Let me tell you how I first met Seax-of-Peony, Empress of the Known Moons. That, of course, was not her name at the time, when she was a teenaged girl—she had that name ritually keelhauled upon her ascension. And though I am beyond old now, and the Empress has not spoken to me in many years, bringing her to Queensthroat has proved to be one of the treasures of my life.
Many decades before that, after the Empire of Marigolds collapsed, I had fled to a nondescript moon and built a home in an expanse of wastrel marshes in order to cultivate an orchard of plum trees. Though I had very little, I brought my own plum tree grafts from imperial orchards that had burned soon after my flight. I knew the plums would grow well and peculiarly in the place I chose. In spring, the orchard would flood from the estuary, and the silt and brine would turn the plums white in the summer. Their sweetness was amplified by the salty tang, and traders who came to the village closest to me had buyers from distant moons who prized them—rarely for eating, but rather for pickling and preserving for decades, if not centuries, in the holds of thousand-year-old caravels that plied the emptiness between the moons.
On the day my careful life unraveled, five teenaged boys walked into my orchard. I saw them from a bit of a distance. They ranged from about fourteen to seventeen years of age. I could hear their drinking rum and cursing and singing half a mile up the path. When they reached the orchard, I stopped my work and waited for them.
They wore their grandparents’ armaments, which their parents had likely also worn as hand-me-downs. Everything had been handed down for a long time. I could see the tarnish on their ill-kept sorrow-blades and the rust on their greaves. They no doubt took these from their families’ memory chests, the sparse treasure troves that their grandparents—if they were still alive—would peer into and cry over, after a long night of sherry, on account of the battles that they had survived.
After they stopped in front of me, I said, “What can I do for you?” I wiped the sweat off my forehead with my blouse sleeve.
“We’ve come,” the oldest said, “to take your plums and burn your cottage down.”
“And kill your dog,” the second oldest said.
My dog Couplet was still sleeping on the steps of the cottage.
I nodded and leaned on my walking stick, which was about the height of a broadsword. “All right,” I said. “Do you want water? Before you try? I have a pitcher close by, a few trees over.”
All of their faces, except for that of the youngest, were lumpen, wide-browed, and with sullen brown eyes. I could scarcely tell them apart, and figured them to be cousins, or even brothers. The youngest, by contrast, had strawberry blonde hair and a lanky body, with wide green eyes which made him look a little bit terrified. Which he probably was.
“I had heard,” the third oldest said, with an exaggerated whisper, “that you used to be a man.”
“Oh. Did you hear that in the village?” I said. I could smell the rum on his breath. The village didn’t have a name, but it was the second largest village on this moon, so it was usually called “the other village.” But these boys would have known nothing else than this one place.
“And that means,” the oldest said, “that you are a man, in a dress. And that you defile the Pure Laws.”
“I thought you were here for my plums,” I said. “But it appears you have the law in your hearts. Who do you serve, knightlings, and who do your kin serve?”
“We serve the Pure Laws!” the second oldest shouted, holding the hilt of his short sword and scraping it halfway out of the scabbard. “And their emissary in this age, Lamb Villanelle!”
I was afraid of that but not surprised.
The fourth oldest strode forward and showed me his neck, which had a black crude V tattooed there. This was not the tattoo of a glitched-up, off-moon corsair. It was clear, as the others showed their own tattoos on the arms and neck—even the youngest—that they had done it themselves with sharp reeds and mussel ink from the estuary.
“Our parents are dead,” the youngest at last said, perhaps intending to test his courage just a bit. There was something familiar about him that I couldn’t quite place, but my mind must have wandered too far, because the next thing I knew, the two oldest had rushed at me with their swords drawn in a caterwaul that I knew was an imperfect imitation of the battle cry of Lamb Villanelle’s Pure Army.
I sidestepped the first’s wild swing, and I parried the second’s stab of the broadsword much too heavy for him, pushing it aside with my stick. The other three had their weapons drawn and were trying to encircle me, including the fourth with a laser crossbow. However old, it was cocked. The second swung again at my head, and I leaned forward, twisting my body so this blade missed my ear by a finger’s width. From a high position, I smacked his poorly helmeted skull with the end of the walking stick. The helmet clanged, and he fell down. I reminded myself, as the first ran at me yelling his friend’s name, trying to run me through, that the ranks of most armies swelled with children such as these.
