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A Clockwork Phoenix featured story

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From the pages of Clockwork Phoenix 5
 

The Games We Play

 

Cassandra Khaw

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The Dog-King is not quite what Yavena expects.

He is physically imposing, of course, military upbringing exposed in the thickness of his musculature, the midnight fur sliced close to his hide.

The other Ovia in Yavena’s court speak of the Dog-King as a monster among Gaks, a fearsome legend. But where Yavena anticipated the flatness of a killer’s regard, there is a penetrating curiosity instead. A scholarliness amplified by his chosen garb—the earthy, flowing raiment of an academic—and the small amber glasses crouched precariously atop his muzzle.

Nothing Hahvah prepared her for.

“Ah.” His voice is warm and younger than the striations of white in his pelt suggest, boyishly pleased. The Dog-King slinks away from a desk piled high with official-looking documentation. “Yavena, was it? We’re charmed.”

Yavena traps fist against open palm, bows almost low enough to tempt accusations of impudence. Beside him, her sponsor—Hahvah, the little Gak with a wailing laugh—crumples into an exaggerated kowtow.

“This one is honored you recognize her face,” declares Yavena, her command of the Gak’s growling, liquid language impeccable. With monarchs, subservience is never inappropriate. “This one begs an audience from the Scourge of Kyonadrila Valley, the Conqueror of the Ten Thousand Colors, the Lord-General of the Gak, the—”

“‘This one’”—a youthful playfulness thrusts through the Dog-King’s voice—“is overwhelmingly polite. We’re amazed that you resisted the temptation to call us the Dog-King. After all, is it not our name among those of the Ten Thousand Colors, our most treasured of vassals?”

Yavena snaps her head up, guilt blooming. Words can be schooled, but thoughts have always enjoyed a rebellious autonomy in her head. “This one would not dare! This one—”

“We would have you address us as peers, Yavena.”

A beat. “My lord.”

“Good enough, we suppose.” A broad hand, caged in iron rings and steel-grey bangles, is flapped delicately.

Yavena unbends but finds herself unable to loosen the knot of tension crushing her lungs. She is disarmed, robbed of equilibrium by the Dog-King’s frictionless affability. She folds her arms behind her, adopts the posture of a soldier at rest. As she does so, she captures the sliver of a smile on the Dog-King’s mien, its meaning impenetrable.

Unbidden, her gaze jumps back to Hahvak next, but she finds no reassurance there, only slyness, a wheedling humor. Yavena stiffens further, elegant in defiance.

“So,” the Dog-King begins as he mounts the steps to his throne. It is an intimidating structure, mythic in proportion, cobbled together from the bones of a thousand devoured Mothers. “What is it that you wish to ask from us, Yavena?”

“This one—” She stumbles, words snagging on ceremony. “I mean, I wish to play a game with you.”

The Dog-King laughs loudly. “Cordial and learned! Trust the Ten Thousand Colors to know the ten thousand desires that lurk in the living heart. Tell us the desire that beats at the core of that most sacred organ.”

The massive Gak monarch slouches onto his seat, elbow propped on an armrest, muzzle cupped in a broad paw. A hush glides over the dignitaries in the audience chamber, tautening muscles and attention. Dark eyes anchor on Yavena. They wait. Watch.

The Ovia inhales thinly, exhales her entreaty in a measured torrent.

“As per custom, I have won all of the Supplicant’s Challenges.” Here pride burgeons for an instant. “I have beaten all your Overseers. I have earned innumerable favors, six guild recruitments, three requests to join a noble’s entourage, and … one slightly drunken marriage proposal.”

Silence. The Gak are barely respiring, their bodies statue still. Only the Dog-King alters expression, smile broadening. In the background, Hahvah’s slithering giggles. “Small little thing? Carmine fur? Pompadour? Speaks like he swallowed a flute?”

Yavena nods, expression grave.

“Avah has always enjoyed unusual tastes.” A chuckle that spreads like an infection through the courtiers. “We apologize for the interruption. Continue.”

The Ovia swallows her apprehension and resumes as instructed, voice held steady through the application of will. “I wish … I wish to claim my right to challenge you to a game of your design. If I win, return Iraline of the Ten Thousand Colors, Mother of the Dead and beloved brood-sister. If I lose—”

Ventricles strain against the onset of terror. Yavena’s pulse hammers like fists. The audacity of her coming revelation is not lost upon her, and like the wail of a wolf pack, it bleeds her spirit of courage.

