Such A World As This
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It was like being drugged.

(Perhaps you should explain how you have reference for this: after all, they never gave you anything - it was easier just to tie your hands and feet and bind you to the table. Not a waste of their stores, that way, and if you cannot fight back - can do nothing but scream as they flay you open, as your bones break and mend and break again under the force of the magic shoved into your limbs, tendons split and re-join under glass edges, scream and scream until you black out - well, all the better.

This time, though, you unfortunately hadn't, still remain aware even as they cut the rawhide and lift you off and haul you back to the quarters. Drop you unceremoniously onto the rough stone - the impact wrenches a sob away. Not even in your own place. You will be here in the doorway to be trod upon and kicked and snarled at until your flesh knits enough to allow you to raise yourself, crawl somewhere safer to curl up and -

You cannot move. You cannot breathe. Nothing exists but the pain. The ice storm rends your thoughts from the rocks, shreds them into shell-fragments -

“Can you hear me?”

It takes far too long to hear, and even longer to understand. The space where air should be striking all your raw edges, light piercing your eyelids, trace someone crouching next to your head. The voice was high. Soft. Female?

An incision opens on the side of your neck; something trickles sticky over the skin underneath, and you think you hear a drop strike the stone like a thorn driven into your ear. Another on your temple, or perhaps it is tears - both feel the same outside your skin. “Shhh,” the girl whispers, and draws the tips of her fingers through your hair. Your body tries to flinch away, but for the fire that lances through all your bones at even the attempt it doesn’t seem like it succeeds very well. “It’s all right,” she says, though your breath catches at that. There is the sound of movement, and then something set on your bottom lip.

It is bitter, and hot enough to burn. You drink anyway. (She’ll put it up your nose if you don’t, most likely; the alchemists do, when they need you to drink. That’s worse than burns inside your mouth. Not worth it.)

Time goes very uncertain for a while. The girl doesn’t leave, keeps stroking you like you are a dog - you think you hear snatches of her singing, something low and lilting, and are vaguely aware enough to be grateful that as long as she keeps it up people will hear and won’t therefore step on you, but the waves of the pain flood your ears, keep pouring over your face and into your mouth, and -

Ebb. Everything inside you goes quiet. Your limbs stop howling and relax. Your mouth shapes oh with the shock of it, and your head receives another sympathetic ruffle.

When you wake, you are alone, back in your own sleeping-place, and aching again. You never saw her face.)


When you get older, and have been finally pleached to the mistress’s satisfaction, they stop. You get dragged before her on your feet this time, and get the chance to kneel under your own power. As near as you can tell, you are approved of - she nods at her sorcerers, and someone presses cold knuckles to the back of your neck and collar and floods your mind -

You watch yourself be armed, introduced to the other guards, and instructed in your duty as though it is happening to someone else. The knife blade opens up the hand that is yours as you receive it. Your smallest fingers well and drip red onto the sandstone.

One of the other guards, eventually - who may or may not be named Dhera, you already forgot - has to curl your fingers over the slit, smirking at the auspiciousness of it all.


The woman probably originally comes from the western mountains. Her hair, her eyes, the colours and patterns woven into her (now grimed and torn from the cells) long tunic, all testify to this. What she did to earn such a punishment you have not been told. Not, of course, that it would matter anyway. There is no way out of the pits once handed over.

And both you and she are bare-handed, which means they have no interest in this being equal, and probably no interest in it being protracted either. Not a spectacle: an execution.

Because none of it is enough, though she is fast and accurate in her blows. She tries to kick you, in the soft place between hip and rib; you stomp on her grounded foot, and feel the bones break, although a tingling shock runs up to your own knee as well. She screams and falls back, dropping to one knee, and you seize her then, haul her a mess of bones against your chest.

You catch her elbow and shove it back to her side - and then, with the other hand, the head driven at your chin. The crowd above you yells, cries half-insults, half-encouragement.

"There is no honour in this!" she screams panicked back at them. Or possibly at you, you're not sure. A laugh wells up in response, a few more jeers flung like darts to strike against both her chest and your back. What, was she expecting an actual answer? Whatever honour is supposed to be, maybe it isn't here; but you have to kill her regardless, and so there is no use kneeling here debating it. So you tighten your hold, and her nails dig down deeper into your forearm for one heartbeat, two, three, four. And then they relax, and so you switch to your hands instead and squeeze until the cartilage crunches. Her exhale croaks, and does not return.

You drop her onto the sand and stand up. The bloodlust and mirth tumble down around you like a rainstorm, washing her breath away.


If there is religion, down there in the pits, it is a pared-down thing described mainly by the phrase remember you will die. Be as strong or as fast or as clever as you want, someday, someone will come who is more so, and the breath that leaks away into the dirt will be yours.

Tell yourself, every day, I will not rise, I will not see sunfall - eventually, you're going to be right.


By the time you make it back to the quarters, your hand is going numb. The fall was hard, a blaze of grinding cartilage and pebble-and-sand grains piercing your palm - most people went weak in their desperation, cringing away, trying to beg your mercy, but today’s opponent had opted towards savagery as a strategy for preserving his life.

It hadn’t, in the end, but your arm is nonetheless currently useless, so you cannot say it achieved nothing, either.

Midday is not too far past, so the quarters are mainly empty. You get a very brief glance from an old woman hunched over a smoky brick-stove in the far corner, and no acknowledgement at all from a small lump huddled under a worn blanket. But beyond that, nothing, as you fold yourself down into the angle between your own and the wall. The faster you are with reducing the better - the longer limbs are deprived of life the less likely they’ll wake fully on the regaining - so you do not hesitate in drawing half your cheek between your teeth for silence, your dead arm across your knees.

