The Traitor Baru Cormorant, Her Field-General, and Their Wounds

Issue #85

Editor’s Note, Nov. 2014:  Beware! If you want to avoid spoilers for The Traitor Baru Cormorant, Seth’s Fall 2015 debut novel, don’t read this story yet; it spoils everything!

 

Baru Cormorant’s wound swallows half her world. She sorts her existence left and right, so that she can forget the proper things by turning.

When she takes up residence in the Elided Keep she orders the long room where she will hold court rearranged. All the blades go on the south wall, cleaned of gore; and all the worn heraldry of the Pyre dukes, trampled on the day she deserted them. Even the battle standards Tain Hu took for her at the Low Rail, though it pains her to look on them.

In the center of the arrangement she hangs her own war standard, the torn coin-and-comet pennant that rallied her Dukes on the day the rebellion began, on the day it ended, and on all the days between. The tear is new, and she thinks it fitting.

“Leave it unsewn,” she commands her servants. They are the Throne’s spies to the last man and woman, but they obey. As they should; she will be a member of the Throne soon enough, wound or no. Just one more test.

You are not half-blinded, the physicians told her. It is not so simple as that.

Just one more test.

She clothes the north wall, across from the standards and blades, with the papers of her old profession. Accounts, audits, inked on sheepskin palimpsest and marbled cream paper. The trusty chained purse she wore in her rounds. And a pristine royal seal taken from the governor’s house in Wei Szlatcha, capital of Pyre, where the Throne’s man first gave her the notion to rebel.

The wound runs deeper than that, the physicians said, and touched Baru’s temple, where the maul had taken her helm and unhorsed her.

When she stands at the east end of the hall the right side of her world, the wounded side, is the north, and so she can only understand the south: the heraldry and broken steel of rebellion. But when she sits in the high seat in the west, facing the other way, the right side of her world is the south and she can only comprehend the north, where she has hung all the trappings of loyalty.

You are not blind to your right, the physicians murmured. Not blind in your eye, at least. The wound runs deep into the brain. You have lost half your world. You no longer understand it exists.

When she sits in the west she is Baru Cormorant, provincial accountant to the royal treasury: a station she betrayed. When she stands in the east and the bannered south wall is her universe, she is Baru Fisher, who roused the duchies of Pyre in rebellion and then, as planned, sold them to the Throne.

A traitor either way.

Draw a clock, the physicians ordered. And she drew a perfectly ordinary clock for them.

You have drawn all twelve hours crowded between six and midnight, they told her. Are you hungry?

She told them she was. They gave her a plate of veal and she cleaned it too quickly. More, she said. I am weak.

You have only eaten the left half of the plate, they told her, and turned the empty plate half a turn. Somehow it was full again. Do you see?

It seemed, even then, to be a thing she deserved.

We will send one final test of loyalty, the Throne wrote. A ship with red sails will bear it to you.

She dares the battlements: not the seaward wall but the stonework that looks over the estuary beneath the Elided Keep. Here in the south the sky is steel and lamplight and it always threatens rain. By old habit, Baru Cormorant the accountant’s habit, she tabulates the birds that attend to the keep: a census of grebes, petrels, frigatebirds, wading jacana.

“Are you an educated man?” she asks her stripling concubine. “You must be. The Throne does educate its spies, doesn’t it?”

“My lady?” he says. His acting is impeccable, his slate skin flawless, his build an acrobat’s. Whoever sent him made a calculating choice; almost the right choice. Not quite.

She turns to face him. The estuary and the birds sweep off to her right and she loses them, even the calls, even the sound of surf. “Do you know the Hierarchic Qualm?” she says. “Tell me you know the Hierarchic Qualm, boy.”

The battlement drops into the outer yard half a meter behind him. He takes a nervous step forward. “Of course I know the Qualm,” he says. “‘The sword kills, but it is the arm that moves the sword. Is the arm to blame for murder, then? No. The mind moves the arm. Is the mind to blame? No. The mind has sworn an oath, and only does its duty, as written by the Throne. So it is that a servant of the Throne is blameless.’”

She waves him off. “Good enough.” She glances back toward the estuary, drawn to make another count of the birds, and only remembers the boy again when he steps around to her left, his eyes cast down.

