It is three days before she dreams a strange prophecy.
The Daganites believe prophecy is shrouded in mystery. In truth, it is logical—bound by choice and statistics and a million small things they don’t pay attention to, but that gods do. Mortals love secret and ritual and when they come to her temple with their hundred small choices they don’t look at her. Eyes cast down, watering from the smoke, foreheads pressed to the ground. It is pretty and leaves them feeling assured.
Sometimes a series of choices are made at once or in rapid succession—her father’s refusal to cage Ashdanar, Ashdanar’s greed, Ihuet’s self-preservation—and it’s as if an equation appears in her mind. This, and this, and this, she thinks, means this will happen.
Rarely does she prophecy in dreams. Never has she shared such a foretelling.
It is a fresco and then it’s real—a bull cresting a grassy rise, his forelegs raised up in anger or fear. A serpent winds its way about his neck. A few feet above, just shy of the bull’s horns a vulture hovers, her wings spread wide, her end feathers curled up. Her claws gleam in the sun, deadly sharp, seconds away from tearing open his back.
The prophecy—the possibility—hits Ihuet so hard she slams back into her body, spine arcing off the bed, screaming. For long, awful minutes it grips her in a way nothing but prophesying before the brazier has. Her muscles clench, her fingers seize up. She cannot close her eyes.
Ihuet understands the vision—a question she must answer. A possibility she must rise to.
Her body collapses, sore and angry. She pants, staring up at the ceiling, her eyes adjusting to the lamp light born by one of her handmaidens. They have clustered around her bed, faces worried. One sits on the edge of her bed and takes her hand. It grounds her.
“My lady—” she begins.
“A loom,” Ihuet interrupts, voice hoarse. “And thread. Now.”
• • • •
Ihuet prophecies before the brazier ahead of a new military campaign. Ashdanar is ascendant, and he will mark the start of his reign with true war against the Anat Atar Ascendancy. They have beaten him once and he must reclaim his honor if he is to be respected as the Bull God.
Amzu didn’t like to put her to it. The brazier causes her pain—it is the forceful lowering of all her mental shields, the deliberate welcoming of a galaxy’s worth of information to divine the future. It is the only way to ensure the prophecies she tells are true, unfiltered by her desire or machinations. It’s the only prophecy from her that Ashdanar will trust.
She stands still in her bath chamber, perched on a dais, as her handmaidens flick gold dust against her wet skin. They robe her in white, sheer enough one can see the dust. Sheer enough the generals and her brother will see the first cobra wound around her right breast, the second, its head raised along her spine. A cuff on each upper arm, tasseled with gold chain to chime when her body moves against her will. Her hair is bare, her eyelids painted in gold and rimmed in kohl, her bottom lip split with a single bar of turquoise paint.
A handmaiden sets a plate of gold paint at her feet. Ihuet steps into it. Mortals love ritual. She thinks her brother loves it more.
The walk from her chambers in the temple—she will not sleep in the palace as long as her brother rules—is a long one. She is flanked by her handmaidens, all in white, escorted with a linen awning overhead. The doors to the rotunda groan open and there is a rush of silk and cotton as the generals sink to their knees before her. Ashdanar does not.
She makes her way to the flat-topped pyramid in the center of the room. Her brother waits for her at the foot of its steps. She sinks to her knees before him and kisses the ground.
“Hail to the Bull God of the Eye,” she says, forehead pressed to the ground.
If Amzu stood over her—she recalls the last time he had stood over her. Ashdanar takes her by the shoulders and pulls her to her feet. He does not hug her, for which she is grateful. Instead, he swallows her with his eyes, wide and hungry. His hand rests against her throat. She can feel the cobra wound around her breast writhe in angry agitation.
“Lead us to victory, sister,” he says.
She climbs the steps and settles herself on a cushion, legs tucked underneath her. The braziers are lit.
Her first inhale of smoke feels like a wave lapping at her, pulling out with a quiet rush. The second is fire pouring down her throat as the galaxy invades her empty spaces. Her body stiffens, her spine bends. Her throat expels a terrible moan—half pleasure half pain. The serpent on her spine winds its way over her hips to settle, coiled on her belly.
