7930 words, novelette
The first attack came by starfall, by deathrise. Fire swept out of the darkness, past the great violet curve of the world of Nasteng, like coins from hell’s treasuries. Worse than the fire was the metal: creatures of variable form and singing cilia, joining together into colonial masses that floated high above the moon’s surface and dripped synthetic insects that ate geometer’s traps into its substance.
For decades Nasteng had escaped the notice of the galaxy’s wider culture. This was as its Council of Five preferred. They had a secret that other human civilizations would covet. So they hid behind masks of coral and dangling tassels and quantum jewels, and admitted only traders from the most discreet mercantile societies. Now, their secret had gotten out in spite of their precautions.
Nasteng’s city-domes were ruptured. The gardens with their flower-chorales of tuned crickets went up in smoke and blood and gouges. Spybirds swooped down with eyes glaring out of their feathers and marked targets for the bomber-drones. People were dragged by the insects into agony-circles, their hair fused together and lit on fire, inelegant torches.
The Council of Five had known that such a day would arrive. For the moment they were safe in their subterranean fastness. But their safety could not last forever. They knew that they could not negotiate with their immediate attackers. The colonial masses did not think in words, did not recognize negotiation or compromise. They understood only heuristic target recognition and ballistic calculations. If Nasteng had had more technologically advanced defenses, it might have been able to infect the attackers and subvert their programming, but its long isolation and cultural diffidence toward the algorithmic disciplines precluded any such possibility.
One item Nasteng did possess was a beacon. The Falcon Councilor had obtained it generations ago. Her souvenir of that quest was a gash across her cheek that wept tears that dried into crystals hooking into her flesh. At regular intervals she had to rip her face off and allow a new one to grow, or she would have been smothered. You would have thought that she would want as little to do with the beacon as possible. But no: when the Council of Five gathered around a table set with platters of raw meat and the Wine of Blossoms that was their particular privilege, the Falcon Councilor insisted on being the one to activate the beacon.
The beacon was no larger than a child’s fist, and was shaped like a ball. Light sheened across it as though it had swallowed furnaces. If you held it to your ear, you could hear a distant music, as of broken glass and glockenspiels hung upside-down and sixteenth notes played upon the spokes of decrepit bicycle wheels.
The Falcon Councilor lifted the beacon, then turned it over. It clung to her palm, pulsing like an unhealthy nacrescence.
“I don’t see any point in delay,” the Snowcat Councilor said. It wasn’t so much that he was always impatient, although he was, as that he had never gotten along with her.
“We have to be sure of what we’re doing,” the Falcon Councilor said. “There’s no way to rescind the signal once sent.”
“Falcon,” the Tree Councilor said in their voice like shifting rock and gravel. “We wouldn’t be here if we weren’t sure. Surely you don’t think it would be better to die without attempting anything?”
“No, of course not,” the Falcon Councilor said.
“Then do whatever it is that you do with that thing,” the Snake Councilor said from the dark corner where she was flipping through a book. The book’s pages were empty, although some of them had been dog-eared.
The last councilor, the Dragon Councilor, said nothing, only watched with eyes like etched metal. But then, he never spoke, although sometimes he condescended to vote. They were never tempted to disregard him, however. He was, after all, the head of the Gardeners.
“All right,” the Falcon Councilor said. She flung the beacon toward the floor. It sheared through the air with a whistle almost too high-pitched to be heard and shattered against the floor.
The beacon’s shards could be counted, yet they hurt the eye. They were more like collections of brittle dust than splinters or solids. As the councilors watched, the shards reassembled themselves. Where there had been a single sphere, there were now two. Then both spheres dissipated in a vapor that smelled of antifreeze and disintegrating circuit boards.
“I hope that’s not toxic,” the Snowcat Councilor said, narrowing his eyes at the Falcon Councilor.
Whatever response she might have thrown back at him was interrupted by the formation of two doors right above the beacon—beacons?—in a jigsaw of fissures.
“Well,” the Snake Councilor said softly, “I hope we have enough wine to offer our guests. Assuming they imbibe.” The others ignored her, on the chance that she wasn’t joking.
Their guests numbered two. They didn’t so much step through the doors as emerge like cutouts suddenly fleshed.
The first was a woman, tall, with the finest of veils over her face. She wore soft robes with bruise-colored shadows, and her cloak was edged with dark feathers. The Snake Councilor glanced at the Falcon Councilor, but the latter’s face was an unreadable labyrinth of refractions. The other guest was a man, neatly shaven. His hair was black, his eyes of indeterminate color.
The Falcon Councilor inclined her head to them. “We are grateful for your promptness,” she said. “We are Nasteng’s Council of Five, and the nature of our emergency should be clear to you.”
