Where Moon and Sun did come to clash,
there stood two walls not meant to last,
quarried and brought from leagues apart,
built high ‘pon soft dirt, were twin ramparts,
there time did pass and settle old soil,
where guards men marched in futile toil,
passed by through day and night they try,
those men to not see they march eye to eye,
great folly is not that the precious decays,
but that loathed, stands to hold us at bay,
for while a line can well be discerned,
two walls have joined, their name so earned.
– Twinsgate, circa 400 E.R.
Etore pulled a short leather cord from her bag, and grabbed Wren’s hand. She yanked him back into their room before he could leave.
“What?” he demanded.
Without a word she grabbed his shoulders, turned him to a mirror. She started gathering his hair to the back of his head. He glared at her in their reflection with confusion.
“We will be entering Ascension lands today. Men, rarely wear their hair long in those parts, and those who do, tend to wear it back. You’re not going to want to be mistaken for a woman, and found to be otherwise. Trust me, that’s not the kind of attention we need. It’s a long way to the High City, and a lot of pious, spiteful people to slip past. You haven’t proven adept at going unnoticed, yet. Rather, the opposite.”
“Do you really think this is going to help?”
“Well, I could just chop it off. One good slice.” She pulled it very tight, and ran a finger across the bunch, so he could feel it against his scalp.
Wren glared at her in the mirror.
“Let them see the – slight – squareness of your jaw, and if anyone questions, have a pious answer in mind. Why you have such a pristine, bare face. Honestly, if anyone speaks to you, have something smart to say, particularly about one of them. Maybe a little yourself, but be careful there. Clarions, whatever their reputation, do have a sense of humor, even if it’s not always a good one. A laughing opponent is still weaker than a snarling one.”
Wren looked pensive, and then tilted his head with a thoughtful look. “It’s less animal,” He answered. “The hair of the body as wild things are. Men… you see. All covered with hair, and the grooming of head, or chin a distraction from daily works. The long hair of the head, is as humans have become, it is a sign, of ascension, for animals do not grow it this way.”
Etore huffed. “Loose the clarification the scripture applies more to men than women, if you are going to quote, quote. It’ll do. Careful though, with some dark skinned ones, they might take offense. Can’t grow hair long and straight like this. Though, some do twist it into permanent coils, as you’ve seen.” She gave a pointed tug on the cord. “I’m half tempted to say we should get you a veil, and just pretend you are a very pious White Woman.”
Wren turned around, and glared up at her. “You’d be very bored.”
“Already am, little bird. We’ve covered this.”
“Even after last night?”
“It was a slight improvement. Any way, you’d have to keep your mouth shut. Not that it doesn’t have better uses than talking. That’s a crime in ascension lands you know, used to think nothing of it, but now I think the law is the crime. Not that there is anything new in that, for me.”
Wren reached up, and ran a finger along her jaw. She tensed, but gave little sign of what the power flowing along the line he traced did. “Careful what you ask for.”
Etore stood there thin lipped. He turned again to leave, and grabbed his staff as he walked out. She let herself shiver, rolled her neck. A quick checked that nothing had been left before she took her bag, and followed.
⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃
It wasn’t a wall, exactly. Walls were oft thinner, and less well manned. Garrisons built to each side of the path formed a long, narrow, man-made valley. The road went straight through the middle, past gates that stood wide open. They were rarely closed, but not the least inviting.
High above bridges crossed over, and looked down with menace on those below. There was a sudden stillness, upon entering. An uneasy quiet, punctuated by hooves on cobblestone, and boots on archways, drawing the eye up.
This was Twinsgate. Even official records had long stopped calling the two cities anything else. North and south sufficed, where need arose. Old names could still be found if one dug deep enough. The first being the even more pedantic Northgate, before another was built farther so.
It wasn’t a place with a reputation for trouble – far from it – and yet it was troubling. A monument to passive aggression on political scale. The first garrison had been built by Lycia, for what it mattered. That was well before the days of the Empire, when raids were common. Well before a horrific conquest took Lycia from the other side. All in the end, lead to the very founding of Corinthia, the Empire, and all that followed.
