io9 is proud to present fiction from LIGHTSPEED MAGAZINE. Once a month, we feature a story from LIGHTSPEED’s current issue. This month’s selection is “The Crowning of the Lord Tazenket, Vulture God of the Eye” by S.G. Demciri. We’ll be presenting this novelette in two parts; part two will be available on June 16. You can read part one below. Enjoy!
She dreams of blood.
She always has done. Her gold gown drenched in it, the gold paint on her fingertips muddied by it. Her arms glow in the dream, a hundred paths of light trailing over her collarbones. In this dream, this vision, she is free.
Her kind don’t really dream. They—she, she doesn’t think there are others—pull on the strings of fate. They look forward into the future and imagine possibility.
She tells herself every time she dreams of blood and freedom: this is a dream. This is not fate. Do not get your fragile heart broken.
Ihuet is the daughter of a god.
The Father God Amzu, He Who Rules from the Eye. He who brought salvation to a hundred broken worlds and built the three cities within the protective shield of the free-floating station Dagan. Whose seed sprang up in the form of two children: Ihuet, Oracle of the Eye and her elder brother, Ashdanar, the Bull God.
Here is the great station Dagan: a great gleaming orb of silver and crystal with four levels, like resin spread thin within a marble. There is the uppermost city, Per-Wadjet, forbidden to all but the Father God and his children, with a circumference of two miles near the top of the sphere. There is a single obelisk made of metal, engraved with glyphs, and the ghosts who maintain the station. Many miles below it is the city Nekheb, a glittering array of white, pale gold, and rose made nearly entirely of stone. Its buildings are flat-roofed, their sides sloped, their great palisades lined with round columns etched with glyphs. In Nekheb is the royal palace and the temple of the oracle side by side and cutting through its center is the great river Baal. Palm trees sway in the city’s breeze and tall reeds grow along the river shore. The river slips over its western edge down to Lake Nekhen and its city, a great green spread, its buildings clustered on the lake shores.
In these cities the living and the dead worship Amzu and give thanks and tribute to Ihuet and Ashdanar. Their gratitude is never-ending, for in Dagan there is no war or strife. Beyond the crystalline walls of their station the galaxy is riven by conflict and the march of war—pushed by Amzu and dreams of dominion—is unending. In Dagan the crops do not fail, calves are always born, the people never hunger.
Ihuet knows what these people will do as the tides change. The threads of fate, in this regard, are easily divined. Fear, first, and then relief when the choice of successor is taken from them. Eyes cast down at injustice that does not touch them. Mortals, Ihuet thinks as a serving girl fastens her into a gown, are always predictable.
Ihuet remains still, brown arms outstretched as a handmaiden wraps her in an iridescent diaphanous layer over the bronze metallic gown.
The palace is much like the rest of the city. High ceilings, pale gold and rose quartz walls, their surfaces etched in glyphs detailing Amzu’s ascension to godhood, the birth of his children, his daughter’s prophecies which ensured his victories. There is Ashdanar against eight Knives of Sardis. Amzu against a Hadasti consular. Ihuet with the snake of prophecy wound about her wrists. She passes all of this in silence, the only sound the gold in her hair chiming, her gown trailing on the stone floor behind her, the re-adjustment of the palace guards as they lower their heads when she passes.
Amzu is returned into the bosom of the royal city and has spent many hours above contemplating the wisdom of the Eye. He brings with him victory over the second and fourth fleets of the Qart Hadast Empire, and the heads of two of their highest consulars besides. Now he reclines in the palace feast chamber at the head of a long table alone. His long legs are sprawled out from his high-backed silver chair, one elbow propped on an arm rest, his knuckles beneath his chin. The heavy gold torque of his station hangs askew from his neck and his kohl-rimmed eyes glitter with amusement at her entrance.
The scribe stops midway through a sentence at her arrival, lowers his eyes and bows, then retreats without rising from the room. Ihuet comes forward and sinks to her knees in a chorus of chimes, then kisses the ground at her father’s feet.
“Hail to the Father God of the Eye,” she murmurs and does not raise her head.
