Praise for Kirsten Imani Kasai’s Ice Song
“A boldly adventurous tale depicting a richly detailed world.”—Booklist
“Piercingly moving . . . reminiscent of Ursula K. Le Guin’s paradigm-shattering The Left Hand of Darkness.”—Library Journal
An Economy of Words
When she first realized she was pregnant, Queen Sidra the Lovely decided that her child would never be safe in a world with the Morigi family in it. Oman No-Man’s many descendants had been harmless--except for one. Bad seed Matuk the Collector had been an anomaly, but it was his genetic line that concerned her. He had selected one child from each of his wives to bear the brunt of his will and uphold family law. Radhe was first but she had come to a sad end, stricken with a somatic blight and transformed into a monster. Abandoned by the father who’d murdered her mother, Radhe haunted the Erun Forest for years, prowling the perimeter of Matuk’s grounds as the dreaded Wood Beast. He’d killed her eventually, her death the result of some foul “cure” administered on the tips of poisoned arrows. Poor Radhe now rotted on the loam, a feast for beetles and the enormous sooty ravens that descended in spiraling hordes to peck at her carcass, their whirring wings blotting out the milky spring sunshine.
Next in line was Nuala, who had disappeared years ago. There was some history of her at the university in Dirinda, but she’d withdrawn during her third year and no one had seen her since. Cream-cheeked Chen rose to the top, basking in his father’s attention for a year or two before Matuk became trapped in his white marble mansion and his affection was damned like a river choked with stones.
Chen Morigi was the favored son whose name would open doors and coffers. He’d made such a show of his failed romance with Sidra! He wore his rejection like a hairshirt--a public suffering designed to elicit pity from gullible women who wanted only to salve his tender heart. Like his father, Chen did not care about restoring the rights of the country’s indigent somatics. A desire to make money and to indulge in any available sin smothered whatever genuine feeling he had. Sidra’s appeals to him had failed. She’d watched him sink deeper into a morass of corruption and knew his snubs to be deliberate. Chen’s debauchery fueled her rage. Like a glib worm in a barrel of apples, he spoiled everything he touched.
If only Soryk would come back! Then she was certain everything would be all right, but days slipped by and he did not appear. She’d not believe him safe until she held him in her arms. What a glorious and triumphant return it would be! Soryk had changed the world by dispatching a most loathed enemy. She could double her strength by crowning him king of the Erun Forest. His antler coronet would be shorter, naturally, and his rulings subject to her prior approval--at least until he’d demonstrated his capability with the scepter. Beside him, she could better face the reports of grisly dismemberments increasing in frequency and absurdity and a growing drug trade that claimed her best agents. Together they would become a fist to smash all resistance and crush Tirai Industries in its grip.
Sidra stopped walking and crouched to catch her breath. Her swollen womb bore down on her hips and she was certain that she could hear her pelvic cradle fracturing. The doctors had warned her that she must handle herself as if blown from glass, quite blunt in their assertion that her retrofitted skeleton was not built for childbearing. Hers had been an experimental surgery and the synthetic marrow in her bones could never heal a break. Giving birth would almost certainly cause her a mortal injury.
She had always been so careful--seeds were not planted; cells did not divide. Call it fate, destiny, or simply bad luck, Soryk’s arrow had hit its mark. The uterus elongated its neck during orgasm, straining downward like the beak of a honey-sipping bird to draw in seminal fluid--how her little pink pear had flexed and quivered inside her, thrilled by the oddity of sex with her very own Trader, a human man, if only temporarily. The pregnancy was a grim gift--this child the product of a chemically induced eroticism--Sidra taking Sorykah’s tart tongue into her mouth and beckoning Soryk with poetry and kisses like sweet, silver-bloomed damsons. She’d whispered Rossetti in Soryk’s ear after his change: “Did you miss me? Come and kiss me. Never mind my bruises, hug me, kiss me, suck my juices. Squeezed from goblin fruits for you, goblin pulp and goblin dew. Eat me, drink me, love me . . . make much of me.”
Sidra had indicated the carousal in the great hall and said, “For your sake I have braved the glen and had to do with goblin merchant men.”
Thoughts of goblins, even those as attractive as Chen, made her shiver now. It had been a mistake to come out here alone. The twilight forest loomed around her. Once-sweet pines and cedars waved threatening branches, and clouds gulped down the sun. Moment by moment, the specter of death drew closed its cloak until safety and joy were naught more than the echoes of dead stars. Sidra feared for her life and the bloody dénouement creeping ever closer.
