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Song of Autumn

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She slips away quietly, in the end.

He finds it odd, at the time and afterwards, what a strange contradiction it is for a woman so ablaze with fire and light to fade with such meek docility: for a creature who struck out countless lives with a white fist and a rod of steel, who broke her judgement upon the backs of those she judged unworthy, split the Town with blood and fire, to go quietly into the pale night with nothing more than a sigh. A woman like her.

He sits at her bedside as she dies and he holds her hand in both of his. She has long fingers, pale and strong, with square nails filed to neat crescents. There is a scar in the crook of flesh between finger and thumb where she cut herself on a piece of broken glass. He remembers the sound she made, an aborted, shuddering breath of shock; and then the scarlet rush of blood, almost luminous against her white skin, flowing silently over her palm and smearing the table with the whorls of her fingertips. He had bandaged it for her, for it was not a deep cut, and then sat beside her for a few minutes afterwards with his hand resting, just barely, on her crooked knuckles. She was always warm. He could see the pulse jumping at her throat, fluttering against the thin skin like a bird in a cage.

His hands are smaller than hers. She is cold and dry against his palm, smooth, unblemished as new snow. If he turns her wrist he can see the blue veins snaking up her arm, like lines on a map. He traces the rivers and estuaries with his fingertip, brushing the loose cords of her tendons, the sharp jut of bones pushing through her skin; but his hands are calloused, and he can hardly feel her. Perhaps it is the shaking.

He has watched her sleep many times, in this bed and elsewhere, running his eyes over the prominent edge of her jaw and the hollow of her eye socket and the glossy, glassy sweep of her black hair where it pools on the pillow. He has never himself been a man endowed with the blessing of sleep: he wakes multiple times in the night, startled into consciousness by shadows in the dark, and rises with the first warmth of the sun when he can no longer withstand the sepulchral stillness. Eternal tiredness is something he has learned to endure. He is used to the heaviness of the eyelids, the pressing weight on his brain and behind his eyes, the sluggish lethargy of his body. He cares very little for it; but greater Kains than him have made graver sacrifices, and the complaints he has he does not voice.

On their wedding night—it had been cool, that day, with pale clouds painting the sky and dead leaves dancing in the air, smelling of sweet rot and earth—she had seized his hand and pulled him onto the bed, this bed, and crashed her lips against his with a hot, startling urgency. She tasted of twyrine and chestnuts, and her teeth had clattered against his, her lips soft and slightly chapped, the milky velvet of her jaw against his own rough cheek. His brothers had told him what to expect of a woman. Their descriptions were clinical and precise, and they unsettled and repulsed him, these pictures they painted; and he felt it then, as her hands wandered over the bare skin of his throat and his leg where it pressed against hers, that same unease, the cold hollowness in his gut where he knew there should have been blazing, burning heat. There was enough fire in her for the both of them. That was what he kept telling himself, anyway.

“Do you believe in soulmates?”

She had a beautiful voice. It was deep and thick, like heavy cream, but slightly hoarse: the colour of cherries. When she spoke, people listened. He was always glad of that, because it gave him an excuse not to speak. His own voice beside hers was like the whisper of leaves amidst the raging storm, pale and insubstantial, much better suited to reading aloud before the fire than speech-making.

“Soulmates?”

“People drawn together by fate,” she said, leaning back in her chair and resting her chin in her hand. Her hair was slightly damp, coiling in twisted rivulets over her shoulders, like black serpents. He thought that she was the most beautiful woman in the world. “Souls whose threads are woven in the same stitch. This is the ultimate focus of your family, is it not?”

She was teasing him. He smiled, setting his book down on the arm of his chair.

“In some ways, yes. However, I believe my brothers would be somewhat offended if you were to suggest that the raison d'être of the Kains is proving the existence of soulmates; they tend to see themselves as champions of a rather greater cause.”

She laughed, a throaty thing which made fondness bloom like a delicate flower in his chest. Here and now, he loved her; he loves her. Her legs were crossed at the ankle, feet bare.

“There are many reasons I married you and not your brothers, Vitüsha. There is no greater cause than this. I know that you understand.”

Her smile was like the setting sun in its light, aflame in her white face, filling the room with its searing radiance. He felt that if he reached out and touched her—laid his fingers against her arm, brushed his knuckles along her cheekbone—she would burn him like a white-hot brand.

She does not burn him now. Now, her skin is cold and still, and his hands ache where they clasp hers.

He watches her, her sleeping face, the grey pallor of her cheeks, the bruised eyelids curving over those blazing eyes, the veins snaking darkly up her neck. He bends at the waist, curving his body over this pale point of contact, this interweaving thread. There is a crack in his breastbone, and as he sits beside the bed it splinters, like a dropped wineglass, with the sound of a breath. He clutches her hand.

