“Sew for me.”
The whisper tore at her from the darkness behind and startled her so badly that she almost pricked her finger with the needle, something she hadn’t done since the day Mother died.
“Who’s there?” she asked idiotically.
“Sew for me.” The voice came from behind her right ear, but she would not give it, whatever it was, the satisfaction of trying to look at it.
“Whatever do you mean?” she asked flippantly, fingers still flying, needle dashing in, out, in, out.
“What I said.” The air quivered. “Sew for me.”
“I’ll need supplies—you can’t use these, they’re for a commission from a rich lady I daren’t offend.” Part of her wondered if she was talking to nothing but the lone candle coughing in front of her.
“They’re at your feet, mortal.”
Mortal. She tossed her hair. “Really, you couldn’t put them at a more convenient place—”
A basket thumping down hard upon her lap interrupted her.
“Sew for me, and cease your babbling. Your words means nothing to me, and they could mean unpleasant things for you.” The voice was fire, crackling in her ear.
Truly frightened now, she laid down the important work and pulled out from the basket a piece of linen and a spool of thread, both dyed to a merciless black.
“A black crown,” directed the voice.
“But you wouldn’t be able to see the embroidery—”
“Sew. For. Me.”
Cursing her trembling fingers—what would Mother have thought of such weakness?—she complied. When she could bear the bristling silence no longer, she asked in a voice as meek as she could muster,
“Why did you pick me?”
“Because you are the best embroiderer in these dismal regions. And because there was a certain irony to have you sew my victor’s emblem, considering your ancestry.”
Her blood ran cold. Mother! Memories pounded on the doors of her mind, begging admittance, but she had barred the door too long to give in so easily.
“Do you have a name?” she asked, stitching the diadem.
He laughed, and the candle almost sputtered out. It valiantly regained life, and she thought he wasn’t going to answer. Then the voice crept into the expectant emptiness.
“Many. One that might mean something to you, my dear fool, is Iluo-théni, or—”
No. Not that name, woven like so many dark threads through the fabric of her childhood.
“Lighteater,” she finished.
“Ah, so it does mean something to you. Excellent. You see now why I want the black?”
Why wouldn’t her treacherous fingers remain on their task?
He continued on, “Because I am the Ever-hungry, the Black Hole, the Lighteater. As blacks swallows up all hues, so shall I devour everything.”
His voice swelled in triumph. Such sureness of his power! She shivered despite herself, and he seemed to notice her again.
“Well, go on. I need this done quickly. Perhaps you are not so skilled as they say?”
Her mind spun, the memories shrieking now, and she was melting before the heat of their cries. No—yes—resist—surrender—and she gave way with a voiceless cry: “Mother!” Then her mind cleared, all trembling stilled, and she knew what to do.
“Of course I am that good,” she retorted sharply. “I just need more thread—I do hope there’s more black in that basket—”
She prattled on as her fingers searched desperately in the pile of her own supplies. If her mother’s tales were true—if Lighteater didn’t know she knew—well, she would die anyway. Ah, there it was! Her hand closed around the desired spool.
“Found it! I need it more light, though, since I’m doing the intricate details—and you’ll see I am as good as they say.”
“Very well. Do hurry up about it.”
He sounded displeased. Good.
Leaning forward, she held up the embroidery so that its whole surface lay in the candle’s pool of wavering light. Only then did she dare to bring out the new thread.
A few minutes later, it was done. She gazed for a long moment at the cloth and tossed the words over her shoulder:
“At last, wretch. Move it to the right.”
So it’s out of the light and I can see it, she finished for him silently. Hands firm, she shifted the cloth out of the candle’s gaze.
For a moment, there was silence. The waiting was intolerable, but she held herself steady.
Then he breathed in the voice of a volcano about to erupt, words searing the air irreparably, “Think you can mock me, filth? Think you’re so brave and noble and pure? Fool! I should have known better than to ask her daughter! You will suffer your mother’s fate—”
And she knew what he was about to do, the one thing that must be not happen. She would die, that she accepted. But her masterpiece—
Across the room she flung herself, fumbling at the latches of the window, throwing them open even as his breath warmed the back of her neck. When the sunlight poured in, she knew he was blinded for a moment, and she hurled the cloth out. For a moment it hung suspended before her, a black crown, barely visible against its black background, just as he had ordered, but with her own embellishments: Three white diamonds adorned it, bravely marring the voracious vacuum of darkness.
Then the cloth fluttered down to the river below, and Lighteater’s claws seized her body and soul in such pain that her thoughts shattered into a thousand irretrievable shards. She managed to think, “Mother would be proud,” and then the Lighteater’s colorless fire consumed her.
The embroidery floated away to other villages, a testament to black’s inability to fully satiate its hunger.