Read an Excerpt from The Monster Baru Cormorant

Her world was shattered by the Empire of Masks. For the power to shatter the Masquerade, she betrayed everyone she loved…

The traitor Baru Cormorant is now the cryptarch Agonist—a secret lord of the empire she’s vowed to destroy.

Hunted by a mutinous admiral, haunted by the wound which has split her mind in two, Baru leads her dearest foes on an expedition for the secret of immortality. It’s her chance to trigger a war that will consume the Masquerade.

But Baru’s heart is broken, and she fears she can no longer tell justice from revenge… or her own desires from the will of the man who remade her.

The second book in Seth Dickinson’s Masquerade series, The Monster Baru Cormorant is available October 30th from Tor Books.

 

 

Prelude

As the firestorm took his ships, as a monsoon rain of greasy incendiaries burnt his people like screaming human skewers, Abdumasi Abd tried his very damnedest to die.

“Fire parties to the port rail!” cried his battle captain, poor Zee Dbellu, who had come to war with Abdumasi to avenge his grandmother. He was a big dreadlocked man with a green flag bound to his war-spear and a false hope in his voice. He was already dead. Abdumasi had to join him.

“Turn the ship to sea!” Zee bellowed. “Run out the sweeps, soak the rowers, beat the drums! We’ll get out of this yet, I promise you, I promise!”

The fire parties were all dead. The masts had toppled and the rowers lay suffocated at their broken oars. Masquerade rocket arrows had pinned all the corpses to the deck like rare butterflies.

Abdumasi looked up at Zee from under the fallen sail, where he’d crawled to hide. Beyond Zee he could see a sliver of the battle—burning masts and broken ships, arcs of hwacha-fire scratching terrible perfect curves out of the sky, war rockets that crashed down into wood and waves to bloom into blue-white fire. Dead gulls. Vortices of killed fish. The stink of Falcrest chemistry. The scream of fire and the groan of broken hullplanks and beneath it all the ebb and rush of the sea, tumbling the burning dead, stirring the pot of fire and wreckage.

A disaster. A catastrophe. And he had ordered it.

He’d brought his fleet to Aurdwynn to help their rebellion against the Masquerade. He’d joined the rebel armada at Welthony and together they’d struck Treatymont, the colonial capital: a gray cage of ironwork and stone to the north, and two burnt-out towers guarding the harbor like rotten dog teeth.

But the Masquerade had been waiting for them.

“Zee,” Abdumasi whispered, “I’m so sorry.”

And he put his sailing knife under his chin and tried to cut his own throat.

He couldn’t do it. He was too afraid.

“Abdumasi!” Zee howled. “Abdu, where are you? We need you!”

Zee had gone mad when he realized they’d sailed into a trap. Abd saw it happen in his eyes, a meaty pop like a knuckle of lamb in the fire, and from that moment on Zee was mad with among, the rescue-fever that came over Oriati people, sometimes, when their friends and family needed them. A noble madness, the poets said, the best madness, who would not be glad to die in the throes of among?

At burnt Kutulbha, where Abdumasi’s mother had died (now he sent his apologies to his mother Abdi-obdi with all his hopeless heart) whole mobs of good Oriati people had organized themselves with wet blankets and protective taboos and marched into the firestorm devouring the city, sworn to rescue parents, children, pets, books. There was no hope, of course. Falcrest’s Burn munitions had created a wildfire so fierce that it sucked in the air from miles around, like a demon mouth in the city’s heart, inhaling souls. No one rescued anyone. All perished. At the end of that day twenty-three years ago the rain fell on burnt Kutulbha and turned the mud and corpse-ash into concrete, and to this day Kutulbha was a gray disc on the coast of the Oriati Mbo, a dark mortar full of bone.

Into that mortar the Falcresti had inscribed two words in their dull blocky script: The Arc of History.

That horror was what Abdumasi had come to avenge—

—he had begged his fellow Oriati, the Federal Princes and the jackal soldiers, to come to the aid of the rebel accountant Baru Cormorant and her Coyotes. Together they might tear Aurdwynn entirely out of Falcrest’s grasp, pincering the tyrants from north and south—

—but the Princes would not act, the jackal soldiers would not send a fleet, they were terrified of open war, so fuck it, Abdumasi Abd decided to spend his fortune and raise a war fleet himself—

—which was why he had to die, now, right away, no procrastination, no excuses, no second chances. For if the Falcresti captured Abd alive, if they tricked him into admitting who he was (a merchant of great fame) and who’d sponsored his fleet (don’t even think of them, Abd!—but he could not resist the terrible prayer, ayamma, ayamma, a ut li-en) then Falcrest would extract the truth from him.

His ships were not just pirates come to pillage a disordered city but an invasion force backed by secret and terrible powers.

Then Falcrest’s unctuous ambassadors would slither up to the Princes of Oriati Mbo and say, O kind neighbors, here we have found an influential and great man, a man who somehow misplaced himself into our sovereign waters—but it seems he conspired against our Imperial Republic. Listen, listen: he has confessed everything.

We must have reparations, or there will be war.…

And no matter whether the Oriati chose reparations or war, no matter whether Falcrest attacked them with fire or (far more dangerous) sly schools and clever market games, the Oriati would be destroyed. Abdumasi would bring down doom on the two hundred million people of the Oriati Mbo, the heart of the world, his beloved home.

“Abd!” Zee roared, waving his green flag with both hands. “Abd, come to me! We have to rally the ships! We have to go!”

“I need last words,” Abdumasi whispered to himself—that was why he couldn’t cut his throat! He needed brave last words to inspire those who remembered him. “What shall I say? You’ll never take me alive?” He curled up beneath the toppled sail and tried to get his last words just right. “You’ll never take me alive. You’ll never take me alive. You’ll never take me alive! All right. Fuck. Fuck fuck fuck.” He got his hands under him, crouched, tried to fill his head with happy memories—Tau and Kindalana in the lake of drugged cranes, Tau helping him steal honey from Kindalana’s house, all three of them watching Cosgrad Torrinde stagger around high as balls after he licked a frog—“Fuck! Do it. Do it! Death and glory!”

Snarling in defiance, he leapt out from under the sailcloth, his rapier loose in his right hand. “Abdumasi!” Zee cried in mad delight, and behind him the dromon Bred For Laughs exploded in a huge crack of powder as Falcrest fire found her store of mines. The thunder drowned out Zee’s words— Abdumasi saluted him with the rapier, and leapt up onto the ship’s fighting rail to plunge to his death.

“You’ll never take me alive!” he roared, and then he made the awful mistake of looking down before he leapt.

The sea burnt beneath him.

Blue-hot chemical fire simmered on the waves, vicious, viscous, burning everything, cooking up a sauté smell of seawater and charred lumber and boiled fat bursting out through blistered dead skin and incinerated hair, popped eyeballs, chips of toenail off bloated feet; the mortal remains of forty-one shipfuls of Abdumasi’s crews tossed into a fucking wok and stir-fried—

Abdumasi couldn’t jump into that.

Not even if he imagined Kindalana shoving him, not even if he pictured Tauindi down in the flame urging him on, not even then could he jump. Call him a coward and a traitor to two hundred million people, but there are limits to courage, there are footnotes to the code of bravery, and fire is the first of them.

“Death and glory!” Zee shouted, waving his battle flag, and caught up in among madness he jumped up alongside Abdumasi and leapt over the rail.

“No!” Abdumasi screamed, “Zee, wait!”

