your first mistake was running.
what is a story without anyone to tell it, my dear darling bird?
you don’t mean–you don’t mean that in the sense that running is a pointless act, that resistance is a pointless act, that anything but instant submission and supplication is pointless and hopeless and doomed, for there is nothing you may do to slow the monsters’ march–
and whoever could i possibly entrust with such a grand story…
what you mean is
…but my dear, diligent little bird?
the affini are our perfect predator, she said, and the surest way to pique a predator’s hunger is the sound of prey-in-flight.
of course, i adore the little family i’ve cultivated in this place–
your second mistake was a little more complicated.
but you know what those outside would say, don’t you?
eglantine’s started to shed, trailing neat little patches of oozing, spiny moss along walkways and walls.
(a pair of roses pop out of her shoulders, one on each side like epaulettes. then they grow and grow and spiral upwards, lazily wobbling in a way that evokes nothing quite so much as obnoxiously elaborate airquotes.)
oooh, didn’t you hear? you shouldn’t look a gift horse in the mouth! you shouldn’t trust anything from a gift horse’s mouth, lest you be swept up in their siren song! that’s what generosity does, you know. poisons your perspective, you see.
it’s far too easy to veer too close, to graze and scratch and scrape.
honestly! is there that much taint in mere gratitude?
to slow and stumble and trip
are you terrans – oh, not you, of course – so in love with self-reliance that the sight of a gift given freely sends you sneering about “gift horses” and–oh, what was the other one’s word for it?
to loll and float and drift
“goodiepilled treatcels wantonly prezziemaxxing?”
to lose yourself in the feeling of everything feeling like so much more.
and so you, my darling bird, my dearest prey, you will remain as you are, unchanged by the fruits of my garden, and you will bear witness.
every stroke, every squeeze, every scratch, every kiss.
but we can have so much fun in the meantime!
she’s hung you upside-down in her coils, enjoying every pathetic little moment of writhing and whimpering from all that horrible, terrible, wonderful dream-pain. not-pain. it doesn’t hurt like pain but surely something that feels like so much must be a kind of pain, foggy and fluffy as it is.
what kind of monster would i be if i declared this a fun exclusion zone? a real monster, that’s what.
shivering, whimpering, knees jellied and buckling from the thorn-strokes across your collarbone. please let it end, you can’t take anymore–
“wha…?” you barely process the words.
the most OBNOXIOUS. grin. carved into her face.
you stammer out something roughly in the neighborhood of ‘orange who?’
orange you going to miss this?
and then your mind goes the way of your knees, and you don’t know which way is up – don’t know any of the cardinal directions past ‘good girl’ and ‘bad girl,’ really – and her words swallow you whole.
here, soaking in the abyss of i don’t know where i am and i don’t know who i am and i don’t know what i am, a thought begins to coalesce.
you will know the joy of reprieve, she said.
you hear an echo of velouette in her voice and wonder if maybe, maybe there was more there than she meant.
a promise of reprieve is not a promise of release, and as you mull it over you can’t tune out an intrusive whisper,
the only thing sparing you is affection and whim.
all novelty comes with an expiration date. you didn’t even need velouette to tell you that.
will she someday snicker at the folly of ever doubting the rightness of the affini compact, tickled she ever envisioned a world where you aren’t a thing to be kept?
will she someday be overtaken by all that propaganda, dripping feverish finality as she tells you to thank her for all she’s about to do?
there is no version of this story that you can kill. there is no salvation through violence. no magic gun, no manic burst of adrenaline, no superknife buried in a box. you wouldn’t even know where to start. you have some fight left, but you’re not made for that kind of fight.
there is no version of this story that you can flee. you can run away from eglantine, of course, but the empire that spawned her, tirelessly creeping across the cosmos?
on a long enough timeline, they’ll find you, and on a long enough timeline, they’ll claim you, and when you think too hard about the shape of the finding and the shape of the claiming you know that whoever finds you next will be so much worse.
the isolation has a way of melting away all artifice, of reducing us to our truest selves.
or maybe just our lowest selves.
you think about that word she used, ‘feralist.’ the moldy old fire ax you liberated from storage desperately swings down and shame and guilt tease at your tearducts and you think about what it means to be feral, boiled down to desperate flailing instinct.
(a dull wet sound, cheek caught in a spray of green so thick and deep you think is this what it looks like when a forest bleeds?)
and eglantine laughs, menacing and rich.
oh, wonderful! i couldn’t have asked for a better–
(you wince. you bite back tears. you don’t think, because if you think the horror of it all will catch up to you and–)
any garden-variety – here, her face warps like a cliff crumbling in the shape of Commitment to the Bit – any feralist can pull a trigger, but do they put their heart in it? no! not like you, my darling bird, you–
(you go for the throat.)
the…sap? blood? scorches your skin and sets you alight with nervous energy. your eyes shoot open and settle on her and you realize,
oh, i haven’t had a time like this in ten blooms!
she is super fucking into this.
oh, my dear dire bird, won’t you make it hurt?
