Izramith Ezmi is many things: a member of the feared, all-female Hedron guards, a war veteran recently returned from a pointless and bloody mission, and impatient, angry and above all, lonely. With her contract about to run out, she may be on her way to becoming a ruthless mercenary, since what she really wants–becoming a mother–is out of the question. Her family carries a gene that causes deeply malicious madness. Her nephew was born with it and her useless sister has left him in the care of an institute. A baby. Two days old.
She wants to ask her uncle, himself born with the condition, if he can do anything for the boy. But her uncle and his band of mad outcasts have gone missing, rumoured to be on the world of Ceren.
So Izramith takes another hired-gun contract in Barresh which is a city-state on Ceren. The job is to provide security at a high-profile wedding. Simple and straight-forward, right? No crawling in mud, no shoot-outs, no mangled bodies and blood-drenched soil. And meanwhile, she can try to find her uncle.
Except he isn’t there, and the job isn’t simple. Izramith and her team discover evidence of an extensive spying ring that threatens the entire city.
Postponing the wedding would be an admission of defeat, so it’s time for desperate measures. Izramith leads a small team in what has to go down as the most hare-brained mission to ever be undertaken in the universe. Much is at stake: peace, the lives of her uncle and her nephew, and her own.
Izramith opened her eyes, flicked back the blankets, rolled off her mattress onto her hands and knees. For a few dazed moments, she sat on the floor, staring into the utter darkness where her hands would be if she could see them.
Something was very, very wrong.
Through the roaring of blood in her ears, she couldn’t hear the sound of weapons fire or explosions. There was no shouting, no one was swearing and rummaging for clothes and gear in the tent. She wasn’t, in fact, in a tent, and there was no supervisor yelling orders. No group of fighters scrambling to get ready and armed for battle.
The soft stuff under her hands and knees was not sand, but the carpet in her bedroom. This was not a military base. She was at home, not in the warzone, and that the noise that had woken her up was not the general base alarm.
That damn child was crying again.
She leaned back, rubbing her face with her hands. The roots of her hair were damp with sweat.
A cold draft tracked over the floor, making her shiver in her night clothes. The hub at the door glared some impossible time in the middle of the night shift.
She jumped to her feet and was at the door in two steps, where she found her home clothes hanging on hooks on the wall. Her fingers brushed the tough fabric of her basic service uniform. She pulled her home pants and shirt from underneath, almost dislodging her gun from its hanger. It scraped against the wall, dangling to and fro.
The piercing cry of a baby grew louder when she opened the door.
“Thimayu!” Mother yelled from elsewhere in the apartment. “Go and feed that child or you pay off the neighbours’ goodwill from your own account.”
For two days in a row, that nasty Merani had filed a complaint about noise with the corridor caretaker, and twice Izramith had gone into the man’s cramped office to deal with it. Pay up or we’ll put in a challenge to the Good Neighbours regulation. Some neighbours were just insufferable, even when they knew what had happened, or maybe even _because_ they knew what had happened, as Thimayu insisted.
Lights flicked on automatically when Izramith walked into the hall, their intensity low at first, so as not to be hard on her eyes. Before the light grew too bright, she crossed to the small room where the cot stood jammed in between the spare bed and the cupboard. The light above the cot gave an eerie blue glow that seemed impossibly bright.
The baby had kicked off his blankets and wriggled until he lay exposed and upside down in his cot with his feet where his head was supposed to be. In the time that Izramith had been awake, his cries had gone from loud to hysterical with great gulps of breath in between. With each cry, his mouth opened wide and his lips drew back over toothless gums. His little hands trembled. Poor thing.
Izramith prised her fingers between the mattress and the soft and sweaty body and lifted him, being careful to support the head. He was so helpless and fragile, a mere bag of loosely-connected bones that felt like they would fall apart if handled too roughly. She held him awkwardly against her body, where he buried his face in her shirt, seeking something that he wasn’t going to find. At least he stopped screaming.
The door to her sister’s bedroom remained closed. Mother was nowhere to be seen, though obviously awake. Izramith hadn’t seen either of them when coming off her shift last night, when the apartment had been quiet enough to look abandoned.
