Kavian can pretend this girl is her daughter through drought and deluge, but the truth is the truth: Irasht is a weapon, and never any more.

It hurts enough to break even the charcoal heart of Kavian Catamount, and so she does a forbidden thing—she puts her arms around the girl Irasht who is not her daughter, kisses her brow, and whispers:

“I will protect you. Go.”

Then Kavian pushes Irasht onto the stone above the battle.

In the valley beneath them the Cteri, the people of the dams, the people of Kavian’s blood and heart, stand against the invader. The Efficate comes baying to drain five centuries of civilization into their own arid land.

So the word has come from Kavian’s masters, from the Paik Rede and warlord Absu:

You have had time enough to tame her. Go to the battle. Use the abnarch girl, the girl who is not your daughter.

Destroy the Efficate army.

Kavian cries the challenge.

“Men of the Efficate! Men of the owl!” Her wizardry carries the bellow down the valley, across the river, to shatter and rebound from the hills. “I am Kavian Catamount, sorcerer of the Paik Rede! I like to warm my hands on your brothers’ burning corpses!”

Fifty thousand enemy spearmen shudder in fear. They know her name.

But the battle today does not ride on Kavian’s fire.

The girl Irasht (who is not her daughter) stares at the battle-plain, wide-eyed, afraid, and puts her hands up to her ears. Kavian seizes her wrists, to keep her from blocking out the sound of war. Irasht claws and spits but does not cry.

Over Irasht’s hissing frenzy Kavian roars: “My hands are cold today!”

She hears the cry go up in the Efficate ranks, a word in their liquid tongue that means: abnarch, abnarch, she has brought an abnarch. And she sees their eyes on her, their faces lifted in horror and revulsion, at the girl Irasht, at what has been done to her.

You poor bastards, she thinks. I know exactly how you feel.

Kavian has been in pain for a very long time. There’s the pain she wears like a courting coat, a ballroom ensemble—the battle hurt that makes her growl and put her head down, determined to go on.

And there’s the other pain. The kind she lets out when drunk, hoping it’ll drown. The pain she reaches for when she tries to play the erhu (this requires her to be drunk, too). It’s a nameless pain, a sealed pain, catacombed in the low dark and growing strong.

The night she met Irasht, the night she went down into the catacombs to decant her daughter: that night belonged to the second pain.

In the Paik Rede’s summit halls, past the ceremonial pool where the herons fish, catacomb doors bear an inscription:

We make silk from the baby moth. We unspool all that it might become. This is a crime.

Silk is still beautiful. Silk is still necessary.

This is how an abnarch is made. This is the torment to which Kavian gave up her first and only born.

The wizards of the Paik Rede, dam-makers, high rulers of isu-Cter, seal a few of their infants into stone cells. They grow there, fed and watered by silent magic, for fifteen years. Alone. Untaught. Touched by no one.

And on nights like these their parents decant them for the war.

“Kavian. Stop.”

Warlord Absu wears black beneath a mantle of red, the colors of flesh and war. For a decade she has led the defense of the highlands. For a decade before that—well: Kavian was not born with sisters, but she has one. This loyalty is burnt into her. Absu is the pole where Kavian’s needle points.

“Lord of hosts,” Kavian murmurs. She’s nervous tonight, so she bows deep.

The warlord considers her in brief, silent reserve. “Tonight we will bind you to a terrible duty. The two mature abnarchs are our only hope.” Her eyes! Kavian remembers their ferocity, but never remembers it. She is so intent: “You’re our finest. But one error could destroy us.”

“I will not be soft with her.” So much rides on the abnarch’s handler: victory, or cataclysm.

Absu’s golden eyes hold hers. “The war makes demands of us, and we serve. Remember that duty, when you want to grieve.” Her expression opens in the space between two blinks—a window of pain, or compassion. “What did you name her?”

“Heurian,” Kavian says.

A grave nod. Absu’s face is a map of battles past, and her eyes are a compass to all those yet to come. “A good name. Go.”

And then, as Kavian pushes against the granite doors, as the mechanisms of gear and counterweight begin to open, Absu warns her.

“You will find Fereyd Japur in the catacombs. He went ahead of you.”

Fereyd. The scar man, the plucked flower. Her only rival. Why send him ahead? Why is he in the dark with her buried daughter?

Kavian tries to breathe out her tension but it is a skittish frightened breed and it will not go.

She goes down into the catacombs where eight children wait in the empty dark for their appointed day. Where her daughter waits to be reborn and used.