“Yes,” the woman said. The man bowed, but did not speak. There was something forced about the curve of his mouth, as though the lips had been sutured together. “You may call me Ahrep-na. I have a great deal of experience with situations like yours. I assume you’re familiar with my past successes, but if you need—”
“We know,” the Falcon Councilor said. She had heard the name of Ahrep-na, although it was not safe to use it until she had given you permission. It was why she had left Nasteng all those years ago, in search of Ahrep-na’s token.
“In that case,” Ahrep-na said, “we will need to discuss the contract. My methods are particular.”
The Falcon Councilor thought wryly of Nasteng’s high generals, some of whom were rather more useful than others. Most of whom were rather less. One of the dangers of having its officers drawn almost exclusively from the nobility, or from people who bought their commissions. “That won’t be an issue,” she said. Behind her, she heard a harrumph from the Snowcat Councilor, but he didn’t interrupt otherwise.
They spoke some more about operational and logistical details, about courtesies blunt and banal, and circled eventually to the matter of payment. Given Ahrep-na’s bluntness about everything else, her diffidence about this matter puzzled the Falcon Councilor. But bring it up she did. “Our contracts are tailored to the individual situation,” Ahrep-na said. “Up-front, we require—” She named a sum. It was staggering, but so was annihilation.
Finance was not the Falcon Councilor’s domain. The Snake Councilor turned to a page in her empty book, frowned at a column of figures that wasn’t there, and said, “It will be done in two days.”
Ahrep-na’s smile was pleased. “We will also require the fruits of a year’s harvest.”
“You’ll have to be more specific,” the Falcon Councilor said, as though this were a tedious back-and-forth about supply depots and ammunition.
Ahrep-na wasn’t fooled. “This point is nonnegotiable.” She offered no elaboration.
The Falcon Councilor opened her mouth. Prompted by some nuance of sound behind her, however, she turned without saying what had come to her mind. Harvest. The councilors’ secret that was no secret to the outside world anymore: the wine that kept them young.
The other four councilors faced her, united. She had just been outvoted: irregular, but she had no illusions about what they had done behind her back.
“Falcon,” the Tree Councilor said, in their unmovable voice, “we are short of options. Our people burn in the streets. Without them, we too will fall. Accept their offer. We knew we were not negotiating from a position of strength.”
“We’ll regret this,” she said bitterly.
“Anything can be survived,” the Snowcat Councilor said, “so long as one is still alive to survive it. You’re the second-oldest of us. Are you going to fold up and die so easily? Especially since you’re the one who brought us the beacon in the first place?”
“It was that or have no last resort at all,” she shot back. “Or did you think we would stand a chance against people slavering after the wine?” She looked over her shoulder at Ahrep-na. “Let me ask this, then, Ahrep-na. Are you going to take the Wine of Blossoms for yourself?”
“That is the one of the two guarantees I will offer you,” Ahrep-na said easily. “I will not touch your supply of the wine, nor will the soldiers I will raise for you. Or did you think I was human enough to have any use for it?”
The Falcon Councilor was accustomed to envy, or submission, or greed. It had been a long time since she had seen contempt.
“You said two guarantees,” she said. “What is the other?”
Ahrep-na’s eyes were sweet with malice. The nameless man stared straight ahead. “I will win this for you,” Ahrep-na said, “with the mercenaries I raise.”
“Of course you will,” the Falcon Councilor said, wondering what the trap was. “Very well. We will contract you under those terms.”
Ahrep-na’s smile was like a honed knife.
His name was Loi Ruharn, and he was one of the councilors’ generals. Most people knew him, however, as the Falcon’s Whore.
He had been born Korhosh Ruharn, in one of the poorest quarters of the impoverished city-dome known ironically as the Jewel of Nasteng. As a girlform child, Ruharn had played with toys scavenged from stinking trash heaps in alleys, and watched with pinched eyes while his parents argued over which of the religious offerings they had to neglect this month because otherwise they would be too hungry to work, and swore he would never grow up to live in a crowded home with six brothers and sisters, wondering every night if he would be sold to the Gardeners like the daughter of the Ohn family next door.
As soon as he was old enough and strong enough, Ruharn ran away and enlisted in a noble household’s private army. He might have died there. While the Council of Five ruled Nasteng entire, they didn’t interfere with the nobles’ squabbles so long as they didn’t threaten the councilors themselves. But Ruharn acquitted himself well in battle, mostly through a combination of suicidal determination and a knack for small-unit tactics, and he rose quickly in the ranks.
That by itself wouldn’t have made him remarkable. There were plenty of talented soldiers, and most of them died young anyway, the way battle luck went. Rather, he came to the Falcon Councilor’s attention as a minor novelty, as a womanform soldier who lived as a man. For all her years, she’d never taken such a lover before.
The Falcon Councilor wouldn’t stoop to take a common-born lover, but that was easy enough to finesse. She offered riches; she offered to buy Ruharn a commission in the Council’s own army, and an adoption into a noble family; and most of all she offered a place in her bed. Ruharn wasn’t sentimental about the honor of his chosen profession, although he knew what people would be saying about him. He accepted.
