Prologue: The Wedding

Maesa stood alongside two pairs of her sisters, silently watching. With no womb-mate of her own, she made the formal lines of Arana royalty uneven, but she forced herself not to think on the fact.

Sometimes, she managed for longer than a few minutes.

Beside, this night was not to be centered around her shortcomings. The crowning hour revolved around Runa and Sasha; her sisters’s wedding.

Runa and Sasha arrived on the sweeping steps of the royal audience chamber, their shimmering gowns a streak of amethyst against the colorless backdrop of intricately carved ice that formed the walls of the ceremonial chamber. Maesa’s sisters took the stairs one-by-one; one hand of each gripping the other, another their gowns. Perfect in their symmetry. Gorgeous in their flawless youth.

The cut of their gowns laid bare porcelain skin from their necks to their curved backs — allowing all the assembled crowds the opportunity to gaze on the organic puzzle-pieces of silver dusting their skin. The shining speckles running up Runa’s back and neck matched her sister’s of course, but Sasha’s always seemed to glimmer brighter. Sometimes womb-mates displayed these small discrepancies, but it happened rarely. More often than not, they were identical in every way.

Maesa touched a fingertip to the side of her neck, absently outlining one of her markings. It was forbidden to speak about the marks — especially to compare them with another’s — but she’d overheard Runa and Sasha doing just that. Just last Ruin, in fact, while they’d been giggling in the baths and admiring their symmetry in the full length mirrors.

It stung, knowing she had no one to whisper to about hers. Their flowing elegance. Their organic beauty. Or that other mark… the one she was so careful to keep hidden beneath the thick fabric of her skirts. The mark on the inside of her thigh. The mark only she and Queen Arana — the woman who would forever think herself cursed for birthing a forsaken bairn — knew about.

Maesa forced her hand down and gave Runa a small smile when her sister glanced in her direction. Runa grinned back, nodding her head ever so slightly, and then looked ahead.

Runa and Sasha reached the last step. Both took to their knees in front of the Queen.

The womb-mates bent forward, kissing the ice and laying their foreheads on the back of their hands. How was it possible for them not to be shivering wrecks? They ought to be freezing with their skin bared to the wreathing fog. True, they both sported a pair of thigh-high fur-lined boots, but Maesa was barely controlling her shivers, wrapped in layers of robing and fur as she was.

Runa’s skirt had hitched up to her shins, baring the tan-colored leathers for the crowd behind her. Maesa had the urge to dart forward and cover her. But instead, she held her ground, fingers gripping the edge of her thick robe as the Queen rose.

She was a tall woman; though slim shouldered and narrow waisted. Her robe — pristine white edged with flowing silver scrollwork that dazzled almost as much as the womb-mate’s birthmarks, brushed the ice below her as she turned to survey the gathered crowds. First, her violet gaze swept to the furthest reaches of the vast hall before returning to scan the lines of Arana royal women standing to either side of the dais. For just a moment, her eyes met with Maesa’s. That light touch ignited a spark inside her. Intense pride flooded into her, seeming pulled from the crisp air around her as she drew a deep, unbidden breath.

“Welcome, daughters of Sa’es.” The Queen’s eyes moved away then, flowing over her many daughters before settling for a long moment on the man by her side.

“Welcome too, sons of Sa’es.” The Queen’s voice dropped. “I urge you all to stay awake long enough for the ceremony to conclude. I’m sure your women would be most… appreciative.”

There was a murmur of low laughs as the men in the audience shared bemused glances between each other. Maesa rolled her eyes; what was it about a bonding ceremony that always had the whole of Maruri reeking of musk and pheremones? Perhaps this was something only mated trios could fathom — it was definitely beyond her understanding.

“Is there anyone in attendance tonight who doesn’t know the Journey of Sa and Es?”

There were murmured denials. You’d have to be buried in a snowdrift on Ertze’s Peak to not know the story. But part of the ceremony — a large part — was the recitation of just that.

The Queen swept her hand to the vast opening above them. A layer of transparent ice protected them from Maruri’s blistering-cold winds, but so thin and flawless was that barrier that Sa’es’s eyes shone like two silver discs in the black sky beyond. Eyes that were slowly, inexorably merging.

“Sa and Es, womb-mates at birth, were torn apart during a time of war and famine. Stolen from their mother’s arms at a moment of weakness by the brutal and cunning Ertze, the two endured a journey lasting eons. A journey which, at its end, left them poles apart from their birthplace… and each other. But always, the two knew that something was missing. That their spirit had been shattered. They learned of the existence of each other, of their untimely separation, and it drove spurs of grief into their souls. At this Phase of Ruination, their pain at the loss of each other fell as tears from the sky.”

Maesa glanced from the Queen’s reverential frown to Runa and Sasha. They were peeking at each other from under their lashes, lips squirming. Maesa shifted, tugging together the two halves of her fur-line robe. This cycle had been colder than the last, Sa’es’s Phase of Triumph colder than her Ruin — always surprising, since Ruin brought the brought the flurries of frozen tears the Sisters wept.

She forced away another shudder; why wasn’t she accustomed to the cold yet? It had always been so — the brighter Sa’es shone, the colder the air became, the harder the ice. Yet here she stood, trembling like a newborn ripped from her mother’s embrace.

“Cycle after cycle, the disbanded spirits would seek out each other in their dreams. Searching land and sky, moonlight and shadow, for the disparate halves of their psyches. And, in the Phase of Triumph, they found each other.”