Magic is bound by the laws a wizard carries. Day and night, air and gravity, the right place of highborn and low. The lay of words in language. The turn of the stars above high isu-Cter, the only civilization that has ever endured. All these are laws a wizard may know.

This is why the upstart Efficate produces so many wizards: it fills its children with the mantras of fraternity and republic. Their minds are limited, predictable—but like small gears, together they make a machine. This is why the Cteri wizards walk the world as heroes, noble-blooded and rare.

There are other ways to make a wizard. A child raised in a stone cell knows no laws. Only the dark.

Fereyd Japur waits for her in white silk ghostly beneath the false starlight of the gem-starred roof. He is tall and beautiful and his eyes are like a field surgery.

He was not always a great wizard. Not until he gave himself to the enemy, to be tortured, to learn the truest laws of pain.

“Why are you here?” Kavian asks.

Fereyd Japur’s eyes burn old and sharp and clot-dark in a young brown-bronze face. Whispers say that the thing he did to buy his power killed him. Left him a corpse frozen in his first virility. The whispers are wrong, but Kavian still remembers them. He’s a popular companion for those who want to claim dangerous taste.

“You don’t know,” he says, and then, “She didn’t tell you. Absu didn’t tell you.”


Kavian understands at once, and she steps forward, because if she doesn’t, she’ll run.

“They’ve given her to you,” she husks. “Heurian. My daughter.”

“And mine to you.”


“My daughter Irasht.” An awful crack opens in his face, a rivening Kavian could recognize as grief, if she believed he was human, or as rage, if she were wiser. “The warlord prefers to spare us from attachment to our charges. So I will have your daughter as my abnarch. And you will have mine.”

She wants to weep: she will never know her daughter. She wants to cry out in shameful joy, she will never have to know her daughter, and that thought is cowardice.

Kavian says the rudest thing she can manage. “You never told me you fathered.” Women have bragged of having him, even made a sport of it—he is beautiful, and his lowborn status makes him scandalous, coercible, pliant. But Cteri women don’t conceive without intent. Who—?

His full lips draw down to one narrow line. The fissure in him has not closed: grief and hate cover him like gore. “The mother wanted a wizard’s blood to water her seed. The child was meant for the catacombs. That was all.”

“You did this to hurt me.” Her anger’s speaking for her, but she has no hope for any kind of victory here and so she lets it speak. “You knew this would happen, didn’t you? Fifteen years ago you planned this? You made a child to be given to me, so that you could take my daughter, so that you could say, at last, I have something Kavian Catamount wanted?”

He lashes out at her. The word he speaks would kill any lesser wizard, the third-best or the fourth or maybe even Fereyd Second-Best himself. But Kavian turns it aside without thought, an abject instant no. He must have known she would.

“You have everything I wanted,” he hisses, and it feels as if she can see through the dusk of his skin and the white of his bone into the venom of his marrow, into the pain he learned beneath the enemy knife.

She turns away.

They unseal the cells and decant their children.

The girl Irasht, daughter of Fereyd Japur, waits wide-eyed and trembling in the center of her cell. When Kavian comes close she rises up on narrow legs and begins to make soft noises with her lips: ah, ah, ah.

She doesn’t know what a person is. She’s never seen one before.

By the time Kavian has coaxed the girl into a trembling bird-legged walk, Fereyd Japur has taken Heurian and gone. The closest Kavian comes to her daughter is the sound of footsteps, receding.

Kavian protests to Absu, bursting into the war council, scattering the tiny carved owls that mark the enemy on the map and raging for her daughter Heurian.

But the Warlord says: “Without your two abnarchs on the front, they will break us this summer. They will open our reservoirs, take our men for their fraternity, and use our silk to wipe the ass of their upstart empire. You are a soldier first. Look to your charge, Kavian.”

So: a night that belonged to the second kind of pain.

Go to the front. Train your abnarch on the march. Summer is upon us, and the enemy moves on the dams.

Kavian curses Absu’s madness—train her on the march? Irasht could go catatonic, overwhelmed by the sweep and stink of the world beyond her cell. She could lash out in abnegation and blot herself and Kavian and their retinue and a mile of Cteri highlands into nothing.

But Kavian’s known Absu since childhood, and for all the rage she’s hurled at those golden eyes she has never known them to measure a war wrong.

She finds she cannot sleep until she snaps something: a branch, a lyre-string. Sometimes it takes a few.

Every time she looks on Irasht, teetering around in tentative awe like a hatchling fallen from a nest, she thinks: where is my daughter? She thinks: I could go to that lowborn boy and take Heurian back. He could not stop me. But she cannot go against Absu and the Paik Rede. Cannot defy the ruthless will that keeps isu-Cter safe.

