PodCastle 683: Three for Hers
Three For Hers
by Filip Hajdar Drnovšek Zorko
The second time one of Vida’s brothers came home with strips of flesh cut out of his back, she decided it was time for the Margrave’s rule to end.
‘Don’t go,’ her middle brother sobbed. His bandages had soaked through, blood clumping where it met the grimy floor. ‘I was brave and fierce, and it was not enough.’
‘Don’t go,’ her oldest brother pleaded. His back had scarred a long time ago. So had his spirit. ‘I was strong and stubborn, and it was not enough.’
‘Please don’t go.’ Her father’s face was the hardest to ignore. Vida bundled the last of her belongings. It did not take long: the Plemitschi allowed them only food and clothing.
‘We have served the rulers of this land since it was young.’ Vida looked down as she spoke. Her father remembered a time when their service had been freely given, one Yagichari to another. She did not wish to see that nostalgia on his face. ‘I will not stop now.’
‘I’ll go instead,’ her father said. ‘You cannot do this to your brothers. They rely on your good cheer. I cannot bear to see your heart harden in the Margrave’s service.’
Vida did not want to upset him. She did not say, My heart hardened the day the Plemitschi came. Or, My heart broke the day the plague broke out, and I have pretended ever since, for you and for my brothers, because I knew I was stronger. Or, There is no heart where the Plemitschi tread.
‘I will serve,’ Vida said, and left.
The shadow crept along the high street of Konj like a grasping hand. Two houses away, a body transport bobbed in front of a door marked with the red plague mosquito. A bad day. She could tell by how low in the air the transport lay. She hurried on. It was late—the Margrave’s castle-ship was positioned carefully to block the sun. The Plemitschi did not mind if their conquests woke to the play of sunlight through tattered curtains, so long as they went to bed in their masters’ shadow.
The castle-ship hung in the sky, tricking the eye like the painted backdrops Vida’s father made when she’d played at being an actor. There were turrets at each of its five corners. In direct sunlight, the eye was drawn to the nacre gleam sheathing their upper levels. On the day of the invasion, they’d unfurled delicate whorls, like leaves of bracken, and everything they touched died.
The mud was cold beneath Vida’s feet. Beauty was hard to find in Konj, but she knew where to look. She saw it in the yellow street-lamps, which had not yet been replaced with ones of Plemitschi make. She saw it in the battered sign that hung above the apothecary, the vine-wrapped pestle identifying the medical profession centuries after the tool itself had fallen out of use. She saw it in the mud. Mud persisted.
It took her ten minutes to walk the high street. The open patch of land beneath the castle-ship had been a graveyard—Vida remembered gravestones festooned with flowers and flickering candles on the day of remembrance. Now the gravestones were gone and directly beneath the castle-ship, at the point where an upwards glance was occluded entirely by its grey underside, a pair of the Margrave’s soldiers stood at attention.
‘Your business?’ one said.
The soldiers wore the masks of the Plemitschi military, full-face plates on which nauseating patterns swarmed and multiplied. She kept her gaze down, loathing her own deference. It was better than looking at the hallucination where a face should be. She could still smell the bitter ozone of the illusions.
I have come to serve, as my family has always served. Cool. Unaffected. An unyielding mask to counter their shifting ones—she’d thought it would be easy. Her throat constricted. Away from her family, she found she could not speak herself into servitude. She could not pretend that the counsel her ancestors once offered their leaders was in any way equivalent to how the Margrave used her family now, as trinkets to mark the respectability and continuity of his rule.
‘My brother was sent home today.’ It was a struggle to get even those words out. Vida breathed out through her nose, closed the shutters on her rage, and smiled. ‘I am here in his place.’
Was this a mistake? Was it unusual for someone to come without a summons? When her brother had staggered in through the door, the conviction had burnt so strong it hadn’t occurred to her to wait. What use was a plan, compared to Plemitschi might? She was smart and quick and clever. Everyone said so. Instinct had told her to go without delay.
