The tenth year of the Seventh Peace
Nothing about the girl marked her as a good candidate for the Apprentice Corps. It wasn’t that she was broken or meek. The Warden was loath to turn away a child merely for being injured or dispirited. Nor was it her sallow skin and jutting bones. It is the mind that holds strength, not limbs. Given the right knowledge and training, even the smallest child can deliver a deathblow with a single finger. For who can hide among us, doing the difficult work of protecting others, but those who are not thought to wield power and prowess in their bodies?
What worried the Trainer was the girl’s nature. Over the years, countless children had been brought before her — angry ones, feral ones, silent ones. Scrappers, spitters, biters. Anyone could see that this one was a gentle creature. It was evident in the way she held herself, in position of her hands, in the soft set of her mouth.
Sometimes, even the worst of circumstances don’t turn a child into a weapon.
But Sergei, reticent and stubborn, wanted her to be trained.
When he arrived, in the dark hours before morning, she was waiting in the privacy of the Closed Hall. All that had preceded him was a brief missive sent from the eastern Territories.
Standing in the back of the dimly-lit room watching the door, she had the calm, dangerous presence of a Guildswoman. Everything about her was still, except for a finger rubbing against her thumb.
When he entered the hall carrying a child in his arms, she felt it immediately. She felt it as he crossed the room in long, quiet strides, and set the girl down. She couldn’t give shape to it in her mind, but it was there. Something unknown emanating from him, a difference, something that mattered, but could not be described.
He propped the child against his solid legs and nodded. "Hello, Ester."
Long minutes passed as they stood, regarding each other in the way of those who give little weight to words. His hair was thick with oil and dirt. His leathers were rubbed bare at the elbows. Were those grains of pink sand inside his collar? Had he crossed the eastern boundary? What could he be seeking in the Barren Lands?
The years had taken away her ability to read his face. Behind his steel-grey eyes was a world she no longer knew, a world she had left behind when their paths diverged, now seven years past.
Peering down at the child, she permitted herself a frown. The pitiful creature’s head hung towards her chest in a semi-consciousness daze. Tufts of brittle, blonde hair wound a path across a scalp that had seen too little sun. Beneath the thin cloth of a makeshift sling, she could make out the shape of a broken wrist. The torn, swollen flesh of a recent wound cut across her left cheek. If it weren’t for the Sergei’s hand gently holding her shoulder, she would crumble to the floor in a heap of rags.
Ester had seen worse.
There were a thousand like her, and a thousand more. Broken birds, fallen from water-rotted nests somewhere in the deep Territories, casualties of war, refuse of the lawless lands surrounding the Cities.
All of the children at Enderun were orphans, each of them plucked from lives of poverty and violence, and brought to the hidden hills of the Last Coast. Here, shielded by the dense blackforests, steep blackcliffs, and ever-present fog, they trained for the most noble of callings: the protection of others.
"I didn’t expect you back for another month," she said.
"This will be my last delivery this year." His voice carried a slight rasp that spoke of months in the polluted air of a work district. "I go south next week."
"The Council has been sending more bands to the Southern Colonies," she observed. The kidnappings and assassinations had spread. Fighting continued in different form. But they would not speak about the work Monitors did on behalf of the Elders.
"The Prince was captured."
"Tariq?" Ester’s eyes opened wider, her eyes black in the low light.
"The only Southern prince left."
"When?" She was permitted a little curiosity. But only as much as her disavowal of politics required.
"Government soldiers took him to Adu Prison last month." He rubbed a scarred hand across his face to banish fatigue.
That explained the pink sand.
Adu could no longer claim to be the Territories’ most notorious prison — there were too many of those now — but it was a place that lived in myth. It prison was once an ancient fortress carved into the Curr Cliffs, a natural barrier against the inhospitable desert that stretched for thousands of miles to the east. No one could survive long in the Barren Lands but the Bala tribespeople. It was said that the mysterious nomads and their desert antelopes had adapted to the the sand storms that robbed a person of sight and hearing, and could move about the plateau without the aid of either. But they had not crossed the eastern boundary since the Third Peace. Who knew if they still existed.
Probably a sandstorm blew a sheet of sand over the fortress. Sergei was at Adu collecting information for the Council, most likely. But somehow Ester knew there was more to it.
