I watched Zafoura Grend at her work. Her easy sway entranced half the crowd in the Wandering Restora as she moved about the common room, leaving flagons of ale or picking up bone-laden plates. A scarf held her curly mass of dark hair back. The scars that named her a Mother, the youngest ever, still littered the crown of her forehead, though none of these people would understand that. The Great Mother did not privilege the Orphaned to know the Empire’s ways. I had covered my guard scars with make-up and a more delicate scarf.

It had taken me weeks of circling to find her. The Wandering Restora was well known for appearing from nowhere between the blink of the second moon’s zenith and its first quarter, then somewhere else at the new moon. The Restora was the junction of the ways of the Empire and the ways of the Orphaned; the sturdy wooden building migrated more even than the Empire itself.

I watched her for hours, trying to decide my approach. Patrons came and went, drunker than when they’d come, happily leaving behind tips for her.

“Ought to charge you for staring,” Zafoura said, slipping up beside me.

She’d gone into the kitchen, I’d been sure. My eyes hadn’t left the door for anything longer than a blink since she’d passed through them. My ears... I should have heard her. She was as capable as the stories said. More maybe.

“Forgive me,” I said, lowering my head, keeping my eyes on the tips of her boots. “I wasn’t sure if you were the one. I thought perhaps you were an Orphaned.”

Zafoura was lighter than me, her skin coppery red-brown where my own was the color of rich soil. The Orphaned tended toward this lightness of flesh, and no doubt her skin had paled from the lack of desert sun. Except for her scars, she could have lived here all her life. She studied me, her hand falling into the pocket of the apron she wore. I fought the urge to reach for my own concealed blade.

“Surely an Empire guard can tell the difference between an Orphaned and a Sister,” she said, jerking her head at the surrounding patrons.

I did my best to look surprised. I had worked hard to ensure my every outward appearance gave no sign of my former standing. “Guard? You mistake me, Mother. I am a maid. Of the household Leothmay.”

“You stand like a guard. Your spine is too straight, your feet splayed in just that way,” Zafoura said.

“The Mother Leothmay required it, Mother. She is exacting, in her way,” I said.

It was true. When I had joined the army, they had marveled at my posture, given to me by the ironwood staff that Mother Leothmay pretended to need. She beat anyone who did not stand as straight as the stick itself. It was easier to stand up straight all the time, to build the muscles, to do it constantly rather than try to fake it in her presence. She was an elderly Mother, and she spent more and more time at home. Easier to stand straight as the rod rather than be beaten with it.

Zafoura studied me again. I knew she had known my former mistress. Would know my words were not wholly a lie.

“What is a maid doing among the Orphaned?” she asked.

I glanced up at her and then away, a submissive gesture I’d seen other maids do. I’d never mastered it. “Seeking passage.”


“Mother Leothmay spoke often of the Sisters of the North, of the ice. She said that daughters fled there seeking solace from the Empire. This is what I seek.”

“Solace?” Zafoura said.

I nodded.

She sighed, looking back out at the crowded Restora, her eyes skittering about. “Who sent you here, if you are seeking the ice?”

“Sister Frie,” I said.

“What do they call you, Sister?” she asked.

“Slati. Slati Mobe,” I said.

Zafoura looked at me again, from my head down to my toes. I’d been careful with my choices. I could have stolen the shoes from the Mother Leothmay. The clothes were a maid’s attire, the knee-length skirt and tightly woven blouse in faded blue, and my cloak an ancient blanket that smelled of horses. Well, one horse. I tried not to think of Safat, my beloved mount.

“I can help you, Sister,” Zafoura said. “But it will not be easy.”

“I will do whatever I must,” I said.

She nodded. “Return in the morning, before dawn.”

“Where do I go in the meantime, Mother?” I said, trying for frantic.

She smiled, and it reminded me of the Great Mother. They shared the same sharp, mischievous smile. A dangerous smile.

“You may call me Sister if you must. As for what to do... Do what you must, but don’t be late, or you’ll never see this place again.”

My quarry bowed her head and moved back through the crowd, returning to her work. I followed her movement for another few minutes before retreating to the dark night outside the Restora, elated by my progress.

I would capture the Great Mother’s traitorous daughter and her lover in no time.

I, a guard, had no business in the depths of the Empire’s Caravan, at the temple tent, when I was not on duty. The tent was dark, and Rin was soft beneath my hands. Her hair was braided, falling around her face like water, framing her beauty for only me to see.

Seeing her this way...

A betrayal.

She moaned, softly. So quiet and yet I shushed her, anyway.

We said nothing like words in this quiet temple of our misdeeds. We had only each other and this thing which we should have denied ourselves.

She was not mine, and I was not hers. We each belonged to the Great Mother. A guard. A priestess. Our bodies to be used for the Mother’s purpose.

With my hand between her thighs, in the thick air of the tent, with her voice muffled against my neck, she felt like mine.

A betrayal.

A sin.

The night was brightening as I reached the Restora, just before dawn. Zafoura leaned against the door frame, dressed in Orphaned travel clothes: maltreated leather pants and layers of brown cloth shirts beneath a leather jacket. A bag sat at her feet and another she held against her body. Her boots, at least, were Empire made, sturdy black weave for comfort and durability. I offered her a soft smile as I approached.

She handed me the bag. I opened it and found Orphaned garb in roughly my size.

“Change behind the building,” she said as a greeting. “You can keep your shoes, but nothing else.”

“And what do I do with my things?” I asked.

“I won’t be carrying them for you. So you can put them in your bag or you can leave them here. I don’t care. If the sun rises before you return, I’ll leave without you.”

