The Austere War has cost our tsardom much, in blood and in hope, I wrote in the letter to my mother the Tsarina. But at last Father’s killer lies dead, and we are victorious against the raiders from the sea. Soon, I will return to the capital and lead the citizens in remembrance of all we have lost, but for three months still must I tarry in the East. For though Palace Austere is returned to us, the same cannot be said for the spirit of our people. May my presence here speed their healing.
My quill paused. I had not written the truth of all I had risked to achieve the hard-won victory. Had I told of my covenant with the witch or of the Stormlord’s dying curse, my mother the Tsarina would command Lord Fabek to ship me home to Nobylisk at once. By the abyss of the dead, let my soul escape to plague you, had said the man I slew to avenge my father. By the blood of storms, may the Five Dooms drown you in grief. Mother would fear for my life if she heard those words.
But having seen the suffering in these provinces first-hand, I would sooner commit this sin of omission than leave before the East regained its strength. I signed the letter and sealed it.
Lord Fabek strode into the library with a smile on his ruddy face and knelt before me. “Joyous day, milord! The puppet-witch Anansya has returned to the palace for her reward! She begs an audience, if it pleases you.”
I frowned, unable to share his enthusiasm at the news of the witch’s return. It had been seven days since the puppeteers disappeared. While my heart ached to see Anansya’s apprentice Selenja again, I had mistrusted the witch’s offer of aid against the Stormlords from the beginning. Anansya asked for no gold, land, or titles, desiring only the privilege of crafting my life into a shadowplay. But to avenge my father’s death at the hands of the Stormlord Hraken, I had accepted Anansya’s offer, sealing the pact with a drop of my blood. I was certain she had an ulterior motive for aiding me, though I had not yet fathomed it.
Still, the puppeteers proved instrumental in turning the tide of war, even if their methods called upon dark magics. If they had not infiltrated the enemy camp, how many more of my countrymen would have died on the battlefield or been enslaved? Despite my suspicions, as Tsarevitch I was obliged to thank them on behalf of my people.
“Very well, I will receive them in Stonestark Hall. And Fabek?”
“None of that. Call me Dominin.” I helped him to his feet. “There’s no place for formalities here at Palace Austere.”
“Yes, mi–” He caught himself in time. “Yes, Dominin.”
Stonestark Hall was cavernous and barren, as it should be. The only riches of Palace Austere were the fire in its hearth, the water in its well, and the whistling winds in its corridors of stone. By tradition, every Imperial must live nine winters here as simply as his people, so that he might learn wisdom and humility. I paused at the centre of the hall, remembering how the Stormlord Hraken had defiled it with his golden bounty when he took the palace as his seat of power. Upon our reclamation of the ancient citadel, I had ordered my men to strip the hall of its blood-gold.
Out of the eastern corridor came Fabek and the graying puppet-witch, her pair of apprentices behind her carrying a cedar box between them. They set the puppet-box down, kneeling on either side.
Anansya was thrice my age, her teeth blackened with ash and her skin powdered white in the manner of her kind. Her hair, pale as spider-silk wrapped tight around a hapless fly. Pol, Anansya’s bright-hand, was clothed in silver, his head a polished dome. Selenja was her dark-hand and wore the black silk of her rank. Though they kept their heads low, I caught a glimpse of Selenja’s pleading eyes, and became lost in their beauty once more.
It had been Selenja who first came to me in the grim days after the death of my father. She never told me how she found her way into the Scrimshaw Tower to lend an ear to my anger and regret, or how she knew the right words to ease my pain. At the end of the month of vigil, I could deny my desire for Selenja no more. On a moonbright evening, I threw caution aside so she might teach me the passions of a man. My confidence won, Selenja told me of Anansya’s scheme to steal Hraken of the Storm’s sealskin hide, the source of his power, and I had listened.
Now, Selenja’s brief glance convinced me her mistress hid a deeper scheme, and I rued my folly for letting her seduce me so easily.
Yet I still loved her.
“Welcome, Anansya,” I said. “We owe the outcome of this war to you. Yet you vanished without a word. Why?”
“We felt it best to flee with Hraken’s hide, lest we be captured,” said Anansya. “Tell us, Dominin, how did you slay the tyrant? I must know the details to finish your play.”