She put her misgivings away and said, ‘Yes.’
The guards verified her identity, checked her for weapons, then summoned the lift. The castle-ship could land—Vida had seen it, regurgitating military parades on the Plemitschi Day of Nationhood—but most of the time access was obtained through the lift, a platform five paces to a side cut from the castle-ship’s belly. It floated down to them in a display of technological superiority so unintentional, it whitened Vida’s knuckles around the lift’s railing.
‘Poor bastard,’ one of the guards said, and she spent the ascent trying to decide who they meant, her or her brother, and barely noticed when she passed into the Margrave’s bosom.
There was a woman waiting for her on the other end. She was short for a Plemitschi, her thick brown hair pinned close to her skull and her cheekbones set low on a face marked with the faint cross-hatching of a plague survivor. Were these typical Plemitschi features? Other than the Margrave, Vida had only ever seen them masked.
‘The Margrave wishes to greet you personally,’ the woman said. ‘Follow me.’
The castle-ship was disappointingly mundane. The doors they passed were furnished with control panels rather than handles, but otherwise the technology that made the lift work, that hid death within the ship’s five shining towers, was nowhere in evidence.
‘Who are you?’ Vida said, to give her ears something to hear.
The woman slowed her pace to match Vida’s. ‘My name is Orzsa. I am the ship’s administrator.’
‘Does that mean you can make it fly?’ She did not ask as a potential saboteur, only as a child who had been promised and denied something wondrous.
‘No. Only the Margrave has access to the ship’s higher functions. He has automated most of those, in order to devote more time to his passions. I have authority over the administrative systems only.’
Which systems, Vida did not dare ask. Instead, she gestured at the corridor curving away to her right. ‘It’s emptier than I thought it would be.’
‘The garrison is housed separately.’
‘I meant—I thought there would be others. From the town. I’ve heard—’ Vida reconsidered. Better not to repeat the stories the townspeople told of the Margrave.
‘There were many. Most found the Margrave’s service too…demanding. The Margrave does not force anyone to serve.’ Orzsa’s smile contained an acknowledgement of the unspoken: anyone except you.
Having her questions answered made Vida bolder. ‘And you? Do you find his service demanding?’
Orzsa stopped in front of a door set, unlike the others, in the inner wall of the corridor. ‘The Margrave is not cruel to those who follow his rules. Be polite. Be deferential.’
The door opened onto a garden.
From the outside, it was hidden entirely from sight, nestled in amongst the five towers. A glass dome rose above them, catching sunlight, transforming the interior of the ship into a peaceful day in the woods—but this was not the most remarkable thing about the garden.
The most remarkable thing were the plants. Ever since the invasion, the soil of Konj had strained to produce anything worth growing, but here, inside, the garden was carpeted in lush blue-green grass; birch trees rose gracefully at the far end, their tops brushing the artificial sky; snowdrops grew wild among their roots and roses in neat flowerbeds.
‘Gardening is one of the Margrave’s passions,’ Orzsa said, as if the whole impossible garden were nothing but a hobbyist’s allotment. ‘This way.’
Vida wondered how deep the soil went. She wanted to look around and smell things she hadn’t smelled since childhood. She wanted to take off her shoes. She did not want to approach the man standing by the flowerbeds in a black satin morning coat fastened with silver buttons.
‘My lord Margrave,’ Orzsa said, bowing. ‘The family of the chief advisor offers its daughter.’
The Margrave was, in Vida’s mind, the face of the Plemitschi: tall and pale and slender, black hair cut short, dark eyes about a whipcord nose, a face better suited to being seen from afar. His nails were painted pale red.
‘Already? It was only this morning that your dear brother left us! A shame, but it does warm my heart to see such a loyal sister. Tell me: what is your name?’
