Breath & Shadow
A Journal of Disability Culture and Literature
Breath and Shadow
Volume 14 Issue 2
By Kayla Bashe
Barring mistakes, this is what Nazdeha consumes each day:
Seaweed. Green. Two cups. Chewed ninety times per bite.
Five mountain grapes. Red. Chewed thirty-four times each.
Seaberry juice. Orange as a salamander, bitter as bile. One whole damn glass.
The Hive play a game to test the moral acuity of their leaders. In their flat, monosyllabic language, it is called Consequences.
The rules are simple:
One player offers something they are willing to relinquish. The other counters with an offer of slightly higher value. This exchange continues until one player is forced to wager something- a province, perhaps, or a memory- they do not wish to lose.
At this stage all items are destroyed. It is not mandatory for the loser to be killed afterwards, however. The players may bet anything except their lives.
In the university district of Summerhall, where Nazdeha First of Flames once lived, a version of Consequences is now popular. The forfeits are much more lighthearted than eyesight or provinces; offering one's favorite mint plant or a barrel of pomegranates, offering to relinquish the touch of a lover so that one spends weeks aching with desire.
Nazdeha's program of study included transgressive linguistic unlocking, applied pattern craft, and elementary sword-dance. It is popular knowledge that students in these seminars will not play the Hive's games- even in lust, even in jest.
The Hive have no concept of homeland. They believe that everything is inherently Hive territory. Wherever their seven-toed feet touch becomes ancestral ground, and they will write polyphonies of lamentation when a no-longer-colonized country pushes them out.
They have no concept of national dress or insignia, such as the cyclamen-embossed golden buttons on Nazdeha's indigo coat. Drones, even aging ones, wear sheer fabrics to display the male perfection of their bodies. Workers and breeding stock are covered from head to feet; they will never be as lovely as the Queen.
They would never, as Nazdeha does, arrange express passage for the secret purpose of being buried at home. They do not long for the way the blue sea kisses the shoreline. They play Consequences for the sake of statistics, of numbers and empire.
Nazdeha sacrificed pieces of herself and her country to that inexorable ocean to keep blood from staining the gold-copper sand.
Parliament sends her away from the front line. But even though she's stowed in an underground bunker, the war creeps in.
The club by the pier has barstools decorated with sea glass, with opalescent shells as small as a thumbnail. It's where Naftali promised to sew her wedding dress if he could sleep on the couch until the museum assembled his paycheck, where Maye drank so deeply that she forgot how to speak and sang all night instead. She saw her first fire-eater there. Touched a woman's chest for the first time in the bathroom cubicles with their blown-glass lights.
Two weeks after the funerals, she hears about the raid. The Hive has tightened their laws. One curfew-breaker, one bullet. Even establishments that paid their protection fees to the occupation are no longer safe. She longs to lay stems of cyclamen on every grave. But nowhere above ground is safe from bombs.
There are others who can match her speed at processing data and analyzing patterns. Detecting the hidden enemy base amongst twelve miles of scrubland, or the one food-adulterer among a hundred supply contractors. But no one else can think laterally enough to synthesize every piece of information and outsmart the inhuman Hive.
She will be stored in this rectangle of artificial light until the war ends or she dies, and sometimes she has doubts about which will come first. In this bunker she has a thousand glyph-carved hands, a thousand swarming eyes of wire and quartz. Attendants coax her away from the enchanted crystal screens, tuck her into bed, pour chicken soup and aloe water down her throat. (Alya is with the troops. Nazdeha doesn’t know her location, hasn’t received an uncensored letter in months, and even the sweetest words of love lose their power to comfort when pinned down in ink.) In spare moments she works on devising a formula:
With the current rate of explosions and casualties, how long until I lose every place and person I care about?
She can only answer this postulate with another query:
What will remain of me when everything I love is gone?
