by Meghan Cruickshank
In 1934, somebody set himself on fire outside the coronation hall. In 1935, the Ermine’s mother killed herself jumping into the river. Symmetrical, if anybody noticed. The terrible thing is that nobody noticed.
In 1936, eight members of a philosophy club disappeared. Their revolution was just a haze in the air between them; they barely knew what they were killed for. In 1937, somebody watching a battalion march the banners through the streets held indignation hot inside her chest. She even thought quietly: Damn you. In 1938, the Ermine twitched in his sleep.
The night before coronation, the Popess of Marrow came to a lapidary’s workshop in a sedan chair white as a tooth. The link-boy held a red lantern. While the carriers hauled in heavy breaths, the link-boy opened the door of the litter. He took the Popess’s four-fingered hand in its gauze glove. She alighted on the wet cobblestones like a lightning bolt strikes a tree.
In the gutter the rats cringed and fled. In the emptied city, unlit apartments shivered, in places nobody could see.
The lapidary Ina knew who had arrived. Her four candles flared all at once. The light careened through the thin diagonals in the ruby sealed into her polisher. To the eye they were barely a shimmer. Under a crystal loupe they looked like scars, but scars are inflicted on a body as it grows, so the body remembers its history. A crystal’s imperfections are other things enveloped. Rutile crystal or bubbles of air, sealed in, remembering their own histories. Pending, holding themselves still. These inclusions were not air, or rutile, or any crystal that a secular lapidary would know.
If the Popess had any suspicions, the ruby would confirm them. There was no time to extract it. Ina took her foot off the pedal and the polishing lap-disc hummed as it slowed. She wrung her wet hands in her apron. She prayed for mercy.
The Popess of Marrow wore a plate of ivory over her face. The mask made not even the slightest allowance toward the hills and valleys of a nose and mouth. It was featureless, an oval panel, a blank. The Popess made a gesture. The link-boy said, “May I come in.”
Ina stepped aside. The hem of the Popess’s cloak had stained gray the instant she stepped out of the litter onto the stone.
“You are Ina—the apprentice of Ousef, who cut the Peerless Eye,” the link-boy said that the Popess said. Her gestures, where they floated up from her sides, were no signed language; her face was too ceramic for grammar.
“This is true,” said Ina. Sometimes when Ousef drank he would say that name and weep.
“We are grateful,” said the link-boy. The Popess inclined her inscrutable head. “May he sleep peacefully.”
One of the state oracles might have seen Ousef’s death in the Eye. Peering into its birefacted realities through those many-louped headgear contraptions that made them look like upright insects. There had been just a small power in it before, as there was in all crystals, when it was claimed from a barbarian seraglio in the farlands. The rest was Ousef’s fault. But, as he would sometimes say when he was drunk and weeping, what else was there to be done? When a Pope came to your door…
And then he had died—seeing unprecedented visions—jaundiced and sweating. No subterfuge or conspiracy even, so she could have sublimated her grief by blaming a rival guild, a piqued minor god, the machine of the state. It was his liver.
“How may I serve you, Popess?” said Ina.
“In Ousef’s memory, the Congeries has extended an invitation to you for the coronation reception. I will send you a litter tomorrow night. You will not need to be dressed appropriately; it would confuse the guests. Do not wear silver.”
“It will be my pleasure, Popess.”
The Popess beckoned her link-boy and left the workshop. Ina’s candles all went out as the door shut, and she sat in the darkness for a long time.
A godawful hail rapped the roof of the sedan chair. The light was hushed by thick baize curtains that turned the space emerald.
The city straddled eight strands of a stinking river. Under the bridges they crossed, the water bloated with spit-colored foam. Patrolmen watched empty streets. They glared at the sedan chair from underneath awnings and salivated around the moist snuff in their lower lips.
Ina’s childhood had unfolded across those courtyards. She and her cabinet of friends, who seemed to have come from nowhere. She could not remember how she met them. Their so-called toys salvaged from mysterious construction sites that were there and gone like mirages. Back then the city had been multiplex. The children lived in their own timeless layer where things happened around them for no reason. Now nobody had children if they could help it, and there were no coincidences.
