“Voices” by Lindsey Duncan
The first time I killed, I felt his consciousness slide into mine, submerged under the dominant tide. Antilar Sosurdun kin-Sosurdun was a rarity, an Orator who was born the son of another Orator and thus grown up in privilege. He wrecked upon my inner shores with an arrogance that could only be bred, insisting I carry out his earthly plans as one of the ruling council. I could prove I was Antilar by certain signs –
“No,” I said, as my mentors had taught me. “You are memory and misfortune.”
Ah, I remember the reply well, an assassin with the Contract. One of my opponents jealous of the fact that I inherited what he had to chance upon?
Over the years, I learned not to rise to such challenges, staying silent rather than be drawn into endless debates by minds with nothing better to do. In tormenting the one who had ended them, they taught me to guard my emotions — even from myself.
There was never great demand for assassins in Atezia, much less a female one. The first Orators abolished the concept of inheritance and assured their successors would be born at random. The child of two Orators was sterile — which Antilar said was an excellent excuse for promiscuity. Look at other countries in their decadence beyond the Ice Sea: people might kill each other because they enjoy it, but they hire others to do it because they want something.
The Contract had a monopoly, but you had to be as pathetic for escape as I was to join. The Orators gave us another legacy: if you ended a life, you lived with the spirit for the rest of yours. Find me someone who wants to live with an angry horde of victims roiling about her mind, and I’ll show you a candidate for the Contract.
It’s a living.
A good one. I was choosy, so I didn’t roll in whitefox fur and emerald necklaces, but I earned enough that I might have felt guilty if the efforts of my occupants hadn’t numbed me.
It was late autumn. The snows were an inch thick, and the imported fruit trees had shed their leaves to stand naked and awkward in the disapproval of cold-blue evergreens. The city of Cirque lay like a ridge of ice turned upside down, shale and slate cottages giving way to the high spires of Orators and the rich. In Atezia, good land was too rare to waste.
So was good moonlight. I skimmed up the side of one tower, wary of icy ridges and the false play of color that intimated handholds where there were none. I removed my gloves as I approached the window, not flinching as I hunted for the demarcation between ice and glass.
One of these days, my dear, even you are going to get frostbite, Dymiena said.
I snorted. Thank you for your concern, I thought as I worked the latch by feel.
I’ve raised twenty wards from childhood to exaltation, Quisarra, she said, and some more stubborn and malevolent than you.
The words were familiar, though I did not smile. Maybe one or the other. Surely not both. Some of my spirits had disappeared, drowned by stronger personalities or struck dumb by despair; but others remained and became a source of adversarial fondness.
Antilar, my first; Dymiena, a long-lived Orator whose opinions on the council sometimes agreed with my aim, if never my method; Sath, a bodyguard who did not understand the idea of flinching into darkness; and Tadjia, a foreign representative who discovered to her consternation that diplomatic immunity did not mean immunity of souls. They weren’t ghosts, not spiritual manifestations, but pieces of the mind left behind.
I flicked the window open and dropped inside, noting the trappings with cursory interest — ebonwork bedposts, bluepine carved with simple elegance. The Orator’s ward — the man I had been hired to kill — lay buried under the covers, amber hair just visible. My last mission, my path to retirement.
I stepped around to face him, careful not to block the moonlight. Something in the face twinged a memory not from the morass that always accompanied me.
You should wake him, Sath observed.
Honor again? I said.
I know better than that. He was too reserved to sound disgusted. Perhaps you should hone your skills before it is too late.
It would be too easy to respond to that, I said.
He chuckled in the back of my head, tacit acknowledgement. I drew my blade and positioned myself. I had a lucrative take from this one, and let the chips fall where they would. I had never been interested in the niceties of Orator politics, not when my father devoted his life to them…and they couldn’t even keep him from a ridiculous accident with unseasonable ice-melt.
Shadow reversed itself behind the bed, sketching mist and spider webs into a human form. A frail and sloe-eyed girl reached out a hand to me. I started to panic when — nothing.
This was no time for nerves. Cinmor kin-Adasni — heir to Orator Adasni — would earn me the vacation I wanted, even if he couldn’t put a muzzle to my constant companions.
I thought you said you had no ghosts, Tadjia whined in her nasal voice.
I gritted my teeth as she brought up the thing I was disciplined enough to not contemplate. They’re rare, I bit back. Has to be someone who didn’t fall from one of us. Murderers, myself included. But with something left undone.
Like saving him? the dignitary wondered.
