By dawn, the house of Eyr Eth Lun had fallen. Dead soldiers and laser-cauterized pieces of soldiers littered the stairs and bridges into the palace. The sun rose slowly over the spires, flushing the sky pink and pale blue, gleaming off broken glass, bringing color to the gore. Anubises, wading into the midst of the detritus, carried the bodies away. The dead, victorious and defeated alike, all went to the crematorium together.
The metal gates into the house hung warped and melted on their hinges. The inside echoed, empty, threatening. The first to set foot on the foyer’s metal floor had been electrocuted.
Eyr Eth Lun and his liege, the fugitive prince Ben Tur Ibren, were long gone. Some of Karnon Nameless Dae’s followers hoped their quarry—Lun and Ibren—was hiding somewhere in the house, sure to be flushed out. Most knew better. Lun’s soldiers had fought with the desperate furor of those who knew themselves dead. They’d been fighting to buy their masters time to escape, not to save their own lives. They’d succeeded, and their ranks—brave, loyal, and dead—lay in unflinching testament to the cost of Lun’s contingency plan.
Eyre Isri Esthe sat on a metal chair in a metal closet barely big enough to fit her and the chair. She held the keycards to her house in her hands, running them through her fingers idly. Their transparent and gently glowing edges provided the only light.
Beneath her chair she’d stashed the last gift her husband, Eyr Eth Lun, had ever given her—a vial of poison.
She knew that no one would find this closet. She had scryed it. She could stay here until she died. The scent of her rotting corpse would be the finger that beckoned the partisans of Karnon Dae, who had overrun her house, to her hiding place.
She had seen that this place was safe. She had not seen that she would be abandoned here in the end. Perhaps she should have looked deeper.
She had feared scrying her husband’s defeat, capture, or death. Scrying was a dangerous art. Seeing a future would make it happen. In many cases, it was better not to look.
Long ago, she had seen the acid that would burn her face and change her life. The acid sent Lun from her bed, caused him to father his heirs on concubines.
Eyre Isri Esthe was an aristo from an ancient and honorable family. She did not flinch from fate. She could have run and had the acid find her out in fear. The burn would have happened anyway, as the result of her attempt to evade it. Instead, she made the best of things. Acid and fire were the best tools for scrying, better than water and silver, better than blood and wood. She became the greatest scryer of her generation. She could give Lun that, even if he would be robbed of her beauty. She could give herself that, a sure antidote to the pity of others.
When the acid found her, it found her brave. But she always wondered in her secret heart whether it would have spilled at all if she had not spent so many years braced for its burn.
After that, she had focused her scrying on others. She used it for Lun. She brought him great power. He never divorced her, never considered it. He valued her as a wife—her brilliance, her power, her insight, her peerless family—long after he ceased to value her as a woman, repelled by the scars.
She had hidden Lun’s prince from Karnon Dae’s strange black scrying for three years. When at last he was discovered, she had misdirected Dae’s nameless powers for long enough to secure an escape.
Then came the false identity cards, with all their faces. Lun’s face. The prince’s face, the concubines’ faces. Lun’s sons’ faces, the bodyguards’. Even his valet’s.
Lun—her Eth whom she had loved so fiercely once—told her that he’d left her card with her scrying things, packed away in this hidden room. She had gone to find it and found the vial instead.
She had never imagined that Lun lacked the courage—lacked the respect—to tell her the truth. She had never imagined that she—the greatest scryer of her generation—could be lied to and tricked by her own husband. It was so… common. So despicable.
Worse, he could not have lied to her if she had not lied to herself.
It should have been obvious—no false name on an identity card could hide her scars, the infamous scars of Eyr Eth Lun’s reclusive and witchlike wife. Security would have arrested her on sight, no matter what her identity card said.
Consciously or not, he had not wanted to save her. He had not wanted to see her scarred face, carefully schooled to hide any traces of jealousy, beside his beautiful concubine Jane Lin Elle’s. Lun had even less tolerance for guilt than he did for ugliness.
He didn’t want her spilling his secrets at the last, either. Lun knew she was highborn, aristo by blood and breeding, to her bones. To be tortured to death by Karnon Dae, to scream and spurt and squeal her secrets at the end, was beneath her. Suicide was dignified by comparison. Lun trusted her to clean up this last mess for him, like so much detritus burdening his flight, even though the mess was herself.
She was not detritus. She would not passively hand herself over to the anubises. Even if she could not save herself, she could avenge herself.
The greatest danger a scryer faced was to scry her own death. It was the one utterly forbidden vision. Esthe had killed Dae’s lone scryer by tricking her into seeing herself topple dead from her scrying chair. Now that Esthe knew she herself was certain to die, by her own hand or by Dae’s, she could skim closer to that risk.
She had no acid and no knife, but she had a little light from the keycards. She bit her tongue hard and spat blood into her hand. Within it she saw, not for the first time, that Karnon Nameless Dae was not a human man. He was neininki; alien. Like all neininki, a lie would cost him his life. Having promised to kill all who sheltered the prince, he would never spare her life. She saw that it was too late to escape him.
She also saw that she would not die in this closet.
By midmorning, the technicians had disarmed the worst of the traps in the central part of the palace, the foyer and the main hall. Their troops had filled it, and the head technician was briefing Karnon Dae on the traps that awaited them in the rest of the house.
In the midst of all the chaos, Karnon Dae stilled and turned his head. He held up a hand to quiet the technician.
Silence spread outward through the people in the hall.
