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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The dream that comes unbidden

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All it takes is one breath…
One in–

She opens her eyes, sleepily, memoryless, in the early hours of the winter morn. Her bed is so warm, and she is weightless in the soft sheets. She turns into the cool side of the pillow, feels the bed shift and a warm body press against her back, hold her close, hold her tight.

“It is too soon,” the husky murmur in her ear. (There are hidden emotions in the cracking of the voice.) “Don’t go yet.”

She feels her body moving autonomously, waking, pulled towards the dawn that she can see coming through the window.

A strong arm shifts her, pulls closed the curtains to their bed, takes her hands and won’t let go.

“It’s morning, love. Time to wake up.” (She says these words but heavy in her, hidden deep, is the knowledge that all is reversed, that the meaning is wrong.)

“Just a little more time,” the voice murmurs against her cheek.

“There is so much to do. Shouldn’t we rise and face the day?”

“I don’t want you to go. I’m afraid.”

She rolls over then, curls into a body that clings to her, feels the warmth against her cold cheek (the bed is so warm, why is her cheek so cold?)

“We travel on, towards a new beginning,” she singsongs sleepily, but feels the pull of the dawn outside. She leans up, plants kisses (has this ever happened? Will it ever happen?) on the warm lips, the salty cheeks and wet eyelids of her bedmate.

“We slip away, and we are unafraid.” She slips out of the bedding, curtain pushed aside, and goes to the window. The first rays of morning are about to crest the horizon. (The Chorus around the bed is reciting, “MY FEARS I LEAVE BEHIND,”)

–and one out.
All it takes is one breath.

Swearing

A spot of guest writing from my friend J, which I loved too much to not post (with his permission!)


 

Regario, a long time ago…

“So wait,” Arao said, looking puzzled, “what’s your thoughts on Loyalty, then? Why would people think they were bad?”

There was a moment of silence. Tori put down the fruit she’d been eating, and looked like she was searching for words. Then, as they came to her, her face filled with a dark determination.

“Arao, if you want to know, I need you to promise, no. I need you to SWEAR you’ll never tell anyone.” Her words were quiet, but the intensity was deafening.

Arao stopped for a second, taken aback. He’d never seen Tori like this before. Serious, sure, especially when it came to family. But this was new, and it scared him.

But Tori was the closest thing he had to family, and the only person who’d ever cared about him. He trusted her implicitly. How could he say no?

He held out his hand.

“I swear.”

Autumn Leaves

She was in a sullen mood, as the last leaves fell from the trees around her, as her side ached from the stab wound of the night before and bark itched as it grew amidst Gabrielle’s neat sutures. She should head back home, sobriety approaching, yet still she sat on the Bridge and watched the people pass her by.

She watched a cicisbeo tuck his hand into the muff of his patron, smiling as they walked along the street. He turned his head in at a slight tilt, to better hear the story his Prince patron told. It was subtle, edging closer to him; subliminal, an ‘I am interested in your words; tell me more,’  said entirely in body language.

‘That once was me. I was a good listener.’ Severin had told her, assured her, ‘people want to open up to you, Vitoria’ so it must be true. Yet even despite that assurance, there was the voice in the back of her mind that could not help but pipe up. ‘Was. All in the past now. You quit that life, eh?’

She watched them pass, like the last of the autumn leaves that caught in the wind and blew down the street. She pushed off from the bridge, moving and twining her way along cobbled lanes and market stalls.

They were everywhere, today, in Regario. Cicisbei were easy to pick out, if you knew how to look; one assisting her patron with some fashionable shopping, another seated at a table, fingers caressing the outline of a blade hidden under their cloak, bodyguarding the adjacent table. Still more as she walked, flirting with the bravos, glances and blushes perfectly timed to allure and draw them in, eyes quick to measure wealth through tailoring and garments.

‘This used to be me. This used to be my life.’

She had thought it was the best solution to progress towards marriage, but it cut deeper than she had realized to tear herself, however willingly, from her former profession. ‘Look at them, their feigned intimacy, their flirtations and amours and trysts. Will I never have that again, so easily bestowed?’