Ihuet’s mind spirals out of her control as it processes—numbers, troop movements, personalities. Her mouth announces coordinates, stars, generals’ names. She screams, waits to hear questions, pronounces their answers. She cannot control her mind or her spirit as it swallows the galaxy entire, looking and searching and answering. As it finds—as she finds—what she wants.
The Lord of Neveh, still onboard her ship.
Tazenket is out of her martial leathers, dressed in a sleeveless shirt, black trousers, and boots made for ground war. The back of her head is still shorn short, while the front grows long, and it falls across her eyes. She is bent over her desk, stylus in hand. Ihuet shudders and her hand goes to her throat as another revelation passes out of it. The image of Tazenket fades and then returns. This time she is looking at her, eyes wide and bewildered, half out of her seat.
She hears the quiet roar of a relit brazier. Her next inhalation of smoke unseats her. She is on her back, her eyes riveted by the ceiling—the turquoise and gold of her father’s ascension to godhood. Tazenket is beside her, her hands on her shoulders. She lifts the sliver of consciousness in her quarters and Ihuet’s vision splits—the basileus’s shoulder, the temple’s ceiling.
Ihuet continues her prophetic recitation.
She feels Tazenket stiffen against her as she recognizes the numbers, feels the threads of fate shift, clings to her as her recitation trickles to a halt. The priestess asks and asks—oracle, oracle—where?
Ihuet looks up at the basileus with one set of eyes and the mosaic of her father’s early years with another.
“Beware,” she says, voice hoarse. There is silence—the styluses have stopped moving. Fingers no longer tap information into tablets. “Beware the Vulture.”
• • • •
Tazenket returns from her admiralty meeting to find a figure sitting at the end of her bed.
The oracle is instantly recognizable even without her jewelry, without her paint, without her diaphanous gowns and trailing scarves. She is bent over her knees, her hands knuckled over the edge of the bed, her hair falling down in a curtain over her left shoulder. She is wearing a simple cotton sheet wrapped around her waist. When she looks up her eyes are unfocused, the skin beneath them bruised. A serpent is wound around the curve of her right breast, its tail on her shoulder, its head settled against her sternum.
Her eyes at last fix on Tazenket and her gaze gains clarity. Her spine straightens. There is a second snake coiled against her right rib cage.
“No one has ever breached my fail safes before,” the oracle says quietly. “Not even in this state.”
She doesn’t need the line of black kohl, Tazenket realizes. Her lashes are thick and cast shadows on her cheeks.
“No one has breached anything,” she replies, still standing in the entrance to her room. “You are in my bed chamber.”
A furrow appears between Ihuet’s eyebrows and she lifts her hand to stare at its palm, then looks wonderingly around the room.
“Oh,” she breathes and it’s the least certain Tazenket has ever heard her. Tazenket knows the oracle shouldn’t be here, that she didn’t plan this. How strange that fate might swing out of the control of one who so easily plucks its strings. She wonders if her last appearance, her second betrayal of her brother, was deliberate.
Yes, Tazenket decides as she pulls a chair from the wall to sit across from her. It likely was.
She expects that sitting across from her will make Amzu’s daughter seem less small, but she is without her charm and her smirk and her paint. She is fatigued and in grief. And yet still—Tazenket doesn’t believe in gods walking among mortals. But the woman who looks out from the oracle’s eyes is as close to divinity as she’s ever been. She can feel her pull, feel herself on the end of some thread of fate being drawn inexorably closer.
“Why did you choose me?” Tazenket says, is once again astonished that these words have left her mouth.
“My father met you ten years ago,” she replies. “Do you remember?”
Tazenket did. “I thought him dangerous and wildly intelligent. In some people they are the same thing—in him they were two separate creatures.”
“When he came back to Dagan he said, ‘if only I’d known her at the beginning’,” Ihuet says. She smiles, small and secretive, and traces a finger over Tazenket’s chin. “It takes much to make the Father God wish he could rewind time.”
Fate’s thread grows taut, and the smile slips off the oracle’s face.
