The Snake’s Wife
by Ann Leckie
I was out in the woods when the king of Therete and his son came to ask for my sister.
My hunting had been interrupted by a rainshower, and I sat under a tree on the hillside waiting for it to end when I heard horsemen on the road below. I rose, brushing away wet leaves, and quietly made my way forward so I could see. There were nearly a hundred of them, horses in brightly colored trappings, yellow and green and red, riders in gold-colored armor hunched over against the rain. I watched until they disappeared around the curve of the hill and then stood wondering whether I should stay out, and out of the way of whatever would happen when those horsemen reached the gates of the town, or whether I was curious enough to go home and see what they wanted.
A fresh spate of raindrops showered down and I looked up. Draped on a branch overhead lay a snake, brown and gold scaled, its coiled body as broad as my arm. It stared at me unblinking, head raised, tongue flickering. “Hail, Benefactor, generous and blessed,” I murmured, because you never know with snakes. And this one shouldn’t have been out in the cold rain.
“Son of Ysas,” hissed the snake, confirming my suspicions. “Start for home.”
“Why, generous one?” My father had certainly known those horsemen were on the way. If he had wanted me, he would have forbidden me to go out.
“Your questions will be answered,” said the snake — the god Vosei. “Start for home.”
I found my father in his hall — a long, timbered building floored with packed dirt, the carved beams of its bow-shaped ceiling stained with soot. The benches were empty for now, only a few torches lit, the fire all but embers. My father stood at the far end, my brothers before him. “Yrau!” he called, catching sight of me. He was dressed for hunting, in dark wool and leather, his sword at his side. “Come here, boy, you may as well hear this too.” He raised a hand to wave me over. On his wrist was a cloth that even in the low firelight showed bloodstains — he had spoken with the god, and recently. “Sons. Iardui.” That was my eldest brother. “I have had words with the god. The king of Therete has come to ask for your sister to be his son’s wife.”
I frowned, but it was Iardui who spoke. “He thinks to put his son over the Atevae, and so over the Vos Inei.”
“He wants control of the timber trade,” said Yrani, my other brother. We had plenty of timber, and Therete had very little. Much of what they used they bought from us.
“No,” answered my father. “Better.” He sat on the bench behind him. My brothers and I knew better than to sit ourselves. “He wants to end the curse on his line. And Artau Ehat, the lord of the sky and protector of Therete, has said to the king of Therete — or to his priests, since because of the curse the king himself isn’t able to enter the god’s presence — that the curse will be ended when the prince Atehatsqe marries your sister. And,” he continued into our perplexed silence, “if he can get a better price for timber, so much the better.”
I thought of the god speaking to me on the hillside. “The Generous One set that curse on Therete’s line,” I said, meaning the god Vosei. My father looked at me directly for the first time since I had come in, and smiled a smile that didn’t reach his eyes. I was afraid — I knew his temper.
“Indeed. If we don’t allow it to be removed, that line will fail. And the Lord of the Sky will have spoken untruth.” Words expressed a god’s will, they were the focus of the god’s power. To speak an untruth, even unwittingly, would bleed that power fruitlessly away.
I shivered, wishing I’d stopped to change into drier clothes. “We won’t refuse,” I said. We couldn’t, not and survive the refusal for long.
“Where’s the untruth?” asked Iardui, his voice doubtful. “If I say I will wear women’s clothes when water runs uphill, I haven’t said that water will run uphill.”
My father frowned, displeased. “Don’t be stupid, boy.” I looked down, not wanting to meet my father’s eyes if he should look my way.
“The lord of the sky has promised that the curse will be ended,” ventured Yrani. “And he has said that the curse will be ended when the prince marries our sister. If he never marries our sister…” he trailed off.
“But,” I said. Tentatively. I looked up.
My father was looking at me, his expression dangerously bland. “But?”
For a moment my voice failed me. “The Generous One will be gratified, and the Lord of the Sky injured, but what about us? How can we stand against Therete?” Those splendidly armed riders were only a fragment of Therete’s military strength. “Surely the marriage would only benefit us.”
“Benefit us, is it?” asked my father. I didn’t answer — I would only make him angry if I did. “This is a dispute between Artau Ehat and Vosei. The Generous One has no intention of losing. And Vosei has said that if we refuse to allow the marriage my own son will sit enthroned in Therete.”
“Alive?” asked Iardui after a moment’s silence. A god’s word was kept, unarguably, but they were notoriously literal about their promises.
“Alive,” answered my father. “Does that suit you?”
“Then take your seats,” said my father. We sat on benches beside his, and Iardui called to the guards outside. They threw the doors open and cousins and hangers-on who had been waiting outside crowded in. Slaves lit torches and the cousins took their seats amid noisy gossip.
I should have known what my father was planning. He was an ambitious man, and had turned his tribal headship into a position of wider influence through marriage, force of arms, and money from the timber trade. Foreign merchants called him king, which he wasn’t, but he didn’t object. It shouldn’t have surprised me, what he was willing to risk for more power.
Likely there was nothing I could have done, even had I known. As it was I sat and watched the king of Therete come into the hall.
He was tall, dark-skinned and black-haired, wearing black and green and brilliant blue under a red cloak. Gold hung on his neck and wrists. He showed no outward sign of the curse. Prince Atehatsqe had come with him, a young man about my age, strongly resembling his father except that in him the curse was visible — along his neck and up his cheek scales glittered emerald in the firelight.
They entered with a dozen slaves carrying six carved wooden chests, and they didn’t look to the right or the left as they came forward and bowed. “My brother,” the king began in our language, heavily accented. “Ysas, king of Vos Inei, I greet you.”
“My brother,” said my father, smiling again that smile that went no further than his mouth. “I greet you.”
The king of Therete’s face was impassive. “My son and heir, the prince Atehatsqe, will have many wives but only one son. The mother of this son must of course be the best, the most beautiful, most suitable woman. We have heard that the daughter of Ysas is famed for her beauty and her sweetness.”
“You haven’t come here out of any respect for me,” said my father, still smiling, “nor because my daughter is beautiful, but because you intend your son to get a child on her that is free of the curse.”
The king said nothing. There was a tightness to his jaw that I didn’t like.
“What you say about the curse is true,” said the prince into the tense silence. “It doesn’t change the fact of our respect, or your daughter’s beauty.”
My father laughed. “How many wives do you have, prince of Therete?”
“And your father?”
My father raised an eyebrow.
“She would be my queen,” said the prince. “I swear it.”
“And what profit for me?” asked my father.
The king of Therete made the smallest of gestures. The slaves came forward and set the chests before us, and threw the lids open. There in the torchlight gleamed gold and silver, rubies and pearls, sapphires and diamonds. “The betrothal gift,” said the king. “For the wedding I am prepared to offer a great deal more.”