She looked longingly at them as they passed, as she carried along the market roads. It might be fake intimacy and false coin, but at least it was a form of intimacy. She had not guessed that, trained so long and so well in the intimate arts for business’ sake, the real thing –unpaid, unfeigned– would frighten her so. I can’t do it… Simply cannot. It was easy, for hire, for coin. How do I feel it for real?

Now there is a face who longs for some company,” a silken voice whispered along her neck when she stopped at the next square, leaned over the stone wall at the canal below.

She didn’t look up at the exquisite mask, gilded with seasonal maple leaves. A flicker of orange at her feet told her that the cicisbeo’s dress would match the mask’s colouring. “The nicest autumn day and all of Regario is out, yet yours is the only face frowning. Why are you upset, my dove?”

Vitoria pressed her palms against the cold stone, stood up straighter, but would not allow her eyes to meet the ladies’. “I long for something.”

“Might I be able to provide it?”

She turned, looked at the beautifully painted and gilded mask; Vitoria pressed a kiss to her own fingertip, softly, slowly, a simple action meant to draw in a patron’s gaze, capture it.

“I could not afford you, Estella Detriti,” and Vitoria brought her finger up to press against the china-painted lips of the mask, “and you could not afford me, and we both would know it for false coin when only real would suffice.”

Vitoria left her then, knowing that her cant was understood amongst any Regarian Cicisbei. ‘I am lost amongst the false coin. I forget what true gold is worth.’

The autumn leaves fluttered, then crunched underfoot. She walked home, to try again and open her heart to the man she loved.

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.”

Manipulations Backstage

She liked spending time in the playhouse when she needed to hide.

She would curl up in the wings in a pile of pillows and cushions, and watch the rehearsals, give her two rings to the cause and help with scripts, stage prompts and dress rehearsals. Much cheaper than going to a ready performance.

It wasn’t long before the troupe began using her for other things, though.

The first day, they needed her to show facial expressions, body movement, stage reactions. She could help out, it was simple, low effort, didn’t disrupt her overly. “Vitória, d’you think the lead should be upstage centre or downstage left for the reveal?”

The second, Lorenzo wanted help with characterization; he came to her frustrated, unsure of his Couros character. She read quickly over the script prompts, tossed it aside, and said the first thing that came to mind. “Play it this way. The Captain is cursed. He’s been manipulated by the Witch.” The troupe agreed that it would be a controversial direction to take the play, a fresh approach, and they dove into rewrites.

By the third day it became usual for the apprentices to come to her, “Tori, Tori, can you show us how to be sad? How about angry?” And they had had schooling. Carlita was a night mage, she had given them a crib sheet, barely concealed in a student’s palm, of how to phrase the question so that Vitória would not be curse-bound to rebel– or would rebel in the way they wanted.

After the third day, she had noticed the manipulations. How they would ask about Roberto to get her to cry, heaping sobs and heavy tears that fell just so, perfect to portray heartbreak. How bringing up boats got her thinking about Asavea, and she’d twist her fingers and fret, gaze looking behind her in just such an ideal way for an Apprentice character’s fearful motions. As if the manipulation itself wasn’t bad enough, she could not abide their imitations and mimicry of her justly-felt emotions.

The next time they came to find her, they instead found all the cursed masks on the stage, each and every one taken from their resting places in storage, each dressed and tied on a mannequin, posed across the stage in a startling rendition of a scene from ‘the Butcher Carravagio’. Each one artfully portraying an emotion they had asked of her, manipulated her into.

She heard that it took them 8 days to put the masks back into the Vaults, all the costumes and props back where they belonged. They did not come to her again for help on portraying emotions, and she avoided the playhouse for the rest of the season.

Brie

Her family would kill her.

Mondragone would rail and Tiargo would despair and Falena would rap her knuckles with a fan, and much worse; there would be threats and the very likelihood of her ending up in the Canal by the end of the night, especially if Mondragone was caught up in his ‘muse.’

Rodrigo and Gabrielle, he would roll his eyes and she would sigh, but at least amongst them she would mostly survive.

Civetta, it would end in a fistfight. It would be over in an instant and she would lose, and then wake from unconsciousness in a part of the Mestra she’d never been in, probably naked and with two rings to her name to get home. (It costs three to cross the river.)

Adelina would tut, Anguila would screech, and there would be a long lecture on the impropriety of nosing the Brie, the same one she had heard since she was little, since they were all little. Adelina would tell someone at a very inopportune time, and let others chastise her. Anguila would just be sad she hadn’t gotten there first to annoy her father.

