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The Last Year-King

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Three times Lussa had killed her opponent in the battle for the bone crown. The first time, she went as challenger, dressed in white like the moon. Her two battle-companions walked at her side; the other girls their age sang for them as they departed, their voices rising in harmony, wishing them victory and strength. Each had given her something: a shell necklace, a bracelet, a shard of bright plastic to hang from her belt.

Lussa did not think it was the songs that helped her to her first victory. She came back down the mountain with her axe held firmly in her hand, her white dress stained with blood. One of her two battle-companions was lost, her body left on the field of battle beside the dead Year-King; but the other walked beside her, her eyes bright and defiant. “Behold the King!” the memory-keeper called, and the people all stretched out their hands to her. But though Lussa searched the crowd, the one face she wanted to see was not there.

The second time, it was for Lussa to defend the crown. The songs and good wishes were for her opponent, not for her. The challenger usually won; it was considered fitting for the one who held the power of Year-King to fall, fading away as the sun grew dark and yielded to the moon in a time of eclipse. A second time Lussa returned with the bone crown on her head, and this time both of her companions lived. The people murmured and bowed before her, but they would not meet her eyes.

Tolmeassa had a wound in her leg and came down the mountain limping. She wept when the healers told her she would not recover enough to be Lussa’s battle-companion again, telling her she was sorry over and over. Lussa did not understand. Tolmeassa surely owed her no loyalty, after suffering a crippling wound for Lussa’s sake. But she gripped Tolmeassa’s hand and said what fumbling words she could to grant her peace.

Tolmeassa would go back to the normal life of the village. Lussa remained apart. She who took up the weapons of the Year-King gave up her family and her former life; to touch her was to touch death. Even the memory-keeper would not speak her name again, whether she lived or died.

Lussa knew the restrictions set on her, and she was careful not to transgress them. She never went to her old house, nor even walked past it. But once, by chance, she met one of her brothers in the street and called his name before she remembered. He stopped abruptly, his eyes very wide, then muttered an apology and hurried away. He seemed well, Lussa thought. He wore earrings of shell, bracelets of copper. He must have made a good marriage. Her victory had done that much, at least.

The third time, no one expected her to survive the challenge. Podarge was two years younger than her, one of the strongest children of the angels in generations. But Lussa had not been idle during her year of peace. It was not the custom for the Year-King to continue her training; why should she, when at most she could put off her fate for another year? Nevetheless, Lussa found time to go off alone and called her power over and over, standing with upraised arms and watching the lines of her power form and reform in geometric shapes above her head. Weapon, shield, attack and feint—always she forced herself to expand her limits, working until she could barely stand from weariness.

She called her battle-companions to her then and showed them every new strike or defense she had discovered. Makhetike was a familiar and steady presence, her companion from the last year; Itame was new, young and bright-eyed at the honor of being chosen. “We will learn,” Lussa told them, looking back and forth between the two of them, “and we will live.” She saw in their eyes that they believed her.

When she came back to the village as victor for the third time, the crowd parted before her in silence, leaving her way open to the Year-King’s throne. Podarge’s sister gave a single choked sob and turned away.

They did not understand her fierce determination, why she strove so hard to live. It was true that Lussa felt a surge of triumph each time she won and strode down the mountain wearing the bone crown. But each time, her victory turned to ashes, because Agla’e was not there to see it. When she lay awake in the dark of the night, Lussa repeated her promise to herself: she would not die until she saw Agla’e again. Agla’e who had disappeared from the village the summer they were seventeen, a few months before one of their age-group was to be chosen Year-King. Lussa never knew whether it would have been her or Agla’e. The two of them were the strongest of their year. They always trained together, laughed together, ate and woke and slept side by side. But when the time for the choice came, Agla’e was gone. And when the memory-keeper asked her the ritual questions, Lussa had accepted.

