Later, Ellory supposed, it would stop hurting.
Later there would be the sky, continents, a world of years between him and Yleksa and family, there would be days slamming shut to close him off from the memory of Yleksa's eyes. Only chance encounters with mirrors reminded Ellory of what a treacherous heart bled deep inside him, what traitor's blood rose and fell with life's purposeless tide. Familiarity was a foul thing, as was everything, in excess.
Later, Ellory said in those first fraught days after he ran from LaGatta, it will stop hurting. His first days he spent alone, aching for the solitude where he had never been alone before, moving from his father's house directly to his cousin's cold hearth. The landscape turned and enfolded him like a fatherland, shades of Yleksa's particular blond. Ellory dreamed of fields of wheat, a perfect shade of gold but cropped under the sun, fruitless stubble, the horizon a piercing blue. Ellory woke from those dreams with his eyes wide against the dark, his new self settling down upon him, and he constructed a new mask of whispers: 'Sethr of Anchorbon, free from loving, no LaGattan, good morning, Sethr, well come, for a mercenary—'
One day he woke from a dreamless sleep to yawn, to slink from his narrow curtained berth to the necessary, to shave and murmur, 'Good morning Ellory,' to what he saw in the small cracked mirror—
—and that was what he was, shards of what he used to be, a name he could murmur to himself wherever he was from now on.
The mask was chosen in haste like every other decision Ellory ever made. Ellory wore Sethr the Anchorbon Mercenary like a bad haircut, insufficient, ill-fitting, but — all that mattered — his own choice. Just like his fate: a prison the size of the world, and a very solitary kind of confinement.
The loneliness trickled like cold through the sheets of metal. He knocked on his own door to have visitors.
In those days back in LaGatta, adolescence burgeoning like spring all flushed with potential, Ellory woke to find one day he had suddenly become desirable. Conversations in the street with companions previously of abandon were suddenly so formal Ellory felt ill-placed to smile; well-dressed gentlemen bowed to address him where before they would have reached to ruffle his hair, matrons and aunts alike contemplating him with a particular twinkle of the eye. Perhaps because he was the youngest of his father's children, he had always thought to befriend those younger again, and on the cusp of his desirability he suddenly became a target to achieve or elevate, no longer friend. Every social affair turned, where he would pause to buy coffee or greet an aunt in passing, and behind or before him a sudden spill of wrestling, shouted bets and taunts and bravado high on the air, demanding his attention.
Ellory studied himself in the mirror, long and hard. He still looked the same. Stocky bones even for a LaGattan, but too thin across the framework, as if stretched to fill the shape of a man but without substance. His nose was too long, his ears too prominent, his hair too indeterminate a shade when definites were all the rage: the Emperor's pure black as classic LaGatta, or that foreign pure blond. No strange metamorphosis had happened overnight to Ellory. He decided if he had not changed, perhaps the city had.
Ellory could dismiss his unease with the new attentions of his friends, until the competitions for his affections began between his elders.
'They think to own your potential,' Yleksa explained at a boring long luncheon, conducted by the Aracelis family to host many of LaGatta's wealthy merchants. Generosity was encouraged by a show of generosity; the Aracelis fed already fat merchants then asked for their funding. Yleksa always attended these affairs, dutiful, but clearly discomforted when surrounded by too many aunts, too many cousins.
His distant, disinterested sneer faltered under Ellory's narrowed stare. 'Think about it this way, cousin: one can only have so many children — and of those so-called mature persons acting up now for your attention, I doubt they have families of their own, no sons or daughters, being second or third in line themselves. They think to claim you as their prentice and make a small empire of your own. LaGatta always has room for the ambitious. Even if you were not an Aracelis, you would give many a likewise younger son much to be proud of if you were to follow in his footsteps.'
But Ellory continued to watch, enchanted by the conflict between his cousin's words and the high colour in his cheeks.
An unhappy clearing of throat resonated against the back of a leather glove. 'It is a miserably disordered method of conducting instruction of the young. The Imperial Military Association would have no bar of this foolishness.'
'If this is the way it is done, who am I to speak against it?'
Yleksa huffed. 'But this conversation started with a question. I say, ask your father for an answer as to whom you should fix your future upon. Not I: I never had the benefit of assistance in finding my way to purpose.'
Such a query earned Ellory only his father's confusion, a stare that looked through him. 'Are you that old already?' the senior asked, sharply. 'Well. Well, I suppose you are. All I can advise you, Ellory, is to choose your future well. You are my child, flesh and blood, mind and manner. I will not have you grow into one who casts that aside.''
