elilith (el·lil·lith) noun
Tattoos given to the girls of Weep, around their navels, when they become women.
Archaic; from the roots eles (self) + lilithai (destiny), signifying the time when a woman takes possession of her destiny, and determines the path of her own life.
Like Jewels, Like Defiance
Kora and Nova had never seen a Mesarthim, but they knew all about them. Everyone did. They knew about their skin: “Blue as sapphires,” said Nova, though they had never seen a sapphire, either. “Blue as icebergs,” said Kora. They saw those all the time. They knew that Mesarthim meant “Servants,” though these were no common servants. They were the soldier-wizards of the empire. They could fly, or else they could breathe fire, or read minds, or turn into shadows and back. They came and went through cuts in the sky. They could heal and shape-shift and vanish. They had war gifts and impossible strength and could tell you how you’d die. Not all of these things together, of course, but one gift each, one only, and they didn’t choose them. The gifts were in them, as they were in everyone, waiting—like an ember for air—should one only be so lucky, so blessed, to be chosen.
As Kora and Nova’s mother had been chosen on the day, sixteen years ago, that Mesarthim last came to Rieva.
The girls were only babies then, so they didn’t remember the blue-skinned Servants and their gliding metal skyship, and they didn’t remember their mother, either, because the Servants took her away and made her one of them, and she never came back.
She used to send them letters from Aqa, the imperial city, where, she wrote, people weren’t just white or blue, but every color, and the godsmetal palace floated on air, moving from place to place. My dears, said the last letter, which had come eight years ago. I’m shipping Out. I don’t know when I’ll return, but you will certainly be women grown by then. Take care of each other for me, and always remember, whatever anyone tells you: I would have chosen you, if they had let me choose.
I would have chosen you.
In winter, in Rieva, they heated flat stones in the fire to tuck into their sleeping furs at night, though they cooled off fast and were hard under your ribs when you woke. Well, those five words were like heated stones that never lost their warmth or bruised your flesh, and Kora and Nova carried them everywhere. Or perhaps they wore them, like jewels. Like defiance. Someone loves us, their faces said, when they stared down Skoyë, or refused to cringe before their father. It wasn’t much, letters in the place of a mother—and they only had the memory of the letters now, since Skoyë had thrown them in the fire “by accident”—but they had each other, too. Kora and Nova: companions, allies. Sisters. They were indivisible, like the lines of a couplet that would lose their meaning out of context. Their names might as well have been one name—Koraandnova— so seldom were they spoken separately, and when they were, they sounded incomplete, like one half of a mussel shell, cracked open and ripped in two. They were each other’s person, each other’s place. They didn’t need magic to read each other’s thoughts, only glances, and their hopes were twins, even if they were not. They stood side by side, braced together against the future. Whatever life might force on them, and however it might fail them, they knew they had each other.
And then the Mesarthim came back.
. . .
Nova was first to see. She was on the beach, and she’d just straightened up to swipe her hair out of her eyes. She had to use her forearm, since she held her gaff in one hand and flensing knife in the other. Her fingers were cramped into claws around them, and she was gore all the way to her elbows. She felt the sticking drag of half-dried blood as she drew her arm across her brow. Then something glinted in the sky, and she glanced up to see what it was.
“Kora,” she said.
Kora didn’t hear. Her face, blood-streaked, too, was blanched with numb endurance. Her knife worked back and forth but her eyes were blank, as though she’d stowed her mind in a nicer place, not needing it for this grisly work. An uul carcass hulked between them, half flayed. The beach was strewn with dozens more carcasses, and more hunched figures like theirs. Blood and blubber clotted the sand. Cyrs skirled, fighting for entrails, and the shallows boiled with spikefish and beaked sharks drawn to the sweet, salty reek. It was the Slaughter, the worst time of year on Rieva—for the women and girls, anyway. The men and boys relished it. They didn’t wield gaffs and knives, but spears. They did the killing, and hewed off the tusks to carve into trophies, and left all the rest where it lay. Butchering was women’s work, never mind that it took more muscle, and more stamina, than killing. “Our women are strong,” the men boasted from up on the headland, clear of the stink and the flies. And they were strong—and they were weary and grim, trembling from exertion, and streaked with every vile fluid that leaks out of dead things, when the glint caught Nova’s eye.
“Kora,” she said again, and her sister looked up this time, and followed her gaze to the sky.
