Pyrre Lakatur doesn’t like the word skullsworn. It fails to capture the faith and grace, the peace and beauty of her devotion to the God of Death. She is not, to her mind, an assassin, not a murderer—she is a priestess. At least, she will be a priestess if she manages to pass her final trial.
The problem isn’t the killing. Pyrre has been killing and training to kill, studying with some of the most deadly men and women in the world, since she was eight. The problem, strangely, is love. To pass her Trial, Pyrre has ten days to kill the ten people enumerated in an ancient song, including “the one you love / who will not come again.”
Pyrre is not sure she’s ever been in love. If she were a member of a different religious order, a less devoted, disciplined order, she might cheat. The Priests of Ananshael, however, don’t look kindly on cheaters. If Pyrre fails to find someone to love, or fails to kill that someone, they will give her to the god. Pyrre’s not afraid to die, but she hates to quit, hates to fail, and so, with a month before her trial begins, she returns to the city of her birth in the hope of finding love… and ending it on the edge of her sword.
Brian Staveley’s new standalone novel, Skullsworn, returns to the critically acclaimed Chronicle of the Unhewn Throne universe, following a priestess attempting to join the ranks of the God of Death. Skullsworn publishes April 2017 from Tor Books, but if you’re new to the series (or just want to read them again) you can get the Chronicle of the Unhewn Throne ebook edition—collecting The Emperor’s Blades, The Providence of Fire, and The Last Mortal Bond!
This is a story I never intended to tell. I thought, when I finally walked away from you all those years ago, that I was taking the tale with me. I thought, because it happened to me, because I seemed to stand at the center of everything that happened, that it was my story—but that’s not how stories work. A tale belongs only partly to the teller—even the wildest fabrication requires the collaboration of a listener, and this is no fabrication. It is the truth—or as close to the truth as I can come, so many years later—and there are other characters in it. This story is theirs as much as it is mine, but since they are dead, I’m the one left to piece it together. You were the only other person who was there, who survived straight through to the end, but you didn’t know what was happening. You couldn’t. I should have told you a long time ago, but it wasn’t until much later that I realized this story is yours, too, yours as much as it is mine. It’s late, but I’m telling you now.
I went to Dombâng for love.
And yes, to kill seven people in fourteen days, sure, but I wasn’t worried about the killing. I grew up in a place where women wear vests ribbed with stilettos, where each priest has a dozen knives, steel traps, needles so fine you can slide them beside the eye into the brain and out again without leaving a mark. I watched my fellow priests die by fire and iron, sometimes quickly, leaping from the tops of the sandstone cliffs, or slowly, by dehydration’s intimate degrees. By my fifteenth year, I had set to memory a thousand ways to offer a woman or man to my god’s sure unmaking. I wasn’t concerned about my piety or my ability to make the sacrifice.
Love, though. Love was tricky. By the time I turned twenty-five, I’d had lovers and laughter, long nights in the high desert peaks learning the ways of my own body, alone or in the hot clutch of another. Love, though, love had eluded me.
To the uninitiate, this will not seem strange. How can love, you might demand, take root in the stony heart of a Skullsworn? How can Ananshael’s knives know love?
I’m not offended. For most people, my god—like the death he brings—is all mystery and terror. You have not been to Rassambur, have not heard our choruses beneath the new moon, have not enjoyed the sweet fruit of the trees espaliered against our sandstone walls. How could you know the first thing about the men and women you call Skullsworn? How could you know, if I don’t tell you?
Maybe we could start with the word itself. It’s wrong.
I don’t swear on skulls, not on them, not to them, not around them. I haven’t seen a skull for years, in fact. A bit of blood-smeared bone through a torn-open scalp, perhaps, but an actual skull, wide eyed and jawless? What in the god’s name would I be doing with a skull?
