This page contains:
- Animal cruelty/death
- Disregard for personal autonomy
When the doorbell first rings, I do not rise from my chair.
It is one of those days when the hurt bends me double. My nerves pulse sharp behind my eyelids; my fingers, clenched around the worn wooden armrests, are full of thorns. But outside the open window, the maples blaze a vermilion song—and so, at the bell’s second chime, I hobble down the hall, raise myself to the peephole.
I have only ever seen her in two dimensions: bright pixels on a small glass tablet I would have laughed at, once, for its primitiveness. Here, it is all I have.
In person, her hair is red as the leaves. And she is so, so young.
“Come in,” I say, cracking open the door. She hefts a huge trunk—the kind with leather straps and no wheels, wide as she is tall—and cocks her head.
“Are you really a house witch?”
Despite the ache unfurling in my chest, I smile. That she might give me such a name, trapped as I am in this flesh I did not choose.
“You could say so.” I flex my fingers, and her mouth crooks as the chandelier above my head flares bright, every pale candle. Heat waxes across my shoulder blades, drips down. I am too tired to wince. But it’s worth the effort.
“Impressive,” she says, and thrusts her hand toward mine with a modicum more respect. “I’m Alanna.”
“Well met,” I say, shaking. Her grip is flawless—long-fingered and strong.
This is the house: three floors of shining mahogany, lintels of flowered marble, rafters and windows arched as the sky. Lightbulbs gutter in sconces, installed at the dawn of mass production; dried roses hang like dark exhales above the main fireplace.
All mine, for years. But too large, of late, for a single person and her sleepless turning.
And when I tripped down the stairs one night, lay for hours gasping and panting on the floor as the nanites in my bones knit me back together, I decided it would be good to have another person nearby. Another body. Just in case.
“How long have you lived here?” Alanna strides ahead of me through the main hall, a dark blur of leather jacket, black jeans, combat boots. She has the ramrod posture of someone the world cannot tamp down—thirty years old, maybe, or thirty-five.
“Longer than you’ve been alive,” I say.
Her eyes flick up: the dark blue of an old friend’s, long gone. “You don’t look a day over twenty.”
When I attempt a shrug, my shoulders sing lightning, and my eyes water. I point to my chair, still out of reach. “If you would be so kind—”
“Oh. Here.” A soft thud on the wooden floor, a guiding hand, and my legs fold into the cushions.
“Thank you.” I tip my head back into the draft-cooled headrest, breathe. “Sorry. I’m—it’s not the best of days.”
“I should have told you—”
“No,” she says, knife-sharp. “You didn’t have to.”
“I take care of everything, regardless.” I curl my fingers again. A slow convulsion beneath my sternum, and the tea kettle whistles. I’d heated it up earlier in anticipation, but still. “Would you like some tea?”
“That would be lovely, but—” Her voice catches. “Are you sure you don’t need—?”
“Please, sit.” When I clench my fist, the whistling stops. Two china cups clink down on the dining table, Italian blue. “Breakfast or Earl Grey?”
“Earl Grey,” she says quickly, and I laugh, heaving back to my feet. She holds out a hand to urge me back down, but the house parts for me in its subtle way, slants its generous floors to help me along.
“Good. I was out of Breakfast anyway.”
The next morning, I take my usual walk through the garden. A cold wind blows through, wild geese skimming fast and low across the sky, and it’s going to be a good day. I can feel it in my spine, in the mud squelching between my bare toes. It rained overnight, and the grass is beaded with dew, the maples shaking off droplets with every gusted breeze. It lulled me as I lay in bed, in the early blue hours, and for once I did more than close my eyes.
When I turn on the path, a black sedan has rolled up on the driveway. The flame of Alanna’s hair bobs across the asphalt, the straight shadow of her trunk in hand, and the door clicks shut, smooth as patent leather.
I had expected a horse, when she told me about her day job. Had expected clanking gauntlets, long walks on supple leather boots, merry bands of travelers. The essence of this country’s dreams, in particular, have been slow to change.
But I suppose a car does make things easier.
I blink, and wind moans through the trees. Blink and the driveway is empty again, the road still as yesterday.