I drew the saber named Fortune’s Law, my father’s legacy, and the memories flooded back. “We listened for your signal-chord and watched for the flash of light. I slew nine with my bow before we scaled the walls. The soldiers, blinded by your magic, fell easily to our swords. Hraken stood defiant in the heart of the chaos, blindly swinging his spear while he made mad libations from a half-empty cup of wine. But his gods forsook him.”
Anansya nodded. “Without his sealskin, his charms are for naught.”
“And I thank you for it,” I answered. “I fired an arrow at Hraken’s heart, bidding it to fly true. It found its mark square in the villain’s chest, bringing him to his knees. I stowed my bow, slid down a rope and cut down those between us, sending the cup spinning from his hand.”
In my mind’s eye, I held the edge of my saber against Hraken’s throat again. Who dares? the Stormlord had cried. I answered him. I, Dominin, son of Kronin, am your death. Then bear my dying curse, Tsarevitch, Hraken said. Again, his curse echoed in my ears. Let my soul escape to plague you. May the Five Dooms drown you in grief.
“He cursed me, but I would suffer my father’s killer no more,” I continued, Hraken’s voice still echoing in my mind. “With a single stroke, I beheaded him.”
Anansya drew air between her teeth. “Your deeds will make an epic song. I propose a play this evening—”
I sheathed Fortune’s Law. “No, Anansya. My men clamor for a celebration. Tomorrow, I will attend your play. Tonight, we feast!” Perhaps with some wine and charm, I could loosen the puppeteers’ tongues and learn of their scheme.
“As you wish,” said Anansya, her face unreadable.
“The halls of Austere are yours to roam. Come, Fabek, there are things we must discuss.”
In my chambers, I told Fabek my suspicions, and spoke for the first time about my tryst with Selenja. “I should never have allowed her to steal my heart, nor bargained with her mistress for victory. Though the witch pledged her allegiance to the tsardom, her first loyalty is to her dark magic.”
“What signs of malice have you seen?” asked Fabek.
“The shadows hold their magic,” I said. One particular memory haunted me. “Once, when Selenja and I were tangled together in the sheets, I thought moonlight gleamed off a strand of hair tied to her little finger. I suspected it was an illusion, until I spied another such hair attached to her other hand. From the corner of my eye, I traced the strands to the shadows on the wall, where it seemed a phantom held their ends, but when I turned my head, it had vanished. I grow more certain each day that this specter bore the face of Anansya.”
Fabek stroked his beard. “There are whispered tales of strange shadows amongst our soldiers who fought in that battle. Some had come across stormfolk raiders on hands and knees, unable to rise and fight. It seemed that the enemies’ own shadows bound their wrists and ankles, not letting go until they were dead. I thought they waxed poetic, but now....”
“Now the spider advances on the fly,” I said.
“What will you do?” asked Fabek.
“Play her game, but one better. Let her think she’s in control, for now,” I replied. “Perhaps I can steal a moment alone with Selenja, and discover what web Anansya weaves.”
A feast at Austere was bereft of glittering goblets and silver knives. The meat, wine, and delicacies fresh from the Sunlit Sea were more than enough. As guests of honor, Anansya, Selenja, and Pol sat at the same table as Fabek and I, though this table was no different from any other in the hall.
Pol sipped his wine as he spoke of his part in Hraken’s downfall. “Selenja teased Hraken with her charms, but refused him. It would break her vow of chastity, she squealed!” Pol laughed, but Selenja pinched him hard in retaliation and he adopted a more serious tone. “As I was saying, it only drove Hraken to desire her more, and she tricked from him the whereabouts of his trappings. Once we knew where he hid it, it was easy to disarm his traps and steal his hide. The rest you know.”
Selenja looked away, unwilling to meet my eyes. She had used Hraken the same way she used me. Was she ashamed of what she did? What hold did Anansya have over her? I had to speak to her alone.
“There’s a song my father loved,” I said to Anansya. “Moonlight’s Vow. If you could play it in the company of our musicians, it would honor his memory.”
“I’d be delighted,” said Anansya. She picked up her nine-stringed gusli and joined the musicians.
I signaled Fabek. He poured more wine for Pol. Out from under his mistress’s watchful eye, Pol eagerly drained his cup. Fabek filled it to the brim again.
