The Law of Take

From her perch in her ship quarters, Vis took stock of the six dark-robed viziers on her hologlass. They swept the agitated young emperor into his audience hall, their gestures staccato, their voices pitched urgent. She pulled a knee up to her chin; her anxiety sharpened as the image on the hologlass came into crystal focus. Her husband—Mobad son of Humayun, Emperor of Sasân—still wore ceremonial robes from that morning. He had been with the viziers since they departed Shirvan.

      How much had she missed?

      She adjusted her earpiece nervously. The vizier’s words came in tinny from halfway across the imperial air cruiser A Just Sovereign Is Like Beneficial Rain, but that was the ship’s fault, and could not be remedied. Its archaic lofty windows and whalebone-ribbed interior, the determined path it cut through heavy mist as it rose thousands of meters into the air over the sea—these were statements of imperial power, not excellence of function. Rain was old and impressive, old and worthy of the emperor it carried, old and bloody slow: though they had left port an hour and a half ago, it would take another six to reach the imperial capital of Tesifun. And it had terrible reception.

      Vis hated this latter fact with an acute pang. Her mistakes of the last months meant that now, more than ever, retaining her place in Mobad’s favor demanded careful, exact moves on the shatranj board. Caution required planning. Precision required information. It required not missing half of the first meeting in weeks between her husband and Ramin.

      She spun her too-loose emerald wedding ring around its clammy digit. When she first boarded the imperial cruiser without Mobad last summer, the ship’s captain had gestured to the emerald as he taught her evacuation protocol. This ring—the emperor’s ring—was her key in case of emergency. What the captain didn’t say was this: aboard Rain, the emperor’s ring was omnipotent. A universal override. Mobad instructed the captain not to tell Vis this, nor to teach her how to log into the ship’s skeleton and access its surveillance information. The captain followed orders. Vis only did so when it benefitted her. An hour of trial and error with the ring had made the ship’s hundreds of unblinking eyes hers; now, tucked out of sight in her room on the upper deck, she watched her husband step onto his throne’s dais like a piece a shatranj board.

      “But he is a Dehqâni, your Eminence,” one vizier said. “The secessionists are his own family!”

      Vis scowled; an echo of her expression flickered across her husband’s face on the hologlass. The amusement this sparked was a weak, sad thing. For all that came between them, she and Mobad still held this in common: an impatience, bordering on disdain, for such a lack of guile.

      On the hologlass, Mobad turned. Though he had been Emperor for over a year, he still had a way of sinking into his seat that was too careful, too precise, still weighed by the trepidation of a younger prince who once believed he would never live to succeed his father.

      “Indeed. Ramin is a Dehqâni,” he said, fidgeting with the cuff of one ornately jeweled sleeve. “What of it?”

      Poor connection or no, Vis caught the acid underbelly of his words. He was irritable. He was anxious. And there was much to be anxious about: some amirs of noble houses claimed his seizing power in a coup was illegitimate. Others found the strength of his rule lacking. Royal astronomers resented their tight leash, how Mobad sided with Imperial priests in denying them leave to explore the heavens.

      And most pressing: wealthy Damavand Province would quit with him altogether.

      Once loyal subjects of the Sasânian Empire for centuries, members of the Dehqâni family, the ancient ruling house of Damavand, sought independence. They had rallied an alarming number of Damavandi amirs and mine-owners to their cause, then approached the eldest son of their eldest son, Ramin son of Manikan—adviser and boon companion of the Emperor—to ask for his blessing. The political legitimacy they required to be successful.

      Ramin refused.

      Vis knew this because Ramin had told her. She knew he feared what the secessionist might do even without him. What if the gems mined in Damavand were held hostage? These were the reason for conquering the province generations ago, the reason Rain glided high over stormy seas like a heron, the reason Vis’s hologlass glowed before her. Their scarcity would further stress the Emperor’s fracturing empire. Further stress could tip into civil war. Civil war would put Mobad in a tomb.

      And Vis would not be far behind.

      Given the topic of conversation, Vis doubted Ramin had been so frank with the other viziers. Especially as Ramin himself—a dark, broad-shouldered figure on the hologlass with a short black beard, all strong lines and arrogant cheekbones—shot the sputtering, accusing vizier a sharp glance.

      “You waste breath,” Ramin’s pointed use of the formal plural you iced his baritone. “My house has served the empire loyally for centuries. I swore a blood oath to his Eminence’s service, just as you did.”

      “So why are you fucking his wife?”

      Vis’s stomach dropped out beneath her.

      On the hologlass, heads whipped to the speaker: Behman, a military ally of theirs in the coup that brought Mobad to power. Ally, perhaps, was a loose use of the term—blackmailing a general who commanded half the fleet was no promise of personal loyalty. Vis had never expected as much.

      But neither had she expected this.

      It was as if the bottom of the ship had opened up and she was plummeting thousands of meters to steely seas below.

       Her eyes flicked to Mobad. He was utterly still.

      “What possesses you to make such an accusation?” Ramin said, his voice laced with venom.

      Vis flinched. An innocent Ramin would not have broken his cold silence. This Ramin slipped: he was caught off guard and scrambled for purchase.

      For it was true.

      It was true and they had misstepped, she and Ramin. They had underestimated Behman.

      Vis focused and refocused the hologlass on her husband’s face, willing the image to sharpen as he rose.