“—return Iraline to the Ten Thousand Colors and let me take her place instead. She is soft. I am muscled. Larger, better suited for your banquet hall, my plumage more impressive. I—”

Shocked noises detonate in the hall. In between, a strange, shrill laugh. Hahvak.

The Dog-King maintains his genteel smile. “Correct us if we are mistaken. But do you not belong to the Court of the Living?”

“I do.” It is too late for retreat.

“And does not the duty of feeding the Gak belong to the Court of the Dead?”

“It does.”

The monarch leans forward, eyes hooded, lamplight-gold. “Tell us, then: why would you have us risk political unrest between our kingdoms? Do we not have a treaty? Do my packs not watch the mountains of your nests? Do we not feed you as you feed us? Do we not have a deal?”

Yavena can scarcely breathe. “We do.”

“Then tell us why we should grant you this boon.”

Because of love, Yavena thinks. But what she tells him is, “But you are the greatest mind among the Gak. You would win. I’m sure of it, and you would have stories to tell of my insolence. Is that not worth the infinitesimally small chance of loss?”

“Your confidence in your deliciousness is appreciated.” A slight, slow inclination of the head. The Dog-King shifts in his seat and rests his jaw atop steepled claws.

Yavena spreads her hands and advances a step, no longer willing to divide decorum from desire. After enduring so many trials, so many weeks of combat, has she not earned the liberty of uncensored expression? She is pleading now, openly. “Iraline deserves more years to her life. She is an accomplished artist, a masterful poet, a historian of unparalleled accuracy. I know there is no honor greater for one belonging to the Court of the Dead than to appear on your table, but give her back to me, Lord-General.

“Please.” Ragged, that final word, like a belly slit open. “Give my nest-sister back.”

The Dog-King says nothing for long minutes. Seconds lengthen, viscera thick, suturing together into a wait that might as well have been eternity. Around Yavena, silence descends in waves, until there is only the sound of a hundred lungs in harmonious palpitation.

Then at last: “We see merit in your suggestion.”

Yavena waits, shoulders knotting. The Dog-King’s easy acquiescence inspires suspicion. Triumph is never this faultless, this clean. Something is amiss. A heartbeat’s worth of quiet, then Yavena cautiously supplies, “My lord.”

Neither agreement nor displeasure, a neutral postponement of opinion.

“Mm.” Equally ambiguous the Dog-King’s response. “We agree to your terms, but we will set the structure of the game.”

“I would desire nothing more.”

The Dog-King’s muzzle wrenches into something like a grin, feral in timbre. “So pliable. We would almost think you were born into the wrong court. Very well. This is our decision. This is what we require. Ask Iraline to leave of her own free will. Fail, and you shall have a fortnight to help prepare your own feast.”

Confusion yields a thoughtless exclamation. “M-my lord? I don’t understand. How is that even a game? That doesn’t—”

Yavena’s protest is slaughtered like a lamb, dismissed by a wave of the Dog-King’s hand. “It makes every iota of sense if you have the right scales to weigh it. You simply need to adopt the correct perspective. Iraline is in the kitchens. We will have someone escort you. Our game begins now.”

“My lord.” There is nothing else she can say.

* * *

“Wrong, Scahul.” A gentle rebuke, feather soft as it floats down the shadowed corridor. “It’s a basic error, however. Many presume that the Ten Thousand Colors have a united physiology, a uniformed distribution of collagen in their muscle fibres. But we do not. Our muscular composition differs from—”

Yavena accelerates. Her steps lengthen. It is all she can do to resist breaking into a lope. She crosses the threshold into the kitchen, her voice hoarse when it escapes. “Iraline?”

She interrupts the scene: a kitchen vast enough to contain hundreds, a fragrant landscape of gleaming steel, threaded with spice and carnivore predilections. An Ovia stretched provocatively over a broad wooden table, posture relaxed, expression inviting. She is tattooed with ink, limbs separated by lines, her most delectable regions marked for easy identification. A quill—lime-green; it is from her own person—dangles from her claws.

Around her, a battalion of Gak, their hands crowded with notepads. One clutches an inkwell.