I was in a horrible position, and I tried to steady my feet when Couplet ran him down from behind and tore at his shoulder.
That was when the fourth oldest aimed his crossbow at Couplet.
“No!” I shouted, but the bolt thunked into my dog’s skull, and his head exploded, sending red mesh and wet chrome everywhere around us, onto us.
If nothing else, I consoled myself that it was a quick death.
The boy dropped the crossbow and started heaving in deep shallow breaths. I lost my comportment.
“What in the gods’ name did you do?” the youngest one said to the fourth oldest. It was because he said this, and was the only one to say anything, that I didn’t thrash him after I lost my patience.
After I hobbled all of them—bruised, mostly, but also with some cracked ribs and shattered cheekbones—I watched them stumble to the path back to the village. I hit the youngest once along the back so the others would not think he got off easy. He was about to call out something to me when he was at a safe distance away, but I glared at him and he disappeared past the bend, following the others.
Panting, I leaned heavily on my walking stick—more heavily than I wanted to—and turned back to bury what was left of my dog.
Couplet and I had been companions since he started following me in the narrow, lurching alleys of Crane Velib, as a puppy. He had probably escaped from one of the vats in the plundered animal-grower markets. And I was destitute on a moon that had suddenly become unfriendly to me. The Empire had broken apart, losing moon after moon to rebellion, to people who were sick of the Priceless Court and those who served it, like me. Women who used to be men, like me.
I could not pretend that we weren’t ruthless at times.
And people ran amok. Some moons became lost to any outside contact, and some went completely dark. We fled after the Contessa, Seax-of-Marigold’s political Arbiter, was beheaded.
In fact, Lamb Villanelle had beheaded the Contessa himself.
If it were not for Couplet, in those days I would have been utterly alone. He deserved far more grieving than I was able to offer him after his senseless death.
But the next morning I smelled smoke from the village, and I knew right away that Lamb Villanelle’s dragoons had descended, breaking through the moon’s half-broken defense sigils with ease. Whether the boys had overheard gossip on the quay and had conspired to pledge themselves to the Law Lordship in drunken anticipation, or it was an ungodly coincidence, I could not say. But I knew the Pure Army would not content themselves with this village. They would be landing all over the moon and pushing inward, and my orchard would burn by sundown.
I was nearly about to pass deeper into the marsh, where I could probably evade any sorties until I made my way upcountry. I was ready to find the bunker in the volcanic highlands where I had hidden my own imperial caravel all those years ago, and I would start over again, alone, as difficult as it would be.
But I thought of the youngest of the failed brigands. I did not think he was meant to be with them; he seemed pressed into their band for reasons I could not fathom. I thought about how likely it was that he would be murdered during any landing by Lamb Villanelle’s dragoons, and I couldn’t bear the thought of it, for reasons I could only guess at. Perhaps I saw something of myself in him, unfair as that might be at first glance—and far more unfair in retrospect.
So I went into my cottage next to the orchard and took my pack, loading it with white plums. I knelt down next to my own memory chest, and I took in the smell of aquae koboli and a tinge of blood. Sighing, I put on my gouged aquilla, and my sword, which I had named Learned Helplessness, its transpiric steel forged in the Contessa’s own Ninth Refinery. Then I took my walking stick and followed the path that led toward the village, passing the grave I had dug for Couplet only a few hours before.
By the time I reached the outskirts of the village, most of it had already been burned to the ground or toppled over by the dragoons. And most of the looting had already taken place. The village had little treasure of its own. Lamb Villanelle, in the Pure Laws that he concocted, called the despoiling of any moon “The Sacrament of Priceless Lust.”
I had known him once. I spat into the blood-dirt.
I drew my sword, turned it on, and stepped around the landing shuttle, which had crushed a boarding house, into the market square. The shuttle, of course, was a leftover from the Empire of Marigolds, painted crudely red. The air was thick with charnel smoke. I had no idea how to find the boy.
