Interludes from the Great Pits, pt.3

From the Great Pits, Part 3
Ennerlund, Holberg, Y379

Niccolo flagged her down, passed the letters into her hands. Vitória turned them over in her hands, confused as to their purpose until she realized they were not requisitions or supply tallies or even orders. No, it was just mail, delivered to her.

Did she feel excited for, or did she dread, opening the pair of letters that were sent to her? She looked at the hot-pressed paper of one, Serena’s handwriting across the front. The other, on heavier, coarser paper, had Tess’ familiar print and seal, and a redirection from Regario to Holberg.

This season had been quiet, not many letters coming to her; not that she was in much mood to write, or had many friends left to write to. One, early on, from Kahendrin, had been cathartic to reply to; thoughts and feelings simply dumped onto paper, with no thought to cohesion or clarity. Some from and to Balthazar, all talk of plans and commissions that they had started months ago. One from Gabrielle, replied to when emotions had calmed and she had been in Ennerlund a while, but she had still feared that the letter betrayed more of her struggles than she wanted to reveal.

Vitória turned back to Serena’s letter; it was missing a redirect, it had been sent here directly. So, her family must now know where she is. She tucked both letters inside her doublet, to be read later, when the work was over, when she could take a moment to rest.

She didn’t want to face them yet.

***

Not all the ghosts screamed. There were some who sobbed, and some who attacked, and some who drove foreign emotions into one’s soul in a desperate attempt to continue clinging to life. Each soul was telling a story, whether it was one of a torturous physical end, or a heartbreaking tale of family left behind, or ambitious plans left unfinished, or loyal friends perishing together, hand in hand. They wanted their story to be heard.

There was a moment, after every exorcism, where she needed someone to turn to, someone to turn to her, and ask one simple question. ‘Who are you?’

In that moment, the tales were recorded, remembered, passed on. ‘I was trying to break free, I had a feud with my brother, I was thrown to my death, I owed my neighbour two Crowns, my wife was expecting her firstborn, I couldn’t resist the poison, I was writing a play, I lived in Holmauer.’

Who are you?‘ helped Vitória identify the ghost emotions as foreign, but she was becoming increasingly aware that the only emotions she was truly feeling, unfeigned, were coming from spectres. When the exorcism was over, and their spirit gone to the Labyrinth, she was left empty, struggling with the question, ‘Who are you?’

***

“What are you doing, Vitória?”

The briar blinked, pen poised over the pristine paper, and raised her head to the voice.

“Writing a letter to my cousin.”

“I see. How’s that going for you?” Lyca smiled where she sat across the cave from her, sorting and counting bundles of herbs, looking over some marrowort oil vials in the brightly-lit triage area.

“Eh?” She blinked, shook her head slightly, and put the pen down, not realizing that the ink had long since dried on the nib. She forced her eyes to focus on the red and white robed cataphract.

“You’ve been staring at that piece of paper for the last half hour. You’ve not written a word.”

“It’s a… difficult letter.” She put the paper and ink away.

***

Her ears rang, nothing quite shutting out the screaming that echoed through the walls, through the head, through the soul.

Her head rang, as she felt the trickle of blood running through her hair. She tried to move, felt too heavy, and struggled to breathe deeply as she pushed against the rocks that held her down, pinned to the ground, crushed, her cheek pressing against fragments of rock and mithril.

She shook her head and forced her limbs to move, slowly gaining freedom from the rock slide. She crawled across the ground, her skin scraping painfully against the rough hewn stone and rubble. Her shoulder joint flared with each movement, her leg was dragging, strangely numb and burning. She reached down to feel a deep gash just above her knee, wrapping around her leg, and warm sticky blood coating her fingers, pulsing quickly. She struggled to remember what had happened.

There were shouts ahead, bold and defiant, trying to drown out the screaming, though the words she couldn’t make sense of. It brought to mind the colour red, and the taste of liao, but why that would be she couldn’t remember. A female voice, a male voice. And the screaming, the screaming that shook the soul.

She climbed to her feet, tried to walk, and hit the ground hard again as her leg collapsed from under her immediately. The pain sharpened her mind for a moment, reminding her to run her hands down her armour as she was shown, drawing a river to her leg. She screamed, sobbed as the magic within her Jack of Irons activated, as flesh reknit itself, pulled and sealed the wound, then the pain faded. Thoughts of her brother filled her mind, easily distracting her from the confusion, and her eyes shut for a moment, just a moment to rest and gather her thoughts.

***

Then, the sense of noise was louder, approaching Vitória, and she dragged herself up again, on working legs, and stumbled through the dark, following the voices and the sickly faint flickering light through the tunnel. The screams were following, too, getting louder, angrier, shouting how it wasn’t fair, raging against life. Her fingers were sticky but they clung to her flask of liao, her last dose; in the confusion she knew it was important, but why?

She nearly stumbled into Lyca’s back, catching herself with a hand to her shoulder pauldron. A brief glance distracted Lyca only a moment before the cataphract looked back to the angry phantom that was pressing them back out of the tunnel. Then her vision cleared, and Ozren stood there, too, at Lyca’s side, both their hands outstretched as if to bar the passage of the ghost, yet still the sickly tendrils of wisp-fire pushed them back.

The flames were spreading, licking through floor and walls to surround them, and when each burning tendril touched skin a new voice joined in, screaming around them, adding weight to the barrage of hate pressing upon their living souls; until it would be easy to give in to the weight, sink to the floor, and never rise again.

Lyca spoke, the words lost in the dark; her expression was resolute, but she took another step back. Ozren shouted something, but there was no sound, it made no sense to her. Though they stood in Pride, pushed their will forward, it was not enough; the pair could not push this spectre back, could not send it to rest. Vitória quickly swallowed her last dose, feeling the liao surge through her, and her bloodied hand pressed forward between the two Pride priests, adding a third hand outstretched to block the way.

Something must have happened, because she was swamped by the complete darkness and sudden silence, almost more disconcerting than the screaming. As Lyca struck a match to relight her lantern, Ozren’s lips were moving, his hand touching her injured shoulder. Then, it was Ozren’s arms that she slid into, and Lyca’s hands guiding her down, pressing something soft against the wound on her scalp that was bleeding profusely.

“Did it work?”

