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by Evan Marcroft

The assassin arrives in the city of Kenopsia in the body of a goat, one of a bleating herd driven down from the misty hills. His contact arrives early at the livestock market to purchase him for a sum of ten aterjots, to share his pipe and a knowing silence with the shepherd, who has taken an immeasurable risk for his sake, and to lead the assassin home at the end of a rope leash. Back in the safety of his shop, the old man bids his daughter lock the door and put the coffee on the stove while he unpacks the assassin from his body.

Experienced hands undo the seam of the autocorpus’s abdomen, parting panels of interlocking flesh and belts of laminated muscle. The old man sterilizes himself with a splash of dragonspit araq before reaching inside to uninstall the assassin from his cockpit behind the sternum. Webs of nerves decouple at his persistent tugging. There is a moment of tahul, of transition between one self and the next, where the assassin is no other thing than a raw, near-blind and wriggling embryo helpless in another’s hands. His contact has prepared a new body for him, one grown in the semblance of a human male. It sways from the rafters by ropes looped under its armpits. The old man strokes its jaw, coaxing the camouflaged segments of its head to unfurl like the petals of a lotus. He lowers the embryo gently down that splayed-apart neck into its womblike helm and buttons it up again.

With that done the old man calls his daughter to take away the discarded goat body and butcher it for their lunch. It will take some time for the autocorpus to integrate fully with its new pilot. Just long enough to enjoy a cup of coffee and finish sharpening a sword.

* * *

The assassin Sïl eats like a starving Preta, wolfing down goatsmeat and thin nematode soup with inefficient fervency. He remembers having his fill of grass but this new autocorpus has a barren stomach and different dietary demands altogether. The old man and his daughter sit across from him, eating but watching warily. Sïl pays their stares no mind; all embryos are killers by default, but he understands that any who would call themselves one in their imago years it to be feared, and none more so than a bloodied dagger of the Hezred Sciirzam.

From the sketches and diagrams scattered about the room, from the fragments of body strung up like lanterns and from the reek of unrefined krut, Sïl surmises that his host is a biotecht--a breeder of biautoms and biarma. It seems likely that it was he who designed this body at great cost to himself, or perhaps to a noble co-conspirator to his cause.

As is custom they remain silent until the meal is over. Only after the daughter has cleared away their bowls and chopsticks does the old man speak. “You are to kill the Duke of Kenopsia, who resides in this city,” he says, commandingly but with a hint of a question, for one can never truly be certain of whom one speaks to.

“Yes,” Sïl replies. “The price is paid. His life or mine. My life for his.”

“When the Duke is dead, the Zenmat Guard will be in place to seize power,” the old man goes on. “We will bring freedom and prosperity to all. Nous will be sacred. No longer will the Downcast be slaves. No-one will be made animals for the theft of an apple.”

Sïl has heard this story many times, under many different titles. Not once has he ever had a use for it. “I am a dagger, sir,” he replies coolly, “--and daggers do not care why they cut. Please show me my weapons.”

The old man unrolls a rug before him, displaying the steel hidden inside: a kilij with an ivory grip, a talon dagger meant to slice crucial arteries or pry open the dermal plates of an autocorpus to make vulnerable the embryo within. Simple weapons, but effective for it. Sïl can feel more inside him. His wrists conceal protracting spines. His embryo is cradled in venom sacs. He picks up the sword and studies his new face in its mirror-like steel. Short, dark hair, an unparticular mien, the seams between the articulated plates of his face near invisible. Few would suspect him to be razor-edged.

Sïl nods, satisfied. “Show me the target.”

The old man shows him the way to climb to the top of the building, a lopsided tenement furred in blotches by wild mushrooms. Some cleverness in the make of his fingers lets him grab walls like a lizard. A roosting of birdlike biautoms takes wing as he clambers onto its guano-shingled steeple. From here can survey the city the way the ornithopters do, in terms of depths rather than heights. He watches oliphants lug cargo and passengers through its smile lines. Cratering into its skin like fetid sores are what Sïl imagines are the idiot-slums, where the Downcast struggle to survive against their own punitive retardation. To the north, the steep-walled manses of merchants and minor nobles gleam. To the south, the Great Wormsea, a silvery foreverness of cytoplasm and nematodes into which the city seems to sink, block by sodden block. And in the center of it all, spearing the city’s perpetual mist with onion-domed minarets, its ramparts climbed by pleading hovels--the Winter Palace of Haemataul, home of the Duke of Kenopsia.

