Mercurial – Naomi Hughes

He’d been having visions for a year. They showed him doing exactly what he was doing right now: walking up the docks toward the most dangerous girl in the Alloyed Empire, preparing to offer her his oath of service. In the visions, his hands hadn’t been trembling. In the visions, he hadn’t seen the look on the girl’s face: gracefully curious brows, starlight-silver eyes, a predatory curve of lips. It was the face of a murderer. But he believed in his visions, believed what his god had promised through them, so he kept walking. The gleaming Alloyed Palace rose before him in the moonlight. Made of plated scales, it looked like the skin of some monstrous, colorful snake perched above the tumbling river. The boy could feel the shimmer of the palace’s magic from here. He could pick out the scales that hummed in sync with the forbidden silver that ran through his own blood. Though he couldn’t sense any of the other metals, his keen eye picked out plates of copper, iron, nickel, tin, gold. All of them were enchanted, their natural magics Smithed by the metallurgists of the high courts to protect against invaders. The boy stopped at the intersection of the docks and the palace’s great porch and looked again at the girl above him. At this distance, in this angle of moonlight, her smile no longer looked quite so predatory. It seemed tired instead, even strained, but those bright silver eyes were still locked on him like he was either her prey or her salvation.

She was young, too. Maybe sixteen—his own age. He hadn’t expected that. In the whispered warnings, she was ageless. He gripped his hands behind his back, standing at a loose attention the way he’d been taught. The dual short swords that were sheathed at the curve of his spine pressed against his forearms. Before he could lose his mettle, he spoke the words he’d heard a hundred times in his dreams. “I’ve come to swear my oath of protection to the Destroyer.” His voice shook. That hadn’t happened in the visions either.

He worried over what else his god might not have shown him about this moment. The Destroyer looked down at him. She had been walking when he’d first started up from the royal docks. She had paused to watch him approach. Two imperial guards were at her back now, watching him just as closely. “You’re frightened,” she observed, her voice low and lovely. Terror gripped him, a noose around his throat. Why had the Unforged God asked this of him? Are you certain? he prayed silently. I will do anything for you, but are you certain? His god didn’t answer. The boy summoned his faith, reminded himself of what the visions had promised.

He would save the Destroyer. He would save the Alloyed Empire through her. He wasn’t sure how this moment could possibly lead to that one, but he believed anyway. “Of course I am,” he answered her. This time, his voice didn’t shake. They were silent for a long moment. The banners of the palace rippled around them: cobalt blue and rust red. The breeze lifted above the churning river and blew its fine mist over them, over the whole of the royal docks and the palace’s great porch where they stood, until everything was sparkling with it. Dewdrops hung suspended in the girl’s dark, curly hair and glistened on her black crown. She made no sound, giving him long moments to reconsider.

He didn’t. “I have the whole imperial guard to protect me,” she noted. Her voice was even, but he thought there might’ve been a note of curiosity in it. He inhaled. He could taste the river on his tongue. The Entengre flowed underground through a copper mine in the mountains, and carried the acrid taste of old coins downstream. “They aren’t sworn to you, my lady. And technically they serve your sister the empress,” he forced himself to say the next phrase, “long may she live. You have no one who serves you alone.” The girl didn’t move.

She was so still that her mercurial eyes seemed to flicker like flames in the shadows. “And you want to swear to me directly?” “I want to swear to you on metal,” he clarified. That graceful brow rose higher. Behind her, the two imperial guards shifted and murmured. Swearing on metal was a rarity; that sort of oath could only be given willingly, and it could only be undone by either death or the fulfillment of its terms. Anyone who gave a metal oath could be trusted to deliver on whatever it was they had promised, because there was no other option. “And what do you want in return?” the Destroyer asked. The impossible, he thought, but he answered, “Nothing.” She barked a short laugh, a sound so sudden and violent that it made him flinch. “Everyone wants something,” she said, her tone bitter like the old-coin taste of the river.

“You want fame? Infamy, rather? Do you want your family excused from paying taxes?” “I have no family,” he said. It was only partly true. His parents had been killed in the Silver Coup, but he had a sister. One who was probably cursing his name right now as she read the note he’d left behind for her. His heart twisted at the thought. “Then why do you want to swear to me?” the Destroyer demanded. Suspicion flickered in her voice like live embers. White-hot sparks began to dance around her fingers, snapping into existence so brightly they burned afterimages into his vision. She could flay him to ash with a gesture if he answered wrong. Carefully, he phrased his reply.

This conversation was outside the bounds of what his visions had shown him. He was in uncharted territory now. But he knew one thing, and that was that no one dared lie to the Destroyer, Lady of Mercury, leveler of cities, and the most volatile weapon the empress possessed. So he answered with complete honesty: “I believe the Unforged God wants me to protect you.” He’d been bewildered when the visions had first started. He couldn’t understand why his god would ask him to defend one of the people who’d been oppressing the empire for generations—one of the people who would execute him instantly if she learned that the element of silver, which gave him a gift of truth-seeing and foresight and thus was forbidden, flowed through his blood. But he trusted that somehow, eventually, it would make sense. The Destroyer blinked in surprise, then again in amusement. The sparks dancing around her fingers fizzled away. “Ah.

