Tabidaque

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TWENTY-FOUR

When the lost are forgotten
For the lost, it is relief
But to the historians of
this shattered history
Tread lightly.
Tread lightly upon the ice.

and please

“Wake up. Please, come back. You’re not dead. You’re not dead.”

Who is he convincing?

Wait. Nazka’s voice. I can hear it, now. And I can see his face, creased with worry. Concern. Behind him, a dark blue blanket, waving in the wind. The sea? Why are we at the sea?

I don’t feel the heat of the sun wash over me. I only see howling night without stars.

“You’re back,” Nazka says, sounding relieved. “I got you out just in time. The citadel exploded. You must have been near it. They’re looking for whoever did it.”

I did it. But I don’t tell him that. “Why are we at the sea?”

“I had to get you out of there,” Nazka says quickly. “And, well, I had to go, too. They were angry I was hiding you.”

He reaches out to my arm, gently tugging me up, but I stay down. “We have to go,” he says. “We have to go. They’ll be looking for us.”

“I can’t,” I say softly. “I’m…” I squeeze my eyes shut and rest my head against the ground. “I’m so tired.”

“Listen to me,” he says, voice hardening. “Do you know what they’re doing? What they plan to do?”

I don’t acknowledge that I heard him, just let the earth pull me into itself.

“The Assembly has been planning this for years,” Nazka tells me, his tone earnest and urgent. “They want Jagas, Luirlan. They want those beast things with fur, they want your wood, they want to have it all. And they’re going to do that by starting a war.”

This gets my attention. I open my eyes and stare at him. “What? A war? That’s—”

“It’s working,” Nazka says. I can see the fear on his face. “I was trying to fight it. Sviros is broken, Luirlan. Most common people who aren’t in a successful guild don’t eat for days. They’re angry. But they can’t speak out against the Assembly or they’ll be executed. So, I’m doing it for them.”

He lets out a short laugh. “Then they send assassins like Chiqu—and you—to kill me. Because if the citizens heard the Assembly was executing the wealthy merchants—well, we wouldn’t want that, would we?”

Nazka slowly shakes his head, raising a hand to his forehead to cover his eyes. “It’s so wrong. The well-off citizens ignore it, and everyone else can’t do anything to stop it. Then Jagaser start coming into the city, and the Assembly blames everything on them. They want war, Luirlan. And I—I tried to stop it, but I just can’t!

His panic is clear now. “And now they’re looking for me,” he whispers finally. “And you. But mostly, just Jagaser. And the other guilds know about it, too. All of the cities are looking.”

We sit in silence for a long time. Then he speaks again. “I hate this,” he says. “Where you come from shouldn’t be as important as who you become. Not unless you make it important.”

I glance at him scornfully. “Where you come from makes you who you become.”

He turns to me, green eyes flashing. “Why did you do it?” he asks. “Work for them, when they were doing everything to hurt you. Was it just ignorance? Would you have done it, if you had known?”

I think for a moment, then nod. Nazka frowns. “Why?”

I shrug. I can’t tell him that I’m lost. I don’t know what I would have done. Everything is so twisted. He may not even be telling the truth.

“When I was a child,” Nazka muses, gazing out at the sea, “I always loved stories. Songs that told stories, but any story would do. Most of them had a hero and a villain. You always wanted the hero to win. And I thought, if I ever got to have a story of my won, I wanted to be the hero.”

He fixes his eyes on me. “So why did you choose to be the villain?”

I laugh mirthlessly at that. He’s foolish enough to be relating this to a child’s story? Fine. I’ll give him the answer he wants. “There have to be villains for there to be heroes,” I say. “And I’m certainly no hero.”

“Whether you are a hero or a villain depends entirely on which way your knife is pointing.”

I raise my eyebrows. “At this point, I’d be fine either way.”

“What about your honor? Your legacy, if they remember you?”

I scoff. “Let the heroes be remembered. Sometimes it’s better to be forgotten.

“So, you’d rather be forgotten.” Nazka shakes his head in disbelief. “You really don’t belong anywhere, do you?”

“Seems that way,” I agree. “On Jagas they wanted to kill me. Here they want to kill me. It seems like I really should just die, doesn’t it?”

I hear a sudden wailing screech overhead and look up. A cloud of huge, gliding creatures is gradually moving toward us. Their wings are long and sail-like, claws sharp and glinting. Featureless grey faces that used to haunt me as a child calling out their cries.

The stonedwellers have come to Sviros.

Their multivoiced wails are deafening. Grotesque and otherworldly.

And looking out at the cliff, I notice it.

The stone.

Dark against the pale sands of Sviros. Jagged and broken. The place I’ve been running from all my life has appeared here, where it shouldn’t be.

And yet, I run to it.

I can hear Nazka chasing me, calling out my name in alarm. When I touch the stone, I can feel something twist inside of me. Rear its head in anguish. Nazka stops beside me, panting.