(maybe that’s just how monsters are. maybe–)
won’t you kill me in one shot?
(maybe you can sate the monster under your bed with a snack and a sweet note, but with more complexity comes a more rarefied palate.)
oh, wouldn’t it be so painfully romantic?
you run and you run, scrambling and clambering and spinning on a heel and desperately frantically pouncing from a table, ax in both hands.
maybe a teensy bit beyond you, of course–
(maybe you’re overthinking this.)
but what fun is romance if it’s shackled to the mere possible?
(you heft and hack wildly, tearful and terrified and shaken.)
and she cackles
i am the great beast of empire, with a thousand heads and a thousand warped hearts!
more of those doofy little handpuppets litter the floor like she’s made a salt circle from your arts-and-craft sins. a thousand heads and a thousand pink paper hearts.
now, an empire may not simply be slain in one blow like a great and terrible dragon,
your hands feel shaky and leaden, then your forearms. you force what motion you can from the top, focusing on the deliberate motion of shoulder and socket like you’re taking the world’s weirdest ballet lesson from little red riding wood.
and in that way, my sweet bird, each and every one of us embodies empire,
a little bit
in the deliberate motion of shoulder and socket. the world loses a little focus, warm and distant, and she envelops you.
a chuckle like dry leaves on stone, raspy and ragged and raw but somehow still a bit gentler than you expect. a thousand heads and a thousand throats.
you ask, delirious and drifty and weak, who’s there?
a sleeper’s murmur. orange who?
but orange you excited to give it a good try?
once, marya morevna saw her sisters married off one by one, betrothed to men who reeked of cruelty and magic, and so she wove a cloak-self named ivan tsarevich and stole off into the night.
there is a kind of magic in obfuscation, in cleverness and the camouflage of not being worth a second thought in the minds of those with something to inflict upon you, and marya-who-was-ivan-who-was-marya could not remember a time before they knew that magic.
of course, there are so many more dangers in the world than those who wear their cruelty on their sleeve, and one called out to marya-who-was-ivan-who-was-marya in the night.
darkness had reclaimed a piece of forest, a great oubliette in the shape of i-cannot-sleep-i-must-know, and from its depths cried a creature of magic (or something as close to magic as exists in this place, perhaps.) 𝘵𝘴𝘢𝘳𝘦𝘷𝘯𝘢-𝘵𝘴𝘢𝘳𝘦𝘷𝘪𝘤𝘩, it said, 𝘺𝘰𝘶 𝘤𝘰𝘶𝘭𝘥 𝘥𝘰 𝘴𝘰 𝘮𝘶𝘤𝘩 𝘮𝘰𝘳𝘦 𝘵𝘩𝘢𝘯 𝘮𝘦𝘳𝘦𝘭𝘺 𝘥𝘢𝘣𝘣𝘭𝘪𝘯𝘨 𝘪𝘯 𝘥𝘪𝘧𝘧𝘦𝘳𝘦𝘯𝘵 𝘴𝘦𝘭𝘷𝘦𝘴! 𝘪 𝘤𝘢𝘯 𝘴𝘩𝘢𝘳𝘦 𝘵𝘩𝘦 𝘴𝘦𝘤𝘳𝘦𝘵𝘴 𝘰𝘧 𝘧𝘭𝘦𝘴𝘩 𝘢𝘯𝘥 𝘧𝘪𝘳𝘮𝘢𝘮𝘦𝘯𝘵, 𝘪𝘧 𝘰𝘯𝘭𝘺 𝘺𝘰𝘶 𝘸𝘪𝘭𝘭 𝘳𝘦𝘴𝘵𝘰𝘳𝘦 𝘮𝘦 𝘵𝘰 𝘮𝘺 𝘱𝘳𝘦𝘷𝘪𝘰𝘶𝘴 𝘨𝘳𝘢𝘯𝘥𝘦𝘶𝘳! 𝘪 𝘩𝘢𝘷𝘦 𝘨𝘰𝘯𝘦 𝘴𝘰 𝘭𝘰𝘯𝘨 𝘸𝘪𝘵𝘩𝘰𝘶𝘵 𝘯𝘰𝘶𝘳𝘪𝘴𝘩𝘮𝘦𝘯𝘵, 𝘺𝘰𝘶 𝘴𝘦𝘦.
the whispers of power were tempting, and the spectre of a secret gnawed in the way promises of proffered secrets so often do, but maybe…maybe, marya-who-was-ivan-who-was-marya simply could not bear to let the wretched withered creature languish further.
and so ivan tsarevich nursed the creature back to health each day, and marya morevna took lessons at its side each night. he was gentle and kind, and she was shrewd and sharp. her cleverness and hunger reminded it of a self it missed, and his warmth brought that self to bloom.
and then, the creature drew itself up in the manner of a proud snake and whispered its most precious secret into her ear.
