Title: Another Fall
Author: player of Lazaryth
He was standing with his back against the oak tree in town square when a rich red-brown leaf glanced against his arm and spun to the pavement. He picked it up. It was beautifully formed, each lobe perfect, and yet when he rubbed it between his fingers it crumbled at once.
He let the fragments flutter to the pavement, dusting off his hands. The blight was what he would remember from this fall. That, and how dangerously close he was coming to doing something foolish, again.
Was it in the air? When he'd been out on the flanks of the DragonSpine a few weeks ago he'd caught the wild notes of the elk rut and marveled how Imaera's rhythms played year after year without fail, each beast somehow knowing its part. He was awed, but he also understood it. He had his own patterns.
It had been fall the first time he broke his mother's heart. He'd turned twenty just a few weeks before, in the decadence of summer, and already now golden leaves were scattering when the wind came through. His mother and sister were setting dinner on the broad plank that served as a table: potato soup, as usual, this time with the addition of some shreds of meat from a grouse he'd shot on the way home.
"You'd think they never had anyone move to town before," his mother was saying.
"It's fine," said Alvyara. "I wouldn't worry, mum. It's not like they'd send us away." His sister turned to him. "Did you have any trouble? I didn't see you all day."
"Mm," he grunted, closing his mouth around a hunk of bread. He shrugged.
Alvy rolled her eyes and looked at their mother, who in turn looked back at the doorway behind her.
"Mesthryn," she called in a honey-sweet voice that trailed off into silence. They sat, each gazing at the wall, the old wooden bowls. After a minute, they began to eat.
"I think I'm made of potatoes by now," said Alvyara irritably.
Her mother eyed her sternly, then turned to Lazaryth and smiled. "Did you have a good day, love?" Even after a long day of rehearsals she was luminous, her hair a tousled silver-blonde fall that draped her lithe dancer's frame.
He finished chewing and returned her smile. "I did."
"Did you get to speak with all your new teachers?"
"No? Have you got all your assignments, at least?"
He set his spoon down next to his bowl. "Mum," he began.
Alvyara gave him a sharp glance. "Laz, so help me, if you -"
"I didn't go to school," he interrupted. Then he put another hunk of bread in his mouth. His sister let out a hiss of vexation, rolling her eyes once more to the ceiling.
A single furrow appeared between his mother's brows. She observed him with concern. "Why not, my dear?"
His voice was quiet. "I signed up with the guard."
The wind tossed another battery of dry leaves at the canvas-and-hide sides of their home. In the hush following, he could hear his mother's breath catch. "I don't understand," she said. "You're so bright. You have to finish, we'll move so you can go to any college you want.."
"I hate school, mum. You know I do. I can't do it anymore. Especially another new one. And my grades -"
"If you would just apply yourself -"
"I despise it. I can't stand to sit there another day."
"You're too young!"
"I'm twenty, mum."
"It's too dangerous, Lazaryth. Tell them you changed your mind."
"No, it's done. I can't. I signed the papers. I have to serve the next fifty years, or I go to prison."
She shook her head, incomprehension on her face. "When?"
He looked down at his bowl. "A week," he mumbled. I'm sorry. I'm sorry."
"My baby." Her voice was almost inaudible. "I thought you would stay.. I thought you would always be with us, here. Of all the children -" She choked up again, and then a faint, keening sigh rose from her, becoming a wail that tore into his heart and softened only when she buried her face in her hands.
Alvyara stood slowly. He tensed; he expected her to swear at him, call him an idiot, even throw something at his head as she had often done. But she only turned and strode to the back room, her expression unreadable. He heard a muffled sob, then the low tones of his father's voice. Then silence.
He shifted to Alvy's chair and wrapped his arms around his mother, holding her while she shook. They were the two he cared most for in the world; and now, he sensed, he'd somehow found the thing that could hurt them more than any other thing he would ever have thought to do. He stared blankly at the door as his mother began to wail again, her voice cutting into him. He felt sick, so sick he almost grabbed for one of the soup bowls.
But it was done. For the first time, he felt the full weight of the knowledge that others' happiness was dependent on his own actions. It wasn't a knowledge he wanted; even in that moment, the romance of running off to join the guard sang to him, perhaps all the more strongly. He would become a soldier, a man, independent of these women who had been the entire world - his mother, his sisters, the aunts who had held him as a baby and taught him to shoot a bow. And perhaps he could still take care of them somehow - because while his choices may never make them happy or even keep them safe, he could at least keep them fed.
It was a year before he made enough money to send any home. On a blustery Day of the Huntress, his first bonus pay jingling in his pockets, he sat down to take his dinner at a long table in the mess hall. His plate was heavy with food: venison in gravy, carrots, dense bread with butter, winter squash - and potatoes, which he pushed to the side.