“Daughter,” he greets warmly and lifts her back onto her feet, then encircles her in a hug. Ihuet presses her face against his shoulder, the tension leaching out of her. He smells of frankincense and engine oil and he is warm. Being in Amzu’s presence reminds her of being newly born, wandering Per-Wadjet on wobbling feet, trying to make sense of a thousand worlds at once. It reminds her of fearlessness—a galaxy’s worth of futures at her fingertips and the knowledge that her father would be there to catch her no matter her fall.
“Congratulations on your latest victory,” she says when he pulls away. “There isn’t much of Qart Hadast left.”
He grins, his dark face luminous with joy. “Indeed,” he says. “Though they have managed to hide away their world relic. I won’t be satisfied until I find it.”
“Shall I help you look?” she asks.
“There’s no fun in that, Ihuet,” he chides and turns his eyes back to the spread of papers on the table. “With the world relic we’d be able to perfect our agricultural processes across all stations. And we’d finally be able to return to the world-making project.”
Ihuet frowns. “But the stations are perfect—they are mobile, defensible, and our people are happy.”
“Nothing is perfect,” he murmurs. “All things can be improved.”
She raises her eyebrows, and he sees—his face splits into a grin.
“Except for my daughter, she who sprung perfect in all things from the well of my thoughts,” he says, and kisses her forehead.
This pleases her and a small smile tugs at the corners of her mouth.
That is when she sees—the papers are designs for a new obelisk to commemorate Ashdanar’s victory against the Ephesian Syndicate. A chill runs down her spine.
“You flatter my brother too much, Father,” she says softly.
A shadow falls over his eyes—they have had this conversation many times before.
“He is my son and deserving of praise,” he says, falling back into his chair.
“You have made a god in your image,” she says, and the words have too much weight. She wishes to take them back and cannot. “A god without the prudence of your age and wisdom. Cage him.”
“Ihuet,” he warns.
It is always like this, she thinks. A hundred threads of fate, suddenly snapped by a single choice. Her palms sting with the truth of it. She comes forward and passes a hand over his face, incapable of doing anything else.
“When the Bull God casts you down the Well of Worlds, I will not weep for you.”
I will be too busy weeping for myself.
The afternoon after her sister’s execution, Tazenket sits with her legs hanging over the edge of the cliff on the isle of Neveh, her gold eyes fixed on the ocean’s horizon.
She and Tureght are—were—two of a hundred in the creche of the Tower of Neveh. They’d been plucked from the same planet—Lixus, in the Barca star fields. A hundred girls all training to be one of five basileis and then the only Anax of the androleteirai of the Anat Atar Ascendancy. Tazenket had counted Tureght among her closest sisters. Now, in their forty-third year the creche, was winnowed to forty-eight of the original hundred, and of those forty-eight each knew where they would go. Some were slated for basileus, some for consular or generals. A rash of them were better suited to diplomacy, and there were those like her sisters Tinitzir and Tinitran who could have risen higher but preferred to serve as polemarch to one of five basileus.
The ocean breeze tears at her open jacket and she waits for it to take her grief. At forty-three she thinks they should have left their years of sororicide behind. A lesson—a needed one. Nothing is ever put to rest. No structure is ever stable.
A week ago, Tazenket dreamed a vision. She can still see it now—in the great forum in the center of the city of her birth, empty but for her and one other soul. Beneath a white linen awning stitched in gold sits an oracle. Her skin is honey brown, her hair black and hanging down to her shoulders. Her chest is bare but for the gold paint on her shoulders and breasts, and the unblinking eye of prophecy between them. She is standing and trailing from her waist to the ground is a white linen shroud. Her eyelids are painted in gold as are her fingertips, and splitting her bottom lip is a bar of turquoise paint.
Tazenket knows she is an oracle from the moment she lays eyes on her. The oracle holds open her hands to her and on the palm of each is another eye, drawn in kohl.
“I have a gift for you,” the oracle says.
Even now, a week later, Tazenket shivers when she recalls her voice. The gift was Tureght and proof of her treachery. She’d refused, at first, to accept it. Had spent a week investigating. Had hoped it was a dream born of paranoia, not truth. In the end, Tureght is sentenced for collaborating with the Bull God Ashdanar. In the end the dream is true.
