- *short story,
- challenge: imc lit workshop,
- challenge: letras.itesm,
- character: ciel noline,
- character: cosma noline,
- character: iene,
- character: january salt,
- character: luca elton,
- character: madeleine sachiel fetch,
- character: tabot funk,
- character: the blue ghost,
- story: angels of the silences,
- verse: bracketverse,
Story / World: bracketverse
Challenge: Literature workshop prompt musa lisonjera.
Other: 270º, High Hawk Season, after and if you ever make it to ten you won't make it again and two weeks later than try to leave no traces.
Characters: Ciel Noline, the blue ghost, Cosma Noline, Tabot Funk, Iene (the xana), Luca Elton (the Invented), Madeleine Fetch
Notes: The amount of times this has been tweaked back and forth from Spanish and English is ridiculous. I think this version is the most-edited one. I think. Which means I’ll probably find some untranslated Spanish line edits, now. But at least you have the defining story for 270º now.
Later addendum: Guess who found some untranslated line edits. Yep. (They're in now.)
The summer will reveal itself
To those whose hearts are true
And to the faithless few
Rise if you’re sleeping, stay awake
We are young supernovas, and
The heat’s about to break.
– High Hawk Season, the Mountain Goats
“—will come to judge the quick and the dead,” she says. No: she doesn’t say it. Her voice hits me without inflection or sound, words splashed into my mind like paint, bright blue, clear and pure, somewhat malignant.
Actually, that last bit might be me.
I stretch out my hand to signal her, touch her, know who she is, who she’s talking about, and as I do I realise that I don’t know, I don’t know anything—
I wake up.
My name is Ciel Noline and I don’t dream. I never dream. Although all the Twelve have died by violence and their laws and customs have been long torn down – although my own hands were first and foremost in that particular endeavour – before, I was the Eleventh, the Variable, the Aleph, repository and incarnation of all human knowledge whether I wanted to be or not. I still am.
Someone like me cannot dream. We can’t be allowed the luxury of it, and indeed we aren’t.
With ease born of time and of being someone with too much to remember that is actually relevant, I forget and turn to do an inventory of where I have woken up. Without accessing universal knowledge, using only my own mind, I have no idea when the last time I slept intentionally was.
I am in my apartment, out of the Side; the room is filled with the light of a mediocre, grey-skied day, with blue at the edges, and with nothing else. This is lucky: by lack of habit I sleep like a dead body, and I do not yet lack people who would enjoy making me into one. That’s just a hazard of the job, routine and easy to ignore. It’s been more than fifteen years and the one who’s gotten closest to killing me off is still myself.
When I get up I find that I fell asleep entirely dressed – white and blue and grey, like always – without even having taken off my coat. Outside it’s almost winter, but my hair sticks to my neck with now-dried nervous sweat. My hands are wrinkled with the impression of the sheets. I feel like someone tried to put me through a blender.
I don’t know if this happened last time, but it’s another consequence of my post. To close myself off to the world for an hour, two hours, eight, is a risk I cannot in good conscience allow, and it feels terrible as a result.
I search, casually, while everything goes blurry, the average of my sight falling even more to grey. My sister is not in the building. I go further: there is nothing interesting on the level of a block, a hectare, a kilometre – three kilometres away someone from the Army of Inventions is threatening an apprentice Healer but that doesn’t matter to me. It is seven in the morning and despite my unconsciousness nothing big has changed. The city outside breathes around me, lightly, blanketed with clouds, with the Side weaving into its bones like a parasite.
Then I correct myself, blink, come back to the realm of only what I can see and not everything I can know. A symbiont, I am sure. The Side was even here before the city was.
I leave my apartment just that disorganised, distracted, feeling like I’m missing something whose name I never learnt – but that’s ridiculous. I know everything, and what I don’t know, I learn.
The streets are almost abandoned, hatefully quiet, air and silence my main company. I am even thankful for every passing car, or for when I hear the rusty, bitter tone of a cell phone alarm.
Someone waves at me and I lift up my arm in an automatic reply. I don’t know them, I almost didn’t see them. They had blue gloves on; I think it was a woman; I don’t feel like knowing it absolutely. I keep walking.