The others clamored agreement. I didn’t bother to quiet them; we all knew it was for form’s sake. They had not moved me for years. Some of them had even stopped trying, welcoming more company. What they did in the parts of my mind I was unaware of, I was happy not to ponder.
I leaned forward and pushed back the blankets. This was risky, but I found I could not focus on my quarry. The candle on the bedside table illuminated his features. Faces soften in slumber, but this one was almost feminine, sharpened by an unexpected point to his chin. I had known a Cinmor once, but it could not be this man. It was a common name. Still, that slipping sense of familiarity…I shook myself, steadied my hand, and –
She was there, tresses like blood and her voice as winds over a glacier. “Oh, stop — stop!”
I slipped and my hand went awry, knocking over the candle. I didn’t flinch where it burned me, spinning around to grab the base. It slipped and clattered on the ground.
To the window before I could think, crouched in the frame, ready to be thought nothing more than an ill dream, but some compulsion, perhaps urged by my silent voyeurs, made me turn.
The shade was still there, kneeling on the bed. Her hands seemed soft as snowdrifts, and her lips were too sensual for the half-child she seemed to be. “Do not leave me, Quisarra,” she said.
The words struck me numb. Cinmor sat bolt upright, his body melding with hers — the live visage under the dead one, echoed faces, doubled eyes — yet he was unaware of it as he shouted. I spun about and threw myself out the window, dropping two floors with barely a pause. Her howling followed me, and I could not escape the winds, though the night was becalmed.
I closed my eyes as if banishing her image would silence her, this one voice worse than the others. That was when my hand slipped.
When one falls without recourse, one does so in slow motion, as if falling piece by piece — first a finger, then a knee, then scattered bits of consciousness. They reassemble with a crack when one hits the ground. So I fell, broken to bits and put back together too quickly.
You’ve fractured a few ribs on the right side, Dymiena advised me. Try not to move with speed.
I bared my teeth. I have no choice, I snapped, pushing upright. My eyes were full of the phantom wind, but I could hear the rousing of the spire above me.
The shade materialized out of snow swirls, wearing them for a veil over depthless eyes. She closed her lips, and the dreadful whistling stopped.
“There was a time you were gentle,” she said.
I frowned. Was this some spirit who had been subsumed by the constant melee in my mind, manifested again? I didn’t think so. “Have off with you,” I said.
“You learned philosophy and mathematics,” the spirit continued as she approached, so inexorable I could not tell if she heard me. “You wanted to be a tutor. You wanted to impart the wisdom of the ages to any who would listen. Before you decided we all die too soon to learn anything.”
I caught my breath. “Who are you?”
The ice underneath my hands betrayed me as I pushed backwards, and I skidded. I had touched almost thirty spirits, but never like this.
She knelt by my side, and her fingers brushed my forehead. They burned as an iron brand, a blessing turned fever-hot. “This,” she said, “is not that wisdom.”
I had answered these accusations before, but now I was struck numb. The paralysis kept me from breathing.
The spire door banged open, guards pouring out. The spell was broken; the spirit bled away into golden light. I rolled to one side, pain spiking, and kicked into a run.
Pride shaken because someone dared to question you? Antilar inquired, smug.
The guards had seen me, but the chase I led them on was rote. I would escape; I had the skills; but I was consumed by the vision. No. Not that, I thought.
I knew her, somehow, though I had no recollection of the face. She had a finger on my pulse as surely as if she stood before me.
I slid into the blue shadows between buildings and the guards passed me by. I dropped, wincing as I probed the injured ribs.
You know what you need? Antilar again: there was never a man who could smirk quite so effectively without lips. A good, stiff drink.
I smiled grimly. “You know, you’re right.” I headed for my bolthole to bandage and salve the injury — enough of Dymiena’s herbalism had bled through that I had a knack — with the intention of losing myself in the night crowds.
I usually am, he said. It’s a gift.
Tadjia sniffed. A gift completely incapable of keeping you alive.
Let me consider who, precisely, is offering that criticism…
Their bickering soothed me, made me feel as if my reality might be stable. I decided to haunt the taverns of Cirque for two reasons. First, I could not conceive how a shade of death could make herself known in surroundings full of life, however dirty and contemptible. Second, I never went to such places. If the ghost sought me out, she would never look there.
Cirque taverns burn hot with enormous hearths and firestones shipped to the tables with the drinks. The place I chose was ruddy with heat and restrained emotion, a roiling pit of heads and tempers. I ordered myself darktongue ale –
Do not sit with your back to the door.
