I am my maker’s sword, her tailored executioner. She is strong, and beautiful, and cruel; and always, always, I do as I am told.
Except for one time.
One time, the one I love needed me more.
She will punish me someday. Jonathan told me she would, and he is never wrong.
She will not be kind when it happens. Until that day, we wait like breath held too long.
I was born samurai, sworn to a daimyo greedy for his neighbor’s lands. It is an old tale, and familiar; he used my loyalty, my keen mind, my strong body to raid those who might have been his allies, and so when the Ōnin War washed over our country like ravenous locusts, he had no by his side to save him.
No one but me.
At the end, only he and I remained. At the end, though I was broken and bleeding, my lord bid me protect him, even at the cost of my own life.
I did as I was told.
Alone, I fought our way out. I took the wounds meant for him; I spit blood with every breath, I secreted him out in moonless night, I dragged him to the river while grave-darkness painted the edges of my vision.
I brought him alive and unharmed to the small boat he’d arranged for his escape, and there, he told me to stay behind, to keep his pursuers at bay.
My arm trembled as I notched my last arrow, but no other course occurred to me. This went beyond honor, beyond purpose; this was balance—that I, born to serve him, should do so to the last breath.
Then the fool lit a lamp in his boat, not so far down the river, and they caught him.
I heard the whistle of arrows, heard his cry, but I was not with him to take that blow. I’d done as I was told.
And now, I had nothing.
Would they come for me?
I slumped like a doll against the dock’s pylon, dying. Waiting for the end. What more could I do? My bow had grown too heavy.
But then came sounds I did not expect.
Screams, prayers of terror, threats melting into howls of pain and leaking life. Torches dropped and sizzled, extinguished in the winter-frozen grass. I thought—some predator? Some demon, loose in these cursed lands?
No. She had come.
Ravena, beautiful and alien, foreign and perfect, mesmerizing so that I could not look away from the glowing rings of green in her eyes. She was magnificent as the setting sun, and her gaze trapped me like a firefly under glass, and I could not feel my wounds.
“Your lord is dead,” she said so sweetly, “and here you are, adrift, a sail torn in the wind. What a waste!” And she touched me, sending me gasping to terrible pleasure even as my lifeblood poured out. “Give yourself to me, faithful one. Serve me, and I will see you are not wasted here.”
How could I not? I chose to obey her because to do otherwise was to deny the moon its rise, and I have never disobeyed her since.
Except for one time.
She stole him as a child, Jonathan, plucked from a ship fleeing my home’s forgotten shores.
His was a terrible gift: he could paint the future, though it took pain to do it on command.
I was Night-Child now, drinker of blood, the Blood Queen’s assassin, and even I had never seen magic like this. He smelled human, seemed mortal in every way, yet when he painted anything, it came true.
He had to paint it, he explained. When the images crowded his mind, he had to let them out, and could only express them in this form.
“Raise him,” my maker told me, tossing him off as a puppy in need of training. “Right now, he paints when inspired. Train him to do it on command.” She touched me again, a gift of approval and darkness, and I swore to obey.
I know how to train excellence, even as I had been trained—not only by my family, but also by her.
Jonathan was four, perhaps five, malnourished, uneducated, and afraid. I spent nearly every waking moment with him. I forced him to stand, forced him to move, forced him to bend and crouch and leap until he no longer bent like a broken weed.
I forced him to read, forced him to speak, showed him the beauty of tongues and musics until he was fluent in all.
I taught him to use pain like the sight on a bow or a lamp in the dark. I taught him the careful balance of power and grace, and with my aid, he learned to claim those glimpses of future sight without waiting to be inspired.
His visions grew keener, as did his skill.
He taught me to respect his will.
I had not known it was happening. Not known he was nearly full-grown, not until the day he tried to harm himself when I was not there, making wounds when I was not present to bind them.
I . . . panicked. That is the word, though it took time to find.
I bit him that night to ensure I could feel his heart, would know if he tried this ever again, and I taught him: pain is a tool, and misapplied, will break instead of build.
He learned. His mistake was not repeated.
But now, having tasted his blood, I caught the breeze of his inner self, scents of flowering fields and clear mountain air.
He learned anything I gave him and made it beautiful. He took my games and created new ones, spun me poems of gasping cleverness, showed me forms and colors I’d never dreamed.
I gave him training.
He gave me vibrance.
I helped him grow like a tree well-pruned.
He tipped the well-balanced weights of my heart.
I found, watching him paint, that I smiled.
