It’s hard to tell what someone is really made of, at least until you crack them open. Some have hearts fragile as spun glass, quick to break and impossible to put back together; others have iron in their chests heavy enough to weight the whole of their being. Hearts of diamond, hard but brittle; hearts with tiny cogs, tiny wheels, tiny dials counting down. Only the Volant knew how many they’d carved, or what they did with the old heart when they put the new one inside us. It wasn’t our place to ask.
I used to dream of the heart our masters would give me; spend my days sketching rough cordiform shapes in the corners of Father’s quota sheets and the backs of letters Mother sent from the front. I’d lay awake at night, one hand pressed over the bundle of meat pulsing behind my ribs and wonder what I’d done wrong. I was sure all the other girls back at the Roost already had their hearts, that the Volant had carved each of them for a special purpose just as they’d carved my Mother, my Father, everyone but me. Uncarved, I was little better than the native workers we used to harvest nightweed from the sump.
It’s funny how flexible memory is, how easily it bends to fit belief.
Izavel didn’t look like a spy, didn’t act like a killer—I suppose that’s why she was so good at it. We used to play together as children. It was forbidden, of course, but Hamaw was far from the Roost and with Mother away fighting rebels and Father, well, being Father, there wasn’t anyone to keep an eye on me. I’d slip from the manor, careful to walk with the grain of the speaking grass, past the stockade and its sleepy guards, and down to the sump. It was easy to stay hidden. Those few Carved overseers unlucky enough to draw shift went about masked to keep from inhaling the haze of dead dreams that seeped from the boiling mash tubs. The natives weren’t bothered by the fumes. Maybe they were inhuman like Father said, but I like to think since it was their ancestors buried below, the dreams just made more sense to them.
Looking back, it was probably a mistake to give them so much freedom, but there were no Volant about and Father had always been a soft touch. Besides, the people of Hamaw had been quiet for decades. Mother called them cooked savages, but like most soldiers she thought about food more than was proper.
There was a stand of mangrove, far enough from the sump that the fumes wouldn’t drive me insane but close enough I could watch the natives work. I’d crawl down into the roots with the bugs and muddy water and pretend I was one of Mother’s scouts taking notes on rebel movements. That was how I noticed Izavel.
She was about my age, with the burnished copper skin and pale red eyes of an islander, her sun-bleached hair cropped short and her ears just a little too big. She would queue up with the others, moving here and there about the plantation, but when the time came to take her turn at the pumps or tend the fires, someone else would always fill her place. The more I watched, the more I noticed little things, like how her hands weren’t rough from straining pulp and her legs were unstained by the mash tubs.
I told Father, but he just waved me off, saying he couldn’t care less if this or that child didn’t work so long as the nightwine quotas were met. He was half-wild from the stuff already, spending his nights dreaming in the arms of whichever manservant caught his fancy and his days painting pictures that gave me headaches if I stared at them too long. Mother must have known, but she never did anything. Maybe she felt responsible.
It’s odd, but I don’t remember when I first met Izavel, only that it was boredom that brought me to her.
We used to range barefoot around the Bay of Limbs, scaling stones slick with lichen and bird droppings to peer down at the tangle of arms carved from the rock. Once, I asked Izavel why her ancestors had given the statues hands but not faces, or bodies, or hearts. She looked at me like I’d asked which way was up or where babies came from.
When I pouted, she pretended to raise a bowl of tea, mimicking the way we honored the Volant even though she knew I hated when she did that. “The world is shaped by hands, not hearts.”
I pushed her. She pulled my braid hard enough to make my eyes water. There was a chase that ended with both of us breathless in the cool of a fern-shaded lagoon. Izavel showed me how to shinny up the giant broadleaf fronds so they bent low over the water. She trailed her feet in the lagoon, laughing as the fish picked at the skin of her toes. I kept imagining some massive thing rising from below to snap us up like struggling flies.
When I told Izavel, she gave a little shake of her head. “That’s the problem with you Carved, you’re afraid of everything.”
“I’m not Carved, not yet.” I crawled back to the bank. “My Mother is, and she’s not afraid of anything.”
Izavel gave me that look again. “Even the Volant?”