Today, almost six months since the invasion had begun, he was pacing in the command bower of the councilors’ fastness. It was decorated with vines from which cloudflowers grew. The vines watered themselves, a neat trick. Irritatingly, they also left puddles, which you’d think he’d know to step around by now. The last time he’d yanked off a table runner and used it to soak up the moisture, he’d been yelled at by General Iyuden, who was insufferable about ornamental items. But Iyuden came from one of Nasteng’s oldest, wealthiest families. He wasn’t about to have that argument with her.
Arrayed before Ruharn were videoscreens of Nasteng’s defenses. It didn’t take any kind of experience to see how inadequate they had been. He had read the reports and made his recommendations. It wasn’t so much that the senior generals had disagreed as that no recommendation would have made much of a difference.
He didn’t know what had happened in the four days since the gateway fastness of Istefnis, on the surface, had been crushed into crumbs of marble and metal and human motes by the invaders. But the mercenaries the councilors had hired had brought with them a fleet of starflyers, a horde of groundswarmers. Nasteng’s unnamed enemies had slowly fallen back before the onslaught of hellspikes and icemetal bursts and frenzied gnawers. You could, if you were sufficiently innocent of electromagnetic signatures and spectral flourishes, take it for a particularly disorganized fireworks display. Nasteng itself was now haloed by a staggering murdercloud of debris, whether glowing, glimmering, or gyring dark. It was just as well they weren’t putting satellites into orbit anytime soon.
Two things bothered Ruharn about the mercenaries’ forces, for all their successes. (More than two. But he had to start somewhere.) First was the question of logistics. The senior general had let drop that the contract had mentioned logistical arrangements. As a staff general, Ruharn had hoped to learn details. Had looked, in fact. So far as he could tell, however, the starflyers and groundswarmers had appeared out of nowhere. It wasn’t inconceivable that this was advanced foreign technology—there seemed to be a lot of that going around—but it still made him suspicious.
The other thing was the way the mercenaries fought. When the Falcon Councilor had told him about the arrangement—the private conversation, not the staff meeting where he’d heard the official version—she had indicated every faith in the mercenaries’ abilities. So far, Ruharn observed that the mercenaries relied on sheer numbers, wave after wave of suffocation rather than strategy. To be sure, the method was working, yet he couldn’t help feeling the councilors could have spent their coin more wisely.
The councilors’ personal army was used primarily for quashing the nobles’ personal armies and secondarily for quashing the occasional revolution. So he didn’t have great confidence in his conclusions. Yet it was impossible to serve with any diligence without picking up a few fundamentals of the military art.
As it turned out, he was turning the problem over in his mind—it wasn’t as if he had a hell of a lot else to do, since for the first time in his so-called career he was caught up on paperwork—when a message made him forget it completely. He found it on top of his correspondence for the afternoon, smuggled in by who knew what method, a note on the back of a flyer. It said, simply, I need your help.
Ruharn would have dismissed it as a prank or a trap, except he recognized the handwriting, even twenty-three years later, for all the changes. The writer still had that particular way of drawing crossbars, of slanting hooks. He assumed she still lived in the same house, or at least the same neighborhood, or she would have said something more to guide him.
It wasn’t difficult to slip out of the fastness and to the surface, in one of the bubblecars whose use was reserved to the councilors’ favorites. The old neighborhood was some six hours away, to the north and east of Istefnis. Ruharn expected to be discovered eventually, but as long as he wasn’t caught cheating on the Falcon Councilor, he didn’t think there would be any lasting consequences. Assuming he didn’t lose his life to some mine while walking down the street, or break his neck tripping over rubble.
The bubblecar’s driver was a prim woman in the Falcon Councilor’s livery. When she glanced back at Ruharn, her eyes were momentarily sly. Ruharn didn’t notice.
During the ride, he alternated between looking out the window and looking at the status displays, which were connected to the moon’s defense systems. He wore the plainest clothes he owned, which weren’t very, a severe coat over a suit of soft dark brown with gold-embroidered gingko leaves, neatly fitted trousers, and boots likewise embellished with gold. In the neighborhood where he had grown up, the boots alone would have gotten him robbed, which was why he came armed. Two guns and a knife, the latter being ceremonial, but he kept it sharp on principle. Given his childhood, he was actually better in a knife fight than with handguns.
In the neighborhood where he had grown up, you would also have had one hell of a time finding a fence capable of dealing with items so fine, but that didn’t mean no one was stupid enough to try. Maybe his uniform would have been a better idea, except he didn’t want to give anyone the notion that he was there on official business.
He hadn’t been back in twenty-three years, since he had run away, although from time to time he sent money home. No one from his family had ever acknowledged the payments. He hadn’t expected them to; would, in fact, have been obscurely humiliated to hear from them.
