The Death of Roach

Issue #85

He has given me ink and parchment and told me to write, for salvation lies in the Aspects of the Thousand Gods, and the thirty-third is the confessional. I shall tell my story. But not to confess. Nor to boast. Nor—especially not—to atone.

I am Roach, of the Sand-Eaters. I have been a living weapon since my girlhood. I have stolen from the inner sanctum of the godborne. I slew the Wise Khayif and destroyed any hope of peace among humankind and godborne.

And I am not sorry.

Life begins and ends in blood. In my case it was especially bloody.

My mother had been sent to kill a prince, a grandfatherly man who would, according to my father, trust a pregnant woman. The man had trusted her, but his vizier had not, and before my mother could kill the prince, the vizier’s troops caught her and wounded her.

She made her way back to my father. He ordered her death, and he held her as they cut her open. She died apologizing for her failure.

My brother and I were raised in tangled mountains of sharp slate, far from the Kingdom of Peace. He would weep at night for fear of the dark. When I heard the weeping, I would steal out of my room and climb into bed with him, holding him close against my chest. It was the only touch the two of us ever felt as children.

The servants found out that we went to each other. When they forbade us, my brother wept harder than he ever had. After that I could still hear him crying through the manor, clear and bright, but I was ashamed of him.

At five years of age we ignited, light and thought splitting our skulls. I remember waking, my fever raging, and through the blaze of fever, I could see the servants’ sha, each one a network of interlacing wires as intricate as calligraphy. I brushed those wires with what I later realized were the fingers of my own sha, and their thoughts stung, distinct and pungent.

They worried we had been feverish too long, which I felt as a tingling, electric taste. They wanted news from the outside world, an empty taste like the aftereffect of sugar. Most of them wished to be rid of me, since I was mouthy and had a tendency to escape, but most of all they worried what my father might say, and that worry was a constant ache, like hints of vomit in the throat.

I played with their sha, like a cat pawing at string, and realized how easy it was to remove a memory or to convince another of things that were blatant lies. It is a heady, irreplaceable power. They call us godborne, but we are the only true gods on this earth.

Our father came for us, his sha impenetrable to us, like a stone fortress. “I hear that you have great compassion for one another, First and Second,” he said to us. Among the Sand-Eaters, a name is earned by taking a life, and we had not done so yet.

“Yes, father,” I answered. Godborne are blind to one another’s sha, true, but I felt as though my father could see through me anyway.

For the first four days in his manor we walked tiled floors, drank dark wines and ate soft dates drizzled with lamb fat and cheese. It seemed another world, an indefinable contrast between hard men and soft living. My father showed us maps, his weapons, and his assassins training in the courtyard, merciless humans whose minds would be fortified by drugs and meditation against the intrusion of other godborne. I was allowed to brush their sha. Each one filled me with reverence for my father, a taste so heady that wine has never compared.

On the fourth day, I watched each assassin fall to his knees and swear fealty to my father, a personal oath as binding as any before the Gods. As the last assassin reached him, my father beckoned to us. “First. Second. Come.”

We kneeled before him. I know the words of the vow now, but at the time, I had no idea what I was saying. I remember, though, that I felt as if I were confirming something I already knew.

On the fifth day, before a crowd of these assassins, he ordered my brother and I to kill each other.

“You cannot,” my brother mouthed. I did not answer.

I can still smell the jasmine that bloomed in that courtyard and the wine and lamb the spectators consumed. I heard them whispering about me. I was the girl, but no ill choice was I; I had climbed every cliff and explored every mountain around our little manor of stone. I would be the winner already, I knew.

The murdering knife passed between us, as all things are done among the Sand-Eaters, in poetry.

“I take you to me with blood and breast milk,” my brother intoned, the fear palpable in his voice.

“I take you to me with sinew and shadow,” I replied.

We faced each other and bowed. My father’s eyes were prods in my back.

I struck out with the knife for my brother. He caught the first blow. The second opened a gash in his arm. I saw fear in his eyes, and I thought, I cannot kill him. But it was my father’s command, and I would not disobey my father. So I kicked my brother’s legs out from under him and raised the knife. He kneed my stomach. The pain was blinding, yet I thanked the Thousand for it. He might live. I pursued my brother across the courtyard, caught him and struck him a resounding blow on the head with the hilt of the knife.

His voice was choked. “Please,” he whispered.

I hesitated, standing over my brother. I could hear him crying in my mind, remembered his warmth as I had held him to my breast to comfort him.

“Please.”

“Coward,” I said to cover my hesitation, but I was still not moving.

And then the knife went spinning out of my hand and my brother’s hands locked around my throat, squeezing and squeezing, until our father pulled him away. I gagged, coughing for breath. He would have killed me after all.

“You are my son,” our father said to my brother.

Then he turned to me. “Mercy is not your way, First.” I could see the punishment in his eyes.

This room has been my prison for the last year. It is sunny, wide, with a table for writing.

Each morning I can see their faces, brighter than the sunlight in this room. Wives and concubines offered anything to save their children. Riches, their bodies, each other. It made no difference. I sealed the exits. I slit small throats and the blood soaked the silks.

To satisfy the man who has asked me to write, I will make one confession. I hardly remember the Wise Khayif’s face as he died. But I remember his women and children. I know their eye color, their moles, the length of their hair, the words they tried to say as breath left them.

The man enters my room and sees the manuscript. “May I read it?”

I push the paper toward him and take the platter of spiced mutton and rice he hands me. The food is too rich to give to a doomed woman, but he keeps bringing it.

After a time, he looks up from what I have written and says, “What did your father do to punish you?”

“He hung me by my ankles, beat me until I could not see, and left me to escape my bonds.” I scoop greasy mutton on the edge of a knife. “That was how I learned to disjoint myself and remove my hands from the bonds. Of course, he hung me again. It became a daily ritual.”

“Thousand have mercy.”

I chuckled. Mercy. It was a damning word in my father’s court. “Do you know when I killed my first man? I was five. He was a caravan driver. My father told me that the man had blasphemed our Thirteenth Prophet, and we could not let it pass.”

I remember the details of that day. The weeping man, tears dribbling through his thin whiskers, fear souring his sha. The feel of the knife’s leather haft in my hand. By the time I had finished that day, blood soaked my clothes and ran like little rivers between the blue tiles of our courtyard.

“When I killed him, my father kissed my head and told me, ‘First, you are my daughter,’ and it seemed worth it.”

“Your father was a beast,” the man says. From outside, we hear a low cry. One of the wounded that the monks tend, wounded in this war my hand wrought through assassination. “Have you made the world he believed in?”