So she hardens her heart and begins the training.

“Hssh,” she murmurs—Irasht freezes when touched, and must be soothed. “Hssh.” She draws a cold bath while the abnarch girl watches the motion of the water, rapt. When Kavian lowers her down into the ice cold, arms around her tiny neck and knocking knees, she reacts with only a soft ‘oh’. From then on the temperature doesn’t seem to trouble her, even when Kavian leans her back to wash her knotted hair. She sculls the water in small troubled circles and stares. Kavian thinks she is trying to reconcile two things: the sight of the water rippling around her palm, and the feeling of it on her hand. Whether she succeeds, Kavian cannot tell.

Irasht is at the peak of her power as an abnarch. All the logic she learns will confine her. When she sees the difference between sunrise and sunset she will diminish. When she understands that the chattering shapes around her are people like herself, she will be a lesser weapon. So Kavian keeps to the strict discipline of the handler. No language. Simple food. Strict isolation, when possible.

But for Irasht to be useful, she must learn to trust her handler. (Or dread and fear her handler, Fereyd Japur would remind her. Or that.) So Kavian reaches out to her—touch, meaningless sound, small acts of compassion. Holds her when the world becomes too much and she retreats to clawing frenzy.

Irasht is a burnt stump of a person, like a stubborn coal pulled from a fire pit. She stares overmuch and needs housetraining like a stray dog. To Kavian’s frustration and shame—this is what I am reduced to?—she finds that Irasht cannot chew. So she crumbles the girl’s food by hand.

This would be easier, all in all, if Kavian could think of her only as a weapon.

But in the villages and terrace farms along the path to war she sees Irasht do things that take a chisel to her heart. When Irasht finds doors she goes to them and waits patiently, hoping, Kavian imagines, that someone will invite her in.

When it grows too dark in their tent Irasht panics, tangling herself in her bedding. Kavian is moved: Irasht fears going back to the dark. Somehow this is a comfort. It makes Kavian feel she has done a good thing, bringing her out into the light.

She takes Irasht out to see her first stars, and holds the girl, rocking her, thinking: we did this. We made her this way.

No. The war did this. The war makes demands.

In the Efficate they make wizards in vast numbers. Bake them like loaves of bread. Kavian knows this because she’s slaughtered them by the dozens. All they can do is make little shields and throw little sparks—the laws of their society leave no room for heroism, and Kavian suspects the quality of their blood gives rise to no heroes.

But there are so many. And they are winning.

And this is not her daughter.

They pass through everything that will be lost if they fail. The terraced farms and waterfall mills of the highlands. The gulls that circle library-ships on reservoirs raised by wizards of centuries past.

For all remembered history, isu-Cter has been the still eye at the heart of the world. Kavian still believes with patriot fire that, for all its faults, high green isu-Cter must stand.

Fereyd Japur travels with her. It’s distasteful company but a military necessity. She tells herself it’s good to be close to Heurian. She’s lying. Fereyd keeps his abnarch to himself, and the space between Kavian and Heurian feels like forever, as wide as grief and deep as duty.

As they come down from the highlands towards the dams and the war-front, he walks into her tent to take a meal and brag. “Heurian is active. Ready to be used. When I give her an image, she changes the world to match it.”

Kavian sets her cup down with soft care. She has not even begun to push Irasht towards useful magic. “Oh?”

“You think I’m lying.”

“No,” Kavian says. The firelight makes Fereyd’s beauty almost painful, a scrimshaw thing, etched into his face by acid and tint, worked into his bones by years of hungry eyes. She touches the edge of hate and it feels hot and slick as a knife coming out. “I believe you.”

“And Irasht?” The kohl on his eyelids turns his blink into a mechanism of dark stone. “Is my daughter ready for the war?”

Kavian lifts her chin. “I will need more time.”

Fereyd watches her across the fire. It might be something in his face, or the set of his muscled farmer’s shoulders, or the way he holds himself so properly as if to remind her she is higher born—it might be one of these things that screams of mockery. Or it might only be her imagination.

But Kavian breaks the silence with a hiss: “What did you to do to her?”

Fereyd Japur looks away.

“What method?” Kavian insists, leaning across the fire. The heat is harsh but her arms are a cage for it and the pain only makes her angrier. “How did you reach her so quickly? Was it some secret of knives? What did you do?”

“I did what I’ve always done. I obeyed my orders.” The softness in his voice, the tilt of his eyes—for a moment he could be the boy of impossible talent Absu plucked out of the laborers’ quarter. But the rage returns. “Heurian will be ready when the enemy comes. Why are you angry? What more would you ask of me?”