“Drinking the blood of innocent children,” seems to be a common notion, so I’ll set that little misconception to rest, too: I do not drink the blood of children, either guilty or innocent. I do not drink the blood of humans or beasts. I did have a blood sausage in Sia once, a thick black slab perched on a mountain of rice, but I ate it off of a normal plate, not out of a skull, and everyone else there seemed to be eating the same thing.
I should also clarify that I do not bathe in cauldrons of blood. I get bloody enough going out into the world to do the work of the god. The whole point of the bath is to scrub the blood off. The priests of the God of Death bathe in hot water, just like every other sane person on either side of the Ancaz. Back in Rassambur, I sift a little jasmine and ground sage into the boiling water. I like to be clean.
A few other clarifications, in no particular order:
I have no garments made of human skin. I prefer silk, although it tends to be easier to scrub the blood out of wool.
I have never fucked a dead person. I’m not sure who’s going around sizing up the erections of the hanged, but I can promise you, it’s not me. Most men are confused enough in bed already without the added disadvantage of death to slow them down. I like my lovers like I like my baths—warm, clean, and, if at all possible, good-smelling, although I’m willing to compromise on the last two.
I understand, of course, how people make these mistakes. If you’re seeing a skull, or a barrel full of blood, chances are good that my god has come, unmade a creature, then disappeared. Surely as a strong dawn wind kicks up dust and bends the branches of the trees, Ananshael leaves blood and skulls in the wake of his passage, but blood and skulls are not death any more than a bent branch is the wind.
Death resists all comparison and simile. This is something I learned in my first year at Rassambur. To say death is like a land beyond the sea or like an endless scream is to miss the point. Death is not like anything. There is no craft analogous to Ananshael’s work. The truest response to his mystery and majesty is silence.
On the other hand, to remain silent is to encourage the fantasies of the uninitiate—skulls brimming with blood, graveyard orgies, infants dangling like impractical chandeliers from the ceilings of candlelit caverns—and so maybe an imperfect analogy is better than none at all.
Take a grape.
The purple skin is muted, as if by mist or fog. Polish it, or not, then pop it into your mouth. The flesh is firm beneath the cool, smooth skin. If you find yourself becoming aroused, stop. Start your imagining over. The grape is a grape. Imagine it properly, or this will not work.
Now. What does the grape taste like?
A grape tastes like a grape? Of course not. Until you bite the grape, it has no taste. It might as well be a stone plucked from the cold current of some river in autumn: a smooth, chill orb, reticent, flavorless. You could hold it trapped between your palate and tongue forever, only the faintest hint of juice at the tiny breach where it was plucked from the stem.
You are like that grape—plump with slick, rich sweetness, with wet purple life. The truth of life is the grape’s truth: only when jaws bite down, when the skin splits, when the sun-cold flesh explodes onto the tongue does it matter. Without the moment of its own destruction, the grape is just a smooth, colorful stone. Without the foreknowledge of the woman who holds it in her hand, her anticipation, before it even passes her lips, of the mangled skin and the sweet life draining over the tongue, the grape would hold no savor.
The Csestriim and the Nevariim were like this, if the chronicles are true—immortal, unbroken stones, incapable of joy, either the feeling or the bringing. Of course, my god was young when they walked the world, his strength more meager in the age when they were made, meager enough that for thousands of years and longer they escaped his touch. They might have continued forever that way—immortal save in those rare cases when the body was so broken by violence that my god could finally slide his fingers inside—but the Csestriim overreached. In their dust-dry desire to catalogue the world, to know it so they could bend it to their will, they pushed the Nevariim too far, and finally, the Nevariim pushed back.
They lost; the Csestriim wiped them from the world, but my god learned much in the conflict, and in the long millennia that followed, he grew stronger, strong enough that when we came—humans, women and men wandering the unforgiving earth—he could end us a flick of his infinite fingers. He never learned the trick with the Csestriim, but it didn’t matter. We were there to help him, to pry open that immortal flesh with our bronze and let him in. The Csestriim were stones, but we shattered them, scrubbed them out as they had scrubbed out the Nevariim before.