Although I’d never seen one, Mother told stories of when the Volant came—terrible tales of ash and iron, of cities burning while dark winged shadows descended from the sky. She said it was our fault, that Carving saved us from ourselves. There was no tremble in her voice when she spoke, not like when Father described our masters. They both loved them, everyone loved them.
It made me wonder what the Volant loved.
“Are you afraid of them?” Izavel asked.
“You shouldn’t talk about the Volant.”
“No,” I said. Although I was.
“Good. You shouldn’t be.” Izavel let go of the fern, slipping into the water quick as a minnow. I should’ve known something was wrong, then. For an Uncarved to even mention the Volant was grounds for a beating; entire villages had been purged for disrespectful talk. But I was eight and without benefit of hindsight.
I remember standing on the bank of the lagoon, the sand hot beneath my feet as Izavel glided toward me under the water, knowing she was dangerous, that I should have her killed, and deciding I wouldn’t.
She surfaced before the weight of my choice could really settle, slapping a spray of warm water at me. My outraged laughter shattered the dappled stillness, and, just like that, we were little girls again.
I remember there being five of them, three women and two men, all rebel chieftains—at least that’s what the soldiers said they were. They didn’t look like much of anything, chained and covered in mud. Mother had sent runners ahead, and the overseers turned out the whole town to cheer her arrival. The soldiers didn’t seem much better than their prisoners—uniforms shredded for bandages, muskets braced against rounded shoulders, the fringes of their helmets lank as wet hair.
Father waited with me in the shade of the winged pillar, his hand heavy on my shoulder. I could feel him sway, tugging me a little each time his balance went. I was fifteen then, and hadn’t seen Mother in years. I wouldn’t have been able to pick her out except her uniform was cleaner than the others, the lacquered steel of her breastplate bright as a dragonfly wing. As she climbed the steps, I noticed dark stains under her arms and around her collar, and when she took off her helmet there was blood crusted in her hair.
There was an exchange of formalities—Father’s bow like the delicate curve of a saber, Mother’s the quick bob of a soldier taking fire. She spared me a nod before turning back to the crowd. I don’t remember what she said, only the natives’ low hum as the rebel chieftains were forced to their knees.
The lines around Mother’s lips deepened. “Why can’t they cheer like civilized folk?”
“It’s how they show respect,” Father said.
“Yes, but to whom?”
“If you wanted cheers, you should’ve stayed at the Roost.”
Mother muttered something that made Father’s grip tighten on my shoulder. I must have made a little noise because he let go, the speaking grass whispering as he hurried back to the manor. I didn’t look at Mother, but I could feel her gaze on me. When I didn’t move, she gave an approving grunt before turning back to the crowd. There were cheers from the soldiers as the prisoners were dragged up the steps and splayed across the altar.
Mother drew her belt knife and drove it into the first rebel’s chest, sawing through muscle and bone, then worked her hand into the ragged wound to draw forth the woman’s heart. It was an ugly, shapeless thing, all blood and sinew. Pale scars marred its surface in an aimless scrawl of thoughts and hopes, haphazard as a child’s painting.
Mother lifted the heart as if daring me to look away. I would’ve, but I was searching the crowd for Izavel, desperate to see her face. Two more rebel chieftains died screaming before I found her at the edge of the bare patch of mud between the soldiers and the natives.
Izavel seemed cut from stone, standing motionless as her people swayed and hummed. There was an anxious, almost desperate turn to her lips as she watched the last of the rebels—a man and a woman—even as they watched her. Mother’s knife rose, and Izavel met my gaze. Neither of us looked away until it was done.
“Take them.” Mother held the hearts out to me, blood dripping from her face, her uniform, everywhere.
It was all I could do not to vomit, my lips thick and wooden, my tongue seeming to fill the whole of my mouth.
The hearts were warm in my hands, soft and tacky with drying blood. This close, their scars seemed less haphazard, more the careful weave of branches than the meaningless flutter of windblown silk. I’d seen the hearts of heroes, wrought of steel and purest gold inlaid with lead to keep them humble. Mother kept a few locked away in her study. Next to them, the rebels’ hearts seemed rough, leathery things. I couldn’t imagine how they found the courage to resist us.
We burned the hearts in the great bronze brazier below the winged pillar. Afterwards, there were feasts—one for the soldiers, on long trestle tables in town, and one for Mother, her captains, Father, and I in the manor’s hall.
