Lullaby for a Lost World

Charlotte died to shore up her master’s house. Her bones grew into the foundation and pushed up through the walls, feeding his power and continuing the cycle. As time passes and the ones she loved fade away, the house and the master remain, and she yearns ever more deeply for vengeance.

 

They bury you at the bottom of the gardens—what’s left of you, pathetic and small and twisted so out of shape it hardly seems human anymore. The river, dark and oily, licks at the ruin of your flesh—at your broken bones—and sings you to sleep in a soft, gentle language like a mother’s lullabies, whispering of rest and forgiveness, of a place where it is forever light, forever safe.

You do not rest. You cannot forgive. You are not safe—you never were.

After your friends have gone, scattering their meager offerings of flowers, after the other archivists have left, it’s just your mother and your master, standing over your grave. Your mother looks years and years older, hollowed out by grief, but your master stands unchanged—tall and dark, with light shining beneath the planes of his face, his skin so thin it might be porcelain.

“Was . . . was there pain?” your mother asks. She clutches your favorite doll—so well-worn it’s going to pieces in her hands. She doesn’t want to let go because, when she’s knelt in the blood-spattered mud of the gardens, she will have to get up, she will have to go back, to move on, as though everything she does from now on does not stand in the shadow of your death.

Your master’s smile is a hollow thing, too; white and quick, perfunctory. “No,” he says. “We gave her poppy. She felt nothing.”

It’s a lie, of course. There was poppy; there were opiates, but nothing could alleviate the pain of being torn apart—of the house gnawing at your innards; of claws teasing open your chest, splitting ribs in their hurry to lick at your heart’s blood—of struggling to breathe through liquid-filled lungs, lifting broken arms and hands to defend yourself against something you couldn’t reach, couldn’t touch.

“I see.” Your mother looks at the earth again; hovers uncertainly on the edge of your burial place. At length she lays down the doll, her hands lingering on it, a prayer on her lips—and you ache to rise up, to comfort her as she’d always comforted you—to find the words that would keep the darkness at bay.

You are dead, and there are no words left; and no lies that will hold.

And then it’s just you and your master. You thought he would leave, too, but instead he kneels, slow and stately, as if bowing to a queen—and remains for a while, staring at the overturned earth. “I’m sorry, Charlotte,” he says at last. His voice is melodious, grave, as impeccably courteous as always—the same one he had when he told you what needed to be done—that it was all for the good of the house. “Better the weak and the sick than all of us. I know it doesn’t excuse anything.”

It doesn’t. It never will. Beneath the earth, you struggle to push at what holds you down—to gather shattered flesh and glistening bones, to rise up like the dead at the resurrection, raging and weeping and demanding justice, but nothing happens. Just a faint bulge on the grave, a slight yielding of the mud. Voiceless, bodiless, you have no power to move anything.

“You keep us safe,” your master says. He looks . . . tired, for a moment, wan and drained of color in the sunlight, his eyes shot with blood. But then he rises, and it’s as if a curtain had been drawn across his face, casting everything in a sharper, merciless light; and once more he is the dapper, effortlessly elegant master of the house, the man who keeps it all together by sheer strength of will. He stares at the blackened water of the river, at the city beyond the boundaries of the house—the smoke of skirmishes and riots, the distant sound of fighting in the streets. “Your blood, your pain is the power we rely on. Remember this, if nothing else.”

You do; but it has no hold on you, not anymore.

He walks away, his swallow-tailed jacket shining like obsidian in the greenness of the gardens.

Time passes—months flipped forward like the pages of the books you used to love so much. Your master sits behind the gleaming windowpanes of the house, smiling and sipping fine wines, ageless and fattened on the blood of his sacrifices. Your mother dies, and your friends move on—your name becomes like you; buried, broken, and forgotten; your place long since taken in the library and, in the depths of the house, the circle where you died grows faint and bloodless, every scrap of pain long since absorbed to feed the magic that keeps the world at bay. Outside, the city is burning, tearing itself apart over polluted water, over grit-filled rice and rotten fish. Inside—green, verdant gardens; food on the plates; and music and love and laughter, all the things you used to take for granted, when you lived.

