Sagraille-Knight’s wounds bled when she moved too swiftly, the lacquered plates of her armor screeching against each other in the morning’s light; beaten out of shape. She trembled, staring into nowhere with her single mortal eye, the other clamped shut against sight. She ignored the silver arches and dangling emerald branches that marked the road. Remembering. A massive structure of bamboo, rosewood, and stone soared above her into the space between mountains, smelling of strawberries and incense.
Her pale horse staggered as he passed through Temple’s gates and into the courtyard, collapsing to the ground as his legs bent beneath him. Her face slumped against the back of his neck. Sweat, horse-stink, and tangy blood mixed with the scents of a gentler place.
A dozen graceful servants slid from behind doorways and alcoves. They moved like the sound of bells, wearing white robes, with heavy paint in exaggerated lines across their faces.
Sagraille twitched mechanically as they coaxed her from the horse’s back. One gauntleted hand twitched as if to strike as they laid hands on him, and then she sagged, spilling out of the saddle.
“His name is Mours,” she mumbled, “Take care of him?”
A small flask found its way into her hand, filled with tea and bitter-tasting medicine. More servants appeared, blurring together, guiding her, half-lifting her up. She went quietly, only dimly aware of the surrounds. She was inside, the floor was soft. Everything felt soft.
She drank their concoction, letting them pull at her armor, unbuckle it. Their painted faces didn’t disguise the retching as they saw her mangled, matted wounds. That almost made her smile, that a little blood was so horrifying here. This was Temple. Violence was a stranger here, just as she was. This was a good place. Safe.
She lost herself in mist.
Tsani drew out old dances onto straw-filled mats, skipping over strands of moonlight spearing down from slatted windows, landing noiselessly on the balls of her feet.
“Flesh, Charcoal, Veil,” she recited secretly, beneath her breath; gazing down through painted lashes at the floor, feeling her thin silk shirt billow out as much as the short fabric could, flowing at the level of her thigh as she danced.
She spun, leaving only the slightest disturbances in the air despite her fervor. She moved as only Kurtana can, making just the sounds she wished to make, stepping only where she wished to step; until her heart was the sound of crickets echoing through the halls, the drumming of her feet only a different flavor of silence, and her path so sure that had she stepped on pinpoints instead of mats it would’ve made no difference.
“Jade, Music, Spark.”
She leaped from the last section of mats onto the warmed stone of Temple-proper, where frost hinted passage-wind met the tastes of honey. Jade bracelets issued thin notes of music from her ankles and wrists. Her heart filled itself with a new heat of blood, her lungs a new pull of air, her lips with a smile, and she straightened. The sixteen braids of her hair fell in line across her shoulders.
The nine Cousins waited for her, watching the movements of her feet. Third Dance of Jade, From Dying Stars. They wore long gowns, each labored from the fashions of a dozen different countries, eras, and cultures of romance.
Cousin Fa snorted, turning her heavily painted visage into a map of wrinkles and valleys and smoothing it again with a breath. Cousin Hurogi’s wrist twitched just slightly, as if to flick away an annoying insect, but the foot-long beads hanging from it threatened to touch, and he too was still. Kurtana.
The rest stared impassively.
Wordlessly, Tsani slipped to her knees, ankles pressed together and sliding to the left of her body, one hand draping across her thighs and the other palm down, fingers splayed, a counterpoint to her feet. She bowed her head, hair falling in a curtain across her face. Fourth Graceful Motion in the Flesh.
Cousin Mei smiled a little, the whirls and spirals of her elegant face fluxing and shifting the expression from mask to mask. As if there had never been a smile at all.
“You are no longer a child, Tsani-dear, nor a banshi, nor a wild dog; you are well aware of keeping time,” she said. It was an admonition, voiced gently as a raindrop.
Tsani thought she could see Cousins Fa and Hurogi cover their smirks and suppressed a snarl. Calm, she told herself, calm.
Mei continued. “What explanation would you offer, Tsani-bold, to explain how, when Eldest calls for you at sunrise, you come only after sun has set?
She inclined her head to Cousin Mei, then the others in turn, throwing her hair back over her shoulders in a graceful craning of the neck that exposed her throat. Every action considered, planned, letting her irritations flow away. A still mind. Calm spirit. First Standard of the Spark – Quiescence.
“I apologize, gracious Cousins,” she said. “I would not defy you so knowingly. If only I’d been aware, I would have rushed to you, I would have leaped rivers to return. But I was not in my room, nor in any place my sisters might have known. In the hours before dawn, I sat near a pool in the forest, relaxing myself in the joys of artistry and paint. While I there reclined, two Coi spoke to one other, and I heard there matters of great interest to me—”
—her voice rose and fell, filling the spaces between words as nimbly as her feet danced the moonbeams.
