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IN THE RUIN OF THEM
AT sunrise Baru shackled the prisoner for her drowning.
The Duchess Tain Hu smelled of brine and cold stone and the onions of her last meal. Last night they’d made their covenant. Until the dawn hours Tain Hu had whispered hoarse strategy to Baru: the names of her agents, and the shape of her plans. She gave Baru her arsenal, and her hope, and her faith.
“Remember. Remember the man in the iron circlet, and the ledger of secrets.”
“I will remember,” Baru hissed through raw-bitten lips. “I will.”
Now Baru came close to offer her the manacles that would kill her. And the air between them shivered, like steppe grass under silver cloud, with the charge of their grief and their resolve.
Tain Hu shrugged into her chains. Tested the steel. “Good metal.” She rolled her shoulders. “It’ll hold.”
She grinned and Baru couldn’t stand that grin on that fierce unbreakable face. She stepped closer, quick, like an assassin gutting the duchess, and with her right hand she grabbed a fistful of Hu’s hair. Into her ear Baru whispered one word in Urun, the tongue of Tain Hu’s blood. Piercing. Like an eagle’s kiss. Her lip brushed Hu’s earlobe and they touched for the last time:
And with grim joy Tain Hu whispered back: “Long live the queen.”
“Congratulations on your victory,” Baru said, and she spread her hands a little, as if saying, look at me, I am your victory, are you pleased?
“I wish you’d done it sooner,” Tain Hu murmured.
And everyone but Baru misunderstood her, everyone but Baru saw Tain Hu wishing the betrayal had come more quickly, and not the kiss. Only Baru saw the bitter love behind the bitter smile.
The Elided Keep’s silent marines took Tain Hu down to the drowning-stone and chained her up for the judgment of the moon and stars. The tide would come in, like history, and swallow the traitor. Just as Falcrest would in time swallow the world—unless Baru Cormorant kept Tain Hu’s faith, and disemboweled the empire from within.
Good-bye, Baru thought. Good-bye, kuye lam. I will write your name in the ruin of them. I will paint you across history in the color of their blood.
* * *
THE Duchess of Vultjag went down roaring defiance.
She fought the rising tide with her chains wrapped up around her brawny arms and battlehacked fists. She wrestled the eyebolts and the pulleys drilled into the black rock. And she roared defiance against the Empire of Masks, the Imperial Republic of Falcrest, the Masquerade that pronounced death by drowning upon the traitor. The surf swallowed her. Still the chains groaned with her might. Still the sea frothed with her bellows.
She chose when and where she would die. She chose the meaning of her death, and she chose the method. Rare is that gift, isn’t it? Rare is the choice to write the end of your own story.
So the end of her story is the beginning of another.
Not the story of Baru Cormorant, the girl who watched Masquerade merchanters coming down the reefs off Taranoke, and wondered why her fathers were afraid. Not the story of Baru Cormorant, the brilliant furious young woman who accepted the Masquerade’s bargain: join Tain Hu’s rebellion, gather all our enemies together, and betray them to us. Then we will give you the power to rule your own home.
Not even the story of Baru Fisher, the rebel queen who was, for one bitter winter and brief spring, Tain Hu’s lord and lover.
This is the story of Agonist.
Baru Cormorant as a cryptarch: secret lord of the Imperial Throne.
* * *
THE pale man with the rowan-red hair oversaw the execution. He had a stylus and a varnished writing-board, and a form clasped in a steel folio, a form for Baru to sign after she screamed for mercy. His name was Apparitor and he was there to answer when Baru begged. Let the duchess live! Please, I love her, let her live!
Then he would show her the writ of deferment.
I, Baru Cormorant, do order a stay of execution for the traitor Tain Hu,
And I do acknowledge that I order this stay in defiance of Imperial law, granted only by the extraordinary privilege of the Emperor, whose name cannot be known.
And I remand Tain Hu to the Emperor’s custody, where her execution shall remain in abeyance so long as I provide faithful service,
And I do consent to whatever operations and interventions the Emperor sees fit to improve the prisoner’s well-being.
But there would never be a signature. Baru never cried out for mercy, for mercy was not in Tain Hu’s battle plan. Thus Baru drowned her beloved field-general in the morning tide.
This will be her legend. Listen, listen, do you know?
No living thing ever defeated Tain Hu in battle. Only the tide could fight her. Only the moon and the sea together could bring her down.
* * *
NOW only the rush of the waves and the cry of the shorebirds.
Baru closed her eyes and felt the slam of the surf in her ears and heart. There were birds above, a great whirl of them, as if in her passage Tain Hu’s soul had called up a maelstrom of wings.
Baru wouldn’t look at the damn birds. Red-haired Apparitor paced and fretted behind her, and Baru thought he was waiting for her to look up from Tain Hu and count the birds. He thought it was Baru’s tell. A sign that she was lying.
He wanted Baru to betray her horror.
Well, she’d vomit on him before she looked up.
