The dead return in strange shapes, yoked to those who mastered them in life. Thais sees them: shadowy animals who slink between the townspeople in the market square. When he was born, so he is told, his mother held up his birth-wet body and pressed her nose to the middle of his brow. They lay together, crowned by oak branches dragged low to the ground by last night’s rain, on the stone table at the center of the woods.
“He will find the dead tethered to the earth,” she said. “These ghosts will flock to him as they flock to the prophets of Eza.” So she placed him on his father’s breast and returned to the Ezite temple she called home.
• • • •
In the distance, a lone wolf howls. The sound makes Thais freeze. It has been so long since he’s heard the wolf, and he had hoped stupidly that it had forgotten him.
He returns his attention to his work: The town’s hearth lies at the center of a clearing, where scraggly trees overhang plumes of smoke and oaken tables lay just outside of the firelight. Thais maintains this little, holy place, even though his hours packing down the dirt and wiping down the hearth’s bricks barely keep the wild at bay. The monotony of hearthwork has been good for him; it keeps him from dwelling.
Gia and his company left some months ago to fight with the godqueen’s holy army in the west, at the shores of the sea that separates Tricaly from Eza. That’s why the town has been so silent. Thais dreads what Gia will bring back with him.
A gust of wind parts the trees to the west. In the gap, Thais sees the town’s flickering windows before a silhouette obscures his view. A man steps out of the gloom, into the firelight. A black tiger perches on his shoulders, impossibly large compared to the man’s slender frame. It rests its paws on the man’s shoulders, its hindlegs digging into his waist, and its tail trailing behind like a plume of smoke. The man walks with a cane, bent beneath the tiger’s weight like a tree forced to the ground by a storm.
Thais knows that only he can see the tiger, but he wonders for the first time if he can see past more than the veil that separates the living from the dead. No patron gives the newcomer a second glance, despite the luminosity of his skin and the feather-soft chime that plays when his bare feet alight on the ground. He can’t be Tricalian; no one born here has skin so pale, nor hair so dark. He sinks into a chair, head cradled in his arms, undisturbed.
Try as he might, Thais can’t look away from the hypnotic patterns stitched into the man’s robes: silk waves crash on fields of viridian; deer lope between tree branches burdened with flowers; wolves give chase across the cascading folds. As the dusk settles in with a gray haze, patrons trickle back to their homes, but Thais remains. His muscles ache. He can’t move, but he isn’t sure that he wants to move.
The man peers up and meets Thais’ eyes. He blinks, then tilts his head to the side.
“Here,” he says, and Thais is at his side. The tiger rears back and spits. Its mouth, a shocking shade of red, splits its face in two.
Mouth agape, Thais can only whisper, “What are you?”
“How curious . . . ” the man drawls. A hand emerges from his nest of silk, reaching forward but stopping just before it touches Thais’ brow. “Did you know you have three eyes?”
In the reflection of the man’s eyes, as all-encompassing as a still, black lake, Thais sees himself: his mother’s aquiline nose, her stern lips; his father’s hair, wild, long, and coiled; and the eye nestled in his forehead.
He steps away, blinking, and it’s gone. Snarling, the tiger slinks from shoulder to shoulder, the chair groaning beneath its weight.
“No, it is I who owes you an apology,” the man says. “If I had known, I never would have chosen this place to rest. Those with the misfortune of seeing through my glamor are compelled to enter my service.” His hand slices through the air. “You are dismissed.”
The tension leaves Thais’ body. He sags against the table, panting, and the cold water of relief he feels is tempered by his fear, the realization of how completely he had been controlled just moments before.
Gripping the back of a chair, he sets his jaw and sits down.
“I said that you are dismissed,” the man says.
“I want to know what you are.”
The man sucks on his cheek. “My name is Liosse Gul.”
How could a creature like this have a name so ordinary?
Closer now, and Thais can see the hollows of his cheeks and the way his fingers tremble from the cold.
“And that?” Thais gestures to the tiger. “Who was it?”
The tiger shows its teeth, suddenly twice as large as before; its hackles brush the tree branches and its claws, dagger-like, sink into Liosse’s flesh. Liosse bleeds water, but he doesn’t so much as grimace.
