Leper

Previous

I’ve been walking in the city more this year.  Reports suggest my activity within the walls has increased 34.29% over the previous eighteen months, and noticing this trend has not affected the rate of increase.

It is not quite forbidden for me to do so, of course.  Very little is forbidden me. Most people are not entirely sure where I fall in either a legal hierarchy or a social one.  I am artificial – I meet the legal minimums for manufactured sentience and personhood, and was certified as sapient when I was built.  Elsewhere in the galaxy, my kind are rare. Here, in the Veil on the planet Cariad, the stamp of artificial sapient implies a certain economic standing (comfortable), a certain political leaning (monarchist), and a certain trajectory (faithful service, well rewarded, until a modestly-attended decommissioning ceremony).  In all respects, I disappoint. But it’s not altogether my fault. I would argue that my path was co-opted at a young age, and has never since been my own. Though I pilot this ship, I did not plot this course.

“Take the human leper of legend; witness his manner – cringing, retiring, savagely apologetic.  Raise him up in your mind. Let him be your guide: use your secret ways, and when you must walk on city streets, remember always that you… are not… like us.  See how the leper is different from the healthy human? See how he represents a breakdown of civilization, a retrograde step in evolution? How do you think you look to the sapients who work in this city, work every day to eliminate tragedies like you?”

Not forbidden – simply rude, to expose them to my presence.  I certainly know how I look to them.  I’ve seen it reflected in their faces.  So I use my secret ways, the doors that open to hands shaped like mine.  “Be grateful that you are allowed to exist,” they say, and so I am grateful.  Most of my kind are destroyed young. There is no use for most prototypes or failed experiments.  I have been given thirty additional years to live in this world, and though great portions of this world seem to despise me, I have often been happy here.  The organics of Cariad can’t say as much.

Most of my happinesses are in the forest, the same forest I plunder daily at the whim of my queen.  I prey upon it in my careful, devoted way, and in that way I am part of their community – I join the chain of predation that includes all beasts, winged and walking.  If I were to die there… well. In point of fact, I have dreamed of it many times. More frequently as I approach my 30th year.

I dream of walking into the forest with my rifle, as I do every day.  Finding a path so long unused that even I cannot turn up the memory of turning up the soil.  Each one of us who harvests the forest has their own secret spots, I’m sure. I could take the north side of the ridge to the second ravine after the fallen tree.  I could be safe there, for long enough to flood my system with the appropriate chemicals. That part would be easy – I could burn out my own mind with a thought, as could any of my superiors.

Some months ago I considered this at length.  My hunt brought me to the north ridge and there I found a scree of stones, and at its end, a drop of several hundred meters.  At the top of this slope I could die, and the ensuing fall would damage and hide my machine beyond retrieval – I hope. Having run the simulation repeatedly every night since I found the spot, I cannot eliminate a substantial chance of failure.  Either my machine will not be fully destroyed, or it will not be fully buried, and I must achieve both to put myself beyond the queen’s power to resurrect.

There is the effect on the landscape to consider, too.  The other Harvesters I’ve met do their meager best, as I do, to protect the forest we hunt.  The queen once rode out in search of her own quarries, hundreds of years ago, and nearly trampled the ridges bare with her passing.  Incapable of condensing herself, she concluded that a more precise tool was needed. Thus we, her bastard children.

If I should attempt to escape her, she will pursue me, as any mother would.  She will burn this world black and sift the ashes for the molecules that once made up my machine.  No Harvester has ever escaped. The last one to be lost was over 50 years ago. There’s an infant city now, where the queen eventually found him.  The land there will never support organic life again.

My queen knows that there are still organic sapients on Cariad.  This is why our cities are surrounded by seamless walls, and why she protects her property so rabidly.  Though it’s been many hundreds of years since they were any kind of threat, the remaining human population is ravenously opportunistic.  Any scrap of manufactured material left in the wilderness will be scavenged and used. With the ruins of a Harvester, a clever organic could level a city.

If I care for the forest I am cursed to haunt, I must continue to haunt it.  Perhaps this is why I’ve walked in the Veil so much this year. I am striving to accept my curse.  I go through the motions of my work with scrupulous attention that I haven’t taken in a decade. Once there was more pain in this, and more pleasure.

Half-Awake

I saw the goddess come but I did not see her go.  I saw men who looked her in the eyes bleed from the nose and fall on their faces, and I did not try to stop her when she chose to leave us.  The touch of divinity comes and goes like lightning, and it has deserted this place.  In time, I will go too.  I am Dol Demenian Half-Awake.  Someday I will truly sleep, and then her path will burn bright through the darkness and it will be impossible not to follow.

Sometimes I walk through her shrine, empty since she left.  It has the taste of a charnel house where once the flowers burned and choked me with perfume.  I try desperately to recapture those visions, the things I saw while she slept and I watched from the edges of her dream.  I lay my face down in the cold brazier and lick the ashes.  Men see the soot on my face when I leave and make their handsigns behind their backs, step to the side to avoid my gaze.  The closing doors around a servant of the living gods will trap any who stand too near.  It’s been very roomy around me of late.

Looking away makes the difference between Awake and Half-Awake.  Before she came, I was proud of my open eyes, proud to see the world for what it was, proud of my clarity and certainty and simplicity.  I looked away assiduously when the Sleepers walked, and I kept my life clean.  They say all men inevitably wake to a day that will shut their eyes.  Like all mundane men, I hoped that death would shut mine, and spare me the Sleepers’ terrible understanding.  I prayed to the dead gods for a short and blind life.  The dead ones do not answer prayers.

To hunt in the jungle, to gather poisonwood and water-lilies, to lie with my breast in the dust and wait like a snake, to hamstring beasts and embrace them as they kneeled into my arms – this was all I wanted.  I had drunk venom in my wine for six years when she came.  My pack was four of my brothers who could talk by taste and touch.  As we tracked her through the undergrowth I thought of her as a deer, a little lame-leg hind limping through my territory, clumsy with fear.  I tasted her in the air.  I weighed her in her bare footprints and the leaves that bent as she passed.  I smelt her sweetness.  We caught glimpses of her from time to time, a white thing just out of reach in the undergrowth, swift as youth but lost, lost.  I could imagine how her breath would flutter when we overtook her.  Her eyes would be dark and depthless, glassy; her hair would glisten with sweat; her lips would be wet.  She would stare at me at first, and at the other men.  I thought she would be silent when we plundered her, as she was silent in her flight, choked with terror.  And at last her eyes would drop, and when I drew my blade across her neck she would sigh through her opened throat one last time, and spill helplessly into my hands.  It was certain; it was already done.  I only had to catch her.

My heart stomped when I heard her fall.  The jungle was my ally in this, my womb and web, my spread palm across which she staggered.  I lifted a finger and she lurched into a tree.  I curled my wrist and tumbled her into a shallow ravine, the depth of a fingerprint, through which a river ran.

She slumped into the sun, and I caught my breath as reflected day flooded the undergrowth.  On the opposite bank of the stream in which she swayed, knee-deep, I saw the subtle movements of my brothers hemming her in.  This furless fawn, this white hart – I wanted to paint her red and black.  I wanted her golden scalp for a vest.  I wanted to touch the inside of her skin.

Trees between us cut her to glaring ribbons as I orbited her.  A shoulder, a leaf, a flash of throat fluttering with fear, a leaf, a cascade of water as she stood, a bluewood tree-trunk that came between us.  And then – nut-brown, green, bronze, but no white, no yellow, nothing beyond the trees that was not born in this place and known to me.  What?  Where was the little hart?  Had the river taken her?  I broke through the undergrowth like a boar, digging my toes deep in black mud.  I saw her reflection in the slack, shocked faces of my brothers, and I followed their eyes.

She stood in the river staring them back, and as she stared she changed.  A flush stained her face, and another followed it, coloring her all over the same brown as them, the same as my own face.  The yellow hair curled as if licked by a fire and burned red-brown.  Her flesh drank the river and swelled, stretched skin taut and glossy, made of the hart a woman whose face I seemed to know – whose shape was the shape I saw in my dreams.

It happened in a moment, and my eyes thought they lied, held brief council with my brothers’ eyes to confirm.  I saw the same bewilderment there that I felt, and the same recognition.  At once, faced with the inescapable fact of her standing in the stream, I began to doubt the chase that had led me.  Had there been a white girl?  Had she flown, had she fled?  Had I dreamed?  Venom might make a man see any number of things, but my blood was clear today.  Worms might become moths, and fish become frogs, but a hart should remain a hart, and a woman should not shed her skin in the river and take on an entirely different face.

