The queen lay dying. She had wrapped herself in a nest of wrinkled sheets on the floor of the cathedral, stinking and sweating, her clawlike hands shaking, fluid collecting at the back of her throat. In the loft, a choir howled. They had been singing for hours, and the soloist was hoarse.
Mila knelt just north of the queen’s grey head, the diamond bullets that made up her last duty to the liege of Sadarkana heavy in her pocket. As the queen’s chosen Gun, it was her duty to witness this. Mila had spent so much time at the queen’s side that to be anywhere else felt like heresy. This was what her queen, Dar Ajeris, had wanted: to die not in the arena but in the black cathedral, surrounded by her sons and her life’s work, with music in the air.
As usual, the princes were ruining it.
“We need to discuss what’s next,” said Dar Karstan, the king’s younger son.
Dar Alidar looked up from his mother’s glassy eyes and the hand he’d used to stroke her thinning, slush-grey hair. He was the elder son, peaked and pinched, with the unhealthy wavering shoulders of someone who hadn’t seen the comfort of a bed in days. “You can’t even wait until she dies?”
The princes were twins, wrath-sworn and dark-haired, each possessed of a starving ambition. Mila watched them with the distaste she’d held for them during her entire service as their mother’s Gun. Alidar knelt hunched and pale at his mother’s side, rising only to drink water from a chalice held by an exhausted soldier. Karstan was only as dutiful as he needed to be. Too rattled to stand silent vigil, he muttered and cleared his throat, pacing the cavernous distance between his mother’s body and the iron cathedral door, his footsteps a violent staccato drumbeat.
Mila’s stomach churned. This was not at all where she’d hoped the conversation would go. When she’d become Queen’s Gun, she had, in effect, chosen the place she would die—at her queen’s side, if it came down to blood and bullets. Mila was well aware of the symbolism of one of the mountainfolk taking a pledge to die for the valley Queen and ensure her line of succession—the queen’s confident step towards reunification of the two countries was half the reason she’d said yes and half the reason she’d loved her so deeply. Valley and mountain, Sadarkana and Starogard; Mila knew, as the queen had known before the cancer took her, that the only way forward for either country was together.
“I want to wait.” Karstan ran a hand through his hair. Stinking liquor sloshed over the side of the chalice he held, and the droplets caught the sunshine coming through the Wall of Lights before splashing on the floor. It was still early enough in the morning that sunlight poured through the Wall in a hundred individual shards, bathing and piercing the princes, the Gun, and the dying queen; one shard each for every ruler that had once taken their last breath here.
“You want to, but...” Alidar sounded suspicious.
“I just don’t think that’s a very good idea, for us or for the country.” Karstan took another swig. “The people need to know who their leader will be, after all.”
It had been some relief to know that once the queen passed, Mila could step back, breathe, and let someone else take up her fell responsibility. She could go back to the trial arena, back to the role of judge and executioner and interpreter of the law. Back to Eselin and his warm embrace. She would not have to wonder what it would be like to let a bullet punch through her ribs, to endure her heart pumping out on the sand like one of the common traitors that came before her for their last breath. She would no longer have to put up with being called that mountain whore in council sessions or Ajeris’s frozen bitch.
And there was the matter of Eselin, her second. Their warm secret, the one Mila couldn’t tell anyone while the queen was alive—not while Mila’s heart was supposed to be sworn entirely to the queen.
“My prince,” Mila said. “I do think this is a matter best saved for—”
Alidar’s hand slipped behind his back, where it formed a white, tight-knuckled fist only Mila could see, cutting her off. “Mother’s death won’t change a thing, Karstan. I will be king. You may threaten civil war all you like. I will have the army. The immigrants stay. The mountain door is open for more. Our mother’s work will continue under my hand.”
“Not if I contest your claim in the open arena.”
“The arena! Like we’re common criminals!” Alidar’s jaw worked in shock. “I’m older than you. Do you want to die?”
“Older by seconds. I have far more support among the people than you think. The blood of a few or the blood of thousands.” Karstan drained his cup. “You choose.”
“Minutes. You’d stake your life on this?” said Alidar, his voice aghast.
