Read The Mirror Empire Online

Authors: Kameron Hurley

The Mirror Empire

Kameron Hurley
For Renny, Heidi and Ryan:
the thief, the queen, the jester.
“We take our shadows with us.”
Dhai saying
When Lilia was four years old, her mother filled a shallow dish with Lilia’s blood and fed it to the boars that patrolled the thorn fence.
“Nothing can cross the thorn fence,” Lilia’s mother said as she poured the blood onto the hungry, gnarled fence. The boars on the other side licked up the blood. Lilia liked the boars’ yellow eyes and wrinkled, mucus-crusted snouts. They reminded her of hungry babies. The thorn fence kept out the semi-sentient walking trees and conscription gangs who sometimes climbed up from the churning bay that clung to the base of the cliffs. The cliffs and the fence should have protected them forever. Her mother was a blood witch and never doubted her power. If you fed enough blood to a thing, her mother said, it would do all you asked.
Lilia traced the scars on her mother’s arms and her own, and she believed her.
Until the day something crossed the fence.
It was high autumn, and the leaves were falling. Lilia sat on a shallow, chalky outcrop overlooking the toxic mix of lavender poppies and bulrus ivy that cloaked the heath between her village and the thorn fence. A sea of colorful leaves swirled through the air. She had dressed herself in tattered white bone-tree leaves, pretending to be the Dhai hero Faith Ahya. She played alone, rubbing her face with dandelion heads and pretending she could fly. Her mother hated it when she played that game, because it meant climbing up onto the outcrop and launching herself off it, arms outspread, hoping with each leap that some great wind would take her into the sky.
The pale green light of the satellite Tira bathed the world in a burnished emerald glow. The broader sky was a brilliant amber wash. It was the only color Lilia knew the sky to be. Tira, the life-giver, had been ascendant as long as she could remember.
Lilia scrambled to the top of the outcrop once again and spread her arms. This time, surely, the wind would carry her. As she prepared to jump, she saw the trees on the other side of the heath tremble. She froze. The thorn fence stood between her and the trees. Whatever stirred there, she resolved to face it bravely.
A wave of fuzzy gray treegliders leapt from the forest canopy. They spread their webbed limbs and glided down into the field of poppies – dozens and dozens of them. The big-eyed creatures bounded toward her, hurling themselves onto the thorn fence. First one, then two, then six, eight, twelve. Impaled on the hungry thorns.
Lilia shrieked and slid down from the outcrop. The barrier’s tendrils wound about the treegliders’ trembling bodies. She scrambled forward, desperate to free them.
“Take me, take me!” she cried at the fence, holding out her scarred arms. “Let them go.” She tripped and fell in the field of poppies.
A great snuffling, crackling sound came from the forest. She poked her head above the poppies. Immense white bears with jagged black manes broke through the trees. Forked tongues lolled from their massive, fanged mouths. Their riders wore chitinous red-and-amber armor and carried green-glowing everpine branches as weapons, the sort imbued with Tira’s power. Lilia knew those weapons well – her mother used them to kill wolverines and walking trees.
Conscription gangs sent by the Dhai in the valley to gather people for their great war carried those weapons, too. Lilia had heard dark stories of children bundled away in the night. Fear of being hauled off to join a terrible army overwhelmed her compassion, and she choked on a sob. She clawed her way back into the shadow of the stone outcrop. I am a terrible coward, she thought. Now everyone will know.
The riders barreled toward the thorn fence, trampling the dying treegliders. When they reached the fence, they raised their weapons and cut it down as easily as cutting a fresh tulip. Lilia willed herself to be still. If these people could cross the fence, they could do anything, and that scared her more than being thought a coward.
They galloped past Lilia’s stone outcrop and away – toward the towering mass of webbing that cocooned the trees around her village, protecting it from the seething, semi-sentient plants that roamed the woodland.
Lilia grabbed a loose stone at her feet and ran after them. Maybe she couldn’t face them directly, but they would not expect her to come up behind them.
She wasn’t certain when she first noticed the smoke, but by the time she came to the creek that marked the boundary of the village, gasping for breath, the smoke choked her. Great gouts of flame ate the cocoon sheathing above her, exposing the village to the dangers of the woodland.
She stumbled into the circle of the village. Found screaming chaos. The taste of smoke was bitter. She ran toward her mother’s holding, an immense banded cocoon that hung from the birch tree at the far end of the village.
From the folds of the smoke, a bear emerged.
Lilia shrieked and clutched the stone like a talisman against evil. The bear rider’s weapon was extended, glowing green and bloody, the hilt protruding from a dark seed implanted in her wrist. The rider wore no helm, so Lilia saw her face. She was indeed one of the Dhai from the valley, the ones her mother told her to stay far, far away from, even if times were lean.
