Guilded life, at least in Keshena’s experience, was about one part education to nine parts indoctrination. She had never properly joined a guild before, but had spent a great deal of time on the periphery of several, and decided long ago that she had little use for them. She wasn’t accustomed to having to explain her associations or activities, and had no intention of beginning at two hundred.
But the Kumani suited her. They didn’t explain themselves either – not when she met them in the dark complex or out in the world, where they more often than not pretended not to know her at all. They spoke tersely to each other, and though she often heard many more voices around her than she had seen faces for, there were few names. Their conversation was circuitous, eternally self-referential. It’s what she had expected, joining a guild that trained spies. Counted on it, in fact. If one sought to hide even from one’s own regard, there could be no better place.
They did train her. There were no classrooms, no tests. At odd hours – sometimes while she slept soundly, and jerked awake with her heart hammering the tattoo of an ancient war when her door rattled under a fist – they would call her out, to a copse or a crossroads or a pit like the one she had stood in with Lin. At first it was always a grey-clad functionary like those she saw every day, novices training novices. Their thin hands were covered in fresh nicks and cuts. She watched their hands move as they talked quietly about the minutiae of stealth, ways to remain unseen in plain sight, ways to soften one’s footfalls. Some of it was familiar; an actress is half a spy already. But there was more magic here than in the art she had learned as a child. The Kumani were truly gifted, and she came to believe that the story she had heard about their history was true.
They protected the Reach, and always had, but folklore held that they had done it as simple farmers once, had defended their wintry land with pitchforks, hammers and horsewhips. The Kumani had been an underclass, indentured by the Lions, a vicious and powerful civilization that had left its prints on every stone of the Citadel and surrounding country. Diggers still unearthed artifacts of their centuries of rule, and the story of their fall was told in tapestries on every wall. Hubris. They tried to overreach the gods, tried to pierce the Halls of Death with their mines and the Walls of Haven with their spires, and so the gods set them against one another in a bloody war that ruined the land and loosed pestilence on the world. And when they fell, a handful of laborers stood against them, preserved what they could of the city and its common people from the shrapnel of the Lions’ civil war. It was said that one god, the god of shadows, had looked kindly upon this stubborn devotion. He had seen them and walked among them, touching one and another and another on the hand, and one and another and another disappeared from the material world, shrouded in sudden shade. “You shall be My children, and you shall call Me Father,” He whispered to them. “You shall defend this city against all who would destroy her.”
He had given them tricks and talents, and slowly, one at a time in a way that sometimes seemed accidental, they taught Keshena. A young girl showed her the passageways about the city that the citizens didn’t know. An elderly woman with great white wings taught her to conceal small objects and summon phantom lights and sounds. A burly, brash man was delighted to find her already somewhat practiced as a pickpocket, and eagerly refined her skills in the city’s market – always requiring her to put back what she had taken. “We don’t steal from our own,” he said firmly.
“But we do spy on them?”
He aimed a finger at her face. “We do what we must to protect them. That’s our charge. Stealing their pocket change isn’t part of that. Sometimes spying is.”
Illusory lines. Meaningless, she thought, but then, so were the rules she lived by. Meaningless, but necessary. So she returned handkerchiefs and trinkets to pockets as stealthily as she had removed them, and earned his praise.
She twitched in the crowded hallway, but the reaction came too late – she didn’t catch the hand that slipped the note into her pocket, or the arm it was attached to. Spreading it between her fingers, she read, “Mushroom garden, now.”
Because a fucking request would be so boring. She rolled her eyes and changed course, with difficulty, redirecting through the Basilica toward the guild caverns. The complex was home to little life – the Kumani cultivated rather more than the usual amount of paranoia, and beasts could be ruled by any human hand. But the phosphorescent fungus native to the obsidian caves was allowed to proliferate, and trained into places where its light would be of most use. On the eastern side of the complex, around the retreat, they grew to prodigious size and formed an eerie forest that shed pale light. It was a romantic spot, if one’s sense of romance included mushrooms.
Keshena sat on a bench at the edge of the garden, overlooking the waterfall that poured from the distant ceiling into the pool at the center of the cave. She used the time to perform a quick inventory of her tools and weapons, and attend to their maintenance. Most things, she reflected, squinting at herself in the blade of her dirk, are habit. Skill comes with repetition, and so does mastery. The habit is the thing, and Keshena was good at acquiring habits.