Usually, when the dead finally tear into the flesh of the living, they leave no wounds. Instead, a shadow blossoms inside of its victim. Each day, the shadow’s vines grow longer, more vicious. The victim falls to his deathbed, coughing up blood. He can’t see the rose thorns buried in his lungs. Just a fever, the townfolk say; there is no rhyme or reason, they think, to those who fall mysteriously ill in the winter. No way to predict who will survive and who will die.
But Liosse, besides his lacerations, is unharmed. Not even the candlelight behind his eyes dims.
“You should know the dead bear no names,” he says.
“Why have you brought it here?”
“He and I have undertaken a pilgrimage,” he says, “one which nears its completion.”
“To the stone table?”
Liosse narrows his eyes. But surely he must have known that this would be an easy guess to make. The town is painfully ordinary; it could be swallowed up by the greenery of the forest one day and no man would be the wiser. There are only the ghosts and the stone table, which sits in a circle of dust because no plant dares grow beside it. Thais doesn’t know what the table is, nor why his mother was hellbent on bringing herself to this place. But meeting this new pilgrim must not be a coincidence—he won’t let it be a coincidence.
“Will you do me a great favor,” Liosse asks, “and allow me someplace warm to sleep tonight?”
• • • •
On the ground by the hearth, Liosse sleeps like a child, head tucked against his knees, arms wrapped around himself.
The tiger lives in every shadow of the hearth grove, in each place everywhere at once. As the fire becomes embers, the tiger only grows. It sleeps by Liosse’s side. It paces the length of the clearing, runs its claws down the trees, and sprays its scent on the hearth’s bricks. It stares Thais down, mouth open so wide that its jaw touches the ground. Thais can’t shake the sense that this ghost knows. That it isn’t like the others. There is a mutual understanding between it and its master; in its face, the glimmer of something human.
What died to create this?
• • • •
After the death of his father, Thais was taken in by the soldier, Ansari Gia, who had in years past hired his father as part of his company.
Gia’s lodge was no place for a child: The soldiers placed Thais in a room where the woodwork of the building showed like the ribs of a roast pig; in the evenings they were larger than men or women should be, and louder too; they roared with laughter as they wolfed down meat and beer; they slapped Thais’ shoulders so hard that the strike echoed through his body; he hid between their legs and watched the pack of death cats beg for food.
In the night, a snake hung from the rafters and watched. Thais met its gaze unwaveringly. He had felt the slick of its scales in nights past, and he was afraid it would grow bolder: wrap itself around his shoulders, as his father once embraced him, and squeeze until there was nothing left. Why else would his father claw his way out of his grave and toil until he returned here, if not to envelop Thais once more?
Why else the snake?
Open-mouthed, the snake let venom drip from its tongue in wisps of smoke. Its throat gave way to black depths.
Thais knew the dead too well. They left all that was good inside of their decaying bodies; the things that crawled out of their corpses were made of fear, anger, and obsession. They forgot even their names. He had tried calling them to his side, only to see the empty mirrors of their eyes and understand: When they returned to their homes, clawed themselves into their husbands’ shirts, sank their teeth into their daughters’ flesh, it was not because they remembered and not because they loved. The tether between the dead and their families was made of something hardier than love, so these animals were returned to their homes, their tongues lolling and saliva dripping, because they must.
He held out a hand. The snake wrapped itself around his wrist. He was surprised that it didn’t bite him at first, so he brought it up to his face and watched its iris dilate and constrict like a writhing earthworm.
Slowly, he got out of bed and walked to the kitchen. He was worried any sharp movement might startle the snake. But it stayed here, head drawn back and neck tense—perpetually about to strike, yet as still as stone.
He placed the snake on the table, pinned it down with a hand right behind its head. Something changed inside of the snake; perhaps it realized its fate, perhaps it was afraid. It thrashed around, gray coils slamming against plates and jars, yet slipping through solid matter as a ray of light would through glass.
He tightened his grasp. As the snake fought its fate, the kitchen was solemn, silent, and still.
Thais grabbed a knife. The blade slipped through the snake’s neck, and the head fell away.
But it still twitched, so he choked down a sob and stabbed it again. He sliced it in pieces, vertebrae cracking beneath his fingers, meat flaking away like cooked trout. There was no blood. Thais had hoped the snake would disappear, but it lay there, limp and torn apart.