A feeling began growing; a stirring, whispering sensation at the back of Maesa’s head. As if someone was staring at her. Staring through her. Maesa risked a quick peek over her shoulder. The crowd was spellbound by the Queen’s oration — not a single face was turned in Maesa’s direction. She shifted her shoulders, tugging away her hand where it had slid between the folds of her dress to touch that mark on her thigh. There were weals over it — tiny ridges of raised skin where she’d tried to destroy that incriminating hand print. And it was a hand-print — there was no denying the four fingers, the curving-away thumb. The crescent-shaped palm.

Ertze’s hand print.

“Together, they defeated the vile Ertze—”

Maesa snatched away her hand at hearing the Queen’s voice echo her thoughts.

“—conquering his armies and laying ruin to everything he stood for. So began the Crowning Phase.” The Queen glanced over the crowd. “This phase. Where these two womb-mates will forever be merged into one.”

Maesa frowned. She always did, hearing the Queen’s retelling of the fabled myth. As usual, it seemed the Queen wasn’t going to relay the rest of the tragic tale. Or add in the bits where Esa, the sister of Sa and Es, had fallen in love with Ertze, the poor wretch somehow able to see through his merciless persona to the man’s true nature.

No, it was all about the Sisters. How they, now reunited, celebrated. Their Homecoming Phase, where they spread joy and love throughout Maruri. The doleful Phase of Reflection, where they realized that the bond they’d created was greater than they could have imagined — when Es fell ill and her sister felt her pain deeper than anything she’d ever felt. How, when Es breathed her last breath… Sa keeled over and died. How they blamed lonely Esa and her tryst with the savage Ertze for their demise, and the demise of their many, many star-children.

And all the discrepancies in the tale… like just how those star-children had come into existence without a hint of a man being involved. Maesa had enough schooling to know it was physically impossible for—

“Runa… Sasha.” The Queen looked between the two girls. “You come to me at the cusp of Crowning, two spirits bound in a single womb by the love and light of Sa’es.” The Queen’s mellifluous voice cut effortlessly through the drone that had sprung up after the Queen’s passionate retelling of Sa’es’s plight.

“Already joined, but wanting — needing — more… just like Sa and Es.”

“Yes,” Runa and Sasha declared in unison.

There was a faint, collective sigh from the audience.

The Queen lifted her chin as if in challenge. “You ask to be joined, not just by birth, but for Sa’es to meld you into an unbreakable dyad. Mates for all eternity — in this life and the next.”

Another synchronous “yes” came from the bent-over girls. Maesa saw Sasha glance toward Runa, a small smile on her mouth.

Dear Sa’es, let them keep from giggling long enough to complete the ceremony. As much as she loved the two, they didn’t have a sedate bone in their bodies.

“You agree to be bound by the laws of Sa’es? To be forever united in both spirit and flesh?”

“Yes.”

“Do you accept, from this moment to the darkest Phase of Sa’es’s journey, that your spirits will be inextricably intertwined?”

Another “Yes” — with Runa sounding a little breathless and Sasha more than a little excitable.

“That, in sharing your joys, you will also share in each other’s pain? That your tribulations will be mirrored on each other’s souls like Sa’es’s eyes are reflected on the ice?”

The briefest hesitation, hardly noticeable.

Then, “Yes.”

“That you will now also share in each other’s death?”

“Yes.” Runa’s voice wobbled at this, but their timing was still perfect.

A cool breeze brushed the back of Maesa’s neck. She, like the other daughters of Arana, all had their hair pinned in intricate knots on the back of their heads, leaving their long necks exposed. Well, her fur-lined robe brushed the bottom of her chin… yet that cool breath of air found an exposed stretch of skin by the nape of her neck, stirring hairs against her skin that made her shiver.

Again, she glanced over her shoulder. She slid a hand under her robe, gripping the interlinked circles of silver that dangled from its delicate chain around her neck. For some reason, the charm didn’t have its usual soothing effect on her. She searched the crowd, trying to pinpoint those eyes she could feel weighing on her.

No one was looking at her.

So why did she feel so exposed? So vulnerable? Suddenly so fragile?

It had been almost two phases since the aiswurm’s attack on the palace. Was it that encounter that still plagued her?

Another breeze slid over her cheeks. Her eyes darted up. The viewport was still intact. There were no other openings in this chamber, except the enormous pair of doors — the chamber’s only entrance and exit. They were still resolutely sealed — as they should be, with a ceremony this personal in nature. Only those of pure blood had been allowed inside this chamber tonight. The Aranas, the Sohjas, a few of the higher-class Treele.

One of the guards to the left of those massive doors turned slightly, as if hearing a sound beyond the thick slab of ice. Then the man shook his head, tightened the grip he had on his elbows, and faced forward again — expression intent.

“Sasha, should Runa leave this world, will you be at her side as Sa’es take her into their embrace? Awaiting your rebirth after the Phase of Darkness has passed?”

“Yes, Mother.” Sasha’s voice trembled with emotion.

The Queen looked up, prompting the entire audience to tip back their heads.

Above, Sa and Es touched. The symmetry of their perfect circumferences made Maesa take another deep breath. She’d born witness to seventeen Crownings — could remember at least twelve — but the merging of those two celestial beings always left her feeling short on breath.

The Queen was still speaking, going on about responsibility and the burden each dryad suffered through. As if having someone that close, someone who loved you so deeply was a burden.

Who would want to live if their womb-mate died, anyway?

Maesa would never have hesitated if she’d been asked that question. If she’d shared a womb with someone.

Grown up with someone. She wrapped her arms around herself. This time, a small gust of wind pushed against her. She spun to face the doors, seeing several people in the crowd doing the same. The two guards went stiff, both turning to each other. They stared at the doors, and then shrugged off the phantom breeze as if it was nothing.

