The victors’ reception ends early when the pilot-priest feeds her chosen partner, a pale slight boy of nineteen, to her vanquisher, That August Crown.
It happens in plain sight, and she smiles as she pushes him in. She is beautiful in that moment; the noon sun has fallen across her, mantling her with a share of its treasury.
Everyone in attendance sees, and remembers, that the boy never resists. He falls in glad ease, as if this is the duty for which he was born all along.
The vanquisher’s maw closes. In the quiet, the sound of bones yielding to teeth is thunderous.
Among pilot-priests it is mastery of the battlefield that marks skill and success; among melodists, the other half of Yneska’s sacred whole, it is the strength of song.
Sanenya has spent an hour attuning to the music radiating from the incubating shell, and by her judgment, what is inside is on the cusp. Much goes into the making of each vanquisher, from the choosing of a human core to the long gestation within liturgy-alloyed stone. But it is the hymn of emergence that midwifes the vanquisher; determines its final shape, the reach of its limbs and the limits of its might. How fast it can speed through waters, how deep it can dive, how fierce its temper.
Among melodists, Sanenya is peerless.
She wades into the birthing pool, harmonizing as she does with her second and third voices. With her primary mouth, she recites in a low thrum the words of dawning. It is both routine and not—she has woken thirty vanquishers since she was sworn in—and into every emergence she pours all of herself, making of her three voices a silvered chorus.
The incubator shell splinters. Amniotic fluids trickle through the cracks, lightly tinged with old blood. A hand pushes through, fingers as long as spears, taloned and delicately webbed. The crown of the head follows, tapered and dressed in fine scales the size of Sanenya’s hands. She raises her pitch; two voices in soprano, the third a low alto threading through.
The vanquisher squirms free, tearing umbilici out of its hardening integument, shaking off the last of incubator-shell. Steam gushes out its mouth, whistling through rows of fangs. It pulls itself to its full height, bipedal, a chimeral cross between piscine and reptilian. Its head snakes side to side to test the tensility of its long, segmented neck; its cabled shoulders unfold, with spine-ridges flared. Its face lowers to regard Sanenya, eight red eyes rapidly flashing in code.
“You’re strong,” Sanenya says in the same language, approximating it in rolling gurgles, chittering, and pulsing sun-beads at her wrist. Vanquishers don’t communicate with humans but make an exception for their pilots and their midwives. “We will find you a pilot pair in no time.”
It nods, once, and touches its coral brow to her feet.
She pulls on her clothes: the loose soft dress that hides her second and third mouths without abrading them, the jeweled snake that circles her throat and cascades down her forearms. The paraphernalia of rank. A message has been left for her in the door receptacle; she opens it and reads. A summons from Captain Tizeva, the prodigy pilot transferred here two months ago. Normally Sanenya rests after completing an emergence, but one does not deny this woman anything. It will be her first private audience with the master of That August Crown, but she has a fair idea what to expect.
She climbs the steps to the temple’s roof; novices and lesser pilot-priests bow to her as she passes. The temple is built close to the shore for swift deployment, and the sound of waves is always near. Despite what the proximity implies, Sanenya has always found the tides soothing; their regularity, their rhythms. She likes to think that the temple’s architects agreed: the walls are the color of sand, whorled and curled like conch shells, and sea anemones bloom in hachure.
Captain Tizeva stands at the edge of the roof, facing the sinking sun, her head haloed in daylight’s last. A personal peculiarity—she draws light to her the way a lodestone draws filings. “Melodist Sanenya of the Radiance Principal, is that right?” she says. “I should like to hear you sing sometime.”
“It would not be pleasing to human ears, Excellency.”
Tizeva turns, her red eyes glinting. “But I’m half vanquisher, everyone knows that. Speaking of which, I’m in need of a new partner.”
“One will be found soon, no doubt. To be chosen by you is the highest honor.”
