The state is a reflection of the sovereign,

Their will, their action, their omission and grace,

Thus all sovereigns must create a mirror.

A mirror instructs their actions and inactions,

Reveals their wounds and balms

Upon themselves, upon us all,

For the state is a reflection of the sovereign

Creed of the Mirror Scribe

 

Concerning This Document:

These surviving fragments of the work of Marrow Jakku were unearthed in the Minor Tombs of Acrona by the Wayfarer’s brethren within the sepulcher of Darri Herotus, a minor archaic. No scholar of the realm has deduced the reason why a minor officiate would hold such a treasure, though our research has continued unabated since the discovery one-hundred years ago. The work, which has been titled “The Mirror Dialogues,” hereafter referred to as “The Dialogues,” was sent to Narvus for transcription, as the words of Jakku were written in the old tongue of kings, known solely to the first families of Bestoria and their sacred advisors. The Dialogues contain the only recorded interactions between Jakku and Thesa Auraballa Frasttu, future City Queen of Barcalla and later High Queen of the Empire and Heart Mother of the Macti Archipelago. It remains unclear if the work was commissioned, private, or for another purpose. The Dialogues remain the only evidence thus far uncovered regarding how Bestorian ladies were trained in the art of statecraft.

Gerus Ri, Chief Archiac of Selora Island Librarika Imperium

 

The Mirror Dialogues

V.

“I do not understand the question.”

“Then ask yourself this one first. Why do you love Barcalla?”

“Because Barcalla is beautiful,”

“How is beauty proven?”

“By joy.”

“Is Barcella ever ugly?”

“Never.”

“Then you have never truly seen this city.”

“How can a stranger tell me what I’ve not seen?”

“A good question. The answer is: all cities have streets without joy, markets rich with sorrow.”

“None of which I’ve seen.”

“Then you admit your ignorance?”

I waited. Without ignorance, there could be no beginning. And the silence of children is revealing. For some it is filled with a single emotion that drowns their thoughts. For others, their minds become a hive of possible responses. My charge, however, did something else.

Free of their bindings, the fingers of each hand tapped their thumb, as if she were a child of five summers counting sums or one of the Touched who were lost in the spasms of the Wayfarer’s Kiss. I would need time to deduce the meaning and value, if any, of her abnormality, but that was secondary to my task.

“Do you admit your ignorance of the city?”

“Do you have proof of these ugly elements?”

“I do. But to see that proof, you must stop answering questions with questions.”

The risk I offered was known to my sovereigns and agreed to before I set foot in the Resplendent Capital.

A cold morning preceded the night of risk. My charge worked on translating The Legacies as sunlight gave way to candle, then candles descended to their base. Night sounds entered the study. We had no meal. I called no end to study. My charge complained, threatened, and left. But precautions had been executed. Her own chamber was now sealed. She had two choices: return, or awake our sovereign. She returned, hands tapping with the fluidity of a spider’s legs as they wrap the fly in silk.

Studies continued until night returned. The tapping of her fingers grew more frantic as she recited, flawlessly, the “Epic of Laros” and the “King List of the City,” in a single sitting. Her memory was astounding. And as she spoke and tapped I discerned a pattern in her peculiarity.

My life before constructing mirrors for ladies of state had been unusual, though essential. It was because I, a merchant’s daughter, had traversed the known Realms alone that I was deemed suitably equipped to shape my charges as best I could. I had survived the world of men, knife, and commerce. I had language, culture, and philosophy, from home and away. I had seen what others took to be fables and lived. And I was barren of child and of royal ambition.

When my mentor saw my value, he trained me for the coastal cities, who were plagued by too many daughters. Then the inner country. These children born into power soon put down their dolls and began their steps as ladies of state. My teachings made sure they witnessed their cities as their reflection, grounding the dreamers, humbling the monsters, and supporting the capable to be chaste against black fantasies of power.

Previous to writing mirrors, I had spent time in the coastal cities of The Rim, where ships returning from the Macti islands would replenish themselves for the last leagues home. In Capus Horn, gambling houses catered to the hound fights that were the heart of the midnight economy. Daily, fortunes were won and lost. In one of these blood games, a merchant brought with him an alley child from the jungle archipelago. Her hands danced in each other, as if forever wrapping an invisible gift. The merchant won at the hounds, at the hand fight, at the funeral pit. Indeed, he took the house, against all odds. The next morning he was dispatched to the harrows for charming and was murdered before the next nightfall. The house, however, kept the urchin. Her hands were a device for computation.

