manservant brings her the fur, cleaned and scented and brushed to a sheen.
Ysoreen sits by as the sorcerer works. “A description of the golem in your own words?”
“Your Institute is obsessed with cataloguing everything, reducing the world to verbiage. It’s no way to be.” Erhensa leans back into her cushions. “Her name was Areemu. It was something else once—a thing bleached as summer-beaten bone, frail as sun-baked clay—but when one takes on a child, it’s correct to recast her a little.”
“Golems are servitors, Mistress Erhensa. You do not call a shovel your daughter.”
“Golems,” the sorcerer says, “are vessels of wishes. When you’re done building one it is as if you’ve given birth. When you take one in it is as if you’ve adopted new kin. You put so much of what you want into them, just as with offspring of the womb. Less blood, less mess. No less love.”
Erhensa has threaded copper wire through the fur. She has quick, nimble fingers; Ysoreen finds herself entranced by their speed. She pushes away from that and jots into a little book. Surrogate daughter. “Who made the golem?”
“Have you ever wished for something fiercely, desperately, only to discover that the world does not contain it?”
“You must’ve led a perfect life. A loving family, a good wife.”
“I’ve no more need for a wife than I do a second head—less, since a second head could guard my back.”
Erhensa laughs. “So many ardor-notes must’ve crumpled under your heel. But Areemu, yes. There was a girl. A princess or the daughter of a puissant magistrate. She was beautiful, it is written. Eyes like the glaze of honey on scarab wings. A little like yours.”
She’s less than wind. But there’s no stopping the rush of blood, no hiding the surge of heat. Like her mothers and sisters, Ysoreen is one of the best to have graduated from the Academy of Command. One of the best, save her unruly moods. She tries too hard, they told her; as long as she fights herself, as long as she pours effort into suppressing rather than understanding, she will be like this. “My eyes are no such thing. What would a princess want with a golem? She couldn’t possibly lack for slaves.”
“She wanted a lover.”
“Then she must’ve been brutishly ugly.” A relief; the thought of being compared to a hideous girl sits better on Ysoreen than the opposite.
“Hardly. Areemu could not lie, and she said the girl was so lovely she might stop the stars in their tracks. She had suitors uncountable. A duchess who wooed her with a gift of elephants and birds of paradise. An arctic queen who sent a chariot pulled by white tigers and an ice house that never melted. A witch who enchanted an entire aviary for her, so the birds would always sing and never die. To each the princess said no, and no again. She’d been told all her short life that she was perfect, and she would take nothing less than perfect for her consort.”
The volume Ysoreen read was a golemist’s manual: formulae and procedure rather than history. It doesn’t mention from whence came the commission, whether there was a princess or whether she was coveted. Erhensa’s tale may well be apocryphal. She records, all the same.
“Her mother sent for conjurers instead of suitors. The best thaumaturgists in the land and several lands surrounding. From east and west they came, from north and south they journeyed, to prove themselves supreme among their kind and make for her a paramour. One who would not betray, one who would be gallant to her always, one who would never weep come what may. What woman of mortal matter could do so much?”
Wish fulfillment, Ysoreen adds. It’s a common motive to buy a golem; perhaps the most common. Surrogate parent. Surrogate child. And lovers, always lovers. Left unchecked half the nation of Scre would have been golems.
Erhensa shifts the fox away from her lap. Even her magic is alien. She has not murmured an incantation, dropped a pinch of powder or struck crystals together, but somehow she’s liberated a triangle of fur from the rest. A perfect isosceles, as though measured with ruler and ink. “The true challenge was volition. She did not want a mute toy which would come when called, say yes when asked, kiss her when pressed. The princess wanted to be loved back truly.”
“Not likely,” Ysoreen says. “Golems don’t have emotions. They can pretend, if it’s inscribed into their cores. Nothing more.”
“I’m glad you know so much about golems. It is enlightening. They must give you a peerless education that you may know such subjects better than practitioners.”
