Science Fiction & Fantasy

CHOSEN ONES

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Fiction

Burn the Ships

There are no obsidian blades in the camp. The Dawncomer guards have learned enough to make sure that no ritual knives get smuggled in. Without obsidian, Quineltoc can’t spill blood properly—he can’t keep the law, can’t observe the rites of the Living Lord as a man of God must. The ghost-colored invaders who came from beyond the rising sun trust in their vigilance and in their cold technology to protect them. It does.

The People make do. They’ve had to, for over a decade now—ever since the Dawncomers laid aside any pretense of friendliness and openly usurped the Emperor’s power. But there is always the Lord.

Quineltoc keeps faith.

It’ll be enough.

Surely.

But tonight, need drives him, as relentless as a snakedriver’s whip. He sneaks into a tight corner between the latrines, hidden from the sight of the guards. The stench of watery shit and piss is thick despite the cold, dry winter night. It’s long after curfew and he’ll be shot on sight, but Quineltoc is alone for the first time in months. In an overcrowded hell, solitude itself is almost worth the risk.

The wind picks up and moves the clouds across the blue-black sky, revealing stars glinting like frozen tears on the bruised face of night. The waning quarter moon gives little light, and Quineltoc shivers as he contemplates the dark between the stars. His copper brown skin, sallow from poor rations and exhaustion, tightens and prickles as he shivers. The Tzitzimimeh dwell in the vast emptiness.

He doesn’t precisely fear the dark goddesses, orthodox man that he is. God’s sisters made willing sacrifices, he reminds himself. The Bone Women gave their lives for the Living Lord, for His law. The law itself keeps the People safe, and he keeps the law.

Their blood, their flesh, to nourish Him.

The gray hair on the back of his neck stands up. He tells himself it’s the biting wind that makes him feel small and naked under the pitiless stars.

Quineltoc steels his faith and straightens his back, ignores the cold, and starts to softly chant the bloodletting prayers. He takes a shard of bone out of the pocket of his thin gray pants. Carefully, he doesn’t think from who that bone came, and focuses on the prayers he uttered as he honed the shard’s point, whetted on hope and dismay. He shivers again, harder—shudders—and pulls the sleeve of his dirty smock back, slicing the flesh of his left forearm. The red blood is black in the shadowed starlight.

He should call out, proud, happy at an offering given, voice ringing like a bronze temple bell to proclaim his bloodletting, but the guards would hear him. After a long moment trembling in the cold, Quineltoc is able to focus. The year’s count is ending soon, and with the power of time turning behind his prayers, Quineltoc hopes that the Lord will listen despite the lack of incense and obsidian.

Maybe provide a different answer.

The wind dies down and Quineltoc hears nothing beyond himself and the blood surf, deafening, in his ears. The pounding of each heartbeat one more note in a space where experience and grace have taught him to expect to hear the voice of God.

Ba-dum.

Ba-dum.

Silence.

Ba-dum.

Even with no incense to carry his pleas surely God will hear him? Answer! he thinks deep inside himself, and then stifles the demand.

Ever since he was newly a man and became the youngest lawspeaker of the People of the Starry Codex, the voice of God has answered him at prayers. More than forty years. Now, with the scent of misery the only incense, Quineltoc dreads the reply.

Silence.

Ba-dum.

Exhorting the Lord is difficult, but hopelessness is harder. Quineltoc prays, silent words shaping his cracked lips in curves of agony and devotion.

Ba-dum.

He lets out a mangled cry, barely remembering to muffle his despair with his dirty, chapped hands. A dog barks on the other side of the camp.

The lawspeaker, who had been called to walk before the Living Lord, falls to his knees in the icy muck. In fragmented silence between heartbeats, Quineltoc hears a small, still voice, giving him the answer he has heard before:

Guide the People to Me, Quineltoc. Help them be willing. I am so hungry. Nourish Me.

Ba-dum.

Ba-dum.

• • • •

“No.”

Citlal has heard that word from her husband more times in the last week of arguments than in the nearly forty years spent together before it. She can tell that the argument feels ancient, endless, to the both of them.

“What other choice do we have?” Citlal demands. Her voice is thick with stowed rage writhing like a fire axolotl in her guts, with the tears that she’s refused to shed since she watched a Dawncomer guard shoot their daughter Shochi four months ago. Her dark eyes are dry in her prematurely lined brown face. Three decades since the massive invasion fleet turned their world inside out on a fine spring dawn. The new sun had been huge and red, staining the sky, the Sunrise Gate opening from an old, strange world.

The Empire of the Land Between the Waters had grown accustomed to the almost random trickle of small refugee boats over the previous century, their half-drowned sailors bedraggled like mangy golden rats fleeing chaos from an unfathomable somewhere behind the sunrise. The Dawncomers had just been pale, yellow-haired jetsam on the eastern shores, easily welcomed curiosities. But then they came in great blazing ships teeming with their survivors, unwelcome arrivals with guns and plague and their foreign god, slowly taking over everything.

