Elä
rating: +6+x

Your land is supposed to be dead. This you are certain of, this you have seen with your own eyes and your own hands - dig down tendrils of sorcery deep enough, through stratum after stratum, and you can watch, over and over, the end of the world. You can watch seas of flame pour from fissures in the stone, forests collapse and be devoured in sickly grey moulds; you can see insects drop from the skies and bloated-silver fish slick the rivers before rotting and sinking to stinking clay on the beds. Shells pile atop them like silver pieces, like sand - death on death on death, under a smoke-filled sky.

The hills are green, now, though, forests as thick as the ones before the fire. No-one would ever know, to look.


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…but then again, you are supposed to be dead, too. Not that anyone has ever told you this in so many words, straight to your face, but no-one was ever exactly subtle about it, either. You are what happens when the bird’s-nest flower and the thistle fail your mother - when the tewekm-reukós-selē fails her and you are still born, and breathe, and suddenly are worth more alive than dead.


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"What do you know how to do?"

You are pulled out of your thoughts with a jerk, back into the noise and dust of the market. The auctioneers have been coming down the line asking; with a shock you realize you are almost at the front. The man's face is hard - he has a quota to make, it says, and if he has to ask again the answer will be drawn from you with the flat of his hand.

You manage to stammer out something, a list of plants the healers of the household had always been sending you out after, tasks they had always had you perform. It only counted as training because no-one else had wanted you - but the healers and alchemists always needed hands, and did not care what was attached to them.

Carefully, you neglect to mention the words. The letters you had meticulously traced out into the dirt in the snatches of time you were alone, the matching sounds. To have words, as a slave, is death, and you do not want to die today.

The auctioneer's nose crinkles with contempt, but he marks his tablet and says nothing else. Businesslike, he moves onto the girl behind you. You snatched one glimpse of her as they led you out: she's pretty, long hair and unmarked skin, and you want to apologize for that - not, of course, that what was or is in store for her is in any way your fault, but if you don't who else could be expected to -

"Next." The other auctioneer deftly unfastens your hands from her, shoves you stumbling up onto the block. With equal efficiency, its chain is looped through your arms and bolted back onto itself, lest you decide it would be wise to try and flee now.

You do not think you could move even without the bolt. The gaze of the crowd is crushing pressure, spears through your chest; the sound of the chatter, the crying like stepping into a thunderstorm.

Instead, you turn your eyes down, let your vision unfocus. Let the world shrink to the bloodstained sandstone under your feet and the weight on your hands. You pinch the hem of your tunic between your thumb and forefinger; there's a broken thread poking out of the weave, and you twist it until it coils down into a small hard knot. Then the other way. Twist. Coil. Twist.

You try to look valuable.

(It comes to nine marks twenty kúan, which you inscribe in your memory, and your hands are unfastened. The woman takes your chin roughly, checks your eyes and ears to be sure that you can see and hear and that they have not been cheated, and adeptly changes over the working on your collar while her probably-husband counts the glass and copper pieces into the broker's hand.

As simple as that, you are theirs.)


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"What do you know how to do?"

Slightly more, now. And you can answer the question with more immediacy, because by now you know it is coming.

(Ten marks, two-twenty-and-five kúan.)


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“What do you know how to do?”

(They have drawn up a young man, but the girl with him - his sister, most likely - fights, refuses, clinging onto his arm with a grip so tight you can see the hurt on his face. She screams and wails, crying out no and his name, telling them they can’t, can’t do this he’s everything I have -

You wish she would stop. Doesn’t she know? That this won’t avail her anything, that this will just make them angry with her, and by extension all the rest of you as well? And true enough, her hands are ripped off and he goes, over her howls, to a tall bearded man in a green tunic. She stills finally when he is no longer visible, but does not cease weeping.

There's something sour in your mouth, when you step up. You don't know if it's anger or envy. No-one has ever clung to your hand.

Perhaps she soured everyone watching’s as well; you make but eight marks two kúan.)


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(Eleven, twenty-and-sixteen.

Let it never be said that you do not know how to esteem yourself.)


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How to escape:

Don’t die.

…see, usually it's the opposite. In your tongue, the words for release and slay are one. You've seen enough others preempt their mistresses' fury by slashing open their own throats, invoke it and then laugh unsteadily as the rods fall, or plait up their hair and wash their faces and simply walk out into the wilderness, eerily calm and empty-eyed even when you try to call them on the road. There are worse darknesses than death, you may be told, if they deign to say anything in answer. Mi laśkema kolam.

Maybe this is where you are defective. You still do not want it. For years you have not wanted it, enough to melt layers and layers of glass and clay over all your words, and all your power, bind it down until you are a sealed vessel from which nothing can escape. Until you are blind to the beauty of the strata and deaf to the pulsing of sap and blood that was from your childhood in time with your own heartbeat, feel only what other people feel, see only what they see.

But there is only one thing that can happen to a sealed vessel building pressure, a stone chamber surrounding magma. And when it does -

The world blinks out white, and you are dragged screaming to your knees with the pain, all your instincts howling in confusion and shock. You melt and merge and reform like candle ice, cell and molecule, frozen in that one moment of pain so intense as to be unrecognizable, caught between unendurable life and unacceptable death.

