Grave, p.1Michelle Sagara
DAW titles by Michelle Sagara:
THE QUEEN OF THE DEAD:
Copyright © 2017 by Michelle Sagara.
All Rights Reserved.
Jacket art by Cliff Nielsen.
Jacket design by G-Force Design.
DAW Book Collectors No. 1747.
Published by DAW Books, Inc.
375 Hudson Street, New York, NY 10014.
All characters and events in this book are fictitious.
All resemblance to persons living or dead is coincidental.
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Ebook ISBN: 9781101637401
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This is for Jane Fletcher.
She made school as sane and bearable as it could possibly be for my son when it was absolutely essential, and I can truly say that he is as much a product of her guidance and leadership as he is of mine.
No matter how difficult things were, he knew that he could go to Ms Fletcher, talk to her, be heard. He knew that ultimately, at the top of the chain, there was both accountability and trust. She made school feel safe.
And that is so very, very rare.
Also by Michelle Sagara
About the Author
I feel, as of late, that my acknowledgements are a frantic, grovelling, thank you to people who have had to endure my flailing and my optimistic sense of my own abilities. And they are.
Grave is the third and final novel in a trilogy that has seen more revisions, more “throw away two-thirds of the book” author angst than any other series I have ever worked on. This was enormously hard on me—but that almost goes without saying. No one expects someone to toss out their year’s worth of work multiple times and be overjoyed to do so, given that they’ve got to start again at ground zero. I mean page one.
Terry, as always, read every word as it was written. All four times. He probably heard all the whining more often as well. And he reminded me that making a mistake does not equal total permanent failure. Which, as things wore on, became unfortunately necessary.
But people who are not in publishing seldom see the effect it has on the publishers, the editors. It knocks books out of schedule, which means the entire schedule has to be reshuffled. It makes it harder to gain any reader traction, because of the gaps and uncertainties in the publication timing. It is . . . bad.
And throughout this, I have to say, if my editor was furious—and seriously, human, she must have had those days—she kept it entirely away from me. If she had a dartboard with my picture on it, I would accept it as no more than my due. My managing editor, Joshua Starr, has been unfailingly polite, helpful, and almost instant in answering my frantic emails. No, polite is the wrong word. He actually sounds cheerful most days, as if he enjoys dealing with people like me who are, let’s face it, not making his job any easier.
Cliff Nielsen’s art for the cover of the third book is perfect, and I felt blessed by it, which again has nothing to do with me, the writer, but is the first thing most people will see of the book.
And of course, if the book falls short, if there are problems with it, it is, in fact, on me, and not on the people who did so much to guide it to your hands.
THE QUEEN’S MEDITATION CHAMBERS are large. The ceilings are high enough you can’t see them if you don’t crane your neck. Looking up is a lot like falling; Nathan avoids it out of habit. The dead don’t fall—even when that’s what they want. They can jump off a cliff or the roof of a building and hang there, ignored by gravity. They’ve got no weight.
The Queen is not dead. She burns with life. She is luminous, beautiful; if the dead aren’t careful, they are struck dumb at the sight of her. She doesn’t know what she looks like in the eyes of the dead; she can’t see herself the way the dead do. She’s therefore incredibly impatient. She takes a dim view of disobedience.
She is the only law the dead know.
The Queen walks to the center of the round chamber. Elaborate chairs dot the circumference of the smooth, rising walls; there are cabinets with cut-glass doors that catch light and reflect it. Books line the shelves; books lie face-up across the various tables situated between the chairs. She touches none of them. Instead, she positions herself in the center of a large engraved circle. The perimeter of that circle contains runes or glyphs that Nathan would have found fascinating while alive. He barely sees them, now.
The Queen is not wearing her full court dress. She doesn’t need it. If she wore sweats and sneakers, it wouldn’t matter. People here aren’t bowing or scraping at her dress. Nathan understands that bowing and scraping—when too obsequious—annoys the Queen. He doesn’t do it.
But he doesn’t speak, either, unless spoken to. He doesn’t crack a joke. He doesn’t ask her how her day went. Mostly, he doesn’t want to know. And there are reasons for that.
She gestures. She doesn’t speak. Or rather, she doesn’t speak to Nathan; she can choose who, among the dead, hear her voice.
Four of the dead do.
