When Sere Gulliarme is dragged into the city, the canal-mud still clinging to her standard-issue boots, the police do not bother to support her legs. The officers hold her by one wrist and one elbow; the lower half of her body scrapes across the bricks. It hurts, of course. Sere could, if she wished, stand, but she refuses to walk for them.
She struggles in quick bursts, twisting her hips and making the police around her stumble, unbalanced. The man holding her elbow falls, cracking one knee on the red bricks. His new posture brings his face close enough for her to feel the motion of his breath. Sere gathers blood on her tongue to spit in his eye, thinks better of it, and swallows.
She sports a gash at the back of her skull; Sere can feel blood-wet wool all down her spine, seeping into her fine grey coat.
Sere Gulliarme is brought into custody for treason against the state in the week of her forty-eighth birthday, eight months after she fled her position as Deputy Commissioner, but it is the youth in her pain-set face that unsettles those who had searched for her. She was not meant to be life-laced with anyone. They cannot execute her if she can prove the lacing.
She drops her head back and stares, expressionless, at the men and women hauling her across the red brick of the square.
Sere had tried to say goodbye.
In the fireplace lay the ashes of a letter that urged her to flee immediately. It had arrived by runner, handed to Sere by an out-of-breath girl with road-dust all up the front of her skirt.
The letter was from Jeska White. Make goddamn haste, for they come after you with deadly intention, it said. Please take care, it ended.
She sat half-dressed on a stool, pistol heavy in her lap, waiting for Tashet to come home. Sere waited until it was past dinner, aching to leave for the safety of the narrow canal-borough in the south of the city, where the river split, brackish, into man-made channels, but she remained unwilling to simply vanish. Tashet sometimes stayed late in her workshop, wrist-deep in rare metals and small, carefully labeled vials of royal blood.
Sere dressed herself and filled a bowl with sharp cheese, halved apples, and currants, then tucked it under her arm and crossed the square with quick, measured steps. No one stopped Deputy Commissioner Sere Guillarme.
Tashet was bent, riveted, over one of her experiments, focused enough that she thanked Sere for the food without asking what it contained. “This’s delicate,” she said, letting Sere lean in close but hovering her hands protectively over the brazier. “I’ll be done in half an hour,” Tashet added, when Sere did not back out of the room to leave her in peace. Tashet’s ability to judge time while in her workshop was limited, and Sere knew she would be up all night, fussing over this piece of magic.
Tashet’s laboratory was an intimidating place, split by towering shelves into semi-private bays where the high alchemists plied their art. Occasionally something banged, making dark glass bottles rattle musically. In the next bay two alchemists were arguing over what color a solution was; was it closer to silver or black? Sere wished Tashet had just come home tonight, where she could speak freely.
Sere wouldn’t be able to send letters. Diligent, loyal Tashet would never fathom that anyone was reading her mail and would take no precautions. Sere couldn’t explain what would happen to them both if she didn’t leave.
“I have to go,” Sere said. Tashet just nodded, dragging her notes out from beneath a pile of rusted forceps and thumbing through them briskly. Sere was at a loss for how to proceed, so she organized a corner of Tashet’s workbench, putting vials in a line, then in numerical order the way Tashet liked. “I have to leave for a little while, but I don’t want you to worry. You won’t worry, will you?”
“I always worry, dearest,” Tashet said. She put down her notes and sighed. “Are you going to be late on my account? I can tell you seem more anxious than usual.”
“I’m never anxious,” Sere said. “Be safe,” she managed, and fled.
By the time Sere had exited the top quarter of the city with its grand square and hall of alchemists, she had convinced herself that Tashet knew it was goodbye. She had to have known.
The rules of life-lacing are simple and romantic: you will live twice as long, and you will die together.
They strip her down to her undershirt and shut her in a room that’s had all the furniture dragged out of it. The floor is rough with tracks of splinters where the movers were careless. Sere resents the theft of her coat and boots, despite the sticky crust of mud and blood that had already ruined them.
She wishes for the heavy weight of her dress pistol at her hip, but the gun is at the bottom of a canal, thrown by Jeska in a fit of symbolic destruction. They would have taken it from her anyway.
