Mattar comes to the house of Anaharesh in search of a single word; a word to end a war.
“There are a hundred words for the weight of starlight in a cupped palm,” Anaharesh tells her over a cup of tea, steam patting their cheeks like a distracted auntie. “Only thirty-nine, though, for the smell of frost the morning before a heartbreak.” Anaharesh had not spoken until she was grown; her throat was too full of words not yet born.
“I only need one word,” Mattar tells her. Her knees ache. She has been sitting too long in this round house with its cedar-wood smell and wind chimes singing spirals in the eaves. Her son’s armies march as she sips bitter tea, carving out an empire mile by mile.
“The word you want has yet to be spoken,” Anaharesh says. Her teeth click against the rim of her cup; she is watching the herbs settle at the bottom. “I know it, of course. But I cannot give it to you. You must find it when it is formed.”
“That could be a world away.”
“Or a thousand years from now,” Anaharesh agrees. She turns her head one way and then the other, eyes lidded. She is listening for something in her own chest, and when she hears it she smiles. “But it is not. It is very soon, this word, if not very close.”
The splinterman outside stamps his foot, coughs. Mattar knows two words for the impatience of a man obeying orders he does not agree with. In Kilin-kasa, it is spoken with a laugh; the Korondi tongue calls for bared teeth. Neither is quite right for this soldier, assigned to watch an old woman when he wants to march to war.
“Where do I look?” Mattar asks.
“You look where the road brings you, Three-Times-Woken,” Anaharesh says. The name is a cat’s tongue against Mattar’s skin. There are thirteen words for what she is, and none of them please her.
Mattar rises. The splinterman’s feet cuff the planks. He hears her, she hears him, and they both make their backs straight. He conceals his minute disobediences; she conceals her creeping age. When she stoops past the crooked lintel of the round house, the sun falls on her neck like a blade. With the hanging edge of her silk wrap she dabs sweat from her throat, in which there are a thousand words and more but not the one she needs.
It is a word to end a war, but the war is almost won.
It is the nature of empire to calve new words, and Mattar has walked ruined roads and suffocating marketplaces to find them. She knows the word for how a Kilin-kasa woman turns a wax-melon in her hands three times before she asks a price—tsa-tsa-tsa. She knows the name the now-dead Enokoans had for her, diabi-sai, witch-mother. She knows, too, the syllables of the arrows of the Hasha as they fall, tulbuku, on Korondi shields and Korondi flesh.
The Hasha wield their spears precisely and their words carelessly. She envies their poets for their freedom, that they may laugh at blood or weep over it or exult in it, all with the same sounds, the same calculus of lips-tongue-teeth.
Her gods are not so generous.
She walks with the splinterman along roads raised brutishly from the marsh. The needs of empire brought stone and sand to a place loved only by droning insects and fat yellow toads, and now these clean curves lie like ribs across the land.
“Where will we go?” the splinterman asks. The priests have sewn the bones of lesser gods beneath his skin to make him strong; it very nearly saved him. He died six days ago, but she has not the heart to tell him.
“We will follow the road,” she says. “And see where it leads.”
The roads of the Korondi empire are carved with a curse. Take me where I need to be. They are only words to those who still have breath to speak them, but a ghost is subject to instruction. He is a creature of externality and precedent; he is no longer anything of himself. The curse will carry him without concern for the demands of geography or the persistent reality of living flesh.
She sews him to her skin while he is sleeping, with thread spun from the wind of a lesser god’s wingbeats. The thread is dear, and she is loath to part with it, but she can taste an ending at the root of her tongue. Time is contracting. She has no choice.
He steps off one road and onto another, eight hundred miles and more. The thread tears furrows in her flesh, but she follows before it breaks.
They stand between the Arch of the Victorious Tiger and the Arch of the Compassionate Vulture, in the city of Wa Shulen. The structures are called by some the Gate of Life and the Gate of Death. She decides this is auspicious.
The splinterman, alarmed, clutches the air where his blade should be, but the dead bear no weapons. “Peace,” Mattar says. Ithanay to the Hasha, le-sha here, words she has carved again and again into her temple’s walls, and watched them vanish. Peace is imprecise, and the poetry of divinity demands precision. The prayers of the faithful rise unheard, discarded for their formlessness; the gods refuse to intercede, because they do not understand.
“Peace,” she says again, and the splinterman’s confusion sheds its anger, turns lost. Everywhere the streets are full of the living, but they do not resent the intrusion of the ghost. In this city, the living keep companionship with the dead. The women with bells on their fourth fingers and the men, their lips bisected by a black stain, touch their thumbs together as they pass, brief welcomes for the ghost, even a ghost so clearly hatched of an enemy’s last breath. They are less content to let her pass without comment.