“I’m glad you see it that way.” Tizeva turns around and leans close to Sanenya, inhaling, taking in her scent. “Have you ever piloted a vanquisher, Melodist?”
Sanenya holds still: no flinching, no breaking eye contact. “I’m afraid not. I have dedicated myself entirely to song.”
A low laugh. “What a shame. I hear you were the one who brought my Crown to life a few years back—I owe you.”
A flock of seagulls passes by, screeching. In the courtyard below, novices are clearing out what remains of the reception: unfinished food on immaculately set tables, bouquets brought by worshipers hoping to catch a pilot’s eye. No trace of the sacrifice to That August Crown—vanquishers are neat eaters; digest completely what they take.
“I wasn’t able to attend your reception,” Sanenya says, “being otherwise preoccupied. I heard that only two pilots fell, and your contingent took down five behemoths.” The highest kill count in a single deployment to date, by any brigade. The lowest casualty as well; on most missions, as many as six pilots perish. Usually more.
“We do not know one another, Melodist, yet I hear disapproval in your voice. Is five not impressive enough for you? It’s true we lost Silver Sails Gleam and its pilot-pair, but I’ll commemorate them with the highest honor. I’ve already ordered funeral figurines.”
Sanenya studies the planes of the pilot-priest’s face, this conquering creature, this realization of hypotheses and endless toil. Decades of citadel experiments have produced her, the perfect pilot; the impossible and impeccable weapon. What has preceded her—mutant failures, incomplete hybrids—no one knows. There must have been a long line. Tizeva herself does not look so different from any other woman, endowed with the requisite number of limbs and fingers. A narrow brow, a wide mouth and a wide nose; a face made for portraits. “The boy was your third partner, as I understand.”
Tizeva flashes a smile with lips rouged vanquisher-red, nearly the same shade as her irises. “I’m a variable in flux. That necessitates test runs. The first two I’ve never really harmed, it’s just this one boy.” She gestures skyward. “Look. It’s coming into view.”
It does, noiselessly, a shadow pouring oil-dark across the silver sand of the coast, across the stone hill on which the temple is situated. So opaque that it seems night has fallen upon them or the sun has gone into abrupt eclipse. Each citadel is larger than all of Yneska, larger than any two isle settlements put together, an airborne mountain whose belly gleams with rutilated light and crystal arteries. From down here it is impossible to see the hanging gardens and broad spires, the curlicue libraries and rhododendron palaces. The wealth of marvels that belong to the sky.
“I’d have thought they would send an envoy down to my reception,” Tizeva says, her mouth twisting. “But five doesn’t appear to impress them anymore than it impresses you. Do you think about it, Melodist? Why we fight down here to protect those up there. Why my pilots and I spill our blood by the bucket so they need never risk a single drop.”
Sanenya waits until the shadow has passed before she says, “Vanquishers are incapable of flight.”
Tizevasmile widens. “My last partner wasn’t of much use in combat, but he always did want to fly.”
Sanenya meets Tizeva’s eyes. “I don’t see, of course, what you mean.”
Tizeva frowns at her. She has a mobile face; every expression as open as new wounds. “A shame. I didn’t take you for a coward. Run along, Melodist. We have nothing more to discuss.”
It is the bluntest dismissal Sanenya has ever received; the greatest discourtesy ever shown ever since she became a singer of the Radiance Principal. But she chooses, as ever, to say nothing.
An envoy does descend, a few days later, on one of the citadels’ delicate aria-barges.
She is received on the temple roof, the only stretch of space high and wide enough to accommodate her landing. A pinched, tall woman dressed in gloaming silk; dark prim fabric that moves like sourceless shadows. At her breast she wears the thorned star of the citadels, carved of a pulsing blue geode, that confers to her the authority of the sky. She regards the temple personnel in attendance: melodists in the back, pilots in the front. The latter all paired, save one. “Captain,” she says to Tizeva, “I see that you are... solitaire.”
