The assassin, the mother, and the child fled into the desert.
The sandstorm had blanketed the world the night before. Sand hung still on the leaves of the palm trees; sand sat on a skim atop the water; sand pillowed against rocks. Grains swept the crevices of palm trees, shone like jewels in the sun.
The assassin emerged from the rocks and used her hand to sweep away the drifts that had piled against the cave entrance. She breathed through a light veil, as much to hide her face as keep sand out, and she prayed.
She praised the Thousand Names, the One and Many, and she praised the Prophets, and she spoke the forbidden name of the Thirteenth Prophet, a heresy. She prayed for a guiding hand and felt a fool.
She turned then, and motioned for the mother and child to emerge from the hollow in the rock.
They peered around the land. The mother’s face was dark with stains; two days ago, kohl had run with her tears and smeared the pigment on her face. Sand clung to her face and bedraggled her hair. She still wore pearls around her neck, and bits of fine clothing showed through under the wool robe the assassin had given her. She cleared sleep from the child’s eyes.
The child, for his part, was quiet. He had always been so, in the eight months of his life. He rarely cried, even when cold. He took only as much breast milk as he needed. He watched and he listened.
And so the child watched while the assassin told his mother there would be no fire, and his mother made sounds of protest, but not many. The assassin was not tall, nor particularly strong. She was so thin and featureless she was often mistaken for a man. Her eyes, though, stopped speech. They were deep black wells rimmed with silver, like the sun on those wild days when it was covered by the moon.
The mother groaned. She wept a little. She often had, since the night of horror.
The assassin shared out dried meat. Her cold silver eyes scanned the horizon.
In the morning, they crossed the dunes. The assassin timed their trip well. As the heat began to shimmer around them and the dunes wavered under the sun, and their tongues began to feel like lead weights, they sighted a familiar stand of rocks. The assassin topped a dune, looked back at the mother and child slowly wading up the mountain of sand, and wished she could see through the haze of heat to tell who waited in those rocks.
“Shade,” the mother said. “Gods-blessed shade!”
“Slowly,” the assassin said.
The child watched with interest and a little trepidation. In the last few days the child had looked more and more on the assassin and less on his crying, confused mother.
“Slowly,” the assassin said, for lack of something better.
And so they walked toward the rocks.
An arrow struck the assassin’s shoulder. She spun, threw the mother and child to the hot sand, and ran, not away but into the path of the arrows.
More arrows came. One, two, three. The child watched with interest, the mother with horror. The assassin dodged the second arrow, danced around the path of third. Knives, gleaming, left the assassin’s sleeves. They caught the sunlight and shivered in the light. The mother and the child did not see the men who were found by the assassin’s blades, but they heard bodies fall.
She went on running. After a time, she came back to the mother and the child. The arrow still emerged from her shoulder.
“These were just bandits,” the assassin said. “They have not found us yet.”
The assassin took the dead bodies into the desert, left them to desiccate in sand and be eaten by jackals.
She kissed them goodbye, for every act of war has at its heart an act of mercy.
Together, they waited in the cool under the rocks, waited out the worst of the day’s heat. The assassin stripped away her blood-darkened robe and washed her shoulder with what water she could spare. She drank a bit of henbane and dark potent liquor, but carefully. One could not choose which senses were dulled.
The arrow was buried in a black, swollen mess of meat and blood. It was a familiar wound, familiar and easily treatable—when the assassin was in her element.
She had subordinates for this sort of inconvenience. Lesser assassins, kept in thrall by her strong mind, who could have treated it. Others like her, with flecks of silver in their eyes, could knit her flesh together by rearranging her soul-branches.
But now she broke the shaft high and carefully pulled the point from her shoulder, and it screamed pain at her, and her eyes swam, shuttered, like the heat.
She remembered being strapped to a post and whipped, remembered the flesh of her back hanging down in strips like shredded cloth. She remembered the sand in her fists as she crawled. She remembered her brother in a killing pit, remembered her knife at his throat, and she remained conscious.
She was a mind-eater. She would live.
She made a poultice and stuffed it inside the open wound. Despite her best efforts, grains of sand fell into the wound. They glimmered in the sun, fell from her fingers, and vanished into the ragged skin.
The mother dreamed. She dreamed of her childhood, before she came to the palace, and before the desert.
Little men came from far to the east to trade with her father. They brought fireworks. Her father called for pigs—not heretics, actual pigs! Since the Eighth Prophet had banned the eating of swineflesh hundreds of years ago, no one had seen one of the actual animals near her home.
