1. all who come into being as flesh
Maji of Bana-Mighdall stared down at the child in her arms with equal parts suspicion and wonder. The infant was quiet but alert, brown eyes tracking the slow wander of a finger across her features with amazing concentration for one so small.
"She has your coloring, my love," said Maji, and it was true. The girl's skin, soft and golden, was the color of sunset on the desert sand, a deeper bronze than the most polished rifle plate. She had Safia's features, too, as much as an infant could -- she'd have hard cheekbones and a proud, narrow nose someday, be every bit as handsome as her mother. It was only at her scalp that the resemblance abruptly ended. "All but the red hair. Such a strange indulgence."
Safia smiled wide, stretching languidly on the bed. "I am the consort to the Shim'tar. It's my right to have strange indulgences. And the pick of the breeding stock, even the exotic ones."
Maji snorted. Safia had always been excessively concerned with status. In this case, though, the Shim'tar found she couldn't argue with the results. "Have you decided her name yet?"
A strange quiet fell between them, and startled, Maji looked up. Her lover had turned uncharacteristically somber, dark eyes meeting hers with strange weight to their gaze.
"Decided? No. I dreamed it, Maji. Seshat put her name in my ear as I lay sleeping. She will be called Artemis."
2. care for your works, that your seat in the West be splendid
"Oh, you're in here. I should have known."
"Karida," said Artemis with a lazy grin. "Where have you been all day?"
"Marksmanship, where you should have been," the other girl said, one hand pushing back her short black hair in exasperation. "At least you're not weaving or something. I don't think I could stand it if you skipped training to make blankets."
Artemis put down the diamond-tipped drill she was using to carve a war prayer into a shield, and eyed Karida sideways as her friend hopped up to perch on an adjacent bench. "If someone didn't actually make stuff, no one would have any stuff. Maybe detailing isn't high-status, but at least it's fun, unlike training."
"You're fourth in our age at tracking and you don't even pay attention. Any time you actually bother to fire those guns of yours you hit a tighter target than half the Queen's scouts. You live with the Shim'tar and she'd give you extra lessons any time you want. Kishar's tits, Artemis, you're named for the Lost Hunter! How can you hate being a warrior so much?"
Artemis shrugged moodily. "It's all for killing. I don't like killing."
Karida stared at her blankly, and after a moment of her dumbstruck silence, Artemis gave an irritable shake of her head and went back to her carving.
"Temi..." the other girl finally said, voice layered with confusion. "I don't get it. What's there to like or dislike? Do you not like walking, either? Or eating? Or talking and breathing?"
Artemis glared out from under the red twists of her bangs, but her tone was more resigned than aggressive. "Well it's not exactly fun if it happens to you, is it? Whatever woman or animal you're killing doesn't want to die, so why should you get to kill it?"
"Cause she's your enemy, or it's your food," said Karida, still bewildered but at least patient enough to state the obvious.
"Well what if it were you who were dying?"
Karida cocked her head and smiled, crooked white teeth shining in the falling light. "You'd avenge me," she said, with perfect confidence.
Artemis ducked back down behind her bangs against the warmth of Karida's faith, breaking eye contact and smiling in spite of herself. "Course I would," she said into her hair.
"You don't have to, really Temi," said Karida, hopping off the bench and taking a step forward to place a cool hand on Artemis' shoulder. "Okay, you're a freak, but you're my best friend. If you want to be a freak then I support you. Don't become a warrior for me. You can do your silly arty stuff, and I'll be so good a warrior they'll make me Shim'tar and I can take care of you even if you're a status-less potmaker."
"You want me to be your kept woman?" asked Artemis, still smiling, but something a little thick and a little serious slipped into the air between them with her words.
Karida looked at her again, even longer, but not blankly this time, and then she slid smoothly into Artemis' lap, straddling her legs and twining her arms loosely around her friend's shoulders, and she slipped a bit on the leather smock before she got her balance and their teeth clacked when they both moved in a little too fast for the kiss, but after a minute or two they worked it out, and after five Artemis got curious and brave about the taste of the tendon of Karida's neck. One soft bite and Karida gasped quick and breathless, fingers digging sharp and sudden into Artemis' arms. It felt just like squeezing a trigger -- powerful and dangerous and right -- and for the first time in her life, Artemis embraced the feeling.
