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All The King's Horses

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The first time you wake up you can’t move your limbs and you are so furious, so full of rage and fear and death, that your vision whites out and you fall into darkness again.

✬✧✬

The second time you wake up you still can’t move your limbs or see much of anything. Indistinct shapes. You don’t have eyeballs, so that checks out, and you are still so furiously angry that you nearly pass out again, but there is something grounding you. What’s curious about this something is that it isn’t painful. Everything has been painful for so long.

This is just a gentle tugging sensation at what you suppose is where your arm would be, if you had an arm and skin and not just rags and bones. If someone had lightly pinched your skin and pulled on it, when you had skin, the sensation would be comparable. It’s strange, and a little unpleasant as the tiny tugs move in pinpricks, but it isn’t painful, and that is such an oddity in your existence as it is that for a moment you forget to be angry and try instead to discern what is pulling at a limb you do not have.

You can’t make anything out. But you can hear, and slowly the sounds form words and the words meld themselves into a language, your native language. The other beings here are speaking Correspondence, so they are not humans. They are not your Seekers. (This is a bit of a disappointment.)

It takes all your effort to focus on them instead of on feeling.

They are discussing something…incredibly inane. Do they not know that you’re here? If they knew they would be discussing that instead, surely. The insistent tugs move to where your shoulder would be, the space where your wings would have connected once upon a time and now hang from, tatterscraps of brittle flesh stuck to bone. They get a little harder, but still not painful. Still just an unpleasant sensation.

They are discussing….names? Not names for someone, names for something. Names for a city. Cities already have names. But not, apparently, the one they are discussing.

They sound familiar. But it’s been a very long time.

You strain. They have moved on from cities. They are discussing people, now. They are discussing human people, and that throws you enough to keep you from recognizing for another full minute.

When you do, you try to scream and fall back into the dark and the cold, the taste of salt and ammonia.

✬✧✬

You wake up again. The sensation is back. It could almost be painful, this time, if you didn’t know pain intimately enough to know that this is nothing to knives and golden blood and teeth and the brackish liquid flooding what was left of a lung. And this time it’s on your head. Itis behind you. You know it, because the voice is the same as last time.

You struggle and focus and do not white out with rage. You do not scream.

Vake-the-Betrayer sits behind you and tugs on what would have been your head, what would have been fur perhaps, your ears, your horns, and speaks.

“—the Antiquarian’s idea, the sulky bats. A bit patchwork and rather unpleasant, but it’s not as if anyone will be seeing those bits.”

“What are the bits they’re seeing, then?” This voice is unfamiliar. It is not screechy or squeaky like the othersthe betrayers. It sounds human, like your various Seekers. Is it one of your Seekers? It sounds familiar. But that is impossible. Vake-the-Betrayer would never speak to a human. “Wait! I know. I know. Your velvet.”

“Yes.” The Betrayer sounds disgustingly proud of itself. “We did not have enough for everything, but we had enough for hands and arms, face and head, as carefully as we could make them. There is a bit left for the making of the rest, and for the wing membranes, but the bats will make an acceptable substitute for now.”

“For now? Are you going to, what, upgrade?” The human sounds amused. This is a crime that Vake-the-betrayer would kill them for. But the tugging does not leave your head, the voice does not move from behind you.

“Well, if we can, before it wakes. And if not, perhaps someday.”

“If it doesn’t kill you immediately.” The human’s voice is quieter now. This doesn’t make sense. This doesn’t make sense.

“Yes.” Why is there sadness in the Vake’s voice? Why has the tugging ceased in favor of a soft all-over pressure, why do you feel like you are missing something? You’re missing a great deal, obviously, but not in this sense. This is wrong. This is wrong. “If.”

A shifting and a scraping. “Thanks for the visit, Veils.”

The Vake does not reply as you hear a door shut, and the tugging at your head resumes.

You don’t have much strength. This is the most you have been since the night of the arrangement. You succumb once more.

