Piety, Prayer, Peacekeeper, Apocalypse by Rati Mehrotra
Soru Khara had been hunting her death for many years before she arrived at the crumbling old port of Tyron. She camouflaged her skimmer and stalked up to the rusty gates as the sun set over the citadel, the fishy tang of the sea sharp in her nostrils. The smell of childhood—the smell of things best left buried. It was why she usually avoided ports. This time, though, she had no choice. She was to deliver a letter, like a common messenger. She had not questioned the inanity of her assignment. One did not question the Voice of the Star Emperor; one merely obeyed it.
“Halt!” Crossed spears barred her way into the passage under the city walls. A man with the insignia of the Umnia falcon stepped up to her. “No one enters the city between sunset and sunrise.”
Soru Khara swept her gaze over the company. A captain and ten guards, and they expected to take on a death-hunter. Possibly they did not know who she was. She withdrew the letter with the seal of Yimri and waved it front of the captain’s stony face. “A message for Queen Lariel from her master. It cannot wait till morning.”
The captain held out a gloved hand. “Give it to me and I will deliver it.”
“No,” said Soru Khara, feeling her patience crumble. “I must deliver it myself. Do not delay me, Captain. I have skimmed six days across the continent to reach your little village. Is this how you treat messengers from the Star Emperor?”
“Village?” said the captain, affronted. “Tyron is the capital of Umnia. Watch your tongue, messenger.”
“Umnia is but one of the eight realms on Earth, and Earth is but one planet under the Star Emperor’s authority,” said Soru Khara. She slipped the letter back into her pocket and allowed her voice to gain an edge. “Get out of my way. I have no wish to shed blood tonight.”
“You threaten the Umnian Guard?” The man whipped out a scimitar from the scabbard at his waist. The curved blade glinted in the flickering light of the oil lamps that hung on both sides of the gate. “Leave, before I separate your swollen head from its pitiful body.”
He meant to frighten her, not to kill her. Also, she was a guest in Tyron, however unwelcome. Soru Khara took these things into consideration and summoned Piety, her least lethal weapon. A sudden drain of energy, heat above her palm, and Piety appeared: a blue ball crackling with electricity.
“A witch,” shouted one of the guards. “Run!” Spears clattered to the ground, followed by the thud of boots on cobblestone as the men took to their heels.
“Hold your ground,” yelled the captain, but to no avail. Soru Khara sent a few sparks into the backs of the running guards for good measure. Wails split the twilight as they found their mark inside chinks of armor. Good, that should deter the fools from coming back.
The captain still stood before her, disbelief etched on his face. Soru Khara had to admire him for that. She allowed Piety to dissipate and took a deep, reviving breath. “Well, Captain? Do you still aim to separate my head from its body?”
He sheathed his blade. “Why did you not tell us you were a death-hunter?”
“Why would you not give the same consideration to any messenger from the Star Capital?” she countered.
He had no answer to that, but as Soru Khara walked past him through the gates and into the city, she was filled with misgiving. Twenty years since Umnia and its allies had fallen to the Star Emperor, and the treaty was fraying. People had forgotten the things that made them eager for peace. It was always so. A brief period of law and order followed by rebellion, followed by bloody reprisals, followed by frantic negotiations. No one ever learned from history, not even those who had lived it. Perhaps especially those who had lived it.
The Umnians would attack her; the only question was when. She hoped it wouldn’t be tonight. She was tired and hungry after her journey. Summoning Piety had taken more strength than she could afford in a strange and hostile city.
Soru Khara took a few swift turns to throw off any pursuers and headed toward the citadel on top of the hill. The broken towers and tenements of Tyron pierced the darkening sky like jagged teeth. Huddled between them were the meaner dwellings of refugees: shacks, lean-tos, even hollow pipes—anything that served as shelter from the stinging rains the eastern wind brought every summer.