“They discussed, in great eloquence, the matter of stars. How the entire sky might be a tree, each torch a flower, and wondered therein on the import of meteorites and comet-tails. As the sun crested the trees, like a great bird, I felt its warmth and grew weary. As the Coi slipped back to the depths of their pond, and into slumber, I too laid my head upon my shoulder and slept.
“As I did, a fox-devil, a tree-trickster, a night spirit, some faerie thing, must have happened by, for when I woke; I found my paintings gone. Brushes, papers. All of them. Gone. No sign of all my labors.”
Cousin Hurogi’s eyes flashed in unseemly fashion, like a predator too long without a meal. He’d ask for proof. He’d deride.
He’d never liked her. It was one of those nameless things, enmity without real reason. Or any reason she could see, at least. Tsani figured him half a Banshi already, just a few slips of temper away from the maddened song. Almost close as Fa. She half-wanted him to hear it; wanted both of them to.
“Except, perhaps, for this.” She bared the skin on her thighs. She heard sounds of indrawn breath from the Cousins. Could hear them thinking in age-old gasps. Inappropriate! Scandal! Kurtana were not harlots.
But she was not a harlot, nor a courtesan. She was Kurtana.
Across both her thighs, in exquisitely marked charcoal, laid the image of two coi. They stared up into a vast arboreal version of the sky, stretching up her legs, to somewhere hidden on her lower stomach. Stars in the shape of flowers fell, sparking and fading as they descended to an undrawn but hinted pond. The Coi’s scales were loving-drawn, laid over in that style of celestial dragons. The entire piece was set mildly in a clear glaze of wax. Unsmeared.
Cousins Darua and Jhun stepped closer to see. Darua wore a green and golden dress composed of layered gauze, her face its natural black accented by golden paint in the shape of birds. Jhun was painted white, with red and blue figures twisting to dance on either cheek. His robe was a voluminous scarlet. They clicked their tongues on the back of their teeth in approval. It was tragic to them, in the way all things Kurtana were. Ephemeral and fading, forever an impression.
They let their eyes roam over her skin, memorizing the patterns. For that was what they did, Darua and Jhun. They kept the shining stars of Temple in their hearts; immortally.
Everyone was silent as they worked, waiting till they stepped back into line. Cousin Fa, however, coughed; as if to hurry them along. Instead of the impassivity, the calm, of her fellows she displayed impatience. Agitation.
“I see,” said Cousin Mei, gravely nodding as all was settled and Tsani’s shirt pulled rightly down again. “We’ve received a visitor to Temple. A visitor out of Ghol, one of their Iron Knights. A blade saint, we’ve been told, in highest need of grace. The Cousins have decided, through ash and jade, water and wood, that it is your spirit that should quiet this Iron Knight; whose strength is of the mountains and the ice.”
Tsani hid unease, or tried. She didn’t trust Knights, or warriors, or soldiers. Too much pain, too much past. Evil. Evil was what they were. And wrong. She remembered the fires still, or remembered the memory of them, on that summer home from Temple. She’d been seven.
She wanted to say no, but that was impossible. Kurtana didn’t say no to the Cousins. No one in the Temple did. Temple was home. Temple was life. She couldn’t say no.
There were terrible stories of Ghol’s Knights, nightmare-tellings. Vengeance tales. When their Lady Cei, the Lady Cei of Mercy, had been killed, and how they’d razed their enemies. And the sons of their enemies. And the daughters of those sons. Ghol was surrounded by a desert of salt, now, and bone roads they’d built themselves.
Tsani’s body trembled. She filled her mind with chant, breathing evening to the sound of sky and the earth-beat rhythm.
I have cleansed my flesh in the waters, drawing coals to it with metal rods. To stoke the spark within me I have straightened my feet and hair and body by reed and wood, filled my heart with the fires of passion and anointed my body in its scent. I am curtained by silken veils of the heart. The music dangling from my wrists flows through the wind, born of the earth. I am Kurtana. Sixth Standard of the Spark.
She was calm.
She was angry. A wounded, weak soldier. Blood. Fire. Stillnes. Breath. She was afraid.
She was calm, but not kind.
“Of course my Eldest, Cousins. As your wisdom bids, I must obey. Where does the Knight await me?”
She leaned forward, pressing forehead to the ground in a low, subservient bow. Despite her reluctance, the fear, the hate, her mind whirred. How much jade, what colors? What coals and paints to use, what balance of water and life, fire and strife? How to heal a wounded Knight. Or... Tsani practiced, over and over, burying the hearth of that hate into herself. It had no place inside a Kurtana’s heart.