They come to her as she stands, flowing through the walls as if the chamber were a vast, unmarked clock face; they trace the path from the quarter marks of time—twelve, three, six, nine—as they approach. Nathan closes his eyes, but it doesn’t help. He can still see their faces. He can see their expressions
There are two girls and two boys. They are all Nathan’s age—or they were, when they died. Left to themselves, the dead tend to wear the clothing they spent their last living minutes in. But the dead in the citadel are not left to their own devices. They wear what the Queen dictates. Today—or tonight—they are wearing loose, flowing robes. The robes are a pale, luminescent gray, as is everything else about them.
They walk with a quiet, hopeless dignity. One of the girls struggles; he can see the strain in the lines of her mouth, the narrowing of her eyes. But he can’t see it in the steps she is forced to take. She understands what is going to happen to her here. He wonders if the other three do. He can’t ask. Literally. His mouth doesn’t move.
That’s probably for the best. Nathan is not a screamer. He’s not a cryer. But the urge—the sudden, visceral urge—to do both is strong.
He understood, as he followed the Queen to this chamber, that she meant to “clothe you in life”, a fancy way of saying “build you a body.” He understood that all of the Queen’s power is derived from the dead—and that the city itself is home to many of them. More come every day; overpopulation isn’t an issue when your citizens can’t eat, can’t work, and don’t particularly need a place to live.
He did not put the three things together. The building of a body. The power necessary. The source of that power.
She means to honor him. He knows this. He knows that this is how she sees what she is doing as she waits implacably for the drifting dead to reach her until she is the heart of their formation. Nathan can see her through the transparency of their bodies. No surprise, there; he can see her through the solid stone of her citadel’s many walls.
She knows. She turns to him, smiling, her expression radiant. She looks—for just that moment—like a sixteen-year-old girl, not the ancient ruler of a dead city. The four surround her now. They reach out—to each other—and clasp hands.
They are already dead. So is Nathan. But he feels their fear; it’s like a mirror of his own. He doesn’t need to breathe—but even if he did, he wouldn’t. She raises her arm, then raises her face, exposing the perfect line of a throat that clearly never sees sunlight. Her hair, loose, trails down her back, straight and unconfined. It is the only thing about her that reminds him of Emma.
No, that’s not true. The Queen of the Dead reminds Nathan of Emma because she is, at this moment, everything that Emma isn’t. Emma would never surround herself with unwilling victims. Emma would never reach out with her graceful, slender hands and bury them in the chests of the two young women, reaching for the hearts that they don’t actually have anymore.
Nathan wants to scream. He wants to shout. He wants to beg the Queen to stop. To tell her that he’ll take being dead—being invisibly, unreachably dead—because no form of life, no form of actual body, could be worth the cost.
The dead girls throw back their heads, just as the Queen did, but for vastly different reasons. Nathan can see only their profiles; their mouths are open in the silent scream that Nathan is certain shapes his own. When the Queen retracts her hands, the girls come with them, as if their bodies were made of cloth and she has yanked them out of shape. That cloth is like silk or satin; it has a sheen that catches light, implies color.
It doesn’t look human anymore. But Nathan knows, watching, that it is. The Queen is radiant with color as she shifts in place. She turns to face Nathan, and as she does, she reaches out again for the center of two hearts. The two boys. They’re braced for it; unlike the one girl, they don’t struggle at all. Their eyes are wide, rounded; they watch the Queen—just as Nathan does. Like moths to flame.
She unravels them as well. Her arms are cocooned with glowing light; it’s almost painful to look at. Nathan understands that the dead are there, exposed, rendered both helpless and potent; she has taken whatever they have left to give.
And she uses it now, as he watches. She works those strands of colored, brilliant light, as if weaving a basket or a wire dummy. He can almost hear the voices of the four as she does; they are weeping. They are so close to her, so close to the warmth of the light she sheds—and it makes no difference. Nathan wonders, then, if she can hear them at all.
But she must, because she can hear him. She looks at him now, as she shuffles threads, joining them, binding them, making their weave tighter and tighter until they seem solid to the eye. She then looks at her work with the critical eye of an artist. Her gaze pins Nathan and leaves him, over and over again.
Nathan has no idea how much time passes. No one comes to these chambers but the Queen. No one interrupts her when she works here. And she works now. She works, her brow furrowed, her eyes narrowed; she works until sweat beads her forehead and small strands of pale hair cling to it.