The stench of open drains hit her nostrils and Soru Khara twitched with disgust. Twenty years to rebuild and this was the best the Umnians could come up with? To be fair, the city had been flooded with refugees from the leveled countryside. Tyron had swollen and stretched to breaking point. There was also the tithe—no small amount—to be paid to the Emperor. Add the expense of maintaining a palace and a military force, and perhaps there was little left to rebuild the capital of Umnia. The House of Lariel was not known for stinting on royal pleasures.
At least ordinary people were still trying to make a living. Even at dusk, the streets were busy. Vendors with food carts hawked fish, live shrimp, and packets of fried waterbugs. Women sat on street corners, hunched over bunches of firewood and mounds of ripe sapodilla. Soru Khara moved through them like a ghost, a hooded, black-robed woman without distinguishing features of any sort.
At the gates of the citadel, she found she was expected. The captain must have sent a runner ahead of her. She was not challenged; in fact, the gates were thrown open and she was ushered inside, across the courtyard and into the outer palace.
“Queen Lariel will see you in the morning,” a palace attendant told her. “Meanwhile, please make yourself comfortable. A room with a hot bath has been prepared for you.”
It was too good to be true. Soru Khara decided she might as well enjoy it while it lasted. She was taken to a sumptuous room with a soft featherbed and a clawed bathtub from which steam rose in a heady mix of jasmine and vanilla. She allowed an attendant to help her out of her travel-stained robe and slipped into the scented water. Her tense muscles relaxed and she closed her eyes in bliss. There now. She was at her most vulnerable. Would this be the moment they struck?
But Soru Khara was able to enjoy her bath uninterrupted. It was later, when she was toweled dry and clad in a richly embroidered dressing gown, that she spotted the first trap. Or rather, smelled it. A serving girl wheeled in a trolley laden with steaming dishes, and the attendant uncovered them with a flourish. Coconut fish, grilled eggplant, and golden shrimp balls. It had been many years since Soru Khara had sampled the coastal delicacies of her childhood. She inhaled deep in pleasure and stopped short. Interwoven with the aroma of spices was the darker smell of burned almonds. Not that anyone else would have noticed it, of course.
The attendant served her and backed away, bowing. The girl who had wheeled in the trolley knelt on the floor, face demure. Soru Khara was perplexed. It was such an obvious trick. Why had the queen shown her hand in this way? No matter; she was too hungry to decline the food. Besides, there was the question of face. She popped a shrimp ball into her mouth and chewed slowly. Enough Blue Death to kill five men. Her body would need as much energy in making the antidote as it would get from the consumption of this tidbit. She’d gain little from her dinner tonight.
She was annoyed by this, but the food was too tasty for her to stay angry. The rice, at least, was untouched by poison, and the water was clean. She polished off everything before inclining her head to the serving girl to take away the trolley. Was it her imagination, or did the attendant’s fixed smile flicker?
When they were gone, Soru Khara meditated on the strange nature of humans. She no longer counted herself as such—not completely. The change wrought in her had been too great. She wondered if she would be recognizable to any who had known her when she was a child, the youngest daughter of a poor fisherman and his pearl-diving wife.
It was a moot question. No one who had known her as a child was still alive.
In the morning, after a quick cup of honey tea that was mercifully poison-free, Soru Khara was taken to the queen’s private audience room. She was ushered into a long, high-ceilinged hall lined with plush seats that could easily have housed ten families from the shanties at the base of the citadel. Soru Khara examined the thought and discarded it. The inequities of Umnian life were none of her concern. She was here to deliver a letter, that was all.
A tall, slim woman with a silver circlet on her head stood with hands clasped behind her back, facing a stained glass window, apparently oblivious of her entry.
“Queen Lariel,” said Soru Khara, and bowed.
The woman turned and held her with a dark, smouldering gaze. “Welcome, death-hunter,” she said.
And so the second trap closed, but Soru Khara was hardly aware of it. The queen absorbed all her attention. Brown-skinned and raven-haired, Lariel had a heart-stopping beauty of the kind that legends are made of. She was dressed simply in a white robe that would not have been out of place in a monastery or a temple. She didn’t look a day older than twenty years, although Soru Khara knew for a fact that she was at least twice that, if not more. Anti-aging potions? It was possible, though unlikely. If true, it meant that the Umnians—at least some of them—had advanced further than the Star Emperor suspected.
