Shibusa

Feb. 12th, 2015 05:35 pm
talonkarrde: (color)
For [livejournal.com profile] cislyn

-

A long time ago, when dragons and demons roamed the lands of the Jade Empire, when Tang Seng had yet to make his Journey to the West with Song Wu Kong and Niulang had just fallen in love with Zhinu, there was a little boy growing up called Xiaodi — in our tongue, little brother.

Xiaodi was a child full of curiosity. From the time he could speak, he asked why things were the way they were — why the sky was blue, for example, or where the huli jing — fox spirits — came from, or what made someone one of the Eight Immortals. His parents never tired of his questions and answered them the best they could, but all too soon, there were questions they could not answer.

When they didn't know the answers, though, they told him to consult the elders of the village, the scholars and the mayor, who was appointed by the Imperial City itself. And he did — as a boy Xiaodi played not with wooden toys but buried himself in the books that the scholars referred him to, as a teenager practiced penmanship instead of pretending to be a general of the army, and as a young man was seen more around the magistrate and the town council than the pretty girls that his peers were flirting with.

But every passion requires a devotion that causes other pursuits to fall by the wayside, and so while his knowledge grew, his friendships with others faltered. But to him, it was a fair trade — while he may not have been the trusted friend, he was the proven expert on many topics. While others may not have liked him as much, they did respect him.

Eventually, as he grew and learned, his questions grew beyond what even the wisest men and women village could answer, and their answers grew more and more uncertain and satisfied him less and less. They offered him a role assisting the magistrate with disputes between villagers, and that satisfied him for a while — dealing with cows that were sold as barren but turned out to be fertile and sorting out promises made based on the trickery of yao guai was a new and exciting experience for the young man, one that expanded his horizons.

But what he also learned was that there was a right way to do things, an optimal way — a perfect way, even. As his knowledge grew, he realized at once both how close and how far he was to this perfection — he was sure that his judgments came closer than the others, because he knew more than them — and indeed they often deferred to him as time went on — but at the same time, they were so far from the best outcome, which would require knowing even more.

Even then, there were questions that stayed in his head like mosquitoes, questions that itched for days that simply could not be answered by anyone in the village. But why do we not banish all the spirits, he asked, and shook his head in frustration when the magistrate simply said that it wasn't so easy to do. But why does the emperor not resolve all disputes by putting Qilin in every court, since they only punish the wicked, he asked, and was given only poor obfuscations, ones that he immediately saw through.

It came to a head when he wondered aloud if the government official test should be adapted for all citizens to take instead of only those that wished to be officials, so that those less fit could be removed from society, and openly disagreed with the magistrate's shocked opinion. "But why!" he shouted. "Perhaps then, every judge could answer every question, instead of only giving half answers and truths that are as flimsy as the kites we fly!"

In the silence that followed, Xiaodi knew he had made a mistake and made to apologize, but it was already too late. Disrespecting ones' elders was never tolerated, and the council and magistrate debated for long days and nights on what a suitable punishment would be, as his parents pleaded for leniency. Eventually, they all agreed: there could only be one path for this young man.

He was summoned to a meeting of the council. Perhaps, they said, it was time for him to take a journey — not just a short trip away, but one to the Imperial City itself, where there were libraries and universities and scholars that did nothing but consider and answer questions about how the world worked.

And, the magistrate added, they had sent word of his deeds and his questions, and received a favorable answer from none other than the emperor's majordomo for Xiaodi to study at the Emperor's Library.

And, his parents said, this was for the best, and it would look well upon their family and their ancestors would be proud.

So it was settled, then: exile — though clothed in the softest of silks, exile nonetheless. After a brief parting with his parents and a briefer parting with the rest of the village, Xiaodi was sent on his way to the capital.

It was a long journey of almost an entire moon, travelling across the mountains and the plains, ever north, but Xiaodi made it himself, knowing that he would have little to fear if he treated everyone with respect and took no one than was offered. He was not greedy, nor lustful, and he knew that he had little that the trickster and malevolent spirits wanted.

But he was in his heart of hearts a little bit vain, and there were demons afoot in those days, demons that followed men and women through the woods and took it upon themselves to create other demons like themselves. And there was one demon in particular that might have been a scholar when it was alive, one who took note of Xiaodi and thought that it could ensnare him. It set up a trap for him, weaving its glamour over a decrepit building a few hours away.

Xiaodi found a surprising view as he crested the next hill on the road — in front of him was a library, three stories tall, well maintained and quite luxurious, and he immediately altered his direction to approach it. It only grew more impressive as he got closer, and while Xiaodi had not seen a library on his path from the maps, his thoughts quickly turned to marvelling at the library instead of wondering at its existence.

"Ai!" He shouted, announcing his presence and stepping through the open door, stopping immediately inside and staring up in wonder at the floor-to-ceiling rows of books and scrolls, at the long tables with brackets set up to hold the unrolled scrolls, at the bronze and gold inlays, at the beautiful designs. Truly, this was one of the best libraries that he had ever seen, Xiaodi thought.

The owner turned from looking at one of the shelves in the back and headed down a staircase towards Xiaodi. He — or maybe she — was quite attractive, but of a curiously indeterminate gender. Regardless, Xiaodi bowed and smiled, and received one in return.

"Welcome to my humble library, young man," the owner — the demon — said, smiling widely at him. "I don't get visitors much, but I am fond of them — it's always good to meet new friends."

"Thank you, kind sir — I am a man of words, and I find this treasure simply extraordinary," Xiaodi responded, and the owner smiled even more broadly.

"Are you now? What fortune! Would you care for a wager, perhaps?" the owner asked, to which Xiaodi furrowed his brow.

"I am not a gambling man, sir, but a wager on words intrigues me. What do you propose?"

"That we trade off in knowledge," the owner said, spreading his arms. "Facts for facts, or perhaps theories for theories. Knowledge for knowledge, and we see who is more knowledgeable. It has been a long time since I have had a visitor, and I wish to learn about the world."

Xiaodi thought about this for some time. It would be a way to learn, he thinks, something that he has not had in some time — and yet, the logistics of it would be difficult. Who would check what facts there are, or if the theories are made up?

"How would we find out what is true?" he asked the demon, and the demon appeared to ponder this for a moment.

"Perhaps that would be too hard, indeed. If only we had a dragon to adjudicate, but they all seem to be busy at the moment," the demon said, though without the smile that Xiaodi expected at such a jest. But before he could address it, the demon continued.

"Let us try something different, instead. You see, this library does not just contain knowledge. It also contains a curious machine that I found from the Western mountains, far, far away, in the lands of Tianzhu. You see, there is a flat golden pan on this table, and what this pan does is create what you think. It must be small, smaller than the pan, but it will make whatever your mind shapes. It is a most wonderous thing."

"Let us — you and I — each create something, and have the next passer-by judge which is more perfect. Observe—" the demon said, and pointed to the table at the center of the room. It closed its eyes, and after a few seconds a golden cup appeared, simply materalizing out of pan. The demon filled the cup and drank it, and then tossed it to Xiaodi with a wink.

Xiaodi caught the cup, staring at it in wonder. "I accept," he said, reverently, thinking that whatever the cost, it was a wonderous device that he would perhaps not get to try if he did not defer to the owner's desire for a small wager.

The demon smiled, then, and snapped its fingers, and just like that, the illlusion crumbled away. Its teeth grow to be sharp and jagged, and the wonderous library is no more than a decrepit, abandoned mansion, without even a roof, and decay everywhere.

The golden pan, though, was still there, resting on a table that has only three legs.

"You should've asked what the stakes were," the demon said, gleefully. "But now that you've accepted, you can't back out. If you win, you get to leave; if I win, you stay, forever. So go on, make something. Anything."

Xiaodi closed his eyes, and then nodded. "I accept," he said again, and walked toward the pan. His thoughts are frantic, but in some sense, strangely clear; he will simply use the one thing that he's always relied on — his mind — to get him out of this. And so he started constructing: first a set of bronze, silver, golden chopsticks, then a plate, then a cup, then a chair, a table, then a meal, fresh and steaming — and as he worked, he watched as each item took its form on the golden pan, exactly as he constructed it in his mind, whatever materials, color, shape he could think of.

"Is that what you choose, then?" the demon said, and Xiaodi could almost hear the hunger in its voice.

"No," he responded. "I will tell you when I'm done." And he thinks, harder, faster. It must be more complicated, he thinks, more perfect, and so he directs his thoughts at the pan once more. It changes, then, from roast duck, from dumplings, to an oven, to a wheel that powers an oven, to a windmill, each item appearing and disappearing as his mind shuffles over the possibilities. As he thinks bigger, the edges start brushing up against the pan, but he simply thinks of them as being smaller, and realizes that he can still hold the image perfectly. It's a breakthrough: he doesn't have to make one thing smaller than the pan; he can simply make whatever it is he's thinking of smaller.

Then he thinks harder — if a windmill will work, why not a temple? If a temple, why not a few buildings, joined together? And slowly, a city begins to take form, a miniature village, then town, one that grows as Xiaodi imagines each and every structure, each roof, each wall, each road. Eventually, a full city is there — but it's empty. Empty, he thinks, and then he starts picturing people, and they — small people, only an inch tall, start to appear. The restaurateur, the magistrate, the mother and father, the children at play, the famers and laborers and scholars. With each thought, a person takes shape, until this city contains a reflection of the greatest city that his mind's eye can picture: the imperial capital.

He's almost done, he thinks, and he takes a step back, looking at what he's done. And he holds the picture in their mind, thinks of how everyone is moving, and how they go about their ways, how there are little patterns here and there, and then he smiles — a curious smile, one perhaps tinged with a touch of regret, a dash of understanding — and the city disappears. And in its place is a cup, a humble, wooden cup, one that he remembers drinking from as a child, with a crack on the top that goes an inch down, its handle worn from years of use.

"I'm done," he announces, and the demon looks shocked, the outcome completely unexpected.

"Is this some trick? Fine, then. You can have your cup. I'll win without any effort on my part, simply with your mind," the demon proclaims, striding up to the table and tossing the cup over its shoulder casually, which Xiaodi catches. The demon instantly recreates the miniature city, complete with the palace and the grounds and every bit of it exquisitely detailed. "Who would vote for you, with this wonderous creation here? What a good job you did with your mind, human. What an excellent job, indeed; I will enjoy feasting on you."

But Xiaodi, far from looking concerned, simply smiles. "I, too, once thought that the way to win was to know everything that could be known, to know how every piece of the world worked and be able to predict every action. But the world is too complicated for such things — no matter how much you can keep in your mind, demon, you can not predict everything, and so this miniature is only a poor attempt at capturing something uncapturable."

"Instead, I simply created something simple, something that any person who will walk through this door will know and understand — the beauty of something that is made for you by your father and given to you by your mother, and will stay with you from your first days until your last. That, demon, is a perfection that a clockwork city will never be able to match."
talonkarrde: (color)
Hey guys,

I'm doing this thing again for the holidays. I'm heading out to Austin, Texas, for a week, and I'd like to get some writing done. Last year, it was a mishmash of requests, and while I still owe some people a few (which you'll see in the next few days, I promise), I also think it was also some of my best writing — including a long form steampunk fantasy, a science-fiction exploration, and, of course, love and loss.