“I have made golems my study.”
“Is that so? Ah, it seems I’ve run out of feathers. Will you bring me some? I’m a stranger to the way of winged things, the difficulties of ensnaring and capturing. An owl will do, Hall-Warden. Something gray, with a coat like velvet.”
You see the world differently as a bird, so much closer to the sky. Thought is like the center of a yolk, sloshing within a brittle shell. Bones so light, sinews so lean.
I reach from the inside and make this one a girl.
The confoundment is partial; her shoulders flare into wings rather than arms, and her stare remains amber, dark-seeing and immense. Feathers give her modesty, shrouding her skull in place of human tresses.
She flits from branch to branch. Hardly any skin on her; hardly any hip or breast. Ysoreen sees through the guise, as she must. Does she pause, does she hesitate? For the length of a blink.
The fox was fast, but it was a slash of red on sunlit snow. The girl-owl is gray nearing black and the moon is a half-lidded eye. The Hall-Warden must keep her gaze trained skyward; keep her feet firm on the wet mulch.
The owl grins down and laughs into her wings.
In the end she falls too, an arrow’s fletching in her belly, for Ysoreen does not permit herself failure. The Hall-Warden stands over the girl who is slowly reverting to an owl. Her knuckles drag over her face, and this time her knife is not so swift.
She makes small noises in her throat as she dismembers and flays. The knife-point plunges into the owl-girl’s eyes, and my sight burns out in a flash of steel and moonlight.
Ysoreen jolts into a morning so white it blinds her and for a moment she pants into the glare, blinking down tears.
The smell of blood clings. There is no help for it; she fills the brass tub and strips. The lidded jug is warm and the water steams, an enchanted courtesy. When she sinks into the bath the scent of foreign flora rise. Citrus. Her mind drifts and snags on the thought of Erhensa’s fingers. Long, elegant, tapered like candles.
She pulls herself up short and out of the bath. The sorcerer turned an owl into a woman to do—what? Annoy and disturb. Quickly she dresses, slotting and strapping on the armor. When the manservant comes only the stains on the floor where water has dripped mark Ysoreen’s indulgence.
Erhensa is busy with the charm, sewing feathers into the lattice of copper wire and fur. Her needle flashes, disappearing and reappearing. “It’ll be a fine thing. Not so often do I make these with such attention, with such fresh ingredients.”
“Using magic against an Ormodoni officer is misconduct that merits execution.”
“Putting on slightly unusual clothes is enough to have me put in chains, Hall-Warden Zarre, so must we go over such tedious minutiae? No harm was done and none was meant.”
Anyone else Ysoreen would have cut short and confronted with the exact penalties for their offense. She’d have disabled them and brought them to the Institute, there to be stripped of their properties and status, there to be fettered and their magic ripped out. The crime warrants that and more.
Instead she kneels in the grass, where each blade comes up to her shoulder and casts a stripe on her cheeks. Why allow Erhensa to believe that the owl moved her. It was only a bird.
“Permit me to continue where I left off,” says Erhensa. “Areemu was the labor of two sisters, a goldsmith and a carpenter who dabbled in alchemy. They wouldn’t have recognized a formal axiom if it sank teeth into their ankles. A convocation of scholars, and they were bested by a pair of tradeswomen.” Erhensa’s mouth curves, wicked. “Imagine the insult of it.”
Ysoreen’s lips twist as though yoked to the islander’s amusement. She straightens them at once.
“They made her out of the most delicate filigrees but also gave her a spine extracted from a rare and special ore: strong as steel but weightless, lustrous as silver but untarnishing. They enameled her skin and shielded her joints in diamonds. For might she not be the princess’ knight as well as her darling?”
Made for combat, Ysoreen writes. It matches the two sisters’ journal. Anywhere, any time, there’s always a thaumaturgist investing in the idea of an army that knows no pain or disobedience.
