The book was bound in pale, crinkled leather and rough thread the color of massacres, and Suzuen Vayag carried it in an inner pocket of her coat as a matter of course. Her sister Kereyag had written it in gunfire and witchfire and hellpyre smoke, on the stray cold morning of her death. The least Vayag could do was keep it safe.
Today’s operation required that Vayag travel to the administrative capital of Territory 5, which was what the Meroi conquerors called her homeland. The administrative capital had once been Nyago-ot of the Seventy Temples, where pilgrims had brought pressed flowers from all corners of the peninsula twice a year. Now the Meroi called it Undercity 5-1, for the shadow of the Cloud Fortress that flew above it. Most of the temples had been destroyed during the war of occupation. The greatest one, Ten Bells Ten Flowers, had been spared only to be reopened as a museum honoring the Meroi dead. Vayag had had to go there once on an assignment and had almost blown her cover arguing with a Meroi tourist about who had really suffered in that war. She had been younger then.
The only way to reach the Cloud Fortress was by air. The Meroi controlled their airspace tightly, and even their dignitaries had to secure permission to visit well in advance. It was an interesting problem. Vayag supposed she ought to be grateful that her orders only required her to shut off the fortress’s communications to the Meroi homeland for a single hour, which would in turn enable other agents to disable the Cloud Fortress long enough to carry out sabotage elsewhere. She didn’t know the details, but that was a sensible precaution.
The book had whispered to Vayag in its dry voice of fluttering pages and threads rubbing together. It had suggested that she could do more than disable communications; that she could destroy the Cloud Fortress herself, send it plummeting to the city below. Ever helpful, it had identified the pages that would facilitate the modified operation. Of course, there were page numbers. Kereyag had always been meticulous about details.
Vayag had no intention of carrying through with the book’s suggestion, not least because of the number of bystanders that would die, but she had looked at the indicated pages, the way she always did. On page 31 was a picture of a cobweb threaded tremulously across a corpse’s empty eye sockets. The left socket had been cut into the shape of a keyhole.
Written in neat script, in the temple alphabet that had been outlawed six years ago, was the corpse’s particular profile. His name had been Khem Myan, and like everyone in the book, he had died in the Snowfall Massacre. He had been unrivaled at the old art of mirror archery: shooting slivers that multiplied themselves through prisms, or sending them around corners with the help of strategically placed reflections.
Vayag had to admit the utility of mirror archery. She could have unfastened the page and taken it with her, but the ability belonged to a dead man and she would not disturb his spirit this way.
She entered Subway Station 14 on the blue line, trying to ignore the book’s continued whispering. The station was cleaner than it ever had been during her childhood. Say what you would about the Meroi, but they were excellent administrators. Their firesnake crest was painted on every long stretch of wall. The tiles of the floor shone pale blue, with stippled tiles forming a path for the blind. The trains ran smoothly. There were no beggars—
There were no beggars, but neither were there sellers of fruit, neither were there players of drums and tellers of fortunes with cards of azalea and crane. There were no priests offering public prayers to the three bird goddesses, or people pressing offerings of sweet fruit into their baskets. Vayag and her sister had come to stations just like this one with coins in their pockets, buying sour-sweet candies on the way home from school. Now when she looked at the station, all she saw were doors opening and closing, opening and closing, in mechanical defeat.
And although there were still people who spoke the peninsula’s many native tongues among themselves, the cool sweet voices that read out the trains incoming and trains outgoing, that reminded travelers of ordinary safety precautions, spoke the Meroi language.
The blue line from Station 14 eastbound (really north-east-east, if you cared about details, which she did) and six stops would take Vayag to Station 20. Her ticket had a firesnake on it, beautifully rendered in red ink. She used to hope that the machines would punch a hole in its head, but such pettiness did her no good. Besides, they never did.
She could feel the book rustling its pages against her side as she stepped through the doors and onto the train. She gritted her teeth and thought of other things: haggling over eels swimming round and round in tubs of water in the open marketplaces, that last kite festival where Kereyag had gone around the whole day in an inside-out tunic without noticing until Vayag finally told her after the dinner feast, sharing quail eggs with the neighborhood children and taking turns dipping them in sesame salt.