Your palms slam into dirt and hemlock-needle. But your thought, now no more controllable than a fire in fallow against the wind, does not stop where they do, falls and falls loosed through dirt and bedrock and time. Below, you feel all their graves - the many-legged beetles, the feather clams, the spiny sharks and blooming polyps, the spiralling shells, mighty ferns, and monsters that slithered many-toed through the mud. You cannot survive this, their memory whispers. Give in. Take your release, and be satisfied, and be still. We ought to know, we who fought all our deaths as well and to no avail - you cannot live, not soft-skinned as you are.

It would be so easy. There are worse darknesses, right?

But it is very difficult, right now, to bring any of them to mind. If you are too weak, if you cannot live as you are - then I will be something else, your heart responds. Something - whatever - that can. The muscle twitches, then convulses gracelessly. You are aware of every fibril, every filament and cistern - it quivers, then beats: once, and again. Mi ojma eläm.

You open your eyes.

There is blood in your mouth, in your ears and your eyes and your nose, and you cannot stem it. It covers your throat and hands and forearms, spills between your fingers and drips black into the dirt before your boots - a libation, yourself unto yourself. Good, though, right? Your future stretches out before you wide as the steppe, and you shall not begin it in another's blood.

The path linking forest to town is still there, though. And you were not the only one living in it.


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Most of the houses had been built with basalt skeletons, and so somewhat stand, albeit with all their wooden roofs and wall-supports newly green and flowering. But the shrine was limestone, hauled up from the plains with labour for the veneration of the fief-spirit, and this is now no more, dissolved into a mass of brown-green slime that has spilled over the surrounding paths. In it are embedded alien things, overwhelming you in a wave of precious salt and vivid rot, spiralling and slithering, gleaming prismatic and hornlike, large and small.

Curiously, you pick one up - a coiled shell that fills your entire palm, spilling a mass of writhing arms mottled in shades of creamy brown. They twitch and retract at your touch, revealing, briefly, a siphon contracting and expanding in the unfamiliar air, and then an intelligent, dark-pupilled eye. Its owner lays a line of ivory-white suckers along the back of your hand, and, evidently considering the taste of your skin satisfactory, winds the rest around your wrist like a stack of bangles.

You go on. Hemlock and henbane, nightshade and death-cap press up green, purple, and ghostly white from every chink - between cobblestones, within windows and doorways, through the bare-stripped ribcages of a horse and rider fallen in the street and flensed and devoured by the sudden flood of your new-freed sorcery.

(It would take a lot of suffering to devour an entire town. How had you never noticed before?)

You go on. A glint of fallen beads among dark-leaved flax surrounding a cluster of slender, scale-barked trees catches your eye, then the dropped harness of another team and the ruins of the cart to which they had likely been hitched. You had thought you would have mourned, if someone razed down everything even semi-familiar, forced you out of yet another town. Perhaps it is different, if the perpetrator is yourself.

When you glance back, flybane eggs like bloody eyeballs litter the ground in your footprints.

The first living person you find is cowering in the shadow of a wall half-split by span-thick roots. He flinches away at your appearance. "Who are you?" he cries. And then, more tremulously, “Can you help me?”

Your knuckles leave a dark smear on his jawbone, as you lift up his face. “Yes,” your mouth shapes. “Of course.”


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How to be a king:

Don’t die.

No, truly. The wars drag on because wars always drag on, because the complex and every-changing net of alliances between the matriarchs and allies always adds new players, because - well, you have everything to fight for, now, life and limb and all the people who have come to your banner and for whom you have taken responsibility because what else could you do, but - so do the rulers in Daevon. They're wrong, but -

You are not foolish enough to believe that righteousness will grant you any upper hand, because if that were the case you would not be fighting at all; Daevon would never have attained its power in the first place. You shall be right whether you win or lose; that, the war will not prove. But if there is one thing war is very very good at proving, it is who is left.

(The victor is never he who dies for his ideals. The victor is he who has the opportunity to live for them, day after day after day.)

No mortal could face down a god-queen. No mortal could demand a divinity yield, flee, and be honoured.

So, when you stride from the temple doors drenched in burning gold, bare-handed but for a fragment of gilt-and-garnet that was once a throne (because let them see this, nothing is true if it does not take place in the daylight, in the sight of all the people), you aren’t. Not anymore.


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(Your land. What is your land now? The well of your control stretches from sea to sea to sea, and in it there are more than just the green hills that once were all you had ever known. There are deserts within you, and salt flats, and tundra, and mountains that jut upwards like blades of glass. A land so vast you cannot be in all of it at once, and yet all too small, for your arms do not yet encompass the whole of it. You cannot clutch it to your chest and stare up defiantly into the faces of the gods and say no and you can't have it and it's mine -)


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(It is no longer all yours, but there is still blood in your mouth, as well. Every time.)


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“And why,” the man asks, lifting his chin in an obviously-deliberate display of insolence, ”ought we to believe any word of yours?”