“Does the Qualm console you, my lady?” he asks.

She watches a jacana as it walks on leaves. “What grief would I need consoled?”

The concubine edges closer, wrapping himself in his arms as if suddenly conscious of the sea wind. “It is said that you raised all of Pyre in rebellion,” he says to the stone below, “but that you were false. It is said the Throne commanded you to rebel, so that it might draw out sedition and crush it.”

She laughs into the wind, touched by the boy’s pretended naiveté. “It would be a cunning stroke, wouldn’t it? To gather all that discontent under the banner of a rebel bureaucrat: Baru Fisher, fat with theft from the royal purse. To light all the kindling strewn by thirty years of rule, to gather the fire, to draw it high. And then—and then—”

The boy looks at her with wide eyes, pretending anticipation, pretending that this is not a test—a way to look for her wounds.

“And then, in one stroke, to snuff that fire out,” she says, remembering that last night, the screams in the dark. “To send a message: we had you from the start. Baru Fisher was ours. Your beloved champion was ours. Your rebellion was ours. The next rebellion will be ours; and the next; and the next. The Throne controls all. You will accept our religion, our taxes, our programs of relocation. The Throne controls all.”

“A cunning stroke,” the boy agrees, still speaking to the stone. “But, my lady, it is said that one cannot bind a nation without binding oneself. To betray them, to lead them for two years knowing that you would betray them, must have wounded you—”

She takes him by the throat and smashes him up against the parapet. He is taller but slighter; and though she is a commonborn accountant she has lived two years as Baru Fisher, armored and armed, daughter of a blacksmith and a huntress and a shield-bearer.

“What do you mean to suggest, little watcher?” she hisses. “That I came to love my comrades, grey-bearded Xate Olake and the duchess Tain Hu? That I wept when I delivered up their armies in the night? That I weep still, and look to old philosophy for comfort?”

The boy paws at her wrist. She leans in to speak softly. “Do you claim there is treason in my heart?”

“No, my lady,” he chokes. He lets his hands dangle helpless, though he must have been schooled to fight. “No. No. You were loyal all along, and never wavered. They meant nothing to you. I beg your forgiveness.”

She drops him to the stone. “I am blameless,” she says. “I was an instrument. I feel no remorse.”

“My lady.” The boy lifts his slender chin and bares his throat. “I have overstepped.”

Baru kneels to take his throat between gloved fingers, as the etiquette of transgression permits. His eyes are very wide and very brown and she thinks of the duchess Tain Hu. He breathes in quick frightened little gasps, and licks his lips, and closes Tain Hu’s eyes.

Baru looks at the concubine’s parted lips, smells the anise he swallowed to freshen his breath, and sees the other test. She has never taken the boy to bed.

Clever boy, she thinks, to offer yourself as a test. I should kiss you, shouldn’t I? You and your masters think you’ve found a hold on me. But I could break that hold if I just leaned a little closer. If I looked into Tain Hu’s eyes and made use of you.

She leaves him sprawled against the parapet and turns to the estuary, so that he falls on her right and vanishes from awareness. She knows he is still there, of course; she is not touched. But she cannot make herself know it, cannot make herself grasp that he still exists. Her mind insists that he has been snatched away, drawn off-stage.

Beyond the circling petrels, there is a red sail on the horizon.

One final test of loyalty, the Throne wrote.

“Boy,” she says, hoping that he has not fled. “Go rouse my retinue. I will meet them at the docks.”

Baru watches the sea plead with the stone as the red-sailed ship makes harbor. At intervals her chamberlain takes her by the arm and turns her to face the Elided Keep, to remind her it exists.

“I remember,” she tells him. “It is hard to forget those walls.” But each glance gives her a secret start. When she faces the sea, the keep falls to her right, and try as she might she loses it.

I am maimed, she thinks. I will fail this test. It will all have been for nothing.

And then, mutinously: if I pass, will it then have been for something?

The red-sailed ship puts down a boat. She beckons for a spyglass and examines its passengers. Oarsmen. Marines. A figure cloaked in black wool, bound wrists to ankles. And the man with hair the color of rowan fruit who once, years past, came to her on behalf of the Throne and asked her to rebel.