The royal chambers were renowned for keeping out the cold. How could the dimwitted pair not realize something was amiss? Surely they should be on high alert after what had happened? Maesa turned, taking a step forward before she could catch herself.

Queen Arana noticed the gesture. Somehow, even with her head tipped back and a solemn, far off look in her eye as she watched Maruri’s two moon’s eclipse, she noticed Maesa.

Those violet eyes narrowed. The Queen’s mouth thinned. It took no more than a small lift of her eyebrows to make Maesa stiffen. Even her lungs froze, refusing her breath.

There was a distant, thundering crash. The Queen’s eyes flared, fixing at those doors. She cast a sidelong glance at the King, and he slid out of his throne and disappeared behind the dais. Maesa could hear his footsteps as he hurried down the massive chamber toward the doors to investigate.

Maesa’s heart began to pound.

Was it back? Had the aiswurm returned for her? Her skin prickled with the thought of that massive, blind head staring down at her as its sulfurous breath washed over her skin—

“Rise, Sasha.” The Queen’s voice held not the slightest tremor — as if her palace hadn’t been torn apart not two phases ago.

Sasha straightened into a kneeling position, hands folded in her lap.

“And Runa,” the Queen turned to Runa, who was still bent over her hands. “Should Sasha be taken from this world before her time, will you ensure that you never leave her side, even when Darkness falls and Ertze scorches the lands and skies?”

A cold void opened in Maesa’s belly, sending another wave of ice through her body. She inhaled sharply, gripping her hands furiously together.

No, not now. This couldn’t happen now, not in front of—

“Runa, do you accept Sasha as—”

A whine rose sharply in Maesa’s ears. Her skin flashed hot and cold. She forced a hard swallow, blinking furiously as fog crept in on the sides of her vision.

Please, Sa’es. Not now! If you ever thought me a worthy daughter, please, please don’t do this to me now.

“Maesa?”

The whisper made her start. She let out a sharp breath, turning her neck with difficulty towards Aishah. The girl — only two years older than Maesa, was wide-eyed with concern.

“You look like you’re going to be sick,” Aishah said — most unhelpfully.

Maesa gave a small shake of her head, but she could feel consciousness slipping away from her. She faced the Queen, forced her eyes to open wide, and tried desperately to hold back the violent shiver that tore through her.

How could no one feel this? The aura of death and destruction that pressed in on the walls of the chamber like a physical being too large for the vast space? It felt as if that same being, that invisible force, was crushing her organs and grinding her bones to dust. She wobbled on her feet, catching herself against Aishah.

“Runa!” The Queen’s voice had a cutting edge to it know. The snap Maesa knew so well.

Runa trembled. She had her arms wrapped around herself, and she shivered as if she’d caught her death of cold. The Queen frowned at her, then up at the window. Maesa followed suit with sudden macabre dread, as did the majority of the royals. Sa and Es had almost completed their union — there was but a sliver of Es still peeking out from behind Sa.

“Runa?” It was a low murmur, but Maesa could hear it from where she was standing. “Answer quick daughter, before—”

“I…” Runa straightened, her shoulder blades protruding through her shimmering silver birthmarks. “I—”

The doors to the audience chamber burst open. The void infesting Maesa’s intestines burst into a flash of pain. She fought back a wave of nausea as she spun to face the doors. That whine of before came back, slamming out the panicked wails that erupted from the crowd below her.

Tendrils of vapor clung to the horde of panting beasts standing at the doorway. Maesa’s entire body turned to ice as a man stepped forward from the steaming mass of copper-skinned brutes and fixed his attention on the Queen’s distant throne. His shoulders held in their stiff posture an air of authority. His flaring nostrils an eager anticipation of violence.

There was a moment of perfectly crystallized silence, where the only thing that moved were those banks of fog wreathing the strangers.

In the far back, a fire flickered. Then another. More, until each beast held a wavering, glowing flame.

The whine in Maesa’s ears receded. She let out a long, sigh of a breath.

“It is time,” she whispered. “Ertze has come to claim me.”

And then the screams began.

Chapter One: Ice

Footfalls echoed down the hallway; they were the only sound accompanying Kummu Irisarri as he strode through the dimly lit keep. Here, on the iced plains of Maruri, energy was conserved for heat rather than for light.

Besides, there was no need for additional illumination. Kummu could see as well as any of the Ayo in residence, those few that remained. His eyesight had long since adapted to Maruri’s ever-present nights — if you could still call them with the absence of day. That is, if you didn’t believe the Daiza’s myths about their sun appearing once every fifty cycles.

If Maruri’s white shelves were ever graced by the warmth of a sun, the keep would never feel that touch of heat or light, buried a mile beneath Maruri’s surface as it was. Kummu’s ancestors had been searching for heat, hoping that the closer they came to planet’s core, the warmer it would become.

They were wrong.

Maruri’s heart had proved to be as frozen as its rocky flesh.

Kummu reached the end of the corridor. Here, a slab of granite barred his way. Intricate whorls, barely visible in the low light, etched its surface. Kummu tugged free a medallion dangling from a strip of leather around his neck. The metal was tempered compared to the chill air of the hallway; where there were no Ayo, there was no heat.

The disk slotted into the space reserved for it. It was a flush fit. Kummu used the faint depressions on the back of the disk to apply pressure, twisting it anti-clockwise until he heard its faint click.

It seemed such a simple mechanism. But, without the disk, the granite slab sealing off the chamber beyond was impenetrable.

Had other less responsible Ayo ever misplaced their keys? To his knowledge, there were only three in existence. He was far from omniscient but being brother to the King, and his counselor to boot, did provide extensive knowledge.