I spend the afternoon in my chair, stringing together poems like strands of pearls. Supper’s at four, on plates I wash by hand when I am done: honey on soft white bread, cheese cubes petaled with almond slices. Evening by the fire, a mug of chamomile tea warm in my palms.
This is my exile: it may be interminable, but I do not see why it must be spent in agony.
At night, the house groans, slow, like a tree broken by wind. I remember crystal spires and eyes like seas, and hold my breath until my vision blurs.
Two days later, I find myself gripping the banister of the third floor, my forehead slick with sweat.
I have not been up here since my final preparation for Alanna’s move-in. Dust has gathered on the banister, the light slanting through the high windows brittle and blue with coming winter. I had forgotten how bright it was. How it feels to peer down to the living room and imagine that, if I jumped, I could fly again.
But I’m here to clean—have been paid to keep cleaning, an extra (albeit meaningless) two hundred dollars added to Alanna’s deposit in the app—so I unclench my fingers and roll up my sleeves.
Alanna’s quarters are neater than one might expect, from one so young. Her leather jacket is draped over a chair, traded out for the black coat that billowed as she crossed the driveway; a bag of robes and body armor gapes at the foot of the bed. On the bookshelf, swords are balanced elegant as the bows of violins, a square of crimson cloth draped over the longest of them in mid-polish.
A knot forms in my rib cage. What it must be to vanquish so easily, with a blade of steel and the weapon that is your body. What a rush, to plunge toward death with the whole of your being, free of the fear of one who has been broken.
When I open my palm, a bellflower rests in its center: a cracked algorithm, cells programmed to reach toward light as well as warmth. Its pollen scatters gold across my skin.
I close my fingers around it and take up the cleaning cloth with my other hand.
That evening, Alanna bursts through the front door in a whirl of groceries and fallen leaves.
“Hello,” she says, beaming, and I smile back, though my spine is a riot of pain. Marigolds have grown across my back to pad it, carnations strained through my fingertips, and their stems twine me to my chair.
“Hello,” I echo, and her paper bag of bread and vegetables lands, hard, on the floor.
“Are you okay?”
“Yes.” I have always been told I have an exhibitionist streak. But it has been a long time since anyone has asked after my flowers.
I am a sapling starved of light. I am a house worn thin by the feet of ghosts.
I cannot expect her to fix me.
Alanna shrugs off her coat and steps closer, eyes wide. “May I—?”
My throat lumps: an owl pellet of abandon, hideously dead. “Yes.”
Her fingers trace leaf, petal, calyx, gentle as spring sun. I close my eyes.
“Thank you,” I say, soft, even though she was the one who asked. I swallow. “Also, I cleaned.”
“Thanks,” she says, her right cheek dimpling, and then she draws away.
She slots broccoli into the refrigerator, the line of her back straight and unyielding. Hard to believe she is the young one, and I am what I am.
I sip my tea. The heat scorches me numb.
“How was your week?” I try.
“I killed a wyvern that was terrorizing a village.” Alanna reaches up—overly intent, her head cocked at too steep an angle—to place a jar of honey on the high shelf. “The mayor gave a speech in my honor, after.”
“Ah,” I say. “Good.”
The tips of her ears flush pink.
She begins to return, after that, with her face streaked in blood, robes acrid with ashes. I learn I am not the only exhibitionist in this house; nestled in my chair, swathed in rosehip warmth and curling leaves, I ask how, and why.
It’s the griffins, she tells me as she oils her swords—they maul fisheries, ravage the parks. Basilisks hiss down subway tunnels; malicious spirits manifest under full eclipse. Humans overween, overgrow, but there are still children to protect, and cities.
There is still a war to fight, and she wields one of the few blades left to fight it.
I do not ask, as she plunges into the next battle and the next, why she does not instead find out how to make more blades. No: she speaks of her next adventure, her next conquest, and I drink in her words like honey.
On a day that dawns bitter and cold as the sea, she returns with a clean sword.