The Hive's seed-ships carry all that is needed to clone a new hive. A queen embryo is in the innermost cryogenic chamber, so that even if the ship's mechanisms are lost, if the blood slurry putrefied, the Queen will not be wasted. Surrounding her are her bearers. If resources permit, she will eat and regurgitate parts of their organs to gift them the capability of bearing life.
The ship has no crew except for the spindly metal creatures known as dragonflies. The name is perversely accurate; they fly on pale veined wings and spit chemical fire. When the ship lands, they become weapons. They devour metal to produce more of their kind. A dragonfly is two times the height of an average human male, or two point five times the height of a Nazdeha First of Flames.
Nazdeha takes no bed-partners, but she does not sleep alone. Memories weigh the mattress beside her, reminding her of what she has bargained. What she has lost.
The outlines of hammock and sea-chest are fuzzy in the darkness; her eyesight, unrecovered.
She has never noticed before that she sweats in her sleep. The sweat freezes her tunic to her chest and seeps into the fabric, making it reek. Her goatskin mat is drenched with this seawater cold. At university she never slept alone under her quilt during the winter. Alya was always there to keep the rain, the shivering, from seeping in.
Officially, the First of Flames has gone home to recover. Perhaps it would be better if she had gone home to die.
Nazdeha the heroine.
Nazdeha the bargainer.
Nazdeha, maker of sacrifices.
Nazdeha, who played by their rules.
The people do not know what to call her. She does not wish to name herself.
“Please, Nazdeha. We need you now that the war is over,” says Akko Third of Songs, twisting his graying braids. Countering the Hive's campaign of falsified atrocities has lined his face; he is no longer the bright-eyed musician of university parties. Now he is the Assistant Minister for Culture, and his talents are turned to government-commissioned rhymes. With all the memorial chants and rebuilding polyphonies to be written, she marvels that he can be spared.
“You do not need a butcher to play midwife to camels.”
It is a particularly old and provincial saying; she takes great pleasure in using it, as much as she can feel anything now. Her stomach is a drum for hunger to play.
“Parliament needs your intelligence. You could help us transition out of rationing.”
I have been all our nation's armies. I have been the battlefield of planets. What sort of game-player expects a pawn to survive a gambit? Why did you send me to set out consequences for the Hive if you wished me to live?
Instead she says,
“I want to sleep.”
His gaze fixes on her, as watchful as an ibex. “Nazdeha, I say this as a representative of our government: you will not be permitted to die. And I say this as your friend: if I have to order you force-fed, I will not flinch.”
“Of course. I’ll make sure to eat. I’ll rejoin you in the capital within the month.”
She dreams, again, of seagulls flying through a moonless night. This foretells death.
The advance order to evacuate the factory she had planned to sacrifice was delayed due to electrical grid malfunctions. Ninety workers died in the explosion, many the sole support of their families.
Upon careful review of her charts two weeks after the game, a village with an identical value profile under the rules of Consequences was discovered. It had thirty-four fewer inhabitants. Alya hated seaberry juice, too.
On this diet, she will be able to starve herself to death while keeping her stomach full; maximum decline, minimum pain. Akko has received false news of her recovery. As long as she continues forging letters to High Command, possibly pursuing a fraudulent diagnosis of poisoning, no one will pry further into her seclusion.
The game did not become easier after the round of senses, but it simplified considerably. Having fewer senses than the Queen, the Hive believed she would be put at a disadvantage. This was not true.
She had no longer to search an expressionless face for some twitch of humanity, some tell of sentiment that all analysis told her would not be there. She no longer saw the dragonflies towering above her, ready to shoot in case her ceremonial greatcoat contained some assassination dagger within its buttons of carved gold. Drool still dropped from pale mandibles, but she felt no disgust. The Parliament's doctors were able to save most of her sight after the game was done. Text and boundaries are blurry, but colors are clear; with the aid of a specialized printing press, she manages most of her own correspondence.
At dawn the country of Nazdeha's birth is beautiful. The sun breaks hibiscus-pink over the mountains, making the waterfalls sparkle.
