by Nori Kanfuyu (法 寒冬)
illustrated by Tamago (卵)
Nikolay woke to a terrible sound, a knife at his neck, and the pale nightmare face hovering above him. It had been storming when he went to sleep, but this sound was much closer — the breaking of glass.
“Go away,” he said to the nightmare face.
It did not disappear as it normally did, allowing him to slip back into a dream-filled sleep. Instead, it leaned closer and said in a clipped, aristocratic Miran accent, “I need you to make me a sword, Jehan.”
“Take your pick of those in the forge,” Nikolay said, voice raspy with sleep. The face didn’t vanish, even when he closed his eyes and opened them again. It did something worse — it smiled. The knife at his neck was cold. Cold and real. His senses began to wake, painfully and all at once. This was no dream at all.
“Those aren’t fit for me,” the Miran said. A soft light began to bloom from him, and Nikolay pulled back in growing horror, the knife scraping softly at his neck. “Where do you keep the real blades?”
“Is your knife not real enough?” Nikolay said. His body ached. He could not even move without risking his throat.
“Real enough, yes,” the Miran said, pulling back and idly examining his own fingernails. “But it’s just not beautiful, you know?”
“If you’re looking for beautiful swords, you should have stayed in Mira.”
“Hm,” the Miran said, looking at him from the gloom with a piercing gaze. “Mira doesn’t have what I want. At least, not any more.”
Now that he had retreated, Nikolay could get a better look at him. Small, young, obviously Miran, with the uppity posture and accent of a noble — but there was something beyond that. His breath was a little laboured and he was too pale, his blue eyes stark in his pallid face. Something else — he was favouring one side. Nikolay could smell blood.
“Neither do I,” Nikolay said, acutely aware of how vulnerable he was, naked to the waist, his sheet thrown over his thighs. Even wounded, the Miran had his clothes, his knife, and whatever strange magic he could fling. There was no magic on this side of the border, none at all.
What does he see when he looks at you? The nightmare face whispered. It was here now; Nikolay could feel it behind him without turning. The same thing you would, if you could bring yourself to look in the mirror.
He sat up slowly. There was dark blood on the floor, dripping down the Miran’s leg and pooling at his foot. The trail ran all the way from the broken window, out of the room, and back. What a fool Nikolay must have looked, to have slept through that. He was too used to ignoring his dreams.
“You make swords for Mirans.”
“Whoever told you that was wrong,” Nikolay said, flat. His whole body was chilled with fear now, the sweat on the back of his neck prickling in the cold. Could the Miran tell? Of course, the nightmare face whispered.
“Oh, come now,” the Miran replied. He spread his hands in what could be a conciliatory gesture, but it was ruined by the knife; he sheathed it on his belt. “Just because our countries are opposed doesn’t mean we have to be.”
“That’s a very Miran thing to say holding a knife,” Nikolay said.
“I’m not holding it any more,” the Miran said, tone amused, but it was ruined by his laboured breath, the sweat standing out on his forehead. He was wounded, and barely holding it together — who had hurt him? Why had he come here? “Listen, I have an idea.”
“So do I,” Nikolay said. “Leave.”
“Make me a sword,” the Miran said.
“No,” Nikolay said.
“You didn’t even think about it,” the Miran said, sounding a little off-kilter. His energy was fading — he was swaying on his feet, casting his eye around the little room as if looking for a place to lean. The blood on the floor was a puddle now.
“Get out,” Nikolay said. Now was his moment — he rose to his feet, drawing himself up to his full height. He saw the Miran realise how different they were in size, realise how small and weak and wounded he was, but he didn’t seem scared at all, even though his eyes were falling shut. “I said, I don’t make swords for Mirans.”
“That’s not what I hear.” He smiled his curious lopsided smile and waved a hand. “But maybe what they say about me isn’t true either.” Then his eyes rolled back in his head and he crumpled forward into Nikolay’s arms; Nikolay caught him because there was no other choice. “You’re not going to let me die, are you?” the Miran said, eyes closing. His words were slurred, weak. Nikolay hesitated. The Miran’s eyes flew open. “Are you?”
A loud crash startled them both. Nikolay let the Miran fall; his eyes were wide with shock and pain. Something about that gaze twisted Nikolay’s stomach; it was the look of an animal with its leg caught in a trap.
“That is not ideal,” the Miran said.
“What — “
Nikolay was cut off once more by another crash — banging on the forge door. The Miran tried to get up, but fell back, gripping at his side with a soft cry of pain. Nikolay’s attention was pulled in both directions.
“Wait here,” Nikolay said, stupidly. It had been weeks since he’d spoken to someone. Voices overtook the rain as he drew close to the door. He paused for a moment, listening for Jehan and hearing just hurried Miran.
” — I’m telling you, I saw him go this way.”
“There’s nothing here,” another voice said, older, closer.
“I saw him,” the first said, insistent. “It was Cillian Castillo. I saw him.”
“If you think that drunk slut could steal from the parliament vault,” the older voice said, “then I know why you’ve never been promoted.”
Nikolay opened the door. He didn’t know what else to do. The rain outside splattered into the corridor; he flinched back as the freezing drops splashed down against his arms and legs. The Mirans outside looked equally discomfited. Good.
“The Lord General would never let his — ” The Miran soldier rounded on Nikolay with intensity. “Jehan,” he said, switching languages and, inexplicably, raising his voice. “We are looking for escaped prisoner.” The man was tall and broad, and it added to Nikolay’s nerves. Big enough that he wouldn’t be intimidated by Nikolay’s forge-born muscles.
They can see right through you, the nightmare face said. He tried to ignore it, tried not to show any fear.
“I haven’t seen anyone,” Nikolay said. “You’ve crossed the border.” This was the wrong thing to say. Both men squared their shoulders, and the younger one put his hand on his sword.
“A man builds his home this close to Mira,” the older soldier said, “and he might find himself subject to our authority.” His eyes crackled with fervour. Nikolay swallowed. He had no weapon, and no knowledge to use one. But the swords the soldiers carried were brittle, ill-forged things, that looked like they might bend or break from slicing through the air. He couldn’t stop his mouth twisting in contempt.
“Of course,” he said. “I meant — it must be someone very bad, to chase this far.” The words were clumsy on his tongue, insincere.
“You haven’t seen such a man?”
“No,” Nikolay said. Both of them stared at him, waiting for him to elaborate.
“Then you won’t mind us coming in,” the younger soldier said.
The older one rolled his eyes. “There’s no reason for this,” he said in Miran, as if Nikolay wasn’t even there. Nikolay bristled. Would it kill Mirans to show some respect of late?
“Where else could he have gone?” the younger soldier said.
“Halfway back to the city by now,” the older soldier said, but he sighed. They turned back to Nikolay expectantly.
This is Jehan, he thought, his heart beginning to pound. You have no right to even be here. No authority. He sucked in a breath, quelling the cold anger in his throat.
“All right,” Nikolay said. He stepped aside. It was that or be run through.
He led them, the growing weight in his stomach forcing him to lift his gait. His mind was racing. The length of the corridor seemed shorter as they approached his living quarters. They’d never believe that he hadn’t sheltered the Miran, and he couldn’t overpower two of them, even with every single sword in the forge at his disposal. Which of them would they kill first? Cut his throat in front of the Miran, or let the Miran choke to death on his own blood?
They were at his room. He had to do something. There was no choice. Nikolay started to shift his weight into a lunge, and then turned it into a stumble as they found — nothing. It was just as he had left it. Except there was no blood on the floor. No wounded Miran. The soldiers crowded through the door, heads turning from one side to the other.
Nikolay looked closer. The details were wrong. The fire in the hearth flickered merrily. A Jehan flag hung on the wall where the window had been. Everything seemed just a little bit brighter. It was the work of someone who had seen the room for a moment in dim light.
“You fool,” the older soldier said in Miran, turning on his compatriot. “You’ll be scrubbing the whole barracks—” And it went on like this until they were out the door and back into the pouring rain, with barely another word to Nikolay, and certainly no apology. That didn’t bother him as it ought.
He hurried back to the strange, wrong room, and said, “Cillian,” to see what would happen.
The room dissolved in a rush of pink-yellow light, revealing the dull, dusty truth. If the Miran hadn’t reacted to his name, Nikolay would have thought he was dead; his hair was stiff with blood and flung back on his neck, but his hands clamped down on his side in a death grip.
“So you speak Miran,” Cillian said, eyes opening with just a narrow gleam. “That makes things easier — I can never remember all the godsdamned tenses in Jehan.”
His shirt was wet with dark blood. There was no time for modesty or distance. Nikolay reached for the top of Cillian’s shirt, and fought with the tiny Miran buttons until it was open to his narrow waist. Cillian smiled his odd, crooked smile, even though his eyes were fluttering open and shut. Nikolay couldn’t shake the fear he was about to watch him die.
There were papers bound to his skin with soft cloth, wet with sweat and blood. No time to examine what they were, except that they were very old. Cillian had tied the binding so tight that when Nikolay peeled it away, vivid red marks remained where the edges had been. He laid the pages aside and Cillian sighed with sudden relief, his fingers slipping in his own blood. The binding was so tight that Nikolay wondered how he had gotten here at all; it must be restricting his breathing. But it had likely saved his life.
“There’s too much blood,” Nikolay said. His voice was rougher than he expected.
“Believe me, being stabbed was not part of my plan,” Cillian said. His eyes were unfocused, drifting back and forth across Nikolay’s face. “Still,” he continued, “not too bad for a drunk slut.” Then he laughed raggedly, choking for breath.
Nikolay didn’t laugh, and he couldn’t stop himself from clenching his jaw. He pressed his hands down on Cillian’s wound.
“Don’t look so affronted.” Cillian winced. “It’s not as much of an insult as you Jehan think it is. So prudish.”
“You’re talking too much,” Nikolay said. He didn’t know what to do. All he had ever done was make swords. Helping Mirans didn’t fall within that.
“That seems likely,” Cillian said. And then, after a laboured breath, “You’ll need to cauterise the wound.”
“Don’t tell me what to do,” Nikolay snapped. He regretted it instantly, but it had come from somewhere deep in his stomach. Mirans, trampling all over his house, making demands. It made his teeth ache. It made him —
If you let him die, you’re no better than any one of us. Nikolay looked over Cillian’s head. He could just see the nightmare face floating in the corner. But you know that already, don’t you?
“I — ” He bit off the words.
Cillian was looking at him, his eyes glassy. He was considering that Nikolay might not help him. “Please,” Cillian said, and his voice trembled. “Please get a knife.” The capitulatory tone didn’t last long; he was puffing out short breaths now. “Put it in the fire. Do you have anything to drink?”
There was no alternative. He could feel Cillian’s blood against his palms, his hand weakly pulling at Nikolay’s wrist. Whatever he was, Nikolay couldn’t let a man die. Gods, he hated having no choice.
Nikolay did as he was told, ignoring the way it rankled. Get a knife. Put it in the fire. He got the bellows from the forge too, stoking the fire into a blaze.
There was a dusty bottle of harvest spirits in the cupboard. Cillian pulled the cork out with his teeth and took a swig, with no reaction despite the way Nikolay knew it burned. Cillian raised an eyebrow over the bottle, but didn’t say drunk slut again.
Nikolay retrieved the knife from the flames; it didn’t feel real in his hand. Nothing felt real.
“Take this,” Cillian said, handing Nikolay the bottle. He reached down to undo the bandage around his waist, and pulled it free with a deep exhalation. Blood poured from the wound. Cillian had something in his hand — his belt.
“Hold me down,” he said, gritting his teeth against the leather. Nikolay pinned Cillian’s legs, and put his left knee on Cillian’s chest. Cillian seemed small under the weight of Nikolay’s body, and his body felt feverishly hot. Nikolay tried not to look down at where they were connected. He glanced up at Cillian’s face and saw in his eyes, for just the barest second, desperation. Then he nodded.
Nikolay splashed the wound with spirits, and then laid the knife across it. Cillian went stiff. He screamed through his clenched jaw, thrashing against Nikolay’s weight, but it wasn’t enough to move Nikolay, not at all. That didn’t stop Cillian from struggling with all his strength, his nails scraping at Nikolay’s arms.
Nikolay could smell burning flesh. Cillian’s eyes had rolled back in his head, but he had not passed out, even though Nikolay was sure he wished he had. He was shaking, trying to break free from Nikolay’s weight. Watching his pain made Nikolay’s heart twist, knowing that he was the cause.
Slowly, the shuddering stopped. Cillian’s body went limp as Nikolay pulled away, the knife still clenched in his hand. He dropped it. Blood on his hands — so much blood.
“I really thought I’d pass out,” Cillian said thickly. His head lolled back, jaw slack. “Hoped.” He was smiling again. Nikolay passed him back the spirits; he emptied the bottle gratefully.
“Who did this?” Nikolay asked, looking down at the dark red mark right above Cillian’s hip, surrounded by blood.
Cillian looked at him sidelong, as if to say who’s asking? “Mira protects her secrets,” he said, cryptically, his voice slurred. “But it feels better now. I feel better.” Then to Nikolay’s amazement, he tried to get up, fingers scrabbling on the ground — as if he’d simply drunk too much at dinner, and now it was time to go home. He struggled for a moment, mouth twisting with pain, and then gave up and smiled up at Nikolay. He smiled when he didn’t know what to do, Nikolay thought.
“Here,” Nikolay said, lifting him against his sharp gasp of pain. Cillian couldn’t stay on the ground, and the only other place was Nikolay’s bed. He ignored Cillian’s murmured protests about blood on the sheets. At least it won’t be mine, Nikolay thought, after the number of times he’d woken to find the sheets stained with ash from the forge.
“I think I’m drunk,” Cillian said, matter-of-factly, when Nikolay returned from fetching a cloth and warm water.
“I’m not surprised,” Nikolay said. Cillian smiled, a little dreamily. He was half-propped up on the pillow. Nikolay washed his hands; then he wet the rag and cleaned and bandaged Cillian’s wound, despite his soft breaths of pain. He wiped the worst of the blood from Cillian’s waist and chest, trying to ignore the flutter of his breath, the warmth of his skin, the jut of his ribs.
“I have something for burns,” Nikolay said, opening a jar of grey-green poultice. It smelled cool and fresh as he stirred it.
Cillian tensed at the first touch of it, then relaxed. “It feels cold,” he said, and giggled a little to himself. His eyes were glassy and unfocused, and he kept opening them wide. “That’s better.”
He was looking up at the ceiling now — Nikolay was sure he was deliberately ignoring the rough touch of a Jehan labourer. “I’m surprised you’re helping me,” Cillian said.
So am I, Nikolay thought, but didn’t say. “You think I would just let a man die?” he said instead, not even trying to keep the ire from his tone.
“Not even a Miran?”
“So it seems.” He took Cillian’s hand and rubbed it with the rag. His nails were gold, extending up to the first joint of his fingers, where the gold stain ended in a neat line at the knuckle. It didn’t come off at all when the blood did. Some strange fashion — typical Miran.
Cillian’s eyes were closed; Nikolay thought he might finally be asleep, until he roused himself once more, apparently unwilling to keep his eyes shut for more than a minute. No trust, Nikolay thought. Unsurprising.
“Thiefmarks,” Cillian said, raising his hand. The gold caught the light. “Marking someone as a thief for life. The gold’s new, though. Never seen that before.”
“You can cover it,” Nikolay said.
“Ah, yes, of course,” Cillian said. “Just like a Jehan can cover a traitor’s scar.” His voice was growing softer, and his eyes were gently amused. Nikolay realised he was still holding Cillian’s hand, and dropped it.
“It is odd, though,” Cillian continued. “Lately gold fingermarks have become a common fashion. Strange.” He smiled and finally relinquished his grip on consciousness, slipping away. Has to have the last word, Nikolay thought, pulling the blanket over him.
