“The Waxing Disquiet” by Tony Pi & Stephen Kotowych

*** For Your Consideration ***

2018 Prix Aurora Award for Best Short Fiction

To nominate this work go here.

 

“The Waxing Disquiet” originally appeared in
Deep Magic (June 2017)

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Metemis touched red honey to Gilani’s lips, hoping play would distract his love from the worries of recent days. “The Wicks foretold that we’d share a sweeter kiss.”

His jest coaxed a smile from her. “Did they?” Gilani spun out of reach, leaning coy against their shywood tree. Her dress of white linen danced with the breeze. The orchard atop the terraced hill was their usual trysting place, and the bright pink blossoms filled the sultry air with perfume. Here, they could escape the waxing disquiet in the city, the rumors of war, and indulge instead in one another . . . if only for a breath. “Did they also augur that I’d ask you to serenade me?”

Metemis laughed. “Shall I praise your smiling eyes? No, I sing of them too often.” He pushed a dark curl behind her ear, and was pleased she wore the earrings he’d given her, mosaics of greenstone and opal, signifying devotion.

But then, over her shoulder, he saw the city in the distance.

Ziroi was fringed by the fire of the setting sun. Farmland ringed the city like petals, while aqueducts and gardens checkered it like a rushlight board. From the hive pyramid at its heart, paper lanterns rose by the thousands, slow and silent like a plume of fireflies.

The beacons tore Metemis from his flirtatious mood. Did they signal war at last with Tekura?

No, war lanterns would burn sunflower yellow. These glowed lavafruit red.

Gilani tightened her grip on his arm. “The queen.”

All Ziroi whispered that Her Royal Grace would soon succumb to her long illness, and of late, the tallies of the Wicks had tipped toward the same conclusion. Crimson meant the moment was nigh.

Buoyed by the west wind, the lights wended between the Hundredhand Pillars and disappeared beyond the terraced hills. By morning they would summon all the queen’s subjects to the city for her last Grand Census.

“I must return to the pyramid.” Metemis pulled his feather-fringed cloak around his bare shoulders. “There will be many tests to oversee in the coming days.”

Gilani sighed. “Go, Tallyminder. And I will to my own tasks.” She replaced her beaded headdress. “My roads will soon grow fat with travelers, and too many are in ill repair.”

“No, come with me.” Metemis took her hand. Gilani was a sixth-cell hundredhand, so it was Metemis’s prerogative as a like-ranked tallyminder to administer her test in private, safeguarding state secrets from the masses. “I’ll speed us through so that we may deal with the myriads at leisure.”

* * *

Already, citizens gathered in the Plaza of Two Moons to pray, to mourn, and to make report. Swarms of people milled around the hexagonal base of the hive pyramid, a sea of humanity from the lance towers to the north and the bazaar domes to the south. The crowds sang mournful praise songs for the queen as dozens of breechclouted hawkers peddled honey sticks with their calls.

“How do you think this Grand Census will influence the next queen?” asked Gilani.

“Same as the lesser ones, I suppose,” said Metemis, thinking of the surveys he proctored in six-week, six-month, or twelve-month cycles as he rose through the ranks. He shook loose a pebble from his sandal. “The Wicks will reckon and augur the brightest future for us, and the new queen will use this tally to guide us. There will be suggested alliances, trade pacts. Wedding matches made.” He squeezed her hand.

Centuries of knot-histories had shown that the candle equations matched strength to strength and mind to mind with great foresight, as they were sure to do shortly for him and Gilani. Even strangers called to marry soon discovered they fit each other like the Wedded Moons now rising above Ziroi. The Wicks had paired Metemis’s own parents that way.

Together they climbed the pyramid’s steep outer steps, past hexagonal cavities set into concrete and stone. The Queen’s Sting were lighting signal fires in some cells, while other cells housed humming beehives.

“What will your Wicks say about Tekura?” Gilani asked.

Metemis stiffened. They had argued over this twice before. “The Wicks perceive patterns that escape us. If they say we must war with Tekura or Somaros or some other city, then it must serve our best interest.”

Gilani frowned. “Not everyone in Ziroi agrees. The Wicks have more and more to say about how we live our lives. Is it any wonder that factions have sprung up to oppose the queen?”

“Oh? Revolutionaries in every shadow?”

“Don’t mock. If the new queen doesn’t make changes, then resentment will only fester.”

“And what would you have Her Royal Grace change?”