Esthe emerged from a door hidden in the wall. Both her hands showed, but one of them was full of keycards. She walked slowly and purposefully toward Karnon Dae.
A gesture from Dae made the security hang back.
When she reached Dae, she knelt, spreading the key cards on the ground before her. Then she looked up and let her hood fall back. In the surrounding company, a gasp sounded and was stifled.
Esthe’s shaven head marked her as an aristo, and the scars disfiguring the right side of her face left no doubt as to her identity. These people who gawped at her had never dreamed of seeing her at all, let alone seeing her kneel on the floor.
All was silent, and then she spoke.
“Karnon Dae, I know that you never lie,” she said, her voice clear and strong. “And you have said that you will kill all who shelter and aid Ben Tur Ibren. At the request of my husband, I have sheltered and aided Prince Ibren. I know that by your word my life is forfeit.
“My husband has broken his word to me. He has fled with Ibren. He left me here, knowing that you would break in and kill me.
“I do not ask that you spare my life. My death sentence has already been issued. Because you keep your word, it is final. You have not said when it should be carried out, however. I ask only that you delay my death. As long as I remain alive, I will serve and aid you however you desire, save that I will not harm my family—by which I do not mean my husband, but the family of my birth: my parents and my siblings, cousins, nephews and nieces. In all other respects, I will do whatever you will. Further, here are the keys to my house. They will open all the doors without harm to you or your servants.”
Karnon was silent, considering.
Everyone else simply stared. People had whispered about her for years. Much had been made of her scars—how horrible and monstrous they were, beyond the ken of medics to fix. They distracted the eye, shiny runnels spreading down the front and right side of her face.
Aside from the scars, she was not bad-looking. In her thirties, tall, slender. Eyr Eth Lun was a connoisseur of women, and he’d married her for more than her family connections.
She knew that Karnon Dae would know her offer was genuine. Neininki always knew lies when they heard them. They were jealous of humans’ ability to lie, and Karnon Nameless Dae would have her screaming on the floor if she were telling one. Knowing she was truthful did not mean Dae would accept her offer, though. The safer move would be to kill her straight off.
“Your family members are numerous and powerful,” Karnon Dae said. “Can you bring them to my side?”
There was a pause.
“No,” she said at last. “Not if you intend to replace the aristos as rulers of the world. I can help you accomplish that goal—my family’s political standing means nothing to me—but I cannot persuade them to change sides.”
Dae paused, contemplative. Esthe’s value as an ally was compromised by her inability to recruit—and unwillingness to harm—her family.
“Your offer stands no matter how short a time I let you live?” he asked at last.
“While I live, I am your servant,” she said.
“Then change into drudge’s gray and scrub the blood off the stairs in front of your home.”
There was a beat of complete silence.
“I appreciate the gift of your keys,” Dae said, and his face was almost gentle. “If you wish to rescind your offer now, I will kill you swiftly and painlessly.”
“No,” she said, rising. “I know where to find drudge’s grays.”
Partisans and supplicants who approached Lun’s home that day were sometimes shocked, sometimes horrified, and often awed to see Eyre Isri Esthe, the erstwhile lady of the house, scrubbing the blood of her husband’s soldiers off the stairs. A defeat of sorts—Karnon Dae had taken the house but lost his quarry—turned to a display of power.
Esthe ignored their reactions. It took her a long time to finish her task. A lot of blood had washed over the white stairs, and she was not practiced in handling a scrub brush. Still, she attacked the job with perfectionist determination. Drudge’s grays had no hoods, but she did not deign to show any shame at having her scars stared at by so many.
As the light slanted from the west and dimmed to golden, the stairs gleamed. She gave herself this—she got them as clean as they had been when she had ruled the house, the day before.
Finally she set the brush down into the pail, her slender arms quivering with exhaustion. She felt eyes on her, but she did not return the gazes. Even in drudge’s gray, crouched on the stairs, she had dignity.
She turned and realized that Karnon Dae was there. All day, he had conducted business without pause, apparently unmindful of his new aristo drudge. Yet now he arrived just as she finished her task.
He looked down at her with eyes blacker than human pupils. Whites showed around his irises, but she knew the whites were just for show, not real sclera like humans possessed.
She did not rise but bowed her head, the correct manner of a drudge toward an aristo.
It was a strangely easy gesture for her to make. Karnon Dae wore his hair barbarously long like a prisoner, rather than shaved like an aristo. He had not been born of any aristo house, if indeed he had been born at all. As a neininki, even his corporeality was a mere technicality. But meeting him in the flesh—even if it only looked like flesh—she thought there had never been a more natural aristo than Karnon Dae.
It was the stage of the afternoon when shadows lay dark on the earth but the sky was still full of light, selectively illuminating open patches in gold. One beam hit the black-clad Karnon Dae, turning his gold hair to a coronet finer than any owned by Ben Tur Ibren.
“If I kill you now,” he said, his voice soft, “I will have given you no less than what you asked for.”
She said nothing, keeping her eyes still cast downward. Servants did not answer back when their masters made statements. She was aristo enough, still, to know how to play her role.
“Do you disagree?” Karnon asked her.
“No, Karnon Dae,” she said. “You have delayed my death by several hours, and I have served you. Delay it further, and I will serve you further.”
He placed his hand lightly on her bare head.
“Will you accept death from me?” Karnon Dae asked.
She was silent a moment. Her spirit silently railed against quiet death, as it had that morning; screamed against dying a drudge. But better a drudge treated honestly, whose tale would curdle her husband’s spirit when he heard it, than a wife cast aside with lies.
