From Modern Mythcraft to Magical Surrealism

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Fiction

I Would

I had only one defense against a woman who knew me.

“Fine.” I layered venom into my voice, to make her think it a hard-won concession yet again. “I’ll prophecy for you.”

Queen Iroda stood alone by the parapet, a dark silhouette against the mountains. The scant light caught the gold embroidery on her robe and the perfect braids of red and silver that draped down her chest like chains.

“Why do you need to make everything a battle?” She crossed her hands, wan but patient, as if I were a sullen lover instead of her prisoner. “I give my people a good life, Knira. You could have anything you desire.”

“Everything but my freedom.” The venom came more easily this time. But I’d promised a prophecy, and I had an oath to keep. “You had a question?”

Iroda knew I’d promised my goddess I’d never lie. I’d told Iroda too much, back when I’d thought to stay for a single night in her isolated little realm. When I’d hoped to spend that night unbraiding her perfect hair.

She stepped close enough to touch. “Sometime tomorrow, Atyce Dragon-Slayer will reach our toll gate. People call her a hero. In other words, a murderous vagabond. And one famous enough to have powerful friends. Tell me, priestess: how should I ensure Atyce continues her journey eastward, without violence?”

I raised my eyes, whispered a prayer to the North Star, and let my mind be like the goddess’ mind.

On a cloudless autumn night, the heavenly sphere thins like cheesecloth, revealing stars beyond counting. Immeasurably distant, but we imagine them within reach. What would our lives be if we failed to strive for something glittering beyond our grasp?

“Invite her in,” I said. “Shower her with gifts and honors. She’ll thank you, she’ll resent you, and she’ll go on her way as soon as she can.”

Some people say the stars control fate.

I would never say such a thing.

Our conversation followed the same arc as last time, as regular as the heavens. Queen Iroda claimed her constellation, and protected herself with the power of foresight. For every future I showed her, I kept a handful for myself:

• • • •

The Lovers: constellation two of four seen from the fortress roof, night 127 of imprisonment

Someday, when we’d escaped Iroda and her fortress, I’d try to explain.

“It’s not prophecy,” I would tell her. “It’s prediction. The North Star sees where you are and what you want. Knowledge enough to guess at where you might go.”

If events unfold as I expect, she’d wrap her arms around herself, eyes wide with rapturous fear. “But still. You see the future.”

I’d try again, but it wouldn’t change her mind. For the next few days, she’d stop asking questions, treat my every idea as gold.

And then she’d start to think about all the chances and coincidences that brought us together. She’d wonder if she ever had a choice. In our meeting, or in her entire life.

It wouldn’t matter what I’d done, or what I hadn’t. After that point, she’d never trust fate again, and she’d never trust me.

Everything falls apart when we seers reveal ourselves.

• • • •

Queen Iroda asked me to advise her in court. She said nothing of rewards or punishments, but she knew how to keep people in line. I could wear court dresses and stand at her right hand, or spend my days locked in my tower of bricked-in windows.

I said yes. This was my chance to see the women who might rescue me. To make sure the world progressed toward the future I needed.

“You look strange in silk.” The queen eyed me before we entered the audience hall. “It doesn’t suit you.”

“As I like it.” I smiled, and her confusion was all the reward I needed.

Where I came from, formalwear meant long veils and embroidery, silver stars obscuring my face. But I could still pin my unruly hair back where nobody would see, and stand like the one noblewoman who didn’t quite belong. Some mysterious creature from the heavens, all the more fascinating for her alien graces.

Nobody on this continent would recognize silver stars, anyway.

Plain bright sunlight shone through the audience hall’s tall, narrow windows, casting bars of light on the flagstones. The queen settled into the single chair, its back split in a sharp vee like the pass above the fortress. I stood at the queen’s right hand and stared back at all the gawping courtiers.

Atyce Dragon-Slayer was tall, her bones like blades. The gate guards had sent her straight here, still dressed for the road, her flat-brimmed hat smeared with dust. The clothes of an ordinary traveler, but no merchant or itinerant would’ve worn rings studded with black jewels like diamonds left to mold. Nor would they enter a queen’s court while fiddling with their belt, seeking the weight of a sword.

