Thanks to Metonomia for beta reading. Thanks to Olna Jenn and my husband for first reading.
Jadis dreams of Charn. She dreams of the stone flagged courtyards
where she ran as a child, each designed to make secret
conversation difficult. Always, no matter where one went, someone
could hear. Hanging fabrics the color of jewels, fountains,
mosaics and the occasional flowerbed or planter relieved the gray
of the stone in the more public areas.
In places reserved just for her family and their favorites, the stone itself was beautiful. Striations and flowing color glowed, polished, from the very walls, not for the royal house of Charn the impermanent beauty of textiles and plants. She was not permitted to run in those courtyards nor throw a ball nor play t'bari stones among the mosaics.
In dreams, those walls, covered in artfully placed pieces of agate, shimmer and flow, creating places she recognizes but knows, on waking, she's never seen before. The faces appearing in her dreams are familiar, but she can't remember most of their names.
Waking, she feels loss and curses her sister. As she gathers herself for another day of wandering, she remembers the first time she saw Liatris. Her sister was a newborn baby. Jadis was three, nearing four. Their mother stood with Jadis, next to the cradle, and said, "This is your sister, Jadis. She'll be your rival as long as you both live." Their mother smiled. Jadis already knew that Mother's smiles didn't always mean nice things. "Rivalry will make you strong. Strength will let you rule."
Jadis didn't know, then, what a rival was, but she looked at the red faced lump and knew she wanted nothing of it. Some of her yearmates had sisters, and they seemed to think them worth having, but Jadis was sure this was different.
Jadis was named for her grandmother, the Queen who conquered Benzel. Liatris was named for Liat, their mother's favorite poet. Jadis tried not to see that as a sign that her mother preferred Liatris. It's only one case of giving Jadis what custom and duty dictate while giving Liatris what Mother values. Jadis thought, as she grew older, that this was an indication of their roles in Mother's life. Jadis was necessity, a reminder that Mother was mortal and would not reign forever. Liatris was choice, a pet who was no threat.
For three years, little changed. Liatris' nursery and Jadis' were far enough apart that Jadis only had the vaguest idea of where her sister lived. Their mother summoned them occasionally to prove to the court that they still lived, but mostly Jadis was left to her games with her yearmates and nurses. When Liatris was was three, she and her yearmates started venturing into the areas Jadis considered her proper realm-- the courtyards where Jadis ran and played.
Suddenly, adults that had bowed and deferred to Jadis were giving their attention to Liatris, and mother said, "You are older. You have responsibilities. It's time to begin your schooling."
Some Days Are Stone
To have outlived Liatris is cold comfort when this life is so
empty. Jadis has nothing but her magic. She has to conjure a brush
for her hair, clothing to cover her body, everything she needs.
She's never before needed to care for her own body and clothing.
She hates it and tries to conjure slaves, using her blood and
hair, mixing them with soil. These slaves prove not very useful
for they know nothing that she does not and water makes them
The land is so empty that she wonders if she will ever see life. She no longer seems to need to eat or to drink. The apple she took seems to have done that much for her. She misses food and dreams of it, fresh mayveberries bursting on her tongue, the flesh of grain fed ulati. Everything she's tried eating in this new world tastes of dust, clotting on her tongue, making her choke.
She remembers the last meals she had. There was a hurried affair in Charn when she knew her sister's army would break through the walls soon. The siege had been a long one, and rations were short. Jadis dined on bread and well aged cheese and a mix of dried fruits and nuts spiced with eifil. She remembers the sharp bite of the cheese, the body of the bread and the heat of the eifil.
The true last meal she had was in that place called London with that fool, Ketterley. The food didn't appeal to her. It was better than nothing, but she missed the flavors she knew. The herbs and spices were unfamiliar and lacking. She suspected that it was not the food of the aristocracy. Ketterley had been a vast disappointment in that respect. He was nothing in his own world. He wasn't even wealthy.
The memory of London is bitter, carrying with it her dreams for that place. She would have ruled there. Nothing she saw of the place made her doubt her own supremacy. London had been a healthy metropolis with no signs of magic that could stand in opposition to hers. Ketterley had been a poor excuse for a minion, but he would only have been the start. She had no doubt of her ability to charm, to intimidate, to dominate. She had done it all her life, and if it failed, there was alway the Deplorable Word. Better another desolate world than a world where she didn't rule.
