To Weave an End
By: Kira Kristine
The day I set out to kill the Empress Eternal, I woke from a restless sleep and picked at the breakfast of fresh fruit that my master set in front of me.
“You should eat,” Bee said, stabbing listlessly at her own orangefruit, “you need the energy.”
I continued to pick at the fruit, watching the flesh of the orangefruit pulp under my fork until it started to look half-digested. “What if her Guardians can sense through my coat of invisibility?”
“Echo, Gray, and I will be with you, with our own coats that you have so painstakingly made for us. We will catch you if you fall.” Bee’s voice was calm as usual, though it did nothing to soothe my nerves. Not that morning. Quickly, I ran through the reasons we were doing this: I remembered my sisters crying with hunger on our home’s dirt floor, I remembered the Governor in her castle with its elaborate garden in the desert.
“What if word’s gotten out, and they’re expecting us?”
“Impossible. None but us four know the entirety of the plans. No more questions. Eat your food.”
By the time the sun rose, we had left the modest inn where we’d kept rooms for the past month under the guise of traveling cloth merchants and we were well on our way, entering the Underpalace through the servant’s gate, two among hundreds seeking work.
“You’re almost late,” came Echo’s hiss of a voice. The necromancer and her apprentice waited for us next to the fifth pillar from the northern wall, as agreed. I met Gray’s eyes, saw his face heat up, and I knew he was remembering the last, disastrous time we kissed. It flickered through my mind before the rock in my stomach reminded me how silly it was to be thinking of such things at a time like this. I forced my gaze away from Gray to look at Echo, who glowered at Bee. Echo would have a pretty face if it weren’t for her perpetual frown.
Bee ignored Echo’s glower, checking her belt pouches for all the fabric swatches she’d need if we were caught. I’d woven spells of forgetting and distraction into each swatch that would hopefully smother anyone who handled them unprepared. I had my own in the satchel I wore around my chest. They covered the net that rested ready at the bottom.
We donned our coats.
True Invisibility was ill-advised, I always said, as it rendered you unable to see your own body, made you prone to being bumped into by those you were trying to avoid, and left you open to being sensed by other means. My coats were woven with such a strong forgetting that we would be forgotten as soon as we were looked at. I’d tested them several times at the market by stealing goods from right under the merchants’ noses.
I watched Gray hesitantly step in front of two arguing servants who stepped around him like he was a rock. Good. The spells hadn’t faded. I’d sewn all our hair into the hoods of each coat to make sure the four of us could see each other. I was particularly proud of that idea.
I groped at the bottom of my bag again and felt the familiar lump of the net, as though it might have fallen out in the past minute.
“Let’s go,” Bee murmured to the rest of us, and without another word she turned toward the wide stairway opening where a line had formed. This would lead to the servant’s kitchens.
Reconnaissance had taken the form of the four of us taking turns working in the Underpalace. None of us had made it to the Palace Proper; such jobs were reserved for devoted, lifelong service, not shabby peasant workers who needed a day’s coin.
We bypassed the line and the harassed-looking man who sat at a rickety table, taking down names and skillsets. He glanced once, as if through us, and then looked back to his book.
The stair was long and winding, but eventually we reached the servant’s kitchens. Dozens of people rushed around a massive room, busy over spits and cauldrons, cooking simple fare that would be given to the palace servants.
Unseen, we moved through the cavernous kitchen, servants stepping around us without so much as an “excuse me.” A set of double doors stood open at the far end, leading to a dining hall just as large as the kitchen. Inside, hundreds of tired servants, fresh from the night’s shift, broke their fast, eating the food as quickly as it could be made. Bee swiped a hunk of bacon from some poor man’s plate. He looked askance as the bacon disappeared, but then went back to his eggs, resigned. Echo started hissing at Bee in reproach, but Bee munched the bacon unconcerned, which was how Bee usually dealt with Echo.
The next set of doors posed us a more difficult problem. Naturally, we’d want to head upward in order to arrive at the Palace Proper, but the Palace wasn’t built like that.
“This way,” Gray whispered. I’d explained that whispering was unnecessary with my coats, but even though we weren’t actually sneaking, old habits had bled into their mannerisms.
We followed. He’d been to the Palace Proper once, one of several dozen temporary servants conscripted to move heavy furniture in one of the Ambassador’s suites.
The Palace was designed to confuse trespassers. Made from a hollowed-out mountain, there was a honeycombed labyrinth of corridors that doubled back on themselves if you moved counter-clockwise, staircases that began leading down instead of up while climbing them, and doors that opened to empty hallways or empty rooms or just the outside of the Palace, hundreds of feet up.
One room was guarded by a Guardian, a silent, elite warrior in armor of white stone. She made no move to stop us as we entered. Inside, what might have been a salon at one point was haunted by mouldering sheets over collapsed furniture, the skeletal remains of a rat, a thick layer of dust, and a fireplace that had just been extinguished. We paused for a moment, staring at the smoke rising from still-red wood, the sense of magic in the air like eyes staring at the back of your neck. The door just to the left of the rat skeleton led to a path cut into the side of the Palace mountain, where a chill wind cut through our coats, and there was nothing between us and a drop into the city below.
