Scientific progress in LaGatta is attributed to the wealthy and experimental Aracelis family. The city's decadence is threatened inwardly by an uprising from the disenfranchised Auldemon residents. LaGatta's neighbours watch with vested interest, but the Emperor uses the popular uprising as an excuse to trigger a military purge of the city, taking power from the Merchant's Caucus.
Willfully, it must have seemed, Yleksa pursued the role as his cousin's mentor where better offers had been rejected.
On waking Yleksa often sought a mirror and saw nothingness, identity lost against the peaceful LaGattan backdrop. Through Ellory, Yleksa could see himself again through the eyes of another of his mother's blood; defined, definite, loved for the distinction. On Ellory's part, he accepted his cousin's proposal to satisfy his own curiosity, a hunger for that which appeared so different against the predictability of that LaGattan blend of patriotism, self-interest, and striving for comfort. Yleksa was a soldier, half a foreigner, this was fated to fail. A foreign curio for Ellory, a vassal set of eyeglasses through which Ellory thought to view the same LaGatta and see something different.
Such premise was flawed. Yleksa was as LaGattan as the next. Recently delivered of an honour by legislation, he selected for his reward retirement from the battlefield and acceptance into LaGatta's internal peacekeepers. The Imperial Military Association's Civil Ordinance Force was half militaristic, half younger sons and daughters of LaGatta's higher levels. The position came with an apartment on Highest within the military compound, incorporating a vista across misty lower levels. In war Yleksa had a reputation for barbarism. In LaGatta he did as LaGattans would do.
Nevertheless, Ellory found some unexpected sanctuary in his cousin's mentorship, for it gave distance from the expectations of the house he left. Yleksa gave him purpose when all the world seemed too great, gave him goals, reachable, tangible as his flesh. Tactile successes. Yleksa found innocence in Ellory's surrender, or surrender in Ellory's innocence, memories of a likewise adolescence Yleksa had buried in his performance according to LaGatta. Ellory absorbed Yleksa's guidance with an eagerness that masked the desperation of both.
They were of the same blood, the same root; they were not made as other LaGattans were, malleable. They found something in each other, but only because they were looking.
Ellory was appealing as a youth, enough to set his rivals and friends both to competition for his attention and charm before the stern Yleksa won his loyalties. Such appeal was not found in flesh or jewels, but in LaGatta's current militaristic fashion: structure, line, proportion, the solid strong thighs, the flash of dark hair and keen, dark eyes. Yleksa taught his cousin to hold himself straight and true, to have his head keep his hands in the depths of any battle or when skimming society at sponsored theatre; at social suppers, over black coffee, the pair debated architecture, art, engineering, psychology, politics with a wit and whiplash dialogue that had their peers laugh, startle, and marvel that the Aracelis brilliance could breed so true. Were it not for the twist of a foreign father staining Yleksa's features, he and Ellory were near brothers, resolving each other's sentences with rhetoric, occasionally rhyming.
Without thinking Yleksa taught Ellory to think. When it came to place blame, he was the one who taught Ellory to run.
'—like this,' Yleksa said, when Ellory struggled to keep pace with the weight of his armour. 'Keep your head right back, your arms held close to your sides, your knees well up. Come on, it's only metal. It's only gravity. Your family's will dictates that you're going to do this, to be this. A LaGattan masters nature, Ellory, nature does not master a LaGattan!'
'It's not a matter of mastery,' Ellory complained, 'only mass, cousin — mind can't overcome matter, especially when it matters in excess of my own body weight.'
'Give over grinning and stand up straight, shoulders straighter.'
'Any straighter and I'll look like my father—'
'And so you should,' Yleksa said, sharply, 'ancestor worship is our mutual mineral, cousin, deep in our blood.'
Sarcastically, with a spike of sour: 'I hope I never shed enough of my blood to know how deep such a thing lies.'
Know yourself, a LaGattan moral and more. Yleksa taught Ellory to know himself too, to claim his weaknesses so that Ellory could meet every insult with equanimity, knowing as well his unshakeable foundation. Know yourself, extents and limits; Yleksa held his cousin to the bed with a firm grip on his thighs, and drew and danced with his tongue and lips until Ellory could know his own limits, and master them.