He watched Cillian sleep for a moment, but he was peaceful, if a little pale. The wound in his side had looked dramatic, but it didn’t seem fatal.
He thought about it while he cleaned up, imagining the fight. Stealing from the Miran parliament vault? He’d never heard of such a feat. No wonder the soldiers had been eager to hunt him down.
The pages on the floor lingered in the corner of his vision. There was something else caught in the reeds, and he picked it up — a small blue bag. He dropped it on the table with the pages. He kept his eyes away from the bloodied pages themselves. His written Miran was limited, but he could still see the corner of one page, with a little diagram — no. Nothing would come of that except further strife.
Nikolay distracted himself. He cleaned. He slept for a few short hours, resting his head on the foot of the bed and listening to Cillian’s breathing. He did not think about what the pages contained; he did not even allow himself to speculate on what kind of Miran blade it would be, whether it would use the gold-washed steel for nobles, or the darker, night-sky blades of the soldiers.
Everything remained still and silent until the morning dawned. Cillian resonated with it, and the soft aura of pale golden light that surrounded him woke Nikolay. Nikolay could tell Cillian was in pain, but it didn’t seem to be sharp or immediate. Nikolay was able to rouse him enough to get him to drink a little tea and water, but it wasn’t until the late afternoon, when Nikolay was coming back from the forge, that he realised Cillian’s eyes were open and clear, and he was watching Nikolay.
“You know,” Cillian said, “you have the fewest scars of any Jehan I’ve ever seen.”
Nikolay barely restrained himself from reaching up and touching the scars on his cheeks. “You have to have accomplishments to earn scars,” he said, and Cillian scoffed, though he was smiling. He was still pallid, and didn’t seem to have the strength to even sit higher against the pillow.
Nikolay was acutely aware of how he looked, soot streaked up his arms, his apron scorched, his hair pushed back from his forehead and damp with sweat. Cillian didn’t seem to care; Nikolay thought he was probably too tired to notice.
“I’m hungry,” Cillian said, watching Nikolay expectantly.
“What do you want me to do about it?” Nikolay said. He sounded tired even to himself. Broken, the nightmare face said.
“If you wouldn’t mind,” Cillian said. “Do they take care of invalids in Jehan?”
“We just wait for the wolves to get them,” Nikolay said, flat, and watched Cillian realise slowly that he was joking. He went to the fire and scooped soup into a bowl, and then had to help Cillian sit up, and hand him the bowl and hold out a spoon.
“In Mira we just drink it from the bowl,” Cillian said, finally taking the spoon from Nikolay.
“I know,” Nikolay said.
“Oh?” Cillian said, carefully putting the spoon in his mouth. Nikolay caught a glimpse of the pink tip of his tongue, and looked away. “You’ve been to Mira?”
Nikolay didn’t know how to dodge questions. “Yes,” he said. He went to scrub soot off his hands.
“Ah, of course,” Cillian said, watching him. “You were probably in one of those tour groups that are always on the forecourt, crowding around the Tree on Fire, when I’m trying to get from one side of the city to the other — “
“No,” Nikolay said. “I never went on a tour.”
“No?” Cillian said. The question hung in the air, until Nikolay saw Cillian realise he would not answer, his lips pressed firmly together. Cillian put the bowl on the side table. There was a faint blush in his cheeks now, and he was smiling his half-smile. “Well. You’ve been keeping busy here too, I see.”
“Making swords,” Nikolay said. That was all he ever did.
“How about making my sword?”
There was a gleam in his eye that Nikolay ignored. “No,” he said, and then, as the silence stretched, “I can’t read Miran.”
“I wasn’t sure,” Cillian said. “For all I know, you’ve read those pages already.”
“I haven’t,” Nikolay said.
“Well, you mean you can’t,” Cillian said. “I’ll read them to you.” He gestured towards the pages.
“Save it,” Nikolay said.
“I’m not making it.”
“Why?” Cillian was still struggling to sit up, but there was no strength in his body and he fell back against the pillow, wincing with pain. “You said you haven’t even looked at the plans — “
“I don’t care about the plans,” Nikolay said. He finished drying his hands, and set the rag down so as not to throw it. “I never agreed.”
“I almost died to bring this here,” Cillian said, his mouth turning down at the corners.
“I didn’t ask you to,” Nikolay said. “I won’t make a — a sword for a Miran.”
“Why not?” Cillian was sweating now, his chest rising and falling with sharp breaths. He didn’t seem used to being refused, and it sent a vindictive thrill down into Nikolay’s guts. “I can’t ask anyone else.”
“You’ll find a Miran smith,” Nikolay said. “I’m sure you’d prefer that anyway.”
“You have all the skills of a Miran smith,” Cillian said.
“No, I don’t,” Nikolay said. The deeper anger welling up inside had nothing to do with Cillian, but he could feel his lips going tight across his teeth. “And I wouldn’t want to.”
“You don’t understand,” Cillian said. “If you look at the plans — “
“No.” Nikolay could see Cillian sorting through ways to convince him, refusing to let up.
“I can pay you whatever you like.”
“Miran coin’s no good to me.”
Cillian narrowed his eyes, then dipped them, looking at Nikolay sidelong. “In that case, the only thing I have is — “
“No,” Nikolay said. Mirans, he thought, with a hot twist of anger.
“Then I have nothing,” Cillian said, and he was smiling again, but it looked forced. He didn’t do what Nikolay thought might be next — let tears fall and play for sympathy. He just met Nikolay’s eyes head on. “Nothing.”
“Neither do I,” Nikolay said.
“Fine,” Cillian said. “I accept it. But you can do one more thing for me before I leave.”
“Just at least take a look, and tell me what to say to whoever makes it,” Cillian said, and smiled his real, crooked smile, though it was fading a little around the edges.
“Why don’t you tell me first how you broke into the parliament vault?”
“Oh, you really can listen to Miran,” Cillian said. “I can’t tell you exactly how, but I do find that if everyone thinks you’re stupid, and you just watch and wait a little, you can find your way into almost anywhere.” He winked then, but it was slow, as if halfway through he thought better of it. Nikolay looked down at his golden fingers, and saw them curl into the blankets. “Of course, that’s not the question you want to ask at all, is it?”
“It isn’t,” Nikolay said.
“You’re a thaumaturge.”
“That’s not a question,” Cillian said. Nikolay glared. “I mean, that’s a very Jehan way to put it, but yes, I am.” He moved his hand and produced a few pink and gold sparks that danced for a moment before fading out. It was — an unnatural light. It set Nikolay’s teeth on edge. “I might say mage, if only to save time.”
“What does a thaumaturge need with a sword?” And then, because Cillian was beginning to get that cunning glint in his eye again, “Will you even be able to lift it?”
“Well!” Cillian said. And then, “No.” And, “I can explain if you get me some more water.”
Nikolay did so, and watched Cillian drink. The more Nikolay wanted to look away from him, the more his eyes were drawn back. He couldn’t remember if there had ever been anyone else here — except a dim, buried memory of a hand cursorily changing his bandages. It was strange to hear a voice that wasn’t his or the nightmare face’s.
He shook the thought away. Cillian was looking back at him.
He pulled over the chair and sat at Cillian’s bedside. There was something oddly intimate about it, Cillian’s face lit only by the candle next to him. His eyes were half-closed and his breaths were ragged, and he was struggling to keep his grip on the now-empty cup, until Nikolay took it from him. A drop of water rolled down his chin and onto his neck. Nikolay glanced away.
“I used to be better than just this,” Cillian said, stray sparks springing from his fingers. “Even this is hard now. When I was younger — “
Younger, Nikolay thought. It didn’t seem possible for Cillian to be younger, looking at him like this.
” — I could do what I did before. Illusions, change whole rooms, change myself.” His eyes were distant. “I could only do that, just now, because I thought I was going to die.” The words hung in the air; they rested heavy on the back of Nikolay’s neck, before Cillian ruined it by smiling wide, his eyes crinkling. “They say it’s just me, you know? Some people burn out young.” He looked directly at Nikolay. “But I know it’s not me. No matter what my f— what anyone says. I just need — “
“It’s a blooded blade,” Nikolay said, without thinking. He heard himself speak as if he was very far away. A memory of cold steel had surfaced, a half-made blade laying against his skin. “A thaumaturge’s focus.”
“Y-yes,” Cillian said. “I’m surprised you know about that.” He didn’t look surprised, though. “I didn’t think Jehans had them.”
Cillian didn’t ask how Nikolay knew, just pointed at the bag and papers on the table. “Pass me that and I’ll explain,” he said. Nikolay gathered them — the bag had heft to it, which he hadn’t noticed before — but when he turned back, Cillian had fallen asleep in the space of a breath.
Nikolay pulled the blanket up to Cillian’s neck and tried not to gaze at the hollow of his throat, or the way he looked without the smile on his face. His hand still lay halfway between them, but soft, fingers lax.
The bag was heavy in the palm of his hand. It would be easy to open it, to look at the plans — no. He had to at least pretend that he didn’t want to look at them. He went back into the forge, sucking in a breath of cool air. The fire had burned down to coals. He knelt and opened the cupboard next to the door.
Under the false bottom, in a hole dug in the dirt floor, were the real swords. A ceremonial dagger he had made for a Kur prince, the steel tainted with volcanic ash; it might shatter if dropped. Below that, wrapped in linen, was a sword commissioned for the king of Jehan, never delivered; it shimmered with honey gold in the blade. Deeper still was the black hilt of a sword, with space for a jewel in the pommel, half-made, an idea more than anything —
Yes, that’s it, the nightmare face whispered over his shoulder. Everything around him slammed into darkness. He was trapped. Couldn’t breathe. Couldn’t see his hands. All he could see was the face. A cruel, condescending expression, ice-blue eyes examining him, as if he were as much an object as his work. This is amazing. I’ve never seen anything like it. And then lower, further away, I can’t believe a Jehan made something like this.
He tried to draw in long, slow breaths, and waited until the darkness passed and his vision cleared.
Was he imagining it, or did Cillian have a resemblance to the nightmare face? They were both Mirans, so it wasn’t too much to think they might look alike. But especially when he looked askance at Nikolay, or the way his blue eyes gleamed — it made the back of Nikolay’s neck turn cold.
But also, when he thought back to his time in Mira, none of the other Mirans had ever made him feel — like he wanted to look more closely at the tendons in Cillian’s wrists, or the faint freckles on his cheeks. He didn’t have a name for how he felt now. He tried not to feel it at all. Instead, he summoned up the old hate at the Miran yoke around his neck. Here it was again — had it ever truly left?
With haste rather than care, he put back the hilt and slid the cover over the hidden compartment. It had been a long time since he had looked at these. Everything else was gone, melted down. If anyone ever found these, they would be gone too.
One last chance to prove what he could do, he thought, looking up from the floor at the way the swords on the walls gleamed in the silver moonlight. They were plain, with no decoration except for the letters pressed into the tang. He could make them in his sleep, and he practically had. It would never have been enough. He had known that from the beginning.
Oh, gods, he thought, am I really going to do this? But it was like wishing for a different outcome when the coin had already been flipped. He wanted to see those godsdamned plans. He had wanted to since the first moment Cillian had mentioned them. A secret Miran sword, the way Cillian’s eyes lit up when he was talking about it — Nikolay wanted all of it.
Outside, the rain was beginning to pick up again. Nikolay went to close the door, and spent a moment watching the drops. Apart from stars, he could not see another light when he looked west into Jehan. Is this the right thing to do? Nikolay thought. Nothing answered.
He went inside and pulled the chair over to the fire; he lit a cigarette but barely dragged on it, just enough to taste the herbs, watching the smoke curl upwards. Really, he was pretending not to watch the slight rise and fall of Cillian’s chest. He could tell that morning was approaching when Cillian started to glow again, with soft pinks and yellows, and then he began to stir.
“I’ll do it,” Nikolay said.
“Do what,” Cillian said, raising his sleep-mussed head and propping it on his hand. His eyes were still mostly closed.
“I’ll make your sword,” Nikolay said. His cigarette was smouldering in his fingers.
Cillian sat up properly then — he was moving with more grace and less pain than the day before, as he pushed his hair back from his forehead and scrubbed at his eyes.
“Really?” Cillian said. “What changed your mind?”
“No one else can do it,” Nikolay said.
“That’s a bit arrogant, don’t you think?” Cillian said, but he was smiling wide. “You haven’t even seen the plans.”
“That’s a change of tune,” Nikolay said, and he didn’t much care that it sounded more aggressive than he intended. “Before this, you were saying I was the only one who could do this.”
“I suppose I was,” Cillian said. He moved his head a little, beckoning.
Carefully, almost reverentially, Nikolay laid the pages down on the edge of the ragged wool blanket. They were written on pale thin paper, spattered with blood, but the Miran ink hadn’t smudged. Nikolay couldn’t read the letters, but there were little sketches next to them that he needed no words to understand. Each step was painstakingly illustrated, and at the end there was a woman holding a longsword, power crackling around her body.
“Isn’t it too big?” Nikolay said. Would Cillian even be able to lift it? He waited for Cillian’s snappy comeback, but there was nothing but silence. When he looked up, Cillian was flushed red across his cheeks and up to the tips of his ears. Nikolay watched, confused, as he stumbled over his words for what seemed like a good ten seconds.
“W-what do you mean?” Cillian said. “I thought — you said you can’t read Miran.”
“I can’t,” Nikolay said. “But the dimensions here. Will you actually be able to hold it?”
“I — well, I, that’s — ” Cillian coughed, swallowed, and then looked away. “That doesn’t really matter, does it? It’s not as if I’m going to be getting into any duels.”
“You just want to put on a show,” Nikolay said, dry.
“Yes, of course,” Cillian said. “Lights — that sort of thing.” He had recovered from whatever had flustered him.
Nikolay let it go. He was barely listening to Cillian now, all attention focused on the papers in front of him. The little sketches were enough to draw his mind; he could feel it flourishing outwards. The images flowed through him like water running through the cracks of a dry riverbed. Black steel, and an elaborate hilt topped with some kind of gem.
“I don’t have anything like this,” he said, pointing it out to Cillian. “That’s too Miran.”
“Oh, yes, I forgot,” Cillian said. “Any hint of flair or elegance — too Miran. Anything just for decoration — too Miran.” He glanced up at Nikolay, as if to see if he was laughing. “Now, is there somewhere around here a man could bathe?”
“I usually just go outside and rub myself with snow,” Nikolay said, so dry that Cillian looked at him with horror, mouth dropping open. Nikolay had to press his lips together to stop a laugh escaping.
“I’m a little more delicate than you,” Cillian said, finally, “and certain parts of me don’t do well in the cold.”
“Did you leave Mira expecting to be waited on hand and foot?” Nikolay said, looking at Cillian’s narrowed eyes.
“I tried to fit my serving staff in the bag, but alas,” Cillian said, flicking a glance up and down Nikolay. He forced himself up and swung his legs out of the blankets, pushing himself onto tottering feet. As he staggered, Nikolay caught him around the waist without thinking. He felt Cillian exhale a shuddering breath, ragged with pain, before he stood upright, pale and sweating lightly. “I can take care of myself, you know,” he said snappishly, pushing himself out of Nikolay’s arms.
“I’ll let you fall next time,” Nikolay said.
“You’re not at all like I thought you’d be,” Cillian said.
Nikolay cleared his throat. “There’s a bathtub in the forge. I’ll heat water for you.”
“I thought you’d be some old, dour — “
“Old?” Nikolay said, affronted.
” — some Jehan master of his craft, hiding his secrets.”
“Hm,” Nikolay said, and added nothing else. He was all those things. He’d spoken more today than any day he could remember.