“Oh, ha ha!”
The voice came from the back of the village’s lone tavern. I moved closer and listened.
“You speechless dog,” he continued. “You bear the mark, but do you deserve to be in the Pure Army?”
“Yes,” a shaky reply came. Though I could only see him as a loose shape through the smoke, I knew right away it was the second oldest boy. “My heart is the fallow field where the law can bear … bear the tree of certainty …”
The smoke cleared for a few seconds, and I saw that he knelt in front of a lieutenant with gray spikes affixed to his helmet.
“Stand up, wicked child,” the lieutenant said.
The boy stood up, uneasily, still weak from my thrashing.
The lieutenant turned a bit, and that was when I saw the youngest of the five, also kneeling in the mud. He was crying and looking over at his friend.
“He is too weak to march with us,” the lieutenant said, pointing at the youngest. “You must prove your worth to the Pure Law and drive him down into the earth. You must—”
I couldn’t bear to watch this spectacle any more. A blaze of smoke blew around me, embers crackling against my lacquered armilla. I walked towards the lieutenant through the grimy air, and I pushed the point of Learned Helplessness through the base of his neck and his throat, through the seams in his plate.
“Shut the fuck up,” I said as he slid off the sword and onto the ground. The sword had melted him from his chin to his collarbones.
I pointed at the older boy. “I never want to see you again.”
He nodded weakly and dropped his grandfather’s sword, running around the corner of the tavern.
(As it happened, I did see him again, as well as the other three boys, years later. They had steadfastly followed their hearts’ ambition to become thieves, cutthroats, and casual murderers in the space between the moons. And then they became captains of casual murderers. And then their fortunes broke, and the new Empress, after taking the peony as her sigil, hunted them down without quarter.)
The youngest boy looked up at me. I still had no idea who he was, but I was beginning to know. I held out my hand and helped him up. I noticed the graceful tattoo on his wrist, which was real, but didn’t say anything yet. The “V” on his neck turned out to be from a stick of charcoal, and it had smudged. I almost laughed.
“Do you want to come with me?” I said. “I’m escaping.”
“Where?” he said quietly.
I pointed north. The mountains could not be seen, but he had to have known what I meant. The mountains were away from all of this carnage.
“I have a ship there,” I said, “that I have hidden.”
He didn’t seem surprised. He nodded.
We left the village as quietly as we could. The lieutenant’s first assistant tried to stop me, but I dodged his first swing through the smoke and pierced his heart, melting it.
The boy didn’t speak again until a half-day later, after we had at last pushed past the brackish marshes. He hadn’t complained, not once, not with his legs muddied and scratched, not through all the dead-ends of miserable brambles I had gotten us stuck in, endless times.
In the distance there were one or two shouts, occasional whiffs of bloodsmoke. But the Pure Army was not pushing through this slog. Not yet.
The two of us reached the first patch of solid (though soggy) ground we had seen since the village and both plunked down next to a half-dead firch tree. After a minute, after he had caught his breath, he said:
“Why did you save me?”
I didn’t say anything for another minute (it took me longer to catch my breath). Then I turned toward him.
“Show me your wrist,” I said.
He hesitated but he held out his wrist, the one with the tattoo, the real tattoo, the one he had made from mussel ink and the sharpened point of a reed. The tattoo was the outline of a falcon inside a star.
“Did you fashion this?” I asked.
He hesitated again, but nodded. I could see the apprehension on his face, and I worried that I was pushing him too far.
“This is the tattoo of Seax-of-Marigold,” I said.
He nodded again. My heart became glad, in spite of my exhaustion, because I had not seen that tattoo on another person in a very long time, since the Empire—and everything—had fallen apart for me.
“Where did you find the sigil?” I said. “If the Pure Army had found you with it, they would have chopped off your hand and fed it to you.”
He was unfazed. He straightened his back. “In the old granary. There were holograms.” He paused. “It used to be a temple to her.”
“Yes,” I said, shutting my eyes for a second, surprised by the pain from that loss, the loss of that Empire built upon the ashes of the old worlds, built by women like me.