I didn’t wait. I went behind the building and put on the clothes that matched hers. The leather pants already chaffed my skin, but what could I do? She was just walking off as I rounded the building again. I stumbled to catch up, trying to keep my cover.

She never even looked back.

We walked most of the day, Zafoura choosing paths that kept us in the shade of majestic trees. I could have walked in the blazing sun for a hundred miles at the Great Mother’s command, but I pretended to appreciate the kindness of rest. Feigned tired when necessary.

Zafoura said next to nothing as we walked, but she squeezed my shoulder when I seemed at my weakest.

At night, we camped under a tree, a few lengths off from the road. Zafoura had brought no tent, but the sky was mercifully clear and it wasn’t yet cold, so I didn’t mind. Zafoura fed us from her pack, and I tried to make myself small, the way maids did, never wanting their Mistresses to notice them for fear of punishment.

“Was your birther a servant for Mobe or Leothmay?” Zafoura asked.

I shrugged. I’d never cared to know my birther. The Great Mother was all I really needed. Except for—

My mind supplied Rin’s dark eyes. The dimples in her thighs. The dark flesh at the crease behind her knees and at her belly—

Zafoura didn’t need to know about that.

She looked out into the darkness.

My words, when they finally came, were easy. This wasn’t something I needed subterfuge for. “I didn’t know her. She earned her rights under Mother Mobe but convalesced under Mother Leothmay. Mother Leothmay said—”

“You don’t need to honor Leothmay anymore. Certainly not here. Who will know you spoke her name? Cursed her? Only me and you. And I curse them all,” Zafoura said. “Let all the Mothers wither and die, powerless in their own filth and sick.”

I stared at her. She wasn’t making sense. A daughter of the Great Mother, who knew her birther. Who knew her legacy like no other ordinary Sister, and she dared to say these words? Who’d risen through the ranks to the stature of Mother, not with her birther’s grace but by her own merit? She’d even been given the honor of being allowed to be a birther, and she’d turned it down without consequence. She was a thing of legend, and she spat on its memory. I would have given everything for a piece of her life. My throat ached, and I swallowed hard.

She sighed. “Don’t worry. Lots of you find it hard at first. You get there eventually.”

I nodded and focused on my food. I was lucky that she seemed to accept that reason for my silence.

We slept a few hours, but Zafoura had us on the road before the sun was fully up.

Our days became routine, following the same pattern. Walk and rest and walk and rest. Each night, Zafoura asked me a question about my upbringing. Never about my recent experience. I wondered at it, and after five nights I asked.

She touched the only piece of jewelry I’d seen her wear in our time together, a ring that hung at her neck, carved of the deepest darkest wood and engraved as well. She only seemed to touch it when I said something wrong. “You left the Empire for a reason. I have known daughters who faced the worst kinds of abuse and never left. Those strong enough to seek the Sisters of the north... I don’t ask them to share the experiences that set them running.”

I nodded.

Rin’s warm brown eyes and her warm skin filtered into my thoughts. Her carefully blank face. Her smile. Her ecstasy.

What stories would she have told on her journey?

I only realized I was crying when Zafoura squeezed my shoulder again.

Rin grabbed my face, pulled me toward her until we could have kissed. I wanted to, but the fire in her eyes said I would know pain if I did. Fury mottled her skin, turned her mouth into a scowl, and narrowed her eyes.

We were huddled in the shadows of the temple tent, more exposed than we should have allowed.

“Hear me,” Rin snapped. “I am going. I want you to go with me.”

I reared back, and she let me.


My fingers wanted nothing more than to spread against her scalp, to kiss her mouth. To have my pleasure, to give Rin hers, but her words were more blasphemous than even our hands on each other.

“You can’t,” I hissed. “You swore a vow to the Empire, to the Great Mother.”

Rin threw her hands up. “Which I broke the minute I kissed you. No, the minute I saw you for the first time. What did you think was happening, Slati? Didn’t you realize I love you?”

I stepped back. This was heresy. But love? For anyone but the Great Mother? Bad enough to take our pleasure, but that... I had to make it right.

“You’ll stay. Stay, you can repent. The Great Mother—”

“Will kill me. Will kill you. She doesn’t care about us. She cares about the Empire. About her will being done. She—”

“—is the Great Mother, and you will show her respect or I will run you through with my blade and offer you to her in penance.”

We both breathed hard.

Tears flowed down my cheeks unbidden. My face burned with anger and shame.

Rin wiped the tears from my cheeks. “Bless you, beloved daughter of the Great Mother. May she know your loyalty and be deserving of it.”

She turned on her heel and disappeared into the tent.

I never kissed her again.

On the sixth afternoon, Zafoura and I arrived at a cabin tucked deep into the woods. The cold was bitter now, my fingers sharp with the chill and the cabin a welcome sight as full shivers wracked my body. For once, I didn’t have to feign suffering.

The cabin was the sort of place the Orphaned built: hard wood and packed earth, good against the elements but impossible to take with you if you had to run. To them, this was what home was, static and stuck. The Empire preferred the freedom of our tents and packs, unconstrained and free to conquer the world.

I expected it to be dusty, cramped, and unused.

Instead, the place was well maintained. Recently dusted and swept, perhaps in the last three or four days. There were provisions in the kitchen, grain and oats that were bug free. Firewood stacked against one wall neatly and a note on a table in the center of the room.

“The room on the left is for you,” Zafoura said, gesturing toward the two doors at the far side of the cabin as she studied the note.

“Thank you,” I said.

Zafoura nodded before going into the room on the right. She shut the door behind her, and I was tempted to listen at it. To know if the note had pained her or pleased her. To better understand my quarry.