The fourth time, Lussa stood impassive while one of the memory-keeper’s young students chanted the familiar story in her clear soprano voice: “In the time which now is only a memory, the angels came down from the stars, bringing fire and judgement upon the people. None could stand against them; the angels brought all the lands under their sway and ruled them for a hundred years, until Alkas the first King rose up against them. Alkas the King had the blood of the angels in his veins and had mastered their power. He gathered others to him, and together they fought the angels and cast them out. He died and was laid on the pyre, and another wore the bone crown after him. Alkas said: Let the King always be one in whom the blood of the angels runs true. If they return, the King must be ready to stand against them, even to the sacrifice of his life. And as he said, so we have done until this day, and so we will do.”

The crowd murmured quietly. The memory-keeper stepped forward. “Let the King come forth!” Lussa stepped forward, dressed in black like the night sky and wearing the bone crown upon her brow.

“Is there any here,” the memory-keeper demanded in the ritual words, “who would challenge the King?”

“I challenge!” The crowd parted, and the challenger stepped forward, dressed in the short white tunic of the ceremony. Lussa did not need to see her face; she knew her from her voice alone. It was Agla’e.

Lussa stood frozen, not hearing the memory-keeper’s next words. She barely recovered her composure in time to remove her crown and give it to the memory-keeper at the proper point in the ritual. The memory-keeper took it and laid it ceremonially upon the King’s vacant throne, to remain there until the appointed day of battle.

Lussa paid no heed to her. She was only watching Agla’e. Agla’e seemed calm and solemn, befitting the ceremony. There was no hesitation or regret in her face. So be it, Lussa thought with cold clarity, in the midst of her shock and betrayal. If Agla’e could come against her with the challenger’s sword, then Lussa would meet her there upon the mountain.

In the days leading up to the day of battle, Lussa told herself that she would not think about Agla’e. She trained hard, with fierce concentration, by herself and with her two battle-companions. But she remembered training together with Agla’e, and with every exercise she could not help imagining Agla’e doing the same thing, her arms stretched overhead as gracefully as a dancer and her golden hair shining in the sunlight; the look of concentration on her face as the power danced over her head in lines and circles, her brilliant smile when she succeeded in a tricky combination of forces. Her look of determination when she reached for the challenger’s sword, the sword which was to strike Lussa down.

Lussa imagined Agla’e then, as the target of every strike; in her mind, she ran through all the ways she would kill Agla’e, who no longer deserved to be called her friend. She only stopped when Makhetike cleared her throat quietly. “Lussa, if you use so much power, you will risk harming yourself as well as your challenger.” Lussa looked up then to see the lines of her power over her head, blazing brightly as the noonday sun. She took a deep breath and forced herself to resume her precise control.

The day before the battle came, as it must. Lussa with her battle-companions climbed the mountain from one side, knowing that Agla’e and her companions were doing the same on the other side. Only the Year-King and her challenger were armed with metal weapons. By long tradition (and due to the scarcity of metal), the battle-companions were sent up empty-handed, to make what weapons they could in the day before the battle. Lussa knew that Makhetike and Itame would not disappoint her. She let them make their own preparations, while she ran through her patterns one last time, making the lines of her power change shape with blinding speed.

Lussa arose on the morning of the combat and drew the sign of battle across both her cheeks, in the bright orange that had been used in ancient times to mean warning or danger. She did not have to wait long before her battle-companions came back to her, their weapons in hand and their clothing adorned with the skulls that only those who defended the bone crown could wear. Itame held a long staff, the branch still adorned with clusters of leaves. A frail-seeming weapon, if not for the gleaming metal point hidden within, relic of some long-dead Year-King or challenger. Makhetike had searched the battlefield for fragments of metal, then used her power to painstakingly join the fragments into a chain, fastened to a staff at one end; at the other end was a cluster of spiky green leaves from the fire-tree, that burned the flesh it touched. They too wore the battle-sign across cheeks and chin.

Makhetike took up the Year-King’s axe and solemnly presented it to Lussa; they bowed to each other as the weapon changed hands. Lussa would not let the axe leave her hands again until either she or her challenger was dead. Itame stood nearby, the bone crown held between her hands. There was no need for words. Lussa went toward the place of battle, and her companions followed. As they drew near to the chosen place, Lussa led them aside from the most direct path in order to ascend a high rock. Below her in the distance were three white-clad shapes, ascending the side of the slope. Agla’e had come.