“Does Mother mean so little to you? Does the crown?”
“Of course she means the world to me, but... what you’re asking.” He pointed at Mila. “You might as well ask the Gun to shoot me right here.”
Mila kept herself still like a statue, like the weapon she was supposed to be, even though inside she was screaming no, I will not, you can’t just ask me to do that, the law is the law; not that she expected Karstan to follow any laws that he didn’t find convenient. Weapons did not have choices, did not speak aside from the roar of a spark against gunpowder or the click of a trigger, but she had to stop this before it ruined everything.
“If you think your rule would be the best for our country, I think the two of you should take your cases to the ruling council,” Mila said. “Avoid any bloodshed at all.”
“It’s not your country,” Karstan spat in Mila’s direction. Despite the bluster, he stalked the area below the stairs as if he were frightened of the bier, his brother, his tightening, complicated future. His hands slipped in and out of his pockets, wrung in front of his blood-red tabard, wiped sweat from his shadowed temple. “This country decides matters on the sands of the arena. And do not presume to understand my mother. I expected better of you, Gun. Disrespecting our sacred tradition. Disrespecting the darkhearts.”
“Hold on,” Alidar said. “Mila spent more time around Mother than either of us. I think it’s safe to say that she has an idea about the kind of society we’re building—”
Karstan stopped mid-step. He looked like his twin, all black shadows and crags, a hungry mirror of a starving man. “That is Mother,” he said, pointing at the queen’s shuddering form. “She can’t even speak. She can’t even move. And what has she done? The sorcerer on the mountain is very much alive. And will make a move as soon as she dies. Are you ready for that, Ali?”
The queen’s thin body convulsed below Mila. She left the princes to circle each other like hungry vultures and knelt, laying her hand on the queen’s forehead. The queen blinked at her; her thin lips opened, slight and sandy, revealing a blood-parched mouth and a dry, struggling tongue. She whispered, but her words were lost in choirsong.
“I’m here,” said Mila. The queen’s eyes were lambent for the first time in days; her hand was cold parchment. In the queen’s eyes, Mila saw the kindness she could not see in her sons. For the first time in her long career as Gun—as judge, jury, executioner, bodyguard, sacrifice—Mila could say she was afraid.
“He must not rule,” the queen coughed. “I was—I was a terrible mother. I could not shift his soul. Mila—whatever you do, he must not rule.”
“If he invokes the arena, there’s nothing I can do.”
“I tried to fix—him,” the queen wheezed. “I tried.”
She shuddered once more, then went still. The focus left her eyes and the tension leached from her hand, and Mila grasped it tighter, feeling the birdsong bones beneath, but her queen had slipped away. This body was nothing more than meat to bury, like any criminal laying bloody and bent on the arena floor.
The princes had not seen their mother die. Karstan’s lips were curled an inch from Alidar’s face. “The people don’t think you have the balls to rule—”
“The people think you’re dangerous.”
“Your mounteys aren’t people.”
Mila stroked the inside of the queen’s wrist one last time in the vain search for the drumbeat of her heart. All that was left was a collapsed void and blood that had gone from sluggish to still. Anger soaked Mila’s body, trickling down her spine until she was shaking.
“The queen is dead,” she whispered.
Neither brother heard. She called again, the queen is dead, and the soldiers behind her understood, and they reached into their pockets to draw out black scraps of mourning fabric to tie around their wrists. Mila called one last time, but the brothers’ anger broke against each other like brawling winds against the mountain crags; neither would listen to the other, or to her.
The sorcerer’s madness had begun like this, a desperate and blind scramble for purity and riches and power over others. Had it come to the valley with the hundreds of starving refugees, down the mountain in a steady flow until the valley rivers blackened like the ones above, until the valley drank of fear and hate just like her homeland had? Or had it always been like this, back into the time before the first split of mountain and valley?
Mila shuddered to her feet. If the brothers would not listen, she would still discharge her last duties as Gun without them. She flipped the peace bond from her pearl-handled executioner’s gun, feeling the hilt warm against the sweat of her palm, and reached for the diamond bullet in the pouch near her heart.
