My fears I leave behind

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My knees hit the ground at the same time as the blade does. It bites deep, down my neck, into my shoulder. It burns, like nothing I have ever felt before. Like there is too much pain to be trapped into one spot, so it radiates everywhere. Into my chest, into my shoulder, down my arms. It spreads warmth, washing, gushing over me, down my shirt, like I am drowning in it.

I think of Ysabel. When she died, the knife struck upwards, straight into her skull. Clean and quick and painless. And this blow, downwards and uneven — not as clean, I must have shifted to the side. I don’t want to go. I’m not ready.

***

I can hear Lupo screaming. I know the sound of his voice, when he laughs, when angry, when he barks orders and expects to be followed instantly. He’s an arm’s reach behind me, forcing the line back over where I lay, where the blood spills over the grass and I am trapped and trampled between two opposing sides. His command is so simple, yet amidst the shouting and screaming and dying, I can barely hear it, and it’s not a command for troops, but one for me, only for me–

“TAKE MY HAND–”

My shoulder doesn’t want to work, and my hands are red with blood, slippery. I slip my hand back towards him, as if to simply touch his hands in a blessing, as if reaching out one last time. I don’t know what I expect–so to be yanked so forcefully, dragged through legs and blades and spears, it hurts. And the wound at my neck deepens, and there’s no breath left in my body to scream. It comes out as a meek whisper. A sigh.

***

It doesn’t feel like a battle anymore. It feels like a warm spring day in the middle of Winter’s bite. The fighting is far away, and my brother is at my side, along with this Navarri who is trying to assess the damage to my neck. He’s gentle, and kind, and I am not afraid of him as I normally would be. Even the pain has left, far away where I cannot reach it and it cannot reach me. My thoughts wander, as he presses marrowort in, to slow the bleeding, as he bids me eat some vervain, though I can barely swallow it down.

“It might be close,” he says, “and she may yet live, but she needs surgery NOW.”

I want to know his name. I want to know what striding or steading he is from, and I want to add it to my Reckoning book, as he works so hard to save me. “It might be close,” he says, more for the benefit of those around me than for myself. His eyes are gentle, and I can only smile at him. I know I’m on the threshold.

***

There is a camp, not 100 yards away. A staging post for the Jotun, perhaps, I don’t know. But they argue, discuss amidst the fighting. Can they take it and hold it long enough to save me, to stitch the wound that runs so deep. I have no voice, no say in the discussion; I am a commodity, incapable of self-determination, something to be moved about and fought over. It vexes, but the emotion is halfhearted at best, as I struggle to simply survive. No one asks what I wish, what I would do. I do still have a voice, but no one has the ears to listen to me.

I wish they would listen. I wish Gabriel would honour our banner oath, and I wish Rodrigo would remember that I am a priest of Loyalty still — and that sometimes, sacrifices need be made. Though I want to live, how could I knowing that to save me, others might be injured, hurt, killed? I love them, so truly, so terribly. I wish, just once, they would trust me as a Priest to choose the Virtuous action. Enough of the arguing.

“Someone take me to the standing stones. I will sit, and wait, and survive. I can hold on that long.”

***

The day is beautiful, and I am awestruck by the sight of everything around me. The grass here is so green, I feel like I have never seen the colour before in my life. I am like a child, marvelling at the enormity of the sky, of the shapes of the clouds, of the sun warming my skin, which feels so cold. It is a burst of spring in the middle of winter, warm enough to forget about the chill in the air.

I could so easily lay down, content in this little pocket of Spring, and just let nature wash over me. It seems a monumental task, to hold on, to keep my hand pressed against my throat to stem the bleeding that refuses to stop.

Everything is just so beautiful.

***

I see them coming before any of the others do. The massive column of Jotun reinforcements, that will swarm and overwhelm where the gateway will open, will wash over us all. The first Dawn line is folding already. There are seconds to choose. I don’t even have to think.

“Drop me and go. Fall back to the League troops.” I can see it in people’s eyes, the refusal, the betrayal they think they are performing by even considering doing so. Please let this be the one time someone listens to me.

Frederick is loathe to go; did Rodrigo make him promise to not leave my side? I might have dreamed it. It takes just the slightest raising of my eyebrow before he nods and passes me to Maria. He is a priest of my Virtue, he understands the hard choice. And I am so, so proud of him for it.

Maria leaves me by a tree, as I scream at her to go protect Flora. “Courage is making a hard choice! RUN.” I smile to Flora, who looks alarmed, until she is bundled off by the Order of the Golden Heart. It’s not hard to do, to smile for her. I swore to her, on my Fox ring, that she was family, and always will be family to me. A cousin Barossa. And I remember my banner oath. “With my life,” I whisper contentedly, “I shall keep them safe.”

***

I am not afraid.

The Jotun don’t see me, or if they do, they assume I am for the grave already, instead of one foot in it. More fool them, though I could not lift my weapon to defend myself if they did come.