A summons comes, and they give Sere a rough skirt of blue muslin. She wonders if they mean to vilify her, dressing her in the colors of the revolution, but she recognizes the look on the face of the guard who brings it to her and thinks it is pity. It is the style of skirt the women wear inland. When he opens his mouth to speak with a continental lilt, she knows he is trying to make her look like home.
The courtroom has fashionable narrow windows fitted with sparkling leaded glass. Across the continent, windows like these keep out the cold. Here they trap the spring humidity until the carved wooden benches shine with damp. Sere sits on the hard chair they give her and waits while the familiar cadence of sentencing hits her ears. They can kill her, even while she wears her connection to an innocent life on her too-young face. She will need proof, in paperwork she does not have. They laced in secret, like stupid young lovers. Still, when the clerk of the court asks mildly if there are any compounding factors, she says, “I am life-laced.”
Her response is not totally unexpected. “State the name of your partner,” the clerk says. He is interested in her answer, not immune to the judicial rumor-mill, and fails to keep the interest out of his tone.
“High Alchemist Tashet Venkata,” Sere says. The name, despite formal trappings, feels good around her teeth, like slipping her hands into a well-worn pair of gloves.
They do not believe her, and the mood in the room darkens. The clerk’s face falls. Sere is struck wondering what has happened to Tashet that no one remembers the cleanly dressed policewoman who frequented the High Alchemist’s workshop. She folds her hands together to keep them from pressing the surprisingly small cut at the base of her hairline, and wonders if the change is in herself.
Tashet does not come to the almshouse for eight days. Sere spends the time standing at the window in her little bare room, watching the line of flags that fly over the courthouse, red and green and gold. They are all blazoned with the hare and the tower and the vine, in colors more vibrant than anything out in the canals.
The citizen’s resistance chose blue and grey, the color of sunrise over still water. She had gone to them only to hide, carrying with her a small collection of bureaucratic treasons. She had always wanted to come home again.
Tashet had not told Sere how lacing made everything sharper, brighter, and more enduring. Moments that were once fleeting now run like syrup across her skin; she can feel every snap of the brilliant flags as if they brushed against her face. The flags haven’t changed in eight months, although Sere feels they should have, if only to contrast the unchanging rule.
Across the continent the royal triumvirate sits a life-long term on the Braided Throne. Laced together since birth, their rule could last three lifetimes. Sere had watched the regime stagnate, year by year, as they were blinded by the slow pass of time and the false vitality of the world seen through lace.
Sere had planned the changing of the police guard so there would be a small gap, enough for one woman with a long-nosed rifle to slip into the parade square.
She had watched from Tashet’s workroom. The whole affair was choreographed in every step, a holiday pageant for the public to see one of their three leaders, face and body still young after so many years of rule.
Sere was excused from marching in the parade herself at the last minute to go over paperwork. It was disastrous, to not be in public, to have no eyes on her at this critical moment, but she could do nothing. She counted the steps of the guards, watched her orchestrated gap open and close.
The gunshot at the parade was loud, but the bullet had twisted, striking one of the beautiful ceremonial guard-pairs, dropping them both with one wound.
That day, Tashet had asked to see Sere’s writing case. For ink, she said.
Sere, harried in the aftermath of the assassination attempt, scrambling to understand what this failure meant for her position and her cause, had been unable to think of an excuse to refuse her.
In her writing case she kept damning letters unburnt while she penned responses. But Tashet said nothing, and no arrest summons came. Sere thought Tashet’s silence was proof that her life-laced had always known and quietly forgiven her from the start.
Two days after the parade, still in the frenzy of the investigation into the shooting, Sere tore herself free and went down to sit by the canal. She missed briefings. Her absence would yawn like an accusation, but the agony of anticipation drove her out to the outskirts of the city. It had all gone wrong, but the consequences had yet to fall upon her head.
Jeska found her. He looked sober and tired, his face gaining wrinkles while Sere’s lost them.
The sun hung askance in the mid-afternoon sky and it was hot. Humidity rose off of the canals like a wet cloak. Jeska dangled his fingers in the water, teasing the catfish.
“You look awful,” Sere said. Jeska smiled and flicked water at her ankles.
“Thanks, turncoat. Same to—” Jeska said, but when he looked at her to finish his thought he stopped. Something dawned on him in perfect horror. Sere watched it march across his face like a phalanx of bayonetters.