When daylight again descended in the palace I prepared my charge for our activities. Her robe was from the last campaign against Protero, damaged but warm and with long sleeves to secure her hands from sight. She wore old guard boots with uneven heels and a pair of leggings I had not cleaned since I arrived. She said nothing of the smell, the feel, the appearance, nor challenged my choices to hide her sex, as all my other charges had done.

“We are going into the city.”

“Yes.”

“To see the ugliness of night.”

“Among other things.”

“You have starved and fatigued me.”

“Why would I do that?”

“It makes people easy to...”

“Easy to what?”

“I don’t want to say.”

“You fear your answer, or fear what will happen to you if you say it?”

“I will be punished if I say.”

“No, you won’t. You have my word. And if I break my word, my contract with our sovereign and the city is broken. See, I have something to risk, too. Say what you saw.”

“The Masters of Inquiry often do the same thing with their prisoners. Starve, tire, and more, so that their prisoners are more pliable.”

“Do they let their subjects out of their prisons?”

“No.”

“Then your analogy is false. You are not fatigued, you are awakened.”

“No, I am tired and hungry.”

“You are awakened to pain in your eyes, hands, and stomach. You find it hard to concentrate. You want something and cannot have it.”

“But I will have it.”

“Will you?”

“You cannot starve me to shadow before I write my mirror, or else you will not get paid.”

“I was not talking about food.”

We left through the gates of commerce on foot, trailing an evening delivery of stores being made by a very drunk merchant. We took the Coin Roads to the inner wall. Arrangements had been made so that we were expected and, should anything go amiss, a contingent with blackpowder pistols would be dispatched. I kept my own close to hand. From the Inner Wall we entered the second Ring of the City where my charge — — –

(The remaining part of Section V has yet to be recovered.)

Section VI has yet to be recovered.

VII.

“It is hard to see. Did you bring blades?”

“You’re scared.”

“Everything is different.”

“Yet you have strolled here a hundred times.”

“In daylight.”

“So Barcalla is not the same in the night.”

“Worse.”

“Why?”

“Night makes everything difficult.”

We travelled deep into the Thrum, toward the outer wall, lit only by the moon and the handful of torches lit by the city guards.

“Tell me what you hear.”

“I thought it would be quiet.”

“Why?”

“All sleep.”

“But not equally. Some sleep in the day and awake in the night.”

“Like creatures.”

“People are creatures.”

“Some are creatures. Other are people.”

 

The following events are believed to have occurred after those in the section noted as VII, as several pages separated the two, but this is an assumption because their text has been ruined due to exposure to water. Further inquiry is needed to establish that assumption as certain.

 

We traversed the alley known as the Snake, behind the taverns, as we reached for Commerce Square, and with every step my charge’s hands tapped beneath the cloth.

“Tell me what you smell.”

“No.”

“Why?”

“You want me to talk of the squalor and illness. You think I am ignorant of the city’s poor and suffering.”

“What do you know about them?”

“They smell like rotting vegetables.”

“Have you smelled humanity like this before?”

She paused as we passed by two corpses. A man had had his throat cut, a man in good dress, his shirt kept tight with strong buttons against the strain of his body rictus from his traumatic end. The smell of blood was still hot, bright and fresh. But beneath him was a bloated corpse, much older and untouched.

“Yes.”

“Where?”

“You know.”

“Do I?”

“I said it before. Don’t you remember?”

“Do not answer questions with questions.”

“I assumed you remembered, so I didn’t have to repeat myself.”

“If you tell me, I will remember. If I tell you, you may agree with my memory even if this is absent in your own.”

“You mean a lie.”

“That is one form. There are others. Where did you smell such smells?”

“I could lie.”

“I doubt that.”

“I want to ask a question.”

“You may have one question answered this night, otherwise phrase it as a statement.”

“I want to know why you believe I won’t lie.”

“Guess.”

Her hands moved quickly.

“Because I have yet to lie, to you.”

“Yes. And it is a good trait to consider. Your words are royal words. They have power. They become law. When you lie, it will be believed. At least at first.”

“A kingdom cannot be built upon a lie.”

“A fine aphorism from your grandfather’s mirror, but he was a better man than most.”

“A kingdom can be built on a lie.”

“For a time, yes.”

“A sad kingdom is built on a lie.”

“Very true.”

