imaginary archive (ib_archive) wrote,
imaginary archive
ib_archive

[story] exposure

author: thornsmoke (thornsmoke)
email: lasyungwen [at] gmail.com



i. Duty

You are told from the beginning what an honor it is to be a guardian.

If you are a guardian, there are certain inexorable rules. You may not leave the city where the Qilin stronghold thrives. You may not consort with members of the outer world; you must leave no trace of your existence in the mortal lands.

You are the keeper of order within the Qilin ways. It is by your decree that, when the younger Qilin graduate from university, every mind that they have ever touched is scrubbed clean of knowing them, lest it compromise one of their later identities.

(In short, you're the dirt-guy, chosen because the tests show the ki-lin's favor upon you, the ki-lin's mark in your blood.) The mark is illogical; it does not always follow the guardian from one life to the next, but there is always one.

In return for your duties, the family gives you its whole allegiance. Your word is law; your whims shape commands. Because the root of the guardian's existence is this: if it comes to it, and discovery beckons or destruction threatens the family, you are to lay down your life in order to save the nature of theirs.

And it's easy. It's easy because from birth, this family is all you have ever known. The Qilin are both gift and fetter, world and prison. They ask everything of you because you are everything they need. Every guardian has understood that; honored that.

It has never come under question what might happen to the family if the ki-lin's chosen were not strong enough.

It has never come under question what might become of one whose mind is bent throughout their lives towards a single purpose, and then left with insufficient power to fulfill it.




ii. Story

Once upon a time, a unicorn offended an emperor.

It was a different age – an otherly age, blessed with the appearance of a ki-lin. In the emperor’s youth, the ki-lin would appear every evening under the tree wound with jasmine vines, and they would walk in the fragrant night talking of history and politics and theoretical dreams, watching the herons' long-winged strokes into the dark.

And the people, seeing this, were content, and the land was blessed with peace.

When he was fifteen years of age, the boy received the news that his father the emperor had died. A bloodless death during the inspection of the borderlands, which had snared him while he slept.

Some claimed him taken by the gods – a divine deed, performed with divine intentions. But another possibility soon came clear to the world as the boy, once enthroned, laid a heavy tax upon his people.

A blow to the head in the dark, some muttered.

A tap to a secret place at the first knob of the spine, some hissed, under the arm, by the collar bones, which had banished the emperor to a death-like trance from which he would now never wake.

A deadly poison, some whispered, poured into the gift of someone the emperor would have never thought to suspect.

The new emperor, undeterred by the rumors, unveiled his plan to the people only months after his father’s death. They would go out, he declared, from the cities and into the wilderness and past, into the barbarian lands. There they would conquer and prosper.

Troubled by the whispers of the people to the land, the unicorn came to the boy-emperor. She pleaded for peace, for the prosperity that had gifted his fields, for the contentment of those he ruled.

Under my rule, too, they shall be content, said the emperor. I shall make it a decree.

And another decree did he make also; that the ki-lin, called by foreign lands the unicorn, should be banished from his sight. She had spoken out against the emperor to incite feelings against he who ruled by divine right, and to do so was treason.

And the ki-lin nodded, and she did not speak, but went quietly away to the wood where she and the emperor had once been happy together. And the emperor prepared for war.

Over the days, however, he found himself dissatisfied still. Though he tried to put it from his mind, still he found it sounding through his thoughts again and again, twisting through his mind like a serpent that stole from him every fragment of peace.

At last, driven to the end of his wits, he called to his rooms the best and most loyal of his assassins, and told him to see the ki-lin to the end of her life.

And the assassin nodded, bowed, and went swiftly to his duty.

He tracked the ki-lin for eight days and eight nights. On the ninth day he came to a glade at the farthest edge of the emperor’s lands, and there spied the ki-lin resting by the stream, her head in a young girl’s lap.

Knowing that ki-lin will breathe fire at those who approach with impure intentions, he beckoned to the girl and got her from the exhausted ki-lin. Among the trees, he offered her whatever quantity of money she might desire, if only she would feed the ki-lin the apple he now offered her.

But the girl was no mere child; she was the oldest daughter in a family of sorcerers, taught to scent poison in her earliest years. And so she refused the fruit. Again he offered it to her, and again she refused.

When a third time she refused, he drew a long sword. As he raised the sword high above his head, however, the girl cried out. The ki-lin woke and sprang up to run, but it was too late. The assassin’s sword plunged into her leg.

Before the assassin could kill the girl, however, the girl’s brother – and the reason she had given warning – shot him through the heart. He fell into the river and was washed into the sea, where he came to rest at last in the sand. His bones faded to coral and later became a magnificent reef not far from the fishing villages to the south.

Brother and sister tended the ki-lin for three days and three nights, using all the sorcerous and medicinal arts of their family. Nothing availed, and she grew thinner and sicker with every passing hour.

Toward the end of the third evening, she spoke to them. "The two of you have been kind to me," she said, "for which I am grateful, and loath to ask more of you. Yet ask more I must, lest a life be extinguished that might have been spared."

The favor she asked was to hide her foal all their lives from the wrath of the emperor, which had indeed grown mighty in the absence of his greatest assassin. Brother and sister accepted, for a ki-lin's gratitude was honor and blessing unto the family so fortunately-placed as to receive it.

Three days more lived the ki-lin; on the third morning, she woke to cold sweat and a mire of worn memories that trapped her fast in nightmares.

They brought her water and sweet grasses and all the accoutrements necessary for a birth. They waited.

The foal emerged with the evening and the ki-lin's last cry into the night for a name they did not recognise, an impure, mortal little sight slippery with blood. They guided him carefully back to the house, where they told the story to their family.

They veiled him in enchantments, chained him to a mortal's appearance with spells and hid him among their oldest potions, at the stronghold where the emperor's word held less sway than the head of their family.

When he grew old enough to understand, they began to teach him the complex art of shapeshifting.