My options are simple enough, to sit and wait… only, I can see, crushed before the standing stones, a Dawnish Lance. Purple, purple…. Frederick had tried to teach me all the heraldry. Vandale? The rest of Dawn has been pushed back, and if I do not go, no one else will be able to. But I am unlikely to survive the attempt.

A new set of options is before me. And I think, to all the promises I have made to those I love. I will be safe. I will survive. I will come home. My feet are moving towards them before I even realize that I am breaking those oaths. Will they forgive me?

***

“Though all before me is darkness, yet shall Virtue be my guide.” My bloodstained fingers tend them best as I can. I have the herbs, I have one last potion; it is only the trembling of my fingers that slows me down. My neck is bleeding again, with my fingers no longer applying pressure to it.

“I shall not be left to wander the twisting drifts of the Labyrinth.” And there are moments where my vision and my head spins, and an all encompassing blackness starts settling into my vision. I staunch the wounds as quick as I can, breathing shakily, trying to reach over a body to tend to one who is a physick, and can then work in tandem.

“For my brothers and sisters shall find me,” I don’t even know where my family are at the moment. Where is Frederick, is he safe? A heavy weight hits my heart, that so focused on the task to hand, I have forgotten those most important to me, and made a choice that takes me away from them. I whisper to one, stay down until the time is right, protect me if you can for I cannot fight.

“For there is no darkness in the path of Virtue.” My fingers are fumbling through sacks of herbs, until they pass over the potion bottle Gabrielle slipped into my pocket, in case of emergencies. I had forgot it entirely. I douse the contents into the last Knight’s mouth — was I dancing with him only last night?– as fire stems through my arm, cutting deep, down to bone, and a stab into my back follows soon after, before I can think, before I can process. The Jotun came back.

“And nothing we have wrought shall be lost.”

***

The knights are up, fighting fit again, and everything is a flurry around me, and my blood drips down into the ground. I lose track of time, of the movements around me. I don’t know how long I am alone, and how long I have been bleeding for. I don’t know my surroundings, I don’t know the arms that pick me up or the faces around me, and I think I slip into the blackness a couple times, amidst trying to work out whether I am carried by friend or foe, and did I succeed in healing the knights? I don’t remember now.

The air shifts and forms around me anew, as each time before, and I know I have either fallen, or been pulled through the portal back to Anvil. I don’t know who carries me, I don’t know anything anymore, except for the feeling of being slowly, inexorably drained of life and warmth.

***

I am gathered, or poured, into Gabrielle’s arms, and I cling to her sleeves, relieved, as if life is a little clearer when she is near me. They have brought me home. I feel the childish glee of familiar faces and being where I belong again, as I try and cling on to life. Gabrielle’s face is so determined, as she lays me down, supports my neck and immediately starts stitching deep into my throat and shoulder.

My sister is so beautiful. I cannot speak, lest I disturb her working so diligently to save me… though I don’t think I can be saved anymore. And she tries, with her face inches away from mine, she tries so hard, and I let her, patiently, for I think I know.

She feels my pulse, tries to find it, weak and fluttery as my heart beats. I can see the exact moment that she knows, as I think I know. I can see the ground fall from underneath her, can see the panic in her eyes.

All I feel is peace.

***

It is a long walk back to our tent, and I can barely make it. But there are suddenly so many people that I need to talk to, so much to do, and I have so little time to do it — every breath is an effort, and I know if I stop, then I will not start again. Adelina supports me, holds me up, though I am fighting her, trying to do all that needs doing.

She snaps at me. Of course she would, I am fighting her, fighting for …. And suddenly it hits me.

And now I feel it, the terrible drawing away, the finality, the deep, inescapable knowledge that I am leaving, and I will not be back to see them in this life, and that I will break these people if I die. All my calm, my Courage, deserts me.

I whimper, then weep, then cry, as they take me back home; I am hurting others, and I cannot mend it. I am dying, and I cannot stop it. And this is all the mourning I will get, for all that I wanted in life, and all I am leaving undone.

***

Frederick is so silent. There is so much I want to say, but he is silent, still, waiting, as he always did — waiting for me to be ready. I want to hear his voice, I need to hear he forgives me, that he loves me…

There is so much I want to say, and I cannot; now that I am home, I feel cold, I feel distant, I feel drawn away, like water through the fingers. I wish someone would prompt me, anchor me, keep me here longer. I want my family closer, touching me, hugging me, toasting me and the life I lived. I wish someone would sing. I want to die with a song in my heart, not this terrible silence. I want to die in my bed, with the man I love kissing my cheeks and holding me tight, as I drift off to sleep.

My brother holds me. I want to curl up into him like a child, held against bad dreams in the night. I want to tell my Prince that I love her, that she is loved. I want to tell Gabriel that I longed for his praise. I want someone to tell me that I lived a good life. I need to know I was loved.

