by Sara Puls

Luna Moon was filled with the umbers and ochers of murdermemories when she became the last Xenophon dancer in all of One Territory.

Becameas if this were by choice or appointment, but no. Luna was the last because Irene Katsaros was dead. Slit down the belly like a slippery fish in the Square. To Authority, Katsa’s death would be treated as a significant triumph—a major step toward achieving Severance. To Luna, it meant the loss of one of her mentors, one of her lovers. It meant the loss of images, spirits, and colorwhispers—of almost everything she held dear.

She found herself in a Hoyal Clan neighborhood on the other side of the Territory when it happened. With a helmet of wasps gilding her head, she’d been completely immersed in a collection whirl with that morning’s dead—twelve dancers blown to bits by a series of widow-drone strikes. Someone on the inside had revealed their location, that much she knew.

Luna did not need to see the blood-bloom of Katsa’s death to know it true. She felt the loss instantly—a typhoon of new rose-petal hues in the wind, a bitter sensation forever inked onto the underside of her skin. This was the price of closeness with another dancer, the price of sharing more than words. Pain, suffering, pleasure—all of it left a permanent mark of remembrance.

In the next instant, Luna stopped whirling, straightened her dress, and moved her body into the Second Position, for strength, then onto the Third Position, for dignity, and finally onto the Fifth. This last was more personal than the other salutes to the newly fallen; this was in honor of Katsa’s beauty.

After, with vermilions of pain following in her wake, Luna turned on her heels and headed for Resistance Base A. Her conversation with the morning’s dead would wait. For now, all she could do was leap forward, onto another, suddenly more pressing task.

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Jeté—to leap in time, or to throw the weight of memory from one foot to the other.

Note: the memory space covered is not so much sideways as backward. It is possible to move forward while also looking backward, which would be the most dignified and sensible execution of existence.

– Excerpt from the Xenophon Dance Code, modified from the Manual of dancing steps with a compiled list of technique exercises and 39 original line drawings, by Elsa Pohl (the 1914th Year, Before Severance)

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Back at base, Luna sought out Cass Uzun. He’d been second in command behind Katsa. It took only a moment to find him among the bodies milling about. He was a large, muscular man with eyes like the Night River and a voice of honeywine. Luna knew him well. Better than probably everyone else among them.

Always formal when surrounded by other eyes, she called to him now. “Commander Uzun.”

He turned to her and with one blink, his eyes flashed bright. By the next, they flickered with anguish. No doubt he’d already heard the messages over the horns. Authority had been cheering Katsa’s death since moments after it occurred, trumpeting the accomplishment throughout One Territory as if telling the results of a chess match or datawipe.

Seeing Uzun’s pain, Luna wished to press her shape into his, to weep with him over the loss of their partner and friend. Instead, she bowed deeply, unemotionally, then cleared her throat of residual color.

Uzun stepped closer. Already, his shoulders sagged.

“Uzun, I—” Her voice wavered, betraying her, and she paused. Luna had experienced enough loss to handle it with dignity. She would not let this one cause her to falter, fresh and heart-twisting though it was.

Instinctively, her body moved into Second Position—for strength. She took a breath, then began again. “What Authority broadcasts over the horns is true. Katsaros joins the dead.” This time, her voice remained flat, stoic. “I felt it. Feel it now still. Saw it like a sunspot stuck behind my eyes.”

The pain on Uzun’s face intensified, then all but disappeared. “Take two guards and visit the Archivist. Tonight. When you return, we will discuss—” he paused, searching for a painless word when there were none. “We’ll discuss the future.”

For a moment, Luna lost herself in depth of that single word. Who would she be tomorrow and the day after? What changes would this single event bring?

Uzun cleared his throat. “Moon?”

With a jolt, she looked up at him. “Right. Sorry. Of course. I’ll leave by midnight.”

He nodded and she bowed her goodbye. This was not the time or place for the affections of lovers.

Uzun would be the first of their leaders who was not also a dancer. The Resistance had the support of nearly one-third of the Territory’s population—Hoyal Clan and others too—but so far, the balance of power had not been in their favor. And there was no guarantee that either Uzun or Luna would be enough to tip the scales.