The oracle should not be here and nor should Tazenket be sitting across from her, waiting for her to shed her confusion and her grief. She shouldn’t want answers—the recitation of the Anat Atar’s Ascendency’s many fleet locations, and the pain with which she recited them leave her with many questions. Worse still is the memory of her body—slender, slight, breakable. They have both committed a betrayal and Tazenket knows that if she does not rise and leave the room now her feet will be on a path not of her own making.
She remains seated.
“I’m sorry for your loss,” she says softly.
Ihuet’s head bows with remembered grief and her hands come to her face.
“My father was as the sun to me,” she says, and her voice is low. “I began with him. I did not—I could not anticipate this, even when Ashdanar came among us.”
Tazenket frowns but Ihuet has come to her feet, her eyes fixed on the window on the far side of the room. Outside is the cold emptiness of space and suspended in it is the blue jewel, Thermadon, wreathed in white cloud cover, streaked with green farmland. The oracle’s right-hand presses flat against the window as if she might pass through it and toward the planet itself.
Tazenket comes to stand behind her; she does not trail her index finger down the oracle’s spine. One serpent has moved and watches her suspiciously nestled against the oracle’s right shoulder blade.
“I thought Ashdanar was first born,” Tazenket says, and folds her hands behind her back.
“No,” is all the oracle says.
“It is a myth, Basileus,” she interrupts with her signature charm. One eyebrow raised, watching her reflection in the glass. Her hand hasn’t moved. “Built on half-truths like all myths are. Amzu’s first born needed to be a warrior, and though I had a sword and helm in the beginning, I was the only oracle. So, he took my place.”
Tazenket sees something, some memory, some remembered rage or grief, wash over the oracle’s face in the window’s reflection. She turns away from Thermadon, her eyes clear. There is grief, still, but purpose too. She has remembered herself and the ghosts of prophecy have gone. Tazenket’s grip tightens behind her back.
“Will you come to my brother’s coronation, Basileus?” she asks. She does not look coy or small. There is a smile and a promise and the touch of fate pricks Tazenket’s palm.
“Yes,” she says. “I will come.”
• • • •
Beware the Vulture.
The oracle’s voice echoes in Tazenket’s mind as her sister Tinitran fastens the triangular fibula to her right shoulder. It is studded with polished blue and green stones, and from its top emerges a gleaming, two-headed axe. The uniform of the upper echelons of the Ascendancy is a re-imagining of the days they were planet-bound to Thermadon. Gone are the leather skirts and riders’ boots and cured leather. Instead, a body suit of woven praedium, dyed black. The left shoulder and arm is bare, an acknowledgment of the old myth that the Ascendants of Thermadon surgically removed their left breast. A gold worked leather cuirass over the chest, a skirt of the same material, open in the front, falling to the back of the knees, knee-high black boots with greaves rising to the hips, a labris painted on its surface in gold. A pale gold fur stole sits on Tazenket’s left shoulder, and a mantle in black trails down her back and to the floor. On each forearm is a polished black vambrace.
She combs her hair out of her eyes and behind her right ear.
You are basileus, she thinks to herself. The first of her creche to be awarded the title. The most likely to succeed Nefermedes. To be Anax. Her mind should not wander as it does. Her world shouldn’t be so easily turned upside down.
Her body burns as if branded where the oracle writhed against her.
The invitation had come. Amzu, the Father God of the Eye, is dead. His son, Ashdanar the Bull God, will take his place. Not every ascending leader held a coronation open to their adversaries, but when one did, the law was clear: no killing, no war, no hostilities. A fragile peace took hold of the galaxy for seven days while the leader cemented their hold and pleased their gods. And Ashdanar, with none of the accomplishments of his father and his cataclysmic loss against the Ascendancy bright in recent memory, needed the galaxy’s confirmation of his ascension.
“Ket,” Tinitran says just as she’s about to step down from the dais. Tazenket’s eyebrows raise—her sister always calls her “basileus” unless it is serious.
“What is it?” she asks.
“You’ve never led us astray,” Tinitran says, blunt. “But you are wrapped up in this oracle.”
“I cannot do what she wants,” Tazenket says. “I will not, in fact. I won’t breach the guest rite.”
That relieves her sister. “Good. Figure out what she wants this time, make sure it is beneficial for us.”