“In the early days, people lived their own lives and made choices without relying on projected outcomes. The Wicks did nothing more than help farmers calculate the best time to plant and when the rains would come.”

“Why endure such chaos when there’s order?” answered Metemis. They stood midpoint between the royal tiers above and the lesser rings that served the myriads below. He took Gilani’s hand, but thought better of kissing her cheek. “Such a fierce spirit! But think of the heights our city has reached thanks to the guidance of the Wicks over the centuries. Think of where they’ll lead us.”

* * *

Ventilation shafts peppered the floor of the sixth ring, each wider than a man. The scent of sweet candle smoke wafted from the holes, as did the rumbles and creaks of giant fans, and the waterwheels that powered them.

At the gate, Metemis grazed palms with a pair of Queen’s Sting guards in greeting. They lowered their venomlances and allowed Metemis and Gilani to enter the honeycomb corridors. At the sanctum door, Metemis placed a combination of weights on a mahogany balance lock. When the hands of the scales pointed to the right symbols chosen for the day, the gatekeeper rolled open the door.

In the quizzing chambers beyond, Metemis’s acolytes were already testing citizens of the upper echelon. His own such chamber was grand, large enough to administer two tests at once. The two quizzing tables backed one another like the slopes of a single mountain, lit by caryatid candles.

This chamber was for the Grand Census only, and had more questions than the cyclic surveys. Each question was carved into its own stone pan, awaiting answer candles of the right weight and burn speed. Even the order in which the test taker chose to answer questions and the time taken meant something to the Wicks.

Metemis dismissed his acolytes. He removed Gilani’s necklace and unbraided her namestone into its three unique parts, placing them on their respective name pans to mark her identity. He lit her calendar candle with flame from the caryatids and set up her initial candles for her.

As Gilani started in, Metemis prepared his own tallyboard and began with the questions of love.

Single still, yet seeking. In love, hoping for children. He retrieved the answer candle he wanted from the proper bin, and touched flame to its wick. The balance pan dipped as he placed his answer. The strings and scales hidden underneath the tallyboard began to slowly feed the Wicks their information.

Next, questions of loyalty, of his personal wealth and status, and of his faith in the four castes. Unlike the tests taken by the myriads, there were no questions about harvests or livestock. The last questions he took were about what the next queen should champion.

Metemis couldn’t help but glance at Gilani on the sly, wondering how she answered. But she never looked away from the tallyboard, her brows drawn together in concentration.

When he lit his last candle, Gilani was still searching the bins for more. He retreated to the calculation antechamber, where the tallylooms worked unceasingly.

Click-clack went the wooden hooks, tying knots in coarse hemp twine, the knot-history of their answers. Some answers would be visible to Metemis here before being sent to deeper wickwork chambers, there to be woven into a greater plan. He didn’t think of it as cheating; his servants were there to ensure against a chance breeze blowing out a candle, or an accident knocking something out of alignment. Such acolytes were everywhere, keeping the Wicks lit and calculating.

Gilani set her last candle.

Metemis was pleased to see that his own knot-history was woven together with a red silk marriage thread, signaling he was finally to wed. And Gilani’s—

His stomach lurched. The Wicks were never wrong, but . . . it just couldn’t be. Gilani’s knot-history was being woven with a white chastity thread.

It took a few moments for Metemis to trust that his legs wouldn’t give out if he took a step, but he soon emerged from the calculation antechamber. He kept his face and manner calm. There was no need to alarm Gilani.

Yet.

Surely they were meant to marry. Who had the Wicks chosen for him?

* * *

The hive pyramid was abuzz with people of upper-cell ranks, including several members of the Inner Circle draped in their distinctive jaguar pelts. A cacophony of voices from below wafted up the great air shafts. The tally was well underway, and in days, the results would be set. Their fate would be final.

Gilani squeezed his hand, bringing Metemis back to himself. “I said: ‘When shall we have the answers, do you think?’ ”

He had missed her first query, and had led her on a circuit of that level of the pyramid. “Oh, soon enough,” he said. “There’s still much tallying to come.”

He should take her home. He needed time to think.

They descended three rings to the Arcade of Hanging Flames. The stone chamber was long and valley-like, busy with first-cell acolytes leaping and climbing ledges and ropes as they maintained the heart of the Wicks.