"I’ve found the Ancient One,” she tells me, and I recognize the fever in her eyes: the heady anticipation of knowing your time has come, that even the barest tilt of your face—cheekbone, forehead, jaw—bears the weight of watching history. I pressed my lips to such a forehead, once. “I’ll be gone for awhile.”
“Be careful,” I say, despite myself, and her right cheek dimples.
That night, clasped between her door and the lens of her cell phone camera, she confides to someone—someones?—in a voice thick with hope and fear.
“I can’t believe this is really happening,” she says, and I am not one to eavesdrop, but the wind has hushed, and the house pricks at the faintest sound like a jealous lover. “I started this search ten years ago. Now—”
I steeple my fingers and rock in my chair before the hearth. My carnations have shriveled to seed, marigolds melted back into skin. Only the dried roses above the mantel see my eyes blur, my wrist crooked to wipe them dry.
I am waiting—but not for her.
The absence of voices echoes beneath my skin.
I have waited for so long.
Hours later, when the fire has dimmed to sullen embers, her door cracks open. She pads down the stairs in a grey oversized t-shirt and sock feet. Pauses on the fourth step, seeing me.
“Still up?” she asks, sleep-soft.
I blink the heat from my eyes. Words furl in the pit of my throat, unravel on my tongue. I want to tell her about space—its incomprehensible vastness, planets devoured in a blink, data-scattered leaps between ships of fractal glass. I want to tell her about the speed of thought, and how, folded into math, whole minds might be tucked bright and sharp in the socket of a right eye.
I want to tell her about the Emperor, and the day I hurled him from his throne.
Instead I say, “I do not sleep.”
She stays for a long, silent minute. Only when it becomes clear I have nothing more to add does she tiptoe back up the steps, the bones of her ankles flexed delicate and strong above her socks.
She is gone again before sunrise.
The house should not feel strange without her. She is barely in it—a carton of unsweetened soy milk in the fridge, an extra pair of boots on the shoe rack, a faint aura of lavender. Yet in her absence, time uncurls slow as oak leaves in a dry season; days clench like buds in frost.
I walk into town to buy tea. I whisper to the climbing roses to grow their thorns sharp and wicked as the teeth that would consume them.
I do not think.
This body—this hungry, feeble flesh—was built to forget. Shivering on the garden path, I close my eyes, and for a moment I am only wind, rustling through grass; the pip of a cardinal, brave and dying. There is no Council, frowning down from glass balconies. No weapons thrumming eager and sure beneath my skin.
No operating table, scored with squares like a giant game of Go.
The war is over, they said, scalpels glinting like teeth. You are a liability, now.
We will remake you.
And I? I said yes, for the war I had won them, for a coalition I sifted together from their ashes.
That’s what tickles them, still: that I, victorious, could have been such a fool.
When I open my eyes, I am empty as the waiting driveway, as a room on the third floor.
I said this body was built to forget.
I meant, rather, that the Council coded oblivion into this new flesh of mine, and in my war to remember, I deny myself reprieve.
Once, cities fell at a snap of my fingers. Once, starships shattered at a breath. But the Council chained me to flesh and algorithms half-stitched and porous as sponges, laid me out on a grassy hill as the burnt slag of my old arsenal leaked out of my ears.
The more I reach for it now, for even its paltry remainder, the more quickly I am torn apart.
On the tenth day, the front door slams, and in the thunder of footsteps up the stairs, I catch a stifled sob.
The light outside has faded, gold-limned maples shaded to indistinct indigo. I have been dozing by the window; when I uncrook my neck, something twangs, discordant.
It is late. She does not need my rescue.
My hip pops back into place, and the pain shears my vision white. “Here we go,” I tell the house, and start up the stairs.
Stairs are tricksters in the dark. Two curving flights and I am ready to pray on stiff knees, I am ready to weep at what this will cost me. Still, I climb. Grip the banister, haul, stub a toe. I contemplate illumination, but am too tired to light the chandelier, too far up to reach back for the switch. I focus on Alanna’s sobs. On my own pale, strange-shaped feet, so narrow and lacking in joints. Left, right. Grunt, push.
I am not being paid for this. Did not tap the agree box to these terms and conditions. But I cannot simply sit back and sip tea.