Citlal has lost almost everyone she’s cared for in a long and fortunate life except her husband, her godly man who refuses to understand what must be done. They are in one of the warehouses the Dawncomers use to keep up the pretense that these are work camps. The other captives ignore their whispered argument out of respect and familiarity. The scent of old boots and cloaks stripped off at gunpoint makes the chilly air musty as the stolen goods move down the conveyer belt with typical Dawncomer efficiency. The usurpers brought cold mechanical technology with them, and it was impervious to the living magics the People use. Their casual illnesses had killed multitudes throughout the Empire, hitting magebloods the worst, eviscerating the effectiveness of the People’s priests and magicians. Centuries of order toppled, the Emperor’s power turned into empty ceremony and yea-saying.

“So we just wait for God to save us?” Citlal is so beyond frustration with her husband that it’s hard work to remember anything but her anger. “How long do we cling to prayer? Do we just wait for God to kill the Dawncomers? We could act—”

“And if we were to do it . . . if we commit that sin, what will we be?”

“Alive.”

Quineltoc closes his eyes. Citlal’s point is sharp, like all of the cactus spine reasoning of her arguments across their lives. As sharp and relentless as her anger is, she knows that he argues reasons—truths—that he devoutly hopes she’ll accept. She fights the urge to count them off on her fingers as he repeats himself, his tone a perfectly logical hammer to knap away the flint of her resolve. “The face of the Living Lord would turn from us! The Sunset Gate would be closed shut to everyone we would ‘save.’ No reunion with our people in the next world beyond the west! The Tzitzimimeh will eat our souls!”

“And probably make dresses out of our bones, too!” she retorts, childhood story truths made glib and fierce by the effort not to yell. Quineltoc stops sorting dead women’s shoes for a moment, breathing hard at her. As a wisewife of the People, Citlal knows the laws that bind magic since the Living Lord rose. She understands the way order limits chaos, like the stars fixing the dark sky. She knows, bone true, the reasons for the laws that forbid the action she urges. Invoking the Dead Sisters is dangerous, especially with the Temple Major—the place where the divine presence of utter night could safely touch mortal earth—now rubble under Dawncomer boots.

Quineltoc sighs and enunciates clearly at her, as if to a foreigner: “Every one of us lost.”

“What good is salvation if the spirit of the People is dead, Quineltoc?” she counters. She sorts a feathered green hat out of the hodgepodge, twiggy fingers nimble but aching in the cold. “They captured every single mageblood on orders from their Hierophant.”

“The Lord saved us before. We need to trust and obey.” His earnestness is painful. It reminds her of the kind young man who won her heart with marigolds and poetry during the first years of their marriage.

“Quineltoc, it isn’t half-dead refugees begging for sanctuary!” She repeats her own list of inarguable facts. “All of the Dawncomers remaining have come now, and they’re tired of us living in their new home. They burned all their ships. They can’t go back through the Sunrise Gate. And there’s only room for themselves in their vision of the world,” Citlal spits the words out like cactus gall. “And God doesn’t care.”

“Of course He does, but it’s not for us to decide how He shows it! We made a pact: He gave men magic, and we swore that we were His! If the Lord chooses that we die here . . . we’ll sing hymns to His light as we do it.”

Citlal knows that her husband’s faith is straight and true. He’s heard the voice of God. He knows what certainty is.

Doubt is new, and grown bitterly familiar.

It’s ash, she thinks. Black ash falling from the sky on the days when the People’s corpses are burnt, ash on her tongue that God says nothing to her husband now.

“We can only do it during the Dead Days, Quineltoc. End-Year comes in two days, and we won’t last another year. If you help, all the People will rise up!” She takes a breath and then she whispers, “Please.” He purses his lips together so tightly that they almost disappear and looks away, pretending absorption in sorting stolen shoes.

Citlal counts to five, and five again, and exhales. Her anger settles, like a pot of chocolate moved off—but still near—the flame. She continues, admitting to heretical magic, “I used women’s blood and the night wind to speak to the wisewives in the other camps and reservations.” There are so few of us left. She continues. “The Dawncomers are planning another purge in three days, through all of the camps. They won’t burn the bodies for at least a few days after that. They dole out our misery to feed their own god, damn them. I think they’re offering us as a sacrifice, but we can appeal to the Tzitz—”

He shakes his head no, gray hair a scraggly storm about his head. “Citlal, no. The other lawspeakers in the camp agree with me.”

She snorts, and throws a fine turquoise spidersilk shawl into a sorting bin. “You mean none of them dare disagree with the great lawspeaker Quineltoc! We will all die.” She pauses, deliberate. “They killed Shochi. And if they are feeding us to their god, do any of our souls even make it past the Sunset Gate to the next world?”

He throws out his hands, negating the possibility. “Shochi is in God’s keeping,” he says, almost reasonable. Then his voice hardens. “And I refuse to be the one to keep us apart for eternity.”

