ʞ / fiction / Spirals / War /

Pact

from a serial by Lexi Summer Hale

As her privy council assembles in the Grand Library, Dove catches Iris by the doorway and pulls her aside. “Can I… have a moment? Before we get started?”

“I suppose so.” Iris eyes her cautiously. “What do you need?”

“It’s, ah— about Falcon.”

Iris smiles nervously. “O-oh. Yes. That. Well. I— I didn’t mean for— I wasn’t trying to— I’m not— I was going to tell y—”

Dove touches Iris gently on the shoulder. “No, no. I wanted to thank you.”

“…to thank me?”

“Look, I— I know you don’t have a very high opinion of me,” Dove continues awkwardly, “so maybe this doesn’t mean much, coming from me, but all the same, thank you for your kindness to her. For not… treating her like she’s tainted by my, er… what’s that word you use?”

“Profligacy?” asks Iris, arching an eyebrow.

“Right, yes. That.” Dove nods rapidly. “I didn’t realize you’d come to mean something to her. All that warmth and tenderness I hear in your voice when you say her name—” She clasps her hands to her heart. “For whatever you may think of me, I can tell you’re a good and caring woman, Mistress Iris, and I’m deeply grateful to know she has you, especially after— after what happened to her. A mother can only do so much.”

Iris gazes up at the duchess pensively. “You continue to surprise me, Dove,” she says after a moment, smiling faintly. “I’m relieved you feel so positively about our affection for each other.”

Dove smiles, a tear in the corner of her eye. “I really do. And maybe this is a little premature, but given the circumstances, well— I just want you to know that you have my blessing.”

“…your blessing?”

“To court her, of course. ”

Iris blinks. “Wait, are… are you talking about… marriage?”

Dove nods. “Yes, I know how important it’ll be to legitimate the new sovereign. And of course, a marriage alliance with the Commonwealth would give Falcon and Fox some security too, especially if… if I’m not around. And that would put my heart at ease. It’s for the best, really, for everyone.” She clasps her hands anxiously. “She’s a fine girl, you know; a bit rowdy, certainly, but I have no doubt she’ll be a dutiful and loving wife to your household.”

“Dove, the— the Commonwealth— it’s not—” Iris takes a deep breath, and places a hand on her shoulder, steering her towards the door. “Look. Let’s go in and take care of this meeting, and then I can try to explain to you why marriage alliances don’t make sense in the Commonwealth while we’re waiting for sundown.”

“You don’t have marriage alliances?” Dove exclaims. “How does that even work? How do you get anything done?”

“Well. We don’t really have marriage, either.”

“…socialism is very, very strange, I think.”

“Dove.”

“Yes, sorry, coming.” Dove hurries after Iris into the library. There is an immediate uproar as the Duchess steps across the threshold.

“Blackthorn! At last!”

“Now we’re getting somewhere.”

“She’ll not let this stand, you mark my words!”

“Mitiku Khata’e, where has she been all this time!?”

As the militia officers present turn to face her and clap their fists to their hearts in salute, Dove takes a deep, shaky breath, trying to push the image of her battered daughter from her mind for the moment. She raises a hand. “I’m sorry I have been unavailable, your Ladyships — officers — honored takhta’e. Please be seated, we’ll—” She pauses. While the others pull out chairs, the Lady Stormgrove remains standing, her arms folded. Dove clears her throat. “Yes, Milady Hawk?” she asks peaceably.

“Your servants have been giving us all the runaround all day!” Hawk bursts out. “Where in all Haven have you been?”

Dove raises her hands defensively. “Milady, I’m—”

But Lady Hawk doesn’t let her finish. “I was told again and again that something was being done about this wretched Imperial Guard business.” She jabs an accusing finger at the Duchess. “Yet still they infest our streets, still they demean our peers, still they harass my family — it has been months! This has simply gone too far, your Serenity; you must see this! You cannot simply ignore your peers when—”

“I have been tending to my daughter.” It comes out louder than Dove intends, raw, harsh, and angry, and it silences the room. Hawk’s eyes widen; she looks suddenly nervous, stepping back and clasping her hands below her waist in a reflexive gesture of submission.