“Yavena?” The Ovia rights herself. Her manner is delicate, fertile with confidence. Every motion is an expression of art. “Yavena! What are you doing here?”

“Iraline—” Now Yavena’s voice weakens, pales to a whisper. An avalanche of memories—Iraline at her Naming; Iraline’s exhausted mien as she clutches her firstborn; Iraline and she as nestlings; Iraline, her sister of the spirit, her saviour, her sacrifice—chokes Yavena. Her knees sag. “Ira—”

“You’ve said my name twice already, you know?” A fluting laugh. “No need for the third, little sister.”

“I’m sorry.” Yavena’s head lowers for an instant before she adopts a semblance of propriety, her smile ambassadorial smooth. “It’s just been—I’ve—”

“It was you who caused all that commotion, wasn’t it? Winning game after game, the Ovia foreigner, beating all the Gak at their own tricks. I’m so proud,” Iraline says, excitement gleaming silver in her voice. She flutters a hand at the waiting mob of Gak who disperse after sketching respectful half-bows, their faces unreadable. Chattering softly among themselves, they slink back to their duties, the sounds of culinary effort rising like a war chant. “Did you kill anyone?”

“Yes. I—”

Iraline turns smoothly, an arm draping around Yavena, dominance claimed with a flippancy even kings would envy. “Well, finally. You were long overdue. Who ever heard of a Bloodless Keeper? You have no idea how many times I had to defend you among the other Mothers, who all thought you were a little … off your game, to borrow from the locals. Too kind to be a killer. Too—”

“Motherly?”

A jolt of remembered grief, and Yavena shrugs free of Iraline’s grip. She was never meant to be Keeper. Iraline was. It was Yavena who was meant to bear a hundred eggs to a hundred strangers. Yavena who was meant to waste her last days in the kitchens of their benefactors, their masters.

“You said it, not I.”

Yavena shrugs. She is too grateful for Iraline’s presence, too enraptured by the scent of her—milk and vanilla, with a dusting of talcum—to consider offense. “I’m happy you’re alive, Iraline.”

The answering smile is halfway between ruefulness and pleasure, an expression glazed with sadness. “And I’m happy that you have an impeccable sense of timing. Just a little longer, and you’d need a necromancer.”

Before Yavena can answer, Iraline interrupts her own non sequitur, laughter dazzling as a mouthful of stars. “A little joke, my beloved. Don’t look at me that way. A Mother is allowed humour.”

Iraline preserves eye contact for a moment longer before flouncing away towards a stove, unoccupied save for an earthen kettle. She pours herself a cup of something warm. Yavena follows, leaning over just enough to be able to inspect the contents—a decadent creaminess redolent of mugwort and blackberries.

“Are you here to rescue me?” Iraline asks over the rim of her drink.

“That was the plan.”

More silence. Yavena already knows the answer, is already cogitating on solutions when Iraline concedes a reply, her voice weighted with a long, drawn-out sigh.

“Little sister, you know as well as anyone else that no one forced me here. I have no more eggs to give the Court. And so it is time to give my flesh.”

Yavena’s thoughts catch on a slurry of unwanted images, but she shoves them aside, hands balling into fists.

“You’re lying.” She spits out syllables that are broken-glass sharp, razored despite her attempts at congeniality. “You’re too young to be barren. You have time. Years, Ira. You have years still. Why, why are you doing this? Iraline, come back with me. Please.

Now the ambient bustle shrinks. Now it condenses to pinpoints of noise as the Gak slide curious glances over wide, dark shoulders.

“You’re being unreasonable,” Iraline retorts, tone reasonable as always.

“It should have been me.”

Light drains from Iraline’s stare. She puts her mug aside, face collapsing into quiet horror. “Yavena—”

“You. You’re the one who belonged to the Court of the Living. Everyone knew it. All the fortune-singers, all the officials. They knew it. They knew you gave it all away for me.” Yavena jerks backwards, all pretenses of composure forgotten, all poise submerged in that seething guilt which rises thick as tar, clogging her throat. She swallows and swallows, unable to dislodge the marrow-deep agony. “You could have been Keeper. You could have been happy. You should have been. I was supposed to be a Mother, Ira. Not you.”