The reply seemed to be miles away, but Ozren was nodding, and Lyca was checking her over for injuries, and turning to shout something into the distance, towards the cave in. Vitória watched Ozren’s expression as he spoke. He knew what it meant. So did she.

She swallowed, felt grit stinging in her eyes. ‘What do I do? If I lost the path, what do I do?’

“I think it’s time to go home.”

***

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Interludes from the Great Pits, pt.2

From the Great Pits, Part 2
Ennerlund, Holberg, Y379

“Form up and forward! Watch your footing.”

Vitória crossed her arms where she stood, straight backed, watching the way Lupo commanded his Wolves. There was safety behind the shields and arms before her, staring thoughtfully at his back while his unit pressed forward, where the tunnels opened into a wide mine shaft.

Pressed between Rodric and Vladimyr, two Vigilance priests from the Tower, she let them think they protected her, flanking each side where she stood part-hidden in the shadows. The wooden struts creaked underneath the troops feet as they made their way down and around the scaffold supports, the darkness below stretching, the scouts pressing forward into the black.

“5 Crowns says the struts are partially sawn through from underneath.”

“What?” The Captain turned, thought a moment, and whistled sharply, his men further down the circular walkway stopping.

“Sawn through the wood underneath. We saw it in the number 2 shaft last week. Wait until you get enough men on it and it might collapse.”

“Taking everyone with it.” Lupo swore colourfully as he ran his hand through his hair. “HALT! New plan. Rodric, grab the ropes. Lucille, you and…” He cast his eyes around. When they fell on Vitória he grinned. “So, Vitória, about that bet, who better to check than a light little Fox like yourself?”

Her jaw dropped, and she struggled to keep her chin up bravely as he approached, unravelling a coil of rope. “Shi–“

***

Increasingly, it was Ozren who was pulling her from the depths of the mines, insisting that she return to the surface, get a proper meal, and a proper rest. The first time, he had damn near dragged her into the light, and she had been dazzled and blinded by the sun for hours. He had promised, upon seeing the tear streaks down her dirty face, that thereafter he’d only do it in the evenings, but he wouldn’t relent from making sure she was taking care of herself.

She was glad for it, though. When the sun would set and they’d sit around a fire, and talk about such a myriad of tales and stories and topics, it helped to be among strangers whom weren’t judging her, or comparing the person she once had been to the person she was now. Whomever that was, when the mask finally came off her arm, and she could let the mask on her face slip a little more. Inside the mine, it was all business, and there was comfort in it. Outside, with nothing to focus on… it was nice to have a friend.

The stories Ozren told were wonderful, disarming, and more than once she’d wake up after a short doze and find out that she’d missed the end of the tale. He’d smile, and promise to repeat it another evening, and why didn’t she get some more rest? But despite his efforts, she’d never sleep more than a half hour; it wasn’t the same as feeling safe amongst family.

***

“We’ve had two near misses in this tunnel alone,” the foreman sighed as another shift rotated on. Vitória pressed against the rock face to let the exhausted miners pass by. “I don’t think we’ll be able to continue safely in this direction until we get some fresh heavies in to sweep the passages for traps.”

“That probably won’t be for another week,” the briar sighed, counting on her fingers, “Maybe two. Marius’ troop are finding it slow going in the Northern passages, and Lupo’s wolves have been redeployed to Reikos so we’re–“

“Struggling.” The foreman sighed, rubbed her palms into her eyes and sagged against the wall. Vitória remained silent.

***

The removal of remains was never a job she was asked to do, and she was grateful for the small relief of not having to take the bodies topside. It wasn’t out of disgust, or an unwillingness to get her hands dirty; she genuinely didn’t know what to do with a corpse, which amused some of the physicks in charge of establishing sanitation in the mines. “Leave it to us, we know what to do.”

She could patch up a living body, set bones, ease pain, and in a pinch she could perform surgery, if there was absolutely no one better suited available. She knew what herbs could be distilled to combat an illness, and her suturing was neat and tailored to leave no scars. But her education was half-learned, out of necessity rather than enjoyment of the subject, and there were glaring holes in her knowledge that made her feel useless in the task of what to do when faced with a long-dead, nameless corpse. It wasn’t exactly in the remit of a cicisbeo.

Hers was a job of comforting the living, assisting the passing of souls to the Labyrinth, and performing funereal rites– and even then, she only really had family experience to go on. Her mind skipped over the most recent funeral –had it really only been 39 days? The wound was still too fresh and yet she knew, to the day— and went back years and years to her grandmother’s funeral. When there had been a cremation and rings and masks, half her ashes scattered to the Vassa, half kept with the family. She had been quite young, but it was the first time she had been allowed to Mestra, officially, since this was a Family Outing to celebrate Grandmama and everyone went, no excuses. It was the first time she had been shown how her family mourns, with laughter and fistfights and tears all mingled together until one couldn’t tell what the emotion you felt was underneath your mask.

She continued to watch over her miners, those on this side that she could protect and comfort. She would offer a prayer over the corpses, when carried past on a stretcher or when she had to pick her way through the bodies. And she tried to ignore the glaring boundary line between life and death that her skills did not cross, where she was of no use and helpless.

***

“Do you want to talk about it?”

She paused in counting the stockpiles of liao, her fingers counting each small dose in twos and threes.  

“About the levels? Well, we’ve made a dent in them, that’s to be sure, but at this rate we should be–“

“No, not the liao.”

She inhaled, held the breath, and released it slowly, struggling to keep a mask on. She turned, her eyes looking into Ozren’s face where he crouched down beside her. In the dim light of the lanterns about them, his eyes were probing, and she looked away despite herself.

“I don’t know what you–“

“Yes. You DO.” His hand reached out to pull her fingers away from the Liao chest, before she could start counting again. “You know, there are enough priests here that we could check–

“No.” She pulled her hand away. “Don’t waste liao when we have need of it for more important things.” The vehemence in her voice surprised him, surprised her too were she to admit to it. She forced a smile, and pushed the tally sheet back into his hands. “Niccolo would have a fit to waste the liao. We shall either find out when it matters, or in Anvil. The Synod will have to be informed by then, anyways.”

“Are you afraid of what might be seen?”

