‘We Will Become as Monsters’, Benjanun Sriduangkaew

Illustrations © 2020 Pear Nuallak

 [ Who could not be more unalike, © 2020 Pear Nuallak ] The shadows are bleeding long and jaundiced by the time I come to the dying woman: the breadth of her nestles between gnarled appendages that grow like nematodes from the labyrinth’s outcrops. She has been pierced in many places, shards of glass in her sides, jagged needles of steel through her calves. Blood has congealed beneath her, wet on the black of her armor. By all rights she should be dead, drained of fluids by those appendages, but she went down fighting—the labyrinth’s extremities lie withered about her, charred and dry.

I approach, slow. There are good weapons on her, and where this woman is going she won’t be needing them.

A stench of necrosis lingers. Somehow she is still breathing—only just. By the look of her she is a soldier, part of a troop that has come to breach the maze. There is always one army or another making an attempt. Why, I can’t begin to guess: this monster garden extends without end in every direction, overwhelming the sight. A mound of grotesquerie, its putrid breath blackening the ground and gloaming the air. I’ve never been able to determine if it is a single great beast or a nest of them together, but such is not my business or expertise. The labyrinth’s edges are a treasure trove for the enterprising woman, courtesy of the various armies that have come, laid siege, and failed over the years.

Like this.

Breath moves through her still, alimentary whispers, and her heart must continue to pump, crawling toward its finale. I nudge the maze’s appendages with my foot, and with some labor extract the dying soldier from its grip, dragging her far enough that I won’t be in reach should the labyrinth stir and lash out. She’s heavy, this soldier, not just her armor but the density of her; she is like stone hewn to human form. In life she must have been imposing. In near-death she is let down by her mortality, like anyone else. I leave her helm on, a mask of metal painted the same obsidian as the rest of her armor. I’m here for her belongings, not her dignity. It would not fetch much, in any case.

I loosen her belt. There is no currency on her—unsurprising, given her profession and where she is—but there are weapons, a sword still clenched in hand, a knife or two. A metal case hangs by her hip, lightly dented. When I pry it open, I find it full of gemstones: large pieces, nearly half my palm, and all kinds. Bismuth, turquoise, aventurine. Each feels heavier than it should, the weight of sorcery. What they actually do I’ll leave to an appraiser; with luck they will be worth some coin. There’s no insignia on this soldier that I can recognize, but militaries of all stripes and allegiances travel here, from very close to very far. Her forces are not nearby, or at least not camped on this side of the outskirts. Good enough. I take the case of gems and the blades.

The soldier’s hand shoots out, seizing mine. It must be death-strength, the body’s last effort: her grip is bruising, tests the bend and flex of my fingers. The helmed head twitches toward me—she might have been close to consciousness, has just now surfaced from the last fever-dream she will ever have. Dreams of conquest, dreams of battle. I do not know what churns inside the heads of those like her.

“Take my gauntlet,” she rasps. “If you’ll rob me, take that with you.”

Alert the entire time. “Why that in particular?”

“By the look of you, you’re a woman of little fortune. Put on my gauntlet and I promise you wealth, power, and beautiful concubines. How about it? Will you not chance the thought?”

How can she talk, I wonder; is it sheer will—such people as this defy death’s approach. “Why would you offer this to a complete stranger?”

“You’ve passed by and I see no other. Take the gauntlet.”

The piece of armor cannot be that valuable. What she claims is something else. “How powerful? How wealthy? What demon’s bargain is this?”

A dry rattle resounds from within the helm, the sound of distant avalanches. She is laughing—most likely. “Mightier and wealthier than you have ever dreamed of. I’m no demon: like you I’m merely a woman. Yes or no? Quickly, before I expire at last.”

Another minute before I say, “Yes. Left or right? Will you need a death rite?”

“Either. I will need none.”

The gauntlet comes off with surprising ease, parting from the thick fabric she wears underneath. From what I can tell her arm is uninjured. She must have hung onto this particular final wish with all her remaining might, for once I’ve loosened the gauntlet she draws air in a shuddering gasp and falls still. Her grip slackens. I check her pulse. Gone. However powerful in life, however impressive, in the end the maze makes mortal meat of them all.