At least, must assume.

He had only ever seen the Summer Palace, after all.

* * *

“Father, I don’t want Nercei to go away.”

“Neither do I,” Sïl’s father replies, “but it is the best thing for her.”

They are sitting on the rōka that encircles their modest house, backs to the field of wafting green through which their grazebeests amble, watching Sïl’s mother fit his sister for an abaya in the living room. He is in awe of his sister’s new body; she has been reborn in the envied image of a human, slender of wrist and neck and fitted with skin that shines like unpainted porcelain. She has real hair like a human, the kind that grows over time. His own autocorpus is a motley thing, bootstrapped from what was cheap, with the needs of the farm in mind, human only in silhouette.

But hers came at a high cost, and with a purpose.

“I hope the Duke does not want her,” Sïl mutters sullenly. “I will pray to Man that he doesn’t.”

His father glares askance at him. “You would be a foolish boy to do that. There is no honor higher for her or our family than for her to become his concubine. And it would ensure food on our table and cattle in our fields until the day that I pass.”

Sïl says nothing more, knowing that there is fire beneath the stone of his father’s face. He had once offered to take Nercei’s body and audition in her stead. For that he had been beaten asleep, as for a man to masquerade as a woman, to be hijra, is an abominable thing. But what his father said last, Sïl thinks, is what rankles him most. That his sister has become a commodity to be hawked at the marketplace.

His mother and father have long worked to increase her value. His mother, a courtesan herself until an instant of disgrace, has trained her in the art of B’ira Mhendj, the Pleasing Wiles. She knows well the angles at which coffee is to be poured in which occasions. She can read, right, and sing songs of praise. All that was needed was a pretty body with which to demonstrate her grace at the audition at court seen days hence. Success there would mean a marriage to the Duke whose lands they tilled, and, yes, a handsome brideprice.

When Sïl watches her move through the steps of the Ghost Moth Dance though, he can only see the girl who would chase him through the sawgrass fields when he pulled her ears, and dig for insects with him under the house. But that person is now an empty shell pawned to recoup the cost of this current her, to be resold or rendered into krut. He doubts there will ever be dirt on those new, earthenware cheeks. They are far too expensive for that.

“We want what is best for the both of you,” his father says, yanking him back into the moment. “What is best for you is to manage the farm when your mother and I are gone and use it to provide for your own children. What is best for her is to become the kept woman of someone wealthy, and there is no embryo in the land richer than the Duke of Kenopsia. Nercei will live comfortably, as will we.”


“You do nothing but complain, Sïl. But this is not a world that listens to complaints. Would you rather she be made a grazebeest, or perhaps the brain of a manor door, so long as she is with you?”

Sïl has no answer to that. He can only wonder at why that must be the concern that looms over all, why the Human Council would place some of their creations so high and cast so many others low. What makes the nobles noble, that they should be able to abridge the nous of a lesser embryo on any cruel impulse? Why must all below them live in fear of that, of being locked in the body of a sleipsteed for the most nothing crime, dumb and mute but aware of it all? They say that Man grew the world in a jar; it could have been anything they wanted. Millions of embryos had asked, Sïl the latest and not the last, why they would want this one.

* * *

Tomorrow, Sïl’s contact informs him, the Duke will be leaving the city with his retinue to hunt in the countryside. It will be the best time to strike, unless he should want to infiltrate the palace for whatever mad reason. But the bodies of nobles are powerful things, godlike in strength and stature. Sïl will need to be as intimate as a lover to be certain of the kill. To that end he has come here, to Kenopsia’s Whore Slough, a wolf in the market for a sheepskin.