So, here we are again: No promises for Christmas Day, but I will say that these will be delivered before New Years (likely one a day, because I've gotten more organized). Give me a prompt, as detailed or vague as you'd like (with or without a genre/word count), and let me know if you'd like it posted here or emailed to you.

No refunds! No returns! I may refuse if you ask me to write something that I have no idea whatsoever about (but I'd much rather do research and try and make it good, so this should be quite rare). Insert other disclaimers here, yadda yadda yadda.

Speak Easy

Jul. 2nd, 2012 01:48 pm
talonkarrde: (color)
For [livejournal.com profile] yachiru

---

I hear that you are on your way to visit our glorious capital city of Donoln, yes? You must visit the Hall of Legends, where tall, thirty foot bronze statues line the sides of the great corridor, each depicting a figure who made our Meridia the center of the world that it is today. Most of them you have read about in the schoolbooks — there is Qwistan the Inventor, and Tinkerer Boam, and the Mechapilot General twins Jonasth and Alistan, and even the foreigners Nao’ot the Alchemist and Tzao-tzao the Magician, who distinguished themselves in their services to the empire. You can ask the court historian of all of these figures, and he will be able to recite every important date in their lives.

But the newest figure there is one that does not have a golden plate detailing his life and accomplishments, one figure for whom the historian will apologetically say that he has no solid information about, only that he was monumental to creating the just and prosperous society we have today. This figure stands at the end of the hall, with a wide-brimmed hat drawn low over his face and a long trenchcoat hiding his figure; you can see no details of his face for there were none carved.

I was the proud owner of the tavern and inn, the Burnt Powder Keg, where this man started and finished his crusade, and I saw his acts firsthand as they spread across the country and changed the empire forever.

This is his story.

#

It all started during the Winter of '14, when the failure in the harvest meant that many were to go hungry. Belts were notched tight and what little we had was drawn out for as long as possible; the Keg was barely able to set food on the table for the few guests who were travelling. I had built a reputation for catering to soldiers and officers, which meant that we were not quite scraping the bottom of the barrel as some of the resthouses were, but it also brought its share of complications, chief among them that my staff and I had to continuously exercise good judgment in dealing with some of the rougher, more distasteful elements of the military forces.

This was years ago, before the reign of the Illustrious Charles the Sixth, who plays a direct part in this story. But he comes in later — at that time, we were still serving under the whims of King Geppet, which should tell you something of the circumstances of the time. The soldiers that had fought in the war against the Trinitan Conglomerate had mostly grown fat and lazy without any enemies and the King's narcissism was a poor example for them, and those who were promoted to officers were more often cruel and mean-spirited thugs than the defenders of the citizens of Meridia and downtrodden poor that they had sworn to be.

Things had gotten particularly bad that winter, and rumors had been coming through the few travelers we saw that there were reports of Lieutenants and Mechamasters who had been abusing their authority and demanding a tithe of food and supplies to them personally, above and beyond what the good people had paid in taxes. I hadn't experienced any personally, but there were more than a few officers who had stopped by who were a bit more demanding than I would've liked or thought appropriate; they certainly knew how much everyone had been rationing but apparently didn't care.

It must have been around the first night of the Frostage when Captain Balzir came to stay. I remember that the lights were lit outside my inn and others for those in need to stay without needing to pay, as the benevolent Master Malchiem had done all those centuries ago for our first King. More had always chosen to travel on those days over others, for good reason, but there were still fewer out and about this year — I remember only five or six who had shown up that night, all good folk who had worked in the fields or in various crafts, and not a layabout between them.

Around eight at night, Captain Balzir strode in with one of the most imperious attitudes I had ever seen (and I had served Dukes and Crown Engineers) and demanded that we serve him a feast of boar, immediately. We had only a single hog left, and it needed to last the week before the hunters came back to the market to sell their wares, but he made it plain that either he would have the boar or there would be trouble.

Serving officers often takes judgment, patience, and a willingness to bear burdens that other patrons hardly ever demand; in this case, the harm would have been greater if I did not listen, so I acquiesced and had the entire boar prepared for the captain by our cook, Dharnel,h and had Lusina, the serving girl, personally attend to the Captain.

That was only the beginning of the night; after the boar, he started interrogating the others and by the end, he was haranguing them for any coin that they had — completely sober, mind you — as if he had a right to every gold coin out of their pockets simply because he was in the military. When the others rightfully expressed their displeasure, he stood up, smashed his mug of ale upon the ground, and roared at them that he would send his entire regiment of Steamtanks and Striders after their families, and hunt down their villages if they did not comply.

My behavior at the time was... not honorable. I did not speak up, for I did not want to risk this officer's wrath, even if he conducted himself in a way that did not befit his station. But when Marlene — one of our guests — protested that she had nothing at all to give, that she was here in the city to work as a housekeeper and had not been paid yet, Captain Balzir called her a whore and struck her across the face. That I could not stand, especially on this night of all nights, when we innkeepers give hospitality to all, and I did then offer to pay for her, which of course he took as his right.

Another stranger — Jacques, it was, another innkeeper who had taken Frostage as a good time to visit his family — laid his arm upon the Captain's shoulder and apologized to him for the behavior of the other guests, and offered him another share of gold, which seemed to calm Balzir down.

I comforted Marlene after he had gone to his quarters, and she thanked me quietly, though I only felt more shame that I did not stand up to him before he had struck her. She simply shook her head, though, and told me that it had not been the first time — in the outlands, on the edges of the empire, the soldiers were worse, she told me, though she wouldn't explain more, though I asked. Jacques talked with her much more that night, in a private corner, and it seemed that he cheered her up, for which I pulled him aside and thanked him as they both retired.

After that, there was little other action in the tavern. Certainly nothing that I could remember that stood out, nothing that would have prompted me to think that there would be a murder later that night.

I knew by name and face and figure all the guests present that night and all the staff, and there was no one who was unaccounted for, who I had not personally seen to their room — and as I reported to the police, there was nothing stirring. But there must have been something, for after all had retired, around eleven, there was a loud scream.

It came from Lusina, which meant that... well, Lusina was one who would earn a bit on the side (though only at her preference) and so she had keys to all the rooms. It was her choice, and she had never caused any trouble, so I had let it be; if I am to be honest, I will say that it helped that she even bought some extra supplies with her earnings sometimes, which helped us all out.

It seemed that she had made arrangements with this Captain Balzir at some point, and had climbed onto the bed that night, thinking of surprising him in a rather novel way, when she felt wetness and realized that it was not, rather gruesomely, the wetness that she was hoping for.

When she turned on the lights, her scream was instinctive, and brought the rest of us running. The ancient torture of 'death by a thousand cuts' is the best way to describe what happened; the man had cuts all over his body, through his clothes and around them, and had died by bleeding out through every one. He was, quite literally, little more than a mass of oozing blood; his clothes looked like they had been dipped in a vat of blood and then draped on him, such was the carnage. And his face — I hope he had died before the killer started on his face, for there was little left to recognize as a man.

I reported it immediately, of course; despite disliking the man I still operated a lawful establishment and had no interest in murder — especially not the shame that it would bring upon my inn. The district Minders sent two Prognosticators to investigate, and having never seen them work, I was quite interested in what they did. The main observation seemed to be that they had an endless assortment of tools that seemed to telescope out of their vests — by simply touching an area of their chests, a looking glass would telescope out the top, or a brush would deposit itself in their hands, or a bag; if it were not for the gruesome scene, I would have found their vestments quite interesting.

Their conclusions were quick: the dust on the floor (yes, I admit there was some in the Captain's room that I had rather neglected to clean) had been undisturbed except for Lusina's footprints, and she had clearly not had the time to murder the captain so messily. The window had been open, but it was just a crack and there were no signs on the hinges that it had been open wider, and there were no other ways into the room; certainly no vent that went to an adjoining room, as one one of the Progs mentioned as a possibility. As for the body, it had indeed been cut many times, very quickly; the blood had all congealed around the same time and so it was necessary that whoever — or whatever — had done the act to be quite efficient. A mystery, they declared, one that they would bring more resources to bear on, the next day.

#

It was a quiet week after that — the military investigators had come and found nothing as well, and essentially declared it unsolved, though they posted a reward and welcomed clues from anyone that had information. A few people claimed that there were eastern shadowmasters floating through walls, but those were treated the with the contempt that they rightfully deserved for spreading such nonsense.

I came upon Shiel on the last night of Frostage sitting at the corner table he had taken to frequenting since he had been staying with us; unlike most of the other patrons who had mostly moved on, he had business in the city and used the Burnt Powder Keg as a place to stay for free for two weeks. He was playing, curiously, with a small mechanspider, a miniature version of the ones that patrol our borders. I had seen small, less complex toys like it for children, but this was a remarkable little thing — one that he had constructed himself, apparently — and it could roll up into a solid ball and roll forward to move, and then open itself up and skitter around.

I saw Shiel release one and saw it skitter under a table — clinging onto the underside with its claws — and then go down the center pillar and up the nearest wall; when he whistled, it abruptly dropped into a ball and rolled back to him. I clapped in wonderment, and he started, having not seen me come in, and clutched the toys rather possessively.

"A neat toy," I remembered saying, trying to break the tension that had suddenly appeared.

"Quite," he allowed, and then waited a beat longer, and asked me if I remembered the night that the captain had been killed, if I remembered hearing anything.

I hadn't, I responded. Or, more accurately, I said, "I don't recall hearing anyone, and I do know that I put everyone to bed. There might have been mice moving around, but the kettle was on at the same time and I didn't think it was worth mentioning to the police."

I'm sure you've made the logical jump by now, as had I, but it seemed unlikely — Shiel was the very sort of introverted type of tinkerer, and was very drawn into his work. He had hardly spoken three words to anyone else in all his time at the inn, even Jacques, who he came in with, and didn't even raise his head over his meal the night the captain died. It couldn’t have been him, though those spiders were most certainly a marvel and were certain to sell well.

With that, our conversation concluded and I bid him a good night. I hear he makes his living in Kadath nowadays, though I haven't been able to keep up with him, unfortunately; such is the life of an innkeeper.

#

It was a few weeks after that, near the end of winter when the captain's uncle — himself a colonel in the army — came to pay us a visit. Lusina, Dharnel, and I learned quickly where the younger officer had gotten his rougher personality traits from. This time around, we discussed things beforehand and tolerated a little less than we had before; while we would not openly confront him and bring the wrath of the empire down on us, we were also a bit less interested in being puppets to his whim.

We did set up the feast his messenger had requested, and made sure that it was up to his standards, and it seemed that all was going to be well. But of course, lest we forget the Goddess Miranda's teachings and count our blessings before they come to pass, the night was not over. Before the colonel was even done, he had noticed the looks from some of our other patrons at the resplendent feast he was going through, and sneered openly at them.

"Just you wait," he said, in between bites on a chicken leg, "After this is done, it's time to pay your taxes. And don't think of running — taxes will be double for anyone who leaves the tavern between now and when I'm done eating."

"Master Dhavin—" I started.

"That is Colonel Dhavin, innkeeper," he corrected, without missing a beat.

"Very well. Colonel Dhavin, I don't particularly think it just for you to collect taxes from my patrons, in my tavern, where they are enjoying my hospitality as my guests, as you are." I said, strongly. I had not forgotten that these soldiers and officers were the lifeblood of my tavern, but I could also not let them behave unchecked, as I had failed Marlene.