When he was painting, he smiled at me secretly, and thought I did not see.
My heart tilted more, up-ending. Spilling from itself the easy balance of loyalty I had always known, sands of familiar ballast lost to this new and weighty thing.
As he achieved his manhood, I was proud. We had grown him together, pruned him and planted his roots deep in life’s stream.
“Can I be like you?” he asked one day, and I knew he meant transformation to Night-Child.
“No. You are Kin—a magic-user, and only humans can become Night-Children.” It meant he would age and die.
It meant someday, he would leave me.
The grief surprised me. Yet even with all these things, I still did not realize I loved him until he ran away.
No: I did not realize until she caught him.
I had taken his blood, and so had Ravena; he couldn’t truly escape us, and he knew it. Surely that made this attempt strange, funny, and curious! Surely he’d known we could find him anywhere, in all the worlds.
But she did not see it as a game.
When she hunted him down, she did not give him back to me. Instead, she made him pay.
His screams rose day and night, and she compelled me to dwell in her home so I could hear them.
His torture tilted my heart to upside-down, to blood rushing into my brain and flushing out reason, to a strange, shaking, uneasy need to do something, anything, though I could not.
She knew my suffering. She is my maker, and felt all things I felt, including sorrow.
“You care about this?” she said so calmly, and this was his blood on her hands. “Next time I give you a pet to watch, don’t lose track of it. You may not interfere.”
I could not disobey her. The maker of the Night-Child has this power over their Children: with will, a command must be obeyed.
I could not help.
She said she was careful; he was mostly human, after all, and would die if hurt too much. He suffered, and was presented to visitors she wished to cow with her cruelty, and he painted, and suffered more.
Endless torment. I wept.
Then one day, she was summoned—called away, compelled by her own maker against her choice, and left us to attend some infuriating conference.
And when she went, the weight of her will on me snapped.
I do not know what happened. I do not know what changed. But that day, her command over me briefly shattered, and I went to him in that same breath.
She would know. Nothing would change that. But I’d felt his mortality slip, trip, stumble. I went to him because he was dying, and I could do nothing else.
I found him waiting for me.
“I knew you’d come,” Jonathan said between parched lips.
My heart cracked open, an outgrown cocoon.
I could not save him. I did not know how. Anything I did, she could undo; yet that was not Jonathan’s plan.
“Trust me,” he whispered.
His plan was insane, a complicated ritual of traded blood and impossible risks. He was Kin, not fully human, and could not be made a Night-Child.
He asked me to take his blood and give him mine, and I did it. Of course, he did not change.
Then he asked me to do something even harder. I had taught him to use pain over the years, to use it to focus, to create—but this was not pain.
What he asked of me now was harm.
“You’ll survive her,” he whispered to me as I held him close, as his blood pooled beneath him, risking his precious life. “It’ll seem so long, and when she acts on it, it’ll be terrible. But we’ll both survive. I promise.”
“Do not die,” was all I could say, and I left.
He is never wrong. But how could he be correct about this?
I had done more than disobey.
I had interfered.
Feeling all these things in me, Ravena at last returned in a raging fury, and by then, he had bled so much that death was inevitable.
She had no time to think through her response.
It made sense to let him die. Magical abilities prevent making and certainly do not appear on the other side of death. Even if by some freak chance he was transformed, he would no longer be her seer.
But she was losing him. Thanks to me. And it was her turn to panic.
She screamed. She raged. She gave him her blood, and took his. She willed him to change.
And he did.
Miracle. Damnation. He changed, left mortality behind, became something utterly new and unknown—a Night-Child, magical, and able to see the future.
I felt it.
Ravena felt it.
He was unlike any other, safe, strong, no longer weakened by the mortal woes of this world—
But then he refused to paint.
Why, why, why? All he had to do was do what she said and he’d be forgiven—she promised, but he refused!
And then, his newness presented in a different way: he did not have to obey her.
A Night-Child, not bound to obedience. Could this be my fault? Many new Children had traded blood with multiple partners, and it had never led to this. Yet something about our exchange, something about his uniqueness, combined to weaken her bond with him, and she could not compel him.
Ravena went mad.
He was heartier now; he could endure things that would kill nearly any other, and she tried them all.
The torment she poured upon him frightened even demons away. She hurt him without demand of obedience. She hurt him as though she no longer had centuries to break him and have her way.
She hurt him even though doing so hurt her, too, for the maker feels all the Child feels.
His torment was her torment, and her screams joined his own, yet still, he would not paint.