𝘪 𝘢𝘮 𝘬𝘰𝘴𝘤𝘩𝘦𝘪 𝘬𝘢𝘭𝘪𝘮𝘦𝘳𝘪𝘴, 𝘬𝘰𝘴𝘤𝘩𝘦𝘪-𝘵𝘩𝘦-𝘣𝘭𝘶𝘦-𝘴𝘵𝘢𝘳-𝘵𝘩𝘢𝘵-𝘯𝘦𝘷𝘦𝘳-𝘣𝘭𝘰𝘰𝘮𝘴-𝘢𝘯𝘥-𝘴𝘩𝘢𝘭𝘭-𝘯𝘦𝘷𝘦𝘳-𝘸𝘪𝘭𝘵, 𝘬𝘰𝘴𝘤𝘩𝘦𝘪 𝘵𝘩𝘦 𝘥𝘦𝘢𝘵𝘩𝘭𝘦𝘴𝘴, 𝘢𝘯𝘥 𝘪 𝘴𝘩𝘢𝘭𝘭 𝘳𝘦𝘱𝘢𝘺 𝘺𝘰𝘶𝘳 𝘩𝘰𝘴𝘱𝘪𝘵𝘢𝘭𝘪𝘵𝘺 𝘪𝘯 𝘬𝘪𝘯𝘥.
shall repay. not would, not may. shall.
(it was the way of koschei’s kin, of course. to ask is to become vulnerable, and a thing that is beyond death is beyond vulnerability as well.)
𝘪 𝘴𝘩𝘢𝘭𝘭 𝘳𝘦𝘱𝘢𝘺 𝘺𝘰𝘶𝘳 𝘩𝘰𝘴𝘱𝘪𝘵𝘢𝘭𝘪𝘵𝘺 𝘪𝘯 𝘬𝘪𝘯𝘥. 𝘭𝘰𝘷𝘦𝘭𝘺 𝘵𝘴𝘢𝘳𝘦𝘷𝘯𝘢, 𝘤𝘩𝘢𝘳𝘮𝘪𝘯𝘨 𝘵𝘴𝘢𝘳𝘦𝘷𝘪𝘤𝘩, 𝘮𝘺 𝘴𝘦𝘷𝘦𝘯-𝘭𝘦𝘨𝘨𝘦𝘥 𝘩𝘰𝘳𝘴𝘦 𝘸𝘪𝘭𝘭 𝘤𝘰𝘯𝘷𝘦𝘺 𝘺𝘰𝘶 𝘵𝘰 𝘮𝘺 𝘴𝘱𝘳𝘢𝘸𝘭𝘪𝘯𝘨 𝘮𝘢𝘯𝘴𝘦 𝘰𝘯 𝘵𝘩𝘦 𝘵𝘪𝘱 𝘰𝘧 𝘢 𝘯𝘦𝘦𝘥𝘭𝘦 𝘸𝘪𝘵𝘩𝘪𝘯 𝘵𝘩𝘦 𝘭𝘢𝘴𝘵 𝘦𝘨𝘨 𝘭𝘢𝘪𝘥 𝘣𝘺 𝘣𝘢𝘣𝘢 𝘺𝘢𝘨𝘢’𝘴 𝘤𝘩𝘪𝘤𝘬𝘦𝘯-𝘭𝘦𝘨𝘨𝘦𝘥 𝘩𝘶𝘵, 𝘢𝘯𝘥 𝘪 𝘸𝘪𝘭𝘭 𝘬𝘦𝘦𝘱 𝘺𝘰𝘶 𝘧𝘰𝘳 𝘵𝘩𝘦 𝘳𝘦𝘴𝘵 𝘰𝘧 𝘮𝘺 𝘥𝘢𝘺𝘴.
(maybe it’s for the best that this isn’t a story you’re sharing with her. you can picture the conversation in your mind already.
oh, so all horses have seven legs? why, that explains so much!
no, just this horse, eglantine
and why does this horse have seven legs, my sweet story-spinning bird?
the horse is magic, eglantine
but aren’t all horses magic, my dear darling bird?
no, most horses aren’t magic, eglantine
and how do you know, my charmingly churlish bird?
there was a magitech horse doping scandal, it was on the news, eglantine
if all horses were magic already there wouldn’t have been a magitech horse doping scandal, eglantine
a….magitech horse doping scandal?
indistinguishable from magic, and now magic horses are indistinguishable from illegal, so there are no more magic horses, eglantine
and then you lose the next two days to your monster having a helenium blavatsky phase.)
and so marya-who-was-ivan-who-was-marya came to live in its palace, brooding in a tsarina’s great bedchamber for the first days but slowly coming around on the creature. koschei is gentle and loving in its way, ivan tsarevich said. at least we won’t want for food and warmth, marya morevna said.
