During the unbearable years of tyranny, the political prisoners of the Anchorite Hegemony made a solemn covenant: when the time came, they would cross the last miles to freedom on their feet. For reasons of youth and idiocy, Tishrel thought he would have a choice in the matter. The doors of his cell would open, and rather than flee into the sky, he would make the journey as he had made his way through the years in captivity: with what dignity he could, one foot after another.
Then comes the time and the hour: the Hegemony are overthrown, the rebels storm the red sandstone heart of the city, and the guards at the Tawnpur Jail are quick to see which way the wind is blowing. When they dump Tishrel on the street outside the iron gates, he knows there is no hope of flight, or dignity. If he’s leaving this place, it’s on his feet.
He wonders if he could earn enough as a street artist or caricaturist; he’ll need food and shelter on the long way home, and he can still draw. Some of the prison guards used to smuggle in pencils and paper to him, wanting him to do little sketches as presents for their wives and mothers. A couple of the more enterprising ones even got him to sign the sketches, in the not-unjustified belief that these minor scribblings would be worth something some day. Now that the Hegemony is no longer around to fulminate about non-religious art, Tishrel hopes the Tawnpar guards make a fortune. They were just working stiffs, bewildered at what they were being asked to do. Some of them were kind to him.
But that is another option he doesn’t have. He’s free, but he has nothing to his name: not pencil or paper, not food or water, not the power of flight or the mercy of strangers. So it’s one foot after another from here, out of the city and north into the arable country, hitching when he can and desperately footsore when he can’t. He sleeps in roadside shrines and shepherds’ huts and feels himself diminish to nothing but bones and will.
About twenty miles north of Tawnpur, someone does take pity on him. She’s a votary of an old Divine temple that’s reopening now that the Hegemony are gone. She listens with indulgent disbelief to him explain he’s a consecrated Divine priestess, then gives him the meal that the temple would give to any passing vagrant. Tishrel stays a night and moves on. Each step he takes away from Tawnpur is a step towards home.
Twenty miles more, and the same again. There’s still post-revolutionary fervour in some places, fireworks and marching songs that Tishrel’s non-human ears can only hear as noise, but the sound and the fury are giving way to the hard labour of rebuilding. He sees schools reopening, warehouses being shored up after fire, fields that were used for mass conversions turned back to wheat and rice.
At the next temple he passes, he finds that the customary rites have resumed. Thousands of years ago, dragons made human sacrifices to the Divine. In these enlightened days the sacrifice is symbolic: ten figures cut out from rag paper, decorated and burned. Tishrel, watching from behind the temple’s carved columns, considers his own internal fires, his consciousness of the Divine. Even if he stays in human form for the rest of his life, those flames within him are banked, not quenched. Even after years of incarceration and torture, something inside him is still burning.
That knowledge gives him courage. He asks the temple votaries for what paper they can spare and identifies an artistic subject: one of his fellow-travellers, a young woman also spending a night in the temple’s spartan dormitories. She’s like him, with internal fires burning, and he draws to emphasise the fact, wishing for the volcanic rock pigments that would better capture the aura of infrared. He doesn’t immediately notice that he’s being observed in return.
“That’s beautiful,” the woman says, and Tishrel jumps.
“Ah, thank you,” he says, meeting her eyes. “I’m sorry. If it’s intrusive.”
“No, it’s lovely.” Her fingers trace the pencilled heat haze, and she looks up sharply. “You’re like me, aren’t you? Half-dragonish.”
“Demi-asuric,” Tishrel says, having always preferred the non-human word. “Yes, I am.”
“I’ve never met anyone like us before,” she says, which Tishrel takes a second to understand.
“You’re a convert,” he says. It’s not common, for a human to wake one day and find themselves newly dragonish, with the fires of Divine consciousness burning inside them. But it does happen. Tishrel wonders what it’s like, to be true human well into adulthood, and then... not. To be, all at once, changed in your marrow and substance; to be something harsher and more enduring than humanity could ever be.
“Yes,” she says, and visibly makes the decision to confide in him. “They told me there’s somewhere to go. Somewhere in the north, somewhere for people like us.”
“If you look carefully, you’ll see people like us everywhere,” Tishrel says. “Even over the Nachalite border, there are people like us.”
That’s true, although he wonders if a convert can pick them out as easily as he can. As the demi-asuric get older, they begin to betray themselves even when in human form, their eyes growing amber and their fingernails turning into permanent claws. Tishrel himself is nondescript, with brown hair and skin and no outward signs of what he is.
“But it’s somewhere that’s just for people like us.” The convert woman hesitates. “Where everyone is looked after, where no one goes hungry.”
Before the individual, the state, Tishrel thinks reflexively. He turns the drawing over and scribbles the name of the Almoner’s household steward, hoping it’s still right after eight years. “There,” he says, handing it over. “When you get to the Eyrie, that’s who you need to talk to. They’ll help you.”
She looks at him in surprise and opens her mouth to say something else, but Tishrel steps away from the conversation before she can. She’s going to the Eyrie and so is he, but he doesn’t offer to take her with him; he’s having enough trouble himself without taking responsibility for another person.
But the encounter is clarifying nonetheless. Tishrel keeps the paper the votaries gave him and travels on: he’s going alone, but he is going home. Day by day, mile by mile, with small acts of human charity keeping him going through days, weeks, and inexorably, months. Long ago, Tishrel was accustomed to looking down at this part of the country while on the wing, the fields laid out below him in a rich fast-moving patchwork. This is what you were born to, the Almoner said at his wingtip, steadier in motion than he was and able to pontificate telepathically without any perturbation of flight. All this is yours to care for, Tishrel: all this land and air and sky.
Even then, Tishrel knew that he would never be what she wanted him to be; that he would leave behind the Eyrie and everything he had ever known rather than give in to her. This journey homewards would be humiliating if he were capable of feeling any further humiliation.
The fertile land rises in elevation, becoming bleak and sparse. Tishrel doesn’t see the convert again, and he thinks she must have decided to stay on the plains until the winter has passed. The leaves fall and frost, the ground hardens into ice, and Tishrel starts to wonder if he will ever reach the Eyrie, and then if it ever existed at all; if he was ever anything other than what he is now, ragged inside and out.
The Divine votaries in the roadside temples become easier to convince as Tishrel goes higher into the foothills, recognising on sight what he is. It’s Tishrel himself who is forgetting now, with words from his past drifting in fragments through his mind. All this is yours, Tishrel. One foot after another. Before the individual, the state.
But he never did give in to the Almoner, and he survived eight years in prison on top of that. He is stubborn. He goes on.
And then, without fanfare, he’s there. After the turn of the year, on a day as initially unremarkable as the hundred before, Tishrel reaches the foot of the mountains that soar into the arch of the sky. There’s no climbing or hitching this, and he’s prevented from flying both by what the Tawnpar governors did to him and the prisoners’ covenant. He makes his way along to the tiny open funicular, installed for the benefit of humans and those of the demi-asuric who, like him, have reasons of their own to stay in their human forms.
