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A High and Lonely Destiny

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This is the story Jadis learned when she was three years old, told by an under-nurse with salt-pale skin and a missing left thumb, as she braided Jadis's hair into a crown:

"Long and long ago, in another world, the god El grew bored and lonely. So he made Lilith from salt and sun and Adam from earth and shadow. He built a garden where they could live, and he visited them in the evenings, and so none of them were lonely. But Adam grew proud and said that since he was male, he was more like El than Lilith was and therefore she should obey him in all things, as they both obeyed their creator. And what do you think Lilith did then, my diamond?"

The under-nurse dropped one hand and wiggled her fingers against Jadis's stomach. Jadis squirmed and laughed.

"That's right! Lilith laughed, and told Adam she would only obey him if he also obeyed her. He refused, so she ran deep into the garden and hid in places he couldn't follow. Then she began to wonder why she and Adam obeyed El, who had commanded them to stay in the garden and never touch the fruit of the two trees at its heart. And what do you think Lilith did then, my diamond?"

The under-nurse chose a slice of honey-glazed fruit from a plate on the low table beside which they sat, and offered it to Jadis. Jadis stretched her own hands out and grabbed the fruit, which she crammed into her mouth.

"That's right! Lilith ate the fruit that gave her knowledge of all the world, and then she knew that no one -- not Adam and not El, either -- had power over her. So she left the garden and made her own way, over mountains and seas, deserts and forests, winters and summers, nights and days, until she found a doorway that led her to Charn and here she built her empire and birthed her children. And do you know what, my diamond? Her children had children, and those children had children, and so it went down the long years until one of those children was you!"

The under-nurse fastened the last wisp of hair with a silver pin and wiped Jadis's hands and face with a linen cloth, lightly moistened in a basin of scented water. "You look lovely, my diamond," she said. "As strong and beautiful as a queen. And now it's time for your presentation in the temple so Lilith herself will learn your name and mark you as her own. Up!"

She lifted Jadis from her lap, twirled her through the air for nothing but the pure pleasure of making the princess smile, and set her feet (bare, for no one approached Lilith in pride unless they courted misfortune) on the polished stones of her receiving room: a space far too hard and cold and grand for a tiny child, but to say so was to court death and so the nurses strove to bring a bit of comfort around its edges as they could, with stories and sweets.

"Up, up, up!" Jadis repeated, until the under-nurse gave in and carried her through the endless corridors and rooms between her chambers and the temple doors, though the chief nurse scowled and hissed a warning about royal dignity.

When the under-nurse set the princess down and urged her toward Lilith's shadowed, empty throne, Jadis stepped on the hem of her dress (red, for blood and sacrifice and the light of Lilith's sun), and tripped, and wailed at the pain when she scraped her knees on the stones.

The under-nurse with the missing thumb was executed the next morning for allowing the ceremony to be disrupted. Another under-nurse, this one with sand-sallow skin and a hatchet nose, held Jadis on her lap to watch.

---------------

This is the story Jadis learned when she was eight years old, told by her brother who had found her hiding from her attendants in a courtyard garden and tripped her into a decorative well:

"I know one of you likes stories, so let me tell you a story that the prince our father told me when I was your age," he said.

"I'm Jadis. Cynara's the one who likes stories," Jadis said.

Mordan tossed a fist-sized cobblestone down the well, narrowly missing her head. "You're not important enough for me to care about your name. Now listen: Lilith had three children, born in the same hour from different fathers. The oldest was Asharan, the middle was Tiamu, and the youngest Innenya. They fought with their mother against the old gods and won many great victories, pushing the enemy back step by step, until at last Lilith locked the gods into the shattered wreckage of the sunless lands. Then came the long years of peace as our people spread across the world, before Adam's sniveling children came sneaking in to infest the land like roaches. And one day it came to them that they had no one left to fight against and win glory, except their own mother."

He tossed another cobblestone and laughed when it struck his sister's shoulder.

Jadis clung by her fingertips to tiny imperfections in the slick, stone walls of the well and did her best to remain silent.

"So they went to confront Lilith on her throne, only to find it empty and cloaked in shadows. Where she went, no one knows, but she left behind an inscription in letters red as sun's-blood, which binds us still today: Who follows me must bow to none. And so they knew that only one could take their mother's place."

Jadis closed her eyes and tried to remember the spell she'd read in one of their grandmother's books. It was meant to call songbirds and coax them into a chorus -- silly and pointless, she'd thought; far better to call something fierce and impressive, like a lion or a wolf -- but perhaps she could twist it to her own ends.

"Their war split the heavens and the earth," Mordan continued, "but in the end Asharan defeated his sisters and set himself as king over all the world, casting Tiamu into the black depths of sea and Innenya beyond the black gates of the sky. We're descended from him, and like him, I will take the throne of Charn and cast you and your twin out."

Jadis felt the slender thread of her summoning spell snap taut. A breath later, a single moon-pale ilassu circled over her head and sang its liquid, three-note song: telling anyone within a mile that it had found helpless prey.