“Areemu was presented before the court. The princess had been taught: you are the fairest and none may compare, you are the moon and the stars while all else are candlelight. Yet here Areemu shone, a sun.” Erhensa sets the charm down. “You had too little sleep, didn’t you?”
Because she dreamed, all night, of a girl who was a bird. She dreamed of driving the blade into eyes too enormous, of tearing out a heart too small and holding it in her fist still beating, always beating. A clot of nausea, a tactile memory. “It is nothing. I’m the mistress of my flesh and it my slave, not the other way around.”
“Body and mind should walk in harmony, as friends or sisters.” Erhensa reaches across and strokes Ysoreen’s forearm. The touch goes through fabric; a tug at her arteries. The queasiness recedes. “Take this as my apology.”
Ysoreen looks down at the sorcerer’s hand. Those fingers, that skin the shade of oak. She swallows, and when her breath stutters she knows that she’s stayed too long, has let Erhensa under her skin. Symptoms of immaturity, she’s always said of her peers in scorn. She is above it.
“Tomorrow I leave.” Her words do not stumble. “With the golem’s parts.”
“It was pleasant to break my solitude. You will not think of it so, but you kept an old woman company, and that’s a fine, gracious thing.”
“You are not so old as that.”
“I forget that in your country the grayness and bruises of age descend like anchors on a fraying rope. As soon as the first blush of adolescence is past, the flesh puckers and creases while the tendons wither. It’s the winter, which bleeds you of vigor. It’s the food, which lacks spice and so does not arm your livers.” The sorcerer tips her head back. “Where I’m from the grandmothers keep hold of their resilience and dignity long after their heads are white.”
“Why did you leave?” Ysoreen says before she can clinch shut the strings of her curiosity.
“A callow conviction that my will was the sun around which the world must revolve. I offended a woman of prominence and supremacy. And so, as the dusk of my life approaches, I’m severed from my kin and clan, to wait for the end in a land with ice for marrow, which delights only in conquest. A land that loathes me.”
“You could’ve wedded.”
“I could have.” A deep chuckle. “I thought you said a wife was less use than a second head?”
“I meant—for myself.”
The charm inches toward completion. Topaz beads glitter in the velvet of feathers and fur. “Do you want no one to grow old with? It can be difficult to weather alone the decades when your vision dims and your reason fades.”
“Then,” Ysoreen says, “I’d have to marry a woman at least ten years my junior.”
“Or one to whom age does not mean weakness.” Erhensa lifts the triangle and exhales upon it.
Ysoreen imagines that breath against her cheek.
It is death to sway the mind of an Ormodoni. When I entered Scre, that was one of the compulsions I bowed to, and it slithered into me where it abides even now, a snake of spite and abasement. But it is not Ysoreen’s thoughts that I pluck at, nothing so coherent as picture or language. It is only a look through warped glass. Enough to see that her dream is a bucking beast of russet and soot, snarled with longing.
I wake her, and the dream falls apart like muscle tearing under a machete.
She answers the door in armor. Always she wears it; refuses to be seen without. Despite its protection she flinches at the sight of me. Have I struck too harsh with my trick; have I sundered her courage?
“I wanted to finish my account of Areemu.”
It is to her credit that she is instantly alert. “As you wish.” Perhaps reminded of courtesy a young woman owes one her mother’s age, Ysoreen takes my elbow. Her grip tenses then relaxes, firm.
To my library, where the talisman simmers in the symbols of my country, the symbols of Sumalin. Laminated petals captured at their prime: the liveliest purple, the tartest yellow, the purest white. The seeds of papayas that will never grow here. The shells of tortoises that won’t survive this cold. My shelves strain with volumes from home, paper and wood, alloys and mosaics. More than any treasure, I’ve guarded these, some brought with me on that exiles’ ship, others purchased and amassed over my banishment. I’ve become known as the madwoman who’ll trade jewels for books, so long as they are from the island of my nativity.
Ysoreen conducts me to my seat with a courtier’s gravity, the way they do in high-ceilinged Institute halls. She unfolds my shawl, draping it over my shoulders. Then she steps away, hands clasped behind her.
