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Authors: Kameron Hurley

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BOOK: The Mirror Empire
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“Come, husband, eat with me.” She released him.
He sat at the other end of the table.
“Do you yet know how long your leave is?” Anavha asked.
“A week. Nine days. We will have visitors for some of that, though. I have a long assignment we must prepare for.”
“A campaign?”
“Nothing so glorious. A personal favor for the Empress. I’m not sure how long it will be. Hasn’t Daolyn kept you busy in the greenhouse?”
“She has kept me at that well enough, and no doubt the greenhouse is enough for Daolyn in her evenings, but I hoped perhaps you would be willing, should you be gone for such a long campaign, to perhaps furnish me with some reading, perhaps?”
Zezili must have shown her disapproval in her face, because he interrupted before she could dissent, hurried on. “Just the daily papers from Daorian. I know your feeling about books, and Daolyn feels that way as well, but surely, what harm is there in papers? Just some news from outside? There was a silk merchant through here last week, she–”
“I regret that we have had no children,” Zezili said. A sore subject indeed, in any company. “I have heard that a man assisting in the raising of children often finds some fulfillment from it, but I’m here to take life in Rhea’s name, not give it.”
“You should just dedicate your body to her as well, then,” Anavha said. A bit too cutting for Zezili’s taste.
Zezili’s anger stirred. “You
would
like that, wouldn’t you?” she said. “Having a sexless woman for a wife? Yes, you’d like taking solace in none but your own body. Because that’s all I would allow you. My sisters have no use for you. Who will touch you then? Or will you content yourself to be a mad little thing, running after dajian effeminates?”
She saw Anavha clenching his fists, saw the anger in him, and saw it dissipate into tears. Rhea only allowed him tears.
“You don’t let me go anywhere,” he cried. “I can’t see anyone. These dajians, they don’t even speak proper Dorinah.”
Sometimes, Zezili wished she could allow him to shove a sword into a dajian. It was the best way she had found to silence sorrow.
She stood and squatted next to his little quaking form, brushed the hair back from his cheek. “Shush now, shush,” she said, and wondered what sort of mother she would have been if she’d had to deal with children. She would have done what other women did, of course – farm them out to the dajians and get on with her work.
“Shush now. Am I so terrible a wife?” She took one of his soft, slender hands, pulled it to her chest, inside her coat, and pressed it over her breast. “Tell me you have no desire for me at all,” Zezili said. “Say you would rather fuck nothing than fuck me, and I will have it done.”
“You’re horrible,” Anavha said. “You’re horrible.”
“I’m not horrible,” Zezili said, rising. “I’m your wife.”
As she watched him weep at her feet, she thought of the faces that watched her in the city; the disgust, the outrage, that some mongrel slave could hold such a station, and own such a husband.
She took her husband, then – right there next to the table.
He was the one thing in her life she controlled completely. And she loved him for it.
 
Despite the Empress’s instructions, Zezili found herself unprepared for the visitors that showed up on her stoop the next day. Two women – one little and slightly dark, with the features of a Dhai, and one taller, plumper, with the broad gray eyes and complexion of a Dorinah – entered the courtyard under Daolyn’s escort.
“I’m Sai Hofsha,” the smaller woman said. Her accent was strange. Not quite Dhai. “Empress Casanlyn sent you word of my arrival?”
“Is that a title or a name?” Zezili asked.
“Call me Hofsha,” the woman said. “Sai is a… title, yes.” Her hair looked like it had been cut with a razor, then crimped and curled into some unrecognizable country style.
“And you are Syre Zezili,” Hofsha continued. Her smile was large and glorious, yet unmistakably disingenuous. “This one is Monshara.” She waved dismissively at the other woman.
Zezili glanced at stone-faced Daolyn; what she thought of their visitors, Zezili could only guess.
“Do you have papers?” Zezili asked Hofsha.
Hofsha laughed. “Papers? Oh, no, I’m not some slave, some dajian. I’m here from the Empress. Surely she told you to expect me?”
Zezili frowned. “You are not… what I expected.”