We are not stones. Our human skin is thin, the life inside us bright. And death? The god I serve? He is the jaw locked around us, the promise of a sweet green destruction without which we would be no more than so much polished rock.
My brothers and sisters in the faith understand this better than most. We devote our lives to this truth. And so, within the walls of Rassambur there is no shortage of joy, of delight, of music, and yes, of love. I have watched old couples step hand in hand from the bloodred cliffs, linked even in the moment of their unmaking. I have seen wives pour the poisoned tea for their husbands, hold the clay cup to the feeble lips themselves, offer the final release when the pain of one disease or another grew too great. I have witnessed the glee on the faces of younger couples as they sneak away, even felt a hint of it myself, a little shiver of ecstatic bliss when my lips met other lips.
But not love.
Not that it bothered me. I was young, strong, alight with my own devotion and the fellowship of my brothers and sisters. Love was a pleasant afterthought, something I could experience later, more slowly, when I was finished being young.
Then came the Trial, and with the Trial, the song.
My god is a great lover of music. Not the still, finished forms of painting or sculpture, but music. Music is inextricable from its own unmaking. Each note is predicated on the death of those before. Try to hold them all, and you have madness, cacophony, noise. A song, like a life, is all in the letting go, in the knowing, the moment you begin, that it will end. And of all music’s variegated forms—fiddle and drum, harp and horn, plangent or joyous—Ananshael loves the human voice, the sound of the instrument giving song to the knowledge of its own impermanence.
It was no surprise that the test concluding all my training would begin with a song, but of all the melodies I’d heard at Rassambur, this one had been kept from me, as it was from all the acolytes, until just before the Trial. Listen, and you will understand the fierceness of my sudden need to love:
One who is right, and one who is wrong,
A singer snared in a web of song—
Deliver them, deliver them
Into his million-fingered hands.
Deliver to him a dealer of death,
Severed from life, shorn of breath.
Deliver a mother, ripe with new life.
Find the kindness in the sharpest knife.
Deliver to him a giver of names;
There are no words in his domain.
When these are safe inside his hands,
One more remains,
One more remains—
Give to the god the one who made your mind
And body sing with love
Who will not come again.
I don’t know who composed the music, but it is perfect, polyphonic, one melody the naked blade, the other the warm skin in the moment before it parts. Ela and Kossal sang it for me—it fell to them as my Witnesses in the Hall of All Endings, a vault-roofed, windowless sandstone cube just a dozen paces across. Not so much a hall as a room, really. Twin candles lit the space, ivory pillars as thick as my thigh set into sconces in the wall. There were no altars. Their singing bodies were the altars, their music the offering, brimming in the lambent space until it seemed almost liquid, her voice throaty, rich; his spare and unadorned as old iron. I cried, listening to them, cried first for the sheer beauty of the thing, and then again, a moment after, when my mind moved from the music to the words, and I realized what it meant: I was going to fail. I had already failed, fallen short of my great exercise of devotion even before it truly began.
The song is a list, obviously, a list of those that each acolyte must give to the god before becoming a full priest of Ananshael. From the first offering to the last, the would-be priestess is allowed fourteen days. Fourteen days for seven offerings. Not such a daunting task—not for one raised and trained in Rassambur—but an impossible one for someone, like me, who had never been in love.
The words trembled in my mind even after the singing was over: Give to the god the one who made your mind and body sing with love.
Ela saw my shock first, but she misunderstood it.
“I know,” she said, sliding a strong, gentle hand over my shoulders. Her fingers were warm in the cool night air. Even without the notes, her voice still sounded like song. “I know.”
Kossal had already turned to the candles. Those twin flames gave the room its only light, but he was halfway to snuffing them, reaching for the first wick with his calloused fingers, ready to pinch the flame.
“Give her a moment, you old goat,” Ela said.