Anansya began to play.
“May I have this dance, Selenja?” I offered her my hand.
She accepted. I led Selenja to the heart of the hall, encouraging others to join us in the moondance. When I drew Selenja close, Anansya misplayed a note.
Selenja’s touch was soft and warm, and she hit every step of the intricate dance flawlessly. Another time, another place, I would savour this moment. But given all that I knew, I had to remain cautious. “Sweet one, let there be truth between us, if you truly cared for me,” I whispered. “Was I but a pawn in your mistress’s game?”
She nearly missed a step. “I may be Anansya’s dark hand, but my heart is my own,” said Selenja, her voice a-tremble.
“Then tell me what your mistress intends.”
“I would if I could, but—” Selenja shifted so that my hand would drift over the small of her back. I felt scars under the silk that my fingers did not remember. Burns? “I underestimated her, once. Don’t make the same mistake.”
“I will protect you, Selenja.” I gently touched her cheek and turned her head. “My eyes speak the truth, my love.”
Selenja’s breath caught in her throat. At last, she spoke. “Age has caught up to Anansya, and she desires a young body. She knows a dark ritual and has all she needs. Black honey from a demon-hive. Wine as ancient as the sea. Skin of a selkie and emperor silk. From you, a drop of royal blood, all so that she may steal your flesh.”
“What does the ritual involve?” I asked.
“A shadowplay,” Selenja said. “When the story is told, she will claim your life.”
“If I simply refuse to attend, will that thwart the ritual?”
“No. When you gave your blood freely to Anansya during your pact, you opened the way into your mind and your flesh,” Selenja explained. “Given her skill, Anansya can invade your dreams and perform the shadowplay while you sleep. However, if we err, the magic may kill you. That is why she wishes you to attend the shadowplay in person.”
Anansya quickened the song’s tempo. She was eager to cut short our dance. “What if I imprison or slay her?” I asked Selenja.
“She’d vanish into the shadows before you could draw your sword, and risk the dream ritual from afar. If you are slain, she intends to seek out your sister instead. However, you, as the direct heir, remain her first prey. It saves her from shedding more blood to wear the crown.”
Either way, Anansya intended death for me, and perhaps death for my sister as well. “We must stop her, Selenja. Would you be able to sabotage the ritual?”
The song hurtled towards its end. “I do not dare. The wrong move and the magic could kill you.”
“Still, better to fight than accept certain death,” I said. “Anansya must be most vulnerable during the ritual.”
“It may be your best chance, but she is strong.” Selenja shivered. “Pol’s her creature too. We cannot prevail against them both.”
“Then we must even the odds.” A dangerous plan began taking shape in my mind.
The song ended abruptly. Selenja and I broke apart, short of breath. Anansya gestured to her, and she returned obediently to the witch.
I pulled Fabek aside. “Bring me everything on selkie magic and mythology. I need to understand a Stormlord’s curse.”
In my chambers, I refreshed my knowledge of the selkie Stormlords. Their sealskin trappings granted them not only the ability to change shapes, but also the power to tap into five sources of magic. In their mythology, souls of the dead were swept into five great falls, the Dooms, which plunged into an endless abyss. Shadow, Madness, Silence, Frost, and Oblivion. Whichever doom a selkie earned in life, his soul would suffer in death. Only when a soul was washed clean of his misdeeds would the rising mists lift it aloft to be reborn.
Libations freed the power of each Doom. “Slay a selkie before he can pour from a cup,” I recall my father’s lesson. “Wine spilt is blood spilt.” During the War, the selkies used all five magics against us, pouring the dooms from their goblets. Silence, to strike unheard. Madness, to destroy our minds or grant their warriors with rabid strength. Shadows to escape the touch of our blades. Frost, for the chill of death. Oblivion to erase all that we once held dear, making it easier to enslave our people.
I summoned Fabek. “Prepare the Obsidian Room for Anansya’s shadowplay.”
“Why there?” Fabek asked.
“Only one way in and out. If Anansya succeeds in stealing my body, she may lose her power to escape through shadows,” I said. “I leave it to you to make certain that such a pretender never ascends my father’s throne.”
Fabek’s eyes widened. “But sire, you cannot ask me to spill your blood!”