Her skin is the darkest they have seen; by birth she is Kilin-kasa, with whom they have no quarrel, but her feet first touched Korondi dust, and her dress reflects the style of her upbringing. She does not wear the folds and drapes of this city’s women, and if she speaks she will not have the music of their tongue. She does not belong here. She will not be tolerated long. She must move swiftly, and so she does, the spirit of the splinterman cleaving close. His feet tread on her hem but have no weight to hold it.
“Where are we going?” he asks. His voice encloses its own echo, tripling itself. He has been dead seven days; on the eighth his ghost will be gone. “How did we get here?”
“We were carried by our need,” she says. The streets here are narrow. The buildings jut out until the roofs cluster so tightly they blot out the view of the sky. “And we are going to see a god.” There is no reason for the road to bring them here, except for that.
Her gods are made of stone, but these people worship a beast of bone and sinew. They keep their god and their emperor in the center of their city. He is an emperor of nothing; his empire was broken before he was born, and the Korondi now seek to suck its marrow. But his palace rises from the shell of a god, and so an emperor he is called.
She marvels at his people’s trust. They have known war. The Hasha who now defend them have, in other times, swept like brushfire through their principalities; the people of Wa Shulen have three-and-thirty words reserved for the destruction those horse warriors bring. And yet there are no walls to keep her from the garden of the god, no guards, no questions.
They pass through the gate to the god’s garden, as any pilgrim may. The lowest gutter-child is permitted to walk in the shadow of the great creature, to stand in its footprints. And the creature is great. It stands on legs as thick around as six masts lashed together, and its head could host a rich man’s home. The palace sits at the center of its whorled and weathered shell, and looks small.
The splinterman mumbles soft-mouthed prayers, ill-defined. “I’d heard the tortoise was the largest,” he says. “The largest of all their false gods. But I didn’t imagine it would be such a brute.”
“You have the shards of its cousin’s bones within you,” Mattar reminds him. “Do not neglect to be grateful in your approach.”
“How could we kill a thing like that?” he asks.
He is imprecise even in his questions. Does he mean How will we kill it, when Korond’s blades break the Hasha line, and my brothers march unimpeded into this garden? Or does he mean How did we kill the others, whose bones and shells and claws seed our soil, with which we bind divinity to our flesh?
“The king will find a way,” Mattar says without joy.
The lesser gods that once walked Korond’s fields and forests are generations gone, but Mattar has seen a living god die. She was in the mountains of Enokoa when the vulture fell screaming to the mountain-top and watched villages vanish beneath the avalanche that rose to mourn it. The snow drowned Hasha and Korondi, and drowned the Enokoans too, who tended the peaks where the vulture roosted, breathing the thin air and marking their skin with the words the wind made between the rocks.
Mattar bends to her knees before the massive tortoise, guilt a sharp pain between her shoulder-blades. If it senses her, if it knows what she has done, it shows no sign. It crops a stand of trees with a snap of its jaws. Its eyes are the color of milk; blind, and old, older than the words to describe it. Stairways trace the wrinkles and ridges of its limbs, and dozens of paths lead across its great shell to the palace. From this distance, Mattar sees the banners of the Hasha Alliance moving toward the palace, their bearers smudges against a setting sun. The Aghan or his envoys must be here to call upon the emperor.
“I am called,” the splinterman says. He has his orders and he remains beside her, but she can see him straining against the song now rising from near the foot of the creature. They are Hasha words, it is a woman’s voice, and Mattar knows what she will find when they follow it, but she nods her head and lets him help her to her feet, lets him lead. He’s taken her this far; she can let him go, if she must.
They walk through tenderly kept gardens, over red bridges rubbed dull with use and past waist-high shrines to the ancillary spirits that breed and gather in the god’s shadow. At the foot of the god is a smaller garden, a garden of stones. Beyond the stones lies the last archway before the stairs that lead to the god’s back.
On the tallest rock sits a boy, bare-chested. Below him rest two women; one of them sings, and when the splinterman reaches them she smiles at him. Her song will lure him to the ghost roads, if she continues.
“You would rob me of my escort?” Mattar asks.
The singing woman looks to the other, who holds out a flat hand. The singer shrugs, her song dying. They are both Hasha, both young, but the one who has gestured wears the braid of a blooded warrior. Mattar marks the knots of colored thread in her hair, reading her history. She wears the red of a marriage-bonded woman, the green of a mother, the black—almost unseen against her dark hair—of the Aghan’s own kin. In the heat of the city the women have shed their mail coats, and the thick felts that guard them against the bitter wind of the west; this woman wears only soft white leathers, and Mattar knows who she is.
“I would beg leave of the Aghan’s daughter to let an old woman keep her companion, for one day more,” Mattar says, looking into the eyes of the woman born to kill the Korondi king.