These were the real thing; little snorting unclean monsters, spotted brown over pink skin. The little eastern men liked pigs, he said, and a wise man honors his guests before he honors his house. It seemed a foolish point of view. But he had the pigs slaughtered, and he fed them to the little men, and in return they sold him fireworks and put on a display that honored their house for a year.
Even then, she had been marked for marriage to a wealthy man. Thus her mother wouldn’t let her near the pigs. Warts, goiters, leprosy, sluttishness—all came from swine flesh.
She snuck in to the pens late at night, as a child, the night before they were slaughtered, and touched a pig. She was surprised by how much fine hair there was on that skin, hair just beginning to darken.
Her son had been born with light hair that soon darkened. She sometimes thought of the pigs, and thought of her son slurping at her breast, and was amused as he gulped and snorted down the milk.
This morning, in the desert, she managed only a trickle of thin, nearly clear milk. They kept walking.
Three nights ago, a carved door of rare wood had shattered. The dark figure had swept into the harem and cut the throat of one woman, and another. More figures came. They killed the concubines. They killed the children. Old faces, kind faces, bitter faces. The strong women, beautiful and tall, who led the harem by force of will. The weak, pale girls from the north who spoke little. Every soul in the king’s palace had died under those blades.
The mother had hidden, shut herself, gasping, in a shed. Until the sun peered through the door, and the assassin tore that door open. And took her by the wrist, and raised the curved knife...
The mother saw something else in the assassin’s silver-flecked eyes, that bloody morning.
As night fell, the assassin’s wound ached worse and worse for the walk they made to water.
She touched the pendant around her neck, ran her hands across the calligraphy. Dots and curves of vowels, grooves worn deep. The words, she thought. The old words, from the dawn of time. The language was that of air and fire, the words the keys to burning the whole world. It was a weapon, but one only a fool would dare. It was forbidden, in every text in every history, to call upon the voices of air and fire.
She had taken the pendant from its secret place, as she had embarked upon this most secret of missions. If the assassin and her men had been caught by the emperor’s soldiers, if others like the mind-eaters had torn into them, if the secrets of her Order had been stripped from their minds one at a time, she would have called the voice of air and fire to burn the world. For there were secrets in her Order that could not come to light.
But their mission had failed in a far different way.
The mother asked the question that night. “Why? Why did you save us?”
The assassin didn’t answer. The mother didn’t try a second time.
While the mother slept, the assassin lay against the rock and tried to ignore the ache from her wound. She had treated such, and deeper wounds, yet. Healing was the haft of the knife that balanced the blade; her assassins killed, and they mended, and learned the two arts together.
The next morning, the mother asked, “Where are we going? How do you find water in this desert?”
The assassin looked at the horizon, a tangle of sand and rocks. She knew the trail of water here, strung out like the pearls the mother still wore. Scattered across a land better traveled than the assassin would have liked. “I know,” was all she said.
They walked that day, to a small filthy pool of water that left them belching sulfur. The baby cried when the mother washed his face with the water. In the middle of the night the baby woke screaming and flatulent; he soiled all his swaddling and the mother and assassin washed what they could and tore new ones.
“The servants wrapped him with more rags than this,” the mother said.
The assassin stroked the baby’s cheek. “This is all we have.”
The attack came the next day.
They were feeling her out, the assassin knew. Her men were still afraid of her. So they hung back, fired arrows from a distance.
The arrows recoiled, black, thin, like serpents, off the rocks around them. The assassin turned and shouted at the mother. The mother ran to shelter.
These were her men, who had woken confused at the king’s palace, finding her gone. They were still afraid of her, testing her resolve.
That was their mistake.
“We cannot run from the mind-eaters,” the mother sobbed as the three did just that. “We cannot run from them!”
The assassin didn’t answer. She knew. It was better to fight with arrows than to try and meet in the war of the minds. All her former compatriots had to do was head the three off, send them deeper into the desert, and the assassin, mother, and child would die.
She looked at the rocks where she knew her compatriots waited. She would go. She would go, and they would come at her, and her mind would be quicker. The branches of her soul would reach out and wrap around one, two, three of them. Her knives would cut their throats. She would see the fear in their silver eyes, and then those eyes would fade. She would cut her way through them. She knew each movement.
Except she had no more knives. Her soul-branches were weak and quavering from lack of food and water. And if she killed the other assassins, more would come. One step wrong, and death.
The assassin stared the other way, at the eastern horizon. Somewhere beyond that thousand thousand leagues of empty sand, that waterless abyss, lay the east, the land of little men. The little men who did not speak the Thousand Names. The worries of the Thirteenth Prophet went unsaid. There the mother and child would be unknown. It would not matter if the child was an emperor here; there he would be but a boy.
