which i do not

Back where I used to live--I almost wrote 'back home', which says a lot I guess--they still tell stories about me. I haven't had the nerve to ask what about so it's a mystery to me, but when I say my name people get this look and say "Oh, YOU'RE Ellie?" like meeting me is an exciting point in their lives, or at least like it answers some questions.

This version of me lives on even when I'm not there, and everyone there fucking loves her. It's nice, really, to have all the first impressions taken care of, to have everyone treat you like an old friend even when you've just met them, but it's uncomfortable, too. I don't know who this version of me is, whether she's anything like me. I'm afraid that if I stay there long enough the version everyone loves will die, and I'll have a lot of ruined expectations to deal with.

It's a thing I've been obsessed with for as long as I've been obsessed with stories, really: that each of us are two people. There's the real us, and there's the stories everyone tells about us, and they aren't the same thing, and sometimes, if you're either very lucky or very unlucky, they're not even very similar, and the stories take on a life of their own.

And then at some point I realized that maybe there's a third person, which are the stories we tell ourselves. And I think the real thing that frightens me, at the end of the day, is that just maybe it's this third self who isn't anything like the real me. That maybe, if I spend too much time with these people who love me, that I'll find out I'm not who I thought I was after all.


resembling a type

He's dressed in shabby street chic that could be authentic, if authentic still means anything these days. It probably doesn't matter. He's still got the smile of a predator. She sees his type everywhere these days, because subversive is cool. Sometimes they're legit poor-ass punk rock trash like her, sometimes they're corporate kids slumming it. In the end it doesn't really matter if the predator's from your social strata or not.

The fact that the corporate kids are infiltrating is a problem on its own, but it's hard enough to get out of bed in the morning when the shower smells like sulfur and the furnace smells like burnt rubber and there's scars on her hands she doesn't recognize and a twinge in her elbow she can't explain. When her friends have finally stopped pretending they like her and all she wants is a moment of fucking peace and now--

"I don't think I've seen you here before."

"Fuck off," she says, and he keeps on smiling.

"I see how it is," he says, and then he flags down the bartender. "Her tab's on me."

She leaves over his protests. It's raining and windy and cold even though it's fucking April and she didn't bring a raincoat because it was sunny and windy this morning and she thought--well, never mind what she thought. Her jacket's not up to the task and she's freezing for it and she's worrying about her arm and she doesn't want to call a car or ride the bus or walk because all of those are places where some other asshole might try to chat her up. She doesn't want to bike because her arm hurts and what if that makes it worse?

She rides anyway. The electricity's out when she gets home so she can't even make tea, so she just lies there in the dark in her wet clothes and tries to work up the will to change into something dry. Later, her asshole roommate will probably yell at her for getting the couch wet, and then he'll yell at her for not contributing anything to the household. Fuck him. And when she gets back online her friends will yell at her for having opinions she doesn't have. And maybe if she were a better person they wouldn't think she's so shitty, even if they're wrong about the particulars. Or if she were a person at all.

(A memory: her roommate--the asshole one--is shouting at her again and the roommate who moved out last month is telling him to leave her alone. He doesn't, of course, but people don't stick up for her very often, so she remembers it, and she appreciates it, even if she doesn't know how to say it because she's not enough of a person to express these thoughts. It's a weirdly positive memory, despite everything.)

She changes into something dry before the asshole comes home and spreads her wet clothes out on the floor of her room in the hopes they'll dry faster. She's not sure it helps. It probably doesn't when it's this cold. But, well, it can't hurt, right?

So she tries to sleep, which lately means lying in bed with her eyes closed (or sometimes open, staring at the shadows and the ceiling, as if maybe there's some truth to be found in the patterns) trying to ignore her racing thoughts until she exhausts herself and morning comes. She's never sure if she gets any sleep on those nights, but it seems to help.

If she had any friends left she might talk to them, but she doesn't, and anyway the power's out and she doesn't have a smartphone. So instead she lies awake and thinks of predators who disguise themselves as one of her own and wonders what it's like to be a real person, and dreams that everything's gone wrong and it's all her fault and she should have known better and everyone everyone everyone knows. Or maybe that's not a dream at all.