It didn’t take long for the water to heat, and Nikolay filled the basin, watching the steam curl up towards the ceiling. The swords on the walls were like hanging ghosts, reflecting the dim light of the forge flames.
“Can you help me,” Cillian said, through gritted teeth. He had installed himself on the chair by the door, wrapped in the shawl that Nikolay used when he lit the fire on extremely cold mornings. It wasn’t until he pushed his pants down over his hips that Nikolay instinctively turned around.
“Oh, for goodness’s sake,” Cillian said, sounding gently amused. “Jehan modesty — haven’t you spent time in Mira?”
“That doesn’t make me Miran,” Nikolay said, gruff, but extended his arm to Cillian to help him as he wobbled into the tub.
“And to think I was just warming up to you,” Cillian said, but it was on a pained exhale as he sank into the water. Nikolay handed him a washcloth and rough soap, and sat facing away, watching the patter of rain against the stone.
It was warm inside from the fire, as it always was, and as he listened to Cillian move back and forth, he tried and failed not to think about the way the water would look on Cillian’s skin, rolling down his arms and chest as they flushed red from the heat. Worse than that, he couldn’t help thinking about how slight Cillian was, his narrow waist, the way his hair curled against the nape of his neck. He squeezed his eyes shut, glad Cillian couldn’t see his face. It wasn’t something he was going to think about.
“Tell me if you’re going to drown,” Nikolay said. He heard Cillian’s soft laugh behind him.
“I already owe you my life once over,” Cillian said. “And I’m trading that for the sword.”
“Not yet,” Nikolay said. “I don’t know if I have the right steel — “
“It doesn’t matter,” Cillian said. “If you really wanted, you could make a blooded blade from a stick.”
“Then why even come here?”
“Oh, well,” Cillian said. “I said you could, but to actually do that you’d have to be close to death. Very close.”
“Closer than you were?”
“Much closer,” Cillian said, seriously. “Whatever you can make it out of will work. Just” — Nikolay heard splashes, as if Cillian was waving his hands around — “make it a bit more interesting than these. Are you making these for the army? They’re so boring.”
Nikolay said nothing.
“Oh, come on,” Cillian said. “We were getting along so well. It’d take more than this to get all the Jehan secrets out of you, I’d hope. Or perhaps I’m a better spy than I thought.”
His tone was light as ever, but Nikolay couldn’t help grinding his teeth. Cillian had no idea what he was talking about.
Or did he? So much of what Cillian had said, Nikolay had taken as blind fact. Was this all it took for him to trust? A pretty Miran giving him a moment’s attention — he truly was as weak as the nightmare face said he was. What did he know about Cillian? Only that all his glibness didn’t match up to what he had allegedly done. He’d never explained how he had wormed his way into the Miran vault without getting caught.
“Oh, come now, Nikolay,” Cillian said, and Nikolay could hear the water slopping in the tub, as if Cillian was twisting around to fix him with a stare. There was a huff of a laugh in his words, both amused and incredulous. “I’d be a terrible spy. Look at me.” Nikolay did not look. Could not look. “I can’t even change the way I talk. I’ll always sound like I was spat out of one of Mira’s finest finishing schools.”
Nikolay took a breath. Every time he thought he was on the edge of teasing at a thread of Cillian’s character, it slipped away. “And your Jehan is only passable,” he said, keeping his voice as steady as he could.
“Well!” Cillian said. “I haven’t said anything about your Miran.”
“Except ‘thank goodness you speak it’,” Nikolay murmured.
“Oh, stop,” Cillian said. “You’re being obstinate. Do you have any clothes?”
“Yes,” Nikolay said, and left trying not to look at Cillian; he was wet-haired in the bath, his head bowed a little. He looked tired — exhausted. Nikolay fetched a woollen winter tunic, which hung to Cillian’s knees, along with some leggings that the old smith’s daughter had left behind.
“I don’t have anything else to fit you,” Nikolay said, preemptively defensive. If Cillian wanted Miran clothes, he should have stayed in Mira.
“Oh, who cares,” Cillian said, belting the tunic. “Showed this one such a good time he forgot his clothes?” He looked sidelong at Nikolay.
“Ah — ” Nikolay flushed.
“Anyway,” Cillian said. “How long does it take to make a sword?”
“A week or so,” Nikolay said. “Depending on how elaborate you want it to be.”
“The most elaborate.”
“Sure you don’t want the sticks, then?” Nikolay asked, and Cillian wrinkled his nose. “I mean — it still has to hold an edge.”
“Does it, though?” Cillian said, tilting his head. “Not unless you want to teach me how to use it.”
“I don’t know how to fight.”
“Are you sure?” Cillian said. “I’m almost certain I’ve read a novel along these lines.”
“I make swords, I don’t use them.”
“The strong Jehan swordsman — ” Cillian said, clearly about to launch into a recitation.
“You can read this to me instead,” Nikolay said, thrusting the plans at Cillian, who smiled. He read them out as Nikolay rolled the tub away and began to prepare his things, listening to Cillian’s voice.
“And then you add the blood,” Cillian said, and when Nikolay turned his eyes were sparkling a little too much.
“I mean — it’s called a blooded blade, isn’t it?”
“I thought it meant — “
“You thought it meant killing,” Cillian said, smiling, evidently pleased to have shocked Nikolay. “Perhaps that’s part of it, but also just blood.”
“Mine, mine,” Cillian said. “I don’t want your blood on my pretty blade, after all.”
“You’re the first Miran not to want Jehan blood on his blade,” Nikolay said, and the words fell heavier than he’d intended. He turned away, but saw Cillian frown in the corner of his eye. He looked like he was about to speak, but then seemed to think better of it.
Nikolay unrolled his leather apron and pulled it over his head. He went to put the steel in the fire, and hesitated. The heat was becoming oppressive, but he could bear it; he was used to bearing it. Excitement was fizzing in his veins, and he could feel it all up and down his arms, but he fought to quell it. The echo of his words still hung in the air between them.
“Promise me one thing,” he said.
“What?” Cillian asked. He had wrapped himself in the shawl again, and was sitting in the chair by the door, watching what Nikolay did with genuine interest.
“You won’t use the sword in Jehan.”
“Don’t pick any fights with Jehan swordsmen, you mean,” Cillian said, propping his chin on his hand.
“No,” Nikolay said. “Don’t use it here, at all. Please.” It was desperate, but he could not stop his dread working its way up into his tone.
“Oh, well, I wasn’t planning to,” Cillian said, pulling his legs up onto the chair. “Use it in Jehan, for what? Put on a light show for the children?”
“I mean it,” Nikolay said.
“We’re a thirty-minute walk from the border, and it’s the furthest I’ve ever been,” Cillian said, looking at the backs of his gold-tipped hands. “Trust me when I say the only way I’m going is back home.”
“Hm,” Nikolay said. The steel felt blood-warm and heavy in his hand. It was filled with the promise of craftsmanship, but also the purpose of war.
“Well, how do you want us to seal the oath?” Cillian said. His voice dropped. “I have an idea, but I don’t know if you’d like it. In Mira we — “
“I know what you do in Mira,” Nikolay cut in, to stop Cillian, who looked like he was about to wink.
“You don’t want to do that?”
“I’ll take you at your word,” Nikolay said. Cillian smiled.
Nikolay looked away and finally thrust the steel into the fire, hefting his hammer. It fit into his hand perfectly. He could feel Cillian watching him; his eyes were on the backs of Nikolay’s arms. But he couldn’t pay attention to it, not with the steel in the flames, slowly heating and turning yellow. It was a thrill even just to watch it change and know he wasn’t making the same sword he’d made a thousand times over. The thrill was doubled by the awareness of Cillian sitting behind him, plans held carefully in his lap, humming a little tune. His voice was surprisingly mellifluous — Nikolay found himself whistling along.
“That’s a Jehan song,” he said, pulling the steel from the fire and raising his hammer.
“Is — it?” he heard Cillian say in between blows, but then he was gone, swept away into the rhythm. Hammering. Heating. He could feel sweat dripping down his back, settling in the crooks of his elbows and crawling across his forehead. Time faded out, marked only by Cillian’s appearance and disappearance at Nikolay’s elbow.
Nikolay had become used to that by the time Cillian appeared once more, but when a knife flashed at his side, he barely managed to save himself from jumping and ruining the sword. Cillian had cut his arm at the inner elbow and was dripping blood on the blade, his face grimly determined. He made no sound or sign of being in pain; his eyes were very far away, lit, for a moment, by a pink-gold inner light. Nikolay held his breath. Why now? he didn’t ask. He already knew too much about Miran magic.
Blood. More blood. His hammer was wet with it; the smell lingered in the air. It was dark outside when Nikolay finally raised his head again, his arms numb and aching. He just wanted it to be perfect. It had to be perfect.
“I should have gotten you something to eat,” he said to Cillian, who was pale but couldn’t keep the smile off his face. Nikolay had never truly forgotten that Cillian was there, not with the intensity of his stare, but Cillian had faded into the background in favour of the sensation of his muscles working, and the ring of his hammer on steel.
“You’ve been a terrible host, yes,” Cillian said, nodding. “But I ate some bread. And soup.”
“There’s soup?” Nikolay said, picking up his water jug and shedding his apron and shirt. He was filthy with soot and sweat, and he drank for a long time before tipping the rest over his head.
“There’s, uh, there’s — ” Cillian coughed delicately. “There was something. I put more things in it.” He was looking down the length of his nose at his fingers again.
“Right,” Nikolay said. He towelled himself off, sighing deep into the dim room. For once, Cillian wasn’t watching him. He didn’t mind it, not really, except that sometimes it felt like the cold presence of the nightmare face lingering in the dark.
No, he had to stop. Cillian’s presence wasn’t cold, not at all.
He speared slices of bread and held them over the fire until they were golden brown, then smeared them with soft cheese and handed one to Cillian, who was looking at it with huge eyes. The last of the summer sausage followed, spicy enough that he saw it bring tears to Cillian’s eyes.
“What’s it like to be a smith?” Cillian said, mouth still full.
“What’s it like to be a thaumaturge?” Nikolay countered, when Cillian had finished chewing and swallowed some Jehan tea.
“I don’t know,” Cillian said, sounding surprised. “How am I supposed to answer that?”
“Well — “
“Trust me, you’re not the first to ask,” Cillian said. “Smithing is something you’ve learned. Being a mage is more inherent.”
“I suppose,” Nikolay said.
“You must have seen magic before, anyway,” Cillian said. “In Mira.”
“Not really,” Nikolay said. “Just a little.”
“It’s strange, isn’t it?” Cillian said. “You look at the city and you know that they raised that right from the earth, spire by spire.” He waved his hand in the direction of Mira. “We call it Mother Mira, and I’m sure you’ve walked around and seen the detail. I swear to you, every day I found something I’d never seen before. Leaves carved on the underside of stairs where no one would ever see — ”
His eyes were distant. Mirans always got like this, and Nikolay had never really understood. Mira was just a city, and he’d been cured of its beauty mere hours after arriving there. It was nothing more than an illusion. He certainly never became dreamy over Mira. He tried not to even think of it.
“You know the story?” Cillian said, drawing his knees up to his chest. He looked up at Nikolay. “About Kashian and his mother travelling across the plains, and the last thing she saw before she died was the sun setting across the mountains, and she said — “
“You know that’s not true, right?” Nikolay said.
“None of that’s true.”
“Of course it isn’t,” Cillian said. “That’s just something nice Mirans like to tell each other.”
“Excuse me?” Nikolay said. He had been bracing himself, waiting for Cillian to snap over him, of course it’s true, that’s the story of Mira —
“They saw something they wanted, and they took it without any regard to the consequences,” Cillian said, running his hands through his hair and shaking it out. “That’s what we Mirans are like, you know.”
“I’m well aware,” Nikolay said. He felt numb and cold, hand clenched around the mug of tea. “I’ve never heard a Miran talk like this before.”
“Ah, well, there must be a reason I was always in trouble,” Cillian said, and then smiled tightly, not like his real smile at all. “You must have apprenticed here,” he said, after a long beat of silence.
“Not here,” Nikolay said.
“But you’ve been here for a while,” Cillian said, waving his hand around the room. Nikolay hesitated. He couldn’t tell if it was a sly insult or not, but Cillian was looking at him as if he actually cared for the answer. “I’m just curious. You must have quite the story. I was surprised you knew what a blooded blade was.”
“I did some work in Mira,” Nikolay said, and Cillian eyed him.
“Enough to pick up the language,” he said. “And speak it very well.”
“Mmm,” Nikolay said, letting the obvious bait drop. They had reached a point where neither of them would speak any further. They sat there opposite each other in front of the fire, until Cillian’s head was drooping on his neck.
“Nikolay,” Cillian murmured, into the dim light of the coals. “Oh — that’s a Kur name, isn’t it?”
“No,” Nikolay said. “Jehan and Kur aren’t that different, at least in names.”
“Huh,” Cillian said. “I’ve never met someone from Kur.”
“If this is the furthest you’ve ever been from Mira, I’m not surprised by that. Did you want something?”
“You called my name.”
“Ah,” Cillian said, raising his head. “I need my sword.”
“It’s not a sword yet,” Nikolay said.
“That’s fine,” Cillian said. “Will you get me my — our sword?”
“Generous,” Nikolay said, but Cillian was drowsily smiling, his gold fingers tucked under his cheek.
When Nikolay came back, Cillian was leaning against his bed, head tipped back, snoring softly from his open mouth. Nikolay nudged him and he came awake all at once, with a flinch and flash of terror in his eyes that he tamped down immediately, turning it into an eyes-closed yawn. Nikolay pretended to have seen nothing.
“Go to sleep,” Nikolay said. Cillian reached up to him, grasping at the sword.
“It has to be mine,” he said. “My blood. My sword.”
“And that means sleeping with it?”
“It’s Miran,” Cillian said, climbing into bed and rummaging in the blankets until he was settled. “Usually that’s enough explanation for strange things. Isn’t it?”
“No,” Nikolay said, because it wasn’t. Yes, Cillian was right, but those strange things weren’t usually in his bed — the bed that was normally his.
“Oh, well,” Cillian said, pushing himself up onto his elbow. He seemed surprised Nikolay was asking at all. “Think of it as a way to focus my power, if you like.”
“It makes you more powerful,” Nikolay said, and he felt suddenly sick, acid rising in his throat.
“Well, yes, and — “
“That’s enough,” Nikolay said, and it was abrupt enough that he saw the shock on Cillian’s face as he turned away. The silence was extraordinarily awkward, and lasted what felt like long minutes.
“Are you going to sleep in here?” Cillian said, eventually, his eyes closed.
“There’s a cot in the forge,” Nikolay said.
“Well, bring it in here,” Cillian said. “I’ll call out if I feel cold.”
Nikolay did as he was told without really knowing why; it only took a few moments to drag the cot into the main room and arrange it alongside Cillian. He didn’t think Cillian was the type to unthinkingly order others around, like so many other Mirans. It was something more than that — the way he had flinched when Nikolay had nudged him awake, and the way he didn’t fully relax, even in sleep. Even now, with Cillian’s face barely visible in the gloom, Nikolay could see the way he had pulled the metal tight to his chest, clinging to it.
But Nikolay had no intention of asking about it. A few more days for the sword, and then Cillian and all the trouble he brought with him would go.
Nikolay lay down and tried to surrender to the darkness. The nightmare face, having been kept at bay by simple things — like Cillian’s laugh, and the bitter tea — was back now that there was nothing to distract him. Its chill curled around his limbs; he covered his mouth to stifle his jagged breathing. If you don’t do as you’re told, the face said, so loud that his ears ached with it, then you know what happens to you. You didn’t like what you saw them doing to him, do you? That could be you. Or are you sure you didn’t like it?