Near the maze, nothing grows. No one makes their home here, and it is a full day’s walk before I see any hint of human habitation. What settlement exists at all does so to supply the passing army, and to commodify the goods that emerge from it. The labyrinth breeds unique chimerae whose meat, it is said, is prized in glittering cities—rare delicacies that, prepared right, allegedly preserve and extend youth. Its trees seep sap that hardens into amber with the luster and colors of fire opals. On and on it goes, the list of stunning luxuries and gorgeous impossibilities.

I show the gate-guards my pass. They examine it through their sunray mask, the spokes of which are meant to represent the tenets of some divinity, not that the settlement can be called religious. They let me through.

Tumirah Outpost is transient—it is newly established, less than five years old—but nothing about it looks ramshackle, and the militia that guards it is better fortified than many cities’. There’s no telling what passing army might decide to ransack Tumirah rather than pay for its niceties, the accommodation and food and supplies. I pay a visit to my friend the blacksmith and hand her the weapons to appraise—Odru is more honest than most. She whistles when she unsheathes the long blade, turning its dark serrated length in the light. “Very good,” she says, “I couldn’t make better—actually I’m envious. This is probably ensorcelled; there’s this odd groove here in the guard. Incredible steel; breathtaking craftsmanship.”

“What about this?”

Odru puts on gloves before handling the gauntlet. “Potent,” she says, after a long appraisal. “More than that I can’t tell. You’d need to hire a proper practitioner. And they’re all hired out at the moment—you’ve heard of Warlord Mardat Ashurri?”

“The who?” I say, lightly, though of course I’ve heard of her. The woman who cleaves mountains, the blade that sunders empires. The Garuda Legion has a less flattering nickname, the Abattoir Army, though that is never uttered to its officers’ faces. “Can I rent one of your rooms again? The same rate as usual?”

“The same.” She waves her hand. “I should charge you extra; everything in Tumirah’s getting more expensive, but you bring me interesting things to look at. Pantry and bathroom are stocked—help yourself.”

She must be doing brisk business: there are new furnishings in her quarters above the shop, enameled vases and batik wall-scrolls, and in the room she rents out there is a silk gown carelessly thrown over a chair. That might belong to one of her lovers; even in a place as small as Tumirah Outpost, she has several. Some itinerant, some not. I’ve long admired the blacksmith’s strength that expresses in the lines of her arms, the sheened muscles of her stomach, but I have never worked up the courage. Ours is an odd sort of friendship, and I don’t want to test its elasticity.

I avail myself of her bath, then the bowl of jasmine water Odru leaves for her guests, fragrant and cold as it goes down my throat. She has the fine manners of someone bred to a life much more genteel than the forge and the anvil, but she’s never brought it up and I’ve never pressed. I leave the rest of my haul by the bed. An old habit from when I need to sleep rough and what I scavenge is vulnerable to thieves.

The day has been long, and I’ve spent most of it on my feet. The mattress here is firm and the sheets clean, scented faintly with soap. Sleep comes easily, dreamless.

I wake to agony.

Pain crushes me in its grip: every one of my nerve-endings is immolated, every muscle burns. I clutch the bedframe, my breath escaping through my teeth in small hisses. Another wave wracks through me and all thought extinguishes. I might have screamed or might have been beyond it.

By the time it ends, I’m on the floor, boards and rugs cool against my skin. I sip at the air, experimental. Dull aches in my back, hips, legs; a sharper twinge in my temples. But the attack has receded. Little by little I get up, my bones creaking. Something is different—my left arm is heavy and, looking down, I discover the gauntlet. The metal of it is icy against my fingers, my bare wrist. There is no possibility I put it on in my sleep. That has never been one of my ailments.

When I took the piece from that soldier, it felt much larger; it would never have stayed put on my arm, being too loose a fit. Now it is as snug as a tailored glove.

Another discovery: my clothes no longer go on. My jacket is far too narrow around the shoulders and the chest. My trousers are unmanageable altogether, too short at the legs and impossible at the hip and waist. Terror rises like a slow tide. I know—or think I do—what I will see, but as in a nightmare I turn to the tall mirror in the room’s corner.

What looks back is someone else.