She was the only one allowed to carry this revolver—a weapon custom-made for ensuring succession. It held just two kinds of bullets—the diamonds that marked the end of a monarch’s reign and the darkhearts that were linked to the succession process. She would now fire at the wall, so the queen’s diamond soul would be buried there, light shining in on her descendants until darkness came for the world.
“The Queen is dead!” Mila shouted, and fired. The gun bucked into the palm of her hand, violent; something inside jammed, and the kickback was stronger than she expected. It dropped to the floor, bouncing off the queen’s dead forehead, glitter trailing from the barrel. No new diamond shone, soulbright, in the Wall.
The bullet had shattered.
The brothers had stopped shouting at each other. Karstan was white-faced; Alidar was a cholinergic scarlet. Their eyes fell to their dead mother and her still chest, and the tracery of glitter around her head.
“You kept me from being with her when—” whispered Alidar.
“Don’t be a baby.”
“It’s a sign.”
“It means nothing.”
Mila’s mouth was a hollering desert. The words that came next were rote from months of practice. “Dar Alidar, prince of Sadarkana, your honored mother is dead, and you are our new King. We will proceed from here to the palace, where—”
“Stop, Mila. It’s already gone too far,” said Karstan.
The choir had stopped singing with the gunshot. They stood in the balcony, their eyes agape, aware of the enormity of what they were witnessing. The brothers, too, had come to some sort of silent understanding, and they shuffled closer.
“If you do this,” Alidar said to Karstan, “stand over her dead body and do this. Look at her, stand next to her, and say with a straight face that you want to start a civil war.”
For a moment, Mila thought that Karstan wasn’t going to move. That he was going to back down. He swallowed and he wrung his hands once more, and stared down at his mother. Mila saw him break a moment; saw his eyes fill with water and something softly black before he wiped the still-forming tears away with the back of his hand. Mila couldn’t help but think of her own mother, young and death-white on the mountain snowbank in the blind winter. She’d been alone and too weak to bury her, and they had been so close to Sadarkana that she could smell the smoke from the valley factories.
For a moment, she thought she could understand Karstan, could possibly reach his hate-caught brain with a word of peace, reach him not as mountainfolk to valleydweller but human to human, and she opened her mouth to say that she had lost her mother, too, a long time ago—
Karstan cleared his throat, slaughtering that fantasy. “I formally dispute your claim to be King of Sadarkana,” he said, quietly. Mila thought there might be regret there, until his face hardened with clear purpose, like a diamond in the Wall.
Alidar nodded. He straightened his shoulders. His voice went plain. Formal. “I will not force Mila into this. I will choose her second, Rias Eselin, to stand for me.”
No. Not Eselin—
Karstan’s eyes flickered over to Mila. “Then Kal Mila,” he said, “will be mine. She might be a mountey, but she can shoot.”
“You’re a real dick, you know that?” whispered Alidar.
Mila’s world went white. Her hand went to her gun, just as Karstan twisted around to stand right in front of her, his breath liquor-haunted, spittle hitting her cheek. “Don’t,” he whispered.
“You won’t win,” said Mila.
Karstan simply smiled with straight, white teeth. Both brothers turned to leave, Karstan towards the front of the cathedral and Alidar towards the back. As the great iron doors opened and sunlight spread over the body in the sanctuary, Mila could hear the bells echoing from the top of the hill to the depths of the harbor. The queen is dead, she imagined them singing, and all hell is following.
By the time Mila returned to the gunhouse, the machinery of a proper succession crisis was in motion.
The city of Sadarkana lay scared and serious, hanging breathless over a black precipice. The gunhouse car and its escorts pushed through the grey reek of downtown, driving by starveling groups of Alidari clashing with riotous Karstani supporters, mountainfolk and valleydwellers both. There were people from all sides of the city pouring drunken and mourning into low-street bars and red-clad brawlers scattering blood and broken teeth on the street. Mila shivered. Perhaps, in the hearts of the valley, the war had begun months ago, and nothing she arranged now would make a damned bit of difference.
This car—the last car she’d ride in, the first of many lasts she’d have today—kept a polished, dead-animal smell, and the chauffeur was young. Mila’s eyes met his in the rearview mirror, then darted away; the boy’s foot fell heavy on the gas, the engine stuttering as he pushed the car into the avenue. He was afraid of her.