You’re religious.” The old religion had mostly died out in the last few centuries. Few kept it now beyond the zealot rebels, the men and women with no rank or chain of command who lived in the honeycomb of the old mountain mines. Their rebellion had brought together people from all over the continent: nomads from the desert ward, colonists from the southern valleys, northerners from the great glaciers at the rim of the world. The most committed of the zealots had lately taken to snorting metal powders in the hope that it might bring them closer to the Unforged God. The only thing it had brought them closer to was death, though, as only those born with a Smithing affinity—like the boy, like the girl before him— could withstand the toxic effects of metal in their bloodstream. “I’m not a Saint,” the boy replied. “But yes.” “And you have training in protection?” “I’ve trained with soldiers since I was twelve. I’m one of the best fighters in the mountain ward.

” He’d had to be. He couldn’t risk letting his opponents see his blood. The girl regarded him for a moment longer. “Very well,” she said suddenly, and took off her crown. It was a dainty thing, slender and feminine but made of sharp, twisted edges. It suited her. “Swear on this, then,” she said, holding it out to him. He looked down at the crown. He struggled for breath. The crown was made of wrought iron.

Not the Destroyer’s metal, but that of her elder sister, the empress. The boy couldn’t feel the magic that stirred within it. He didn’t need to. Once he gave this metal his oath, the magic that lived within it— that lived within all metals—would take his promise into itself and compel him to keep it. Feeling as if he were floating somewhere far away, he reached out a hand and gripped the crown. Its twisted edges dug into his palm. “I swear,” he said, forcing the words out, “to protect you, and to not allow harm to come to you—” “And to never harm me yourself,” she cut in sharply. He swallowed. “And to never harm you myself,” he added, his voice sounding choked. He tried to think of what else he should add.

A term of some sort? Conditions? His thoughts were a muddle, tangled like a snarl of yarn. Then the girl stepped back and it was too late. The oath had been sworn. They looked down at the crown in her hands. The boy panicked for a second, thinking that he might’ve gripped it too tightly and drawn his own blood, but no telltale silver dripped down the twisted black edges. The Destroyer put the crown back on her head. Then she waved at one of the guards behind her and told the man, “Attack me.” The imperial guards were trained to instantly obey an order from any lord or lady, and from the empress’s family most of all, but this one could only stare back at the Destroyer for a long moment as if struck mute. “My lady?” he said at last. White flames flickered around her head and shoulders like a halo as her gaze snapped to the man.

“Do as I’ve ordered,” she said, anger banked low in her voice. The boy was backpedaling, confused and afraid, when the guard drew his iron sword—Smithed metal, its edge impossibly sharp—and slashed it out toward the Destroyer. That was the first time the boy felt the pain of disobeying his oath. It hit him like a derailed train. Unready for it, he gasped and bent double beneath its weight. Every vein, every muscle, singed as if on fire. He was a red-hot iron in a Smith’s forge and the pain was the anvil and the hammer both: pummeling him, shaping him into what he had promised to be. In a spasm, his hands gripped his dual short swords. He drew them. In a quick one-two move taught to him by the soldiers, he raised his left sword to block the guard’s weapon inches before it would have speared through the Destroyer’s shoulder, and drove his right sword into the guard’s chest.

The boy’s pain vanished as if it had never existed. He and the guard stood stock-still, staring at each other from opposite ends of the blade. The guard cupped his hands around his wound. Red spilled between his fingers, across his knuckles. The boy pulled the sword out and it glistened with blood and river mist. When the guard staggered backwards and crumbled to the polished wooden boards of the great porch, the boy began to realize, with dawning horror, what had just happened. The Destroyer had been threatened. And his oath had compelled him to defend her. The Destroyer stepped forward. Something was bright in her eyes, and the boy couldn’t tell if it was madness or hope.

“What’s your name?” she asked, ignoring the wet, rattling breathing of the dying guard. The boy’s swords hung now at his sides, dead weight. He wanted to drop them. He couldn’t. “Tal,” he managed after a moment. “Tal Melaine.” The Destroyer nodded, accepting his name as if she were taking possession of it. Then she turned, glancing at the downed guard and the other one, who was still standing frozen at his post. “Take him to the physicians,” she ordered the unhurt guard. “He may survive.

Far be it from me to waste my sister’s resources when they may yet be of use.” The standing guard’s gaze was emotionless. “I cannot leave you unguarded, my lady,” he replied. She smiled. Predatory. Tired. Hopeful. “I am not unguarded,” she said. And finally, with the moon bright above, with the Alloyed Palace gleaming like a monster, and with his god utterly silent, the boy began to understand exactly what his belief would require of him

.

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