*                         *                         *

He mourns Simon, like any brother would. They tell him his body is twisted and mangled, neck broken, drained of blood and left empty and blind where he fell; and he imagines it, pictures his brother’s suffering, the creeping mortality against which he so long struggled—stealing across his eyes, perhaps, like the shadow of sleepless nights which still find him pacing his study, running his fingertips over the spines of the books on his shelves, pressing his palms against his eyes to stem the crushing tide of claustrophobia. He is too tired to think, these days. Perhaps it is a good thing he was never famed for his intelligence. ‘Understated’, as Nina always put it. Understated in everything.

The thanatologist from the Capital arrives, and he speaks with him, listing the details of Simon’s death with the detachment of decades of practice. Bachelor Dankovsky is small and handsome, with dark hair like his own and restless hands. He likes him. He makes a nice change from the uniform consistency of his family—though there is comfort in consistency, and he knows this better than anyone. He tells Dankovsky what he knows, and Dankovsky listens, and once he has gone—to talk with Georgiy, first and foremost, to be subjected to whatever exposition his brother thinks appropriate—he stands for a moment, one hand on his desk, staring blankly at the empty doorway.

“It is your imperative, Victor,” Simon said.

He rubbed a hand across his face. The air was like thick treacle, heavy with twyre, heady as spirits. Simon’s voice always came from deep in his chest, a bass rumble so unlike his own. “My prerogative, you mean.”

“No,” Simon said, fixing him with his ice-water stare. “It is your responsibility. The fate of our family rests upon your shoulders, however atrophied you believe them to be.”

“It’s not about atrophy,” he said, blinking away the black ache at the corners of his eyes. “It’s a question of proclivity.”

“And do you not have a proclivity towards continuing the ancient name of our family?”

The children called him Grandpa Simon. He often saw them stop him on the street, small hands clutching at his trouser legs, pulling his shirt, showing him things they clasped in dirty hands. The sight always made something painful seam his chest, some tight knot of longing, pressing hot against his heart.

“It’s not about that,” he said wearily. “I don’t expect you to understand.”

“Remember your duty. Remember your allegiances, Victor. This is a matter of far greater importance than whatever proclivities you may or may not have.”

It was no surprise that he loved the children from the moment they were born. He held their tiny hands in his great knotted ones and stroked his thumbs across their foreheads, brown skin on smooth white, his touch as gentle as the beat of a butterfly’s wing. It felt almost shameful to see it, to witness this tenderness, this great sequestered well of love just barely contained in the brush of his old hands; that he, their father, should feel so apart, standing on the side-lines like a spectator to these woven souls.

Simon would lift his eyes, every now and then, looking away from the faces of his brother’s children to meet their father’s gaze. Was he imagining the accusation there? The judgement, concealed so adeptly it could be prised loose only by one who knew him so well?

He visits Nina.

“So the thanatologist thinks it was the disease again,” she says from the air around him.

“Yes, the Sand Pest,” he responds. “He does not believe it was murder.”

“And do you believe him?”

He stares at the wall, at the lines of Focus, the shape of Nina upon the air like a heat-haze. His head aches. “I think that I do.”

“You trust his judgement?”

“He is unbiased in matters concerning our family. From what I can tell, he is not a man inclined towards deception.”

He cannot see her, but he feels her dissatisfaction. The expression she would be wearing is clear enough, feels real enough, that he reaches a hand out to touch her, letting it hang in the air as if to cup her face. If he focuses, he can almost feel her skin against his.

“I have lost my brother,” he says aloud. “I did not think that I would live to see the death of another person I loved.”

“You are young yet,” Nina says, and he feels—imagines he can feel—the warmth of her palm against the back of his hand. “You have many things for which to live.”

He smiles. It pulls the muscles of his face, the lines carved around his mouth, far deeper than they ever were when she was alive. She never knew him this gaunt. “I am not so young anymore, my love.”

“Yet still so handsome,” she says, and he laughs, leaning into the hand which cradles his face, closing his eyes against the empty space before him.

They do not bury Simon. They cannot, not after what Stanislav Rubin does to him, not after his pieces are torn and scattered and boiled down to vapour. It is a form of closure. Unconventional, yet adequate—for him, at least. He knows of Georgiy’s plans.

The children grieve, and he watches them from the Crucible, so small in these haunted streets, untethered without that great, bright soul to orbit. He always was like Nina, in a way. Two points of light flickering in the empty sky.

*                         *                         *

When she was born, he held her tiny, swaddled body in his arms and looked upon her crumpled face, her wet tangle of dark hair, little hands waving over the blankets, and he knew that he would never again feel more love than he felt at that moment.

