Love Among the Talus

By Elizabeth Bear

You cannot really keep a princess in a tower. Not if she has no brothers and must learn statecraft and dancing and riding and poisons and potions and the passage of arms, so that she may eventually rule.

But you can do the next best thing.

In the land of the shining empire, in a small province north of the city of Messaline and beyond the great salt desert, a princess with a tip-tilted nose lived with her mother, Hoelun Khatun, the Dowager Queen. The princess—whose name, it happens, was Nilufer—stood tall and straight as an ivory pole, and if her shoulders were broad out of fashion from the pull of her long oak-white bow, her dowry would no doubt compensate for any perceived lack of beauty. Her hair was straight and black, as smooth and cool as water, and even when she did not ride with her men-at-arms, she wore split, padded skirts and quilted, paneled robes of silk satin, all emerald and jade and black and crimson embroidered with gold and white chrysanthemums.

She needed no tower, for she was like unto a tower in her person, a fastness as sure as the mountains she bloomed beside, her cool reserve and mocking half-lidded glances the battlements of a glacial virginity.

Her province compassed foothills, and also those mountains (which were called the Steles of the Sky). And while its farmlands were not naturally verdant, its mineral wealth was abundant. At the moderate elevations, ancient terraced slopes had been engineered into low-walled, boggy paddies dotted with unhappy oxen. Women toiled there, bent under straw hats, the fermenting vegetation and glossy leeches which adhered to their sinewy calves unheeded. Farther up, the fields gave way to slopes of scree. And at the bottoms of the sheer, rising faces of the mountains opened the nurturing mouths of the mines.

The mines were not worked by men; the miners were talus, living boulders with great stone-grinding mouths. The talus consumed ore and plutonic and metamorphic rocks alike (the sandstones, slates, schists, and shales, they found to be generally bereft of flavor and nutrition, but they would gnaw through them to obtain better) and excreted sand and irregular nuggets of refined metal.

The living rocks were gentle, stolid, unconcerned with human life, although casualties occurred sometimes among the human talus-herders when their vast insensate charges wholly or partially scoured over them. They were peaceful, though, as they grazed through stone, and their wardens would often lean against their rough sides, enjoying the soothing vibrations caused by the grinding of their gizzards, which were packed with the hardest of stones. Which is to say corundum—rubies and sapphires—and sometimes diamonds, polished by ceaseless wear until they attained the sheen of tumbled jewels or river rock.

Of course, the talus had to be sacrificed to retrieve those, so it was done only in husbandry. Or times of economic hardship or unforeseen expense. Or to pay the tithe to the Khagan, the Khan of Khans might-he-live-forever, who had conquered Nilufer's province and slain her father and brother when Nilufer was but a child in the womb.

There had been no peace before the Khagan. Now the warring provinces could war no longer, and the bandits were not free to root among the spoils like battle ravens. Under the peace of the Khanate and protection of the Khagan's armies, the bandit lords were almost kept under control.

So they were desperate, and they had never been fastidious. When they caught one of the talus, they slaughtered it and butchered the remains for jewels, and gold, and steel.

As has been mentioned, the princess of the land had no brothers, and the Khatun, finding it inexpedient to confine her only daughter until marriage (as is the custom of overzealous guardians in any age), preferred to train her to a terrifying certainty of purpose and to surround her with the finest men-at-arms in the land. To the princess and to her troop of archers and swordsmen, not incidentally, fell the task of containing the bandit hordes.

In recent years the bandit tribes had fallen under the sway of a new leader, a handsome strong-limbed man who some said had been a simple talus-herder in his youth, and others said was a Khanzadeh—a son of the Khagan—or the son in hiding of one of the Khagan's vanquished enemies, who were many. Over the course of time, he brought the many disparate tribes of bandits together under one black banner, and taught them to fletch their arrows with black feathers.

Whether it was the name he had been given at the cradleboard, none knew, but what he called himself was Temel.

