26 Mar Foul And Fair: Is Whispering Nothing? Chapter 2
“You don’t have to fight me, Child. You don’t have to hide from me.”
In my dreams these things are clearer, and everything is easier, because of one fundamental truth: this isn’t real. No matter what happens in the waking world or what I believe or what happens in my head, in here none of this is real. No one can get hurt, and the Whisperer and I can talk. In this space, a black and purple void stretches on forever in all directions. There is no ground or sky, but my feet feel like they sit on something solid just the same. The Whisperer floats before me—it looks like me, really, but less distinct. Like it’s made of or filled with the shadows from this place and melting into them, and thinner than I am. I don’t know what it eats.
And then it occurs to me that I know exactly what it eats. And I’m afraid again. It first spoke to me…when? Before I can remember. It was always there, always awaiting, always demanding things from me that I can’t give it. I tried it once. We’re not going to think about that, though. This is my dream.
I’m a good liar in my dreams. So I lie. “I don’t have to fight you. I’ve already beaten you. My body and mind are mine. You can have,” I wave my hand around, gesturing at the nothing that surrounds us, “your darkness.”
Its face never changes, not really. But I can feel it smiling as it floats closer to me, looming over me just a bit with its feet off the ground. “A life is a very small thing, Ian of Kensing. And very short for your kind. I can wait much longer than you can.”
I made it through the night. Finished out my shift without getting myself fired, walked home in some of the worst cold I’ve ever felt, and went to bed. Didn’t sleep, though. I stared at the ceiling or the insides of my eyelids, going around and around in my head, until the sun came up, my bag sitting on my stomach like I was afraid it was going to run off on me. When I give up on sleep I’m that thinned kind of tired where I can’t actually feel it, I just feel the threat of collapse looming over me, waiting for me to blink for too long or something. It doesn’t matter. I don’t work today. I only have one thing to do besides exist.
Despite my unending wakefulness, the day rolls into afternoon in a blur. I honestly can’t say how I pass the time besides rereading the letter and pacing. Somehow, I haven’t managed to come up with solutions to all of my problems in all of these hours of moping, but now it’s time to talk to someone who can. Maybe. I dig through every pocket I own and make a small pile of coins, copper and silver, on my little table. I’ve actually got a little more money than I thought I had. Finally, some good news. I can treat myself to something after the doctor, if I can think of anything worth spending money on.
This time, I remember my coat before I leave, and I’m medicated and I’m not late and I’ve got my money and my bag and as far as I can tell I’m handling myself much better than I do on the average day. Dr. Plutony is going to know what to do—he’s going to know if the letter is real, or if I can’t trust anything I see any more, and then we can make some decisions. Part of me is hoping I won’t have to try any more, that they’ll lock me up somewhere safe and everything will just be easier. At least I won’t have to fight in the war.
“The Whisperer Awaits a Sacrifice.” That’s the other easy solution—to just give in. But I’ve taken my medication. I’m in control. The other part of me doesn’t get to vote. Not if I can help it.
It’s a longer walk to Potions by Plutony, but I’ve got a coat and I’m not wet or frantic and I can handle walking a couple miles in a good mood, carried by a little bit of excited momentum and adrenaline and impatience to at least know what’s going on. I jump over a slushy, mostly-frozen puddle before the porch of the alchemist’s shop. They still have the old cart, from back when Dr. Plutony’s business was Potions in Motion, and he traveled from town to town, on the walk out front. It hasn’t moved it at least four years—and honestly doesn’t look like it would without a fight. It’s basically just a sign now.
Inside, this place is only modestly populated with actual goods—there’s just the one customer-facing shelf with some common medicines on it, and then piles of bags of livestock feed and fertilizers and things off on the floor on one side. They keep everything that’s really valuable, everything that has to be made for a specific person, in the back. Behind the counter or in one of the labs.
The place smells of herbs and chemicals and things, some of which are hanging down from the rafters, and some have probably been sprinkled around the room to emphasize the alchemy going on behind closed doors. Pinzinger is at the till, wearing a set of armor and several weapons on their person. They have a dispensation from the Watch—when you’re running a business filled with expensive things, you can carry weapons to protect them. I don’t like being around it, personally, but it’s not as if I get a vote. They look over at me and say “Hello” as I cross the room. I mouth the word back without making a sound, then flick my eyes over towards the door in the back of the shop. They nod, then turn to deal with one of the regular customers. There are a few people in the shop today. I guess that’s good. It’ll keep them in business, and that helps me.
I stop on the way over to the door to look into the fish tank Dr. Plutony has along the left wall, lit by the window and kept warm by the woodstove. There’s this huge, long fish in there with a mouth that takes up a quarter of its body. They told me what it was called before—probably a few times, but I can’t remember. Its swimming slowly back and forth, looking for something that will fit in that huge mouth and pretending the glass house is a whole ocean. There’s nothing to eat at this time of day, and its fins are starting to look ragged. The oversized mouth is bent down in a perpetual frown. Or I’m pushing my feelings out onto a fish. More reason to talk to the doctor.
As I push through the door my back starts to feel strangely heavy, like I’ve worn myself out. Gotten my hand tired. I don’t know. I adjust my grip and latch the door behind me and Dr. Plutony is sitting in his fancy chair from Balting with his notes, next to his bench with the hundreds of bottles and jars and flasks and pouched. He looks at me through his ancient, oversized glasses and smiles. The expression alone makes me feel better. It helps. I let my breath out and sit down in the plain, wooden chair across from him, letting my bag flop on the ground and saying nothing. He lets things stay that way for a few long seconds, staring into my eyes like he’s digging through my thoughts. We’ve spoken three times a week, most weeks, since the Watch put me here. He knows me better than anyone in the world.
