A few days before the end of our world, my mother took me to her favorite tailor to be fit for a dress I would never wear.
She swept through Amaurel’s opulent central gallery like a dragon made of merlot and diamond, her chin high, her tongue cavalier. She wore her best shopping-gown: ruby-red silk, cut close around her neck, with the opinionated souls of our best-dressed relations running back five hundred years trapped inside the diamonds sewn into the bodice.
I let her dart and fuss and agree with the souls, all of them whispering aloud about my boy-broad shoulders, my pallid complexion, my nails like the claws of ghosts. My mother approached shopping the way my father took to war, and the souls of our long-lost would not let her rest until my tomboy nature was conquered. She was thorough, surgical, with her coins tossed like aetherfire off an airship in her never-ending battle to make me a lady.
Outside, other women traversed the graceful marble halls of the gallery, ivory-boned fans snapping open, gliding into shops like the swans I would never resemble.
My mother pressed a length of coral silk against the angry flush of my cheek. “I think we’ll pair this with your grandmother’s diamond for your debut,” she said. “She’ll keep you from slouching.”
She was wearing my grandmother’s soul in the diamond around her neck, as she always did. It lay in the hollow of her throat, whispering about my graceless rebellion.
“Grandmother didn’t even like this color,” I said, poking at the rubies under her collarbone, at my great-aunts and third-cousins, just to make the souls inside angry. “She would have thought it gauche.”
“Lia, dear,” my mother said, swatting away my hand, “fashions change, but the reasons we wear them do not. A gown is a political statement. A gown is language. If you’re going to rise in society, you’re going to have to start wearing decent souls on a decent dress.”
I had long since tired of my mother’s lessons: these polite assaults, this bastard corsetry. But what was I supposed to do? Tell her no? I was her only daughter. My mother would have fought her little war for my appearance, her weapons silk and silver and the voices of our family’s dead, even if we’d known that our world was already over, that the armies of the underworld were slipping through our walls through broaches and hatpins, necklaces and bangles, boxes and bags, using Amaurel’s favorite things against her.
She still would have tried, even if she’d known she’d go to her death in sackcloth and cotton, lying outside her strangecoach on the broken boulevard, the string on her felt hat swaying in the ashen breeze.
I believe that she would have approved of her corpse.
I suppose there’s that, at least.
The other great families fled to the country as soon as it was clear that our city was at war. We should have gone with them, but my father was an experienced brigade commander and believed we would win, and my mother believed my father.
We had no reason to think otherwise. We were rich in the way particular to Amaurel: Mother and Father and I, guarding a thousand souls living inside a thousand precious gems stacked in a vault at the heart of our house on the hill. The art of the soul-gem has faded with the death of Amaurel’s way of life, and no-one outside the city has been able to replicate the ritual: the human soul, severed from the body at the moment of death with the right kind of knife and inscribed inside a precious stone. The human soul, diverted from its passage to the underworld, fashioned to serve the living in homes and strangecoaches and airships and weapons and clothing. This was our destiny.
My father thought Mother and I could defend our family’s soul-gems. He had also banked on the war being easy to win and over by midsummer.
But the city guard began to arrive at our manse on a regular, terrifying schedule, in their scarlet coats, their faces streaked with ghost-soot. The airships needed souls, they said, to power the great reactors in their bellies; to keep the forces of the underworld at bay. A hundred soul-gems every day, burned to oblivion to save the living. The poor had given all they could. Our vaults held what was left. They came and they came until eventually every soul in our vault went to the airships; every lord of our family who had come before, every lowly second son, every dead infant and childless aunt and the emeralds, rubies, and diamonds in which they slept.
But one day, my mother refused to let the guards in the house. She blocked the door in a torn powder-blue dressing-gown, her legs splayed wide, a thin pastel bulwark against an avalanche of wide men with exhausted faces. The guards pushed her aside, against the wall, the largest of them crushing his hand against my mother’s neck, just above where my grandmother’s soul lay in a pendant, cold against her skin. Even then, the soul was still whispering to be kind, be gracious, be quiet, be sweet, tend to your appearance so they spare you.
“Please,” my mother whispered. “You’ve taken everything else. Please leave us something.”
The guard gave his answer by closing his hand around the diamond that had once been my grandmother, yanking the ribbon away from Mama’s neck. The others pushed inside, tracking mud up the stairs.
