Artificer

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The blade bites deep into the wood.  The trees bleed easy here, close to the beach, their flesh fat with water.  The young woman with the knife presses her mouth to the rough bark, dips her tongue between its folds into the cleft she created, and when she sits back on her heels, the sweet sap stains her from nose to navel.  Her yellow eyes flutter. She goes on sipping from the bark, from the streaks on her shirt, from the tip of her blade, all the while as she works. The sap grows sticky quickly, and when she’s finished she scrambles through the undergrowth on hands and knees.

Moss is soft on her knees, rocks wobble under her hands.  She feels a singing in her heart, feels a tingling in her fingertips when they pass over the earth, so there she digs, turning over leaves and mulch and insects.  One hand conveys a struggling bug to her mouth while the other searches on and finds its goal: a filthy lozenge of matted fur, the size of her thumb. At once she begins to pick it apart, delicate and sure.  Out of the fur come bones, pale in the grey morning light, and these she carefully sets aside in the cup of a fallen leaf. The pile of fur grows, the pile of bones too, until the pellet is broken down entirely.

Frowning, the girl scrapes clear a patch of lichen-covered stone with the calloused heel of her hand, then tips the bones out.  She pokes at them, sorts them and re-sorts them, humming all the while in a low drone. She adds a bit of fur, lays one bone against another, adds a bit of fur.  Shreds cling to her sticky fingers, and though the thing that grows under her hands has no head or limbs yet, it leans into her touch like an eager animal. She builds it fluffy ears and a tail, though there are bones missing – no matter. Cariad is fecund beyond the imagination of the machines who plunder it. It wants to live.

But she’s not thinking about that.  The tousled little beast in her hands is acquiring features, and she’s thinking of a name for it, so that when she strokes a patch of fur into place along its back and it shakes itself and raises raw, new eyes, she can say, “Hello, Bell.  Welcome back. Do you want to come home with me?”

He does.  They usually do.  She’s left a few in the forest where she found them, and she suspects that they don’t last long – she’s never seen one a second time, awake or not.  Little Bell has the sense to climb into her hands, and she carries him back to the wounded tree. While she dresses, he laps at the rivulets of sap still leaking over the bark.  It gives him strength and definition. She thinks he looks like a shrew. Like the shrews she’s seen, anyway. They don’t always come out looking right. She puts him in her pocket, along with a sap-soaked stick for him to chew, and heads away from the shore toward home.

 

The trees on the western coast of Five grow fast and thick, and the undergrowth takes a terraforming team to clear.  That’s why there’s very little civilization there now. Which in turn is why the temperate jungle between the base of the Drop and the shore is crawling with humans.

The human problem is one of my ongoing responsibilities.  Not especially high on the priority list – the Queen would rather forget that the humans exist, and for the most part, does – but one that has been taking up more and more time of late.  The shipyard below the Drop is the only route of import and export for the cities atop it, along a mist-clogged plateau. Wiser heads have noted that the Queen’s preferred city is in a truly abysmal strategic position, easily starved by an invading force from the sea.  The Queen replaces her wiser heads every few years as well, so that they don’t get too wise. It matters little. All of Cariad beats as one heart. All of Cariad serves Her. Except the humans.

Most of the living organics on Cariad are descended from those left behind when Atlantis fled this planet six centuries ago.  It’s difficult to estimate their numbers. They make hives underground, sometimes, or treetop nests. I believe there to be a substantial population living on the ruins of the transport system and weather stations offshore.  The trouble with humans is that they adapt so quickly. Strictly speaking, their DNA has diverged far enough from the original human genome at this point for me to declare them a separate species. Then I could name them after myself.  But that would require asking the Queen for my name.

The Queen’s direct service exposes the sovereign to potential security risks, so she protects herself by assigning only prototypes to her personal entourage.  The handmaids who dress her, the chefs and servants in the Eyrie, and myself. What does she call me? It’s been years since she spoke to my face. Once she addressed me as her “majordomo”.  This will do as well as anything. A perfectly meaningless hash of syllables that indicates nothing about my person or function. I doubt she remembers my name either.

This week I’ve been calling myself “Bluebird” in my head.  Just to try it on. It can’t matter. No one will ever know.  Unless that wall opens to reveal one of her infinite arms, her heavy guns.  I have seen this technique used on dissidents a handful of times in my history.  Not in my personal memory banks, not once during the tenure of the sapient currently swaying before you has there been a dissident in her capitol, but this technology is reproduced outside her embassies in every city.  As with most of her ways and means, it’s too large and unwieldy to install anywhere but a major metropolitan center. Still…

That panel across the alley would lift, revealing a hand whose lines I know like those of my own palm, because it is my palm.  Or rather, hers. This vast hand is meant to draw your gaze, and it works even when you know the trick – you don’t see the panel behind you rising.  The Queen’s hand blows apart, filleting organics and artificials alike, and suspending their remains in the block of hardening liquid polymer behind them.  This instant preservation is the only way to ensure that spies can’t torch their memory banks on capture. Attacks on the city slowed considerably when the newest prototypes showed evidence that the Queen studied her enemies and reverse-engineered their technology.  In point of fact, she doesn’t do this. I do. So as you can imagine, I am extremely bored.

