I knew they were waiting for me in the garden. I could feel them clearly, so closely as though they were right on top of me. That alone is proof enough if I needed it that I was one of them alright.
But still I shake my head and it’s just not ...
Chay! Come and get your morning meal!
Her voice is bright but I can bloody well feel the strain and the forced cheer, feel it crawling down my back as though there was a real thing crawling down my back. I have to turn and look, I know there’s nothing there and still I have to turn and look and even scratch my back, arm angled and straining to reach the higher spots.
I don’t want to be here.
I don’t want to be in this.
I can’t ....
Catena, stop snivelling and get down here, damn you! Tremain’s voice is hard and loud in my head, gets me to shoot upright to attention, but here too is an underlying note of amusement and he’s pretending no better to be forceful there than she was pretending to be cheerful.
I seriously consider to tell them both to get lost and find themselves another idiot. In considering that, I’ve sent it already and receive Tremain laughing at me in return, and Isca being apologetic.
We have waited for you to awake, darling, she tells me and now she is serious and there are no other motives, no falseness and no pretense and it makes me feel a bit better, don’t know why.
I wonder if I can do that trick now they can do where they just appear and disappear but I don’t know how and so at least that hasn’t changed. They still perform miracles and I have to walk into the garden, run more like it to please the Lord and Lady.
Ah well. So what else is new.
I’m dressed already, good, so there’s nothing to be done but to obey my orders. I find myself taking two steps at a time, running down the stairs and slow myself down to a steady walk. I even stop in the kitchen to say a few words to Guenta and Shern, pick up Vona and give her a swing. She’s looking much more cheerful than she has for a long time. I know why, too. I can virtually see the strings between her and the others, tying her to her brothers and sisters or whatever they are, and they get something out of that that makes each one more than they are by themselves. Well. I’m glad they’re happy again and no longer grey.
The day is bright and surprisingly warm for this time of year.
I can see them, tiny, way off ahead on those broken step things. I shake my head as I remember the last time I was there, what a state I’d been in, what a state he’d been in, well and of course her. I guess this is a turn for the better, no matter how weird, no matter how –
I start walking towards them and feel them watching me. They’re a unit and yet they’re not. I can clearly tell which one is which and their various thoughts about me, feelings about me, feelings about my progress, what I look like, my state of mind – oh stop it! Stop it and give me some privacy here! Damn, I know now what Carran of Solland felt like when we did that to him.
I receive two very different sets of apologies in return and there is silence on that level then, leaving the garden, the sunny morning and me inside myself and that was much, much better.
He’s sitting on a step, not in his usual get up but more like what I’m wearing, half open shirt, I can’t get used to seeing him like that. She’s wearing green this morning, long stretched out sideways with her head in his lap and he’s looking down at her, playing with her hair. I have to stop because a rush of pure jealousy runs through me with such force it takes my breath away. He looks up and across to me, very level and very calm, serious, he’s felt that no matter what the shielding or the promises of privacy.
Join me, he sends dryly.
I breathe through the very uncomfortable hot feeling in my chest and in my throat and walk over, stand there, wondering what I should do. She is lying quietly with her eyes closed, face turned toward him, and he’s still stroking her hair.
I sit down on the step below the one on which she’s stretched out, on a level with her hip, and fold my hands because I don’t know what to do with them. The ring catches the sun and sparks into my eyes and just looking at it is calming again, soothing. It does something for me, every time I think to make contact with it in that way. I move my clasped hands this way and that to make the light spark off it some more, sometimes white, sometimes pure gold, sometimes it looks as though there’s a fire inside.
I feel her touch on my shoulder, a light cool stroking that startles me and her presence unveiling stronger again behind me.
I’m glad you’re here, she tells me and there’s a weird sadness in there, why is she sad that I’m here? Because I’m breaking her up and him, that thing that I cannot be between, that is beyond me in all ways ...
Shh, Chay, what is it with you this morning, she says, you’re sleepy still, and we’re all confused, don’t worry for now, here, have something to eat. You’ll feel better, more centred.
As though all the eating in the world would ever change what they have. What they have and I don’t have and never will. No matter what they say, no matter what they think so carefully not about when I’m around.
“Catena,” Tremain says out loud and startles me again, “Do stop feeling sorry for yourself. So you’re a worm. Live with it.”
She sits up quite swiftly and says, “Well you know you two it would be a start if you could address each other by your names in a more friendly fashion. How about that? Lucian, meet Chay. Chay, meet Lucian. Now stop squabbling and be friends.”
Inadvertently, we end up looking at each other and the thought of calling him Lucian makes my stomach turn. He too is seriously shying away from the notion of addressing me by my first name. He thinks it is common and stupid.
Well, oh great lord, I think your name is stuck up and has the worst of reputations! So there!