***

They start reciting the banner oath. The words we lived and died by, in all our lives, and for all our lives to be.

“I have died, and been born again.”

“I have lived a good and Virtuous life.”

“My fears I leave behind…”



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To the Heart

The knock on the door is tentative, but the head that peeks around it is not. She doesn’t bother with words, just waits, head tilted inquisitively on the other woman.

The large tome folds shut with a heavy-sounding thwump, some dull medical treatise that her eyes skim over and dismiss out of hand while the other woman grabs her warm coat, blows out the candle on her desk.

“Food?” Her shrug is indecisive, but she quickly takes the others’ hand and tugs her out of the College.

***

She sticks to street food and vendors, who are eager to keep business as brisk as when the armies were passing through. Each woman picks their favourites, shares a portion, occasionally delves to something new or interesting. The taller looks amongst stalls; points out interesting tokens and trinkets amongst the vendors, while the shorter’s eyes remain wider, observing everything, taking in every detail of her surroundings, but with a hint of something other in her stance, posture, bearing.

The conversation seems from the outside to stall, all one sided. The briar is not silent, per se, but mono-syllabic, short to reply, and few words pass back. But her shoulder frequently brushes against the others; she doesn’t stray very far from her side. The companionship is all that’s needed, for now.

***

There’s a street theatre that catches their eye, and they find a good vantage point to watch, hot drinks spiked with warming alcohol cradled in their hands. The drinks help to warm more than just chilled fingers, and slowly, more words are exchanged.

“I think I saw this last winter.”

“They’re not very good.”

They lean back and watch the middling performance, with only a couple more snide remarks between them.

***

She shoulders her way through the crowd, returns with a bottle in each hand to the comfortable corner they claim in the packed taverna, as night settled over Regario and bodies moved indoors to avoid the chill.

“There’s mulled red, or mulled red.”

“Not much left tonight, the armies have drank most places dry of the good stuff.”

“And the better stuff that remains is three times the price. Which I am not willing to pay. What were we talking about again?” One falls into the seat heavily, pulls the loosened cork from the mouth of the first bottle with her teeth, and makes a game of balancing it on the brim of an unknowing bravo’s ridiculously-oversized hat the next table over.

“Did Lord Frederick rejoin the Wolves again?” A quick nod. “How come you didn’t go too?”

“Didn’t feel like it.” The briar takes a long swig from the bottle, a hitch of hesitance in her expression as she swallows, debating whether to speak again. “I… thought some space would be good.”

A clatter of a broken bottle sounds behind them, and they shift their seats to better watch the brawl that clearly looked about to kick off over the price of liquor.

***

“It’s not that I am–” she ducks as a chair leg flies over her head.

“–regretting anything–” she rights herself, and the taller woman deflects a punch that would have hit her companion squarely, pushes the mountebank back into another cluster of fighters.

“–but I just haven’t ever been in this situation before!” They take a quick breather and a swig of their last bottle before it joins the other flying projectiles, momentarily enjoying the respite as the brawl perpetrators fight amongst themselves.

“I thought you and Ysabel–” the briar suddenly springs forward, kicking out at legs that get too close.

“No, wasn’t true. I cared, but it was still–” a lucky punch gets her in the stomach, and she reels back, doubles over, but not before her knee drives home a retaliatory blow, “–business. Friendship.”

“So…” Before another blow is dealt a bottle swings, clattering over a bravo’s head before a foot pushes the body back against one of the remaining intact tables. “So maybe I should have asked this first, but… Is this the first time you’ve been in love?” Her hands grab the winded woman and pull her from the fray.

There is a quick nod, as eyes meet to judge whether she is about to be teased. Their attention returns to the fight around them, a gesture pointing out that the first knife has just been pulled in this brawl.

“Time to go?”

“Nah, we got this.”

***

Back at the College, they each help the other back to Gabrielle’s office, as one readies a bowl of pure water and the other goes for the bandages and antiseptic spirits.

Vitoria climbs gingerly onto a cot, curls up with the bowl beside her, holding her side tightly. Gabrielle, with a basket of bandages and linens, sits down beside her, a vivid purple stain blossoming on her cheek as each begin cleaning and tending their injuries.

“So what’s the real problem?” She passes a gauze pad to Vitoria, who dips it in the water, holds it to her abraded cheek.

“I’ve only ever been a cicisbeOWWW!” She winces and scoots away, batting Gabrielle’s fingers away from the shallow stab wound in her side when she gets too near, trying to remove her shirt from the clotted edges.

“I have to look at it.” She thinks carefully, checks her wording. “May I?” Vitoria frowns, grumbles under her breath, then stills for Gabrielle to get near, too tired to fight. “‘You have only been a cicisbeo’…” she waited, prompting gently, finally after so many hours getting to the heart of what was bothering Vitoria.

“I’m afraid.”

