Veillen moved through the marble and alabaster halls of the palace as softly as any spirit: as though it was she who had died, she thought resentfully, instead of her father. But the One-Eyed Emperor’s body had been placed within its tomb with all the proper rituals a full moon ago, and his daughter, in turn, was trapped in the palace.
My lady empress, the courtiers and servants murmured when she passed them in the hallways, and they would make obeisance, but their eyes were full of bright hard smiles, and the echoes of their laughter would come to her once she turned the corner. They would give her an appellation soon, either the Ghost Empress or the Silent Empress. Veillen possessed the dry, utter certainty that more than her father’s memory remained, and it was his presence that still ruled here, as heavy as his jeweled crown.
Veillen never wore it, and she rarely attended court in any case. It was always crowded with petitioners, those who rode or walked or crawled to court to have their grievances addressed. Their raw needs and greed could never be dealt with reasonably, and it took guardsmen to make them leave as they had come, unsatisfied. He had had only one eye, her father, and they said that all it saw was justice. How could she compare?
Then there were the lords and ladies, dressed in their fine damasks and samite, who dueled with sly oiled barbs as well as with swords. They offered their witticisms to her, like velvet-sheathed blades. The velvet, they collected again, blood-spotted. She preferred the way they had ignored her when she was only the over-tall girl who drifted in to lean silently in the corner, then left again to no one’s notice. The title of heir had meant little then; no one had expected the One-Eyed Emperor to ever die, and she had just been the unpretty daughter of a celebrated beauty—the only woman to hold his interest through and past pregnancy, and so the only one to bear an acknowledged child.
Those unacknowledged were forming their own factions, she knew. Arabris held the loyalty of the guards in his gauntleted fist, while Misren offered sweet promises to the nobles. And Iridru, another one of her half-brothers, had been kind to her as a child, but she was wary of him now. As of late, his eyes followed her too closely wherever she went….
As though that thought had summoned him, she found him pacing alongside her now. His stride matched hers so precisely that she hadn’t realized he had joined her. She stopped, and Iridru did as well.
“Why are you following me?” she demanded. They were of a height, which let her glare straight at him, but his eyes were as mild and green as ever.
He hitched up one shoulder in a half-shrug. “I wanted to talk to you. I’ve seen so little of you since Father died.”
It had been even longer; they’d been childhood friends, but then he’d left to serve as regent in some distant territory, returning only recently for the funeral. Surely he didn’t think he could slide back into that old intimacy, especially now that she was empress. She chose her words to remind him of this. “It’s no casual pastime, ruling.”
“But that’s the point. You’re never in court.” He leaned against the wall opposite her.
She felt trapped, and it made her voice sharp. “And I can only rule from there? My power extends nowhere else?”
“Veillen.” He touched her arm softly, as though gentling a restless mare; despite herself, she felt the tension leave her. “You have to exercise rule over the court as well—that’s where the nobles are. And they’re frightened. They think you’re drawing power to yourself quietly, and it worries them that you have no visible counselors. How much would it cost you to reassure them?”
Now she understood which side of the board he was playing on. “And you’d like to be one of those counselors,” she said dryly.
He offered her a faint smile. “I’m already acting like one, aren’t I?”
She couldn’t help a laugh, more out of relief than mirth. She was glad he was allying himself with her, unlike her other half-brothers. “I’ll be glad of your advice,” she said. “But can we talk later? I’m on my way elsewhere.”
“Where to?” He took her hand and set it upon his arm, ready to escort her.
She said reluctantly, “The Basilisk’s garden.” There had been a message, a summons she could not ignore, even though it had been meant for her father and not for her.
Iridru’s brows furrowed as his arm dropped. “I always thought that place would dissolve away once Father was gone,” he murmured. “But of course not.”
“Of course not,” she said. “Considering its maker. I’ll see you later?”
When he nodded, Veillen stepped past him, and this time he made no move to follow her. Mention of the Basilisk did that to men.
The garden had once frightened her too, but it had unexpectedly become her refuge. Her father had come here often, meaning that no one else dared, and even now when he was dead (she had seen the body, wrapped in steel and gold, before the entrance to the tomb was closed), she was its only visitor.
It had inhabitants of a sort, though. The entrance was guarded by a lion, snarling and set in an eternal crouch. She ran her fingers through the coarse threads of its mane as she passed it. To one side a wide-eyed gazelle gathered itself to bolt, and a grave, elegant bird with a slender long neck and great white wings slowed its descent to the pond’s edge. Within the waters, she knew, was a luminescent eel with long whiskers, always curling just to the left.
And deeper inside, when the sense of wonder had dimmed, there was a dun wyvern. It had lived in the great desert to the south, her father had told her, and it still reared back, its barbed tail raised overhead, in the same readiness to strike the man who had found it. When she asked him how he had ever conquered the desert when creatures like these walked the sands, he had looked at her with the same amused half-smile he wore in court and said, “You only need take the borders of a place to call it yours. Consider the god, Veillen.” The God of Horizons never ruled within his realm; merely bounded it.
Is that how you claimed me as your daughter? she wondered now. You surrounded every part of my life and yet never actually bothered yourself with me.
She followed the inward curve of the pond and passed under a tree whose branches looked more like roots, in which a black-and-ruby spider forever paused in the midst of weaving a silken cage about itself. Just beyond stood the Basilisk.