“The Knight rests in the Willows Room,” said Cousin Mei, approvingly, “You may attend.”
Sagraille’s presence was better than a hurricane for quieting things. The training-boys sent to wait on her for tea, and music, and wound dressing, shook a little when they got too near, sliding gazes around her instead of across. Better to look at the table in front of her, at the tea-set, at the silken screens or the willow-thrushed matts, better to look at the ceiling covered in everlasting flowers. Better to look at anything, than to meet her eyes. Her eye.
She was used to it. Hood King’s Daughter, Noose-Maker, Sword-Saint. Sagraille of the Long Eye. The eye that she’d stolen from the Garra’gul, ancient lion feasting at the end of the world, blinked from its place in her left socket. She tensed.
A pillar approached, thousand colored, full of old wroth and killing will, cloaked in silk smiles. It was dangerous, fit to this place like a dagger in a sheath, but struggling out. Instinctively she reached for sword, her hand slapping the cotton at her hip. She was dressed without armor, only a folded white robe. Comfortable, easy to open and get at her wounds. She wouldn’t have had a sword, regardless. She’d broken it. Long ago. Yesterday.
She looked for rope, nothing. Nothing but the Hua board on her table, and a teacup. Hua pieces were soft, gentle wood, crafted clay. No weapons. She twitched.
All three of the boys jumped as if she’d lunged at them with a spear.
“Quiet yourselves, fools, something is-” she growled, struggling to stand and failing spectacularly. The stitches below her ribs stretched, almost pulling out, forcing a grunt of pain like a kick to the chest. It didn’t sear so much as sink its teeth in and grind. She panted, glaring at the point she felt the column coming for and filling herself with a sharpened moment, a field-second in legionary armor. The Gholish magic flooded her veins, evoking her years as a soldier with the strength of time. Softer things were forced from her as she managed to stand. The air twisted around her, shimmering as if in mirage. The silk panel in front of her slid open, revealing-
A very small woman, impressively nonthreatening in her appearance. Young, too. More of a child really, though she carried herself well. Inhumanly. Kurtana.
The sight of her hid the column behind the pretty gauze of reality. She wore a dark blue robe made of silk, covered in prints of golden branches and emerald flowers. The thing reached to her ankles, with wide flowing sleeves that dropped maybe a foot down from her wrists. She was barefoot; only thin anklets of bluish jade.
Her skin was a copper color, true metallic flecks painted to its surface. Gold-threaded charcoal and royal blue powder feathered her eyes, gold glitter dripping in tasteful decadence off her eyebrows like a flight of shining snowflakes.
The young woman was not what Sagraille expected; somebody older. Calmer. Without that thrashing pillar held within. She’d seen one once; the way his power fitted into the world nearly invisibly, more like a part of nature than anything. Like a breeze. This one was like a whirlpool the world moving to her, spiraling around her strength.
The young woman inclined her head, performing an awkward Gholish curtsy, an action that really wasn’t well designed for her outfit. She did it gracefully.
If she had been without the Eye, Sagraille would have immediately relaxed. It was what one was supposed to do, around Kurtana. They were healers and singers, artists, companions. They were witches, too, of course. With a thousand different kinds of sorcery. Meeting one was supposed to touch you forever, granting you a moment of relief, a memory to cling to in the darkest hours of never.
But this one was a lantern in a silk pouch, righteous rage poured through gaps in the thread like water through a sieve. There was grace, beauty, love, all of that. But pain too, screaming pain, pain unhealed. Less seen, and more revealed through absences. Revealed in the way it was hidden.
“You’re a murderer,” the young woman said, after appropriate silence, with lowered eyes. When she lifted them, her eyes had a violence in them that seemed meant to surprise. Sagraille doubted the young woman realized how obvious she’d been in the way she walked. Probably thought the words were shocking, coming from behind a pleasant pond of calm.
They weren’t; the pond was seething, boiling to the touch.
“You’ve burned villages, killed children. You’ve done evil, haven’t you? Working the red-ways into the world. You’ve painted blood onto the planet, into the soil. Your people have turned the growing things to salt! You’re a soldier. Murderer.”
The boys froze in their corners, faces slack, turned down. They were trembling. Was it afraid of her? Afraid of the girl?
Sagraille bowed her head deep, letting herself sink to the mats again, resting elbows on the table, relaxing her hold on time’s throat. The legion-second left her, dying away from herself. She wondered how many were left in her, left at all in the world outside of Ghol.
“I have, and am,” she said, “An accomplished one. Exemplar of the craft, if you will. And you, oh blunt-tongued youth? What are you?”