Ester’s gaze drifted along the longwood floor as she thought of Tariq looking out at the desiccated expanse, clouds of sand dust rising on the horizon. For a man of the sea, a southerner raised in the sacred Delta, it would be a cruel fate. One had to give the Government credit for sending a pirate to the desert.
It had been ten years since the fall of the Mitrian Kingdom. Ten years during which the people of the Tera Delta, the Land of the Rivers, had suffered under occupation. They carried on with their ancient customs as they waited, hoping for salvation, putting all their faith in the single surviving member of the royal family. Tariq the Smiling, he had been called as a child. The younger son, free of responsibility, beloved by his people.
Now they called him Tariq the Avenger.
In the rhythm of daily life there was always an undercurrent, a tension that anticipated insurrection. The Government’s response to any infraction, however small, was violent suppression. Freedom would not come, they said, until it was no longer demanded.
On the tenth anniversary of the Seventh Peace, the Cities’ conquest of the southern third of the continent was complete.
Now that they had caught the native son, the heart of the people’s hope, now that the pirate-prince could no longer lead the resistance from the Southern Sea, perhaps reality would take root.
"Why haven’t they killed him?" She asked.
"If word of his death reaches the Colonies, every southerner will answer the Call," he said. "It would be a matter of months. Every man, woman, and child..." His voice drifted off.
"You believe in myths now?" Her brow rose.
He shrugged. "Southerners do."
She chewed on that for a moment. "What will they do with him then?"
"The Assembly is preparing for negotiations with the North."
"Udruk?" What could the Cities want with the isolated Queendom in the frozen north? "The Treaty has held for ten years—"
"The Queen is dying," he said. "The Treaty isn’t safe. Not with a child on the throne."
"The child succeeds?"
"Northern queens succeed in their twelfth year."
It was said that after the loss of her first child, the Queen had succumbed to the madness that afflicted her line. It was the birth of a second daughter that led her to sign a treaty with the Cities conceding rights to the Frozen Sea and sealing the southern borders of Udruk. At the time, no one suspected that the Queen was deteriorating rapidly. Her Knights and Priestesses had guarded the secret of her madness well.
"A girl of twelve will have an army at her command," Ester murmured.
"A very good army."
A maze of choices with unknown horrors waiting around each bend. Protectors were sworn to remain outside of politics for good reason.
"What does the north want with Tariq?"
"She has offered him asylum," he said.
"The Mad Queen?"
Amusement flickered in his eyes. "The Crown Princess."
Ester frowned, letting it sink in. The child-Queen was already embroiled in the messy politics of the Long War. "The Cities would allow Tariq asylum in the north?"
"With one condition. He renounce his claim to Mitria."
Ester had the odd impulse to scoff. Tariq would never give Tera Delta to the Cities. So he could hide in the frozen mountains of Udruk? Not likely. Southerners were proud people, and Mitrians would die sooner than shame themselves.
The memories returned unbidden, and a shiver rippled through her body, tightening the skin of her face.
She was standing on the shore, watching Sergei swim to a burning ship anchored off the island. Minutes after he boarded the boat, an explosion lit the sky, blowing what remained of the vessel into chips of wood.
Afterward, the surface of the water was strangely calm where the vessel had been. It reflected the red smoke rising into the sky, as an island turned into ash behind it.
Ester could still feel the panic, a storm of anguish rising in her chest. She’d thought he died. They had all died.
Sergei watched her carefully, as if he was waiting to catch her from a fall.
"The Colonial Government should give its capital a new name," she said, finally.
"Calling it by the ancient name gives the Cities’ rule legitimacy."
"It reminds the people their palace was burned." Her voice tasted bitter, like water full of charred wood.
"That too," he said, quietly.
It had not taken long for the Mitrian Kingdom to fall when the Confederation of Cities invaded Terra Delta. The final act of colonization was the burning of Mitria, the sacred island in the center of the expansive delta. The entire island was destroyed, including the palace and the royal family within its walls.
The new capital of the colonial government was installed upon the ruins, on the ashes of the King, the Queen, and their three daughters, the youngest just two years old.