To most the place did not mean quite the same things. So few new their histories well. Etore seemed largely oblivious. Three siblings however, had had been reared reading the worlds histories. Most thought it was the conquest of Lycia that lead to the Empire, but this was only half the truth.
The Ascension was granted a place by the Imperator, at the begrudging assent of his Queen. Some even speculated that a misunderstanding of term lead to the name Ascension. It was in this contentious moment, the Empire became no longer Lycia, but Corinthia.
A house built of straw, magic, steel, and good intentions. The road to the Abyss – it was written – was paved in good intentions.
The border was drawn at the walls Lycia had once built. A suspicious Queen did not abandon her outpost, against her Imperator’s urging. She was not beholden to him in this, such as agreed in new terms by which the ever growing nation was to be run. The newly unified Ascension built their own garrison, right opposite the existing walls. This was also against now Emperor Corinth’s wishes, but peace won, at the cost of an ever looming shadow of war.
One could imagine meeting a very decided, and unpleasant end down there. Narrow crescent windows on either side made the purpose of the corridor all the more clear. Not that actual armies would go through, and not around the cities. It was a pointless endeavor, all of it. A grand show of pride, arrogance, and caution – misdirected, but not misplaced. Wren cringed, and let himself fall a bit behind. He’d read even more than his sisters, at length in his early education.
Lycian tradition maintained this story carefully. The wider world tended to reduce it to dates, and places, treaties, and Lords. That the third emperor had forbade the expanding of the wall along the border. That the treaty of Mordove ratified this further. He’d read those too, and understood that laws were written, because otherwise it would be done. It weighed on him.
It felt like something terrible had happened there, but there were no records of that. He could almost feel the words on his lips, as though he’d read them aloud from a book in class years before, and yet he hadn’t. They were not pretty words, one had been invented to describe what Anderhale had done to Lycia. No other official declaration of a genocide existed, and yet the word ‘second’ haunted him. He felt a bit ill.
They passed one set of guards in silver, red, white, and blue, to little reaction. Halberds crossed the way between two other guards, in gold, white, and brown. Wren glanced around. His horse was stopped right on the border. He could see where old walls had settled against each other. Stones so tight a slip of paper could not be wedged between, except at the base. They hadn’t been built that way, but time had compacted the soil beneath, and joined the mismatched walls. Two opponents pressed against another that would never budge. A boundary held up by their mutual folly.
Wren remembered a bargain, though not the specifics. A face lined with light that smiled in a manner lacking warmth. Who was it? It was a face he felt he should know, but it was changed. He had been a woman then. A girl with blue eyes, and silver hair. He could see himself, seeing her, standing outside of all of it, and yet felt it all inside. She had understood the appeal of power, and wondered if he could be saved, or if she was truly no better. She was proud, but not so prideful to waste lives, if they could be spared. Hat seen the little gnats of the world precious.
Wren shook his head, and looked upon the present.
Kiannae stood at the lead, her horse uneasy before mage-iron implements that blocked the path. It was wide enough for even broad wagons to pass. More than wide enough for two horses, but they had not seemed inclined to walk quite abreast in the tight confines.
“What’s your business?” asked the man on the left. His armor was a bit more elaborate than the man on the right. Not a paladin, technically, though most would have called him such. That was a rank of full honors. He was the senior soldier certainly, perhaps someone’s chosen son.
“Pilgrims, to the High City,” Kiannae answered.
This did not prompt the most reassuring look over their party. “Women, traveling alone to High City? An Osyraen, and three Lycians. Odd company, to be sure.”
“No,” the other guard answered. “They ain’t Lycian, occidental by the look of them, I’d say. That one’s a man too. Look at the throat.”
“Huh. So it is.”
“Why you at the back boy?” the second guard demanded.
Wren was a little afraid, mostly of him self as it always seemed, but he almost smiled. “They fight better. I heal better, if they don’t. Besides, why would I wish to stain my hands with the filthy blood of men. Better it be that of women, I am mending from their fallen, violent, animal ways.”
The two guards glanced at one another, and broke down laughing.