Every cut. Every burn. Every sliver of sizzling wood, every agonizing limb-regrowth—they shared it all.
They would both go mad. I would go mad. There was no end.
And then her maker came.
Notte, the one being stronger than she. The one being with authority to command my maker’s will, and he used it to end this cycle.
“No more,” he said, and gave Ravena his blood—she did not want it but she needed to heal, needed to leave the madness behind, and she drank and hated him and drank and wept.
He gave his blood to Jonathan, too—and the moment he did, Jonathan’s bond to her was broken completely.
He became Notte’s Child, not Ravena’s, and she screamed.
“He’s mine! You can’t take him!”
“Then you should have taken better care.”
Her scream inhabits my every fitful sleep.
She looked at me once, then—just once—but did not say a word.
When my punishment comes, it be so terrible that it could end us both.
When my punishment comes, it will make Jonathan’s torment seem like a corner scrape.
When my punishment comes, I will take it, because Jonathan is safe. He left with Notte; he heals.
So for now, she pretends she does not know, and I obey her with silent precision. For now, we act as though none of this passed between us, and we speak of it not at all.
For now, I do as I am told, and I wait for the day that I will be destroyed.
My maker wears a dark suit today, its plain lines perfect against her umber skin. Hers is the beauty of the asp, or the loosed arrow—sleek, mesmerizing, and deadly. Her tight-curled hair is pulled back into a flawless bun, and she needs no jewelry to gleam in this faint light.
Statue-still, she sits behind her white resin desk and stares at the envelope before her.
It came in the beak of a bird. That melodrama tells me it likely came from her maker.
She fears him, loathes him. When he wishes, he can control her.
I struggle to empathize. Night-Children are puppets to their makers, and Ravena has compelled me more than once.
She swallows, looking upon the letter.
Time passes; the only sound in our sterile home is the soft ticking of a clock. Her only movement is the flexing and straightening of her fingers.
Finally, she sighs and breaks the seal.
Whatever she reads does not improve her mood.
She turns and stares through the glass wall of her office, studying the swirls of sand in her pocket-dimension Zen garden. “Can you guess what this says, my sword?” she says without turning around.
It could be literally anything. “No, my lady.”
“No, of course not. Dress nicely. Bring your weapon. We are going on a visit.”
“Yes, my lady.”
My blade is not a threat. When I kill at her behest, it is with teeth and hands and power. Yet to wear my katana speaks to my official role as her sword, her executioner, her assassin.
Whatever that letter held, it must have been bad.
We go to the home of her maker, and my mouth sours with fear.
Here we stand by the Mediterranean Sea, with warm sun shining upon us, facing a warm and spacious manor filled with family long separated by source.
These are Notte’s Children. I and my peers are Ravena’s. We are all his, technically, but she defies him, and thus, so must we.
Here dwells the one who led me, for love of him, to disobey.
I can feel him, which I ought not be able to. I did not make him. We ought not to be connected in such a manner. Yet in this as in all things, Jonathan breaks the rules.
“Don’t be so anxious, my sword,” says my maker, patting my arm. “I won’t let the big bad Notte hurt you.”
It is not he who makes my heart race, who builds anxiety that she can feel. “Yes, my lady.”
She knocks upon the painted-green door, and who should open it but my counterpart: Notte’s knife, his own personal killer, and my enemy because he took her place at Notte’s side.
Terrance the assassin stares at us, and grows even more pale than usual, his orange freckles like stains.
“Hello, dear,” says my maker, smiling like a cobra. “Is your daddy in?”
“Uh,” says Terrance, and slams the door in our faces.
Ravena laughs. “Coward.”
“Yes,” I agree.
“He should at least have given us something to work with,” she says, tapping her chin. “A comment, a sneer—”
And then Notte is here, behind us, so suddenly that I did not feel him coming, and in spite of all my readiness, I startle.
I have not startled in so many years that I forgot how unpleasant it is—the spike of sour energy, the instinctive reach for my weapon.
“He fears his reaction to you could be violent,” Notte says as we spin. “And I do not permit violence against you. You are family, after all.”
“Family?” Ravena bares her teeth. “Barely that.”
I cannot feel him even now, though I see him full-well: olive skin with hints of greenish ochre, enormous brown curls with hints of magma red, and the Night-Children eyes of brilliant green, lit from within. His apparent youth is belied by his expression, a sadness tied to unthinkable longevity.
He could kill us with a thought, if he wished.
Instead, he looks upon us with tenderness and sorrow, and this twists my stomach for I know his affection will only foul her mood.