“I would prefer that you delay it longer,” she said at last. “But… it is a better death than I faced this morning.”
She looked up at him then, meeting his eyes like the aristo she was.
“Please remember that, Eyre Isri Esthe,” Karnon Dae said, taking his hand off her head and holding it out to her. “Because I always keep my word, and I have promised that you will die. But you will not die today.”
She took his hand. The strength and warmth of his grip surprised her. He helped her rise to her feet.
“Take off those grays,” he said. “You have convinced me of your resolve. There are others here who can scrub stairs.”
He bent and kissed her hand. He was gone again before she could react. It was the first time anyone had kissed her—almost the first time anyone had touched her—since the acid.
A moon later, Esthe stood in her lab, its metal surfaces covered in gas jets spurting blue and yellow fire and bowls brimming with acid.
In flame and glass-bound acid, she saw the future.
She saw Medea Station, the private rail station of her cousin Kal Ven Othek. Long strips of clear glass rounded in the corners and soldered between iron and steel supports filled the ceiling in symmetrical and streamlined patters. Through them beams of light shone down from the white sky to paint patterns on the floor. Aerodynamic train cars pinioned between cables whooshed in and out with a minimum of noise but a great deal of air. Drudges carried crates on and off, their shoulder-length hair tied back against the blowing air. The platform, raised high on pillars amid the tower peaks of Othek’s House, was cold and the wind biting. Fur-lined vests and muffs were everywhere among the people crowding on and off.
Beneath the platform, Esthe saw a series of small storage rooms. In one, a portable iron stove warmed the air and a number of people rested on furs, cloaks, and blankets that had been draped across some crates to keep them off the cold floor. Ben Tur Ibren lounged on one, fiddling with the settings on some expensive gadget. Her husband Lun lay across another, his head in the beautiful Jane Lin Elle’s lap. Elle’s slender hands stroked his head. He looked relaxed.
They were among friends. When footsteps sounded outside the door, no one tensed. Ubn and Dern, their bodyguards, moved between the prince and the door, but nothing else changed. Elle’s hand continued its rhythmic stroking of Lun’s head.
The lock to the door sprang, but the bar was still in place.
“Let me in!” Othek’s voice, brusque and rough.
Ubn lifted the bar, one hand on his laser, and pulled open the door.
Othek stomped in. He looked unhappy. He addressed Lun.
“The most powerful scryer of our generation, and you left her behind for Dae’s people to find? Alive?” His voice was quiet, but he trembled with the effort of holding his temper in check.
“Esthe is still alive?” Ibren said.
“She couldn’t escape with us,” Lun said. “I left her another way out. Of all people, I thought Esthe would be strong enough to take it.”
Anger bubbled up, but Esthe forced it down, breathing deeply, not wanting to destroy her cousin Othek along with her husband. Lun felt what Lun felt. Lun thought what Lun thought. He would learn better eventually.
“Why hasn’t Dae killed her?” Lun said. “He said he would kill all of us—and he’s neininki.”
“He said he will kill her,” Othek said. “But he didn’t say when. Our enemy isn’t stupid enough to throw away the generation’s most powerful scryer. I wish I could say the same for my allies.”
“Watch your tone, Othek,” Ibren said. “Like Lun told you, we couldn’t take her with us.”
“I apologize, my prince,” Othek said. “But you should know that now Karnon Dae has a scryer again.” He was furious but holding it back in front of the prince.
“Esthe is aristo,” Ibren said. “She would not have betrayed us unless he broke her mind, and a broken mind cannot scry. He is trying to trick us into thinking he has a scryer. She is a shell, no more. It’s a tragedy, but not a threat.”
Ibren spoke with a thoughtless assurance bred into him by years of people agreeing with everything he said. Esthe remembered his confidence well. It amused her to hear it now.
“We have another problem in that case, my prince,” Othek said. “Because the scryers I have in my household both say that Esthe is scrying for Dae. I have found a third, illicitly trained, who says the same thing. So if Esthe cannot scry, neither can our own scryers.”
Othek was being diplomatic to avoid contradicting the prince. They all knew that if three separate scryers said Esthe was scrying for Karnon Dae, then she was.
“But—but why would she?” Lun said. “She’s an aristo! It was her scrying that told us that Dae intended to get rid the aristos, that unified the aristos against him. Why would she undo all that if he hasn’t broken her mind?”
“I think you’ve forgotten that in addition to being an aristo, Esthe is a woman,” Othek said. “And the scryers tell me that Dae—”
The vision tore, the image of the men beneath Medea Station replaced by a vision of the rail station itself once more. It appeared empty, save for three scryers in the station standing with their backs to the empty rails, all facing her.
She recognized Xue Dan Ayne, the daughter of a dead aristo named Vul, and Kosh La Vier, a consumptive aristo by-blow who Othek employed as a scryer. The third was a man who wore his hair half-shaved and half-long, the style of an anubis. She saw why Othek had said he was illicitly trained—to train one of such a bloodline was forbidden. Othek had stretched to find three to oppose her, three to force her into seeing themselves rather than the visions she sought.
“We have seen your death, Eyre Isri Esthe,” Ayne said.
“You think you are prepared for death, but you will not be prepared for this one.” This from the anubis.
“When every living member of your family is dead, he will abandon you as your husband abandoned you. He will choose a path you cannot follow,” Vier said.
“But he will not leave you the choice Eyr Eth Lun left you. He will use you and kill you.” Ayne spoke again, taking her turn.