Halberds were withdrawn, and leaned back against shoulders. The left soldier nodded his head back, the right however had advice to offer. “You watch yourselves ‘pilgrims.’ This is not Lycia, and you best stick to the path. You may pass.”
They rode through, and the guards chatted over them. “You sure we should be letting them through? Could be Reds or what have you, Assassins even.”
“We killed them once, we’ll kill them all again,” the other answered. “Assuming they’re even real. Kind of convenient, an army of brigands that go unseen. Bunch of children afraid of shadows if you ask me. Besides, that’s the funniest justification of scripture I’ve heard in years. Four different verses, all neatly stitched together. If he’s not Clarion, maybe it’s only ‘cause we are not pious enough.”
Snide words from the guards aside, Wren couldn’t shake the feeling that gripped them. ‘Kill them all,’ hung in back of his head with tension, well above any back handed compliment. Other than a specific ethnic group, that was basically what a genocide was. Kill them all. There was one, even the Order did not teach their children about. Not recognized, because they were of many people, if one faith. One created to enslave them.
He glanced behind him to the bickering guards. They had little to do but chide each other all day. Pretend to be more pious than the other, and harass those who would pass. Souls who need brave the eerie passage between a city built in twain, that could not become one. Their glib words offered him an inkling of deeper memory. It had almost spread, those horrible deeds, and he could not quite pull apart two versions of the same passage.
The purging of Assassins spread into Lycia. Secret sects of Clarion adherents killing Red Women, on suspicion alone. It was put to a swift end, and many perpetrators hung, as examples. Palentia struck back to avenge the faithful. A holy war, it was declared. The Paladins who had been bred for gift, for generations, slaughtered all who did not abide by the path.
Wren remembered reading it aloud, like something from a dream. He ran his fingers along the staff. It hadn’t been him, it had been… her. She was wrong, she hadn’t prevented it, not really. It had stopped short, but the survivors had grown in number, and wanted revenge. He could almost see a mirror she kept tucked in her book. It gave confidence, her beauty, to look at it, and be reminded. Helped her not stutter. She had silver hair, and blue eyes, and made a deal, with a man, lined in stolen blood.
He looked again to the windows around them. The architecture was different. Crescent windows replaced by six sided stars, a bit higher, with notches at each spoke. Clarion Suns, almost. They had the wrong number of points, and were made for killing people. Ward stones at the center were newer. Replaced with time, they bore the more familiar eight sided star instead.
There were other passages less clear in his memory. Ones that spoke of what happened when an Empress returned from one war. That she set to purge the Ascension for their crimes. A war raged then between an Avatar and Dragons, who had once fought side by side. Blood, begat blood, until a treaty was struck. His grimace was deep, and spurred his sister to speak.
“Well, that was… reassuring,” Katrisha remarked after they were nearly out the far side.
“I’ve not had a lot of trouble with a caravan, but I’ve seen things,” Etore remarked. “No one’s fool enough to make things hard for trade, but we don’t have the best look for travelers to the High City. Being women, and… whatever.” She gave Wren a glance but his expression was not nearly thin lipped enough for her amusement. Far more bothered than she was sure what to make of.
“I suppose we could dress more like pilgrims,” Katrisha remarked.
“If you want to cover yourself head to toe in white, and veil your faces, by all means. I’ll keep my dignity, thank you.”
As they passed into the town proper, and an open market square a few women of such description could be seen. Many more dressed conventionally, if with high collars, the occasional hood, or other covering.
“Doesn’t seem entirely mandatory,” Kiannae remarked, looking over a sea of white and brown. The paler the brown it seemed the better.
“There’s a difference between the piety of the square, and of pilgrims traveling north,” Etore countered. “If we get into trouble, that wolf face of your ring will be our last resort. It won’t make anyone like you, but it might be possible to convince them we are envoys. Stave off trouble, to avoid an incident. I say last resort, because it could go very much the other way, and at best we still need hope the Queen claims us.”
“We could have stayed the night on the south side,” Katrisha offered.
“We’ve a lot more stops to survive than this,” Etore cut back. “It’s cheaper to stay on the north, and a lot shorter run if we can’t keep ourselves out of trouble.” She glared at the woman pointedly.
“I got that out of my system, in part for a reason.”