“It is not our custom to let the dead walk where they will,” the Aghan’s daughter says. But she has already folded her fingers and dropped her hand, a kinetic language the Aghan himself constructed. Leave us to speak alone, the gesture says. The singer unfolds herself from her perch. She takes the splinterman’s hand as she walks away, and the boy scrambles after them.
Mattar watches after them. The splinterman has been dead for seven days and she never bothered to learn his name, but once he is gone she will be alone. She finds she is not ready to lose him.
“I know you,” the Aghan’s daughter says. “You should not be here.”
“And who do you know that I am?” Mattar asks.
“You are the mother of the wolf who bites at our flanks,” the Aghan’s daughter says. “You stood on the far slope the day the vulture died. You spoke the spell that destroyed Enokoa.”
“I spoke no spell,” Mattar says. “I spoke a prayer, and etched it in the mountainside. You were there that day as well. I heard them calling up the ranks. The Blooded Stag has sent his daughter, they said. The demon in white.”
She smiles, a press and twist of her lips that makes her look old. “So they call me.”
“I know the weight of names,” Mattar says.
“And I know the weight of old bones. Sit, Grandmother. There is no war in the tortoise’s shadow, or so the emperor assures us.” The Aghan’s daughter gestures to the rock beside her, and Mattar takes the seat with a grateful sigh. “You have come here in the company of a ghost, without weapons and without a host behind you. Why?”
“I want to end the war,” Mattar says.
“Everyone wants to end the war,” the Aghan’s daughter says. “I was conceived and born so that it could end.”
Mattar turns hard eyes on her. The day this girl was born, the priestesses came to tell her. They explained the rites and rituals; the ways the Hasha knew to craft a weapon from a child. “You were made to kill my son.”
“I was cut from my mother at the dusk of the day the winter and the spring were in perfect balance. I was suckled with the blood of the great stag and the great wolf, and taught to walk the ghost roads. Death is easy among the Hasha, Grandmother. We do not put so much effort into such a simple thing. I was born to bring peace, not death; killing your son is merely the mechanism of my fate.” She speaks it as plain fact and seems to wait for Mattar to object, perhaps to spit at her and curse her.
“You will not kill him in time,” Mattar says. “The armies of Korond are marching, and your lines cannot hold. He is not with them. He is safe in his palace, safe with his sons who whisper pleas for peace to him, unheard. You may kill him months or years from now, and perhaps then the war will end. But first he will break your clans and burn this city, and claim the nations of the Hasha Alliance for his empire. I believe there is another way.”
“What way?” the woman asks. The Hasha do not trust as the people of this city do, but she listens. Perhaps it is the shadow of the tortoise. Perhaps it is the knowledge that Mattar is right.
“A prayer,” Mattar says. “A perfect prayer to catch the ear of the gods.” The word is wrong; they are speaking in the Hasha tongue, and the Hasha do not have gods the way the Korondi do, nor even the way the people of this city do. They have one god, who fills many vessels. But she thinks the Aghan’s daughter understands. “A prayer to ask for peace.”
“You would not be the first to pray for such things,” the Aghan’s daughter says. “Anyone with breath in their lungs has prayed for them.”
“I have crafted it,” Mattar says. “I have selected each word so that it cannot be misconstrued or doubted. But I lack one. I lack the word that will tell a being who does not die why this war cannot continue.”
“Do you believe words have so much power?” the Aghan’s daughter asks. “That a single word could bend the fate of fifty nations?”
“No,” Mattar says bitterly. If words alone had power, prayers and poets and her own begging would have turned her son’s heart from its course. “Words do not have power. Kings and gods have power. Words are the key with which we unlock their whims.”
The Aghan’s daughter laughs, a scraped-hollow sound. “Do you see that boy?” she asks.
The boy is throwing rocks in a pond. The splinterman crouches beside him, enjoying the game. He’s hardly more than a boy himself, hardly old enough to cultivate a scraggly beard. The bone shards make odd patterns beneath his skin, and the wound that killed him is beginning to open at his side.
“I see him,” Mattar says, fixing her attention on the living child. The dead are beyond her help. “He is a handsome child.”
“He is my son. I found him in the mountains, when your son’s soldiers were slaughtering his kin. After the avalanche. After the vulture fell. I fled with him through the gray spaces and the ghost roads, and fed him mare’s milk and mare’s blood. He is the last of the Enokoans, the last of those who knew the language of birds, but I cannot teach him his mother-tongue. I know only one word, and it has never been spoken.”
Mattar looks more closely at her. Her shoulders bend beneath the weight of unseen things, and her eyes watch shadows more than light.
“What word?” she asks, but the woman does not speak it yet.
“We will never surrender to your son,” the Aghan’s daughter says. “He is the king who killed a god, the man who slaughtered a nation. They believe he will do the same to the rest of us. To the stag and the wolf, to the tortoise and the eagle. They believe he will dredge the great sea itself to slay the storm-wrack gods. Before Enokoa, we might have made a truce, but we cannot while he still lives. Because they blame him.”