Citlal’s shoulders slump and her head dips, lank black hair streaked with silver-white obscuring her face. She knows that tone in her husband’s voice. He won’t countenance the magic that could save them, not if it embraces the dark between the stars.

She reminds herself that he’s a good man, a godly man. The Living Lord has spoken with him. The People use his name as another word for rectitude, for devotion, for wisdom.

She reminds herself.

A good man who only sees God.

She will not be so blind.

• • • •

There are five Dead Days between End-Year on the night of the Festival of Gates and the start of the new year. Five days when the doors between the worlds of the living and the dead are open and the skeletal Dead Sisters of the Living Lord stride unhindered across the living world. Then, with the sunrise start of the Day of New Fire, God sets the divine glyph on the lists of the living and the dead after making the year’s bargain with His sisters, and shuts the gates.

One of the prayers the People sing to guard them in the dark tells of the grim and beautiful bat-winged Obsidian Butterfly, the Lady of the Knife, eldest of His sisters. She is set to mark down all the living and list, as God so decides and the Tzitzimimeh agree, the deaths in the coming year: who by fire, who by water, who by old age . . .

They are the Living Lord’s People, praying and keeping God’s laws with the magebloods to guide them. Who by falling, who by plague . . . Citlal has never liked that prayer. She doesn’t find comfort in its cosmic certainty.

The People have kept the laws as best they can, watching the Dawncomers abandon slyness and rise to real power over the past decade. They’re the strangers now, forbidden to rebuild the great pyramid Temple Major in the heart of the old capital. Still, the People have adapted.

Who by strangulation, who by thirst, who by willing sacrifice . . .

Quineltoc hid his face when the guard shot their daughter Shochi, and murmured the prayer recited upon receiving news of a death in the stillness after the gunshot: Blessed be the Living Lord, the keeper of life.

The guards tossed their daughter’s body on a pile with others: grandmothers, the gold stolen from their teeth to make wire for machines; children, stomachs distended and arms stick-like with hunger; lame men, who could not work fast enough, bludgeoned to death with rifle butts . . . A daughter, beloved.

Who by gunshot . . . she whispers, adding a new death to the ancient litany.

She will never forgive Quineltoc for looking away.

• • • •

End-year gathers itself in the rising dusk, the prayers of the magebloods exhaling softly into the night. Across the Empire, the rest of the People—less devout and free enough, if burdened and afraid—accommodate the usurpers’ orders for no public ceremonies. But in every camp and reservation where they have been packed into across the Land, the magebloods of the People of the Starry Codex observe the rites as best they can, makeshift and brave.

It’s a ragged chant. Voices falter as physical weakness from short rations and exhaustion robs their breath, yet the chant is kept. The guards don’t bother to forbid them song with so many voices unable to ring out.

East-facing, the barracks’ door is in direct sight of the guards, so Citlal crawls out under the women’s barracks on the west side of the camp.

A few of the other women have guessed at Citlal’s plan. Some of the mothers and elderly nanas even approve. One, an old kitchen witch from a fishing village on the sunset coast, gave her a blue silk purse smuggled out of the sorting line so that Citlal could gather the earth and ashes she needs.

Citlal clings to the shadows and makes her cautious way to the women’s barracks on the north side of the camp, carrying the full purse next to her heart. The remaining wisewives in the camp have berths in the northern barracks. In the other camps across the Empire, every wisewife left gathers as well. They hope to accomplish the task, together.

Borrowing a sliver of the rising power of the first night of the Dead Days and retracing the initial steps of the Tzitzimimeh’s dance, Citlal says a word and cloaks herself in a bit of darkness and misdirection. The guards don’t look her way; their dogs whine, but don’t bark. She passes through the northern barracks’ door and it doesn’t creak. As thin as she’s become, she doesn’t have to open it very far.

The cutting night wind blows her along. Ce-Mishtlin and Yoal, the other two wisewives still alive in their camp, are waiting just inside the door. Ce-Mishtlin is short, dark brown, pretty, an aquiline-nosed young woman from one of the southern tribes of the People. Her spectacles are wire-rimmed, and the right lens has a small asterisk crack flaring in from the outer edge. The cheekbone underneath is bruised and inflamed. Citlal recognizes the marks left by a heavy fist and is careful to kiss a greeting on Ce-Mishtlin’s other cheek.

Yoal is several years older than Citlal, with the pale fawn skin and plaited black hair of the northern tribes, and her skin sags, missing pounds. She had once been tall, beautiful and fat, but now Yoal is deflated and slack from six months in the camp. Citlal meets Yoal’s agate-dark eyes and takes her hand, nodding her respect. Determination glints like starshine in Yoal’s eyes.

The wisewives head to a dark corner of the barracks, passing crowded bunks full of women chanting softly. As they walk by, the women fall silent and then resume praying after they pass, an exhalation that carries them aloft like a murmuration. Citlal is glad that they haven’t reached the portion of the rites where they’ll sing of the Obsidian Butterfly.