She waits there, hunched across the fire like her namesake, and he sits in quiet deference, trembling with a need to flee or yield or kill (she does not like to guess at his thoughts).

Shadows move across the inside of the tent.

From the sleeping-tent Irasht begins to howl. When Kavian rises to go to her she catches Fereyd’s eyes and sees something shattering under that howl, something long ago broken, something still coming apart.

“Keep my daughter safe,” she says. More than anything else she could say, she thinks it will hurt him most.

Irasht takes up collecting. She does not much care for the idea of property, but after silent rebukes from Kavian, she focuses her needs on waterskins. Soon she learns to show anger by pouring water on the earth.

Kavian laughs in delight, and then sobers. The girl is ready for a test.

On the riverbank, she finds three small stones to show Irasht. The abnarch perches, head cocked, and waits for Kavian’s command.

Kavian waggles her fingers. This is the counting game. Count three stones, Irasht.

Three, Irasht indicates: three fingers.

Kavian holds up four.

Three, Irasht insists, brow furrowed. She waves her raised fingers and makes a high chirp. Three, three. There are three stones.

Kavian answers with stillness: four fingers. Four stones.

Irasht’s eyes narrow in bafflement.

And a small weight moves in Kavian’s palm. A fourth stone, conjured from nothing. Irasht’s abnarchy at work. Faced with a gap between reality as it is and reality as Kavian says it must be, Irasht has rectified the discrepancy.

Kavian hugs Irasht tenderly, kisses her gently on the brow, and conjures her an air-picture of the night sky, crowded with stars. It makes Irasht tremble in joy, to see those lights in the dark.

The war begins again. Twenty thousand Efficate spearmen and four hundred wizards under the stripling Adju-ai Casvan march on a southern dam.

Word comes by rider from Warlord Absu:

I have judged your reports. Fereyd Japur will use Heurian against the enemy. Kavian, your abnarch is unready. Keep her safe.

She sees it happen. Sees all this:

Fereyd carrying Heurian (she is a small dark shape, limp—but her hair moves in the wind off the reservoir) across the bridge beneath the dam. Fereyd raising his arms to the sky. The two armies beneath him looking up in awe as he draws against the dusk an image of the Efficate soldiers broken into bone.

Then he puts his hands over Heurian’s ears.

Through her own art of sorcery Kavian hears the shriek he puts into her daughter’s mind, a shriek like a nightmare cracking. Horrible enough to make the screams of battle sound less than a lullaby.

Kavian, unable to protect her daughter, breaks a tree in half with a killing word.

The noise Heurian makes is so low and awful that it stirs snow to avalanche when it strikes the distant mountains. When that sound rolls over the first rank of the Efficate army their wizards’ shields flare with lightning.

Whatever gets through is enough. Men fall, drowning on ash and water, on the mud that suddenly grows to fill their lungs. Adju-ai Casvan, shielded by his elite cadre, survives to pull his decimated forces out—fleeing west, chased by the sound of Cteri soldiers beating their shields and crying: the water washes out the filth!

On the bridge beneath the dam, Fereyd Japur lifts the fallen girl. She puts her arms around his neck and tries to hide against him.

The battle is won. Heurian functions. All it takes is bone in the sky and a scream in her skull.

When Kavian goes to the center of the camp and asks to see her daughter, Fereyd Japur looks at her with cold contempt. “You saw her today,” he says. “You saw everything you need to see. She is a weapon.”

Warlord Absu writes:

Fereyd Japur has field command. Defeat all Efficate incursions you encounter. Use the abnarch until no longer practical.

Kavian, you must bring your charge to the same standard.

Campaign season rolls down in rain and thunder and blood. The Efficate’s wizards try ingenious new defenses. Under Fereyd Japur’s guidance, Heurian breaks them. The Cteri win again and again and soon their defensive stand becomes a counterattack.

Kavian pursues her own method with stubborn, desperate resolve. Fereyd’s technique—an image to achieve, a goad to drive the abnarch to fear and terror, the promise of relief—is direct. Crude. She has a more elegant solution.

One symbol: the dark. The empty black of Irasht’s childhood. Bad.

And another—she should have chosen something else, something less fragile, less desperate, but Irasht responds more strongly to the promise of love than anything else—

A starry sky, like the sky that covered them when Kavian held her and kept her from the dark. The only goodness Irasht knows.

