Myths, folklore and fairy tales have a big influence on my writing. This is my first foray into non-fiction on Medium: “Why Telling Queer Myths, Folklore and Fairy Tales is an Act of Healing”. It’s a mixture of personal experience, writing about writing, and reflections on the impact of queer representation (or lack of) in the stories we grow up with. You can read it for free, it’s not behind a paywall. I’d love to hear your thoughts and experiences, too.
I’ve posted all four parts of my new short story, “Falling,” on Medium. Here’s a short excerpt from the beginning and a friend link to all parts below, so you can read them for free if you’re not a Medium member.
His body stretches across the Cour Napoleon, surrounded by the rubble his fall has made, the cracked stone and concrete. If he moves a leg, his foot will crash through the glass pyramid, but he’s still. He must move. He must shrink his vast body to fit the proportions of the mortal world. But he can’t find the will required. A light breeze ruffles the feathers of his wings.
Few in the crowds of tourists can bear it. Some have fallen to their knees and are openly weeping in the street. Most turn away, gather up their loved ones and return home, or the closest haven they can find. One or two hardened souls point their iPhones at him. He sheds tears for them, for their lost awe and wonder, these maimed souls. His tears puddle beneath his face.
A hand touches his arm. A small hand, but he knows it doesn’t belong to a human.
Check out the hosting publication, The Mad River, for stories and poems of magic and madness. They have a Dark and Holy Writing Challenge coming up.
If I was Your Girl is a YA coming out romance about a trans girl, Amanda. After Amanda is attacked in a public toilet by the father of a fellow student, her mother and father decide it would be better if she make a clean break and move in with her father in a different town. Things start off well for Amanda—she makes new friends, and meets a boy who she really likes, and who really likes her. But things aren’t so simple: she’s scared that people will find out her past, that she’ll be the victim of more violence. At the same time, she’d really like to be honest, and unite her childhood with her present.
Throughout the story, there are flashbacks to different points in Amanda’s life, pre-transition, at different ages. Her life was tough, she experienced bullying and social isolation, her parents rowed about her difficulties, and her father made it clear she fell short of his masculinity measure. These flashbacks help to round out Amanda’s story, without taking away from her present.
Russo says in a note at the end of the book that she chose to make Amanda’s story simpler than many real trans stories, because Amanda is straight, and girly, and has always known she’s a girl. She also goes through all the transition surgeries and starts hormones pretty young, she ‘passes’ easily, and is conventionally attractive. And, Russo says, it’s important to know those things are not true for a lot of trans people. I found, reading the story, that I was actually okay with those simplified aspects. Although I was also grateful for the note, too. It’s one possible trans story. Hopefully, as time goes on there’ll be more fictional trans stories that will get as much attention as this one, with more variety and flexibility. But the world moves slower than we sometimes want, and that’s not Russo’s fault. The romance plot is quite standard in some respects, but I like Grant, Amanda’s boyfriend—they both share a love of Star Wars, which is pretty cute and dorky, and Grant’s own family struggles make him much more sensitive than his footballer friends. I have no issue with people using romance as a vehicle for bigger issues—if it was okay for Jane Austen and Charlotte Brontë, where’s the problem?
What’s important for me about the story, and what feels authentic, are all the small subtle ways that being trans impacts on Amanda’s everyday life. She’s often afraid of being found out, or making some social slip-up, somehow falling short as a girl. Her fears and insecurities are very relatable, and I could feel her weariness at living through all of that. But in contrast to her troubled past, and failed suicide attempt, the present is so much better. Acknowledging her identity gives her tremendous strength, as does facing many of her fears. It’s in these carefully observed and rendered details that Russo’s own experience as a trans woman really comes through. I also appreciate the observation that everyone keeps secrets, and presents a face to the world that doesn’t tell the whole of their story.
In some ways, it’s an idealised story, but Amanda’s world is still pretty far from ideal. Russo focuses primarily on the emotional side of Amanda’s experience, and for me, that’s a plus. I find stories with a big surgical focus pretty tough to read, personally, and actually I think they play into a mainstream media obsession with trans bodies. I also want to know where I can get a trans mentor like Virginia—someone Amanda can call when she needs to talk, a kind of big sis who she can rely on. There’s a nice touch in the fact that this is set in small town southern America, with a fair few working class characters, and Amanda finds a degree of acceptance there. I guess that’s drawn also from Russo’s own experience, as she originally hails from Tennessee.