Instead, I went to the other bedroom and sat down on the neatly made bed, enjoying the softness of it. I had experienced nothing like it. In the house of the Mother Leothmay, my bed had been what remained of a blanket my birther had sewn before I was born, a practice common among those who took up the sacred duty. It had grown thin and threadbare over the years. The years with no one to tend it properly had done it no favors. The Mothers had snatched it from my hands when I became a guard and burned it in the fire.

A first sacrifice to the Great Mother’s service.

As a soldier, they had given me a mat of strong weave that folded easily but offered little in comfort. I laid my head upon the pillow and soft mattress in the cabin and closed my eyes for only a moment.

I awoke to darkness. The room was still, but outside the wind blew loudly. I closed my eyes and focused on the sound, on the way it mimicked my fellow guards-women when we moved into battle: loud enough to be heard but so innocuous that we went unnoticed. We blended with the soft sounds of the world until it was too late for our enemies to retreat.

That was when I realized I was not alone.

I sat up quickly and found Zafoura seated on a chair in the corner, moonlight sharpening the angles and deepening the hollows of her cheekbones. On her lap sat a small blade, one hand curled lovingly around the hilt.

“Who is Rin?” she said.

I felt my heart beating in my ears. I shouldn’t have fallen asleep so deeply. It had been hours since we’d arrived by the light. And she should not have known Rin’s name.

“You say that name in your sleep. Every night,” she said, when I didn’t answer.

She sat forward in the chair, leaning toward me. I kept my eye on her blade hand, tucked against her body now.

“You are not the first girl to take something from the Great Mother.”

“I...” I needed to be careful. There were things I could tell her, things that would be true and would cover my tracks, but those things were the most dangerous.

Rin’s face was never far from my thoughts. That private smile piercing my heart. Those brown eyes seeing straight through me, to my innermost truth. A reckoning, even in their absence.

I didn’t find words, and Zafoura spared me, standing up. She didn’t squeeze my shoulder as she passed, though tears had broken free from my eyes.

I got up and ate the food that she had prepared.

“We’ll be here a few days,” Zafoura said, when the meal finished and the cleaning was nearly done. “Our guide will come collect us.”

“I thought you were the guide,” I said.

She shook her head. “I only know how to get this far. The Sisters of the North move as much as they can.”

“In case the Empire should discover something?”

“It’s not uncommon. Sisters sometimes realize that freedom from the Great Mother is nothing without someone they left behind. Some try to go back and free these beloved souls.” Her face pinched. “Not all are successful.”

“But some are?” I said.

I had heard of deserters being caught and dragged back to camp but never of them returning and taking others. Had Rin—

No. She wouldn’t have.

Why would she, when I’d promised her the point of my sword?

“Some are,” Zafoura said. “Though less than I would like. The Great Mother is not forgiving if she catches them. We know she will do anything to have our secrets. To have us returned. She cannot be almighty with deserters on the loose.”

“She... She’s your birther,” I said.

Zafoura stopped her cleaning and turned to look at me. “Yes. She is.”

“You hate her?”

I reached for the dagger that wasn’t at my hip when Zafoura moved forward to sit down beside me at the table. She grabbed my hand.

“I love her. With every fiber of my being. But what she has built... An Empire where love is outlawed because we are all her possessions? Where passion is punishable by death? Where one must... win the right to give birth? That is not a place I can live. Not a place I can fight for anymore.”

Tears lingered on her eyelashes, threatening to fall. I stared. She released my hand and stood, turning her back to me.

I should have taken her then.

But her words sounded like Rin, like that quiet resolve to not accept what she was given anymore. Like another voice I’d heard, deep inside myself, and silenced every time.

“I could not give up my heart. And I couldn’t make her see reason. So I had only one hope—escape. I suppose it gave hope to others. And I hope it continues to.”

“You do a great service,” I said.

She nodded. “Go to bed. You’re exhausted.”

I didn’t argue. My hands shook as I took off my clothes and washed myself. Then I crawled into the bed and fell asleep again.

The Second Mother strode ahead of me, her long legs carrying her across the camp in longer strides than mine. She paused at the front of the tent, raising a hand to the heavens to honor the Great Mother and the gods who granted her success. I mimicked the gesture and followed her inside.

Mother Talka stood in the center of the large tent, one hand holding on to the central tent post as though she might fall without it. She was one of the great elders, her dark skin wrinkling around the edges of her mouth and eyes and her hair stark white. She wore the teal green robes of the Mothers, but her feet were bare on the tent floor, showing the gnarled bones that splayed in separate directions because of her service in the guard.

The Second Mother and I each fell to our knees, pressing our faces to the ground. Mother Talka sucked her teeth.

“Enough of that. Stand, stand,” she said. “This is the best guard you had?”

“I would not give undue praise, Mother Talka, but there is none better suited for your task,” the Second Mother said. “None more loyal to the Empire. None with a greater sense of respon—”

I stood a little straighter even as Mother Talka waved away the words. “Yes, fine. Daughter, you are to be given to the tent of the Great Mother’s temple, a great honor bestowed on those deemed worthy. You will guard a certain priestess who shall be assigned upon your arrival. Guard her well, and there is a fortune in your future. You could, with study and attention, become a Second Mother yourself one day. Fail in your task, and the land will have your bones to feed upon.”

“You honor me, Mother,” I said, my heart racing. I fought for a neutral face, lowering it.

Mother Talka’s wrinkled hand grasped my chin with more force than I would have imagined. She raised my head until we were eye-to-eye.

“What was your name, daughter?”

“Slati Mobe.”