“Did you now? I haven’t gotten the impression you’re the sort that’s ever quite satisfied.”
“I’ve been called… a few things, at times that might agree, usually with a smile.”
Etore tilted her head, smirked, but it fell to a glower, that might have been a mockery. “Fun as this is, enough.” She turned her eyes back to the road ahead.
⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃
Etore grabbed Wren’s hand, and shoved a ring onto it.
“Man dropped it, trying to put it in his pocket… a few… towns back, flirting with some woman or another.”
“Because we are in the Ascension now. And I want a comfortable bed without paying for two. It will be more comfortable with you in it. Now, go to the room warden, and pay for a room.”
“I’m not taking some man’s ring!” Wren snapped in a harsh whisper.
“He wasn’t honoring it, and it’s not getting back to him now, is it?”
Wren looked unimpressed.
“He didn’t even look, saw him hear it fall and everything. Watched him hold the waitress’s eye, rather than look to the sound. He abandoned it to Fate, and I collect her debts. Flip a coin, and it’s mine.”
He closed his eyes, and let out a ragged breath. “Marriage isn’t everything to these people.”
“No, but it helps.”
He shook his head, and marched past her to the counter.
There were a few terse words, but none that quite reached Etore. It wasn’t a very busy place. No drinking or noise, but the man talked very quietly, and Wren obliged this in kind. It didn’t look however to be going well, from the suspicious look on the man’s face. He turned his eyes several times to her, but mostly seemed to be trying to believe what stood before him.
Wren turned back thin lipped, and walked up to her. “He said he wished… to speak to you, if I would not mind. Funny, for once I might, who knows what you’ll do to the poor man.”
Etore groaned, grabbed Wren’s hand, and slipped the ring off with a tug that made him wince. She slipped it deftly on her own finger, careful to conceal didn’t fit, and walked up to the counter.
The first few words were not clear.
“Have you seen the gift on him? I chose him for good reason, just didn’t imagine the… trouble.” She added something else a bit more quietly.
The man gave Wren one last thin lipped look, then said rather plainly aloud, “Le labella eastami oh leda cel tho at sae.” He bowed his head, and handed her a key.
“What was that?” Wren asked as she walked back to him, key in hand.
“He’s Nodin, Eastern-Wastes folk. Nice people, though a Clarion convert. It’s a fertility blessing from his homeland. Said as a prayer to express our intention to bear children, Fates willing. I assured him we are trying, and would like to save money, not paying for separate beds, for after we succeed. Also that the very gifted… sometimes have difficulty.”
“Are we trying?” Wren asked, though it seemed he might be kidding.
“Yes,” Etore said with a tone and expression conveyed the opposite. “Let’s get to trying, or at least practicing, you difficult man.”
Wren put his hands behind his back, and clasped them such as to hide any missing ring. He nodded to the room warden as they passed. The man returned it, placing his hands behind his back as well. There was something suspicious still. Wren averted his gaze, pondering the meaning of their gestures to each other.
⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃
“Where will you go?” Liora asked, seated across from Jake. She tried not to look at the new arrivals.
“Nowhere, for now. Wait for Marcus here. I checked, the Starling caravan is behind, and hasn’t arrived yet. You could stay yourself, maybe they will honor the remainder of your contract.”
“I don’t care,” Liora said. “Less, that you are staying here for him. Go back, back to Lycia when he arrives. They welcome your kind.”
She started to stand up, and he felt it might be the last chance he’d ever have to say anything to her. “I do love you, you know. Just… I don’t desire you.”
Liora gave him a spiteful look, but stood there, leaned on her clenched fist. “Then it should have been perfect. A marriage, a union founded in faith, duty, and even love. Without desire needing ever enter into it.”
“You don’t?” Jake furrowed his brow.
“You are hardly the one to be offended,” Liora said with terse conviction, and straightened.
“I’m not offended… I’m confused. You…” He shook his head.
“I did not want the fleshly things. I was not guilty, even if the two of you were.” Liora said with a harsh breath, looked around, and sat down. “I was proposing a path, not a tryst. That if my course, if the redemption of our Order means I must become a grand paladin… One day I would need, at last to have children. Not simply as a matter of course, but because it is what is right. That we produce those to carry on our works. Particularly ones that would be so hard fought.”