The priest paused, turned. Despite his age, he didn’t stoop. He carried himself—that whole tall, sinewy frame—like a man forty years younger, though his face—olive beneath the graying stubble—looked like something carved, each line and wrinkle scored into the flesh. Candlelight glinted, needle-bright, in each eye.
“She can have all the moments she wants. In the dark.”
“And what if she wants a little light?”
Kossal shifted his eyes from Ela, whistling tunelessly through a gap in his teeth as he studied me. “She wants to be a priestess, she ought to get acquainted with a little darkness. Besides, we’re wasting wax.”
“We’ve wasted worse than wax,” Ela replied. “I’ll snuff the candles when we leave.”
The old man watched me a heartbeat longer, looked back to the candles as though there were some answer there, then shook his head. “That you and I keep working together, Ela Timarna, is a mystery I cannot fathom.”
Ela’s laugh was a sliver bell. I’d seen her put a fist through a thick block of sun-baked clay, watched her take a dying goat by the horns and snap its neck, but she carried her strength lightly. The muscle and sinew knitted beneath her brown skin looked built for leaping or lounging, not slaughter. Everything about her seemed light: her hair—a tumble of tight black ringlets—seemed to bounce with every movement; her hands were forever floating up as she gestured about one point or another; even her lips were always on the verge of turning up into a smile.
“We keep working together,” she replied, shooting me a wink even as she answered the priest, “because you have a weakness for young women.”
Kossal grunted. “Funny thing about people: you give ’em enough years, and they stop being young.”
“And how many years,” Ela asked, spreading her arms as though offering an embrace or inviting the older priest to hazard a punch, “do you figure that takes?” She cocked her head to the side, smiling, her teeth bright in the candlelight. “Have I stopped being young yet?” She turned in a slow circle, graceful as a dancer, pausing fractionally when her back was to him, then completing the rotation.
Kossal kept his eyes on her. His gaze was frank, open, appraising, but utterly uncovetous, utterly scrubbed of lust’s sticky need. I found myself wanting someone to look at me that way: not just to look at me, but to see me. The priest’s eyes, however, were only for the older woman.
“Not yet,” he conceded finally.
Ela smiled. Both of them stood still, but a draft tugged at the candles, making their shadows shiver. “I’m glad. I can’t tell you how demoralizing it would be if you were younger at seventy than I am at thirty-five.”
Kossal shook his head. “I quit being young a long way back. Never did suit me.”
“I’ll be the judge of what suits you.”
The old priest grunted again, then turned to me. “I’ll give you a piece of advice, kid. Might come in handy if I don’t have to kill you at the end of your Trial.”
Ela’s arm was still around my shoulder. She gave me a conspiratorial squeeze, then leaned close to mock-whisper in my ear. “Pretend like you’re listening. His advice is terrible, but it makes him happy to give it.”
Kossal ignored the gibe. “When you give the god the one who made your mind and body sing with love, make sure you get it right. Otherwise,” he went on, nodding to Ela without breaking eye contact with me, “she’ll be there to bother you the rest of your life.”
“As I said,” Ela murmured, still loud enough for Kossal to hear, “his advice is terrible. I was ten years unborn when he had his Trial.”
“Should have waited,” he said, half to himself, shaking his head, then moving toward the door.
In a movement so fast I didn’t understand it until after, Ela twisted away from me and pivoted toward the older priest, aiming a sparring blow low between his ribs. She was fast, as fast as any priestess I’d seen at Rassambur, but it wasn’t her speed I marveled at later, over and over, but the perfect ease with which Kossal blocked the blow, catching her wrist, holding those stiffened fingers inches from his side. Ela glanced down at her hand, shook her head ruefully, smiled, then leaned in to kiss him lightly on the brow.
“Would you really have strangled me in my crib?” she asked. The words were warm, private, as though she’d forgotten I was there.
“Would have been easier,” Kossal replied, letting her wrist go.
“Easier than what?”
The old priest just shook his head. “Snuff the candles when you’re done. A little light’s all well and good, but when the wax is gone, it’s gone.”
