flashfic

Tiger Wives

Past the lowlands of hell and their unmentionable rivers, beyond the clangor of hammers on unwhole anvils, lies a city whose name is only written ringed with formulas of fear.  Its queen has eyes the color of an extinguished sun, in a smooth, sweet face that has told many lies.  At her throat is a rough stone, and her hands are hidden by gloves sewn stiff with the hair of corpses.  She has no shortage of such gloves.

The queen has fifteen-and-two generals to do her bidding, and it is her generals that concern us.  Under her unsunned banner they have conquered cities that skein themselves across chasms, cities that build their walls from an alloy of inviolate desire and predatory fire, cities that conjure swords from needles and knights from spoons.  They have brought her fine horses that travel as easily upon funeral smoke as upon land, and coins that sing the name of your greatest enemy when you spin them on the table, and bronze goblets that pour forth the tears of the latest person to betray you.  (The unfortunate side effect is that someone will always betray the owner of such a goblet.)

To the generals’ dismay, the queen’s visage grows more palely poisonous as long as there exists a city that does not acknowledge her as its ruler; and such cities are not in short supply.  The generals have noticed, as have others, that the queen’s collection of gloves grows faster and faster.

One general has turned her attention to the land of tigers, which has heretofore escaped notice because tigers, while talented at many things, are baffled by the need for cities.  People who live near the land of tigers–rarely a comfortable thing, even for people who are themselves predators–speak of tiger wives.  They say that a tiger wife must be subdued by stonelight and starfall, and can only be bound by chains of steel rotted through by the whispers of the wicked.  And they say, too, that a tiger wife is a tactician beyond compare, merciless and attentive to carrion details, and most of all a master of the 3,000 red arts.

The general has sent her dead-eyed hunters and her lady assassins to capture a tiger to take to wife, but she has had no success, and it is unlikely she ever will.  It is not that the general carries a corroded pale lump where her heart should be; it is not that ledgers of spilled lives are recorded in blurred inexactitude upon her bones.  Tigers are indifferent to such niceties.  But there has never been a tiger born who respect someone who failed to fight her own battles, and tigers are in a position to be choosy about their mates.

for YKL