She turned at the sound of my arrival, and for a moment the sun off the water must have dazzled me, for there was no earthbound light like that which leapt from her eyes when they found mine.  I who had tried to live a simple life, to pay lip service to dead gods and avert my eyes from living ones – I, I, I stood unmoving and was gutted by her gaze.  It came and went like the green-gold flash at the death of a day, and then her eyes were closed and we were falling – I to my knees, she into the shallows far more quickly, and both in silence.

The river might have taken her then, and I, blind, slipped after her as dumbly as a dog, but for the hands of my brothers on my arms.  I found my feet, then found my voice, and put both to work to raise her from the water.  There was no thought of slaying her now.  We were only men, charged to drink clean earthly poison, to lie in wait, to hunt the boar and the blunderer, the hart and the helpless.  We carried no blades worthy to sip the blood of a goddess.

 

Would that they had taken her out of my hands.  Given me back my quiet fate, my good, simple death.  But she had met my eyes, and laid a brand on me that was plain even to those who were spared it.

Borne in our hands to the village, she slept and threw no dreams in our path.  In the time to come I would return to that journey many times.  I would sniff my palms for years, searching for her scent.  I would stroke her skin raw in memory.  For though she scourged me nightly with her visions, though she tore my skull open each morning to stuff me with the day’s revelations, she never permitted me to touch her again.

There was silence in the village when we arrived, no one walking or working in the sun.  Someone had run ahead – ? No.  It was Lo who came to greet us, his eyes open.  He would have needed no messenger to herald this.

Boldly he laid hands on her temples and looked down into her face.  I looked away.

“You brought home a thunderstorm, Dol,” he said to me, his voice smiling.  “I didn’t know you were so skilled a hunter.”

I babbled something of harts and hallucinations, off my guard.  Should a man be proud of hooking a universe when he fished for a meal?

In the blazing afternoon Lo walked before us, roused hands from their huts to work.  I and my hunters stood or knelt, never taking our hands from her, never letting her lie on the ground or any inferior surface.  My wife brought me water, her eyes black with fear at the fate already written on my face.  It was easier to look at the burnished skin under my fingertips, easier not to resist.  Behind me, a new foundation of piles and rods was being laid.  By sundown, the walls were raised and shored up with mud.  Still we held her, and she never seemed to grow heavier as a load does – minute by minute I was bewildered by how light she was.  She was shaped like my wife, lush and soft, but her bones must have been hollow, like a bird’s.  My arms never wearied of her.

Finally the men dropped from the roof to carry in a great slab, blue wood from an ancient tree, raised from the bottom of a sinkhole after a hundred years of slow drinking.  They laid it with red cloth, and as we relinquished her to lie upon it, they plucked their gold and bone from ears and wrists, stripped shining shells from their hair and piled them at her feet.  Her first offering was ours to give – our prize for finding her.  Then they left, and so did I.  The last time I would entirely depart that hut – the last time I would sleep.

It was poor rest.  The first true sleep always is.  A waking man touched by a Sleeper is drowned by his next night, dragged under and held beneath the surface of sleep for three days.  He thrashes and weeps, fights his doom as if entangled by vines.  He steals the dreams from every house around him, leaving them wakeful.  His wife and children suffer the worst – they may never dream again, unless they know well enough to leave him before it begins.  My wife was wise enough for this.  I found her gone when I returned home that night, and knew what she knew even as weariness not my own cut my legs out from under me.  Then the goddess opened my heart at both ends and drew through me everything there was to know about my people.

I saw so much I should never have known.  Another reason that men refuse to meet my eyes now – they know that I have seen their depths, the hidden caves beneath their still waters.  I know the secrets they do not tell their wives, and the secrets their wives whisper into their babies’ ears for safekeeping, and the secrets their babies will become as they grow to act out everything they were not supposed to know.  It has all run through my veins, tainted my blood, crueler than any poison.  I sweated it out through every pore that night, howled the true names of strangers in my sleep, and though I could no sooner remember any particular of it than keep from knowing, I hold it all within me even now.  I was the conduit.  I was the reed through which she drunk us.

Lo woke me, his old body slack for the sleep I had stolen from him.  He didn’t speak to me – he would speak to me again in the years to come, a few times, but rarely in his own mind or his own voice.  Pressing a skin of poisoned wine into my hands, he dragged me to my feet and then staggered as I borrowed my balance from him.  His eyes were dark and resigned, the same look I had seen when first we returned to the village – a long look down the years ahead, a look of pity.

I thought of my wife for the last time.  I couldn’t say what became of her now.  Perhaps she lives, somewhere.  Perhaps she escaped before night fell and kept her own mind.  When the goddess stretched out through our minds and shook the village like her own limbs, perhaps the lovely young woman I had loved had simply turned away.  On that morning, I loved her still, and missed her.  For the last time.  There would never be room in my soul again for any human thing.

Lo took me down to the river, and at its verge I hesitated.  The world already had begun to crack around me, as stone breaks apart under the tender, prying fingers of roots.  The goddess had ensnared the village and now was working her tendrils into the land around, and I looked down into the water and wondered if I too would change when I stepped in.  Was it she who transformed the river, or the river that transformed her?  There was power everywhere… but if it had not been there before she arrived, did that make it hers?  Or was she only its messenger?

Lo was kind.  He did not push me in; he did not speak.  He let me grip his wrist, though it worked one old bone against another with the force of it, and let me lower myself into the water as if I were the old man, not he.  I went to my hands and knees there, feeling the warm, familiar mud between my fingers.  There was no reflection to meet my fevered gaze, and I was glad of it.  The running, moving surface brought me a moment’s fragile peace.  I plunged my face into the water and considered staying there.

I drank, almost drowned, in silence.  Not until I raised my head again, broke the surface with my ears, did the dreams return.  Still holding my breath I touched this nascent, blasphemous revelation: she could not reach me under the water.  In the space of a heartbeat I plotted escape, imagined becoming a fish and swimming downstream to another village, one not tangled in a god, where perhaps my wife had gone.  Where I could live like a man.  But before Lo laid a hand on my shoulder to pull me upright, the goddess was in me again, the river forbidden me.  I leapt from it as if fleeing piranhas, and when I stood on the bank I felt as securely held in her palm as she had seemed to be trapped in mine.

 

Maple and Rook

The woman’s face is white, white and silent.  Lips, shuttered eyes, and brows – three delicate, rising and falling lines, frozen in an attitude of petulance.

“You should not be surprised when you are never visited again by any of my House, considering the shocking way you have treated me.  My father will be the first to hear of it, nor will it stop there! I will personally ensure that the Ladies’ Club of the Second Spire never again graces the dingy carpet of your disgusting facility with their bootprints!  I will – ”

She goes on in this way for some time, growing more shrill with each breath.  The two men on the business end of her tirade are looking increasingly uncomfortable, as if they are only now realizing they have a tiger by the tail.  They make several attempts to break in, but she fluidly arches her tone and raises her brows another inch.

By the time her ire has reached their children, and their children’s children, they are no longer even pretending to attend the specific nature of their doom.  They are glancing at one another and the door, contemplating whether actual suicide is preferable to the political variety. To lock this woman up would clearly be the kind of sin that would resonate in the empty halls of this resort for generations… but to set her free will certainly cost them both their jobs, if only to satiate the young woman’s taste for menial blood.  Damnation? Or the sword?

Eventually they obey the most immediate pressure and let her go.  At no point in the minutes upon minutes she has been ranting did the woman’s face pinken or crease.  At no point did she display a single expression that was not perfect. Her expression now, as she marches down the hall ahead of her would-be interrogators, is triumphant.  The low light shines off the teeth on her back, the wings across her shoulders – her embroidered kimono laughs at the two men in her wake, laughs with a dragon’s voice.

They do not follow her all the way out to the lobby.  She clearly knows her way, and they have an appointment to make – their formal execution for this decision.  They look rather pale themselves, as they climb the stairs, one last act of penance on their way to their supervisor’s office.

She stalks a perfect line in the carpet, her platform heels flashing with fiber-optic.  She enters the elevator – no penance for this one – and stands in the center as if given a mark to hit.  The doors close before she reaches out to touch her desired floor. When she does, it is not “L” for lobby, but “B2,” for “MGMT Only: Vault.”  The screen requests a thumbprint, and she provides one, from a finger tipped with matte black polymer. Even that finger is exquisitely manicured, of course.