He bit down into the flesh of his palm, his teeth scraping at his skin. It wasn’t real. It was a memory, and he could quell those by pushing them down, by hunching his shoulders up and turning away. Tonight the face seemed to be growing bigger and bigger, until one ice-blue eye took up the whole room, staring down at him, unblinking.
He tossed and turned to get away, but he never did. The chill of its gaze rested on the back of his neck until the birds began to wake outside and he could see the refraction of Cillian’s light on the ceiling.
It was bitterly cold — unseasonably so. Nikolay ducked into the forge, shivering without his shawl, and his breath hung in the air as he stoked the fire with new logs. He expected more rain than snow, still, but he could sense something in the crispness of the air. It was snowing, but very lightly, the kind that melted just before it hit the ground.
Cillian was wrapped in the shawl, under two blankets, but even so Nikolay could see him shaking a little in his sleep. There was nothing he could do while Cillian was still clinging to the sword — except sit and think, and feel the pressure clawing up his throat, tainted with the even deeper chill of the nightmare.
“It’s cold,” Cillian said eventually, and Nikolay stirred from where he was half-dozing by the fire, his head filled with restless whispers. Cillian was nothing more than a pair of eyes peeping over the top of the blankets.
“You’re in Jehan now,” Nikolay said. “And it’s snowing.”
“Really?” Cillian said, sitting up. “The famous Jehan snow?”
“You’ve seen it before.”
“From a window,” Cillian said, getting out of bed with the blanket, tottering to the forge door. Nikolay watched his eyes go wide as he peered out. He stuck a hand out and caught a snowflake.
“Can I have the sword?” Nikolay said.
“Oh, of course,” Cillian said, and wriggled around until it came out of his cocoon. The sight of the sword sharpened the nightmare’s chill. Nikolay put it back where it belonged on his anvil, and tried to take slow breaths. His heart was thumping against his ribcage. It’s going to happen again, the whispers said. This time you won’t be able to deny it’s your fault.
“Come have tea,” Cillian said, wiggling back into the kitchen, where he shed his blankets and busied himself heating water.
“They say the Jehan mountain air is good for the health, though they never mention the quality of the beds,” Cillian said.
“You can sleep on the floor if you like,” Nikolay said automatically, but the usual thrill of fencing with Cillian wasn’t there. Go back to Mira if you don’t like it, he wanted to say. Go back before I make even more mistakes.
“I only sleep on the floor if I’ve been kicked out of bed,” Cillian said. “Did you sleep well?”
“No,” Nikolay said.
“Oh, well, I’ve been told I’m very delightful in the morning,” Cillian said, leaning closer to Nikolay as if he was about to lay a hand on his shoulder. Nikolay stood. He couldn’t — wouldn’t think about that. Think about letting it happen.
“Just let me work,” he said; it was harsh, and he saw Cillian smile, but the smile that meant he didn’t know what to say. He stepped over Cillian’s outstretched legs and headed back to the forge.
Inside, he put the metal to the flame and slung his apron over his head with more force than necessary. Cillian followed him; of course he did, Nikolay thought. Where else would he go? The forge had only two rooms. Cillian must be used to more, trailing idly through a hundred chambers, dressed only in silks. Nikolay clenched his teeth together.
“Is this really all you want to make?” Cillian said, reaching up to grab at one of the swords on the wall.
“Don’t touch that,” Nikolay growled, his voice too low and too angry. He was moving towards Cillian before he could even think, reaching out to do — what? Cillian swung around to look at him, his hand automatically falling behind his back, his posture straight but his eyes empty and gone, two blue-grey chips of dull stone. “Sorry,” he said. “I’m sorry.”
The words rang hollow. What had Cillian expected from him? Nikolay stepped back. The difference between their sizes abruptly seemed very acute; he could lay Cillian out with one hand.
Cillian blinked twice and then he was back, his mouth pulling into a smile that had absolutely nothing to do with amusement. But he seemed to understand the mood that Nikolay was in, and settled into his chair. He didn’t speak for a long time. He just sat. Sometimes his eyes were closed, sometimes open. Sometimes he was looking down at his gold fingertips. But it was a long while before he started humming again, that same plaintive Jehan song.
“Do you know the words?” Nikolay said, looking up from his work. Anything was preferable to silence, though he was loath to admit it. His eyes felt rough and dry. He thrust the sword back into the fire. He just wanted it to be perfect. It had to be. He had to prove that he still could.
“There are words?” Cillian said.
“I’m no singer,” Nikolay said, but he whistled the first part. “It’s about a woman who falls in love with the moon and climbs the highest peak to be closer to her.” He told Cillian the words in Jehan, and it was Cillian who sang them, his voice low and clear. “I’d not have chosen you for a bard.”
“Most wouldn’t,” Cillian said, and he seemed truly relaxed now. “I’ve never been much good at anything beyond playing the lyre and sketching, much to my father’s chagrin. Very indolent, I know,” he said. Nikolay tried to picture it. He only knew Cillian with blood under his golden nails, making plans and working them into fruition. “I’m an old Miran, really, I suppose.”
“From before we came here, I mean,” Cillian said. “You wouldn’t know much about that, I think, no matter how long you spent in Mira.”
“I didn’t attend many history lectures,” Nikolay said. He went to pump the bellows of the forge, working the flames into a frenzy until his body burned too.
Cillian watched him, still humming the song. “It’s a sad song, isn’t it?” he said.
“It’s a Jehan song,” Nikolay said. “So it’s likely to be about some tragedy.”
“It’s sad, but she ended up close to her love, didn’t she?” Cillian said. “I can think of worse things.” That was a very Miran thing to say, Nikolay thought, even if Cillian understood better than most of them.
The sword was glowing red now from tip to end. Nikolay took his tongs and retrieved it from the fire, ignoring Cillian’s low whistle, and buried it in the barrel of sand, sweeping the sand over the top until it was gone.
“Now what?” Cillian said.
“Let it cool,” Nikolay said.
“Let me see your plans again,” Nikolay said, and Cillian spread them flat on his lap. “Like I said, I don’t have something like this,” Nikolay said, pointing at the illustrated sword. It was a ruby, or carnelian — a red gem polished into a perfect orb.
“They say come prepared,” Cillian said. He had the blue bag with him too, and inside was a sphere of black stone. Obsidian, Nikolay thought. It didn’t suit Cillian at all. “They keep all sorts of things in that vault, believe me.” Light bloomed from his fingers and the stone responded, returning it in a fiery blaze of dancing sparks that mesmerised Nikolay until they faded.
“What is it?”
“I don’t know,” Cillian said.
Nikolay realised all at once how close they were, and the difference between them — Cillian’s nimble, soft hands, and his own rough ones, covered in soot and dirt. He was suddenly acutely aware that he was sweating, even though Cillian did not seem to mind.
He pushed the thought away. “Is it magic?” he asked instead. The way the stone caught the thin winter sunlight and reflected it in a hundred colours was a magic of its own.
“I don’t think so,” Cillian said. “I don’t really know if things have magic. Or at least not Miran magic.”
“Oh, I mean,” Cillian said, watching Nikolay pace across the room. “Miran magic is always of the body. My body.”
“Is that how it feels?” Nikolay said, thinking of the way Cillian bloomed light along with the sunrise, the way sparks came from his fingers.
“Yes,” Cillian said, and for the first time Nikolay saw his smile waver at the edges, in a way that he wasn’t sure Cillian was aware of. “Which is why it’s harder if I’m tired or — other things. It used to be easy. I used to be good at everything. I — ” He choked on his words and put his hand up to shield his face for just a second, the vulnerability making Nikolay look up and away for anything that his eyes could land on: the swords on the wall, the thin line of snow on the windowsill, a cobweb.
Should he say something? He could not think of anything. Any words were trite, some kind of I’m sorry, and any action was worse, such as putting a hand on Cillian’s shoulder. But when his gaze finally made it back to him, Cillian was composed again, the opportunity squandered.
The sword had to cool in the sand for almost a full day, much to Cillian’s chagrin; he wanted everything to be finished and beautiful in ten minutes. But there was so much left to do.
“All right, then,” Cillian said, dusting his hands off on his tunic and looking up at Nikolay. “Let’s go outside.” His eyes were shining now. The sword itself seemed to be enough to bolster his mood.
“Are you serious?” Nikolay said. Most of the Mirans he’d seen visit Jehan had stayed so close to the fireplace that their cloaks had gotten singed.
“Of course I am,” Cillian said. “Even Mirans can appreciate the beauty, you know. How does it go? O Mother, Jehan is wearing her wedding veil for your sons; send them — on second thoughts, never mind. You won’t like that one.”
Nikolay raised an eyebrow. But Cillian seemed serious enough, and Nikolay knew how difficult it was to dissuade him. They were dressed and outside almost before he knew it. The snow was only bare traces on the ground now, but the ice wreathed every branch and leaf of every tree.
“Wow,” Cillian breathed. Nikolay suddenly felt warm, his chest tight. “Ah, I want to see it all. Let’s go over the hill. I want to see the view.”
“Uh — ” Nikolay said, so strangled that Cillian turned to him, head cocked.
What could he say that wouldn’t sound like a lie? Anything he said would be a lie, and he knew that because he’d rather push Cillian down in the snow and stomp on his wound than tell him the truth.
“It’s just — “
“What, is there some ancient Jehan secret up there?” Cillian said, smiling again. “Is that where you keep your lost prince?”
“If those Miran soldiers are still looking for you, then we should stay close,” Nikolay said, finally, and was glad his voice sounded firm and clear.
“Ah, well, spoken like someone who’s never been pursued by soldiers,” Cillian said, but he seemed to acknowledge what Nikolay had said, tucking his hands into his sleeves. “Show me around here, then.”
Cillian seemed quite content to be shown around the little river behind Nikolay’s house, with its frost-encrusted reeds and half-frozen water. After a little while, Nikolay could tell why. Cillian’s steps were slow, and his expression turned from intrigued and excited to a grim endurance of pain in less time than he had hoped. The winter oranges and cherry trees bore no fruit this late in the season, but Cillian leaned up against one with an affected casualness.
“How old are you?” Nikolay hadn’t meant to ask — it was just sometimes Cillian looked conniving beyond his years, but much younger when he was trying to hide his pain.
Cillian didn’t lose his crooked smile. “Well, I might not have my eight thousand days, but I’m old enough to be on my own, if that’s what you’re asking.” Nikolay nodded. It had been a long time since he had been in Mira, and he couldn’t remember — how many days to a Jehan year? “And you?”
Nikolay had to think — and he knew that Cillian was watching him. There was so little to differentiate his years. He woke in the morning, whether it was cold or warm, and worked in the forge until night, then ate and went to bed. “I think,” he said, and he could see that Cillian was quietly amused, as if Nikolay was making a joke, “about thirty-two winters.”
“What’s that in days?”
“I don’t know,” Nikolay said.
“Even though you spent time in Mira.”
“Not that much time,” Nikolay said. Cillian raised an eyebrow, but didn’t push further. The conversation had bought him enough respite that colour had risen back into his pale cheeks, the tip of his nose growing red as well. He drew close to Nikolay, pushing his hand into the crook of Nikolay’s elbow without comment.
For warmth, Nikolay thought, and then, feeling how much of Cillian’s weight he was bearing, and strength. Nothing more.
“I can’t believe this isn’t winter,” Cillian said. He was looking in every direction at once. There were bright red cardinals in the trees above them, curiously hopping from limb to limb. “It never gets this cold in Mira.”
“I don’t remember,” Nikolay said, and regretted it when Cillian gave him a sidelong look.
“How much time did you spend in Mira?” Cillian said, after a few moments. “I know you don’t like to talk about it, but — “
“What do you mean?” Nikolay said.
“You talk as if you visited against your will,” Cillian said, and then, suddenly, “Like you were in a prison. If it were one of my novels, you’d have been imprisoned for something you didn’t do, and there’d be a Miran noble who learned of your plight — “
“Of course not,” Nikolay said. A rising discomfort was creeping up his back. He couldn’t tell if it was from being outside, or having Cillian’s arm through his, or the strangely incisive topic of conversation. “What would I be in prison for?”
“Oh, gods, don’t get me started,” Cillian said, tipping his head back. “But I suppose if you’d been in Miran prison we’d be having some very different conversations.”
“Half the time I don’t understand what you’re talking about,” Nikolay said, and in the faint hope of forestalling any further novel summaries, “I lived in Mira for three years.”
“Now we’re getting somewhere,” Cillian said. “Doing what?”
“Making swords,” Nikolay said, his tone short enough that he hoped it would close the conversation.
“I should have guessed,” Cillian said. “I suppose it would have been too shocking if you’d said you were — I don’t know — a tailor for fashionable ladies’ gowns.”
“It’s my hidden talent,” Nikolay said, and he saw Cillian press his lips together in an effort not to laugh. Still, he could feel the weight of Cillian’s assessing eyes on him. Every little thing that Cillian managed to extract from him would rebound on him.
They made one last turn and ended up back at the forge, stripping off their wet cloaks in the anteroom.
“That was wonderful,” Cillian said. Nikolay couldn’t quite read his face in the windowless half-light. “Feel how cold my hands are.” He reached out, quickly enough that Nikolay couldn’t move away, and one of his freezing hands pushed into Nikolay’s. The simple touch sent a horrible thrill straight up his arm and into his heart.
Cillian was looking up at him; Nikolay avoided meeting his eyes. But that was worse, because he was looking directly at Cillian’s mouth, his lips slightly parted, his tongue — no. He could not do this.
Cillian’s thumb slid slowly across Nikolay’s palm.
Oh, gods, Nikolay thought. He was going to melt. He felt hot all over and his body was heavy with blood, his tongue too thick in his mouth. There were only seconds left until — until — he pulled away, Cillian’s hand immediately opening and letting him go.
Cillian stepped away. “Oh, I need some tea,” he said, going up the corridor, his humming receding.
Nikolay was left alone for a brief moment, half frozen and half on fire, trying to suck air back into his lungs.
The following day was mostly spent in the warmth of the forge — apparently Cillian’s curiosity about the Jehan landscape had been sated. It was easier not to be distracted by Cillian when he was working on the sword. But more than that, there was a strange sort of relaxation in just having someone else in the forge, even when they were both sitting in silence, or when Cillian dozed off in his chair and Nikolay was alone without being alone, listening to the crackle of the fire and watching Cillian’s chest rise and fall.
And then the wait was over. He quenched the sword, allowing himself just one moment of looking at Cillian’s awed face as it plunged into the water, the cherry-red metal billowing steam. He quenched it again. It was the best sword he would ever make.
It was so mirror-bright that just a single spark of Cillian’s light refracted around the whole room, scattering everywhere. It was so sharp that it sliced a strand of Cillian’s hair under its own weight.
“This is incredible,” Cillian said. He meant it. Nikolay could see it in his eyes.
Now that it was a sword and not a straight piece of metal, Cillian became a constant presence at his elbow. He was always interested in what Nikolay was doing and why he was doing it. Pommel — that black jewel — guard, hilt. At some point, Nikolay realised he had grown used to turning and finding Cillian hovering by his side, passing him a mug of badly-brewed tea.
Cillian leaned in to examine the blade, and Nikolay stood aside, watching the pale light that dappled Cillian’s hair. “You glow in the morning,” he said, before he could stop himself. Cillian blinked up at him.
“That’s a very nice thing to say.”
“I mean — with the lights.”
“Oh, really?” Cillian said. “I thought I grew out of that.”
