“Princess Cosima and the Thousand Cats” by Sarah L. Byrne

The red palace was home to a thousand cats. Or so people said. Princess Cosima, twenty, beautiful, and bored, walked through the courtyards until she saw a lithe, sandy female sunning itself on the flagstones. She slipped into the cat’s mind and sent it prowling across the square, scrambling up the red stone wall onto a tiled canopy and darting over the battlements above toward the nearest tower.

Cosima followed at ground level, keeping her footsteps calm and measured as befitted a princess. She strolled between the orange trees and marble columns, silk slippers padding cat-soft on the warm stones, her long hair and the gossamer layers of her dress fluttering in the breeze.

Through the cat’s eyes, she saw the sandy expanse of the plains. The invading army massed there, rank and file midway through shifting into fragmented disorder. Far above the scented gardens, her cat-nose caught the smell of smoke and blood and dying.

Only her cat-self knew about these things: the blood and the smoke and the overwhelming numbers. It wasn’t thought necessary for a princess to be told such military details. We’re winning, her royal husband said, of course we’re winning (you silly girl). Don’t be afraid, princess, the guards reassured her, though that wasn’t what she’d asked, you’re perfectly safe here. Shiyam was different, but, well, they had other things but war on their minds when they were together. Only the cat-eyes showed her truth.

She saw the vast deep blue of the sky, a startling flash of colour in the grey cat-world. Seabirds wheeling white in the sunlight, the rocky mountainside falling away toward the sea, waves breaking over and over on the shore. Far out toward the hazy horizon, ships guarded the bay, their white sails emblazoned with her husband’s insignia. But then. . . .

Cosima stopped. Her cat-eyes stared, silent. Her girl-eyes blinked. There were dozens of figures, swarming up the steep winding paths from the hidden beach down there. Sunlight glinted on spear tips.

She let the cat come leaping back down from its high vantage point, landing lightly on one rooftop and then the next as it made its way down toward her. The cat stopped, poised on the edge of the scalloped roof tiles, and stared down at her. For a moment her cat-self looked at her girl-self, and then with an easy flick of her mind she let the cat go.

The transition made her momentarily dizzy, and she sat down quickly by the edge of the fountain, closing her eyes.

“Hey, princess girl? You’re all right?”

Cosima opened her eyes and looked up at the tall woman standing over her, black armoured, spear slinging, half-concerned smile, half-ironic quirked eyebrow, tough and tender all at once. Shiyam.

“I . . . I’m fine,” Cosima managed after a moment of disorientation.

“You sure? You look like you’ve had too much sun.” With Shiyam’s strong, steadying hand on her bare arm, Cosima tried to shake off the indolent cat-ness, her acute awareness of the smell of the purple bougainvillea spilling over the wall, the scent of Shiyam’s leather and warm skin as the guard sat down next to her. There was something important she had to say.

“They’re coming from the other way,” she said at last. “From the sea side. Does anyone know?”

Shiyam looked at her, startled, a half-smile lingering on her lips.

“You’re serious?” The smile faded into a puzzled look. “How would you know a thing like that?”

“I just do.” Cosima looked into her dark eyes. “Please, believe me.”

Shiyam frowned.

“Not likely they’d have got past our ships. And there’s supposed to be a watchman on that back gate. But it’s lightly guarded. . . .”

“It didn’t look right to me,” Cosima insisted.

“I’ll check it out,” Shiyam said. “I was headed that way anyway.” She got up, glanced back over her shoulder to make sure no one was looking, and kissed the tips of her fingers.

“Find some shade, sweet girl. I’ll be back.”

* * *

Cosima waited.

Waiting was what a princess did. You waited out your girlhood years for your marriageable age to come, all those frantic years when summer stretched before you like a lifetime. Waited for your royal husband to require your duties, then waited, with your body performing the practiced moves and sounds, until he was satisfied and slept. Waited through interminable ceremonies and banquets and audiences; guests, priests, dignitaries, supplicants, all parading past the face you’d carefully arranged for the occasion.