The woman regards herself in the gleaming mirror of the elevator’s door.  Examine her too. Go ahead. I will permit it this once.

You see her eyes first, not because they are beautiful – though they are – and not because they are large, and green, and surrounded by stark lines – though of course they are – but because her stare is magnetic and irresistible.  This is a queen in the body of a child barely out of her teens. She awaits her kingdom with serenity and certainty.

Her hair is black, sculpted into a sharp-edged edifice above her head.  There is an arsenal in that updo, though it could pass through a metal detector and an x-ray without ruining the evening.  It is also perfectly in the style of the moment in every detail for a woman this age, in this year, in this city.

She is tall, statuesque, perhaps eight feet from heels to hair.  Her arms and legs are too long – this too, is bleeding-edge a la mode – and when she exits the elevator on floor B2, sinking into the grey carpet does not ease her need to bend almost double out of the doors.  Though the resort is well-equipped to handle most fashion trends – as it must, or perish – this affectation is only about a week old, and the management areas will be the last to be renovated, if they ever are.

She has to bow her head as she walks down the hall, though she would do that anyway.  Her hands are folded peacefully before her, and to an undiscerning eye, her kimono matches perfectly the white and grey retinue of the maids in the hotel upstairs.  The resemblance was interpreted as the cleverest, most vicious joke at the party upstairs. This woman is known for her clever, vicious jokes, of which her walk down this corridor is the best of the night.  Like all her best jokes, I will be the only one to hear it.

The vault is sealed with two doors, both locked with biometric recognition scanners.  In this age of body modification, biometric scanners like it and the one in the elevator are rapidly being upgraded to genetic readers, although Slipsoul technology will put those out of use too before long.  Later tonight, the Spire of the Yellow King will discover that their vault has been looted, and next week, that scanner will be replaced. This woman occasionally jokes that she is a freelance security auditor, helping corporations improve their systems.  “And then I extract the fee that I feel is fair,” she says. “All without ever bothering them to shake my hand. They should be thanking me.”

They do not thank her, at least not directly.  This is the fourth robbery of a high-fashion destination in as many weeks – or will be, in about two hours – and the city is talking about little else.  She likes to hear herself talked about. She listens to her friends wonder about the identity of the thief, and smiles. The best current information suggests that the thief is a derelict-turned-proletarian hero, attempting to strike at the bourgeoisie by bankrupting the places where they mass and breed.  This is her favorite of the stories going around. It makes her feel powerful.

She reaches the end of the hallway and applies her polymer finger to another scanner.  This gets her into the anteroom of the first vault door, where she turns to find, in addition to the facial scanner, an honest-to-goodness human guard.  This was not in the security brief she skimmed before leaving home tonight. It’s still not – I’m looking at it right now, and there’s no internal indication that they’ve changed the staffing procedures in this area.  Must be a new, gung-ho manager hoping to catch the People’s Bandit.

The guard is awake, for a wonder, and armed.  He seems about as surprised to see the woman as she is to see him, but she is better at hiding it.  He opens his mouth to demand her identification, and then he chokes as a bolus of gleaming ichor lands on his tongue.  She recoils against the door behind her, eyes rising to the ceiling, where something soft and wet has begun to seep through the tiles and drip onto the man below.  By the time she looks at the guard’s appalled face again, his eyes are running with greenish slime. He gurgles around the mass in his airway, and slumps to the floor, pouring the same slime from every visible orifice.

She stares in frozen silence as the ichor pools around her feet.  She knows that there is no exit behind her – the plan dictates that she go on, deeper into the vault, to find the shaft that will eventually return her to civilized society.  This is not in the plan.

The slime laps at the sides of her platform sandals, then climbs them to crawl across her toes.  She wiggles, and suddenly her imperious stoicism breaks. Her cry fills the cell.

“We don’t have time for this!  Do you know WHY we don’t have time for this?  Because you’re late.”

The slime climbs her body, twining around her ankles and up her legs, and she gasps and wrenches away.  “We definitely don’t have time for THAT. Please? Maple, can we go? Don’t do this…”

Her resistance wavers.  The slime touches her thighs, spreads like wet webbing across the lace of her garter, and finds bare skin.  She exhales and closes her eyes briefly, lingering a moment longer.

Then the pool of green retracts its pseudopodia with a SCHLUP!  The bits of it still on the ceiling or taking up vital parts of the guard’s breathing apparatus rejoin the larger mass, which rises and fills out until it is a vaguely translucent humanoid figure standing before her.  It’s taller than her, and broader, and it picks up the woman and cradles her in its forming arms. As the apparition acquires lips, she kisses them. She tastes like wine and smoke. She tastes like mine.

“Hello, Rook,” I whisper against her mouth.  “Sorry I’m late.”

Shadowplay: Intermission

The next day, Keshena woke with her arms afire.  She sat up and found them limp and aching.  With a disgusted grunt, she pushed herself out of a pile of cushions and clothing that only resembled a bed by the most generous of definitions, and dragged herself before the mirror.  You look like shit when you don’t wash up before bed, she thought at the stained, bruised creature before her.

Lin had been gentle, had not pushed for more than she was willing to tell at a time.  It was hard to interpret.  Perhaps there was no point in this subterfuge… perhaps they spied on her constantly.  But the habit was the thing.  The first thing she had learned in the theater that raised her was that a performance had life apart from its audience.  The repertoire that had become her patchwork life over two centuries was not put on for any particular eyes, unless they were her own.  She washed the smudged makeup from her face and hands with oil, letting it take time.  The wan sunlight slid across the floor, got tangled in clothes and flashed on stray weapons, and finally stretched across her knees like a cat.  The meticulousness of this routine was precious to her.

An audience made her game adversarial.  She didn’t mind that – she would not be the actress she had become without constant scrutiny to test her illusions.  But wearing a mask had so many social implications, communicated so much even in silence, that the pure mechanical pleasure of disguise was sometimes lost to her.  And increasingly, it was necessary for her to find it again before wearing Mama Mata’s face.  Mata was a woman of deep, resonant calm, and Keshena had very little calm these days.

With magic and makeup, she painted warm golden skin and soft, lush flesh to fill it out.  Mata’s cheeks were round, her body was heavy, her hands and feet were small.  There was such sensuous pleasure in this, and Keshena found herself smiling as she padded her spare frame with pendulous breasts and swollen belly.  It was like an embrace, the luxurious generosity of this life.

Villi had left something out of her explanation when she had demonstrated the trick of adding mass with illusions.  Lin had filled her in later, when she asked.  “There’s a degree of… what’s the word?”  She frowned for a moment, but Keshena was no help.  “Proprioception, that’s what Nat said it was.  With enough practice, you can build an illusion that stands up to touch, if not a good smack or anything.  And when someone touches it…”  And then she had, running her fingers over the illusory moss Keshena had spread on the bench between them.

Keshena had shivered, as she shivered now, running her own fingers over the flesh she invented on her hips.  The sensation emanating from a part of her body she knew did not exist… she’d heard as much from soldiers during the occupation from Shiel, mourning their lost limbs.

“When someone touches your illusion, you can feel it.  Sometimes it can be a warning, so remember that.”

The flesh done, she turned and extracted a velvet pouch from a mess of accessories at the foot of the mirror.  Her fingers felt six – no, seven – fragile pieces still inside.  Have to set aside a day to make more, she thought.  It would be hard to find the time, but Mata did not negotiate on her proper tribute.  Keshena plucked a bruised, plum-colored petal from the pouch and placed it in her mouth, where it began to slowly dissolve.  Rivulets of smoky bitterness and vegetal sweetness drained down her throat from the curled cup of her tongue, and she opened a pot of glutinous black ink.

She closed her eyes and began to paint curling symbols around her wrists and arms.  The drug had taken effect – there were greater vistas on the backdrop of her eyelids than this little room could provide, and these glyphs were nothing she had ever seen awake anyway.  Mata’s life had been a series of dreams as thick and inescapable as tar pits, punctuated by moments of piercing clarity when she was forced to act.  Only a few acts.  Perhaps all lives were like that.  Perhaps, she thought, we only wake for a few minutes between birth and death, and all our dreams in between are reflections of the decisions we make in that ephemeral day.

When she rose from her knees and whispered the patterns she’d drawn to spread over the skin that would be hidden – what a convenience, that!  This used to take her a whole morning – she let her eyes remain closed.  The lights in her head were brighter than the thin Northern sun, now.  They picked out Mata’s wig with clustered stars, showing their love and drawing her hands to it.  Heavy auburn curls fell over her shoulders and bounced as she adjusted the fit, then blended it in at the hairline.  And then the dress.