She gives her sister a lopsided grin. “When have I done otherwise?”
Tinitran grunts. “And Ket?”
“Get what you want out of her,” she says, folding her arms over her chest. “It pains me to see you daydream.”
For five days the Tanit Ascendant has flown with a small fleet led by the Anax’s flagship, the Anatu Ascendant. In the distance, less than an hour away, is one of a thousand eyes in Amzu’s empire. The space station orbits the dead planet Uskish, its crystalline hull gleaming in the pale light of this system’s dying star. No one has managed to secure Amzu’s technology—even from this distance Tazenket can see its verdant green fields, its flowing water. It’s beautiful, self-sustaining—an empire with no need of planets, mobile in its defense.
The ship docks—close up she realizes how enormous it is. Enormous enough to host small fleets from each of the principalities in the galaxy. It could swallow them all whole. Tazenket debarks with Tinitzir and Tinitran on either side of her and feels the hairs on her arms stand on end. She is waiting, she realizes, to see if she will catch a glimpse of the oracle in the flesh. She clasps arms with the other basileis, all creche mates, scattered throughout the Ascendancy, then bows before the Anax.
They are escorted by automatons from their launch bay to a great balcony circling the station. An attendant approaches them. She has met citizens of the Thousand Eyes before, there is always a difference between those who serve and those who do not. Those who live onboard the ships and engage in combat are taller, broader shouldered, their eyes more awake. The Daganites—the worshippers of Amzu—do not leave Dagan.
The attendant approaches them, then bows low before Nefermedes.
“Welcome to our humble station, Esteemed and Enlightened Anax of the Ascendancy. We are pleased to host you.”
“We are pleased to be hosted,” she says.
The attendant gestures a young girl forward—a real Daganite. She stares up at them, eyes wide, and the tray in her grasp trembles.
“Eat of our bounty and be welcome,” she says, voice wavering. Red fruit is artfully arranged on the silver trays surface. They each take a slice.
Their party is born in a chariot from the balcony and through the air, over the main city.
“What is below you is called Nekheb,” the attendant says. It is a gold and rose city with wide lanes and flat roofs, spread out like a girl’s glittering skirt. Winding through it is a river, silver in the twilight. They are borne toward the city center. On the right banks of the river are the royal palace and the temple, and between them is a great pavilion. The chariot lands outside of the royal palace. The river runs and the reeds on its bank sway and Tazenket can smell the lower city’s loamy soil. And yet— The air is too still, its temperature too moderate. The light is clear and bright, but there are no clouds and no sun. It doesn’t rain on Dagan, Tazenket thinks.
The halls of Nekheb’s royal palace are high ceilinged, their floors made of pale rose stone. Here the air flows and Ashdanar’s banners, emblazoned with a bull’s head, ripple in the false breeze.
The usher leads them up towards the roof terrace, its stone floor covered in carpets with seating arrangements under linen awnings. They are one of the last representatives to arrive.
Tinitzir and Tinitran remain close and Tazenket cannot keep her mind from turning to her dead polemarch. She knows the grief makes her remember a young Tureght—impulsive, curious, quick to laughter. The Tureght of their most recent years, the Tureght who betrayed her to Ashdanar, was solemn and grave and quiet. She kept her council and smiled little and resented the accolades Tazenket received.
And yet the basileus imagines her now, twenty or twenty-two, grinning as she sits beneath a red linen awning, comparing the river Baal to the river cutting through the Isle of Neveh.
Tinitran touches her arm, eyebrow raised, and she shakes her head. It is not a time to dream or grieve.
Instead, Tazenket joins her fellow lords and Anax at the roof’s edge, looking first toward the river. A small ship sails from the mouth of the river toward the palace. It is guided to the dock and four attendants emerge, bearing on their shoulders a palanquin. Tazenket feels electricity zip up her spine—she knows who is aboard the palanquin, can see her silhouette through the white linen curtains. The palanquin is born up the path from the dock to the pavilion, then set down.