Letting the novelties of the day – everything of the world that I’ve ignored, scientific discoveries and threats of war and every drop of rain that fell in a drought – hit me like coffee, like a cigarette, like never needing anything else in this world, intravenous and instantaneous, I turn towards the Side.
The Side isn’t part of the city, but neither is it something of its own. It’s the shadow of the outside, its reflection, foetus in fetu, stealing its circulation hand-in-hand.
In the centres of cities, or at the edges, in any place that has been built and then abandoned by faithless hands and minds, there it is. In condemned and ruinous places they come out like fungi: for some reason people of magic always prefer that their civilisations be second-hand. Maybe it’s because if someone else has already pried out all the shining parts, all that actually mattered, it becomes less probable that others might come and take away whatever’s left.
They don’t burn us anymore. They even harbour us. For more than a hundred years we’ve had a treaty with the city council, albeit a secret one. The majority of the population would think, therefore, that it’s because of incompetence or bureaucracy that I can duck under the caution tape like it’s a door.
Those who live near the borders tend to put on such ruin that it’s almost over-the-top. It’s for good reasons, better excessive precautions than insufficient ones, but I still come up with a multitude of curses every time the potholes in the sidewalk trip me up.
In my head there’s a clock. Three years, six days and seven hours. Three years, six days, seven hours and a minute. Three years, six days, seven hours and...
Before, there were twelve allowed types of magic. Now there’s one for every name, sometimes more. It makes classification a bit difficult, that almost everyone who previously served as a definition by existing is dead; thus when Madeleine Fetch comes up to me I take a second to place her.
She is ink, she’s invisible, she’s an aberration: magic doesn’t affect her, and she tears holes in magic. I have been like this for too long to want to take a few steps backwards, by all rights, but magic is all that holds me together and I still feel the inclination. (Behind me, the blue woman does. Madeleine, being an invisible, wouldn’t see her even if she was real.)
“Aleph,” she says, “what luck I found you. Who was my father?”
This is what happens to me, pretty consistently: when you are the only existing terminal to more or less universal knowledge, people ask you things.
Usually they don’t do it at seven in the morning but that doesn’t really matter.
“He—” I don’t dream and I don’t hallucinate, my perception of reality is not to be compromised, but I hear it anyway. It’s like how Tabot describes his bastardised access to the world’s knowledge, like suddenly knowing something I didn’t before instead of just having to remember, like reading All it took for us was a thief and a liar and a single case of petty theft. Are you really going to go down that road? written neat in summer’s-sky blue pen.
“Yeah?” Madeleine is looking at me critically, now, which in itself is kind of funny. She could pose a threat if she had her sister with, I suppose, if anyone had ever taught them how to use what they are. We used to teach invisibles, too; I would have told her this, if she ever asked, and broken a small part of her worldview.
I tell her who her father was and shatter most of it instead.
Presently I get indirectly involved in a dispute between the Sidhe Court and the society of invisibles about their territory and how it relates to a combination book and sandwich shop. (I would call the establishment a restaurant, but considering the quality of food there, it doesn’t deserve the distinction.) They want me to arbitrate but it can’t be resolved objectively, and when I inform them that if it belongs to anyone it’s the Healers’ – the property was lent to them by a siren and ex-witch in the 1800s – they don’t seem to be satisfied with that at all.
Less literally they are arguing the borders between the human Side and that of the Sidhe, and the Sidhe and the Side and the Outside, and the right of the invisibles to have taken it upon themselves to police the borderlands in the first place. When I recommend, purposefully, that they go ask the granddaughter of the siren I mentioned (Jordan Hale, who I would not touch with a bargepole) or the current Lady of the Healers, they finally get tired of me and let me go.
“Who do you even think you are?” a branch-thin xana says to me as I’m leaving. The routes to escape the parallel kingdom of the Fae require some concentration, if you aren’t a negative space in the world’s magic; I am precisely the opposite, so I get a bit distracted finding her, tucked in between the woods and the ruins. It would be a windfall for them if I lost my step here, so I don’t.