‘Ah! Like the song!’ The Margrave winked, as if his knowledge of Yagichari folk music proved some deep connection between them. ‘Welcome. You are from Konj? Such a relief. I had a boy from the outlying villages once, but I only see them once a year. I simply could not connect with him! Konj is different. It is close to my heart.’
Vida remembered watching from her father’s shoulders, the first time the Margrave embarked on his annual procession. She remembered the tension that followed: relief at his absence; guilt at knowing his gaze had fallen on friends and relatives beyond the borders of Konj. She remembered the Harvest Riot, three days later upon his return.
‘My lord,’ Vida said. ‘My brothers have twice failed you. I will do better.’
‘I’m glad to hear it! I doubt a bright young thing like you will have trouble. I don’t ask for much. Do as I say. Complete the tasks I set you. And—I’m sure you’ve heard, but I must go through the motions, yes? There is a rule I have, one I care about very much. It is a special rule, because it applies to me, too. I cannot abide anger. Not in myself, not in others. This is paramount. If you ever lose your temper in my presence, you will leave my service immediately, less three strips of flesh off your own back. Do you agree to these terms?’
He smiled widely, inviting her to join him in pretending she had a choice. ‘I do,’ she said.
Vida knew what was coming next: a blow to the face, backhanded, to test the strength of the Margrave’s rule. She’d heard the story, whispered by those who chanced the Margrave’s service. Her brothers spoke of the unexpected whiplash strength in the Margrave’s long arms. Endure, they said. Take the blow. Hide your rage.
Vida struck the Margrave clean across the nose with the palm of her hand. He staggered back a step. When he righted himself, there was a trickle of blood on his upper lip.
‘Now,’ he said at length. ‘What was that, I wonder?’
Vida looked down. ‘Apologies, my lord. I thought I saw a mosquito upon your nose. I would hate to see plague take you.’ She shifted her weight from one foot to the other. ‘I do hope I haven’t made you angry, my lord?’
The Margrave took his time studying her. Vida stood her ground and swam in her anger, immersed herself so thoroughly that not a hint of it appeared on her face. She would prevail where her brothers had not.
Presently the Margrave said, ‘Plemitschi are immune to the plague. But I won’t hold your ignorance against you. If I did that, I would go through servants even faster than I already do! Orzsa, take her to her quarters.’
A hand on Vida’s shoulder propelled her away from the Margrave. ‘That was a mistake,’ Orzsa murmured. ‘He will be watching you now.’
Vida did not say, Good. Or, Then he will be watching on the day he dies. Or, He will watch me until the point of his own knife pierces his cornea and his eye drains of its fluid.
She said, ‘Good-night.’
‘The Margrave has a task for you.’
Vida washed sleep from her face. She combed her fingers through her hair and swept it back behind her shoulders. Only then did she turn to Orzsa, who stood by the door. ‘Yes?’
‘He is in the mood for a new bed of flowers. You will take these seeds to the garden and plant them. Once you are done you may report to the mess.’
‘Flowers,’ Vida said, accepting the small sack. It was made of a smooth white material as alien to her as she knew the seeds within would be.
‘The soil is poor in these parts, but much can be done with the application of Plemitschi technology,’ Orzsa said, as if she were not herself Plemitschi.
‘That’s all? One flowerbed?’ Vida took her shifts at planting and harvest, as everyone in Konj did, working longer hours each passing year for less reward. ‘I was expecting… more.’
‘That depends. If you are another downtrodden soul for the Margrave to break at his leisure, then that is all.’ Orzsa hesitated, then extended two long fingers, as if offering up something delicate. ‘But if you are equal to your display last night, then perhaps there is more. Perhaps you should not do as I say. Perhaps you should leave those seeds here, and instead climb the turrets, and feel the wind on your face.’
Was this a warning? An offer of help? Vida’s instincts prevailed. Orzsa was Plemitschi. There would be no alliance from that quarter, only tricks and tests.
Vida said, ‘And incur the Margrave’s wrath?’