Enraged, I grabbed a broom and gave chase. I did not think it would stop them, but my mother was crying, and I had to do something. They wrested the broom from my hand, hit me across the face, and sent me tumbling down the stairs. My shoulder cracked against the marble floor, sending pain shuddering down my spine, but I pulled myself up and followed them anyway.
I was far too late. The guards had found where we’d hidden the dresses.
Theirs was a lurid business. They needed silk to fly the airships and souls to feed the reactors. They took out their soulknives and started cutting. They cast aside the art of it all: the delicate boning, the embroidery, the fabric flowers fashioned to encircle my mother’s delicate throat. They abducted the garden skirts and the blue cape and the rose-gold ballgown she’d bought me in the gallery a month before. They yanked the soul-gems from the bodices, my aunts and cousins, one by one, leaving the dresses silent and broken. My mother watched this from the door as if she were watching a murder.
I tried to stop them. “Please,” I said. “You’re breaking her heart.”
They left the boning on the ground like unburied skeletons.
The loss of the souls could have been managed. It was the loss of their voices that broke my mother.
This is one of the things I mean when I speak about the struggles of the women of Amaurel. My mother no longer knew what to do. She wandered the manse like one of the underworld ghosts herself, drawing the curtains tight against the swirling smoke of the lower city. She had been listening to her own mother for so long, following the ancient voices and the false certainty they provided, that now in the silence of our shattered house, she found she had no words of her own.
So, without a debut, without a talent for dresses and tea, I found myself taking up the tasks of lady of the house while my mother reclined on the divan in the conservatory, full of wine and tears, desperate to stay, to wait for Father.
I realized that this was the way our life was now, that she was no longer the woman who ruled the gallery, and that she could no longer be trusted to make the decisions that needed to be made. I paid the staff until they left for the last time, and then I scrubbed the dishes and the floors once they were gone. I made my mother breakfast and I made her dinner and I chose her clothes. She hated that the most of everything, I think.
When the deliveries stopped coming, and I started cutting mold off the last few crusts of bread, I knew we would starve if we stayed. I poured her the last of the southern black tea like a bribe, stirring a final spoonful of sugar with a practiced hand. I would not lose one grain to carelessness. “We need to leave town, Mama.”
“We need to wait for your father,” she responded. Her voice had lost volume and heft. She would not scare shopgirls now.
I kept my voice sweet and kind, even though my grandmother’s soul was no longer there to chide me. “We have three days of food left. That’s enough to see us through until we get to the country house if we take the strangecoach and leave tonight. If we wait for Father, we die of hunger.”
“No.” She raised her right hand, cutting me off. The left clawed at the bathrobe she was wearing; her fingers were bony and bare. The guard had even taken her wedding ring. The ring, inhabited by one of my father’s relations from the previous century, known for his chivalry, had spoken only of love and loyalty and care.
“We don’t have a choice.”
“We have every choice,” she snapped.
“We go, Mama, or we die.”
The old edge scraped back into her voice. She pointed to our ragged dressing-gowns. “There are worse things than death, Lia. I am the lady of this house, and you are the daughter of a thousand souls. We cannot go outside like this. We cannot be seen like this. We may as well be among the soulless.”
“We will be,” I said, “if we stay here.”
“I have made my decision,” she said, looking back down at her embroidery.
I pushed up and away from the table, saying nothing more. The lady of the house had spoken. What else could I do? I was little Lia, who could not dress herself properly; mat-haired, rebellious Lia, who could not keep even the barest of grooming standards. How could dirty Lia have the strength to leave everything she’d ever known?
I was halfway to my room when I realized that if my mother needed a proper visiting gown to leave the city, then I would have to find her one.
The next day, I drugged my mother’s wine so she would sleep the afternoon away and not notice my absence. Once she was dozing on the divan, I went to Papa’s office. I opened the guard-broken cabinet where he used to keep his own father’s soul in the ancient dark sword he had taken to war, and I chose the blank soulknife that remained. This was the knife that would have held his soul after he died, would have whispered advice to my future husband and hastened him through the world of politics, just as my mother would have lain at my chest and guided me through the gallery. It was set with a quiet, dead emerald, ready for an occupant soul.
I was more interested in its nasty blade.
