The kitten is a small, shivering thing, so scrawny that its ribs are clearly visible through thin layers of skin and muscle and fur. Rain drums hard against its side, drips off its whiskers. It breathes slowly, pathetically; its eyes are closed. The taste of malice hangs heavily in the air, like miasma. All the blood has long since vanished.
He squats down. The hem of his kimono drags against the wet ground and soaks up water, turns dark with it. As though it senses his presence, one eye rolls open. It’s filmed over in white, but it sees him, and it hates. Deeply and desperately it hates, so that its entire world is encompassed. Given time and momentum, it could become something that should not exist. He can see the potential there, hovering dark and restless.
A growl rises from the kitten’s throat. The sound tapers into a wheezing whine. He puts his hand against the kitten’s side. It hisses again, showing off its teeth. They’re yellow and brittle, just like the bones under his palm. Malice continues to bristle and rise at him; he ignores it.
“This world,” he whispers, “is not for you.”
There are nights that her hips ached with the memory of what she’d lost, and her chest feels so tight she can scarcely breathe. She turns her face to the night sky as the moon comes out, round and heavy as her growing belly, and she remembers: how her wingmates would soar across the sky, the wind sharp and clean through her own wings.
Here is no spear for her now, no battlefield and no enemies; there is just the long stretching silence of quiet life, day and night, and the only voice other than hers is–
Hands settle upon her shoulders. They are heavy and scarred with calluses and worse, spread wide against her skin. She closes her eyes and leans back; her husband is a warm solid presence against her back. Even now, months later, there is the smell of blood lingers around him. It brings back to her the memory of the battlefield, the weight of her Psypher, and again the stretch and spread of her wings. She remembers flight so acutely it hurts; there is a longing that curls in her belly and fills her throat until she can no longer speak.
She opens her eyes and sees the world as it is, as it must be, as it will always remain. She covers his hand with one of hers, feeling the strength of his fingers. Wind rustles the trees and slides through her unbound hair, but the heat of him against her back does not change; her Oswald is solid shadow, steady as the earth that is beneath her feet. He puts a hand upon her belly as she watches, as she counts the individual points of pressure from his fingers and sinks into her own bones again.
Oh, he thinks: his ribs are probably broken.
It’s more of an intellectual knowledge than anything else: the pain that grinds through him with each breath, the stabbing ache that slides like a knife between his ribs. It hurts, it really genuinely hurts, but he still feels detached from it, like he’s merely picking up on someone else’s pain, not his own.Is
Is this how it feels like, for others?
There are footsteps. He opens his eyes.
Ah, he thinks: there’s Ritsuka. Limmed in light from an open doorway, he’s actually quite beautiful. Like an angel, maybe, but he knows better: all the angels are filthy liars. A hundred thousand saccharine gift cards and images, and not a single one with furred ears or a tail. There’s nothing pure about that.
He stretches out a hand — or he would have liked to, but the breath hitches in his chest and he falters. When had his old toy grown so strong? he wonders, and speak of the devil, ah, there’s Soubi now. He smells like blood and there is a noticeable limp, but he still walks upright like a man. The light darkens his face until it’s unreadable, but Ritsuka, Ritsuka glows like a light. He’s so close he could be touched, but no. No. Ritsuka is no longer a solid animal of bone and thin-fragile skin; he is a creature of light and shape, the perfect ideal Seimei has been carving for himself, and now he cannot even close his fingers around it.
He curls his tongue around the syllables: Ri, tsu, ka. Remember when I read you bedtime stories? Remember the weight of your hand in mine? The light of the world was in my face then, and you looked at me and you believed.
“Seimei,” Ritsuka says. “Seimei.”
When he first wakes up, he knows himself betrayed. He doesn’t know this land or its strange hard-eyed people, but he knows its language well: the song of life gone hard and in all the wrong directions. These are people who trust no king, believe in no sage, who have lived so long in gray twilight that neither the darkness nor the light had any meaning for them. He who had once ruled an entire world dressed himself in the tatters of his dignity and his torn-open pride, then began to walk.
Did you know that betrayal smells like ash and dust, he says to the crows, did you know that hate burns like fire and gleams red even when you close your eyes and turn away? And they carry his words, those crows; they take them in their jet-dark eyes and their glossy black wings, they take them and they fly, from world to world, and they bring back stories to him in turn: places devoured by darkness, covered in hordes of yellow-eyed shambling shadows given shape and solidity. They bring these stories back to them and he tucks them into his heart (which he still has: cold and withered and fragile, but still *a heart* and that makes him better than a thousand traitors). They become his bread and his water; they keep the seeds he nurtures alive.
And one day, when the birds bring him stories of a boy with eyes the color of the sky and a blade in the shape of a key, he feels something in his chest rip open to burst into riotous ugly bloom.
Queen Himiko has soft white hands that are stained black around the nails from ink and incense. She smells of the world after a rainstorm, clean and cool, and speaks in the measured calm voice of a woman thrice her age. She’s lovely and quiet and so very doomed, but Ushiwaka still bends to one knee before her and closes his eyes to accept the weight of her hand on his head, and the words of her blessing. He sees himself once in her mirror, and his face is half-hidden in shadow. He cannot recognize himself.