“You look good,” Jeska finished. He took his hand out of the water and dried it on his trousers, holding his breath, lips pursed as he tried to frame a question in his mind. “Sere, uh, right. This is rude but I’ve got to know. How old are you? It takes a long time to get to be deputy police commissioner, and you look—”
“Stop, Jeska, I’m life-laced, you deduced it.”
“Fuck,” Jeska said. “Of all the stupid things—to who? And why? You’re a cop so why—”
“I love her,” Sere said, interrupting him.
Jeska sighed, bitter and tired. “Then why’d you get mixed up with us?”
“You know why. Because there was a massacre. Because a boy had a ball and a stick, and he wasn’t dangerous, and we killed him anyway,” Sere said. She felt defeated.
“Of all the selfless, selfish things,” Jeska said wonderingly. “At least they can’t execute the life-laced.”
Sere shook her head, and Jeska understood. “You don’t have papers,” he said, like a lead weight. “Because you’re both women.”
There were special dispensations for unconventional lacings, rarely gifted.
“She can’t die for this,” Sere said, hugging her elbows to her chest. It had all gone so wrong.
“Oh no, Sere,” Jeska said, his voice thick with pity and rebuke. “We’ll get you out,” he promised. “I swear we’ll get you out. We’ll save her.”
Sere discovered, too late, that after the parade Tashet had needed to write a list of ingredients to begin anew the tincture that would infiltrate one life into another and replace the guard-pair that had fallen. Tashet’s apprentice knocked over her inkwell. Tashet had reached into Sere’s writing case, fetched out a spare inkpot, and read no seditious letters.
Sere tells herself it takes Tashet eight days to come see her because the alchemy has always come first. Tashet makes miracles by sewing souls together, and it takes her entire attention. Sere has watched Tashet disregard food, drink, and company; it is not a stretch to imagine her ignoring a pile of official memos slipped under her door out of distraction, not malice. Sere knows, deep in her heart where it stings with guilt, that it takes Tashet eight days to come see her because she is hurting.
When Tashet arrives it is with a burn on her wrist from where she was careless pouring hot oil, the skin angry red and silvered underneath with magic.
The almshouse guard, unfriendly from boredom with her post, does not trust Sere to be alone with Tashet. She stands outside the door, pistol drawn and loaded, listening to every word they say. She doesn’t believe the lacing, doesn’t know Tashet is as safe with Sere as she is in her own company. Sere isn’t the sort whose despair runs to self-destruction.
When Tashet walks in, Sere takes a half step toward her, drawn in like silk that remembers rubbing against a glass rod. But Tashet is frozen, her red and gold shirt uncomfortably vibrant in the pale room. Sere falls back on her heels, skin singing, wanting to press her palms against Tashet’s cheeks and kiss her temples, her mouth. For the first time, certain that Tashet does not want her to.
“Tashet,” Sere says, and Tashet winces like Sere has struck her. So she says, “Beloved—”, her voice catching on the sentiment, but Tashet flinches from that as well, her face turning from reluctance to anger.
“Stop it!” Tashet says, making a small chopping gesture with both hands. “Don’t act like that, like you’re still allowed, don’t.” She trembles as if she is about to scream, or cry.
It burns like dust in Sere’s eyes to hear Tashet take her name back, to keep for herself. “I couldn’t write,” she says, because it is true.
Tashet’s patience, endless for alchemy and strictly rationed for all other trials, does not suffer this, and she does not bother to be kind to Sere’s heart. “What! No, I don’t think so, you take off into the canals like a criminal, and you apologize for not sending letters? They could have found your body in the canal or shot on the islands of the delta, or hung in some other city square for treason. They would have found my corpse in my workroom on the same day! I spend eight months waiting for my next moment to be my last and you’re sorry you couldn’t write? Sorry that you didn’t have a chance to explain yourself? I can’t believe you.”
“You can fix it. Tell them about us. They’ll believe you, even without papers,” Sere says, too reasonable, too calm, not begging.
“They won’t,” Tashet says. She is so certain. “They won’t believe me. But I’m going to fix it. I can, I can if I just undo the lacing.”