Mata dressed in finery.  Another sensuous pleasure, the feel of silk and velvet on skin more used to leather and linen.  Cost wasn’t something that concerned her overmuch; money came and went easily.  She had starved before, and sat at banquets too, in the same year.  Hunger had never frightened her so much as being caught unprepared.  Many of these garments had been gifts – from wealthy patrons, then from worshipers, and finally from husbands.  The women they had patroned, and worshipped, and married no longer existed, except in her memory.  But the clothes could make the memory live again, walk among men and earn new forms of regard.  In this dress, today.  In this face.

Finally she turned back to the mirror, and though she did not open her eyes, she did indulge herself to look.  She didn’t see what stood there so much as know.  The mirror showed a short, plump woman, bronze-skinned, russet-haired, painted with intricate symbols that seemed to shift when she moved.  Her gown seemed to barely contain her lush flesh, making the heavy velvet scandalously provocative, even though it covered her from neck to ankles.  She had an atavistic splendor, the gravity of a graven goddess.  She looked, with eyes closed, like an implacable idol, a prophetess or a prophecy.

Satisfied, Mata smiled at herself and left the room.

Shadowplay: Act 1, Scene 5

  in which the imp gives up one of her secrets

  “What is a thread, Keshena?”

Den Roth scowled at the back of the imp’s head.  Her clawed hands spread and flexed in the air at the edge of the balcony.  Below, the bustle of the Basilica was muted, quieter here than the sparking hum of the light-globes on eye level.  This invitation – such as it was – had come when Keshena was half-dressed, and she had not beat the imp here.  Even if she had been prepared, she suspected she would never beat the imp anywhere.

“No, you won’t,” Villi murmured, and Keshena restrained a sudden impulse to punt her.  “Would you like to know why?  Well, one reason why.”

“Yes.”

“You’ve been in the North long enough.  You may have sensed them before.”  Villi turned and grabbed Keshena’s wrist.  The muscles in her arm tensed, but Keshena let herself be pulled forward a few steps, to the edge of the balcony.  For all the ambivalence she felt toward this tiny irritant, she had no fear that Villi might push her off the ledge.  As she was already learning, that was not the Kumani way.

The imp pushed their hands into the air where she had been probing at evidently empty space.  Keshena felt her fingers tingling, as if her hand had gone to sleep.  Then the small hand shoved forward, and her own hand disappeared to the wrist.

Keshena yelped.  She could still feel her hand, suffused with a sensation that was both hot and cold, or neither.  She wrenched free and pulled it back to examine her skin.  Nothing.  She stared at the imp.

“That is a thread.”  Villi looked dreadfully self-satisfied.  “They allow the Kumani – and a few others we permit – to travel instantly across great distances.  This one happens to go to the port on the eastern coast.  The guild builds these passages and maintains them.”  She turned back to scrutinize the invisible portal.  “They have a number of other uses besides travel.  You can call through one by pitching your voice just so…”

On cue, a disembodied voice chirped out of the air, “Hello, Keshena!”

“Oh no.  As if you needed another way to spy on me, Lin.”

“And you can look through it at whatever is on the other end, with a little practice.”  Villi reached up as if to stroke the thread, and a brown hand burst forth, followed by the body it belonged to.  Keshena stepped back just in time to catch Lin’s arms as the small woman appeared on the balcony beside her.

“Gracious.  Hello, Lin.  You look better.”

“Much.  It’s a wonder what actually resting will do for you.”  She gave Keshena a smile, then turned to greet the imp.  “Are you teaching her to weave?”

“We have not gotten there yet.”  Villi’s manner was formal, but her eyes darted between Keshena and Lin with the air of one gathering intelligence.  “What did you have planned for this morning?”

“Archery.  But the thread to Tanor’s been damaged, so we can do both.”

Villi nodded.  “I will attend to the other end.”  She stepped forward and disappeared through the thread, leaving them alone on the balcony.  Lin glanced sideways at Keshena.

“Have you been studying with Villi much?”

“A bit.  Just the magical stuff, illusions and this.”  Keshena gestured at the space in front of them.

“Magic?”  Lin laughed.  “The illusions, maybe.  Those are a gift from Father.  But this, no.  This is technology.  Come on, the Tanor thread comes out downstairs in the East Wing.”

As they descended the endless stairs of the Basilica, Lin talked.  “My husband would be a better source for this – he’s a numerologist; he could tell you exactly how the threads work from a physics perspective.  But I know the history.”

She talked of digging beneath the Citadel, the opening of the cavern in which the Kumani now lived.  There had been labs below, endless warrens in the black stone full of prototypes and shocking secrets.  Some of them were closed off still.  Some were too full of monstrosities to salvage.  But a few had yielded the remarkable technology that had made Lion’s Reach the jewel of the North.  Lin pointed at the glowing orbs above their heads as they entered the central concourse.  “The numerologists are only just scratching the surface of what the Lions could do.  Supposedly they knew thousands of operant numbers, a whole cosmology.  Now there are only twelve.  The threads are an application of Fallo, the fourth – it describes the property of location, a point in space.  Like this one.”

They had stopped in the Eastern Wing of the Basilica, at the far end of a nave where wan sunlight filtered down from clerestory windows far above, leaving the lowest shops and apartments in shadow even at midday.  Lin poked at the empty space in front of her.  “This thread goes to Tanor, the little town you passed through on the way here, at the bottom of the hills?  It doesn’t have any strategic importance; Tanor and all the land around belong to us, so there’s no reason someone should be plucking at the thread… “  She scowled.  “May just be mischief.  Or sometimes novice numerologists damage them before they realize that the thread is supposed to be there.  Maintaining them is one of our jobs, and it’s a big one.”

Lin spread her hands flat, thumbs just touching and fingers splayed against the air.  “That’s the trouble,” she continued.  “We build and use the threads, but we aren’t the only ones who can access them.  Technology is like that – it serves any hand that holds it.  That’s why there’s always such controversy over exploring the labs below.  It only happens when the city’s relatively unified.  The last hundred years or so have been very peaceful – the Kumani have kept it that way.”  A quick flash of black eyes as she looked up from her work.  “Politics and science and religion are all very much entwined here.  I hope you can see that, because you’ll have to work around it.  Villi is a master of that game.”

It was Keshena’s turn to frown.  “I don’t like that game.  And I don’t like Villi very much, if you want the truth.”

“I can’t say I’m surprised.  You’re very alike.”

“Alike?”  Keshena wrinkled her nose.  “What would make you say that?”

“Neither of you is what you seem.”

Torn between taking offense and curiosity, Keshena softened when she caught Lin’s faint smile.  “And what do I seem?” she asked instead.

Lin considered this for some time.  Her fingers wiggled and tensed in the air, but it didn’t respond in any way that Keshena could discern.

“You seem to be playing a game of your own.”

“Well, in that case, I’m exactly what I seem.”

Lin shook her head, but interrupted herself, staring at the space between her fingers.  “Villi’s in place.  I can feel her.  Here, you can take over and help her weave the thread back together.”

Keshena stepped forward, and Lin moved to face her on either side of the nebulous space the thread supposedly occupied.  “It’s not difficult, but it requires concentration.  You mustn’t move at all.  When we have to weave one in enemy territory, it can be very…”  Lin grinned despite herself.  “Exciting.”

Lin spread her hands between them, and Keshena mirrored her motion, not quite touching.  At once she could feel the prickle across her palms.

“Keshena, can you hear me?”  Villi’s voice piped out of the air.  She felt it in her fingertips, vibrating the thread from somewhere far away.  “First, I want you to peek through this thread at where I am.  Even when it’s damaged, it can be used to hear and see from either end, remember that.  You must sever it entirely to stop the flow of information.”

Keshena nodded, and the energy sparkling over her skin faded.

Lin snapped her fingers.  “Focus.  Don’t move.  You can speak to Villi through the thread, or to me, but don’t move too much.”

“All right.”  Keshena took a breath and closed her eyes, cutting out the lights of the Citadel and the intermittent passers-by who conspicuously did not watch the Kumani about their business.  As distractions fell away, the prickling sensation returned.  She examined it, considered it.  Falling into a reverie, she found that certain patterns of thought increased the sensation.

“I’ll continue speaking to you through the thread,” Villi said.  “Find my voice with your fingers.  Follow it to where I am.”

“Yes.