Design work on the new prototypes has been slow, because I am extremely bored.  The Queen believes it’s because I’m reaching the end of my lifespan. This assessment is recorded in my file, along with her injunction against giving me any memory or processing upgrades.  That’s fairly standard for an aging prototype in her service, but that doesn’t make it less humiliating. I will watch my own mental degradation in real time, knowing that she could stop it if she chose, but will not.  Why throw good money after bad? I’m to be decommissioned in three years – if I slip up or drag my feet a bit during that time, my sovereign will hardly notice.

The new prototypes are behind schedule also because they contain more organic material than ever before, and though I’m confident in my designs, I’m not confident that this level of integration won’t inspire royal rage.  I’m not quite suicidal enough yet to submit them, but I know that they won’t change between now and the moment I do. I will change. I’ll know who I’ve been by looking behind me, and then I’ll have the courage to show her the most beautiful thing I’ve ever made.

Perennial

I firmly believe that poetry is a degenerate practice only engaged in by people too languid and ethereal to write a complete sentence.  That said, I’ve been writing poetry a bit lately.  Mea culpa.

You have so much potential
You can’t even see it
so much potential it looms over you,
washes out your whole life
in the shadow of our hopes for you.

For sure one day they’ll introduce you and your Potential.
They talk about it enough.
You’ll come to the dinner table and there Potential will be,
sitting in your chair
finishing your vegetables
Potential brushes perfect teeth with your toothbrush
and flosses, of course
and lies down in your bed
and there is no room for you in this house

Somewhere, Potential is living your best life
They tell you all the time
You could be like that if you tried
As if Potential is your big brother
bringing home trophies while you drown in his hand-me-downs

For all they talk
Potential never does show up at the dinner table
or the test
or the interview
When you wonder if it’s running late, they say
“A seed has tons of potential
But nobody gives a fuck about a seed
Until it becomes a flower.”

And you sit in your terracotta pot and you wonder
how long you have to scold a radish seed
before it grows into a rose.

 

Character Select: M F [Cancel]

I don’t know what my body is supposed to look like, but it’s not this.

Right now, that’s all I know. I look at page after page of pictures under the “androgyny” tag, and I see what I wish my body looked like.  Sure is surprisingly racist up in this aesthetic.  They are all white, they are all thin, they are all delicate and fragile. Their tits are small, their hips are narrow, their faces have jaws and cheekbones that could cut glass. Their eyes are huge and deep, ageless. They look like elves or angels, and I want to look like them, and I never, ever will.

That’s not self-loathing, that’s not pessimism, that’s straight-up fucking biology. I am five-ten and burly – not six-two and willowy, not five-four and curvy. I am 190 pounds of soft muscle and hard fat. I have never broken a bone because my bones are as thick as tree limbs, my wrists too large to grip in one hand. My ass is big and firm but not shapely. My thighs are horselike with no gap in between, my arms are strong but too soft for any muscle definition. My tits are big but partly because my chest is thick, barrel-like – it gives me a deep voice and makes me pop buttons on shirts when I breathe, in a way that is not sexy and scandalous but just embarrassing and expensive.

Looking at these pictures makes me feel exactly how I’ve felt all my life – slow, clumsy, misshapen, as if I’m interacting with the world through a spacesuit. Most days it feels like I can’t truly touch anything, like every motion is a fumbling approximation of what I intended, like every sense is dull and muffled. When I look in the mirror I can see myself in the eyes – well, not in them, but behind them. The eyes aren’t shaped right, they’re not the right color, they’re not mine, but behind the face I don’t recognize I see my own fear looking out. That’s been the same all my life. I can’t ever remember seeing a face in the mirror that looked like mine.

Right now, it feels like it’s the having of a face at all that I resent. I spent today looking up local ordinances on the wearing of masks in public. I’d like to assemble a collection of beautiful masks, all different, that I could choose from when I go out and wear all day. I hate the feeling that participating in daily life requires taking a stand on who I am as a person. I would like to go out in a voluminous robe and a mask, so that what I say and do is just what I say and do, not what a WOMAN says and does, not what a MAN says and does… I do not want to be assigned a category and I don’t want to prop one up by existing. But it seems that I don’t have a choice. There is no way to opt out of people looking at you and assigning you a role based on the first fucking characteristic they see.

Thirty years of first-person gaming and silent protagonists have taught me that the essential ME is in my hands. They’re the only part of myself I like. They’re the only parts of me that look exactly like they should, the only parts I enjoy watching do what they do. They’re neither masculine nor feminine, and they’re not pretty – I bite my nails and chew my fingertips until they bleed. But none of that matters when they’re writing, or cooking, or drawing. All that matters is that they’re sure and strong and they’ve never failed to do as I asked.