Meanwhile, to the waiting emperor there drifted back rumors of the powerful dynasty in the backwoods, and the disappearance of the ki-lin. In the capital, anxious upon his throne, the emperor knew of only one alternative to which he might turn in order to secure the death of the ki-lin's son.

Forbidding interruption, he descended into his library and there shut himself up for thirteen days and nights in which no sound or trace of him was heard. On the thirteenth evening, his servants grew wary of his absence, and stole among his books to look for some hint of where their emperor had gone. They found his body sprawled and broken on the stairs; his face was transmuted to a charred mask of ash and bone, and that was answer enough for what he had done.

As a mark of their supernatural origin, every emperor was gifted with the chance to summon once in their lives the great dragons that had long ago ravaged the country. To control their presence in the land was a terrible risk, and one to which power was forfeit: power that the emperor had clearly paid with his life.

Terrible revolutions arose, for the emperor had left no heir in his wake -- but that is a separate tale.

For an eternity of days and nights the dragon shadowed the land, searching for the ki-lin's son. But the enchanters had safely hidden him, and the dragon could not find him. Slowly, days blossomed into years.

Dwelling with the sons and daughters of a family of enchanters, bound into their house in a way that they were not, in his loneliness the ki-lin's son soon fell in love: a thing that burned and thrived in his breast and lit brighter than any known flame when he touched her.

Forsaking pure immortality for love, the ki-lin's son and the granddaughter of the woman who had tended her were married. In doing so, the ki-lin's dying favor crept further into their family. The enchantments that had rooted in blood and bone of the ki-lin's son showed seeds in their children, who found themselves capable of small magics without the ingredients necessary to potions and salves.

And those children bore children themselves, and found the magic growing rarer among their offspring, but stronger among those who did possess it.

Not only that. Poison's effects were lost upon them. Each member of their family, the seers among their children told them, had gained six hundred lives. To die in one shape without outward physical damage would trap them at that age forever in a kind of false immortality. Those who found themselves dead of injuries were reborn to new bodies, though they could remember nothing of their past lives nor attain any of their former powers without certain words in the ki-lin's lost language spoken to them to return their recollections to them.

With that knowledge, they blessed the ki-lin and the gods who had sent her, and they took the name Qilin in her honor.

But this too had its price. Births came more scatteredly among the generations. Some, thirsting for power, went off to war and to wreak an era of chaos upon the world with their desires. The family's naive delight transmuted to bitterness.

It was then - three generations later and in the midst of a full-fledged revolution - that the dragon discovered the house woven in sorceries. He called a challenge to the ki-lin's son, and the ki-lin's son could not refuse.

On the fields where he had watched his children run, tended the soil and watched his life blossom around him into contentment, the ki-lin's son fought the dragon. Days and nights and storms raged around them uselessly; they were evenly matched, the dragon and the ki-lin's son, and so they battled on.

His wife, however, ill-content to sit quietly in the house, sent her legions of grandchildren searching through the books for spells, crafting new enchantments to hold, to break, to bind. Together, generations gathering, they forged a new spell. And as the fight waned, the family circled the dragon.

The ki-lin's son, bone-weary and mortally wounded, they changed to a prison to hold the emperor's monster. The dragon they doomed to an endless fate of playing prisoner. His only respite would be to speak truth and prophecy to those who came to ask him of their lives.

Over these two charges they appointed the sorceress who had created the spell. She became the Qilin family's first guardian, whose charges numbered three: first, to guard the secret of the dragon and its prison; second, to preserve the magic and sanctity of the family, and honor that first promise to the ki-lin for which they had named themselves by upholding her bloodline forever; third, to protect the Qilin against all harm.

For, in bestowing upon themselves what only gods were meant to possess, the Qilin had barred themselves from the outside world.

They were left with only each other.




iii. Judgment

What a picture they made: the swarthy man at the wheel and the tiny girl in the front seat, her arms laden with ash and burned film. Long ago, it might have made a mad painting: of chaos and revelations. Artists would have lined up across the land for a mere chance to commemorate the moment in a scrawled sketch.

"Did we hit all the newspapers?" Imnuel said.

Although, Idony thought, they would have undoubtedly left out the tic at the corner of Imnuel's eye. Her free hand twitched in thought of smoothing it, but did not lift.

Aloud she said, "We got the last of 'em just fifteen minutes ago." Her small fingers pinched and screwed the flame from a match. She dropped its broken body to the car floor. At his severe look, she began to ostentatiously dust floury ash into the plastic container balanced on her knees. "Quit fucking around, guardian. You'd know the answers to half the questions you're asking me if you'd just focus."

"I'm focused," he said. Amusement warped his classical features. In the moonlight, the coarseness of constant sun and a daub of Gypsy blood in his veins grew muted, the soft edges of his mouth less pronounced and the thickness of his brutal black hair nearly sleek.

A tiny jewel startled her with a wink and a jump on the gold hoop through one earlobe as he turned his head back to the road. "Don’t condescend at me, guardian’s-successor."

The car jerked into another lane, nearly driving the container from Idony's hands. Plastic scraps fluttered like hoary wings, out and in the air. In the front seat, Idony snatched at the fallen pieces, slammed a lid on them, and clutched the container close.

"Yeah," she said. "Sure, you're focused. On panicking. Don't be a wise-ass, it's making you drive like a five-year-old with candy in both hands. Cheer up. If you're nervous enough, we can have a five-minute break and you can scream into the evening like a little girl. You just have to do it before we get to the hospital." She fanned herself. Her hands stirred only hot air about the cramped confines of the old car. "Damn, it's hot. Aren't we rich enough for air-conditioning in this life?"

In the mirror, she saw him slide another dark look at her. A frown flickered between her thick brows. Decisively, Idony squashed her nose to rival any pig's snout and rolled her eyes back as her tongue lolled from her mouth.

Imnuel cast an appeal skyward and swerved again. The sudden swing threw Idony flat against the window. "Don't make faces at me," he said.