“What if a kingdom is built on truth?”

“I will tell you. If you answer my question first, and honestly. Where have you smelled this before?”

I said nothing, with our heads bowed at the corpses. As the smell of decay and buzz of carrion flies festered, the silence swelled with the truth. Then it emerged.

“In the south wing. The Heart Chamber of the Master of Inquiry. These smell even worse.”

“What do you do there?”

She looked at me as if the answer was known.

“I count.”

I waited. Silence again between us built a bridge; the unsaid question the key, the answer that wishes to be free.

“Bones broken. Limbs or protrusions removed. Flesh seared. Liquids drained. Type of scream. Age of the accursed. Height. Weight. And time.”

“What do they add up to?”

“There is a calculation for rendering men. Even the Master of Inquiry only glimpses it. He is very good, but he does not see all the pieces.”

I had planned a lesson on the suffering of the poor, of avarice and desperation, each a critical section for any mirror yet topics of which my charge seemed immune. But there comes a time for all mirror aides to abandon our maps, traditions, and patterns, and create one mirror anew. As my mentor told me, “whether you like it or not, your charge has a hand in the direction of your learning. If you are the gale that fills the sails, they are the hands that steer the vessel, and they may lead you towards/to different shores.” It was the path most stained with peril and also most rich with rewards.

“How would you calculate these men?”

“I do not understand.”

“How did they die?”

“The older man was struck in the back of the head. Something thick, like a cane or scepter... or a brick. There are bricks out here. If he was in a tavern it may have been a stool or stray block of wood from a woodworker. This tavern has a new door, so wood is the likely weapon. Wood did not make him puffy. Which means he was also poisoned to make his body so bluish white and bloated. The carat fish has oil that does this kind of bloating, which makes the dead appear a very old corpse, full of the... rotting smells. So he was murdered twice. Which means someone spent time preparing it, and the blow he took to the skull from a block of wood made us think it was perhaps an accident. Beating a corpse to tell a story. The fresh corpse is not messy, more like a cook cutting the cow’s neck. His death is strange.”

“Stranger than a planned murder with rare fish venom? Stranger than a man killed twice?”

“The fresher dead is dressed better. Cloth and button are what we see in the inner market. He was killed recently. I don’t think he was killed here. His shoes are too clean.”

“Good.”

“I don’t understand.”

“You will.”

Section VIII has yet to be recovered.

VIIII.

What has been dismissed as a crippling deficiency has hidden an astounding capability. As we walked through the Slum Corridor, into the Shacks, my charge noted an astounding array of things. We stopped at Harrowfield, where the poor bury their dead.

“Can you calculate suffering?”

“I do not understand.”

“Let us begin with what you see. Compare the people here with the people of the Iron Keep. Start with here.”

“There are more people out here. They smell worse. There is more death and decay. They are louder. Many work in the night. There are almost no guards. The elements are harsher, and the children are thinner and sicker. There is no one of my family or any dynasty around. There is more violence, and more dead, but no war or Master of Inquiry. Their graves have no markers, because most are not literate, and the history of the dead reveals nothing. When they die, all their stories vanish as if they’d never existed.”

“So is Barcalla still beautiful?”

“Yes.”

“Even here, in the grave mounds of sick children?”

“Yes.”

“Where is the joy?”

“There is... so much to count.”

My charge refused to leave unless I promised we’d return for more walks. She slept little, ate less, but upon our returns the revelations that awaited me were astounding, and what they could mean more so. I decided — — –

(The remaining part of Section VIIII has yet to be recovered.)

Section X has yet to be recovered.

XI.

After the last sojourn, a blight descended on the hard cava root, the meal of the common. Our night walks thinned. The common were agitated, and safety was no long a guarantee. We became bound by the company of one of the king’s Midnight Guards to assure our safety, and while I had no sense of their presence, I believed my charge was aware of their movement and chose paths that would be harder for their silent steps to traverse. This path led me into the bloody ruin of Knife Square on the Wayfarer’s Star Night. Under the midnight illumination, my charge witnessed the Riot of Barring Street before we were ushered back to the safety of the inner ring.

“There were fifty dead. Most were bashed skulls. A handful were blades. One a blackpowder pistol.”

“Why?”

“There was no food, so they attacked the stores.”

“What else did they do?”

“They screamed about the City King and his men–mostly blames and insults. And a local man’s name. Graylin.”

“Who is Graylin.”