Miraculously, he has just enough begged coins in his pockets for the fare. He takes his seat as though in a dream, barely aware of the mountainside falling vertiginously away below. Dragons emerge and are occluded by the cloud layer, their scales gleaming in the light unseen. At the upper station, Tishrel disembarks and looks around in numb disbelief at the Eyrie, at its beautiful temples and teashops, at the pilgrims gathering in the unearthly light. Unlike him, it hasn’t changed.
One more mile, beneath the sparkle and shadow of wings. The Almoner’s residence is on the other side of the plateau, at the edge of the Eye of the Divine, the volcanic crater that is the reason for the Eyrie’s existence. In its depths are the true asuric dragons, who share their physical space with the rock and have no human form. Tishrel glances at the movement of wings in the valley below, then hurries on. He finds the red-roofed house just as it always was, with the carved text of the first Divine precept curving around the lintel: we shall embody a wildfire starting. Below it is the official credo of the Almoner: before the individual, the state.
A stranger answers the door, likely a housekeeper or administrator; new since his time. She looks Tishrel up and down and draws an inevitable conclusion. “I’m sorry, the Almoner’s petitioners are seen after noon at the side entrance.”
“I’m not one of my mother’s petitioners,” Tishrel says, with all the dignity he can muster.
“In which case I’ll have to ask you to leave,” says the housekeeper, then seems to register what he said. “I’m sorry, what?”
Tishrel is saved from answering by the sound of footsteps within. It’s the Almoner, running down the carved rock steps with their beautiful dragon-carved balustrades, heedless of the spikes and scales in the stone.
“Who is this?” the housekeeper asks, but she’s pushed aside.
“Tishrel,” the Almoner says, and pulls Tishrel close, holding him against her heart. “My daughter, Tishrel.”
Tishrel can’t speak, overwhelmed by everything: the years of imprisonment, the months of the journey, this sparkling light that hurts his eyes.
“My son,” the Almoner adds, for his ears alone, and pushes him to arm’s length. One clawed hand comes to his face, tracing the lines of his cheek. “You have changed,” she says wonderingly, and then: “I’m sorry, darling, I’m so sorry. I wanted to come for you.”
“I know,” Tishrel says, remembering something he once heard said by another Divine priestess: that a child would always remember any formal apology given them by their parents; that there could be no holier act of contrition.
“I know you did,” he says again, for good measure, and, because he has, against all odds, crossed half a continent one foot after another, he passes out without further ceremony.
Winter edges into a bitter spring before Tishrel is really aware of anything again. There are pillows and clean sheets, full plates of food that at first he doesn’t know what to do with. The Almoner and her household leave him alone, at his own request, and he’s grateful for that, and for the quiet beauty here at the top of the world. For the first twenty years of his life he wanted only to leave this place, and then for another eight he wanted only to come back to it. Now he doesn’t know what he wants, or even if there is anything left for him to want. He’s holding still, in echo of the Eyrie’s own stillness, and waiting for whatever happens next.
The days pass, and somehow he occupies them. He dozes, and sits by the crater’s edge sometimes, and goes to the Divine temples to observe the sacrifices, now being performed in vast numbers for the missing and the dead. About a month after his return, he gets a letter from Cazerin, his former cellmate. Tishrel, eight years with you was my soul’s deepest torment and I don’t miss you at all. I hear you made it home.
Yes, Tishrel writes, and can’t think of anything else to say. The Eyrie is vivid and beautiful around him, but it feels distant nevertheless, as though part of him is still a long way from here. Late that night, he wakes up to the sound of screaming and really believes he’s back in prison. Iron cuts into his wrists and the air smells of blood and piss.
It passes. Tishrel shivers compulsively, throws back the covers, and goes out to the verandah to see what’s happening.
“Go back to bed, Tishrel,” the Almoner says at the sight of him. Tishrel ignores her, looking out at the wagon trundling along the path at the crater’s edge. The house is set slightly back from the crater for structural reasons, but the verandah extends down to the path and the wagon will draw near shortly. Two people are chained up in the back of it, ragged and desperate. Tishrel recognises one of them, a human woman with sharp eyes and greying hair.
“Dara,” he says. She was the family housekeeper before he went away.
“She carried information to the Hegemonic authorities,” the Almoner says, her voice tight with fury. “If any of my petitioners said something seditious while in line for alms, they were dragged away to prison or the conversion camps that same day. Her brother did the same.”
As Tishrel watches, the demi-asuric guards bring the wagon to a stop just across from the verandah. They cut the shackles holding their prisoners, then transform into their dragonish forms, sleek black and silver with wings ten metres across. The other spy, Dara’s brother, tries to run and gets knocked down by a wingtip. Dara just stares at the ground, not looking up at the Almoner or Tishrel clearly visible on the verandah. Without ceremony or delay, the two prisoners are lifted by the dragons, carried out over the centre of the crater, and dropped. They scream until they stop. Down in the depths, their bodies will vaporise in the heat. The true dragons below will probably not even notice.
“We have a lot of work to do, before our society is back to how it ought to be,” the Almoner says. Her anger is visible in the small flames at her fingertips. “Tishrel, go back to bed or I’ll have Naharis drag you.”
Naharis, the Almoner’s faithful and long-suffering human steward, has just emerged from the house. He gives Tishrel an awkward smile that indicates the Almoner means what she says. Tishrel is obscurely glad that the entire household didn’t turn out to be Hegemonic traitors
He goes back to bed. He dreams mixed-up dreams, about prison and paper-doll sacrifices, about Dara and her brother, about the Hegemony and what they did to him. The Hegemony believed that to be human is to embody sin. Everything they did—the attempts at mass conversions of humans into demi-asuric, the mass killing of unbelievers, the flattening of secular human culture and society—was done from that single conviction. Strangely, it was a mostly human movement; fanatics driven by self-loathing above all things. The demi-asuric weren’t safe—if they refused to believe that the humanity in them was unholy, they were terrorised just like everyone else.
There are two further executions in the weeks following; more collaborators thrown into the crater in the manner of the ancients. Tishrel thinks it ought to be satisfying, to see them fall. But he watches the condemned being thrown into the crater and doesn’t feel anything at all. He’s dimly aware that this is all part of the Almoner’s reconstruction effort. She’s only one of the Council of Three, the elected governing body for the Eyrie, but she feels responsible for purging the administration of remaining Hegemonic sympathisers. But just like everything else, it feels like it’s happening a long way off.
Do you ever think about our other covenant? Tishrel asks Cazerin, in another letter. The Tawnpar prisoners had given themselves another duty, to be discharged after they had made their way home. Getting revenge on everyone who hurt us?
Too busy bringing peace and order to a frankly ungrateful populace, Cazerin writes back. If I ever get the time, I’ll let you know.
Tishrel doesn’t know how to respond—argument or agreement both fall short of the confusion inside his head. Instead of replying in words, he turns the letter over and sketches Cazerin as he imagines they must look like now, tall and charismatic and unbroken. They were a prominent city inquisitor before they were arrested, a scholarly Nachalite who called on people to set down their weapons and cast out their fear. Tishrel can picture them putting a shattered capital city back together, just as the Almoner is trying to do here. It’s not revenge, bringing peace and order to an ungrateful populace, but Tishrel can find joy in it.