Gabriel… He would probably miss the whole thing and come in late to hear about it, a million things on his mind and barely listening to the little things. He would be told, react, promptly forget it, and then be surprised when the story is retold later on. She’d be chastised twice.

Serena. And Felice and Robbie if they were still here… They would all have colluded with her to do it. Robbie would not have cared one jot, egged her on, or raced her to make off with the entire slice of Brie. Felice would have instantly made a tiny flag to put in the cheese from paper and a toothpick, stating who was responsible for the dastardly deed, ratting her out because the chaos would amuse her. Serena, she’d have stayed aloof, out of trouble, perhaps have caused the distraction that enabled her to escape, all the while thinking about how to frame the scene for a stage adaptation of this social drama-slash-comedy.

She looks at the melon baller in her hand, thinking of Robbie. It hurts her, and she can only run from the pain like she’s running from all her sorrows. “For Robbie, who would have done it already.”

A whole wheel. Yes, they would kill her for a whole wheel of Brie. But none of them are here.

Observations on Madness

She was only here for observation. She was only here for observation.

That was the official tagline and the mental lifeline that she clung to in this place. ‘You’ll be undercover as a patient at the Spire. Keep an eye out. Watch and observe. You’ll get closer than most to all the staff, access to the grounds and patients.”

Only it wasn’t that simple.

“When the curse wears off, you will be changed by it; you’ll never go back to who and what you were.”

She would leave each meeting with her assigned Doctor, and rush back to her room, barricade the door with a chair and just sit and pray for the Courage to remain, do her duty. But soon that became predictable, and they would follow to continue observing her. She soon varied her hiding places, always moving, never again predictable.

“The normal everyday control of impulses and emotions will have to be managed by others.”

It was slowing down whatever progress the staff hoped to make with her. But they were always looking for her, so she stopped trying to sleep after the first patient since her arrival disappeared. Since she first snuck into the records room to check the patient lists and noticed the faint markings of altered records. Since the first night she saw the strange lights by the regio.

“You are describing symptoms of hallucinations and mirages. Can you truly trust what you believe you are seeing?”

The next step was to skip meal times, avoid the debates that the Spire staff engaged in unless she was hidden well. But she soon avoided spying on even those meetings when on the fourth day of her stay they were discussing her, and ‘treatment options’ that left her paralysed with fear in the cupboard she hid in.

“The curse is leaving her highly susceptible to manipulation within the stipulations of the curse’s effects. It is an imperfect route to managing her, made more difficult by her lineage and the developing briar madness.”

On the fifth morning of her stay, she noticed the shift in language now being used by the staff that unnerved her most. No longer a case of managing curse symptoms, but managing madness symptoms. This was not an until-the-curse-ends but a forever thing. She ran until she collapsed from exhaustion after noticing the change, and it was nearly dark before she made it back to Frederick that night, questioning everything.

“We should move the patient’s treatment timescale forward, as symptoms are progressing rapidly.”

The sixth, the first day that conference attendees began arriving. She had forgotten the conference in her anxieties; she began doubting that it was truly happening, despite Frederick assuring her when she came running to him in fear that it was going to happen. But she kept forgetting.

“Your mental faculties are and will forever be compromised by the effects of the magic. Don’t you feel it already?”

Her nerves were a wreck by the time it began, unable to find the words to clearly explain what was happening to others that were there. Bursting into tears, lashing out, and the ever present desire to run that conflicted with what she knew she was here for. Observation… right? She was here with the Militia… and because she was going mad. Right?

“Vitória, I didn’t know you were coming– why are you here if not for the conference? Are you alright?” She crumples at the question Lisabetta asks her. She can’t discern the truth from the lie. She can’t remember why she’s here anymore.

Evergreen

Damn this curse.

It had had its use, early on. Get everything done, chase what she wants with a singleminded determination that was quite unlike her– well, unlike the League citizen she tried to be, when everyone else was watching with their expectations apparent on their faces. But underneath that false persona, well, she wanted to be happy, wanted to deserve to be happy, and she chased that goal…

But now, having caught her prize, set in motion all the plans to make it so, she felt… Words words words. Words suck. There are no words. How can I explain it and who can I explain it to?