She became aware of the imp all at once, and late. How long had she been there? The woman was small, standing under the gills of a hip-high mushroom, but she was clearly no child. She was as nondescript as a person could possibly be, the goal to which the monochromatic novices aspired. The face was middle-aged but not old, the short hair dark but not quite black. But she had those eyes, like Keshena’s eyes – the shadows of centuries passing and filling her head. Those ancient grey eyes watched Den Roth oiling her dirk, and after a little while, Keshena watched her back.
“It’s good to take care of your things,” the imp said at length. She detached herself from the mushroom and crossed the lichen carpet underfoot to rest her elbows on Keshena’s knees.
Keshena tensed – she wasn’t over-fond of being touched, these days – and meditated on the self-assurance of a woman who would place her eye within inches of a naked blade while intruding upon a stranger’s personal space. “Who are you?” she asked with careful courtesy.
“Villi Selannor.” They shook hands. Keshena’s were barely any larger, oddly small on this tall frame. She never could disguise her little hands.
“I can teach you that,” Villi offered as she boosted herself up onto the bench. Keshena stared at her, ice running through her stomach. How could the imp be eavesdropping on her thoughts?
“You can teach me to make my hands bigger?”
“Yes. Among other things.” Villi’s gaze was steady, almost rude in its staring focus, but it met a similar scrutiny in the mercenary’s green eyes. Slowly the imp opened her hands, and Keshena watched the fragile fingers grow, the palms plump and spread.
“Of course, there’s no need to show the intervening stages if you have no reason to.” Villi shook her hands and the illusion shredded like smoke. Then she turned them over, and in the blink of an eye they were three times larger, looking absurd on the ends of her arms.
“You do this by thinking it?” Keshena reached out to touch the oversized knuckles. They felt real enough. She pressed harder. Blood moved under her fingers, the skin went a little paler, and the illusion held.
“There are some words, some… patterns of thought that will help, at first. You won’t need them long.”
She shook the illusion off, and Keshena found herself gripping Villi’s hand. The grey eyes met hers, full of laughter in a solemn face, and Keshena released her as if stung. Then the imp did laugh.
With whispers and gestures, the little woman wove the eerie light into new shapes that had the weight of reality. She showed Keshena how to build an illusion that would be stable, to tie it to existing structures, to an expression or a mask or a movement.
“When you lie, never simply lie,” she murmured. “The truth gives lies life. Our Father teaches us to reshape the world to match our lies, not the other way ‘round. Even the simplest support – this, for instance – “ She deftly plucked a long scar from Den Roth’s arm. The tiny pain of the adhesive coming away was lost in the flood of fear and rage as Keshena grabbed her wrist. Those laughing eyes met her again, dared her… and she froze inside and out to hide her thoughts from the imp.
A child’s irritation at having her costume work disrupted had bloomed over the centuries into something more closely resembling a compulsion. The glimpse of pale skin where the scar had been made her bite down on terror, as if it might spread like contagion, a plague that would leave her naked and – no. No more. There was nowhere else to run. She could not fight, and she could not flee. There was a third way, a way of stillness. She must let this vile imp teach it to her.
“This, for instance,” Villi continued, knowledge of her victory clear on her small face, “Will hold up a much stronger illusion than you can conjure from thin air.”
It took everything Keshena had to release Villi’s wrist and allow her to lay the scar back in the pale place on her arm where it had lain. The tiny fingers smoothed the cloth and wax back into place, and as they did so, weaved the fungus’s dim light into the false flesh. The wound – a masterful piece of costuming, no question – rose from the skin, acquired the taut sheen of scar tissue. The edges of the prosthetic disappeared, blended with her coloring more perfectly than cosmetics ever could. When the imp lifted her hand away, Keshena breathed… and saw an illusion she could not discern from reality, even having seen it built.
Animal terror and sudden greed for this knowledge – this knowledge she needed so badly – fought for her face. Neither won. Stillness. She held herself silent inside and out until she could properly command her voice.
“Take your time to speak if you have to,” said the imp. How did she always know?
When at last Keshena owned herself again, she looked up at Villi. “Show me more.”