He snatched his hands away and sobbed.
He still doesn’t know what happens to them when they’re destroyed.
• • • •
Thais wakes to the sound of Liosse leaving. His movements: feather-light and full of chimes. Thais wonders if Liosse knows how loud he can be or if he has heard the bells all his life.
Before the sun dares to rise, Thais goes to Gia’s stables and swings himself over the back of a gray mare.
He’s closer to the wolf here. He doesn’t just hear it cry. He hears its nails scrape against stone. He hears it pant, just beyond the stable wall, waiting.
Ducking back outside, he doesn’t wait for it to speak. As they walk down the center street, the horse’s steps are as loud as thunder. Thais doesn’t ease his trembling hold on the reins until they’re in the forest again. They follow the rhythmic thud of Liosse’s cane.
Liosse hasn’t gotten far. Thais spots the tendrils of his dark hair and the shy, star-like glimmer of his robes. He urges the horse forward.
The forest parts and the tiger lunges. For a second, Thais’ world is encompassed by that red mouth, stretched from horizon to horizon. With a cry, Thais tugs the horse backwards. Startled by Thais’s sudden orders, its hooves strike the ground clumsily.
“Kares!” Liosse snarls. The tiger lurches backward, as if pulled by a lead, and falls back to the ground. Head low and teeth bared, it still won’t tear its eyes away from Thais.
Drawing in a shaking breath, Liosse kneels beside the tiger named Kares. “My dear,” he says, “it appears we’ve made a friend.”
He places his fingers lightly on top of the tiger’s paw. As the fur along its spine flattens, Liosse pulls the tiger onto his back once more, gasping as those claws find his flesh.
Thais thinks Liosse should snap like a twig.
“I won’t apologize for him,” Liosse says. “Would you ask the stoat to apologize to the mouse? You shouldn’t have come here.”
“I want to know what you are.”
Liosse sinks against a tree. Sweat decorates his skin like dew on a leaf. Despite his narrowed eyes, Thais wonders if he’s glad for the reprieve.
“You’ve lost someone, too,” Liosse observes. “I can see it in your face.”
“Where is he now?”
In the distance, a herd of antelope, golden horns shining, brace themselves against trees to reach the loftier leaves. Fawns weave between their bough-like legs.
The tiger’s ears flick toward the herd but return to Liosse within the second.
“Destroyed,” Thais lies.
There is a death wolf that he keeps leashed behind the lodge. It followed the company home, its ragged coat hanging from its ribs. It had no choice, after all, but to return; it is here for Thais.
“You’re a smarter man than I,” Liosse says.
The tiger paces around Liosse’s neck, muscle rolling beneath its skin like boulders beneath moss.
Thais says, “I don’t think that’s true.”
“Do you know what the stone table is?”
“I’ve been there before.”
Thais remembers what it looks like: Along the sides of the granite slab, figures emerge from the faceted mica. To the east, an armored woman, her mane of hair tamed in braids, leads an army of men and women over a rolling sea. Tsipryan, the godqueen of Tricaly, holding the disemboweled body of her only son. To the west, gods with the faces of animals lie sprawled among sinuous trees. Thais doesn’t know the Ezites’ names.
“The stone marks a location where another world intersects with ours,” Liosse says. “The Hunt, which houses the spirits of the dead.”
Thais pulls his mount to a halt. His skin crawls. “The Hunt?”
“Haven’t you noticed?” Liosse asks. “If you go just a mile out of town, how many ghosts do you find? Any at all?”
“I’ve never lived anywhere else,” Thais whispers. He should have known. Not every town can live like this: flanked by houses with dark windows and shuttered doors, by the furtive whispers of mothers and their colicky infants. Every year, a little more of the town gives way to the woods. Every year, they return another thorn-mangled corpse to the earth.
“There are similar places scatted across the world, places where the Hunt emerges from the shadows, but this is the closest I could find. You’ve truly never noticed? Anywhere else, the animals merely trickle out, but here they live in packs.”