Some of the soldiers in Kavian’s retinue pool their talents to make Irasht a set of dolls. She plays with them in silence, and Kavian watches, wondering how much of a person is still left in her, and how much has withered away. How much waits, stunted, for some healing rain to fall.

The abnarch technique came from legends of ancient ascetic kings. Transcendent and serene, they locked themselves away, to forget the laws that chained them. They chose confinement.

What would Irasht choose, if given a choice? Does she know how to choose?

Kavian shakes her head and gets to her feet. The philosophy must wait. Irasht needs to be made ready. Until then, Fereyd Japur doesn’t even need to taunt her. His abnarch carries the nation’s hope while hers plays with toys.

She comes upon him in the night after a victory. It is too dark to see his face but through the smoke of a joyful camp she smells wine. “Kavian,” he rasps. “Kavian Hypocrite. Come. Sit with me.”

She crouches across from him. Makes no light to lift the shadows. “Have a care.” It comes out a threat, a purr.

“You are gentle to my daughter.” He raises something and she opens her mouth to defend herself, but, no, it is only a cup. “My traitor heart is grateful.”

“I will make her ready yet.”

His eyes flash white in the dark. “Mercy to a broken thing? Too late, Kavian. Years too late.”

“The war broke her.” That desperate mantra. “Not us.”

“Did Absu tell you that? No, no—it is our choice. The Paik Rede chooses to sacrifice its children. We choose to bury them.” A wet sound, like gathered spit, like a sob choked. “Is it not said—the mother has the child for nine months, and the father for nine years? They took that from me. They made my choice, and took Irasht.”

“Treason...” she whispers. But she cannot put any heat in it. Her honor hates to see a man so beautiful brought so low.

He rises unsteadily and she uncoils to match him. “You are the traitor. Your mercy to Irasht is the real treachery. She died when Absu put her in those cells. What came out was a weapon. And now you are too weak to use her—as if you could protect her in place of Heurian. Is that your secret, Kavian Catamount? Do you want a warm doll to hold in place of your daughter?”

“Absu?” Kavian lifts a hand to ward off sudden light. They are launching fireworks from the mountainside. “Absu was Irasht’s mother?”

Fereyd Japur lowers his face to her in the red glare. His skin looks kiln-fired. “She loved me.”

It makes sense. Fereyd Japur is common-born: powerful blood without the politics of a highborn father. No mind as apt as Absu’s could pass up the chance to make an abnarch weapon without another parent of good blood to fight the entombment.

Kavian cannot believe there was any love.

He must see the thought in her eyes. “She did,” he croaks. There are tears in him, but his rage and his pride and his obvious, agonizing need to be more than just a man hold them back. “She did. She did. You think I invented it? A tourniquet for a broken heart? Damn you. Damn you.”

Kavian watches him stumble away. It is pity she feels, old and strange.

The Efficate outflanks the Cteri counterattack and marches on the dams at Tan Afsh. Absu orders Fereyd Japur and Heurian to remain with the main thrust and sends Kavian and Irasht to save Tan Afsh.

Kavian is not ready. So much rides on Irasht, and Fereyd Japur’s words still ring in her: you are too weak to use her!

She wants to save isu-Cter. This is what she’s always fought for. Yet she can’t believe that the girl she holds and soothes in the night is only a weapon.

And she wants to believe, now, that what they have done to their daughters can somehow be undone.

But she pushes Irasht out onto the stone above the battle and shows her the sign for wrong alongside the stone-eyed owl banner of the Efficate. It is not Fereyd Japur’s method—an image that demands to be real. All she says to Irasht is: this is wrong, this army. The rest she leaves to the girl.

Irasht makes a raw noise deep in her throat, as if she is trying to vomit up everything that has ever hurt her. For one instant she burns so bright with will that Kavian cries out in pain.

In the valley beneath them, in the space of a single eyeblink, the Efficate army vanishes. Fifty-five thousand scoured from the sight of God. Even their bootprints.

There are no survivors. It is the most powerful exercise of magic in Cteri history.

After the battle Kavian casts aside all laws of language and isolation, holds Irasht, and whispers love until the girl stops clawing at her own skin. Irasht has learned a few words. She can say:

No more. No more. No more.

A little more, Kavian promises. I’ll protect you. Just fight a little more.

Irasht clings to her in silent need, and with a wizard’s ken Kavian knows she will not survive many more battles. Knows that she would prefer to erase herself and end the pain.

Word comes from the Cteri spearhead at Cadpur, Fereyd’s army, her daughter’s army: we have met the main body of the Efficate invasion force. There are more men than ants upon the earth. More wizards than stars in the sky. Qad-ai Vista leads them. Make haste to join us, Kavian.