✬✧✬

The body lies on the bed. It is a work half finished, but compared to the soggy pile of tattered rags and scraps of flesh, the worn and ancient bones that were carefully laid out that first night, it is something extraordinary.

It has, at least, been taking Hearts’ mind off the whole immortality thing.

Hearts and Veils are the ones working at it, day in and day out, night after night. Hearts supplies cider in small quantities and other, less potent methods of prolonging life; brings dust and cocoons and dead moths from the Tomb-Colonies, mixes honey and black wings absinthe, performs strange rituals with meat and insects and a truly alarming amount of sulky bats. Veils, meanwhile, has forgone any pretense at the new fabric-trade. It spends nearly every hour in the spire, with mounds of shapeling amber and veils-velvet, dead bats, devilbone, violant ink provided by the Academic, cosmogone parabola-glass provided by the Glassman—things of memory and things of dream and things of the physical world as Veils creates a masterwork.

Veils is taking what remains of Candles and putting it back together. There isn’t much. It is worn out making absinthe and veils-velvet; when the Glassman visits, its fur is patchy and covered by robes, and it looks almost pale, if it could get pale. It is feeding this creation its blood and skin to make up for the blood and skin the Priest-Kings stole.

There are vials of blood all over the room. Some of it is human—that generally goes unused, unless Veils is in particular need of a pick-me-up. Some of it belongs to the other Masters. A decent amount of it is Wines’, and that is bottled in cosmogone, golden and thick and flowing, and Hearts and Veils use it sparingly, only when a particular thread proves promising.

Veils sews together velvet atop amber pulled like taffy, studies the structure of eyes and the structure of curators, lets the Academic take notes on it in exchange for pinning those notes to the walls and using them as a reference. Hearts cuts itself open and encourages it to make a study. Beeswax and sigils. Secrets and study. The rituals up at the Chapel of Lights, used twice by Seekers that almost made it to create a body with nothing inside. This body will have things inside, and thus already has the advantage; but it is already dead, not a living thing to be turned into a husk.  

Countless eyes are made of glass, of gelatin, of wax and fat and a dozen other substances, rolling around the room. Scraps of veils-velvet litter the floor, only to be salvaged, torn apart and rewoven into a new bolt. Iron and Fires conspire, work nevercold brass into devilbone, create new structures to replace what is missing, too gnawed or too weak or too brittle to be of any use. Wines gives of itself freely and drinks deeply. Cups shows up weekly with wagons full of what it has collected that week, what the humans thought might he useful (some of it even is) (how the humans found out, no one’s quite sure, but everyone suspects the Bazaar told the Academic, and the Academic told the Glassman, and then the Glassman told many, many people). Spices concocts new formulas of honey to give to Veils to keep it awake, to give to the creation-corpse, an attempt at recreating red honey with memories caught in dreams, another attempt at sourcing honey directly from Parabola with the help of the cats and the Glassman. Pages and Stones….admittedly do not have much to offer, but sometimes new pieces of glass and gems will show up at the door for Veils to make another attempt at eyes out of, and more frequently Pages will show up to entertain Hearts while it works, which in turn allows Veils to do its job unhindered.  

They are creating life. What a blasphemous concept. They are creating a star. Even worse. They are putting a dead thing that would not die back together again. They are experimenting with the Shapeling Arts, the forms that they haven’t touched since they killed a star. The Last Glassman tells the Bazaar a children’s rhyme from the orphanage she once ran.

“And all the king’s horses and all the king’s men couldn’t put him back together again.”

No one likes that.

✬✧✬

“—been waking up.”

“Wouldn’t we have noticed that?” Horror. Fear. But not of you. Curious. “We would have noticed that.”

“Not if it was in the early stages. Maybe not even now. What is there to make itself known?”

Good question, Vake-the-Betrayer. What is there of you?

You’re ready to fall under again—you will hurt yourself in your rage if you listen to its voice much longer—when you realize—

There is….something of you.

