Crier's War - Nina Varela


There was once a queen called Thea, and in her twenty-first year it was decided that she should bear a child. As was tradition in Old Zulla, the queen was sequestered in preparation for the bearing. Her body was purified with daily baths of milk and salt lavender, with regular ingestions of blue dara root, and her handmaidens wove symbolic ribbons and white dayblossoms into her hair. Humans in era nine hundred believed that near-total rest, particularly from the duties of the throne, was necessary for a human to conceive a child. This belief had no roots in the study of Organics, as it is known now that humans can create more of their kind in almost any setting, sprouting new life whether it is invited or not, much like weeds.

However, Queen Thea was an exception. According to all accounts of that time—including the records of the queen’s personal birth-witch, Bryn—the queen was, after a time, deemed barren. Despite this, accompanied only by Bryn and a single handmaiden, Queen Thea locked herself in her chambers and insisted upon an additional seven weeks of ceremonial preparation, followed by another three months of attempted mating with King Aedel. She would repeat this cycle twice more before formally accepting that she could not bear a child.

In era nine hundred, year seven, after the conspicuous death of King Aedel, Queen Thea declared that any Maker capable of building her a child—one that could perfectly imitate all the workings of a human—would be rewarded with a lifetime’s worth of gold and a seat at the right hand of the throne.

In the way of humans, who are ruled by the flawed pillars of Intuition and Passion, the Makers thought this request impossible. They were wrong.




Year 47 AE


When she was newbuilt and still fragile, and her fresh-woven skin was soft and shiny from creation, Crier’s father told her, “Always check their eyes. That’s how you can tell if a creature is human. It’s in the eyes.”

Crier thought her father, Sovereign Hesod, was speaking in metaphor, that he meant humans possessed a special sort of power. Love, a glowing lantern in their hearts; hunger, a liquid heat in their bellies; souls, dark wells in their eyes.

Of course, she’d learned later that it was not a metaphor.

When light hit an Automa’s eyes head-on, the irises flashed gold. A split second of reflection, refraction, like a cat’s eyes at night. A flicker of gold, and you knew those eyes did not belong to a human.

Human eyes swallowed light whole.

Crier counted four heartbeats: a doe and three kits.

The woods seemed to bend around her, trees converging overhead, while near her feet there was a rabbit’s den, a warm little burrow hidden underground from wolves and foxes . . . but not from her.

She stood impossibly still, listening to four tiny pulses radiating up through the dirt, beating so rapidly that they sounded like a hive of buzzing honeybees. Crier cocked her head, fascinated with the muffled hum of living organs. If she concentrated, she could hear the air moving through four sets of thumb-sized lungs. Like all Automae, she was Designed to pick up even the faintest, most faraway sounds.

This deep into the woods, dawn had barely touched the forest floor—the perfect time for a hunt. Not that Crier enjoyed hunting.

The Hunt was an old human ritual, so old that most humans did not use it anymore. But Hesod was a Traditionalist and historian at heart, and he fostered a unique appreciation for human traditions and mythology. When Crier was Made, he had anointed her forehead with wine and honey for good fortune. When she came of age at thirteen, he had gifted her a silver dress embroidered with the phases of the moon. When he decided that she would marry Kinok, a Scyre from the Western Mountains, he did not make arrangements for Crier to take part in the Automa tradition of traveling to a Maker’s workshop, designing and creating a symbolic gift for her future husband. He had planned for a Hunt.

So Crier was not actually alone in these woods. Somewhere out there, hidden by the cover of shadows and trees, her fiancé, Kinok, was hunting as well.

Kinok was considered a war hero of sorts. He’d been Made long after the War of Kinds, but there had been numerous rebellions, large and small, in the five decades since the War itself. One of the biggest, a