by Stewart C Baker
She was four when they furrowed her, opening holes in her skull and channels through her brain. She was four when they prepared her for the Tree.
Four, but not afraid—not really. Jeyna had known of the Tree, of course, and how important the guardian’s duties were, but fear was foreign to her, along with the words her parents had repeated the night before: honour, sacrifice, pride.
Her parents themselves she remembers mostly as a jumble of impressions, all tear-streaked faces and shaking hands. She can picture their clothes, though, crisp and orderly, their pristine white subtly emphasising the cream-coloured soulsteel curves of the Place’s inner halls.
Her father’s broken baritone still echoes through her mind: “It’s not right, Kel. Not right.”
Still, he left her there.
They both had, outside the surgery, but she had not been afraid. She was curious. What would it be like, this new life with the Tree? She turned to the doors to find them open, awaiting her.
And to find Marin, clad in a vibrant red robe, her arms outstretched in welcome.
Marin, who was all smiles and gentle caring, who held her hand during the blackening pain of the furrow, and who soothed her burning recovery with patience and cool water. Marin, who trusted and raised and loved her all through the long years of her training.
A life without Marin? Jeyna would as well imagine a life without the Tree, a life without the smooth soulsteel of the Place around her. But they never lie, the realities which flitter in the forefront of her altered mind—the infinite storm of relentless, ash-grey butterflies.
The Tree, as always, buttresses her body and spirit. Its monofilament tendrils drift out and above her place within its trunk, comforting in their familiar motions. She can feel—very dimly—the sharpness where its interface pierces the base of her skull, but mostly she feels the supple smoothness of its soulsteel on her flesh, its vast energy throbbing through her.
She feels also the Place, its winding inner passages and its dizzying shafts, its artificial oceans and sprawling, engineered forests. It is for this beautiful globe of living green and tempered soulsteel that she stays vigilant, for all its teeming millions that she performs her duties.
Out here beyond the ends of time, her mind and the Tree are all that separate life from death. For a decade she has stood her watch, striking at each metaphysical butterfly, choosing a single one of its wings to affix to the vision of the Tree she keeps in her mind. Only one path can stay the Place through time.
She must carry out her duty in an instant: that is all it would take for the butterflies to settle on the tree she holds in her mind. Then, reality would stutter and trip, the bubble of space-time that keeps her people safe would fade. The Place and its wonders would burst into ghastly oblivion.
She has never failed in her duty, has never missed a single instant. Even the butterflies, ivory-tinged and formal, that spelled her parents’ deaths she struck through without regret. Always, she has chosen the reality which prolongs the Place. Always, she has acted.
Until now, when the butterfly is clad in red and bears Marin’s face.
And so, instead of striking, Jeyna hesitates: the butterfly settles into the leaves of the tree in her mind. It jerks and twitches its wings, and in a fluttering of light spawns two new red-black pests.
The Place begins to shift, a subtle disjunct only Jeyna can feel. She closes her eyes, striking the child realities from the tree in her mind as they appear. But always, when she returns to the red butterfly, she hesitates; always, she lets it dance its wings and propagate.
Eventually, inevitably, she slips again.
The butterfly-children twitch and dance, and there are four realities, four choices. She makes two, but the others have split, and when she solves those there are more. The Tree thrums with heat as she draws on its power; her skin burns with the frantic pace of closing possibilities.
Jeyna knows she cannot keep up—the disjuncts are feeding off each other, each butterfly-branch branching, the blight spreading until she is faced with a seething red-black chaos, an endless array of choices and realities she can no longer process.
She slumps, sweat-sodden, against the hardness of the Tree, and opens her eyes. The walls of the Place begin to flicker, then fade, and the swirling purples and greens of the maelstrom press through.
At fifteen, she made ready for the joining. She fasted fifteen days, cross-legged on the floor of her cell, for the Tree required great purity of body.
Next, two nameless men, their faces obscured by shimmering, half-teardrop masks, led her to the baths. Immersed in the crystal-heated waters, Jeyna recited the rituals Marin had taught her, for the Tree required great purity of mind.
Then Marin arrived, quietly smiling, and spoke the words: “Young one, pure one, cleansed of the world. I come to ask of you your duty. Are you able to serve? Have you made ready, body and soul?”
Jeyna stood, the clean freshness of the water sluicing over the cusp of her youth, down the lean, untested curves of her body. She felt washed free from the stains of life, and was pleased.
“I have, and I am.”
Marin nodded, her face aglow with a fierce and loving pride, and escorted her to the Tree. The old guardian stood there still, ensconced in the hollowed-out bole of the trunk. Her eyes darted about the room, the only sign that life and wits had not left her.
