et sanábitur ánima mea
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The city is fallen, and Lovataar does not grieve.

It is a terrible tragedy. Thousands of men, women, and children, with whom she shares blood and flesh through their empire, through Ion, all dead between one sunset and the next. The Mekhanite alliance, knowing nothing of mercy, had burned it to its foundations, their weapons melting stone and bone as well as wood and metal. There shall be no death rites, even, for the inhabitants, because they could not enter the place to recover them.

But Lovataar does not grieve.

The others do; she sees red-rimmed eyes, downturned faces, ladders of new-made cuts crossing arms and wings and foreheads as offerings of suffering shared with the dead. The vanguard’s heart has broken, and her lover, healer always, has brought them together here, in the courtyard of another city which is not their own, to mend it again.

Ion could simply warp the world until the entire congregation gathered could see him, but that is not his way; he clambers up the wall and stands upon the parapet in his own mourning form - human, with scars.

He breathes in, breathes out. Opens his mouth. Speaks.

And he reminds them of why they are there, in the service of what their comrades-in-arms, families, people die. For no lesser destiny than the liberation of all people from the shackles of kings and tyrants and gods and their own broken bodies. To build a world where there will be no more oppressors, no more sorrow. Where the scorched earth will grow again, and the roads will be marked only by dancing footprints and the feathered, four-toed hooves of reindeer.

Lovataar looks down at her own. They are upright, smooth-walled, and undivided, with only tiny fringes of feathering. Although the Kalmaktama can shape their bodies, with intention, to whatever they want, when their focus slides they tend to resettle into the same shapes over and over again like comfortable, working clothing. And what Lovataar knows of hooves is of digging them clean with a dull knife, then swinging herself up into the saddle to gallop across the steppe. Princesses learn no art truly but how to ride, for the horse is no flatterer, it was said, and so she had learned the art, and had always thought it as close to flight as possible, before Ion had come and given her the opportunity of wings. She is named for it by the Kalmaktama, horse-woman, not only for this skill but because legend holds that the lineage of the Daeva descends from the brothers of the dawn-goddess, who were half horse and half human.

In that lineage her blood runs equid, not cervine. She is not a reindeer - will her footprints mark those roads?

She stands with a jerk, and goes; no-one watches, and Ion’s words do not falter.







She finds Orok nearly-concealed by the drooping, dead branches of hemlocks surrounding the glade. She would have thought he would be doing something - cleaning armour, mending harness, something - but no: he is simply crouching there, hands on a fallen log, perfectly still.

Like a guard at duty at his mistress’s shoulder.

When a twig cracks under her approaching feet, he looks up. Their eyes meet unguarded, and she sees the exact same thoughts in him as writhe through her brain.

Neither speaks, each waiting for the other to admit the unadmittable: that they should not be there. That there is too much Daevon in each of them, born into her and wrought into him, and they cannot tear it out entirely without tearing out their selves. That they are unworthy, that if Ion had a gram more wisdom in that hard-burning idealistic heart he would throw them away and trample them into the ditches and it would be just, would be fair, would be the best the world could hope for.

His knuckles are as washed-out white as his hair. Lovataar has little knowledge of smith-craft, but she has on occasion peered inside smithies to see broken fragments of iron, cracked swords and warped hilts, placed in crucibles and slid into the forge to be melted down, refined, and purified again.

She wonders if weapons, too, fear being remade.

Ikunaan. It is the first and last promise Ion makes to all who follow him. That their suffering can end, in a real time and in a real space. That they can have a land of their own, not built from the corpse of a rotting god or stolen by usurpers from neighbouring lands, where all mankind could live in unity and fellowship, their baser instincts washed away. A land built on four pillars: joy, salvation, peace, and freedom, and free from suffering, lacking anything that might cause it.

What place would such a world have for a pótnyā and a guard, a ruler and a weapon?

In lieu of all of this, Lovataar demands, “Spar with me.”

Orok nods jerkily. They both need to be bled.