I scrape meat off the bones with my teeth. The cries of the wounded echo through the window. “I cannot speak for the dead.”

In my father’s court, I learned of the two great divisions among our people: godborne and human, first of course, but then of itansha and orthodox, of the murderous overlords of the khayifate and the innocent itansha dead we defended.

My father often spoke of the first Sand-Eater, who, like him, had no title other than Old Man. “Old Man was part in a caravan of believers murdered by the orthodox soldiers. They sang the praises of the Thirteenth Prophet even as their throats were slit.”

“The orthodox left itansha bodies face down,” I said, as I always did, filling in the next part of the story. “So their spirits could not escape to heaven.”

“Aye. They called itansha sand eaters, for the way they left them dead. They meant it to mock. We have made it a name to fear.” My father carefully let the explosive powder drain from his hand into one of the bowed glass containers, a steady stream of tiny rock chimes. “The khayif in those days had promised to purge the land of itansha, for he feared our claim to the throne.

“He was right to fear. Though his wives, children and brothers died, Old Man survived. He made it to the mountains. Tribes taught him, shamans who remembered the secrets of plant poisons and spells long lost to the godborne of the khayifate. He consorted with spirits of air and fire, who revealed the alchemy buried in the earth. In a few years, that khayif fell to one of our assassin’s blades. One day we will exterminate their entire line.”

I remember standing before a crowd of human Sand-Eaters, reciting the art of assassination, an act as delicate as a painter’s strokes, or a dancer’s pirouettes. “The truth in assassination is the fear. When you can make a king, a prince, a khayif beg for his life, you need not kill them. Powerful men have wept to know Sand-Eaters hunted them.”

My father clapped me on the shoulder and added, “I left a knife on a man’s pillow once. He went from bigotry to championing of the itansha.” He cupped my chin in his enormous, rough hand. “You are a knife in the hand of justice, and your edge is sharpened by fear.”

As he had in our battle, my brother surpassed me again. It was our name-trial, and I was determined to become a mountain cat. I slept in one’s tracks, near the lair, awaiting a sign, but nothing came. Soon I wondered if I had even read the signs correctly. I was drinking from a cloudy pond, the only water for miles in the barren rocky hills, when my brother bounded through the water.

“I did it!” he said to me.

“What?”

He held up a limp thing in his hand, its dead webbed feet shaking. “It came to me. I saw its sha and I took it—I just sucked it out, into me! Frog.” He glowed. “I have a name. Frog.”

I never found my mountain cat. I failed that name-trial, and the next, enduring my father’s disappointment each time. Until one day I awoke in a cave with a bug on my chest, crawling over me. If I hadn’t been so hungry for my father’s approval, I would have swatted it away. I held the little squirming thing that became me and cut away its sha, the little branches that made up its life, a flat, dusty taste, until they were absorbed into my own, until its thoughts and instincts ran along my soul-branches.

“Father,” I said as I returned. “I am Roach.”

I waited what seemed like years for his response.

My father, thank the Gods, did not laugh. “A survivor, then.”

The man looks up from the scroll. “You said you are not sorry.”

I pause, mouth full of tangy yogurt mixed with greens and honey. “I am not.”

“You have plunged the world into anarchy. Northmen ravage the Kingdom of Peace. There are five different men claiming the role of khayif, each with his own loyal army.”

“There will be no victor,” I say automatically. “Every relative close enough for a solid claim to the throne was murdered. We were thorough.”

“Do you still believe in your father’s vision?”

I hesitate. “Have you seen humans die?” I ask.

“Yes.” He looks away.

“I saw my first itansha dead at Densarria,” I say. “The people of that town had surrounded the itansha and forced them into a pit. They set a fire, and whoever tried to escape met a hail of arrows. I saw the burnt bodies of mothers and children, skin melted, blackened as it ran together, lying at the edge of the pit. Scorched arrows stood out from their bodies like fenceposts, fletching burnt away.

“Some men were strong enough to reach the row of soldiers at the rim of the pit. The soldiers hacked them apart, armor and swords against bare skin. All because of the difference between twelve prophets and thirteen.”

I can remember every detail. That horrible smell of ash culled from burned fat and flesh. Those empty, open eye sockets. Most of all, the look on my father’s face, the unspeakable rage. He had looked over every body, counting each one, his gaze lingering long enough to register their lives.

It is the man’s turn to be silent.

“We were the only justice they had.” I smile. “Salvation lies in the Aspects of the Thousand, and the first is justice.”

When I say that, I cannot help but see another child’s face, at another time, in an opulent room, a beautiful woman holding him, begging. Please, he’s not even the khayif’s. There’s a guard who poses as a eunuch. He’s the father. I raised the blade. The child died.

“The second Aspect is mercy,” the man says.

It is impossible for me to speak of Spider except as a mistake. I always thought my father was a fool for trusting her; for all that I would make that same mistake myself.

My father told me a single Sand-Eater had disobeyed him, a godborne, and I had to find him and bring him back. He was barricaded in the crypts below the city of Anticrae, lime-crusted half-drowned tunnels.

Anticrae rose from a floodplain, a city dominated by three massive towers, far beyond the high tide. In ancient times it had been a place of tombs and altars, a hall of the dead for the older tribes. Now it was a marvel made new, with saltwater purified through thick layers of korastone. The old catacombs were mostly forgotten under the new sewer and waterworks.

It was a hot, breezeless day when I descended into that darkness. The catacombs were cool, the air tangy with salt and lime.

In the faint glimmer of water in the dark, I could see the cracked, sloping walls, runes skewed by broken stone, stone figures worn away to lumps by crusted salt. I emerged from the tunnel into a wide, black chamber, once high-ceilinged, now filled with the rubble of old pillars and statues, the ceiling above me bulging where it hadn’t fallen in. I could only see by the faint shadow of water.

My quarry moved. I could hear the footsteps, light and barely noticeable over the steady wash of the water against stone. My sense of any sha was fuzzy; no discernable trace of another’s sha, just as it would be if I was hunting another godborne. I withdrew a blade from my belt, one that could extend to thrice its length at the right touch.

My quarry came closer, on the other side of the pillar. He had heard me, no doubt, but sounds were tricky here. In preparation for this, I had spent days in deep, wet caves, following sounds and judging distances, so that I could be equal to one who had lived here.

I tossed a pebble across the room. My quarry stopped.