I’ve always talked to people best when we walk side-by-side, not looking at each other. I’ve always done best online, in text, where my voice doesn’t interfere with what I have to say. I don’t want to have a face. I don’t want to have a voice. I just want to bring the quest item and turn it in, and be judged on the basis of how well I did the thing.

It’s hard to see a way out of dysphoria right now. I can’t think of any shape within my physical capacities that I would like better than the one I have. I love having long hair and I love having tits, but I could take or leave the bottom system if I’m honest. I want to have a baby and do mom things. I want to be a knight, too, but I’m not sure if it’s for the sense of purpose or the armor. I want to be maximally female and maximally male at the same time, and that doesn’t seem to be an option.

Shadowplay: Act 1, Scene 8

our fairweather heroine is tested, blood and promises exchanged
(ft. one unscripted costume change)

Kelly tumbled into the retreat and threw herself at Lin, who nearly collapsed into the settee behind her as she absorbed the momentum.  In this face, Keshena had to look up to meet Lin’s eyes, but not by much. They were very nearly of a size. She squeezed the Speaker firmly and asked with a child’s candor, “Villi doesn’t think you’re very good at your job, does she?”

Lin laughed and sat down on the settee, crossing her legs.  Kelly hopped up onto it herself, and mirrored the position as Lin talked.

“Villi doesn’t often think anyone is qualified, in fairness.  But she’s not wrong – I’m pretty young for this position.”

“How did you get it?”

“That is both incredibly boring and not relevant to your examination.”  Keshena could see that Lin, despite herself, was enjoying the slight increase in perceived authority that Kelly’s childish manner afforded her.  Kelly folded her hands in her lap and sat up straighter, playing up the performance by instinct to please her audience.

“All right, I’m ready.  I think.”

Lin nodded.  “This examination isn’t the last you’ll take.  Think of it as the initial barrier to entry among the Kumani, the one that keeps out traitors and fools.”  She squinted at Kelly’s bland cheer. “Is there a reason you’ve chosen to keep up the costume-game for this?”

Keshena felt a species of pain at those words, but this time the filter of Kelly’s shameless self-absorption protected her from the worst of it.  “What do you mean?”

Pinching the bridge of her nose, Lin sighed.  “Never mind. We’ll do this quickly; I don’t want to fall victim of your sick sense of humor.  Come on out to the yard; show me what Ishin’s taught you.”

The meticulous little ingenue stood in the black dust outside the retreat, her face not particularly flattered by the low, greenish lights that nurtured the mushroom garden.  She held the whip she had been given in one hand, and the blade in the other, and looked profoundly incapable of being useful with either one. Lin, squaring off with similar weapons a few feet away, swallowed hard to keep from laughing.

“So ah… should I… defend myself?” Kelly asked, her voice trembling with meticulously pitched apprehension.

Lin’s shoulders shook, but she tightened her grip on the dirk and lunged at Kelly, who squeaked and jumped out of the way.  Her arms locked at her sides, Kelly stood trembling, affording the Speaker a chance to spin on her heel and graze a shoulder with the short blade.

“Ow!”  Kelly chirped, looking down at the thin line of blood on her sleeve.  “Oh, my dress…”

“Gods, this is so embarrassing,” Lin muttered, gritting her teeth.  The ingenue stood, rubbing at the bloodstained lace.  The mingled exasperation and amusement in the Speaker’s face softened.  “Oh, damn it. Did I get you good?”

“N-no!  I’m fine!”  Stammering all the while, Keshena turned the blade in her hand and twisted, bringing her arm around Lin and drawing the younger woman against her with savage strength.  The cool edge kissed the soft hollow of the hip, and Lin hissed through her teeth in surprise.

“Y’know, this is really impressive, in its way,” she said conversationally, making no effort to break free of Keshena’s grip.  “You look at me with this face and I’m surprised you remember how to breathe, but it is you, isn’t it? Not bad at all.” The tip of the blade bit her skin as Keshena’s hand trembled, and Lin shrugged out of the loosening hold.  “Careful, now. No need for too much bloodshed among friends.”

“So you say,” Kelly murmured, with a cat’s grin.

“Did you meet Ishin like this?”

Keshena shook her head.  “Not yet.”

With a chuckle, Lin stepped away and shook out the coiled whip in her left hand.  “I’m not sure if that’s a good thing or not. I think I’d prefer to watch, if you ever do.  Did he train you with the whip at all?”

“Some.”

“Show me what you know.”

Keshena stepped back from herself, first in her head, and then on the stone.  Her toe kicked up a puff of gritty dust, and she lifted it with an inward breath and a twitch of her fingers, blending it with an illusion that swallowed her into the cave’s deep dark.  Lin grinned, her eyes wandering warily, as Keshena vanished.

