The concubines’ tower was a long, curving wall of window- pierced rock rising from a cliff spur that split the sea from a valley choked with broken stone. The concubines occupied the uppermost floors, the children the broad floors below that connected along a causeway to the public palace and the meadows. On the lowest level, among the foundations facing the ravine and the trash pits where the wind seldom stirred, lived the oldest vaimen, lost in rot and drowned hopes as they still clung to life. No portion of the palace was more heavily guarded than the tower. Eunuch sentries watched each stairwell and intersection. Their earrings tinkled every time they stirred, a sound that ran through the halls at night like the feet of mice.
Khatire held all this in her head, but she couldn’t think about it without her stomach knotting too tight to move. Make it through the Bitter Chamber, that is the next step.
And maybe the hardest. She and Nefaria crept along the walls, draped in the illusion of shadowed stone. Their clothing betrayed them with every step, but the crackling torches and lapping breakers outside camouflaged the murmuring fabric. They stole past one guard standing at the Hall of Blue Swallows, then passed another pacing restlessly at the top of the Bath Stairs, carefully timing their rush past him as he paused to turn. Sweat broke out on Khatire’s forehead as she maintained patient, painful concentration during each step down the stairs. They had descended several levels, passing open archways, when someone came up from the baths, rounding a corner in the stairs and startling them so suddenly Khatire dropped her illusion. They jumped back a step as the other figure did the same.
“Who goes there?” the dark shape said, louder than a whisper but not loud enough to reach the guard up the stairs.
Nefaria’s fist knotted in the back of Khatire’s dress. Khatire reached for her dagger, but Nefaria pulled her dress too tight to reach it.
“Tuamutef,” Khatire said.
The eunuch stepped forward from the shadows. The bells that dangled from his ears made no noise. He had removed the tiny clappers. Seeing her reaction, he held open his palm to show ear bells connected to a ring so he could mimic the proper sound of his passing.
“When you didn’t call for me, I grew worried for you,” he said. His eyes, which had been shifting nervously up and down the stairs, settled on Khatire and Nefaria, with all their layers of clothes. Hope sprung in Khatire’s heart. It would be so much easier to reach the children’s level if Tuamutef distracted the guards.
He shook his head once.
“Help me,” Khatire whispered.
His soft features shifted from frightened anger to a sad smile. He shook his head again, this time placing his hand on her wrist. The ear bells hidden in his palm cut cold into her skin. “Only if you turn and go back to your room this minute.”
“I can’t,” she whispered.
“Then I can’t either,” he said. “It is each to her own in the world beneath the stair.”
He looked past her then, as if she were invisible to him, hidden by her Gift, and walked up the stairwell, tinkling the bells he carried.
Khatire grabbed Nefaria’s hand and hurried on. Tuamutef would not seek out the guards, but he would tell everything if they came to him. Tears welled in her eyes. She held them back until they seemed to fill her throat enough to choke on.
Down two more levels, they came to the thick main blockhouse of the tower. The stairwell opened on an anteroom guarded by a marble statue of Tabia, the first empress. Tabia had died in childbirth, swearing vengeance on any woman who married His Splendor after her, and so in all the centuries since he had only taken concubines. She was beautiful and terrible; the sculptor who captured the delicate structure of her bones was bold enough to reveal the cold, imperious curl of her lip. She loomed over the room as if she were still willing to crush anyone in her way—Khatire shuddered to look at her. Beyond her stood a wide archway framed in veined quartz blocks, alternating pink and yellow tones that curved toward the ceiling. The Chamber of His Splendor’s Seed. The room where Damijan inspected his brood of children, where they were selected for favored status or discarded, the intersection of the concubines quarters and the children’s level. His concubines called it the Bitter Chamber.
Two sentries, young, wide-eyed, and alert, stood on either side of the arch. Nefaria, as exhausted as Khatire, loosed a small gasp of despair.
Khatire squeezed Nefaria’s hand—it was hot and damp—and inhaled to still her own fear. Though Nefaria feared the sentries, Khatire was petrified of the prismed stone. She had passed this crystal archway with its shattered torchlight only once before, more through luck than skill.