And even though her dreams are mostly nightmares and her thoughts are mostly self-destructive, it still takes all her will to drag herself out of bed.


an extra in some background

I dreamt I was helping a friend with her movie by playing one of the supporting characters. All of which was fine, but when the filming started, my consciousness started and stopped with each scene. Presumably I still existed when the camera wasn't on, but once it started rolling all I remembered was being on set. I didn't know my lines, or which scene we were doing, or what I was supposed to be doing. And everything seemed so perfectly seamless: I couldn't tell when one scene started or ended. Things just kept shifting and I was doing my best to hide that I didn't know what was happening.

Which is impossible when your every move is supposed to be choreographed, of course. Eventually I became aware of the quiet conversations happening around scene change, as they grew increasingly frustrated that I was fucking everything up. 

Eventually my friend came up to me and said "Are you okay?" in that tone of voice used primarily by people who are trying very hard to be nice when they would like to slap you. I muttered something incoherent in response, and she took me by the arm and led me off, and then, for the rest of the night, I was conscious of nothing at all.



I always liked the idea of being prepared for anything, so when I was younger I used to carry everything with me in a little black messenger bag. Some lockpicks. Some tools I thought might come in handy, a multitool that actually did occasionally. A notebook or two, some pens to go with it. A camera (I still haven't gotten a smartphone and I certainly hadn't back then). A knife, a paracord bracelet, a compass, a flashlight. Sunglasses. Chapstick. My wallet. A medkit. I kept my keys on a carabiner on my belt and they had a bottle opener and another multitool.

There's a rule of thumb for backpacking in order to get your kit lighter: make a list of everything you bring, put a tick next to it if you use it. If you don't use it, don't bring it next time. And every time I hear someone say that I'm thinking: but what if you need it? I may not use the compass every time I go out, but what if I get lost? Or the medkit--that's something you hope never to have to use but if you don't have it you're fucked, right?

But slowly, over the years, I started cutting down on these things. The tools were the first to go. I always envisioned using them to explore abandoned buildings or something, but that never happened. I never took pictures so I stopped carrying the camera. And lockpicks--look, I like picking locks as much as the next gal but it's weird as hell to carry them around everywhere. Then I ditched the paracord and the compass and I lost the flashlight at a music festival and just never bothered getting a new one.

I used to think you could tell everything about someone by the things they carried, you know? Like, everyone carried some thing that if you looked through all their stuff you could have an "ah-ha" moment. And, you know, maybe that's still true. But I'm looking at all the things that are still left in my little black bag, and wondering: is this really who I am? Am I a sensible notebook, a collection of nice pens stolen from offices, and a cheap pocket knife that's in dire need of sharpening? Am I the bottle opener on my carabiner, or either of the multitools I still carry around? Or maybe that's not the question. Maybe the question is what will people see if they look through my things. Maybe all of that sends a signal I don't even understand.


thanks, i guess

So there's a story I haven't really told anyone. Not properly, anyway. Which isn't that remarkable--if you buy into the lie that a human life is really just a collection of stories, like I do, everyone has stories they don't tell. It's not like it's shameful or anything, I just hadn't figured out how to tell it.

This was back when I was still in Boston, back when I was younger and prettier, and the bones of it, well. I was walking to the T station from a friend's place and decided to try to catch the bus because I was tired and probably a little hungover. Smartphone bus-tracking apps didn't exist back then, so catching the bus was a bit of a gamble. It could cut a thirty minute walk down into ten to fifteen minutes of travel time if you time it right. If you time it wrong, that thirty minute walk starts looking pretty good.

Today it was one of the days where the timing was right--I saw the bus coming down the street, moved closer to the curb, and, naturally, it just drove right on by.

I ran after it for a bit and then stopped and shrugged and resigned myself to walking, having successfully wasted five minutes or so waiting for the bus. Then a cab pulled up, and the driver said, "Did that bus just blow past you?"

"Yeah," I said.

"Here, get in, I'll give you a ride."

"Sorry, I'm flat broke, man," I told him. Which was true.