To say that Nilufer could not be kept in a tower implies that she did not dwell in one, and that, of course, would be untrue. Her mother's palace had many towers, and one of those—the tallest and whitest of the lot—was entirely Nilufer's own. As has been noted, the Khatun's province was small—really no more than a few broad plateaus and narrow valleys—and so she had no need of more than one palace. But as has also been described, the Khatun's province was wealthy, and so that palace was lavish, and the court that dwelled within it thrived.

Nilufer, as befitted a princess who would someday rule, maintained her own court within and adjacent her mother's. This retinue was made up in part of attendants appointed by the Khatun—a tutor of letters, a tutor of sciences, a tutor of statecraft and numbers; a dancing-master; a master of hawk and horse and hound; a pair of chaperones (one old and smelling of sour mare's milk, the other middle-aged and stern); three monkish warrior women who had survived the burning of their convent by the Khagan some seventeen years before, and so come into the Khatun's service—and in part of Nilufer's own few retainers and gentlewomen, none of whom would Nilufer call friend.

And then of course there was the Witch, who came and went and prophesied and slept and ate as she pleased, as might a cat.

On summer evenings, seeking mates, the talus crept from the mines to sing great eerie harmonies like the wails of wetted crystal. Nilufer, if she was not otherwise engaged, could hear them from her tower window.

Sometimes, she would reply, coaxing shrill satiny falls of music from the straight white bone of her reed flute. Sometimes, she would even play for them on the one that was made of silver.

Late one particular morning in spring, Nilufer turned from her window six towering stories above the rocky valley. The sun was only now stretching around the white peaks of the mountains, though the gray twilit sky had been enough to see by for hours. Nilufer had already ridden out that morning, with the men-at-arms and the three monkish women, and had practiced her archery on the practice stumps and on a group of black-clad bandits, slaying four of seven.

Now, dressed for ease in loose garments protected by a roll-sleeved smock, she stood before an easel, a long, pale bamboo brush dipped in rich black ink disregarded in her right hand as she examined her medium. The paper was absorbent, thick. Soft, and not glossy. It would draw the ink well, but might feather.

All right for art, for a watercolor wash or a mountainscape where a certain vagueness and misty indirection might avail. But to scribe a spell, or a letter of diplomacy, she would have chosen paper glazed lightly with clay, to hold a line crisply.

Nilufer turned to the Witch. "Are you certain, old mother?"

The Witch, curled on a low stool beside the fire although the day was warm, lifted her head so her wiry gray braids slid over the motley fur and feathers of her epaulets. The cloak she huddled under might be said to be gray, but that was at best an approximation. Rather it was a patchwork thing, taupes and tans and grays and pewters, bits of homespun wool and rabbit fur and fox fur all sewed together until the Witch resembled nothing so much as a lichen-crusted granite boulder.

The Witch showed tea-stained pegs of teeth when she smiled. She was never certain. "Write me a love spell," she said.

"The ink is too thin," Nilufer answered. "The ink is too thin for the paper. It will feather."

"The quality of the paper is irrelevant to your purpose," the Witch said. "You must use the tools at hand as best you can, for this is how you will make your life, Your Highness."

Nilufer did not turn back to her window and her easel, though the sun had finally surmounted the peaks behind her, and slanted light suffused the valley. "I do not care to scribe a love spell. There is no man I would have love me, old mother."

The Witch made a rude noise and turned back to the fire, her lids drawing low over eyes that had showed cloudy when the dusty light crossed them. "You will need to know the how of it when you are Khatun, and you are married. It will be convenient to command love then, Your Highness."

"I will not marry for love," said the princess, cold and serene as the mountains beyond her.

"Your husband's love is not the only love it may be convenient to command, when you are Khatun. Scribe the spell."

The Witch did not glance up from the grate. The princess did not say but I do not care to be Khatun.

It would have been a wasted expenditure of words.