Hail fell in the fountains and on the iron patio tables at the cafes where nobody smoked a cigar, nobody nursed an infant, nobody remembered the war. Somebody closed the shutters of their apartment window, far above the arcades.
Ina meditated on the appearance of gems under a microscope. They contained infinities of cosmic, hexagonal portals. She often imagined herself walking in those glowing landscapes. She avoided it before sleep. Lying with her eyes closed, in the silence, she could make the image so vivid she thought she’d go insane. Sometimes she thought that wouldn’t be so bad.
She envisioned, for instance, the ruby that she’d sent off by courier that morning, which the Popess of Marrow might or might not have seen. If they suspected her of anything wouldn’t they have sent the Pope of Vitriol and his smiling lieutenants? People said there was blood in the stomachs of those delimbed torsos that washed up on the riverbanks. As though they gulped down their fluids while the saw went through their necks.
She had a sore spot on her thumb where her hands had slipped during the lapping. The missed cut could have been aesthetic, or it could undo everything.
The color of a ruby made it an organic world. Inside the red guts of a great being, with the faint gurgles and thumping of distant breath. Maybe distant gulping-down.
The best quality rubies were of a color called pigeon-blood. She didn’t know what had happened to the pigeon, but she supposed she might find out.
The Hall of St. Destin was old and peculiarly constructed. White banners stamped with the red Congeries icon rippled occasionally in drafts of unseen provenance. The atmosphere was not festive.
The Congeries opened the evening. Ina had never seen them all at once. Dressed in draping white, androgynously fluted, each wearing the full-face mask. As they filed in, their billowing high-collared coats took on the aspect of folded wings or the foamy wake of a swan. Their white heads were so motionless they looked like shaped tumors or extrusions on their shoulders. Like the heads were for show.
They stood just as any human could stand, lacking any kind of halo or nimbus, astonishingly mundane, at the top of the staircase. A boy in white livery delivered an uninspired speech on behalf of the gesturing Pope of Keratin and they returned to whatever chambers they spent their time in.
A nervous string quintet played while everyone waited for the prince to arrive. No folk hymns in their repertoire. At one time or another, they’d all been repurposed for rebellions. Certainly they could not play foreign or contemporary songs, universally degenerate. So the propaganda compositions were all that remained.
There were two songs she could barely distinguish even if they played one after the other. They were laughably mediocre. At the bottom of her heart, she believed the Congeries didn’t understand music.
Ina was dressed the plainest. The aristocrats of the Synod Legislata, who stood in stiff clades, must have been thinking, What is she doing here? In a previous time, they would have been disdainful. They were fearful now. There were half as many synodites as last year. Anything strange might be a secret test.
At the top of the grand staircase, the synodite Doyen Zrin appeared, husky, hunched, adjusting his sleeves. The ruby glittered on his lapel.
Ina’s breath left her all at once. The sore spot on her thumb panged. The delivery courier had gotten to Aspenrest in time. The ruby’s guise had worked; the reception’s security saw nothing. They had been lucky or blessed.
Zrin saw her and his eyes widened. This was a moment of such obvious conspiracy between them that Ina sought a discreet corner to put herself into, but she had no luck. Zrin sidled toward her. His elbows trembled in his too-tight evening jacket—tailored for the size he’d been three mysterious family disappearences ago. “I didn’t know you’d be here,” he said. His pitch veered. Had he already been drinking?
“I was invited by the Popess of Marrow in Ousef’s memory.” She sipped her mead, although she didn’t like it.
“How lucky,” Zrin said. They looked out into the sparse crowd.
“You are ready to do it, then,” Ina said.
“Yes,” Zrin said, under his breath.
“And the price?”