A woman who must be more than two meters tall, built like a tree trunk: Odru is broad but she would look slight and tender next to this physique of hard planes and coiled might. Complexion close to my own but finer-grained, like spun agates. The face is older, early forties perhaps, with dagger cheekbones and a scimitar jawline. Handsome, absurdly so. Almost certainly the face of the corpse I robbed. I tug at the gauntlet, but I may as well be tugging on metal welded to skin.

“Fuck,” I say, to no result. So this is what the dying soldier meant: wealth, power, concubines. At the cost of wearing another’s skin—hers.

I raid the guest wardrobe, producing trousers and a shirt that would have been shapelessly baggy on me, but which just about fit now, albeit tight across the breasts and shoulders. Distantly I wonder if the corpse has taken on my form, an equal exchange. Probably not.

Odru would know who to consult, which alchemist or witch to hire to unravel this curse. But when I come down she’s nowhere to be found, and I remember her mentioning that she would be out today, to negotiate with a new client staying at an upscale teahouse. That place is across the town. A stray, mad thought strikes me, of amputating my left arm. I take a deep breath.

Someone bangs on the door. “Open, in the name of the Garuda Legion!”

There is no point sacrificing Odru’s perfectly fine door to my foolishness. I hurry to unlock it. Outside stand two people who could not be more unalike: a petite androgyne who looks like a noble who’s come out here for a taste of exotic excitement, all sable coat and lynx fur. The other is a whip-like woman in dark armor, her mouth thin and severe, her eyelids tinted like forest shade dappled in sunset. Very tall and very trim, as though she has been created by a god with a zeal for economy. Though shorter than I am—shorter than the dead soldier.

Both of them take one look at me, exchange glances. Then the tall woman says, “You’re coming with us.”

“I can explain—”

It is the wrong thing to say. The woman kicks my legs out from under me. A knife, shaped like a shark’s tooth, has appeared in her hand and its tip is poised to enter my jugular as she straddles me. “Who the fuck are you and why have you assumed my lord’s form? Where is she, you insect?”

There is something about a knifepoint at the throat that brings total clarity. My sight narrows down to it, the glint of metal. “I found her at the edge of the labyrinth. She was dying. She asked me to take her gauntlet.” I try to talk without letting my throat move, which is impossible. Each syllable I make seems to bring me closer to the point where steel breaks skin and arterial venting begins. “The next thing I know, I’m wearing this and I—I turned into a stranger.”

“Did you now.” Without lifting her knife, she pulls on the piece of armor while I lie still and try not to provoke her, and has no better success than I did. “You’re saying Warlord Mardat Ashurri is dead and you just happened to—did she ask you to take her weapons too?”

Meaning the sack of belongings that have rolled open on the ground. I open my mouth to speak, to protest and beg for mercy. What comes out instead is, “Zuruva, first of my wives, stay your wrath. I am here.”

When the warlord speaks through me, her accent is rich, as though laced with liquor: it becomes evident that I could never have fooled either Zuruva or Nayuree, two of Mardat’s great council of consorts—she has six to ten, depending on the season, evidence of a supreme appetite. Some are officers in the Legion, others are not, and not all of them travel with her. Nayuree is a scryer and officially holds no rank; Zuruva is the warlord’s second in command.

The warlord, who explains this to Zuruva and Nayuree, as I listen on dumbstruck. She has no control of anything else save my voice and the gauntleted hand, but her speech does emerge from my throat. Her throat. “I can be awake for only so long in a day, and when I’m dormant I won’t be able to hear or see the world at all,” Mardat says, through my mouth. “The gauntlet preserves my soul by a thread, and until we gain the labyrinth’s heart I am at risk of true death. I’ll give marching orders as much as I can, but for the moment you’ll require this woman—” The gauntleted hand points inward, at me. “As figurehead. Morale’s not going to survive news of my demise. And incidentally, my greedy friend, no matter what you do the gauntlet will not come off.”

It is the first time I’ve been judged by my own mouth, and found wanting besides. “You tricked me,” I say, pointlessly.

“Of course I tricked you. What would you expect of a dying woman?” The gauntlet pulsates against my forearm. A cold metal heart, worn like a sleeve. “Nevertheless it was not entirely a false promise. Zuruva, Nayuree, let us continue this in our camp. She will come with you, or you can cut off her arm and find me a more willing vessel.”