I want to help. I want too much.
I am not the one who needs healing.
“Alanna.” My knuckles rap the door, hollow and clear. My nightshirt is plastered to my back with sweat. “Do you require immediate medical attention?”
A garbled mutter that I generously construe as go away.
“May I come in?”
I push open the door anyway. A bloom of open bandage, in the fading light: her arm has been slashed open from elbow to wrist, and the wound froths a toxic blue.
“Why didn't you call—” I start, but one look at her face and I know. It is the way I felt when I was dinged by a powder bullet on Olmmagar, or when a Derian viper nearly cored me with fangs long as knives. Those were primitive worlds, lesser wounds. They didn’t deserve my pain.
I lower myself onto the bed, arms shaking, and pat the covers beside me. “You’ve sustained a great deal of nerve damage by waiting. Come here.”
She scuttles away, cradling her arm. “Don’t touch me.”
“You’ll die otherwise.”
“You don’t understand,” she snarls, and her teeth are slicked red, her skin a pallid grey. “It knows my scent now, the sound of my footsteps. If I go back, it’ll hear me coming from a thousand miles away.”
“I failed, all right?” One side of her face spasms, and she clutches her mauled forearm tighter. “I did what I came to do, and I fucked up, and now it’s over.” She lifts her chin, and were she not so young and covered in blood, she could have been a Council member, a paragon of ruling grace.
Could have been a weapon, aeons ago, in proud slow footsteps toward an operating table.
“You can still live,” I say.
She laughs, scornful. “The way you do?”
The silence congeals.
There is a rage buried so deeply in some soldiers’ souls that it ashes them from the inside—a rage so long in building that, once it erupts, it lights whole worlds on fire. That rage does not well in me now. When I sit back on the mattress, I am cold walls listening, I am the beating hollow of a heart, I am a cardinal hunched beneath skimming clouds, dark-eyed and watchful. I reach for fury and find it gone, its last curl of steam dissolved skyward with the first trains a century past.
There is no space left in this body to mourn.
“I’m sorry,” Alanna mutters.
I lean forward, clench against the slow fire that cascades down my back. “Listen to me.”
Her blood drips onto the floorboards.
“I was a weapon of my people,” I say. The words are strange in my mouth—rendered in this thin high voice, fragile as lace. “I led nations in battle against the greatest Emperor of our age. I have swallowed suns and crushed moons to powder, ransomed worlds and resurrected kings. When the Army of Twelve rose up, I vivisected each of their commanders, in their own locked quarters, over twelve consecutive nights. And when we won the war, do you know what I did?”
Alanna blinks, blank.
“I became this.” I spread my arms, encompassing soft thin biceps, penetrable rib cage. Corrupted code pulses behind my eyelids, and my hands fall back into my lap, limp. “I let them lay me down—for the sake of the new Coalition, for a treaty that promised disarmament—and by the time I realized what they were doing, they had broken off every piece of myself I had considered worth living for.
“I know what it is to lose,” I say, and my voice is an empty shell aching for the sea. “Do not dare think, even for a moment, that you are the only one.”
She looks away, then. Scans the room as if she will need to draw its every edge from memory. Her fingernails have withered to black.
“Alanna,” I say, sharper, and she flinches as if struck. “It is your decision. But I do not think you should make it while half your blood is outside your body. And I would prefer not to bury my first tenant with the roses, as much as they would love to have you.”
She makes a strangled sound, half moan. A tear rolls down her cheek.
I peel myself off the bed, clench bedpost and then bookshelf as my knees and ankles fold to the floor. Blood seeps into my pants, still warm.
“It’s hard,” I say. Leaves fill my mouth, and thorns, but for once I do not choke. “It’s so hard. I know.”
She crumples into me all at once—the fever and the shiver of her, a cry like the end of the world. Gripping her wrist, I tease out the poison. Leaked equations hone in on the bright twist of corrupted cells; queries smaller than an eyeblink tear in and root out. My lungs burn. The hilt of her sword digs into my hip. I am a sky stripped of atmosphere, an imploding star, obliteration. In all my years in this body, I have never hurt like this.