Lussa led them down once more, to the flat place where hundreds of Year-Kings and challengers had fallen, their blood draining into the desert sand. She spared a single glance at each of her battle-companions, seeing in their faces the same resolution she herself felt. They stood under the heat of the sun, their weapons ready. They did not have to wait long. Lussa’s heart clenched painfully despite herself when she saw Agla’e before her. She knew Agla’e’s two companions also, had known them from children: Auge who always sang to herself, and Emmeleia with her curling hair loose and wild. But now they were nothing to her but the enemy.

Lussa had spent four years waiting for this moment, picturing Agla’e’s smile. Agla’e did not smile now. Lussa saw with sudden anger that Agla’e had not drawn the battle-sign on her face. Instead, her lips were painted a soft red, as if she were going to a dance. Lussa found it offensive, a mockery of the combat, and her mouth twisted bitterly. But it did not matter whether Agla’e died with the battle-sign on her face or not. Itame knew her task; as Lussa and Agla’e called on the blood of the angels in their veins, she released the bone crown. It rose into the air, above the iridescent dome formed by Lussa and Agla’e’s clashing powers. It would remain there until one of them became weak enough that she could no longer use her power. The other would descend the mountain as victor, with the crown on her head.

Lussa wasted no time but charged forward, her battle-companions only a step behind her, and Aglae and her companions ran to meet her. First came the moment of shock when her power and Agla’e’s met and joined. Lussa saw nothing but Agla’e’s eyes; above their heads the power flashed too quickly for the unaided eye to follow, as each of them sought to conquer and evade, to contain the other’s power. Circles within circles within circles, triangles and lines formed and disappeared in fractions of an instant; Lussa knew it was only the mind’s representation of that which would otherwise drive her mad. A few moments or an eternity later, she felt the physical shock run through her body as their weapons clashed together, her axe against Agla’e’s sword.

Lussa knew that her battle-companions were fighting also, but she had no time to look at them. Her world had narrowed to herself and Agla’e, the struggle of power and sharp-edged metal. Agla’e’s power shone before her, brightly as the moon. Lussa tried to find a way through Agla’e’s defenses, burning with a fierce fire, but Agla’e was too fast for her, slipping away and wrapping her power around Lussa’s again as Lussa sought to trap her. She struck at Agla’e again with her axe, again feeling the jarring shock up her arm. They stood locked there, their arms straining with effort, their eyes flickering swiftly with the power. Agla’e was defending herself only, making no effort to strike a killing blow. Lussa could feel Agla’e’s determination, but no anger, no desire to kill, and somehow that made her angrier. So be it then; the fatal blow would be Lussa’s. Lussa sent a barrage of power against Agla’e, which bounced off Agla’e’s shield in a bright shower of sparks. Agla’e was working on something, weaving strands of power together like a net, but for this moment Lussa was free. She pulled her axe away from contact with Agla’e’s sword and struck again. Agla’e’s breath was coming quickly now, but she managed to block just in time. And then—

Agla’e’s power was around her, soft and familiar, as when they had trained together as girls. Lussa could see the strain in Agla’e’s face as Agla’e held her contained. Lussa could break through it, but she was curious to see what Agla’e would do. Had Agla’e been saving her killing blow for this moment?

But instead Agla’e raised her head and called out, “Stop!”

After the long silent struggle in the mind between their powers, it was a shock to hear her speak aloud. “What?” Lussa said incredulously.

“Three blows given and received between the Year-King and the challenger,” Agla’e said, her voice ringing out. “That was the ritual, of old.”

Lussa swiftly ran her mind back through the combat. Yes, she and Agla’e had matched so many blows – and she did remember hearing from the memory-keeper that such had once been their law. In a gentler time, she thought with contempt. “What does it matter,” she almost snarled. “The battle has not ended. We cannot return down the mountain until one of us is slain and one wears the bone crown!”