Narrow stone bridges ran above Metemis and Gilani, allowing the acolytes access to swinging candle pendulums and knot-history hooks. The arcade reverberated with the whoosh of flame relays, the bobbing of scales, the snap and twang of countless strings.

Their fates could already be burning their ways through this hall to the marriage looms.

Metemis helped Gilani cross the gulf of candle flames. Once a first-cell acolyte himself, working the catwalks and the high candles had given Metemis strength, balance, and agility that he worked hard to maintain, though he was now sixth-cell and long separated from such demanding physical tasks.

“Should we have our union ceremony in the Plaza of Two Moons?” asked Gilani. “Marry where we met. Pleasing symmetry, no?”

Until that moment, Metemis would have agreed.

They’d met in the rain. Metemis was escorting several heavy wagons bound for the hive pyramid with a shipment of upgraded parts for the tallylooms. As a hundredhand and Mistress of the Roads, Gilani was overseeing the repaving of several large sections of the Plaza of Two Moons, and with the cobbles torn up, Metemis’s wagons became stuck in the mud.

As they stood yelling in the downpour, enumerating each other’s shortcomings and those of their respective castes, he fell in love with this passionate, challenging, talented woman.

He’d never doubted that love, or that the Wicks would match them for marriage when the time was auspicious. But now? How could the Wicks not pair them? How could there be any woman he was more suited to than Gilani?

“I’ve always dreamed of marrying atop the hive pyramid.”

Gilani laughed. “Why did I even ask? I knew you’d insist on a pyramidion ceremony. Such a stickler for tradition.”

Metemis smiled, and hoped it didn’t betray his sadness.

* * *

His bride-to-be was named Lawa. That was all he knew of her, save that she belonged to the Queen’s Sting.

Wedded to a stinger. What would that be like?

Metemis had deduced which loom would braid his marriage record, and it was early enough in the census that he hadn’t needed to comb through ten thousand pairings. He memorized the measurements of the woman’s identity weights as his knot-history was married to hers, and found the matching name in the archives.

He’d made inquiries among contacts in the hive-pyramid guards, and discovered that Lawa was well-known within the ranks and something of a rising star. She was rumored to be in line for the rank of Inner Circle, guarding the new queen herself.

She was known to frequent the Plaza of Games on her off-duty hours, and that was where Metemis found her the following morning, playing rushlights.

He watched her for three-quarters of an hour, beating one opponent after another. She beat one old codger in six turns—six turns! Metemis had never seen the like. He wondered why they kept lining up to play.

Lawa’s honeyed hair and musical laugh might have been the reason, or how she glowed even when wrapped in the simple blue tunic of a Queen’s Sting. Her sash, fringed with ocelot fur, marked her as sixth-cell of her caste.

She was beautiful, yes. But could he love her?

Metemis slipped the gamesmaster a few extra honey sticks to play next, and walked away as the gamesmaster shouted down the objections of the old men.

“I wondered when you’d work up the courage,” she said, setting up the board afresh. “You’ve been watching me long enough.”

“I didn’t blend in as I’d hoped, then?”

Lawa laughed. “Don’t worry. I study my opponents beforehand, too. I’m Queen’s Sting, sir,” she said, with mock officiousness. “Nothing escapes us. Mind if I make the first move?”

“If you need such advantage, I won’t object.”

She lit the fresh rushlights and began her turn, angling some lights in their brackets to slow their burn, marching others upright down to the next tier of the board and toward Metemis’s rushes.

“What brings you to the games today, Master Tallyminder?”

Metemis adjusted the angle of his defender lights, and moved several others from the corner tower of the board to the lower tiers. “It’s the Grand Census.” His gaze lingered on Lawa’s namestone necklace, and its obsidian eye beads peering back at him. “I’ll be busy with the tally for the foreseeable future. I thought an early-morning game might clear my head for the day’s work.”

“Even if you’re sure to lose?”

“Am I?”

She made a combination move across the east quadrant of the board, sacrificing two rushes to burn down four of his, and gaining the right to tip two of his defenders horizontal across the board so they burned faster. The rest of his rushes were now in danger of conflagration as flame crept along the length of the horizontal pieces.

He frowned and thought of the game she’d won in six turns.

“Do you want to bribe Tzisu now for our rematch,” she mock-whispered, nodding to the gamesmaster, “or wait until you officially lose?”

He did like her sense of humor, and her competitive streak.