“Where were we? Yes. The presentation of Areemu. She did not yet live, and if her eyes were clear jewels they did not yet see. It was this unlife that made her bearable to her prospective mistress: it was still possible to think Areemu a doll, satellite rather than sun. Seizing Areemu’s shoulders, the princess ordered that she live. This manner of waking shaped Areemu; prepared the facets of her logic. She would have made a fine instructor at your Institute. No human mind is keener; no pupil a quicker study.”
Ysoreen stiffens. Her teachers ought to be proud of her, their Hall-Warden, so strict and strictly adherent to their every code. “What have you taught her?”
“Any skill or discipline she cared to learn. Astronomy, painting, horticulture.”
“What else was she like?”
The door opens and Areemu steps through.
A glance too long or a thought too weighty will scatter her, this shimmer in the cold. But Ysoreen Zarre will not be able to tell that. Areemu seems as solid as either of us; more, for we are merely suet and fluids while she is—was—harder elements, sturdier substance.
My daughter is holding a dress I trained her to sew, and in this art she exceeded me: a marvel of sleek fabric and wave-patterns, embroidery of tails and shark pectorals to honor my ancestral land. Laughing soundlessly Areemu shakes out the gown to show me her work.
Ysoreen’s attention is held fast by my mirage daughter. I know then that I will have Areemu back. I will have my daughter back and the chambers of my house will echo no more; the chambers of my heart will brighten again.
“Your gift will be finished by noon tomorrow. I will be sorry to see you go.”
“If I—” Ysoreen has turned to me, but her thoughts are looped tight around Areemu. “If before I leave I ask you a question, will you give me a true answer?”
“You are of Ormodon.” I know what the question will be.
“Not that. I want... an answer that is not obliged. If such a thing is possible.”
“I will give you your answer,” I say, folding that memory of Areemu to myself, lustrous as the best nacre-silk.
It is the code of Ormodon to be true to the self. Hold your soul before a convex glass each dawn, her superiors said, and study it without mercy. Let no secrets elude your gaze, for it is their way to suppurate. Instead, mine every last one to find its strength; hammer the metal of your secrets until it is supple and strong. With this, sheathe your will. Your desires shall not be weakness but armor for the weapon of your mind.
This is what she has not mastered, her one flaw. This is what she must master now.
Before, it was simple to sort her small wants, her transient hopes, into those that might be acted upon and those that might not; those that she could do without and those she could not. What is prohibited, what may be obtained. None of them was ever so tangled as this.
It doesn’t have to be. Erhensa will say yes. Marriage to an officer is better than gold, and Ysoreen can give the islander everything. Elevation, if Erhensa wishes it. Unquestioned right to live where she does; do as she pleases.
A daughter who lives and grows, to help Erhensa forget the golem. They’ll need a blood-rite and a willing womb. There’s never a shortage of refugee women who will take on the burden; it earns them three years of wanting for nothing and a chance at citizenship.
Ysoreen doesn’t wait. She passes the manservant in the corridor, who gives berth and stammers that his mistress is in her study, does the Hall-Warden not require directions, does she...
“She knows the way.” Ysoreen finds herself laughing, her steps buoyant. An aviary of possibilities in her chest.
Erhensa looks up, and Ysoreen fancies that her mouth flexes toward a smile. There is a circle of color in the sorcerer’s irises that she hasn’t noticed before, the shade of good citrines, and she marvels at this newfound clarity.
“A question, you promised.” Erhensa’s voice is a caress.
The cautious eagerness of that. And why not? Those glances, those gestures. Ysoreen gathers herself and goes to one knee before the sorcerer. Bolder than she feels, she clasps Erhensa’s hand; savors with a frisson the texture of it, soft-rough, calluses. “Mistress Erhensa, I’d like your leave—”
“Yes,” Erhensa exhales. “Of course, yes.”