No matter how many layers of the emperor’s footsteps were pressed upon the paths, this was the Basilisk’s garden. Every creature reminded her of it. Even today he bore in his hands a dusky moth, traceries of silver edging its wings in the outline of bold predator’s eyes. He balanced it upon the softly furred petal of an orchid and said, “I brought it from the southern islands for the emperor.”
“The emperor is dead,” she said.
She didn’t know what reaction she had expected, but she thought there should at least be one, and he had none at all.
“You traveled the world for him,” she marveled. “How did he win your loyalty?
“It was a bargain we made,” he said. “Nothing more. And it is done now.”
“So you are bound to nothing at all, then….”
His sardonic gaze flicked up to her then moved away, as though there were nothing of interest to be found. “Once before, there was a woman.”
“She died,” Veillen said with certainty, then flushed when she realized that her words had been cruel.
He only said, “Yes. But before that, she met the One-Eyed Emperor. She was his consort until she died bearing you.”
“My mother left you for him?” Veillen tried to shape her mind around the idea.
“Few women can resist an emperor,” he murmured.
“Yet you are a mage—” Emperors rose and fell with each generation. But there had only ever been and only ever would be four mages. They had walked to each end of the world to find the God of Horizons and ask for his favor. And in finding him, it was said, they had also moved past the borders of mortal lifetimes and powers.
“Fittingly, there are limits to our power,” he said. “One of the other mages tried to compel love, and failed. And I could not capture your mother’s heart, no matter how much I wished to. Instead I seek to fashion a reminder of her. That is the hold that your father had over me.”
“He had something of hers?” She wondered whether it was in her father’s rooms, somewhere she could find it, or if she had inadvertently buried it with him.
“I wanted the last full sight of her. Only he could give me that. And to give me that image, he gave me his eye.”
She flinched. “You could see her through it?”
“I bargained with the eastmage. That is her gift, that of sight. Mine could do no more than keep the eye from rotting, or capture the image once the eastmage called it forth.”
Frost settled across her bones. “What did you do with his eye afterward?”
“I had no need of it then, and he wanted it. It is set in the crown.”
Something deep within her stilled and she thought she would fall, because the world was tilting. But there was solid stone beneath her, and she set one foot upon it, then another, and then she was running back to the palace, heedless of everything but reaching her rooms. There were doors in her way; she flung them aside and halted only to snatch the crown up.
The cold black gem at the front was no opal but indeed an eye. It watched her, the way it had been watching her all this time: the ghost whose breath brushed the back of her neck wherever she went in the palace.
The Basilisk entered, and she turned to him.
“He’s been watching me all this time?” She had to whisper her outrage; it was too large to voice.
“He is dead,” the Basilisk said.
“His eye is not!”
“Do you want me to release it?”
She thought of it finally beginning to rot while still set in the crown, and she gagged. “No.” But she turned the crown away so that whatever fragment of her father still lived and could see through that eye could not look at her, and held it there, as though it could turn on its own.
How could her father have borne it? To stand still while the Basilisk reached toward his face and seized everything that eye had gazed upon…. Yet see what he had gained for it. There was no one who did not fear the Basilisk, and her father had commanded that fear.
She swallowed and said, “If I were to give you one of my eyes, would you serve me?”
“I do not want your eye,” he said, “and I would not serve you as I did him”; and she felt both disappointment and relief.
“What of the other mages, then?” she asked. “You said you went to the eastmage. Would she…?”
“There is a village in the Merros Valley,” he said. “There, the eastmage searches the clouds to tell the farmers what day dawns fair for a wedding, or when to hurry the harvest. She finds lost sheep and spindles. Her life contents her.”
“The northmage is mad,” he said softly. “She tried to achieve her heart’s desire by command, and could not bear that in doing so she had forever put it beyond her reach.”
“They say she is a prophetess. Is that changed by her madness? If she could still tell me of portents—”
“It is what she says that then becomes real,” he said sharply. “Her voice is a compulsion. Now she only babbles nonsense, or sings meaningless rhymes, and occasionally she makes swallows fly backwards or raises a city of buildings without doors. It is a difficult gift she was given. It is nothing you want harnessed to you, held by a broken mind.”
“I suppose the southmage wouldn’t help me either.”
He shook his head. “He renounced his power.”
She let out an impatient breath. “So there is nothing I can offer any of the mages—”
“You have your mother’s voice,” he said.
Veillen stared at him. “You want my voice.”
“I want hers. Yours sounds the same.”
“If her body hadn’t been burnt, you would have asked for it,” she said, sickened by the realization.
There was a new edge to his voice, an avidness in his gaze. “What would you have besides my service? My path lies elsewhere, but I can bring you anything upon this earth.”
There were too many possible answers, and none at all. He could not give her a lifetime’s worth of affection and guidance from her father, or respect and obedience from the people she supposedly ruled—
She realized it then. Her voice is a compulsion, he had said. “I will give you my voice, if you will give me that of the northmage.”
The Basilisk stood silent for a moment, as still as any of his captives. Then he turned and left the room. It took her a long moment to realize that he had not trapped the air around her; she drew in a breath raggedly, and forced her fingers to unclench from the crown.
They walked to each corner of the earth, four of them, and looked into the eyes of the God of Horizons, and saw all: the world in full, unfolded.
“Let me stay here,” said the man who stood at the westernmost point of the earth.
And the god would not permit him, but let him keep henceforth whatever pieces might give him solace once he had to turn his back upon that place.