Ellory contemplated that looming decision with apprehension; scarce had he much reason to consider the why of anything but that of which shirt he would wear in the morning. What could he do with his life? A plush-bred boy, he, living in a sun-clad mansion within line of sight of the Emperor's own palace: the question perplexed him. What could he do? Bland attentive servitors hovered always near, over near, that Ellory never had to reach for a thing. Unfulfilment, proffered with each dish.
So hard, such a decision, his whole life unfurling from a single point: so hard it seemed to Ellory as lust twitched his thighs and intellect with unrest. He wanted to be— someone.
This LaGatta promised: opportunity for all who reached for it. But there was always a peak, and Ellory had been born to a position which required no striving. Where to from there?
Neither gilt-edged face glass nor mahogany-held mirror could give Ellory the look of a hero, posturing, grimacing before glass as he might. There was something displeasingly smooth about his face, an innocent countenance of one who had never seen the world. A face that, come what may, would bear only the superscription of decay instead of the lines of life.
But Ellory was not resigned to his born privilege, to age and die in comfort, but only because he had never known anything else.
Ellory's next chance encounter with his cousin proved the catalyst. Yleksa, helm doffed for such a formal function and wearing instead his dark navy uniform, was low enough in rank that he did not belong at the Emperor's celebration. Yleksa's mother's Aracelis blood drew him an invite, not his honours. LaGattan courtesy dictated that once invited by a social better, he must come.
And so Yleksa came, conversed stiffly but appropriately, and retreated to the shadows as soon as politeness allowed him. Dancing and devilled eggs had birthed a nasty pain somewhere under Ellory's ribs from too much of both: he stumbled into the shadows, to breathe, and found what he had been looking for.
Cold eyes always belied the calm of those angular cheekbones, cold enough to supersede the ruddy sunburn of days of walking the street. Sensual lips gifted a writhing expression to otherwise bland face. 'Well met again,' Yleksa said, 'Ellory—'
'You may call me Master Sergeant, in these halls. Or Cousin, if you must.' The stare grew too focused for Ellory's comfort. 'Young Cousin's no nearer to being a man, I see? You must be nearly as tall as your father.'
'I'll be taller, what with the hunch he wears at his desk all hours.'
'Strange, with you standing in his shadow all the time: I always thought you boys needed sunshine to grow.'
'Copious sunshine,' Ellory agreed, 'but failing that, tender attentions do serve to enact somewhat of growth—'
'You're still disrupting the peace in my streets, so I hear.' Yleksa scratched at his chin, idly, fingers ringless, the lace of his shirt so strange against the vague smell of rust and sweat that lingered, heavy enough to feel like a touch, this close. 'Time you were married if you'll not be mentored. The family's been remiss in their duty, letting you wander.'
'I've been thinking. An action you're no doubt unfamiliar with, cousin. I can't decide. Father's left it up to me to choose my fate.'
'Huh,' deep in Yleksa's throat, a glottal, foreign sound. 'How magnificent it must be, being fortune's little darling in this luckless world. You get to choose.'
'Magnificent? Easier, perhaps, and more difficult: if you could have been anything, not a child refugee, not a soldier, not an arm of the Civil Ordinance Force, how would you have made your choice?'
'I would have chosen the same.' Yleksa bowed, once, with a look of such abstracted forlornness Ellory nearly laughed. The upturned blue eyes stayed cold, but those lips — those lips— 'There's nowhere else I would be, but here.'
Whatever the thrill trembled through Ellory at that statement, Yleksa's later disclaimer proved no less meaningful. Speaking to other young men gathered in a small room off the main party, Yleksa dictated instead of dancing; Ellory listened, and his heart felt struck in a way all the unhappy conversations of displeasure with LaGatta's way, the unease for the city's future, had never touched him.
'Listen.' Yleksa, at the centre of that small cohort, surrounded by a ring of nods. 'This city is a vast machine. LaGatta takes your groans, your sighs and curses; LaGatta hears the intensity of each protestation of weakness, unhappiness, and turns out, instead of ignorance, change. This city, in all I have seen in my time as a soldier, is the only one with the potential to effect change. An Emperor to give purpose, but a Senatorial process through the voices of Merchants to maintain the voice of the people! How could I not serve this city, brothers, how could I not come here after what war took my homeland — when only LaGatta offers peace to the world? This city, my love, takes every broken body sundered in war, the thoughts that fly free at that moment of release, the thousand dreams of a thousand broken civilians all begging on one knee - this city hears all that, and takes them in, these dreams and these dreamers crying out for peace, and LaGatta makes from dreams, realities! One day all will be LaGatta, and all will be at peace!'
