They captured the insurrectionist Yin Sanhi during the Feast of Twelve Luminous Cranes.
They found her in Onsakit the Red Capital, which she had helped conquer, where an army led by mathematicians and blade-artists had disemboweled a dynasty five centuries old. It was a baking day, the sun in apex; royal bodies cast to the sand were quick to cook.
In a palace shaped like bromeliads Yin Sanhi sat sipping a liquor of fermented cactus essence and sand persimmon. The chamber was papered by scrolls of proverbs on statecraft. The mathematicians and artists meant to send her dancers in pale silk and musicians with wrists like flutes, but she had declined, choosing instead silence and solitude. On another day she might have chosen the company of Lenenha, her military arm, or Zheng Husin, her thinker. For now she wanted quiet, wanted only herself as she watched the sky bleed like ink in water. Blots across the clouds, like cranes.
Until that day, Yin Sanhi had a knack of being absent when harm would find her, of being sideways when an arrow or shell meant for her flew, being elsewhere when a blade inscribed with the intent of beheading her fell. For thirty years her fortune had held; for thirty years she had found the weakest pillars of any state, the frailest link in the chain of any government, and struck. She looked, and found, the common discontent that could be ignited into civil war.
None knew better than she the ways of dismantling empires.
When soldiers serving Empress Narasorn of Kaiyakesi came, she was not surprised. Luck such as hers could not last, and though she was a peerless strategist, she was not infallible. Like any elevated leader or general, she knew that each victory merely postponed defeat. Probability is a game which no tactician may, ultimately, win. The most treacherous of all terrain.
She looked up at the soldiers, expecting death. She considered a game of persuasion. Her words, her voice, were her most potent instruments.
They put chains on her throat and ears, and thread on her lips. A special needle was used, of a pearlescent alloy hammered to the thinness of a hair. It entered the fat of her lips and exited through the skin around her mouth. When her eyes showed only whites they pricked until she woke again, so she would be conscious through the sealing of her mouth. They held her down while her breast filled with the weight and shape of screams.
When they had bound her mouth so, and locked her voice in the cage of her lungs, they brought her to Kaiyakesi.
The palace of Empress Narasorn was built on an islet as flat as a windowpane, above a lake so immense and deep that great sharks and whales have mistaken it for ocean and made their home there. At all times, regardless of light, a perfect reflection shines beneath. It may waver under the passage of wind or water-striders, but it always keeps a certain solidity. In most respects it is a perfect double of the palace.
It was into this mirror image that Yin Sanhi was taken and, for twelve months and twelve days, kept. An incision was made in her throat and a tube slipped into it: the surgery was delicate, so as to cause little pain—physical suffering was not the purpose of her incarceration.
The best liquor was brought for her, distilled in summer nights where the sky washed chartreuse off its skins and turned it pale gold. The finest elephant meat was boiled in broth, the whitest rice beaten into a pulp, for the sustenance of Yin Sanhi. The room in which she was held was a double of the empress’ own suite, furnished with instruments to amuse, windows that looked out to upside-down fish and diverse sights. She was given ink and pigment, paper and canvas. Had she written down a request for the company of temple singers with the voices of birds and the eyes of wild animals caught in a trap, doubtless those would have been sent for, with instructions to entertain her in whatever fashion she preferred as long as it did not involve conversation. But she did not ask for that.
The flesh of her mouth did not mortify and the stitches did not snap or cut; nevertheless they fettered with the surety of iron. Sanhi’s voice was her weapon; it was the primary tool with which she bound revolutions to her across three nations and five city-states, where she toppled monarchs and magistrates, upended priest-lords and icons-made-flesh. Words and the memory of her voice built up within her stomach, her ribcage, between her teeth. She exhaled them through her nose and eyes and ears, where they calcified into amber echoes: trapped sentences and fragments of speeches which, once, had roused cobblers to arms and turned soldiers from their oaths. Sanhi collected each echo and stored them in a redwood box, where the words rattled half-articulate, calling for justice and liberty, for the destruction of kingly yoke or theocratic fetters. For a new order, a better world.
Her keepers were commanded to never communicate with her in any way other than to accept her requests for paint, manuscripts, or bees to keep as pets.
Twelve months and twelve days passed.