Waited, sometimes, for your handsome guard to come off patrol duty, stride down from the battlements with her skin salty and dark curls still warm from the sun, and sweep you off your silk-slippered feet in your chamber, all satin sheets and soft candlelit ripples in the bathing pool and whispers of something like love because it can’t be treason without a man. But mostly you just waited, until your mind started climbing the walls. A siege didn’t make so much difference to a princess’s life.

Cats did waiting better; the little sandy one was already curled asleep on the red-gold roof tiles. Cosima got up and paced around the little tree-lined square, trailed her fingers through the clear water of the fountain, stared up toward the towers again, the distant circling of the seabirds. She thought about reaching for the cat again. Thought about reaching for one of those birds, she’d never done that before, it had always been her languid cat companions. So far away, though. She didn’t know where to begin.

Then a crash of splintering wood, splitting the quiet air, distant shouting, running footsteps. Cosima jerked to her feet, her heartbeat suddenly thudding against her ribs, such an alien sensation it took her a moment to realise what it was. Then the clash of steel on wood. She froze as an arrow glanced off the pillar next to her, clattering on the tiles.

“Princess!” Shiyam came running back down the path, two more arrows stuck in the leather backplate of her armor. “Get down, now, get down!”

Cosima stared at her dumbly, unable to move, and then Shiyam slammed into her, tumbling her to the ground. The impact knocked the breath out of her, even with Shiyam’s arms wrapped around her. She didn’t see the last arrow hit. Only felt its tip graze her hair, gentle as a breeze, heard Shiyam’s soft little grunt of pain, felt the warm blood spilling over her cheek, welling in her ear.

“Wait here, princess, sweet,” Shiyam said, her voice distant and drowsy, like she was drifting into sleep. “Stay here, safe.”

Cosima didn’t know if Shiyam meant now, or if her mind was drifting back to their last conversation, but she stayed obediently still. She didn’t know what else to do.

“I’m sorry,” Shiyam whispered, a breath soft as down against her ear, and then she didn’t say any more.

Cosima was drenched in her blood, sticky all down the side of her face and matted in her hair. Twisting her head around, she could see the shaft of the arrow, thrust right through Shiyam’s neck, between her armor and helmet.

Cosima waited. She lost track of the minutes and the hours that passed, and she couldn’t see what was happening in the palace except that death and chaos had come. The sun rose high and began to sink again. Shiyam’s weight was still and crushing on her, and she wasn’t sure she could move her. Wasn’t sure she wanted to. But the palace was home to a thousand cats, or near enough. Reaching out, she found one.

* * *

The red stones were all shades of grey in the cat’s eyes, and the pools and rivers of blood were slickly black. The bodies of palace guards lay everywhere, pincushioned with arrows, run through with spears. And not just guards. The cat paused to nose at the body of the kitchen girl who’d given her fish bones just this morning, started to lick at the spilling mess of her belly before Cosima made her move on. The back gate (lightly guarded) was kicked and hacked into splinters, the great front gates unbarred and flung open from the inside now. Outside on the plains the army surged slow and distant toward the devastated palace, while inside enemy soldiers stalked the squares and colonnades, searching for survivors. The cat trailed after a group of them heading down toward the orange garden.

No, not there, her girl-self pleaded, the scent of oranges and bougainvillea mingling with the iron-salt blood taste in her every breath. The cat mewed, and one of the guards glanced her way but paid no notice. Cosima made the cat spring forward, claws out, raking at the man’s booted leg. He glanced down, aimed a casual kick at the cat. Its little body slammed into the wall with a sickening crunch, and Cosima flinched away from the pain and shrank back into her girl-body.

The men advanced on her, their footsteps all around. One of them leaned over her, so close she could feel his breath hot on her face. She lay still as Shiyam was, her eyes shut and gummed with drying blood, but she couldn’t keep from breathing.

“This one’s alive,” the man said, and her heart sank. She felt them haul Shiyam’s dead weight off her, knew what they saw: the fine silk, blue-gold, the silver, the jewels strung in her blood-matted hair. The royal insignia on the guard dead protecting her. They’ll never let me go. . . .

Cosima opened her eyes, stared up at the man crouching over her. Instinctively she tried to reach for his mind, felt him yield for a moment then, startled, push her violently back. She tried again, reaching for any of them in panic, all of them, she couldn’t focus, couldn’t do it. Shiyam, help me, she thought. Help me. And then. She slipped into Shiyam’s mind.

