It will never end
It will always be with him, this emptiness
This insistent, aching need
I can feel the shock course through my body. Rebel leader? Hadn’t Chiqu said his mother was part of the Assembly? And she ordered him assassinated?
What a family.
I cross the room and bend over him, observing him for a moment. His chest rises and falls with the steadiness of peaceful sleep. He’ll never know what hit him.
I unsheathe my knife and raise it in the air, ready to plunge down. But something pauses me. A tremor in my wrist.
The hesitation shoots ice deep into my veins. I can kill him. I know what I’m capable of. No. That’s wrong. I don’t know what I’m capable of because I don’t know what she’s capable of. And she controls me[VTG1] . You were created to spill blood, Luirlan, Mara whispers. So, kill.
I feel her cold fingers wrap around my wrist, driving the blade down towards his heart.
Then his eyes fly open.
He seizes my throat, flailing wildly as he tries to throw me off. I quickly break free and clamp one hand over his mouth, stabbing my knife toward its target with the other. But he squirms to the side, and instead of digging into his heart, the blade sinks deep into his shoulder.
“Hold still, I’m trying to kill you,” I growl.
His scream of pain is muffled by my hand, but his green eyes blaze with loathing. I pull my knife out of his flesh, and the blood sprays out, staining the colorful blankets into a uniform crimson. Nazka is fading away, and even as he struggles to sit up, he sways from the effort.
“You…” He raises a trembling hand to me, and I’m surprised to see a faint smile break across his face. “I thought we’d meet again. I couldn’t have predicted it would be…in this way.”
He holds my gaze for a moment before he is racked with pain. A loud crashing sound on my left alerts me, and I hear loud voices approaching the door. They’re coming up the stairs.
I can’t stay here any longer. I run across the room and open the door, where Sarofa is still waiting. She turns around with a surprised expression. “What?” she asks. “Is it done?”
I ignore her question and point down the stairs. “Someone is coming,” I hiss. “We have to go!”
Sarofa takes in my words, then shakes her head. “No,” she mutters, turning around. “Mehild’s down there. I can’t—”
“Mehild and Chiqu are gone,” I lie. “They’re safe, but we have to go.”
Sarofa looks torn, but the voices are growing louder. I yank her inside the room and cross over to the window, climbing down the rope. “Come on!” I yell as she stares at Nazka, who has fallen back, bleeding, on the blankets.
We climb down the wall as quickly as possible. I drop to the ground and turn the corner, holding my breath as Sarofa follows my example. We press our backs against the wall, and I catch a glimpse of several faces peering out the window.
Guards. They scan the ground, but we’re hidden around the corner. One of them grabs the rope.
“Must’ve climbed down the wall,” she mutters. “We’ll have to search around the area.”
They disappear inside the room.
“Where are—” Sarofa begins to say, once they’re gone, but I wave my hand quickly. “The guards will be searching for us,” I tell her. “We have to go.”
“Where?” Sarofa demands, and I shrug.
“Anywhere. Somewhere hidden, preferably.”
We hurry down the narrow street until we reach the main road. It will be easier to hide in the throng of people, despite my hatred for crowds.
We cross the road to the other side, lined with trading carts, where I pause, glancing around. Sarofa watches me with suspicion in her eyes.
“Do you know where you’re going?” she asks. “And do you even know where Chiqu and Mehild are?”
I frown and don’t reply. The noises of the city penetrate my brain as I try to wrestle down fleeting thoughts. Where did we come from? It’s so hard to get anywhere in this place.
“Luzile?” Sarofa’s tone is more urgent now. “Where are Chiqu and Mehild? And how do you even know they got…”
Her eyes narrow at my silence. “You don’t know, do you?” she whispers after a moment. “You lied to me.”
I watch the shock of realization spread over her face, but her eyes remain cold. “Here’s my question, Luzile,” she says quietly. “Why? Why did you lie to get me out of there? Because I’ve seen you. You don’t care about any of us. So why did you come for me?”
“Because I knew that if they caught you and did something to Mehild, you’d give them all the information they need,” I growl. “Any of it, because you can’t stand watching her in pain.”
Sarofa stares at me, and I can’t read her expression. “That was your plan, was it?” she says, and now her voice is dangerously low. “And you didn’t stop to think what I would do when I found out?”
“I didn’t have time to think about—” I begin to protest, but I’m cut off when her fist connects with my face. My chin pops back and the back of my skull crashes against the sandstone wall behind me. Pain breaks out across my back, I can feel the warm blood drip down my neck.
