I realized I was in love with Ivor the day he went up the mountain to speak with the goddess.
We were at that age when the affectionate ease of childhood tips over into something different, when every touch could be the casual brush of friendship or something more and I would never know in advance which was which. There were many times, in those days, when Ivor would take my hands in his, larger and warmer and smooth with the orange-blossom oil he rubbed into them; and I would jerk away with some hasty apology and adjust my trousers while he was not looking. To this day, I find the smell of oranges arousing at the most inopportune times, of which, in a town known for its citrus trees, there are uncomfortably many.
Which is to say that it was not entirely unexpected, this matter of my being in love with him, except insofar as I had never considered the option until it was upon me; and if we had been boys further up the coast, away from the Oracle and her mountain, perhaps this would have been a cause for celebration; the sort of slow exploration of love and youth that ends, mutually, in a friendship deeper than it was before.
But Ivor was a scion of the city Vrežna, and his mother Silva was a devout woman. Her ways were the old ways, and that was why I awoke early one morning to climb a mountain with Ivor and wait out the dew, wait out the dawn, wait out the moment he emerged from the goddess’s temple a betrothed man.
The temple stood facing the sea, the bulk of the mountain shielding it from the town below. It was a simple structure, columned and open to the elements with a tall pointed roof. Inside, the floor was given over to a shallow pool of water that was a hand deep at most. There was no altar. The Oracle did not accept gifts.
Ivor splashed through the water like a man born to the task. Silva and I remained outside, but the demarcation was immaterial. The Oracle’s temple was curiously small. It was easy to see everything that went on inside. Vrežna’s people claim that only those born within sight of her mountain could see the Oracle’s physical form. I do not know if this is true. I do know that until that day, until I looked at the thing slumped at Ivor’s feet, I had never seen anything in the temple.
It was a woman, slumped against the shallow steps rimming the pool. Her skin was the same light brown as Ivor’s but mottled with pale splotches, like someone had spilled ink that sapped color rather than granted it. Her open eyes were an even grey. She looked as though dead, I thought, until her lips opened around an indrawn breath.
“How strange,” Silva said to me, and it took me a moment to realize that she was not looking inside the temple, not speaking of the woman lying there, “to stand with one of the Godless on the Oracle’s mountain. Or perhaps three dead gods is not enough for you? Would you strike down our Vrežna, given the chance?”
She said it as if she had not herself stamped the permission form that allowed a non-Vrežni access to the mountain.
“Two dead gods,” I murmured. “The third survives.”
“Even worse! Yours are not the only people to suffer the death of a deity, nor would you have been the only ones to seek out new beliefs, but to willingly abandon a living god? That is why they call you Godless.”
This was a game she played with me. Once, I had been a playing piece: a child of the Godless brought to Vrežna by a dying father, the perfect subject for a performance of generosity. She’d taken me in, raised with me her son; never in anything like brotherhood but as an ornament, to single her out in the crowded world of Vrežna society.
Eventually she realized Ivor’s affection for me was unlike hers. Now the game she played was against a person, not an ornament.
“Vrežna has nothing to fear from me,” I said, smiling, because it was safer to pass these conversations off as a shared joke rather than acknowledge the current of suspicion beneath their surface. Silva would not have been the first to blame the Godless for some unrelated misfortune. “And besides, the Godless did what they thought was best for them. They would not ask the same of others.”
I was careful not to say we. I had a child’s memory of my people, all the stories and none of the meaning. I had a blanket, which my mother had given my father the day they married and which had smelled of him for weeks after his death and now smelled of nothing but dust and old textiles but was comforting all the same. I had the sense that these things mattered, and also that Silva wanted them to matter, because this would prove that I was godless in the uncapitalized sense, as well; the sense that was synonymous with barbaric, and then the game would be up and I would be the loser.
For these reasons, I did not say we.
“Would they not?” she went on. “I knew your father, Emre, perhaps better than you did. You were so young. You did not see the effect it had on him, living in the Oracle’s shadow.”
