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The Lives Beneath
by Katherine Inskip
She felt it in her bones first: a sideways jolting of reality, as if she’d had her feet swept out from under her while in the middle of a headlong run. Caught wrong-footed, Enys staggered. She clutched at the open passenger door of Tay Slighter’s van, steadying herself as an aching groan built to a crescendo inside her spine, her reflection trembling in the wing mirror.
It was happening, then. It was actually happening! Eight long years of airdrops and broadcasts and public professings, of tactical insertions and skirmishes over thoroughfares, of daily liturgies and the night-time cleansings… and finally, finally, the Curacy were moving on the rebel’s Spire!
And where was Enys Ryle at this decisive point in Consensus history, when the last stirrings of rebellion might finally be eradicated? On decontam duties, in a formerly well-to-do, dilapidated district in completely the wrong part of Larnholm. None of the streets opening off the north-eastern side of the square offered much of a view, but the district’s parade ground was only half a mile back up the main road. If they worked quickly, perhaps there was still time to-
“Wishing you were in the thick of it, girl?”
Enys swallowed her frustration and gave her colleague a well-earned glare. Slighter was a soft-spoken man with worn, pallid features that always put her in mind of a dreary day in late autumn. He was also stronger than he looked — she’d never have been able to lift a full crate of echo-generators single handed, like Slighter was doing now — and he hadn’t always been a nobody.
It was never easy to know where you stood with a burned-out Curate like him, someone with nothing left to offer the Consensus beyond the labour of their body and eyes. But, given the choice of ignoring his slight to her rank or calling him out on his impertinence, the latter was probably the wiser option. Almost anyone could be a Watcher, after all. “Wishing you were in the thick of it, Scriptech Ryle,” she corrected, trying to sound more professional than resentful.
Slighter’s low chuckle told her she hadn’t quite managed it.
“‘The orchard bears fruit at the appointed hour’,” he said, quoting that morning’s liturgy with barely a pause in his unloading. “Yours will come.”
Perhaps he was right, but that didn’t make her current situation any easier. It is not for me to know my place, she reminded herself. One of the first laws they taught every child in the Consensus, but she’d had to relearn it the hard way recently, and at too high a cost. Her skills as a Scriptech had never been in any doubt, but the ease with which she’d set her own judgement ahead of prior orders would be a mark against her name for a very long time.
Enys rubbed her aching back, closed the van door, and considered their surroundings. The square was maybe a tenth of a hectare in size, if you included the rubble-strewn waste ground that had once been civic buildings and the flooded terrace that bordered the edge of the lake. Further on, she could see the ruins of a bridge. More buildings lined the other three sides, these ones in far better repair — most had roofs, and there was still glass in some of the windows. Overhead, the sky was a clouded, indistinct grey, but as Enys watched, it flickered with the first hint of a battle-glyph, miles off to the east. The first of many, she suspected; the rebels wouldn’t let their Spire be taken easily.
Well, whenever the appointed hour might be, this one wasn’t hers. She pulled a band from her jacket pocket, and looped her twisted braids into a bun. “Where do you want me to start?”
Meter by careful meter, Enys worked her way around the perimeter of the square, trailing a latticework of cabling and echo-generators behind her. Nothing stood out as the kind of thing that would require high-level Consensus-approved decontamination — the site certainly wasn’t flagged up on any maps she’d ever seen — but doing this job didn’t require understanding of the purpose behind it, no matter how unlikely it seemed. All Slighter had told her was that they had some subtle work ahead of them, and if that meant using full external dampers, so be it.
She made quick progress at first, tuning the resonances as she went, selecting verses from the Consensus Scriptures as much by instinct as by the depth of her understanding. The dominant ideas were close to the surface, and with more time to spare she might have negated them completely. But that wasn’t the point. Instead, she used her scripts to inveigle and align, to guide and reflect the flows of faith and meaning into well-controlled channels. In the darkened rubble in the south-east, where incendiaries had bloomed from the fall of carefully crafted words, she set the seven blades of just thinking. Further on, a taut cable slung between the stump of a lamp-post and a sapling made a perfect carrier for the zeal of silence.