it was tempting, at once both tempting in a way marya-who-was-ivan-who-was-marya knew and so very different. 𝘪 𝘸𝘰𝘶𝘭𝘥 𝘴𝘩𝘢𝘳𝘦 𝘢 𝘣𝘰𝘶𝘯𝘵𝘺 𝘰𝘧 𝘵𝘳𝘦𝘢𝘴𝘶𝘳𝘦𝘴 𝘸𝘪𝘵𝘩 𝘺𝘰𝘶, 𝘵𝘴𝘢𝘳𝘦𝘷𝘯𝘢-𝘵𝘴𝘢𝘳𝘦𝘷𝘪𝘤𝘩, 𝘧𝘰𝘳 𝘺𝘰𝘶 𝘢𝘳𝘦 𝘵𝘩𝘦 𝘨𝘳𝘦𝘢𝘵𝘦𝘴𝘵 𝘵𝘳𝘦𝘢𝘴𝘶𝘳𝘦 𝘰𝘧 𝘢𝘭𝘭, 𝘢𝘯𝘥 𝘯𝘰 𝘱𝘳𝘪𝘤𝘦 𝘺𝘰𝘶 𝘤𝘰𝘮𝘮𝘢𝘯𝘥 𝘪𝘴 𝘵𝘰𝘰 𝘥𝘦𝘢𝘳.
𝘧𝘰𝘳 𝘵𝘩𝘦 𝘭𝘰𝘷𝘦𝘭𝘺 𝘵𝘴𝘢𝘳𝘦𝘷𝘯𝘢, 𝘢 𝘨𝘰𝘸𝘯 𝘸𝘰𝘷𝘦𝘯 𝘧𝘳𝘰𝘮 𝘦𝘷𝘦𝘳𝘺 𝘭𝘪𝘦 𝘵𝘩𝘢𝘵 𝘬𝘦𝘦𝘱𝘴 𝘵𝘩𝘦 𝘥𝘪𝘳𝘵 𝘪𝘯 𝘵𝘩𝘦 𝘨𝘳𝘰𝘶𝘯𝘥 𝘢𝘯𝘥 𝘵𝘩𝘦 𝘴𝘶𝘯 𝘪𝘯 𝘵𝘩𝘦 𝘴𝘬𝘺, 𝘢𝘯𝘥 𝘵𝘩𝘦 𝘱𝘰𝘸𝘦𝘳 𝘵𝘰 𝘥𝘰 𝘸𝘩𝘢𝘵 𝘺𝘰𝘶 𝘸𝘪𝘭𝘭 𝘸𝘪𝘵𝘩 𝘵𝘩𝘦𝘮. 𝘧𝘰𝘳 𝘵𝘩𝘦 𝘤𝘩𝘢𝘳𝘮𝘪𝘯𝘨 𝘵𝘴𝘢𝘳𝘦𝘷𝘪𝘤𝘩, 𝘢 𝘨𝘶𝘴𝘭𝘪 𝘵𝘩𝘢𝘵 𝘥𝘳𝘢𝘸𝘴 𝘰𝘶𝘵 𝘢 𝘨𝘢𝘳𝘥𝘦𝘯’𝘴 𝘦𝘷𝘦𝘳𝘺 𝘥𝘳𝘦𝘢𝘮 𝘢𝘯𝘥 𝘸𝘪𝘴𝘩.
𝘧𝘰𝘳 𝙮𝙤𝙪, 𝘵𝘴𝘢𝘳𝘦𝘷𝘯𝘢-𝘵𝘴𝘢𝘳𝘦𝘷𝘪𝘤𝘩, 𝘧𝘰𝘳 𝘺𝘰𝘶 𝘪 𝘩𝘢𝘷𝘦 𝙢𝙖𝙜𝙞𝙘, 𝘱𝘰𝘵𝘦𝘯𝘵 𝘢𝘯𝘥 𝘳𝘪𝘤𝘩.
and marya-who-was-ivan-who-was-marya accepted its gifts, and devoured its lessons, and spent a long summer dreamy-eyed and diligent before discovering the catch.
𝘸𝘩𝘺 𝘸𝘰𝘶𝘭𝘥 𝘺𝘰𝘶 𝘯𝘦𝘦𝘥 𝘵𝘰 𝘬𝘯𝘰𝘸 𝘵𝘩𝘢𝘵, 𝘵𝘴𝘢𝘳𝘦𝘷𝘯𝘢-𝘵𝘴𝘢𝘳𝘦𝘷𝘪𝘤𝘩? 𝘵𝘩𝘦𝘳𝘦 𝘪𝘴 𝘢 𝘸𝘢𝘺 𝘰𝘧 𝘥𝘰𝘪𝘯𝘨 𝘵𝘩𝘪𝘯𝘨𝘴, 𝘢𝘯𝘥 𝘪𝘵 𝘴𝘦𝘳𝘷𝘦𝘴 𝘮𝘦 𝘱𝘦𝘳𝘧𝘦𝘤𝘵𝘭𝘺 𝘸𝘦𝘭𝘭, 𝘴𝘰 𝘪𝘵 𝘴𝘩𝘰𝘶𝘭𝘥 𝘣𝘦 𝘨𝘰𝘰𝘥 𝘦𝘯𝘰𝘶𝘨𝘩 𝘧𝘰𝘳 𝘺𝘰𝘶.