Once the three women reach the vacant bit of floor against the western wall that Ce-Mishtlin and Yoal have claimed as workspace, they sit down in a triangle, propped on knees bent, legs underneath them. They are as alone as they can be in the stuffed barracks; the women berthed in the near bunks have all moved away to the other side of the building to give them respectful privacy, or out of fear of their power.

Ce-Mishtlin pulls a sheet of soft brown codex bark-paper out from underneath her gray smock and places it between them. The camp sub-commander had drafted her to be his secretary and bedwarmer. Unwelcomed but useful, the positions give Ce-Mishtlin access to some supplies and news from outside the camp, which is how they learned that the purge was coming.

Yoal lays three steel pins next to the sheet of paper. They’re mismatched hatpins stolen from the sorting lines. One has a brass butterfly for a head, another a coral bead, and the third has a cloisonné sun in blue-green, a turquoise solar disc worked against a black background. A symbol of the People’s faith, it must have belonged to a pious woman. Citlal opens the blue silk purse and sets it down next to the other items, careful that the earth and ashes don’t spill.

They prepare the sheet of the bark-pulp paper first, taking turns with a small, sharp letter opener that Ce-Mishtlin stole to create a lacy cutout frame a couple of finger’s breadth from the edge of the sheet. Then, they join hands and wills to charge the sheet with potential and promise, and link it to the other items. It’s the simplest part of the magic, linking an object to another so that they entwine fates. It’s legitimate, even sanctifying, as when the lawspeakers write out the marriage contracts for a new couple. The paper will bind whatever contract is written upon it with the other items.

The pins are next. Ce-Mishtlin takes up the red-beaded one, Yoal the butterfly. Citlal’s lips compress briefly in hollow black humor at picking up the devout woman’s hatpin. Her grandmother, who was pious and god-fearing, had an obsidian pendant marked in the same way. Citlal accepts her own apostasy.

The women murmur words of binding, followed by a kitchen prayer of blessing, and each pricks her wrist with her pin, a minor bloodletting so the red blood beads up and coats the steel stem. A moment later, the pins gleam bright again, the blood absorbed into their metal hearts. Each pin is now an instrument of the will of the wisewife who fed it her blood. This magic is ambivalent in the eyes of the lawspeakers . . . and as such, forbidden.

Moving quickly to slay doubt or fear, Citlal commits to the next, darker working, and stabs her still-bleeding wrist with her pin to make the blood flow freely. She grits her teeth against the pain and places her wrist above the purse to let the blood stream into the thirsty earth and ashes. Yoal and Ce-Mishtlin do the same. This willing sacrifice of blood and life force is deeply profane and terribly unwise outside of the safe and sanctified bounds of the destroyed Temple Major. They keep their wrists there until the blood stops flowing. When they remove their wrists, their skins are whole and clean; each bears only a faint scar.

Inside the silk purse, the earth and ash and blood are liquid, a black ink that smells incongruously of hearth smoke and mortuary incense as it slowly churns with the power the women channel from the death of the year and the dark between the stars and their beating hearts. What’s writ in this ink will be inscribed upon the world. The stories the wisewives teach one another say that this knowledge was shared by the Tzitzimimeh when they danced out of the void. It happened long ago, before the Bone Women gave up their lives so that their stillborn younger brother could become the Living Lord. The magic is grim, and all the more so for the ashes of those who were once their kin.

Citlal chants the first line of the wise-work, and Ce-Mishtlin repeats it as Citlal starts the second, and Yoal joins the round as Citlal reaches the third line.

Each chants the song three times through, and as Yoal’s voice finishes ringing out on the last phrase, the three jab their pins into the night’s blood. There’s a small glimmer like faint starlight and slowly the inky stuff is absorbed by the pins in the same way as their blood was. The hatpins can write in the language of the world now, each stylus an instrument of dark and needful magic. Outside, the night wind howls, in fury or approval, and then shushes as if silenced.

Citlal looks at her sister-magicians and sees the exhaustion she feels mirrored in their faces. Yoal’s face droops, wrinkled more deeply than before. Ce-Mishtlin is grayish, the dark brown of her complexion sallow and drained, the bruise on her cheekbone a vivid purple.

There’s one more major part to the wise-work that’s left, which will have to wait until after the purge.

It’s that portion of the wise-work, Citlal knows, that will damn them.

Ce-Mishtlin and Yoal accept it, and so does she.

• • • •

The purge is quick.

The Dawncomers are nothing if not efficient. In the late morning sun, old men, howling women, the remaining small children, girls who don’t look at the guards, boys who glare, men who aren’t broken quite enough—they all are chosen and pushed forward into ranks. In every camp, the Dawncomers form a line, raise their rifles, and shoot. Most of the soldiers aim for the head or heart, but a few enjoy taking gut shots.

