The Revolution of Painted Birds
by Kayla Bashe
Table of Contents|
parts: 1, 2, 3
What is a worker that she should be righteous? What is woven in modesty will be sewn into peace.
To our superiors we will lift our bodies, to our tasks we will lift our hands, and to our great lord our spirits. So must one bow.
— from The Book of Sol, the Moon-Wife Canticles, the seventh daysong, eighth hourchant
Marekath is fifteen when she bleeds for the first time. She can fell a tree with her hand-axe or climb its branches easily if it does not break beneath her weight. Her close-shaven mane is the color of saffron, and her skin is the color of red desert stone. The talons that edge her wings hook like knives to gouge out eyes. Odds are, no one would know her inward sins from her outer looks.
But all she can do is perch on the edge of her bedroll, staring at the spreading indigo stain between her legs, a stain that sticks to every secret tight-curled hair, and think, They promised.
Thank rightness it’s Taher who comes to look in on her. The lanky spear-bearer has taught Marekath everything she knows about hiding deformities; what potions to request from the bonesetters, how to tailor your shortcoat to make your shoulders look wide. “Hurry up. You’ll miss drill! Did a goat stomp your ears? They’ve been blowing the horns for five breaths... Oh, no.”
“They said only worker-strains, only servant-strain. They promised I wouldn’t,” she says haltingly, even though her fingers are still wet with blood.
“And your spars?”
She can only nod.
Taher hisses a breath between her fangs. “Oh, rot. I’ll lie for you, and we’ll pray for a dishonest bonesetter.”
Marekath’s hands are cold and clumsy. Taher does up her side-lacings, helps her through the camp.
“What’s wrong with the young one?” calls a soldier from another speartribe.
“Rot if I know. Stomach pains. Bad meat, a bad whore—”
“Best wishes, then.”
Marekath wasn’t born warrior-strain. She was supposed to be worker-strain, a triumph of mating, content to use her powerful body in hauling crates and turning wheels. But the overseers saw that her abilities would be wasted in that sector, her talents grossly misplaced. Some flaw in her temperament had caused her to develop improperly, and even her adolescent prayers, kneeling until her knee-platings dulled, could not remedy her telltale wingspan or keen instincts.
Except the bone-spars still grew from her wrists, solidifying into the sixth and longer finger that only workers bore. If Sol never erred, then what was she? She catches herself nudging the digits together at night. A foolish habit, like sucking on her own wings, but it comforts her.
They’re lengthening lately, sturdy as daggers; the cartilage around them growing keener, alert to the very air around her.
It’s only sunrise, but already the bonesetter wears his skull mask, the horns pointing straight up to show spirits the way. The tent, its drapes drawn shut, smells like death. Meat flies buzz around the wounded.
Don’t make me say it, she thinks. Don’t make me purchase my own pain. But Taher gives her an unsympathetic shove to the ribcage and, when she stumbles forward, she thinks the bonesetter’s eyes are meeting hers. “I need...” — she swallows hard — “It’s for my strain deformity.” And then the ritual words, falling from her mouth like alcohol vomit: “I will not have my body taint the pure light.”
“I had mine done; it won’t hurt,” Taher urges as the bonesetter straps her down and unwraps her forearms.
The stitches will heal, of course. But something more troubles her. I have so little that’s mine. Why can’t my body be my own? Why was I bred worker-strain, and why does that have to be a sin?
Every piece of flesh is one more scruple she will discard on the army’s long road.
“Steady now,” Taher says.
The bonesetter’s straightest, sharpest knife bites at her flesh.
Somewhere amidst the fog of pain, Marekath’s eyes lock on a face.
Another girl. Younger, human, with vibrant brown skin. She wears a dress of home-dyed fabric and lies on a woven reed mat. She grips her grandmother’s soft, wrinkled hand so tightly it spreads pain up both their arms. Marekath feels the clasping force, touches both hands at once.
A red needle blesses the girl; squinting, she breathes in fate. This circle is the shell of a turtle whose longevity I hope to be blessed with. These triangles the arrowheads of my prosperity. And this long, piercing drag of ink is the future before me, the family after, closeness I’m born to and create. Strength as a woman to move through pain, to dance upon grief as a child of the sea...