Mother Talka narrowed her eyes, her dark gaze piercing despite the clouds of age in her eyes. “When did Mother Mobe give you up?”

“At my birth, Mother,” I said.

She nodded. Released me, finally. “Take this seriously, Slati Mobe. And perhaps you will make your own name.”

“Yes, Mother,” I said. She patted my cheek with the force of a slap and then waved us away.

Again, I followed the Second Mother, this time to the tent of the Great Mother’s temple. Here lived and prayed the Great Mother’s Priestesses. The most beautiful women of the Empire, whose beauty was a sign of the gods’ hands upon them and their sacredness. I kept my eyes on the floor as the Second Mother introduced me to a governing priestess.

“This is your charge,” said the Priestess. “Rin Zocar.”

I raised my eyes just enough to follow the sweeping gesture of her hand.

Rin lay on a set of pillows, long braids cascading down her shoulders. Her fat belly rippled as she sat up, her thick thighs spreading, and I raised my eyes further.

Our eyes met.

The first sin.

I woke to the morning light peeking through the curtain of my little room in the cabin. I washed my face and relieved myself before going outside, in search of some morning air. The sun was only just cresting over the hills, and the bit of forest near the cabin was bathed in fog. I sat down to enjoy the silence and the stillness, a moment without having to pretend. Without being forced to think of Rin.

Over time, the sound of leaves crunching and branches cracking built, breaking the simple peace of the morning. It took longer for the source of the noise to appear.

A ghost-like figure flew through the trees on horseback. She sat high in her saddle, like a warrior in battle, her smile wide and white. The horse whinnied, and Zafoura stepped out of the cabin at the noise.

The rider jumped from the horse’s back, rolling on the ground and taking off at a run until they could snatch Zafoura in their arms. They hugged each other tightly and then kissed, their mouths sealed together as they became nearly one being.

So this then was the Great Mother’s Lioness, Helve Somb. The only woman to ever build her own title with-in the Empire. Like Zafoura, she was a legend. She was impossibly tall and thin and, like Zafoura, wore her scars for all to see, with no fear of anyone knowing who she was.

She turned uncanny hazel eyes upon me, her gaze sharp and assessing. “Sister.”

I bowed. “Sister.”

“Slati Mobe,” the Lioness said, her words thoughtful. She patted her horse. “Will you tend my mount?”

I glanced at Zafoura, but her eyes saw only Helve. I looked at her shoes. “As you wish.”

Helve nodded and carried Zafoura into the cabin, kicking the door shut behind her.

I had noticed the paddock when we’d arrived, and a short walk around the cabin brought me to it. The horse hardly fussed as I unsaddled it and gave it water from a nearby barrel. I brushed its coat down the way I would Safat, checking carefully for barbs and ticks before freeing it into the paddock.

“Do you know how you tell a soldier from a maid?” Helve said behind me.

I stiffened. I hadn’t heard her coming up. Where had she and Zafoura learned to move in such silence? She meandered to the paddock fence and leaned on it to watch her horse.

“You give ‘em a horse to mind. See grooms, they tend the horse with more care than a soldier, but a maid wouldn’t know what to do with them. They could remove the saddle. Give them water maybe, but they’d never think of checking the flesh. And certainly not the way a soldier would. A horse is a soldier’s best ally and companion. To a maid, they are an animal important to the Mother but of little consequence to themself.” She turned away from her horse, studying me instead. “So, Slati Mobe. You and I are going inside to discuss what was and what is. And in a while, we will decide what’s next. Yes?”

I nodded and didn’t pull away when she wrapped a hand around my bicep and pulled me to the house. I could still make this work. They didn’t have me yet.

Rin turned her back to me, glancing over her shoulder. “Will you hold my hair?”

Guards didn’t hold hair. She should have called for a lesser priestess or a maid. Still, I set my spear aside and lifted the mass of Rin’s braids from her shoulders with care. She shed the thin white robe of a priestess.

It had barely covered anything to begin with, but now, with the expanse of her smooth skin before me, my face felt flushed and I rolled my eyes to the heavens.

I held her hair as she stepped into the freshly poured water of her bath and sank into its steaming depth. My fingers grazed her shoulders as I released her locks. She shivered.

“What is your name?” she asked before I could move away from her. I fought the urge to seek a glimpse of her flesh beneath the surface of the water.


“Slati,” I said.

She nodded, leaning back in the tub and closing her eyes. I moved to my spot on the wall, taking up my spear and staring at the heavy weave of the tent fabric.

We were silent, the tension between us as heavy as the humid air. Perhaps she hadn’t been thinking of me then, perhaps her tension was the heat of the water, but mine was a desire of the worst kind. I wanted her; the splashes coming from the tub only intensifying my impulses. Who would know if I snuck a look? Who would know the shame I had brought upon myself?


I closed my eyes. My name on her lips, sending tingles through my body. I glanced at her and found her sitting up in the tub, looking at me. Exposed.

It felt like she was calling me over, but perhaps my legs moved of their own accord. She touched me first, her fingers grazing mine. We looked at each other, eyes locked.

“Sister?” I whispered.

Her smile was mischievous. “Will you hold my hair?”

I did.

Zafoura was already sitting at the table when we came inside. If the hold Helve had on my arm surprised her, she didn’t show it. Helve pushed me into the chair across from Zafoura and then sat down beside her, her hand naturally settling on her lover’s thigh.

“The Great Mother sent you?” Helve said.

We sat in silence for a few moments before Helve sighed.

“It would be better if you answered,” Zafoura said. “Easier for all of us.”