She holds up the letter. “Were you lying?”
“No, my . . . no,” he says, skipping his usual endearments. “What I said was true.”
And then we are inside his manor, walking past his servant-spirits, past his gaudy artwork and baroque fittings.
He chooses to surrounded by the extreme—thick fabrics and jewel-colors, absurd paintings in ornately gilded frames, wide beds with Fey-light canopies, because he believes in exercising internal control.
My maker’s way is better. Outwardly, we appear calm, disciplined, and even humorless. Antiseptic—but we are monsters, and under her, we are free to live that truth.
We kill when we wish. We take what we want. Notte’s children are not so free.
“Jonathan has asked not to be present when I show you the painting,” says Notte. “I will respect his wish.”
My maker shrugs sharply, an angry motion, sharp. “I don’t care.”
Yes, she does.
So do I. I dared not hope I would see him today, and yet even in his painful absence, I wonder what he could have painted to bring us here.
Housecleaning spirits flutter out of our way as we enter a large sitting room with an enormous fireplace and a tea service already laid out.
Neither Ravena nor I move to take tea.
Notte walks to a painting on an easel, facing the fire, and I cannot help my small inhale as he turns it around.
On the canvas is the Earth, but in doomed.
Cracks ride it like demon lightning, deeply orange in the lightless face of the world. The continent’s shapes are wrong, broken apart, as if they have crumbled. The oceans appear to be gone, subtly shaded to craggy and hollowed out holes. Knowing Jonathan’s skill, if I were to look closely, I’m certain I would spot hints of the bone-piles of the dead, littering the ocean floor.
“What is he saying?” demands Ravena. “What is this?”
Notte sighs. “The end. He is certain, and has confirmed what the Wind already told us: the planet is dead, and if we are to survive, we must find another home.”
Ravena makes one small sound—not a grunt, not a sigh—and sits down with a heaviness.
I move to stand behind her, at attention.
“Again?” she says. “We can’t do this again. There isn’t enough power left to make a new world. What are we going to do?”
“Call on favors owed. Arrange for payment over many generations. I have already begun,” says Notte.
Her look is hard and clear. “For both our families?”
He bows slightly. “I did not specify. I wished you to have the option of refusing my aid, if you prefer to find another way.”
Her sound is disgusted. “There is no other way. As usual, you’ve cornered me.”
I barely hear all this over the storm in my head.
The planet is dead?
I barely breathe as I study the painting again. Jonathan is never wrong. If he has painted the end of the world, then it is coming.
I tremble behind her chair.
“What’s the timeline?” says Ravena.
“We have a few centuries,” says Notte. “Housing our families will not be hard. More importantly, I suggest you reach out to any you trust to see if they are willing to take on the Ever-Dying as a favor to us, or as repayment for a favor given.”
Without humans, we starve and die. I see the wisdom in this.
So does she. “Of course. How many have you arranged for?”
“Not enough. No one truly wishes for the ragged Ever-Dying to flood their world; it is requiring some . . .cautious negotiations.” Grief tightens his face, almost making him look old. “It will be impossible to save everyone.”
“Of course it will. That’s billions of idiots and garbage-makers.”
“They are all worthy,” he says softly.
She rolls her eyes. This is one of their oldest points of contention: Notte loves his food, and she does not. “Fine.” She stands. “I have work to do.”
“So do we all.” And in that moment, I believe he wants to touch her, to come nearer to her warmth, to embrace her.
She wants that too, just for a moment, and the need makes her angrier yet.
Neither of them move. An old dance, this. It will never be resolved.
And now, we are leaving. Past the ghosts, past the fripperies doomed to dust in an eventual earth-end, and past the green front door.
“Seishirou,” says my maker. “Walk with me.”
Instead of going to dust, instead of flying away, we amble around Notte’s manor, toward the Mediterranean, toward the side of the building studded with windows for living quarters.
She says nothing until some sign, some feeling, catches her attention, and she looks up at the windows to smile.
I cannot see within them; the sun’s angle is wrong, and they are but darkened eyes.
“So you know the big secret. The world is ending.”
“Yes, my lady.”
“I don’t really want that getting out—but I do like the timeline. There’s nothing quite like some spare hours to clean up loose ends, don’t you think?”
And she looks at me.
All the rage, all the frustration—
All the helplessness of dependence on Notte to tell her what her own seer said—
All of it settles on me.
I know what this means.
I will pay my debt—but does she mean to do it in full view of the windows?