My only misgiving is that the pacing is really fast at the start, which made me feel like I’d been thrown into the middle of things too quickly, but I got used to the pace, and the flashbacks help to fill in the gaps. It slows down a bit once the initial set-up is established, and I soon got into the rhythm of it. I read the whole book in one sitting, which for me is rare, but it’s definitely a page turner.
Amanda’s story is a tough one, but it’s not a tragic one, and for me that’s welcome. (Though trigger warning for sexual assault towards the end.) I’m going to spoiler and say, she gets a pretty happy ending. I don’t always need that from a book, but I was glad of it for this one. Now for more queered up trans stories and trans space adventures.
If you found yourself drowning in The Well of Loneliness, here’s the lighter side of 1920s cross-dressing lesbians. A fun genderfuck Friday. Cissy Meldrum (played by Catherine Rabett) was a character in the BBC TV comedy, You Rang M’Lord, and probably my earliest gender-bending icon. The show ran from 1988-1993, and was shown in a primetime family slot. You Ran M’Lord was set in the 1920s and featured the lives of the aristocratic Meldrum family, and their servants—a kind of comedy version of earlier drama series, Upstairs, Downstairs. Cissy was a passionate idealist, had a long term girlfriend, and always dressed in stylish masculine clothing, usually complete with monocle.
There’s a long tradition of cross-dressing in British comedy, from music hall acts, to pantomime, but as time’s gone on, the characters tend to be men cross-dressing, so Cissy was a rare treat. Even though the whole thing was played for laughs, Cissy was still a great character: strong, feminist, refusing to conform to her family’s conservative desires for her. It’s cool to think that the character was included in such a mainstream family show. I’m sure there were other kids like me who appreciated an early queer icon in their lives.
The Well of Loneliness is the story of Stephen Gordon, an aristocratic woman who prefers to dress in a masculine fashion, and who loves women. It is perhaps the first coming out story published (let me know of others, if I’m wrong), and sets down the pattern for that particularly kind of Bildungsroman that many other coming out stories would follow, charting Stephen’s life from childhood to adulthood, as she negotiates her way around her particular sexuality and gender identity.
I read The Well of Loneliness as part of my research for the 1920s novel I’m currently working on. It’s one of those books I’ve been meaning to read forever. Sadly, it turned out to be a bit of a chore, and while it definitely does provide valuable historical insight into how sexuality was viewed at the time (1928), it’s not a book I would recommend reading for entertainment. So, a rare negative review from me, but Radcliffe Hall isn’t still around to care. Expect scare quotes.
It’s an iconic book, thrust into the limelight by an obscenity trial at the time of publishing. The book received support from writers at the time on point of principle (including E.M. Forster and Virginia Woolf), but when Hall asked them to support the book for its literary merit, they refused.
I found it a tricky read because it’s just not very well written: the style is old fashioned and stodgy for the time, considering who her literary peers were. It’s also painfully sentimental, which again seems very old fashioned for the period. I read the Wordsworth Classics edition (pictured, with lovely Tamara Lempicka cover), which has a helpful introduction by Dr Esther Saxey, placing the book in its historical and cultural context. Saxey suggests that it’s impossible to separate The Well of Loneliness from the development of lesbian identities, as it was so influential.
The book is interesting from the point of view that it captures a time when conceptions of sexuality and gender identity were in a state of flux, with conflicting theories being presented by psychologists and sexologists. Hall favours the idea of the “congenital invert” put forward by Havelock Ellis, a sexologist at the time. Previous sexologists had considered this condition to be degenerative, but Ellis saw it as natural and not harmful, and he even wrote an introduction to the novel for Hall. It’s impossible to really draw comparisons between this historical conception and our moderns concepts of identity, as the idea of the “invert” ties gender and sexuality together, and considers same sex love to be a feature of either masculine or feminine biology. Stephen is extremely masculine in appearance, and likes to do traditionally male activities, and this masculinity is seen as inherently tied to her love of women. The love of women is borne out of her gender identity, effectively. So in that regard, she falls somewhere in between a butch lesbian and a straight transgender man, and the story reads as much like the history of one as the other, in terms of modern labels. Hall saw Ellis’s ideas as liberating in comparison to previous notions of physical degeneracy or mental illness, but it’s not always completely clear in the novel that Hall has left those notions behind. Hall also draws on her Catholic beliefs, sometimes presenting Stephen as a martyr.