Time passes—there is a girl who comes to sit by the river’s edge. Who steals books out of the library and knots red ribbons into the raven curls of her hair, unaware of what lies beneath her. Who runs, laughing, with her friends—except that you hear the slight catch of breath—feel the slight stumble as, just for a moment, her heart misses a beat and her feet become unsteady on the ground.

“Isaure!”

“I’m fine,” the girl says, pulling herself together. She looks down, then, at the slight bulge of the earth. “That’s funny. What is—”

“Ssh,” the other, older woman says, shaking her head. “Don’t speak of it. It’s bad luck.”

Beyond the gardens, the house waits—walls of golden stone, paneled doors with intricate carvings that seem to come alive at night and, in the cellar underneath, the circle, almost faded to nothing now, the growing hunger of the house’s magic, the price that must be paid, again and again, by those who cannot be allowed to live.

I’m sorry, Charlotte.

Liar.

When Isaure comes back, she is paler; and unsteady on her feet; and red has bloomed on her cheeks like blood. “I know you’re here,” she says, standing over your grave.

You feel something shift within you—some indefinable rearrangement of your self—a femur, poking upwards, jellied muscles suddenly finding consistency, hair strands spreading farther and farther away from your remains, like tendrils extended toward the house. But you’re still here, still held fast by the earth, by the river’s endless song, the lullaby that offers no solace or appeasement.

“The others won’t talk about it, but I need to know.” Isaure sits, for a while—no red ribbons in her hair, which tumbles thick and unruly in her lap. “I—I don’t even know what happens.”

You could tell her, if you still had a voice—of the day they will come for her, two footmen and a butler and the master behind them, solemn and unsmiling, and as grave as if this were her first communion—of how they will bring her to a part of the house she’s never been to, a place of embroidered carpets and silk curtains and wide, airy rooms—of how they will comb her hair, doing it up with fine silver pins in the shape of butterflies, and give her clothes—a red dress, or a red suit, whichever she prefers—delicate, luxurious confections embroidered with birds and flowers—brand-new, for your own clothes were torn and stained when you died, and were as unrecognizable as your body was, a mess of stiffened lace and slashed cotton that they buried with you, not finding the heart to separate it from your mangled remains.

And then the slow descent into the cellar—that tightness rising in her chest, as if the air she’s breathing was being taken away from her—and the circle, and the altar, and—and a last draught of poppy, an illusory comfort that will not hold when the darkness at the heart of the house rises and she strains against the shackles, trying to stifle the scream that’s tearing its way out of her . . .

Isaure—don’t— you whisper. The earth shifts above you, and your bones push upward, as sharp as razor blades, the tip of one femur barely breaking the surface—and Isaure bends, as if she could hear you.

“Please,” she says.

Don’t, you say, but she’s already gone—her breath coming in short, sharp gasps, her heartbeat irregular, feeling as though it might be snuffed out at any time. You wonder how much time she has—how much time you had, when they came for you and your rotten, consumptive lungs, how much life the house and your master stole from you as it will steal from this child. You’re dead, and the dead cannot intervene, but if only you could—

When Isaure comes next, your master is with her. He looks as he always did—as if time passed him by, leaving him only slightly paler, only slightly thinner—and he moves with the grace and elegance you remember from your own lifetime—you remember him, pausing down the stairs halfway to the cellar and waiting for you as you struggled with the unfamiliar train of the dress, a reassuring presence in this oppressive place—a comfort you could cling to, even if it was a lie.

“There’s not much time left,” your master says. “Isaure—”

Isaure shakes her head. She’s scarecrow-thin, as if a breath of wind would tumble her, her face pale except for her blood-red cheeks; and her legs wobble, sometimes; she keeps herself upright only through strength of will. “It’s too short.”

Your master doesn’t say anything for a while. “It’s always too short. I can’t heal you—I can’t prolong your life—”

“Liar,” Isaure says. “You’ve lived forever.”

Your master grimaces. “It’s not life,” he says at last. “Just . . . a continuation—a stretching of time.”

“I would take that,” Isaure says, slowly, fiercely.

“Don’t be so sure.” His smile is bleak; the mask lifts again, and for a moment he’s nothing more than a skull beneath stretched, paper-thin skin, with eyes shriveling in their orbits, and a heart that keeps beating only because the house stands. “Eternity is a long time.”

“More than I’ve got.”

“Yes,” your master says. “I’m sorry.”