He lingered for a moment, head down, and Nikolay could hear the soft sound of his breath, and watch the nape of his neck. His hair curled gently there, its secret red blooming in the light. There was nothing preventing him from reaching out and touching the back of Cillian’s neck with his rough fingers. Nothing at all. Nothing —
“I won’t bother you any longer,” Cillian said, glancing up sidelong. “I’ll let you finish.” Then he walked away, leaving Nikolay’s side feeling cold.
That night, he woke to nothing but silence and the wind sweeping between the trees. He couldn’t even remember what had woken him. The nightmare face? No, it wasn’t here. It had hardly appeared recently, its voice now replaced by Cillian humming or asking questions.
“Nikolay,” Cillian’s voice said into the darkness, and Nikolay raised his head, twisting. He could just see the shape of him in the dark. “I’m cold.”
He could barely make out Cillian’s naked shoulder rising above the quilts. Nikolay went still, a crushing pressure like hands around his throat. It was too late to pretend he hadn’t heard anything, too late to pretend that he wasn’t awake at all. You’re in Jehan. It’s snowing. That means it’ll be cold. I’ll put more wood in the fire. I’ll help — I’ll warm —
He said nothing. He got up, turning his back to Cillian, and found a woollen blanket in the chest at the end of the bed; he laid it over the form of Cillian’s body. Cillian sighed, long and deep, and then turned over. He was pretending to sleep.
Nikolay got back into his cot and lay still, exhaling his own unsteady breaths into the dark. It was almost over, he thought, thinking of the shining sword cradled in Cillian’s arms.
And then it was.
When Nikolay woke on the last day, he found Cillian awake and dressed, sitting on his bed with the sheathed sword lying next to him.
“I need to tell you something,” he said, the second he noticed Nikolay’s eyes were open. He looked more Miran than he ever had before. His back was straight, his face turned away, and there was a curious stiffness in his entire body.
Nikolay sat up, slowly. His body ached and his head felt muddy. He tried to turn towards Cillian, feeling large and slow and stupid once more. “What?”
He didn’t have to ask — he knew what Cillian was going to say.
“There’s — “
I know who you are. I’ve known all along.
” — another page from the vault.”
He never turned and looked Nikolay directly in the eye, and his voice was colder than Nikolay had heard it before. This wasn’t the Cillian that would tip his head back and laugh until there were bright tears at the corners of his eyes.
“But it’s done,” Nikolay said, looking down at the sword. “It’s finished.”
“Does it feel finished?” Cillian said. Nikolay could see one crack in his armour, and that was the way his fists were clenched in his lap. “Does it?”
“No,” Nikolay said. It was the truth.
“Or perhaps it’s me,” Cillian said. “Nothing’s changed for me yet.”
“What’s wrong with it?” Nikolay said. He didn’t understand why Cillian was reacting this way. They could figure it out.
“Oh, nothing,” Cillian said. He reached into his pocket and drew out a tattered page. “Nothing needs to be done to the sword.”
Nikolay snatched the page from Cillian’s hand. It looked the same as all the other pages, gently stained with Cillian’s blood.
He looked for the illustrations. It was the same Miran woman as the first page, but she was — she was naked, head thrown back, and between her legs was — Nikolay put his hand over the paper and closed his eyes.
“You lied to me,” he said.
“I held a knife to your neck, Nikolay,” Cillian said. His fingers were beginning to tremble. “We were never friends.”
“You can’t be serious,” Nikolay said, shutting his eyes again. “You can’t.”
“This is what I was afraid of,” Cillian’s voice said, “in asking a Jehan.”
“If you’d told me from the start,” Nikolay growled, and his heart was beginning to pick up, blood beating hot under his skin. He was slow to anger, but it was growing within him now. His heart felt huge and rotten.
“You never would have done it,” Cillian said. Nikolay opened his eyes; Cillian was too bright to look at. “That is why I did not tell you.”
“Fuck you,” Nikolay said, ignoring the way Cillian’s eyebrow lifted. “Take your sword and go.”
“No,” Cillian said. “It’s not finished.”
“I’m sure you can find someone in Mira to do that to you,” Nikolay said, jabbing a finger down at the illustration. The woman in it looked back at him, head thrown back in — pain. Mirans! Fucking Mirans, everything had to be like this with them.
“It has to be you,” Cillian said, as if it were a natural truth of the world. “You made the sword.”
“I’m not doing that,” Nikolay said, lighting up with fury. “How dare you give me no choice!”
“I didn’t think you would understand,” Cillian said, frankly. “And I was right. Nikolay, you wouldn’t even let me talk about Miran magic.”
“That’s why you were asking me about being in Mira,” Nikolay said. “To see if I would be willing — “
“I told you Miran magic was like this.”
“Fuck your Miran magic,” Nikolay said. “May the gods damn you all. It was too much for you to even try to explain this to me?” He stood, watching Cillian tremble in his shadow, and paced back and forth.
“I told you, I didn’t think — I don’t think a Jehan could understand,” Cillian said. “You don’t tend to have respect for Miran ideas.” His voice was colder than the snow outside, and backed by the howling of the wind.
“If you’ve ever wondered why, go over that hill and look,” Nikolay said, and he was so close to his chest ripping open and exposing the ugly mass of his heart. “You know where you are, don’t you?”
Cillian’s silence told Nikolay that he knew exactly where he was. He knew what had happened at the mountain pass. Maybe not all of it — but he knew.
“I’ll explain, then,” Cillian said, as though Nikolay hadn’t spoken, “since you want to know so much.”
“Godsforbid I be told about anything I’m asked to do — “
“I’ve told you, Miran magic is of the body,” Cillian said. “Often bonding between people — “
“This isn’t a collegiate lecture,” Nikolay said. “You don’t need to be polite.”
“Fine,” Cillian said, through gritted teeth. “It’s about fucking, that’s what you want me to say, isn’t it? You want it to seem like something objectionable to you. Well, this is old Miran magic, and you can either find someone whose soul matches yours” — and he made a little gesture that Nikolay didn’t understand, cinching his thumb and forefinger around his wrist — “or you can make something that does, and bond your soul and body to that.” The muscle fluttered in his jaw. “Well, I couldn’t find someone whose soul matched mine, so now I’m here. Is that enough explanation for you?”
“I don’t understand why you have to — how you’re going to put that — “
“I can do it,” Cillian said. “If you help me.” He was grimly confident. Nikolay thought of Cillian lying back naked with the sword between his legs, his face twisted, and he had to swallow very hard. “I will do it. I’d do worse. I’d do anything to have my power back.”
He looked up and met Nikolay’s eyes with his cold blue ones, like shattered ice. Nikolay could see that it was true. Cillian was truly desperate. Nothing would stop him.
“I’ll pay you,” Cillian said.
“What use do I have for Miran coin,” Nikolay said. He looked up at the ceiling, and down at his hands. Oh, gods, he could feel the wave of capitulation washing over him once more. He’d given Mira everything he had once before, and it had destroyed everything. Worse, this time he knew exactly what he was doing, and he wanted it, as furious as he was.
“You want me to beg?” Cillian said. There was nothing in his tone but despair, but he would not break eye contact. He’d truly risked it all for this. “That’s all I have left. I have nothing else.”
“Don’t,” Nikolay said. He was split in half. Just get it over with. Then Cillian would be gone, and it would be like nothing had ever happened. But then, also, no matter how hard he fought to ignore it, there was the thought of Cillian’s arched back, the pale golden glow of his naked skin —
“I’m going outside,” he said. “When I come back — “
He couldn’t take it back; he couldn’t even look to see Cillian’s expression. Had he known all along that he could force Nikolay into doing what he wanted? Of course he had. The nightmare face had known it. Nikolay had known it too.
He shoved his feet into his boots and walked out into the garden, shielding his face from the flurry of snow. He pushed through it until he was at the edge of the river. He could keep walking if he wanted to. What would he be leaving behind? Nothing. Nothing except Cillian, who would make his way to Mira without thinking about Nikolay again. Take your sword, he thought. Take it and get out of here.
Nikolay’s breath was a cloud in the air. He bent and splashed water on his face, then let it slip from his cupped hand. This was where he was supposed to be, body and soul. Here, by the forge where he would make the same blade over and over, until he reached the last one and knelt over the frozen earth with it to his throat. His mind was not meant to linger at the crook of Cillian’s elbow, the nape of his neck. It wasn’t meant to dwell on the way that Cillian sounded like a slight push in the wrong direction might crack him in half.
“You should have asked me from the beginning,” Nikolay said, when he came back into the room. Cillian was sitting on the edge of the bed, hands placed neatly in his lap.
“I know,” Cillian said. “I’m s—”
“Don’t,” Nikolay said, and Cillian looked up at him with tremulous pity in his eyes. “Don’t.”
“You wouldn’t have agreed to do it,” Cillian said, and he sounded resigned. “Don’t pretend you would.”
Nikolay said nothing. The clouds had gathered outside, and it was as dark as if it was night-time. Cillian had lit a candle and spread the blankets on the floor. The sword was there too, its light resonating even now. Nikolay felt for a moment as though the world outside was beginning to fade away. There were only fragments of details. The sight of Cillian bending his head to unbuckle his belt, the bump of his spine at the nape of his neck.
I’m here, Nikolay thought, desperately. Not even the taunt of the nightmare face answered him. Cillian pulled the tunic over his head and stood there, naked, and Nikolay didn’t know what to do except look at him, at the jut of his collarbones and his brown nipples, his waist, the tense muscles in his thighs.
“Is it so painful to look at me?” Cillian said, crossing over to the blankets. His tone was flippant, but he was looking at Nikolay with close scrutiny.
“This isn’t about me,” Nikolay said through his clenched teeth. Don’t pity me, he thought. Don’t even look, don’t — “Isn’t that what you meant? I’m a tool to you. I’m the same as the hammer in the forge.” He refused to look at the trembling clench of Cillian’s jaw, or the way he kept tipping his eyes up. He wanted to be the hard, cruel Miran? Then Nikolay would play his part, too.
There was still grace in Cillian’s movements as he lay down, turning his head towards the fire. Nikolay felt huge and clumsy as he knelt next to Cillian’s naked hip, close enough to feel the warmth of his body. Cillian’s eyes were half-closed, and he was braced for Nikolay’s touch. Nikolay couldn’t breathe, couldn’t look away from Cillian’s body, the softness of his belly and thighs, his cock — he had to look away.
“What do I do?” he said, each word grating up from the bottom of his lungs. He could see Cillian’s breaths growing fast in his chest, and he was shifting his legs on the blanket. He set a vial of oil down next to Nikolay, careful not to touch him. He would flinch, Nikolay thought — the first time that Nikolay touched his thigh, he would flinch and pull away.
“Whatever you do to your Jehan boys,” Cillian said, and his voice was light but strained.
“There are no Jehan boys,” Nikolay said, hot and cold all over. His teeth were clenched so hard that his jaw creaked. He wasn’t even sure if Cillian could understand him.
“Mirans, then,” Cillian said, with an air of does it matter?
“There’s not, I’ve never — ”
“Never?” Cillian said, and he twisted back to look at Nikolay who thought, his mind hot, fuck this, grabbing at the oil and spilling it half over his fingers and hand. He reached out with no sense of what he was doing, his other hand grasping at Cillian’s thigh — “Wait, wait,” Cillian said, but Nikolay’s hands were on him, one gripping his thigh and the other sliding between his legs, ignoring Cillian’s shocked, punched-out gasp, throwing his hands up to cover his face before Nikolay had even done anything.
The insides of Cillian’s thighs were impossibly soft, and then Nikolay’s fingers settled on the edge of his hole and Cillian made a little noise like hn, pressing his hands down over his mouth. He stroked his fingers, wet with oil, around Cillian’s hole — brushing against it, circling with his fingertips until Cillian was shaking, his thighs clenching against Nikolay’s wrist.
“Just do it,” Cillian said through his fingers, his voice high and full of strain. He sounded like he wanted to say please, but he wouldn’t do it. Nikolay could glimpse his teeth sinking into his bottom lip. This wasn’t sex. This was ritual, Miran ritual. There was no excuse for being gentle, for looking at the heaving of Cillian’s chest, for wanting to pin down his thigh with one hand and press against him with his entire body —
He pushed forward with his fingers. Inside Cillian was hot, unbelievably hot.
Cillian’s legs had fallen open, and Nikolay could see where his fingers were sliding into him, the way his rim was growing redder, his hole clinging to Nikolay’s fingers each time they slid out, like he didn’t want him to pull out at all. But he drew his fingers out completely, moving closer to get a better angle.
“Oh, gods,” Cillian panted. His cock was hard and red against his belly and Nikolay couldn’t look at it — this wasn’t sex, this wasn’t about sex — and he pressed his fingers back into Cillian’s wanting hole. He twisted, pushing down against Nikolay’s hand. Nikolay couldn’t look at the soft stretch, couldn’t look at Cillian’s hard cock; all he could look at was the ugly scar on his hip, where Nikolay had pressed the red-hot dagger. That had been a different time.
He blinked and watched a tear land on Cillian’s thigh, and hated himself for being weak. You said you’d do this, he thought, and crooked his fingers, ignoring Cillian’s shudder.
“Don’t do that — ” Cillian said, reaching down to grip at Nikolay’s arm. “Don’t — “
“Does it hurt?” Nikolay said, and regretted it. He was a fool.
Cillian wasn’t covering his face anymore, and his eyes were just the barest hint of blue in the dark. Every part of him was burning hot, from his grip on Nikolay’s forearm to the barest brush of his thighs, and then inside — inside of him was burning. Drunk slut, said the nightmare face.
“No,” Cillian said, and shuddered, full-bodied. “If you keep doing that, I’ll come.” Nikolay could see him squirm with the embarrassment of saying the words, the deep red flush spreading across his chest and neck. “Listen,” he said, harshly gripping Nikolay’s arm. “In Mira I’m known as being a willing slut who shuts up when he’s fucked, so there’s no need to be nice to me.” Cillian’s voice cracked. “I just need you to help me,” he said, and there was a forced steadiness in his voice that came from practice.
“Tell me what to do,” Nikolay said, and his own voice was a terrible rasp. His cock was hot and hard and his blood was slamming through his whole body, thumping in his rotten heart. He hoped Cillian couldn’t tell. He shifted his weight and knocked against the cold sword; it made him flinch.
“More,” Cillian whispered. He hitched his hips down. “Harder.” Nikolay obeyed, slipping a third finger into Cillian while he whimpered, his head thrown back and the tendons in his neck standing out. He wanted to — he wanted to touch Cillian properly. This would be his only chance. He grabbed at Cillian’s hip, closing his hand around it and ignoring his shudder.
“Feels good,” Cillian said, mindlessly. He was working his hips down against Nikolay’s hand. “I feel like — I feel like I’m going crazy.” The skin of his hip was hot and tight, and he couldn’t stop vocalising, little moans that he was biting off. Cillian’s cock was red and wet against his stomach, and he kept hitching his hips in an unsteady circle. Nikolay didn’t know what to do. He was able to tuck his little finger in; all four of his fingers were stretching Cillian out now, his thumb pressing hard into Cillian’s thigh. Cillian’s hole was red and sore, stretched around Nikolay’s fingers.
“Is it enough?” Cillian said. His thighs were shaking against Nikolay’s arms. “Is it enough? I can’t — oh, fuck, Nikolay, Nikolay — ”
“It’s enough,” Nikolay said. He couldn’t hide his shuddering breath, but Cillian wasn’t paying attention. He tugged the sword closer, and just that was enough to spark a shake of terror in Cillian’s body.
“I can’t do it,” Cillian said. “I can’t — I’m not — “
“You will,” Nikolay said, and he didn’t know what to do but pull Cillian closer. He ignored his shocked gasp, his own hand slipping up to Cillian’s waist. “You want this.”