None of them have ever seen their liege lose her composure before.

Dove closes her eyes for a moment, taking another deep breath. “I’m sorry,” she says quietly, pulling her delicately carved oak chair out from under the table and seating herself. “I didn’t— I apologize for snapping at you, your ladyship. You didn’t deserve that.”

“N-no trouble, your Serenity—”

“We are after all on the same side here.” She motions for Hawk to sit, and hesitantly the younger woman pulls out a chair. “The ‘wretched Imperial Guard business’ is what I have brought you here to discuss. I agree with you, milady Stormgrove — something must be done. Let me report to you the situation as it stands.”

She glances from councilor to councilor. “Justiciar Peregrine Summerwine and I have made multiple attempts to resolve the matter, both separately and jointly. We have made many complaints to the Guard, to their commander; I have even sent word to Whispering Springs, to the Dame-General herself. And each time we received no response. Peregr—” She clears her throat, glancing downwards, her cheeks flushing ever so slightly. “Justiciar Summerwine additionally brought the matter before a Gathering. She was laughed at and mocked, told — and I quote — ‘the Left Hand of the Empress cannot turn upon her Right.’ Finally I petitioned the Court itself, beseeching that very Empress — protector of the Realm, or so we are told — for her mercy.” Dove folds her hands in the center of the table, looking down. “The telegram from Carnelian arrived yesterday. I will not insult the dignity of this council by repeating its precise wording, but to summarize: the Empress will not so much as hear our petition.”

There are quiet, shocked gasps.

“Today I summoned the Dame-Colonel to my office to account for herself. She mocked my concerns and told me that our people should ‘be grateful for the honor’ of a Guard forcing herself upon them. When I told her to either restrain her thugs or lose her welcome in Kiteroost, she openly threatened to have me murdered. In short, no option remains open to us within her Radiance’s law.” Dove looks back up, pursing her lips. “The situation is intolerable. Our common folk and nobility suffer alike. Our law-women are abused; beaten, humiliated, and shot in the street for attempting to keep the peace. I have come to the conclusion that the Imperial Guard, far from their mandate, has no respect for law, has no respect for order, and has no respect for the most basic of decency. Nor have they any respect for the dignity of our people and our families. And they cannot be reasoned with.” She looks directly at Hawk. “So yes, something must be done.”

There is a stunned silence. Then—

“You can’t possibly mean…”

“It would be suicide.”

“Even if we could, the Empress—”

“Heresy! They’d flatten us from orbit.”

“What you are implying is treason,” Hawk says quietly.

Dove nods. “There is no way to keep the favor of the Empress and the honor of our families both. We are compelled to choose.” Her gaze again circles the table, lingering on a number of councilors. “For me, it is a simple choice. On the founding of our Empire, our ancestresses swore a blood-oath to the First Empress and to Her line; an oath of fealty and piety. This much is true.” She pauses to take a shaky breath. “But remember also that the First Empress in turn swore an oath to Her Sisters. She bound Her line to our protection and prosperity, and the woman who sits in Her throne has forsaken that oath. The fires of war consume our world, and where is it her mightiest and most trusted of warriors are to be found? On the battlefield? Wielding their righteous blades against a foe who would enslave our sons and rape our daughters?”

She slams her fist to the table, her voice suddenly loud and full of fury, startling everyone, even her generals. “No!” she cries out. “Her chosen warriors lounge in safety behind our walls as we toil for their worthless upkeep. Our food, our wine, our sons and daughters they take with wild abandon, and when we raise our voices in outrage, they tell us we should be grateful for the Right Hand of the Empress held tight around our throats. That they alone stand between us and a merciless horde of barbarians. As they tear our robes and take what they will of our bodies, they tell us we are fortunate, for the enemy, against which we are surely defenseless, would surely treat us worse.”