They did not prepare Sanhi for the audience. She was not cleaned and perfumed or clothed in the penitent’s robe; her hair was not shorn and her face was not tattooed with the purple scales that would brand her as dynastic property. No iron wasps heated to red incandescence were pressed into her flesh to scar her with the royal alphabet. The empress came to her rather than the more conventional way around.
Empress Narasorn is not beautiful, and the faith that ruled both her nation and her palace forbids court poets to tell lies. Her bearing-mother had been broad in the shoulder and thick in the neck; her giving-mother had been widely built. She inherited these aspects, and they should have made her breathtaking. But something in her features betrayed this excellent heritage—a sharpness of bone, an angle of jaw—and she was merely plain. Nor did she adorn herself; she dressed as a footsoldier might in times of war and scarcity. A blade was strapped to her thigh, passed down from her bearing-mother, and an arrowhead gleamed around her neck, a keepsake from her giving-mother. Her hair was austere, cropped, dyed iron-gray.
Sanhi regarded the empress without kneeling, no restraints upon her save the sutures on her lips. She was not a soldier, had never been, but thirty years an insurrectionist—eight civil wars—had taught her enough, should it become necessary to defend herself. But she did not move, yet, though there were many objects at hand she could turn into a weapon: the shards of unmelting ice, the fangs of a blue lion—those and more draped the wall as trophies, and were mere steps from her.
Instead she unlocked the redwood box, upon whose lid were carved the symbols of Kaiyakesi faith, and arranged the fossils of her voice in a zodiac pattern.
“I did not capture you,” the empress said, in a voice like snapping banners, “in order to have you perform a charlatan’s duty and tell fortune.”
Yin Sanhi moved pieces of whispering amber into an outline of a turtle, the animal of wise questions.
Empress Narasorn smiled. “I captured you for your voice, Yin Sanhi.”
To this Sanhi made no answer or gesture. The fragments of her speeches had much quieted during her imprisonment; an exceptional listener might still have heard the poetry of her cadence. Narasorn listened well, but did not appreciate verse of any sort.
The empress had long, blunt fingers callused with the vigor of statecraft. She laid their tips now along the insurrectionist’s lips.
Her nails pierced, and blood sprang like pearls. The stitches fell away gleaming, each having hardened into shells, to click and roll at the women’s feet.
Sanhi sipped at the air. Her tongue, cat-rough, scraped the empress’ fingers.
Narasorn poured tea.
For the first time in a year, Sanhi tasted the lake’s saltiness, and drank tea through her mouth instead of the feeding tube. When she had had her fill, when the distillation of golden hand-fruits and shark fins had restored some of her voice, Yin Sanhi lifted her head. “Most would’ve kept me silenced for longer than twelve months and twelve days.”
“Most would have killed you and silenced you forever.”
“So they would have; why have you not?”
“I brought you here for a specific purpose.” Narasorn canted her head. “Perhaps you are in want of an explanation. But first, proper food, for I’ll have you strong and whole or you are of no use to me.”
The empress exited, and the insurrectionist required no instruction to follow her out. Locks loosened where Narasorn walked; doors Sanhi had never seen fell open. A prayer room where jars of ash rattled and candles guttered in still air, a scriptorium smelling of saffron where orange and black books kept the balance of razor wheels. Finally they came to a dining hall fit for two hundred, where tables were arranged not for banquets or grand weddings but as though for the dining of soldiers. Harsh function. Nothing else.
At the smallest table, food had been laid out. Cuts of bleeding meat and duck tongue lightly cooked, heavily spiced. Broiled stomachs, which the empress opened with a knife from her belt; they spilled glutinous rice and maidenhair nuts sodden with blood, a red treasury.
Yin Sanhi looked at this fare and said, “I am not an animal.”
“No,” Narasorn agreed, “but this will nurture your arteries and return flesh to your bones. I’ve tried to have food sent to you that was good for the body’s elements, but broth and drinks can only go so far.”
The insurrectionist sat and ate. Her jaw remained strong and her teeth sharp, owing perhaps to the rumor that she descended from a line of tiger-demons. The empress watched her closely. But the insurrectionist was only a woman made skeletal on a year of deprivation, and her table manner was immaculate.
When each bowl was dry of the last drop of blood, each celadon tray cleaned of the last grain of rice, Yin Sanhi pressed a thumb to the feeding tube in the side of her neck and exhaled. Her fingers trembled, minutely, but that did not escape Narasorn’s notice.
