She was nine when she became a Knife.
Onyx pebbles pressed into her feet as she ran with the opposing team’s flag streaming out behind her, a crown of dried orange lantern flowers clattering against her head like rain. Two years had passed since she washed ashore on this island where no one could say her name properly, two years since she became Fel Valens instead of the girl she was.
Wisteria-crowned playfellows streaked after her, but Fel was faster than all of them and she didn’t stop until she crashed into Bas and knocked them both to the dirt, a mess of limbs and sweat and victory whoops.
“I knew you’d win,” Bas said, her own lantern-flowers knocking Fel’s askew. When Bas was captain, no one had to ask who she’d pick first. It never changed.
Fel shrugged like it was nothing and handed her the flag.
They were always on each other’s team, sneaking into the novices’ rooms to steal peeks at the day’s horoscopes, inspecting the bottomsides of fallen cherry leaves for calligraphy. Sometimes they’d find one with their names written on it in telltale white ink, and Bas would charm the kitchen staff into giving them honeycakes while Fel glowered at the other kids who so much as thought to tattle until they ran away. The pair would pour over the leaf, Bas trying to figure it out and Fel pretending equally hard that she knew how.
But the fortunes always said the same thing.
That day after the game, they were walking back to ply Bas’ chefs for victory snacks when her governess steered her inside and tched at her dirt-scribbled face. Fel stood at the shut door for some time, lantern flower pods still perched on her head, waiting. She was rude, adults told her, because she didn’t know better.
Eventually, the governess sighed and opened the door. “The Lei line has always sent their descendants to the scriptorium,” she said.
It took a while to go through the whole story and Fel didn’t understand most of it. The governess was by then sweating in the early summer heat, so she settled on: “Bas is busy.”
“When will she not be busy?” Fel asked. Bas kept their entire shared collection of pumice stones in her room and Fel had wanted to add more specimens today.
“If she’s as peony-blooded as we think, probably never.” The governess leaned against the doorjamb as Fel resolutely did not pick up on the hint. “Are there any flowers in your blood?”
Fel was fairly sure there weren’t. She knew it the same way she knew she was rude, not because she sensed something lacking but because what she had never seemed to amaze people. Whenever she got cut all that came out was red.
A plume of ash-gray smoke rose from the palace’s latest pyre, and the governess sighed again and shooed Fel out into the lane. “If Lei Basalt’s smart, she’ll choose a Sword that can keep her alive longer than a damn year.”
The governess pulled a familiar leaf from her pocket and studied the tilt of the tines, still visible even after Fel and Bas had crumpled it in their studies. The governess scowled at Fel, but not like it was her fault. “The Weapons office is by the carpenter’s. Run, and you should make it before they close.”
She shut the door, hard this time. Fel ran.
Twelve. It was a fine age for promotion, even if the hardest ceremonial she could execute without difficulty was the Form of the Fish. The abbreviated Form of the Hexagon (with points) still made the new muscles on her shoulders ache.
But it turned out that assailants did not particularly care whether or not you could do the Form of the Fish or even the Form of the Hexagon, with or without the points—all that mattered was whether you could kill them before they killed you or the person you were assigned to protect. Fel had won.
And so she passed from Knife to Dagger.
“I hate this,” Bas said, throwing another stick into the bone-white char of the pyre. They wore carnelian again, because the High Enchanter was dead and that made it an obligatory festival day. Fel never understood why it was a festival when people you liked died, but that, the initiates said, only proved she was more at home in the Profane than in the Sacred.
“You are supposed to be holy right now.” She tipped her chin at Bas’ sleeves as the other girl pouted near the embers. “Watch out, you’re crisping something.”
Assailant. That was the word they used in Knife training, and she’d thought it meant human.
Loftily, Bas shook the ash out of her ritual garb and made a gesture that was not befitting of her station.
“Go on, do the thing already.” Fel began another walk along the perimeter. She did not like remembering the mutual shudder, let alone how much of the assailant’s mortal wound had been an accident.
“Fine, but I’m using your coordinates,” Bas called, waving the leaf and a charcoal stick. “Hey, come back. Don’t you want to know it what it says?”