Slowly, Dove rises to her feet. “And is that even true? Are we so defenseless? Are any here so ignorant as to forget the battles waged and won by their grandmothers, from atop the walls hewn by my grandmothers? Lady Hawk — was not your great-grandmother Petrel Stormgrove, a woman of common blood, given the hand of a noble boy for her heroism in the Third Battle of Kiteroost? Lady Egret — did your great-great-grandmother not fall in battle as she led her troops to victory against the Ferndale Rising? Even now, does her statue not stand at Armory Green to remind us that this duchy’s years of peace and prosperity were bought by the blood of the Starblossom line? Elder Winter-Lotus — have not your people proven time and time again their honor and bravery as archers, riflemen, and fusiliers?” She grips the table with both lands, leaning forward. “Our families built this duchy by our blood, by our strength, by our honor as women and as peers, and by God, by Khata’e and Matikhe, by the god-damned First Empress, we have never failed it! By what arrogance does the Guard forget this? Do they somehow think, simply because our bodies are helpless in the grip of their superhuman sinews, that our blades are dull and our rifles empty? Fie on that!”

Her chest is pounding now, her words flowing straight from her heart, her voice thick with raw emotion. “And what of this so-called ‘enemy,’ whose atrocities we are told we should so fear that we bend over in gratitude to the rapists and brigands who proclaim themselves our ‘defenders,’ even as they loot our homes and dishonor our children? Has even a single word we are told so much as a thread in common with the truth?”

She reaches down and pulls a surprised Iris to her feet. “Ladies. Elders. Officers of my Army. I present to you the Mistress Iris Summer-Rose, a woman of this world, of the honorable Khmai tradition, and once a loyal citizen of our false Empress; a good and righteous woman who would never bow to a dishonorable lord or a brigand-king; a woman who has risked her life and limb to bring us the truth!” She claps Iris on the back. “Some of you may know the Mistress Iris as my advisor. What you do not know is that she is an officer of the Commonwealth we are told to so fear. An emissary from their leaders, yet of our stock. Alien invaders, we are told, who seek nothing more than to sow discord and heresy, to profit from our labor and our bodies, to loot our cities and leave fallow our fields. But answer me this: is the woman you see before you a slave? An alien? Nay, comrades — she is one who serves this Commonwealth of her own will, who knows the truth of their cause and has seen with her own eyes the outcome of their deeds. One who leads and holds high station, though she is of neither the invaders’ race nor noble blood. She is a walking contradiction to all the lies you — we — have been fed by that witch on the Throne who pretends to the tradition of the First even as ash flows in her veins and demons issue from her distended womb. And what is more — my own spies bear out this emissary’s words and warnings. Where the falseness of the Empress is betrayed at every glance, the truth of this emissary is proven.”

She fixes her eyes on Hawk. “Surely you are not without your own eyes. Surely you too have seen the contradictions of Imperial propaganda lain out before you, here and there. Surely the outrages perpetrated upon us by the chosen warlords of the Empress are not the only anomaly in this war, this war that has left our peaceful duchy so curiously untouched by our alleged enemy.”

She folds her arms, and waits.

After a short, shocked silence, Hawk clears her throat.

“I— I will admit my own spies have— learned disquieting things,” she murmurs. “Villages burned at the hand of the Guard. Khmai and Zyahua leading where we are told there are only vicious little aliens, ‘ghost-pale greeneyes with the pointed ears of demons and hair the color of the gold they covet.’” She stares at Iris. “If you are such…”

“Then this war may not be what it appears,” says a gravelly voice from the corner. Elder Winter-Lotus leans forward, his hands clasped, his piercing white eyes peering at Iris. “You are not the only one disquieted, Hawk-shovakhe. I have heard many rumors, many whispers, and now I see the truth of one before my very eyes. Ka shuvarakh, sho’utule? Are you as they say?”

Iris inclines her head. “Shuvarakh je, takhleva. I am an officer of the Commonwealth. Of my own will I took up arms; I was not pressed into service for the glory of another.” She glances at Dove. “I have bled for the nation we have built, and I have watched my sisters and brothers give their lives in battle to defend the freedom we have achieved. The whispers you hear speak truth.”