It was dark. It was nothing like the cats, just echoing trapping screaming darkness, and her princess-body lay shaking with horror on the ground and her mind reaching, running, searching. And then, there.

There was a little of Shiyam left. Just a spark, and Cosima reached for it, and then her Shiyam-eyes flicked open, her Shiyam-self was rising to her feet.

She was taller, the perspective almost made her lose her balance, and the weight of the armor was shocking, but she knew she was strong. The men were reaching for weapons, the one on the ground scrambling away from her but not fast enough, and her booted foot slammed into him, hurling him back. Shiyam’s spear swung around in her hand with practiced ease. She covered her Cosima-eyes with her hand, rolling over away from the horror. But her Shiyam-eyes were steady and her aim was true and the sharpened spear point found vengeance in the man’s throat, jamming up under his chin and out through his mouth. The other men were backing away.

Cosima stared up at Shiyam. The arrow had broken off and fallen to the ground, leaving the wound in her neck open and ragged. Her dark skin looked pale, drained, and her eyes . . . she turned those terrible eyes on the men, and they ran.

Shiyam yanked her spear free of the body on the ground and held out her hand to Cosima. She looked down at the frightened princess shivering in her blood-soaked dress. She looked up at the tall, strong guard with the dead eyes. For a moment Cosima didn’t know who she was. Then she reached up, grabbed Shiyam’s hand, and pulled herself to her feet. Remembering the army outside the gates, she reached out farther, and then all over the palace the black-armoured guards were rising and reaching for weapons. The invaders fled.

* * *

Cosima waited. Outside on the plains, a king waited, and his army regrouped and waited with him. Cosima heard the call of their horns splitting the cooling air, the herald’s voices crying out to her, but she did not go, and they would not come while death walked the palace. Cosima set her guards to watch the gates and man the battlements, sent a cat up to the tower roof again to inspect the carnage on the plains.

The ships out in the bay were burning, bright lines of fire on the darkening horizon. There were still no enemy ships in sight. Or are there? As the sun slanted over the water, she glimpsed the shape of them through cat-eyes, like ghost ships, just for a moment before they turned against the light and vanished again. Invisible ships? Cosima sent extra guards to the watch at the coastside gate. Then she walked the palace.

They were all dead, every last one. Her royal husband as well, in his bedchamber with a half-clothed servant girl sprawled over his lap. Cosima managed a faint smile at that, because otherwise she would have wept. She could hardly blame him, after all. She wondered if she could reach for him, for any of them, all of them. . . .

“Let them rest,” Shiyam said in her head, making her jump. She looked around and saw the guard woman standing silently in the doorway, watching her.

How does that work? Cosima wondered. I thought I was in your head, not you in mine. She pressed her fingers to her temples where her head was starting to ache.

She was thirsty, and she hauled water from the well herself, the crank handle blistering her soft hands, and drank deep. She went down to the kitchens, where flies buzzed around half-prepared dishes on the tables and stiffening corpses on the floor; despite the horror she was starving, and she picked hungrily at the meat and fruit and bread. Then she waited some more. Even the stones of the palace seemed to wait.

At dusk Cosima went through the wooden gate, through the meadow where wildflowers bobbed their night-closed heads in her wake, and up the hill to the elm wood, shady dark and foreign as she was here. She sat down between the sprawling roots of the largest tree, leaned her back against its solid, smooth-cobbled trunk.

“I’m tired,” she said. “So tired.”

“You have to stop,” the tree said. “You know that. You have to let them go sometime.”

“I don’t want to,” Cosima said. She closed her eyes. “I can’t. I need them.”

“You have to,” the tree said. “That’s the way life works, everything dies, it goes into the earth, it rots, breaks down, rich and dark, it feeds our roots. . . .”

“You won’t feed on Shiyam,” Cosima insisted. “She’s not dead. She talks to me. In my head, she talks to me.”

“That’s you,” the tree said. “They’re all you. Why do you think you feel so tired, spread so thin?”

“What about you, then?” Cosima asked. “Aren’t you just me?”

“What do you think?” the tree asked.