There was a window set in the wall that showed the next room. The woman who wove stories knew there had to be something there to see, so she danced through the archway and searched the corners with her feet. They were all as bare as the heart of the fourth river-king. He had hoarded silver instead of his queen’s love, so she had borne no child but the hawk-master’s. The woman imagined making love to such a man, his hair like feathers, her limbs spreading like wings, the high cry of pleasure. She tried a falcon’s scream and it didn’t sound right within walls. Too many echoes.
“Under a cloudless sky,” she decided. So his shadow could be seen, rising to meet him as he dove. She wandered back to the first room. “There are stairs here—” And there were; they rose and fell like the ocean’s surface but brought her to the shore. No, outside. She stepped into and out of a puddle, then stared at the wet ground and wondered what she could use to paint shadows upon it. Smeared ash?
“Lea,” said someone who wasn’t her, and she flung out her arms and spun in a circle and a half to see who it was.
“You spoke my name,” she said, pleased. She forgot it sometimes, for the simple joy of re-learning it. A man stood before her with unnatural stillness, and she went to him and placed a finger on his throat to be certain of the pulse of his blood. Living things should move. But she knew him now; he was the one who took away motion. He came and went as he willed; he had come again. She drew away to look at him. His hair and garments were damp, his skin slick and glossy. Perhaps she’d come to the ocean after all, but the only blue she saw was the clear sky above. Nothing swam there.
He followed her gaze upward, then frowned and looked at her again. “I’ve come to trade,” he said.
She began to sing a market song. He stepped forward and touched the tips of his fingers to her lips. She quieted. He was stilling her again, she thought without resentment, then asked, “Shall we trade names, then? Thion and Lea, Lea and Thion.”
“No. I want your voice.”
She tilted her head and looked at him curiously. “Gerelis the harper traded black pearls for his lady’s love. She gave one to a hummingbird in return for its egg. It never hatched, but it grew transparent, and if she breathed upon it, she could see Gerelis wherever he was. She watched him play for the emperor, where the court minstrel was so jealous he took one of Gerelis’s harp-strings and stole his voice with it. Murderer, but even worse, thief.” She blinked and smiled. “He should have used one from his own harp. Will you give me a harp-string?”
Thion shook his head. “I’ll give you whatever you desire. What do you want?”
Something slammed into her, and she staggered back and tripped.
He knelt beside her. “Lea?”
“I wanted something once,” she whispered, staring into the darkness that had felled her.
“I had it! I had it….” Her teeth worried at her lower lip. “Why wasn’t I happy? I had it.”
“You can’t force someone’s love and keep it,” he said, and his voice was tight with emotion for once.
She reached up to him and rubbed at the tenseness between shoulders and neck, so that she might loosen it. Maybe he was like one of those injured animals who did not move so as to avoid the attention of a predator. She searched for a wound. “Has it stopped bleeding?”
He pulled her hands away, but there were fingerprints of mud left on his skin. “Lea, tell me.”
She clapped her hands sharply once to banish the memory. Then she blew on her palms to scatter the dandelion-seeds of whatever might still be left. She suddenly felt unlonely. “Are you staying?”
“I need to dry off somewhere inside. The rain just stopped now, very abruptly.”
“Could it have forgotten?” she asked him, but he only sighed and repeated:
His look was expectant, and she pondered it. “There’s a door behind you,” she said.
He turned around. “Of course,” he murmured, and pushed it open. She followed him in. There were no other doors, and nothing at all in the room except for glass chimes hanging from the precise center of the ceiling, in a cascade that nearly reached the ground. “Will they break if I touch them?”
“Let’s see.” She stepped toward them, but he blocked her path and led her around instead, close to the wall.
“Never mind.” He cast off his cloak, and the movement flung off droplets of water that struck the chimes.
The waterfall of sound seemed to reverberate until the walls too were trembling, although the chimes yielded only light, high notes. Then she saw a thread of green wend its way upward from a corner, just before the stones paving the floor broke open under the pressure of swiftly growing plants.
A rising tree snagged Thion’s cloak and carried it away. He reached for it and was left with a lifted arm while it rose to a hopeless distance above him. Another sapling stretched upward and burst through the ceiling, and the two of them covered their heads from the shower of stone fragments. When she looked up again, the sky was open to her. And greenery was everywhere, vines clinging to the walls and twining along trunks in bold lines and palmprints, leaves like eager hands.
“The sound-watered garden,” Thion said, brushing himself off as he surveyed the new plants.
She cocked her head at him.
“You told me the tale once, long ago.” He sounded sad, but then he shook his head and said, “The stories you tell,” and turned to her. “There’s another cloak I can use somewhere, isn’t there?”
“A northern wind once stole it from a maiden,” she conceded, “when it was in love with a knight and jealous of his lady. It was blown just outside.”
The leaves rustled with a sudden violence, then grew quiescent. She touched one, rubbing the felt of its underside.
Thion smiled crookedly, watching her. “You don’t even understand the power of your voice anymore. The emperor’s daughter grasped it all too quickly. She wants it.”
“It was given to me past the northernmost border,” she said, grasping a fragment of memory.
“Yes,” he said, “and you can give it away. What would you trade it for?”
She thought of sunflowers silvered by moonlight and sea-dragon pearls, dreams locked in boxes and the emperor’s lost eye…. But these would only distract her for a while. She looked up and saw Thion’s gaze still steady upon her, unmoving as ever.
“Stay,” she said at last.
“That’s your price?”
She nodded, smiling.
He considered. “There is something—someone I would have with us, then. I would have to leave to bring her here, but if I promise to return with her then stay with you as long as you wish, would that be enough for you?”
Two people to ease her loneliness! “Yes,” she said eagerly.
