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art by Tihomir Tikulin-Tico

The Cost

Laura Anne Gilman is the Nebula-nominated author of The Vineart War epic fantasy trilogy, as well as the Cosa Nostradamus urban fantasy series (most recently Tricks of the Trade), and Dragon Virus, an SF/horror novella. She also writes romance, mysteries, and has actually been paid for her poetry (ok, once). More details available at lauraannegilman.net, or follow her on Twitter: @LAGilman
"My lady, I dislike this place."
She smiled at me, not amused, and yet amused nonetheless, a tender smile no man had ever seen. "I know."
She would not demand it of us, this obedience. Yet I was so used to following, it would seem odd to stay behind. And she would go; she had come here for nothing else.
"Mount up!" I called, not bothering to look behind me.
The creaking of leather and the moaning of camels responded, as the eleven swung into stirrups and gathered reins, and into the Valley of Death we rode, thirteen strong, and not a prayer between us.
The dog met us at the gate; a stone arch three lengths high and four across, with filigree doors that had withstood the wind and sand for thousands of years. You could not study the gates too closely, else your eye moved aside, seeking something less disturbing to rest upon.
The dog seemed less impressive, for all that it was of the same stone, but when it raised its slender brown muzzle, its deep-set eyes shone red, and it set itself in the sands with the surety of one who will not be moved.
She slid down from her camel, her head high and her hands steady. "You have taken my father. Give him back."
The dog merely looked at us. It did not loll its tongue, or move its tail, or twitch the way hounds do, when they expect either praise or censure. It stared, with those red eyes, and my lady stared back.
"The dead do not return."
Its mouth did not move, but we heard it, deep and hollow as the wind.
"Not even for you, Beloved of the Sand," it went on, before she could speak again. "Once past my gates, all roads end."
My beast moaned, its long neck turning to the side, as though the stench of death hung about the god, somehow worse than the camel's own breath. I slapped it, my gaze hard on my lady, awaiting her command.
"What must I do, to earn him back?" She had read every text, prepared every spell, and none had told her this, only that it could be done.
"The dead do not return."
"I do not wish him dead. His crown calls for his head, his sword for his hand. Return him to me, O Lord. Return him to the sands. Whatever the price, I am here to pay."
She: not her brothers. Too valuable, the heirs, the true Beloveds of the Sand. Seven sons: each of them content to recline in their tents, and wait for one of them to be chosen--and six of them to die. Such was Fate.
My Lady was not of such patience. And so we--she and us--rode into the dawn and into the dusk, to beg the lord of everlasting to give us back our king.
Behind us, the guards were restless; they did not move, did not speak, but their worry gnawed on my neck. Eleven of the strongest, the bravest, the most loyal of women, and they would not hesitate nor break. But they wanted to be here no more than I.
There was no choice. Not one of the seven was worthy.
"Whatever the price?" Those red eyes did not close, that slender muzzle did not turn, but gave the look of deep thought. The god weighed her offer against all his riches, against all his needs, and laughed.
I did not like that laugh; so close to a jackal's, so close to a sob. My lady's hair was the color of the night air, her lines blurring into the dusk, and I mistrusted that, too.
She had ridden ten days, to demand what could not be done.
"The price cannot be given, nor taken, Beloved of the Sand. Surely you did not come here without knowing that."
The god mocked us, but his eyes were filled with sorrow.
"Tell me." My lady let go of the reins of her beast, and stood before the gate as though she would enter it herself. The sand rose and swirled at her feet, scraping against my cheek.
"Tell me what to do, my lord. I beg this of you."
The dog sighed, an oddly mortal sound. "Then give me your heart, Beloved of the Sand. Your hunger, hidden low and sated. Your breath, perfumed with the blood of your heart. These things which may neither be given, nor taken."
My lady did not falter, but I, who knew her best of all, saw the shift in her stance. I saw, and I knew.
"Such a price cannot be paid." Her voice was too low; she did not understand. Or, chose not to.
I slipped from my saddle, wrapped the leather straps around the girth, that the beast not tangle itself, and stepped to my lady's side.
Her face was stern, but her fingers reached for mine.
I said, "Breath may not be given nor taken, nor the hunger sated, nor the heart, though the poets may think it so." I had no course with poets, but one heard them nonetheless, in the streets declaiming their verse. "Neither given nor taken, and yet lovers own all. And thus they must be shared"
I let the words pause, and finished, "or stolen."
Those dark red eyes turned on me. I am not my lady's equal: I sank to my knees, the sand cool and harsh under my palms, my forehead to my fingers. I had not expected to live forever, but I had not thought to end before dawn, either.
"No." A denial, not an order.
"All mortals die, my lady. Our fate is placed upon us in the moment of birth, no moment sooner nor a moment less. But fate may be avoidedů." I dared greatly, then, to look up. "and what may be avoided may also be void."
Her voice, so sweet and solemn, held laughter, even now, even in her pain. "When did you become a scholar, my longtime companion, captain of my soldiers, the heart of my nights?"
"I am whatever you need, my lady."
She would have gone into the Gate for her king-father. I would have followed her anywhere. I would have let her open my throat, if that had been needful; had prepared myself for it to be done.
The god waited, and though she made a noise of pain, she did not protest.
"It will come swiftly," the god said. "Between one breath and the next. Too early, with things yet undone. Words unspoken, promises unkept. And then your king will return."
There was silence. I lifted my head, and saw the gate was gone. I turned my head. The dog was gone. We stood in the midst of the desert, thirteen still, and strong.
We mounted in silence, and returned home. The poets--all men--left a verse unturned. No man may know his fate, but every woman does. It was always you.
The End
This story was first published on Monday, July 16th, 2012

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