There was a pause. Dramatics or complicated machinery; either could have been responsible. It irked Kummu, not only because it allowed his Daiza retinue to catch up and crowd around him, but because it felt like an inefficiency that could easily be done away with. A lack of precision he would never have accepted from the engineers when they’d installed the keep so many years ago.

If the engineers ever returned, then he might broach the matter with them. Gods knew, the King couldn’t be bothered.

The slab scraped open.

Kummu had a list of items he burned to discuss with those engineers.

The darkness beyond was absolute.

A list as long as his arm. No, longer. Surely it would unfurl to the floor, that list. Kummu waited, trying not to inhale too deeply. Doing that would bring into his nostrils the scent of the Daiza gathered around him and he wanted nothing of the kind.

The lighting here was a concern. Some areas of the keep were cast in eternal midnight. One would think that after so many countless years on this scrap of rock, the Ayo’s technology would have improved to the extent that they could source a more renewable energy stream from Maruri. But Kummu knew they’d tried. Moonlight made solar energy a feeble approach. The lack of typography on the planet’s smooth surface brought no more than a whisper of wind to touch its dusty snow. And frozen rivers didn’t move. That ruled out hydro-anything.

So they burned methane — the little that remained — one adventurous engineer had been unlucky enough to find in a pocket close to where the keep was built.

Kummu repressed a sigh. The door was finally open.

There was a slight fizz, almost drowned out by the ragged breathing around him, before a distant light flickered to life.

Kummu straightened his spine — unnecessarily so — and strode into the chamber. He let the smell of the place fill his nostrils, flushing out the stale air of the keep’s royal chambers.

Here, all he could smell was ice.


Even inside this chamber, too little illumination was present. But here, whatever light there was the ice reflected. And it was so dazzling, even its mediocrity, that Kummu had to shield his eyes as he waited for his sight to adjust to the glare.

He strode into the vast chamber, his breath misting with every step. A pair of his retainers followed, the rest biding their time outside as instructed.

They followed him deeper inside, just shy of his peripheral vision, the whisk of their silken clothes and their expressive breaths letting him know just how close they were — too close.

Kummu led them past the initial neck of the chamber; a narrow passage that only five Ayo could stand abreast in. The smaller-framed Daiza could probably fit seven or eight of their men. After a few feet, the chamber widened into a broad room several hundred feet in diameter.

On the wall: shelves carved from ice.

On the floor: more ice, smoothed, with inch-thick grouting chiseled into the form of ancient Ayoan patterns. Kummu recognized some as fertility symbols, but most had been interlaced with so many neighboring lines that it became impossible to make out individual forms.

In the center of the room stood a raised block of ice. Blue. Crystalline. Kummu veered from it, turning instead to the left. The shelves inside this chamber were predominantly empty. If needed, this sacred chamber could easily be converted into a cold storage facility for food or other decomposable materials.

Instead, it was used to store the velmerr.

Kummu slowed before he reached the end of the last shelf. Three muslin-shrouded forms rested there.

When the second-last of the velmerr had been taken, would the last know she was alone? That she was fated to spend another cycle inside this vacuous, dead space?

Kummu snapped his fingers.

The pair of Ayo males trailing him leaped forward.

“Restrain yourselves,” Kummu said.

His voice didn’t echo. Instead, the blue-white walls seemed to drink in the timber of his words, swallowing them whole.

The pair of men slowed. They glanced nervously over their shoulders; identical in their sudden concern. Thick, matted hair the luster and shade of coal dangled to their shoulders. One had tried to draw his tresses back into the confines of a golden net — a new fashion among the higher-class Daiza — but it was too fierce a mop to contain and peeked rag-tag through the delicate mesh.

“Utter caution,” Kummu said, knowing those two words held more portent than a verse on how careful they should be.

They had to know how delicate this cargo was; even he couldn’t prevent his breath stalling as the pair took hold of the first shrouded mare. The two men shuffled over the icy floor, their combined breathing casting a permanent fog over the body as they approached the altar in the center of the room.

Kummu waited until they had laid down the frozen velmerr before snapping his fingers at them. They bowed and hurried to the neck of the chamber, waiting for their next instruction.

The altar pulsed cold from its rigid form. It chilled Kummu’s legs despite the thick stockings he wore under his silken robe. He would have preferred to wear a woolen smock when traveling so deep into Maruri’s flesh, but it would not have befitted the ceremony of this place, of this ritual.

No. Only the finest, darkest-dyed silk would do. Here, in this colorless chamber, his broad frame was a smudge of darkness that could never be mistaken for one of those pale, shrouded figures.

Then again… even if he’d worn white, he could never have been mistaken for the tiny frame laid on the altar before him.

Kummu studied the velmerr’s bindings. His gaze slid over her slender neck. The orbs of her breasts. Her flat belly, wide hips. Her legs, bound together to reduce their fragility.

She appeared to be intact.

Another snap of his fingers brought the pair of Daiza scurrying to him.

“Proceed.”

They hesitated for a moment. Then each drew a brush from the satchel slung at his side. A compact inkwell, filled with lugubrious paint, was set reverentially in the hollow chiseled into the altar expressly for this purpose.

Kummu watched as they began to paint over the Daizan velmerr’s bindings.

Their purple strokes ate through the frost glittering along the surface of the tight muslin. It soaked the fabric, bleeding out in hairline feathers from the symbols the pair painted.

They were talented, these two. Kummu knew them from the past five Varmras, and had chosen them today precisely for their proficiency and skill.

The symbols they painted matched several of those etched onto the floor of the ice-room. It took several minutes, and once they’d completed the intricate designs, they began to carve away the mare’s bindings with a slender bone knife.

They began at the mare’s small feet.