“Oh, please. I’ve practically been holding off for you. At least it won’t hurt as much as falling on a pitchfork.” He barked a laugh. Ten years ago, she would have been alarmed. Now she nodded. They’d all gotten laissez-faire with their lives. In particular those, like Zrin and her, who no longer had anybody to defend or love. Zrin scratched his ginger beard. “Though if I do it for nothing, it’ll be a shame.”
“Diamonds,” said Ina, “have fifty-seven facets. In other countries they cut fifty-eight now. They learned it from the easterners. The fifty-eighth facet shaves off the point. Without that fifty-eighth facet, even a diamond cracks, if the tip is damaged.”
“How do you find the tip?” Zrin said.
The string quintet abruptly began the national anthem. “God’s wounds,” Zrin said. Through the threshold, under the garland of white lilacs, stepped the smirking boy-prince. Sergey, the Ermine. His skin, eyes, and hair were as pale as a human’s could be.
Officially, he was twenty years old, but he was so tiny and smug that Ina realized immediately he could be no older than fourteen. Unless his brief stay in a Congeries shimmergaol, back when all this started, had stunted his growth.
“I should go,” Zrin said. Ina had the urge to keep him at her side by grabbing his sleeve, but she couldn’t ethically subject him to the Ermine’s attentions.
The whole plot was concocted because of the Ermine. The Ermine took an interest in Zrin. An aggressive interest, as any child might take at the earliest cusp of his sexuality if he had power over all bodies.
At first it had been a thought experiment. Then it seemed they ought to do it instead of the foolish young soldier or defiant maid who might come later and throw a good warm life away. There was warmth even now in places the Congeries couldn’t go.
The Ermine’s head tilted when he saw her. Probably wondering why such an ugly dress was at his party. The aristocrats moved aside and murmured. It took her a moment to realize he was moving in her direction.
As he got closer she had to marvel at how white and spotless his skin was. As though every birthmark had been scrubbed away. And she saw, deep in the pupils of his quartz-cold eyes, that there was something else, a glint, an iridescence. Like certain images could be barely glimpsed in a crystal if you turned it the right way under the light.
She thought of the folktales of winter things that climbed into the mouths of infants. And she wondered what was living in the boy-skin. If anything at all.
“Who are you?” said the Ermine, with disgust.
“The Congeries invited me, Your Infallibility,” said Ina.
Probably so everybody could watch the execution, though who knew when that was scheduled. “I’m a lapidary, Your Infallibility.”
His eyes brightened. “What did you cut?”
“Nothing famous. Do you know the Somber Heart of Apland?” A blood-black topaz; those who saw it felt intense grief. She didn’t know what it was good for, really. She had nearly lost her sight over it. Nobody but Ousef had ever looked at it after she was done. Though that was her fault for making something so unpleasant to look at.
Sergey’s expression told her that he didn’t know it.
Ina said, “My mentor, Ousef, cut the Peerless Eye. He would have come but he died.”
“I’ve looked in that,” Sergey said. “It was a little boring. I would like to see some battles in it or something like that.”
“Nobody can control what they see in the Eye,” said Ina.
“They should cut another one that shows battles.” His gaze drifted off her. “Have you seen Doyen Zrin?”
“No, Your Infallibility.”
Sergey left her without a farewell.
She was seated at the far end of the dinner table. On her left: a doyen whose known sexual controversies were inexplicably indulged. He was rapped on the knuckles by minor social reprimands like being seated at the far end of dinner tables. On her right: a general in a black jacket whose nervousness suggested the evening was not going well for him either.
The food was nothing to speak of, except for a fried tripe in thyme butter, a traditional dish somehow smuggled under the banal modernist taste of the Congeries. It was incredible. It broke Ina’s heart.
Most of the meal, Ina watched Zrin receive the Ermine’s clumsy flirtations, threats and jabs. They were seated a few chairs apart at the head of the table. Zrin was not convincingly enamoured, but was more and more convincingly drunk.
As the minutes dragged on Ina plucked at loose strings and twitched when the Ermine laughed. Any moment she thought the Ermine might leap up and accuse Zrin of boring him. The penalty for that crime was surely too ugly to be imagined. Maybe she was meant to be here. There was no point waiting for Zrin to manifest an acting ability.