She freezes as long arms envelop her, warm with affection. “Oh, Yavena. You’re being blind. In your Court, I would have been always afraid, always wanting, always desperate to hoard those few decades I owned, to pretend that seconds could be made to accumulate interest. This sacrifice is a small price to pay for the years of fire.”

“I don’t want you to die.”

Iraline welds them cheek to cheek. Sighs. Her pulse reassures with its steadiness, appalls with its indifference. “We all die, little sister. Sooner or later.”

Yavena pushes her away. “Yes, but one is preferable to the other.”

The moment is broken. The Gak return to their toil. Iraline retreats to her drink, coiling catlike atop a counter, while Yavena glowers out a window. The light of the city has stained the night a seamless indigo, unscarred by constellations.

“If you’re going to be maudlin, you should go home,” Iraline declares finally, the music of her voice only slightly marred by petulance.

“I can’t.” Yavena folds her arms. “You know that. I’m playing a game with the Lord-General, and you’re the prize.”

The mug shatters in Iraline’s grip, spilling blood and ceramic.

“You’ve always been a selfish child, haven’t you?” Iraline remarks, tone mild despite the injuries that striate her hands. Legs cross. Iraline makes no move to bind her wounds, only stares beyond the horizon of Yavena’s silhouette, features locked in grim contemplation.

“I’m only trying to—”

“Get out.”

Yavena feels a weight descend upon a shoulder and turns to find a heavyset Gak behind her, somehow still menacing despite the ridiculousness of its kitchen accoutrements. “I’ll see you tomorrow.”

“Go.” Soft, so soft, too soft, Iraline’s repudiation, like the last gasp of a broken heart.

* * *

Footsteps like drumbeats, slow but nuanced, pregnant with meaning.

“Ah, Yavena.” The Dog-King manifests from around a corner, silhouette turned monstrous by the chiaroscuro of his lamp. “We were just thinking about you.”

The Ovia inclines her head in answer, silent and resentful. It has been hours since Iraline banished her from her company. Hours spent prowling the periphery of the kitchen, seeking entrance, seeking escape from the automata that dog Yavena’s every step. Her simulacra escorts, draped in gauze and off-white silks, still their twitching as the Dog-King approaches, their clockwork eyes whirling.

“How goes your onslaught on the walls of Fort Iraline?”

Yavena shrugs. As one, the automata return their attention to her, talons clicking. “Poorly.”

“We see.” The Dog-King lowers his lamp and pinches the space between his eyes. In the penumbra of the corridor, his features seem softer—the face of an everyman, rather than a monarch. “Well. You still have a few more days before the weekend arrives.”

Bitterness knifes through Yavena’s terse response. “As you say, Lord-General.”

The Dog-King chuckles. A ripple of fingers causes the automata to erupt into movement again. Expressionless, and without so much as a backward glance at Yavena or the Dog-King, the animated corpses melt back into the shadows.

“There. Some privacy. Walk with us, Ovia.”

Silence tightens its stranglehold over the environment, a hush Yavena is reluctant to break. It is only when it becomes evident the Dog-King requires that transgression that Yavena offers a quiet, “Some privacy for what, my lord?”

“Ah, Yavena. So diplomatic, yet so direct.” The Dog-King makes a tutting noise, restarts his languid walk. The oil lamp keeps time with his stride. “To talk, of course.”

The Ovia falls into lockstep, careful to remain a dagger’s width behind him. “There’s really nothing to talk about.”

Cheerily, like someone recapturing the thread of an interesting conversation, the Dog-King says, “Individuality, you know, is sacrosanct among the Gak. We pride ourselves on nuance, on building a legacy that is absolutely unique.”

Yavena cannot resist. “Does it gall you to use the majestic pronoun, then?”

They round a corner. The corridor swells into a massive hall, its walls fleshed with tapestries and naval charts. The Dog-King halts. His laughter, abrupt as thunder, ricochets through the space, unself-conscious, the merriment of someone unweighted by a crown. “Immensely. But we must make sacrifices for what we love.”

“And that love of yours is power?”

“Power is a supplementary bonus,” the Dog-King counters easily, as though debating the price of herbs rather than ownership of a country. “We do not love it. We appreciate it exists. What we do love is our people, our nation. We are enamored of them. Enough to allow our identity to be subsumed by our duty, to stop existing as ‘I’ but instead as the collective power of the throne. Surely you, of all people, can appreciate that—the desire to give oneself up for the sake of others.”