The tightly-bound muslin revealed a barely opaque stocking stretched over the mare’s toes. Kummu’s heart beat faster, louder, inside his chest. Perfectly formed toes. Pearly toe nails. A slender arc.

“Careful,” Kummu said. His voice was rough, and he cleared his throat.

The two ushers slowed. The wait was excruciating, but worth it.

As they worked their long knifes, more of the velmerr’s exquisite flesh was revealed to the chamber’s unforgiving cold. Dainty ankles. Well rounded calves. Slender, dimple-free thighs.

The stocking covered her entire body. It did nothing to hide her features; that wasn’t its purpose. Her sex was clearly visible: a hint of a dark-pink slit that disappeared between her bound thighs. The dusting of pale curls above it did little to shield her folds from his eyes. Her nipples — a pair of russet circles — weren’t pointed from the cold. Her body lay in stasis — it wouldn’t respond to any stimuli until she’d been thawed and woken.

Even her symmetrical face was only slightly marred by the tight stocking. Her snub nose, a touch flattened. Her lips suppressed.

Kummu could hear the ushers breathing. The Varmra excited them; it would any male, Daiza or Ayo. The Daiza mares were so superlative in form, so breathtaking in their beauty — a stunning contrast to their hideous male kin.

The purple dye had seeped through in places — less than he’d expected — these spots now marring the mare’s peach skin. In a way, they complemented the silver flecks on her arms and shoulders. Those organic patterns extended over her back and down the back of her thighs. Up her neck. They infringed on the edges of her face and crept over her ribs, but her belly, breasts, and pelvic basin were unmarred.

She lay before them, virgin flesh shimmering with ice, and Kummu knew the two ushers were as hard for the velmerr as he was.

Not for the first time, Kummu had to resist an urge to take up the bone knife and slice through that tease of stocking. But he knew his place in the Varmra: to oversee the ushers. To thaw the velmerr. To bring her to the king.

For it was only Leniz, Ruler of Maruri, who possessed the right to remove that frail barrier. It was only he who could touch the mare’s silky skin. It was only he who could—

Kummu struck the thought from his mind and looked up at the ushers. They tore their gazes away from the mare with obvious difficulty.

“Prepare the bath,” Kummu said.


The pair of men moved jerkily to another doorway set into the back of the ice chamber and opened it, disappearing inside. Preparing himself, Kummu slid his hands under the Daiza’s thighs and shoulders and lifted her.

Frozen as she was, her body didn’t bend or sag. She lay — heavy and solid — over his broad hands.

Now, touching her without touching her, the contrast between their two races was apparent. Her arms, so slender. His, broad and muscular and twined with muscles. This Daizan skin: peach dabbed with silver. His: a deep, untarnished copper. For a moment, he paused, studying her. How could such a beautiful thing share the same genetics as the slab-bodied Daizas that scurried around Maruri’s keep? Was it not more likely that they were a different race from the Daiza too? Perhaps—

A trickle of water coursed down his wrist. The velmerr was already beginning to thaw, and here he stood like a buffoon, wondering on genetics and ancestry? Kummu snorted, took a steadying breath, and left the ice-chamber.

The room beyond was barely large enough for the broad trough in its center and a small table with the required herbs and utensils on it.

Steam already crowded the air here.

Kummu drew it deep inside him, stifling a cough at the itch it brought to his throat. The tepid air felt balmy in comparison with the velmerr’s flesh. Her icy skin radiated wave upon wave of ice over his unprotected hands. The ushers dashed herbs and vials of garishly-tainted liquid into the roiling bath. A spout fitted to the chamber’s ceiling fed the trough; a thick, bone disk plugging the outlet pipe. A large, water-tight skin had been fitted to the trough’s outlet: water in its liquid form was a scarce commodity in Maruri — even the velmerr’s bathwater would be filtered and reused.

The additives filled the air with a cloying stink that proved more effective at eradicating Kummu’s erection than had fervent thoughts about dead scrubbies.

When the trough was half-filled with warm water — murky brown now — the two ushers exited the room with bowed heads.

Kummu positioned himself over the bath and slowly lowered the velmerr inside.

Even after his brief exposure to the her icy bedroom, Kummu’s skin tightened at the heat of the water. Was it too hot? He hesitated, the velmerr suspended less than an inch over the steaming water. His eyes slid to the side of the trough, where a thermometer had been built into a glass enclosure. It had begun to fog up, but he could still read the temperature. It was perfect.

Kummu let the velmerr sink into the water.

He kept his hands under her, waiting. His breathing shallow. His chest tight.

A crackle.

His heart rate accelerated.

Another crack. Big enough for him to feel the tremor.

No. Please, Stalgud.

The Varmra had been performed without error. He’d done nothing—

Abruptly, the weight in his hands shifted.

Kummu grimaced and tried lifting the velmerr from the murky water. Had it not been for the stocking, then the fractured pieces of the velmerr would have scattered all over the bottom of the trough. He would have had to hunt for all her parts, gathering them up and herding them out as they softened in his fingers.

Instead, he lifted the stocking between trembling hands.

She’d splintered.

Pink water ran through his fingers and down his arms, dripping from his elbows. Only one half of her exquisite face remained intact, nestled in the thawing chunks of her brain.


They retrieved the second mare, prepared her as with the first, and took her to the bath. Kummu was overwhelmed with relief when he lowered the Daizan woman’s light frame into the water and felt her flesh soften in his hands.

No cracks.

No splintered flesh.

No broken mare to explain to the king.

When she lay limp and supple in his hands, Kummu glanced over at the closest usher. “Are you ready?”