“Why?”

“I don’t know what to do when it’s not pretend.”

E16 2016 – Prompts

Prompts from Empire 16 – Autumn Equinox.


Rose 

I am holding the rose, twisting its stem delicately between my fingers, as the sudden weight of the night curse weighs down my shoulders, presses me to my knees and my body into the ground with the weight of every emotion, ALL EMOTIONS. My rings burn on my fingers, my mask falls from my face– is there any clearer omen?– and the rose in my fingers blooms from its tight bud to the largest rose I’ve ever seen.

And then suddenly I am laughing, for the weight of the world is gone, and I am suddenly freed from everything, anything. A million and one paths extend forward, and I am truly free to choose where my feet shall go from this moment onwards. And I know where I am going. Perhaps I’ve always known. Perhaps this is a new path. All I know is that I must make a start down it now, before anyone tries to stop me or make me doubt. Without a mask to hide behind, without my rings to remind me, I am free — I remember them, and their loyalties, but I am not constrained by them. I laugh, I then want to cry, I grin and know exactly where I am headed, what I am going to do and no person can stop me, derail me or deny me.

I hold the rose between my fingers. I giggle as a thorn on its stem cuts deep into my finger. I smile as the hallow in my ears gently whispers all the tenets of Loyalty.

The path is before me, and I am free to choose, and I am set upon it.

What happened to my heart 

It had begun when she left Lord Frederick in the Barrens, to rush back to Tassato and to service and to armies that needed her. The longing, the missing a part of her heart, the sensation that she was being pulled in two directions by two Loyalties. She had started to wonder, ‘is this Love, that so many speak about? Is this causing my heart to flutter when I think of him?’

It started to become more pronounced when they set off for Anvil, the racing pulse, the skipped heartbeats whenever she thought of him, of that Loyalty, of all the things she could do, should do, must do, to make it right, to decide, to take action. ‘I’m going to see him soon. Soon.’

It continues, happening again and again; the breathlessness, the halted pause, the missed heartbeat that holds just a moment longer, the chill in her heart before it beats again. But she had spoken to so many, and they’d always assured her that ‘well, yes, if it is love that you are feeling, your heart can feel as though it skips a beat.’

It’s getting dark now, as she braves the party her family is shunning to try and find Lord Frederick. She can’t find her family –or any physick she trusts– to help, to reassure her but to do it quietly because she’s starting to get worried, as every missed beat is now taking longer and longer to resume, because it’s making her dizzy and it’s starting to hurt.

It’s a difficult thing to say, to go up to Lord Frederick and ask for help. It’s even more regrettable, once it’s done and others are just assuming that when he takes her off to one side, sits her down, it’s for amorous purposes and there are shouts for a chaperone that are just riling her up and making her regret her plea for help. But when she tries to stand she’s dizzy, her heart slows to a standstill, and despite her anger and frustration at being vulnerable giving her bursts of fuel for the fires, it hurts.

But her heart stops, when a razor thin spike is pulled from a surgeon’s kit and they’re trying to hold her down, pin her in place, and stab her in the chest as if it were the most normal thing to do in Anvil on a Friday night, and all she can do is try to fight them off and flee, and not even Frederick on one side and Robbie on the other can calm her down.

“THERE’S A WHAT IN MY HEART???”

I would go with you

Just when I think I can catch my breath, I lose it.

It happened the same when Felice died. We had broken our curse, we were happy Foxes in the rain, heading off to battle with the surety that we could do anything, that we could survive anything. So when she died the next day, I was broken. I was broken for a year.

I’m losing myself, in this curse. There is no time to catch my breath.

It happened when you died, Robbie. I had been cursed, with the most extreme form of emotions and chaos and energy there is in the Empire. But I was happy, driven to chase after the one thing I wanted with all my heart –you taught me to go for it– and I got it. I was so happy; I don’t think I got to tell you how happy I was. Am. But… but I should have been by your side, and you would be smiling and laughing still, and there wouldn’t be this heartbreak. You are so, so still.

I haven’t caught my breath since.

I try to carry on. I try to direct the driving force of this curse with the knowledge that if I don’t chase my own happiness now, I will die before I know what it feels like. So I carry on, best I can, losing myself to the flurry of emotions I feel. Because if I race after a moment of joy and love, maybe sorrow won’t catch me. So here I sit, beside the man I love, listening to conversation and joy and music.

But it only last until the first reminder of you, and your smile, and your energy, and your joy. They sing, ‘I could never go with you, no matter how I wanted to,’ and the wind is knocked from me, and sorrow catches up to me again, and I’m fleeing from the sudden turn of emotion.

Who will teach me to breathe now that you’re gone?

Chimes of the Chorus

The gentle chimes surround me with their chorus, singing out of the folds of my dress. They sing for my friends now gone, they sing out the invisible chains that will lead my soul to the right path, to future lives with beloved family. I hear their ringing in my ears wherever I go, but in this space, in our space, that I keep pure as a shrine to the Loyalty of my family? It is the most beautiful music of the soul.