“And I want to devote myself to her. I just know that I have to. I am a woman.” This fierceness and clarity surprised me, though maybe it shouldn’t have.
“And I want this body to change,” she continued. She paused, thinking over the words that she had said, words that she might never have said aloud before. “That is what I want.”
I looked at her. “Let me show you something.”
I hiked up my muddy skirt and showed the same tattoo on my thigh.
She breathed a sigh looking at it, more weary than I thought possible for a teenager. Then she smiled. I cursed myself for not realizing who she was earlier, for fully realizing the wellspring of that pained look on her face, eager to not be seen as a woman, or even womanly, in the company of young men she despised.
If Crane Velib was the moon of politics and arbiters, then Queensthroat was the moon of priestesses and vestiges, of reliquaries and silences.
“But … no one knows how to go there,” she said. “The way was lost.”
“I do,” I said. And this was true. So much was lost in the decades after the Empire’s fall. But not everything. “Are you sure?”
“I have made my decision,” she said.
“I understand,” I said, lightly touching her shoulder. “Truly, I do. But this is only the first step in a long journey.”
She had no idea what was ahead of her, if we did make it that far—which was no certain thing with the Pure Army fanning out on the moon. And if we did manage to launch, the space between the moons could be treacherous. Assuming we reached Queensthroat, she had no idea about the superblood tinctures, the long nights of pledges and submission to Seax-of-Marigold’s manifestations, the pilgrimage to the cave at the heart of Queensthroat, shorn from the molten core, where she would find her name inside the shadow, as I found mine.
Of course, after her two years at Queensthroat, things became more complicated when she emerged as Seax-of-Peony—she had not pledged service to her predecessor, but had instead assimilated her, and fashioned something different. Something richer and far more kind than the Empire of Marigolds.
But at that point, with this scared young woman in my charge, it was only a glimmer. A catch in my throat.
It might be hard to imagine in this present age, when the Empire of Peonies has reestablished peace, the fear that the Pure Army instilled at its apex. After the Empress crushed him in battle after battle, he and his Army were quickly and embarrassedly forgotten, as Lamb and his viceroys scrambled to escape the habitable moons, towards shit-moons in the outer belt.
Lamb Villanelle’s lapidation by Seax-of-Peony’s decree was the last act of political violence sanctioned by the Empire.
His era of wanton slaughter was incalculable in the pain it caused. But it too passed.
When men like Lamb Villanelle become gruesomely powerful, most people do not think they can be vanquished. But they can be, and are, because they die alone, as we all do.
And remembering their past attempts to control and deny bodies like mine, and the Empress’s, becomes all the more senseless.
As I had known Lamb Villanelle once, his Pure Laws especially infuriated me. He had declared them to be holy writ, invoking a restoration of a past that never existed. Dozens of empires had risen and fallen on the moons over the millennia, but few were remembered—let alone the people who had built the moons in the first place. Seax-of-Marigold, and those who followed her, had fumbled towards a form of hard, unyielding grace, but even this was just an echo of the past.
But he insisted on his need to enforce his revelation throughout the moons. And the usual cutthroats had fallen in behind him.
I’d like to think that the Empire of Marigolds was different. Lamb Villanelle would have said that we were servants of a theocracy too, one of mystery instead of clarity.
Perhaps that much was true. Perhaps that was why the Empress-in-Waiting forged her own path after visiting Queensthroat—one that tried not to pay homage to the mistakes of the past—but that is another story.
We walked through the scrublands and ascended slowly to the high volcanic plains. We picked and plucked at glitch roots as we walked. The roots would evade our grasp, and would whisper screeches as we yanked them up. I showed her how to scrape off the barcodes with the edge of a knife. As she ate and the shock began to ease from her like snow melting off a horse’s mane, I could tell that she was growing stronger. She started asking questions. She wanted to know everything. I didn’t blame her.
“Did you live in Queensthroat?”
“Yes, for two years, just like everyone else who wished to undergo the ablutions.”
She raised her eyebrow. “And it’s not a myth?”
“No … no, it’s not a myth. We’re not traveling to a myth.”
