SEQ CHAPTER \h \r 1Chapter 1
Ainé could remember dying all too clearly. The way the heart stopped beating, the way the blood seemed to gutter and freeze, the coldness that worked its way through the body. And the pain- she shivered. She could not physically recall the pain of any of her deaths, and for that she thanked every deity that she had heard of. If she could remember- relive- the red hot agonies and the searing pain, she would have stayed in the Underworld permanently, never mind how much it disturbed her.
She had died twenty-one times. Given that she had just recently passed her ninetieth birthday, it was a record of which she was not exceedingly proud. Some managed to reach their ninetieth without dying once- Ainé had not even been able to reach her eighteenth birthday.
In many ways, the first time had been the hardest. Firsts always were, she supposed. The first time she had been hanged. A hand reached to her throat, where the silver scars from the rope still bore testament to that fact. She only kept her scars from her first life- the others never reappeared when she was turned out of the Underworld. She was reborn just as she had died the first time, with scars from her fall down the wall and the bruises the soldiers had given her as they had dragged her to the scaffold.
She didn't like being hanged. She had been hanged eight times, more than anything else. It seemed that it was her destiny to be hanged, since it caught up with her so often. But still, she didn't like being hanged, the way the jerk came as the stool was kicked out from under her feet, the bite of the rope on her neck, the way her feet danced on air as her vision went black. Sometimes there had been crowds cheering, sometimes she had hung gasping for air alone in the forest. Given a choice, she would have rather been hung out in the forest, off in some lonely tree, with no one jeering at her or laughing as she died. But no, that solitary death had only happened twice. Usually decent citizens looked self-righteously on as she dangled, choking and writhing, too busy trying to breathe to curse whatever she had done to deserve this, as her hands strained at the bonds and her own body traitorously pulled the air from her lungs. She knew all too well the kiss of the rope on her neck, the prickles from badly wrapped rough hemp, the tightness that became painful with a single kick to the stool. She knew about the way her legs would kick out, the way she would gasp for breath and fail, how things would grow dark and her futilely straining lungs would be forced into motionless surrender . . .
Ainé dropped her hand down from her neck and wrapped it around the mug of ale in front of her. It was well after midnight, and most of the town's drinkers were already in bed. Ainé could outlast them. Any of them, all of them. She had turned to drink so often that she sometimes wondered if she could ever get drunk anymore. Usually it just made her pensive.
It hadn't always been like this.
A tear worked its way down her face, and she angrily wiped it away. She wished she could get drunk. Mindstopping, gutwrenching drunk. So drunk that she could just sit in a stupor and wait until she was sober enough to drink again. So drunk that she couldn't remember any of it, that she could pretend she was normal once more, with only one life to lead . . .
Wetness threatened at the edge of her vision and she lifted her mug and downed most of it in one go. It didn't help. Ainé had known it wouldn't. But it was tradition by now. It was her anniversary, so she would sit up all night and try to get drunk, try to pretend she didn't care, that she was happy the way things had worked out.
She had been, at first.
She wiped away another tear and finished what little ale was left in the mug. Then she stood, made her way to the kitchen and searched though it for unopened bottles of wine. Only finding two, she left payment next to the sleeping cook and slipped out into the night.
The stars shone bright overhead, and it was cold enough that her breath streamed out in white plumes as it left her lips. The trees around the inn whispered softly in the cool night breeze; the grasses wavered in the fields nearby. It was peaceful, quiet, undisturbed.
Ainé moved out into the fields. Long experience had granted skill at last, and she moved silently, floating through the grass and grain like the ghost she should have been. She knew there was a hill around her somewhere; there had been twenty years earlier when she first had visited this town.
It took a minute to find in the dim starlight, and it had been hollowed down a bit since she had been here last. But it was still a rise, and it still offered a view of the night sky uncluttered with billowing branches and hissing leaves. Ainé sat and opened one of the bottles, looking up at the sky, waiting to greet the dawn.
It was so quiet, so peaceful. So unlike this night seventy-three years ago.
Ainé shuddered and drank a gulp of the wine. It burned down through her, and she smiled briefly- she could at least enjoy the benefits of the potent drink, even if she couldn't get drunk.
The smile faded. She wanted to get drunk. Lords, but she wished with all her heart she could get drunk. Utterly drunk, so drunk she didn't know her name or age or hometown, who her best friends were or where she came from. So drunk that she wouldn't see straight, wouldn't be able to think; drunk enough that she could remember nothing and feel no emotion.
A sob shook her small frame, and she drank again. She wanted to be that drunk; wanted it as fiercely as she had wanted to live seventy-three years ago. Ainé finished the bottle in minutes, wishing desperately that this time something would change, that she would find herself in a drunken, senseless stupor.
But nothing changed; nothing ever changed. Drink gave her no peace; death no release; and sleep, that traitorous brother of death, only offered her remembered terror. Ainé opened the second bottle and stared at the stars. She had learned to hate sleep. The few brief times it was peaceful she cherished, but all too often death's brother only replayed scenes of pain and horror. She had learned to ignore her body's wail for sleep, learned to push herself away from the double-edged sword of blissful unconsciousness and trembling fear.
Ainé sipped the wine slowly, trying to calm herself. She was too thoughtful. She was afraid of thinking- she had a lot to think about, most of it from her past. Many lives, too many deaths . . . and one horrific decision made by a seventeen year old girl- a seventeen year old girl who had only lived seventeen years, who had never died, who had been crying and terrified, scared by the prospect of causing death and even more afraid of dying herself.
Ainé's smile was bittersweet. She remembered being that girl. That same girl who hadn't wanted to die. But she wished she could go back to that night, wished she could stand before the Judges as a poor, newly dead spirit and honestly say that she didn't want to live- not that she didn't want to be dead.
It would have been easier.
Ainé shook her head fiercely, trying to drive out her depression. This night was the worst. Usually she could manage to push her curse- gift?- to the back of her mind, and get on with her life as best she could.
But she was a rogue- a thief, a skulker, a shadow of the streets. Very, very few like her survived to old age. She was lasting longer now that she had nearly a century of experience behind her, but death caught up with her all too frequently. Hanging, a knife in the dark, band warfare, war, plague, famine . . .
She was too pensive. Ainé struggled to tear her mind away from her plight and failed. It was her anniversary. This was the one time she allowed herself to think about what had happened, about her first life- the real one- and the answer she had given the Judges. This was the only night she let herself cry.
She wished the Judges had decided differently. The strange immortality she had received was as much a curse as a blessing.
It would have been easier.
The sun peeked over the edge of the forest, and Ainé at last let the salty tears spill down her cheeks.