You are taking up a space that is not a dream. You can sense it, the way you sensed the strange tugging on what would have been your scalp. You have a sense, a strange and unfamiliar sense, unused for years on years, of self. There is a presence where you should be. You can sort of recall this, this feeling of Presentness, of Being, and it wraps you up in it, in the real, grounds you, pulls you down from the floating high you’ve drifted in for time immemorial, weighs you in your physicality like a heavy cloak.

You don’t quite remember what is meant to go where, what impulses will pull which muscles. It was so difficult to learn the first time—it is not innate, and you have no bone deep memory to go on, and even if you did you are nothing but bones, or you should be nothing but bones.

You pick a sensation, an impulse, a muscle, and you pull as hard as you can.

There’s a crash, a bang, a clatter. Someone screams, high-pitched and shrill. Your presence—it hurts the way the tug on your head did. Nowhere near what you know of pain. But there is a burning and throbbing in what you think must be an arm—the pain centers it the way the tugging did, lets you sense the edges of yourself, the boundaries of your flesh and skin and fur, that strange and limited shell that you are, apparently, in once again—

There’s a lot of shrieking, in Correspondence and in a more primal language that mostly has sounds for “sex” and “now” and “kill” and “run” and “there are bees here, let us leave immediately”, which is something of a universal sound—chorister-bees are a menace. There’s a lot of clattering and a lot of shoving and you can feel presences around you. Neither of them will get close to you.

You pull again like you’re tugging marionette strings, which might be an apt metaphor for how you controlled your body even at the best of times. You’re a little more careful. Your arm goes up and pats, clumsily, at what you think ought to be your head.

It’s wrong. It’s patchy. You can feel seams; where your claws brush them, a white hot spark of pain lights up. It is not quite the right shape. It is a face, with flesh and bone and fur and teeth and—

There is still shrieking. Shrill screeching. You are exerting yourself, and things are loud, and you cannot remember how exactly opening your eyes should go and you think you’ve broken something which is a little bit satisfying since the Vake sounds so terrified right now.

You are very tired. Still so tired. You drift, a light on the edge of sleep—

✬✧✬

All is silent when you surface. You have time to adjust, to feel yourself return to your physical space without the noise of conversation, without the sensations.

There are no voices to distract you, no Vake to fill your head with static.

You lay very still and feel.

You are almost comfortable. You ache, all over, of course—but nothing white-hot, something steady in lines all over what you are thinking is You. It almost defines it, provides boundaries, edges of your experience—you hurt, you end here, and here, and here, and you slowly map it in your head, filling the spaces in between the strange lines of quiet pain, filling them in with something that is shaped how you remember yourself being shaped. There is something soft below you. You are stretched out, laid out, perfectly prone and perfectly still, all limbs straight. You think your wings are stretched out as well, but the lines on them end close to the rest of you, and wings were always difficult to sense anyway. You tended to knock things over when you forgot where they were.

You are laid out as the humans would lay out a body in a morgue, as someone would lay out a garment needing repair, as a doll or a toy. One arm is slightly less perfectly straight and still than the others. That must be the one you managed to move.

You try to move again. You don’t pull with all your strength. Instead, you very carefully locate what you are pretty sure is a claw on one of your feet and wiggle.

The moving of it—it solidifies something. You are you and also, a toe with a claw. The moving of it makes it Real and Present. You know where it begins, you know where it ends.

You try to move the rest.

It’s not very graceful, you don’t think. Your foot likely looks like a dead fish flopping about. A dead fish with claws. (Your metaphors do tend to fall apart after a little while.) But it is there and you are certain of where you end with it.

You work slowly, travelling upward. Other foot. Lower leg. Bend your knee. Bend it further, move yourself. Wiggle. Stretch. Claws, thumb, palm, elbow, shoulder. Your wing joints, the articulation at the ends of your wings—they are indeed stretched out on the bed. You open and close your mouth. Wiggle your nose. Wiggle your ears.

You open your eyes.