“If it comes to that, my friend, it will be a just execution for a regicide,” I said. “For that reason as well, only you and I must attend the shadowplay. If you must slay my body, the presence of another might make you hesitate. That must never happen.”
“I don’t like it, but I understand. Any other instructions?”
“Have pillows, a plate of fruit, and a flask of wine in place, along with these.” I opened a locked chest, taking out the five goblets that once belonged to Hraken and his lieutenants: the Mooncalf and the Mute, Sleet’s Kiss, Blithe Laughter. “Line them before the pillows.”
Fabek sighed. “It will be done,” he said, taking the goblets from me.
I drew Fortune’s Law and held it my hands, remembering what my father told me of the sword. “This blade has been in our family for generations, Dominin. It reminds us of a universal truth: men will gamble on their luck, no matter how slim their odds.”
I hoped my father was right.
The next morning, Fabek and I led the puppeteers deeper into the keep. Again, Pol and Selenja hefted the puppet-box between them. We took a spiraling stair down to an iron-bound door that Fabek unlocked, and entered the Obsidian Room.
The walls and floors were black stone, polished to a luster. The sides tapered to a point high above, wind whistling through tiny windows at the pinnacle. Torches in iron sconces illuminated the room. The fruit, wine, and cushions that I had requested awaited us.
“Some call the Obsidian Room an extravagance that does not befit Austere, but I disagree,” I said. “In a place without mirrors, only here might we contemplate our reflections.”
“Let us begin.” Anansya chanted over the puppet-box before lifting its lid. A gossamer saga-silk lay folded atop the puppets, almost invisible but for its glimmer.
Pol and Selenja raised the silk screen, stringing it between two wall sconces. Behind the silk, Anansya hung and lit her witch-lamp. At her request, I extinguished all other lights. I sat myself down on a pillow and filled the five cups lined before me with red wine. Fabek sat cross-legged to the left of me, his hand drumming the leather of the boot where he had hidden his dagger.
The emperor silk could not conceal the puppeteers’ actions. I watched Pol say a prayer before taking the first puppet from its box. It was made of roan hide, cut in the shape of a dragon curled inside the sun, its limbs hinged with studs of bone and fitted with ivory handles for the puppeteer. My skin crawled. So that’s what they’d done with Hraken’s hide!
“Lohe, Mistress-Sun, a bright hand sets you high!” Pol stood the puppet by its handle on the rack beside him.
Selenja took the next: a second drake curled in the crescent of the moon. “Zmascu, Master-Moon, a dark hand guides your path!”
Seven more emerged from the box: puppets of the gods Rapture, Fortune, and Death, a Swan King, a Fox Queen, a Selkie Crone, and a Jester Man, all fashioned from Hraken’s hide.
Anansya raised a golden thimble. “Three offerings must burn for the gods that slumber, for Fortune, Rapture, and Death,” she intoned. “Dark honey for Hag-Rid-Rapture, amber wine for Fortune-Dreaming, and royal blood for Death-in-Sleep.” She cast the concoction into the flame.
I held my breathing steady, ready to fight the ritual however I could.
Anansya strummed the gusli in her lap, and sang.
Under the deft manipulation of her hands-dark-and-bright, the Sun and Moon each claimed the silk for their own, illuminating the strands of silk or inking them. The shadows resolved into familiar silhouettes, that of my father and myself.
Anansya began the saga with the coming of the selkie slavelords, their shadows falling upon the golden towns along the tsardom’s coast. Folk of light died upon blades of shadow, and darkness spread across the screen. Then, under Sun’s Gate, a flame-red general rode forth with a great army. My father.
Despite my caution, I was mesmerized by my own tale unfolding on the saga-silk. High atop the Gate, images of my mother, sister, brother and I waved farewell to Father, but when night fell, my silhouette-self escaped the capital to join the crusade in secret. Anansya captured my defiance well, tracing my journey from my time incognito among the soldiers on the march. The ordeal taught me how men lived and helped one another, and in their company I honed my swordsmanship and learned their hopes and dreams. We played games of skill and chance, like aiming the dregs of our smuggled wine at upturned bright helmets, or betting on the toss of dark knucklebones.