Ivor emerged from the temple before I could say something unwise. Behind him, the pool was empty. I examined his face for signs he’d seen the same thing I had; but there was nothing, and I thought that perhaps I was looking for meaning where there was none, because Ivor wore his smallest, truest smile.
“The Oracle has spoken?” Silva asked.
“She has. I know who I will marry.”
He smoothed his smile away, but not before I read the truth in it. It was someone he liked. Candidates crowded my thoughts like gnats. Cold, judgmental Zima, whose mother owned half the city and who was, against all odds, Ivor’s closest friend. Ana the itinerant poet, who appeared in our lives once a year like a thunderclap. Timotej, who cooked pita at his father’s stall in Monument Square and always gave Ivor extra.
Any of them would be a good match for Ivor. I was happy for him.
But not as happy as I should have been, and that is how I realized I wanted the name to be mine. At his betrothal ceremony, a week hence, I wanted to watch him climb to his feet and roll his tongue around the syllables of my name, Emre, Emre, Emre, each repetition a little different, a little odd, not in the way other Vrežni mispronounced my name but as if he was searching, always, for the correct pronunciation; the way of hearing my name that, after a decade in Vrežna, even I was not sure I would recognize.
If he’d said otherwise there and then, spoken a name that wasn’t mine, perhaps I would not have realized. Perhaps that desire, immediately quashed, would have vanished before I was even conscious of it. But there were forms to be followed, customs to be observed. A week to wait.
Desire, unquashed, expanded to fill the week to come like steam fills a bathhouse.
Then came the hike back down, a pause for breath, the too-casual distance I kept from Ivor.
“What’s this?” he asked. “On your neck?” Knowing no reason not to close that distance, Ivor brushed a thumb against the nape of my neck, rough against downy skin. The hairs there stood to attention.
Normally I admired that he doled out affection without a care for what his mother thought of the recipient. This time I jerked away. “Nothing,” I said, rubbing the memory of it from my skin, and by the time we reached the outskirts of Vrežna, the incident had faded to an unpleasant reminder of what I would not have; and I did not think to sit in front of my mirror that night and give an answer to his question.
It took Ivor a day to notice I was avoiding him; three to call me on it. This he did politely, with a bowl of dried greengage and small cups of wine in the alcove by his bedroom window. He was polite, too, in ignoring the way my hand twitched away from his when we had designs on the same piece of fruit.
I sipped the wine—a local vintage made rare by disease among the vines—and waited for Ivor to speak first.
“I think something is bothering you,” he said, more tactfully than I deserved. “Ever since I spoke to the Oracle.”
“I am the foreigner here,” I said, because that was what I had learnt to say many years ago, when Silva had first taken me in. “It’s not my place to question your customs.”
Ivor caught my wrist before my fingers could begin to worry the threads of my sleeve. “And if you were out there, in Monument Square, speaking to a pair of lovers you did not know, I would agree with you. But you’re not. You’re in here, in my bedroom, and here there are two of us. You and me. Your customs and mine.” He grinned, and it was embarrassing how persuasive I found the flash of a crooked tooth. “In this room, we are neither of us foreigners, Em. Something is bothering you, and I think it has to do with me. With the betrothal.” Here his voice broke, delicate as a hair splitting in two. “I would like to know why my best friend does not wish me to marry.”
It came so easily to him, this magnanimity. He shrugged off the privilege of his birth like a person hangs a winter coat on the hook beside their door: knowing it will be there when the time comes to step outside again.
“I do want you to marry,” I said carefully. “It’s only—the Oracle. It’s... strange to me, sometimes, how much control you give her. That much, I inherited from my father.” I did not ask, What would you do if something happened to the Oracle? To the Vrežni, god-death was something that happened elsewhere. Instead, I said, vaguely, “To have no choice in marriage...’
There were several things Ivor could have said in response to this. Defend his beliefs, or question mine, the way Silva would have done. I’d have had no answers for him. Or perhaps turn to the issue of my father’s death; conclude that no Godless could long survive in a city so steeped in love for its goddess.