She mulled this over. “Have you seen Seax-of-Marigold?”
“No. No one has. Only her shadow, on occasion.”
“And yet she lives at the heart of the moon?”
“Well, after a fashion.”
I could tell she was not satisfied with my replies. I didn’t know her well enough to give her the answers she needed, and I maybe never would. I was getting out of breath as the trail got steeper and rockier, and the questions didn’t stop. I had thought tending plums would keep me in better physical condition, but I was wrong, so very wrong, especially as the air got thinner.
From behind us, I could see columns of dark blue smoke, and the sea, and beyond that, the curvature of our little moon.
“So … you served in her army?” she said, after a couple minutes.
“Yes. For seventeen years, I was a Minor Arbiter on Crane Velib. I fled from there to here.” The dehydration gave the seeds of images, and I gave birth to them in my mind: Couplet ambling down a courtyard of gold tiles, the Ninth Forge shattered, my sword vaporizing heart after heart as I fought my way through Pure Army formations to the secret hangar—
“Lamb Villanelle founded his Pure Army on Crane Velib,” she said thoughtfully. “So … you knew him?” She said this in a whisper. As if she did not want to ask, but only realized this until the words left her mouth.
“I knew him there,” I said, clenching my eyes shut. “But we had known each other many years before that, when we were … kids.” I stopped—I had to stop, I could not carry on with another step until I made the truth plain to her. I leaned heavily on my walking stick. “We traveled to Queensthroat together. But he never wished to stay. He departed right away. He only wanted off our home moon, and used my own journey—the one I desperately needed—as an excuse. Later, he entered the Flower of Battle Academy on Crane Velib. In fact, I had sponsored his position.”
“Where is your home moon?” she said, and I shrugged.
“It doesn’t exist anymore. Our childhood home was the first moon that Lamb Villanelle imploded.”
I looked up at the sky and the artificial twilight that started falling upon us.
“And now it is almost dark,” I said. “If we travel farther in the dark, we will die.”
She grew silent.
A hundred steps ahead, we found a house of sorts just off the trail that had its steel and concrete completely torn out, so that only the crystal wiring, twisted and splayed, remained. But this wiring had sagged enough to form a more or less flat roof that would keep out the wind, if not the cold. I realized that this could have been a chapel to Seax-of-Marigold, though it was so defaced there was no way to know for sure.
After we had settled, I gave her one of my plums. She bit into it and scrunched her face.
“This tastes terrible,” she said.
“Give it time,” I said, laughing a little. I looked at the opening of the desiccated building. “We can’t light a fire.”
She finished the plum, and I gave her my bedroll. I pointed towards the makeshift door.
“I’ll watch for things,” I said.
She was too tired to argue with me. As this was the first time she had relaxed in days, I could see the pain limned on her face. I wondered, as she drifted off, whether she would get any rest at all, or rather wake up fitfully every hour from everything she had endured.
But I didn’t realize yet how strong she actually was. When she wanted rest, she rested. When she wanted to kill an enemy, she killed an enemy—and when she wanted to stop killing enemies and reinstitute a reign of peace, she stopped. When she desired sanctuary from the body that betrayed her, she traveled with a middle-aged woman she’d never met before to find a caravel that hadn’t been used in decades, in order to visit a sacred moon that seemed little more than a dream, a phantasm.
As for me, I crouched by the door, oiling and priming my sword. I listened for patrols, or hungry tigerelles, but all I heard was the occasional and far-distant tearing of the lower atmosphere by the Pure Army’s cyclone artillery. I still had no idea why this young woman had fallen into the thrall of those boys who decided to overtake an orchard-keeper with a long stick. Maybe, I wondered, it was an unspeakable crush on one of them. Maybe it was her last attempt to push all of her feelings of brokenness and having a body that she despised down, further down, by numbing herself and going along with the schemes of childhood friends she only tolerated.
I might have been projecting myself into my own dark past with Lamb Villanelle.
And at any rate, she never told me.
I became lost in my own memories as she slept. I ate a plum. I saved the pit, and I rooted through the interior of our shelter until I found the pit that she had thrown away. Those were precious to me, and I had only a few precious things left in my possession.