“No, no,” is all Sere can say. It is close to begging. To destroy the bond between life-laced is supposed to be impossible. They have been poured together, like alcohol and cream. They cannot be unmixed. But Tashet is a brilliant and unflinching alchemist, trusted by the royal family to lace their ceremonial guards together. If she says she can distill them apart again, Sere believes her.
Tashet draws a ragged breath and cries, “I don’t want to die with you!”
The pain that falls into Sere’s heart is like drinking a gallon of salt water—immediate, cold, and sickening. She wraps her hand around her own wrist and tightens her grip until she can feel the bones grinding together.
“I didn’t want any of this,” Tashet says, her voice so small it’s hard to hear. “God forgive me, I didn’t. I can’t make these choices.”
Sere can’t look at Tashet, so she turns her face to the window and the lines of flagpoles that crown the capitol. She stares into the brightness until her eyes feel rough and dry.
Sere is not allowed to write letters, although she drafts them in her head. Mainly she aches to contact the dissident force still hidden in the canals, so they might learn from her mistakes. To plain-faced Ynma, a warning about the clever mirrors that send sunlight into shadowy corners of the parade grounds, even well past noontime. For Aeril, who runs the supply lines, Sere imagines letter after letter telling him to hold his life-laced partner close, not to let him use the southeastern gate to get into the city, where the guard has changed and the police have heavy boots.
To Jeska, she has a jumble of apologies, indictments, and self-pity.
She remembers when she first read one of his editorials and recognized herself in his writing: scar-cheeked, stiffened by fear of empathy, the humanized enemy. It had been a bracing gift to see herself from the outside. He had sketched her as a winnable target; someone who didn’t need to change to become an ally, simply the opportunity to break her old loyalties.
They were that opportunity, he wrote.
So it was with a clear head that Sere had walked, plain-clothed, to the cramped row house where the citizen’s resistance was meeting. The woman who opened the door was wary, her posture such that Sere could see the outline of a gun clearly beneath her skirt. If she meant to intimidate, she was up against all of the bluster Sere could draw from two decades of clawing her way up the police ranks.
Sere drew herself up to her full height in her heeled boots—the one part of her uniform she had not wanted to surrender, for they rooted her to the ground—and then receded. She wasn’t here to make arrests.
“I’m Sere Guilliarme, and I want to help,” she said gently.
The woman at the door promptly slammed it in Sere’s face. Faintly, Sere heard her yell, “Jeska! Jeska! Get out here, your daft editorials worked and the police commissioner is on the doorstep! She wants to help and it’s your problem!” Sere wasn’t police commissioner, not quite, but she appreciated the verbal promotion.
Eventually Jeska opened the door, looking more than slightly drunk. He blanched when he recognized her. “Oh god,” he said. “Ynma wasn’t shitting me, you’re right here, shit.”
Jeska was always more eloquent on the page.
He shepherded her up two flights of stairs, past the ground floor with a circle of people speaking emphatically, past a hallway blocked by the disassembled parts of a printing press, to a bedroom. “I would entertain you in the sitting room, but it’s full of yelling people,” he said.
“This is fine,” Sere said quickly. She stood in the middle of the floor, not sure if she should take off her boots, not sure if she should take the whiskey when Jeska offered it.
“So, Sere Guilliarme, how do you want this to start?” Jeska asked, sitting down hard on the bed and staring determinedly at her face.
“I thought,” Sere said slowly, “I would start by giving you the names of the informants who told me and the rest of the force how to find this place.”
Jeska’s smile was hesitant but sincere. “Okay. Okay! We can make that work.”
Tashet sends a note to the almshouse with a list of requests. She needs tears, blood, and a drawing to map the scars that blemish Sere’s skin. There are new scars in shapes that Tashet does not know.
“She can come and collect me herself,” Sere says to her guard.
Tashet comes with a lancet.
Sere sits on the floor, methodically tying and unpicking intricate knots in the thread that’s unraveling from her undershirt. When Tashet arrives she does not rise. If she stands her knees might buckle, and she doesn’t want Tashet to see.
Tashet sits down next to her and unpacks her alchemy kit. She won’t look at Sere, even though they are close enough to touch. Instead she places items in a row: pen, ink, wood-pulp paper, lye-treated cloth, neatly stoppered vials.