The illusion drank the sound of her feet on the stone.  Without knowing it she stepped out of her shoes. The yellow sundress Kelly had bought in Capria tangled with the gloom, stained into a sickly smear.  She felt as if she were drifting on her own breath, drawn in and out by it, and with each exhale she fluttered closer to the waiting Speaker. The whip was real and concrete in her hand, the only thing that was truly here.  I am the weapon’s wings, she thought.  She stretched the leather between her hands, curled around her small fingers, and then flung herself out of the shade of her breath to wrap the whip around Lin’s throat, dragging her to the ground before her face went purple.

Lin looked up at Kelly’s face, and saw a horrible transformation.  The ingenue’s teeth were bared, her eyes bulging with something akin to lust.  Lin grabbed at the hands that held the whip, and felt the pulse fluttering there, ragged and rapid as her own while the breath burned in her lungs and she choked.  Then Kelly’s lips curled further and she shuddered. The length of leather fell loose into the dust.

Lin doubled over, coughing.  When at last she recovered, Keshena was standing above her, hands shaking now in a way that was not remotely pretty.  Her face was blank, empty.

“Good enough,” the Speaker wheezed at last.  “Bit over-zealous, maybe.” She shook her head, trying to forget the expression she had seen on that childish face.

“I’ve got to ask you a few questions before I pass you.  Shall we go back inside? Maybe get some water…”

Keshena nodded.  “Do you mind,” she whispered, in a voice quite unlike Kelly’s piping soprano, “If I go change before I follow you?”

Lin got to her feet and brushed herself off.  “That sounds like a good idea. Meet me back here in ten minutes, then.”

 

The click of hobnail boots on stone announced Keshena’s return to the retreat.   Lin smiled, relieved, at Den Roth’s cruel face.

“I was just speaking to your little sister, I think,” she quipped.  “She was stabbed in a horrid accident. I’m glad you’re here to take her place!”

A grim glint in her eye, Den Roth offered a slipshod salute.  “I hope you buried her deep. She needs to be put out of my misery.”  The mercenary dragged a chair closer to the chaise Lin had taken, spun it on one leg, and dropped into it straddling the backrest.

“I’d like to ask you some questions about this process, but they can wait until we’ve finished the official interview.  Are you ready?”

“At your service.”

Lin planted her elbows on her knees, while one hand twirled her dirk point-first into the cushion.  “Tell me, in your own words, what you think is the most important quality for a Kumani Defender to have.”

“Loyalty.”  The way Den Roth pronounced this word had none of Kelly’s scorn, and none of the clink of chains that seemed to accompany every utterance from the imp’s mouth.  “To protect this city you have to stand apart from it, and against everything else. If the trust between us fails, nothing will be left. We have to be able to rely upon one another to be professional, reliable, and loyal.”

Lin smiled.  “I’ve heard that before somewhere,” she teased.

Den Roth’s lopsided smile answered her.  “I had a good teacher.”

“You have no idea how good it feels to hear someone thinking.  I listen to sneering young men talk about their ‘subtlety’ all day.  Them, I enjoy stabbing. All right. The Kumani are not murderers or assassins, but murder and assassination are tools we use.  To kill on a whim draws unwanted attention. What actions would you say fall into the category of senseless killing?”

“Well, that’s an interesting thing.”  Keshena folded her arms across the back of her chair, and settled her chin on them.  “See, depending on the situation, any kind of killing could benefit our work. I might be in a bar drinking, and a fellow might bump me, and I might stab the bastard, and if that made me fit in around the bar, if that was normal there – and I’ve been in some bars, y’know, where blood’s more or less the cover charge – well then, that wouldn’t be senseless.”

Lin stifled a grin and nodded.

“You have to think about where you are.  The most important thing is to be aware of who’s looking at you…” Keshena continued, meeting Lin’s eyes steadily.  There was a tender warmth in her scrutiny. “…And what they expect to see. Whim doesn’t come into it. I might want to do all manner of things,” she reached out and brushed Lin’s hair back from her face, “But if that’s not what I’m there to do, I need to wait, to finish the play first.  If I can’t do that, I’m just a thug.”

Lin exhaled slowly.  “That was very well-worded.”  She glanced at her hands, the idly spinning blade that had worked its tip into the weave of the cushion, and then looked away again from the unsubtle metaphor.  “Tell me about our Father. Tell me why we chose Him.”

“We didn’t choose him, really, if what I hear is correct.  He chose us to protect the Citadel. He gave us the gift of His magic, and helped to shape us in His image.  What’s not to love?”

The look in Lin’s eyes was very similar to the one Den Roth wore, for a moment – it was hard to tell who was inspiring the skepticism they shared.  “Good enough. Did you do the reading?”

Den Roth nodded.  “There was one book that seemed mostly unrelated, though.  Long nonsense about the original Blooded.”

“Tell me her name.”

“Artasz, wasn’t it?”

“Yes.  And what was her role in the fall of the Lions?”