“Just a little longer.” The gentle roll of an accented voice.
Hands turn the girl’s head. Agony links them like a web of binding string, the fog wrapping around them both. Her eyes open and meet Marekath’s. Eyes so clear it’s like being attacked by the ocean itself.
“Just a little longer,” she says, and Marekath knows that the girl sees her too. No pain, no cutting. Nothing but their link.
Fire flares through her palms and the vision disappears. Restraining sinews tear at her pull. Clutching herself, she gasps blasphemy.
“Easy now! Lie back down!” Taher guides her into obedience. “The stitches’ll be out in a week.”
When Taher glances away, Marekath raises her head just a little and dares a glance at her numb limbs. Thick, clean bandages mummify her forearms. Scars will outline her muscles when they disappear. Just like Taher, she thinks.
Without the bone-spars, her hands and muscles will develop differently; she’ll lose her ability to grasp a worker’s slender tools and make thin carvings, but her sinews will thicken, aiding her in lifting a heavy axe or sword. From now on, all her spirit’s gifts will uplift towards the army, towards the perfection of Sol’s crusade.
* * *
Winter campaign takes them far to the south. Endless rain makes the air a waterfall, makes bodies rot. Marekath’s last pair of boots fail in the damp; when she steps wrong on a sharp piece of canyon-red shale, her smallest toe festers the deep purple of dying beetles. With Talen three months gone, there is no one to hold her hand in the bonesetter’s tent.
In her sixteenth year, Marekath relies on the dreams more than ever. Waves shimmer around the ocean-eyed girl’s ankles as she shows Marekath coral that looks like mystic gems. Together they scamper up date palms, clad in only clean wind. Once the girl’s foot snares a fishing net. Panic fills her face as waves break over her head. Even in dreams, Marekath is strong as an ox; she dives underwater and tears the knotted cords.
Marekath wakes sweat-chilled, her chest heaving, but satisfied. That day’s march seems less onerous than all proceeding.
Soon after that, though, the dreams begin changing. The dank hold of a covered wagon sways around them; skinny-limbed children retch gruel as the path turns rough. Separated from her shoreline, the dream-girl wilts. Even the rich brown tones seem to leach from her skin. In visions, Marekath shoves food to her mouth. “You have to eat. You have to live!”
But the girl hardly ever listens, and Marekath, hardened soldier though she may be, cannot bear to watch.
Her last dream of the girl comes at sixteen. Marekath presses through the membrane of sleep and kneels at her bedside.
Those dark-lashed eyes gaze up at her from an emaciated face, too exhausted to reproach. “I called for you, and you didn’t come.”
“I couldn’t. I was fighting.”
A half-understanding nod.
Crawling onto the bed, Marekath arranges their bodies into cupped togetherness. Who took her savior away from the sea? She can do nothing to change or prevent it, except in these dreams.
She lets out a comforted sigh, the hard slats of the bed seemingly forgotten under Marekath’s muscular, protective bulk. “I thought I’d die alone.” Her voice is soft, like a child requesting one last parable before candles-out.
“You’ll never die. I won’t let you.”
“I know that, too.”
“I’d fly to your side, if I could.”
“Why can’t you? Look at these wings. You’re so strong.”
“The empire flew, once. But we evolved out of that. There’s more to learn on the ground. We can still hover, though. Glide a little. I can jump from the top of a baobab tree and make three whole circles before meeting the ground. But if I tried to cross the ocean to your side, I’d pull membranes before I got a mile out.” Outside, trees rustle in a strange cold wind. “I’d still try, though,” she says quietly.
Her callused fingers touch Marekath’s scars. “I know you would.” Her body relaxes. Into sleep? But her eyes open again, full of moonlight and bitterness. “They found out I had magic. One of the older girls... one of the teachers planted a child inside her. She’d be tried for immorality soon as she started showing, even though it was he who forced her.”
“She jumped off the castle tower, and I reached out. Not with my hands, with my mind. There’s a part of me... I can’t explain, but it has power. And I brought her down safely.”