So when I stand, suddenly, when I hear the melodious music shift and change to another key, a discordant key, Frederick halts the conversation. “Vitória, is something–”

“It’s all… It’s wrong. Don’t you feel it, in your soul? This is NOT Loyalty.” Everything else is forgotten; The Chorus screams a warning in my soul, at the invasion, at the severed link. “Frederick, they’ve changed it somehow, CHANGED IT–this is a space for Loyalty, not…”

He closes his eyes, feeling and listening, and he bristles with outrage. “Not chance… Not Luck.” He spits the word as a curse, his eyes hardening, his fists clenched ready to lash out.

We pull back the tent door to fix this and I am stopped dead by Gabrielle who stands at the doorway with thunder in her expression. In her hands, the joke that will never be funny; in her eyes a Reckoning debt is being tallied. From the tent, a dead fox carcass hangs.

I cannot hear the Chorus of Loyalty any more.

Embrace

I haven’t even truly spoken to my family, let alone his, for plans are beyond me, everything beyond me but the emotions and the feelings, all amplified. I am living in the minute, the moment, the now. What use in making plans when in a moment I might laugh, or cry, or fight, and then be swept away in the storm?

I’m in pain, and I hurt, and I’m on the knife edge when she approaches. There are no plans to guide me, and I don’t know what to do, to say, I don’t know what Eleanor knows, and suddenly everything hinges on this moment, this minute: I’m in too much pain to–

And then she wraps her arms around me, and a new minute begins. A fresh minute.

I will talk to her soon. When plans can be formed. Maybe… Maybe she’ll even help me. But in this moment, this minute, this hug is all I didn’t know I needed.

The gentle nudge of Courage

You are the one person who knows my secret, who knows my truest desire. You held the mirror as I looked deep inside, you could see reflected in my eyes just what my life is lacking, what I crave above all things. How odd, that you are the only person I could trust with that knowledge.

You gave advice you knew I would not follow. That, in a rebellious state, I would disregard your instructions, and be happier for it, would prove my Loyalty stronger than the effects of a mere curse, and my Courage stronger for taking the harder path.

You set me a challenge, a dare: you knew I would take you up on it, didn’t you? And in doing so, I would once again earn the one thing I desire above all, but this time you could provide it. And that when I fulfilled your task, it would be with the eyes of those I need to impress in future upon me.

You are the best priest I know; fools, all those who dismiss you, who cannot see you as you are, and who don’t realise that sometimes you just have to show someone the window and with the right words, they’ll throw themselves out of it.

 

E13 2016 – Prompts

Prompts from E13 Winter Solstice event.


Of Prosperity: The Opera of the Virtuous Beggar

She blinks. When she opens her eyes the stage lies before her, she can hear the rapturous applause from a packed house. She steps onto the stage, not knowing the lines, but it’s okay because she does know them, knows them by heart, the role she’s always dreamed of playing, always told herself, next season, we’ll perform that opera.

She feels a brief moment of ire when she looks at Benedict, being held back and distracted by Anguila. At what point do you call in the militia to report art being murdered? No, Benedict is not right for the role. Now Gabriel would be, would take to it shiningly and together, they could bring down the house, bouncing off each other as only two actors who genuinely had a rapport could when on the stage. Wherever is he? We should discuss…

The others are distracted by Benedict, and Mendicante slips past them all, continuing the play as the audience deserves. She moves to the next scene, slipping behind the set pieces and off stage for a brief pause. Andrea is waiting in the wings, and so is Tess.

Backstage, Vitória breathes, and then speaks. Her voice is pensive, curious, her own– “Help.” — and then is ultimately lost as the opera resumes. The stolen key must be passed on, the audience must know how important it was to the story, how important it is to her! They must be made to be Prosperous!

Now, it is her cue, she’s due back on stage, and they’re holding her back. Why don’t they see? This is the role I’ve wanted, push me forward, let me go!

Gabrielle is here now, watching, directing, the stage manager observing from the wings, disapproving. Voices raise, new stage directions given.

She blinks, struggling to remember the role she was playing — Who am I? Is the play over? Where is Gabriel?– and follows the director’s new commands. The play is changing. Gabrielle has stepped onto the stage now, and Julia grinds her teeth and follows her directions.

Gifts

At her side is a silk beaded pouch, laden with the words she wants to say but cannot. As Vitória’s fingers take one out, she decides whether she is likely to find the recipient in the immediate area, and then replaces it. There are so many, each one a word she cannot find the time to say; each word felt deeply, truly.

She has a long way to go before her gifts reach their recipients. She is tired of ‘cannot’. She will say these words before the end of the night.

Similarities

The words never stop, idea to idea so quickly that for anyone else it might be difficult to follow the trail of erratic thoughts.