I lunged—and landed on a snarling, sodden, half-dead lion. He tore gouts of flesh from my arm. I switched hands and extended the blade through his midsection, but not before his paw took a chunk out of my cheek. I staggered back against the stone, yanking my blade from him, ignoring the pain, seeking a void where I was only that blade. I should have tasted the lion’s sha. My quarry had hid it from me, but even the best sha-mask could be tasted by a focused Sand-Eater. I had been a thrice-fool, overconfident. I ran from the lion up a half-fallen pillar, clutching at the weathered stone.

Halfway up the pillar my quarry caught me, a quarterstaff slipping lightly by my ankle, like a fishhook. I leaped away but stumbled and fell, landing in the water. I saw his shadow descend from above. I lunged with the blade, but he was fast, and thin, as fast as me. I dodged, but I put out my injured arm to steady myself and my vision burst red. Before I could recover, he had me, quarterstaff closing in on my windpipe.

“Roach,” a woman’s voice said. “Your father will be so disappointed.”

I didn’t understand she meant, not even when she led me through a secret tunnel to a villa in the city, and there I saw my rogue Sand-Eater. She was light-skinned and wiry, obviously a half-breed of some northern raider. She was dressed as a man and, as I watched, stripped off a false black beard that might have fooled others. She smirked as she watched me stand and try not to pass out after the blood I had lost from the lion’s attack. “Old Man?” she called.

My father emerged from a curtained chamber, followed by two more godborne Sand-Eaters. I thanked the Gods that one was not my brother. “Spider, you did well.” He raised my chin, not caring that blood still ran from my cheek where the lion had caught it. “Roach, this is the second time you have failed me.”

I said nothing. Words would only make me appear weak.

My father stood up and took Spider by the arm, drawing her close. She was easily my age, at fourteen barely a woman, but he kissed her as if she were full-grown and drew her into the chamber he had come from. “Keep a watch on her,” my father said to the assassins. “All night.”

I listened to my father and Spider enjoy each other while I waited on hands and knees, shivering from pain and fever. The Sand-Eaters around me had fortified themselves with drugs and meditation against godborne intrusions, and they were strong warriors, but nonetheless I could have overcome them. I could have run. I did not. I remained there.

In the morning Spider emerged from the chamber, wrapped in a silk robe. She put her shoulder under my armpit. “Come,” she said, “let’s clean your wounds.”

“No!” I muttered, and tried to push her away, but I was too weak, and I collapsed. She lifted me anyway, deceptively strong. As I lay on a cot, feeling her scour my wounds and scrape away infected flesh, I remember her voice. “He really does believe that you can be great.” She laughed. “He will be furious that I spared you, but he will thank me in the end.”

I recovered there. Several times Spider came to check on me, fresh from some mission, still wearing a false beard and headscarf to make her look like a man, and each time she simply asked, “Are you well?”

I was glad she came dressed so. I had never truly spoken to another woman, save for a few servants. My father kept a harem for his human soldiers, but he had forbidden it to me. It had never occurred to me that there would be other Sand-Eaters who were both godborne and female. I knew my gender mattered little to my father. I never realized what he might be saving me for until Spider.

The last time she came she had kohl-lined eyes and bright, full lips hidden behind a diaphanous veil. Her red curls were piled high, set with a glittering filigree of korastone pearls. She wore a green silk robe, cut to show her pale midsection and a pale thin shoulder. She leaned close. “Your father is taking you home. I am coming with you. It seems he wants me with him.”

“I should be dead,” I said. “He wanted me dead.”

“I would be dead many times over if Old Man hadn’t spared me,” she said. She leaned close and whispered in my ear, kissing my earlobe softly. “You will be far greater than him.”

“Was Spider born to the Sand-Eaters, as you were?” the man asks me.

I stare across the room at the blank wall. I am tired of this. He has brought me more food, fried flatbread stuffed with garlic and quail eggs and spiced sheep’s brains, but it sits untouched. “She told me she had been a child whore in the empires of the East. She murdered some lecherous lord. A secret itansha was in the court that sentenced her, and he smuggled her to us.”

“Gods. A child.” He shudders.

I laugh. “I’m quite sure she was lying. The stories about her past would change, you see, depending on what someone needed to hear.” I look down at the food. It turns my stomach. “How long are you going to do this?”

“Until you have told your entire story.”

“You will never know it all,” I say.

He stares at me, eyes narrowed, looking for something. So earnest. So trusting. What sort of man would spare my life? Who would come alone into a room to a Sand-Eater that most men would kill on sight? Who would think that I could be redeemed? To think that the Gods would make such a fool.

“Why not?” he asks.

I laugh.

The beginning of my end was simple enough. My father was sitting in repose in his private chamber, lit by floating whitefire lamps, surrounded with the curling haze of hashish smoke. Frog and I both sat on the floor with him.

“Spider thinks we should shift our attention from the khayifate,” he said. “She thinks that if we take the holy city of Ursalim, all the godborne will capitulate.”

I spoke as boldly as I dared. “Father, no army has ever taken the holy city. If we fail, the khayifs will easily break what is left of the Sand-Eaters.”

My father didn’t answer. Coils of smoke escaped his mouth. After ages, he said, “Spider is too rash, and too passionate, but she sees the truth of people.”

Spider was neither rash nor passionate. I wondered what other lies my father believed of her.

“Ursalim will kill you,” Frog said, suddenly.

My father stared at Frog. “Prophecy, Frog?”

“Prophecy?” I asked.

“Frog fancies himself clairvoyant,” my father said. “Tell me why I should not go, if the Thousand speak so to you.”

Frog hesitated. “I—they do not give me reasons, father. But—”

My father spat. “A Sand-Eater makes his own world. Do not put faith in prophecy and fate.” His tone took on a different meaning. “I have a task for you, Roach.”

As if I were clairvoyant myself, I heard test rather than task.

A man approached our manor blindfolded, on a camel that was the only non-assassin who knew the way. The man’s sha was oddly placid, in a way I had only seen in soldiers taught to resist godborne. Unreadable, save for a general contentment in the moment, a calm void.

He was old, his hands palsied, and he bore more scars than a man should have, stretching across his forehead, skewing down his checks, slashing through what had once been a nostril. I have never seen so many scars on a living warrior. I drew my horse up next to his camel and reached over to remove his blindfold.

He had godborne eyes.

“You are hathra,” I said.

“You use the old word,” he said in obvious delight. “I hate being called a Flare. It’s a polite term, they say, because we are little more than a fire that leaps, still a part of the fire of the godborne. Hathra, though—that has real meaning. A wildfire, just about to be caught by wind, on the verge of consuming the world.”