The five-storey tenements on the north side were slower going. The stonework here was old, heavy with the voices of centuries. Its outer surface was layered with peeling notices alongside faded painted plaster: teal, for public safety, and the darker blue of curfew. Enys tore them down as she went. Beneath them, she sometimes found pictures of people, images from history that she vaguely remembered from her days at school. Dead now, all of them, but that hadn’t stopped them troubling the entire world with their cause. With luck those days would soon be over. If the Larnholm Spire could be brought down, the rest would surely follow.
Slighter was waiting for her at the foot of the ruined bridge. He’d swapped his work gloves for gauntlets, and his boots for a chest-high pair of waders. And, Enys noted with a grimace, he’d brought similar garb for her.
She set the final echo generator down, and spoke her chosen verse precisely into the mouthpiece “It is the duty of every individual to serve. To swallow the desires of the self in service to the state. It is the duty of every individual to speak, as the voice that provides the very breath of the Consensus.”
She toggled the circuit closed and the dampers’ mirror field sprang into life. A sudden calm descended on the square, in stark contrast to the spiritual turbulence of the distant battle. Then that too dissipated to nothing, leaving an absence she couldn’t quite touch.
Slighter nodded. “Nicely done, Ryle. Do you feel it yet?”
And to Enys’ surprise, she could.
They made their way across the flooded terrace and into the deeper water of the lake. There, Slighter pointed towards the wreckage of an old fountain. “That ought to be a good place to start.”
Enys followed him carefully, an empty bucket in either hand. The lake bed was uneven, and she could feel a slight but steady current as the water pressed cool against her covered legs. Strangely, the subtle whisper she’d sensed earlier didn’t appear to be getting any stronger. It was weak, then, but incredibly widespread. She placed the buckets on the flattest part of the tumbled stones, and frowned at the water. “I can tell there’s something out here…”
Slighter bent down to grope beneath the surface. “Hard to say what else we might find out here, but… Aha!” He drew out a nondescript lump and tossed it towards her.
The instant Enys caught it, she felt an icy chill run the full length of her arm. She loosened the caked mud with her fingers, then rinsed it in the water. The object was a rounded tile about the size of her palm, just too large to grip comfortably. At some angles it seemed circular, others not, and she couldn’t quite make the sense of asymmetry go away. Closer inspection revealed a pattern of grooves, dimples and ridges. Enys turned it over to check the opposing side — two interlacing spirals. A focus glyph? She touched her fingers to the end points, and the needles of ice returned. Not in a painful way — she just wasn’t tuned into it yet.
“This is a powerful working, Slighter.”
“Was powerful. Now, it’s just a shadow… and whatever you can bring to bear.”
Enys turned the tile over between her fingertips, tracing the glyph carefully until the prickling cold abruptly vanished and a haze of fractured words appeared in the air above the tile. She couldn’t make out more than half of them, but they seemed to be a plea for someone’s health. “Some kind of petition?”
“They’ll all be something of that sort,” Slighter said. “Petitions, wishes, prayers of intercession. Curses. Vows.” He fell silent and gave her an expectant look.
Enys stared back blankly. “That’s supposed to mean something to me?”
Slighter’s brows lifted. “You have been kept in the dark, haven’t you?”
“I know exactly as much as I ought to know.”
“Of course you do. I’d expect nothing less of a half decent Scriptech. Chapter and verse of the entire Consensus, echo-engineering, glyph-lore, the approved histories from Brael to Xench, and who knows what else from Centrum. You know so much you scarcely know where to start.” Slighter turned away to gaze across the water. “But I do. The Great Cleansing of ’29. High Curate Nial Osser’s final campaign. The Peace Verses, and the Eleventh Adjustment.”