Tariq and his older brother, Sa’alem were away training at sea. They would have watched the sky blacken with smoke from the deck of their ship, knowing it was too late. If he’d been older than eleven, old enough to overrule his guards, Tariq would have rushed back with Sa’alem and the Mitrian fleet to fight the invaders, instead of being secreted away on the open sea by loyal guards. He would have died with his brother.
"It is over then," she murmured.
He blinked. "There are whispers that the Martyrs have risen."
"There are no Mitrian Martyrs left," she snapped. "We saw all of them die." The memories were gathering in her throat, choking off her air.
A red sky. Hundreds of royal guards swimming onto the shores of the burning island in the center of the delta, their red capes dragging behind them as they walked slowly, in disgrace, to their death.
"In my dreams I can still smell it," she whispered. "I see them walking into the flames..."
"Emotions have no use to a Guildswoman." Sergei’s voice pulled her back from the despair.
"And yet we have them," she replied, a sad grin twisting her lips.
The foundling swayed against Sergei’s legs. Ester shook away the memories and looked down at the child. "Take her to the infirmary. She will be placed in the Labor Corps."
"I want her to be trained."
"She has no fight in her," she said, simply.
Maybe he had succumbed to the stresses of being a Monitor. It was a hard, solitary path. Roaming the far corners of the Territories, doing the Council’s bidding, along the way, passing through slums and workhouses searching for abandoned children, offcasts that could disappear without anyone’s notice. Even the most hardened Guildsman could suffer a lapse of emotion when sifting through the thousands of wretched children.
"She will if you train her."
Ester swallowed a sigh.
All that was left of the guard castes, the Guild of Protectors was the last bastion of an ancient tradition, a stalwart against the political machinations that fueled the Long War. Selecting the right children was essential to rebuilding the ranks of Protectors year after year. A single bad choice put them all at risk.
"Let her develop a skill and find meaningful work on the compound, in the garden or kitchens. She can live out her years in the quiet seclusion of Enderun. It would be a mercy."
"Since when are we in the business of mercy?" His grey eyes flashed a defiance she did not recognize.
"I can’t make a killer out of every gutter rat you come upon, Sergei."
"They made killers of us."
The words hung between them. Ester’s finger rubbed against her thumb.
Finally, swallowing the words gathered in her throat, she knelt before the girl. When the child raised her face to meet the Ester’s gaze, the truth struck her like a slap.
On a sharp inhale, her face tilted up to Sergei. His face was a picture of calm. The kind of calm that came with intention. The most dangerous kind.
"She has yellow eyes," she whispered. A shade of pale amber with a familiar imperfection.
Ester slowly rose to her full height and widened her stance, conscious of the fact that he was within arms reach of her neck.
Protectors do not retreat. That was the first rule she taught her Apprentices. The most important rule.
Oh to have the pleasure of a fight. The desire crawled along the surface of her skin. But she quelled the desire. It was enough to know he still thought of her as a worthwhile opponent.
The corner of his mouth twitched. Now she recognized it, the difference she had sensed in him, the changed quality of the space around him. The value of everything had heightened. Something mattered to him more than the Guild.
It was desperation.
Protectors do not ask questions or explain; they speak in movement and silence. That was the second rule.
As if she could hear the unspoken conversation above her, the child gazed up at them, her face bright with curiosity even as her limbs trembled.
Ester had a sudden, nervous urge to laugh as everything made sense in an absurd way. The tingling in her chest was similar to the urge to cry. Both expressions of emotion she did not entertain.
She looked at him, her oldest friend, and nodded.
Ester would make her recommendation to the Warden, and take on the task with due resolve. If words were exchanged between them after that, they did not matter, and were not committed to memory. The leather of Sergei’s coat creaked as he lifted the girl in his arms, and turned to leave the hall. Ester watched the girl placed her tiny hand against his face, and wondered what she would have to do to make a killer out of her.
A good fighter is not born. She is made.
After they were gone, Ester remained in the hall for a long time, her eyes blurring into the distance. She felt herself in a loop of time, the past catching up with the future, destined to face the same choices, again and again, until nothing was left but an unfinished sentence.
By days end, Sergei had departed from Enderun, and left within Ester’s care the one person who could destroy the Guild.