"I think you forget your station," he snarled, standing up, his face flushed and food forgotten.

"My station is that of an innkeeper and of a loyal citizen of Meridia, sir. I beg your pardon, but I believe my station allows me to state my grievances to you." I ended, with a bow of my head — hopefully one he'd take for respect, but not adulation.

Hoping, I found, is often a fool's habit.

"Consider them stated," he said, with the sneer returning to his face, as he walked around the table and came to me. "In fact, you appear to be correct; I should not be taxing these citizens. Instead, I will be taking my share of your tax, which is payable right now — it will be 500 coins."

500 coins! That was more than I made in a month, and while I just barely had enough to pay it, the 'tax' would have set us back to the worst of Frostage. It was not a burden that I should be asked to bear, and both the colonel and I knew it. When I opened my mouth to protest, he acted first, knocking me to the floor with a gauntlet across the face. I heard Lusina gasp, but she wisely didn't come forward. As I lay there, the colonel kicked me savagely in the side, and then turned to address everyone else.

"We are here to protect you, but this means that you must obey us. When we ask for supplies, it is necessary for the continued protection, and when you do not immediately obey, you are endangering yourself, as this innkeeper has. And when you do so, you may be robbed by the rougher elements who do not respect you, like we do." He drew his leg back and kicked me again, brutally, and I curled up, gasping in pain but not daring to protest.

And just as he aimed another kick, this time at my head, a lilting voice called out.

"Colonel, why waste your time with that fool when there's still a feast to be had — perhaps one you'd be inclined to share with someone who appreciates your actions?"

The voice sounded familiar, and when I opened my eyes and blinked away the tears, I saw a figure dressed in red silk, in the eastern style with legs covered but arms bare, with her hair teased high. It was Marlene, of all people, who was clearly not any sort of a housekeeper, unless she kept house by sating the owner’s more lecherous desires whenever he wished.

I could only watch in shock as the colonel looked her up and down and decided that being with a beautiful woman was indeed more worthwhile than kicking someone who was already down.

"You, and you," he said, pointing to two of his soldiers. "Go through his belongings, and find the gold to collect. If he doesn't have it, destroy everything he has." The colonel said, and I heard the thugs head up the stairs. They would find it, of course — I kept it in my chest at the end of my bed, usually secure in the knowledge that the soldiers that came would protect against thievery; I never imagined that good soldiers would participate in it.

Now, finally, Lusina and Dharnel came to help me up as the colonel turned back to his feast, with Marlene on his arm and more or less pressing herself against him. I drew myself up to a stool and could only watch, shocked, as she spent the rest of his meal entertaining him in just about every way short of taking her dress off, though repeated lewd comments made it obvious that it was just a matter of time and privacy.

I couldn't understand why — this was Marlene, and it was impossible that she would have forgotten Balzir striking her across the face, an assault that might have been physically lighter than the one I received but was no less demeaning. She had gone over to the enemy, in the worst way, and I could only watch in disgust as she threw herself upon him.

With half the food still untouched, he stated that he was finished, and commanded us to clean up, while he stood and made ready to retire. He told his two soldiers — who had come down with all the coin that I had — to guard his door, and then turned to point at me.

"This better be the best sleep I've ever had, innkeeper, or we might find that arsonists have burned your inn to the ground in the morning," he threatened, and finally I understood. I wasn't going to make it out of this, as the colonel had taken it upon himself to avenge his nephew's death through whatever means he saw fit. There was nothing I could do, except, perhaps, run away.

Once, I think I might have done such a thing, but after tonight, I found that there were injustices I could not tolerate, and this was one of them. I started thinking, plotting, even as I humbly bowed as low as I could. He smirked, and then beckoned for Marlene to head up the stairs with him, to 'entertain' him for a while.

Surprisingly, she declined, even as she planted a kiss on his cheek and offered a placating excuse. She said she'd join him shortly, but she wanted to surprise him with an outfit she was sure he would appreciate. He leered at her, grabbed her breast, and said that the outfit he'd like to see most was absolutely nothing on her, but she simply leaned into his touch and promised he'd enjoy it, and he let her go.

He headed up the stairs, along with his guards, and Marlene simply stood there waiting, listening to their boots on the stairs and footsteps in the room above us. And then, for a moment, she met my eyes, and left without another word.

What I saw in her eyes wasn't emptiness, or lust, or greed — it was a determination, a fire that you see in the eyes of great leaders who men die for. It was rare that I had seen it someone not in the military, and it was the first time I had seen it for more than a year, but it would not be the last.

I still didn't know why, though, she was behaving as she did; I only had the hint that there was another explanation for her actions. When she came back, ten minutes later, she ignored everyone else and headed up the stairs. She stopped outside of the colonel's door and asked one of the soldiers to enter. To their credit — as soldiers, at least, though not as citizens of Meridia — they knew their job well and rapped on the door, announcing her entry, even though she probably asked for them to keep it a surprise.

And then, of course, she opened the door and screamed, and I'm sure you can figure out the rest. I won't describe it here, as it was just as gruesome as the first killing, except that this one was even more precise — only the face had been multilated, with the rest of his body untouched.

This time, though, my feelings were more ambivalent; I still valued keeping a lawful establishment, but I also understood that the law and those who were tasked in upholding it were not always the same. This may have been wrong, but Captain Dhavin wasn't a sterling example of humanity. Perhaps it was better that he died, but was it really my call?

This time, the reporting was done for me, by the soldiers who were his bodyguards. The Prognosticators were called in again, and came up with just as much of an explanation as they had the first time, which was to say, nothing. It was a different room, even, and they found no sign of foul play — except for the corpse itself, which was clearly a sign of foul play. But there was no forced entry, no windows ajar, nothing at all that they could find.

I sat in the lobby the entire time, under guard, wondering if my tavern would be burned to the ground and myself strung up to hang for the murder of these two officers, even though I myself had done nothing wrong and could explain none of this. But this couldn’t be a coincidence; even I had to admit that.

It was one of the Prognosticators himself that saved me, as he came down from the stairs and collapsed his tools back into his vest. “Just like the others...” he muttered, shaking his head.

Others? There were...others? I stood, unsteadily, ignoring the warning glance my guard gave me.

“This...this isn’t the only place this has happened?” I asked, with the hope no doubt evident in voice.

“Indeed not, barkeep. It started around Frostage, around here, I believe, but it’s spread since then. This is the ninth or tenth, and there doesn’t seem to be anything that ties them together, except, perhaps...”

“Perhaps...?” I asked, curious at his rather reserved tone.

“It’s not my place,” he commented in a curt tone, ending the conversation and leaving me alone, once more, to clean up the mess. Once more, though, an officer was dead, and I was still alive.

#

It was a week after this before I saw Marlene again; this time, though, she looked much like she had when she first came in, dressed plainly but not poorly. She came in when there was no one else in the tavern — Dharnel had gone home for the night and Lusina was upstairs — and stepped right up to me, stopping with a curtsy.

I almost screamed at her to get out of the tavern, given what had happened and the way she was hanging over the officer, but she stopped me with a single movement, a simple presentation of a small, round, spherical toy.

Shiel’s toy.

As the gears began to click together in my head, Marlene took out a small tube with a shimmering powder inside and shook some out onto a table, being careful not to get any on herself, and then wound the toy once, twice, three times, and let it go.

It unfolded, skittered to the powder, and promptly started stabbing the table. It did no damage to the wood, but I understood instantly, and turned back to Marlene, where she was holding up a small tube of lipstick, and last week’s events became clear.

Only then did she speak.

“I’m sorry for what happened, but I needed to know first that you wouldn't support them any longer,” she started. “We have been watching. I can't tell you everything, so you won't be able to betray anyone. If you think hard, you will know who recruited me, and how we have gotten our tools; that’s all I can say.”

I objected at this point, because I had no intention of joining anything, but she simply shook her head, anticipating my protest.

“I’m not here to demand you join— I’m simply here to tell you of another option, one that doesn't mean either staying silent while crimes are committed against Meridia’s citizens or having your livelihood taken away from you for speaking up against the corrupt. You may not ever need this option, but I wanted to offer you it.”

She took four more small spheres out of her satchel and set them on the bar, along with the one that had rolled back to her, and the tube of powder.

“Counter-clockwise, three turns, they’ll return to you after a minute. If you don’t press on the top of the ball after picking them up, they’ll come apart in your hands. Wash or burn anything that’s had the powder on it.”

And with that, she turned andd headed for the door, stopping only briefly.

"And...thank you. For offering to pay for me. For stopping him."

Then she was gone and I could only stare at the weapons that I had been given, and the choice that was now in front of me.

#

From then, I started to pay very careful attention to the news, and saw that there was something going on. Reports here and there from wanderers who had heard from others, or from soldiers who were a bit chattier than they should be, painted a picture of a movement.

Not a rebellion, and certainly not a war, but something undeniable, nonetheless — enough that if you looked for it, and put the pieces together, you'd see that there was a web of incidents with officers that suffered accidents which were unusual and occasionally fatal. And the rumor was that there was one person linked to all of the recent ones, a person with a hat slung low and a trenchcoat, and that he — or she — was the sign that something would happen.

Only a few were as bloody as the one that we had seen, but all of them had changed something. I started to pay attention to my own visitors, and slowly, I saw my own opportunities to entice certain officers to my inn, and to get close to them without raising undue alarm. It was something I had never done before, but I learned, in the course of a few months, how to put myself in a position where I could use the gifts I was given.

I never did pull the trigger though — at least partially because I didn't find anyone else who deserved it as the Captain and his uncle did. Even if I had, though, I didn't know if I was truly able to do such a thing, even if I was beginning to see that it had to be done.

#

As the summer rolled around and the attacks kept occurring, King Geppet finally started to realize that something was happening, but by then, the entire population did too. Those in power who overstepped their bounds were no longer quietly obeyed, but instead, often openly defied; any further injustice was likely to bring a sighting of the Wanderer, as he came to be known, in his trench coat and long brimmed hat, and an 'incident' would happen shortly thereafter.

Sometimes, the Wanderer would show up in different cities in, if the reports were to be believed, the same day, and other times, not be seen for a week or more. But eventually, he was seen in every corner of Meridia, and his reputation grew, much as the reward for information leading to his capture did.

It was then that the later King Charles cames to the Burnt Powder Keg; he was a lieutenant at the time, and showcased every bit the officer that we needed. There were many tangible things, from how he treated Lusina to how much he asked for, but in the end, it was a simple presence that we felt, a trust and respect that we had for him.

He had a quiet dinner and chatted with some of the other guests, though all avoided the stories of what the Wanderer had done. But then, the Wanderer showed up at the door, and the conversation died instantly.

The brim of his hat was pulled low, as the stories always held, and the trench coat did indeed hide his figure rather completely. He could have been anyone — man or woman — of any height, and the only fact that could be discerned was that he was about average height — which helped absolutely none to identify him.

Charles spoke first.

"Why are you here, Wanderer?" It was a simple question, without malice or anger.

"To ask if you will defend the citizens of the empire against those that would take away their rightful lives, possessions, and liberties." He said — and we knew at least that it was a man. His voice was deep, but not overly so, and most of all, it was familiar, though I could not place where I had heard him.

"It is what I have sworn," Charles said.