She focused on the flitting light—so fragmented!—and gradually, particle by particle, bent it to her will. If she could draw the sentries out of the arch and send them down the hallway, even a half dozen steps, she and Nefaria could slip through unnoticed. She reached behind them, shaped the light to form a human shadow, then bounced it off the sandstone.
One sentry’s head snapped toward the movement, his eunuch’s earring chiming. Torchlight reflected off his waxy scalp and oiled topknot. “Did you see something?”
The other sentry, equally alert after his companion’s reaction, shook his head.
She concentrated harder, giving the shadow more form and sending it down the opposite corridor again.
“I saw it that time,” the second guard said, taking a few steps in that direction. The first one came up and stood by his side.
It wasn’t the half dozen steps Khatire needed, but she might not get another chance. She gave Nefaria’s hand a gentle squeeze. Tuamutef had abandoned her, but Nefaria was with her still. The farther she went, the more that mattered to her. Steadying herself with a quiet breath, she embraced the crazed light bouncing off the quartz, controlling and reflecting it to create an illusion of nothingness. With soft, measured steps they moved toward the crystal archway. Nefaria’s hand burned in hers, and Khatire dripped sweat beneath layers of clothing.
The sweat on her forehead collected into a single rivulet. She felt it reach her eyebrow and trickle, cooler and wet, down the bridge of her nose. Her body’s liquid, refracting the light she oppressed, was its own tiny, unexpected prism.
The first guard turned, peering through the spot where they stood in disbelief. “What is that?”
The other drew both daggers from his thighs. His kohl-rimmed eyes swept the torchlit corridor, then the crystal entryway, even the dark fog of the room beyond.
Khatire pulled Nefaria forward, faster now that she was losing control.
“I’m not sure. A shimmer—there it goes!”
Khatire crushed Nefaria’s hand in her fist, and the other woman stifled a small cry.
But the sound was drowned out by the laughter of the second guard. “It’s only the empress’s ghost. I told you Tabia walks these halls to see that no one marries His Splendor.”
The women were through.
Khatire yanked them to the right, out of sight along the dark-enveloped wall. She fell to the stone floor, bruising her knees. Her mind fluttered between Gift and realsight, riotous color competing with comforting darkness while her stomach churned. Nefaria squatted beside her, reached for the criss-crossed ties at the neck of Khatire’s woolen dress. She yanked them apart, spread the collar wide, and fanned cool air against her breasts.
“We must keep moving,” Nefaria whispered. “Or it will be our ghosts who haunt these halls.”
Khatire squeezed her chambermate’s hand in thanks, then rose. Beyond the Bitter Chamber, the palace was guarded sparsely all the way to the outer walls. The emperor had learned centuries ago that his children were more malleable when they saw their mothers regularly, and Khatire had visited the nursery every day for three years as was her privilege. She traversed the familiar stone corridors with confidence, taking advantage of every shadow, every odd angle, and they reached the lower children’s level without illusion. Khatire needed the rest. After the pass through the last arch, she was not sure how much, or how soon, she could rely on her Gift again.
The older children caused more mischief, especially at night, and were more heavily guarded to protect others as well as the emperor’s interest. But the nursing children were tended only by women too plain or powerless to be considered as concubines. So Khatire wasn’t worried about entering the nursery. The hall finally ended in double doors, burnt mahogany and twice her height, carved with sharp, brutal lines making a vast spiderweb of green and black. She placed her hand on the door.
Nefaria clutched her wrist. “I can’t.”
Khatire spun on her angrily. “It’s too late to have second thoughts now,” she hissed.
“I have no second thoughts,” Nefaria whispered. She could not look at Khatire—no, she could not look at the door. She was one of the mothers who had never visited her own children in the nursery, not even once. “I... can’t. Not there.”
Khatire thrust Nefaria into a shadowed corner. “Wait here.”
She turned to go, but Nefaria’s hand darted out to clutch her wrist again. “What if you’re caught?” she whispered low and urgently. “How do I escape the palace?”
“We’re going through the spinrag’s bone-nest,” Khatire said, turning away a second time.
Nefaria hiccupped a laugh and grabbed Khatire once more. This time when Khatire spun on her, Nefaria’s eyes glowed like two pale moons. “Oh gods, you’re not joking....”
