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.”

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.”