But too late, gravity had him, a graceful dive and Zee went down through the gel and came up again coated in flame, the Burn sticking to him everywhere as if it smelled Oriati flesh and hated it, and it burnt even underwater, it fed on the air in his clothes. He screamed soundlessly because the fire was eating all the air that came out of him. He screamed with his face tipped back to the sky, and the Burn went down his throat.

With a sob of shame Abdumasi fell backward off the rail and fled into the burning mess of his war-dromon’s deck. He was too scared to die like that, and fuck the griots who’d blame him for not jumping, they weren’t staring down into that hell, were they?

“You’ll never take me alive!” he wailed, trying to think. He couldn’t see anyone else up on deck who might be convinced to kill him—and anyway they loved him too much, the poor fools, they believed in him. There was no time for poison. He could hang himself. Or he could fall on his sword, if he could aim it right—

Or he could die in combat, like a proper champion.

Abdumasi raised up his head and looked for the enemy.

Tall redsailed Falcrest frigates circled the burning slick of Oriati meat and charcoaled mast. They looked like bloody gulls, lazy on the wind, greedy for carnage.

Abdu held out his rapier and apologized to it. “Well, Kindalana, you were right. It was a trap. I love you, I’m sorry, and please give Tau my apologies.”

So much for his plan to help liberate Aurdwynn. So much for Baru Cormorant, the great hope of the people. So much for the seed of immortality growing in Abdu’s back. It would never carry his soul down through millennia.

He’d sold his body to that hidden power for nothing.

Oh, it wasn’t fair! Of course the world could be cruel, but couldn’t it at least be equitable in its cruelty? If you gave up your soul, if you abandoned those you loved to secure a greater freedom, weren’t you owed a reward?

“Sir!” someone roared—the renegade jackal soldier, Prepare-Captain Minubo of the House Burun. “Mister Abd, sir, they’re coming aboard!”

She stood by the stern rail, pointing with her sword into the inferno—and there through the fire came a Masquerade frigate. It had an abstract human body as its figurehead, carved of facets and planes, the body a wedge, the eyes two candle-flames. The smoke parted around a complexity of ropes and sails that Abdumasi couldn’t comprehend: mystic geometries of canvas and hemp, receding into the smog.

“You’ll never take me alive?” Abdumasi said, hopefully.

And he raised up his rapier Kindalana, named, because of its keen point and difficult grip, after his ex-wife.

Up on the frigate’s bow, red-masked figures turned a hwacha on its pivot to point at Minubo. The mechanism sparked and smoked and, with a hideous buzz like a very troubled hornet, the hwacha fired a quarter of a hundred rocket arrows at the poor prepare-captain, who leapt for cover, and died with steel through her neck and chest. And then Abdumasi was ready to die in defiant battle because fuck them, fuck their smug mechanisms and their neat little ambushes, fuck the impudence of those who believed they could trick and control the thousand-year Mbo, and fuck them in particular for shooting down the prepare-captain, who had given up her career to follow Abdumasi, like she were just a mangy dog.

From the rigging of the enemy frigate, Falcresti marines swung down onto Abdumasi’s ship.

Abdumasi of the house of Abd put up his rapier and advanced. Behind the marines their sleek ship caught on fire: a wave had splashed some Burn up onto the deck. Masked and hooded sailors ran around pouring jars of their own stale piss on the catchfire.

“That’s right!” Abdumasi yelled, banging his rapier’s hilt on the steel bands of a smashed barrel. “Some navy, fighting with your own bottled piss! I bet you drink it, too! I bet you gulp your own piss down and beg for seconds! Come on, take out your little knives! Have at you! Have at you! I am Abdumasi of the House of Abd, master of ships, champion cat gambler, and I challenge you to mortal up-fuckery!”

Six Masquerade marines stared back at him. Red masks stuffed with chemical filters against the smoke. Armored bodies webbed with grenades and devices. Eyes invisible behind dark inhuman lenses as omniscient and indifferent as krakenfly eyes. Abdumasi beckoned to them, joyful, light with the promise of a swift end and a long rest. He could take them on one by one until at last they had to shoot him with their crossbows as they’d shot poor Minubo. Abdumasi had ten years under a swordmaster and four years of real combat— first in the deep Mzilimake Mbo jungle, then out on the Mothercoast, where Falcrest had given the Invijay ships to use for piracy, and Abdumasi had sailed to hunt them down. He might have been born a merchant, but he’d learned how to make men bleed.

The marine with the black slash of an officer across his mask yanked a gas grenade off the rip ring at his chest. The mechanism failed. The grenade’s chemicals didn’t burn, nothing happened.

“Good one!” Abdumasi jeered, leaping over bodies, kicking aside splintered wood, nimble and free with his rapier. He’d dance around these brutes, he’d poke them to death, quick-footed, hadn’t Kindalana loved the grace of his dancing? “Can’t start your fire? Don’t be embarrassed! Happens to the best of us! Come on over here, I’ll show you a weapon that always works! I am Abdumasi of the House of Abd, of Jaro the Flamingo Kingdom, of the Einkorn Crop of Lonjaro Mbo the Thirteen-in-Three-in-One, and I came to kill cuge like you!”

The marine officer shrugged. He said something in Aphalone so muffled by his mask that Abdumasi heard it only as a low sinister diagnosis: the patient is dead.

The rest of the marines walked straight at Abd, shoulder to shoulder, crouched a little against the roll of the ship.

“Sophisticated Masquerade tactics!” Abdumasi bellowed, as a huge sheet of fire roared up across the sea behind him, a slick of leaked cooking oil catching alight. “Come on, form an orderly queue, who wants it first, my blade is lined with moral fiber and if I prick you you’ll realize what a thug you are! Form a—”

The first marine proceeded straight onto his sword.

Abdumasi stabbed him in the eye and the point of his faithful rapier skittered sideways off the marine’s steel-masked cheek to stick in his shoulder rig, where the man grabbed the blade in his glove, hooked it on knuckle claws, and twisted till the rapier bent.

“Fuck,” Abd said, in bemusement.

He went for his belt knife. The marines were too quick. The first studded punch hit like a shot of tequila and Abd went down on the pitching deck under stamping feet and steel truncheons. For a few moments he felt like the lead drum at his own funeral. Flesh pulped. Bone cracked. Abdumasi crawled inside himself like a turtle and tried to dream of sunny days on Lake Jaro. But the lake boiled, and the imaginary cranes impaled him on their beaks, and then the marines beat the memory right out of him.

When they let up he threw his last defiance at them.

“Ayamma,” he whispered, and then, shouting into the face of the man cuffing him, into the indifferent red masks and the sea of burning corpses and the whole tyrannical fucking design of Falcrest and its faceless Emperor, shouting with the terrible bargain he’d made because it was all he had left, “I am a thousand lives, you poor fools, it grows in me, a ut li-en, I have the immortata, the cancer grows!”

In Aphalone the marine asked his officer, “What the fuck is he saying?”

“Tunk superstition, I suppose.” The officer opened a cloth sack. “He’s their leader. He goes straight to Province Admiral Ormsment for debriefing.”

Desperately Abdumasi pronounced the words of ruin. His friends had told him these words were a curse, they’d tried to keep him from this lonely fate, why hadn’t he listened—because he couldn’t watch as his home was rotted away by cowards and quislings—and so he said the words that would sever him from the human community for all time and make him into a seeping wound of grief and horrible lonely power.