This we traversed, carefully feeling our way with magic and memory, until a final doorway deposited us behind a tapestry in a long gallery.
It was here that our true test began.
The gallery was lined with Guardians; men and women from every district in the world. Some held mages’ staves, others had swords and bows and spears, some had no weapons. They all stood as still as the stone of their armor, a dozen different statues. Each had a stone mask covering their mouth.
Silently, we made our way through the line of Guardians, the four of us together in a clump. The Guardians stared through us.
Until one didn’t.
He was tall and broad, with two swords at his belt. He broke away from his post, treading on stone boots to stand in front of us, eyes searching. He could clearly see something, though not the four of us entirely.
I sidestepped around him, and his gaze faltered for only a moment before he drew his sword on the other three.
“Meet me in the throne room,” I whispered, hoping they’d hear me and the Guardian wouldn’t, as he took his spell-made sword and swung it in a wide arc in front of him, narrowly missing Bee, who pushed the other two back and pulled out scrolls of true Invisibility and Forgetting, preparing to cast their spells.
I wanted to stay and fight, perhaps cast a shroud over the eyes of the Guardian, perhaps lay traps of stickiness at his feet, but that wasn’t why we were there. I’d escaped this particular battle, I should not waste the opportunity.
The throne room was near the peak of the Palace, a great open room lined with vast balconies that jutted out over the city. It was so high that people spoke of clouds passing through the room. Like the rest of the Palace, it was cut from the white marble of the mountain, but unlike the palace below, the room had simply been polished and smoothed clean and was undecorated with carpets and wall hangings. A spindly, elaborate throne was the only furniture; this too had been hewn from the rock.
Inside, dozens of courtiers awaited their Empress. They were all impeccably dressed in the kind of clothes I had only seen a few times in my life; great sweeping hems and sleeves, hair covered by long, delicate veils. Two Guardians in their white stone armor stood on either side of the door, each bearing a long-bladed spear.
I lingered in the back, watching and waiting, listening to the soft whispers of the Ambassadors from every district as they conversed with each other and their associates. Idly, I wondered who the Ambassador was for the Redden Desert, where I’d grown up. The Governor, I’d seen before, but Ambassadors rarely left court to return to their districts.
Eventually, a clear, sharp tone rang out.
“The Empress Eternal!” shouted a page, and she entered. As one, the crowd dipped at the waist. Over their backs, I could see her; a woman of middling height wearing deep blue.
“I would like all my courtiers to leave, please,” she said. Her voice was soft and sweet but carried unquestionable authority. The hair on the back of my neck rose.
Immediately, the hall began to empty, the well-dressed mass of people fluttering on soft shoes to the silver doors. A few looked back curiously, but Eternity's face was inscrutable. I wondered if I could, or should, join the throng as it filtered away. I stayed, having come so far and unwilling to give up simply because something strange was happening. The last to leave were the Guardians, who bowed at the waist, armor grinding against itself.
“You’re here to try and kill me,” the Empress Eternal said, turning her large, fathomless gray eyes to me. “Don’t stiffen up in shock, child. I’ve lost count of the number of attempts on my life, but I recognize an assassin when one appears in my throne room.”
If one could look only once at the Empress Eternal, she would look like a very beautiful woman of around middle-age. One would not be able to tell her precise age at a single glance, perhaps 40, one might say. At a glance, one would notice pale, flawless skin, a rounded face, a slight build. One could see gray eyes, a dainty, flat nose, and an expression carved from marble. Perhaps one would take in a fine, well-made dress in deep blue, and matching veil covering her head.
However, the Empress Eternal has never once in her reign been glanced at, or looked at in any way fleeting, hurried, or brief. Her very self is a beacon of attention.
I studied her.
I had expected to be able to feel intense magic surrounding her person, glamours and protection, heightened senses. I expected her clothes to be woven with more spells than cloth, expected her hands to radiate power. Instead, there was nothing. She was like a stone jutting from a raging sea, still and unyielding in chaos.
“How old are you?” she asked.
I swallowed. My mouth was dry, “nineteen, Eternity.”
Her face was almost mask-still, but she blinked, slowly and carefully, and her lips curved upward. “I almost cannot fathom such a short amount of time. What is your name?”
For reasons I cannot begin to explain, I told the truth, “Acacia.”
“And why is it you have decided I should die?”
I swallowed again, “Y-your tyranny. The p-poverty in which you allow - allow us to live. The inability to choose our own Governors and Ambassadors...”
Again, her lips curved upward, and I realized it was a smile.
“I will share something with you, my child. Please do not attempt to murder me until I have finished. I suppose you have heard all of the reasons some give for why I have always ruled this world, perhaps because I found the secret to eternal life, or that I made a deal with a dead god, or that perhaps I am a god. None of this is true. I am more than that.