"No, no, it's fine, get in."

And that was that. He drove me to the T station, I thanked him and apologized for being broke, and then I got out and went about my day. And I never told this story properly because it felt too clean. It became a quick throwaway anecdote because I was uncomfortable with telling a story with such an obvious moral as "sometimes people are nice." It's off-brand, you know?

I forgot that the whole time I was wondering if I'd really said I was broke, or if I just said something like "I don't have any cash," or something like that. That when I left I had this nagging fear that I'd somehow wronged this man, that I had cheated him out of payment, that I should have just said "it's fine, I'll walk." I didn't remember making the decision to get in the cab. I remember muttering the destination, still not quite sure what was going on. Was I about to find out how much money I really had?

And that's the real story, the real moral, the version that's on brand. The world we live in makes someone doing a nice deed for someone seem suspect at best. That in my mind, surely somewhere down the line there had been a miscommunication. And some part of my mind clearly knew that this was all nonsense, that what had happened was exactly what it looked like, so whenever I wanted to tell the story, it's the clean version. The version where I'm not a neurotic mess.

Or--and this is the part that gets me--maybe I'm imagining all that. Maybe I have such a hard time picturing something good happening to me, when I recalled the memory, I added in all those bits, all the uncertainty and anxiety and obsessing about the possibility of miscommunication.

Still, after all that, years removed from the event, my mind has finally allowed me to accept that surface interpretation. That sometimes, despite all of my bullshit, good things still happen.


risk, reward

For a while I was obsessed with payoff matrices, those little boxes you see in game theory which tell you who wins and loses. The concept itself is unremarkable, but once I learned about it it was like I could see these numbers floating around every decision. I'd see people going through their day picking fights and getting angry and I wanted to just grab them and pull them aside and point at the numbers. They're losing out here. This isn't a good strategic move. You can do so much better.

I finally asked a friend who'd just finished a heated argument, and he said that it's not about winning, it's about being right. It doesn't matter if you convince the other person, you have to let them know they're wrong. "You should try it sometime," he told me. "It'll do you some good."

"Okay," I said, and decided to take his advice right there. "You weren't right in that argument. I think you just think that being angry is the same thing as being right. Most people do."

"Man, fuck you," he told me.

Neither of us, the numbers told me, were better off for this exchange. And that's the real problem with game theory is it always assumes we're rational actors. That our behavior is always calculated to maximize our payoff. Risks are only taken if they come with great reward. Poor strategic decisions are never made, because they are poor decisions.

Eventually the numbers went away. They were largely useless anyway--of course I knew that humans are self-destructive creatures at heart. But now I'm starting to wonder if perhaps the numbers were wrong.


so sweet and so cold

Forgive me.

Sometimes I find myself hoping, when the snow starts falling, that this will be another one of those years where it just never stops, where the whole city is buried under the snow, stopping transit, closing roads, taking out power lines. Where everything vanishes under a thick white blanket. It's been like that since I was little. Most girls my age were probably less interested in playing Natural Disaster, but it was my favorite game. Earthquakes and floods and hailstones and terrible winds.

It's not one of those weird survivalist things. I mean, I know I can live a few days in the wilderness if I have to, but I'd rather do that on my terms, somewhere with a nice view. Running water is good. Losing power sucks. I think it's just the way it reminds us that we are here at Mother Nature's sufferance. It's something primal.

I'm not sure anyone's noticed the way my eyes light up when there's a storm warning. I'm not sure what I'd say if they asked. But there's a storm rolling in and I know I'm going to be sitting here with a thermos full of hot cocoa praying to the God I don't believe in that the power will go out and leave me alone with the blizzard and the cold.


two zero one seven

I always liked digging through my old New Year's posts. On some level they're nothing special, of course--just some meditations on the new year and the old, on the events and feelings and thoughts that make up the world. But they reflect the time in which they were written, they remind me of who I was, what was happening at the time. Sometimes, occasionally, you can even see the narrative running between them, if you know how to look.