“Your tattoos — you are of the Merekhna, are you not?” asks another elder. She sees the flash of alarm in Iris’s face and waves her away. “No, no, I do not chide you, sister. I too bear their mark; I am no tame pien şai here to prance for the amusement of peers. You fight for our people. This is no shame.”

“I did, once,” Iris replies. “But, takhleva, the Merekhna is no more, not in the Commonwealth. Today, Khmai, Kaparttu, Pajari, and even Zyahua fight side by side. Across the front line is a place where we are united in purpose. A place where we do not break our backs in toil for the profit of a greedy Empress; a place where war has ends beyond the enslavement of fresh victims.”

“Ha!” Winter-Lotus claps his hands together. “I like your fire, sister. The Merekhna, no more? That is truly a mad thing. Difficult even to imagine a world where such a thing could come while the people fight on.” He glances at the other elder, who nods. “Eh, well. We owe that Empress no love and no fealty. Such we have sworn only to this council.” He prods the table with a stubby finger for emphasis as he speaks, before turning to Dove. “A Khmai needs no reason to aim her rifle at the Empire, and now we have many, many good ones. Good reasons too, ha!” He chuckles. “Make your play, young Duchess. We are behind you. I am eager to see the truth of this Commonwealth for my own eyes, ere they grow dim and dark.”

“This is madness.” Lady Dawnborn pushes away from the table and stands abruptly. “Defy the Empress? Betray the Empire? Side with the heretic enemy?” She glares at Dove. “Do not let yourselves be so enchanted by this scoundrel’s pretty words! That is what our lunatic Duchess asks of you, all on the word of one lying snowhair.” She shakes her head. “No. Damn yourselves if you will; throw yourselves on the enemy’s spears. My house will have no part in it, and if you have any more sense in your heads than those bloodthirsty, terrorist barbarians—” she points an accusing finger at the elders, who glance at each other and smirk in response “—neither will yours.”

“Be out of the city before dusk, Crane,” Dove says distantly, not even bothering to look up at her from the notebook she’s scribbling in. “Your family’s petty-baronial titles are anulled. Your own household may take one boxcar inland. Any possessions you leave behind are forfeit. Any of your line who are found in my city after the night bell rings will be arrested for treason.” She glances at the guard by the door. “Lark, escort her. Make sure she doesn’t do anything… shortsighted.”

Crane turns, giving Dove one last disgusted, disbelieving look before Lark takes her by the arm and leads her into the hall. Dove looks up at her railway chief. “See that her train doesn’t stop until it’s on far side of the Serpentine, will you, Wolf? She can go and be some petty baroness’s problem, I don’t want her on my lands.”

He smirks and nods, scribbling a note and passing it to the telegram boy, who bows and darts from the room.

“Is that what’s to become of us if we disagree?” asks Hawk quietly.

Dove sighs, fiddling with her pen. She looks up at Hawk with tired eyes.

“How is your family?”

Hawk stiffens. “Is that a threat?”

Dove shakes her head. “Just a question. You said the Guard was harrassing them. Have any of your line been injured?”

Hawk swallows hard. Her knuckles whiten as she wraps one hand around the other. “Are you trying to humiliate me?”

Dove sets her pen down on the stack of papers. “Did they do something to you?”

“M-me?” Hawk lets out a tight, nervous laugh. “I fucking wish they had!” she blurts out. “I wish it had been me—” She stops, catching herself a moment too late. Everyone is looking at her.

“Who was it?” Dove asks gently, finally meeting Hawk’s eye.

Hawk is frozen, her eyes darting between Dove and the other peers. “What do you— I— what business is it of yours what my family— what—”

“My daughter was raped last night,” Dove responds simply.

It’s like an electric shock goes round the table. Fury, outrage on the faces of her generals, the civil service chiefs glancing at each other in horror. Lady Bleakfrost gasps sharply, her hand flying to her mouth, her eyes wide. Lady Windcove blinks rapidly, tilting her head as though she can’t believe her own ears. The young Lady Nightspark looks away, cheeks burning, squeezing her legs together, visibly trembling.

