Junil 15, 1543
Two months after the Dawngate opened
She no longer felt the stones beneath her knees, or the palms atop them. Eyes closed, she breathed into the failing light, tracking time by the faint touch of the sun on her cheeks. Outside, the wind moaned through the great stone ribs of the city, setting flaking steel cables to hum and sing. Somewhere in the distance, the grating squall of crows echoed through the empty streets.
Perhaps an age passed.
“Dama?” a voice broke the stillness.
She opened her eyes. Through the gap in the wall, a street full of rubble, blue in the evening shadows; jagged, grey-limbed towers; the bloody underside of clouds. Cold lips parted; “We are here, Iziya.” The words came out scratched with disuse. Footsteps crunched through the debris. His shape crouched beside her, eyes downcast, placing his forehead to the dust.
She permitted him a moment of silence, a few precious moments in the space her scent lingered.
At last; “Speak.”
“My Dama,” Iziya murmured to the ground. “The savages have sent an emissary. The Velkiat request your august presence.”
She smothered a frown. The superstitious barbarians rarely entered the city of their own accord.
With deliberation, she rocked back on to her feet and rose, unfolding and sliding upward like a ribbon unknotting. She paused to fastidiously brush the dust and gravel from her skirts, flexing the muscles in her empty, prickling legs, forcing the blood to flow back into them.
She glanced down at the man, still huddled at her feet. “You may rise.”
“My Dama,” he said reverently, pushing himself up from the dust, teal hair spilling from his thick collar. Just for a moment, his worshipful eyes met hers, a flash of amber nearly lost in the grey light.
With a casual gesture, she stretched every muscle in his body taut, sending him toppling back to the ground.
“Ah!” he managed, rigid with agony. But a twirl of a fingertip halted the rise of his lungs. The light coursing from her eyes painted him in crimson.
“We did not,” she said softly, “give you permission to look upon us.”
His foaming lips mouthed words of apology to the dirt. She closed her eyes to listen to the frantic flutter of his heart, all but lost in the sighs of the evening wind. She waited until his face had gone blue before letting him collapse into the dirt, panting, boneless with fatigue, mumbling and weeping his regrets.
“Remain outside until morning,” she said, turning her back on him. “Reflect on your impiety. If we see you within…” She let the words hang as she strode away, placing one sure foot after the other, gliding soundless through the gravel and debris.
Over the hours his mind would supply tortures more artful than she could now devise. Divinity was still fresh upon her, the frontiers of her blessings unmapped.
She wound through endless halls and down flights of round-edged stairs, flickeringly half-lit by the scarred and crumbling tracery of luminance Shapings. The corridors echoed with the creak and skitter of enormous weights shifting and subsiding. At times she passed faint trickles of water, staining the walls with moisture and moss, leaking from a pool of rain collected in some upper story. They rarely visited the heights anymore. Their design and construction had been perfection, but time broke all in the end.
The moan of the wind rose in the distant halls. Night had fallen. Iziya would be quite cold.
The archway to the Velkiat’s chamber was braced by constructs of earth and metal, worked in crude approximation of base human form, the glow of their Shapings dim in the shadows. They were ancient things, forgetful and simple, overgrown with lichen and colonies of fungus. One rumbled to life at her approach, far too slowly to be of any actual use as a guard. She waved a dismissive hand, and the lifeless thing returned to its slumber.
She set her shoulders back, adjusted the falling starlight of her hair, and strode briskly through the arch.
A dozen old men hung suspended from the benighted ceiling in jeweled harnesses. They were little more than wisps of flesh; tattered spiders, peering down at a hide-clad barbarian that snorted and shuffled in their midst like a nervous bull. The Velkiat’s attendants – young, vital, and more artfully Shaped than their masters – stood silent and circumspect along the walls.