“And you do not?” Mattar asks. “I was on the mountain, horse-daughter. I know what my son’s soldiers did.”
“I know you did not cast a spell to kill the vulture,” the Aghan’s daughter says. “I saw the spears of the splintermen strike it. I saw it shriek and dive and rise. I knew that it would die. You conquered the southern kingdoms with the power a few old bones could give you. What would you do with the flesh and blood and organ meat of a fresh-dead god?”
“You killed it,” Mattar says softly. Guilt slides from her like snowmelt, but the feeling is false. She spoke the prayer. She felt the gods’ understanding. Perhaps the vulture still would have died if she had stayed silent, perhaps this girl would still have killed it, but she thinks not. The gods use humans as their instruments, after all.
“I rode the ghost-roads to the mountain-top where it paused to rest. I took one of the splintermen’s spears from where it had fallen, and I drove it through the vulture’s skull,” the woman says tonelessly. “On the mountain peak where I could hardly breathe, where no one could ever climb to claim it. And because I slew the vulture-god, we have held this long. Because of what I did, my people will never lay down their spears. We are victorious, or we are destroyed. And I do not believe we can win this war.”
“But we can end it,” Mattar tells her. “You and I. I need only a single word, and I think that you are the one who knows it.”
For a long time, the Aghan’s daughter says nothing. The tortoise shifts, a sound like the movement of a mountain.
Then she nods, once, and speaks again. “When the vulture died, it thrashed, and its wings made such a great wind that the whole sky howled with it, and the rocks shaped the wind into a word.”
“What was it?” Mattar asks.
The Aghan’s daughter leans close and whispers in her ear.
Mattar rises from the rock with the heat pressing against her with all the stubbornness of a child. The Aghan’s daughter walks her to the poolside and speaks in gestures to the singer, who takes the splinterman’s hand. She joins it to Mattar’s and hums softly until Mattar’s skin prickles.
“He can take you home,” the Aghan’s daughter tells her.
“Thank you,” Mattar says. “I promise you, the gods will listen. This war will end without need of further death.”
The Aghan’s daughter shakes her head. “Grandmother, I was born to end this war. And I was born to kill your son. I have given you the word you need. So our soothsayers are wrong, or you are. Or we are all of us right, and I fear that you will not like the answer to your prayers.”
Mattar looks away. She looks at the last Enokoan child. “Guard your sons,” she says to the women. “But keep them from your prayers.”
She tells the splinterman they must go home. The curse still sticks to the soles of his feet and carries them to the outskirts of the city where her son and grandsons have their thrones. But when she takes another step, she is alone. The splinterman has walked on to the ghost roads, the sunset of the seventh day marking his end.
She walks alone to the temple, the word droning in her mind. It is a word that has no translation—not in the hundred tongues she’s heard, not in the hundred-thousand that Anaharesh could name. It is the sound of a spear driving through bone. It is the sound of last breaths, of mud, of rocks crashing and of the scrape of a crippled foot across a dirt path. It is not war but this war, distilled into a dying scream.
In the temple, she kneels. She has carved every word of her prayer in the flagstone at the feet of the hooded god, Imrin-ka, the last god who still listens when she prays. The last clear patch of stone lies at the center, waiting to be filled.
I was born to kill your son, the Aghan’s daughter said. Mattar is mighty in her faith; she does not doubt. She believes her gods of stone can stand against the will of the behemoths the northern nations worship. But she can see no reason why they would.
A different prayer, perhaps, could shape the gods’ answer to her will. A prayer that would spill over every stone in the temple, precluding loss and sorrow, anticipating every misfortune, with the unflinching vocabulary the gods demand. And perhaps she could find the words for it, if she were Anaharesh, or if she had a hundred years to wait.
When she was young, and newly with child, she knelt in this place. She carved a prayer, as was her right as first wife to the king, at the feet of Imrin-ka. Make my son strong, she wrote, in the tongue of her mother, the Kilin-kasa, a language she spoke but did not truly understand. She did not know there were as many words for strength as bones in the hand, and the word she chose was drenched in blood.
She presses her fingertips against that word. Strong. It was not her fault, she has told herself many times before this day. She did not understand then that she was Three-Times-Woken. Woken to life with her first breath, woken to sentience with the accretion of thought, and at last woken to the gods. She prayed as any mother would, and to her grief, the gods answered.
Or perhaps he would be as he is without her prayer. Perhaps the vulture would have died on the mountain if she were silent. And perhaps the word she carves now in the small smooth space is nothing more than grooves in sandstone, inert and unremarked.
She kneels, fingers laced, and folds herself to the ground. She whispers the words, again and again, and the stone listens.
In the palace on the hill, a prince slips a bead of poison into a king’s cup, and prays for peace.