She sighs and scrubs a hand over her face, then climbs to her feet. Many paces away are Tinitzir and Tinitran, twins taken from Oea. Loyal to her. More loyal than Tureght, to be sure. Tazenket buttons up her jacket, combs her fingers through her short hair, and joins them.
Here is the planet Thermadon: one of the last living planets in the Anat Atar Ascendancy. A place of blue waters and white isles and endless vegetation. More guarded than any other place within their stellar borders, home to the Tower of Neveh, the palace of the Androleteirai’s Anax. There are two continents on Thermadon and the isle of Neveh sits between them in the southern sea like a delta at the apex of a river. In the center of the isle is the tower and built around it is its metropole. There are zoos and temples, forums and promenades, shops where every delicacy galaxy wide can be had.
She can’t remember Lixus most of the time. The Lixus she does remember isn’t real—holos and paintings she looked up out of curiosity at sixteen. She has only ever truly known Thermadon—Neveh, its glittering turrets in the shadow of its great tower. Its flat roofs and ridged walls, and the white river that cuts through it. The cold embrace of the Ascendancy’s fleet and the icy wink of starlight.
Tinitzir and Tinitran flank her as they walk back to the city, collars buttoned up, two-headed axes strapped against their backs. They are tall and broad-shouldered, their black hair bound into a single neat braid. If not for Tinitran’s scar over her left eye, a shock of white in her brown face, they would have been identical. She can feel them exchange glances as they get closer to the city.
Tazenket didn’t flee, except that she had, weaponless, without her guards, to the cliff. Eyes open she sees the oracle; eyes closed she sees Tureght in her last moments, her face contorted with hatred. They were four before today. Tazenket, the basileus, always flanked by her three polemarchs. Raised in the same creche, trained by the same hand, turned toward the same purpose.
She dreams again that night.
She stands in the center of the forum once more. Across from her is the gold linen awning and beneath it is a platform covered in velvet. The oracle sits, dressed in a lapis gown gathered at her shoulders. It spills down her front in a diaphanous wave, sheer enough Tazenket can see the painted cobra between her breasts, its hood spread wide. Every now and then its tongue flicks out. Her hair is loose and heavy, threaded with countless gold chains. Before her is a table—on the left side is a wooden board, on the right a heap of many-colored stones.
The oracle smiles. “Would you like your fortune told?”
Tazenket swallows around a rock in her throat. The oracle raises an eyebrow, and her smile turns sly.
“Do you fear the future, basileus?”
“I fear witchcraft,” she replies stupidly. Is astonished those words have emerged from her mouth in that order.
The oracle laughs. It is a beautiful sound. Then she raises a hand and beckons her forth with a crooked, gold-tipped finger. Tazenket walks forward dazed. The oracle’s eyes are rimmed in kohl, she notices. They are brown. Luminous.
“You don’t believe in oracles, my lord.” It isn’t a question. She tries not to watch her hands as she begins to arrange the stones on the wooden board. A star map, Tazenket realizes. “Not every oracle is true,” she continues.
“But you are?” Tazenket asks.
She pauses, one hand over a blue stone, and lifts her eyes. “Oh yes, my lord. The only true one.”
The oracle is in her dream, isn’t she? The oracle was right about Tureght. Her finger taps and taps against the blue stone.
“Another gift,” she announces.
When Tazenket wakes, the blue stone is clutched in her palm.
Nefermedes, the Anax of the Anat Atar Ascendancy, stands haloed by the light of the morning sun in her feast hall. The room takes up an entire floor in the tower, its walls all glass looking out at the isle below and the ocean beyond. She is a tall woman, whip thin, with a brown face cut from stone. Her black and silver hair hangs as a mane down her back. She has one long, thin scar running from her temple to her chin, and a single gold hoop earring in her right ear. Both her arms are made of allodite, meteor strong, strong enough to heft her axe. She is approaching her second century. The first time Tazenket sees Nefermedes she is eight years old and the Anax appears as a giant to her. Now they are the same height.