The susurration of the old men’s whispers fell silent at her advent. “Ah, Viyana,” the closest rasped, one veined hand brushing the Shapings on his harness. The cables suspending it creaked as he rose higher. “Peace be upon you.” His rheumy eyes brightened as they fell upon her.
“And also upon you,” she replied by rote, barely deigning to sketch a brief curtsey.
“We have received a messenger,” the old man said, lifting a palsied finger at the primitive in the center of the room. He smelled of fear-sweat, neck bowed, hand resting over the empty scabbard of a confiscated weapon. “He seeks an audience. Speak with our daughter,” the old man prompted. “With our finest achievement.”
Shoulders set, the barbarian turned reluctantly to face Viyana. His chin lifted to meet her eyes, and he could not entirely suppress his reaction. Eyes dilated. Nostrils flared. “E-Elder,” he stammered, taking an involuntary step back.
Viyana stared down dispassionately, and reduced the sensitivity of her olfactory receptors. It had probably been weeks since the savage had last bathed. “Audience granted,” she said. “What have you to say?”
He swallowed quickly and bit out, “I am Nevyt, Runner of the Snowblood.” He paused, evidently expecting her to offer a name in kind.
“And?” she prodded.
“I, uh… I was sent by Nikal,” he said. “Our Oldest and Wisest. The world has changed. Some among the tribes have come forward, admitting that they have – they’ve bonded with Spirits. Become Shapers.”
“Bonded,” Viyana said, eyes narrowing. “With the likes of you?”
He flushed, then paled. “I – not me, Elder. I’m no Shaper. Just a man.”
Sparks of light drifted down along the edges of her vision. The hanging figures dimmed and swam in the thickening air. She raised a trembling hand to adjust the silver tails of her hair. The radiant warmth that had taken up residence within her chest turned restively, vibrating the air with impossible colors and silent peals of sound. Absently, wordlessly, she shushed it. “Continue,” she said, eyes closed, head pounding.
“Nikal has called the tribes to moot at Lhan Getur. If there are Shapers awakening in the east, there may be in other lands as well. Lands where the Spirits are not loved as well. Are not as greatly respected. She hoped that – that some from the Elder Days would come. To… advise us.”
Viyana opened her eyes, clasped her hands behind her back, and fixed a steely gaze down on the barbarian. “Now you seek our wisdom?”
The man’s chin ducked as he fiddled with his weaponless scabbard.
“You left us to go freeze in the wilds, to lie with your animals,” she said. “To stink and suffer and die before your time. Yet you called us fools. Heretics. Perversions.” The barbarian blanched. She felt her nostril twitch. Viyana leaned forward, stooping to match his meager height, filling his vision. Casually, she added, “Did you imagine we had forgotten?”
The savage’s eyes flickered down from her face. She could hear the sudden thudding of his heart, feel the flows of blood alter within him. She straightened abruptly, eyes narrowing, fingers tightening into claws. Unthinking, the fire leapt into her eyes-
“Daughter,” one of the old men whispered, gently. “It would be uncivilized to harm an emissary.”
“His gaze was disrespectful,” she said, curtly, forcing her hands to unclench. The barbarian, wide-eyed, blushed and began to sweat more heavily, if that were possible. He stammered hopeless and utterly inadequate apologies, looking everywhere but at her.
She silenced him with a cutting gesture. “Tell your mistress her message was received. Depart now.”
The barbarian’s hands twisted, feet still, but leaning his weight towards the darkened halls. “Will you be-?”
“Flaying you for impertinence?” she interrupted. “Not yet. Out of respect for our creators.” The old men sighed and swayed in their harnesses. “Leave our presence,” Viyana said, frostily. The hide-clad man scampered away, glancing nervously at the guardian constructs as he passed below the archway.
His steps faded below the groans of the old stones and the wail of the distant wind. “Where is Iziya?” one of the old men wheezed faintly. Her superior ears caught the sound, made him audible. The barbarian might have heard nothing at all.