In December of 2015, for instance, I wrote this. It's all true--this exact sequence of events happened, that is, and it stuck in my brain the way these things do. It had been a rough year, but the worst was over, and as I was trying to make sense of the year that story appeared in my mind, as if to remind me that the night won't last forever.

Everything feels so fragile right now, but remembering this woman on the wayside put a smile on my lips, if nothing else. Another mystery to puzzle over, another moment of serendipity to add to the collection. It's nice. And maybe she's still right: maybe everything is okay. Maybe we're moments away from turning this all around. It's a hope worth fighting for, I think.

If you're reading this there's a good chance you've noticed I've been writing here again lately. It had been a while, for many reasons, some good, some less good, but visiting some old friends and reading over some old stories reminded me how much I loved doing this. There will be more in the future, I think, exploring characters new and old.

So then. To my friends and comrades, thank you so much. You've helped make this year bearable in a thousand ways, and I cannot properly express how much that means to me. Thank you for lending me your strength, for laughing with me (and, let's be fair, at me), and for giving me an anchor to which I can tether myself.

To my old acquaintances: you have absolutely not been forgotten. You've all shaped my life in some small way, and it always makes my day when I hear from you.

To any strangers on the wayside: I hope you find what you're looking for. I hope everything is okay.

Finally, I'll conclude by stealing the valediction from that 2015 post: A toast, then, to strangers on the wayside, to old friends, and to everything finally being okay.

Happy 2018.


never brought to mind

I finally made it back to Portland (the one in Maine) after our little holiday adventure. Christmas is for family; New Year's is for me. It's fuck-off cold outside and I didn't pack my best winter gear, but it's only about a mile from the train station to my house so I figured, you know, fuck it, I'll walk.

I've always liked walking. It's peaceful, and everything looks so different when you actually have time to look at it. And tonight it reminds me of a New Year's Eve many years ago when it was just about as cold as this, and I was just as under-dressed. I had youth and absinthe to fortify me against the cold. Both, I suppose, were gradually wearing off as I walked (the latter rather quicker than the former).

Everything seemed so much clearer back then, and not just because I was drunk on wormwood and hopelessly in love with a girl I'd known for about a month and felt like I already knew intimately. (It turned out, of course, she wasn't into girls. C'est la vie.) Even stone cold sober there was this sense of progress, this sense that anything was possible. There was a lot of bullshit out there, of course, but it was exactly like the cold: so long as we kept moving forward, it didn't matter. We stopped moving forward, of course, and when I got back to the house I was living in at the time the hot water was broken and it was still cold inside, and I wrapped myself in all the blankets I owned and a couple coats for good measure and huddled in bed and dreamed of warmer times.

So tonight as I walk home I'm wondering what the girl I was back then would have thought of today. I know she'd be horrified, but what would she think, looking forward? What would she think of me? Would she hate me for giving up, for hiding from the world? Would she think I'm foolish that even after everything this past few years have thrown at me and at the world I'm still allowing myself that sense of hope? Did we have anything in common besides living in the same body at different times, walking back home in the bitter cold, pretending it's not getting to us?

It's so easy to neglect the people we've been. And, yeah, past-me was insufferable and idiotic at times. But every now and then, when I take the time to reflect on auld lang syne, she startles me with some insight that I'd since forgotten. There's so much more to her than heartache and regret and failed hopes.


many weary miles

I was going to say we went home for the holidays, Elle and me, traveling to the icy desert where we grew up, but sometimes I wonder what the word "home" even means. It sure as hell doesn't mean listening to that one cousin with hella dubious politics harassing your sister. And it doesn't mean drinking too much wine in the hopes that it will make your eye stop twitching, and then finally just snarling "leave her alone you fucking neckbeard" and glaring until he slinks away to sulk.

But everyone goes home at night and then it's just us in our folks' old house, with the yard all covered in snow and the air so cold it hurts, and sometimes the two of us in the old hot tub, staring up at the stars and counting constellations, and maybe that's home. That strange combination of beautiful and painful, the cold seeping into your bones like memories. The hot water keeps it all at bay, but it's still there. Just like memories, the cold never really goes away. There was probably a time I didn't think that there could be anything painful about home, that if it was painful it couldn't possibly be home, but now I think I have that backwards. You can't have home without pain anymore than you can have home without beauty.

