By the time Melishem returns to her birth-city Tessellated Talyut, there is little of her that anyone can recognize. Her gaze burns unhuman amber, her bare scalp glistens with meteorite blood, her articulated arms murmur with live moths. Antennae peek through the gaps in her joints, more delicate and superb than any lace.
Her bare feet track salt across the earth, leaving shriveled worms and withered grass in her wake. She has been walking a long time, unresting and unseeing of any sight save her objective.
She arrives before the Gate of Glaives at sunrise, the sky green and trembling behind her.
“I’ve come back,” she rasps in a voice of burnt honey and rust, more bitter than sweet, “to fight Sikata Lantern-of-God.”
The gate-guard, one of her brothers, looks down and fights not to flinch; he knew her well once, and so notices the change within as well as without: she does not see him, let alone recall that he is her kin. Still he tries. “First Sister,” he calls. There is no answer. “You’ve returned too late. Sikata is gone.”
A flicker, something like an expression, crosses the ruin of her face. Her eyes track his movements with a predator’s edge, and despite the distance he can see razor-shapes flitting within her irises. They seem too big to fit and yet her eyes seem infinitely enormous, an ocean. “What do you mean?”
He moves to climb down out of sibling obligation—family is family—but stops himself. This is not, quite, his sister. Instead he stays on his perch, a distance that grants him the illusion of safety. “Talyut was under siege. She perished in our defense and purchased us another year of peace.”
Melishem’s head twitches side to side, as of a bird sighting an intriguing morsel. “There was a war?”
“You have been gone a long time.” The guard draws a breath of the acrid, leaden air: dust and starvation, smoke and shrapnel. “She won the duel but succumbed to a wound in her shadow. I will show you her grave.”
Sikata Lantern-of-God. Named so for her accomplishment, her peerless skill with mirror-gun and sliver-knife: thus she is fit to be God’s light. The same chosen weapons as Melishem’s. The same age, and they grew hand in hand, learning forms and fighting routines side by side. They were equal, and Melishem was content.
In Talyut, as all cities under She Who Devours Suns, the brightest and sharpest of duelists are selected as champions to decide the course of war and justice, policy and commerce. When Melishem and Sikata came of age, all believed Talyut would appoint two champions.
Their match lasted three hours without reprieve, a feat far beyond human endurance. It did not conclude in a draw. It concluded with Sikata the victor.
Sikata has been buried at the apex of the city’s potentiates, the possibility-pillars that converge in Talyut, and her grave is a work of art. The rarest substances have been secured to create her likeness: chassis of cured viscera harvested from the stomachs of dream-behemoths, limbs of anglerfish-steel and thunder-ivory, streaming hair spun from mourning threads and ballistic certainty. Her weapons rest with her, polished to star-gleam and oiled serpent-sleek.
Melishem gazes at all this with her thoughts unmoored, her feet circumscribed by dead soil and her lungs filled with air purified by potentiates. She attempts to connect the shrine with what she has seen in her homecoming. In her passage through the city, she witnessed cracked concourses and jaundiced houses, calcified gardens and permafrost patches where once there were olive trees rich with fruits. But it did not occur to her to take notice.
In her journeys, she did a great many things. She extinguished ghost forests and sank fox islets. She broke her body and put it back together, stronger and faster than before. She went under the earth, swam through its slow-moving capillaries, and drank of eternity. But her thoughts had room for one name and one goal only: Sikata.
And now Sikata is no more, here only in shrine, in image. In memory.
She is aware, as a mountain is aware of distant winds, of the guard murmuring questions. Where have you been, what have you done to yourself, God grant us Her strength for we have no champion now. She is aware that she has seen no children in Talyut, where once the streets ran thick with them, the day wealthy with their laughing and crying, the roof-tiles jangling under their fleet-footed runs. But she says only, “Give me a number of days; grant me a home where I may cook and be alone.”
Talyut’s governor vacates his iron mansion, ordering his servants to stock the kitchen and pantries well before they leave, and to put all its rooms in immaculate order. When Melishem comes to its leopard corridors and lynx chambers, she finds them clean and perfumed, furnished with every luxury one could need. She pays it all little heed, for her attention is elsewhere, her will planted on Sikata’s grave like a flag.