He stands, stiffening slightly as his back straightens, and begins to work out his joints while she divests herself of most of her jewelry. Gauntlet-fulls of bangles, necklaces, and dangling hair-chains pile on the soil. She has gained and re-lost nearly all of her parure over the years - pulling out piercings as her flesh closed over them and re-driving them through new appendages, offering melted-down armrings as collateral or in exchange for armour and weaponry to their distant allies, who still value gold. The Kalmaktama do not: if they wear jewelry at all, they wear iron or beads of amber, jet, and mother-of-pearl. Things they can pull apart and digest down for the constituents if necessary, whereas it is very clear that in their eyes gold is a foolish, oppressive metal - rare yet won at great labour, pretty and shiny and too soft to be any good at all beyond that.

When she is empty and her limbs are light, they face each other. On a signal that is not given, their claws unsheathe, their fangs extend. On a second, they attack.

They are - well, they have been monsters since before they can each remember, since Daevon first lifted its chisel and began shaping them in their infancies. But they have the bodies to match it, now. Any still-humans would be dead three times over, with such savagery - blood soaks the soil until it turns muddy, links of Orok’s intestines catch on trees, her own fur mixes with the moss. The air steams with their breath and sweat.

She catches him off balance and aims a kick for his face, meaning to stun; Orok takes it with a grunt, but she has left herself open. He seizes her tail in his fist and pulls. A flaming shock runs up her spine to her skull, and she screams, lashing out on instinct - a claw catches his forearm, forces him to drop her.

They twist away, come together again. His palm slides over her face, closes in the mess of her braids, pulls. The vegetal snap of splitting cartilage registers first, and then a wave of pain floods over her head, wipes out all her thoughts in one second of glorious nonexistence.

Her face-chain is knotted around the base of his fingers, when her vision returns. Cáyé. She had forgotten that. In revenge, her lips draw back into a snarl and she launches herself at him. They tumble to the ground, him on top, pinning her to the freezing earth.

“I cannot see it,” he says, hidden in their tangle of limbs and horn and blood. “When he tells us how it will be, in the new world. When I try and think about living in it, after the war. There’s just - black.”

Her claws dig in under his shoulder blade, crunching through a ligament. The grip weakens, and she arches her back for space, slithers out and pushes her fingers between the tendons in his neck. “I can,” she responds. The skies are eternally warm in a flaming rose sunset, and people may sit and stare at them for hours because there is no work to be done that they do not choose themselves. It contains vast forests with undergrowth flourishing like emeralds and hyphae linking all the trees into one vast and mutual mind. It contains beautiful deserts that burst into blossoming under the rain, and rivers both slow and mild and glacial, foaming white. It contains cities of glowing sandstone lighted with star-like strings of lamps, and fields that bring forth grain in abundance, always in season and needing no threshing, and trees laden so with sweet fruit that their boughs bend almost to the ground; laughter and dancing, love and fulfillment.

It does not contain horses, or gold, or her.

Orok takes a deep strike across her back, and she knows it only by absence, because her legs flicker out of perception and are gone as he divides the nerves. She falls, rolling onto her back, and as he lunges at her wrenches her hands apart, calling out of the air spines of protein and carbonate. His own momentum impales him upon them.

Blood drips from his face onto hers. Both are panting, aching, half-blinded by hair and gore. Orok slowly pulls himself off her spikes and presses a paw over the gaping holes in his chest. With the other, he wipes clean his nose and mouth.

Lovataar lies still, gazing up at the blue sky cut with feathery branches. Her nerves seal themselves back together with tingling, then burning, then nothing at all. Her tailbones re-fuse, and her tail writhes at being caught beneath her legs, the tuft at its end lifting into the air like a flame. She rolls awkwardly to all fours to free it, coming face-to-face with her pile of shining accessories again. As her bones continue knitting and muscle fibres replicating and bruises digesting themselves, she sits back on her heels and puts them back on.

“Here.” A hand is extended towards her. The glitter that is her face-chain dangles between the fingers.

She takes it from him and pushes the links back through earlobe, lip, and nasal ala. His hand stays where it is; she clasps it in her own and lets him haul her to her feet.

They also know this: that neither will ever leave. They will stay with Ion until the very end, even if it turns out they are forbidden from it. There is no turning back once they have shared in his dream, even if by only a dewdrop.

So they turn, and go back hand in hand towards the fortress.

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