Khatire jerked her arm free, then grasped the brass handles of the web-swathed doors and pulled them open. No, she wasn’t joking. The spinrag’s lair was the only way out where they wouldn’t be seen or caught. But first she had to rescue Anut-ka.
Within the receiving room, a marble likeness of the emperor’s face glowered at her from atop its spiraled pedestal. Tuamutef said it had been carved centuries ago, before the emperor marched his armies across the continent, before the gods had exiled him to this tiny demesne pinned between the desert and the sea. Even carved in marble, it made her knees weak and gave her the thought, for just a second, that she might scurry back to His Splendor’s bed and beg another chance.
He was like a drug, potent even when diluted. She wrenched her gaze from the statue, and passed through the beaded curtain that covered the nursery entrance. Though she parted the strands slowly, carefully, the beads clattered like a tiny avalanche of pebbles.
Within the vast room, no one stirred at the noise. She tiptoed across the polished mahogany floor, around scattered sleeping pallets, where the tiny children slept like puppies. Three small boys cuddled together around a stuffed lion. Lhare’s small daughter, the only blonde, lay in the embrace of an older sister, sucking noisily on her thumb. High, open windows cooled the air, so that many of them huddled under blankets. Khatire crept from bed to bed, face to face, searching the sleep-parted lips and sheet-clenched fists for something familiar. There! Dark, arched brows and long black lashes—the eyes that Anut-ka inherited from his father.
Khatire reached out to grab the child, who twitched with dreaming, and froze. It was a girl, almost four. Khatire’s hand went to her throat. They were all brothers and sisters, all bearing mark of their father’s features. A lump, hard and stinging, grew in Khatire’s chest. There were so many!
She could only save one.
Stepping quietly around the room a second time, she found him at last, cozied into a corner where sandstone wall met mahogany paneling, arms wrapped around a sheepskin. She brushed his plump cheek with her fingertip.
“Mama?” he murmured, reaching for her.
“Shhh.” He always knew her, even in the dark. He hugged her neck, snugging his head against her shoulder until he found the right spot to go back to sleep. She could carry him out like this. It might work.
Until they reached the spinrag.
She rocked her hips back and forth to sooth him, while reaching for the vial of poison in her bag. A taste, no more, would keep him sleeping. The cork popped free under her thumb. She hesitated, then dabbed it on her finger, which instantly went numb. Hand shaking, she wiped her fingers on his lip.
He scrunched his face, rolled his head away from her.
“Shh, one little lick, Mama’s medicine,” she murmured. Unsure that he’d swallowed any, she reached into her pocket and tipped the bottle one-handed onto her finger again. She time she put her finger in his mouth and smeared it on his tongue.
He began to choke, near to crying, but she rocked him and stroked his hair to settle him. One of the children was sitting up in her sheets, watching them. Khatire kept her back to the girl and walked toward the beaded curtain, hurrying away before the child called out for their nurse sleeping in the next room.
She found Nefaria, backed into the corner where she left her. She jumped when she saw Khatire and her son, trying to retreat further into the shadows.
“We must go,” Khatire whispered, walking past.
“Khatire, I—” She choked off a sob.
Khatire stopped, hugging Anut-ka protectively.
“I’m so sorry.”
“What did you do?”
“I was afraid, I’ve been so afraid. Ankha found the dead vaim, I had to tell her something—”
“Ankha was here?” Anut-Ka squirmed, and she realized her grip on him had tensed. She relaxed her hold, but kept her other hand tight on the dagger.
“No, no. I mindspoke to her. It’s my Gift. I told her you came back to the room, that you ran to hide in the servants’ quarters. Oh, gods, I’m sorry, I’m so sorry.”
Khatire’s mind reeled. The servants’ wing lay at the opposite end of the palace, nearer the public walls and not the spinrag’s nest. Nefaria had lied to buy them time, so why was she apologizing?
She was apologizing because she had been Ankha’s spy all along. Ankha let Nefaria have a seat near the throne because she hid from the emperor and rarely tried to bed him anymore. Ankha had assigned them as chambermates when the emperor began to favor Khatire, after her son was born, just so Nefaria could spy on her. Nefaria had guessed the power of Khatire’s Gift and warned Ankha.