“A reduction of the salt tariff?”
“Unquestionably.” The king’s jaw relaxed just the smallest bit. He thought, perhaps, that he had found the source of my father’s truculence.
My father gestured to a slave. “Send the girl,” he said. We didn’t wait long — my sister was ready, had been for some time, most likely. She came in a side door, my mother behind her.
She was beautiful. Skin the color of honey, hair like polished wood. She wore a green dress, embroidered with darker green, and gold had been braided into her hair. Her face was flushed — she, or more likely my mother, had guessed what brought the king here. Prince Atehatsqe smiled when he saw her. My breath grew tight, and I wanted to stand and run, be out in the trees and the rain, anywhere but the hall. I must have realized what my father was planning but not been willing to believe it.
“Girl,” said my father, “the prince of Therete wants to marry you.”
She flushed even deeper, which I hadn’t thought possible, and knelt. “My father, I will obey you in all things.”
“Will you, then?”
He stood, and drew his sword and swung the edge with all his strength into her neck. Blood spattered his legs, and my sister fell dead on the floor. I was frozen for an instant, unable to think or feel, and then I looked at my mother. She was immobile, as though carved from wood. She didn’t blink or breathe.
“The feud between Artau Ehat and Vosei is ancient,” my father said into a silence so deep that his words seemed muffled and absorbed. “The god Vosei has been our protector and benefactor ever since we have existed. If Vosei doesn’t see fit to remove the curse, we will have no part in lifting it. Take your worthless gifts and go.”
The king made as if to step forward, but checked himself. “It was an honorable offer,” the prince said.
“Your offer was refused,” said my father.
The king gestured again to the slaves, who closed the chests and hefted them, and the whole party turned and walked out of the hall.
When they had gone, my father sat again, and as though released from a spell those seated along the sides of the hall rose and began talking and shouting. I looked over to my mother, but she was gone.
My father leaned close so that we could hear him. “He would have taken her by force otherwise. Now our future is assured.”
It was. That same day my mother packed her belongings and returned to her tribe. We three sons stayed. No matter what he had done, our place was with our father.
Eight weeks later, Therete marched an army into our territory. It took three days just for their archers to arrive, there were so many. The cavalry took less time, but with them were engineers who had availed themselves of the plentiful timber, building frameworks for engines we had heard of but never seen.
They had loudly announced that their argument was with Ysas, and not with the tribes of Vos Inei. A great number of families simply walked out of the town at Therete’s invitation. My mother’s tribe refused to come fight for us, as did many others. No doubt their headmen imagined themselves taking my father’s place once Therete left.
By the time they breached the wall and set fire to my father’s house both my brothers were dead, and when the house was smoking ashes both I and my father were brought bound before the king and the prince. We weren’t the only captives. Four other men were already there — Theretan priests, who the king had relied on to bring him the god’s words. They had clearly lied. The king killed them with his own sword, and then turned to my father. “We asked you for your daughter.” Soldiers stepped forward, bearing the same chests we had seen before. “Here is the payment.”
“I have no daughter,” said my father, defiant.
“You will,” said the king, and then soldiers threw me to the ground and stripped me. It took eight of them to hold me down, and a ninth to wield the knife, and when they were done, so I am told, they buried my father alive with the treasure he had refused.
I remember very little of the first few days of the trip to Therete except for a vague hope that I might bleed to death, and pain at every misstep of the slaves who carried the litter I rode in. There were sometimes muffled voices, and sometimes water was poured down my throat. I wasn’t hungry, or thirsty, or anything but waiting to die.
Eventually a doctor came — a tall woman dressed like the soldiers, in trousers and a long tunic — and examined me. “Healing quickly and cleanly,” she said. “Some god looking out for you.” She looked at me oddly as she said it. Then she made me get up and walk back and forth.
I had known there were plains to the south, but I had never imagined land like this. In one direction were distant hills, but otherwise all around was grass. Flat, not the least trace of even a hillock. The only relief from the plain was the camp — horses, soldiers, brightly colored tents — and the road. The sky stretched blue and endless overhead.
The doctor led me out into the waist-high grass, where we startled a cloud of small yellow birds that flew squawking into the sky and then settled again as we passed. Once we were a decent distance away from the camp she showed me how to urinate squatting so that I didn’t foul myself, and explained about the nail that was supposed to keep my urethra from sealing shut while I healed.
My thoughts must have reached my face, because she told me, with some acerbity, that I was very lucky.
Four nights later I was summoned to the prince’s tent, a splendid affair of silk brocade, gold and blue. Inside was bright with lamps, and a patterned carpet covered the ground. Atehatsqe sat in a carved wooden chair next to a table of wood and ivory. The green snakeskin along his neck and face seemed almost an extension of the embroidered silk he wore. I discovered later that beneath his neck it became long, banded belly scales, which reached to just below his ribcage.
“My wife,” Atehatsqe said. I did speak some Theretan, but he spoke in my own language. “Yrej, is it?” It wasn’t, but no Theretan had pronounced my name correctly so far. “You should kneel, and put your forehead on the ground.” I didn’t move. “The one single thing one can do to ensure right action is one’s duty. If one fulfills one’s duty, one can never do wrong. And besides,” he added, not unkindly, “you have very little choice. Have you eaten?”
I took a breath. “No.” Another breath. “My lord.” I was cold under the silk dress I was wearing. It was a garish red and yellow, and so loose and thin that I felt naked.
Atehatsqe had the grace not to smile. “Sit,” he said, and I did, in a cushioned chair across from him. Food appeared, meat braised with beer and dried fruit, and more beer in cups of fluted gold. “I haven’t meant to neglect you, my wife,” he said as he ate, and I wet my mouth with the beer and barely tasted the meat. “When I questioned the doctor, he said you were recovering satisfactorily but weren’t yet well enough to visit.”
He. It should have been obvious.
“I’m sorry for the lack of appropriate servants,” Atehatsqe continued. “I didn’t know what the king planned. By the time I realized it was too late to prepare.” He took a drink of his beer. “Or dissuade him. Though of course,” he said, his expression bland, “his most royal majesty’s action was, as always, entirely right and proper.”
“Of course.” I ventured another bite of meat. It stuck in my throat. “Your Highness would just have had me killed.”
“No. When we came into the hall you had a look on your face like you were in a nightmare you couldn’t wake from.” He looked at me searchingly, oddly earnest.
He seemed to want some answer. “I thought he would just refuse you, and then you would take what you wanted by force.”
“Dire enough.” He set his cup down with enough force to splash beer onto the table. “What was he thinking? Surely he didn’t imagine the tribes would still support him after that?”
