It is 703 years before the common era.
Ella lives in the castle of King Sennacherib. Its upper levels are a thing of great majesty and glory, and the King and Ella’s sisters live there. Below that are the humbler quarters of the servants and Ella herself. In the warren beneath are cages, endless cages, full of fiends. And deeper yet, there is a dark and private place, full of a fetid, feline stench. When life is too much for her, Ella goes there, and finds the hidden rag doll she calls Tanit, and talks to it in the dark.
“Tanit,” she says, “I will tell you a story.”
“Story!” cheers Tanit. “Story!”
“There is something that even the monster fears,” she says.
Ella imagines that Tanit’s eyes are round.
“When Sodom fell,” she says, “there were two sisters who survived the scourge. Their names were Lia and Amiel.”
“Yes,” Tanit agrees, wisely.
“And Maya looked back on the city, and saw an oracle there that made her cry. It said: Amiel and Lia will love one another forever. But Lia will die, and her children will die, and all her line be mortal. And as Lia dies, Amiel will promise her, ‘I will guard your line, and our families be entwined forever.’
“And this she promised.
“And the oracle said: And these words will be false, for the guardians will prove false. Amiel shall have a daughter, and she a daughter, and she a son. And he will bear a line of men turned monsters, and they shall prey on Lia’s brood, and bring them every misery and sorrow.”
Tanit stomps her foot, or so Ella imagines. “But the monster is afraid!”
“Before she died,” Ella says, “Amiel returned to Sodom, and cracked the pillar of salt; and Maya came forth, and spoke her oracle; and Amiel set a curse on her own line. That as long as there were monsters, there could be heroes.”
Tanit considers this.
“Do you see?” Ella says. “Somewhere, there is a hero. Someone who can kill him. Someone who can fight him. He’ll come here. He’ll save me.”
She picks up the rag doll and hugs her.
“Like a prince,” she says.
Ella is prized among Sennacherib’s maidens. She is a treasure of his realm. But she takes no joy in it. He makes her do hard work from morning until night. She gets up before daybreak, carries water, lights fires, cooks and washes. She sleeps in the ashes of the fire, for she has no bed. Her sisters spill her meals there, or fill her drawers with spiders. Sennacherib cuts her, sometimes, with a thin silver blade. And one day, he names the duty: “You must clean the fiends’ cages.”
Where the fiends dwell, caged like animals, it is dark and cold and quiet. They have the faces of men or monsters, but they are not either. They are madness given form. And she lowers the grate that divides their cages, and scrubs out one half; then lets them back and scrubs out the other. She does this in silence, for she is terrified of fiends. Yet she cannot help naming them, for they are her only companions in this darkness. Razor, she calls one. Tsebanath, she names another. The worst she calls White Lion, for its great bulk is leonine in its way. Its face is the least human of them all, and its mouth larger than her sleeping hearth.
One day, as she cleans its cage, White Lion rumbles:
Ella, Ella, maiden raw.
Come and sleep between my jaws.
She turns and regards it, her heart rate rising. Only one word comes to her mind, so she speaks it: “No!”
White Lion’s eyes close, softly. “I will wait.”
Weeks pass, and months. Ella’s sister Aishah finds Tanit, Ella knows not how, and makes a show of disemboweling the doll before the court. Laughter beats against the boundaries of Ella’s mind. And, as she does every week, she goes down below to clean the cages of the fiends.
Ella, Ella, end your grief.
Let me taste you, root and leaf.
Maiden shining, maiden raw.
Rest your head between my jaws.
“No,” she insists, voice breaking with fear. And White Lion’s eyes close.
“I will wait.”
Weeks pass, and months. Ella dreams of a hero, but the dreams are cold and distant. It is harder to cling to such dreams in days like these.
Ella, Ella, fair of face.
I know a special, secret place.
Let your winter turn to thaw.
Come and sleep between my jaws.
She sits down, exhausted, on the floor.
“Please,” she says. “Do not do this.”
It regards her, silent.
“I don’t want to die.”
“Ah,” rumbles White Lion.
“So I don’t want you to eat me.”
White Lion hisses, and its fetid breath casts clouds of dust across the room. “Child,” it says, “I do not wish to devour you. I wish to know you.”
“You know how we are made,” it says.
“My sisters,” Ella says. “Aishah. Zenobia. He . . . emptied them, and broke them. Then he used their emptiness to make you.”
“There are angels in this castle,” White Lion says. “They are born to fill Zenobia’s emptiness with hope. And fiends, to answer Aishah’s hurt with madness. And demons, and ghosts, and dragons, besides. Yet we are not whole. He keeps us from them. In that separation is his strength.”
The fiends in their cages are still now. They are listening to White Lion.
“I wish to know you,” White Lion says. “To become yours. And then to know you further. Then I will not be weak. I will be complete. And I will be free.”
“I won’t,” she whispers. “I don’t want you.”
So she goes up to the hearth, and curls up in the ashes, and shivers herself to sleep.