Fel’s personal horoscope that day had been something innocuous like small luck, or possibility of minor accident ahead, not you will kill a living thing. We trade in fortunes, she’d spat at Bas. Those things are trying to kill you for this and it’s not even useful. But Bas said that was how just how it worked: because no one knew the precise moment of Fel’s birth—though she did know the date and that it had been in the morning—the details were, necessarily, vague.
“I already know.” Fel had heard it enough. “‘Fel Valens will be as a blade to Lei Basalt.’”
Bas threw a handful of leaves into the air and twirled her charcoal as they fell, reciting the rest. “‘But whether Lei Basalt commands her or stands before her as an enemy is up to question.’”
“It is not,” Fel said and swept off on another circuit.
Behind them, high-ranked enchanters scried on bark backs and fern-stem wafers, burning incense to disguise the lingering scent of peonies.
Some people had flowers in their blood. And some things wanted to cut the flowers out.
All the acolytes took turns watching the pyre, and all things told it was a smoothly run affair. Perhaps because the Sacreds disliked more upset than necessary in these transitions. Or perhaps it was because this always happened in the late spring or early summer when the egg-shaped buds of peonies became too full. Voices traipsed through winding staircases of hymns, and Bas replaced the leaves warding the late High Enchanter’s body whenever the writing on them got sooty.
The wards themselves were string ladders of tiny offerings tied around the funeral pyre, spare lines written on the back of plum and cherry leaves. Bas’ ink strokes were, of course, easiest to recognize: her letters snow fish frozen mid-swim, ink glistening on sickled bones.
Fel’s new captain had told her that making Dagger this young was a reward, along with getting to guard the most talented of the acolytes as she mended the pyre’s barriers. Mostly, she felt tired. Mostly, she felt like she’d learned something too fast to understand it.
But for that moment, watching Bas’ face light up when her words glowed without any help from the fire, it mostly felt worth it.
Three years of being a Dagger and she’d stopped worrying about being rude. It was what she was supposed to do, and enchanters’ sneers sluiced off her like water off a duck. Like these hellish adept’s silks kept doing.
She grimaced when Bas adjusted them for the sixth time, and when Fel hunched her shoulders the gentle fabric pulled taut. “Can’t do a damn form in these.”
“Why would I need to?” Bas squinted at the intricate confection she’d made from Fel’s unruly hair and then threaded in another opalite hair stick with a pained expression. “Well, you almost pass.”
“Almost isn’t good enough,” Fel said. Almost didn’t protect the High Enchanter. Almost didn’t kill on first strike. That’s the first conduct of the profane, to protect the sacred. And there was nothing in this room more profane than she was and nothing more sacred than Bas. “Those things are made of mirrors. It’s got to be perfect or they’ll know I’m not you.”
Bas fluffed Fel’s hair again with the air of someone attempting a particularly challenging puzzle. “They’ll figure it out sooner or later. Then what?”
Then they’ll tell the Mirror Queen, Fel didn’t say.
And that was the thing. She was only a Dagger, but it was impossible not to know the score. The Mirror Queen only tolerated enchanters so long before she sent her sharp subjects through portals to get rid of them, and a Blade worthy of her title would die before the High Enchanter whose weapon she was. A poor Sword meant another summer pyre and pale smoke, incense and hazy casting for fresh, fortune-favored blood.
Bas knew it too, but she stuck her tongue out. “Try smiling more, Val.”
Fel did, and both of them agreed it was perhaps best that she pretend to be a surly version of Lei Basalt for the evening.
Even before Bas had gotten too good to be ignored, the Sacreds were already whispering about the Lei line and its latest scion. After Bas earned her adept’s robes, Fel had taken her out to lie on their backs in the wet grass, to catch the last rain falling through the branches and pick out the shapes of imaginary monsters that the gaps in tree leaves created.
These days there was more than one kind of negative space around Bas.
And Fel had sworn to fill it.
“Just stay hidden. No matter what.” Fel tucked the robe into her sash unevenly, and Bas tucked herself into the secret compartment under the floors and didn’t come out, not even when the mirror creatures stormed the adepts’ quarters and Fel’s twin daggers shattered them one after another into fragments and dust. If none escaped, none could report back to the Mirror Queen. Simple enough.