The boat comes ashore. The man with the rowan hair wades from surf to stone, smiling warmly, right hand raised in greeting. “Baru Cormorant,” he calls over the high protests of the sea birds. “Your ordeal is near its end. The duchies of Pyre are at peace. I sailed from Wei Szlatcha, your capital, and the Throne’s banners flew unchallenged.”

She keeps her left side open to him as if readying to duel. “What word is there of grey-bearded Xate Olake, Duke of Wei Szlatcha, master of my spies?” she asks, cool, cold, her eyes held still.

“Dead,” says the Throne’s man. “Poisoned. I had the honor myself.”

She remembers holding the boy concubine’s throat between felt-clad fingers. Trembles with the memory of it; the want to grip until his lying throat gave. “Well done,” she says, smoothing her trousers against her hips. “Xate Olake was not easily outwitted.”

“Easily enough, as it happened,” the Throne’s man says. He tips a hand as if putting the memory of old rebels into the harbor. “I was most grieved to hear of your wound. We are eager to complete your ascension, my lady, and make proper redress for your sacrifices.”

“The Throne does owe me a province,” Baru says, cocksure, confident, secretly ablaze with the desire to turn and put this man and his murders to her brain-blind right.

“The deal stands, of course. You gave us a rebellion, and in exchange, we raise you to sit the Faceless Throne.” He gestures to the beached boat, where his men sit around their wool-wrapped prisoner. “Just one test. To be sure you did not play your part too well.”

She wants to look at the boat, to rule out her worst fears, but she cannot show weakness by breaking eye contact. She lifts her chin. “I have given no cause for doubt.”

The man with the rowan hair, the man who is all she has ever seen of the Throne, laughs at her. “The Throne doubts all loyalties, Baru Cormorant. The Throne, above all, desires control, and it does not control you yet. Though there are whispers—”

He steps closer, and Baru feels her chamberlain and her whole retinue draw away as if acknowledging their real master.

“It is rumored that you took no lovers for two years of war,” the Throne’s man whispers, grinning a sly secret grin. “It is rumored that you are the daughter of a blacksmith and a huntress and a shield-bearer, two of them sodomites. Some say that this is the way all children are born in your homeland: to a mother and two fathers.”

“How barbaric,” she says. “How fortunate that I was taken away, to be raised an accountant and to know the names of sin.”

The Throne’s man takes one more step closer, ducks his head cobra-quick as if to bite at her, and suddenly—is not the Throne’s man any more. He looks at her with a kind of fierce, desperate honesty, and she almost, almost, trusts it.

“Fortunate indeed,” he says. “Control, Baru Cormorant, control, by any means the Throne can secure. Give them no rein! Sodomites get hot iron, but we do not envy tribadists the knife. Are you ready to live with the yoke of that threat?”

Empathy begs from the bottom of her brain but she gives it no audience. Clever, she thinks, to send this man as a living warning—he is as you will be. “Is that a confession?” she whispers through the left side of her mouth. “Do I control you now, by threat of iron?”

He laughs in her face. “Your test, my lady!” he cries, and beckons to the launch, where his soldiers lift yards of wool from the shackled ranger-knight of Pyre, the brigand bitch, the duchess Tain Hu.

Baru waits in the cellars beneath the Elided Keep for an audience with her general.

Her fathers cursed her with a hungry, disquieted mind, a mind for accounting, for the census of birds, for treason. Now she turns that disquiet on the traits of her wound. How far does it reach? Will it worsen? Will there be a day when she stands in the surf, the sea to her left, the land to her right, and forgets that there is a world beyond the waves?

She took a blade from one of the marines at the dock—plucked it like a feather from his proffered belt and left him with the empty scabbard. Now she works it from ward to ward, high left to low right. When she crosses over to her right side, the sword steals itself away. She can still feel the hilt, the weight, the play, but the blade is a ghost. Even the hiss of its passage goes dead.

What if there is no wound? What if she has locked something in that blind hemisphere—all the offal of her treachery, all the loves and cares she gathered over two long years?

She shakes her head. Cuts right to left, opening the gut of a phantom foe.

“My lady.” The concubine with the anise breath beckons from the inner door. “The prisoner is ready for you.”

She gestures with the blade, signaling her impatience. “Clear the room. I would speak to her alone.”