Nilufer turned back to her easel. She must have jerked her brush at the paper, for the ink had spattered the page. The scattered droplets, like soot on a quartz rock, feathered there.

The princess did not sleep alone; royalty has not the privilege of privacy. But she had her broad white bed to herself, the sheets and feather bed tucked neatly over the planks, her dark hair stark against the snowy coverlet. She lay on her back, her arms folded, as composed for slumber as for death. The older chaperone slept in a cot along the east side of the bed, and the youngest and most adamant of the monkish warrior women along the west side. A maid in waiting slept by the foot.

The head of the bed stood against the wall, several strides separating it from the window by which stood Nilufer's easel.

It was through this window—not on the night of the day wherein the princess remonstrated with the Witch, but on another night, when the nights had grown warmer—that the bandit Temel came. He scaled the tower as princes have always come to ladies, walking up a white silken rope that was knotted every arm's-length to afford a place to rest his feet and hands. He slipped over the windowsill and crouched beside the wall, his gloved hands splayed wide as spiders.

He had had the foresight to wear white, with a hood and mask covering his hair and all his face but for his eyes. And so he almost vanished against the marble wall.

The guardians did not stir. But Nilufer sat up, dark in her snowy bed, her hair a cold river over her shoulder, her breasts like full moons beneath the silk of her night-gown, and drew a breath to scream. And then she stopped, the breath indrawn, and turned first to the east and then to the west, where her attendants slumbered.

She let the breath out.

"You are a sorcerer," she told him, sliding her feet from beneath the coverlet. The arches flexed when she touched the cold stone floor: of a morning, her ladies would have knelt by the bed to shoe her. Scorning her slippers, she stood.

"I am but a bandit, Princess," he answered, and stood to sweep a mocking courtesy. When he lifted his head, he looked past a crescent-shaped arrowhead, down the shaft into her black, unblinking eye, downcast properly on his throat rather than his face. She would never see him flinch, certainly not in moonlight, but he felt his eyelids flicker, his cheeks sting, a sharp contraction between his shoulder blades.

"But you've bewitched my women."

"Anyone can scribe a spell," he answered modestly, and then continued: "And I've come to bring you a gift."

"I do not care for your gifts." She was strong. Her arms, as straight and oak-white as her bow where they emerged from the armscyes of her night-gown, did not tremble, though the bow was a killing weapon and no mere toy for a girl.

His smile was visible even through the white silk of his mask. "This one, you will like."

No answer. Her head was straight upon the pillar of her neck. Even in the moonlight, he could see the whitening of her unprotected fingertips where they hooked the serving. A quarter-inch of steady flesh, that was all that stayed his death.

He licked his lips, wetting silk. "Perhaps I just came to see the woman who will one day be Nilufer Khatun."

"I do not care to be Khatun," Nilufer said.

The bandit scoffed. "What else are you good for?"

Nilufer raised her eyes to his. It was not what women did to men, but she was a princess, and he was only a bandit. She pointed with her gaze past his shoulder, to the easel by the window, on which a sheet of paper lay spread to dry overnight. Today's effort—the ideogram for foundation—was far more confident than that for love had been. "I want to be a Witch," she said. "A Witch and not a Queen. I wish to be not loved, but wise. Tell your bandit lord, if he can give me that, I might accept his gift."

"Only you can give yourself that, Your Highness," he said. "But I can give you escape."

He opened his hand, and a scrap of paper folded as a bird slipped from his glove. The serving, perhaps, eased a fraction along the ridges of her fingerprints, but the arrow did not fly.

The bandit waited until the bird had settled to the stones before he concluded, "And the bandit lord, as you call him, has heard your words tonight."

Then the arrow did waver, though she steadied it and trained it on his throat again. "Temel."

"At Her Highness's service."

Her breath stirred the fletchings. He stepped back, and she stepped forward. The grapnel grated softly on the stone, and before she knew it, he was over the sill and descending, almost silently but for the flutter of slick white silk.