She swept the hat off her head and bowed to her hostess.

Atyce wore her hair close-chopped, unruly. The hair of a free woman.

She had a traveling companion, of course. A woman in mail; round of face, broad of shoulder, with black hair tied in a bun.

The queen dipped her head in acknowledgment, more grace than most guests earned. “Welcome, travelers. Your fame precedes you. I am Queen Iroda, Warden of the Tollgate, and I promise you hospitality. The Nurturing Sun enriches all beneath its rays, and I extend its light unto you.”

I caught the queen’s eye. Behind my hand, where only she could see, I moved my finger in a circle. Faster.

Iroda progressed to gifts: the freedom of the palace, the finest guest room, luxuries from the treasury. A necklace studded with turquoise, and a sword engraved with golden scales.

Atyce’s face perked up at the sword. She began paying attention for the first time.

Her companion watched the guards, and their pikes, and their queen.

Queen Iroda had asked for a very specific prophecy. Not for her own safety; that I could not predict. My magic could see many futures, but never hers. Something about her shone too brightly, like a full moon in front of the stars.

The queen had asked me how to manipulate Atyce. I told the truth, as I always do. If I broke my oaths, my mind would become unlike the goddess’ mind. I would lose touch with her presence and power and clear crystal hope.

The queen never asked me how to manipulate Atyce’s companion.

• • • •

The Wizard’s Duel: constellation three of four seen from the fortress roof, night 127 of imprisonment

If the future continues on its most likely course, the two heroes would argue in their guest room.

Despina would hurl their weapons on the bed and inspect them one at a time. She’d check a shortsword, her thumb careful across the edge.

Atyce would lounge on cushions of rich fabric but poor sewing. “I know what you’re thinking, and it’s a terrible idea.”

Despina would move to Atyce’s new sword. On close inspection, its engraving is a stylized set of merchant’s scales, the equal-arm balance of the Counter of Costs. The god of exchange and justice, not worshipped anywhere for a hundred miles.

She’d scrub the bloodstains out of the engraving. She’d wonder what happened to its owner. She’d make sure Atyce gets a clear look, and she’d know she doesn’t need to say a word.

I like a woman who sees everything and says only what she must.

Atyce would grimace, then pour herself a cup of wine. “We can’t pull it off. Where’s the treasury? Who are the priests? How well do the guards maintain their crossbows?”

Despina would set a whetstone to the sword’s edge. Pondering which answers she knows, and how she might learn the rest.

Atyce would swig the wine and think it bitter, tainted by the weight of obligations. “We don’t have time. The Pasha of Haran wants to see us by the new moon.”

She hadn’t intended to attack. But she should’ve known what would draw blood.

Despina would shove the whetstone down the blade, ringing it with the crackling fury of a slave’s never-spoken words. And then she’d say something like, “The Pasha wants to see you.”

Atyce would counterattack. The two of them would follow well-honed forms, a combat manual written together across the years. Enough cuts and barbs and resentments to last them until dinner.

It’s not the first time. They’ve made up before, and they will again. But by then they’d be long gone, and I’d still be here.

• • • •

After the heroes’ appearance in court, when I still had the freedom of the palace, I made my way through the sandstone hallways to the quartermaster’s office. Sunset comes late here on the mountains’ western slope, so I had time enough to push the future onto an unlikely course.

The servants skittered away. They alone treated me with the right measure of awe and fear, but for all the wrong reasons. They thought me the queen’s most elusive companion, a woman of freedom and power. I’ve tried to foresee ways to turn them to my advantage, but the guards stop them every time.

I passed a guard, who eyed me with less awe, more fear. Noblewoman or no, the queen has told them where I may roam, and when I must be gently guided back to the tower. Today, the guard flinched back with relief. They’d been told not to stop me.

The quartermaster behaved more like a guard than a servant, but I could get what I needed from him. We’ve never spoken before, as far as he knows. But I’ve seen him among the stars, and he’ll react the same way he always does.