Lariel waved away the attendants and sat down. “Please sit,” she said, indicating a chair opposite her. “Tea?”
“No, thank you,” murmured Soru Khara, sitting down. Lariel was not at all as she had expected and she felt a strange mixture of emotions that were hard to identify. She would think on them later. For now she must slow her pulse and present a cool, calm exterior to the queen.
Lariel watched her, a small smile playing on her lips. Soru Khara thought of how she must appear—a plain, diminutive woman with shaven head, the Star Emperor’s sigil pale on her dusky cheek—and a feeling of discomfort took hold of her.
“I suppose you are wondering why I am here?” she said, more abruptly than she had intended, withdrawing the letter from her robe.
“I suppose you are wondering why your dinner last night had enough poison to kill a hundred men?” said Lariel.
Soru Khara was unable to prevent a tiny gasp of surprise, and the queen laughed. She leaned forward and rested her palm lightly on Soru Khara’s knee. “I am sorry. I have heard so much about death-hunters. It is the first time one has graced the palace since I took over from my mother. I knew you would be able to neutralize the toxins. Call it an experiment. Please forgive me. It will not happen again.”
The queen’s hand was warm—too warm. It sent a tingle into Soru Khara’s skin, right through the robe. She did not stir, but after a moment Lariel snatched back her hand as if she, too, had been burned. “Tell me, Soru Khara,” she said, “why are you called death-hunters? Is it because you can kill people so easily?”
“People are not easily killed,” corrected Soru Khara. “It is never a decision made lightly. We must weigh the consequences and choose the path of greatest good to all.”
“To all? Or just to the Star Emperor?” said Lariel.
The queen was goading her. Soru Khara did not rise to the bait. “The Emperor wants whatever is of greatest benefit to humanity,” she said. “Twenty-five years ago, the entire planet was at war with itself.”
“Twenty-five years ago we were free,” said Lariel softly. “Do you even know what that word means, death-hunter?”
“Ask that question of the poorest in Tyron,” said Soru Khara. “The woman who barters her flesh to feed her child, or the boy who dives for abalone instead of going to school. Then tell me what their answers are.”
The queen recoiled, as if she had been hit. “If we didn’t have to pay so much tithe to your precious Emperor, we would have enough to help the poor of Tyron,” she snapped. “And if he hadn’t poured so much poison in our fields, the refugees could go back home and start afresh.”
“The poison is retreating,” said Soru Khara. “Soon your fields will be ready to till.”
“A lie my people will not readily believe,” said Lariel, “not when they have seen his handiwork with their own, bleeding eyes.”
“It is no lie,” said Soru Khara, feeling a stab of irritation. The queen was being illogical. “And the Emperor is not a ‘he’.”
The queen waved a dismissive hand. “He-she-it, tentacled creature from the depths of the ocean, figment of our collective dreams—does it matter? All that matters is how we have been enslaved.” When Soru Khara did not respond, she said, “You did not answer me. Why are you called death-hunters?”
“It is our own death we seek,” said Soru Khara. It was a bit more subtle than that. Her own name, words taken from her native tongue—not that she remembered it any longer—meant ‘Seeker of Endings’.
“Surely it is almost impossible to kill you,” said Lariel, a small frown marring her oval face.
Soru Khara inclined her head. “Almost,” she agreed. People were always inquisitive about death-hunters, even envious. If they knew the whole truth, they would thank the stars for their frailty, their ordinariness.
“What level are you?” asked the queen, adding, “Do forgive my curiosity.”
“Four,” said Soru Khara. The highest level.
A hungry look came on Lariel’s face. “Four—one for each weapon. I was told what you did at the gates of Tyron. You could demolish my entire city, couldn’t you?”
Soru Khara thought of Peacekeeper, coiled within her like a tiny helix of the sun itself. “Possibly,” she said. “It is not an eventuality I anticipate.”