The prisoners don’t run—where would they hide, what darkness would cover them?

Some of the People are defiant, looking straight into their murderers’ eyes. Others wail in despair. A few sing, the ancient doxology their last words:

Hear the Living Lord: the Living Lord is God. The Living Lord lives!

Thousands die.

It cuts Quineltoc to watch, but he does it. He looked away once, and he can’t do so again. It’s part of his duty to bear witness, to acknowledge the beauty of the People’s faith and the Living Lord’s plans, even as it hurts his soul. Most of the People never speak directly with God, never hear His terrible reply, but every child of the People grows up believing that God will always hear that prayer.

Hear the Living Lord: the Living Lord is God. The Living Lord lives!

Quineltoc wills himself not to question, and repeats his prayer.

• • • •

As the retorts of the rifles sound across the camp, Citlal and Yoal and Ce-Mishtlin are mostly alone in Citlal’s barracks. Facing each other with hands linked one to one to one, the blank contract and the charged hatpin styluses in the middle, the three women raise their arms and sing out, capturing the power of the deaths of their murdered people and adding it to their joined will.

In other camps, other wisewives do the same.

None have any pretense that this is anything other than necromantic abomination, perhaps even an invitation to the skeletal Dead Sisters to come and claim them all. But it must be done if any of the magebloods—the sacred heart of the People—are to survive and make the People whole again.

The Emperor has abandoned them, and the Living Lord has abandoned them, and the lawspeakers would rather the magebloods die unprofaned than take this step. But the women all spoke together through the night wind and the power of their own blood, and although a few wisewives dissented or abstained from condoning the plan, they concur: If God will not understand, what good is God?

The power streams like silent black lightning, rising above them in a column of energy holding up the stars. Their faces are skull-like in that light, the littlest dead sisters. With a final unison shriek, they bring their arms down, and the power slashes down, too, concentrating on the paper and the pins.

Written in a hand not any of theirs, the glyph for night appears on the sheet of codex paper. It’s the glyph of the Tzitzimimeh.

Nodding in grim satisfaction, Citlal kneels to pick up her pin and wields it to write a word on the signed contract. It’s the glyph for fire. It means life. The dry hatpin stylus leaves rich black ink behind, fathomless in its depth.

The other wisewives write out the same glyph, Ce-Mishtlin in careful block marks as neat as a printed sign, Yoal in spidery, old-fashioned scribe’s hand.

They based their wise-work on the story of Lotli, the lawspeaker who centuries ago defended the People in the outland jungle city of Braj against the persecution of a mad king. The People were wanderers then, having not yet reached the Land Between the Waters. Lotli animated a man of clay and wood to fight the king’s soldiers.

Braj was a small city, the quarter assigned to the People easily defended by one protector. There were trees and plenty of clay on the shores of the river that ran through the city’s heart.

The bare prison camps are each much larger than Braj, and have no clay.

But the wisewives have other material at hand.

• • • •

It’s women’s work to prepare the dead amongst the Dawncomers, just as it is amongst the People. No one notices that Citlal, Ce-Mishtlin, and Yoal are late to join the other women, and no one comments as they mark the bodies with their styluses. The black ink is just another stain, one more splatter, before it sinks past the skin and into the bones of the dead.

The men keep laboring in the warehouses. A few are ordered to help the women drag the bodies into stacks. As thin as the corpses are, they pile comfortably, like cordwood.

The dead lie there.

One of the men, a young dropout from a kalmekak, the traditional schools of the law and magic, does notice Yoal marking the body of a half-blood musician who used to play trumpet in the capital symphony. He objects: “What are you doing? That’s—” but a look and a whispered word from Yoal render him mute. He may never talk again.

The power the wisewives now carry is awful, equal parts terror and glory. Each might destroy a battalion with a gesture and four words, but she would die doing it. That could leave the Tzitzimimeh dancing free across the flesh of the land, limitless, and the magebloods would stay in the camps until the Dawncomers killed them all. And there are no guarantees: The Dawncomers integrate their tiny mechanisms into their bodies, their technology leaving them mostly spell-proof.

Citlal knows that they are all a little drunk with the power. It’s headier than agave liquor after a fast. She could make the Dawncomers pay a steep blood price right now, but she knows that the power will grow if they wait. Each day that draws nearer to the Last Night before the Day of New Fire will increase their strength. Each night, unseen by human eyes, the Bone Women dance with greater frenzy. Pinpoint blooms of light burst and die in the wisewives’ dark eyes, and even the fiercest old women in the camps, who long for blood and vengeance, avoid meeting their gaze.

Meanwhile, the dead lie there.

• • • •

The days pass quickly, the weather turning colder. The thin barracks walls whistle when the wind blows. The chill keeps the stacked bodies from bloating, although watchful eyes would note that there has been no decay.

Listening ears might hear a susurrus coming from the piles of the dead.

The sound is a prayer.