I said, “Would you send a boy up to the queen’s guests? They need to be ready before dawn, so we should start arranging their supplies now.”

• • • •

The River: constellation four of four seen from the fortress roof, night 127 of imprisonment

Atyce would grimace, then pour herself a cup of wine. “We can’t pull it off. Where’s the treasury? Who are the priests? How well do the guards maintain their crossbows?”

The quartermaster’s boy would knock on the door. Despina would tell him what supplies they need, and Atyce would ask how many caravans pass through each year. Both of the heroes would notice the way the boy hesitates. Everyone here knows what happens to travelers who can’t pay the tolls. What the guards do in the fortified gate, with its arrowslits and murderholes.

After the boy leaves, Despina and Atyce would share a silent glance. All those rumors of caravans lost to bandits, in the desert west or the grasslands east.

The Nurturing Sun enriches all beneath its rays, the queen said. But if a guest could be invited into the god’s warmth, who remained in the cold outside?

Atyce would pluck her new sword from the bed. Test its weight, study its engraving. She never told anyone, not even Despina, but she once swore herself to the Counter of Costs. She left the clergy, but not before she’d learned a bit of magic. How to trade coin for fortune. How to balance the scales. How to give people what they’re due.

In this future, her argument with Despina never happens.

“I’ll chat up our robber queen,” Atyce would say. “I bet I can coax out some secrets about the treasury. You keep an eye on her people.”

• • • •

In the great hall, the servants had laid out the table for a feast, resplendent despite the rush. They had also shuttered every window, blocking out the sunset and the promise of evening’s first stars. The room blazed like midday beneath two rock crystal sunstones, their light radiating from a blessing of the Nurturing Sun.

I told the queen she was clever to lay out the sunstones. To foreigners from a land without sun-priests, one of those stones would make a gift as rich as all the banquet’s silver cutlery.

I wasn’t sure Queen Iroda had done it on purpose. But I’d passed beyond my constellations from the night before. I was walking blind, and only the queen’s favor would grant me another visit to the rooftop.

Atyce and Despina cleaned up well: hair washed and oiled, traveling clothes scrubbed of dust. Atyce wore her new necklace. Despina put her hair back in a fishtail braid, ornamented with golden pins like miniature knives.

They had a refinement and symmetry that outshone even Queen Iroda. Height, too. As if they were the only ones in the room who grew up well-fed.

This time, they both watched the guards and the silver. Their two smiles mismatched but perfectly paired, rapier and buckler, oozing restrained hostility as clearly as any sword-belt or scabbard.

The queen placed Atyce at her right hand. My seat, but precisely where I wanted Atyce. It ought to be a place of honor, but Atyce and Iroda turned toward each other like foes before a duel.

The next two places to the queen’s right belonged to Despina and me. I could measure Queen Iroda’s wary politeness and glimpse the freshly-braided glory of her hair, but her words sank beneath the drone of conversation.

Despina set down a chunk of flatbread and leaned forward to block my view. “I know what you’re doing.”

“Excuse me?” I sat back, fumbling for my goblet and a way to answer questions unforeseen.

“The queen listens to you. But you’re afraid of her.”

“I. No?” My mind was empty, my future unknown. I stalled. “I’m very fortunate to live here. The queen has offered me everything I desire.”

Despina’s smile was a shield, but she had plenty of weapons to back it up. Night-black hair, and the kind of shoulders I wanted to drape an arm around. The devious look of a woman who knows where her blows will land.

She said, “Are you the queen’s lover?”

I clutched at thin air, for my absent veil. Elbowed my goblet, nearly spilled it all over my borrowed dress.

Despina raised an eyebrow.

I could’ve said no. But Despina knew too much about me already.

“She does have excellent hair,” I said, as distant and cryptic as a goddess.

Despina turned from me to study my mistress, still sparring with Atyce.

“I suppose. But braids like that require servants.” She wrapped a piece of flatbread around a cube of lamb, then wagged it at me. “You don’t like answering direct questions.”

“Not in the slightest.” A laugh slipped from my throat. Scarcely more than a chuckle, but my first one in months.