Lilia held her ground. Raised her stone. Her mother had taught her how to heal a hundred types of wounds and illnesses, and shake loose a bone-tree’s prey, but no one ever taught her how to fight. She did not want to join the army.
The bear snarled at her. The rider laughed.
“Li!” Her mother’s voice.
Lilia threw the stone and missed. The air felt heavy. She tasted copper. Glanced back. Her mother stood behind her, arms raised.
A great blinding-tree burst from the bare ground between Lilia and the rider, taking Lilia again off her feet. The blinding-tree sprouted brambled arms and sprayed a great rain of acid, a dew that ate at skin, hair, and armor alike. It coated the rider and her mount – and splashed across Lilia’s right foot.
Lilia screamed and tried to wipe it away as the rider squealed and thrashed.
Her mother caught her hands. “Don’t touch it!”
The flesh sloughed off Lilia’s foot, revealing bloody tendons and bubbling, melting bone. The acid numbed her flesh as effectively as it disfigured it. The hem of bone-tree leaves on her makeshift dress hissed and smoked.
As Lilia wailed, her mother ripped the dress from her body, leaving her in a thin slip of linen. Lilia thrashed. Her vision swam. She was suddenly light-headed. I’m going to die, she thought. We are going to waste so much blood.
Her mother dragged her along, swift and silent as the world burned around them. Lilia was struck dumb, too horrified to speak. Within the sticky drapes of the trees, the immense cocoons where her people lived were burning. Great charred hunks of the cocoons fell, a rain of fire and flesh so mortifying that it took on the surreal aura of a dream. Women fled through the undergrowth, dressed in their twisted green regalia for the Festival of Tira’s Descent. There was to be feasting tonight. Blood soup. Stuffed moths. Dancing. But it was all gone now, all in ruin.
When they came to the other side of the blazing village, her mother kicked open a discarded immature cocoon.
“Hide here,” her mother said. “Like a snapping violet.”
Lilia climbed inside. Her mother’s skin was slick with sweat and blood, though Lilia did not know where the blood had come from. When Lilia looked back from inside the cocoon, her mother pressed something into the soft flesh of Lilia’s wrist and murmured a prayer to Tira. Lilia saw a red tendril marked into her own flesh: a trefoil with a curled tail.
“It will bring you back to me,” her mother said. “Come back to me.”
“I’ll come back,” Lilia said. “I promise I’ll come back. Please don’t leave!”
“You’ll find me,” her mother said, and clapped her hands. The broken flesh of the cocoon reknit itself.
“I promise, Mam. Don’t leave me.”
Lilia pressed her face against the edge of the cocoon, where some insect had worried open a hole. She saw her mother standing before a dozen riders wearing chitinous crimson armor. They sat rigid on their massive bears. The bears’ yellow eyes glinted. The lead rider menaced forward, a severe-looking woman with a tawny face and broad jaw.
Lilia went still, like a snake. She put her hands to her mouth, fearful she would cry out and give her mother away.
“Where is she?” the rider asked.
“Gone, Kai,” Lilia’s mother said.
“You’re a liar.” The Kai’s weapon snarled out from her wrist, a lashing length of everpine that hummed with a pale green light. “You don’t have enough blood to kindle a gate.”
“I do now,” Lilia’s mother said.
Lilia felt the air condense, as if the weight of the world pressed down on her. She closed her eyes and put her hands over her ears. Heavy air meant someone was drawing on the power of Tira to reshape things. But covering her ears did not cut out the screaming.
The ground trembled. When Lilia opened her eyes, her mother stood above her, covered from head to toe in blood. She ripped open the cocoon and pulled Lilia into her arms.
“I knew you wouldn’t leave me,” Lilia said.
But Lilia could see something over her mother’s shoulder. Four paces behind her, a dark, tattered shadow rippled across the fabric of the woodland, as if some great beast had rent a hole in the stuff that made up the sky. Between the black tatters Lilia saw hints of another woodland, a field of black poppies, and some hulking structure in the distance. The double hourglass of the suns’ light was reflected from a massive glass dome there. The light hurt Lilia’s eyes. Beyond it, Lilia saw the faint red blot of the third sun in a lavender-tinged blue sky, suffused with the green light of Tira in the distance.
Lilia blinked and gazed up into the sky above her, on her side of the rift. She saw the same hourglass suns, and the third red sun. But the sky on her side was amber, not lavender-blue. And as the suns sank in her sky, the horizon was a brilliant, blazing crimson, as if the suns bled. Why was the sky different on the other side?
“It’s time to be brave,” her mother said. “You remember what I said about being brave?” She set Lilia down and pushed her toward the tear in the world. “I’ve opened a gate. Hurry now. I’ll bring the other children and follow after.”
“But, Mam–”
“No questions. Be brave. You remember what I said about the Dhai from the valley, and what would happen if they came here among the woodland Dhai? Go now, Li, before it’s too late and this was all for nothing.”
“I’m not a coward,” Lilia said. Her eyes filled. She wanted to throw herself at her mother’s feet. Instead, she rubbed the tears from her eyes and stumbled forward.

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