Kossal stepped into the night, and the cedar door swung shut quietly behind him. Ela watched it for a while, lips pursed, as though she were about to whistle the first few bars of an old tune. She looked totally relaxed, but I could see her heartbeat testing the vessel in her neck; not fast, exactly, but faster than before. Her breath was faster, too, her chest rising and falling beneath her robe, whether from the short struggle with Kossal or from something else, I didn’t know.
“He loves you?” I asked stupidly.
Ela turned to me, then smiled. “That old fool doesn’t know the first thing about love.”
“He must have, once.”
“Once?” The priestess cocked her head to the side, then nodded. “Ah. His Trial.”
“He passed. Which means he loved someone. He had to have.”
Ela nodded. “Perhaps.” Then she slipped that arm around my shoulder again. “Enough about him. He’s half in Ananshael’s hand already. This is what you’re worried about, isn’t it? Making that last gift to the god?”
I hesitated. The truth made me feel small.
The priestess turned me until I faced her. She kept one hand on my shoulder, then lifted my chin with the other, until I was looking into her dark eyes. The fog of her hair caught the candlelight until it seemed to glow, while her face was lost in shadow. She was only a few inches taller, but in that moment I might have been a child all over again, wandering a warren of emotions barely known to me.
“They’re always hard,” she said, “the song’s last lines. Even Ananshael’s priests forget, sometimes, that we belong to him. Love, meanwhile, is a sneaky, beguiling goddess. She makes you believe.”
“Love…” I said, then trailed off, unable to manage more than the single syllable.
Ela nodded. “Whoever it is, you think you can keep her. Or him.” She traced the line of my chin with her thumb. “You can’t.”
Suddenly it was too much. I could only shake my head, the tears hot in my eyes, before pushing open the heavy cedar door and stepping out into the night’s chill, leaving behind the warm light of the twin candles for that other, older, colder light of the innumerable stars scattered overhead. All around me, the pale sandstone halls and houses of Rassambur glowed in the moonlight. Women and men moved between them alone, in pairs, or in small groups, chatting, laughing, silent. Shards of far-off song etched the darkness. I ignored it all, walking away until there was no more walking to be done, to the very edge of the mesa, where the only choice was between stopping and falling.
From the cliff’s brink, I stared down into the great gulf that surrounded all of Rassambur. I’d been beyond that gulf, of course. I was born beyond it, raised to the age of ten beyond it, and in the fifteen years since, I had crossed dozens of times over the delicate sandstone span linking Rassambur to the mountains, to the rest of the world. For all the remoteness of our fortress, our devotion is evangelical, ecumenical, not monastic. Where there are people, there is our god, pacing silently in the marble corridors of power and the rankest alley alike, visiting the solitary cabin in its forest clearing, the bustling harbor, the camp aswarm with soldiers. His justice is equal and absolute, and so, as ministers of his justice, we must go out into the world. For every year in Rassambur, I had spent one year abroad, sometimes to the west of the Ancaz, sometimes to the east, always living among people, learning their ways, their hopes and fears, their needs. I had lived in Sia and Freeport, in the sprawling maze of Uvashi-Rama and a tiny town on the east bank of the Green Cataract. I had friends, acquaintances, and fondly remembered lovers scattered across two continents, and yet…
I didn’t hear Ela approach, she moved too quietly for that, but I could smell her scent—jasmine and smoke—on the cool desert air. She stood half a pace behind me. When she spoke, her voice seemed to hang in the air all around.
“You’d think I would be used to it by now,” she murmured. Her voice was warm with some humor I didn’t understand.
“Used to what?”
“My own obtuseness.”
I shook my head, but didn’t turn around. “I don’t understand.”
“No,” Ela replied. “You understand just fine, about your own interesting… predicament, at least. I didn’t see it.” She chuckled. “Our lives blind us, and I’ve always fallen in love so easily.”