Ah. Of course she does.
She grips the back of my neck. Her strength makes mine look like brittle leaves, and my bones crack.
She smiles at the windows again.
This is a performance, and not for me.
“I’m going to feel this, you know,” she murmurs, squeezing tighter, and though I know trying to fight her would make this worse, I cannot help but struggle—a baby rabbit in the grip of a hawk. “Every break, every tear—I’ll feel it all. But I think that’s going to be worth it. Do you know why? Because he’ll feel it, too.”
Jonathan? Notte? Both?
I cannot breathe. Her grip has crushed my trachea, cracked my vertebrae.
Her words cut. “Jonathan knew this would happen. He knew—and he left you with me to do as I wished.”
“Of course he knew,” I manage, barely audible even to me. “I chose to stay. I chose to face the penalty I earned.”
Her thumb strokes my skin so gently. “Fool.” And she tears off my head, pain and electric numbness racing through us both.
My body swirls into dust, already healing, nerves screaming with effort.
She punches through my chest.
And now her will prevents my healing, prevents my going to dust once more to recover my form, so I remain like this—a puppet in pain, encroaching on torment.
She will not make this an easy death.
I’m sorry, my love, that she made you watch the start of it. I never wanted that.
Ravena looks at the dark window, at the room which undoubtedly holds him whom I love and whom she lost, and she blows a kiss.
We go to dust together, and she takes me away.
3: Standing By
Once they are gone, Notte goes to dust as well and flies to the inner rooms of his home.
Jonathan is grieving.
Notte feels it, feels it as sharply as he feels Seishirou’s pain and Ravena’s echoed torment.
It is terrible and wrenching, a tangled mess with no loose threads to pull.
He knows, even as he solidifies outside Jonathan’s door, that this is the only way. He knows that Jonathan is always right, unfailingly, disturbingly, and that to take any other course would result in Seishirou’s death.
That does not make it easy. He wants to steal Seishirou away from Ravena. To forbid her. To stop her, even though it would widen the trench between them, between his oldest daughter and himself.
It had taken him too long to understand the game. Ravena’s determination to self-destruct would always find new outlets, for by pursuing her own pain, she hurt him.
My child, he mourns, and knocks on the door.
“Come in,” says Jonathan, who has been crying. He sits by the window where his maker tormented his lover, where she promised without words just how much pain she would dole.
Where the challenge, unspoken lingered: if you come back, maybe I’ll let him go.
Jonathan knows she would not—not yet.
“I am sorry,” says Notte, sitting carefully beside his paint-splattered Night-Child as though the latter might break.
Jonathan shakes his head; he is folded like a miserable pretzel, gleaming green eyes just visible above his knees. “Soon,” he said, his voice thick, his nose audibly stuffed. He reaches for a handkerchief.
Notte allows this position, this misery of fetal-form, and sighs with him. “He suffers.”
“If he doesn’t let her do this, he’ll never accept help,” says Jonathan, grim. “He has to feel like he paid for betraying her. When he feels that, it’ll finally be over. When he feels that, he’ll drink your blood, and join us, and . . . ”
“And come home.”
Notte closes his eyes. “And we must wait for Liza to wake?”
Jonathan nods. “It has to be the three of them, but especially her.”
Notte looks out the window, and in spite of all his thousands of years, in spite of his control and power, he flinches.
The pain, vibrating through the skein that connects them, is terrible.
He does not like this choice.
Had Jonathan not proven himself over and over, had he not known Ravena so well as to know how badly things would be if he merely took Seishirou away, had he not—
“I’m sorry to put you through this,” says Jonathan. “I’ve asked so much.”
“No.” Notte means it. “Awareness of what is to come does not make you responsible. Indeed—no one could make Ravena do anything she does not wish to do.”
Jonathan does not say, You could.
Notte won’t anymore. Everybody knows this, though none but he and Ravena know why.
Notte shudders again. She had begun with the skinning. “How long?”
Jonathan takes a shaky breath, wipes his face. “About a month.”
Notte wonders how much aid he can give to keep Seishirou’s mind from breaking. Wonders if Jonathan expects it of him, if Ravena would care.
“Soon,” says Jonathan to himself, or them both. “And then it’ll be done, all of this. And he can rest.”
“Can you rest, then, as well?”
Jonathan does not look up. “I’ll be happier.”
That is not a good answer, but it will have to do.
Notte leans in. Comfort in his home comes braided with vulnerability and blood, and he offers both.
It will be a long, long month for them all.