“If I didn’t know you, Ozren, one might think you were challenging my Courage.” A quirk of a smile crossed her face as she tried to pass it off as nothing, but there was a tremble in her voice that spoke of how close her mask was to slipping off.

“Vitória, are you afraid–“

“WOULDN’T YOU BE?” For the first time since, her hands trembled, her eyes blazed with emotion, and she let the Spring energy run unchecked. “Wouldn’t you be afraid if all you were Proud of, was suddenly…” She choked at the thought, unable to speak.

“Yes. Yes, I probably would.” The passion dissolved away, leaving her suddenly exhausted, and she slumped. Only barely registered the hand on her shoulder. “Doesn’t mean anything has to change if you don’t want it to. Doesn’t make you any less Virtuous.”

“Hand on heart? I don’t believe you.”

***

Interludes from the Great Pits, pt.1

From the Great Pits
Ennerlund, Holberg, Summer Y379

“You’re almost as superstitious as a miner, you know.”

“Hmm?” She blinked, fumbling with the strings of the war-face, and Vitória huffed, held her arm out for the miner to tie her mask to her arm.

“Well, you sign in as ‘on-the-job’ when you tie your mask on,” the miner said, calloused hands securing the mask on her left bicep. “It’s quite comforting to see, is the thing. I don’t think the others will admit it, but when we see the mask in the mines, it’s hard to be afraid of a silly ghost.”

“A bit of hearth magic to comfort the soul,” Vitória nodded and went back to the liao chest, refilling her hip flask.

“But what the others haven’t noticed, and if you don’t mind my saying, Miss, is that, well, none of us can remember when we’ve seen you without it, so when are you ever off-duty?”

***

A few weeks in and escorting her group of miners along the passages as they moved into the deeper, darker sections of the Pits was almost becoming enjoyable. When Vitória had first arrived, the fear was palpable, marred on each face that showed up to work. Wondering if today would be the day that, out of the corner of their eye, they’d see another apparition, drop their picks and bolt for the surface. As the days turned to weeks, then to a month, the fear began to ease when each team saw that they’d be accompanied by a priest. There were stirrings of Pride in her, when the miners became familiar with her enough to look forward to her working with them, remembering her name and chatting warmly with her as she watched over them. Fear turned to smiles of satisfaction and Pride in their work, as they opened up another section for her to exorcise. “You’re scarier than any ghost, when you turn on them,” they had laughed, and set to work clearing blocked tunnels for her.  “You scream louder, too.” That had been a funny day, trying to outscream a screaming ghost, and winning.

Vitória smiled at them, winked, and went back to waiting for the lights to flicker, to go out, and for the familiar taste of liao upon her lips to signal when her work truly began.

***

The last timbers of the support beams were shoved into place, and she waited as the foreman gave the tunnel struts an approving glance before he waved her in.

“This tunnel’s as good as I can make it until the girls return with more supports.” Vitória carefully stepped over the rubble, weaving her way forward past the workers who continued to haul away the broken stone and mud.  She ducked under the low ceiling into the black wider shaft where she could stand tall again, and took a moment to breathe through the pain in her chest from where the ogre had crushed her, nearly a month ago.

“Is this section on the maps?”

“No, this is all new since the mine was lost. Why would the Druj care for safe tunnels when you don’t give a shit to the wind for your workers? Is why the tunnels this end are so dangerous. Might have to send for the heavies to clear it for traps, too.”

“Wait… can you smell it?” The foreman moved to follow her, gave a quick whuff of the air, and frowned. “What’s that?” The musty air was damper, danker, cloying with rot and decay.

“Morass waters. Means the pumps aren’t fully operational down here yet.” He pulled his lantern from his belt hook and shone it forward. The light seemed to be sucked into the black inkiness of water flooding the rest of the tunnel where it sloped down. “Back we go then, it’ll be a while before we can make progress, and the damp will mean this section will be more prone to cave–” The still waters blinked into black as the light blew out.

“Get your team back.” Vitória’s voice was low as she reached for the Liao with one hand, her blade with the other. Faint wisps of light were starting to circle on the surface of the water, and there was a splash further into the dark.

“Sighting!” The call went back, the foreman knowing to fall back and keep his workers safe. She took a sip from her flask, and stepped forward.

***

“You’re not quite like the other priests, are you?”

Her head raised at that, then tilted quizzically. “How so?” It was quiet, late at night, and Vitória was taking a moment to rest in the consecrated area, where they knew they were safe.

“The others, they go in and it’s all, Vigilance this, Pride that, Courage and Prosperity and all the usual bluster. You’re so much… quieter. Fiercer. And sorry for language but you’re the calmest fuckin’ Briar I’ve ever met. You don’t use their words, yet you’re more menacing with your faith.”

Vitória checked herself, comically, a wide grin on her face, then shrugged her shoulder indifferently. “Quite accurate, I suppose.”

“So what Virtue do you hold close? We can’t work it out, the lads and lasses have a betting pool –priests are already barred, so don’t ask to join in– but we just can’t quite figure you out.”

“So where’s your money then?” An easily deflected question.

“Well, see, I thought Courage, the way you just… let those ghosts get near you. Scream at you. Touch you. When that one put a hand through your chest, I thought you’d…does it not hurt?”

“Yes.” The truth was naked on her placid face, her calm indifference more unnerving than the memory itself, and the subject was quickly changed back.

“Anyways. Then there’s the team that Ozren fields, they’ve got their money on Vigilance. There’s a growing backing that you’re a Priest of Loyalty…” the light was dim, and the barest of flinches was entirely missed. “…and one or two people are putting a Crown in on the long odds that you’re Prosperity or Ambition, since the pot is getting quite big.”

She laughed, then stared back, letting the silence wash over the pair, grinning.

“You’re not going to tell me, are you?”

“Spoil everyone’s fun? Not for the Throne.” Vitória didn’t voice the traitorous thought that echoed through her empty soul, ‘Let’s find out together.’

***

Hidden behind a mask

Co-written by H.


 

Prosperity scowled. She had been staring at the accounts and her books for the last couple of hours, no work done. She was restless but didn’t quite know how to fix it, wanted to be anywhere but here, before ledgers. Tassato was nice enough but it certainly wasn’t familiar enough yet.

By the time early afternoon hit she had thoroughly given up. Her mood was not improved by the figures she had been staring at. The college, like most things, was faring less well than it should be.