Kurtana were talented in serenity; they had to be, with the powers they harbored. To keep the Banshi in them singing soft. But serenity was a creature of pools and waters. Sagraille was a stone, a pebble. Waters parted for her in ripples and waves.
The girl twitched. “I am Tsani. Tsani-Kurtana, Sae-Knight,” she said, staring at the eye. Perfectly composed in a moment, a dancer’s moment; poised. But if she’d been imbalanced at all, why’d they sent her? Why this one, young, impertinent? Sagraille was dangerous, in the eyes of Temple folk. She’d seen how the attendants watched her. Like a monster, like a murderer, everything the girl accused of. Everything she was.
Could the young woman’s own people not see this in her? Not see her enough to feel the strength of her, that half-controlled and towering rage. That hardly seemed imaginable. The girl was good, excellent even; a full Kurtana, revealed only by the Eye and maybe a soldier’s trick for violence, but surely not that good. Young, unwise, and wild. Hardly one to send to the wounded, the damaged, with all that rage inside.
Begging for Banshi, wasn’t that a saying? She’d heard it somewhere before.
Tsani approached the table, scanning the room like it was her personal domain. She softened as she looked to the boys, and Sagraille felt strings of calm, half-mentioned notes of gentle reassurance reach out to them. It might have been in the whisper of her robe, or the fall of her feet; Sagraille couldn’t name it exactly, but the girl wasn’t all rage. Her eyes lingered on the Hua-board, the carefully sculpted suggestions of landscapes and tiles.
Sagraille didn’t even need a full Kurtana, really. The deep wounds were old now, not likely to heal by a wonder-witch’s footwork. The body’d been saved, stitched up. The heart was gone. Cei gone. Arai. Bardenhart. Fenn. All of Old Ghol, dead by the sword, or the hourglass. Both just as sure.
Was that it? Did they want this girl to kill her? Or be killed? Either way, a maybe monster dead? It seemed harsh, for this place. Maybe it’d changed since her day, hah. Maybe she was just getting old and stupid. Neither idea would surprise her, but she was tired. Had no patience for it. Didn’t even know what year it was yet; where Mours had left them out of Ghol.
“You could kill me, you know,” she said, “If it would soothe your anger. Tell the boys, and your Elders, I was mad, I was planning to kill them. You’re Kurtana, you read people, master their ways, right? Could tell them you were consigning my soul to peace, the only way I’d know it now. I was Gholish, wild, uncontrollable. They still say those things of us? I have been out of things a while.... Doesn’t matter. But you could kill me, I wouldn’t stop you. I deserve it. I do not think it would help you, though. Killing rarely does.”
She was ready for it too, ready for it to end. To return to her father. She didn’t know what would be next for her. What to do, without the old Ghol. Without what was. She could visit again, she supposed. But she was tired, done; she’d have welcomed that tower falling on her, that column collapsing into inferno against her throat. Release.
Tsani didn’t end her, didn’t move for the longest moment; a stretched second full of tusks. Sagraille shook the thought away. Thoughts came true sometimes. Thoughts like that.
She didn’t see what happened in the girl, what changed, but something did. Tsani relaxed, losing a tension that Sagraille hadn’t noticed was there until it wasn’t. She glided forward to kneel at the table, though calling the waterfall of silk and almost-exposed skin she displayed kneeling was probably insulting. It was more beautiful than that. A painting from the medium of motion. With her hands folded delicate steeples just on the edge of the table, Sagraille almost scoffed. The girl even cast a shadow with elegance.
With one finger Tsani gestured to the board, unsmiling, but there was something almost like a smile behind her eyes.
“So this game? You can teach me?” she asked.
“Hua? It’s a soldier’s game, about war,” Sagraille answered, cautiously. Tsani hadn’t seemed particularly favored towards the profession. War was taboo enough already here, without buried pain.
“But you could teach me?”
“Yes, yes I could. Would you like me to?”
It was hard starting. Fenn’d taught her to play, forever ago. They’d been wasteful, using Hour-spells for pieces instead of carving a set. Using the magic of Ghol as if it would be forever. Imagining time like an endless thing. He’d been a fun sort. Easy with smiles.
It was hard remembering him.
They played Hua for weeks with barely a word between them, but many moments. The first thing Sagraille taught her was being honest. Let the self through, into the game. It was what Fenn had told her, after telling her she was a bad liar and shouldn’t try her hand at a thing like that.
Tsani glared in the beginning, almost without pause. Hua was a hard game; Sagraille’d been lucky they even had a board, even if they’d only placed it as a decoration. A piece of home.