She looked like her mother, just like her mother, down to the almond-shaped eyes with their thick lashes and the curve of her nose, the soft curl of hair above her ear, the delicate fingers. She was the most perfect thing he had ever seen. He held her against his heart and pressed his lips to the top of her head, feeling her warmth, the fragile smell of her, pale as bone-china, just like Nina. His Maria.

In the summer, when the sun was warm and the herbs were fragrant, he took her on walks in the steppe. He held her hand and they wandered together through the dry grass, the earth beneath them and the endless sky above, listening to the sounds of the tiny creatures which slept in the deep and breathing soil. She was an intelligent child; fiercely so: a voracious reader, good with her hands, quick to learn and quicker to question. They spent hours together in his study, poring over books she picked out on the woollen rug, her small fingers tracing the words as she sat with her tongue between her teeth and her eyebrows furrowed in a very familiar expression of intense concentration. It made him laugh, just how much she was like Nina. As if she had been reincarnated in this small body, a part of her soul broken away to live as this bright-eyed child; as if she had been born again. It is something he cannot help thinking about, after.

Her brother is born, and he holds him as he held her and feels the same love, that bounding crescendo in his chest, blazing in colours he cannot name. He watches his children from the steps of the Crucible, their idle play filling the air with laughter, and he feels something in his chest that could be happiness. It is warmer than anything he has ever felt, a balm upon his heart, soft as summer sand.

The Kains have a reputation for many things. Happiness is not one of them.

The mother, the son, the brother. The pieces fall away in time, shards and splinters, breaking upon the earth like raindrops.

“It’s sooner than I imagined,” Maria says.

“It always is.”

Her mirrors are broken. He looks at his face, reflected back at him a thousand times, his own shattered skull. Tiredness throbs behind his eyes.

“I thought I would have more time,” she says. She has been facing away from him, but she turns now, the fabric of her dress rustling in the stillness. “I wish I could be sure—”

She stops. He remembers, not for the first time, that she is barely a child; that her womanhood is a mere formality, an empty label, a culmination of the hours she has passed upon this earth. The thought makes his chest clench, and he looks away from her, down at his own hands. They are trembling slightly. He lets them fall to his sides.

“Father?”

She is watching him with her great dark eyes, those mirrors into the soul of her mother, and yet it is not Nina who looks back at him. There is fear there, and uncertainty; and the sudden flood of emotion he feels, indefinable but as strong as a crashing wave, makes him cross the room and lay his hands on her shoulders. She is cold beneath his hands, her throat bare. He shrugs off his jacket and wraps it around her, smoothing it over her arms, tucking a stray lock of black hair behind her ear. She does not shy away.

“He doesn’t love me,” she says.

“Who doesn’t?”

“Bachelor Dankovsky.”

She is biting her lip, and the expression is so familiar he feels his breath catch. She is a child, just a child.

“And do you love him?”

“I don’t know,” she says. “I don’t know what I feel.”

He smiles. It is a fragile and painful thing. “I wish that I could tell you.”

“When you met Mother—” She hesitates, and the sound of the rain outside, drumming against the roof like the rattle of a gun, is suddenly loud in the silence. It has been raining for eleven days now. The Gorkhon will soon burst its banks, the filthy water overflowing onto the dead-choked streets.

“I did not know straight away,” he finishes for her. “It was a long time before I knew.”

“What made you realise?”

He hears the desperation in her voice; the plea for an answer. His little girl.

“I spent time with her,” he says. “We would walk together in the Capital and talk about the things we believed mattered in the world. She enjoyed music, so we would go to concerts. I enjoyed art, so we would go to galleries. We both liked watching the stars come up over the river. One day, when we were walking in the park together, a bird landed nearby. She watched it as it flew away, and I realised I loved her.”

“And that was it?”

“That was it. I loved her from that point onwards.”

The shards of broken mirror flash white at the corner of his eye, like ripples in a sunlit pool. Maria pulls his jacket around her, huddling into its soft wool, seeking the warmth he does not have. She seems so far away already. He is half afraid she will disappear if he shuts his eyes, falling away into the dark, like ash on the wind.

*                         *                         *

They are going to destroy the Polyhedron.

They have made their decision, the ones at the Cathedral. They have decided, and now they stand grouped on the tiles outside like a funeral reception, clustered together in the weak sunlight. Block, Aglaya Lilich, the little Changeling, Burakh’s hulking son, the hunched and hollow-eyed Bachelor. His daughter.

Georgiy has spoken to them. Georgiy has heard their decision, and relays it to his brother with a voice as insouciant as if he were informing him of the next day’s weather; as if the news does not carve a white streak of fire through his heart, a burning brand, so sharp it makes him stagger and grip his desk for support. The Polyhedron.