A number of days pass.
When it happens, the sky creases and pulses. The ground before Sikata’s shrine bristles, implosions of frost budding percussive through pavement. A body falls, producing no more impact or sound than a leaf. Fangs and cilia spring up, to protect or perhaps imprison. Melishem lets them bite and lash at her, though most fail to penetrate the alloy of her skin.
The body is nearly weightless, its heft and substance that of a paper effigy.
In the governor’s estate, Melishem lays the body on an iron bed. She covers it with a clean sheet, the fabric’s turquoise in bright contrast to the slate flesh.
While waiting, she makes broth. Elephant meat boiled to soft mush, hard spices and condiments ground into thick paste: sunrise cardamom and snake onion, a pinch of squid-salt, the marinated peel of agate mandarins. The kitchen fills with their fragrances, which pour like spilled warmth through rafters and ceiling and ventilation pipes. She does not, as her mother used to, hum as she cooks. Here and there she pauses, considering whether to change her face to a façade more human-seeming; she decides against this.
The window admits blue light as she begins cooking. By the time she hears the corpse waking up, the day has given way to the greenery of dusk.
She fills a bowl with the broth and climbs the steps in quick long strides.
The corpse has sat upright, dislodging the sheet. Gray and naked, face defined by precise symmetry: a jaw almost triangular, cheeks so gaunt they barely hide the skull underneath, a high pointed nose. The mouth is full to risqué ripeness and the eyes are immense, fringed by russet lashes. They blink as they settle on Melishem, a somnambulist’s bemusement rather than alarm.
Melishem puts the bowl in the dead hands. “Eat.”
This is obeyed. Jaw and throat work with reptilian appetite, swallowing spiced mush whole. When the bowl is empty, Melishem wipes the pallid mouth with a napkin. From the governor’s wardrobe she selects marble camisole and quartz tunic, compensating for the loose fit with a crocodile belt. It is not exactly what Sikata would have chosen for herself, but the wardrobe runs to frills and translucent fabrics, and these are the closest that match Sikata’s preference. Ever on the ascetic side. Faintly Melishem recalls having teased Sikata for that.
She puts the weapons, retrieved from the shrine, in Sikata’s lap. “Do you remember these? Touch them. Handle them.”
The corpse does, and when it does so with the grace and familiarity Melishem expects, she nods in satisfaction. “Come with me. We will practice.”
They have the run of the governor’s mansion. For sparring, Melishem has chosen the auditorium where state banquets were held, now cleared of all furniture and accoutrements of wealth. It was where Sikata was sworn in, though Melishem didn’t stay for the ceremony. She doesn’t remember why not. In retrospect it seems immeasurably rude.
The auditorium is insulated from Talyut by silence and murals of alien skies, convolutions of black singularities in opposition, ziggurat moons and candlewick suns. Melishem enjoys it: the hall reminds her of the places she has killed, attired in the solitude of its carcass and beautiful in its ruin. Stasis and inertia draw her as few other attributes do. “Was it like this, in God’s mouth?” she wonders aloud. “In her sacred belly? Or is the afterlife, as they say, full of the suns and stars she swallowed?”
Sikata looks at her, frowning slightly. “I owe fealty to her domain, stranger. I may not impart her mysteries to the living. And you are living, are you not, despite your accoutrements and alterations?”
Melishem starts. She did not expect Sikata to speak, let alone express sapience; the soul is meant to sleep until Melishem wakes it by revealing who it was in life. Perhaps her procedure was flawed or perhaps Sikata’s will is simply that strong. “Say your name.”
“My—” Sikata looks down at her hands, at the weapons that fit so easily between her fingers. “They will come to me. I was... I was... a city. No, that’s not right. I represented a city? I governed one? No, that’s not it either.” A gravid hesitation. “I had a family, I’m sure of that; I was married, with children. Are you my wife?”
It tempts Melishem to say yes: to mold Sikata into what she wants, reinvent their history and so recast their future. Had she known what the wife looks like, she could even take on that appearance. “I am—was—not your wife. Not even close to it.” She plucks the countless possibility-lines that radiate from Talyut’s core; she makes them sing. “For now, I want to see you fight.”