“All right, then!” Baru clapped her hands, twice, briskly. There was a high ringing inside her, like a bell struck with steel, not quite hard enough to shatter. When Hu was giving her riding lessons she’d fallen and hit the stone, breath crushed out of her, a giddy emptiness, something huge has happened but I can’t feel it yet.
Oh, my lady Vultjag, how will I do this? How can I carry this weight?
“All right?” Apparitor croaked. “All right what?”
She looked at Apparitor sideways, slyly. She had to pretend to be untouched by the execution, so that she could be untouched by the execution. For what, in the end, was the difference between pretending perfectly to feel something, and actually feeling it? If you acted the same way, truth or lie?
“All right,” Baru said, “I want to start learning my new powers. And issuing some edicts: I like edicts. Let’s do it over breakfast.”
“Breakfast? You’re hungry?”
“Yes?” She offered him a gracious arm. “Will you walk with me?”
Apparitor burst into rage.
“You killed her! I can’t believe you killed her!” He ripped the handkerchief off his neck, and the grief-knot at his throat came undone at the slightest pull, which a grief-knot should, that was the whole reason sailors called them grief-knots. He waved the silk at Baru like he was trying to wipe her up.
“Baru Cormorant, you fucking asshole, do you realize what you’ve done?”
Oh, I realize, oh gods, I realize nothing else! I killed her for political advantage! She could have lived and I did not let her live! What am I, Apparitor, what slithering beast could do this thing I’ve done?
Her mask almost slipped. She almost stared at Apparitor wild-eyed and screamed a high meaningless note. But it would not do. It would not do. She couldn’t grieve now, she couldn’t let herself be sorry. Tain Hu was counting on her. When you are disemboweled in battle, you tie your guts up tight, and you keep fighting. Later the wound can kill you. Once you’ve won.
Baru set off toward the Elided Keep. Listen: her boots crushed snail shells into the rock. When things break underfoot, you know that you are going forward.
“I know what I’ve done,” she said. “I executed a traitor to the Imperial Republic and an obstacle to the progress of humanity.”
“You executed your lover!”
“Are we sentimental people now? Is that the new game?”
“The game? Do you think I didn’t care about that woman? She was my prisoner for weeks, she was brave, she was good—” Apparitor grabbed himself by the skull, his fingers spidered in his hair, his thumbs trembling on his chin. “Farrier taught you to do this, didn’t he? That bastard Itinerant! He made you kill her!”
Baru laughed in shock. Her patron Farrier? How could Tain Hu’s execution possibly work in his favor?
Apparitor was panicking. What a stupid fucking idea.
“I haven’t seen Cairdine Farrier in some years,” she said. “Since my first days as Imperial Accountant, actually. Come along, now. I need you to teach me my powers.”
Everyone had strung out behind Baru like autumn geese, straggling and confused, asking each other what to do. The marines with their polearms, the spies who’d pretended to be Baru’s staff, Apparitor’s little retinue and his gold-eyed concubine boy. All of them began to follow her down the stone ridge, back to the Elided Keep. They were all watching her when she skidded to a stop in shock.
A ship had capsized against her fortress.
Oh—it was Apparitor’s clipper. At high tide the crew must’ve used winches on the Elided Keep’s battlement to tip the ship over, careening it on the beach. She was called Helbride, a ghost sliver of white wood and slim steel. Now the crew swarmed over her to clear the barnacles and foulage.
A gloved and masked sailor at the stern pulled a two-foot-long and squirming shipworm from the keel. Three huge teeth like half-shells flashed in the morning light. They ate ships; a nest of them must have gotten through the copper worm-armor.
That’s me now, Baru thought. The worm beneath the armor.
Apparitor, dully: “She said you loved her.” He was staring at his overturned ship as if he wanted very badly to push it back upright and sail away with the tide.
“Ah,” Baru sighed, “well, I’m sure she had a great many strange ideas about me.”
“She could’ve lived…”
“No. She was guilty of treason. Anyway, you would have kept her in a cell, and tested her to madness.” Baru talked to Apparitor but she was speaking to herself, trying to bargain down her scream. “This was the most humane option.”
Humane. The word you use when you put down an animal. Why would she compare Hu to an animal? That was the wrong word. The wrong word.
“She certainly loved you,” Apparitor said, with terrible resignation. “I’m sure of it.”
“Oh, I slept with her once. Hardly a marriage.”
“Fuck you,” he said.
To lie like this! To lie about Tain Hu, about what lived between them! It was so anathema and yet so necessary: it felt like a razor unraveling her, one cut all the way from her anus to the back of her neck, degloving her whole body and turning her inside out so her secrets were on the outside to become her lies. “I was curious about her, and I always satisfy my curiosity. But of course it didn’t last. Isn’t that the nature of love between women? Unnatural and transient?”
Apparitor slugged her.
She deserved it, she did deserve it, she greeted his pale fist with her cheek and her upturned face. His knuckles tore the tip of her nose and Baru’s body fired Naval System combat reflexes like lines of rocket fuel igniting—brace your back foot! Roll with the hit! Eyes open, Baru, no matter how much it hurts you keep your eyes open.
You watch the strike come in.
Copyright © 2018 by Seth Dickinson