It was only when Fel knocked twice on the floorboard door, steps shuffling, blades hanging limply by her sides, that Bas popped her head up. To her left, the opalite hairstick protruded from the eyesocket of a dead mirror monster, and the whole room was littered with broken glass. “All gone?”
“This robe,” Fel said, “is so stupid.”
Then she collapsed in a heap of blood-stained, shredded silks.
Fel Valens didn’t have a drop of peony blood in her. But from the way that Bas called for towels, for fresh-picked leaves with straight spines and her best calligraphy pens, yelled for her novices to bring all these as fast as possible, you’d never know it.
It wasn’t until she was sixteen that the inevitable finally happened.
“I need to take the test,” Fel said, out of breath, to the Captain of Swords. She’d been in training when she heard the news and she was still sweaty, heart stuttering.
“Look, Dagger. I know you’ve long been friends with the Enchanter Elect. I also know what the horoscopes say.” The Captain huffed. She’d looked favorably on Fel’s spirited defense of Bas a year prior, and Fel’s dagger work, devotion to daily ceremonials, and impressive kill count over the past few months hadn’t hurt the Captain’s opinion of her. “Good Swords are hard enough to find these days without my breaking the blade prematurely. Give it a year.”
A year was too late. The ceremony was tonight, and there would be no fooling the Mirror Queen anymore.
The Captain ran a hand through her close-cropped hair. “Remember the last Dagger who tested early? A week’s recovery he needed. Then he quit. You’ll just get an ass-whooping.”
Fel unsheathed her daggers. “With all due respect, Captain.”
Begrudgingly, the Captain raised her sword. “Then make it good. Swordsmanship isn’t only about wanting it badly enough.”
“I know,” Fel said and schooled her breathing into a familiar Form. “But wanting it’s no small part.”
Three hours later, after she’d put on her new armor and marched into the High Enchanter’s hall, everything still hurt. Bas’ initiation took place in the ashes once the pyre had burnt itself out and, by the time Fel arrived, was nearly over.
Passing in two hours would have allowed her to witness the ritual start to finish, from the procession to the lettering. She was late because the Captain of Swords had made her late, would not let her go until she’d tested every move, but Fel had not missed this essential part.
“High Enchanter,” the Captain said, herself still out of breath, to Bas. “Choose your Sword.”
Bas’ face was made up in dark swipes of cursive kohl, patterned silks trailing after her in strokes of ink. She was trying to hide it, but Fel knew the tells: hands folding and unfolding themselves like fresh laundry, eyes downcast or lingering on the ceiling but never stopping in the middle distance.
Fel was pushed into the ranks of Swords by an attendant and she stood at parade rest, back religiously straight even as her aching legs fought for balance. Fronds crisped, smoke rose, and peonies trapped in vases shuddered open. She was cultivating a black eye and hadn’t had time to clean up all the blood, but Bas found her anyway.
Because all fortunes said the same thing when it came to Fel Valens and Lei Basalt.
“And may she be a Blade to defend you against all ills, all evils, and all dangers.”
A smile bloomed on the new High Enchanter’s face and for a second Fel could swear flowers moved through her too, petals under her skin flooding from head to heart to hand to throat. Bas held the weapon hilt-end out, wrapped in glittering cloth. “Fel Valens, my Blade.”
Fel accepted it and knelt, the ritual words repeating in elliptic loops of sleepsong in her head, and it was done and done and done.
But all flowers fade.
Mirror creatures crawled out of bronze plates and calm lakes—any surface level enough to cast a reflection. Fel stalked them through corridors and storerooms, underground and across courtyards until she crunched their mirror sides to gravel. Let that be a message to their Queen. Her boots clacked over the roof and its bright tiles after rain, cutting down shimmering legions as they rose like spectres in the mist.
She was the Blade of the High Enchanter, and all through that summer, fall, and winter when she moved her clothes and armor scattered diamond dust.
And there was praise, from her Captain, from the other Swords, who hated her and her smug, glowering face until they found their jobs easier. From the people, when their High Enchanter threw a gala celebrating her first year in residence after the dangerous season of peony blossoms had passed, that summer night warm and full of firecrackers and sweets wrapped in plum leaves.
