Work Header

all the words that ever were or ever will be

Work Text:

When She picked him up—say rather, snatched him from her Brother’s sulky grasp—at Gotorget, it was more from a sense of maidenly thrift than any urgent need. He had the makings of a saint, carved into the hollowness of him, and that was no mean thing. She had been precious low on saints, in the last century or so, and although his poetry was very bad, he had written some poetry.

It was a small enough prayer to grant, for all that it touched many souls: Martou dy Jironal needed only the slightest wisp of prompting to give in to his urges to ransom away the fortress.

When he was on the Roknari galley, he did not pray to Her. He did not pray to any of Them, nor was he as open as he had been—shut tight like a clam. Or a bud yet unbloomed. So She thought only slightly of him.

She sent the man holding Bergon—a dear boy, even if he wasn’t Hers, with certain traces of poetry in him nonetheless—to one particular ship instead of another, a hurried choice, amidst a thousand other things, with about the same attention She did anything. A great deal and very little.

There were so many things, that was the crux of it—each one whole and fascinating, worked and shaped by wind and human hands, sea and animal mouths, the tilling of fields and building of walls. So She was all at once occupied with every single fragment of the song, individual notes a wonder of harmony, and dazed by the beauty of the song entire and complete. The constant rush of souls brought home to roost, the endless waves of new ones She scattered down to root, like a chorus beginning and ending a chord on the very same note.

They prayed to her, songwriters—She offered what She could, but only a handful of them had a heart empty enough to receive it, and so the rest would need to come up with their music themselves. (So few poets genuinely wanted inspiration.)

At least, She had told her elder Brother once, the hunters were properly appreciative when their bows struck true.

Yes, little Sister, He had said, in that irritating way of His and of older brothers everywhere, but the hunted are not so happy, and they pray too.

There was no use, of course, in complaining to Her younger Brother, because He would only laugh and tell Her that She didn’t know what it was like, dealing with the really messy ones.

That was not precisely true—there was no such thing as precise truth. They all knew prayers of desperation from ones whose hearts were so closed-tight that there was nothing to offer them, and the way the greatly open-souled were sometimes well and sometimes ill-fitted for Their purposes.

Her Mother had had a saint once who asked only, every morning, for enough joy in her heart to forgive the evils of the world. And cooperation from her cat, which was trickier.

She was distracted, for a while, by a poem written for Her. It had savor, nearly weight—She gave the boy that Her poet pined for a quick inspection, found him suitable, and lay the gentlest of traces around his dreams. Dreams were easiest, for Her, and stray thoughts that were really only a kind of dream—Her Mother had a fondness for urges, and Her elder Brother for pangs of the heart, Her Father pangs… elsewhere. Her younger Brother favored revealing slips of the tongue. But Her rightful sphere was the trailing thought, the wondering, the questions dropped delicately on the back of a brain. Hers was the gift of good husbands, even though She granted it but rarely, protection from unwanted advances, the nourishing of new love, poetry, and song.

The young girl She had delicately enticed toward Valenda settled down with a cooper and got pregnant, instead. The shepherd youth put flowers dutifully on Her altar but did not leave his sheep, despite any number of dreams. The minstrel’s wandering feet carried them into Darthaca, despite the carriage accident and the flooding that washed out the roadway and the rumors of good food in Baocia that She had carefully dropped into their path.

Her younger Brother always had plenty of saints, and just chortled whenever the topic came up. He had the misbegot son of all things untimely; Her Mother had had the royina and Her Father the roya and his lover. Now She had a royesse, and must do justice by her.

But it was hard to see how the thing was unfolding in the world—souls came up, souls went down, the song continued. She could see the traces of it on the minds of a few who were Hers, and more who weren’t—and there were an irritating number who weren’t wearing Her colors in Chalion, these days. She salted a few of the worst offenders’ subconscious with guilty awareness.

It was not that She could see the future—it was not that there was such thing as a future. There were… currents. Eddies. There were flowers blooming that She could gather into her arms, there were seeds newly planted that She could water and nourish. She could send a dream, or a thought, She could pour life into new growth and sustain it. She could begin.

She could not, it seemed, get a beggar girl or a milkmaid or a priestess or—in desperation—a cranky old hermit all the way to Valenda. She managed to get the priestess onto a pilgrimage toward Baocia, and She could hope that would bear later fruit.