The clues came together like an explosion in reverse, leaving Enys sickened to her core. “This is… We’re in the Plaza of Lies?” The mere idea that it might still exist was bad enough, but to actually be there… “They said it was destroyed decades ago!”
“Oh, they certainly tried. And it’s not what it used to be, that’s for sure.” He leaned against the ruined fountain. “So. Now you know what we’re really here for. To finish the job.”
It wasn’t the sort of thing she could ever admit to, but she felt a certain pride that she’d been chosen for this task. Enys glanced down at the tile again. Maybe it had once been something more, but now it was just a fragile piece of ceramic, bearing someone’s chosen words. Except for the focus glyph, there was no true power in it. She slammed the tile against the stonework of the fountain. The shattered fragments went dark as they fell.
It was all rather anticlimactic. “Is that all there is to it?”
Slighter grimaced. “Would we be here if it was?”
Enys’ first dozen or so finds were just as readily disposed of. Most of the tiles were completely numb to her touch, not even raising a chill, and of the few that did only one raised a legible echo of words.
Then, she found a live one.
There was nothing to distinguish it from the rest at first — dull in colour beneath the dislodged grime, radiating ice-cold needles up her arm. She set her fingers to the focus glyph and started the trace. The first words appeared, and then she was falling as they twisted vertiginously around her.
Let me die in his place, she read-heard-felt.
Foreign memories and sensations flooded her sight. A man accused of crimes against the state, and another guilty of countless more. An impassioned urge for justice, for true justice — but a justice so at odds with Consensus values that it left her feeling violated. The brother he’d been protecting, and the only desperate means he had left to him, to see his beloved sibling driven to the dubious refuge of Second Consensus. (Second? a small part of Enys’ mind questioned beneath the onslaught.) And then, the random act of chaos that had seen the tile’s author caught up in the Crenalsby Fires, to die trapped in a burning building before he’d taken a single step along his hoped-for path, the first incomplete draft of his confession balled up in his hands.
Cursing, Enys dropped the tile and blinked the visions away. “What the…? What WAS that?”
“Now you see why I wanted a decent Scriptech,” said Slighter. He trudged over and fished the dropped tile out of the water again. “They can’t send just anyone in for this kind of thing. I might be able to sniff ’em out, but wielding faith precisely enough to mute them? Oh, no.” He gave her a considering look. “Think you’re up to it?”
“It’s not my place to say, is it?” Gingerly, she took the tile back. What mattered more, the engraved plea itself, or the motive behind it? She focused her thoughts and started with the litany of obedience and the litany of clay, both from the Book of Days. The sixth blade of just thinking from Devren’s Admonitions didn’t find any purchase, but Osser’s watchfulness did, and the steadfast guardian of honour proved sufficient to keep her outside the turmoil of foreign thought. The chill in her hands was worse than ever now, but she could sense she was almost there. One last deep breath, a tightening of her fingers, then the verse that she knew would give her mastery. “’We do not seek salvation for ourselves’.”
The poisonous force of the tile’s wish slid gracelessly into alignment with her words as she bent her faith into action. One could not seek salvation without sin, and there was no room for either within the Consensus. The tile blazed into dissolution beneath her touch, leaving nothing but a shifting pattern of afterimages and a tremor in her fingertips.
“That’s it,” Slighter said, offering a steadying hand. “That was well done. But take the next one easier, girl. We’ve a lot to get through today.”
This time, Enys didn’t bother to correct him.
Every now and then, the sky would suddenly throb with light, and the sight of her own dark face reflected in the water against a backdrop of disintegrating glyphs and shredded clouds would give Enys pause. She had no way of knowing what it augured for the progress of the battle, except that it wasn’t over yet.
Enys felt strangely detached from it all. Her sense of time was starting to fray, and there were moments when the scriptures themselves seemed to drift. So much had changed over the decades, so much and so little, ebbing and flowing in the same cycles again and again and again.