We raised bowls of tea to our masters, draining them as was proper. Father mumbled through the first three courses, sketching bizarre symbols in puddles of spilled soup while Mother sat tightlipped, waving away dishes almost as soon as the servants uncovered them. The officers tried to make small talk, but their attempts were feeble, forced things.
“They say you’ve started training,” Mother said without meeting my gaze.
“Sword, pistol, and wrestling.” The words tumbled out. “I’ve been practicing courtly manners, too, and—”
“You haven’t been practicing them,” Father said.
I looked to him, startled by the fevered intensity in his eyes.
“You’ve been repeating them.” He spoke slowly, as if shaping each word. “You haven’t been practicing them because there’s no one to practice with.”
The muscles in Mother’s jaw pulsed once, twice. “We decided—”
I glanced between them, wanting to sink down into the soft curves of my sitting pillow.
“What could she possibly learn in Hamaw?” he asked. “This muck-filled graveyard is—”
“Enough!” Mother hammered the table with her fist, plates clattering to the floor. Servants edged from darkened alcoves, bare feet whisper-quiet on the smooth tile. The captains mopped at spilled soup and dripping oil; except for their uniforms and darker complexions, they might have been indistinguishable from the natives.
This time, I did follow Father, snaking an arm around him as he tottered to his feet. He was lighter than I’d expected, his ribs a wicker lattice beneath linen robes. I could feel the rapid flutter of his heart, not a wet thud like mine but the flurry of wings beating against window glass. Mother said nothing as I led him away; only folded her arms, breath loud but slow.
There were a dozen paintings in Father’s chambers. They were all landscapes, but something about the perspective was like spinning around with my eyes closed. I had the servants turn them to face the walls before I laid him down.
“I’m sorry,” he said, “I wasn’t made for this.” He laid a cold hand on mine, raising the other to call for nightwine. One of the servants poured some tea, then set a bottle of nightwine just out of Father’s reach. She gave me a little smile, and with a start I realized it was Izavel.
She didn’t say anything, only slipped back into the dark.
I rose to fetch the bottle, unable to keep from glancing at the shadows, wondering who else they held.
The nightwine was clear as lagoon water, tasteless but powerful. Our masters downed it by the bottle, but add more than a spoonful to even a large bowl and any Carved who drank would never wake.
I knew Father liked to dilute his with the hot sweetened tea the natives brewed from marrow and cane pulp, so I added a few drops to his bowl. He raised it, then gulped the contents down before settling back into his bed.
“You’d love the Roost.” His throat bobbed. “There are winged pillars of silver-inlaid marble so high you can barely see the top. On feast days, they string lanterns between them. There was a tree near the Sunrise Gate, I’d climb onto the wall when the guards changed shifts. It was like looking at a forest of stars.”
“That sounds wonderful.” I dabbed at his forehead with my sleeve.
“I’ll take you there.” He looked past me, words starting to slur. “We’ll walk the Plaza of Bells, all the way to Enku’s Arch and back, and if you see a bell you like, I’ll let you ring it, even though it’s not allowed. I cleaned them as a boy, the carillons will remember me.”
“And the Dome?” I asked, curious despite the shadows at my back.
“Some bells are so big it takes twenty people to pull back the clapper.”
“What about the Volant?”
Father was quiet for so long I thought he’d drifted off to sleep, but when I started to rise he gave a little sigh.
“So many wagons enter the Dome—gold, iron, coal, silk, everything—I don’t know where the masters put it all. They say it goes elsewhere, but where else could it go? I was only inside once, when I was Carved, but they made us crawl face down. We all knew the stories of what happened if you looked up.”
“What was it like, being carved?”
“It was like...” He ran a hand across his stubble. “It was like falling in love.”
Father closed his eyes, breaths easing into the slow rhythm of sleep as the nightwine took hold.
I watched him until the candles burnt low, but the hollow tightness never left his face. He moaned and muttered, calling out names I’d never heard. It seemed a cruel thing to force someone to love something that couldn’t love them back, cruel and powerful. In that moment, I understood why Father feared the Volant.
I left just before the room went dark, bending to kiss my Father on the forehead.
I was glad I did.
