Your briny tears crash
Against all shores
While Zeus's wedding bells
Ring in Poseidon's reign.
This brash usurper of
Great kingdoms writ in coral.
Fish swear him fealty
In scaly ceremonies
And he is King.
You are nothing.
The memory of surf
Breaking on weed-draped stone.
Rushing in and out like tidewater
Across the sweep of the sand.
THE MOTH'S DAUGHTER
“The dead will come up from the sea,” she says to the waves of the Grand Ocean, though they pay her no mind. “He will be in three parts, for so was his body cast down to the depths, and when the three are made one he will reign for a year and a day before his death and the end of this world.” It is an old poem, as old as her order. She sits alone on the sweep of the Maturi coast while the waves roll over the sand, foaming white before they are dragged hissing back into the oneness that is their birth, their death, the sum of them all. She is sixteen, perhaps a little older, pale like a consumptive with dark hair that pools around her where she sits. Her lips are bloodless, her delicate nose tinged with the faintest suggestion of branching veins, blue beneath her cream-colored skin. Her eyes are a soft yellow like spring daffodils in bloom. Shells rattle in the surf, the ocean's bones. Behind her lie the salt marshes of the coast, and beyond them pine forests creaking in the cold brine-smelling breeze. A hundred yards from shore a pair of elasmosaurs sun themselves on a sandbar, serpentine necks swaying as they voice their mournful songs.
To the west lies the long, dirty-brown smudge of the Bridge of Sand, one of the indestructible Great Ways that link the remaining continents to one another. The bridge is far distant, near to the mouth of the Bay of Laughing Swine where Tsang, the capital, sprawls like a drunk along the coast. She can see the city's smoke upon the air, if she squints.
The men of the Daimyo de Ponsier's army come for the girl along an old chalk road that cuts through the forest and the salt marshes with their witchgrass and their eels to the broad expanse of the sandy beach. They are proud men, obviously wealthy in their fine powdered wigs and lacquered bamboo armor, their katana sheathed across their knees in scabbards of aged teak. Their galluses, lean beasts bread to the hunt and the clangor of war, are barded in fine silks. Their gilt-sheathed claws click against the pebbles of the beach as they approach the seated girl. Most halt. One moves forward, bearing its fat rider, too fat for armor, down toward the streaming edge of the tide. Clouds fly across the vaulting of the sky, threatening rain like belligerent teamsters promising a strike.
“I bear a message from my master,” says the fat man, not bothering to wai, to bow his head and press his palms together in acknowledgment of the supremacy of the Three Gods. His skin is sallow, his robes of heavy silk strained by his bulk. Beneath him his mount pants, its flanks dripping foam. He tosses a scroll case and it hits the sand before the girl and sticks there.
The girl ignores the cylinder. “I am not a whore,” she says, still staring at the ocean. “Nor am I some eunuch scribe. I do not read. Tell me what Marian Daimyo has to say to me, or I will leave and not return.”
One of the elasmosaurs heaves itself from the sandbar and vanishes without a splash beneath the waves. Ripples spread from the point of its disappearance. The other remains, still singing at the afternoon sun. On his gallus the fat man pushes back his wig, revealing a stubbled, sweating scalp, and mops at his brow with a handkerchief. “You dare much,” he says, “alchemist.”
“I dare nothing,” she answers him. Her slim, pale fingers draw lines in the sand.
The fat man swallows. “I am sieur Reginald of Ten Thousand Oaks,” he says, chins wobbling as he speaks. “In my capacity as a vassal to the Daimyo de Ponsier of Laughing Water I-”
The girl's lips curl upward in a faint smile. “You are no knight. You have no shul. No honor.”
Sieur Reginald swallows again. He forges ahead, sweating more than ever. His men watch him from the road's end. “My lord has acquiesced to your request,” he says. “He has met the price you ask of him. Will you now deliver your end of the bargain?”