“Carac!” Her voice was reedy and insubstantial. She hadn’t seen him for hours, but his habit of trailing her ensured that he would be near. She called again but only the pines responded. That noise again--surely it was the sound of her skeleton splitting inside her skin, or far bracken snapping beneath a careless tread. Sidra fished a wooden whistle from her pocket. Carac hated its call, a piercing and urgent thing that only he could hear. It stung his ears and filled his head with the drone of bumblebees, but she needed him. She blew and Carac appeared, wild-eyed with panic and pain.
“What have you been doing?” Sidra was aghast at the sight of him, bare-chested, foamy with sweat, smears of fur and what she presumed to be blood caking his forearms and chin. She’d never seen him thus, so careful had he been to hide the signs of his occasional slaughters.
“You summoned me, my lovely.” He rubbed his hands against his pant legs, as if wiping away his startlingly human expression of guilt.
“I did.” Sidra hesitated, reluctant to admit her panic to the bloodied par-wolf before her. “I was frightened. It was nothing. A silly daydream, that’s all.”
Carac’s lolling tongue dripped a viscous dirty slime and Sidra remembered all the long winter nights when that agile red muscle had lapped over the hills and dales of her body. She shivered beneath Carac’s feral gaze. She had never doubted him before, but today the forest was the gloomy hunting ground of ghosts and every certainty was in question.
“What do you hear from the cities?” she asked. “Any news of Soryk?”
Carac shook his head. “Nothing yet, but the infestation is spreading, my queen. I suggest we repel it by sealing our borders and barring all travel.”
“That would mean we could no longer offer refuge to somatics fleeing the north. No, I cannot do that,” Sidra said. “Our Neubonne agent says poison soaks the streets, blue and toxic beneath an odor of flowers. Every little pleasure house and bar is a tap for the stuff. Bluing is hard to resist and easy to buy, and the ink trade intensifies along with it. You know how vulnerable we are to substances not of our blood.”
Opium had swept though the Sigue some years earlier, leaving many somatics addicted and ill. Sidra had been unable to treat them herself, and she knew the damage done by it. Matuk’s doing--this trafficking of drugs and somatic bodies.
Carac said, “I saw Jodhi and Monarch heading for the trading markets in Basalt.”
“Did you ask about Soryk?”
“Jodhi couldn’t spare a kind word for him, but Monarch told me that the Collector’s marble manor has burned to the ground. He and Jodhi took some of the piked heads to sell. Not to worry, my lovely, the heads are safe at home. You may dispense them as you like.”
“Good lad, Carac. You always know what to do.”
“My lovely, there is one other thing.” Carac hated to arouse her ire, but her anger would be greater if she discovered he’d kept information from her. “Digi-reels in the Neubonne pleasure houses show a Trader’s change . . . Sorykah’s change.”
Sidra halted, her eyes blazing. “There’s only one place where she could’ve been filmed, and he gains by it! Chen’s depravity is boundless!” Sidra ground her fist into her open palm. “So, he profits fourfold. Why is he so gluttonous? Can he not be satisfied with his father’s empire?”
“There are rumors of internal fractures within the Company. If Tirai Industries is divided equally among all the Morigis, Chen shall inherit but a fraction of it. He will lose his funds.”
“Then he’ll have to work and make his own way for the first time ever. Ha!” Sidra barked. “That improves my mood a bit.” Sidra’s attention dispersed, hopes of Soryk’s return dancing in her head. They reached the hidden entrance to one of the lesser tunnels. Carac hoisted a creaking, well-concealed door and held aside hanging roots as she entered. Shadowy and cool, the tunnel smelled faintly of damp earth and vegetation.
Sidra shed her cloak and rubbed her hands in anticipation. She would derive even more pleasure from ruining Chen now that she knew the extent of his betrayal. Sidra’s agents would plant the bombs and light the fuses. Mechanical spiders would descend on synthetic silk, and Tirai Industries’ fossil water plant would explode in a blast of sand and smoke. She would leave him with nothing, and then he would understand what it meant to depend on the mercy of others for his survival. Perhaps he would even come to the Erun city, his fortunes spoilt, to apologize for his earlier and ongoing stupidities. She cackled with glee and savored his forthcoming fall.