“How are things at work,” he asks, laying his hands in his lap and kind of shifting like he expects this to be the subject that’s really bothering me today.
And I mean, sure, work started badly yesterday and there were incidents and I’m probably going to get fired the next time I screw up, but I’m always going to get fired the next time I screw up. The real problem is sitting on the floor next to me. I can picture it, see every word of it in my head, trace the lines of the seal, but I don’t want to talk about it now that I’m here because that feels like it will make it more real than it already is. And it strikes me that I’ve had it for almost a day without acknowledging it out loud, and now I’m feeling more lonely than scared. Dr. Plutony is the one I can talk to. I just have to make myself talk. “That’s not the problem,” I finally tell him. “I got something in the mail yesterday. I can’t get it out of my head.” He does a half nod with his head tilted a little ways to the left, and it cures my reticence. The dam breaks.
“I think it was from the army. Or, like, the Senate of Portus or something—I don’t know exactly, it’s kind of laid out confusingly and I’m not really an expert in these things. But I think I’m being drafted into the war. The letter says I have to report to Balting to find out what I’m supposed to do and get checked and everything and I don’t know. I doesn’t sound real and maybe it’s not real. We’re winning the war, right? I mean, you don’t just take people off the street if you’re already winning—especially someone like me, right? Like, the Watch would have told them that I’m a bad idea. Unless they’re completely out of people. Or there’s something wrong with their system or something.”
He smiling, but it’s a neutral kind of smile that I don’t really like. Like he’s making decisions inside without enough of the information, and I already know what his first question is going to be. “Have you been taking the medicine I’ve made you?” I nod vigorously, and it makes me remember that I was going to bring something up about the medicine, but right now it feels distant and unimportant and this is what I need to address right now. “I see,” and I can tell by his voice that he still doesn’t see, but he thinks he does, and I’m hoping he’s right but I really don’t think he is. “Perhaps someone is playing a practical joke on you. I haven’t heard anything about a recruitment push, let alone a draft. We’re winning the war. Absolutely. With any luck, our troops are going to start coming home soon, and generations of conflict can finally end. This is not the time for someone like you to get wound up about the war. Perhaps if we take a look at the events right before you received this letter, we’ll be able to determine the cause of the issue.”
While he’s talking I’m digging the letter, envelope, and broken seal out of my bag. This is my chance. He can tell me it’s not really real, and all of this can just go away. I lean out of my chair instead of standing up and hold out the stuff like even touching it is burning my skin. “I brought it with me. Can you read it? I’ve read it so many times the words have lost their meaning, and I know it’s probably all in my head or I’m reading something wrong.”
Dr. Plutony takes the letter carefully, running his eyes over the envelope and the broken seal, and started reading, his eyes peering down at the words through the space between his glasses and his face. A few seconds in, the color rushes out of his face and my stomach bursts into churning flames. As he finishes, his voice is quiet, and he sounds like I feel. Afraid. “By Hib and all the gods, Ian. I didn’t…by Hib’s eyes.”
I look down at my feet, and they’re still there. While I watch myself fidget away, my thoughts kind of floating away from the reality of the moment, time marches on in silence. Plutony is speechless, leaning back in his fancy chair, the letter in his left hand and hanging over the armrest. Suddenly this thing seems to weigh a hundred times more than ever. It’s gotten to the unshakeable Plutony, the person who has never blushed in the face of everything I’ve done and everything that’s happened inside my head. But maybe that’s it. He knows, better than anyone else, certainly better than I do, that making me into a soldier is the worst idea possible. And now he knows its real. Just that fact makes it ten times worse for me, and before I realize it I’ve fallen out of the chair and onto my knees, my stomach twisting violently like I would throw up if I’d eaten anything in the last…Gods, I don’t even remember the last time I ate.
While I’m on the floor coughing and feeling the world spin around me and my stomach rip me apart from the inside and my pulse pound, the man who’s run my life for the last four years manages to compose himself. Somehow. Maybe seeing me collapse into a pile of terror was enough to bring him back to a familiar, comfortable level. A level where he remembers that the one going to war is me, not him. He slides out of his chair, onto the floor, and puts a hand on my shoulder. Pins and needles stretch out from the spot and he tries to comfort me, his voice slow and measured and unstable sounding.
“This is obviously some kind of mistake. It’s a clerical error, that’s all. Don’t worry, Ian. I’m going to talk to some people and get this set right for you. There’s nothing to worry about. You’re not going to have to fight anyone, I’ll see to it.”
But he’s not sure and I know he’s not sure and he knows I know he’s not sure and that’s just making him more nervous and less sure and I don’t feel comforted. He leaves the letter on the floor and I’m staring at it like it’s going to burn a hole in the plants but it doesn’t and then he takes my hand and I realize I’m breathing. He’s pushing himself up and bringing me with him and it’s fine. We’re moving on. The letter is on the ground because it’s not important. He’s leaving it because he’s going to fix it.
“I think we’ve dwelt on that subject enough for one afternoon, given how much it’s agitating you. Please, return to your chair, and we’ll talk about something else. Perhaps music? I know how sharp your ears are. Perhaps you can recommend someone for me to see?”
It sits in the back and it listens and it waits. There’s a liquid kind of quality to our connection these days when I’m awake, when I’m on my medicine, like an oil separates the two of us and blunts the damage the Whisperer can do. Its voice is muffled.
“The Whisperer awaits a sacrifice.”
I can’t talk back to it now, but it knows how I feel. There will be no more sacrifices to this thing. Not ever again. I can feel its eyes on me as it tries to climbs its way through, exert some influence over the physical plane, force me to feel the hunger that gnaws at it, like that will change my mind. I know its patience is limitless, and I know my grip is…well, there are stronger people out there. But it doesn’t matter. I can’t slip.