She taught patiently, in a rough sergeant’s voice. “Remember your pieces, the flow of worlds,” she said a hundred times.
“Hua is a study of balance, as complex as living, but stated clear. Simple in basis, manifold in practice. There are soldiers of Metal that cut the guardians of Wood, who feed the beasts of Fire, whose hearts are dimmed by the messengers of Wind, who govern the shapers of the Earth, which uphold the dancers of the Water that rust the soldiers. Except -“
Tsani groaned at each “except,” rolling her eyes, but she absorbed it. Sagraille beat her, again and again, but the girl improved. Grudgingly. Game by game.
After each, Tsani prepared the board again. Sagraille said nothing, watching her with the Eye. The young woman struggled with defeat, raging, quieting the rage. Calming herself of the “red ways”. Mastering herself, over and again. They called it Quiescence, or something.
Tsani talked sometimes. About old lessons, friends that weren’t really friends. How she’d excelled through every program to become one of the youngest Kurtana in the Temple’s history. There was no better dancer; few better with the Elements even among the Cousins. All she needed was tempering. No one had challenged her before. Except Fa, Hurogi. She complained about them like a child would; how they hated her. Picked on her. She didn’t understand why. Were they jealous?
“Maybe it’s ’cause you whine too much, when you’re the best in their class,” Saigraille answered. Tsani’d gone quiet for days after, only speaking again for their brief expedition to the stables.
Mours. Sagraille could see him, could feel him from her room, but wanted to touch him. He’d saved her, like he always did. Good ole horse, coat white as bone, hooves black as night, eyes a midnight grey, spinning and uncertain. He was marvelous but not unscarred. Lines of old pain knotted his muscles, marred his hide; each slowed him slightly, dragging him down. He couldn’t go on forever, and neither could she.
The stable hands said the big horse had nearly killed a few of the stallions when they’d tried challenging him in the field. He’d struck them down with his hooves until they bowed to him like men, bloody. The story made Tsani tremble inside; she wasn’t used to thinking of horses as soldiers. The violence still made her uneasy.
She greeted him bravely after hearing it, though, or tried. He’d taken his rider here, to a place of safety. All alone. How could compassion such as that be matched with the violence he’d done? She swept into his stall, touching his muzzle, resting her face against his and breathing him in. He was a strange beast; animals had always calmed to her, but he felt different. He was proud in the way people were proud, and it showed in every line of his body, like some sort of storybook horse. It filled her with a sort of awe.
He stiffened at her touch, ready to attack but relaxing. Her magic wouldn’t work on him, nor did she try it. She gave him her trust. He snorted kindly to her, nuzzling. Grateful for a warm touch. Calming her somehow, quieting something in her. Sagraille stood behind them, in the doorway. Tsani could feel the both of them gazing over her shoulder.
They stayed maybe ten minutes before Sagraille’s legs shook and she was gripping the column of smooth wood beside her to stay upright. Tsani danced back, spinning on the heels of her feet, confused as she saw her charge.
Tsani pressed herself in the crook of Sagraille’s arm like a cane, pulling her from the stables, bowing head to Mours. She felt a question trembling in herself.
“He’s killed people, hasn’t he? That.... Mours. He’s a war-horse, yes? He’s a nice horse, but the Ghol give them armor and ride them into battle, making them trample the weak, is that true?” she asked. Accused.
“He’s been with me since the start. The only horse that would follow me through the Hourglass doors; practically charged them. So yes. We’ve killed together. Often; sometimes. Some of them were evil men, evil women. Some of them weren’t. Mostly they were just people. People that would hurt what I loved and cared for if I didn’t hurt them first. When I was young that was a broad list. Then got twisted. Fear’ll do that, twist things.” Sagraille sighed, leaning more on Tsani’s shoulder, as if heavily weighted. The soldier-woman wasn’t happy. Didn’t have the sound of past enjoyment in her. There wasn’t guilt either, simply. Simply sorrow.
“When you talk about those things, you sound tired. Didn’t you enjoy it? The killing? Isn’t that why you were a Soldier?” Tsani couldn’t quite believe what she felt, what she read in the woman’s furrowed brow. This woman was a warrior, evil, adept of the red ways... murderer. She was evil, wasn’t she? A pause. Tensing of the muscles running through and through, making Tsani almost tense in turn.
“Like it?!” Sagraille growled, shaking her head firmly enough to nearly make herself fall. Tsani struggled to keep her up, blinking in shock. Tears thundered to her eyes from the fury rushing through her from Sagraille; the woman’s heart screamed. Unconsciously Tsani soothed it, whispering, letting water in through her gentle whimper, the strength of earth gravitate from her bones; a breath of wind to carry way the vigor of Sagraille’s vast pains.
