Authors: Jay Lake
“That's my promise to
,” I almost shouted, my voice mounting in anger.
“It is.” Ilona leaned close and kissed my forehead, then my tears, then my lips.
That quieted me a little. But not for long.
“Where are my sister Blades?”
“Those terrible women in black?” Humor rode in her voice.
“Yes. They were with the Rectifier. Th-that big pardine warrior.”
“Your Dancing Mistress brought them here this morning.”
I gave fervent thanks to the Lily Goddess. “Where are they now?”
“Both are recovering.”
“I had three sisters here.”
Her face fell. “Two came in. In the arms of brass apes that followed the pardine woman.”
The next question made me very afraid. “Which twoâ¦? And, andÂ â¦ where is the third?” Dead?
“I don't know their names,” she said. “One could not walk. Something was wrong with her feet.”
“Mother Vajpai.” I was unsure whether I was relieved or disappointed.
“The other would not wake up. A woman who had been hit about the head.”
“A woman, or a girl? My age, perhaps?”
“No, much older than you.”
Panic tinged my thoughts. I could not keep
without losing them. “Then where is Samma?”
“I don't know, Green.” She leaned close to kiss me again, but I turned my face away.
“Don't be too near me. You will suffer.”
Ilona slid into the bed. “I already have suffered.”
I let her curl her body around my back, and her hands clasp me just beneath my breasts; then I slept awhile with her breath warm upon my neck, safe in the circle of her arms.
*Â Â Â *Â Â Â *
Later I awoke again. At first I was too stiff to move. The light held a golden tinge, like honey glaze on a fresh-baked bun, suggesting the day was nearly at an end. Ilona was gone. I was alone.
No matter how much my body ached, I had to pee. I pulled myself from the bed, at the cost of no little pain and some lumbering misbalance, and found the chamber pot. Water came pulsing out of me like a countryman spitting durian seeds, urination so hard and deep that it was painful. How long had I lain there?
Pissing left me parched and hungry, but not so weak I couldn't walk. Someone had removedâor cut awayâmy ruined clothing. I was naked. I found a tattered robe on a hook behind the door. Left for me, surely, for no pardine would need such a thing and especially not in so small a size.
Slowly, carefully, I stumbled into the hall, then crept down the stairs that opened into the back of the tavern. I kept one hand on the rough-carved rail. I could no longer see my feet, nor tell where they touched down. This pregnancy was like being aged, or ill. How did women stand it over and over?
The common room was much quieter, almost normal. Gaming tiles clacked, voices murmured, a fire crackled against the winter chill. I followed the sounds and smells to find Ilona sitting in close conversation with Chowdry and Mother Vajpai.
Most of the pardines were gone. Among those remaining, I saw none whom I could identify as Revanchists.
Mother Vajpai noticed me first, and pointed. Chowdry jumped up so fast he knocked his chair over. Ilona still reached me quickest.
“Green.” Her voice was urgent with concern. “What are you doing about?”
“Hungry,” I muttered, the first explanation that came to mind. A moment later I realized it was true.
She and Chowdry helped me to a seat at the table, then he darted off to the kitchen.
I stared at Mother Vajpai. Her cheeks were blistered, but she still possessed her dark, lustrous hair. “You are here,” I said in Seliu.
“Yes. I am being here.” Her tone remained somber. “Mother Argai sleeps upstairs. A real sleep now, not the stone-stillness of yesterday. We will be seeing what is in her thoughts when she awakes.”
Blows to the head could be among the worst of wounds. Everyone feared that loss of mind and spirit that threatened with a cracked or dented skull.
Mother Vajpai did not flinch away, though her eyes were clouded. “She stood and fought so that your great cat and I could escape. The Prince's men wounded her. Then they took her down.”
This was how my bullying of her was repaid. Guilt flooded me once more. “Dead?”
“I do not know. Dead or alive, she is departed aboard their ship.”
My first lover, in Surali's vengeful hands. “So when I failed at the docks,” I said bitterly, “I betrayed both Samma and Corinthia Anastasia.”
“Green.” Ilona took my hand again. She was speaking in Petraean, of course; she had no Seliu. “I know what happened to your friends. You cannot blame yourself.”
“All of it is my fault!”
“No,” she said. “Others chose their own path.”
“Not your daughter.”
The haunted expression in Ilona's eyes cut me to the quick. I wished mightily I had not said those words. “Not my daughter, no.”
“I will take ship,” I announced in Petraean still, then repeated myself in Seliu. Looking at Mother Vajpai, I continued in that language. “I will follow them across the ocean, and I will burn down the Bittern Court. I will sift the ashes for Surali's bones. I will break them all one by one, then dance on the shards. I will cut the throats of every member of the Prince of the City's household. I will feed them all to the pigs.” Brave words, given how badly my body was overset just then.
“No.” Mother Vajpai's tone held the finality of a rusted chain around a man's ankles as he was thrown overboard. “You will stay here, and bear your child. Mother Argai and I will heal as best we can. Then we will return across the Storm Sea together and petition the Lily Goddess for guidance.”
I opened my mouth to protest, to argue, to claim a right of violence and revenge. After a moment, I closed my mouth without speaking. I had sworn that my child would be born here on the Stone Coast. Why begin a war just now, when my balance was gone and my abilities compromised? I could not be timelyâthat opportunity was already lost. I could instead be prepared, and ensure the safety of my own child.
Turning to Ilona, I said, “Will you care for my daughter while I am gone retrieving yours?”