“He will kill you.”
“He will kill you.”
“Show me, then!” Esthe said. “If it’s true, then prove it.”
The vision of the rail station dissolved again, this time for good, leaving her staring into the naked blue flame of her burner.
She knew why they did not show her own death. They lacked the power to make her scry it.
But that didn’t mean they were lying. It would be difficult to check without accidentally viewing the underlying truth—her death. She was cornered.
She wrestled with the temptation to see her death. To see if she would be betrayed once more. But how could she be betrayed again? Karnon Dae had promised her nothing—absolutely nothing—except death. And that was all Othek’s scryers promised as well. What was she going to do, live?
All she wanted from Karnon Dae, he had already sworn to do—defeat her husband’s prince and kill her husband. And Karnon Dae could not break his promises without breaking himself.
She sat and thought and then scryed out Karnon Nameless Dae. She looked for him alone, so there would be no risk of seeing herself die in the vision.
He was sitting at his desk in her house, looking at a map of rail lines and roads and rivers and skyways. The maps were translucent, set to the same scale and layered one atop the other. Their edges were lit, and together they illuminated all the means at his disposal to move armies.
He looked up and, impossible as it was for one who himself was not scrying, met her gaze.
“Esthe,” he said, after a moment. “I always know when I am watched. I am two floors above you and five minutes ahead. Come and see me.”
Esthe gasped, and the vision broke.
She sat and waited five minutes before she got up to go see him. She did not want to arrive early and tell him that she would be watching. That would create a dull explanation for his prescience. If he really could tell, every time, who was watching and where they were watching and when they were watching—it would be wondrous. Wondrous the way little had been, ever since her infant scryer powers spelled a vision of bubbling skin and a barren womb.
It took her another minute to reach his office. He was waiting for her. He had set aside the maps and poured two glasses of flavorless distilled liquor. Hers sat, clear and harmless-looking as water, on the edge of his desk.
“Esthe,” he said, “why are you scrying me and not my enemies?”
She felt a frisson of fear. It gave her a certain grim pleasure to ignore it. She was well-practiced at conquering fear.
“Lately, whenever I scry out your enemies, I see only my family members, no one else,” she said. “The remaining scryers all unify against me, luring me to forbidden visions. It may be that I cannot serve you any longer and must die.”
She would be damned, as well as dead, if a scryer—especially a mere anubis—could scry her a death for which she was not prepared. She wanted to live to be a widow. She wanted to live to see Lun regret abandoning her. But even if she did not see it, she was sure it would happen. That was enough.
“Othek, your cousin, is the one who has unified the scryers against you, isn’t he?” Dae asked. “I know that he is hiding your husband and the prince now.”
She said nothing. Perhaps Dae would become angry and torture her. Perhaps that was the death for which she was not prepared.
She let her fingers rest on her shot glass of liquor, but she did not let herself drink it yet.
“You still won’t tell me what you scry about Othek, even though he is working against you?” Dae said. “You helping me will ultimately lead to his death anyway, you realize.”
“I will serve you in any way, except against my family,” she said. “If I am useless to you now, I will accept my sentence.”
Karnon Dae smiled and lifted his glass.
“Drink your drink,” he said, drinking his own.
She tossed hers back. It tasted like water in her mouth but burned like fire going down. It had been a long time since she had drunk liquor.
It crossed her mind that there would be a certain poetry to killing her with the very poison her husband had left behind. But, ruthless as he was, Karnon Dae was not sadistic. There was no suspicious aftertaste, no pain driving her to her knees.
“The reason why you only see your family,” Dae said, pouring them a second round, “is because you have helped me kill all my other enemies—those on this world, anyway. There aren’t any left, except the ones who are hiding with your excessively numerous relations.”
He drank his second shot.
“The fact that your relatives linger in your visions suggests that you keep your word not to harm them,” he said, putting the glass down. “Your refusal to betray them is why they will no doubt continue to pester me for some time.”
He poured himself a third shot. She eyed her second one dubiously, knowing it was powerful stuff. He was a neininki. He could taste the liquor—could probably taste nuances humans missed—but it would not make him drunk.
“For sheltering Prince Ibren, Kal Ven Othek is a dead man,” Dae continued. “If you keep scrying after Lun, you’ll see Othek dead. You need not—Othek’s death will happen with or without you.”
Esthe took her second shot. A memory gripped her—a youthful vision she had dismissed as incompetence or a dream—of herself drinking in a room with an alien idol, golden and black. She had not known then what neininki were.
“Othek’s daughter Kale Liri Lisle is going to marry Ibren,” Dae said. “My former scryer saw it. She will swear to be Ibren’s until death parts them. Her name will change to Bene Liri Lisle.”
Esthe took a third shot he poured, and she felt it hit warmer than the others. She was drunk. She could not scry drunk. The servants had never carried liquor to her side of the table, not since she was nineteen.
“My former scryer,” Dae said, “died of an aneurysm—bleeding in her brain. My followers assure me that you scryed it. The question is, did you murder her or merely witness her death?”
“I wanted to see her die,” Esthe said. Such a strange experience, being drunk. It made her more aware of his beauty—painfully aware. He had no body—wept no tears, bled no blood, spilled no seed—but that hardly mattered when she could see a body, hear a voice, want a man, even if he wasn’t really a man. “I wanted to make her see herself die. I knew scrying for it might make it happen. I am not innocent.”
“Your morality is not exactly my concern,” he said. “Not being a moral creature myself.”