𝘸𝘩𝘺 𝘸𝘰𝘶𝘭𝘥 𝘺𝘰𝘶 𝘸𝘢𝘯𝘵 𝘵𝘰 𝘭𝘦𝘢𝘳𝘯 𝘵𝘩𝘢𝘵, 𝘵𝘴𝘢𝘳𝘦𝘷𝘯𝘢-𝘵𝘴𝘢𝘳𝘦𝘷𝘪𝘤𝘩? 𝘺𝘰𝘶 𝘤𝘢𝘯 𝘭𝘦𝘢𝘳𝘯 𝘴𝘰 𝘮𝘶𝘤𝘩 𝘣𝘦𝘵𝘵𝘦𝘳 𝘢𝘵 𝘮𝘺 𝘧𝘦𝘦𝘵 𝘵𝘩𝘢𝘯 𝘢𝘵 𝘮𝘺 𝘴𝘪𝘥𝘦, 𝘢𝘯𝘥 𝘱𝘶𝘱𝘪𝘭𝘢𝘨𝘦 𝘭𝘰𝘰𝘬𝘴 𝘴𝘰 𝘮𝘶𝘤𝘩 𝘭𝘰𝘷𝘦𝘭𝘪𝘦𝘳 𝘰𝘯 𝘺𝘰𝘶 𝘵𝘩𝘢𝘯 𝘵𝘩𝘦 𝘧𝘢𝘯𝘵𝘢𝘴𝘺 𝘰𝘧 𝘴𝘶𝘳𝘱𝘢𝘴𝘴𝘪𝘯𝘨 𝘮𝘦 𝘺𝘰𝘶 𝘮𝘶𝘴𝘵 𝘴𝘶𝘳𝘦𝘭𝘺 𝘩𝘰𝘭𝘥 𝘪𝘯 𝘺𝘰𝘶𝘳 𝘩𝘦𝘢𝘳𝘵.
𝘸𝘩𝘺 𝘸𝘰𝘶𝘭𝘥 𝘺𝘰𝘶 𝘦𝘷𝘦𝘳 𝘸𝘢𝘯𝘵 𝘵𝘰 𝘭𝘦𝘢𝘷𝘦, 𝘵𝘴𝘢𝘳𝘦𝘷𝘯𝘢-𝘵𝘴𝘢𝘳𝘦𝘷𝘪𝘤𝘩? 𝘵𝘩𝘦 𝘨𝘳𝘰𝘸𝘵𝘩 𝘪𝘯 𝘮𝘺 𝘨𝘢𝘳𝘥𝘦𝘯𝘴 𝘪𝘴 𝘦𝘯𝘰𝘶𝘨𝘩. 𝘵𝘩𝘦 𝘧𝘰𝘰𝘥 𝘪𝘯 𝘮𝘺 𝘬𝘪𝘵𝘤𝘩𝘦𝘯𝘴 𝘪𝘴 𝘦𝘯𝘰𝘶𝘨𝘩. 𝘵𝘩𝘦 𝘷𝘪𝘦𝘸 𝘧𝘳𝘰𝘮 𝘮𝘺 𝘸𝘪𝘯𝘥𝘰𝘸𝘴 𝘪𝘴 𝘦𝘯𝘰𝘶𝘨𝘩. 𝘥𝘪𝘴𝘤𝘰𝘯𝘵𝘦𝘯𝘵 𝘪𝘭𝘭 𝘴𝘶𝘪𝘵𝘴 𝘴𝘶𝘤𝘩 𝘢 𝘤𝘩𝘦𝘳𝘪𝘴𝘩𝘦𝘥 𝘵𝘳𝘦𝘢𝘴𝘶𝘳𝘦, 𝘵𝘴𝘢𝘳𝘦𝘷𝘯𝘢-𝘵𝘴𝘢𝘳𝘦𝘷𝘪𝘤𝘩.
and in the throes of frustration, marya-who-was-ivan-who-was-marya stole away in the night only to find koschei’s strained smile waiting at the end of its world.