“You will need to speak.”
She hummed a note—he leaned near—she never finished it. At first she wondered whether he had taken breath away instead, but after a moment she remembered how to inhale. The rasp of air sounded very loud.
“I’m sorry,” he said, and because his hands were occupied by what he carried, he did not give her his customary embrace but kissed her forehead before turning and walking away. He knelt just after passing through the doorway, and with one hand picked up the cloak and swung it over his shoulders. Then he rose again and passed out of view.
She tried to call him back. Nothing emerged. She ran after him but tripped on a vine, and impatiently she knew the garden had withered away centuries ago, but it was still there, pulling at her ankle. She yanked herself free. The stones were made of glass; she could see through them and find him, but they remained opaque and she had to grope for the door and stumble forward. Her foot fell upon the ground with a splash. She stepped out of the puddle. Something was wrong. His name buried itself into her throat and she clawed at it, but the only sound was that of her hoarse, strained gasping.
She crumpled to the ground, hugged her knees to her chest and rocked back and forth. He had done it again, he had made things still, he had made the whole of the place unmoving and unchanging. Her mouth stretched in a howl and she tasted brine on her cheeks. The ocean had come to her, drowned her. She whimpered, but there was only silence.
Where even the north reached no further, a woman wept.
“How can I ever describe this?” she asked.
The god gave her words that would always be true.
When he came this time he didn’t bother with a message, although he could have left the morning dew on Veillen’s window untouched by sun to spell out his words, or simply frightened a servant into delivering his summons. He strode into her study while she was reading tax documents, and the sound of his footsteps was a welcome distraction. “Iridru,” she said, and turned to see the Basilisk.
“I have your price,” he said, and he set a glass box atop her desk. Veillen could see through it to the dry words beneath. She touched its lid wonderingly, but he drew it away and said, “I must take your voice first.”
She swallowed. “What must I do?”
He said, “Speak.” He closed his eyes. “Say, ‘Thion.'”
She said it questioningly. He shook his head. “Thion,” she said, testing the syllables slowly. “Thion, Thion—” It descended into a chant, and she knew that wasn’t what he wanted. She stopped and started over. “Thion.” She made the word a name, someone she knew. “Thion.”
“No. Not like that.”
“The way you say Iridru’s name.”
She hesitated, then said, softly, “Thion.”
The word seemed to catch in the air, still reverberating, until the Basilisk reached out. He opened the box and carefully exchanged its contents with what he held. Then he turned to her and offered his cupped palm.
As though it held water, she brought his hand to her lips and sipped from it.
It poured down her throat like molten honey. She dropped to her knees and gagged as though she would retch, but although she clawed at her neck, there was only smooth skin and no thread of fire to grasp and tear away.
She screamed, and the scream wasn’t hers.
Veillen drew in a ragged breath then said her own name this time, to make sure it was still hers. This voice was higher, sweeter. She flinched.
The Basilisk gave her a sardonic look, then turned to leave.
“Basilisk,” she said, and he paused. The temptation rose in her to compel him to stay and serve her, but then, what need was there now?
“What was she like?” a stranger asked with her mouth. “My mother?”
“Not unlike you. She seemed gentle, and I never dreamed that she would trade herself for power.”
“Go!” she said, and he went, but she knew that she had needed no force in her voice, magical or otherwise, to make him do so.
Lea dreamed, in her waking hours, of a winter so cold it froze the blood in her veins, the breath in her lungs. There was a beauty in that silent, crystalline world. But she could find no dagger of ice to cut through her flesh and discover whether paths of frost ran through her wrist.
She found a wall against her left palm. She threaded her way through a maze purely by its touch and, when its hardness yielded to felt, discovered a room where plants had replaced stone. Amidst the green a gleam in the dirt caught her eye: a broken rod of glass. It would do, she thought, and sank down to her knees to study its jagged end. There was no ceiling here, only a canopy of leaves through which sunlight came to the glass and scattered color. She leaned back against the trunk of a tree, watching stars wheel across the greenery with every movement of the rod, and her thoughts grew occupied by summer instead.
In that warmth she came to remember, slowly, that here was the last place she had spoken. She found comfort in thinking that echoes might linger still in the mossy corners or tucked inside the curled tendrils of vines. So she stayed.
The garden grew even without her voice to water it. She clapped her hands at first, or tapped the glass against stone, but she learned that her merest footsteps would do. Even their soft rhythm would, day after day, encourage the petals of a bud to unfurl.
But in the hall of her thoughts she told each leaf a story: Beyim died in battle and his widow claimed his body, but they gave her a fox to bury. Soren sailed to the sunless isles and there became the first to speak with a basilisk, where there was no light for it to see him by. Cavray fashioned a labyrinth in the shape of a riddle and promised his son to the first to reach its center.
Secretly, she told herself, Thion came back to the city-without-gates, to the woman who waited in the sound-watered garden.
Any companionship would have done. But Thion knew her name. And who else would venture into a place that existed only in myth?
The court emptied of whispers until the only one left was that of Veillen’s skirts. She paced across the floor to the dais, then mounted the steps and sat. The crown was settled atop her head. Father, do you see?
She saw the nobles’ eyes upon her, as cold as jewels. Her half-brothers were here, but they stood as still and resentful as everyone else. No, not all of them. In Iridru’s face there was curiosity.
“I have heard,” she said carefully to the wall opposite her, “that some believe the empire needs a different ruler.”
Someone called out, “The empire needs an effective ruler.”