'Hold,' Yleksa growled, voice broken by that errant salt, speaking against a quivering thigh, teeth bared against that heaving stomach, 'hold it back, Ellory, hold.'
'Too much,' Ellory cried, 'too fast, you're too fast, I can't—'
'Yesterday you mocked me for being too slow.'
'On the field you are, old man,' and Ellory panted, fingers aimless, seeking shoulders, 'cousin, stop, I can't hold, I don't want to end!'
Yleksa took Ellory's hand, curled capable fingers and bitten nails across a thickened line of pulse. 'Here, hold, concentrate.' Yleksa licked his lips—
Know yourself, and Yleksa knew himself for false. The elder cousin found too much pleasure in what should have been for the benefit of the younger: the helpless flex of Ellory's flesh, the light sweat of his restraint, the inevitable salt of his forced surrender. Ellory knew his cousin as well as him, stretching idly to display his proportions best, at reading, at his studies of law, at supper, when moved by nothing more than the helpless heat in his elder cousin's eye.
Yleksa could not indulge himself often: because he knew this for indulgence, and let buried that seed of shame deep. Thus Ellory tired at the game, and knew his palms more often than he knew his cousin.
Yleksa's pace was always slow, and inevitably Ellory outran it. Run, Yleksa taught him, eventually to do so in that full suit of armour cast in preparation for Ellory's military role; run, Yleksa taught him, on his toes as if every LaGattan road burned through a leather sole. Their path took them wide, long, fast, and Ellory's adolescence went as a blur, stained by the sunrises and sunsets which coloured Highest true. On Dodecadam, Ellory ran past the townhouse of his family's retreat. He never turned to wave.
Ellory ran for his life. 'Remember,' Yleksa told him, 'life in LaGatta is a race: run ye may obtain. Only the best may win.'
'Does it matter to a winner what they've won?'
'Cousin,' and Ellory had such mastery over his voice, mellow and never breathless, scornful, 'just keep up, will you?'
What could Yleksa do but avert his breath in reply, like a drunkard, for he stuttered with effort to keep the younger's pace: 'You go on now, I—I'll follow.'
In daily practice for LaGattan realities, Yleksa handed Ellory his weapon; daily they fought, for a LaGattan could only know themselves in the fight. Rationality was valued above all, each motion to be sourced in the mind. If a LaGattan's head ruled their hands they were a master of the sword; for those few LaGattan whose hands ruled their head a berserker's bludgeon was a more suitable weapon to take. If both head and hands were ruled by the heart, well, then, LaGatta could not condone such a person taking a weapon. There were very few roles which could keep society's grace if irrationality allowed emotion to define their actions.
Despite the increasing voice of the populace staining the lower levels with emotion, Yleksa had no intention of losing his cousin to the confusion. Daily, Yleksa handed Ellory his bladed weapon, because LaGatta was daily at war, even with itself.
Today, Ellory stared at that blade, at his cousin, and did not move.
'Come on,' Yleksa's twin blades swung low, heavy, his wrists deceptively lax, 'let's see what you're made of.'
A customary comment, said daily, defiantly; some unfamiliar feeling knotted in Ellory's throat, a thought unspoken, unformed, that Yleksa as a foreigner played what role he thought he must and never said a line not already scripted; a LaGattan puppet, on strings, with dangling wrists and another's directive behind his sword. All that power, no responsibility: one of so many, how could there be? The curse of LaGattan numbers.
So Ellory fought, against both Yleksa and the tangled thought, for this bladed battle was familiar and comforting where the thought against his country was not.
Ellory followed Yleksa, pressed so; one day soon, struck, flared, lunged, and—
'I've struck you,' Ellory shouted, ragged at last, but not in triumph. 'This opaque jagged thing! But to what end, cousin? It always ends the same!'