Somewhere beyond death.
The mother caught the assassin staring. “I’ve heard there’s no water,” she said. “No water, and ghosts, and monsters, and death.”
The assassin stared into the dunes.
“We need to get to a town.”
“Mind-eaters hide in towns,” the assassin whispered. “Our sha is quiet, still, and no man reads it, until it is too late. The darkness does not guard against our knives, nor the light.” The assassin thought of a firelit study, of old, old books bound in skin, of dark words. She thought of words in a tongue of fire, of a question that could not be asked. She thought of that knife, the balance, the haft and the blade. She touched the pendant around her neck.
“We can circle around to the south,” the assassin said. “A few days in the dunes.” She looked at their pitiful waterskins. “A few days without water; we can survive.”
The mother wept. “No, no, no. I have no milk, I have no strength, I can’t walk, I can’t...”
The assassin reached into the mother’s mind, and stroked it, calmed it. It was much like giving calm to the dying.
They filled the waterskins and went back into the desert.
They went up dunes the size of mountains, sinking in sand to their knees; slid down the other side. The mother slurped all her water the first day, tried to breastfeed the baby, but the baby slept now, slept all day and night, and breathed shallowly and whimpered.
The heat tore at the assassin’s wound, seemed to scour it. She imagined it was boiling wine, cleansing the infection. She wished so.
The dunes froze at night, cold emptiness rushing into what had been warm air, sucking life out of them. The assassin and the mother and baby huddled together. Now her wound raged with a cold, maddening pain, tearing at the assassin’s mind. She thought of her life, buried in vengeance, of her order; thought of the whole world, of the mind-eaters, the few who struck back, and it seemed such a silly thing to be a part of such a foolish world.
The assassin stared into the desert. She saw ghosts, travelers long-dead, the shadowy caravans wending across the dunes to the lands of the dead. Their jewels glittered, their clothes fine in long-gone suns, but she had eyes only for their bulging waterskins.
The ghosts wandered, forever, to wells dried for centuries, to kingdoms swallowed by the desert.
She thought she saw herself, black-clad, forever leading the mother and the child deeper into the desert, another shade doomed to wander.
Morning came, and with it, the heat.
The dunes went on forever, red waves, empty, burning. The assassin’s arm was a shifting storm of pain and warmth. Her flesh had turned black at the edges of the wound, dark fingers lancing outward from the rot.
They stumbled up dunes and down again. The assassin turned toward the towns of the south, looked for them in vain. The mother could hardly walk, sinking in sand, gasping. The baby lay too still in the mother’s arms.
They were three days from the towns in the south.
The assassin looked at the endless blue sky. It seemed beautiful, a great gem descending on the world, overwhelming them. She stared into it, and realized she had collapsed as well, fallen to the sand.
She closed her eyes.
She recalled that night, the knife in her hand, the close purpose. She had waited for the emperor of the whole world, behind a fine satin curtain. She had sprung from her place and slit his throat, and his words had come easy. “Die, by blood and breast milk, by sinew and shadow.” His blood had run over her hands. She had laughed as it ran down her forearms, rich and dark like wine. The most precious vintage in the world.
The harem must die. They had agreed; every soul in the palace dead by midnight. Such was vengeance, for this emperor had burned their people and laughed, mocked the heretical pigs who believed in the Thirteenth Prophet. They were the shadows that took revenge, and this emperor’s crimes were legion. It was time for war, in return.
The assassin had opened the door to the harem and consumed their minds, quelled their resistance, and slit the throats. She cut perfect, soft, swanlike necks. She cut the fleshy throats of babes, and children, and the knotted, scarred throats of servants.
She had been made for this, in fighting pits, in a place where she had put her own brother to the knife. She had been put in the hands of justice, a blade in the hand of the Thousand Names. A blade could not question the hand that wielded.
Such a night of blood it had been, the night she killed the ruler of the world. Dozens of women. Scores of children, all by her knife. Blood running like rivers, across tiled floors, pooling with the bodies that lay in the fountains.
Enough to give even a mind-eater pause.
She had thought the business done when the sun rose. She had gone to the river to cleanse herself. Blood had come away from her in great scabby brown flakes, scrubbed roughly from her skin by river sand. No matter how she tried, it stained her—the grooves of her fingerprints, the creases at her elbows, the soft hollow of her collarbone.
On her way back, she had heard them, gasping, shivering in hiding. She had taken out her knife again and pulled back the curtain to see the mother and child.
And stayed her hand.