She slurped the lamb and pointed a finger. “Answered that one.”

My cheeks burned. Beneath the sunstones I was visible, blind, a target dummy for Despina’s blades.

What good were my plans if I couldn’t navigate a single meal without my goddess to guide me? But there was one thing I’d always done when trapped by life’s uncertainties.

I pushed back from the table, strode to a window, and threw open the shutters.

The brightest of the stars awaited me in a sky still touched with dusk. It was a west-facing window, toward the desert rather than the mountains. An endless expanse, crossed with roads new and old. Even the bravest traveler could get lost, if they were too stubborn or ignorant to follow the compass writ across the nighttime sky.

A guard’s footsteps drew close. I slammed the window shut.

I returned to my room without a glance at the table. Better that I go myself, before the guards or queen insisted.

• • • •

The Dragon: constellation one of two seen through the great hall window, night 128 of imprisonment

If I do nothing more, the heroes would nap in shifts, until they’re both awake in the middle of the night.

Despina would bind her long black hair back into its bun, strap her shortswords to her belt, and follow one step behind Atyce.

Atyce would ask a servant for directions to the royal chambers. Despina would tell the servant to fetch something from the kitchens on the far side of the palace.

The guards outside the queen’s chambers aren’t expecting an attack. Even if they were, it wouldn’t help them.

Atyce would blast the lock with dragonpowder, then lead them into the queen’s bedroom. As always, I cannot see her future.

Let’s assume it goes in a direction I’d rather not watch, but I wouldn’t necessarily want to stop.

The treasury key is here, but Atyce would leave it be. She’d call that a sacrifice to the Counter of Costs, in exchange for his fortune. The royal jewelry and the chamber’s sunstone are loot enough.

The hard part would be getting out alive.

Despina and Atyce would anchor ropes to Iroda’s bed, open the crown-glass windows, and rappel down the wall.

The heroes don’t know the guards have a second kind of sunstone, one that focuses its rays like the mirror of a lighthouse. Beams of sunlight would sweep across the walls. They’d catch the ropes, and then clothes and armor. Then come the quarrels.

The first volley would miss, but the Counter of Costs’ favor can only do so much. Eventually, the quarrels would find their mark. Only Despina would make it to the ground, where she would die with sword in hand.

She’d always wanted to die somewhere cold, where she could close her eyes in the warmth of blankets and a woman she loved.

She deserves better than this. I deserve better than this. In some other future, I’ll feed Despina and Atyce every hint they’ll need to save me.

• • • •

The Dancer: constellation two of two seen through the great hall window, night 128 of imprisonment

I could wait in my chambers, door locked for my misdeeds, until my first candle burns down to nothing.

I’d knock on my door. The servant would come in, her expression fearful, a guard behind her. I’d demand to see the queen at once. An emergency. A secret, for her ears only.

The servant would return with two more guards, one of whom has the authority to say: yes.

The three guards would escort me out of my tower. We’d reach the royal chambers just as Atyce funnels dragonpowder into the keyhole, two guards dead at her feet.

Atyce would fumble with the powder. Despina would draw her shortswords, step over the corpses, and face the three guards alone.

I’d freeze. I’d want to cover my eyes. But it would be worth keeping them open to watch her fight.

She’d slash, she’d bind, she’d push in and through. Her movements unstoppable, a jet of water freed from its dam, her swords like starlight flickering on the spray. Too fast to see every blow and every spray of blood, until her three opponents lay dead on the floor.

Despina never wanted to swear herself to a god, but in that moment she is as implacable as the Iron Verge, as fierce as the East Wind, ablaze with fury and focus like the Flame Beneath the Stone.

Glorious, and still coming. One step further and she’d be in front of me.

“Wait,” I would say. “I. There’s—”

A poor ending, that one. And poorer last words.

There’s another branch. Instead of watching, I could walk away. The fortress would be in a panic, the guards busy with sunstones and crossbows. While they caught Atyce and Despina, I could stride into the stables with my head held high. The desert road would lead me back toward the coast, with the stars overhead and a queen dead behind me.