      “Indeed, General Behman,” he drawled, dry and mocking. “What possesses you?”

      Glacial cold dropped over Vis.

      Mobad believed Behman.

      No. He couldn’t—not so fast, not without giving Vis a chance to save her own skin. If she were there, if she were before him, she could distract and dance, detract and disguise, build her defenses with sweet words and faith in the force of Mobad’s initial obsession with her. That was how she had gotten here, to palaces and star-charts and imperial cruisers, to eavesdropping on generals and viziers: by taking and taking. By clawing a place for herself in a world that would have nothing to do with her lack of name and noble line. By cutting down enemies to make a hollow prince the Emperor. He was a pious shell when he met her, terrified of death at the hands of his brother, terrified of failure, a man who turned to silent gods with prayers and pleas when do it yourself was the answer.

      And she had made him emperor.

      Take was the law of orphans like her, and take she had: power, money, safety. Born with none of these, she would build herself into a fortress that could not be felled, her armor impenetrable, her safety secure.

      But it was all tied to Mobad.

      So she appeased him. She appeared one way before him: she was his star-given, his blessing and his luck, his raven-haired country bride, clever but never threatening, witty but never cunning. Appeared another way alone before the mirror: hungry, hollow cheeked, gray eyes ravenous as predatory fish of the deep. A girl who lived by the law of take. A girl who could not give. Who feared that if she did, she might lose everything.

      If Mobad turned on her, everything she had drawn blood for would vanish. Her power. Her security. Her home. Ephemeral as mist melting in the sun.

      The men on the hologlass burst into argument and exclamation, a drone of wasps in Vis’s ears.

      Ramin’s voice sliced through them. He demanded a private audience with the Emperor. It was granted. The other viziers filed from the room, shoulders curled inward to guard their gossip as they peppered Behman with questions Vis could not hear. The door shut behind them.

      Mobad stepped from his dais toward Ramin.

      They had met when they were boys. Each told a different version of the story. In military school, at the age of fourteen, Mobad—an untouchable princeling aching for a good brawl—picked a fight with Ramin. In one account, they fought in the mud of the training yard, bloodying one another until they had no breath left, called a truce, and had been inseparable ever since.

      Ramin snorted, delicately incredulous, when he heard this from Vis. “That is not true. I beat the shit out of him.”

      Mobad’s relationship with truth and personal history was interpretive. Flexible. The world reshaped around his memory and Vis quickly learned not to challenge it. Even Ramin, someone who had grown up with all she hadn’t—aristocracy, education, security, familial expectations—did the same. Avoiding conflict with Mobad was the correct choice, and Vis accepted this as a matter of survival.

      Ramin resented it. Old wounds festered. Now they ripped open.

      A flash of movement from the hologlass: Mobad struck Ramin across the face.

      Vis choked on a gasp.

      “Tell me it’s a lie.” Mobad’s voice cracked, splintered by static.

      That sort of order had no right answer. Lie as commanded, he would know it was true. Tell the truth, and… well.

      Ramin wiped a smear of blood from the corner of his mouth. “It’s not, in fact.”

      And that was where the truth ended.

      Ramin admitted he had seduced Vis in Mobad’s absence that summer in Ani. (False.) He did so because he was envious of Mobad’s power. (Also false.) She left him. (Less false—long story.) She hated him now. (A full-throated lie.) And then another lie, and another—all twisting Mobad’s attention, prodding his anger with a hot brand in all the precise places friends as close as brothers know. Vis held her breath as Ramin led Mobad through his choreography: disguise, deflect, redirect. He drew Mobad’s anger to his breast and held it there in stranglehold, never letting it flicker back to Vis. Not once. 

      Behman’s timing was an act of strategic perfection. In smashing a piece of crystal before the feet of all the Emperor’s advisers, he humiliated Mobad. Shame cut the emperor wild, burnished the hurt in his eyes as he paced before Ramin. There would be no reasoning with him in this state. The circle of their friendship was shattered: ten years round, begun and ended in echoing strikes.

      At Mobad’s raw bark, guards stepped out of the shadows of the room and surrounded Ramin, gem-actuated rifles gleaming at their sides. He struggled against them, but only for show.

      He was done. 

      He knew this. He sensed the boulders tied to his ankles, heard the crash of waves below, and he saw a way he could cut Vis loose.

      So he had done it.

      He took the fall.

      When Mobad announced that he would be executed for treason upon returning to Tesifun, Ramin cast a glance into the dark sweep of the ceiling, where he knew she must be watching.

      In the stormy seas, he had found driftwood with space for one, and threw it to her with all his strength.