"Then don't make your fucking faces at me," she answered, muffled, and carefully prised her cheek from the glass. "What do you want, anyway?"

"I just--" He winced and slapped the wheel. "Would you stop swearing?"

"I've always sworn," she pointed out instantly. "I've been swearing for the past three fucking centuries and it's never bothered you."

The retort silenced him for a moment. Surprise fluttered in her bones. It was an open mystery in the family that Idony remembered nothing from her previous lives save names and physical habits: how she walked, how she gestured when she spoke, how she called the five cousins names when they tried to dump their zucchini on her at dinners.

To speak of old lives to Imnuel, particularly, was danger. There were memories there, cousins had told her, though they would never say more. But what did danger from Imnuel matter now?

"I just..." he said. "I keep thinking you’re angry with me, for some reason."

She hissed out between her teeth, tugging on her braids. "Don’t take it personally," she said at last. "It isn’t."

"Also," he continued dryly, "for the past three centuries, you were using the body of a twenty-nine-year-old. It's a little different to hear such words dropping from the mouth of a..." Her eyes found his again. He swallowed the term that had been on his tongue. "What appears to be a well-brought up little girl of ten years old." She looked away. A lean grin found its way into his voice as it curved his mouth. "With her lovely black hair in lovely black plaits, and her wide blue eyes so--"

"Just so we're clear, guardian," Idony said, baleful, "once this birth's over, I'm never wearing plaid again. Respectable is just not me." She tugged on her skirt. Her slim hand cut through, ivory in the dark. "What's the window of birth-time?"

"Two hours and five minutes ago by my watch."

"So that's two hours and ten minutes ago by any normal watch. Last name of Osborne, so we’ve got that to go on at least, thank Lance." Idony propped an elbow up and looked for something to stare at – anything but Imnuel’s profile, silver and serene under the vanishing moon. "Why the fuck can't people give birth at nice normal hours?"

"Because nice normal people are not the kind we're dealing with. Besides, while we're on the rhetorical questions, you might as well ask yourself why Derek and Aradia decided that it was high time their bodies got caught up in a fiery wreck. They still had a couple decades to go on those lives."

They were Derek and Aradia, she thought irritably. There didn’t have to be reasons. They were one of the earliest of the Qilin family, and the ones who had taken to their immortality best – which meant they had suicided by several conventional ways and others not thought possible until they’d tried it. In the sixties, they had done a run through all the drug overdoses possible in alphabetical order. Apparently they’d paused somewhere in the Os and gotten caught up in a religious streak instead.

(They were currently committing every sin in the Bible – whether by alphabetical order or not, she had not been told.)

Distractedly, Idony huffed on a window. "Way ahead of you. I went up to the attic and asked the dragon before we left the house." She started to trace the slow curve of a heart. "You know, while you were in the bathroom making nice with your hair."

He studiously overlooked the jab. "What'd he say?"

"Apparently they finally decided that they wanted to be special for once. They want to be twins in this life." Her eyes narrowed at the heart. With a vicious wrench, she scrubbed it from the window, then pressed her wrist to her brow. It came away shining with sweat. "As if we don't have enough problems without their going out and coming up with ways to commit incest."

"What problems?" Imnuel said.

Her face tightened. "Oh, look, here comes that tone again -- the "I'm the family guardian, descendent of that first fucking ki-lin that came in and fucked us up into its own immortal dynasty, I can fix anything!" voice. Don't you ever get sick of trying to do things for other people?"

He waited.

At last, into the empty rush of car noises and his unresponsive silence, she said, "I want to travel."

His eyes did not turn from the road. She thought irrationally that she should have said more – anything to drag that opaque glance from the road to her. To her. "The guardianship," he said. "You know that after I finish this life--"

"Fuck the family guardianship," she said, quite calmly. He tipped her a look then, in passing. Her pleasure fled, changing in an instant to fury as irrational as that first wish. It had been the casual glance of someone who breathes duty and who trusts others to do the same. Even without looking she knew what she would see: his steady confidence in her, burning like lamps through night.

The idea curled her fingers into fists, pulled her shoulders tight. It had been too long since she had boxed him over the ear, watched him hate her and forget that he had ever trusted her to do anything else. (The memory came free with the easy knowledge of an old life; but that had been long ago, and the girl who'd lived it was dead.)

She’d let him trust her, that past Idony whose deeds she remembered only in scraps and echoes of instinct. Part of that meant that she must have trusted him, once.

She’d been a fool.

"You'll do it," he said.

It had been too long, and they were not the Idony and Imnuel that they might have once been. She could not explain to this collected and impassive guardian what she had never explained to herself: the idea that in traveling she might somehow scratch the memories of past lives that the ritual words spoken over every Qilin at birth had not restored to her. That she might find, in the scattered ruins of a foreign land, pieces of who she had once been – and, perhaps, the power to take the position everyone seemed intent on pushing upon her.

To offer it to her was to offer it to a child, unready and unseasoned, and to pit her against all the troubles of the world. Letting her take the guardianship meant letting them fling themselves off of the sharpest precipice the world had to offer, with only a child’s strength to hold onto the rope in the hopes that she might somehow drag them back to safety.

It was a fool’s decision, a suicidal thought.

And she could not stop them.

"I want to travel," she repeated lamely, feeling the weight of all the explanations she could not yield like a weight around her throat. "In this life." With every second she grew louder, breaking her words into piercing shards. "So, really, fuck the family guardianship. Fuck the family, fuck our millennia of life, and -- you know what?" He started to speak. She overrode him, eyes burning with fury and something that stung of salt. "Fuck you."

He would not stay. Even for her, even for a mere few years longer while she wandered and learned of what she had been and looked for some way in which she could take care of the position she had never asked for without getting them all killed.

Worst of all, she could not ask why he would not; there were things that she could not tell him either.