Cazerin responds to the portrait a few days later. You flatter me, my friend. I hope you’re well, or as well as you can be.
They’re too tactful to say it straight out, but Tishrel knows what they’re referring to. There is one thing that happened to him in prison that will be with him all his life, and Cazerin clearly must be thinking about it, even if Tishrel himself is trying not to. He hasn’t spoken of it to anyone since his return, particularly the Almoner. He hopes she’s too busy dealing with her petitioners and administering the post-Hegemonic reconstruction to ask too many questions.
That turns out to be a naïve hope. He’s spending a lot of time by the crater’s edge these days, finding it soothing to watch the undulations of the lava below him and otherwise think of nothing. He’s there again, contemplating the Divine in the depths, when someone sits quietly down beside him: Landeren, an old friend of the Almoner’s, a human doctor who trained over the border with the Nachalites and knows more about dragons’ internal workings than they do themselves. “Good morning,” she says. “It’s a beautiful day, isn’t it?”
“I suppose it is,” Tishrel says. Landeren settles in with the serene smile of one not to be deterred. They exchange some remarks about the beauty of the Divine presence beneath them, the change of the season. When the formalities have been observed, Landeren says, “I’ve heard what the Hegemony did to their asuric prisoners.”
“Demi-asuric,” Tishrel says, gesturing irritably at himself in human form. “If I were a true dragon they’d never have been able to hold me.”
“Demi-asuric,” Landeren agrees, unconcerned. She looks comfortable and relaxed, as though she could sit here all day. The silence stretches out, longer and longer. Eventually, Tishrel gives up.
Instead of trying to explain, he rolls up his sleeves and shows her. The homespun kurta he’s wearing is a hundred times softer against his skin than anything he had in jail, which is no comfort to him. The intense sunlight picks up the long scars on his wrists and forearms, jagged white lines against brown skin. Landeren is calm and professional as she inspects them, but Tishrel can still see the twist in her expression as understanding dawns.
“I see,” she says, at last. “If you change into your dragonish form... yes. Have you tried?”
“Once,” Tishrel says. Just once, straight after they did it, while Cazerin looked on in fascination and horror. The Tawnpar governors were methodical in their work, guided by anatomical principles, and they explained what they were doing as they went along. In breaking his fingers and cutting through tendons and skin, they were able to destroy Tishrel’s hidden wings without ever seeing or touching them. “Not since.”
“How did they keep you from transforming in your cell?” Landeren asks. “Iron shackles?”
Tishrel nods. Iron doesn’t put out the internal flames but damps them down to a flicker. “They let me change that one time, so I’d know what they’d done to me.”
“I see,” Landeren says again. He can see her fight against the question; open her mouth and ask it anyway. “Why did they do it?”
“I was a traitor.” Tishrel can’t feel much emotion about this any more. “I thought humans were deserving, that they should live and flourish as we do. The Hegemony think we’re the only ones worthy of life, you know. They don’t like it when we don’t think that. So they decided my own gifts were wasted on me.”
“Tishrel—” Landeren begins, with shock evident in her voice, but again, she’s too professional to give voice to her feelings. She returns to the essentials. “You know you’ll never fly again, don’t you? Your wings will have healed by now, but the scar tissue has disrupted your aerodynamics. You won’t hit lift speed, if you try.”
“I do know that, yes,” Tishrel says. He came to understand the mechanics of it over time, but he knew the truth from the moment Cazerin woke him up and the two of them stared at each other over a tiny cell thick with blood.
Landeren nods. “I won’t tell anyone unless you agree, and that includes the Almoner.”
That’s the Nachalite training again, that care and consideration. “Tell her,” Tishrel says. The Almoner wouldn’t have sent Landeren here if she didn’t suspect something, and suddenly the thought of keeping the secret is more tiring than enduring the violence of her reaction. “Might as well get it over with.”
“If that’s what you want,” Landeren says.
Tishrel thanks her, waits for her to leave, and returns to the house. For lack of anything better to do, he goes back to bed. Naharis knocks and tells him he has a letter from Cazerin, which he ignores. When he wakes up a few hours later, the Almoner is sitting on the edge of his bed.
“Tishrel,” she says, so angry that translucent white flame is filling her hands, flickering through her hair. “Why didn’t you tell me?”
“I couldn’t bear to,” Tishrel says, sleep-blurred. It’s not just the thought of her reaction that has kept him silent. It’s the shame of it, of being a daughter of the Eyrie now damaged and earthbound.
“You couldn’t?” The Almoner stands up, and the flames lick the ceiling. “I’m trying to repair the damage the Hegemony did to the Eyrie, and in the meantime the worst damage of all—” She can’t finish that sentence. “How could you let this happen to you?”
“Let this happen to me?” Tishrel repeats, dizzy with horror. “I was informed on, the same as everyone else. I didn’t hand myself in to the Hegemony!”
“What the hell were you even doing there in the first place?” the Almoner says furiously, and here it is: the argument they haven’t had in eight years, that can’t be displaced even by violence and revolution. “If you hadn’t left the Eyrie and your responsibilities behind like the feckless child you are, this wouldn’t have happened.”
Tishrel flinches as though struck. “Are you saying it was my fault they did this to me?”
“Yes,” the Almoner says crisply. “Before the individual, the state. You forgot that, and this is what came of it.”
“I couldn’t succeed you,” Tishrel says, but weakly, doubt creeping in like poison. If he hadn’t left, he wouldn’t have experienced first-hand what the Hegemony were capable of, and he wouldn’t have come to the attention of their central command. “I had to go. I couldn’t be like you, bound to this place.”
“It’s not a prison sentence,” the Almoner says. “It’s a duty and an honour. You left, and they ruined you.”
“No,” Tishrel says pathetically. He didn’t want to tell her what the Hegemony did to him because he knew that a degree of I-told-you-so would be forthcoming. He hadn’t expected anything so destructive as this. “I’m not ruined,” he adds, getting the words out with difficulty.
“Can you still be of use to your people, my daughter and the daughter of us all?” the Almoner says. “I think not.”
She sweeps out, trailing flames like a bridal train. Tishrel screams in frustration, scorching bedsheets and smashing ceramics at a distance. He wants to go after her, but by the time he’s stumbled outside into the blinding sunlight, he feels like a blown-out match, fury dissipating into blank despair. He sits down on the edge of the verandah and buries his head in his hands. On the long journey across the plains, he wanted only to be home in the Eyrie, free of years of torment. Now it feels as though the contaminant is himself, that he will take the Hegemony everywhere he goes. He imagines being among the Almoner’s condemned, tossed into the Eye of the Divine to be purged in the flames. He thinks it would be a relief.
Time passes as he sits there, but Tishrel isn’t sure how much. The light from the crater casts orange-edged shadows that lengthen and dim as the air chills. He stays where he is and doesn’t stir at the sound of footsteps coming up beside him.
“Naharis, leave me alone,” he says, and then looks up a stranger.
