Give the Dark My Love – Beth Revis

THE WARSHİP CARRİED twenty good men and two cannons. “Bit of an overkill, isn’t it?” Captain Pasker said. The sun was to his back, casting a long, imposing shadow over the deck. Captain Pasker was from the mainland; his ship had accompanied the Emperor on the short voyage across the Azure Sea to the small province of Lunar Island. Pasker had been in three wars already, “skirmishes,” he called them, bloody little inconveniences that were necessary to remind the people of the might of the Emperor. The sailor beside him was a local boy, a new conscript. He’d been raised with the old legends. He wasn’t sure that one warship was enough. The sleek, red-lacquered vessel cut through the bay toward a small island that bore only one building. A hospital, its brick façade illuminated by the rising sun, the clockface built into the tower so bright the captain could not look at it directly. “Get the horn,” Captain Pasker told the boy. The sailor went running. By the time he returned with the large vocal horn, the warship was just a few meters away from the stone steps that disappeared into the blue-green waters of the bay. He tried to count them—fifty or so, leading up to a stone plaza and the massive doors of the hospital. The captain raised the horn to his lips.

“By order of Emperor Auguste, you must surrender your person for trial.” His voice boomed up the steps, and he was certain that those who lurked inside the large brick building had heard. The doors, however, did not open. “This is your last chance,” Captain Pasker shouted through the horn. “You are hereby ordered by the Emperor’s Guard to present yourself for arrest on the grounds of treason.” “And trespassing,” the first mate added. Captain Pasker set the vocal horn down. “Treason’s quite enough. Can’t hang the girl twice.” They waited.

“All right, boys, get ready.” The sailors used oars to bring the warship closer to the steps, then lashed it portside to the posts. “I’ll take five,” the captain said, one foot on the gangway. The first mate selected five additional sailors to accompany him, and they followed his long strides onto the small island, swords at their hips and muzzle-loaded smoothbore muskets in their hands. “Blasted sun gets in the way,” Captain Pasker grumbled as he looked back at the ship. “Try the horn once more,” he called. The first mate repeated the captain’s message, the words amplified and echoing over the calm waters of the bay. The captain and his five were already halfway up the stairs when the heavy door of the hospital creaked open. A girl stepped into the light. She was average in height and build, her hair black and neatly braided, shining in the sun as if it were still damp after being washed.

Her deep olive skin was typical of people from Lunar Island. She wore alchemist robes that seemed a touch too big for her; likely she’d stolen the clothing from the hospital closets. The only remarkable thing about her was that she was missing her left arm from a point just above where her elbow should have been, but even that detail wasn’t too strange. Many on Lunar Island had lost a limb or two from the plague. Still, she was young enough to be Captain Pasker’s daughter. Seventeen, eighteen maybe. He could feel the doubt welling in his men, the hesitation. The captain gazed up the long stone stairs toward her. “We’re here to arrest you,” Captain Pasker called. “Best come quiet now.

” The girl smiled. “Girl,” Captain Pasker said in a warning tone, as if even her gender was cause for offense. The doors behind her opened wider. The people who poured out behind the girl seemed unarmed. Most wore hospital dressing gowns; a few wore peasants’ clothing. All of them showed some deformity of the plague—withered and blackened hands or feet, an inky stain rising up their necks, under their skin. And they were quiet. They did not speak or even look to the girl as they descended the stairs as if by preagreed formation. They showed no fear. They showed no emotion at all.

Captain Pasker’s stomach churned. The rifles in his men’s hands shook. “Steady,” Captain Pasker warned, but it did no good. One of the sailors popped off a shot, the bullet aimed true despite the man’s nerves. A woman in the front, about twenty steps away, staggered, her shoulder snapping back, the force of the blow causing her to stumble and fall on the steps. Her head smashed against the stone, an audible crack of her skull followed by the crunching sound of broken teeth. The others around her kept moving, completely ignoring her body broken on the steps. And then she stood back up. The woman showed no pain. She opened her mouth and let the splintered teeth clatter to the ground.

