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King of the Mutants

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She gathered the children around her in a half-circle, smiling into their eager eyes, and began.

Listen up, and I'll tell you the story of the King of the Mutants. And it's a true story, not like those other harvest-fest stories of walking crow-scares. It really happened, right here in Silvy Vale, and it's the story of how the school got its name. Belike you didn't know this place was home to muties, did you?

The children watched her, all rapt attention and silence. She cleared her throat and continued.

Long ago, before the schools in the mountains had comsets--before there were schools here at all--life in Silvy Vale was very difficult, and the people clung to the old ways. They didn't have much, but they had tradition, and they held it highly, because they knew tradition would get them through their poverty and keep them safe through whatever the future held in store.

A mutie girl was born in the valley. Nobody knows why… perhaps her parents were sinful, or perhaps her grandparents ate blighted food during the Cetagandan invasion, or perhaps the hill-spirits were unhappy with the people in the valley. It was a very small mutation, just the hare's lip. But it wouldn't end with that. Belike a small mutation grows bigger in the next generation, especially if muties breed. The girl was a weak and sickly child because of it, but her mother loved her, as mothers always love their children, and sought to keep her safe and help her grow strong in spite of her deformity.

Someone didn't like this. Everyone knows that no village can prosper if it shelters muties, that they are a blight on humanity, that they will poison the gene pool like rust poisons the crops. So someone decided to kill the baby girl and remove the monster from us, before she could grow strong enough to threaten the whole valley, or hide her mutation with surgery and seduce our young boys into corruption, into making more muties. Someone saved the village from evil.

The children just stared, but their faces shone with righteous determination.

But the mother, mad with grief and rage at the loss of her only child, asked a boon from the King of the Mutants…. and he came. He rode out of the blighted lands of Vorkosigan Vashnoi, surrounded by warrior guardians. He was tiny and bent and crippled, with a large head that wobbled on his misshapen body, and he wore the robes of a king so that everyone knew that to challenge him was death.

He forced his way into every home, luring children into corruption, threatening anyone who did not bow before him. He confounded the Speaker to silence and made the people put on a show and feast for him.

No home in the village was fit for him, so he'd brought his fancy pavilion to sleep in--but when the good people of the village tried to burn it down, he used his mutie magic to trade places with two young boys, and they were barely rescued in time. Then someone stabbed his horse, to put her out of her misery, because no noble beast should have to carry such a horrific rider. But the King of the Mutants didn't know the difference between people and animals, and he forced his doctor to heal the horse, just like it was a person.

She could see the disgust in their eyes.

He sniffed around the village and got into everyone's business and made the children cry, like muties do. He used his mutie drugs to force people to spill intimate secrets that no one should ever have to say aloud, and when he found out who had removed the mutie danger from the village--of course it was a woman, a mother, because women and mothers have always protected the genome--he cast a powerful mutant hex on her. He stole her name, and he turned the law away from her so she would have no protection from muties and mutie-lovers, and he even hid her from the eyes of her ancestors so when she died, she'd never join them and no smoke from offerings could ever reach her.

The children were speechless in their shock and horror.

Then he heaped wealth and jewels on the woman who'd called him, and made her a Lady in his court, and bade her spend half her year in the mutie-infested lands with their alien machines. She turned against her own people and her ancestors and bred more muties to corrupt the good people of Barrayar, and nobody stopped her, because the King of the Mutants even had the ear of the Emperor.

And that's how the King of the Mutants came to Silvy Vale, and what happened after, and why we have to hide away in here.

She gathered the children up in her arms, hugged their unmoving bodies, and brushed the hair back from their sightless, endlessly staring eyes as she rocked back and forth.