As she turned away, an Authority Message began playing throughout camp. She slowed her pace to listen. One can never know enough about how the enemy thinks.

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THANK YOU SEVERANCE SUPPORTERS!

You are essential to our survival. Your efforts to cleanse our Territory of specious histories, of exaggerations that would tear us apart, will be rewarded just as soon as total Severance has been achieved.

Until then, be advised: the dead speak in colors, not words. The dead cannot be trusted. Colors and whispers and memories deceive, just as the Remembrance Resistance wants to deceive you. Deceive us all.

Be advised, supporters: we must move forward, forging a new, united path!

– A Daily Message, Brought to you by Severance Authority, read by Prime One Alexander

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As the sound faded, Luna shook her head—she could never quite believe the absurdity of those propaganda messages. Perhaps Authority leaders meant well, but they did more harm than good this way. Remembrance was not divisive and preservation was not dangerous. Most dangers, most hurts and wounds and betrayals, arose from the act of obscuring the truth. And yet, Authority sought to cure all society’s conflicts by erasing the past—wiping out consciousness of all injustices carried out at Authority’s hand. Severance fully realized, the Resistance stamped out, meant each citizen would have a new, collective mind. A mind absent of all the stories that give color to current power dynamics, a mind tuned and scoured at Authority’s whim. To Luna, to the Xenophon, and to all their supporters, this end was beyond unacceptable—it was to suffer a loss as great as death.

“Moon?” Again, this was Uzun’s voice, pulling her into the moment. Reality.

She looked back, over her shoulder. There was something like longing painted on his mouth. She understood how he felt, how torn he was between needing to hold her and knowing now was not the time.

“Are you alright?” he asked.

Her teeth found her lower lip as she nodded. “I’ll be fine. So will you. We’ll just move on. That’s what we do. What we’ve always done.”

In her quarters—a dome of steel, innards of soil and grass—Luna shooed her helmet of wasps into their paper-spun hive and peeled the sundew dress from her frame. The dress, a living suit of armor hungry not for battle but for truth, shifted and writhed in her palms. Its bounty of cilia quivered with glistening drops of memorycolors—colors that Luna had collected during her earlier dance. She needed to store these away for later transmission and analysis. But exhaustion gnawed dully at her tissues and bones. The rainbows of history do not leave the dancer either quickly or easily. From shades of pale fruit to black beetles, they saturate; they take hold—indelible secrets imprinted onto the soul. So for now, she submerged the dress in its open-bottomed vase and watched as it inched into the soil to sleep.

After washing up and dressing in a simple tunic of butterfly fractals, Luna found herself beside a small flickering of fire with her knees drawn up to her chest, childlike. As her eyes closed, she found not comfort but instead the colors of monsters and the memory of blood-wetted blades.

Eventually, a woman called Alexis Mara handed her a cupful of tea.

“Drink up. For the nerves. And the cold.” It was summer, but the night air was nearly empty of the sun’s warmth.

Luna took the cup with a nod. The tea smelled of pine and winter wind but not much else. Still, it was good to have something to occupy her hands, to combat the empty aching of her belly. She took a long sip and let the heat mark her throat. Then she looked to the woman beside her and tried to summon the will to converse.

Alexis Mara had never danced herself but had children and a wife with the gift. Had. The last of them, a boy of fifteen, was among the twelve who expired that morning.

Luna found it difficult to look the woman in the eye. As the ranks of dancers thinned down to almost nothing, she held herself increasingly responsible for the fate of the Resistance and its soldiers.

Mara placed a dried mint leaf on her tongue. “So it’s true what they say? About Katsaros?”

“Yes,” Luna managed.

“I’m so sorry,” Mara said. Her voice held only a hint of sadness and no anger.

Luna hadn’t broadcast her relationship with their former leader, but she never hid it. Neither had Uzun. “We all are.”

“Mint?” Mara offered, a sympathetic curl on her lips. As if Luna were the only one in need of comfort, as if Mara herself had lost nothing, no one. But these days, of course, everyone had stories of losing someone—of too much fresh dirt over graves.

Luna selected a small mint leaf and placed it in the hollow beneath her tongue. The cool freshness belonged to the spring season—the season in which she met Katsa and Uzun both, a year after her mother’s death and just before the Carriage of Arms.