      Take it, his desperate look pleaded. The ride will be rough, but you can survive. Take it.

~~~

      A year ago, in the dead of winter, Vis and Ramin—each suspicious of how much Mobad loved the other—joined forces to break Fate to their will. Back to back, daggers drawn, they blackmailed generals, bribed nobles. Murdered Mobad’s brother, closed their defenses, and waited for the night to thin. When morning broke, they licked their wounds and watched as Mobad—unblemished, untouched, his dark curls gilded with dawn, his eyes alight with pious fervor—raised his arms triumphant before crowds in Tesifun.

      Immediately, they were swept into the dark tides of the new world they had created. Ramin to the south, to combat rebellious amirs set on deposing an emperor they deemed illegitimate; Vis to her tower. Empress in name, her role was that of a mute idol. The long leash allotted to her when Mobad needed her to fight his battles was yanked tight.

      Tesifun stifled her. Summer came and air heavy with condensation and the hint of dead fish rose from the too-warm sea and draped over the city. Vis lived as if coated in a thick film. Her movements slowed. Her reactions delayed; the gleaming letters from Ramin on her private hologlass left unanswered.

      When Mobad asked what was wrong, she spun tales about how mountain girls like her wilted in the heat. Much to her surprise, a week later she found herself on A Just Sovereign Is Like Beneficial Rain with instructions to take up residence in the city of Ani, jewel of the glaciers, capital of Damavand Province, for the remainder of the season. A benevolent symbol of the new emperor’s respect for the north.

      Vis stepped from Rain’s gangway onto the glittering black sand of the port of Shirvan. Sharp salt wind from jagged fjords sang against her skin, tugging at her hair before leaping to the whitecaps behind her.

      She could breathe.

      And, from the welcoming group of local amirs, Ramin stepped forward to take her hand.

      In the months since the coup, she had not forgotten the breadth of his shoulders, nor the straightness of his posture, but she had forgotten his hard beauty: his was the thicker calligraphic arabesque, solid and precise and sharp as a dagger at the end.

      Her breath caught as he bowed and touched her rings to his forehead, his dark hair catching sunlight like obsidian.

      “What are you doing here?”

      “Leave of absence.” He straightened. “Family affairs.”

      She knew then it wasn’t the full truth. Perhaps it was bereavement, or some dispute that a family as ancient and private as the Dehqânis did not care to air.

      She set it out of her mind as Ramin escorted her inland to Ani and offered to take her on a stroll through the forests he played in as a child. They abandoned the rest of her retinue—including Mobad’s sister Mihin and her husband, General Behman—and vanished into the pines.

      Vis inhaled deeply of damp earth, of pinesap, of air so wet it was a whisper away from mist. She listened as Ramin shared local folklore of pagan queens and firebirds as he guided her through the tumbling ruins of civilizations he knew by names in dead languages. When they reached the base of Ani’s glacier, wind whipping their hair and stinging their cheeks, he pointed with a gloved hand at the blue heart of the ice.

      “That,” he said, “is the only color in nature that rivals your eyes.”

      Was it said in jest? She couldn’t tell. The flirtation that had begun a year ago as game of mockery shifted beneath their feet as they danced, learned gentle touches to the elbow, coyness, the flush that comes from sharing secrets. It had become something new. Some soft, strange thing that curled warm through Vis’s ribs.

      She turned it over in her head that night as she loosened her wind-roughened plait and began to comb out knots, only to be chastened by her attendant Gazanfer. Once a war captive, made a eunuch and slave of the old Emperor’s family, he was her first friend in this sharp-fanged world, her kin in all but blood. She had freed him and his partner mere hours after the imperial diadem touched her brow.

      “Asst, you are too rough on these curls.” He set to work on the tangles himself. “What did Ramin tell you about his fiancée?”

      Vis whipped her head around so suddenly hair tore from her scalp. “Who?

       Ramin’s family had arranged his marriage, and he came to Damavand at their command to lay the first steps of a long, traditional courtship to Gol, a perfect stranger. Panic seized Vis’s ribs, choking the soft thing that curled there.

      Family affairs. That lying piece of shit.

      For the next week she picked petty arguments with Ramin just to see him on the defensive. She was a dog with a grudge, deliberately and methodically shredding her master’s socks. He took her bait—he always did—but their bickering fouled her mood further still.

      “You are miserable.” Gazanfer cornered her as she sulked on her bedroom’s balcony, moodily watching tendrils of evening curl through the mountain-ringed city below. “For the love of the moons,” he said, “let me fix it.”

      Vis cast Gazanfer a sideways look. His long bronze hair was pulled away from his face in a horsetail, and the plain concern in his face was carved clearer still by the twilight. He loved her with the fierceness of hungry lost things who band together against wolves; whatever she asked, he would do it.

      She wavered. Of course, it was wrong to let him fix it. But what of the stiffness of Ramin’s posture whenever his betrothed entered the room? The thick reluctance with which he left ill-tempered Vis’s side to rejoin his family? These flickered like teasing candlelight in the back of her heart.

      Perhaps it was wrong. But perhaps it might not be unwelcome.

      “Get rid of Gol,” she said. “I can’t stand her.”

      A pause from her right. “Define ‘get rid,’ my little liver. I come from violent stock.”

      Grim temptation twisted Vis’s chest. “Save the mess.” Mess would draw attention, and all she wanted was for this person to back away from what was hers. “Most of it.”

      “Feeling territorial, are we?”

      Vis flicked a small pebble from the balcony railing with far more force than was quite necessary.

      Gazanfer was a swift weaver. Deft and precise as any artisan, he pulled strings that ensured the marriage was called off by the bride’s family with minimal social scandal. Save the mess, perfectly tidy. Perhaps too tidy.

      Ramin knew precisely who to confront two days later.

      Feigned innocence never won battles, so Vis allowed herself to be pulled aside into a quiet palace parlor after her retinue had turned in for the night. Ramin checked the hall twice before closing the door, motioned for her to follow to the far side of the small room.

      Every inch of him was wound tight with frustration. “Apologize.”

      The Dehqâni family prized saving face, and Vis’s actions must have cost him splendidly in their eyes. The thought of this pleased her.

      “For what? Snatching you from the jaws of marital misery? Don’t insult me by pretending you wanted to marry her.”

      “Do not presume to tell me what I do or do not want.”

      Ramin son of Manikan, eldest son of the eldest son, renowned throughout the empire for his cool head, always took her bait. She settled comfortably into her upper hand. “I will presume to tell you whatever I damn like, especially when I know I’m right.”

      He weighed this for a moment, eyes narrowed. Weighed her. Pivoted strategy: “Fine. You’re right: I did not want to marry her. You win. Check mate, kill the king—you win. But why did you do it?”

      The reason was this: this, that filled the space between them, present whether they were provinces or inches apart. He knew that. He had to know that.

      “You know why,” she snapped.

      He was still, but the lines of his face settled, his breathing shifted; Vis’s answer had reset the shatranj board between them. Her heart skipped against the hollow of her throat. Shit. Shit.

      “Say it,” he said. A low hum, barely above the crackle of embers and fragrant wood from the ornamental hearth across the room. “I need to hear you say it out loud.”

      “I won’t play this little game.” A lie. She had leapt to meet his every move, and would keep leaping. She had never lost to him at shatranj. She had no intention of doing so tonight. 

      “You owe me the truth,” he said. “And I owe you the truth. We can’t keep fighting like this.”

      She tossed a curl haughtily over one shoulder. “Can’t we? I’m quite enjoying myself.”

      Ramin’s laughter always surprised her. It was a soft gasp, lighter than one would expect from his voice. “Vis.” Since arriving in the north she had learned that the way his voice rolled slow over her name was the plummy accent of the Damavandi upper class. But it always sounded best when he said it: a featherlight fingertip dragged slowly down her spine. “What do you want?”

      He stood so close that his cologne toyed with her hair: pine, sea, twined with the warm memory of tobacco. 

      She did not answer.

      “I will ask once more.” These were the words of a peace treaty: “If you choose not to answer, I will respect your wish. I promise to leave this for good.” Whatever this was, this that he gestured to between his chest and hers. “In return, I ask you to do the same. To never again meddle with my private life.” He exhaled, long and slow. “What do you want?”

      Beyond the palace, beyond the walls of Ani, the glacier sighed and creaked. A stray breeze pawed at a string of bells in a garden below. The fire crackled secrets to itself.

      They were alone.

      A flutter of eyelashes as his gaze flitted from her eyes to mouth and back again.

      Fate tugged at her ankles like a riptide. Give in.

      She curled her fingers into fists. Braced.

      “You,” she said. “I want you.”

      He leaned into her, so close their noses were almost touching. When he spoke, a challenge brushed her lips:

      “Then take me.”

