Actions

Work Header

A Temporary Inability to Go Either Up Or Down

Work Text:

The Queen of Eddis dreamed of her country dying in fire and smoke and ash. She woke in a sweat, a scream caught in her throat like a stone.

It was well after midnight, by the guttering candle at the foot of her bed, and the palace was silent. Her people slept, safe in their warm winter beds.

Eddis could not. A pair of trousers was folded over the back of a chair; they were cold on Eddis’s legs. She put her coat on over her nightdress and stamped into the nearest pair of boots. Her ladies were becoming used to her odd nocturnal habits, so Arathea merely rose from her drowsy place by the fire in the antechamber, inquired if the Queen needed anything, then came forward unasked to pat at her tangled hair.

Eddis walked through the palace, alone but for three trailing guards. She had retreated to the roof often throughout the winter, but tonight she had another option.

She went out into the frozen night by a small garden door. Her steps crunched on the path of compacted snow through the first grove of trees, and were then muffled by powder as she cut at an oblique angle downhill, across an undisturbed field.

There was a place below the palace, a hollow carved in the smooth shoulder of the mountain like a thumbprint on the side of a pudding. Hephaestia’s thumbprint, it was said. Eddis used to think it was silly to fall back on the gods as an explanation for every little mystery of topography or architecture. Or destiny, come to that.

It was a lovely picnic spot in the summer, with benches scattered through a tight-packed olive grove. A stone tower stood close to the mountain, an old ancestral folly. Eddis circled down slope rather than risk one of the precipitous climbs from above, and came up from below.

“Wait here,” she said to her guards as they reached the outskirts of the grove.

“Your Majesty,” Petris protested. “I think I see a light. You may not be alone.”

“I know,” said Eddis, and left them behind.

She picked her way carefully through the trees. The snow was deep here, protected from wind and sun in the mountain’s shadow.

There was a light, and Eddis followed it. She arrived, snowy to the knee, to find her Minister of War seated alone on a stone bench, studying his maps and charts in the glow of a dim lamp.

She kept him in his seat with a quick gesture, and joined him, grateful for the coat between her backside and the freezing stone.

“Where--?” Eddis began.

The Minister of War pointed silently up. Squinting very hard, Eddis could just see a dark lump, black on black in the waning moonlight, halfway up the stone face of the tower.

“Ah,” she said. There was a brief silence. The Minister of War bent his head back over his maps, though they both knew every strategic permutation of the coming spring campaigns by heart. Eddis drew her hands into her sleeves to warm them and stared up at the stars. It was a clear night; the mountain beneath her feet slept, quiescent. For now.

Eddis squinted at the tower again, and eventually relocated the small lump.

“He doesn’t seem to be moving,” she said.

The minister of War looked, briefly. “I think he prays,” he said.

“Does he?” Eddis said interestedly.

“Hmm,” said the Minister of War. And then, uncharacteristically stringing two whole sentences together, he continued. “I do not understand this faith of his. But he’s never needed me to understand a single thing he does.”

“Belief,” said Eddis.

“I’m sorry?”

“Belief,” she repeated, “not faith. Faith is what people have in the absence of evidence.”

“Hmm,” said the Minister of War again, noncommittally.

There was another silence. Eddis enjoyed the company of her Minister of War partly because he was one of the rare people who didn’t feel obliged to constantly entertain her. He had the gift of stillness. It was something his son had never possessed, at least not until the Queen of Attolia cut off his hand. But Eugenides’s new stillness was not restful.

The gift of silence, though, that he would never acquire.

Eddis leaned her elbows on her knees, craning her head back to stare up. There was no movement above. “Is he stuck, do you think?”

*

Eugenides was not stuck; he was simply experiencing a temporary inability to go either up or down. It happened to every climber, at one time or another. It had not happened to Eugenides since he was eleven, and he had nearly forgotten what it was like.

“The trouble is here,” he said to the night, gently wriggling his right arm. It was angled upward over his head, the hook embedded in a crack out of sight in the dark. His left hand had a good, meaty hold, but it was too low near his waist. And his right foot was stuck out a bit too far in order to reach the nearest crevice, so he had very little leverage.

Climbing, at its very best, was a perpetual motion like dancing. Eugenides could clearly remember flowing up walls with thoughtless, balletic ease. But his body had forgotten how. He was out of practice from months of illness and inactivity, and his entire right side was weak.

Eugenides had made Galen draw him a picture of an arm as it ought to be, the two long bones like a bridge between elbow and wrist, the muscles and tendons its supports. A bridge did not function well when it had nothing to connect to on one side.

And then there was the other trouble.

“It starts here,” Eugenides said, and moved his right arm again. The hook scraped quietly on the stone somewhere above him. “I’ve dangled from my fingertips out a tenth story window,” he informed the rock face. “And yet—” he sucked in a breath, pushed up on his toes, and started shifting his weight to the right. He opened his left hand, getting ready. He would have to smear that hand up and to the right for the next hold, pushing off with both feet. And for a few seconds, all his weight would rest on the hook. It should be one transitional moment, as easy as rolling forward onto his toes, balanced, in the middle of every thoughtless step.

Eugenides began to lift his left hand. And then he panicked. He slammed back onto the handhold hard enough to bruise his fingers, and mashed his weight forward so that his cheek scraped the stone. He hugged the tower, breathing in harsh pants.