He said, “And if it was your name?”
Ivor could have read my feelings in the stillness of my limbs. My heart beat very fast. I gestured erratically with my free hand, as if to wipe truth away with nonsense. Ivor withdrew his fingers from my wrist. I wondered if he had felt my pulse. If it embarrassed him.
This was foolish. My body reacted with hope where there was none; if Ivor had truly heard the Oracle speak my name, he would never have so much as hinted at it. It was bad luck to reveal the Oracle’s prophecies outside the appointed times. Just last month, a fire had spread through the waterfront district because, it was whispered, of a magistrate who’d bragged too widely about the new mansion the Oracle had bade him build there. I was Vrežni enough to know that.
But in his bedroom or out of it, I would never be a true son of the city. That was why I put aside his magnanimity, and I said, “Then I would tell you that I am the foreigner here. Your customs are the ones that count.”
Ivor leaned forward, chin propped up on his hands, intent on me. I thought he would argue. Call me out again. His face was close enough for me to see them: the words in his eyes he wasn’t speaking.
“All right.” One hand found my shoulder, in the easy affection of boyhood. “You’ll be there, then? At the betrothal? I’d like you to be there.”
His lips were speckled, a faint dusting of lighter skin complicating the boundary between his mouth and the rest of his face. It was the sort of detail one only noticed about oneself, or about someone one desperately wished to kiss.
“Yes,” I managed to say. Ivor looked concerned, and I hated the thought that he’d seen me staring. He would pity me, if he knew, and call it comfort. “I’ll be there. Of course I’ll be there.”
His fingers lingered on my shoulder a moment more. Then he nodded, and I could not tell whether he believed me.
The night of Ivor’s betrothal, I left the house while he was getting dressed.
In Brozga, the language of the Godless, the word city was masculine; but the Vrežni called their city her, as if she was the Oracle writ large, a being of fifty thousand souls with cobbles for bones and blood in her fountains. Vrežna: oracle-goddess, mountain, city. She was everything, and I did not often walk her streets alone. I spent my days running errands for Silva, criss-crossing the city, building her connections one strand at a time, but I was not really alone when I walked for her. Her specter was there: her seal on a letter I carried, her instructions loose in my mind or committed to a scrap of paper. Likewise, my leisure time was mostly spent in Ivor’s company. This—alone, aimless in the night, only my own feelings driving me beyond the walls of my bedroom—this was different. Unusual. Like the eyes of a foreign city settling on the back of my neck.
I stopped by the statue of Ersat, the playwright, in Monument Square. This was the lesser of the two monuments that gave the square its name, overshadowed by the Oracle’s Fountain, but I liked it better for the steps surrounding it, where one could sit and meet a friend or, in quieter moods, think without being bothered.
The voice barely registered. I wanted to think; to justify hurting Ivor for my own comfort.
I looked up. The man trying to get my attention was not from Vrežna—he wore clothing tailored too tight for the city’s humidity, and his voice was thick with an accent that, most nights, I would have dismissed as simply foreign.
This night—alone on Ersat’s steps, Ivor even now addressing the crowd at his betrothal—I answered, without thinking, in Brozga: “May I help you?”
The man beamed and replied in kind. I struggled to follow his plight in what was our shared mother tongue. He was a visitor from the north; he’d gone for a walk in the afternoon, gotten turned around when night fell; could I direct him to the North Market lodging house?
I could. I gave him directions. As I settled back against Ersat’s plinth, thinking the exchange over, the man said, “Your Brozga is very good,” a phrase which I heard all too often in reference to my Vrežnian but which had never before been applied to my first language. I raised my hand to my neck like I always did when I felt unsure. Mistaking uncertainty for shyness, the man smiled encouragingly.
“Thank you,” I muttered, sweeping my hair away from my neck as if that had been my intent all along.
The man recoiled. “Viši’s memory preserve us,” he whispered.