“You’re not.” Isaure watches him, for a while, stares at the river again. Today the sounds of fighting are distant: Outside, most people have died, and the sky is dark with poisoned storms and acid rain. There is little to salvage in the city—perhaps in the entire world. “Are you?”

His eyes are dry; his face expressionless, with not an ounce of compassion. “I do what I have to. So that I survive. So that we all survive. And no.” He shakes his head, slowly, gently. “The house will only take you one way, and it’s not the way it took me.”

Isaure shivers. “I see.” And, turning slightly away from him, kneeling on the grass, one hand inches from the edge of your exposed bone—“Will . . . will there be pain?”

He pauses then; and time seems to hang suspended, for a moment; it flows backward until he’s standing at your grave again, and your mother asks that same question, slowly and fearfully—and he could change the course of things, he could speak truth, instead of lying as he’s always lied, but he merely shakes his head. “No. We’ll give you poppy and opiates. It will be like going to sleep.”

Liar. You want to scream the words, to let the winds carry them all the way around the house, so that they know the price they pay for their safety, the price you paid for their sakes, only to lie unremembered and broken beneath the gardens, the only ones who still come a betrayer and a doomed girl—but you have no voice, and the earth chokes you, and you cannot . . .

Above you, Isaure rises, smiles—cautiously, reassured by words, by the presence she’s known all her life.

“It’s time,” your master whispers, and she’s turning toward him to follow him meekly, back into the house, to the wreck of her body and another grave at the bottom of the gardens, and soon they’ll both be gone, beyond your reach until it’s too late for anything but futile grieving—

No!

You push—with broken bones, with decayed hands and arms and legs—and your body twists and shifts as the earth presses against it, and your muscles shiver and coalesce again, and butterfly hairpins melt as if within a furnace—and you turn and turn and change—and rise, bloody-mouthed, four-legged, from the earth.

Your horn is the yellow, gleaming bone of your femur, sharpened to a killing point; your mane is your blood-matted, earth-clogged hair, dragging worms and flies’ eggs from the shadowed rest of your grave; and your skin is scraps of red, blood-drenched cotton, knitted and patched over the rawness of muscles bunched to leap.

Isaure watches you, her mouth open—the flames of your eyes reflected in her own—and your master is watching, too, but—unlike her—he knows.

“Charlotte . . .”

Isaure jerks, as if something had pulled on strings at her back. “No,” she whispers, as you paw at the ground with silver hooves.

You run her through, before she can say another word—her blood splatters, warm and red—the same hue as your skin, drenching the grass in vivid, obscene colors—a crunching of bones beneath you, and then you’ve leapt over her remains, and there is only you and your master.

He has not moved. He stands, watching you—no expression on his face, his blue eyes dry and fearless. “You know I do not lie,” he says. He stands as if rooted within the earth, his swallow-tailed jacket billowing in the wind, his face alight with that same strange, fey radiance. “There is always a price to be paid for safety. Don’t you know this, Charlotte?”

You know this. You have always known this. Blood and pain and sacrifice and the power of the house—the only true things in a dying world, and what does it matter if not everyone pays them? Only the sick and the weak, or the innocent, or the powerless?

There is no rest. There is no forgiveness. And never, ever, any safety.

“It’s too high a price,” you say—every word coming out distorted, through a mouth that wasn’t meant to shape human sounds—and you drive your horn, slowly and deliberately, into his chest—feeling ribs crack and break, and the feel of a body bending backwards, crumpling under you—an odd, twisting sensation as the house flickers—reeling, wounded and in agony, retreating to the safety of the underground altar.

Too high a price.

You look at the house in the twilight, in the rising wind and shadows—at the golden limestone walls still untainted by smoke; at the pristine, unbroken windows facing the desolation of the city; at the vast, brittle abundance of greenery in the gardens—the tapestry of lies that made your old, careless life possible.

It’s gone now, smashed to splinters beneath you, and that price will never be paid again.

Then you move—running toward the house, the grass shriveling under each strike of your hooves, strands of darkness following in your wake like nightfall—toward the fading circle in the cellar and the dozens, hundreds of people who sent girls to die in agony for the good of the house—you run, to finish what you have started here.

 

“Lullaby for a Lost World” copyright © 2016 by Aliette de Bodard

Art copyright © 2016 by Alyssa Winans

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