And then an order from the warlord Absu:

We cannot risk both abnarchs in one day.

Fereyd Jaypur. Your weapon is battle-tested. You will defeat the enemy at Cadpur. Attack now.

By the time Kavian reaches the front, the battle’s already over. The Efficate army has withdrawn with extraordinary casualties. Fereyd Japur killed Qad-ai Vista’s elite cadre and nearly claimed the brother-general himself.

The price was small, as the reckoning goes.

Kavian’s daughter Heurian is dead.

She leaves Irasht with her dolls and a retinue guard and goes down into the sleeping camp, to find the man who lost her girl.

Fereyd’s tent has no guards. Kavian ties the privacy screen behind her, lace by lace. Everything inside is silk. Fereyd Second-Best travels like the highborn he never was.

“I prepared tea,” he says. The candles he has set out around him light him from below. Braided hair, proud chin, empty eyes. An iron chain ornament around his neck, another around his left wrist. Silver on his bare ankle.

She sits across from him on the cushions. The arrangement of the tea service is exact. He’s measured the angles with a courtier’s geometry pin.

She sets her hands before her knees, palms down. “My daughter.”

One tremor in his jaw. “I asked too much of her.”

“So,” she says, each word a soft considered point, like a blow, a kiss, “I had concluded.”

“She struck three times. Made their flesh into earth, and then air, and then water. Their wizards tried to kill her and I held them back. I was distracted. But after her third blow—” He sits with stiff formality and pauses, once, to breathe into his cupped hands. “It was too much. She had done so much and the world wasn’t better and she, ah, she had to go. She made herself into water along with all the soldiers she killed, and flowed into the earth. I tried to—I tore down a banner and I tried to—to sop her up—”

His mouth opens in rictus and he makes a terrible sound that cannot be a laugh, is not gentle enough to be a sob.

Kavian moves the tea set aside, piece by piece, and takes him in her arms.

“I killed your daughter,” he says into her shoulder. “I killed her.” He puts his hands against her shoulders and tries to force her away. “I killed her. I killed her.”

“Fereyd.” She will not let him go. “You can grieve. I will not mark you weak.”

“You will. You always do.” The plural you.

She takes his face between the palms of her hands and ohhhh her muscles have not forgotten how to twist, to snap, to hear the bone go and feel the last breath rush out. He killed Heurian. He killed—

She will not do it.

“You have every right to grieve,” she says, though some part of her resents each word. “You have given more than anyone. Today you did what you have always done. Paid too high a price.”

“It was your price too. She was your blood.”

She doesn’t answer that. Doesn’t know how.

“I loved her like my own,” he says, and lets himself begin to sob.

They speak a little. Mostly not. After a while, moved by the fey mood that comes after deep grief, by the closeness of him, by months of watching him on the march, Kavian takes his chin and kisses him.

“No,” he says, turning away. “No. Not you as well. Enough.”

“I don’t make prizes of men.” She regrets this even as she says it. It’s not the right assurance.

“You think it’s the only way I know how to speak.” He laughs with sudden snapping cold. “I win the greatest victory of our time. I lose your daughter—and mine, and mine—to buy our triumph.” A pause while he gathers himself. She respects it. “And here I am, in my own tent, still Fereyd Second-Best. Still the beauty.”

“Fereyd,” she whispers. “I’m sorry. I wanted distraction. It was wrong.”

He draws away to make a fiercely focused inspection of the tea ceremony, the cushions. “You highborn always forget this: when you break someone, they stay broken. You cannot ask a broken thing to right itself. You cannot ask that, and then laugh at it for falling.”

She’s found some strange kind of comfort here, holding him. So she says this, against her pride, as the only thanks she can manage:

“Now you have seen me broken too.”

“I haven’t.” The truth of pain is in his voice, beneath the grief. “Not yet.”

It hurts, but it is true. She never knew her daughter as he did.

She gets up to go but pauses by the screen, uncertain, and when she looks back she catches on the care of his makeup and the suggestion of his body beneath his garments. She hesitates. He speaks.

“Come back.” He says this like it’s ripped itself from him. “I want to help you. I want to be what you need.”

“Fereyd...” she says, warning him, warning herself.

“I want to be something for someone,” he says, eyes fierce: and she cannot deny him that.

What happens between them isn’t all grief. He’s been watching her too—he admits that, though not in words. Her pride likes this.

When she’s done with him he touches her shoulder and says:

“I will always do my duty, no matter how it hurts. But you—you are not yet so utterly bound.”

She touches his lips in gratitude. The pain is worse than ever. But it runs clear. It feels true.

