Lesser Fates

That novel I said I'd get around to writing.

Part Three

Two months before this catastrophe, Yena had been a Lesser Fate in good standing.  Unbeknownst to her, she had been one of the most trusted of her kind, receiving some of the most important and most glamorous assignments from the Three.  There was no way for her to know this—no ranking of the Lesser Fates, no list of their membership.  Aside from the Three, no one even knew how many there were, and many of the Lessers lower down on the ladder didn’t even know there were others of their kind.  But Yena knew that, at least.  It had been the first sign of the Three’s trust in her when they gave her an assignment in partnership with another Lesser, a barrel-chested, unassuming man whose real name had never passed his beard-wreathed lips.  Yena had taken his cue and kept her name secret as well, speaking to him only when it was absolutely necessary.  They had worked together in an efficient and companionable silence for nearly half a year, working themselves seamlessly into the coldly elegant court of Late New York’s High Comptroller.  Her bearded friend, with his stout country looks, played her man-at-arms, and she walked the careful line of a courtier, glittering and trading barbs just enough to charm the sophisticates that surrounded them, but not enough to dazzle.  The one thing no Lesser wanted to be was memorable.

Most of their time together was spent in the passing of almost invisible signals, exchanged in an eye blink when they could pass each other under the guise of coincidence.  It was a comparatively simple project, and a surprisingly pleasant one, the kind that Yena preferred.  The rise of a certain callous and potentially insane young cousin to the Comptroller was to be thwarted, clearing the way—unbeknownst to her—for his younger sister, a clear-eyed girl who already showed significant promise.  Even if they’d been prone to idle chit-chat, Yena never would have admitted her preference for happy endings to her hirsute co-worker.  It was part of their job description to enact the will of the Three without personal judgment; it was, frankly, the only road to sanity.  But still, there was something quite satisfying about leaving behind rising towers instead of smoldering ruins.

Five months and change was all it took to see their task well and truly done, and Yena was lounging in the courtyard of her apartment when the message came.  From the outside, nothing had changed.  There was still a tall, lanky woman draped diagonally across an elegantly gleaming chair, her silk robe falling in crisp lines to the marble floor.  Only the faintest furrow between her eyebrows gave away the growing, nameless need that was building inside her to take out her scroll and open it.  Nothing was glowing; there was no ringing or humming or anything so cheap or obvious.  Her fingers simply itched to touch it and see it, compelled by a curiosity that came from outside her mind.

She tried ignoring it for a while, though she knew that she had only a few minutes before it became unbearable.  The rill of water around the bounds of the court had been giving her idyllic fantasies of a few days of rest—but now the tug was becoming insistent, almost a physical pain, a gripping contraction that started in her chest and crushed her entire abdomen until, finally, breathless, she shoved her hand into her pocket, pulled out the scroll, and flipped it open with an impatient gesture.

Opaque black-brown eyes skittered back and forth over the small parchment, froze, and then danced over it again.  A thin, wheezing sigh whistled out of her nostrils, and she slowly rolled it up once more, her heart calm but hard and heavy.  It appeared that the Fates saw fit to outweigh her good deeds with evil.

A curious peddler came to the unfortunately named town of Dokshitz from the wet and rocky Northwest road, shoving an overfull cart with cracked wooden wheels along the roots and stones until she limped into the town square.  She was promptly greeted by a crowd of children and several of the men who deemed themselves the town’s patrician class, absurdly somber and upright amidst the fearless questions of a dozen half-feral girls and boys.  With her burnt sienna skin and her men’s clothes, the peddler was like nothing they’d ever seen before, but the two groups reacted in completely different ways.  The children were delighted, engrossed, and utterly blunt.  They demanded to know why her face was so dark, why she was wearing such ugly clothes, whether or not she was on the road alone because she was cursed (or, alternately, a witch), and anything else they could come up with.

The patricians watched her silently for a time, fenced in by their black wool coats.  These patricians considered their minutest movements to be of the utmost importance, so long as they were in the public eye.  (Their private movements were important only if they were admirable.)  Their silence was carefully weighed, and came burdened down with intention, designed to express both the resolve to appear polite and their immediate disapproval.  When the peddler did not appear to be cowed by this, the eldest and most crooked of them spoke up.

“Peace be unto you, stranger. And what sort of goods are you bringing to our town?”

“And also unto you,” she responded easily. “Nothing that would interest gentlemen of your quality.  Trinkets and gewgaws for children and ladies, liniments and ointments, pastilles, comestibles, and a few invigorating beverages of my own devising.”

The end of her list produced some excitable wheezing and bristling of eyebrows among the gentlemen gathered there.

“Hem, these beverages would not be of an intoxicating nature, I hope and pray?”

An avaricious gleam sparkled in the speaker’s eyes, and Yena saw it flicker into those of his companions.

“Not in the least, honorable sirs.  I would never dream of bringing mead, wine, or spirits into your virtuous town, and certainly not five or six casks of hard liquor.  I am very aware of the consequences.”

