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reciprocus reflectere

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For a while, there was nothing. It had been like sleeping: deep, unaware, and timeless. But now there was a faint and hazy light, and with it came the drudgery of existence: an awareness of the eyelids, of hair brushing over the forehead, and of a hip pressed against stone.

When Maria inhaled, it took her by surprise. The faint swell and fall of her ribs was such a shock that her other limbs were startled into movement. Her hand scraped against grass, then rock; her knee bumped against the cobble of a path. She gasped if only to be sure that she was really breathing; one hand lifted and clutched at her throat. Her pulse thundered low in her ears. She kept her eyes shut tightly, dread gripping her at what she might see.

There were still clues to be heard, however, and they were not as easily ignored. It was quiet here, calm; there was no hopeless pained moaning of the patients, and there was no distant mournful roiling of the ocean. There was only a slight breeze through the foliage and the quiet murmurs of the messengers.

Maria opened her eyes. She saw stones embedded in dirt, pale green grass, and lunar-white flowers. In the distance was a wrought iron fence, a cloudy and slow-moving sky, and an array of tall and rugged pillars. They were clearly of a dream, but they matched nothing of any that she had been in; the nightmare had been made of twisted masonry and the bottomless sloshing sea. 

Close to her side, however, was one of the messengers. Tiny hands clasped at her sleeve and the creature peered up at her. The messengers often looked like they were gawking with their beady eyes and open mouths, but this one seemed especially astounded.

Maria carefully pulled her sleeve free of the messenger’s hold before drawing herself up and setting one boot flat against the ground. She knelt and took quick inventory of herself. She was not in pain, nor did she feel any unnatural absence of pain; she felt alive. A beating heart, working lungs, limbs all in order. She drifted her fingers over the lace of her jabot. The cloth was not stiff with spilt blood. She pulled the fabric out taut and saw that it was spotless. 

She felt at her belt. There was no scabbard and no sword.

She stood, turned, and stared. She took one step upon a path she must have traveled hundreds of times within the waking world. The old workshop sat atop the hill, shadowed by a great and twisting tree. A flickering lantern was resting beside the wide arc of a stairway up to the entrance. Ivy grew over the stone, with gaps dotted by the white flowers, and between the leaves Maria could see more of the messengers staring at her with open curiosity.

She went up one step, then another. Soon her stride strengthened into a run and she threw open the doors at the top of the stairs. Inside was the same long wooden storage case, the same old cabinet in need of a new hinge, the scattered teaware, the folded blankets, the fire crackling in the hearth— the wide desk loaded with weapons and gemstones, the altar at the foot of the stone-carved woman with the cracked-open cranium, and— 

And herself.

There was the same pale face, the same piercing eyes, the same light hair. There was even the same green brooch set upon the long and flowing jabot. The manner of dress was different, however, more like the garb of a Yharnamite homemaker, with the leather and sharp cuts of a hunter’s gear traded for soft cloth and a shawl. A bonnet, even, she noticed, and there was less anger in her consideration than there was sheer acid.

She stepped forward and her imitator was quiet and still. Its fingers were clasped together, each knuckle segmented— a doll, Maria realized, all porcelain and wood. When Maria grasped it by the shoulders it shifted weight to keep its balance but it did not respond further.

The rune-inscribing altar was sturdy. If Maria were to grip the thing and shove it back against it, the doll could break. Any wire holding it together at the joints could be snapped. All the pieces could be fed to the fireplace and as the cloth burned, the whole workshop could go up in flames. 

Perhaps then, Maria could return to being dead.

If she had merely found a mirror, she would have smashed it just as harshly.

Maria wound her fists tighter against the shawl. It was as if she could see the maker’s marks in every stitch of the cloth, in every hint of paint on the porcelain—and in every last lovingly fashioned bit of it, she saw something she never could have had even if she had desired it.

The doll peered at her blankly. There was no resistance when Maria pushed at its shoulders.

The doll’s back hit the altar with a muffled clack. Maria leaned forward with it, pushing it to bend further, further than any human could bear, and still the doll only stared at her. The bonnet dropped to hang loosely from its head. The grayish hair fell limp from its temples and Maria saw small and jagged cracks in the glassy slope of its forehead.

And on its face— Maria struggled to place the expression. A quiet, empty happiness? Dull resignation? Or nothing, nothing at all? Just wide, staring eyes, endlessly reflective. Maria could see the fevered shine of her own gaze in them.

It looked like her, but it wasn’t like her. It had merely been built, and now here it lived; it was guiltless. 

Maria could not bear to tear another innocent thing apart. 