Nilufer came to her window and stood there with the string of her long oak-white bow drawn to her nose and her rosebud lips, her left arm untrembling, the flexed muscles in her right arm raising her stark sinews beneath the skin. The moonlight gilded every pricked hair on her ivory flesh like frost on the hairy stem of a plant. Until the bandit prince disappeared into the shadow of the mountains, the point of her arrow tracked him. Only then did she unbend her bow and set the arrow in the quiver—her women slept on—and crouch to lift the paper bird into her hand.

Red paper, red as blood, and slick and hard so that it cracked along the creases. On its wings, in black ink, was written the spell-word for flight.

Blowing on fingers that stung from holding the arrow drawn so steady, she climbed back into her bed.

In the morning, the Khagan's caravan arrived to collect his tithe. The Khagan's emissary was an ascetic, moustached man, graying at the temples. The Witch said that the emissary and the Khagan had been boys together, racing ponies on the steppes.

Hoelun Khatun arranged for him to watch the butchering of the talus from whose guts the tribute would be harvested, as a treat. There was no question but that Nilufer would also attend them.

They rode out on the Khatun's elderly elephant. An extravagance, on the dry side of the mountains. But one that a wealthy province could support, for the status it conferred.

A silk and ivory howdah provided shade, and Nilufer thought sourly that the emissary was blind to any irony, but her face remained expressionless under its coating of powder as her feathered fan flicked in her hand. The elephant's tusks were capped with rubies and with platinum, a rare metal so impervious to fire that even a smelting furnace would not melt the ore. Only the talus could refine it, though once they excreted it, it was malleable and could be easily worked.

As the elephant traveled, Nilufer became acquainted with the emissary. She knew he watched her with measuring eyes, but she did not think he was covetous. Rather she thought more tribute might be demanded than mere stones and gold this time, and her heart beat faster under the cold green silk of her robes. Though her blood rushed in her ears, she felt no warmer than the silk, or than the talus's tumbled jewels.

The elephant covered the distance swiftly. Soon enough, they came to the slaughtering ground, and servants who had followed on asses lifted cakes and ices up onto the carpet that covered the elephant's back.

Despite its size and power, the slaughter of the talus was easily done. Talus could be lured from place to place by laying trails of powdered anthracite mixed with mineral oil; the talus-herders used the same slurry to direct their charges at the rock faces they wished mined. And so the beast selected for sacrifice would be led to the surface and away from others. A master stonemason, with a journeyman and two apprentices, would approach the grazing talus and divine the location of certain vulnerable anatomic points. With the journeyman's assistance, the mason would position a pointed wrecking bar of about six feet in length, which the brawny apprentices, with rapid blows of their sledges, would drive into the heart—if such a word is ever appropriate for a construct made of stone—of the talus, such that the beast would then and there almost instantly die.

This was a hazardous proceeding, more so for the journeyman—rather trapped between the rock and the hammers, as it were—than the master or the apprentices. Masons generally endeavored to produce a clean, rapid kill, for their own safety, as well as for mercy upon the beast. (The bandits were less humane in their methods, Nilufer knew, but they too got the job done.) She licked crystals of ice and beet sugar from her reed straw, and watched the talus die.

On the ride back, the emissary made his offer.

Nilufer sought Hoelun Khatun in her hall, after the emissary had been feted through dinner, after the sun had gone down. "Mother," she said, spreading her arms so the pocketed sleeves of her over-robe could sweep like pale gold wings about her, "will you send me to Khara-Khorin?"

The possibility beat in her breast; it would mean dangerous travel, overland with a caravan. It would mean a wedding to Toghrul Khanzadeh, the sixth son of the Khagan, whom Nilufer had never met. He was said to be an inferior horseman, a merely adequate general, far from the favorite son of the Khagan, and unlikely, after him, to be elected Khan of Khans.