Life has happened since we lived here. When I first moved out, I wanted to forget this town ever existed, but lately I'm spending more and more time thinking of the old times--the stories I'd write about cities before I knew what cities were like; all the misadventures with friends, each of us determined to get the hell out of this place; all the anger that comes from being a kid who's just little bit different in a culture which rewards conformity; the terrible relationships. It's all a part of my DNA now. I think that's what home is. It sucks and it's wonderful and it's you, all the complications and contradictions that entails.

And maybe that's why I can never figure out what home means. It gets bigger with each passing year. And especially in years like this one the only thing I want is to have a tiny home with my sister again--and maybe, just maybe, if I ever do figure out what home means, it'll be like a magic spell to bring us back there.


leaving the city

Before I started backpacking I never really thought of myself as an outdoor person. Sure, it was pretty and all, but some weekends I never even left the house and that was fine. I had books and video games. Being an outdoor person seemed like a lot of work. But there's always that call--that feeling when you take a road trip across the pass and suddenly there's this stunning vista of snowy mountains and you've got this primal urge to just never go home.

It started at a party, because someone I didn't know very well talked me into going to a party when I was in a good mood. That whole night whenever my host introduced me to someone he made sure they knew that Ellie was a nickname, and he wanted them to think it was just some special nickname he'd made up for me and not, you know, the actual name I was going by at the time. It was both demeaning and kind of flattering. When someone asked if they could call me Ellie, as if calling me by the name I fucking gave them was some sacred privilege between me and the asshole who invited me here, instead of getting angry I just told myself the next time someone asks me to a party, I'm going to literally be in the middle of the woods instead.

I don't think I really understood how freeing it was, walking through a misty forest, everything I need to survive on my back, until I'd done it, until I'd set up camp and cooked myself a hot meal and just lay down in my tent and listened to the wind and the rain and the critters. After that I took every opportunity to hit the trails. I think I'm the only one who was surprised.


it's been years

I spent the evening looking through old blog entries, from back when Alex was still around. Back then I'd always talk about how she'd always call me out on my bullshit, like it was a good thing, like it kept me honest or some shit. Like it was a good thing that every single thing I did was because I was afraid it would make her angry, and how ultimately that just led to me not doing very much at all. Sitting around the house, writing blog posts. So much for the spirit of adventure. When it started getting bad I'd write about all the ways I was "needling" her, trying to make her angry by doing the things that I knew made her angry. Like it was my fault, somehow.

She's gone now. We all know how that went. But it's been years and somehow I realized I'm still tiptoeing through tulips, same as ever, like if I make too much noise or remind anyone I still exist she might show up again, rolling her eyes and sighing theatrically at me. Most of the time I was too small, too insignificant, to yell at.

All those years took the fight out of me, and "fight" is all I am. When I was finally free from her, when I finally understood what had happened, I still didn't understand how deep it went. How I could still be so lethargic after so much time--not just the lethargy of depression, that old friend of mine, but a different lethargy. That little voice telling me it's absurd to do any of the things I love, that it's too indulgent, too pretentious, too unoriginal. Of course I've managed to ignore the voice sometimes, but I didn't really realize it was there.

I hear you now, motherfucker.


light years

Your regularly scheduled sky full of smoke-related programming will return.

It's not true that light years only measure distance. They measure time, too, just like miles and train stops and cab rides. It doesn't matter how far you are from home. It matters how long it will be until you're back, how long it took you to get there.

I'm seventeen light years from Earth. That's farther, according to my orders, than anyone's ever been. Somewhere back there, seventeen light years removed from who I am right now, there's a corporate executive with a complete dossier on the woman Elysian Enterprises thinks I am. Medical and psychological evaluations. Detailed records of everything I've ever done, from that time I got in a fistfight with a girl in class who made fun of me for having poor parents onwards. It's all classified, of course--they can read the future in my DNA and they probably know how many times I smoked weed at university and what happened that night I blacked out, but that information's not for me.

