NO MARTYR of a condemned world ever truly wishes to die. There's always a goal in mind—be it forgiveness, liberation or everlasting glory, the motives may vary. But there is a reason, always a reason, and it is never truly selfless.
Not, at least, with the martyrs Ines had grown up learning about. The Wanderer's Church recognized such a number that the many months of the year had been named after each and every one. Thirteen of them in total with a patron saint named for every principle, and though the teachings extracted from their lives might have indeed been wise, Ines had always thought the stories unhappy.
She considered it once, whether what had followed in death was worth what they'd first gone through in life. But young and naive as she'd been before she'd found herself at the abbey's doorstep, it hardly mattered. It hardly mattered, because in the beginning she hadn't been afraid.
"In a world like ours," her father had told her once, after returning from a weekly service at the cathedral. "Saints are forgivers. They forgive because they are merciful, and the way they show their mercy is through their removing of the curse placed upon us from the moment we are born into this world."
They'd been in her mother's old room, where a large window had taken up one of the walls. Everything in that room had long been abandoned, every reminder of her mother sold away or covered by heavy cloth. But the window had always been there, like an eye that watched, as if it were guarding a secret. And her father had liked to look out of it, as if he alone had known what that secret was.
Ines didn't like being at the window when the dawn rose. She feared the mountains the glass would show, red-tipped and jagged like the fangs of devils she'd sometimes encounter in her dreams. But that was where she'd find her father after services, standing solemnly against the brightening light. And as a child she had preferred to be with him rather than be alone.
Barely six and red-faced with the effort to understand, Ines had asked, "What's a curse, abba?"
Her father had turned to look at her, and even after many years Ines would remember the exact moment that followed afterwards. Grave and gray, he lay a hand against her chest and the ice of his touch was such a contrast to her warmth that she'd nearly flinched.
"The fluttering you feel here," he'd said. "Do you feel these little quakes?"
Ines had nodded, and he'd taken her hand and lain it at the same place on his breast before saying, "That steady beating is what binds us here, yadda, to this place we do not truly belong." He turned away and she followed his gaze out the window, where in the distance the stubborn face of the city wall lay between them and the red mountains beyond. There was a rasp in her father's voice as he continued, "Over that wall is a world without hope and without light, but it is a reminder of who we are and what we have done to be condemned."
"But what have we done, abba?" Ines had said. She had gripped her father's sleeve as they watched the ice sun creep up the sky, the beginnings of the dayfrost sharpening the cold that had pressed against her cheeks.
A silence fell between them then, until it was broken by the word that had fallen from her father' lips.
"Live." And with a sombreness that rivalled the greying sky above them, he'd continued, "Alas, my dear girl, I fear you and I may be more cursed than the rest."
He had spoken no more of it after that. They had moved out shortly, and her father had sold nearly everything they had as they retreated to a smaller apartment closer to the city wall. Ines hadn't understood the curse he had spoken of, until the night the watchers of the Harel had come to their door.
She'd been playing in the sitting room that night, when her father had suddenly grabbed her arm and pulled her close. He'd opened a trapdoor hidden under a rug in the room and putting her in there he'd made her promise not to come out until she was certain they were gone.
A knock had come to their door then. And Ines had listened as an acolyte read a message from the Church. The Ava Santi had proclaimed her father a blasphemer and criminal, and had sent the Harel to drag him out to the Pit to be burned. And it wasn't until Ines had stood at the burning later and her father's screams had filled the air, that she had finally understood.
She had tasted it first—from the blood that ran down her bitten lip, red as the anger that clouded over her haze-grey eyes. Her tongue had soaked up that grotesque, metallic taste and something in her belly had sharpened, a thing that prickled like a hungry needle and grew into a point that widened into the ravenous blade of a sword. It tore up her chest and down her arms and spread across her palms like an infection. And before Ines had known it, she was tearing into a man that had been standing next to her at the burning—her teeth incisors, her hands edged, talon-like things that were as sharp as they were cold.
More screams sliced through the air, but it was hard for Ines to hear anything over the throbbing of her heart in her ears.
Thump thump, it went as she bit into the man's neck.
Thump thump, it hummed as she tore out the cursed thing within his chest.
A guard had to pull her away from the man, and a dagger had been pressed against her throat. And Ines, barely nine and half-blind with anger and grief, had finally understood. Her gaze had gone from the mangled man on the floor to the claws on her hands and she'd felt, rather than saw, the blood on them disappearing into the pores of her skin.
"Moroi spawn," Someone there—either another guard or member of the crowd—had spat like a curse.
"Bring her to the Ava," Another had commanded. "Now."
She'd been carried away, but whatever vigour she'd previously had had vanished along with her fangs. A newfound fear had blossomed and she'd barely been conscious of the world as it swallowed her whole.
Cursed, the word had echoed and the world had narrowed until all that was left was that one hard syllable and her father's words.
Cursed, she was cursed. And now that her father had gone, burned to ash in blackfire as to leave no remains, she would be alone.
But saints are forgivers, Ines had thought.
Would the Ava forgive her? She'd wondered. Would he let her join her father in the flames? Would he be merciful?
Ines didn't want to be killed, she was as afraid of death as she had been afraid watching her father burn. But more than anything, she didn't want to be alone.
So she sent a prayer to the Wanderer and every martyr she knew that the Ava would grace her by sentencing her to die.
It was therefore a given that she would stop believing in any of them when the Ava chose to spare her instead.