A clever old man died once for the house of Chalion, and Her Mother was able to pull him through her fingers like a midwife and send him back with the hands of Her acolytes on his wounds—but so many men and women had died for the house of Chalion once. He died twice, but the second time was a simple riding accident, and there was nothing to do but allow Her Mother to harvest him like the sheaves of wheat that spread over the fields.

Iselle prayed for her mother’s health, and a new gelding, and for the boy Beatriz had been flirting with to flirt back. She would have been happy to grant any of those, but there was little more She could do for Ista, and the Provincara was not Hers or any god’s, and the boy was one of Her younger Brother’s.

And the shadow smeared around Iselle grew darker and darker.

She came to a courier rider in a dream and asked her to ride to Valenda, but the girl grew frightened and did not go. She kept a Roya’s servants from discovering a battered man in the Foundling Hospital at Zagosur, in hopes that he would go home to Valenda instead of remaining to be rewarded for rescuing the royse. She whispered to one of her bright young dedicats that he should join Her troupe that moved toward Taryoon, for it promised advancement. She complained to Her elder Brother, who was having no better luck.

It was not Valenda, They agreed, or Them—it was the stain of Their Father’s blood spread out across Chalion and Roknar, perverting all their aims.

The priestess was getting closer to Valenda, and She nudged the horses to become fractious—they would spend the night, the girl would call upon the provincara, she would be offered a place in the household, she would go to the Zangre as Iselle’s lady-divine, she would pray and then She would be able to explain to her—the priestess decided to trade in her horse at the next courier posting station and continue through to Taryoon.

The ragged castle-warder/galley slave/courier/commander/spy/courtier/soldier was nearing Valenda, at least—but he would ask for a place in the scullery and grow ill with lung-fever and be buried nameless in the pauper’s yard—She focused more closely. There would be a few of Her own dedicats riding to Valenda to celebrate the day She was to take the world in hand from Her Father. The captain would ride past him, unseeing, and his horse would kick up mud—or not.

Which is the road to Valenda? It cannot hurt to check. It would be so shaming to be wrong. The country roads this far from any civilized town are not well marked. She murmured it under his thoughts, and then: he paused to ask an old beggar by the road how to mark the correct roadway, and was glad to have done so. Another soldier in the troupe gathered a coin to toss. Look out! He fumbled, and let fall a richer coin than he’d meant. Well enough.

He went to the provincara, he was offered a place in the household, he traveled with Iselle to the Zangre as her secretary-tutor. He did not pray, which was tiresome, but She could wait.

She had lit candles for Iselle’s breath as She took the world into Her keeping again and filled it, slowly, with the rush of new life. She had lit candles in every village, at every hearthfire. She had relit the entire world from Her Father’s winter, sent new blood-sap creeping up into the trees and quickened the wombs of every hot-blooded creature.

She was is will be in every stalk of grass, every bramble, every new leaf—pushing upwards, toward the light, soaking in sunlight. She was is will be in every young girl not yet brought to her first childbed, growing constantly—bones renewing and lengthening, skin sloughing off and thickening from beneath, breath turning to blood turning to the jump of new thoughts in the brain, electricity bouncing from neuron to neuron. Hormones beginning to pump through the blood, menses coming and going to as yet no purpose. She was is will be in every one of Her own, the ones who pray to Her with souls locked away and the ones who open widely that She may pour through them to put the lightest touch on the solid framework of the earth, wishing for good harvests and husbands and new dresses, for enough food on the table and recovery from illness, for inspiration, for just the right thing to say to catch a pretty girl’s eye. She was is will be in the Spring itself, that tips the world toward the heat of the sun and sends rain to soak into the dirt. For a short portion of its journey, the merest 407,546,517,857 paces, it was is will be all in Her keeping.

When a man who was none of Hers was invested into Her Generalship, She did not attend the ceremony. But most of them did not notice.

When Iselle prayed again, for her brother’s soul, She could help no more than she could with Ista, with the gelding, with the boy. Teidez dy Chalion’s soul was sealed more thoroughly than She could counter, and he was of Her Brother besides. There was no drop of poetry in him, and the stain had so thoroughly blotted him out that he was almost a thing of matter to Their sight.