“I suppose he thought his control over them was complete enough.” The next part was out of my mouth before I could think of what I was saying. “Vosei had said that if he refused the marriage, one of his sons would sit on the throne of Therete.”
“That one deceives,” Atehatsqe said. It was a moment before I realized that he referred to Vosei. “When the Lord of the Sky speaks, the meaning is plain.”
“He said the curse would be ended when you married my sister.”
“When I married your father’s daughter.” He slid another piece of meat onto his plate. “What the king of Therete says, is: you are my wife. When I am king, may the day be long in the future, you will be queen.”
“You won’t,” I said when I had managed to draw breath again. “You can’t.” I shook my head. “It’s ridiculous.” It couldn’t be real, but everything around me was sharp-edged and solid: the chair I was sitting on, the prince sitting across the table from me, his armor on a stand behind him, the golden cuirass and helmet I had seen so often from the walls of my home. His sword and leaf-bladed spear.
That earnest, even vulnerable look returned to Atehatsqe’s face. “Eat, Yrej. Please. I want things to be pleasant between us.”
“Pleasant.” I couldn’t believe I had heard him correctly. “How is this supposed to end the curse? I can hardly have your child.”
He frowned. “As I told you before, one’s duty is sure, even if nothing else in the world is.” His frown cleared. “Either this is part of Artej Ehat’s plan, or he will find a way to make it so. He made promises to my ancestors, and to me, and he will keep those promises.”
I was not an innocent. I knew that some men preferred the embraces of other men. It had never appealed to me, and I had never been even remotely curious about how they went about things. Now even had my tastes run that way I couldn’t have enjoyed it. Atehatsqe, though, was direct and confident, and when he had spent himself between my thighs he bade me sleep beside him. When morning came I was escorted back to the litter and rode the whole day close and hot inside.
Four generations before I was born, the then-king of Therete had gone hunting in the northern part of his kingdom and strayed over the boundary into Vos Inei territory. This would have gone unremarked except for the fact that he and his party stopped outside a holy cave.
There was a spring, as there often is, and the king was thirsty. He dismounted and strode to where the water trickled down the rock to a pool and reached out, but was stopped by one of his companions, who had seen a snake nearby.
The king was still young, and perhaps hadn’t been king long enough to learn to check his impulses. He ruled the richest, most powerful nation he knew of, and the Lord of the Sky had promised that as long as he upheld the contracts between the god and the people of Therete, no snake would ever bite him. “I am not afraid of snakes,” he said.
“No one need fear snakes who treats them with respect,” said the snake, slithering into the open.
“Artej Ehat drove you out of Therete,” the king said. “The savages here may be fool enough to worship you, but I owe you nothing.”
“Nor I you,” said the snake. “I do not give you permission to drink from my spring. And if you do in spite of me, you will regret it.”
The king drank, of course. And then he lowered his trousers and urinated into the water — an act that shocked his retainers as much as it angered the god Vosei. “Despoil your own temples!” commanded the snake. “Be the bane of your own people, and your own god!” The king only laughed, and rode back over the border. It wasn’t until much later that he realized the snake’s words had been a curse.
In every place the king spent the night on the way back to Therete, strange things happened. Herdsmen out before sunrise saw a monster lurking in the tall grass, a serpent thirty feet long and broad as a man. Dogs and birds and even small children disappeared. The king thought very little about it, if he even heard the reports — after all, people did imagine things, especially in the dark. Accidents happened, and what was one dog or baby here or there? He was more inconvenienced by the odd behavior of his servants, who had realized the truth long before it ever crossed his mind that there was a problem.
The god Artej Ehat had declared that no snakes would be permitted in the city of Therete. And when the king approached the gates, he found that no matter what he did he couldn’t enter. He was obliged to camp outside and send a messenger in to ask the god for help. Whether the servants at this point confessed what they knew, the story doesn’t say.
By way of an intermediary Artej Ehat told the king that he was unable to lift the curse. Worse, it was heritable. But he could breed it out of the line. The mother of the next king would be carefully chosen, the growing princeling shaped in her womb by the god, and the next generation as carefully planned, until the corruption was gone entirely. Artej Ehat would take care that each king of Therete would have only one child, a son, and that one only one son and so on, until the house was free of the curse.
Although his son was human enough to return to the city and live in the palace, that first snake king never set foot in Therete again.
At supper the next night I swallowed the few remaining fragments of my pride and asked if I could ride, rather than be confined in the litter. Atehatsqe was dubious — royal ladies didn’t ride out in full view of soldiers, and there was the question of my recent injury. But the doctor had no objections, and the slaves found trousers and tunic for me, and a huge length of gauzy embroidered silk that would protect me from the profane gaze of the soldiers.
By now the hills I had first seen in the distance were only a memory. I saw the landscape unobscured in the morning and again in the evening, but during the day the horses raised a cloud of dust that surrounded us as we rode. Everyone wore cloths across their mouths and noses to keep from choking on it. “It wouldn’t be so bad if there weren’t so many of us,” Atehatsqe told me. Between the cloth and the helmet only his dark eyes were visible. “Are you sure you wouldn’t prefer the litter?”
I preferred to ride. The dust was thick, and the sun hot, but at least there was a breeze, and riding I didn’t feel so much like a helpless prisoner. “It’s not quite like Vos Inei,” Atehatsqe said.
“No.” Already trees and rain seemed like a dream. “It’s very different.”
Atehatsqe cocked an eyebrow, and I thought he might speak, but just then another armored rider came up beside us and the prince turned to him. “Varoshtej!”
“My prince,” said Varoshtej, his eyes brushing across me as though I didn’t exist, and then he lowered his head.
“Are you well?” asked Atehatsqe. “I’m sorry I haven’t had much time for the past few days.”
“Quite well,” said Varoshtej. “I have no complaints. I only wished to ask…”
“The king won’t hear of it,” said Atehatsqe. “He believes your father betrayed him.”
“There will be difficulty finding new priests,” said Varoshtej, his voice even. “Candidates will find themselves suddenly disqualified. Or leave the city before they can be invited.” Varoshtej, then, was the son of one of the priests who had died in the ruins of my father’s house.
“I know you’re trustworthy,” said Atehatsqe, “but the king…”
Varoshtej looked away, into the dust. “I know,” he said, when he turned his gaze back to Atehatsqe.
We rode on in silence.
“My prince,” said Varoshtej after a while.
“My friend,” said Atehatsqe, and put a hand on his shoulder, briefly.
“I know your reason for doing this, but…”
“This marriage.” The way Varoshtej said marriage made it clear that he was no more in favor of it than I was.
“Do you have any arguments I haven’t heard before?” It was clear that both of them thought I couldn’t understand Theretan. I hung my head under the folds of silk and listened.