The soldiers across from him were joking about the bandit incursions on the nearby border, the Humans' incompetence at getting close to any Sylvan settlement without tripping their wards. His mind was elsewhere. He shoveled his food in hastily and stood, nodding a perfunctory parting to the others.
Alone in the barracks, he rummaged through the chest at the foot of his bunk. Beneath his bow and his threadbare civilian clothing was a box of letters. He lifted them gently; each was still perfect, unopened. He flipped through them, his gaze wandering over his mother's graceful handwriting, Alvyara's erratic scrawl. Then he set them aside. In the bottom of the box were a bracelet of veniom links, which he fastened to his wrist; a small crystal bottle with a gold stopper, which he pocketed; and a darkened tanik goddess figurine that he touched lightly, leaving it in the box. Then he slipped out of the barracks and began to walk.
When he climbed to her expansive dwelling on the edge of town, the flap was open. He let himself in. She was at her mirror, removing her stole and heels; her eyes were dark with kohl, and the taste of champagne was on her tongue when he kissed her.
She gave him a devilish smile, trailing a finger down his crisp uniform, then took his hand and lifted it, admiring the bracelet. "Yes, I thought that would suit you," she murmured, her lips pursed in satisfaction. She pressed her nose to his neck. "And you smell delicious, lover," she said. "All for me?"
He grinned handsomely but made no answer, turning to drop into a plush chair and drape himself with one knee over its arm, his foot dangling. "You had some fun tonight, I see."
"I was out."
"Mhm." He followed her with his eyes as she wandered the room.
She tapped a finger against her lips, taking him in from every angle. "What am I do do with you tonight? We can't spend -all- our time in the bedroom."
"You could take me back to that party."
"Read to me," she said. She pulled a book from a shelf, a thin volume with gold embossing on the cover, and handed it to him. "Reyvlin always read to me."
He took the book from her, opened it. His eyes skimmed down the page for a long half-minute, until suddenly he snapped it shut and tossed it over his shoulder with a cavalier flip of the hand. Its spine struck the floorboards and it fell open, splayed. "Why read to you when I can read you?" He grabbed her, pulling her into his lap. "You're my poetry. Come. Let me put my eyes all over you. See if the god who wrote you chose to give you a happy ending."
"I adore your rakishness," she purred, brushing back a strand of his long hair. "Such a pretty boy you are. It's a shame about your family. You and I could be the king and queen of this town." She leaned in to press a long, sweet kiss to his lips, then turned his face to the side with a fingertip, examining his profile. "There isn't a person here who wouldn't stop and stare to see the two of us walk down the street, arm in arm and in our finest. Speaking of which.."
She leaned to open a small drawer in the table beside them, taking out a bag whose contents were clearly weighty. He knew immediately that it was coin. She settled the bag on his chest, pinning him with her gaze.
"I want you to find some better clothes. I love the uniform, darling, but I'd like to see you in something a little more sophisticated now and then. Take yourself to the clothier tomorrow. I trust his judgment for you."
He gave her a long look, then sat up slightly and teased open the ties to the bag. Inside was more money than he had ever seen at once in his life. He closed it again and twisted his body to place it on the floor, taking a deep breath to compose himself before turning back to her.
"You're very generous, my dear. Of course, you know I -"
"Oh, I expect repayment. You're not getting out of that, not as long as you're posted here." She stood then, taking his hand and drawing him after her. At the doorway to the bedroom she stopped to remove her choker, lavish diamonds glinting in the half-light.
He shook his head, staying her hands as he pressed his lips to her ear. "Leave the diamonds on," he whispered.
In the morning, he took his gains to the clothier as directed. The man asked no questions, setting out several pieces of fine silk and twill. Lazaryth fingered the rich fabric of the shirt, the jacket with its sharp lines. The waistcoat was impeccably stitched, the trousers smart as a whip; the ascot was silk so fine its warp and weft were indiscernable. He upended his bag on the table and over the next five minutes, while he watched, the clothier counted the silvers into piles.
"You've nearly enough here for three full outfits, boy," said the man.
Lazaryth hesitated. The silvers were beautiful to him, each as perfect as the full Lornon moon. Just a portion of that pile would buy meat for his family for half a year. He thought of them, clinging nobly to their arts and scraping by each year, and then of her; thought of her eyes, her smile when she saw how like a prince he could look, how worthy he could be.
Slowly, he dug into his pockets and scoured out every silver from his bonus pay, setting the coins beside the rest.
"Is it enough now?" he asked.
Another fall, another meal. He hunched over his tray, listlessly swirling the potato gruel with his spoon. He glanced to the left and right of him; everyone else at the table had a full bowl. His was barely half-filled. With an embittered sigh, he brought a spoonful to his mouth and tried to swallow without tasting. When he'd finished the bowl his stomach was still growling. Already he was losing weight, and he didn't have much to lose.