She hissed the words again, feeling the release of the tension in her bones. Her voice flickered to a shout; her hands clutched knots into her skirts, knuckles bristling between the folds in bone points. Desiring that brief moment of burning peace between fury and regret, she said it three more times, feeling the edged syllables melt to poison, raw and scorching in her throat.

When Imnuel answered, he spoke ruthlessly, in a thoughtful voice that sliced through all her defenses. "I was there when they finally pulled the fingers of your body's dam from yours. Not just eleven years ago. I was there the first time, standing by the scales. I said the words--" He cut himself off with a silent smile, lucent in its grimness. "Do you know what Idony means?"

She made a noise. "Imnuel--"

"We knew the birth was coming. We even knew where, and who would bear the child. So oddly strange that we should have everything perfectly planned for once. You were to be the first new birth in -- nobody wanted to look up how long. So I spent three days trawling through books, looking for something that would suit a girl recognised from draconic prophecy. And finally, in a book of mythology, I found it."

She could not look at him, at his long hands and clenched face, but she could see it in the bare curves of gold skin reflected back from the glass and the tremor in his voice, as if on the brink of some long fall from which he could never return.

"Idony," he said. She wanted to close her eyes to hear him say it again, just so, forever: that pale voice as though barely stirring from the midst of a dream, as though he had never seen any of her flaws and the way she wanted to hit him sometimes, a desire that sounded down to her marrows. "The name of a Norse goddess whose duty was to guard the apples of eternal youth."

He was not speaking of her but of her duties - her responsibility to replace him when his body gave out and he passed from one life onto the next. The irony did not escape her: eternally young and dying still.

And he wouldn't stop. Nothing she could do, short of flinging them both off the road with a single well-timed jerk of the wheel, could quiet him or those memories before the dark: that space she barely recalled before she had opened her eyes for the first time and the third as Idony.

She threw her head back in a scream.

It streamed like song run to madness and chaos, thin and high, tearing out the slits of the unsealed windows. Through the noise Imnuel drove unflinching onward, his shoulders grimly hunched against the sound.

"Well," he said when the last of her voice trickled away, "that’s probably our scream quota for the evening." He turned the car onto an exit.

He wasn't angry. Some little anxiety unwove from her bones, and then she was furious again. What did it matter if he was angry with her? He deserved to be disappointed, to be made wrathful over and over for trusting her with something that she would have never entrusted to herself.

Still, her voice was only a little hoarse as she answered, "Always glad to be of fucking service." When he glanced at her for the words she grinned back at him: a sharp and empty grin that flashed like a skull from her pointed child's features.

Before he answered, a shadow swooped in outside the window behind his shoulder. He saw the sedan pull close behind them as she did, close enough to ram. The beginning of a warning condensed on her tongue, and she spat it just as the black car crashed into them. Tires squealed. The screech of metal drowned all sound but that from her ears.

Imnuel jerked the gears in a frenzy, pressing hard on the pedal. As distance opened up between the two cars, Idony whipped back to look at the driver, but-- "Fuck," she said, "tinted glass."

"And they're staying too close for me to contain an explosion the way I usually can," Imnuel said, measured and steady. "And we're driving too fast for me to aim it. Idony, can you feel any--"

"Fuck you," she bit out as the car shook and groaned beneath them. Desperation and madness mingled: the first thing that everyone ever asked in any time of trouble was about power. They’d driven the point home by now: that she could not and would never save them without power of her own, and yet was still their choice of successor to the position meant to keep them safe. "No, I haven't manifested any fucking guardian powers for this new fucking emergency, I can't save us. I couldn't save a fucking fish, let alone you. I'm a useless brat still too young to sit in the front fucking seat. You're on your own."

A sharp bang broke from the back; another, and the glass in the back splintered as something small and black struck the back of her seat with a hot beat. She pushed her hand over the spot; her palm grazed a point too smooth to be sharpnel embedded in the plush.

"Bullets," Idony gritted. The wind shrieked through the car; she had to raise her voice to be heard. "They – hell, bullets. Do they think we're in a fucking mafia movie?"

Imnuel made a helpless sound but did not curse. As they rushed past a red stoplight he said, "We're only a mile from the hospital." He flipped her a coin, a blur of jerky silver in the moonlight.

Her hand snapped closed over it. The edges scraped her palm with little teeth; it wasn't a coin after all. She turned it up to see the label of a beer company on its back.

"Gosh," she said viciously, stuffing it in a pocket. "A bottle cap. You're so generous, Unc' Imnuel. That and a quarter will get me a kick in the head."

"I've spelled it with an unseeing," Imnuel said. "I don't know how long it'll last - half a day, I'm betting. Get to the hospital, I'll catch up with you when I can. If I don't get there in an hour, take them home. Can you jump?"

She stared at the land whipping past, the ribbon of grass snaking thick and thin at the side of the road. In the side mirror she could see the other car pulling close again, the black circle of a gun barrel pressed against the window, aiming for them. For Imnuel, who seemed coolly, blithely, utterly unaware that his slim dark head could be blown to bits with another shot.

She could tell him to drive past and on, into the sunrise and out of the Qilin family's insanity. She could tell him--

She couldn't.

There was duty and there was Imnuel. He would never forgive her if she chose anything other than the first, and she couldn’t risk that.

Low and rough, she said, "You're such a fucking moron, guardian." She leaned over, pressing her small hand to his jaw, and kissed his forehead before he could flinch. Fingers on the door handle, she stopped. "Get back to the house safe or I will make you drink hemlock through your next three hundred lives."

"Promises, promises," Imnuel said from behind her, sounding unruffled. She opened the door and jumped.




She made it to the hospital without incident; it was not difficult to rush in with her small slim fingers knotted together, her head held childishly high. It was early still. The waiting room was nearly empty.