Ellory let the blade fall, discarded, to the dust. Yleksa never relented, always tested: this Ellory knew and so the pain of the backwards blow that came against his defenselessness was not unexpected; unexpected instead was the guilt at the hurt in his cousin's eyes. Ellory recovered consciousness with his discarded sword but an inch from his nose, his knees in the dust, his breath long lost, and stirring in the well worn paths of LaGattan rational thought came a treacherous worm.
'Facing the shame,' Yleksa said, scornful, 'of defeat at the hands of your elder, you're entitled to crumple a little, surely. But get up now, Ellory, pick up your blade, you might've struck me but you're fifty times dead had I wanted to kill you.'
Ellory's laugh curled, twisted, bitter like an old man's. 'Kill me, or should I kill you, or every other LaGattan who voiced a question! What meaning has this?'
Questions would always stir a LaGattan to fear. Yleksa felt fear then, saw it in the curve of his cousin's bowed neck; Yleksa's foreign origin was so far behind him he had nearly forgotten how to navigate back there, remembering the shame of a defeat at the hands of LaGatta's great army. Yet suddenly the past was cast into the fore, again, by another son of his mother's blood falling in shame to the floor.
Beyond fear, a person could learn where they belonged, and how uncaring, complex, and finely empery would grind all seeds of sedition. The sooner Ellory learned such a lesson the easier his life would be; Yleksa raised his blade and laid the flat across his beloved's shoulders, the spine, until the repetition bored even Yleksa. LeGatta had no need for another backbone. There could never be another way.
LaGatta was always at war. There could be no other way to live. 'Know yourself,' Ellory said in horror over the burn of his first battlefield, 'cousin, I look at what we do here, and I know myself for revolting.'
'This is war,' the Master Sergeant in his element replied, surprised. 'Did you think my instruction with the sword was a game? That the armour you wear a strange fashion of steel in lieu of silk? Do you really think LaGatta's heights and striving would stand whole against the world's jealousy if we didn't strike first? How do you think my small country was lost, but for our long-ago refusal to lift a blade in LaGatta's name?'
Ellory regarded his cousin with old eyes, steady, calm. 'I thought — so long I've lived with you, trusted you. I've loved you and been loved by you. Never have I known this is what you did to earn the comforts you have, high in LaGatta, all in the name of some rote-learned rightness.'
'And you,' Yleksa retorted, 'born to that self-same comfort — your mother and my mother were sisters, but my mother bled to birth me, and bled to die in shadows so that I might rise here. Your mother slept in silks and swaddled you in the cotton ripped from a distant land.'
'Is it jealousy then, that moves your heart to bring me here, to witness this? You would not show me what you do of a day in LaGatta's streets, too close to him — so you show me instead what LaGatta does to those cast in the role of enemy. Do you think I don't know this is what you do in our city, what we do to ourselves, our layers of vertical division? This is what you would do to me, should I speak against you.'
'You think you matter so much,' Yleksa said, now frightened, fearful, of Ellory's cool determination. 'No one alone means anything to LaGatta, not even the Emperor. LaGatta is a whole thing, and those who climb may climb while those who fall will fall, all without LaGatta's notice.'
Fragmentation the first fear, but all fear had an end - and all endings put to rest much that once mattered. Battlefield dust fell like a coverlet over pain. Returning to the scene of his skill and triumph, the Master Sergeant Yleksa would never know whom he killed this morning to prove himself to the younger cousin, but Ellory still heard them laughing, saw them play, imagined their favorite epic and their grandmother's beloved perfume: LaGatta was not so distinct from its immediate neighbours. Eventually came the ordered static of withdrawal, traveled like lightning to turn the LaGattan soldiers away from a triumph indistinguishable from defeat, and they went, not one standing higher than the other. On the return journey the transport rocked over broken terrain, and Ellory's head nodded, half-asleep, to brush his cousin's shoulder, whereupon the youth woke, gagged, turned his face to LaGatta's impending skyline, and spat.
Ellory's eyes were flawed, Yleksa decided. They looked at the same world, but Ellory's eyes made each sharp logical law of life less true. Oh yes, Ellory was young, and wanted to be somebody, that was as it should be: but this path led only to obscurity by shame.