Left over from an era of lower street levels, the Slough slithers through the eastern side of the city like a collapsed vein through an arm, a winding network of shaded alleyways undermining more respectable neighborhoods. Some wryly call it the River of Fire from the way its crevices glow a lusty red at night. This place is as much as market as the one where Sïl was bought, but trading in obsessions, kinks, and privacy, squalid as it may be. Behind these doors despondent embryos pilot autocorpi of monstrous pandemiancy, bodies smithied to fit fetishes as keys do locks. Enslaved to the knotty fists of addiction and of pimp, some suffer through for better lives, while more suffer to afford to suffer.

Sïl does not need to wait long for his target to appear. From his perch beside a rain-chewed gargoyle overlooking the avenue below, he spies the tall, beaked cap of a ducal guard weaving through the crowd. The man is human in shape and in face, and more or less Sïl’s build. And he is alone, as the old man said he’d be. Sïl waits until the guard has moved past his hiding spot and drops from his hiding place into a fleeting gap some distance behind him. Like a seasoned diver he makes hardly a splash in crowd’s attention. From there, tailing the man is simplicity itself.

He makes his move when the guard turns to descend a short stair that curls beneath the street. The guard does not notice but they are alone in a damp tunnel lined with windowless doors. He stops to slip an aterjot into a slot beside one, and Sïl is upon him with weirdward speed the second the lock clicks open, tackling him inside. The struggle is brief; taken by surprise and pinned beneath another man’s weight, the guard can only thrash and scream into Sïl’s hand as a knife shears through his body’s cervical vertebrae.

Sïl kicks the door shut before anyone can come along and gets down to this unfortunate chore. The Hezred Sciirzam frown upon unnecessary violence, but sometimes an obstacle can be a shortcut. First he gives the embryo as quick a death as possible, sharply twisting its stunted head and torso in opposite directions. There is only a short spurt of ichor. Secondly, he strips the guard and changes into his uniform. He’ll have to scrub the blood out by tomorrow. Lastly, he pries away the panels of its face and exchanges them with his own. The result is not a perfect reproduction, but one approximate enough for his purpose.

A sob from behind him; Sïl spares it a glance. A nude female torso is fused at the hips to an iron box bolted to the floor on the other side of the room. Her pretty face is frozen in a smile but her doe-ish eyes are streaming tears. Nail-less fingers scrabble desperately at the ground. Sïl knows that inside that riveted chassis are all the organs keeping her body alive. He know that once a day someone will come along to dump nematode slop through a chute in its side, and maybe throw a bucket of water on her. He knows that fearful mewling sound is the only word she’s been left.

Sïl contemplates killing her as well. But not because she may be a witness.

He dresses the dead autocorpus in his old clothes before he leaves with it on his shoulder. He knows from the fecal smell on the wind that there is a krut refinery not far off, where Kenopsia’s organic waste, its shit and its scraps and its dead, is brought to be recycled into raw biomass from which new biautoma can be grown. The Biomass Economy is an insatiable glutton; Sïl doubts the plantboss there would dwell too long on a complete body gifted by a ducal guard. Certainly not, if it so happened to have a few aterjots in its pockets. Such is the benefit of evil. Good men cannot be trusted to be good consistently, but bad men will be reliably bad. Anyone doubting that could stand to buy new eyes.

* * *

In all his life Sïl has never beheld such opulence as the Summer Palace of Dacnomania. It seems that every surface here is gilded, from the tiles in the floor to the costumes of the ducal guards. His family and those others assembled sit upon cushions into which tiny grains of gemstone are woven, lunching on ripe figs and sipping wine-of-the-moon. Even the vadelects who skulk about the outskirts of the court are dressed in finer clothes than he had ever worn. Sïl hangs his head whenever they stoop to fill his cup.

And yet for all the splendor of the palace, it is dull as lead compared to its Master. Sïl fears to let his gaze linger too long on the golden dais where the Duke reclines. All embryos strive towards the Divine Anatomy of Mankind, but like one riding a lava flow this man stands at a proximity to searing greatness that Sïl had not thought possible. It feels wrong to sully him with impure eyes.