“Take off your shirt,” Tashet says dully, readying a pen and a sheet with a genderless human figure outlined on it.
Sere stands, grimacing at the pain in her knees, and strips. They’ve given her a straw pallet, but it is full of invisible biting insects; she has been sleeping on the floor. Purple bruises bloom across the peaks of her hips and her shoulder blades.
Tashet stares openly, her face wracked with pity. Slowly, she brings her pen to paper and begins to scratch out a drawing of Sere’s blemishes. Each pen stroke feels like it’s digging into Sere’s flesh.
“I won’t let you,” Sere says convulsively. She kicks away Tashet’s tidy line of vials. “Can’t you see this is horrible?”
The materials for alchemy must be given willingly. It’s an immutable law, as true as sugarcane is sweet and cyanide is bitter. Tashet reaches out to still a vial that’s rolling in wobbly circles next to her ankle. She stares at it, then shuts her eyes tight and says shakily, “Don’t be like this, Sere. You’re making everything harder.”
“It should be hard!” Sere shouts. “You want to abandon me to die!”
Tashet smacks an open palm against the floor. “You abandoned me first!” she says. “I’m never going to understand, I just—why where they more important than me, Sere?” She smacks the floor again, then yanks her hand away and peers at it, hurt and distracted. “I got a splinter. Ah, it’s bleeding, damn.”
Without wondering if she is allowed, Sere kneels down and cradles Tashet’s hand in both of hers. Tashet lets her; lets her prod with both thumbnails at the meat of her palm until she finds the end of the splinter, lets her raise Tashet’s palm to her mouth and pull the splinter out with her teeth.
“Thanks,” Tashet says, taking her hand back and rubbing at it. She looks up at Sere and suddenly her eyes fill with tears. Her mouth twists up in a sob. Sere rushes to fold her into her arms. Tashet’s embroidered shirt feels rough and strange against Sere’s bare skin and her tears are wet on Sere’s collarbone. Tashet hangs on.
“Shhh, shhhh,” Sere says. “I couldn’t stay. I wanted to stay and I wanted everything to stay the same and I let that ruin everything. I didn’t want you to lose you position and your alchemy lab and your ridiculous colorful shirts. But if you let this happen it won’t stay the same, beloved. You can’t stay in a place knowing that killing someone put you there. It hurts too much. I won’t let you find that out for yourself.”
It had started with executions. She is here, jailed in an emptied almshouse, because of Jeska White. He had thrown a rock at her, a little less than two years ago, his fury directed at her uniform and her distant expression beside the gallows.
It had knocked the skin from her cheekbone, which would heal with a dent like a permanent thumbprint under her eye. Sere rounded on the man who threw the rock, pistol drawn, cheek stinging. He stood protectively over a young man, collapsed on the brick, and did not cower, although there was dirt on his hands from the stone he had thrown. “This was my father,” he cried. “They were life-laced and you killed them both!”
The man on the ground was dead, then. Sere held her neck straight and did not twist to look at the gallows. “The lacing certificate was a forgery,” she said. “The sentence was for counterfeit and tax evasion. All of her paperwork was suspect.” But the ages, even estimated roughly, failed to add up. The man shaking with anger and grief before her looked no older than the man on the ground. His mother, now dead by the state, had been similarly youthful. To be surpassed in age by their son, they could not be living solely their own lifespans.
Sere thought of the additional lifespan ahead of her, thought what if that were Tashet. She was newly laced, the change so recent that it did not show in her face yet, filled to bursting with the secret, and the thought of Tashet dead on her account was freshly terrible. “What’s your name?” she asked, shoving her pistol away.
“Jeska White,” the man said. “Are you going to arrest me?”
“No,” Sere said, after a long silence. She could, if she wanted to, for the blood running down her face. “Can you lift him? May I call someone?”
Jeska was a slight man, but he didn’t trust her, and it was not her place to carry his dead. Later, after she had dragged him dripping from the canal, twice, both times while scolding him for picking fights with her fellow officers, she would help him write the words for funeral speeches. After she abandoned her uniform, they were bound together by their secrets, by each knowing too much about the other, and by their casualties. Still, she would have helped him on that first day, if he had allowed.
Before her cheek had fully healed, Sere saw Jeska’s name on a confiscated pamphlet. She stole it to read by lamplight while Tashet slept.