She closed everything suddenly. Put her knife in her boot, leaving her sword, bow and cloak behind. Gathering the hastily scrawled note that had been delivered a few days ago, she headed out to make a social call.

The streets were still quiet in the afternoon sun, as she made her way through the streets. The directions she had been given were easy to follow, headed towards the Regarian Walls and the lush orchards and gardens of the eastern city. She turned down a street, narrowly avoiding a street mountebank who jumped out of the way with a wink and a bow, and then found herself at the gilded rose-gold sign to Villa Macieira de Barossa.

She knocked on the heavy wood door and waited. She wasn’t completely sure she would answer. She looked up, at the balcony that overhung the door slightly on the upper floor; the balcony door was open, so there was someone home. She waited before knocking again. No one appeared to be answering, no sounds of movement from inside.

She peered around the side of the residence, to a section of wall covered with trellis and ivy. When doors failed, there was always the wall. Just like back home. ‘Damn it.’ That was going to be a fun climb with her stitches.

She tried the door once more. Nothing. She walked back around the side of the house. She looked at the trellis, counted her blessings that she wasn’t wearing a dress and began to climb. It wasn’t too tricky but it did nothing for the pain in both her arm and her side. ‘Just don’t scream’ she told herself.

She sat on the top of the wall catching her breath deeply. She checked her stitches, so far so good. No bleeding, just some impressive bruises and a few soon-to-be scars. The garden was beautiful. She was half tempted to make a habit of scaling the walls of Tassato more if it meant beautiful views like this. She stopped herself mid-thought; brawls were still acceptable as Prince as she was also a bravo. Scaling walls, not so much.

She lowered herself down carefully amongst the trailing, creeping vines, and found herself surrounded by roses and shaded groves. The Villa extended out in wings around a centre courtyard, a still pool of water and a large and well-tended apple tree shading the middle of the residence and dividing the gardens from the villa. A beautiful mix of nature and stone, that felt very personal, and very private.

Prosperity took in every detail. She didn’t belong here. This wasn’t her garden. She knew the cicisbeo who lived here, but arguably not to this level. Yet she loved gardens. It was so peaceful and quiet, a smaller version of her old one only with a pool. She shook the image from her mind. Trying not to picture herself with Gilly and their brothers in the garden at a very young age.

She walked further into the garden keeping an eye out for the resident, or anyone who would be startled by her presence. She was suddenly aware of how stupid it was walking through someone’s garden but she needed to be around people. She also needed to make sure her friend was okay. Or at least was okay as was possible with all things considered. She recalled back, and no one had mentioned seeing seeing her in over two weeks. “Vitória!” She called up to the house.

On the upper balcony overlooking the pool, a pale figure stepped forward through a curtained doorway, searching for the source of the commotion. Vitória’s expression remained neutral as she looked down and saw her, blinking a few times. “Hello Prosperity.” She rested her hands on the stone balcony. “I had wondered when someone would give up on knocking and find a more direct route. Expected a Barossa, but you are nearly one of us, I suppose.”

Prosperity smiled weakly, “Suppose so. I’m still not completely sure about all that.” She moved closer but still within sight of the balcony.  “Are you going to either come down or invite me up or should I break out the Dawnish poetry? I don’t know about anyone else but I’m worried about you and frankly I could use a friend.”

Vitória straightened up and gestured with one hand to a stairwell that lead to the upper floor. She waited patiently until Prosperity reached her, one arm loosely held across her shoulder where a thick white bandage wrapped around the entirety of her torso and right side, unable to be hidden under her chemise.

Prosperity paused close to her and took a moment to look over Vitória’s injuries, the bruises just visible as they spread up her neck, purple and yellow. The thick pads of gauze just visible under the wrappings, dotted with spots of crimson. “I should have brought cake. And vodka. No wonder we haven’t seen you. What happened?” As she finished talking she made a deliberate effort to pull herself together despite the pain, she made sure she stood up straight and refused to wince when the pain cut through her. Her issues were not important right now.

“The same thing that happened to you. The same thing that happened to Felice.” Vitória calmly turned and welcomed Prosperity inside, leading her to a sitting room that overlooked the garden. Gone was the usual energy, the restlessness. “Can I get you anything? Water, wine, refreshments?”

Prosperity hesitated. “Wine would be delightful. Thank you.” She followed her friend into the room.  For once she paid little attention to the surroundings, her gaze fixed on the cicisbeo. She smiled darkly at herself.  Turns out old habits did die hard.

The shorter woman went to a sideboard, gathering a bottle and uncorking it. She followed Prosperity to the window bench, passing her a goblet and pouring the white.

There was a moment’s silence as Prosperity opened the window to let the breeze in, and Vitória sat across from her. It was difficult to tell, at a glance. Was her subdued nature due to injuries? To grief? What was there to be said in such circumstances?

She turned to Vitória, “I told you my city would take away those you care about.” Vitória’s green eyes flicked up to Prosperity’s, startled at the thought of diving into such a topic. And people thought she was blunt. She studied her with a momentary glance before she looked away as Prosperity continued. “It’s like staring into the face of death every time I walk down those streets. I can’t stand it. If I have one more person tell me while I’m crying over losing yet another friend that ‘it’s okay because we are helping so many more people’, I’ll..” she made a noise halfway between exhausted and angry. She had barely realised her voice had risen. She took a deep breath, but before she could speak–

“Don’t.”

Prosperity scowled a moment before being deeply interested in what movements Vitória was making.

Vitória poured herself a small measure of wine, whet her lips. Her eyes stared at the cup, before they met Prosperity’s gaze. The voice, calm, serene, the smile on her lips, did not match the expression of her eyes; empty, lacking soul or spark. “We all know… what is at stake. If we were afraid of the cost, we would not go to Anvil.” She took another sip of the wine, all nonchalance and grace, like such a simple statement was all that needed to be said, or could be said, or all that Prosperity needed to hear.

“If that’s the case why are you refusing to go outside. It’s been two weeks. You can’t stay in here forever.” Her words weren’t as heated as before but her summer side was starting to show. She was scared and angry. That combination never went well.

Vitória only stared at her, placid as a merrow and content to let her make whatever assumptions she liked.