“It pleases me,” the empress said, wielding her words like needles under nails, “that an enforced silence did not break you.”
“My constitution isn’t so delicate as that. No red iron was pressed into my breast, no black steel slipped between my ribs. I was fed well and received nearly anything I asked for. What is a year of silence?”
“Nothing at all. Do you know the properties of my palace’s image?”
Sanhi gazed through a round window. Sharks showed her their bellies. “It is upside down.”
“It is more than that, but it’s best to let you discover that for yourself.” The empress’ smile, which had been constant as the horizon, widened. “First let us depart from this place.”
Twelve months are not so long for anyone. Even for a dog it is merely a fifteenth of its span. But an insurrectionist measures her time by the wax and wane of strife, the success and failure of revolts. To Yin Sanhi a year’s absence severed her from the thread of the blade-artists and mathematicians, the coil of Onsakit’s upturning and its consequences; to her this was a long illness, a grave wound. In a time of discord anything could have happened in a month, let alone twelve. She does not know what goes on there, and this lack of knowing trembles in her like a thorn.
The empress leads Sanhi up steps of scales and teeth, through doors of water and glass. The empress leads Sanhi as she walks up a wall, then along a ceiling of black nacre and iron wasps.
They are in the palace above: this Sanhi can tell at once, from the absence of seaweed and fish smells, from the presence of sunlight that has not been sieved through lotus leaves and lake water. It is hot and gold and bright, and the touch of it startles her—searing on the tongue, pricking on the flesh, like the needle that once sewed her lips shut.
From behind her the empress says, “I know that in thirty years since you began your work you’ve committed three great deeds, at three different sites: Citadel-that-Burns Honghu, Bussaba-Morrakot where facets flourish, and finally Onsakit the Red Capital.”
The insurrectionist licks her lips; they still taste of thread, a faint iron tang. “You have made a study of me. I’m flattered.”
“My bearing-mother trained me to make a science of familiarity: to observe, to catalogue, to memorize intimately... and I, much as she was, am uniquely favored for such a discipline. That I will demonstrate to you, in time.”
“You are open with your secrets.”
“Revealing them is as much an art as keeping them.” The empress throws open the shutters.
A shudder knifes through Sanhi as the day blinds her. She does not mean to shame herself, but the strength of it drops her to her knees, where she bows to the summer blaze and gasps into the charring heat. But she turns her face to it, crawls forward onto the veranda, to let the sun brand her, seep into her tendons.
“I understand,” the empress says, “that you were born on a noon much warmer than this, grew up on the edge of a desert. This must be nothing to you.”
Sanhi gazes down into the lake that kept her prisoner; it scintillates, much as Bussaba-Morrakot does, or once did. The garden where jeweled fruits bud, where glass flowers converse, the one she helped shatter, that was Bussaba-Morrakot. “In the place of my birth it is taught that fire is the element of the spirit, even if the flesh may not always endure it.”
“An uncompromising philosophy, but one to which I’m not unsympathetic. When you’re strong enough I will give you currency, rations, clothing and any other supplies you require. You’re free to go where you would.”
“I don’t believe that.”
“Your sentence has served its purpose.”
Yin Sanhi stands, swallowing mouthfuls of air. Perhaps Narasorn means to make a point; perhaps Narasorn believes a year’s incarceration is enough to permanently remove her from the board, her irrelevancy fatal. Her foot is half in a trap. But she says, “I’m strong enough.”
When the empress finds the insurrectionist again, a month has fleeted past. Yin Sanhi is standing on the roof of the Rosette, the bromeliad palace where she once led an army to empty its halls of royal bodies. Narasorn rides one of Kaiyakesi’s beasts, bootblack iron and a belly full of thunder-wasps. The insurrectionist does not flinch when it lands for all its terror, its brute reality.
She is holding two ash-jars sealed and marked with small pictographs: each a woman stylized in harsh brushstrokes. Strings of folded cranes drape her right arm, and chains of miniature blades her left. “First of Blades Lenenha, and the Algebraist of Composites Zheng Husin,” Sanhi says. Sleeplessness has bruised her eyes and grief has hunched her shoulders. “Forty-five and forty-seven years deceased, so I’ve been told.”
