The wind is wild and free, nameless and formless. It dances with sea and sand and breathes hungry life into flames; they are form, and it is frenzy. The wind is savage joy and gentle whim.
Into their vibrant chaos stumble fragile things seeking to shape the world. When the creatures erect shelters, the wind delights in tearing them apart, leaving only a few for the earth to swallow whole. The restless sea rides the wind over the shore to sweep away their structured fields. Fire rises from below to taste them and their works, and twines with the wind in ecstatic gluttony.
The creatures rise and fall and scatter, again and again and again. The world is good and familiar.
Above is an endless void that holds no interest for the wind. Here below, it has trees to rip from the earth, leaves to rustle, storms to whip over the coasts, hairs to sigh gently between. But one night a second moon intrudes above the horizon, tugging strangely at the tides. The wind chops its reflection on the waters to glittering pieces.
Strange and unwelcome, but ever out of reach, it shines its sickness in a mockery of flame. The wind continues dancing beneath and forgets that it was ever strange; the wind is unburdened by memory.
When a shining beast trespasses from the moon to the sky, the wind batters its sleek hide but cannot turn it away. Storms break against it like waves against the shore. The wind follows it furiously down until it halts, not quite upon the ground, and vomits forth tiny creatures. They are not unlike the wind's fragile, stubborn toys, but neither are they welcome; the wind circles the invaders slowly, fluttering through their garments, until momentum spirals it into a cyclone.
The earth yawns. The rivers rise. The deep fires flow from the planet's heart. What upsets their eternal balance will not be tolerated.
Their convergence shatters under a flash of light.
Everything is wrong. Everything is one place, one shape, wet and solid and dark, as if all the wind has been violently inhaled into a single lung. Gravity swallows; the world is upside-down, and the wind is buried, drowned, snuffed out.
The wind thrashes and drags after itself. Its edges tremble as if—
The wind is outside the wind. The wind is not the wind. Its howl is a true howl, born of someplace wet and dark, shaped by jaws instead of canyons and branches.
Inside—it has an inside and an outside now. Inside it is made of hard and soft pieces strung together under a canopy tighter than the sky. Inside it roils with thunder and bursts like rainclouds, pouring out the wetness that weighs it down.
It breathes. It breathes itself. It breathes what once was self and now is other. Time swallows.
Blinding light (it has eyes to blind). Cold grip (it has heft to chill and bind). Pounding inside (time chops it into regular pieces).
is the wind was the wind isn't doesn't fit
Something snaps around a narrow, important piece, and the wind is everything the wind should not be: solid, still, suppressed. A strange barrier cuts the light.
Sound swallows. Meaning is bound so thickly to noise that neither can escape.
"Can she hear us?"
"Yes. She understands, and she will answer if we command it."
"She" swallows. These pieces are hers, and others are not; she is defined, paralyzed, flooded with sensations. Alien instincts urge her but cannot break her stillness.
The pieces that are not hers have their own names, trickling inexorably in: cold, pain, fear. Metal is the shining beast around her and the chill weight digging into her throat. She has a throat, hands, legs, a mouth, all the pieces that should belong only to her fragile playthings. Language fills her head to bursting. Her alien parts ache to rend themselves.
"And the others?"
"Already broken. We could cleanse this planet of its vermin before we complete another orbit around it."
"We have decided otherwise. We will wait."
She hates that their words drip through her unwanted ears into her unwanted brain and puddle into meaning. Beneath the prison of her skin, she itches to rip the flesh from their bones.
The barrier falls aside and tugs at her throbbing head; it is a heavy thing hooked to her scalp. Searing bright light makes her aware of her eyelids as they struggle to close, but she can only stare, unfocused, as water wells up in her vision.
A muddled silhouette cuts a hole in the light. "Barbariccia. So named, so tamed."
The name swallows deepest of all. The wind is memory, desire, grief, a thousand new shackles raining down from the dark of her inchoate mind. She is not as she was. She will never again be as she was. "Never" is lightning striking ceaselessly at the base of her skull.
"They elders say that they are to be gifts, complementing the crystals. Surely we will not sleep long."
"No, we will surely not."
In darkness and silence and stillness, she waits. She cannot do otherwise.
She can feel the distant pulse of what should be her—a vast piece fixed in shape and space, but detached from Barbariccia. The name has burrowed deep and thrown up walls; she knows what is Barbariccia and what is not, as surely as she knows that the air around her is as bereft of her as she is of it.
She knows but does not understand.