“Hush,” she replied. “I am not so good at keeping little girls safe.”
“Will you raise her,” I demanded fiercely.
Ilona nodded, her eyes large and serious and grief-ridden.
Switching back to Seliu, I turned to Mother Vajpai once more. “I will follow your plan.”
My job was to bring my child safely into the world.
I could do what needed to be done.
Chowdry returned with a plate of lentils and some saffron rice. “Here, you must eat more.”
“Where is the Rectifier?” I asked him.
“Gone, with the Dancing Mistress and all those mountain pardines of hers. They were leaving at dawn.”
“He must have taken the gems back to the Blue Mountains.” I wondered what would come of that, and decided it was a problem beyond my resolving.
I looked at him closely. “I'm feeling a bit god-raddled at the moment. Speaking of such things, who governs the city?”
Another shrug. “That new council, it is said, though the Textile Bourse still flies a flag.”
“Oh, joy.” Yet one more problem people would probably expect me to solve. Jeschonek, for one. To the Smagadine hells with all of them.
“Return to the High Hills with me,” Ilona said, reading my expression.
served to distract me from my newest line of worry. I was appalled by the suggestion. “In the dead of winter?” Not to mention that in my current state I was probably not fit to walk or ride that far, nor would I be until after the child came.
“They set fire to my house, but it can be repaired,” she said. “Many at Briarpool will aid me. You can bear your child there, away from the gods who would trouble you.”
The thought of all that cold was too much for me. “I cannot stand to live among such snow,” I told her. “But when my daughter is born, take her there yourself. Please. And keep her safe until I can claim her once more.”
Ilona nodded. So did Mother Vajpai, which made me wonder how much Petraean she had learned in her time here. Or before.
That, I decided, did not matter.
*Â Â Â *Â Â Â *
In the end, I chose to have my labor in the Temple of Endurance rather than the Bustle Street lazaret. The competing prophecies of Blackblood and Desire were overwhelming to me. Distracted by pregnancy, failure, and grief, I had been too much the fool to unravel what they truly meant. I wanted the protection of my own personal ox god. Wiser and more patient and more powerful than I, he had always stood above me. Ilona had slept with me those nights of the last two monthsâsadly never in passion, though my ever-bulging body would have made a frustration of that even if we hadâbut Endurance protected me always.
Ilona was as sweet and right for me as ever I'd hoped for. I grieved that I could do nothing to heal the crack in her heart that was her missing daughter.
Mother Vajpai and Mother Argai took their rest and recuperation in the lazaret, under Mother Iron's protection. The lazaret was under their protection also, as I had more or less foreseen. Already they were training some of the women in basic weapons drill, instilling them with the courage to stand and fight. Being so hugely pregnant in my last months, I had done little but watch them at their work. Not even so much of that.
The night of the birth, Chowdry filled the wooden temple with candles. Or his acolytes did. Mother Iron's priestess Laris came to attend me, Desire riding behind her eyes. I was not afraid Laris would claim my child, whatever her patron might intend. The priestess was aided by Ilona, and Mother Vajpai and Mother Argai, whose mind had come back into her head well enough, though her hearing continued difficult, as well as her thoughts strangely slowed. I lay amid the scents of incense and beeswax and tallow, swallowing waves of pain and strangeness.
I focused on the prayers tied to the ox's horns. They glinted in the flickering light as if coming alive. Every time a contraction seized me, I put my own pain and worry into those prayers. Over and over, while the women around me sponged me with wine and gripped my hand and offered whispered counsel I could not hear and would not heed.
Eventually my child slipped into the world on a flood of blood and water and a surprised wail. “A daughter,” Laris announced. I wondered even in that red-hot moment how Blackblood would see this abrogation of his prophecy.
But something else came, I could feel it. Her.
Laris exclaimed wordlessly, while Mother Vajpai said, “He grasps at her ankle.”
A second baby, sliding from me with another rush of heat and pain, close behind the first.
“A boy,” Laris said this time. Then I knew how the prophecy was made. I should have seen it long before, but as with so many other mistakes, I had been blind.
“Do not,” I said, straining, “do not
give my children to the gods.”
My own life lost to being ridden by their hideous strength was enough.
Crying, I lay back in the shadow of Endurance as they placed the babies on my swollen, sore breasts. Words and blessings and warm cloths touched me and my two children, but they would never be enough. Larger shadows loomed in the temple as well, as if Blackblood and Mother Iron and perhaps the Lily Goddess looked on.
Divine favor? Divine fear?
Even now, in this moment, I knew Kalimpura awaited me, and my two lost promises thereâCorinthia Anastasia and Samma. Were they so different from my two new responsibilities here?
No matter what I did for them, my children could not be safe. Not safe enough. Nothing would ever be enough. Still, I would try, because that is what I do in this life, from the first days, through the birth of my children, and down the years to follow with all the sorrow and pleasure they have brought me.
I sobbed all the harder. My friends around me mistook this for joy.
After all that has happened since, I can say in truth that they were not completely wrong.
Tor Books by Jay Lake
This is a work of fiction. All of the characters, organizations, and events portrayed in this novel are either products of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously.
Copyright Â© 2011 by Joseph E. Lake, Jr.
All rights reserved.
Published by Tom Doherty Associates, LLC
175 Fifth Avenue
New York, NY 10010
is a registered trademark of Tom Doherty Associates, LLC.
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Endurance / Jay Lake.Â â 1st ed.
Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â p. cm.
“A Tom Doherty Associates book.”
Â Â I. Title.
First Edition: November 2011