I clenched my jaw, and Helve rolled her eyes. She stood up, turning her back on us and going to lean into the bedroom I had been occupying. Zafoura stared at her hands, clearly the more patient of the two of them.

“Doesn’t help you to say nothing. If you don’t intend to seek asylum among the Northern Sisters, then you won’t leave here,” Helve said. “Besides, we can guess what happened.”

“If you’re going to kill me, there’s no reason for me to speak,” I said.

“And yet you do,” Helve said, returning to the table. She stood behind Zafoura’s chair, one hand on the back of Zafoura’s neck.

They were disgusting. Disobedient and traitorous. Choosing each other over the Great Mother’s just desires.

And what was I? The only difference between us was that I had repented.


The only difference between us was that the Mothers had caught me.

Zafoura leaned forward and grabbed my hand. “It costs you nothing to say to us how you feel, Sister. To say what you were trying to do. There is still freedom on the horizon. No one can touch you here.”

I bit the inside of my cheek until it bled.

We sat there for hours, the two of them posing questions. Helve threatening me. Zafoura appealing to some soft part of me. When darkness finally fell, Zafoura cooked for us, and we ate in silence before they sent me to my bedroom. They didn’t block the window or the door, but it didn’t matter. I couldn’t leave without them, not if I was to return to the Empire.

Not if I was to return to the Empire and live.

I had sinned, and this was my penance. If the Great Mother wished for me to die, it would be so. Better to die here where at least my death would be useful to the Empire. I could redeem myself before the Great Mother if I just held on a little longer.

I could hear them, their voices hardly hushed as they laughed and flirted. As they made love. As they slept.

Eventually, I slept too, and in my dreams there was only Rin.

Blood suffused my mouth. I couldn’t see out of my right eye and my knees ached. Above me, the Second Mother raised her fist again and hit me across the jaw. I fell into the sand and then lifted back to my knees again.

“Enough.” The Great Mother’s voice was clear and curt, cutting through my ragged blood tainted breathing.

She stepped forward, standing tall in a soldier’s uniform. Her face was bored as she studied me.

“Release her,” she said.

I fell forward without the Sisters to hold me. I bowed my head, hiding my face in the sand. The Great Mother pressed her toes to my forehead and pushed me backwards. I could hardly hold my head up to look at her, but I fought to do it. The Great Mother had deigned to touch me. The least I could do was to meet her eye.

“Where is she?” The Great Mother said.

“I...” My voice cracked, and I coughed, my blood splattering the sand and the Great Mother’s bare feet.

A maid surged forward, cleaning away my stain as the Great Mother clucked her tongue.

“Where is she, ungrateful sinner?”

“Forgive me, Great one. Please, allow me to repent,” I said between great, wet coughs.

“You will die for your sin, Thief. You have touched what is mine, tried to claim it as your own. There is no other fate but death. Tell me where she has gone, and I will make it swift,” the Great Mother said.

“I... I don’t know... but... but I will go get her. I will bring her back.”


“How will you bring her back if you don’t know where she is?”

She kicked me, knocking me flat on my back. I sucked in air, my vision going hazy. I saw Mother Talka on the edge of the tent, her face a mask of disappointment. Her eyes, though, her eyes were full of pity.

“Please, Mother. Give me some task. I will do anything to repent. Anything.”

“Great Mother...” Mother Talka’s voice drew every eye in the room.

“Speak, Talka,” the Great Mother said.

“This one was faithful, more than some others. Perhaps this is a momentary lapse in judgement. Give her a task. We can restore her.” I raised my eyes to look at her, but she was staring at the Great Mother.

I thought the Great Mother would hit me again, but this time, her hand grasped my chin and pulled me up. Her dark eyes studied my face, which was no doubt a horror from the beating.

“You are repentant, at least. Very well, I have a task for you. Complete it and you will live, a maid in my household. Fail and you will die. Will you accept it?”

How could I say no?

I woke to someone in my room in the cabin. They sat in the chair, a shroud covering their face. I could not see their eyes, but I could feel their gaze on me. I sat up and stared back.

“You’re the one who will kill me?” I said.

They didn’t answer. Didn’t move.

I nodded and put my feet on the ground. My watcher kept their eyes on me as I washed my face and moved to put on clean clothes. I turned away from them and heard the sound they made at the sight of my scarred back. The Mothers had beaten and whipped me for my sin. A Second Mother had carved the sinner symbol into my back, a broken figure-eight. And if the Great Mother knew I had sinned twice, I would not even have been given this task.

Cool fingertips brushed the symbol, and a charge surged up my spine. I turned sharply, grabbing the soft hand. They lowered their shroud, and I sucked in a breath.

Rin was a vision.

Her skin was browner than the last time I’d seen her, and traveling had slimmed her face, but she was still my radiant beauty.

No, not mine.

She slowly brought her free hand to my face, carefully, as though she thought I might run or bite her. When her cool hands pressed against my skin, I closed my eyes.

“Why did you come?” Rin said.

I looked at her. “To repent.”

Rin shook her head, pulling her hand free from mine. I followed her without thinking, craving the feel of her skin.

Helve and Zafoura sat at the table in the main room, their focus sharp for all they pretended to be looking at their plates.

“What is your penance?” Rin said, turning toward me. She crossed her arms over her chest, and I looked at the floor.

“If I return the favored daughter and the Lioness, the Great Mother will forgive me. It would be a symbol of my loyalty, to combat my failings,” I said.

“You didn’t tell her where I went,” Rin said.

It wasn’t a question, but I nodded just the same.

“They got to be followin’ her,” Helve said.

“There has been no one on the road, not in the trees,” Zafoura said. “I left plenty of opportunity for them to seize us. The Great Mother is sure of her loyalty.”