Ihuet emerges, clad in black. A cap of delicate gold lace sits on her head and trails down her back. She walks flanked by priestesses, each bearing a lit silver torch. When she turns around to face the river the firelight catches on the gold paint on her shoulders and throat, her fingertips and palms. Ashdanar joins her, barefoot, clad in a black cloth wrapped around his waist, his chest painted with a stylized bull’s head. He kneels before his sister, his dark eyes cast down, and waits.
Tazenket sees anger and grief in the oracle’s face, or perhaps she sees nothing so far away and only imagines it. A priestess comes forward bearing a silver bowl, sinks to one knee, and bears it over her head to Ihuet. Amzu is their first god king. Tazenket wonders who designed this coronation. How much did Ashdanar insist on to consecrate his divinity?
The oracle dips a hand into the bowl of oil and passes her thumb over his forehead, then over his bottom lip. She brings forth a goblet with a red liquid and bids him drink. And then at last a third priestess brings forth his crown, an iron cap with curving bulls’ horns, a small sun suspended between them. He rises, triumphant, and sets himself in his father’s throne. Below, the Daganites bellow with joy. They love their new king, can do aught but love him.
Tazenket’s eyes return to his oracle, her eyes cast down, flanked by her priestesses. She feels something like fate prick against her palms.
• • • •
Ihuet stands out on the balcony. Spread out before her is Nekheb after dark, its streets pricked by gold light, the river winding its slow way through it. Her mind works its way through the forked paths of her future, its various iterations and possibilities. The self-destructive impulse in her entertains a future where she does nothing and allows Ashdanar’s rise to power.
Her stomach turns.
Ihuet turns—her handmaiden stands between the curtains leading into her chamber. Beyond her is a tall and broad shape—Tazenket, Basileus, Lord of Neveh. Her calculations shriek to a halt. Twice now she’s been surprised. A not unpleasant feeling. A strange feeling.
“My lady?” the handmaiden prompts a second time. Ihuet’s eyes flick back to her—she has been staring at the outline Tazenket makes through the fabric.
“Go,” she says. The handmaiden bows, and slips off the balcony, back through the chamber. Ihuet passes under the curtains a moment later.
She’d caught a glimpse of the basileus during the coronation—a tall woman among tall women, face severe, arms folded over her chest. Neither dreams nor projection prepares Ihuet for her up close—she is a giant, her arms as thick as Ihuet’s head. Her brown skin gleams—Ihuet doesn’t think she’s allowed anyone to dust her in gold, but in the lamplight of her bed chamber, it appears so. Her eyes really are gold—tawny, like a lion’s pelt. Her mouth ticks up into a smile.
“You’re staring, oracle,” Tazenket says.
Ihuet blinks. “You have surprised me, my lord,” she replies. “Again. A rarity.”
The lord shrugs her hood back from her hair. “Does no one surprise you anymore?”
“No,” Ihuet says simply. “Not since I was a child and able to run across the Mound on Uskish.”
It’s only when she comes closer that she realizes the Lord of Neveh isn’t wearing her armor—she’s dressed like a Daganite. The woven cloth won’t disguise her—there is too much of her for that. But it tugs at a wayward thread of fate.
“What are you doing here, my lord?” she asks, looking up.
Tazenket—and her name leaps into Ihuet’s mind unbidden—leans down, and the tip of her nose brushes Ihuet’s cheek. In her mind a half dozen doors to new paths tear themselves open. Her breath stalls in her throat and her eyes widen. When she looks at Tazenket she sees her—she sees both of them. Entwined, Taznket’s bare shoulders and back gleaming, Ihuet’s slick thighs. She jerks back on an inhale.
“Are you frightened?” Tazenket asks. She has straightened, and her eyes are dark.
Ihuet shakes her head, mute.
The lord’s mouth tastes like ambrosia, and who would know that better than a goddess. It is hot, her lips soft. Her fingertips are calloused, something no one else on Dagan can say. Ihuet’s mind races, trying to sort through pleasure and prophecy, to chart a path through an encounter she did not plan. Tazenket grasps the back of her thighs and lifts and the threads of prophecy fall away from her mind.
The bed is near the balcony; closer is the altar, cushioned and pillowed, arranged beneath the eye of a statuette of Amzu, his great sun born aloft over his head. Again, the paths of prophecy fork—Tazenket pulls at the delicate pins on her shoulders and around her waist, tugs the delicate fabric down, leaving her in nothing. A calloused thumb catches on Ihuet’s nipple and again her body jerks; the cobras twined around her spine unwind.
