A banished warrior teaches her treacherous uncle that once made, some oaths cannot be broken…and some monsters cannot be chained.
Uduak IX may have ordered an assassin to gut his niece in a holy monastery, but he is still a man of honor. As emperor of Johari IX, the greatest human-ruled planet in the Known Worlds, honor is an attribute to be expected. And so before he had her butchered, he gave the order that she would be allowed a single sheet of solar parchment and a holographic brush so she might write her last words.
Now Uduak steeples his hands over the great stone desk in his office and narrows his eyes at the messenger before him. “Well?”
The messenger jerks as if slapped awake from a trance. “Oh—forgive me, my lord!”
Uduak suppresses a sigh as she hands him a scroll before throwing herself at his feet. Though the traditional courier’s hood obscures her face, she seems like a useful young woman. Quick on her feet and genuinely eager to please, if a bit slow in other ways. Such a shame he’ll have her followed as soon as she leaves, and then disposed of. The scroll’s electronic seal appears untampered, but his enemies’ spies are everywhere, and one can never be too careful.
Uduak snaps the seal and unrolls the solar parchment. The bottom left corner is spattered rust-brown, the color of old blood. He allows himself the very smallest of frowns. Her death was supposed to be clean.
“The man who gave you this and sent you to me, what did he tell you?”
“Only that it’s done, my lord.”
Uduak notes that she doesn’t inquire what is done. He could use a messenger that knows not only to keep her questions unasked, but also to conceal all curiosity. Someone who follows orders without a word. But Uduak did not become emperor by refusing to make sacrifices. Or to sacrifice others.
“Good, good. You’ve done well.”
Uduak reaches into the drawer below his desk and pulls out a pouch heavy with gold coin. A ridiculous prize for delivering a single letter, but he’ll get it back. Not for himself, though. All those shining disks of precious metal will be delivered to the messenger’s family, along with a hollow promise to hunt down whatever brigand killed their unlucky daughter.
He tosses the pouch at her and she catches it easily. She doesn’t even stand to do it. She just sticks out an arm from where she’s kneeling and snatches the bag right out of the air. Lightning-quick reflexes—really such a shame.
He’ll have the gold sent to her kin tripled. The thought does nothing for the guilt writhing in his gut— No. Not guilt, never that. Guilt is for lesser souls, for those who do not have the horrendous weight of an entire planet and its people resting upon their shoulders.
Anan, the captain of his guard, waves a hand at a nod from Uduak. The motion sensors inlaid into the wall register the movement and the door glides open for the messenger. The emperor waits for it to shut again, and then he begins to read.
May you reign a thousand years…
If only I really hoped for that. Then perhaps you wouldn’t have sent the cutthroats. But you know I’ve wanted you dead since you threw me into that pit, and you were desperate to be rid of me. Have you always been desperate? Or, like everything else, did you change when spacetime ruptured four hundred thousand klicks from Johari IX, connecting our universe to the Umbra? Or when the demons poured through in their darkships and overran our world? I suppose it doesn’t matter. You are what you are, as am I.
I didn’t see a demon until I was fifteen. Mother wouldn’t allow it. She wanted to shield me from the world for as long as she could, she loved me so. But you knew that. When I was born, your beloved sister stopped speaking of the great things you two would do together—of the glittering planets you’d visit, the grand temples you’d build. She stopped speaking to you entirely, now that she finally had the successor she wanted.
Eight-year-old Temaru, seated on the emperor’s lap, gently pokes the mottled, pale ridge of skin across her mother’s collarbone. “What about this one?”
“Ah, the Battle of Skytouching Mountain,” Noriko IX murmurs. “Where I earned my very first scar from the very first of the demon generals. Joro the Spider. Half woman, half arachnid, all bloodthirsty. She was half as tall as the highest tower of this palace.” She reaches up, presses her eight-year-old daughter’s fingers deeper into the scar. “She grazed me with the blade-sharp edge of one of her eight formidable legs, just before my sword met her belly.” She chuckles heartily as Temaru’s eyes go ever rounder. “By the Ghosts, I was sure I was going to die. Up until that moment I’d thought I was invincible, you know. I’d slain hundreds of demons by then, not realizing how weak they were compared to their masters until it was almost too late.”
Temaru shivers. How lucky she is to have a mother as strong and brave as hers. If only her mother had more time to play hide-and-seek with her in the courtyard, to tell her all the stories of her epic duels.
“You have so many knights,” Temaru says quietly, folding her small hands over her lap.
“So why do you have to fight? Why do you have to go all the time?”
