The Sins of the Mother
Malcolm Schmitz is an autistic author who writes about queer people, eldritch angels, nebbish unicorns, and lace-making orcs. His fiction has been published in Crossed Genres, Fusion Fragment, and Sword and Sorcery Magazine; his short story “The Captain’s Sphere” made the Long List for the 2015 Otherwise Award.
Lady Lutisse climbed up the Assassin’s Steps, her baby heavy on her back.
She squinted and shaded her eyes. The Altar was half a day’s walk up a rocky hill, hidden in a huddled clump of trees at the peak. With every step, she could make out a little more of the simple slab, half-hidden by leaves and a fallen tree. It was only when she got closer that she could see the faint stain on the stone: the dull-rust mark of blood.
In the ancient days, when her mother’s mother’s mother was a girl, the Nemethan assassins gathered at this Altar. They’d spilled the blood of man and ‘mar upon the stone. With every drop, the Altar drank the anima of the dead.
Now, it was long-forgotten, a relic of the ancient past. The gods’ grand altars dwelt in Gymalg G’mai and His now, far across Lutisse’s homeland of Krygon. The memory of the Altar only lived on in the whispers of women, women who were too trapped and desperate to see any other way out. But, forgotten or not, this was still a place of power.
Pray here, and someone would answer. Bargain well, and someone would die.
Lady Lutisse stopped at the altar.
Behind her, her son stirred in his sleep. She took a deep breath. She’d come here for his sake. For him, she’d do far worse. A mother must always do what is best for her children.
She knelt; the leaves crumpled beneath her. Cold mud oozed through the hem of her skirt. She clasped her hands.
When praying, there was always the question of which god to address. Petitioning a god for something outside their purview was a fools’ errand. Petitioning a god for something in another god’s purview was worse than foolish.
All gods knew death, some more intimately than others, but not all gods would kill, or let their worshippers kill in their name. If Lutisse was fool enough to pray to Shen-Bahan for her husband’s death, she’d be struck down for her impudence.
Carro, the Paladin God, might kill her husband for justice’s sake. But her husband wasn’t cruel to her: not the way that one might expect. He’d never raised a hand to her, never shouted, never cursed. That would require him to speak to her.
Sar’Kata, the Trickster God, might kill her husband for the sake of a good joke. But there was nothing funny about her situation, and a prank would change nothing. The power her husband held would simply pass to her son. Sar’Kata wouldn’t care for that.
Sirillon, the Burning God… now, that had potential. Sirillon gave life and death alike, with little care for justice or mercy, just as the Sun did. He might help her, if she promised Him what He wanted.
Lutisse bowed her head and began to pray.
The words of the prayer were strange, passed down from some long-forgotten time. In the village where Lutisse had grown up, it was an old legend, passed down quietly from mother to daughter; her mother had told it to her the same way she’d told her the recipe for pennyroyal tea. If you’ve married a man who shouts at you, or hits you, or makes you feel worthless, the legend said, here is a way out.
Lutisse had always thought it was an old wives’ tale. The gods didn’t speak to mortals, much less take orders like a common demon. But in desperate enough circumstances, she’d take any tool the world offered her. And her foremothers’ old prayer was a powerful tool indeed, if it did what the legends said it would.
She knew the gist of what the prayer meant: an invocation given to the god, a conjuring rite, a binding promise. It was a complicated spell, one that even a Temple-mage might have fumbled. But the power of the Altar was so strong that even a child could cast a spell of death here.
When she opened her eyes, a woman sat upon the Altar.
Lutisse blinked. She’d expected a bearded, brawny God, a God with a grim face and a smith’s hammer. But the gods sometimes chose to take different forms. The ‘mari saw the gods as ‘mari; the Little Folk had small gods.
But the Assassin’s Altar was a sanctuary, now, for women in pain. Perhaps Sirillon had chosen this form to make her more comfortable.
The woman’s black hair brushed the ground. Her green dress blended with the forest; Lutisse’s eye was drawn up to Her pale, pointed face. A dark burn scar curved over the woman’s left eye, taking the shape of a sunburst. Her gaze was dark, sharp and commanding; Her back, straight. For a long moment, all Lutisse could do was stare.
“You invoke me?” The God’s voice was cold as the altar’s stone. “What do you seek, and what do you offer?”
It was a simple question, but Lutisse had to find her tongue before she could answer. She cleared her throat.
Her son stirred. She dared not wake him; her voice dropped to a whisper.
“I seek the death of my husband. I offer my spirit upon my death.”
“Ah. The oldest story ever told.” The God smiled. It was a soft smile, but Lutisse felt like a mouse in the stare of a snake.
“It’s-It’s with good reason!” Lutisse said. She swallowed. It felt like her throat was filled with rocks. “I am not his wife. I am his palake.”