“It is the property of my lake retreat,” the empress says as she dismounts. “My court theoreticians will have the precise numbers; I’ve never found the difference to be exact. But while twelve months passed there for you, fifty years and three months have gone by in the world without. In burning Honghu, in glittering Bussaba-Morrakot, and here, in Onsakit the Red. I meant to tell you as much, but you wouldn’t have believed me without seeing it for yourself. So I let you go.”
“At the time of my capture you were said to be forty. You do not look a hundred to me.”
“That is one of my secrets.”
“What is your purpose?” Yin Sanhi’s throat flexes around the feeding tube. She has not covered it with choker or scarf, nor done much to hide the indentations on her lips. “Perhaps you believe that by making me irrelevant you’ve given me a death worse than strangling or drowning, a torture worse than nails and whips?”
“I wanted to foster hatred within you,” the empress says, with little feeling. “It would be fierce and total, with a strong hard neck and a jaw that knows no closing. This hate would pump through the chamber of your heart in place of blood, and it would inform each sip of water poured down your feeding tube. It would overtake all else, and it would be for me, for Kaiyakesi.”
The insurrectionist turns still. “Empress,” she says and her voice is as uninflected as the sky’s hum. “I do not love on command, and neither will I hate on the same.”
“Are you a child, to be contrarian for the sake of it?” But Narasorn laughs, the sound of a wave striking shore. “What you do requires passion, and hate is easier to instigate than love. I want you to destroy Kaiyakesi.”
Sanhi touches the folded cranes gently, careful not to crush the beaks or the wings. “I can anticipate why you might wish for this. But I am not one of your beasts and you will not tame me. I am not clay and you will not shape me.”
“If I cannot motivate you with spite then I will offer you a reward. Do what I ask and I’ll return you to the day my soldiers took you. You’ll have been absent not for a year or fifty, but for at most an hour.”
The insurrectionist steps forward. The Rosette’s roof is steep and high, built to invite a death of plummet and impact. “What makes you think that is reward for me, recompense enough for what you did? There is a chain called tyranny, and most governments form its links. My life is devoted to destroying that and there’s no shortage of them remaining. I need not return to that time. I can go on, doing as I did before; if I am bereft of my past allies, new ones can be found. I will rebuild. I will become, and I will not be deterred or removed.”
“Your ideals are noble. But it was all just practice, wasn’t it?” Narasorn pursues the insurrectionist, though her gauntleted hands do not yet reach out to pull Sanhi away from the edge. “Onsakit was the real thing, the city of your birth, the one you wanted to free from its despots above all else. First, though, you had to make a name for yourself, become familiar with the rules of engagement. You got better each time—the first minor domains were disastrous, Honghu was a shambles for a long time, but Bussaba-Morrakot was nearly perfect. You uprooted the theocrats, replaced them with thinkers and those with a mind for truth. Onsakit was going to be your triumph, not only prosperous but just. Zheng Husin at your left, Lenenha at your right, and together you’d have created a system that sustained itself; that would be proof to corruption and avarice. That was your dream, your life’s desire.”
“What,” Sanhi says quietly, “did they believe happened to me? I see Yenseret magistrates riding high here, Yenseret traders in our prestige markets. Husin’s and Lenenha’s jars are left to beetles and ants in the Rosette, unhonored. Unguarded, for I could remove them as I liked.”
Narasorn gestures down at the red courtyard, the red streets, the walls of horn and claw. “Yenseret propagated the lie that you sold your own city—found a believable double to act as you, actually. The truth, of course, was that they anticipated the rebellion and thought it the perfect moment to annex Onsakit. Zheng Husin, I hear, cursed your name as they quartered her.”
Sanhi’s hands shake, clench; this too Narasorn takes note. “And Lenenha?”
“Who knows? I give you two choices: to return to that day and reroute history, or to avenge Onsakit. Kaiyakesi remains ascendant. Yenseret is most careful to give us excellent trade privileges, but it’s nothing to me to crush them.”
“What proof do I have that you did not engineer Yenseret’s invasion?”
“You could ask their governor.” Narasorn’s head sways side to side, the rhythm of a fascinated snake. “She is not obliged to truth. You could find accounts of what happened, if you care to take the time. Everything I have said you may verify, including—doubtless—Zheng Husin’s rage for you as she died.”