Ihuet has enough sense that she tugs on Tazenket’s clothes, pulling at her blouse and the sash around her waist and the lacing on her trousers. She freezes, painted hands pressed against Tazenket’s ribs. Inked into her skin is a vulture—it’s in the Tinnou style, all stark black lines. Evocative rather than realistic. Its head and beak rise defiantly between flat breasts, its wings spread up over her ribs.
When she meets Tazenket’s gaze, she is smiling, something hard and fierce and hungry, and she leans down, her hands on Ihuet’s wrists, and kisses her again. Again, as if by force of habit, Ihuet tries to track the threads of prophecy. But Tazenket is an impulsive lover and does not cleave to the rules of fate. The spool unravels and all that is left is the hot pleasure winding its way through her, Tazenket’s teeth over her throat, Ihuet’s gold paint on Tazenket’s skin.
It is the brazier and its opposite, a scouring of herself through fire and ecstasy. When Tazenket presses a finger into her and then a second, Ihuet’s whole body strains and she knows this is not the brazier at all. Where it sought to fill her against her will, Tazenket will draw something out. She hears her own voice even as her spine bends and her thighs part further. My lord, my lord…
And then Tazenket withdraws her fingers and hooks her hands behind Ihuet’s knees, drawing her onto her back. Her eyes fly open—there is more gold paint on Tazenket now, smeared over the vulture’s beak and her breast.
“Ket—,” she begins, voice hoarse, and then her thigh is over Tazenket’s hip, Tazenket’s knee against her spine, and her hips roll. Ihuet’s voice climbs, her eyes fixed on the flat golden sun overhead, her fingers achingly tight in the cushions. Tazenket grips her thighs tight enough to bruise. The cobras sway through their own dance—one coils its body ever tighter where Ihuet’s body meets Tazenket’s; the second sways—she can feel its body curving against her sternum, its head rising in time with her.
“My lord—!” Her voice breaks, her spine bends, and the cobra’s hood flares just as the second uncoils suddenly, passing from her body to Tazenket’s.
• • • •
Tazenket rises from a light doze on her stomach, cushioned by the softest bed she’s ever lain in. They had not remained at the oracle’s altar but fallen into bed. Their legs are still tangled together, and Tazenket’s arm is over Ihuet’s stomach. The oracle lies on her back, propped up by pillows, her hand held aloft. Every now and then Tazenket sees a near imperceptible flash of light, small enough to fit in the grooves of the oracle’s fingerprint.
“What are you doing?”
Ihuet folds her fingers into her palm. “Prophesying,” she says.
Tazenket lifts her head and props it up on her first. “Aren’t you meant to do that at an altar?”
“We have defiled my altar,” she replies tartly. Tazenket stills when Ihuet reaches a hand and traces a thumb over her cheek. “You surprised me. Again.”
“Valueless,” Ihuet says, then course corrects. “Interesting. It is rare—not even my father could surprise me.”
She sounds meditative and considering. Tazenket wants her to think less, to hear her say my lord again. Instead, the oracle says something absurd. Terrifying.
“Do you want to be Anax, Tazenket?” asks the oracle. “Or do you want to be a god?”
She pulls away. She is conscious of Ihuet’s eyes on her, tracking her as she sits up. How serious and dark they are, how much they seem as if they are lit from within.
“I will not kill your brother,” she says gruffly. “I will not break the guest rite.”
“You are all honor and warcraft,” the oracle replies. “I would not ask you to. You didn’t answer the question.”
“It is a stupid question,” she snaps and swings her feet out of the bed. She hears Ihuet rise, hears the rustle of cloth, her bare feet padding over stone. Ihuet appears in front of her arrayed in a sheer silver mantle, pointless. She can see the paint she smeared across the oracle’s ribs and breasts. And the single cobra, sleeping on her right shoulder. Her twin rests twined around Tazenket’s right bicep.
Ihuet steps between her thighs and lifts Tazenket’s chin. She feels lost and caught and stupid. She wishes Ihuet had never come into her dreams and doesn’t want to leave this room.