“Ayamma,” he whispered, “ayamma, ta ao-ath onvastai-ash e ser o-en incrisiath—”

The marine officer put a bag over Abdumasi’s head. He heard the crack of a dose bottle, and then the marine poured a cold sweet chemical through the sack. Abd’s nose tickled and went dead as rubber. Was it ether? Tsusenshan? He didn’t know, he couldn’t remember how to breathe to fight it off—

An octopus-kiss of absence crept over Abdumasi. He fumbled around, trying to find his ruined rapier, so he could hold something named Kindalana, but his hands wouldn’t answer.

He hadn’t managed to die. He’d let everyone down.

At least it wasn’t the fire. At least it wasn’t the fire.

 


Act One
The Fall of the Elided Keep

1
In the Ruin of Them

At sunrise Baru shackled the prisoner for her drowning.

The Duchess Tain Hu smelled of brine and cold stone and the onions of her last meal. Last night they’d made their covenant. Until the dawn hours Tain Hu had whispered hoarse strategy to Baru: the names of her agents, and the shape of her plans. She gave Baru her arsenal, and her hope, and her faith.

“Remember. Remember the man in the iron circlet, and the ledger of secrets.”

“I will remember,” Baru hissed through raw-bitten lips. “I will.”

Now Baru came close to offer her the manacles that would kill her. And the air between them shivered, like steppe grass under silver cloud, with the charge of their grief and their resolve.

Tain Hu shrugged into her chains. Tested the steel. “Good metal.” She rolled her shoulders. “It’ll hold.”

She grinned and Baru couldn’t stand that grin on that fierce unbreakable face. She stepped closer, quick, like an assassin gutting the duchess, and with her right hand she grabbed a fistful of Hu’s hair. Into her ear Baru whispered one word in Urun, the tongue of Tain Hu’s blood. Piercing. Like an eagle’s kiss. Her lip brushed Hu’s earlobe and they touched for the last time:

“My general.”

And with grim joy Tain Hu whispered back: “Long live the queen.”

“Congratulations on your victory,” Baru said, and she spread her hands a little, as if saying, look at me, I am your victory, are you pleased?

“I wish you’d done it sooner,” Tain Hu murmured.

And everyone but Baru misunderstood her, everyone but Baru saw Tain Hu wishing the betrayal had come more quickly, and not the kiss. Only Baru saw the bitter love behind the bitter smile.

The Elided Keep’s silent marines took Tain Hu down to the drowning-stone and chained her up for the judgment of the moon and stars. The tide would come in, like history, and swallow the traitor. Just as Falcrest would in time swallow the world—unless Baru Cormorant kept Tain Hu’s faith, and disemboweled the empire from within.

Good-bye, Baru thought. Good-bye, kuye lam. I will write your name in the ruin of them. I will paint you across history in the color of their blood.

 

The Duchess of Vultjag went down roaring defiance.

She fought the rising tide with her chains wrapped up around her brawny arms and battlehacked fists. She wrestled the eyebolts and the pulleys drilled into the black rock. And she roared defiance against the Empire of Masks, the Imperial Republic of Falcrest, the Masquerade that pronounced death by drowning upon the traitor. The surf swallowed her. Still the chains groaned with her might. Still the sea frothed with her bellows.

She chose when and where she would die. She chose the meaning of her death, and she chose the method. Rare is that gift, isn’t it? Rare is the choice to write the end of your own story.

So the end of her story is the beginning of another.

Not the story of Baru Cormorant, the girl who watched Masquerade mer-chanters coming down the reefs off Taranoke, and wondered why her fathers were afraid. Not the story of Baru Cormorant, the brilliant furious young woman who accepted the Masquerade’s bargain: join Tain Hu’s rebellion, gather all our enemies together, and betray them to us. Then we will give you the power to rule your own home.

Not even the story of Baru Fisher, the rebel queen who was, for one bitter winter and brief spring, Tain Hu’s lord and lover.

No.

This is the story of Agonist.

Baru Cormorant as a cryptarch: secret lord of the Imperial Throne.

 

The pale man with the rowan-red hair oversaw the execution. He had a stylus and a varnished writing-board, and a form clasped in a steel folio, a form for Baru to sign after she screamed for mercy. His name was Apparitor and he was there to answer when Baru begged. Let the duchess live! Please, I love her, let her live!

Then he would show her the writ of deferment.

I, Baru Cormorant, do order a stay of execution for the traitor Tain Hu,

And I do acknowledge that I order this stay in defiance of Imperial law, granted only by the extraordinary privilege of the Emperor, whose name cannot be known.

And I remand Tain Hu to the Emperor’s custody, where her execution shall remain in abeyance so long as I provide faithful service,

And I do consent to whatever operations and interventions the Emperor sees fit to improve the prisoner’s well-being. Signed—

But there would never be a signature. Baru never cried out for mercy, for mercy was not in Tain Hu’s battle plan. Thus Baru drowned her beloved field-general in the morning tide.

This will be her legend. Listen, listen, do you know?

No living thing ever defeated Tain Hu in battle. Only the tide could fight her. Only the moon and the sea together could bring her down.

 

Now only the rush of the waves and the cry of the shorebirds.

Baru closed her eyes and felt the slam of the surf in her ears and heart. There were birds above, a great whirl of them, as if in her passage Tain Hu’s soul had called up a maelstrom of wings.

Baru wouldn’t look at the damn birds. Red-haired Apparitor paced and fretted behind her, and Baru thought he was waiting for her to look up from Tain Hu and count the birds. He thought it was Baru’s tell. A sign that she was lying.

He wanted Baru to betray her horror.

Well, she’d vomit on him before she looked up.

“All right, then!” Baru clapped her hands, twice, briskly. There was a high ringing inside her, like a bell struck with steel, not quite hard enough to shatter. When Hu was giving her riding lessons she’d fallen and hit the stone, breath crushed out of her, a giddy emptiness, something huge has happened but I can’t feel it yet.

Oh, my lady Vultjag, how will I do this? How can I carry this weight?

“All right?” Apparitor croaked. “All right what?”

She looked at Apparitor sideways, slyly. She had to pretend to be untouched by the execution, so that she could be untouched by the execution. For what, in the end, was the difference between pretending perfectly to feel something, and actually feeling it? If you acted the same way, truth or lie?

“All right,” Baru said, “I want to start learning my new powers. And issuing some edicts: I like edicts. Let’s do it over breakfast.”

“Breakfast? You’re hungry?”

“Yes?” She offered him a gracious arm. “Will you walk with me?”

Apparitor burst into rage.

“You killed her! I can’t believe you killed her!” He ripped the handkerchief off his neck, and the grief-knot at his throat came undone at the slightest pull, which a grief-knot should, that was the whole reason sailors called them grief-knots. He waved the silk at Baru like he was trying to wipe her up.

“Baru Cormorant, you fucking asshole, do you realize what you’ve done?”

Oh, I realize, oh gods, I realize nothing else! I killed her for political advantage! She could have lived and I did not let her live! What am I, Apparitor, what slithering beast could do this thing I’ve done?

Her mask almost slipped. She almost stared at Apparitor wild-eyed and screamed a high meaningless note. But it would not do. It would not do. She couldn’t grieve now, she couldn’t let herself be sorry. Tain Hu was counting on her. When you are disemboweled in battle, you tie your guts up tight, and you keep fighting. Later the wound can kill you. Once you’ve won.

Baru set off toward the Elided Keep. Listen: her boots crushed snail shells into the rock. When things break underfoot, you know that you are going forward.

“I know what I’ve done,” she said. “I executed a traitor to the Imperial Republic and an obstacle to the progress of humanity.”

“You executed your lover!”

“Are we sentimental people now? Is that the new game?”