The Garuda Legion has set up camp around the governor’s mansion, pavilions budding across the grounds like strange fruits: I can’t imagine what they threatened or bribed the governor with, xe usually being so fierce on Tumirah’s independence and neutrality. Soldiers give obeisance as we pass through, saluting, kneeling, or throwing themselves prone on the ground according to their station. From my height—and it is a considerable height—it feels heady, even though I know either of the consorts might kill me any moment. To have so much power, to wield it with ease over some two hundred troops. Apparently this is merely a single division of the greater Legion. Mardat Ashurri nominally serves an emprex to the east, but in practical terms she does what she wants. Including cheating death.

Nayuree leads the way to the largest pavilion. Ey shuts the flaps and ignites a lamp with a snap of eir fingers. It is spacious, the walls lined in scrolls: batik, mulberry paper, bleached leather. A desk, a chair, both of blackwood lacquered to a sheen. The bed takes up nearly a third of this space, wide enough to accommodate three, its thick mattress draped in taupe sheets.

“Paper and ink,” Mardat commands, and Zuruva supplies.

The warlord turns her attention to writing down instructions for her spouses. It’s a strange, unnatural experience to see my own arm moving on its own, detached from my volition. I’m not left-handed, but that evidently presents no difficulty, as if even the muscle memory of this body belongs to Mardat. Zuruva is no longer holding a knife to my throat, though I have the clear impression she will not hesitate to injure me, as long as she can confirm the pain will not transmit to Mardat. Nayuree, on eir part, bends close to Mardat’s handwriting and speech alike. Ey transcribes what Mardat is not writing down.

This awkward dialogue goes on for what feels like hours before the warlord says she needs to retreat. The gauntlet goes still; Nayuree catches the pen before it can roll over. For a minute, silence. Both the warlord’s consorts turn as one to stare at me, trying to reconcile the face they know with the mind they don’t. On my part I’m calculating, putting survival on one side of the equation, the actions I must take or bear on the other.

“I’m not,” Nayuree says, imperious, “calling this woman my lord. So what is your name, carrion feeder?”

“Sayida,” I say without thinking, and curse myself immediately. Not that there is much they can do with my name and I have no kin that I know of. A cold blessing, orphanages. “The warlord mentioned the labyrinth’s heart—if she obtains that, she’d be restored? You could let me go then.”

The two consorts exchange a look. Zuruva makes a small dismissive gesture. “Most likely. Until then we’ll feed and clothe you, but you’re not to speak to the troops without one of us present. And your comportment is terrible. We must make you fit for the part.”

“Are you,” I say very carefully, “planning to kill me at any point?”

“No,” says Zuruva.

“Not yet,” says Nayuree, almost simultaneously.

They help me into the warlord’s armor, which isn’t as heavy as it looks, though the helm sits uncomfortably on me: from the outside it looks seamless, a blank, faceless mask whose smoothness makes little accommodation for human features. After Zuruva’s coaching, I can recite a few phrases in an approximation of Mardat’s accent. The helm masks the disparity. Zuruva does note, grudgingly, that I learn fast then asks how many languages I speak. When I admit to five spoken and four written, she looks startled, as though she was expecting me to say I’m illiterate. Nayuree writes me a script. Both of them make me rehearse the commands for decamping and relocating to the maze’s edges.

Despite everything—the mask helps—I manage the performance without event. There’s something of the stage to it, though with much higher stakes than displeased audiences and poor reviews.

Once the night grows late, Zuruva herds me back to the pavilion; she and Nayuree have come to an agreement that I’m not allowed to be alone, in case I attempt egress. She ties the flaps shut and runs her hand over them; the material seals, as seamless as ceramic. “Don’t get any ideas,” she says. “You can’t cut through the wall and while I’m here, don’t expect any of this to unseal. Now strip.”

I stare at her. “What for, Lieutenant?”

“You’re getting the hang of her pronunciation. You’re a natural mimic; interesting.” She tilts her head at the filled basin in the pavilion’s center and begins to disrobe herself. “Clean up, then rest. I want you physically prepared. We march in seven hours.”