I toasted Sath and took his advice. He was more trained in tavern etiquette than I. To your health.
And to yours, he replied.
They might hate me, but they knew their only chance to exist among the living was inside my head. To that end, we were allies.
In another life, we might have been friends, I said into the random noise of a brawl.
He was ever polite, but unmoved. In another life, he acknowledged.
I sighed and drank. I was confident the guards had not seen my face. I would have to try again, planning carefully to avoid another incident. Perhaps earlier tomorrow night, when Cinmor was in his study.
A barmaid brought me more before I could protest. I sloshed it aimlessly. As I lifted the mug, the hairs on my arms prickled, and the other senses followed. It was almost painful in its intensity.
Her voice washed over me, and I was lost in fog. “Quisarra, take me away from here.”
As if I had any power over her! She moved through the crowd as a dancer would. Sometimes people passed through her, a rippling connection, and their faces seemed to blanch and decay under contact with the spirit. They laughed, raucous and undaunted, as they decomposed and then snapped back into focus in staccato rhythm.
She spun past me as if held in the arms of an invisible partner. Sometimes, I thought she saw me; other times, she came so close I had to flinch to avoid being brushed by the silver-lace halo of her skirts, yet she looked through me.
The spirit halted, spreading her hands. As she unfolded her fingers, I saw scarlet spill free.
Ribbons. They were hair ribbons, quaint, tied into child’s bows. I stared, wanting to laugh.
“Remember when you danced,” she said. She curtsied to someone behind me.
It was so real I forgot that, half the time, the spirit was not looking into my world. I whirled, my knee jamming up into the table. I ended up drenched as my drink toppled.
Relax, Dymiena flowed into my thoughts. Take a deep breath and clear your mind. I have never seen you so emotional.
No, she had not. I grimaced and eased back to face the spirit, but she had gone. I knew now that pounding, brawling life could not drive her away, but at least I also knew that she could not affect…
My eye fell on one of the ribbons.
I dove for it before scuffing feet could kick it away. The bow was knotted around two strands of gaudy red hair. My hair. I bit down on the flicker of panic only to find it reflected back to me a hundredfold.
How do you explain that, then? Antilar asked. A man of science, he enjoyed flaunting it.
I don’t. I stood, thrusting the ribbon into my pocket. Hallucination. If I didn’t look at it, maybe it would change —
Ridiculous! You have no gift for transformation magic, Tadjia huffed.
Had she wanted to knock my feet out from under me, she could have chosen any other tone. But you admit that those magics do exist, I countered.
Yes, and I am absolutely positive they are not here, the dignitary said.
Arrogance she had in plenty, but not confidence — not like this. Mercifully, no other voice knifed into the stillness, but I felt unnaturally sweaty, marred by exertions I could not remember undertaking.
If the ghost followed me on the job, I was undone. Somehow, she could track my routine and was unhindered by human presence, but there had to be somewhere I could find refuge. Afterwards, I would take my problem to some scholar and make him sort it out.
I’ve studied ghosts, another of my voices volunteered. They cannot abide the touch of direct sunlight and slumber at day.
I stopped a sigh. It would make things harder. Contract training warned against operation in daylight; the chance of being recognized…
What did I care for that? Once I finished this mission, I meant to wall myself away from the world and its irritations, live as a hermit until meaningless chance found me. It was only a matter of planning for daylight, of being that much better.
I think you’ve already peaked, Antilar drawled.
It was easy to misinterpret him. Thank you. Then I have no worries.
I loped off to my refuge, a cabin outside of Cirque. Even though logic told me that if crowds were no deterrent, solitude would not draw the spirit, I spent my waking hours on a knife’s point, sniping at my voices whenever they spoke.
I could not close my eyes, but stared into empty space imagining pale, delicate hands — hands I would never have feared from a living being. There was no hope of sleep, and though I had forged ahead on nothing before…
Somehow, I faded into unconsciousness. An open sea washed over me, populated by the faces of everyone I had killed, their hands tearing away the shroud that bound me until I stood — myself, alone, unblemished.
I jerked awake, feeling a sense of loss. The voices had always assailed me, but, in doing so, they defined me, not diminished me — wasn’t I sure of that? The emptiness grew until I swelled with it, my hands hot and unsteady. I fumbled out the ribbon by some impulse I couldn’t understand and stared, the ends curled about my fingers.
