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artificial castling

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There are two clocks ticking in your body: One’s counting down the time until the inevitable draft, the other’s shaving seconds off what life you’ve got left. Your body is a mess of cogs and gears, and every minute of every day you are screaming but compared to the great noise of your clockwork innards that screaming is silent.

You don’t know which of the two possible conclusions you fear the most.

 

 

Aries goes quiet one day—not poised, the way he usually is, but hunched-in and fearful. There’s the hint of bruises under his eyes in circles from lack of sleep, and you could kick yourself for your brain’s blunt refusal to interpret the dark marks on his thin little wrists for what they are.

The next you see of him is his silhouette through great clouds of dust, reflected on the television screen. The quality of the live footage is very bad even when wind rips the debris in the air apart, and his gestures and movements are unclear—but his eyes are alight with some frantic emotion, and he is shouting. Singing. Cursing the world, perhaps. There isn’t any audio other than the news reporter talking over the video, reporting about casualties and property damage and police on their way to do something.

You don’t drop the plates in your hands. You set them very deliberately on the counter, and then you go sit down on the sofa, heavily. The video on the screen gets fuzzier and fuzzier, but you watch all through the appearance of white-coated, stun-gun-wielding government soldiers, surrounding Aries in a circle like an oddly human-shaped henge.

Rose turns off the TV. You rest your face in your hands.

 

 

“If you don’t like the rules, why then no one is forcing you to follow them,” Eater says, and daintily taps on the corner of her juice box with manicured nails. You have never seen anyone drink apple juice through a straw so fastidiously as her.

“I think you’re oversimplifying things a little,” you tell her, and she smiles at you all polite and predatory.

“The thing is that I’m really not. Living creatures attach so much meaning to every little thing, why, it’s astonishing. But if we cut away all of our fear and all of our expectations, the choices are quite clear-cut. It’s all right to be a bit more selfish, dear.”

And just like you can never quite force out the scream, you can’t correct her that you’ve got two choices available and neither of them involve disobedience: You can’t tell her, warn her, that she’s one drunken fight away from disaster, that she’s too strange and disordered for the world to safely forgive.

When she disappears quietly as five-AM fog, you close your eyes and you think of Ledah fighting out on the front lines and you say nothing.

 

 

Graffiti, an explosion of colors and inventive profanity, starts to spring up all over the city. First it’s in corners, and then all over alleys, and then it bursts all across every wall with free space. Government workers in their white trenchcoats are constantly ordering storefront owners to wash it off.

You know the handwriting, and every day you keep silent about it makes you feel a little more like you’re being stretched out on a rack.

 

 

“I had sisters once,” is what Meria tells you. She does not even bother to stop shaking the spray paint can—she just hands you a face mask uncaringly and goes back to outlining fuck the magi in rainbows. “And if the past tense isn’t tipping you off, that’s why my bullshit tolerance is getting really low these days.”

You try to speak, but she just shakes her head. “I know you see it. Living where you do, with your choice of roommate? You’ve got to know. Anything this city used to stand for, it’s all turned into lies. Our principles were pretty fucked up when we were true to them, but this—”

This time, when you take a breath, you get a mouthful of chemicals and cough loudly enough to make her turn and look at you.

“I know that you and Aries were close,” you say, and she peels back her mask to spit on the ground.

“Close,” she sneers. “Friends. And I can’t say that I know what it’s like, being in your shoes, but I watched him fold in on himself with panic by the day. If there’s anybody that’s got a reason to hate this government it’s you.”

You know what she means, deep into your bones, but you cannot admit it out loud.

“War’s been declared—and I don’t mean the one where we’re off killing demons and they’re killing us, this Second Ragnarok that’s putting the stars out. I mean that they’re scared of us, that we’re inconvenient to them because we’re not under their thumb. If you just knuckle under and don’t say anything then that means they win.”

“Everyone knows that this is you,” is what you finally say, and the words are pale and pathetic, half warning and half threat. “They’re going to come for you eventually.”

“The Man can kiss my ass, because I’ll be long gone and laughing by the time anyone tries to find me. Fuck that noise.”