At first I thought I had misheard, so long had it been since I had heard my father’s tales of the Godless’ erstwhile deities: Siži-of-the-sea, beloved of her people, dead these many years. Niži-of-the-fields, beloved of his people, dead these many years. Viši-of-the-sky, beloved of her people, not dead but gone these many years.
The look on the man’s face was twin to the wan moon above. I had not misheard.
“Is everything all right?” I asked.
“Your neck,” he whispered. “You have seen her, child.” And then, louder, as if in invocation, “You have seen the Cuckoo.”
I got jerkily to my feet. Too late; the man averted his gaze, drew his cloak about him as if to conceal himself from misfortune, and shuffled away across the square.
I watched him go. The part of me that defaulted to polite usefulness urged me to follow and point out he was going the wrong way.
What’s this? Ivor had asked. On your neck?
My fingers traced the side of my neck. The skin there was smooth and cool, like a statue’s. Terror filled the back of my throat—a child’s terror, or an adult’s, thinking himself beyond the fears of childhood and suddenly confronted with the truth of them.
I should have realized sooner. I should not have needed the strangeness of the day, the way I’d felt off-kilter ever since Ivor came down the mountain, and now, here, this stranger who I recognized as kin but who did not recognize me.
I should have heeded the stories.
I stumbled to the rim of the fountain. The goddess, the Oracle, clothed in marble, knelt above me, water pouring from hands outstretched in offering. It would have been a kind depiction were it not for the cruel smile on her face, her onyx eyes, and the way a person looking up at her felt a shiver down their spine. This was the Oracle of Vrežna: she ordained the good and the bad. It was a balance her people put their trust in. I tried to remember that, even though her eyes seemed always hard to me.
The falling water did not distort my reflection enough to hide the pale lines curving around my neck. They had not yet spread to my collarbone, but I knew they would. They would cover more and more of my skin like a fever burning through my body, hotter and hotter, until either the cause was driven out or I was dead.
I knew my people’s stories—the content if not the meaning. I knew why we were Godless, though I had lived most of my life in a city with a patron goddess and felt only a shadow of the dread my father had. I knew the power the Godless were imbued with from childhood, to detect the parasite that had destroyed our gods.
I had stood in its presence. I had seen the figure in the temple and believed it an image of the Oracle’s sinister side, but my skin had recognized it. The Cuckoo had come for Vrežna, and the balance was tipping, towards cruelty, towards malice, towards the onyx glint in Vrežna’s eyes.
Ivor was waiting in my bedroom when I returned.
I snuck back in through the window I kept open throughout summer. I cannot say if this was a selfless decision, born out of a desire not to intrude on Ivor’s betrothal celebration, or a selfish one. I felt like a child, shocked to learn not that the myths I’d learnt at my father’s knee, the stories of the Cuckoo, the parasite that felled our gods, were false; but that they were true. That years of Silva’s disdain had succeeded in making me regard our stories as lesser. How could the mythology of people without gods be true? But this was backwards reasoning. Three gods the Godless had once, and two had fallen prey to the Cuckoo. The third we’d abandoned voluntarily. An act of cowardice, or of mercy. Every one of the Godless was inured against the Cuckoo’s influence at birth, taught to recognize the signs on their skin and run to the nearest adult.
I had no adults to run to. Only the dubious comfort of my bed and my parents’ marriage blanket atop it. I went to them regardless, the rough granite of my windowsill scraping my palms raw when I hoisted myself over the edge.
“You didn’t come,” Ivor said quietly. “I’ve been looking all over for you.”
He was sitting at the foot of my bed—not an unusual sight, though we spent more time in his larger bedroom—still dressed in the clothes he’d worn to his betrothal, black with knotted white fastenings down the left side of his torso, veil limp around his neck.
He said something else. I did not hear. White buttons on black. White stains leaching color from a pallid breast. I imagined I could feel the Cuckoo’s sign spreading down my chest. Surely Ivor would see it any moment now.