𝘥𝘰 𝘺𝘰𝘶 𝘯𝘰𝘵 𝘴𝘦𝘦, 𝘵𝘴𝘢𝘳𝘦𝘷𝘯𝘢-𝘵𝘴𝘢𝘳𝘦𝘷𝘪𝘤𝘩? 𝘵𝘩𝘦𝘴𝘦 𝘭𝘰𝘯𝘨𝘪𝘯𝘨𝘴 𝘰𝘧 𝘺𝘰𝘶𝘳𝘴 𝘢𝘳𝘦 𝘢 𝘱𝘰𝘪𝘴𝘰𝘯. 𝘦𝘷𝘦𝘳𝘺 𝘰𝘶𝘯𝘤𝘦 𝘰𝘧 𝘸𝘢𝘯𝘵 𝘪𝘯 𝘺𝘰𝘶𝘳 𝘤𝘩𝘦𝘴𝘵 𝘣𝘭𝘪𝘯𝘥𝘴 𝘺𝘰𝘶 𝘵𝘰 𝘢𝘭𝘭 𝘺𝘰𝘶 𝘰𝘶𝘨𝘩𝘵 𝘸𝘢𝘯𝘵, 𝘦𝘷𝘦𝘳𝘺 𝘥𝘳𝘰𝘱 𝘵𝘶𝘳𝘯𝘴 𝘺𝘰𝘶 𝘢𝘨𝘢𝘪𝘯𝘴𝘵 𝘢𝘭𝘭 𝘵𝘩𝘢𝘵 𝘺𝘰𝘶 𝘯𝘦𝘦𝘥, 𝘢𝘯𝘥 𝘧𝘰𝘳 𝘵𝘩𝘢𝘵 𝘳𝘦𝘢𝘴𝘰𝘯 𝘪 𝘴𝘩𝘢𝘭𝘭 𝘥𝘳𝘢𝘸 𝘪𝘵 𝘰𝘶𝘵 𝘭𝘪𝘬𝘦 𝘷𝘦𝘯𝘰𝘮 𝘢𝘯𝘥 𝘴𝘦𝘢𝘭 𝘪𝘵 𝘪𝘯 𝘢 𝘣𝘰𝘵𝘵𝘭𝘦.
𝘥𝘰 𝘺𝘰𝘶 𝘯𝘰𝘵 𝘸𝘪𝘴𝘩 𝘵𝘰 𝘧𝘦𝘦𝘭 𝘤𝘰𝘯𝘵𝘦𝘯𝘵, 𝘵𝘴𝘢𝘳𝘦𝘷𝘯𝘢-𝘵𝘴𝘢𝘳𝘦𝘷𝘪𝘤𝘩? 𝘰𝘯𝘦 𝘥𝘢𝘺, 𝘭𝘰𝘷𝘦𝘭𝘺 𝘵𝘴𝘢𝘳𝘦𝘷𝘯𝘢, 𝘤𝘩𝘢𝘳𝘮𝘪𝘯𝘨 𝘵𝘴𝘢𝘳𝘦𝘷𝘪𝘤𝘩, 𝘰𝘯𝘦 𝘥𝘢𝘺 𝘵𝘩𝘦 𝘴𝘵𝘰𝘱𝘱𝘦𝘳’𝘴 𝘤𝘰𝘭𝘰𝘳 𝘸𝘪𝘭𝘭 𝘧𝘢𝘥𝘦, 𝘢𝘯𝘥 𝘦𝘷𝘦𝘳𝘺 𝘧𝘦𝘦𝘭𝘪𝘯𝘨 𝘵𝘩𝘢𝘵 𝘪𝘴 𝘯𝘰𝘵 𝘤𝘰𝘯𝘵𝘦𝘯𝘵𝘮𝘦𝘯𝘵 𝘸𝘪𝘭𝘭 𝘧𝘢𝘥𝘦 𝘸𝘪𝘵𝘩 𝘪𝘵.
koschei was not gentle. to be separated from want is to have a deep scar in one’s heart, and even in the absence of the feeling itself, marya-who-was-ivan-who-was-marya felt the wound ache with every gust of the wind.
marya-who-was-ivan-who-was-marya came to resent the sky within the egg, the flowers in the garden, the taste of food. everything safe and static, nothing changing, nothing new.
and one night, the segments of her self found themselves commiserating.
i miss the bite of the cold and the sky at dusk, said marya morevna.
i miss the flowers of the steppe in the places where magic’s spilled out, no two petals sharing the same color, said ivan tsarevich.
i miss the taste of burnt bread, said marya morevna.
i miss the drowning din of the week’s end market, said ivan tsarevich.
i miss possibility and wonder, said marya morevna.
i miss being more than a treasure to be owned, said ivan tsarevich.
no one will save us but ourselves, said marya morevna.
that night, ivan tsarevich poured their heart into a letter, and sealed the letter in an egg, and bundled the egg in a basket, and dropped the basket in the deepest, darkest well on koschei’s estate, and two nights later marya morevna found a girl who introduced herself as baba yaga in her bedroom, looking like nothing so much as a long-lost sister.
they shared a sober look.
no one will save us but ourselves, said baba yaga. here, don’t you see the sutures?
and ivan tsarevich tugged loose the thread binding koschei’s power to this place and binding marya-who-was-ivan-who-was-marya to koschei,
and baba yaga visited all koschei’s small cruelties back upon it,
and marya morevna turned koschei’s glittering palace to ash.
the needle smoldered. the egg fizzled and cracked. marya-who-was-ivan-who-was-marya and the girl who called herself baba yaga clawed their way out.
you are not marya morevna, but maybe–
maybe you can be a needle inside an egg.
maybe you can make yourself poisonous to the thing that would prey on you.
you’re dreaming, again. you think? you only see this part of the ship in your dreams, and you’re afraid to seek out what it’s become in the waking world.
the rose-fog hangs low, the metal’s learned to blush. you dream of a secret garden, tended by a ghost.
i think–i think i’m a dream. i think i’m a dream.
two hands dart out, seizing fistfuls of your top in a white-knuckle grip.