She pulled her hands free of the shawl and stepped back. With the coolness of air moving over her face, she realized that her initial revulsion had spurred her to tears.

The doll creaked and the back straightened out until she had righted herself; a few displaced joints clicked back into functionality. She lifted a hand and delicately affixed the bonnet atop her head before nudging a few stray strands of hair back into place. She took one step towards Maria and then paused, as if waiting to see if she would retreat further in turn.

Maria stood her ground. The doll approached, step after tentative step, until she was close enough to reach out and touch Maria— and she did. The carefully carved fingers swept along the wet streaks on her cheeks. Maria’s stomach twisted with disgust but she did not back away.

“You are upset,” the doll said, and Maria stiffened at how much it was like hearing herself speaking to a delirious and dying patient. 

The doll turned and fixed her glassy gaze upon a nearby table. She stepped towards it and plucked a folded napkin from the tea tray. When the doll held out the cloth, Maria lifted her hand to halt her.

“Do not,” she said lowly, her voice still rough from the tightness in her throat. “Do not tend to me.”

The doll dropped the napkin.

“You are,” the doll said, and her eyes were shining now, though her face was as placid as it had been before. “You must be—?” 

She lurched forward and the long segmented fingers cupped Maria’s face. Maria stared at her, every nerve frigid with an indescribable alarm, and again there was the roiling urge to smash the face so damningly similar to her own— but those eyes, she thought, behind those eyes was someone else. 

“I am a doll, created by you humans, for dolls are meant to look like humans,” she murmured. “Humans make graven images to revere the gods, and dolls are made to revere humans. I always thought that perhaps there was one in particular that I was meant to revere, and I searched for her in every hunter that passed through this place. Is this…?” she asked, and she reached into a deep pocket. When she held out her hand again, she was holding a finely engraved hair ornament.

“Does this belong to you?” she asked, and Maria took a deep breath.

“Yes,” she answered.

“Oh,” the doll said, and she pressed the ornament into Maria’s palm. “It was a gift that felt so familiar to me, and yet I could remember not a thing about it. But when I held it for the first time… it was also the first time I felt joy. Quietly, and with such sweetness, as if there had been a happy memory there— but I knew that it was not mine. I am very glad that I could return it to you.” 

She gently pressed at Maria’s fingers until they were closed around the ornament and then drew back. Maria tightened her grip until she felt the tines of the comb push sharp against her palm.

“I have other things,” the doll said, and as she strode to the worktable there was a lightness to her step. “And all manner of things I have felt for them—ah, this,” she said, and from some deep shelf of the desk she pulled out glinting metal and an interlocking hilt.

“There was a sadness here,” she said as she cradled the rakuyo as one would a child. “And terrible guilt.”

How was it here? The hunter, of course, the insatiably curious one that had died at Maria’s hands over and over until they hadn’t. The hunter would have pressed further into the nightmare and excavated any buried shame.

“Put that down,” Maria said, and she immediately felt guilt at the anger creeping into her tone.

The doll lowered the blade back to the desk. “It has hurt you?” she asked.

“It has hurt others,” Maria answered.

The doll nodded once, slowly, before clasping her empty hands together. “Would you like to see the hunter?” she asked.

Maria frowned.

“A dear comfort to me,” the doll said, and she returned to the table with the tea set. “I had often prayed for hunters to find their worth in the waking world. This one found their worth here.”

The doll lifted a pile of unfolded blankets— and something was inside them, Maria realized, because as the doll cradled the cloth there was a dark, squirming shape and Maria could feel some grand and nascent mind draped over the dream, watching with that same inexorable interest she had faced in the clocktower.

The doll was talking quietly, saying something about her dear hunter, but all Maria could hear was the crash of the ocean, the dripping of blood and water, and the endless exultation and desecration of a seaside grave, all done in desperate skyward clutches at something that only the thing held in the doll’s arms had been able to achieve.

The doll was still softly speaking when Maria walked out the door. Her voice fell to silence. She looked down at the hunter and held the creature close before gently setting the blanket back down on the table.

Maria took a few staggering steps down the path descending from the workshop but then froze. She noticed a detail she had missed in the disorientation of her awakening. There were graves everywhere, jutting and crowded and nameless. 

“I would like to ask you,” the doll said from the doorway, “though now, I am considering… one would have no way to recognize one’s own grave.” She stepped out onto the dirt, hesitant in her movement, as if afraid that Maria would bolt. She pressed her hands to her knees as she bent forward over a heavily weathered stone. “It was here that I always felt…”

Maria could not bear to look or listen. Her long strides took her to the fenced-off periphery of the dream, lined with yet more tombstones, and beyond that was a cliffside drop into a cloudy infinite depth. She approached the spindly iron fence and held it tightly. She felt the hook-in-the-gut pull of her closeness to that edge, the dizzy draw of the fall, but she could not succumb to it, not yet. There were still some questions that itched for answers.