“Oh, my darling, I wish I didn’t.” Noriko takes Temaru’s hands in her calloused ones. “A queen who does not shed blood for her people is not much of a queen at all.”
Noriko tilts her head, a brow raised in light admonishment. “How can I ask my knights to face the demons if I stay cooped up in my castles?”
Temaru pouts. “Uncle does.” She knows she’s being bratty but she can’t help it.
“Yes.” Noriko sighs through her nose, long and slow and tired. “Yes, Uduak does do that. One of the many, many reasons I am so grateful for you. I’ve raised you to know better. When the time comes, when you become Temaru IX, you’ll have your own scars.” Noriko pulls her heir into a tight hug. “But that won’t be for a very long time. For now, the only battles you’ll have are these!” Without warning she tickles Temaru until the little girl shrieks with laughter.
After much chasing and taunting, Noriko collapses onto the polished floor. Temaru flops over her.
“And these ones?” Temaru rolls onto her stomach and points at a set of three uneven scars at Noriko’s hip, just over the gold-embroidered hem of her pants. They look like claw marks. “Who did that?”
“Ah, you.” The little crinkles at the edges of Noriko’s eyes deepen as she grins down at her very beloved, very confused child. “Those are stretch marks, little one.”
Coddled though I was, I learned the signs that perhaps the war was not truly as over as the minstrels sang. The deepening lines of Mother’s face. Fewer knights marching through the fortress gates each time they left. Less food at each meal. It was all so painfully obvious—how could you all think I’d miss any of it? I was only ten when Mother united the twenty squabbling clans into the Imperium, just a day over thirteen when the war she waged against the demons finally ended. But children see just as well as adults, and often better. I suppose we shed that knowledge when we shed our youth.
I was fourteen when Mother finally let me out of her fortress at the edge of the empire and into her traveling party. You know how much she hated the capital she let you rule in her stead, and she wanted me by her side now that it was safe. Well, safer. Every few months, we would pass through villages that one of the last few demon packs had gone through.
Now that I was out in the world, the signs I saw changed.
Before we even got to the villages, we’d cross over the surrounding fields. The crops would be as vibrant as ever, gleaming gold and emerald and scarlet under our great sapphire sun. Everyone forgot the richness of our planet when all the farmers were devoured before they could even pick up a hoe. But between neat lines of tilled black soil an army of weeds would be drinking up that richness as well. Swarms of iridescent insects would be gnawing at the leaves, and the smell of spoiled fruit would fill our lungs whenever the winds shifted.
The settlements would be as abandoned as the fields: no gleefully screaming children at play, no merchants yelling about their wares, no six-legged yiiji birds or bioluminescent flying marrae snakes perching on the rooftops. The doors would be locked, with no sign of forced entry. But when Mother’s knights broke in, the reek of rotten meat would flood the air. No corpses, of course. You’ve never been on a battlefield, but your generals surely told you what braver souls have witnessed: the demons leave no bodies, only silence and the stench of fresh-spilt blood.
Mother always had twenty Whisperers travel with us at all times, each carrying a dozen of their sacred candles. They led worship circles and blessed the villagers we met, but their true purpose was to drip wax over the cold lips of corpses, forever sealing them so that their doomed spirits would not haunt the land. But we never found any dead, ever.
Once or twice a year we’d actually come across a pack of demons. We’d smell smoke, and then hear the screams. It was always in one of the outlying villages, where the rivers of wealth and technological commerce shriveled into streams. The creatures knew better than to attack the main cities and towns, where they would face lightning turrets and citizens armed with plasma guns. Mother was doing her best to equip every settlement, but the war was a costly one. And so, every once in a while, in some poor hamlet we’d find scores of villagers plucking arrows from their quivers, nocking them, drawing back their bowstrings, letting metal and wood fly. Again and again and again. But their arrowheads always sailed right through the monsters. Their weapons hadn’t been packed in blessed salt for over a year, because the people had forgotten to prepare. They’d thought they were finally free of the fanged horrors. That, or they’d simply run out of salt.
It never lasted very long, though. Mother would send her knights in and they’d slash down the demons with swords and axes of saltsteel, phase blasters and sun grenades. Demons fell only to great power; whether the arms were energy weapons or simple metal purified with prayer-woven compounds, it did not matter. Anything less than the finest tools of the mind and spirit only angered the creatures.
Once, I overheard two pages say that Mother had intentionally let some demons escape during the war so that the Imperium would always need her. Perhaps that was even right. Maybe the spies you paid to plant those rumors were telling the truth. But I’ll never know, because you killed her. Are you surprised I know? Most witnesses of your crimes have vanished over the years, like a handful of ash thrown to the wind. But you have many, many crimes, Uncle, and you failed to close every pair of eyes that saw them. Eyes that come with mouths more than willing to open, after the application of a little pain and pressure.
