Only two-and-a-half weeks to go until the official release of Xcyhler Publishing’s new fantasy anthology, “The Toll of Another Bell”! (Which is available for preordering, by the way!) High time for a sneak peek at my story therein, I say. So here, to tease and tantalize, is the opening scene from “Reality as We Know It”.
My Singer has asked to die again.
I heard it with my own ears, though of course he didn’t come to me. He never does, anymore, and it’s no use going to him. He doesn’t want anything I have to give. And so he goes to the judges.
I watch from a distance, my inner vision blurring my immediate surroundings while the image I desire comes into focus. As ever, my sight is set on Singer, seeking to see as he sees. He sits on his heels before the three judges in their room of shifting walls, dark and defiant, daring them to refuse. I pray they will, and fear they won’t. Though elected by the various peoples of the Abréal to maintain some sense of order within it, they are as susceptible as any of us to quirks of chaos.
Judge Ffionn’s shining eyes regard the small, slender supplicant from above. The massive fox towers over everyone else, even though his pillow seat rests no higher than theirs. In measured tones, he says, “We have already granted you death, Heartsinger. Death once a day—random time, random cause, life restored at midnight. Why is that not enough for you?”
“I’ve told you.” Far away, I cringe at my Singer’s voice, harsh and beautiful as a winter wasteland. “I want to see her now.”
Beside the great fox, Judge Rowan’s rapid blinking is not enough to prevent his tears’ escape. They trickle in rivulets from the corners of his flame-blue eyes, down the handsome planes of the face we almost share. As a rare duplicate pair—both of us one and the same person, me made in his image and brought into this world at a different life stage—there’s a lot we share more absolutely. Our root name, Rowan Charles. Our genetic makeup. Our inevitable love for our Singers. “And if we let you decide when you go,” he says wretchedly, “if you return to life at the stroke of twelve only to snap your fingers and die again at twelve-oh-one, how is that any different than permanent death?”
Singer does not meet his gaze. “I might choose to live here, sometimes.”
“Might you?” says Judge Ffionn, his drawl heavy with skepticism.
In his lap, Singer’s hands curl tight into fists. The cascade of black hair down the back of his elegant frock coat shifts in a breeze of his bottled emotions’ making. “I might.” His gaze snaps up. “If there were anything here worth living for.”
I double over with a whimper of pain. Singer, my Heartsinger, you don’t mean that, you can’t. Or perhaps my old Heartsinger couldn’t have meant it. There’s no telling with this new creature. Since death first came to the Abréal a year ago, I’ve known less and less who this Heartsinger is.
While I curl in on myself, Judge Ffionn’s snarl rips through the air. “Careless words! It was words such as those that ended your mother, boy. Would you allow yourself to become like her killer?”
Singer recoils as if slapped by Ffionn’s mighty paw.
“Leave him alone,” Judge Rowan moans, dropping his face into his hands. “For pity’s sake, leave him alone.”
Ffionn jabs his claws toward the young man before them. “The pup’s got more than enough self-pity. He needs none of mine.”
“Can you wholly blame him?” Rowan demands. “We conjured the boy to give him a good life; one better than the first Singer ever had. This world gave him a mother’s love, then it ripped her away! Is it to be wondered he’s come to hate living here?”
“This,” Singer hisses through gritted teeth, “isn’t living.”
“No,” the third judge says quietly. “No, it’s not. And perhaps that’s your trouble.”
Judges Ffionn and Rowan’s gazes, Heartsinger’s, and mine fix on the inscrutable eyes of Judge Soothsinger. The first Singer. Judge Rowan’s Singer. A Singer so near and so far from what mine has become.
The judge with the face and voice of an angel addresses his younger duplicate. “How many forms have you adopted this last year?”
My Singer’s shoulders move in a petulant shrug. “A girl. A goat. A grownup. A griffin. I’ve lost count.”
I remember each phase as if it were last week—which one of them may well have been. Hard to tell for sure. Time doesn’t mean a lot here. It’s marked out less in minutes and hours, days and years, than in changes. And Heartsinger’s changed more than most. From an adolescent boy to a girl, in the days when he loved me enough to think he might like to be my wife, once we were older. From a girl to a goat-legged faun, with me flitting about in the form of a fairy companion while he frolicked in the fields. From a faun to a grownup, in an exasperated attempt to be seen by the judges as more than a child, and me gamely aging up to twenty-one with him. From there to a griffin, in response to his craving for flight, and for death. Back when the blood of conjured prey was enough. Before he begged permission to spill his own.
“And why have you settled on none of these forms, or on any other?” Soothsinger asks.
My Singer—male, human, and aged down to eighteen years old, for now—shrugs again, frowning fiercely to hold hopeless tears at bay. “Nothing sticks.”
Soothsinger nods with an enigmatic hum. Absently, his pale fingers strum the air like strings, pulling music from nothing. The sound looks like snow at sunrise, and smells like distant stars. “The Abréal,” he says, “is a world of infinite possibilities, and impossibilities. We create our environment. We create ourselves. We construct and deconstruct; build and rebuild; watch Rome rise and fall, all in a day. In asking for death, you ask for permanence—one of the very few things outside this world’s power to give.”
Ffionn asks his fellow judge, “Have you a solution to offer?”
“Yes,” says Soothsinger, stilling his fingers. “I propose we send him to the Réalis. With Row. Permanently.”
Judge Rowan chokes on his breath. “To the real world?”
I gasp. “With me?”
Quick as thinking, since a thought’s all it takes to traverse space here, I appear before the judges, still keeping a respectful distance from Heartsinger, who gapes at his duplicate.
As do we all, he knows of the Réalis—the world alongside our own. We are that world’s dreams, they are this world’s stories. And some of us, I’m told, exist in both places at once, having been born there only to be conjured here at the judges’ whim.
We call the world real—not because it is any truer than ours, for it’s not, but because it is fixed, its base rules inflexible, unaffected by the merest wish of its inhabitants. Heartsinger rasps, “Why would anyone want to go there?”
Judge Soothsinger answers, “To live.”
“That,” Judge Ffionn says thoughtfully, “is not such a bad idea.”
“Consequences,” Judge Rowan muses. “Actions that matter. The constraints of a world of immovable fact.” His eyes light up with swiftly building energy. “Do you know, that might actually be just what he needs!”
“It’s madness,” Heartsinger whispers, terror in his eyes.
“I love madness!” I cheer, my own eyes a mirror of my older self’s. “Come on, Singer, think of it! We’ll have our own place, just you and me! And we’ll have to get jobs, so we can have money, so we can pay for things, ‘cause this”—I conjure a mug of tea in my hand—“doesn’t happen out there! It will be an adventure!”
And he’ll see. Once the poor dear’s lost everything but me, he’ll see I’m enough, just as he’s always been enough for me. That’s what Singers and Rowans are to each other: a kindred pair. It’s why the judges conjured me, back when Heartsinger and I were both small. In his grief over his mother, my Singer has forgotten. But maybe a new life in a new world will remind him.
To be continued upon the launch of “The Toll of Another Bell”, coming in with a bang-up Release Party on Saturday, January 31st!