They found him dead next morning. Four of Mother’s captains had been killed as well, their hearts taken. The officers had scratches on their arms as if they’d put up a struggle. Father had no marks upon him but for the ragged hole in his chest. It made me sad to see him like that. Still, I couldn’t help but think death had done what dreams could not and finally smoothed the longing from his face.
Everyone was questioned. This mostly involved beating the servants; a few died. I made a point to walk by the outbuildings, but I didn’t see Izavel among the broken bodies. My questioning involved lunch with a round-faced woman in a blue-lacquered breastplate who said her name was Aqat.
She asked if I’d seen anything out of the ordinary, anyone who didn’t belong. I remembered Izavel, of course, but I didn’t say anything. Aqat told me a couple stories about Mother. I think they were supposed to be funny, but I couldn’t imagine my Mother drinking beer from a boot or challenging someone to a duel of open-palmed slaps. Aqat said she and Mother been very close as girls, that she thought of me as a niece. My surprise must have shown because Aqat looked away, smoothing the wrinkles from her uniform pants with nervous hands. She asked if I remembered anything else. I said no.
Mother doubled the guard and confined all native workers to the village compound, but nothing stopped the killings. Hardly a morning passed without the discovery of a Carved body, their ribs cracked open and their chest empty. Instead of taking the heart from the rebellion, the deaths of their chieftains had inflamed them. The jungle swarmed with natives, patrols went missing. One day, we woke up to see ships burning in the harbor. After that, the crates of nightwine stacked up along the dock, undelivered. Everyone was on edge. We were used to hearing about this sort of thing on the front, but the people of Hamaw were supposed to be cooked.
The old, bent-legged sergeant who’d been training me was reassigned so Mother could see to me personally. I was excited at first, but we never talked about anything apart from fighting and killing. She’d make me lie on my back pinned by sacks of rice and try to worm an arm free, or practice gouging eyes by driving my thumbs into oranges until my clothes were sticky with juice.
It was harder to get away, which made me want to see Izavel even more. I hadn’t seen her since the night Father died. Fortunately, with everyone focused on watching the natives, I escaped now and again. Izavel and I ran through the massive fern groves north of Hamaw, chasing treecats and leaving bare footprints in the thick red clay that washed down from the mountains. We never saw any natives, but Izavel was all secret smiles. I knew she wanted me to ask her about the night Father died. She would drop little hints: asking if I thought his soul had flown back to the Roost or if I would stay when the other Carved were driven off. I didn’t answer, not because I was afraid, but because I wasn’t sure what the truth would do to me. My heart was still a wild, messy thing even at the best of times.
Sometimes, I would hate Father for not having fought, the anger so unbearable it was all I could do not to tear my curtains and kick holes in the screens next to my bed. Then, I would see a tally sheet with his broad, looping signature and feel like the whole world was pressing down on me.
I knew Mother was sad. They must’ve etched at least a little love for him into her—delicate filigree on oiled steel—but that had only made her more distant. She would take patrols far out into the jungle, disappearing for days or even weeks at a time. I could see she wanted to leave, but with Father dead there was no one else to watch Hamaw. Soldiers arrived from the Roost and were killed. More came, most too old or too young. Mother called them Soup Soldiers—tough meat and green vegetables—and her captains laughed.
I tried to be hard like her, but the anger just got worse. Finally, I broke. Izavel and I were at the Bay of Limbs. Low tide had exposed sea caves, and we’d woven torches of dry ferns to give enough light for exploring. At first, the stone hands were little more than textured lumps, fingers worn to nubs by time and tide, but as we went deeper they became more distinct. I squinted at scars and ragged nails, the delicate whole of fingerprints meticulously etched in stone. Each hand was open, fingers splayed like they were reaching for something.
I asked Izavel who they were.
“Everybody,” she said. “All the dead, at least.”
“That’s stupid, souls go to the sky.”
“Without wings?” She tapped my shoulders.
“The pyre smoke carries us.”
Izavel made a face.
I imagined Father here, the humid dark silent but for the crash of sea on stone. They’d taken his heart. I wondered if he still missed the bells.
It wasn’t until Izavel put her arm around my shoulders that I realized I was crying. She kissed me on the forehead then the chin. It was a strange thing, I’d been far closer to her when we hugged goodbye or tried to dunk each other in the sea, but I’d never been so aware of Izavel—her breath on my cheek, the way the hair on her arm tickled the nape of my neck. I kissed her back, on the forehead, the chin, then the mouth. I remember her shivering, but when I drew back embarrassed, she laughed.