She did not tease Her Brother, when the boy died. She knew that He had been chivvying undergrooms and bowmen and dedicats, stable boys and couriers and masters of the hunt to Valenda, to Cardegoss, just as She had been. She had been luckier, if only in one man.

The next time Iselle prays, She can answer it.

She floods Her castle-warder/courier/captain/courtier with life in the moment of his dying, cupping him in the palm of Her hand, pinching off the path that Her Younger Brother’s demon was supposed to take. It is a joyous ripple in the world, a sucking in of energy, a tension of opposite forces. It is… She holds him, but Her hand is only there because he holds Her in turn—his mind allowing Her power over his heart, his lungs, the demon and the ghost in his belly.

Her Brother laughs at Her, of course, but She knows how anxiously He watched His menagerie collapse, and He has always had a merry disposition.

The hinting, She will admit, is unusual. But at this point, so many have turned aside from the pathways She has offered that She will send a series of clear instructions—or as clear as She can make them—to Her sweet soldier-dedicat of Palliar, who has always offered up prayers like cool water. If only he were a poet. But he must stay where he is, and ride nowhere.

The mules are also just a touch odd. But mules are something She can provide with the gentlest nudge to their dimly glowing minds, being sacred to Her, as they are, and as things grow closer and closer to fruition… he will arrive in Zagosur, he will meet with the royse and be recognized, he will return to Chalion. She will carry him every step of the way, the demon’s pathways still twisted through Her fingers and pinched shut. He will see the royesse and the royse married, he will despair, he will meet a man in combat.

He will die, and consent, and that combination will ring out, will make music—

By the time he asks to watch, She has learned not to be surprised by him. Everything that you can bear, She says, is permitted.

There are many things that minds made of electricity and meat cannot grasp, no matter how they try and how brightly the spark of their soul flares—they were gifts of the Father and Mother to each other, and so the flame of the world burns but very faintly in them, and they see and understand only in particular and circumscribed fashions. She is not confined to girlhood, She is the beginningness of all things, and it helps that they have the as-yet-only-hypothetical organ of future life—future as distinct from current or past, growth as distinct from seeding—but it is their minds that make them Hers. The mind is Hers, and the minds of maidens are so bright, so quick-moving. They delight Her, with their quickness and their many-sided constructions.

She feeds on them, on the spark of their possibilities, laid out richly: she could marry the town justice, she could ride for the roya’s couriers, she could become a divine, she could wear her new yellow dress to the feast and see who looks. She is all possibility, and so are Her worshippers, Her petty saints who can see all the puzzles of a problem laid out clearly in their minds’ eyes, who know the right way to turn in a strange city, who have songs trickling out of their voices, who have plays galloping behind their eyes. Every little girl who asks for someday and receives a promise of a future. Everyone who ever listened to a plan that was far too radical, unnecessarily risky, and grinned.

So suffice to say, that although Lupe dy Cazaril may not be the most typical of Her own, he is far from the least. He has the recklessness of new growth in him, despite batterings and learned caution; he has the stinging spark of wit. He grows eagerly, hungry for new questions; he loves at a distance, tangled in his doubts. He loves, and is beloved by, a maiden. And a royesse.

When She reaches through/into/of him to do Her work, She brushes past his mind and it vibrates to match Her harmonies, if only for a moment. He has written poetry before. She pulls him in/out/past the echo that his third death has made, a sounding note whose vibrations are moving outwards, growing larger, creating just enough space for Her to—reach out. To sing.

She hauls up the trailing strands of Her Father where it lies spread out over three countries, like a boat-girl pulling up the nets before returning to harbor, like a seamstress trying to find the end of an escaped thread, She bundles it into Her hands like a dutiful granddaughter told to mind gran’s knitting.

She skims it, like a good milking maid with a dairy hoop for catching cream; She cards it like the shepherdesses with their woolen skeins; She runs Her fingers through it like every girl who has ever played with a younger sister’s hair. She presses a kiss to Her saint’s forehead, in the very last moment of his sainthood, and sets him back into his body, alone now, pushing a last burst of life into him like getting the butter down into the base of the mold, like the last sentence of a devastating argument.

He writes Her poetry, after.