He made what he knew was a futile attack on her western quadrant, losing rushes in a two-for-two trade. She countered with a smoke defense, blowing out her own nearest rush and trading it for his farthest rush. He was vulnerable now in his center and on three quadrants as flames began to lick at his remaining rushlights.

She’d have him in eight turns.

Metemis laughed and doused the board with white sand. “I concede, Mistress Stinger. You have the better of me.”

“Lawa,” she said, extending her hand formally. Protocol required Metemis to kiss her hand, but he surprised himself with a moment of giddiness as they touched for the first time. He laid a soft kiss on her knuckles; her skin was perfumed with nicte flowers.

“I’ve enjoyed our game, uh—”

“Forgive me. Metemis.”

“You must excuse me, Metemis. I’ve business in the plaza.”

“I must be getting back to the pyramid. May I accompany you?” he asked.

Lawa nodded. Smiling, they linked arms.

* * *

They spoke of the weather as they made the short walk to the Plaza of Two Moons, and of the myriads from outside the city now swarming the square, standing in long queues to answer the census. They spoke of the dying queen and which of her daughters would replace her.

“What do you make of talk of factions opposed to the queen?” Lawa asked as they passed a group of hivemasters and their families arguing loudly about which was their proper queue.

“Truthfully, I don’t know much about politics or what such factions want,” said Metemis as they stopped by the central candle clock in the plaza. All he knew of such groups was speculation that some agitators sided with Tekura or Rheb to stir trouble in advance of war. “And I was just the other day saying to someone, ‘Without the queen what do we have?’ The Wicks help guide her in leadership—who else can claim that? To do otherwise would be . . .” He searched for the word.

“Chaos?” Lawa ventured.

“Exactly.”

Lawa smiled.

He thought order must be important to a Queen’s Sting, sworn as they were to protect the queen and her realm. He knew his own inclination to order was a trait that made him an ideal tallyminder. It came as further proof of the Wicks’ verdict about him and Lawa.

The candle clock read the fourth hour since sunrise. Metemis had to return to the tallylooms. “When you come to the pyramid to take the census, ask for me,” Metemis said by way of leave-taking. “I am Her Royal Grace’s Chief Tallyminder. I will conduct your tally personally.”

“Alas, I’ve already taken it,” said Lawa. “On the first night, while the lanterns were still in the air.”

She had been in the hive pyramid as he completed his census, Metemis realized. She could have been in the next quizzing chamber. No mistake or confusion by the Wicks, then. This was the woman he was to marry.

The attraction wasn’t like it had been with Gilani, not as sudden or intense, but he’d be lying to himself pretending it didn’t exist. Could you feel giddy and guilty, excited and in mourning all at once?

But Gilani! The Wicks were all so unfair to her.

“I do hope we will meet again, Tallyminder,” said Lawa. Rising to tiptoe, she pressed her lips gently to his cheek. The sweet scent of nicte lingered when she withdrew.

She disappeared into the throngs crowding the plaza. Probably another of her skills as a Queen’s Sting.

As people swarmed through the plaza, a natural break opened in the crowd. There, sitting on a stone bench near where they’d first met in the rain, sat Gilani.

She had seen everything.

* * *

“Was that the woman the Wicks paired you with?” Gilani asked, sitting still and upright, looking quietly sad.

He sat next to her, for it felt like the whole plaza had tilted and threatened to slide from under his feet.

“I knew something was amiss after we took the census,” she said, matter-of-fact. “Something troubled you. I rose early, worried about you. I went to your canton, but you were leaving your great-house in a terrible hurry. I called, but you didn’t hear me. So I followed. When I saw the two of you playing”—her voice broke—“then I knew what the Wicks wanted for you. For us.” She looked away.

“Gilani, I—”

“What did the looms decree for me? Where should I find my new love?”

He had no answer for her.

“I see.” She exhaled a shuddering breath.

“I never wanted this. I expected the Wicks to let us finally wed. But when I was matched with someone else . . . I’ve spent my whole life in service of the Wicks. I couldn’t understand how they could be so wrong. I had to see her.”

“Was she everything you hoped for?”

“I love you.” He meant it. But he loved Lawa too, or thought he could. When he was still an acolyte, Metemis saw a tallyminder trip once in the Answer Hall, sending pendulum candles swinging out of control as he crashed to the floor. His heart did the same now.

How could he feel this way about two women at once?

“And your precious Wicks?”

He shook his head. “I’ve never known them to be wrong before, but—”

“There are those in Ziroi who don’t share your faith in the Wicks or their prognostication,” said Gilani with obvious venom. “There are other wicks, other weaves.”