She crosses a t with a curlicue and flips her hair, and because the dawn is breaking, you stick your hands in your pockets and walk away.

 

 

Meria is true to her word. You bite your lip a little.

 

 

The worst thing is that even though the real enemy is outside of your borders, the real enemy could kill your best friend any day now, too many people seem to agree with Meria’s take on things.

There’s an underground meeting in the basement of a coffee shop, a disaster shelter. Rose goes for the sake of material, and she drags you along to keep you “out of trouble”. When she gives her sign and you descend into a crowd of packed people, you barely recognize the figure standing atop the red fluorescent-lit stage. Elise was always so apathetic during the day, lazy and even snobbish, but here she stands straight and alert as a general, and there is something fierce and compelling about her eyes.

“Why should we obey the Magi that even now seek to trample us underfoot? They fear us, knowing that we can no longer be controlled; they no longer speak for the will of the gods. And it is high past time that we remind them that the angels are not their playthings.”

The crowd rumbles. Beside you, Rose’s eyes catch the light, holding onto the red as if they could change color like alexandrite.

You just hold your breath and close your eyes. While the others are all buoyed up by those galvanizing words, you sink like a stone, like your stomach into a sea of muddled worries.

 

 

There used to be a time that people sang about beautiful things on the radio, Rose says, and gives you low-fidelity mp3s of old songs. The worst part is that you can’t even imagine.

Street rallies spring up, angry angels of every caste but your own shouting and holding signs. You start to have nightmares of the mausoleum, of men with syringes filled with air, and you feel like crying over the number of your people who will never wake again.

 

 

Two things happen, then, in brutal and merciless succession.

First, you receive the word that Ledah has fallen on the battlefront. Calmly—without pomp, without circumstance. Without honor. His death and those of countless others are reported matter-of-factly over the newspaper, with such a sense of entitlement that later you can’t handle your disgust and force yourself to vomit. It’s awful, worse than crying, but you feel much more in control of yourself this way.

And then Rose probes a little too deep in her search for information.

“We’re leaving,” she says, “now; I already have all the things you need.”

“What,” you make out—you are a paragon of eloquence these days—but she simply shakes her head.

“I wouldn’t stop writing even if I could, and if they investigate me they’re going to find out all the hacking I’ve done into the Magi’s mainframe, everything that not even citizens have access to. This book is going to change everything, it’s going to blow up everything Asgard’s tried to keep secret for centuries. My loyalty’s to the truth before I owe anything to the establishment.

“And you’re coming with me because I’m not letting a military draft be your only chance at breathing free air all your life. There’s someone waiting for us. We’ll be out of here through Heaven’s Gate before the sun rises.”

 

 

The room is cramped and dark, and the bare lightbulbs sway on strings as the ground above shakes. You cringe. The ceiling is reinforced, but you imagine collapses and cave-ins and breathing in dirt and your heart thrums in your chest like labored wingbeats.

There are guards outside that you didn’t know, but here there are only familiar faces: Eater seated on a filing cabinet, smiling a bit too nastily to be coy with hands and ankles folded. Meria, hair tied back, eyes alive with rebellion. Elise is behind you, closing the door. All of them are streaked varyingly with dirt, but each of them has a kind of vitality that you have never seen a living being other than Rose possess.

A movement at the far end of the room draws your attention, and you realize that there is after all someone here that you don’t know. The man standing behind the chair with big gentle hands on its occupant’s shoulders is a mass of wild red hair and especially battered clothing. One glance at his slit-pupiled eyes and the shape of his ears is enough for you to tell what he is (and your throat fills with bile), but: Logic tells you that your side of the war can’t be the only one with people unhappy with their government. And you swallow, and swallow, and try to hold your instincts in.

You look down for the sake of distracting yourself, and realize belatedly that you might recognize the small pale person in that chair if there wasn’t a roll of bandages covering his eyes.

“Forgive me for not standing to greet you,” Aries says dryly. He seems unnaturally tiny without wings, and there’s something odd about the way that the light hits his legs. “But now that you’re here, do find a place to sit. We have a revolution to plan.”