The windows revealed nothing but darkness pierced by intermittent flashes of light, the pauses where people with no more individuality than silhouettes got on or got off. Vayag assessed them as she stared off at an angle, pretending to be entranced by an advertisement featuring a handsome man. That one was a student, slump-shouldered and clutching a bulging book bag. She wore her hair swept up and pinned asymmetrically in the style that the Meroi governor had made fashionable. A man tapped his fingers on his knee in a simple rhythm. An older woman trailed two children, who were bickering amiably over a piece of taffy. The children, like the other passengers, wore the dull, sober clothes permitted to Territory 5’s subjugates by sumptuary law. Vayag missed the days when everyone had gone around in gaudy colors.
There was really no excuse for what she was about to do, except that the alternative was to watch as her people adopted Meroi names in exchange for greater privileges and better-paying jobs. Even the graffiti, however quickly painted over, was in the Meroi language these days. And more and more often, she heard children speaking their parents’ languages with Meroi accents.
For that matter, Vayag had cultivated that same accent so as to draw less attention to herself. She imagined the day would come when she would no longer be able to shed it at will, whatever her intentions.
The synthesized voice announced that they would soon be stopping at Station 20. Vayag got up and shuffled to the nearest doors, behind a woman scowling at her timepiece. The timepiece was a thing of beauty: rose gold set with flashing crystals of darker pink. Vayag was tempted to steal it, just to prove she could, but it would have been unprofessional. She had gotten herself into trouble that way during one of her first missions, and she wasn’t going to jeopardize this one now.
The doors opened and light slanted in from the station, softly bright. Vayag followed the woman out, walking fast but not too fast. She smiled blandly at the firesnake emblem across from her. She had a great deal of practice doing just that.
She joined the amiable jostling of the crowd. As she passed a newsstand, she cast her gaze over the broadsheets. All the people in the photos were smiling. She didn’t get a close look at the figures and statistics and charts, but the photos—lying by omission—told her all she needed to know.
Turn right. Up the stairs. Emerge into the cloudlight, pale and crisp. Vayag couldn’t help but notice all the reflective surfaces available to her, if only, if only. Polished windows and metal door frames. Lamp posts darkly glossy. The glint of a man’s necklace, a spark of blue from a woman’s earring. Even the polish of a Meroi policeman’s boots.
It was not too late, the book explained to her, as patiently as if it were instructing a child. Vayag could duck into that teahouse, where there was a line. She could bend her head over the book’s pages, fit her finger to the keyhole, open the page and all its possibilities.
But her aim was not another massacre, no matter how much the book wished otherwise.
The book told Vayag, rather sharply, not to be ridiculous. They worked for the resistance, after all. Would freedom be bought with anything less dear than death?
Not here, not now. The words caught in her throat like the teeth of a key.
Down the street. No beggars here, either. She was near the heart of Meroi power, and the Meroi despised untidiness. No more festival banners, no more crisscrossing lines of laundry. The children played in designated areas instead of rambling in and out of the alleys. There was a puddle to one side of the street, a remnant of the thunderstorm that had passed by two days ago. More reflections; one of them was Vayag’s own, murky and sullen and distorted by ripples.
Vayag went to a noodle shop and made her order: brown noodles with shrimp, which Kereyag had always loved. She sat at a table next to an ostentatious vase and studied the illegible scratches on the tabletop. The server brought her a glass of cold barley tea.
Outside, a patrol went by in their red uniforms. It was hard not to tense up at the sight. She couldn’t hear their footsteps from here, of course, although the rumbling of cars passing was a constant.
Vayag had her own timepiece, a student affair that she had bought two days ago in a pawn shop. She had made sure to have it calibrated accurately, though. She made a note of the time: four more minutes. Next time she had to make sure to allow more time; she had been counting on the general reliability of the rail system.
She wore thick Meroi-style socks that went up to mid-calf. Pinned inside her left sock was a ribbon-shaped transmitter. She had stolen the plans for it from the Meroi over two years ago; only in the past half-year had the resistance figured out how to put it into production. In four minutes—three and change, really—she would activate it with pressure, and then the cancelers that had been planted throughout the city over the course of the past months would direct a pulse toward the Cloud Fortress. After that, it was up to her to escape if she could, and to die if she couldn’t.
It seemed unlikely that the resistance had a surefire way of disabling the fortress’s defenses, but Vayag could only speculate.
Two minutes. She forced herself to breathe evenly and watched another server, this one sallow of face, settle up with a young couple. The clink of coins sounded the same no matter what the mint. The Meroi coil and its derivatives had largely replaced native coins, which had come in a confusing variety of denominations. As a child she had hated memorizing the relative values: twelve pence to a myon, five myon to a rorogu, two rorogu to a half-jirik...fortunately, the full jirik had been the largest denomination she had encountered with any regularity. Naturally, once the coins with their annoying conversions were gone, she missed them.