~~~

      This is the law of take: when you are hungry, eat. When you are cold, seek heat. When you are drowning, claw for air. When you are hollow, grasp at whatever fills you. Hold it. Keep it.

      Vis stared at her husband on the hologlass, mouth dry. Ramin was gone, taken to the cells in the bow of Rain. Mobad strode to the foot of the audience room, one haughty gesture and a flash of rings opening the door before him. Where was he going?

      Here?

      Vis was logging into the ship’s skeleton to follow his path when Gazanfer entered her room and set down a tray of pomegranate juice. He clicked his tongue. “How many times have I told you sitting like that ruins your posture?”

      Vis ripped out her earpiece. “Shut the door!” she hissed, and when he did, answered his questioning look: “Mobad knows. Ramin is to be executed.”

      She had lurched into action, a hurricane around the eye of Gazanfer’s shocked stillness, grabbing rings from the desk and stuffing them into pockets, thanking the moons she had already changed into trousers as she laced up the lightest pair of boots she had on board. “The secessionists will take Ramin. Cell to the evacuation pod takes seven minutes, maybe five sprinting. I just need to get us to the pod. We’ll back in Shirvan before this piece of junk can turn around.”

      “Slow down. You’re not making sense.”

      She straightened and took the hologlass in slick palms. A bright dot winked up at her. “Mobad is on his way here. I don’t have time to make sense. I’m going to the cells.” The emperor’s ring on her hand would open any door on this ship, but it was also a beacon of her location. She needed it to free Ramin. She also needed to reach the cells secretly. “Can I use your key?”

      She was halfway to the door; Gazanfer stayed her with a hand to the shoulder. “Stop and think for a minute. Going to the secessionists…that means civil war.”

      It did. It meant chaos. Death.

      She shrugged him away. “What would you do if it were Tala in Ramin’s stead?” she snapped. Gazanfer’s mouth firmed to a hard line at the mention of his partner. “You would tear the earth open and raise the dead to get to them,” she barreled on. “You would set fire to the sea, scorch it to dust if it stood in your way.” The heat in her chest seared her fear, hardening it to crystal. Let there be war. Let the old world burn. “I will rip this empire to pieces before I let Ramin die.”

      “And throw away everything you’ve fought for?” Gazanfer countered sharply. A war captive, a former slave, he knew the law of take even better than she.