"I'm-- I'm looking for the Osbornes," she told breathlessly a nearby lady in a white coat. "My mama's Osborne. Osborne, um." Perhaps she was overplaying the role; Idony thought at the doctor's arching brows. It had been a long time since she had been ten years old, and a longer time still since she could remember any of it. "She-- Grandpa dropped me off to see my brother," she went on, her stubborn voice quavering. "Maybe brothers. Mama said it could be--"

"The Osborne woman," the lady's friend interrupted. He grinned down at her, all dark hair and flashing lovely smile. She thought of Imnuel still driving calmly on, waiting for her to call Derek and Aradia back to life. "I was there for her. Come on, honey, I'll take you to her." He held out his hand. She grasped it trustingly, clinging a little as she thought a child might.

"Your mama's going to be asleep," he explained as they went together down the halls, in the refined voice of an adult aware that he is speaking to a young child. "She's very tired, and there's something wrong with your brother. Your little sister's fine, of course--"

"Twins?" she interrupted. Some of her strain edged her voice. He looked at her sidelong as they continued.

"Yes," said the doctor. "You've a lovely brother and sister. Unfortunately, your brother doesn't seem to be waking up properly right now. It's called a 'coma'. You know what those are, honey? Ah, good. He's a medical mystery, and he's at the end of the room for studies. Your sister, though -- she's a proper screamer. You'll see. Here," he stopped; she marked the wing and the room's place warily. "There you go, honey." He beamed down at her. "Be quiet now, won't you? Your mother's had a hard time."

"I will," she promised, smiling a demure smile, and walked in.

The door closed and left her with the Osborne woman, dam to the bodies of Derek and Aradia. They shall leave Lady Osborne alone, and you shall have your chance, Lance had said, and he'd been right.

She found Aradia first, lying quietly in the woman's arms. Her steps clacked through the empty space as she walked forward in her muddy dress shoes. Carefully, she prised the baby from the woman's arms. The girl came suddenly free, catching Idony off-balance; she stumbled from the bed.

At the sudden space between her arms the woman cried out, fumbling to find the thief, clawing blind strokes through the air. "My Angela--!" But she was only half-awake; the name she had given to the child slurred, caught in her teeth. In a moment, with a little push from circumstance and the bare skimmings of power that Idony possessed, she would be asleep again.

Idony only looked at her, feeling her eyes grow flat and unfriendly. Her small hands curled about the squirming child.

"She's not yours," she said, and watched carefully until the woman slumped back. Then she closed her eyes.

Darkness filtered out the last white flicker behind her eyelids. To the shadows in the corners and the whimpering infant in her arms, she said the ritual words.

The baby shuddered as she drew her unseeing fingers lightly across its face, but gave neither word nor cry. For a moment she was unsure as to whether it had worked. Then the child coughed.

"Hurts," she said in Aradia's familiar nasal voice, shrill and small in the closed turquoise room. Idony's whole body seemed to untense. Her eyes flew open. "The explosion..."

"Little idiot," she whispered, sinking to the floor. The baby was a still weight in her arms; she clutched it uncomfortably, cursing the shortness of her limbs. She'd grown used to the movement of a mature shape. That old studied grace only made this body ridiculous in motion. "If you wanted to go to it, there were plenty of easier ways we could have done it. Fuck, we could have operated to have your heart taken out under anesthesia and bled you to death. Perfect double-death. You didn't have to do it like that."

"Would have been no heart to take. Belongs to Derek," Aradia murmured. Her half-lidded infant's eyes snapped open, showing irises like clusters of tiny sapphires. "Derek. It was supposed to be a--"

"--twin birth. Yes, I heard. What the fuck were you thinking?"

"Derek," Aradia repeated, and some inflection in the name tweaked it to hysteria. "Where is he? Derek --" her clumsy fingers pawed at Idony, eyes wide and searching as she writhed. "Where is he?"

"He must have died a full minute after you, or more," Idony said grimly. "We're going to have to phone Lance and get him to broaden the window of birth. The twin that came with this body managed to coma himself somehow. Derek's soul must have gone to another body. Wrecks aren't a fucking science, Aradia, you couldn't have been sure--"

"We were!" Aradia screamed, the words barely audible in the shriek of her baby lungs. "Do you think we're stupid? We made sure. But--" Tiredly, she flopped back against Idony. "The-- the wreck. It came too early. Fire bloomed up before we did anything. We didn't do it. He isn't here?"

In the thin silence that trailed after Aradia’s words, Idony sat back on her heels to think. A fiery wreck that they had meant to cause but hadn't planned at quite that time. She might have believed it an accident of anyone but Derek and Aradia, who loved each other beyond anything else, and who were, by now, artists in death.

It had been ages since any of the records had shown a discovery of the Qilin - they'd always had someone with the mindfuckery gifts in the family to prevent anything from happening. But there was no such thing as coincidence, and on the night of a Qilin rebirth someone had tried to kill Imnuel, the innermost Qilin.

This was not a plan of discovery. It was a plan to break and destroy the Qilin.

"Fuck," said Idony. She fumbled in her pockets. Her hand closed on something small and cool. "We've got to get out of here."

"You think?" Aradia said. "Can I have some clothes, please?"

"Yeah, sure, while we're breaking the law with a ten-year-old driver, we might as well knock over a baby clothes store. Are you out of your fucking mind? We have to find Derek, make sure Imnuel is okay, and save our collective fucking asses. We don't have the fucking time to cater to your baby fashions."

Absently, she slipped the bottle cap between her teeth and bit down. Power discharged in a rush on her tongue, bitter and copper-sharp. When it faded, she spat its remains to the ground and opened the door into the hall.

In her arms as they moved, Aradia sneezed a dainty sneeze. "There is absolutely no reason why I cannot save us in style."

"If I'd known you were going to be this big a pain in the ass, I wouldn't have saved you at all," Idony said. "Okay, the bottle-cap Imnuel gave me will stop us from being noticed, which is going to play merry hell with driving on the highway. If you push the pedals for me, we could make it. Tell me your sparks still work."