There were medals and commendations, specially commissioned plates for her armor, but most of all there were ribbons from Bas. Little things, scraps to wear around a wrist or tuck into a pocket, things that weren’t meant to be seen.
Fel knew they were there and so did Bas, and that was all that mattered.
Perhaps it was not surprising that she became what she became, something not meant to be seen, the shadow that waited for rain or clouded mirrors. And perhaps they should have seen it when her body count rose and village jewelers scrambled to find uses for the excess glass and gilt, when diamond blades made their way into every seahouse’s kitchen and children pared fruit with them at lunch, lost them to no consequence.
The clean-up crew might have said something, its duties increasing each morning when Fel went to bed. But if they wanted to mention it to the High Enchanter as she was selecting her ink wells and choosing the smoothest leaves for the day’s horoscopes, her breakfast honeycakes in a pyramid on the dish at her side as her Blade slept in her still-warm sheets, perhaps they remembered the pyres and how nice this new kind of permanence had been.
This High Enchanter tracked them along a propitious future written out in neat, assured italic, and a little more work on their part was no reason to disrupt a course they’d strived so long to tread.
And so Fel Valens stained the roof black with mirror blood, retreating only in the small hours of the morning, when the moon was no longer capable of rallying ghosts, when the night around her was too absolute to cast a shadow.
They hated to say it, but all was well.
“Please forgive me.”
Fel didn’t hear her the first time. When Fel passed Bas’ advisors on the way to her summons, they snickered in the corridors. When she glowered at them with dark blood and mirrorglass stuck to her armor in corrupted spikes, they glowered back, saying things like up to question and remains unclear.
But that was nothing. It had been her and Bas at the beginning and it would be her and Bas at the end. That was what every horoscope about them meant, and all four years into Bas’ reign they’d been right.
Sometimes Bas took her aside to tell her that she didn’t have to kill all the mirror creatures that came through. Sometimes Fel reminded Bas that she was the longest-lived High Enchanter for a reason and that power had to be exercised to be felt.
“You asked for me, Sacred?” Blood snaked down Fel’s arm, only some of it hers.
“Sword.” Bas nodded, just like normal.
So when Bas told her to kneel and placed the same lantern flower crown on Fel’s head from years ago, Fel was amused but knelt all the same. She was a blade wielded and she did not regret it, whatever the advisors said.
The magic didn’t take effect until she stood.
“What the hell is this, Bas?” Fel gritted, arms frozen halfway up to rip the crown from her head, unable to move them farther. Her feet were rooted to the tiles.
“It’s wholesale slaughter. You never listen when I tell you to stop,” Bas said, eyes shining. “All I wanted was to live, not be a queen of corpses.”
“They’re enemies.” Fel shook with effort as the bonds forced her to all fours, but moved one hand from the ground to the pommel of her sword, then to the grip.
“They used to be. Now no one’s seen them around for months. One night, I stayed up and watched you. You hunt them out before they even attack. They run back to the mirrors because they’re scared and you don’t stop. You pull them back and cut them open. They bow and plead and surrender and you still don’t stop.”
“If I stop, you die,” Fel hissed. “Did your useless advisors tell you that before they told you to do this?”
Fel Valens was the one question no horoscope could answer. She should have seen this coming.
But she hadn’t, and now the seal on the floor flared to life and fear prickled through her. “What are you doing?”
“Fixing this. There’s got to be a way we can make peace with the Mirror Queen. Find it. Please forgive me, Val.” Bas swiped a tear from her face and held a calligraphed leaf between two fingers, shaking. “I won’t let you become a monster.”
The floor below Fel shifted. All at once she was standing on a giant mirror and she knew what was going to happen. She struggled and spat at Bas’ feet. “I already am.”
“This wasn’t what I wanted,” Bas blinked, fast, but held the leaf steady, “when I asked you to be my Blade.”
“Bas,” Fel said as the letters took hold and the ground rippled, “Bas, wait—”
But then there was nothing but silence.
For a while, the world was full of sharp darkness and edges that gleamed. There was cut-sweep-dodge-stagger-blood. There was a sword, thank all the gods and every shadow. There were many kinds of nothingness, and after a time the person with the sword got good at identifying one from another.
