A Ragged Little Girl with Beetle Shell Eyes
Last night, the citadel of the Mesarthim had almost fallen from the sky. It would have crushed the city of Weep below. If any survived the impact, they would have drowned in the floods as the underground river broke free and swamped the streets. But none of that had happened because someone had stopped it. Never mind that the citadel was hundreds of feet tall, wrought of alien metal, and formed by a god in the shape of an angel. Lazlo had caught it—Lazlo Strange, the faranji dreamer who was somehow a god himself. He’d stopped the citadel from falling, and so instead of everyone dying, only Sarai had.
Well, that wasn’t quite true. The explosionist had died, too, but his death was poetic justice. Sarai’s was just bad luck. She’d been standing on her terrace—right in the open palm of the giant seraph—when the citadel lurched and tilted. There’d been nothing to hold on to. She’d slid, silk on mesarthium, down the slick blue metal hand and right off the edge.
She’d fallen and she’d died, and you’d think that would be the end of terror, but it wasn’t. There was still evanescence, and it was worse. The souls of the dead weren’t snuffed out when the spark of life left the body. They were emptied into the air to be languidly unmade. If you’d lived a long life, if you were tired and ready, then perhaps it felt like peace. But Sarai wasn’t ready and it had felt like dissolving—as though she were a drop of blood in water, or a hailstone on a warm red tongue. The world had tried to dissolve her, to melt her and resorb her.
And...something had stopped it.
That something, of course, was Minya.
The little girl was stronger than the world’s whole sucking mouth. She pulled ghosts right out of its throat while it tried to swallow them whole. She’d pulled Sarai out. She’d saved her. That was Minya’s godspawn gift: to catch the souls of new dead and keep them from melting away. Well, that was half her gift, and in the first heady moments of her salvation, Sarai gave no thought to the rest of it.
She was unraveling, alone and helpless, caught in the tide of evanescence, and then, all at once, she wasn’t. She was herself again, standing in the citadel garden. The first thing she saw with her new eyes was Minya, and the first thing she did with her new arms was hug her. Forgotten, in her relief, was all the strife between them.
“Thank you,” she whispered, fierce.
Minya didn’t hug her back, but Sarai hardly noticed. Her relief was everything in that moment. She had almost dissolved into nothingness, but here she was, real and solid and home. For all that she’d dreamed of escaping this place, now it felt like a sanctuary. She looked around and everyone was here: Ruby, Sparrow, Feral, the Ellens, some of the other ghosts, and...
Lazlo was here, magnificent and blue, with witchlight in his eyes.
Sarai was wonderstruck by the sight of him. She felt like a breath that had been inhaled into darkness, only to be exhaled again as song. She was dead, but she was music. She was saved, and she was giddy. She flew to him. He caught her, and his face was a blaze of love. There were tears on his cheeks and she kissed them away. Her smiling mouth met his.
She was a ghost and he was a god, and they kissed like they’d lost their dream and found it.
His lips brushed her shoulder, by the slim strap of her slip. In their last shared dream he’d kissed her there, as his body pressed hers into feather down and heat spread through them like light. That had been only last night. He’d kissed her dream shoulder, and now he kissed her ghost shoulder, and she bent her head to whisper in his ear.
There were words on her lips: the sweetest words of all. They had yet to speak them to each other. They’d had so little time, and she didn’t want to waste another second. But the words that came out of her mouth weren’t sweet, and...they weren’t hers.
This was the other half of Minya’s gift. Yes, the little girl caught souls and bound them to the world. She gave them form. She made them real. She kept them from melting away.
She also controlled them.
“We’re going to play a game,” Sarai heard herself say. The voice was her own, but the tone was not. It was sweet and sharp, as a knife blade dripping icing. It was Minya speaking through her. “I’m good at games. You’ll see.” Sarai tried to stop the words, but she couldn’t. Her lips, her tongue, her voice, they were not under her control. “Here’s how this one goes. There’s only one rule. You do everything I say, or I’ll let her soul go. How does that sound?”
Do everything I say.
Or I’ll let her soul go.
She felt Lazlo tense. He drew back to see her face. The witchlight was gone from his eyes, replaced with dread to echo her own as their new reality sank in:
Sarai was a ghost now, in Minya’s thrall, and Minya saw her advantage and seized it. Lazlo loved Sarai, and Minya held the thread of Sarai’s soul in her grasp, so...she held Lazlo, too. “Nod if you understand,” she said.