Flare. A failed godborne, cursed to begging. I had never seen one before. The soul-branches of his apparently human sha swirled around him, intricate and perfect, yet a hodgepodge of human and animal sha woven together. Every day, he remembered when the curse of the Flare struck. He had stood near humans and, rather than reading them, he had begun to consume them. They fell dead, their thoughts rushing into him like sweet wine. He had been more dangerous than a droc until he was burned out and made human. “You were a Sand-Eater.”

“Yes. I was Scorpion. When the curse struck, my fellow Sand-Eaters burned me out. It was a great risk. They were not trained. I love them for it.” He pointed to the scars. “This is my mark. None of these were mine. They all belonged to my men. Can you believe it? Other Flares look like trees, or rocks, or water, but I just grabbed every ugly mark I could from those around me. Sha-hunger isn’t discriminating.”

“Don’t you find it tempting?” I said. Only careful meditation and cultured calm kept a Flare from reigniting. “You could have the power back whenever you want.”

“I find it tempting,” the man said. “Much like a child, tempted to poke a snake. One must rule the impulse, as much out of fear of foolishness as fear of harm. I wonder if Old Man understands that.”

For a long moment, silence hung in the air.

“There is another Scorpion,” I said after the moment of silence. She had been the third female Sand-Eater to ignite, after myself and Spider. “My father is Old Man. He accepted her name-test just a few weeks ago.”

The man broke into a smile again. “A woman! Heron—sorry, I mean Old Man. Didn’t mean to denigrate your father, but I am too old and still think of him as Heron—Old Man is brave to do so, since Old Man before your father hated women.”

Had I been more foolish, I would have thought my father had been more rigorous with me because of my gender. But he expected perfection of every Sand-Eater, regardless of what lay between their legs. And this was my chance.

The Flare that had once been called Scorpion spent a day closeted with my father. When they emerged, he told me, “Your father wishes you to guide me home, to Tal-hedran.”

He knew I would kill him.

I saw, in his sha, his conversation with my father. “My brothers pruned my sha after I was burned out,” the man who was once Scorpion had repeated, speaking to my father to the point where he grew annoyed. “I don’t remember the location of this place, or the secrets of your alchemy, or anything other than a few names.”

“Do you still believe?” my father asked. “Do you serve the Aspect of Justice, and Justice only?”

“I have not forgotten the itansha dead,” he said.

It was naked in his sha. He was no longer was a Sand-Eater at heart. I would have said that was the moment my father chose to kill him, but I knew my father. This Flare was simply a thread that had come loose from the tapestry and had to be cut.

We traveled away, toward Tal-hedran. All day, the Flare once called Scorpion held to his serenity, a feat like a marathon. When we stopped, I offered to find a mountain goat and cook part of it. “This is fine,” he said, withdrawing beans and rice and an ash-crusted pot from his belongings.

“At least let me scrub your pot clean,” I said.

He laughed. “I would hate to die with a dirty pot.”

I wetted some sand and scrubbed until the crust of old char was gone from the pot, then promptly added more char by cooking with it. We ate beans and rice with onions and garlic. “Odd to think that I chose this for my last meal.” He chuckled. “I thought I was tired of beans. I suppose it’s become comforting.”

“Fine food and practiced courtesans await us at the resorts near Tal-hedran. I will allow you time, as long as no godborne comes close to read your sha.”

“Whatever I taste or whomever I bed will be pale,” he said. He stared into the fire, now dying to specks of blue flame on the camel dung and juniper branches. The camel nosed his arm, and he fished in his pockets until he came up with a date. He handed it to the camel and it ate, flapping lips leaving a trail of slobber on his hand. “Camels.” He wiped his hand on his pants. “That was my last date.”

“You won’t even eat a date before death?”I withdrew my knife and began sharpening it. This would be quick. No slitting the throat and letting the blood drain. I would hold open his mouth and stab through the roof of it, right into the brain. He deserved a quick death.

He ignored my comment. “At its heart, the difference between itansha and orthodox is so small. Thirteen prophets instead of twelve.”

“That is not all,” I said.

“Oh, we have the Sand-Eaters,” he said. “But in our hearts, I believe that itansha and orthodox use doctrine as an excuse to see their own fears in the other.”

“That is not it,” I said. “The itansha have been hunted for their beliefs. Slaughtered. Children died. We give them a voice, a memory, while the orthodox rule in hypocrisy.”

“You sound like your father.” He paused. His sha said clearly what he thought, but he said it anyway. “You are not quite like him.”

“I believe,” I said, rising. I stood, still holding the knife ready. “No one, until the Sand-Eaters, avenged the itansha dead. No one gave them voice.” I barely stopped myself from saying, who are you to question my faith?

“I will not argue the point.” His eyes caught the blue flames of the fire, clear and reflective. “Will you allow me to sing? In the village where I was born, before I joined the Sand-Eaters, we sung at every important occasion in a man’s life.”

The memory was so clear. It cut through my muddy anger. His itansha village had burned, herded into a mass grave. He had come to the Sand-Eaters full of hatred, reciting the names of those who died in his village.

And somehow, in the wake of being burned out and losing everything he had a second time, that hatred had faded. He had every reason to hate, and he no longer did.

“Sing,” I said, lowering the knife.

He opened his mouth to the night.

Hear, o man
Low is your body
Low are your blood and bones
Your soul scrabbles in dust.

 

Mercy is upon you
As the very air wraps around the dawn light, and the dawn light embraces the air,
So does the mercy of the Thousand embrace you, o man

 

There is no death for he who revels in mercy
There is no despair
The wanderer is given home, solid stone
The wife is given a husband, the child a parent
Trust in your Gods, who made standing rocks and shifting sea, and trust mercy.

My hand trembled on the knife. I could not kill a man like this, no more than I could kill my father. They had faith I would never have.

The man lowers my scroll. “But you did kill him,” he says. “Your father would not have let you live otherwise.”

“Yes.”

I walked away from the Flare that had once been Scorpion, away from Tal-hedran and toward the deepest parts of the desert. I stumbled in the sand, weeping as much as Frog had when we were children in the manor of stone.

I had seen myself, and I was empty, no more than a vessel for my father’s belief.

I did not know where I would go. Thirst finally took over, and I followed signs to a spring. When I reached water, Rat and Badger were there.

They brought me before my father. The Flare was there as well, kneeling. Spider stood with my father. She wouldn’t meet my eyes. The old Flare, once Scorpion, would. He stared at me, his white eyes and his pure sha gleaming with a peace I could not understand.

“Mercy is not your way, First!” my father said. Not even the courtesy of a name, not anymore. “Give mercy to the air and fire.” My father held out a korastone knife that gleamed in the white light, sharper than sin.