Orzsa flinched. Her hand returned to her side. ‘Never that. His punishment, yes, but never his wrath. The rule applies to us all.’
‘My mistake,’ Vida said. ‘As it would be my mistake to follow your advice. I will do as the Margrave orders.’
‘In that case,’ Orzsa said, her expression once again smoothed into blank Plemitschi superiority, ‘you would do well not to linger.’
The soil in the Margrave’s garden was dark and loamy, fragrant with the scent of new growth. Nothing like the dull, sour fields Vida was used to. It was slow going—the seeds were small black things, but Orzsa insisted it was imperative to plant each one individually—and more satisfying for it.
‘You’re almost done?’
Vida straightened and stretched away the aches of a morning’s work. The ceiling caught the heat of the sun but left the chill autumn air outside, and she’d taken her shirt off as she worked. Now, Orzsa’s shadow crossing hers, she wished she were not so relaxed. ‘Yes.’
‘Unfortunate,’ Orzsa said. ‘I made an error. Those were the wrong seeds. You’ll have to take them out and start again.’
‘Take them out?’ The simple joy of working the earth curdled in Vida’s breast. ‘How am I supposed to find them? They’re the same colour as the soil!’
‘You will have to be meticulous.’ Orzsa’s smile made her look almost human. ‘It’s a shame. The day is clear. You would have been able to see for miles in every direction.’
‘What are you—’ The question died on her lips. Perhaps you should climb the turrets. ‘Another test,’ she snapped. ‘That’s all this was?’
‘Mind your temper. Everything is a test with the Margrave.’
Vida checked herself. She loved her brothers, but they lost their tempers as easily as they forgave. She’d thought herself different, not understanding how easily a mask could crack under unfamiliar pressures, how quickly the thought of barren fields would turn to rage with the grit of fertile soil beneath her nails.
‘Good,’ Orzsa said. ‘You may eat once you are done.’
‘Then I will be lucky to eat at all today.’
The flash of guilt Vida expected did not materialise. ‘Everything is a test,’ Orzsa repeated. ‘The only question is whether you are meant to pass or fail.’
‘Which was this?’
‘Better people than you have driven themselves mad asking that question.’
Vida surged to her feet, remembered herself in time, injected calm into her voice. ‘What does a Plemitschi know of good people?’
Orzsa considered her with calm, grey eyes, and for the first time Vida wondered what sort of person might be forged in a crucible that forbade the use of anger. Orzsa turned and pulled her shirt over her head with languid movements. Vida cursed. Fresh welts stood out from Orzsa’s back like ridges denuded in a storm. The hem of her trousers was stained russet where the largest welts had oozed trails of blood.
‘Do you know what the Margrave does with the strips of flesh he claims from his victims?’ Orzsa replaced her shirt without wincing. ‘He tans them. Then he turns them into whips. Flaying he reserves for those who break his cardinal rule. Flogging is for lesser failures. In this way the smaller punishment contains the greater.’
Vida wanted desperately to look away. ‘But why did he—’
‘Vida.’ Orzsa sounded like a teacher dealing with a student who refused to understand a simple concept. ‘Who gave you the incorrect seeds this morning?’
Vida neither ate nor slept that night. If Orzsa had intended to warn her, why not give her the right seeds to begin with? Had it been caution on Orzsa’s part, a potential ally unwilling to expose herself? Or another move in the Margrave’s game?
The uncertainty unmoored her. She made anchors of the Margrave’s cardinal rule: Do not show anger. You will get better. You will hide yourself. It was a comforting thought. She did not think it was true.
Orzsa delivered the Margrave’s instructions at dawn. Menial work: prune the hedges; launder, with a sharp-smelling, chalky liquid Vida had never seen before; synchronise the ship calendars with the limited access Orzsa granted her. Instead of the relief of no longer having his attention upon her, Vida felt slighted, as if the Margrave had declared her a poor opponent after all. She approached every task cautiously, fearing the hidden barb in it.