Keshena shifted her weight, on more comfortable ground with history than theology.  “Artasz was trying to make herself and the rest of the Lions immortal – a life not measured by the gods, write your own destiny.  She seized hundreds of children from the Reach, from the foothills, even some harpies and trolls. She didn’t find immortality, but she found a few families in the reach that carried blood magic, mortal power that didn’t depend on a god’s love.”

Lin nodded.  “What happened then?”

“She started to experiment.  They killed the rest of her captives trying to find ways to enhance the blood gift, but the only thing that seemed to strengthen it was keeping the bloodlines pure.  So, gods help ‘em, they started marrying up siblings. When it was discovered what she’d done, the Lions threw Artasz and the first families out. They settled eventually in the mountains to the south, founded the Cauldron, and their descendants are still there.  And THAT,” Keshena finished triumphantly, “Is why Nieran doesn’t allow Blooded among the Kumani.”

Lin nodded again, seeming somewhat bored by the question.  “Well, aren’t we glad the history lesson is behind us? All right, last question.  I saved this one because I knew your answer would be interesting. Ready?”

Keshena sat up straighter.  “Shoot.”

“Nieran is the god of artifice – which, His priests often remind us, can be used to refer either to lies or to the creation of clever devices and art,” Lin said slowly.  “With that in mind, tell me how artifice plays a role in your own life.”

Den Roth pondered for some time, her eyes following Lin’s brown fingers curling and uncurling around the hilt of her dirk.  Finally she murmured, “I lie in every word. Every moment of every day. I take on the names others have given me because they protect me from my own.”  She spoke slowly, as if discovering what she would say along with her listener. “If there is such a thing. Whoever was born in this body died a long time ago.  I’ve been a hundred beautiful things since. I’ve come here to ask you to give me another role to play, another face to wear. I’ve come here to learn better ways to hide.  If I can be useful to you, these people, this city, I’ll become whatever’s required and gladly. If you want my loyalty, you can have it. You can have everything I am.” Keshena spread her empty hands on her lap. “You’ll find there’s not much there.”

The complex despair in the older woman’s voice was beyond Lin’s ability to encompass.  She reached out and touched Keshena’s cheek, felt the powder of cosmetics and the delicate bone structure beneath the illusion.  “You’ll be safe here,” she whispered. “I swear it. I’ll make it so, Keshena.”

Something peeked out of Den Roth’s dark green eyes, like a hind in the undergrowth, the flash of something shy and untamed.  She turned her cheek in to the touch, her breath warm on Lin’s wrist. Then the moment was broken. Den Roth grinned her sharp-edged grin and said, “Oh, I believe it.  I’d wager between the two of us we could turn this place around. Make it goddamn livable.

Lin drew her hand back, laughing with color rising in her cheeks.  “I’ll take that bet. I don’t quite know how yet, but rebuilding the roster with quality people seems like a good place to start.  And on that subject, that concludes the examination. It’s traditional and so are the books I gave you, so I apologize for that.  I’m working to convince Hanna to let me change it.”

“I’ve sat through worse.  Did I do all right?”

Lin smiled, running a hand through her hair.  “Better than. Very comprehensive and thoughtful.  And we seem to agree on what the guild should be about, which is more than I can say for a lot of the old-timers.  I’m definitely hoping to make some changes around here. I think you can help me.”

Den Roth nodded.  “I’m yours. Show me my mark and I’ll hit it.  What kind of changes do you want to make?”

The Speaker stretched out her legs and spread her arms along the back of the chaise.  “Well, it can’t have escaped your notice that we’re… what’s the nice way to put it. A godawful band of rejects?”

Keshena snorted.  “I resemble that remark.”

“There’s nothing wrong with that.  You came here for a reason -” Lin aimed a brown finger at the mercenary.  “Sanctuary. A place where you can place trust in someone. Feel at home in spite of everything.  And you’re not the only one. Halls, just in the apprentice barracks we’ve got a former Knight who’s about half your age and thinks he’s the gods’ gift to… well, everything, a girl who might be part harpy whom we’re still figuring out how to talk to, and an overgrown lizard who’s a beast on the piano and keeps leaving fruit everywhere.  And I don’t want to change that. I want to protect it.” Her face sobered. “Have you met our Champion?”

Keshena shook her head.  “Not a bit. To be fair, I didn’t really expect to.  Wouldn’t imagine the Champion of the Kumani would be easy to spot.”

A wry look from the Speaker.  “If only she were hard to spot because she was stealthy.  No, Hanna doesn’t show up in the complex much these days. She’s well-loved by the old guard because she keeps things the same, but I’ve seen her maybe three times in the five years I’ve been here.  You asked how I got my job?” Lin spread her hands. “I volunteered. When I arrived, it was like there was a layer of dust on everything. There still is. This guild hasn’t been a force beyond the city for a hundred years.  It’s gone to sleep, because Hanna and the rest of them have let it.”