It's not for Tori, either, but sometimes I feel like she knows me just as well as the corporation--that is to say, better than me. She's brought me tea again. Everyone on board was given an alotment of twenty kilograms for "personal supplies" and she brought two kilos of tea.

Earl grey, with lavender. It smells so fucking good.

She puts a mug on the desk and kisses my neck. It still sends a thrill down my spine, breaking company policy like that. But a few days back--Earth days, since this planet's tidally locked with its star--the captain lost it and left with the ship. Now it's just me and Tori and the surveying equipment.

"You're going to run out of tea eventually," I tell her. "You should save it for yourself."

She doesn't answer, just smiles. Tori's too nice to be on this mission. I figured out on those seventeen long light years, this was a job for fuck-ups. The doctor tried to mutiny as soon as we made landfall. And the captain, who panicked every time she had to make a choice, panicked and left. I haven't dared to ask why Tori's here.

She drags me outside and we sit down and watch the eternal sunset. Later on, there will be work to do--Tori's numbers say we can probably plant some crops here, hopefully enough to live on. But the air is so perfect, the alien sun so strange and wonderful, the sounds of the ocean so soothing, it's hard to care about much else--there's still tea left, still a chance we won't have to go back home.

Seventeen light years isn't long enough.


a sky full of smoke, pt. 7

The peace holds past the major general's departure, and for a few days the rains come in and drive away the smoke--a sad, sprinkling rain, but a welcome relief from the heat and haze. The calm makes Kanna happy, but I'm worried it's just a deep breath before the fighting starts again, worse than before.

She doesn't like when I tell her that.

Yannig's men aren't happy, either--coin and drink alike have dried up and they've decided to solve the problem by spending all the coin they have left on Kanna's liquor. It's a few nights in when I catch a pari of them complaining that they murdered a magistrate and they've already burned through their pay for that--a couple silver a piece, by the sound of it.

They're too drunk to put up a fight when I ambush them in the alley later on, tie them up and drag them to Briac--he gives me a gold piece for my trouble. Then it's a brisk jog to Yannig's to make sure the fighting picks up again.

He's all smug dismissal when he sees me, but I cut him off. "Your assassins got captured. Briac's holding them."

For a moment, real fear enters his eyes, but he's too composed to let it show. "Have you considered my offer? Thirty gold pieces still stands. You'd be a real asset."

"Fighting's about to break out again, is it?"

"It is," he tells me. "And I intend to win."


a sky full of smoke, pt. 6

If the major-general notices that the villagers are on edge, that the merchants and traders seem to be tightening their belts while the coffin-maker eats and spends generously, he doesn't let on--but then, I don't think he'd care much. He's here to make sure the Protector gets his due, here in a province where the magistrate's not quite a loyalist yet. So long as there's gold, he'll be happy. 

But the peace, however temporary, is nice. Something like business as usual has returned to Kerguelen, and there's even talk that if the major general sticks around--and it sounds like he's going to--there'll be another fair. Even Kanna's in good spirits. She hasn't asked me to leave in three days.

"You know it won't last," I tell her. "And the major-general's just here to squeeze the silver out of your friends."

"No one's dying," she says. "I'll settle for that."

I don't tell her some of the men in this town deserve death. I don't tell her they'll start dying again soon, or that every penny the town earns is a penny Yannig and Briac aren't taking for themselves. She knows. She might not want to admit it, but she knows.

Yannig walks in and sits down at my table. "Thirty gold," he says.

"What about it?"

"Thirty gold for you to enter my employ as my personal bodyguard."

"Isn't there a peace on?"

"The major-general is about to be called away urgently. It seems someone's murdered a loyalist magistrate in his jurisdiction." Yannig smiles a predator's smile, and I'll be damned if he's not telling me he just had a magistrate murdered just so he can go back to fighting Briac.

I shrug. "I'll consider it. I need to hear what Briac's offering. Seems unfair otherwise."