“The game? Do you think I didn’t care about that woman? She was my prisoner for weeks, she was brave, she was good—” Apparitor grabbed himself by the skull, his fingers spidered in his hair, his thumbs trembling on his chin. “Farrier taught you to do this, didn’t he? That bastard Itinerant! He made you kill her!”

Baru laughed in shock. Her patron Farrier? How could Tain Hu’s execution possibly work in his favor?

Apparitor was panicking. What a stupid fucking idea.

“I haven’t seen Cairdine Farrier in some years,” she said. “Since my first days as Imperial Accountant, actually. Come along, now. I need you to teach me my powers.”

Everyone had strung out behind Baru like autumn geese, straggling and confused, asking each other what to do. The marines with their polearms, the spies who’d pretended to be Baru’s staff, Apparitor’s little retinue and his gold-eyed concubine boy. All of them began to follow her down the stone ridge, back to the Elided Keep. They were all watching her when she skidded to a stop in shock.

A ship had capsized against her fortress.

Oh—it was Apparitor’s clipper. At high tide the crew must’ve used winches on the Elided Keep’s battlement to tip the ship over, careening it on the beach. She was called Helbride, a ghost sliver of white wood and slim steel. Now the crew swarmed over her to clear the barnacles and foulage.

A gloved and masked sailor at the stern pulled a two-foot-long and squirming shipworm from the keel. Three huge teeth like half-shells flashed in the morning light. They ate ships; a nest of them must have gotten through the copper worm-armor.

That’s me now, Baru thought. The worm beneath the armor.

Apparitor, dully: “She said you loved her.” He was staring at his overturned ship as if he wanted very badly to push it back upright and sail away with the tide.

“Ah,” Baru sighed, “well, I’m sure she had a great many strange ideas about me.”

“She could’ve lived…”

“No. She was guilty of treason. Anyway, you would have kept her in a cell, and tested her to madness.” Baru talked to Apparitor but she was speaking to herself, trying to bargain down her scream. “This was the most humane option.”

Humane. The word you use when you put down an animal. Why would she compare Hu to an animal? That was the wrong word. The wrong word.

“She certainly loved you,” Apparitor said, with terrible resignation. “I’m sure of it.”

“Oh, I slept with her once. Hardly a marriage.”

“Fuck you,” he said.

To lie like this! To lie about Tain Hu, about what lived between them! It was so anathema and yet so necessary: it felt like a razor unraveling her, one cut all the way from her anus to the back of her neck, degloving her whole body and turning her inside out so her secrets were on the outside to become her lies. “I was curious about her, and I always satisfy my curiosity. But of course it didn’t last. Isn’t that the nature of love between women? Unnatural and transient?”

Apparitor slugged her.

She deserved it, she did deserve it, she greeted his pale fist with her cheek and her upturned face. His knuckles tore the tip of her nose and Baru’s body fired Naval System combat reflexes like lines of rocket fuel igniting—brace your back foot! Roll with the hit! Eyes open, Baru, no matter how much it hurts you keep your eyes open.

You watch the strike come in.

 

Truth, as hard as the fist:

Apparitor had his own lovers. He’d confessed it to Baru: sodomites get hot iron, but we do not envy tribadists the knife. And he remembered his men
fondly, too. When she’d awakened from her coma after Sieroch, she’d seen him drawing a beautiful Stakhi man, nude, brooding. He drew men differently than the classicists. He put more thought in their faces.

Apparitor could never have killed his lover.

That was why the Throne possessed him, the way it possessed parents who couldn’t drown their illicit children in vinegar, seditionists who couldn’t recant their books and smash the presses, religionists who refused to abandon their gods.

Falcrest offered its Imperial agents a beautiful poisonous choice: a life of blackmail and control, or the death of your dearest deepest reason to exist.

Damn them. Damn them damn them damn them. Baru called on all the powers she could name for their damnation. Caldera gods, I am your daughter Baru, and I beseech you to awaken your molten stone and burn them. O ykari Himu, and Wydd, and Devena who stands between you, I call on your high virtues to punish Falcrest with storm, and with cancer, and with the excess of moderation which is called weakness.

Tain Hu wanted to live a free life.

Falcrest could not abide it.

So they decided to make Hu’s life into an instrument of control over Baru.

But Tain Hu would not allow it. Tain Hu would not be an armature of slavery.

And now Baru had entered the innermost circle of Imperial power without any hostage to control her.

Oh gods, Hu, I cannot believe what we’ve done. I cannot believe what I must do next. And yet I am… I am exultant. I am so excited to challenge the power that rules us. I am so excited to become that power.

This is my life’s work and at last now it has begun in earnest.

Baru turned her stinging face to Apparitor, and the man flickered back into her awareness, like the memory of some childhood embarassment springing up uncalled for, as he passed across her midline from blind right to living left.

“I’ll forgive that,” she said, calmly, “on account of your masculine passions.”

“You don’t believe it,” he snarled. He’d hurt his hand on her face and now he was wringing it pathetically. “You don’t really believe all that Incrastic nonsense about degenerate mating—you can’t really believe it? A woman from Taranoke?”

“You and I,” she said, spitting blood, grinning at him red-toothed, “you and I will be great colleagues, don’t you think?”

“Tell me,” he said, pleading now, “that you don’t believe it?”

“Raise the corpse,” Baru ordered. “Chop up the meat and scatter it for the gulls.”

Apparitor pulled her around so hard she almost fell again. Her blindness— half the world, her entire right hemisphere, hidden from her awareness by a blow to the brain—swept south and then east, blotting out the ocean toward Taranoke her home, and then Oriati Mbo, and at last Falcrest, the heart of the Imperial Republic. Baru imagined her emptiness covering them, spreading, down past Oriati Mbo through the barrier jungles to Zawam Asu and out then into the sky and across the stars.

Apparitor started to shake her, wide-eyed and furious, that pale freckled face of his high with blood-color. He smelled of fresh laundry. He said, “She deserves a funeral!”

“Traitors don’t get funerals.”

“Then an autopsy! Surely her traits should be recorded—”

“We’ve nothing to learn from traitors. Cut her up for the birds.” When the marines hesitated, Baru spread her hands, palms up, who am I, have you forgotten? “I said cut her up!”

Not even in death would Tain Hu serve Falcrest: not even as a pickled specimen or an entry in a catalogue of mental deformity. Baru would never let them map the rot of her body, never let them say, decomposition began in her liver, which had struggled to contain her sin.…

No. Let Tain Hu be laid to rest the way Baru’s parents taught her. Let the birds scatter her across earth and sky. That’s how the Taranoki give their beloved dead back to the world. Ah, Baru, do you remember the ragged pink guts of your grandmother Pahaeon, carved with shell knives, salted with the iron salt, scattered across Halae’s Reef for the gulls and the colorful fish? You were a little girl when Pahaeon died, and you didn’t understand: that, more than loss, made you sob.

But a cormorant called to you across Pahaeon’s funeral, and you stopped crying.

Baru remembered. She remembered all her dead.

“I’m going back to my keep,” she told Apparitor. “Bring me a map of the world and the laws of my new power. And your boy, to write down my orders.”

“Your orders?”

“Of course.” She showed him her perfect bloody Incrastic teeth. “I’m not finished with Aurdwynn.”

 

It was her fucking fortress: they’d told her so when she arrived, the exiles and condemned intellects who staffed this gray redoubt. For the duration of your stay, you are lord and master of the Elided Keep.