      “Not quite. The Dehqânis won’t have anyone but their eldest son govern.” Secession meant she would exchange an emperor in the south for a king in Damavand. Secession meant scarcity of gems, scarcity meant bargaining power for the north, and power meant security. Ramin had turned down his family’s offer before, but she had no doubt he would blossom where she planted him. He was calm, canny, careful of the past and hungry for the future; men turned their faces to him with the instinct of night orchids to the rising moons. He would be a firmer oak than Mobad had ever been to cultivate her new foundation around, no longer an obstruction to her hold on power but its solution.

      “Just wait and see—I’ll be crowned queen of Damavand before winter solstice. Key?”

      Gazanfer’s eyes flickered across her face; he weighed her plan against the law of take. Then he unclipped a kernel-sized chip from the golden band at his wrist and pressed it into her palm. “Be quick. I’ll send the emperor on a fool’s errand, then run to prepare the pod. It’ll save us time.”

      Us. He would come. He had faith in her plan. She was ready to risk this alone—she had no other choice—but the knowledge that Gazanfer would move with her, her shadow on the other side of the ship, rushed heady to her temples.

      “Gazanfer.” Something hard welled in her throat, and she could say nothing else.

      “I hear Ani is lovely at the solstice. Absolutely iced over,” he said dryly, and opened the door. The empty hall yawned dark before Vis. “Wouldn’t miss your coronation for the world. Now go.”

~~~

      The law of take had never led Vis astray. Faithfully she seized every opportunity to rise, and the law carried her, its devoted acolyte, to dizzying heights. Yet once she placed Mobad, her greatest prize, on his throne, he forbade her from consulting with his viziers. Banished her from the audience chamber and the information that fed her security.

      Had Mobad allowed her to rule by his side as he had once promised, shoulder-to-shoulder as his comrade in arms—had he loved her as she once thought he would—she might not have had room in her private world for Ramin.

      All that summer, she and Ramin defended this with every ounce of stealth Fate had ever granted them, back to back, daggers drawn. On the one occasion Mobad visited from the south, Ramin boarded a sleek pod and vanished into the mountains with his cousins. Family was also the excuse that kept him in Damavand Province: their connections, he told Mobad, allowed him to plant moles and gather intelligence on growing sympathy to the Damavandi secessionist movement. Back in Ani, Vis danced and distracted as Mobad complained of how he grappled with astronomers and priests. Solutions to tangled politics unraveled themselves to Vis as he spoke, but she offered no advice. Only cooed with concern where Mobad’s script dictated. Had he only allowed her to, Vis and the law of take would have lifted the weight of empire from his shoulders.

      But he did not.

      And when he left, Vis walked with Ramin near the waters of a fjord. Gazanfer had accompanied them for propriety’s sake but lingered back at the sleek pod that brought them this far from Ani.

      There was no script with Ramin. Choreography fell away before his earnestness. When he looked at her, he saw all of her: the hungry eyes, the iron wire that grew bramble-like through her ribs. And he stayed. So when he said he and Vis needed to have a serious conversation, far from any listening ears, claws tightened around her chest.

      Mobad’s visit must have been too much for Ramin’s pride. He was going to leave her. She would lose the brush of his laughter against her hair, the weight of his arm across her stomach as they slept. She would bear it with cold dignity, her own pride concealing her grief until they returned to Ani. Once alone, she could mourn. Berate herself for her missteps. Then, she would step back into her life’s ceaseless dance and never again believe that anyone who knew her hunger could ever desire her.

      The sand here was finer than in Shirvan and white as southern cotton; grey pebbles and pale shells crunched beneath their boots as they walked. She stuffed her hands resolutely into the pockets of her wine-red wool cloak and kept her eyes on the sea to her right. It curled at the edge of the sand, timid, as if it too were waiting for Ramin to speak.

      He began without ceremony. “I think Behman suspects us. But I think we are still safe. This is safe.”

      Vis stopped, heels sinking into the sand. Not what she had anticipated. The claws around her heart loosened—but only slightly. “Define ‘safe.’”

      Ramin turned to face her. His cloak was his customary black, flecks of rain dotting his shoulders like pale gems. His silhouette was stark, even elegant, against the shell-white fjord cliffs and gray skies. As if the land itself had been carved for him by gods with names long forgotten.

      She dug her hands deeper into her pockets as he described a conversation his spies overheard between General Behman and his wife Mihin. When Behman expressed concern that Vis and Ramin spent more time together than was appropriate, Mihin brushed him away with a knowing gesture. Vis could taste her sister-in-law’s cloying condescension even through reported speech: didn’t Behman know not to worry? Didn’t he know Ramin was a member of the same social circle as her deceased first husband?

      (Said first husband’s family had arranged his advantageous betrothal to Mihin with no regard for his lack of desire for women; that both members of the marriage then contented themselves with lovers was not an open secret, nor was it perfectly closed.)

      Vis narrowed her eyes. “What does that mean?”

      Behman had apparently asked the same, and Mihin explained: Ramin had romances with men. Mihin knew this because her first husband shared mutual acquaintances with Ramin and gossip with Mihin.

      Vis also knew this. But beyond the initial pang of jealousy of all new lovers, she chose not to devote attention to affairs long gone cold.

      “It means Mihin thinks it impossible we could ever be… this,” Ramin said. This was something they did not name, for the act of naming would force Vis to confront what this had become. “She told Behman he was wrong to believe so, for you and I are like her and her first husband.”

      Close. Confidantes. Chaste.

      Vis bit the inside of her lip, one hand toying with a piece of lint in her pocket. If that were the case, then she and Ramin hid in plain sight. Safe, in his words.

      Could she believe that?

      The correct answer was no. The correct course, as far as survival was concerned, was to break it off. Shake hands and be done with it. Let him go.

      But ravenous is the law of take.

      “What are you thinking?” Ramin asked quietly, as timid as the ripples at the water’s edge.

      Vis avoided meeting his eyes. “I’m thinking that if I ever showed myself to be that profoundly unimaginative, Gazanfer would smack me over the head with his slipper. Who thinks that way?”

      Sadness deepened the rasp of his laughter. “You’d be surprised.” He tucked a loose strand of hair behind Vis’s ear, his hand lingering, the brush of his gaze tracing summer freckles across her cheeks. She refused to meet it. A moment passed before he spoke again: “I follow your lead.”

      If she told him to leave, he would. If she asked him to stay, he would. Even if it was dangerous. Even if he risked everything for it.

      For Ramin was not touched by the law of take. His compass was governed by laws she did not understand.

      She settled her cheek into the warmth of his palm. “We must be more cautious. No more wandering like this.” She looked longingly at the water, inhaled fresh cold air, and exhaled. “We should only meet in the palace. In private.”

      “I shall be your loyal night attendant.” There was a regretful lilt in his dry reference to the harem of the old empire. Vis, too, ached at the thought of bidding farewell to these afternoons. Sweeping skies, tumbling bone-white ruins, wildflower-dotted meadows at the foot of fanglike peaks: these were only complete with Ramin. He was as much a part of this land as it was of him.

      Now she allowed herself to look up at him. “Hush,” she chastened. “You know you’re more to me than that.”

      “What am I to you?”

      The breeze played with his spider-silk black hair, drawing it across his brow. That soft thing that curled between Vis’s ribs also lived in him: she knew it like she knew her feet on the ground.

      Perhaps this was what governed the law of his compass.

      If that were true, then this should have a name. Anything that slipped over their shoulders so fluidly, like tailored mink, like home, should have a name.

      But that Vis could not give.

      “Who knows,” she said.