Some said neininki were demons, forced to honesty by the gods.
“Tell me,” he said, pouring her a fourth shot, “do you believe a scryer has power over what occurs? Is the future the future whether you look or not? Does scrying merely reveal things, or does it make them happen?”
“My teacher told me that it changed things,” Esthe said. “But he wanted scryers seen as powerful. Without the ability to change things, we are impotent—omens and harbingers, fearful only in terms of what we represent, not in ourselves.”
“What do you think?”
She shrugged. Her fingers wrapped around the glass. She was a little frightened of what she might reveal if that fourth shot began to course through her blood.
“It’s a philosophical question,” she said. “Like most philosophical questions, it is what it is whether I agree or disagree. But I err on the side of believing that I can change things. I proceed cautiously.”
“And how does one proceed cautiously when viewing the future?”
“I don’t scry when I am frightened, for fear of seeing my fears come to pass. I don’t scry when I am angry, less my anger bring blood and ruin on the future. I don’t scry when my mind is muddled—the reasons are obvious.” She took the fourth shot. It spread through her like warmth. “Most of all, I don’t scry when I am in the midst of a run of misfortune, because the taint of my misfortune will spread to everything I touch.”
“Yet your scrying redoubled after you were scarred,” he said. He stood up, and his golden fingers brushed her face. She held herself still by an effort of will, but she wanted to flinch. It hurt her to have something so beautiful as his fingers touch something so ugly as her scars.
“It was a relief,” she said. A moment later, she was surprised to have been so honest with him. “I knew it was coming. I have always been afraid that I made it happen—though it might have happened anyway. Fate could be fate and scrying just a lens that catches its forward reflections. But every night my husband and I spent together, I worried would be the last night. I felt responsible for destroying our happiness. When at last I was burned, I was ready for it. I’d already mourned my beauty—I mourned it before it was gone.”
“Isri,” he said, using her middle name, the intimate one, running his fingers down her face again, “it isn’t gone.”
Her breath caught, and she had to put her hand on the table to steady herself.
“If you must step away from the acid and the flames for a while, so be it,” he said. He poured her a fifth shot. “Drink liquor, let your mind wander, fall asleep without worrying your dreams will turn real. Possibly, you only see what will be, regardless. It’s useful for spying, for anticipating enemy action, but it isn’t vital for my plans. If you can influence the future you see, well, I can wait until this war is over to have a full range of scrying powers at my disposal.”
She did not drink the fifth shot. Instead she wrapped her hand around the glass and met his eyes, those black voids in his angelic face.
“I thought you weren’t going to send me back to scrubbing stairs,” she said. “Is this just some last night with… liquor and talking?”
He smiled again, his white teeth dazzling. “I am not known for such mercies,” he said.
He came close, his scent as golden and strange as his face. He was a freak of beauty, deadlier than scrying and more seductive.
“There are things you can do for me, besides scrying,” he whispered, and his breath—false breath, for what neininki needed to breathe?—brushed warm against her skin. There was no hint of liquor on it. It had all burned away in the void where his soul should be.
Her mind veered away in disbelief as he kissed her. His gold lips seared her like fire shooting to her core.
He pulled back and looked at her. His eyes were all black, the whites vanished. His smile was devilish.
“You doubt me, Isri, but I never lie. And you are beautiful.”
He took her face in both hands—she felt his touch burn through scars and skin—and pulled her in for another kiss, deeper, hotter.
When he released her, she touched her scars herself. Then she touched his flawless face, and pulled him close for a kiss of her own.
“Now,” he said, breaking the kiss to let her breathe, “take off your robes.”
She woke in the night, hearing Ayne say, “He will use you and kill you.”
The bed was warm—not her bed. Lun’s bed, the nicest bed in the house. Karnon Dae lay stretched out beside her, awake. Neininki did not sleep.
He rolled toward her in the dark. She could feel his eyes on her. He was waiting for her to speak.
“They—the other scryers—have been trying to trick me into scrying out my own death,” she said.
The heat of him was reassuring and disconcerting, both at once. He wrapped himself around her, spooning her body in his own, and leaned in close. In a voice so quiet she could barely hear it, even with his lips against her ear, he whispered, “They’re watching us now.”
For an instant, only an instant, she stiffened. Then, as his hands moved over her body, she realized what he wanted. What he wanted his enemies to see.
She wanted them to see it, too. She wanted Lun to see it. And, with a stab of triumph, she realized that Othek had been on the verge of telling him when Othek’s scryers had ripped the vision away.
Let this be what terrified them. She would enjoy it—in more senses than one. Karnon Dae was an amazing lover. He was far better than even her husband had been, and Lun’s skill had been famous among the concubines and courtesans. But then, Lun was thirty-five. Dae, as a neininki, could easily be ten times as old. Older. He’d had ten times as many women, and not just aristo courtesans, to teach him their secrets.
And he wanted Esthe.
He turned the lights up, made them blaze. Over the course of their lovemaking, he ripped the bedsheets off the bed and knocked the maps off Lun’s old desk. He put her on glorious display, every side of her, every part, and never had she felt so beautiful. She screamed and gasped her way through seven or eight orgasms before they collapsed, her panting for breath, on the bed.
She shivered a bit from the sweat cooling on her body and post-orgasmic weakness. Laughing, he wrapped her in one of his own robes.
“They’ve stopped watching,” he said, an enormous grin humanizing his face. “The young male watched the longest. Unsurprisingly.”
“The anubis,” Esthe said, making an expression of distaste. “I don’t know his name.”