Beside Dove, Iris clenches her fists in her lap.

Dove picks up her pen again, makes a few more idle notes as the peers process her words. “Well?” she asks after a moment, glancing back up. “Have I damaged her marriage prospects by admitting it, do you think? Shamed and dishonored her? Do you think less of me, now you know I couldn’t protect my own child? Or is it just too hard to admit that it’s real, that the Empress’s own Right Hand is treating honest women of the Empire after the manner of the goddamned Patriarchs? Is that it!?”

She slams her pen down, standing again. “That’s it, isn’t it? It’s happening. Right now, right here, in the borders of our own goddamn Empire, the same fucking crime the Seven Sisters rose up against. The one single fucking thing the Empress was most meant to protect her people from. We were supposed to put an end to the tyranny of men, weren’t we? So we took away their guns and we cut off their dicks and said ‘never again,’ and guess what? It’s all happening again. Only this time it’s not men.” She points a finger at the only two Zyahua men sitting at the table. “They’re cowed, battered, terrified of us all. Not the cruelest, richest, wildest man in this city would dare force himself on the lowest, weakest tavern wench, that’s the world we built. So instead we’re doing it to each other. Our own goddamn sisters betrayed us.” She clenches her fists. “That’s why none of you want to say the word, isn’t it? Because you’d have to admit what happened. That after all that blood and death and righteous conquest, we’re right back where we started. That we’re frightened and helpless and there’s no one to protect us.” She takes a deep breath. “The only thing keeping you going is pretending. Pretending that we’re still in control, that our bodies belong to us. That if we don’t call it what it is, if we pretend it’s something else, we’ll still have some power over it.”

She sits back down, and suddenly all the fire is gone from her voice. She sounds defeated, exhausted. “We don’t,” she says quietly. “The Guard is raping our people. One of them raped my daughter. She was helpless to protect herself and I was helpless to protect her. And none of us have any say what happens to us any longer. Or to our subjects. Or to our loved ones. A Guard-Commander raped my daughter against a wall last night and there’s not a goddamn thing Peregrine or I can do about it. If a man had done it he’d burn at the stake tomorrow night. But a woman did it. A woman of the Empress no less, and she’s above the law, and all we can do is lock our doors and keep our children close and pray that they find someone else to take advantage of.”

She looks back up. “Isn’t that right, Swift?” she asks softly.

Lady Swift Nightspark has lost all composure. She’s curled up at the end of the table with her head buried in her hands, trying to muffle her tears as her body shakes with the force of her sobs. Her robes are pulled tight about her, concealing every inch of bare skin that she can.

“Swift?” Lady Bleakfrost stares at her. “Darling girl, whatever is the matter?”

“I’m— I’m s-s-sorry—” Swift chokes out.

“You have nothing to apologize for!” Iris blurts out instinctively. She rises and hurries to the sobbing noblewoman’s side, tugging out a chair and sitting next to her as the others watch in silence. “Hey,” she says softly, putting a hand on the table near Swift’s but taking care not to touch her. “It’s okay. You’re safe, okay? Right now you’re safe. Nothing bad can get to you here, okay? Not in the palace. We’re on your side, hon. There’s nothing for you to be afraid of or ashamed of.”

“Lady Swift just lost her mother, you know,” Dove comments, perching on the table next to Iris. “Owl died at a terribly young age. Of a wound-pox, if memory serves. Poor Swift has been trying to pick up the pieces all season, get her mother’s estate under control. Owl left quite the mess behind, I must say. Turned out Swift was in debt to some very nasty people.”

Iris stares at her, then back at Swift. “H-how old are you, Mistress Swift?”

“She turned twenty yesterday,” Dove replies. “Something horrible has been done to you, hasn’t it, milady?”

Swift nods wretchedly.

“Here, Swift — can you look at me?” Iris leans down, trying to catch a glimpse of the girl’s face through her arms. “We’re here for you, I promise. You don’t have to be ashamed of crying.”