“That’s what I’m going to do, first,” Sarofa says, face contorted with rage now. “And now I’m going back for her.”
She turns around and begins to wade through the crowd. “Sarofa! They’ll catch you!” I shout, but she ignores me.
I stand there, helpless as she disappears, searching my mind for solutions. I only come up with one. I have to find Chiqu.
I knew where she would be. Once I locate the citadel of the Assembly, it doesn’t take me long to get my bearings and find my way back to the underground base. She’s there, just as I had predicted. When I enter the darkness, a blade whispers past my ear, clattering on the stone wall beside me and falling to the ground.
Chiqu’s sitting in the dark, staring at me. “Oh,” she mumbles. “It’s you. Did Sarofa and Mehild get out?”
I shake my head. “I was able to get Sarofa, but she went back for Mehild,” I inform her. “I think we should stop her. If they interrogate her, she’ll give them information about the Assembly and their plans.”
Chiqu shrugs unresponsively. “Let them,” she says. “It doesn’t matter. The whole mission has failed, Luzile. Well, actually—did you kill him?”
I shake my head again. “No,” I murmur. “I missed.”
“His throat? How could you miss that?”
“I went for his heart.”
“You thought it was a good idea to go for his heart instead of his throat? What kind of assassin are you?”
“An inexperienced one,” I admit. “I thought I’d try something new.”
Chiqu shakes her head, chuckling. “First rule of assassination,” she says. “Stick to what works.”
“To be fair, he was squirming.”
Chiqu’s laughter fades, and silence falls over the room. “So, we’re not going back?” I ask.
“No,” says Chiqu. “I don’t think it would be a good idea. I’ll just have to explain it to the Assembly. It’s not likely they’ll let us live, anyway, if they found out I failed them—again.”
Her eyes drift listlessly to the ground. I feel a flash of frustration flare up at her apathy.
“I don’t understand this,” I say. “I really don’t understand this, Chiqu. Why do you do this? Just—shut down. Like you’ve given up. It’s not helpful, you know.”
Chiqu slowly raises her gaze to meet mine. “For the same reason you are determined to be an outcast,” she responds. “Juase is right. Spirits aren’t real. They’re just voices in our heads. But for some reason, you believe they are the cause of this.” She gestures to me. I glance down and notice the splatters of stained blood she’s referring to.
“Spirits aren’t real,” she repeats, softly this time. “And yet, I saw her again today. When we escaped, and I came back here. She didn’t—didn’t say anything. Just stared at me. Like she was disappointed I had failed.” Her shoulders slump and her head sinks into her hands.
After a long silence, she speaks again. “You know, there’s talk of some strange diseases being brought across the sea, from Jagas,” she says. “I overheard some gossip in the market. They think it’s something to do with the sun disappearing.”
“Great,” I mutter. “Just one more reason for them to hate us.” I sit on the ground, weariness tugging at my body. “Chiqu,” I say at last, “is the world ending?”
She lets out a cynical scoff. “Do you really want to know that?”
I shrug indecisively.
“Well, if it was, would you even care?”
“I want to care. I wish I didn’t.”
Chiqu gives me an odd look before shaking her head. “Wouldn’t it just be spectacular if it was?” she laughs. “Before we had the time to destroy ourselves? Because that’s what’s going to happen unless something stops us soon. You know that.”
She sits back, observing me. “So,” she says. “Why are you like this?”
“That’s a vague question,” I reply.
“You know what I mean.”
“If they want me to be evil, I will be evil,” I tell her.
“And you want them to hate you,” Chiqu counters. “So, they do.” She sighs. “I just—well, I think I understand you, as much as anyone can. Because I feel it too.”
She locks my gaze with her cold, dark eyes. “Some aren’t meant for cities, or tribes,” she says in a quiet voice. “Some…some are meant to travel alone.”
“And those,” I say wryly, “are not meant for life.”
I lay in the darkness for a long time. I can’t bring myself even to sit up. It feels like all the energy has been sucked out of my veins, leaving me a limp corpse. I don’t know how much time passes. Chiqu enters and exits, often spending her time in one of the other rooms.
Nobody comes looking for us. And we don’t step outside.
I slowly become aware of a pain throbbing in my guts, deep and warm. It feels like someone is squeezing my organs, first gently, and then as hard as they can. When it wanes, I can move, and when it returns, I can only hold still and breathe, breathe slow and deep until it has passed. There is no blood anywhere, but my abdomen is purple and lumpy where it should be smooth.