Would it be enough? Or does another dream still glitter, beyond my grasp?

• • • •

Maybe the goddess saw everything, but I only had one moment with the window at dinner, and two eyes against the infinite constellations of the universe.

I waited in my chambers, door locked for my misdeeds, until my first candle burned low.

I knocked on my door. A few minutes earlier than my vision, but the guards are like anyone else. When a person knows how to act, they’ll carry out their role the same way every time.

The three fortress guards brought me to the queen’s room, her two bodyguards still hale. One slipped inside to get an answer. The day’s heat had long since waned, and cold seeped from the stone into my bare feet.

I wasn’t ready for this.

The door opened. No servants to be seen, but one of the bodyguards stayed inside, quiet with respect or fear, lurking by one of the open crown-glass windows.

The queen had awakened her sunstone, filling the room with the warm clean glow of the local god’s blessing. In its light, she leaned forward, her hands winding her hair, eyes bright and fearful with a hope too often crushed.

“You came.”

“I—” What had I expected? Not this. Nothing, from the one woman I could never predict. “You were waiting?”

“For months.” She paused the winding of her hair and let it fall loose around her shoulders like clouds at sunset. “How much more clearly could I say it?”

I’d only ever had one defense against her. I hadn’t expected to deceive her so well.

The light bled from Iroda’s face, replaced with a darker fire. “Dragons take it, Knira! I’ve made this place a treasure. But at every turn, you refuse to take part.”

Outside the door, someone shouted. Steel rang against steel. Another man yelped, and his voice fell silent in a bloody cough.

The bodyguard froze. The queen froze. How could they not, hearing a thing for the first time, unable to fit it on the narrow thread of their experience?

The lock rattled, and then settled with a hiss like trickling sand.

I still hadn’t found a way for the heroes to finish their rescue. But I’d rather let them try than put my faith in Iroda and her spoils.

I stepped back toward the door and threw open the bolt.

Atyce stumbled inside. She juggled her pouch of dragonpowder and flung it into the bodyguard’s face. He flinched, clawing at his eyes. Despina strode in with shortswords already bare and wet.

I pressed my back against the wall. Arms raised, palms open and empty. I tried not to look at the blood.

Real blood, not possible blood. The corpse on the floor would never be a living person again, not in any future of this world.

Despina wiped one blade, and then the other. She gave me a wry smile. “Queen’s bedroom. I thought you said you weren’t.”

“I, I didn’t say. Anything.”

Behind her, Iroda’s expression sank from shock to betrayal. What a sad and clinging heart, to crave her victim’s love.

Atyce leveled her sword at the queen’s breast. “We’re not in favor of this little extortion racket you have here. I’m thinking we could do this whole continent a service, right now.”

“The continent.” Iroda spat. “What have your pashas, kings, and priors ever done for the people of these mountains?” She sat straight in bed, her fearlessness cracked before the blade, her lips trembling with a prayer.

Queen Iroda finally at my mercy. I’d imagined this unforeseeable moment a thousand times over, always with a vagabond’s righteous bloodthirst. But I’d maneuvered enough pain into the world already, no matter how well-deserved the punishment.

Let the Counter of Costs worry about justice. The stars cared about more important things.

“Don’t kill her,” I said.

“Have to.” Atyce glanced toward me.

Iroda’s prayer rose into a shout, and blinding light seared my eyes.

Atyce screamed. I covered my face. The bed shook once with a meaty whack. The light dimmed, its aftermath burned into my eyelids like embers.

I blinked away the spots. Despina was halfway across the bed, stopped mid-lunge, her swords out in a wide blind sweep that ended in Iroda’s side and neck.

The queen crumpled, and her blood stained the sheets darker than her hair.

Queen Iroda, whose future had always been too bright for me to see. Who had not, after all, gotten those sunstones by tax or tribute.

I should’ve known. But I’d never asked.

Easier to think of Iroda as a puzzle solved and an obstacle removed, than as a woman dead.

Atyce groaned. She sat beside the bed, lowering one arm from her eyes. Her other arm was burned, skin black and cracked, her sword on the floor beside her.