She ignored the skin that dangled over her broken skull. No blood poured from her wounds. She just kept walking. She was ten steps away now. Five. “Fire!” Captain Pasker screamed. “Fire! Fire!” The guns blossomed in flame and smoke around him as his men fired shot after shot. Many in the crowd staggered, but none cried out. None fell. The dead could not die.

ONE Nedra SIX MONTHS AGO I OPENED MY eyes at the exact same moment my sister did. A grin spread across her face, followed by a flash of sadness. “It’s going to be okay,” I told her, sitting up in bed. Ernesta flopped over in her own bed, staring up at the ceiling. “I’m happy for you, Nedra.” I raised an eyebrow. “I am,” she insisted. “It’s just going to be strange here without you.” I swung my legs over the side of my bed, my knee brushing the edge of my trunk, packed with almost all my clothing and the mementos I couldn’t leave behind. I took off my nightshirt and threw it at Nessie—it was one of hers, after all—then slipped into the tunic and leggings I’d set aside to wear today.

“Ugh, how can you move so fast?” Ernesta groaned. She melted out of bed and let her head thunk on the doorframe as she rooted around in our wardrobe, now much emptier without my clothes taking up space. She withdrew a dark blouse and an olive skirt, a combination that would make me look drab. Ernesta never looked anything less than glowing, even with her hair mussed from sleep and her eyes half-closed. I glanced down at my own clothes. We were twins, and yet somehow we never looked the same. I left Nessie to finish getting ready and followed the scent of bacon into the kitchen, where my mother stood over the stove. “Nedra!” Mama exclaimed, sidling around the table and hugging me with the arm that still held a spatula. “Are you excited?” Through the window, I could see Papa loading up the cart he used to sell books, but which today would carry me away. “I think so?” I said.

My stomach churned, but even though Mama slid a plate of fried eggs, a biscuit, and three strips of bacon over to me, I realized that it wasn’t hunger that ached me. Mama made Nessie’s plate—no biscuit and extra bacon—and placed it beside black coffee already poured and cooling. She squeezed my shoulder, her hand slipping around my neck to readjust my necklace. “You’ll be fine,” she whispered. I couldn’t help but doubt her. Doubt myself. Ernesta came in, stealing a piece of my bacon before turning to Mama and chatting excitedly about plans to meet Kava, the shoemaker’s apprentice. As Nessie rattled on, I watched our father through the window. Papa stood outside, checking the straps on the mule and inspecting the cart, going over the same old routine but with a scowl on his face, his eyes blazing. He didn’t want me to go.

Mama noticed my gaze and wrapped an arm around me. “It’s going to be okay,” she said. “Of course it is.” Nessie rolled her eyes. “They obviously want you.” “They didn’t last year,” I said, staring at my fork. Yūgen Academy rarely accepted students who weren’t funneled through the private schools and the alchemical tutors hired by the elite. Last year, I’d applied to join the program and was soundly denied. “Well, they’re paying you this year,” Nessie said. “Quit pretending to be humble.

” I wasn’t pretending. The scholarship that would take care of my room, board, and tuition at Yūgen this year was astounding, even more so since such scholarships were rarely awarded. But somehow the pride of it—of having my dreams not only come true, but also be financed—was buried under the fear and worry of leaving behind the only home I’d ever known . especially if Papa didn’t want me to go. “Besides, what would you do if you stayed here?” Nessie asked. “Steal Kava from you,” I shot back, smiling as Nessie pretended to have been pierced in the heart by my betrayal. But my focus drifted away as breakfast wore on. I’d thought I wanted normal on my last day at home, but normal made me sad. The next time I came here, it would be as a guest. After I walked through that door, this would no longer be home.

“You’re meant to do this,” Nessie said in an exaggerated whisper. “I am,” I replied immediately, and was somewhat surprised that it felt true, despite my reservations. “So humble,” Nessie mocked, but Mama gazed at me with pride. My eyes slid away from her beaming smile. “You’ll do important things,” Mama promised. “I’ll try,” I mumbled. I was going to Yūgen to become a medical alchemist, and once I’d mastered my craft, I would return here, to the north, to help the sick. I wanted to learn everything—not just about the everyday ills and injuries that needed healing, but also cures and treatments for the more obscure diseases, like the Wasting Death. My stomach twisted. Despite the scholarship and my family’s faith, I still wasn’t sure I was good enough to go toe-to-toe with the other students at Yūgen.