I can relate to this, but there’s not a pause in which I can speak of it. And for a change, I don’t need to.

I’ve seen this in clients before, seen when a bishop or merchant comes to me, distraught and vexed by the day, and they simply need to rant or ramble away the day’s events. Like slowly pouring out the contents of a water jug, I encourage her to ramble, until her vessel is lighter for the unburdening. I am merely there to listen, to stroke the skin gently, and ask questions to encourage the mind to continue processing its own problems.

Nora’s hands were cold and her brow creased, when I arrived. When she leaves the tent, she seems warmer and lighter for the talking.

This, I will not charge for. It is nice to provide for another, gratis, what one desperately needs oneself.

Marriage Proposal

Small ticks. Nervousness in stance. Tension in the shoulders and neck. The striving to remain polite and courteous when one has nothing to say, but still the edge of vigilance in all he does. The wariness that does not go, because now there is something unfamiliar between them, and he is still deciding how to react to her.

‘I am an unknown, more now than before. This is a battleground he is not familiar with.’

If she had any more tears tonight, she would weep for it. Instead, she smiles, and tries to laugh as a fellow soldier would, like how it used to be. But still, in the rear of her mind, she feels like an enemy to him, and not a prospective match.

Knife of No Effect

She loves the different reactions everyone seems to have when the knife slips into their hands. The difference it makes, the conversations that happen that otherwise wouldn’t.  

She makes note of those who resist its effects; there’s something she inherently dislikes, distrusts, about those who cannot be direct to her. It at least tells her who to hide herself from.

But the rest? They provide endless entertainment. She’ll be sad when the magic fades– it will mean going back to subterfuge and cunning wordplay and her head and heart simply aren’t in it anymore.

RODRIGO!

The cry is desperate, manic; a voice she’s heard say the name in so many different ways — playful, exasperated, laughingly, solemn– but never with such an edge to it. Vitória’s eyes just manage to see Lupo rushing forward, but the body he drags back, struggling, fighting him off, is not her brother, but his wife. Gabrielle kicks at him, tries to push him away but Lupo’s arms are stronger.

The sight tells her all the information she needs to know about the danger her brother is in, and Vitória is acting before thinking. She is infinitely grateful to Lupo for pulling Gabrielle back from danger, for doing the right thing. It makes it so much easier for her to do the wrong thing.

She tells Gabriel what has happened, passes the banner into Sarietti’s hands, and dashes off to get her brother back.

Pain

She knows they came with five.
She knows that she has to follow Gabriel, because if she doesn’t then how will anyone know where he is–
Only she doesn’t have the banner anymore. So how will they find him?

Her ears ring, and her vision is spinning, and one hand is empty so that means she’s lost the banner.
Gabrielle’s voice is loud, too loud, angry with her. And Sarietti and Cicero’s hands won’t let her go.

They came with five, but four are running off.
They’re leaving her behind because she failed.
She can taste blood in her mouth.
She knows how fast a fox runs, but with hands holding her back how will she ever catch up to them?

Cicero looks at her with pitying eyes.
Sarietti tells her they will return–
She remembers a time when she believed the same.
Her mind can’t handle being left behind. They might never come back to look for her.
Something snaps.

The marrowort is making her confused, and she adds a dose of Liao to fight the fear that she will never see them again.

She knows they came with five.
They must leave with five.

If she can catch up to them.

Beloved Mountebank

She knows the moment they emerge from the hospital, and her heart skips a beat.

She just knows.

Her feet bring her to Felix’s Watch, where she sees she’s too late, where no words can offer comfort to those surrounding Faustino. Her feet step forward.

Her voice is more hesitant than she wants it to sound, when she offers words of comfort for his soul to take with him; she wants to do this for him, she’s afraid of being turned down. But her voice speaks nonetheless.

Her words explain how it is done, as she tries to comfort Virtue. It is not like trying to comfort Serena, and feeling like she’s not wanted there. Virtue lets her in, they choose the words together.

Her hand brings Virtue close, and Virtue’s hand is warm. She says the words without thought, with no memory, just straight from soul to soul. Faustino’s cheek is growing cold.

She smiles, remembers the card tricks he was showing a Highborn child, just outside this tent, how the cards danced in the air, and the child laughed. “He’s very good,” Gideon had said. She had agreed. His smile was the brightest thing she knew.

They take him away, and she is left alone. She runs.

Blood

Her thoughts drip slowly like blood from a wound. Words die in her throat because her broken jaw is too sore to move. What words she can scrape out serve only to briefly reassure those who bug her, perfunctory speech and platitudes, hiding the true thoughts she can’t express.

It is easier to hide from people; she doesn’t have any more energy to waste on them. It is too painful to think beyond ‘Sit. Stand. Smile. Nod.’ All she wants to do is hide in the Fox tent, and scream, but she did enough screaming at the hospital. It would probably upset Serena — Serena, who sits across from her, and is silent and still.