Then she gave in and laughed, too.
“It must take them a while to get the courage to tell,” she said. “Because they were in the past when they saw that, and… well, as of the last time I scryed, someone was only just getting around to telling the prince and my husband, and that was still to come. Don’t know how far in the future it was—we can’t judge time gaps precisely.”
“They were about a day and a half behind us,” Dae said. “But I don’t know how long until your vision will come true. I know nothing of the future.”
She felt some of her joy slip away, her enemies’ warnings sneaking in.
“You know how I will die,” she said. “Because it is up to you.”
He ran his hand along her skin, scarred and smooth. “I don’t know how you will die, not yet,” he said, his voice quiet. “You could change your mind. You could betray me. You don’t want to, but you still love Lun.”
She opened her mouth to deny it. Then wisely she silenced herself. Neininki did not tolerate lies.
Esthe risked scrying again. She knew her former teacher would say she should not, not with the three hunting for her, not when she was in the grips of a run of fortune she could not understand.
Karnon Nameless Dae—or Neininki Karnon Dae, as she privately thought of him, calling him Karnon in the depths of the night—made love to her once or twice a day. The servants and drudges treated her not with fear and well-hidden reluctance, as they once had, but with genuine deference.
She was reclusive no longer. She did not lurk within her lab. She did not hide her face behind hoods. Dae adorned her with rare gems, draped them over her face and body until she forgot that face or body had ever looked different than they did today. Scars meant nothing to him. He told her that he wanted her, and he never lied.
He did not love her and did not pretend to. It made her feel safe—she had nothing to lose, no seemingly substantial feeling that would dissolve to nothing tomorrow.
She did not have to scry. Not a mere concubine, she had a voice among Dae’s advisors, a use for her unmystical aristo education. Dae was satisfied. But her sorcerous skills would atrophy if she stopped using them. And, feeling his mouth move up and down both sides of her body indiscriminately, the only significant fear her life had held—the fear of the coming acid—seemed irrational to her. Watching Dae and herself having sex in the mirror of Lun’s old wardrobe room, she swore off all forms of fear. She decided to scry again.
Risk meant nothing when she was dead anyway.
The three had watched for such a moment. They had prepared well. Instead of the vision she sought—a vision of the next time Ibren felt himself to be alone—another vision enveloped her.
There was her mother’s dressing room, the chairs burned by lasers, a miasma of perfume and blood thick in the air. There was a faceless body—her father’s, by its rings—clutching a gun its slack hand. Next was her brother and his bride, older than when she had seen them last, kneeling in chains.
Next was Othek, his bearded face defiant. He knelt chained before Dae, both of them on a podium before a mob. Esthe could not make out the screams and cries of the masses, but she knew they wanted blood.
It was an old practice, meting out public and bloody deaths for non-aristo offenders. In darker ages, the aristos had personally slit the throats of drudges who had killed aristos, demanding life for life. They had allowed the blood to fly out over the witnesses. Once more enlightened eras arose, they eliminated the practice in favor of more hygienic killings.
Public throat-slitting was exactly the kind of practice that would strike her godlike lover as fitting to resurrect. This time for execution of aristos.
Esthe did not want to see this. She liked Othek. She knew he liked her. Even learning she had betrayed the aristos, he had blamed Lun. He wanted her dead, yes, but that was because he respected her abilities.
He warranted better than to be killed for the gratification of a mass of drudges.
She struggled to break away from the vision and could not. The three would make her watch this. They would force her to push the vision one way or the other. If she helped Othek, she would betray Karnon Dae. If she did not, she would betray her family, the only people who had ever loved her, the only people—besides Lun—whom she had ever loved.
“When every living member of your family is dead,” Vier whispered, and Dae’s men forced Othek’s head back. At least, she noticed, his scalp was shaved. They had not made him grow his hair out in prison. But if they had, she realized, the mob would not know to mark him as aristo.
The knife came up.
“Your scryers are watching,” Karnon Dae said to Othek with a bloody, bright smile. “Did they warn you?”
She felt the three scryers flinch, shocked.
The knife came down, the sun glinting off the blade in a flash of light. Hot blood splashed out over the crowd.
In that instant—while the other three reeled, horrified to find that in watching Karnon Dae, he was watching them back—Esthe took control of the vision.
She targeted Vier, the consumptive, who she could sense was the brainchild behind the plan to show her loved ones’ destruction.
Scrying showed more than the eyes saw. Vier’s lungs were hidden from light, but Esthe could see them even in darkness. The tuberculosis had eaten pockets into his lung tissue, soupy tumors that his body had walled off. His breath hissed in and out of the fraction of his lungs that was still viable.
It began to hiss in and out faster, as future-Vier began to hyperventilate.
Esthe felt a sick and fascinated excitement as the vision gave her an understanding of anatomy such as only medics and anubises had. Part of scrying, an addictive part, was knowing the meaning behind things she watched.
There, right beside the toxic tubercular pocket in his left-hand lung, was a huge pulmonary artery, pulsing with blood straight from the heart. As future-Vier panicked, the pressure in the pulmonary artery grew. And there—quite suddenly—the pocket broke through the artery wall.
Blood flooded everything, forcing its way through the thin barrier that separated sick and healthy tissue, filling Vier’s lungs with fluid. Each beat of his heart sent more blood spurting into his alveoli, drowning him. He gasped and choked and spluttered, until at last his heart stopped pumping blood into his lungs, because his heart… stopped pumping altogether.