Tashet leaves without picking up the scattered pieces of her alchemy kit, wiping her face dry on her sleeves. Sere watches her go, heart churning.
It is cruel to ransom Tashet’s life against her own, and Sere cannot convince herself it isn’t selfish.
Tashet has been given three options, painted into a corner by Sere’s actions. She may do nothing and let them both die, out of stubbornness or spite or romantic gesture. She can leverage all of her political weight and convince the court of their lacing, providing birth certificates and fine alchemical reference diagrams of faces as they age naturally. It will destroy her career, to be laced to a seditionist, and Sere will spend two lifetimes in prison. Or she can unlace them, destroy their unbreakable bond, and Sere will die while Tashet lives on, unchanged.
Sere hangs in the balance like a plumb line, swinging in ever-smaller arcs around an absolute end.
Tashet is choosing to sever them, the same way Sere chose to leave eight months ago. Ideals supersede love, twice in awful symmetry. It is a terrible choice, but it is Tashet’s.
This thought hurts more than the lancet piercing her arm. It hurts more than the burn of the lye-soaked cloth on the tender skin under her eyes as she soaks up her angry tears with it. When she twists to see the scars on her back, jarring the bruises there, it is nothing.
Sere packs the materials for unlacing safely in a box lined with waxed paper. A chance for Tashet to live on, her career unmarred.
The police had caught her on a beautiful early spring day, when the streets next to the canal were dusted ochre with pollen from early-blooming trees. It had almost been her birthday, and she’d wandered too far into the main quarter, hoping to catch a glimpse of Tashet at the open farmer’s market or the mineral-seller. Jeska trailed behind her, looking sharply from side to side and jotting down lyrical details of the setting.
They stopped by a narrow table selling tidy bunches of mint, rhubarb, and small hard apricots. The wicker chair behind the table was empty, and Sere imagined stepping behind the table and out of her life to become someone who sold fruit. She would walk through the orchards with Tashet, between them a basket of taut-skinned peaches and plums. Tashet’s fussy shoes would sink into the dirt and she would laugh and lean on Sere, all the restless parts of her unwinding in the whispering shade.
“I met her near here,” Sere told Jeska. “I was walking through the park and caught her hammering little metal tags into all the trees. I stopped her to ask what she was doing and she led me around the park, showing me how she wanted to life-lace the trees together so they could grow tall.”
Sere picked up an apricot. It was heavier than she expected.
“You miss her,” Jeska said.
“Like a limb,” Sere said, and then blushed because it was such an obvious thing to say.
A constable eyed her from the street corner, checking that she was not stealing fruit. Sere put the apricot back. Her face had changed enough that he would surely dismiss her, too young to be Sere Guilliarme of the long arrest record and the firm gaze.
The constable stepped toward them, signaling to his partner across the street with his right hand to follow. Sere realized, like a pit caught in her throat, that Jeska had picked too many fights to be forgettable.
Jeska had cried for help as they hauled Sere away.
Sere wakes in the dark to the smell of gunpowder and believes in a panic that she is before a firing squad, too soon, too soon, there had been no time. How unfair.
But instead of gunshots she hears a rasp of a match striking and sees the faint outline of Tashet’s face. The acrid smell that woke Sere resolves into the burnt-spice reek of hastily done alchemy. Tashet’s fingers touch, feather-light, again and again against Sere’s shoulder, as if she is checking that Sere is not a ghost. “If I get you out, do you know where we can go?” she asks.
Tashet is shaking so hard the matchlight quavers. Her fingers are sooty and her skirt smells singed.
“Did you melt the lock?” Sere asks, distracted by practicalities, unable to process that perhaps Tashet chose a fourth option and is saving her.
Tashet plucks at her burnt skirt with her free hand. “I’m afraid I made a hash of it. I thought it would be fine but this place uses tin in their locks, of all things.”
“Cheap bastards,” Sere agrees.
Down the hall someone coughs, freezing them both.
“Do you know a safe place?” Tashet asks, urgent now.
Sere thinks of Tashet’s bright gold shirts and expensive equipment in the second floor of a row house, cramped and vibrant as she laces the spies together, so their senses may be sharper, so they may be caught less often.
“I do,” Sere says.