Any of the People could tell them it’s the song of the Obsidian Butterfly, but none of the Dawncomers notice it.

• • • •

“It’s done, Quineltoc,” Citlal tells him. Her voice is a little hoarse with strain.

He’s not looking at his wife. He’s trying to take in the quality of the light. The sunlight is golden in the hour before sunset. Standing in the open gravel lot in the middle of the camp that the Dawncomers use for ranking up the prisoners, the light is beautiful. It’s the exact color of the dress Quineltoc’s daughter was wearing when they were herded onto the train cars, and it lends the dirty pall of the killing ground an unexpected dignity. Seen in a reflection of Shochi’s beauty, even this place is momentarily transformed for him.

Then he understands Citlal’s words.

A hole in the world opens under him, the shape of his faith, of his heart, of his daughter. He could feel the power moving on End-Year night, enormous, but he couldn’t read it. He recognized it as wisewife magic, beyond the bounds of orthodox knowledge.

The power raised from the executions of their people had gone unnoticed in his own grief. Necromancy was so foreign to lawspeaker magic that he couldn’t have discerned its shape against the glare of souls departing.

There is no way for him to stop it. The power Citlal has used is outside the scope of the law. The pact between the Living Lord and the People of the Starry Codex is broken. It must be.

He blinks back tears—the light is still golden and is in his eyes—and says, “Thank you for telling me, Citlal.” Then he walks away back to the men’s barracks on the east side of the camp.

The light remains golden until he reaches the barracks.

• • • •

Last Night falls; the Day of New Fire will begin with sunrise. The Living Lord will affix His divine glyph on the lists of the living and the dead after haggling with the Tzitzimimeh. The Dead Days will be over. Once, the new year’s first holy fires would have been kindled atop the Temple Major with crystal lenses under the noon sun.

Citlal huddles for warmth with Ce-Mishtlin and Yoal in the twilight. They exchange tired hugs, then walk down the path to where the bodies of the murdered remain stacked. Ce-Mishtlin read orders that tomorrow the Dawncomers will make the prisoners take the corpses to the mechanical pyres. For so many reasons, tonight is the time to act.

Ce-Mishtlin has had proud, sleepy word from the man whose bed she’s been forced to warm that the Hierophant himself is touring the camps and the reservations. The wisewives will be glad to receive him.

• • • •

Quineltoc the lawspeaker stands in the entrance to his barracks, the wood-framed building creaking loudly in the sudden wind. He recognizes that the wind isn’t natural, that it’s the movement of numinous power reflected in the physical world. The Dawncomers claim that their cold technology prevents such things, but there is power and then there is power.

Nothing in the course of the bitter years between their peoples would have prepared the Dawncomers for what is about to happen. They do not know the Tzitzimimeh.

He hears the high sound of a single sustained note from across the camp. It shouldn’t carry that far, but it does. It’s the trained voice of a wisewife in full exercise of her magic. It’s Citlal, singing in a high, clear soprano. Quineltoc hears another voice join in, an alto harmonizing; Ce-Mishtlin, he thinks. Then, the crystalline clarity of Yoal’s voice, slightly deeper than Citlal.

Wordless, the voices braid power between them. Quineltoc can’t see the energy the way he can see the glow of the lawspeaker script he uses to write his own magic, but it would be impossible for a trained magician not to register some sense of this. He crosses the threshold and walks toward the singing.

He thinks he knows what to expect, but there’s no being ready for the sight of the corpses of their people rising and moving as if with their own volition. Each one, he can see, has been giving a bit of life, marked with the glyph for fire. He thought that Citlal had hoped to get him to animate protectors from whatever materials they could find or steal, but this . . .

Quineltoc spies Citlal and her companions standing together, a sheet of codex bark-paper glowing to his lawspeaker’s vision. Even at a distance, he can read “fire,” life, inscribed upon it in three different hands. He stumbles when he sees the glyph for night. He recognizes the contract, and understands how the wisewives have been able to animate so many. The part of him that’s a scholar admires his wife’s genius. The part of him that insists he trust the Living Lord is afraid and wants to beg forgiveness for Citlal’s transgression.

Dawncomer soldiers arrive in confused clumps, and don’t notice the three women in the midst of the chaos. When they realize that the milling crowd is made up of the murdered, they close ranks and ready their guns.

The women’s song changes and shifts into the wordless melody of the song of the Obsidian Butterfly—the litany of deaths. It sounds like the music of skeletons dancing.

The animated People begin to walk toward the Dawncomers, their dead eyes shining with a cold starry light. The faces of the dead are grim: there is no burning revenge in their expressions, no glint of justice. There’s only enough life in them to make clear the certainty of death for the Dawncomers before them. Somewhere in the silence between heartbeats, a teasing ribbon of skeletal laughter is heard by everyone in the camp.