“Just simple tallylooms, not the Wicks.” He’d tried many times to explain the distinction to Gilani.

Gilani scoffed. “The Wicks are just a complex series of tallylooms, harnessed together to calculate greater sums than any could individually. You’ve explained again and again, painstakingly. So why not a series of smaller looms and weaves, spread across Ziroi, that calculate vast sums of information the way the hive pyramid does? Oh, more slowly, to be sure. But just as reliably. And what if they calculate different outcomes, what then? What does that mean for the certainty of your Wicks, and your Queen?”

My Queen?” said Metemis. What was it Lawa said about factions opposed to Her Royal Grace?

Gilani stood and smoothed the front of her dress. “I don’t care who sits on the throne. What I want is to control our own destiny. Don’t you want us to marry?”

“Well . . . yes. But . . .”

Turning her back to the milling crowds, Gilani withdrew a small jute drawstring bag from her satchel and placed it in Metemis’s hands. He felt the shape of candles within: several votives of differing lengths, a waxspur gear for a tallyloom. But it felt wrong. The difference was subtle, but the candles were heavier than they ought to have been. Fine grains of sand fell onto his hands through the loose mesh of the jute.

“Where did you get these?” he demanded. To give Her Royal Grace’s Chief Tallyminder a set of weighted candles clearly designed for abuse in the Wicks . . .

“A friend.” Gilani pulled him close, her lips almost touching his chin. “If the Wicks didn’t pair us—us, Metemis!—then how could it be all-knowing? We are the Wedded Moons, you and I, a perfect match. All I want is for us to be together. The candles make that possible.”

He understood. Substitution of the sand-weighted candles in key mechanisms of the Wicks would mean altered calculations. Done properly, Metemis could rig the Wicks to match him with Gilani. It might delay the final results a few days, perhaps accidentally tabulate some of the living as having died, maybe even upset marriage matches for others. Could he trade their happiness for his own?

He couldn’t believe this was happening. Lawa had warned him of factions, but he’d never suspected Gilani possessed a rebel heart.

He realized he was squeezing the jute bag and relaxed his grip. Was he really considering treason? What of his duty to the queen and to Ziroi? What of the oaths he had sworn to the Tallyminder caste?

“It must be tonight,” Gilani said.

How could she know that the census would be complete by sundown? Who were these “friends” she had mentioned? The calculation looms would be prepared then, proper candles selected and set in place, timed and weighted to ensure accurate tabulation of the knot-histories.

And Metemis would oversee it all.

“I’ll wait by the fourth-cell gate on the west side of the pyramid,” Gilani said. “If you come, I’ll know that our destiny lies together.”

* * *

Metemis stood in the shadows of the great tallylooms, sand-weighted candles in his hand, still unsure what he intended.

The air in the Answer Hall was muggy and glowed with the amber light of a thousand candles dotting the curved hundred-foot stone walls, as hot and humming as any hive. All around him fourth- and fifth-cell tallyminders prepared the looms for the Grand Tally.

Only the Queen’s Edict remained, those final census answers and last wishes (both grand and small) she would give in life. Once entered, they would shape the advice the Wicks gave the new queen.

And they could also override specific calculations as the queen desired. This was the great secret that only the sixth-cells and the Inner Circle knew. It was hard at first to accept that anyone—even the queen—could interfere with the calculations of the Wicks. The edicts allowed the monarch to input different variables, he was told, to test outcomes. But Metemis immediately understood the possibilities for abuse. The calculations had been sacrosanct in his mind before that initiation, and so to discover that they could be subject to politics or to whim?

He felt again the weight of the jute bag and considered his former naivety.

The Queen’s Edict was how he would effect a change in the weave of the Wicks to alter his fate. Only a small treason, one that would go unnoticed, he told himself.

He needed to bypass the guards to the Queen’s Edict Chamber. But a resourceful tallyminder had ways to gain entry, particularly one as knowledgeable as the chief tallyminder.

Metemis stole from the Answer Hall and out through one of the hexagonal openings that ringed the hive pyramid’s exterior. This one held one of the hundreds of beehives that dotted the structure. As bees danced around him in the waning daylight, he squeezed past the great stone hive. The air was humid. Far beyond the farmers’ fields, lightning played between rain clouds over the jungle.