Somewhere in the past hour her retinue abandoned its pretended whisper and gossip, the masks of espionage. Their silence as they file out admits to discipline. The Throne’s man is last. “You will not do it in private,” he warns. “There will be no tender words, no secret mercies; you will not give her the privilege of death by your own hand. You will order her execution, your men will drown her in the surf, and her body will go to the Throne—so that we may know she died in pain, and not by some arrangement. Do you understand?”

“She is an enemy of the Throne,” Baru says coolly. “Why would I grant mercy?”

He goes out, the concubine who is his spy scuttling before him. The outer doors whisper shut on fish-oiled hinges.

Baru turns to the inner room, trailing her blade like the leash of a hunting dog.

Tain Hu sits across a narrow oaken table, shackled to a high-backed fir chair. Her jailors have stripped her of her salted leathers and gowned her in silk and iron. Her gyrfalcon face—broken nose and bronze cheeks and brown eyes—is unmarked. But all the might has gone from her body, all the whiplash speed she honed, all the armor-bearing brawn. She has been starved.

Baru tries to speak, to strike first just as Tain Hu, swordmaster, taught her. But words abandon her. There is too much to say, and no way to say it.

In the silence, Tain Hu lifts her eyes. “My lady,” she says, and bows her head, as if she were still Field-General, and Baru still the Fairer Hand, the commonborn hope of Pyre.

Baru sets her blade down between them like a little wall, just below the wine her servants left, and sits in the other chair. Two years of habit beg for her to smile and say: “What news, Tain Hu?”

But it would only be mockery.

How could you let this happen? she asks herself. How could you let it be, knowing who you were, what role you were to play? You could have turned away, and spared yourself. But you did not.

Tain Hu watches her with desert eyes. “Are you here to kill me?” she asks.

It strikes Baru that this may be the greatest hope she has left. “No,” she says. “That happens tomorrow. You will be drowned by the rising tide, so the Throne may say the moon and stars judged you.”

“I see.” Tain Hu nods as if this were a right and proper thing. “Will my death bring advantage to Baru Fisher, my sworn lord?”

Baru pours old red wine with a steady hand, filling one cup, then the other. She wants to beg, to rage: stop it. Abjure me, repudiate me, call me false, curse my name. Give me anything but this loyal calm.

“It will bring me advantage,” she says. “It is the last test of my loyalty to the Throne.”

“Let me propose a toast, then,” Tain Hu says, and there is no sarcasm in her eyes, no hint of anger to soften the blow. “To your unshakable loyalty.”

Baru looks left, so that Tain Hu blinks away for a moment. Out of vision, but not out of memory: gone from sight but not from the van at the Low Rail, charger galloping white in a rush of Pyre chestnut. Bloody face lifted towards Baru’s spyglass, mailed fists clutching the Throne’s banner in triumph.

Her accountant’s mind makes note: turning away hides the woman but not the pain.

Perhaps Tain Hu has snatched up the blade on the table while she looked away. Perhaps death is coming down through her blindness, and she will never know it.

But a moment passes and no strike comes. Baru turns back to the table, back to awareness of Tain Hu. Her old general watches her in silence. Baru moves a glass of wine across the table, crosswise, like a bishop. “I wanted to explain,” she says. “So you would know what you’ll die for. I thought I owed you that.”

Tain Hu takes up the glass in slim, callused hands, straining her shackles’ play. “You owe me nothing. I swore to die for you.” She shrugs precisely; the wine in her glass barely moves. “So it will be.”

I see your strategy, Tain Hu, Baru thinks. I see the order of battle. You go to your death with exquisite loyalty. I measure my treason against your faith and it eats me up, now and for the rest of my life. It is the most hurt you can manage.

It may work.

“There is no king upon the Faceless Throne,” she says. “It is a committee, a closed council. Each member—”

“—holds a secret that could destroy another,” Tain Hu says. “So the Throne’s members are bound to each other by fear. And you were offered a seat, at the price of two years of service, raising false rebellion in Pyre so the Throne could weed out the disloyal. I know.”

I know. All the things bound up in those words: I know you were false, even at the start. I know you meant to turn all along. I know you were the Throne’s, even when I taught you to fight in the wood beneath Wei Szlatcha, even when we took up bows to hunt on the forage line, even when you snubbed duke and baron to give me command of the field at the Low Rail. Even that night, after I won. I did not know then; but I do now.