Some of the older tiles… it was hard to describe, but alongside their heresies she also found a strange kindness to them that expected nothing back. Those appalling, simple whispers either held fast against the full potency of her scriptures, or slipped painfully free of her grasp. She almost welcomed the brittle desperation of the most recent artefacts — they were no less exhausting to dispel, but at least they didn’t leave her reeling and confused, or doubting the precision of her recall.
And that, perhaps, was another reason why she’d been chosen for this work: her recent mistake made her much more disposable than any other Scriptech of her calibre. Some of the tiles held dangerous, subversive ideas. She had the skill to deal with them, but Enys had no such certainty that her superiors expected her to come through the process unscathed.
Enys dispersed another failed curse and half a dozen silent fragments of other times. The next two live tiles were both Slighter’s finds: a lover’s vow, almost recent, unrequited. After that a child’s innocent whim, timeless, preserved and set waiting by the forces of awful, incomprehensible change. There were tears on her cheeks by the end of that one. She hastily rubbed them away with the cleanest part of her sleeve, before Slighter had a chance to see them. Maybe it was time to call a break. She was so exhausted her hold on even the core texts had started to waver.
Enys made her choice. It is not for me to know my place. The Curacy had no room for weakness, but she’d never know the extent of her own limitations by assuming them at the outset.
“My heart’s hope reflects the glory of the Consensus, and I shall seek nothing for myself,” she murmured. The litany of individual duty always helped her focus.
“You’re doing fine work, Scriptech,” Slighter said, wading towards her. A rippling wake trailed behind him, and he held a tile in one outstretched hand. “Here. I think we’re almost done.”
She took the tile and held it up to the failing light. Slighter had cleaned most of the muck off it already. She woke the focus glyph, her words spoken in counterpoint to the rote motions of her fingers on the tile. It held a shorter inscription than some, more of a futile yearning than a wish – nothing that should trouble her skills, not in a world where everyone’s life fell out as they deserved.
The pattern blazed with light, and then…
I wish I could know what’ll become of you.
Deep inside the past, Enys saw a man. Average height, pale skinned, with ruddy, gaunt features. He wore clothes too large for his frame. In one arm, he cradled a baby. The other arm was missing almost from the shoulder, the empty sleeve pinned up neatly out of the way. Where the man was careworn, the baby was a picture of health, swaddled in a blanket, soft and clean. There was a woman there, too — his sister. The knowledge came effortlessly, just as it had before. Her face was young, but Enys recognised her all the same: one of the traitors she’d learned about at school. Her name was…
I wish I could know what’ll become of you.
Was he wishing for the woman? No. She had a better feel of things now, and neither man nor woman had any hope on that score.
I wish I could know what’ll become of you.
The man’s wish was for his child.
And the child…
The child was also someone she knew.
The child was Tay Slighter.
It ought to have been easy.
For any other person, maybe it would have been. But the wish tied to Tay Slighter’s life as a child wouldn’t be resolved by simple assurances.
Enys found herself aware of every aspect of Tay’s past, a knowledge that went far deeper than borrowed memories. She knew his fear and his betrayals. The hidden touchstone moments, the choices, the needs, the regrets. Pride and calculation, sacrifices made freely, sacrifices torn from him in blood. The heady power of the inner Curacy, his slow and subtle progress towards it, corrupt and wrong-right and zealously desired. The day he’d reached his breaking point and burned his own power dry, before he could destroy the Consensus from within, before he lost himself entirely. And after: years spent as a Watcher and a traitor both, steering wills and words.
I wish I could know what’ll become of you.
To know what was to become of the child meant knowing every facet of Slighter’s life. It wasn’t one his birth family would have wished for him. Nor had it brought him happiness. He’d done deplorable things that would see him damned by both sides. Enys felt the truth of it now… and along with it, a strange, forlorn pride. As bad as it was, Slighter’s father would have understood. His father forgave. There’d been no good choices for any of them. There’d never be anything good again, unless the Consensus could be breached. That was really all that mattered, no matter what it cost.