Despina cut away what remained of Atyce’s sleeve, then helped her stand. “Can you see?”

“I think so. Gimme a minute.” Atyce reclaimed her sword with her off-hand and squinted at me. “Despina, do we need to kill that woman too?”

“Depends.” She searched my face. “On why she unlocked the door.”

“I can help you.” I looked at my feet. Not at the bed, not at the floor beside me. Not at Despina.

Atyce said, “How?”

Despina said, “Why?”

I had no idea how. Yet.

But I’d sidled so close to the window, I could see a thin sliver of night. One star is the same as a skyful, just as one hope is enough to sustain a soul.

• • • •

The Water Carrier: constellation one of three seen through the bedroom window, late, night 128 of imprisonment

“Because I want you to stay with me,” I could tell Despina. “Be my knight. Be my marshal. Make this place your home.”

She would frown. “Atyce’s injured. And the Pasha of Haran is waiting for us.”

“He’s waiting for Atyce, not for you.”

She’d shift her stance. One foot forward, one to the side, as if readying for a strike. “I can’t leave her.”

“Yes, you can. If she isn’t giving you what you want.”

“Hey! What are you doing?” Atyce would stride toward me. Her blade wobbly in her off-hand, but already smeared with blood. “I don’t know what your game is, but I am not about to let you bribe away my friend. I need her. Despina, gag this woman.”

Despina would sheathe her swords, set down her pack, bring out a coil of rope. Weigh it in her hands. “You spend a lot of time making decisions for me.”

There are at least four ways the argument could end. In one of them, Atyce escapes safely with a servant I trust, and Despina stays by my side.

She’d never forget that I drove a wedge between her and her friend.

• • • •

The Throne: constellation two of three seen through the bedroom window, late, night 128 of imprisonment

“Because I already saved you,” I could tell Despina. “And now I want you two gone, so I can rule here.”

“I don’t buy it.” Atyce would stride toward me. Her blade wobbly in her off-hand, but already smeared with blood.

Despina would put her hand on Atyce’s arm. The sword would lower.

I’d say, “By the time the guards realize what’s happened, you’ll be long gone. I can handle things from there, if you’ll promise to lay low for a few weeks.”

They’d exchange a glance. They’d sheath their blades; Despina smoothly, Atyce with a reach and a wince. The two of them would circle the room, grabbing jewelry and sunstone. Atyce always leaves behind the treasury key.

Despina would step close. Quietly, “You could come with us.”

I’d want nothing more than to stare back at that face, forever.

I’d look away. “If you thought Atyce would agree, you wouldn’t have whispered.”

Despina would turn away, resenting us both. But they need a third person to help atop the rope, to lower injured Atyce out the window and away.

Still, when the two of them reach the notch between the mountains, they’d take a moment to rest their horses. Atyce would gaze forward, toward the distant fires of a caravanserai on the plains ahead. Despina would look back and wonder what might’ve been.

I could rule this little fortress. Lighten the tolls, and still live a rich life. See the stars anytime I choose. Learn the shapes of every constellation.

But I would rule alone. Among all my prophesied futures, I would wish instead for a glimpse of other pasts.

• • • •

The Wandering Fool: constellation three of three seen through the bedroom window, late, night 128 of imprisonment

“Because I want you to take me with you,” I could tell Despina.

“Can’t.” Atyce would stride toward me. Her blade lowered, but already smeared with blood. “You’ll slow us down.”

“I’ll keep you alive. You haven’t seen sunstones and crossbows at night. You can’t fight your way out. Especially not one-handed.”

A lie would break my oath to the Star. But in a world with possibilities beyond counting, every truth is a half-truth.

I already saved their lives when I opened the door. With fortune on their side, they could walk right out of the fortress. By the time the guards realize what’s happened, Atyce and Despina would be long gone.

Despina would say, for the second time, “Why?”

If there’s one expression I can recognize, it’s hope.

“I. You don’t know?” I’d rub my fingers together, thumb against fingertip, where a veil should hang between them. “I’m her prisoner. Was her prisoner.”

“Is that all?”