I awake in the morning to someone calling in the street that the major-general's gone. Kanna's already up, boarding up the windows again, looking defeated. From the way she scowls at me, she doesn't appreciate the smirk I'm giving her.


a sky full of smoke, pt. 5

He still doesn't trust me after dinner, but he believes I can win for him. It didn't take much--I showed him some scars, told some stories. There's not a proper soldier among the rest of the village, Briac worships soldiers. He's impressed, but I need him to mistrust me. So I keep saying we should wait, and each time I do he's more insistent that it must be now. It's all I can do to keep from smiling when he takes his son aside and asks him to kill me after the battle.

He gathers up his men--a sorry rabble if ever there was one, but brimming with confidence--and we march. Yannig's rabble comes out to greet ours, trembling with fear of the coming confrontation. The legend grows.

"Which one of you is Yannig?" I call, in a voice still raspy from the smoke. Their leader steps forward. "I'm leaving Briac's service," I continue. "He plans to kill me after the battle." I toss the gold back at Briac, grin at Yannig, and step aside. The two mobs inch towards each other, each as frightened of striking the first blow as they are of shedding the first blood.

Then the alarm bell rings and the gatekeeper comes running, crying, "The major-general's on his way!"

Yannig and Briac lock eyes, sheath their swords, shake hands. "Truce," says one, "or it'll be both our heads." They send their men into the town, crying the truce. Even to my outsider's ears, there's an implied threat there: act like everything's normal or there will be blood.

Kanna has hot soup for me when I return to the inn. "They were an inch away from destroying each other," I said. "I was so close."

 "I wish you'd leave," she tells me.


a sky full of smoke, pt. 4

When I was young, my sister and I would win games by playing our friends against each other. She was better at people, but I was better at strategy, so which one of us would win varied depending on the game, but it was always one of us. Sometimes they'd try to team up against us, of course, but all it took was a smile from my sister or a word from me and the alliance was broken, and so invariably one of us would win, and the legend would continue.

I explained it to the princess once. What I told her was all true, and probably even good advice, but I didn't yet realize the most important piece of information: the reason we were able to win was not simply that we were smarter and more charming than our friends. We were able to win because we'd built up a reputation, and we knew how to use it.

Briac Ewen knows who I am. Everyone in town's whispering about the knight who just killed two of Yannig's men without breaking a sweat. He's smiling a smile he probably thinks is charming when I arrive. "I heard what you did," he says, knowingly. "You're making the right choice."

"I haven't made any choices yet," I tell him. He offers silver, and I laugh. He doubles his offer. I shake my head. "Make it gold," I say. He's not sure if I'm worth it, but he's almost there. "Gold, or I go back to Yannig."

He sags. "Five?"

"Five now, five when we win. And we will win. I promise you that."

He nods and tosses me a bag of gold. "I believe you," he tells me. "You've got an honest face." I'm not sure if he's joking, but I laugh anyway. He doesn't bat an eye before inviting me to dinner, so we can discuss plans.


a sky full of smoke, pt. 3

I sleep on the story. The innkeeper--Kanna is her name, she says--hopes I'll leave, hopes the town will stop tearing itself apart if I just keep walking. But perhaps the mobs and their masters are right. Perhaps someone can put a stop to the fighting, give the town a little peace. I already said I used to be a captain. That was back when I still had a name. Back then, I was the finest strategist in Elouan and one of the finest blades--I could make short work of a rabble like this, given a good plan. And you can't make a good plan without knowing what you're up against.

I wake early and head to the house the brewer's using as his headquarters. By the morning's light, the town looks desolate--a traveler would be forgiven for thinking it abandoned. The houses are boarded up and nothing is in good repair.

The brewer's headquarters is a large house that was probably once quite lovely--Kanna tells me it was the mayor's, back when the people still respected the mayor. Five men greet me at the door, hands on their swords, suspicion in their eyes. I ignore them until a leader steps forward and walks around me, looking me up and down like a prize horse. "That idiot at the gate sent you, did he?"

I shrug.

"Does he think we need a starving, penniless knight? We've more than our share of dead weight already." He's a short man, wiry, and moves with the exaggerated swagger of a man who thinks he's more important than he is. "Why shouldn't we just take your sword and that pretty little badge and send you packing? Look at you. You can't even feed yourself." He moves to prod me in the side and I seize him by the wrist.

