But not all.
She was confined to his quarters in the wasp ship. She thought he must have had rooms in the city, because he’d leave and sometimes be gone for days, and she would play a game of asking herself if she’d rather he came back or not, because if he didn’t, she would die trapped here, and if he did, well. He always did, and there were times when she’d rather have wasted away and died alone.
He told her that if she ever defied him or tried to escape, failed to do his bidding, or sent unsanctioned messages out with her eagle, he would fly straight to her miserable island and make her pirate sister sorry she’d ever been born.
Kora didn’t doubt him. There was a look in his eyes as though he hoped she’d make him do it, so she was careful never to anger him, and this became her life. She was a secret, a slave, and a spy. She saw no one but him, at least not with her own eyes. Through her eagle, she explored Aqa, and came to know the city and its players: the emperor and his advisors, and, most of all, the other smiths. At first, none of it made any sense to her—their talk, which Skathis made her relay to him word for word, or the layers of meaning underlying it, but she wasn’t stupid. If her mind had been empty of understanding of the world—worlds—it began to fill in, layer by layer. There was subterfuge and scheming, and there was so much ending.
Reports coming back through the portals told of uprisings, and of mercenary armies, too long unpaid, turning on the emperor. They told of governors murdered, and worlds allying to throw off the empire’s yoke, as revolutions ignited like a chain of firecrackers. All this instability was like blood in the water, and Skathis wasn’t the only smith who swam in it. Kora came to know the others as she spied on them, and they reminded her of the beaked sharks that thrashed in the shallows during the Slaughter back home.
She thought of Nova and her chest felt hollow, as though someone had shoved an oyster blade between her ribs, cracked them open, and slurped out her heart. Determined to keep her sister safe, she did everything Skathis told her. She sent out her eagle, and her sight and senses with it. It could pass through stone, brick, even steel, but not mesarthium. They learned that early on. But all godsmetal ships, and even the emperor’s floating metal palace, had small openings for ventilation, and she could pass through those, no matter how small. The eagle could fade almost to nothing, so that it was no more than a glimmer, and it could hear, see, and even steal—tokens and paperwork, maps, messages bearing the royal seal.
It could even steal a godsmetal diadem right off the brow of a dead Servant, and it did. Or, rather, Kora did. Her bird wasn’t an it, but a projection of herself. She stole the diadem, after Skathis, acting on her information, ambushed a rival smith, slew him and his whole cohort, and assumed possession of his battleship.
Kora hid the diadem. The crime—stealing godsmetal—was so extraordinary. Once upon a time, the mere thought would have sent her into a panic. But it paled to insignificance next to espionage, treason, and murder. But what to do with it, once she had it?
Her sister had always been a force of nature, even before her gift manifested. If anyone could save Kora, it was her, and she was surely the only person in the world who cared to. Kora fantasized about it: Nova arriving like an avenging goddess and strangling Skathis with his own precious metal.
Kora still wore the collar he’d put on her. He never did take it off. Only another smith could get her free of it—another smith, that is, or Nova.
The more she thought about it, the more she built up her sister as an unstoppable avenging force. But how could she get the diadem to her? How long would it take her eagle to fly there and back? Days? She didn’t have days. Skathis could come anytime. If he found her eagle away, he wouldn’t rest until he knew where she’d sent it.
And so the diadem stayed hidden, until the day that Kora discovered her eagle could...pierce space.
That was what it felt like: cutting through the fabric of space so that distance lost all meaning. There were Servants who could do it. They called it teleportation. They could will themselves from one side of the world to the other, and vanish and appear there instantaneously. If Kora had had training at the academy, they would no doubt have teased out this aspect of her ability, but as it was, she was left to discover it alone and under duress, when she sent out her eagle on her own.
This was forbidden. She was to use her gift only at Skathis’s command, but she began to defy him. So she would go out through the air shafts and fly, where no one could see her, and the air and boundless space of the sky kept her sane when the metal walls felt more like coffin than cage, and even her body felt like a prison.
It was a kind of escape. She could pour herself out, leave all her helplessness and weakness behind. And one night, after Skathis left her, she let her soul drift farther up into the crystal-cold ether than she had ever dared before. She was remembering what Antal of the white hair had said: how the first astral had claimed he could voyage through the stars. And that’s when Skathis returned, unexpected. Kora panicked, and the next instant the bird was back, effusing into her chest. She was so shocked she hardly knew what had happened, except that she hadn’t been caught. She’d been miles away and snapped back in an instant.