~~~

      Vis’s boots pounded the halls of Rain, their urgency muffled by the old-fashioned rugs that lined the interior of the ship. As soon as she could, she used Gazanfer’s key to swipe herself into a servants’ corridor that—according to the skeleton on her hologlass—was the swiftest way to the cells in the bow.

      Down three floors, dodging servants and crew who knew better than to ask the empress what was amiss. She prayed they knew better than to report her to Mobad. She had no time to spin tales or instruct them otherwise.

      Another touch of the key; the final corridor opened before her. Its ceiling was blue, studded with crystal stars that echoed those decorating the ceiling of the audience chamber. The last stars men taken to the cells would ever see.

      “They’re like constellations,” Ramin had once said, drawing a light finger over her throat and chest, from one mole to the next, as they lay tangled in sleep-warmed sheets.

      “Read my stars,” Vis said.

      “They are inauspicious, your Eminence,” Ramin declared, his seriousness mocking the astral projections of priests in Tesifun. “Unlucky planet Keyvân ascends into the Mark of the Brides: you will have the great misfortune of falling in love with someone who steals all the pillows.”

      “In love, am I?” Her tone was clear: he had overstepped.

      His fingertip stopped its delicate journey. He raised his eyes—framed kohl-thick by long lashes—to hers, then dropped them again.

      “That was a slip of the tongue,” he said softly.

      She should have told him to leave her. She tried once, but lost her nerve; all that earned her was new knowledge of how deep in her bones the ore of her cowardice lay. She should have made him hate her. Done something to prevent him from taking the fall for them both. He deserved better than her. Someone who was not stitched together by bitter thorns and fear.

      It did not matter what Ramin deserved if he were dead.

      She took the last set of stairs two by two and coolly dismissed the guards who stood at the door of the sole occupied cell, confident that Mobad would never have told these men—mere crew members, not even Imperial Guard—the nature of Ramin’s crime.

      Her faith in Mobad’s shame was well placed. The guards stepped down the hall at her command to stand watch.

      Vis hesitated at the door. Until this moment, she was an invisible servant opening and closing doors through the ship’s belly. But Gazanfer’s key did not open cells. Only the emperor’s did. The ship’s skeleton would log the command from her ring, and her position would be revealed.

      Her decision would be revealed.

      The bridge between her and Mobad behind her was drenched in oil, and she held a lit match. She could drop it, or she could not.

      She set her jaw and waved her hand over the keypad.

      The cell’s door slid open. Light flooded past Vis into the cell; black steel gleamed hard as Ramin raised cuffed hands to shield his eyes. His ankles were also cuffed and bound.

      Vis fell to a crouch at his side. A soft cry slipped from his lips when he registered who had come. “What are you doing here?”

      She raised a finger to her lips, then set to removing the cuffs from his ankles. The proverbial hourglass had turned: seven minutes to the evac pod, maybe five if they sprinted.

      “Didn’t you hear me?” Ramin whispered. “Weren’t you watching the audience hall? Leave. You’ll be safe. I’m fine.”

      Dead was not fine. Dead was not acceptable.