Sanenya holds her breath, as do the melodists beside her and the pilots before her.
But Tizeva only smiles at the envoy, wide and sweet and poisonous. “That’s true, Your Honor. Island stock only goes so far. Isn’t it time we try a citadel officer? Among the blood of the sky, there must be some worthy of riding with me and my Crown.”
“We’ve received reports of your most recent battle.” The envoy’s smile is thin. “The citadel lords extend their commendation. As a reward we will overlook your squandering of sacred resources. But we will not overlook again, Tizeva.”
Tizeva bows so deep her long, uneven hair nearly brushes the marble tiles. “We look forward to the next time you grace us, Your Honor. My regards to your firstborn.”
The envoy stiffens. She does not stay for the dinner the temple has prepared, nor does she remain to tour Yneska, citing a busy and urgent schedule. Sanenya suspects otherwise and lingers after other melodists and pilots have dispersed. “Who’s her firstborn, Excellency?”
Tizeva turns her gaze away from the aria-barge’s diminishing shape and blinks slowly at Sanenya. “You pay too much attention to my chatter. Her firstborn son tried to ride my Crown without permission. It rejected him, violently, and he hasn’t been the same since. Still, he was the only child of the citadels to dare step inside a vanquisher. Sometimes petulance resembles courage. But I’m hungry. Are you?”
“I haven’t had lunch, no—”
She grins and sweeps Sanenya into her arms. She runs full-tilt toward the roof’s edge and leaps.
The world contracts. Sanenya clenches her eyes shut as every muscle in her draws bowstring-taut, thinking between one beat of her frenzied heart and the next that this is it; this is the moment the madness of vanquisher blood has at last taken hold of Tizeva. Wind rushes in her ears and she waits for the impact, the crunch of snapped spines and the wet heat of her own viscera, the way that boy might have felt as he fell into the vanquisher’s mouth. Plummet; shatter.
It does not come. Sanenya opens her eyes. They are cradled in the iridescent palm of That August Crown and Tizeva is laughing. Gently, the vanquisher sets them down. They are at an intersection between the temple and the residential block. A spread of houses for auxiliary personnel, an agricultural center, a modest theater and a few eateries. Sanenya has heard that in the citadels there are streets upon streets, and above them overpasses with glittering, flowered alcoves. Towers so tall they look as though they could pierce the sun; lanterns that swallow the light of day to spend illuminating the night.
“I actually like Yneska better,” Tizeva says, as if in conversation with Sanenya’s thoughts. “Duller, of course, smaller absolutely. But I spent most of my life up there. The citadels are charmless.”
“You can put me down, Excellency.”
“Why? You’re not that heavy to me.” But Tizeva sets her on her feet with smooth ease, as if indeed Sanenya weighs no more than a toddler.
Sanenya orients herself, brushing down her robes. Her mouth is dry and her legs are shaking, but she refuses to be toppled. “I had no idea you were this strong.” Inhumanly so. They are a good distance from the temple; Tizeva’s leap was impossible.
“Most people know very little about me. And don’t worry, I can’t read your mind. It’s just that when people think very loudly, I catch some of the noise.”
Sanenya does not pass comment, using the walk—Tizeva leads—to the teahouse to consider. When Tizeva was sent here, everyone in the temple was given a dossier. Combat records; a few notes on dietary preferences and medication. But most of the dossier is taken up by precautions against Tizeva’s temper; her feral manners. None of it stated that she possesses extraordinary strength or any other peculiar gifts outside piloting. She looks over her shoulder, but That August Crown has already disappeared, returned to the temple or to patrol the shores. All vanquishers, amphibian, are sluggish out of the sea, but the Crown is swift on land and water alike. An exceptional vanquisher, for an exceptional pilot.