“How?” she whispers. “How could you know?”

“Your red-haired handler thought it safe to explain these things to a dead woman. It was a long sail south.” Again Tain Hu shrugs; again her wine lies still, as if boasting of her precision in all things. “I was curious. I spoke with him at length.”

Baru closes her eyes. Tain Hu is a peerless general, a skilled fighter, a master of terrain and woodscraft, a savant at the games and practice of war. Her grasp of intrigue is a match for these talents. She must have known what she was doing. Of course she knew; of course she knew.

“And what did he ask in return? What was it safe for a dead woman to tell?”

Tain Hu’s mouth does not move but her eyes tighten in a little smile.

“Tell me.” Baru leans across the table, across the blade. “Tell me what secrets you gave the Throne. Or does your play at loyalty not extend so far?”

Tain Hu does not flinch. “What secrets could I know about Baru Fisher? What truth did you ever give me?” She laughs quietly. “You were wise; you trusted only yourself.”

“There was one,” Baru says, her voice terrible to her own ears, burdened with the memory of crimes more beautiful and dear than rebellion or treachery.

Tain Hu looks at her own hands. She sets her glass down on the table, motion by motion, as if in awe of the working of her joints. “There was that.” She nods thoughtfully. “But I wondered: should I mention it? Would he care to know a lie? How would knowing a lie serve the purposes of the Throne, which seeks to bind by truth?”

“It was no lie,” Baru whispers.

“I wondered that,” Tain Hu whispers in return. “I wondered if you could be fool enough to fall that way, even knowing what you were meant to do. I wondered if all those whispered things could be real, instead of a clever act, a way to blind me. I did not think you a fool, Baru Fisher; but of course I did not think myself a fool either, and yet I was.”

She leans forward, palms flat, the sandy ruin of her close-shorn hair still damp with seawater. Her nearness summons some small sedition in Baru’s chest.

“So I told him,” she says, and smiles a crow’s smile.

So the Throne has its secret. Tain Hu has her small revenge. Hot iron for the sodomite; and for tribadists, the knife. Not now, of course, not while she is loyal—but if Baru Cormorant ever turns, ever slips, ever becomes a threat—the knife.

“I have counsel for you, now that we have both struck our blows,” Tain Hu says. She leans forward on arms still corded with the memory of strength, and Baru remembers her leaning across the map table, pointing to weakness, here, there. “As your general.”

Look where your counsel has taken you, Baru thinks; why should I listen? But Tain Hu did not defeat herself. Without Baru Fisher, Tain Hu might be lord of Pyre now. Even as a prisoner, Tain Hu finds ways to strike at her enemies.

“Speak,” Baru says.

Tain Hu’s broad, bony shoulders tighten. “You should kill me. To defy the Throne and secure your power.”

“Have you heard nothing?” Baru snaps. “Did their man confuse you? I am to prove my loyalty by killing you, Tain Hu. It would be no defiance.”

“You will fail,” Tain Hu says. “They know it. They hope for you to fail.”

In the lamplight the wine between them looks as clotted as old blood. “I need only give an order,” Baru says. “I can give hard orders, Duchess.”

“You need to watch it happen, unflinching, unmoved. And you cannot.” Tain Hu looks into the empty distance, watching her own death. “You will see the tide rising and you will beg for them to spare me. They will agree. They will grant you your ascension, and they will keep me as a pet, knowing you will do anything to keep me from harm. I will be their hold on you.”

Baru wants to protest but it chills like truth. It has been in her dreams these past months, as she wondered what her final test would be: spare her, spare her; I will do anything to spare her. “But they have the secret they need,” she protests. “You gave it to them. They have a hold.”

“They would prefer something more... concrete. They fear you, Baru Fisher. They fear your wit, your charisma, your power to raise the commoner. They fear the loyalty you command. Without a powerful secret to bind you—something more than hearsay, and a curious absence of lovers—they fear the strength you will have among them.” Tain Hu closes her distant eyes. “He told me none of this. He told me he expected you to execute me without a second thought. But you taught me to sense a lie.”