She went into the kitchen, cradling the baby in her arm as she had learned from watching the nurse teach her sister. He was still digging around in her shirt and getting frustrated, making protesting noises. For someone so young and so soft, his little hands were strong enough to pinch the skin.
Using only one hand, she found a bottle in the pantry, grabbed it between her knees and twisted the top to break the seal. A couple of drops of formula splattered on the floor. The baby started screaming again.
She flung the bottle in the heater, waited until it beeped, took it out and sat down with the bundle of screaming, shivering baby. The teat went into the mouth.
The boy drank with great gulps, holding the bottle in both his hands. The milk behind the glass went down visibly.
While he drank, Izramith studied his fine-featured face. The skin below his eyes was wet from tears. How long had he been crying? She wiped the wetness away with the tips of her fingers, which felt coarse enough to damage his newborn skin. Poor, poor thing. If only she’d heard him earlier.
She folded her free arm around him and stroked his little head, ruffling the unruly mop of black hair that stood straight up from his head. It was so soft. He was so perfect against her rough, muscle-corded and scarred skin. New unblemished life in contrast with someone who made a living killing people.
He was her little nephew, the first of the next generation.
His birth two nights ago, in her sister’s bedroom, had changed everything. Izramith couldn’t get that horrible moment out of her mind. Thimayu sat, naked, on the birthing chair. Mother stood behind her, holding her shoulders, backlit by the light on the wall. The nurse crouched on the floor. The final moments of what had been–the nurse said–a pretty normal birth. But the emergence of the child and her sister’s cries of relief were followed by a moment of silence. Stunned, horrible silence that said there is something wrong.
And into that silence, the nurse said, “He’s zhadya-born.”
Thimayu opened her eyes wide. “No,” she shouted. “No, that can’t be.”
“Unfortunately, he is. Look at him.” She held up the baby, thin, the skin pale, with his umbilical cord still attached.
“No. I don’t want that. I don’t want him. He’s not mine.”
Mother said, in a calming voice, “Thimayu, it’s all right.”
She whirled around. “No, it’s not all right. I negotiated that this child would be mine, not Endar’s. I don’t want to look after some freak. I can’t. I can’t, do you hear me?”
Her sister’s hysterical screams still rang in Izramith’s ears. She had not wanted to hold the child, not then and not the next day when she calmed down. Since his birth, she had fed him only a couple of times, and then complained that he creeped her out.
But this little boy in Izramith’s arms was helpless. He was now getting to the last dregs of his milk while his eyelids drooped and his hand kept falling off the bottle only to jerk back up when his eyes opened wide. He looked at her when he did this, as if he felt embarrassed by being caught asleep. It was so unbelievably cute.
He looked healthy, if unusually thin. He would walk and talk long before any of his peers did, and grow into an extremely smart, precocious boy who outsmarted all the kids of his age. He would read and write at an unusually young age. He would know all his lessons backwards. Then, having grown bored with reading and writing, he would start playing mind games, manipulating teachers and elders with cold calculation.
He would become less coherent and withdrawn. Sometimes angry, usually brooding. Often scary, manipulative or downright malicious. He would lie to see what he could get away with, and he would set people up against each other. He would be nice or mean, often in the same sentence, continuously testing the boundaries of acceptance of the people around him. He would say one thing and do the opposite, and would never hold to his promise.
Everything in the house was fuel for fires, and fires would be his obsession. He would overheat his food until it burned, set his clothes on fire and watch the flames creep up his arms. Whenever they lost him, he would be found staring at the underground lava rivers. He would pluck mycelioids from the rocks and throw them in to see how they burned. Or undress himself and burn his clothes. Or he would climb down the rocks until the soles of his feet blistered with the heat. He might even push people into the lava and do nothing as they screamed and died. He would stick in his hands and peel the burnt skin off his victims.
Then he would be arrested by the guards and spend the rest of his life locked up, together with his twisted and crazy peers.
All that would be the future of this helpless creature in her arms. His eyelids drooped and his hands were slipping again. She took the bottle from him and set it on the bench.
His eyes jerked open and focused on Izramith’s. His lips pursed and his face screwed up with a furrowed brow as if the very action was an effort.