This is easier said than done: Zuruva is unself-conscious in nudity, and though I’ve been too preoccupied—and fearful for my life—I haven’t failed to register that she is elegantly made, in or out of her armor. Clothed or unclothed. Sharp precise lines, as though she’s been sculpted from marble; she is much paler than I am and in this light she is luminous. I keep my back turned to her as I wipe myself with the washcloth, but she makes an impatient noise and spins me around. She stands on tiptoes and roughly scrubs my stomach.

“Tell me,” she says as she works, “has it come to your notice that you occupy a form that’s exceptionally pleasing?”

“I—well, yes. The warlord is very…” I keep my gaze on the washbasin and try to pretend a beautiful woman isn’t lathering up my breasts with soap. Her fingers are long and rough; desire makes a desert of my mouth. “It does feel—peculiar…”

“Ah, peculiar, that’s one way of putting it. My lord is not in there, at this moment?”

The gauntlet is inert. “I don’t think so.”

She dips the washcloth in the basin, wrings it over me, and wipes me clean. “A shame. Come, let’s get into bed.”

I do, dressed. She follows, crawling under the thick furs with me, still nude. Her arms come around me and her body curves around mine, bare breasts against my clothed back. I shut my eyes and try to ignore Zuruva’s skin, the faint hint of osmanthus she wears. She is very warm. We have only just met and she held me at knifepoint. But I do not always think with my cerebral parts.

Zuruva is slowly kneading my breast, cupping it, playing with its tip. I consider pretending to be asleep but that is impossible when she’s nipping at my ear. I locate enough coherence to say, “I’m not Mardat.”

“But you have her shape, and what a stunning shape it is, I can tell no difference. The sheer breadth of her—the potency, the strength. I’ve courted many beauties in my time, but none compare to her. None ignites me as she does.” Her hand strokes down my hip. “So tell me, now that you’re in this body, would you like to put it to novel use? See how it feels, to not only have the peerless form of Mardat Ashurri but to enjoy the favors of her wife?”

Wealth, power, concubines, Mardat promised. Absurd, and yet here it is. It has been a while since I lay with anyone, let alone a woman like Zuruva. “Yes. If it pleases you, Lieutenant.”

She gives a small, throaty laugh. “On your back.”

I obey. She pushes my arms over my head and ties my wrists with a scarf, pulling it into a tight, secure knot. Then she draws back, her muscled legs straddling my waist. “What,” she says, licking across my collarbone, “will you let me do to you?”

“Nothing that bleeds—” I gasp: she’s fastened her mouth to my nipple, and perhaps it is a residue of the sorcerous agony that transformed my shape into Mardat’s. My skin is alight and tender, nerve-endings rousing quick to Zuruva’s touch.

Her ministrations are firm and expert, and she takes to my body as though it is her favorite dessert: hers is a mouth which devours, and her hunger leaves marks. I shudder and make little sounds as her teeth graze and press—there will be bruises. But, as I have asked, no blood. Yet in that moment I might have let her do anything. By the time she draws something from a compartment in the bed I am feverish, and when she clinches it to her waist, my breath catches. She leans down to take my mouth as her knee parts mine, the hard length of what she wears nudging me, about to take me in quite a different way.

“Yes?” she murmurs.

“Yes.” It comes out hoarse and I think, is this what she does with the warlord, is Mardat the one who lies bound and open. The question dissipates when Zuruva guides the prosthetic inside me with smooth ease. It is cool, angled just right—I rise to meet it, to meet her. Our noises mingle; the bed creaks.

Morning sees me sore, my skin imprinted by Zuruva’s teeth. A few of them are visible when Nayuree comes into the pavilion and ey raises eir eyebrow. “I’m a woman of appetite,” Zuruva says with a shrug.

“Greedy,” ey retorts, though with no real venom.

 [ Warlord, © 2020 Pear Nuallak ] I’m shown my mount, a metalwork chimera with the long body of a horse and the face of an eagle. It neither tires nor needs to be fed, and we make good time.

The maze comes into view. I have seen it, many times, but never at the head of an army: that weighs differently, the hoofbeats behind me, the harmonics of steel like a talisman. The Legion has already made progress, carved a path open with fire and metal. Where they have scourged, the labyrinth does not grow back. A straight line of dead appendages and burnt maze-skin.