The little distance across the table maddens like a rotten tooth. All the blood and treachery now between them begs for space, for flight, but older affinities argue for touch. “Why would you tell me this?” Baru asks. “Why would you give me anything?”

“Because it was no lie,” Tain Hu whispers, and turns away.

Baru sits, and stares, and tries to make something of the hollow in her chest.

Her mind gnaws at all of it: could it be that Tain Hu is desperate to live, and hopes to trick Baru into sparing her? No; she would have no care for her own life—but could she be working to sabotage Baru’s ascension, manipulating her into showing disloyalty to the Throne? Could this all be the Throne’s test, like the boy on the battlements, played out through a broken Tain Hu?

She sips at her wine, pretending calm, and grips the edge of a cold truth: she came down here to speak with Tain Hu because she hoped it would make it easier to watch her die. Hoped there would be hate, shouting, vows of undying revenge. Something angry for her to drown tomorrow.

If I beg, she could live, Baru thinks. I would still have the Throne; they would sit easier for it, knowing I could be kept tame. And with time, she might forgive me—

Tain Hu’s shoulders begin to shake. Baru’s stomach curls. This, of all things, she hoped not to see: the general of Pyre’s armies broken and unmanned, cast low to weep like a scullery maid. Death would be better.

But Tain Hu does not cry. She chuckles, raspy, low. “The hope of Pyre!” she calls, as if rallying an invisible shield-wall. “Justice from a fairer hand!” And then she laughs, trembling with her mirth, quaking in her shackles, her eyes locked on Baru. “The hope of Pyre!”

It goes on and on, and after a moment Baru finds it too much to take. She turns her chair to the left, so that the duchess Tain Hu falls away into nothingness, and the howl of her laughter reaches Baru only as an echo.

The hope of Pyre, she thinks; and understands Tain Hu’s game.

The blade is still on the table, in the empty place to her right. Baru finishes her wine in slow silence. She wonders if Tain Hu knows about her wound; whether she laughs and rails even now, and takes Baru’s answering silence for strength.

The tide comes in just before dawn. Baru Cormorant shackles the prisoner herself. When it is done she commands her marines to take Tain Hu down onto the stone bluffs below the castle, where the waves are harshest.

Tain Hu walks the whole way, even burdened by her chains. The marines fasten her to the stone, threading her chains through rusted brackets. The sea laps and murmurs below.

Baru Cormorant, lord in passing of the Elided Keep, watches from a spit of rock not three meters above. The Throne’s man paces behind her, his rowan-fruit hair wild in the salt wind. “If the wind picks up, the waves may dash her against the rocks,” he says. “It would be a terrible death.”

Baru stands without cloak or coat, untroubled by the cold. “So it would,” she says. “But Tain Hu was strong once. If she clings to her own chains, she may last long enough to drown.”

The man takes her by the shoulder. “Perhaps there is another way,” he says. “Perhaps the Throne would accept her as a hostage.”

“Do not test me,” Baru says, her eyes on the dawn horizon. She takes census of the birds there; finds a hawk circling high. “I have had enough of the Throne’s little tests.”

The water rises. Tain Hu, wet to the waist, seems to drowse, her chains slack. “Hypothermia,” the Throne’s man whispers. “The water is cold, my lady. If we were to raise her now, perhaps we could save—”

“I do not want her saved,” Baru Cormorant says.

“Did you not love her?” the Throne’s man hisses in her ear. “She told me about the night after your victory at the Low Rail. About all the months after that. You could have that again—”

“Is that what she invented? Curious.” Baru gestures to the marines on the rocks below. “Strike her! Wake her up, so she can suffer!”

One of them smashes Tain Hu in the shoulder with the butt of his polearm. She cries out, arching, her eyes wild. Her chains slip between pale, trembling fingers.

“‘You are a worth a legion to me, Tain Hu,’” the Throne’s man intones. “Do you remember that? She told me you said that.”

“I said many things.” Baru points to the marines. “Keep her awake!”

The water rises. A low wind whips up froth. Tain Hu shouts hoarsely into the spray, her chains wrapped taut, biceps straining.

Baru glances at the man. “When this little chore is through, I have business for the Throne. We sent a message to Pyre when we crushed their insurrection. The surviving duchies will be afraid—and that makes them compliant. Now is the time to buy their loyalty. Ease taxes, rein in labor conscription, take mercy on their little cults. Grant them a few freedoms more.”