“I’m never quite what anyone expects,” Hofsha said. “But no worries on your part, my friend. I won’t actually be the one managing this campaign with you. You’ll be partnering with Monshara here.” She jabbed a finger at her plumper companion again. “She’s one of our top generals. You should get along well. She speaks very good Dorinah.” Hofsha seemed to find this funny and smothered a laugh behind her hand.
Zezili sized up Hofsha’s companion. Her expression reminded Zezili of Daolyn’s, as if they both sought to shutter up emotions better left unexpressed. Monshara held herself like one of the Empress’s noble councilors. Her pale, round face and eyes, the black hair, the broad nose and narrow jaw – it was all very Dorinah.
“Where are you from?” Zezili asked her. “Not here, surely? I’d have heard of you.”
The general’s mouth twisted. Not a smile, but a grimace. “Gold head to you,” she said. “Perceptive.” She spoke Dorinah with no accent, which was even more perplexing than the odd accent of the Dhai-looking woman.
“Are we dining?” Hofsha asked. Big grin. The grin would not leave her abhorrent face.
“Yes, of course,” Zezili said. “Daolyn, bring tea and – what would you like? Are you some kind of vegetarian cannibal Dhai?”
“Nothing so exciting as that,” Hofsha said. “Bread and cheese will do.”
“Cheese?”
“Ah, there are some differences, I remember,” Hofsha said. “Jam, then. Bread and jam.”
Zezili motioned Daolyn toward the kitchen and ushered the visitors into her sunken sitting room. She couldn’t help but wince when she saw them walk across her unrolled rug. They sat on opposite ends of the divan. Monshara leaned slightly away from Hofsha, as if the foot of space between them already was not quite enough. Hofsha, for her part, leaned forward, as if ready to leap into Zezili’s lap.
“I understand that this is a difficult time for you,” Hofsha said.
Zezili raised her brows but said nothing.
Hofsha said, “I’d like you to work with Monshara to purge the dajian camps.”
“The slave camps?” Zezili said. “That’s over eight thousand dajians.”
“Indeed,” Hofsha said. “It’s a large task but necessary.”
“Necessary for what?” Zezili asked. She had expected some grand invasion – command of a dual force to overtake Tordin or Aaldia to the south.
“It’s necessary,” Hofsha repeated. “That’s all you need know.” The smile was ever-present. “Monshara has… much experience with this type of assignment. I hope you can come to an agreement and work well together. I know our government and your own Empress have great hopes for the success of this campaign.”
“And who is your government, exactly?” Zezili asked.
“All in good time,” Hofsha said. “Can you complete this task?”
“I know how to kill dajians,” Zezili said. “If your friend here can help, it’s another pair of hands. That’s something.”
Monshara was not looking at either of them but at something above and behind Zezili. Zezili glanced back; the woman was staring at the gilded mirror above the hearth. It was a tarnished silver mirror with a bit of greenish color in the frame, as wide as Zezili was tall.
“You make mirrors?” Monshara asked.
“What? No,” Zezili said. “I buy them.”
“Not that one, I think.”
“It was a hobby of my mother’s. Not mine.”
“But you have her blood.”
“I have a lot of things my mother doesn’t approve of.”
“But she taught you this skill? How to build mirrors and infuse them with the power of the stars?” Monshara asked.
“What has that got to do with anything?”
Hofsha’s smile had vanished. She, too, was staring at Zezili with genuine interest now. “You know how to work mirrors?” Hofsha asked.
Zezili shrugged. “It was a long time ago. Before I took up fighting. I made a few in my youth. Not well. They are worthless like this, though. I can’t channel any of Rhea’s daughters, the satellites, so you can’t see some foreign place through them or see yourself better than you are. They’re just dead things. Not of much use for military operations.”
Hofsha and Monshara exchanged a look. It was brief. Not friendly. But knowing.
“If you were gifted, you could,” Hofsha said.
“What a stupid thing to say,” Zezili said. “I don’t like senseless chatter. I thought we had a much larger campaign planned, so my second, Syre Jasoi, is on her way to assist in discussion of strategy.”
“We’ve already settled on strategy,” Monshara said.
Hofsha said, “You’re to act as Monshara’s second in this matter. She has created a plan for dissolving the camps. I trust you will obey her in all things.”
“You trust I… what? You’re foreigners. You know nothing of this place or its people.”