“You kissed me,” Jake said quite plainly in response.
“I wanted… that, I admit,” Liora said, and looked quite ashamed. “A kiss, a touch, a promise I wished to make, and propose. At least I thought I did, but you felt nothing, and neither did I. I never have, and thank the Fates, perhaps I never will.”
“Are you truly without desire?” Jake asked. “Never?”
“No, never,” Liora said, but there was a breath of hesitation in her voice.
It might have been nothing, but Jake became shrewd. “I’ve never felt it, for a woman. Even, when Henry convinced me to sneak a peak.” He laughed uncomfortably. “We were kids, but he stared so long he got caught, I…” He shook his head. “It was two of the women. I wonder now if there had been a man, if I would’ve gotten caught too.”
He looked past her to the others, arranging rooms in turn. “They aren’t so bad, even that thief of theirs. I swear the silver haired one is the most earnest person I’ve ever met.”
“Which of several ways, should — I — be offended?” Liora demanded with a dry irritation. It belied any humor in what she clearly considered absurd.
“If anything, I think she should be complimented. For to a moment ago, I would have said it was you.”
“Why a moment ago?” Liora asked her gaze narrow.
“I’m not sure I’ve ever seen her lie, but you, now I have.” He rested his hand on hers on the table, but she yanked it away.
He lowered his head, pushed out his chair, and stood. “Know,” he stressed, and looked up again, “that even if not for our debt, Marcus and I will always call you Sister. If the time comes that you need to call on us, do. We will answer.”
⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃
Kiannae could feel a hand on her heart. Soft, and smooth, though she could not make up her mind if the fingers were small and dainty, or more manly. Her eyes almost fluttered open, and then did in a dream she was aware of the nature of.
She stood face to face with a reflection in a mirror. It wasn’t her reflection, but a familiar Faun. Dressed for once, if only slightly. Her gown was remarkable at doing less than the minimum, in some respects. Might have seemed less naked with nothing on.
Dark skin draped in sheer off-white silk, that matched the white spots on her shoulders. It did scarcely more than ever to cover her chest, where a hand was rested twixt a bosom a bit larger than necessary.
A wince placed Kiannae to the side of her, and she glared at the creature staring in a mirror, somewhere in the dark. It might have been the Court of Shadows, but the lights had all gone out, and only the mirror shone. A figure lit by a reflection that did not match.
The faun in the mirror could have almost been that, a reflection. Yet for all it said she was more clothed, and much less alone. Her hair like gold satin, not midnight black. Nor did their expressions match, even if the poses did. Their surroundings all the more conflicted. One stood in darkness, lit only by the light of where the other stood in bright sun.
Other fauns danced, or lounged around tiers of sun drenched immaculate marble gardens. Fruit bearing bushes and trees abounded all around. Fountains burbled, but could not quite be heard, nor the obvious laughter, and merriment. Birds flitted about steal lost fruit well before it could be stepped upon. The mind wished to imagine the sounds of it all, but it was not quite there.
“What is this?” Kiannae demanded.
“Innocence,” Estae answered.
“Hardly.” Kiannae averted her eyes from some of the more distant faun’s entertainments. Though others lounged more casually. Drinking, eating, feeding each other fruits, and capturing fingers with lips to clean them. Some spilling wine to similar effect. Each of which lead to more averted gazes.
“Guilt can only be seen by the guilty,” Estae mused.
Kiannae found herself standing beside the other faun beneath a bright sky. Clouds circled high above, and far away, but did not dare to intrude upon a beam of sunlight. One that cut through the boughs of a tree that filled the sky halfway to the horizon.
S mortal woman nearly fell to her knees to feel it. A thrum of pure life that raged through her skin, and bones. It felt as though she could die, if it were not impossible to do so, before such a power of unabated life. She could hear it then. The strumming of stringed instruments, that gave rhythm to dances of varied sort. Which lead to soft cries, or the laughter of fauns. The chirping of birds, and the patter of water, and bare feet across smooth white stone, cut with veins of lush grass.