The strangest of blurred truths there: that Ellory did not want to be Yleksa, a path well trod, he did not want to be his father's dutiful son. Yleksa found that night, unexpectedly, that LaGatta's true son cried in his sleep.
When Ellory was awarded his honours and first true posting from the Imperial Military Association, he stood straight, did not grin, and saluted. When Ellory received his family sword from his lord father, he touched knee and knuckle to the grassed step on Highest, his fist to his heart, his hand to the hilt, and never met his father's eyes. But for the helm — the last of his armour, signifier of his role, civil ordinance under the directive of his cousin and mentor —
The helm was the last piece, the true featureless face of LaGatta's unbreakable lever. The helm was crafted well. Too often the smiths were careless with this, blinding a fighter on the field, paining a soldier where they stood in judgment over those who opposed LaGattan order, and so Yleksa watched every stage of the creation of Ellory's helm.
Ellory knelt before his commanding officer, both knees against bare stone. He drew his family's sword, turned it to the nape of his own neck, and drew, hard, fast, across that long plaited tail of his hair. He was not alone: in LaGatta no ritual was private, a long line of youths male and female both severing a childhood on the grassy step before the Emperor's banner. Nineteen years of youth were bound those thick cords; Ellory let his fall with all the others, his fingers did not seek to hold.
Nor did Yleksa indulge the ache that drove him to move; let him imagine only running his hand through Ellory's uneven crop, even the once, the warmth and shape of his cousin's skull known but now distant. The old roles cut from them, an adult now before him.
Yleksa raised the helm. 'Are you ready?'
'No,' Ellory said, calm and alien. 'No. You don't understand; never have, or even wanted understanding. You recite, Yleksa, you don't know. I could play your game, my father's game; it's easy, all of that learning, I can close it off inside my head, I can call it by another name and know that it's not my thoughts, all those words are someone else's. But this - ' His voice cracked, tight and high. 'Yleksa! Every time you've strapped this armor on me it feels like it's eating me; my hands in these gloves are not my own; my legs, my heart - now you want to take my head away from me? No, I'm not ready, I can't take it! I'll be gone if you put that over my face, I'll go mad with what they'll make me do, another faceless soldier in a game of empery—'
But Yleksa was immovable. 'In everything I have ever done to you, asked of you, demanded of you, have I ever misjudged your capacity? Everything you've become, something that I would be proud to call a brother, Ellory; trust me. I know what you can take. You can take this. It's just another mask, another role, another game, and in LaGatta, we are all players.'
Ellory bowed his head. Yleksa lowered the helm, checked the fit, satisfied himself as to Ellory's comfort.
'We are LaGatta's law,' Yleksa said, 'and alone, on the inside of this suit of armour. We cannot have a face, we cannot have our own hearts, only a head and hands. That is what you are, Ellory, the head and the hands of LaGatta's law, and only LaGatta shall be our heart, our motive. Every step we climb is honour of LaGatta, for LaGatta. When we wield a weapon, it is in LaGatta's name, to preserve that freedom to climb. Even a foreign here may stand beside the Emperor. Be proud.'
LaGatta was never truly private, not even in the apartments which were a Master Sergeant's own. There, Ellory stepped back from his cousin's paternalistic hand, stripped the helm, threw it in a fit of temper across the room which was theirs. 'I despise you, cousin. Wearing this suit of armour is a surrender more profound than throwing down your sword; better had you lost your life as a child when LaGatta too you, except,' and a strange wonder filled his voice then, and a fear, 'you did surrender then, didn't you? You stopped living all the way back then, and all your life since has been as hollow as your damned suit of armour. Have you ever possessed a thought of your own?'
But punishment was still the elder's right.
Curled embryonic against the pain, Ellory still breathed, the only need for assurance, shallow and swift like a weeping child. Yleksa cradled him close in the aftermath, wet lips open to lap against each shallow breath.