The roof is built to invite that certain urge. That death of plummet and impact. Blood on red pavement, Sanhi thinks. It’ll be all be the same. “Or I could take the third option.” She thinks of nothing at all and takes the final step. Fear vanishes. Falling is easy—
This time the empress pins the insurrectionist to the beast, gauntlets on arms delicate from a year of deprivation. The royal face is gray and damp with sweat, the royal breath labored. “I will not allow you the third choice.”
Sanhi looks into Narasorn’s eyes. “I wasn’t going to jump, Empress. I meant only to suggest that I’ve a way out that you may not control.”
“In another moment you would have taken the leap. In another trajectory of events, you took that step and you shattered on the courtyard. Don’t.” Narasorn’s voice seems to crack, but it is perhaps more exertion than emotion. “It is pointless. You cannot prove to your satisfaction that I didn’t manipulate Yenseret into invading Onsakit, but be assured that I’ve no love for that nation of hedonistic fools.”
The insurrectionist does not struggle. She is calm, almost limp, in the empress’ grip. “How old were you when Kaiyakesi’s highest magistrates betrayed their own empress, your giving-mother, and destroyed her?”
“Old enough to make them repay many times over and purge their families.” Narasorn inhales deeply, lets go of Sanhi by degrees. “They broke many of her bones and burned her face. They took her dignity, her voice, the strength of her limbs. But even then I thought that the fault did not lie with them alone, as individuals. It’s Kaiyakesi that is the rot, Kaiyakesi itself in need of the purge.”
“Why didn’t you prevent her ruin?”
“I came to the gift later, and it’s impossible to move backward beyond that point. Forward is painful. The future isn’t always mine.” The empress withdraws but remains between the insurrectionist and the roof’s edge. “Moving outside of time isn’t the panacea you might believe it is.”
Sanhi slowly gathers up the strings of cranes and blades. Her fingers tighten on Lenenha’s ash jar. “Good enough to found an empire on and keep it mighty. Were this known, even your most loyal subject would slip you the knife while you sleep.”
“You overestimate the courage of my subjects. They skip and cry at their own shadows, let alone mine.” Narasorn strokes the beast’s flank, metal-clad fingers on metallic muscles thrumming the notes of distant thunder. “What will it be?”
Sanhi never learns the name of the palace on the lake, and Narasorn does not reveal it. The insurrectionist is granted the honor of sharing the empress’ wing and is made to spend significant hours in Narasorn’s bedchamber: an impression Narasorn cultivates. “Better that they believe you my concubine than my co-conspirator,” she says as Sanhi studies the census and history of Kaiyakesi. “Those that captured you have long perished in the line of duty; none know who you are. They think I’ve taken a fancy to a foreigner, having long tired of the scented, delicate palace girls.”
“And have you?” The insurrectionist does not pause in her reading; she makes notes of the bureaucrats of agriculture and infrastructure, the ministers who command supply chains and taxation. She looks for noted orators and inventors, controversial academics. Dissidents put away by aristocrats, soldiers wronged by their commanders. There are as many kinds as there are breeds of cacti and just as many ways to use them to prick open Kaiyakesi’s skin.
“I’ve done my duty of passing on the gift. One of my daughters will manifest it. But she will not suckle on treachery and come to womanhood on a throne—she’ll use this power elsewhere, in some better, more generous capacity. As for delicate palace girls, I’ve never much enjoyed them. They are more obligation than pleasure.”
Sanhi looks up, but her interest appears merely polite. She has painted her eyelids gray-green and her lips pale gold, careful to avoid the imperial purple and the Onsakit red. “In your position you may have anyone, or anything. Save perhaps a lover you can trust.”
“I had one of those once.” Narasorn sits by the window, sampling declawed cacti roasted with banana, puffy sugar-bread, scarabs fried and dipped in syrup. Desert fare. Onsakit dishes. The insurrectionist watches her consume each bite, frowning. “In your position, with your power to sway hearts and direct passion, you could’ve had anyone. Share tales of your conquests, and I’ll share mine.”
“It’s not how I think of my past affairs. The cartography of my existence isn’t defined by invasion or conquest.” Her fingers alight on the chain of blades she has fastened around her throat. She plays with their edges, which she has kept sharp and brilliant, taking a whetstone to them every couple weeks. They never cut her.