As a story, it’s a pretty miserable read. Hall hoped to write the book as an apology for the “invert”, so that people might accept them. But pity is the main emotion called for. “Inverts” are shown to be unusually sensitive, not because of any social stigma, but apparently because of their biology. Stephen spends a lot of time in periods of dark depression, and even when she finds love, seems largely to loathe herself and feel guilty for warping the life of her lover. Hall defined herself as a “congenital invert”, and it doesn’t read as a story written by someone who is at all at peace with their own sense of self.
So, read Well of Loneliness if you’re really interested in the history of queer identities, but don’t expect a wildly entertaining ride.
This was July’s chosen read for the queer book club I joined, and I’m really glad it was. Every Heart a Doorway is a YA novella. It’s quite hard to pin down the genre—it’s kind of fantasy, but modern fantasy with a fairy tale vibe to it, and a fair few gothic elements. (Yeah, it’s queer and gothic. Hold me!)
The story is set in a school for young people who have been through magical doorways to other worlds, where they felt at home, and then have been forced to return to this world, where they don’t. The school is run by Eleanor West, a woman who once had a doorway adventure herself, and wants to help those who are struggling to find their place back in this world. Almost all the young people in the school want to find their way back to their magical worlds. The main character, Nancy, found herself in the Halls of the Dead, and learned the joy of stillness. She danced with the Lord of the Dead, and served the Lady as a statue, subsisting on the juice of pomegranates. Now the normal world seems so full of bustle and movement, and awkward relationships where people make assumptions that don’t fit with Nancy’s desires.
Nancy is asexual, but not aromantic. She enjoys flirtation and attention from boys she likes, but she doesn’t want things to go any further than that. She finds negotiating her way around relationships really tricky, and would far rather return to the simpler magic world where she found peace. I’ve read other feedback online from people on the ace spectrum who are really pleased with the representation. It’s not an area of identity where I have any personal experience, so I don’t really feel qualified to comment, other than Nancy is a great character, and the way her identity is handled feels nuanced to me. I like the way McGuire uses a gothic world to express what Nancy wants; it seems to fit really well.
Nancy befriends other students who found their homes in darker worlds, and finds even at Eleanor West’s school, those who travelled to lighter, more playful worlds are suspicious of people like her. When one of the students is killed, suspicion falls on Nancy and her friends.
Seanan McGuire’s idea of the different magical worlds found through doorways is such a rich one—she could probably write several books exploring this idea, as well as this relatively short one. I’d have happily read a much longer book about this, although Every Heart a Doorway does a heck of a lot in a small space. I really love the idea of the doorways, and McGuire uses them to explore identity and belonging in such nuanced and subtle ways, it makes our usual boxes and labels look clumsy and inadequate (which they often are). It really struck a chord with me.
There are some great supporting characters. There’s a trans boy, Kade, who I really love. I didn’t realise there was a trans character when I started reading, so that was a lovely surprise. More spec fic with trans characters, please! Kade’s doorway world was a fairy world, governed by very strict and complicated rules. He managed to best a goblin king and was named his heir, but then, when the goblin king died, the fairies who ruled there threw him out because they wanted little princesses in their world. Kade’s made himself a new life in the attic of the school, surrounded by books and fabric, and has appointed himself as fixer for the school. Nancy meets him when she finds out her parents have switched her beloved monochromatic goth clothing for a suitcase of rainbow garments. They want back their colourful little girl who first went through the doorway; they don’t understand who Nancy has become (or perhaps, who she really was all along).
The only element I’m not completely sure of with this book is the central murder mystery plot. It doesn’t feel completely necessary to me, especially in a novella length book. There is so much to say about the doorway worlds and the students’ journeys of self-discovery. I’d have happily read a book just about that. However, it still works as a story, and there’s absolutely no padding or filler at all, no waiting around. The pacing is extremely tight, which makes a refreshing change, as I’ve read a few books recently that took a little while to get going.
This really is a special book, and I’d love to see more written in this setting. The story says so much about figuring out who you are, and all the messiness and complexity that can entail, as well as finding a place where people see you for who you are. I also enjoyed the gothic edge to the story, which I should say goes pretty dark in places. This story ticked so many boxes for me, I’m feeling a bit giddy.
My flash fiction in THE FEM.
“Don’t play with that. It’s for girls.”
My head whipped round. Across the toy shop, a boy sat behind a pink plastic dressing table, exploring the array of small drawers with delight. The dressing table was lurid, bubblegum baroque, the mirror oval, a real fairy tale dream. His mother hovered behind, her face stiff with tension. For a moment, the boy was oblivious to her disapproval.