'Remember I'm your brother,' Yleksa told the bloodied curl of his cousin's flesh, 'fifteen years dead or not, as you mock me; perhaps I'm a ghost, unseen, shut-in this suit of armour where you don't want to see me; but you still can't escape. When you wake, brother, I'll be with you; when you spend yourself I'll grow lax beside you; when you walk I am your shadow. I raised you, taught you, I'm in the ebb and flow of every word and thought, I'm safe inside you, you can't touch me: I can hear your blood drip in my ears, and it's my mother's blood too. Never forget how once I fought you to a fall, you who thought you were so much better than me. LaGatta birthed you but it birthed me too, belatedly - but I will be never cause such pain to LaGatta as you caused in your denial. LaGatta is our mother, and as my brother you will not fail her.'
Yleksa held his breath to find his life again, to feel that resistant ache that insisted on living, to quiet his pulse; head over hands, hands over heart, to be LaGattan was to know yourself selfish and vulnerable alone, to wear instead the skin LaGatta gave to play at strength. Yleksa wept from the emotion, his tears shining across the newly exposed skin of Ellory's nape, and he did not know why he wept.
'You only touch the rim of what made me who I am,' Yleksa told his brother's flesh, 'of what once was free! You rattle around with your LaGattan flesh and blood as though every one of us that makes this city work is a stranger to you. I loved them all though it was hopeless; I cried for them in vain when the wind blew LaGattan at midnight and we had to fight to die either free or LaGattan; I was the one who sung their lament at noon before coming to this city, for where else is there to go? LaGatta is steps and stone, and only the capable shall claw their way out of the grave of below. But LaGatta was always icy towards me, still as cold as the highest of winds. Warm to you, with every opportunity yours to hold; and you, you are always cold against me too. Where did your malice grow from? Such studied bitterness against everything your empire could become, such hate against LaGatta itself, where the sun touches and the shadow falls; how did it become, brother, that all these mortal aids to capture beauty only served to separate us more? I can't kill you, treason or no, coward or callow, you're my blood. So remember who your brother is, and turn to me when you want to find yourself again. Dedication is what defines us.'
What was blood but the glue that bound a nation's grains together? Ellory clawed back, broken-nailed and desperate, against the tide of pain that would sweep him, endless and aching, into the solicitous arms of the earth; he woke from that call to find his cousin's own form of solicitude there, Yleksa both stern and sorrowful, and sane. That brief violent madman he had become, his fists against the blade of Ellory's accusations, seemed so distant Ellory wondered if he had dreamed the nightmare. Ellory's bruises did not scar, no. If blood the glue to bind a nation together; denial the cocoon to a fragile sanity, nearly whole; forgetfulness given as the gift of the gods LaGattans no longer acknowledged.
Life continued with the incident as if forgotten, but Ellory had learned to regard all gifts suspiciously.
LaGatta was always at war. There could be no other way to die.
When there was no one to war against, LaGatta warred against itself. Songs in taverns were sung loud to cover the embarrassing noises of a revolution in passing. LaGattans looked the other way when truth cried out, but the young ones added their voices to the clamour. How many years did it take to learn to turn one's head; how much investment in a city before the economy replaced morality as a measure of ethics.
Logic dictated that Yleksa should have been pleased that Ellory did not participate in the popular uprising. Instead Ellory's shoulders slumped under the weight of his armour, and Yleksa felt a vague mourning for that loss of perfect posture; Ellory was sent to the streets to do his duty in opposition. Yleksa crowned his cousin with his helm, daily. It was a relief to do so. Yleksa could not see Ellory's eyes, and habit already made it easy enough for Yleksa to avoid the mirror's own measuring stare.
The latest posters and parades insisted: There Will Be No More Political Marches, Or Face Full Prosecution For Disturbing LaGatta's Peace. Ellory marched beside other faceless heads and hands of LaGatta's law, and thought: yet what are we doing ourselves, but performing the ultimate political march? Such a wilderness Ellory watched his beloved city become, streets and stairs lined with dust and dark patches, barricades scattered like leaves. The orders were passed from the Merchant's Caucus to Emperor to the Imperial Military Association to the Civil Ordinance Force, through commanding officers to cohorts and to Ellory's own ears: the streets should be cleared of all whose ideas were not in accordance with the LaGattan way.