She could smell it, a heady aroma of spirits, fruit, and all the fleshly things made sweet, and pure. The Faun however, stared only into her own reflection. A mirror midst a serene pool. Her feet joined another reflection that shimmered as there were splashes behind.
A girl with red hair almost like fire came up, and ran her fingers along Rhaea’s shoulder. “Come see, My Lady, a gift has come from the far South, beyond the Lands of summer. She is so shining pale. I think we must get her from the sun before she burns.”
A finger traced up, and found a jaw, there succeeded in drawing a face from a mirror into a palm. Rhaea hummed with pleased delight, like someone waking to a beloved companion. “Yes, my love. Of course, we must attend to guests.”
The other faun looked like she could die of happiness when Rhaea’s eyes met hers. She wilted into the water when Rhaea kissed her even fleetingly upon the lips. Was left clutching at the thin fabric of her garments, as Rhaea walked past her. Each step made the most serene rings, without a splash in the thin water.
Kiannae turned back to the mirror, but found her own dark haired reflection smiling back. She traced her mouth to confirm. She had been… It was all so beautiful, but the frown that intruded was full of doubt. Her eyes turned back to fallen faun, staggered to her feet and scurried after her Lady. Herself, tracing her lips again and again. Kiannae saw this, and followed.
She was a human woman, not a faun. Indeed a pale creature, even for Napir. Not nervous, naked as she was beneath the bright sun. There was slight cringe, but nothing could burn, no matter how hot it was. Fire, nor pain had any hold there. So skin was left uncomfortably alive, and thrillingly warm instead. Surely one built for darker lands felt it all the more. She did not flinch, only grimace, and smile as others gathered around her.
They pawed at her curiously, but it seemed there was nothing new in this to her. Indeed she seemed more comfortable for their attention if anything.
“Who has sent you?” Rhaea asked.
“My Lady… My Lady,” the woman answered, but the titles somehow had different meanings.
“My sister has sent me a gift? It’s been so long since she has come to my court.”
“Hers frightens me,” said one of the fauns, who hid in the arms of a tall, beautiful man in their number. There a few, but they seemed mostly towards the periphery. Easily missed, but for the long locks of silken hair that draped from the backs of their arms, or those less clothed.
“We mustn’t be frightened,” Rhaea chastised sweetly. “She is my sister, she is good, and noble. Her games are just different.” She turned back to the pale woman. “We welcome you dear, would you like to lounge in the shade? What can we do for you? Food, drink, warm companionship?”
The pale woman looked a bit confused. “What might I do for you, My Lady? I am here to serve.”
“Have joy, and all that you desire in my court. This is my only command.”
The woman stepped towards Rhaea, and reached out to touch her. She leaned closer. “What… I desire?”
“Of course, you beautiful creature. What do you desire?”
“Then who would you serve?” Rhaea asked curiously.
The woman’s eyes answered, as lips seemed to fail her.
Rhaea giggled. “I gave you your command then.”
The woman leaned closer, and kissed her. A red headed lass looked quite jealous, though it was hard to be sure if it was any more so than the rest. Rhaea smiled sweetly, for though the woman did withdraw, she did not wither before her. Rhea took the woman’s hand, and that of the one who had called her away from the mirror. She walked with them off toward covered areas. They slipped between dangling crystals, that cast rainbows into the shadows.
The three fell together into a bed, and Kiannae once again averted her gaze. She found herself staring into not a reflection, but a Faun dressed like her. It was almost hard to recognize Estae, in anything but her bare skin.
“Why must you always show me these things?” Kiannae demanded.
“You object to the Virgin Queen?”
“Not anymore, now is she?” Kiannae protested.
“What man has had her? Not a one. The Lord’s laws bound a wife to her mate, but did not strictly bind one woman to one man. A few convinced their mates to share, and none were so generous, or glorious as her… just above the laws. The Sun Child, firstborn of the morning-star.”
“There are men here,” Kiannae protested.
“There are. She was as I said, a generous, and un-jealous goddess, my sister. Her wives wished children, so she wed men that she would never have. Hardly, the spirit of the laws, but the Lord had long turned his eyes to the heavens, as his father before him.” Estae chuckled. “Father… what does he know of the parts of birds indeed.”