She glances over her shoulder when the doors close behind Tazenket.
“It was well done,” the Anax says. “Rooting Tureght out.”
“Yes, my lord,” Tazenket agrees and comes to stand beside her. Makes no show of her grief, though Tureght’s last words linger in her mind. All morning she has gone back and forth—she hates the humiliation of confessing. Hates more that she will be found out and her secrecy used against her. She has only been basileus for three years—the position is not easily lost. Perceived treachery, however, is cause enough.
Nefermedes’ mouth crooks into a smile. “You are a poor dissembler,” she says. “It is why I picked you.”
“So that I couldn’t keep my own counsel?” Tazenket asks, amused.
“Because I knew you were honest,” Nefermedes replies.
Tazenket is honest. She is forthright, brave, willing to take risk in battle, and exercise prudence when necessary. She has three major victories under her belt—two against the Ephesian Syndicate, one against the Qart Hadast Empire. All impressive. But The Thousand Wings of the Eye and its god king Amzu creeps ever closer to their borders. And this dream—vision—
“An oracle came to me in sleep,” she says, carefully looking out at the horizon.
Nefermedes, she knows, has enough superstition that she goes to the temple of Atar before every departure. Her axe is blessed by its priestesses. Her ships anointed with their oil.
“Twice,” Tazenket continues.
“What has she given you this time?”
“The Bull God Ashdanar will cross into our stars, seeking out our golden worlds for conquest. She told me where he would be, down to the hour.”
Oracles are rarely so specific, or so the stories say. They speak in riddles in lieu of the gods. If not for the stone burning a hole in her pocket, she wouldn’t repeat the dream at all.
Nefermedes frowns into the horizon, contemplative. “Take a fleet,” she says at last. “Worst outcome: you chased a dream. Best outcome: you return to Thermadon with the Bull God’s head.”
Tazenket bows low. “Yes, my lord.”
The Ascendant Basileus fails.
Ihuet is rarely surprised and this should not shock her, nor should it cause her grief. And yet. There are times when the lines of fate may be manipulated. A wavering will or a will built like the bulwark of a dreadnought. Unfortunately, the Basileus’s desire meets and falls away against Ashdanar’s will to survive. Her brother returns to Dagan thirty-two days after she speaks to Tazenket.
In Nekheb, between the royal palace and the temple, there is a plaza. It is here that the admirals, generals, minor gods, and future postulants of her temple are greeted on their return. Ihuet stands beside her father, robed in green and black as Ashdanar winds his way through the city flanked by his surviving generals.
She has no care for politics. A little over a century of life and her days have revolved around this: future telling, the possibilities of her father’s reign, the crops and well-being of the Daganites; of late, her brother and his machinations. She cares for victory because it ensures her safety. She has never, before now, betrayed her father.
Ashdanar has lost eighteen of twenty-four ships in his armada, including two dreadnoughts. A sacrifice for his escape. A highlight of his failure to reach and conquer an Ascendant golden world. He walks through the city barefoot, his only clothing a white cotton skirt gathered at his waist. Obeisance in the face of his failure.
The plaza is a rectangular affair of rough limestone, its corners marked by four obelisks. Behind Ihuet and Amzu are an array of minor priestesses, attendants, and scribes. Ashdanar approaches them then prostrates himself before his father and sister, arms spread wide, palms and forehead pressed against the ground.
“Forgive me, God, for the loss of your wealth and the failure of your first born,” he says. His voice rings out over the crowd—they are hushed, tense, listening. A priestess comes forward with a bowl of blood—a calf recently slaughtered for his sanctification.
Ihuet takes the bowl and pours it slowly from the crown of his head, over his back, his thighs, then waits. Ashdanar rises to his knees and lifts his head to their false sun and Ihuet pours the last of the blood over his face. Her brother’s arms rise up, his face tilted just so, beatific and in ecstasy. Benediction.
She withdraws as Amzu comes forward and passes a ringed hand over his son’s face, then kisses his forehead.
“My first born is returned to me, whole and unharmed,” he says. “All is forgiven.”
All is always forgiven.