"And yet, those others which have sworn such have burned down houses and attacked citizens for not submitting to them personally, when they were owed no such fealty." The Wanderer countered.

"Those, if found, would be punished for their actions."

"And they have been, but it has taken the citizens to punish them, instead of the law. The reason for this seems to be that the law currently only serves those who represent it, instead of all."

At this, Charles paused for a long time.

"You say that there are high elements who support this behavior."

"I do." The Wanderer stated.

"Are you responsible for killing the officers?" Charles asked.

"I am," The Wanderer responded, without hesitation.

"Then you are guilty of murder, regardless of your contentions."

The Wanderer nodded at this, as if he had been expecting it. And then, to everyone's surprise, he took off the hat and tossed it aside.

"My name is Jacques," he said, and the last pieces came together.

"How curious," Charles said, "as that is my name as well."

The two men eyed each other, until Lieutenant Jacques Charles indicated a seat opposite him at the table, which the former innkeeper Jacques took. The innkeeper told his story, then, and I still remember every word.

"I was a humble innkeeper once. For ten years I tended to my inn, on the outskirts of the empire, and did everything I could to make all of the travelers who passed through as comfortable as possible. But last fall, my inn, the Wanderer's Respite, was burned down by a sargeant and his group of men who had found my food not worthy for their tastes. They deprived me of my livelihood, and claimed I was lucky to escape with my life. When I reported it to their commanding officer, he simply sneered at me and told me that I should have served better food, and then kicked me out."

"It was then that I started to wander, myself, to see if this was a poison that only afflicted a few of those who had sworn to defend us, or if it was something that had spread across all of the units of Meridia. And through months of trailing officers on deployments and trying to meet as many different officers as possible, I found that it was an attitude that was growing — not every officer shared it, but those who did seem to be promoted over those who knew their responsibilities and followed them."

"The ones who did not, though — it wasn't just a bit of petty greed, but the corruption of the entire service. I saw those who were beaten for not paying a personal tax that would have made their summers very hard indeed, and young girls who were coerced into relationships for fear of their families lives, to be available at the officer's request or suffer harsh consequences. The officers were setting examples for those under them, and promoting those who shared their behavior, and the citizens suffered for it."

"On my travels, I met Shiel, who was an brilliant tinkerer, and soon struck up a friendship with him — his story is not mine to tell, but he had suffered as well. The two of us first created the tools that we would use to fight this corruption, and understood that we would have to do whatever it took. Along our journeys, we quickly found others who had been hurt and had nowhere to turn to, and we created a network of men and women who understood how Meridia had fallen and what should be done. In fact, one of the earlier recruits was done here, in this tavern," Jacques said, and looked over at me.

Marlene, of course.

"And now we have been fixing the problem, as we must because no one else will fix the problem for us. To leave it in the hands of the law is to be given no recourse at all; instead, as I'm sure you've noticed, there have been changes — perhaps due to fear, but those who used to flaunt their power are now quite meek about it. But I know — and I think you know, Lieutenant Charles, as we've been watching you — that fear can only last for so long, and these officers go out each time with more guards and it becomes harder to make a difference."

"To kill them, you mean," Charles observed, speaking for the first time.

"To stop them from killing and hurting others, yes, much like what a soldier does, except we act on those inside our borders who injure us instead of outside of our borders." Jacques responded.

"To continue this, we need someone who will stand up for the citizens once again, an officer who will tolerate no disrespect or injustice. you're highly regarded inside the armed forces, and I think you can make the changes that make our actions unnecessary."

Both of them were silent for a long time, until Charles spoke again, and I saw why he would become king.

"We are sworn to the citizens of Meridia, not the King or ourselves, and we are sworn to protect the weak and the poor, not take from them. This is the code, and anyone that deviates from it is not fit to be an officer. But the law is still the law, and murder is something that can not be allowed either, as these were not actions on a field of war, even if they are actions that are taken against those who would harm you. And so, I will pursue these crimes that you say have occurred, and I will not rest until all are held accountable for their actions — but this includes you, Jacques."

And Jacques, who clearly saw this coming, nodded and placed his hands on the table. "I know what the punishment would be, and I would do nothing different if given this choice a thousand times."

#

They killed him, of course, hung him from the the gallows in the central square of Donoln. But Jacques had planned for that too, and that night, in many taverns across the Empire, other wanderers in a low-brimmed hat and a trench coat strode through the streets in a sign that the citizens were not cowed, that one person might died but that the ideas he stood for were more than alive.

The Burnt Powder Keg was one of them, I'm proud to say.

After that, changes came swiftly. The Lieutenant kept to his word in rooting out those who were abusing their power, with help from Jacques' observers, and in three months, the purges were complete — including the King Geppet, who it was learned had been taking liberties that were not his to take, which encouraged certain members of the military in behaving as they did. With the backing of the military behind him, then-General Charles was able to convince the King to step down, and was made the next King by acclamation of the people, who saw what he had been doing.

King Charles' first order of business was to construct another statue in the Hall of Legends, one of a man who had everything taken from him by those who should have defended him, a citizen of Meridia who was willing to sacrifice his life for the ideal that we will always have the right to fight back against those who oppress us, whether they come from outside our borders or inside them.

#

Now, I think, you see why the story is one that is not very often told — but I think should be told in the right circumstances, to the right people. Justice is not always handed out by the law, but each citizen has a right to it. We often think of assassins and murderers as those who are cowardly and strike at the weak, but they can also strike at the strong as no one else can, and so change the course of empires, as they did with Meridia.

I know the look in your eye well; you are thinking of those who forced your sister out from her house, and those who have stripped your father of his land, no? If only you had the resources that Jacques had, no? Unfortunately, we can not all change empires — I, for example, do not have it in me to do such things, even if I know in my heart of hearts it is the right thing to do.

But if you are to make your petition to the King for aid in your country of Sanscara, I do believe it may be time for you to be on your way, if you are to catch the traveling carriage that heads to the capitol. Before you go, though, I do have a small gift for you, something I've picked up in my travels. These are five small spider toys, fit only for children to play with. They need to be wound up before being they will move around, of course. Do take care that you wind them up the right way; it is always clockwise, never counter-clockwise. And if you find that your children need more because a few of these break, there may be a tinkerer in Kadath that may assist you. And I think you'll find it rather cold outside as you head up north; may I recommend Taggert's Tailoring in Jonasthtown for you on your way to the capitol?

No, there is no need to thank me for this; I am but a humble innkeeper and I only hope that you will have a pleasant journey, wherever it takes you, and perhaps you will be able to tell me a story if circumstances take you back here one day.



--

A/N: I think this may be the longest piece I've ever written. I like it, though I think there's still some work to be done, but I certainly put more than the usual two-hours-before-it's-due effort into this one. There may be some spelling/grammar mistakes from rearranging things and cutting things out (and let me tell you, there was a lot cut out), but I thought I'd put it up anyway.
talonkarrde: (Default)
For [livejournal.com profile] beautyofgrey

-

I had been sitting quietly by the bay windows for some time, watching the world go by, when my grandchildren brought the package forward. They had been playing around in the attic for the last half an hour, after their mother — my daughter — encouraged them to 'find some old things' in an effort to have some peace for a bit. Apparently, they had rummaged through enough of the dusty old boxes to come up with something that they couldn't explain. 'Mommy didn't know what it was', they chimed in together, so here they were, an eight year old boy and eleven year old girl, perched on each arm of my favorite rocking chair.

And on my lap were the crown jewels of this expedition, the source of the mystery, the secret of the adventure that apparently only I knew. It had been unwrapped, but with care — I was sure that it was Erin who had slowly tugged the strings apart, simply because Allen would have shredded the paper to get to the insides. On top of the spread wrapping paper was a small, dark wooden box, with a sliding door as the top. And lying on the box was the remains of a rose, though the years and years had turned it into something that crumbled upon being touched.

"What is this, Grandpa?" Allen asked me curiously, reaching out to touch it before Erin swatted his hand away.

I sat there for a moment, thinking of past lives and careful choices, and then responded simply — "A memory," I said, and left it at that.

But Allen wasn't satisfied with my answer — what ten year old boy would be? — and reached out for the box again, though his sister's glare was enough to stop him from actually touching it. Still, unable to contain himself, he asked again, "A memory of what?"

I looked at Erin then, who simply looked back at me curiously. She was mature beyond her years, and knew enough about life to know that this was something that could affect her grandpa more than a little, and would not press. Still, though, I could see the curiosity in her eyes, and it was that, more than anything else, which led to me actually telling the story.

---

The box was a gift to me from a girl called Terry, I said, when she was twenty and I was eighteen. Yes, she was older than me, and yes, this was well before I was even your mother's age. It was given to me on our third anniversary of being together; we had been dating for quite some time and had started thinking about long term plans.

She had been thinking about what to give me for a while, I suspect, to teach me a lesson; she had complained once that I wasn't very subtle or romantic — at least not with keepsakes — and tended to discard things the minute that I didn't care about them anymore, whereas she was the opposite and kept almost anything that had ever meant anything to her — a ticket from her only airplane ride, wedding invitations from her friends, the letters we had written to each other, her childhood toys...the list went on and on, as did the amount of stuff in her family's attic that was hers. It was a side effect, I suppose, of her being a creative artist and me being a logic-driven scientist; I saw value in the present and future, whereas she drew inspiration from the past.

Regardless, though, we spent our third anniversary eating at a nice diner and I took her home just before nine — yes, this was indeed a million years ago, when nine was late — and just after I pulled up to her house, she stopped me and said, "I think we should give each other our gifts now."

Allen, here's a word of advice — always, always prepare a gift in advance when you meet a girl for any special date. Especially if the girl says not to prepare anything; this just means that you have to think long and hard and pull out all the stops to prepare something. Our third anniversary was a special date, and I had nothing at all... so me, being the quick thinker that I was, improvised — I did an immediate running inventory of the car parts that I could break off and give to her. Somehow, saying 'you are my driveshaft' didn't sound right, even to my not-very-romantic ears. Instead, I reached to the rear seat, and picked up a single rose, and handed it to her.

Her face dropped a bit. Not, I think, because I handed her a rose, but more likely because the rose had suffered some damage — I had run over it, as a matter of fact, on the way to picking her up, due to a bit of hurry on my part, and I had simply tossed it on the backseat instead of throwing it out immediately. So she had a rose in front of her... just one that was a bit dirty, and a bit squashed, and a bit dying.

No, it wasn't the smoothest thing I've ever done.

But I suppose the gods were watching down on me, because the next thing out of my mouth was this: "The rose, Terry, symbolizes my love for you. It may not be perfect, and it may not look like much, but what it means is that I will persevere through any trial, overcome any obstacle, simply to make you happy. This rose has seen better days, yes, but it's still alive, and I promise you that if you give it some water, you will see it stay alive much longer than any perfect rose you could pick out from the store."

And then I held my breath for what was seemed like an hour while she turned the rose over in her hands and observed it closely, her face absolutely devoid of any emotion. Just as I was about to apologize for everything I said and everything I did, she smiled, and leaned in to kiss me, which I took as a success.

"And here I thought you couldn't be romantic," she said. I mentally cheered...until she followed up with, "Even though that was the biggest pile of crap in the world, you get credit for trying, and for improvisation," and kissed me again. You see why I fell in love with her?