She rehearsed the scene she was about to perform a couple thousand times. In the intermission before dessert, Ina minced over to insinuate herself into the Ermine’s awareness.
“Your Infallibility,” she murmured over Zrin’s shoulder.
“Who are you?” he said.
This threw her off, but she said, “I’m the lapidary. We talked before…”
He didn’t seem to find her familiar.
“I have a gift. Ousef made it—especially for you. He asked me and Zrin to deliver it to you directly.”
Zrin appeared somehow both relieved and terrified. It was distracting her. She needed the smooth quiet of the halls inside a ruby right now, but she had no space to imagine anything. The real presence of her body was too pertinent; she was very aware of her fingertips.
“Well, let’s see it,” the Ermine said.
Here, she gambled that the Ermine, whether because he was fourteen, or because his consciousness had been amputated, was basically stupid. “I’m afraid it looks like a secular gem under the light.” She gestured to Zrin, who unhooked his brooch and flashed it. His hands were clumsy; the gesture took too long. “But in the dark…we could demonstrate.”
“You mean right now,” the Ermine said. Suspiciously?
“Oh, whenever,” Ina said. “It’s very interesting, though, and it should only take a few minutes.”
Zrin cleared his throat. “I mean, it’s very loud in here. It would be nice to talk alone.” Finally he made himself useful.
The Ermine looked between the two of them. His expression was more vulpine than mustelid when Zrin spoke. Well, Ina remembered being fourteen too, wanting older men to want her. Wanting them to believe she was an adult. She’d imagined herself twenty years old too. And after all, did the Ermine know any other children? How many other human beings?
Or he was Congeries in a prince-suit, and he was gloating that they’d stepped so quickly into their side-by-side nooses.
“Sounds interesting,” the Ermine said.
When he left the table, the guards stepped to follow. The plan had a subclause for the security contingent, and Ina glanced at Zrin, who hadn’t wanted any innocents to die. But the Ermine snapped his fingers and they stood down. Baffled, Ina met a guard’s eyes by accident—a ruddy boy of twenty-two or so who visibly repressed a sigh.
It wouldn’t change the course of the plan, but it unsettled Ina. Because she recognized all in a moment that the guards were only there as government theatre, just like the lilacs, the string quintet, the fried tripe, the synodites, and every human in the Hall. The Congeries barely needed humans. They would have been completely happy governing a set of numbers on a page, fiat humans, like paper money stood in for gold.
In addition, it meant that the Congeries had some other way of keeping the Ermine from harm. Whatever it was, it was probably worse than guards.
The Ermine led them out of the ballroom, deeper into the candlelit Hall. Zrin’s hairline was damp. He stunk of vodka. By the time they arrived in a windowless function room, he was running his tongue over his teeth.
Was he losing courage? He murmured to her as they stepped into the darkness, “But you’ll have to…” She shushed him. Did he think she didn’t know?
Ina’s hand hovered on the doorknob as she considered whether to seal the room. A needle of light still lay across the floor. Let the spell find no doorway. Let the whole hall be swallowed. Every cold flower on the lilac garland, every chuffed guard, the bones of the animals that had died for the feast in the bellies of the synodites who ate while others went hungry, the string quintet sweating over their paltry arrangements of notes. Let the hall’s door be opened. Let the whole undoored country collapse into the ruby. The whole world. The ruby saw no borders. Let the ruby eat it all. “So what is it?” the Ermine said.
Zrin clicked his brooch and cleared his throat.
It wasn’t fair. There were others out there who hadn’t decided to die. Crystals knew no names or mercies. They saw chambers, hallways, crossroads. Ina shut the door. The draft kissed the small hairs of her neck.
She had told Zrin from the beginning what he was agreeing to. But one could forgive him a little hesitation.
“Well?” said the Ermine.
Zrin said, “Ina, I can’t.”
Her blood went hard. Her bones poked the inside of her skin. “You coward,” Ina said.