Agla’e smiled slowly. “That may be so,” she said. “But will you stop and hear me out? We can always resume the combat afterwards if you are not satisfied. And they will not expect the victor until tomorrow morning.” Then, impossibly, Agla’e let go of her power, releasing the bonds that held Lussa in place. She let her power drain away into the air, lowered her sword, and stood there, bright and confident as she had been as a girl. Lussa could strike her down now, and Agla’e could do nothing to stop her. Instead, she found herself slowly lowering her axe to her side, letting go her grasp of her own power in turn. The bone crown drifted to the ground. After an uncertain moment, Itame came forward to pick it up again.

Agla’e gave her another bright smile. “Now,” she said, “walk with me and let us speak together.”

In spite of her words, Agla’e walked aimlessly for a time in silence, Lussa beside her and their four battle-companions trailing behind them. At last she said, “I was afraid they would choose me as Year-King.”

“What?” Lussa said blankly after a moment. This was not what she had expected.

“The year I left.” Puffs of pale dust rose up under their feet as they walked. “I couldn’t do it, Lussa. I have never been as brave as you.”

“You could have refused,” Lussa said harshly. “They can’t force you to be Year-King.” She kept back the reproaches that wanted to rise to her tongue. They couldn’t have forced you then, and no one forced you now—

“But then it would have been you,” Agla’e said softly. “I would have had to watch you go up the mountain, not knowing if you would come down alive again. And if you survived that year, you would have had to do it again and again.”

“I did,” Lussa bit out. She glanced sidelong at Agla’e to see her smiling affectionately at Lussa.

“Yes,” Agla’e agreed, sobering. “You have always had the heart of a lioness. The King that year was very strong, but I thought you would win.” She swallowed. “When the time for the battle came—I was far away, but I had counted the days. I knew when the battle was, and I thought of you.” Lussa gave her a startled glance, but Agla’e continued, “But even you, Lussa—you have the strength to kill, but it eats away your life little by little. I saw how the people moved aside from the Year-King, avoiding her eyes, though she was sacrificing herself for them. Though she was once their daughter, their sister, their friend. The Year-King is never called by name, only her title, except by her battle-companions. Even if she wins, she must leave something of herself there in the bloody dust. I did not wish to see it, Lussa, to think of your heart dying slowly even as your body moved among us in the sunlight.”

Agla’e spoke as if she had seen it. “Get to the point,” Lussa forced out harshly.

Agla’e stopped then, turning to face Lussa. “I knew I had to find another way,” she said quietly. “I had to end the battles. There was no other way to save you.”

Lussa stared at her. “Agla’e—” It was the first time she had said Agla’e’s name, Lussa realized, since she had gone away. When had she started thinking of her this way, as her childhood friend and playmate instead of her challenger? Or had she ever truly stopped?

Agla’e gave her another one of her sweet, bright smiles. “The world is vast, Lussa!” She flung her arms wide, and Lussa could not help noticing how her hair shone in the sun. “So much bigger than we could have believed. Didn’t we want to see it, as children? To travel to the broken towers of steel and glass that the Ancients built, to climb the highest mountains only to see what was on the other side, to see the valleys spread out at our feet?”

“A child’s dream,” Lussa said, but without heat.

“Did you know that there is a place where one of the angels’ ships was left behind? Alkas broke it in battle, and it’s still there. The people who live nearby have some of their books, and they’ve learned to read their language.” Agla’e drew a small wrapped bundle carefully out of the breast of her tunic. She let the wrappings fall away, and Lussa leaned closer to look. A sheet of crystal, she would have said, glimmering in the sunlight with rainbow colors. Agla’e pressed it in a certain way, and letters sprang to life above the base, scrolling past Agla’e’s hands. Lussa gasped in surprise.

“They let me have this one,” Agla’e said softly. “They have already copied down what it said, and they gave it to me so that I could show my people.”

“Can you read it?” Lussa asked in wonder.

Agla’e nodded. “I want to tell you what it says,” she said. “I want to tell you what I saw—I want to tell you everything!”

Itame’s shoulder pressed against hers. At some point, Lussa’s battle companions had given up any pretense of being on guard and had drawn closer to listen. Lussa frowned at them, but Itame only leaned closer to look at the book with unapologetic curiosity. Agla’e smiled and held it out to her. “Here,” she said. “You can touch it. It’s all right.” Itame set the bone crown down on the ground and took the book, her eyes widening to see the scrolling lines in the tongue of the angels.