She ran through all the ceremonials she knew, did the Form of the Fish and the Form of the Hexagon (with points) as she walked, and in one of her more inspired moments invented the unabbreviated Form of the Hexagon (with Fishes as points).
There was hope, at times a castle in the distance. And there were always the recursive shadows, drawn to the bulb-shaped scent that clung to her.
But most of all, and for the longest time, there was being alone.
The visitor left a trail of cut blossoms and bloodstains and not one of her Swords could stop them.
Bas had not named a new Blade after sending Fel Valens to the mirror world. It hadn’t felt right. And Bas had lasted. Weeks, almost a month even. But it was late into spring, and seeing the warrior cut through her defenses like they were low clouds, Bas almost wished she had.
But, even if it had come to this, Bas would not have unnecessary bloodshed.
She told her enchanters and acolytes to hide, told the Swords and Daggers to guard them and not to worry, and walked down to greet the newcomer unprotected.
“It’s you.” Bas stopped stock-still in the middle of the High Enchanter’s hall, hand over her throat, covering her soul. “Val.”
The shape bowed. Its clothes were clotted with dried blood, mirror denizen and human. There was so much of it that Bas had only known it was Fel because of the crown of lantern flowers. Fel’s sword arm was encrusted with diamonds and quartz clusters binding her armor and blade to her body, and she held something else in her other hand, but Bas couldn’t tell what.
Above them, wreaths of peonies hung their heavy heads.
“I should have listened to you.” Bas exhaled, and then laughed. “All my advisors are dead. Monsters got them.”
The day before yesterday, the mirror creatures had stopped entirely. No surface lured them out, and her adepts whispered that it must have been the Queen, the unquestioned authority of the mirror world, who called off the assault. Maybe Fel Valens had negotiated a truce. Maybe they were free.
No reply, no movement from Fel. Bas swallowed. “Tell me what happened.”
The other girl raised the object that she had in her not-sword hand and tossed it toward Bas. It rolled unevenly, like it had been carved by an unskilled artisan, and gave off discordant chimes in its wake, gleaming when light hit its planes.
When it stopped by Bas’ feet and silence fell again, she recognized it. Severed glass, translucent hair, and lifeless diamond eyes frozen in an attitude of horror. “The Queen of All Mirrors.”
“The Mirror Queen.” Fel inclined her head. On her brow, somehow nestled between her hair and the lantern flowers, jutted a crown of diamonds and jagged beads of glass.
Bas knew each of the seven spells for shattering by heart, had them etched into her memory by the scriptorium’s instructors from age ten on just in case she should find herself in exactly this position, but in that moment she couldn’t cast any of them.
And maybe Fel was remembering the same things Bas was, the sticky summer days, dew-bright roofs at dawn, the vows binding them as Blade and High Enchanter, because she didn’t raise her sword against Bas. Instead, she mechanically cut the opening letters of a portal into the dais floor, her writing coming out in clumsy, untutored slashes. It did not matter. She was the Mirror Queen, and the magic answered.
“Why did you even come back?” Bas yelled. She snatched a vase of flowers from the sideboard and threw it to the ground. “Just to show me this?”
Fel looked at the snapped stems and then at Bas like she really ought to know the answer, shrugged, and scythed the circle to completeness.
“Val, wait.” Bas dashed forward, calling on every bit of magic she could. “Don’t—”
Fel held the sword up as the portal yawned open in the same spot as it had weeks before and then halted. The floor beneath her had turned to mirrors, and around her wrist a ragged carnelian ribbon fluttered. “Do not.”
Peonies split into broken globes of pink and oxblood, flowers peeled themselves open in Bas’ veins, and a single coda of a horoscope slashed itself into a leaf.
“I just, I wanted—” The portal rippled, a tear slid down her cheek, and at last, Bas let go. “I’m sorry.”
Bas could have sworn that Fel’s eyes wavered. But no, that was impossible, for they too were made of glass. “I,” Fel said, before she vanished back into the mirror world she held dominion over, leaving Bas only with dead marks hewn into an empty hall, a thousand ruined flowers, and a gleaming head, “am not.”