One minute. Vayag sipped her tea. It wasn’t very good tea, brewed too strong, but such details didn’t matter. She felt a slow trickle of sweat in the small of her back.
Her time was up. Vayag twisted slightly and pressed her calf hard against the leg of the table.
There was nothing: no immediate sound, no vibration from the trigger, nothing to indicate that it had worked. But she had to assume that it had.
Vayag got up. A scant few seconds later, the effect kicked in. Shadow feathers fell through the window and pierced the tables, the chairs, the floor. She cut toward the back door, surprising the cook, and flung it open.
The sky above was filled with a silhouette in the shape of a great bird, its wingspan stretching from horizon to horizon. The Cloud Fortress, visible at this distance as a tilted spindle bright with green-gold lights, intersected its heart. In the silhouette shapes moved, outlined in shivers of refracted sunlight: broken ribcages, spent bullets, smoke and fire and cars chewed into jigsaw masses. And eyes: hundreds upon hundreds of eyes, blinking too rapidly or not at all.
In the mythology of Vayag’s people, three goddesses had shared rule of the world: Minhyen the Bird of Dawn, Khugyun the Bird of Night, and Sarasyon the Bird of Death. Vayag and her sister had left their share of offerings at the goddesses’ altars: sweet spring water for Minhyen, or votive candles in the shapes of lotus blossoms for Khugyun, or burnt barley flatbread for Sarasyon. They had seen a priest of Sarasyon summon the goddess’s living shadow once, when the Meroi warships first sailed up the river to the capital’s harbor. The ships had fallen apart in feather-shaped shards.
The peninsula’s resistance had doomed itself then: the Meroi were quick to learn and had spared nothing in hunting down the priests and wonder-workers at the first opportunity.
The patrol from earlier was heading back down the street. A bad sign: she didn’t know the specifics of their technology, but she had hoped they wouldn’t be able to trace the source of the prayer signal. It was probably a coincidence, but she couldn’t take the chance.
The larger issue was that even the resistance should not have been able to summon the goddess’s shadow, not at such a size. Sarasyon would only have responded to direct sacrifice. Vayag hadn’t realized that enough priests remained in the peninsula to carry off such a feat.
She cursed herself for freezing up and ruminating when the proper response was to react. It was difficult to look away from the goddess’s transcendent shadow, but Vayag made herself move one foot, then the other, one foot, then the other, over and over again. It would not do to run, not yet, but the more distance she could put between herself and—
The patrol had returned. She could hear a woman barking orders for everyone to take cover in the nearest building and to stay put, as if anything as weak as walls would stop the divine. But then, the Meroi had always been fond of technological solutions to metaphysical problems, relying on the logic of gun and circuit.
The question was, would anyone think to stop an obviously suicidal civilian from walking farther out into the falling shadows?
Apparently the answer was yes.
Shouts followed her, but she didn’t hear the words. There was only the hard jolt of the pavement beneath her shoes, wind in her hair, shadows compounding shadows.
People were yelling, cursing, sobbing. She couldn’t tell the difference between Meroi voices and her own people’s voices in the clamor. But they knew what was to come.
Page 62, the book said to her in its dry, matter-of-fact voice.
Vayag knew the page the way she knew all the pages. Heged Alokho, a temple guard, a fast runner over short distances and a master of the sacred knives. She had been survived by two sisters, but they had died a year after she did, hounded out of hiding by the Meroi police.
Don’t make me laugh, Vayag thought at the book. She didn’t need supernatural aid for something as simple as running. Even before the occupation, she had delighted in racing Kereyag up hills and down helter-skelter paths, through the wild hills just southeast of the city of their birth, losing herself—just for moments—to the illusion that she could step up and into the sky. She didn’t have a racer’s conformation, but she could sprint when she had to.
Page 4, the book said, persistent.
She was tempted. She couldn’t deny it.
Page 4 contained Yede Marannag, a girl whose life had been dedicated to the Bird of Night when she turned fifteen. A map of the peninsula had been tattooed on her back, where she could never see it. Thereafter she could never be lost, even blindfolded. She used to live in the sacred labyrinth of Nyago-ot with its shroud of mists and its echo-birds. The book had made a note that Yede had been especially fond of tangerine offerings. It wasn’t typical for the book to care about such human details, but then, Kereyag had been fond of tangerines herself.