The catch came when she stopped expecting it, halfway down the corridor that led back to her quarters after dinner.
The Margrave’s voice tugged at her with the unsettling sensation of a broken nail caught in coarse cloth. Vida turned, cursing herself—she’d walked right past him!—but no, it wasn’t her fault. There he was, emerging from a door that had been shut. She could see racks of Plemitschi shock-wands behind him, just three of which had quelled the Harvest Riot, and concentrated instead on the dance of the Margrave’s long fingers as he locked the armoury behind him.
‘May I assist, my lord?’
‘I was impressed by your tenacity last night. I trust Orzsa’s little error didn’t put you out of too much sleep!’
‘Not at all, my lord.’
‘Good.’ The Margrave smiled like a fisherwoman sensing the bite. ‘Then you won’t mind staying out again tonight? The task I have in mind requires a certain amount of spirit.’
Vida saw the trap too late. How could she refuse, when she had just professed herself well-rested? She waited for anger and the end, but she was too exhausted to feel anything. ‘Of course, my lord.’
‘Excellent. I have a couple casks of Plemitschi honey wine on the roof of the front-right turret—do you know it? No? A very delicate wine. It requires bright sunlight and clear air to age properly—and, between you and me, the air down at ground level is too fetid.’ He wrinkled his nose ostentatiously. ‘A glass of honey wine in the middle of all this squalor—it keeps me on my feet. But lately I have noticed the level dropping. I’d sooner believe birds have learnt to tap the casks, but if someone in the castle is to blame… you’ll understand, won’t you, if I’d like some peace of mind. Ascend the tower. Prove my mind is playing tricks on me. If you keep watch all night, I know it would set my fears to rest.’
The only words Vida truly heard were keep watch all night. ‘Of course, my lord,’ she repeated mechanically.
‘I knew you’d be up to it. I will instruct the guards to let you up.’
Vida waited in the middle of the corridor until his footsteps faded. His plan was obvious, in hindsight. She would fall asleep, and the “thieves”—operating on the Margrave’s own orders, no doubt—would do their work. She would fail. She would be punished. Would she rail at the injustice? Would she break the Margrave’s rule, paying the cost willingly if it meant returning home? Would she pass the baton to her father?
She would not. The thought of her father steadied her. Her fingers were deft and sure on the control panel by the armoury door, inputting the same code she’d watched the Margrave use to lock it. The door opened and the breadth of the Plemitschi arsenal was available to her, had she but the strength to wield it. Then she saw the reason for the Margrave’s presence: in one corner, on racks of polished hardwood, sat the Margrave’s collection of whips. She did not look too closely. She did not want to see if any had freshly added tails. She did not want to know if any part of those weapons was made of her brothers.
Any desire to wield the shock-wands of the Plemitschi legions fell away. What good were they? She could barely muster the strength to save herself. When she sealed the door shut again, all she carried was a single spool of stun-wire.
Vida woke to the distant call of a cockerel. Her back was stiff but her mind clear, the previous night’s memories presenting themselves readily. She was at the top of a tower. One of the precious casks of honey-wine served as a pillow, and the stun-wire—
Vida’s eyes shot open. There were two bodies slumped by the stairs. The stun-wire, near invisible when she’d teased it out in a circle around the casks, stood out against the brilliant white rooftop now that it had burnt out. Vida had seen stun-wire deployed by the Plemitschi often enough to imagine the scene: one thief tripping the wire, the other too close behind to avoid stumbling, the both of them collapsed, twitching.
Vida got to her feet, gritting her teeth through the complaints of deadened muscle. She’d passed the test. Now all she needed to do was confirm the thieves’ identities and report them to the Margrave.