And I can feel her hand on my shoulder now and then, her cold, prickling nails on my neck, just to remind me she’s still here.
Chiqu can see I’m in pain. She doesn’t comment on it, until one day she kneels beside me, dropping a small packet beside me.
“I don’t have any medicines or remedies,” she murmurs. “But I thought I’d give some of these to you. I took them from that pool, the day we first met you.”
I roll over and slowly unwrap the pouch. Inside are three glistening orbs, like frozen droplets of blood.
I recognize them instantly. The poison berries. Quickly I dash them across the floor, shrinking away to the wall. “Why—what are you thinking, Chiqu?” I exclaim, feeling a shiver creep up my spine as I try to keep my voice from trembling.
Her eyes glitter with a kind of fervent intensity in the dark. “I told you we would destroy ourselves,” she whispers, voice breaking. “I thought you should have them.”
I take in Chiqu’s appearance. I hadn’t noticed it before, but she looks different. Her hair is tangled and matted, tight curls blended together, and her eyes are shrouded by dark circles.
“Why?” I demand. “So you can drag me into whatever kind of insanity you’re giving in to? So I can go the same way as your sister?”
The words tumble from my mouth, but I don’t bother holding them back.
“You know you’ve thought about it countless times before,” Chiqu shoots back, now adamant in a manic frenzy. “It would be easy. Quick. We could even do it together, if—”
Her expression slowly changes. Her face drops, grows dull. She looks from me to the berries, then curls her knees to her chest.
“I—I…” she gasps, barely audible. “I shouldn’t have…what’s happening to me?”
She’s not talking to me, I can tell.
“How do you know what happened to Berzha?” she asks after a long time has passed.
“You told us, remember?” I lie.
Chiqu shakes her head. “I don’t remember, Luzile,” she says. “I really don’t.”
She begins to rock back and forth, and I see a tear trace down her cheek. Her sobs are quiet and controlled, her shoulders barely trembling. “I always thought it was my fault,” she whispers. “That she died. I had been carrying them in my bag. Some hag told me they’d be a quick cure if I was ever in a lot of pain…and Berzha had gotten sick. She was just a baby. I thought they would help.”
Her face contorts as she remembers. “She just started twisting and convulsing, foam and blood spewing from her mouth, like she was choking up pieces of herself…her eyes kind of glazed over, like a frozen river.” She lets out a shuddering breath. “That’s how my aunt found me. Holding the dead body of my sister.”
Chiqu’s eyes mist over, face blank with grief and weariness. “I don’t know what we’re going to do,” she confesses. “I don’t want to do this anymore.”
“Why did you start, then? What does the Assembly do that you support?”
“I didn’t choose this,” she says. “I was forced into a life of murder. My aunt was…always cold. I tried to do what she expected. I knew murder wasn’t right. But it didn’t start that way, and it’s not like I had a choice.”
I stand. I don’t want to be here anymore. I don’t know what is happening to Chiqu, but she’s going, and each day I see less of her. She doesn’t comment when I disappear to the streets above. She doesn’t try to stop me.
My mother used to say when death came, the dead souls of people would join each other. At least, I think that’s what she said. Someone in my tribe said it, I know that. She fades the less I think about her. And then, when I try to remember her, her face is blurred. I can’t recall the sound of her voice. Some days, I can’t even remember what she was like.
I wouldn’t want to join whatever souls she was talking about. Because I know there are more out there who hate me and would gladly jump at the chance to torture me for eternity.
My father was more realistic. He didn’t believe in spirits or souls, and until Mara came to me, I agreed with him. We never really had conversations, but his view was clear. Death was the end. Darkness. You ceased to exist. The only thing that would remain of you was the memory some might carry. But then those people would die, and you’d vanish into nothingness.
But when I look into death, I am awake, conscious. I can see the darkness. And her. Because I’ve been there, so many times. I’ve been to death, and when all I see is the darkness, I am afraid. It’s fear that keeps me alive. Fear that keeps me from ending it.
Wind whips my face, carrying with it tiny stinging particles that would willingly sink under my skin and push until it bleeds. People are scurrying for cover. Somehow a sandstorm has invaded the city, despite its protection. I follow the herd, ducking around hurried people and eliciting a few cries of disgruntlement, and a few threats of painful demise I choose to ignore. I reach a set of wide, decorated doors. From the outside, it looks welcoming. Large stones make up the outer structure, and the windows are high.
