Authors: Andrew Knighton
Sorrow sprinkled from his fingers, glittering as it fell through a shaft of sunlight and settled in the bowl. With a sense of wonder Steve stirred it in, then dipped his finger and tasted the mix.
He trembled at the perfection of its flavour. Tears poured down his cheeks as grief shook him, grief and gratitude for the woman who had brought him into the world, who had raised him for all those years, and who had left one last lesson in her parting.
Steve tasted sorrow, and knew it would pass.
Stay With Me
Elena Dubrass sipped her tea and stared across the plantation. From here on the porch she could see fields of snappers, their verdant heads bobbing to catch the frogs that occasionally hopped across their roots, while grey-faced gilgar labourers worked their way along the lines, draining the sap.
A cloud was appearing over the jungle, like a wave creeping up a beach.
She heard their butler Stiviss approaching. He had an eery elegance, his scales glistening above an impeccable tailcoat. And though his features were ill-suited to smiling, there was a warmth in his voice that she seldom heard from Harald, whose long absences were not what she had hoped for in a husband.
‘If I may, mistress.’ He placed the cake stand on the table. ‘You might wish to join Mister Dubrass in town.’
He looked as happy as she felt at the prospect of her going to Harald. This life must be lonely for Stiviss too, separated from his kin by a higher station.
She leaned back in her chair, layered skirts rustling. There was a lonely beauty to this place, with its scarlet frogs and its hungry plants, its snake-faced natives and its golden sunsets.
‘Why go to town?’ she asked, taking a honey wafer. He had been harping on this issue for days.
‘The frogs.’ He held her gaze a moment, then turned abruptly away. ‘There are few left, and they are turning brown early – an ill sign.’
‘Nonsense.’ She would rather stay here with Stiviss than be chased by superstition towards Harald.
A cry rose from the plantation, and then another. Gilgar were running out of the fields and into the jungle. Elena stared the way they had come, towards the dark shape she had taken for a cloud. She could hear the buzz of razor locusts descending to devour the snappers. She had witnessed small swarms before, felt a thrill of fear as she shuttered the house against them, but never so many, and never so fierce.
‘Mistress, the balance has tipped,’ Stiviss said. ‘They will devour us all.’
She gazed enraptured at the approaching swarm. She had known this place was beautiful, but outside of the jungle it had felt safe. Now it was a dark thing that made her heart race.
‘Into the house,’ she said, pulling herself away from the sight.
Stiviss shook his head and pointed at the mansion’s upper floors. Already locusts were swarming across one corner of the roof. A window cracked and then shattered beneath the weight of the swarm, a shutter falling free with a crack of flying nails.
‘You were right, Stiviss,’ she said. ‘We must go into town.’
She began to hurry round the house, realised that he was not following. She turned and saw him standing, gaze shifting between her and the jungle, face full of doubt.
‘Come on,’ she said, grabbing his hand. ‘If I’m losing this place then I can’t lose you too.’
His hand tightened round hers and they ran for the barn.
The buggy was out and they leapt aboard as the bulk of the swarm reached the fields. Jasmine, the old brown mare, snorted in panic as the buzzing grew.
Stiviss helped Elena up, those ridiculous skirts getting in her way. She cracked the reins and they jolted off down the dirt track, stray razor locusts slashing at them with sharp, narrow legs.
Jasmine raced with all the fuel of fear, but the swarm was faster. Elena felt them slashing at her arms, saw blood run pale down Stiviss’s face. The creatures seemed to have more taste for him, and for Jasmine, whose flanks were soon raw and seeping. The horse stumbled and fell, the buggy grinding to a halt as she panted out her last.
‘Quickly!’ Elena leapt in terror from the carriage, began running up the road. Behind her, Stiviss slid to the ground with a thump and lay groaning in the dirt.
She ran back, winged bodies battering her face, and put an arm around him.
‘Stay with me,’ she said. ‘We have to get to town.’
‘This is just a warning.’ He shook his head. ‘Just the beginning. Too many snappers, eating all the frogs. Nothing left to eat locust eggs. The balance has tipped. The jungle will devour your fine colony.’
‘And you?’ she asked with growing horror.
‘My people will be safe,’ he said. ‘We are part of the jungle.’
‘But you… this…’ She gestured at his wounds, then at the buzzing swarm.
His wheezing laugh turned into a wince.
She stared in horror at the ruin of the buggy, at the red mess that had been her fine horse, at the pain across Stiviss’s face. And then she looked at the jungle, the swarm thinner near its foliage. A place full of beauty and terror, full of the unknown. Could it be safe? Could she ever become one with that?
She should run for town, flee all of this with Harald. But what if she took a risk, for all that beauty?
And for Stiviss.
She lifted him in her arms, struggling under the weight and her own pain. She had never had to carry a person before, but between his kindly face and the locusts’ assault she somehow found the strength.
‘Stay with me,’ she said as she ran from the road, locusts slashing her all the way.
‘Stay with me,’ she groaned as she stumbled into the trees, the creatures still buzzing around her head.
‘Stay with me,’ she murmured as she collapsed into the undergrowth.
Now the swarm no longer reached her, held off by the thick greenery and the easier prey that small birds made.
She turned her head, saw Stiviss smiling back at her. The jungle was lush around them, frogs croaking, birds singing, the scent of sweet, strange flowers on every breath. And through the pain, through the buzz of the swarm vanishing into the distance, she felt freedom.