One time, your mind was perfectly quiet and painless. You try and remember that, and pull.

It does not wipe out entirely the wet grind as your bones finally slide back into position. Copper floods your mouth, mist your eyes. A glare from the stove shows you may have failed at the silence, shivering and panting like a whipped dog - you fumble your good hand up across your mouth, and she squints and turns back to the pot as the burn of reawakening spreads across the other.

(That was so many years ago. You’re not sure why you even remember, other than to torment yourself - or maybe that is why: even then, small and overwhelmed with fresh re-making, you had recognized it was not something you would see twice, pity. This is the only reference you might ever have for its shape. How can you throw it away?)


The fog clings to the insides of your nose and mouth - the sea again, trying to sneak up and devour the city like it does periodically. At the other doorpost, the other guard who may or may not be named Dhera shivers and huddles deeper into his cloak, pulling the cowl up around his ears. The lord artificer upon whom your mistress calls must find his home very cold in the winter, if its face is this open towards the hill, the sea, and the north wind.

Beneath your own, you dig a fist into the small of your back. Cáyé, it hurts; like your vertebrae have been bound in silver wire and a torch held to the end, like your kidneys have been torn out with a dull awl.

But no amount of thinking will or ever has eased it, and anyway, your task is not to think.

On the other side of the street, a man has set up a small forge and is currently trying to re-head an axe; you watch him draw his knife and carefully shave a coil of wood off the tenon projecting from the end of the handle, then reattempt to fit the head on. There is tarnish on its edges - the old handle must have broken or mouldered, but the metal is too valuable to discard with it and will be reassembled into a new tool. Apparently satisfied, he balances the wedge against it and reaches for his mallet to fix the join.

(If only you could borrow even an ounce of his warmth -)

Possibly-Dhera shoots a look across the entryway at you, and you immediately drop your hand. You must be worth her investment, and that means no points of failure, no hairline cracks in you to splinter apart under the hammerstone. Else you shall be recouped upon; the crowds would give your worth many times over for the promise of seeing you fall by design.

The forge is packed away and gone by the time she emerges, evidently satisfied with the progression of her commission. You fall back into line and try not to look at the space where it was.


The man (surprisingly young, but then the young have had fewer chances for that inevitable death to reach them) for some reason finds it necessary to try and explain to you how he came to be in the pits, one sentence with each blow.

When you wrench his collar against his trachea, he stops. When you stamp the limbs of his ribs inwards, it is permanent.

Tomorrow, maybe. And tomorrow, and tomorrow -


You must give this man some acknowledgement - he got close, closer than anyone else you remember. Regardless of what most people say, nobody truly wants to go out in a blaze of glory. That’s why they all cry. That’s why they all beg. That’s why very few of them are stupid enough, whatever rebellious thoughts they hold in the darkest depths of their hearts, to make any attempt upon assassinating her - because they’ll fail, and unintentionally raise her esteem at the same time, every one calling back to the days of old when the founding matriarchs ruled not symbolically garnet-clad but literally.

Vaguely, you wonder if the transition should be hastened in this case, because he is still caught on the same empty rhetoric - repentance and overthrow, that she be cast down in her pride, all the might of Daevon scattered as chaff in the wind, everything only madmen dream and only fanatics profess. And then die the same as everyone else, when pierced with swords or crushed in dirt or bound upon the city walls for the vultures, because nothing changes nor ever will.

Then, the guard holding his arms moves just slightly, and pain flashes across his face. His strange, pale weapons lie shattered on the tile before you, unusable and unreachable.

The woman from the western mountains would probably say there is no honour for your mistress in this either - an unarmed man held helpless before her. She regards him with lips pursed in incontrovertible disdain, and soon jerks her chin towards you. "Kill him," she tells you. "I do not need to listen to this further."

To his credit, the man does not cower, or cry, or beg. "Do it, then," he says, and lifts his gaze to meet yours, full in the eyes. "If you think it is right."


…and everything inside you goes quiet.


…most of the blood, when it is over, is not yours. Because there were Dhera and the four others, and your mistress besides - no, she is not that anymore, had stopped being that the instant you felt the bone give, but you hadn’t, had drawn out your knife and kept hacking, even as they had fallen upon you as they ought, buried their own blades in your ribs, your gut -

But enough of it is - your mouth is full of the sea, all salt and bits of tissue you don't want to know the provenance of. It is not easy to speak around it, as the warlord - no, no, master, Jel is now in his hands, he could walk past you and pull the sceptre from under her body and that would make it final - goes to his knees beside you, puts a hand on your temple. His face is unreadable, but that doesn’t really matter, not against the fact that it is turned to you at all. No-one has ever afforded you this much eye contact in your whole life - a shame, that you won't get to enjoy it for much longer.

"Well?" you slur. Was that right, just, honourable? Tell me; you are master now, it is your judgement.

It is not given. Instead, his lips tighten, and he digs clawed fingers into your gut.

Oh, you think. This. “I would not have you die,” the warlord says, and that is new, but the rest of it -

You are put back together. It hurts no less, under these fingers - since you will die has apparently been discredited now, another constant must be chosen, to fill that religion-shaped hole. It may as well be that, you are able to string together through the roaring in your ears: it will always hurt, to be reassembled.

When it is over, he draws back: your blood to his elbows, on his neck, when he reaches to rub it.

You stand up.

“Come with me,” your warlord wielder says, picking up the fragments of his weapon and sealing them back together, too, with a stroke of his hand. Somebody bangs on the door, yells something in another language - one of his servants, probably, come to try and rescue their lord. Another voice, higher, joins it. He turns from you (and something unfamiliarly not-damage pangs beneath your ribs, to lose that look), goes over, responds. Does not look at the wreckage left behind.

So you come. What else can you do?

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