Besides, the whims of newborn gods were impossible to fathom and harder yet to escape; if she were to jump, she doubted that the hunter would let her go so easily.

She kept walking. Past a gate she could see more scattered graves but there was also a vast flowered field at the foot of the great tree. And at the base of the tree, empty and alone, was a wheelchair.

The doll had gone silent again, interrupted by her abrupt absence, but she had slowly followed Maria all the way to the gate.

“Where is Gehrman?” Maria asked.

“In the waking world,” the doll replied.

The storm inside her contained a single bolt of grief. “Dead, then,” Maria stated.

The doll’s head tilted. “A liberation from heavy shackles,” she murmured.

“In here,” Maria said, and she waved a hand towards the field of flowers. “This is where he was killed?”

The doll nodded.

“I want to go inside,” Maria said, and she pulled at the gate. It swung open and she walked briskly into the field. The doll kept pace behind her.

“You only realized our likeness when I spoke,” Maria said as she walked. “I saw it within seconds, but you did not. Why?”

The doll was quiet, seemingly focused entirely on keeping up with Maria. When Maria halted and turned to face her, she slowed and clasped her hands together.

“I was not often within the workshop,” the doll said, “and the mirror there has long been broken.”

Had Gehrman, too, hated his reflection? “You do not know what you look like?” Maria asked.

“Do I look like you?” the doll asked.

“Very much so.”

“Ah,” the doll said, and while she had boldly stared at Maria before, she now looked away and fixed her gaze upon one of the many white flowers. “Then… it is my manner. I loved Gehrman,” she said, and her eyes flitted up to briefly meet Maria’s, to see her stiff-shouldered reaction and the slight twist of her lips. “As I loved every hunter,” the doll added. “That is how I was made. I care for them, embolden their spirits, and pray for their safety. But I also know of hate. There were hunters that hated me, for they thought that I was what bound them to the dream. There were times that Gehrman hated me,” she said, and her voice did not waver; she was merely stating a fact long ago observed. “Did Gehrman hate you?”

“No,” Maria said. 

The doll nodded. “That is as I thought. I know, then, why he felt it so strongly. I am but a plain doll. He built me very carefully, but I did not…” Her head tilted further. “I cherished every hint of you. They let me feel more… complete. And I could feel how they resonated so strongly. I felt that perhaps, if I could discover enough of you, I would better—”

“You do not want to be like me,” Maria said, and with the admission came a sharp sad ache; she moved as if pained when she gripped at the doll’s shawl and drew her face close. She waited until the doll looked up to match her gaze. “You don’t.”

The doll’s eyelids dropped in a mechanical blink. “But you are…?”

“You don’t,” Maria repeated once more, harshly, and she dug her fingers into the unnatural hardness of her shoulders.

The doll nodded in her slow and thoughtful way. “You are shivering,” she stated. “Are you cold?”

Maria shook her head once in an almost disgusted jerk and she dropped her clenched fists to her sides.

“I know how to make tea,” the doll added.

“Do you really understand me?” Maria asked.

“Tea would warm you.”

“You should throw everything of mine away,” Maria said, her voice cold. “Think not of me. Whoever you are, whatever you are— and whatever was expected of you—” She cut herself off, feeling sore and unsure. 

“Throw away… You were loved,” the doll said. “I could feel it. Can you not feel it?”

“It matters not,” Maria snapped. “I was loved without knowing it, without wanting it. And if that love is all you knew, then you did not know me. I have sinned, and I have suffered for it, and I have stood sentinel for secrets for as long as I could until I failed, and even then— there is no torture deep enough, no atonement complete enough to cleanse me of my guilt. There is only the empty quiet of death to silence my sin. Do you understand that?”

“You wish for death?” the doll asked.

“I have,” Maria said, “for a long time.”

“And you do not want to be loved,” the doll added.

“Never,” Maria said. 

“I love you,” the doll said. “It is my nature to love you.”

Maria shook her head.

“To comfort you,” the doll continued. “To embolden your spirit—”

“No,” Maria said, louder than she had intended.

The doll went silent. Maria stood and kept her fists tight at her sides, every part of her feeling stiff with aimless anger, and she watched without quite understanding what she was seeing as the corners of the doll’s eyes glistened. A shining bead grew and dropped heavily down the curve of her cheek. The doll lifted one hand just as another fell. The teardrops made quiet clinks when they tumbled against her fingertips.