Ysoreen’s thoughts teeter and tip over. Momentum alone drives her to complete her sentence. “Mistress Erhensa. With your leave I would court you, and at a later date ask to be yours in marriage. Would you have this?”
But the answer is yes, already; her throat needs not dry, her heart needs not race—hunter chasing prey—after her desire.
Except Erhensa’s fingers do not knit into hers; except Erhensa does not clasp her face or bend to kiss her. All she says is, “Oh, Hall-Warden,” before she frees herself from Ysoreen.
On her knee still, Ysoreen swallows, breathless. She does not— “You are saying no?”
“I believed you would ask an entirely different question, and it is that which I answered. The shape of your moods, the direction of your temperament. I couldn’t be surer.”
Her armor jangles—too loud—as she comes to her feet, quick as the burn of shame. Quicker. “But I thought.”
“I was a fool, singular in my purpose.” Erhensa shakes her head. “Hall-Warden, you’ve a future ahead of you, a ribbon that spools incandescent around the core of your spirit and station. What could you want with an immigrant sorcerer as old as I?”
“The heart doesn’t think.” Ysoreen sets her fists against the hard metal at her back, glad for the cuirass. It fortifies her composure; keeps her formal. Her words are in the rhetorical mode of the Institute. “It told me it found beauty in you. It told me that it wants. I obey, for if it is fulfilled then my intellect and humors will both come to benefit. If it goes unfulfilled, as it now does, then I will have lanced it and bled it of any authority over me.”
“An odd philosophy, but it surely is superior to repression, which is universally hopeless. I did not mean to mislead you.”
Ysoreen does not clutch at her breast, which throbs and roils with the terror of having been laid bare. “What did you mean to accomplish?”
“It doesn’t matter.”
“I say it does.” Her control asserts, piecemeal, as much habit as discipline.
“And I may not deny a Hall-Warden.” Erhensa’s wariness returns, and it is as if the last three days never happened. “Areemu was animated by a specific wish, with the shape and tune of a certain age. Her components remember that still—not for long, not forever, but for now.”
“I would,” Ysoreen snaps, “never consider a golem wife.”
“Matrimony wouldn’t have been necessary. Only your passion was required. It is moot, in any case. You will take Areemu, I suppose.”
“Yes.” Her palms are clammy, her pulse yet unsteady.
“You said golems are your study. Tell me this, would it have worked?”
“With a specific ritual, known only to its creators. But that is moot.”
Erhensa sets the casket into her arms, the fox-owl talisman around her neck. “Good day, Hall-Warden Zarre.”
Ysoreen grips the case; thinks of dashing it to the ground. Yet what purpose will it serve? The glass will shatter, but the bars and stones: those need the solar furnace, a proper disposal.
She makes a perfunctory bow. She leaves; she flees, outpacing her humiliation.
My daughter then is gone, the last dream and echo of her. Only in the weave of my recall does she live, and that will diminish as age devours its due. I may create a skein of my memory, and each strand would be so vivid, so near solidity. Except to whom will I leave that; who will treasure Areemu’s images? Who will treasure our long talks of home; who will find meaning when I ask Areemu, do you remember the taste of coconut, the sweetness of palm sugar?
Perhaps the Hall-Warden is right that I should’ve wedded. No woman of Scre in their frosted arrogance would have looked at me. In the refugee camps, however, I could have found women far closer to Sumalin than to this nation where winter’s children reign. It is how unions are frequently made among Scre tradeswomen too poor or uncomely. Any life would be better than in the camps, and I present a far loftier prospect than being a potter’s spouse, a cobbler’s concubine.
It is futile to contemplate. This is not a choice I may make in faith, for all that I would give a desperate woman succor and she would give me companionship. For that paltriness I will not betray my nuptial vows, made on a sun-drenched day beneath palm shades, my bride and I heavy with a wealth of pearls we dived for.