Yavena says nothing, throat clotted with ruminations.

An interruption: “Tell me, Yavena, why do the Ten Thousand Colors lack family names?”

“Because we are merely feathers on a wing,” Yavena recites, rhythmic, the words as familiar as breath.

The Dog-King cocks his head, ears pricking forward. “We know the propaganda. Tell us what your people think. Tell us if this ideology pleases you, if it appalls you, if you have secret names among yourselves—”

Memories spasm like birth contractions, like the convulsions of death; snatches of anguish and half-remembered diatribes, a swarm of faces and secrets, but Yavena wrestles it all down. She smiles instead, bows her head low. “Forgive me, Lord-General. But the hare does not trade gossip with the hawk.”

Another explosion of laughter, rich and wild. “If you will not educate us about your people, tell us instead why you are violating the edicts of your twin Courts. Iraline comes to us with all her papers in order.”

“Because—” Yavena enlarges her stance, prepares to author a lie that even the Gak cannot scale, only to crumple, stooping under her own exhaustion. “Because this is my fault. She wouldn’t be in this situation if I hadn’t—”

“If you hadn’t what?” The prompt arrives in an inquisitive whine, scandalously bestial.

“Been a coward,” Yavena finishes. It is, as far as she is concerned, an accurate summarization of the situation.

“You love her spectacularly.”

Yavena trains her gaze on nothing and everything, expression abstracted by a morass of emotions. “More than breath and bone and hope.”

“That is good.” The Dog-King nods. “Devotion wins wars.”

“Perhaps,” Yavena replies, not wanting to allow him access into her private concerns. She bows during the lull in dialogue. “If the Lord-General no longer requires my presence, I should find my rest. I only have days to ask a mountain to weep blood.”

“Find it, Yavena. Our apologies for keeping you. But a word of advice before you leave: Rules are meant to be domesticated, not regarded as apex predators. The best players are those who can make the guidelines play fetch.”

* * *

Yavena does not sleep. She cannot.

Serpent-silent, she pads through the hallways of the complex, hounded by a tempest of what-ifs. She knows Iraline. There will be no persuading her, not when her mind has settled into its chosen configuration. But there are other ways to win a game, are there not?

“Ira?” A puff of sound, kept low to circumvent detection. No one has explicitly forbidden nocturnal expeditions, but Yavena has learned to guard against risk.

“Yavena?” A sleep-hazed answer as the door creaks open.

No response, save for her entrance. Yavena leans back, feels the wood click shut behind her. A swallowed breath to steady herself. She arches her head.

Iraline stands before her, tiger-striped by moonlight and carelessly dressed in a white cotton shift. “What are you doing here?” Iraline whispers as she rubs the sleep from her eyes.

“I came to talk.” Yavena slumps onto the edge of Iraline’s cot. “Why are you doing this?”

“Doing what?”

“This. This … dying you’re planning on.” Yavena spits the words, the taste of them like poison on the tongue.

“Because I belong to the Court of the Dead,” Iraline replies, slouching against a wall, arms crossed. Outside, the night is silent, heavy with anticipation. Tropical heat steams through the iron slats of Iraline’s window. “Why else?”

“You’re a Mother. A fertile Mother. You have decades before you even need to—”

Iraline palms her face, nodding, her answering smile taut. “Oh, sweetmeat. I—do you want the truth? The truth is, I am tired. Tired of watching children die, of raising other people’s children to watch them die, of feeding bright-eyed innocents—”

“Everyone gives of themselves willingly, don’t they?” Yavena cannot contain the slither of petty viciousness.

“Yes. No. We are taught to forsake self, you know. What matter is one life when it can purchase happiness for so many?” Iraline chuckles, wan. “Not all of us are strong enough for this duty.”

The moonlight bleaches the color from her feathers, turns the glow of her eyes feral and strange. “It doesn’t matter. Go home, Yavena. I’ll talk to the Lord-General. He’ll let you forfeit without repercussion, I’m sure of it. He’s a kind one, if nothing else. Go.”

“I promised I would always take care of you, sister,” Yavena answers, loathing the petulance that worms through her voice.

The older Ovia lowers herself to her knees. Their hands interlock, her touch edged with a gentleness that makes Yavena ache. “I know. But this is—I have my reasons for courting the Black Hound, beloved. Now go.”