In the teahouse, Tizeva makes extravagant orders. Eggs fried in ghee, stuffed with shallots and curried pork; roast chicken slathered in tamarind sauce; crisped rice coated in black sesame. “How astonishing, don’t you think, that the citadels will send virtually anything I request?” She twists open a jar of honeycombs that the teahouse has brought as an appetizer. “Here, have some. Plenty of apiaries up there. They could deliver us five hundred crates and never feel the lack.”
Sanenya fishes out a piece and takes a considered bite. A burst of sweetness, as the waxy cells crumble in her mouth. It is, she expects, an acquired taste, and Tizeva may be the only one in Yneska so partial to the treat.
She catches Sanenya’s hand and holds it for a moment, then licks up the honey. Her tongue is warm, a little rough, as it laps up the sweetness that has oozed down Sanenya’s knuckles. She is thorough. Not a drop escapes her attentions.
They stare at each other, Tizeva’s mouth a faint smile around Sanenya’s thumb.
“I’m pleasant to look at, I’ve been told,” Tizeva says.
“That is a general consensus.”
She lets go. “You’re so difficult.”
“That,” Sanenya says, “is also a general consensus.” But she does not hurry to clean her hand where Tizeva’s lips have been.
Some two weeks later, a citadel missive arrives. Seven behemoths have been sighted and at least ten more are expected to be hatching, off the coast of a settlement long since decimated—apocryphally it was once the home of a citadel lord, but the ruins are much eroded; uninformative.
Sanenya has stationed herself in the prayer hall, ahead of the pilots. They file in two-by-two, tight-lipped and angry. It is the first time she’s seen that reaction from them in the open; pilots usually hide it better. There have been some in the past who refused their orders or who fled their temple, vanquishers and all, to go into hiding or build a life or pursue some dream that is not bleeding and breaking for the citadels. The lords of the sky do not forgive mutiny or desertion, and all pilots forfeit a piece of themselves—nail clippings, locks of hair—when they pledge their fealty. Those pieces are kept in a citadel vault, trackable by scryers and animists; a pilot who runs away is always found and punished.
Tizeva is the only one in the room in high spirits, taking to the materials sent by the citadels with voracious delight—the maps that approximate the density and surfacing points of behemoths, the precisely inked marks that show where their eggs are concentrated and at what depth.
“This is fantastic.” Tizeva hoists the map high. “Looks like we’ll be putting down an entire colony. The waters will be clear for months to come.”
Other pilots exchange glances but voice no objections. Whatever else, Tizeva achieves results, one of them being that Yneska’s casualty rate has dropped to near nothing since she assumed command.
Sanenya takes it upon herself to say, “Excellency, in living memory we have never dispatched vanquishers so soon after one another.” And if the reports are true, this will be the largest concentration of behemoths ever encountered. “Nor can we afford to send all pilots and leave our perimeter open.”
Tizeva’s eyes flash; there is a light within her pupils that has nothing to do with outside illumination. Sanenya wonders, briefly, what they look like in the dark. Small lamps, a predator gleam: hypnotic, to lure prey. “Naturally, Melodist. Our little island could be perfectly fortified if the citadels would but dispatch a small battalion—a fraction’s fraction of their defense. But we can’t all get what we want. What is your suggestion?”
“We leave behind three pilot-pairs. From the citadels we’ll petition not for personnel but equipment. Our aegis generators are fine, but we need triple the number. With that many, my melodists can operate them with song and raise a defense. Enough to hold out for some twelve hours.”
Tizeva cocks an eyebrow. “The citadels should be so generous. But I’ll send them word. The worst they can do is say no, but then again, they shouldn’t squander sacred resources like us. One more matter, Melodist. I would have you ride with me.”
Sanenya draws back, caught too off guard to formulate a response. She’s learned to expect anything from Tizeva. But not this.
“Captain,” one of the pilots starts. “Melodist Sanenya is of the Radiance Principal. She would be of the most use here, in charge of—”
“What does Melodist Sanenya think?” Tizeva puts down the map. “To be sure, being on the frontline is a terrible risk. But I promise to protect you like the most delicate of jewels. Why, you’ll be as safe as an infant in the crib.”