Quineltoc wants to clamp his hands over his ears, but he knows that won’t stop the sound. He hears a frightened soldier call out to his foreign god and another cry out for his mother. Another starts to shoot at the closing crowd, releasing them all to do the same. They yell obscenities as they fire.

The bullets do not stop the dead.

One of the guards, a tall red-bearded man whom Quineltoc recognizes as a mostly decent man, for a killer, shakes his head in denial at what’s happening. The guard shoots the animated corpse of a woman marching toward him, but the bullets don’t stop her, nor does his wildly hammering rifle butt once he runs out of bullets. When she closes with the red man, she grasps him by the shoulder with one hand and throws him down. Rising up on his knees, the man keens in fear, but with a hooked strike, the woman rips his jaw away and his cries are lost in blood. A revivified child aids her with little hands that rip clothes, skin, intestines. Quineltoc wants to look away as his murdered folk begin tearing the soldiers apart, but he doesn’t. Eyes open, he focuses on his wife singing, audible to him over the soldiers’ screams.

Lifetimes later, once the sounds of tearing flesh stop and the screaming ends, the raised dead move on, swifter now perhaps that they’ve tasted blood. They head toward the stream of Dawncomers attempting to get away. The usurpers don’t get far before the dead catch them.

It goes on like that for hours.

• • • •

In the morning light, the carnage is incredible. Limbs and heads and feet are strewn about like the aftermath of an explosion in an abattoir. The stench of blood and spilled bowels is a foul blanket, heavy even with the wind that has not stopped since last night. Quineltoc stood witness the entire time, watching the soldiers trying to evade the righteous dead. They all failed.

Inside the camp administration building, other former prisoners are using the wireless radio to contact the other camps. The wisewives’ plan worked in all of them, but there were many casualties. Quineltoc mourns all the lives lost, even the Dawncomers’, but does it quietly. Privately, and with weightier grief, he mourns the aching silence: the absent small, still voice. He doesn’t have the heart to explain to his people that while they might be alive, they are damned.

Even illusory joy is a blessing after the horror they’ve endured. It’ll be soon enough that he’ll need to tell them that they are no longer the Living Lord’s own and will never see their loved ones who have already passed through the Sunset Gate into the next world beyond the west.

Quineltoc takes a deep breath and goes to search for his wife. He finds her outside the soldiers’ mess, sitting on the wide green fender on the back of a Dawncomer armored car.

Citlal looks proud and defiant and strong to him, sitting there in her dirty gray prison smock. He thinks about the first time he’d met her, eighteen years old on the day before their wedding—their parents had been old-fashioned and arranged it all—and how beautiful she’d been, golden brown and flush-cheeked, clear brown eyes dancing. He’d thought himself very lucky, a student of the law to whom God had already spoken, about to marry a beautiful girl with power and learning of her own. He has loved her for almost forty years. But the words come of their own accord, the impulse deeper than reason: “Quineltoc-ne amo-namictili Citlal-te.”

They’re in the Nawa, the holy tongue, the one the People use for blessings, rites, and spells.

“I, Quineltoc, divorce you, Citlal.”

He’s a lawspeaker. His words are enough to make—unmake—a blessing, a curse, a rite, a marriage.

It’s simple enough.

He’s shocked himself, but Citlal just laughs. It’s a deep, appreciative laugh, the kind only long-time lovers or intimate friends who know each other’s every secret can laugh. It’s the laugh of delight that comes when someone does exactly what you know they’ll do, and you love them for it.

It’s a wife’s laugh at the folly of her husband, and that’s when Quineltoc knows that he can accept the silence of God if he can but hear Citlal laugh like that for the rest of his life.

• • • •

After spending an hour with Quineltoc not really saying much aloud, Citlal goes to the communications room in the camp headquarters. Yoal and Ce-Mishtlin are sitting there talking quietly at a small table. Ce-Mishtlin holds the contract in her hand, unwilling to let it out of her grasp, her magicked stylus serving as a hairpin to keep her tight black curls in a semblance of order. Yoal drinks a cup of black coffee she liberated from the Dawncomer officers’ mess, her pin holding a thin blue wool blanket around her shoulders like a shawl.

“Did they get the Hierophant?” Citlal asks.

“Yes,” Ce-Mishtlin replies smiling, tears glimmering in her warm black eyes.

“He was visiting Mazaán,” Yoal explains with quiet viciousness. Mazaán was the largest of the reservations, where the People were kept before being shipped to one of the work camps. “Ometzin and Chinueh died, but they got the bastard.”

Citlal closes her eyes briefly, mourning two of the five wisewives who were imprisoned at Mazaán.

“There’s more: The Emperor has sent word that none of the magebloods of the People will be imprisoned by the Dawncomers any longer,” Yoal continues. “It seems that the Miktlán dead”—the Miktlán camp was small, but it was just north of the capital—“paid a visit to the Imperial Palace in Zochimílc. He’s sending away his Dawncomer ‘advisors’ and calling for rebuilding the Temple Major.”