“It won’t even matter to them. They’ll make another.”
“What are you talking about?” the Ermine said, cross.
“You think this is the weak point?” Zrin said. “They’ll pull another out of the air—they’ll say he had a brother. Look at him. You think this charade relies on constitutional authority?”
The Ermine’s eyes were wide; even he would realize. Did she see fear flicker across his face?
She knew what Zrin was saying was false. She couldn’t say why. The memory was gone each frantic second she tried to pick it up, like water through the fingers of a cupped hand.
Zrin shoved him by the shoulders in Ina’s direction. “Look at him. He’s just a boy.”
The Ermine’s white face had gone pink; he would shout. Zrin wouldn’t be convinced. Well, who cared about anything. “Fuck you, Zrin,” Ina said, and then, before Zrin or the Ermine could react, she said the cleavewords.
The ruby wailed and shattered, and the room collapsed. Conceptually, dimensionally. It left existence. All three of them went with it. What was left where the room had been: a featureless memory. An uncomfortable feeling in an adjacent hallway. A slight draft.
In the crystal-room of the ruby, Ina struggled up from a position she understood to be prone. Her inner ear rejected the whole endeavour. She tasted bile.
That sore spot on her thumb throbbed. The transit was unsurvivable. Some quirk of mineratics or that custom-order lap-disc? In her haste, she must have miscut the ruby by the most miniscule fraction.
Didn’t matter. She wasn’t ever going to write a paper on it.
The Ermine was on his side, unmoving. His translucent skin refracted the inner light of the ruby into an arcane aura. She crawled to him, put her ear to his chest and discerned a weak heartbeat.
The possibility occurred to her that she had cut the ruby perfectly. He had just been protected by whatever the Congeries did to him. And as a side annoyance it had saved her too. Worse than guards indeed.
Zrin? No, she saw him around her. It wasn’t a gory death; his body fractalled and complicated the walls. At the truest level, a body was a slab of many miniscule chambers, with molecular lintels and arches and soaring ceilings. Rubies were, too, though better organized.
On her knees, she held her aching head. There was no sound, but there were other distant vibrations, like the creaking plates of a submarine, that she felt through her shins.
Not even the state oracles, with their regalia and their endless stock of prisoners to send exploring, could have found this space. It had no coordinates and no dimensions. Nothing was adjacent to it. It had no inside or outside. Theoretically, being here was as good as being dead, though on the downside she would have to spend a few weeks with Sergey the Ermine. Unless the two of them couldn’t starve.
Her head jerked up. Perhaps it was paranoia, but she swore flashes of white refracted around her in the red for an instant, shards of bone in meat. Her gaze drifted back down to the Ermine. His eyelashes trembled against his cheek like glints of moonlight in a mirror.
It was possible the Congeries could bring him back. Their capabilities were a mystery. Either way they had some kind of leash on this boy-skin they kept around. They could follow it right back here.
So—she had to finish the job. Or all of this would have been completely pointless. She knelt over the Ermine, her head spinning. Like many children she had played weird games on insects as a child, with that cabinet of mysterious friends. Had those games been easy? What had she felt then?
Zrin couldn’t have been right. Her certainty was stronger than ever. She rummaged up the memory from a dusty corner where she, everybody, had forgotten it. There had been a mother. A regent. She’d died.
And that had mattered. The lieutenants knocking politely on doors late at night. The riverbank bodies.
A crowbar was wedged between the tendons of Ina’s neck and it pried her skull slowly open at the base. She couldn’t think. They had come here to do one thing. Even if it didn’t work, surely she had to do that thing. Then, when the Ermine was dead, at least she could starve or go mad all by herself.
She curled her fingers around the Ermine’s neck. But she couldn’t convince her fingers to tighten. For many seconds, she held the Ermine’s throat gently with both hands. How she’d have held his head if she wanted to steady his spine, or prevent him from breaking. She’d never wanted to be a mother, but children were so unrealized, undecided. The Ermine, if he was in there, had probably never made a real decision in his life. And his mother had died.