“A concubine?” the God asked. She raised one eyebrow. “And you call him your husband.”
“In all but law, that was what he was. But…” Lutisse clenched her fist. “He is to be married. To a wife.“
She kept her voice soft and even. She didn’t want to wake her son. But she couldn’t keep anger’s poison out of her hands or her eyes; it dripped from her gaze and made her nails bite her palm.
“If he’s married, and his wife produces an heir, when my husband dies… my son and I will be left with nothing. No land, no fortune, no home, no future,” she said. “The best my son will be able to hope for is an adventurer’s life. And I–“
She cut herself off. There was no point in being so selfish. Her own life — her own happiness — didn’t matter enough to murder. Her son was a different story.
“So you’ll trade his life for your son’s place in the world. Is that it?”
“…I would give anything. Even my soul,” Lutisse said. “Though if you’ll take less–“
“Hm.” The God tapped Her fingers together. She thought for a long moment.
The world grew quiet around them. The wind died. The creatures of the forest grew still. All Lutisse could hear was her own breath, and the breath of her son on her back.
The God clapped Her hands with the grace of a little girl; the clap was loud as thunder.
“If you would give your spirit, would you give his?”
“Your son’s.” The God smiled. Her irises shimmered and twisted, the black swirling and fading like ink in water until Her eyes were serpent-green. Lutisse’s skin crawled.
“My… surely, there’s some mistake?” Lutisse said. Her heart beat so hard that she felt weak. “You can’t mean I give up my son‘s spirit, can you?”
“That’s the bargain I’m offering, yes. You’ll receive a poison that will end your husband’s life. In exchange, when your son dies, his spirit will be mine.”
Lutisse’s son grumbled. She pulled him to her chest, patting his back, hoping he wouldn’t start to cry. This God wouldn’t like that, not one bit.
“I… have questions,” Lutisse said.
“Ask,” the God said. “But quickly. I have other matters to attend to.”
Lutisse took a deep breath and looked down at her son: at the little swirl of dark hair atop his heavy head, at his chubby cheeks, at his tiny hand poking out from his swaddling. She thought about those hands, forced to wield a sword or withered with hunger.
“If I make this bargain. You must swear that my son cannot die by your hand,” she said. “He will live the full life he’s been given, with no interference from the gods.”
The God raised an eyebrow. “A bold request,” She said.
“A mother must always do what’s best for her children,” Lutisse said. “If you can’t promise me that much, I won’t promise you my son.”
“You’re wiser than you look,” the God said. “I swear it on Talmenor itself — your son will live all his days, safe from my meddling.”
Lutisse took a deep breath. She held out her hand.
“…I accept your bargain,” she said.
The God clasped Lutisse’s hand. Her nails were sharp as talons — even a graze from them left a rent in Lutisse’s silk gloves.
“Give me the child,” the God said.
Lutisse reluctantly held him out to her. The God’s clawed hand moved over his head, towards the soft spot on his crown. Lutisse wanted to scream — Don’t you know he’s fragile? — but she held her tongue.
The God’s claw nicked the back of his neck. Four sharp slashes, leaving a wound shaped like a fishhook. It closed before he could even bleed, leaving a pale, bright scar.
Her son started to cry. Lutisse bounced him, shushed him, tried to soothe him, all too aware of the God’s sharp gaze on her.
The world went quiet again — and this time, even her son went quiet. Lutisse’s heart stopped, and she pulled him up to her face, fearing the worst. But her son was still crying, still breathing — just silenced by the God’s magic.
She clasped him close, patting a circle around his back.
“The bargain is struck,” the God said.
She held out Her hand. A bottle materialized in Her open palm. She spun it around, around, around, and as She spun, a golden liquid appeared inside. There was just barely enough to coat the bottom of the bottle.
Lutisse watched with horrified fascination. This was more magic than she’d ever seen in her life; it was probably more magic than she’d ever see again. The God threw power around like a spoiled child throwing toys.
The God held up the bottle, letting the liquid inside catch the light.
“One drop of this will sicken your husband. Two drops of this will bring him to death’s door. Three drops will kill him on the spot.”
Lutisse put her son in the sleep-sling and took the bottle. She clung to it with both hands, even though the glass was uncomfortably warm. This bottle would give her son a chance to live the life he deserved. This bottle would give her the certainty of a future that didn’t depend on a husband’s whims.
This bottle held her husband’s death, and her life.
Lutisse bowed her head. “Thank you, o Mighty One,” she said.
“I will watch you both with great interest,” the God said.
“I shan’t fail,” Lutisse said. “You have my word.”
“And you have mine. Farewell, mortal…”
The God disappeared slowly, like ice melting in the sun.
“Don’t disappoint me,” the God said.
Lutisse watched until even the faint shape of her was gone. Mortals didn’t often see the gods, much less speak to them. This was the first, and last, time she’d ever be in one’s presence.