“Emre,” he said, and that was it, that was my name in the gentle lilt of his accent, foreign and not-foreign at once. I bit back wordless emotion. “Emre, I wanted you to be there.”
“I know,” I said, transfixed by the expression on his face: confused, not quite accusatory.
“Why did you leave?”
Vrežna: goddess, mountain, city. People. She was all of them, and the Cuckoo now had them all. This was the moment to tell Ivor everything.
Instead, I answered his question.
“Because I wanted one more hour to pretend it would be me.”
Ivor smiled. He stood and joined me by the windowsill, angled himself towards me. The shadow of his nose reached to the corner of his mouth. I was staring. He was still smiling.
It was awkward, at first, noses bumping, teeth clicking against teeth; and then it was easy, kissing Ivor. He tasted like elderflower, sticky and sweet, and for a moment I constructed a future out of this fleeting, transient joy. We would flee together. His betrothal was marred. It did not matter.
And then he drew back and cupped my cheek, as if to trap his whispered words between us.
“The Oracle spoke your name, Em.”
The vision collapsed in a puff of dusty cobwebs. Part of me had known from the moment he left the temple, but I’d kept the knowing from myself; distanced myself from Ivor as if even considering the possibility would render it untrue.
This is what the Cuckoo does: sours what is cherished.
“No,” I said. “She didn’t.”
The words came as quickly as earlier they’d stalled. “That wasn’t Vrežna, Ivor, she’s something else now—I saw it, in the water, pale, corrupted—”
“Em,” Ivor said, and it was concern that textured his voice more than fear or anger. “You’re not making sense.”
My jaw ached with frustration. I made myself unclench it. Ivor had never heard my father tell his stories—so I’d have to tell them in his place.
“Ivor, why are the Godless godless?”
A flash of uncertainty. “Because they—you—grew... anxious about your gods. Killed them or, or left them behind.”
Anxious. The polite word for paranoid. “No. Never.” I wasn’t surprised by the conviction in my voice. For all I did not understand about the past, I knew this: the story of how the Godless lost their gods was a lament. “They were no longer our gods, Ivor, not Siži-of-the-sea or Niži-of-the-fields. They were... replaced. By something else, something that wore their faces and took our offerings and gave us gifts with hidden teeth. The Cuckoo. It bled us dry for generations before we realized what was happening. Before we could bring ourselves to cast down what remained of our gods.”
“And Viši of the sky?”
He said the name as four words, separate, not rolled into one, but I loved him all the same, for knowing the names of my gods.
“Her, we left behind. To spare her.” I did not know for sure if this sacrifice had worked. If Viši yet survived. Perhaps my parents had known.
“Em, they’re stories—”
“No, Ivor, I thought so too, I did, but they’re true. I swear they’re true. Remember the fire in the waterfront district last month? Or, or the rot in Sime’s vineyards? That’s how it starts, with things that seem like bad luck, then—”
“Not bad luck,” Ivor interrupted. “There’s always misfortune in the city, Em. The Oracle gives and takes in equal measure. You know that.”
“No, this isn’t—it’s not—” I closed my eyes, tried to remember that the Vrežni loved their goddess, even when she was cruel. “Listen, I saw her. When you went into the temple, what did you see? What form did the goddess take?”
“A woman,” Ivor said slowly. “Twice as tall as any human. She had a spindle, but the thread she was spinning was the frayed hem of her dress.”
“I saw something else. A body. Alive, but... weak, discolored. I didn’t realize it at the time, but that must have been the Cuckoo. Its infection.” I saw the doubt in his eyes and spoke over it before it could spread to me. “Ivor, please, you say only the Vrežni can see the Oracle. I never have before, but I saw this. You understand? Only the Godless can see the Cuckoo, and I have her mark on my neck, remember, you asked about it, look, it’s spreading, it’ll kill me if we don’t do something—”
Ivor silenced me with a finger on my collarbone. He traced the curve of my shoulder, settled on the back of my neck. I hid neither my fear nor the way my skin rippled in his wake. When he was done inspecting the sign of the Cuckoo, there was a frown on his face like the first crack in his certainty.