He laid his crimson-and-feather cloak on the stone, a terrible breach of protocol, but one that made for an easier climb. Kicking off his sandals, he anchored one foot in the narrow seam between two great blocks. Taking a deep breath and using all the strength and agility he’d worked to maintain from his days as a first-cell acolyte, he drove up from that anchor point and leaped at a ledge one level above. His practiced hands found purchase, and for a moment he hung hundreds of feet above the ground. Using his momentum, he swung his leg up and over the lip of the platform and pulled himself to safety.

The yawning mouth of a narrow ventilation shaft greeted him, and the hollow rushing sound of air being drawn in encouraged Metemis to pause and catch his breath. He made a silent prayer and continued his climb.

* * *

Metemis emerged on the lowest of the royal tiers and crept through the royal corridors. He had studied the edict systems and knew what to do. Coding in his name, pairing it with Gilani’s, replacing the marriage string, using the weighted candles. One of the queen’s true edicts would be cast aside as a translation error, with none the wiser.

A minor indiscretion was all, he told himself. He would make it up to the new queen sixfold in return.

The Edict Chamber was small but magnificent. A high honeycomb vault of polished white marble rose above him, illuminated by the light of flickering candles in the hexagonal recesses in the walls. The queen’s judgment table was crafted from smoky quartz, amethyst, and even metal, the rarest of the rare. Metemis marveled at the burnished metallic inlays of bees. Several pounds of metal, from the look of things.

He’d never seen so much metal in one place.

Candles were already burning, which meant the queen had set her decrees. He had only a twelfth of an incense-hour to make the switch. The trick was a well-timed switch, swapping out the candle without tilting the scale catastrophically.

Metemis put his hand in his satchel and cupped the weighted candle.

“Don’t do it, Tallyminder,” Lawa’s voice echoed behind him. “You’ve lost this game too.”

Heart pounding, Metemis turned. Lawa’s sad eyes reflected guttering candlelight. Her right hand leveled a venomlance toward his bare chest.

“Lawa, I—”

“Spare me. The Queen’s Sting sees everything. We’ve been watching your beloved for months,” said Lawa. “But we didn’t know whether you were loyal to the Sand Lions too. When the Wicks matched you and I for marriage, we knew a moment of crisis had come that would force her hand. Are those the candles she gave you? I’ll have them now.” She motioned for him to toss them.

He gripped the jute bag tight, and felt sharp sand trickle into his palm. Did Gilani belong to the Sand Lion faction?

“You knew of our pairing?” Metemis asked as he fumbled his hand inside the small bag, playing for time. If he could gather enough sand . . . “How? No one’s seen those knot-histories but me.” He pulled a waxspur gear from the bag and tossed it to her. She let it clatter to the marble floor.

“The whole bag,” she said.

He threw it to her feet and she stomped the votives with the heel of her boot.

“You’d be surprised how many of your acolytes are Queen’s Sting. Our own looms processed your knot-histories the night you made them, and our guards in the hive pyramid reported back your inquiries about me. Do you think I really spend my free time playing rushlights with old men?” She flashed her sly smile, which stung Metemis as hard as any venomlance ever could.

“But what if the Wicks can be wrong?” Until the last few days, he would never have believed he’d say those words. Everything was upside-down.

“Our looms gave us the same output from the same census answers. The error isn’t in the weave, but in you. I would gladly have—” she stopped short.

“What now?”

“Hope that the new queen is more merciful than her mother. Time to go.”

As Lawa stepped toward him, Metemis flung a fistful of sand into her eyes.

Lawa cried out and jabbed her lance toward him. Metemis side-stepped it but lost his footing and crashed into a bank of edict candles. A part of him wondered what edicts he had disturbed, but the need to flee took charge.

He reached the air shaft and climbed down as fast as he dared. One slip and he’d fall a half-dozen tiers to his death. But what would he do, now that he was a hunted man?

The chance for a future with Gilani—or even Lawa—was gone.

At least, in this city. Hope flickered back to flame. Gilani had been marked as a traitor, too. Perhaps they could find shelter in the mountains of Rheb, or in Tekura by the coast. A man of his skills might find service tending their wicks and weaves.

He emerged from the shaft, but not where he expected. This wasn’t the tier of the Answer Hall. Had he gone down the wrong vent? He had to reach Gilani before—

A slender shadow landed on the same stone platform. Lawa’s hard kick to his abdomen doubled Metemis over, and he collapsed backward through the hexagonal passage into the hive pyramid.

