It begins with a crow, always with a crow. Its raucous caw. A crow swoops down on the tilt of my countertop and pecks, hunting for meat, for anything in these hungry times.
I shout, I swing my broomstick. The crow flaps up and fearlessly returns, picking at my onions and parsnips shredded not by a cook’s blade, but by the bomb.
After the explosion, two crows circle over Saza’s baby. She leaves her daughter squalling in the rubble while she runs to the well for water to douse the flames turning her kiosk into ash. Before I can reach the child, before Saza can, the crows feed on the baby’s face.
Madness rules Illyria.
A Dox threw the bomb, I’m sure of this. The Dox don’t strap incendiaries to their chests and make mincemeat of themselves the way the Rippers do. The Dox blow up other people, then go watch porn on the Instrumentality.
Yesterday I saw Dox militiamen hanging around Coppermine Square. Laughing, toking ciggs while our townfolk went about their business, sifting through wares in the kiosks, sipping coffee in cafés, tossing vinjak down their throats at saloons. Hurrying off to their bureaucratic jobs in the ugly cinderblock buildings downtown.
I knew what they were. Tall and knotty, in the way of mountain folk. Long, bony faces, contemptuous eyes. Dox militiamen don’t wear military uniforms. No militiaman—Dox, Cath, or Ripper—wears a military uniform. Not these days.
They wore armbands with the sign of the Doublebar on their biceps. Bandoliers of bullets, holsters buckled on blue-jeaned hips. T-shirts with cult insignia from our extinguished HomeWorld. Flowers crowning a grinning skull. Greasy lips, a flapping tongue.
Did I summon a peacekeeper? Of course not. Plenty of Dox have fled the Bleaken Mountains and settled along the Catha seacoast, seeking shelter in our town of Coppermine. During the days when you and I lived in the mandated apartment on Via Ledge, we had a neighbor, a jolly widow who kept caged songbirds and collected porcelain figurines. I cried when a gang of Rippers slit her throat, shot the birds, smashed her figurines.
But you said, “I’d have slit her throat myself. She was a Dox.” And we had an ugly quarrel.
It’s not illegal for Dox militiamen to hang around Coppermine Square. Not illegal for them to flaunt their firearms. Everyone owns a handgun in Illyria. You and I keep our rifle and handgun hidden at our cottage. They’re much too dear to carry in town where a gang could stick you up and steal them.
Now Coppermine Square lies burning, shattered by the bomb. The sirens of catastrophe wail.
Saza darts among the rubble, her eyes anguished, her voice a rasp. “Oh, Maya, it’s Yuri.”
She needn’t say more. I’ve feared this moment every day of our lives. My heart leaps up and lodges in my throat.
That’s when I run to you, my love. Down the cobblestone streets to Doloros Infirmary. On Via Chagrin, I dodge feral dogs growling over fresh meat on the leg of a corpse. The corpse of a person—man or woman, I can’t tell—who was once a descendent of the Settlers on NewWorld.
You sprawl on a cot in the ward where they’ve taken you.
“It’s a concussion, ma’am,” the doctor informs me, “he’s brain-dead. The rest of him will be dead by nightfall. I’m sorry, there’s nothing we can do.”
The doctor explains what’s irretrievably crushed inside you. Her words are a chaos I can’t comprehend. She and her assistants move on to the next mangled patient.
I sit beside the cot. I’m glad the bomb didn’t damage your face. I couldn’t bear to see your face torn apart.
They’ve taken you off life support, and I touch your golden hair threaded with silver. Touch your cheek, the white keloidal line of the scar from when you fought the Rippers in Torrent Province. I’m tempted to tug open your eyelids, to glimpse the startling blue of your eyes so unlike mine. But I don’t want to see the stare of the lifeless. I smooth my forefinger over your thin lips, so very unlike mine.
How we used to joke about the inevitability of this moment. Many an evening we sat before the fireplace in our cottage, guzzling deep from a bottle of vinjak.
“I’ll die first,” you’d say. “I trot out the handgun like a good Cath and go serve whenever the militia calls us up. I’m bullet-fodder.”
“You’re tough and strong,” I’d say. “And I’m older than you. Me, I’ll die first.”
“Don’t be absurd. You’ve got good genes. Didn’t your grandmother live to be a hundred-three?”
“She lived in peace and plenty. I’ve never had peace and plenty.”
“We’ve got peace and plenty now.”
“These days won’t last. And I’m much older than you. I’ll die first, and that’s that.”
“Who will cook me spicy beans stew?”
“You’ll find some woman. You always do.”
“My days are numbered. A Dox bomb will spill my brains. Or a Ripper bomb.”
“Who will reach me down the cider vinegar when I want to cook spicy beans stew?”
“You’ll find another tall man.”
“You’re my only tall man.”
Then you retired to your bedroom, I to mine.
I never loved you more than I did on those evenings.
