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Significant Haircuts

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Hella Varal has always had long hair. When she was a child she wore it loose and wild, loving the feeling of the breeze through her curls as she ran and laughed and played. Her mother had taught her how to braid it, twist it into a bun, had cut it for her sometimes, but never too short. And still, she wears it long. Why fix what isn’t broken? It isn’t as if she’s ever cared about her appearance. She’s Hella Varal , Queenkiller, hero of Ordenna, and now she’s trapped in a sword and she wants a fucking haircut. 

Surely there are barber shops in Aubade, but Hella wants all her hair gone like yesterday, so she isn’t going looking for one. Instead she’s ripped the decorative dagger off of the wall above her bed. It’s been so long since she’s held any kind of weapon, and the dagger feels good and weighty in her hand, even if it isn’t her sword and she’s using it to cut hair and not flesh. It’s still wickedly sharp, she notes, running her finger lightly down its edge. 

Staring at herself in the mirror in her bedroom, it’s hard not to see a child. The same haircut, same round apple cheeks, as her mother put it, same dark eyes. Just a few more scars, now. Her father had wanted her to be a soldier. He’d been one, himself. “My little soldier-girl,” he’d called her, “my warrior of Ordenna”. Her mother hadn’t been opposed to the idea, but hadn’t been as committed as her father. “Look at this face,” she’d once said, squeezing Hella’s cheeks. “Does this look like the face of a warrior to you?” Her parents were good people. They loved their country, and their daughter. Of course, it hadn’t been war that drove Hella away from military service. It was obedience. She was always a willful child, preferring to run and play and hide whenever it was time to do chores. How long had it taken her parents to teach her to read, just to get her to sit in one place for long enough? She was never cut out for military life. She tried, for just a year, and failed. Grit her teeth and white knuckled it just long enough to receive an honorable discharge rather than a dishonorable one. Her father welcomed her home with a gentle smile and a kiss on the forehead, but she could see the disappointment in his eyes.

Hella meets her own gaze. Her face is that of a warrior now, whether it looks like one or not. She pulls her hair into a single clump and begins to saw at it with the dagger, ruby red locks falling to the floor. She aims for about chin length and mostly succeeds, the ends rough hewn and uneven. It looks—decent? Kind of? Almost? It’s different , certainly, and at the moment, different is all she’s aiming for. 

And then Adelaide comes in. Adelaide is the only person in Aubade who doesn’t knock when coming into Hella’s room. Adaire knocks, Hadrian knocks, Samothes knocks, even Lem, in all his lack of social graces, knocks. Adelaide doesn’t, because her singular goal in life seems to be ruining Hella’s. “Oh good god , Hella,” she says, pointedly. “What in the world have you done to your hair?”

“I cut it,” Hella replies. “Obviously.”

“You’ve sheared it is what you’ve done. Oh, it’s so uneven now.”

“So? Who cares?”

“You should. Your hair is so—the color is so unique, you realize?”

“It’s not unique in Ordenna. Everyone and their mother has it.” 

“If you wanted to cut it you should’ve just—I don’t know, gone somewhere. Instead of—whatever the hell this is.” 

“It got the job done, didn’t it?” Hella retorts. 

“‘ Done ’ is generous. Stay here. I’ll clean it up for you.”

And then Adelaide leaves. Hella, a little dumbstruck, stays. Adelaide returns moments later with a pair of golden scissors shaped like a goose. “Aren’t these fun,” she remarks, holding the scissors up to the light. “Sit,” she says, gesturing to the bed. 

Hella, to her own surprise, does, perching almost daintily at the bed’s foot. Then, Adelaide goes to work, trimming the uneven ends, letting more of Hella’s curls fall onto the bedspread. By the time Adelaide is finished, Hella’s shoulders are dusted with copper trimmings, and Adelaide is saying, “Wait, let me—“ as her long, clever fingers weave through Hella’s hair, plaiting a braid across her crown from ear to ear. 

It looks nice, in the end. “Hella Varal,” Adelaide says, a touch of wonder to her voice. “This is new.” 

“That’s kind of what I was going for,” Hella replies. 

 

… 

 

Prince Ephrim the Gifted, His Summer Son, Prophet of the Unwavering Flame, Silver Hand of Samothes, is having a bad time of it. Everyone is, he knows this, people are hungry, and cold, and scared, and even just plain uncomfortable. So is he, and he hasn’t cried yet. He didn’t cry when people died, or left, or brought bad news. But he’s crying now, because finally, after all this time, he’s run out of hair dye. 