The season had withered her; the curse had exhausted her, burned away all her emotions in an inferno, flash fired, and left her with indecision, left her feeling a husk of herself. A parody of myself, of the bark on my skin and in my blood. Silly little Tori, lost to the madness, just another briar dying off in autumn.

Briefly it flared, the emotions and rage hidden under the skin, and she threw herself into her bedding, screaming into the mattress, her fingers ripping the silk sheets that stifled, confined her in this world where she didn’t belong, didn’t– and then the exhaustion set in, all energy spent like a toddler awake too long then asleep the next moment.

Are these thoughts and feelings mine? She couldn’t tell anymore, whether they were due to the curse, to lineage, to the manipulation a of those around her. Her fingers stroked her patches of bark where they deepened to brown from their new-growth green colouration. Who can I talk to about this? Who would understand?

She couldn’t talk to Frederick. This was still new to him, still temporary for him. She felt the same with Tess, though she tried to frame her mind to ask. But all the briars she could think of… Its all new growth.

She missed Robbie, missed the Thorns, Iulian, anyone who was a more august presence. She wanted old bark, old friends, trusted friends who weren’t hiding behind masks or afraid of themselves.

Ros. Ros! She’s like them. Evergreen, all winter. She doesn’t lose her leaves in the fall.

She climbed from the bed, made her way to her writing desk and grabbed a mostly-uncrumpled, unspoiled piece of paper.

Ros. King’s Stoke.
I need some evergreen advice.

The King-in-Chains

Did it really think that if it yanked your end of our chain, I wouldn’t be pulled along too?”

In the bleak of this despairing night, slowly the stars come out again.

It’s so soothing a balm on her soul that she is loathe to lose this feeling (and she is willing to ignore the possession for this fact alone). The blind faith in self and in others and the ties that bind that she hasn’t felt since she was dedicated solely to Loyalty, made whole again instead of broken.

She passes others with a peaceful smile and explains how to exorcise the Tulpas– this is a thing she can help with. She passes by the naga twins, and places their hands together. She finds Dan, suddenly so eager to tell him she is finally able to fulfil her promise to him. She smiles at people coming together, helping others, revelling in the sight of the shimmering golden chains that tie and bind so many together. A little nudge here, a small comment there, and it is so easy to help bolster the Loyalties of those around her.

Her heart stops, flutters, then leaps to life in her chest as her eyes fall on the one she sought. Her fingers pull out the silk pouch from her pocket, and she perches on the chaise edge beside him. It’s a good time to exchange rings, a paired set, even if all the words are wrong and not what she thinks he deserves to hear. This golden chain –their chain– burns brighter than any other. She feels like she’s come home as he slips the ring onto his finger, and she does the same to her thumb.

Later, she sits calmly (a sign something was wrong), perched over the room watching the possessed and their friends who have all congregated in her consecrated space. Friends helping friends, loved ones, even strangers. Slowly but surely the Tulpas are pushed from their souls. Still she keeps quiet, knowing that the priests are running out of Liao. It’s not a hard sacrifice to make, all things considered. And she knows what the Tulpa inside her wants, and she knows that she cannot provide it.

It’s with that thought that the Tulpa turns on her, and what once was golden turns to black. The cold weight of iron shackles fall onto her shoulders, weighing her down, pulling her to the earth. The black chains wrap around her arms, body, neck, each one an oath and a promise and a Reckoning debt to the dead that she cannot fulfil now– to Kayne, to Andrea, to Ysabel and Asher, Hansel, Sylvia, Isaac… All the names crossed out in her Reckoning leger. All gone, debts beyond reckoning.

It’s suffocating, and she cannot breathe, though she claws at the invisible chains, then at Frederick beside her, desperate for help. He shouts for Watcher while she chokes for breath, trying to mime ‘chains’ and ‘weight’ and ‘choking’ to them both. She doesn’t want to die this way. She wants to live–

It releases as Watcher pulls the Tulpa off her soul, and she gasps for air. She is herself again, with all her burdens and chaos and confusion and brokenness. Frederick clasps her hand. They are themselves again, but not unchanged by the experience.

The star wink back into the darkness, disappearing.

Frederick’s hand takes hers, and their rings wink up at them.