Reprieve
island.jpg


Xanadu Weyr - The Lonely Island
Smack dab in the middle of the Sea of Azov sits a tiny island. Only just big enough to contain a freshwater stream, the island is overgrown with trees and shrubbery. Evidence of animal life exists, for those smart enough to look, small traces and paths zig-zagging through the dense forest to and from the water source and wild, edible plants. Mushrooms, berries, and the occasional fruit tree spot the island, along with several other plants that are only edible when one is particularly desperate. While the western side of the island drops off in sheer cliffs that plummet into a deep ocean pool, the eastern side slopes slowly into the water in a long, white stretch of beach. Pockets of sand create excellent fishing spots, while others play home to tiny ecosystems in the form of tidepools.


MOOD MUSIC


"Breathe when you're suffocating.
Move when you're frozen.
Be when you can't live."

Farzi's words spoken to the rhythmic beat of her foot on the wooden floor echoed in Tejra's head as she adjusted the sail of the small craft, her movements too mechanical. She felt like a clockwork come to the end of its life. There was nothing left to grease the easy movement of her body, nothing left to breathe life into the husk she thought she might always have been, and perhaps always would be.

She had been equal parts excited and terrified to receive her Journeyman's knot, to be assigned her first posting, a posting designed to gain her experience outside of the Hall. Harper Hall had, in eight turns, become home, a word that had been meaningless to her until it hadn't. The word began to mean something a little more than seven turns ago, on the day Farzi found the livid, red face of the too thin, too small, too angry slip of a girl who sat among the soggy mess that was the wash water all over the dance studio floor.

The room had too many mirrors, mirrors that showed that inchoate hellion too much of what she didn't want to see. She'd tried to break one of those great panes. They'd have sent her home for sure, if she'd succeeded. She had wanted to succeed, had wanted to prove to all of those awful, too sympathetic, too understanding people what her family knew: she was rotten. She wasn't worth any of their efforts or their kindness. She wasn't worth anything.

The stool she'd thrown had bounced off the glass. She just didn't have the strength. She had pounded with her fists on that mocking expanse next, willing to cut herself open and bleed if that's what it took to let the truth the mirror showed her be visible to everyone else. She'd been given a final warning. She'd been set to these extra chores for her latest infraction. They'd have had to send her away, back to an uncle to whom she was nothing more than a name and a tenuous, tedious relation that translated into easily dispensed duty.

When her fists did nothing to the glass, when she didn't shatter it or herself, she'd kicked the bucket and let that dirty liquid spew her self-loathing and rage across the newly scrubbed floor. Let it soak in it's own filth. Let her soak in it too, for all she cared. It was there, when she was on her knees with more rage for the world, for the ugly, monstrous girl in the mirror that Farzi opened the door. She pulled to her feet, body tight as as a drawn bowstring. She trembled - rage? Fear? Both?

Farzi was magnificent. She always moved with such presence, with such unshakable grace. She merely looked at Tejra with her trademark implacable look of serenity, twitched her eyebrows up and said, "Try harder. You're not exhausted enough." Then she stepped into the room with the vulnerable beast, door closing behind her. Long arms swung with precision and folded against her chest as she leaned back on that door. Her expression betrayed nothing; it was as though she faced down microbursts of emotion and their miniscule harbingers every time she walked through the door to what was, inarguably, her sacred space.

Tej ached. Her arms and eyes stung, but that's not what hurt worst. The hole in her chest that had always been there instead of some critical thing that she just didn't have unexpectedly throbbed with want. She wanted to be Farzi. Unflappable. Statuesque. Perfect. She also hated her. Fiercely. Everything she could never be in one person and a person who stood here instead of literally anywhere else on Pern.

"You can't make me do this!" Tejra flung the words as if the force of her breath might somehow, impossibly, ruffle the woman's perfectly coiffed hair.

"That knot on your shoulder says I can," Farzi observed, her voice detached as she examined the nails on one beautiful hand. Even that move was graceful. It was disgusting. Infuriating! It shouldn't be allowed for one person to have so much of what awkward, castoff Tej wanted most in the world.

"This knot?" She jeered, caught in the storm of her own making. She snatched it from her shoulder and threw it into the dirty water at her feet, stomping on it for good measure.

Farzi's move off the door was so abrupt that it caught Tejra by surprise. The woman only moved two steps, but Tej wasn't sure she had seen the older woman move.

"Again." It was a suddenly hoarse demand from the dancing Master.

Caught off guard, Tejra stared dumbly.

"Strike, girl." And one of Farzi's feet slammed the floor, the sound echoing in the open space.

She looked down at the knot, up at Farzi and back, and struck. The water lept, arced and fell.

"Again." And again and again and again, it proved, until both Tejra and Farsi were casting dirty water with every rhythmic demand for noise, and with each, surrendering some small measure of energy.

Tejra stopped. Too tired to go on, sinking down and down into that puddle all over again.

