To Rise, To Set

As Sava approached the dais, her heart felt like a hummingbird caged behind her ribs. Her palms were slick with sweat, but she dared not wipe them on the sunshine-yellow robes she had hemmed so carefully this very morning. Her teacher’s last words of advice echoed and blended with those of her grandmother: You must recall your lessons perfectly when you meet a Magistrate of the Imperious Sun, Whose Cruelty Is Mercy, Whose Armies Have Scoured a Thousand Lands.

The hall of learning was illuminated by an enormous globular lamp, dazzling as the Sun itself. The Magistrate, reclined on the dais in his great chair, nearly matched its brilliance: bent body swathed in pure white robes, frail arms heavy with gold. The features of his ceremonial mask were harsh and pitiless; its carved halo seemed to flare and seethe about his head. Even from the shadow of the mask’s eyeholes, his gaze was searing.

Sava came to a halt at the measured distance, and sank on trembling legs into a bow. “Our school is humbled by your presence, Magistrate.” She forced the words through her dust-dry throat. “May the Imperious Sun ever shine.”

“The Imperious Sun shines on all its subjects.” The Magistrate cast a look across the rows and rows of students kneeling in the closed hall, then returned his gaze to Sava. “Even those of the lesser provinces.”

Sava felt his eyes rake across her sharp-boned face, her dark skin. She knew the next question.

“Where were you born, child?”

“The Southern Strands, Magistrate,” Sava said, swallowing its true name with practiced ease.

The Magistrate gave a slow nod. “A region that has come only recently under the light of the Sun,” he said. “Yet though you belong to a crude lineage of hunters and nightfishers, I am told you are the most promising of all this school’s acolytes.”

Sava felt a small rush of pride at that fact, but only deepened her bow.

“And now you will demonstrate what you have learned,” the Magistrate said, with just a hint of boredom. “Recite the Fourth Cant.”

Sava drew a deep breath. “As the Sun scours rock and earth, unblinking, unwavering, so shall our empire scour all lands of false ways and misteachings.”

“Tell me an example of a false way.”

“In the Great Steppes, before they were reached by the light of the Sun, northerners worshiped the Galloping Mare.”

“In what manner?”

Sava saw the one fair-haired teacher flush, and felt a small churn of guilt when she answered. “It is said they debased themselves with their pack animals.”

“Truly vile,” the Magistrate said, though his voice betrayed relish. “And how were they corrected in their misteachings?”

“They were purified and refined, Magistrate,” Sava said, churn worsening in her belly. “In accordance with the Seventh Cant.”

“Rightly so,” the Magistrate agreed. “Now, recite for us the Twelfth.”

Sava clenched her slippery fists. “I will be pleased to recite the Twelfth Cant, Magistrate,” she said hoarsely. “But first I will elucidate the Seventh.”

Shock rippled across the faces of the teachers; murmurs sounded from the corners of the courtyard. The Magistrate himself froze for an instant. She was the only one watching two students from the crowd — sharp-boned, dark-skinned — creeping toward the great lamp, hauling a heavy bag.

The Magistrate leaned back on the dais, gave a careless wave of one gnarled hand. “The Seventh is a personal favorite,” he said. “Speak well.”

“Thank you, Magistrate.” Sava blinked, steadying herself. “As the Sun’s benevolence falls equally on all, so too must its wrath. For this reason, purification is carried out in a very specific way. Whether in the barbaric north, or the barbaric south.” She spoke louder. “Through a system of lots, the life of each conquered subject is tied to ten others. When any individual is found guilty of old practices, they are seated on a dais not so different to this one, from which they observe their ten kin or countrymen be herded into an iron cage and burned to death.”

The soft-stomached among the students flinched. Sava continued.

“The individual is then made to bathe in the ashes of the dead, coated in hot sap, and forbidden to wash. For this reason, my grandmother who raised me was pale as a ghost. Because she wore the ashes of my parents, and eight others. Even the faintest smell of cooking meat caused her convulsions.”

The Magistrate made an odd noise in his wattled throat.

“She had the hollow eyes of a ghost, as well,” Sava said. “But despite this, she taught me very well. She taught me the true name of our home and the true destiny of our people.” Sava found her hands dry at last, all fear pushed out by her grandmother’s courage. She raised her voice to almost a shout. “And finally she sent me here, to this wondrous city, to this wondrous school, not to learn — not to memorize the endless cants of hypocrites — but to teach.”

Before the Magistrate could rise from his chair, before the guards in their clumsy ceremonial armor could block her path, Sava sprang. With one hand she tore off the Magistrate’s mask, revealing him veined, wrinkled, terrified. With the other she retrieved the knife, the one she had honed, night after night, into its sacred shape. The knife she had kept hidden for long weeks, and finally stitched into the lining of her robe this very morning.

“I come from Lunat, from the obsidian shores where Moon first bathed in Sea.” Sava stared over the panicked crowd to her fellow conspirators, ready at the lamp with their dousing powder. “I teach you this: We will not be purified. We will not be refined.” She raised the crescent blade high. “And if we are left no other path to freedom, we will extinguish the Imperious Sun with its own blood.”

She tightened her grip, recalling her lessons perfectly, and struck in sudden darkness.