But the offer had been for a consort marriage, not a morganatic concubinage. And if Toghrul Khanzadeh was unlikely to become Khagan, it was doubly unlikely that when his father died, his brothers would blot out his family stem and branch to preclude the possibility.

Hoelun Khatun rose from her cushions, a gold-rimmed china cup of fragrant tea in her right hand. She moved from among her attendants, dismissing them with trailing gestures until only the Witch remained, slumped like a shaggy, softly snoring boulder before the brazier.

The hall echoed when it was empty. The Khatun paced the length of it, her back straight as the many pillars supporting the arched roof above them. Nilufer fell in beside her, so their steps clicked and their trains shushed over the flagstones.

"Toghrul Khanzadeh would come here, if you were to marry him," said Nilufer's mother. "He would come here, and rule as your husband. It is what the Khagan wants for him—a safe place for a weak son."

Nilufer would have wet her lips with her tongue, but the paint would smear her teeth if she did so. She tried to think on what it would be like, to be married to a weak man. She could not imagine.

She did not, she realized, have much experience of men.

But Hoelun Khatun was speaking again, as they reached the far end of the hall and turned. "You will not marry Toghrul Khanzadeh. It is not possible."

The spaces between the columns were white spaces. Nilufer's footsteps closed them before and opened them behind as she walked beside her mother and waited for her to find her words.

Hoelun Khatun stepped more slowly. "Seventeen years ago, I made a bargain with the Khagan. Before you were born. It has kept our province free, Nilufer. I did what he asked, and in repayment I had his pledge that only you shall rule when I am gone. You must marry, but it is not possible for you to marry his son. Any of his sons."

Nilufer wore her face like a mask. Her mother's training made it possible; another irony no one but she would ever notice. "He does not mean to stand by it."

"He means to protect a weak son." Hoelun Khatun glanced at her daughter through lowered lashes. "Parents will go to great lengths to protect their children."

Nilufer made a noncommittal noise. Hoelun Khatun caught Nilufer's sleeve, heedless of the paper that crinkled in the sleeve-pocket. She said, too quickly: "Temel could rise to be Khagan."

Nilufer cast a glance over her shoulder at the Witch, but the Witch was sleeping. They were alone, the princess and her mother. "Khan of Khans?" she said, too mannered to show incredulity. "Temel is a bandit."

"Nonetheless," Hoelun Khatun said, letting the silk of Nilufer's raiment slip between her fingers. "They say the Khagan was a prince of bandits when he was young."

She turned away, and Nilufer watched the recessional of her straight back beneath the lacquered black tower of her hair. The princess folded her arms inside the sleeves of her robes, as if serenely.

Inside the left one, the crumpled wings of the red bird pricked her right palm.

That night, in the tower, Nilufer unfolded the spell-bird in the darkness, while her attendants slept. For a rushed breathless moment her night-robes fell about her and she thought that she might suffocate under their quilted weight, but then she lifted her wings and won free, sailing out of the pile of laundry and into the frost-cold night. Her pinions were a blur in the dark as a dancing glimmer drew her; she chased it, and followed it down, over the rice-paddies where sleepless children watched over the tender seedlings, armed with sticks and rocks so wild deer would not graze them; over the village where oxen slept on their feet and men slept with their heads pillowed in the laps of spinning women; over the mines where the talus-herders mostly slumbered and the talus toiled through the night, grinding out their eerie songs.

It was to the mountains that it led her, and when she followed it down, she found she had lost her wings. If she had been expecting it, she could have landed lightly, for the drop was no more than a few feet. Instead she stumbled, and bruised the soles of her feet on the stones.

She stood naked in the moonlight, cold, toes bleeding, in the midst of a rocky slope. A soft crunching vibration revealed that the mossy thing looming in the darkness beside her was a talus. She set out a hand, both to steady herself on its hide and so it would not roll over her in the dark, and so felt the great sweet chime roll through it when it begin to sing. It was early for the mating season, but perhaps a cold spring made the talus fear a cold and early winter, and the ground frozen too hard for babies to gnaw.