‘Serena doesn’t want your comfort.’ Her head shouts at her, because the Jotun have cracked it so thoroughly that her thoughts can only scream, running thickly like blood from a wound. ‘She has others for that.’ But her cousin’s stillness is just so– so still, so opposite from Vitória’s constant movement. It’s nothing, and something, and it’s wrong.

Vitória stands, towel in her hand, knowing she has to do something– so she wets it to wipe the blood from Serena’s cheek, her neck, her nose. She’s not got words, because she’s given up on them. Knows how futile they are, has lost faith with trying because to be rejected again would be more than she could bear. She doesn’t want to talk. Blood still drips.

Gently she wipes the blood away, trying to restore something that is lost. Words would bounce off Serena’s walls. Blood lasts longer than words.

She wets the towel again and continues, and she’s not sure exactly why. Soon there’s hardly any blood left, but even a Physick can’t tell if this wound will heal. But she did something about the blood in the wound.

A Banner Lost

“It’s just a banner, we can always get another.” The words are quick to try and console but she can’t shake the sensation that those that are trying to comfort her just don’t understand what it means to her, that it was now gone.

The ring on her finger seems duller now. It used to shine with the colours of Catia’s woven silks. But the flashes of orange and green are not the same now. She can’t tell whether it’s psychosomatic or not, but her finger feels cold, naked, like she cannot tell whether the ring is there or not. A flick of her wrist and the ring could fall away from her. That’s what the Jotun will do, isn’t it? Send curses through the banner to strike everyone sworn to it. Is she truly worthy to wear a ring to the banner, knowing how she’s failed everyone who had ever recited the words, Steel and Virtue?

She can’t help but feel judged for her failure, like eyes which were once warm and friendly are colder, unwelcoming, unfriendly. ‘It’s just an item,’ she repeats like a mantra, but cannot help but feel that once an item becomes a symbol, an idea made manifest with magic and oaths and blood, it can’t ever go back to just being ‘a stick with a flag’.

Inside the Storm

“I dreamt I was sailing on a ship all the night.”

“Oh, did you?” Vitoria’s hands become sweaty, so she pulls the bedding closer around her body. “Must have been the sound of the canvas in the wind.”

“It does sound like sails, doesn’t it?” Yes, it does. There’s nothing else she could try and equate the sound to, to trick or distract her mind from the sound the wind still makes as it batters against the canvas.

“You were not storm tossed in your dream?” Vitoria is glad that she’s hidden from sight, still aching from curling too tightly into a ball to hide from the choppy seas and the gales of her nightmares.

“No, not at all, it was a pleasant voyage and the sun was shining.”

“How wonderful for you.” Her hand fishes under the pillow for a mirror, but even her eyes aren’t ready for the mess that remains of the right side of her face. She gingerly prods the new bark and angry veins, the black eye and the deep purples, blues and reds that snake down her jawline, still puffy and swollen. Nobody needs to see this.

“Are you coming to breakfast?” Adelina asks.

“No, I think I’ll try and sleep some more.”

After the Ball

After the Pledge Ball, the first player event in which Vitória made her debut.

Just. Ask.

My dress lies across my lap, surprisingly clean and fuss free, save for a bit of blood trimming the skirt. I can’t remember whose.

Every one has retreated to the College for medical ministrations. Compared to the others I must look relatively unharmed, save for a graze on my knuckle which stings a little, and I know there is a scratch across my cheek. Just dodged the punch, but the ring on the Mestran’s hand was another thing entirely.

Gabrielle tends to the others one at a time; she is diligent, and very good at what she does, and the injuries I sustained — the real injuries– aren’t ones to be mended here. Don’t look at me, don’t look at me, I beg, hoping she’ll pass me over. When it becomes my turn, the mask is up instantly, though it hurts to wear.

“Check over the others, I’m in no rush.” I force my face into an amused smile, hoping it looks cheeky. “I think Bo might fall asleep on you at any moment.” Gabrielle acquiesces and moves on; I cannot tell how good the performance is.

I force my hands into action, dabbing and dotting out the blood on my dress. It buys me time to think, though I can’t keep my fingers, cold as ice, from shaking. The adrenaline of the fight isn’t fading, and I wish I could just make excuses and run.

It takes an age before Rodrigo’s friends, bandaged and bruised, head off to their residences. I offer to escort Felice home; I can’t tell whether she leans on me, or I on her. If I am going to do it, I’d best do it now.

“Gabrielle, won’t you come round to lunch tomorrow?” My voice rings quiet in the nearly empty room. “It would be nice to have a chat.” I need someone to keep my thoughts and secrets inside my head. I hope its you.

