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the sound of a blade

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Our first birthday celebration—

Carved with joy & delight by Xi Ro—

May the Osmium King live long, and us three sisters forever—

It is good to be one year old!

Even for daughters of the Osmium King, it is very good. We live cocooned in the adakite walls of the Osmium Court, and our father’s knights patrol the halls. But the Fundament hungers for us on every side; the stormjoys descend even into the palace gardens, when the weather is right, and the Helium Drinkers want us destroyed. Our brood hatched one year ago, a clutch of twenty-eight sisters. Now we are three.

Seven of us died still in the larval stage, before all three eyes had fully opened. This is to be expected, for children of our species.

Another five died in the quarter-year following, falling off the edge of our continent when our father the Osmium King used the engines to move us.

Ten of us were eaten by the ambassador of the Helium Drinkers. Our teacher Taox says this was right and proper, because the Osmium King (our father) handed their squalling bodies to the ambassador as tribute. A king may dispose of his brood as he wishes, and an ambassador may eat what he is given. There is no reason, Taox says, for us to resent the ambassador, any more than there is for us to resent the Timid Truth that we are the smallest and most fragile things alive, prey for the whole universe.

(And yet I hate the ambassador; I wish that someday I could find a way to kill him, to eat the hinges of his jaws and the flesh of his tongue and every part of him that has tasted my sisters.)

Three of us were eaten by stormjoys, plucked screaming out of the Osmium Court’s gardens.

All of this is why children do not have names before their first birthday. We die too easily. We are spent too quickly. And yet some of us do survive, even to the uttermost edge of a year.

I am one. So are my two sisters.

We do not have names yet. Yet we have not been entirely nameless, the three of us, in the brood-pit or the nursery. Spawn are allowed to give each other nicknames, to use and believe in them, because how else will we learn to be people?

Au Ri, is one. She is curious and masterful and the first of us who learned how to speak.

So Na, is the second. She is clever and willful and I think she could tame stormjoys if she tried.

Xi Ro, my sisters named me, when we were nothing more than larvae, and that name I ate and I loved and I am.

But tonight, when our father summons us to his side and acknowledges us as children, he will ask us for the name we will bear through all our childhood. Real names, one that befit his heirs, not brood-pit nicknames.

For days upon days, Au Ri and So Na have pondered what they will declare themselves. Each has made up and discarded a hundred names, seeking the perfect one.

I love my sisters, and I too yearn for our father the Osmium King to acknowledge me as kin; but I do not understand how they want to have new names.

#

All morning, the rain that dissolves flesh has fallen. We huddle inside our nursery, and for once all the knights of the Osmium Court hide as well. Yet the flowers in the gardens bloom wide under the rain, petal-mouths drinking up the deadly acid, storing it in their throat-sacs to dissolve the insects they will catch later.

Again, the hateful Timid Truth: we are most fragile of all things. Even the flowers we grow as ornaments are more deadly than we.

As soon as the rain has ceased, the three of us race outside. So Na hunts me through the maze of the garden, trying to catch me with bursts of speed clever ambushes. A pair of knights lumbers through the maze on patrol, and we dodge around them, laughing because they are stronger, but we are so much swifter!

Meanwhile Au Ri climbs one of the maze’s walls and stands atop to stare up at the sky. This is no surprise. Our oldest sister is always looking up, always wondering, her three eyes glittering with curiosity as she tries to understand the whole universe. Lately, she has been learning all she can about storms, hoping that someday we might be able to predict them.

Today is good for her learning. Though the rain has stopped, the storm is not fully gone; clouds hang low over the Osmium Court, rippling swirls of dull gray and soft green and malicious yellow.

Today is also good for our chasing! So Na catches me twice, but I break free of her grasp each time and lose her again in the maze. She can outwit me (sometimes) but not outwrestle.

Then I hear So Na cry out. At first I think I think it is another trap—she is very good at sounding frightened, when it suits her—but then I hear her shout, “Au Ri!”

I look back. So Na is very close behind (I must learn to run faster) but she is not looking at me. She is staring up at where Au Ri stands on the edge of the maze-wall.