It was the first time she’d tried to help the soldier, the woman, at all. She’d played the game. She’d struggled to see something, to keep open the eyes. First Standard of the Spark.
“I’ve never liked it. I liked the violence, I loved the artistry of combat, but never the killing. It’s why I left home at all, so that if I had to, if I had to kill, it would be for something I loved. That’s what I found in Ghol. It’s why I traveled forward, why I took the last door to the end of time, why I stole the Eye, so that if I killed, I would never do so blindly.” Sagraille’s eye shifted, changing. Black with a white and slitted pupil, spinning in its socket, letting out an eerie light that twisted shadows, almost wailing. Tsani lowered her eyes as Sagraille continued, unable to stand the trembling pain that came out of that eye. Oh what wounds.
“So that I could be strong enough that I wouldn’t have to strike at all. That’s what Cei showed me. What the Barons stole when they killed her. Idiots. Thought we’d weaken. We’d shatter. They fantasized she’d been the architect of all our war against them, when she’d been the one to give them peace. To hold us back. There was no joy there; pain and fear, on all sides.”
“I’m sorry,” Tsani replied, shaken, thinking. She didn’t meet the older woman’s eyes again, even when they started playing again back in the room. And not for days afterwards. She didn’t talk much for a long time.
Sagraille left her to it quietly, which she appreciated. Focusing on the game, on teaching, on forgetting. Every stretch of her muscles screamed of pain to Tsani’s sight, not monstrosity. The slight twinges, the careful movements. Her rough voice didn’t speak of callousness but of a well won compassion. It was hard for Tsani to adapt, seeing the woman through a Kurtana’s eyes. Looking at her with other than hate.
They slept at the table, laying down on mats the boys brought them for the dark. There was tea, and simple hearty food. Sagraille began to heal, wounds sealing over, muscles strengthening. She took to pacing while Tsani considered moves on the board.
They received three messages in as many days, each of them from Cousins. Tiny letters painted by graceful hands. One was on a blue slip scented with sandalwood. Mei. The others with fragrances of fruit, on white cards. Hurogi and Fa. Tsani waved them away without a glance, focusing back to the board after each, biting her lip. She was doing her work; she was focused now. The studied patterns in which she moved her hands, the way she grew from teaching. It eased something in Sagraille, the old pains; progress was being made. Slowly, with only the eddies of magic, but nonetheless. And Sagraille would not trust a major working; it had to be a little at a time. No letters were needed, no instructions.
Tsani focused more intently on the board each time. Leveling plains into fens with the Magi piece, shifting the world. Burning City, losing still. Growing icy wardens on mountain side. Tsani answered each message the same. Not petulantly, but polite.
“If I am right for this,” Tsani said, “as they’ve decided, they should trust me. Or am I not the painter of coi? A dancer of moonbeams? Am I not who I am?”
Tsani was gentle enough with the messengers that they smiled when they left instead of growing angry. She charmed them, but did not reply. Or make comment on the letters. Not once.
Sagraille snorted after the last finally left; he’d been persistent. Forceful, almost. As forceful as any man in Temple. He was new, as all Fa’s attendants were, new and untempered, with too much flame. Tsani’d snuffed it out with a shrug, redirecting, balancing; the silk of her dress slipping over her shoulder an inch away from immodesty. He’d blushed, she’d smiled; back to the board.
“Isn’t it rude to barely even read them?” asked Sagraille. “You’re playing games after all. Hardly pressing, they’re your elders.”
“It would be, but I’m working. They understand. Or should.”
“You’re playing games, learning from me. Slowly.”
Tsani smiled, one of those captured-with-a-paintbrush smiles that she knew almost annoyed the older woman. Sagraille shrugged instead, moving wooden soldiers to her mountain, kindling them to melt her icy wardens. A river flowed down. They played.
Cousin Fa’s wail struck its way through Temple like an axe cutting wicker-weave, and Sagraille was awake. Readying. The building shook with her. With the knowing of her. Half-phantoms of every dance she’d stepped, every song, poem, masterful glance, glittered through the halls like dark whims.
The girl woke half-mumbling Hua moves and rules clauses, shaking without knowing why.
Sagraille smiled. “Wood takes Mountain, groups of three. Like a dam, letting loose Waters, charge....”
Tsani blinked the sleep away, trembling. Sagraille could see the thoughts floating round her head. Still dark. No birds. What’d that awful sound been? Wait. No birds at all, not even the owls. Not even the littlest crickets. “What?” she blurted.