She does not rise to the bait. “I’m not a pilot, Excellency. I cannot assist you in combat.”
“Perhaps I have a whim.” Tizeva straightens and circles the halo table that encloses the altar of Yneska. A model of the world with the citadels like shining stars, the thrones of gods. “Or perhaps I have a very, very good reason. A tactical one.”
“That you will not share with us.”
“It is a secret for you alone.”
Sanenya meets her gemstone gaze. “I will take that into account. Once we’ve received additional generators—I’m sure Her Excellency can make them arrive within a day or so—and I’ve seen to their installment, I’ll let you know my decision.”
True to Tizeva’s boast that the citadels will send anything—as long as it is not personnel—the aegis engines arrive by nightfall. Sanenya directs her melodists to put them at strategic points; she assigns shifts. By her estimation, even the most junior melodist can maintain two engines for six hours each. The aegis is a bleached gold; gossamer-thin in the air. When she flings a pebble at it, the stone dissolves to dust on contact. The aegis engines are not, strictly speaking, suited to defense against behemoths, who don’t often come for settlements. But they are excellent against an aerial assault.
She spends the rest of the night poring battle annals, and most of all, illustrations of the behemoths. None true to life; they are all sketched from pilots’ descriptions. One exception is an image captured by a citadel scryer from on high, the behemoth surfacing from white ocean froth. Large, much larger than a vanquisher, long-backed and long-necked. There is an odd delicacy to the structure of its bones; the span of pale webbed wings unfurling as the creature rises. In maturation they take flight and seek the citadels to the exclusion of all else. An instinct perhaps, or a deeply inherited grudge from the time when humans made their nations upon the earth.
Ever since Tizeva entered the field, no behemoth has ever grown old enough to take to the sky.
At dawn, the might of Yneska mobilizes. Twenty vanquishers, thirty-nine pilots. The vanquishers are at their full height, in their various shapes. Some are draped in elongated eyes down their throats and spines; others have slit pupils clustered on their temples. Six-limbed, four-limbed, eight-limbed. As much variation between them as there is between their pilots, who stand in their carapace armor, sleek and jointed.
Tizeva does not look surprised when Sanenya walks up to her and That August Crown. Instead she extends her hand to help Sanenya up to the Crown‘s shoulder. “Now we’re ready,” she says.
The inside of a vanquisher’s heart. Sanenya knows it by theory, though that does not prepare her for the actuality. It is chitin-plated; drier than one would expect, illuminated by the vanquisher’s golden aorta and ventilated by the vanquisher’s breath. Two notched seats have been carved into this chamber. Sanenya wedges herself into one, folding herself tight, tucking in her knees and elbows; it is not comfortable. Tizeva draws the vanquisher’s umbilici out and slots them into her armor. Her eyes sharpen into harsh brilliance, and she settles into this oubliette as if it is the most luxurious in the world, a throne all her own.
“If you connect, it’ll be much easier,” she says.
“I do not have the training, Excellency, and I hear the backlash can be unkind.”
A rippling laugh. The Crown has lowered itself into the waters, its movements smoothing into weightlessness. “My Crown would never harm you. Do you want to see through its eyes like I do? No connecting, and it has excellent vision underwater.”
The chitin that walls the heart-chamber is thick, insulating pilots from impact, pressure, temperature extremes. For Sanenya it also insulates her from sight and sound. She can tell the vanquisher is in motion and will soon be underwater, but not much else. “I would appreciate that.”
Tizeva peels one of her gloves off and thrusts her bare wrist at Sanenya. “Bite my palm, below the thumb. Draw blood and take a little of it.”
“Don’t be squeamish, Melodist. It’s so you can share my link with That August Crown. My veins don’t run with poison, I promise. Be firm about it; don’t masticate.”