“Any rumor of new dancers?” Mara tried. “I heard Uzun sent out another search party just yesterday.”

“Not that I know of,” she replied.

“But there must be others out there with the ability. Don’t you think?” Mara’s voice was full of hope.

Luna shrugged, unsure now of what she believed. It had been so long since they found someone new.

Mara put a papery hand on Luna’s knee. “Well I certainly hope so. At the very least, your children—” At this her loss caught briefly in her throat. She swallowed, then started again. “At least your children will dance.”

Luna felt she should say something about Mara’s son, but somehow could not bring herself to form the words. Where does one begin when the horror is so great? When the loss so wrong?

Instead, when her lips finally moved, all they managed was, “I have hope of that, yes.”

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When Luna last felt such emotion in her chest, she was just a girl. Her mother taught her to dance, in whispers more hushed than a black widow’s prowl, six months before Severance officially began. Already tensions were high in One Territory. Disagreements over the importance of the past had crowded out talk of almost all else. But this is why Luna needed to learn, her mother said. She had the gift; she was obliged to wield its power.

In the mirror room at the back of their little house, Luna’s mother taught her dances for deathmemories and dances for celebrationmemories, whirls for procuring tiny details and grand turns for absorption on a large scale. They worked every night, from the time Luna returned from academy until neither mother nor daughter could stand on her feet any longer.

Soon enough, Luna wasn’t merely dancing but was brushing up against the spirits like a honeybee brushes with pollen. Over and over and over again until she was one of the best, until she had deposited a hundred stories with the Archivist and seeded many corners of the Territory in the brassy hues of aggressions, the wet pinks of birthtales, the lemons of revenge.

Then Luna watched her mother die in the Square. A zealous, outspoken woman, she was one of the first blamed for the people’s obsession with old stories—with weaving meaning from the colorfabric of past wrongs and deeds and songs. Luna saw her mother’s dress bloom with red, like hot water soaking up pomegranate tea. But she did not shield her eyes or turn a blade upon her own flesh.

Her mother’s death meant she had to dance stronger, smarter, and more.

And now, four years later, Luna knew she would somehow have to become stronger and better still. Where once there were nine members of the Xenophon Council, only Luna and the Archivist remained. Before the war, the Council had been comprised of respected elders and young dancers alike, and power was spread evenly among them, like sunlight over an open field. Now, the Council as governing body had been subsumed by too many deaths into the Resistance Council. Luna’s mother had been a member, of course, and those still living looked to Luna to take her seat after that day in the Square.

At first, she had only listened as the other members discussed fortifying the walls around the Archive for added protection, and as they held heated debates on the propriety of using their skills to fight war. Later, she often took the lead in those debates, beside Katsa or the Archivist, advocating with passion and confidence for what she believed would bring just resolution to the chaos Authority had spun.

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In recent centuries, a particular subset of Hoyal Clan members, known as the Xenophon, learned to channel through dance the bodies and memories of the past. According to Severance Authority, these open channels put society at risk of continued distrust, fragmentation, and war. What Authority does not tell you of is its role in the past. But those who enter here shall know.

– Archive inscription, North Wall of Truth

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For the trip to the Archive, Uzun gave Luna a new weapon. A nightshade dagger, of purple teeth and shadow poisons, which she now gripped tightly at her side. Rarely were there breaches in these parts, but she could not afford injury or mistake. Not now.

Wearing her wasps to protect her mind from Authority memory nets, she walked briskly in the cover of rubble and ghosts. She was flanked on the right by First Guardian Ekene, a powerful woman of middle age, and on the left by the ever-smiling Guardian Parviz, a boy of no more than sixteen.

Crossing the bridge of lakes, and not even ten minutes into their journey, Ekene spotted in the distance two Authority Intelligencers—identifiable by their fire-red uniforms and the small stars they wielded as weapons. The outfits were brazen, but then, so were they.

“I will handle them,” Parviz offered.

Luna nodded, giving him approval, for she was a Lieutenant as well as Xenophon.

Seconds later, both Intelligencers fell, heart-pierced. Parviz was young and full of smiles, but deadly with his weapon of choice: a pair of bird’s beak spears.