“I am in the market square in Tanor.  It is raining here.  The merchants have little to sell at this time of day…”

The imp’s voice continued murmuring, a slow litany of inconsequential detail.  Villi described the scene before her eyes, but the sense of her words quickly faded from Keshena’s mind.  She was only focusing on the sound.  At first it seemed as if the entirety of the thread was vibrating with it, her fingers jumping and flinching with each consonant and plosive.

“You just need to find quiet within yourself,” Lin murmured, and Keshena felt inexplicably soothed by her presence.  “It’s hard – at least it is for me – so don’t push it.  Just let it come.”

It was hard for Keshena also, but for a very different reason.  Her mercenary’s body was not accustomed to peace or stillness.  Something different, she thought.  Mata.  Mata…

As she focused, her face fell slack, empty of expression, and the illusions sagged with it.  Lin watched with fascination as Keshena’s features blurred ever so slightly.  Was her skin darker?  Were her cheeks softer?

The Sleeper filled her and she sank deeper.  No sound, now, only vibration.  She could feel the thread, its shape and size.  It felt like a pillar in this hallway, a pillar standing perpendicular to every cardinal direction.  And it was damaged – not badly, but the vibrations came to her warped in some indescribable way.  She pushed through, not with her hands but with her thought, following the imp’s monotonous drone.

It was not like vision, what she saw then.  She imagined that this was how bats perceived the world – a throbbing, inconstant picture made of sound, walls and earth and people only surfaces reflecting pulse after pulse of information, showing her their shape by their resistance.

“Villi, I think I see it.  Is there… is that a fountain?”

“I am standing by the fountain, yes.  Good!  Now… help me repair the way.”

It was like language.  It was like singing.  It was like threading a needle from a hundred miles away.  A strange exaltation filled her as she communed not with the imp who so intimidated her but with some abstraction, a person condensed to a glyph.  They passed in nothingness like shuttles in a loom, together but impossibly far apart.  She found Villi, she found herself, she found Villi again, traversing the ethereal space between them, and with each pass the imp guided her over the damaged thread.  Slowly, the vibrations began to harmonize.

The thread was whole again, in a way that felt both sudden and inevitable.  She felt her hands shake with a single pure tone, and then Villi’s voice came again, clear and quiet.

“Good.  It is mended.”  The imp was there, standing between Keshena’s spread hands.  Keshena’s eyes snapped open, and the trance died, but she felt Villi’s eyes on her shifting face even as it solidified into the mercenary’s grim sneer once more.  She froze, as if she might become invisible.

Villi smiled.  Her smiles never seemed to quite reach her eyes.  “You’ll learn to become invisible too, in time.  Not today, though.  I am tired.”  Turning to Lin, she patted the Speaker’s hand.  “Carry on with your archery.  Keshena has done well today.”  She was gone then, without warning and before her voice had quite faded from the air.

Lin chuckled.  “Good job.  It’s hard to get praise out of her.  Are you tired?”

“I’m… all right, I think.”  Keshena shook herself.  “Actually, some physical activity sounds excellent right now; I feel like moving.”

“Good!”  Lin turned and stepped through the thread, and this time, Keshena followed.  The pure note she had heard rang in her ears for a fraction of a second, and then the Basilica had vanished, and she was standing next to a fountain in the drizzling rain.  The world spun.  Lin caught her arm to steady her.

“It can be a little disorienting, but you’ll get used to it.  Soon you’ll be able to dive through four in a row without vomiting!”

“What a thing to look forward to,” Keshena drawled with a grin.  “Are we going to practice shooting the good people of… is this Tanor?”

“Yes, it’s Tanor, and no, we’re not going to shoot them.  There’s a good spot in the fields near here.”  Lin raised the hood of her cloak and moved off through the square.

“Wait, what was it you were going to say earlier?” Keshena called as she hurried after.  “You said I’m not what I seem, if I seem like I’m playing a game.”

“Oh.”  Lin shrugged.  “I don’t know.  Just a feeling.  You know yourself better, of course, but… it sort of seems to me as if your game’s playing you.”

Keshena opened her mouth, then shut it.  She kept her silence, chewing on the thought, until they’d left the town behind and come into a dull little pasture.  A cow stared at them, inert and damp.  When Lin moved to arrange a selection of small rocks on the top bar of the rotting fence, the cow’s eyes didn’t move to follow her.  Keshena wondered if cows went on chewing after they died.

“So,” Lin said.  “Two questions.  One – have you ever pulled a longbow before?  And two – what story are you going to tell me while you struggle with it?”

“I can tell you about the last time I pulled a longbow,” Keshena drawled, taking the bow from Lin and sighting down the limb.  “It’s been a while.”

“How long?”  Lin moved away from the fence with its targets, out of Keshena’s line of sight.

“Must be… ninety-five years or better.”

Lin shook her head, grinning at Keshena’s back.  Den Roth tested the weight of the draw with her fingers, then exhaled slowly as she drew back the string.  “I was – mmh! – working for a mercenary company out of Shiel during the war with the Ashen Alliance.”

“The Ashen don’t use bows,” Lin pointed out.

“No, nor did then.  But our hunters did.  We were living on wild game toward the end, after the fields burned.  I learned a little.”  The string vibrated in Keshena’s fingers, cutting across her grim, focused face like another scar.  Lin watched, amused.  Den Roth was strong, but not subtle, and her stance was masculine.

Keshena strung an arrow and pulled the bow again.  “I was never very good.  Better with a crossbow.”  The twang of release made the cow blink in dumb astonishment, but there was no answering clatter from the stone on the fence-post.  Den Roth swore and turned toward Lin, who saw the red lash of the string along her inner arm.

“That’s just poor form.  You’ll recover.”  Lin passed her fingers over the abrasion and felt Keshena shiver at the touch.  “Don’t pull your elbow back so far.  Just here.  You didn’t miss by much.  Try it again.”  She settled herself on a relatively dry rock.  “Why were you fighting for Shiel?”

Den Roth shrugged.  “They paid.  I got to like the knights I was staying with, though.  Wouldn’t have stayed to the end of that war if I hadn’t; that one went bad very quickly.”  Her tone was idle, thoughtless, but she didn’t meet Lin’s eyes, only pulled the bow again and squinted down the arrow’s back.

“I’ve read.  Shiel was occupied for five years, wasn’t it?”

“Closer to four.  I stayed through that, too.  Another mistake.”  Keshena’s brows drew together, her face tensing into harsh lines.  “I’ve made a lot of mistakes, Lin.  If I peel all the skin off my arm shooting these fucking rocks, it’ll be a gentle lesson by comparison.”  The string sung, the arrow flew, and the fence spat splinters as the broad head sunk into the rotting wood.

The fitful emotion in Den Roth’s face was unusual, and Lin kept her silence, watching it rise and then fall again, mastered.  When it was out of sight, she asked quietly, “Why did you stay, if it was a mistake?”

Keshena sighed.  “To pay for a worse mistake.  Story of my life.”  The rain was worsening, and she felt a prickling of anxiety for her disguise.  The illusion would hold in spite of the drenching, for a while, but not forever.  She took a few steps back into the lee of a dead tree, and selected another arrow from Lin’s quiver.  Turning it in her fingers, she continued, “When my company came to Shiel, they assigned us to a portion of the militia.  To keep an eye on us, I guess.  Shiel was fielding anyone they could find at that point, but they didn’t like having paid swords in the city.  So the Ashen made sure we didn’t get up to any thuggery.  At least no more than they did themselves.”

“Knights aren’t thugs,” Lin said with a child’s certainty.  It cut through Keshena’s brooding, and she smiled over her shoulder at the dark little woman on the rock.

“You really believe that.  Well, maybe here it might someday be true.  But most men sin the same ways, in my experience.  It’s only in how we choose to punish ourselves that we become different.”

“Is that what you’re doing with your illusions?  Punishing yourself?”

Keshena grit her teeth and released the bowstring.  “No.  This – mmh!”  The string flew clean this time, and the arrow sang over the rock, clipping the top and tossing it into a puddle on the other side of the fence.

“This,” Den Roth murmured, looking faintly pleased for the first time, “Is me trying not to make any more mistakes.”

Bluebird

A fragment of the sky flutters down to rest on the branch of a berry bush.

“Bluebird,” I whisper.  The bird bobs as the wind lifts it, and regards me without fear.  It’s a young one, just out of its first molt.  The forest will bleed when I take such a young heart from it… but the color is perfect.  I stretch out an arm.