Lariel threw her head back and laughed. It was a hearty, honest sound, unexpected in the velvety stillness of the hall. She wiped tears of mirth and reached for Soru Khara’s hand. “I am glad you do not,” she said. “I am rather attached to my capital. But there is one outcome I anticipate quite eagerly. Don’t you?”
The pressure of the queen’s hand increased; her eyes bore into Soru Khara, seeming to look inside her and say: I know what you want. You cannot hide it from me. When she leaned forward and pressed her lips to the sigil on Soru Khara’s cheek, it felt like the most natural thing in the world. Soru Khara succumbed to the wave of need that rose within her without a thought to the fate of her assignment.
It was not unknown for death-hunters to take lovers. Such liaisons were, of necessity, brief and contractual in nature. There had been a man once who reminded Soru Khara of her father. She slept with him twice before realizing he had nothing she needed. There had been women too, who were only too eager to use their bodies to gain the favor of a death-hunter.
But there had never been anyone like Lariel. She was passionate and exacting, utterly skilled in the art of giving and getting pleasure. Soru Khara found herself obeying the queen’s every command, even as a part of her—the part untouched by the frenzy of copulation—watched, distant and amused. So much for her vaunted inhumanity. There was a lesson in this and the learning of it would be painful, at best.
Later, when they lay entwined in the damp, silken sheets of the queen’s massive four-poster bed, Lariel asked, “What is your real name?”
“I don’t know,” said Soru Khara, stroking Lariel’s hair. “It is among the many things I have forgotten.” Or rather, chosen to forget. What lovely hair the queen had—like the thick, soft curtain of night itself. Her own head was shaved every month, like that of all sixteen death-hunters—one man and one woman for each realm and nothing to distinguish them but the levels they had attained.
“How old were you when you were chosen?” asked Lariel.
“Six or seven,” said Soru Khara. “I really don’t remember much at all.”
But she could. In her mind’s eye, the Emperor’s starships blotted the blue sky above her home and rained death on her people. She heard screams and cried for her mother. But her mother had gone diving and her father lay twisted on the sand, the skin peeling from his bones. The sea roiled and the land heaved. Something hit her head and she blacked out. She woke in a glass cage, unable to speak or move. And then the true nightmare began as Yimri appeared to her in all their hideous glory.
“What is it?” Lariel pushed herself up on her elbows and gazed at her with concern.
Soru Khara wiped the distress off her face and shoved the memories back into the depths where they belonged. “The past is a place best left unvisited,” she said. “Look to the future, Lariel, at how you may best help your people.”
“Wise words,” said Lariel. “You are like nothing I imagined a death-hunter would be.”
“And you are like nothing I imagined the Queen of Umnia would be,” said Soru Khara.
Lariel smiled. “It has been years since I took anyone to my bed. I am fortunate. And all because of a letter from Yimri.”
“Which you had best open sooner rather than later.” Soru Khara rose and swung her legs over the side of the bed.
Lariel slipped her arms around her waist. “Surely it can wait?” she said.
Soru Khara felt herself dissolve. It could wait. Of course it could wait.
The attack came when she was least prepared for it, naked and half-asleep in Lariel’s arms. Seven guards armed with swords burst into the queen’s bedchamber. Soru Khara jerked up, pushing Lariel behind her. She took a fraction of a second to analyze the invaders’ fire-resistant armor and another fraction to summon Prayer.
The man nearest her toppled on the bed, the sword slipping from his nerveless hands. Lariel screamed. Soru Khara ignored her, focusing on the task at hand. She directed the invisible lines of force from Prayer until she had found all the attackers and stopped their hearts.
When all seven were dead, Soru Khara allowed Prayer to dissipate. She put her head between her legs and breathed, trying to slow her racing pulse.
Lariel laid a hesitant palm on her back. “Are you all right?” she whispered.
“I will be fine,” said Soru Khara, and then: “You set me up.”
“No!” Lariel scooted in front of her and knelt, eyes beseeching. “I had nothing to do with it. Please believe me. I might be queen, but I cannot control every citizen who takes it into his head to avenge the past. Umnians hate the Star Emperor; how could it be otherwise? And in you they see his representative. They cannot touch him, but they can always try and hurt you.” She stopped and swallowed. “You should give me the letter and leave. It would be safer for you.”
