What is the sky, but dying stars?
One step and the next—Valianne moved her feet, keeping in line with the others. A hundred prisoners of war. She breathed heavily as she worked, the hot sun weighing her down. Until nightfall, it’d be labour until exhaustion. Stone after stone until collapse. The fort would be paved on top of corpses.
And do burdens not sleep best in their graves?
A hand tapped her shoulder. Scrawny fingers and a desperate touch. Valianne ignored it. She continued the work of laying stone, bare feet burning against the sands, throat as dry as dust. The fingers tapped her once more. With hesitation, she turned her head.
“I know you…” a man spoke. A gaunt face and a raspy voice—his arms could barely hold the stone laid out for them. “You’re our cartographer.” He dropped his voice to a whisper. “What went wrong? Why did you lead us astray?”
Ambush, she would’ve whispered.
Not that she could. A soldier shouted for them to keep working. Valianne laid out the next stone, coating it with paste, again and again until she could no longer feel her arms. Then, she dropped. Blurred eyes and a weak pulse. A soldier walked up and prodded her ribs with his sandal.
“Water,” Valianne mumbled.
He laughed. The soldier unhooked his canteen, undid the cap, and poured the water out to the ground—soaked up by the desert in seconds. Valianne grabbed a handful of sand. She stood, struggling to keep balance, and threw the sand at the soldier’s face.
He recoiled and unsheathed his scimitar with a metallic ring. The prisoners around them came to a stop. Valianne braced herself as the scimitar rose, sunlight reflecting off its steel—and she mumbled a rushed prayer to the goddess she’d see her sister in the afterlife.
The blade didn’t come.
Instead, the blunt handle hit her hard in the nose, and knocked her out.
- - -
Valianne awoke to torchlight crackling. Shadows loomed on the walls, figures watching from outside—separated by iron bars. One spoke rapidly in Solan tongue as Valianne came to her senses. Another got to their feet and unlocked the cell. A man entered with his scimitar drawn and a cup in hand, and handed her the latter.
“Drink,” he said.
She grasped the cup and tipped it back. The liquid tasted of acid. As thick as mud and as sour as rot—she coughed, then spat. The men sitting outside the cell shouted.
“Drink all.” The soldier pointed his scimitar to her neck. He reached with his other hand and forced the cup to her lips. The vile drink burned her throat. She gagged as she finished, but couldn’t vomit. The soldier left the cell and locked it.
Those on the other side dipped their quills in ink and watched her.
“What did you give to me?” Valianne asked.
A translator repeated the words. No reply came. The minutes passed, and nausea clouded her thoughts. The room tilted to the left, then to the right. She squeezed her eyes shut against the shift in motion. Quills scratched against paper as the torch continued to crackle.
Her shoulder started to itch. It itched with a crawling feeling.
Valianne opened her eyes. Red ants swarmed over her arm.
She breathed in, filling her lungs, and looked up.
A giant ant crawled down from the ceiling. Maroon and porcelain stripes, pincers chittering. It came to a stop in front of her. Valianne stared it dead in its beady eyes—her breaths drew short.
“You’re not real,” she whispered.
“And peace of mind is but a mirage,” the ant spoke. “Do you miss your sister, cartographer?”
“You…you’re in my head. They’re taking notes on me-”
“It was you,” the ant said, “that led her to her death, was it not?”
Valianne shut her eyes. Her heart pounded in her chest. A tentacle wrapped around her arm, the suckers tightening their grip, and then the air turned to water. Bubbles escaped her mouth as she spoke.
“How was I supposed to know?” Tears dripped from her eyes and fell upward. “None of us could tell…” She bit her tongue. “All in my mind. Breathe easy.”
The octopus grew larger until it took up the entire room—she could see it through her eyelids. Its organs glowed through its see-through skin, a transparent blue, while orange salmon swam around in its bulbed head.