Vier, whom she had forced to watch with her, now began to hyperventilate.
The vision broke.
Esthe rose from her laboratory seat. Stiffened muscles screamed and joints popped as she shook herself loose of the clinging remnants of the vision. She emptied the beaker of acid carefully into the proper receptacle.
She needed to tell Dae one of the enemy scryers was dead.
“A consumptive is an easy kill,” she said. “The anubis will be the hardest, because he is numb to the fear of death.”
“Focus your efforts on Ayne,” Karnon Dae said. “Hold off on the anubis.”
She did as he said and did not ask why. But she wondered.
She wondered until the day she saw a vision of Ayne in the flickering light of a flame shining through a beaker of acid. She saw Ayne’s face flush purple and her eyes bulge as the anubis pulled a garrote tight.
No longer was Esthe Karnon Dae’s only scryer. He had recruited the anubis—or would soon.
She went to find Dae in his command center. He stood by a map he’d had built, a three-dimensional glass cube with subways and airways and tunnels, hills and lakes and domes all present. He could slide colored lights through the glass to symbolize the movement of soldiers, trains, carriers, and tanks.
She knew he could sense her distress. He did not need to be a neininki to do it—tension radiated from her spine to her fingers, curled into fists. His eyes stayed on his map, however.
“An anubis should not be scrying,” she said.
“I’m destroying your caste system.” His voice was cool. “Hadn’t you noticed?”
She forced her hands open, forced them into a more relaxed shape. Her voice did not—could not—follow suit. “Do you want the future to be steeped in death? Because that is how an anubis will scry it.”
He looked at her, and his black eyes were flat and unamused.
“Your prejudices strain my patience,” he said. He turned back to his map. He made a minute adjustment in the position of a light. “You may go.”
She left. Left before she could fling out foolish accusations. Left before she could smash his map on the floor and scream like an airsailor.
A courier brought Esthe the news that Dae’s troops had captured Lun.
Esthe was in her lab. The overhead lights were dark. All around her bowls of fire burned. She had turned off the gas jets and surrounded herself with containers of different fuels, each one burning in its own particular color, most in shades of yellow and gold and red but one violet and one, under a venting hood, a noxious green.
Facing the courier, Esthe took one last glimpse through the glass bubble of acid she held in her hand. Then she placed it with careful precision into its stand.
She had not been able to find Ibren in her visions. Having seen Ayne’s death, Esthe could not scry her a sooner one, and meanwhile Ayne had discovered and revealed Esthe’s self-imposed limitation concerning her family members. Ibren now stayed close to Esthe’s family on purpose. His marriage to Lisle, her cousin once-removed, had been performed. They sheltered with still more of Esthe’s family—Esthe hoped not her brother. She had not scryed his destruction, and she held onto hope that he would live.
Vier’s words, that she would not die until all the living members of her family were dead, haunted her.
The courier said that Dae was with the prisoner.
Esthe kept her face immobile—a task the scars made easier—and asked the courier one question.
Dae did not have Ibren, the courier told her. Only Lun.
She wondered if Vier had included Lun as a member of her family when he said they would all die before she did. She had not included Lun in her prohibition to Dae.
Why was it she could see Othek and her parents dead but not her husband?
Karnon Dae’s mandatory truthfulness bound him to kill Lun, as it bound him to kill her. But Karnon Dae could fit a great deal of leniency into a death sentence, as she had every reason to know.
If Esthe betrayed him, he would give her a terrible death. But he might give her a terrible death even if she stayed loyal.
Lun would never betray Ibren. But if he would—just if—what deal might Karnon Dae be willing to strike with him?
She had made Lun a cuckold before the eyes of the world, a laughingstock to the very allies for whom he had sacrificed so much. Karnon Dae could offer him revenge.
Esthe dismissed the courier. Then she took out the keys to her house—copies of them, at any rate—and rose from her chair. She put out the fires and turned on the lights.
She retrieved two specific vials.
One was acid, the same kind of acid that had burned her. That acid worked best for her scrying.
The other was Lun’s parting gift.
She put the vials into the pockets of her red dress. The dress was new, cut wide at the neckline to show her collarbone.
She locked her lab behind her and strode down into the metal bowels of her house.
The clytemn wing in the lowest basements held the secure rooms, rooms where treasures and prisoners were kept. She strode the dark halls without fear, heeding neither cries nor echoes. She knew where Lun would be—the deepest cell.
In front of the door, she encountered one of Dae’s soldiers. He stood immobile, his armor twinkling with lights, his body bristling with weapons, his faceplate a shatterproof screen. He barred her path.
She demanded passage.
The soldier spoke into the comm in his helmet, listened to the earpiece reply, and stepped to the side.
Her keys opened the door. She entered without hesitation, letting the door shut behind her.
Dae’s golden presence dominated the space. In the odd reversal common to him, his unshorn hair and simple black clothes marked him as a prisoner, but he alone was free.
There on a bench before Dae sat Lun. Stubble showed on his head, and lines cut deep around his eyes. He needed a shower, but his clothes were rich and fine.
He was unshackled.
In chains beside him sat her brother. The sight of him cut Esthe somewhere deep, where it did not show.
For a moment the three of them stared at her, saying nothing. She was an interloper in their tete-a-tete.
“I thought he’d fixed your face,” Lun said. He was not taunting her—his voice held mild surprise.
In the pockets of her gown, Esthe had the vial of acid. Her fingers flexed with the impulse to throw it on Lun.
And then Dae was there beside her. His black will was a palpable thing.