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I’m in the line of impossible dreams. Sometimes, on my wildest days, I imagine I’ll make a living from writing. These last few months, for research, I’ve had my head stuck in a series of early 20th century novels, immersing myself in the world of bright young people. Even when I was a kid, watching cross-dressing, monocle wearing Sissy in the BBC’s comedy You Rang My Lord, I knew there was something a bit queer about the 1920s. People, some people, probably mostly rich people with not much to lose, pushed boundaries around identity and sexuality and dress. The idea of the gay 1920s aristocrat is extremely iconic for me. It offers the possibility of a particular kind of maleness which, as a not especially macho trans man, is very attractive to me. It’s exemplified in Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited.
I write a lot of gay characters, so I tend to have possibly more than the average quantity of male characters in my books. And I think a lot about the way I want to represent those male characters. I feel that sometimes modern conceptions of what maleness means are pretty narrow. Marketing profiling and no doubt all manner of other social factors have redefined male gender in narrow terms. It feels like some of the flexibility bought in the 70s and early 80s, with movements like glam, new romantic and goth, has been lost. Even though the labels for gender are proliferating, the actual conceptions of what maleness means don’t feel more flexible to me.
When I read books from the early 20th century, maleness feels more flexible. A wider variety of male characters are allowed. Maybe there’s a slightly different approach to storytelling too. There’s not an aggressive push for main characters to seize the day, take the bull by the horns, have piles of agency. Because that’s only one kind of story that can be told.
There’s a lot of boundary pushing going on in the 20s. A kickback against the Edwardians and Victorians that went before. A reaction to the war as well, of course. In Vile Bodies, the characters struggle to find a place to eat on a journey because one of the women is wearing trousers, and one of the men stops to apply make-up to his eyelashes in a restaurant and is thrown out. The wilful pushing of boundaries of dress and gender, of pushing against the Victorian and Edwardian strictures, is a lot of fun to watch. Waugh’s characters are based on the real bright young people. People like Stephen Tennant and Brian Howard, who were notorious for pushing things as far as they could.
One thing I noticed was, at least in some circles, physical affection between men wasn’t a big deal. In fact, it was expected much more so, perhaps, than in the present day. Even in Maurice, (E.M. Forster’s story of male love, which he didn’t publish in his lifetime) with all of Forster’s fears, it’s clear that very close friendships between men are normal, that touching your friend, wrestling with them, or even sitting at your friend’s feet, was not considered out of the ordinary, or an indication of anything other than close friendship. There’s a beauty in that easy display of affection that’s lost to us now. There are also plenty of male characters of a type that is perhaps less common now. Men that aren’t especially macho or heroic or action-oriented. For those of us looking for a more flexible model of masculinity, it’s a welcome relief.
And that’s why I want to be a gay 1920s aristocrat when I grow up. I can dream.
He had only returned to court that day. Now, as evening fell, he prepared. The clothing he had ordered was waiting for him. A bright blue robe in silk brocade—hundreds of peacock feathers embellished the train. He slipped his arms inside and wrapped the robe across his chest, smoothing the rich fabric over the simple white linen under-robe he wore. He fastened a broad green belt at his back to hold the whole in place, pulled on gold gloves and examined himself in the mirror. He smiled. It was the most ostentatious thing he had ever worn and his tailor had outdone herself. Perception was everything. At court he was seen as a bauble, a vain young dandy. It was always better to be underestimated in his line of work.
He brushed his long blonde hair, leaving it loose to hang across his shoulders. Then he rummaged through pots and bottles until he found the right shade of blue. Just a little across his eyelid, a sprinkle of gold. He slipped a gold ring over one glove—it was a gift from the Emperor, a rare token of his favour and a reward for services rendered. Only he and his patron knew what those services were. The third person was dead.
He took his narrow, razor-sharp stiletto, sheathed in its plain black scabbard and slipped it into the top of one boot. It was a workmanlike weapon, practical. It was the only thing he wore that favoured utility over form.
The Festival of Gifting was upon them and many of the Empire’s most powerful people gathered in the Great Hall for an evening of celebration. It was a good excuse to make an appearance and a plausible reason for the return from his home province. Ostensibly, he returned home to visit his father, who was Governor. Actually, he was about the Emperor’s work.
He padded down the arched corridors of the palace. His boots, made of the softest leather, didn’t make a sound. He always took care of the little details. He could never be sure when he would need to move silently.