She will die here.
Everyone loves to research their epigenetic profile. Many say it is of less use than casting star charts. Not every Third of Songs wishes to be everywhere at once, or is struck by sudden inspiration. Not every Second of Waves feels at home in a crowd.
But she is a First of Flames entirely.
The first facet of her profile: outward fire. Righteous destruction.
The shadow, or "splintered" face: inward fire. The guttering embers choking on fumes.
The fever that slaughters the patient before the disease.
First of Flames orators can peel apart the oppressive rhetoric of empire- and the skin from their fingers. They can uncover evidence to free the unjustly imprisoned- but linger within the confines of their own homes for months, convinced that everyone is watching them.
Nazdeha advanced in the strategic ranks not only because of her incomparable genius, but also because of her comparative mental stability. A psychological profile showed that she only gave into episodes of self-loathing during off-duty hours.
Alya was a reporter, and had served with Akko in the song swarm, improvising fluid nets of poetry to steer people's thoughts. She never flinched at Nazdeha's first-of-flames fragility, at the genius and self-sabotage that- even with care and medication- were two sides of her linage's genetic coin.
Near the end of the war, both tendencies had been at their height. Nazdeha stayed up past midnight reading speeches by her enemies and rivals, how her epigenetic type made her unfit to lead. Alya would sheathe the house's solar panels and coax her to bed.
Morally, objectively, Nazdeha knows she stopped further bloodshed by challenging the Queen to single combat. Except she is objective only in her evaluations of others. And the Queen congratulated her on her brutality over the sound of Alya's dying screams.
“Do not think yourself too exceptional. I have played rounds before where the final sacrifice was a single piece. An exceptional general, or a breeding female of especially favorable qualities. But…”
Her mandibles clicked as she contemplated her next sentence.
“…never someone that the player claimed to love. Your capacity for cruelty is unparalleled, First of Flames, and your savagery astonishing. I do not think I shall make war on your people again.”
One of her many hands rested on Nazdeha’s shoulder for a moment, a touch light as breath.
She spends the hours before dawn awake, feeling her intestines writhe fruitlessly, her limbs tangled in sweat.
I should be eating. I need to ask for help. I am a fool.
These moments pass, and an old refrain slips back in: irredeemable Nazdeha, who used her madness to murder. Worse than the Hive. When one knows the distinction, the taste of saltwater differs subtly from that of tears.
Two women share a bed.
“Nazdeha,” Alya murmurs. Her hands, strong and sure, move to cup Nazdeha's breasts.
“Tell me what you are.”
“I am a First of Flames,” she says reflexively.
Alya has only ordered her to remove her undergarments and her greatcoat, but without the tools of her office- quill, ceremonial dueling blade- she already feels stripped bare.
“No,” Alya tells her, kissing her hair. “You are the first of my heart.”
The energy between them forms rippling circles, resonating with the forcefield that protects the city from bombs. Nazdeha's world becomes a fractal as they float together on an ocean of breath.
Nazdeha begins to chew another bite of seaweed. She counts mouthfuls and pieces. She presses against her wide window overlooking the ocean, wraps a knit alpaca blanket around her shoulders.
She is entering the first phase of incipient starvation; even sunlight cannot warm her. Her bowel movements will decrease even as her thirst rises. Surely her own body's deterioration will not be more awful than the aftermath of a battlefield. Of a massacre.
A cart rattles by outside her window: a local merchant bringing food to the soldiers' recovery home.
Survival instinct surges within her, so powerful she has to wrap her arms around her stomach until it ebbs. Go out to him, the instinct screams. Show him your meal allocation card. Request roasted fish. Request goat's yogurt with pomegranate compote. Request fried chickpeas coated with zaatar. Eat until you can sleep without aching, until your muscles are nourished enough to remember arousal. Eat until I, your body, feels safe. Nazdeha First of Flames does not feel safe.