They wore the masks of Plemitschi soldiers. It took her the better part of a minute to unfasten the first. The face thus revealed, its motion locked away by stun-wire, was Orzsa’s. Something acrid and bitter filled the back of her throat: the taste of an emotion she should not be feeling at the sight of a Plemitschi laid low. She couldn’t bear to remain on the rooftop. Her feet beat the rhythm of words out on the steps: It doesn’t matter. She’s the same as the others—it doesn’t matter that it was her.
The Margrave was waiting for her at the base of the stairs. ‘Well?’
Briefly she considered lying. But what was the point? The bodies were there. They would be found whether she told him or not. ‘You were right, my lord.’ She swallowed guilt. Her next words came smoothly. ‘There were two of them. I overpowered them.’ And would that bring him down upon her? She’d left the stun-wire where it was. It doesn’t matter. ‘They’re still up on the roof.’
The Margrave searched her face for signs of—what? Whatever he did or did not see in her, it seemed to satisfy him. ‘Excellent. Why don’t you take the day off? You must be exhausted.’
Vida could hardly tell him she’d spent the night asleep. She said, ‘Yes, my lord.’
The day passed with now-familiar anxiety. When the knock came, late in the evening, Vida was expecting it. She was learning. The Margrave liked to blind his victim with boredom before the blow. This time, she was ready for it.
She was not ready for Orzsa’s face at the door, hands clasped demurely but wracked with the after-spasms of the stun-wire. ‘The Margrave has finished questioning the thief. He would have you present for his judgement.’
‘But you were— There were two thieves.’
‘There was one thief. If you would follow me?’
‘Wait!’ There were things Vida wanted to say that could not be said in the open, and this room was all the sanctuary she had. ‘Why do you serve him? He abuses you, too. You’re bound by the same rules.’
Orzsa tilted her head, as if measuring out exactly how far to take her words. ‘Because I have seen your type before. You are clever. Quick on your feet. You think that is all it takes to undo the Margrave. But it was not enough for any of those others.’
‘And your solution is to never act at all!’
‘Mind your temper.’
‘I won’t! You tried to warn me, the first day. What happened?’
‘You did not heed my warning.’
‘Then help me now! Unless you don’t really care. Maybe you pretend you’re not Plemitschi at all, to make yourself feel better!’
‘Look at my face.’
The instruction was too bizarre to ignore. Vida studied the lines of Orzsa’s face, the cold blankness of it, the faint red plague threads shading her cheeks and chin. ‘Oh. But—he said you were immune.’
‘He said he was immune.’ Orzsa’s voice, always even, had now the potential energy of a boulder balanced atop a spire. ‘Perhaps you have it backwards. Perhaps I pretend I am a Plemitschi because it is easier to think I was never anything else.’
Threatened with shame, Vida turned back to rage. ‘But what is the point? Do you even know how anger feels, after years of him?’
‘Better than you think. I know that you cannot beat the Margrave at his own game.’
‘Then what did I do last night?’
Orzsa tore a ragged laugh from her throat. ‘I am glad to have known you, Vida. I forgive you. And I am sorry.’
‘Come. Let us go and see what you did last night.’
The Margrave dispensed justice in the glory of his power, when the last rays of the setting sun lit his throne like a flower curled around a bee.
‘Vida!’ It was as if the throne room were made to hold his voice, to bounce it lovingly within the vault of its ceiling. ‘You did well. I would not want you to miss the best part.’
Someone was kneeling in the middle of the room, facing away from the throne. At the Margrave’s signal, Orzsa approached and drew back the cloth bag around the man’s head.
Vida’s first thought was a stab of simple concern: her father’s face looked drawn. Had he been getting enough sleep? The question cushioned her from the others: how could he be here—what would happen to him—how could she have let the Margrave win? No—that was the wrong word. Victory implied competition. If she’d failed to stop the thieves, the punishment would have come down on her instead. It was not victory. It was inevitability.