“And you?” said Soru Khara. “How much real power do you hold in the city, if you cannot even control who enters your bedchamber?”
Lariel looked away. Soru Khara gazed at her beautiful profile, wanting to trust her and knowing that she could not. She rose from the bed and grabbed her robe. She stepped over the bodies, avoiding their sightless faces. Three men and four women. What a terrible waste.
“I will investigate what happened,” said Lariel, her voice thin. “The captain of the palace guard…”
But Soru Khara did not wait to hear more. She wanted to hold on to the illusion Lariel had spun a little while longer.
She went to her room and examined it for weaknesses. The door was stout wood, but the windows were glass. However, she would hear the glass break before anyone could enter. They could try fire, but they’d burn the palace down before they hurt her. And she could do without oxygen if she had to, at least for a few hours.
Soru Khara closed the door and lay down on the bed. Exhaustion took hold of her. Each successive weapon was not only more deadly, but also required more of her energy to summon and sustain. She would have to eat soon, but meanwhile she succumbed to sleep.
Yimri came to her as she slept. Or at least, the version of themself the Star Emperor had left behind when the ships winked back into the sky—a pale, graceful young man with doe eyes and an engaging, effeminate beauty. It was hard to know why Yimri had chosen this Voice, but Soru Khara guessed it was to pacify humans and put them off-guard. How they would scream if they saw the real Star Emperor.
Yimri sat next to her on the bed. “Soru Khara,” he said, “please accept our congratulations.”
Congratulations? Sleep-fogged and bewildered, she tried to ask why, but no words emerged from her mouth.
Yimri beamed and stroked her hand. It was like being touched by cold glass. “Tomorrow you will succeed in your mission. They will sing songs of it for years to come—how the timely actions of Soru Khara the death-hunter brought Umnia back from the brink of open rebellion.” And so the third trap closed, but she did not know it until the end.
Long after Yimri had left, she continued to dream of the monstrous vision she had seen as a child, trapped in a glass cage with nowhere to hide.
Morning brought a knock on her door. Soru Khara was instantly awake. She threw on her robe and darted to the door, fully charged, ready for anything and everything.
It was the serving girl. “Breakfast, your honor?” she stammered, and fled, leaving the trolley behind. Soru Khara exhaled and wheeled the trolley in herself. Food. That she welcomed. Honey tea, roasted breadfruit, scraped coconut. She ate with relish, sensing her hollow insides fill out. At least Lariel didn’t mean to starve her.
When she was finished, she grabbed the letter and made for the queen’s audience room. Time to finish the task she had been sent here to do. She couldn’t fathom why Yimri’s Voice had visited her last night, or what their cryptic words had meant, but there was no point in delaying the inevitable.
Attendants outside Lariel’s audience room tried to stop her, to say that the queen was not ready to receive anyone, but Soru Khara quelled them with a single glare.
Lariel was not in the audience room. She was sitting at a desk in her office, poring over ledgers, fresh-faced as always. Three men in purple robes hovered behind her.
When she saw Soru Khara, Lariel’s face lit up. “I was hoping you would come. That you would give me a chance to explain.”
“No explanation is required,” said Soru Khara. “I will be leaving today.” She held the letter out.
“I wish you would stay,” said Lariel, without a trace of irony, “and give Umnian hospitality a second chance. You may enjoy yourself.”
“I have enjoyed myself enough, thank you,” said Soru Khara, knowing she had succeeded in keeping the bitterness from her voice by Lariel’s conspiratorial smile. “The letter, please.”
The queen sighed and accepted the letter with as much enthusiasm as if it were an adder. “I suppose it is another raise in tithe,” she said. “As if we don’t bleed enough to the Star Capital. I’ve been going over the palace budget with my councillors, seeing if there are any expenses we can cut. Every year this gets harder. Should I dismiss my staff? Let the gardens go to ruin?” She slit open the letter and unfolded a single sheet of paper. Her lips moved and she frowned. “Is this Yimri’s idea of a joke? This is no letter.”