“I found eternity and I took it. I shattered a broken world and I molded it anew. I found a thousand thousand souls in agony and I gave them solace. I ended the endless wars and I made a lasting peace. I slayed the gods and I took their place. I did this, Acacia. I did it. And my penance is to shepherd all of humanity until the last of your bones wash away at the end of time. No, Acacia. Little weaver. Child born on the edge of the Redden Desert. Dutiful daughter, dutiful sister, dutiful apprentice. Wise girl. No. You weave the fabric of the world itself, and your power runs deep, and you cannot feel magic around me because I am not part of the world.”
How could she know these things about me? I was one of a billion people under her rule.
The metaphor of a stone amidst a stormy sea was wrong. Stones last for years uncountable, but they are eventually beaten away into sand by wind and water and salt. They are not permanent. The Empress was.
Or was she?
The Empress turned away from me and stepped out onto the great, gaping balcony. The sun was directly above us and any noise from the city was hushed by the distance. Small, slipper-clad feet whispered across the white marble. The velvet layers of her dress slid against themselves and the floor. Her voice was calm, almost sleepy. If not for the clarity of her speech, it would have seemed as though I were under water, listening to someone speak above the surface. She placed her hand on the balcony. She seemed simultaneously fragile and unbreakable.
“Are you saying that you created the world? This world?”
“I did and I am and I will.”
“From what? How?”
The Empress tilted her head back and to the side, appearing to study the edge of the ceiling. It was bordered by words written in thin silver that I couldn’t read. I realized I’d somehow puzzled her.
“I do not remember. Or rather, I cannot explain it to you. It has been too long since I began and it is so...divorced... from what you can understand as reality.”
“You didn’t simply create this world, you created...the people too…? The land?”
“Everything that exists. You. The air. The stars. The dust mites. The heat from flame.”
“But...how…? What existed before?”
She regarded me with that puzzled look, “you ask questions people do not usually ask. It is impossible to explain to you. I existed before. Things existed before. I took...I took power and I made it my own.”
“But you said you can’t do magic?”
“I cannot do the things that you and others can do, these things you call magic, because it is the manipulation of the world.”
My confusion must have visibly deepened, and she smiled dreamily, “you are a weaver?”
“Disregard your magic for a moment and think of simply weaving. You weave together uncountable fibers to create a single piece of cloth, and you sell it to a seamstress. Unless you control the seamstress, you have no say over what she does with the cloth.”
“You are the weaver?”
“That is an apt and pretty metaphor, and gives the two of us a tidy symmetry. But I am not the weaver, I am the goat. I am the silkworm. I am the cotton plant and the rubber tree. I grow that which allows the spinner to create thread that allows the weaver to create the cloth that allows the seamstress to create the clothes that you wear.”
I was silent.
We could not kill her.
“You realize now the things that so many others before you have realized. To destroy me is to destroy the world, and that is the greatest armor I could have.”
A lump formed in my throat, “what if you’re lying?”
“That is a possibility, child. But again, what if I’m not?”
As if by some unspoken order on her part, the silver doors opened and a Guardian entered, this one bearing no weapon. He led three people on a chain. It was Bee, and Gray, and Echo, and they all had masks of stone covering their mouths. The Guardian flicked the chain slightly, and the three of them convulsed in silent pain, throats working out screams that would never be heard. As one, they fell to the ground and knelt before the Empress.
The Guardian clapped his great stone gauntlets together, a dull, sickening crack, and he turned and left the room, shutting the door behind him.
The pure white of the marble floor began to shift and swirl beneath my friends’ feet until they were covered, as though they were sinking into the floor, but they weren’t sinking, the marble came up to meet their forms, came up to cover them in a thick layer, came up and became their armor. I watched, terrified and paralyzed by no magic but the horror I witnessed. Gray, who I had loved once. Echo, who challenged my every word. Bee. Bee, who looked up at me with fire and fear in her eyes and I remembered the years I’d been her apprentice, and I knew I didn’t have much time.
The net I had made was my finest work. Woven of hempen rope, unbreakability, and weightlessness, the warp was unconsciousness and the weft silence. The weave was wide enough to stick a finger through, but it would hold multitudes. I had used it on a wild boar, a shoal of trout, and Gray. Each time I’d been able to hoist it over my shoulder and run. It would not work on the Empress Eternal. No magic would.
She began to laugh, a musical, twinkling sound that made my skin crawl.
“Where do you think my stone soldiers come from?” she asked, “they are all my would-be assassins, who control each other with the fabric of my palace. But they must be kept muzzled as they know my secret. As you do now.”
My first instinct was to ask Bee. I’d been asking Bee all my questions since I was fifteen. But I couldn’t. I didn’t know what Bee was anymore. This decision I’d need to make on my own.
I plunged into my bag and pulled out the net, spreading it wide and gripping the thick rope of the side. It was made of magic, yes, but also of strong cotton fiber. I could still use it.
I heard the tell-tale sound of stone scraping stone as one of my friends rose from their kneel. They were my friends no longer, and they would be coming for me.
“Your net is well-made, child,” came the Empress’ voice, “but the magic will have no effect on me. It will only serve to -”
I flung the net around her, tightening the rope against her throat, and I pulled, and I pulled, and I pulled, until I couldn’t feel the jump of her pulse below my fingers, until her breath stopped and all I could hear was the sound of stone on stone.