“What is it you have in your pocket?” he asked.
Her fingers closed on a vial. By its etchings, she knew it to be the poison, not the acid. It would do no good flung in Lun’s face.
She took out the poison.
“I thought to return his parting gift to me,” she said. “Too soon, perhaps?”
Dae smiled, amused. He took the vial from her hands.
“Too soon,” he said.
She hoped suddenly—hope like a sharp pain—that she would not need that poison herself. Why was her brother chained but Lun free?
Lun stood and walked to stand beside Dae. He smiled at her. His schooled expression of contempt was undercut by a glint of vicious triumph.
“He has offered me the same deal that you have, Esthe,” Lun said.
Lun had always looked so handsome to her. Beside Dae’s gilded perfection, however, his gloating face was a welter of physical flaws, twisted and ugly.
But Dae’s face was an illusion, a corporeal mask over a being that was not limited by corporeality. Not a moral creature, Dae said. Not known for his mercies.
And Dae never lied.
She looked to Dae.
“I have made the offer,” Dae said. “He can give me Ibren.”
Esthe’s hand closed around the vial remaining to her. The acid.
Something dangerous appeared in Dae’s lightless eyes. Something hard.
He could move as fast as gale winds when he wanted to. And acid would not hurt him.
“It looks like your lover is even less attached to you than I was,” Lun said.
Esthe’s keys opened the cell door, letting her escape.
She fled back to the hidden closet, where she knew she would not die.
Sitting inside it once again, she took out her keys and the vial of acid and held them in her hands.
The little vial, so like the vial Lun left her, glittered mocking in the light.
She was twice a fool.
Her imagination ran wild, promising visions of Dae and Lun laughing together, mocking her as she died at their feet. She envisioned her family dying and Lun living for years in happiness and luxury before his execution. Morbid fear whispered of herself broken on a wheel before a mob.
With such dread, with tears pricking her eyes and devastation in her heart, it would be madness to scry.
She could not scry Dae and Lun in that room, not with her brother there, not feeling like she did. Dae would know. Worse, it would doom her brother to the very fate she feared.
That was why Dae kept her brother with Lun, she realized. He knew that Esthe would not scry against her family, not deliberately. Every vision she saw of them was either forced on her by Othek’s scryers or one where she scryed others and her family entered during the vision.
Dae knew that she served him not from fear of death but rather from a desire to be avenged on Lun. He could not count on her support once she’d scryed out her victory—or, alternately, Lun’s victory over her. All Dae had to do to keep her from scrying Lun was to house Lun with her captured family members. Dae knew that was the way to hide from her what was coming, to keep her guessing, to keep her working for him.
Dae had told her that she no longer needed to scry. What was it he had not wanted her to see?
If she scryed, she would bring on her own doom. But she sought it out. She did the forbidden. She scryed her own death.
She saw herself lying on a circular bed in a tower room. It looked high in the air—nothing but bright blue sky showed through the windows that surrounded the room and strange jewel-green birds flew by. She looked no older than she was now—if anything, she looked younger, the faint lines on her forehead and at the corner of her unscarred eye smoothed away. She wore rubies at her throat, but she was naked otherwise. The bedclothes were rumpled.
Karnon Dae stood at one window, looking out. He was naked too.
“I know I’ve scryed this room before,” she heard herself say. “It’s familiar the way scryed things are.”
“Do you remember what you saw?” he asked, leaving the window and lying beside her.
Her future self regarded him for a moment and smiled a lazy smile.
“No,” she said. “It can’t have been important. I usually remember visions—it must have been lifetimes ago.”
He kissed her then. She nestled in his arms. Time passed. The blue sky outside deepened in hue, and wisps of clouds showed gold in the west. Her eyes slipped closed.
“Good night,” she murmured.
“Good night,” he whispered in return.
Her heavy sleeping breaths slowed and then stopped.
He looked up, and his eyes met her scrying ones.
“I have to leave, Isri,” he said. “I know you want to face your death, to know it’s coming. But you have lived more than five hundred years. Years of life untouched by age or illness make death harder. I do not want you to suffer, Isri.”
He was still holding her. He looked away from her scrying self to the body in his arms.
“I would take you with me if I could,” he said. “But humans cannot pass that way. And I cannot break my promise.”
He caressed her face, and the vision dissolved. She had finished dying.
The same hour that Ibren fell into Dae’s hands, Dae told Lun that there was no further need for his service.
Lun’s execution took place in a small metal room. There was a drain in the middle of the floor, crude plumbing to accommodate the crude plumbing of a human body. Esthe watched impassively. Her attendance felt strangely dutiful.
No one gave any speeches—not Dae, not her, not even Lun. He spared her a dull glare, but most of his attention went to Karnon Nameless Dae.
Dae was the one person who did not seem to belong in that room. Everyone else shared the crude plumbing of the condemned, from the soldiers in their electric armor to Esthe in her everyday finery. Esthe’s imprisoned brother, there to deter her past self’s scrying eyes, wore drudge’s gray and did not meet her gaze. Her brother had never personally sheltered Ibren. Dae had spared him and his family as a gift to her.
Lun’s blood ran down the drain, spilled by a bloodless neininki, and the rest of them went back to their lives.
Far from glorying, Esthe surprised herself by feeling sad.
Esthe went on to scry hundreds of thousands of visions over her life, until the early ones faded into the dim shadows of old dreams.
Of all the things she ever scryed, seeing her lover kill her was the most comforting.
Return to Issue #90, Science-Fantasy Month