This story contains references to mass atrocities or genocide.
Before the coup, Nuria heard that the descendants of the serpent ruled the city.
She saw it once, in a temple ruin on her way to the city as a barefoot, shackled child. The marble effigy was barely more than a stump, its sleek head and outstretched wings shattered by the hilts of conquerors’ blades. Later, Yessenia told her the legend: Long ago, before conquest drove refugees from riverbanks and mountains into crowded slums, each family among the serpent’s descendants owned a single white feather from the god’s plumage. It passed from generation to generation, treasured and guarded. It was said that if a child of the serpent burned their heirloom in their time of need, salvation would descend on feathered wings.
“But I don’t believe in fairy tales.” Yessenia’s tone closed the story, crisp as the latch of a chest. Cool night draped between her and Nuria. They sat above the foreign princess’s chambers, having leaped from balcony to parapet to roof, seeking privacy. They perched there nightly, maid and guardswoman, whispering elaborate escape schemes as the princess snored and the moonlight thickened.
Yessenia, herself a descendant of the serpent, rubbed the tattoo of the feather on the inside of her left forearm. She gazed over the occupied city that was once her birthright, her long ivory hair — loose from a stolen tumble with Nuria, silent so as not to wake the princess — gleaming like folded wings over her shoulders. These were her only inheritance now: ink against a bowstring’s callous, pressed into her flesh so long ago she had no memory of it. Her voice was bitter with loss as she said to Nuria, “Only you believe in magic anymore.”
Now, the foreign princess Nuria and Yessenia served is dead.
In a single night, the throne has passed hands. History rewrites itself. When the bloody sun rises, morning will canonize the victorious in gold and forget Nuria and Yessenia between one verse and the next. Servants are but shadows, after all — shadows that have already been forgotten in the coup’s long, moonless night. The rebels set fire to the princess’s quarters, not caring that there might be servants trapped in that tower room without means of escape. Soon there will be nothing left to burn but the floor beneath their feet and then their own flesh. Two more nameless casualties of a red-soaked coup enacted, it will later be said, for the greater good of the city.
Nuria faces the wall of flame between them and the door, her grip on Yessenia’s sweaty hand bone-tight. Her heartbeat tumbles, thick with terror. Her breath scorches, offering no respite.
This cannot be her end, their end: lungs straining for air as her flesh roasts, excruciatingly slow. Not now. Not like this. Dizzy and choked by smoke, she knows one thing: she does not want to die.
Her parents’ end by scimitar was quick, at least. They had no warning; their home was among the first raided as conquerors swept into their frontier city. Nuria was snatched for the slaver’s caravan, her dress the only thing that did not burn as acrid black smoke billowed through the mages’ quarter. Thousands of manuscripts about her parents’ arts perished that day, victims of iconoclastic zeal and the greed of conquerors.
Nuria should believe in magic. Her childhood was laced with it: every mug of spiced tea glimmered, effervescent with potential; every bedtime tale of resurrected gods was resplendent with its promise. Even her Baba’s goats in the courtyard were a part of a life’s education in magic.
“No matter what I teach you,” he said, resting the weight of his hand on her shoulder, “remember the goats.”
Nuria frowned, watching the goats race around the courtyard. A vigilant doe shooed mischievous yearlings away from her velvet-faced kids.
“What’s worth pursuing isn’t power or wealth or the confidence of kings,” Baba said, gesturing around the courtyard. “It’s this.”
A home of one’s own. A family. Goats.
But shackles weighed on Nuria’s neck and ankles; choked by enslavement, she kept her chin low, her eyes downcast. She forgot Baba’s lesson. The ears of the powerful were the currency of the conquerors; she bought and traded in it every time she was bartered from home to home, coldly grateful for how her wiles brought her into a palace, into the comfortable service of a conqueror’s daughter. Into a harem guarded by young warrior women.
Among them was Yessenia, with her long ivory plait and eyes like black sesame.
She tasted magic again on Yessenia’s lips. It stirred under her skin as they perched together in starlight, shoulder to shoulder and thigh to thigh, gazing at the city below. The fey wildness in Yessenia reminded her of Baba’s goats: brash, bullish, loyal. Her tenderness made Nuria feel less barren when they dreamed of escaping, of a life in faraway mountains.
“I want goats,” Nuria would say.
“Six of ’em.”
“Six!” Yessenia’s laughter was silver castanets, falling to the city below like shattered moonlight. That was magic. Her sly grin, that wink of a chipped tooth. “We’ll see if I can afford you.”
The feathered serpent coils through Nuria’s mind as smoke and burning silk scorch her nostrils. A wall of flame stands between her and the door; heat ripples thickly as she tightens her grip on Yessenia’s hand.
As she lifts it.
Yessenia’s sleeve falls back from her wrist; the feather’s ink gleams wet with sweat and rippling heat.
They will not die in fire. This is not their end.
Nuria places her palm on the tattoo. Only you believe in magic anymore. Because she was raised with it, until it was stolen from her.
But with Yessenia, she will steal back.
Yessenia’s shoulders lurch with coughing. “What are you doing?”
Nuria’s voice is hoarse. “I want goats.”
Gold stirs in her chest as she reaches into Yessenia’s skin. She takes the tattooed feather and pulls.
The feather is not white, like she expected. It slips like a splinter from beneath Yessenia’s calluses, slick with blood and wet like afterbirth. She clutches its shaft like a trophy before Yessenia’s wide eyes.
“Take it,” she whispers.
Yessenia obeys. She reads Nuria like a dance partner and thrusts the feather before them, into the flames.
It curls, resisting; then, it blazes. Yessenia cries out, holding it aloft like a beacon.
She looks down, a feral hope on her sweat-streaked face that Nuria knows is mirrored in her own.
“Six goats!” Yessenia shouts over the fire’s roar.
Nuria’s vision blurs as the feather burns down. She steps into her end: Yessenia’s embrace.
Loose hair stings her face as a wind rises, whipped by flames.
Or perhaps by wings.