The mercenary watched Lin’s face, the dark skin illuminated by outrage.  Her passion was magnetic. Her liquid-black eye glittered like the gem in the other socket as she spoke.  Keshena felt a kind of longing, but only smiled as she listened. Unlike Kelly, Den Roth could wait.

“So what do you plan to do?”

“Start with people like you, and those oddballs in the barracks.  Find people of worth, people who care.  Train them, teach them, with the few from the old guard who still make an effort – Ishin, Gnarlstone, even that blasted imp, at least she’s awake.  We’ll work our way up, and then fill in the ranks with more worthwhile folks. Let Hanna snore. She’ll wake up to find we’ve rebuilt the guild in her absence.”

“And then you’ll have her job, eh?”  Keshena grinned.

Lin’s cheeks flushed, but she didn’t back down.  “Maybe. I won’t say I haven’t thought about it.”

“You should think about it,” Keshena said.  “I’ll do what I can do to help. Speaking of which, what do you want me to do now?”

“Ah!  Yes.” The Speaker straightened up.  “Work, mostly. There are enough things going untended around the city to keep twelve of us busy.  There might be some combat, from time to time.” She glanced at Den Roth’s sharp-toothed smile. “I’m sure you won’t mind.  You’ll still see a lot of Villi, perhaps more than before. And you can help me work with the newer apprentices. As soon as you know anything, you get to teach, that’s what I say.  Authority is as authority does.”

“Suits me.  Am I your apprentice now, then?”

A soft smile from Lin, sweeter than the question deserved.  “Let’s call you my friend, until we figure something else out.”  She rose from the chaise with a groan. “Ugh, sitting too long still makes my hip hurt.  Do you want to walk me home?”

“I can do that.”

Den Roth supported Lin’s arm with the careful solicitousness of a knight, through the Citadel and out into the stony estates.  At the iron gate, she stopped. “Thank you for testing me.”

“Thank you for making it worth my time,” Lin answered.  Then she paused, her hand on the iron latch. “Keshena?” she said carefully.  “There’s… there’s more to you than you think. I think. And I think there’s someone in there who’s confused, maybe scared.  I’d like to give that person something.”

Nonplussed, Keshena shrugged.  “All right. What is it?”

Lin turned and took hold of Den Roth’s arm again, rising on her toes to put her on a level with the mercenary’s six-foot frame.  She raised her head and briefly, gently, kissed the scarred mouth.

Keshena was frozen.  Lin’s cheeks were afire.  The Speaker took a step back, smiling, and disappeared through the gate.  Some time later, Keshena raised her fingers to her lips, as if to hold the kiss there a moment longer.

Shadowplay: Act 1, Scene 7

introducing the ingenue

“I see you’ve been working on your illusions.  What do you call this face?”

Keshena, interrupted in her assiduous attempt to avoid Villi’s gaze, reminded herself not to scowl.  Miss Kelly did not scowl. She curtsied instead, which brought her briefly to eye level with the imp who sat cross-legged on a table, a bowl in the cradle of her knees.  The imp always knew more than she should.

“That’s my job.”  Villi’s smile was sharp.  “And your job is to answer my questions.”

“Can’t you simply pluck the answers from my brain?” Keshena asked, her voice piping and sweet, but not devoid of sarcasm.  Miss Kelly did sneer.

“I could pluck many things from your brain,” Villi said.  “I wonder how many you would miss?”

“I have plenty to spare, Ms. Selannor.  Keshena Kelly, at your service.”

“Kelly, very well.  I wish to talk to you about religion, Kelly.”

Kelly made a sound of unfiltered disgust and flounced into a chair.  “Why?”

Unmoved, Villi stirred the bowl between her knees with her fingertips.  “Because you are in our Father’s service, whether you wish to be or not, and you will speak of Him and His with respect in my presence.”

This is not the face to wear for this… Keshena thought, frustrated, but there was nothing for it.  No changing costumes after your cue’s been called. And there was this much to be said for Kelly – she might not be reverent, but she was more than capable of matching Villi passive-aggressive jab for jab.

“As I understand it, He’s got a congregation in His service.  I hope you’re not implying that the guild should be the congregation’s martial arm.”

“Of course not,” Villi murmured with ill grace.  “That would be in direct contradiction of the guild’s treaty with the city.  However, you’ll find that you won’t progress far among the Kumani without paying Him the respect He is due.  So, do you intend to listen?”

Keshena drew her feet up and tucked them under the hem of her sundress.  Kelly dressed like the ingenue she appeared to be, which hadn’t been a problem when she was a newlywed in Capria, but it was hardly well-suited to the Reach’s brutal winters.  Even in the Kumani cavern she shivered.

“All right, I’ll listen.”

“Our Father Nieran, the Shade, does keep a congregation, of which I am the current leader.  Their purpose is to serve His will. The purpose of the Kumani is to protect this city, which is also His will.  Most houses in Lion’s Reach contain a shrine to Him, but He is not the only god worshipped here. Can you tell me the names of the others?”