All she had to do was scrape the words off the page and swallow them like bitter medicine. If she got enough of a lead, she could probably spare the time. The book was good at such calculations, and it wouldn’t have offered her the option if there hadn’t existed time in which to exercise it.
“No,” she said through her teeth. Six years she had survived since the massacre. She wouldn’t resort to the book after all this time.
She slowed down as she approached an intersection, quickly assessed her escape options: down to catch the rail? Or continue on foot until she could catch a bus? People had seen her fleeing. She had to decide soon.
No: best to go to ground, now that she had gotten some distance between herself and the Meroi patrol. They would be seeking cover themselves if they had any sense. She saw an open window above a garbage receptacle. Any moving shadows, on-off lights? Nothing so far. She would have to risk it. She vaulted up, then up again, and through the window. She had to be grateful for the peninsular penchant for expansive windows.
The shadow feathers were still falling, only to dissipate when they met solid surfaces. But the sky was growing darker, and she knew there was not much time left before the goddess cried destruction on the city.
There was a potted plant on the windowsill, with withered pink flowers. Vayag took care not to knock it over. The room she found herself in was unlit, unoccupied. She closed the window—there were no curtains, that was a Meroi affectation—and moved away from it. Against one wall was a small chest worked in abalone inlay and a great scar against one of its panels. She left it alone.
The book reminded her of page 19, which contained Beherris Leleyen, another servant of the Bird of Night. During the New Moon Festival twice a year, he had folded himself up into shadows. People had come to watch him disappear, to hear his strong voice out of the empty darkness reciting the old chants in the temple language.
There was no need. She could hear sirens, shouts, but the authorities would be occupied trying to keep order. Instead, she took the door, placing her steps quietly and precisely.
The apartment was in the peninsular style. Most of the owner’s furnishings were age-worn. The communal sleeping room only had a single mat rolled up in the corner, though. She would have expected a family even in this tidy space: sisters and brothers and elders and grown-up children, and perhaps some of their children, as well. Whatever the story was here, it wasn’t for her to know.
Vayag spent the most time in the kitchen, where there was a satisfactory collection of knives and chopsticks. She selected the sturdiest one and leaned against the wall, staring at the unlit stove.
Now that her breathing was starting to slow, she could devote some thought to the bothersome question of how the resistance had triggered the Bird of Death’s appearance. The feathers were only fallout. The real target would be the Cloud Fortress, and on the ground Vayag was powerless to help, or find out what was going on. It was tempting to turn on the television, but the noise might attract attention and she doubted that the authorities would allow any substantive reporting to get through.
The book sounded impatient this time, which was at least a welcome change from its customary smugness. It pointed out, very painstakingly, that Vayag had never matched the count of the dead against the book’s own pages.
“I never needed to,” Vayag retorted, surprised into speaking aloud, but now she wondered. The Meroi government had never released an official list of casualties, and even the reported deaths were probably well shy of the actual figure.
For that matter, Vayag had been there herself, but in the mist and chaos and the hectic gunfire, she had had no good way to tell how many people had failed to survive.
Then why, the book said relentlessly, did it surprise her that someone else might have compiled their own book out of the massacre?
Or indeed, of the other massacres, great and small, that had happened in the past years?
Vayag was sweating now. The thought that the shadow government could have manipulated its own people in this fashion was intolerable.
The book informed her that it had welcomed death; welcomed the reduction of blood and sinew into curving letters, words of entwined red and black.
Vayag didn’t address the book by name. She never did. It hurt too much to think of Kereyag’s easy smile, Kereyag’s laugh, Kereyag’s footsteps next to her own.
“I have a new target,” Vayag whispered. She had to discover the truth, and only another member of the resistance would know for certain. “Stand with me or against me.”
The book had always been her ally, even as she refused to make use of its capabilities.
All right. The next step, then, was to seek out her handler and pry information out of him. This meant going out directly into the feather-storm, but there was no help for it. She could only hope that, if the Cloud Fortress were indeed about to fall, it didn’t land on top of her.
Vayag left by the door and took the stairs down to the ground floor. She made sure to lock the door behind her, out of an obscure sense of courtesy toward the individual whose home she had entered.
The air had grown cold and restless. She could almost feel the wind’s fingers creeping through her hair, along her face, up into her sleeves. There was the sound of fire, roaring and directionless, but no sign of heat or light.
Her handler wouldn’t be expecting her to check in. Indeed, their next contact was to be in nine days, which would work in her favor. It probably wouldn’t surprise him that she knew his usual hangouts, the clerk’s job that he had assumed, the tisanes he liked to order from the tea-shops.