The cloud has come down to her, as if to answer all her questions. It drifts low, trailing tentacles of vapor, each of them glittering with a dozen beautiful lights.

Bait stars.

It is a stormjoy, come to eat Au Ri. She will not try to stop it; her face is already full of vacant joy.

The next moment, one of the knights leaps up onto the wall beside her. He clearly means to save Au Ri, but he makes the mistake of looking at the stormjoy’s tentacles from less than a pace away. He falls into the same trance as Au Ri: slack-jawed, three eyes dazzled, the beautiful light of the bait stars erasing all thought of danger.

Because the knight is tallest, the stormjoy’s tentacles fasten on him first, winding around his body and finding the cracks in his armor. He does not flinch as the stormjoy starts to suck the fluids from his body; he is still entranced by the bait stars.

I am already running. As the knight’s face crinkles and collapses, I leap.

The trick with stormjoys (I have heard, though I have never tried it yet) is not to look at them directly once you’re close. When I land on top of the wall beside Au Ri, my eyes are fixed on my feet. I sieze her arm, and try to push her down—

Already a tentacle wraps her arm, below the grip of my hand. A bait star glimmers at the end of the tentacle, and nearly I am lost in its light.

I squeeze all three of my eyes shut. By feel, I find the knight’s husk and draw the sword from his sheath. By feel again, I grasp the tentacle above Au Ri’s shoulder and swing the sword.

The stormjoy screams, its vaporous blood boiling around me with a harsh chemical smell. Still grasping the end of its tentacle, I fling myself against Au Ri and push us both off the edge of the wall.

There are shouts all around us, and pounding feet: So Na has raised the alarm, and when I manage to lift my head, I see a dozen knights firing arrows at the stormjoy. It shrieks and writhes, and starts to lift away from us.

I look down at my hand. The tentacle is already decaying into ash, but the bait star glows with a perfect, endless light. I scoop it up and cradle it to my chest.

On the ground beside me, Au Ri stirs, breaking out of her trance.

“Xi Ro,” she gasps.

I grin down at her, prouder than I have ever been before. The Timid Truth rules us all, even Taox and the our father Osmium King, makes every one of us prey to the whole Fundament.

And yet I have been strong, and have won! I have cut a stormjoy and claimed a bait star!

#

“Come, my children!” Our father, sitting on his throne, flings his arms wide. “No longer are you spawn. Today you are my heirs, worthy to learn from me and grow into my power. Tell me, what will your child names be?”

My oldest sister goes first, stepping up one stair and then another, until she stands level with the Osmium King.

“I am Aurash,” she says.

Our father nods. “That name means ‘Hungry Thought,’” he says. “It is fitting for your curiosity.”

He knows about her curiosity because Taox has told him; because, even before we were acknowledged as his children, he wanted to learn about us. Spawn must be culled before they become children: this is a part of the Timid Truth. Because we are so weak, we must be very, very careful about whom we allow to live as our heirs.

Next my second sister climbs the steps, graceful as a stormjoy’s light is deadly.

“I am Sathona,” she says.

“That name means ‘Sharp Wit,’” says our father. “I like it for my second heir.”

Then it is my turn.

I look up at my father and my sisters. I do not climb the steps, because what will it change? How will it make me weaker or stronger?

“And you?” our father asks me. “Third surviving daughter of my final brood, tell me: what is your child name?”

I think of the name Aurash breathed when I rescued her today. The name I held when I cut a bait star from a stormjoy, as my father’s knight could not.

“I am Xi Ro,” I declare to all the hungry universe, and also to my father the Osmium King.

#

Nobody is pleased! But what can anyone do?

It’s true, Xi Ro is not a name that means anything. It is not proper, is not right for an heir to the Osmium Court. But I am not curious for meanings like Aurash, or clever at twisting them like Sathona. I am honest and brave and I will be a knight. So for me, my brood-pit nickname suffices.

Xi is the sound of a sword drawn from its sheath.

Ro is the sound of a blade whipping through the air.

With these two sounds, today I caught my first bait star. I saved my oldest sister. I was brave and bold and strong, a worthy daughter to the Osmium King.

Xi Ro is the only name I will ever need, ever be.

And if I fail, let the Leviathan in the deep eat me.