As they approached, Luna winced. The Intelligencers’ deaths chameleoned through her—a terse, malachite green shifted into an achromatic grey, a striking opal faded to drab russet as it twisted around her neck. Standing above the bodies, she gave a small plié. She regretted the loss of even her enemies’ lives. But one could not hesitate in the presence of Authority operatives.

As the trio pressed on, she told herself it had to be done.

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Dancing is a universal form of human expression. It took shape from early attempts at dramatic storytelling and for some, eventually evolved into its present rhythmic but painful nature. It is the pain, above all, that links us to the past, that makes us strive for a better future.

– Xenophon Council Aide-Mémoire No. 3

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After this, Luna and her guards encountered no other obstacles. Before the hour turned, the Archive rose up before them, glimmering like a mirage. With everything crowding her head, the journey felt like nothing—a short slip of time. Not even long enough to catch her breath.

The walls outside the Archive were fortified with a century of memories—of Hoyal disappearances, and riots, and ill-accepted inter-clan marriages, fires set by Authority in villages where the gift of dance was strong. Maintained by the Archivist, the memorycolors here did not fade, but remained as they were when procured.

At the gates, Luna halted and turned to her guards. “Wait for me here. I won’t be long.”

Ekene opened her mouth to protest but stopped short. Despite Uzun’s precaution of sending guards, Luna could care for herself. She was skilled and disciplined in the art of war, just as she was in dance.

“Be quick, be graceful, and do no harm to the world,” Parviz said through a grin. This the Resistance farewell to dancers.

Luna placed her hand on the wall beside the gates and let it taste her identity. A moment later, as the structure permitted her passage, she turned first to Parviz, then Ekene. “Thank you. Thank you both.”

Inside the gates and beyond the walls, tunnels filled with kaleidoscopic traceries of memory led to the center of the Archive. One could spend years reading the colors, taking in the nuanced differences between rust and autumn red, sapphire and mid-ocean blue, without remembering even half of what came before.

As Luna walked with the nightshade dagger stretched out in front of her, she passed dozens of Resistance Guardians. Some bowed upon seeing her, others remained as stiff and tall as the Severance Obelisk. But all of them knew her and all would guard her as fiercely as they’d guard the Archivist, should the need arise.

Along the path, Luna’s eyes glittered with stories she hadn’t known before—the goldenrods of Hoyal Clan successes, crimsons of injustice, the cadet-blues of battle. The energy was palpable, like a feverish heartbeat, like blood pumping in veins. Eventually, after passing a final score of guards, she curled around an old man’s berry-black tale of the Carriage of Arms Massacre and found herself in the main room. The Life Room. Here the memories were heaviest of all, folding in on themselves like origami, each crease a different viewpoint of a story, and each shadow an emotion. Standing in an intricate swirl of blues, deftly sorting the color-filled air, was the Archivist.

A slender-bodied neutrois, the Archivist sang as they worked—ever the same song, a deep, melodic thing about a girl lost in a timeless world. The tune had a way of making the hair on Luna’s arms stand as straight as soldiers. She often wondered if these lyrics gave any insight into the Archivist’s own feelings. Never, though, had she asked.

As Luna stepped closer, she saw that today the stubble on the Archivist’s head hued shades of beet juice and lavender. There was so much knowledge inside them that some of it spilled out of its own accord—into their hair, their irises, the beds of their fingernails—and changed colors with the ticking of hours.

On their shoulders, they wore a wreath of black widows that moved in unison, a deadly cloud. Should anyone threaten the Archivist, the spiders would ensure the aggressor’s end. And this was as it should be.

The Archivist, more so than Luna, or Katsa or Uzun, or any other Resistance member, was the most important individual to the cause. They were the gatekeeper of all that Authority sought to lose forever in the name of forgiveness and unity and peace. They were the caretaker of meaning for the generations to come.

“Nur,” Luna spoke, just loud enough to grasp their attention, not so emphatic as to startle.

The Archivist turned. An elegant smile stretched out across their face and filled their eyes. “Luna Moon. A pleasure. Though I must say, this is sooner than I expected you again.” Their voice was gentle but commanding, neither male nor female in tone.

Luna curtsied. “I do apologize. But Commander Uzun sends me. I am now the last dancer of One Territory.”