“Nice to see that His Majesty has a spine after all, no?” Ce-Mishtlin grins, hope and hurt in equal measure in her eyes.

Citlal laughs and joins them at the table. She knows that the People won’t ever be free of the Dawncomers—there are too many of them, and a growing number of mixed-blood children—but the scales are no longer so unbalanced now that the usurpers know that the People can retaliate in ways that cannot be evaded even with their cold technology and guns.

“Thankfully, they don’t understand the bounds of the wise-work. Typical Dawncomer ignorance, but I’m grateful for it this time,” Ce-Mishtlin says.

Smiling, Ce-Mishtlin holds up the contract for Yoal and Citlal to see. Then the southerner dips her head in farewell, takes a deep breath and uses her stylus to add a line to the fire glyph, changing the word’s reading to cold: death. Ce-Mishtlin exhales and stills forever, cold, cold. The air freezes around her, wintry steam rising from her like the memories of benedictions. All of the righteous dead she had marked are now just corpses again.

Yoal sighs, and tears come to her eyes as she murmurs something that might be the prayer for the dead under her breath. She pulls her stylus out of her improvised shawl and changes her fire glyph with it and says to Citlal, to the empty husk that once was Ce-Mishtlin, to the morning light, and to the memory of the skeletal dancers in the dark, “Thank you.” Then Yoal, too, dies.

Dry-eyed, Citlal nods her deepest respect to the bodies of her sister-magicians and pushes herself away from the table. She takes their contract, and walks out of the building, needing a moment alone under the winter sky.

She continues past the Dawncomer officers’ housing to a small green garden, planted with roses and lilies forced to grow out of season by Dawncomer technology. It had been where the camp commandant liked to take his afternoon tea.

It’s deserted now.

Citlal sits down on the grass, the new year’s cold sun an indifferent blessing. Alone and safe for the first time since Shochi was murdered, she cries. They aren’t easy tears. Each sob pulls a barbed thorn of pain from her heart. The absence of Shochi is a void she knows will not be filled. Citlal will not cross through the Sunset Gate to find her daughter beyond the west, if Shochi has made it to the next world. But perhaps the People will find a new home, now that they’ll have the chance.

After a while the tears calm, and she is quiet. The wind has died down, and she is perfectly at rest. She takes a deep breath and stands.

It’s then that she hears the voice of the Living Lord. It is not a small, still voice: it’s the roar of a hurricane, the tumult of a mountainside falling. The sound knocks her to her knees. Even through the din, it’s everything that the Starry Codex and the stories and Quineltoc said it is. It’s bliss and grace and fulfillment and balm, sweet balm on Citlal’s battered heart.

Daughter, blessed are you. You are truly the mother of your people. I grant you life for proving it.

It’s warmth and light, a bonfire lit and blazing. It’s the peal of conch trumpets heralding joy. The sound is like receiving judgment and being found worthy.

Through you, the People will live on to nourish Me. Feed Me, daughter.

Her anger is incandescent. It leaves no room for shadows, for doubt: Whatever test she’s passed, whatever plan she’s fulfilled, whatever blessing this might be, it isn’t right and it’s not enough. They all are owed more than this. The countless dead, Quineltoc, her sister-magicians, Shochi, are all owed more than this.

Citlal shouts, a piercing scream that assaults the vaults of heaven. The sound of skeletal women, dancing, fills the cold winter sky and the void beyond. “No,” she says. “Better the anxious night than a certain path down your monstrous gullet. Better that we live and die by our own choices than at your whim. Better the night and all the cold stars than your hunger.”

The warmth and light retract, surprised, afraid.

Citlal takes the contract and her stylus and carefully adds a line to the remaining glyph: life becomes death. Elsewhere in the camp, the last of the righteous dead lie down, all animation fled. She tries to let go of her anger, of her injured sense of justice, with her last breath, but doesn’t quite. The sense of responsibility for the People remains, but she knew that it would. Her body falls to the ground.

Visible only in the dark between the stars, the newest Bone Woman gets up and walks off. The fulfilled pact between the wisewives and the Dead Sisters blows away in the cold wind that howls. Bones rattling, the Tzitzimimeh continue to dance.

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Alberto Yáñez

Alberto Yáñez is a writer, nurse, photographer, and social critic whose work has appeared in Strange Horizons, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Toasted Cake, The WisCon Chronicles, Heiresses of Russ, PodCastle, and in the award-winning anthology New Suns: Original Speculative Fiction by People of Color. A graduate of Clarion West and Viable Paradise, he lives in Portland, where he was awarded a 2018 Oregon Literary Fellowship. Californian by birth and inclination, Alberto went to Portland to become a registered nurse, and has since learned more about people, bodily fluids, and himself than originally anticipated. He loves the magic of Pacific Northwest rain and Portland summers, but he misses easy sunshine, San Francisco, Chinese delivery, and other Mexicans. You can find him at albertoyanez.com and @freelance_max.