Instead he focuses on his sister, who is midway through her dance. Her slippered feet trace a path that spirals chaotically over itself without missing a step. She is a slow tornado of vascular silks. Her dance is flawless, and it curdles Sïl’s stomach to know that she will likely end it as another person.

But he does not pray for her to stumble, as he promised he would. A cushioned cage is better than an empty one.

Kneeling silently in a circle around her are the other daughters who auditioned before her, a score of young women who at a glance could all be sisters for the exactness of their beauty. Every man seeks variety in their lovers, but what the Duke should want to select from thirteen identical wives is a mystery to Sïl.

With a final pirouette Nercei completes the Ghost Moth Dance. There is a smattering of polite applause from the audience. On both knees she bows to the Duke, her brow dripping sweat. A hand of burnished silver rolls lazily on its wrist, implying approval of her performance. A vadelect strikes a chitin gong, signaling the end the audition; time now for the new wives to be chosen. Sïl can see the other families hoping beyond hope. His own mother is whispering orisons under her breath, and worrying a chain of prayer-skulls between her fingers. But he alone knows with miserable certainty that Nercei will be among them. And it helps to numb the pain when he is right.

The Duke’s majordomo, a powdered dome of fat upon eight ape-handed legs, scuttles around the circle of women, dispensing to each a solid gold feather. Thirteen mothers cry out in triumph, for golden feathers come from golden fowl. Sïl is dumbstruck. The Duke wants every one of them? And without even a moment of deliberation, not a word to his seneschal. What was the audition then, merely a bit of petty drama? An itching in the shaghir, the cavity between embryo and autocorpus, tells him that something is gravely wrong.

Robed vadelects file in from either wing and overlap into a curtain between the new brides and their discarded families. Sïl springs to his feet, realizing that the last time he will ever see Nercei is here, and almost gone. He sees her waving over the partition, hears her shouting something indistinct. Is that a smile on her face, or a scream? He is too far away to tell. Then someone grabs her by the wrist and pulls her down, out of sight.

To let her go, to chase after her--Sïl is held fast by choices pulling in opposite directions, impaled from within by the crossroads itself. Many paths lead away from this place, but from where he stands they are all wrong. And in his head a question is fruitlessly asking itself over and over again like a wagon wheel stuck in mud. All of his sister’s training had been wasted time. The Duke would have taken her no matter what, so long as she was a daughter of a vassal family. His mother and father believe they have won a prize, but the best cheats leave no-one feeling cheated.

If the Duke does not want them for their beauty or their graces, what is it that he cares for?

* * *

If Haemataul is the heart of Kenopsia, the hanging bazaar its stomach, then its streets are a labyrinth of capillaries and arteries all feeding to and from its central thoroughfare, the aorta of Tadwul Street. On any other day than this, Sïl is told, that great, cobbled road, down which one could fall from one end of the city to the other were it propped up on its edge, would be stoppered up by atheroma of spontaneous marketplace and choking traffic. Children would be monkeying between the columnar limbs of oliphants to scavenge for fruit rinds and bread crusts. Teams of grubby scroungefolk would be competing with them to feed that waste back into the Biomass Economy. Old women would sit outside their favorite maqha to sip coffee and wager fingers on games of tret.

But on this morning the ducal guard rules miles of deserted street. Thousands of lives have been shunted aside to make room for just one. The Duke of Kenopsia comes this way, and to be Noble is to be a plow when all others are dirt.

Sïl steals along the crenellations of a wall projecting up from some older layer of historical sediment. He makes mental note of every guard he can see on the ground. This level of security is obscene for a day’s jaunt to the countryside; Sïl wonders if he isn’t the first assassin to come this way. Just below him, a stone arch conjoins the two sides of the street, with a pair of ducal guards on lookout.