They knelt me next to the Flare. Kill me, he mouthed, and live.

I drove the knife up through the back of his neck, into his brain. It was a merciful death.

When I was done, my father twisted me around and spat into my eyes. My eyes stung.

The day had grown hot, drying the spit on my face when my father tied me to the posts in the same pit where I had fought my brother. Bits of slate and old chips from the forge had been woven into the whip’s leather twists, and between them, I saw the white godborne-eye glint of korastone. Put there, no doubt, to increase the bleeding.

The first fall of the whip was like a slap; a mild, stinging line across my flesh as painful as an open-palmed strike. A moment later, my skin tore open along the line of that slap. The second whip-stroke, and the third, and the fourth, were miles of daggers. My skin shredded and hung in ribbons. A stroke curled around my face and tore my cheek away like goat-hide.

I begged my father for mercy, a high, torn wail. I knew he thought I was weak, and I did not care. I gurgled on my own blood in my screams.

The ninth stroke tore my left breast to a ruin. After the tenth stroke left two fingers bare to the bone, I reached out. I pushed and strained through the sha, seeking a faithful human, but they were not near. Sha was a great golden glow beyond the horizon. I couldn’t reach it.

They cut me down after the thirteenth stroke. I lay in the sand. Something erupted from inside me, a moan, a screech, a wail of my wasted dead life, and I crawled, dragging myself, bleeding a river, through the mansion, uncaring, unseeing, until I reached the threshold of my brother’s room.

Frog was not there. I thought—I imagined—I prayed—that I heard him weeping inside.

They dumped my body in the desert.

Somehow, I retained clarity. I suppose it was the years I had spent with pain. When the creatures came and crawled over me, for a moment I thought they were scorpions. “Forgive me,” I muttered.

But no, they were roaches. They cleared the sand from my blood and ate the infected tissue. By some god’s fool whim, they kept me alive until I could drag myself to water. Eventually, I cut dead willow and made fires, and ate locusts. And I lived on, in the desert; a scarred madwoman crawling with insects. I imagine I became a rather frightening legend. At least I think that was how Spider found me.

In my half-mad state, it seemed like there were a dozen chattering voices issuing from her, speaking tongues of air and fire. “Roach.”

I turned to the opening of my cave. I tried to speak, but all I could manage was a dry croak.

“Old Man is going to Ursalim. I—” She paused. “I am not going with him, unless he changes his mind.”

“Why—” I swallowed whatever moisture I could manage. “Why are you here?”

“I thought Ursalim was the way to victory, but Frog has seen Old Man dead each time. Old Man does not believe him, but I do. Old Man will destroy the Sand-Eaters. Come with me.”

Somehow I found the strength to push her away. “No!” I said. I laughed and said the only thing that made sense, the only thing that kept me alive. “He is testing me. I won’t fail.”

She looked on me as if I were a lamb staring at a butcher’s knife, oblivious of its real purpose. “Your father has forgotten you exist.”

I didn’t reply. I knew her words were part of the test.

“You have not written anything today,” he says, handing me a plate of flatbread and diced lamb with onions.

I do not take the food. “You know what happened,” I say. “My father died. Frog and I succeeded him. We combined our talents and became one Old Man. We crafted the intrusion of Sand-Eaters into the Wise Khayif’s palace. I killed him.”

“Yes.” He pauses. “I am looking for something else.”

I spring to my feet and dart toward him, so fast that I am breathing in his face before he can move. “Why do you come here? You could go down the road and find a caravan, and every man and woman there will have lost children to the flames of this war. And I am not sorry.”

I catch his sleeve and it tears. “Who have you lost? Who did you know that died in the flames of Kahbadam, or was trampled under war-horse hooves? I am not sorry, man-who-seeks-to-redeem-me. I am not sorry for the Wise Khayif. Judge me now.”

He won’t meet my eyes.

I take the plate of food and press it into his hands.

He looks at me, and looks at the paper on my desk, and turns to leave. At the door, he hesitates. “Write of how Spider convinced you.”

I curse him silently. I know I will write it. It is the only way to hasten my fate.

Two Sand-Eaters took me. I had never seen either one before.

They held me in my father’s house. Frog had those few Sand-Eaters with some healing skills tend me, until I could stand on my own and speak coherently, though they told me nothing until Frog came. My brother had actually grown thin, with haunted eyes, as opposed the fat thoughtful child he had been. “I thought it would be her,” he said.

“What are you talking about?” My voice was a nervous rasp.

“Spider.” Frog fingered a flask at his hip nervously; his hallucinogen-laced milk, I was to learn, that he was now never without. “She was so angry when he left her here.”

“Ursalim,” I said, faintly remembering.

“The mission failed. The godborne killed him. The whole khayifate speaks of how our father’s skin flaps in the breeze, on a flagpole above the Great Sanctuary. All the old Sand-Eaters died with him, Roach. Lizard, Rat, Badger, Vulture.....”

For a moment my vision coalesced, the lights turning it full of bright colors, and voices chattered in my ears, my own voices. My father, dead. My father, dead?

It wasn’t true. My father was a god, an eternal Aspect like a pillar. “Find me Spider,” I said. “And Worm.”

Worm was where he usually was—in his laboratory, a stinking room crowded with masses of books and beakers and the hanging eyes, tails, and hands of various creatures. He had five fires going at once, making the place hotter than the open desert at noon, though he didn’t seem to notice.

He was a tiny man, completely hairless. He blinked a few times. It was his sole gesture. He never smiled, never tapped his temple or nodded like a northerner. He just blinked. “Roach. You are here.”

“Frog found me.” It still felt strange to talk. “I need something from your black room.”

Worm unlocked the small door. A high screech echoed from the other side; one of Worm’s little things. Worm looked at me and unleashed a flurry of blinks. “Wait.”

He emerged a moment later with a close-knit mesh cage. The things in there looked like large ants, though no ant had such a large, barbed stinger. Through the mesh, I saw a brief flash of incandescent wings.

“Two females,” he said. “The males keep dying.”

“You have more?”

“Eggs,” he said. “I have eggs. Old Man wanted to call them night-makers. This one is Amaradith. This one is Halaakha.”

I burst out laughing. He had named them after the Prophets.

Worm blinked furiously. “Their stings will make the victim mad. Nightmares. Blindness. Colors. I’ve not experienced it myself.” He sounded almost disappointed. “I have observed humans who were stung. This should do. Pray over them before you kill them. They are living creatures.”