“Pardon?” It tends to be too much to hope for that people address me in a fashion congruent with my title. I’ve pretty much stopped hoping. I’m Ciel Noline and I own your soul, actually would even be accurate, but that’s not worth the effort. For all I know she could even be trying to trap me, like someone’s confused me with Cosma and thinks that would work.
“Do you really think we would’ve let you in here with that abomination if you were someone else? That thing with the face of the woman you let die? You could at least have some respect. Fake it, if it’s that much trouble.”
If I close my eyes, I see that the blue woman is behind me, smiling. She doesn’t have a face: she’s a silhouette. She’s smiling anyway.
“Thank you,” I say with a grin, and of course I don’t speak through my teeth, but my hands are irritably, irritatingly still when they should never stop moving, “for informing me. I do always appreciate novel information.”
It’s true, even. I do, or I would, if I had a chance of any.
Since the year I turned twenty-one I haven’t gotten sick, for a fairly obvious reason. Despite this, I decide it’s been too long since I visited January.
January lives in a house in the centre of the Side, which gives her the opportunity to keep it as neat and clean as one outside. She has another reason, too. She’s the Lady of the Healers, one of the only authorities to have survived after everything I’ve done. (The truth is that I couldn’t have done it without her, and also that I haven’t spoken to her for almost a year.) For the twin sakes of convenience and a very idealist kind of dedication, her house is used more as a hospital than anything else.
This is why when she greets me at the door (a second before I knock, such that my hand stays suspended in the air like a punchline), she’s dressed in the whites and blues she’s taken from me and made standard, with her dreadlocks pulled up behind her and white gloves that might even have been respectably sterile. She’s a Healer born and made, and chalk besides – a human being made more of magic than of flesh and bone – and in no universe would she need them, but she’s always believed more in doing the right thing than the reasonable.
(Well, almost always. Before, she fell in love with a necromancer and almost broke the apprenticeship system, the only way we had and still have to avoid a criminally incompetent next generation. Before that, she could have torn the Side apart. I’ve seen her properly, with nothing else to hold her back, and my sister’s stopped her; it’s not like I don’t know what she is. But generally speaking she’s been consistent, day-to-day.)
“Before,” she says with this almost regal fury that five years ago would’ve been unbelievable but to which I’ve become accustomed, “you ask, yes, you have a ghost, congratulations on your ghost. I can’t help you.”
“Thank you,” I say, again, my default response. It used to be ‘Thank you’ and ‘I’m sorry’, but the latter has more or less worn out from overuse. “But—”
“I don’t care,” and I recognise her anger as that of someone who’s using it as a shield. I rather wonder what she thinks she’s defending herself from. “I don’t want to risk myself with your mad ideas anymore. Inside there’s a twelve-year-old girl with a cough and that I can fix. Go throw yourself against what you can’t change if you want or ruin someone else’s life or – look, I’m not helping any more.”
I pull my lips back until they form a C, to be polite. Any observer would say that I am smiling as I salute her like a soldier or a child. “All right. Healer.”
She stares at me and tries to be unreadable, untouchable, arch, like that would ever help her.
Technically, January is my deputy, my left hand. She’s done very well, these last three years, between her protests that she’s not doing it at all.
To get out of the centre of the Side it’s likely that I’d need to answer ten stupid questions and promise three minor favours on the way. Normally this causes me to stay on the Side when I’ve had to go so far in, because at least that way people have to look for me. Now it spurs me to turn and go walking off immediately, to see if I can manage all that in two and a half hours this time.
I almost trip two times in the first block, though, because I’m busy looking for absolute truth about ghosts. What I find irritates me.
It’s not that there is none, it’s just – I am still the Aleph, one of twelve, one twelfth. The dead are the Columbine’s domain, and the Columbine was killed; she’s still around, but asking her wouldn’t serve me much, considering the risk, and I can’t know real truth about what belongs to one of my erstwhile peers.
All that I get left with, then, is human knowledge, which is fallible. And, worse, even there I’m not allowed much; anyone who knows enough to be convenient would be under the Columbine’s same aegis, even though that is no longer important in any real way. A true and truthful way, yes. But not real.
For the rest of the Side, there are only two certainties about ghosts: they are never good news, and you’ll know them when you see them.