There was something sick about killing an unconscious person. He wouldn’t even get the compensation of learning the things the living don’t know, in those last seconds.
Maybe he wouldn’t be so bad to spend a few weeks with. Probably, at some point, he would weep, and she would have to deal with the fact that he was a child and terrified. Or maybe he would kill her; that wouldn’t be a bad way to go, rather regal. Ina sat back. She pulled her gaze away from the Ermine’s closed eyes with great difficulty, as if he were saying something profound and she didn’t want to be rude. She put her face in her hands.
At first the Popess of Marrow was a cloud of shards, reflected in many incompatible facets of the ruby-room, among the Zrins. Then she had a hand to lift, and Ina heard something that was perhaps like the distant, toneless inner voice she heard when she read: “Not this again. Is it worth it?”
Already the Popess’s voice had been recoded into an accent of comfortably familiar haughtiness in Ina’s memory. But this wasn’t what the Popess’s voice sounded like; Ina could not hold on to what it sounded like.
She still sat on the Ermine’s chest. Her whole body hurt too much to force it to move. When the Ermine woke up, she’d figured, he’d be motivated to help her off. Any amount of time could have passed since she’d had that thought. Since then her mind had seemed dilute. Minutes or hours. Perhaps she had been thinking the one thought very slowly.
“I really did invite you as a guest of honor,” the Popess said. “And this is what you do. You people. You know, Vitriol is so disdainful of how few of you have done anything. But I’m on the contrary, on your side, I think. Amazed at how many of you have signed up to die for no reason other than your horrid pride.”
Ina’s hands turned to red liquid. There was no pain. She fell forward onto the whole, unscarred stumps and laughed in shock. Her hair swung out from behind her ears and brushed the Ermine’s face.
“Would you like to live?” the Popess said.
“In your fucked country?” said Ina.
“Ha!” So—they understood laughter. “No, I think not. But I could leave you in here,” the Popess said. “I could allow you a little room to wander. You dream of that, don’t you? The telescoping spaces. Like basilicas. I’ve been in those dreams.”
Ina knelt up and rubbed her stumps on her thighs. She expected them to be numb, but they were much more sensitive than her palms had ever been, and it made her flinch. “I don’t think so,” she said. Not what she’d thought she would say to the Popess’s face. Give us our country back! She didn’t have the energy for it.
“That’s what you all say,” the Popess said. “I would like to keep some of you. Like a museum to useless endeavours. I could put the music there, and the food, and so on. Pity.” The Popess contemplated her vision a moment. “I mean, you’re going to be forgotten, you know,” she said. “I’m going to take the Ermine back and close the coronation dinner—which we kindly held for you, we couldn’t care less!—and everything will go on as before. We have provided everything for you. You’re never satisfied.”
“There are dozens of you who have died like this. A man set himself on fire outside the coronation hall a few years ago. Have you even heard of him? Of course you haven’t—the Popess of Plasma erased him completely. So what did he die for? What did he accomplish? I really want to know.”
“Eventually something will work,” Ina said.
“Oh-ho, I wouldn’t be so sure,” the Popess said.
“We all try something. This is what I tried.” The Popess was silent, watching her. Still feeling herself owed a better explanation. “If you don’t know why we do it,” Ina said, “I can’t explain it to you. That’s all.”
“Well, as you like,” the Popess said. “I will be gentle.”
Ina felt nothing when it finished. Her last thought was, Who knows what will happen next year.
The Popess then spoke to herself, astounded, and sad. Her blank mask pointed at the Ermine. He lay in a pool of ruby-colored Ina; his eyelids twitched. Under there, perhaps he stirred, if he was still alive in some way. Even if one could hear her thinking, the Popess’s style of mind would give nobody any certainty.
She said, “You all just won’t stop trying.”
“The Pigeonblood” (© Meghan Cruickshank) was published in Issue 11 of Capricious. If you enjoyed this story, please consider subscribing to Capricious.