His hair is naturally black, but he’s dyed it red since he was a teen, since he was crowned Prince Ephrim. He thought it matched with his burgeoning flame powers, and he was right. Some of his friends used to call him Red Ephrim, or even just Red: the dye was a part of his look. He would make it himself, a mixture of chemicals and magic, diluted in water. And now he has no chemicals and hardly any magic. And his hair is growing out, his natural color a black stain on top of his head. 

He spent the morning traipsing across the university grounds, digging through storage closets and sheds, but to no avail. And now he’s diluting out the last of his bleach, trying to make it stretch further than it possibly can. He’s stressed, he’s tired, his hand aches, and now he can’t even dye his fucking hair, so he cries, ugly bawling into his hands in front of his bedroom mirror, his nose clogging up with snot and his face growing red and patchy. 

He doesn’t notice Throndir come in until he speaks. “Ephrim?” he says, distantly. “Are you okay?”

“Go away,” Ephrim retorts, not looking up. 

Throndir’s hand on his shoulder is gentle but insistent. “What’s going on?”

Go away ,” Ephrim repeats, his voice shaking a little. 

“Just tell me what happened.”

“Nothing it’s—it’s stupid. Really, really stupid.” Ephrim finally looks up. He looks like such a wreck , eyes red and watery, face stained with tears. He was always pretty small and lean, but now he’s even skinnier. Too long without a good meal. He sees Throndir behind him in the mirror, and Throndir looks—well, he’s looked better too. His eyes are sunken into his skull, and his skin is dry and flaky, its healthy brown faded into a dusky grayish hue. He’s looking at Ephrim with genuine concern, no pity, just—just concern. “I ran out of hair dye,” Ephrim says, swallowing his sobs and brushing away his tears. He grabs a rag off the nightstand and dunks it in the bucket of water on the floor, pressing its coolness to his face. “And I can’t make more. That’s all.” 

To his surprise, Throndir hugs him. Just hugs him. Ephrim freezes for a moment, his hands hovering over Throndir’s back before hugging him in return. “I’m sorry, Ephrim,” Throndir says softly. 

“It’s okay,” Ephrim says, breaking the hug and taking hold of Throndir’s shoulders. “I was—the dye was, well—it’s not me anymore, I don’t think.” He isn’t Red Ephrim anymore. He isn’t Prince Ephrim, Prophet of the Unwavering Flame, Silver Hand of Samothes or any of his other titles either. Samothes is dead, and has been for a long time. Since long before Ephrim was even born. “I’ve outgrown it,” he finishes. 

“Okay,” Throndir says, nodding. “Would you like me to help you cut it? Cut the rest of the red off, I mean.” 

“Oh—thank you. Not yet, though, I don’t think. I think I’ll let it grow out for a time. But I’ll probably take you up on that later.”  

“Sure.” Then, taking a strand of Ephrim’s hair between his fingers, Throndir says, “For what it’s worth, I think two-toned hair looks nice on you.” 

And Ephrim can’t help but smile. 

 

 

Lem King awakens to Hella shaking him. “It’s nearly midnight, Lem,” she’s saying. “Find a bed and fucking sleep there for once.” 

He’d been dreaming. His dreams are filled with patterns now, they always have been, but here it’s nothing but patterns. Woven tapestries and flower petals and golden ratios and the Huey decimal system that they used at the Archives—he looks at Hella’s face and sees fractals. He blinks, quickly, as if trying to shed exhaustion from his eyelashes.

She smacks him. Gently. He can tell she’s holding back. It still stings a little and disorients him, the fractals shattering and scattering, and he doesn’t resist as Hella pulls him up by the back of his shirt collar and hauls him away from his desk.

“When was the last time you changed your clothes?” Hella is asking, although Lem isn’t really listening. “Or bathed? Or fuck—cut your hair? I’ve never seen it this long.” 

That last question catches his attention. He’d always worn his hair rather long; it’s the fashion among archivists to do so, only cutting it short when such an action is necessary for the pattern. But now it’s down to his hips. Longer, even. Before Aubade, he didn’t let it grow much past his shoulders, and almost always wore it up and away from his face. Now, what’s the point? Who cares if his hair gets in his eyes or gets stained with ink or gets tangled and greasy? 

Hella, apparently. In one fluid motion, she pulls half of Lem’s hair away from his face and pins it up in a loose and messy bun. “At least put it up sometimes. God.” 

She had cut her own hair some time ago, although Lem can’t pinpoint exactly when. One day he’d looked at her, squinted, and said, “You cut your hair.” 