She had stared at them, and she thought not of the name of the Thirteenth Prophet, not of the crimes of the Faith, but of the Thousand Names she revered, and she remembered, for the first time in years, that one of those names was Mercy.
As fire is tempered by air, and each act of war must have at its heart an act of mercy.
So it was. Her heart was full of blood, flooded and drowned with the blood of others, and her knife hand would not move. Was it the Gods’ hand? The foolishness of a mind-eater who had too much fear? The end of her mission?
Questioning gave her no answers. She knew she could not kill them. This was the act of mercy at the heart of this war, and it simply was.
She had herded the mother and child from their hiding place, using her mind to quiet them, and gone to the river, found a pleasure boat, and rowed them far from the palace, then set out across the desert.
She looked at the mother and child now, lying collapsed on the sand, and she pulled the knife from her belt. It was time. They would spend the rest of their lives in danger from those blades in the dark. The boy was an heir to the entire world, and no one would see him as but a tool. The dream of escaping to the east was just that: a dream. The mercy was her flaw.
She would kill them, and she would go back, and the mission would be complete, and she would forget her mistake. This was the blade; there was no need for balance here.
Her good arm was throbbing from the wound, so she switched her knife to her lesser hand and raised it, looking down at the mother and child.
And then it fell from her fingers.
One choice yet remained.
The assassin sat upon the sand, and drew out her pendant, and spoke the words inscribed on it. They were written in a language few could speak, and none dared. The tongue of air and fire. From old books, bound in human skin, from an older time than this empire, or the empire before it.
The assassin called out the forbidden words, the summoning words, in the language of flame in the darkness, wind in the dark of night.
The spirits of air and fire rose from the ground, shining in the sun, their seven-fingered hands wavering like tongues of flame. Their sharp teeth were black as coals, their eyes the blue of the heart of flame.
They surrounded the assassin and the mother and child in a circle. Their words rippled through the flame, burned the assassin’s heart.
You have called us. You are the first in millennia.
“I wish to make a bargain,” she whispered. “Take them across the expanse of sand, and go to the east.”
What is the bargain?
The assassin laughed. “What do you wish?” The words felt hot on her tongue, a language only of exchange, of dark deeds for dark words.
The spirits spoke, their words rushing like flame. We wish for your world. We wish to burn, to burn the forests, to burn the cities, to burn the people.
“That is no fair bargain for three lives.” She staggered to her feet.
Give us three to burn, then.
The assassin considered her subordinates, her enemies. She considered the palaces of kings and emperors, who had burned her people. She considered herself.
Perhaps it was the heat, or the pain, but she spoke of nothing she had considered.
“The justice in the hearts of my assassins. The hatred in the hearts of the rulers. The fear...” She wavered. “The fear of mercy.”
The head of the creatures flickered, quavered. We do not want that!
“Then you will burn nothing. There will be no ash.” She wavered on her feet, forced herself to stay standing. “This is no small burn. You will eat minds, eat souls, as they accuse us of doing.”
They railed and snorted. You have summoned us for foolishness.
“I know,” she said, and realized that those were the last words she had in her.
She fell to the sand, lay cold in it, and heard the spirits speak, the hissing, popping, deep-throated roar of flame as it ate wood. She heard them and almost she understood. Almost. To burn at all is to burn enough, one said. And her soul will burn brightly.
A smile touched the assassin’s lips.
Shadows, shifting black whispers of fire. She thought she saw stars far above, heard strange music coming from the east. The mother and the child swept away, on the wind toward the east, saved. Seven-fingered hands closed around her body.
The assassin writhed, and thought she had died.
She saw herself, as the Gods had made her, her soul-branches intertwined and linked, as perfect as a spun tapestry of calligraphy. The creatures of air and fire gathered around her soul. Their flame touched the edges of that tapestry, caught threads, bright with licking red tongues.
They took the justice from her, the hatred, and finally the fear. Threads of her soul broke away, embers floating into the Gods’ great space, each one losing its light, its heat, and becoming cold, grains fluttering like sand through the air.
The assassin woke in the sand alone. No, not alone. All around her, glass jars of a thousand shapes: bulbs, onions, flower petals, thorns. Each one glowing with a red light.
This was the bargain. And she knew.
The mother and child were safe in the East, now. But the assassin’s mission was not yet done. She would take the creatures of air and fire, bottled up in these glasses, to the cities. She would take them to lords. To assassins of other stripes. Perhaps even to her own order. And they would be a weapon, to turn blood to water, swords to coins, to eat the minds of the mind-eaters.
For each act of war has, at its heart, an act of mercy.