The bubblecar wound through streets choked by devastation. Devastation was not new to Ruharn. He had grown up with decaying walls and the debris of blown-away hopes. Nor was he a stranger to battlefield ruin: red dried to blots brown-black, lungs sloughed into gray slime, stinging dust in the air. Even so, dry as his eyes were, the pitted streets and pitiful crumpled corpses were somehow different when they were dead at strangers’ hands.
“Here we are,” the driver said. She didn’t bother to hide her skepticism.
“Thank you,” Ruharn said distantly. He put on a filter, then stepped out. The bubblecar didn’t wait to accelerate away. Sensible woman.
His memory was still good, despite the damage that had been done. Undoubtedly some of it had been local warfare, not recent either. He made his way through the streets, not too fast and not too slow, pricklingly aware that the few survivors were watching him.
The house had changed a little. Ruharn was certain that the old wind chimes had been decorated by little clay flowers. The new ones had what might charitably be described as rotund four-legged animals (what kind was impossible to say). He couldn’t, however, discount the possibility that it was the same set of chimes with different decorations. The girl he had known had always liked chimes. He stepped up to the door—if this was an ambush, so be it—and knocked. “Merenne,” he called out. “I’m here. It’s Ruharn.”
For long moments he thought that the house was chewed up and empty inside, that he’d wasted the trip. Then a voice barely familiar, scratchy with hardship, called back, “I’m coming.” Soon enough the door opened.
“Merenne,” Ruharn said again, voice unsteady. He did not bow. She would have taken offense.
Merenne was shorter than he was, and her hair had gone gray. She looked fifteen years older than he was. In fact she was his younger by six. The clothes she wore were neatly stitched, and patched besides. The shirt was livened by embroidery, mostly geometrical motifs. Ruharn remembered how assiduously they had both picked apart old handkerchiefs and wrapping cloths to scavenge brightly colored thread for the purpose. She had smiled easily then, as a girl, despite the fact that her shoulders were already growing hunched with the work she had to do. He doubted she smiled easily now. She had been his favorite sister, for whom he had saved pittances to trade for candies, whom he had soothed to sleep with bloodthirsty stories (even then he had had an interest in weapons), and he had left her behind without so much as saying goodbye because staying was unbearable.
“I didn’t think you’d come,” she said, as simple and sharp as a mirror-break. And: “I thought something of your old voice would remain. But I wouldn’t have known it was you at all. Come in.”
Ruharn’s mouth twisted. He hadn’t thought about his voice, now a tenor, for years. But he stepped through the threshold. The place was too quiet. Where was everyone? Not that he had so much as known that Merenne herself was still alive. For all he knew, some plague had killed them all years ago.
“I almost didn’t come,” he said. “But I did. Say what you have to say.”
Merenne didn’t respond, but instead led him through the house. It didn’t take long. The Falcon Councilor would have considered it barely adequate as a closet. Ruharn had always been amused by her misconceptions about how many people you could squeeze into shelter if you really had to.
There were three rooms, and people would all have slept together in the largest, partly for warmth, partly for community. The first thing that caught Ruharn’s eye was the dolls: two of them, one-third scale. They had been covered neatly by cloths. He wondered if some absent child had left them that way, tucking them in for the night.
The dolls he had grown up playing with had had brass tacks for eyes that were forever falling out. (“Poison gas rots out their eyes in battle,” he had said to wide-eyed little Merenne, long ago. It had been funnier then.) The dolls here were made of some smooth, lambent resin, and their eyes shone like sea-lenses over delicately sculpted noses and lips painted perfect dusky pink. Their hair had been carefully styled, with miniature enameled clasps holding the strands in place. He had seen less beautiful statuettes in the councilors’ homes.
“Go on,” Merenne said. “Look.” As he bent to lift one of the cloths, she added, “You used to have a grand-nephew and a grand-niece.”
Ruharn didn’t ask what if they had been her own grandchildren, or those of their siblings. Or what had happened to their siblings, for that matter.
Beneath the cloth the doll was naked, and he thought of the crude paper dresses that he had sometimes pinned together for Merenne, back when she had had dolls of her own, colored with markers he had stolen from a store. The doll was shaped like a preadolescent boy, but at the join of its legs was a mass that resembled spent bullets melted partly into each other.
In the doll’s hand was a toy gun. (At least, he hoped it was a toy.) He eased the gun out of the doll’s grip. “A credible Zehnjer 52-3,” he said without thinking, “other than the fact that they did the cartridge upside-down.”
He became aware that Merenne was staring at him. “You’d think,” she said, “I had all this time to get used to the idea of you as a soldier.”
Well, it was better than the other things she could be calling him. “You didn’t call me here to identify this toy,” he said.
“No,” Merenne said quietly. “I called you here because the children have been disappearing. I woke in the night and they were gone. The dolls were left as you see them.”
“Kidnappers?” Ruharn said dubiously. Poor people’s children were terrible currency if you weren’t a Gardener. He knew how noisy they got, adorable as they could be. To say nothing of the messes, and the fact that you wouldn’t get any decent ransom for them.