“No ordinary letter, perhaps,” said Soru Khara, as if she had known this all along. “Do you see a string of numbers?”
Soru Khara’s throat tightened. A voice-coded message. Yimri only used those for security-related matters. But hadn’t she known, ever since she arrived here, that this would be no simple assignment? “Read them out to me and I will speak for the Star Emperor,” she said.
The queen scowled. “Why play games with us poor mortals?” she muttered. She read the numbers aloud in a bored voice. But her anxiety was evident in the tremor of her hand and the tightness of her jaw. Soru Khara pitied her in that moment, for all her duplicity. Perhaps all rulers had to be such. Was not the Emperor themself more varied than the stars, more unfathomable than space?
The last number was spoken and the queen looked up at her, impatient, questioning.
Soru Khara’s mouth opened. “Greetings, Queen Lariel of Umnia,” she intoned. “I bear glad tidings for your realm. We have decided to halve the annual tithe you owe us and remove the levy on Umnian exports entirely. Umnian ships bearing fabrics and spice will once again grace the shores of the Southern ocean. Umnians will be welcome in the Star Capital to trade, work, or even inter-marry.”
Disbelieving grins split the faces of the councillors. But Lariel’s tense expression did not change. She knew what was coming, perhaps, even if her councillors did not.
“We show great trust in offering these concessions and Umnians must show themselves worthy of that trust. As always, any investment in military hardware will be swiftly and severely punished.”
The councillors nodded frantically, as if to say, we would never do anything so stupid. Until, of course, they thought they could get away with it.
“We have only one condition for extending these favorable terms, and that is the removal of you, the Umnian Queen, from the seat of power. The House of Lariel is rotten to the core. It has dragged Umnia to near-bankruptcy and to the brink of rebellion against us. Your Council of Twelve will rule in your stead until we find a better solution.”
“And me? What will happen to me?” said Lariel, rising from the chair, her voice like stone. “Do you think you’ll put me out to pasture like some old cow?”
“You have two choices, Lariel,” continued Soru Khara. “You may return with the death-hunter to the Capital where we shall decide your fate. Or you may choose to end it now. The death-hunter is merciful. She has many ways to still your pulse without a heartbeat of pain.”
Silence filled the room. The councillors backed away and pressed themselves against the wall. So much for their loyalty to the queen. They would gladly sacrifice her for their own interests.
“A death sentence,” said Lariel. “That is what you brought me.”
Soru Khara licked her lips. “I did not know,” she said.
“And if you had known, what then?” said Lariel. “You would not have come to my bed?”
Soru Khara shook her head, wordless. A fist of pain grew inside her chest until it threatened to choke her. Chemicals took over, restoring her balance until she could breathe again. “Let us go to the Capital,” she said. “I will speak on your behalf to the Voice.”
“And say what? You are nothing but a servant of the Star Emperor,” said Lariel, her voice sharp as a knife. “Worse, because servants have minds of their own. I was a fool to think otherwise. I was a fool to think you might harbor feelings.”
I have feelings, Soru Khara wanted to shout. I have a mind. But doubt gnawed at her. Did she have even an iota of free will? Could she disobey or ignore the Emperor?
Lariel straightened her back and glared at her. “I will not be dragged to your Emperor like a common prisoner. Let us not pretend I have any choice. End it now, death-hunter. Make it sudden, make it loud, so the fools cowering behind me have a story to tell for the rest of their pitiful lives.”
Soru Khara closed her eyes. It would be simple. Prayer hovered within her reach, waiting to be summoned. It would be a quick, kind death. It would give the Umnians a clean body to bury, with none of the mess the other weapons wrought on human flesh. Simple. So simple and she could not do it. Lariel, however flawed, was the true ruler of Umnia. The people would never accept a substitute imposed by the alien Emperor. How much blood would flow before another treaty was negotiated?