Hours or lifetimes later, her cries ease. Her head slides from my shoulder into my lap, and her eyes flutter closed, sweat-sheened.
She is, by the slow pulse at her throat, asleep.
I lift my head. The room reeks of salt and crimson, and even the waning dusklight bashes mallets across my temples. My legs are boneless sacks of flesh, my spine a nonentity.
Outside, crickets sing, surviving.
I lean away from Alanna’s half-open mouth and vomit into a pool of her blood.
I twitch awake from a nightmare, my tongue a corpse, and smell roses.
I cleaned up before I passed out. I remember this, at least: the blood and toxins leached away by forgiving walls. The window cracked open without force, without bidding, to let in a breeze.
The rosebud curve of her upper lip.
I look up.
Alanna lies on the bed, her right arm crooked against her rib cage like a baby bird. The wound has sealed: a built-in end process, embedded in acid code. Scars will remain, as they do in all flesh.
As for her other wounds—
I do not think she will forget. I do not know if she will turn from here into silent forests or the clash of louder swords. If she will choose, tomorrow, to walk onward or away.
The war is over, they said.
The war does not end.
I untangle my arms from my legs—a geologic slowness, every muscle a bruise—and think: she is still so young.
The next morning, I find a note on the counter, an ivory square of parchment printed in ink.
And, on the underside, in ballpoint scrawl: Tea tomorrow at four?
I write beneath it in fountain pen. The house has grown full of them over the years, alongside the roses: pens tucked into drawers and notebooks, curved and shining.
Ink blooms from this one’s nib, dark and cold as a freshwater spring.
After tea, we go on a walk. It will be a short one—I realize this the moment my foot clenches against the grass, resisting—but we stagger anyway into the fading sun, lean on each others’ shoulders as evening kisses the roses black.
In the living room, she shows me her swords, her stances. Her hands are warm on my elbows, and I sway, overcome.
“Don’t tell me they never use sabers in space,” she says, and I shake my head, quench a strangeness in my knees that is not pain.
“Our weapons were smaller,” I say, unsteady. Her left palm still rests on my shoulder, a small flame. “Subatomic. Linguistic. Or vast as suns.”
I hand her the blade—she takes it, silently, as I curl back into my chair—and tell her about my old crew: our joining together out of abandoned cargo stations and adamantine cryoholds. The fiery bloom of starship battles in six dimensions, pale armies imploding with our names on their lips. The vine-thick pulse of our interwoven minds as we marched on the Emperor’s palace.
As I speak, memory patters like stones down my spine. Voxel teeth scrape the underside of my skin. I think of true names, though I do not speak them aloud; recall fists raised in salute to a resistance that promised us peace, a people we thought would love us for our bravery.
We were so, so young.
Alanna stuffs her hand in her pocket, the one that cannot grip the hilts of her old blades for too long. The toxin was ancient and cunning, and I could not rebuild the nerves it had already burned away. “What happened to them after the war?”
“There was no after, for them,” I say, and though the void yawns inside me, I do not weep. This is a fact; it has been, for an age. In the end, it hurts more to rise again from my chair—to clutch its arm, wobbling. That I should stand in their honor, now, at the end of the world. That they might see, or care. “They died in the Emperor’s throne room. He peeled them open and ate them organ by organ, as I watched.”
She doesn’t blink. “And then you killed him? By yourself?”
“They gave me something of themselves, in death.” I look to the fire. Strange, that their screams should be memorialized in this vibration of air against thin epiglottis, that the thunder of our joined minds be drowned out by a crackle of flame against hearth. “Only then, when we were truly one, could we wrest him from the throne.”
“I see.” Alanna’s mouth hardens. Limned by fire, she is a knight cast in gold, she is a song made flesh, and I want to hold her, to fall into her—to be harbor and harbored, shelter and sheltered.
There should be no consolation for one such as me. I cannot be her responsibility, or she the balm to this unrelenting need.
But this—this, her hand coming to the nape of my neck, the other trembling at my wrist—and my breath hitches anyway.