I know that when reports came of an attack a week’s ride away, you had a servant drug her wine with the venom of the quarter-moon spider. I know that when she went into battle seven days later, she collapsed before the demon she was about to relieve of a head. It took hers instead.
When did your hatred of me first blossom in your chest? When you saw my mother have me try on her crown for the very first time? A thin band of hammered gold without inscription or etched symbol. Even then I thought it weighed more than the whole world.
I have so many questions, Uncle. I suppose it’s only fair that I answer one of yours. You never asked me what happened in the pit, but I saw the question in your eyes whenever you dared to meet mine. I know you burned with curiosity. Perhaps you still do, so I’ll tell you what happened after you had your friends toss me into that well of darkness.
Temaru screams, and then weeps, and then whimpers, but she never hits the bottom. There is the sound of trickling water and she merely stops falling. She floats in seamless shadow for what feels like a century. Hunger and thirst never plague her; all she feels is the presence of what she cannot bring herself to name.
There is no light, but within the pit there are shades of darkness, and gradually Temaru begins to see anew. She sees faces shrouded in black, sees bloodied fingers combing through the eternal depths.
Temaru summons up what little strength she can. “What do you want from me?” she whispers.
The faces’ mouths open, but only the sound of bones breaking and babes weeping comes from between their blackened teeth.
Icy fingers clamp around her ankles, so cold they burn her skin. Temaru roars with a burst of newfound life, kicking and punching, but it is all for naught. Hands yank her across the empty expanse. They leave her curled up in a ball, shivering with terror, on what feels like a carved altar. And then she hears something heavy and wet crawl over slick stone. She shoves herself upright, swings her legs over the side, but there is only more nothingness. There is nowhere to run, let alone a place to stand upon beyond the altar.
In all the great ballads about the last surviving demon general, the Puppetmaster is possessed of a great, hulking form, with sinew like steel and muscles like marble. All lies. The truth, as Temaru now discovers, is that the Puppetmaster has no body. But He does have a mouth, and it is crammed with row upon row of fangs.
“Greetings, Temaru, daughter of Noriko, daughter of the House of Osu Meje.”
“How do you know who I am?” Temaru whispers.
“How could I not? You are the blood of her blood,” replies the Puppetmaster, as if that is at all an answer.
“Are you going to kill me?” Temaru asks. She is proud her voice does not quaver.
“When your mother defeated me, I made a blood bargain with her for my freedom,” the Puppetmaster croaks. “But your treacherous worm of an uncle bound me in darkness and dirt before our pact could be fulfilled.” He slithers around the altar. “Your mother wanted a shield only I could bear. Your uncle desired a sword only I could wield. They both wanted my subtlety, my shadows, my skill. And so Uduak forced me into a covenant with him. An eye, one single measly human eye, in exchange for a weapon beyond imagining. And now he has delivered two fine ones, though they are not his to offer. But an oath is an oath.” Temaru feels Him heave part of His endless mass over the edge of the altar. “So no, my child. I will not kill you. What I will do is so much worse.”
From the shadows come more shadows, swarming around her in a frozen tide. Temaru has no time to plead for her life, to even cry out.
When it is over, Temaru has lost an eye and the Puppetmaster has gained a puppet.
And when I clawed my way out of the pit, I was a magnificent weapon, was I not? I have to say I’m impressed. Hauling me from my bed the same day my mother died and sacrificing me to the Puppetmaster was not punishment enough for my audacity to be born and loved. No, not enough at all. Not to you. The Red Palace, once the prison of unwanted consorts and now the home of the lowest-ranked Whisperers, was the perfect place to banish me. None of my mother’s last loyal retainers would ever think to look for me there. And there I remained, for every day in every year save a few monstrous ones. There I remained, until you sent honorless knights for me at the end of each month. A ride in the back of a cart later, I’d find myself at the door of whatever unfortunate wretch you wanted dead. I tried to stop your knights, and myself, and Him. But I was nothing but a prison for the Puppetmaster, and you were the judge and jailer both. Trapped in the socket of the eye you paid him, the Puppetmaster would call forth his demon puppets and everyone in a hundred-meter radius of me would die. The puppets would evaporate at sunrise, but the carnage they wrought would not. It was back to the monastery as soon as your so-called knights confirmed the death of your enemy. It could take a whole day, you know. Sometimes all that was left of the victim was a spray of blood, a broken tooth.