And over the sound of its song, she heard a familiar voice, as the bandit prince spoke behind her.

"And where is your bow now, Nilufer?"

She thought he might expect her to gasp and cover her nakedness, so when she turned, she did it slowly, brushing her fingers down the hide of the hulk that broke the icy wind. Temel had slipped up on her, and stood only a few arm-lengths distant, one hand extended, offering a fur-lined cloak. She could see the way the fur caught amber and silver gleams in the moonlight. It was the fur of wolves.

"Take it," he said.

"I am not cold," she answered, while the blood froze on the sides of her feet. Eventually, he let his elbow flex, and swung the cloak over his shoulder.

When he spoke, his breath poised on the air. Even without the cloak she felt warmer; something had paused the wind, so there was only the chill in the air to consider. "Why did you come, Nilufer?"

"My mother wants me to marry you," she answered. "For your armies."

His teeth flashed. He wore no mask now, and in the moonlight she could see that he was comely and well-made. His eyes stayed on her face. She would not cross her arms for warmth, lest he think she was ashamed, and covering herself. "We are married now," he said. "We were married when you unfolded that paper. For who is there to stop me?"

There was no paint on her mouth now. She bit her lip freely. "I could gouge your eyes out with my thumbs," she said. "You'd make a fine bandit prince with no eyes."

He stepped closer. He had boots, and the rocks shifted under them. She put her back to the cold side of the talus. It hummed against her shoulders, warbling. "You would," he said. "If you wanted to. But wouldn't you rather live free, Khatun to a Khagan, and collect the tithes rather than going in payment of them?"

"And what of the peace of the Khanate? It has been a long time, Temel, since there was war. The only discord is your discord."

"What of your freedom from an overlord's rule?"

"My freedom to become an overlord?" she countered.

He smiled. He was a handsome man.

"How vast are your armies?" she asked. He was close enough now that she almost felt his warmth. She clenched her teeth, not with fear, but because she did not choose to allow them to chatter. In the dark, she heard more singing, more rumbling. Another talus answered the first.

"Vast enough." He reached past her and patted the rough hide of the beast she leaned upon. "There is much of value in a talus." And then he touched her shoulder, with much the same affection. "Come, princess," he said. "You have a tiger's heart, it is so. But I would make this easy."

She accepted the cloak when he draped it over her shoulders and then she climbed up the talus beside him, onto the great wide back of the ancient animal. There were smoother places there, soft with moss and lichen, and it was lovely to lie back and look at the stars, to watch the moon slide down the sky.

This was a feral beast, she was sure. Not one of the miners. Just a wild thing living its wild slow existence, singing its wild slow songs. Alone, and not unhappy, in the way such creatures were. And now it would mate (she felt the second talus come alongside, though there was no danger; the talus docked side by side like ships, rather than one mounting the other like an overwrought stallion) and it might have borne young, or fathered them, or however talus worked these things.

But the talus would never have the chance. In the morning, Temel would lead his men upon it, and its lichen and moss and bouldery aspect would mean nothing. Its slow meandering songs and the fire that lay at its heart would be as nothing. It was armies. It was revolution. It was freedom from the Khan.

He would butcher it for the jewels that lay at its heart, and feel nothing.

Nilufer lay back on the cold stone, pressed herself to the resonant bulk and let her fingers curl how they would. Her nails picked and shredded the lichen that grew in its crevices like nervous birds picking their plumage until they bled.

Temel slid a gentle hand under the wolf-fur cloak, across her belly, over the mound of her breast. Nilufer opened her thighs.

She flew home alone, wings in her window, and dressed in haste. Her attendants slept on, still held by the same small spell under which she had left them, and she went to find the Witch.

Who crouched beside the brazier, as before, in the empty hall. But now, her eyes were open, wide, and bright.