“I’ve never heard of anything like this.” Sanenya takes hold of the offered wrist; Tizeva’s skin exudes a muted perfume, jasmine and sandalwood oil. She fastens her mouth to Tizeva’s palm—slightly salty—and bites down hard. Improbably she breaks skin, and at once heat fills her mouth. Sweet, like burnt sugar. It cannot have been more than a trickle, yet it goes down her throat silken and warm, radiant in the way of potent wine.
When she blinks again, the opaque chitin-chamber is gone. In its place, a clear view of currents lapping blue and dark against vanquisher scales. Shafts of sunlight stripe the Crown’s forelimbs, gilding it until its tertiary eyes look like rubies set in platinum.
“This,” Sanenya breathes.
“Citadel scholars think they’ve extracted everything they can, hexing a vial of my blood, witching a cup of my sweat. But there’s much they don’t know about me or about vanquishers.” Tizeva cranes back her neck to look at the ocean-gauzed sky. Her hand is already healing, the wound a marginal nick, teeth-prints faded. No hint of bruising. The supreme creature; unmarred and impossible to mar. “The secrets of my arteries remain mine alone. And now yours, in part.”
Sanenya licks the inside of her mouth, her teeth. The taste is mostly gone. Intoxicating aftershocks; her pulse thrums. “Why let me in on it?”
“Why indeed?” Tizeva taps one of the umbilici, opening communication to her subordinates. “Estimated arrival in five minutes. I count three active behemoths—that’ll be their vanguard. I’m taking point. Rusul and Erret, take the rear. Sumys and Naheel, Urum and Idhya, supporting harpoons. Helix-cleave formation.”
The vanquishers split ranks. Sanenya can only see part of their movement, dark eidolons fleeting through water. Tizeva must be perceiving a great deal more—vibrations, distant currents and air exhaled from behemoth lungs. There is a force of intent to Tizeva that Sanenya has not witnessed before; a focus filed to a single glittering point.
Soon they sight a behemoth.
That it is much larger than vanquishers, Sanenya knows; at least twice the size. To witness the scale of it is a confrontation. A monstrous shark-form, gray and mottled, its long eyes luminous. Razor-thin mouths ridge its flanks and belly, and tiny grasping hands—humanlike—thrust out of its bifurcated tail.
“In range,” Tizeva says. “Release.”
The harpoons pull free and strike almost synchronously, burying deep in behemoth hide. The vanquishers wielding them surge in quick loops, winding the harpoon-lines tight. It doesn’t immobilize—in a battlefield like this, that is impossible—but it does impede. In her seat, Tizeva leans forward, mouth wide and teeth bared.
That August Crown charges with such speed that Sanenya’s view turns to liquid seams and irreal blots. In an instant she gets a look, up-close, of the behemoth’s eyes—such eyes, fathomless—before the Crown tears through.
They are on the other side, the behemoth behind them sundered. Guts the size of construction ropes undulate in the water, mingling with crimson-gold blood.
“You can let go of me now, Melodist.”
Sanenya breathes out, her heart hammering a war-beat against her ribcage, and unclenches her fingers from Tizeva’s arm. “I can see why the citadel lords will grant you anything.”
Tizeva snorts, loudly. “Six to go.” Her eyes are dilated and she looks ravenous.
They make quick work of the next behemoth, and the next after that. Tizeva is always the one to deliver the blow that decides. Because she is more ferocious, or because she’s the only pilot willing to get close to lashing behemoth cilia, to gnashing behemoth jaws. Sanenya wonders why Tizeva has ever accepted partners at all. Two pilots are usually required to maintain the link between humans and vanquisher, to split the sensory and control load. But for Tizeva, a partner may well hinder more than help.
“You seem entirely fearless,” Sanenya says quietly, if only to puncture the silence; the battle was quick, yet it feels as if she has been inside That August Crown for hours untold. Tizeva has lent her only sight, not sound, though this deep there would be none in any case. Only water, deafening and endless.