I packed a bag with the family silver, in case I could use it for trade, and went to the stable. The family strangecoach was inhabited by a soul so old it was no longer human. It trembled, frightened of the sounds of war, and needed to be gently cajoled, to be fed the last of the good oil, to have its dead leather flank patted—but it acquiesced to my intentions, and I stepped inside and we set out from the house for the first time in weeks.
I don’t know what I expected to see. I hoped, like my mother hoped, that the city would have been carrying on like our house had carried on. I hoped to see lanterns in the windows, to see people moving in and out of the farmer’s market and the chandlery, perhaps even sitting in the sidewalk cafes.
Stunned at my own naivete, I could hardly breathe as the strangecoach careened through blank, broken streets. This was not the bright city I remembered. This city had buildings scorched to the ground by aetherfire. This city had skinny human bodies hiding in houses that were less than façades, with bricks that crumbled down front stairs as dull and cracked as peasants’ teeth. I felt a scrambling disappointment; there would be no help here.
Near the shopping district, the men and women and children in their black and ash saw our coat of arms and swarmed the strangecoach. I yelled at the coach to go faster, frightened and ashamed of my fear. The coach lurched forward, trailing a chain of terrified hands; they had the shaking, starving look of those who had already sold their souls for hope or for money, of those who walked in their bodies but had no future.
We pushed on towards the gallery. I tightened my hand on the soulknife and reassured myself that I’d only have to be there for a few minutes. I knew the shops my mother liked and the colors she favored. There had to be something left.
There had to be.
The bright glass windows of the gallery had once been housed in stone arches stretching in sequence down the most beautiful street of the city, reflecting the fountains that surrounded it. I tied the strangecoach to a dead lantern so the poor thing wouldn’t run off or hide, and it cowered away from the street, as spooked and scared as I was.
When I passed through the broken gallery gate, I realized my mistake. ‘Looted’ was too pleasant a word for the destruction I saw. The row of smart tailors’ shops were smashed. Their ivory doors hung off broken hinges, and their windows were shattered; dirt swirled into their blank spaces on dark winds. I picked up a bolt of braided silver trim unbound from its roll. I was completely alone. I should have run right then, but I still needed to find something to help my mother leave the house.
The air changed. It tasted wrong. Broken. The wind rushed in, and a figure coalesced in front of me. In that moment, I smelled ash and oil, and understood that Amaurel was truly dead.
I knew this because I was staring at my father.
I had never seen a soul alive outside of a jewel—but this was no happy memory, singing in diamond-bound light. This soul had been dragged to the underworld, had been whirled into the great singing quiet and twisted into a tool for the darkness. This soul was smoke-grey, hanging in swirling embers a foot from my face, tracing the barest line of shoulder and neck and torso, dark mouth a downturned line, stinking of the grave.
I always hated you, it whispered. I should have killed you when you were born.
I stumbled backwards. So this was what had happened to my father’s brigade. “Papa, no.”
In answer, the soul slipped around my neck like a vise, like a noose, then forced open my mouth, reached down into the soft, sour range of my palate, and spoke of the soulknife I did not deserve, the disappointment I had been since birth, the death that faces all rebellious women. In a moment of grainy, greying despair, I stopped struggling.
Death seized my heart, then, and I knew I had but one choice. I tore at my shirt, shaking my shoulders, throwing myself against the wall, clanging sense into my head with the painful impact of my skull against the brick. My father loved me. He loved me, and I would not let this ghostly parody turn me into the thing he had become. I ran, my footsteps chiming bright against the broken glass. My throat was on fire. I stumbled and fell, then pulled myself up from the gutter, my clothes streaked with dirt and char, my father’s ghost clutching at the back of my neck with icy, sharp tendrils. I kept running until I was outside and could see the sky, sucking down the dirty city air like anesthetic.
The dying gallery was close enough to the airship fields that I could feel the screams of the souls in their reactors like shapeless earthquakes under my feet. My father’s ghost must have felt them, too, because he stopped at the gate and huddled in the shadow, giving me enough time to hop back in the strangecoach and tear away for home.
My mother was awake when I arrived. She screamed with anger at my deception, but her fury dissolved into broken sobs as soon as she threw her arms around me. I held her tight, still tasting ash and oil on my tongue.
“I thought you were gone,” she whispered into my ear. “I thought I was alone. Don’t you dare do that to me ever again.”