“Indeed not? Is it true that Lenenha, First of Blades, was more than your master of arms and more than your confidante?”
“She is dead; she is dust. What matters?”
Narasorn leaves the delicacies. She might have loomed over Sanhi, but after a pause she kneels so they are face to face. “Which dishes did Lenenha enjoy?”
The insurrectionist’s glance darts to the plates and bowls by the windowsill. “Are you not satisfied with the hold you already have on me?”
“The revelation of secrets long clenched in a fist is an art.” Narasorn unstraps the buckles that hold her jacket shut, peels away the cotton underneath and gestures at the tattoo beneath her breasts, inked in white against the deep teak of her skin. Then in quite a different voice, a lower note with the scrape of rusty metal she says, “This is the royal alphabet, the letters that are tattooed on no one save the reigning monarch. It allows me to assume another shape, another voice...”
An unwilling intake of breath. “No,” Sanhi whispers.
In place of Narasorn kneels First of Blades Lenenha. She smiles with a mouth much thinner than Narasorn’s, a mouth split by a long scar. “My commander Sanhi, to whom I pledged my life, my voice, my arms.” A hand takes Sanhi’s, brings it to her sternum. “My heart.”
“I refuse this.” The insurrectionist did not weep when they captured her or bound her mouth; she did not weep when she returned to Onsakit; she did not weep when she found the ash jars. Now the tears fall. “I refuse you.”
Narasorn—Lenenha—brushes saltwater from Sanhi’s cheek. “You’d seen my body often enough then, run your fingers over my tattoo more times than I can count. You used to ask what it meant and I said, A secret. And so it is. I know you’ve a birthmark on your inner thigh and that you’ll have no one’s tongue in your mouth, citing its resemblance to a snail; I know you prefer goat-hair brushes for your eyes, sable brushes for your cheeks when you’ve the time and means for luxuries. I know what you like to eat, the tea you best prefer for your breakfast, the tisane you favor before going to bed.”
Sanhi does not resist, does not struggle. She is almost limp in her seat, but she is not calm. “So breaking me was your desire from the start. What is the point? I’m here, I’m doing what you demanded of me.” She makes a small, pained cry.
“I did not plot your destruction. I meant only to see you work from the inside; getting as close to you as I did wasn’t part of my plan. I was... fond of you.”
Yin Sanhi thinks of death. Falling is easy. The empress’ chamber is the highest point of the palace and the lake is home to sharks. Blood in black waters. It is all the same. “You can say this, after what you did to me?”
“You would not have come to Kaiyakesi on request or command, on promise of reward or under threat. That’s your nature.” The empress, who remains in the form and face of Lenenha, lowers her hand. A minute tremble, which does not escape Sanhi’s notice. “I’ve bound myself to your time, your path of events and possibility. So firm is this hold that now I may not travel backward past the day I had you captured in Onsakit. I’ve told you—it is no panacea to have this gift; I’m fettered by the universe’s laws, and the universe is more rigid than justice, more uncompromising than vengeance.”
“Am I to offer you my sympathies? My admiration? My forgiveness?” Sanhi has mastered herself; her voice is steady. “Will you threaten to go back on your word, Empress, and leave me stranded here?”
“I wanted,” the empress starts, stops. “I wanted your acknowledgment, perhaps. No. I won’t go back on my word. Once you’ve set in motion the process that breaks down Kaiyakesi, I’ll return you to your moment of triumph. We’ll part, and I’ll come back here to free myself from this burden called empire.”
The tears continue but they are on their own: Sanhi does not shake or gasp and they do not move her. “Leave me to my work then. You must want your liberty as much as I do.”
Narasorn returns to the window, doing up her jacket. She is herself, again. “What will you do once you’re in your proper time?”
“Is it not obvious?”
That night Narasorn wakes to a change in light and shadow. She does not sleep heavily and never has—she has long adopted a soldier’s habit, passed to her by both mothers. But she pretends unawareness as Sanhi’s shadow falls upon her. The empress does not reach for any of her weapons; her bare hands alone suffice, should it come to that.
When Sanhi straddles her hips, Narasorn reaches to touch the insurrectionist’s jaw, her thumb light across the insurrectionist’s lips. The texture of those sewing scars, the texture of a year beneath the lake. “Shall I be Lenenha for you? Her words, her voice. Her flesh.”