“Some spirits are fated to burn, cartographer,” the octopus said. Its tentacles pulled her to the depths. “She was afraid of the sea, was she not? Hated the thought of drowning. Drowning is a bit different from being slaughtered for sport-”
“Quiet!” Valianne cried. “Quiet…” She got to her feet and walked through the octopus. It disappeared like watercolours trickling down a canvas. She stumbled, knocking her head against the bars of the cell. Each turned into trees with dead branches.
Behind her, a spectral deer formed from the air—Valianne turned to face it. It stood twice as tall as her, with its rib cage exposed, rotting moss growing off the bones. Dying flora on its antlers wilted down.
“Errant words may fell an empire, cartographer,” it said. “Do you recall when she brought you flowers? She sure loved you. Why did you forsake her?”
‘Vali!’ a voice called. Her sister stood across from her, features a swirling mess of dripping oil. “I made it into the army! I’m going to run supplies-”
“You’re not stepping foot on the field?”
“Well...I’ll be riding a horse, and I should be in your command. I’ll never be in combat, if that’s what you’re thinking. You don’t look too happy, Vali! I thought we could work together for the kingdom.”
Stay home You’re too young to volunteer Put these foolish ambitions to rest
“I’d be glad to have your help.” Valianne smiled. “And I’ll keep you far on the back line.”
Valianne stared down at a map. The desert sand hit the sides of her tent.
“If we’re set on taking the capital, we’ll route them through smaller villages and force their hand. We’ll move through the mesas.” She drew a path southeast. A tactician nodded at her words. “Split into smaller forces. None of these will be heavily defended. I want the supply runner, Ophelia, in my care. Got it?”
The cell turned white. Pearl walls and a blank ceiling.
Where angels fear to tread. The clashing of steel echoed further off.
A voice spoke, loud and clear, far different from any she’d heard.
Hello, Valianne. Still sane, are we?
One of them, the voice spoke. There are not many deities left. It is what they search for, the Solan people. A gateway. And few come out with their minds intact. Let us talk for a moment.
Valianne ambled forward. Minutes passed. She hit no boundaries, nothing but white for miles. In its depths, horses whinnied and soldiers cried out.
Why do you fight in this war, Valianne? What purpose does it serve?
“My people. Middknight and every person in it needs us.”
No, they don’t. The voice laughed. This war, to my liking, has gone on the offensive. You once defended your lands with honour. Now you butcher your prey with pride. To think you could’ve left a year ago and saved Ophelia.
“It was an ambush! The roads were safe. The scouts even said so.”
Face your mistake.
“They must have been bribed. I’ve never made such an error with my maps.”
Face your mistake, the voice roared, child. Let yourself learn—give in and let your ego die. Silence. Valianne sat in the room of nothing. A chamber of reflection, one thought looping into the next. The hours passed like days. Our time draws to a close, the voice said. By chance, we may speak again. Until then, cartographer.
Somewhere, eons away, a hand shook her shoulder.
Urgently. Finger and nail pressed against her skin.
“Hey, hey! Breathe, you’re okay.” Valianne opened her eyes and stared at the blurry outline of a Middknight uniform—the crest of a lion in mid-roar on the chest plate. “The cavalry made it. You’re saved. All the sand-rats are weeping or dead.”
Valianne opened her mouth to speak, and fainted.
- - -
As the days passed, the drug gradually loosened its hold. Valianne slept away the sunlight—surgeons kept her bedridden, tending to her health. When she could stand again, she climbed and sat at the top of a mesa. The night’s cool breeze dishevelled her hair. Far below, soldiers readied for the next attack.
Valianne refused to join them.
Could the King name a single one?
She doubted it. All pawns in a war of conquest. At the first chance presented, she’d ride back to Middknight, and abandon her position as a cartographer. Maybe open a shop. Something calm, without the clash of steel. A simpler life.
For now, she stared up at the clear sky,
and saw nothing but dying stars.