“He is learning a lesson,” she said, folding her arms across her chest. “Though his indulgence was… less offensive.”
Another deflating sigh rose from the dangling flock. “Daughter,” one of the old men breathed, “the barbarians are one matter. They chose the downward path. Regression. Devolution.”
She arched a delicate brow. “We do not see your point.”
“You are a masterpiece. But Iziya is also a child of Taraysk,” he whispered. “We Shaped you both. He was grown in the same crèche. Your brother, in a sense.”
She adjusted one of her thick columns of hair, brushing her fingers across the spider-fine strands of silver. “He is an older design. Inferior.”
“Viyana,” one of the others rasped. “Our designs always improve. One day you too will be-“
The chamber fell silent as her eyes burned, casting crimson edges on their wrinkled, sagging features, their hollow cheeks and desiccated limbs. “We were chosen,” she told them. “We are blessed above all others.”
“It appears,” a third man wheezed, “that others have been blessed.”
Her hair hand twitched, setting the jewels in her hair to sway and clink. The light faded from her eyes.
“Our hand is required,” another man said, his voice shot with fine gravel. “The wolflings must be guided.”
“We have not instructed them for a century,” another whispered.
The first coughed a dusty chuckle. “Has there been any need? All they have done is breed mighty elk and cretinous children.” He paused and turned blind white eyes to Viyana. “You must represent our interests.”
Her nostrils flared. “You do not mean to suggest that we should-?“
“Where is Lhan Getur this year?” one of others murmured, blinking into the shadows beyond the Velkiat assembly.
From the damp wall, one of the young attendants said, “They moved the camp last summer, Ser. To the Spring of Wisdom northeast of Balakhan.”
“We – you saying that we must leave Taraysk?” Unaccountably, she found her heart skittering a triphammer beat.
“You will depart for Lhan Getur in the morning.”
She shook her head, inhaling air gone thin, one hand clawed and tangled the fall of her hair. “We do not wish-“
“You can handle wolflings.” There was a twinkle in the blind man’s eye. “You will make us proud.”
Gillai 22, 1543
Three months after the Dawngate opened
Asenka paused at the entrance to Grandmother’s tent. Juri’s stocky horse lingered outside, snuffling over grass long-since nibbled to the dirt. He looked up, ears perking as the visitors approached.
“This is where you sleep?” the cloaked woman said, her voice drenched with disapproval. “It smells like a beast has been bedding here.”
Asenka hid balled fists behind her back. “You won’t need to stay long, Elder.”
“Can your Nikal not meet us outside?”
She gritted her teeth and tried very hard to forget about the scimitar at her waist. “Grandmother remembers nearly eighty winters,” she said, struggling to say it as calmly as her sister might. “She needs Juri and I to help her move around.”
The cloaked figure turned to her, shrouded head drifting slightly to one side. “Are you not both here?” After a moment, she sighed. “Very well, child. Slow your angry heart. It is giving us a headache. We will enter your,” she flicked her fingers, “barn.”
“Your friend won’t fit,” Asenka said, looking up at its inhuman height. From beneath its cloak came faint humming, like a finger along the edge of a glass goblet, the ringing of distant gongs.
“My servitor will wait with yours,” the Tarayskian woman said, waving at Juri’s stallion. The horse snorted and shook his head, setting the beads and bells knotted into his long, ragged mane to clacking and singing. She paused before the flap of the tent. “It is… small.”
“You’ll have to stoop,” Asenka agreed, eyes jumping between the wall of the tent and the hunchbacked figure. “It might be easier on your back if you kneel.”
“Kneel?” the woman said. “We think not.” She gathered the impossible fabric of her cloak in one ashen hand, held aside the felt flap with the other, and ducked through. “…There is a yak in this tent,” the Tarayskian said, her voice muffled by the fabric walls.