✬✧✬

Above you are silks and velvets and gauzy fabrics, a canopy of a bed below a ceiling draped in decadence. The colors are strange and wrong, but you will categorize that later—you think you remember them being strange when you first came to such a small form too, and then again when you…left it. Your gaze flits left, flits right. The curtains of the canopy are drawn. You are laid out, neat and still and dolllike, on a bed that is terribly familiar (if a bit more varied in its fabric than you recall) and currently rather boxlike.

You don’t totally trust your limbs abilities to be limbs and move you properly, so you go slow, and only knock your elbow against the headboard once as you shift yourself to sitting up, your wings supporting you against the wood. It’s clumsy and graceless and you are reminded, again, of a marionette—but for the first time in a long time, it is you controlling yourself, with all the gracelessness that implies, and you will take it in its inelegance because it is you, you are you, it is you and it is yours.

Your claws dig into the velvet below them. You take the opportunity to look at your hand.

You’re unclothed, as you expected, so you take in your whole body while you’re at it. Your lines are seams—you can see the stitches still, sewing you together. The fur and skin in the different seams is always slightly different. Most of your forearms and forelegs, most of your chest and shoulders, seems to be the same, and seems to be what you would expect of a curator, though it’s been dyed white. What a strange courtesy to extend. All of it has been dyed white, even the bits on your stomach and outer thighs that are so terribly patchwork that only a few inches go before a seam, which look rougher, coarser, than a curator’s fur. You flex your claws; they’re sturdier than you remember, and you stare at them for a long minute and try to figure out what is wrong about them. You lift your other hand to your face, feel around. There are seams there too, but only a few; around the edge, along your ears, around the horns, which feel the same strange sturdiness as your claws. Your face shape is mostly the same—there are slight imperfections, and you can feel where the skin hangs off the bones of your skull (your skull, your bones, how familiar, almost comforting, and you let your claw rub a circle on your muzzle for a minute, pushing around the loose skin there to feel the shape underneath that you know). Someone has taken great care to reconstruct it, though you think perhaps it must not be complete yet.

Something shatters, to your left.

You whip your head around with enough force to dizzy you—and isn’t that something? Beingdizzy, what an experience—and lock eyes with—

Wines stands in the doorway. Its hands are empty, its robes are casual, and you can see the shock and fear and—elation?—in its eyes. On the floor below its hands is a silver platter that’s been upended, a lot of broken glass, and a slowly spreading stain of red wine.

“VEEEEILS!” it shrieks, loud enough to rattle you, make you frown and wince and put a hand up to your head, and Wines’ hands clap to its mouth and it looks stricken as it kicks the door shut and rushes to the bed. “We’re sorry! We’re—“ It catches itself, and lowers its voice to a stage whisper. “Sorry! We’re sorry, was that too loud? Was—can you hear us? Can you see us?” It waves a hand in front of your face. You give it the best look of disdain you can muster. “How many fingers are we holding up? Can you speak?”

It’s not even holding up any fingers. It’s just waving its hands around. You frown.

There’s a great thundering and the sound of many feet from outside (the staircase, you remember, the door is right off the staircase of the spire) and the door bursts open once more—

Hearts-or-Apples stands in front, hands fluttering in useless excitement as it hovers in the doorway. You can see behind it, crowding to get a look, Pages peering under its wings, Stones trying to crane its neck to see over, Irons tall enough to see without effort, and they all move aside.

Vake-the-Betrayer. Standing in the doorway of its own room, the room where you are currently sitting on the bed. It looks frail, in a way that once would have had you panicking and rushing around to find a chair. Looks like it hasn’t slept in days, its fur shaved straight down to the skin in most places, wispy patches growing back. Claws cut down to the quick and tips stained with amber, palms and wrist and forearm covered in bandages up to the spur at the elbow. It stares at you like it used to, like you’re the only thing in the world, like if you would just retake your place it would sit at your side forever.

So you let out what you think is a pretty impressive screech of rage for someone who’s been without lungs for time immemorial, and lunge for it.