That was my life, until you sent her. Like every heir before me, I’d been taught that an imperial historian would be assigned to every reign, to chronicle the emperor’s life from birth till death. The record, written without omission or oversight, would be kept under lock and key so that future rulers could learn from their predecessors’ mistakes. But I did not expect you to have me included in your story. I thought you’d want me to fade from the annals of history. I should have known better: you wanted my tale in writing so you could gloat. So you sent her, the historian, my Yuna.
Near the end of the day’s session, in defiance of her orders, Yuna does not immediately pack up the tools of her trade—recorders, scrolls of solar parchment, and holographic brushes. She remains on her threadbare cushion across from Temaru, gripping a stylus so hard it snaps in her hand.
“Yuna! What’s wrong?”
The imperial historian’s eyes are dark pools that draw in souls. Temaru has lost herself in them every time she sees Yuna, and she has seen the woman every day for the past year. But now those eyes are closed, the long lashes framing them spiked with tears. She is trying not to cry in front of Temaru, and she is failing.
“You’re crying,” Temaru says, aghast. She feels like something inside her own body is fracturing.
“Yes,” Yuna whispers.
“Because I love you and I can’t protect you from him.”
Temaru goes very, very still. “You love me?”
“How could I not?” Yuna tucks the two halves of the stylus into the pocket of her robes. “I know you, Temaru Osu Meje, daughter of Noriko. You are kind and true, despite and in spite of everything your uncle and the world have done to you.”
All Temaru hears is that someone loves her, especially someone as gentle and clever and beautiful as the woman before her. Especially someone that she cares for in equal measure. “Oh.” Then, “Are you certain?”
“Don’t play the fool,” Yuna says, arching a brow.
Temaru can’t help but smile. “Who says I’m playing?”
Yuna sighs. She reaches across the splintered wood of the low table, sliding one finger under Temaru’s chin. The daughter of Noriko pulls in a sharp breath, her heart quickening. Life has taught her the hard lesson of not trusting anyone whose motives she does not know entirely. But there is no reason the imperial historian would say and do these things if she did not truly want to. Temaru had nothing to offer but blood and bone. And there is danger, great danger, in loving a monster.
Temaru brings her face closer to Yuna’s, until they share breath. And then she kisses her, because she can.
Unsurprisingly, imperial historians have a way of vanishing. They know too much, of course. But Yuna was a loyal servant of the Imperium, and a loyal servant would do her duty. The first thing I noticed about her was that behind the rolling cadence of her speech there was a hint of urgency. What was it like, to live every moment of your adult life knowing your days were numbered, literally, by the imperial horologists? I asked myself and pretended not to know the answer.
I’ve always wondered what your Whisperer spies told you about us. About her. If they wrote reports about how her eyes sparkled like jewels in the firelight, or how sometimes a secret smile would bloom on her face when she thought no one was looking. About how warm she was, how she radiated heat like a stone set in the sun for a summer’s day.
Or did they just tell you my loyalty was compromised? I know it was the latter, but I used to pray that it wasn’t. That, at the very least, you knew exactly how bright the flame you snuffed out was. I begged the Ghosts to make you feel the barest measure of guilt for what you did.
Protocol, decorum, rank… All those are for the imperial court, a thousand kilometers away from the mountains where you banished me. In the Red Palace, I could love her, and she could love me. I never thought I’d be wanted in that way, ever.
And you took her from me.
I can count on my own fingers the number of times you spoke to me directly. But I remember that for one of those few times, you told me that no one would ever look at me like I was a person. That monsters like me couldn’t have friends, couldn’t have family. I should have known that was a warning.
I was such a fool, and Yuna paid the price in full.
I never realized why you never took me to the capital, until it was too late: you never wanted the people to know what a future without you would look like. I overheard so many of the Whisperers’ stories: accounts of the black stone arches lost in the mist cloaking the great city, the streets paved with the same pale stone that forms the outer wall of the seven-story White Palace. As I write this letter, I look forward to seeing it for the first time. And I look forward to the world seeing me.
You were never a bad emperor. I’m not too stubborn or too proud to admit it. I know the poor bastards you made me murder deserved everything that came to them. Proper justice never finds every killer and criminal on Johari IX, after all. There is peace in the Imperium; science and art flourish across the planet as they never have before. As they never would have had your sister ever actually sat down in a council meeting. Until the end, my mother was as perfect a warrior as anyone could be, but we both know she would have made a terrible monarch. You, on the other hand… You were born to rule, and though I will never forgive you for your treachery, I could at least understand that you had done what was best for the Imperium. I understand also that the sharpest weapons are wielded by only one set of hands, so it was never a mystery to me why you hung Yuna in the monastery courtyard. Your only mistake was that you let me live so long after.