Kiannae just glowered.
Estae shook her head. “Does it matter even if she had? Look around you. A virgin woman, owns herself. She was the only virgin, for even the high-born belonged to someone. No one ever owned Rhaea. Even I belonged to others, to the teaching of them in service, and seeing to their needs. She belonged only to herself. Innocent, pure, good, and giving. She provided, though let others do the work of it. So I gave her something that would beg she be selfish. A Saou, sent above the court of the High Born.” Estae laughed, but it did not seem she was pleased.
“It seems from all we’ve learned, or I’ve seen, strange it took your hand in the matter.”
“If others had thought to do it, only I had the power to make it so. For all Saou belonged to me. I was their Queen, who even the High Born might give themselves to. Bow to me, and still hold their head high to others. I owned my mother’s bargain. I wore my chest bare as a mockery, for who was to stop me? To desire me, was to surrender to be beneath me. I liked watching them avert their gaze, to cling to their illusions of power. The law placed me above them, but their arrogance still showed. How I loved to strip them of it, and watch them smile to learn what folly they had lived in chains to… or how fun chains could be.”
“Why am I here?” Kiannae asked with a weary furrowed brow.
“Because you are stubborn, and I love that about you. I’m dying, Ki, it’s time to let go.”
“Don’t say that,” Kiannae growled.
“That I’m dying, or to call you Ki?”
Kiannae looked away, but found the bright court had been replaced with one darker. Light found its way oppressively in through faceted ornate skylights. She turned back, but Estae had turned away. She walked to a throne of black metal that shone like polished glass, and stood amidst bowing fauns. With a flick of her skirt, she turned, and sat, looking down, one last time over her court, at its most cordial.
Kiannae turned her head, and found herself turning from a mirror on a vanity. There had been a knock at the door, and her servant had stopped brushing her hair to answer.
“My Lady,” said the redheaded girl. “A… a gift… has come. A… betrothal present, from the Lord chosen for you, in the South.”
Kiannae felt slightly weightless as she stood, and turned. A naked woman knelt behind her servant. She felt dizzy as she knelt herself, and gently urged her head up with a hand at her cheek.
“How may I serve you, My Lady?”
With a blink of the eye the kneeling woman was the servant girl instead. The pale woman stood in her place, looking more superior, than jealous. Kiannae started weeping.
It was like glass shattering, and in the shards she saw shadows of a great dance. Herself coming, and going about the world, in spinning flickers. Servants, who became lovers, who became sisters, and daughters, brothers and kings. Who became reflections, of strangers, and others. Frightful things beyond, that could not be named.
Then there was darkness.
⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃
Estae 22nd, 1 S.R.
Kiannae gasped, for a moment she had stopped breathing. She found herself crying, a half tangible man draped over her.
“Taloe,” she struggled out.
He looked up, and moved his hand from her heart to her cheek.
“Is she still there?” Kiannae demanded.
“I don’t know,” he answered. “She has become like a scent on the breeze.”
Kiannae banged her head against her pillow, and cursed that she was crying for the vile creature. “Why… why do I love her? I’ve kept asking the wrong questions, haven’t I? I’ve been looking at it all backwards, haven’t I? I confused birth for death, and that goes both ways.”
“It does, I think,” he answered. “If that is so, then perhaps in this moment, as you understand, she was born. For all paths, go both ways, and how we are remembered, is as important as how live. Nothing is forever, but our determination to defy the inevitable, and be remembered.”
Kiannae wiped away an annoying tear. “Are you sure you aren’t her?”
“Sure would be a strong word.” He moved up, and kissed away her tears, until she kissed away his gentleness.
She reversed their positions, stared down at him. “Then let us remember.”
⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃
Riders emerged from different stables, and gave each other more measured looks. At least more so than they oft had, in past weeks.
“Seems we ride together, today,” Katrisha offered. “Unless you’d like to hurry ahead? Not be seen with me. Where’s Jake?”
“Staying,” Liora answered. “So, keep to yourself, and we’ll ride together today, as you say.”