      She took his face in her hands. The familiar bristle of his beard against her palms, the softness of his ears beneath her fingertips: these were home. The thought of losing them carved her chest open. The cleaving of a glacier in spring.

      She kissed him. Hard.

      “Shut up,” she hissed. “I will not lose you.”

      “Vis, think wh—”

      She ignored him, turning to the cuffs at his wrists. “We’re going to your family. Seceding. Evac pods and Gazanfer are across the ship. I came with his key, but now that I have you, the ship knows I’m me and we need to be fast.”

      The cuffs struck the floor with hollow metallic clinks. Vis grasped his forearms and hauled him to his feet.

      The rumble of the ship around Vis melted away as Ramin straightened and held her gaze. He was gravity. The certainty of sunrise.

      “If something goes wrong,” he breathed, “I want you to know—”

      She turned her back on him. Don’t say that. Don’t. “No time. Let’s move.”

~~~

      They stunned the guards, took gem-actuated rifles from their belts, and ran. There was no turning back. There was only go. They crept out of the block of cells, Ramin watching the front and Vis behind; back to back, daggers drawn, breaking Fate to their will one last time.

      Vis checked the hologlass before every turn, looking for pursuers, checking the halls between them and the evacuation pods. Soon they were a fourth of the way through the bowels of the cruiser, the chill of uncarpeted steel floors that crept through Vis’s boots a constant reminder of how far she had to fall if they failed.

      A third of the way. They skittered like mice, sprinting then pausing to listen—but never for long. Each passing minute might mean their lives. Halfway through the ship. They stilled, pulses throbbing, palms slick, when gleaming movement on the hologlass alerted them to groups of Imperial Guards and crew members swarming the decks overhead.

      The chase was on.

      Move, move, move.

      Two thirds of the way, still relying on the hologlass to avoid guards and crew. The air warmed metallic on Vis’s tongue as they neared the engine, a gem of massive proportions mined in the mountains of Damavand Province three decades ago. Wind whistled past the creaking ribs of the ship; Vis’s shadow passing through a patch of light caught the attention of a mechanic. Beardless, slim, and young, his eyes went wide with surprise; his mouth stayed in an oh even as Ramin clubbed his skull with the butt of his rifle. The mechanic’s fall slanted into Vis and sent her hologlass flying.

      It shattered, shrill as a wine flute.

      The echo of its death note clung on the air between them. Doubt—and perhaps fear— creased Ramin’s brow. Without it, did they have a chance?

      Go, she mouthed.

      This was a tenet of the law of take: chances were not simply had. Chances came when you seized them. Chances worked when you fought for them.

      And Vis was not done fighting.

      She stepped over the prone mechanic. Remnants of her hologlass crunched beneath her heel as they surged forward blindly. A final swipe of Vis’s key, and the last door opened before them. Unable to check for pursuers with the hologlass, Ramin glanced into the hall, rifle held ready.

      He jerked back. A spray of blue light and rifle ammunition heralded the presence of Imperial Guards. Adrenaline flooded sharp through Vis’s chest as Ramin fired back. Shouts retreated; through their echoes, Vis caught evac pod and cut off. It was all she needed to hear.

      “Go!” she cried.

      Ramin lurched into the hall, Vis just behind. Flushed with the chase, legs pounding, sucking in air as hard as she could. He sprinted with the power of a bull, but she kept abreast of him, nearly abreast of him, just a step behind, even as her throat burned and her forearms ached from the weight of the rifle.

      The drum of following footsteps; Vis risked a look over her shoulder. Behman devoured the space behind her, shoulder to shoulder with armed Imperial Guards.

      They fired. Bullets of blue light ripped past as she and Ramin dove around a corner.

      The honeycomb blocks of the portside evacuation docks stretched before them. The first pod beckoned bright; Gazanfer was inside, his frantic gestures lit from behind.

      “Dock lockdown,” he cried. “Pod won’t start without your key!”

      The emperor’s key. The override key.

      Ramin leaned into dead sprint. Vis was only two steps behind, only three. Run harder. Run harder.

      Pain sliced her thigh, wet and hot. She tumbled, struck steel knees first them hips. Her rifle flew from her grip and skittered across the floor. Bullets sprayed overhead; she lurched on hands and knees to the rifle, seized it and flung herself behind a nook opposite the evacuation pod.

      Blood welled in a long gash along her left thigh, through trousers shredded with medical precision. Another round of ammunition shrieked past; she jerked back into her nook reflexively, back pressing against cold wall, her pulse thrumming in time with thundering footsteps.

      Ramin called her name; the unmistakable sound of round after round of ammunition into metal hull echoed through the dock. Behman was firing on the pod.

      Vis hauled her rifle into her arms and thrust its nose around the edge of her nook, finger on the trigger. Recoil snapped her skull against steel wall. Colored lights sparked her vision. Shouts. The footsteps ceased.

      She braced and set her finger to trigger again: this time, a cry and a thud.

      Behman’s growl echoed toward her. Something about medics. Her ears rang with adrenaline; the next thing she caught was the emperor wants her alive.

      But not Ramin.

      If he did not get away, he was dead.

      “Vis!”

      She kept the nose of her gun around the edge but craned her head to the far side of the docks. Ramin’s silhouette darkened the entrance of the evacuation pod; Gazanfer leapt into the pilot’s seat behind him, flipping switches and pulling up coordinates on the dashboard hologlass.

      The pod’s engines remained silent.