Thais is far away, stuck in the hazy memories of the childhood he spent nestled in the fur of dead bears, cleaned by the rough tongues of Gia’s cats. She did this to him. She made the pilgrimage to the stone and bore him here. Did she think it was a gift to see the dead? Back in town, the wolf cries, and the sound makes Thais grip his reins so tightly he can’t feel his hands.
Why can’t he kill the wolf?
“What could you possibly want,” Thais asks slowly, “with a place like this?”
“Where I live, it is thought that, at convergence of the Hunt and the earth, bird hounds can speak to their masters, the trees can see a thousand futures, and the dead may be reunited with their lovers.”
“Is it true?”
Liosse grins, eyes wide and wild. “I’m going to find out.”
• • • •
On those days when Gia’s company was due to return, the soldier’s wives gathered outside of town, where they plucked petals from wayfarer shrubs. Singing, they asked Tsipryan to return their loves. After all, the soldiers had left to avenge her son, Llevesril, slaughtered and eaten by the fell god Aima.
As they chattered, they wove flowers into their locks and twisted their curls together with oil salves.
Thais waited in the back, leaning against a tree.
At nineteen years old, Thais wasn’t a child anymore. To earn his keep in Gia’s lodge, he maintained the house when the company was gone and served the soldiers when they were here. In particular, he waited on Parsha.
In the dewy fog of morning, he crept into Parsha’s room while he still slept and prepared his clothes. He returned later with a mug of tea, watched as the steam melted the weariness from Parsha’s face, and asked if Parsha had read the newest book that Thais had lent him. If they trained that day, Thais was there in the courtyard, where he would hand Parsha his wooden sword, a wet rag, a drink, and his heart swelled in his chest at the sound of that voice, gently asking each time. In the evening, when Parsha returned from his hunt, they sat the edge of the woods and watched the trees melt into the coming night.
“Haven’t you somewhere else to be?” Parsha would ask.
“I don’t have anything to do for Gia until later tonight.”
“That’s not what I meant.”
Thais had other friends. He spent some evenings with the poets and the bards that slept by the hearth. He snuck out of the lodge whenever a merchant wandered into town and listened to tales that he was sure were lies. Parsha would listen to the same tales recounted, enraptured.
Was it so strange that he chose to be here? Parsha wasn’t as old as Gia. Only a few gray hairs coiled up in his braids. Little lines marked the corners of his eyes when he smiled, which was often.
He couldn’t look at Parsha without a certain breed of shame coiling up in his stomach; he didn’t know what to call it, except that it reminded him of the snake on the dining table. He wanted to dig his fingers into Parsha’s face, to pull it close, to smell the sweat, the blood, the skin. He wanted to cry. He wondered if this is what the dead felt when they found their loves in the land of the living, torn between violence and something that pretends to be love.
All Thais managed was, “I like being here,” and he let his hand rest a hairsbreadth away from Parsha’s.
Thais didn’t dare touch him. But he could wait for him.
In the distance, the trees rustled. Horses burst out of the wood, and the air filled with laughter. The soldier’s wives sprang to their feet, and the soldiers leapt from their mounts. Between hands intertwined and cloaks fluttering in the wind, their horses looked on, whale-eyed and pawing the ground.
Thais stood on the tips of his toes. He didn’t see Parsha’s white-fur cloak, nor his black gelding, even as more men arrived. The crowd, tumbling over one another, grinning from corner to corner, made their way back to town and left the field flowerless.
Fear rose up his throat with bitter bile.
Something else crested the hill, and for a moment, it looked like the silhouette of a man.
“Parsha?” Thais whispered—he was sure, from here, the man would never hear him, but he was too afraid to become hopeful once more and therefore too afraid to yell, so he pressed himself back into the tree until the bark dug furrows in his skin.
As the silhouette emerged from the dust, it became not a man, but a wolf.
• • • •
The stone table lies a day’s walk from town.
Halfway to their destination, Liosse buckles beneath the tiger.
Gasping, he pulls himself to his hands and knees. The tiger has torn gashes into his robes, so now Thais can see the man from behind a curtain of ragged finery: his body is as leanly muscled as a gnarled tree, his tendons like cord fastened around bone. His rib cage is hollow, his stomach pulled taut between sternum and pelvis. When was the last time he has eaten? He seems more dead than alive; a pile of kindling lit by the fire behind his eyes.