Isca laughs and claps her hands. “Boys, boys,” she says and makes it sound so patronising, you wouldn’t believe. “Now, now. You can’t help your names, they are what they are. Look on the bright side. At least your namers didn’t burden you with something as ridiculous as Sondra!”
I look at her, I'm angry but I don’t say anything. Well where were you when the child needed to be named? Where were either of you? Neither of you give a toss for the kid, so you got no right to complain!
Tremain says smoothly, “I do believe there was no criticism intended. Some wine?” I note he leaves out my name deliberately and I don’t like his tone, I don’t like his attitude and I don’t like hers. Damn them both. Damn them.
Clearly and precisely, right in front of the step thing there is a tearing and a movement, and a huge waterfall materialises out of nowhere, frothy bright green and white, cascading down from way above and out of nowhere, and I jump up and out of the way as fast as I can until I stop and get it that it isn’t real, that it’s a construct Isca has made for whatever weird reasons. It looks real, it sounds real, but there’s no actual water and where it touches the ground it just seems to disappear. I put my head back to look at the start of it but can’t see it, it seems to come right out of the clouds.
Ah but damn it.
I shake my head and sit down again, take the glass Tremain is offering me in a gesture of defeat, drink the wine and look at the fucking waterfall, my skin goosebumping because all of me expects to feel the cold spray and get soaked, it’s that good.
After a moment and when my glass is half empty, the thing recedes and gets smaller, smaller, until there’s just a small fountain type affair about half a man’s height just beyond the end of the tip of my boots.
I look to her and she’s sitting on the step, legs to one side, hands folded in her lap, looking at the fountain and sighing quite happily.
I wish I could make something like that happen. I’d – I’d, yeah, I’d make fish rain on them, a huge pile of them, big fucking flapping fish to cover them both.
Tremain laughs and says, “That the best you can come up with, Catena?” and Isca nudges him hard with her mind and says sharply, “Leave him be, Lucian. It’s not fair. He’s new to all of this.”
I drink the rest of my wine and turn to her and clearly, send her, I don’t need you to patronise me or to make apologies on my behalf, and you Tremain, you can piss off and pull yourself out of fires in the future.
He gets up and stands right in the fountain, taking no notice of it at all. Looks down on me and says, You and me, Catena. It’s long overdue. Just you and me and no quarter given, no apologies, no women in the way, just you and me on a level playing field.
I get up too and drop the glass from outstretched fingertips, letting it shatter with a nice sharp sound on the marble and stare back at him.
You know I’ve always wanted that, right from the start. I’m gonna kick your arse, Tremain. I’m gonna finally wipe that fucking arrogance from your face, once and for all. You’re on.
Somewhere on the outskirts there I can feel her trying to get in between the two of us but Tremain just puts a bubble around us both and we’re gone.
We appear on what seems to be a pretty endless field of some kind, weird colour, what is this, some sort of purply grey or something?
I look down at my feet and I’m standing on – what is that? Moss? Fur?
First visit here, Catena?
I look up and am surprised. Tremain is standing just a man’s length from me and I recognise him but it isn’t him. He looks much younger, a different man altogether. His hair is long and wavy, his eyes are – nearly human, a greeny grey kind of colour. He’s big, damn big and muscular and he looks even more arrogant here than ever he did in his normal body. He’s wearing a real old fashioned uniform, in the days when they wore short skirts rather than trousers but it sure doesn’t make him look funny.
He is a formidable enemy and I am not at all sure that I can take him.
Even playing field, Catena, he says, hard cold stare, this is not a joke to him and I can’t help it, I am beginning to regret this thing, I am getting afraid for my hide here. He has kicked my ass good and true every time so far and he was an old man then, and never took me seriously. I can’t see this one here giving me the benefit of any doubt.
It’s time you learned your lesson, the younger, harder and far more deadly version of Tremain says to me and from nowhere, two swords arrive. They are old fashioned too, very broad and long, double edged. He catches them both and throws me one. I just about manage to catch it but the weight is such that it just takes my arm down as it goes. Shit. I can’t fight with something as heavy as that.
“I’ve always said,” Tremain says who’s flexing the sword from the wrist as though it was completely weightless, “that the old training methods were the best. Lead core. Builds strength. One gets to fight with a normal sword in battle and they’re light as sunbeams.” He moves in on me smoothly and I have to use both hands to bring the damn thing up in time to block his strike which is enough to knock me backwards and off my feet, and he isn’t even trying.
“Get up, you loser,” he says and I struggle to my feet, arms straining to keep that damned sword level. It must weigh a hundred pounds or more. He dances and slices at me, practice blows these are, nice and slow and still it is all I can manage to get the sword in front of my body in time and my shoulders are already beginning to hurt and so are my arms.