Spider was harder to find. I left the mountains with only the cage, a few knives, and a camel, seeking her in old haunts. There were colonies of itansha, hidden far from caravan routes, that the Sand-Eaters often resided in, as a kind of protection by reputation, but I did not find Spider in any of them. I checked the darker, more dangerous neighborhoods of Al-arancas, but there was no whisper of Spider.

I finally found Spider in the first place we met—in Anticrae.

She emerged from the back of the villa, into the front room where I had once waited, bleeding, listening to my father and her make love. She had changed—even rangier, thinner and too quick, like her namesake.

“You aren’t in the catacombs today.”

“Not today,” Spider said. “Why are you here?”

“You know he’s not dead,” I said.

Spider laughed, and then put a hand to the wall to steady herself. “I don’t know anything. I thought he would take me with him. I thought he knew that I would do anything for him, even sacrifice myself.”

“Come now,” I said. “Don’t lie to me.”

“What?” Spider pretended hurt. “You doubt my honesty?”

“You didn’t love him.” I stepped forward. “Not like you love me.” I reached a hand out to take hers. “We are sisters, you and I, sisters in his strange love and hate.”

“Sisters,” Spider said, and moved as if to embrace me. I pulled back, withdrawing her hand. I had offered the lie to Spider, and Spider had embraced it. It was clumsy, but Spider had grown clumsy in solitude.

“What is it?” she asked as I drew away. Her pretend hurt was still plain. So many of the other Sand-Eaters—so many other godborne—would have fallen for it. “You said—”

“Spider, why am I the only one who sees through you? We’re not sisters, and you never loved my father.”

Spider looked at me and smiled a strange, hungry smile. Then I knew that I was seeing the true Spider, beneath a flurry of faked emotion, for my father, for me, a being more alien than Worm’s little creatures.

“The only feeling you have,” I said, “is the feeling of little things struggling in your web.”

“And here I thought you were as blinded by passion as your father.”

“I am,” I said. “I know he’s alive, and I’m going to go get him, and I think you will find the business of doing so much more interesting than sitting around here doing... whatever you are doing.” I looked around the villa. “What are you doing?”

“You’ll find out eventually,” Spider said. “For now, let’s say that I want to let you struggle in the web a little longer.”

“I knew I could appeal to your emotions,” I said.

We passed through the portals of Ursalim undetected. I had killed so many, and caused so much damage, but the godborne who filled this city and who trained here had no idea who we were. “They didn’t even ask about the cage,” Spider said, hefting the mesh-covered box that held Worm’s night-makers. From inside, the things hissed.

“Plenty of men carry scorpions for fighting pits,” I said.

“Very small fighting pits.”

“What odds would you give a spider and a cockroach?”

“Even,” she said.

Ursalim rose around us, the holy city resplendent and shining in the afternoon sun. Minarets reached into the sky, gleaming with filaments of korastone carved into the shape of the Prophet’s words. Villas loomed over the streets, perfectly symmetrical, octagons and domed circles, glittering with the words of the Prophets. Even the paving stones we walked on bore the words of the Prophets.

“We could burn this whole city,” Spider said. The vehemence in her voice was almost close to reality. Perhaps Spider had become a better actor on our trip south. “Find the Flares who are preparing to be burned out. Unleash these creatures on them. Imagine. Shattered streets. Warped korastone.” She licked her lips.

“I don’t want to kill anyone,” I said.

“You aren’t your father’s daughter.”

“Of course not,” I said. “Everyone should have learned that by now.” I was weak, flawed with mercy, a coward, only doing this because I had to.

We pushed through the immense market square and joined a new river of pilgrims funneling out of the market, rising up the steep steps that led to the high, cliff-perched Great Sanctuary and the adjoining school of the godborne.

The stairs switched back and forth, vast wide things thronged with the white-robed pilgrims who had come from every corner of the Kingdom of Peace. Creamed-coffee skinned Amarites mingled with tall, obsidian-skinned men and women from the far south and fat-faced, narrow-eyed horsemen from the north, and even a few white-skinned yellow-haired northerners, their skins freckled like a pox from the Amarite sun. The slopes above us rose to craggy, ice-covered heights, the sacred mountains that marked Ursalim out from the rest of the plain.

“How are you sure that he will be in the school?” Spider said.

“Didn’t you study the layout of the school and the Sanctuary?” I said. “It’s built over caves, the dwellings of the first godborne in a time where they were feared and hunted by humans.”

“I never cared much for history,” she said.

We reached the top, and the Great Sanctuary. Minarets and domes surrounded it in circles, seven upon seven. Canals, bearing the icy headwaters of the Salh river, flowed from the center off the massive square where a single black building rose, a perfect square carved with two gilded characters in korastone for Justice and Mercy: the tomb of the Prophet Amaradith, the Binder. Here the praying pilgrims rose and fell as one, a great wave.

“That’s the school’s main entrance,” Spider said, pointing to a wide set of stairs to their left. “The front door is as good as any.” We veered away from the pilgrims and crossed the space to the school of the godborne

The school was a maze; carved into the rock, it stretched across the cliffs above Ursalim for nearly a square mile above and below. I knew where I was going, though. I had memorized the layout. We took turn after turn, past classroom after classroom, until we reached the wide hall that led to the penitent’s quarters, deep in the mountain.

“Hold.” Two Kora soldiers stepped from the sides of the entrance, spears at the ready. “Do not disturb the penitent, please.”

I looked at Spider.

It was so easy.

The cage flew open and the things leaped, faster than the Kora could move their spears, and each one attached itself to one soldier’s face, stinging over and over. Both fell back. Their sha spun, blinding, throwing off different iterations by the dozens, hallucinating, imagining that fire was sweeping over them and scorching them to the bone.

The main trunks of their sha were each marked by the thick hook of a Binding, and the madness bolted out from those hooks in bolts of spinning ilsha, striking the godborne throughout the building.

The madness was like a wave washing over me, but it made no change. I knew such madness well. We knocked the soldiers aside and ran into the dark hall that led to the penitent’s quarters.

The main room was small but ornate, stacked with gilded books and tapestries, korastone, scimitars and knives, no doubt kept here because of their value. There was a single door in the stone, the height of a small child.

One qayir leaped from the corner, her white godborne eyes bright in black skin. She was the tallest woman I have ever seen, and rock-tough. She brandished a blade of her own. “No further, Sand-Eater,” she said.

I stepped toward her. “I just want him back.”

She lunged. I suppose she thought to run me through before I noticed. She should have been able to—she was strong, inflexible, freshly trained—but a quickness in my bones, a roach’s skittering, let me dodge her, dancing around until I could seize her hand and, with pressure in the right place, force her to drop the blade. A simple trick of weight and falling let me toss her to the ground.