Kavian leads the army through the Cadpur pass into Efficate land, and there on a plain of thin grass and red stone they meet Qad-ai Vista at the head of another numberless host.

This time the brother-general asks for parley.

She meets him in the empty space between the armies. Qad-ai is a tall man, ugly, weary, and he speaks accented Cteri in bald uncomplicated phrases. “We will not seize your water this year,” he says. “We ask truce. Next year, or the year after that, we will come again. This year we will go thirsty.”

She spits between his legs. “There. Water.”

“We will eat you.” There’s more sadness than anger in his voice. “You understand that, don’t you? You buy your proud centuries by visiting atrocity on your own children. You stand on a mountain of chains. Soon they will swallow you.”

She chews blood from her cheek and spits that on the sand too. “I’ll see you next year.”

He squints at her with pragmatic distaste. “Not too late to use the other girl. The one you still have left. Worth her life to kill us, isn’t it?”

She says to him what she cannot speak to her own: “She is worth more to me than this victory.”

What she does next is not her duty: not what Fereyd Japur could ever do. But it must be done. Not the easy rebellion of the sanctimonious, Kavian roaring home to say, give up the abnarchs, give up the war! Not that. Because that would be Kavian’s choice, Kavian’s anger, and Kavian is not the wounded woman here.

What she does she does for Irasht.

It has to happen now, while the hurt is fierce in her, while Irasht’s power still permits it—before she learns too many laws, like it will always hurt, like Kavian will never leave me.

But the journey home to isu-Cter nearly breaks her determination. The shining reservoirs and the waterfall-terraces glistening in summer gold. The lowborn turning out to cheer.

Kavian has spent two decades fighting for this nation, with her fists and voice and womb.

But when she reaches the summit, she revolts.

The Paik Rede turn out in force to stop her, once they realize her intent. “I am coming to give Irasht a choice,” Kavian tells them. “That is all I ask. A choice for all of them.”

“She cannot choose,” the Paik Rede answers, all of them together, and their speech roars like spring sluiceways.

So Kavian fights. She fights with all her art. She sings a song of rebellion, and at her call the air revolts against the wind, the stone rises up against the earth, she cries out as a hero with a cause and the brave world answers her so that she climbs the steps in a whirlwind of fire and black burnt stone that reaches up to the clouds.

“This is the way things go!” the sorcerers of the Paik Rede reply, and they are as the avalanche, as the river going to the sea. This is how things are. Inevitable.

The wrath of their confrontation breaks the monoliths that line the Summit Steps, and in the end Kavian finds herself at a screaming standstill.

“The abnarch!” she cries. “I will set the abnarch loose!”

They must believe her, for they retreat.

Kavian walks into the chamber of the ceremonial pool and the great stone doors to the catacombs, Irasht hopping at her heels, agitated and nervous, chattering in her high-pitched monotone.

At the catacomb doors the warlord Absu stands with Fereyd Japur at her side. “Kavian. Stop.”

Kavian crosses the floor, hobnailed boots hammering on stone and gem. Headed for Absu, and the doors, and the children in the dark.

She won’t stop.

“I know why you’re here.” Absu’s voice says: this is true. I do understand. I do. “These are our beloved children. They deserve better than darkness and suffering to buy another year of war. But we make this bargain every day, Kavian.”

Kavian arranges her wards. Beckons to Irasht—come, come. They circle the ceremonial pool. The herons watch them.

Absu takes a step forward. “The worker suffers in his labor. The lowborn die on the battlefront. But we give them laws and reservoirs, and we keep the Efficate back. That is the bargain: they suffer, so that we may rule. Does it sound callous, put that way?”

Kavian cannot check her tongue: “Not as callous as it looks written on those doors.” Silk is still beautiful. Silk is still necessary.

Fereyd Japur’s shoulders twitch at that. But Absu doesn’t stop. “If isu-Cter falls, the world loses its center. Chaos reigns. So I must take the awful bargains upon myself. I have been ruthless for you, Kavian. Will you turn your abnarch on me for that?”

Kavian does not have to answer. She was not born with a sister, but she has one. And she knows Absu understands:

This is not the Efficate, devoted to common fraternal good. In green isu-Cter, ruled by the blood and will of the highborn, one woman’s pain and wrath and love is argument enough.

Fereyd Japur steps forward. “Lord of hosts.” The pain in his eyes when he looks at Absu is the sharpest and most beautiful thing Kavian has ever seen. “This is Kavian Catamount, who gave her blood to the dark. We are bound to her by duty and gratitude. I beg you. Let her pass.”