He speeds up just fractionally and prods me with the tip of his sword, here and there, making tiny nicks in my side, my arms, my neck, one on my cheek. There’s nothing I can do to stop him, I’m far too slow and just not strong enough and I’m sweating and breathing hard.
When my arms are shaking under the effort, I have enough. I throw the sword down and say, "Fuck this Tremain, I don’t know what you call a level playing field but I can’t win this. I can’t even compete."
He seems to glide towards me and I have the tip of his sword pressing into my throat. He looks down at me in such coldness that I break out into more sweat but I hold his eyes nonetheless. What are you trying to prove you evil fuck. That you’re bigger than me? Stronger? Faster? Your prick is bigger? What?
“Yes, Catena,” he says and his voice is tighter, marginally higher and a fuck lot harder than I remember it from before. “All of that. And the rest. I’m smarter than you. Higher born, better educated. In all ways. I know who my father was. If I was half your size, I could still take you down because you have no focus, no intent and most of all, no self control worth speaking of.”
I put my head back but he follows through with the sword so the painful bite into my throat gets worse. His hand is completely steady in spite of the weight of the damned thing, all the movement that is causing the small tear to widen and smart is entirely mine. I have to blink my eyes and he does not, completely motionless he is staring me down and a part of me wants to throw myself forward and take my throat out on his damned sword and have done with it, and another part of me wants to start to cry.
“What do you want from me, Tremain?” I whisper and have to swallow and that causes the cut to open more. Automatically I try to move backwards and he follows smoothly and then increases the pressure for good measure so the sword is now really embedding in my throat. It hurts.
“What do you think I want from you?” he asks and switches the sword into the other hand, a movement so fluent and exact that I cannot feel the slightest change in the steel in my throat.
I want to shake my head but of course, I can’t. I daren’t speak either, so I think at him instead, I don’t know what you want. Want me to go on my knees, pray to you, call you my lord, what? I tell you, Tremain, I am sick of this. I’m sick of it. Put a bit more pressure on, why don’t you, and we can call it a day.
With a rapid movement, he withdraws the sword and lets it fall to the ground behind him where it lands without making any sound at all. I stumble forward and put my hands to my bleeding throat and totally don’t expect him to do what he does. He hits me, hard, flat open hand, as though he was hitting a child or a servant or a woman, hits me with such force that I rotate down and nearly fall.
Man, that smarts. Half my face feels as though its been dipped in boiling oil and I can’t believe he would hit me like that.
“That, Catena, is called a slap,” he says and hits me again, same hand, same side of the face and this time I spin around and out of the blow and turn to him and shout at him, “What the fuck are you doing, stop that or fight like ...”
He hits me again, so damned fast I hardly even saw it coming and no chance to duck or block it and it drives tears to my eyes.
“Just don’t keep telling me to fight like a man. I fight a man like a man. You’re just a snivelling nobody,” he says quite seriously and hits me again, this time with the other hand and the defense I had planned comes to nothing and it so unbalances me that I actually fall to the soft strange ground this time.
I’m on my knees, my face is red hot and hurts like shit, my throat is bleeding and here he comes again. He grabs my shirt and lifts me as though I weighed absolutely nothing. I find myself wrapping my hands around his wrists, and I might as well be trying to wrestle with a tree.
“You’re a mess, Catena,” he says, directly into my face. “Why don’t you just give it up and start crying like a girl, you know you want to. You’re nothing. And you’re not nothing because your mother was a whore who fucked the entire regiment. Hell, I guess she had some kind of perseverance there. You are nothing because you are nothing.”
His words are ringing in my ears, worse than that, crashing around in my head from side to side, and I’m gonna start crying, I can feel it coming and I can’t stop it and then from nowhere, I start yelling at him with everything I’ve got, “I’m not nothing, you damned fuck, I don’t care what you say, what you think, I don’t give a shit about any of it, I am me and it ain't much but I am NOT NOTHING!”
Tremain takes a deep breath and raises his chin, still keeping his eyes entirely locked on mine, pulls me a little closer still and into my head as sharp and clear as a razor, he says, Then begin acting accordingly.
He lets go of me and I crumble to the ground, too ashamed, too freaked out, too hurting everywhere at once to do anything else but put my hands over my head and keep my burning face buried in the soft purply stuff that smells vaguely of dust and flowers. When I finally look up, there’s no-one there, nothing there, and I’m completely alone in this weirdness, under a grey sky and nothing anywhere, no matter where you look.
They both disappeared and I was left by myself in the garden, shocked and feeling really left out and, alright, jealous. I really hadn’t expected this this morning. I looked at the fountain and made it disappear, a nice little thing, a little Serein manifestation right straight in the hard, and then looked at the sparkling shards of green glass from Chay’s chalice he had smashed on the step in temper.