They bloom out of the marble ground, ghost aggregates splitting into razor limbs and limpid eyes, the phantoms of battlefields past. Civil wars have rent Talyut in those dark times before God and her justice. Before the duels. The memories of those soldiers rise now, circling Sikata. To them there is only foe.
Sikata’s reaction is economically precise. Slashes that amputate. Shots that terminate hearts. In a moment all that remains are bisected ghost mouths gibbering forgotten words, sliced arteries pumping phantom pain, and fragmented medallions denoting ranks long out of use. To any human eye this is flawless performance. To Melishem, it is merely adequate: too slow, too many openings.
As Sikata is—as Sikata was at the time of her demise—she would be no match for Melishem.
An unwelcome revelation, but one Melishem already suspected and has prepared for. She dismisses the phantom carcasses. On her part Sikata has sheathed her blade and holstered her gun, looking bemused at the dissolving carnage, at what she has done. “I was a fighter,” she says, voice unmoored. “Except for what reason, in what cause? Combat isn’t its own justification.”
“No. It is a tool to be wielded for worthier ends, a crude means to achieve and realize that which is abstract and elegant and noble. Without a cause violence is simply brute, an animal response.”
“It’s a useful tool,” Melishem says. “Don’t you wish to hone it? To best your own skills, to exceed yourself as you are now. I promise that a cause awaits you, withering in your absence, and that you left behind a fight unfinished.”
Sikata peers at the wall, but it is opaque and allows no room on its surface for her reflection. “If that is true, then what you offer me is a great gift available to few: to come back from God’s mouth and redeem oneself from what must have been ignoble defeat. What, stranger, is your price?”
Such certainty that there must be one, Melishem marvels. “Your presence and return are their own justification.” It is not an untruth. “All I ask is that you apply your body to the blade and the gun, and your will to recall.”
Her dead age-mate studies her, gray skin lustrous and poreless in this light, almost more artwork than a living thing—but then, she is not alive anymore. “There’s a hunger in you. For all your puissance you are starved for something. If only I discover what that is then I will know all, I will turn it in you and you’ll unlatch beautifully like a door.”
Melishem tries to remember if Sikata has always been like this, or if the afterlife has altered her elements: hardened her character, made her simultaneously more frank and secretive, but as with much else the details crumble and fall through her fingers like sand. So she simply orients herself toward her goal, this single course and single endpoint.
On her part Sikata spars against the phantoms with cold efficiency, as though she is aware of the briefness of her facsimile body. Melishem supposes it is a natural thing to assume: that there is not just a price but also a deadline, that she is brought back for a specific purpose rather than given another chance to live out domestic bliss. Melishem raises phantoms more and more substantial, war-veterans drunk with battle thirst, arachnids armed with predator cunning and human malice. Each falls to Sikata, who excels in leaps and masters her techniques in bounds.
“If you are not my wife,” Sikata says as she dusts off arachnid ethers from her blade, “then what does she look like? Her name, her smell, her favorite dishes. Does she cook, does she smell like saffron and sunlight; does she drink from cowrie cups or erhu-glasses? Is she tall so I must climb her like a tree when we kiss? Tell me. Tell me.“
It occurs to Melishem she should have asked someone. She does not know. When she left they were both too young to wed (not too young to fight), and Sikata had not yet shown interest of that sort. “I cannot say.” The wife would be numinous, she thinks, and they would have met when Sikata was sparring, or maybe at an orchard. Sikata likes growing things, fruits, the earth itself beautiful to Sikata: rain like magic, wet mud like jewels. The wife has to be, Melishem decides, a gardener. Black dirt under nails, smelling emerald as sunlight.
Sikata’s mouth tightens but she does not press, believing perhaps that answers must be earned. She meets the next phantoms in concentrated fury. Entire battalions crumple and meet their second deaths. The weight of a thousand sieges burn up and wither before Sikata’s might. She does not tire or rest—the body Melishem gave her knows neither hunger nor thirst, and feel no more fatigue than any corpse would.
“If you won’t speak of my wife,” Sikata says as she shakes free of a god-beast’s wilting cilia, “then tell me of my office. Its stature, its height, its essential temperament. Did it demand violence, did it require grace and justice? Did it demand wisdom in the application of force, or was it content with base impulse? What was I in this office and did I shape it to me, or the other way around? Tell me. Tell me.”