Her mouth half-lifted in a ghost of the smile he remembered, as though she knew what he was thinking. Then the smile died. “Ru,” she said, “I asked around. No one’s seen a Gardener since the children started to vanish.”
He said, because he needed to know, “Has payment been left for anyone?” Because it wasn’t inconceivable, even in the midst of the crisis, that the councilors would upgrade their system of harvest. So to speak.
Everyone knew how much you could expect for a whole child in the desirable age range, in reasonable health. Even now Ruharn knew. The payment had changed over the years, but it was impossible not to remain aware.
For years he had taken the system for granted, the way everyone had. Part of the bargain, horrible as it was, was that the families who sold their children received something in return. Admittedly the dolls weren’t nothing, but he doubted that you could sell them for the equivalent sums. Even if it wouldn’t surprise him if someone had started collecting the ghoulish things; there were always such people in the world.
“As if people would tell me?” Merenne said. “But no. I haven’t heard so much as a rumor. And I looked for payment”—she said this without shame—“but I saw nothing, because it was one of the first things I thought of. Maybe it’s a stupid thing to care about, when our world might not survive. But I have to know what happened to them. And you’re the only person I could think to ask.”
“I know where to start,” Ruharn said carefully. “I can’t guarantee any results, though. Most especially, I doubt I can bring the children back.” Understatement, since he did think the councilors were involved, the way they were involved with everything of note. He had few illusions about his ability to influence any of them, least of all the one who had taken him for a lover.
“I didn’t expect that,” she said. “Just find out what you can. So that we know what to expect.” Her mouth trembled for a moment, so briefly that he almost thought he had imagined it.
Ruharn wondered what to say next. Everything seemed inadequate. At last he said, “Sometime after this is over, if I ever see you again, tell me their names.” He didn’t mention death-offerings. The deaths of children, especially small children, were so unremarkable that few people bothered.
Merenne eyed him thoughtfully. “I’ll think about it,” she said.
He smiled. He had always liked her honesty. After all, it wasn’t as if she owed him anything. “All right,” he said. “Let me take one of the dolls.”
“Take both,” Merenne said, with commendable steadiness. “It’s not as if they do me any good.”
He gathered them up under one arm. Considered resting his free hand on her shoulder, then decided that he had better not. This time he did bow, although he spun on his heel before he could see the expression that crossed her face, and walked out of the house. She didn’t follow him or call out a farewell.
The Falcon Councilor did not greet Ruharn when he returned to the underground fastness. One of the servants did, however, present him a note upon paper-of-petals. It instructed him to attend her that night.
First he took the precaution of wrapping up the dolls and putting them in a case that he bullied out of Supply. The supply officer looked at him oddly, but he gave no explanation. It wasn’t as if he owed one.
Ruharn reported next to the generals’ bower, and stood at attention in the doorway. General Khy sat at a table with her feet on a chair, playing cards with her aide. She was a woman once handsome, but still dangerous, with hair shaved short and a conspicuous blank expanse where her medals should have been; she declined to wear them even on occasions of state. As one of the senior generals, she had taken Nasteng’s impotence hard. She and her cards were always here, and even now, as her aide contemplated options, Khy brought up a map to study the latest intelligence.
A quartet of cards burned for additional points sobbed prettily as they crumpled into ashes. Ruharn wished Khy wouldn’t use that particular feature, but Khy was entertained by the oddest things. Besides, she was one of the generals who understood strategy, so he preferred not to pick fights with her, on the grounds that she was more important than he was.
Khy liked Ruharn, a fact that he tried not to think too hard about. She waved her hand at him while assiduously keeping the cards’ faces out of her aide’s view. “General Loi,” she said genially. “At ease.”
It took a moment for him to recognize the house name he used now. Funny how long it had been since he’d lapsed. “General,” Ruharn said. “Any interesting developments?” He doubted it: Khy would hardly be tormenting her cards if something that required her attention were going on.
She sneered, which took him by surprise because she ordinarily approached everything with cockeyed levity. “Look,” she said, and flung her cards down. Her aide kept them from fluttering off the edge of the table.
Khy’s hands tapped rapid patterns on the nearest interface. Maps flowered, crisscrossed by troop vectors and dotted by the bright double-squares of bases, the cluster-clouds of aerospace fighters. Nasteng’s forces were violet. The enemy was green. The mercenaries were gold. Her hands tapped again. The troops moved as their positions and engagements were replayed over time.
“We might as well retire now,” Khy said. “Oh, maybe not you, you’re young yet, and there’s always a use for good staffers.” From anyone else it would have been a veiled insult, but Khy had never treated Ruharn as anything but a competent colleague and Ruharn was not so paranoid as to believe that things were different now. “But look, the mercenaries are doing all the work.”