The bird’s claws click on my glove.  It hops up toward my head, and I look into its eyes, seeing myself – small, black, complicated – curled in the emptiness there.  I open myself to it.  My cloak spreads, my ribs open, carbon fiber clicks in a voice that my little friend does not like.

“Bluebird, bluebird,” I hum, muffled by my hood.  “Sialia currucoides.  Do you mind if I call you Sialia?”

Soothed, the bird cocks its head at me.

“You are out too early.  The cold might have caught you if I did not.”  I draw my hand in, to the berry hoard I made at the heart of me, and the bird chirps and dives for the pile.  I feel its wings brushing my inner workings.  It tickles… I think.  When the ribs close again, trapping it in the cage of my chest, it doesn’t startle.  It has the berries to concern it.

I move very little over the next six hours.  There is nothing left to gather today, so as the light fails, I linger, feeling the tickling inside, the minute, thrumming rhythm of its heart.  To feel life inside, for a little while… it is the only part of my work I enjoy.

The last color of twilight fades from the air, and I release the breath I have held since my friend arrived.  It floods my chest cavity with inert gas, and I feel the bird’s heartbeat slow.  By the time I rise to my feet, it is gone.  Then I close my cloak and the cavity seals itself.

There are no paths in this forest.  I have worked very hard to see that it remains so.  Each step is placed where no foot, even my own, has tread in the past year.  A thousand calculations every second run through my mind, remembering the last hunt, and the last before that, and the last before that.  This, this blade of grass, it has never known my step.  It will not suffer for it, not like the scrap of moss an inch to its right – I stepped on that moss sixteen weeks, four days, and seven hours ago.  It will be burdened no more this season.

The larger creatures in the forest know me better, and watch me come and go.  I can see their eyes, flashes of life in the darkness, and taste their warmth on my tongue.  The bobcat in the undergrowth tastes like musk and dust; I remember it.  There should be young – it was pregnant when last we met, and I passed it by.  But its den is empty.  I am not the only predator in these woods.  I am the worst of them.

I shrug the gun off my shoulder and peer through its sights, not at the beasts but at the glint of civilization beyond them.  The forest occupies a valley, and from most vantage points, it seems to reach every horizon, a world of trees, untouched.  But I have reached the verge now, and standing at the ridgeline, I can see the wall that keeps my kind separated from those we prey upon.  There are terraces and sheets of burning glass beyond.  They blaze through the sights and into my eyes, and my good, good eyes pierce the light, find the queen’s window.  She looks back at me.  Even from here I can see that.  She raises a hand, beckoning, and I lower my gun and move toward the city.

In the sterile streets, I long for the flutter of the bird in my heart again.  I keep my head bowed, so that citizens need not work to avoid my gaze.  They part around me, grey and white and lovely.  I move among them like a rat in a cape, into the bowels of the city.

Elevator upon elevator takes me up into the sky.  I feel lightness, and for a moment it seems as if the wings inside me might lift again, and at the first glimpse of a window, send me hurtling out above the mess below.  Would I fall, then?  Would I fly?  Would I be forgiven?

The queen does not come to meet me.  She is in her dressing room, and I am led there by a trail of her handmaids’ failures – discarded kerchiefs, torn furs and skins, spots and sprays of blood.  She looks like a flower on her pedestal, her arms spread to accept the devotions of the congregation that dances around her, pinning this and sewing that.  I look up into her face and fall to my knees at her feet.  No awe motivates this gesture; my obeisance is automatic – this rule runs when the machine directs optic sensors toward the queen for the first time within a five-minute window.  I look upon my goddess and feel tired.

Her face is the same as my face.  It has been twenty-seven years since I took up the hood and looked upon my own face for the last time, but I remember it, for I see it every day, the face of my tormentor.  She has decorated it today with a thousand feathers in a thousand shades, built a sunrise aureole around her head that falls into a cape across her shoulders.  There is a blank space at her brow, and when the handmaids see me, they rush to lift me and extract my captive heart.

The bird is a soft little pillow, set upon a larger pillow to convey it to the queen, who looks down at it dubiously.  “It is too small,” she says, toneless.  My lips shape her next words with her: “But the color is perfect.”  Then, after a moment in which I fervently hope that it will displease her and she will have me melted down into slag, she says, “It will do.  Dismissed.”

I retreat to the corner.  I am privileged to watch her dressing, if I so wish.  It is a kind of penance, a gift of my pain and presence to the beast I have given into her hands.  Those hands turn over the bluebird and her handmaids’ flying fingers pluck it naked in seconds, careful as always not to nick the skin and stain the perfect blue with its blood.  They adhere the feathers with small tools, melting and reshaping the queen’s carapace to accept a rank of sky-blue along her brow.  The bird’s body is discarded, falls to the floor and tumbles among a mess of shredded silk.  One of the handmaids treads on it, and I see clots of its viscera between her white toes before I flee.

Back to my eyrie, my own carbon-fiber cage.  The glass of the elevator is worked with images of the royal face, in a thousand beautiful guises, each meticulously built from the most perfect specimen in the natural world.  They spread skin over her polymer, wrap her in stolen fur, and she parades before her people in the semblance of life.  Then it rots, the color fades, and the knock comes on my door: “White fur, soft as a cloud.  Go.”  “Black ears, velvet to the touch and no larger than one inch in diameter.  Go.”

From my window – blazing with the sunlight that only touches these tallest towers now – I look down at the shadowy verge of the forest to the south of the city, where I have never been.  A clot of black, hunched and carrying a rifle, tiptoes into the trees.  Another, two miles to the west, is returning.  I catch the flash of his sights reflecting the light of the city, and I raise my hand to greet him.  One of ten-thousand identical units all over the world, tending the wilderness as if it were her limitless wardrobe.  We feel her desperate desire for a semblance of life as well.  We feel it fluttering where a heart should be.  We feel it, and so she decommissions us every thirty years, before we begin to rebel.  We bleed when we wound the forest, when we kidnap its children.  We bleed as she should bleed.  We select the most perfect, so that she will not send us out again, and again, to slaughter and steal until she is satisfied.  When she speaks, I feel only emptiness.  But the voice of the forest is loud enough to reach me even here.

Next

Shadowplay: Act 1, Scene 4

featuring several sparring matches

and one costume change

 

It wasn’t unusual for Keshena not to see Lin for several days running, and she had been kept busy enough not to notice when a few days became a week.  There was at least one other in the guild older than Keshena herself.  The man who taught her to wield and conceal a dirk was called Ishin, and loose talk at the bars gave him twenty years on her one-hundred-ninety.  He didn’t look it, but then, neither did she.  Most ancients did not.  The gods Called some men and women back from the Halls for their own reasons, some of which were served by letting them grow old, but Keshena had known a few who remained youthful well into their third century.  Ishin looked as if he had been Called in his sixties or seventies, and hadn’t been allowed to accrue much in the way of wrinkles since.

He was still fast enough to pin her to the wall by the shred of her sleeve, though, and the last two hours of sparring were slowing her down.  It had been a long time since she had exerted herself this way.  Inwardly mourning the sewing ahead of her, Keshena tore herself free.

“Too slow.  Do you want more scars, girl?”

“Yes,” she answered, readying her blades.

“You and Lin are a pair, aint’cha.”  He scoffed and pushed past her to retrieve his dirk and the square inch of her sleeve it had captured.  “Plannin’ to lose an eye next?”

“Did you take her eye, then?”

Ishin gestured with his blade.  “If I’d a use for her eyes, I’d’ve taken both.  She came that way.  Actually…”  The shining edge danced dangerously close to his own eye as he scratched at his beard.  “First she came here, she kept it shut all the time.  The stone in there came few months later.  Gift from her husband, I hear.”

“What a fine man,” Keshena drawled.  “And I’m not trying to become Lin.  Why should I?”

“Y’could do worse.  They say she’ll be Champion next ‘f she doesn’ screw it up.”

“I don’t want to be Champion.  I’d have to supervise you, for a start.  Why aren’t you Champion; people say you’ve been in the guild since before most of us were born.”

Ishin nudged her back into place with an elbow and faced her.  He was grinning, raddled cheeks seamed with humor.  “Champion’s like Lin’s eye.  ‘F I wanted it, I’d have it.”  Then he dipped his shoulder and aimed the dirk at her side.  Keshena twisted away, bringing up her own blade, which slipped on his bracer and nearly took off one of her fingers.  He slapped her hand, sending the dirk into the dirt at her feet.  When she bent and reached for it, a heavy fist struck the top of her spine and laid her out.