But on a twilight march, Fabek recognized me through my disguise and commanded his guards to arrest me. Licks of golden light on the silk framed my journey to the Scrimshaw Tower, to be unmasked before my father. Atop the bone-bright spire, the silhouette of my father greeted and chastised me through song, and thus began our campaign together as father and son.
The war of light and shadow raged on the silk. When laced light thawed like ice, the Tsar and I engaged Hraken’s mercenaries in epic battle. Starlight and dark sky struggled ceaselessly for the land as the Sun and Moon once did. I lifted the golden banner of the tsardom high, eager to lay siege to Palace Austere.
So well did Anansya tell the tale, little did I realize until too late that her ritual had already snared me, thrusting me into the tapestry of shadows. I became the hero laced with light, while my body sat mindless before the screen. The past had become present through Anansya’s magic, the players and props conjured from my memories and fringed by luminescence. I could feel an odd thinness to my flesh. From the corner of my eye, I could see through the silken illusion to my real body in the Obsidian Room.
The world of the shadowplay forced me to retell my history scene by scene. On a sun-drenched day in late summer, my father the Tsar descended on the stolen palace with his full army in a bid to win back Austere. He stood with his archers on the western edge of the screen, challenging Hraken.
I tried to tear myself away from where I had stood during that battle, but I could not leap upon my father and push him to the ground, away from the fate I knew awaited him. Selenja was right. Anansya was strong, and the tide of her telling had me snared. It was all I can do to hang on to my identity.
The smell of battlefield blood assailed my nostrils, and a storm of dark arrows filled the silken sky. The shadow-Hraken stood upon the battlements and raised his spear of white bone in one hand, and with the other he poured light from a black-jeweled cup. The arrows fell through him like hail through shadow.
Nothing I could do stopped my father from stepping into the open light. I was helpless as Anansya sang us swift towards his death.
Dark Hraken hurled his weapon. Fast as a bolt of lightning and unerring, the spear skewered my sire through the heart. I raced to his side and held his body again, even as light seeped like blood out of his wounds.
Shadow-time marched relentlessly towards the end that Anansya intended. She sang of the morning after the Tsar’s death, when the denizens of the east awakened to leaves of gold and flame, as though autumn had fallen too soon. She sang of the black candles that burned in Orsazan, when I led the city in mourning for my father. Soon she would sing of stealing my body, and when shadow-time caught up to real time, it would destroy me.
But there were episodes in my life that Anansya would never know, tales I had never told. Because she couldn’t script my life exactly, she skipped the parts she didn’t know. When she ended the scene where I sequestered myself in Scrimshaw Tower for a month-long vigil, there was an instant when I gained solitude. I used that moment to re-assert control of my body and struggled to speak. “Selenja! Help me, my love!”
My words came out in a whisper. Did she hear me?
Anansya’s incantation grew louder. My blood felt like it was on fire.
“Selenja! Find your soul in your reflection!” I urged.
Startled, Selenja turned her head towards the wall and met her own eyes in the reflection. Her hands faltered. “Dominin! Take my strength!” she cried.
I felt my beloved’s will adding to my own. Selenja’s image appeared beside me on the silken canvas and took my free hand. Together we resisted the combined power of Anansya and Pol, trying to bend the shadow-world away from the witch’s script. Anansya, however, conjured a gleaming bolt that sped towards Selenja, forcing her to release my hand and vanish. But her touch had given me the strength I needed.
Anansya could not banish Selenja entirely from the canvas, however. She was integral to my story, and soon the shadow-Selenja came to seduce me. We could have abandoned our cares to the wind to relive those tender moments, but that would let Anansya regain control. Instead, we made small alterations to the remembered past, like during my first audience with the witch, Selenja dropped a handkerchief that had not been there before. When we assaulted the castle walls, I fired more arrows at mercenaries upon the parapets, seeking to kill more than nine. But Anansya and Pol blotted out my new missiles before they hit, forcing the events to adhere to the true past.
Beyond the silk, Fabek—already concerned by Selenja’s sudden cry—had noticed the changes in the play. I caught a glimpse of him slipping the dagger from his boot and hiding it in his sleeve.