The woman standing there is demi-asuric, about his own age, and gaunt with hunger. Her clothes are torn and far too light for this climate. “Please help me,” she says.
Tishrel can’t place her. “Do I know you?”
“I... ah. Not really.” The woman looks dazedly at him, then pulls something out of her pocket and stuffs it into his hands. Tishrel unfolds a half-finished drawing of a traveller, seen in profile against a window.
“Oh,” he says, stupidly. For a moment, he resists the memory of their first meeting, wanting only to ignore her and everything else except the still, small voice that’s calling him over the crater’s edge.
Then the woman coughs, a harsh rattle that sounds like the cold has gotten into her lungs. She dreamed of the Eyrie, Tishrel recalls. Where everyone is looked after; where no one goes hungry.
Against his will, the thought drives him to his feet. He takes the woman by the arm and leads her without further comment inside the house. The Almoner isn’t back from wherever she went, but this isn’t the sort of official duty she has to discharge personally.
“Naharis!” Tishrel calls. He almost smiles when Naharis appears immediately on the stairs, like a benevolent spectre.
“A convert, new to the Eyrie,” Tishrel says briskly, wanting to deal with this as quickly as possible. “She can’t wait to be on tomorrow’s queue of petitioners, she’ll perish of cold in the meantime. Can we do all the things we do, please?”
Naharis blinks for a second, but there’s a reason he’s been the Almoner’s steward for twenty-four years. “What’s your name, my dear?”
“Eliaha,” she says, and Naharis rises to the occasion. He takes Eliaha to the kitchen, calling for the housekeeper and the cook. There’s some more shouting from that quarter—the household has mostly retired for the evening and it takes some running around before a hot meal can be produced—and then it’s too late to take her to the public hostel so they need to find her a bedroll somewhere in the house, in the human side of it because she’s a convert and not used to sleeping on magma-warmed rock.
By the time it’s all sorted Tishrel is too tired to throw himself dramatically into the crater. Instead, he takes himself back to bed and sleepily reads the letter from Cazerin, which Naharis stuffed directly into his hand on his way upstairs.
Here’s something interesting, Cazerin has written. We’ve found a whole stack of Hegemony records in an old storeroom. Turns out they didn’t manage to burn all of them when they were fleeing into the night. I’m not sure if we shouldn’t just burn them ourselves.
That isn’t interesting at all, Tishrel complains underneath. Don’t you ever sleep or eat or have any sex?
A pause, and then below that, he adds: I think life was simpler when we were in jail.
He remembers the darkest time, just after his wings had been cut to pieces and Cazerin was being forced at knifepoint to recant their Nachalite beliefs. Cazerin took him by the arm and Tishrel thought they might somehow articulate it, the absurdity of this place where they found themselves, its senselessness and horror. Instead, they looked deeply into his eyes and said, “Tishrel, I hate to say this about any hospitality establishment, but it’s time we complain to the manager.”
Tishrel had stared at them wildly, then laughed for the first time in months. It didn’t alleviate the pain, and it didn’t make anything better, but he wasn’t alone.
Strangely, it makes Tishrel smile to think of now. He doesn’t think he’ll be able to sleep, but he does.
In the morning, Eliaha’s death-rattle of a cough is worse. Tishrel thinks they should get some medicinal tea from the public healers, but before he can ask Naharis about that, the household is disturbed yet again by the sound of shouting coming from outside. Tishrel goes out to the verandah and is surprised to see the Legislator and the Convenor, the other two members of the Eyrie’s Council of Three. They’re in their human forms but both furious, scattering sparks from their palms. The Almoner is leaning against the wall, arms folded and impassive as the rock.
“You cannot just throw Eyrie citizens into the crater, Almoner!” the Convenor is shouting. “We’re not animals.”
“We’re not human either,” the Almoner says. “Before the individual, the state. Ours is rotting from the inside out, and it will continue to do so until we rid ourselves of these people!”
“I’d say the rot is by your front door,” the Convenor says, pointing an accusing finger. It’s not yet noon, and the line of today’s petitioners is already beginning to form. “We need to focus on the hungry and the displaced, not worry about anyone in town who’s had a single impure thought!”
“Do you know what this is about?” Tishrel whispers to Naharis, who’s lurking anxiously by his side.
Naharis looks like he’s weighing his words carefully. “A demi-asuric named Keldra,” he says at last. “She used to be one of the alms administrators, she came to the Eyrie after you left. She turned out to be vaguely involved with the Hegemony.”
“What does ‘vaguely involved’ mean?” Tishrel asks, but the Convenor is already answering his question.
“The woman distributed Hegemonic pamphlets,” she says to the Almoner, the sparks of her anger blossoming into flame. “Does she deserve to die for that? Without trial?”
“Trials come after the revolution,” the Almoner hisses. “And a fair trial is more than the Hegemony ever gave to those they oppressed.”
“We’re not like them,” the Convenor says, and raises her burning hands. “Almoner, if this goes on, we will have you removed from office.”
“On what grounds?” the Almoner demands.
“We agreed to you dealing with the traitors in your own household,” the Convenor says, with fraying patience. “We can even understand, to an extent, that your personal experience of the Hegemony takeover has led to some... regrettable actions. But this is too much. Release the woman from custody and let’s have an end to this.”
The Almoner doesn’t look convinced. But then Eliaha emerges from the house, still coughing, and Tishrel decides he doesn’t need to hear any more. “Naharis, I’ll take Eliaha for some tea and breakfast,” he says. “Can you sort out somewhere more permanent for her to stay while she gets on her feet?”
“Of course,” Naharis says, and gives Tishrel one of his rare smiles. “You’re your mother’s daughter, Tishrel.”
“What?” Tishrel says, shocked, but Naharis is gone, bustling towards whatever the day’s next chore is.
Eliaha seems dreamily unaffected by the whole thing, as though the Almoner and her chaotic household are something that’s happening at her rather than to her. Tishrel understands that better than anyone; that warmth and food and comfort are themselves a shock to the system after so long without. He takes her to one of the Eyrie teashops that he remembers from before he left, where he used to sit and sketch the customers while avoiding the Almoner. To his relief, it’s still there and doing good business.
“Oh,” Eliaha says on the threshold, looking no less shaken than before, and Tishrel pauses, trying to see it through her eyes. For him, it’s a typical demi-asuric teashop, familiar and comfortable with heat rising from the space hollowed out in the rock. Dragons in their reptilian form can fly in from below through a cave entrance in the mountainside. Once inside they coil up in corners, taking up luxurious amounts of space and breathing in the scene of jasmine, cardamom, and puddina. To Eliaha, a convert who’s been human most of her life, it must be completely alien. She’s looking around in bemusement both at the great scaly dragons lurking in the corners and at the menu chalked on the rough wall, the human wait staff carrying trays with earthenware jugs.
“It’s all right,” Tishrel says. “Just sit down. I’ll get you something.”
They have the kind of medicinal tea he had in mind, and he brings a jug of it to the table. When he gets back Eliaha seems to have calmed down somewhat. She sips the tea and lets out a slow breath.