      Dock lockdown.

      Last summer, Rain’s captain taught Vis that there were two ways to launch the evacuation pod using her override key. One was from inside the pod. The other was dockside: a small black keypad, barely broader than her palm. Vis scanned the honeycomb archway of the pod’s berth.

      There it was, just meters from her position. Wholly exposed to Behman’s fire.

      A shout from Behman; Vis fired more warning shots around the nook, pressing herself against the wall with gritted teeth when her gesture was returned. Her key winked up at her from her hand on the trigger.

      If she sprinted the exposed meters between her and the pod, she might make it. Or Behman and the Imperial Guards might bring her down and seize her and the ring, leaving Ramin and Gazanfer cornered in the pod.

      If she ran to the black keypad…

      No. Every instinct screamed in unison with the law of take. She had scorched all the bridges behind her to ash. There was nothing for her here. She had to get to the pod, even if it meant risking all of their lives.

      Her heart throbbed raw against her ribs as she looked from the keypad to the pod.

      “Vis!” In the harsh light of the pod, the anguish creasing Ramin’s face looked so close to grief it snatched her breath away. “Come. Please.”

      She was in love with him.

      It was a crisp realization. The swift, clean click of a lock. A single footfall in fresh snow. It had slipped under her skin when her guard was down—maybe last week, maybe yesterday, maybe long ago—and now, in this crystalline moment suspended between one life and another, it announced itself by upending the shatranj board and sending the pieces flying.

      Rounds of ammunition echoed behind her. Voices echoed, dully.

      She loved him.

      Her mind was utterly blank. She had stepped off a high precipice into empty, naked space and was falling, falling, falling…

      “Vis!”

      She braced her feet on the floor, her back against the wall. Gritted her teeth as she forced herself to standing. Pain seared up her thigh as she shoved the nose of her gun around the wall and sent one last spray of warning bullets.

      Then she ran.

      Her lungs burned. Shouts echoed around her. Four steps left, then three, then—

      She flung out her ringed right hand. The black keypad lit up in response to her ring; she brought her palm down.

      The pod roared to life.

      “Ta—”

      The entrance hatch slammed shut, locking Ramin inside.

      You must be very careful with the override, your Eminence, the captain told her last summer. If you hold too long, it force-ejects the pod. Wouldn’t want it to leave without you! he added with a nasal chuckle.

      Vis held her hand on the keypad as the floor beneath the pod yawned open. Wind snatched the rifle from her other hand, sucked at her body; her legs screamed as she braced against its pull.

      The pod dropped.

      It sang away, burning like a bullet, riding the slip the cruiser left behind.

      Wind ripped her hair and stung her eyes as she watched the pod fade to a pupil, then a speck. 

      Then it was gone.

      Soon Ramin would be sailing over mountains and pine forests. His family would slam the borders shut behind him, seize their reluctant king and protect him with iron and blood.

      The dock thundered closed.

      Ramin was safe.

      And there was nothing Mobad could do now to get him back.

      Heavy hands seized her shoulders and wrenched her around. Cramps gripped her legs; she swayed as she held up her hands, palms out, and faced Behman. His hard mouth was set twisted, every muscle of him coiled and ready for a brawl.

      Yet no brawl would be had. Rain hummed forward, the engine behind them rumbling contentedly. It was too heavy to turn. Too slow to pursue. Ramin was gone, and Behman knew it. She had snatched the hunter’s game right from his jaws.

      “I have orders to arrest you for treason against the Emperor,” he forced through the anger stiffening his jaw, taking a pair of black cuffs from a guard.

      Never once dropping her gaze, Vis turned her palms inward and lowered all her fingers but the two longest.

      “Bitch,” he snarled.

      “Mind your tongue, General.” She forced acid into her voice. Bravado was all that stitched her together. The throb in her leg pulsed dull, insistent. She wished she had run harder. If only she had run harder. “I am your empress.”

      He sneered. “For how much longer?”

      She did not know.

      And throw away everything you’ve fought for?

      She had. Mobad’s trust in her, the power and safety that came with it, even the narrow escape Ramin had fallen on his sword to give her. She had burned the old world to ash, met Ramin’s eyes through the smoke, and let him go.

      He would return to Damavand. He would set his boots down on glittering black sand and breathe sharp salt wind off the fjords.

      And Ramin would live.

      She loved him, and he would live. 

      And here Vis stood, alone and bleeding amidst the wreckage of the shattered law of take.

      A sob coiled hot in her throat. She lowered her hands and held her chin high.

      Now the emperor would know his wife’s true mettle. No more dancing. No more lies. She could hide no longer, would hide no longer: she was naked hunger and thorns, brambles and iron, and he would know her true face. He would know her as she who had broken Fate to her will. Once, twice. She who would face the consequences with her back to the wall, daggers drawn.

      Vis offered her wrists to Behman to be cuffed. “For as long as I please, General.”

About the Author

Isabel Cañas

Isabel Cañas is a Mexican-American speculative fiction writer. After having lived in Mexico, Scotland, Egypt, and Turkey, she has settled in New York City, where she works on her PhD dissertation in medieval Islamic literature and writes fiction inspired by her research and her heritage. To learn more, visit www.isabelcanas.com.

Find more by Isabel Cañas

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