The ceremony ends. The Bull God and the Father God retreat to the palace. Ihuet retreats to the temple. She is not given to anxiety or fear. Or rather—she wasn’t before the portents of her brother’s rise. Her stomach is in knots and the palms of her hands sting. She is a goddess. She is the only daughter of Amzu. She is terrified of Ashdanar’s eventual visit.
He arrives four hours later, pristine, in a gold skirt and a torque of iron and blue stone around his neck. His shorn head is dusted in gold and his eyes lined with kohl. She is, foolishly, in a prophetic chamber. The temple is littered with them—large ones for the ordinary Daganites, small ones for dignitaries, rotundas for prophecy ahead of a campaign. Amzu has decided to engage the Ascendancy in truth, when their enemies have always been Qart Hadast and the Knives of Sardis.
Ihuet is preparing the royal rotunda when her brother enters the room.
The handmaidens go preternaturally still. She turns to face him and the handmaidens file out as soon as he passes them, terrified of being caught in his web. She doesn’t cower or shrink. She is the Oracle of the Father God, who yet lives. He cannot harm her.
“Brother,” she greets and folds her hands in front of her.
He climbs the steps to her dais.
“Sister,” he says congenially. “How have you been in my absence?”
“Fine,” she replies.
She has never loved her brother. No one has ever expected her to and Ashdanar has never sought to endear himself to her. But now—now, she hates him.
“I am glad to hear it,” he says, reaching her. “I toil to maintain your safe and idyllic existence.”
She casts her eyes down. “And we are grateful for the sacrifices of the Bull God.”
“Ihuet.” There’s a sharpness to his voice. She remains still as he lifts her chin. “You know why I am here.”
Ihuet can’t control the flinch of fear and the way she shrinks back, against all logic. He won’t harm her in the temple, and yet his hand snakes out and grips her arm.
“If you are grateful for my sacrifice,” he says, “you will prophecy at the brazier.”
She hates how small she feels. Hates that the circumstances of her birth bind her to this spot. She shrinks back again.
“Please, Ashdanar,” she begs.
And that satisfies him. It is the answer he needs—she would not fear it if she were confident in the outcome. He grins, vicious and hungry and she trembles. Fate has locked into place. His greed, her father’s ignorance, her own impotence. Some wills, she thinks, are insurmountable.
And then he finds her face, a rictus of fear, and his expression softens.
“Fear not, sister,” he says softly and trails a finger down her cheek. “You are foremost in my heart. And ours is a glorious future.”
His lips are soft on her forehead. She sees nothing as he bounds back down the steps and exits the chamber. The doors groan shut and Ihuet drops to her knees, shaking, her hand around her throat. The snakes beneath her gown writhe in fear.
Tazenket sits on the edge of her bed in her chambers onboard the Tanit Ascendant. Her head is bowed, her hands pressed against her temples.
The Basileus doesn’t like to lose. No one onboard the Tanit would consider their engagement with the Bull God a loss. Eighteen ships foundered, including two dreadnoughts. A triumph by any measure but hers. She wanted the Bull God’s head on a platter. Anyone willing to ignite a reactor on not one, but two dreadnoughts didn’t deserve command.
That the oracle was right figures only a little in her mind at present. The Bull God and therefore the Father God crossing into Ascendancy territory is a declaration of war. Inevitable, she thinks. Helped by Tureght’s leak of information to them. They have crushed the Qart Hadast Empire in the years after its cataclysmic collapse, and then the Knives of Sardis and the Ephesian Syndicate. Amzu is working his way through the galaxy, piece by piece.
She hears the chime of the oracle’s jewelry before her gold painted fingers comb through the short hair at the nape of her neck. Tazenket squeezes her eyes shut. She is dreaming. The oracle cannot be onboard her ship.
“You look quite dejected for someone celebrating a military victory,” the oracle says. Her voice is sweet, musical. Tazenket lifts her head.
The Oracle of the Eye stands over her, robed in a dark chartreuse—she wears a black cotton sleeve of a gown underneath with chartreuse tulle, pleated, falling in a tide to her feet. A gold belt is wound around her waist and over her right shoulder is a scarf of black velvet, its ends fringed in gold tassel. The serpent that sat between her breasts in Tazenket’s dream is now wound around her throat, its head disappearing behind her left ear and into her hair.