The glass shards began to lift and swirl, gently moving backward in time as far as their own path and structure was concerned but never losing the mesh of here and forward, so the glass re-assembled itself nicely, all its little tiny pieces and the larger ones moving back together, the stem re-attaching to the foot that had broken last and now was the first to become whole once more. The glass, when completed, lifted up and rose to the height where Chay had been holding it and I stopped it there and floated it back to me, catching it carefully in both hands. Nice and clean. There would never truly be any need for another set of glasses from Sikoria, not as long as I remained around and could be bothered enough to run this little trick, now and then.
I put the glass back on the round tray and sat and waited for the boys to return. Boys, indeed, squabbling little boys, neither of them any better than the other. I wished sincerely Lucian had a bit more patience and gave Chay just a little bit more leeway, and that Chay wasn’t so desperately jealous of Lucian in just about every way you can be jealous of another man.
I would have hoped we had resolved this now but as usual, I had been proven very wrong.
I sat and waited and got bored, and then I started to worry and began to look for them. All I could find was Lucian’s bubble which was quite impenetrable, but it seemed that he had taken Chay into Serein, or if not exactly Serein, then that kind of mindspace where you can play to your heart’s content and wear yourself out without any physical damage occurring. It made me feel a little easier.
Then Lucian came back. He was calm and tightly shielded and looked different, more like his older self than he had for a while. He sat down and checked the wine bottle. There wasn’t a lot left but he poured what there was into the freshly restored glass and drank it all up in a single gulp.
“Well?” I prompted him. “Where is he? What did you do to him?”
He looked at me briefly, then said, “You will have to ask him that. When – or if – he comes back.”
I searched then for Chay on all levels and found him, in Serein, stepped off to the normal space scape or layer so that he was pretty much all by himself in the universe and entirely unreachable by the general inhabitants of those domains.
Lucian interceded and gently surrounded me, brought me back. I say gently and it was gentle, but it was also absolutely uncompromising. I was not to interfere.
“How do you expect him to find his way back here?” I asked him, a little exasperated and quite a bit at a loss at being so left out of their game.
Lucian shrugged his shoulders. His face wore that expression that told me that there was nothing in heaven or earth that could move him on this issue and he answered me in that same gentle yet uncompromising way, “He has the resources. Let him find them.”
Still. I didn’t see why you have to be so hard on him. He’s only ...
Only what? A spoiled little fool? An idiot who gets by on his grin and sheer good luck? It is the highest time that he got his act together. This is what happens when ...
I grimaced and shook my head. Truly, Lucian. Truly. I cannot believe that you still, still after all we’ve been through, turn into your own father the moment you get half a chance. Strength through courage, what. You’re just as jealous of him as he is of you. You can’t stand the fact that people love him and he’s doing nothing to deserve it at all, just being him is quite enough. Even for you.
He regarded me steadily for a while, then his reserve softened and he sighed.
I would disagree with you, but in truth, you are probably right. Strength through courage.
We linked into a memory of Lucian’s, a very old one, yet with a reminiscent vibration as though it only just happened, one of his first riding lessons, falling from the horse that was far too big for him and far too untrained, being picked up and slapped by his father, shouted at and being made to re-mount it, again, again and again, until darkness fell and Lord Tremain finally called a halt to proceedings.
Lucian sighed again. There was a conflict, deeply resonant, a conflict of bitter pride at overcoming and learning clearly and deeply, of being unassailable by pain and challenge, of finding things so easy that defied many other men, any other man. And yet there was also the thought of the possibility that it could have been achieved differently, and the question as to whether it was truly necessary to have to find that kind of courage to establish your strength.
Gently, I say to him, “Has Chay not already proven himself? Has he not stood by us both – not just me, but you, too? What I put him through in your prison, dear creator, I don’t know if you would have had a quarter of his strength under those circumstances. He never failed or faltered. He never once tried to run from us, in spite of everything. He never had a father at all, no-one to teach him of honour or strength or courage, and yet he knows, and lives these things best he can. He has his faults, many of them, but then, who are we of all people to judge him harshly for them?”
He shook his head and said, “We are not people. You know we’re not. I don’t know what we’re doing, playing these games. They are immaterial, distractions, old worn out suits of armour clanking along, tied to our ankles. I don’t know what came over me. I think it must have been the fish.”
I laughed a little at that and reached over, touched his leg, stroked it through the smooth fabric of his trousers. In return, he smiled and sent, Do you want to go and fetch him?
I look at at him and say, “I think you should. Make it different.”
He knows full well what I mean and struggles with the concept, with the idea.
I wouldn’t know what to say to him.
I am sure something will come to you. You could even apologise.
He steps away from me and raises an eyebrow. “Only so far,” he says dryly. “One step at a time. The fish was unforgivable.”
I smile at him and blow him a kiss, then he disappears.