Cosima stared up through its leaves at the patterns the stars made. Somewhere in the darkness, a nightingale sang.

“I don’t know,” she whispered.

The tree let a slender branch sway gently in the night breeze and brush Cosima’s cheek softly with the tip of a leaf. She slept.

* * *

As the sun came up on the second day, Cosima rose from where she’d slept under the elm to find her body refreshed and her dead still watching.

You’d think they’d smell bad by now. They didn’t. Just salty, like blood or the sea, though they stood their posts as silent as the grave. Cosima shook off the damp and stiffness along with the leaves and twigs that clung to her, and went down to the palace.

In her bedchamber she stripped off the blue-gold gown and left it where it fell on the tiled floor. She climbed into the bathing pool and washed Shiyam’s blood from her skin, awkwardly without a handmaiden to help her, slid down to submerge her hair. When she was done, the water swirled red.

Cosima perfumed her neck and wrists, dressed herself in purest white, and, calling Shiyam to her side, walked out into the sunlight.

The king sat his horse before the gates, his heavily armoured guards all around him, the still-overwhelming ranks of his army massed at his back. His queen consort was beside him, tall and straight-backed in the saddle, with her red hair piled up in an elaborate style. Her face was arranged in a still, dispassionate expression.

“That one is dangerous,” Shiyam said in her mind, as both their sets of eyes looked back at the queen.

Princesa,” the king’s herald cried out. “Will you yield?”

Cosima stood perfectly still at the top of the great stone steps, said nothing. Shiyam was a dark, silent presence at her shoulder.

Princesa, your cities are occupied, your armies defeated, your royal husband dead. Your old-man king across the sea surrenders the land. Stand down now, and your life will be spared.”

“My life isn’t yours to spare,” Cosima shouted back, her voice nearly swept away by the wind. She pushed her hair out of her face. “My guards protect me.”

The group of leaders conferred briefly, and then it was the red-haired queen who rode forward, urging her horse right up to the foot of the steps below where Cosima stood. The horse shied away at the sight of Shiyam, but the queen kept her seat effortlessly, soothed the animal with a touch of her hand on its neck.

“Will you send your dead away, princess?” she asked. Her voice was deep and warm like honey. Cosima licked her lips.

“No,” she said.

The queen smiled.

“Come now. They’re frightening my horses. And my men.”

Cosima shook her head, feeling suddenly silly under the older woman’s steady, amused gaze.

The queen slid her leg over the saddle in a flurry of skirts, jumped down lightly to the ground. She let go of the reins, and her horse turned and bolted back to the ranks, where a guardsman ran to catch it. The queen paid no attention to the commotion behind her. She started to walk up the steps.

“Isabela!” the king called out in alarm, though he didn’t move. Some of the guardsmen shuffled their horses forward with nervous glances at their king, but a few steps only; they would go no farther. The queen Isabela smiled and kept walking.

Shiyam took a step to stand protectively in front of her princess, gripping her spear across her body. At Cosima’s feet, a little cat arched its back and hissed. Isabela glanced down at it as she came to the top of the steps, raised an eyebrow. She made a calming gesture with her hand, and the cat quietened like the horse had, sat down with its tail curled around its body.

Isabela walked right up to Shiyam. The queen wasn’t nearly as tall as she’d seemed; the imposing guard woman towered over her. But Isabela put her fingertips lightly on the spear shaft.

“Stand aside, brave one,” she said with quiet respect. “I mean your princess no harm.” Then with no more than her fingertips she moved Shiyam firmly aside, and looked Cosima in the eye.

“There, now, that’s the real you.” Her calm blue eyes looked into Cosima’s soul. “Now, hasn’t there been enough fighting here? Enough blood on these stones and this sand? Enough dying to last us all a lifetime?”

Cosima squeezed her eyes shut, feeling the hot tears stinging there.

“I won’t send them away,” she insisted, and she knew her voice sounded like a petulant little girl’s. A tear welled over her eyelid. They’re mine. They’re all I’ve got left.

“Well, then,” Isabela said. She reached up, gently wiped away the tear sliding down Cosima’s cheek. “We can build stables for the horses outside your gates. The men,” she glanced over her shoulder, “will just have to get used to the arrangement.”