“That, you see,” he said, voice muffled into the wall, “is the real problem.” He waited, regaining his breath. “Not that I’m speaking to you,” he continued conversationally. “To anyone in particular, that is. I wouldn’t want to be accused of whining.” He turned his head the other way, stared out into darkness. “I’m just talking,” he said. “And if someone’s listening, well, that’s not my fault, is it?”

There was silence.

“The thing is,” Eugenides said, hitching his shoulders into a more comfortable position, “in theory, the hook is stronger than a hand.” The man who had made it had brightly pointed this out to him just a few weeks before. Eugenides had nodded and said that yes, he understood, perhaps he would have his other hand cut off as well.

It was very strong, and it could hold his weight. He had tested it. But it was clumsy; there was no flexion to it, no craft. If the hook ever attempted to steal the earrings out of a lady’s ears, the lady would damn well know about it.

“It’s not coming off,” Eugenides said, giving his arm a demonstrative jerk. When he climbed, he bound the cuff so tightly to his forearm that he could feel his pulse thumping in it. “Well,” he added conscientiously. “I’ve done my part to make sure it doesn’t come off. The rest would be up to – someone who’s definitely not listening to me, because I’m definitely not talking to them.”

He stopped and made a horrible face against the stone. It was the prerogative of a thief to say that cavalierly, with a touch of flippancy, perhaps. It was the right of a thief to fall to his death. Eugenides had recently learned, however, that he violently did not want to die. He would cry, he would beg for the pain to stop, he would say anything. But he wanted to live. It was the right of a thief to fall; was it also his right to scream all the way down?

“So,” Eugenides said firmly to the tower, “it can hold me, we’ve established that.” He tugged at the hook again. It didn’t rattle; it must be nearly embedded in the stone by now.

The problem was, absurdly, that Eugenides could not seem to remember it. He had cut himself once already, swiping thoughtlessly across his face with that arm. Whether he was in pain or not, whether he was paying attention or not, at the end of that arm there was – he believed there was a hand, whole. The hook dangled in its place, a perpetual surprise.

It made no sense. He could not forget that his hand had been cut off. Wine couldn’t do it, lethium couldn’t do it, sleep definitely couldn’t do it. This sense of keening, everlasting unwholeness made sure of that. It lived in his skin and in his mind, a feeling like the exact opposite of integrity.

It must fade, eventually. Eddis was a country of soldiers. Eugenides had met many men without arms, legs, ears, eyes. Most of them had seemed, now that he thought about it, to carry on like normal men, just as if there wasn’t a howl clamped right behind their teeth. Eugenides guessed it would get better, but there was no conviction in it.

For now, he couldn’t forget that his hand had been cut off, and he couldn’t remember that it was gone.

He needed to trust the hook, and to trust it he needed to remember that it was there for more than a second at a time. He needed to really remember, deep down in the place that recoiled, hurt, every time he looked into a mirror.

And to do that, he needed to – well, almost anything would do at this point. Something useful, certainly. Eugenides had considered several options and had settled on stealing Sounis’s Magus and blowing up his navy as a nice compromise between extravagance and achievability.

“And to do that,” he said, “I need to learn to climb again.”

The night was silent. The tower was silent. The gods were silent.

Eugenides sighed. Loudly.

“You know,” he said, as if at random, “I used to say I could steal anything.” He tilted his head, as if chasing an idea. “I could steal . . .” he repeated slowly.

He turned face on to the stone. It was freezing against his nose, and then his chin as he pushed closer. It could not answer him – it could not hear him.

He had climbed this tower for the first time when he was nine years old, and had done it so often since that he felt that more than simply knowing it, he understood it. That was gone now – his new asymmetrical body had lost the knack of it. The tower would not be breached.

“I can steal –” Eugenides said. Then he shook his head and laughed, tired and hoarse. “You know, this gods damned tower reminds me of . . . someone,” he said. “All right.” And he slung his weight up.

*

“There he goes,” Eddis said.

The Minister of War glanced up. They couldn’t see much, just a general sense of upward motion. It looked very sudden to Eddis, almost frantic.

They saw him reach the top and stand. He stretched; the asymmetry of his arms was clear in silhouette. Then he paced down the length to the far end of the tower and lowered himself back over the edge.

“At least it’s not Attolia,” Eddis said. The Minister of War looked a question. “He’s going to Sounis,” Eddis said. “He’s thinking about the Magus. I’m just glad he isn’t fixated on . . . her.”

“Mmm,” the Minister of War agreed. He looked down at his maps and back up at his Queen. “We may be stuck,” he said neutrally. It was the first time anyone had voiced the thought to her face.

Eddis watched Eugenides come down the tower. He was moving steadily, scuttling sideways for a hold here, stretching far down for the next ledge there.

Attolia and Sounis wanted to eat them alive. And somewhere in the future, the mountain waited. It would destroy Eddis. Which meant there would still be an Eddis to destroy. Well. It meant there was a chance there would still be an Eddis.

Eddis had prayed for guidance, and then she had asked nicely, and then she had demanded, and then she had begged. Surely a god who would forewarn her could also help? But no, nothing.

Eugenides dropped the last six feet and landed with a solid thump. He strolled into the lamplight, smiling in a very untrustworthy fashion. Eddis knew he was getting better, because these days she frequently caught herself thinking, oh gods, what is he going to decide to do next?

“No,” Eddis said, standing. “We aren’t stuck. Not yet."