“The arguments I’ve already given should be enough!”
Atehatsqe took this outburst with equanimity, which told me everything I wanted to know about their friendship.
“Did your father lie?”
“What must I do then?” Atehatsqe’s voice was still even, but tense. “Tell me what will keep me obedient to both my father and the Lord of the Sky?” Varoshtej didn’t answer. “The king said I would have the daughter of Ysas for my wife. The god says so as well.”
“That is not the daughter of Ysas. You’ve castrated him and put him in a dress but that hasn’t changed what he is. Do you think he’ll submit to the insult?”
“It’s different with women. Yrej is a man, with a man’s pride.” He was arguing my side, but I felt a sickening shame. “By all means provide for him,” Varoshtej continued. “Gratify your lust if you like, he’s good looking enough. But don’t put this eunuch beside you on the throne. Don’t make the mistake your father made.”
“Varoshtej!” The prince’s voice was sharp and warning.
“My friendship is of no value to you if I withhold the truth. Your father the king has assumed he knows the god’s will, no matter what the priests have said. You’re doing the same. Wait for the new priest.”
“I am placing my trust in your father’s report of the god’s will. Do you advise me not to do that?” Varoshtej didn’t answer. “Are you jealous?”
“If the day ever comes that I am jealous, my prince, you will be past my help.” It might have been my tenuous grasp of the language, but it seemed to me that Varoshtej’s answer was no answer at all.
In all the weeks that we were on the road, it never rained. I didn’t even see a single cloud. Atehatsqe told me that it rained relentlessly in the winter, and never at any other time. Every house had a cistern, and the streets of every town and city drained into underground tanks. For the rest of the year this water would be carefully portioned out. The winter rains, due soon, were the gift of Artau Ehat; without them the whole plain would be utterly desert except for the narrow strips of land on either side of the country’s rivers.
Between towns all was perfectly flat and hazed with hot, sunlit dust, dotted with farms and orchards — the only trees I’d seen — and stone pillars that marked accesses to cisterns that ran the length of the road. The land stretched farther than I’d ever believed the earth could, and it was beautiful if only because of its extent. Evenings were cool, the skies vast and thick with stars, Atehatsqe was courteous and obliging, and I ate and slept in the prince’s tent.
The walls of Therete were twice as high as any I’d ever seen, even discounting the huge mound the city was built on. Under the sun the blocks of white stone shone bright enough to make me shade my eyes. In the center of the city rose two huge heaps of the same stone — the higher one, a stepped pyramid surmounted by a tower, was the home of the Lord of the Sky. The other — lower, but wider — was the palace.
The palace was larger than the town I’d come from. Once I dismounted it was a walk of some ten minutes to my quarters. I had a bath, a dressing room, a sitting room, and a bedroom. The walls were swathed in brocaded silk, every door and window was hung with black and purple curtains embroidered with gold. All the rooms but the bath looked out onto a balcony, where steps led down to a courtyard planted with trees and flowering vines and lined with tiled paths. Off to one side was a fountain with a wide base in which blue and orange fish swam. Brilliant green and yellow birds flitted from branch to branch. Other rooms around the court were for my servants, nearly a dozen of them, women in fluttering dresses and silk shawls.
They bathed me and shaved me and dressed me in a brown and blue dress sewn with tiny sparkling beads. Then they loaded me down with half my weight in gold necklaces and bracelets. One girl brushed antimony around my eyes and tried to put a mirror into my hands, but I refused, and was thereafter presented for the head servant’s inspection.
“My lady is beautiful,” said the girl who had combed my hair, in an encouraging voice.
The head servant cast a critical eye over me. Her name was Qes. “It will do for now. I’m sure we’ll hear soon that Prince Atehatsqe is too busy to visit you tonight, Princess. There’s no need to spend a great deal of time dressing.”
I closed my eyes. I was tired, and I was losing my grip on the tenuous settlement I had reached with my circumstances. It hadn’t been any sort of acceptance, I realized, as much as a flat refusal to think about my
“Oh, Princess, don’t worry. I’m sure the prince will visit you soon,” said one of the women.
I opened my eyes, hoping I could at least look as though I was in possession of myself. Qes looked at me shrewdly. “My lady will have supper,” she said, “and then she will rest.” Her tone brooked no opposition.
In the morning, after more bathing and dressing, I was shepherded to a bench in the courtyard, beside the fountain. Two servants sat at my feet with needles and thread and lengths of linen, and another stood behind me with a fan.
The two sitting on the ground embroidered and made pointless remarks about the beauty of the fish and the liveliness of the birds, who tried to steal sweets from a tray beside me. It was hot even in the shade with the woman fanning me, and I was sweating under the silk.
The conversation turned to gossip. To hear the servants talk, it would seem that the palace was occupied entirely by women, and every visit or conversation was a move in a game that everyone but me seemed to understand.
I didn’t know any of the people they referred to, didn’t understand the game they were playing, and didn’t care. A bird swooped down onto the bench next to me and eyed me, head cocked. “Pretty lady,” it squawked.
“Yes, she is,” said the servant fanning me. “Hello.”
“Hello,” said the bird. “Hello.”
The servant laughed, and took a sweet from the tray, held it out on her hand, still fanning with the other. The bird stepped onto her fingers and pecked at the treat.
The embroidering women chattered on, and it occurred to me that the gossip meant something to them, something they expected me to understand too, or wanted me to understand. But I didn’t care. I was bored and hot and I was stuck on this bench and nothing I did mattered.
“Pretty lady!” squawked the bird again, and the fanning servant looked at me and her smile disappeared.
“Princess! Are you all right?”
“No,” I said, more faintly than I intended.
The other two jumped to their feet, needlework forgotten. They led me indoors and removed a layer or two of jewelry and then laid me on the bed and fanned me vehemently.
The doctor came. He’d changed his military tunic and trousers for a long skirt of red fabric and no shirt. “It’s the heat,” he said in his high voice. I found it hard to believe I’d ever taken him for a woman. “It’s never this hot where she comes from.”
“Is it true that it always rains there?” asked one woman, still fanning.
“Not always,” said the doctor. “But a great deal more than here. Did she eat her breakfast?”
“I wasn’t hungry,” I said.
The doctor frowned. “You haven’t been hungry for more than a month. You need to eat. And you need to drink more than you think you do.”
“I need for everyone to stop pretending! And I need to go h—” Home was what I meant to say, but as I said it I realized that there was no home. Everyone in the town had seen what had happened to me and knew what I was now, and there was no place for me there anymore. I wasn’t sure my own mother would want me back.
“You need something to do.”
“Something to do.” I was dubious.