The office. To Melishem it never carried its own meaning; it was merely adjunct and appendage to the fate-line binding her to Sikata, a symbol of their lives side by side, their parallel existences. A symbol that Sikata and she were equal in arms. “Your office was duty and piety.” Her thought snags on the gate-guard as she tries to assemble what champion signifies. “Your office was hope.”
“That is less than what I wanted to know, but it will do. My thanks, stranger.”
And a knot in Melishem loosens, after all. She feels a stranger to herself, light on her feet, a traveler fated to wander always—but whose destination comes upon her suddenly and seizes her in its jaw, an ecstasy of homecoming.
Melishem measures out the time remaining to Sikata carefully, calculating and recalculating until she has it down within the hour: when Sikata’s body will slow, wind down, and surrender her spirit. God’s domain calls back its own—no amount of power in the world can contest the pull of divine gravity, the umbilicus of God’s hunger. Still she considers whether she can build another frame, repeat the summons, and extend Sikata’s time on mortal soil indefinitely.
On burnt paper she pins the anatomy of Sikata’s span; in jars and nets of sluggish time she simulates and experiments. She finds that while she could repeat the process, she would—literally—repeat the rest; she can pluck Sikata’s spirit forth again, from the point after her death but before this summoning. What she gets would be a simulacrum, an image copied from a certain moment that will know nothing of what has transpired since. The next iteration might ask different questions, might not say My thanks, stranger in a way that eases the pressure inside Melishem. There is no constant. Sikata-in-fugue is a variable without limits.
Melishem cooks for them both. Out of everything that has frayed and worn to thin rags in her recall, it is this that she has held onto: the heat and sizzle of sunflower oil in the pan, the bite of fish sauce on a bed of jasmine rice, the rich chili-and-herb pastes.
Each time she would set the table between training sessions, Sikata would say, “I don’t need to eat,” but the dead duelist nevertheless would taste, comment on the flavors, finish the dishes. Sometimes she’d say, “This is saturated with fat and it would be the death of my heart, had I one still pumping” or “So hot! So beautiful to eat, it reminds me...” But she would trail off.
They drink plain water or the occasional treat of coconut milk thinned by ice cubes, mildly sugared, tasting of an easier and wealthier time.
At the end of one meal, Sikata turns to Melishem and says, “One last question, stranger. When you brought me back, was it for love or duty? Was it my office that paid for you or my wife, or was it simply your own purpose?”
Melishem puts her spoon and fork together, prim. A matter of decorum. She’s been raised for decorum, for propriety; that much stays intrinsic in her bones. “Does it matter? Does the intent affect the result?”
“When the result is human—” Sikata holds up a wrist, bloodless and varnished by the afterlife, and lets it fall: acknowledging the irony of human when she’s not entirely that. “When the result is human, when the heart moves the course of history, intent is aim and fire. It may not meet the mark perfectly, may not be total, but motive is the animating force.”
“I don’t know whether you are quite wise or quite naïve.” Melishem sips. Coconut milk today, still glittering with thaw, miniature icebergs sloshing in the cup. “I work at no one’s behest but my own.”
“That does not answer whether you act in love or selfishness.”
“I can think of few passions more selfish than love.”
To that Sikata says, after a moment, “Give me the most difficult beast of what you have. The supreme, final challenge. If I don’t know myself entire, still I know my skill. I am ready.”
Melishem does not dispute.
In the auditorium, she draws on wars past and future, pulling not on individual combatants but on the accumulated fury: the will behind a trigger pulled, the force behind a blade swung, the snap at which a neck is proven nothing more than fragile stem holding fruit—ripe for the picking to bare hands. Those instants spiked by adrenaline and massacre, by self-preservation and will to kill. Desperation or calculation, the beginning of a successful strike or the last dregs of a scattered retreat, Melishem distills them all.
What she conjures is space creased and warped into kaleidoscope. It takes up most of the hall, blotting out the reality of the murals, eroding the furniture to insubstance. Ground and ceiling fade out likewise, leaving the kaleidoscope, Melishem, and Sikata existentially underscored—hyperreal.