Atyce would shove an armful of gold-embroidered fabric against my chest. “Carry some loot and we’ll bring you to the next city. Fair?”

It might be the best I can do.

• • • •

It went, at first, exactly as I foresaw.

Atyce left behind the treasury key, and fortune stayed on our side. We evaded the guards’ patrols. The stablemaster accepted a letter with the queen’s private seal. He couldn’t read the handwriting, but that’d never been a problem before.

I hadn’t ridden in months. My skirts tore, my legs ached, but I held on as the road wound up from the tollgate to the notch between the mountains.

I’d imagined it would be a disappointment, to finally touch something I’d dreamed of for so long. I’d imagined wrong.

The eastern slopes were thick with ferns and moss, dense green trees grown strong on the mountains’ rain. Trickles of water became a stream, became a river, leading us down to grasslands as vast and welcoming as the heavens.

At dawn, we left the road and rested the horses by the river’s rock-strewn edge.

I refilled my waterskin and watched Despina unpin her hair, black and endless like a remnant of the night. She trailed it into the river, scrubbing it against itself to wash out the blood.

She looked up. At me, and at the waterskin in my hand, still under the water, long since full.

“You never answered my question,” she said.

“Which question?” I rubbed my fingers together. I knew which one she’d meant.

“Why you wanted to come.” She gestured at my shoes: ill-fitting slippers stolen from Queen Iroda’s bedroom.

Atyce sat on a flat-topped boulder, adjusting her bandages. Not asking for help, studiously focused on anything but our conversation. Her sword rested beside her, within reach of her uninjured hand.

What justice would she claim from me if I hurt her friend?

A few stars remained in the western sky, in the narrowing band of sapphire above the mountains. Surely the goddess could see all the answers I might give, and reveal the one that would give all of us what we sought.

But someday you’d start to think about all the chances and coincidences that brought us together. You’d wonder if you ever had a choice.

I said, “Because if I didn’t come, I’d never see you again.”

She released her half-cleaned hair. A flush rose to her cheeks, warm in the morning light. “That’s sweet. But also a little . . . Rushed.”

How many years had it been since I knew how to live an ordinary life? Restricted to a single thread, oblivious to the braid. Red and silver, brown and black, all these things forever side by side without knowing how they kiss.

The sun continued its rise. The last stars faded. In some threads, the sun would burn. In others, it would bring warmth and life and growth. Whatever might pass, the cycles of heaven and earth would return.

We do the same things we’ve always done. Whatever worked before, we try again. We kill, we question, we seize. We hide, we manipulate, we deceive.

“I’m a priestess of the North Star,” I said.

Her brow furrowed in a cute little wedge. “Of the who?”

I laughed. Such perfect irony, and perfect opportunity.

“A goddess few on this continent know. The All-Seeing, Queen of Hopes, Mistress of Destinations. I am her priestess and her seer.”

“Seer. Huh.” Despina’s eyebrows rose. “Foreseen me doing anything interesting?”

“Oh, I’ll tell you everything. But worry about your future later. I’m going to do something interesting right now.” I splashed into the river’s edge, slippers and all, and kissed her.

• • • •

The Lovers: constellation one, seen from a location unknown, night 1 of freedom

“It’s not prophecy,” I would tell her. “It’s prediction.”

If I let events unfold, she’d take my hands, eyes wide with the fearful temptation of the new. “But still.”

I’d leave my hands there, safe within her strength. “You don’t need to understand. But you need to keep asking questions. Especially of me.”

Maybe it’ll work, maybe it won’t. A lot of things could happen when a woman knows me.

But whatever comes, I won’t make her choices for her.

Benjamin C. Kinney

Benjamin C. Kinney

Benjamin C. Kinney is a SFF writer, neuroscientist, and assistant editor of the science fiction podcast magazine Escape Pod, for which he’s been a finalist for the Hugo and Ignyte awards. His short stories have appeared in many fine magazines including Strange HorizonsAnalog Science Fiction and FactBeneath Ceaseless Skies, and more. You can find him online at benjaminckinney.com or follow him on twitter @BenCKinney.