“Grown men who are castrated have their own particular problems,” the doctor said, level-voiced. The women seemed to have frozen solid, all looking in any direction besides mine. “Some take to their beds and stay there. Some stop eating and can’t sleep, can’t enjoy anything at all. It’s the blow to their pride, of course. But I don’t think that’s all it is.”
“That would be enough,” I said.
“You’re luckier than you could have been, given the circumstances,” said the doctor. I looked away. “Find something to do. Weave, embroider, spin. Paint. I hesitate to suggest dancing or singing, but if that interests you…”
“I’d rather take to my bed and stay there.” The doctor didn’t answer, I saw in the corner of my vision that he had crossed his arms. “What about riding? Or hunting?” Dice was probably out of the question. Sex with the servant girls certainly was.
“I’ll make you a deal.”
I looked up. “Deal?”
“You walk in your garden every morning. You eat. You pick one thing to do, it doesn’t matter which. Do that for one month, and I’ll talk to the prince about riding. Maybe hawking, but no promises there.” I didn’t answer. “It’s the best deal you’re going to get. I advise you to take it.”
I walked and I ate. I sat in the garden with a needle and fine thread and filled in a square with uneven stitches while the servants punctuated their gossip with compliments on my progress. I didn’t understand them — they called me princess when they themselves bathed and dressed me and knew just exactly what I was. There were moments that I doubted not only their sanity, but my own.
I missed not only the riding, but Atehatsqe’s company — I had grown used to the prince. When Atehatsqe finally did come to me, three days after I arrived at the palace, I rose and made my obeisance out of sheer gratitude, I was so relieved to see him. He sat beside me in the courtyard and ate the sweets, and threw some to the birds, laughing at their chorus of hello and pretty lady. He had heard about the doctor’s visit. “Have you been eating well?” I shrugged. “No, you won’t evade me so easily. Does the food not appeal to you?”
The food was too salty, and the sweets cloying. “The doctor says it’s the heat. My servants tell me it will be better when the rains come.”
Atehatsqe frowned. “I’m sorry I haven’t come to see you sooner,” he said, as though it followed from what I had just said. “We’ve been very busy.” He stood and walked a few paces away, and looked up at the sky.
“My servants say the rains should be here in a few weeks.” He said nothing. “You’re worried?”
He sighed and came back and sat beside me again. “We haven’t been able to find a priest,” he said. “The Lord of the Sky isn’t like other gods.”
“He seems fastidious.”
“Holy and pure,” Atehatsqe corrected. “Profanation offends him.”
It offended most other gods, but their standards weren’t so elevated. “So the priests make it their business to be pure at all times, so you don’t have to.”
“Before the curse the kings of Therete did as well,” Atehatsqe said. “Ordinary people have always gone to the priests. Or to the smaller gods.”
Four men had died that day, in the ruins of my father’s house. “Surely you had more than four priests?”
“There are agreements.” There always were, with gods. “The king of Therete speaks to the god directly, though substitutes are allowed. But that substitute must be a descendant of Therete’s first king.”
“So the priest has to be your cousin.” And that meant that the pool of candidates was limited. I began to see just how damaging the king’s actions had been. “The noble Varoshtej is a candidate.”
He looked at me sharply. “Do you speak Theretan, my love?”
I tried to ignore the endearment. “Do any of my servants speak my language?”
“Ah. It hadn’t occurred to me that you might.”
“We had traders, at home. I had investments. It was easier to keep track of them if I didn’t have to use a translator.”
“I knew that.” He took my hand. “About the investments, I mean. I should have realized. You still have them, by the way. No one is defaulting on money they owe you if I have anything to say about it.” I blinked twice, not sure what to say. “Varoshtej and I have been friends since we could crawl.”
“His concern for you is evident.” I kept my voice neutral.
“Things will be easier when the curse is ended.” It was the same tone my servants used for when the rains come. I looked up at the cloudless sky, and Atehatsqe put his arm around my waist. “Come, let’s go inside.”
In bed with him that night was the first moment since I’d arrived at the palace that I felt on familiar ground, secure in territory I knew.
Atehatsqe’s relationship with his cousin Varoshtej was unremarkable in Therete. It was something boys did, especially close friends. To continue into adulthood, after marriage, was disreputable but not scandalous. And of course Atehatsqe could largely do as he pleased.
But Varoshtej couldn’t. His father was king’s priest, and Varoshtej was expected to be the same. On his seventeenth birthday he began a course of fasting and purification that would prepare him for priestly office. This completed, he would be expected to pray daily, practice self-discipline, and avoid contamination. When he married, sexual contact with his wives would require purification afterwards. Sexual contact with other men was out of the question.
Five days into the ritual, Varoshtej’s nerve failed. He got up from his place at the entrance to the temple precinct, where he was supposed to recite a lengthy catalogue of prayers but instead was thinking of Atehatsqe, and walked unchallenged to the prince’s rooms. Once admitted, he threw himself at Atehatsqe’s feet and declared that he couldn’t possibly give him up.
When I heard this story, I knew before I was told what Atehatsqe’s response had been. The prince knew his duty, and that duty didn’t include depriving the king — at some time in the future, himself — of a priest. He sent Varoshtej away, to start the whole ritual over again.
Three weeks later, Qes approached me while I was eating breakfast, bread and fruit and honey. She knelt beside my chair. “I beg pardon of my princess.”
I frowned, in some alarm. Qes was the one person in the household whose sanity I had never questioned. “I don’t understand.”
“The first morning my lady was here, the senior wife of the noble Varoshtej arrived, begging audience. I told her you were unwell, and sent her away.”
“I still don’t understand.” I set down the piece of fruit I was holding. “I was unwell that day.”
“You were not unwell when I sent her away,” Qes said, still kneeling, looking at the floor. “And that afternoon she sent gifts, which I refused.”
I hadn’t been listening to the servants’ gossip for nearly a month for nothing. “You insulted Varoshtej’s wife in my name.”
“My princess would be within her rights to have me whipped, or even killed.”
“You know I would never do that.”
“I know nothing of the sort, my lady.” That was the Qes I knew.
But I was still puzzled. “Why? The noble Varoshtej loves the prince. Wouldn’t it be better to get along with his wives?”
“The noble Varoshtej loves himself,” said Qes sharply. “No one else has tried to visit you, no one else understands yet what your situation is. For now they wait, and watch.”