Shrapnelled with rapture. Ellory fell in love with the passion. Did he hear the words? No twinge of misgiving struck him then, not then, not after, when Yleksa cornered him by the bay windows and pressed a brandy into his hand, and said, 'Well, cousin, what would you do to solve the ills of greater society?'
Ellory laughed into his alcohol. 'You ask me that when I've scarcely been tried? I say to solve any puzzle, keep asking questions until the answer is presented by default. What other answer can there be?'
'If it's trials you're after, I'll try you.' Yleksa also laughed, as if free, and tapped his glass against Ellory's, delicately. A single, hard arm around Ellory's waist, and the wet lips pressed heated against his cheek.
Ellory drank. On the morrow, the senior Aracelis had no objections. Ellory could not tell if Yleksa was pleased or not, and within a week it felt as though he had never been anywhere else but at his cousin's side, in that bare apartment six floors closer to the sky. Across Ellory's palms, the first blisters from the blade were bloodied, his muscles screaming a forlorn protest.
This, perhaps, was purpose.
His cousin loved him, Ellory supposed, in the way someone loves what they owns.
I here bequeath unto my child the world. That's what fathers should give to their sons, Ellory decided; the world, all opportunity, the space to become, to find a purpose. His own father did the inverse, giving him nothing but emptiness and no direction, too interested in his laboratories, his workers, his mechanics and his engineers. Perhaps Ellory could have followed the path of numerous elder sibs and learned a science, but the decision was never made for him. There, instead, was Yleska, dour and purposeful and with never a doubt Ellory could find. How could he have avoided that fall? The magnetism was undeniable.
Here, Ellory, have a purpose, this is what you're going to be, this is what you're going to believe in, now become—
Service in the Imperial Military Association was a contract, signed and cosigned by Ellory, Yleksa's ink under his as sponsor and mentor both, the senior Aracelis' scrawl beneath Yleksa's, the Emperor's own writ at the terminus of the chain. Beyond the legal scalping that surrendered Ellory to that study room, that sword ring, Ellory noticed how the world turned regardless of his will for it to do so. His father's eyes were fixed always elsewhere, content that all purposes were being served.
A tree bough curved just outside Ellory's bedroom window in Yleksa's apartment. The bough exploded blossoms year by year, the world's turn visible in that branch's shades of green, gold, white, brown, green gold white brown, and Ellory thought: I had such hopes, yet LaGatta trains me to know only myself, the length and breadth of my capabilities, only within the bounds of these levels and walls. When do I get to know the world's breadth, its length?
Mine, he told himself when he looked out that window, past tree, past tower, to the horizon. Mine. Too loudly. Fear always came between Ellory and his strength. He wanted the world, not — just this. He hung from the window sill by his fingertips, and he could never make himself just let go. He couldn't fly. He would fall.
Yleksa kept him busy, small challenges, a bed warmer than Ellory would have expected, but he had no aim for himself, no purpose, no duty or devotion to define his life. Borrowing Yleksa's certainty discomforted him. Yleksa never questioned. What cause had he to ask?
On the ship to the Anchorbon continent, Ellory strained to give meaning to the middle-distance, for lost on the sky's featureless ocean he could find no reference points, no foreground, no background. Where we are now, Ellory told his other that night, has this peculiar feeling of seeming to be where we have always been.
Shut up, Sethr the Mercenary would reply. As if in Yleska's voice.
Those last months in LaGatta nearly killed him.
Certainly, Ellory did not have to laugh to live, but it proved in those final days to be the only way he could open his mouth and still find his freedom protected—
'—by Bylaw 783x as proposed by the Merchant Representative for Freedom of Speech,' Ellory intoned, to his peers, the snickering laughs running rings around the circle as that bottle of brandy made similar rounds, 'as it was affirmed in full by the Merchants Caucus, of the Right to Laugh legislation, which permits laughter —'
'Of a non violent kind,' one added, with the bottle raised to the night sky.