Swift lifts her head hesitantly from between her arms, chest still quivering, tears still streaming from her face. Iris gives her the friendliest smile she can. “There we go. How are you holding up, dear? Do you need anything?”

“I—” Swift glances between her and Dove. “I’m— I’m s-so sorry, mistress, milady, I— I n-never wanted to cause a scene, this is just— I’m—”

“Swift,” Dove says, “you are the last person who should be apologizing.” She looks up at the rest of her councilors. “And I am the first. Swift, what has happened to you — Hawk, whatever has befallen your family — elders, for all the mistreatment of the Khmai Quarter — this is my fault. We knew, we all knew after just one week with the Guard in town what we were in store for. I’m as guilty as all the rest of you of trying to imagine this nightmare away. But I was the one responsible. For your safety, for your families’ safety, for the safety of my subjects, my duchy — and the safety of my daughter. I should have taken action and instead I failed you all. I failed Kiteroost. For that, you have my sincerest, most heartfelt, and most humble apology.”

“What could you have even done?” Bleakfrost mutters. Her spectacles clatter on the table and she leans back, massaging her temple with a hand and leaning heavily on the armrest. “No. You’re right, my dear, as usual: we are helpless. I’ve been a fool. We’ve all been fools. There’s nothing you or any of the rest of us could have done. So don’t you blame yourself alone for this… abominable position we’ve found ourselves in.”

“There may be nothing we here at this table can do,” Dove replies. “But the Commonwealth — there is something the Commonwealth can do.” She turns to Iris and puts a hand on her shoulder. “You’ve seen their compassion firsthand. How they rush to the wounded and offer them aid, no matter their color or class.” She looks back up. “Yes, it is dangerous. Yes, we would damn ourselves in the eyes of all the Empire. Yes, it would mean giving up our world for a strange one we do not yet understand.”

She clasps her hands behind her back. “But we would not be the first to make that choice. Five hundred years ago, the righteous Justiciars descended from the skies of a dozen distant worlds, and the battered women of those worlds were frightened just as we are. But in the end, they reached out and took the hand of those who stood ready to protect them, accepted a strange and alien new reality wherein they were valued, and rejected a familiar one wherein they were not. And like the first Justiciars, there is now a force out there that stands ready to protect us. The Commonwealth is strong enough to stand against even the Imperial Guard; we saw that at Heron’s Perch, at Driftwood Landing, and again on the banks of the Serpentine. Our saviors have reached out their hand. Will you take it?”

For a moment, the only sound is the sputtering of candles on the wall.

“For my nephew’s sake,” says Hawk in a broken voice, “I will.”

“I— I will,” Swift chimes in hoarsely, eyes still fixed on the small Khmai woman sitting at her side and gently holding her hand.

Tern Bleakfrost lets out a mournful chuckle. “Ah, well. I’ve not many years left to lose, have I? I say we go for it.”

Parrot Windcove doesn’t even bother to hide the flask as she takes a heavy gulp from it. “Not like things could get much worse,” she says, the flask clattering to the tabletop and the sweet scent of honey-gin filling the air. “Let’s get this over with.”

Dove turns to the civil service chiefs, her eyebrows raised.

“I told your mother once I’d follow her to the Rim and back,” Wolf replies warmly. “I’ve not the knowing of politics but I do know a Blackthorn would never lead us astray. You, milady, doubly so.”

“I await your command, my liege,” says the chief telegraphist calmly. “As always.”

The scribemistress just nods silently.

None of her officials offer a dissenting word, and as she turns to her generals, she sees fire in their eyes. These past seasons have been a total humiliation for the house army in their own domain. They’re all eager for vengeance.

“Then it’s settled.” Dove stands, holding her hand out palm up, taking the knife proffered by a servant. “These are the terms of our pact. We forsake the false Empress, now and forever. We forsake her “Empire of a Thousand Suns,” its terms and its titles and its means of division.” She pauses after each line, listening in wonder as those gathered around solemnly repeat her words back to her. Even poor Swift is on her feet, stammering along and clinging for support to Iris, whose expression is half baffled and half amused.