The Deplorable Word killed everything-- People, plants, animals,
all living things crumbled into dust. Even, Jadis had no doubt,
the fish died.
She found herself sneezing repeatedly as she walked the corridors of the palace. Drafts from the open windows raised clouds of dust. Eventually, she gave up her dignity and cut a strip from a wall hanging of brilliant green. She wrapped the cloth around her head. That kept the dust out, but she was glad there was no one left to see.
She returned to her rooms and selected her most impressive clothing. She had no choice but to join her ancestors, and she wanted to look appropriate among them. She would be, she told herself, the final jewel among them, shining the brightest. She refused to consider that there was no one left to see her beauty. Someone would, she was sure, come eventually. Somehow.
Her stomach rumbled, and she thought about seeking the kitchens, but she had only the most general idea of where they lay. She hated the thought of searching, as if she didn't have better things to do, as if she were meant to labor as a common servant. Besides, there would be no more food. The plants were all dead and all the animals as well. Even if they had survived, she had no mind to work fields or tend livestock. Hunting would have been a worthy occupation for her, but she couldn't do that alone or without a ferelk to ride. Besides, she knew enough to be sure that dealing with dead animals was messy and certainly beneath her. She had no mind to risk her complexion and clothing on such a task.
But the option didn't exist. There was no point in considering it. Instead, she ignored her hunger as she would ignore any other trivial concern. She painted her face and lips. She filed her nails and brushed her hair. She wished for her maid more than once when strand of hair disobeyed her, when her hand shook as she outlined her eyes.
Jadis swept into the Hall of the Ancestors, passing the ancient kings and queens with hardly a glance. There was no dust here, so she unwrapped her face and incinerated the cloth. She had no wish to leave rubbish lying around to detract from the scene. She paused and used a hand mirror to make sure her hair and cosmetics still looked right.
When she came to the end of the row, she stood in front of her mother's corpse. "I have proved my strength today, mother. No one-- especially not Liatris-- could stand against me." She looked at her mother for a long moment, wishing the Hall's magic would permit her to touch her mother's body. She wanted to take her mother's jewelry, to make her mother ugly. "You wanted this, didn't you, mother? You had to protect her and encourage her." Her hands curved into claws. "I am Queen of Charn."
She turned her back on her mother. Jadis studied the throne that would be hers. It was simple, just gray stone. That wouldn't matter when she sat upon it. Nothing of it would be visible. Her magnificence would cover it all. Her eyes narrowed, and she tapped one finger against her lips as she looked around the hall. "How best to manage this?"
She considered the floor in front her throne. The bell would almost vanish if placed there. The throne next to hers had the merit of being close to her. That would make the spell easier and possibly make the connection to her clearer, but someone entering the hall might turn away without getting that far. The offering pedestal was really the only choice. If she phrased her magic carefully, the spell would snare anyone who noticed the bell.
She placed the the bell with its delicate display arch and the tiny golden hammer on the pedestal and began her spell.
Jadis travels south. She hopes that the lands there will be
warmer, that the sun will thaw her. Since she ate the fruit, she's
been cold. She doesn't-- quite-- leave footprints of frost, but
she is always cold. No fire helps, not that she builds fires
often. There's little fallen wood, and she's not capable of
cutting down more than the smallest trees with her knife.
Walking is harder than she expected. She's used to riding, to paved courtyards. She prides herself on her strength, but she's not used to this sort of physical exertion. She could travel using magic, as she did when she sought the Garden, leaping over the empty miles, but this world is too young. Apart from the Garden, there's nothing worth jumping to. She thinks the world cannot continue so desolate and hopes to stumble upon something interesting. Life will have to spread or, somehow, to come from other worlds.
The desert surprises her. She expects to need water, but thirst touches her not at all. The sun beats down on her, but she only notices the glare. Her flesh doesn't warm. She knows, in theory, that deserts become cold at night, but she doesn't notice that, either. She decides that being cold may not be all bad.
She loses her way in the desert. Afterward, she's not sure how long she spends wandering there. When she finally emerges on the southern edge of the desert, there are people there. They aren't human as she judges such things but look to be of the same stock as the people in London, at least by stature.