When the invaders and their light return, the metal around her throat hooks deep into her flesh and drags her body toward them. Her struggles afford her no control and blast her bones with electric agony. She struggles regardless, until pain scrapes her mind raw and reduces her vision to a throbbing red darkness.
Her body stumbles forward, dragging her inside it. She feels time slicing her into pieces but cannot measure it. When the light shifts, the wind that she should be flows around her, and she howls until the metal cuts into her neck.
"Speak only when you are spoken to," says one of her captors, and the words stopper her throat. The pieces of Barbariccia that are hands end in long, curved claws; she imagines how it would feel to sink them into his face and watch his blood soak through his silver beard.
The talons on her feet furrow the earth, and the earth does not answer; her strange new insides twist at the thought that the earth might be as she is now, its essence ripped out and bound in flesh. The sea is near—she tastes its salt on her breath—but it does not reach out. If fire were still truly fire, she would feel it stirring deep underground, preparing to melt those who have ruined the world.
If the world were right, she could tear the hearts out of these creatures and bind them in eternal storms.
When her body halts, she is surrounded by the delicate things she used to blast effortlessly from the face of the world, as well as the even more fragile things that seek shelter inside them. Words flood in and boil away in her rage; she fights every frozen muscle and finds no freedom beyond a pain so great that it muddles her sense of shape.
Green light washes over her. She cannot turn her head or even flit her eyes to follow it, but she feels it pulse deeper than her heart. This is the greatest piece of what should be her; this is the grace and frenzy that would shatter the husk of Barbariccia if they reunited. It too is trapped in a shell; it too longs to dash its boundaries against hers until they are one again. Break me, her frozen throat will not permit her to say, and I will break you in return.
Her pain refuses to tear her apart.
One of the men (she knows even when she does not wish to) steps forward and attaches a chain to the metal at her throat, and fear forces clarity upon her.
For a long time, nothing changes.
The world around her changes—men age and die and pass her on like an heirloom, the armies she is pitted against bear new arms and flags, a pit in the ground becomes a cage becomes an oubliette—but she remains enslaved, unwhole. She is locked away, or she is the puppet of a man with a crown; she has nothing else to be.
She learns, or perhaps she becomes aware of knowledge poured inside her at her making. She learns the rules that bind her and the loopholes that never remain open for long. She learns society and hierarchy and that she wants no part of either. She learns to hate the darkness and silence of her cell almost as much as she hates the company of her captors. She learns that her hatred is a cyclone that can never touch down.
When she obeys without at least trying to struggle, because she is sick of the agony that dilates time, she learns to hate herself.
The last king had an insatiable appetite for her; this one has no stomach for it. Time settles over her in a dead calm as she waits, statue-still, in her oubliette, knowing that she will not stir until the kingdom is invaded or a new king prepares to take the crown. Misery is always with her, in memory and anticipation and every muscle that she cannot even twitch.
Blood gusts inside at her ears at the sound of footsteps. Each ascension ceremony is a fresh wound, even when she is not made to bleed. It is worse, sometimes, when she is not the only one unwilling.
But this is the same king scowling down at her through the barred hatch, older and fatter but still unable to look at her without contempt. He has brought no guards; he needs none. Her eyes ache in the torchlight.
He unhooks her chain from the hatch. A flick of his wrist, and she rises on the stale air of the dungeon. "Let yourself up," the king tells her; the lock has never been to confine her, but to keep curious humans out. Out of spite, she destroys the mechanism with a swipe of her claws and laughs brokenly as pain courses through her in response.
The collar constricts to silence her. "I'll hear nothing further from you," says the king, flexing his fingers to drag her up on the stone floor. His eyes avoid her, and Barbariccia wonders how it would feel to pluck them from his head or tear his sharp tongue from his mouth. His face would look better in tatters. "I require a diplomatic display. Move only as you're told."
Her legs carry her up from the dungeon into a chamber where nervous women fasten scarves and metal along her limbs. They are so small, these creatures; even the king's head is no higher than her chest. The hand of the woman who loops gold chains around her hips would not fill her mouth if she snapped it off at the wrist.
The king watches, face impassive, as the women drag combs through her hair. "Remain here until you are summoned. Be silent." He unhooks the chain from her collar and loops the metal around his hand. Even this is unnecessary; his power flows from blood, and blood alone. Barbariccia eyes the veins in his throat and imagines his life spraying out over the walls.