Nefaria held up the hem of her dress, her hands shaking as much as her voice. “I sewed things into my nightgown, I stole from Tuamutef. I want, I want to go home, Khatire, I want to escape. Please. I lied to Ankha—”
Khatire let go of the dagger and shifted Anut-ka’s weight to her other hip. He had grown heavy with the drug, unable to hold onto her. She turned and hurried down the hall. “Come if you want.”
“Gods, thank you—”
“Don’t you dare speak to me.”
If the guards were rushing to search the servants’ quarters they might have only minutes left to escape. Khatire tried to still her heart and mind to prepare for the spinrag. She had only approached it once before, when Ankha had thrown a slave girl to the creature and made all the concubines watch. The spinrag, already glutted and drowsy, had stung the girl then crawled off to sleep in its hole among the cliff-bottom rocks. Khatire, wrapped in shadows, the taste of vomit in her throat, had crept down and stolen poison from the swollen sting-lump on the dead girl’s body, to use on herself if she couldn’t bear to continue. Then, within days, she’d discovered she was pregnant, and her life had changed.
Anut-ka sagged in Khatire’s arm, too heavy to carry much longer. She grabbed Nefaria by the elbow and propelled her through the kitchens, weaving through chopping blocks and stone ovens, past an enormous spit of thick poles over greasy sand. Beyond the spit lay a trap door.
“We slide down the trash chute,” Khatire whispered, heaving on the metal ring. “You go first. Now, listen close!”
Nefaria nodded, her eyes red, full of tears and uncertainty.
“When you land, don’t move. The spinrag will see you come, but she strikes at movement. If you remain still, she’ll wait for you to move again.”
“How will we get past her?”
“Anut-Ka and I will slide down after, and I’ll create a flash to blind her. You must keep your eyes closed until I tell you to open them. That will give me time to form the illusion we need to pass.”
The trap door lay open. Cooler air hit their cheeks, briny and damp and tinged with rotting vegetables. Nefaria sat on the edge, swung her legs into the hole. “Khatire, are you sure—”
“Remember, don’t move,” Khatire said, and shoved her through with a slippered foot. Nefaria’s gasp faded as the silk swaddling whisked her through the chute.
Khatire shifted Anut-ka’s body again as she sat on the edge of the chute. A drool stain soaked the shoulder of her dress. His face was slack, but his eyelids fluttered when she tickled his cheek. Gods, she hoped she had guessed the dose right. She had tested it only on herself, only once.
Cerastes, spare my son, please. She had no candle to offer as she prayed, so she formed a flickering light in the air in front of her, hoping the goddess would forgive her for also using it to prepare her defense against the spinrag.
A shriek clawed at her heart from far below, high and terrified. The light failed. Then pain burst across her temples; Nefaria was mindscreaming.
Khatire reeled, falling into the chute, trying to clutch Anut-ka to her chest. Her head bounced against the fungus-lined wall, her leg twisted under her, and Anut-ka slipped from her hands. She tried to pull him back in, grasping frantically for her Gift at the same time.
She fell into open air and slammed into soggy, putrid garbage. Anut-ka tumbled from her hands and rolled down the compost heap. The spinrag crouched over Nefaria—a shining black carapace, barnacle-covered, with twitching pinchers. It lunged at Anut-ka’s rolling body.
Khatire screamed light; her voice, her terror, and her Gift as one. She lurched forward, stealing every particle of light from every star in the sky and exploding it like a shipful of fireworks.
She blinded herself, bleaching the landscape before her eyes to layers of white and stained white, all of it a blur. The spinrag, only a pale gray now, clattered away, scattering rocks and bones in its rush to escape. Khatire fumbled on her hands and knees until she reached Anut-ka and scooped him to her chest.
“Shh,” she whispered comfort, rocking his silent body against her chest. “Shh.”
The spinrag lived at the ocean’s edge, hunting the vermin that picked among the garbage. She only had to make her way past the compost dumps, up the slope to sheltered places among the rocks where she could rest until her sight returned. From there, she could find a way out of the valley, past the boundaries of the emperor’s prison-demesne.
Khatire staggered to her feet, took a few steps with Anut-ka. Panting, she glanced over her shoulder, prepared for the spinrag’s next attack, but it was like looking at the world through a thick veil. A stone tumbled behind her—she clutched Anut-ka to her chest and nearly screamed.