The dim memory surfaced that I had worn such things once, but I was no longer the child who enjoyed such affectations.
I dropped into sleep again. My past followed me, yet there was so much that seemed unfamiliar, tutors I did not remember and sweethearts whose kisses roared like the sea. My father had his face, or at least what I half-recalled was his face, but daggers for eyes. I remember thinking it was his death that had armed me. The thought that a life could matter so much and then be destroyed…why try to make a difference in that world?
At least murder could be controlled.
She followed, a shape flush of summer and full of life. Everyone seemed to know her, even when I spun into torrents of nightmare.
I slept, but I might have slept in fire. I awoke with joints aching and the ribbon clutched so tightly in my fingers that anything but a strip of cloth would have drawn blood.
As I considered my attack, my voices discussed the attitudes of servants, each from their own perspective, and all advice unnecessary — I had better idea than they how to blend in. I slipped into borrowed livery and scuffed my boots, sashed my hair.
The inhabitants of the spiral were so on edge, one might have struck the building with a hammer and heard every soul inside echo with sympathy. I kept my head down and murmured my way into the routine, admitting a delivery into the kitchen, seeing the morning’s correspondence into the hands of a messenger. Adasni’s spiral was constructed in light cream and silver. Windows danced with fluttery curtains and open walls with paintings and whimsy.
I hated it: too feminine. Heading to the kitchen, I bumped into a maid and in stammering my apologies, offered to collect the breakfast trays. She accepted, scampering off to some pointless hobby.
I counted my steps, having already measured the distances to the exits. Fourteen paces from the servants’ entrance to the split, eleven paces from there to –
Ten, Sath cautioned me. You shortened your stride there and there.
The advice surprised me, even knowing I was his window to the world. I nodded once.
A job worth doing, he continued, is worth doing with precision.
I grinned and shuffled in. The guards gave me a cursory look, then returned to attention. Three people mulled over the remnants of breakfast: Adasni, a friend from before she became an Orator, and Cinmor, discoursing with swoops of his hands.
At my angle, I had to take the gentleman’s plates before I could move around to Cinmor. I shunted the bowls until I could lay the opposite hand on my arm sheath. So close…and I was in a hurry to have done with this before my shadowy companion found me, daylight or not.
“Miss, pardon me?” Cinmor straightened, pulling on my arm. I had to turn suddenly to avoid making the outline of the sheath obvious.
“Do you need something else?” I ducked my head even I as silently felt out the space around him.
“You look like someone I knew once,” he said. “Look at me?”
This was never a good idea, and I would not have, but I saw a cold flick of starlight out of the corner of my eye. My head came up with a snap, and our eyes met.
I had not seen him clearly in the darkness. His eyes were hazel, flecked with a bit of yellow; his brows were a fraction lopsided with a notch on the left. That little indent on his ear…
Recognition took me full force. Cinmor, not any Cinmor, but my Cinmor, the man who had courted me and promised to travel Atezia with me, the pair of us wanderers to wherever we were needed — I as a teacher, he as an investigator. I had not tracked his fate after my decision to join the Contract — why would I, when the person I had been was destroyed?
How wonderful, Tadjia gushed, he remembers you.
Of course he remembers me, you witless sheep. I forced my lips shut on the words that wanted to follow. Too dangerous to become involved. I started to draw back, mumbling a denial. Somewhere, it hurt.
Hot winds ran over my hands, and I saw the phantasmal flow reaching out to me — her behind him, silent, intense. I flailed to pull free, and my hands fell into his.
“It is you,” Cinmor sounded certain now, clasping his fingers around mine. “Gods, where have you been, Quisarra? I thought you were dead.”
“I was.” The words were out before I realized they were true. “I’m not who you think I am…”
Isn’t this a touching little scene, Antilar drawled. Kiss him, you fool.
Adasni looked up with a rose blossom smile. “Cinmor, do you really know this woman?”
With dust on my hands and my hair pulled into a knot — with a certain red ribbon, I suddenly realized — I could understand her incredulity. Antilar’s words burning in my mind, I leaned in and brought my lips to Cinmor’s.
And could have been lost to him.
My instincts worked where my mind did not. I had my hand on the blade, started to draw it –
“Cinmor!” his mentor cried.
He pushed at me clumsily, ineffectually. I grabbed the back of his head and pivoted behind him, or started to. The ghost was still there, a guardian over his shoulders, and the idea of plunging through her made me shudder so hard I had to let go. My boots scraped backwards over the stone.
What are you afraid of?