He leaves. The women leave. This room is her cell now, as every other room has been. The night breeze flows in through the only window and brushes against her like a hungry cat. Hairs prickle along her flesh; this is the closest she can come to a response.
A sharp pain bites at the hollow of her throat, dragging her the short distance to a curtained arch. A deep ache rolls down her arms, forcing them to gather the air and blow the curtains apart. Her legs draw her through the space created into a grand hall crowded with long tables, lit red by clusters of torches. She cannot reach out to the fire; it could not answer if she did.
The air stinks of meat, both cooked and living. Beyond a field of human faces, the king sits at the largest table, flanked by a younger man and a human encased in black metal. Barbariccia's mind tenses along with her body, alert for opportunities.
"Dance," the king commands.
Her movements are a mockery. No matter how swiftly she turns, no matter how furiously her hair whips after her, the wind remains outside and beyond her, inert. Her chains clatter. If the world were right, she would splinter their tables, flay them to the bone, raise a tempest of their blood. Let the king see if his blood still commands her when it congeals with a thousand commoners'.
When she nears the king, a twist in her spine reduces her to sluggish writhing.
"Remarkable," says the man behind the black metal. The firelight licks a ruddy glow over his armor; the true fire would consume him. "Did I not see the fiend before me now, I would never have believed such a thing could be tamed."
"Such is the glory of Fabul." The king crooks his finger, and the collar hooks into the hollow of Barbariccia's throat, forcing her to kneel at his feet. She makes no effort to smooth the hatred from her face. "We are masters of the wind and conquerors of its demon. Your Baron may dream of flight, but only Fabul shall achieve it."
The stranger's cold metal hand cups her chin. If the world were right, she could impale him with the shattered remains of his own armor. "I have no doubt of it. Is your demon only for display?"
She could drag him high into air too thin to fill his lungs. She could rip the breath and space from him and let his shriveled husk shatter on the rocks.
"For all but the royal line of Fabul." The king flexes his hand and forces Barbariccia into a bow so low that she tastes the filth of the floor.
This king has used her so only once. Others have imprisoned her in their own chambers and exercised their command of her each night; more have come in secret to her cage. Still more have recoiled from her inhumanity and left her locked away in the dark after the ascension ceremony, preferring her only as a weapon of war.
From the corner of her eye she sees what must be the king's son staring at her. His face is young, open, stupid; his eyes reflect majesty without malice. He sees more, and wrong.
Barbariccia catches his gaze and holds it like a leaf in an updraft, curving her lips.
In her oubliette, bare again of ornaments, she waits. Perhaps the prince will wait only an evening, or perhaps he will come to her years later, as a new king expected to assert his dominance. Down here, time is only the droning of her heart, and she has no patience for counting beats.
When footsteps scrape the stones above her, she stares intently up through the bars until the prince's young, stupid face appears between them. If he is any older, he is not much wiser.
"You're real," he breathes. "I don't understand why Father hides you." The torchlight shifts over his face as he kneels. "Can you speak?"
His blood resonates weakly, but the question is enough to open Barbariccia's throat. After a generation's silence, she struggles not to howl. "Only to one worthy of my voice. I have waited long for you."
A half-truth eases her speech. She still hates the mutations her thoughts endure between her mind and her mouth, hates the gap between whim and action. The wind was only ever the wind.
"For me?" His silken robe dips between the bars of the hatch. "What are—do you have a name?"
Humanity abhors the nameless. "Barbariccia."
His hand reaches down between the bars, and the gesture is release enough to let her rise. Dank air eddies at her feet and animates her hair. When she extends her hand, his breath hitches, but he does not flinch from her. She must be cautious; if she frightens him, he will still her.
"I see your shining heart, my prince." She traces his cheek with the pads of her fingers, muscles burning with the urge to flex her claws. "You are destined for greatness."
"I've always felt—Father has never understood." His tongue flicks over his lips. "Can you see my future?"
He is like one of the rotten old trees the wind used to pass over because there was no sport in ripping them from the ground, but Barbariccia must not be careless. She smiles with her lips together to hide her teeth. "I see your future and all of Fabul's. You bear this kingdom's fate upon your shoulders." Her hand brushes lower against his throat, where his soft skin would tear like a cobweb. "Fabul shrinks and will soon collapse."
Long ago, king after king used her for military conquest. Now they dread leading her into battle; even the most subtly ill-formed command allows her to slaughter Fabul's troops along with their foes, and modern monarchs have less stomach for sacrifice. Barbariccia has become a final resort, a pyrrhic victory when the enemy is already past the gates.