“Quiet, girl. Quiet now,” snapped Sagraille. The eye shone like a red lamp, throbbing, pulsing deeper and crimson, throwing shadows across the room and into corners; scanning past the walls, into Temple.
Tsani obeyed, sitting up. Quiet as grass and gravestones. Not a sound.
Through the Eye, Sagraille felt Fa.
Rage, rising up uncontrolled and uncontrollable. Almost a century of pain, of spooled-in wonders, unleashing. The other Cousins were waking but slowly. Too slowly. They weren’t ready all at once, in a start; they weren’t warriors, they wouldn’t stop her in time. Fa had been of their strongest; now going strange, wild, Banshi.
Kurtana without control. Without humanity. She looked to Tsani. The girl was scared. Vulnerable, but still poised, in that practiced serenity. It was only the surface of fear; there was something holding it at her eyes, away from her heart. A trusting comfort laid on her face.
That look was like a kick to the side of Sagraille’s head, and she almost ran. Gathered herself, fetched Mours, and left. Almost. Someone trusted her again. Someone living.
Maybe there was a heart, after all. Maybe not entirely gone. Tsani was in danger. Sagraille was weak. Didn’t matter. Hours and Aeons, it hurt.
She steadied herself, whispering, pulling time around her like a vice, and commanding it. Not seconds, but hours. Not minutes, but days. The smell of dust and blood didn’t reach them; the sounds of snapping wood and crushing stone didn’t penetrate. A bubble formed, coalescing into shape around them.
“I am going to show you something no one has seen outside of Ghol, or maybe even in her, for many years. Do you understand?
Tsani nodded. Still confused, but not stupid. Quiet. Trusting. When had the girl started trusting her? Didn’t matter now. Time to go.
Sagraille gathered a traveling-time to herself, by strength of will. The sound of hoof-beats; the path of herds gathered round them. Spindly nine-legged horses took shape—avatara of time. They crowded into her body, into Tsani’s. She hadn’t worked a thing like this in far too long. It thrilled her, an electric tingle on her tongue .
“Take my hand,” she ordered. She could barely see, with the avatara filling her. Only through her Eye. She gathered the strength of Mours too, and he was suddenly with them.
Her body shook, blood seeping from the most recent of her wounds. Tsani’s hand was in hers; it had been for a long time. Time?
They took a step; distance bent. Into the hall. Another, into the courtyard. Tsani retched; the girl was crying but she didn’t stop. The Banshi was above them, no longer resembling a woman. It screamed, the sound smashing down on them. Focused and absolute. Ripping stone and earth, and human flesh. The sphere cracked, was going to crack. Sagraille needed to pull it in close, couldn’t. Not with Tsani, not with Mours. He knew it too.
He neighed, eyes rolling back. There was a moment before he died when they looked at each other. She would never stop owing him, thanking him. He’d carried her a long while. Her time now, to carry others.
He leaped past the sphere of hourglass strength, muscle and skin flensed by the Banshi’s maelstrom. Bones crunched and he screamed—another step. Away from it. So sorry. Get away. Couldn’t help him. It hurt; it all hurt again. Couldn’t save him. But could save her. Tsani. They’d both save her. He’d made the choice. It was done. Focus. Almost out of the Temple. One more, through the Arches. Another, on the hill, beneath a tree. Ready to run, to take Tsani and run—
“I have words for you, Blade-Saint,” he said, “and your charge. There is something I would like her to see.”
He shouldn’t have been able to see them, let alone stop them. But he did. He was leaning against the bark of an emerald tree. At a folding of his hands, the balance of time stopped; the travel days and herd hours eased out of her, healing as they went. Wasn’t right; wasn’t how the magic worked. He didn’t care. Kurtana. Sagraille was barely winded, but the cold stung, numbing her fingers. Her hands. The numbness, any numbness, scared her now. The pain was better. She flexed the fingers, the night bit them; better. Her hand squeezed Tsani’s tight.
“Cousin?” the girl whispered.
Cousin Hurogi looked frail without his paint, dressed in billowy breeches and bandages wrapped along his arms instead of robes or dresses. His bald head wasn’t shining; didn’t display the lengthy magic of paints and whirls the Cousins so adored. His skin was wrinkled; he was an old man. His eyes were red, and streaks of tears scarred him. He wore a single necklace of jade beads and a golden teardrop in his right ear. His nails were painted night-sky purple, small gems glued in flecks like stars; miniature suns. A moon on each thumb. He smelled like cloth. His shaded eyes squinted slightly through the dark, large on his face, locked in the direction of Temple. The Banshi. Fa.
“My Cousin is dead, my Sister is dead,” he said, “For she was as my sister, little Tsani-spiteful. Spiteful, but not so wrongly.” He closed his eyes as he spoke. Gathering himself. Almost angry, but giving it away. The night took it from him.