I blew out a long, uneven breath, stared down into the abyss. It was steadying, somehow, to know the drop was there just a step away, to look down into it. It was like seeing the marvelous, million-fingered hand of my god, patient and waiting.
“How is it possible,” I asked, half to Ela, who stepped up quietly to my side, half to myself, “after all these years, that I haven’t… that I don’t… ?”
I nodded, dumb.
“Perhaps you are more discriminating. Discrimination isn’t a bad thing, Pyrre—take it from me. I fell in love with a farmer from just outside Chubolo, once. He reeked of rutabaga. Had short, rough little fingers, like crusty sausages. If he ever said more than five words in a row, I never heard it.”
I turned to stare at her, trying to imagine the lithe, smooth, deadly woman at my side with a rutabaga farmer. It was like trying to picture a lioness sliding her golden flank along an old pig’s bristly hide.
“Why?” I asked.
Ela laughed again. “Well, that’s the question, isn’t it? Eira’s a goddess, and that makes her a tyrant, no matter what anyone tells you. Lady Love doesn’t explain her ways to me.”
“But there must have been something.…”
“I suppose. Maybe it was watching him move that stone.”
I shook my head, baffled.
“I was on the road,” she went on, her voice slipping into the rhythm of memory, “and he was clearing a field. There was a stone. Must have weighed ten times what he did, maybe twenty—I don’t know, I’ve never made a study of field clearing. The point is, it was huge, impossible to move. Or so I thought. He worked at it all day, digging it out with those stubby fingers of his, laying down the logs to roll it, shifting the weight a little at a time. I never saw anyone so slow, so patient, and I thought to myself, ‘He might not look like much, but a man who can move a stone like that is a man I need to get to know.’ I needed to see what he could do with all that slow, undeniable, relentless patience. I wanted to be that stone.”
We both stared into the darkness. The sky overhead was clear, the stars excruciatingly sharp, but off to the north, a hundred miles distant, the spring winds had pinned a thunderstorm up against the higher peaks. Every few heartbeats, blue-white lightning shattered the cool bowl of the night, though we were too far away to hear the thunder.
“So what did you do?” I asked, glancing over at Ela just as the next bolt hit, watching her face go from blackness to brilliance, then back again.
“Spent six months with him. At his farm.”
“Six months?” I tried to imagine it—noticing a strange man working his field, then deciding that very day, on no better information than his stone-shoving capacity, to pass half the year in his home. The whole story seemed like just that, a story, the kind of thing you might read in a book or hear over a campfire, the fabric of the tale spun half out of lies and half for laughs. Only, Ela wasn’t laughing, and I couldn’t think of a reason she might lie. I felt dizzy, suddenly, as though the flat top of the mesa were lifting by imperceptible degrees to tumble me into the abyss. Ela put a steadying hand on my shoulder, pulling me back.
“How?” I asked, when I regained my balance.
She shrugged. “It was easy enough to keep my eyes off his fingers, to breathe only through my mouth.”
“Averted glances and mouth-breathing don’t seem like a sound foundation for love.”
The older woman chuckled. “And just what do you think love is, Pyrre?”
I shook my head stupidly.
“As I said,” Ela continued after a pause, “it comes easier to some of us than others. The goddess makes us in endlessly different ways. Our struggles are no more the same than our faces.”
It was impossible, when I replied, to scrub the bitterness from my voice. “And yet, Ananshael sets the same Trial for all of us.”
“Anything less would be unjust.”
I bit my lip so hard I could taste blood. “Why didn’t anyone tell me? All these years… I can kill a woman thirteen different ways with a wooden bowl. I’ve memorized poisons that no one has seen since the Csestriim wars, poisons as old as the Nevariim, if the Nevariim ever even really existed. I can hang upside down from a rafter for hours, or pop the glass pane from a window without making a sound. All the time I thought I was getting ready, and now… none of it matters.”
Ela squeezed my shoulder. “Oh, it matters. You’ve got six other people to give to the god, all questions of love aside.”