The next day, the sun rises for the first time in a week, clearing away thunderclouds and the remnants of winter like old cobwebs. The people of Sei-An unfold themselves from their stupor and turn their faces to the sky; their glad voices come together in such a chatter that he can hear them through his open window. He leans out against the ledge, like a swooning princess, and stares at the sun until spots swim before his eyes and it genuinely hurts to blink. She seems so close like this, as if he could reach out and skim his fingers along the burning edge of her and just burn away. Some little child is singing a song about the glory of the sun-god, and the details are all wrong. She was as much warrior as she was mother and priestess; a crude joke or a loud voice would have never driven her to hide herself away — but he listens regardless, his chin upon his folded hands, just for the sake of someone else singing her name, of the syllables put together by a tongue that wasn’t his own.
I loved you first and I loved you best, he thinks; I love you still. When you wake (ninety years and counting now, ninety years and the Day of Darkness has passed yet it hasn’t), will you remember that?
He writes a poem that night, painted anonymously on the eastern-facing wall of the city; in the morning it will be found and puzzled over, and then scrubbed away. He doesn’t mind terribly, even when Himiko slants a look at him over her fan and through her screens; he smiles and bows to her, even though he bows and his ink-stained fingers are obvious. All of his true inspiration dried up long ago,
The first time he dreams, there is a gray door amongst all the white of unconsciousness. The wood is warm to his touch. A little pressure and it yields, like water flowing round a stick.
He crosses the threshold. At his first step there is an explosion of snowflies: the air is thick with them, so that when he breathes in, he tastes stale magic upon his tongue. Spread across his shoulders and along his spine, the Rood aches in beats like a heart, like footsteps.
He turns as though warned, then wakes.
The second time he dreams, he sees a flash of familiar silver; the third, the wind has whispers which carry his name.
It continues like this, every night for a week. On the seventh night, in the midst of the seventh dream, he reaches out before everything can fade, and his fingers close around the impression of skin-warm metal. Unwavering, he looks straight into clear grey eyes, and he says, “If you’ve a message for me, say it clearly. I have less patience for your games than previously before.”
Sydney smiles, and it is every bit sharp and dangerous as the tapered silver claws of his hands. He is one of the older ghosts now, more than a year dead, and this should make him pale and faded, but he is instead near-solid. “Can one not visit an old friend, as the year grows long?” he asks. “You’ve done a spectacular job of being perfectly boring, Ashley.”
Frowning, he stares. “What purpose do you have?”
Long fingers curl; he feels the light prick of claws against the back of his wrist. “The same that I always have had,” Sydney tells him, almost gentle. “The same as you, now. You know that.”
“Do I.” He watches the light of snowflies pass over the the lines of the silver arm against his own. “Even now, I wonder.”
“More the fool, you.” Sydney leans in, slow as warning, till a fall of fine hair brushes against his cheek, light as the spring breeze. “Fly to the west after the setting sun, Rood-bearer; you will find no kindnesses for you here.”
“You would warn me from danger?” It seems peculiar. He does not say this aloud, but he sees Sydney’s pale lips quirk.
“I would warn you into prudence,” he says. Between one breath and the next he slips free, and the snowflies whirl into a frenzy until they have clouded all around him, and only his eyes are clear. “Whether you accept it or not, Ashley, it is your choice. It always has been.”
Then Sydney is gone, and the Rood-bearer wakes. He presses his palm over his closed eyes, but can no longer remember the feel of Dark-spelled silver.
Lord Cain moves easily through the crowd — less like a wolf amongst the fat complacent sheep and more like some lazy sleek cat, heavy-eyed with its own satisfaction and amused by the brightly-colored birds that flutter unawares around it. He pauses to bow to this lord and kiss this lady’s hand, then slips away when they would keep him for their own. Now and then he glances over his shoulder, and his smile is secret and razorsharp. At one point, he lays a finger to his lips, can you keep a secret like me?, before moving on.
It’s a smile that could tear a city down to its foundations and build it again; it’s not so strange, then, that it could do the same to a single man. Riff is not so bold that he thinks it’s meant for him alone: he is dressed at his own smart best tonight, crisp black suit and stiff white gloves, but he could never hope to hold something (someone) like this. What he has is enough; when he flxes his fingers, he can feel the raised pattern of scars against his palms. His master trusts him because he will not take — he will control himself, and so he is allowed the freedoms that none of these bird women and lapdog men could ever have.
It started with an argument when Horohoro stole Ren’s last bottle of milk that turned into a rousing game of Keep-Away that ended with Horohoro sitting on Ren. Their faces ended up close enough to be awkward, and it was warm enough evening that all the windows were open to the outside. Heavy breathing was involved. Horohoro sat back.
“HAH,” he said. “LOOK. I TOP.”
And then Ren kicked him off and out of the house.