But no movement followed her. Her feet left the layers of garbage and rot, and she began to climb up the rocks. She slipped, banged a knee, held Anut-ka with one arm, tore her fingers on the stones, always climbing, until she reached a little ledge where they both spilled flat. She lifted him and carried him between a narrow crack of stone to a wider ledge.
Where are you?
Khatire kicked herself upright, back to stone.
Nefaria was mind-calling her. The spinrag’s sting must have only grazed her. Maybe the stinger got stuck in all the layers of cloth, spilling its poison in the silk instead of flesh.
If Nefaria panicked, if she mind-called Ankha for aid, she would bring all the guards down on them at once, before they could escape.
“I’m coming,” she whispered. Nefaria, wait for me, I’m coming.
She rolled Anut-ka over to the wall. His body was nothing but dead weight, and she could feel no breath stirring in him. She feared she had given him too much poison, but she couldn’t stay to fix that now. She wrenched the dagger from her pocket, and, closing her mind to realsight, tried to see only with her Gift. From her vantage point, she stared down across the wet mounds of garbage at the spinrag’s hiding place, a lightless hole, black against the glistening mounds of rotting vegetables and slime-covered stone around it.
The huge pincers emerged out of the darkness first, tapping the ground as they came, covered with barnacles that made them swirls of rough light. The body came forward in a rush, its stilt-legs carrying it with astonishing speed. The tail curved over the body, bouncing like a brawler looking to land a punch. Near the barbed tip of the tail bobbed a venom sac the size of a human skull.
Khatire scrambled down the rocky slope, sliding to the bottom. Cautiously, she inched toward Nefaria.
Behind the spinrag’s pincers, on either side of its knobby head, were thousands of tiny eyes. Drawing on her Gift, Khatire formed a silhouette against the ragged wall. She forced the shadow to scamper, like a frightened rat, into one of the many branching corridors away from Nefaria. The spinrag clicked its sideways jaws opened and shut as it stepped toward the false shadow, feet clicking tat, tat, tat. It did not go far enough. Khatire flicked a group of light particles against the wall.
The tail lashed so hard it nearly pulled the spinrag over when it failed to connect. Poison shot out of the tip, making a shiny wet splash against the rocks. Khatire threw the light again, and the spinrag jumped at it, slashing with its pincers.
Wrapped in shadow, Khatire ran to Nefaria’s side. “I’m here,” she whispered.
“I can’t feel half my body,” Nefaria pleaded. “My left side is numb. I didn’t see it coming. I think I can walk, if you help—”
“Shh, lie still,” Khatire said, kneeling beside her friend. The knife was hidden at her side. One sudden slash, just like she had done to the vaim, and Nefaria would be no more danger to them. She deserved it, deserved it for betraying Khatire’s trust, for revealing her secret, for putting her life and her son’s life in danger. She was a bad person, a bad mother who ignored her own daughters.
“Can you make it quick?” Nefaria whispered, hiding her eyes in the crook of her arm. “I don’t want the spinrag to take me.”
Her pale neck lay exposed, bright as desert sand in moonlight to Khatire’s Gift. The blue veins pulsed under the skin. Khatire’s fist tightened on the dagger.
The spinrag’s legs came toward them, tat-tat-tat. She threw another ghost of light and shadow across its path, but this time it did not jump. The creature had learned.
Khatire dropped the dagger into her pocket. Her heart pounded, and her hands sweated. Nothing stood between them and the spinrag. Extending the shadow over Nefaria, she reached under her and helped her to her feet. Nefaria’s head hung to one side, her left eyelid drooping, lips slack. One leg dragged behind her, toes kicking for purchase, but the other seemed steady enough. Her weight did not feel that much heavier than Anut-ka.
The spinrag lunged at the spot where Nefaria had lain, jabbing at the ground with its pincers. The head came up and swiveled from side to side. The tail flexed and tensed, coiled, ready to strike.
Khatire crafted another illusion, cat-like and darting, on the other side of the refuse pile.
The spinrag took a few steps in its direction. Tat, tat, tat. Then it stopped and cocked its head again.
Khatire tried once more—a tiny lightburst along the far wall that made the stones sparkle. The spinrag didn’t move.