“What are you all waiting for?” she barked at the crowd of clerks and housekeepers peering through the bars of the tall, narrow portcullis. “The traitor’s dead. Now we work!”

A murmur rushed through the masked assembly. Dead? How could she be dead? She was the hostage.…

Was it, Baru wondered, the very first time a candidate had refused the bargain? How often had these walls of sloped granite looked down on mothers who begged for the lives of their bastard sons? Had the fortress stared, angular and indifferent, as candidates for the Throne admitted every kind of guilt to every sort of charge—the authorship of seditious texts, the exchange of illegal monies, adoption of a forbidden child, a murder of passion, an addiction to narcotics, religious rapture, royal ancestors, incest, incoherence of thought, the scars of self-abasement, profit off a great disaster, predatory moneylending, a taste for violence, perjury, perversion of a trial, visions, seizures, unfulfilled vengeance—

How many newcomers had stood at these galleries? Falcrest had destroyed King IV Asric Falkarsitte a hundred and thirty years ago. Had the Throne existed ever since?

The keep didn’t remember. She was sure of it. These walls had been washed by time and chemistry, stains of gray acid, laundry effluent, bleached mortar, burnt stone from ancient siege—scoured, again and again, of their history. Maybe this place predated the Throne. Maybe it had been a redoubt of the old royalty, the House of Antlers, before Lapetiare’s revolution destroyed them: a retreat on foreign shores.…

But she was certain this place didn’t know. It only had a ringing antimemory, the opposite of a past. It was used to make futures now.

She came through the small door (no one had moved to open it for her), among her watching staff. They stared at her.

“Go on,” she said, gently. As if they were the ones she’d hurt. “I want breakfast for two in the morning-room, and space cleared for a floor map.”

A cook dusted her floured hands on her apron, and a great puff of powder shot up into the sunbeams. The motes danced. “My lady,” she said, “we had it set for three, shall we clear the third place?”

Baru nearly shattered. Shall we clear Tain Hu’s place? No, she would say, no, leave it, leave her empty chair: she would stand there weeping silently while they watched her and understood. “I lied,” she’d tell them, “I wanted to be free of your control, so I had her executed, oh, what have I done?” And they would comfort her as they brought the poison cup, the blade, the slim garrote.

She said: “Leave the prisoner’s seat. It’ll make an interesting conversation piece. I have the sense, from your reaction, that I was meant to fail this test. Will anyone confirm that for me?”

No one would.

“Then go!” she snapped. “And serve me fresh code seals with breakfast. I have letters to write!”

They scattered in silence. One more time she wondered: how many of her predecessors had vowed, in secret, to defy their masters? None had succeeded. Or, worse, they had all succeeded, all of them defiant, all of their defiance expected and incorporated into the Throne’s victory.

Baru had only one weapon they’d lacked.

Tain Hu.

Remember that name. Pronounce it in a special way, so that it repeats itself: Tain leads to Hu and Hu leads to Tain, and you never forget her, she loops through your mind like a cant of resistance, now and always she is chained starving and ferocious to the rock-face of your memory and she heaves you forward by the manacles of her death.

Tain Hu.

You will destroy the Imperial Republic of Falcrest. You will liberate the world.

Tain Hu wills it.

And something rushed at Baru from her blindness—

 

She whirled, desperate, doomed—how had they decided so fast—the assassin came at her swift, elusive, a flicker of bird-wing shadow in twilight, the Throne’s answer for the cryptarch who refused to be bound—she tried to run, she tried to draw her boarding saber and stop-thrust the phantom through the breast—but she wasn’t wearing her sword, and as her turn and her failed draw put her off-balance she tripped on her cloak and fell on her ass.

No one there.

Baru groaned and rolled onto her stomach. With willfully bleak humor (probing the wound, trying to pinch shut the vein) she thought, oh, I am glad Hu can’t see her last hope now.

“My lady Cormorant?”

Baru yelled and spun on her ass. It was only Apparitor’s little golden-eyed Oriati concubine, coming in from the shore and the harbor. “Are you all right?” he asked.

“I don’t know,” she said, irritably, “that depends on you, really, are you here to try to seduce me again?”

He protected his throat with a soft calfskin glove. Yesterday Baru had pinned him against a stone battlement and choked him. “No, my lady. My lord Apparitor sent me to ask you which map you want prepared in the morning-room.”

Oh, the poor boy. She shouldn’t lash out at him (had to learn, immediately, how to wield her power carefully). He’d probably been torn away from friends and family, initiated into service as a boy, dragged around the world on Apparitor’s missions—rather like Muire Lo.

The flinch she felt at that name got her to her feet. “The map, yes. We’ll be discussing Aurdwynn. Get one of the full-rug maps, the sort we can walk on.”

“Aurdwynn, mam? You’re certain?”

“Absolutely.” Baru scuffed her boots on the marble, tugged her belt, adjusted her collar, and shot her cuffs. “It’s time to reward them for their return to our care. Ease off the lash. Give them a little”—slack on their chains—“honey for their table.”

What was his name anyway? Irashee? Irama?

“My lord suggests a map that will show you the full span of your new dominion.”

“Does he?” Baru stretched her locked hands over her head, and yawned mightily. She was pleased, a little, when the boy’s attention wandered down her jacket and waistcoat: not because she cared about his tastes, but because his dark gold-flecked eyes were like Tain Hu’s. “What map is that?”

Iraji. That was his name. Iraji of the oyaSegu tribe.

“A map of the world, my lady,” Iraji said. He blinked at her, softly, and she saw that he had a mind for spying, a polite and empathetic cunning which could be turned to wound or weal. “You are exalted now. You must consider the mosaic, not the stone.”

 


2
Incarnation

She came into her morning-room, where, before the ship and Tain Hu and the test, she’d read and written and then torn up all she wrote. Hard morning light came down through the hive window: teeth of fine thick glass in an iron truss and a clear scouring luminance, Incrastic, virtuous. Like the chimes of the proctors at the Iriad school, calling the girls out for dawn inspection.

Baru went into the little pit commode and vomited in grief.

When she came out, rinsed and empty, wanting strong whiskey to clear the taste off the back of her tongue, a map of the world had been laid out across the smooth dry floor.

She circled it in awe. Wine and no sleep gave her a singing headache: she felt brightly, tenuously alive. “Taranoke,” she said, determined to keep that name alive and spoken. “Taranoke… there you are.”

Beginning at her home, she surveyed the map.

And for the first time in her life the world revealed itself to her. Not the ring of the Ashen Sea, which you could see in any gazetteer, but the full sweep of the globe from end to endless end. Baru gasped in delight, and covered her mouth.

“It’s so blue,” she said. “I thought there’d be more land.”

Apparitor spoke from her blindness. “Eight parts water and two parts land, we think.”

“Has Falcrest surveyed it all?”

“Not all. Not the poles, though the ana-folk say you can walk across the ice all the way to the lodepoint. And the south? Who knows. The Oriati, maybe. We’ve never managed an expedition past Zawam Asu, into anterior seas or the western oceans. They sell us charts but it might all be fancy. Whale queendoms and the like. Creatures with tongues as long as kraken arms.”

“We used to think,” Baru whispered, “on Taranoke, I mean—there was a blue hole, that’s like an underwater well—”

“I know them,” he said. “Horrifying pits.”

“I swam in it,” Baru protested. “We called it the Navel.”

“Pit seeks pit, I suppose.” But he was staring at her. Wondering, maybe, where the executioner had gone.