There was a great deal of solemn nodding, and the children, bored, began to trickle away.

“As it should be.  You must know, even in whatever town you come from, that we are bound, though it grieves us, to confiscate any such wares promptly.”

Another voice, a sweet young spring rippling through the old men’s thorny scrubs, interrupted their exchange.

“I’m sure she’ll let you choose exactly which bottles to confiscate, Avram.”

Feigned disapproval changed to ferocious indignation at the girl who bustled up to the cart, and Yena found herself smiling at a young woman who managed to glow despite her plain gray dress.  The girl began talking again before she could be interrupted.

“I’m Hazel.  I’ll take you somewhere you can unpack and get those cleaned off,” she said, pointing to Yena’s boots, which were indeed crusted in several layers of mud, some of it still dripping.

“Hazel, this is entirely—“

“That would be wonderful, Hazel,” said the black-haired peddler.  She turned to give a small bow to the patricians, who now huddled and clucked together.  “Your townspeople are both gracious and considerate, and I thank you.”

“God be with you,” muttered their leader, and it sounded rather like an insult.  Yena smiled and nodded.

“And also with you.”

Hazel’s resting place turned out to be the stables behind the village’s only inn.  Half the stalls were empty, and the rest were occupied with lazy-eyed, swaybacked veterans of the cart and plow, most of whom hardly looked up at the newcomers before placidly dropping their heads to the fly-sprinkled hay.

“Do you make antagonizing your betters a habit?” Yena asked mildly as she swung her pack to the ground.  If she’d expected Hazel to strike back, she was disappointed.  The girl just smiled, a true smile without a hint of hardness, and her dark eyes were velvety plums above her dimples.

“I think they like it,” she said, in a tone that suggested she believed herself.  She wiggled down into a more comfortable position on the door of the empty stall behind her, and then began fishing around in one of her many apron pockets.  “They know I don’t mean any real harm, and it’s good for them to feel like they do something important.”  Yena allowed herself a proper grin, her white, straight teeth showing sharp against her chapped lips.  Hazel drew out a paper package, unwrapping it to reveal a dense square of honey cake.  She broke off a piece, and when Yena finished wiping her hands off on her pants, placed it in her open palm, moist and crumbling.  Yena tossed the entire chunk into her mouth, swallowing half before asking:

“Don’t you want to know my name?”

Part Two

Hazel and Yena pitched headlong through the swirling waters of time, Hazel desperately digging her fingers into the folds of Yena’s coat and uttering an endless, silent scream, Yena just trying to guide them to a safe landing somehow.

She’d lost the scroll.  How had she let that happen?  This was unprecedented.  Yena had no idea what would come next.  They might still be hurtling toward the destination she’d been sending them to when she dropped the scroll, but what if she’d accidentally nicked another as she dropped it and grasped Hazel tighter?  What if Traveling without the scroll would leave them utterly aimless no matter where she’d sent them at first?  What if she could never Travel again?

And Hazel?  Could humans even survive a Jump?  She fought against the biting winds to tilt her head down and look at the girl.  She was alive, at least.  That was clear.  Thin tears were appearing in Yena’s jacket from the stress of the girl’s fingernails, and bruises were undoubtedly forming on her knobbly elbows.  Moving in jerks and starts against the blasting wind of nothing, Yena managed to shove her arms all the way under Hazel’s coat, plastering the two of them together as they hurtled upside down and backwards in freezing emptiness.  Their bodies were buffeted and rocked by invisible blows, tilting and cartwheeling in what felt like an endless free-fall.

Then there was a sudden silence.  Both Hazel and Yena opened their eyes, staring at each other and then around them.  It was still blackness, but it was silent and ominously stagnant.  Their breaths, just a few moments ago torn away by wild winds, misted and fell flat against their lips, becoming thicker with the air.

“What…” Hazel began timidly, her voice choking on fear.  The air around them seemed to press in on them, stuffing their nostrils and mouths, and Yena found herself entertaining terrible thoughts of being trapped here forever, hovering lost in the in-between with the crushing darkness.  She fought her rising panic, just holding on to Hazel’s violently shivering body, but her heart was throwing itself against her ribs and her throat was closing, struggling and spasming.  She was a Traveler.  One entire reality wasn’t enough for her.  One frozen place in the middle of nowhere—literally—would easily drive her completely insane.  And she’d brought Hazel.  Rashly, foolishly, idiotically, stupidly, she’d brought Hazel into the middle of a void to rot for the rest of her stolen lifetime.