not dreaming. not in a dream. a dream. a voice like i know what you think it looks like and it’s not and please, please believe me,
all i know is this, and i know this is a dream, so if this is a dream and i can’t step outside it then i’m a dream, and if i’m a dream–
eyes big and desperate and dripping with i-want-to-live.
if i’m a dream, and there’s no-one left to dream me–
doesn’t finish the sentence.
some of the fog slowly sloughs off into a corner. slump, slacken, sigh.
i thought i’d try being a boy for a little while.
you wrack your brain for the hallmark-card response to ‘your….work friend? lives in dreams now and Got Really Into Genders’ and eventually settle on,
“do….do you like it?”
a shrug, a smidge of fretting.
i think? i don’t know. i read the overnet wiki article and everything, but–is this the right number of pockets?
a voice from below and beside. he tugs down the waist of his skirt just a bit. on each end, a mouth smiling sheepishly at the hip.
it’s–it’s nice, though. it’s comfy, even if–
you only now notice the way the skirt billows out like a jellyfish, the way the winding cloud of slick coral lingering below gives it shape and structure.
you catch clouded glimpses of a pastel blue so pure that you know it must only exist in this place.
i don’t understand. why do they all wear pants if they–it just seems so impractical! everything’s so much easier with a big floofy dress.
a waterfall of softly layered seaweed hair, anglerfish eyes. sudden excited sparks of i never imagined i could be this, every so often.
i hope you’ll dream of me still. and–
maybe i’m not what i was before, maybe i can’t help you with the dreaming, but–
something like robin’s-egg extract, a too-rich speckled blue like a dream of dangit ronpaul dlc blood colors, drips from the coral.
i can share something with you all the same.
you don’t exactly know what this is, or what you are to each other, but maybe you don’t have to. it feels like a moment of connection, like maybe we can be each other’s safe place.
and as you drink deep (literally) and descend (also literally), gently lapping at the coral, you find that you’re pretty okay with that.
you're still coming down from the dream, lips stained blue and chest searing, when you stumble into--
"--do you mean, you knew?"
you remember these two, you think. a stray and her monster.
all that height and all those teeth and she still can't help looking so small, tensed and ready to bolt.
the other one, skittish and slight and decorative as she may be, has a fire in her eyes.
"I won't let you just--decide for me that you're not good for me, El! Tell me, let me choose! Or I'll--"
it takes her a moment, puffed-out cheeks and puffed-up chest and trying to project Something, until she can come up with a suitable threat.
"I'll! I'll eat every single weird plant I find on the floor ‘til I'm big enough or weird enough or--or *her* enough to bully you! Ugh!"
which....genuinely manages to draw out a mawkish smile from her monster.
"....god, okay, it's--"
"they don't. eat people. all this time, i knew they didn’t eat people. they're--"
"my last ship, i left a week before they hit it. so i'm sitting in pleiades station waiting for a job or some creep with a proposition, or something, and then--"
a long, painful moment.
"all of a sudden my best friend's changed their overnet name to "DNEEF keef" and i'm neck-deep in messages about how wonderful mxtress is and how they are barra plamptberdeen, prisoner of infinite pizza hell and oh please send “theytheon YUM-92A forks” to the provisional ira but also send your coordinates so mxtress can domesticate you too and feed you infinite treats and–”
the stray is staring, slack-jawed and lost.
now it’s El’s turn to stare, utterly bewildered.
“that’s?? not the point??????”
a look, stony and stern, that says she is not going to budge.
“i, uh, i guess…the Irish Reyumlican Army or the Infinite Repast Appreciators? one time, they said it stood for Irish Treepublican Army, but that doesn’t even start with an R, and…”
a stage-whisper. “either way, i uh. don’t. think. it’sarealparamilitaryorganization.”
the stray laughs, fuller and longer than she thought she could, and it gives el time to build up to the really hard part.
“they said it was how it ends for everyone, how it always ends, and everything’s so much better, and sure okay i could resist a little for the vine (literally) (but also the affini social network) (the affini brought back Vine, they said!) but i’d be happy the way they are if i just let it happen, because they’ll make you happy–” she breathes every ounce of terror she’s got into the word.
she bites her lip. focuses on the pain and pressure and taste.
“i have never run so fucking far and fast in my life. i looked for something like the Penumbra. i–”
“when our priestess found the plant–”
she spits out kellen’s name like a curse.
“i could’ve made it easier for everyone, and i didn’t, because–”
“all it takes is one person warming up to that choice and then nobody gets a choice.”
“one person reaching out, one person getting their attention.”
“What was your plan for, um, you know….”
“dunno. space myself. space her. hide in the walls.”
“I never said they were good plans.”
“And that’s why you think–”
she hurls the word out, eyes wild and wide.
“isn’t that cruel? isn’t that–”
so fragile and desperate, like a witch turned her monster’s vocal cords to wispy vines of candyfloss
“didn’t i–i didn’t want a choice made for me so i made a choice for everyone and now we’re all–”
“i’m worse, aren’t i? i’m way fucking worse, i’m selfish and–”
the stray gathers herself up, gives El a Look.