“Sorry. I’m just worried. I haven’t seen anyone close to me in as long. You are the first Barossa. I had all my work sent here. The college is rebuilt but it’s fucked.” She shook her head, “Not relevant. I didn’t think I would be so bad at this. I’m mostly refusing to either break or ask how you are. It’s the most ridiculous question. Look at us.”

She slowly drank some of her wine, if for no other reason than to shut herself up. She knew what to do to fix it and who could help but at this point in time it wasn’t possible. She was always terrible company during war and after funerals. It was always so close to home, like it had been burnt into her mind.

The briar shrugged her good side blithely, tucked her feet up and stretched them out between the changeling and herself on the window bench. “Is asking the question what you need, in order to begin your healing?”

There was something, a flicker out of the corner of Prosperity’s eye, and she turned to see their reflections in a mirror across the room. Vitória’s reflection was masked, staring straight at her; the persona shifted: a Lover, a Bishop, always providing what the patron or pilgrim wanted, needed. In this place, and on Vitória’s terms, she would always have the upper hand; any attempts to reach out to the briar, would be turned around on her.

Prosperity stared at Vitória, after a moment her face broke into a grin, “I have better idea!” She stood up and walked over to her friends wardrobe and pulled out a dress, holding it towards Vitória. “Come on, get dressed, I have a plan.”

A quick crease in her brow betrayed the invisible mask she wore, as if the carefully cultured calm threatened to shatter around her. “Is this the kind of plan that ends in a bar fight? Because you would be on your own, in my present condition.” She stood, approached the dress and cast a critical eye over it. “Not that one.” She pointed to a silver robe, and went to a dresser to fetch a teal chemise. She paused, tapped her fingers on the top of the dresser, and looked long and hard at Prosperity, before she opened a document box on a nearby writing desk, riffling through and pulling out a solid iron key on a bright ribbon.

“Here, take this.”

Prosperity looked at her, as she closed the wardrobe, “Not all my plans end in a bar fight, only most of them. What is it?”

“Just take it. If you’re so determined to get in to my house then you might as well come in the front door.”

Prosperity grinned, took the key.  “Are you going to make me go out and come back in the front door now?”

There was the faintest hint of a smile that alighted on Vitória’s lips, before it was gone. With a sharp intake of breath she removed her chemise, looking paler again, pained by the movement as she nearly doubled over on herself. “Fucking Abyss and all the Druj therein… Why are you making me go out?”

She hugged her lightly, carefully helping her into the new fine lawn shirt and making no comment on the snaking veins that spread out from the bandages wrapped around her chest. “I’m making you go out because I know the best restaurant in Tassato and we have a reservation in half an hour, now come on!”

There was a faint petulant whimper from the briar, before she slid on an over-robe gingerly. “As you wish. But you’re buying.” She looped her arm through Prosperity’s, leaning slightly against her. “For I have not forgotten that threat about Dawnish Poetry.”

“That threat will always stand and I wouldn’t invite you out if I wasn’t intending on buying, that would be impolite.” She grinned at Vitória, “So I should lock up right?’’

E11 2015 – Prompts

First family member dying. It was a good event. Prompts from E11 Summer Solstice, 2015.

Curses

Tonight, the Spurned Lover has been invoked, and the Spurned Lover holds sway.

Her whole being was humming, her heart racing, contained inside a mask of calm indifference as she listens to the political discussions around her. Her lips smile, she nods at the appropriate times, and her gaze drifts –naturally– across the tent.

There he is. Unknowing. Unsuspecting. How easy would it be, to curl a finger at him, smile seductively, arrange a meeting in the shadows, promise to teach him the pleasures a true cicisbeo could provide…

She listens to the whispers, turns back to the conversation and makes some vague approving comment about the best way to merge religion and politics.

Just think of the warmth you could provide, entice him with, ensnare him within. When flesh is intertwined, when the sweat beads, when he thinks he is in control, when he loses control. The heat of the moment, when passion reaches its heights…

She takes a deep breath, and listens to the three conversations around her.

Think of his eyes, when the pleasure turns to surprise, when he gasps, fights for air, when the hot gush of his blood flows over your hands, down your entwined bodies. How in control you would finally feel, then, with the knife in your hands…

She flinches back, the spell broken; a hand has touched her face, and the blood dripping down it. She can’t remember when the injury happened. The hand –surprisingly tender, unnervingly gentle– cups her cheek, checks the wound, and offers to heal her. The eyes are kind, and she cannot remember when the last time was that she was looked at kindly.

For a moment, the voice halts, the seductive whispering gone, and the persona reverts to its lighter side, the Witch. She is entirely thrown, by the face before her, the kindness of one who has only ever been nice to her, hidden agendas aside; the Witch reminds her of the romance and politics and alliances they had discussed, which were healthier, better than the darker trappings that held sway tonight if she would only fight its influence a little more—

You cannot earn your Reckoning this way… But with me, little one, oh! I have much to teach you…

It takes a moment, a glance across the tent, and the Spurned Lover reverts, assumes control and reminds her of the plans to be formed. She smiles pleasantly, declines the healing magic offered (for her ally reminds her just how it would encourage the taint to spread). She changes the topic, and listens; listens to all the wonderful ideas her co-conspirator whispers to her. She takes a sip of her drink, and continues to let the poison be poured into her ears, drop by drop.

Tonight, she embraces the curse.

Tonight, the Spurned Lover holds sway.

Passed Notes and Final Messages

The paper is slipped into my hand before I really know what’s going on, as I stare up at Zanterr in confusion. In my confusion I cannot fathom why he’d be passing this to me, why he looks chagrined at the duty.

The words, so few? They don’t sink in right away, and I force myself to read it twice, before it dawns on me fully, why there are so few. This isn’t a message, this is a final message. Perhaps more than anyone else got, more than I would have thought possible if…

I’m humbled. I’m touched. I don’t want to understand. I want to cry. I am so close to screaming, my hands shake. There’s noise in my ears, a question that Livia directs at me that I don’t hear. I had forgot everyone else there, Gabriel, Virtue; Zanterr is gone, when did he leave?

Except Tess, whom I can’t forget. Whose eyes are surprised, but calm, understanding. Tonight, I can mimic her — wintertouched, draughir, someone to rely on. There will be a time to scream later.