The Archivist frowned. Their morning-frost eyes flickered with worry, surprise. Brushing a stray spider from their neck, they swallowed.

“Twelve died this past morning,” Luna continued. “Then Commander Katsaros expired just after dusk. Uzun thought it important I seek your counsel. Immediately.”

“It cuts me deeply to hear this, Luna Moon.” And then, when the silence had nearly filled the entirety of the Life Room, “What happened to Irene?”

“Several hours ago she was murdered by blade in the Square. I was not with her but felt the colors of it.”

The Archivist grimaced. They’d known Katsa for many, many years. The Archivist also knew the depth of sensation colorwhispers could bring. Knew the way residual color permanently marked those who had direct contact with the medium—they understood how Luna felt.

“I have not danced with her spirit yet,” Luna continued, watching the weight of spiders move across the Archivist’s collarbone. “In truth, I haven’t felt her since that moment. Until I do, you may examine the color beneath my skin. The feeling was strong. Unusually so, even in light of my relationship with her.”

While Luna was a Memorycolor Specialist herself, she had nowhere near the skills that Katsa did. And the Archivist surpassed them both by far. Beyond that, while Luna could feel the color beneath her skin, she could not read its tinges, its nuances. For that, they had to set it free.

“I’m afraid that you are right, soldier. We should start now, if you can manage it.”

Luna nodded.

“Very well. The arm?”

Again, Luna only nodded.

As the Archivist prepared their instruments, Luna tried to ignore the strange and growing sense of dread filling her body. She focused instead on the words and wisdom of her own mother. She focused on finding courage.

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The dead are the strongest connection to the past. The dead do not change, their memories do not grey or distort with time. The dead are the best vaccination against Severance with Before.

– Resistance Message, read by Sonya K. Moon during her penultimate breach of One Territory’s horns.

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Sitting back in the surgical chair, Luna outstretched her left arm and awaited the silver-toothed blade. She’d submitted to this procedure a few times before, but like dancing, it was never easy.

The Archivist worked quickly, minimizing the pain as much as possible. They knifed back Luna’s skin in translucent layers, Luna becoming the bloody pink of a red onion peel. Soon the shades shifted and a cloud of rose-petal red unspooled from her body. This color, complex and passionate but also heavy with deep pain, was the color of Katsa and no one else.

Luna glanced from the memorycolor to the Archivist and watched as their face twisted with confusion.

“Nur?” she whispered.

They did not look away from the cloud, from the story of Katsa hidden there.

Luna tried to swallow down the lump in her throat. It would not submit. “Nur, what is it? What do you read?”

The Archivist removed and disposed of their gloves, then ran a slender hand over their head. The deadly spiders stood still, as if frozen, as if also waiting for a response. “Katsaros has not perished, Luna Moon. I have no doubt.”

“But I…” Luna took a long breath, trying to make sense of the Archivist’s words. “But it’s right here. Her color. I know it as well as my own. How could that be?”

The Archivist’s eyes of song now looked a mournful jade. “This memorycolor is…is synthetic. Impeccably manufactured, but manufactured. By Authority.” They pointed to a curled edge of the color. “It is faint, but right here you can see Authority’s fleur-de-lis stamped into the memory. It is a clear tell. One they’d have left out if not so brazen.”

A sudden chill swept over the length of Luna’s skin. She ached to be held—by Uzun or her mother or even, oddly, Katsa.

“If I had to guess, I would say Irene has traded sides,” the Archivist said. “Truth for power.”

Luna did not respond as the meaning of this washed over her. Katsa had abandoned her. Katsa chose hegemony over bravery. Katsaros chose to forget all her pains and losses rather than use them, avenge them. Irene Katsaros revealed the location of the twelve Xenophon killed that morning—because who else would have done it? That woman, whatever else she really was, was a traitor and a fool.

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Public memory today is as thin and sterile as gauze, whitewashed down to a sterile nothingness. And that is precisely how Authority wants it. We must do what we can, and go where the universe guides us, to fight the muddy shroud of lies that is Severance.

– Quote from Triumphant Resistance, by Sonya K. Moon

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The first night they spent together, Katsa told Luna why she fought, why she danced.