He returned his tray to the serving station and approached the window for mail. As he walked he was aware of eyes following him. It was the guard with the crooked nose again - the one who had seemed so affronted by his bearing and poise when he was first admitted, the one he suspected of telling the kitchen staff to halve his rations. The man observed him with antipathy as he passed.
He had a letter, his first since he'd arrived. The envelope had already been slit, but the sight of Alvy's handwriting made his heart lift and he pulled it out immediately, skimming the contents. She had scribbled a drawing in the margins, as she often did; this time, a liberated finch perched on top of its enclosure, cage door hanging open. He struggled to decipher his sister's scrawl.
"...Mum is sending money so you can get another blanket. Please, please swallow your pride..."
He strode back to the table, eyes still laboring over the letter, then stumbled suddenly, realizing in the same instant that he was being tripped. His body reacted absent his direction, driving an immediate left hook into the guard's kidney hard enough to crack all the knuckles on his hand. And then he was being grappled. His arms were wrenched back and manacled and he was dragged down the hallway. A door was opened and he was tossed in, landing hard on his shoulder; then it slammed shut, and he was alone.
He scooted to prop himself in a corner of the cell, then wrangled his lithe limbs until he had his bound hands in front of him. He dropped his face into them, rubbing over his shorn scalp in frustration, then let his head back against the wall. High above him was a slit for light and air; autumnal drafts sank down, washing him in cold. After a half hour he heard the commotion of another set of inmates being let into the yard.
"Did you see it? What happened?" came a voice.
"They threw him in there because he sucker-punched Ildrach at dinner."
"I heard he was a killer."
"He was a soldier. Loqu told me, he said he was posted with him at Yernaeth."
"Someone said he deserted," offered another voice.
"Loqu said he thought he was a fairy. That he was kicked out for coming on to his own commander."
He knew they were talking about him. He didn't care. What he cared was that the letter with its little finch had been dropped and was most likely lost to him. He'd been inside only a few weeks and already he felt years older, his shoulders tight with the daily strain of small humiliations. It seemed that every move he'd made toward freedom in his life had resulted only in a different kind of confinement, a separate layer of entanglement. And yet it was still freedom that he craved more than anything.
He would have to wait. In his head, the time he was to remain there stretched before him like a life-long sleepless night, and only the thought of the next letter made it bearable.
A wind hustled through the town square. He took a moment to pick the remaining leaf fragments from his tailored jacket and let his hair down against the chill; it cloaked him sleekly, a neater copy of his mother's silver-blonde mane that fell now to the center of his back. He ached, both from the cold exacerbating old injuries and from simple tension.
His shoulders had been tight since the young nuisance had taken to him. She was a problem: the rawness of her, the ease with which some clumsiness on his part might leave unintended effects. There was also the small matter of her guardian and the promise implied in his understanding of how little she wanted her ward to stumble down her own gnarled path. And now: this.
He drew the letter from his pocket again, the familiar scrawl bringing a smile to his lips despite his irritation at its contents. A penguin was sketched on this one, and above it, a block of banality about her latest love interest, a new concept for a painting, her worries about their father. And then the maddening request.
"I wish you would let me come stay with you," she had written. "You should realize you're not the only one who wants to learn something of the world, and grow abler in the learning."
No, no, and no again. There was no way in a thousand hells he would consent to yet another liability in his town to watch over, worry over, or - gods forbid - witness the death of before Raznel's host. How many times would she ask?
He sighed sharply and crammed the letter into the envelope. Then he noticed an additional mark on the front indicating it had passed through Icemule Trace. He chuckled in pure admiration. Raznel's chaos was effective indeed if they were now routing Landing-bound mail through Icemule.
Shaking his head, he scanned the area a final time from his lair under the tree. He hated to give up so early, but he was bored. The square was failing grandly to entertain him this afternoon, its pockets of loiterers overfilled with gaunt farmers and charmless old women. Abruptly he drew his longsword and examined the edge, then strode out to the north gate, where he passed - then circled back on - a crude sign by the road's edge.
He regarded it a long moment, letting the words sink in. "Wehnimer's Landing Militia is looking for new recruits!" it boasted.
His chest was tight, now, too. It was that old knowledge once more: the weight of grasping fully his power to protect or endanger others, gift or take away their happiness. He had perhaps been free, once, as a boy; but no man who loved could be.
He considered. It would be another layer of entanglement, of course. The militia would have its own rules, and it seemed unlikely he wouldn't chafe at a few of them. There was also the manner of his exit from the Sylvan Guard, which he hoped they would overlook; though, he wryly supposed, he needn't inform them at all. He would have to take orders again. But he desired to grow abler, as Alvyara put it; to be effective, a force that could truly execute his will, whatever that might be. If he was doomed to feel the need to protect them all, let him at least have the skill he needed to do it.
Exhaling a curse at his own foolishness, he resolved to seek out one of the captains that night.