Kindness banks the inward fire. It is the first precept for survival when you are a First of Flames: treat yourself as you would behave towards a respected ally. Lengthen your terms of treaty with your body and extend your life. It would be easy to give in to the demands of her stomach. But she did not listen when Alya begged to die rather than undergo further torture, and this fact outweighs all the rest. The necessity of her punishment seems so achingly clear.
Nazdeha is only an elementary-tier duelist. She cannot compensate for the way hunger makes her feel like a seed tossed on the wind, without clarity of thought to weigh her down. At night, the edges of chairs become a cloudy blur. Dizziness combines with confusion, and she trips on the edge of her blanket and stumbles into a cabinet.
Something bounces on the wooden floor, coming to a stop near her feet. It’s smooth and cool, with one curved edge: a crystal. By starlight, she can just make out the rainbow sheen on its surface. It's imprinted with a message.
What did Alya want to say before her death?
After a moment of indecision, she strokes its surface. A miniature image of Alya appears in the air.
“Nazdeha, I know that you love me more than poetry or a successful revolution. Every time I see you it is as if I have broken fast after a full week of prayer, and what else do I need to sustain me when I know you are mine? When I die, I will go to the Drowned Goddess in her palace of mist. She will invite me to the sword-dance and ask me to account for my betrayals. I will tell her I have never been betrayed. That I died serving my country. If you join me in spirit intentionally- if you force yourself to dwindle away before you are old and fat and successful with a score of foster-children- I will never forgive you. Promise you won't hurt yourself on account of my death, and I will stay at your side. This message has been imprinted through the breath of Alya Third of Mountains. Peace around me, joy within me..."
Nazdeha watches the imprint again and again. On the third repetition her damaged eyes begin to ache. She closes them and lets the words caress her like clean wind.
Later, she excavates a pack of stasis-rations from under her bed. The time lock has decayed somewhat; they are no longer preserved at the moment of purest freshness. She is hungry enough not to mind cold dumplings, or the too-warm cucumber soup in the package after that. It is nearly dawn by the time her stomach feels content.
In the half-light, she sinks back against her pillows and strips off her nightgown. Her hands slide over her belly as she begins to relearn the body that Alya once touched.
Here is what Nazdeha realizes in a moment of post-orgasm clarity: Alya could have lied.
In Consequences, different personal sacrifices can be combined for higher levels of importance. She could have sacrificed one lover or three close friends or a hundred innocent strangers. But only the first gesture would have horrified the Hive and confounded them into keeping their promises. (Or so the spies said, at least.)
So: one terrible and gentle lie, recorded in the event of her death, in exchange for Nazdeha beginning to eat again. One martyr's promise papered over a soul crackling with bitterness, and Nazdeha contributes to the war recovery effort instead of wasting away. Alya is clever enough to have planned it. She might have. Not for Nazdeha- not for the woman who betrayed her. For the country she loved.
Two truths, balanced evenly on a knife's edge.
Akko and Nazdeha stumble along the uneven street, feet catching on cobblestones. The stars are a desert coronet over their heads, and stray cats skitter from their paths. At this time of night, only students and scavenging animals wander the roads. Nazdeha is floating on sips of pomegranate liquor. Akko sings his newest song, the words coming like water down a mountain stream.
“What's it about?” Nazdeha asks.
“It has lyrics,” he points out. “Weren’t you listening?”
She just shrugs. “You were singing so quickly. Everything’s going by quickly, come to think of it. Can you believe we’ve almost finished university?”
“And you're still no taller than my chest.” Streetlights shine through the long fibers of his feather fake eyelashes as his gaze falls on her. “So. What did you think?”
“I've no idea what you mean.”
“Alya. You two were in the corner all night.”
Nazdeha fidgets. “We were just discussing applied collective psychology. She has some magnificent theories about group mind.”
"You think she's magnificent," he teases.
The crystal glow from the streetlight seems to pool around her feet and hands. She spreads her fingers to the moon.