I slung my bow over my shoulder and raced for the walls, but chose a different ladder to scale. Once again, I sunk an arrow into the Stormlord’s chest, but instead of climbing down a rope, I leapt and landed in a bale of hay. I drew my saber and fought to reach shadow-Hraken, but made focused on parries instead of cuts to push past his defenders. By the time my sword took Hraken’s head in the shadowplay, Selenja and I had altered the script enough to wrest away a measure of power from the puppet-witch.
I had to play my trump now. “Hraken of the Storm!” I shouted to the darkness. “These shadow-witches stole your trappings to make these puppets, so you have grievances against us all. Your hide ties you to this ritual. If you seek your revenge, come!”
Hraken’s shadow stumbled to its feet and grabbed its severed head. “You would use my curse to save your own skin, Tsarevitch?”
“Certain death or a slim chance of survival? I choose the latter,” I said.
The balance of power on the saga-silk shifted with Hraken’s arrival. Now that Anansya and Pol must also contend with the Stormlord’s spirit, they were no longer dominating the struggle against Selenja and me. To maintain their hold on the spell, they manifested on the silk as well. Our three factions now vied for the ritual’s magic, each trying to bend the outcome to our will. When one faction began seizing power, the other two beat it back. If one tried to hurt another, it left itself vulnerable to the third.
The lamp-flame flickered.
“End this now,” Selenja begged of me and Anansya both. “If none of us yields when that flame goes out, the ritual will consume us all! Can’t you feel it?”
She was right. I felt the magic that brought us onto the screen crushing us cloth-thin.
Despite Selenja’s warning, no one deigned to answer.
“If that does not sway you, then consider Fabek beyond the silk,” I said to Anansya. “I have instructed him to slay me if I am robbed of my body, and for the sake of the tsardom, Fabek will carry out his orders. The question is, will he interpret this sudden silence as proof of the ritual’s triumph? The longer we delay, the more likely he is to slit someone’s throat. It might be mine. It might be yours. Think on that.”
“How do we come to an accommodation?” Anansya said at last.
“No!” said Hraken. “You invoked my curse, and I will have vengeance against you all, even if it means my own destruction!”
“There’s unparalleled power in this ritual, to which we all have a claim.” I directed their attention to my real body and the five full goblets before it. “These are the cups wrested from you and your lieutenants, Hraken. Five Dooms of the underworld, five water-curses. Shadow, Oblivion, Frost, Silence, and Madness. We can divert the ritual’s power to imbue each cup with one of those dooms. We will take turns naming one of us to a curse until all five of us are bound. Then, with all five of us seizing control of my sword, we will topple the cups and let the curses spill forth.”
“I came to claim a new body, not play with curses,” Anansya said.
“If the curse is phrased right, it may free a body for the taking,” Hraken said, clearly tempted by the chance at a second life.
“We will decide the first to match a name to a curse,” I suggested. “That person names a victim and words the curse as he pleases. The one named will choose the next to be cursed, and so forth.”
Anansya laughed. “You’re clever, Tsarevitch, but I see wrinkles in your plan. Obviously, you can’t name the first person who chooses, since that would leave someone out of the chain of curses. And the last two people in the chain have no real choice in which foe they name, do they? But I will agree to this.”
“And I,” said Hraken.
Off-silk, the flame began to sputter. Fabek knelt next to Pol’s body, and poised his dagger so that the tip was merely a hair away from his blank, staring eye.
Pol gulped. “Hurry. Decide who starts the chain!”
I leaned closer to Selenja, overlapping her shadow. “You must name Hraken, or else we risk another deadlock.” The Stormlord was certain to curse me first, which would give me the opportunity to foil Anansya with a carefully-worded curse.
Selenja nodded. “Whatever happens, Dominin, I want you to know I love you,” she said.
“And I you,” I replied, and kissed her.
The five of us pooled our wills and reshaped the ritual to fit our covenant. Tendrils of light swirled around our silhouettes and even spun off the silken screen to twist above the goblets. Fabek recoiled at the sight.
Together, we spoke the name of the one we chose to shape the first curse.
“Anansya,” said Anansya.
“Anansya,” said Pol.
“Hraken,” said Selenja.
“Hraken,” I said.
“Anansya,” said Hraken, surprising me.
With our pronouncements, specks of golden light shimmered around Anansya’s silhouette.
The Stormlord laughed. “You thought I’d name myself, Tsarevitch? No, I wish to see you and the witch destroy one another, for that is what you deserve.”