You hit the floor first.

The next few minutes are a bit of a blur, honestly. You might’ve hit your head on the way down; it turns out you were not as coordinated as you’d thought from your brief explorations. Wines and Apples hold you back as you hiss and scratch at them, wrestling you back onto the bed; Pages materializes with a cloak you don’t remember in a style you don’t recognize and it just makes you madder, and you tear your strange hard claws through the fabric as it tries to cover you up and makes worried little clicks like a caretaker might, dodging your flailing. Irons adds another cloak. You feel rather like a bird they are trying to shush, but it does work as intended; the weight of the cloaks, the dark, not seeing the face of the Vake, and you quiet down a little. It must be a sight, a lump in a cloak on the bed that everyone is probably staring at with trepidation.

You sit on the bed and you sulk for a minute, waiting to see if anyone will be the first to approach you.

The bed dips beside you, weight pressing into it. You don’t remove the cloaks. The edge of one of your wings is outside of them and a careful hand presses against it, blunt claws stroking the membrane and the peach-fuzz that covers it, carefully avoiding the seams.

You know, you know, the anger and rage will be back the moment that you see its face or hear its voice, so you are silent and you do not move under your cloak. You can’t keep your wing from twitching slightly; the hand draws back.

All is quiet. Your former companions are holding their breath. You feel that your employer is itself holding its breath. Waiting to see what the two of you will do next. Will it ask something inane? Make a non-apology? Expect gratitude, for reconstructing what was left of you into something that you are unfamiliar with?(What’s your name? No, not like that. Just—you can’t be Candles again, you know that, but you aren’t Eaten. You aren’t what you became. What are you, you strange amalgamate creature, you anomaly of shapeling arts, you corpse-breathed-life?)

It very carefully lifts off the cloaks from around your face. You hold back the white anger, the fury and ferocity that boils in you at the sight of its face. You manage, because the part of you that was once called Candles is just so sad about it, and wants badly enough to reach up and cup its muzzle that it pushes down the urge to maul it, scrape its eyes out, make it suffer like you did.

Its breath hitches, and it stares you in the eyes; holding up the cloaks with one hand and reaching gently with the other to caress your neck, your collar, the joint of your wing.

The Neath—the High Wilderness—the entire universe, the White and Red and Gold and the Azure, from Eleutheria to the Blue Kingdom, is holding its breath.

The Vake breaks the silence, first. “They told me,” it says, hushed and broken, “that a deal could be made. A city for your heart’s desire.” Its hand traces down up your neck, curls around your chin. “I’m sorry it took so long. The two cities before were insufficient, you see.”

You can’t help it. Can’t help the smile that creeps onto your face, the chuckle that comes out in spite of half of you not wanting it to. “What made this one so different?”

“Nothing, really, except that it sold itself, and except for what it left behind.” Veils’ face crumples. You don’t think you’ve ever seen it so soft, so vulnerable, especially not with your other compatriots crowded behind it next to the bed as it kneels in front of you like one of your cultists, your supplicants. But then, Veils has always been the most devoted of them, hasn’t it? The first and best, and you shake off the cloaks to hang off your wings. “Oh, there’s so much to tell you.”

✬✧✬

You stand in front of a mirror and look at yourself.

The bones of a curator that was not; amber shaped to fill in the gaps, devilbone for keratin, all the veils-velvet Cups could procure in a nameless city and more, besides, as much as Veils could provide. The blood of the only one of them you can really call your kin, the only other one you’ve ever met like you, even if it wasn’t chosen the way you did. There is a corpse under your seams absorbing itself into you, providing structure; there is bloodied stuffing. You are made of a dozen disparate dead things, sewn together and structured with such care that you would have thought it impossible, the kind of care that Veils doesn’t even afford its most beautiful projects in design. You are horrid and beautiful and awful and you are shaped as a Curator but you are like nothing else that’s ever existed. You never have been.