3. like the gods / anointed be
It was a hot day even for summer, dust kicking up off the dry road and clinging gritty and sharp to the sweat of their feet as they ran, barefoot and eager, toward the gate. They barely noticed, too busy with the excitement, tripping over each other and dodging around horses and older women, Ayanna boosting her little sister over a camel gate, Artemis twining Karida's hand into hers and sharing a secret smile as they pulled each other along.
The main road was packed solid, an impenetrable wall of people, and they clambered up the crumbling wall of a bakery to perch on the scorching stones of the roof, braving the heat for a better view. The crowd murmured on every side, brief words flashing out of the tumult like glinting scarabs in the sand, "Anahid" and "Nehebka" and low, harsh and wondering, "Ariadna."
"I hear she stole the Pix," said Ayanna, hushed and close, like it were a dark secret instead of the most widely circulated rumor in the city.
"I hear she's ten feet tall and fiercer than a serpopard!" Khepri chimed, eyes bright with excitement.
"They say she tried to save the queen. Who would dare to steal the Pix, then save the queen?" murmured Bennu, ever-practical but not sounding entirely like she actually believed it.
Artemis, though, always the most sharp-eyed of the group, hissed them to silence. "Can't you see? They're coming!"
The caravan swung into view slowly, and the girls squinted into the light as it turned onto the brilliant white sand of the Serpent Road. The Ariadna wasn't hard to find; she walked at the head of the procession, and she stood out quite clearly despite not being anything like the fabled ten feet tall. Her clothing was ridiculous -- a riot of bold clashing colors, a skimpy strip of armored fabric that covered barely half her brightly pale skin and begged for the blazing sun to burn her to immobility. Every inch of her body was marked with cuts and gouges, brutal half-healed wounds like the losing end of the most humiliating possible fight. Even her hair was an anomaly, unbound and spilling messily around her shoulders.
But somehow, despite the strangeness of her attire, and even dwarfed as she was by Nehebka high on her warhorse, the Ariadna still looked every bit the looming, dangerously beautiful monster of Khepri's rumor; certainly she towered over Faruka, who lurked at her side with a scowl on her lips and a hand on her gun, as dour as Artemis had ever seen her. There was a compelling nobility in the pale woman's step, a calm air of command, and rather than the impression of incompetence Artemis would expect, the lacerations that covered her conveyed a mastery of combat, a sense that this outsider could endure with impunity what no other human being could survive.
The crowd fell silent as the war party passed, a strange awe suffusing the rabble even beyond the usual reverence for a fallen queen. And as Nehebka and the Ariadna passed below, close enough for Artemis to see the woman's eyes, she felt her breath catch -- that brilliant blue held cold condemnation and bottomless sorrow in the same impossible gaze, and Artemis knew, somehow, that whatever else she was, this woman was not the enemy. The Bana themselves would sin before the gods found fault with her.
Shaken and off-balance, she watched wordlessly until the last rearguard of the caravan drifted out of sight, then followed Karida home in mute, instinctive compliance to the hand in her own -- feeling little, hearing less, her vision clouded by a field of indigo and her mind consumed by an inexplicable foreboding.
4. one goes forth / while others, as in days of old, remain
It had been hard, finding her in the rubble. Even getting down into the pit was a challenge, a torturous twenty minutes of sliding and falling, tripping on broken pavement and loose scree and the lifeless limbs splayed across her path. But Artemis came across the spot eventually, found her crushed and burned where the Ariadna had left her -- Maji, Shim'tar, the greatest warrior of her people.