Beloved Fox

She leans heavily against the arms holding her up, her eyes so tiredly looking into mine as she asks, in pain, “Can you make it easier?”

There’s fear in her eyes, and I want to kiss it better, but there’s fear in mine, too–fear at being unable to do anything against this. My beloved cousin, my confidante, my closest friend is dying before me and I can do nothing. My mind searches anointings, discards them as useless, temporary things and what comfort can they be when faced with the Gates of the Labyrinth?

“I c-could…. would you like a testimony?” She makes a little nod with a whimper, and my hand shakes as I fumble for my liao.

What words
WHAT WORDS
COULD EVER SUM UP
what would comfort her
what would stay with her forever
what would guide her back to us

I lean forward, cup her cheeks in my palms, and lean my forehead to her scales. With the purple fire in my veins, I press the words into her soul and feel them bind. I am fervent as I affirm, my voice raising, just how loved she is, and how she will always be ours, and how we will find her, until—

The fear disappears from her eyes, and she looks comforted, and I can only pray it’s enough for her. My ‘Beloved Fox.’

Moral Support

My voice is caught in my throat, cracking, and this must be the worst performance I’ve ever given. This is the most important performance I’ve ever given. I made a promise to sing Felice into the Labyrinth when she died and I am going to keep it if it kills me.

But I can feel the marrowort starting to wear off,
and it’s getting harder to breathe,
and my heart is racing furiously in my chest,
and I don’t know how I can handle—

–and your hand touches mine, so lightly, and I can’t turn and face you because if I do, I won’t be facing the audience and they won’t be able to hear the music that I promised them. But you’re here beside me, and I can at least squeeze out one more refrain before the blackness in my vision erases the rest of the song from my memory.

I didn’t have to ask
but you’re here
and you understand
and you stay by my side
as the blood starts to drip faster.

Pilgrims

She wasn’t superstitious. But she couldn’t ignore the pattern that was developing.

Welcome your pilgrim into the fold, and death follows.

The first; could have been just chance, wrong place and wrong time; it was Anvil, sometimes people didn’t make it back. She didn’t know how, she needed to find out why.

Welcome your pilgrim into the fold, and death follows.

Her second; her oldest, closest friend and cousin, poisoned and tortured; when all you can do is bring them home, and surround them with love and music for their passing, then that is what you do. You take their soul to the Labyrinth, and you ignore just how dangerous it is, to try and go the whole road with them.

Welcome your pilgrim into the fold, death would follow.

Her third, the only one she has left, and the one that she feels singularly unable to help, whom she knows she’s way over her head with. She wonders if being dedicated to Loyalty is a death sentence, or it’s just being dedicated by her, but it’s very hard for her to feel her feet on the path anymore.

A Lullaby pt. 2 – Felice

A story in two parts, taking place between E10 Spring Equinox and E11 Summer Solstice. Co-written by roisie.

A Lullaby: Felice

–Sermersuaq, Early Summer–

Most of the surrounding quarters were dark by now, but Felice knew where to find light. She could have gone to Gabriel and let the ever present meeting wash over her – provided he was kept focused, it was the best place for him to be. She was going to be late there, and she wanted something else from the evening.

Vitória found her not long after she left the loudest fire, and pounced. “Felice! I’ve been looking for you everyw…” she stopped, trying to make Felice look her in the eye. The little naga had flinched at her name. “Felice? C’mere. What’s wrong?”

Felice allowed herself to be guided indoors, hissing a little at what light remained. Sermersuaq had not made a good impression on her. The hand tucked into the crook of her elbow remained gentle, holding her close, till they could put the closest thing for walls they had between them and the darkness.

“I saw…you know. And she was drowning out the singing except she wasn’t and it all went wrong but I wouldn’t know if I wasn’t… wasn’t…” She was running her hands through her hair now, tugging the feathers harder and harder until Vitória caught her, took her hands and gently eased them away. The cousins leant on each other, where it was light enough to see tears below scaled brow, and understanding in beautiful eyes. Reassurance was silent and steady, as it had been whenever Felice slipped and the Beast had a chance. Eventually she calmed and stood with her hands in Vitória’s.

“Do you want to go out again? Find another bar, or a different place? What do you need?” The priest was shifting now, her hands twitching, anxious to make things right. There was a pattern to this, for them. It wasn’t always the same one, and it was rarely the same place, or people, but most of the time it was together. She stepped towards the outdoors, offering the darkness again.

“No! I mean…can we stay here? It’s all wrong out there, tonight.” Vitória caught the half smile, sweet and bitter, on Felice’s face as she turned back. “I don’t know the voices and sometimes seeing them is hurting.”

Vitória gave a moment’s pause, as she always did; it sometimes took a few seconds to work out how her cousin saw the world, in song and colour and sensation. But she slowly nodded, moving to sit, making a face as she moved a buckler out of the way. “She’s strong tonight.” It wasn’t a question.

Felice threw herself down on the cushions next to her, barely bothering to move the buckler or rearrange anything in her haste to be in contact. She was a tight ball of feathers and what sounded like sniffling. Propped on her elbow with her head next to Vitória’s knee, she nodded.

“The voices hurt?” It was a soft prompt, but made Felice flinch even so. Vitória’s hand found her hair, soothing and unruffling until the head drooped to rest on her lap. “You’re  seeing the colours still?”

“Yes, but….” Felice waved her free hand helplessly and turned her face down. A muffled “They’re all wrong!” was swiftly followed by a lot of flailing. Once she’d rearranged herself to look up at her cousin, there was something desperate on her face. “But you’re not. You’ve never been. Help?”

“Help how?” The response was immediate and the understanding dawned only a little further behind. “Oh! Would you like to sing?” She smiled down, only to be met with a pout.

“I can’t. Mine’s gone like mud and blood and looks like it’s sinking where I can’t go…” Her eyes closed again, Felice resumed the ball shape, tensed alongside her.

“It’s okay, we can… Well,” A little time to muse, and Felice would have seen the nervous smile alight on her cousin if she had looked up. One hand held hers, the other realigned a disreputable feather, then wrapped her cloak across Felice’s form in her lap. “Promise you won’t laugh? It’s not quite done… And I was going to surprise you with it, write it up proper and have Duarte print you a copy.” She cleared her throat softly, before she snuggled down into Felice’s warm body.