Helve leaned back, looking at Rin and Zafoura. “Kill her then. If she’s so loyal the old beast sends her alone? Ain’t nothing going to change her. Nothing we can do about it.”

“But she didn’t say where I had gone. And I told her, explicitly,” Rin said. “She came alone. That is another kind of loyalty.”

I watched the three women before me, deciding my fate. If I was smart, I would have attacked them then. Taken the Lioness first and then Zafoura. Rin... Rin, I could leave to her happiness. Her freedom.

But if I was to go home—

“Why do you want to go back?” Rin said.

I looked up at her and shook my head. “What else is there?”

Rin chuckled. “You have no imagination, Slati.” She gestured around us. “Here is the world. There are no chains on your feet. No threat of violence for looking too long. There’s possibility. And what awaits you at home? No one will trust you to be a guard. Will you be a soldier, going to your death? No, worse... a maid. Invisible and useless.”

I clenched by jaw. I had left Mother Leothmay for a reason. Service wasn’t for me. My place was in battle, in protection. With my Sisters at my side, to destroy our enemies. Rin knew this.

She grabbed my hands, bringing them to her chest. “The Great Mother has given you a gift. She has wrapped it in this request, but Slati, she has given you freedom. Who will take you home? Hmm? Who will force you to become a maid? No one here. You are the only one who could.”

“I am loyal,” I said.

“Be as loyal to yourself, then.”

“When did you lose your faith?” I said.

She smiled, her gaze falling to my hands. “The day I gave my heart to you.”

I pulled free of her. She didn’t stop me when I walked out of the front door. None of them did.

All the better. I wouldn’t be able to save her if she was on my heels.

“We will be a few days behind you,” the Second Mother said. “All you must do is leave signs. Notches in the trees. Stones in the Great Mother’s sign. We will follow.”

Mother Talka watched me as I took my instructions. When the Second Mother finished with me, she beckoned me over.

“The world is wider than you realize daughter, you could get lost. You could find another way to live,” she whispered. “A better course than death.”

“I will bring glory to the Great Mother, Mother Talka. You need not fear my disloyalty,” I said.

She shook her head. “That is not what I fear.”

She waved me away. The only thing left to do was to mark me for my sin.

I walked for three days, drawing notches in the wood that led away from the cabin and distorting the ones I’d made on the way to it. Cold and hunger riddled my body, but I didn’t stop until I faltered. I found a large tree and laid myself amongst its thriving roots.

I didn’t care if the Empire captured the Favored Daughter or the Lioness. Didn’t care if the Empire branded their flesh like mine. I didn’t even care if they forced me to be a maid again.

But Rin.

I could almost feel the smooth skin of her back, the gentle slope of her stretch marks. I would not allow her to bear the Great Mother’s mark.

“Is she dead?” a voice said over me.

“No, Second Mother. Not yet. She needs food and water,” someone closer said. Hands turned me gently on to my back.

“What are you doing?” the Second Mother said.

“Giving her some water, Second Mother,” said the Sister at my side.

“Do you see the Lioness? The Favored Daughter?” the Second Mother asked. “She has failed her directive. And what are we to do if she fails?”

“Kill her.”

“So put away your water and take out your blade,” the Second Mother said.

I moaned, opening my eyes just enough to see the Sister beside me. She was young, she couldn’t have been over sixteen. Her hand shook as she pulled her dagger from her waist. She held it up, her hands shaking, but then it dropped. I took it from her, pressing it to my heart.

An agonized scream ripped through the silence. The little Sister stood up, turning round as quickly as she could and meeting a fist that struck from the shadows. She fell beside me, unconscious.

“You’ve a death wish?” Helve said as she pressed a water skin against my lips. I moaned at the cool liquid against my dry mouth. “No water and no food. Left yourself vulnerable. Never seen a greater fool.”

“A fool who saved us,” Zafoura said, coming to kneel on my other side. Helve snorted. “I never even knew they were following. We could have led them all the way to the others. Can you stand, Slati?”

“Rin?” I said.

“She’s safe,” Zafoura said. “We left her behind. Your Sisters weren’t as quiet as they should have been, and you did an excellent job of leading them away.”

I pulled myself up to a sitting position, accepting Zafoura’s help. With care, we stood, and I limped at her side. Helve’s horse waited in the trees, and between the two of them they settled me on the horse, Zafoura at my back keeping me in the saddle.

I slept for most of it, the sounds of the forest and Zafoura speaking softly near my ear lulling me into sleep.

Strong hands pulled me down from the horse and helped me into the cabin.

The front room was torn apart. Furniture rent apart, holes in the door to the second bedroom. Zafoura tried to set me at the table, but I pulled free. Dragging myself through the rooms to look for Rin. The physical pain seemed to dissipate as I realized she wasn’t there. She wasn’t there, and every sign said she’d been taken. Zafoura stopped me.

“You’re hurting yourself,” she said.

“I don’t care!” I got up again, limping to my bedroom. I laced my dagger back at my side. I longed for my sword or spear, but if I had to kill every Sister between Rin and me with only a dagger, I would do it.

Helve strode to the corner of the hearth, pulled up planks from the floor and retrieved a blade. She tossed it to me.

Zafoura stared at us. “She isn’t strong enough.”

“You think a little thing like lack of food and water would keep me from you,” Helve said. “You don’t know love very well.”

Zafoura cursed but said nothing else. “They could be days ahead of us.”

I tucked the blade at my side. “Then we’d better hurry.”