Arabris laughed. Veillen said to him fiercely, “Be silent while I speak.” His mouth stretched in surprise.
It was as though she had spoken to everyone. They all quieted.
Except Iridru. “What have you done with your voice?” he demanded.
Veillen took a deep breath. “As my father did, I struck bargain with the Basilisk.”
She could sense the sudden tension in the court. Not rebellion, but fear. She had waited to relish this, but she kept her gaze on Iridru. He had never reacted as all the other nobles had; surely not this time either.
After the astonishment: anger. “You traded your voice for one that could cast a compulsion?”
Some flinched. Iridru held steady. “You sully your rule.”
She stared at him.
Lower, as though he spoke to her without all the nobles in the hall, he said, “You disgrace yourself.”
She would not be spoken to so. “I am empress,” she said. “You wanted an effective ruler? Well, who can deny my commands now?”
“You did this for your birthright?” Iridru laughed, and it was not the gentle sound she had heard from him as a child. “My claim to the crown is stronger than yours. I have both the blood-right and the experience of governing. I wouldn’t have needed to lean upon a mage’s power, as you do—as the emperor did. I could have ruled better than he.”
The court was drowned by the roar of assent.
She was trembling. This was Iridru who brought this shame upon her, here before everyone. “You want to exceed even our father?” she said, and her words scythed through the noise. “Then you shall lose both eyes.” She gestured sharply to the armsmen.
They hesitated. Iridru’s mouth curled. Veillen looked directly at the guards and, feeling the power tense within her, said, “Blind him.”
They caught his arms, but they had to walk him out backwards, for he refused to turn around. His gaze never wavered, and it seemed the hot irons had already been put to his eyes, for they burned on hers.
The court was frozen. For a moment she wondered whether the Basilisk had come and rendered them thus. But it was only her. Veillen lifted her head and stepped down from the throne, terribly conscious of the need to maintain her royal dignity, yet hoping despite her grave pace that she could be away from here swiftly so she would not have to hear him scream.
A leaf sprouted. She smiled and sprang up to turn and greet him. There was a woman standing next to him. Lea’s smile faded, but Thion did not notice.
“Lea, what have you done? This is beautiful.”
Buds unfurled as he spoke.
She could not answer, but she smiled as he walked about, as he reached up to touch a leaf or knelt to rub a petal, exclaiming and watering the garden even further. Finally Thion came to her and touched her as well, a brush of his hand against her shoulder, as though she were another wonder he had found there.
The woman remained standing and said nothing at all. She was the most beautiful woman Lea had ever seen. Yet there was a paleness to her that was unsettling, like a face seen in the uncertainty of moonlight.
Thion followed the direction of her gaze. “This is Risshen,” he said.
But it was not, she knew. There was a story about a man who had gone into the shadow-realms to find his dead wife. When he emerged, he turned around to discover he had only brought her shadow, all that had ever been there. Thion, she thought, had not yet turned around.
“We’ve come here to stay,” he said, to the accompaniment of unfurling tendrils. “Just as I promised.”
Lea took his hands and pressed them between hers to offer him the warmth of welcome. She ignored the shadow-woman, hoping he would do the same, but he was as solicitous of her as though he were the host and she the only guest.
The days that followed were as strange as any tale, although it might have seemed that the two of them did well enough. The garden was generous with its fruit, and he caught them meat with his own gift. Mealtimes were strained for her, for the shadow-woman had no need of sustenance and yet sat with them when they ate.
He spoke to Lea sometimes, but she could not, so she didn’t bother responding. There was the other one, the one who stood still and silent except when he opened the box so she would say, “Thion,” but that was all she ever said.
Lea wished, before certain dreamless nights, that she could take the box from him and force what it held into her own throat, so that she could say his name in a way that would make him look at her so: as though she were real.
Veillen wouldn’t need a tomb; she was already being buried in papers. Tax accounts, census records, updated maps, and lists of appointments were scattered across her desk. But these were things already accomplished. The missives were what concerned her, demanding answer on her part to generals and ambassadors, about wars and treaties.
For the first time, she felt confident in her responses. Her father had never bothered to train her in these matters, but her brothers had been involved for years. They came when summoned, obeying orders that weren’t given in her own voice, and answered her when she asked for advice.
Misren had tried to mislead her in the beginning, but at his first suggestion, she’d said sharply, “Tell me what you think should be done,” and his face had twisted and his reply changed.
With the last of her letters written, she sat back and said, “I appreciate your service. There is a place for you that isn’t the throne, you know.”
Arabris gave her a sullen look—he still couldn’t interrupt her since she had silenced him at court—but nodded. Misren looked thoughtful. They both made obeisance to her, as was their new habit, before they left her study.
Veillen slumped in her chair. They’d done so much and there was yet more to do, and all she wanted was for Iridru to come in and tease her into going for a ride outside and away from all these documents. But of course he wouldn’t come to her.
She should face him. She seemed able to confront everyone else, these days. And it was the least she owed to him. She braced herself and went to his rooms.
They were empty, and looked untouched for days.
She whirled back into the hallway and startled a servant. “Where’s Iridru?” she demanded.
The boy shrank against the wall. “I know the kitchens send a meal down to the dungeons twice a day….”
The world narrowed. “They imprisoned him?” He cowered, and she stopped herself from making a threatening gesture. It wasn’t his fault. What else would the guards have done with someone who had angered the empress enough to be blinded?
She dismissed the servant and made her way to the dungeons.
A guardsman was at the base of the stairs, carrying an untouched tray. He tried to move to one side, but she paused before him. “Who had Iridru brought here?”