I don’t think he believed me. Not yet. Silva wouldn’t have. But he believed that I believed, and that was enough. For now, that was enough.
“What do we do?” he said.
If I had been among my people, the answer would have been easy: leave. Put ourselves beyond the Cuckoo’s reach, journey up the coast until distance dulled the sign around my neck.
But I had nowhere to go; no one but Ivor, who was a son of Vrežna, and he deserved the chance to confront the thing that had corrupted his god.
“Cast it out. Now. Tonight. Before it’s too late.”
I did not mention that it might already be too late. Before the betrothal, I’d not been up the mountain in years. Who knew how long the Cuckoo had been dwelling on Vrežna Mountain, infecting the goddess, corrupting her pronouncements. Some of the Oracle’s prophecies reached far into the future. It was possible the Cuckoo had done too much damage already, had tainted the city in ways that wouldn’t be clear for decades.
But in the set of his jaw, the crease around his eyes, I thought that perhaps Ivor understood this nonetheless. That he knew, although he kept the knowing from himself.
“And us?” he said. “What does this mean for... the betrothal?”
I’d told him how insidious the Cukoo’s influence was; how even its gifts eventually turned sharp and cutting. Surely he could guess the answer, but oh, how tempting it was instead to tell him the betrothal was sound. And who was to say I wouldn’t be right? I was only an expert in comparison to him. All I had to go on was guesswork rooted in children’s tales.
For a moment, I weighed the choice; then I let the justifications slip through my fingers. I could not tell Ivor it would be all right. That would risk condemning us both to lives twisted together by the Cuckoo’s malice.
“It’s too late,” I said. “Removing the Cuckoo won’t undo the damage. Our betrothal is already cursed. The prophecy tainted.”
“I see,” Ivor said. There followed a long pause in which he did not argue further. “We’ll go up to the temple, tonight, and see for ourselves.”
We trudged up the mountainside together, to cast a parasite out.
The night was the grey of incense ash holding its shape. As long as we did not disturb it, the illusion of soundness remained. I understood, then, why the Cuckoo was so dangerous. It was tempting to overlook the signs of unsoundness. To let the sun rise on a city that could still claim its patron deity, no matter that she was corrupted.
To let a prophesied betrothal stand, no matter that it was cursed.
Except for Ivor’s hushed negotiation with the sentry at the foot of the path—and how I appreciated that he did not, as Silva did, make theatre of granting me access to the mountain—we did not speak until we reached the top.
“How will we kill it?” Ivor was out of breath. It almost hid the strain in his voice. “How do you kill a parasite that preys on goddesses?”
I tried to sound more confident than I felt. “The same way you kill any cuckoo: by removing it from the nest.”
Ivor stopped at the threshold of the Oracle’s temple. The deeper shadows of the columns hid him almost completely. It made it easier to look past him, at the woman in the water.
Half a dozen long white arrows sprouted from her body, from the places where the discoloration spilled across her skin. One pierced her chest, twitching with the sluggish rhythm of her heart. For a moment of disbelief, I wondered if I’d somehow missed them the first time, but no. The Cuckoo’s sign burned hot against my skin, spreading down my back, and I gritted my teeth against the pain. This, then, was the Cuckoo: the shafts anchored in the Oracle’s skin, sapping her, replacing her. Knowing what it was, the dread ran deeper, atavistic, an inheritance I’d not claimed until this night.
“Can you see her?” I said.
The body was barely a foot away from him. The arrows within his grasp. That he could not see it settled any remaining doubt. Whatever now lived inside her skin, the Oracle of Vrežna was gone.
I stepped up behind him. I expected his hand to feel rough—a rough hand for a rough task—but it was as soft and smooth as ever. I laid my fingers on his and, guiding him, wrapped both our hands around the fletching of the closest arrow.
Ivor screamed. The sound rippled across the still pool. He would have scrambled away were it not for me pressed against him. I could feel the flight in the coiled muscles of his back.