Here is something that no one but I will ever understand. We call the beings that came from the Umbra demons, but they’re nothing like the monsters from Seedworld fairytales. They’re as sapient as any of us. They have their own tongue, far richer than ours. A hidden language of signs and pheromones and color. You bound the Puppetmaster with human words, but His are stronger. They fill every sense we have and all those we cannot hope to dream of. His speech can subsume the thin, fragile lines of human communication—and then weather them away like a great flood over a city. All it took was the glisten of ink, the sweet smoke of incense, and the ten long years of my banishment to break the chains you bound us with. To free the Puppetmaster and myself. I wasn’t surprised when He decided to remain with me. Interests tend to align when you’re forced to share a mortal body.
It is no secret that I loathe you as much as you do me. But most of all, Uncle, I am grateful. It took a decade for me to feel anything but pain and sorrow and rage, but it’s true. I am grateful for this power, grateful for my life—which is very far from over.
And I am so very grateful you gathered your allies and friends and sycophants all in one place for me. Everyone who ever hurt me or my mother or Yuna, who ever helped you hurt us. I suppose they all aren’t within a hundred meters of you at this very moment, but those the Puppetmaster misses, I will find. And end.
May I reign a thousand years.
Your devoted niece,
Uduak flings aside the parchment as if it has burned him. “The messenger, where is she?” he roars at Anan.
But the captain of the imperial guard isn’t there. There is only silence, and the smell of fresh blood.
And yet an answer comes, from right behind Uduak’s ear.
Uduak shoves himself out of his seat and whirls around, his samite coat flying around him.
The messenger stands only two paces away, arms crossed over her chest. She unfolds them to throw back her hood. Her eyes—one brown on white, the other gold on crimson—narrow dangerously.
“Dearest Niece.” Uduak swallows thickly. He holds up the letter and crushes it into his fist, then spreads his arms wide and closes his eyes. “Get it over with.”
Temaru barks out a harsh laugh. “I already have.”
Uduak’s eyes fly open. “Pardon?”
She lifts a brow. “You’re not the only one who can forge a deal with a demon, Uncle.”
“I know that,” he growls. “I read your letter.”
Temaru smirks. “I’m not talking about myself. I speak of my mother.”
Uduak says nothing, though he takes a desperate step backward, bracing himself against the desk.
“She knew you would try to seize the throne for yourself.” Temaru gestures at the solar parchment crumpled in his hand. “That letter is written in her blood, collected by the Puppetmaster when their oath was made.”
By the time Uduak looks back at the scroll, what he thought was ink has already crawled from the letter and onto his hands. The words shift and snap as they wind around his wrists. The fires of revenge burn hot. The old blood of his sister glows like molten iron as the hex’s chains tighten around him. The emperor screams, falling to his hands and knees, as he is branded.
“You thought yourself so clever,” Temaru sneers. “You thought yourself a dragon. But you and I both know that deep down, you’re nothing but a lowly serpent. A snake crawling upon its belly in the dirt and dust. My mother knew that too.”
How different this is from the endings she wrote during the days Uduak used her like a brush, painting her power across his dominion. Her killings were bloody but swift, gruesome but gracious. The man before her is whole, not a single drop of blood spilled, but his roars are like nothing she has ever heard before.
Temaru kneels before him and bows her head, a queen accepting her crown. She takes his chin between her thumb and forefinger. “We reap what we sow, dearest Uncle.”
Uduak’s shrieking lowers into wild and uncontrollable sobbing, the cries of a man cowering beneath death’s shadow. Beneath her shadow. His eyes roll back into his head, and his quivering form goes statue-still. Froth bubbles from his nose, his mouth, his ears. But he still breathes. The Puppetmaster is not done with him yet. There is more vengeance to be had.
The Puppetmaster fuses invisible lines of His power across Uduak’s prone body. He guides Temaru’s hand as she flexes her fingers and tests the strings. Then she yanks, hard, and spreads her arms wide. One last screech escapes the former emperor’s ruin of a mouth as he is torn asunder. With otherworldly precision, bone breaks and sinew splits. Shaking fingers separate into segments, hands fall from wrists, arms detach from shoulders while legs are pulled off at the hip. Finally, Uduak’s gaping, gasping head rolls from his neck. Still, no blood. Where the cuts are made, there is only shadow. Only an emptiness as deep and as hungry as the one into which he threw his niece.
Temaru IX kicks aside his torso as she strides across the room. Then the daughter of Noriko sits down in her new chair and calls for her dinner.