She looked up at my knife.

“Tell me your name,” I said.

“Baisa.”

“Go,” I said, and lowered my knife. “Be merciful to the itansha.”

“You are mad,” Spider said as the woman ran. She sounded fascinated.

I tore into the penitent’s quarters. Spaced-out torches lit the carpeted stone tunnel, illuminating tapestries that had been awkwardly hung along the walls. I flung the tapestries aside.

“There are other tunnels,” Spider said.

“They would keep him close.” I tore aside one tapestry to reveal a tiny door, no bigger than a four-year-old child. “I suppose I will be squeezing through.” I took a torch and pressed myself into the tunnel.

The tunnel ended in a pit of sand, and I shivered. It felt like the same sand that had once caught me in my death. My father was huddled against the wall. My father, and not my father. I could see his sha, a tiny thing of fear and madness.

“Roach?” He looked up at the torch, his eyes blank and white in the light, blinking. “I knew you would come. I know it would be you. Frog is too afraid.”

They had burned him out like a Flare. By their rules, no godborne could pronounce such a sentence upon another, not even upon an enemy. But they had.

“You are here. You have the knife.” He crawled forward, his thin bones scraping across the stone. “Thank the Gods, thank the Aspects.” Had he been himself, he would have named the Thirteenth Prophet in the same breath. He did not. “Cut my throat. Give me the end I wished for.”

“Father... how did they break you?”

He clutched at her skirts. “I am sorry, Roach. I always knew you were the stronger. Prove it. Kill me.”

It could have been that he was babbling madly. It could have been that he had, in this darkness, convinced himself of my strength. He had never believed me to be strong, but this was not the man who had been my father.

“They know everything, Roach. They will find us. They knew I was coming. They have stolen every secret out of my sha—our location, our arts, our agents—”

I finally understood. A blade in the hand of justice. It was never my choice. That had been my father’s mistake.

“To kill you would be a mercy, Father,” I said.

“Yes,” he blubbered. “Please.”

“Mercy is not my way.”

In the months to come, I would look out from my chambers and see my father begging like a dog. We kept him tied up in the courtyard of the Sand-Eaters, throat raw, hands scraping on the stone of the courtyard, begging for water.

I knew that the man my father once was would have been proud of me, at last.

The man speaks hesitantly, as if gauging my mood. “How long did your father live?”

“Months. He could have lived much longer. He was still a hardy man, even living off scraps. But someone put poison in his bread.”

“Frog?” the man asks.

“I don’t know.”

“Certainly not Spider.”

“Oh no, not Spider. No, she found it all far too interesting to end it early.”

“And so you returned in victory,” he says. “Willing now to lead the Sand-Eaters.”

“Frog begged me to be the Old Man with him. I was the figurehead he needed to train an army of recruits, new men to send on missions, new godborne, Jackals and Snakes and Lizards. But he was angry. Angrier still when he learned Spider and I were lovers—”

“Her?” The man nearly drops the parchment. “How—Gods—how could you have fallen in love with her? How—and you both women?”

I give him a half-smile. “She was never able to resist someone who struggled in her web.”

“It has to be more than that,” he says.

It was. I do not want to tell him, even if there is no point in holding off.

I lay next to her, my head pillowed on her breast. My father was muttering madly outside our tent. I shed a few tears for my wasted life, letting them water her skin.

It had seemed as though that day would be the same as the rest; stop, camp, make a fire, throw our scraps to the thing who was once my father, go to sleep. But once inside the tent, our lovemaking had been quick, fierce, and not until the peak were we both surprised to find ourselves where we were.

She stroked my hair. “Why cry? You have shown him that you are greater.”

I knew I needed her. She was the only one who could drive away my father’s ghost, the ghost of what he had been. She was the only one who could see him as a man and not a god.

“Roach?” the man asks.

The rice and pickled fruit on my table is now cold. “You should not waste such fine food on a damned woman,” I say.

He tsks, a sound of annoyance that was the only hint of impatience he has ever shown. And then it happens. He holds up the notes he has made on my parchment. “Did you kill the Wise Khayif’s children?”

Such an innocuous way to ask. “Yes, I did.”

“All of them?”

“His wives and their children were locked into their chambers. It took four hours to kill them all.”

“Just you and your knife.”
“I used my godborne talents to restrain their sha. They could have stopped me if they banded together, but they had lived shut-in lives, with little chance to ever defend themselves against anything but prying eyes.” I force myself to stare, white eyes to white eyes. “You could have piled the bodies to the ceiling.”

He does not answer. I wait. I lean against the wall to bear my weight after a time, waiting while he sits, still as stone.

Finally he stands. “Write whatever is left. Tomorrow I will judge you.”

Spider waited on the edge of the camp, black silks blowing around her in the wind. “I was afraid you’d leave without seeing me.”

“Let’s get out of sight,” I said, and led her away from her place, across a tall sand dune to a cove of rocks. As soon as we were there, she pulled me close, wrapped her arms around me.

“What is this?”

“This is goodbye. Also worry.”

Spider traced a finger down my face. After a moment, her hands ran down my back, and I flushed and responded, pulling her tight against me. She pulled the edge of my loose shirt down and bit my shoulder.

From there, it was a mixture of pleasure and pain.

Afterward, her cheeks, hot against my chest, curled with a smile. “It’s been a long time since I tried to seduce secrets out of anyone,” she said. “I thought I would try it tonight.”

“What?”

“I just want to know whether you’ve killed children before. Face to face, watching their eyes go dark as your blade slides in.”

Now that I thought of it, no. I’d seen children fall at a distance, to fire and arrows only. “No.”

“A secret! I caught you in my web.”

“You’ve have me in your web for ages,” I said.

She was quiet. When she spoke, it was a manner I recognized, a rare moment in which she seemed to feel what she was saying. “Be careful,” she said. “The children. It might break you.”

“I am a blade in the hands of justice.” I traced a finger down her thin jaw.

“My love, the hand that holds the blade is still your father’s.”

I pushed her away from me. “I have become greater than he ever was, remember?”

“Have you?” She smiled that dark smile. “Are you sure this is what I meant?”

I didn’t answer, just as I hadn’t answered her when she found me in the desert.

The last time I saw Frog another murdering knife passed between us, the last one I would bear.

“I take you to me with blood and breast milk,” he said.

“I take you to me with sinew and shadow,” I replied.