* * *

The red palace was home to the living and the dead, and as many cats as ever. Sandy, tabby, black-white, and tortoiseshell, they roamed and hunted and snoozed like always, unperturbed by the corpses that walked, as indifferent to the undead as they were to the living.

It wasn’t just the men who were afraid. Isabela had brought her full entourage of handmaidens, plus enough servants to staff the kitchens and laundries and gardens; enough also to haul away the hundreds of bodies to their watery burial, to scrub an ocean of blood from stone steps and marble floors, or at least cover the stains with carpets or rushes, though the cats were never fooled.

“Why did you kill everyone?” Cosima asked one day in what used to be the prince’s suite. “Like the kitchen girls and the old man who picks the oranges, what did they ever do to hurt anyone?”

Isabela didn’t glance up from the papers she was flicking through at the big hardwood desk. The king was away, fighting a minor war in one of the border principalities. The queen ruled the red palace and its lands.

“It doesn’t do to have people spreading tales, fuelling dissent, creating bad feeling,” Isabela said. “It’s cleaner this way.”

Cosima nearly choked, thinking of the maid with the cat nibbling her guts.

Isabela sighed.

“You’re so young. You have to understand what we are trying to achieve, the king and I. A unified land. No more wars, no tribes and factions fighting each other, endless border disputes. Now, isn’t this way so much better?”

Cosima hesitated, struggling to think of an argument against that.

“There will be no difficulty in finding you another husband,” Isabela went on. “I’ll marry you to my second son, if you like.”

“I don’t want another husband,” Cosima said. “I didn’t really want the first one.”

Isabela looked up at last, meeting her eyes.

“I was betrothed at six,” she said. “That ended when two kings went to war. They tried to marry me again at fourteen, but the old man died on his way to meet me. I’ll spare you the details of the others, but in the end, it was my dear cousin just as I’d known from the start, the perfect alliance.” Her smile was delicate, perfectly arranged. “It’s odd, isn’t it, how things work out.”

Cosima shivered slightly.

“Don’t worry,” Isabela said, turning back to her papers. “You needn’t be married or bred if you don’t wish it.” She paused before dipping her pen delicately in the black ink again. “I may have another use for your talents, princess.”

* * *

Cosima strolled through the palace gardens by day, sliding briefly out of habit into the furtive presences of cats now and then, aware of Shiyam’s footsteps behind her. She was a captive, according to the official terms of the surrender, though it seemed unlikely the old king in exile would ever stir himself to ransom her, and she had the freedom to roam the palace as ever before, none daring to lay a hand on her while her dead guards stood watch. It was getting easier to be all of them, less tiring, even with a cat or two added to the mix. With little effort she could slip a little more into one or another of their existences as she chose. She could even pull a little of them into her own mind, let what spark remained of their beings walk in her princess-body and look through her eyes.

At night she slept in her old bedchamber as though nothing had changed. Shiyam stood guard at her door, needing no sleep. They’d tried, once, to pretend everything was the same as before—Cosima’s fingers fumbling at the buckles of Shiyam’s armor, her own silk gown slipping off her shoulders—but the chill of the other woman’s touch had made her shiver, and she’d stopped.

“This isn’t right,” Shiyam had said in her head. “It isn’t the same.”

“No,” Cosima had agreed. But I miss you.

As the days passed, the weeks, the months, the sun rose lower in the sky and leaves started to drop from the trees, skittering across the courtyards like the running of tiny feet. Cosima looked toward the mountains, snow-peaked, and thought of her childhood home far away. And she waited.

Then one night, after sunset and before moonrise, Isabela called Cosima to her private chambers.

“I know a man,” Isabela said softly, over tiny cups of steaming tea, “who says he knows of a new world, that he’s designing a ship like no other that can sail there. He wants my support, my gold to fund his voyage.”

Cosima cradled her cup, watched the other woman expectantly.

“My advisors say the idea is ridiculous.” Isabela glanced up suddenly. “What do you think?”

“Me?” Cosima blinked. “I . . . I don’t think anything.”

Isabela laughed.