“Causes you are familiar with, Lady Cormorant.” The Throne’s man draws his cloak about him. “We may listen. We may not.”

“Of course you’ll listen. We do not rule by the lash alone. I know what Pyre wants.” She stares coldly down at Tain Hu.

I wish you could see me, my general, she thinks. Unflinching. Unmoved. The hope of Pyre, giving them no yoke over me. You planned the battle well.

“Ironic, isn’t it?” she says. “She might have lived to see her people content.”

The Throne’s man has to shout above the whipping wind. “Why are you doing this? She could still live!”

You could still bind me with her, Baru thinks. If I just begged. If I just admitted what she was to me—I would be reduced.

“Do you know the Hierarchic Qualm?” she says. “The Throne does educate its spies, doesn’t it?”

A rising breaker crashes against the rocks. Tain Hu cries out into the dawn, trembling with effort. A frigatebird calls like a drum overhead.

Baru Cormorant sets her legs in a duelist’s stance, closing off the Throne’s man on her dead right, opening her left side to the dying woman below. She cuts at the air with a blade she does not have.

The tide comes in. The Throne’s man watches her, waiting for her to lift her eyes and make a census of the birds, as she is known to do.


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

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10 Comments on “The Traitor Baru Cormorant, Her Field-General, and Their Wounds”

10 Responses to “The Traitor Baru Cormorant, Her Field-General, and Their Wounds”

  1. Guest says:

    12-29-2011, 03:24 AM
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    The Woman Who Mistook Her Concubine for a Hat

    Really liked the neurological injury bit, shades of Oliver Sacks and tribadists are hot! Interesting characters with tantalizing backstories. More?

  2. Diane says:

    12-31-2011, 07:14 PM
    Diane

    Half way through the first sentence, I thought, this is why I read fantasy. “The Traitor Baru Cormorant, Her Field-General, and Their Wounds” (love the title) — I keep going back to “Their” wounds. Yes, indeed. Such richness, and yet not an unnecessary word. Thanks for the enjoyment.

  3. Anne Ivy says:

    01-11-2012, 09:11 PM
    Anne Ivy

    Left Neglect

    This is a great story. Left-sided neglect (the name of the brain damage the main character has) is a brilliant metaphor for working as a traitor/spy, where in order to be effective, someone has to mentally lose part of who they are and ignore what they are doing. (The right hand not knowing what the left hand is doing, to reverse the bible verse in both its terms and its meaning.)

    The ending was both horrifying and satisfying. I especially appreciated the irony of defying the Throne by proving her loyalty.

  4. Sandra M. Odell says:

    01-14-2012, 08:29 PM
    Sandra M. Odell

    By far, this has been my favorite BCS audio fiction since I started listening. I suffered a stroke in June of 2011, nowhere near as debilitating as the injury described in the story, and found myself relating to the hardships of the wound as much as I did to the stressors and drama of plot.

    Well done.

    Sandra M. Odell
    smodell1995@yahoo.com

  5. Setsu says:

    Absolutely gorgeous story, rich, detailed and complex yet so taut and well-crafted. The relationship between Tain Hu and Baru was as real as it was heartbreaking. I can’t praise this story enough.

  6. […] short fiction end of things, I discovered Seth J. Dickinson’s writing this year starting with The Traitor Baru Cormorant, Her Field-General, and Their Wounds, a heartbreaking tragedy, tautly and richly made – I don’t think anyone I have […]

  7. […] The Traitor Baru Cormorant, Her Field General, and Their Wounds by Seth J. Dickinson […]

  8. […] novel, based on a short story published in Beneath Ceaseless Skies in 2011, follows Baru Cormorant, a precocious seven-year-old growing up on the island of Taranoke. Her […]

  9. […] This story captivated me on a recent weekend: “The Traitor Baru Cormorant, Her Field-General, and Their Wounds” […]

  10. […] Dickinson’s novelistic expansion of his moving short story “The Traitor Baru Cormorant, Her Field-General, and Their Wounds,” is an astonishing debut. I hope it soon finds a publisher so that more readers can be blown away by […]

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