A sudden motion on the ground caught her attention, and she started. The pavement had cracked in the shape of a perfect keyhole, one large enough to swallow her foot if she placed it wrong. The inner section slowly crumbled into particles of shadow. It was followed by another keyhole, and another. The particles swirled, gathering themselves into the shapes of vertebrae and tibias and mazed circuit boards.
She had to get out of here. Now.
On foot, taking adequate precautions under these conditions, it would take her the better part of three hours to reach her handler’s neighborhood. There was no help for it but to start walking. The book reminded her of page 62’s runner, as she had known it would. It was less easy than usual to ignore its suggestion.
Vayag kept to small, shadowed streets and away from major intersections, sprinting whenever she thought she could get away with it. Thankfully, she had always had good direction sense, and as she neared the city’s northwest-central district, the streets became familiar. About a third of the way there, she emerged from under the rain of shadow feathers, although she could still feel the dread wind and a more worrying, almost concussive force that transmitted itself in brief pulses, just below the threshold of human hearing.
She passed an eclectic variety of people. Children who were gawking at the spectacle, despite the best efforts of their parents and aunts and uncles. Looters who were taking advantage of the confusion to slip into the few stores still open; she gave those a wide berth, not because she feared them, but she couldn’t waste the time to deal with them. On one street corner she spotted a circle of older women and men with their arms linked and raised toward the treacherous sky, singing the old hymn of the three goddesses dancing the dawn of the world. The occasional Meroi, brandishing guns and sticks to get people under cover. A beggar sifting patiently through one of the keyholes in search of stray change, her arms covered with skull-shaped soot-marks all the way up to the elbows.
Vayag found herself wishing that the resistance’s gambit would succeed, given that they had tried it at all. The fact that the goddess was having difficulty with a Meroi Cloud Fortress was itself worthy of note. But then, she supposed, the problem was not the people but the technology. The Bird of Night was most concerned with people, and not at all with flying machines, and the Meroi were great believers in automated failsafes.
Vayag, the book said. It rarely addressed her by name. It told her to run. There was no playfulness in its tone at all.
People were watching. She shouted a warning, but couldn’t find the words. And then she ran as fast as she could. Not as fast as page 62 would have run—under other circumstances she would have been ashamed that the name had escaped her—but fast enough.
For a while there was nothing but the jolt of her feet against uneven pavement, watering eyes, the thumping of her heart. And then she heard the Bird of Night’s scream. It scratched every cloud out of the sky. Even the feathers stopped falling.
The book told her she could stop now.
It took her several moments to convince herself that this was the case.
She backtracked because the people who had been standing were standing no more. She had been perilously close to the boundary line, and she had to wonder if the book had protected her in some fashion.
She only checked six corpses, but six was enough. Each one had a bloody gaping wound in the shape of a keyhole where its heart should have been.
Bile rose in her throat. Had the resistance’s plan failed? How could they have allowed it to go so wrong?
It was by no means certain that her handler would have answers, but she had nothing else left to try. She continued heading northwest. The sun was so bright that it was giving her a headache, but it was better than the rain of shadows.
She made sure to mop the sweat off her face with a handkerchief before she approached her handler’s favorite place for afternoon tea. It was a small tea-shop with a wooden unsign, well-weathered and unpainted.
A glance through the door told her he wasn’t there, although the place was crowded with excited, anxious people. She left before anyone could talk to her. Well, it was too much to expect to get lucky so early. The book was curiously silent about her options, although she knew perfectly well that page 98 contained someone with a tracking ability. Since the sun was in the sky it would even work right now.
Vayag had no luck with the next three places she tried. People tried to get her to stay and tell them what she had seen, but she feigned worry for someone who might not have escaped the area of effect and moved on. She was considering risking his workplace when she thought to go back to the tea-shop and ask if they’d seen him. She pretended, not very gracefully, to be a worried lover, but the woman at the tea-shop was too distracted by the news on the television of this latest massacre—in her home city, at that—to need much convincing. It turned out he had not shown up today, so chances were that he was either sick or pretending to be.
Vayag lingered a few moments to listen to the television news coverage. The announcer was a woman who sounded worried despite the platitudes she was uttering, and the footage showed Meroi police in bold formation but no corpses, no cracked pavement, no keyholes.
Her handler was not only at home, he was cooking a late lunch: fried rice with shrimp and strips of pork. She came directly through the door—picking the lock was absurdly easy, but then he wouldn’t want to arouse suspicion with unusually high security—and wavered for a moment out of sheer hunger.