We could have grown old side by side. There would have been daughters, sharp and spirited. One might have gone to the palace a handmaiden or magistrate, and another still might have honed herself to discipline not unlike Hall-Warden Zarre but tempered with the kindness of our sun.
Instead my wife gave me Areemu, hastily purchased and dearly paid for. There was no time for any other token; no time to spare for the conception of a flesh daughter. Neither of us broke that day when I turned my back to Sumalin and my face to the sails. Areemu at my side, wearing the pearls my bride and I had meant to pass to our children.
Age means possibilities trampled in our wake. Age means a serpent behind us heavy with ashes, while the length ahead gets ever shorter and each path we did not take comes back to hiss and bite, filling our veins with venom. That is life: a corpse that weighs us down, a beast that gobbles us up.
I’ve not turned all of Areemu over. It will work, the Hall-Warden said. So there is a way. Where there is one, others must exist; there is no destination with just a single road toward it.
The largest ruby, red as rambutan shell. Within its facets the last of her life wheels, an orrery of pinpoints in slow orbits. Slower by the day. When it stops entirely she will be beyond revival.
Night or day I keep it by me, as if by the warmth of my skin I may incubate it and hatch Areemu. Night or day I scheme and toil; were I a witch in certain tales sung out in the prairie, I would be hunting down pet foxes and toddlers for their eelish kidneys, their slippery brains. But I am not a story, the nearest village and its clutch of toddlers is too far, and in this matter foxes are of no use.
If blood is spilled, it is my own. If carving out my lungs would avail her life, then I would plunge the knife into my breast and call it fair.
Golemry has never ignited my passion, and I’ve taken it up only after Areemu entered my guardianship. Braving the intricacy of her structure humbles and infuriates—I am no artisan; have never been a prodigy. There once existed a record of Areemu’s making, each step inscribed with zealous faith from the first notion, the first sketch; the sisters were meticulous and rightly proud. A decade or so after acquiring Areemu, the princess had this manuscript destroyed and all copies incinerated. Areemu was hers alone; must remain unique. So thorough she was, and so ruthless. No shred of it survives.
The shadow of her malice haunts. The poison of her sneer, long-dead, stiffens the tendons of my wrists.
Areemu’s life dims by the hour.
When the gate flares I am alert—intensely alert, for the ruby’s inner orrery succumbs more rapidly now, and I may not waste even an hour on sleep.
The gating sounds as the noise of wave against rock: a sound of home, a sound absent from this land. I am prepared. Who can tell the caprices of a spurned heart; who may say what will bud from a soil of rage?
She grips not her blade or a sorcerer’s whip but the casket of Areemu’s parts and a collection of papers. Ysoreen has been weeping. On skin like hers it shows. Small surprise that in this country they try so very hard not to cry.
“Hall-Warden, the hour is late. My servant is resting, and I fear I haven’t readied any sweetmeats to share.”
“Hang the sweetmeats.” Her voice is hoarse, her hair disheveled. It doesn’t look as if she has been getting any more rest than have I. “I came for something else.”
“Yes?” She must have noticed that Areemu’s core is missing. The consequence will not be light on me. It will not be open to appeal.
“I couldn’t conquer my thoughts of you. I couldn’t extricate myself from them—from you.” Ysoreen inhales. “I cannot permit this to be. One way or another I must have resolution.”
“It will pass, Hall-Warden.” In a year or two she’ll look back and marvel that she ever felt so fiercely.
“I know myself, Mistress Erhensa. This will lodge deep in me, a splinter under the scar. It will prick when I least expect and bleed me from the inside. It will make me weak.” She thrusts the casket at me. “Will you allow me the chance to visit you a suitor?”
I laugh even as my power tautens in readiness. “You aren’t very good at courtship.”
“I’ve never felt the need to practice.” Ysoreen looks up, down, away. “It’s inexact. It’s illogical.”
“Come here, Hall-Warden.”
We are neither of us at ease, at trust; a truce hovers between us but it is cobwebs, it is slivers, it will come apart at a murmur. She approaches, and there is a look about her that she wore when she chased that fox, that owl.