After-Dance

Felice seemed to have forgotten how to resume her civil mask, leaving the college. The terracotta was torn open over the shoulder, her shirt bloodstained, and the velvet under-dress had been swung over one shoulder and held there by the hand gripping her rapier. Silly butterfly hadn’t thought to bring a sword belt with her Ball clothes, nor her acting ones, and there was no telling how much of the blood had ended up wiped onto the velvet.

She had slipped an arm around Vitória’s waist, clinging and sleepy, synchronising her step so that the noticeable limp would not impede them. A hummed strain of “If the bravo were brave…” slips from her, right by her cousin’s ear.

“It’s stuck in your head, too?”

A flashed grin – the fangs are starting to extend a little again. “Sooo much. I think Virtue did that more for us than for the audience. We’re never going to be able to forget it or her!”

“I reserve my judgement, still. Gabriel certainly didn’t let her get very far from his side.” She chuckles softly, pausing to tighten her arm around Felice’s waist. The naga gratefully leaned a little more weight on her.

“She certainly seemed to approve.” A smug little laugh from lips with no trace of their evenings paint but at least a half decent puffiness from catching a punch. “I wonder, does he intend to do anything about that? Maybe Serena can get him to talk about it…”

“I imagine he’ll remain tight-lipped about it. Unless he gets a head wound.” She pauses, and grins, “I am not in ANY way suggesting we give him a head wound in order to talk about his love life.”

The cousins grins match briefly. “Spoilsport.” She sighs. “Gabrielle’s told me not to pry into it too much. Mother never stops going on about it, and I’m to invite Virtue over for tea sometime…”

“Speaking of, come over to mine one night. There’s too much–” She pauses, stumbles, then straightens her back. “There’s much I need to be brought up to speed on. I’ll open up the GOOD alcohol, and we can gossip and preen and you can tell me about who you want to… duel, with.”

Felice lends more of her own strength as she straightens, then leans her own head against her cousins golden one. “I’d love that. It’s…been interesting, being back here. Let’s catch up soon, please.” The last word has the weight to it, no more flitting with childlike joy or irritation or any of her pretences, just an honest feeling of family.

Vitória turns her head against Felice’s, her eyes meeting and mirroring the sentiments. “Have we been away too long?”

A hitch of a smile shows the truth of her question. “You know, I think we might have.” An adult gaze from under a youngster’s fringe, a bravo’s blood on the actor’s face as a real smile steals onto it. “Tassato is going to get quite a shock, dontcha think?”

A quirk of a smile graces Vitória’s lips. “I won’t be happy unless we end up with a full page news article in the Pledge… or giving Uncle Gabriel a few more grey hairs.” She pulled her cheek away from Felice’s, feeling the sticky pull of blood now smeared into her hair. She giggles as she wipes her cheek. “I shall also settle for falling madly in love.”

“Oh nooo. Not you too,” Felice groans, doing a fair approximation of Uncle Mondragone. “Why is it always MADLY? Why never slowly, quietly, not-going-to-throw-furniture-in-the-river in love?” She huffs, sending her fringe up – where half of it catches on the blood on her forehead, sticking in a way she was going to be mortified to see. “Although that is probably a good way to have Gabriel grey – and get your full page! Hmm, maybe we should set something artistic up…see anyone you might like to play with last night?”

Her face tries to remain steady, secretive, but a moment later it breaks out into loud laughter, her eyes glittering. “If I tell you now, what will we have to gossip over later? No, I didn’t meet very many from the League cities, but there are some thoughts I’ll be glad to tell you of, later on, about some other citizens of the Empire. TALL citizens, too, which is always a bonus.”

An appreciate hum from her cousin, with a smile for the laughter. “I’ll be very glad to hear of them! I met a few interesting types in Sarvos myself. The ones Uncle Gabriel definitely wouldn’t approve of. Oh, we’re going to have to talk ourselves hoarse. Tomorrow night, maybe?”

“I’ll make sure we can get comfortable and pamper ourselves.” She nods, turning a corner to more familiar streets. “You’d best get changed and hurry off to Adelina’s. Won’t do to let her see you in such a state. She’ll deny you dress-up privileges and access to her closet. Even I’d best hurry off.” Her tone was distinctly disappointed, and her arm around Felice’s waist tightened, hugging her, lingering in the proximity.

The hug was returned with equal strength and Felice kissed her cousin’s cheek, reluctantly moving into the lane to Espelho’s place. “One time she tells me off with that, and I’m never going to be allowed to forget it!” she said with a laugh, but her eyes held something of the same disappointment. As though the mask for the day, for the streets and shops and the business of living back in Tassato wasn’t wanted, not quite yet. Only her cousin could see that though, before she breathed in to assume it again, turned with a cheery wave and strolled down to the first of her morning’s stops, carefully calculating her pace to avoid admitting to the limp.

She did turn back after a step or two, to stick her tongue out. “See you later, cousin.”

Before her own mask shifted back into place, Vitória whispered with a graceful curtsey, “Thank you for the dance.”