Unforgiving hands wrapped into her shirt and pulled her bodily from the floor to her feet again. It took the breath out of Tej, took Tej to another time, another place, but no. That didn't happen here, not at the Hall. Still, she stared bewildered and bereft of all that had kept her on her feet, toes only barely touching the slick floor.

"You are weak." The words stung like a slap. But there was something familiar, something strangely welcome in the idea that finally someone was seeing her for what she really was. Maybe Farzi could see that this was where she belonged. Farzi would kick her out now. She would reclaim that knot that had been sullied beyond saving and Tej would be sent away. The thought that it was finally happening brought a wash of both relief and fear. Where would she be sent next? Would it be better or worse than the place she'd been these past months that numbered nearly to a full turn?

"Tomorrow, you will report to me. You will train until you are strong. You will train until you control everything from your breath to the flex of your smallest muscle. You will train until you are exhausted. Every day. You will work through the pain. You will breathe when you are suffocating. You will move when you are frozen. You will be when you cannot live. Do you hear me, girl?"

Pale eyes stared at that fiercely sure face, at that paragon of perfection, at the woman who was asking her to do more, to become better, who was, in some strange way, harshly dragging her back from the edge she'd teetered on for too many turns of her young life. She wanted to fight. She wanted to spit in the woman's perfect face. She wanted to—

She was simply too tired. Sagging on her toes, Tej fell as Farzi let her go, into that puddle of her own making. "Yes," the girl whispered.

"Yes, what?" Farzi stared down at her, eyes hard.

"Yes, Master."

Farzi's eyes lingered on Tejra's head a moment longer and then nodded.

"Tonight, you will clean up this mess. If you disrespect this space again, I won't report you. I'll deal with it my own way." Shivers went down Tej's spine at the promise… the threat in the words. She wanted to protest. She wanted to stomp off and leave it for someone else, to make one last clear act of defiance…

She was too tired. The exhaustion bled the anger of function. It doused the flame of every feeling that had kept her moving. She sat a long time, feeling like a melted candle, burnt to the nub, hardening as she sat— and yet, one spark could melt her more, reshape her, remake her. But there wasn't one.

She sat stiff and still while Farzi slipped out the door, opening and closing it with care. Sat while her limbs trembled, sat while she wept tears she couldn't control. Sat while the world changed around her even if nothing looked any different.

Then, reaching deep, she summoned the smallest spark, the smallest hope, and she moved. She cleaned as she had been bidden. Each movement was an effort. Each stretch to put the rag in a new puddle and each twist to wring it out brought pain. But Farzi said she would work through pain. Farzi said she would be strong. Farzi was perfect. Farzi would be right, even if Tejra had to give up every worthless thing she had ever been just to become someone worthwhile.

Those mirrors Tej had loathed for what they had shown her became her unvarnished truth. She had seen herself ugly, had seen herself beautiful. Graceful. Mechanical. Flawed and flawless. The mirrors told the truth even when others might spew pretty lies for silly purposes. And here… here in this new place that had no room of mirrors, she was struggling to see herself. To be herself.

She glanced down at the water - too full of movement to offer a reflection - and then to the island ahead. Maybe being alone she could find the peace of mind that escaped her at the busy Weyr so full of new things, new people and new ideas.

Writing to Farzi wasn't the same thing as being with Farzi. She could bring to mind the looks the older woman had given her over shared cups of tea or in training for dance and other forms of movement. She could hear the rich timbre of her voice in her mind as familiar words and cadences were drawn up, but none of it was the same of having her there. She'd never been homesick before. It was terrible. And stupid. So stupid.

Stupid girl, she chided herself. You were always alone. Farzi was brief company. Seven years. Brief company. Now you're alone again.

It wasn't as if she'd never been alone in the last seven turns. The Hall was a noisy, busy place, but Farzi took the apprentice she'd tucked under her wing (or under her boot, if Tej were being realistic, and that was enough to make her snort amusement, a sound washed away by lapping water, cutting prow and wind in her ears) and had habitually dropped her from the back of her runner into some square of wilderness that must not have been too distant from the Hall, and just leave her, for days at a time, though not for weeks until that last turn when there had been times she was being instructed by Farzi alone.

"To be able to be motionless in a busy world requires the ability to be motionless within," Farzi explained apathetically when a much younger, still sometimes angry Tej demanded answers for the frightening abandonment. She had been forced her to use skills only ever tested in a classroom just to survive until Farzi and the pedestal she stood on made her way back to where Tej had been left two days later. "While you are busy fidgeting about or flinching away from your own thoughts, we will make no progress as a dancer. There is too much distraction there." At the Hall. "Here, you have no choice but to be your only companion."