“On the battlefield I know one thing and that is hunger. Vanquishers are the supreme carnivores.”
“Am I here to be field rations?”
“Not to worry.” Tizeva’s tongue darts out, swiftly disappears. “I will not devour you whole. I didn’t eat my partners, did I?”
Tizeva’s attention turns ever downward, her gaze half-lidded, her mouth tight in concentration. To suppress her appetite, perhaps. To bend to the task before her. As far as Sanenya can make out, the view outside is near opaque, a total black relieved only by vanquisher pupils. Red needlepoints, like beacons.
Tizeva jerks her head up. “Do you hear that?”
Sanenya does, once she listens for it. A spiral of steady, shimmering notes. Bells, she might compare it to, except no bells or gongs could make sound that would travel at this depth. A sedate, looping arrangement like a threnody. The behemoths have their own song.
The music crests, and they are surrounded.
It is as if the behemoth has been there all along, chameleon, one with the deep. Slowly it blinks, with dozens upon dozens of eyes; each iris as large as a lighthouse lamp. Coils of cilia wrap around That August Crown, pinning the vanquisher’s limbs, holding it in place.
Tizeva is entirely placid, her hands folded in her lap. “That August Crown to all vanquishers. Hold your positions. Do not open fire. Do not engage.”
Sanenya’s heartbeat spikes. She inhales deeply. There is rhythm and reason to this, she thinks; the board has been laid and she has been invited to play. Tizeva’s game, running on madwoman’s maneuvers. The music continues, closer, louder. “You’ll have to explain, Excellency.” Formality firms her. “You knew this thing would be here.”
“I knew.” Tizeva cocks her head. “Behemoths lay eggs as close to the ocean floor as they can. Sometimes they can’t, so they use this instead—this creature is a mobile nest, if you will. Countless young in its stomach. It won’t attack us yet—right now it’s just curious. You could sing to it, Melodist, see if it lets us inside. I’ve set it up so you will transmit through my Crown’s throat.”
Sanenya opens her mouth—her primary one—and shuts it. Behemoth music. Her hymns. Not the same at all, but it is a channel of communication. This is a test of theory, one that Tizeva is willing to risk herself over. A theory that, if proven correct, will seismically alter their understanding of behemoths. Forever.
She opens her robe, bares her secondary mouths, and gulps in air. In so confined a space, her diaphragm will not be able to expand to its fullest, but any melodist worth their training can sing under worse limitations. Not that she has any idea. She knows hymns and canticles; she knows dirges and paeans. She does not know how to sing at behemoths. But she begins to harmonize to it, to the behemoth refrain. When its cadence shifts, so does hers. When it rises and falls, she follows in precise parallel.
The great behemoth parts itself wide and swallows That August Crown whole.
When Sanenya comes to, her first thought is that the chassis of That August Crown is breached and that she’ll soon drown. But it has merely been unlatched—no water is rushing in—and Tizeva is outside, whole and unharmed. Sanenya wipes at her mouth, taking an experimental sip of the air. Breathable, if unpleasant. Brine and musk, and suffocating humidity. She climbs out of the vanquisher; it seals behind her.
The inside of the behemoth is cavernous, lined in phosphorescence and resonant with that same threnody Sanenya has been hearing. More distant now, many-voiced. Her feet sink into algae and seaweeds, aquatic detritus that must have accrued from a much shallower level, those parts of the sea pearled by the sun. “Captain,” she says. “How did you know all this?”
Tizeva motions at That August Crown. “Most pilots don’t listen to their vanquishers. I talk to mine day and night. They carry ancestral memory. They may not perfectly remember what they used to be, but they do remember some. You know it too, don’t you? You guide them to birth. You know their anatomy inside and out.”