“That doesn’t mean there won’t be more attacks, now that the outsiders know we’re here,” Ruharn said. And, when Khy didn’t respond, he hesitated, then said: “The mercenaries fight with numbers. But they don’t fight well.”
“You’re one of the people who can see it, let alone who is willing to say it,” Khy said bitterly. She flipped a pointer out of her belt, caught it, switched it on. Scribbled indications, in light and hissing sparks, on the maps. “There, there, there, there. Victory by attrition. So wasteful.”
“I understand there’s a noninterference clause,” Ruharn said neutrally.
“Noninterference, hell. I’ve had the scanners on it and they can’t even tell what our allies are. They come from nowhere and the corpses of their units degenerate with astonishing rapidity. There’s probably a paper in it for some scientist somewhere.”
Khy brought up more photos and videos. At first Ruharn didn’t recognize what he was seeing, too busy being distracted by fractal damage, stress marks, metal sheening red-orange in response to unhealthy radiations. Familiar shapes.
Except those weren’t the only familiar shapes. Burnt into the wreckage were symbols he remembered from his childhood. The depressions of board games he had played in the dirt, or score-tallies chalked onto walls, or warding-signs around which he and his friends had danced in circles, chanting rhymes to keep the Gardeners away. He glanced sideways at Khy, wondering, but she met his eyes with no sign that she saw anything in the faint symbols at all.
Then again, Khy would have grown up playing board games with real boards, made of marble or jade or mahogany veneer. If she played in the dirt, it would have been in a high-walled, well-tended garden while watched by anxious servants and the occasional guard. And she would never have had to worry about being sold to the Gardeners.
Still, it was dismaying to have one of the generals he respected confirm his observations. “Is there something you wish me to do, sir?” he asked carefully. For a mad moment he wished the answer was yes.
Khy only sighed and eased herself back down into the chair, swung her feet up again. “If only,” she said. “You go on, Loi. Your next shift here isn’t for hours anyway, isn’t it? Enjoy yourself.”
Ruharn saluted and passed out of the bower. He headed next to his quarters, where he opened the case and unwrapped the dolls. “You’d better not be bombs,” he told them. They didn’t answer, which didn’t make him feel better.
Dealing with bombs wasn’t one of his skills, but if the dolls were what remained of the stolen children, that wasn’t relevant. Besides, even if they were bombs, they were probably advanced foreigner bombs, and the fastness’s scanners had failed to pick up on them when he brought them in.
The two dolls were nearly identical. Prodding one revealed that the hair was a wig, and beneath it the top of the skull came off. The head was hollow. The eyes, half-domes with luminous irises, were held in place by putty. Systematically, he took apart the rest of the doll. The doll was jointed, and elastic ran through channels in the body and limbs so that it could be posed.
As for the slag of bullets, they appeared to be real metal, not resin. He prodded them and jerked his hand back involuntarily. They were the exact temperature of his own skin. Feeling like a squeamish six-year-old, he pressed his fingertips against the resin just above the slag. The surface was cool; significantly cooler, in fact.
Logistical necessities, Ruharn thought, staring down at the dolls. Then he wrapped them back up, laid them carefully in the case, and put the case under his bed. Stupid hiding place, but it wasn’t as if he had a better one. And anyway, the real hiding place was where he had kept it all these years, the pitted lump he had for a heart.
At the appointed time, Ruharn went to the Falcon Councilor’s chambers. He did not wear his uniform. Lately she liked him to wear what the courtiers did, necklaces of twisted gold and fitted coats with their undulating lace, dark red brocades. He obliged her; he understood his function. The guards with their falcon insignia acknowledged him merely with nods, making no comment.
The councilor stood looking at a tapestry-of-labyrinths when he stopped just short of entering, the way she liked him to. “Madam,” he said. In the very early days she had liked it when he knelt. Her mood varied, however, and he didn’t care one way or another. If pride had been important to him, he wouldn’t be here.
“Come in,” she said in the clear sweet voice whose inflections he knew so well.
Ruharn came up behind her and undid, one-handed, the clasps and knots and chains that held her veil in place. She had told him once that she only wore it here; everywhere else it was the familiar falcon mask. Ruharn found it telling, although he did not say so, that the fastenings were more elaborate than the veil itself. He was no pauper, but a bolt of the fabric, with its infinitesimally shimmering threads and texture like moondrift silk, would have beggared him. He always had the disquieting feeling that his fingerprints would sully the fibers, leave scars deep as trenches and hideous as gangrene. But he didn’t say that either.
“Your hands are cold,” she murmured.
It always took him a while to undo all the fastenings. “Sorry,” Ruharn said mildly, “but you didn’t like my last pair of gloves and it’s not as if I’ve had time to go shopping.”
She didn’t call him on the lie, and he bent to kiss the back of her head, inhaling the fragrance of her hair.