“But the questions of love aren’t aside. Even if I offer up everyone else on the first day, I’ll still fail.”
“Not necessarily. You can take the place of that last sacrifice yourself. Kossal and I will see to it.”
The words were level, even encouraging, but I couldn’t find any comfort in them. It wasn’t that I was afraid to die. Anyone raised in Rassambur comes to peace with the notion of her own unmaking. Ananshael’s mercy and justice extend even to us. Especially to us. A priestess unwilling to make an offering of herself is no priestess at all, but a mere murderer. I understood that even then. It wasn’t the prospect of my own death that bothered me, but of my failure. So much about Ananshael’s art had come to me so easily for so long; it seemed unfair that I should come up against such an abrupt, unexpected impossibility.
“Who’s the judge?” I asked quietly.
“Yes, the judge. About love. Who decides?”
“Ah.” Ela turned from the immensity of the night to face me. “Kossal and I will decide in concert.”
“And if I lie?”
The priestess tsked. “Generally, we hope for a little more piety from those approaching the Trial.”
“The piety will be the pile of bodies,” I replied grimly. “It’s something I’ve always admired about our god—he abides no lies. When the life goes from a woman, it is gone. Love, though…” I blew out a long, frustrated breath. “Anyone can fake it. Fakery is almost built into the emotion.”
“Spoken like a girl who has never been in love.”
“How will you know?” I insisted. “If I find someone, if I say I’m in love, if I insist on it, how will you know?”
“There is a shape to love, a pattern to the way it moves in us, through us. Between us.”
“What are you? A priestess of death, or a ’Kent-kissing poet?”
I regretted the words even as I spoke. Ela was only ten years older than me, only ten years clear of her own Trial, but she had already become half a legend in Rassambur. At the age of twenty-eight, following one of our god’s inscrutable commands, she had traveled to Badrikâs-Rama, found a way inside the ancient, unbroken walls of the Palace of Evening Waves, slipped past the Dusk Guards, and strangled the oldest Manjari prince. It was an act of devotion that many had deemed impossible. Then, the next night, she went back and killed his brother. This was the woman whose piety I had impugned; I half expected her to shove me from the ledge. Instead, she chuckled.
“I’d like to think a woman can be both. She can be more. The nights I’ve spent tangled in someone else’s arms don’t diminish my devotion to the god. You can hold a knife to a woman’s throat…” she began, and then, in a motion so fast I could barely follow, her knife was free of its sheath and pressed against my skin. Her dark eyes sparkled starlight. “. . . And, if you were so inclined, you could kiss her at the same time.”
For half a heartbeat I thought she intended to do just that. For half a heartbeat it felt as though we weren’t standing at the edge of the mesa but hanging just beyond it, buoyed up by the dark, or not buoyed at all, but already falling, the night air so soft against my skin that I hadn’t noticed. This is one of Ananshael’s truths—we are all dying, all the time. Being born is stepping from the cliff’s edge. The only question is what to do while falling.
Ela’s eyes seemed to offer an answer, but it was one I couldn’t understand. Then, quick as it came, the knife was gone, slipped back into the sheath at her belt. She hadn’t stepped back, but she felt farther away, as though some bond between us was suddenly broken. I could have left it there, could have nodded and walked away.
“I’m not you,” I said quietly.
Ela nodded. “Nor should you be.”
“The thing that you call love might not be love to me at all.”
“Your hands,” Ela said, taking my wrist, holding the hand up to the moonlight, “are not my hands, but they’re still hands. Your love won’t be mine. This doesn’t mean I can’t see it, know it.”
“And if you’re wrong? What if I fall in love and you don’t even recognize it?”
She took my other hand, then. We stood like lovers at the edge of the cliff, facing each other. I got the sense that she was making her face grave for my sake, the way an adult will feign attention for a furious child. “Then, when I come to kill you, Pyrre, you should fight back.”
Excerpted from Skullsworn © Brian Staveley, 2017