A Matter of Skin
The pain from the flayer’s knife is like a flower of razor blade petals unfurling in my mind. A searing agony whose beautiful results will make me weep with joy as well as pain. At last he sets the blade aside and hangs the skin ever so carefully across a willow rack.
“Another insightful chapter.” He wraps soothing bandages around my arm. “But you are running out of skin.”
I look at the rack, at the words I so carefully tattooed on the skin, accompanied by precise diagrams of the peonies I have made the subject of my studies. Blood seeps into the bandages and my body shivers with shock.
It will be worth it.
“How many are left?” I whisper, looking at the work of other scholars hanging on the flayer’s racks.
“Two.” With delicate fingers he ties the bandage. “You and Jong. Bey dropped out this morning. He had no gift for succinctness, and ran out of skin.”
I nod in understanding. Only the pristine skin of a scholar’s first work can go into the Imperial Library, to be preserved down eternity. Anything else would not last, even with the Library’s charms. Either my study of the heredity of peonies or Jong’s work on the feeding of roses will be this year’s entry to the botanical section.
I intend to ensure that it is mine.
My quill trembles over a scrap of paper. I look across my desk and see the beauty of the flower unfurling in the window, a reminder of why I must win – to preserve not just my name but all I have learned.
But I cannot get the words right. The wealth of details refuses to be condensed. The more I write, the more skin I must sacrifice. Though I tell myself over and over that I do not fear the pain of the flaying knife, still I shake at the thought of it.
The words will not come.
All my life I have worked for a place in the Imperial Library. What else could a scholar want if not to see their work endure? But perhaps I cannot do that. Jong has a gift for brevity. Having come this far, if he is finished before me the place will be his. I lack the time to shorten my words, or the skin to write them all down.
A tear runs down my face, and I wipe it away with my bandaged arm.
Both flayers are on duty today. With the end so close, they must make time for both Jong and I.
My eyes are closed, my whole face screwed up in pain. Still I can hear Jong’s grunts and whimpers. Knowing that he suffers too is not the reassurance I had hoped for. It only adds to my pain.
“We should stop,” one of the flayers says.
“No,” Jong whispers. “Keep going.”
“You have lost much blood.”
Jong’s screams are not enough to blot out my pain, but when he falls silent it brings me no peace. As the knife comes again, and the salt scent of blood fills my nostrils, I finally pass out.
Three days after the funeral I am well enough to attend Jong’s grave. I light incense and place a jar of peonies by the headstone. Already their pink petals are wilting.
“Your place in the Library is secure.” One of the flayers stands beside me, the woman who tended to Jong on that last day. The one under whose knife he died. “Your wisdom will endure forever.”
She sounds resigned. How many scholars’ graves has she stood by?
A petal falls from the peony onto Jong’s grave. I remember his face, and the incredible insights of his mind.
“Nothing endures forever.” I turn away.
After leaving the school, I find a place teaching botany in the provinces. One day the bandage slips from my arm, revealing the last chapter of my thesis still half-written on pale skin.
“Why do you have that?” one of my students asks.
“Because all things must pass,” I reply. “Now tell me, how will you ensure the hardiness of your peonies?”
Teeth and Tatoos
"You will be the greatest tattoo fairy that ever lived." The words echoed in Grindlespit's mind as she twinkled into the mortal world, teeth bared, hovering on hair-thin wings over the writer's bed. Those words had grated at her since the prophecy was first made, filling her belly with a feeling like barbed wire.
She loved her art, adored every second of biting patterns into the skin of sleeping humans. But being destined to be great felt like cheating. Worse, it felt like she had been cheated, robbed of the opportunity to become something on her own terms.
Pulling a pot of graveyard grey ink from her belt, she sank her needle thin teeth through its seal. As colour filled the tubes in her teeth she contemplated how best to execute this job. The writer had wished for some obscure superhero, and then left her shoulder exposed as she slept. A heroic stance near the top of the arm was the obvious use of the space, but Grindlespit wasn't great because she did obvious. Something more dynamic was called for.
She floated down onto the duvet, light as a feather. A sprinkle of pixy dust anaesthetised the sleeper - there was nothing worse for art than a wriggling canvas - and then Grindlespit set to work.
The vision in her head was flowing, vibrant, full of life and energy. It should have been a delight to create, each bite a tiny addition to her body of work. But instead she felt more miserable each time her teeth sank into flesh. She wanted to create art, not to be trapped and defined by the visions of others.
Missing the seal, her teeth ground against a pot of scab brown ink. She sank into the duvet, head in hands, wings fluttering, and sobbed. Was she only doing this because it had been destined? Or was she doing what she loved? Was it both, and she could never have satisfaction without giving in to the will of the universe?
The agitated twitching of her wings turned into a frantic buzz. She hurtled into the air, unable to think straight, flapping from place to place. She landed on a desk in the corner of the room, kicked an eraser into the waste bin, flung a pencil on the floor. Picking up a pile of the writer's chaotic notes, she gnashed at it with her teeth, staining the paper with hundreds of tiny bitemarks.
At last her rage subsided and she sank back down, the paper trembling in her hands. The mess she had made was almost beautiful, a jumble of shapes and colour. Not a tattoo, but still art, a work for which she had never been destined.
The smallest of smiles fluttered in Grindlespit's heart. This was the way. She could still create without bowing to prophecy. She could be her own artist.
The air twinkled as she faded from the room.
The writer woke groggily and looked down at her arm. Half a face had appeared on the skin. It looked vaguely familiar.
"What the hell?" she gasped.