The veil fell away, drifting through the air like a feather, or a fall of light, or a flower’s breath. Ruharn always felt ridiculous whisking it away to lay it on the councilor’s dresser without folding it, but she had never complained. He lifted her hair, which was hooked through with crystal—it was getting near the time where she would have to tear off her face again—taking care not to tug the dark coils. Unhurriedly, he pressed his lips to the back of her neck, once, twice. Again. Her perfume smelled of dried roses and wood-of-pyres. Inhaling it made his heartbeat quicken. Reportedly she wore it only for her lovers.
“Tell me,” he said right into her ear, “is it true what’s been happening to the children lately?”
He wanted her to tell him the truth, however familiar; however horrible. If she told him the truth, he would accept his complicity and forget Merenne again. He had been doing exactly that for all these years, after all. Surely he had earned a little truth in exchange for the years they had spent together.
The councilor’s laugh came more as a vibration against his chest than a sound, and her voice was teasing. “You’ll have to be more specific than that, my dear. Are we talking about schools, or orphanages, or some incident involving crawfish-racing?” (Naheng’s crawfish were surprisingly large and fast, or this game would have been less popular than it was.)
Ruharn heard the lie and was surprised by the force of his own rage. He brought his hands up and down and around. She cried out as she landed against the wall, hard, breath slammed out of her, her arm bent close to breaking in his grip. “Are the mercenaries harvesting the children now, or is it still you?” He added, “It’s been a long time since I did hand-to-hand. I could still get the mechanics wrong. So think about your answer.”
“Why does it matter to you?”
He broke her arm. She screamed.
No one came. She hadn’t triggered an alarm, and the guards were used to noise.
“Madam,” he said, very formally. She went very still, very quiet. “Answer the question.”
“We haven’t sent out the Gardeners since the mercenaries came,” the Falcon Councilor said raggedly. “It’s their doing this time around.” And, in a different voice entirely: “I had always hoped you might hesitate a little before doing—this.”
“Neither one of us has ever been under the illusion that this relationship was about love,” Ruharn said. “Did the mercenaries say outright that they would be recruiting the children?”
“They didn’t say, but we knew.”
“Is it too late to send them away?”
“We’ve paid,” she said. “They will give us what we paid for. Don’t you think we considered that people powerful enough to save us would also be powerful enough to plunder us? To wreck our way of life? But it was either submit to our destruction or choose the chance of salvation.”
Ruharn thought for a moment. “All right. Take me to the Garden.”
The councilor’s laugh was ugly. “It always comes down to this. It took you longer than most, at least. What, are you concerned that the mercenaries will destroy the supply before you get your chance at youth unending?”
Let her think what she wanted. “Madam,” he said, “you have a lot of bones and breaking them all would take time I don’t have. I would speak you fair, but I’m done with niceties. The Garden.”
“You picked one hell of a time to stage a coup, lover,” the Falcon Councilor said in a voice like winter stabbing.
Is that what you think this is? Ridiculous that he wanted her to believe better of him, yet there it was. “Shut up,” he said evenly. She was silent after that. It had been a long time since he had been anything but deferential to her, except in bed when she required otherwise.
It was a long way to the Garden. Ruharn expected her to call for help after all, or try to escape. But she kept looking at him, her eyes pierced through with pain, and she did neither. Sometimes she drew in a breath that might have become a sob; but then she controlled herself. He tried not to think about what he’d done to her.
The Garden, when it opened up before them in a staggering splendor of chokingly humid air and pearlescent lights, was choked with children, newborn to ten or eleven years old. It was impossible to tell how many there were, or how big the Garden was. They were sprawled every which way, a spill of limbs and crooked necks and lolling heads, and from them grew red pulsating vines, and from the vines shone red murmuring fruits. Perhaps it would have been less overwhelming if the children had been neatly organized, stacked by height or size in rows. Probably not.
In spite of himself, Ruharn looked among the faces for some echo of Merenne’s features. Some echo of his own. It was impossible to tell amid the red tangles.
“The raw liquor is effective,” the Falcon Councilor said after giving him just enough time to confront the sight, “if that’s what you’re thinking, but painful. Dragon is the only one who imbibes it in that form, and Dragon is a little peculiar. I’m surprised you didn’t just have me take you to the wine cellars.”
“No,” Ruharn said. “This is what I want.”
“The other councilors won’t stand for this, you know.”
“They won’t have to.”
She still didn’t understand. “When they come after you—” Tellingly, she didn’t say we: he was almost certain it was deliberate.
“Forget that, this is damage control,” Ruharn said savagely, resisting the temptation to hit her. Stupid, considering he had already broken her arm and threatened systematic torture. “You made a bargain you only half-understood and you sent children to die in the most wasteful way possible, without even the leadership of someone like General Khy so they’d have a chance. The mercenaries aren’t providing any sort of generalship themselves and I trust you weren’t assuming that a bunch of children that age were going to spontaneously turn up any convenient tactical geniuses to do the job.”