“More than anything,” Cillian said, a soft whisper. His eyes were vacant, looking up at the ceiling, and Nikolay watched Cillian force himself to look down at him. Of course it took effort; why would he want to? “Anything,” he said again. His eyes were wet.
“I know,” Nikolay said. “I know.” The pommel touched Cillian’s inner thigh and he flinched, reaching down to grip Nikolay’s arms again. It was already too much. It was so Miran, to force Nikolay to do this, and not allow him to understand it at all.
“Come closer,” Cillian said. His words were slurred, like he was drunk on what Nikolay was doing — and Nikolay couldn’t help leaning closer, aligning his face above Cillian’s, until they were breathing the same air. “I’m — I’m going to pretend it’s you.”
You’re a liar, Nikolay thought, pushing the gem of the pommel against Cillian and shuddering when he felt it begin to slide in. Cillian was taking huge, harsh gasps of air. A good liar, but a liar. He could see the gem — and it looked huge, massive against Cillian’s body. He was so small, Nikolay realised, with a jolt. He could not stop. It was what Nikolay had agreed to do.
It was difficult to believe what he was seeing. Cillian’s wet hole stretching around the gem of the pommel, and the sounds he was making, a deep uh, uh, uh. It was stretching him so much — wider and wider, Cillian’s body yielding to accommodate it. It was — it was a consummation. When it reached the broadest point, Cillian was sobbing, but the sounds caught airlessly in his throat; tears were slipping down the sides of his face.
“It’s too much,” he was saying, softly. He shook from top to bottom, but his cock was still hard against his stomach. Nikolay hesitated. He wanted to — it was horrible, but he wanted to make it worse. He wanted to push it in, pull it out, just the widest part over and over again.
“Nikolay,” Cillian said, and it was a sigh. This isn’t real, he thought, shakily adjusting his grip on the sword and pressing it forward until the gem was entirely inside Cillian, watching his hole try to close around the hilt. It didn’t — it couldn’t. Nikolay had to look away, had to try and press the heel of his hand against his lap for a second’s relief.
“Is it over?” Cillian said. His legs were going slack on either side of Nikolay’s, and Nikolay could see his eyes flutter half-closed with a rush of breath.
“No,” Nikolay said, surprising himself with the roughness of his voice.”It’s not.”
“I feel — good,” Cillian said, and he sounded dazed. It was so clearly a lie. His face was wet with tears and sweat, his mouth hanging open. Nikolay could see the pink of his tongue caught between his teeth. “You have to stop,” he said, eyes wide. “Nikolay, Nikolay, you have to stop.”
“I can’t,” Nikolay said. You chose this. You should have let me choose too.
“Help me,” Cillian said, and Nikolay pushed the sword in a little more, watching Cillian’s face crumple.
“I am,” Nikolay said, as Cillian bit into his bottom lip hard enough that he drew blood. “Cillian, you don’t want me to stop.”
“Mm,” Cillian said. His eyes were glassy and hazed over.
Finally, it was all in. All of it, the crossguard pressing awkwardly between Cillian’s legs. He was making a soft whining sound.
“What now?” Nikolay asked. Cillian’s head was lolling on his neck, his crooked legs fallen open. Totally insensate — Nikolay didn’t know how to reach him. He ran his hands across Cillian’s soft thighs, up the jut of his hips, his waist, his heaving chest. “Cillian,” Nikolay said again, soft, but his name tasted foul. None of this was true. None of it was real.
“What?” Cillian said, the word falling from his bitten-red lips.
“It’s in,” Nikolay said. Gods, the way Cillian was still trying to relax into it — what he had said burned in the back of Nikolay’s mind. Cillian was used to this.
Nikolay couldn’t stop himself from touching the pulse fluttering in Cillian’s neck, stroking his sweat-damp hair back from his forehead. They were so close. It was like Cillian was looking directly through him and into the worst parts of his mind, the parts that wouldn’t stop thinking drunk slut, shuts up when he’s fucked —
“I have to come,” Cillian said, voice cracked through, and he put his hand on his neck, drawing it down softly to his nipples, then squeezing them with unnecessary ferocity, pulling hard until they were red and sore. He kept turning his head back and forth, his whole face in agony. “This works — this usually works,” he said, a broken sob, his head rocking back and his neck a tight line of tension. “I don’t know why it’s not — “
“Touch yourself,” Nikolay said, unthinking, and Cillian moaned, shifting his legs restlessly.
“I can’t,” Cillian said. “That’s not — that’s not part of a — uh — “
“A Miran wedding night,” Nikolay said, and his head hung low. Nothing could be worth this. But gods, he was just as bad, pretending to be righteous with his cock throbbing in his pants, his entire body tense with anticipated pleasure.
“Y-yes,” Cillian said, and he was shifting uncomfortably, face screwed up with pain and desperation.
“That’s cruel,” Nikolay said.
“It’s Miran,” Cillian said. His entire face was flushed red, his eyelashes pale against his skin. “I — I like it.” He closed his eyes; he was turning even redder with humiliation.
“I can’t touch you there either,” Nikolay said, and his hand was still resting on Cillian’s thigh. “What about here?”
“You don’t have to — ” He bit his words off as Nikolay ran his fingers around the stretched rim of his hole, where it was flushed and swollen. Cillian cried out, loud enough that Nikolay flinched. Cillian tried to arch his hips and then forced himself to relax again. He was loud, making a constant ah, ah, as Nikolay slid his fingers up the soft, stretched skin above his hole and back down, grazing with just his fingertips. Firmer pressure made Cillian’s legs kick and his toes curl; softer made him bite into his own hand to silence himself. “I can’t, I can’t,” he was saying. “It’s too much, I can’t, you have to stop — “
Nikolay put his hand on Cillian’s stomach — he could feel the hard pressure inside him — and pressed. Cillian cried out and came, his whole body bending into a tense bow, writhing even as he fought to keep still. He was shaking, huge, full-bodied shudders as he came, his cock spurting come as high as his chin, landing across his open mouth, streaking his own neck and down to his chest. Terrible aftershocks wracked him as he sobbed, so violently that Nikolay had to pin his hips down against the blanket.
Like when he had been stabbed, Cillian was still clinging to consciousness, his eyes barely open. Gods, Nikolay still had to get the thing out of him, and it was quicker and yet worse than putting it in; he gently tugged and twisted, fractionally eking it out of him as Cillian murmured things that Nikolay could not understand.
The gem in the pommel was the worst part, and by the time he had it out, Cillian’s hole was desperately red and swollen, fruitlessly trying to close. It couldn’t quite manage it — Nikolay had to tear his eyes away. He cleaned the sword, quickly, and put the hilt in Cillian’s hand, where his fingers weakly tried to clench around it.
“Did it work?” Nikolay said. He wished he hadn’t done it. He wished it wasn’t over. He was going to remember it for the rest of his life.
“I, uh,” Cillian said, and his words were all breath. “I don’t know.” Nikolay could barely stand to look at him. He was gripping the hilt of the sword tightly, and looking straight up towards the ceiling. There were still tears in his eyes. “Listen, I’m — “
“Don’t apologise to me,” Nikolay said. He was still hard, and he was trying to will it away. He felt sick from the bottom of his stomach right up to his throat.
“This doesn’t have to — “
Everything went white. Nikolay was blinded. He shut his eyes, but it wasn’t enough. He had to clap his hands over them too, and he could feel the heat across his whole body. He heard Cillian cry out. Something exploded near him and he flinched — it sounded like a midwinter firework, but right next to him. He could feel the sparks settling down over him.
It’s not real, he thought, frantically. He could feel Cillian twisting underneath him. He was going to hurt himself. He was crying out in pain and Nikolay had to stop it — had to help him.
Eyes closed, Nikolay reached for Cillian. He had flipped over and was trying to drag himself away. Nikolay grabbed his calf, and felt him go still. Somewhere, very distantly, he heard Cillian say his name, soft and plaintive. He found Cillian’s back and pinned him down to the floor with his hands until the light began to fade.
Nikolay opened his eyes to lingering spots of darkness. He tried to blink them away, but he could only feel Cillian shaking under him. He was shuddering with — laughter?
“I can feel it,” Cillian said, and he was burning hot at all the points where they touched. Nikolay could feel the hard thump of his heart through his back. “This is what it’s meant to — this is what I’m meant to be.” He was laughing, shaking from the pure joy of it. “Nikolay, Nikolay — it doesn’t hurt, I’m not tired — “
Nikolay touched the nape of Cillian’s neck, and he fell quiet instantly. Nikolay watched him curl his fingers in the blanket, his shoulderblades shifting under his skin. There was no thought in his mind. He bent his head and kissed the back of Cillian’s neck, and heard his breath rush out.
Pale, glittering lights began to fall around them like snow; Nikolay closed his eyes again. There was nothing but the warmth of Cillian’s body under his lips. Nothing but the smell of his skin. He ran his tongue down the length of his spine, fingers tracing the ridges of his ribs. He couldn’t speak; a single syllable would break the peace between them.
Cillian’s hips fit right into Nikolay’s hands, and he couldn’t help pinning them down to the blanket, listening to Cillian’s soft gasp. He knew what he was doing before he committed to it, and even the thought what am I doing was small and quiet. He kissed the dip of Cillian’s back, and he felt the moment in Cillian’s body when he realised what Nikolay was going to do.
“Ni — nnnnn — “
The sound of his voice faded into nothing as Nikolay ran his tongue over Cillian’s hot hole. It felt sore and swollen under his tongue, and all he could hear was Cillian’s muffled moans as he rocked back against Nikolay’s face. He was so open that it was easy to work his tongue into him until Cillian was sobbing and Nikolay had to press his hips down with his whole weight. He reached under Cillian and found his cock hard and wet. Inside Cillian was burning hot and slick. He wanted to — he wanted to —
Nikolay pulled back and flipped Cillian over in one swift movement, exposing his shocked, red face, his tear-filled eyes, the wetness on his stomach — he had been reduced to the point that he was barely conscious, but he was still watching Nikolay. He didn’t speak, but he didn’t look away, even as Nikolay kicked his pants off, and even after that he only looked down at the jut of Nikolay’s cock and licked his bottom lip slowly.
Nikolay touched himself with a wet hand, and had to break Cillian’s gaze to glance down at what he was doing, the wet head of his cock pressing against Cillian’s swollen hole. He heard Cillian groan, and then pushed forward, Cillian’s body accepting him in one long slide.
“Oh, gods,” Cillian said, and it was like he was coming back to life, the words pouring out of him. “It’s too much, it’s too much.” Nikolay hesitated and Cillian moved under him, looping his shaking legs over Nikolay’s hips and pulling him close. He was right — it was too much. But Nikolay didn’t care. He ran his tongue across Cillian’s neck and kissed his jaw, feeling his frantic breaths. He could do whatever he wanted. He could push Cillian’s sweat-damp hair back from his forehead and kiss the shell of his ear just to feel him shiver.
Cillian was so open, and he could feel Cillian trying to squeeze down around him. He moved a little, shallowly, his hips hitching back and forth, and he heard Cillian whine. Cillian was looking up at him, his mouth falling open, the pink of his tongue touching his red lips.
Nikolay couldn’t help himself. He pulled Cillian’s head back by his hair and bit his neck. If he went back to Mira, he would go with Nikolay’s mark on him. He didn’t know what else to do except push his cock into Cillian’s body and listen to his moans, then finally, finally press their mouths together, hard, so Cillian moaned and opened his mouth to the brush of Nikolay’s lips, shivering under him. Nikolay swallowed up Cillian’s muffled sounds. Cillian’s legs — he was so flexible, and he bent whichever way Nikolay wanted until they settled into a rhythm, dragging his cock across the place that made Cillian’s face twist as if he was in pain.
It felt like it could go on forever, but it didn’t last long at all. It was too much. All of his senses were attuned to Cillian: the way he was looking up at Nikolay, the throb of his blood in his neck, his hands grasping Nikolay’s arms. Nikolay felt hot all over, driving into Cillian’s body while he sobbed, and his thighs tightened until the sensation overwhelmed him and he collapsed onto Cillian’s body, his breath a rush against his neck.
Cillian touched his hair gently, tentatively. Cillian’s cock was soft against his stomach; he had come untouched. Nikolay felt a strange, wild energy coming up through his core; he was unsettled, unsteady, as he reached down to slide his cock from Cillian’s hole. His come was leaking out, and he fought the urge to push it back inside.
No. The realisation of what he had done was like ice against his flesh. He was no better than any of them. His hands were shaking as he stood and dressed quickly; he knew Cillian was watching him. Despite his exhaustion and trembling muscles, he was clutching the sword again, completely unashamed by his nudity. Tiny firefly lights were flickering all around him, dusting his hair.
“Nikolay,” Cillian said, “come to bed with me.”
Was that not enough? Nikolay thought desperately. The closer Cillian got, the weaker and more foolish he felt; the more his resistance crumbled.
“It doesn’t have to be like this,” Cillian said, softly; he squeezed the handle of the sword, and the person in front of Nikolay twisted, shivering at the edges. Nikolay blinked, hard. It was like being sun-blind. It hurt to look at him. The shiver cleared — he was looking at a naked Jehan woman with brown curls falling all the way down to her hips. “It can be anything you like,” she said, with Cillian’s voice.
Nikolay averted his eyes. It ached to breathe, like there was a great invisible hand squeezing his entire body. “Don’t do that,” he said, and it was sharp enough to shock Cillian out of the illusion.
“No women?” he said.
“No other people,” Nikolay said. His stomach was burning with sharp acid. What had he done? It was no better than what had been done to him. It wasn’t what Cillian had wanted. Looking at Cillian felt like he was looking down a very long, dark corridor, with just the faintest light at the end. His breath was weak and caught in his throat.
“Nikolay,” Cillian said, from very far away. He was reaching out towards him, but Nikolay knocked his hand away.
“Don’t touch me,” he said, and his voice was a terrible growl. Cillian dropped his hand, but did not move away.
Nikolay pressed his hands against his eyes. The memories were ceaseless. A dark room. Red rope. A man’s hand with a knife, the soft cries, and beside him, pressed along his side, the nightmare. That was what he had done to Cillian. It was the same thing. Worse than that. He had liked it.
“Nikolay,” Cillian said, running a soft hand along Nikolay’s arm. “I know what you’re thinking.”
Nikolay laughed then, a jagged thing that hurt his throat. Cillian’s thighs were wet; it sent an ugly spike of heat down into his belly. “You have no idea what I’m thinking.” Each word was punctuated by a jagged gasp for breath. “You have — no — idea — who —”
Cillian frowned. “Nikolay, listen,” he said, and touched Nikolay’s face, pushing his sweat-damp hair from his brow, pressing their foreheads together. Before Nikolay could protest, it was the walls of his home that began to shiver and dissolve. Gods, it felt like he was going mad. He had to squeeze his eyes shut.
When he opened them, he knew exactly where he was. The white marble and polished silver of the Miran parliament hall, the high ceilings — he turned, very slowly. The illusion was flawless. He could see out the window to the city beyond; he could feel the sweep of the clearest, coldest air.
“No,” he said. He couldn’t be back here. Bile rose at the back of his throat.
“It’s beautiful, isn’t it?” Cillian was reclining in the red chair at the end of the table, one leg hooked over its arm. He was naked and dripping in jewellery, and there was something colder and sharper about him, something empty in his eyes. This was not the Cillian who had learned to sing the Jehan song about the moon.
“Do you remember?”
The voice was behind him. He knew that voice. He’d heard it in this room before, sometimes as soft as a whisper that he had to lean forward just to hear, sometimes raised and harsh. Make me something I can use, and you can come here as often as you like.
He had to turn. His heart was beating so fast that he was afraid it would simply burst. He turned and met the eyes of the nightmare. It looked the same as it always had: a strange, cruel beauty, except for the eyes that stared right through him as if he was not even present.