“You should sit.” Her eyes are blown wide and dark. “Your legs are shaking.”
I look down at my knees and do not see them. “Are they?”
“Yes,” she says, mock-stern, and lowers me gently back into the cushions. “Perhaps it’s time to turn in for the night.”
Neither of us moves. Wind groans through the rafters.
The abyss in my bones gapes a million light-years wide.
“No,” I say at last. “I haven’t finished.”
The windowsill creaks as she settles onto it. “Well, go on, then.”
I breathe in through my nose, exhale to the hummingbird of my heart. There is a part of me that does not want to remember anymore. That no longer wants to hurt. That looks down at the narrow softness of this body and sees only the claim it will make on me in the end.
Once upon a time, I carried death under my skin. Now it is a dream half-faded on waking.
“When it was over, we looked around at the carnage,” I say, quietly. “We saw the Coalition we were going to build. But when the many worlds had come to an agreement, when the Council changed us, I didn’t truly believe they would take everything. I didn’t believe they would take them.” My voice breaks, a reed against a wall, and then the void blooms across my skin and I was not made to cry, not designed to, but I do it anyway, five hundred years of silence broken against the stone in my throat, against my hand stretched into this planet’s just-blooming internet and returned less empty, against the inconsolable passing of days and winters and never knowing whether this semblance of life, this bridge to nowhere, will one day be memory.
“Hush.” I barely see her move—only a cool gust of aftermath, and then her forehead is pressed to mine, her eyes like black glass. I breathe, and breathe again. There is not enough air. “Shhh,” she says. “Shhh. Let it out.”
Heat streaks down my cheek. “I don’t know how to do this.”
A shadow of a laugh. “You say it like I do.” And then she holds me, her right hand twitching against my back, and doesn’t let go.
I think about how the we who hurled the Emperor into deep space would be ashamed. I think of the Councilors smug in their high glass chambers, secure in a power we willingly handed over. But tucked against this falling night, as ghosts swim the oceans between my ribs, I let myself fall, let this soft, precarious body run its inscrutable course, and when I raise my head again, Alanna’s eyes are bright as stars.
Winter is hard.
Shut in the house, snow thick across our driveway, Alanna paces, hurls her swords against the wall with her scarred hand: too slow. I knead my stiff back, feet cold against the cold floor, and haul myself up and down the stairs.
We cannot do this, I think whenever she breaks, or I do. Neither of us is enough.
Yet she stays. Yet I do not disintegrate from the sheer enormity of time and unknowing. We fall to our knees and breathe together, slow, shivering, and then we help each other up and make tea.
“You see that?”
Deep winter: the sky burned white, snowdrifts fluffed extravagant around tarp-wrapped maples. We have cut the roses and hung them throughout the house, and the garden is luminous with the scent of severed stems, arched and clean as coming spring.
“What?” I ask, leaning against her shoulder.
Alanna pulls a black hat tighter over her ears. A young man bought it for her, the last time we went into town—because he thought her pretty, or because he pitied my presence at her side, I couldn’t tell. Either way, she accepted it, and we went on our way. “Over the hills, there.”
She points, and time stops, and the sky is a glass a breath away from tipping.
It’s a ship. A Phrian runner, the gouge in its hull familiar as my own reflection, shields ashen with the fire of reentry. By the time it has circled twice, thrice, and settled on the nearest hill, I am stumbling through the snow.
“Hedi,” Alanna says. “You know them?”
“I—” The stone in my throat swells, hardens. “I don’t know.”
“Shall we find out?”
When I nod, she takes my hand and we fly down the slope, and it barely hurts at all.
At the top of the next hill, the door to the ship slides open, and a laugh falls out of me like a thunderclap.
Striding down the walkway is a stranger: the cut of her eyes and mouth a distorted shadow of faces I once fought beside, the line of her shoulders an echo of my heart’s own shape. Her knuckles are not yet knotted with scars, and her irises swirl silver-green instead of blue. But when she calls me by my true name—when she pulls me into an embrace, her jacket smelling of fire and scorched steel—I have to fight the sob that cracks out of my throat.