Sïl checks himself to make sure his pilfered uniform is in order before descending a switchback stair to join them. He greets them with a smiling nod and salute before assuming his imaginary post at the center of the arch. The two return the nod, but not the salute, and resume ignoring one another. He could have provided a story if pressed for one, but the best lies are those you don’t have to tell.

The only thing left now is to wait.

The Duke rides into view before too long, the spear-tip of a retinue of lesser nobles and leeching courtiers. Some he recognizes from description: the Count of Clouded Glass, whose mighty frame is armored in mirrored scales; the flagellated rotundity known as the Minister of Barbarities.

Leading the procession are the Duke’s two famed retainers, both killers of renowned efficiency and verve. On the right, the bestial Yanrul, a man stretched like fabric around the frame of a tiger. It is said he devours the scalps of those who offend his master. On the left, the storied Man-Halver Sothoz, who is as long and thin and sharp as the ferrobone sword he wears on his back.

Sïl pays them a minimum of care. Hills are a scant obstacle in the shadow of a mountain.

What can be said of the Duke that is not said of the gods called Man, who slumber always in their cryopolis of Chadthun? For his countenance is theirs, lesser only in cheapness of material. His body is a poem in their honor, a silver tribute of mythological height and strength. The dappled sleipsteed he rides is itself taller at its six shoulders than any other man, and must be to bear his weight. His moustachios are bull’s horns, the same black as the ringlets that cascade down his back. Yes, there is little praise one can give him without repeating hosannas long sung to Humanity. But then, rarely do embryos eulogize their cruelty.

For a moment--just a moment--he forgets everything the Hezred Sciirzam taught him, and what is left is a hate in the shape of a boy.

With the patience of stone he waits for the Duke to ride beneath the arch. As soon as the sleipsteed’s head emerges from the either side, he climbs the wall and leaps. Gravity will sheath his sword where it belongs, in the soft space between the Duke’s throat and sternum; his arms will fall around those heroic shoulders in the Final Embrace of Death.

A slurred streak of black in the edge of his vision. Sïl’s arm is speared by fire in a dozen places, and a momentous weight slams him like a hammer. The world is ripped out from beneath him, and the Duke along with it.

He is dough rolled painfully between the hard street and quadrupedal body. When he comes to a stop he sees Yanrul crouched over him, with Sïl’s forearm trapped in his fangs. A hand tortured into the semblance of a paw pins him by the elbow. Guards are advancing from all angles, readying swords that bristle with vampiric fangs and cudgels lined with nematocysts. There is a terrible shriek as the Man-Halver slashes his kilij across the cobblestones.

Behind him, the Duke observes with a smirk.

A precise sequence of muscle flexes from Sïl detaches his arm from the shoulder down. Simultaneously, a sac running along his ulna swells with gas and bursts, shredding the floor of the beast-man’s skull with a spray of bone-shard flechettes. His autocorpus topples, now a brain-dead cage for its pilot.

Before it hits the ground a series of glands between Sïl’s bicep and triceps ruptures, instantly smothering an area of meters in a fog of spores. As the nearest guards gag on fast-growing fungi, Sïl rolls onto his feet and breaks for the alley opposite. Crippled and outnumbered, a head-on attack on the Duke is out of the question. Better to retreat and regroup.

Sïl does not slow to look back, but he reads at least three pursuers in the splashes and clatter that trail after him. The guards are easy enough to lose in Kenopsia’s labyrinthine exta; even one-handed he can monkey up ichor-pumping pipework and find paths over lines of crooked chimneys. The ducal guard is trained to kill in heavy costume, not run in it.

The Man-Halver, though, is another creature entirely. Through the septic slums where the Downcast beg in monosyllables, between the minarets of the Church of the Upright, he hounds Sïl unerringly, a treacherous shadow. Sïl knows sooner or later he will miss a step, and the swordsmaster will impale him where he falls.

With little warning the pockmarked skin of the city gives way to a crater. His path devolves into a crumbling brick walkway spanning a Worm Sump. Far, far below him seethes a nematode morass in which ruins flail like drowning men. Bloated fragments of autocorpi and other organic trash bob on its surface. Poor ground to fight on, true, but equally poor for the both of them. Sïl skids to a halt at the center of the bridge, and waits for Sothoz to close that distance. When they meet it is from across the planes of two crossed blades.