We meet the rotation of sorcerers tasked with burning the maze. They do it in shifts, timing and pacing themselves so none would tire out and all would keep up with the labyrinth’s efforts to renew and regenerate. Soldiers keep watch, on alert for maze-spawn: a tidy line of swords and crossbows, loaded and ready. It is methodical, a well-oiled machine, and again I wonder how Mardat met her fate. Why she was alone when she fell prey to the labyrinth.

Whatever the case, Nayuree and Zuruva must both know something, but neither will reveal it to me: deem me, likely, beneath such disclosure. And they have shown little shock or grief at learning Mardat fell. Maybe they have complete faith in the warlord’s ability to restore herself, maybe something else.

The sun rises and sets twice over the sorcerers pressing forward and the soldiers sniping down glittering swarms or scything down fleshy, succulent homunculi. I thought I knew this grotesquerie, observing from the outside and scavenging what it’s spat out, but witnessing it from within is something else again. There is an endless variety, monsters with beast and human parts, monsters whose components are neither: the offspring of a maze’s febrile dreams.

On the third night, Nayuree bursts into our tent. “We have a problem.”

We put on our arms and armor, Zuruva faster than me, and make our way to the sorcerers’ perimeter. There we find one of the hex-wives on the ground, impaled on a javelin, and one of the shamans close by, weeping. Zuruva wrings the story out of them: there was a fight, and by the time they were discovered the shaman was insisting that ey had driven eir javelin into a maze-beast. To corroborate—or muddy—the fact, several soldiers report that they saw two labyrinth spawn locked in combat.

The hex-wife and shaman are replaced. The vigil goes on, though they are not holding the line so firmly now: Mardat’s apparent presence or not, morale has dropped. Or perhaps I’m not sufficiently inspiring. “An illusion?” I say in a low voice, once we’re out of the troops’ earshot. “Does the maze do that?”

“The maze is a wily beast.” Nayuree frowns, peering into the distance as though to discern its next trick. “We don’t have enough sorcerers to stand double watch and make a failsafe for this—we’re stretched thin as is. Zuruva?”

The lieutenant crosses her arms. “We’re not turning back. By my estimation if we make every sorcerer bend their powers to the task, we should be able to penetrate the labyrinth’s heart within the day.”

There is a distinct flaw that even I, unused to the logistics of hostile terrain, can immediately spot. “But the way out?”

“By then our lord will be with us,” Zuruva says placidly, “and the problem shall resolve itself. Don’t fret about it.”

Mardat’s consorts may have inexhaustible faith in her; I do not. They may keep me under watch day and night, but they are only people and must slip up eventually, especially in circumstances like this. The fact of Mardat’s shape may be inescapable, but a way out must exist. The Garuda Legion may be used to trampling down empires and eviscerating countries, yet I am not another map they can redraw.

In the middle of one night I wake up to the gauntlet speaking to Nayuree. Zuruva is asleep on the bed’s other side. I catch very little of Mardat’s speech, it is as though my eyes and ears have been swaddled in gauze.

Something terrible will happen at the maze’s center: I will be discarded like a husk.

The sorcerers are marshaled by greed—like I was—though some have run away during the night, including the shaman who was led astray. For a few, no amount of riches suffices; for the rest, they are willing to risk all. To entice them further, Nayuree distributes part of their pay upfront, in coins and strings of jewelry. Jewelry—it will not help them survive or armor them against maze-spawn; nevertheless they line up for it, curl it around their wrists and throats as though they might serve any use in this forsaken beast-place. How they dream of an after. I dream of much less: the path behind us has already closed, the maze healing itself.

At the front, I ride as figurehead, Nayuree and Zuruva flanking me on their own metalwork mounts. For the moment Mardat is dormant and my mouth, my voice, remains my own: she must have exhausted herself with those secret conferences while I slept. I wonder what they’d do if I shout to the hired help and reveal that they’re being led to their deaths. Probably I won’t get even that many words out. I try to think of the future but that peters out quickly. My body, most likely, will become Mardat’s entire—I’ll either perish within my own flesh, be forced out as a rootless ghost, or I’ll always be conscious as she makes a puppet of me.

“Doesn’t it bother you?” I ask as we make our way, my voice low so the troops behind us will not hear.

“Doesn’t what bother us?” This from Nayuree. Ey spins a loop of silver light between eir fingers.