"Maybe. Well, yes."
The fire within her is quiet today. She holds it in a lantern to light her class's steps. She heats a smooth dark rock to warm their hands.
Nazdeha runs barefoot through the empty house. At last she reaches the crystal calling window, which overlooks the sea. She catches her breath, then sketches a signal glyph on its surface.
Akko clears his throat. “Hello?”
It would be so easy to go back to bed. To skip the next meal and the one after that until her existence has been forgotten.
But Alya died so that there could be peace, and she can’t waste that.
She forces herself to speak.
“Akko- I've lied. I haven't been eating.”
His voice fills with worry. “Do you want help? I haven't yet left port-“ “This cannot be fixed with one of your rhymes and a platter of fried plantains.”
Like a wagon rolling down a mountain, her words come quicker, more easily. She’s over the hardest peak now.
“Losing Alya. I told High Command I could cope, as my psychological profile indicated. However, I-“
Closing her eyes, she sees herself among the Hive, candles guttering as the game of blood and tokens drew into its final round. The representative of her country, showing no weakness. The memory shatters. She opens her eyes.
“I need help. Genuine, dedicated help.”
“I can have a team at your door for safe transportation anytime today.”
Give herself too much time and she might lose her nerve; still, she wants to make herself presentable.
“An hour. I'd like to fetch some papers for my study... I'd like to work.”
She disconnects the image wave.
Nazdeha slips into her greatcoat. Its indigo fabric hangs too loosely on her shoulders; still, she feels warm.She fastens the gold engraved buttons. Then she unlocks her study door. There are letters to read.
“You have broken the game,” the queen says. “Or you are broken- or this world is useless to us.”
“I have played by the rules first postulated by Hivequeen One. Sacrifices, increasing in scale and importance.”
“Your mitochondria confirm that you could balance our entire army with the loss of one defective breeding drone?”
“She is not a drone,” Nazdeha said, and takes an awful pleasure in hearing the High Queen hiss, for the pale six-legged people do not believe in the love of woman with woman, nor of men with men. She clears her throat. The sound echoes.
“Did you not say the verifier was infallible? Try it yourself. Have one of your attendants place a false sacrifice.”
An underling slides her maggot-white hand into the sphere of blue light.
“To match the three starships offered by Our Lady in the previous round, I offer the dust beneath my feet.”
The scent of burnt flesh zaps through the room; she draws back whimpering.
“So you see. I place into play that which I value most. You will do the same, or forfeit.”
You think our tendency to love outside of breeding is inefficient depravity, she thinks. But look on the advantage strangeness grants. Know that this love has brought you down.
They outline the sacrifices. Factories, provinces. The queen’s best handmaiden. Nazdeha's good eye.
“We will give you your continent back. We will withdraw and destroy the warships Eater-of-Suns and Homogenity,” the queen finishes.
“You will also receive my last offering: one female in the first third of her life, to be tortured to death over a period of between four and five solar weeks. Take her,” Nazdeha says.
The door dilates; Alya stumbles through. Two dragonflies are at her back; the reporter's badge dangles askew from her official vest. Alya opens her mouth to speak, and a dragonfly shocks her. Her boots drag against the ship's metal walkway. Is she unconscious, or conserving her strength?
Nazdeha will never know.
The war ships whir into awakening, piercing the sky. She closes her eyes against the light.
Kayla Bashe is a binational lesbian currently attending Sarah Lawrence College. Her poetry has appeared in Strange Horizons, Liminality Magazine, and various zines, and her short fiction has appeared in the Outliers of Science Fiction anthology, as well as Solarpunk Press and The Future Fire. She is also the author of several queer romance/speculative fiction novellas. In particular, her novella “To Stand In the Light” features a bisexual superheroine with ADHD, and Graveyard Sparrow centers on a lesbian psychic who uses witchcraft to help manage her social anxiety. Find her on Twitter at @KaylaBashe.