“What should we do with the crown?” Makhetike asked seriously. “If you don’t mean to fight for it.”

“We could destroy it,” Agla’e suggested. Itame thrust the crystal book back at her and picked up the crown again protectively.

Lussa went still as she realized something. “Agla’e,” she said. “You had that book with you the whole time, next to your skin. If I had struck you—” Agla’e would risk her life for her convictions; this Lussa knew well. But to risk an ancient artifact, one that was literally irreplaceable—

“I knew you would not,” Agla’e replied simply. Lussa looked away from the trust in her eyes.

“Do you know what it means, to have the blood of angels?” Agla’e continued softly. “Alkas knew, he who was the first King. He found out. There is a village, far from here, where people are studying his words.”

Lussa had never thought to ask. She knew only that she and those like her were strong in their power. “What does it matter?” she asked gruffly.

“Because our power can be used for more than this, Lussa, not only for battle! The angels took us—our ancestors—and altered them. They thought our power would serve them. But Alkas refused. He made a choice. Did you know,” she continued abruptly, “that there is a place where the men fight as Year-King, not the women?”

Lussa stared at her. “The men fight? But the blood of the angels is stronger in women,” she protested. “Everyone knows that.”

“Yes,” Agla’e agreed. “Have you ever wondered why? We could find out. There are so many things—The memory-keepers, not only here but elsewhere, say that the angels came from the stars. But which star did they come from? Can we go there?”

Lussa shook her head, feeling a little dizzy. “How . . . ?” she attempted.

“There is a story—though I don’t know if it’s true—that the Ancients were able to travel to the moon. Think of it, Lussa!” She reached up her hand, as if to touch the moon’s brightness. “To go from here to the moon, as we might walk from one side of the mountain to the other.”

“We don’t know how to do that, if we ever did,” Lussa returned stubbornly.

“I don’t know for certain,” Agla’e admitted. “Perhaps it is only a story. But after I left here, I went to many villages and many cities. Almost all of them have the Year-King’s battle, as Alkas commanded. But the Year-King doesn’t have to die!”

Lussa stared at her. This seemed more impossible a thing than journeying to the moon.

“In some places,” Agla’e said more quietly, so that Lussa had to lean closer to hear her, “they fight without weapons, wrestling with their power alone, until one of them yields. In some places they fight until first blood. In some places, a designated champion tests the younger girls in their power, so that they may be ready to fight if the angels ever return. But none of them die. No bodies are left on the mountain for the vultures, and no blood stains the sand.”

Lussa looked away. “Tell me of other things,” she said. “What you saw on your travels.” They continued to walk side by side. Agla’e spoke until she grew hoarse, telling of what she had read and what she had seen.

When night fell, they made a fire and sat together in its warmth, sharing what food they had. At last Agla’e rose. “We could burn the bone crown,” she said quietly. “We truly could.”

“To burn the crown is not to end the custom,” Lussa warned her. “They can always make another one.”

“I know,” Agla’e said soberly. “It’s going to take some time before they accept it, if they ever do. But I know I will not slay you for that crown, Lussa. Not though it cost me my own life.”

Slowly, Lussa rose to her feet. She stooped and picked up the crown from where it lay beside Itame. Itame stirred uneasily but did not stop her. Agla’e held out her hand, and Lussa held out the crown to her. Together, both of them holding it, they set the bone crown in the fire and watched it burn.

Lussa stared into the fire. She had expected either herself or Agla’e to be among the dead by now. “Which of us is King now?” she asked finally.

“Both of us are King,” Agla’e said softly. She spread her hands wide, her gesture bringing in their battle-companions or perhaps even the people down below in the village. “All of us are kings.”

Lussa gave her a look of exasperation. “How can we all be kings?” she demanded.

“What was it that Alkas did, that made him a King?” Agla’e answered swiftly. “Was it because he followed traditions that had been handed down from his ancestors? Or was it because he dared do something that no one else had done before? We could do what kings do, Lussa.” Her eyes were very bright. “We could go back down the mountain and bring something new to our people. We could tell them there is another way.”