"Touch me," I say, "and you lose your hand."

He laughs nervously and pokes me as a gesture of defiance the moment I release his hand. I draw my saber and neatly slice his hand off at the wrist. Two of his friends immediately leap forward to defend him, but they've clearly never fought anyone who could fight back before. I make it a point to make cutting them down look effortless; the rest run back inside.

I turn my back on the house and walk away. 


a sky full of smoke, pt. 2

Kerguelen used to be a little market town, the innkeeper tells me, where the canyon roads met the river, neither poor nor prosperous, and far from the political concerns of the Principality. But even humble bucolic towns have politics, and Yannig Bihan the brewer and Briac Ewen the farmer held an uneasy truce as the two most powerful men in the city--far more powerful than Marrec the mayor, whose orchards were eclipsed by Briac's, and whose appointment came from the magistrate.

Then the Protector killed the Prince and locked his daughter in the Spire, and the mobs came. Change came slowly, at first. Many of the magistrates were replaced with loyalists, and those who didn't were forced to withdraw--powerful enough to hold on to their positions, but not powerful enough to keep peace. So wealthy men, powerful men, men like Yannig and Briac, built up their power. They hired on men for their private militias--all in the name of keeping the peace, since the magistrates' militias were gone. And the Protector, of course, lent them his blessing--the magistrates, he said, were corrupt, and it was time for the people to rise up against their tyranny.

Militias don't feed themselves, so their masters would set up tolls on the main roads--not much, at first, just a few coins, enough that the militia could be sheltered and fed. But in time the tolls increased, slowly at first, then rapidly, as the masters and militias alike sought to line their pockets. And those who couldn't pay were robbed and beaten, or worse.

Yannig and Briac went from an uneasy alliance to open hostilities within a month. When the roads dried up they sent out raiding parties to catch the caravans that tried to avoid the area, ever eager to be the first to capture the goods they brought and add to the wealth of their faction. Every now and then they'd declare a truce, attempt to divide territories amicably, but the peace always failed, and more and more young men and women would die.

That's where that fawning coward at the gates comes in, she explains--Yannig and Briac both need more than just bodies. They need people with real talent. Someone who can change their fortunes and end their conflict decisively.

Someone like me.


a sky full of smoke, pt. 1

They're the Protector's men, but they aren't. Everyone knows he murdered his way to the throne, so there's no legitimacy there but the legitimacy of the mob--so his men are little more but a mob, angry men with no love, no legitimacy, and no concept of loyalty. Half the time they take a town, they turn on each other just as soon.
It's high summer and the wind from the north smells like woodsmoke, though there's not a forest round for miles. The sun turns a ghastly red in the evening, and I wonder whose home is burning, who lit the fire. Perhaps it doesn't matter. It's too hot to travel by day, so I start walking the canyons when the sky loses all color, like the Protector's leeched the life out of the very sky.
I shouldn't be surprised they're still watching the streets when I arrive past midnight, but I always am. Even in towns like this, boarded up and desolate,  A man scurries out of the shadows to greet me. "Swordswoman! Swordswoman! You hungry?"
I've been many things in my life. A sister, a friend, a knight, a captain, a refugee. Now the Protector holds the land and I'm little more than a wandering sword, waiting for a steady hand to wield me. "Swordswoman" may as be my name.
Still, I earned the nettle I wear at my breast. I turn to him so he can see the little silver badge shining in the moonlight, and stare at him until he flinches under my gaze. "Lady Knight," he corrects, no trace of apology in his tone. "There's folks in this town that would pay real silver for your blade."
"Silver?" I say, and it comes out a hoarse rasp--too long breathing the smoke, speaking to no one.
"Or gold, if you're any good," he says. "Just toss me a few coins when they hire you, eh?"
There's no fire at the inn when I arrive, only a tired old woman who greets me with a resigned sigh. "The food's cold and the beer's flat," she tells me.
I nod. "It'll do. Anyway, I can't--"
"It's on me. Just don't stay here. I've seen enough death these past months."
Our eyes meet. "Tell me," I say.