“That’s Bokkei,” she allowing herself a grin. “He also helps carry Grandmother.” She smoothed the amusement from her face and ducked through, carefully stepping over the ritually carved threshold. “Bless this place and all it shelters,” she murmured as her eyes adjusted to the light. “If it be your will.”
Grandmother Nikal sat cross-legged on a pile of rugs across from the entrance, her face a small, weathered nut lost in an unruly pile of blankets and furs. Bokkei rested at her back, legs gathered beneath his shaggy body, eyes half-closed in a drowse. At the center of the room, a stone-banked fire sent sinuous fingers of smoke towards the patch of sky in the center of the roof. Juri knelt beside the door, her grey silk coat folded neatly around her.
“Who is our guest, Asenka?” Grandmother said, peering up from her knitting.
“She hasn’t offered her name. She’s from Taraysk.”
“Ah, lovely,” she said, setting aside her work – a half-formed image of an elk in heavy snow. “I prayed you would send someone. We are soon to live in great days. It is time for all the east to stand in one tent. Asenka, dear, will you fetch the teapot for me? And some of the good green blend from this spring. Juri, we’ll need water.” Her sister nodded and slipped out of the tent without a sound.
Grandmother squinted at their guest and smiled apologetically. “Your pardon, Elder, but would you do me the honor of stepping closer? My eyes are not what they were.”
“You are Nikal, get of the Snowblood?” the visitor said, stooping to keep her hunchbacked cloak below the ribs of the roof.
“Until my wits leave me,” Grandmother laughed.
“We are Viyana Irizevak.” A half-breath of hesitation and the Elder let her cloak full away. “Get of the Blood-Shapers of Taraysk.”
Ashen skin and silver hair.
Crimson eyes. Long ears. Flat nose.
She wore a crown of embers, a gown of incarnadine and gold. Pulsing suns wrapping moon-cold flesh.
Asenka, carrying the tea and pot from the sideboard, gasped. The objects toppled from her stiff hands, clattering across the floor of the tent.
Viyana’s head snapped around to fix her with a glare. She looked down and busied herself gathering the spilled leaves. “I tripped,” she said, hands fumbling. “On the carpet. The edge. Of the carpet.”
“A lie,” Viyana said, sharply. “I feel the paths of blood flowing within you.” Her hand went to her starlight hair, toying with the jewels that hung there. “You think our aspect unnatural.” The Tarayskian woman set her shoulders back and raised her chin. The flesh of her wings stretched taut, filling the space of the tent. “We have come to guide you, as our ancestors did. We do not require approval. But we demand respect.”
“Clean that up, Asenka dear,” Grandmother interrupted. “It really is quite good tea,” she told Viyana. “It would be a shame to waste it. I saw a statue like you once,” she continued, conversationally. “On the outskirts of Balakhan. A winged woman, crowned with the sun. She wept tears of jade.”
Viyana hesitated, then said, “It was said the Spirit of Grace appeared to Inessa in that form.” The muscles in her shoulders relaxed, wings falling and folding. “That was when mortals learned to Shape. For centuries, it was the ideal of beauty. Our creators-” she abruptly fell silent, ruby eyes wandering away, fiddling with the tails of her hair.
Juri entered, blinked just once at the revealed Tarayskian, and set a skin of rainwater next to Asenka’s fumbling attempts to clean up.
“How do you take your tea, Elder?” Grandmother asked.
“Tea?” Viyana seemed to taste the word. “Why – why, the usual way. Of course,” she said, briskly. Grandmother nodded to herself, and set about preparing a weak cup, with honey – as she would make for a child. As Juri moved past to return to her place by the door, the Tarayskian stretched a wing across her path. “Hold, child,” she said. Asenka froze, holding her breath as the stranger bent to inspect her sister’s throat. “We… could mend this,” she said, drawing a red-stained fingertip lightly across the jagged scar.
Juri returned Viyana’s inhuman stare, calm and unmoving. “I am humbled,” she rasped. “But mended or not, it is part of me.”