The main palace was built on a grand scale and the doors to the Great Hall were no exception – they rose up in a great wooden arch, carved with the symbols of the kingdoms that had been subsumed within His Empire. It was a reminder, and not a subtle one, to those who entered, that they were vassals. Antion, the Master of Ceremonies, caught his eye as he approached.
“Serin, you are expected.”
Antion gestured to the guard and they pushed the great doors open for him to enter. He could see through the archway that there were already a great many gathered.
“Thank you, Master Antion,” he said, lowering his eyes as he passed. These small gestures, he found, pleased the court functionaries. He had so little rank – the youngest son of a provincial governor—he barely cared to hold himself above those others. They all lived at His mercy. Serin was favoured at that moment – but hours from now, days, weeks, who knew?
Through the doorway, he paused and looked across the vast hall towards the dais that rose along the far wall. Bright witch-lights hung down from the intricately tiled ceiling, setting the white marbled walls and floor aglow. The Emperor sat on the throne, alone on the far dais, black clad and still. Serin bowed and, as he did, dark eyes met his. A slight incline of the head. A signal the Emperor wished his presence after the celebrations had ceased.
Serin straightened and searched the room for a familiar face. He noticed with pleasure that the eyes of the court were on him, taking in his clothing, his beauty. He knew he was beautiful. It was a professional necessity.
“Serin!” A young man strode towards him, drink in hand, dress uniform immaculately pressed and polished.
“Captain Lelantos. I had thought you on campaign.”
The young Captain flashed him a toothy smile. His flushed complexion suggested he had already drunk too much. He leaned a little too close to Serin.
“We butchered them to a man,” he said in hushed tones. “General Gelan grew impatient.”
Serin noticed the strain in his face, saw that the smile was a mask. He could smell the sharp sweat of the man. Panic, fear.
“Tomorrow we will talk, I promise. We will walk together in the Emperor’s meadows and you can tell me what’s on your mind,” Serin promised. “Tonight is a night of celebration, my friend. Have a care.”
He kept his tone light but he flashed his friend a sharp look of caution.
“You are too good, Serin,” said Lelantos, relaxing a little.
Serin lowered his eyes and gave a little laugh, as though Lelantos had just complimented him on his outfit. He felt the eyes of the court upon him still. Perception was everything.
“Will you find me a drink?” he asked in the hope of distracting the Captain and diffusing the tension.
“Of course,” replied Lelantos. “Forgive my terrible manners.”
He went looking for a servant and Serin watched him carefully. He had never seen the man in such a state; Lelantos was a rising star in the Imperial Army, feted for his skill, his looks, his charm, feted for his ancestry and his pure blood in an Empire where such things had been officially swept away, but which remained in the minds of the Anean conquerors. He had the black hair and sharp features of the Anean people who had, through the Emperor’s might and leadership, come to conquer half the known world. Serin’s own blonde hair and gaunt frame betrayed him as a mere provincial, no matter what his personal charms.
He saw the Emperor’s spy-master, Megea, out of the corner of his eye. She noticed him, he felt sure, but gave no indication. He did not expect her to acknowledge him publicly. His work for the Emperor was not widely known.
Lelantos returned with both the drinks and an older woman in tow who Serin recognised as the Emperor’s treasurer, Thalia. She was renowned for both her wealth and her wit and had somehow avoided the Emperor’s wrath, where so many others had failed, so that she had lived to be older than most of the court. Although, in truth, that was not much of a claim. Negotiating the vicissitudes of the Emperor’s will was a young person’s game and most retired to the provinces if they lived to grow grey. She was a handsome woman with deep set eyes and an aquiline nose. Her plain, burgundy robe contrasted starkly with Serin’s own flamboyant contrivance.
“Serin, so glad you could join us for the Festival. And our good Captain has returned victorious, as ever. How fortunate we are to have such brave young men.”
She smiled at them both as Lelantos pursed his lips in amusement and handed Serin a goblet of wine. The band struck up a note.
“Ah! The dancing is about to start,” she continued brightly. She seemed oblivious to Lelantos’ expression but Serin would not have been as blasé. He could see that wine had made his friend bold and reckless. Thalia was no fool. “My daughters are both in attendance for the first time.”
Serin followed her gaze to the foot of a nearby pillar. Two women, the older and taller of the two in dress uniform, the younger, in a delicate gown of pale blue, stood talking to each other and laughing. They seemed oblivious to their mother’s social manoeuvring.
