Eteri reached the Birdcage on tired feet and with her arms aching. She slumbered on the grass, finding a tree and setting herself down against its bark, trying to find a moment to gather her emotions.
She reached for her chest and felt her heartbeat. It had slowed down compared to how she did feel in the Zalethi’s own room, but it was still thunderous to her ears.
“I have made it,” she sighed. And yes, she did, in a certain sense… she had given up her freedom for good. The Zalethi had accepted her.
Tatia was safe. Which was what mattered.
She felt a smile spread on her lips as she thought of the day to come. Se would wake up in this cage the next day, and the day after that… she would be able to see her family, perhaps in passing, only when the next Harvest Festival would pass through Velathri again. Twelve years from now.
That was surely a long time. And she would hold onto their memory just like she held onto her craft to be shaped into a plate and a series of lines – words thrown like stones into the bottomless heart of the Zalethi.
She felt her eyelids starting to close, and she drifted onto sleep. The others would find her there… and they would begin their life together.
But no matter what, she would not forget. She would not let go of her memories and she would not let go of her love for her family.
That appeared, to her as her head tilted to the side and she fell at last into slumber, to be more certain than steel.
The Zalethi sat next to Thesanthei. The ancient Loukomon had drifted in and out of sleep for a while, but now he was awake again and she had decided to share in his company for a few more minutes still. He needed his rest, but she could be covetous with his time, couldn’t she?
“The shadow on your brow has left,” he noticed, giving her a curious glance. “Perhaps the company of your slavegirl helped to fix your mood, Eternal Grace?”
“Ah, something like that.” She did not feel like sharing her discovery. Thesanthei would without a doubt be happy, mostly because he did not know what such a discovery would ultimately entail, for the Dominion at large and especially for his people. “I have managed to find a way to recover a bit of hope, I could say.”
“That is a balm to my poor old heart.” He shifted on the bed and the mattress creaked. They held their hands together like that for a few more minutes, his wizened skin on her flesh of glass and stars. “Whatever the future holds, I am glad it will be merry for you.”
“Perhaps. Not even I can see all paths.”
“Nor do you have to walk down all of them.” He leaned back into his pillow and in his black eyes shone an inner smile, brighter than on his lips. “If the Twelve conserve me, I would be gladly stay with you tomorrow. Now please, I would like to go back to sleep a little more.”
“Granted,” she chuckled, standing up.
“Oh, and did that new slavegirl prove her worth in the end? You did not tell me anything about her.”
“That and more,” she replied, leaving him alone to his drifting into slumber.
The Zalethi walked down the empty corridors of her spire. At this time of the night, almost every servant was long asleep and they were as silent as tombs.
That gave her time to think, which was her least favourite thing. She had spent far too much time doing just that, and it had grown to be wearisome.
But this new girl… she had proven to possess the key to the new world. She would find thee correct pattern, and resume working for the next iteration. She stopped, looking down at the world of the Rasena, slumbering happily after a successful Harvest Festival.
They did not know that they would soon be replaced. And this time perhaps, maybe this time… maybe this time she would get it right.
A Daimon appeared at the other end of the corridor and she willed it to reach her. The living statue bowed and the Zalethi held out a hand. They danced, the crystal-clear woman and the one made of night, in the corridors of the castle, with the distant and careless stars as their sole witness.
Then the Zalethi rested her forehead against that of the Daimon, trying to peer through those clear and absent eyes, as if it could give her the answers she craved.
She thought about the girl who had defied her, and the nature of her sacrifice, and the reason she had allowed it – not just because of her craft, or the pattern. Now, she had proven to be indomitable to a level she would have never believed a Rasena be capable of.
That… was intriguing.
“She has an older sister as well, didn’t you know?” The Zalethi whispered, taking a lock of the Daimon’s see-through hair and playing with it.
The statue did not answer.
Nor did she expected it to.
It still felt a little bit like a betrayal. Then again she was an expert, wasn’t she?
She let the Daimon go, watching it stride down the corridor, unburdened by care or thoughts or wisdom.
What a utter blessing.
She stepped towards the window – glass bowed at her passage, creating a hole through which she walked onto thin air, the glass forming a platform beneath her steps. She climbed it until she stood higher than clouds, looking down at her Dominion, at all the people that looked up to the Twelve and who loved her, and who would soon be turned into dust and cinder for the new iteration of the cycle to come.
The worst kind of hope. Her hand reached for her helmet and kneaded the spot where her eyes ought to be.
The spiderweb of golden lights of the Dominion stood waiting.
Just as the new slavegirl in her chambers.
The Zalethi sat and waited for the night to pass.
“I am going to break her too,” she whispered.
Author’s Notes: Thanks for reading. I can say that I am not satisfied at all with how the story turned out in the end. I wonder if it is a curse or I am just a hack writer or whatnot. I have been writing and re-writing this story for the past six years and it never seems to sound right.
I suppose it’s just one of those things.
Maybe I should just let it go, together with that part of my production. This is is also why I wanted to complete it before the end of the year. We still have one month of challenge and I will spend it writing different stuff.
At any rate, thank you for reading. And I wish you the best on this new year.