“Thank you for all your help,” she says, after a minute. “So, uh. You’re, what, some kind of aristocrat?”
“No,” Tishrel says. “I mean, yes, I’m the Almoner’s daughter, but she’s elected. It’s not hereditary.”
“Still,” Eliaha says. ”How did you, uh—how did you—”
“How did the Almoner’s daughter end up a beggar at a temple doorstep?” Tishrel says. “I do wonder about that, myself.”
“You don’t have to tell me,” Eliaha says, but Tishrel thinks he might as well. It seems to be a day for venting one’s emotions very loudly in public.
“It’s a long story,” he says. “The short version is, about nine or ten years ago, just when the Hegemony were coming up to strength, the Almoner decided that I should take on her role.”
“Didn’t you just say she was elected?” Eliaha asks.
“Yes,” Tishrel says, trying to avoid a digression into demi-asuric political economy. “But it’s a twenty-five year term and can be assigned to someone else, providing the rest of the Council approve it. I woke up one morning to find it had all been decided.”
“Why did she want you to take it?” Eliaha asks.
“She thought I could do it, with her guidance, and that it was time I bound myself to the Eyrie and gave up on my human habits,” Tishrel says, with an old reserve of bitterness creeping to the surface. “And I was young and very angry, so I left and went to the capital.”
“What human habits?” Eliaha says, curiously. She’s too new to this to know the difference between human and demi-asuric ways, Tishrel thinks. Not that there has ever been a clear-cut distinction.
“Mostly, being an artist,” he says. “Our visual tradition pre-dates the human one by several thousand years, no matter what the Almoner thinks about it. Anyway, I went to the capital, and I exhibited some of my work, and I got myself involved with the dissident movement.”
Eliaha looks fascinated. “You never wanted to join up with the Hegemony?” she asks, tentatively. “They thought those like you—like us— were part Divine.”
“They were wrong,” Tishrel says. Even back when he first left the Eyrie, he had enough self-awareness to know that. To be what they are is a Divine blessing, but it doesn’t make them any less mortal or fallible than anyone else.
“So what happened?” Eliaha asks.
“Then I saw one of the mass conversions.”
He remembers that more vividly than anything else in his life, more then his return to the Eyrie or the Hegemony cutting him apart. The Hegemony believed that they could forcibly turn humans demi-asuric. They were wrong—naturally occurring converts like Eliaha are vanishingly rare—but it didn’t stop them filing long lines of humans into fields churned up into mud, pushing them to their knees and attempting it by violence. Divine priestesses are consecrated by running water and a tiny cut to a palm or wingtip. It’s symbolic, just a way to ordain clergy. But the Hegemony believed that if they magnified the violence of it, sliced people’s limbs half off or shoved their heads into troughs until they were almost drowned, it would become not just a ritual but a transformation. In the Hegemonic dream of the future, the humans in the fields would take flight from where they stood.
It never worked. But for all the years the Hegemony were in control, they never stopped trying.
A spasm of pain crosses Eliaha’s face. “Did you... paint what you saw?” she asks, slowly. “On a big canvas, with pencil as well as paint.”
“You’ve seen the picture,” Tishrel says. After he witnessed the attempted conversions, he stayed awake for three days, using pencil and paint and volcanic pigment and anything else he had to hand, to render what he’d seen in journalistic detail. In lieu of signature, he scribbled the demi-asuric precept at the base, we shall embody a wildfire starting, and shortly afterwards a dissident mole in the Hegemony central command arranged for it to appear in an official pamphlet, in place of a domestic scene of the Hegemonic good life. It spread, like a wildfire starting. Tishrel was arrested four days later.
“I think I did, once,” Eliaha says. “What happened to you?”
“I was imprisoned without trial, with the other political prisoners at Tawnpar,” Tishrel says. “I was there for eight years. They let me out shortly before you met me last.”
“Oh,” Eliaha says. “That’s, uh. That’s horrible.”
“Yes, it was,” Tishrel says, suddenly exhausted from this. “But I made it out, and everything’s much better now.”
It comes out more sarcastic than he meant it to. Eliaha doesn’t seem to notice, looking at him with an intensity that he finds disturbing.
“I’m sorry,” she says. “I’m really, really sorry.”
She looks spooked again, overloaded by this story and her unfamiliar surroundings. Tishrel doesn’t feel guilty about that. He lets the conversation lapse into silence, watching as Eliaha processes it all.
“I’ve asked a lot from you already,” she says, after a minute. “But I wondered—would you mind showing me around a little? I just... I don’t know any of this stuff.” She makes a gesture to indicate everything around her, the half-dragons and jugs of tea and the Eyrie as a whole. “I don’t know anything about this place, and you’re the only person I know here.”
Tishrel opens his mouth to say no, then considers. He’s been busy this morning; busy enough not to dwell on misery.
Inside his head, the Almoner asks: can you still be of use to your people, my daughter?
“All right,” he says. He means it, but he’s tired now, and she seems to understand that. She sets down her cup and they head back out to the sunlit street. It’s crowded, more so than it usually is at this time of day, and there are dragons swooping low who are trying to get a closer look at a commotion up ahead. Tishrel and Eliaha are swept up with the crowd pushing their way to the Eye of the Divine.
When they get there, Tishrel understands what’s happening. Either the Almoner won the morning battle with the rest of the Council, or she’s decided to do what she wants anyway. The woman being dragged along on the cart is Keldra, who worked in the Almoner’s administration before she got caught distributing Hegemony pamphlets. The Almoner, in dragon form, pulls her from the cart and pushes her to the ground at the crater’s edge. Even from this distance, Tishrel can see the unmitigated rage and hatred in her face.
“Do you deny it?” the Almoner asks, her voice somewhere between human and a reptilian hiss, and doesn’t wait for the answer. “Can you give me any reason I should not consecrate you to the Divine?”
It’s a hellish euphemism. Tishrel wonders if that might be what Keldra wants, anyway; if she still is a Hegemonic sympathiser, she might want nothing better than to be sacrificed to her faith. But her head comes up, her face clearly visible, and Tishrel knows that all she wants is to live.
It’s too late. In a rush of oil-black wings and rage, the Almoner picks the condemned woman up and drops her into the pit. Tishrel dips his head, not wanting to see it. When he raises his head the Almoner is human again, if still dragonish in aura, outlined with blazing heat haze. To Tishrel’s surprise, she looks directly at him, her face an unreadable mask. Then the crowd are moving on again, bearing him and Eliaha away, and he can’t figure out what it means, if anything. A few minutes ago, he was feeling something other than bitter despair, lightened by the act of telling his own history, of seeing the Eyrie anew through Eliaha’s eyes. All at once, he wants nothing but to hold onto that.
When the crowd disperses, he takes Eliaha by the arm. “Come on. Let’s show you around.”
“I’d like that,” Eliaha says. She gathers herself together, and they head back across the plateau.
My friend, Cazerin writes. What do you remember about the night you were arrested?
You know the story, Tishrel writes back, confused at what does not seem to be an idle inquiry. They came for me in the middle of the night, they said they had good reason to believe I was responsible for Wildfire Starting, they put me in irons and dragged me off.