I didn’t think I understood myself what my situation was. “But Varoshtej’s wife…get up, I can’t talk to you like that.” She rose, and I continued. “Varoshtej’s wife wants to know if I’m a threat to her husband.” I remembered the conversation I had overheard weeks ago, between Atehatsqe and Varoshtej. How would his wife interpret his attitude towards me? Would she imagine that I might deliberately undermine her husband’s influence with Atehatsqe? “The king can only delay Varoshtej’s eventually becoming king’s priest,” I said, thinking of the plots and subtle slanders that so absorbed my servants. “But I might conceivably prevent it altogether.” Qes still said nothing, and I thought there was a piece I wasn’t seeing. I shook my head. “I have no intention of meddling in Varoshtej’s affairs. How do I make his wife understand that?”
“She won’t understand,” said Qes. “If she were in your place she would leave nothing she could reach untouched. She will have her ambitions gratified soon enough; she might have the grace to leave you be. If I see her again, I will slap her.”
“You would have your hand cut off,” I said. “I don’t think I could prevent it.”
“I am a woman, and a slave,” Qes said, “but even I have pride.”
I looked down at the gold plate in front of me. I had to finish the bread and the last of the fruit to keep my agreement with the doctor, but the thought of eating it made my throat close up. I didn’t understand the source of Qes’ anger. “Don’t slap Varoshtej’s wife. Please.”
“As my lady wishes.”
A servant came bowing into the room. “My lady’s bath is ready.”
“The princess is still breakfasting,” said Qes, and the servant fluttered away.
“The princess,” I said, a thought having just occurred to me, “doesn’t want to wear a dress. Or cosmetics. Or jewelry.” If I could have Qes whipped or killed, surely I could order my own wardrobe.
“The queen has commanded my lady’s presence this morning.”
“And it won’t do to insult the queen,” I guessed.
“It certainly will not,” said Qes firmly.
The queen’s courtyard was larger than mine, and cooler, but she sat in a bare room with only one chair. When I entered she sent the servants away and then stared at me impassively. She was younger than I’d expected — certainly younger than my mother — and she was still very pretty. She’d dressed relatively plainly, and wore less jewelry than I did. My servants had dressed me as though I were going into battle and my jewelry was armor, which perhaps it was. I wondered for a moment what that meant about the queen. One day she will bow to you, Qes had said. Don’t throw this in her face. As I waited for her to speak I realized that she meant to give me no opportunity to do that.
“I had intended never to set eyes on you,” she said after a long silence. “When I heard what had happened, I hoped that you would die on the road to Therete.”
This was not the polite, indirect conversation that I had become accustomed to from the gossip of the servants.
“But it wouldn’t have made any difference,” she continued, “There is no cheating the gods.”
“I don’t understand, Highness.”
“You are an imbecile.”
“A what?” My vocabulary was improving, but still had gaps.
“An idiot. A fool!” Loud enough to startle a servant into the room. The queen waved her out with a curt gesture. “You end the curse!” she said, her voice bitter. “There is only one way, short of your miraculously sprouting a womb.”
“I still don’t understand.”
She raised an eyebrow. “If my son has no children, how will the curse be ended?”
I shook my head. “I’m sorry. I wouldn’t be here if I had a choice.”
She looked away from me and down. “I wish there were no gods.”
“So do I.”
She looked up, her face impassive again. “Well. There is nothing for it but to make the best of what we have. Sit!”
Before I could decide if she meant me to sit on the floor, a servant appeared with a chair. I sat.
“Your mother? Where is she?”
“She went back to her tribe, Highness.”
“They accepted her?”
“She is fortunate in that, at least.” More servants appeared, with a table and the familiar tray of sweets. “Perhaps I will write to her. You are too thin. Eat.”
“Excuse me, Highness, I’ve just had breakfast.”
“That was an hour ago, and besides you didn’t finish,” the queen said. I blinked, astonished. Surely trivial gossip didn’t move with such speed?
Or else…I had never thought to wonder where my servants had come from. Were they from this household? And had it been by Atehatsqe’s request, or the queen’s offer? I thought of Qes’ anger for Varoshtej, and of her waiting to tell me the Queen wished to see me until after she’d told me about her insult to Varoshtej’s wife.
I took a sweet from the tray and the queen relaxed visibly. “My son has given you property,” she said, not a question.
“Yes.” Three villages, one of them a fishing community on the coast. What they produced that I or my servants didn’t eat was sold in the market, Qes had told me, and the money was mine.
“I certainly hope you’re better at investing than embroidery,” she said, and then lectured me for an hour on farm management.
They finally found a priest, a royal cousin who was either sufficiently dutiful or sufficiently extortable. The whole city took an intense interest in his installment. When a mouse ran across his foot and startled him into pausing during a necessary recitation, forcing him to repeat the previous two days of ceremony, my servants interrupted my bath to bring me the news. There had been no public declaration, but I doubt there was anyone in the city who wasn’t aware of the moment he entered the temple precinct and climbed to the tower where the god waited.
He was inside for a long time, nearly an entire day. When he finally came out, he went straight to the palace and presented himself to the king.
I had never cared particularly what the Lord of the Sky had or had not said to the king’s priests. Since that day in the ashes of my father’s house, I hadn’t cared about anything but my own misery and I had never looked up and around me to understand sufficiently what I had been involved in. It was now that I began to see just what the stakes were, just what the queen had meant when she said there was only one way to end the curse, and why she had been so bitter towards me. And, perhaps, why she had relented somewhat.
Gods didn’t lie, not without paying the price. But men might. The king, whose life and power depended on Artej Ehat’s support, could only learn the god’s will through intermediaries. If those intermediaries weren’t absolutely loyal…
I wondered just how long the king of Therete had been nursing that fear. How long he had been searching for the smallest signs of disloyalty, searching so hard that he found them where they’d never existed.
The new priest was an honest man, but he knew the king would never trust him. Maybe he debated with himself on his walk from the temple to the palace, wondering what course he should take now that he had spoken to the god and knew the truth. Maybe he had spent that day in the temple searching for a way to tell that truth to the king, in some way no one could disbelieve or ignore.
Whatever his thoughts, however he reached his decision, this is what he did: when he had made his obeisance to the king of Therete, he took the knife he had used to kill the sacrifice that morning and cut out his own tongue.
That night I slept fitfully, and dreamed that Atehatsqe was with me. When I woke, the feeling of scales against my skin was still there. Moonlight shone in from the courtyard, and the birds were silent. I pulled down the covers; alongside me lay a snake, almost five feet long.
“There are no snakes in the city of Therete,” I whispered.
“I am no snake,” it said, and blinked.
I wondered what would happen if I woke the servants. “What are you then?”
“A legless lizard.”
“But still Vosei. Go away.”
It reared its head. “So you are satisfied with your position?”
“You did this to me.” It said nothing. “Men would be better off without gods.”
“Without gods thousands would die in infancy, of sickness or accident. Doctors sew wounds and change dressings, but otherwise are helpless. Banish gods and thousands starve when harvests fail. You suffer so that others may survive. I do not rejoice at this; it is merely necessary.”