Before he can stand, the tiger rolls onto its back and rakes its claws down his chest. With a snarl, Liosse grabs the tiger by the scruff and, straddling it, pins it to the ground. Their faces are pressed against each other, nose to nose, teeth bared. They’ve done this before, Thais realizes, either in death or in life. A dance rehearsed, a game that Liosse always wins.
And although this—this fight between intimacy and hatred—is not unique to Liosse and his ghost, Thais wonders if he should leave. He feels that he should not be witnessing this, especially not beneath the gaze of this ghost in particular. The one that remembers its name.
Thais startles. The irrational fear that Liosse has somehow seen inside of his mind floods his body.
“I’m still here.”
Liosse is breathless. “Through these trees, yes?”
Liosse drags the tiger with him, clawing his way up the hill, until the death animal contorts itself, gets its feet beneath its ink-black body, and crawls onto his back once more. When Liosse stands and heaves himself forward, he looks like something less than human.
The mare walks beside the pair with an ignorance that Thais envies.
“Perhaps we should stop, at least,” Thais suggests, “and rest.”
Liosse is covered in sweat, and rain-like blood, and dirt. His robes have lost their luster. His white face is broken by stray strands of hair like cracks in a clay pot.
“I’ve been hurt worse than this.” His words slither out between his gritted teeth. “When I was born, my mother ordered three of her courtiers—the lords of conception, of peace, and of adoration—to offer their hearts to me, and they did. I saw them die for me. I have been split open. I’ve watched my lifeblood flood out of me.”
“How can you say this to me?” Thais asks. He leans down, as close as he can get to Liosse’s ashen face and his dog-black eyes. “And then tell me your name is ‘Liosse Gul’? The name of a man. You aren’t like any man I’ve ever known. Can I trust someone who won’t even tell me his real name?”
“Oh,” Liosse sighs, “but you know his.” And he sinks a hand into the tiger’s moth-bitten fur. Kares, he had cried, Kares, my dear. “Isn’t that enough?”
Thais bites at his lip even as a ferrous taste floods his mouth. He doesn’t want to leave. The desire to know what Liosse is burns too strongly, but he sees these two, man and tiger, and a sickness fills his gut. He had touched the wolf only once, to tie the rope around its neck, holding fur in fistfuls as he cried, I love you, I love you, I love you. He would never return to it, never loosen the knot.
“You and I are more similar than you realize,” Liosse says. “Tell me about the one you lost. Tell me that he was a warrior. Tell me that you loved him even after you saw him tear out the guts of another.”
Bile creeps up Thais’ throat. “I never told you that.”
“You didn’t see it, did you? A pity.” Liosse’s smile is feline and hungry. “Strange things happen out in those fields where soldier kills soldier. You know that sometimes, gods are born to human parents. You will find them often in those places.”
“I know what Aima is.” Despite himself, Thais wraps his fingers around the necklace his father gave him, the one decorated with the godqueen’s holy symbol. Just speaking the name of the mad god Aima was bad luck, at best, and a curse, at worst.
“Not just Aima. Newblood gods are born far more often than you would think,” Liosse says. “They often don’t understand what they are. Even the old gods are closer to humans than they want you to believe. They are made of flesh and blood. If you tear their hearts from their chests, or cleave their heads from their shoulders, they die. So the newblood walk among men, thinking that they are just a little more exceptional, and a little more hardy, and a lot more lucky.”
“Wouldn’t they realize?” Thais asks. “Surely they don’t age?”
After all, children had been told of Aima for centuries, perhaps before the town was anything more than a firepit.
“Oh, some do, especially once they outlive their parents. But so many more of them die young. Such is the way of newblood, you see. They think like mortal men, not like gods.” He put a hand to his breast, panting until he caught his breath. “Men aren’t afraid of death, not really, because they have so little to lose. But the old gods have built impossible forts to escape death. They lock themselves in tombs and hide behind walls as tall as the sky. I hope one day you can see the golden city. It is a monument to fear.”
“She hates them,” Thais says. It isn’t a question.
“Tsipryan? Yes. Even before Aima . . . before he . . . ” Llevesril bares his teeth as he takes his next step. “She hated them. After all, they are an affront to nature. But nature can be cruel and ugly, too.”