“Thought you were a soldier!  Don’ show me your neck, girl, or I’ll take away yer neck privileges!”  His boot came down on her fingers, covering the hilt of her weapon, and she froze.

“Y’know why Lin lost that eye?”  His tone was conversational.  She gritted her teeth on an answer far too flippant to address to someone with a knife, and he continued.  “Now, I don’ know the man who took it from her, so I’m just goin’ off of what I’ve seen in the years she’s been with us.  An’ what I’ve seen is, Lin lets what she wants blind her t’what’s separating her from it.  It’s why she’ll be Champion, like as not – seein’ the destination and damn the cost is the kind of thing people like in a leader.  But you’ll find the cost always gets paid one way or another.  It’s easy to see that from where I’m sittin’ now – not so easy from the top.”

Keshena curled her lip, and her fingers, slowly.  “What else do you see from where you’re sitting?” she muttered, and got her knees under her.

“I see a hired sword who wants to be a spy, and I’m gonna be honest with you – I don’t see it happenin’.”

“See this?” Keshena growled, and grabbed the back of his knee with her free hand.  It bent and brought them both forward, her shoulder crashing into his crotch as she rose and wrenched her weapon out from under his boot.  He went down, and down came the blade after him, sinking into the earth a half-inch from his leather codpiece.

Sprawled in the yard, the old man clapped his hands to his belly and laughed at the cavern ceiling.  The laugh turned into a coughing fit, and he seized her wrist to pull himself upright again.  “Now that was good, girl.  You’d be surprised how many people y’can get to talk while they fight.  ‘S usually a mistake.  Keep your mouth shut and your eyes open, you’ll be a Kumani yet.”

“Keep my mouth shut, hm?”  Keshena squinted at him.

“Now’s an excellent time to start.  On that subject.  Pick up yer damn weapons and come into the Retreat, I want t’explain somethin’ to you.”

The Retreat was a gazebo between the mushroom garden and the sparring ground.  In the eternal cool stasis of the Complex, there was no real need for walls, but the Retreat was wrapped round in tapestries older than Ishin, keeping in the heat of the brazier at its heart.  Cushions and chairs were scattered around, and the place had a feeling of peace, some subtle change in the air that made itself felt like the skin of a bubble in the uncovered doorway.  Fresh from the fight, Keshena immediately began to sweat, and Ishin to strip off his dusty gloves.

He glanced over his shoulder to see that she had followed, and gestured her toward the brazier.  “Y’ever come in here?”

“Not till now.”

“Well, yer welcome to.  Place is yours.  An’ I mean yours especially – you novices.  They put it up so there’d be a warm place to gather down here.”

Keshena nodded.  “It’s… nice,” she said, nonplussed.

The old man rolled his eyes.  “Nice, she says.  Like I brought her here t’comment on the upholstery.”  He slapped his gloves down on a table and offered his callused palms to the brazier.  “It’s more’n nice, girl.  It’s safe.  So – if you’re up in the Basilica, how safe are you?”

Rubbing her arms, Keshena frowned.  “Relatively, I suppose.  The Kumani are around.  No one’s going to knife people in corners, unless it’s us.”

“Fair.  Same down here, then?  Safe as houses?”

“Safe from everybody but you.”  Keshena grinned.

He aimed a finger at her face.  “That’s my point.  The Kumani can always find you, an’ we’re always watchin’ you, make no mistake about that.  But we’re not the only ones.”  The finger tilted till it pointed at the arched ceiling.  “Put it this way.  When you speak in the Retreat, nobody can hear you who isn’t right here with you.  You understand?”

Den Roth gave him a wince.  “Not… really?”

“Faugh.  Never mind.  Just remember, if you need to talk quiet with someone, do it here.  Time might come when you’ll be glad that the only person spyin’ on you is me.”

“Who else would bother?”

“Lin, for a start, if she weren’ poorly.  Know she’s been keepin’ an eye on you more’n she needs to.”

“How is she poorly?  What happened to her?”

“Got in a fight with a wolf, what I hear.”

Keshena’s face showed more than she intended.  Ishin leered.  “Gonna rush off an’ take care of yer girlfriend?  Go on, then.  Said all I’ve got to say.  Tell her she’s got one more day bein’ lazy before I come and tan the side of her the wolf didn’ get.”

She felt that popping sensation in her ears again as she exited the Retreat, but she barely noticed it.  Ishin had inspired a peculiar paranoia with his vague drivel about being overheard; she found herself glancing around as she climbed out of the Complex to her little room.  At least in this space, ten feet by ten, she knew she was alone.

Changing took a little longer than she expected.  She had never put on this face before.  Still blinking away the slight fuzziness from the dye in her right eye, she followed half-remembered directions through the fields to an outlying arm of the city, up against the external walls.  There she found an estate, and a cluster of trees sheltering a veranda.

“Knock knock?” she called.

“Keshena?”

The Reach had never been known for its flora.  At midsummer, for a few precious weeks, hardy little thorns became hardy little flowers, then were torn apart by the teeth of oncoming winter.  The sheltering limbs above her head were evergreen and gnarled.  This was no lush, gentle hideaway, but rather a brawny stand of ancients with their backs to the wind, forming a rough thicket.  Keshena ducked a prickly limb.  She was growing too used to being taller than this.

“Keshena?” repeated the weak voice from the shade of the porch.

“It’s me,” she answered, climbing the stairs.  “I’m wondering again about the many desolate, secluded places you choose to meet me in.”  Carefully she pitched her voice to match the one addressing her.  “Although you don’t sound as if I need fear any sudden, athletic attempts at -”

There was a rustle and a groan as Lin got to her feet, leaning out to meet Keshena at the top of the steps.  It was Lin’s turn to freeze, confronted at kissing range by what appeared to her bewildered eye as her own face.  Keshena looked up, a little, and saw her reflection in the black gem.  Lin looked down, a little.  The blackness of the eye opposite hers was flat, giving back nothing.  It was the only imperfection.

It was far from the first time Keshena had come face-to-face with a face she was wearing.  She was prepared for a range of responses – confusion always came first; she was talented enough to provoke that.  After the first unsteady moment, there was no reaction Lin could display that would not reveal her to Keshena.  It wasn’t always possible or even wise to prove a face this way, but there was little better for the performance.  And judging by her limp and her posture, Lin was in no shape to make Keshena regret the decision.

“W-what… Keshena?”  Lin’s brows drew together with sudden fury.  A rush of delight filled Keshena as she tracked the shifting expression.  Anger was common, and she had anticipated just this flavor of it.  Lin was young, Lin was hot-headed, Lin was thoughtless.  Fear made her angry, and both made her impulsive… but there was no danger here.  Neither the strength to fight nor the confidence to punish appeared in Lin’s black eye.  There was only imperious rage, as tattered and transient as a summer storm.

“What are you playing at?  What is this?”  She seized Keshena’s arm – her fingers seemed to disappear into skin their exact shade – and shook the woman hard.  Hair like black silk fell into both faces.  One Lin scowled, confused and afraid.  The other laughed.

“What do you think?  Close enough?”  Keshena pulled free, gently.  The grip on her arm was weak, and she did not need to show dominance now.  She could see fascination warring with the first, defensive rejection in Lin’s eyes.  Now was a time for seduction, for openness – to a degree.  Keshena stepped back, spread her arms and presented herself.

Turning in place, she kept her eyes on Lin’s face, drinking each moment, each minute movement.  The black eye measured her – hadn’t she been taller, when they stood outside the city?  Yes, Lin.  Hadn’t she been stockier?  Yes.  And the eyes – how had she made her eye look like that, as empty and solid as a gem?  Keshena felt another bubble of glee rising inside.  She lived for this moment, but it was so fragile.  If she could help Lin see…

“This has gone far enough, Keshena.  Explain yourself.  You can’t go around just – just impersonating your superiors!”

“Well, apparently I can, and well enough by the look on your face.”  She watched the anger peak.  Lin wanted now to act, or to relent.  Give her something to hold on to, Keshena thought.  Give her a way out.  She let her face soften, loosened the rigid expression that underpinned the illusion.  She felt her mouth twist in a habitual smile.  It was one she thought of as “Madame’s smile,” because it formed an essential point of structure for that ancient face.  And there it was – a dimming of fear in Lin’s eyes, the familiar sight forming a structure of another kind, a bridge.   The rage ran out of the Speaker’s body, and with it her temporary strength.  Lin gripped the railing, pain making her light-headed.