And if Tej were honest, that was just what had scared her most, not the spinners in her face as she walked, or the dark, or the cloying sense of being watched from the thickets of brambles and underbrush that grabbed at her clothes like too many sweaty, unwanted hands. It wasn't the trouble she had finding somewhere to hunker down that wasn't all mud and water that felt like ice compared to the cool night air, nor the fact that in the dark she could wander too far from the spot she'd tied a piece of her shirt so she could find where Farzi had left her in the morning, if she was even back then. The thing that scared her most was being alone with the monsters without so much as a bed for protection. It was terrifying. But…

She had survived. Farzi didn't help with the monsters. She provided the map (always figurative, sometimes physical) and sent Tej to fend for herself. The eccentric Master equipped her protege with the skills to survive. There was training quietly done and mastered alongside her other lessons. Lessons in hunting, trapping and gathering that her young life on the coast of Southern Bill had poorly prepared her for and that, if not for Farzi, she might never have needed to know anyway. Lessons in navigating foreign terrain, in recognizing dangers even when one didn't know what to expect, and in how to deal with those dangers.

Farzi taught her other things outside the usual curriculum, anything that would hone the instrument that was her body to be fully under her command. That control whose absolution was ever elusive was still the why of Tej's life. It's what she woke up thinking about every morning she was alone, stretching each part of herself before she even left her mattress.

She was certain that Farzi knew that Tej had never mastered herself. Some days she was closer than others, some days she was nearly perfect, and others the whispers undid her. She made bad decisions on purpose. To feel things. She glanced down to her supplies in the belly of the craft and mentally reviewed the list. No bad decisions today.

She was well-supplied compared to some of Farzi's "do without" lessons that forced the use of skills left to get uncomfortably rusty or the impromptu invention of wholly new skills just to get by. She looked ahead to the island that now loomed. She could stay a few days in practical luxury before she had to forage and hunt and fish. She's been told the island had everything needed to survive, but being her first trip, she wanted to be sure of her return. But then there was too much to think about. Too much to do in the familiar tasks that brought her boat to where she could anchor it just off shore.

She was strong, arguably stronger than many a woman or even some men due to her commitment and daily disciplines of the body. But there were still limits. A boat like this would be hard to drag in and it would be harder to drag back out exhausted as she planned to be by the time she returned to it. But she'd planned for this, too, and took the time to latch together the pieces of a small raft she had for just this purpose.

With care, she placed her belongings onto the raft and settled the boat for its best shot at still being here come morning. Then, with lithe and quick steps that left the boat little more than shimmying behind her, she was in the water. It was a relief every time to vanish beneath the depths, a place that had always seemed a strange but secure sanctuary. Kicking her legs, she surfaced and found the raft with its length of rope attached. Hooking the lead loop for the rope over her arm and shoulder, she swam like the fish Hevsik had once sworn she was (a cold one, but one that could escape any fisherman), the raft bobbing behind her as she headed toward the sandy shallows.

Not thirsty for air by the time she reached the beach, Tej unslung the lead rope and pulled her raft to shore, checking to see how much water had penetrated the few weak joints where each segment went together. Not much. Not bad. It was one of her better designs, drawn from long distant childhood pursuits in and around the water where it was comparatively safe from the storms inside her second home. No, not home. Place she'd been for a while, with someone she called mother and someone she'd called nothing at all, when she could help it.

After her pale gaze raked the beach for any present dangers, concerns or unwanted company, Tej knelt to deal with the business at hand. First things first had her separating out those few things she would immediately need (boots, water and a small pack containing other necessities) and converting the raft from raft to box in several clever swaps of cording here and there into small hooks already set into the wood for this very purpose. She hefted the bundle and the lead coard and walked to the edge of the beach where there was a promising tree. The lead was tossed up and over and with practiced pulls, she situated the box so it dangled in the air where it would be less of a temptation to anything that might find it thusly secured to the tree's branch and trunk. That done, she headed off to explore.

By the third morning, Tej was beginning to feel more herself, more motionless in a world that never stopped moving. The tightness in her chest had eased back to usual, tolerable levels. Her mind had sorted through enough complicated, ugly, and awful thoughts that she thought she could bear to be around other people again. For a while. This was a good spot, though. There had been people the day before, out for a day hike, but with a few words exchanged each party went their own way with no contact thereafter.

Her favorite spot, she decided after sampling all the island had to offer, were the caves. The cool blue of the light, the deep pool, the muted sounds that made the place seem like a different world all appealed to what Tej needed most from a place of grounding. Doubtless, she would be back again and again while she was posted her at Xanadu. She should look into getting her own small boat, maybe, with her savings. It might be more economical than paying to have the use of one for a few days every month or so. Something to think about when she got home to her carefully kept ledgers.

For now, there was that sweet pang that always came with departure. Since learning to love the silence and the solitude of a place when she was wholly alone, wholly herself, without any masks to don or parts to play, having to rejoin the world was painful. But the Tej that could exist in this space and time wasn't for the world she was returning to: it was for this one. She adjusted her belongings on the raft, and stepped into the surf, to return… home. How droll.


Add a New Comment
Unless otherwise stated, the content of this page is licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 License