They had never been that close. Some women were, with the daughters of their lovers. Some women were almost like second mothers, even. But Maji had never been that way. They'd both loved Safia and that was all the connection they had needed; Maji had never taught Artemis the stories of her victories, the fears of her childhood, the song of her mother to be taught to her daughter to be sung on the day she breathed her last. They had never been friends and Artemis had never heard Maji's song. She didn't know it, she couldn't sing it, she had no way to discover it -- no way to learn Karida's, or Bennu's or Ayanna's or Jeriel's, no way to do her duty for her people cast about like empty cartridges on the bleeding sand, their souls trapped stagnant without the music to call them home.
So she sang her mother's song, her own, the only one she knew. Again and again over a thousand broken bodies she sang it, until her throat was raw and torn, until the witch with purple hair and a scorpion smile came to lead her away, and she prayed that it would be enough.
5. be unwearied, unceasing, alive
They ran out of bullets by the end of the second week. The Themyscirans, of course, could hardly equip them with more -- even their own magic-infused repeating crossbows had gone empty for lack of wood -- and by the time the first month was out, both tribes were reduced to spears and slings, and arrows cut from the two-foot quills of the spiny demons that filled the teeming legion of their foes. But the Bana were warriors born, and if the bow, like the staff, was a weapon rarely relied on by any serious hunter, it was still a weapon, and the women of Mighdall knew how to use it.
And maybe the twang of the bowstring was a little less visceral than the kick of a cutter when she squeezed the trigger, but Artemis made up the difference with a level of accuracy she'd never known with guns. Karida had been right. All it took was a little effort to learn, and she was out-tracking the Themysciran hounds and out-fighting women a decade her senior; now that it didn't matter anymore, now that they'd all ignored her pleading and made that first fatal attack on the Themyscirans, now that there was nothing left to their lives but endless bloody battle in this endless honorless war, Artemis had all the status she could ever ask for. Amazons rallied to her war cry and demons cowered before her, and she earned the finest of their makeshift weapons and the most beautiful of her exhausted and war-scarred tribeswomen and the richest of the stringy meat and water. Safia would have been proud.
6. and they are now as though they ne'er had been
She wasn't their leader. They had no leader, no queen, no council, not even a Shim'tar. She didn't represent them to the Themysciran envoys or call for decisions or try to sway the wisdom of the crowd. But still, when Artemis spoke, the Bana listened, young and old. When she said they should be content with the land they'd been given, they stopped prowling. When she said they should build on what they had instead of mourning what they'd lost, they began to make real homes of their stopgap thrown-together houses. When she said there were probably things to be learned from the Themyscirans, they started to send their own occasional envoys across the island. And when she said that forgiveness was the best policy, that amazon should not turn sword against amazon, that a decade of allegiance in battle should lay all debts and wrongs to rest, the other Bana nodded and followed. She knew the edge of a blade as well as any ten women, she was ruthless as the greatest queens of old; if she counseled peace, if she abandoned vendetta, who could doubt her?
And then one day she tracked a boar to the beachfront, and as she knelt there in the underbrush to search for signs of its passage, the Ariadna lighted on the beach, eyes as clear and blue and sad as the day Bana-Mighdall fell. And in the time it would take to blink, Artemis nocked an arrow, aimed directly at the woman's heart, and let it fly.
7. content with your lot, rejoicing / not speaking evil
Diana pronounced her name... strangely. Not "ar-TEHM-uz," like her own people, nor "ART-aem-is" as the Themyscirans said it, but something weirdly in between, a Themysciran accent on her vowels but the emphasis nevertheless done in proper Bana fashion. It was a whole other word when she said it, neither the shadow of the god Diana's people worshipped nor the fierce and deadly war hero of the Bana, but someone else, someone different, someone unique.
Even, it turned out, someone worth forgiving, someone worth dying for, worth pushing and teaching and challenging. Someone worth more than how many demons she could track down and slaughter in a week or how steady her aim was or how many hits she could take before she fell. Someone who could be trusted to protect a child, to raise a legacy, to care for a people, to strike down evil and build up virtue in its place.
When Diana said her name, it sounded like the chosen of the gods.
And it was a demand, to be sure, the hardest thing she could ever imagine trying to live up to -- but all the same, Artemis didn't mind being a hunter so much, anymore. Not once she finally understood what that truly meant.