“Lin?  Ishin said you were -”

She sagged back onto the bench, rolling half onto her side.  The furs she wore parted to reveal a woolen skirt, and under that, foot after foot of linen bandage swaddling her hip and thigh.  She grit her teeth as her reflection knelt at her feet.

“I had a little sparring match.”

“With a wolf?”

“Well, sort of.  Has Ishin been talking?”  She straightened up and swallowed a grunt of pain.  “Never mind, Keshena.  Explain to me why you look like that.  Why you look like… me.”

Keshena felt a slackening of tension in herself, a relief so powerful she too needed to sit down.  Lin would listen.  There was room to breathe here.  She rose and took the bench nearby, giving the Speaker space.

“Well… that’s a long story.  And you owe me a revelation or two, I think.  Trust me when I say that I don’t mean any harm by it.”

“I don’t quite trust you when you say that,” Lin said, looking sideways at her disturbing replica.  “But I do owe you.  Is that how this will go, then?  You’ll trade your secrets for mine?”

“I suspect that I have more,” Keshena murmured.  “But we’ll know if we can trust one another before that becomes a problem.”  Again the look of two wary beasts meeting eyes, again the unspoken bargain.  And again Keshena felt hope, and fear of her own.  She had given mercy, given Lin a way out of her anger by loosening the disguise.  In silence, she begged Lin to take it.  I will tell you everything if you let me… but please do not make me.

Perhaps Lin heard the plea.  It was hard to tell.  Keshena knew faces, knew people in general down to the ground… but she did not know Lin, not yet.  Not well enough to do better than beg, or to know the reason for the mercy when it came.  But she felt the Speaker relent.

“All right.  For now.  Since you’re, ah… borrowing it, I imagine you’d like to know where this skin comes from.”  Lin reached up and smudged at Keshena’s face with her thumb.  The brown blurred a little, became a little paler at her touch, and the whole face seemed to warp.

Keshena jerked back, nearly toppling Lin to the ground again.  “Don’t!”  One small hand gripped Lin’s wrist hard as Keshena struggled to get a grip on herself.  There was a yammering inside her, instinct and instability screaming in her head as she searched for the stillness she had found with Villi.  She viciously strangled the fear, retreated from herself into Lin.  She concentrated on mimicking the frown on the dark-skinned face.   The minutiae of the expression consumed her, and the terror ebbed.  After a long, staring moment, Keshena said with quiet fervor, “Don’t ever do that, Lin.  Please.”

Rubbing her fingers together, Lin felt the soft grit of powder.  She felt the knife that seemed to have leapt into her other hand, and quietly slid it back into the fold of her skirt that had concealed it as she freed her wrist from Keshena’s grip.  “I… apologize.”  A few more breaths passed, a few more moments of slow disarmament.  Keshena lowered her head.

“But yes.  I would like to know where you come from, Lin.”

Finding a reasonably comfortable position against the bench, Lin glanced through the trees before she began to speak.  “My mother was a concubine in Akir.  Logic would dictate that that makes me the daughter of the caliph there, but truth be told, I look nothing like him.”

“I’ve seen him,” Keshena offered.  “You don’t have his bone structure.”

With a faint grin, Lin nodded.  “Or personality.  Or girth.  No, I don’t know who my father was, but that long ago stopped being relevant, because I acquired a new one.  You know Akir well?”

Keshena shook her head.  “I was unconscious the last time I was there.”

Lin squinted at her, then shook her head and laughed.  “I swear, you do this on purpose.  For as cagey as you are, you want me to ask you questions, don’t you?”

Startled, Keshena considered it, watching the shape of Lin’s mouth in her amusement.  “Yes,” she murmured at length.  “Just… slowly.”

Another nod.  The laughter on the dark face turned to a gentle frown.  “A lot of people come to us fleeing something else,” Lin said slowly.  “If you truly mean no harm, this city can be a sanctuary for you.”

Keshena took a long breath and let it out.  “I know.  I’ll work on it, I promise.”

“Then I’ll try to go slow.”  Lin’s mouth twitched and she continued, “I used to go along with the caliph’s trading caravans, to help unload.  We’d traded with this man, Smokestone, for decades, but I had never met him until I was eleven.  I caught his eye, I suppose.  He asked my price, and they gave him one.”

Lin laughed again and rolled her shoulder.  Keshena picked up on her ease.  “So did he…  A man who buys a young girl like that usually means to use her.”

“Oh, no.  I wasn’t really his type.  Not to say that it wasn’t a little lively onboard, some days.  But he taught me to use a knife, and most of the sailors left me alone.  Smokestone taught me to read and do sums well enough to trade for him.”  Lin smiled at the past.  “I loved that.  Being a little businesswoman.  I worked for him for eight years.”

“And you’re how old now?”

Lin eyed Keshena, amused.  “Twenty-two, thank you.  Only about a tenth your age, right?”

Keshena waved the question away.  “Don’t look at me like that, I didn’t ask to be stuck on this plane.  So why did you leave?  I’d have thought you’d want to take over captaining when he retired.”

“I would have liked to.”  Lin’s smile sagged, tinged with regret, a bitter cordial in her throat.

After a long moment’s silence, Keshena ventured a guess.  “They say your eye was damaged when you arrived.”  Then, gently: “Did he do that to you?”

Lin nodded slowly.  “Yes.  But I earned it.”  She frowned down at her hands.  “He had this chest, a treasure he’d bought or found… I don’t know.  It was the only thing on board I wasn’t allowed to look at.  I wanted to.”  She glanced up at Keshena, who saw the ravenous, treacherous curiosity in the lonely black eye.  Keshena could feel it at once, knew the shape and taste of that greed all too well.  Impulsively she reached out and touched Lin’s wrist with light fingers.  It drew the Speaker’s eye down again, and she continued.

“One day when we were in port, and he was out drinking, I went into his cabin.  I opened the chest.  It was all cloths, not folded, a mess in there, and something…”  The train of thought faltered.  “I don’t remember.  I can’t have been there long, but it seemed like hours.  I couldn’t move.  Then I heard him coming back.  When he saw me kneeling by the chest, he – “  Lin exhaled hard.  “His face!  He was so… afraid.  He grabbed me, slammed the chest and me on top of it.  He took his boot-knife…”

Lin swallowed, her face taut with fear.  Her fingers flickered, and in the air between them Keshena saw a grim and mercurial face, dark-skinned, dark eyed.  Between the mustache and the neat little beard his mouth was twisted with wrath, but his eyes were cold with terror.  Then the knife swam into view, huge and bright and growing larger every second until it touched –

The illusion shredded itself to nothing as Lin shut her lids with a grimace.  Keshena held her hand – when had that happened? – and waited.  A few slow breaths brought the Speaker back to the present, and she relaxed.

“He put me ashore then and there.  My face… I must have been a fright.  I washed, but it rotted in there, whatever was left.  By the time I got here I could barely think for the pain.  I found a scientist, a numerologist from the Upper Spire.  He cut it out and gave me this.”  Lin’s hand gently broke from Keshena’s to gesture at the black gem in her eye socket, then returned with a grateful grip.

Keshena winced.  “He probably saved your life.  What could Smokestone have wanted to keep secret so badly?”

“I don’t know.  But he didn’t want to hurt me, I could see it in his face.  He thought he had to.”  Lin shook her head.  “It was my fault.”

It was hard to argue with this logic, but the fatalistic tone in the voice of one so young made Keshena frown.  They both looked at their twined fingers, so perfectly alike, for some time.

Shadowplay: Act 1, Scene 3

in which the history of the Kumani is illuminated

and illusions are broken

 

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.

“Come, then.”

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.”

Captain’s Log: Isaac’s Bar, Enasa

Whatever Arrow might think, I do have other things to do in port than attend to my own needs. After the ship is secure in the hangar, and never mind the mildly erotic implications of that process, I meet up with a mechanic to have him check her over. It’s only been six weeks since her last tune-up, but little problems become big problems in a hurry when you’re out in the black, and I’d just as soon things went smooth. Surviving in my business is a constant process of shoring up little leaks and trying to make sure money stays ahead of entropy.

Then it’s off to the exchange to offload the little cargo we managed to get before we took our rather precipitous leave from Jordani 2. I discovered a few years back that it’s possible to put your goods out for sale and then have any offers sent to your pad while you, say, sit in a bar with one hand on a drink and the other on a Maenali contortionist, and ever since I have refused to do business any other way.

Continue reading “Captain’s Log: Isaac’s Bar, Enasa”