Rin hadn’t made it easy for her abductor. There were signs among the trees of the way they had gone, branches ripped from their trunks; earth disturbed where she had kicked it up or scrambled for purchase. She was fighting, and I would fight for her. I rode the horse Rin had arrived on, Zafoura at my back again while Helve rode ahead on her horse, leading us back south.

“She’ll be alright,” Zafoura said.

“It’s my fault,” I said.

Zafoura nodded. “Yes. But you didn’t know she would be here. And I think if you had, you wouldn’t have tried to lead them to us.”

I turned my head. “No offense. Wanting to bring you and Helve to the Great Mother wasn’t personal.”

“None taken. Do you know how many people I killed to get Helve away from the Great Mother? I regret they lost their lives, but it was worth it to free her.”

I clenched my jaw shut, but that didn’t stop Zafoura.

“You know the Great Mother commands this, right? She would hurt the woman you love. And still you would give her your loyalty?”

Helve rode back to us, and I thanked the gods for the interruption. She led us deeper into the forest, her voice low and even. “There’s a camp. Your mother is here.”

Behind me, Zafoura stiffened. “She came all this way?”

“She thought she was getting her daughter back. Her blood,” I said. “Why wouldn’t she come?”

“And instead, she’s getting a favorite priestess,” Helve said. “Rin always said she thought she was special.”

“She won’t be able to keep Rin,” I said.

Helve nodded. “At dark, we strike.”

Helve led us to woods that ringed the edge of the Great Mother’s camp. We waited amongst the trees. Close enough that I could smell the cooking meat and hear the laughter of my Sisters around the fire. If I closed my eyes, I could see them.

It didn’t matter who was present. The formation was the same, a series of concentric circles made up of tents. The outer ring Sisters, then Third Mothers, then Second Mothers, then Mothers. And at the center of this camp, the Great Mother herself.

As dark fell, the noises from the camp became more acute. They had no reason to worry. As far as they knew, their scout would return with the Favored Daughter and the Lioness, and they had also recovered a lost priestess. They had more than done their duty.

A few lengths off, Helve roared, her famed impersonation of a lioness terrifying even with her on my side.

Silence fell over the camp.

I tiptoed forward as quick feet rushed toward Helve’s call.

I slit the throat of one of my Sisters on watch, and their body fell with a gentle thud. Their helmet just barely fit me, but it covered my face, and I worked my way through the remaining watchwomen. I had made it to the Mothers’ ring before someone noticed.


I turned my head. Mother Talka studied me from the flap of her tent. Despite the ill-fitting helmet, I couldn’t fool her. She stumbled forward and then seemed to catch herself.

For a moment, we stared at each other. If she betrayed me now, I would surely die. And I would deserve it. Sinner, traitor, betrayer.

She pointed at a small tent that sat beside the Great Mother’s. I bowed my head in silent gratitude and strode off, trying to look purposeful.

“I’m to replace you,” I said at the entrance to the tent, lowering my voice to the guard who stood there. They hardly glanced at me before racing off, ready to dive into the fight.

I took up their post for a moment as soldiers continued to hurry toward Helve’s battle cries, then slipped into the tent.

A fire had been lit for Rin, heating the tent to a comfortable temperature for her nude body. She lay beside it, hands tied at her back and her legs tied at her ankles. She was hunched forward onto her face, her braids hiding it from the flame. The rest of the tent was empty. The Great Mother seemed not to trust anyone with her after me.

I crossed the room and rolled her onto her back. Spit hit me in the eye and I turned my head.

“Get your hands—” She stopped, eyes going wide. “Slati! I’m sorry. I’m—”

“It’s ok,” I whispered as I wiped my face. “I’m going to untie you now.”

When she was free, I looked around for a blanket and brought it to cover her. She stared at me and I stared back.

“I need to get you out of here,” I said.

“Just me? Where are you going?” Rin said.

I shrugged.

Rin grabbed my hand, pulling me to her. “I asked you once, Slati, and you told me no. Will you run with me?”

My faith told me that Rin was a blasphemer. That I should beg the Great Mother to take my head for what I had already done. That my theft was unforgivable.

But my heart told me to kiss her.

“What is this?” The Great Mother’s voice enveloped the tent.

She stood at the tent flap, her arms wide and her stance menacing. I turned, putting myself between them. The Great Mother wore a warrior’s tunic and held a sword in her hand. Her long locks were pulled up onto the top of her head, and her eyes were full of fiery vengeance.

“You will die, betrayer,” she said. “For your sin.”

“For her, I will gladly,” I said.

She swung first, trying to take off my head in one blow. I pushed Rin backward and blocked with the old sword Helve had given me. The Great Mother was strong, driving me to my knees. She raised her sword again, and I swept my own at her middle. She jumped backward, and I stood, going for a second swipe and meeting steel instead.

We each backed up, putting more space between us. Rin tapped my back to let me know where she stood, and I adjusted my stance.

“Go,” I whispered to her over my shoulder.

“Not again,” she said, and pressed her hand to my back. I felt the weight of it, the support of her.

The Great Mother surged forward, knocking me backward but not off my feet as she might have intended. I let our blades slip against each other. We danced that way for a few moments, Rin at my back, the Great Mother moving us about the room with her sword. By the time she spoke, I was bleeding from more than one wound.

“Enough of this,” she snapped finally. “I’m done with you.”

I drew Rin tight to my side and sliced my sword through the tent pole, dropping the tent down on our heads. The Great Mother shouted, but I had no time to wait. I drove my blade up and jumped out of the slit I had created, pulling Rin through and led her running through the camp. It had given way to chaos, all coordination lost in a sea of frantic Sisters and horses and the Lioness’s realistic roars. I half-dragged Rin out to the edge of camp, turning back only when we’d reached the tree line.