The tiger puts its face beside Liosse’s, its tail wrapped around his neck like a snake’s coils. It leans forward, lips pulled back, as it tastes the air before Thais’ nose.
“And the gods—?” Both old and new, beautiful and terrible. “—When they die? Do their animals haunt the city?”
“Only,” Liosse says, “if you drag them back.”
• • • •
The death wolf always howled. This song, torn straight from its throat, lived in the back of Thais’ mind, even as he tended to the hearth’s.
He couldn’t live in the lodge anymore.
Gia stood. He commanded any room that he walked into—too tall, too broad-shouldered, each step making the ground shake—and even the hearth clearing, walled only by cypresses, was no exception.
It was getting dark, and when it got dark, Thais lay on the hard-packed soil, crossed legs braced against a tree trunk, because those who slept by the hearth in the young, dark morning knew better than to ask why he didn’t go home.
He watched as Gia pulled his wife into an embrace, each hand wrapped around her waist like a girdle, and pressed his forehead to hers, and as he watched, he absently braided together the flowers he found outside until the torn-up petals fell over his chest.
“Why don’t you head back?” Gia said. “I need to talk to Thais for a bit.”
Thais put his flowers down. He could do nothing, not even flee, as she left and Gia leaned against the counter.
“I’m sorry,” Gia said.
Thais’ brow furrowed.
Thais often dreamed of the man who killed Parsha, and of the god that man must have worshiped. In the stories, Aima was red-haired and red-eyed, his skin like Thais’, not quite Tricalian dark and not quite fair. After all, neither Tricaly nor Eza was his home. He was terrific, tree-like in his monstrous size, hackled like a dog, hungry.
“You were his dearest friend, you know,” Gia said. Speaking Parsha’s name was like clearing a dam. “I think your father would have been proud. Not everyone is destined to be a soldier. He wouldn’t have wanted that for you. There’s honor in what you’ve done for us. Honor in serving others.”
“I can’t come back, Gia.”
“I can’t.” Thais sat up. His voice caught on all the ridges in his throat; his eyes were wet. There was one reason he was the hearthkeeper: The hearth was as far as he could get from the lodge. “I can’t. There’s nothing you can say to me, please—”
“Thais! Is that what you think of me? Must there be an agenda?”
A few days ago, the wolf learned to parrot back Thais’ name: a combination of growls that resembled human speech. Thais, Thais, Thais. The tortured sound tore up the wolf’s throat.
It took most of Thais’ willpower to ignore it, but sometimes, he found himself staring listlessly forward, swaying to the cadence of the wolf’s cries, and he couldn’t even remember how long he had been sitting there.
“Do you know what he gave his life for?” Gia asked.
“For Tsipryan.” This was the simple answer. For Tsipryan’s Return!, the company chanted, For the Hound of Tricaly! For the Queen!
There wasn’t a single child born to Tricaly who didn’t know the story. Tsipryan’s only child, Llevesril, had been stolen away by an abomination: Aima who was once the man Sir Kares Gul—a creature born to two human parents, a fluke that might be a god. He ruled the blood-soaked soil of the battlefield in the same way that Tsipryan ruled righteous madness and the ever-beating oppression of the sun. Centuries ago, when Tsipryan herself charged headlong into the campaign to return Llevesril to her golden city in the mountains, she found instead his body gutted on Aima’s altar.
So Tsipryan locked herself away, pledging to only return once every Aiman heretic was destroyed.
“It was worth it,” Gia said. Thais saw it now: the guilt. “You have to understand that, Thais. He died for something greater than himself.”
• • • •
As the day fades away, Thais leads Llevesril and the ghost of Aima who was once the man Sir Kares Gul to the stone table.
Llevesril kneels so the tiger can crawl to the ground. The remnants of Llevesril’s robes slide away, pooling at his feet. Thais slides off his mount, follows Llevesril forward.
Silently, Llevesril finds the face of his mother in the bas-relief. Talon-like fingers exploring every crevice, his hands slide upward.
One of his nails catches. He freezes, then digs his nail into the sharp crack.
Pinched in his grasp, a knife slides out of its stony sheath. The blade, decorated with calligraphy, reflects the setting sunlight.