Aradia laughed, clear and low. "What," she said, "have your gifts not manifested themselves yet, little guardian?"

Guardian. Imnuel driving with blood splattered in a long curving streak up his cheek and his eyes empty as glass, never looking back from the plaid heap at the side of the road. His familiar face under her hands, the press of her lips to his forehead which burned as though with fever. Imnuel, who had never missed a moment of his guardianship's duties before but who not come for the ritual, even after three hours.

"Fuck you and the fire that scorched your brain to ash," Idony said viciously. They turned a corner. "This day cannot get any fucking worse. I do not care that you've been born today and you think you deserve your fucking leisure, we don't have time for your games."

Electricity jolted at her elbow. She jumped, swearing. Nurses rippled past, blind to the girl stealing children from the hospital.

Aradia laughed. "My sparks still work. In case you're wondering." A baby furrow etched her brow. "Although there's something-- it's so hot..."

Idony wondered whether she could drop Aradia down a stairwell and pretend it had been an accident. "Stop whining about the temperature, you're a baby in swaddling. If you're too warm, nakedness can and will be an option."

"No, not bad heat -- there are things, shimmering-- things you see in the air, in the sun, in day..." She crumpled, then cried out, lashing in Idony's arms with a wild screech.

Automatically, her arms clenched. Idony forced them loose; the presence of a Qilin mind in the body meant that the bones broke and bent less easily than those of ordinary infants, but still there was always the chance that she could deform Aradia somehow.

Still, it was hard not to clutch her as Aradia went on screaming, as Idony thought of the words that had called Aradia's old memories and powers back to life. It couldn't have been the ritual; it couldn't have been her fault. But still there was that dreadful certainty curving under her bones with the newness of ice on winter's first day.

She had only that power to call the Qilin minds to rebirth, and if she hadn't even that--

"Aradia," she said. She closed her hand over the tiny shaking fist and held it still. "Aradia."

A breath shivered through. Idony shuddered with it. "The fire," Aradia rasped after a long interval. "It wasn't us, we ran over a-- he left a bomb under the wheels, he was expecting us at that time of night, he knew we didn't want to kill anyone so he left a bomb on the road and waited, and-- camera--"

"Who?" Idony demanded. "Aradia, nobody outside the family can time it so exactly. What are you--"

"He took a picture, he took a picture as we died, you can see Derek's face--" With her free hand she turned to grip Idony's arm, tight from fear; her eyes shimmered with the reflection of the past, pupils flaring and backlit by some unholy flame. "He's got Derek, you've got to find him, you've got to get him to let Derek go." Her sob scratched the air. "He's trapped inside the lines, chained with ink and paper, he's afraid, he's afraid and he thinks that I'm dead and you've got to find him, you've got to--"

"Shut the fuck up," Idony bit out. "Get your head straight, you've got to be calm. What the fuck is going on?"

Aradia met her eyes, with a look so distant from a child's that the last curses uncurled from Idony's lips before she could voice them. "He can still take the twin body." She exhaled giddily. "You need to go get the other baby."




They hurried back through jumbled and crowded halls, passing invalids and doctors with crippled sight who did not see them. Finally, at the top of a third staircase, they found their way back to the wing where Aradia's new body had been born, and stepped inside once more.

Stillness tumbled over them: an awful, closed peace. Nothing existed in the room but the awful turquoise walls, the rows of beds and the nearby machines slack with disuse. At the far end, wired and hooked into a labyrinth of machines, they saw a tiny form barely breathing.

As they passed the bed, Aradia said, "Is that my--"

Idony didn't spare even a look for the woman collapsed on the cot. "She's nobody," she said. The baby looked nothing like Derek's last body, though it was rare that two bodies in a sequence ever did. She pulled the electrodes off and flung them away, seizing the tiny body and sliding him to fit in her arm, clasping him awkwardly close.

It was a long moment before she felt the heart thud into her hand.

Aradia turned from the woman to look at the boy, his milky skin clean of color and his tiny limbs dangling. "Derek," she whispered, child's voice husky. She reached for him. His eyes did not open.

Leaving the machines whining and beeping behind her, Idony made for the door. "I haven't said the ritual, Aradia, don't waste your time. He's just a baby right now."

The infant girl's head whipped around, so quick that it jarred to the very bones in her arm. "He's not just a baby," she said fiercely. "Never. Don't underestimate him."

"Whatever. You can strut your Romeo and Juli-fucking-et stuff after you explain what the fuck's going on."

They made it through the rest of the hospital in silence, Idony panting with the weight of the two babies, and plunged into the parking lot. Dawn gilded the open trees as the heat swamped them, cars crammed into every corner.

Into her shoulder, looking abruptly away from the other baby in Idony's arms, Aradia mumbled, "Someone knows. A photographer. He took a picture of the wreck just as Derek died. He still has the photo or the film."

"Fuck," Idony said between her teeth, against heat and circumstance. "We go around killing fifteen newspapers and their coverage and still one of you gets your tiny, ugly fucked-up soul stuck in the photograph. What the fuck have I told you about that?"

"It was a setup."

"How'd you fucking guess?" She paused, glancing around, and finally found a car that might allow her legs to reach the pedals. "Fuck, a car for midgets. Can you spark this open?" She bent to allow Aradia to splay a little starfish hand open over the lock of the car. Electricity threaded from her fingers into the metal. They both heard the purring click as the door unlocked.

"Great," Idony said. She dumped the two infants in the back seat, buckled them in, and started the engine. "I don't suppose your pretty little visions got a fix on where to find that photographer."

"Near here," Aradia whispered, quiet with the love she could not speak for the baby sleeping in Idony's arms.

Idony stamped on the pedal; the engine roared. As she backed out, she met Aradia's silent eyes in the rear-view mirror.

"You know," she said, and stopped. "You know he's going to be all right, don't you?"

Aradia did not speak.