The casket is between us when I clasp her jaw—and she flinches, for now her hands are trapped and her head is in my grip; if I am not half so hale as she nor a fraction so vital, still I am not weak. Ysoreen’s face is broad, eyes deep-set beneath a scuffed brow. A blunt, decisive nose; it is this part of her that I kiss. My halfway offering.
Her eyelids flutter, rapid, against my cheeks. “In the Institute’s archives there is a copy of the sisters’ manuscript.”
Now it is my rhythms which stutter, flung out of cadence. The pages she carries. “Is there. Is it—”
“I told you, golems are my study. I know how to reawaken your daughter.”
I kiss her again, on the lips. It is more calculation than passion, more necessity than desire. In my place any other would’ve done the same. She goes rigid then pliant, mouth ajar and hot with want. Her clutch at my back, this side of bruising; the taste of her tongue tart.
She is the first to draw away. Though her breathing has gone to rags, there’s a wariness to the tightness of her jaw. Perhaps she is aware—cannot escape—the fact this is a bargain where we put our goods on the table and haggle over the price. Kisses for a resurrection. So cheap; my merchant aunts would’ve shown pride.
Ysoreen gathers herself. “Your need, to fuel the wish. My youth, to replicate the conditions of the original animation. The golem’s first name before the princess, before Areemu. The one you don’t know.” Hunger has ruddied her cheeks. She wants more than kisses; will have more than touches. “The sisters loved her enough to give her a name, to provide a means to restore her.”
My fingers are already on the casket’s clasps. Ysoreen gives way—though does she notice I open the case with greater zeal than when I parted her lips? Does she recognize I pry and tug at it as I never did with her armor?
Recalling Areemu’s shape is simple. It’s in the material, in the core, and when I evoke that remnant the pieces slot together, clicking, singing.
In a moment she is complete, sapphire irises shut, platinum limbs corded with strength. Her loveliness does not move the Hall-Warden, whose gaze is for me alone.
“You’ll have to tell me,” I say. “I don’t read the manuscript’s language.” Practice alone allows me to control my tone; when you’ve used your voice as an instrument for this long, it is second nature to play it precisely.
“I’ll read it aloud. You’re familiar with the rite? I will be the princess’ substitute.”
The spell is no hardship either. Merely words, merely a rearranging of potential cupped within Areemu—this has never been difficult; it is the infusion of autonomy that eludes. I could always have had my daughter back a mannequin: no words but that of a parrot’s, no motion but that of routine. But with the sisters’ original formulae, their original words…
My puissance envelops Areemu’s frame, shimmering strands, cat’s cradle. Ysoreen takes Areemu’s fingertips—hesitates, before anointing each. It is more grudgingly still that she kisses Areemu’s golden lips and pours Areemu’s true name into that inanimate throat.
They wait for the golem to stir. According to the sisters’ instructions it will take until midday, and so Erhensa asks Ysoreen to share her bed.
She follows the sorcerer, her pulse like a wound. When she sheds her armor and not much else Erhensa crooks a lopsided smile. “You will wear the rest to bed?”
“I don’t think of you as a… a courtesan. I’m not—” That pathetic. Or that honest. A transaction with a courtesan or a refugee would have been frank.
“I do not invite you to think of me so. But don’t speak ill of paid companions, pricey ones in your marble brothels or elsewise. Some do it because they’ve no alternatives or because the laws of Scre confine them to the camps. Some do it for they want to, and that’s their choice as much as mine is to practice power, as yours is to administer the curbing of it.”
So Ysoreen takes off more until she is down to a shift. Under the sheets she lies on her side, Erhensa at her back, a fistful of sheet between them.
As the moth-lamps dim Ysoreen shuts her eyes, though she knows she will find no peace. Too many hours lie between her and dawn. Too much want lies between her pride and the ambush of Erhensa’s offer. There’s more than one bed in this house, and she could have refused.