She said, in a rush, “And we’d say the Navel was the lowest place in the world. That’s why all the rivers converged on the Ashen Sea. And if you went out far enough in any direction, eventually the mountains would rise up to the sky.” And then, with defensive pride: “Although we know, always knew, the world’s really a globe.”

“I’ll be outside,” Iraji said. Apparitor gave him a quick squeeze, not looking, absentminded gratitude. They were friends. Baru touched a coin with her mind, a disc with Duke Oathsfire on one side and Duke Lyxaxu on the other. The coin was proof that she could betray people even if she saw their dearest friendships.

Cold currency, of course. But valuable.

She gathered her attention on the known world, the Ashen Sea and its surrounds. Apparitor mistook this for disappoinment: “I’d like to fill in the more tentative edges,” he said, protectively. “It’s my passion, exploration. There’s trouble raising ships and money, with war so close, but I still have my ways.…”

“How does it work?” Baru said.

“Eh?”

“This. Our world. How does it work?”

The Ashen Sea was a lumpy ring, and the world, Baru’s theater of play, was a misshapen cross around that ring. North was Aurdwynn and the Winter-crests and icy mesa beyond; left-which-was-west was the Camou Interval, a great plague-ridden unknown, grasslands and mountains full of scattered people as unknown to Falcrest as Taranoke might once have been. Between those two arms a fan of steppe reached out northwest, into the fallen Maia heartlands.

It struck Baru as very odd that so much of the map was fallen empire, fallow territory, forgotten land. As if the tide of humanity was going out, all across the world.…

“I can’t tell you how the world works,” Apparitor said. “If I knew that, would I be scurrying around on the Throne’s errands? Would I have to put up with you?” And something about Tain Hu, which Baru jerked her attention away from: it vanished into her right-blindness.

“I have a theory,” Baru said. “About the world.”

“Of course you do.”

“The fundamental concern of all our history has been access to the Ashen Sea trade circle—”

“Did I say I wanted to hear it?” he snapped.

Baru still thought she must be right.

On the southern limb of the cross the Oriati Mbo jutted like a long tooth at the bottom of the Ashen Sea, coast and savannah and desert and sahel and jungle, all the way to Zawam Asu where the whales gathered for their fabled quorums. A gristly mass of land connected the Mbo northeast to Falcrest, belted by the strait called the Tide Column, which linked the Ashen Sea to the titanic Mother of Storms.

And north of the Column, on a pudgy potato-shaped subcontinent jutting (Baru had to wave her head to remember the direction) rightward, eastward, was Falcrest. Not central. Not remarkable. Nowhere you would choose as the seat of power if you saw the world like a high hawk.

“We’re so small,” Baru squeaked. She had to swallow to get her voice right. A terrible vindication was in her, and she wanted it out: the notion that any crime could be pardoned for a chance to glimpse these world secrets.

“I take it,” Apparitor said, “that you’re not used to feeling small?”

“No,” she said, and then realized he was calling her an egomaniac.

“You never got high and lay down on your back on a mountainside? And watched the sky until you were afraid you’d fall up into it?”

“No…”

“Tain Hu did,” he said, “she told me about it.”

Her name like a thorn in the tongue. Baru glared at him. He grinned and waved a bottle: The Grand Purifier. “I needed an excuse to be rude,” he hiccupped, “so I stopped by Helbride and raided my vodka stash. Clear as spring melt! Here, for your health—”

“I’m not drinking anything you pour.” Baru took one last guilty, yearning glance at the map.

From the Mothercoast the map swept east: hundreds of miles of open ocean, barren islets, wild currents. The Mother of Storms. Baru’s eyes crossed the distance like a ship, imagining thirst, hundred-foot waves, maelstrom, thirst and thirst and desperate salty thirst. At last she came to a coastline complicated by inlets and fjords and interior lakes. Smoking volcanoes issued clouds of thin paint.

The mapmakers had written here, in plain blocks, the supercontinent.

“Why is it super?” she asked.

“Because it’s huge.”

“How do you know?”

“We found maps. Made by explorers from the pre–Oriati Mbo. They died over there.”

“Oh…” Baru said, dreaming of long eons and secret valleys. She would like to be an explorer.

“Who would ever want to oppose our glorious Republic?” Apparitor murmured, with bitter admiration. “Who would want to kill the thing that makes maps like this?”

Baru would. Because she would never share this world with Tain Hu. She would never point from a ship’s mast and say, See that mountain? I’ve named it for you.

“Tell me the rules,” she commanded.

 

Behold, attend, hear ye hear ye, and et cetera,” Apparitor hiccupped. “Let these be the laws of those who act beyond the law.”

The cooks had laid out breakfast. Soft-boiled chicken eggs cooling in their brown shells, spring mango, smoked fish, rusk bread, and dipping coffee. The centerpiece was three guga in a sugar glaze: baby gannets, taken from the clifftop colonies which surrounded the keep in white fields of guano and squawking chicks. The exile staff held a contest every year to make the best gannet dish. For Baru they’d arranged the chicks upon mirrored vessels, posed as if in flight.

She was ravenous. She hadn’t eaten since she saw the ship coming in with Hu.

“The Cryptarch’s Qualm.” Apparitor stared into his vodka bottle as if he could read the words from the light in the drink. “Your power is secret, and in secret it is total. But to use your power you must touch the world. To touch you must be touched, to be touched is to be seen, to be seen is to be known. To be known is to perish. Act subtly, lest you diminish.” He took a slug.

She only needed to survive long enough to destroy it all. Subtlety could be dismissed. “Eat,” she suggested. “Or you’ll be useless soon.”

“I don’t want to be of any use to you.” But he picked up an egg and began to juggle it, one-handed. “Next, the Tyrant’s Qualm—”

“Are we tyrants?” Baru sliced her mango. The blade snicked on the plate: the texture too much like flesh. Her chest hurt.

“You decide that as much as I.” He gave his egg a little backspin. “If you hold absolute power, everyone wants to take it from you. So you must entice supporters by granting them a piece of your power. But the more people you entice, the more thinly you are spread, and to spread is to perish.”

“Fine, fine.” She would need to learn to make allies. But never again could she let them as close as Hu. The price was so high. “Did you mean for me to pardon the duchess?”

Apparitor rolled his eyes and took a slug straight from the bottle. “Pardon her?” He gasped: a little bead of vodka sat between the ridges under his nose, quivering. “I thought you’d beg for her life. Thirdly, the Great Game. Every advisor to the Emperor, no matter their particular program of interests, shall maintain a familiarity with the Great Game—”

A game. Baru would love to play a game of intrigue, of calculation, a game that overflowed her mind and doused her heart. “What is it?”

“It is the Throne’s model of the world, honed by decades of intrigue and contest. We play it on a map, with the assistance of very large rulebooks. And when our work is finished, there will be no difference between the rules of the game and the laws of the world.”

He had put down his bottle and produced a bag of tiny figures from his pocket: he was laying them out on the map-rug with the warm egg still cupped in his off hand.

“Hesychast.” He held up a broad-shouldered brown bust. “One of us. The agents of the Throne.”

Baru knew that name. When she’d first met Apparitor she’d asked if he were Hesychast—Cairdine Farrier’s rival, the eugenicist. The one who thought her race was fit only for farming, fishing, and pleasure.

“Hesychast told me you’d beg for her reprieve,” Apparitor said. “He guaranteed it.”

“I suppose he thought my lust would control me.”

Apparitor stared at the figure with hot distaste. “He believes that the isoamorous—people like you and I—must be consumed by incredible passion. Like addicts. Why else would we persist in our obscene fascinations, when the whole world is against us?”