This was the nightmare face with Cillian’s eyes. The Miran Cillian would become.
No. He moved without thinking. None of this was real. He picked up the man by his shoulders and pushed him into the wall. The whole place shook as the illusion dissolved. He had Cillian pinned, his arm across his neck, and heard him choke. But Cillian didn’t fight back — he melted into Nikolay, his chest heaving under Nikolay’s hand.
“Why did you do that,” Nikolay said; he couldn’t recognise his own voice, grating and harsh as it was. Cillian was struggling to speak; Nikolay let him fall. He slid down the wall and landed in a heap, coughing, his eyes dark and glittering. “Why did you do that?”
“Because I understand you,” Cillian said. “Please. I know what it’s been like for you because it’s the same for me.”
“Don’t lie to me,” Nikolay said. He felt like a wild thing made of lightning and ice, about to fly apart. “Don’t lie to me. Why did you — “
“Because I know who you are,” Cillian said.
Nikolay went cold all over, then hot. It felt as if someone had put a sword through his back. “How long,” he said, through numb lips.
“From the beginning,” Cillian said. He was naked on the floor, but he had all the power and he knew it. “Nikolay, you never even told me your name. Didn’t you notice?”
“Who am I, then,” Nikolay said, and he was shaking. Every time Cillian had looked at him, every time Cillian had touched him, every kind word — all of it was fake. “Tell me who I am.“
Cillian seemed unfazed. He dragged his tunic on without breaking Nikolay’s gaze. “You made a sword for the Lord General of Mira,” he said, and his voice was steady, but there was nothing in his eyes, nothing at all. “And he used that sword to raze a whole village to the ground in the name of peace.”
“Don’t talk about things you don’t understand,” Nikolay said. The sword they had made lay between them on the ground. He glanced down, but Cillian didn’t follow his gaze. It was like he didn’t even care.
“I do understand, Nikolay,” Cillian said. “I’ve probably heard about it more times than you have. Some days it was all he would talk about.”
“Please don’t,” Nikolay said.
“He’s my father,” Cillian said. “But I think you knew that, didn’t you?”
“No,” Nikolay said, and Cillian’s mouth twisted with brief misery.
“I do understand,” Cillian said. “It wasn’t your fault — you shouldn’t be in exile for it.”
“Exile,” Nikolay said.
“This is what he does — “
“You think I’m in exile?”
Cillian stopped. Nikolay had the sense that Cillian had had this conversation before in his head, and Nikolay had wrenched it off the path he had expected. “Is that the wrong word?”
“You think this is exile,” Nikolay said again, and he couldn’t stop himself from huffing out a laugh. Cillian’s eyes narrowed.
“What is it, then? You’re trapped here — a prisoner.”
“You really don’t understand anything,” Nikolay said. “I chose this. I chose to be here.”
“Why would you choose this?” Cillian said.
“I’m taking responsibility,” Nikolay said. “I’m atoning for what I’ve done.”
“Atoning?” Cillian said. “I know what you’re meant to do when you’re finished atoning. Are you going to do that? Take a dagger to your neck for what my father made you do?”
“No one ever made me do anything,” Nikolay said. His fists were clenched.
“That’s what he wants you to think,” Cillian said, pushing his hair back from his face with shaking hands. “He makes you think you’re doing what you want, but it’s him.”
“Get out,” Nikolay said. There was no venom in his voice, no anger. He just sounded exhausted. Sounded dead.
“He lies to you, he tricks you, he forces you to do what he wants — “
“The only person that’s done that to me,” Nikolay said, “is you.”
That stopped Cillian completely. His mouth opened and closed. He blinked, and for a moment his eyes melted from transparent ice-chips to something else, something Nikolay was used to meeting over the rim of a mug of tea.
“No,” Cillian said. “What would you have had me do? Show up on your doorstep and ask you to help me take revenge on my father? What would you have said?”
“I don’t know,” Nikolay said. Cillian scoffed and rolled his eyes.
“What is there to still be afraid of?” he said. “Are you that c-cowardly — “
“No,” Nikolay. His teeth were clenched. “I can’t know what I would have done if you’d given me a choice. You made that decision before you ever showed up here.”
“I — I had to,” Cillian said, and for a moment he sounded completely lost. Nikolay watched him dismiss the thought. “You wouldn’t have helped me — you know that.”
“Was it easy for you to pretend to give a shit about any of this?” Nikolay said, and he could not stop his voice from cracking. “Were you laughing at me the whole time?”
All that work, and he’d be melting the sword down before the sun rose. He could not give it to Cillian. Nothing Cillian had said could be trusted. His promise even less. Nikolay should have known he couldn’t be trusted — no, he had known, and he’d chosen to ignore it.
“No,” Cillian said. “Of course not. Nikolay, if I’d known things were going to turn out like — “
“Like what?” Nikolay said. His chest was so tight that every breath felt like it might split him open. “Like what?”
Cillian ran his hands through his hair. He looked down at the sword on the ground, and back up at Nikolay. “It might have been different to start, in my intention, but — “
“Get out,” Nikolay said again. His voice was loud now, and Cillian shied away from it.
“Please, Nikolay, I’m trying to — “
“Did you not hear me?” Nikolay stepped forward. There was a moment of hesitation where both of them remembered that Nikolay was much bigger than Cillian, and there was a blade on the ground between them. Nikolay was not a violent man; he had never been a violent man, apart from the one moment, the one moment in time when the sword had been held aloft and —
“I’ll go,” Cillian said, stepping back unsteadily. “If I can just sleep, if I can just go in the morning — “
“No,” Nikolay said.
“Just one more night, Nikolay,” Cillian said, and his cold Miran facade was disappearing. But even realising he was truly getting at Cillian’s heart didn’t satisfy Nikolay, not now.
“You can find someone else’s bed to sleep in,” Nikolay said. “I’m sure that won’t be hard.”
Cillian’s mouth twisted. “That’s not fair,” he said, very quietly.
“Nothing about this is fair,” Nikolay said. He bent and picked up the sword. Cillian raised his hands, stepping back even further over the threshold of Nikolay’s bedroom. “Least of what you’ve done.”
“This has been the first time in a very long time I’ve felt like a person,” Cillian said, voice hitching with a suppressed sob. He took another step backwards, stumbling.
“Then you should have acted like one,” Nikolay said.
Cillian stepped backwards again, into darkness. His shoes were sitting right at the door to the forge. They had not been there before; Cillian must have known this would happen.
“I never intended for you to be hurt like this, ” Cillian said, and he moved forward. It was Nikolay’s turn to flinch back. “Please.”
“Put your fucking shoes on,” Nikolay said. He went back into his room and picked up every single thing that was Cillian’s now, everything that made him feel sick to see it. Then, hating himself for doing it, a pair of thick socks. A pair of gloves that had never fit right. He threw them on the floor in front of Cillian, who looked up very slowly.
“I won’t talk to you, I’ll just stay right here,” he said. “It’s snowing, you can’t — “
“It’ll get warmer the closer you get to Mira,” Nikolay said, and reached over Cillian’s head to pull the door open. The air was chilled, but the snow was thin on the ground, and there was no wind. Perhaps he’d be a little uncomfortable on his walk back home. Nikolay did not care.
Cillian’s mouth was set in an unhappy grimace. “We’re the same, can’t you see?” he said. “What my father has done to us — I can make it right, for both our sakes.”
“Don’t absolve both of us in the same breath,” Nikolay said, pushing Cillian out of the door and into the snow. “I haven’t done anything to deserve it, and neither have you.”
The sword was heavy in his hand, his knuckles creaking as he clutched it. Oh, gods, there was nothing he could do but make mistakes. But he couldn’t keep it. It was a masterwork; it would be a lie to think Nikolay could melt it down, and it would be nothing but a reminder. There was a warmth to it. It was yearning for Cillian. It was part of him now. Nikolay threw it with no regard for where it would land, shoring up against Cillian’s leg. Cillian snatched it up and scrambled to his feet.
“Oh, so you wanted what happened, did you?” Cillian said. “You would have taken that sword and killed all those Jehan yourself, would you?”
“You’re lucky you’re the one with the sword,” Nikolay said, and he knew this was when he slammed the door and stopped everything, the ugly thump of his heart, the acid and bile in his throat. Stopped the painful pricking in his eyes. But he was weak. He had always been weak.
“Do one thing for me,” Cillian said, floundering a little in the snow.
“Haven’t I done enough?” It was too raw and desperate; he saw Cillian flinch. But there was nothing left for him to draw on. He wasn’t angry any more, just empty.
“Listen,” Cillian said. He must know Nikolay was gathering his courage to close the door. “I’ll send a signal that I’m home safe.”
“I don’t care,” Nikolay said.
“When the sun’s right above, look at the parliament spire,” Cillian said.
“Just so you know I’m still alive,” Cillian said.
“Are you going to kill him?”
But the time for Nikolay to ask that question had passed, if it had ever existed. Perhaps Cillian would have answered if it was late into the night, his face partly illuminated by firelight, eyes closing as he looked up at Nikolay. That Cillian was gone; he looked straight through Nikolay now, his hands tucked under his armpits, nose turning red with the cold. He said nothing at all.
Say something, Nikolay thought, to Cillian, to himself. Cillian sighed instead, his breath a white cloud, and Nikolay closed the door.
An hour later, deep into the bottle of harvest wine, he gathered the courage to open it again. There were no tracks in the snow, and the world was still and empty. It was like nobody had ever been there at all.
The next morning he woke, although he would have preferred not to, to the silence of falling snow. Pale sunlight touched the end of the bed. He had not slept there, but half on and half off the cot, a red line imprinted on his thigh from its edge.
Everything about the room made him want to claw at his own flesh. The oil-stained blanket, the bedsheets still rumpled into Cillian’s shape. He found the wine bottle lying on its side, and drank from it until everything was a little less painful at the edges. Then he lay back and watched the light play on the ceiling.
Even the nightmare face had abandoned him. He was truly alone. What he hadn’t expected was that it would be worse than being haunted by the face of the Lord General, now that he was alone with his jagged thoughts.
Nikolay drank more. Drank and thought. Thought, why didn’t I turn him away? Thought, why didn’t he ask me, why didn’t I ask, why didn’t he say, why, why, until his jaw hurt from being clenched and the bottle was empty. The world swam around him. When he closed his eyes, he saw those faint sparks again, the ones that had been caught in Cillian’s hair — no.
It had all been a lie, right from the beginning. That moment where Cillian had held a knife to his neck had been the only true part of it. The only part where Cillian had been honest. He wished that Cillian had cut his throat there and then. He should have leaned up into the knife.
This felt like the first weeks after he had arrived here, when he was drunk or asleep more often than not. The only sense that time was passing came from the sun’s path across the ceiling, and the fade of day into night, night into day. But it was different now. The whole room smelled of Cillian, the scent of his hair, his sweat. It wasn’t right. It wasn’t right that Nikolay had let this happen.
He rolled off the cot and stumbled to his feet. It was no better inside the forge. The chair where Cillian had sat was still there, angled towards Nikolay as if he had cared what he was doing. It was too much.
He stoked the fire with numb hands, pumping the bellows until it roared, the sheer wall of heat unbearable. He looked down at his calloused hands, the tense muscles of his arms, the burns up and down their length. All smiths had them, but he had only two severe ones, and he had done one of them deliberately.
Nikolay couldn’t stand the heat long. It felt good. Penance, atonement, he thought, as he went back into his room and gathered the blanket, heaving it into the fire with a pained grunt. He burned the blanket, the rushes on the floor, the sheets from the bed. The books on the shelf. His sketches. He dug up the half-made swords and melted them to nothing. Everything Cillian had touched. Everything he had left. Anything that had let Nikolay think he was more than a vessel for what he had done.
Drink and make swords. Sleep and make swords. No dreams. No speaking. No remembering the way Cillian had watched Nikolay, always, from the corner of his eye, or the way his crooked smile had looked. Go to bed with the sun. Wake up and make swords, until the day would come when he had to make the dagger that bore his own name.
It was true winter now, he thought, fetching firewood from the covered woodshed. The snow was up to his knees in places, especially where the wind had blown it up against the walls of the house. He’d been granted a brief reprieve by the early snow, but he didn’t feel grateful. A reprieve for what?
It was difficult not to notice the beauty of the end of the pass where the forge was, the delicate ice-wreathed trees, the drifts of snow that caught the sun, and for a moment he felt the weight on him begin to lift. There was a flash of light at the corner of his eye — something reflecting off the ice, he thought, turning, and saw the flash again.
Not ice. Not a reflection. It was coming from Mira. Nikolay held his breath and saw the pink-golden light flash one last time.
No, he thought and turned away. The sun was right overhead. He hadn’t even taken notice of the time of day.
He hurried back to the forge. Inside, it was dark, the wood burnt down to embers. There was a little whining sound coming with his breath, and he pushed the back of his hand against his mouth to stifle it.
He’s alive, he thought, crouching down at the forge. Of course Cillian was alive. He was the kind of person who would spend a whole month spinning a cage of lies until the trap triggered itself. He didn’t blunder, didn’t misstep. That was what Nikolay thought of him, if he had to think of him.
And it was true, except for when it came to Nikolay. Or that was what Cillian would like to believe, considering what he’d done.
Cillian was the kind of person to stand on the balcony of the parliament spire every day for a month, or longer, and send flickering, hopeful light towards someone he knew was not looking.
Nikolay buried his face in his hands. If everything he said was a lie, he thought, why does it feel true?
“I never wanted to hurt anyone,” he said, very, very quietly, into the dim light of the forge. No one was listening. Nothing responded. “I never wanted anyone to die.”
Nikolay saw the light the next day, and the next, and the — he was waiting, pacing back and forth through the snow, pretending that he wasn’t looking at the white marble spire. Was it cold up there, Nikolay wondered, gnawing on a fingernail. Did the other Mirans wonder why Cillian climbed there every day? Was it even him at all?
It was late, he realised, and his heart was beating too fast. It was late. His eyes were burning as he stared towards the city, afraid to blink in case he missed it. Don’t be dead, he thought. Forget about me, but don’t be dead.
Light — red light bloomed at the top of the spire. What — was all he had time to think. His breath caught in his throat. The light grew brighter and brighter, until it hurt him to look, forcing him to throw his hands up in front of his face. He could hear it, a terrible low rumble that built to a screeching crescendo. The light sharpened, thin and hard-edged. The spire exploded.
Silence. Nikolay heard his own ragged breathing, and then — the sound of it, a deep, horrible thunder that rolled down through the valley and up into Jehan, with a brief, hot wind that made Nikolay stumble backwards and fall into the snow.
It couldn’t be real. He closed his eyes. Opened them. Closed them again. It was painted on the darkness of his closed eyelids, and it was there again when he opened them, the marble spire streaked with black, a towering jet of smoke rising into the air. I did that, he thought, raising his hand to blot out what he was seeing. That was me.
Then he started laughing, as he fell down in the snow — a horrible laugh that he couldn’t stop until he was doubled over, his stomach cramping. It didn’t stop until he was retching into the snow, stomach trying to bring up something that wasn’t there.
He had to crawl into the forge, shedding his outside clothes until he was on the floor next to the hearth fire, and even then he could feel no warmth. He lay there until he started sobbing, feeling himself crack down the middle, the sobs wracking his body as he struggled to stop them, biting down harshly on his own hand. I did it again, he thought. All of this, and I did it again. This time, I ruined him too. I made him as bad as me.
There was nothing left in him. His entire body was scraped empty. He pulled himself into his bed, his stomach aching, and pulled the blanket over his head until he was somewhere else, where there was nothing, just a moment of oblivion. Cillian was dead. He would make the dagger tomorrow. He would make it tomorrow.