“Your daughter has returned from campaign as well?” Serin asked.
“Only an honour guard around the provinces, my dear. Not up among the savages like the Captain.”
Serin kept his expression neutral as he thought of the kingdom adjoining his home province, to the north, which Lelantos’ General Gelan had so recently crushed. They were no more savages than his own people, though they had held out much longer. It was some twenty years since Serin’s father had first bent his knee to the Emperor. Serin had been a baby at the time. He shot Lelantos a hard glance, hoping his friend would take a hint.
“Do you think your daughters would do us the honour of a dance?” Lelantos asked, his years of social training finally clicking into place.
And it would be an honour, Serin thought, as Thalia led them over to her daughters and made introductions. Even for Lelantos, it would have been a good match. For Serin, it was unthinkable. He held back a little as his friend followed the proper form. Lelantos was his father’s one child, heir to his house. And Serin knew too well that eldest children must always go first. He waited to be paired off with the younger daughter.
Aphea—she had an open smile and a pink cheeked glow of youth. She had a softer way about her than her sister, as is often the way with younger children, and lacked the haughtiness he associated with the Anean elite. As he led her to the floor, she grinned.
“I wish I had the confidence for such a robe. It takes one’s breath away.”
He held her in the formal style, arms stiffly aloft, one hand on her shoulder, his other held her hand. He bent his head and spoke in a low voice.
“It is harder to take these risks when you have so much to lose.”
She turned and raised her head so that their eyes met and then she gave a simple nod.
“There are expectations, that is true. Ahh! See how pleased my mother looks that Captain Lelantos dances with my sister. Our father was a great warrior, you know. She has always admired such men.”
Serin looked to Thalia and then to Lenlantos. His friend seemed to have pulled himself together now he had a distraction and was chatting and laughing with his partner.
“They would make a good match,” Serin said.
The dance began, slowly at first. He watched the other couples. Tomorrow, invitations would be sent. Parents would meet to plan unions, to build their own little empires.
And so it went. The life of the court. A rhythm that he had learned to follow, a pattern he could dance out without a thought.
It was perhaps his tenth dance. Thalia’s favour had brought him more partners than he could have hoped for. The dancers bowed to one another and the rest of the room applauded. Serin noticed the Emperor stood as he clapped. The room hushed as those assembled bowed towards the dais. Then He turned and walked out of the hall down the low corridor to His temple. It was not unusual for the Emperor to leave such gatherings early and, that night, He would have gifts of His own to give. The music struck up once more but Serin withdrew. He made his excuses, said his goodbyes, and, at length, followed down the temple corridor.
Priestess Ersa stood by the door, waiting to admit those who had an invitation. She recognised him from his many visits.
“Serin,” she said, “My apprentice will show you to a room.”
He gave a slight bow and stepped through the bronze door. Beyond was a long, low chapel built of plain, unadorned sandstone – the contrast with the Great Hall was striking. Rows of priests knelt in prayer towards the stone table which served as an altar, their faces contorted in agony. Serin noticed an older man knelt nearby had blood dripping from his ear. Prayer was exacting. The power the Emperor drew from each of His faithful through prayer left even the strongest debilitated. Serin looked away and noticed Ersa’s apprentice waiting for him to follow. She led him down the side of the chapel and along a narrow corridor until they came to a simple wooden door. He had been this way before and he knew the protocol.
“Thank you,” he said and opened the door. He stepped through into a small, windowless room, identical to all the others in that corridor. The door clicked shut behind him. The only furniture in the room was a couch placed along one wall.
Serin reached down and slid his dagger from his boot. One did not meet the Emperor with a concealed weapon, no matter how favoured. He placed the weapon, still sheathed, at the foot of the couch and then took two steps back and knelt, head bowed. He did not know how long he would have to wait so he took the opportunity to clear his mind. Mental discipline was key to any dealing with the Emperor. He was not omniscient, but He could pick up surface thoughts if He wished. Serin had made a study of disciplining his mind so that he never risked his master’s displeasure. There was an orchard beyond his father’s garden where he had often played as a child. In winter months, he had made a point of rising earlier than the rest of the household and running out to see the fresh, crisp snow, newly fallen, unspoilt by any footfall. It was towards that white vista he now looked with his mind’s-eye. He had not set foot across the perfect white blanket until later, when his older brother had come out to play and they had thrown snowballs at one another, getting under the feet of the exasperated staff.
The door clicked open and Serin felt a shiver down his spine as he sensed the Emperor’s presence.