“Literally the opposite.”
“Of making a choice for everyone.”
“You–what, you didn’t do free PR for the plants? You think that’s cruel and choosing that no one gets to choose anything ever again isn’t?”
for once, El is shocked into silence.
she plucks a flower from her brow, gingerly sets it in her monster’s hair.
“Now we get to be something else altogether, and now…” a wobbly kiss on tiptoes.
“I like the sound of happiness on my own terms, even if–even if i have to fight for it–”
a moment, a centering breath.
“I like the sound of happiness on my own terms better than being made happy-shaped.”
she clings. El does too, slow and halting like she hardly believes how it’s all gone.
“And–and I’m happy with you. Here. Like this.”
you leave them to their moment and their joy, slipping into a stairwell.
maybe the most surprising thing is how normal it all is.
we are her garden, and in nourishing and tending to each other, we fulfill her promise.
it may start with girl-shaped flowers in gauzy fabrics putting on a grand ritual, but after they ease up a little on the ecclesiastical kayfabe--
it's just people, or things that are not people but with hearts just as kind, and they're simply doing the best they can.
a morsel of reassurance, a reminder of the love surrounding them, a parable about a poppy making itself far too much trouble to eat whole.
one of the girl-flower-things sees you lingering at the threshold, and she makes a little kitten-coaxing gesture.
(you couldn’t dream of dismissing it, of course. it’s so easy to come forward, timid as you might be right now, and it’s so easy to soak up their love. pet, pet, fingers gently smoothing out all the fears in your head. and then–)
one of them offers you a piece of–something. a flower. a fruit. neither and both, fragrant and bracingly sweet. you get the sense that it isn’t–that it won’t make you one of them, if only because they seem far too enamored with their new kitten to end Cat Petting O’Clock this abruptly, but the sight of it still feels like being on the cusp of something.
you swallow the bit of Candied Liminal Date in one gulp, too nervous to really savor the taste.
your eyes speak of a storm thrashing in your heart as you peer up at one of the flower-things currently showering you in affection.
“can you make me too much trouble to eat whole?”
the embarrassment of oh my god i said that out loud i sound like such a nerd colliding with the quiet horror of this, of your role, of never knowing another moment where you're not eglantine’s exalted prey.
the girl-thing pauses and ponders and hums, and she looks to one of the others, and then she smiles.
“We are her garden, and a garden bearing only one flower and one fruit would be a lonely garden indeed.”
the jellied heart tastes like raspberry syrup and green and moments of clarity. it tastes like blood gone sour and tart. it tastes like knowing there’s no turning back.
its petals taste like–
well, the petals taste like flower petals. you ate flower petals. you thought they’d maybe taste like finality but the only feeling you’re left with is oh, maybe you weren’t supposed to eat the flower petals.
you share a moment with them after – okay, a lot of moments, losing a good half-hour to the simple joy of not having to think about anything but their petting – and in the end you slip away.
nowhere to go but forward, you suppose.
it feels appropriate that this ends right where it started.
or maybe you end right where it started. you don't--you don't know if this is a thing you survive. you don't know if this is a thing you're supposed to survive.
beatrice gave you a dress, flowing layers of carmine and an empire waist. the gown of a vampire’s bride. the armor of a victim-heroine who found a cleverer way to confront the only villain she’s ever had eyes for.
el and the stray gave you something like a great tooth, twisting and jagged, shaped like feelings shifting and calcifying, like a parting gift from who you were to who you are. you are the heroine, and we are maybe monsters, but that doesn’t mean we can’t root for you.
(it’s like blaseball teams, she says. you can take the girl out of the hellmouth and move her to neo new boston, but you can’t take the fondness and the feminine urge to yell Go Sunbeams! every time you see the sun out of the girl.)
the others, well – they gave you possibility, smoldering in your belly and saturating your veins.
eglantine’s made a throne-womb of this place, a garden of this place, air thick and humid. what plastic and metal and glass remains looks intentional, a little aesthetic touch to remind you what this room once was.
and she looks so bored. she looks like she expects you, like she expects this, like she’s watching her favorite play for the dozenth-dozenth time and the charm’s finally wearing off.
floods out like an aquarium shattering, spilling onto you, disarmed and helpless before you can think a single thought.
she forces a smile, for politeness’ sake.
voice shaky and small like you’re right on the edge of fainting.
something about the way you say it, something quavery and queasy and small, something gets her attention.
and who, may i ask, is there?
her face practically splits open, a monument to giddy anticipation.
you bare your neck, make a poisoned chalice of yourself and present it to your monster-queen.
you have never seen her so eager.
if you survive this, you can only imagine the bounty she’s going to bury you in. “#1 monster’s favorite prey” mugs. stickers. a cake.
but this is not a thing to be survived.
i should hope so, my clever little bird.
her bramble-teeth tease at your throat. the first beads of something that is not red begin to drip and pool.
i hope you’ll make it hurt.
and she drinks deep.