The girl stands, her saffron robes shedding sand and salt as she turns to look up at the fat knight with her pale yellow eyes. Her hair blows in the wind. Bells sewn along the hem of her long sleeves jingle. “Yes,” she says. “Resplendent Orchid will burn. Daimyo de Scorier and his line will be expunged from the records of the three temples.”
“My lord will be most pleased to hear it,” says sieur Reginald. He adjusts his wig again, plump hands fluttering about the powdered ringlets. “When-”
“By Ironday,” says the girl.
A nervous smile touches the fat knight's lips, dimpling his cheeks. “They don't call you Lucrece the Knife for nothing,” he says. “de Scorier will never know what-”
“Only fools make light of death,” says the girl named Lucrece, who men call the Knife. “The temples do not play favorites.” The bells on her sleeves jingle as she makes a shallow wai to the fat man, to the false knight. “The sea moves as the Three will.”
“May they smile on our endeavor,” says sieur Reginald uneasily. He wais, skirting disrespect with the degree of his bow, and heels his tiring mount back toward his men. Lucrece watches him go. She binds her hair up in a tight black knot as he joins his men and they turn back down the forest road, their galluses quickening to a run. The thunder of their passing kicks up chalk dust and scares pheasants from the tall brown grasses of the marsh. Lucrece pins her hair in place, bells jingling, and puts on her wide-brimmed straw hat. She puts on the sandals that sat beside her on the shore and touches one of the bells, a little brazen one, to the fat knight's message cylinder. In an instant it is ash, transmuted into a fluttering cloud of grey. It vanishes, borne away by the wind even as the second elasmosaur joins the first in the ocean's cold depths. Lucrece makes a deep wai to the ocean and then she folds her hands within her sleeves and starts toward the forest road.
The boom and crash of the ocean fades into the distance as Lucrece walks along the edge of the trail in the dappled shadows of the pines, needles crunching beneath her steel-shod sandals. Sparrows twitter in the branches while herds of ridge-backed scutellosaurs meander through the half-light of the forest, digging amidst tangled roots for grubs and tubers. Somewhere far away an allosaurus coughs, signaling the beginning of its hunt. By dusk the road has widened and sometimes Lucrece passes travelers on gallus-back or pulling rickshaws laden with their belongings, their families, their livelihoods. There is a war in the south, Lucrece knows, between the Red Turban rebels and the armies led by the great Shogunate field marshal Louis de Grande, the Raptor of Tsang. The war is not her business. Its fires, too, will pass as all things must.
Resplendent Orchid, the great castle of the Daimyo Claude de Scorier, occupies a bald hill surrounded by walls of quarried granite sheathed in marble. Guardian tigers grin down from its battlements at the village spread out around its hilltop vantage point, fierce gargoyles but gargoyles only. They are like the winds of autumn: loud and toothless. Lucrece stops at the village's outskirts to drink from a stream where the washerwomen, at their work in the current, give her saffron robe, straw hat and alchemist's bells a wide berth and wai deeply to her. Thirst slaked, the young monk sits down in the shade of a gnarled maple and lets the weariness of her day on the road wash over her. She misses the sea, as she always does when she and it part ways. The sea reminds her of many things.
A butterfly comes to her as she sits in the shadow of the gnarled oak tree, its jewel-bright wings sparkling in the fading sunlight. Lucrece holds out a hand and the insect alights on her thumb; it is so light, so insubstantial that it hardly feels real. She wais to it. “What do you know, little brother?” she asks it, looking deep into its faceted eyes.
“The dead will come up from the sea,” says the butterfly in a voice like gossamer blowing in the wind. “He who is called the Lord-Without-Mercy-or-Death, Master of Lost Souls and King of Moths, is coming. He will reign for a year and a day before his death and the end of the world.”
“I know all this, little brother,” says Lucrece, who men call the Knife.
“I know nothing else,” says the butterfly. “My own death is close at hand, and the flowers call to me. I must find a wife and, dying, love her.” It flaps its wings and leaves her hand. Soon it is gone, vanished into the shadows of the forest. Lucrece sits beneath the tree, praying in the shadow that comes before the death of the sun.