Bright Smoke, Cold Fire (Untitled #1)

by Rosamund Hodge

Such Sweet Sorrow

IF HE DOES NOT COME soon, she may not have the heart to kill him.

For an hour now, she has sat at the foot of her bed, gripping her sword in its crimson scabbard. Over and over she whispers, I am the sword of the Catresou. I was born to avenge the blood of my people.

But her traitor throat aches and her coward eyes sting. Once upon a time, she believed she was only a sword. Now she fears she is only a girl.

She hopes he will come soon. She hopes he will never come.

The casement swings open.

She stands. Her numb hands draw the sword and let the scabbard drop.

His dark eyes are wide as he climbs through the window, but there is no surprise in them when she greets him with the point of her blade, held to his throat.

He looks strangely small. Just a boy, with messy black hair and a sweet laugh she will never hear again.

Her only love, and now her only hate.

“I see you,” she says, speaking the ancient words for the first time, “and I judge you guilty.”

He sighs, and the corner of his mouth tips up just a little. “I know,” he says, and he kneels and bares his neck.

She can smell the blood on him. He is clean: he took the trouble to bathe before coming here to die. But he spilled the lifeblood of her kin, and she can smell that guilt upon him—she can almost taste it. Her body shakes with the desire to kill him for it.

She wants him to fight. She wants him to beg. To flee, to threaten, or persuade.

Ever since she met him, she has most terribly wanted.

“Look up at me,” she demands, and he does, his gaze as simple and sure as the night she fell in love with him.

“Why did you come?” she whispers. “You knew what I would do. You know what I must do.”

He swallows; she sees the muscles move in his throat, and she thinks of the blood pulsing just below the skin. He is a fragile, perfect balance of breath and heartbeat, skin and bones and blood. A little world entire, most beautifully made—he was her world, and now she is going to destroy him.

“‘Journeys end in lovers meeting.’” She says the words flatly, without tune, but they both remember the sun-drenched afternoon when he sang them to her. “‘Every wise man’s son doth know.’ Why did you come back?”

“Because I’m sorry,” he says hoarsely. “Because I know you loved him. You deserve to avenge him.”

Not because it is her duty. Not because vengeance is written on her skin and the spells that wrote it compel her to obey.

Because she loved her cousin. Because he ruffled her hair and comforted her when she was a little child. Because he is dead and cold now, in a vault beneath their house, his arms sliced open as the embalmers do their work.

And yet even he, her most beloved cousin, never wondered if she wanted to avenge or not.

Nobody ever wondered. Nobody until this boy who kneels before her now.

Slowly she kneels so they are eye to eye, and she lays the sword upon the floor.

“I see you.” Her fingertips trace his cheek; her voice is tiny and soft. “I judge you guilty. But you belong to me now. So all your sins are mine.”

She slides her fingers into his dark hair and kisses him, kisses her dearest sin, again and again. Her heart pounds with the desire to kill him, to wreck and ruin and revenge, but she only clutches him closer, kisses him more fiercely, and his arms wrap around her as he kisses her back.

She will not be the one who kills him.

She will give everything else to her family, to her duty, to the adjuration written on her skin.

But she will not give them this.


THE WALLS THAT KEPT OUT death could drive you mad.

That was the story Runajo had heard, whispered among the other novices: sometimes, when a Sister of Thorn climbed the central tower of the Cloister to inspect the wall of magic that guarded the city, she would go mad and throw herself down. The other novices liked to giggle about it as they sat up late at night in the dormitory, but not one of them ever went up the tower by choice.

Runajo had volunteered for the duty sixteen times.

Some of the novices thought she was already mad. A few probably thought she was brave. Runajo knew she was neither. She just wasn’t fooling herself, like everyone else in the city: she knew they were all dying, no matter what they did.

The daily inspection started at dawn. It took nearly half an hour to climb the narrow stairs of the tower; despite the early-morning chill, Runajo was sweating when she finally reached the top. She flung open the trapdoor, heaved herself up, and collapsed to the white floor. For a few moments, she did nothing but gasp for breath.

The wind stirred against her face. She heard a soft rustle and looked up.

There was no wall around the rim of the tower’s roof; but there were narrow steel posts, and strung between them, cord after cord of scarlet silk, every inch hung with the slender white finger-bones of those who had been sacrificed to give the wall its power. Each skeleton finger was complete, the bones hung with thread so they could flex in the morning breeze.

Memory clutched at her throat: her mother’s fingers, thin and pale as she wasted away with sickness. When Mother died, one of her hands had rested on the coverlet, and Runajo had seen the last color drain from the knobby joints.

A proper daughter would have gazed at her mother’s dead face and wept. All night as she sat vigil, Runajo had stared at the bony, bone-white fingers and felt nothing at all.

Well, she thought, if you didn’t have a stone in place of a heart, you might not do so well up here.

She stood.

If Sisters went mad at the top of the tower, it wasn’t the wall that did it, but the world: so vast, and yet so very small.

Runajo wasn’t scared of heights, but it was still a little dizzying to look down to the red-and-white domes of the Cloister. Down the steep slope to the white buildings and twisting roads of the Upper City that clung to the sides of the vast, rocky spike. Down to the grimy mess of the Lower City that tangled on the ground of the island around the base of the city spire; and the water around their island shimmering silver in the early-morning light.

This was Viyara, the last city left alive in the whole world. It was the whole world.

Because very close to the far shore was a barely visible line in the water: the line where the walls of Viyara—the translucent, dearly bought dome—ended.

And outside the walls was death.

The wind must have been blowing all night, for the white fog of the Ruining had drawn back from the far shore. Runajo could see pale beaches and rocky cliffs. She could see the green of moss and the spreading branches of trees—the Ruining was deadly only to humans. She could even see the peaks of the mountains, rising out of the fog that swirled around their slopes.