Lay down your head and I’ll sing you a lullaby
Back to the years of loo-li lai-lay
And I’ll sing you to sleep and I’ll sing you tomorrow
Bless you with Virtue for the road that you go.

The naga made a hopeful sound, wriggling upright. “That’s beautiful.” She kept the held hand and came as close as she could, laying her head on Vitória’s shoulder. “It’s sapphire and floaty and it’s there and I can see it properly….” She relaxed onto her cousin. “Why’d you stop?”

Vitória made a slight squeaking protest, but the naga had already closed her eyes, both of her hands on one of her cousin’s, cuddled close. She sighed, nudged her head with her nose, and continued.

May you sail fair to the far fields of fortune
With diamonds and pearls at your head and your feet
And may you need never to banish misfortune
May you find kindness in all that you meet.

Vitória took a deep breath to keep herself calm; there were missed notes, she hadn’t warmed up her voice, and as always she was prone to forgetting words when she had been drinking. But Felice was noticeably calmer, relaxing with the music, and that surely was most important? Vitória didn’t have the heart to explain to Felice that she could hear her too, just out of reach, baying for blood.

May there always be Virtue to watch over you
To guide you each step of the Way
To guard you and keep you safe from all harm
Loo-li, loo-li, lai-lay

The naga sank lower with each line of the song, from shoulder to arm to lap, wriggling just enough to jog her cousin as her natural petulance reasserted itself. The blankets and furs had to be just so, as she settled into them, kicking and nudging things around to her satisfaction, accidentally catching Vitória with a headbutt with one last effort to lounge properly.

“Oof! Felice, you have the grace of a Mestran. What are you doing.”

Felice didn’t bother lifting her head to reply, now cushioned nicely on Vitória’s lap, the seat coverings scrunched up around her in the kind of nest she would always burrow into, given a suitable place and enough time to blink. “M’comfy. You can go on now.”

“As my Patron commands me.” The teasing tone was evident, but there was no response from the curled up Fox, and Vitória could see the only movement in her nest that of the occasional wriggle and her steadying, quiet breathing. She was waiting, eyelids almost closed, fighting to hear more.

May you bring love and may you bring happiness
Be loved in return to the end of your days  
Now fall off to sleep, I’m not meaning to keep you  
I’ll just sit for a while and sing loo-li, lai-lay.

There wasn’t even a wriggle now. The dark eyes were closed, the scaled brow no longer lined with fear and worry, just a young face pillowed on someone she completely trusted to hold off the darkness. Felice obeyed her singer, and Vitória held her cousin as she finished the unfinished song, whispering it against anything that might come between them.

May there always be Virtue to watch over you
To guide you each step of the Way
To guard you and keep you safe from all harm
Loo-li, loo-li, lai-lay
Loo-li, loo-li, lai-lay…

 


‘Sleepsong’ is by Secret Garden.

A Lullaby pt.1 – Vitória

A story in two parts, taking place between E10 Spring Equinox and E11 Summer Solstice. Co-written by roisie.


A Lullaby: Vitória
–Sermersuaq, Early Summer–

The embers were glowing low in the fireplace grate when the last bravo left their company to head to bed, no longer able to stay up into the darkest hours of the night. There was a brief, honest glance between the two women, before hands reached up to untie the masks they wore.

“Which did you like best?” Vitória asked softly as she folded away her mask into her bag carefully.

“I thought you’d like them, don’t you want to choose?”  Vitória only shrugged her shoulder a little, then shuffled closer to Felice.

“Elsbet from the Hammerfalls was very beautiful. But we’re leaving with Gabriel soon, and she’s going back to the front tomorrow.” Her voice was quiet, hoarse from the evening’s singing, and she reached for the bottle of mead they had been sharing between them both. “It’s cold out there, it’s warm here, and hand on heart… I’d rather stay close to my leash tonight.”

Felice reached out, tugged the bottle away before Vitória could refill her cup. “Tori, that’s not going to help and you know it.” Vitória’s eyes widened, flickering with sudden, vibrant anger, a vexed comment poised at the tip of her tongue before it fled and she sagged a little, nodding.

“Do you want to go to bed?”

Vitória’s eyes shut for a moment as fatigue washed over her, before she shook her head vigorously. “No. Not just yet.”

Felice set her mask down, and put the bottle beside it. She leaned back in order to reach a cushion, pulling pillows, furs, blankets, everything around her closer to her cousin. “Then let’s just stay here together. Want to sing for a bit? I’ve got my book…”

At that, Vitória’s eyes momentarily brightened, and she smiled easily. “Yes. Oh yes, please? I love singing with you, more than anything. You said you’d teach me more melodies, new songs.” She shuffled closer to Felice’s side across the fur rugs, as close to the dying fire as she dared lest she get smuts on her hose. “I want to copy out so many of your songs. And Adelina’s. And Civetta’s… but I never get the chance.” Her voice dropped to a whisper again as fatigue started to creep into her voice, and in response Felice’s arms pulled her down into the little nest she had formed. “But no songs of fighting, or bravos. Something to drown her out.”

The naga let Vitória rearrange herself into a comfortable warm ball before she curled over her protectively. Vitória smiled up at her cousin as both their hands reached for the others’.

Felice laid her songbook out atop her knees, flipping slowly through the pages, and Vitória’s eyes followed each turn. One finger suddenly reached out to stop the turning,  “What’s this one?”

Felice smiled at the book, eyes looking through the page. “This is from Sarvos, from before…” She stopped, a flicker of a frown across her face, hesitating. Vitória’s hand rested alongside hers, the words clear on the page, and Felice looked down at her cousin and nudged their hands together again. “Someone sang it to me, to keep me still for a portrait.”

“Would you? Sing it, I mean…”

Lay me down gently, lay me down low,
I fear I am broken and won’t mend, I know.
One thing I ask when the stars light the skies,
Who now will sing me lullabies,
Oh who now will sing me lullabies?

“Is this one of those songs in the colour of Night?” Vitória’s weary voice whispered up to her. Felice made a little hiss of affirmation, fangs apart in a grin that her cousin had remembered, and ran her fingers through Vitória’s short hair, soothing until she closed her eyes again to listen.