“Oh,” the doll said.

The doll wept. Maria ached. She was tightly confined within herself, too tight and tangled to do anything but watch. If she could cut the knot of guilt within her and unravel it, she would, but it was barbed into her in every way, and no amount of carving through herself would dissect it free— only in death, she thought, only in death is there peace.

But Maria had been a comfort before, and she knew the tired motions; it was unfair, she knew, but she gathered the doll into her arms and held her close. She drew a hand over the nape of her neck, the same way she had soothed the unending sobbing of her patients. It was a movement more mechanical than the doll could have managed.

“I should not have asked you to go against your nature,” Maria said. “I am sorry.” 

At the very least, she meant it.

The doll’s arms wrapped around her. Maria struggled not to startle at how firmly they pressed into her midriff. A hand reached up and dragged against her collar, mirroring the movement Maria had just made.

“I do love you,” the doll said. “And I have wanted for so very long to know you. If you wish for death, the good hunter will not hold you here.” Her fingers drifted over Maria’s back. “And I cannot hold you here.”

Maria took a deep, shuddering breath. “I will drink tea with you,” she said. “And then I will leave.”

The doll nodded.

The hunter had wriggled their way out of the blankets. The doll gathered the creature up in her arms and gently rocked them. Maria picked up a steaming teacup, took a sip, and then failed to hide a wince.

The doll tilted her head.

“It’s very bitter,” Maria explained. 

“Oh,” the doll said. “I will steep less next time.” She tilted her head down low as she patted at the bundled up hunter. “I have not prepared it often.” 

“You prepared it for Gehrman?”

“Yes,” the doll said, and there was an overhanging unspoken but.

He never would have complained about it, Maria thought. He would have silently drank the bitter tea and the doll would have watched just as silently, and when the cup was empty the room would have been full of the same bitterness, the same unspoken distaste, and then he would have instructed the doll to wait outside, well out of sight.

Maria had once been a favored pupil but she had seen his coldness towards those that disappointed him. She had hoped that her manner of death would draw that horrible coldness upon her, if only to lessen his pain at her parting, but obviously— obviously— 

“Were you once a child?” the doll asked, and the phrasing of the question made Maria blink.

“Yes,” Maria replied.

The doll nodded and looked at her inquisitively.

Maria took another sip of the tea. When she set the cup down, she spoke of Cainhurst. The memories were vague, like old footprints being filled in by further snowfall, but some small moments astounded her at their crispness— the view from the high parapet, the smell of candles, the first time she held a sword.

“And then you became a hunter,” the doll said.

A knight, a student, a hunter, a murderer. “Yes,” Maria said.

“Without a dream to sustain you,” the doll said, and for a moment the corners of her eyes glistened again.

Sympathy made her prickle. “In those days, if I had been told to take that hunter and butcher it down to parts so that it could be stored away and studied, I would have,” Maria said, and she let her gaze drop down to the bundled body for just a moment.

The doll only nodded. The hunter also didn’t seem too shocked, if one could judge by the languid wavering of the tendrils; they had met before, after all.

Maria felt a curiosity, the kind that she had often recognized and then reviled, the kind that only found out how things worked by taking them apart. What, she wondered, would it take to break a doll’s heart? With such a thing shattered, they would both be freed from love, and death could once again welcome her.

She took the final sip of her drink and set the cup down on the saucer. The doll stared at it.

Maria reached out and poured another cup of the terribly bitter tea. “Let me tell you of Byrgenwerth,” she said, and the doll’s eyes shined.

Inside of Maria was a razor sharp wire tied tight upon itself, and it had long refused untangling. Maria knew her own hands had been bloodied, and she in turn had sliced at all around her, her touch always sharp but often subtle. But she spoke with the doll, the preternaturally patient and careful doll, and her carefully carved fingers did not bleed easily. The knot loosened under her touch.

The ceramic pot had long gone cold. The cup and saucer had been shoved to the side. “You have finished your tea,” the doll said.

“I have spoken entirely of myself this whole time,” Maria said with a sigh. “What of you?”

“Of me,” the doll echoed.

“You have prayed for every hunter that has passed through this dream,” Maria said. “Tell me of them. I can remain for that, at the very least.”

The doll nodded, and the play of shadows upon her glass expression made it seem as if she may have smiled.

Eventually, every topic was exhausted, and every memory laid bare. They spent long stretches of silence together, one hand clasped in another, watching as the sky outside slowly shifted. There was even more tea, less bitter and better prepared.

Lady Maria did leave, but it took a long while.

The Doll holding the rakuyo.


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