Anyway, afterwards, she reached down under the seat and brought out this exact box, in the exact same form that you see here now. When I asked her what it was for, she simply said, "It contains a little bit of the past, and a little bit of the present, and a little bit of the future. Don't open it until you can tell me what's inside." She looked very serious, and asked me to promise her that I wouldn't, which I did. I didn't understand at all, but she knew me well enough to know that I would keep asking questions until I figured it out — something that we seem to share, Allen.

I recall that the first thing I did with the box was shake it — always the scientist, I intended on subjecting it through a rigorous series of physical tests to determine the attributes inside. Of course, Terry was always one step ahead of me, and all of my actions yielded nothing. It wasn't light, but it wasn't heavy; it didn't smell like anything while it was closed, and shaking it produced absolutely no effect. I began carrying it around with me in class and at work, and would play with it absentmindedly while I was thinking of other things, but I never tried to open it — I had promised, after all.

It took me about two weeks, or maybe three, before I really entertained the suspicion that nothing was inside. It was always at the back of my mind, but I think it was after accidentally dropping it — yes, that's why this corner is a bit dented — that I wondered if she simply gave me a box, with absolutely nothing inside. It couldn't be, I thought... or could it? It struck me as something avant garde, which was like her, if a bit cruel, which wasn't, and came up with a null hypothesis.

So I asked her, and she simply shook her head — and then asked for the box. This was new, and I readily complied, only to watch her tilt it towards her, slide it open, and... talk into it? I moved to change my angle but she had already closed it, handling it back to me, and I was left with just as big of a mystery as before. But it led to one major change — every night, when I would set the box by my bedside, she would perform that same ritual before she went to sleep. She always covered the face, always lifted it to her mouth, and always seemed to say something before setting it back down.

And it looks like you've already figured it out, Erin. No, Allen, she wasn't eating, or spitting, or doing anything like that; she was speaking into the box, speaking her hopes and dreams and memories to store, acting as a modern day Pandora, without any of the bad things. It was indeed a little bit of her — and our — past, and our present, and the future she hoped we would share.

It was completely sentimental, and completely emotional, and I finally understood why she collected what she did — everything she kept had a bit of the person who created it in them, and now she was giving more than a little bit of herself to me.

I kept the box by my side for ten years, up until the day that she passed away, giving birth to a wonderful little girl called Marie — yes, your mother. The week before my Terry died, she was going through her collection of memories — in the attic you were just in — and brought out the rose, which she had kept all this time, and hidden from me. It was our thirtieth anniversary.

And afterwards... after it happened, I couldn't bear to have the box by me anymore, so I wrapped it with the rose, and set it up here, where it's been for thirty-four years now.

---

With that, I lifted the rose up by the stem, wondering at the forces that had kept it together for the last third of a century, and finally slid open the box to reveal — as expected — nothing tangible. But of things that couldn't be measured by science, one might imagine the wisp of a good life rising from the box, a slight smell of cinnamon and nutmeg, never to be recaptured again.

"And now that I've passed the story on to you," I said, "I think I'd like to pass these gifts on. Would you like them, perhaps, to keep and think about?"

I could see that both of them were a bit intrigued and a bit put off at the same time — it was certainly unlike any gift that they had given or gotten before. And yet, the story had changed them, at least a bit; they understood that there was signifance in these ancient relics beneath my wrinkled hands, and appreciated them for more than what they appeared to be.

Allen spoke first, as usual, and claimed the rose, without giving a reason why; Erin didn't object, but reverently lifted the box off of my lap after Allen had taken the stem from my fingers. And that was that.

---

I didn't see my keepsakes again after that, but Allen came by a few years later and told me that each one of his girlfriends received a rose — crushed — and the story of what it meant, and that apparently he had quite a bit of success in deviating from the standard. And Erin, a few years after that, told me that she had given the box to her first boyfriend after two years of being together, and expected to marry him. I gave her my blessing and attended the wedding; it was a beautiful one.

And now, at the end of my days, I simply wait until I can see Terry again, and tell her how much Erin looked like she did at our wedding.
talonkarrde: (Default)
For Liz — [livejournal.com profile] _asherah_

(I figured I'd do the Christmas ones first, and as usual, this is a bit late. It's still Christmas in...uh...Tonga?)

---

It's been the little moments that hit me the hardest. The big pieces — the awful emptiness of the house, the passenger seat in the car, the empty side of the bed — can be neatly compartmentalized, explained to the therapist, and dealt with, generally with distractions and work and staying busy and doing a relentless job of making sure the kids are where they should be, when they need to be there, and have what they want. Staying busy makes it so that there isn't enough time to carefully study the large, gaping hole that's been in our lives; it's hanging a blanket in front of it and as long as no one studies it too closely, we all get by — more or less.

But every once in a while the blanket slips, and hole only seems to have grown larger since the last time we looked at it. Like the way that our — my — seven year old, Jessica, tilts her head at me some mornings after examining her lunchbox and says that her lunch isn't packed quite right; that one line destroys me every time, though I can usually keep it to myself until after the bus comes and I see her up the steps. I'm fighting the tears as it pulls up to the street corner, so much so that I can't make out the doorknob when I turn around.

Or how after cleaning the house relentlessly every weekend (even though I hated cleaning before), after vacumning and sweeping and dusting, there's still Shadow's fur, somehow, even though everything's been cleaned a thousand times before and it should've been picked up last week, or the week before, or somewhere in the five months since it's been since the accident. Every time I see the telltale black hair, I can't help but listen for the scratching at the door that never comes, can't help but feel the wet slobber on my toes that means it's really — and Shadow means really — time to get up, on the weekends.

Sunday mornings are the worst, when Rose and I used to wake up around nine or ten and simply lie there and talk, hold each other close, and wait for one of the children or Shadow to scratch at our bedroom door. Sometimes, one of the kids would let him out, and so we would lie in blissful peace until eleven or twelve, called downstairs only by the growling in our bellies. 

Nowadays, I set an alarm for 7:00 a.m., before the sun gets a chance to cast its rays on the bed, before the tentative knock on the door by one of my daughters looking for breakfast — or, sometimes, when they're not fully awake, for their mother.

When I brought it up, the therapist said that it will get better with time, as the memories fade. The first time I heard it, I was struck by the unimaginable cruelty of the statement — these memories were all I had left of them, and the only thing that would make it better was forgetting? Bullshit, I said angrily, I want a better answer. But she only shook her head, looking apologetic, and said the words I wanted to hear the least.

"You have to learn to move on, John, and you need to face it to do so."

As if I could just move on from someone who had been a part of my life for so long. But she said — using my metaphor, of all things — that instead of hiding the hole, I needed to accept it, that I needed to spend a few minutes each day thinking of the accident, of what we had and lost, and make my peace with it. And more importantly, she said that I had to move on because it was the only way that my daughters would grow up at peace with it as well, and that struck a chord in me, I guess.

I had always tried to be a good father and do right by them, and now I was the only one left.

It was hard at first. No, it was worse than that, it was fucking terrible — purposely calling up memories of the two of them, of trips to the park and playing with other pet owners and wrestling with the adorable dog for a frisbee — all it did was paralyze me, until I was breaking down at work, in the car, my body wracked with sobs as I pictured their last moments, the small Mini turning sideways as the SUV came barrelling towards them.

That didn't last very long. Instead, I simply... slowed down a bit. I moved a bit less quickly to busy myself with the next chore and the next, and simply let some things remind me of them, sometimes. In time, it did get easier; I never forgot about any of the memories we shared, but they became... softer. I could still tell you what Shadow smelled like when we adopted him from the animal shelter, or what Rose wore on our first date together, but it wasn't as present; it was more like seeing a vision faraway, a bit hazy from the distance, and that made it a bit easier to deal with.

When I told the therapist this — seven months after the day — she nodded, telling me that it was a normal part of the process. I would never lose them, she said to me, but it would be easier because I didn't remember it as distinctly, and there were different, other ways to remember and cherish them, ones that wouldn't hurt like that. 

And then, just when I thought things were going well, she asked me what I had planned for Christmas. The holiday season was always tough on people, she said, especially the first one after a death in the family.

Christmas had always been 'an event' in our household. We wouldn't say it was any more special than what anyone else did, but there was a certain order to the season and to Christmas Eve and the day of in particular — we always got a tree from our local tree farm two weeks before Christmas itself, and decorated the tree not just with the usual baubles and lights, but also small pictures from our scrapbooks — it was a way to remember moments that we had all forgotten through the year. Christmas morning, Rose and I always stayed awake until 2 a.m. to put the presents under the tree; we were very careful not to let either of the kids catch us, though of course they tried, but we always engineered an active and exciting Christmas Eve of family time, and they always nodded off before one in the morning, despite their best efforts.

But this year...I hadn't given thought to what I would be doing, partially because I was busy, and mostly because I had managed to block it out fairly successfully, living a day, or sometimes two, at a time. It was just about two weeks before Christmas, and I made the trip right on time to get the douglas fir. After planting it in the middle of the living room, I went to the attic to get the decorations, and then froze solid when I came to the box and remembered what was inside. I simply couldn't open it, no matter how much I wanted to; I had only gone a few weeks with only the dull ache inside me, and wasn't particularly wanting to stab myself in the heart again.

I don't know how long I stayed there, sweating, standing a few feet from the box and trying to levitate the baubles out without disturbing the pictures; it was only after my older daughter Rachel called for me was I able to move. I must have been a sight — sweating buckets, shivering, standing there frozen like a deer with invisible headlights shining on me. In a fit of desperation — or maybe determination — I grabbed the box as I answered her call and headed back upstairs, ignoring what I was holding and focusing very hard on my daughter's request and her voice.

The box then laid next to the tree, for a day, two, and then a week, as Christmas crept closer and closer. I just couldn't touch it. Instead, I went out and bought gifts for the kids (in the spirit of equal opportunity, both a 'girly' gift — a doll, and some makeup set thing for Rachel — and a less girly one — a science set and a remote-controlled car) and managed to buy myself some socks and a belt that I probably needed.

Wrapping them was another quest that I hadn't really had the chance to master, but it was important to get it right, and I ended up going through pretty much a whole roll of it in my relentless pursuit of perfection. The presents ended up without any noticable creases, though, with the folds correct and neat, and in the quiet moments after doing so, I reflected that Rose would have probably approved, and felt something besides sadness for the first time since the accident while thinking about her. But I still didn't touch the box.

And then it was Christmas Eve, and we watched TV and went out for some shopping, and as the day wound down, I put the kids to bed. They never commented on the bare tree, for which I was very thankful. And around 3 a.m. — a bit later this year, because 2 a.m. didn't feel right — I snuck out to place the presents by the tree. It was still green, and still alive, and still missing all of the ornaments. But no matter how much I wanted to, no matter how much I told myself that I had to, I couldn't open the box. I must've sat there for half an hour, looking at the tree, but in the end, shamefully, I went to bed, slamming the door behind me, and fell into a sleep that was mercifully dreamless.

But when the alarm woke me up at 7:00a.m., when I walked into the living room, the tree wasn't empty and green, but bright and shining, with red and green and white balls hung, the star affixed to the top, and — and — the pictures as well, hung neatly on the tree, each 2x3 inch photo extruding happiness from Disneyland, and the park, and our wedding, and everywhere else we had ever taken pictures.

I sat down, not entirely intentionally, and heard Jessica behind me, still clutching her blanket. "Morning, daddy. Rachel says Santa put up the ornaments on the tree!"