The prince understands none of this. His wide eyes gleam as she continues, "Your father drags Fabul with him into obscurity and ruin. But under your reign, Fabul will flourish from sea to sea, and beyond." Her voice is low; his ear tilts nearer to hear it. "Your destiny shines around you. If Fabul survives your father's reign, you will make an empire of her."
For a long moment he is silent, pulse quickening under her fingers. "Fabul and I must wait. My lord father is hale."
Another year, another decade, another generation—it should mean nothing to her, but patience has always been a cruelty inflicted on her, never something she has chosen for herself. She has no desire to understand why mortal creatures waste their brief lives on it.
"Your father will let Fabul crumble before his beard is gray." She slips her other arm through the bars and touches his chest lightly, a zephyr-tease. For this moment, at least, she does not hate that she has learned. "Your destiny waits to be claimed; if you wait, as well, you will never meet it."
His smooth brow creases. After a maddening pause, he asks, "Will you aid me?"
Her arms sink back between the bars, and Barbariccia exhales a long sigh that tousles the prince's hair. "I cannot. Your father bade me remain here until he summons me."
Muscles tense in his jaw. "As long as my father is king, you are his slave."
"As long as he lives."
He is silent again as his gaze slides down the long chain connecting her to the bars, then settles again on her face. When he speaks, his voice has hardened. "It isn't right for Father to imprison you like a beast."
Lightning crackles under Barbariccia's skin. "My captivity is what has brought this curse upon the royal line of Fabul. You must be the one to break it."
Silence. In the corner of her vision, she watches her hair undulate, red-gold in the torchlight. The prince's eyes are on her chain.
"I would be emperor," he says slowly. His eyes flit back to hers. "And I would have you as my empress."
"You honor me, my prince." The words coat Barbariccia's tongue; she nearly gags. "My heart yearns for the day of your ascension."
Her heart is a mindless throbbing knot of flesh, but she has learned what humans prefer to hear.
When he is gone, she sinks, stills, waits. She is always waiting. Anticipation stretches her past the point where she should snap.
Hours or weeks or years later, footsteps approach. Her thoughts whirl around the mistakes she might have made—perhaps she pushed too hard or not hard enough, because human desires require excruciating finesse—but the face that appears above the hatch is young, wild-eyed, spattered with wet darkness.
His blood resonates with undiluted ownership. She has nearly won.
"I've done," he babbles, "what I've, I don't know what now." The light flickers crazily as he fumbles the torch. "Please. Aid me?"
All her self-restraint scarcely keeps her from slamming the barred hatch upward into his face. She settles for shattering the lock as she rises and alights before him on the floor. He is so small; she kneels to give him the illusion of height.
His sticky hands grip her shoulders. "It was just," he whispers, though there is no one else around to keep his secrets from. "Tell me it was just."
"You did what was necessary," she replies, scarcely keeping her impatience out of her tone.
He shakes his head, and all of him shakes with it. "I was so angry. Everything he's—he let Mother die. I remember. I was not too young to understand." For a moment, his breaths begin to steady, but in a matter of heartbeats he collapses into noisy sobs.
Barbariccia has no time for this. She is too close. "You have nearly ended the curse upon your kingdom. You are the hero of Fabul."
"Am I? My lord father's blood is on my hands. He wouldn't listen."
Humans never live in the immediate moment; they carry the past inside like a parasite. What small piece of the prince isn't being eaten away by it is fixated pointlessly on the future. Barbariccia tries to nudge him back into focus: "Why did you come here, if not to begin your empire with me as your empress?"
The prince stiffens and pushes away from her.
"You made a murderer of me." His shaking has stopped; he is steadier now that he has found a target for his guilt. If he hadn't sobbed his throat raw, he might be shouting. "You've used me. You monster. I'll have nothing to do with you."
Her collar cracks.
Faster than her own thoughts, she swipes her claws through his neck—through blood that is no more than fluid now, through bone that cracks like glass. His head hits the floor and rolls over the uneven stones. His body slumps forward, spraying her with crimson.
Nothing binds her. No invisible hooks pull at her. Every electric twitch of her muscles is of her own making.
The air stirs around her, seeking reunion but rebuffed by her solidness. Her hair flows with it like a rising storm. Her body rises, as well, just high enough to leave behind the cut stone and spreading blood.
Her senses are sharper than silhouettes against lightning.
Damp and rot and iron and salt swirl on her breath. Exhaling enrages her; the air clings from the pits of her lungs to the tips of her teeth but cannot stay. She cannot be whole.