It was worth watching, to remember every moment.
Her ears popped. Sound returned to the world. Her son was still crying, loud enough to wake the dead. Lutisse shook her head.
“It’s going to be all right, dearheart,” she said. “We’re going home.”
It was easier than she’d thought, to kill by degrees.
The first day, all she had to do was slip a drop of the poison into his mead. True to the God’s word, in hours, he was bedbound, complaining that his stomach was about to burst.
It was only natural that his loving palake would nurse him through such a grievous illness. It was only natural that she’d be by his side, that she’d give him every little thing he asked for. It was only natural that she’d mix water and wine for him. And it was only natural, with her situation being what it was, that a second drop of poison would find its way into that wine.
He lay too still after that. Barely breathing, with blue lips and clammy skin. She watched him from her seat at his bedside. She did not touch him.
The healers said he might never wake again. She could stop now, if she wanted. But a political marriage was a political marriage. If it would get them the wealth and power they wanted — the wealth and power that, by all rights, belonged to her son — many would marry a living corpse.
Lutisse found the bottle, hidden in her skirts. She placed it to his lips. Forced it between them, and tipped his head back so the final drop would fall down his throat.
She wailed so convincingly, afterwards. Her husband had died, after all. A loyal palake would grieve for years, especially if her husband treated her well. Disloyal as she was, Lutisse had always been a good actor.
When the doctors and the nobles and the vultures of the court finished circling, she excused herself and made her way to her son’s nursery. He was swaddled in his cradle, sleeping as peacefully as she’d ever seen him. She knelt beside the cradle, rocking it slow and gentle.
Her son was safe. When he came of age, he would be the Lord of Nemethe, his future secure in her blood-stained hands. Everything that she’d done, everything that led to this, was worth it. She couldn’t bear any regrets.
Lady Lutisse felt someone’s stare on the back of her neck. Her skin prickled. She turned around.
Mortals rarely saw a god, much less saw one twice. But the God was standing in the corner of her son’s nursery, just as tall and proud as She’d been at the Assassin’s Altar. Her nails grew longer, darker, and sharper — the claws of a harpy. She wore a half-mask on the unscarred side of Her face, shaped like a hooded cobra.
The God raised a hand to the side of Her face. Her claws dug into Her skin — dug and tore. She peeled off the sunburst scar as easily as a mortal might pick a scab, throwing it to the floor. Her face, beneath the scar, was pale and perfect, porcelain-white.
“Did you get what you wanted? Are you happy?” the God said. She smirked.
“Yes,” Lutisse said. “Thank you, Sirillon.”
The God laughed, loud and cruel. Lutisse felt like a mouse under a cat’s paw.
“Sirillon? Sirillon?! Oh, that’s a new one,” the God said. “I will have to tell my brother; he might die of mirth.”
“What?” The pit dropped out of Lutisse’s stomach.
“You thought you were bargaining with Sirillon? Why would the Sun God give you a poison?” the God said. “You were canny and wise, but not wise enough to ask for my name.“
“…I prayed to Sirillon…” Lutisse said. Her voice sounded as small as she felt.
“And you prayed at the Assassin’s Altar,” the God said. “That’s a place of power, but it’s not the power of the Sun. It’s the power of darkness… of silence… of deception. That place is sacred to Me.”
“If you’re not Sirillon… who are you?” Lutisse said. Her heart felt like ice, but it had never beat faster.
“I am the Queen of Lies. I am the Deceiver, the Tempter, the Kindler of Dark Embers.”
“No,” Lutisse breathed.
“I am Althrasia, Mother of Monsters,” the Goddess said. “And while I keep my promises… you did offer me your soul.”
Lutisse’s mind whirled. This couldn’t be happening. Any second, she would wake up, in her husband’s bed, with a horrible future bearing down on her. She bit her lip, hard — but the room didn’t disappear.
“You didn’t accept my offer. You took my son!” Lutisse said.
“You didn’t retract it,” Althrasia said. She smiled, and raised her hand.
“Come in,” She said.
The door opened behind Lutisse.
Something shambled through. Something with clammy, mottled skin. Something with tusks, and tumors, and blue lips. Something horribly familiar, but twisted beyond all recognition.
Lutisse’s eyes widened. She picked up her son, clutched him to her chest, and backed away.
“No,” she said. “No! He’s dead — you can’t –-“
“Oh, but I can. I must,” Althrasia said.
The thing that had been Lutisse’s husband lurched forward.
Lutisse’s back hit the wall. She couldn’t run, and with her babe in her arms, she couldn’t fight.
The demonspawn lunged. Before Lutisse could even scream, its claws pierced her ribs.
The last thing she saw, before the darkness swallowed her, was the Goddess’ gash of a grin.
“After all,” Althrasia said, “a mother must always do what’s best for her children.”