“What does this look like to you?” Llevesril asks, placing it on Thais’ open palm. But besides the engraving, there is nothing strange about it: not the leather handle, nor the plain iron crossguard. The calligraphy says what Liosse had said, Such is the Blessing of the Convergence, that the Dead may be reunited with their Lovers.
“It’s just a knife,” Thais says.
Llevesril nods. “Just a knife.” Taking it once more, he places it against his breast.
It’s the first time Llevesril has stood straight in some time. He’s taller than Thais would have guessed. He stares into the woods, eyes downcast. As still as he is, he might have been one of the silver birches, the ones that stood at the edge of the clearing, tender branches prodding the sky.
“I loved him, you know,” Llevesril says. “I just need one other person besides my mother to know that.”
Thais wants to plunge his hand into the furrows the tiger left in Llevesril’s body. “I know.”
The coming night makes Thais’ skin itch. As it wakes, the wolf cries, and it will only grow louder as Thais returns to town.
“I met Aima before he realized what he was,” Llevesril says. “The warriors who followed him didn’t understand how or why he would dive into battle and emerge unscathed, but when one escapes death so often, he inspires love where he does not mean to inspire love. He would have died for them all, if he could have; I had never seen a passion like that, one that rips meat from bone with its teeth, not before I met him, and if you think that the tiger is haunted by his love for me, you have only seen a fraction of what Aima was. The soil was his altar; they worshiped there, where their fellows had just been buried. He never would have killed me.”
What a waste of a war, Thais thinks. How many times had Gia’s company left and returned, battered and bloodied, not for a mother grieving, but for a mother who thought she had been betrayed? How many ghosts did they drag back to the lodge?
“It’s just a knife,” Llevesril whispers, turning to him. Thais puts his hands over Llevesril’s, the god’s skin is as cold and smooth as porcelain.
What a waste of a war, Thais thinks, now that its catalyst stands before him. Was Aima worth sending the wolf into Thais’ lap? Thais, Thais, Thais, comes the throat-cutting prayer, the howls. He grips Llevesril’s hands so tightly that his knuckles go white and looks up at a face that eclipses the sky like the moon: The god’s eyes are unblinking and his lips just slightly agape, but he says nothing, nor does he make any effort to escape Thais’ grasp. Thais sees right through the stoic, arboreal mask—to the man Liosse, who has been made small and afraid by his discovery. Already, Thais’ chest is wet with water-blood.
“Thais,” Llevesril asks, “what should I do?”
“What did you come here to do?”
• • • •
Before Tsipryan’s holy war, Llevesril hid in the underbelly of the golden city, but he knew that soon he would be discovered. He had delivered the stillborn child of Aima and torn the umbilical with his teeth because, for a moment, he thought that he might be able to escape before the birth-smell reached his mother. The vomit, the musk, and Aima’s undeniable perfume permeating the flesh—Llevesril didn’t have the Hound’s nose, but even he smelled it.
He was not a warrior, not like Tsipryan, not like Aima. He had never felt injury as he felt it now. His body, a grievous wound. Blood glued the bedsheets to his skin; cold sweat, like the rain outside, fell from his face. He wondered if this was how she felt when she bore him, as if she had been split open like an egg. Perhaps, if she remembered the pain, she would find an ounce of mercy to give him.
• • • •
Thais finds them in the wilds, where the forest dips into the blue-green shadows of the valley, where the brush escapes the eyes of the townspeople.
It’s nighttime. The tiger never notices him. It crouches in the underbrush, where it stalks a lone antelope. Always the same antelope, its fur gray like the dusk and its eyes as reflective as glass. When its feet dance across the ground, its footsteps sing like bell chimes.
Just before the tiger strikes, the antelope meets its eyes. Fear transforms its whole body: tail flying like a flag, eyes wide, ears pinned forward. It takes one step into its flight before the tiger pounces.
Beneath the tiger, it crumples to the ground. But the tiger doesn’t kill it, not at first. As the tiger opens its gut and chews on its flesh, the antelope raises its head to watch. For just a second, it has Liosse’s eyes, the same dewy, black eyes he had when he stroked the tiger’s pelt; the eyes he had when he remembered the past.
In the morning, they are whole. The tiger hungers, the antelope dances into its mouth, and Thais returns to the wolf.
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