“My little bird,” the Emperor said, his rich voice filling the room with ease. “Always pitter-pattering around in the snow. They should have named you Robin.”
The Emperor was endlessly amused by his people’s custom of naming their children after birds. It was not much favoured now, of course. An Imperial name was a more fortuitous thing to bestow. Serin kept his head bowed and felt the Emperor pass by, running a hand lightly through his hair. The Emperor came to a stop before him and crouched down on one knee. One finger traced Serin’s jawbone and stopped at his chin, lifting his head up. Serin met the Emperor’s black eyes as He looked Serin up and down. His skin was pale and hard like flawless ivory, save for the dark caverns from which his eyes sparkled blackly and his thin, greyish lips. Serin could not have said how old He was – certainly He looked no older than when they had first met at his father’s villa and the Emperor had told his father to send him to court. Serin had been twelve. Ten years ago. The Emperor wore his black hair close cropped. His clothing was simple and functional—black trousers, boots and a quilted jacket. He had no need to impress and rarely favoured court robes.
The Emperor’s lips stretched into something like a smile. “One day, I will grow too jealous of the world’s claim on you to let you go.” Serin kept his breathing level, kept his mind as clear as a winter’s day. “I found myself thinking of you when you were away. I had them fetch me a little bird—your namesake. I kept it in a cage but it did not like these warmer climes, I think—it pined for its homeland. Such a pretty little yellow head.”
The Emperor stroked his hair. Serin’s heart juddered in his chest.
“Did you do as I asked, little bird?”
“Tell me.” The Emperor clapped his hands together and stood. He noticed Serin’s dagger on the floor and stooped to pick it up. He pulled the blade from its sheath and turned it over in the torchlight. “I sometimes wonder if, beneath your beauty and your soft wiles, there lies a heart as cold and sharp as this blade.”
He sat on the couch, still holding the dagger. Serin waited but the Emperor said nothing more, so he began.
“I returned in time for the harvest. As you know, it is a tradition of my people to celebrate this time.”
“To give thanksgiving to their false gods?”
“The gods are no longer honoured, but the tradition remains. Those that were once nobility gathered at my father’s villa. I could sense something strange in the atmosphere, but when I questioned my father and brother, they seemed genuinely oblivious to the mood amongst some of their guests. I ingratiated myself amongst them—the restless ones. Those that muttered in dark corners of what once was and might still be. More than one invoked the name of the old gods. I began to suspect that your concerns were founded, but it was difficult to distinguish the nostalgia from the insurrection, it took such a subtle form. I resolved to flush them out.”
As he warmed to his story and watched the Emperor relax, he stood and began to act out the scene he described.
“I offered to perform—to sing on the night of the Harvest Moon. That day, I went to the nearest town and had one of my robes adapted for my purpose. I recalled an old story of the hunter god riding up to the sun goddess on his chariot, pulled by his wolves. I couldn’t remember the details—I was too young to have learned the old tales. But it was enough. I found a seamstress to work a sun, a moon and a wolf symbol onto my robe. It was subtle. I chose a robe that was already embellished so as not too draw too much attention. I knew that those I wanted to trap would notice anyway.
“When I was very young, I was cared for by a nurse-maid who sang the old songs. I had learned to sing them at her lap. I could still remember the words, as one can when something is learned very young. Amongst the more fashionable songs I sang that night—of the seas of fair Anea, of the love left behind on a long campaign—I inserted one of the folk songs that told of the Harvest Moon. It was just a little song.”
He began to sing. He knew it pleased the Emperor to hear him. It was, as he had said, just a small song. A simple plea to the spirits of the land to bless the harvest, to the Sun to shine, to the Hunter to please her so that she would not rage and burn. He sang in the Imperial tongue, though the original was in his native language. When he had finished the Emperor leaned back and smiled so Serin took up his tale once more.
“As I had hoped, I did not need to seek out the traitors. One of them came to me. She had once been a chief’s wife and, when he was killed, she had taken his position as leader of the Vatoni tribe. She is well respected among our people. Linnet, she is called. She approached me as the night drew on, when the wine was flowing. She praised my singing and my beauty. I allowed her to seduce me. That night, when we were alone, she began to speak of the old ways. I was careful not to lead her, but she needed little encouragement. She asked me to return with her. She said there were others who supported her cause. Who still yearned for glory and to honour the old gods. She spoke of the former chiefs of the Anderi and Sagantes. It seemed the conspiracy had already spread widely. They sought help from beyond the border, from the kingdoms to the north and the east.”