On the distal hem of the world there is a war that has been and will be fought forever. From the moment he slid from his glass womb Sïl was a soldier in that war, with a minimum sentence of fifty years to hammer that untested knowledge into an arsenal of lethal reflexes against the anvil of the Preta. Like his mother and father and his sister he learned to pilot autocorpi whose every cell was a weapon, to combat an endless flood of enemies that evolve to survive you as fast as you learn to kill them. Once, in another life, the embryo Sïl was the brain of a biofacted juggernaut as tall as a palace, smashing the varsal hordes of Mankind’s forsaken children into scum beneath his avalanche of loxodontic feet. When he fulfilled his quota of so many millions and was retired into the world, those tools were bricked up, but not taken from him, not entirely. The Hezred Sciirzam scraped the rust off him, honed him on the strop of their killing-school, and taught him only what he already knew.

And so he survives, for moment after moment that would split another man in two. Even handicapped, he holds his own. But still, in the fans of sparks that shoot when their sabers clash he glimpses the futures that toe the edge of the present. In many he is dead, split in half or thrown into the worms to smother. In others he is Downcast, scourged with autisms, living off the charity of greedy men. In another he is entombed in an oliphant, forever moving worthless things between two points. In some he is merely the brain of some simple bio-mechanism, a door or a lift, with no eyes, or ears, or a mouth to beg death with when he goes mad.

A truth that Sïl knows absolutely is that these years of freedom an embryo enjoys are only a reluctant stipend--a formality. The world will pounce on any chance to forever subordinate him to its wants. For that he can respect the Man-Halver. If he did not kill as masterfully as he did, even he may be ridden with a bridle in his mouth.

And in the end he might have won, if it weren’t for one wrong step he never could have avoided. In the midst of a thrust the stone under his foot gives out. His kilij pierces Sïl through the stomach rather than his embryo, killing him later rather than now. Before the Man-Halver can recover Sïl leaps against the blade and tackles him off the bridge.

In the writhing grume that surges up to catch him Sïl can divine only two futures: one long and bloody, the other very short.

* * *

* * *

Sïl knows that he could die.

But he has chewed on that knowledge long enough that he can no longer taste it. Nercei’s last words have gnawed him down to a pebble of himself, as water will worry a stone. With apologies to his mother and father, he must know what became of her, whatever small thing it might cost.

And so it gives him pause when he at last arrives at the Summer Palace only to find it deserted.

There are no guards on the path that winds towards the great manse. No-one is there to thrash him when he tracks road-dirt on its marble stairs. There is no answer when he knocks on its towering door, nor when he pounds on it with both his trembling fists. Sïl does not know whether he should laugh or cry. He all but flew here, as fast as a man could possibly gallop across days of distance. And still he came too late.

For a time he sits at the top of the stair. He feels deactivated, an autocorpus without an embryo. The Duke could already be in Kenopsia by now. For Sïl, that is as far away as the end of the world. What is he to do now, run there until this body’s feet fall apart and then crawl the rest of the way? And when he gets there will he storm the ramparts to rescue a woman who may or may not be a captive? Sïl will go with any wind that blows, as soon as one does, but he cannot move himself.

A strong breeze prowls the grounds of Dacnomania, rustling its dying fig trees as an animal would rattle the bars of its cage, unburdened by any other sounds but that soft rattling. That, and a low, slow song. Sïl sits straight up, realizing what he is hearing. Nercei? No, it can’t be--the singer’s voice is too deep. Then who?

The woods surrounding the palace grow dense very quickly, with not the space to stumble as he follows after the song. He does not know what he hopes to find at the end of it. Someone who can tell him when the Duke left for his winter abode, perhaps? Anything to keep his failing hope alive. As he draws closer to the source the song sprouts words. Sïl recognizes it as an old Downcast song, a hymn the forcibly retarded would sing throughout their toiling to hold on those memories most dear to them.