I push open the doors and am greeted by a warm, dimly lit, cramped atmosphere. Long tables are packed with groups of people, talking and yelling and laughing. Some are eating maslakha roots and an assortment of other odd-looking foods. Just a place to sit and escape the storm.
I quickly scan the room, searching for a vacant table, and spot one on the wall. I push my way through the ground and throw myself into the seat before someone else can take it. Instantly, the bench across from me is taken by a Sviroser wearing a long black coat, adorned with gold flourishes.
Several more people are trying to cram themselves into the already-packed room. I watch as an old man hobbles inside, supported by who I assume to be his daughter or a close relative. I hear someone call out, “No room! Find somewhere else!” But the daughter ignores this and squeezes into the crowd. She spots my table and begins moving toward us.
“You!” she shouts, pointing to me. Her face is thin and tired. “Can my father please sit down? He…he’s tired, and I would appreciate it if…” She trails off, amber eyes pleading.
I stare at her. I’m not about to throw myself back into the crowd. “No,” I say. “I’m not going to subject myself to trampling.”
Her face suddenly turns cold. “This is a man who has spent his entire life serving the Assembly,” she growls. “You—you don’t even belong here. So get out of that seat. Even better, go back to Jagas.”
I consider her words for a moment before repeating, “No.”
The old man begins tugging at his daughter’s sleeve, shaking his head, but she throws him off. The hooded Sviroser across from me begins to get up, offering his seat, but the daughter waves him away.
“No, I want him to get up,” she snarls, advancing towards me, hand dropping to her belt. “We don’t need more of your kind stealing—”
I whip out my knife in a flash. A flick of my wrist and it’s flying through the air, landing squarely between the daughter’s eyes. It sinks deep into her skull, opening a gap that spews blood, dripping down her front as she drops to the ground.
The people around us fall silent. Some gasp, some run over to help. Most don’t notice or pretend like they don’t notice. I don’t look at any of them or the old man.
“Who are you?” the Sviroser across from me asks in a low voice.
I smile pleasantly, replying with sincerity, “I don’t know.” Then I start to laugh. I don’t know where it comes from, if it’s even me who’s laughing. I don’t even feel the way a person should feel when they’re laughing. Not the way I think they should feel, anyway.
“Why did you do that?”
“I do whatever it takes to survive,” I say, laughter coming to a sudden halt.
The Sviroser’s voice is skeptical “She was a threat to you?”
I consider that. “Let me rephrase. I’ll do anything that doesn’t give me a bad feeling. It doesn’t have to be a good feeling. So long as it’s not a bad one.”
“And murdering innocent people?” He sounds genuinely curious. “What kind of feeling does that give you?”
I look him straight in the eyes. “Not a bad one.” I think to myself, then add, “She’s safer now, anyway.”
He shakes his head in disbelief. “You are a monster,” he murmurs.
“Well, I wouldn’t call myself that. I just have a natural ability to separate my personal feelings from my business.”
“Personal feelings? I’m surprised you have any feelings at all.”
“You hardly know me,” I say. “But you’re right. It’s all very empty in here.”
“You may think it’s dangerous to have feelings,” he muses. “But there’s danger in feeling nothing at all, too. More danger, in fact. If you don’t experience anything, what do you have to live for? Life is feeling.”
I scoff, shaking my head.
The stranger raises his eyebrows. “In Jagas, why didn’t they lock you up? You know, here in Sviros, we have places for people like you. Called jails.”
I grin and spread my arms. “But there’s no need for that. I’m already in a cage.”
The stranger doesn’t speak for a long time. Then he says, “Do you know who I am?” When I shake my head, he begins to carefully unlace his shirt, pulling it over his shoulder and revealing a deep wound. The skin and tissue have been cut deep, and the wound is only beginning to heal.
Then I notice that his eyes are a startling green.
Nazka smiles. “Last time we met, you tried to kill me.”
Slowly I slip my second knife from my belt, fingering the blade thoughtfully before sinking it into the table, right between his delicate, ringed fingers.
“Perhaps you could explain to me why I shouldn’t finish the job.”
I begin to lunge across the table, knife aimed for his throat like Chiqu told me to do. But before I can reach him, hands have clamped on my shoulders, world spinning as I’m thrown to the floor.
A sharp bolt of pain shoots into my scalp as my head smashes against stone. Then black spreads over my vision, numbing everything that used to hurt.