“The young man who’s throat was cut in the Snake. He was killed by someone with money to hire a professional assassin. Or a person as quiet and skilled as a Midnight Guard.”

“How do you know it was Graylin?”

“The man who screamed loudest was his son.”

“How do you know it was his son?”

“He was wearing his father’s buttons.”

“What of the stores?

“They had been fuller than the keep ledgers suggested.”

“Which means?”

“The City King has been hoarding. More than usual. As if preparing for the need for more food, with the commons’ crops failed.”

“Why?”

“When people are starved, they often bend to pressures that they would resist while strong. I suspect a new levee is about to be proclaimed.”

“And what of the blight?

“The people believe it to be invented. That they are being starved on purpose. I suspect that was Graylin’s crime. His name is on the ledgers–he was a minor countman.”

“Do you believe the blight is natural?

“It has not infected the crop of the kitchen, yet much of our garden is subject to the same wind, people, and workers who live in the city beyond the ring. The blight is only on the common. That is unlikely.”

“Why?”

“Because nature does not serve the king’s will. If it did, Graylin would not have been murdered. There would be no need for extra stores. These are systems of men.”

“I want you to think of tomorrow.”

“I do not understand.”

“What do you think will happen tomorrow?”

“I do not understand.”

“Consider the Master of Inquiry. His actions produce a similar affect on a single person. He believes certain actions will produce the results he desires. Consider the city a person. If, and we are talking only in theory, the kingdom of the imagination, but if these are a king’s actions, will the city give him what he wants? Think of how the people look in the Master of Inquiry’s chamber when they are pushed to far.”

“I no longer go.”

“Why?”

“There is more joy in the city.”

Sections XII, XIII, and XIV have yet to be recovered.

XV.

My sovereigns have released me from duty. I await the Master of Inquiry, and this is my confession. It has been included with my notes as evidence for my trial for treason and regicide. And here, by the last flickers of my candle, I stand to account for my actions.

I am guilty of doing as my vocation demands, as my sovereigns requested, and no more. I have shown my charge the true nature of the city. Her whereabouts are unknown to me. The revolt may have claimed her in the poor quarters where she had spent so many nights, or not, for she became adept at walking among the people without a stir beyond the tapping of her hands.

You will soon hear a different tale from my broken lips: I have orchestrated the revolt. I have killed my charge. I will be made an enemy of the city I served. The evidence for these charges is rumor and deflection. I once heard a court elite of distinguished pedigree laugh into his cups that no matter what I did, my charge’s mirror would be broken. I believe he was wrong. The glorious city is broken. Only, no one could see it because they refused to see its true – — –

(The remaining part of section IX appears to have been torn from the document and has yet to be recovered.)

XVI.

I am free and safe from the unmaking of the city. The price of that freedom is that this shall be my final entry as mirror scribe for Thesa Auraballa Frasttu. We met in the high chamber, now called the Court of Permutations. She sat on her father’s throne, knuckles rolling like the automota of Farago.

“You were hurt.”

“So were you.”

“So were many. I stopped it. And with less suffering. Your work is complete. The mirror was broken. I am putting it back together.”

“And what of the missing pieces?”

“A reminder of what must be lost to save the face of the city.”

“And what of the cracks?”

“Evident for all to see, so that all can mend. For I can see them all. Every crack. Every sliver. Every mote of dust. And they can see me. My father was wrong. The City does not reflect its sovereign. We reflect each other. And I can hold it together.”

I walked, safe amidst death and carrion, until we reached the outer gates. She led the way, guarded by merchants and tradesmen wearing the purple vestments of the Order of Inquiry. Yet there was another smell amidst new death and old blood. Ovens. Smoke from the bread house. Hunger still pervaded the city/etc, but the sallow and rank void in the faces of the people had eased. Food had returned. All while her hands roved as if calculating all she could see.

“Your work is complete. Go. You will see your good works spread. The mirror will grow. We will see each other in it.”

“How big will your mirror be?”

The doors closed. She did smile. “I have no mirror. The world has a mirror. And it is full of joy.”

 

The mirror of Queen Thesa has not been discovered.

Gerus Ri, Chief Archiac of Selora Island Librarika Imperium

 

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Jason Ridler is a historian and writer. He created The Brimstone Files for Nightshade Books, has published over 60 short stories, and teaches creative writing for such clients as Google, CloudFlare, and others. A former punk rock musician and cemetery groundskeeper, he lives in Northern California. 

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