Mama kissed the top of my head. “You’re like your father,” she said gently. “You never know what to do with your emotions.” Papa strode to the doorway, stomping the mud off his boots on the large flat stone in front of the back door. “Ready?” he said, his voice gruff. I nodded silently. “No!” Ernesta cried in overexaggerated anguish. She threw her arms around me, dramatic as always, but it was Mama’s soft farewell that broke my heart. I gently pried myself away from them as Papa turned silently back to the mule cart. He already had the reins in his hands as I climbed up to sit beside him, and before I was settled, he clucked his tongue, and our mule, Jojo, lumbered toward the road.

My hand moved nervously to my hip bag. I fingered the cloth, identifying each item by its feel through the coarse material. My pen set, a gift from Nessie. Wrapped bread, from Mama. An old alchemy book, the binding cracked. I’d found it on one of Papa’s many bookshelves. It was handwritten, part journal, part guide. My great-grandmother had died when I was less than a year old, but she’d been a potion maker for the village and kept all her notes inside this book. She passed it on to my grandmother, who’d given it to my father, who’d tucked it on a shelf and forgotten about it. I’d come across it three years ago, and soon after, I started dreaming of becoming an alchemist, using the herbs and techniques my great-grandmother detailed in order to help heal others.

There was only one main road in the north, curving around the center of Lunar Island’s top arm, with dozens of little villages blossoming along the edge. Our village was beyond the carmellina gate. When we passed the church hall, Papa touched the threeknotted cord he wore around his neck. After a moment, I did the same. Papa made his living traveling up and down this main road, stopping in every small village to distribute books and messages. When I was little, I thought I might join his trade, eventually getting a book cart of my own. Like him, I’d journey from village to village, passing out stories for others to read and meeting new and interesting people. Nessie never wanted anything more than to stay in our village and flirt with the same people we’d gone to school with, but I knew I wanted more. I wanted something bigger. I’d told myself that just going past the carmellina gate, just following in my father’s footsteps would be enough.

I’d tried to believe that. It was Papa who told me I should read the books instead of sell them; it was he who first encouraged me to apply to Yūgen Academy, saying I’d taught myself more than that school could anyway, so I might as well show up and take the alchemical robes. But it was Papa who now glowered at the road, disappointment evident on his face. “I’m sorry,” I said as Jojo plodded down the road. Papa’s eyes widened. “For what?” He turned his gaze from me quickly and clucked his tongue at the mule. “For going,” I answered in a small voice. My scholarship would pay my way, but it wouldn’t give my father help when the cart needed unloading, or pay the butcher when Mama ran out of meat, or help Nessie with the chores I was leaving behind. The cost of an education like the one I’d get at Yūgen was far more than any scholarship could cover, and it was my family who would sacrifice for me. Papa yanked the reins, pulling Jojo up short.

The mule didn’t care; she ambled to the side of the road and started munching on a low-hanging branch of tigga leaves. Papa turned to me. “Nedra,” he said, his voice softer and kinder than it had been all day, “I’m not mad at you for going.” “Disappointed then,” I said, sliding my eyes away. “I’m proud of you, my love,” he said, turning to me, the intensity of his words palpable. “I’m happy for you. I’m mad at myself.” He sighed heavily. “I’m sorry. I didn’t want to worry you, and instead I made it all worse.

But . ” “Why are you mad at yourself?” “Because I’m selfish, Ned.” He laughed bitterly. “I want to keep you with me always. But I know I have to let you go.” He glanced back at the book cart, heavy and dusty, the wooden shelves unable to fully protect the texts from the dirt road. “You think I want this for you? You think I want you to marry a farmer or a butcher or a fisherman, that I want you to always wonder if you’ll have enough to feed your own babes?” “You always took care of Nessie and me—” I started, but he was having none of my words. “I got this cart from my father, and he from his.” “I can still work with you on the book cart when I come back,” I said quickly. “No!” The words burst from him.

“I don’t want you to. That’s my point, love. You can leave.”

.

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