“You were always proud,” he continued, “clever and proud. Young and proud. It is hard, for some of us, to bear that. You will be a great woman. Greatness is hard to accommodate without the wisdom of age. See already, we were small minded. We schemed. Yet, for you a Knight bleeds. A dead heart beats at the center of a sandstorm. Kurtana, I think, Kurtana. I was wrong. We were wrong.”
His face was quiet and calm, without its usual warble of irritation. That constant semi-scowl Tsani had always talked about was gone. It filled Sagraille with a sort of peace, a knowing of herself; that calm expression on his face.
“Gentility. Last Standard of the Spark,” Tsani mouthed, whispering. In awe?
The two of them looked towards Temple. Neither had seen a Banshi before. Fa had failed. Tsani took a step forward; Sagraille pulled her back. The girl struggled, tears welling. Hurogi’s eyes opened, breath leaving him in a sigh, starting towards the Banshi that’d been his friend without flinching.
“Leave, little-Tsani,” he said. “I can see in you the desire to heal, to confront a thing you’ve wronged. That is good, but you have done no evil.
“This was coming for many years, I think. I should have seen it. We should have seen it. We quiet the pain of the world and this is mine to still. My place to calm. Not yours, though we would grow greatly with your strength. You must learn outside of us, as I learned before I came.”
His bandages began to unwrap from his arms, slipping into his hands, spinning tighter and tighter circles till they strained together like horse-length swords emerging from his fists. The flesh they’d covered was bruised, scarred, ripped. Deep ridges ran over the skin, slicing the natural flow of veins into barely functioning bulges. In places the meat beneath was discolored, almost peeling. It looked like pain. He smiled.
Sagraille knew that smile.
“Each act in life, each solitary thing, delivers strength,” he said. “I drink tea, and take of its heat. I cry, and learn from tears new ways to move. I witness the world, and have in me the strength of it to spare, suffusing me.
“I am the dawn and twilight, I am the oak and the willow and the coi and the carp, and of my strength I cannot help but give. That is what it means to be one of us, to be beyond true suffering – for a time—to give until it consumes. Kurtana. This is why Fa hated you, young and powerful. You’ve not learned that sorrow is also a dance. That giving is beauty; that your pain is not your own to covet close. Nor is it ugly. You are burdened by your sorrow, Tsani- dear. I am buoyed by it. Watch.”
The Banshi-Fa roared, multicolored limbs of cloth and tongues of paint lashing at the frosty night. The two mountains of the pass loomed, Temple’s light casting them like judging giants above the scene. Hurogi began to run, bandage-blades poised forward. Each step like twenty; feet not quite touching the ground so much as courting it. He was in the air, or was the air lifting him?
“I am Kurtana,” his whisper carried through the dirt, in the perspiration of the air. It was written like a signature; drawn like a picture. Sagraille saw him in that instant with her Eye.
Fa had taught him like a sister. He’d come to the Temple a soldier out of war and never left. Learning, instead. When he was made Kurtana, they had danced together, hand in hand, between the trees of Wais. She’d bandaged his arms for the first time; soothed the burns caused by sorceries. What would never heal she helped him hide, and ease.
His soul was focused, shaped into a spear of wood and fire, steel and water; persuaded together with whispers. Lashed together with an aging will. He would not survive this. She would kill him, or he would take his life, before his balance left him. She had brought him balance. He wanted to rage at Tsani, for being proud, a catalyst of pain. But he didn’t. There was no hate in his heart.
Neither of them turned away from him as he met the Banshi, dancing one last time with his Fa. Cloth and fire, sound and stone, clashed between the mountains, but it was not like before. None of her wildness escaped his strength. Everywhere she thrashed, his hands met, his feet danced, his voice struck. Hurogi quieted her with his passions, shrinking her in circles till the Cousins rose to his aid. Tsani sang a whistle-song that caught the air like windchimes and rose-petals dancing. Sagraille thanked her for it; she was shaking.
They watched till the dawn, when the smoke and dust finally settled. Exhausted, they turned away and began to walk. Tsani’s hand gripped hers gently, squeezing it, pulling Sagraille forward in a way without force. Towards the gray hills of Ghol they walked, towards home, and her heart ached. Remembering the first time she’d traveled to them, the first time with Mours. Through the dark and through the days. She watched it again, through the Eye, and it hurt.
But not so much as it had before, Tsani’s hand in hers. The girl’s quiet calm, ruffled and dirtied but still as present on her as a wave. Hurogi, Fa, Mei. They were Kurtana. And so was Tsani.