They have nothing of worth for her. They are just scraping by, attempting to domesticate crops and animals. They have a handful of closely guarded metal tools, apparently irreplaceable now, and they use chipped stone implements for most tasks. They have found clay, but their pots are lopsided and barely fired. She can tell that they covet her knife, and she has no mind to give it to them.
They welcome her, but they watch her, never trusting. When she doesn't eat or drink, they mutter and eye her uneasily. She thinks she could rule them. They have, so far as she can tell, no magic, and she is larger and probably stronger than any of them. But that would bind her to this place, and she intends to return to the Lion's land eventually.
One young man catches her eye. He's no cleaner than any of the others, but his body flows in clean lines, and his eyelashes are long. He reminds her of Avelin, her first lover. It's in the way he moves and in the glances he gives her when he thinks no one is watching.
Jadis starts catching his eye and smiling. She knows how this game is played. Grass and bushes may be nothing like fine sheets and pillows, but they will do. She's grown accustomed to lying on the ground. She's not sure she needs sleep any longer, but she has continued to do it because she finds comfort in dreams. Not that she needs comfort.
One day, about four days after she finds the settlement, she touches the young man, running her hand along his arms. He smiles at the contact, but she flinches. The momentary brush of flesh on flesh sends a tremor of horror through her. Her stomach clenches, her throat tightens, and her skin feels blistered. She makes a choking noise of denial.
She turns and walks away. When she reaches the edge of the village, she keeps walking. She doesn't look back. This is one more thing the Lion has robbed her of. She weighs it in the balance.
Jadis took her first lover when she was fourteen. His name was
Avelin. Her mother selected him. He was a slave with two decades
of experience in pleasing women.
"He will teach you to know your body," her mother said. "Once you know that, you can take pleasure in other lovers. Better to learn it early than to waste time piecing it all together as you go."
Sex was something Jadis' yearmates were just starting to explore. Jadis had expected that she would join them in the fumbling, giggling play that they seemed to favor. She had begun to look with interest on the older boys, trying to decide which to favor with a smile, while they vied for her attention. She knew it wasn't her beauty that drew them. She trusted her ladies when they said she would grow into beauty, but she hadn't reached it yet. These boys were all drawn by the thought of what her favor could mean for them, for their families.
Avelin came from Benzel. He'd been taken as a slave when the garrison commander noticed his beauty and decided that he should be part of the annual tribute. If he regretted that chance, he never indicated it. In fact, he never spoke of Benzel or his life there at all. Jadis didn't notice the omission at the time, but in later years, she wondered about his past.
Avelin was tall, thin and well muscled. His skin was the color of uncured eifel bark. His eyes and hair were dark. He preferred to wear his hair short but would let it grow if his current mistress wished it. Jadis didn't mind it short.
She did mind the time he spent each day on maintaining his body. He exercised for three hours every morning then bathed and shaved his body. It wasn't time she could have had with him anyway. She had lessons and other obligations. She just liked the thought of Avelin, waiting for her, ready for her whim.
One of Jadis' yearmates, a girl named Dagna, made the mistake of hinting that Jadis should share her good fortune with the other girls. Jadis thought herself generous when Dagna retired to the country to recover from an inexplicable (save that everyone knew what caused it) illness. No one spoke of Avelin that way again, and Dagna stayed away from court for nearly two years.
Avelin taught Jadis the pleasure her body could give her. She kept him near her during her leisure hours, learning his taste in art and music. His opinions did not always march with hers, but he managed to disagree while still indicating that her taste was impeccable.
Over the years, Jadis took a handful of other lovers. She wanted to see if she was missing anything. Her experiences led her to conclude that no other man was so attentive as Avelin. Certainly, they were all intent on her having a good time. Jadis knew better than to choose someone foolish enough not to seek her favor. There was just something lacking.
Just before Jadis turned eighteen, her mother summoned her to a private audience. Her mother wasted no time on idle talk. "You've learned what you can from the slave, Jadis."
Jadis bowed. That statement didn't call for a response. She'd only anger her mother if she spoke.
Her mother picked up a nut and carefully cracked it open. "It's time to pass him on. I've already given the order. He goes to Liatris tomorrow."