(You killed his empress less than an hour ago, her palace placed above the city on a hill like a slag-heap, all raw rock and crumbling cliffs. She had obviously not thought anyone could scale it without being seen first, because there had been no guards, no-one to shout a warning before you rent yourself into a room screened in red yew and painted paper and thrust a blade through her stomach.

The blood had not dared to approach you, not though it formed a miniature ocean on the polished boards, not though even in dying she had grinned sharp-toothed at you and, as an attempt at last vengeance, sketched out and spoken wine-dark runes in it.

But you barely even listened to the beginning of the curse - you have been cursed a thousand times by a thousand different people, only a fraction of them genuine. Only a fraction of those powerful enough to dig any barb into the shells you have secreted, and curse-breaking is too easy now. Too simple, to unpick the threads of a spell and cast it off to be carried away on the wind.

Still, you wondered what was to be laid upon you this time. Was she to cry illness upon you, who can disassemble and recreate your every cell with a thought? Famine, when you can tear your nourishment from the air itself?

“I curse you to be what you are,” she said. “You think I do not see, with the eyes of death? Power gnaws at your heart already, your followers whisper and plot. There is naught I could do to you worse than you already have unto yourself.

“You do not know what you have taken upon your shoulders, Lord of Life,” and it was in your own tongue she mocked, Käsekelä. “And when the day comes, that you yearn for death and do not find it, you will remember this.")

But despite yourself, you are slightly endeared. There is no reason for anyone to believe your words, no more than the words of any other thing that names itself a god. At least, not without proof.

Here in the east, they do not build as high. Whereas the architecture in the western provinces is flat roofs and staircases, balconies, floors stacked like the uplift of mountains, and therefore a plethora of rostra from which you could speak, this city is wood, and shallow as a floodplain. Nowhere that you may claim as your podium, nowhere meant to be visible to an entire throng. Whatever you answer will be heard by him only and those nearby, not by all of the people.

Well. Nowhere but one.

As the gathering crowd grew in size, the merchants mostly fled, and so had the auctioneers - a way to preserve their wares, preserve their lives in case violence came on its heels, and return another day. Their booths, now, are empty, and so is the block. And it is this you stalk over to, and step up upon. The loops of the chain drape over the worn edges; you pick it up, wrap it around your right fist.

From your left hand, Saarn shoots you a sudden, half-panicked look. You can almost hear her thinking what are you doing? How can - no, get down, you shall defeat yourself by this, they will never afford you authority if they see -

But authority is not contained in the dais, or the palace, or the throne; it is not contained in weapons or in armour, in the formulae of spells or runes or sorcery, in the bloodline the Daeva hold in such esteem. It is not afforded by anyone but seized and forged again for every ruler in the dark spaces of their own minds.

And this stone may drain it from you?

The smile crawls unbidden onto your face. "Saarn," you say, and stretch forth your hand towards her, "do you trust me?"

Her eyes are wide and dark as fen-pools, but something must show on your face, because her fear sinks back down into their depths. "You know I do, lord," she answers, and you catch her palm and haul her up beside you. There is only sufficient room if you stand close, wrap one arm around her back, and so you do - the warmth of her soaks into your chest.

This is as it should be: your deputy at your left side, brother and sister who never shall be separated, who need fear nothing, for there is nothing and no-one with power over you - a glimpse of your dreamed future, flung back to strike into your present. And, your sight filled with that, you look up into the host of expectant faces, imaging for a moment what they see - a creature magma-bright, crowned in horn and ivory, come for to -

Well, tell them, you think to yourself. What do you know how to do for them?

And the words have always been easy, weaving themselves together inside your throat and spilling out like flame - more than enough to glut a world on. You speak of cruelty, children starving while offering dishes are filled with meat and honey, prisoners unransomed while silver and gold line sanctuaries.

Yes, you say, truly under such a pall one might think death desirous, were there no other escape. Were this state of existence fixed, and unchangeable. But it is not: since the beginnings of the world, mountains have been raised up and ground again to meal; rivers have not maintained their courses, nor coastlines their shapes. Though we do not see, all is made and remade interminably beneath our feet, through ages past and into ages yet to come. Nothing lasts forever - you are suddenly, savagely glad of it.

And is Daevon stronger than the mountains, or older than the coast? Should suffering be the only exception? They will change, or be ground away. You have and do and shall see to it.

(You may stand here, on the same stained stone, and yet unbound.)

Ripples. Heads bend towards each other, and people whisper. You see movement as people turn to go, bowed heads. Unwilling to hear, unwilling to unstopper the lies from their ears. Some would demand that they stay, call anything other than immediate submission betrayal at best - but why should you? You know who and what you are and how to esteem yourself, and it is no curse. You are no more than you must be - deliverer, legend-made-flesh. The sword and spear turn from your hide, the chain is in your palm and turns back upon itself, all joints slipped -

What is it to you, if they cannot see the value?

And yet all those knowings are subservient to the one, the bright burning core that gives fuel to the entire cycling and divergent web of your convictions:

In despite of the universe, you still exist. Your land is green yet, although it burned. Not even an ocean of fire could drown it, nor could the acids sear it, nor could the smokes suffocate it. You have sprung from soil that rose and rose again, and this, before all else, is what you know how to do:

Rise.

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