He fell silent. The Emperor smiled and he felt a wave of relief flow through his whole body.
“Bravo,” He said and put aside Serin’s knife. He came up to Serin, very close. Serin bowed his head and wished that he was not so tall. The Emperor was not a man to look down on.
“How prettily you tell it, little bird. I cannot say how much this work you have done pleases me.” The Emperor took his hand. The hand with the ring. The Emperor held the ring between two fingers and frowned. “We are beyond such trinkets now, I feel. And yet, there is a question which remains. What should be done about the negligence of your father and brother?”
Serin felt the blood drain from his face and he fought for control of his emotions. He thought of the white snow falling, covering over his panic as it began to surface.
“As you will,” he said. It came out softly as he had hoped. He managed to keep his voice steady.
The Emperor stepped back but still held his hand. He enfolded it in His own and pressed it to his heart.
“I will spare them, because of the love I hold for you.”
Serin let his breath out slowly, let snow fall over his relief. Only his gratitude he allowed to surface, his devotion.
“How perfect your obedience is, beloved. I ask only that my subjects are useful and obedient, yet what a lesson you could teach these ambitious fools about my court, these panderers and flatterers and leaching parasites. One day, when I have no more tasks for you, we will teach them together.”
“Do you wish me to return to my homeland?”
“No, no. I would not bloody these hands further.” The Emperor took both of Serin’s hands and turned them palm up. “I have baser creatures to do such deeds. You have taught me your value is higher. I will not use you as an assassin again.”
The Emperor let Serin’s hands fall. “It is the Gifting Day and, besides, I must give you some token for the work you have done.”
Serin sunk to his knees and bowed his head once more. It was a much safer place to be. He felt the Emperor’s hand on his head.
“I wish to teach you a rune of making. It is powerful magic Serin, the language of creation and destruction. I have come to realise that your mind is a gift to me—I will not squander it. For each task that you complete, I will teach another rune. The first for you will be the rune of life. In this way, you will not age as others age. Your beauty will be preserved.”
Serin closed his eyes. He did not know how to react to the gift. He felt the cold touch of the Emperor. As cold as the grave, He was. He moved, He spoke, but there was no breath, no warmth, in the man. Is that what he would become?
“What is this fear?” asked the Emperor. “I did not think you so timid.”
The Emperor grasped his hair and forced his head back so that Serin could see those cold eyes staring down. Serin realised he had allowed his thoughts free reign for a moment. He pulled them back, layered over them with ice, set a blizzard on them, hoar frost. From the depths of his heart, he pulled his fragile love for the Emperor, hung about with guilt and self-loathing. He pulled up his gratitude that the Emperor had seen in him a spark of potential and had plucked him from obscurity, for the training he had been given at court, for the work that thrilled him. These things he offered up. He felt the Emperor’s hand relax. Then his Master did something unexpected. He sat down on the floor in front of Serin and began to speak in quiet tones.
“Here, little bird, is a story for you. When I was young and headstrong, I looked at the world and I wanted it. I did not learn songs at my mother’s knee. I learned the Anean arts—how to lead, how to inspire, how to flatter, how to deceive. In those days, we did not have arcane arts as other lands did; it was from those meagre skills we wove our magic. I rose swiftly, for I was always a good study. My early victories were entirely mundane. But I was as curious as I was ambitious. In other lands, I saw unfamiliar lore, tantalising arts, and I wanted those as well. I was not cautious in those days—I had no insight into the cost I would pay. I stole ancient tomes, sometimes I simply took the entire library; I captured mystics, I hung sorcerers upside down and shook them until their secrets fell out; I broke open tombs and plundered grave goods, heedless of the curses that rained down on my head. I absorbed all the knowledge I could—I ate greedily and sometimes too fast. Runes from the north-men, the magic of death from the south, crude hexes from the bog dwellers of the west, spirit taming from the east—it was all meat to me. But, you might say, as the years went on, I have suffered a little indigestion. My flesh bears testimony to that gluttony. But I have also learned from those mistakes. So don’t fear, beloved. I will not let you stray into the Sunless Land as I have done.”
Serin met the Emperor’s eyes, as hard and black as beetle shells. His love was not a soft thing—it came like waves and wore him down. His confidences were corrosive—when His story was told, it overwrote history, family, nation. Serin felt himself slipping away.
“As you will,” said Serin. There was nothing more to say.