Yavena considers the puzzle of their lives, the parameters of love. She strokes her claws over Iraline’s own, measuring the topography of knuckles, the texture of her palms, the width of their lives. She nods once. “Not without you.”

No Ovia is harmless. Each and every one of the Ten Thousand Colors is taught the balletic elegance of the kris, the soft places common to all sapient life. But Iraline is only a Mother, and Yavena a Keeper whetted on desperation. She strikes before Iraline can protest: a needle plunged into a vein.

Betrayal widens Iraline’s gaze for a heartbeat before she collapses into a boneless heap, inert and unfeeling. Yavena gathers her sister’s form and pads towards the door. The Dog-King had only said to win Iraline from herself, had not he not? Not how it needed to be accomplished. He would appreciate this, certainly. More importantly, he would understand.

She steps into the hallway. It is time for a different game.

* * *

This is a dance: a ballon of escape, arabesques performed on razor-point steeples, entrechat between battlements, Iraline’s weight on her shoulder like a lifetime of guilt.

Yavena doesn’t stop, doesn’t pause, doesn’t think. Every breath is a transaction paid with someone else’s blood. Knife and kris glimmer, a charnel duet, keeping counterpoint with an orchestra of split viscera, opened lung.

Time empties of meaning. Yavena’s world contracts into muscle memory and offal, to reptilian instinct, to a single demand hammering between spasming ventricles. Out, out, out.

Around her, the Gak begin to howl.

Out, out, out.

Yavena traverses arrows and closing gates, past an artillery of talons and physiques made monstrous without the frame of protocol. Who knew, she pants in the red-black dark behind her eyelids, that the Gak could be so terrifying?

Out, out, out.

The howling deafens.

Release. Somewhere between impossibilities, Yavena crosses the final gate and hurtles into the blackness, her lungs boiling. She is barely Ovia at this point, only impulse and the appetite of survival, her body latticed with a thousand red scars. Into the jungle she flings herself, Iraline secure against her spine, and the last thought Yavena births before the Gak’s fortress becomes a memory is this:

Why do the warning horns sound so much like pleasure?

* * *

The Dog-King looks up from his chess table, smile light.

“Aaaah, Hahvah, you were right,” he breathes, attention swinging back to the smaller Gak sitting opposite the game board, face shadowed by a ludicrous cap. “Yavena is a runner.”

“I get to marry your brother now.” The little Gak relocates a bishop, his answering grin gleaming with teeth. “Your move, your lordship.”

“So many deaths just because you wouldn’t court him in public? Oh, the games we play, Hahvah. The games we play.”

Hahvah’s eyes are tar black, marrow sweet. “Checkmate. Do we have a deal, your lordship?”

“Of course. Set the board, will you? The new round awaits.”

* * *

She runs.

For weeks, for hours, for amoebic eternities, Yavena runs. Until her breath is splinters and her muscles rot. There is no respite, only shards of unconsciousness interlaced with days that will not end and ceaseless nights spent staring into the jungle’s teeth.

The journey is complicated by Iraline’s refutal of her rescue. The first time she wakes, the older Ovia screams, a thunder of rage and grief so loud that Yavena, desperate to circumvent discovery, poisons her with sleep. The second time, Iraline does not cry out, only flees. It is circumstance alone that allows Yavena to retrieve her, weeping, from the dark, Iraline’s ankle a mess of broken bone.

“You need to return me, sister,” Iraline hisses between gasps of pain.

“No.”

“Yavena. Please.” Iraline traps Yavena’s wrist in fingers made iron from desperation. “Please. You need to take me back. You can’t—the Dog-King. He will not forgive this.”

“No,” Yavena repeats and squeezes Iraline’s flesh, an exact application of cruelty that immediately robs the latter of her senses.

There is no third confrontation. Yavena does not permit it. She keeps Iraline docile with venom, her mind chemical-slurred, her movements leaden with toxins. Yavena’s actions are a betrayal, she knows this, a blasphemy of trust, but there is no other hope, no way to go but forward. When they at last they reach the courts of the Ten Thousand Colors, absolution will surely be found.

* * *

There is no absolution, only fire.