“Luirlan…” he says, moving close to me. “Stop. Stop running.”

I look into his bright green eyes and I want to believe him. I want to tell him I won’t run anymore. But it would be a lie.

“They talk to me,” he says finally, his voice a whisper. “Here.” He taps his head. Then his arm falls.

Suddenly, his eyes glaze over. He breaks away from me, face morphing into an expression of shock.

He turns his gaze to me.

“I know you did it.” His eyes are gleaming with a look I’ve never seen before, a kind of manic fervor. “I’d kill you now, but they’re coming, and I’m sure they will do a better job of it than me.”

I let the silence hang in the air.

“I had to do it,” Nazka says, voice breaking. “I had to tell them. If you die, maybe there’s a chance of peace for Sviros and Jagas. You’re the villain, Luirlan. You said it yourself. And—and once the villain is gone, there won’t be…”

He keeps talking, but I can’t hear him anymore. Spirits have come for all of us. They have forced us to realize that the only place we are safe is death. Spirits come for all of us. They force us to realize that the only place we are safe is death. Some end it early before they can bring any more down with them. I took as many as I could with me before this moment. But perhaps it was a mercy. They are safe now. Death is the only safe place.

Nazka doesn’t see it. He doesn’t realize that after the crowd kills me, he’ll be next. None of this will end until every living thing has been destroyed.

Nazka’s face is streaked with tears now. I lean close to him, tracing a vein on his forehead. His eyes are bright and unsure because he doesn’t know me, not really. He doesn’t know that he’s shattered the last of it. I’ve always been good at keeping my face blank, even when I’m melting inside.

I draw out my knife, a faint whisper of metal touching the air.

“I don’t want to leave without you,” I whisper.

I raise my arm and swing my knife through the air in a glittering arc, aiming for his throat.

This time I don’t miss.

The blood spills out as the blade slices. His eyes grow wide and shocked, mouth opening, trying to form words but nothing comes out and he tilts his chin up, searching my face and asking why, but he will never know.

Then he falls back, twitching and shuddering, hands clutching at nothing. Gurgling and choking on his own blood, the flap of skin I opened gaping. I stare at him, unblinking, don’t know whether to cry or to laugh so I settle for neither.

He’s safe now, he’s safe now, they’re all safe

I notice the small brown book in his pocket and pull it out.

(whispers growing
they are coming)

Slump against the rock, this fear, this friend, I wonder what his last words would be if he had the chance to say them. The only sound he makes right now is gurgling, but even that will stop soon, any moment

(filling everything in a flash
they are coming)

I open my book. It’s almost filled up with my meaningless words. I take out my pencil, hands trembling so much I can barely hold it, think for a moment, then write a few words. As I write a wet droplet splashes the page. My face is wet, too. How odd. I’m crying, but it’s numb inside.

(I am gone
they are coming)

Then I close the book and close my eyes. Pray to any god, any spirit, anything listening out there that I can keep it together, keep the ice from breaking, keep the beast quiet at least until the crowd arrives, chanting their blood-song, death soon in their wake.

always holding on, so tired, I just want to let go, fade to black, faceless peace

I did everything to stop it and I couldn’t, but I’ve tried how I’ve triednot yet not yet not yet

(the beast is roaring
crying so loudly now
it is coming)

Pity to fear the dark.

I don’t fear it. I’m not frightened. It has settled now, and the cold is beginning to thaw. Here I am, here I am, here I am, and I am not frightened. Let it come. Let the world crumble away until I am the only thing here by the sea. Forget me but don’t forget this, hold onto this for all of time.

Then I see her. In the distance, just hovering above the water.

A strangled cry from deep in my chest. I am a prisoner to my own mind. A thought surfaces in the twisted dark. It is quiet, clever, but it has always been there. Sometimes rearing its head to look and see, waiting for the right moment as she tried to crush it down. Something neither of us has wanted to face. Something we’ve been protecting, hiding for as long as I can remember. But it is the truth.

The cliff stoops low beside the seaBeneath the shards of bone
Though water’s sweet, your end you’ll meet
Should you touch the marrow stone

Her voice, clear and haunting, like Chiqu’s

Singing the song of dark
An echo of blood in the night
They gather there, their calls beware
Sing and lay down to die

I look up, a smile spreading across my face, broken and twitching. Hands close over the handle of the blade. Push it in deep between my ribs, knife breaks skin, cut open until it bleeds.

She can’t have me if I’m dead.

Last safe place only safe place please, please let it be safe

The pain, the memory, the dark that has been trapped inside, encased in a melting ice box, clawing at my ribs and tearing through my flesh, it all breaks free, spilling over the jagged rock where I watch so many pass over.

I step to the cliff. Soon everything that was sick inside me will leak out because that is what I have chosen. I choose this. I choose death.

When I jump, I fly before the fall.

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