“No. You haven’t been encouraged to, have you?” She patted Cosima gently on the arm. “Don’t be affronted, child. I know how princesses are raised and trained, and no one can blame a girl for being what the world made her. But the world is changing, little princess. So tell me, what do you think?”

“I think,” Cosima said after a moment, “you shouldn’t believe everything a man tells you. Especially when they want something from you.”

Isabela raised an amused eyebrow. “Indeed.” She stood. “But come, let me show you something.”

Outside the air was growing cool and damp, the white moonflowers blooming fragrant in the dark. Isabela took Cosima by the arm in sisterly fashion and led her along the winding paths of the rose gardens, pausing there to look up into the clear sky.

“What do you see?” she asked.

Cosima stared upward.

“The stars,” she said. “The constellations, I don’t know, darkness. Nothing.”

They walked on, up the spiral of stone steps to the observing tower. Cosima had never been up there before, never seen the intricate telescopes and timepieces and star maps arrayed under the glass dome. Isabela made her sit down before the largest telescope, showed her where to look. The dim light of the candle flickered on copper and glass.

“There, you see it?” Isabela asked.

Cosima peered through the lens, squinting one eye shut, stared at the sky.

“The red star?” She’d seen that one before, but not as close as it was through the glass, crimson glow against the black sky.

“The red world,” Isabela said. “He says it’s rich with rubies, red gold, and spices. Perhaps it is. Why else would it be so red?”

“Maybe it’s all red fire, burning like the sun,” Cosima suggested.

“You would think so. Though he says not, he says it’s cold enough to freeze the bones.”

“How does he know?” Cosima wondered.

“He has instruments, calculations.” Isabela shrugged. “He says none can walk there and live. So cold and no air to breathe.”

“My guards don’t need air to breathe,” Cosima said, the words tumbling out thoughtlessly. She stopped, looked at Isabela. “Oh.”

“Indeed,” Isabela said. She put a hand over Cosima’s, her touch warm and firm.

“Think on it, princess. This is no place for them.”

“I told you,” Cosima said. She pulled her hand free. “I told you, I won’t send them away.”

Isabela just nodded.

“The moon’s coming up,” she said lightly. She snapped the metal lid over the telescope’s lens. “We’ll see no more tonight. Go on, go to your bed now. It’s late.”

Cosima went. She hesitated a moment, glanced back at the top of the steps to see Isabela staring out at the moonrise, as though she’d forgotten her, as though she’d forgotten anyone else existed in the world.

* * *

“She’s seducing you,” Shiyam said in Cosima’s head as she lay awake in her chamber. “Secrets under the stars, midnight in the rose garden, she knows her way around you all right.”

“What?” Cosima sat up. “I don’t think so. She’s old enough to be my mother.”

“Not like that,” Shiyam said. “I mean, she’s seducing your mind. Making you believe in her, winning your trust. The motherly thing’s all part of it. You miss your mama, don’t you, wish she was here sometimes?”

“My mother’s dead. Has been for years, you know that.”

“Well,” Shiyam said. “Dead’s not what it used to be.”

Cosima lay down again, closed her eyes. But there was still moonshine through the open window, and burned on the surface of her mind was the deep red of that distant world.

* * *

Cosima hadn’t left the palace in two years, not since she was married. The sky seemed vast without the red walls to enclose her, and she stared around in mixed wonder and alarm as they made their way down the steps cut into the face of the cliff, down toward the seashore.

Stay here, safe—she remembered Shiyam’s last real words to her The guard woman stood at the top of the cliff, watching, waiting.

Cosima only glanced back at her once before she followed Isabela down onto the beach, where a man of middle years waited, dressed in plain black.

He bowed to Isabela and said, “My queen,” then turned to Cosima.

Principessa,” he said to her, simply, in her own language. Cosima hadn’t heard that word since her wedding day, since her mother kissed her goodbye, and for a moment she could almost smell the pine trees. “This way.”

The man led them around the corner to a hidden cove, their footsteps sinking into the damp sand.

“There,” he said, gesturing. Cosima looked.

It was a ship, but like no other she had ever seen. Its hull was near-spherical, half black and shining, half clear as glass, like an enormous bubble bobbing on the waves. The sails shimmered like silver, triangular, fanning out in a vast sevenfold array angled over the water.