All the while, the voices of the four thrum; they have a pulse and a beat, an ebb and a flow, that are synchronized almost exactly with the work she does. It is the chamber music of hell.
• • •
Nathan, like anyone else alive—or, rather, anyone who was once alive—has no memory of being born. He has dim memories of childhood, and he believes some of them occurred when he was three—but he’s aware that he might be wrong, even if they are his memories. He tries to sort through them now, as the Queen continues to sculpt: to shear off pale flesh from cheekbones, to elongate neck, to narrow the lines of chest, arms, hands.
When she is finished, it is the hands of her masterpiece she holds. “Nathan,” she says, her voice softer than he has ever heard it, “come to me.”
Like the single girl, he hesitates. He knows the hesitation could be deadly, but at this point, he almost welcomes it. He can still hear dim, attenuated voices, and he understands that they are part of the finished form.
It looks like Nathan, to his own eyes: like Nathan, but stark naked. He can’t see the flaws. He knows they’re there, but he can’t see them for the light she still radiates. If he could plug his ears, he might even feel awe or gratitude. He can’t.
Oh, he can lift hands to ears, but it does no good. His ears aren’t actual, physical ears. His hands block no sound.
He walks. He walks toward where the Queen clasps the hands of her empty, shining creation. He notes that the eyes—the body’s eyes—are closed and wonders whether his eyelashes were ever that long. It’s an absurd thought.
Absurd is better than horror.
He is not terrified of the Queen as he approaches her; horror and terror are different. But he understands, as she waits, why someone would run away from her no matter how much she loved them.
Nathan doesn’t love her. If he had a choice, there is almost nowhere else he wouldn’t be.
“Give me your hand,” the Queen says.
He doesn’t think; his hand is in hers before the echoes of her words die. Her palm is warm. It reminds him of Emma.
Emma is a Necromancer.
He didn’t understand why Chase was so angry at Emma. He couldn’t understand what Chase feared. No one who knew Emma could be afraid of her. They might be afraid of losing her—and the love she offers so steadily—but that was never Chase’s concern.
He understands now. Emma glows with the same interior fire that burns at the heart of the Queen. Emma has as much power as the Queen of the Dead. Emma could—if she knew how—do exactly what the Queen has done today.
Emma would never do it. He knows. But he wonders what anyone could do to stop her if she did.
• • •
“Close your eyes, Nathan.”
He does. He doesn’t tell her that it makes no difference. She doesn’t plunge her hand into his chest. She doesn’t yank his heart out and stretch it into filaments. She doesn’t destroy him for the raw materials she needs to create anything else. But he wonders, now, whether everything in her world—the citadel, the streets, the buildings that line them—was made the same way.
It travels through him. It curls up inside of him, as if he had swallowed it whole. It has no way to escape him; he has no way to set it free. Some small part of him thinks: It’s better than feeling nothing.
He expects to be swallowed in a similar way; he’s not. She attaches herself to him in a hundred little ways—in a thousand. As she does, the cold recedes. There’s nothing sexual about her touch. Nothing predatory. She is alarmingly gentle.
It’s the gentleness that almost does him in. If he couldn’t hear the dim, distant voices of the others, he would surrender himself entirely into this woman’s keeping. He is so tired. And he is warm. He almost believes he has finally come to a place of rest.
But the voices don’t stop. They’re quiet. They’re dim. But they’re inside him now. Or he’s inside them. He opens his eyes. He blinks. The Queen withdraws the hands that held his—and they are his hands, now. The voices weep to let her go; they can’t cling. Nathan could—but he doesn’t. He has that choice.
He is standing before her. He’s naked. He should feel embarrassed, but he doesn’t; she recreated his entire body. There’s no part of it she hasn’t seen and no part of it she hasn’t already touched.
“There is a robe on the far wall,” the Queen says. “Take it and leave. Someone will be waiting to lead you to your rooms. You will require rooms, now; you will require food.”
He doesn’t ask her about sleep. He doesn’t ask her about anything. He knows he should make some show of gratitude, but he can’t quite force his knees to bend because he doesn’t feel any. If he works—and he does—he can keep the horror from his expression. More than that isn’t in him.
And he knows that there will be a bill for this, down the road. The Queen’s generosity is never a gift. He is afraid that the bill won’t be presented to him.
Grave by Michelle Sagara / Fantasy / Young Adult have rating 3.6 out of 5 / Based on25 votes