Mordan glanced upward and laughed. "Look! One of Lilith's heralds, come to bear witness to your weakness. Oh, don't worry. I won't kill you now. What would be the point, now that everyone will remember that you were foolish enough to fall down a well and had to be rescued from drowning?"

Now, Jadis thought, and the ilassu turned its circle into a dive.

Even songbirds had beaks and claws. And she refused to let her brother win without a fight.

---------------

This is the story Jadis learned when she was twelve years old, told by her sister who read it out of a heavy book bound in plates of iron:

"'When All-Mother Lilith had wandered El's world for a year and a day, she found a doorway on an empty shore where the gray-green ocean rolled in long breakers upon the tawny sand. The doorway was formed all of unmortared stone, two pillars and a lintel, each twice as long as she was tall, and a gate of iron hung between them. Waves swirled through the bars at high tide, and vanished beyond mortal sight or ken.'"

"An interesting magic," Jadis said, looking up from a compendium of spells to twist the mind, far more useful than a collection of folktales. "Is that how she came to our world?"

"Hush and let me tell the story," Cynara said, and turned a thick, leathery page. "'Lilith knew this must be a gate to another world, perhaps one beyond the reach of the god El who had formed her from salt and sunlight. She yearned to pass through, but when she set her hand upon the iron latch it pricked her thumb and the drop of blood called a new thought to her mind: Eve, the woman wrought from Adam's blood and bone to serve him as Lilith had refused to do. Eve was Lilith's sister, whether she knew that truth or not, and someday she too would question Adam and El.'

"'And it came into Lilith's mind that to help her sister escape those two would be sweet. So she turned and began to trace her steps back to their beginning, back to the garden, where she might ask Eve to accompany her through the doorway on the barren shore and beyond El's reach forever.'"

Here Cynara looked pointedly over the top of the book toward Jadis. "Even Lilith wanted a shield-sister. A fellow queen, to guard her back and strike down her enemies because those enemies were also Eve's."

"But Eve didn't come," Jadis said. "Everyone knows she stayed with Adam, because both she and he were born to be slaves. How does your fabulist explain Lilith's care in the face of that truth?"

Cynara glanced back down at the thick pages and their rusty ink. "That's the story the prince our father tells. But this is an older book. I think it was meant to be burned, and only escaped the fire by chance. When people try to hide things from me, it generally means those things are worth knowing. And I think I know why the prince our father wanted this story hidden. Listen:

"'But when Lilith found Eve in the desert -- for she had indeed eaten the fruit and left the garden and its lies, as Lilith had done before -- Eve still looked to Adam with love, and lay with him, and spoke respectfully to El when he visited in the cool of the evening. She had chosen to bend, for freedom and pride are but two of many virtues, and to Eve they were not the most important. And Lilith wept, for love and trust are also but two of many virtues, and she would always sacrifice them rather than bend or bow.'

"'And so Lilith went away from that place, leaving Eve to Adam and to El while Lilith made her way alone. And Eve's blood is the blood of the humble, for she walked her path in silence and in others' shadow, but Lilith's blood is the blood of queens, for she stepped through the doorway and made a world her own.'"

"I still think that story argues for my point more than yours," Jadis said. "Eve didn't go with Lilith. There can only be one queen."

Cynara scowled. "No, it only proves that Eve chose not to stand at Lilith's side. Even with her weakness, she still ate the fruit and pushed beyond the garden. If she had been made of-- of sand, or wood, or ice, or anything but Adam's own flesh and therefore bound to him, she would have left Adam too, and fought El. She would have been Lilith's equal, as you are mine and I am yours. Stories teach us what to avoid as well as what to strive for. Remember: even Lilith wished for a sister. You and I already have each other. Together, we can do anything."

Jadis considered this for a moment. Then she chose.

"Yes. Together we can do anything. Let's start by killing our brother, as Eve and Lilith should have killed Adam."

Cynara closed her book and smiled.

---------------

This is the story Jadis learned when she was seventeen, told by her father who walked with her on the pebbled beach beneath the brooding walls of Kigalur, a fortress older than written history and built upon countless layers of its own bones:

"When Lilith came to this world, she came with an open hand, offering her magic and her wisdom to the people of the shore," Prince Acernos said. "But they were proud, as befits a strong race, and their queen wished Lilith to kneel and acknowledge her rule over these lands and waters."

"Who follows me must bow to none," Jadis quoted.

"Yes. And so Lilith turned to war and made herself queen of Kigalur and its people. She brought prosperity and law, and so the people came to love her. In time they grew strong enough to challenge the heavens themselves. But all this was possible only because she first proved her power and her will.

"This is the way of things: only fear is the guarantor of peace."

"As you say," Jadis agreed.

Beside them, the storm-wracked waves crashed fruitlessly against the invisible wall of Acernos's magic. Only the faintest breath of spray passed through to dampen their hair and clothes, though this beach had been eaten by the hungry sea seven generations past, and only the strongest of magicians could dream of holding back the ocean's fury on a whim.

When they reached the end of the beach and turned, he passed the spell to his daughter: a combination of test and taunt.

By the time they returned to the cliff-stairs, their robes were bone-dry.

Jadis was smiling.