And it was as if, though Nova had seen what was there, she couldn’t process it until Kora did, too. As soon as her sister’s eyes fixed on it, the shock rocked through them both.
It was a skyship.
A skyship meant Mesarthim.
And Mesarthim meant...
Escape. Escape from ice and uuls and drudgery. From Skoyë’s tyranny and their father’s apathy, and lately—sharply—from the men. Over the past year, the village men had started pausing when they passed, looking from Kora to Nova and Nova to Kora like they were choosing a chicken for slaughter. Kora was seventeen, Nova sixteen. Their father could marry them off anytime he pleased. The only reason he hadn’t yet was because Skoyë, their stepmother, was loath to lose her pair of slaves. They did most of the work, and looked after their troupe of little half brothers, too. Skoyë couldn’t keep them forever, though. Girls were gifts to be given, not kept—or more like livestock to be sold, as any father of a desirable daughter on Rieva was aware. And Kora and Nova were pretty enough, with their flax-fair hair and bright brown eyes. They had delicate wrists that belied their strength, and though their figures were secret under layers of wool and uul hide, hips, at least, were hard to conceal. They had curves enough to keep sleeping furs warm, and were known to be hard workers besides. It wouldn’t be long. By Deepwinter, surely, when the dark month fell, they would be wives, living with whoever made their father the best offer, and no longer with each other.
And it wasn’t just that they’d be split apart, or that they had no will to be wives. The worst thing of all was the loss of the lie. What lie?
This is not our life.
For as long as they could remember, that was what they’d told each other, with and without words. They had a way of looking at each other, a certain fixed intensity, that was as good as speaking it out loud. When things were at their worst—in the middle of the Slaughter, when it was carcass after carcass, or when Skoyë slapped them, or they ran out of food before they ran out of winter—they kept the lie burning between them. This is not our life. Remember. We don’t belong here. The Mesarthim will come back and choose us. This is not our real life. However bad things got, they had that to keep them going. If they had been one girl instead of two it would have died out long ago, like a candle flame with just one hand to cup it. But there were two of them, and between them they kept it alive, saw it mirrored in each other and borrowed faith back and forth, never alone and never defeated.
They whispered at night of what gifts they would have. They would be powerful like their mother, they were sure. They were meant to be soldier-wizards, not drudge-brides or slave-daughters, and they would be whisked away to Aqa to train for battle and wear godsmetal against their skin, and when the time came they would ship Out, too—up and out through a cut in the sky, to be heroes of the empire, as blue as sapphires and glaciers, and as beautiful as stars.
But the years went by and no Mesarthim came, and the lie stretched thin, so that when they looked to each other for the faith they kept between them, they began to find fear instead. What if this is our life after all?
Every year on Deepwinter’s Eve, Kora and Nova climbed the ice-slick ridge trail to watch the sun’s brief appearance, knowing it was the last they’d see of it for a month. Well, losing their lie felt like losing the sun—not for a month, but forever.
So the sight of that skyship...it was like the return of the light.
Nova let out a whoop. Kora laughed—with joy and deliverance and...accusation. “Today?” she demanded of the ship in the sky. The reeling, brilliant sound of her laughter rang across the beach. “Really?”
“You couldn’t have come last week?” cried Nova, her head flung back, the same joy and deliverance alive in her voice, and the same edge of asperity. They were matted with sweat, rank with gore, and red-eyed from the sting of guts and gases, and the Mesarthim came now? Along the beach, among the wet-hollow husks of half-butchered beasts and the clouds of stinging flies, the other women looked up, too. Knives fell still. Awe stirred in the slaughter-numbed blankness as the ship soared nearer. It was made of godsmetal, vivid blue and mirror bright, catching the sun and searing spots into their vision.
Mesarthim skyships were shaped by the minds of their captains, and this one was in the likeness of a wasp. Its wings were knife-blade sleek, its head a tapered oval with two great orbs for eyes. Its body, insect-like, was formed of a thorax and abdomen joined in a pinch of a waist. It even had a stinger. It flew overhead, aiming for the headland, and passed out of sight behind the rock palisade that sheltered the village from wind.
Kora’s and Nova’s hearts were pounding. They were giddy and shaking with thrill, nerves, reverence, hope, and vindication. They swung their gaffs and knives, embedding them in the uul, both knowing, as they unclenched their fingers from the tools’ well-worn hafts, that they would never return to retrieve them.
This is not our life.
“What do you two think you’re doing?” Skoyë demanded as they stumbled toward the shore.