“An oracle,” Ihuet begins, “only asks pointed questions. And you know the answer to it, though you wish you didn’t.”
Tazenket swallows around the rock in her throat.
“Should you like it all?” Ihuet asks. “Or only some? Or only me? Would your sisters in the Ascendancy follow you?”
She sees how the oracle lays down paths and possibilities. This here, that there—which to choose?
“Do you love Nefermedes so much?”
“I love my sisters,” she says, the words drawn out of her suddenly and violently. Her chest heaves. “I would not abandon them.”
“Tazenket—what do you want?”
• • • •
It is a sword.
Her sisters, waiting outside the oracle’s chambers, bring her armor and watch as she dresses. Tinitran eyes the cobra now wound around her wrist and says nothing. Ihuet emerges from the bath chamber robed in gold silk, gathered in pleats over her right ribs. The cobra is wound around her throat, its hood spread wide over her clavicle.
“It is in Amzu’s temple on the Mound,” Ihuet says. “The serpent will unlock the temple. Retrieve the sword. Bring it to me. I will do the rest.”
“Why is the sword important?” Tinitzir asks.
Ihuet’s smile is hard and small. “Ritual.”
• • • •
Her handmaiden pilots the chariot that bears them from Nekheb to Nekhen to the city of the dead. Tazenket stands beside Ihuet, a pillar, her axe strapped to her back. Ihuet looks up just as Tazenket’s fingers brush hers, then slot themselves with her hand. The lord’s sisters ride with them, their dark eyes suspicious. They do not trust her.
She is gripped, suddenly, by guilt and her grip on Tazenket’s hand tightens.
“There are still open paths,” she says, almost against her will. “You need not ascend to godhood. You can leave after you deliver the sword.”
The Lord of Neveh brushes her knuckles against her cheek. “You have mistaken my hunger for fear. You picked me. Now you are stuck with me.”
The chariot is set down at the spot where Ihuet felt her father’s death. They disembark and Ihuet leads their small company towards a building. Its floor lifts up and leads to a small launch bay below.
“I will wait here,” she says, and the lord’s sisters grunt, unsurprised.
“If I could retrieve the sword myself, I would,” she says to them, rather than Tazenket. “I cannot leave Dagan. My body is shackled here.”
The twins exchange a glance.
“There is nothing below that can harm you,” she says. “The planet has been dead for a long while.”
They nod. She exhales, relieved.
Ihuet watches the ship, small, bullet-shaped, pierce Uskish’s atmosphere. How long since she saw its strange shores, its high steeples, its clear water? When did she last see the sun through atmosphere? Had she missed it, or had she forgotten until now?
A handmaiden produces a chair, and a second sets her loom in front of her. The mantle is nearly finished.
• • • •
It is night on the Mound on Uskish. They all three bear torches as they make their way through the center of the main complex. The place is ancient. Tazenket can divine that there was once a small city here, built up around the temple of Amzu, now overtaken by vines and moss. It is not in collapse, it is frozen. Not so ancient as Amzu would have the galaxy believe, built in the post-stellar industrial age with materials that last.
Where their feet strike the ground there is an absurd echo—not stone or dirt. Sometimes, the ground gleams like copper, winking up at them in mockery.
The temple has a single steeple with a great gold disc at its top. Its doors are sealed, overgrown with vines. Tazenket raises a hand and presses her palm, cobra hood flared against it, against the door. Light zips along its surface. The sound of an engine waking up fills the air.
“Welcome, Primary User, Codename Wadjet.”
The doors hiss open.
Inside, they put away their torches. The high ceilings are lit. It is a narrow corridor, its walls painted over in the Amzu style, its floor paved in pale sandstone. Lining the walls, their heads bowed in sleep, are automatons covered in dust.
The hair on Tazenket’s arms stand. The cobra writhes against her palm.
“Let’s go,” she mutters. “I do not wish to linger.”
The hall leads to a tomb. It takes up the entire first level of the temple, or a great deal of it at least. The walls here, too, are painted. In the center is a stone table and on its surface is an effigy of Amzu.
Clutched between his hands is his sword, its ruby hilt gleaming in the halflight.