Hofsha stood and clapped her hands loudly. “Good! That’s settled.”
Daolyn arrived with the tea. She hesitated in the doorway.
“Thank you,” Hofsha said, “I have other matters to attend. I expect you’ll both get on well.”
“I need to discuss this with the Empress–” Zezili said.
“You’re welcome to it,” Hofsha said. “Until then, Monshara, I expect you’ll handle this all admirably, as our sovereign would expect.”
Monshara just looked at her. Zezili found she could not read the expression at all. Annoyance? Anger?
Daolyn set the tea on the low table and escorted Hofsha out.
Zezili let the silence stretch between her and Monshara. Monshara gazed at the mirror again.
“Your force is five thousand?” Monshara asked.
“Give or take. We have a few out with blue fever this time of year.”
“Well, we won’t need that many.” Monshara pushed the tea tray aside. She pulled a leather case from her shoulder. Removed a map. She pinned the map to the table with the empty cups. It was a map of Dorinah, with each of the dajian camps marked in red.
“My people have refrained from alerting the camp officials of our intent, of course,” Monshara said. “With a campaign like this, rumor will travel quickly. That’s why I chose the camp here, in Saolyndara, first. It’s the largest.”
“Has the Empress addressed what will happen to our labor here, with the dajians dead?” Zezili asked. “This seems like a very dramatic move, without precedent.”
“It’s of no consequence,” Monshara said.
“Without dajians to–”
“It was my understanding that you had a head for killing, not governing,” Monshara said. “If your people can’t handle this–”
“My people know how to put down a dajian,” Zezili said. “I just want it known that I’m not wasting time on some slippery dog chase.”
“You have such strange speech,” Monshara said. “Like an educated slave.”
Zezili rankled. “You’re one to talk of slavery, riding about at the call of some Dhai.”
Monshara’s expression hardened.
“Syre Zezili?” Daolyn called. “There is an issue with your husband, Syre.”
“Tell him to wait.”
“I apologize deeply, Syre. But it is quite urgent.”
Zezili sighed. “If you’ll excuse me.”
Monshara stood as she exited.
Zezili took Daolyn by the arm as soon as they entered the courtyard. “What’s this? You know how important this is?”
“I’m sorry, Syre,” Daolyn said. “But your husband has… done something.”
“Done something?”
Daolyn gestured across the yard, to the door leading into Anavha’s chambers. Zezili went there. The door yawned open at her touch. She came up short.
At the center of the room, Anavha’s double bed had been neatly sliced in two. The front half remained, canted forward now on just two legs. The rest was… gone. Zezili saw a scorched mark in the floor at the front of it, roughly circular. Beside it, Anavha sat back on his heels, clutching himself. He was barely clothed. Zezili saw blood on his hands, and a knife next to him.
Anger and terror seized her. She went to him. Took him by the arms. Shook him. “Are you hurt?” she asked.
His face was slack, smeared in tears and clumps of gold makeup. She saw three neat cuts on the inside of his bare thigh. The new wounds stood out in stark contrast to the older scars running parallel to them, some just a week old.
Her grip loosened. His self-harm was an unfortunate habit but not life-threatening. She suspected he did it to get attention.
“What happened?” she asked.
He shook his head.
She slapped him lightly. He began to cry.
“What happened?” she asked. Softer, now.
The ruin of his tear-smeared face, lacking the artifice of the perfect makeup, made him look much younger. In that moment, she was reminded that he was little more than a child.
He said, “I opened a door.”
8
Lilia stood among the scattered lanterns in the temple garden, clutching a pack to her chest. Her personal belongings were almost nothing: an extra pair of clothes, a dog-hair coat, sandals, the mahuan powder for her asthma, and Kalinda’s letters. The books and strategy games that had sustained her days were all property of the temple. She had arrived at the temple with the clothes she wore, and it appeared now that she would leave it with little else.
“Have you ridden a bear before?” Taigan asked.
Dawn was a hazy gray promise kissing the edges of the darkness. Though it was warm, she found herself shivering.
“A long time ago,” Lilia said. “They were not so tame, though. My mother spoke to them.”
Taigan snorted. “I expect she did. When did you come to the temple?”
BOOK: The Mirror Empire
9.36Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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