Baru remembered her fathers flirting on the beach, fearless and beautiful. The whole world had not been against them, no matter what the Empire said. And that was the beginning of hope: if the world had not always been as the Empire demanded, then it might not always be as the Empire demanded.

He pitched the egg overhand and it landed in the cup of wine Baru had just poured. She blinked and sputtered. “Is that a glint of conscience I detect?” he said. “A sliver of human compassion?”

“Doubtful,” Baru said, acidly. “I’m only tired. I stayed up too late with the prisoner.”

“Tormenting her with her failure?”

Baru stuffed her mouth with baby gannet meat, so she couldn’t reply.

“Anyway. These figures are members of the Throne. Here’s Itinerant—” A smiling waistcoated bust, her patron, Farrier. He put it down on the edge of the map. “Stargazer—” A telescope lens, also for the edge. “Me—” A pale figure, with red paint for hair. He put it in Aurdwynn. “Renascent—” A featureless pawn, which he placed, with a shudder, on Falcrest. “And you.”

The pawn he produced was extraordinary. Narrow, thoughtful, storm-dark eyes: Baru’s cheekbones and chin: a faint, uncharacteristic smile, as if the pawn wanted to make Baru happy. All carved from the wood with the most expert care.

“Whittled it myself,” Apparitor said, cheerily. “On the ship with Tain Hu. Thought it’d be a nice gift once you’d spared her. Ah well.”
He smashed his vodka bottle down on the pawn’s head and it split. Apparitor flicked the broken stub over to Baru. “Your pawn, my lady,” he said, and emptied the bottle down his throat.

“Now,” he gasped, “we play.”

“I don’t know the rules—”

“And I won’t tell you.” He stepped onto the map. “Tell me what you’ll do to the world, Baru Cormorant. Show me your savantry!”

“What do I—”

“I told you. I told you.” His eyes glinted in the slatted dawn light. His jaw twitched, like a smile trying to wriggle out of its cage. There was something bestial, something cunning and atavistic about his pig-pale flesh, as if his ancestors had lived in their mansions too long, too far from the light. Baru hated the thought—she hated these prejudices!—but when the earth trembled with a distant avalanche or tremor, and the chandelier of the map of the moon moved above them in sympathy, she almost gasped aloud in fear.

“The rules of the game,” he said, “are the rules of the world. Play!”

Baru set her pawn down in Aurdwynn. A splinter from its broken face got under her thumbnail: she hissed and sucked it out. Blood wicked into the wound and turned the nail red.

“You are in Aurdwynn,” Apparitor said, singsong, mocking. “You have just betrayed all your friends. The rebellion is over. You have gained the absolute overriding authority of the Imperial Throne. What do you do?”

Where to begin! She would do what Tain Hu trusted her to do. “I order the release of religious prisoners, the end of reparatory marriage, and a program of universal inoculation for children. I set patrols on the Inirein and the other major trade rivers. I dredge the Welthony harbor. I—”

“The provincial Governor refuses your suggestions. The Governor wishes to keep the north of Aurdwynn impoverished and ill, so the Stakhieczi cannot seize it and use it as a springboard for invasion.”

“The Governor?” Baru said, in confusion. “Isn’t Cattlson dead?”

Apparitor’s smug vodka-polished smile was very soon going to anger her. “Forgot about Heingyl Ri, did you?”

“Oh.” Baru had forgotten about her. Fool, Baru, weak stupid fool. Heingyl Ri was the Stag Duke’s daughter. She’d met Baru on her first day in Aurdwynn with her sharp fox eyes, her frightful décolletage, and that one eerily prescient barb: I hope no one will regret your appointment. Least of all you. “She married Bel Latheman, didn’t she?”

“Quite so.” Apparitor winked. “Xate Yawa prepared her very carefully for the Governor’s seat.”

“I have her dismissed.”

“How?”

“I write a letter,” Baru snapped, “saying I’m one of the Emperor’s advisors and I want her to step down.”

“I countermand your letter with my own. I want her to remain Governor.”

“Then I—” She almost giggled. It felt like the childhood game of My Mana Mane, where you tried to convince your friend why your version of the legendary Oriati hero was better, and could absolutely step all over her version of Mana Mane. “I have her husband implicated in that scheme of Vultjag’s. I tell Heingyl Ri she steps down or I have Bel Latheman convicted.”

“Fine.” Apparitor picked up his pawn and nudged hers over. “I murder you.”

“What!” She crossed her arms. “You can’t just murder me.”

“Why not?”

Because—because everything she’d done, everyone she’d sacrificed, would be wasted before she ever got to hurt the Masquerade.

“My patron would destroy you,” she said, which seemed plausible. Farrier had invested so many years of effort into her; and he had that wager with Hesychast about her capabilities. He would not want her dead.

“I knew it,” Apparitor crowed. He got up to straddle Aurdwynn and throw up his hands in victory. “I knew it!”

“Knew what!”

“Farrier! Farrier convinced you to kill your lover.” Apparitor’s fist clenched: his little pawn poked out of it like a red-haired homunculus, smiling at Baru. “You did what he wanted and now you know he’s going to protect you.”

“I don’t know what you’re trying to insinuate,” Baru said, indignantly. “Of course he expected me to carry out the Republic’s law. What else?”

“Farrier’s showing off.”

“Showing off what?”

“His control over you. You know, on some level, that you’ll be rewarded when you obey him. That’s why you killed Tain Hu. To earn his indulgence.”

Baru wanted to stab him up through the nostril, into the pulp of his brain. The thought that he might be even the littlest bit right would annihilate her.

He hissed across her plate of dead fledglings and ruined mango. “Tell me what he’s planning! Why did you kill her? Did you do something so horrible that you couldn’t leave any witnesses?”

“Well,” she said, rising to the riposte, leaning into his salt and spirit smell, “I nearly married your brother, for one.”

He’d lost his red handkerchief on the harbor wind, his neck was naked, and so she saw the convulsion of fear that snapped his teeth together. “What brother?”

“Your brother,” she said, with a snake of guilt in her gut, which she tried, and failed, to step on. “The Necessary King of the Stakhieczi.”

“I don’t know any king,” he said, too quickly.

She smiled at him. “Come now. You were born prince of the Mansions. You tried to lead an expedition into the east, and the Masquerade kidnapped you off your ship.” Baru’s teeth closed on a tiny gannet-bone: it snapped between her jaws and slashed her gums. She’d heard the story from Dziransi, the Stakhieczi fighter in her retinue, and she’d known instantly, instantly, who that prince must be. “Does anyone else know? You’re kept in check by your hostage lover; but do they all know you’re royalty, too?”

He was silent and he was still.

“What would your colleagues do,” she whispered, “if your brother the Necessary King asked for your return, lest he invade? Would anyone protect you? Or would they send you home in rags and drool, with the lobotomy pick still jutting from your eye?”

Apparitor looked at her with pale fire in his eyes, with an aurora light on his teeth, and the charge of the air outside the keep passed through the stone and metal to stir his long red hair.

“You have me cornered,” he said.

It would have been undignified to whoop aloud. Instead she smiled. The blood from her cut gums made him flinch.

“Why do you do this?” he whispered. “I work for the Throne because it keeps me and mine safe. What do you want? What are you?”

She set her broken pawn down on Aurdwynn. The map rug was huge, huge, and she got up to pace the ring of the Ashen Sea, leaving him kneeling there with her plate of leavings and Aurdwynn in all its checkered peculiarity.