Long silenced, the Erun forest awoke from decades of slumber to rejoice in its liberation. Wood spirits crawled, dug, and tunneled from piney cemetery plots to emerge squinting and trembling in a new dawn. Insects erupted from egg sacs, cocoons, and the damp crevices that housed them to stretch their wings and flash their colors. Massive moths blundered through the wood on feathery wings. Cedars spontaneously generated songbirds among their boughs, chirping riots of electric blue, crimson, and yellow. Ravens besieged the trees and at dusk, horned owls swooped overhead with wiggling grubbits pinched in their beaks.
Gleeful in their triumph, Sorykah and her retinue--her nine-month-old twins Ayeda and Leander, their nanny Nels, Kika the sled dog, and Matuk the Collector’s former housemaid, Dunya the dog-faced girl--had with every step grown lighter and more carefree. For two days, heat from the burning manor warmed their backs as they fled its conflagration. Sooty plumes climbed the sky as the inferno billowed, announcing the obliteration of the tyrant Matuk the Collector. Fire had quickly eviscerated the manor, heaping marble slag and charred beams on the salt-crusted spring meadow, verdant after recent rains. The greasy remains of somatics whom Dunya had abandoned in their dungeon cells bubbled beneath the still-warm earth, roasting in their own fat.
Each considering only her luck, her fate, and her weariness, the women pressed on. The path to the Erun city eluded them. The forest was a vast tract of towering trees, dense underbrush, and confusing twists and turns. It was easy to wander in circles, to turn and turn again, thinking oneself found but becoming even more lost. The travel was worst for Sorykah, who nursed two children and suffered constant headaches from thirst and hunger. A week after she’d thrust her Magar blade into the chest of the man who’d taken her children, the feel of it still lingered in her hands: the crunch of brittle bone and the slight vibration that traveled along the length of her blade from his beating heart to her fingers--frantic, then still. Righteous retribution was hers; she ought to tuck it in her cheek like a sweet-and-sour ball to enjoy at leisure. It should feel better, she mused, shouldn’t it? But worries twitched in the back of her mind, and a sense of incompletion sapped the pleasure of her revenge.
As the landscape became more familiar, Sorykah relied on her alter’s wisdom for the first time. Soryk had traversed these woods alongside Sidra. He would recognize the well-camouflaged marks that distinguished signposts from ordinary lumps of stone. You’ve been here before. Tell me what I’m seeing.
Initiated by Sidra to unite Soryk/ah’s fractured personas, establish awareness between male alter and female primary, and strengthen their communication, the treatment was fledgling and untried. She stumbled between the trees, unsure how much longer she could walk before fainting. Desperation picked at her with sharp claws, pulling apart the threads of her composure. Talk to me, please! You know what to look for. Show me what I need to see.
She’d hoped to hear Soryk’s voice in her head. Instead it sounded from her throat, rasping and dry, the voice of a re-animant crawling from the grave. “Left between the thickets to find the evergreen glade and the pit.”
Nels’s and Dunya’s stares bored into Sorykah’s back as she fumbled toward a stand of trees whose dancing leaves urged silence--shh, shh--with each gust of wind.
Born of nightmares and premonitions, her alter’s voice was solemn and terrible. It slithered from her mouth to coil in her ears, as cozy as a snake in a rabbit burrow. “Under the trees. Into the pit. Nine times knock to be received.”
Sorykah was first to drop into the camouflaged tiger trap and call a warning to the others. Nels lay on her belly to hand down the babies before she slid clumsily over the edge, staining the side of her gown--a taffeta monstrosity Matuk had forced her to wear while she played piano to lull him to sleep--with mud and water made amber by fallen leaves.
Nels called to Dunya. “It’s safe! Jump down!”
Dunya circled the pit, snarling. Her tongue dangled from her mouth like a wet pink rag.
“Come on, Dunya!” Nels could not help it. She patted her thighs. “Come on, girl. Jump!”
Dunya leapt like one pushed from behind to nip the meaty strip on Nels’s hand between pinkie and wrist, leaving a welt but no blood. “Ye needn’t call me like a dog, save I look like one,” Dunya cried.
Nels’s apology was lost in the flurry of the opening door. Light spilled into the pit. A large and dreadful beast loomed, stiff silver-black hackles tufting across his wolfish neck. A sneer played across his lips and a growl rose in his throat.
“Nice to see you, too.” Sorykah swallowed her fear and pushed him aside. “Carac,” she said, by way of introduction. To quell Nels’s and Dunya’s evident panic she added, “It’s all right. He looks fierce, but he’s very loyal to Sidra and would only harm us at her command. Isn’t that right, Carac?”