“I would do the same for any of my soldiers,” Marekath murmurs.
“The priests have looked through me. They’re going to cut us apart. Maybe this will be the last time you come to me, or maybe their magic will kill us both.”
Marekath raises her chin, proud to face death with this girl at her side. “If something bad happens, I don’t regret what we’ve done for each other, any of it.”
Her voice is fearless and gentle, silver, steel. “Neither do I.”
* * *
Invisible lances shoot through Marekath’s head, ripping away sleep. She thrashes, screaming, from her bedroll.
“Quiet, you fool!”
“You’ll get us all killed!”
Hands clamp over her mouth and restrain her limbs. Her wings flail out as she shoves back. All she wants to do is escape the pain. They’re tearing something from her, something important-
Sudden as a winter flood, the unbearable pain ceases. Marekath collapses, weeping for a loss she cannot name.
A fellow soldier shoves her upright. “What the hell was that?”
Marekath touches her face and stares, dumbfounded, at the tears on her fingertips. “I don’t know. There’s no need to cry, is there? The Great Sol loves us all.”
Marekath is nineteen when she’s shoved into command of an army. It’s not a traditional promotion with sun-metal badges and organ fanfares. It happens in the darkness of their camp, when an enemy captive slips flakes of poisonous seaweed into the officers’ food. Their bodies are still and cold by the time anyone responds to their stifled choking.
The First Calabria Infantry is left crouching in a damp valley. Enemy arrows meet every attempt at escape. Provisions dwindle away to rot. And when a chest-skewering bolt carries her superior headfirst into the rocks, Marekath is the highest-ranking warrior left alive. She rises, defying both youth and birth. This is why the priests plucked her from the loom-workshops, this is why she was born: this dreadful, glorious alchemy of tactics and blood.
Cradling her battle axe with her unhurt arm, she scans the remainder of her unit, four hundred of the five hundred they had begun with. “The infidels’ hills are ours.”
Joy erupts across ragged faces; a cacophony cheers her. Mud seeps like liquid feces into her boots, and still she grins back. Outflanked and outnumbered, they’ve not only escaped, they’ve won.
Her youth is unorthodox, but no regulations say she can’t keep the command post.
* * *
The scrolls don’t require it, but commanders often order their soldiers to burn taken fields, usually while forcing prisoners to watch. “This is your punishment for heresy,” she’s heard voices growl.
But Marekath keeps the plants alive and sets her youngest soldiers, those whose wings haven’t hardened yet, on harvest duty. It shifts them from battles they’re too weak to fight and keeps her troops fed. Instead of constantly hunting for game or squabbling over meager rations, they maintain alert double watches around a campfire of bubbling bean stew with newly foraged basil.
In addition, she keeps strict rules, forbidding even the most fervent soldiers from torturing prisoners. She carries food to them herself, steadying wooden dishes with the bone-edge of her wings. Behind fearful eyes, realization always sprouts: Marekath keeps her promises.
In that manner, she gathers converts. Spies, too. One dying man tells her, in a cracked voice, the legends of his people and the locations of secret passageways leading to the hill towns of an-Nathli.
The soldiers have swarmed the carved warrens by night, killing sentries before they could defend against the ambush. Now sandstone walls slope around her troops as they gather in the town square. A renaming ceremony, Marekath expects. What will this place become once cleansed?
But the priest calls her forward.
Not one drop of blood stains his white robes. His wing-talons glint in the sun. Marekath’s injured hand tenses at her side; what is he thinking behind that curved mask?
His blank face regards hers. At last: “Kneel, soldier Marekath.”
Reflexively, she drops.
“For your deeds, you shall be brightened.” Something glints in the sun; the ornate medal of a Holy Commander. He reaches down and pins it on her tunic.
Sacrifice burns away. This was all worthwhile, she thinks. Her shrewd mind and powerful limbs have saved lives, saved spirits. Now her own shall be raised up. Everything she’s done has been for the good of the people. Even though she’s strain-deformed, Sol has allowed her to succeed.
Marekath lowers her head before the sun and weeps in joy.
* * *
Copyright © 2017 by Kayla Bashe