“I’ve lost more than I care to remember,” Katsa began. She’d just stripped down to her underthings, tossing her uniform into a heap on the ground as if it were nothing. Watching her, Luna’s stomach nearly wrung itself into a new shape. To be so blithe—Luna had never been able to live that way.

“My mother and sister and uncle were all slaughtered by Authority before Severance began. My brother was taken prisoner just after we rebelled. I watched them execute him in the street—by memory nets, until all his mind was eaten, gone.”

Hearing this, Luna nearly forgot that the woman before her was half-naked, that they were almost certainly a few short minutes from making love for the first time. She went to where Katsa sat on her bed of grass and crouched down before her. After a moment, she took Katsa’s long, slim hands in hers and held them tight.

“That is why we have to win,” Katsa continued, squeezing Luna’s hands. “For them. So those horrors can never again happen. For your mother, too. So future memories can be of stars, not blood. Music, not gravestones.” As Katsa spoke this, her eyes gleamed bright and defiant, as though she would soon inherit the whole earth. Looking at her, Luna could see how much Katsa wanted—needed—to win.

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Tour Saute—one step preparation and one hop, turning completely around in the same direction of step.

Note: Given the abrupt motion, as well as the defiance the tour saute conveys, this movement should be reserved for instances in which one has no choice but to change course entirely, due to some insurmountable obstacle. Otherwise, one may unsettle the dead.

– Excerpt from the Xenophon Dance Code

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Now, for the first time, Luna wondered about that night, about the defiance in Katsaros’s words and eyes and posture. What was she really saying? How long had she been aligned with Authority? Could she have been planning this already when Luna met her? Perhaps now, so many years into battle, Katsa’s deep, almost unthinking need to win overtook her more reasoned desire to win on the side of what is right. Perhaps an end was all that mattered after so much loss.

Considering the possibilities, Luna felt a shiver tiptoe down her spine. Her thoughts tangled together like a mess of venomous snakes as they tugged her back into the Life Room.

Glancing down, she saw that the incision in her arm had been sewn shut. Also, someone was weeping, a loud and gut-twisting cry. Luna looked to the Archivist—to comfort them. But their face was dry and still—pristine, if not entirely at peace. Luna turned, wondering who else had joined them, and the sound shifted with her.

This is how she realized. She was the one crying, the one who had been crying all this time.

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As Luna walked home from the Archive, Ekene and Parviz close beside her, several Authority messages played over the horns. She ignored them all, except one. Except the one she recognized instantly as being read in Katsaros’s voice.

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SEVERANCE IS SALVATION. There is no turning back now, no redemption in remembering centuries’ worth of outdated tales. Every person who believes in freedom, in peace, must fight for Severance—for the preservation of the future, of One Territory, of themselves. I, myself, spent years searching for peace under the Resistance and never found it. One must forget to find peace, to find life. One must realize SEVERANCE IS SALVATION.

– A Daily Message, Brought to you by Severance Authority, read by Irene Katsaros

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As soon as she crossed the lines into Base A, Luna summoned Uzun and the Resistance Council to a meeting. The Archivist, unable to leave the Archive in such dangerous times, channeled in on the tails of ghosts, in the tone of weeping willows and sated bees.

Luna had a plan. And she wasted no time in telling it. After explaining what the Archivist revealed and fielding a whirlwind of questions, she turned to her solution.

“I want to invoke Subpart IV.”

Uzun paled at her words. Several council members began murmuring among themselves.

“I can do it,” she said, raising her voice, making it firm like the Archive walls. “We need to put an end to this. To all of this. Look at what the war has cost us already. Mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters, even the unborn. Countless Xenophon. Authority is weak as well. Now is the time.”

“We’ve never invoked Subpart IV,” someone muttered. “It is too dangerous. Too great a risk.”

“We’ve never invoked it because of the chance Authority would select one of our own in its place,” Luna reminded. “But this is different. Katsaros has chosen for us. Authority will choose her.”

Though reluctance marred his visage, Uzun was the next to speak through the soft hum of dissent. “It pains me to say this, but I fear Moon is right.”

He stood and continued. “Katsaros is bold enough to agree. If she carries any weight with Alexander, with Authority, and it is clear she does, they will almost certainly agree to invoke the provision.”