“Then I will oblige,” said Anansya. “Dominin, I give you the Doom of Oblivion. Let your body forget the tenor of your soul, and let your soul not remember your life or love. When you become a mindless shell, my soul will come to dwell in your abandoned flesh.”
A tendril of light dipped into the wine in an edgemost cup in the line before my body, giving it a ghostly glow.
The shape of her curse was much as I predicted. She intended to follow through on her plan to become me.
It was my turn, but which curse on whom? Pol, Selenja, or Hraken? Shadow, Frost, Silence, or Madness?
In the Obsidian Room, Fabek moved behind my body and raised the knife in a quaking hand. I had to choose quickly.
I could name Selenja and spare her the worst of the curses, but I would lose the chance to remove Hraken as a threat. But if I named Hraken next, I knew the likely fate to befall Selenja. Yet, my beloved was only one woman. I loved her, to be sure, but my first duty was to the people of the tsardom. That was the legacy my father left me. I squeezed Selenja’s hand. “Hraken, I give you the Doom of Frost. The cold of the grave will follow you always, no matter what refuge your soul finds. Let the chill cripple the flesh of any body you steal and thwart your sorceries and schemes....” That was how I had planned to end the curse, but I could not leave it so. “...until a true love’s kiss ousts your soul and frees the accursed one to live again.”
A tentacle of light illuminated the middle cup.
“So you would rob me of the joy of living again, Tsarevitch?” said Hraken. “Then I shall take pleasure in taking revenge upon you. Do I take the body of the man who stole my pelt, or the harlot who tricked the secret of my pelt from me? The latter, I think, should twist the dagger in your heart. Selenja, I give you the Doom of Shadow. I banish your soul to the shadow you cast, bound to your body until the Falls of the underworld run dry. Your empty body will become mine instead, and I will live again in your flesh.”
“No!” I cried, but Hraken had spoken his curse, and the ritual touched the cup between the two already ensorceled. Even if my kiss forced Hraken out of Selenja’s body, she would not be returned to me because of the Stormlord’s dictum.
In the Obsidian Room, Fabek whispered words I could not hear as he touched the edge of his knife to my throat. Perhaps he prayed to the gods, or begged my forgiveness.
“It’s all right, my love.” Selenja touched my cheek. She turned to Pol. “You and I have suffered Anansya’s cruelty too long, my friend, and we cannot suffer her playing tyrant in Dominin’s body. With Madness and Silence left, there is only one way to ensure that she never hurts another again.”
“Don’t listen to her, Pol,” warned Anansya. “You were always the stronger. Side with me, and I will make you the greatest sorcerer of shadows the world has ever—”
“Shut up, you old crone,” Pol said. “I have been your puppet these long years because you promised me power, but all you have given us are breadcrumbs while you devoured the lion’s share of our ventures. What do you propose, Selenja?”
“I would grant you Silence, the least of the Dooms, if you curse Anansya with a specific Madness,” Selenja said. “Let her madness be the unshaking belief that she is none other than my beloved Dominin, upholding his virtuous ways no matter which body she steals. If Dominin is lost to Oblivion, then she will have no choice but to become the man she destroys. Such is the only way to save the tsardom.”
I kissed her forehead. “Well played.”
“Very well,” Pol said. “Say it.”
“Pol, I give you the Doom of Silence,” Selenja said. “Though you must live your life mute, I bless you with true silence when you ply your thieving skills towards the good of the tsardom. Use it well.”
The other edgemost cup filled with brightness.
“That leave you, Anansya,” said Pol. “I—”
Anansya turned on her apprentice and leapt upon him, her black bony fingers throttling his throat.
I unslung my shadow bow, nocked an arrow of light and fired. The arrow struck Anansya in the back, and she released Pol.
Pol caught his breath and blurted out his curse. “I give you the Doom of Madness, Anansya! Mad to believe you’re none other than Dominin Tsarevitch, in whichever body you reside!”
With that, the last magical tendril flowed into the remaining cup.
All five of us spirits hurtled into my body for the final part of our ritual of curses. The cups still must spill before the curses are fulfilled. I wore my scabbard on my left side, and the cups of Shadow and Oblivion were the rightmost before me. If I could knock over the rest but prevent those two from tipping, that might yet save us from doom!