Ellory extended his arm, a rigid salute made second nature, and lowered his voice to a forced baritone, '—of a non violent, orderly kind, to describe: "Ha Ha Ha Ha Ha," of equal pause and voicing. Such laughter may be conducted at the specially allocated out of the way Domina Rel Green in East Dodecamon, and also in the private yards of full fee paying residents of First Prime, in groups of one, provided there is no interference with the rights of others—'
But the mood snapped like a glove. 'Which is always the case,' snarled another, arms flexing against the world. 'I'm sick of this, I'm sick of you, Ellory, you come here night after night, you get up on that bloody crate and make us laugh, and while we're laughing we're doing nothing.'
'Doing nothing?' Ellory replied. 'By all the foreign gods that LaGatta's destroyed, you're still breathing, aren't you? You wouldn't be, if you went out there with talk like that. Didn't you hear about Bylaw 418b, which dictates that opening one's mouth for any purpose other than breathing will result in full revoking of all permits allowing one access to LaGattan air—'
The vicious response. 'Fuck you. You get up in the morning and pick up their sword, you still wear an Aracelis name, you're a two-faced coward. You speak sedition and you hide behind your bullfucker of a cousin and your father's name!'
Wreathed in silence, Ellory stepped from his podium, sank to sit. 'I'm not arguing with you.'
'You're a two-faced, cock-sucking coward. Run home to your lover and suckle yourself to sleep.'
'I'm not arguing with you. They don't train me to argue. You get up in the morning and, what, tend your family's accounts? And you. Keeper of the house? You, you — academics, gentle readers of novels, writers of scripts. You know what they trained me to do? To make people smile, a throat opened from ear to ear, the widest smile of them all. I say be thankful you're not me. I wish I wasn't me.'
'Are you threatening us, Aracelis?'
'There's to be no fighting here,' said another, elder and warning, the remaining bottle taken away. 'It's hard enough as it is without picking each other off.'
'Living like this is like being in a play,' Ellory said, 'being obliged to nod and go on with everything, hoping somewhere along the way we'll all get a big moment one day and be more than we are, heroes — but plays aren't written like that anymore. Historical process has come in and rewritten our roles. Even satire no longer makes us laugh. The core of satire is truth.'
'These are bad days. It can only get better.'
Ellory heard the sentiment, but blindly. 'Better is a relative term.'
'Why am I doing this?' Ellory asked, over the whine of the steamship's engine. 'Why, I mean, I'm not arguing but I just need to know, why?'
'A form of defense,' Sethr replied, 'one far more effective than cumbersome plate mail, because at least this way you can move quickly.'
'The ship's fast and steady,' Ellory agreed, 'but really, it's just a larger kind of plate mail. Better than wearing a helm, I suppose: at least I can see everything from up on deck!'
Sethr was bitter and sarcastic. 'That sounds like self-persuasion if ever I heard such a thing. You haven't forgotten you don't deserve this—'
The warning flash and rumble of what murders he had committed against his own, the riots in the street. Against a foreign battlefield the shock had paled and overwhelmed. Ellory breathed hard. 'No, I'll never forget that, I hurt—'
'So badly. But you don't want to live for revenge, not against Cousin Yleksa for being a dick, not against Father for never being there; stupid, that. As well want revenge against Mother for dying too young. As well wish revenge against the whole city for not being enough for you—! You greedy hole.'
'I don't want to hate LaGatta. I love my city.'
'I love my city too. That's why it hurt to see it become so — wrong. I — it's not revenge that drives you, not against Yleksa. Not for what he was to you. He was, effectively, nothing but a finger pointing out a way. You can't hate him for that.'
'It's for what I was, isn't it? That's what I want my revenge against. For what a naïve idiot I was.'
Sethr clapped his hands together, rubbed palm against palm, brisk, eager. 'Well, it's all over now: we're here. I'm here, and I have a horizon to claim. I've got no desire to know myself, I can barely remember my own name. I'm not about to go running headlong into a battle again. First things first, I'll have to find something to do with myself when we get to land again. Something - where I can make all my own decisions about morality and law. The frontier should be good for that. It's not about the words. You can't believe everything you hear.'
'There's only so many times a man can start over. Be careful. Head rules over heart, Sethr.'
'Fuck that,' Sethr said, 'that's how LaGattans live. I'm a hot emotional mess with a sword, don't you know. There's certainly nothing rational behind acting as I do. If I start thinking logically, I'll be running back to LaGatta in no time.'
Ellory was a murmur, caught on a gust of steam. 'But Sethr. No one's waiting.'
Continue to Chapter 3 →
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