The trees abruptly gives way to a grassy clearing. Sïl squats into the underbrush before he is spotted. The singer is a hulking autocorpus standing at the edge of a large pit, shoveling dirt with its spade-shaped paws. The earth is heaped high enough around him that Sïl cannot see what is in the pit.

As quiet as he can, Sïl clambers up a nearby crookspine tree, searching for a better vantage point. Something he can’t remember eating has caught in his throat and begun to fester. His body knows something he does not yet.

At first he isn’t sure what he is seeing. He absorbs it the way a blind man might learn the shape of an Oliphant, clumsily connecting one piece at a time. The digger scoops up a mound of soil and ladles it into the pit across a tangle of porcelain limbs. Those limbs connect to nude bodies. Those bodies do not always connect to heads. With some halting maths he finds that there are thirteen dead women in the pit, all of them broken like a child’s dolls. With no clothes on, they all look the same.

He cannot tell which is his sister.

Sïl never sees the bolt that hits him, nor the man who fires it. He does not even feel it, for the steel tip obliterates the node of his body’s brain that announces pain. It tingles when he hits the ground. In the humid darkness of his autocorpus he listens with his own stunted ears to footsteps fast approaching. He had been wrong to think there were no guards, when he had only not seen one.

Ungentle hands dig him out of his body and bind him. Time becomes intangible.

When he at last has eyes to open again, he is staring at a sea of sawgrass that he will have to eat.

* * *

I have been a goat in the field. I have been a whore, fucked on the cheap. I have been a wheel-turning reflex coiled around a screaming mind. From life to wretched life, I have crawled towards you.

On four legs, on no legs, I chased after you. You, who are a fixed point upon a rolling world--I could only ever come closer. By inches, by years. Even abridged into an animal I kept hold of that hate I tied around your neck, that hate I can follow wherever you should go. Oh, the masters I have known, They kept the fire in me stoked with cruelties they hurled like sticks. They beat my back, beat my feet, and kept me moving. I climbed the chains they bound me in to that high place where you are. I slithered into legs, stumbled into hands, seized a mind, Not even a century could stop me.

This is as much your punishment as it is mine. You do not know, it, but you will. In this world that Man created, we can be anything.

I can be anyone.

* * *

Sïl is not at all enamored with Haemataul’s opulence. What sort of person would want to live surrounded in gold? He would have to care nothing for himself, for gold is neither comfortable to wear or lay upon. And he would care nothing for others, for to have gold is to have taken it from other, and to make them slaves to mine more of it. Yes, the man who loves gold is as dark and empty as the void outside the world, forever sucking at that light, that false warmth, to thaw an infinite cold.

The gilded innards of the Winter Palace bustle with gilded vadelects. Woman-slaves polish gilded furniture. No-one pays Sïl any mind. In fact they hide their faces when he passes by, for the reputation he wears on his back like a trophy-hide is a fearsome one.

He is aware of his reflection in every surface, of that mule-jawed grimace, but it is hard to connect it to himself, to not think of it and him as disparate. But how is he to accept his face as real when it does not persist from day to day? When he might wake up upon four hooves, or as a woman? The condition is known as Rwh Qunae, when one looks into a mirror and sees through a window. Sïl is not what anyone sees, even himself. His self is only a meaty soul.

A soul, an arrow, passing through a thousand others on its way to you.

No-one stops him as he burrows into the palace like an intestinal worm. One hundred reflected shards of Sïl converge into one at the threshold of the Duke’s bedroom. All of his shed selves align to open the door.

The Duke reclines alone and nude upon a pyramid of cushions in the center of the chamber, where the incense is thick as stormcloud. He stirs at the clapping of Sïl’s footsteps. “Ah, Sothoz, you’ve returned,” he murmurs blearily. “I was beginning to think he’d gotten the best of you.”

“Sothoz is dead,” Sïl replies. “Your end has come in his skin.”