And before I even turned to meet Rachel's eyes, I knew; it was enough that my immediate instinct was to flee and lock my door and take a forty minute shower where the tears wouldn't be discernable. But I couldn't move, my eyes still flicking over each picture, remembering where each was taken, cherishing the moments, and the world blurred as I felt a pair of arms wrap around me from behind.

"Merry Christmas, dad," my elder daughter said quietly, and I could only close my eyes and nod, bringing her around and hugging her back fiercely, sobbing only a bit. Jessica came over for the hug as well, and we all took a bit of time to cry, and smile, and remember those we had lost. But we didn't hide from it for once, and the hole seemed a bit smaller because we were here together, on Christmas.

And after a bit of skillful extraction of arms and bodies, the girls opened their presents, and I faked looking surprised at my belt and socks. But there was one present under the tree that I hadn't seen, wrapped in last year's 'Santa and sleigh' wrapping paper, a small, flat object, with small neat handwriting on it that said, simply: 'To Dad'.

Taking more care on it than anything else I recall in my life, I slowly slid my fingernail under the tape, gently lifting the fold and removing the object from the wrapping paper. It was a frame, a picture, one of the ones that must have been in the box with the others.

I flipped it over, and saw the four of us, and Shadow, smiling together from the dining room table, with a cake in front of us. It was from my last birthday, and someone must have set the timer on the camera at the other end of the table, as we were clustered at the far end, smiling, Shadow with his tongue lolling out of his mouth and looking goofy as always.

"I think, maybe, mom would've wanted you to have this," Rachel said quietly, and all I could do is gather the two of them up for another hug, thanking anyone listening for being the luckiest father in the world. And from under my arm, Jessica chimed in.

"And I think maybe mom would've wanted us to get another dog from the shelter, daddy."

And somehow, I knew that my daughters were both right — that somewhere, my wife just paused in her ball-tossing with Shadow to send a smile our way.
talonkarrde: (color)
It's actually been quite a long time since I've written (fiction, at least) and I'm actually currently visiting family for four days (and in Arizona) and so I'm in a fairly good position to do stretch those writing muscles. Semi-inspired by [livejournal.com profile] joeymichaels, though I've been doing it for RL friends for a few years, but this is the first time offering to the internet community.

No promises for Christmas Day, but I will say that (barring unforeseen circumstances) these will be delivered before New Years. Give me a prompt, as detailed or vague as you'd like (with or without genre/word count/a specific line you want in it/anything at all), and let me know if you'd like it posted here or emailed to you.

No refunds! No returns! I reserve the right to first refusal if you ask me to write something that I have no idea whatsoever about (but if I think I can pull it off, I will most certainly do research and try and make it good). Insert other disclaimers here, to cover the fact that this is actually a bit scary to do.

Oh, and Merry Christmas, my friends; may your home be warm, your dreams close, and your family closer.

---

List:

For [livejournal.com profile] yachiru: DONE
Speak Easy (Steampunk)

For [livejournal.com profile] michikatinski:
"It was a dark and scary Christmas night." (romantic comedy)

For [livejournal.com profile] takenoko:
Waking Up In Vegas

For [livejournal.com profile] rejeneration: DONE (emailed)
From the Foundations

For [livejournal.com profile] joeymichaels: DONE
Controlled Burn

For [livejournal.com profile] beautyofgrey: DONE
'A crushed rose and an empty box'

For [livejournal.com profile] attheonesix:
Underground Kings

For [livejournal.com profile] _asherah_: DONE
Christmas after tragedy

For [livejournal.com profile] crimsonplum:
Something I said, or someone I know
(involving a flash forward/flashback)
talonkarrde: (Default)
(for Ashley)

In some worlds, and some lives, she never made it to this college. I haven’t been able to find one where we meet in those ones; we’re (excuse the pun) worlds apart, even if we inhabit the same one. It’s just too cosmically unlikely until you get to a truly ludicrous number of quantum worlds, and well, anything’s possible once you have enough monkeys.

In other ones, she goes to college, but she doesn’t apply for the job before ever getting there, which changes the timeline unbelievably. Or maybe it’s believable if you study chaos theory and butterfly effects and whatnot, but I’m always surprised how many things change, how many friendships turn out differently — it’s a remarkably prescient decision at an early time.

It’s after those two huge divergences are taken care of that we come to the sheaf of worlds wherein we meet. Though we don’t share any classes, we work together, and thus we become good friends in most of these worlds. I’d say all, but I’d say it with a sort of look on my face, and then I’d try to fix it, and then she’s say something like ‘you need to fix your believable face’ and then we’d both laugh about it as I agreed. But I’m getting off topic; the point is that in the worlds where we don’t get along, it’s usually because I’m being an ass. 

You know, like usual, except that I’ve always had the luck of friends like her who could see past it. But that’s neither here nor there, either.

What’s here, though, right at this tributary of the giant stream, this is where it gets interesting, where the smaller tendrils of time cross and weave and create a mesh and interchangeably arrive at roughly the same place — I think it telling that even though hundreds of small details may be different (shifts we had together, time spent talking, what we were respectively better at, who we fired, which restaurant we’d drink together at...) the flow, as it were, is enough to keep us going in the same direction, in contact with one another.

But when my path changes sharply, as I change jobs pretty rapidly in a year, she follows at first... and then my path changes again, and that’s where it gets tough, and the timelines get pretty murky.

See, in some of them, she follows, and in some of them, she doesn’t, and our paths start to diverge — not much, but in a year or two, it’ll be quite different from a year ago, even if it’s still pretty close. And then a year after that, the decisions change even more things, and it’s impossible to tell anything with any probability. Prognostication isn’t an exact science; hell, it’s not even much of an art.

Anyway — in some of these timelines, she stays where she is, a single, strong thread that is relatively alone but shines on without much support until it draws others out of the area around her; in others, she retreats back to where she grew up, and curls around her family and the friends that are back there, taking strength and giving strength in equal parts. But those two options aren’t the majority.

The majority of them involve staying where she is now and dimming after a bit, after more than a few tries to change and join the other recent strands that have gone out West recently. It looks like she’s rebuffed, time and time again, and she loses hope after more than a reasonable number of tries. Those timelines join with the others, but they’re less bright — at least for a little while. Those are the majority.

But there’s also a sizable minority of potentialities where she does make it out with the others that have cast away from their homes, and it’s almost like nothing changed after college, except, of course, that they’re all changing the world now. In some of those, she takes a retail job first, in others, she moves down with her aunt, but in all of them, she takes a risk, leaps into the air...and forgets to fall, instead soaring with the others.

Granted, it’s only a minority of worlds where this happens.

But here’s the thing, the crux, the takeaway, the Truth with a capital T and an iron edge to it:

She has two things going for her, more than other people.

The first is her support structure. One of her friends may be kind of an ass, one of them is still emotionally twelve, and one of them is pretty obsessed with snow...but they play their parts. And of her sisters, one is in a tough spot, another one has drifted some, and another she didn’t really honestly care for that much...but they’re her sisters, in the end. And for her family, well, her family ties are better than most, and full of good advice. This makes a big difference.

And the second is herself — but everyone has themselves, you may be saying, and  ‘excuse me, can I finish?’ — she learns, which not everyone can claim. She’ll take a situation, in any of these worlds, and come out better for it, whether it’s going back down to the base position to learn new technical skills, moving away from everyone and then learning about what it means to live by yourself in a foreign land, or learning that making toilets isn’t what she wants to do for the rest of her life. She grows and adapts and changes and learns and loses — pounds, that is — because she has the discipline to do so.

So however it turns out, she’ll be okay, because she has herself, and us. No matter which future happens, it leads, always, into another one, a brighter one, the one that she wants to be in. It doesn’t always come easy, but it always comes: for the one of her that struggles with school, for the one that doesn’t get everything easily, for the one that can’t get into the job she wants, all of it is temporary. All the timelines flow upwards, even when a bell-shaped curve should see some of them go down.

It’s remarkable, really. Or maybe it’s just something that the rest of us should aspire to, because we all should have such powers. Hypothetically, at least. We don’t all have someone looking over the timelines and doing analytics on them, of course, but I could be persuaded— oh, right.

Here’s the thing to keep in mind. Because she learns, all she has to do is not give up. If you think about a situation where there are infinite versions of you, and you keep learning after every experience — well, even if you’ve failed, there’s a world in which you’ve already picked yourself up already, and gone on to do better things. And if you think about it as following footsteps that are already present... well, aren’t the easiest shoes to fit in your own? The possibilities, really, all collapse into one equation, where life might set her back, but she doesn’t let it keep her back — and as well she shouldn’t.

All she really needs to do is be herself, and there’s really nothing she can’t do. Or, you know, hasn’t done, or won’t do. Time’s a bit weird like that.

---

This was long (as in, two years) overdue, but I hope it was worth the wait.

Leaves

Dec. 27th, 2010 08:54 am
talonkarrde: (color)
For Siyi

---

A picture of a post-apocalyptic library, with books still on shelves but trees growing through the floor

He was finally starting to think of the library as his, as a place of sanctuary and refuge, when she appeared, sitting there as if she owned the place.

It was a day like any other; a long ride around two in the afternoon to twenty-seventh street, a diversion into an alley to hide his trusty one-speed titanium-alloy blue Schwinn — his most treasured possession — and finally, a short crawl through a break in the wall to enter the structure (it wasn’t really a building anymore, per se, what with not having a roof) itself.

Though his mother complained about the hour long ride into the ruins of New York, the library being so far away from the camp meant that no one but roving stragglers would be in the area. It meant security and safety, a place to hide when things were bad at home, and because of that, he was always very careful when he made the journey. He watched for shadows that weren’t his and took a more roundabout path when he even had the slightest suspicion that anyone might be following, and it had worked so far. The few times he had seen figures in the distance, whether following him or not, he made sure to lose them before sneaking into the library, trusting that the locked, barred, and rusted metal doors would hold, and that no one would be able to find his secret entrance.

And the library had always stood against intruders, even that one time when it seemed like the biker gang knew he was inside, and tried to force the doors open. He had curled up under a table, shivering, his eyes flitting from the door and his secret entrance, wondering what he’d do if they came through either. In the end, though, they gave up and he resolved to be twice as careful, and nothing like that ever happened again.

But for all his plans of secondary routes and hidden alleyways and loopbacks, he had never thought about what would happen if someone had found the sanctuary and was waiting for him inside. Certainly, he had never even come close to formulating a plan for anything like her: a girl who looked about about his age, blond hair in a ponytail, calmly sitting there with a book in her hands, reading as if this were before everything fell apart.

So he stared.

After a few moments, she looked up at him and smiled.

“Oh, so this place belongs to more than just the trees.” She patted the trunk of the one next to her, the one that had sprouted right in the middle of the library floor and climbed all the way to the ceiling, where its canopy filled in some of where the roof used to be.

“Wha-where-how’d you—” he sputtered, gesturing behind him and around him, coming up short for words. Her voice was musical and teasing and something else he wasn’t quite sure he could put a finger on. Happy, he realized later, something that hadn’t been familiar to him lately.

“The same way you came through, of course. The doors certainly weren’t going to open, and even if they were, that wouldn’t be a good idea, now would it? And I’m even smaller than you, and so I fit through just fine, and you didn’t even notice that someone had moved the bush and—” And then she suddenly realized that she was talking a bit too quickly, speaking without thinking about what she was saying, that somehow, she had started babbling. To a complete stranger, no less.