The city was nearly empty in the parts by the hospital; everywhere they looked the houses were grey and creaking, with beams that sloped oddly from the roofs like the spokes of a broken umbrella. The skies bled rubies and scattered violet smoke, and its colors cast a carnival across a bleak little neighborhood. At Aradia’s muted instruction they turned into it, driving up the street until they struck the dead end.

"There," Aradia said. Idony peered out the window.

"Wow," she said, after a moment. "That looks like – I don’t actually know what to call that. It’s what Van Gogh’s cut-off ear would look like if Van Gogh’s ear were a house."

"And that made so little sense that I can only conclude you are going out to do violence upon his person," Aradia said.

"You know you sound like Lance when you talk like that, don’t you?"

"Don’t bother me with trivial details," Aradia said. "Go do violence unto him. With all of your ten-year-old brute strength."

"Fuck," Idony said after a moment. "That’s really not going to work, is it?"

"We could be vandals," Aradia offered. "We could set his house on fire."

Idony stared back at the child sitting placidly straight among her swaddlings. "I know you mean well, but coming from a baby’s mouth that sounds really disturbing."

"Oh, well, if we’re considering age-appropriate antics, shall we toilet-paper his house instead?" Aradia sounded irritated. "We don’t have time for squeamishness. This would all be a moot point if you’d manifested some—"

Her teeth clenched. "Look," she said, hearing the guttural note flex tensely through her voice, "I know that everyone would like it much better if their next guardian had some fucking magic to speak of, to protect them. I don’t, so fuck that and fuck you. Maybe you don’t have time for squeamishness, but I don’t have time to listen to you whine all day. So what have we got?"

Silence fell. Then, Aradia said, "We’ve got a little girl with her hair in plaits, wearing a cute little skirt."

"If you are thinking what I think you’re thinking, you better have some good fucking proof that the photographer is what you think he is, and a fucking good way of killing him painfully before we go for that plan."

"No," said Aradia, "and you have the mind of a gutter. What I mean is, innocent little girls can get farther with people than zapping them with electricity can."

Another pause.

"Fucking hell," Idony said, grim-jawed. "At least the plaid'll get a good workout before I burn it."




The photographer was a small man - only a little taller than Idony. She had only a moment to notice this – and his empty hands – before the plan Aradia had so painstakingly outlined went flying from her head. She’d never been very good with plans anyway.

"Hi, morning," she said, tipping her head up for a bright smile. He stepped back, presumably blinded by her radiance, and she caught at the doorframe and followed him inside. "I’m here for some photographs you took yesterday. You know, when you left that fucking bomb on the road and killed my cousins. They’re not very happy about that, by the way," she added. "Although I’m sure you could have guessed that already. You’ve got to be a clever guy if you managed to trip us up."

The house creaked with their steps; in the drumming of her ears she could hear some little part at how outrageously less than clever this whole plan was, how likely it seemed that she should be caught and the whole family caught with her. It made no sense! She was a fool! Plush bears had more brains than she did!

Why?

Another little voice piped up, and offered a memory of Aradia saying, if only you could trigger your powers... Desire was not rational, it said coldly, and You’re going to die.

"You’re a—"

"Bingo!" she said, drowning out all voices but her own. They moved through the kitchen together, he back and she forward in an inexorable dance. It was too late to turn back; she could only hope that he had enough information to terrify him and not enough to make him try cleverness. "I’m a Qilin. Successor to the current guardian, in case you’re one of those fuckers who cares about rank. Since, you know, I’m one of those fuckers who cares about it when people try to kill my family.

"I mind especially," she added, "when they try to get me to ascend to guardianship early. Derek and Aradia were up for it, so maybe it was forgivable. But Imnuel?"

He was still backing from her; either plaid skirts had lately grown terrifying or he knew more than he was letting on. If he supposed her to be one of the ordinary Qilin, with their regulated powers and their measured strengths, she might be able to bluff him out of it, and get home to have Lance and Imnuel take care of it.

If Imnuel had survived.

"The one thing about being a Qilin," Idony said lightly to his speechlessness, grinning to see him scrabbling to uphold the distance between them, "is that nobody can touch you. Even if you’re powerless, even if you’ve got nothing for you and you’re all weaknesses plus all that fuckery with the cameras, still, nobody can touch you. Why? Because your family’s going to come after the guy that fucks you up, and they’re going to fuck him up, and they’re going to fuck his family up, and – hell, they might just do the whole neighborhood." She smiled, a cat’s thin smile. "If they’re feeling nice. Where’d you stash the photos?"

He was afraid; she could see the fear burning clear through his veins down to his bones. Still he conjured some bravado out of nowhere, crystallized it to sanity incarnate, and said, "Sweetie, a-a-are you feeling all right?"

"Not really. The whole day’s been crap. Someone shot at the guy who brought me to life. But this part’s looking up, since if you don’t give me the photograph, I will personally make sure that your organs explode one by fucking one." She smiled. "How’s that for a pick-me-up?"

Silence drifted in between them; a sudden shiver snaked up her arms as the photographer met her eyes.

The fear in his face had disappeared.

"I don’t know," he said slowly, keeping the table between them. Abruptly, he reared back, straightening from his stoop, a shape turned black by the blaze of sun behind him. "Didn’t you say that you were the successor to the guardian?"

She froze. In the stillness, she heard the unfurling of a slow smile. "I was told," the photographer said, "that she had no powers, that one."

And he came back around the table toward her. She could not seem to move, to bolt, to run; if she did, she thought, he’d know that he was right.

"Honey," the photographer said. His hand came down heavy on her shoulder, brazen and flashing with heavy rings. "sounds like you’ve got a hell of a story for me. And trust me, this is one that I’m more than interested in hearing."

He had backed her into a corner now; the edges of a window dug into her back. Sun burned through the curtains and into the bones of her back. She met his eyes, feeling something in her glance transmute to steel. The terror clanking through her veins had started to dissolve into something else: something familiar, and dangerous…

"Get your hand off of me," she said quietly.