The usher nodded and moved to the wall of the small bathroom where a lever had been fixed to a blank, steel panel. He put his hand on it and nodded again. Kummu let the mare sink into the water again and drew his hands away, blotting them absently on the edges of his robe as he stared into the murky water. Just the tip of her flattened nose and the ridge of her eyebrows were visible, the aureoles of her breasts, her pronounced hip bones.

“Proceed,” Kummu said and inhaled deeply.

The usher threw back the switch. There was another fizz, almost like the light springing to life, but louder, more insistent. The mare began to dance, her muscles responding to the electrical stimuli pulsing through the water. Choppy brown waves splashed against the side of the trough and Kummu leaned back, all too aware that being touched by the water could prove fatal to him. There was a click as the usher drew the switch up. Kummu stared into the water, waiting. The waves instantly smoothed and became still.

Nothing.

“Again.”

The usher threw the switch. The mare jiggled and frolicked, more alive than she’d been for years. But again, when the water was calm, nothing.

Nothing, nothing, nothing.

Kummu felt pressure behind his eyes: tears of frustration begging to be released. This wasn’t happening. This couldn’t be happening. He’d done everything right! Was Stalgud’s heart truly so iron-hard? Truly so devoid of life that He didn’t bare to see another brought back from the brink? Kummu slammed the side of his fist into the tub’s rim, sending a ripple shivering through the water.

“Again.”

“Master, you—”

“Again!”

The usher threw the switch. Water splashed. A touch of smoke rose from the mare’s peach skin where the stocking began to smoulder.

“Master—”

“Keep at it.”

A hiss and the stocking disappeared, eaten by the invisible currents racing through the water. Her skin began to blacken and peel. The usher threw back the switch, a wretched sob masking the sound. Kummu lowered his head onto his fist — still flush with the rim of the bathtub — and forced his own fury to subside before it manifested. Silence stretched in the small room as the putrid smell of charred flesh filled the air.

When Kummu could trust his legs, he forced himself to his feet.

“Drain the water. Fill the bath. I will prepare the next mare.”

“But you can’t—” began one of the ushers, indignation making his voice shrill.

“I can’t?” Kummu spun to him, his face contorting. “You forget your place, worm. It’s obvious your incompetence shattered the first and burned the next. I will not leave it up to your tiny, retarded mind to ensure that the last mare is correctly prepared. I cannot. She is—”

He cut off, compressing his lips with effort.

She was the last. These ushers knew it. The dying Ayoans knew it. And soon… everyone on Maruri would know it. He strode from the bath chamber, ears straining for the sound of the two Daizans speaking. But they were silent, and the only sound was that of a last, tiny sob — mostly suppressed — as they drew the dead mare from the water.


Did this velmerr seem smaller than the other two? At the moment, Kummu had nothing but his memory to compare her to; every shelf in the ice room was empty. The velmerrs were all gone. All used. All dead or dying.

Kummu felt tired. Too tired. His legs wanted to drag, and his hands were stiff and unwieldy. Perhaps he should postpone the Varmra for a day. Regroup. Set his mind straight.

Except… that would leave him explaining to his brother about the other velmerrs. How this was the last one. Leniz knew there were only three left, and this already angered him. What if he knew only one remained? What if, somehow, he failed him?

The weight of an entire race rested on his shoulders. And it was a blindingly heavy burden.

Kummu painted the symbols over the velmerr’s bindings. As he did, he recited mantras under his breath. Perhaps his pleas would be heard by Stalgud. Perhaps the Blacksmith would make an exception today, and not steal another soul for his forge. Ba’l surely wouldn’t respond to anything he prayed for: He’d abandoned them the moment the Ayo race had set foot on frozen Maruri.

Kummu snipped through the bindings and ran his gaze over the velmerr. Intact. Perfect. As beautiful and fragile as a snowflake. Her patterns were vivid, too. More vivid than the last perhaps? Or was he simply trying to drink in the sight of her, to revel in her beauty, worshiping her as the last hope of a race should be worshiped?

The sound of rushing water stopped. The ushers had filled the trough.

Inhaling slowly, Kummu rose with the velmerr in his hands. He stepped into the bathing room, careful not to jostle his cargo, and sank down beside the trough.

As slow as cooling metal, Kummu lowered the velmerr inside.

The back of her heels touched the surface, frost instantly eaten away by the steam of the water. Something inside Kummu went tight, asphyxiating his lungs. He lifted her again, holding her slight weight suspended.

“Lower the temperature by two degrees,” he said.

“Master?”

“Two degrees.”

The ushers glanced at each other and then hurried to comply. One of them fed the end of a pipe into the water, the other moved to the wall and selected the tap of the cold water inlet. The water below Kummu’s hands began to froth, sending wafts of the stinking soup into his nose. But he held steady and waited, his eyes fixed on the thermometer.

One degree.

Two.

“Stop.”

He waited for a few seconds, making sure the temperature wouldn’t drop another degree. And then he lowered the frail woman into the water.

With his hands on her thighs and shoulders, the crack that came from her right foot was barely a tremor in his fingertips. But he felt it. And it made his body grow heavy and cold. He was holding his breath — had been since lowering her in — and his lungs stung with their need for new air.

But he couldn’t breathe.

He couldn’t think.

All he could do was keep still, waiting and feeling for the next crack he knew would come. The one that would shoot up the velmerr’s body, splitting her in two. Or perhaps she would shatter like her sister, leaving him holding chunks of thawing flesh in a useless stocking.

“Master?”

Kummu looked up, exhaling sharply at the unexpected voice. The usher stood close to him, frowning.

“May we go on?” This, from the usher close to the switch on the wall.

They were eager to be done. Eager to see the velmerr breathe her first breath. Too eager.

“Wait.”

“Something is wrong? Did she—”

“Wait.” This was little more than a growl, and the usher dropped his head, hand falling to his side.