---------------

This is the story Jadis learned when she was twenty-three, told by a scholar whose pretense of benevolent distraction had melted away like wax from a bronze mold when she learned what spells Jadis sought among her collection of ancient lore:

"When the Queen of Air and Darkness passed from the world of her birth into this world, the world of her conquest, she was dismayed at what she found. That first world, you see, was young. Its sun was new, its winds fresh, its sky filled with countless stars, its bones still shifting underfoot. This world is old and has been so for eons upon eons."

"I know this story already," Jadis said. She twitched her left index finger, tracing it along one strand of the spell that held her trapped and bound like a sacrifice upon the scholar's private altar. She still had no recollection of how the woman had got the drop on her, which was both annoying and disconcerting. She'd thought her awareness was better than that. "Do you intend to talk me to death or is this some manner of test?"

The scholar smiled, revealing teeth that seemed sharper and more numerous than ought to be physically possible inside an ordinary mouth. "Not a test, no, but there is most definitely a point, my dear little would-be queen. And I tell you this story because stories change, and I am quite sure yours have discarded many truths over the generations. Now listen: the Queen of Air and Darkness did not find an empty world. Oh, no. She found a world filled not only with people but also with their gods. And she was quite unfond of gods."

Jadis attempted to watch the scholar's hands from the corner of her right eye, as the woman busied herself with some kind of potion. Something about the angle made the proportions of finger to palm seem wrong.

"Since you seem impatient, little queen, I won't bore you with details. Suffice to say that your ancestor overthrew the gods, locked the doors of the sunless lands, and made very sure the gods could not escape to other worlds the way she had escaped her own. But this is the part those stories leave out: it is a difficult task, to erase a god. And it is equally difficult to unwrite them from the bones of the worlds they create. So a handful still survive, and it is their hatred and vengeance that give power to the Deplorable Word. To speak it is to summon them and bid them undo all of Lilith's work, and then open the gates for them to escape the corpse of this world they have come to loathe."

The scholar held up a cup of murky, red-black liquid and tapped its rim against Jadis's lower lip.

"Knowing all that, little queen -- knowing that to learn what you seek is to repudiate the Queen of Air and Darkness and to cast your lot with those she gave her life to bind -- do you still wish to learn the secret I can teach?"

"I repudiate nothing," Jadis said. "Lilith was queen of the world. So will I be, in my turn: and queen in truth, unlike many who have claimed that title, since the queen my grandmother has finally brought the whole of the world within Charn's wings and talons. A queen can choose her enemies and allies for herself, and is not bound by what others have done before."

The scholar watched her, unblinking, for a long moment. Then she laughed. "You are very like your ancestor in some ways, little queen, though not in ones she would necessarily appreciate. Beware of pride. There is an old saying that it goes before a fall."

Jadis drew a breath to counter, but the scholar tipped the contents of the cup into her mouth before she could speak. The world dissolved in a sparkling whirl of pain.

When she woke, she was unbound and the scholar's empty house was layered in dust as if no one but Jadis had been there for generations, and a Word in a tongue that matched none she knew pressed against the back of her teeth like a mouthful of embers she could neither breathe out nor swallow, waiting to ride her voice and will to the ending of the world.

---------------

This is the story Jadis learned when she was twenty-nine, told by her grandmother who called both Jadis and Cynara to attend her on her deathbed:

"The pair of you are prophesied to destroy our world. Do you know what a prophecy is? A prophecy is the last weapon of the old, false gods that Lilith locked away. When Innenya climbed the spiral stair down to the sunless lands, to wrest the secret of death from their grasping hands, she had to leave a keyhole in the door so Tiamu could call her back. And sometimes the old gods stretch their fingers through, despite the web of lightning Asharan set to guard the gap, and paint lies in the minds of the weak and the mad."

Queen Nekoris coughed, a long, wrenching spasm that left her lips spattered with blood. Neither Jadis nor Cynara moved to help her; she would not have welcomed any such aid.

"A prophecy is a command," Nekoris continued. "An order. An invitation to kneel. And those who would be queen, those who would rule, must first rule themselves. Who follows me must bow to none. This is Lilith's challenge to us, and mine to you. Prove the old gods wrong. Rule wisely. Use your strength to build Charn to new heights rather than drag it down in a petty squabble between those who should guard-- should guard--"

She collapsed into another spasm. The blood that flecked her mouth and chin was dark, thick and coagulated with something unnatural.

Jadis exchanged a knowing glance with her sister as their grandmother fought for breath.

No one would accuse Prince Acernos of murder, but just as he had recognized his daughters' hands in Mordan's death once upon a time, so they recognized his hand now.

"The irony," Cynara said as Nekoris subsided into silence, "is that her words are as much a command as any prophecy. And I have little inclination to obey deathbed fears."

"Yes," Jadis agreed. "We make our own choices."

Behind her teeth the Deplorable Word pulsed and burned, her weapon of last resort.

What did she care if she freed a handful of decrepit gods? Just as Innenya's quest to the sunless lands had left a hole for them to touch her world, so their vengeful flight would leave a hole for Jadis to follow to other universes.

And like Lilith, she would make those worlds her own.