Something stirred Nikolay from wherever he was, and he opened his aching eyes. His body felt too heavy to move, but he struggled free from the blanket. He held his breath and waited. There was a bird singing outside, high and sweet. The tune sounded familiar, rousing his dull, drifting mind. It sounded like —
He was outside with bare feet, the snow stinging them numb. A splash. He turned towards the river. There was someone lying face-down in the water, little bubbles rising around his head. He was wearing a blue cloak with a purple pattern. Nikolay grabbed him by the waist and rolled him over into the snow with all his might.
Cillian — of course it was Cillian. “She reached the peak and saw her love,” he sang, a mumbled half-note wobbling through his blue lips. One of his eyes was swollen shut and red-black, but the other was glassy and rolling back and forth. It did not settle on Nikolay at all. There was nothing to his slight weight as Nikolay pulled him out of the river, throwing him over his shoulder and pushing back through the snow towards the forge.
It was a dream, he thought as he crossed the threshold. Cillian was mumbling, still, drawing in a terrible rattling breath. Nikolay lit all the lights in the forge and came back to Cillian, who lay on the ground tangled in his cloak.
Nikoaly drew closer. There was no pattern on the blue cloak. It was blood. Cillian was drenched in blood from neck to feet, his hands soaked in it, his chest wet. Oh gods, oh gods, Nikolay thought, hands shaking as he pulled at Cillian’s shirt.
“Nikolay,” Cillian said faintly, his head moving from side to side. “Nikolay, are we dead?”
“I don’t know,” Nikolay said, and it was the truth. The sword was still buckled around Cillian’s waist, and Nikolay pulled that free, fighting the urge to throw it across the room.
“Nikolay,” Cillian said, suddenly, opening his eye again. “It’s not my blood.”
“What?” Nikolay said. His hands were on Cillian’s frozen hands, and he began to chafe them roughly, ignoring Cillian’s moans of discomfort.
“It’s not my blood,” he said again, and then he was laughing, fingers curling in Nikolay’s grip. “It’s not my blood, it’s not mine, it’s not my blood, it’s not — “
And then nothing. His mouth snapped shut and his eye went distant, his body lax in Nikolay’s grip. Nikolay set water to boil and undressed him, searching for any open wound, but found nothing. There was deep bruising on his ribs and arms, and a rough abrasion down one of his legs, and he trembled constantly — but the true injury was in his eye, and the way it was just totally empty, as if someone had reached behind it and cut it out.
Nikolay dipped a cloth in the water and knelt before Cillian, wiping at his hands until the gold showed on his fingers, and then his pale, trembling skin. Nikolay breathed warm air onto his hands and then kissed the backs of his fingers, pressing his cheek against them.
“What are you doing?” Cillian said, softly.
“What I want,” Nikolay said. He turned Cillian’s hand and kissed his palm, but Cillian made a soft noise and pulled his hand away.
“What did you do?” Nikolay said. Cillian put his hand on top of Nikolay’s head.
“You know what I did,” Cillian said. “You saw. I can see it in your eyes.”
“First, I killed him,” Cillian said, “then I had a long conversation with him.” He gasped and doubled over; Nikolay grabbed at his arms, trying to steady him. It wasn’t a noise of pain, but he was laughing, his body shaking with it, his eye wet with tears. “Then I killed the rest of them, Nikolay.” He pushed his whole weight down onto Nikolay and leaned against him, wet, naked, and bloody.
“Did you do it for me?” Nikolay said. Somewhere, distantly, he could feel himself melting.
“No,” Cillian said, and some of the horrible tension left him. “No, I — I did it for myself.” All the strength went out of him, and he fell forward onto Nikolay and buried his face in his shirt, wracked with sobs that seemed to come from his very soul. Nikolay could do nothing except hold him, even as Cillian fought against his grip, pressing his wet face against Nikolay’s front.
Eventually Cillian went silent and still again. Nikolay held him for as long as Cillian could stand it. There was blood in his hair. Nikolay could see it up close. There was blood in his ears too, and on his neck. What had he done?
Cillian touched the surface of the water in the tub, and recoiled. “It’ll burn me,” he said. There were tears in his eyes again, and he raised his hand to wipe them away, flinching as he touched his bruised eye.
“It just feels hot,” Nikolay said. “Because you’re cold.”
“I want to apologise to you, but I don’t know how,” Cillian said, climbing into the bath and sliding down into the water up to his neck. Nikolay knelt. Cillian was just sitting, unmoving, his hands floating on the top of the water. Nikolay said nothing; he didn’t know how to answer. “You were right — I did nothing but think how to say this to you, and I still don’t know how.”
“It’s all right,” Nikolay said. And it was all right, because Cillian had come back to him. So he had killed — Nikolay couldn’t find it in him to care. He was watching the movement of Cillian’s spine and shoulder blades under his skin. “It’s not important.”
“But it is,” Cillian said, rounding on Nikolay, stirring the water with his movement. “It is important. It’s very important.”
“Why?” Nikolay said. He was gripping the side of the bath.
“Because I have to bear responsibility,” Cillian said softly, and he reached out for Nikolay’s hand. Nikolay hesitated. He knew he should move away. He wanted to lean in. What Cillian had done — If he’s mad, I’m mad too, Nikolay thought. If he’s mad, I’m mad too.
He pulled Cillian to him, and felt him gasp, his wet hands frantic on Nikolay’s shirt, on his chest, on his skin, his wet hair brushing against Nikolay’s neck, his open mouth on Nikolay’s, shuddering as Nikolay wound a hand in his hair and pulled it back, his throat moving as he whispered get in, Nikolay, get in.
Everything was hot and soft for a while, Cillian lying across his chest in the cramped tub, their legs twined together. Cillian’s head was under his chin, his arms loosely slung around Nikolay’s waist, and he was talking so quietly that Nikolay could only hear it through the vibrations of his body and the fact that his lips were turned up right underneath Nikolay’s ear.
“It’s like — since you left, probably, everything’s always getting worse, every day it’s worse, every day it’s not why would we invade but when, how soon — no one will do anything, nothing ever changes, nothing I did ever changed anything — ” He drew in a horrible, shuddering breath. Nikolay could hear what he was leaving unsaid: It had to be done.
“There’s a room under the Lord General’s quarters,” Nikolay said, and his voice was a thread in the silence. “If you close the door, there’s no light, none at all.”
“I know,” Cillian said, surprised. “I know the room you’re talking about.”
“Hmm,” Nikolay said. He had never spoken about this to anyone; even mentioning it felt like picking at the scab of a never-healed wound.
“I don’t think I ever made it more than a day in there,” Cillian said. The water of the bath was still hot, but Nikolay suddenly felt a chill. He worked his teeth against each other, his jaw straining. How many days had it been? He could not remember. I won’t make your sword. I want to return home. The reply: You will make it. You will stay here.
Nikolay said nothing further for a long while; Cillian didn’t ask him to speak.
“Did he use the sword against you?” Nikolay said. Cillian shifted sleepily against him.
“What?” he said.
“The sword,” Nikolay said. “The first one I made.”
“What are you talking about?” Cillian said, raising his head to meet Nikolay’s eyes. His hair was beginning to dry, curling against the nape of his neck.
“The one that he used here,” Nikolay said, and he could feel the pressure and agitation in his throat, his words becoming shuttered and tight.
“No, of course not,” Cillian said. “Nikolay, don’t you — tell me what you saw.”
“On that day,” Nikolay said — Cillian was watching him, so closely that he was sure he could see what had happened in the reflection in Nikolay’s eyes — “I gave him the sword and he did what he did.” He closed his eyes tightly.
“But what happened to him?” Cillian said, urgently. “What happened to the sword?”
“I don’t know,” Nikolay said. “The fire was so bright — I was blind for three days.”
“You don’t know,” Cillian said, and he rubbed his eye and shuddered. “The sword turned back on him. You never fed it his blood, did you?”
“No,” Nikolay said. It was difficult to imagine such a proud man opening his vein, or sleeping bare with jagged metal.
“And you never did any of the other rituals?” Cillian said, his mouth twisting. “What you said — that’s when I realised.”
When he said he’d been with no one else, Nikolay realised, and tried not to flush.
“He’d never debase himself that way,” Cillian said, his hands clenching at Nikolay’s waist. “And so he never bonded with the sword. It destroyed his arm, Nikolay.” Cillian’s smile was cold and harsh. “He never used it again. He could never use magic again. You did that.” He drew in a deep breath and sighed. “The sword — there’s nothing left of it. There hasn’t been for years.”
“I didn’t know,” Nikolay said. He couldn’t breathe, thinking about the burning red that had consumed his vision, the way he had screamed into blind darkness for days, until he had woken — here. “Did you speak to him before you — “
“Yes,” Cillian said, too quickly, as if he knew exactly what Nikolay was going to say. “Yes, I did.”
“Did you — “
“I don’t want to answer that,” Cillian said, and his half-smile was back, the one that came across his face when he didn’t know what to say — or was lying.
“Cillian — “
“Why should I have to tell the truth, if its only purpose is to hurt you?” Cillian said, and Nikolay could feel the obstinate jut of his jaw against his chest as he lay back down. Nikolay touched Cillian’s neck, the curl of his hair.
“It’s necessary,” he said. His heart had been wounded, a dark, ugly thing infested with mould.
“Nikolay, he — he — ” Cillian’s voice cut off, jagged and high. Nikolay could feel his silent tears against his chest. “Nikolay, he didn’t remember you.”
Nikolay couldn’t breathe — there was no air in the room. He could not tell how much time had passed when he returned to himself, except that the water was cooling, and Cillian was shivering. It sounded like he had been speaking for a while, his voice a low rasp.
” — that’s why for a day or so I didn’t think it was you, it couldn’t be you, you’re too young, I thought you’d have the traitor’s mark, you were too — I liked you too much to think about it.”
“I didn’t take the mark,” Nikolay said, and Cillian cut himself off. “It was take the mark or atone, and I didn’t want it.”
“I didn’t think you could choose,” Cillian said, soft.
“A sword for every soul that was taken by the sword I made.”
“I thought I’d be too late,” Cillian said. “I thought you’d be finished, and — “
“I did finish,” Nikolay said. He watched Cillian look at the walls of the forge and find nothing there to reflect his ice-blue eyes. “I finished a week ago.”
“A week — ” He caught just the side of Cillian’s stunned face. “You finished, but you didn’t — you didn’t make the dagger. Are you allowed to do that?”
“No,” Nikolay said, and he rose from the water, pulling Cillian with him. He stoked both fires and they dressed in front of them, Cillian’s bruises and scrapes blooming like flowers on his skin.
“Come and see,” Nikolay said. He had dressed Cillian to withstand the cold as well as he could, so he was just two eyes peeping out of a scarf and hat. Nikolay took his hand and led him out into the whirling night, where the clouds and snow and sky were all mixed together, and the wind was a tortuous thing that pulled at their cloaks. He loved it, truly, loved the air that burned when he breathed it in.
Cillian didn’t love it. Nikolay didn’t need to see more than Cillian’s eyes to tell that his teeth were gritted against the cold, and to notice the way he wobbled and floundered in the snow. They pushed up the path, and then to the top of the little ridge.
He didn’t have to tell Cillian this is where it happened, this is where he came and said his false words of peace, and raised the sword — because Cillian could see where the scar of the annihilation had laid bare the earth, and how the ground had split under the torment, the screams of the dying — Nikolay had seen nothing, but heard all of it, hands clamped over his bleeding eyes.
Some of the bones of the houses still remained, charred black and spotted with snow. From here, Cillian could see Nikolay’s work too, the bare silver swords sticking up out of the earth, marked with names. A single sword here, three here, four at the neighbour. Gravestones where there could be no graves, for those who had burned until there was nothing left.
“We can’t stay here,” Cillian said, pulling Nikolay down so that he could hear.
“Too cold?” he said.
“No,” Cillian replied, and the circle of his arms was a small haven against the cold, the wind briefly abating and giving way to the still darkness of the night. “We’re dead men, Nikolay, and this is no place for dead men.” He took off his glove and pushed his cold fingers underneath Nikolay’s scarf. “They’ve found my body, but it won’t last. They’ll come for us when they realise where I’ve gone.”
“What do you want to do?” Nikolay said. His entire world had narrowed down to this little valley, to the forge. Narrowed and narrowed until it was just the sound of hammer striking metal. Cillian moved closer to him, and closer still, until there was no space between them. Two dead men — he could smell his own blood, see it scattered on the snow.
“I want to see the ocean,” Cillian said, suddenly. “I don’t want to stay here. I don’t want to be someone that anyone knows. I don’t want to know Mira, or Jehan, or anything.”
“You need to make a sword,” Nikolay said, and Cillian was tight in the circle of his arms. “Just one, for me.”
“I don’t know how,” Cillian said, muffled.
“You’ll learn,” Nikolay said. “You’ll have a good teacher.” He looked up into the parting of the clouds, where the black of the sky was laid bare, the quiet around them so complete that he felt any movement would shatter it. It would be the same as when Cillian had left, he thought, soon enough. First tracks in the snow, blurred by the blowing wind, and then nothing at all.
I adored this. It was just so well written in terms of – well, everything, but particularly the emotional quality and narrative tone and progress. A main character whom you can truly care about but whom you are not confident hasn’t deserved his fate; a catalyst character you like but whom you’re not convinced the main character should trust, and then the tension generated from wanting things to work out for them with the real possibility that it won’t – and not only that, but looks like it’s going to end rather terribly badly. That’s what this story had and I loved every word. I want to read more in this world, lots more, but I guess I’ll just have to be content to read this one again. Thanks SSBB for bringing this to me, and Nori Kanfuyu for writing it! A reading highlight of my week!
Woo boy, this one was very intense right from the get-go, and I feel like you put in just enough breathing room that it kept hitting hard every time those quiet moments ended. Lots of tantalizing bits of world-building, too! This line especially stuck with me: “There was no magic on this side of the border, none at all.” A geographical restriction, violently enforced anti-mage policy, no one in Jehan born with magic?? It’s all fascinating to consider. Also love the very unique combo of blood magic + wedding night ritual to soul bond with your magic sword!
Tamago’s animations are gorgeous as ever! The last one in particular is such a beautiful, solemn scene to end on, and I really like the colors.
This was such a pleasure to read. Lots of drama and tension and atmosphere, and I loved their relationship so much, especially in terms of their fragile trust.
Wow, this was really good. It had the feeling like an avalanch; you know something bad is coming and you’re just waiting for it to hit because it’s not like you can get out of the way. I have a lot of hope for them, though.
Calm, quiet fantasy that’s willing to hide a lot of its worldbuilding until we have enough of a grasp on the characters for it to mean something is always a favorite of mine, and the slow burn of revealing details like Cillian’s magic, the nature of blooded swords, and what amounts to a magical nuke being dropped on a nearby village (for which Nikolay is STILL atoning, despite not calling it down himself) all added up to make a strong story voice that kept me intrigued until the very end.
Oh, the art. I LOVE the art. The limited color scheme and focus on strong shapes and composition over heavy linework, to say nothing of the extra pizzazz brought in by it being animated, makes for a pair of wonderful images, and their color schemes compliment each other so well! They FEEL sweltering and freezing, respectively. The second one in particular really stayed with me: it feels cold and isolated in a very intentional way, and is the perfect illustration to end this particular story. Magnificent.
this was a wonderfully mysterious, magical, and melancholy story. two characters but so many beguiling details that keep you reading, the relationship between them was intense! i also loved the way the ending wrapped up, answering the question about why Nikolay kept making swords. thank you for this! plus the animated illustration is the bow on this gift of a piece, they really capture the story in subtle ways.