He should be.
Mila was met in the wide asphalt gunyard by a worried, hangdog detachment of aides who had already been informed of Karstan’s decision to challenge his brother’s legitimacy. They rushed Mila to the chapel, where the darkheart bullets were already waiting, flanked by exhausted red-tabard guards keeping watch in case of tampering. She gave herself a private moment with the bullets—marveling at the metalwork, the machinery, the way the impact in a human body would crack bone, rip through arteries and organs and cartilage, decide the future of a million souls. These bullets were paired with torcs that the brothers would wear the next day; a darkheart that buried itself in human flesh would loosen a bright wave that would kill the brother in question.
It was the only way to mediate a succession crisis without a war. It was traditional. Unquestionable. Absolute as a gunshot to the head.
The gunhands gathered and filed into the chapel, dark-haired, haunted Eselin at the end of the line, trying to avoid his due, and third-ranked Galeran behind, looking pale and nervous, his eyes darting from Mila to Eselin. The gunhands tried not to stare at Mila as they shuffled to the front, eyes dark and shaded. Few spoke. There was nothing to say. Good luck, Mila? No. Good luck, Mila meant that Karstan would be king, and Karstan would tear apart everything the gunhands installed by Queen Ajeris had built; the last hope they had for some kind of better life. But what choice did they have, other than to follow the ancient ways? What choice did they have between peace and war?
Except some of them did whisper you deserve this, with their valley faces lined in a tight lucid madness Mila had forgotten about—as if some of these people, brothers and sisters that had broken bread with her and fought by her side, had suddenly pushed her into a dark mirrored lake where up was down and sideways was correct.
Each gunhand came to the front of the chapel; each gunhand kissed Mila’s tightened knuckles and tilted their palm open towards Eselin and the darkhearts in the ancient litany of submission to the will of the Dar. Each time Mila felt a burning ache in her chest, sweat on her palms—something sharp and keen her mother used to call instinct, back on the mountain where there were wolves in the forest and sorcerers on the roads.
The last gunhand was Eselin. He opened her hand and kissed her palm, his lips warm and dry and full of promise. She met his eyes and returned the gesture; they were smoke-grey and sunk in fear. She suddenly wanted to be somewhere else. Anywhere else.
As long as it was with him.
“Someone might hear,” Mila whispered.
“I don’t care,” Eselin said, slamming the door to her room. Mila thought of arguing, of telling him that they needed to make a plan to ensure Alidar’s success in the arena the next day, a plan that kept both of them alive—but then he was too busy pushing her shoulders against the wooden door and his lips against her neck, and she closed her eyes, a wild hunger curling in her belly, her hands scrambling for purchase on his hips.
“This is wrong,” she whispered, thinking of the queen’s dead eyes, the bloody conflict brewing outside the gunhouse walls, the rules that forbade their connection. The friends saying you deserve this, as if a valley man and a mountain woman could tear apart the skin of the world simply because they loved each other.
“You’re my wife—it can’t ever be wrong,” he replied, his hands warm against her skin, and for a while, Mila thought of nothing but him.
Afterwards, Eselin lay with his head a welcome weight on her shoulder, and she twirled his long black hair around her index finger, feeling her heartbeat where the tight curl cut off her circulation. The thought of Alidar had crawled back into the room like a ghost from a broken hallway.
“Was this what it was like, on the mountain? Did you really feel like this, all the time?” he asked.
I got away. That’s what matters. I don’t want to talk about it, Mila wanted to say, like she always had, but she swallowed against a dry, angry throat. Truth was what mattered now.
“Colder in every way,” she whispered, the curve of her aching body pressed against the bulwark of his. “The wind never stops blowing. Brother steps out against brother. The only will that matters is the will of the sorcerer. There are so many reasons why we had to go. I would rather die than return. Than see the valley turned into that.” She pushed herself up. “Lin, when I’m gone—I want you to promise me something.”
“When you’re gone?” He clutched at her hip, and she felt the thin, terrified impact of his nails, like he’d just realized why she was shivering. “No. I don’t know how I would live if I lost you.”