Her mouth had thinned into a line that suggested that this had been the case for a good while now. “Thank you,” she’d sighed, “for noticing.” 

Hella leaves shortly after pinning up his hair, not fully committing to making sure he gets to bed. He doesn’t. Not immediately, anyhow, instead choosing to tidy up the bun Hella gifted him. He wraps a bit of golden twine around it, and he looks almost nice. Well, not almost. He’s still barely slept and hasn’t eaten much beyond what Hella’s brought him, but he looks closer to nice than he did earlier. When was the last time he looked nice? He can’t remember. Before the sun went away, surely. He dressed up for the trial in Nacre, he remembers, but he hasn’t had cause to since then. 

When he was a child, he hated getting his hair cut. He just hated sitting still for as long as it took, as his father washed it and fastidiously tidied up every stray hair. He used to run away when his father brought out the scissors, having to be corralled back into what Lem had ominously dubbed The Cutting Chair. 

“Sit still,” his father chided gently. “It’s not so dramatic. It’ll be over soon.” 

Lem doesn’t cut his hair again until he leaves Aubade. Until after he’s returned from fighting the Advocate for the final time. He thinks of doing it himself. He thinks of asking Hella to do it. He thinks very hard of asking Emmanuel to do it, but in the end chooses to approach a real barber, one of the many displaced and dispossessed who have taken up residence here, at what could soon be the end of all things. In minutes his hair is back where it was before, at his shoulders, and clean as well. But he keeps the bun, and the golden twine. It looks nice. 

 

...

 

In Aubade, Adaire Ducarte developed a routine with regards to hair care. After work, every day, she would come back to Samothes’ palace and draw a bath. Then she would unpin her hair from its bun, unweave her large braid, and then unweave the smaller braids, until her hair was flowing in a thick golden cascade down her back. Then she would pre-condition it, wash it, condition it again, brush out every single knot at least twice over, lie in the sun for several hours, as long as it took for it all to dry, and then run through it with oil scented with rose or lavender or honeysuckle. 

When she was young, one of her sisters had pulled on one of Adaire’s pigtails and said, “You know, blonde hair is pretty on a lot of people, but not you. On you it’s the color and texture of straw. Old, wet, moldy straw.” 

But here, washed and dried and framed by sunlight, her hair was the color and texture of spun gold, falling over her chest and shoulders. 

Once, a lover had asked her why she wore her hair so long. Her answer had been simple, and only partially true. “I like it,” she’d said. But long hair was for people who had stuff. Who had money, who had connections, who above all had time to care for it, to let it down every night and pin it back up every morning, to wash it as often as needed. Adaire had none of these things, but she liked to pretend she did, so she kept her hair long and wore it intricately braided, cutting corners where she could. After all, it was easy to pretend your hair wasn’t greasy when it was in a bun and tucked under a snood. 

When she left Aubade, she was dismayed but not surprised to discover that she no longer had the time or resources for hair care. And that was fine, for a time, as she reverted to her old ways, not washing her hair for days at a time, keeping it out of her face as best she could. 

But things in the Rhizome are different, she realizes. Even when she tries to pretend that they aren’t, that things like hierarchy and status and wealth and the illusion of prosperity still matter. And she sees Hella, her girlfriend—partner, something—and her short hair. She cut it in Aubade, and although Hella had always been handsome, short hair suited her in a way that made her even more so. 

Adaire wants that for herself. Not the handsomeness, necessarily, but the short hair. Hella is carefree as she plaits it across her crown, brushes it, and leaves for the day. She doesn’t wash it every day, or even every other day; she doesn’t need to. So one day, in a fit of frustration as Adaire tries and fails to dry her hair after a long soak, she grabs a pair of scissors off the nightstand and cuts it off. Even in her anger, she’s methodical, brushing it out, measuring twice and cutting once, making sure it’s as even as possible. 

When she’s done, she smiles at herself in the mirror. Her hair goes to about her chin, too short to put up in any meaningful way. She centers herself and leaves the room, nearly running headlong into Hella on the way out.

To her surprise but not dismay, Hella’s hair is shorter as well, even shorter than it was before, now trimmed into an undercut and floof of red on top her head. They see one another, take in the change, and burst out laughing. 

“I guess you had the same idea,” Hella says. 

“I just thought...I thought it might be time for a change,” Adaire replies. 

“It suits you.” 

“Thank you,” Adaire says, tucking a strand of hair behind her ear. It’s not exactly spun gold, but it’s certainly not moldy straw either.