People said newborn babies didn’t see and didn’t think, but she knew that wasn’t true. Not for this boy. Two days old, and he knew everything. He watched her. He knew his mother didn’t want him. He knew his grandmother wanted him out of the house. His mother and grandmother were afraid of him. He knew he only had his aunt to keep him out of the Respite Illness Centre, where people who were too ill to be in the community lived their lives in misery.
Izramith stared at his little face. As guard, she had seen the ugly side of the zhadya-born, she had seen the murders they had committed, the family members they had terrorised, locked in cupboards and fed rubbish. She had seen the scars one boy had cut into his sister’s skin _because she annoys me_. She had spoken to bosses whose employees had played games of betrayal. She knew all that, but still couldn’t believe that this helpless creature would do any of those things.
“Come, let’s put you back in bed.” She was on the early shift tomorrow, had been for the last few days, and these nightly escapades didn’t help her level of alertness on the job. Nor would they increase her supervisor’s satisfaction with her, and to be honest, after the warzone of Indrahui, coming back to a dull guard job had been hard enough.
The door to Thimayu’s room opened when she walked back to the nursery.
Izramith didn’t stop and didn’t look at her sister, who stood in the doorway like a ghostly wraith in her nightclothes. She ignored the urge to start yelling and ignored the flick of her sister’s head and the crossed arms over her chest and everything that screamed Dare to criticise me.
Izramith went into the nursery and put the sleeping baby in the cot. Her hands trembled and the skin on the back of her neck pricked with her sister’s gaze.
The baby stirred only a bit when the warm arm at his back became a cold bed. His little hand flopped relaxed on the mattress with a soft thud.
Izramith pulled the messed-up blanket off the bed, draped it over him and tucked the ends in. She left the room after having planted a kiss on his head. The hair was so soft.
Thimayu still stood in the doorway, glaring.
Their eyes met. Izramith’s anger flared. “Don’t look at me like that, sister. I just fed your baby.”
Thimayu said nothing. She looked pale, with hollow eyes and her belly still too big and floppy from carrying the child. Had she even slept since he was born?
Izramith reached her bedroom door. With her hand on the handle, she said, “You are allowed to say, Thank you, sister. That would be the least I expect.”
Another flash of anger welled in her.
Fuck it, fuck her stupid dysfunctional family who couldn’t even agree on being civil to each other. Was this why she’d made the effort to come back?
She slid the door aside, went into the room and slid the door shut again with more force than necessary. It crashed into the frame with a thunk. The walls rattled and the door bounced straight back open.
Izramith whirled around. Stupid piece of furniture.
Thimayu was still glaring.
“I didn’t ask you to feed him and look after him.” Her voice was prim.
“Then what were you going to do? Let him cry, like you did last time? Get complaints from the neighbours? That bitch Merani has probably told everyone in the corridor how you’ve gone to pieces and aren’t fit to be a mother.”
“I’m not a mother.” Thimayu turned on her heel and slammed the door behind her. Not as hard as Izramith had slammed it. The door stayed shut.
Izramith glared at the door. Her sister would probably stay there for most of the day, and ignore everything to do with the child. Mother might take pity on him, but she wasn’t much better.
Izramith was on duty and couldn’t look after him.
And the fuck, her sister was going to take some responsibility.
In a few steps, she had crossed the hallway. She grabbed the door handle to her sister’s room and pushed. The door moved a fraction but wouldn’t open. Thimayu was trying to keep it closed from the inside.
“Open the fucking door so I can look you in the face.”
“Mind your own business!” Thimayu’s shrill voice came through the door.
Izramith gave the door a huge heave. Something broke and slipped. The door opened. Thimayu screamed and retreated, holding up her hands. The nail on her left index finger had ripped off and blood streamed down her hand, dripping onto the floor.
“Now look what you’ve done.”
“I don’t fucking care. I don’t know what’s wrong with you. Since when are your nails more important than your son? I’ve had enough of your stupid obsession with clothes and other selfish things. You are going to promise me to take responsibility. You are not going to cause any more complaints from the neighbours, because I’m not going back to that office and pay another fee. And if that means Merani will turn up at the door to beat the shit out of you, that will be your problem.” Merani would do that, too, being an ex-guard. And Thimayu with all her style and pretty clothes would be no match.