“The guards who… carried out his sentence. My lady empress, they didn’t think he would be safe, left alone in his rooms.”
Fear cracked through her anger. “How is he?”
He didn’t meet her eyes. “He refuses all food.”
She swallowed. “Give me the tray and the key to his cell.”
He obeyed, and she made her way to where Iridru was kept. He was sitting in a corner, head drooped, skin pale and cheeks gaunt in the torchlight. She let herself in and set down the tray.
“Veillen. Why are you here?” He sounded listless.
Her breath caught and she clasped her hands together tight against her ribs. “How did you know it was me?”
“How couldn’t I?” His laugh was hollow. “I know the sound of your steps. I know the pattern of your breathing. I know the hesitation you shape with your hands when you search for words. But in truth, I didn’t know you at all, did I?”
“I’m not who I thought I was.” The answer sounded awkward even to her.
“No,” and the amusement was no longer gentle.
She said after a moment, “They say you won’t eat.”
“A man eats for pleasure,” he said bitterly, “or to live. I want neither.”
“I don’t want you to die.” She knelt by his side, taking his hand and putting it against the curve of a bowl of soup. He took it but did nothing more.
“For fear of guilt?” he asked.
Why bother to hide anything from a blind man? “Yes.”
He threw the soup on her and rose. She sprang to her feet as well, scalded and dripping. There was a sudden sharp sting along her cheekbone where the bowl had hit her, and like flint striking steel it sparked fury.
He ignored her and stalked to the other side of the cell, but he misjudged the distance and kicked his foot into the wall. He swore, and she felt her own anger die within her.
She withdrew to the door. He whirled and called out mockingly, “Admitting defeat so easily?”
The guard outside was stone-faced. “Another bowl of soup,” she told him.
“My lady empress, I shouldn’t leave you unguarded—”
“He won’t hurt me.” She’d only realized it too late. “Go.”
He fled. She returned to the cell, and Iridru stood and came closer until he was only a half-step away. The burnt craters where his eyes had once been still seemed to stare at her.
“A pity I can’t see you drenched,” he mused. He reached out and plucked at the wet shoulder of her gown. “I took you riding once when you weren’t even ten. You fell off the horse and into a puddle, but you laughed instead of cursing me, do you remember?”
Yes, she did not say.
“And while you were heir, whenever you ducked into court it was with your hair done in hasty braids and the hem of your gown gray with dust, because you never remembered to lift it from the ground. You were beautiful then. But once you became empress, you were never less than immaculate.”
She shifted away, wet fabric clinging uncomfortably to her skin. “You were watching me even then?”
“Veillen,” he said, exasperated, “always I have loved you.”
There were tentative footsteps. Veillen held her hand out, not even looking at the guard, and the bowl nestled into her palm. She sat down next to Iridru and handed it to him. “Eat.”
Helplessly he set the bowl to his mouth and drank. When he was done, he laid it aside carefully instead of throwing it at her.
“Thank you,” she said.
“Why rage? You’ll only tell me not to.”
She fell quiet.
“I miss your own voice,” he said, as though reminiscently. “You could have learned to use it to command, you know.”
“How could I learn? Father never bothered to teach me anything. I was never in his favor. I think he hated me because my birth killed my mother.”
“Don’t be a fool,” he said wearily. “The emperor had no more interest in your mother than usual, except that she was a lure for the Basilisk. That is why he kept her, and you, her child.”
She shook her head. “No, it can’t be. He never took another consort—”
“What need did he have to forge alliances with noble houses, when he had already snared the greatest power of all?”
“But why would my mother have stayed with him, if he didn’t love her?”
“Your mother gained an emperor’s protection for her child.” When she still didn’t comprehend, he said, “You were born seven months after she came to court, Veillen. I never would have dared love you otherwise.”
And she understood for the first time that he did not mean in the way one loved a sister. Iridru, who had always been her only friend at court, hadn’t been driven by any sense of family loyalty at all, but by something else he had seen in her.
She dug her nails into her palms and choked out, “Why didn’t you tell me?”
He was quiet awhile. “You were already so distant from the court. It seemed that blood-link was all that kept you here. I didn’t want to break that.”
“But then I could have dared—” Her words broke away. How could she say that she loved him, when she had blinded him and cast him into the dungeons, all for a crown that wasn’t even hers?
She jerked away when he reached for her and scrambled to her feet, running—not running away, she promised herself, but to her rooms and that wretched piece of regalia.
The crown was where she’d left it. She snatched it up and pried at the eye, but it wouldn’t come out of its setting. Her fingers scrabbled over its surface. Finally, she threw the crown to the floor. The metal warped with a sharp sound and she scooped it up again. The setting had widened just enough for her to lever the eye out with her nail. Its chill bit at her palm, but she folded her hand over it and ran through the halls and back down to the dungeon. Her fingers were numb and she had to force them open.
“Veillen?” He was standing, trying to find her.
She seized his shoulder to make him hold still. Then she breathed upon the eye and said to whatever spirit of the emperor dwelled within, “If you must see, see for him.” Before even that brief warmth could fade, she braced one hand against the back of his head and used the other to push the eye into one of the hollow spaces of Iridru’s face.
He screamed and caught her wrist in a crushing grip. She welcomed the pain, because it meant she could share it with him. She pressed relentlessly past the resistance, and then there was nowhere further left to push. They let go of each other.
He bathed the eye with his tears. The look on his face—of discovery, of wonder—wrenched at her, because he never should have considered a single eye to be such a marvel, when he had once had two.