She does not know, but she has suspected. That the engineers and scholars of the citadels did not forge a new living weapon out of nothing; suture its intricate geometry solely from complex sorcery and hypothesis. The vanquishers are too precisely made; too particularly suited for their purpose. They were derived from a base, the same way Tizeva is.
The music swells.
They come to a wall fecund with eggs. Scores upon scores of them, laid in semicircular clusters and embedded deeply. Their shell is pale alabaster, dappled in bright yellow and ochre. Sanenya expects some stench, some animal reek. But they seem as clean as any birthing pool.
Tizeva steps closer to one of the clusters. She reaches for but does not touch them. “You know what to do, I think.”
“There is a chance it won’t work. A high chance. The song of emergence wasn’t made for this.”
“Or we could turn back and return to where we were.” Tizeva’s voice becomes sharp. “We sortie for the citadels, die for the citadels. The next lot replaces us and does the same. I can’t make you do anything, this least of all.” Tizeva shakes her head, eyes downcast, and says softly, “But I was earnest when I said I wished to hear your voices.”
There is no guarantee it will be as Tizeva has imagined. And even if they succeed there is no telling what will transpire in the changing of the map; the shifting of order.
“It would be most rude,” Sanenya says with a half-smile, “not to sing for you at least once, after so many requests.” She gathers herself and opens all her mouths.
By the time they are back in Yneska, it is past midnight. The entire brigade is accounted for; not a single pilot or vanquisher lost. A miracle in its own right. Sanenya’s control was imperfect; the behemoth hatchlings were wild, destructive, and famished from their long incubation. They ate each other, and then ate their way out of their mother.
As far as the pilots are concerned, their captain and Sanenya have achieved a divine feat. What they do not know, and which neither Tizeva nor Sanenya has disclosed, is that some of the newborn behemoths followed them home. Sanenya has sung them away, guiding them to remain at sea a good distance from Yneska, promising that she will visit them soon.
“It looks as though they imprinted on you,” Tizeva says from where she nests in the sheets. “Like ducklings. Isn’t that adorable?”
She came to Sanenya’s room on pretext of fatigue, but she doesn’t look worn out in the least. Emerging from the baths she was bright-eyed, intoxicated with triumph. She has since annexed Sanenya’s bed, sprawling across it bare and exquisite, her skin smooth save for the indentations where vanquisher umbilici have been.
Sanenya sits on the edge of the bed. A sliver of distance between Tizeva’s hard, naked body and her. “How long have you been cultivating your pilots?”
“A while. Who enjoys dying for masters that squander us like we’re worth nothing, when in truth we are worth far more than they could ever hope to be. It’s the sky lords who should die for us, not the other way around. And you, how long have you imagined sedition?”
“Only in my head. And some time. A few years.” She does not risk herself as the pilots do, yet no melodist can fail to understand the shape of things and fail to comprehend that it is unjust. And she loves vanquishers on their own terms. There is no reason for them to die far beneath the waves, ungraced and unmourned, their bodies never found. “You’ve been very sure of me, Excellency.”
“No more titles, if we’re to work side by side. I transferred here because you midwifed my Crown, and as a melodist gives much of herself to the vanquishers she wakes, I reasoned that I must know you a little.” She smiles and pulls Sanenya on top of her. “I want to rechart our course, Sanenya, and steer the course of our future. By the time we are done, we’ll never be spent as sacrifices again. What do you say?”
She has come this far. A long way down to plunge, and perhaps she will end as that boy did, pulverized bones and evaporating blood.
“You already know what I will say.” She lowers her face to Tizeva’s, brow to brow. “For the moment, I will allow that some celebration for the two of us may be in order.”
Tizeva laughs against her mouth. “Is that a general consensus?”
“That is a general consensus.” She presses her lips to Tizeva’s, who tastes just as Sanenya thought she would: like salt, like hunger, and most of all like falling. An endless fall, and at the last possible instant she will be caught, and borne up into the sky.