The Witch did not speak. That fell to Nilufer.

"She killed my father," Nilufer said. "She betrayed my father and my brother, and she slept with the Khagan, and I am the Khagan's daughter, and she did it all so she could be Khatun."

"So you will not marry the Khanzadeh, your brother?"

Nilufer felt a muscle twitch along her jaw. "That does not seem to trouble the Khagan."

"You cannot rule unless you marry." The Witch settled her shoulders under the scrofular mass of her cloak.

"But I can rule as a dowager," Nilufer said. "Like my mother before me."

"Yes," the Witch said. She thought carefully before she continued. "Before I was the Witch," she said, in a voice that creaked only a little, "I was your father's mother."

Nilufer straightened her already-straight back. She drew her neck up like a pillar. "And when did you become a Witch and stop being a mother?"

The Witch's teeth showed black moons at the root where her gums had receded. "No matter how long you're a Witch, you never stop being a mother."

Nilufer licked her lips, tasting stone grit and blood. Her feet left red prints on white stone. "I need a spell, grandmother. A spell to make a man love a woman, in spite of whatever flaw may be in her." Even the chance of another man's child?

The Witch stood up straighter. "Are you certain?"

Nilufer turned on her cut foot, leaving behind a smear. "I am going to talk to the emissary," she said. "You will have, I think, at least a month to make ready."

Hoelun Khatun came herself, to dress the princess in her wedding robes. They should have been red for life, but the princess had chosen white, for death of the old life, and the Khatun would permit her daughter the conceit. Mourning upon a marriage, after all, was flattering to the mother.

Upon the day appointed, Nilufer sat in her tower, all her maids and warriors dismissed. Her chaperones had been sent away. Other service had been found for her tutors. The princess waited alone, while her mother and the men-at-arms rode out in the valley before the palace to receive the bandit prince Temel, who some said would be the next Khan of Khans. Nilufer watched them from her tower window. No more than a bowshot distant, they made a brave sight with banners snapping.

But the bandit prince Temel never made it to his wedding. He had the misfortune to encounter upon that day the entourage and cohort of Toghrul Khanzadeh, sixth son of the Khagan, who was riding to woo the same woman, upon her express invitation. Temel was taken in surprise, in light armor, his armies arrayed to show peace rather than ready for war.

There might have been more of a battle, perhaps even the beginnings of a successful rebellion, if Hoelun Khatun had not fallen in the first moments of the battle, struck down by a bandit's black arrow. This evidence of treachery from their supposed allies swayed the old queen's men to obey the orders of the three monkish warrior women who had been allies of the Khatun's husband before he died. They entered the fray at the Khanzadeh's flank.

Of the bandit army, there were said to be no survivors.

No one mentioned to the princess that the black fletchings were still damp with the ink in which they had been dipped. No one told her that Hoelun Khatun had fallen facing the enemy, with a crescent-headed arrow in her back.

And when the three monkish warrior women came to inform Nilufer in her tower of her mother's death and found her scrubbing with blackened fingertips at the dark drops spotting her wedding dress, they also did not tell her that the fading outline of a bowstring still lay pressed across her rosebud mouth and the tip of her tilted nose.

If she wept, her tears were dried before she descended the stair.

Of the Dowager Queen Nilufer Khatun—she who was wife and then widow of Toghrul Khanzadeh, called the Barricade of Heaven for his defense of his father's empire from the bandit hordes at the foothills of the Steles of the Sky—history tells us little.

Little, but that she died old.

Elizabeth Bear was born on the same day as Frodo and Bilbo Baggins, but in a different year. She lives in Connecticut, and is a recipient of the John W. Campbell Award and the Locus Award. Her most recent books include the short story collection The Chains That You Refuse, the fantasy novel Blood and Iron, and the forthcoming science fiction novel Carnival. For more about her and her work, see her website. To contact her, send her email at