“You won’t be fighting an enemy or even a multitude of enemies.” Melishem staggers, catches herself. This feat has taxed even her, drained the comet’s core she has taken into her: a power source with which she has replaced the frail organ of her heart. “You’ll be fighting the war imperative itself, the impulse to strike and shatter, the fever-thirst to bite down and rip.”
“Have you fought such a thing yourself?”
Melishem gazes at the kaleidoscope’s boundaries; she is seized momentarily by the sense of being in two places at once, then and now. She was still breakable bones and mutable flesh when she challenged something like this to hone herself. “Yes.”
“Then so will I.”
Sikata stretches her hands. The warp of space reaches back to her, winding up her arms, her shoulders. All colors, as beautiful as a duelist’s pennant, silken grace. It opens in a gash; it engulfs her whole.
A number of days pass.
Melishem leaves the palace to visit the empty place that holds Sikata’s grave. She kneels and sips at potentiates to replenish the comet’s core, converting entropic emanations into life’s blood. She thinks of the words she could have said but did not, the answer to effigy-Sikata’s final question. I love you, that is why I brought you back, that is why I’ve made you my goal. Your name kept me human while I had myself vivisected and my arteries injected with secrets so I might wring miracles out of blank ether. I do not love you as a sister, I do not desire to be your wife, but I love you to an ache. No duty can move me as love has.
Each dawn, she cooks a meal for two, makes the flavors the most intense she can, the aromas so mouthwatering and sweet-savory that connoisseurs might cross continents to taste. She garnishes meat with turmeric and lemongrass, holy basil and sinful saffron. Rice blooms in pots, swelling bruise-purple and lush yellow. Cicada peppers rub red-green wings, making incessant song atop dishes. The meal she brings to the auditorium, where she sits and waits, eating alone.
A gate-guard tries to meet her, but she refuses him audience. The governor sends word requesting her presence; this she also ignores. She does speak to a few market vendors, trading foreign alloy bars for spices she can’t find in the palace pantry, for fresh eggs.
She hears, when it happens, the creaking stutter of reality in protest.
Melishem comes to the auditorium in time to see her conjuring dissolve. The kaleidoscope cracks in a glissando of spent cartridges, dogged by the basso-profundo thump of exhausted shells. When the last echo and tattered light have burned out, there is Sikata: chunks have been bitten out of her body, crescent holes have been shot through her leaving void-punctures where her substance has been negated.
Her eyes in contrast are whole and calm. “Stranger, I saw you within. Your past, or your future. A blizzard rages, there is fertile land behind you; you are fighting season itself, your back against taloned pyres.”
“I’ve made you steamed cake,” Melishem says. “It’s still hot.”
Sikata kneels, uncovers the steamer basket, and inhales. She breaks off a generous chunk, puts it in her mouth. “How gorgeous.” Tears bead and flow, though her expression remains serene as if her eyes are merely expelling liquid. The way pores perspire, a biological function beyond either sentiment or control. She eats, eats, finishes—not a brown crumb is left. “I don’t know what it is about that place you sent me to. It incited a prodigious thirst, for all that I’m unliving.”
Melishem pours a bowl of jasmine-scented water. She’s out of coconut milk. When the bowl is empty too, she says, “Sikata Lantern-of-God, champion to Tessellated Talyut, appointed by strength and divine mandate.”
Sikata is unresponsive and then, after a full minute, “Yes.”
“Yes?” Melishem blinks. She expected a stronger reaction. The dead return to themselves more harshly than this.
“You called me thus, in that place of battle. Or will call me, one day. And so I regained myself, my past, my family.” Sikata holds up her hands, looking at the poreless gray that substitutes skin, its ceramic finish. “I will not want them to see me like this. You... you I don’t recognize, even now. I should. But—”
The hour where secrets fall away like shed armor. So much easier to remain a stranger. She steadies herself, steadies her voice. “Melishem. I’m Melishem.”
This time, a pause. It coils tight, tighter. Sikata’s effigy face has drawn taut, devoid of expression or dimension. A thin mask over her doll’s skull. “Melishem.” A mouthful of air held carefully, then pushed out through teeth. “Where have you been? What did you do to yourself?”
“I’ve ranged the breadth of the Occident, fought and crushed their heathen warriors. I hunted demons that were deserts, foxes that were islands, ghosts that were forests.” Absently she soothes the moths poking out of her joints; they have become agitated, drawn by the brightness leaking through the holes in Sikata. “I flensed myself of all that I didn’t need.”