“I am not asleep,” Tazenket says wearily and comes to her feet.
“Indeed not,” the oracle replies and looks up at her. “And yet—.”
“Here you are,” she finishes. “Should I be worried?”
“I am the only one with the capability,” she says and wanders away to Tazenket’s bar cart. “And only because you are close enough to one of our relays.”
Tazenket makes a note to search for Amzu’s relays within their borders.
“You have surprised me, Basileus,” the oracle says. She has one finger on the cap of a bottle of spirits. “I am not easily surprised.”
That elicits a short laugh from Tazenket. “No, I imagine not. How have I surprised you?”
“I did think you would kill the Bull God at the first available opportunity,” she says.
Tazenket considers her then and closes the space between them. The oracle watches her unafraid; indeed, she has nothing to fear. It is only her consciousness that has been projected into Tazenket’s quarters. She cannot be hurt—can leave anytime she wishes. And yet she watches Tazenket closely.
Ihuet, goddess, daughter of Amzu, Oracle of the Eye, barely comes to Tazenket’s shoulder. She is slender where Tazenket is thick, her hair long where Tazenket’s hair is buzzed short. Tazenket trails a thumb over her cheek—her projection is warm and doesn’t ripple at contact. Strong relays.
“Why do you want me to kill your brother?” she asks.
She thinks she won’t answer as she pulls away and walks to the center of the room. The gown ripples behind her—Tazenket knows Dagan is too far, even with relays, for the projection to be so flawless. She believes only a little in gods, and certainly she doesn’t think Amzu is divine in the way the Daganites do. But there is something—
As if sensing her thoughts Ihuet asks: “Does the Ascendancy have a creation myth?”
Tazenket snorts. “We have many—our reach is vast. Our cultures vary. Some believe one thing, others another.”
“No state religion?”
“The forging of the Ascendancy is mythic enough.”
The oracle’s mouth quirks into a smile. “How quaint. Do you know ours?”
Tazenket shakes her head.
“First,” Ihuet begins, “there was nothing. And then a pale blue dot—the planet Uskish, wreathed in dead water. And then a miracle occurred: the planet birthed a single mound of land and the land birthed Amzu. Glorious and brilliant was he and so filled with joy that he danced and where his feet struck the ground, vegetation grew. Where he swam, fish sprung up in his wake. But he was alone—even as some fish came to land and others launched into the sky, there were no others like him. And so, he spilled his seed on the ground, and Ashdanar sprang forth. And he spilled his seed into the sea and Ihuet walked out of the waves.
“Do you know the next part, Basileus?”
Tazenket’s breath is lodged in her throat. She shakes her head.
“Godhood is a lonely existence—Amzu is content to be the only father, but the way of gods is proliferation. The first pair procreate so that their children may adjudicate in their stead, for their dominion is far reaching and eternal.”
Her walk back to Tazenket is graceful, lithe. It makes her think of mosaics in the temple of Atar, of oracles and priestesses dancing before their gods.
“Have I shocked you, Basileus?”
“Surely you are protected,” she says, rather than answer. “Your father—.”
“My father will not heed reason,” Ihuet replies. “And in place of reason, he will not heed his oracle.”
Tazenket feels bewitched. The oracle’s eyes are luminous and her mouth is round and full. The snake coiled around her throat ripples.
Her chamber doors hissing open break the spell. Tinitzir stares uncomprehending at the two of them, black eyes wide, before lifting her sidearm.
“Wait!” Tazenket bellows.
The gun is aimed at the oracle. “Why is the Oracle of the Eye onboard our ship?” Tinitzir asks. On the heels of Tureght’s execution, it’s a fair question.
“Why indeed?” the oracle says and her form ripples, then reappears beside Tinitzir.
The general swears and swings around. The oracle smiles, dimple cheeked and lovely. Mocking.
“In three weeks’ time you will receive an invitation to Dagan from my brother,” the oracle says, ignoring the gun.