“How does it work?” Cosima asked in wonder.

Principessa, you would not comprehend. . . .”

“Try,” she said.

He gestured toward the pale sky.

“Midwinter is coming, and every day our world is flying faster past the sun. And if at sunset on the shortest day this ship is running west with her sails full, then, princess, she will fly over the edge of the sea, the edge of the world, and sail into the void beyond. Then the heavenly breezes will speed her on her way to the red world.”

“That’s impossible,” Cosima said.

“Didn’t I make the invisible ships that stormed your red castle?” he asked. “Nine parts mirrors, and one part magic. And you’re one to talk about what’s possible, Cosima of the dead.”

Is that what people are calling me?

“Is this ship one part magic?” she asked.

“Nine and ninety parts,” he replied with a smile. “And the other part the metals and minerals courtesy of your good queen’s generosity.”

She isn’t my queen, Cosima thought. She shouldn’t be yours either. Bought and sold. But aren’t we all?

“I’ll think about it,” she said, then turned her back on the wondrous ship and made her way back up the beach toward the palace.

* * *

“I don’t know what to do,” she said to the tree, later. “I don’t want to send them away, that way she’s won. But I don’t know what I’m supposed to do with them. I can’t keep them here forever, can I? Like pets or slaves or something, it’s not right.”

“She’s already won, really, hasn’t she?” the tree replied. “Might as well do what you want to do.”

“I wish I could go with them.” Cosima was thinking of that wide open sky, the sea stretching endless before her. “I wish I could go somewhere.”

“You don’t belong here any more than we do,” the tree said. The others rustled softly in agreement. “If she’ll let you go, why not leave?”

“How would she stop me? But where would I go? Into a nunnery? Back home?” She imagined arriving at her father’s estate, trooping through the little white-stone village in the hills, down to the lakeshore villa with three dozen dead foreign guards in tow. She wasn’t sure whether the dark of their skin or the death in their eyes would cause more consternation. “I wouldn’t be able to take them, and I don’t want to leave them.”

Cosima almost heard the shrug, though a tree had no shoulders to shrug, no hands to spread wide. It was an expansive creaking of the branches, perhaps.

“You can’t have it both ways. You’re going to have to choose.”

“You’re not me,” Cosima said. She hesitated. “Are you?”

* * *

“Do you want to go?” she asked Shiyam that night.

“Kind of up to you,” Shiyam replied. “Do you want me to want to?”

I want it to be me and you, flying through the stars.

“Do you think I can trust her?” Cosima said instead. “What if she’s lying, it’s some trick to get me to send you all away?”

But she remembered the shining ship in the bay. That would be some elaborate deception. And the look on Isabela’s face that night, as she gazed at the red star in the sky. . . .

“One way to find out,” Shiyam said.

* * *

It felt like that first morning, walking out to face a king and his army. And finding a queen instead, with soft words instead of swords. But this time she was prepared.

Wrapped warm against the chill dawn air, Cosima strode the courtyards and colonnades to Isabela’s chambers, Shiyam at her back as always.

Princesa, wait!” One of Isabela’s guards tried to block her path as she approached. “The queen is still sleeping, please, wait. . . .”

Cosima kept walking, and the guards backed away at a glance from Shiyam.

Isabela wasn’t sleeping when they burst through her door. Or if she had been, she woke instantly, sitting up in the vast bed that had once belonged to a prince. Her eyes met Cosima’s, calm and alert.

“Well, princess?” she asked mildly.

Is there nothing I can do to surprise her? Cosima felt her face getting hot with embarrassment, anger. It didn’t help that everything about this chamber reminded her of the awkward fumblings of her wedding night.

And before she knew she meant to do it, she was reaching, pushing into Isabela’s mind, looking for the truth there. It wasn’t like a cat’s mind. It wasn’t like Shiyam’s dark emptiness, nor even the panicked rejection of the enemy soldier. Isabela let her in, invited her calmly, guided her down pathways and through open doors. And there was the truth. Isabela’s mind held hers, made her look at it.

Her wedding day, that high summer day that had gone past in a blur of heat and crowds, of red and gold and rose petals. The lord of a neighbouring province, presenting Shiyam to her husband. A female guard, trained like the best of them, what a rare thing. A gift. Who better to watch over your princess?