“Where were you when Talyut most needed you?”
Melishem starts, catches herself recoiling. “Talyut has long made clear I am not required.”
“Is that what it is?” Sikata makes a choked noise. “I asked them to appoint us both, but I was too young then and barely proven; the priests did not listen. And now... I’ve purchased Talyut a year. After that, there’s no one ready to replace me. You brought me back too soon. I won’t be there for the next duel.”
Said as though Sikata, too, knows how much time she has remaining. Perhaps even now God’s stomach is calling to her. Melishem pours another bowl of water and sips, slow, drop by drop. “The dead have seen inside God, and through her the vision of existence transmutes forever to fanged grace.”
“Thus we the dead may not serve as champion.” Another sound underscored by insect buzz, countless chitinous limbs toiling inside the effigy body to give it animation. “How well you speak the scripture, even after all this time. What is it then that you want?”
She has been asking herself that. She did not think beyond the act, beyond attaching Sikata’s soul to a puppet. It seemed the logical sequence at the time, the right action to take upon discovering Sikata’s fate. She came back for Sikata; Sikata was missing, and so Melishem restored her. “I wanted to see you again,” she says, faltering. “I have met monarchs who wish unending wealth, generals who wish victory everlasting, scholars who seek godhood, golden fish who seek dragon heft and dragon horns. My wish is not so much.”
“The modesty of your wish doesn’t disguise its selfishness.” But Sikata’s voice is flat, tired. She holds out her bowl and Melishem refills it. “Take up my post.”
“No.” When Sikata goes and the effigy is empty once more, Melishem will leave and return to wandering until she finds something that can kill her—but this she does not say. The simplicity of that prospect soothes her.
“Then we will do it the old way. The proper way.” She leans close and holds Melishem’s face in her hands. Her palms are smooth, without life- and fate-lines, her nails the complex black of sable pelt. “Fight me. Win and you’ll get what you want. Lose and you will pledge to defend the city of your birth and mine, as long as you are able.”
What I want is impossible. What I want is to make you food and hear what you have to say about it, what I want is... “Very well,” Melishem murmurs. Her voice is as frictionless as amber, no more cracks. “The way it’s always been between us.” A syntax of blade and bullet, riposte and pivot, that purest form of dialogue.
Dawn comes, as it tends to, in gradations of blue. From periwinkle to cobalt to indigo, day sleets across the horizon as night loosens its jade-dark grip. No one makes a spectacle of the match: there is no distribution of cold sugared milk and venom-sweet wine, no pageantry of moon-dusted and glass-painted youth making dance and music.
The few surviving children keep to the shadows. They have the look of starvation, ragged and stunted; enemy weapons targeted the young first, even before they targeted combatants. Melishem tries to spot Sikata’s offspring, Sikata’s spouse. But it is not as though they have chiseled her name onto their brows, worn the grief of losing her at their throats and in the bend of their elbows; it is not as though they have felt obligated to step up and introduce themselves. Melishem cannot find them, and does not ask.
The field prepared for them is blank and smooth as new canvas, the air still and perfumed with anticipation.
On the other side Sikata has dressed for combat, sleek shell and a mask that hides her face from the audience, giving them only an enameled façade. No identity. Half the spectators’ benches are frosted over, the other half crimson with sourceless heat. Remnant of the battle-wrack that brought Talyut’s fortune so low.
They meet in the middle, within a circle that has hosted a hundred thousand matches like this, generations of tournaments. Melishem recalls, faintly, a girl who came up to her back then—furiously blushing—to offer her a knot of lunar lotuses. No one offers her flowers now, and no one announces her.
“Under the gaze of She Who Devours,” Melishem begins the ritual words, in the absence of a master of ceremonies.
Perhaps behind the enamel Sikata smiles, sardonic. She cups her hands in prayer and bows her head. “Within the fire of her breath, incandescent with the apocrypha of a thousand suns.”
“May she witness us and find us worthy.”
“May she witness us,” Sikata murmurs, “and find us worthy.”
Day deepens into afternoon, sinks into evening. Neither duelist tires, but their audience does, and so they conclude at a draw, to be resumed the next morning: give the few children their bedtime, give the exhausted adults their meals.