For a moment there was silence and then several nods.

“Unless anyone sees a better way,” he started, “I will send a message over the horns. Tonight.”

Not one of them spoke.

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Disputes of territory and ideology may also be determined by dance, so long as each side agrees to this method of resolution. Both Hoyal Clan members and Authority may each chose a single dancer to participate. The winner shall be the individual who lives, who dances until the other is dead. Given the Hoyal Clan’s distinct advantage in this realm, it is agreed that Authority may, if it wishes, choose a Hoyal Clan member, namely a Xenophon dancer, to serve as its representative. Authority may make this choice unilaterally, without consent of Hoyal leaders or the individual chosen….

– Section III., Part A., Subpart iv. of the Authority-Hoyal Treaty of Year 2217, Before Severance

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By midnight it was decided. Authority had agreed to invoke Subpart IV. Luna and Katsaros would dance in less than one day’s time.

Later still, as Luna slept in fitful spurts, she dreamt of killing her former lover and mentor and friend. With the nightshade dagger, she sliced Katsaros open, down the middle, mimicking the image Katsaros and Authority used to fake her death. Blood bubbled from Katsaros’s mouth, ran over her lips and down the slope of her strong chin. Through the blood, she spoke. The pain is too much, my little moon. Too vivid. I was never as strong as you. Never as strong.

When Luna awoke, it was with the taste of the same bitter, answerless questions on her tongue. Was that indeed why Katsa betrayed her? Because she’d lost hope? Grown tired of life on the losing side? Katsa had never been a coward. But this seemingly endless fight had taken its toll on everyone—whittled its way into veins and bones, a song of decay, a scream without hope. Most likely, Luna would never truly know Katsa’s reasons. Because war is never black or white but something in the middle, something impossibly sunless and bleak.

There was nothing to do but carry on, and by midafternoon, Luna had finished preparing herself for the task at hand. She had read through the entirety of Triumphant Resistance; reviewed her dance steps, focusing on those that required the least energy; and dressed in the attire of Xenophon. Only one thing remained to do before marching to the Square: she needed to apologize to Uzun.

She went to his quarters and let herself in without knocking.

He was there, as she expected, pacing the room like a young soldier on his first day of battle. Snakes, his animal-protector of choice, festooned the walls and ceiling vines like chains of garland or ribbon. Luna had never liked snakes—it was something in their eyes and the quick flick of their tongues more than their slithering nature. But Uzun had a way of making her appreciate almost anything, of helping her see all sides.

“I’m ready,” she said firmly.

Uzun stopped his pacing and turned to her. “You don’t have to do this.” His voice was barely a whisper.

“Yes,” she said. “I do.”

Uzun swallowed, hard. “It isn’t safe. What if you lose?” He filled his cheeks with air, then blew it out slowly.

It hurt—a deep, demon-grey sort of hurt—to see him this way. To see him in so much pain.

“The provision is obsolete,” he counseled through gritted teeth. “It’s…it’s—”

“Obsolete, maybe,” Luna agreed. “But still law. Besides, I won’t lose. She may be a better Memorycolor Specialist, and a better soldier, but I have always been the better dancer. You know that.”

Uzun sighed. “Yes, but what do you seek to accomplish? Even if you win, you are still the last dancer. It’s a losing battle either way.” Uzun stretched out his arm towards a large, yellow-eyed snake. The creature moved at his call, slithering across his arm and coming to rest as a golden ribbon across his shoulders. “What can revenge accomplish, now?”

“I don’t do this for revenge, Uzun.”

“Then for what?”

“For ceasefire. For peace.”

“Don’t be naïve,” he snapped. “You think winning this dance will put an end to the destruction and chaos and death? Not for long. A year, perhaps two. And then their intolerance will unfurl again.”

Luna stepped closer to him and reached out to touch the snake’s head with the back of two fingers—a demonstration of power and poise, a signal to Uzun that she was in control. “I think a ceasefire will buy us more time. Time to regroup. Time to find other dancers—in the outer provinces, in the nurseries, wherever. There must be more of us. There must. And if there aren’t, if I truly am the last, then buying time is all the more crucial. We need a new strategy.”

“If you are truly the last, buying time won’t save your traditions or your skills. Why risk your life for a mere chance?”

