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Then I Walked Away

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"You think too much about your past selves, Vesin."

It's all she hears growing up.

She may be a practical little girl, but she wants to learn; she pores over books full of Rakaros' legends and teachings. When she is older, she tells her parents, and can study her past-mes (and read the harder books), she wants to be a doctor, or maybe a teacher, and use all her other selves have learned to be the very best one. To not make mistakes, to fix all the things.

It's a silly kid's dream. Rakaros' circle is not a means to cheat life lessons. Vesin's illusions are shattered younger than most, because she tells her parents other things too. That's when they start with the "too much".

Suddenly, her curiosity is bad. One of these past selves must be the problem.

She tries to forget it until she's older; maybe it is like people tell her, and with adulthood will come answers. Her parents humor her in words, at least, let her use the ones she chooses, but her body is ruthless and undermines any comfort that might have brought.

It's that she can't let go, some people say, when she tries to explain; some previous you felt their time wasn't over and their influence is burrowing up into your mind, convincing your present body it's wearing the wrong skin. Sometimes that one's with sympathy (I have times I don't feel myself, dreams of the other side might unsettle you but this will pass), other times it's with pity or disgust. Look at that one, lost in an old life and never going to live the one they're given, ignoring even the first lesson Rakaros might teach them about letting go.

"There is nothing to let go," Vesin says, and tells it most often to her room, alone and after the time to speak has gone. "I have felt this long before I knew to find meaning in dreams." For a while, she tells it to the mirror, rehearsing courage she doesn't have. Her own word-weary reflection mocks her, and after some months she turns the mirror to face the wall. The others' doubts have become hers, and for every bit her conviction wavers her determination doesn't.

The drugs she uses aren't the traditional plants (not at what she pays, not in this climate where even the poppies suffer the winters), but they are enough. When she touches memories, they roll over her like no lucid dream can, wild colors and old scents more sharp on her senses than waking reality. Vesin recalls lifetimes spent in other bodies, other flavors of the same shared soul, and wakes, hot with sweat and mind muggy to match, and stands in the window until the night air cools words into solid form.

Don't be silly, woman. We're not holding you back. You've always been after learning, there's just something a little bit different in the way this time.

Rakaros is an absentminded god, an imperfect one. That is why he seeks knowledge through life, why he lets his followers try their hand at it a full thirteen times. They will feel every detail, their minds explore every angle, and experience what a being roaming the universe cannot. Both of them become richer for it.

Vesin remembers meeting someone else like her, passing through as a trader—a wiry little man, probably half Rhusav. Rakaros just wanted to see what a man's life was like the other way 'round with me, he'd said as they sat round sharing drinks, and at the time it was a revolutionary idea. It still is, here in a town unfond of the more fanciful flights of research—that's what they see her as. Curiosity that's a waste of time in the very sensible world she loves.

If Rakaros wants to experience everything, then she will let him see what it is like to see a body change within one life. She shakes her shirt loose from where it's clinging to her, and decides to start by learning to sew her own clothes.

Every step forward she takes, her parents act as though they see into her thoughts and her dreams, like they need only interrogate the parts that make her whole and pick out the guilty party. This is the one you're clinging so much to, right? You don't need that any more, you're going to be a fine teacher, a fine student.

Vesin takes it as encouragement. Bites back the bad half, and tells herself her parents would understand if they'd walked this path too. If there are a thousand ways to learn, there are a thousand beliefs about the right methods.

The world goes to hell, and in it she sees opportunity. She packs her stuff casually, letting it read as change when she wears the clothes her parents bought her rather than her own. They mistake it for on their terms, a sign she's finally settling down and there will be no more ridiculous talk about bringing present bodies in line with the past. Vesin just wants her skirts clean for the road; she's got nothing against pants, but these fall on her hips all the wrong ways and remind her of home in all the wrong ways. She saves food, too, taken from her own meals. She may not like this town and she may not like her family, but she can't bring herself to steal from them.

The only thing they lose the morning she sets out, hungry and a bit cold and carrying a pack and a big stick, is the person they'd expected her to become.