Time slid by, Kummu’s strained breath the only meter with which he could count. Nine breaths. Twenty.

There were no more tremors of splitting flesh. The velmerr’s body draped his hands now, her heels and skull brushing the floor of the trough. Kummu slowly released her, lifting his hands free of the water.

“Now.”

The velmerr shuddered violently. Ripples raced to the edge of the trough, returning and merging with more. The water began to grow choppy as Kummu counted silently in his head.

“Stop.”

The water became still. Kummu took his hands away from where they gripped the edge of the trough with the thought that his hammering heart might bring tremors to the surface of the water.

Nothing.

Dear Stalgud, nothing.

“Please, Sa’es,” one of the ushers murmured.

Kummu’s mouth opened, but before he could tell the usher to send another jolt of electricity into the velmerr, his eyes found a ripple. It was tiny, so tiny that his excellent eyesight might have missed it had he not been scanning the water with such intent.

He lifted a hand, a silent command for the ushers to remain still. Everyone held their breath now, the chamber growing silent. A tiny bubble broke the surface of the water. As Kummu was reaching forward, heart wanting to explode in joy, the velmerr twitched violently.

Twitched, because she was drowning.

Drowning, because she’d been roused from stasis.

Kummu found her, lifted her. Her eyes were still closed, her mouth still sealed. But he could sense life on her like an animal could sense fear. Her skin had become translucent. Her muscles supple. Kummu sat her up and forced her mouth open through the stocking, jerking as her entire body twitched again. Her jaw provided slight resistance at first before falling open.

With her lips now parted, Kummu took the bone-bladed knife one of the Daizan ushers handed him and made a small incision through the stocking. Next, he was handed a small, long-nosed plier. This he slid inside the velmerr's mouth, using the tip to feel inside the back of her throat until he could locate the thing nestled inside.

She gagged, the sound tiny but forceful.

He grabbed hold of the obstruction in her throat and gently drew it out.

A tiny pouch slithered out, covered in defrosting mucus. He let it fall into the bathwater without a second glance. It contained more herbs and a few rune stones, useless now. He held out his hand again. An usher placed a thin pipe in his palm and Kummu slowly fed this into the velmerr's mouth. Again she gagged, her eyes fluttering but remaining closed.

It had been a long time since she’d eaten: she would be hungry, but incapable of solid food for a few days. Instead nutritious broth, cold at first, would trickle into her stomach to supplement her. Pale liquid moved through the pipe. He set the velmerr against the side of the bath and watched for a few seconds to make sure her nutrition wasn't spilling out through her mouth.

“Leave us,” Kummu murmured.

The ushers bowed at the edge of his vision before scurrying out of the room. They would wait outside with the others, regaling them with visions of the velmerr's beauty and insinuations about how the king would impregnate her. Kummu had tried to stop them before but found it impossible. Since the Ayoan’s numbers had dropped so drastically, none of them could be spared to assist him with this task. Which left relying on a pair of Daiza males instead. Not perfect, but sufficient. And rumors would undoubtedly sprout like fungus after today: the velmerr would become a legend.

Just like her ailing predecessor had become.


Cold. It was everywhere. It cocooned Maesa in pain, tendrils burrowing deep into her bones and splintering them. She moaned and tried to move, tried to find a position that didn’t bring aching agony to her muscles, but there was no peace to be found. No relief. No warmth.

Her head pounded with every slow heartbeat, her stomach feeling distended and queasy. It might have something to do with the tube slithering into her mouth. She could feel where it had lodged itself deep in her throat.

Maesa tried to lift her hand, intent on removing the foreign object from her throat, but her arm refused to move. It felt too heavy, trapped somehow at her side. Instead, she began working numb lips and a wooden tongue, edging the tube out of her throat. It resisted, clinging to her, before she managed to wriggle it free. Cold, sluggish liquid filled her mouth as the tip slid out of her throat. It tasted of brine and dead things. She retched, forcing both the vile substance and the end of the tube out with her clumsy tongue.

Then the shivers began.

At first, there was nothing but a tremor. Wave upon wave of cold brought them: first at long intervals, and then faster. Her muscles trembled and shook, her teeth making tiny clicking sounds as they met. Maesa tried to hug herself, but her arms lay limp at her sides, refusing her.

She forced her eyes open. Even her lids were too heavy, too slow. A languorous blink revealed nothing but pale blue and white. The suggestion of shapes, but with too little contrast to reveal anything meaningful about them.

She was so cold.

So very, very, cold.

Maesa’s teeth began to play a drum-beat in her mouth, click-click-clicking against each other. Her breath became faster too, drawing in that arctic air too rapidly for her lungs to warm them. The breath she expelled barely tinted the air with fog.

She was going die.

The cold swallowed her like a frost leviathan — those abominable creatures that hunted on Maruri’s plains. She could feel the walls of the aiswurm’s throat closing over her, compacting her, snapping her bones.

Sound. A voice.

Maesa made her lids open, fighting their urge to flutter closed forever. Another voice, louder now. Arguing and angry. Angry with her?

Something brushed against her, startling her. Why couldn’t she see? What was wrong with her vision? There was a figure, nothing but a dark silhouette against the white. A smudge of darkness against the light.

A caress of warm air. Maesa tried to call out, but all that emerged was a tiny, ragged mewl. Another brush of warmth.

Glorious!

She wanted to reach for that ember and slip it into her mouth. Let it warm her belly and radiate out to fill her entire being.

But she could only lay here, quaking, her teeth never ending in their drumming clatter.

“Can you hear me?”

The words shocked her. So loud, so insistent. Where was this? Who was this person standing over her, teasing her with trickles of warmth? The voice sounded masculine — beastly even — but the words were unknown to her.