Soru Khara turned and left the room. She walked down the hall and on to the gates of the outer palace. She flung off her veil, revealing her shaven head and the sigil on her cheek. The guards took one look and backed away from her. She smelled fear as she passed through the gates. When had her presence evoked anything else? Save for those few hours with Lariel…
But thinking of Lariel only brought sadness. The queen would die, if not by her hand, then by another’s. Unless she could make Yimri rethink their strategy and give the queen a reprieve.
Soru Khara made her way down the hill, toward the harbor. Just mid-morning and the air was already thick and warm, laden with the reek of fish and sweat. The harbor was a hive of activity. Men and women hauled crates, auctioned the morning’s catch, and lined up to board commuter ferries. Children in ragged clothes ran underfoot. Soru Khara slipped through the noise and bustle to the far end of the dock where it was quieter. Bamboo rafts and reed boats tied to the dock bobbed in the swell of waves; others were being pulled up on the pebbly beach by their owners.
Soru Khara approached a bare-chested, sinewy young man and touched his arm. He jumped around, eyes widening. “How much for the boat?” she asked.
But he would not answer. In the end she gave him far more than the boat was worth, to compensate him for the days of lost fishing before he could make another. She perched inside and the man pushed the boat out to the water.
She paddled a few strokes; the boat caught the swell and skipped away from the beach. Soru Khara closed her eyes and, haltingly at first, began to sing:
My mother the sea serpent
Eyes bright as jewels
Guards the gates to the underwater world.
Mother, let me sing you to sleep
Mother, won’t you let me through safely.
A pearl diver’s song. Her mother’s song. Apt, that she should remember it now, when she was surrounded by the roar of the sea. A wave crashed against the side of the boat, drenching her. She licked her lips and tasted salt.
Hours later, when she was far enough away that she could barely see the outline of Tyron’s citadel, Yimri appeared opposite her. Not the doe-eyed Voice they had installed in the Star Capital, but a miniature shadow of their true self, a segmented body contained within an exoskeleton, each segment self-aware, self-replicating, many-eyed.
“You are not ready,” they said. “It is too soon.”
Soru Khara swallowed, but did not look away. “Did you not say it yourself? We can use the fourth weapon when we have no other choice. It is the only way.” Apocalypse, tucked within her like a dark secret, stirred and uncoiled itself.
“You have a choice,” said Yimri. “You can choose to obey us and return to the Star Capital. We have so many hopes for you.”
“I have but one hope for myself,” said Soru Khara. “That I might find the end I have been seeking.”
“There are no true endings,” said Yimri. “Only beginnings.”
“Let it be Lariel’s beginning, then,” she said. “Let no weapon be used but mine.”
“The queen tried to kill you,” said Yimri.
“She is human,” said Soru Khara. “In dying I will gain her loyalty, and so will you. Is this not what you truly need?”
Yimri did not say more. When she looked up again, they were gone and she could see all the way to the horizon, where the setting sun made alternating bands of red and orange, like the sky was on fire.
That evening, something exploded in the sky above Tyron, turning dusk to day. Everyone dropped what they were doing to gape at the firmament, lit by a ball of fire brighter than the sun itself. Some people cheered, thinking it was the return of their Gods, and others wept, convinced it was the end of the world. The more learned speculated on the possibility of gravitational collapse of a massive star. Everyone had a theory, and no one was right.
As the days passed, the ‘star’ grew dimmer until it was just another pinprick in the sky, like Mangala or Shukra. But unlike them, it never moved across the sky. It stayed fixed in the same position, directly overhead, as if it watched over the city. People never stopped looking at it, never stopped wondering what it was. And gradually, it came to be called Kahina, the Protector.
For was it not with the appearance of Kahina that the luck of Umnia turned? Queen Lariel finally showed some spine and stood up to the Star Emperor. The tithe to the Star Capital was halved, the levy on Umnian exports was lifted. When the news broke, people gathered outside the citadel to celebrate, singing songs of how brave Queen Lariel had brought an alien overlord to its knees.
But Queen Lariel did not join in the celebrations. When next she appeared to her people, she wore mourning black, nor did they see her wear anything else to the end of her days.