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NINE MONTHS BEFORE THE EMPEROR’S MURDER
IT WAS IN THE CLOSE of the myriadic year of our Lord—that far-off King of Necromancers, that blessed Resurrector of Saints!—that you picked up your sword. This was your first big mistake.
The sword hated you to touch it. The long hilt burnt your bare hands as though heated to starlike temperatures. The vacuum of space outside yielded no thanergy and generated no thalergy, but it didn’t matter. You no longer needed either. You iced your palms over with thick bands of cartilage, and you tried again.
Now the grip seemed cold as death, and it was just as heavy. You lifted, and your elbows locked, and you grasped the pommel to try to steady yourself. You tried a new trick—you slipped a narrow ribbon of bone up from your living metacarpal and eased the fragment gently around the flexor tendon, and you pierced it through the back of your hand. You didn’t flinch. It was never your way. From there you unfolded long fingers of bone to grasp the handle, then more, to grasp it again; you lifted it, in a manner of speaking, assisted by a seething, clattering basket of eight phalanx articulates.
So now you could wobble the sword up in an obtuse angle before yourself. You waited. You felt nothing: no understanding, no mastery, no knowledge. You were just a necromancer, and it was just a sword. It fell away from your hands and clattered to the floor, and you folded in half, and you upchucked violently all over the hospital tiles.
There were many uniformed people in that room, but they were used to these antics. Harrowhark the First, ninth saint to serve the Emperor Undying, might throw up as much as she cared to. You were a walking sacrament, even if your early contributions to Lyctorhood seemed to be finding new and different ways to puke. They only intervened if it looked like you might choke to death on your own vomit, a mercy that you always vaguely thought a shame.
* * *
The first time the man you called God had delivered you the sword—in what seemed to you his aspect of the Kindly Prince, intending only gentleness—you’d fallen into a deep stupor from which you had never really risen. Maybe the sword had reified your grief into six feet of steel. You had loathed that thrice-damned blade from sight, which might have been unfair before you knew it loathed you in return.
You kept trying to wield it, all the same. Each touch ended with the contents of your stomach splattered colourfully on the floor. Your days dissolved like ashes in front of a fan—scattered beyond any hope of retrieval—blown back into your face or fluttering upward beyond your grasp. Sometimes you would rise, and you’d take up the blade, as though in expectation of something. Nothing ever happened; you felt nothing except the sword’s enormous, empty hate of you, which you knew to be real, even then. You and the sword would seethe in your mutual bitterness and fury, and then you would end up with blistered hands and a floor’s worth of vomit.
Details sat at awkward angles to one another. You’d been in this bed some time, wearing clothes that weren’t yours. Occasionally ticklish rasps at your ears or forehead would frighten you numb before you realised it was your own hair. Away from Drearburh shears, it grew in a way that was almost debauched. You would cut it yourself and still find irregular little licks of it tucked behind your ears—or maybe you had not cut it at all. Sometimes, in reaching up to it, you would then recall that you had no robe or skeletal mask. Nobody had given you any paint and there wasn’t a stick of grease on board the whole ship, though even if there had been it would not have been blessed properly. The first time this happened, in your hot upset and shame, you ripped a sheet to shreds and covered your head with that. This still left most of your forehead nude, discounting the hair. Also, you were wearing a bedsheet. You took the poetic way out and used a black vestal’s last-choice gambit: you opened a vein and, trembling neither from pain nor blood loss, daubed blind upon your skin the sacramental skull of the Inglorious Mask.
The uniformed attendants were always busy with things that weren’t you. Sometimes you were humbly prevailed upon to sit up and part your ad-hoc veil to struggle through a bowl of clear soup, though those memories were doubtful fragments. It did not seem right that you could ever eat again. Sometimes people would move all around you, and you lay supine on your cot, astonished and shivering before the vista of stars out the window. The thick plex barrier seemed too light and frangible to keep you safe. Beyond it the great black throat of space bared itself to you, which frightened you beyond sense. At these times you fell in and out of sleep, somehow. You had long since ceased to care for human voices, which only talked nonsense: they would murmur their prayers of Three thousand units—replenish, that’s on the provision list—dump that stock, munitions will take it.