I trembled, feeling the fear hover at the back of my throat. I pushed the bag with the silver into her hands. “Pack,” I said.
She pushed the bag back against my breastbone. “Pack? For what? I don’t have a decent dress. I can’t go anywhere. And if we get to the country house and we’re not dressed, we’ll be —”
This again. The curse of the women of Amaurel. “None of that matters anymore,” I said.
She hesitated. “It’s the only thing that matters.”
“Your life matters! We have to go!”
“I won’t leave,” she said. “Your father might come home.”
And I thought of his ghost in my throat, of the underworld curses he might tell my mother as she died. I could not leave her to that. I shivered down to my bones.
“It’s all right, Mama. I know what you need. I’ll have you ready to leave. I promise.”
I left her silent in the hall, the bag still at her feet.
In the highest room of our tower over the empty vault of souls, I sewed. I salvaged towels from the bathroom, scraps from a cloth bag the housekeeper left behind, the remains of my father’s undershirts. I took my white sheets and dyed them using a few near-rancid beets I found in the root cellar. I had but one night, not the three days it would take for a project of this caliber. I could not let that stop me.
The needle felt thin and cold in my hand. I listened to the wind howl, heard my mother cry, slipped all my sadness and my regret and my anger into each stitch. I had sewn before—we were women from Amaurel, we all sewed—but never like this. Never so fast.
I cut sleeves and laid them out, tracing the outline of my mother in arms and legs and belly and neck, as if I were creating a diorama of her body, an outline of everything she was. I used my father’s soulknife to cut the spread that became the skirt. I drew up ruching along the main seams and rolled old whalebone into the bodice. I stitched flowers—roses, her favorite, in red and yellow and blue, with bright green stems. I sewed in everything I was: all my dreams, all the things I never told her. I sewed in all the things I would have been if not for my mother’s blood, if not for Amaurel. A gown is language, she liked to say. A gown is a story.
And there was only one story left to tell.
I picked up the knife that was to go to the husband I would never have, the knife that was intended to house my father’s soul. It was a quiet, searing thing to slide it down my arm in the old ritual. To say the words that parted my soul from my body.
I felt a terrible rush, a pop under my breastbone, a quiet twirling under my skin, a growing, tearing pain like my heart was breaking, like my blood was boiling. The room went hot and bright, and then I was empty, calm, shaking, staring at the emerald in the hilt of the knife alive and swirling with the gold expanse of my soul.
Get your mother, said the knife with my own voice. Get out of here.
My mother knew immediately what had happened, as I descended the tower stairs the next morning with the dress on one arm and the knife in the other.
Her green eyes filled with tears when she saw the dress. She pressed her fingers to her mouth, then took it in her hands, running her palm up and down the bedroom-curtain bodice, the bedsheet sleeves, the haphazard seams. I expected her to criticize the color choices, to turn it over and note the mismatched buttons, the crooked hem, the place where I hurried the cut at the waist because we were simply out of time.
“It’s beautiful, Lia,” she whispered, even though it was not, even though it was a hurried, disgusting mismatch, even though I felt no pride and no shame. There was a blank place in my heart where I would have once been desperate for her praise, and maybe the moment itself would have been beautiful had I still the ability to care.
I helped her into the dress, placing an old felt hat on her head, tying the string under her chin. I popped the emerald with my entangled soul into the housing of her favorite broach, then pinned it right above her breast, near her heart.
If she needed a soul to speak to her, she would have one.
She wept. Her breath hitched. “Oh, Lia,” she said. “No.”
“Can you go outside now?” I asked.
She closed her mouth. I imagined her saying something about proper shoes, about how a winter hat needs a whiter feather, but sometimes she did love me, and sometimes she showed it. She touched the swirling emerald, her hands trembling. Her eyes went wide as she heard the whispers of my voice. They were low. Quiet.
Mine was a new soul, unaccustomed to speaking on its own. But it would do the trick, I imagined.
You can, Mama, it whispered to the both of us.
The strangecoach sat cowering in the stable, lapping up the last of the lamp oil. We asked it for one more favor, and the ancient soul wobbled when we entered and closed its door to shade us in darkness but skittered into motion, heading around the manse and down the back hill towards the southern gate. It was sunset and the light came through the window in thick, guttering chunks of orange and red, breaking through the shattered roofs and smashed facades of merchants’ townhouses, dancing around the people in the road.