“This is rich,” the councilor retorted, “from someone who turned his back on those same children during all the years they were bought as fodder for the Garden. Or did you manage to lie to yourself about what wine it is I drink when I’m not in your arms?”
He flinched. “Oh yes,” he said, “I would rather be fucking you than dealing with this. I’m not unaware of what I am.” The red silken sheets, her fragrant skin, the coils of glossy hair. The marks her mouth of living crystal left on his skin. “But apparently even I have limits.”
Ruharn removed his ceremonial knife and laid it on the floor. Then he stripped, aware of her staring even though his body was no secret to either of them. He picked up the knife again, squared his shoulders, and waded into the Garden.
For all the useless ornamentation on the knife’s hilt and sheath, its blade was just fine. He had no intention of wasting further time plucking fruit or squeezing it into his mouth. Instead, he cut directly into a handful of vines and brought them, spurting livid red, up to his mouth.
She was right. It burned going down, and burned his skin too, not like fire (he knew something of fire) but like hopes crushed down to singularity nights. But he swallowed, and swallowed, and swallowed, even as he choked; even as the red fluid dribbled down his chin and soaked his clothes. When the spray slowed, he grabbed blindly and cut again, and again, and again.
“Ruharn!” the Falcon Councilor cried out behind him. “Ruharn, you have to stop, it’s too much—”
Good to know that she wasn’t interested in that particular perversion. At least with him. He kept drinking, unable to see although his eyes were wide open, so nauseated he couldn’t even throw up. Finally he dropped the knife and sank to his knees, coughing out an ugly pink-tinged spray.
After a while he became aware of her hand on his shoulder. Her touch, too, burned with the sticky-slick traces of the fluid. He shivered. Her hand felt large, and he felt thin, small, vulnerable in a way that hadn’t been true for years. He looked down, not at his own hands, but at his thighs and their scars, not all of which had been received in battle. Looked up. She was taller now, larger.
“Ruharn,” she said in a wretched voice. “You look—I never imagine you’d ever looked so innocent. Except your eyes.”
“Childhood isn’t about innocence,” Ruharn said, both cynically amused at the way she cringed at how high his voice was now, and hating the sound of it himself. “It’s about being powerless.”
She didn’t contest the point.
“Your mercenary company,” Ruharn said. “You must have a way of contacting them still. Tell them to take me next.” He assumed it would be the fastest way, instead of wandering around in some city waiting for them to find him. “If children are the coin they desire.”
“You’re even more crazed than I thought you were if you think I’ll do that.”
Hell of a time for her to get maternal. “I’m not Khy,” Ruharn said. “I didn’t go to the nobles’ battle schools, or to the collegium for strategists. But I know more than those children do. Because that’s who the mercenaries are, aren’t they? Our children, transformed. Let me go.” He shook off her hand and rose to his feet.
The Falcon Councilor rose as well. “You have no guarantee that you’ll be anything more than a drone while you’re up there as—as whatever you become,” she said.
“Doesn’t matter,” he said. “If there’s a chance I can do some good, I have to take it.”
“Fine,” she said, distant, formal. “You have my gratitude, General.”
She drew out two bright-and-dark balls, no larger than Ruharn’s fists, and whispered into them. He couldn’t hear the words. Then she set them down, dry-eyed, and stepped back. A door ruptured the air above the balls.
You won’t feel grateful for long, Ruharn thought. But he bent his head to her, and went.
In five months and twenty-four days, the mercenaries reclaimed sixty-three percent of Nasteng.
In the fifteen days after General Loi Ruharn vanished, the invaders were repulsed entirely.
General Khy’s attempts to tally the mercenaries’ losses in both phases of the campaign, as opposed to the enemies’ losses, were blocked.
Merenne watched for Gardeners in all the years that followed, but never saw any. She made toys for her next grandchildren; there were a few. No dolls.
The final attack came not from the invaders, who were driven off in a scythe-surge of explosions, but from the newly-coordinated starflyers and groundswarmers. Their original task done, they needled toward the Garden and crashed into it, raising a pillar of fire and monstrous ash.
The councilors, who were in the midst of a victory celebration, had nothing left to fight with. Then, as their forces failed them, they fled one by one, except the Falcon Councilor. She and General Khy stayed in the command bower to the last, playing cards.
The Garden’s protections were sundered. It lay with its ruined red-black mass of vines and charred, sunken skeletons like a sore jabbed open over and over. Nothing would ever grow there again.
Deep in the mass were two broken beacons and two collapsed mannequins, their uniforms fused to their skin. One was a woman, its face candle-melted entirely away. The other was a man, probably; hard to tell, given the damage. But the sutures holding its mouth shut from the inside had torn open, and it was smiling.
Yoon Ha Lee's works have appeared in Lightspeed, Tor.com, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, and The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. His collection Conservation of Shadows came out in 2013 from Prime Books. Currently he lives in Louisiana with his family and has not yet been eaten by gators.