You were Mr Candles, and you will not be again. But you aren’t Mr Eaten, either. Your cultists spent decades Seeking your name, and now not even you are sure what you might find.

This new city they are telling you about, which is not really a city so much as a settlement, an experiment—it doesn’t have a name either. It is full of humans who put themselves on equal footing with the beings that once ruled their city and, even before that, were outcasts and losers among their own kind. First below, then above, and now—equal. Veils spends time with a few of your former Seekers. Hearts is fond of a human who seems to be courting it, in the human way. Wines is no longer pretending to enjoy their company, but at the same time, it doesn’t seem to despise it. Fires is outside and under the window behind you, rigging up a pulley system to your old quarters that is apparently used to send mail zooming along in little baskets all along the spires.

You trace a claw on the healing seams on your muzzle (it’s not perfect, but it’s filling in on the bones the longer you inhabit this form—intent is an important component of shapeling-arts, and once you are in this skin, once you are inhabitingit, it will meld together, this patchwork of veils-velvet and batskin, stretched over human flesh and stuffing and your old and brittle bones that shine through with amber in the broken places). You look at your eyes, which are as deep and dark as any of theirs, but which are made of the darkest sapphires Stones could procure, softening by the day as you accept them. They are yours, they are you. (It is me, it is mine.)

You, abomination of a drowned man and a former god, golden blood that isn’t yours coursing through veins of piping. You which should be dead and refused to die, refused to die so fiercely that someone took your pieces and attempted to make you live once more. You, once Candles, once Eaten, now—

You have a lot to do. You have to choose a name. You have to clean out your quarters. You have to learn about this new settlement, and all that has happened in your absence, and what they know of the Judgements and what the Judgements know of the Neath, and how long you all have in this strange place the humans have constructed for themselves, this haven in the dark, this first and last free place—the only place, now that you have died, that you can go without the Sapphir’d King turning his cold glare on you and destroying all this hard work in an instant. And because it is the only place you can go, it is the only place Veils can go. Even if there was a way through the Avid Horizon, even if the Knock still worked and the door wasn’t barred shut—by bringing you back, Veils has trapped itself down here with you, forever. You have to come to terms with that, with both the betrayal and the reversal, as much of a reversal as could ever be possible—it gave you up for freedom, it gives up any chance of freedom for you. You have a lot to do, in this new body of yours, in this world you’ve found yourself in, in the time you now find yourself to have.

But—

But Hearts is calling, and you have to go get breakfast.

✬✧✬

(The mirror lays abandoned. A hairless cat slinks around it, sits in front of it, locks eyes with the woman who peers out from behind the dresser.

Rude to spy, says the cat.

  “I was curious,” says the Glassman.

 Aren’t you ever? It licks its paw as if it doesn’t care for the conversation.

  “Now I’m more curious than I was before. It worked.” She steps into the center of the room in the mirror, standing above the cat’s reflection. There isn’t anything behind the cat.

Your plan won’t. Folly. The rules don’t apply in your world. It glares at her with one eye, the other closed as it cranes its head around to reach its back paws.

  “I’ll never know for sure unless I try. And if it worked, I have to try.” She reaches to pet the cat in the mirror; it’s a ghostly sensation, like the cat often experienced when its owner was missing. “The whole lovely thing is that no rules apply anymore. Not there, not here. We’ll rewrite them if they don’t suit.”

 The cat looks at her out of the corner of its eyes, stretching its neck to let her get the best spot. Folly, folly.

“What was it your master always said?” Her nails dance over its ears. “Always and still, a moth to folly’s candle.”

  She straightens, adjusts the lapel of the parabola-linen suit, pushes her glasses up. “Back to work, then.”

She strides behind the wardrobe and does not come out the other side. The cat looks for a moment, then goes back to grooming. Mirrors are strange things, as strange as the one that took their name. If this Glassman wants to spend her time chasing something that she can’t Seek, that’s her business.

There’s a rattus-faber, somewhere in the room. That’s a good hunt. Even if you’re not starveling.

The cat leaps.)