I rebelled, soundlessly, against Dymiena’s voice. A fool would have tracked the distance between the roused guards and my quarry and taken the chance, or perhaps been distracted by Cinmor’s shattered expression, but I was no fool, and I was gone to the sound of the ghost’s laughter, higher than birdsong and nearly as melodious.
It was not triumphant, not gloating. She was happy.
Were the dead supposed to be happy?
Why shouldn’t we be? I did not know who said it; maybe it was all of them, some indignant, others coldly confident, some complaining. I rushed down the halls with the guards in pursuit.
I headed for the back garden, knowing there was a gate to safety.
Atezian gardens are sculpted from the ice but rich with its toughest foliage, greens that never wither but twine through unmelting stalagmites and over motionless waterfalls. In the center of this garden was a pond, but it was frozen over more than enough for human passage.
“Stand down!” a guard barked.
I hesitated, moderating my pace before I tempted the ice. An even, careful step let me glide across it as if I had been on blades, and the tension in my mind eased. They could not catch me, could not worry me, and my only regret was that Cinmor knew my face.
My lips tingled, then my feet.
I glanced downwards. White and crimson ran under the ice, drained skin and running blood — she was there, and her touch on the underside of the ice was hotter than flame.
I cursed and increased my stride. The cracks followed me in silver threads. My left foot broke through the ice.
I heard the guards muttering from the shore. If they couldn’t see the spirit, they could see her wake and knew it was not natural. I braced myself on the ice, grimacing as the cold seared my hands, and tried to wrench my foot free.
Instead, the pressure snapped the plate of ice in two, and I dropped into the definition of cold.
Water thrust into my lungs. By the time I controlled my breathing, I felt as if they were coated in ice crystals. My head bumped into a sheet of ice as I tried to surface. Child’s fear bled out of me. This was how my father had died, a bad step, the surface frozen above him…I forced myself to look for a way out.
There was only one, the hole through which I had come, and waif-like, innocent, as if free from any machination, the spirit floated between me and it.
My insides recoiled as they had before. I knew if I passed through her, somehow, that I would lose.
“Come back,” she said.
I almost opened my mouth to reply. Instead, I thought, Who are you?
She lifted her head; this time she saw me, and her eyes fixed. It was a perfect mirror. I am you, she said. The one who died when she joined the Contract.
Shock overwhelmed the cold before I made myself take it apart logically — as much as I could muster logic with burning lungs and my own echo between me and safety. How she had known about me, the ribbon, Cinmor…it all fell into place. Yet how had she followed me? Even if we were the same person, I thought differently now. The very fact that she could exist outside of me proved that.
That would be our doing, my dear, Antilar said.
My mind shouted betrayal, and betrayal shouted back in the voices of everyone I had ever killed. I plunged forward without thought, desperate to push through before I could not. She surrounded me…
I remembered Cinmor and myself dancing under my father’s balcony. I remembered being buried under the weight of so many self-important books, trying to find the thread of beauty in them. I remembered my father, who had held the world like a cherished child.
I fought that reality, but it thundered around me in a dozen reflections, their voices, reminding, reinforcing, burying me in a loop of the past. My lungs filled. Instinct kicked in. I was left thrashing and flailing, barely aware any more in what waters I was drowning…
“But why did you turn to the Contract, Quisarra?”
She and Cinmor walked the garden, a blanket draped over her shoulders. The guards had been prepared to slay her out of hand, but she had forestalled them with a frantic pretense of madness and memory loss — one perhaps true, one not.
She smiled, disconcerted by the whispers in her head, but she owed them everything. “A part of me died with my father,” she said. “But it’s all right now.”
He laughed, squeezing her shoulder. “Maybe it is.”
Careful. A matronly voice made Quisarra halt, looking around her. Just for a second, by the frozen waterfall, a dark and hard-edged figure — the shade of the assassin, red-haired, sloe-eyed.
She’ll fade. The young woman rested her head on Cinmor’s shoulder. I’m not afraid of who I was.
They moved away, chattering and laughing, as if the expanse of years had never happened. For this new Quisarra, they never had.
|Lindsey Duncan is a life-long writer and professional Celtic harp performer, with short fiction and poetry in numerous speculative fiction publications. Her contemporary fantasy novel, Flow, is available from Double Dragon Publishing. She feels that music and language are inextricably linked. She lives, performs, and teaches harp in Cincinnati, Ohio. She can be found on the web at www.LindseyDuncan.com/writing.htm.|