“Your lips are cold.” Then she kissed me again.
It went on for a while, but I didn’t get bored. Later, I remember wondering if Mother and Aqat ever kissed like this.
“I’m sorry about your Father.” Izavel held me tight, our arms intertwined. “I can get it back if you want.”
I pushed her away, my anger strong as it was sudden. All the unfairness came boiling up and I was screaming at Izavel. My father hadn’t hurt anyone, hadn’t even wanted to be here. How could they kill him?
Izavel just stared, brow creased, her mouth a little bit open like she had thought she could just mention she’d helped kill my father then go back to kissing. Her surprise lasted only a few heartbeats, and with a curse she was on her feet, nose almost touching mine.
“Your father murdered!” she shouted.
I don’t remember what else we said, only that she slapped me first. I thought of Aqat’s story about Mother smacking a duelist bloody. That made me smile. It also made me hit Izavel back.
We struggled in the mildewed shadow, torches sputtering on the cave floor. Izavel was bigger and stronger, but I had been practicing. She slammed me back, and hard stone fingers pressed into the flesh between my shoulders. There was a moment of sharp pain before the stone arm gave way, sending us both crashing to the floor. I turned as we fell, got my hip into her so I landed on top then went up on my toes to press down like Mother had shown me. Izavel bucked and yelled, first trying to butt my head then to drive an elbow into my ribs.
Without thinking I reached for her face, thumbs pressed to her eyelids. My heart was the crash of waves, blood pounding in my ears, drowning me. Now, I really was scared. I didn’t want to be made to feel like this.
I snatched my hands back. “Izavel, I—”
Something hit the side of my head and sent me tumbling. There was no pain, only the stickiness of blood, the chill of wet stone against my cheek. I remember trying to sit up but not being able to get my arms to stop shaking.
Izavel stood over me clutching a cracked stone hand and looking more afraid than I’d ever seen her.
“I’m sorry.” She dropped the stone and knelt to press her palm to the cut in my scalp. “Please, I’m sorry.”
I slapped her hand away. She curled it to her chest, eyes bright in the torchlight. I wanted her to try again, to take me in her arms and beg me to forgive her.
Instead, she ran.
The moon was high by the time I stumbled back into Hamaw. Mother was out searching the jungle, but the guards shouted with relief to see me.
I was bustled up to the manor, Aqat almost knocking over a screen in her haste to summon servants with bandages and clean clothes. I told her I’d been out climbing in the bay and fallen, but I could see she didn’t believe me.
We sat quietly until Mother returned. I don’t know what I expected, but she just looked at me, nodded, then left. Aqat went to speak with her, and a little while later servants came to take me back to my room.
I didn’t want to cry, but I did.
It was almost morning when Mother came. I think she’d been waiting outside my door for some time, but I was grateful she’d given me time to get myself under control.
“I want a heart,” I said.
“We should’ve had this talk sooner.” She sat stiffly on the bed, hands on her knees. “Being Carved is like wearing armor that’s too small. You can feel it with every movement, every thought. It’s easy to give yourself over, to trim parts away until you fit.”
I opened my mouth, but she raised a hand.
“Let me finish. It was selfish of me, but I wanted you to have a chance to grow wild. That’s why I brought you to Hamaw, that’s why I stayed away. I should love you, but I can’t.”
She shook her head.
For the first time, I noticed the grey in my mother’s hair, the hollow tightness around her mouth and eyes. I put my arm around her shoulders, the tension in them like a bent bow. Her hand rose, then fell.
“I’m sorry. I wasn’t made for this.” She stood, smoothing her uniform. “It’s too late anyway. You’re going to get your heart, daughter. They are coming.”
I was wearing boots when the Volant arrived. It’s strange that’s what I remember most. I’d worn slippers and sandals before, but it was odd not to feel the ground, only hardened leather, hot and tight. Aqat had an ensign’s uniform tailored for me, but the cobbler had been killed months ago and I had to wear a dead soldier’s boots.
Our masters came in a ship of white metal, sailless and low to the water like some great ocean predator. There were masked soldiers, a few hundred at least, their breastplates and shields stamped with a golden heart. They formed ranks upon the beach, parting as three Volant descended.