“I’ve done nothing to you and yours. I understand vindictiveness. I understand malice. But to do to me as you’ve—”

Zuruva makes a little huff. “I didn’t realize I was that poor in bed.”

“I don’t think that’s what she means,” Nayuree says blandly. The light whirls faster. “There’s no need to be a child about it, Sayida. No harm will come to you. You must think us such monsters. Keep your eyes ahead, please, we have a ways to go yet.”

It is not informative. No harm will come to you may well be true, insofar as they mean my body—which no doubt their warlord needs. But before I can further protest, or begin to formulate an escape, the maze’s walls thin and its heart comes into view. Or at least it seems to be the heart, a mound of matter that breathes and pushes in slow rhythm. Red sap oozes from its whorled folds, and there is a constant buzz—a hundred wasps in frantic concert—that emits from it even though nothing in the area could have made such a noise. Within this mass there is a small sliver of opening, though I can’t see anything inside.

Zuruva calls the march to a halt. She dismounts, and for half a second I think this is my chance, but then Nayuree takes hold of my elbow. The silvery light pours down my flank, curling around my ankles. “Come, my lord,” ey says brightly. “We are here.”

I firm my jaw, tighten my mouth, and follow the two of them.

I’d thought the labyrinth’s center would be the belly of the beast, furnace-hot and grotesque, reeking of butchery. Instead it is cool, almost bitterly so, and smells of damp and soil. The buzz recedes behind us and the ground slopes. Nayuree and Zuruva exchange glances as we descend, their expressions taut with unsaid things. It occurs to me that this is a goal they’ve been pursuing for some time—years, a decade, more? The realization of a long-time wish. Theirs, or Mardat’s? Most likely hers.

No maze-spawn impedes us. The way in is uneventful, even if the ground seethes with twitching ligaments, and piscine eyes sometimes blink open in the walls to watch us.

The path widens into an uneven chamber. At the center of it stands a single low slab. On this slab lies a young woman, blanched and thin to the point of cadaverous. In life she must have been breathtaking and vital, her bare arms corded with muscles, her calves like a runner’s. Russet cloth drapes her, covering her midsection and thighs. She looks arranged, as a corpse does under the attentions of a painter or a mortician. She couldn’t have been older than fifteen when she died.

The gauntlet burns against my skin. Mardat, through my mouth: “She’s here. She’s still here.”

“My lord.” Zuruva closes her fingers on the gauntlet. “Yes.”

Nayuree has drawn something out of the air, strands of radiance like cloth of gold. Ey spreads it, twists it, weaving it into the outline of a person. “I still think there’s another way, we could find it, we could marshal greater workers of miracles and seers and mathematicians. We could level this place. You don’t have to do this.”

“The curse is a hungry thing.” The warlord’s voice is soft. “A life for a life. We’ve deliberated over this for so long. We’ve looked for every way, broken open a hundred libraries, drawn out the entrails of a thousand prophets to get at the truth. Now is the time. Sayida, step close and put the gauntlet in Nayuree’s effigy. All of it.”

The outline has grown nearly solid, brilliant, like sunlight forced into shape. A window that looks out from the reality of the cave’s darkness, its illumination spilling liquid, incandescent.

“No,” I say. My throat is clogged. “I don’t think so.”

“I promised you power, wealth, women. Despite everything I do keep my word. Do this and what you have on loan will be yours in truth. Forever, or for as long as you can keep this body in good health.”

“My lord,” Nayuree starts.

“It’s the best out of a hundred worse possibilities. A preservation of my likeness must do.” Mardat’s gauntlet twitches, as if it longs to leap free of my arm. “Go on, Sayida. It’s not every day a woman of little means has the chance to best the Garuda Legion’s commander.”

And then I understand: a life for a life, but not mine.

When I plunge the gauntlet into the effigy of sun-gleam, I think it would be like plunging steel into fire. But there’s hardly any sensation at all as the gauntlet slips loose. For a moment it hovers within all that light, and then the outline becomes something else—a figure my height, or rather the height of my borrowed form. Broadening shoulders, arms thickening into the muscles honed through years of war-making, legs like tree trunks. The creature glides to the woman on the slab and lifts her as though she weighs nothing, and turns her over to Zuruva’s arms.