“I take it they stopped all the trains,” was the first thing he said to her. “But you’re days early, you know. Do you want something to eat? There were going to be leftovers anyway.”
“We have to talk,” she said shortly. She supposed this meant sharing a meal with him, and she really didn’t want to be burdened by thoughts of hospitality customs.
He turned off the stove and dumped the pan’s contents onto two plates, divided evenly. “Sit, then.” He gestured vaguely toward a table and two plain oak chairs.
She sat but didn’t touch the food. She did pick up the chopsticks he had provided, though.
Her handler eyed her, then shrugged and began eating. After a while, he said, “You really know all you need to know. If you’re going to ask for operational details—”
“It’s already out on the television,” Vayag said pointedly. “What’s there to hide?”
He wasn’t looking her in the eye, although that could have been because he was very interested in his lunch.
“What was the objective?” she said. She wasn’t shouting yet. “A lot of people died because we fucked this up.”
She was under no illusions that the six corpses she had seen were the only ones.
Still no answer. Now she was certain that he was avoiding eye contact. She reached across the table and shoved the plate violently. It spun off the table, scattering fried rice everywhere, and shattered against the floor.
“That was uncalled for, agent,” the man said in a dead, even tone. Still, he made no move to defend himself when she abruptly got up and leaned forward to grab him by the throat.
Vayag still had a chopstick in one hand. She set its point against his lower eyelid. “I need to know,” she said, “why those people had to die. The people whose freedom we are supposed to be fighting for.”
“An agent who can’t follow orders isn’t of much use to us,” he said.
She increased the pressure of the point, angled the chopstick up toward his eye. He only flinched a little, to his credit.
“I have killed people for you,” she said. “I have risked death for you. I need to know that you’re doing it right.”
“All right,” he said slowly. “But I’m going to have to remand you to a higher authority, and they could just as well decide to have you killed for being a security risk.”
“I’ll take that chance,” Vayag said.
“What did you think the objective was?”
“To disable the Cloud Fortress, I suppose,” she said.
“You know what the Meroi industrial capacity is like,” he said. “I won’t say that it’s trivial for them to manufacture and maintain Cloud Fortresses, but they have them over all their occupied territories, so it’s clearly doable. No; the objective was the expertise that goes into a Cloud Fortress. Its operation, its design, everything.”
“You’d have to get that from the Meroi themselves,” Vayag said slowly.
He smiled; it barely lit his eyes. “And that’s what we just did. The other deaths in the city were an unfortunate side-effect. You gave us the idea, really.”
“Your book is no secret,” he said.
There was no point in denying it.
“I don’t know how you persuaded a temple scribe to make it for you, or how often you use it, but the concept was sound: a Meroi ‘sacrifice’ would enable us to scribe their spirits for future use.”
The temple scribe in question had been her sister; it was just as well he didn’t know that. “That’s not right,” Vayag said blankly. “I’ve never used the book. If it isn’t right to use our own spirits for gain, how can it be right to use Meroi spirits taken unwillingly?”
She felt like a hole had been carved out of her heart.
“I don’t believe the Meroi ever gave us a choice worth speaking of,” he said.
“No,” Vayag said. “I suppose not.” She dropped the chopstick.
And then, when her handler relaxed, she grabbed the blade out of her sleeve and cut his throat with it.
The dead, reduced to words chained to a page, could not consent to being used in this fashion. All her life she had heard, from Kereyag even, that the scribe’s art was for use only to present an accurate picture of the dead. Siphoning their aptitudes and abilities out of them afterwards was disrespectful to their rest, and scribes caught abusing their ability in this fashion could expect to be tortured to death.
Kereyag had thought it no longer mattered, that last cold morning. Dying, she had recorded all the dead that Vayag could find for her, and then scribed herself into the book with its rough pages.
Now Vayag had to find a way to stop her own people from conquering the Meroi by throwing away their own beliefs. It was too late for second thoughts. She had committed to this course the moment she had threatened her handler.
She washed up and went to find a change of clothes.
Then she found an empty space at the kitchen counter and opened the book. The last page was blank. Trembling, she wrote, in unstable, spidery letters: Anything I can do with your help, I can do better by relying on my own heart and my own hopes.
The book’s answer formed below Vayag’s sentence:
This isn’t my book, sister sweetest. You are.
Vayag slammed the book shut, but couldn’t bring herself to leave it behind where someone would come across it. She left the dead man’s apartment, then, and walked out into a world of ashfall and crumbling keyholes.