“What—”

Yavena’s eyes map the labyrinth of the Ovia capital, warped by destruction, its sunset-clasped minarets and aqueducts reduced to a memory. Smoke haunts rubble-licked streets, thick as lies, as anguish.

In the distance, knotting with the funeral hymns of the Ovia, the voice of the Gak, triumphant.

“No.” Yavena exhales, fear congealing in her throat. She staggers through the archway into the main pavilion, now a landscape of broken bodies, whimpering survivors, and ravaged architecture. “Nononono.”

Iraline, fingers crusted with the grime of the road, says nothing, only slumps to her knees as Yavena releases her.

“No,” Yavena says again, as though the word could subvert the truth of a thousand half-eaten corpses. “How could this—”

Even as the question unspools, an answer decants itself into her mind, a taste like salt, like a sister’s desperation.

You did this.

It is hours before Yavena submits to this knowledge, to the horror of her actions. Hours before she collapses in an alley, her face in her arms, and wails for forgiveness from a city of indifferent ghosts.

* * *

The Dog-King is not what Yavena remembers.

He is colossal, primordial, a nightmare made fur and sickle-moon snarl. Where Yavena remembered a scholar’s inquisitiveness, a boyishness of conduct, there is only a predator’s stare, hard and flat and golden behind small amber glasses.

“Why?” It is the only word that Yavena can find.

“Because you betrayed your end of the bargain.”

Yavena jolts forward, one wincing step at a time, back held straight despite the agony that oozes between every vertebra. She can barely feel her left arm, can barely register the connection between tendon and nerve, the muscles flayed almost to ribbons. With a grunt, Yavena transfers her kris to her right hand, her weight to her left foot. Her grip tightens. After all that has happened, she will not bow, will not bend till she carves absolution from the ribs of the king.

“It was one Mother,” she whispers between a mouthful of blood.

The Dog-King bares an indolent smile. “One Mother. One bargain. One treaty.”

“You tricked us—”

“We gave you every opportunity to perform as you should have, and you failed.

“You used me!” she screams, limping closer, closer to where the Dog-King sits draped over his throne of dead Mothers.

“Perhaps,” replies the Dog-King as he studies a fan of claws. “Perhaps we decided to use you in a stupid little bet with a stupid little mutt, but then thought, ‘Ah! This could be so much more.’ Perhaps we then decided that the Gak required a new world order, one where our pups would know the hunt as our ancestors did, and our meals were taut-muscled and not limp from a lifetime of coddling. Perhaps this was all our fault, but the hawk never discusses business with the hare.”

“I’m going to kill you.”

“Really.”

Yavena squares her stance, swallows copper and bile, tries not to sway even as her head swims with grief and the ice-water fury of those without anything to lose. “I’ve killed everyone else. All of your guards, all of your soldiers. None of them could stop me. I—”

“Yes.” The Dog-King grins, unfolding like the death of nations. “Tell me, little Ovia, why do you think that is?”

 
 

design

khaw

Cassandra Khaw writes a lot. Sometimes, she writes press releases and excited emails for Singaporean micropublisher Ysbryd Games. Sometimes, she writes for technology and video games outlets like Eurogamer, Ars Technica, The Verge, and Engadget. Mostly, though, she writes about the intersection between nightmares and truth, drawing inspiration from Southeast Asian mythology and stories from people she has met. She occasionally spends time in a Muay Thai gym punching people and pads. Hammers on Bone, her first novella with Tor.com, is out now.

She writes that “‘The Games We Play’ came from a world I built when I was in college, about a dog-people and a bird-people who had, at some point in history, learned to coexist in a horrible way. The bird-people tithed about half their population to the dog-people, who gave them military support and whatnot in exchange. I never did anything with the world, but the idea of it stuck. And ‘The Games We Play’ kinda came about because of it, and because of thoughts about how we sometimes help continue systemic abuse without realizing it. But mostly, it comes from rage. Rage at people who will abuse the weak, who will manipulate them for the sake of simple, stupid games. Rage that may never find resolution, but a powerful rage all the same.”

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“Allen’s strange and lovely fifth genre-melding fantasy anthology selects 20 new short stories of unusual variety, texture, compassion, and perception. . . . All the stories afford thought-provoking glimpses into alternative realities that linger, sparking unconventional thoughts, long after they are first encountered.” —Publishers Weekly, starred review

 
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