When the Margrave stood, Vida was re-learning her father’s face. When he descended the steps from his throne, she was returning her father’s perforated smile. And when he drew the knife at his belt, when its thrice-folded steel sung a greeting to the air, she could not turn away from her father’s innocence. A blessing, she thought, that she could not see the Margrave work—but then her father’s expression turned wrong, as if all the muscles of his face had tightened perpendicular to a smile, and she could track the Margrave’s progress by the pain chiselled from her father’s features.
When the Margrave was done, he leaned down and cleaned his blade on the front of her father’s shirt. Three strips of flesh hung from his hand like a brace of pheasants from a hunter’s. He studied them, wrapped them around his knuckles, then cast them aside to slap wetly on the floor.
He said, ‘I thought you would enjoy seeing the seeds of justice bloom. I do hope you’re not upset?’
Vida’s instincts warred within her, to run or to fight or to weep. She wanted to take his knife and carve the smile right off his face. What was left to lose? She’d failed to protect her family. The Margrave’s eyes shone with the triumph of bringing someone to their breaking point.
She would prove him right. She would take his triumph and impale it on the broken shards of herself.
Behind him, flanking the throne, Orzsa slowly shook her head.
And Vida understood. She could never be the woman she’d imagined herself being, cool and unflappable and waiting for her moment. Three days in the castle-ship had proved it. But Orzsa already was that woman. They were not opposite but complementary—a Yagichari who was too quick to act, and a woman who had not always been Plemitschi, who risked never acting at all.
And here Orzsa was, expecting Vida to burn out as every other person in the Margrave’s employ had, but imploring her to inaction all the same.
That act of solidarity saved Vida’s life.
‘Of course not.’ Her voice sounded different. Like Orzsa’s. ‘I’m grateful for the privilege.’
‘You have done well, Vida.’ The Margrave’s voice made a collar of her name. ‘Enjoy your evening. I expect to see you hard at work in the morning.’
Vida ignored the thing on the floor that was not, could not be, her father’s weeping, bleeding body. She said, ‘Good evening, my lord,’ and walked away.
Orzsa came to her in the middle of the night.
Vida’s revelation had been mutual. Orzsa recognised herself in the brittle composure Vida had shown in the throne room. Now she said, I was wrong about you. And, There is something of me in you. And, Let me show you the part of you in me.
Together, they made their plan.
A week later, the Margrave prepared to depart on his annual procession through his holdings.
The castle-ship descended. Its front fell open like a drawbridge, exposing its vast belly to the open air. Inside, the garrison was forming up, five columns of infantry around a sleek hover-transport. It was an ugly thing in red and black, open-topped—the perfect foil for the Margrave’s parade uniform, which garment he was now completing with a pair of gloves so bright Vida wondered if they had been white before they were red.
‘Three days!’ The Margrave was in a buoyant mood. He had been, often, since breaking Vida. ‘Be sure to leave a light burning, eh? Ha!’
Vida watched the procession leave. The revelry would come upon its return, celebrating the Day of Plemitschi Nationhood. Before the invasion, it had been the harvest festival. That notion had been excised from Yagichari minds on the day of the Harvest Riot.
A few hours after the Margrave’s departure, the castle-ship descended once again. It lay like a beast shedding heat after a meal, maw open, loyally awaiting masters still days away.
Vida made her way to the armoury with Orzsa’s access codes. She had time. Even if word reached him immediately, the Margrave would be hours returning. Time to browse the death collected there and select the instrument with which she would fulfil the Margrave’s request. Time to take the shock-wand to the Margrave’s garden and set the trees alight. Time to imagine flames reflecting off his ivory towers.
She waited in the place that was still a cemetery despite the lack of headstones. Her people trickled outside, the intrepid leading the meek. She watched them filter into the castle-ship, where Orzsa waited to direct them to armoury. She carefully did not think about the fates of the castle-ship’s remaining defenders.