He pauses, not wanting to leave the letter at that.
I’m teaching a convert how to be a dragon. It’s a very strange experience.
Learning about demi-asuric life from scratch is more complicated than Tishrel had ever realised. He shows Eliaha around the Eyrie in installments, pointing out the way the half-dragons and humans live alongside one another, the demi-asuric finding space for flame and flight among the day-to-day concerns of humanity. Eliaha drinks it all in, walking the alleys and streets of the Eyrie until she knows them almost as well as Tishrel does, spending hours looking up at the dragons flying around the plateau. As well as the physical space they occupy, he tries to introduce her to demi-asuric culture, starting with the temples, where all things begin and end.
“We shall embody a wildfire starting,” Tishrel says formally to the priestess presiding over the day’s ceremonies, which is how Eliaha learns it’s a greeting as well as a precept. The stone temple is made up of a roof supported by four carved columns and no walls. Eliaha, surrounded by blue sky on all sides, asks question after question, all of which the priestess is happy to answer: about the paper-doll sacrifices, about how deaths and births and weddings work here, about why the ceremonial fires are dragon-lit and why all the priestesses are female.
“By tradition,” the priestess says, smiling at Tishrel, who has never thought to ask that question. “But it’s a fiction. We know they aren’t all female, but we speak of them as though they were.”
“So you’re not really the Almoner’s daughter?” Eliaha says to Tishrel, who laughs in surprise.
“That is a very rude thing to say,” he says, but can’t bring himself to take any offence. “Is that all your questions?”
“I have one,” says the presiding priestess, with a hand on Eliaha’s arm. “How do you experience the Divine in yourself?”
In weight and moment, it more than balances the dozen questions Eliaha asked. Tishrel listens with respect to the answer. Eliaha was working as a waitress, living with her sister, trying to make a career as an art scholar and critic. Life was hard and chaotic; then one day while waiting tables she began to feel something strange in her body, not sexual or painful but deeper than either.
“The Hegemony had a pamphlet about it,” she says, ruefully. “It was the most information I had about what was happening to me.”
“That’s a problem,” Tishrel says. “The Almoner has always thought that we don’t do enough to help our converts before they get here.”
“She’s right about that,” the priestess says. “And you, Tishrel? Do you still experience the Divine in yourself?”
Tishrel considers that carefully. “Yes,” he says at last, and she looks at him with approval.
“Nothing could ever cut that out of you,” she says. Tishrel doesn’t know if the choice of words is deliberate, but he doesn’t ask. It’s been a long time since he himself presided over a day’s temple sacrifices—he was consecrated mostly because one child in every generation of a family should be—but he thinks he may do again, some day.
As well as religious culture, there’s the secular kind. Dragons aren’t literary, or even universally literate; they prefer the visual. Tishrel shows Eliaha the grand sculptures dotted around the town, abstract forms carved from stone, too heavy for the local Hegemony agents and sympathisers to dispose of. Two-dimensional art was easier for them to destroy, but there remain a few works hanging in the Eyrie’s public buildings, some of them his own juvenilia. Eliaha regards them with interest, then looks at him with that same strange intensity as before. “You weren’t just an amateur, were you,” she says.
Tishrel remembers that she was trying to make a living as an art critic. “No,” he says, embarrassed. “I was... quite well-regarded, at one time. Although Wildfire Starting will probably always be the most significant thing I’ve ever done.”
That’s how it should be, he thinks. Eliaha looks like she wants to say half a dozen different things and none of them are coming out.
“What happens,” she says finally, “when someone does something bad, here? I mean... if they commit a crime.”
They’re walking back across the plateau, to the public hostel where Naharis has housed Eliaha for the time being. Tishrel isn’t sure how the conversation got from art to criminal activity. “It depends what it is,” he says cautiously. “We have a magistrate for small things, and we used to have inquisitors like they have in the capital. I don’t really know very much about it.”
“I guess you don’t have much crime here,” Eliaha says. “If no one goes hungry, or homeless. You know, the Hegemony used to say that too. Join up, and we’ll take care of you. It wasn’t true.”
“I know,” Tishrel says gently. He thinks of Cazerin, a long way from here, trying to take care of a much larger, hungrier human population. They’re doing their best.
And so is Tishrel, after a fashion. He’s helping Eliaha, and he’s doing little sketches to amuse the children of the daily petitioners lined up outside the house, and he’s somehow filling his days without thinking too hard about throwing himself in the pit. It’s something. It keeps him from crossing paths with the Almoner, who has settled down somewhat in the last few weeks. The Council considered removing her from office after Keldra’s execution, and they still might follow through on that. At least the Almoner is no longer hauling people out of their homes and throwing them to the flames, Tishrel thinks. If that’s all he can hope for, it will have to do.
How common are converts? Cazerin asks. If I were trying to track one down, how difficult would it be?
They’re rare, Tishrel writes back. Why do you want to know?
It takes some time for a reply to come, and in the meantime, something happens that he should have expected: Eliaha asks him to help her learn to fly.
At first, he wants to refuse. He hasn’t told her about his cut wings and has no intention of doing so now. Naharis can find someone else to teach her, or she can figure it out on her own, like generations of converts before her. But he’s on his way to tell her so when he accidentally bumps into the Almoner, who’s talking to a petitioner who wants some help getting their youngest child a job. She stares at Tishrel, and Tishrel stares back, an enormous weight of words unspoken between them.
Can you be of any use to your people, my daughter?
Tishrel ducks his head, silently cursing himself and the Almoner and the Hegemony and everything else in the world, and goes to the hostel to fetch Eliaha. “It’s the weather for it,” he says.
She’s surprised at this sudden urgency but comes with him to a particular spot on the other side of the plateau. It’s quiet, sheltered ground; a good place to learn.
“I can’t fly myself,” Tishrel says to Eliaha upfront. “Don’t ask me to. I’ll help you as best as I can without that.”
“All right,” Eliaha says, not prying, and Tishrel is grateful. He scopes out the edge of the flat mountaintop, identifying the shallowest slope. It’s treacherous and covered in loose grit and boulders, but it isn’t a sheer drop. Tishrel takes Eliaha to the top of the slope.
“Change, run down, don’t think,” he says. “With the downward sweep you’ll find it easier to reach lift speed.”
“I need a run-up?” Eliaha says, confused. Tishrel tries to bear in mind that she’s never done this before.
“Not in due course,” he says. “But it will help to begin with. If you don’t want those clothes to freeze into solid ice, you’ll take them off.”
Eliaha glares at him. “I can’t, with you just standing there looking at me!”
“That kind of self-consciousness is a human habit,” Tishrel says, something he used to tell Cazerin. Eliaha turns away from him anyway to shed her clothes. She glances over her shoulder and then sheds her human form as well. It distorts reality around her so Tishrel’s vision blacks out for a moment, and when he can see clearly again her dragonish form occupies the whole width of the slope. Her scales are red and black, arranged in a coral snake pattern, with gold-tinged wings translucent in the morning sun. White flame flickers at their edges, almost invisible in the daylight. It’s a beautiful sight, and it makes Tishrel’s heart hurt.