Absu looks to him with slow regard. The shadow of the weight of a nation moves across her.

Kavian thinks she’s ready to battle her sister Absu to the death. It would be a contest of equals, a duel worthy of legend. The respect between them would permit it.

But she knows that Fereyd Japur would come to Absu’s defense. Or to hers.

She cannot bear to force that choice on him.

Perhaps Absu weighs her duty against the loyalties of her heart. Maybe she looks on Kavian and the abnarch behind her, Irasht her daughter, with eyes that have never mismeasured a war: and she decides she can’t win. Maybe she’s secretly glad that someone has come to do what she cannot ever permit herself.

Whatever the reason, Warlord Absu lowers her head and stands aside.

Kavian goes forward with Irasht to stand before the catacomb door. “It’s your choice,” she whispers, stroking the girl’s hair. “All the other Irashts are waiting down in the dark. And you could be their Kavian, if you let them out. Do you understand? You could let them out of the dark. Do you want to let them out?”

Irasht’s brow furrows. She doesn’t understand. Fereyd Japur watches in expressionless agony as Kavian struggles to make it clear. At last she resorts to signs: bad, the dark empty square, and good, the sky full of stars. And an image in the air, the doors opening, the children decanting from the celled dark to live hard lives of broken speech and brutal nightmare and, maybe, in the end, hope.

Is this good, Irasht? Do you wish you’d had this life instead? Can you wish you’d had this life instead?

Or would it have been better if we’d left you in the dark forever?

It’s an impossible question. No one could answer it. Do you wish you could have been some other way? Some way you’ve never known or even been taught how to know?

Kavian wants to beg: Please choose. Please be able to choose. You can leave them, if you must, or let them out, though we may all perish for it, if they awaken as abnarchs and turn on us.

Just show me you can choose.

Irasht reaches out to the little sign for good, the crowded sky, and then draws Kavian down to her. Kisses her brow. “Kavian,” she says, and strokes the stars, to put them with her name: “Kavian.”

Kavian is good.

“Please.” Kavian tries to aim the abnarch girl back towards the door. “Please decide. Do you want to let them out? Do you wish you’d been let out? You can choose. You can choose.” Behind her she can feel Fereyd Japur, watching, and Absu at his side, one hand on his shoulder, to quiet him or to give him strength.

But Irasht touches the stars again, as if they are all she can see, and then Kavian’s cheek, and then her own brow.

You are good. We are good.

No, Kavian wants to say. No, no, we are so far from that. We did this to you and so we are not good. But she came here to listen to Irasht’s choice. Not her own.

In the ceremonial pool a heron spears a fish.

They wait, Kavian and Fereyd Japur and the warlord Absu, for the child of the dark to make a judgment.

But she will not. Irasht cannot choose. She will stand here forever, hoping for Kavian’s command. Kavian thinks Absu knows this but won’t say it, out of mercy.

Irasht looks up at the door, patient, perched like a little bird. She looks up at the great doors and she waits.

Fereyd Japur said, you highborn always forget this: when you break someone, they stay broken. You cannot ask a broken thing to right itself. They put Irasht into a cell and starved her even of this choice. And Kavian shouldn’t say they, for Kavian did this, didn’t she, and now in her cowardice she wants this child to choose, and lift the guilt from herself. But the child cannot choose.

Irasht looks up at the door, patient. She waits.

“Kavian...” Fereyd Japur says, with the most rigid and agonized formality.

And then Kavian shouts in hope, because she remembers Irasht’s strange habit on the march. When Irasht finds a door she goes up to it, and waits patiently, hoping, Kavian imagines, that someone will invite her in.

“Irasht,” she whispers, kneeling, for Irasht is not a weapon but a person to be loved and taught, and if she cannot make the choice, let a mother give her guidance. “Do you see?”

She shows Irasht an image in the air, and it is only themselves, kneeling before the great door.

And then she turns the image, so that Irasht can see the other side. The children below, in the dark. And now Irasht is inside the door, and the children in the dark are the ones waiting for her to invite them in.

Irasht tilts her head.

“Ah,” she chirps. “Ah.”

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Seth Dickinson is the author of the novel The Traitor Baru Cormorant (Tor, 2015) and a lot of short stories, including in Clarkesworld, Strange Horizons, Lightspeed, and three previously in Beneath Ceaseless Skies. He studied racial bias in police shootings, wrote much of the lore for Bungie Studios' Destiny, and threw a paper airplane at the Vatican. He teaches at the Alpha Workshop for Young Writers. He can be found at sethdickinson.com.