“Can you speak? Do you pain?”

She recognized those words, but they sounded so strange. Mangled, almost. Spoken by a child with less than a cycle’s worth of schooling. Maesa managed to lift her finger, but whether the giant shadow saw this feeble movement or not, she couldn’t tell.

“Stalgud!”

“Stol-gut,” Maesa whispered. Her words were cracked and inaccurate, but the man-shadow’s form changed. He was bending closer perhaps, trying to hear those faint syllables.

“Stolgud.” She spoke as loud as she could, but it still emerged a whisper.

There was a strangled laugh, sounding relieved and happy, and then a rustle of fabric. What she thought of as cold was nothing compared with the frozen air that closed over her breasts. Maesa gasped, the sound tearing at her throat.

“Shh,” the shadow man whispered.

A weight that had been resting on her diaphragm lifted. Maesa drew a deep, thundering breath tinged with ice. Then warmth blossomed on her breasts, sliding down, down, to nestle in her belly.

Not warmth: heat.

Blazing, fiery heat. It made her skin prickle with almost-pain, but she welcomed it with a sigh that made her teeth briefly pause in their incessant chattering.

“You live,” the shadow-man murmured. From the tone of his voice, he sounded grateful. Because she had accepted his heat? She was grateful too. That pocket of warmth began spreading over her, thawing her frozen muscles. Life seeped into her, her nerve endings firing up with sharp stabs. But she welcomed that rushing sparkle-pain as much as she had the warmth.

It meant she was alive.

Chapter Two: Awake

Cold. It was everywhere. It cocooned Maesa in pain, tendrils burrowing deep into her bones and splintering them. She moaned and tried to move, tried to find a position that didn’t bring aching agony to her muscles, but there was no peace to be found. No relief. No warmth.

Her head pounded with every slow heartbeat, her stomach feeling distended and queasy. It might have something to do with the tube slithering into her mouth. She could feel where it had lodged itself deep in her throat.

Maesa tried to lift her hand, intent on removing the foreign object from her throat, but her arm refused to move. It felt too heavy, trapped somehow at her side. Instead, she began working numb lips and a wooden tongue, edging the tube out of her throat. It resisted, clinging to her, before she managed to wriggle it free. Cold, sluggish liquid filled her mouth as the tip slid out of her throat. It tasted of brine and dead things. She retched, forcing both the vile substance and the end of the tube out with her clumsy tongue.

Then the shivers began.

At first, there was nothing but a tremor. Wave upon wave of cold brought them: first at long intervals, and then faster. Her muscles trembled and shook, her teeth making tiny clicking sounds as they met. Maesa tried to hug herself, but her arms lay limp at her sides, refusing her.

She forced her eyes open. Even her lids were too heavy, too slow. A languorous blink revealed nothing but pale blue and white. The suggestion of shapes, but with too little contrast to reveal anything meaningful about them.

She was so cold.

So very, very, cold.

Maesa’s teeth began to play a drum-beat in her mouth, click-click-clicking against each other. Her breath became faster too, drawing in that arctic air too rapidly for her lungs to warm them. The breath she expelled barely tinted the air with fog.

She was going die.

The cold swallowed her like a frost leviathan — those abominable creatures that hunted on Maruri’s plains. She could feel the walls of the aiswurm’s throat closing over her, compacting her, snapping her bones.

Sound. A voice.

Maesa made her lids open, fighting their urge to flutter closed forever. Another voice, louder now. Arguing and angry. Angry with her?

Something brushed against her, startling her. Why couldn’t she see? What was wrong with her vision? There was a figure, nothing but a dark silhouette against the white. A smudge of darkness against the light.

A caress of warm air. Maesa tried to call out, but all that emerged was a tiny, ragged mewl. Another brush of warmth.

Glorious!

She wanted to reach for that ember and slip it into her mouth. Let it warm her belly and radiate out to fill her entire being.

But she could only lay here, quaking, her teeth never ending in their drumming clatter.

“Can you hear me?”

The words shocked her. So loud, so insistent. Where was this? Who was this person standing over her, teasing her with trickles of warmth? The voice sounded masculine — beastly even — but the words were unknown to her.

“Can you speak? Do you pain?”

She recognized those words, but they sounded so strange. Mangled, almost. Spoken by a child with less than a cycle’s worth of schooling. Maesa managed to lift her finger, but whether the giant shadow saw this feeble movement or not, she couldn’t tell.

“Stalgud!”

“Stol-gut,” Maesa whispered. Her words were cracked and inaccurate, but the man-shadow’s form changed. He was bending closer perhaps, trying to hear those faint syllables.

“Stolgud.” She spoke as loud as she could, but it still emerged a whisper.

There was a strangled laugh, sounding relieved and happy, and then a rustle of fabric. What she thought of as cold was nothing compared with the frozen air that closed over her breasts. Maesa gasped, the sound tearing at her throat.

“Shh,” the shadow man whispered.

A weight that had been resting on her diaphragm lifted. Maesa drew a deep, thundering breath tinged with ice. Then warmth blossomed on her breasts, sliding down, down, to nestle in her belly.

Not warmth: heat.

Blazing, fiery heat. It made her skin prickle with almost-pain, but she welcomed it with a sigh that made her teeth briefly pause in their incessant chattering.

“You live,” the shadow-man murmured. From the tone of his voice, he sounded grateful. Because she had accepted his heat? She was grateful too. That pocket of warmth began spreading over her, thawing her frozen muscles. Life seeped into her, her nerve endings firing up with sharp stabs. But she welcomed that rushing sparkle-pain as much as she had the warmth.

It meant she was alive.

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