“Mind your own business. You can’t tell me what to do.”
“Yes, I can, because you’re pathetic, hopeless and weak. I have spent a year in war, crawling in sand and mud, in the cold, to keep people safe. People who are poor but grateful. You have everything you’d want and you can’t see it for self-pity. You’d let a baby suffer. You’d embarrass Mother. You can hardly look after yourself–”
“Shut up, shut up, shut up!” Thimayu covered her face with her hands, smearing blood on the front of her nightgown. “Go back to the war if you’re going to be such a prick about it. Go and be a hero. I didn’t ask you to come back to mother over me.”
“You need to stop this. There is a child who needs a mother–”
“I don’t want him! Leave me alone. Get out of my room.” Thimayu crossed the space between them, and shoved Izramith in the chest.
Izramith grabbed her sister’s upper arms and pushed her back until she hit the wall with a thud that made the walls rattle. Mother shouted something in the next room, probably about annoying the neighbours.
Panting, Izramith glared into her sister’s eyes. They were not as richly gold-flecked as those of most Coldi, and their defiant gaze evoked a deep emotion in her. It wasn’t hatred or jealousy, but a feeling that she had tried to suppress most of her life: the urge to fight.
From as young as she could remember, Thimayu had been Mother’s favourite, because she was older, and smarter, and always did what Mother wanted her to do. And now it all fell apart and what did she do? Complain and hide in her room and shirk her responsibilities like an entitled brat.
Thimayu tried to push Izramith away, but only succeeded in smearing both of them with blood. Izramith held her sister’s arms in a strong grip. She said in Thimayu’s face, “You thought you could beat me, big sister? Don’t you know that no one beats a Hedron guard in a fight?”
“Has it come to fighting now? Didn’t we finish with that when we were little?” She spat out the words. “I’m not afraid of you.”
“What’s this childish behaviour?” A voice sounded behind Izramith’s back.
Mother. She stood in the doorway to her bedroom, her arms crossed over her chest. Her hair, now mostly grey than black, stood from her head like a fuzzy halo.
“She’s bullying me,” Thimayu said.
“Izramith, can you be more considerate with your sister? She’s supposed to be resting, not being pushed against a wall.”
Izramith let go of her sister’s arms. She said in a low voice, “Of course you’re not afraid of me while Mother is watching, coward.”
Thimayu smirked and Izramith made a threatening gesture to her.
She knew what Mother would say. Fighting was not done. It was ugly and primitive. Fighting was how the Coldi people on Asto settled who belonged in which position in their associations. But they didn’t do associations at Hedron. They were much more civilised than that.
Stuff like that. She had heard it so many times before.
Izramith met her mother’s eyes, barely containing the anger. “Whether we fight or not, Thimayu is going to take responsibility for her child.”
Thimayu said, “I’ve sorted it. I told you I want him to be looked after at the Respite Illness Centre. That’s where he’s going.”
“What? He’s only two days old. He hasn’t even done anything.”
Thimayu snorted. “For now. Don’t be stupid. You know what it means to be zhadya-born. You know all the trouble he’ll get into. You’ll know he’ll never have a normal life. You know that if he’s allowed to bond with us he’s likely to try to kill us. I can’t look after him. You can’t look after him. You’re hardly ever here anyway. We can’t expect Mother to look after him, either. I don’t want any of us to become attached to him and then for him to betray us in some horrible way, or worse.”
Izramith protested weakly. “He’s a baby.” But he would do all those things. Her argument was slipping and she knew it.
She turned around and went to the room’s door. The anger still burned inside her, but she had become used to that feeling. Thimayu did everything to avoid a fight, and fighting might resolve the issue of who had the right to speak, but it would not help the boy. In fact, she wasn’t sure anything could help him.
She wanted to pick him up and run out with him. She wanted to take him somewhere safe. But that wasn’t going to solve the problem. A young boy had faulty genes. And he was going to grow up in a terrible place, and, with time, become a terrible, manipulative person. And there was not a thing she could do to stop it.
“When?” she asked, feeling weak.
“He’ll be gone by morning.”