Saza tiptoes into the ward, bringing me a bottle of pivo. She whispers sympathies, tiptoes out. She’s a good neighbor, but I can’t expect more. She’s cremating her tenth child tonight.
I down the bottle, wringing out memories of our days together. I doze.
Outside the window, a crow caws.
When I wake, you’re miraculously awake. You’re breathing, shouting, your blue eyes wide. Blood from the back of your skull spatters. The doctor and her assistants attach life support tubes, whisk you away.
Hope seizes me.
You’re alive, ass-kicking alive. Isn’t that just like you? “Never take no for an answer,” you always tell me.
I hurry to my vegetable kiosk, shake my broomstick at the damn crow. The bird spits out shredded onions and parsnips, wheels up and wings away, its caw fading in the roar of the bomb.
Our townfolk reassemble shards of earthenware jugs and set them on their shelves. Calk chinks in the bricks, polish the timbers. The feral dogs prowl off to the Bleaken Mountains. Saza hugs her baby daughter to her breast. The crows flap up, searching for easier prey.
I shake droplets off the leafy tops of carrots, tuck a pretty melon, green with pink stripes, in the wagon you built for me.
I wave to the vendors on Coppermine Square, cart fruit and vegetables to my garden. I attach tomatoes to their fuzzy stems, thrust carrots and parsnips in their rows of fertilized soil. Honey bees buzz, depositing pollen into the stamens of the flowers.
Extra produce I can for our lean winters. In our kitchen, I peel off wax seals from the mouths of jars, pour boiling water into my cauldron, reassemble pieces of peaches.
You and I, we argue about Illyria.
“So what if the Rippers invade the mountains, kill the Dox, steal their food?” I tell you. I take your cup of coffee, pour it into the pot. “What has that got to do with us?”
You’ve returned from the mountains, gaunt from the paltry rations, exhausted from the ten-day battle, filthy with sweat and blood. You give me that look. “It’s the right thing to do, Maya.”
“The right thing is for you to stay home. Go to your job at the windmill factory and help me in the garden.”
“Catha’s copper mines lie at the border. Our windmills, too, sending energy through the Bleaken Corridor. If the Rippers conquer the Dox, what do you think they’ll do next?”
“Gloat over their war spoils and buy fancy cars from Starica.”
“You are so naïve. They’ll threaten us. Threaten Catha’s peace and security. And our access to the Bleaken Corridor.”
“I see. Our access to the Bleaken Corridor, that I can understand. But you? Rushing off with the militia? You’re pushing the years, Yuri. I’m pretty sure I saw a silver hair in all that gold.”
You’re a handsome man, as I’ve always told you. This talk of aging offends your vanity. “They call up the militia, I go. Like I’m supposed to. Like I always have.”
“I think since Janabelle kicked you out of her house and you can’t stand being around me, you like marching off with the boys.”
“Have a good day, Maya,” you say, your blue eyes icy. You’re very offended I should mention your breakup with Janabelle after you left me for her. You crawl off to your bedroom, slam the door.
Have I taken you in? Have I kept your bedroom just as you left it? I should tell you to go to hell, but I don’t. This is our cottage. After all your women, you still belong to me.
I just want to cook spicy beans stew and live my life in peace. Live out my life with you, my love.
I will die first.
In Torrent Province, the Rippers unearth from a mass grave ten thousand male Caths—grandfather, father, son, grandson. They tamp out the flames of burning Cath villages, piece together the torn clothes of ten thousand violated women and girls.
I watch the Instrumentality, bear witness. The shattered skull of a child sucks in her brains, bone fragments slap together, silky hair thrusts into a pink scalp. Her screaming face. Her sweet smile.
You march off.
You march back.
The Cath militia calls you up to unleash hell. You pull on your black T-shirt with the red ban-the-bomb sign from our extinguished HomeWorld. Wrap your armband with the Crossbar around your biceps, strap on bandoliers of bullets, buckle a holster on your blue-jeaned hip. You keep your gear and weapons at our cottage, not at Janabelle’s house in Coast City.
I’m infuriated at how you use our cottage as your secret clothes closet. But my fears for you confronting the Rippers—who care nothing about life, their own or anyone else’s—overcome my anger.
“Don’t go,” I beg. “Haven’t you served enough? You’re in the prime of life, Yuri.”
“The last time our militia went to set things right in Torrent Province, we lost a thousand men. If the militia needs me, I must go.”
I’m desperate so I say desperate things. “What about Janabelle? What about your kids?”
You whirl on me, towering over me. “I thought we were not to talk about Janabelle. Or our kids. I’ve provided for them. They’re not your concern, Maya.”
“What about me?” I say. “Have you provided for me?”
“I taught you how to use the rifle. You’ve got our cottage, your garden, your kiosk on the square. You’ll be all right, Maya. You always are.”
“What if I’m not all right? What if the Dox march in while you fine militiamen march off doing your duty and slit my throat and burn down our cottage?”