“I’m sorry,” she breathed. “I can never give back everything you’ve lost.”
His hands framed her face insistently when she would have turned away. His one-eyed gaze met hers and held it. “You are what I lost.”
He lowered his head over hers and there was a moment of satin warmth against her lips, but then she slipped out of his hold and ran.
He followed her, like always. He caught her elbow and wrenched her around. His calmness hadn’t returned to him with his sight; he was furious, the corners of his mouth tight and his jaw set.
“Let go of me!” His hand loosened and she jerked her arm away from him, but he trapped her with his body and set his palms deliberately on the wall on either side of her.
“Why should I?” he demanded in a low voice.
“Because I can’t stand to stay and look at you.” One of her hands rose hesitantly and hovered before his face. He closed his eye—black, no longer green—and she touched the eyelid over it. “Here I will always see your father, who I thought was mine.” Then her finger moved to the heavy scarring that outlined his empty eye, and he flinched. She said, “And here I will always see myself.”
The silence was broken only by their harsh breaths. The minutes moved past them and her pulse grew less frantic, to the pace of a lament.
When she ducked under one of his arms, he didn’t stop her. She took an unsteady step. He didn’t move, still braced against the wall. Only when she reached the bottom of the stairs did she look back to see him draw back a fist and slam it into the wall. He made no sound though.
Neither did she, making her way up the steps. It hurt too much to try to cry or even breathe.
In the city with a single door, living with a woman who was a memory’s shadow, Lea began to craft a new story. She told it in the hours of slanting dawn’s light to her plants, reciting it in her mind. There was no answering rustle of growth or bloom. But some seeds took longer to sprout than others.
The sun that always rose blinded the woman as she faced past east. “I would see,” she said.
Veillen couldn’t do anything right; she nearly took a wrong turn to the stables, and then she fumbled while tacking a horse. A stableboy tried to help her, and she snapped at him to be gone. He retreated, and she realized that her words had, of course, been taken as a command.
She couldn’t mount with one hand, so she uncovered her mouth to do so. She hadn’t known how an apology would solidify.
The road from the palace and out of the city stretched out before her. There is a village in the Merros Valley. She thought she had read the name in one of the papers in her endless stacks of documents. It was an eastern taxing route, she remembered. The sun rose that way; she pointed her horse there.
She passed a blur of people and places. Later, she remembered trading her jewels for stale bread and sleeping in a barn, circling the wood after a snake frightened her horse, and crossing over a bridge that sang with the wind. Her thoughts of the travel eastward were so relentless that when a villager told her she was in Merros, she almost rode on.
Her horse was too tired to protest when she reined it in abruptly. “Merros, you said? I’m looking for a mage.”
He nodded, unsurprised. “The Seeress lives there.” He pointed to an unassuming dwelling.
A goat was grazing in the yard; it looked up at her approach, then trotted around back.
The door opened and the eastmage stood before her, regarding her steadily. “There are stories in your eyes,” she said thoughtfully.
Veillen waited. She would not let any word of hers influence the mage.
“Stable your horse in the back and get in before the rain starts,” the mage said.
Veillen settled her mount in the stall next to the goat, then returned to the house and stepped inside just as a wet wind licked her back. The eastmage handed her a mug of tea, which Veillen drank gratefully with both hands curled around its warmth.
“So why are you here?” the Seeress asked.
Veillen took a last swallow. “I need to find the northmage.”
“I do not treat with emperors and empresses, unlike my brother-in-power.”
“I’m not one,” Veillen said tersely. “I never truly was.”
“Ah,” said the Seeress. “That’s different, then. But then why do you seek her?”
“I have to return something of hers.”
“Yes,” the Seeress said, “I thought you sounded like Lea. Thion’s grown crafty with his gift.”
Veillen knew that name; had spoken it. She realized now who it was. It was strange to think of the Basilisk as a man with a name. Her father.
“The two of them are together,” the Seeress said. “Wait an hour until the worst of the storm passes, and I’ll tell you where they are.”
The winds outside didn’t sound as though they would howl their way elsewhere any time soon, but Veillen remembered who was speaking to her. So she stayed another hour, helping the eastmage put together a simple meal that warmed her belly. Afterward, she was unsurprised to hear the patter of the rain cease.
She listened carefully to how she could reach the strange city in which the northmage dwelled. It was not merely a matter of following the lean of a compass needle.
The Seeress looked to one side, then turned back to Veillen. “And head south to cross the river. It’ll take longer, but the northern bridge looks to have broken.”
Veillen nodded and rose to leave.
When she was on the threshold, the Seeress said, “In the court, I see a man hailed as the true heir to the emperor, with his single eye and strength of will.”
“Thank you,” Veillen murmured. Iridru, her heart cried. But she turned resolutely in another direction, toward a river and, beyond it, a doorless city.
Lea was startled to see a horse outside the building with the garden; inside, there was a girl. She looked travel-worn and pulled taut at the same time.
“Are you the northmage?” the girl asked Lea.
Lea thought through her names. This one had an echo, so she nodded.
The girl leaned forward and breathed upon Lea’s face. Then, tentatively, she kissed her.
Lea inhaled. She closed her eyes against dizziness—from magic or elation, she didn’t know. She kept her forehead pressed to the girl’s even as she opened her eyes again. There were words finally unfurling in her throat. She whispered, “Thank you.”
The girl automatically mouthed the words to some courteous reply, but said nothing, of course.