With a feral howl, she blasts a chasm into the ceiling and launches herself into the night sky. The moonslight silvers the stone of the castle. Around her, the cool winds gather.
Men spill from the towers to gape at her. She brews a storm above them, blotting out the moons and soaking the air with electricity. Only the winds near her know her, but they are enough; even small cyclones clear the ramparts.
Given time, she could level the castle and scatter its stones over the sea. Given time, she could blast the flesh from every human bone. But she feels the distant pull of the rest of herself, and she can think of nothing but becoming whole again.
The doors to the throne room splinter under gust and claw. Kings have kept Barbariccia close; in the this room she has always felt most keenly the self that is not Barbariccia. Even the kings who despised her presence kept that power close.
The throne cracks against the wall. Guards crack beside it. There is a door here, behind, that has no hope of withstanding her.
Inside are mirrors. Every surface reflects the pale gold of Barbariccia, streaked scarlet. At the center lies the shining green prison of everything that must break. Her blood resonates, pounding in time with the light.
"Mine," Barbariccia growls. A thousand lips echo her. "Me."
Footsteps thunder behind her. As she whirls, thrumming anew with fury, a company of men halts just inside the doorway. It has been too long since she slaughtered an army; even this sacrifice will not be enough to satisfy her. The winds spin tight around her body, twisting her hair into a golden cyclone. Her teeth gleam in her reflections.
Three men lunge at her feet-first, legs tense as blades. Her whirling hair repels them; their blood arcs after them as they crash backward into the walls.
Barbariccia's laughter echoes so wildly that she can almost pretend it is not channeled through a fixed throat. "Come forth! Perish in the undying storm!"
Instead they snap into a new formation, watching her warily. A gleaming darkness advances through their midst; the armored stranger has arrived to lend his sword, and no doubt to assert his kingdom's superiority, as well. She hates that she is aware of their politics.
"Surrender, demon!" he barks, and what can she do but laugh?
Barbariccia descends until the tip of her whirlwind shatters a tile in the mirrored floor. The men nearest it flinch. When the dark knight raises his sword, blade thickening black, she gathers the electricity in the air and blasts lightning into his helmet.
The air stinks of meat, and she breathes it greedily.
When the survivors make no move against her, she descends upon the crystallized essence of what she should be. Her claws skid along its facets without leaving a mark. Her teeth scrape uselessly as she finds that her fixed jaw is too small to consume it. Dashing the crystal against the floor cracks mirrors but accomplishes nothing.
In her rage, she realizes only belatedly that every piece of her that touched it burns like an explosion of needles. Her mouth and hands fall past agony into numbness.
Fresh pain explodes in her shoulder.
The men have found a grappling hook and caught it in her flesh. The pain is enough to stun her still as they yank the chain attached to it, slamming her down to the floor. They have more hooks.
She is tiring. She can tire. She can fall.
The fresh blood on her body is her own, and her mindless heart stutters in horror.
With a roar like a thunderclap, she channels lightning down the chain. The men holding it fall, smoking, and she snatches the chain to herself with her clumsy hands before more can grab hold. Her torn flesh screams at her.
When the next hook flies, she gathers the air and drills it through the mirror shards on its way to her attackers. A column is flung with bone-breaking force against the walls, lacerated. Here is a blink of an opportunity; she flies out on it faster than sound can follow, trailing blood.
Most of her is left behind to shine helplessly on the ruined floor. She will return to break it free. She will not orbit the empty future; she is now, and she survives.
Stars blur around her as she rises. She flies wild—away, away, away—drunk on freedom, rage, and things that she has never learned to name. When the air thins, she spins and snaps and dives. The dark world streaks beneath her.
She comes to rest on a rocky shore by the silver-black sea. Her heart still thunders, but she has tired. Even her breaths are sluggish.
Blood still trickles from her shoulder. Ripping out the hook widens the flow and leaves her shaking. Her blood overlaps the humans', and there is no telling them apart.
She slashes her skin with her own claws, deeper and deeper, seeking gusts of wind or flashes of lightning, but there is only blood. Only blood and nausea and dizziness, only things she should not be.
Her weakness leaves her flat and listless on the rocks. She does not decline as humans do, but perhaps she can end like one. She hates the frisson of fear that climbs her spine.
Opportunities will not come to her here. Barbariccia watches the empty sea turn gray and pale and red, feels her flesh knit back together, and thinks.