“For you, Uzun.” Luna made a wide gesture. “For all those people out there, fighting with me because I stand with history. Whatever becomes of me—those people deserve peace and the preservation of their minds, their identities.”

“But—”

Luna put up a finger as she closed the space between them and took his face in her hands. He smiled, ever so slightly, and with feather-light lips, she kissed him. “Do not doubt me. If not this, then we have just more fighting ahead.”

“I know,” Uzun murmured, wrapping his arms around Luna’s waist. His voice still held heavy hints of fear, but the anger had faded. “I know.”

“I’m sorry,” she whispered, embracing Uzun fully. “That is what I came here to say. If I fail, know that I am sorry it had to be this way.”

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Less than an hour later, with half the Resistance traveling behind her, including Uzun and Ekene and Parviz, Luna walked with steady pace to the Square. More than once she caught the face of Alexis Mara, whose bright eyes offered encouragement even while her wrinkle-worn mouth reminded of the seriousness of this venture.

Katsaros was already waiting with a sea of Authority Intelligencers behind her when Luna arrived.

She looked different. Like she’d peeled back a layer of skin and lies: this Irene Katsaros was someone new. Or was perhaps finally who she’d always been, revealed.

Luna wanted to look away but instead stared harder. She tried her best to ignore the pain of betrayal stuck in her heart like a splinter of wood, the pain coloring her vision as though she were staring at a white-hot sun.

This Irene Katsaros was not the woman Luna had known. This was not the woman who liked sex in the grass better than between sheets, not the woman who taught Luna that desire was as complex as history itself. This woman, with a force of black hair framing her face and nothing at all behind her eyes, was cold and tired and sad.

It didn’t seem fair to have to fight her. But then, war was never fair.

Luna glanced over her shoulder at Uzun. His face was without expression, unreadable. Guardians Ekene and Parviz stood in the glowing embrace of the sunset, just behind Uzun, each with a nightshade dagger drawn. Should anything go awry, should Authority breach the pact to settle this war by dance, these three—and the hundreds more behind them—would defend her.

Luna inched forward, toward Katsaros. “Why?” she demanded. “Why would you do this? What have you done?”

Katsaros blinked. Her eyes were like shadows, empty of yore. Then she set her jaw and firmed her stance, and Luna knew no response would come.

No matter. Luna already had enough of an answer within her. Katsaros was tired. Scared. Without courage. Hurt beyond repair. A victim. A decider of her own fate. Complicated. Complicated in a way that only Hoyal Clan Xenophon dancers could be.

Suddenly, a hundred memories washed over Luna, a wave of residual longing and love. She stretched out an arm and put her hand on Katsaros’s shoulder. Katsaros followed suit. For a moment, the two dancers stood like this, united by a strain of mutual burden. But at this close range, Luna refused to hold Katsaros’s eyes with hers. What was would never be again.

She took a deep breath that revealed neither nerves nor fear. Then, like a vine retreating from shade, Luna twisted away from Katsaros. Under Subpart IV, they would dance simultaneously, Luna adorned in her shimmering sundew dress, Katsaros in the austere Authority uniform, until one or the other could dance no more.

Cutting through the thick murmur of the crowd, Luna spoke one last time. “Be quick, be graceful, and do no harm to the world.”

The crowd hushed, awaiting Katsaros’s response. But again, no words came from her mouth. Instead, she gave a shallow bow, then backed away as well.

As the chimes of the dead rang alongside the clatter of Authority’s anthem, Luna closed her eyes. Behind them, she found a sea of grey, a thousand stories of pain and struggle.

The final bell tolled.

With the jewels of history inlaid as weapons in her heart, Luna moved into the Position of Strength. It was time for the battle to begin.

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Copyright 2015 Sara Puls

Sara Puls spends most of her time lawyering, researching, writing, and editing. Her dreams frequently involve strange mash-ups of typography, fairy creatures, courtrooms, and blood. Sara’s stories have been published in Daily Science Fiction, The Future Fire, Penumbra, World Weaver Press’s Fae anthology, and elsewhere. She also co-edits Scigentasy, a gender- and identity-focused spec fic zine. On Twitter, she is @sarapuls.