If tears were about to form in her eyes, they were stopped by a sudden shriek ripping through the blackness.  There was something reminiscent of a sinking ship in that shriek, the feeling of a vast, looming, tragically elegant machine being torn apart at the seams, hundred foot thick reams of metal twisting and scraping against each other as they drifted to their lonely death in unimaginable depths.  But it also sounded eerily like a voice; not human, maybe, but the howl of a creature in indescribable pain.  The sound tore through their minds as it plunged toward them, and with it came a bright, angry light, a seam opening in the nothingness all around them.  Even Yena’s thick hair stood on end as the light drew near, pulled by its immense power—and then they were both blasted away as it screamed past them, knocking them down, or up, or out in an uncontrollable spiral.  Hazel’s arms were around Yena now, too, and even their legs knotted together desperately as they fell out of the void.  They hit the border and dropped like stones into a new reality, and then there was nothing but blackness for both of them.

Part One

Yena the Traveler did not fiddle while Rome burned.  She played a concertina in the back corner of Nero’s palace, and when the damage had been done she hitched the first ride out.  She threw an apple down at Newton, turned William toward Hastings, and goaded Huertina Silverfoot into invading the Bay of Goldwede on Sunday instead of Tuesday.  You’ve never heard of Huertina Silverfoot.  You probably haven’t heard of the Bay of Goldwede.  That is because Yena the Traveler operates in more than one timeline.

As we speak, she is in a world like our own, though perhaps a bit further back in time.  It is a frozen late November night, long after everyone in the town would normally be asleep, so cold the air seems to have turned solid and locked the stars and the moon in place.  A group of huddled miserables has secreted themselves in a hidden room under the floor of the main tavern in the only inn their tiny town could support.  Everyone is trying not to breathe, or at least to breathe as little as possible.  The sound in the secret cellar is unbelievably minute, miniscule, tiny half-breaths that hardly fill the tops of the villagers’ lungs.

The sound of jack boots cracking through iced-over snow rings in the glacial air.  Thirty throats close up, silencing even the mouse-breathing sounds that were whispering in the darkness a moment ago.  Sixty nostrils seal, otter-like, against the drifting dust of the cellar, more dangerous to them in this precarious minute than arsenic.  Only one figure still breathes at ease: Yena, long limbed and black-haired, crouched in the darkest corner, hiding the calm on her face in the deepest shadows.  From time to time her eyes flick to one side, glancing at one of the villagers, a girl whose full body is lost in the folds of a borrowed coat.  Yena watches tears leave silvery, crooked trails down the pale curve of her cheeks, fleeing from reddened, puffy eyes to the corners of full lips, or flying recklessly to the floor, where they leave only dark pinpoints.  This girl, Hazel, has been a friend of hers in the few weeks she’s spent here.  Hardly a month and change, but enough time to care.

The sounds of marching draw closer, and Yena knows what will happen next.  The officers and their men will break into the inn, they’ll find the dust-free trapdoor (Yena’s own work), they will kill everyone—and Yena will disappear just before the shooting starts, when the chaos is too thick for them to notice.  She is already fingering her scroll, hand buried in her pocket, feeling for the notch that will take her to safety, but her eyes are pulled to Hazel’s face again, drawn against her will.  An ache, like her heart being squeezed in a coarse net, begins to pulse in Yena’s chest.  It feels like the least she can do to offer a little comfort before certain death, and the girl is so sweet and beautiful and frightened.

Yena rises slightly, moving in utter silence to Hazel’s side and draping one spidery arm across her hunched back.  She’s rewarded by the girl’s head on her shoulder.

But when she moves, a puff of dust, thick with years of neglect, rises, drifting in elegant bows of yellow-gray particulate, scudding up into the innkeeper’s nose.  In a split second, as his lungs twitch, his nostrils quiver, and his eyes water, his mind is filled with perfectly clear visions of how this might have been averted.  If he’d cleaned the cellar more often—if Hazel hadn’t looked so sad—if he’d been breathing out instead of in—if that Yena woman hadn’t moved—but it’s too late.  Death comes down upon them with a sneeze, a nasal explosion like a shout that makes everyone flinch and cower even more, as if they could create extra quiet by shrinking their bodies.  There are actual shouts from above them, a thunder of heavy men running in heavy boots, then sudden light filled with lurching shadows as the trapdoor is heaved open and monstrous men begin to pour inside, screaming orders and firing their guns at the same time.

For the first time in years, Yena panics.  Hazel, stoic despite her soft face, hasn’t moved or made a sound, but she’s clinging hard to Yena’s arm and the hand that grips it is shaking.  Yena flicks her scroll out with fumbling hands, impetuously flings both arms tightly around Hazel’s body, runs her thumbnail down to the notch that will take them both to her safe place, and Jumps.

She feels Hazel start to flinch away as their bodies begin the leap and rushes to cling tighter, scrabbling against that oversized wool coat for purchase on the warm, terrified body beneath.  Yena is lanky, but she’s strong, and she manages to wrestle Hazel into submission just as the compression starts, their bones and skin shivering and trying to shrink.  Her vision is starting to fade to travel black as she looks down and sees her scroll on the floor beside a limp hand.

The last word she utters before they’re swept into the swirling void is “SHIT!”

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