Outside I almost trip over a girl who looks like she must live on the street. Her face is dirty, the structural integrity of her clothing highly debatable, her hair doubtlessly a great petri dish of microorganisms evolved enough to have come up with war and opera. Emphasis, always, on looks like. I let my eyes focus.
Behind the little glamour she’s using – it’s not very good; my sister would’ve found her in a crowd of a thousand and would’ve scolded her for even trying, but I can see she’s got it on lend – she has the most relaxed stance I’ve seen in weeks, that of someone who hasn’t yet thought to wait to be attacked or for an opportunity to attack. Her real clothing is disordered and old and has been washed without care, but it has been washed.
I recognise her hat.
“You smell like soap,” I say, as a critique, to the girl who’s blocking my way. “If you wish to be convincing really that would be a disadvantage.”
Her hat is grey, round, with stitches in a colour that can’t quite make up its mind as to what it is. She has it pulled down almost to her eyebrows. It’s more a uniform than a policeman’s. At any rate I could recognise them with no hints and in the centre of a hurricane. The small street army has such a specific type it’s almost a joke.
“What does the Invention want with me?” I add.
The girl smiles at me. The expression doesn’t reach her eyes by whit of that she doesn’t have any, but the smooth expanse of skin she has in their place wrinkles a bit. It doesn’t give me any hope, nor does it provoke fear, fascination, curiosity. Everyone always thinks to go for the eyes first, it’s not interesting at all. The Side is full of the blind, both metaphorical and literal. If the so-called Invention wants to disconcert me he would have more luck going to my sister or not even trying.
Fifteen years ago Tabot Funk was a sort of doll, an automaton made and exiled from the Court he belonged to, working as a universe salesman and general-purpose jack-of-all-trades. Three years ago (four months, two weeks, seven hours and twelve minutes) he found me desperate and in mourning and pointed me towards the culprit.
Now he’s the sole commander of an army of things like him, made and given up on.
I suppose this must make him happy.
“A bit of news,” the girl has been saying, adjusting the glamour with one hand without seeming to notice, tapping at the air with her fingers. “A gift and a piece of advice, Lord Aleph. From my General.”
She pulls something that didn’t exist five seconds ago out of her pocket, and I realise that the glamour on them was her own. Three flowers that look more like yellow paper tied to some sticks for some reason than actual plants; they don’t smell like anything, they don’t mean anything, I do a quick search by sight and I finish and I don’t find anything.
There’s something to be known about all and any thing that exists, that’s the only truth in the world. I will have to go searching.
I take the flowers a second before she holds them out to me.
“General Funk says it’s the new cempazuchitl. He says you should try to keep up. He says he’d really hate to lose you.”
I look down my nose at her. I don’t have the vanity of a native, nor the inclination, and so glamour’s something I’ve never bothered to learn; if she sees me for the first time with eyes the absolute blue of the sky, taller than her and thirty years older in a city that chews strangers up and spits them out like bad gum, if she just realised what it used to mean to go to one of the Twelve with threats, it’s only because she hasn’t been paying attention.
And that’s her own fault.
“Tell Tabot I thank him for everything, then,” I say. “Good bye.”
She must be quite dedicated to preserving her own dignity, or be a bit stupid: she doesn’t go off running.
I don’t know what the woman behind me must think.
Now I don’t remember why I came here. (To go looking in the history of the world just to find out what on earth I was thinking would be stupid.) I turn on my heel, noticing like a reflex that Cosma hasn’t been back in three weeks, still. A year or less ago my sister still got passionate about the need for us to be isolated, to stay with one foot Outside and one Inside.
She must be very preoccupied with something, I suppose. She must be working. It’s fine. I even know where she will be, without having to look. I’ve just been there.
While I pass through the Side again I pick out every Healer, every child of the Invention, every apprentice I can find. Even without the real system, without being able to see the whole world and divide it up into twelve parts all true and precise, I can see everyone’s bound to someone else.
Oh, what luck I found you.
I don’t feel alone. That would be pointless. (And I leave behind me only one pair of footsteps, a private rhythm. Not two. No one is following me.)