“Where once stood the blood of the Sisters in sole dominion,” Dove continues, starting to feel lightheaded, “we of the pact now stand as comrades, man and woman, silver and red, commoner and peer alike, for the Privy Council shall rule in no name but its own, and suffer no taboo but its own, and profit none but those it rule. We name the Empress and her Right Hand the enemy of our new order, and solemnly commit ourselves to the liberation of our land from their joint tyranny. When our liberator arrives, we shall secure terms that treat our people justly, and when that is done, we shall submit totally to the sovereignty and protection of the Commonwealth.” She unsheathes the knife. “Let any who oppose our pact now quit this chamber.”

Nobody moves.

Then a voice from the entranceway:

“Aren’t you forgetting someone?”

Everyone turns instinctively. Peregrine is standing there, leaning against the jamb, her small form overshadowed by the towering doors. She’s still clad in her simple white justiciar’s gown, and her long shadow flickers in time to the candlelight in the hallway behind.

“P—Peri—” Dove stammers. “No! No, no, you don’t— you don’t have to do this—”

“Yes I do, my love.” Peregrine strides forward, grasping Dove’s hand firmly and plucking the knife from her fingers. “Yes, I do.” She turns her gaze to the silent Privy Council. “We of the pact name the Empress, her Right Hand and her Left, the enemy of our new order,” she calls out, in a voice suddenly forceful and full of conviction. “We forsake her offices, we scorn her boons, and we throw off her vestments, never again to take them up.” With this, she plunges the blade through the collar of her gown, tearing it open down the front, baring her skin and underclothes before them. She shrugs out of the gown and hurls it to the floor, drawing involuntary gasps from the council. She looks back up, her face full of determination.

“Justice shall follow the will of this Council,” she says, pressing the serrated teeth of the blade against her shoulder and wrenching it forward. A sharp red line appears beneath; Peregrine doesn’t even flinch. “Not the word of any one woman, and not any one woman shall be held above it.” She wipes the gleaming silver of the blade’s flat edge against the wound, staining it with her blood, and passes the dagger back to Dove.

Dove’s frightened eyes are locked on Peregrine’s for a moment. “You’re—”

“Committed,” Peregrine replies smoothly. “As I should be. There is no going back for any of us. There cannot be.”

Dove closes her eyes, swallows hard, and nods. “Okay,” she whispers, tears glittering in her eyes, and she turns back to the Privy Council, pressing the blade against her own arm. “With the voice of God who dwells within, and in the sight of the Star-Mother who dwells above,” she pronounces in a quavering voice, “we seal this pact. Khavi miliku mo mekhmettu miliku jo Khata’esh sfajura.” Her blood mingles with Peregrine’s on the dagger, and she passes it with a shaking hand to her left.

Iris watches with mixed fascination and revulsion as the gruesome ritual continues. The blade moves about the room, each member of the Privy Council binding herself to the oath. When Swift’s turn comes, she seizes the blade eagerly and makes her mark with startling ferocity. She holds the dagger out, and Wolf hesitates, his gaze darting among the women in the room.

“The laws of the old Empire are forfeit,” Peregrine tells him gently, hand still pressed to her arm to staunch the bleeding. “Have no fear, Master Wolf. Weapons are yours to hold and the pact is yours to join.”

Wolf nods, and with trembling fingers takes the blade, marks his arm in turn. The Khmai elders follow him with practiced, fluid movements that suggest they’ve both done this many times before, echoing “jo Khata’esh sfajura” in quiet voices. Finally, the blade circles back to Dove, and she picks it up, sheathing it.

“Iris Summer-Rose,” Dove says, turning to her and holding out the weapon, “will you accept our oath on behalf of the Commonwealth?”

Iris blinks. Hesitantly, she reaches out, and gingerly takes the blade in both hands, suddenly aware of the whole room’s eyes on her again. “I will… comrades,” she says, the word feeling both proper and perverse.

Dove exhales quietly.

“Then what next, Comrade Iris?” she asks.