The Margrave arrived one hour later, ahead of schedule, his hover-transport caked with grime. His honour guard must have been left far behind. Vida wondered what he expected to find. Something other than her, sitting on a dusty railing, watching the smoke snake lazily on the wind. The castle-ship, ignited by a tragic accident? The people of Konj, loyally fighting the blaze?
‘What,’ he said, upon discovering this was not the case, ‘have you done?’
‘Left a light burning,’ Vida said. She felt like she was on stage, the hazy lights of the theatre penetrating the smoke only weakly.
‘You fool,’ the Margrave began.
Vida did not listen to the rest of his assessment. Oh, she thought as spittle ran down his chin. How strange. He does not understand. He thinks we are still playing his game.
‘You will tell me who did this.’ The Margrave punctuated his conclusion with a finger directed to her forehead. ‘Then we will consider your punishment.’
His expression would keep her warm through winter. ‘You? Impossible. Only I can command the ship to descend.’
‘Orzsa helped,’ Vida said, magnanimously.
‘You will tell me who did this. Orzsa does not have the authority!’
‘No,’ Vida agreed, ‘but it was already programmed to descend, three days from now. And she does have the authority to set the ship’s time and date. Doesn’t that mean you did this? You were the one who automated so many of the ship’s systems, weren’t you?’
The Margrave did not speak, but his gaze was as colourful as his words were not.
‘Margrave.’ The word passed like poisoned honey, blistering her lips. ‘You’re not angry, are you?’
The Margrave snarled, lunged forwards—and fell to the ground, face-down, as if someone had slid the bones right out of his limbs. The stun-wire sparked and went silent. His beautiful, terrible knife was at its customary place on his belt. He twitched but did not resist when she reached for it. The blade came out smooth; the handle fit her hand like a noose fit a neck. It felt unreal.
‘You can’t—’ His voice was slurred. ‘I am a Margrave of the Plemitschi, and the Treaty of Bech protects me from—’
The only thing protecting him from her was the proud black-and-red of his uniform, torn through one shoulder, gaudy like an actor’s costume. He flinched at the sound of it coming apart down his back.
The knife parted his skin as easily as it had parted her brothers’. The muscles in his shoulders bunched, heaved, but there was Vida, pushing them down, there was the blade, sliding in along the bone like a ship come into harbour, severing his resistance. She made a game of it: every time he twitched, she cut.
Three strips. That was the punishment. Everyone knew someone with the scars on their back to prove it. The third time her knife came up for air, he sobbed with relief. Three strips: he was free.
Vida regarded his butchered back. She began to laugh, then to cry. Three for his anger—
And three for hers. Three for her brothers, for Orzsa, for rules he had no right to make; three for the plague transports, three for the shadow along Konj’s streets, three, three, three until the blade snapped in half, three until his heart saw the light, three until there was nothing left to cut.
About the Author
Filip Hajdar Drnovšek Zorko
Filip Hajdar Drnovšek Zorko is a Slovenian-born writer and translator. He grew up in Slovenia, Ireland, Australia, and the UK, and currently resides just outside Portland, Maine. He understands that his name is a bit confusing and would like you to know that “Drnovšek Zorko” is the surname. He attended Clarion West in 2019, and his work has previously appeared or is forthcoming in Clarkesworld, Lightspeed, and Escape Pod. In his spare time he is a keen quizzer—British listeners may recognise him from that one time he was on University Challenge.
About the Narrator
Tanja Milojevic is originally from Serbia but has been in the U.S. since the age of 5. She has been voice acting since her senior year of high school and can be heard all over including Koach Studios’ Ancestry, You Are Here, 11th Hours’ Heavenly Deception, What’s the Frequency, Broken Sea Audio Productions, Greater Boston, 19 Nocturne Boulevard, and Edict Zero. She produces her own radio dramas and posts them to her podcast LightningBolt Theater of the mind (click the link – we dare you). She says “I’m visually impaired and have ROP and Glaucoma, but use gold wave and Sound Forge to record and post-produce my audio.”