They were nearly to the wall, to the steep climb and the narrow squeeze between the rocks. The spinrag swiveled its head from side to side again. Khatire dragged Nefaria up the slope, pulling her toward what she hoped was the safety of the ledge. Nefaria helped, clutching with her one good hand, balancing their climb with her good leg.
Her dragging leg dislodged a small rain of stone.
The spinrag crossed the distance in less than a blink, its huge tail smashing into the rocks where their feet had just been. Nefaria flinched, nearly slipping away, dragging both of them down the slope.
She exploded light so hot, so dazzling, that pain seared her eyesockets. Nefaria whimpered, flinching again, shielding her face. Khatire gritted her teeth and yanked Nefaria’s body up the ragged rock as the spinrag’s tail slapped the stones again, splashing hot venom across her bare ankles. She blasted ball after ball of light, on one side and the other. The spinrag skittered upslope through the lightbursts, dislodging splatters of stone. Its pinchers smashed within inches of Khatire’s face. Its tail lashed all around them.
And then they tumbled onto the ledge. Nefaria, sobbing, dragged herself with one arm to safety through the crevice in the stone. Khatire fell on her back, nearly spent, nearly blind.
A vague shadow reared over the lip of the rocks.
Khatire shaped a thousand darts of light and flung them at the spinrag’s head in a focused blaze as bright as the midday sun. The creature jerked back so suddenly it tilted off-balance, and tumbled head over tail down the slope, bringing a slide of rock crashing around it.
Or so Khatire guessed from listening. Her world was only black.
She sat there in the dark for a long time, with no idea where the ledge was, where the crevice was, or where she could find her son’s still-poisoned body. Even when she heard Nefaria stir, cloth whisking stone, she sat, trying again and again to make light blossom, even a spark. But she could see nothing. Tears wracked her body until she heard the wounded limp of Nefaria’s footsteps and felt a hand fall on her shoulder.
“It’s almost dawn,” Nefaria whispered. “We have to go where they can’t see us from the windows.”
“I’m blind,” Khatire answered.
“I didn’t call Ankha,” she said. “She doesn’t know where we are.”
“I don’t care.”
“You must live,” she said urgently.
Khatire laughed. “Must I?”
What could she do for him, blind and helpless? Then she he heard his voice, muffled, confused, and her heart leapt toward it. She staggered to her feet, nearly falling over. “This way,” Nefaria said, lifting Khatire’s hand to her shoulder.
Together they felt their way through the rocks. Anut-ka’s mumble resolved into mama. “Shh, I’m here,” Khatire whispered. Nefaria led her to his side, and he climbed into her arms even as she was kneeling, his weight tipping her over against the rocks. She clutched him tight, feeling his eyelashes brush her cheeks, his hair between her fingers, and she thought how she would never see his face. She began to weep again.
“Mama, what’s wrong?” he murmured. His breath was sour, as if he had vomited.
“Nothing’s wrong,” she said, almost laughed as the tears flowed even stronger. The poison was out of his system. She held his head in her hands and kissed his face until he pulled away. “It’s going to be fine.”
“We found a staircase,” he said, tugging at her hand.
“It’s old,” Nefaria said at her side, startling her. “Made by workmen maybe, centuries ago. It leads over the ridge and out of the valley to the desert.”
Which was the way they must go to escape.
Khatire rose, wiping the tears from her eyes, and listened. The waves pounded the rocks on the other side of the palace, and the air was filled with salt. Somewhere up above them was the Bridge of Broken Wings, and beyond that the emperor’s spire and his plan to find the Paha Vaim and escape his exile. If she had survived the intrigue, and Anut-ka had become the heir, she would have lived the rest of her days in a splendor known only to emperors and gods. Now, she would be a blind beggar woman with a useless Gift and a son to raise, both of them living in an exile of their own making.
“Mama, look at it shine,” Anut-ka said, tugging at her hand again, insistently.
“It’s the wet rock, lit up by the dawn,” whispered Nefaria.
“Is that it, mama?” Anut-ka asked. “Is that the Crystal Stair?”
“Yes, it is,” Khatire said. She squeezed Anut-ka’s chubby little fist and held tight to Nefaria. “Let’s climb it together.”