The city shuddered in its death throes. We saw dozens of families, men and women and bedraggled, war-worn children, ensouled and soulless alike, carrying bags and boxes. We were leaving Amaurel to the dead, heading to the safety of the country. This was before we knew, of course, that the country wasn’t safe, either, before we realized just how far we would have to walk to feel safe again.
As we arrived in the south end, the strangecoach slowed. I smelled ash and slippery oil—the same shocking, dangerous scent I’d tasted in the galleria before the encounter with the ghost that had been my father. My mother smelled it, too; she had a rattled, terrified look on her face, even as she smoothed out the folds of her dress and checked the pins holding back the curls in her hair.
My own body felt settled and unconcerned, while my soul pleaded with us to live, to move, that we had to. “We’ll be fine,” I said.
Mother craned her neck. “What’s going on?”
I took a gulp of ash and oil. My body still needed air. I had to remind myself of this. “Ghosts.”
“What do we do?” She grabbed my hand and flinched at the chill.
I grabbed her by the wrist in response and kicked open the door to the strangecoach, which jerked to the side then lifted from below with the force of aetherfire, throwing my mother howling against the ground.
The door yawned open against the darkling sky. I felt the pain of rocks digging into my shoulder from far away. Ghosts, silky-grey, blotted out the colors and hovered just inside the coach. I recognized one, of course; my father had found us, as he had promised. He would always find us.
My soul told me what to do: I scrambled for the knife, as though that would help against an enemy as substantial as the morning mist, and threw myself over my mother’s body. The ghosts hissed, scratched, and the noise itched around my mouth, my nose, my ears.
They would kill my body first, giving my mother enough time to get away.
I looked at my mother. I felt a great peace; she was terrified but lucid and bright. She stared at me with a kindness she hadn’t given me since I was a child, since before the dresses and the ribbons and the curls destroyed what was real between us. She did not run. She reached out and took me in her arms. Her voice rolled against my chest, as sure and as strong as I had ever heard it.
“I love you, Lia,” she said.
I started to speak, to tell her it was all right, that it was already all over for me, that I could not love her back and that I was going to protect her and that she needed to run and that if she ran, if she just ran—but she twisted, pushing me away, throwing herself between the ghosts and my body. Even though she knew it would be futile, she still tried to save me.
The ghosts came in on an incandescent, grave-strong wind. They took my mother’s soul with them, white against their grey, and her body shuddered into peace, too tight against me as I tried to drive them away from her, as I waved my knife, my hands, felt nothing but the absence of air. As she was borne away into the darkness, I caught the whisper of her perfume on the wind—and she told me what she saw earlier that morning, when I descended the staircase with the knife and the dress: beautiful.
A last cold breath slipped against my neck as my enemy—my father—tasted my soulless skin and found me wanting.
I left her body cooling in the twilight.
I had to. It was the end of our world.
My mother’s dead hand lay over the bodice I had sewn, the cotton and linen and sackcloth and horse blankets, her fingers a cage around the broach that held my soul. It screamed at me to stay. To bury her. I plucked it from her too-still chest and popped the emerald back into the hilt of the knife. My soul no longer lived in my body, but I could still hear my old dreams speak, and I would need them now.
When I ran for the gate, many of the soulless followed me. They recognized the voice in my knife and wanted—no, needed—to follow. I told them I couldn’t help them. I told them I was no leader. I told them that I wasn’t good enough for my own family, so I couldn’t be good enough for them. I told them that I did not want to lead. But this is Amaurel. Even the patterns that destroyed us are hard to break.
I find it ironic that I became the thing I’ve hated my entire life: a noblething, listening blank and emotionless to the whispers of my lost conscience.
On the road, under the blinding sun, I find myself thinking about what my mother should have had, if Amaurel had not taught her to hide her heart in fabric and fear. We did love each other, in our own way. We did our best in the darkness that ended our world. This is not objective truth. It is her truth, and to carry it with me is a great blessing.
I have people that rely on me now. We are refugees. I would do anything to go back, to ask my mother what I should do. How I can protect these people. Where we should go. What we should do. And sometimes when my soul is whispering to me, I stop listening. I tilt my blank head at the sky, and I listen to what should have been. I listen for my mother.
I wait and wait and wait, but the only voice I can hear is my own.