“Necessary for who?” I asked, but it didn’t answer. “This dispute between you and the Lord of the Sky. What is it about?”
The snake/lizard lowered its head onto my chest. “It was a question of water.”
“Artau Ehat provides Therete with all its water.”
“Yes,” said the god. “Water has to come from somewhere.”
“And he was taking it from Vos Inei.” If Artau Ehat took what Therete needed every year, how much would Vos Inei have left?
“He gets his water elsewhere now,” said the lizard. “You see? I have always sought the welfare of your people.”
“Along with your own. Why are you here, now?”
“I require a service.”
“There’s nothing you could give me, to make me do anything for you.”
“I can restore your manhood,” the god said. “I can help you escape.”
“I’d be a fool to believe you’d actually do it unless it suited your interests,” I said.
“Perhaps it does,” said the god. “I will visit again. Meanwhile, consider.” With that, it slithered off the bed and was gone.
Three days later the king went hunting outside the walls of the city and was bitten by a snake. He was dead by nightfall. For the entire forty days of official mourning, the sky was as clear as it had always been.
The morning of the coronation I was up well before the sun rose. My servants worked for hours and by the time I left my rooms I was loaded down with so much gold that I had to concentrate on each ponderous step. Atehatsqe was similarly decked. When he saw me he took my hand and smiled, but wanly.
“There isn’t time to talk now.” He raised my hand to his mouth and kissed it. “If we’re lucky, perhaps tomorrow. If not…” he looked briefly at the sky. “Then not for several days. Are you ready?”
“I suppose.” He let go of my hand, and we mounted horses caparisoned in silk and flowers and gold, and rode to the temple.
From the top of the pyramid the whole city was spread out below us. Square buildings of white, pink, yellow, and pale blue lined streets straight as an arrow flight. All had courtyards, and many had roof gardens, some of them withering for want of water. Beyond the walls on three sides a patchwork of fields and orchards stretched out for what seemed forever into the distance. On the fourth side was the harbor and a forest of masts and sails. People crowded the streets at the foot of the pyramid, heaving and swirling like the sea to the west, their voices a constant roar.
Atehatsqe couldn’t enter the tower, so Varoshtej, in a plain undyed cloth, his dark hair shaved off, went in and shed blood in his stead. When he came out again he put a jeweled crown on Atehatsqe’s head and a spear in his hand, and the crowd thundered. Then an endless line of nobles and soldiers filed past to swear their obedience to the new king. Varoshtej was foremost among them, but I noticed that unlike anyone else he never once glanced at the sky.
Events had delayed my ride, but the doctor was true to his word. Two weeks after the coronation I set out from the city of Therete, Atehatsqe riding at my side and Varoshtej at his. Hawking, apparently, wasn’t among the many activities forbidden to the king’s priest.
We camped a day’s ride away from the city. I had my own tent this time, and my own servants to attend to me. The trousers I wore for riding felt strange on my legs, and under the endless sky I felt disconcertingly exposed. The tall grass was brown and sere and the sky cloudless and intensely blue, and beneath Atehatsqe’s courtesies lay an undeniable tension. I wondered what news Varoshtej had brought him of the god’s will.
We hunted all morning, and retired to the king’s tent when the day grew hot. We might have been on the road from Vos Inei — the tent was furnished the same, down to Atehatsqe’s armor and weapons on their stand. The only difference was Varoshtej, who made a third at the inlaid table, slicing fruit with a bronze knife and assiduously ignoring me.
“A good ride, a good morning,” Atehatsqe said. “Did you enjoy it, my heart?” Varoshtej looked up, knife still in hand, but it was me the king was speaking to.
“Yes, my king, very much.” It was only the truth.
“You didn’t need to deal with the doctor. I wouldn’t refuse you anything in my power. But I’m glad you did. I’m glad to see you so much better.”
Varoshtej looked down again. I thought of Qes’ bitter words weeks ago — Varoshtej loves himself — and was suddenly angry. “Tell me, King’s Priest, what’s the will of Artej Ehat? Surely you’ve asked him about the rains.”
For the first time that day he looked directly at me, his expression hostile and contemptuous. “The queen will forgive me for keeping the king’s counsel.”
I tried to imagine Atehatsqe’s mother receiving such a reply. I opened my mouth to speak, but Atehatsqe waved a hand. “My queen has a right to be concerned. The Lord of the Sky has said…” he reached under Varoshtej’s knife for a slice of fruit. “…that the king must be pious and have confidence in the god’s goodwill towards Therete. The rains will come at the time appointed by the god.”
“These were the god’s exact words?” I looked directly at Varoshtej as I asked.
“Yes,” Varoshtej answered, unblinking. Atehatsqe took another slice of fruit.
“It’s not much of an answer, is it,” I said. “What if the time appointed is years from now?”
“It isn’t,” said Varoshtej, curt and angry, and brought the knife down just as Atehatsqe put his hand in its way.
The king cried out and drew his hand back, but the damage was done, a long cut on the back of his hand. Varoshtej was frozen for a moment, appalled, and then he flung himself off his chair and prostrated himself. “My king! I beg you, forgive me!”
“It’s nothing,” said Atehatsqe, cradling his injured hand. “It’s my fault for being careless. Get up!” But Varoshtej was inconsolable.
When the doctor had dressed the wound, Varoshtej left and I returned to my own tent. I sat down in my own chair, ordered a cup of wine and then sent my servants away.
It was a matter of minutes before the snake arrived. It slithered in through the front entrance as though it had been invited, all seven scaled feet of it. “I said I would speak to you again,” it said.
“Tell me about your settlement with the Lord of the Sky.” The snake reared its head, and hissed, but I continued as nonchalantly as I could manage. “I think Artau Ehat has grown tired of trying to rid the kings of Therete of the curse. The murder of the priests was the breaking point. It didn’t help that you had deprived him of the woman who was to produce the curse-free heir. You meddled with my sister, the way Artau Ehat meddled with the unborn princes of Therete, to make her fit for the purpose.”
“Perceptive, Son of Ysas,” said the snake, lowering itself again.
“You want an end to your quarrel with the Lord of the Sky, but you also want vengeance on the kings who insulted you. The Lord of the Sky wants a king he can speak to directly. Pious and obedient as he is, Atehatsqe doesn’t qualify. But Varoshtej does.” The snake stared at me, unblinking. “And so you and Artau Ehat agree that Atehatsqe must die.”
The snake’s tongue flickered. “To satisfy me, Atehatsqe must die of my poison. Atehatsqe’s virtue makes the normal means impossible. The sky lord consents to your being the instrument.”
“What profit for me?” I asked, my stomach turning.