“This,” she said, kicking the ocean. “This ring. Trade goes around it, and around it, and around it. Falcrest to Oriati Mbo to Taranoke to Aurdwynn and back to Falcrest. Does it remind you of anything?”

“A water wheel.”

“An engine. Yes.” Baru surveyed her ocean. “What if that engine stopped?”

He did not even hesitate. “Falcrest collapses.”

“Well,” Baru said. “We can’t have that. We should explore the possible ways the trade could be stopped, so we can prevent them.”

“Are you speculating on the downfall of our great and beloved Republic? Some might consider this a mote suspicious.” She waved in dismissal. “The hand is blameless, if it acts in service of the Throne.…”

“Quoting the Hierarchic? You learn our stories too well.” Apparitor clapped his hands on the rug, and everything rattled, the dish and the bottle, even Baru’s jaw. “Do you understand? You don’t. You will.”

A chime at the door: Iraji announced his return with the touch of a rod. “Pardon me, Excellences, but it’s time.”

Baru frowned. “Time for what?”

“For your exaltation, mam,” the boy said. “You go before the Emperor, and put on your new mask. And you tell us your name.”

“We’re not waiting for Hesychast?” Apparitor said, innocently. “He’s sailing all this way.…”

“What?” Baru staggered backward, cracked her hips on the breakfast table, and nearly sat in the guga. “Hesychast’s coming here?”

“Of course he is,” Apparitor said, adulterating his own coffee with wine. “Who do you think was going to take your hostage away?”

He gave her a two-fingered salute.

“May you regret what you did today,” he said, soberly, “until the end of time.”

 

Incarnation is the art of form mimicking content.

Write a poem about linked destinies, and each verse begins with the end of the last: this is incarnation. Write a story about a mountain and it tapers to a peak on the page: incarnation. Baru always thought it was a stupid gimmick. Nobody demanded that the word billion be a thousand times longer than million, because that would be unwieldy.

The Throne had incarnated its virtues in the ritual of exaltation. And they had done it perfectly.

A great murmur of excitement ran through the gathered people—Elided Keep staff and Apparitor’s crew—as they opened their envelopes. Everyone had their own instructions; no one knew the full design.

“Is the gull part of the rite?” Baru asked her chamberlain.

It was a fat greasy-white seagull with yellow feet, perched on a spear-shaft that flew Duke Pinjagata’s banner. Apparitor said Pinjagata had been stabbed under the chin by a Clarified disguised as one of his troops. Baru missed him.

“I’m sorry, my lady Excellence.” Baru’s chamberlain had organized cabin boys to stone the gull. “It hopped down the east tower stairs. We’ve been trying to corner it but it’s quite fierce.”

The gull squawked and began to pitter-patter its feet. “Oh dear.” The chamberlain, gray and thinly drawn, covered his mouth in worry. “Kill it before it—”

The gull stopped pattering, stared in fury at the people below, and then relieved itself on Pinjagata’s banner. All the clerks groaned together. Baru bit her wrist to dam up a laugh.

“I’m so sorry,” her chamberlain whispered, “it does that whenever it patters its feet. We’ll have it taken down and cleaned, at once, at once.”

“Don’t bother. Pinjagata would’ve liked it.” She turned to the assembled technocrats. “Who’s been feeding this gull?”

“Feeding it, my lady?”

“See how it hops back and forth? It’s been trained to dance for food. Enterprising little bastard, isn’t it?” Polite laughter from all these people, people afraid of her. “Never mind. Let’s begin!”

The crowd in the throne room formed two columns, their hands outstretched before them, turned upward: a path of palms, from the doors to the high gray throne.

Baru walked between them, in her porcelain half-mask, a simple waistcoat and black trousers, with her gloves buckled at her wrists and Aminata’s boarding saber at her hip.

Oh, Wydd, what a thrill she felt. What a hateful thrill.

At the end of the path of hands the Emperor awaited her upon Its Throne.

Of course It couldn’t be the Emperor, who sat in the People’s Palace in Falcrest between sluiceways of glass eyeballs and ice water. Of course the marble seat in this throne room wasn’t the Throne. The Emperor here would be a lobotomite, his will pithed and destroyed with a steel pick.

They had prepared him in the full Imperial Regalia. A white smiling mask of enameled steel. A white silk raiment which bloomed out from beneath the mask and ran out taut and angular like a tent until it met the marble of the throne, where it gathered into braids, the braids woven thick and sure as ship’s rigging into steel eyebolts. Beneath the silk rig the man’s form could not be seen or selected as human. He was continuous with the weft of the Throne. Behind him the braids of silk spidered out through bolt and pulley to run away into secret corridors behind the wall. Arteries of secrets, pumping out into the world.

The gull squawked angrily. No sound otherwise, except the small decisions of Baru’s footfalls.

“STOP,” the assembled technocrats boomed, the Emperor’s voice invested in them.

Baru stopped.

“TELL ME YOUR NAME.”

“Baru Cormorant,” Baru said.

“BY WHAT MERIT DO YOU CLAIM MY ATTENTION?”

“I claim the polestar mark,” Baru said, and she opened her folio where her exams and assignments had been recorded, showing it to the Emperor and to the room: here is my worth. “I claim the Emperor’s authority. By my works I make my claim.”

“APPROACH ME.”

She climbed the short steps.

The great silk bindings of the Throne creaked and shifted: the Emperor’s left hand was drawn away, revealing a maple case. “MASK YOURSELF,” the chorus commanded, and inside that maple case Baru found a face of glazed blue-white ceramic, exquisitely blank. Around the right eye blazed the eight-pointed polestar mark, rendered in silver. The sign of overriding Imperial authority.

The mask was sleek to the touch, sensuously unyielding. Baru wondered how thrilling it would be to smash the perfect thing. Behind the right eye the interior swarmed with codes.

It fit her, of course, like a second face.

“TELL US YOUR NAME,” sang the servants of the Throne.

Baru turned to the little crowd. The whole pyramid of her life, turned upside down, with its vast base cornered by her distant ancestors, balancing on a tiny point: her, here, now.

I MADE IT she wanted to scream, red-lipped, broken-toothed, marrow spattering off her tongue, as certain and lethal in her arrival as a shark breaching with the broken body of a seal in its mouth. I made it. No living thing may call itself my ruler.

“I am Agonist,” she told them. “Let it be known.”

Agonist. It meant one who struggles.

The Emperor began to laugh.

An instant of horror and shame from the crowd, even a few giggles, as if a child had run out bare-assed and squalling to interrupt the ceremony: everyone thought the lobotomite had misbehaved.

But there was something in that laugh which Baru recognized. Her first stupid thought was that this simply wasn’t fair: the memory would be tainted, now. He had infiltrated this moment. He always would.

Apparitor leapt out of the crowd. “Baru!” he shouted, into the mortified silence. “Baru, unmask it!”

“Yes,” she said, and she reached out to the man bound to the Throne, gripped his smiling white mask, and lifted it off his head.

Deep folded eyes, laughingly sad, and skin almost as dark as Baru’s. The finely kept beard, which she had always thought must itch. Gods, he had tears in his eyes, tears of pride. Who else in the world could say they were genuinely proud of everything Baru had ever done? Only him. Only him.

“Surprise!” Cairdine Farrier beamed.

And then, his voice stopping up, “Oh, Baru, thank you, thank you. You’ve done it. You’ve saved us, you’ve saved us,” now thick-throated joy, “Baru, we’ve won. Falcrest is saved.”

Excerpted from The Monster Baru Cormorant, copyright © 2018 by Seth Dickinson

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