In your old life you might have been curious. But other noises haunted you, quite apart from the ones occurring to your ears. There was a great unmusical straining aboard ship—the sounds of wet drums—which had panicked you before you’d realised, with settling calm, that you were hearing the heave of seven hundred and eight beating hearts. You heard seven hundred and eight brains, thrumming in their cerebral fluid. You knew without checking that three hundred and four of those straining hearts belonged to necromancers; a necromancer’s heart myocardium flexed differently to your ears, worked worse, squeezed more feebly. You were sensing the living. Once you worked out what you were hearing, you became aware of everything immediate to you: the dust settling on the gleaming black plaques of the floor; the roiling of your pulmonaries; the soft marrow of your bones sucking up oxygen. Despite all this cacophony, you could not stay awake.
Sometimes you found yourself standing, gorge risen, staring at the great sword left untidy and naked on the floor. You would not remember rising. You would not remember how you had come to be there. Sometimes you would forget who you were, and at recalling yourself, weep like a child.
In these digestions of time the Body would come. She would put her cool, dead hands on your forehead and close your pumping eyelids with her fingertips, so that you could not see the sword nor the people.
This was great honour. This was great mercy. She always came to you now with such easy forbearance, and you were so grateful for it, you were so relieved. The Body’s hands were grey with death and they were so soft and familiar on your skin, so much so that you were absolutely sure you could really feel them; that this time around, the dead caress was tangible. And when the Body turned so that you could see her face you were amazed, as ever, by that beauty unblemished by breath.
Then she would draw you back to your bed and direct you to sleep. For the Body you tried to be obedient, for once in your benighted life; it seemed beneath you not to. When the Body appeared time could be relied upon to work as it ought, rather than melting away like chips of ice only to reappear in unexpected places. But at these times your brain kept nagging itself to stay conscious. The fact that the Body had come to you now seemed tremendously important, if only you could stay awake long enough to figure out why.
And your face itched from the dried blood, and all around you the people whispered, Thousand kilos of osseo—old—keep that, that’s the first thing we run out of— No, Sergeant, ditch it; we’re behind schedule already.
* * *
Your world was a white and sterile box. This box was the hospital quarter on board the Erebos. The Erebos was the Behemoth-class flagship of the Emperor Undying. These facts you held on to like an asphyxiating man to a last lungful of air. You lived in a cool, colourless room of dismantled beds and cartons, and you had for your own a bed and a chair and a sword. They had tried to remove your sword, once—they had tried to take it away on some pretext you could not exactly remember—and you were perturbed in some distant way by that memory, which was red, and wet, and ill defined.
They no longer touched your two-hander. It appeared and reappeared around the room wherever you had dropped it, usually accompanied by the mysterious smell of upchuck. You now slept beside it, like it was your large steel infant. Truth be told you would have been happy hurling the thing straight into the hot heart of Dominicus, as it was loathsome to you and you were convinced it wanted to do you harm; but it was very important that it should not be placed in anyone else’s hand.
This didn’t stop you from dulling the blade, nicking the polish, and altogether fucking up the edge, as you vaguely knew you were. You knew so little about swords—you had never bothered to ask; you could barely differentiate between them. Some were narrow. Some were broad. Some were big, some were small. This two-handed soldier’s sword was huge and aberrant and frankly malicious, and utterly your responsibility—even if you could not touch it without power-heaving.
Sometimes you knelt by your bed and tried to pray. With the Body there, you had nobody to thank and no intercession to request. Your greatest peace you found in that half-asleep, druglike state on the bed, holding your heartbeat low before the cold white stars, sick with a fury you kept forgetting existed and were corrupted by possessing. Around you, people would go back and forth, giving you the widest berth possible, ignoring you so entirely that at one point you were convinced you were dead. With that conviction, you had felt only intense relief.
Copyright © 2020 by Tamsyn Muir