In the tornado of horses and humans and tents caught fire, I saw them. Zafoura’s sword moved like lightning, ending two Sisters at once. At her side, the Lioness bared her teeth, frightening another young Sister into turning tail and running. The two of them were everything everyone had said and so much more.

I whistled, and both women smiled at each other, stalking through the camp without fear.


Zafoura stopped. It was the Great Mother, her birther. Helve said something to her, but Zafoura shook her head.

“Birther!” Zafoura shouted. “Let’s be done with this. Give my siblings and I our freedom.”

“You can be free in death or return to your mother, Daughter,” the Great Mother shouted back.

Zafoura shook her head, turning her sword in her hand. “I choose freedom in life.”

Helve backed up, turning her back on birther and daughter to keep any of the Sisters from jumping in.

Rin squeezed my hand hard. “We should go. If Zafoura loses—”

“She won’t,” I said.

We watched as the Great Mother and the Favored Daughter met in ringing blows and grunts that filled the air along with the frantic horse’s squeals. They pushed each other back. Getting close and knocking apart. The Great Mother slipped beneath Zafoura’s sword arm, slashing up her side.

Zafoura stumbled back, her side gushing blood. Zafoura shook her head, trying to right herself. The Great Mother hollered a battle cry that the Sisters chanted a response to.

Zafoura struck, sword connecting with the Great Mother’s neck. Her voice died with a wheeze and a gurgle. The Great Mother fell to her knees and then on to her back. The assembled Sisters screamed as the Zafoura pulled her blade free.

She turned to them. “My friends, my birther is dead. You are free. Go and find yourselves, rid yourselves of her command. You are more than what she named you. Seek it. I wish you well.”

Zafoura held out her hand and Helve took it, letting her lover lead them out of the camp. The Sisters watched, stunned.

“Alright, Rin?” Helve asked when they reached us. Zafoura stared straight ahead.

“Yes,” Rin said.

Helve nodded and led us back to the horses.

The camp of the Winter Tribe, as Rin called it, was far. We rested only a few times, too fearful that one of the Mothers would try to make their name with our blood. We rode our two horses, which were easier to hide than four. Zafoura was quiet for much of it but Helve showed no sign of distress, so I tried not to worry.

Five days later, we rode into the camp. They made the tents here of thicker wool and animal hides. A tall person with bright eyes came out to meet us, their smile mischievous. They bore the scars of a maid across their face, the servant of a harsher Mother than mine, but their clothes were more like an Orphaned man.

“We thought perhaps you got lost,” the stranger called out.

“Zafoura killed the old woman,” Helve said, climbing off their horse.

The Sister’s smile fell as they surged forward, wrapping their arms around Zafoura. “Oh, beloved. I know you’d hoped...”

“It’s done, Kai,” Zafoura said with a half-hearted smiled. “Let us introduce you to Slati.”

Kai turned to me and Rin, their smile widening. They kept an arm wrapped round Zafoura as they stepped up to me, looking me up and down.

“So, the infamous Slati Mobe,” Kai said. Rin looked at her feet, her cheeks going pink. “All well, Rin?”

Rin grabbed my hand. “All’s well. Slati, this is Kai. He’s one of the folks who runs the camp.”

I nodded slowly and held out my hand. I’d never met a Sister who was a “he” before. The Great Mother forbid— but there was no Great Mother here, nor anywhere else in the world. Kai smiled mischievously and pulled me into a tight hug with Zafoura, who laughed.

“Welcome,” Kai said. “I’ve heard many wonderful, terrible things about you.”

“Thank you... Forgive me, I don’t know the right address,” I said.

“Just Kai will do. There are no Sisters here unless you choose them. You are your own. Your family is yours to make. Though I think Rin would appreciate the title of wife, if you are looking for a good one,” Kai said. I glanced at Rin and she rolled her eyes, but her skin went still pinker. “In the meantime, there is a tent where you can rest and eat, and then we’ll decide what work you can help with. Welcome to the Winter Tribe.”

I nodded, overwhelmed. Rin led me through the camp, Sisters... no, people, waving to her and calling out greetings. The Great Mother’s careful rules of how to build, abandoned. There was only chaos here, a symbol of their ability to choose.

Inside the visitors’ tent, Rin found a pallet for me to lie on. She studied my face for a long time and then retrieved food and water for me.

I pulled Rin down beside me, putting my hands on her face. Her eyes danced across mine.

“I’m sorry,” I said.

“You don’t need to apologize,” she said.

“They could have hurt you,” I said.

She shook her head. “But they didn’t.”

“But they could have. Because of me. I know you can’t possibly want me—”

“Silly,” she said.

And then she kissed me. Her lips bracketed mine, and she sucked on my bottom lip, igniting a fire within me. I owed her so much. Apologies and gifts and begging, I was certain. Rin pulled away from me with a big smile. I watched her as she crossed the tent, closing the flap to allow us privacy. I vowed to do everything I could to make things right with her, starting right that moment.

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Eboni J. Dunbar (she/her) is a queer black woman who writes queer and black speculative fiction. She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with her partner. She received her BA from Macalester College in English and her MFA in Creative Writing from Mills College. She is the former managing editor for the Hugo Award-Winning FIYAH Literary Magazine. Her work can be found in Stellium Literary Magazine, FIYAH Literary Magazine, Drabblecast, Anathema: Spec from the Margins, and Nightlight Podcast. She also has a novella, Stone and Steel, published by Neon Hemlock. Eboni has also been nominated for an Ignyte Award in the Novella Category for Stone and Steel. She can be found at her website ebonidunbar.com.

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