"You said it yourself," he rattled on, apparently deaf as well as blind. "You’re the powerless one in the family, aren’t you? Which will make you perfect bait for—"

She turned under his grip; before it could tighten, one hand parted the curtains and she threw her head back to look at the sun. Everything else was lost into the light.

"--what are you—" she heard the photographer gabble at a distance, reduced to squawking terror again in a single unnerving moment. "What—don’t do that, you’re going to blind yourself! Are you insane, are you—"

Her dazzled eyes slipped dreamily down from the sky. Even without the reflection struck from eyes on eyes, she felt the weight of heat in her gaze, heat spreading through her bones to begin a show of open power.

"You wanted to know the secret," Idony said. "Isn’t that right? Isn’t that why you were spying on us?" She slid his suddenly slack hand onto hers, weighed it. "I did ask nicely," she said. Faintly, she even smiled into his bleak eyes. "Remember that."




After it was over, she went methodically through his files; it was fortunate that he seemed to have been a very organized man. After she found the photographs and the strip of film, she closed all the drawers, washed her bloodless hands in the sink and shut the door behind her.

"The house," Aradia said. She did not ask if he was dead.

"It’s all right," said Idony. "A little mindfuckery from Lance and an explosion from Imnuel, and we can write it off as a corporate accident of some kind. A spon-fucking-taneous explosion, maybe." She paused. "He said that he was hired," she said.

"He told you?"

"Did you ever doubt the charms of my little plaid skirt?"

"I thought you’d have to threaten," Aradia said candidly. "And, well, you know them. They can’t help but take things at face value, and at face value, you’re ten years old. Was he a pervert after all?"

Idony glanced back sharply; but it was only a question. "No," she said. "he wasn’t."

They sat a while longer in silence. Then, Idony handed the photograph back to Aradia, who tore it in half. Together, they watched the boy-child’s fragile face slowly stir to life. Color flared high in his cheeks. His lashes dipped, trembling; when they lifted again, he was looking at Aradia - fixedly, yearningly, with the straight and careless stare of someone who did not understand how to look away.

He said her name only once. Their soft-boned fingers laced.

On the way home, none of them said a word.




For Derek and Aradia’s homecoming, they called the family together, gathering grandfathers and aunts and second-cousins-twice-removed into the rooms to celebrate another rebirth. They burned candles in all the windows of the house; three candles, two white and one red. Derek and Aradia they placed in parallel cradles at the center of the largest room, with bars spaced wide enough for them to push hands through at times, to hold onto each other. Together they watched grimly as the adults drank and laughed and taunted them with wine their bodies would not be able to withstand for a decade more.

Idony stood by the cluster of candles in the window, staring off into the dark and debating on how many hours of celebration she needed to stay before she could steal off with some of the candles to burn the plaid dress.

"For mortality," someone at her shoulder said, mistaking her concentration for interest in the colors. "Blood, I imagine; symbolism is rarely subtle when it comes to ceremony. The white is for eternity."

She spun to face a lightly smiling Imnuel, dressed in an expensive suit from which his throat, face, hands shone out a creamy gold, his hair inky from contrast. He looked older and the more beautiful for it, as if age had slowly burned the flaws from his features.

Something under her bones turned over at the sight of him, slowly hollowing.

Oh no, she thought. Oh no, no, no.

"Idony," he said, blind to nothing but the thoughts that came whirling suddenly in a dizzy storm through her mind. "You've done well."

She kept enough sense to raise the glass in a mocking greeting as she turned to the window. "Yeah," Idony said. "I'm the perfect successor to the guardianship. What a fucking novelty subject to go on about, it’s not like you’ve talked it to death a thousand times before. If you want to tell me anything important, you can come back. In the meantime, I'll be over here ignoring you."

She did not feel him follow her into the alcove, and only remembered him at the warm touch of his hand on her dark hair. She shivered, nearly stepping back into his arms, and hated him for it.

"Really," he said, "the guardianship is hardly difficult." His fingers combed through her hair, gently and without passion. "You'll be sixteen in this body when you come to it, you'll be ready enough. It’s easy. You care for the enchantments on the dragon, you protect the family, and you make sure the Qilin are readily reborn and recovered. You need only do it until someone else shows ki-lin blood on the tests, and then you can pass them the role if you don't want it."

"Waiting for the rest of my fucking life for some moron to be born doesn't sound like fun to me," Idony said.

"I only waited two hundred years for you," said Imnuel. "Two centuries aren't so long as you think, Idony, when you'll live nearly forever. Europe and the world will still be there for you to travel to in two centuries. And I'll wait for you."

She broke from his arms then to face him. His hand was still half-lifted, and his face showed light surprise at the broken fury hers betrayed.

"Is that supposed to be some kind of fucking comfort?" she demanded. "I've been stuck here in the heart of the family for ages. You told me that I've been everywhere in the world before, but I can't fucking remember any of it. I want to go see it again. I want--" --to remember-- "--to see the world and you say 'later, with me'? I don't have any of the powers I need, and you're just going to leave me here and pretend that everything's going to work out all right because some unicorn without the faintest clue a millennia ago decided that his favor was going to pop up randomly in the family and never thought about making it come with some of its own magic?"

"Idony," Imnuel said. Her eyes clenched against the way he said her name: so sweet that she could barely feel the heart breaking in the syllables.

"I'll do the fucking guardianship," she said, low and shaking, "but it's because I want to live forever. It has nothing to do with what you want--" He said her name again like a protest, with that soft and lovely cadence. She ignored it. "--because I never asked you to wait for me."

He said quietly, nearly whimsically, "Will you ever?"

She lifted her chin and opened her eyes; black burned on black. "Don’t count on it."

And she turned from him, and she walked into the first passage she came to, into the maze of the house, without looking back. When she thought that he could no longer see her, she started to run.

the end
Tags: author: thornsmoke, book 04: heatwave, story
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