But all five of us had the same idea, and fought to control different parts of my body. Even worse, Fabek might panic and cut my throat. Hraken seized my right hand first, trying to knock over all the cups. Selenja and I fought him, forcing my hand to reach for the hilt of my saber instead.
Meanwhile, Anansya took control of my left hand, reached up and grabbed Fabek’s wrist to stay the blade. Pol took the opportunity to use my voice, calling out: “Not yet!”
Fabek fought to keep his knife a threat. “Prove you are Dominin.”
Hraken abandoned his attempt to control my right arm, and forced my left foot to kick forward. He hit the leftmost goblet, the Cup of Silence, and spilled its curse upon Pol.
Pol lost control of my voice. His surprise at his curse broke his concentration and forced him back into his real body.
Without Hraken’s interference, Selenja and I gained control of the right hand and drew the sword, sweeping it from left to right. The steel smashed into the Cup of Madness and tipped it.
Anansya was ripped out of my body and thrust back into hers. Her hold over my left hand was broken, and Fabek’s blade drew blood from my neck. I relinquished control over my right hand to Selenja and rushed to seize control of the left, preventing the sharp edge from slicing deeper.
Anansya held her hands trembling before her eyes. “How...? Selenja, Fabek! The witch has taken my body!”
The witch believed she was me. However, she would not take my body until the Cup of Oblivion fell.
Hraken seized my right foot and kicked towards the cups bearing my and Selenja’s curses.
I sped my thoughts towards helping Selenja with my right hand, driving the saber towards Hraken’s cup. Just as our blade knocked the Cup of Frost over, the foot controlled by Hraken hit the Cup of Shadow.
Frost and Shadow!
I regained control of my body, slowing the saber’s edge so it merely tapped the Cup of Oblivion. Only a single droplet trickled down the side of the goblet.
“Oblivion,” I whispered. Almost.
On the other side of the silk, Selenja curled up and hugged her knees, shivering. Hraken had taken her body, but suffered my curse. The Selenja I knew was gone, banished to her own shadow.
Anansya lay in a pool of blood, dead. Pol stood over her body still holding the weapon that had killed her, a broken ivory handle taken from a shadow puppet. I had not heard him at all.
Fabek’s knife at my throat trembled. “Last chance to prove you are Dominin,” he said.
“Only you and I know how you saw through my disguise during the war,” I answered. “You had recognized something in my gait that reminded you of my father. It is I, my friend.”
Fabek removed the blade and let it clatter to the stone floor. “Never ask me to slay you again, Dominin.”
I touched my bloodied neck. “Agreed.”
The lamp-fire died, leaving only the dwindling glow from the Cup of Oblivion as illumination.
The witch Anansya is dead, slain by her apprentice Pol, I wrote in my latest letter to Mother. Pol has become a thief again, now that he has no voice to sing with. I have taken him into my service, and he seems pleased to spy on behalf of the tsardom. Time will tell whether he is to be trusted. As for Hraken and Selenja....
I put down my quill when Fabek brought Hraken-in-Selenja before me. Under the ravages of his chill-curse, Hraken was no more than a cripple, helplessly shivering, barely able to speak. “W-will you execute m-me, D-dominin?”
“No.” It was still Selenja’s body, even if she was imprisoned in its shadow. I still longed for her caress, but not even my kiss could reunite her soul with her body. Hraken’s curse was too strong. And yet, I could not imagine doing her body harm, even when I knew full well Hraken wore her face. “I banish you from my tsardom, Hraken. Go warm your bones in the southern isles, live out your stolen life, and never return.”
“Y-you’re a f-fool,” said Hraken. “I’d k-kill—”
I cut him off. “Speed him to his exile, Fabek.” I gazed at Selenja’s shadow. “Farewell, my love.”
“Consider it done,” said Fabek, and led Hraken away.
As for my curse? I ordered the Obsidian Room sealed, all things within untouched. Perhaps the Cup of Oblivion still lingered there, waiting for its curse to spill.
Perhaps the wine would dry, leaving nothing but dregs.
Or perhaps that lone drop of wine that escaped the brim had already fulfilled the curse, and I was in truth Anansya’s mad soul, playing the part of Dominin Tsarevitch. Who would know?