“Who are you?” she wondered aloud, just before Thion came up behind her.
“Lea, what’s this?” he asked, then stopped.
The girl’s eyes widened at the sight of him.
“You know each other,” Lea said.
It was Thion’s turn for surprise as he heard her speak. Then he smiled warmly. “I’m glad she returned your voice. She’s the one who wanted it from you: the empress.”
The girl shook her head: no, that was not who she was. She pricked her finger upon a thorn, and crimson welled forth. She nodded to Thion, and frowning, he did the same.
The girl pressed their fingertips together.
“You’re of the same blood,” Lea said. She looked at him in wonder. “Thion, you have a child?”
“She was raised by the emperor,” Thion said, pulling away. “She’s none of mine.”
“That was Risshen’s doing,” Lea said. “It was Risshen who left you, and whom you cling so tightly to in shadow-form.” Even now it stood behind him, unwavering yet not quite solid.
He said nothing, lips pressed tightly together.
“There once was a mage who loved a woman,” she said, beginning his story.
Thion whirled on her. “There once was a mage who loved a man,” he countered fiercely, and she flinched. “Only the man had already chosen another woman. But the northmage could not let him go, and she bound him to her falsely. It drove her mad, knowing what she had done.”
She could not help the ripple of sorrow that moved through her, listening to her own tale. “Can’t you hear yourself?” she asked. “All stories, spoken in all voices, have power.”
“I let Risshen go,” he said. “I did nothing against the emperor. I even served him. This is a memory, Lea. Given shape and sound, but there is no substance and no will for me to bind.”
“So what can it offer you but more sorrow? You’re doing the same thing I did. If you want her so much still, why don’t you ask me to decree her back to life?”
His expression was a dark warning. “She did not want me, alive.”
“And this thing, as it is, doesn’t want you. It has no will.”
“But it won’t leave me.”
“It can’t leave you.” She let the silence sit awhile, then said, “I don’t remember his name anymore. I let it go, since I’d already tried to claim too much of him.”
Thion was as still as stone.
Veillen made a gesture then stopped.
“But you can speak,” Lea said, and Veillen’s hands slid down her throat, her eyes widening in surprise. Then she turned to Thion.
“If my mother left you,” she said slowly, “I think it was because she feared this. That you would want her unchanging, never growing old, never bearing a child. That’s why she fled to the emperor. To have me.”
He looked at her. “Risshen,” he whispered.
Lea set her palms on his wet cheeks and turned him to face her. She said gently, “Let me lend you my voice the way she returned it—” She leaned forward and laid her lips upon his with the same tenderness. “What will you say with it?” she whispered against his mouth.
He let out a long sigh, and then his arms came around her. She leaned her head against the front of his shoulder and heard the word thrum through his chest.
In the deep, deepest south, a man beheld the God of Horizons. He did not speak, and so it was the god who was moved to ask:
“What do you desire?”
“All I wanted was to be able to see past the border once,” he said. “It is enough. Now no matter where I go, I will know that there is a beyond.” And he turned away, giftless, the greatest of the mages.
Veillen thought the two mages might have stayed in that embrace forever, if not for the soft fall of rain that began. This building had no roof, and so the water trickled down a stair of leaves and onto them.
She looked toward the doorway, where the image of her mother had stood. It had already faded. Veillen had been distracted enough by the mages that she hadn’t seen her clearly—but that was how it should be, she thought.
The two parted. “Will you bring the sun?” the Basilisk asked, but the northmage shook her head.
“I won’t use my gift so lightly again. Or ever, perhaps.”
A noise escaped Veillen. The northmage looked at her.
Veillen took a breath. “There’s a man whose eyes I took….”
“You would ask more of me?” Lea asked.
She bowed her head, shamed.
“You, who were so horrified by the emperor’s eye, took that of another man?” the Basilisk demanded.
“I gave it to him,” she said.
“I gave the emperor’s eye to Iridru. It’s not enough, I know. I was just so angry….”
He sighed then. “We’ve all done foolish things,” he said. “At least he can see, and perhaps he’ll still retain some position in court—”
“He’s the new emperor,” she said.
She’d surprised him. “You gave up the crown?”
“Yes. It’s his now.”
“And you say it’s not enough,” he said, shaking his head. “You may be right. But if he feels anything for you as you do him—” She lifted her head and he speared her with his gaze. “I heard how you said his name, that time.”
She bit her lip.
“If so,” he went on, more gently, “it’s not his eye he wants back.”
She let those words balm her heart a little.
“And I have other places to travel,” Lea said. “I’ve been wandering in and out of old legends for far too long. Your court has probably seen too much of mages, in any case.”
“I understand,” Veillen said, and she did.
“You can come with us a little ways,” Thion said.
Veillen smiled for the first time. “I can find my way,” she said. “The eastmage told me the path here and back.”
“She can tell you where to find me,” he said, “should you ever want to.”
It was a welcome rather than a farewell. She smiled her own, and he and Lea left together.
The rain was warm and gentle, and Veillen drank in the feel of it on her skin, letting it wash her thoughts away someplace distant. Iridru would have liked to see her like this, soaked and undignified, she thought. Perhaps he would someday. But the path of her future was free now. The things she had thought she wanted had turned out to be such narrow hopes. She’d not bind herself to any expectations now.
She moved beyond her own borders and, unexpectedly, she found herself. That was a power in itself, she thought, and she smiled as she turned away from the empty garden.
She left with a quiet step, near-silent, the way she had once tread the palace halls—but behind her, it was enough to make a flower bloom.