Metemis scrabbled on the cold stone, trying to get his wind back. An almost deafening hum surrounded him. The space was dark and echoed like a vast chamber. He felt cross breezes and bees zipping around him.

He was in the Royal Apiary, the queen’s own hives and a museum of all Ziroi knew of beekeeping.

Scrambling to his feet, Metemis pressed deeper into the darkness to escape Lawa. He felt his way through the room as fast as he could, though delicately so as not to disturb the hives. Moving row to row meant moving through centuries of Zirojan history, from woven skep baskets to rough hives of unbaked clay and dry straw to fired pottery and finally to the tall ceremonial hives of stone that dotted the exterior of the hive pyramid.

A shattering body blow knocked Metemis to the floor, smacking his head hard on the stone. Thrumming tendrils of pain drove forward from the back of his skull.

Lawa was on top of him, trying to bind his hands. He pitched her off with the last of his strength. Lawa reeled backward into the skep hives, tumbling with them in a terrible crash.

An angry roar rose from the hives. The bees Lawa had disturbed swarmed around her in a savage cloud as she thrashed and stepped back by instinct.

Her foot found empty space, and she fell with a cry.

“Lawa!” Metemis grabbed for her, but he was too late. She vanished into the dark pit.

Fiery stings assailed Metemis as the bees found him. He ran to escape the swarm, heart pounding. Could Lawa have survived the fall? Some of the low shafts had safety nets, but not all. Not knowing her fate was almost as painful as the stings.

He emerged from the tier and found reprieve from the bees outside in the smoke of a beacon fire. He was stung in the face, on his arms, on his bare chest and back. His wounds throbbed, yes, but that wasn’t what had him trembling. He ought to turn himself in, beg the pyramid guards to search the shafts and see if Lawa might still be alive. He thought of Lawa’s musical laugh, of the brief time they had spent at rushlights, and wept.

He should face judgment for his crimes.

But the Queen’s Sting knew about Gilani. If they captured her . . .

Hers was the one life he could still save.

* * *

Metemis walked as calmly as he could manage toward the fourth-cell gate, hoping none of the guards would see his swelling face. Gilani sat on the steps near the gate, and he fought the urge to rush forward and take her into his arms.

She stood when she recognized him, her horror evident at his swollen face. With care, she led him down the pyramid steps.

“I’ve failed you,” whispered Metemis through fattened lips. “I’ve failed you.”

He said no more until they were lost among the alleys west of the hive pyramid. He whispered of his confrontation with Lawa. “Our names may already be braided with black for death. We haven’t many choices.”

Gilani led him into a garden of flowering cacti. “There’s another way.”

“Sand Lions.”

Gilani nodded. “My friends will keep us safe. We can continue our work in Tekura. Live on, work on, and dream on together.”

What was it she had said before? There were other tallylooms in Ziroi.

“All those question you asked me, about how the Wicks worked. You’ve been feeding them—the Sand Lions—information to refine their wicks and weaves.”

She beckoned him to follow. “I’ll have answers, my love, once we escape the city.”

He had dismissed other tallylooms as lesser devices, but if Lawa was to be believed, then the Queen’s Sting had one that rivaled the Wicks. What if the Sand Lion faction did likewise? The scale of such a project was unfathomable outside of the hive pyramids of each city-state. A similar system would require space, manpower, stores of candles, waterwheels to work the fans and the looms . . .

But what if?

Despite himself, his mind raced to consider ways the Wicks could be made smaller, better. Spread swarm-like across an entire city, as Gilani had suggested. Would he have the freedom to tinker and improve upon the technology?

A thought chilled his heart. Perhaps all this time he, Lawa, and Gilani were hapless pawns in a game of rushlights between wickwork giants, with his loyalty as the prize.

It felt right to be here with Gilani, on the knife’s edge of a new life together. Yet for all that had happened between him and Lawa, he still prayed silently that she had survived the fall.

With a hesitant hand, Metemis brushed Gilani’s hair from her ear. She still wore them, his opal-and-greenstone gifts.

He reached behind her neck and undid the clasp of her namestone necklace. He undid his own, too. How many of these had he processed through the Wicks? How many fates had he helped decide?

Metemis pitched both necklaces into the thickest patch of the cactus garden. The unbraided stones scattered among the spines.

He kissed Gilani. Despite the hurt, her kiss was sweet.

– FIN –