“What do you wish?”
“You said you could make me intact again.”
There was the briefest of hesitations. “It is possible.”
I leaned back in my chair, made myself take a sip of wine. “I wouldn’t live long afterwards. You’ve made promises to whoever has taken my father’s place.” No answer. “I have no chance of surviving anyway. Varoshtej will certainly have me killed.”
“I will promise that you escape safely.”
“You may set reasonable conditions on your death.”
“If I give the poison to Atehatsqe, I will only be killed by the person I choose.”
“If you give the poison to Atehatsqe and he dies, you will only be killed by the person you choose. Name the person.”
“I must consider carefully.” I took another swallow of wine. “Ask me again when Atehatsqe has died.”
“When Atehatsqe has died, I will ask you again. If you refuse to appoint someone the choice will be mine.”
I drained the cup and leaned forward to proffer it to the snake. “We’re agreed.”
I sent my servants back to the city on some pretext, with a message for Qes. She was to take the rest of the women and return to the dowager’s household. I dared not say more than that, but there was no need — Qes would know. She already knew, and had tried to tell me when she’d spoken of her anger with Varoshtej’s ambitious wife.
When Atehatsqe sent for me, I brought the cup. He was sitting in the carved chair drinking wine, the bandage white against his hand. Varoshtej had left his knife on the table and it shone dully in the lamplight.
I knelt beside him and held out the cup. “What is it?” he asked.
“Snake venom,” I said, quietly. His face went deadly calm. “The snake…” My throat was tight. “The snake has an agreement with the sky. You are to die by its poison, but it can’t bite you.”
“And you are to deliver it.” His voice was just the slightest bit unsteady. “What was your agreement with the snake?”
“If I give you the poison and you die, then I will only be killed by the person I choose. It seems to me that if I don’t give it to you, you can’t be killed.” I swallowed. “We could leave here. Or you could have me killed. The agreement specified that I would poison you.”
“Tell me exactly what was said.” I reported the conversation as exactly as I could remember it. “And who,” he said when I was done, “do you plan to have kill you?”
He raised both eyebrows in surprise. “Do you have a son?”
“I have no idea.”
He stared a moment, and then he laughed. “Oh, that’s excellent.” He rose abruptly from the chair, paced to the entrance of the tent and back. “If you don’t have one yet…”
“The god will have to give me one.” I was still kneeling. “Can I get up?”
He reached down and took my arm, raised me standing. “You realize,” he said, serious again, “that neither of us is going to survive this.”
“Leave. Stay as far away from me as you can.”
“What if the rains won’t fall while I live?”
My throat was tight again. “I’d hoped we might cheat them for once.”
Atehatsqe took the cup from me. “How long do I have after I drink this?”
“You could swallow snake venom by the dipperful and never be harmed, unless you had a cut in your mouth. It has to get under your skin.”
The truth of the matter hadn’t penetrated until then, I saw it on his face. He looked at the bandage on his hand. “I suppose his courage failed him,” I said. It was the kindest thing I could find to say.
“He might at least have told me.” I had no answer for him. “How long?”
“Four or five hours.”
He smiled grimly and took the knife from the table. “We can follow the agreement to the letter and still cheat, just as gods do. If you poison me and I cut myself, I’ll bleed to death well before five hours have passed.”
“How can you be so calm?” I was blinking back tears.
“I’m not,” he said, sharply, not looking at me but at the knife. “Don’t ask me that again.” He took a deep breath and looked me in the eye. “Take my clothes. It’s dark, no one will know it’s not me. Be sure and take a cloak. I imagine it will rain tonight. Or tomorrow at the latest. Don’t cry.”
“I can’t help it.”
He put his hand on my shoulder. “I smiled when I saw your sister because she looked so much like you. I would have been kind to her, I swear, but it was you I loved, from when I saw you. I know you could never love me, but I had hoped that you might someday.” As I tried to speak he laid his fingers on my mouth. “Don’t lie to me, now of all times. If you meet Varoshtej, tell him…” He looked away, and then back again. “No. Just greet him as king.” He handed me the cup, and pulled the bandage off his hand. “Give me the poison as you agreed to.”
I did, and then when he needed it I handed him the knife. I stayed with him until the end.
The soldiers outside the tent saluted me, but twenty paces beyond I met Varoshtej. He knew me immediately, I saw the change in his stance, even in the dark saw him draw breath to call out. “I was promised my life, Priest,” I said, quietly. “What were you promised?”
“You acted to revenge yourself!” he whispered harshly. “I loved him.”
“Wrong both times,” I said, and wished I could see his expression. “Hail, king of Therete! Rule wisely! But remember that no matter how pious and virtuous you are, you will never be able to trust your god.”
“You know nothing of the Lord of the Sky.”
“I know what I need to know,” I said, and walked on unchallenged.
By morning clouds had rolled across the sky. I had no idea where I was, or what direction I was walking. The wind blew cold, and when the first fat drops fell I found shelter in a half-fallen shed in the corner of a field. I was tired and hungry and thirsty, though I supposed in a short while I’d have all the water I cared for.
I slept, and when I woke the rain was so heavy that I could barely see a foot away from where I sat. “Well,” I said aloud. “Now what?”
“A question you should have asked sooner,” said a small, hissing voice.
“I gave the poison to Atehatsqe, and he died. I will only be killed by my son.”
“I will see to it you suffer.”
I looked down. A small, brown grass snake lay coiled in a fold of my cloak. “I did precisely as I agreed to.”
It raised its head and its tiny mouth opened, showing its fangs. “Atehatsqe did not die in the manner prescribed, or at your hand. My word to Artau Ehat was made false. Now I am diminished in power, and the sky lord blames me for not keeping my word. And you…”
“Do I have a son?”
“Therete was certain to turn its sight to Vos Inei sooner or later. Better to have peace between me and the sky lord first.”
“You used me for your own ends,” I protested.
“Even in suffering your privilege has been astonishing. I cared for you as best I could under the circumstances.”
I gave a short, bitter laugh. “Nothing could make up for what I’ve lost.”
“Do you think I meddled only with your sister? Do you think I did not plan for contingencies? I knew what sort of man Atehatsqe would be.”
“A good man,” I said.
“I intended that he should love you,” said the snake as though I hadn’t spoken. “I did not intend that you should love him. As for your son — remain in suspense.”
I shrugged. “We all die. Even gods, I imagine. Who will kill you, O Generous One?”
“Someone much like yourself if I am not cautious,” the snake replied.
“Beautiful thought!” I picked up the snake. It twined and curled in my grasp and I tossed it into the rain. Then I pulled my cloak closer around me and sat wondering which direction I should walk when the rain lessened, and just how long I had to live.