He makes his preparations as if watching himself from above. He has never been a large man; indeed, he has always been on the smaller side, skinny and narrow in body and face in a manner which does not often endear him to those who value strength and power. He is lucky that those with whom he tends to mingle are of a rather different crowd. He sees himself, now, as the man he is: white-faced, drawn, with purple bruises beneath his eyes and hands which shake as he does up the top button of his shirt, alone and unhurried in his quiet study.

The air seems to thicken, blistering his skin. There is a sound like a soft exhalation.

Not so alone, then.

He leaves the Crucible with a detached sense of calm, closing the door carefully behind him, and breathes in the scent of twyre on the air as he stands a moment on the top step. The rain has stopped at last. It is almost warm.

The courtyard is deserted but for the incongruous committee lingering beneath the Cathedral’s buttresses. His footsteps are loud on the cobblestones, each pace ringing across the empty square like a marble in a cup. The sun is gentle on his face.

They watch him approach, six pairs of eyes blinking against the light, as though emerging from a shared trance; as though he is a spectre walking in corporeal planes, breaking upon their private performance with the forthright impudence more characteristic of his brother. The silence is almost unnerving after the relentless cacophony of the past twelve days.

“You are going to destroy the Polyhedron,” he says. It is not a question, nor is it directed at any one of them; but they all make some individual sign of affirmation, heads bowing with the burden of their collective exhaustion. It is something they have in common.

“What is going to happen to the children?”

He keeps his voice level as he speaks, but he sees Maria’s eyes narrow, the sun catching her hair as she shifts against the backdrop of stone and glass.

“They are being evacuated as we speak,” Block responds. He has a voice like an unloaded cannon, heavy and iron, tolling like a bell in the timeless space.

He nods. He has nothing more to ask. He turns on the spot and walks away, leaving them all behind, his daughter who calls, “Father—” as he retreats, walking with a firm purpose in every step and a beating in his chest, a beating, a beating, in time with his heart.

It is not the first time he has walked this path. He has traced it every day, without fail, in the sun and the rain and the snow, in the baking summer and the frost of winter, in his health and his sickness. In the pall of the night he leaves the Crucible and walks alone.

In a few hours, it will all be over. In a few hours, the utopia will be broken against the earth like a fallen body, and the Kains will fade with the dawn. This night, at least, they can watch the stars.

The last of the mist clears, the subtle haze of morning burned away with the midday sun, and he sees it clearly at last. It is a thing of awe. It always has been. The heavens cradle it like a sleeping child, caressing its lines and angles, the whole jagged body of it, brittle and bare against the yawning sky.

Every night for years he has looked up at this great creature. He has stood at its lonely base and watched it curve away into the sky, fragmented and fractured, like broken clockwork. Silent. If he did not know better, he would say that it was empty. Perhaps, if he thought otherwise, it would not hurt so much.

He has reached the bridge. It is only when he has stopped before the river, held back as if by a wire from crossing the rushing waters, that he sees them. The children.

They are descending the stairs in groups of two and three, uncertain, toeing each step as if afraid it will fall away beneath them, blinking and shielding their eyes against the watery sunlight. If he cranes his neck, he can see dozens of them, hundreds, making the slow descent like soldiers returning home, shuffling, flinching, exposed at last to the harsh light of day.

He scarcely has the chance to begin to search, prepared to count every child in that infernal structure, every boy and girl, every small, grubby face, because he is there. He is the first down from the steps, the first foot on solid ground, clad in brown boots he does not remember, has never seen before: an outfit that is entirely new, a boy that has not changed at all. A boy. His boy. His son.

He has started to run without realising it, taking great strides across the bridge, the wires broken; and he sees him notice, sees his head turn, the eyes widening, the mouth spelling a word that has torn at his heart for years and years and which he hears now as if for the first time, this word he has wanted more than anything else to hear, this face he has wanted more than anything else to see; and he is running too, leaving his crowd of children behind, and they crash together in the middle of the bridge, this beautiful boy, this long-lost child, his son, his son, his son.

He is shaking against his chest. He wraps him in his arms and presses his face into his neck and takes a great, shuddering breath, a sob for which he feels no shame, fisting his hands in the back of his shirt and holding on tight.

The stone is cold beneath his knees. He hears, distantly, the sound of the Gorkhon. The wind sighing on the steppe.

“Khan,” he says. It comes out broken. The crack in his chest makes it hard to breathe.

His son makes a sound that could be a laugh. There are tears in his voice as he says, “You know my name.”

“I know it,” he says. “I know you. My son. My Khan.”

Khan lets out a rushing breath, and he feels the tears, wet against his collar, as they begin to fall. He pulls him tight against his chest and feels his son do the same, his little boy, his brave young man, and he buries his face in his neck and closes his eyes. The sun is warm across the steppe. It won’t be long before the stars rise.