“You can’t just defend forever,” Sikata says as they return to the governor’s palace.
Melishem says, without meeting Sikata’s eye, “Let me repair your body.”
Match two: Melishem puts on the same enameled mask as Sikata’s, the same chitin-shell over her limbs and torso. Even down to the rippling patterns and hue it is identical. They are not far apart in height, in build, long of calves and sinuous of spine. Seeing this, Sikata gives pause, but she doesn’t comment or inquire.
To watching Talyut, they are as reflections: a single person fighting her simulacrum. Neither gains advantage over the other. As evening plummets into dusk, still the match does not conclude, and they stop once more so weary mortal heads may rest.
“You are not fighting me fairly and truly,” Sikata says as they make their way into the palace kitchen.
Melishem says, looking past Sikata’s gaze, “Let me prepare you dinner.”
“This is not a game.”
“It is not,” Melishem agrees. “For a battle so decisive you must have more to impose on me. What do you want, Sikata, separate from your office?”
“What do I—” Sikata barks out a locust laugh. “What I want doesn’t matter. My friend, my stranger friend, I am dead. All that’s left to me is to fulfill duty unfinished.”
“I’ve met too many restless ghosts to believe that death washes away all desires like a hot spring bath.”
Her age-mate nearly smiles. “How you strip away the glamor of the afterlife. I want what anyone who widowed her wife wants. But that’s trivial, in the face of Talyut’s fate.”
Nothing that’s important to Sikata is trivial to Melishem, but that is another truth she leaves unspoken.
Match three: each soul that lives and breathes in Talyut congregates to watch, every elder and child, every half-real spirit and shrine sprite.
Sikata strikes first, with the full strength of her effigy frame—and fast, for as Melishem parries her sliver-blade, an octagon bullet is ricocheting for her shadow, scintillant and fissive. Melishem exhales, and a quartet of paper wasps flit out of her lips, intercepting the bullet-shards. She spins to find Sikata behind her, catches and deflects a blow that would have bisected her spine.
All these happen faster than their spectators can distinguish. To them it is a mirage, of ghosts at war, of a poem performed in the language of penumbra. Silhouette and corona, wraith and radiance.
The end comes when dusk, untethered from the last dregs of day, plunges into night.
One duelist falls to the rimed ground, enamel cracking hard on ice. The other stands watch as her opponent convulses around a bullet’s exit in her midsection. Stands watch as her opponent’s substance sloughs off in layers; crumples as paper in fire, curling back into itself until nothing remains save black snowdrift and burnt insects.
The victor gathers that snowdrift in her hands. Puts her mask’s lips to the black substance; an exhalation and it scatters, caught by an updraft of wind.
Their audience is silent, held hostage by uncertainty: for who won, after all, and what does her triumph entail? The gate-guard moves, as though to call out for what may or may not be his sister, but draws back and fades into the crowd—his courage is not up to the test.
A woman braves forward. Her children trail close behind her, absolute in their trust of their mother. She moves at a march; she smells of loam and hothouses, and black dirt is caked under her nails, as though she’s recently come away from her labor and did not have time to wash. Unselfconscious of this she stops before the duelist. A head shorter, she has to reach on tiptoes for the mask.
The duelist does not resist.
When the mask falls away, this is beneath: a precise, sculpted face. Enormous eyes, sharp nose. The lips are made red and full, the cheeks gaunt but flushed with exertion and life, skin an earthen brown. It is a face arresting in its utter symmetry. It is beautiful; it is beloved.
There is a trill of laughter, a kiss as the woman greets her resurrected wife. There is applause as Talyut’s citizens greet their champion’s return. Cold sugared milk is brought forth and the governor’s pantry is emptied, a banquet for all. The dancers, though weak from long rationing, nevertheless find in themselves the strength to perform. Flowers are given to the champion, and her path is sprinkled with perfume and chamomile.
“You are home,” the wife whispers, their first words exchanged as the celebration concludes.
“I am,” says the duelist, her head crowned by moths and her footprints crosshatched with black dust.
At the city’s apex, the empty grave grows heavy, filling once more with weapons polished to star-gleam and oiled serpent-sleek.