Jadis choked on rage. Liatris! Everything went to Liatris in the end. She couldn't bear it. She made an inarticulate sound then forced herself to silence. Her mother was quite capable of ordering her killed or imprisoned for rebellion. She bowed again, much more stiffly this time.
"Oh, don't worry, darling. You'll find someone better quickly. The tribute comes next month. You may have your pick of any slaves, more than one if you desire. I think you'll find there are benefits to training your own."
Jadis finally managed words. "As you wish, Mother."
The poison Jadis gave Avelin that night was a kind one. He simply went to sleep and didn't wake up. She wished Liatris the joy of the corpse.
The Deplorable Word doesn't work in this new world. Jadis tried
it once she realized that the land where she'd first arrived was
now barred to her. It is the heart of this new creation, the one
place with creatures she could rule. The thought of seizing that
land fills her with joy. She had not been able to stand against
the lion then, but her power will grow, and he cannot always be
there. Stealing what is clearly so dear to him appeals to her.
Destroying it is almost better. He cannot try to take it back
She has never hated anyone, not even her sister, not even her mother, as much as she hates the lion. She can't even say why she hates the lion. It's not for anything he did. It's for what he is. It's for the fact that she could not stand and face him. His song was like a rapid poison, raising thoughts in her that she could not bear, making her body shake and fail. All she could do was run, and she cannot forgive him for making her weak.
He comes to her one day, while she's trudging through the desert. The sense of his presence is muted enough that she barely notices him at first. He pads along, about four yards to her left.
When she notices him, she stops.
He stops, too. "Daughter," he says.
His voice still makes her want to flee, but she will not give him the satisfaction. "I am not your daughter."
"Would it make you more comfortable if I appeared in a different form? I have not stood as Hakon since the reign of Queen Savastis. I listened to the prayers of my children and answered them as I might, but I did not walk Charn in physical form after your ancestor turned from me."
She sneers at him. "You never walked Charn. You are not that old nor that powerful." He cannot be. She will not allow it.
She can almost feel his breath upon her, but she thinks that the distance is great enough that she can't really sense it.
"I come before all worlds, and I stand after their ends."
Jadis shakes herself. His words weigh heavily on her, and she has no wish to carry them. "What do you want, lion?" She has no doubt that he's powerful. She saw him sing plants into being, and she has no doubt that he sang creatures into being as well. Her own power will not encompass such things.
"Simply to speak to you. Your life has led you far from my paths, and you have ventured into the depths of darkness, but..." The lion simply looks at her for a long moment, and she wants to squirm under that gaze. "There is always a path to the light for those who wish to take it.
She has no idea what he's talking about. She snorts derisively. "I want no path of yours." She tosses her head. "I'll make my own path and take what I need."
"What you truly need cannot be taken. It can only be given with love and mercy."
"Love? Love is a myth, a story the weak tell each other in order to feel better when the strong step upon them. Mercy is likewise false. It is a choice the strong make when the weak can still be of some use."
"No one will force you. Penitence is a choice."
"Penitence? I have made my choices with my eyes open. Disapproval from you is hardly likely to change my mind." For a moment she thinks of the emptiness and silence of Charn after she spoke the Deplorable Word. Then she thinks of the things that gave her pleasure before she took the fruit from the Garden. She shakes herself then draws herself to her full stature. "I have done no wrong."
"You will never know what might have been." The lion shakes his head. "Even your heart would break knowing what might have been."
Jadis laughs. She hears something a little desperate and a lot wild in it. "I have no heart. To have a heart is a weakness." What weakness her mother didn't discipline out of her, Jadis has carefully extinguished herself. "Get you gone, lion. I'll have none of you."
He dips his head once. "As you wish, daughter. Simply remember-- You always have a choice." He turns and walks away.
She draws her dagger, wondering if it would have more impact than the metal bar she threw at him before. He vanishes while she's making up her mind, and she curses him roundly.
There's nothing to do but continue walking. She's not going anywhere, but whatever place she may find to lie down for the night will be better than this one with the paw prints in the sand. As she walks away, she can't help but think of the lion and his words. How dare he? As if she needed anything from him! That is the moment when she knows that she will return to his land. The barrier holding her back cannot last forever. She will take what he holds dear. She will take it and hold it, undoing all he has built.