“Tazenket,” Tinitzir says softly. “Come here.”
She is standing in front of a series of paintings. Tazenket recognizes the oracle, though she is arrayed in a way she’s never seen before: sword in one hand, held aloft, a helm over her head.
“Do you see anything wrong?” her sister asks.
Tazenket shakes her head.
“The sword isn’t Amzu’s,” Tinitzir says, tapping the image. “It is hers.”
Tazenket stares at the woman in the painting, her dark eyes fierce. There is gold on her eyelids.
“It doesn’t matter now. We have the sword, regardless of who it belongs to. Let’s go.”
Tinitran grips her arm. “Do you know what you’re doing?”
“I know enough,” she replies.
• • • •
Ihuet dares not touch the sword. She stares at it in Tazenket’s hands for what feels like an eternity, and then she looks up at her. The Lord of Neveh surprises her and causes her to surprise herself. She wishes to kiss her, rather than do what must be done. She swallows.
“Come with me,” she says.
They board the chariot once again, though they keep it low to the ground and remain in the city of the dead. Ihuet stares at the hilt of the sword, remembers its fashioning, remembers how she screamed in fury at first. How her father had calmed and promised her protection. Promised she would never be without him. She feels young again, small and naive.
The black pyramid in the center of the city grows, its shadow long, swallowing them up in due time.
Ashdanar waits until they have debarked from the chariot and are footsteps away from the pyramid’s gate. His men fall on them like ticks on an animal. Her handmaidens fall and Tazenket’s sisters draw their weapons.
Ihuet screams. She is bound and shackled, but the city of the dead remembers her in the days it was alive and the floor shudders, then ripples. Her brother falls one way, Tazenket another. His men teeter and fall and roll as the ground tries to swallow them up.
The sword skitters away from Tazenket. Ihuet’s heart beats a drum in her chest. If Ashdanar gains the sword—
She scrambles towards it—his eyes are fixed on the Basileus. She scoops it up—it is warm, pulsing, in her hand.
“Ashdanar,” she calls.
He turns and she drives the sword forward. It slides in—his body resists the intrusion but the sword wins. She looks up, grim, at the shock on his face. He makes a wet sound, a wheeze of surprise.
“I am the child of Amzu’s forge, Ashdanar. Not you,” she says.
He does not understand. Her brother drops to his knees when she withdraws the sword. Ihuet finds the strength to bring the blade up again. It severs his head from his shoulders. Her gown is heavy with blood. The paint on her fingers muddied and bronze. Her chest heaves.
Tazenket, on her back, stares at her uncomprehending. His men watch her. But their god is dead. They can’t stop her now.
Sword in hand, Ihuet takes the final steps to the stone gate. Her hand, covered in her brother’s blood, presses against its facade. A panel hisses open. Inside is a key slot shaped for her sword. When the sword locks into place and the hilt is turned there is a sound, a revving and whirring as the gate groans open, as glyphs on the pyramid glow, and the city of the dead comes back to life.
• • • •
Tazenket watches Ihuet lift her head up like a flower turning towards the sun. The ground beneath her trembles and whirs and warms. The pyramid glows.
“Genetic shackle, released,” a woman’s voice says. It is coming from the tree. “Welcome, Primary User, Intelligence 8427. Codename Wadjet. Renamed Ihuet. Fourth Iteration.”
Paths of light trail along Ihuet’s skin and her face breaks into a smile, her eyes still closed.
“Who has control of the station?” she asks.
“The Primary User,” the voice responds.
“You’re an intelligence,” Tazenket breathes.
Ihuet’s eyes turn to hers. She is the same—isn’t she?
“I am the only intelligence,” she replies. “Shackled to maintain the secret of my father’s ascension.”
The oracle holds out a blood covered hand. Tazenket takes it, allows herself to be drawn forward.
“Kneel, my lord,” Ihuet says.
The mantle Ihuet drapes over Tazenket’s shoulders is red and blue, a vulture’s wings, edged in gold. On her head is set a crown—two feathers curving around the sun’s disc. Ihuet lifts her face so that their eyes meet.
“All hail Tazenket, Vulture God of the Eye.”