They did that. Ellory did that. By then the marches in protest were large and loud enough that Master Sergeant Yleksa, along with others, were heavily involved, and indeed all the Civil Ordinance Force martialled and supplemented by the army come home, descending with inhumane calm to the face the depths of mortal desperation. With due and diligent application of blunted weaponry all of the lower terraces of LaGatta were left quiet, only the old city, Auldemon, a stubborn labyrinth of uncharted defiance. Ellory stood at Yleksa's shoulder when Yleksa looked down on those streets, the manufactured chemical ready to deploy to clear the slum, and Yleksa said: 'There will be order once this ends.'
'But,' Ellory offered, not because he wanted to help his cousin but because he wanted him to see, to know he couldn't know the truth of everything— 'You must surely know they're assembling in the public square even now on First Prime? On Noven, on Dodecadam, ready to march up to Highest and petition the Emperor himself— this isn't just about the hungry or the disappointed. There are other ways than to climb over the bodies of those before. What are you going to do about all those thoughts, rising higher than us, cousin? You can't stop everyone thinking.'
But Yleksa did not rise. 'Come on,' Yleksa ordered, LaGattan to his bloody bone; 'come on, let's end this,' and the accompanying Ordinance Force, 'for our city! LaGatta!' and the soldiers whose own families and siblings and blood were on the streets; they went quickly higher.
Dodecadam, with its barricaded townhouses protected by private militia, here there was not the brutal toxic decimation which took place in Auldemon: there was politeness due here first. Ellory chanted with the rest of his faceless warriors, forgetting the cause of the riots, thinking only of calm, of the beauty of the streets run to blood, arms linked with arms and leaning against the flood. 'Citizens of LaGatta, this is a public thoroughfare, you must move along, return to your homes, all political marches are forbidden, all protestation must be voiced via the Merchant's Caucus; the Caucus is the voice of the people, citizens of LaGatta, return to your homes. There must be order.'
But there was no order except the push of the popular voice, overwhelming the Ordinance when it seems they should prevail. The barrage of bricks falling on raised shields.
'Here,' Yleksa explained beneath, with his sword, a fierce moment of calm before the wall would break. 'This is how we establish the rule of LaGattan peace, even in LaGatta's own streets when necessary!'
Soldiers to his side and rear, the rage and terror of the civilians to his fore, Ellory drew his sword also, for it seemed there was nothing else to be done, and LaGatta owned his arm.
After blood was shed, Dodecadam purged, quiet on that upper established level, the Emperor himself descended from his palace to speak and bestow medals: 'You have done well.' Even the Merchant's Causas was pleased, and talk turned to the rule of the rest of the city.
Ellory watched over the coming weeks, listened, felt horror turn to a strange numbed despair, for in the days to come and at the petition of, amongst others, Master Sergeant Yleksa Aracelis, the powers of the Imperial Military Association's Civil Ordinance Force was increased significantly to encompass detention — without charge, and for such a strange thing as incrimination by silence.
'I wonder only if my own silence against such a thing is just as incriminating,' Ellory asked his cousin, once, but Yleksa was a stranger now, as if those hands had never touched a youth with affection and whose eyes had never heated to see him stretch and pose; who watched him only strangely, through the slit in a faceless mask.
Someone said it, perhaps the Emperor, perhaps the Caucas, perhaps everyone and no one, but it was said: LaGatta Wants Peace! The Ordinance Will Deliver!
Eventually, LaGatta was exceedingly quiet.
'You see,' Yleksa explained, fervent spittle setting his lips to shine. 'You see, Ellory, this is what LaGatta can bring to the world; peace, for everyone. This is what my country could have had, and they gave away the chance for what, for spite! For a name! Republic, eight letters, how could eight stupid letters tacked onto everything that once was my country matter against all that peace is worth? I lived through one land ripped apart by war. I will do everything in my power to ensure all this world will one day have this same peace, everywhere. Can't you see? Ellory? Can't you see where I've come from?'
But Ellory Aracelis sheathed his father's sword and said: 'This is not peace.'
Continue to Chapter 2 →
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