By what luck could I have found you, though?
January greets me with something cheerful and forgettable, rearranging her hair with one hand. I don’t make the effort to reply, to wear my face like something other than a habitual mask; I look at her, and she is still.
A thief and a liar and a single case of petty theft brought us down. History repeats for the unimaginative. Come on then.
I’m still holding the flowers in my right hand. I see clearly and without hyperlinks: everything I need to know is right in the foreground of my mind. I know it automatically, the way I know my sister’s birthday, how to start a HTML document, the names of the Twelve and the dates they died on. These are lisonjera flowers, devil’s grass, Chondrilla juncea, the source of the smear of colour the necromancer Arcturus always had under his fingernails.
A gift and a piece of advice, Lord Aleph.
“Haven’t seen her in ages, you know,” I say. “I would’ve asked that you say hi or something.”
January’s eyes are very old for someone who’s finger-painted her face pink and orange today, someone the size of a primary-school student. “And I would have done,” she says.
It’s enough that she looked me in the eye for two seconds. Now I know this without having to search or remember, too: to the right is her office, she lives there more than not, and here emergencies, then supplies, I don’t care, it doesn’t matter, nothing matters until I come to – walking through her house while I look through the blueprints in my head, faster than the Healer who can only follow me, faster than any human should be but acting requires effort and I’m out of patience—
“The basement, Cosma? Seriously?” I jump down from the door instead of walking, passing irritably through the stairs; who cares about respecting solid matter, about the laws of physics, I am information, I am data, I don’t care. My shadow changes, disappears, reappears, like a blink. It goes out as I walk over, stark against the worn humanity of this dimly-lit room. “Really you couldn’t be more stereotypical than this. It is not possible. You have won the prize of most stereotypical. You’re the stereotype, it’s you.”
She has a drafting table, old and elegant, stained with blood (various sources, the most recent stains are from her and January, no coercion). A dentist’s lamp (electric, being used as the focus for a general-purpose spell of light, there isn’t electricity on this Side). Five books (two have been lost since the library at Alexandria burnt, one actually contains information she wouldn’t or shouldn’t already have known), three notebooks, eight pens, one knife.
One smile, large and bereft of sincerity. I don’t fear it, let alone her knife. But someone who doesn’t share her last name ought to.
“Cosma,” I say, more quietly. I feel someone behind me, looking forward almost at eye level; I don’t turn. It must be January, January who doesn’t even come to my shoulder, watching from the door. I checked, and I check again: there is no one in this room but me and my sister. “In the shadow of the Twelve or the name of whatever god you fancy today, what do you think you’re doing?”
She takes off her stupid smile with a lot more care than I use for my own expressions. It doesn’t make it look any more natural. “What do you think I’m doing?”
“It’s forbidden,” I begin to say. I doubt, I stutter, the sentence is lost.
It’s forbidden to lift up the dead and forbidden to cast them down in the first place. I remember a young man with teeth and a soul like needles both, and how he died, rent into pieces inside his skin: each arm and each leg snapped twice, one break per clavicle, finally the neck. It’s amazing, really, that he survived that long.
At least he ended up symmetrical.
Arcturus was my sister’s friend, and I killed him; Arcturus was my enemy and the murderer of the Twelve, and I killed him. Both of these things are true.
It’s been three years, a week, and twenty hours. I don’t just know: I understand. Since when has my sister cared about rules? Since when has the Queen Navegant had to pay heed to laws?
I should have noticed long ago.
“It’s not your place to go around raising the dead.”
Cosma has red eyes, although this hasn’t always been the case. Normally they are clear and bright, the red of fresh blood or the ink from an editor’s pen. Now they’ve turned dark, coagulated, closed to the world and to me. My little sister looks older than I am.
It must be some trick of the light. (It must be some kind of irony: I gave her those eyes.)
“We’ve had obligations for a long time,” she says. Her voice is steady but I’ve heard that tone before; coincidentally, in both cases my feet didn’t quite touch the ground. “Someone has to fulfil them. Someone has to do it.”
She has always been too responsible, for certain definitions of responsibility. My mouth is open but I’ve no idea what to say.
A cold hand wraps around my own.