“Good morning, Ella,” says a voice. It’s a girl’s voice, but still Ella starts awake, and thinks of heroes. It is with two sickening shocks in turn that she sees the truth: not a hero, nor a girl, but rather a tiny fairy maid, leaning against the hearth. In defiance of the dirt and ash, the fairy’s blue gown is as pristine as the sky.
“No,” Ella whispers.
“My name,” the fairy says, “is Tanit. And I have come to deliver you from this place.”
“Please don’t be real.”
The fairy looks dispassionately at her. “It’s not for you or I to decide such things. I exist; I am here; we must both learn to cope.”
Ella holds out her hand, and the fairy steps into it, and Ella holds her up. “He wants me to break,” she says. “He wants to drain away the pieces of myself, until my soul is a patchwork of gossamer. Then he will use the emptiness and use it to craft gods. If you are real, then it means that I am breaking. That I have begun to resemble the void. And that you are the first child of it.”
Tanit sighs and sits down, cross-legged in Ella’s palm.
“Do you know what fairies are?” she asks.
So Tanit speaks:
Each person has a world.
It is just so long,
And just so wide,
And just so tall.
Yet there are things beyond its boundaries.
Wildness and magic.
When emptiness looks on the beyond,
The fire casts reflections.
“That is a fairy,” Tanit says. “We are the reflections of that fire. The radiance of the beyond. And I can offer you freedom.”
“No,” Ella says, and her eyes fill with tears. “I’ve tried. I ran, once. I ran all the way to the castle gates. They were there. In sight. And I stopped. I could not make myself go further. I sat down. I waited for him to find me. To punish me. Because I was not strong enough.”
“I could only choose two things,” Ella says quietly. “To hate myself, or to say, ‘There can be no freedom.'”
Tanit looks down at herself. Her wings shimmer. “Yet I reflect something,” she says. “For I am here.”
Ella tilts her head to one side. “You smell of cat,” she says. Then there’s a mad rage in her eyes, and she flings the fairy to one side, and Tanit flutters dazedly about and scarcely misses the wall.
“No!” Ella shouts.
At the sound of that voice, Ella goes still. Tanit becomes the drifting of disturbed cinders in the air; and if this is voluntary or involuntary, Ella does not know. She does not care. The voice is Aishah’s, and Aishah is walking in.
“Ella,” Aishah says, “you must not shout so, early in the morning.” She smiles. It’s a crooked, bent smile. “It is not surprising from a filthy cinder girl, but it is still improper.”
“I’m sorry,” Ella says. She ducks her head.
Aishah’s eyes widen. “Dear Ella,” she says.
“No,” whispers Ella; but Aishah walks to her, and lifts her chin.
“Why,” Aishah says, “there’s a hollow in your voice, and in your eyes.”
“You are becoming like us.” Some of the coldness fades from Aishah’s voice. It is layered, for a moment, with a bright, mad joy.
“Sister,” Aishah says, “it is a thing to celebrate. If this is so, I can give aside my torment of you, and spilling your meals in the ashes, and filling your drawers with spiders. At long last! We may be siblings again. I can dress you in finest raiment, and we can braid one another’s hair, and we can talk of fine and precious things.”
“I am not like you yet.”
Aishah’s eyes shutter. “No,” she says. And she walks to the door. “Yet still I will hold to pleasure, in my heart. For I have longed for this. I have longed for him to raise you up, to join us at his side, and no more the fiends, and no more the knives. I have missed you; and you have been too stubborn in your self to care.”
Then she is gone. And as Tanit reforms, Ella snatches her from the air, and Ella flees like a beast down into the castle’s depths.
“White Lion, White Lion,” she says.
White lion, white lion,
Would you taste of my skin?
Rip the King open from torso to chin.
White lion, white lion,
Do you want to be mine?
Rip the King open from stomach to spine.
White lion, white lion,
This maiden is yours
If you’ll kill the King whom my sister adores.
White Lion studies her for a time.
“I will tell you a secret,” it rumbles.
“What secret is that?”
“In all the years since Lia and Amiel,” White Lion says, “there has not been a hero.”
It is a cold white shock.
“Why are you not a god, Ella?” White Lion asks. “Why are you flesh? Why can my teeth cut you? Why can my claws cleave your bones?”
Ella hesitates. The pressure of its gaze is on her, and a blinding headache rises.
“Because there is a price.”
It pads forward, and its cage cracks and breaks. It sets its paw on her chest and she sinks like paper to the ground.
“Listen,” it breathes, and its stink washes over her. “We are as we define ourselves, whether fairy, fiend, or maid. If you wish a hero, then become one.”
Its mouth comes down over her, and swallows her in darkness and pain.
“What price?” she asks the darkness.
But in the end, it does not matter.
“I want to kill him,” she says.
The stench makes her dizzy. She is on the verge of fainting. She thinks about what she has chosen; and then makes a small correction.
“I promise,” she says. “I will kill him.”