Her teeth clicked together as she stopped mid-sentence, waiting for him to respond, suddenly less confident than she had been. And still he stood there, still surprised, and she noticed, still staring.

“Um. I hope you don’t mind that I started in on your collection,” she said, lifting the book and showing him the cover. A story by Robin Hobb, one of the ones he had read. A very good book, actually, and he wondered if she had picked it by chance.

“No, that’s fine- I mean- it’s not like it’s—” And then he fell silent as well, trying to figure out what to do. She wasn’t here to use the books as firewood, certainly; it didn’t look like she was here to rob him, either. As for what she was here for...well, there was only one way to find out, wasn’t there?

“Did you like it?” He asked.

#


The next few weeks were much like the ones before, except that from two to five in the afternoon, the two of them would meet and read, and most of all, talk. They talked about their lives, their hobbies, and their favorite authors and books, and there was something in the ease of their bickering, their teasing, their flirting, and their talking. Back when the world had six billion people, these two finding each other would’ve been special; the fact that they existed in the three million people that were left — and met each other — was a miracle.

Or maybe, as the stories told, it was fate.

#


As he pedaled to the library two weeks later, he looked down at the basket in front of him, at the carnations inside. It was a gesture from before the cities fell, when flowers were rare enough that there were specialized stores that sold them. Nowadays they were everywhere, mixed with the weeds, and much of the meaning had been forgotten. Even so, he knew that she’d appreciate them, and rose early to get his scavenging shift done with enough time to pick the flowers for her.

She was waiting for him when he arrived, wearing the aviator shades he had found a week ago, another book in her lap; it was almost a deja vu of their first meeting, though this time, she was sitting on a rock in the alley outside. She looked up and waved as he pulled up.

“Hey,” she said softly, closing the book she was holding. Robin Hobb, again.

“Hey - waiting for me to go in? You didn’t have to, it’s not locked,” he said, smiling, as he leaned the bike against the wall.

“No, not...quite,” she said, looking up at him as he came over but not meeting his eyes, not matching his smile.

A guy leaning over a girl, a bike in the background.

“What is it, then?” he asked, hearing something in her tone of voice. He stopped in front of her, flowers forgotten, and then, reached out, slowly, to take the glasses off.

Her eyes were red and the tear tracks were obvious.

“I- I have to go. My parents, they’re...leaving, they’re taking the car and looking to head out to the West, see if there are bigger pockets of civilization left. They told me that we’re leaving at the end of today and that we’ve already been here longer than we should have, and that if I needed to say goodbye, I should do it now. We’ll be back in a year, they said.”

And like when they met, all he could do is stare until she broke him out of it.

“So, I was hoping...” she started, lifting the book in her lap weakly. “That you could part with some of your books, so that I could take them with me, and read them on the way, and...” so I’ll never forget, she doesn’t quite say.

“And then you can bring them back to me, and we’ll talk about them, right?” It was, they both knew, more a wish than a statement, but it was the best he could do. He tried to smile, and mostly succeeded. “Take anything you want, but promise me that you’ll be back within a year — otherwise, I’ll have to start charging overdue fines!”

She nodded, glad that he was playing along, and took his hand, leading him to the secret entrance. She walked into the library with him one last time, taking a few books here and there — a book of short stories, a history book, a love story — and finally came back out, ending up where they started.

“A year,” he said to her, taking her hands and putting a carnation in them. “I’ll see you here, inside the library, next year, okay? I’ll be here every day between now and then, in case you decide to come back early, if you’ve finished all of them.”

She nodded slowly, staring at him, trying to memorize every last detail before she left. And then she did leave, backpack over her shoulder, flower in her hair, and he turned to go back into the library, to find a very specific book — a calendar. Every day, he would draw a mark through the day on the calendar, counting down until she’d come back.

And every day, he would look forward to the afternoon he’d find her sitting there again, a new book in her hands, waiting for him to show up.
talonkarrde: (young wizards)

For Rose

---


Nita said the five words and took a careful step, and then another, dodging the breakers and running over the water towards the Made Rocks. Kit had said something about investigating a hotspot before she fell asleep, she thought, but
she didn't quite remember why she had to be there.

As she got closer, though, she realized that it was getting a bit lighter with every step she took. The sun wasn’t getting brighter, exactly – it was more than everywhere was getting brighter. And once she she realized what it was, she smiled and doubled her efforts to get to the old fishing platform. She hadn’t been here in awhile – but the trip, when the Powers granted it, was always worth it.


In the distance, on the platform, she would’ve sworn that something was even brighter yet, even though everything was reaching a level of luminescence that would have made the sun dim – and Nita would know, having been up close and personal with it more than once. After experiencing Timeheart a few times, Nita had learned to stare into the brightness instead of away from it. But this brightness was something else – it kept moving, for one, which is not something most lights did.

Nita suddenly realized who it was and broke into a run, sliding a bit on the water but ignoring that, grinning madly and shouting a greeting, almost tempted to try and hug the spark, the white hole that accompanied her first journey as a wizard.

“Fred!”

(Dear Artificer,) Fred said, doing a figure eight in midair, the equivalent of a grin. (I've blown my quanta and gone to the Good Place!)

“Freddd!” Nita said again, drawing the name out in response to the teasing as the white hole bobbed a tight spiral in what was a big smile.

(You're here too soon again, you know,) he said kindly to her, the words coming across as light, dancing across her skin in a way that was almost ticklish.

"I know, Fred. I’m just visiting; something Kit said last night drew me here. Remembering, I guess, what I used to be. Maybe it will be important tomorrow?”

(There are no accidents, you know. Even back then – you were so young and eager. And you cared very much - about that pen, about doing the right thing, about Kit too. You’re older now, but no less caring.) Fred wove tight circles around her, pulsing happily against her skin.

She blushed a bit, not sure what to say about that, and then looked around them. She could see for miles under the sea and across the sky; in the distance, Manhattan was a pristine crystal palace. Then she looked back at him and frowned a bit, remembering all of their losses and repeating her question from the first meeting. “Was it worth it, Fred? You told me to find out, and we’ve…we’ve changed things for the better. But was it worth it?"

He laughed and emitted light that went across through the entire electromagnetic spectrum, a pure whoop of joy. Nita felt her hair stand up and grinned; he always did forget about the high frequency radiation, though it didn’t matter here.

(It's always worth it, Nita. Look.) And Fred bobbed towards the surface of water, where a sharp grey fin much larger than normal was making a wave more commonly seen behind motorboats.

Normally, Nita would've started saying in her mind the three word spell that would've created a physical wall, protecting herself from the mindless hunger of the shark, but this was Timeheart, after all. And even if it hadn’t been, she knew this particular shark very well, and dove into the water without second thought, canceling her water-walking spell as she went. She wasn't surprised to find that it took only a thought and she had transformed into a humpback again; the eyes on opposite sides of her head, her binocular vision reduced to a couple degrees.

But humpbacks didn’t need to see: Nita didn’t dally as she sang an effusive hello to Ed, rolling on her back and offering her belly in a greeting that only held for a few seconds before she surged forward, singing constantly in her giddiness.

"Hello, Sprat," his voice came, dry as always, his eyes still as dark as night and yet alive with the light that was all around them.

"Ed! What’s it like, Ed?" She even nudged him a bit in her mix of relief and worry, feeling the rough shark skin against the her smooth
rubber of a humpback like the handshake of an old friend. "Did we do right? Do you ever regret-"

"Sprat, you almost sound distressed." His sandpaper voice against her skin was a feeling Nita hadn't felt for years, a feeling that she desperately missed. "You've been here many times now, and you still ask?"

"Well," she fluked backwards rapidly, a whale's embarrassed gesture. "I'm just...asking, Ed. I'm…worried."

Ed bumped her in the snout then, harder than Kit would have, a reminder as to who he was. Timeheart or not, the Master Shark still had and performed his duties. He swam in a circle around Nita, his passionless eyes reminding her that he never changed. And yet…"Before we sang, Sprat, I remarked that I would never hear that which the Blues sing of - the Voices of the Ocean, the Tranquility of the Seas. Now I have."

"Did we-" she started to ask. But this was Timeheart, and she was thinking it so hard, so desperately, that he opened his jaw, showing her the teeth that could have ripped her apart and reminding her again of his creed. "The Sea tells me the price was paid by willing substitution, Sprat. And willing it was. You, young and now loving; I, old and now loved. I am not sorry for what happened." He swam under her and nudged her again, upwards. "Timeheart waits, Nita. But there is still distress out there, distress to be cured."

"Thank you, Ed." She said, singing gently and quietly. She fluked downwards, once, twice, to brush against him one more time, to remind herself of the price - and the reward - of serving the Powers That Be. Ed drew away and then stopped, rolling to display his belly to her - only
for a second, of course, but it was done. And then, calmly as always, he turned and swam away, a dark shadow that grew lighter every moment as he returned to the Sea.

When she could no longer see him, she swam for the light above, heading towards the surface as it got brighter, and brighter still, and finally woke up to the morning sun on her face and the sound of her dad and Dairine downstairs, arguing about what soil composition would be best for Filif.

She smiled, grabbed her manual, and paged through it, feeling the buzz and already knowing what she'd find.

Delayed Temporalspatial Message from Rodriguez, K. Accept?

Yes, she thought, and the notice cleared, replaced with two lines.

Hey, Neets, I was thinking we'd go over some of the undersea samples again -
There's weird power signature in it. Maybe get a chance to talk to S’reee again?”


She got dressed in a hurry and then opened her bedroom door to listen to the conversation - apparently they had moved on to the behavior of Spot...which meant they wouldn’t miss her anytime soon.

Nita smiled to herself, dropped her manual into the otherspace pocket, and disappeared in a clap of air.


talonkarrde: (Default)

For Siyi

---

She's the artsy type, known for her love of literature and film. She catches every movie, especially the ones that push the boundaries of the genre. She has a gift for storytelling, too. She's okay with the compliment; she knows what parts of a story people want to hear, how to spin out the details to be much more dramatic than they actually happened, where to keep people guessing and when to reveal the ending for maximum effect.

But when they say "Oh, I wish I could have your life! Your life is like a movie!" she wants nothing more than to yell, 'My life is not a fucking thing like a movie.' But she does not; she merely smiles the fake smile that all teenagers learn to use and turns the conversation to other topics, letting chatter take over while she crumbles inside.

My life is not like a movie, she wants to say, because in movies, the hero pretty much always overcomes the obstacles arranged against them, and she knew that there would never be a happy ending for her. Studios don't make films that begin with misery and conclude with despair, and that was the only plot in her life. The latest prognosis gave her a 15% chance, down from the 40% of two months ago…and she knew why. Her body was breaking down, and none of the drugs were going to stop it.

Her life is not like an action movie, she thinks, because justice has never been there when she has needed it; it did not defend the weak and downtrodden in real life. When she stumbled into the wrong alleyway while high, there was no superhero or gunslinger or martial artist that believed in doing the right thing to save her from the street punks that took everything from her. There was just violence and darkness. When she came to, she dragged herself to the hospital, but there was no cop willing to look for the gang, no attorney willing to press charges. Not enough evidence, they said, another way of saying she asked for it.