His eyes were bloodshot, from hashish this time, but as always, even under the influence of his narcotics, his mind was clear. “I am taking the Sand-Eaters deep into the desert,” he said. “Await us in a year, south of the Eastern portals in the Ahlasi mountains.”

I reached for my brother’s hand. I do not know why, but I wanted to feel his touch again.

He pulled his hand away. It had been too many years since those cold nights in the manor. We had never touched since.

I entered the khayif’s palace through tunnels dug by Sand-Eater sympathizers. I went to his room when he slept, stepping over the corpses of eunuch servants our other sympathizers had left dead. I slit his throat in his sleep.

Then I did my work in his harem.

I fled Kahbadam in disguise and waited for Frog for nearly a year, scavenging through the rough desert edge of the Ahlasi mountains. He never came. I heard rumors of slaughters, all the Sand-Eaters dead, and I also heard rumors of bands of assassins still buried deep in the desert, but I never learned.

Each night, when I closed my eyes, I saw the children. So many of them, all innocent of the world that used them.

Like a cheated man, I was found by these monks and their house of healing. And like a coward, I confessed.

The man returns the next morning with a small scrap of parchment, bearing half-formed characters. He hands the parchment to me. “Read.”

Malah, it reads, and Dah. I never learned, until I was an adult, that other children called their parents names like this. “A child’s writing?”

“My daughter’s,” he says. “It is all I have left of her.” He smiles faintly, his leathery brown cheeks dimpling.

“She died in the war?”

“Aye. I was a village sayir, godborne guardian of a small group of humans that had lived in the same place since the founding of the earth. The local governors had lost too many Kora, and they hired a coterie of northern horsemen to ‘protect’ our village.” He raised his hands to the air, a gesture of prayer. “The horsemen stole our food. They raped our women. They burned the Sanctuary where my wife and daughter hid.”

It would be foolish of me to say I am sorry, so I merely hand back the parchment.

He won’t take it. “No, no, I want you to hold it a little longer.” He smiles again, looking almost like the Flare who had been Scorpion. “I slew the man who led the horse-people. A lucky crossbow shot. He fell from his horse spitting and cursing my name. Do you know what I did? It may not surprise you.” He is clasping his hands together, wringing them. “I asked why. I cried to the heavens, why?”

His voice does not shake, as if he has committed this speech to memory. “Salvation lies in the Aspects of the Thousand: the first, justice; the second, mercy. I had always practiced mercy. I could not see how anyone else would not. My people—my wife—begged him to spare their lives, right until they could beg no longer.”

There are silent tears on his cheeks. I look away.

“You did not kill my daughter,” he says, misinterpreting my movement. “It was simply a horse-lord, doing as horse-lords do. But the question of why has remained in my mind. Why would a man do such unthinkable things?”

I look back at him. He is staring out the window, at the unblinking vista of brown hills and sunlight.

“I see now how a man comes to do the unthinkable.” He lifts the parchment to the light coming through the window. “I have here two stories. One story tells me of a woman who finally came to understand the truth: that she had to become the ideal of justice in order to make a perfect world. She went on to make that world, a victorious ending. The other....” He smiles for the first time this day. “The other is about a girl who was beaten, tormented, and abandoned, and how the woman made herself into a monster to forget the girl. But the girl wouldn’t die.”

“I was not a Sand-Eater for my father, or for Frog,” I say. “I saw the itansha dead. I knew I did justice when I slew the khayif.”

“But you are sorry for the children,” he says. He leans closer. “You didn’t kill them all.”

I freeze. My great secret. My death, if anyone knows.

“I know you too well now, Roach.”

Words are lead in my mouth. “You must not say a word. I truly will kill you if you do.” I whisper. “I killed many of them, you know. Dozens. And then....”

“And then?”

My knife had clattered to the bloody floor, dropped from a shaking, useless hand. I had wept for my own weakness. “I pruned their memories from their sha. They all think they were in service to a minor prince who was killed by Sand-Eaters a month before. I took them....” I swallow. “The women are courtesans and concubines. The children, highborn slaves or pages or soldiers. No one will suspect they are the khayif’s heirs.” My voice was hoarse. “You will not find them.”

He waits, as if for more.

I consider killing him. It would only take a moment. A finger through the eye. My hands, around his neck, choking him into silence. The secret is worth my life. It is all I have left—that I destroyed the khayifate at least, if not fulfilled my last mission.

The moment passes. I know I cannot kill this man.

He leans over and draws a knife from his belt. It is a simple little knife. Steel, not korastone, with a curved blade like a crescent moon.

“Mercy is a foolish trait,” he says. “To spare someone who has every reason to die. Who can understand that? It is not a rule by which empires live, or assassins. I believe it is a special kind of madness.” He hesitates. “Your father was right to fear your tendency for mercy. I cannot kill a woman who sorrows even for unforgiveable sins. I cannot kill a woman who still has mercy in her soul.”

“How can you spare me?”

“I believe—”

The words tear out of me. “I have committed unforgiveable sins. I have failed, I have failed my—” I stop. I bite back my tongue and feel my eyes grow hot. I have failed my father.

What madness is this? What sins do I truly weep for?

I do not trust myself to speak for a moment, until I can force back whatever damning words would have emerged, the echoes of those I had shed for the Flare. “Though I have felled an empire for it, I have not learned the meaning of faith.”

The silence goes on in that bright room. He looks down at the crescent knife. “Justice must have some meaning, even when tempered by mercy.” He gives me the knife. “You decide your justice.”

I am walking this morning, walking again toward the wilderness where I could lose myself. The once-remote, rocky mountains are close now. I come to their very feet before I stop. The knife is heavy in my hand.

The roaches gather at my feet. I drop the knife there. It breaks the crust of the earth and sinks in, as if trying to take a final victim.

The roaches carry it off. I send messages along the lines of their sha, instructing them to throw it into a deep, dark place.

The monks are hoeing in the garden when I approach. The man is with them. I wait at the edge of the garden, and one of the monks asks, “Can I help you?”

“I would like to study with you.” I meet the man’s eyes, and for the first time, I feel truly free. “Teach me to heal.”

My father was right to fear. Mercy did kill Roach of the Sand-Eaters.


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Spencer Ellsworth wrote his first novel at seven years old and never recovered. He lives in Bellingham , WA, where he writes and edits; the former has appeared in Fantasy & Science Fiction, Michael Moorcock's New Worlds, and many others; the latter includes slush reading and copyedits galore. He has also worked in wilderness survival, special education, and at a literary agency. He is married to fantasy artist Chrissy Ellsworth and is the proud father of Adia and Samwise Ellsworth. He lives at spencerellsworth.blogspot.com.

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