Mother had always called our masters eagles, but they looked more like vultures to me, tall and crook-necked, heads bare but for a ruff of feathers around their chins. The Volant wore silk brocade embroidered with intricate patterns that reminded me of Father’s paintings. From what I could see of their hands and faces they had no skin, just ropes of dried muscle, their eyes lidless and staring. Atrophied wings trailed from their shoulders like tattered cloaks, and there were jewels set into their curved beaks.
They approached us in the little shuffling hops. Mother and Aqat trembled on either side of me, although not with fear. I think it was the first time I’d ever seen Mother smile.
“Failure. Many dead.” The lead Volant tilted its head to regard Mother with one eye then the other. “No nightwine.”
“I have no excuse.”
The Volant glanced to the crates of nightwine still on the dock, swallowed, then looked down at me. I averted my eyes, trying not to wrinkle my nose at the smells of blood and dry rot that slipped through the Volant’s perfumed robes.
“Your daughter?” It took my chin in one hand, claws pressing into my cheeks.
“She can govern Hamaw?” It swayed as it turned my face from side-to-side, tugging me a little off balance.
“If you wish, Master,” Mother said.
“Good. Daughter govern, you fight. Send nightwine, again.”
I knew better than to meet the Volant’s eyes, but suspected if I did I would find in them the same fevered haziness as my Father’s.
I’d wondered what our masters loved. Now I knew.
“There are many rebels,” Mother said. “Far more than we thought.”
“Love conquers all.” The Volant gave a dismissive click, then shuffled off toward the docks.
Mother didn’t want to have a feast, but the arrival of our masters warranted the best Hamaw had to offer. The soldiers sat down to glazed pork and wild rice, while in the manor servants unveiled great platters of smoked fish, spiced vegetables, and shrimp boiled in coconut milk. The Volant sat in Mother’s customary place, relegating her to a seat next to Aqat at the officer’s table. Our masters had shared a bottle of nightwine before the festivities and were clicking and cawing to each other quite happily.
At each place, the servants set a bowl of tea, hot and thick, and we lifted them to the masters. It took some time for them to acknowledge us, but at last one noticed that conversation had ceased and gave an airy wave.
“Don’t.” A hand covered mine.
I glanced up to see Izavel, dressed in servant’s robes as she’d been the night father died. She leaned forward, pretending to wipe an imaginary spill, then glanced at my bowl and shook her head, lips pressed into a tight line.
Around the table the others lifted their tea. I should’ve warned them, but as I looked from Izavel to the Volant, I knew that I didn’t want all this, didn’t want their love, their fear. Every mark in my heart had been put there by someone I cared for—Izavel, Father, even Mother. Wild and painful as it was, it was mine.
Even so, I almost called out, until I saw Izavel’s face, the beginnings of worry lines just starting to bunch the skin around her eyes and mouth, and realized she was afraid, not of the Carved, or even the Volant, but of me, for me.
It was cruel to force someone to love something that couldn’t love them back.
As I set the bowl down, I noticed Mother watching me from across the hall. She must have realized the tea contained enough nightwine to drop a regiment, but she said nothing, only raised the bowl to her lips and drank with the others. I like to think she’d set this all in motion—letting Father mismanage the sump, killing the chieftains, punishing the people of Hamaw, even forcing the Volant to come—that she’d somehow found the strength to hurt something she loved to protect something she couldn’t.
I think I remember Mother nodding to me as the bowl slipped from her grasp, then, just before the first slurred cries rang out, pulling Aqat into a tight embrace. I can’t be sure, though. Maybe that’s just what I want her to have done.
Speaking grass howled with the tread of many running feet, echoed by the shouts of surprised guards. Izavel pressed a knife into my hand as the servants stepped from their alcoves, weaving around the slumped bodies of their masters.
Together, we advanced upon the Volant. Maybe it was the nightwine, or maybe they couldn’t believe what was happening, but the Volant just watched us come, their heads bobbing like startled geese.
As the blades fell, I remember wondering if this was the beginning or the end, if the Volant were going to come for us, even if we were doing the right thing. All I knew for certain was that we had the strength and courage to fight.
As for the Volant, we’d just have to crack them open and see.