“Outsiders aren’t allowed on Dagan,” Tinitzir bites out.
“Hostilities always cease at the death of an old monarch and the ascension of a new one.”
Her general draws in a startled breath. Tazenket folds her arms over her chest.
“This is what you wanted to avoid,” she says.
“Accept his invitation, Tazenket,” says the oracle. “You will not like the galaxy beneath the rule of my children.”
Two weeks after Ihuet sees the broad-shouldered Lord of Neveh, Amzu, Father God of the Eye, plummets out of the sky of Uskish.
Here is the fourth level of Dagan, in its bowels, the mirror image of Nekheb: the city of the dead. It is not a graveyard—the bodies of the Daganites are turned to compost for the farms in Nekhen. The bodies of their soldiers and warriors are cremated and sent to float among the stars. The floor is black metal and there is a single three-sided pyramid in the center carved out of meteorite. Its sides gather the dew of Lake Nekhen, so high does it rise. Built around it is a gate with a single, locked, entrance. Those mourning their dead come down and scrawl their loved one’s name against its unforgiving stone knowing that in a day or two it will disappear. Beyond the pyramid’s gate are buildings half its height, the walls facing the pyramid ramrod straight, those facing the walls of Dagan built at a slope. They, too, are made of meteorite.
Before Dagan was filled with mortals the city of the dead was alive with ghosts. It was not the city of the dead, but the first city, shaped by Ihuet’s own hand. She is the only one who remembers.
Ihuet stands farthest from the pyramid, at the edge of the city. Below Dagan hangs the pale blue dot that is Uskish, unpopulated but for the first mound, and Amzu’s first temple. And there just above its atmosphere is Amzu’s ship. Before Uskish and Dagan, her father loved nothing more than the stars. And here now, he flies his old ship, reveling in the beauty of the void. And there, she sees, the fire of destruction on his ship’s gossamer wings, the shudder of the vessel, its steep and unstoppable plummet as it’s caught by gravity. It does not wink out; it is engulfed in flames. She feels the moment her father dies as an unmaking of herself. Her body folds in half, her hands braced against the glass keeping her from reaching him. She remembers first knowing—understanding—that Amzu was her father, her eyes blinking blearily up into a light as bright as the sun, his hand on her forehead. She draws in a broken breath, can feel her handmaidens avert their eyes.
It is a long time before she can straighten.
Her handmaiden holds out the tray bearing her father’s first crown. She takes the platter and makes her way steadily through the city of the dead until she reaches the temple of Wadjet. The road to the temple is a wide boulevard paved in gray stone, lined on either side by eight blank pillars. Each pair lights up as she passes it, heralding her arrival. The temple itself is a single long room—the ceiling is clear glass and the black pyramid cast its shadow over it from the east. Here are great braziers, cold for nearly a century, lining the path to the temple’s end. And there, erect, tall as three men, is the effigy of Wadjet.
Here Ihuet can still hear the sound of her voice, wrathful and heart broken. Here, still, she can hear her father making promises that he can no longer keep. And there, at the feet of the effigy of Wadjet is her old helm, rusted by almost a century of disuse. Ihuet sets her father’s crown in the place next to it and waits.
In an hour, she hears the first wailing of mortals as news of her father’s demise reaches the station.
S.G. Demciri is a Black Amazighi writer of science fiction and fantasy. She received her PhD in English literature with a focus on Victorian literature and translation in 2020. After graduating she lectured on the history of western fantasy, drawing connections from Beowulf, through depictions of the crusades in medieval literature, the chivalric romance, William Morris all the way to Tolkien. A former Victorianist and lapsed Medievalist, she now writes for video games. She can be found on Twitter at @sgdemciri and online at sgdemciri.com.
Please visit LIGHTSPEED MAGAZINE to read more great science fiction and fantasy. This story first appeared in the May 2021 issue, which also features work by Susan Palwick, C.C. Finlay, Stephen Graham Jones, Arden Powell, P H Lee, Jo Miles, and more. You can wait for this month’s contents to be serialized online, or you can buy the whole issue right now in convenient ebook format for just $3.99, or subscribe to the ebook edition here.
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