Her life is not a thriller, she knows, because there is no tension that builds up to a riveting climax, no terrible ways that people are killed and plot points that are slowly discovered. Just a downwards spiral for the last five years, each event's outcome bleeding into the next. Her dad getting forty-to-life for domestic violence, the parade of new boyfriends that treated her mother like a whore, the endless roaches in the homeless shelter, and finally, acute liver failure or alcohol poisoning that finally took her mother - the doctors couldn't decide which and it's not like it mattered.

"My life is not a movie!" she screams one day in class, unable to take it anymore. In a comedy, there would be laughter after the punchline; in a romance, her true love would find her in this moment; in a drama, the class would burst into applause. But she is correct; her life is not a movie, and there is simply silence, a silence that carries with it no hope of redemption or resolution.

Timekeeper

Jan. 1st, 2009 12:19 am
talonkarrde: (Default)
For Rachel

---

The shop’s sign was so old that she couldn’t make out what it actually said on it. Perhaps it was ‘Treasures of Men’ or ‘Dragons Den’; all she knew was that she had been here for years and had never seen it – surprising, because it clearly looked to be older than she was. She walked up to the door and tried to peer inside, but couldn’t make out any details in the dim light.

But she was curious, if nothing else; her teachers had learned to lock all of their cabinets and drawers after finding her poking in them once or twice. She didn’t usually get in trouble for it – she could talk her way out of almost anything – but there was that one time where her quiz grade was much better than normal...and a copy of the answers just managed to vanish from her fifth grade English teacher’s desk. Being called into the principal’s office and getting a ‘we’re almost positive you did this but have no proof’ was still bad enough of an experience that she stopped cheating, but nothing could stop her curious spirit.

So she pulled on the door, first with one hand and then with two. After a couple seconds of it resolutely refusing to open, swung wide so quickly she fell, injuring her dignity if nothing else. But she scampered to her feet and caught the door before it closed again, squeezing inside and taking a look all around her.

The shelves were close to one another and the ceiling was low enough that she would’ve almost been claustrophobic if she weren’t busy being amazed by all the wonderful things there were. An egg on the shelf to her left that pulsed with wonderful designs and moving pastel colors, a skull to her right in a velvet box that seemed to be human…and all sorts of fascinating things that belonged in a Halloween store or horror movie – but weren’t sloppily painted or cheap plastic; they all looked real. And as curious as she was, she was old enough to realize that touching these things was definitely not a good idea unless she had permission, so she contented herself with peering at them closely and trying to figure out what movies they had been in.

She finished walking through the two shelves and approached the back of the store, finally catching sight of the register (and thought, what if someone just hopped in and stole something? What naïve storekeeper had register at the back instead of the front?). There was an owl sitting on a hanging perch next to the register, and she marveled at the work that must have gone into the stuffing and balancing of the owl so that it didn’t fall — until it hooted at her, making her jump and almost crash into the shelves behind her in shock.

“Peace, Adrienne,” an old, gravelly voice called out, and while she tried to figure out from the voice whether crying or being a brat would get her out of trouble, the old man came out from behind what she could’ve sworn was a wall…but no, it was just a trick of the light, she saw that they were just curtains.

“Well?” the old man asked crankily, scratching at his chin.  He had the long ears that she could’ve sworn were pointed and a nose that was longer than anyone she had seen – in fact, she thought, if he had a long floppy hat and dark blue robes, he could be a stand-in for Merlin.

“Well, don’t just stand there, what are you looking for?” he asked again, sounding twice as impatient as he gently ran a finger down the owl’s side, eliciting a much softer hoot.

“Ah, just...well, I’m not really, I just wanted to look around.” She mumbled, unsure of how he would take that.

“You’re just looking around?” He asked incredulously, as if no one ever came into his shop to do that, and stared through her.

“Well, yes, I’ve never seen the shop before and it looked interesting and…” she trailed off as he turned to look at the owl, clearly not paying attention to her. The owl hooted softly again, and the old man sighed.

“Very well,” he said, answering a question that was never asked, and slowly drew back the cloth that was covering the display case. What was underneath convinced her that this was no ordinary antique or Halloween shop, because none of the antique stores had anything like this. In fact, even the jewelry stores that she had been to with her mom had nothing like these.

In the display case were five pocketwatches made out of five different materials, each one clear glass on the front and the back, showing all the gears. The gold one had a large intricate butterfly knob on the side to wind it up; the silver watch had no knob at all. There was one made of obsidian and shaped like an arrowhead, it was darker and almost reddish at the bottom, and clear on top…and one of gleaming platinum, most like a regular pocketwatch, complete with chain and small knob to wind. How someone could carve wood into such precise gears for the final watch was a mystery to her, but it looked it like it was designed to be worn as a pendant, with a string passing through the top, and she reached for it, forgetting that there was the glass in the way.

The old man smiled…but not kindly, more the smile of a teacher who is giving a test he knows you will do poorly on. Without saying a word, he took the case holding the pocketwatches out and set it on top of the counter, letting her take a closer look.

“I am a collector,” he said, pausing until she looked up at him. “And in my collection I have acquired these timekeepers. Each one is different, each one has the power to change your life. I will not tell you what the others do, only the one that you choose. I will, however, tell you one more thing, and answer one question. The one thing is this: the gold and the obsidian can only be used a limited number of times.”

She looked at each of them set out before her, staring at the faces and watching the second hands turn, and began to notice small details. Tiny buds on the wood, the sweeping motion of the platinum arrows moving much more smoothly than the precise ticking of the needle-like lines of silver. She looked over each one for quite some time, and the old man and the owl watched patiently, knowing that some things were not to be rushed. She did not touch them; he did not offer to let her.

“Some of them have marks, does that—”

“Some of them have been used,” he answered, and said no more.

Finally, she pointed at the deep brown-red of the mahogany, and he gestured for her to take it. Slowly, hesitatingly, she reached out and took it from the case, marveling at how snugly it fit in her palm, and at the loop of cord that had no beginning or end, and looked like the wood had grown around it. She looked up at him, waiting to hear what it was her choice did, and was surprised to see what almost looked like a smile on his face, though it quickly disappeared.

“The living wood; the only piece that was not fashioned with tools and heat. Be strong…but allow yourself to bend sometimes. Allow yourself to be uprooted sometimes, so you can taste new soil elsewhere. And let your friends be the wind and sun; although they may not be near you, they will be with you.”

She stared at him, waiting for more, until he snorted grumpily.

“Well, off be with you, unless you intend to pay me with confused looks.”

She scampered off, then, slipping the cord around her neck and tucking it under her shirt, practically running out the door in her haste to get out before he changed his mind and had her pay for something she certainly would never be able to afford. Her mind refused to stay on anything as she headed home, calling up the strangest memories (first time she tasted berry sherbet, seeing who could jump farther off the swings and breaking her ankle but winning!, seeing her dad leave home again for another three month deployment). She didn’t even realize when she got home, and immediately fell into bed, into a dreaming sleep where experiences kept turning into other ones.

In the morning, she found a tiny flower growing right out of the wood where none had been the night before, a flower she isn’t sure what to do with. But a letter on her desk is addressed to her, and it tells her to save the flowers and smell one when she feels like time has been cruel.

And she does, and it saves her more often than once.

#

The next eight years passed as they did for all teenagers: with heartbreak and happiness, confusion and determination (even if wrongheaded, sometimes). But throughout it all, she maintained a quiet aura of strength about her. She became the supporting trunk of her group of friends, always there for them, and yet never seemed to need it herself; whenever she was in trouble, she simply paused, a tree letting the wind pass through her branches. They didn’t know of the pendant that she would look at every night, watching as it somehow grew tiny buds and flowers, as it grew as she did, and strengthened as she became strong. The times were not all good for her and not all the flowers blossomed, but the pendant and her lived and grew.

But what happened in those eight years are her life, and we do not belong there. Our story ends, then, when the pendant shatters.

#

She comes back the night that it breaks, her mind whirling and confused, and he comes with her; his name is Jessie, and they have been seeing each other for a year now.

She runs along the sidewalk, trying to find the shop. It’s one of these, she says to herself, it has to be, please let it still be here. Jessie doesn’t know why they’re here, but he doesn’t care – it’s important to her, and so he won’t question, only support.

“There!” She yells, finding an old shop, and yanks hard on the door. And again, like eight years ago, it resists her until Jessie touches the handle; then it springs open as if greased. She almost runs through the store – but checks herself, remembering the precious items; even in a situation like this, she knew that breaking anything in here would probably be unwise. So she shuffles sideways between the shelves that she could have sat down crosslegged between all those years ago, and finally comes to the register.

Adrienne doesn’t need to hoot this time, for the old man is already there, looking exactly like he did all those years ago, a fact that does not surprise her...but his face is kind, a look that does surprise her.

Though she could say a thousand about how it happened and how sorry she was and how she would do anything to get it back, she only says three words; they are the only important ones.

“I broke it.”

And he nods solemnly, responding with two.

“Show me.”

She reaches towards her neck unconsciously until she realizes that it is no longer there, and then jerks her hand back down towards her jacket pocket, fishing out a plastic ziplock with the shattered remains of the pendant inside. Its gears no longer mesh, the second hand is bent, and the hour hand is snapped off halfway; the wood around the outside has warped and the glass seems poised to pop off, ready to shower the bag with wooden shards.

She sets it on the display and he looks at it critically for a moment, and then up at her…and then past her, at Jessie, who has come to stand beside her and hold her hand. Again, a brief flash of what she now recognizes as a smile, though she does not understand what could possibly be happy at such a time.

He motions for her to open the bag and dump the contents on the display and she does, her hands trembling and recoiling as she touches an edge of the timepiece. He nods, looking over them, and then takes out a small hammer from behind the display.

“Wha—” she almost shrieks, cut off as he brings the hammer down on the pocketwatch. Adrienne hoots reproachfully from her position, but the old man motions everyone to silence, taking what she could swear was a wand and lifting the cord away from the absolutely shattered remains…

And as the cord untangles from the dust and remains, Adrienne gasps, seeing a solid knot of wood at the end of the cord.

“The mahogany timepiece grows with its keeper, reminding you of what is important in your life until it is no longer needed. I don’t need to ask how it broke; you decided that that he should see what it was…and it shattered the moment he touched it. The gift only stays with you as long as you need it; you have learned from it, and it needed to shed all the particular branches and flowers that you had given to it. Now it can grow anew, and help someone else the way it helped you - and you have another tree to lean on, another's branches to be cradled in.”

He does smile now, but it is a smile directed at Jessie, who can't help but smile back. He doesn’t understand all of it, and on some level doesn’t want to – but he understands the compliment he has been paid and his smile is an affirmation of the responsibility he has been given.

“Let it go….”

She nods through her tears, finding the strong pillar of support within her even without the pendant, and turns to the old man. “Thank you,” she says, trying to communicate a thousand different things she is thankful for, but he waves towards the door, never one for too much emotion.

“Live well and remember what it has taught you,” he says, and then grins, and she sees a bit of his spirit underneath the gruff exterior. “Well, off be with you, unless you intend to pay with your confused looks. I don't believe we will ever meet again...but perhaps a child of yours, one day, if he or she is in need.”

And they smile at him and take their leave as the knot slowly unfolds to show a new timepiece, small and yet as strong as its previous owner.

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