It takes me half a minute to realize Zuruva is crying. Nayuree is more stoic, tight-lipped, but eir eyes are hard and bright. The golden figure—what is left of Mardat—takes the woman’s place on the slab. Almost at once the cave’s floor shifts, as in an earthquake, and the maze’s cilia snake out from the walls. They race toward Mardat, sinking into her and taking root. A mouth forms within the gold and she says, one final word, “Go.”

There is no catastrophic fulmination. The cave does not crumble. We leave at our own pace, in reverse katabasis. In Zuruva’s arms, the young woman begins to breathe.

The young woman’s name is Imseret Ashurri, Mardat’s protégé and adopted daughter, lost to the labyrinth ten years ago. The one she has designated to succeed her, should she fall. The one whose image lured her from the safety of her camp and her troops, the maze extending its trap to kill Mardat’s body. But the warlord never acted without failsafes.

Imseret’s first words to me are furious: “You are not Mardat.”

The gauntlet is gone but Mardat’s body and face remain mine—her promise is kept, in the end. When we left, the maze parted before us and everyone, even the hired help, made it out unscathed. After that the maze folded in on itself, walls of earth and stone and tissue collapsing inward. It is sealed, now, and no more treasure-hunters or sorcerers hungry for experiments may approach or penetrate it. For the moment or forever, I can’t tell which, though I can tell from Imseret’s eyes that one day she will pierce it, eradicate the curse entire, and bring back her adopted mother. No trading this time. She will have both her life and the warlord’s, clad in brilliance, and nothing less.

“I’m not Mardat,” I agree. “There’s not much I can do about that.”

Imseret was sixteen when the labyrinth took her; her time stopped in the interim. She has nightmares but she will not tell me what about. I’m not sure she even tells Zuruva or Nayuree, who call themselves her aunts. Already they’re discussing that once Imseret has recovered they will start looking for good matches, so she may begin to form her own council of consorts.

We move out of the maze, away from Tumirah Outpost, a great procession of metalwork mounts, javelins, swords, shields. From the outside, the Garuda Legion is the same as ever, an unassailable vector of martial might. I do not have time—and Zuruva and Nayuree will not let me—to stop by and bid Odru goodbye; to explain. As we turn toward the legion’s home in the east I think, again, of leaving. The warlord’s wives will not be vigilant forever. Even they will slip up, falter, fall asleep. But something keeps me here. Is it obligation? Not precisely. There’s a fire in Imseret’s eyes that I want, despite myself, to nurture. I owe Mardat nothing, but the young woman is an orphan, and she deserves—what? The security I can provide by looking like Mardat, and therefore I will maintain the Garuda’s invulnerability.

I was a child freshly bereft, once. It is a remote sort of common ground and one Imseret will hate hearing about.

(It does not escape me that I may have been ensorcelled to think this, that Mardat left a parting curse, a final contingency plan. But I believe—wish to believe—that this is all me, that I’ve been moved not by any spell but by the act of sacrifice, the totality of what Mardat did.)

“I’m staying,” I tell Zuruva one night after she’s ridden and bruised me and made lightning course through my blood: maybe that is it, Zuruva being the chain and Mardat’s ghost the post to which I am fettered, more than my altruism or fellow-feeling toward another orphan. Or it is everything. The heart is a complex machine.

She blinks down at me, a drop of her sweat running down my cheek. “Good,” she says and bends to bite my throat, and then goes on to prove once more that those Mardat chose for wives are in possession of preternatural stamina. She doesn’t ask my reasons. Maybe she’s not interested, maybe she already understands the answer is nebulous, and we must all make our own exegesis of the world.

I will return to Tumirah someday and tell Odru this incredible story. But for now I have an army to lead, even if it is not in my own name, and a young woman to shield who will one day move the world and burn down empires to get what she wants. For in the end the warlord held up her end of the bargain, and if it is not wealth or women that keep me here, then it is a sense of purpose. A day will come when I leave, when I tire of being another woman’s image, when I tire of striving in work that has never been my inclination—when I want more than this, when I desire the freedom of my former life, when the matters of empire-cleaving and mountain-shattering no longer carry me forward like a tide.

Until then.

© 2020 Benjanun Sriduangkaew

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