The lord who’d joined with Isabela and the king right afterward without a fight, the negotiations going back weeks, the arrangements, the plots.

She was always mine, Isabela told her, silently. Who do you think opened the gate?

No. It doesn’t make sense. Why would they kill her?

You know why.

“Stop,” Cosima said out loud. She wrenched her mind out of Isabela’s. “It’s not true.”

But she looked at Shiyam, standing there silent, and that look crushed the breath from her body like when Shiyam had knocked her to the ground before the tiny whisper of the arrow past her ear.

“I thought you were my friend,” Cosima said at last, her voice shaking. “I thought you were sworn to protect me.” I thought you loved me.

“I did.” Shiyam’s dark eyes were depthless, deathless. “Princess, didn’t I keep you safe?”

Cosima bit her lip, trying not to cry, she wouldn’t, not in front of Isabela.

“You’re not her. She’s gone. You’re just me.”

“I’m sorry,” Shiyam said, and Cosima heard it a breath before she spoke, soft as down in the breeze. She turned her face away and ran from them, from all of them.

Wildflowers brushed at her skirts, their petals wide open, fragile and unguarded in the afternoon sun. She went to her knees under the elm trees and beat her fists on the cold earth and wept.

“They can go,” she sobbed. The emptiness inside her ached like a bruise, like a kicked cat. “All of them. I don’t care. I should make them walk into the sea. She can drown in the empty sea, she can break her back digging rubies, freeze her bones on the red world and never come back. I can do that, I can take myself out of them, out of her, then they’re nothing but dead and I can wreck Isabela’s damned ship on that frozen world and she can kill me if she wants. I don’t care. I don’t care anymore.”

The tree said nothing. Of course it didn’t. It was just a tree. Cosima looked up, wiped the back of her hand across her face.

A single broad leaf fluttered gently down. She caught it, felt it crumble in her hand, dead and dry.

* * *

The palace was home to a thousand cats. Cosima picked one up and sat down on a cushioned bench with it in her lap. The cat squirmed and purred as she stroked its head with idle fingers. A thin wintry light slanted through the pergola above. Cosima watched the sky and waited for the sunset.

She owed that much to Shiyam. To the Shiyam who once was, the one who’d kindled her empty days with kisses and laughter and brought her a rose at midsummer and bled her life out on the red stones to save her at the end. And the one who was now, who guarded her silently day and night, and still had a spark of the old Shiyam in her, and. . . .

“You’re the other half of me,” Cosima said sadly. “The strong, brave half.” The half Shiyam had brought alive.

The cat squirmed in her lap and looked up at her with lazy golden eyes. Cosima found herself playing, pushing her awareness more into the cat’s mind and enjoying the sensation of her own caresses on its back, then pulling its cat-ness into her own mind and letting the animal feel the comfort of her cushioned couch, the silk of her gown against her skin. There, how do you like being a princess? Better than I do, I think.

The midwinter sunset was approaching fast, the pale sun dipping toward the horizon. Movement caught Cosima’s eye. She stood, holding the cat in her arms. The ship was skimming across the sea, the silver sails catching the last rays of the year’s sun.

There they go. And me here, waiting, always waiting.

Cosima felt something surge inside her.

“Keep this warm for me,” she murmured to the cat. Then she reached. She let herself fly. Out of her princess-body, leaving only a spark behind, diving into the strong Shiyam-body aboard the ship.

You and me, flying to the stars.

Where shall we go, princess?

She glanced back, once. The indolent princess was reclining comfortably on her couch again, a tiny Cosima-spark and a whole lot of cat savouring the last of the sun.

Maybe the red world. Maybe home. Anywhere we want. We don’t have to choose now. Let’s fly once around the world first.

The ship raced over the water toward the sunset, gathering speed, the red palace and the coastline vanishing in its gleaming wake. Then the sun dropped away into darkness and they were flying.

And a thousand stars flickered into life.


Sarah L. Byrne is a writer and researcher in London, UK. Her short fiction has appeared in various publications, including Ideomancer, Penumbra, and Daily Science Fiction. Sarah can be found online at http://sarahbyrne.org.

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