In this big world I’m lonely, for I am but small,
These people and places, don’t they care for me at all?
You heard my heart breaking for it rang through the skies,
So why don’t you sing me lullabies,
Oh why don’t you sing me lullabies?

Vitória’s eyes flashed open, the twitching in her fingers resuming, trying to wake herself up again, like so many nights before when Felice would watch her cousin fight sleep despite exhaustion.

“Will we still have our tea party in the Hall of Worlds like you promised?”

“We will! It’s a while to the Summit. But we’ll take a picnic, whatever you want to to take, and we’ll sit and sing between the Realms.” She said with a nod.

“I want to see it. I want to understand what it’s like. But then, you’ll probably be busy with the Dawnish Puppy, so, only if you’ve got time.”

“Do you want me to finish the song or not, Vitória ?” Her voice came out on the sharper side and she felt Vitória wince, but she–thankfully– only curled closer into Felice’s body with a soft whispered apology.

She began from the beginning.

I lay here; I’m weeping for the stars they have come,
I lay here not sleeping; now the long night has begun.
The man in the moon, oh he can’t help but cry,
For there’s no one to sing me lullabies,
Oh there’s no one to sing me lullabies.

Felice continued to stroke Vitória’s hair, one hand tousling the sleepy briar and the other tracing along the verses and occasionally leaving the page to trace notes in the air in front of them as her cousin’s voice softly joined hers on some lines, slowly learning the verses. Her voice was tired, though, and fatigue was slowly sending her drifting, the restless movements of briar energy finally overcome by exhaustion.

So lay me down gently, oh lay me down low,
I fear I am broken and won’t mend, I know.
One thing I ask when the stars light the skies,
Who now will sing me lullabies,
Oh who now will sing me lullabies?

“I could write you a lullaby… will sing you lullabies.” Felice could barely hear her cousin’s soft mumbling of the incorrect line.

Who will sing me to sleep,
Who will sing me to sleep?

Vitória’s head was heavy on her lap, finally still, breathing softly.

Felice began again, from the beginning.


‘Who will sing me lullabies’ by Kate Rusby.

What you leave behind

Some people cope with the ridiculous summer heat in Tassato better than others.


What you leave behind

The days have been hot, as summer settles into Tassato: too hot, reminiscently hot in ways that I am not yet ready to cope with. During the day, I keep close to the pools in the courtyard, dipping my feet in the cool waters, splashing some on my neck. It’s the only time I can sleep, when it finally comes to me; leaning back into the shade of the apple tree, my feet still in the waters.

–She feels like someone is watching her, as she slinks away, with beads of sweat dotting her brow, and eyes that glow like coals, determined to burn on despite the lack of flame.–

And it pains me, how when my skin starts beading with sweat and I can feel it trickling down, that the memories are coming more frequently, unbidden, and I cannot stop them.

It’s only as evening sets in that I can get anything done, return to my rooms and prepare for the night’s activities. Venture out in the cooling air to find family, visit the Church and check in on business to be done, visit Samantha at the Armouries to see how my new chain is progressing. The small daily tasks that help remind me that I am back in Tassato, back home, safe; that for at least some hours of the day I can leave behind the oppressive heat.

–business done in the evening hours, when she manages to slip away. Trading in false coin, bribes and secrecy, and always with a pit of fear in her stomach. She used to enjoy the thrill of outwitting others, but she’s lived this life for so long–one year, or was it two?– that thrill has turned to terror; she was gambling with her freedom now, and she’s only got one hand to play. The business would end, the deck stacked a little more for the draw, and she would grind her teeth, bite her lips ’til they bled, to force herself to return before she was missed, because it wasn’t yet time to draw her hand and play. Everything she was, distilled down to business in the evening, and returning before dark.–

The nights keep me busy, entertained and jostled amongst family members that revel in the mischief that they cause. One night, an evening’s drinking that ends in Mondragone being fully swept up by his muse. On another night, gambling that ends in only ‘Drigo leaving the den with his shoes, and Civetta ‘explaining’ to Anguila why one does not double-down one’s bets. Under the night sky, each evening, I can watch and wait, and see how the family embraces the night, and step in where needed. And last night turned this morning, I’m running home, casting my eyes around for I feel I’m being watched again. Heading home with an arm that’s broken for my troubles, but that bravo will think twice before he grabs me again.

–She’s adamant in her refusal, prying Alesso’s hands from her forearms as she fights him off while he tries to explain that the only thing she cannot do herself, she needs him for; and the price he asks isn’t so much, is it? His grip is stronger and he shakes her, hard. She’s not fighting him so much as fighting the knowledge that she does need his help, that she is responsible for his soul, and that for the price of freeing, of stealing back her Barossa war-face, her most beloved mask, she is willing to risk her life and his. He asks for freedom, and she’s not sure she’s strong enough to refuse…–

Early morning comes, before the heat of the day sets in over the city. It’s only at this time that my feet will lead me back home, to shuffle painfully out of heavy brocades and into light summery chemises, to wash away the night before I return to the garden and the pool and the oppressive heat of summer.

–“…A reward has been offered for the return of a slave woman, stolen — or absconded– from the house of…” She had waited all the night and well into morning, as the city awoke, for Alesso to arrive with her mask. Whatever had happened, he had failed to get away, which meant he was caught, which meant they knew she had escaped. Disguised, she went along with the market crowds to watch the display they made of him, strung up as an example to others. They might play at being civilized, beyond such things, but when faced with disobedience, there was no looking away from the sight meant to strike fear into the rest of the population. This was a lesson they made sure you would never forget, made sure you would never flirt with breaking tradition. She had never seen a worse death, when it finally came, when the screams and sobs finally faded and one couldn’t be sure what was left could still be called a body. She dared to pray that in the next life he might be born elsewhere. Anywhere but here.–

I dip my legs into the waters and lean back, the grass tickling my ears and neck, and shut my eyes against the sight of

–Alesso suspended above her, his tortured and shredded body hanging, lifeless. And upon his face is her mask, her beloved fox warface, blood soaked. A message of things to come should they find her, if she does not flee right now, and leave her mask behind–

against the sight of all the things I cannot unsee, against all the things left behind. Against the feeling that someone is still watching, and against the dull, glowing coals in my eyes that might burst into flame in the summer heat.