“You’ll have to. Alidar must win tomorrow. There’s only one way to make sure that happens.”
“I know a man at the Scoured Gate. You can go after midnight. You can be far away from here by morning—”
“And then what happens?”
He blinked. “And then you live.”
“I meant, what happens to you?” She tossed the covers at him, then reached for her tunic where she’d balled it up and thrown it on the floor. “If I go, you’ll rise to first gunhand. Galeran will be second. What if he wins? You’re saying that you’re going to let me live with the fact that I got you killed? You say that’s a horror you can’t handle for yourself, and you want to give that to me to carry until I die?”
“That’s not what I meant.”
The grief tightened in her throat, then broke over the words that followed. “I made vows. The valley is my home. You’re my home. Until I walk out there on the sand tomorrow, until they paint me with his colors and put that gun in my hand, I am still sworn to the queen. I can’t trust any of the others to ensure that the right son wins. I can only trust you. She and I—she was building something. Something better. And the only way forward for a future that includes everyone is Alidar.”
“And what about us? Our future?”
Mila opened her mouth to say something but tasted only dust.
Eselin’s fingers closed on her shoulder, vise-tight. “I can beat Galeran.”
“He’s a fantastic duelist. I don’t think you can.”
“It’s our only choice,” Eselin said.
“No, it’s not,” she snapped. “Don’t you even care what I want?”
“I didn’t say that.”
“You did, when you refused me a choice. Just like Karstan. Like Alidar.”
Mila rolled over, tugging the tunic over her head, then slipped her feet into her shoes. She’d wondered about what her last night would be like, ever since they’d placed her first stunner in her hands and sent her to petty crimes fourteen years ago. She thought she’d spend her last night in prayer, maybe writing letters; not halfway to hell, in bed with a man who should have been forbidden to her, arguing over how to fix a succession trial.
“We could both leave,” he whispered.
She froze. Freedom, she thought. But the moment’s taste of mountain air ceded to the dust of the gunyard; the cold barrel of an executioner’s gun against her forehead. “And when they come for us?”
Eselin’s eyes fell to the floor. “They won’t.”
“Throwing a match—refusing to fight—they’re capital offenses, Lin! Not even Alidar can let that go, especially when things are the way they are. And when they come for us, we won’t even get the arena. It’ll be two bullets in the head in the gunhouse yard and left for the crows.”
Eselin shuddered, closed his eyes, then moved in the bed, throwing his arms around her waist, kissing the dip of her lower back. “Then we make it look like the duel wasn’t rigged. We pull our triggers at the same time. We’re good enough. We won’t miss. If there’s no way out, there’s no way out.”
She froze. The thought of it chilled her fingers straight, caught her trembling. Her mind spun out with the implications: both princes, dead, would leave the succession to the queen’s older cousin—a man who had kept carefully out of politics when she took the throne to avoid the very issue facing the princes today; to avoid the darkhearts and their dark work. He spent most of his time on an estate in one of the southern rural holdings. Mila had no idea if he would side with Karstan or Alidar on the matter of reunification. He did not belong to any of the councils, so she couldn’t even guess.
Another thing she’d have to leave up to chance.
“That’s not good enough,” she said. “I promised the queen that I’d do better than that.”
“That’s all we have. It’s a beggar’s choice, I know,” he whispered.
“It’s all right,” Mila responded. “I’ve only ever made one good choice in my life, Lin, and that was you. You are good enough that I can live with it.” She turned and pressed her finger against his lips. “It’s a plan. We’ll pull our triggers at the same time. Elect the cousin.”
“We need to talk about when—”
“Ssh.” She reached for his hand and settled into the curve of his arm. “If tonight is all we have, let’s leave tomorrow for tomorrow.”
The howl of the crowds in the arena, the curl of her bare toes against the hot sand, the scalding sun wheeling above: these were the things that Mila knew and loved. They were scant comfort now.
The pearl-handled executioner’s gun lay cold and heavy in her palm as she walked out onto the sand. The weapon was old—old as the hell it came from, perhaps, or at least as old as the half-true tales upon which the sprawling spider-sun of the valley was built. She clutched it tight; let her hand remember the weight, the heft, the warming hilt, the dread, and breathed, coming to terms with what she was about to do.