Now? Eliaha asks, putting words directly into his mind.
“Now,” Tishrel says. “Don’t think about it. Don’t be human about it. Just go.”
When she reaches the bottom of the slope, she hits lift speed, the point at which it’s no longer possible to stay earthbound even if she wanted to, and rises. She turns head over tail in mid-air, narrowly clearing the tree line below, and straightens out. Tishrel can see the moment she discards her humanity completely, letting instinct take over. Everything she needs to know about maintaining speed, altitude, vector, is within her body, in the flex and extension of her muscles. Tishrel closes his eyes at the sight of it, taken apart by a grief that will never leave him, and by the knowledge that he is still a creature of fire and depth and sky, and that that, too, will never leave him. From somewhere deep inside him, a voice says: you are a thing Divine-made, and you shall embody a wildfire starting.
Eliaha comes in to land. Tishrel steps back, letting her know he trusts her to manage it for herself. She hits the base of the slope, discharges residual speed in the climb to the plateau, and changes back into human form. This time she’s not worried about her clothes. She drops to the ground and lies flat on her back in the full glow of the morning sun. Tishrel lets her be, needing the time for himself, to let that intensity of emotion wash through him and away. Dragons don’t cry, but Cazerin used to, in the quiet of the night. Tishrel envied them that sort of catharsis.
At length, Eliaha gets dressed and comes to sit on the hard ground next to him. “Thank you,” she says. “It must have been difficult for you, not being able to fly for so long.”
Tishrel can’t tell if she’s guessed the truth and this is her way of hinting at it, or if she just means the years of his incarceration. “It was,” he says. There’s nothing he can add, but that, too, is liberating: it happened, and there’s nothing else to say. “Thank you, too,” he says.
Eliaha smiles at him. They walk back across the plateau in the blazing sun, and for the first time in a long time Tishrel can feel peace inside him as well as flame. When he gets home, he finds Cazerin has sent him a bundle of papers, with a covering note.
It’s not revenge. But I hope it will be something.
Tishrel stares at the one line in Cazerin’s tiny handwriting, brought here hand to hand, wingtip to wingtip, over a distance it took him almost a year to cross. And then he understands, finally, what Cazerin has done for him.
Converts are easy to track. The Hegemony didn’t burn all their records. Under the note is a copy of an official document: a newly issued warrant for Eliaha’s arrest.
The Almoner looks up from her desk as Tishrel marches into her study. When he went to the public hostel, he found that Eliaha had already been taken away. Naharis is away dealing with the day’s petitioner list. There’s nothing for it but this.
“Tishrel,” the Almoner says, putting down her copy of the warrant, but he doesn’t let her finish.
“Don’t kill her,” he says urgently. “Please don’t.”
The Almoner just stares at him. Dragons don’t say please, and they don’t ask for clemency, and they give up their power over others only for the good of all.
“I know who she is,” Tishrel says. “I know what she did to me. Don’t kill her.”
The Almoner inhales sharply, and Tishrel thinks the room is about to burst into flames. But whatever she was going to say, the words seem to slip away from her, and the papers fall from her hands. “Let’s go outside,” she says.
They go out through the verandah to the crater and sit with their feet dangling over the edge, and Tishrel feels a sense of crushing inevitability. Everything that’s happened since his return seems to have led to this: himself and the Almoner, and the Eye of the Divine. It’s a minute before either of them speaks.
“Let’s get this right,” the Almoner says softly. “One of my petitioners is the Hegemony informant who informed on you.”
“She was an expert in asuric art,” Tishrel says. “She had joined up with the Hegemony because they were the only people who could help her understand her conversion.”
“And she—” The Almoner doesn’t finish that sentence, her hands curling compulsively. “How do you know this, Tishrel? I had it directly from the capital inquisitors.”
“Cazerin wrote to me personally, too,” Tishrel says. “They were my cellmate. My friend.”
“I didn’t know that,” the Almoner says, still with that uncharacteristic softness.
“You didn’t ask.”
“I suppose I didn’t.” The Almoner shakes her head, and Tishrel realizes she’s uncertain, as well as angry. “So this girl informed on you, and you ask for mercy for her. Why?”
Tishrel is still trying to answer that question for himself. It’s not out of affection, although he did like Eliaha very much and enjoyed her company.
“Because I’m tired, and this isn’t the way we do things,” he says at last. That’s true, as far as it goes, but it falls short of his bone-deep revulsion at the thought of seeing someone else thrown to the flames.
The Almoner is still looking at him like a lost soul. “But this was for you,” she says. “This was all for you.”
“All of what?” Tishrel asks, and then it hits him, a shattering clarity. Long ago, the dragons of the Eyrie commemorated life’s waypoints, birth and death and any great thing in between, by the sacrifice of twelve humans thrown into the pit. In these modern times paper dolls serve the same purpose, but now, the Almoner, consumed by grief and rage, has turned back to the ancient ways. “Those executions. They were for me.”
“Tishrel,” the Almoner says, but she doesn’t have a denial for him, and he knows it.
“A sacrifice to honor my death,” he says, with flame building up in his palms, casting intense coronas of light on the ground beneath him. He’s so angry he can barely speak. “I lived through eight years of torture, and I crossed a thousand miles one foot after another. If I had been human it would have killed me, but it didn’t. I don’t need a death sacrifice. I lived.”
“I didn’t know that!” the Almoner says again, hissing. “I thought you were dead. For years, I thought you were dead. And then we got word that you were alive, somewhere, perhaps dying in deprivation and pain, and I couldn’t come looking for you. I couldn’t send Naharis to look for you. Do you know why?”
“Yes,” Tishrel says, but she doesn’t seem to hear him.
“Because what I do here is more important than you,” the Almoner says. “The Eyrie is more important than you.”
“I know,” Tishrel says. “I told you that, the moment I got here. I know why you didn’t come for me.”
“I couldn’t,” the Almoner says, more to herself than him, and in that level tone Tishrel hears a multitude of things unsaid. There was nothing the Almoner could do, except root out the Hegemony’s sympathisers and throw them to the flames.
“I understand that,” he says, with his anger dulling around the edges. He has empathy for helplessness, and for pain. “I’m not human. I’m one of us. Why do you think I wouldn’t understand?”
The Almoner just looks at him. “Because you left. You left all this behind.”
“What?” Tishrel says, thrown. “I didn’t leave all this behind! I was just angry with you!”
When he puts it like that, it sounds petty and stupid. But the Almoner seems struck by it anyway, gazing down at the magma surface.
“Just me,” she says, slowly. “Not all of us.”
“No,” Tishrel says. Again, he has that sense of utter revulsion, against being anything other than what he is, of belonging anywhere but the Eyrie, this high, lovely place where no one is hungry and no body is a sin. “I am one of us, Almoner. I always was.”
“Yes,” the Almoner says, with relief blossoming into her face, followed by a grief that Tishrel knows no one else has ever seen. “I’m sorry, Tishrel. I really am.”