But you’re off, your boot heels pounding on the gravel. Waving good-bye with a flip of your hand.
Hammerist workers topple the statue of Stann, the Velvet Fist. I wouldn’t miss the civic ceremony for anything. I stand in the crowd at Coppermine Square and watch, a confusion of feelings in my heart.
Descendants of the Settlers who claimed Hammer, a land northwest of the Catha seacoast, control a vital energy source powering Illyria. Acres of wind farms, the steel propellers whirling in fierce, cold storms. Once the winds were a bane to the Settlers. Now they’re a source of wealth and power for their descendants.
Times change.
The Hammerist Empire collapses in bankruptcy, slowing the gale force of cheap abundant power to a weak breeze. It turns out the price of energy was artificially fixed by the Velvet Fist. Currencies of Catha, Dox, and Ripp collapse. Shelves in the kiosks are bare.
Militias rise up in every province and prey upon their own people. I cried when militiamen ransacked the lovely, two-hundred-year-old Coppermine Public Library. When they finished ransacking, the militiamen burned the building to the ground.
My stomach rumbles with hunger. A mold ruined half the harvest of my garden. I sell what I can salvage, keeping only a few onions and carrots. I haven’t eaten meat or cheese in months.
Has any good come of the collapse of the Hammerist Empire and its grip on us? Yes, it has. A Central Committee no longer dictates where I, or any other Cath, must live. I produce my family deed and the interim city council allows me to move back into our cottage. After the unhappy days at the mandated apartment on Via Ledge, I’m thrilled to haul moving boxes, clean up the mess the assigned families made, arrange my furniture and my knickknacks just the way I’ve always liked.
The Hammerist workers, wearing armbands with the sign of the Hammer, carry off the statue of Stann in a truck. And then I see you in the crowd with Janabelle.
You see me, too. You say something to her, thread through the crowd to me.
“Let’s go home,” you have the nerve to say, taking my elbow. I should wrench my arm away, but I don’t. I let you guide me through the crowd. You stop in a saloon, buy a bottle of vinjak. We walk down the cobblestones to our cottage.
“Reach me down the cider vinegar?” I say.
You pluck the jar off the top shelf, sit at the kitchen table like always as I whip up spicy beans stew.
So. Is she the last one?” You’ve had many other women before Janabelle.
You shrug, take a swallow from the bottle. Isn’t that just like you. Buy me a bottle, then drink it yourself.
“You have kids with her?” I take the bottle from you, take my own swallow.
“You really want to know?”
Your sullen resentment and my fierce jealousy poison my little yellow kitchen.
But you’re you, Yuri. You never take no for an answer. You won’t allow my love to get in your way. You go to the half-bath off the kitchen, take from a drawer the oak-handled hairbrush. You stand behind me while I sit at the kitchen table, uncorking the bottle of vinjak, and brush my hair.
“So thick and dark,” you murmur, unknotting tangles. “Like sable. The color of sable.”
“Not a white-haired hag yet?”
“You’ll never be a hag. But I do see a few strands of white,” you tease me.
“I don’t think so.” I check in the mirror all the time.
“No, your hair is dark as ever,” you concede. Lying like you always do.
You take unfair advantage of my moment of pleasure.
“I don’t see our predicament ever ending,” you say.
“That’s fine, coming from you. You’re the one who’s slaughtered Dox and Rippers with your own hands.”
“I’m not happy about what I had to do. That’s my point. I’m the one who has a right to ask. Why do you plead for peace in the face of evil?”
“I plead for peace when peace is the right thing.”
“When someone intends to kill you, peace is not the right thing. You must defend yourself and your family. We’d be dead if people like you had their way.”
I shudder. You have no idea. But I only say, “I understand defending yourself against a predator.”
“Do you?”
“Sure. Last week, I saw a crow circling my garden. When I left for Coppermine Square, he pecked my sweet corn to bits. Today he was after my raspberries. I saved those berries from a blight. They’ll fetch me three months of income. So I got out the rifle and shot the bastard dead.”
“Good shot.”
“You taught me well.”
You’re silent, brushing my hair. “You don’t think your peace comes with a price?”
This isn’t a question. It’s your declaration of what you believe I believe, and I resent you for presuming.
But I don’t challenge you. I don’t start an argument. An argument will only lead to conflict. Illyria is cursed with enough conflict. I don’t want conflict with you. Never with you.
I say, “I know there’s a price. That’s why I protect what’s mine.”
You’re so tall, so virile. Your biceps, an astonishment. You work out in the bathroom, lifting barbells.
I discover white threads in my sable-brown hair, pluck them out with tweezers. I rub skin cream in the lines fanning out from my eyes. It must be very good skin cream because the lines fade. Still, I fret about things I cannot change.
You laugh. “Maya, you’re beautiful as ever.”
I believe you. I’m so proud when we walk arm-in-arm through Coppermine Square, and our townfolk say, “That’s Maya and Yuri.”
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