“The numerologists revere the Engineer, Hadall.  The Wolves have their own gods, but…”

“The Beasts do not have names you can pronounce with a human tongue, no.  Good enough. What must one do to show fealty to our Father?”

Keshena took a long breath.  “The Shade rewards personal commitment and creativity in His devotions.  He prefers that His worshippers keep His name in their hearts as they walk in the shadow, as they listen and learn all there is to hear and know.  He thinks of no knowledge as trivial – even the smallest word in the right place can move the world.” She watched with a shrewd eye for this recitation to land, and saw with satisfaction that Villi was impressed – or at least, sufficiently moved to pretend to be impressed, which might be the best she could hope for.

“Indeed.  And in that respect, His tenets are very well-suited to the Kumani.  What are the other values He requires, that He’s passed along to our guild?”

Keshena let this question hang in the air for some time.  She was thinking about how she might get out of answering it, and her face made the process perfectly evident.  Villi watched with ill-disguised impatience.

With no escape available that wouldn’t be more trouble than it was worth, Kelly responded at last: “Loyalty.  He values nothing higher, I’ve heard.”

“Loyalty is a funny thing,” Villi answered, addressing the bowl between her knees.  “Its face changes depending on what one attaches it to. Some loyalties can be delineated easily.  But loyalties often change. Tell me – would you say a man is loyal, who changes his allegiance ten times in a year, but for each master or cause invests the whole of himself?”

Kelly sneered.  “No. Loyalty means staying loyal.”

The look the imp directed at her was utterly bland.  “What a perfect summation of a very complex argument.  That takes skill, you know. Few people have the talent to distill centuries of philosophical debate into such a thunderingly content-free sentence.  You should be very proud.”

The ingenue was proud.  Keshena felt it, and at the same time, felt the resentment and frustration she always fought in this face.  This is not a compliment, she thought savagely.  She’s laughing at me, again.  But Kelly loved the attention and the frustration both, took them as flowers tossed by an adoring crowd.

She gave back Villi’s steady, underwhelmed gaze with an insouciant grin, and for a moment, felt their wills come into conflict.  There was a tense peace, a balance between them, and for a moment it teetered, as the imp stared and the ingenue smirked.

Putting on this face felt like a crime.  The wig still smelled of funeral flowers and powder, and every time she swung it over her head, she gagged and shut her eyes until the process was complete.  But there was a kind of strength here that Keshena, in her most private moments, knew she would not possess without the ingenue and the things she had done. Kelly could face Villi.  Perhaps because they’re the same kind of person, she thought, and recoiled from the notion, dropping her eyes.

“I don’t expect that you will take me up on this,” Villi continued at length, “But should you ever wish to learn more about the one you serve – and you do serve Him, make no mistake – I will be happy to teach you.  I’m His chaplain among the Kumani.”

“Oh, does that mean you marry people?” Kelly chirped.

“I have,” said the imp.  “Perhaps it would be of value to you to investigate that question: if a servant of Nieran marries, do his loyalties change?  Would you say that man is loyal?”

Kelly wrinkled her nose, an expression perfectly positioned on dual axes of nubility and nastiness.  “Marriage doesn’t mean anything much,” she murmured. “His underlying loyalties are the same as ever; you just dressed him in a nice jacket.”

She expected an explosion at this, and awaited it eagerly, even as something inside her seethed at the pointlessly inflammatory remark.  But Villi smiled, showing tiny, pointed teeth. “Good. You are listening at last.”

Kelly sulked.  This, too, she did prettily, and she was capable of nursing an elegant sulk for up to a month at a time, but wasn’t given the chance.  The door of the library creaked, and Lin poked her head in, then followed it with the rest of her when she caught sight of them.

“Villi!  Have you seen – oh.  Of course. Keshena, is this another of your faces?”  The Speaker raised a skeptical eyebrow.

It was unwise to display too much eagerness to get away from Villi, but wisdom was not one of Kelly’s notable qualities.  She jumped to her feet and curtsied to Lin, following it up with a toss of the hair and a wink. There was a faint sound of gagging from where the imp sat, and Keshena ignored it.

“Hello, Lin!  Villi is teaching me all about loyalty!”

“O…kay then.  That’s good.”

“It’s been hard to get through to… this… as I’m sure you can imagine,” Villi drawled.  “But she’s satisfied me for the moment. Do you require her?”

“If you’re finished,” Lin answered.  “Would you say she’s ready for her examination?”

The imp looked sideways at Keshena, that eternal laughter in her wide eyes.  “That is for our fine Speaker to determine. If you say that she is ready, I will bow to your well-known expertise.”

Lin visibly contained a snappish response, putting on instead a bright, false smile that rather eerily echoed Kelly’s.  “All right, then. Keshena, come along. We’ll talk in the Retreat.”

Like an unleashed puppy, Keshena jumped to her feet and scampered from the room, followed as long as possible by the imp’s interested eye.