“As you like it,” Katrisha said, and got on her horse. “Do keep up though.”
Liora’s incredulous expression faltered to a bemused smile. This was lost on the woman looking to see the rest were ready to go.
“Long haul today,” Etore remarked. “Unless we want to make camp, or find some very… accommodating farmers before Plainstad.”
“Odds of that?” Kiannae asked.
“Better than your sister not becoming friends with the daughter… or son, and causing us all manner of trouble,” Etore remarked.
“I am quite capable…”
“Of not saving someone?” Etore interrupted. She laughed. “My votes on camping, much as I’d love to watch the fireworks, I prefer some distance from the fire.”
Katrisha just looked away, but found Liora pulling ahead of them on the road, and followed.
“Thought I said to keep to yourself,” Liora said.
“Did I say anything?” Katrisha answered. “Just riding here, with the people who question why we put up with others in our lives at all. Maybe loneliness isn’t so bad after all.”
Liora huffed, and rode on in silence.
⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃
A small fox hopped onto a bed beside an old man.
The man’s eyes opened. They had many times, but he had not spoken in a very long while. He wasn’t sure how long, or whether to measure in mortal years, or divine Suns. Was he mad? The way the fox was staring at him made him wonder more so. He felt weak, old, tired. He’d let himself become this, he’d let himself become less… Then a cursed girl dragged him out, and left him, like a waterlogged sailor, pulled from the depths. He would have rather drowned.
“Do ye know, the reason I here?” Tock asked of the old man.
His room was rather dark, though he had a window. It was shuttered. The only thing he ever did besides eat and sleep, was close those cursed shutters. Every time one of the blighted saou opened them to show a lie. It was barred, so was his door. Mage-iron, just in-case, they said. No one trusted him, yet his door stood a crack open. A fox was talking to him.
The man started laughing.
All the times he had humored the girl. Rolled his eyes and let her tell him about Lota’s adventures, and schemes. How she tricked people, and made clever bargains. He’d told her, that they didn’t seem like a very trust worth sort.
‘Unless they love you,’ she always answered. ‘Then you can trust them to do right by you, in the end.’ A father remembered this, and he could not say, quite which father it was.
“What do you want, animal?”
“Teach you what?”
“This thing you do, to control it.”
“You want me… to teach you to Shape? To teach an animal, how to Shape?”
“One, to another, yes,” Tock answered. “A dire, one, yes. Control is key. Is do it already, is talk, yes? Just need control.”
The foxes bowed head seemed almost humble. His glances upward though read challenging, testing, playful. It was cute, more like a much too clever child than an animal. The impression helped. Any question if this impression was an intentional, helped more. It implied consciousness, awareness of the other. That a man needed to be lead to accepting what might seem obvious, of a talking fox.
“What would you become?” the old man asked.
“Not large. Dragons, Sylthans… you, all too large. Not hide good. Need dens that all can see, and still not content. Cause yer huge heads, need such area to lay. Has… good ideas too. Hands to hold, secrets to teach. Talk yer tongue, or should I say, has…” The fox made a little high-pitched chortle, and brushed his snout with a paw. “Large lits.” He let himself fumble, to make the point he couldn’t even say the word lips.
“You want me to teach you magic too?” the old man asked, incredulous.
“Yes. Know a little already. See, do. Hard to learn like this.” Tock protested. “Yet, I learn.”
Dorian sat up. The absurdity of it all at last woke a man, from the half slumber of a god. He ran his fingers along his head, where there were not even scars from missing horns. He’d never had them, whatever he remembered.
“What do I get?” he asked, then shrewd.
He’d listened to the girl’s stories. Much as he had not believed them, he had paid attention. The bargain was key, his child had stressed. Which child, was again suspect, or which father, but sometimes things aligned. A man had not believed that foxes could talk, a god had not believed animals to be people, even if they could. What remained, was not entirely above considering that both, might have been wrong.
The fox grinned. Something else lips would probably help with, a little. Dorian knew this was how something always went wrong, but it always went wrong any way. Maybe he could get it right. Maybe the solution, was letting them guide their own path, not suborning them to his own. It seemed dangerous, but when all else failed…