Perhaps I would grow plums again, I thought, though any trees would not likely bear fruit until long after I was dead.
I was on the edge of dozing and dawn when I heard the frigate screaming through the sky. I startled. A ship was coming towards us.
“Wake up!” I shouted to her, but she was already sitting up.
The frigate landed no more than thirty meters from our hideout, barely taking the time to set down landing gear, skidding to a halt in a cloud of volcanic ash, and I knew who it was.
Of course it was Lamb Villanelle.
I pointed at the woman who was to become Seax-of-Peony. “Listen to me. In two minutes, you are going to run through that crevice in the back and head up the face of the mountainside away from Lamb Villanelle. He’s alone. I know he’s alone. He shouldn’t see you, but there might be tigerelles on the path. Whatever you do, do not look them in the eyes. Walk with open palms. They should leave you alone. Once you reach the cave with the white boulder set in front of it, wait for me there. If I don’t follow you after an hour—“ I took a deep breath. “Go farther into the cave. The ship should be there. It’s old, and a lot smarter than anything Lamb Villanelle has.”
She started crying. Shaking her head. I lifted up my leg and pressed my palm against my tattoo. The mark of Seax-of-Marigold began to flutter, and with a hiss it transferred to my palm, the ink wriggling like an anxious mammal.
“Hold out your hand,” I said.
“Please,” I said.
I heard the causeway slowly lowering for the frigate.
At last she held out her hand. I pressed my palm into hers, which was much smaller than mine. But it didn’t matter. The tattoo seared my calloused skin for a second, and then the intertwined falcon and star loosened and grafted onto her. She cried out, and wrenched her hand away. The tattoo wriggled from her palm onto the wrist, superimposing itself on the crude one she had made herself with such pain and passion.
“When you’re on the ship, place your mark into the crucible on the bridge. The ship will know where to go.”
She nodded fitfully. “I’m coming back for you,” she said. “I promise.”
I heard the first heavy boot steps coming down the causeway. I knew he would be ready to kill me for harboring a young woman who kept the memory of the Empire of Marigolds alive—even if she didn’t remember it herself.
I managed to nod. Though I didn’t quite believe her promise, I was comforted that she felt the need to make it.
“Now go,” I whispered.
At last she ran. I knelt down right inside the door and unsheathed Learned Helplessness. I tucked my fingers into the hilt and overrode its safety mechanisms. I gripped the crossguard and pulled on it, hard.
I heard him saying things at me: crowing, challenging me, but it didn’t matter what he said. It only mattered that she lived.
She did live. And she did come back for me—more than that, she saved me, with my own caravel. But that is yet another story, one of several stories that she would possess and nurture as she found her place in Queensthroat, and later, far beyond it.
Slowly the blade lengthened, the transpire slackening and then hardening. I lengthened the blade until it was longer than I was tall. Sparks flew from the steel. I was a young woman again. I grasped the hilt and held the sword in front of me. I was fleeing a burning moon again. I took one step and then another. I was running away from my parents again, having known no more than a lumpen boy’s body, Lamb Villanelle on the stolen caravel’s bridge, piloting us somehow, taking us away from peasants’ lives, to Queensthroat. I wiped away the hot tears.
As I went out into the blinding sunlight, what flooded my mind was one image, as sharp and total as the tattoo that had lived on my skin for decades, and which I had given to the Empress-to-be. The image wasn’t of her; or Lamb Villanelle’s hulking armor covered in jagged quills, promising death; or even me.
No, the mind and heart will flow where they will.
What I remembered most—what I couldn’t exorcise from my vision—was the moment after my dog’s skull had been vaporized by that stupid boy, and the look that had come over his face. There was confusion there, yes, but he was also horrified. He had let the mask of his endless cruelty slip and for a few instants he was nothing more than a terrified boy in shock, dogblood and dogskull plastering his face.
For a few instants, he was hollowed. And there was grief, and grace.
This was what I thought of, when I raised my endless sword and charged Lamb Villanelle: my dear Couplet without a head, and a boy’s face.