“You don’t know how long we’ve been looking for you,” she says, pulling back to examine me, though the second lenses over her eyes have already taken their impressions—cross-section, chemical composition, circuitry or lack thereof. I search them anyway, for pity, for the old grief, and find nothing. Not yet. “A couple anti-Council hackers grew a bunch of us—” she motions at herself—“from the remains in the Emperor’s throne room, and sent us out across the galaxy.”
“They—they sent—” The wind buffets my ears. I cannot speak. A bubble is rising in my chest, softer than pain, but as deep.
That it should be this simple. That all my waiting should have come to this.
“So you’re not—”
“Unfortunately, no,” the stranger says, and I do not know whether to shout or cry or fall, as I have been far too prone to, lately, back into the forgiving snow. “They scavenged what they could, but we don’t have the Myriads’ memories. Just the seeds of their bodies.” She flexes one arm and I choke on a laugh, startled at the familiarity of the gesture. “We can refuel at Yaito, grab drinks at the Starboard. There are many who would like to see you in person.”
Beside me, Alanna asks, “Would you have room for one more?”
This winter has molded her into something different—not simply softer, or sharper, but worn, the way a stone is tumbled against the sea floor until its face is thumb-smooth. Now, though, there is an old hunger in her gaze. Tempered by time, yes, but not gone.
“You spoke of ships that sail in six dimensions,” she reminds me. “Secrets to shatter cities.”
“I did,” I say, wary.
“Can anyone wield them?”
“You could, theoretically,” I say, even as heat carves a crescent down my rib cage. A new fault line is cracking open inside me. I want to take her hand again. I want to drag her back down the hill. I want to be sipping tea with her in the sitting room as rain taps at the windows, safe from worlds that demand more than we can ever give. “Given some upgrades. And proper training.”
The stranger’s nostrils flare. “There is an old poison in your blood,” she says to Alanna.
“Yes.” Alanna’s cheeks flush, not entirely out of shame. “A being we call the Ancient One. I fought it, once, and survived. And I want to face it again, when I’m better armed.”
“By all means,” I say. The wind blows loud enough to drown out my voice. “You would find many allies, out there.”
Alanna’s eyes narrow. “You’re not coming?”
A silence, as if before a storm.
I clench my fingers. Taste the old ripple of pain, the sky spinning drunken against the shell of my inner ear.
“Look at these hands,” I say, and hold them out, two strange, wrinkled shapes of flesh. “Plasma shot from them, once. Imperial soldiers cowered at their raising. Would I parade myself, stripped of all armor, before those who only know of me from the stories, who shout themselves awake from nightmares of what I used to be? Would I give them my final humiliation?
“The war is over,” I say, and heat leaks from my eyes again, surprising me. “And I am so, so tired.”
For a full minute, Alanna and the pilot—and I can already see them together at the cockpit, cracking jokes, sipping the Starboard’s famous green juice—stare, as if a viper has burst out of my mouth.
Then Alanna’s fingers wrap around mine.
“You have made a home here,” she says, low. “But are you staying because you want to, or because you’re afraid?”
Dread climbs up my throat. That even in this body, I might be stripped of the few paltry defenses I have accumulated. That after all these years, I could be broken still further along these fractures I thought I knew.
“It’s hard,” Alanna says, and leaves gather on my tongue, and thorns. “It’s so hard. I know.”
Snowdrops bloom between our palms, at once binding her and pushing her away. Silent, I am a howl of green, a trampled husk, an empty room.
And afraid, down to my beating bones.
“Hedi,” Alanna says, a murmur, a caress. “Hedi—”
And she is here, her thumb tracing the stems of the snowdrops, her other hand tremoring as it cups mine. She is here, and her eyes are a blade and a fire and a promise, and I don’t know much anymore, but I know this: I will not go alone into the dark.
The pilot clears her throat. “I can, ah, give you some time,” she ventures. “If you need to recalibrate—”
“No.” I shake my head. Alanna’s grip tightens, and I can taste the edge of her pulse, soft and round as a seed’s first leaf. “I’m coming.”
We step toward the ship, and Alanna’s smile is like the sun.