The Duke is awake, upright, and lunging across the room in one slurred instant. His beautiful face is beautiful even contorted by murderous hate. Sïl cannot help but be in awe of the strength compressed into that body, of the genius of its design. Surely, were the Duke to lay his hands upon him he would be crushed and discarded as casually as paper.

But the paralytic on the dart he shot into the Duke’s back as soon as he entered the room has begun to take effect. Halfway to Sïl the Duke’s feet twist inwards as the powerful muscles in his legs seize and his godlike physiology turns against him. A mound of pillows muffles the impact of his body hitting the floor.

Sïl minds the anticlimax not at all.

Only the Duke’s eyes and tongue are left free to thrash in his skull. He wheezes threats as Sïl kneels and unsheathes his sword. He aims it straight down at where he knows the Duke’s embryo is tangled in its nerve-reins, trapped in his own impenetrable torso. How worthless his wealth, his power, his privilege, how phantasmal, if when it should matter most, the Duke is still only a core of soft, helpless flesh. Sïl needs only to lean his weight upon its pommel, and he will have vengeance.

But that is not what he wants.

“My name is Sïl,” he says. “Through so many lives I have run you down. You bought my sister to be your wife. Please, tell me where she is.”

* * *

The palace stables are manned by a pair of guards huddled around a fire to ward off the cold. Sïl approaches amicably and gigs them both through the embryo before they realize they are being killed. He kicks dirt into the fire, trusting the dark to hide their bodies for him. The stall he seeks is at the end of the row. Inside, the Duke’s prized sleipsteed paces fitfully, smelling spilled blood. Sïl holds up his clean hand for it to smell, and to gently scratch its steaming nose to show he means no harm.

“It’s me, Nercei,” he whispers. “It’s me. I’ve come to get you.”

Tears well in the corners of its eyes. That is all the proof he needs.

He bids the sleipsteed lay on its flank so that he can access its belly. Blubbery slabs of flesh part smoothly on sliding hinges. On the inside the biautom is a shambles of strange organs but there, in the padded cradle suspended between its two hearts, a blinking appendix--his sister.

Freed from the womb she begins to squirm wretchedly, for the night air is like fire to her gossamer skin. Sïl is quick to tuck her inside his coat, close to the warmth of his heart. Coarse decades have rubbed away all that might have been left of the life they had. Their mother and father are long gone, and their house with them. But we are anonymous now, he thinks, feeling Nercei’s acorn of a heart fluttering against his own. The world will not know what to make of us.

As for the Duke, Sïl is no longer sure what to do with him. He takes him from pocket and cups him in his hands. Vestigial limbs kick weakly at the nipping air. Left exposed like this, he would likely not last longer than an hour before freezing to death. Sïl had yearned to install him into his own steed and let irony be his sentence, but now that desire is chaffing against something he had not expected to feel.

If a sword could want, would it still be a sword? Would it choose to be a thing that killed, or would we make them kill for the need of it? No man is what he wants to be, not even the Duke, so long as he can be made a thing to use. Even he, silver and proud, must have feared to awake with a collar about his throat, hitched to a plow. In this world we are all what others make us, Sïl thinks; what is evil but mad scrabbling to stay, at least, whatever one already is? Freedom is to be a broken tool, to be worthless, and that is something only the Gods enjoy.

Life is an infinite spiral of slaves making slaves. Life is iron being beaten into hammers to beat iron into hammers. Sometimes it is worth it to live. Often it is not. But one cannot choose not to be born.

There is only one choice anyone has.

Sïl kneels to bed the Duke down in the frosted dirt and manure not far from the sleipsteed’s open cockpit. If he crawls as hard as he can, he should be able to reach it in well under an hour.

Even he deserves to choose what life he will wear.

* * *

Evan Marcroft is an aspiring writer of weird fantasy, science fiction, and alternate historical horror. He is also a blind yeti and a direct descendant of Francis Scott Key. His work has appeared in Mirror Dance and his forthcoming at Pseudopod and Strange Horizons. Feel free to contact him for any reason at

What do you think is the most important aspect of a fantasy story?

That it take the reader into a world so unfamiliar that they struggle to understand it.


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