“Secrets once revealed can’t be taken back, Empress.” Sanhi is a blot in the moonlight. She bends close and her teeth scrape, not gently, across Narasorn’s mouth. “Your tools and subjects may be malleable as doubt. I am not.”
The insurrectionist comes back the next night, and the night after that.
An empire is built like a wall: it protects itself from outside intrusion. A strong empire is built like a prison: it keeps those inside within, and those outside without.
This stronghold of stone corridors and black glass is marked by nothing save Narasorn’s color and a terrible quiet. Sanhi has helped dismantle prisons full of filth and defeat. This is silent and clean, the dignity and finality of mausoleums.
Beside her the empress becomes Lenenha—a distortion of sight, a passage of shadow; Sanhi does not look.
They free an astronomer whose eyes have been sutured shut, the lids punctured in fine pinpricks so she’d always see stars unmoving and unreal; a lieutenant who has been hamstrung at ankles and elbows so she may never wield weapons again; a musician whose fingers have been ground down, left to knit crooked and useless. Each recognizes Sanhi and the First of Blades. The art of revealing secrets has presaged her, a sowing of rumors like seeds. A murmur here that Yin Sanhi lives; a whisper there that she will come and do what she does best.
The words are acid in her mouth, but Sanhi’s voice is her instrument and her weapon. She wields it, telling the prisoners, “Give me the name of the one who wronged you.” She holds their gaze. “Give me the name of their weakness and their terror.” She carries them in her arms, though she is not strong. “Give me the names of those they trust, and I’ll bring you their ruin: a gift I shall put in your lap, and it will be as rich and sweet as stars.”
The musician asks, “Where is Zheng Husin?”
Yin Sanhi says only, “She is not here, though she could have been.”
The astronomer demands, “Where have you been all these decades, why did you not come for us before?”
Yin Sanhi answers only, “All things have their own time.”
The lieutenant exhales, “Will you bring us to victory?”
Yin Sanhi breathes simply, “Yes.”
The empress kills her own soldiers as easily as she might kill any other; their cries are drunk by the stone, their blood by the glass. Lenenha’s wheel-blades remain pure and clean as they leave the prison behind, the way they always do, never stained by viscera. It is not a Kaiyakesi weapon, and they do not ride Narasorn’s beast to escape. The illusion must be maintained.
It is easy to destroy an empire when one is given all the keys.
Yin Sanhi makes her web, raises her army, fosters her factions. It is faster than any other revolt she has raised. The northern administration wages civil war within itself; the southern and western provinces battle each other over farming and fishing rights. In the eighth month she says to Narasorn, “You won’t be able to salvage your empire, even if you try to, unless you turn back time.”
“I will do so,” the empress says, “as many times as it takes if the provinces ally and turn back into Kaiyakesi. Too much centralized power, and despotism is inevitable. Too great a state, and inertia becomes inherent. That must not happen again.”
Twelve months and twelve days pass.
They watch from the empress’ chamber over the lake, listening to the sound of fire and heavy feet, of blades meeting one another. Narasorn takes Sanhi’s hand. “Your task is done and I’ll be true to my word. I’ll return you to that day, though your scars will remain.”
“Once I’m gone, wouldn’t my deeds here undo themselves?”
“Our paths will diverge. I’m the constant—my presence will enforce your events.”
Sanhi gazes down at the lake. “This is not how I would’ve chosen to do it.”
“It is done, and was done quickly. I’m satisfied, and you can hardly wish to prolong it.”
The insurrectionist strokes the chain of miniature blades that she gave back to Narasorn. It stretches across Narasorn’s breast now, and Sanhi winds the length of it around her fist. “After Onsakit I could have moved on to Kaiyakesi.”
The empress could have stepped away, torn the chain out of Sanhi’s hand and blood out of Sanhi’s palms. “What are you saying?”
“I’ll take Kaiyakesi apart my own way, not at your instruction or through the methods you’ve dictated. Don’t you want to see that, Empress? Come back with me. Join my path, and be Lenenha again.”
“I am not a beast,” the empress murmurs.
“Yet I will tame you.”
“I am not clay,” the empress insists.
“Yet I will shape you.”
Narasorn laughs, the sound of wave striking shore. “Perhaps.”
Their hands tighten around one another’s, and they take a final step.