Once, her hand—intent, accident, between—finds Erhensa’s. It is a contact so brief, brushing her knuckles, brushing the inside of her wrist. Ysoreen thinks that this will do; the lust has been sated and she can move past it, a return to the liberty of ambition, the clarity of a rise through Ormodoni ranks.
It does not do. It does not suffice.
In the dark, Erhensa’s chin against her shoulder. “Your flesh is iron. They train you to make a weapon of your body, don’t they?”
Ysoreen listens for the sounds of winter night. Hoots and howls. She evaluates the virtue of silence. “What of it?”
“I’m making a decision.”
“Later,” the sorcerer whispers, “when Areemu lives again.”
A terrible epiphany. This islander possesses control, a true ease of being. That is what drew Ysoreen: this thing she does not have.
They remain in the warmth of furs together long after dawn.
They hear her steps, first, and the chiming of her joints. When the door parts this is what Ysoreen sees: a wrist that gleams, a tress that glitters. The golem looks at them both, and says wonderingly, “Mother?”
Erhensa’s voice frays, the first faltering of her faultless poise.
Ysoreen makes herself absent.
If her daughter’s return made her weep, Erhensa has already wiped away the tears. She has changed to a layered, beaded skirt she says is of her home. “Sumalin,” she says, naming that island far to the west at last, a name that’s never appeared in documents of her past.
The golem is gone to roam the premises, bright-eyed and eager to move again.
“My mothers did not call me Erhensa,” the sorcerer says, distant. “They wove other things into my name, the aspects of Sumalin. Sand like turmeric, sea like emeralds. Girls like the sun.”
“Blinds when looked at, burns when touched?”
“I didn’t realize you had a sense of humor, Hall-Warden.” Erhensa’s gaze refocuses, here and now. “Will Ormodon not punish you for reassembling a golem, your family not shun you for wanting an immigrant spouse?”
“I was authorized to take the manuscript, and my family is… unconventional.” All too happy to accept a powerful sorcerer into their own, foreign or not. “I had no intention of throwing everything away to pursue you.”
“How determined are you on cleaving a path to the top?”
Ysoreen never mentioned that. Her skin prickles. Erhensa has read more than just her moods. “I mean to join First Command.”
“A long way from Hall-Warden.” The islander holds out her hand. “We each know where the other stands, don’t we?”
“When I’m First Command—perhaps Tactician Prime—what will you want of me, as a late wedding gift?” Ysoreen takes the hand; finds it as warm as Sumalin might be. Women like the sun.
“Passage to Sumalin. A visit or two. As wife to one of the First Command I’ll enjoy certain immunities—but not as the spouse of anyone lesser. You do not know my home, but I will tell you that it does not fear Scre.”
“Every nation fears Scre. And when I ascend so high, with you my wife, you’ll forfeit your home. You’ll be Scre truly, Sumalin no longer.”
Erhensa thumbs the warped pearls on her skirt. “I will see the shores of my birth, barred to me otherwise. That will suffice.”
Ysoreen purses a kiss over Erhensa’s knuckles, their texture to her a rough thrill. “An exchange is all we’ll ever have?”
“I cannot promise love. Not immediately. Perhaps never, perhaps slowly, perhaps before the season thaws. I believe that I’ll grow fond of you.”
“Even though this is how it begins?”
“We begin in honest negotiation. Marriages have been knotted over less, over worse.” A smile, to soften what they have, what they don’t yet have. “At my age it will not be passion like the monsoons, ardor like the waves.”
“Teach me that,” Ysoreen says against the skin of her island bride-to-be. “Teach me to master myself, and I’ll do anything for you.”
“Very well. Let us begin.”
Outside, in the summer of Erhensa’s power, a golem-daughter lifts her voice in song.
If you liked this story, you may also like:
“The Crows Her Dragon’s Gate” by Benjanun Sriduangkaew
“The Traitor Baru Cormorant, Her Field-General, and Their Wounds” by Seth Dickinson
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