Lussa gazed into the fire and did not answer. She felt a sudden weariness; it seemed too great a task to plan for the morrow. She let her thoughts drift, lulled by the crackling of the fire. When Agla’e’s battle-companion Auge began to sing, that too seemed a part of the night and the fire, not requiring a response.

There was a motion near her, and Lussa quickly looked up, jolted out of her thoughts. Agla’e had risen to dance by the light of the fire. Her companion Emmeleia joined her, and Auge too, a moment later. Itame jumped to her feet and joined in, not heeding Makhetike’s frown.

Makhetike glanced at Lussa as if for permission; Lussa stared straight ahead and pretended not to see. But she could not help turning to watch the dancers. Agla’e was smiling. She held her white skirts in her hands, swirling them about her with joyful motions. Lussa caught sight of Agla’e’s knees, a flash of her pale thigh. She swallowed, feeling a heat that had nothing to do with the fire. Lussa looked away again. It had nothing to do with her, she told herself.

Agla’e stopped before Lussa, holding out her hand. “Will you and your companions not dance with us?” she asked softly. Lussa looked up, seeing the shine of Agla’e’s white garments, her form outlined by the fire. Slowly, she let Agla’e draw her to her feet. There was a soft rustling behind her as Makhetike stepped into the line beside Itame.

It was not hard for Lussa to match her motions to Agla’e’s; indeed, it was far harder to resist it. Although they did not touch, the two of them moved as one. A shower of golden sparks from the fire rose up, bringing out an answering gleam of gold strands in Agla’e’s hair, and Lussa could not tear her eyes away.

At last Agla’e caught her hand and tugged her away from the fire into the dark; Lussa went willingly. They sank to their knees together, and then Agla’e was bending in to kiss her. Their lips met, and Lussa realized dazedly that she wanted this, she had always wanted it. She kissed Agla’e’s soft mouth again and again; it was like a drink of cool water after long and dusty wandering. Agla’e’s arms were around her, and Lussa wished her never to leave.

They traded kisses there in the friendly darkness, until both of them were breathless. Growing bolder, Lussa at last slipped her hands into Agla’e’s tunic, marvelling at the weight of Agla’e’s breasts in her hands and stroking her thumbs over the soft skin. Agla’e was unfastening Lussa’s tunic, pushing it down to bare her shoulders; she kissed her way along Lussa’s chest, and Lussa shivered as Agla’e’s lips brushed against her breasts. Then Agla’e’s mouth, hot and wet, closed over her nipple. Lussa gasped and clutched at Agla’e’s head to pull her closer. She tilted her own head back and saw the stars wheeling overhead. All of it, the delightful touch of Aglae’s tongue, Agla’e’s lithe body spread bare before her, Agla’e flushed and gasping under her hands—it was more than Lussa ever would have dared to let herself imagine. Much later, they came back to the fire and lay down to sleep, curled around each other as if they had always known how to fit together.

The morning sunlight woke them. Lussa sighed and reluctantly sat up, pulling away from Agla’e.

“Have you decided?” Agla’e asked softly.

“What will you do,” Lussa asked, “if they won’t listen? If they try to kill us for our presumption?”

Agla’e’s face was determined. “This place is my home,” she said. “I would change it, if I can, so that girls need not be raised to fight each other. But if the people refuse—The world is wide, Lussa,” she said coaxingly. “Wouldn’t you like to see it? To seek the answers to questions, to explore new lands—that too is the way of a King.”

“I will go with you,” Auge said instantly, and Emmeleia added, “I too.”

“I will go, if Lussa goes,” Makhetike said unexpectedly. Itame gave a quick nod.

“If they try to harm or imprison us,” Agla’e added seriously, “I do not think there is anyone in the village who is strong enough, if we stand together. We can turn aside their power and escape.”

Lussa felt her heart lift, a quiet brightness like the return of light after an eclipse. “Let us go, then,” she said. “To our village first, and if they refuse us—”

“Away,” Agla’e said. “But this time, we will be together.”

With their former battle-companions behind them, the two who had been the Year-King and her challenger went back down the mountain hand in hand.