“Is that—” His voice was thick with belief. I had no doubt he now saw what I saw. “Is that it? The Cuckoo? Do we need to—take the body away?”
A tremor through the shaft of the arrow. I pulled with both our hands. The arrowhead parted easily from rotten flesh. Ivor shuddered. He flung the arrow past the confines of the pool, where it clattered harmlessly, a thing of wood and metal and feathers.
“No,” I said. “I don’t think so. The body is Vrežna’s. It belongs.”
“Together, then,” Ivor whispered, reaching for the next arrow.
“Together,” I agreed.
One by one the arrows came out between our joined hands. One by one we cast them out of the Oracle’s temple. The itch eased. The entity that was the Cuckoo bled into the air with each opened wound and dispersed like smoke from a snuffed candle. The last arrow was the one through the heart. When it was gone, the Oracle made a noise like dry leaves. Her hand twitched and was still. Her skin took on the ordinary paleness of death, and I knew without looking that the marks on my body were fading, too.
Afterwards, Ivor stood silent and stared at the dead body of his goddess.
“She was already gone,” I said. “All we’ve done is free her.”
I knew it was true. That didn’t make it any easier to watch the dark blood mixing with the waters of the Oracle’s sacred pool.
“I know,” Ivor whispered. He jerked away, as if noticing how closely we were still touching, then changed his mind and slumped back into my embrace. “But we killed her, too, in the way that matters. Today my city had a goddess. Tomorrow it will not.”
“The goddess you had yesterday wasn’t really her.”
“I know,” Ivor repeated. He crouched by the dead goddess’ side and untied the betrothal veil from around his neck. Careful, reverent, he eased her flat onto her back. Her eyes were gentler in death, and then they were gone from sight, covered by the wisp of the veil.
It wasn’t like any funeral custom I’d ever heard of, but it was better than nothing.
Ivor straightened. “Em, we have to leave.”
“What do you mean?”
“No one will believe us. You know they won’t. The sentry knows we came up here. They’ll blame it on us. We have to—”
“Ivor,” I interrupted. “Follow me.”
I led us outside, to a flat rock with a view of the sea. There was a suggestion on the horizon of a color other than grey. I sat cross-legged and did not reach out across the space that had opened between us.
“I told you,” I said. “The Cuckoo told us to be together, and that’s why we can’t be together. It’s best if we—if we go our separate ways.”
“Em.” Ivor sounded like a person beginning an oration, and I realized then that he’d been marshalling these words the whole way up the mountain; that he’d only pretended to accept what I’d told him in my bedroom. “Do you love me? In—whatever way you want to define that word?”
“Yes,” I said; and added, knowing I shouldn’t, “Do you?”
“I thought that was clear when I kissed you.”
“Ivor. Please don’t make this harder.”
Ivor reached for my hand. That was all: two fingers caressing my knuckles. I did not stop him.
“Marriage means a lot to you,” he said softly.
“My people killed our gods. Bonds between each other are all we have left.”
“I understand.” Ivor smiled. Dawn colored his teeth. “Really, I do. But what if we traveled together? Found your people, maybe. Or went somewhere farther away, whatever we liked. What if we loved each other the best way we knew how, or—or found better ways. What if—”
“What if,” he said firmly, “I swore to you on the body of the Oracle that I will never ask you to marry me, and if you ask me, I will say no. Let the Cuckoo’s prophecy molder. It can’t come true if we don’t let it.”
I wanted to argue with him. I wanted to remind him about the marriage blanket my father had left me, that was my only memory of him or of the mother I’d never known. I wanted to tell him, like I’d never been able to tell his mother, that these things mattered.
I did none of these things. I looked into his eyes, rimmed with tears, and saw myself reflected there. He and I were the sole witnesses to the final death of the Oracle of Vrežna.
She’d meant something to him.
And he’d killed her.
“What would you say?” Ivor whispered. His fingers rubbed circles in my palm.
“I’d say, we’re both of us foreigners now.”