Enys struggled to find the words, plumbing the very heart of the scriptures. She went as deep as her faith would let her.
The wish went deeper still.
She came to her senses cold and wet, slumped against the edge of the fountain. She wanted to scream and she wanted to weep, but she was too exhausted for either. All she could do was gulp and gasp and tremble, vaguely conscious of Slighter’s support beside her.
I wish I could know what’ll become of you.
The tile crumbled to dust in her hand.
She knew. She knew.
She’d see that Slighter paid for his crimes in full. Her chest was a knot of pain, and hate… and still that deep echo of pride from Slighter’s father. It pulled at her, raising memories of her own. How she, too, had changed irrevocably with every passing year: forceful shifts and transitions, things that couldn’t be returned from. The bright excitement of learning what others wanted her to learn, how to make the best use of her skills, of her self, of the people around her. How to hold things she’d treasured in contempt, and to discard anything that held her back. There was an aching hollowness inside her, an absence of the comfort she’d known when she was small, before she’d learned to despise such weakness. She’d tried to cut them all away, all those fragments of meaning that now lay corroded and rotten in the depths of her soul.
In the turmoil of her mind, she grasped for the litany of duty. It is the duty of every individual to serve. To swallow the desires of the self in service to the state. My heart’s hope reflects the glory of the Consensus, and I shall seek nothing for myself. Here, and only here, shall I… shall I…
The words tumbled uselessly from her mind.
“We’ve been watching you for a very long time, Enys,” Slighter said quietly. “One of a few who seemed to have the traits we needed. Born into the Consensus, bright and eager, and just naïve enough for the Curacy to think you worth its while. You rose fast… but not ruthlessly so. You chose your questions carefully, and showed some sign of being able to read between the lines.”
Enys glared at him through her tears, wishing she had the strength for something worse. Consensus-approved decontamination or not, the whole damn day had just been a mechanism for Slighter to try to break her.
“You offer your loyalty wherever you believe it’s deserved, in service to the Consensus rather than your own ends.” Slighter paused. “They’ll kill that in you, if you stay.”
It was almost beyond her to voice it, but she had to believe she had something left in her yet. “You’re not going to turn me.”
“Turn you from your path? Of course not.” Slighter murmured a verse from the Book of Osser. “‘We carry the spires of truth within us, flames of righteousness that can never be extinguished’.”
A light blazed into being between his palms, pure and bright and deadly. It called to Enys like nothing she’d ever seen.
“You’ve seen how it was. What I did, right and wrong. I taught myself to close my eyes. To read the words and absolve myself of any understanding. Until I couldn’t, any more.” His lips quirked into a small smile. “The Curacy will have lost a lot of talent today, Scriptech. You know what you need to do.”
It is not for me to know my place… “You’ll die for this,” she breathed. “You’ll die. And it’ll be my voice that condemns you.”
She’d have her place in the Curacy, and the chance to use her skills to craft as well as to destroy.
It is not for me to know my place, to be told it by another, but to find it for myself, for the betterment of all.
Enys reached out and took the light from Slighter’s hands.
And far to the east, the rebel Spire fell.
About the Author
Katherine Inskip is assistant editor for Cast of Wonders. She teaches astrophysics for a living and spends her spare time populating the universe with worlds of her own. You can find more of her stories at Motherboard, Cast of Wonders, the Dunesteef and Luna Station Quarterly, and forthcoming from Abyss & Apex.
About the Narrator
Dani Daly is a former assistant editor of Cast of Wonders, and narrating stories is just one of the things she loves to do. She’s a retired roller derby player and current small batch soap maker, for instance. Soaps and balms from Story Time Soap Company are crafted while listening to audio fiction of all sorts. She rants on twitter as @danooli_dani, if that’s your thing. Or you can visit the EA forums, where she moderates the Cast of Wonders boards.