She tested it later, when she regained her nerve. It was real: Her eagle could travel any distance in a blink, melting through the air as though space were just another wall.
She kept it secret. She was a secret with a secret. Finally, she dared to take the diadem to Nova with the message: Find me. I am not free.
But Nova never found her. And Kora was never free.
She had thought that Skathis would make himself emperor, but he didn’t. He said, “I’d rather be a god,” and he killed the other smiths one by one, and finally the emperor, too, and he took their metal as the empire collapsed, and he took his ship—now the biggest that had ever been, shaped, in irony, like an angel—and flew it through portal after portal, world after world, until he found the one that suited him.
Zeru existed just beyond the edge of the empire’s farthest expansion, and, as such, its people did not know of Mesarthim. There, Skathis and his crew could play gods to their hearts’ content, and that was just what they did, crushing a beautiful and ancient civilization into a slave people, stealing their children, their memories, their freedom, and forcing Kora—now Korako—to play a part. She was no longer confined to the wasp ship. Skathis had other means of controlling her, and not just her collar, but Isagol, his lover. His willing lover, that is, alone of the many who bore that...distinction. Isagol was different. She was his accomplice in cruelty, his counterpart in depravity. They goaded each other to new lows, punished each other, grew bored and came up with new games to play. If ever Kora showed any defiance, Isagol reached inside her and deposited small gifts of emotion, such as terror or her specialty, despair.
The worst, though, was lust. She could make Kora go mad with it, and every time she did, and Kora was caught in a sick pantomime of desire—and its abominable fulfillment—it left a rotten place, like a bruise on fruit, somewhere on her soul.
Letha did her part, too. She had a way of rooting out one’s most cherished memories. They called to her, somehow, as the scent of blood calls to beasts. She threatened to devour every memory of Nova. “I’ll make you forget you ever had a sister.”
And anyway, there was no escape. Skathis sealed the portal with a godsmetal orb. Kora was trapped in this world called Zeru, one of six monstrous “gods,” and forced to spy as ever, though she only told Skathis what she wished him to know, and was consistently negligent, over the years, in the matter of the warriors training in the river caverns underground.
The irony would not be lost on her when one of those very warriors put a knife through her heart. But that was much, much later, and she couldn’t blame him for it.
At first, Skathis had no purpose in Zeru beyond godhood and debauchery, but that changed. Later, he would claim it was all by design, but that was a lie. He was a rapist for fun before he began to turn a profit.
It was the children—the ones born to the first of the unfortunate human women in the citadel’s sinister arm. That “gods” should claim concubines was to be expected. That children would result was only natural.
That the children should be special, now, that was a surprise.
Over centuries of empire, plenty of half-breeds had been born in dozens of different worlds. Some had no gift at all, no apparent receptivity to the magic in their blood. At best, they might test for a weak gift, though under imperial law half-breeds had been forbidden to serve.
But every blue bastard born to a human mother in Zeru tested at a magnitude as high or higher than his or her Mesarthim parent. And considering that Skathis’s crew were all of exceptional magnitude, this was something extraordinary. Kora thought maybe it was because of the mysterious, clear fluid, spirit, that flowed alongside their blood. As far as she could tell, it was the only anomaly that set these humans apart from others who fit in that broad taxonomy.
Whatever the reason, if Skathis had still been recruiting for the empire, he could not have found a better source of soldier-wizards for the ranks. But there was no more empire. In its place there were worlds at war—with one another, within themselves, too many wars to count, and more starting every day. And where there’s war, one thing’s certain: There are kings or generals or potentates willing to pay for weapons.
So Skathis sold his bastards off and set about making more. Vanth and Ikirok were pleased to aid in the effort. Over the years, Isagol and Letha both took human lovers and birthed babies themselves, though they were far less efficient bastard-makers than their male counterparts, and that was fine. There were women enough in the city for that.
Skathis had an outpost built on a broken-off tezerl stalk growing out of the red sea just the other side of the portal, and he held auctions there. Buyers came from as far off as Mesaret itself, and Skathis, the god of beasts, began to amass a fortune. He sold shape-shifters and elementals, seers, healers, soporifs, every kind of warrior. There were gifts that had no application in war, but he put every child on the block—almost every child—and the leftovers were bought at a discount by traders, to be sold off down the line, wherever they might be wanted.
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