She reaches out to him, pushing his hair out of his eyes with a single obsidian claw. He thinks he hears her say, my daughter, the daughter of us all.
Then she pulls away from him and screams, a dragonish cry that echoes around the crater and makes new cracks in the rocks. It is prayer for the unanswerable: why did this happen; why this, why us, why here, why now. Tishrel’s instinct is to put his wings over his head to hide from it, and he chokes when he remembers why he can’t. Instead he holds fast, lets it break over him like a wave. When it dies away, he looks up and sees the Almoner he’s always known: vicious, uncompromising, committed to the good of all.
After that, there isn’t anything else for a while. They both stare down into the pit, watching the true dragons blend and unblend with the rock.
“All this,” the Almoner says, finally. “All of it, for a painting.”
“It’s a good painting,” Tishrel says. “I was quite proud of it.”
She snorts. “Tishrel, could you try not be more annoying than you can possibly help.”
“I don’t regret it,” Tishrel says seriously. “Thousands of people saw Wildfire Starting. It told them the truth about what was happening around them. It was worth it for that.”
The Almoner nods. Tishrel watches as she thinks it through, not sure how she’ll react.
“I wish I could see it,” she says, and something warms inside Tishrel’s heart. “What now, my daughter? You would have me grant mercy to that girl? After what she did to you?”
“Not mercy,” Tishrel says. He’s figured out what he wants to give to Eliaha, currently in the Eyrie’s sole holding cell waiting for whatever happens next. “I’ve spent the last month with her, telling her that we’re civilised, that we’re cultured, that we look after people. That we don’t value individual vengeance.”
The Almoner flinches, acknowledging the blow. “What’s your point?”
“My point is, didn’t we used to have inquisitors?” Tishrel says. “Like Cazerin. Before the Hegemony came.”
“We did,” the Almoner allows. “The Legislator and Convenor are working on reinstating them. They’ll remove me from office if I try to go around them again.”
“Good,” Tishrel says. “That’s what I want. Put her in front of an inquisitor. If they say she’s guilty, then they can punish her. It can be like it was before.”
“Are you sure?” the Almoner asks. “If you want me to kill this woman, I will. Don’t doubt that for a moment.”
“No,” Tishrel says. “We are not the Hegemony, and she is one of us.”
“All right,” the Almoner says, sounding like her usual self. “Arrangements will be made. In the meantime she can stay locked up. Are we finished here?”
“Not quite,” Tishrel says. “I want to see her. Eliaha. I’d like to talk to her one more time.”
“Do as you will, Tishrel,” the Almoner says. “Not that I could ever stop you.”
She sounds indulgent, not bitter. Tishrel bows to her, in respect of her office, and leaves to see Eliaha.
The holding cell, such as it is, is deep within the rock of the plateau, at the end of a passage that smells of sulphur and dragon scales. The bars are rusty, the air stale. Tishrel takes the key from the guard and goes inside, closing the door behind him. He sits on the magma-warmed floor and waits for Eliaha to react.
“Tishrel,” Eliaha says. She’s shocked to see him, but then the words spill out, quick and fearful. “I didn’t know it was you, when I first met you. I didn’t know, do you understand?”
“But you did identify the painting,” Tishrel says. “The Hegemony asked, and you answered.”
“Back then, I trusted them,” Eliaha says. “They’d been good to me. They said I was holy, and I mattered, and they’d look after me through my conversion. I didn’t know what they did to people!”
“I see,” Tishrel says, leaning against the door and closing his eyes. He’s so tired.
“And then I came here, and you told me about your paintings, and then I didn’t know what to do,” Eliaha says frantically. “You were so kind to me, and all of that was so long ago.”
It was, Tishrel thinks. So long ago, in a far-off place, where no one got anything for free.
“It wasn’t kindness,” he says. “It was just what we do. Do you know now, what the Hegemony did to people?”
She doesn’t. She only knows that he was in prison for a long time.
For a moment, he wants to show her, to bring her face to face with all that unseen damage he’s been carrying for as long as she’s known him. But the impulse passes, leaving him tired and sad.
He tells her about it instead, in quick, terse phrases, and watches her sink down against the wall, her arms coming up to cover her head. She’s trying to get out some words—an apology, or a request for forgiveness—but he finds he doesn’t care much. It’s not revenge, Cazerin said, and it isn’t. The Eyrie will give Eliaha the justice that is due to her, and to him, too.
Tishrel waits a minute longer, then calls in the guard. He gives back the keys, takes a step out into the passageway, then pauses on the threshold.
“You’re right about one thing,” he says to Eliaha. “You are holy, and you do matter. And you will be, even if they do end up throwing you in the pit.”
The inquisitor won’t sentence her to death, he’s sure, not for anything short of murder, but he doesn’t tell her that. He goes back down the long passageway with his head down, and he isn’t surprised when he walks straight into the Almoner. She takes his hand and leads him out into the light of day.
“I heard what you said,” she says, her voice cracking. “About what they did to you.”
“Do you still think it was my fault?” Tishrel asks, not willing to let that go. She said it to him in cold blood, and something inside his soul listened to it.
“Yes,” the Almoner says, and as he jerks away from her, holds up a claw. “You chose an action, and chose the consequences of that action, good and bad. I wish you hadn’t, because they hurt you. But it was your choice.”
Tishrel nods. The Almoner’s respect is a brighter jewel than her sympathy.
“Tishrel,” the Almoner says, looking at him with softness in her face. “You didn’t show her. Will you show me?”
It’s a request, not an order. Tishrel considers, and then does it. He doesn’t owe her this, but he finds he wants to give her the truth.
Reality distorts around them. And then Tishrel is what he was meant to be, a silver-winged dragon hallowed by flame. His vision turns black and white, with the gleaming overlay of infrared, and it feels like coming home.
But then he tries to raise his wings over his head and nothing happens, except a sickening drag on his muscles. His wings are torn and rent with scar tissue, the skin cleaved away from bone. It doesn’t hurt. It doesn’t feel like anything at all.
Beside him, the Almoner lets out a breath. “My daughter, and the daughter of us all,” she says.
And what was done to him was done to all, Tishrel understands. He shifts back into human form and lets her hold him for a while, to allow the shivers to pass. The Almoner doesn’t burden him with more words. They stay like that for as long as they need, bathed in sunlight and the Eyrie’s bright air.
“You know,” the Almoner says, when Tishrel can stand unaided again, “even if they don’t strip me of office, my term will run out soon. Naharis would make you a good election agent.”
“I am not doing your job!” Tishrel says. “Don’t you ever give up?”
“Where do you think you get it from, you idiot child?” the Almoner says. “Well, I suppose you’ll think of something to do.”
“I’m sure I will,” Tishrel says. He should write to Cazerin to tell them what’s happened. He could ask Naharis if there’s anything on the list of petitioner tasks that he can take off his mother’s hands. In due course he’ll need to give evidence to the Eyrie inquisitor in Eliaha’s trial.
Here, now, he plans to sit out here on the crater’s edge, with pencil and paper, and watch his people come in to land.