“No,” said Sarai, and the word was harsh with her horrified dismay. She felt as though she’d snatched her voice back from Minya, but it hit her that Minya must have let her—that anything she did now she did because Minya either made her do it or let her. Dear gods. She had vowed to never again serve Minya’s twisted will, and now she was slave to it.
This was the scene in the citadel garden: the quiet blooms, the row of plum trees, and the ribbons of metal Lazlo had peeled down from the walls to intercept Minya’s ghosts’ attack. Their weapons were captured and held fast in it, and a dozen ghosts hovered behind. Ruby, Sparrow, and Feral were still huddled by the terrace railing. Rasalas, the metal beast, stood almost still, but its great chest rose and fell, and it seemed, in other ways, too, quiescent but alive. Above them all, the great white eagle they called Wraith made circles in the sky.
And in the middle of the garden, on its bower of blooms, lay the blue and pink, the cinnamon and blood of Sarai’s corpse, across which Sarai and Lazlo faced Minya.
The girl was so small in her unnatural body, still dressed in the fifteen-year tatters of her nursery clothes. Her face was round and soft, a child’s face, and her big dark eyes blazed with vicious triumph.
With nothing but the burn of those eyes to contradict the rest of her—her tininess, her grubbiness—she managed to radiate power, and worse than power: a malignant zealotry that was its own law and covenant.
“Minya,” Sarai entreated, her mind spinning with all that was new—her death, Lazlo’s power—and all that was not—the hate and fear that ruled their lives, and the humans’ lives, too. “Everything’s changed,” she said. “Don’t you see? We’re free.”
Free. The word sang. It flew. She imagined it took form, like one of her moths, and spun shimmering through the air.
“Free?” Minya repeated. It didn’t shimmer when she said it. It didn’t fly.
“Yes,” Sarai affirmed, because here was the answer to everything. Lazlo was the answer to everything. With her death and her retrieval, she’d been slow to grasp what it all meant, but she seized it now, this thread of hope. All their lives they’d been trapped in this prison in the sky, unable to escape or flee or even close the doors. They’d lived with the certainty that sooner or later the humans would come and blood would flow. Until last week, they’d been sure it would be their blood. Minya’s army changed that. Now, instead of dying, they would kill. And what would their lives be then? They would still be trapped, but with corpses for company, and hate and fear that weren’t a legacy left by their parents, but new and bright and all their own.
But it didn’t have to be that way. “Lazlo can control mesarthium,” she said. “It’s what we’ve always needed. He can move the citadel.” She looked to him, hoping she was right, and new sunbursts went off in her at the sight of him. She said, “We can go anywhere now.”
Minya regarded her flatly before swinging her gaze to Lazlo.
He couldn’t tell what the little girl was thinking. There was no question in her eyes. They were as black and blank as beetle shells, but he seized the same thread of hope as Sarai. “It’s true. I can feel the magnetic fields. If I pull up the anchors, I think—” He stopped himself. This was no time for uncertainty. “I know that we can fly.”
This was momentous. The sky beckoned in every direction. Sarai felt it. Ruby, Sparrow, and Feral did, too, and they drew nearer, still clutching one another. After all their helpless years here, all their hiding and all their dread, they could simply leave.
“Well, all hail the Savior of Everyone,” said Minya, and her voice was as flat as her gaze. “But don’t go charting a course just yet. I’m not finished with Weep.”
Finished with Weep. Sarai’s mouth went dry. With that bland tone, that turn of phrase, she might be talking about anything, but she wasn’t. She was talking about vengeance.
She was talking about slaughter.
They had fought so much these past days, and all of Minya’s ugly words clamored in her mind.
You make me sick. You’re so soft.
You’re pathetic. You’d let us die.
The insults, she could take, and even the accusations of betrayal. They stung, but it was the bloodlust that left her hopeless.
I’ll have had enough carnage when I’ve paid it all back.
Minya’s conviction was absolute. The humans had slain her kind. She had stood in the passage and heard the screams dwindle, baby by baby, until silence reigned. She had saved all she could, and it wasn’t enough: a mere four of the thirty who were slaughtered while she listened. Everything she was, everything she did, grew out of the Carnage. Sarai would have wagered that in all of time there had never been a purer wrath than Minya’s. Facing her, she wished for something she had never desired before: her mother’s gift. Isagol, the goddess of despair, had manipulated emotions. If Sarai could do that, she could unwork Minya’s hate. But she couldn’t. What was she good for but nightmares?