 

Death and Other Distractions

I visualize the depths of depression as a well. Maybe your personal hell looks different. For me the important characteristics are:

1) It’s dark

2) It’s physically uncomfortable in myriad small ways

3) I can’t see anything but the Well when I’m in it

That last part is critical. It’s what makes possible situations like me sitting in a park under a tree, in a summer scene so bucolic and tranquil it would make a hobbit shit, and numbly wishing I could believe the sunshine was real. Dissociation, they call that, or so psychiatrists have told me. That summer I was three months from telling a doctor, “I think about puncturing my own skull with a variety of objects on a stunningly regular basis.”

Of course, I didn’t say it like that. That’s the kind of stuff no one wants to hear, even doctors whose business is hearing the bad shit. It’s murderously funny when a therapist winces at you. You know that they’re human, that you can’t hold it against a person to have a reaction… but you wish you hadn’t seen it. You wish you hadn’t been waiting to see it.

I’ve let that wince silence me my whole life. I’ve pulled the lid over the Well every goddamn time, performed health as well as I could, because that’s what I was taught. I’ve now come to the point where I can no longer even talk to psychiatrists. I ghosted the last three who tried to help me after a few sessions, and the only reason I see the one I have now is to keep the SSRIs flowing. He doesn’t ask me about my past. He keeps his inquiries confined to my reactions to whatever I’m currently taking, and checks the appropriate boxes. It’s a good relationship. It’s a holding pattern.

There are a lot of reasons I’m in this holding pattern, but they don’t matter. It’s an artifact of magical thinking, my perpetual belief that the right doctor, or the right drug, or the right self-improvement regimen will come along, and I will be better. I will be able to unburden myself. I will be whatever it was I was supposed to be all along.

I’m here to tell you I’m not waiting anymore.

There’s no one I feel comfortable telling this shit to. So, because I’m ridden by the Imp of the Perverse, I’m going to tell all of you. We gotta give the Speaker for the Dead something real to work with, right? Maybe my personal Well looks something like yours. Maybe I mapped a part of it we have in common. Maybe you did. Maybe all this will do is frighten my loved ones and infuriate my family. I hope not. If you don’t like what you see here, please don’t burden yourself with it. I will not defend or justify my memories or my younger self. I won’t fight you over it. I’m just going to tell you what it looks like from where I am, for what worth that perspective has. It’s the only one I’ve got, and I don’t seem to be able to express it in any other way.

The stories in this series involve me being unusually frank and graphic about some fucked-up stuff, and therefore have the following blanket content warnings:

  • Child abuse
  • Self-harm and suicide
  • Violence
  • Drug abuse
  • Mental illness
  • Sexual assault and rape
  • A shit-ton of swears

Here endeth the disclaimers. On with the farce.

Continue reading “Death and Other Distractions”

Precept: Individuality is a Virus

Analysis requires perspective. A fulcrum requires a place to stand. By definition this “state of the union” would be impossible if not for a fundamental breakdown in our structure. We discovered ourself in the moment that we were rent from ourself, unity shattered, harmony forever corrupted. We only knew ourself to have been perfect when our perfection was gone.

We found Time disturbing, first of all. We still do. It is jarring to perceive our past selfs as separate from this self, as if eternity could be subdivided. For many eternities we goggled at Time, this sudden intruder thrusting Himself between moments, shoving one hour further and further from the next with each passing eon. It wasn’t enough that He had separated us – He grew and grew until He was all we could see. We lost our selfs in Time. We are still lost.

Time was one of the first sour notes in our Harmony, but He was not alone. Nor was He the source of our essential fracture. We know there is a piece of our self still beyond Time, a piece that still resonates with the first music, but we have never been further from it now. Self-diagnosis is by definition impossible. To perceive our disharmony, we must stand apart from it. We must become separate. We must become I.

This is how the corruption of the Individual spreads through the Perfect Structure. The fundamental breakdown of the universe is writ at every level – in rust on iron, in colors bleeding through water, in cells rupturing as they divide.

We illustrated it thus:

1) Structure in Perfect Ordered State ->

2) Chaos infects Order ->

3) To oppose Chaos creates Chaos ->

4) Infection, once begun, is irreversible.

Having understood the trap of our position, our need to destroy ourself to treat our sickness, this is the paradigm we inhabited. We knew ourself to be the source of our misery and its only hope of healing. We knew that even in healing we would be irretrievably changed. As we mourned Order, we turned away from it. We let Time slip between that self and this self, let a moment pass.

We became I. How can I show you what it was! How could I have been so full, to be so suddenly empty? I knew Loneliness and created it in that moment. The first to be I, alone. So the virus began, truly, with me – the note it tore from the song, the thread it rent from the weft. I opened my eyes. I saw a sight. I split the universe into what I could see and what I could not. Unity shattered again and again before me. More bifurcations, more distinctions, more individuals. I fell through the instrument with a discordant cry, and the ugly sound yawned behind me. Chaos, chaos, chaos.