Across the expanse was her opponent. Stripped to the waist, Eselin’s familiar body shone bright against the mid-morning sun, and the light caught his long black hair. He wore the sky blue of Dar Alidar slapped across his chest in hasty brushstrokes. Mila had allowed the aides to paint her hair and neck with the sin-soaked scarlet of Dar Karstan. She did not want to go to her grave wearing the colors of a man who courted genocide, but she had no say in the matter. She was a gun. Her body had not been hers for years.
Above Eselin she could see the Dar brothers, each draped in royal-rich velvet even in the summer heat; each wearing the red-gold torcs that were the other half of the darkheart mechanism. Karstan’s mouth was curled in a hungry half-smile, while Alidar looked sweaty and sick, wringing his hands and staring anywhere but at his brother. Behind them was the cousin, stooped and bored, giving no indication as to which side he supported.
The great horn sounded, and a hush fell over the audience like a leaden blanket.
Mila curled her toes into the sand and made her way to her mark. Eselin’s eyes were locked on her as she walked, like this was just a few weeks ago at their illegal wedding; like she was walking onto the village green with only homeless mountainfolk as witnesses, flowers in her hair. As if she and Eselin had years, not seconds, in front of them.
I love you, he mouthed, and we’ll be together soon
The grand horn sounded.
Mila took a deep breath—sweet, smoky city air, smelling of coal and salt and human stink. Matching Eselin, she raised her gun.
She had so much to say to the nervous congregation, half of them baying for blood and half of them sobbing for peace. Peace is not peace when you live on your knees. We’re dying from a thousand years of this cancer: of hate, of exclusion, of this sinful divorce. And you would make it worse. You would keep your warm houses and turn your backs on those who need you most. You would make that terrible choice, when you have so many better ones. You’re leaving this up to me because you’re all too cowardly to change any of it yourselves.
If not for the queen—
But she only had one breath left and no microphone, and when she opened her mouth she tasted the ocean, and the salt on her tongue was so beautiful she lost her bead on the slick expanse of her husband’s painted chest.
Not that it would matter in a moment.
But it could.
It could matter.
Mila felt sudden light coursing through her fingertips—the thrill of a greater power than she’d ever had before, greater than any individual life or any single death; a power as wide as history itself. She stared across at Eselin, at his steady shoulders, his clean hands. He could handle a life without her, couldn’t he? A life in King Alidar’s echo, the eternal, ravenous slog that was the course of peace? The queen had trusted Mila to continue her life’s work. She’d have to do it in any way possible—through the terrible, new task that was forming behind her eyes right now—
It was the only way.
Eselin crooked his finger on the trigger of his gun, and she heard the crack of ignition.
Mila turned her shoulders at the very last moment, and with an aim fashioned from twenty years in the arena, tilted her gun up and to the right. Towards the royal box.
Eselin’s bullet hit wide, notching the sand inches from her left foot. Karstan’s body jerked once in the grand royal box, an arc of blood spattering the sky, a dark, wet starburst against his scarlet coat and bare shock in his eyes. He wavered for a moment, then toppled over the side of the wall.
The new king, his cheeks splattered with his brother’s blood, blinked vacant shock at the blank space beside him, then clawed at his face, succeeding only in smearing it in scarlet.
Mila opened her mouth to call out to Eselin. She was drowned out by the screaming.
She should have known there’d be screaming.
Eselin barreled towards her with his gun glinting in the noon-high, wailing sun, then came to a skidding halt. Mila heard the clamor of weapons being readied behind her, and the press of angry shadows. Eselin stared over her shoulder, choking down some kind of savage calculation, choosing instead to drop his gun to the ground.
“I won’t do it,” he said. “Not today. Not tomorrow. Not ever.”
“You’ll have to. For them,” Mila said, her eyes going to the stands, the fleeing populace, the crowds wearing scarlet and blue. “So they never have to run, never have to hate—”
The shadows moved behind her. Familiar gunhands covered her mouth, pulled her down, and chained her right there in the sand.
When they dragged her away, she was smiling.