Jeyna took in her empty, sagging body, the narrow wrinkled lumps where bone showed through her papery skin. She had seen these things before, but always at a distance. The guardian had been for her a kind of shrine, an ideal to work towards. Now it was her own body she saw in those tired limbs and that misshapen flesh. Her own darting eyes and grim mouth.
A frisson of excitement shot through her. To serve so long…
She looked to Marin, who lay a hand on her bare shoulder, its pressure firm, yet light.
Then it was all happening at once: a gasping rattle from the guardian; the two men removing the woman’s shuddering body from the Tree.
Marin lifted Jeyna into place in the now-empty hollow. “She who was guardian is gone,” she said, “but lives on in you. All those before now stand watch with you. Remember them, and do them honour, and strive to act as they have acted. As they stand with you, you stand for the living. You can not fail.”
Jeyna took one final unaugmented glance at the Place, and then the Tree’s interface pushed into her brain as she slipped into the soothing embrace of its cold, rigid walls.
Beautiful, she thought, seeing for the first time not only the Place as it was, but as it might be—as it must not be.
So began her watch.
Jeyna staggers, naked in the cold of the Tree-room. She grasps for the butterfly choices, but they are gone, and with them the tree in her mind. Everything is knocked loose. Her life, the lives of the Place. Reality itself is no longer certain but a dread, stumbling mystery.
How had—? What—?
The Tree! She spins, but it is occupied; a fresh-faced girl stands in her place, eyes adart with her duties.
Jeyna knows, then, what has happened. This new guardian has pulled them back from the brink and replaced her. She has failed.
A hand touches her shoulder, a nostalgic feeling like the last blush of childhood. It is Marin, she knows without looking.
“I doomed us,” Jeyna says.
Jeyna snaps her head around. “Almost? The Place shattered; the colours of space were pushing in; I could—”
“You stood your guard ten years, long enough for me to train a new guardian. When reality crumbled, you fought long enough for her to retrieve you—and it. Whatever choice unseated you does not change that. You did not doom us.”
The confused anger drains all in a rush, and Jeyna hangs her head. “Your death. I could not allow your death.”
Marin laughs, but there is no malice in it. “All things die, child. Even here, even now.”
“But you were the only one. Always…”
“My death will not change our past together, child—Jeyna.”
Marin squeezes her shoulder, and Jeyna remembers the turbulence of puberty, how she had tried to make Marin hate her, resent her, show any emotion at all beyond warm acceptance. The feeble strength in the older woman’s hand surprises her, its skin like paper-covered bone. All things die.
She tries to hide the tears that come, as she can not stop them.
“My death will not end me, either,” Marin continues. “In this place, as in all others, we live only as guests in each other’s hearts. I will live on within you, Jeyna, and in the child now in the Tree.”
“And when I die? When she dies?” Even here, even now. “When all of us are gone, and the Place with us?”
Marin’s hand leaves her shoulder, and Jeyna regrets the questions, the bitterness of her voice. Is she still a child, to act this way? But then Marin is before her, catching her up in an embrace cool and red.
“I’m sorry,” Jeyna whispers.
“You are right to ask. We alone hold back the veil of night from all that ever was. We alone carry forth the beauty and rightness of life. There may be a time when the veil drops, but that too will be beautiful and right.”
Marin steps back, then, gently lifting Jeyna’s hands from the red of her robe.
“I know,” Jeyna says, “and I understand, but the hurt is no less.”
“For that,” Marin says, “I am sorry. But my time has passed, and more than passed.”
Jeyna meets the older woman’s gaze. She expects to see sorrow there, red-rimmed pain to match her own, but Marin’s eyes are at peace—the cloudless, reaching blue of an open sky.
There is another reeling snap as reality resolves itself, and Marin is gone. Other things, too, are subtly different: the shape of the room, the colour of its walls. She notices a slight variance in the drift of the Tree’s tendrils, and wonders what other changes have been wrought.
She tries not to think of oceans and forests, of countless trusting souls.
Besides, it cannot be undone. She draws a single jagged breath and turns to face the uncertainty of a life without everything she has known.
But there next to the door stands one of the nameless men. He bows his masked head and raises his hands in supplication. In them, a robe of the richest crimson. Jeyna takes it, surprised at its roughness. Always before she had thought it soft.
Marin wore this once, she thinks. Then she does understand, well and truly. Laughter bubbles up from somewhere deep within as half-forgotten conversations wash over her.
The robe fits well around her neck; it settles into place on her shoulders with a distant, yet somehow familiar comfort.
“This too is beautiful and right,” she murmurs.
The nameless man nods—a terse, disjointed movement all angles and duty. “As you say.”
Jeyna smiles. She allows herself one last brush of her fingers over the fabric, one final indulgence. Then it is time.
Past time. “Come,” she says, and strides from the room.
She does not look back, but she remembers.
This story first appeared in Spark: A Creative Anthology in the January, 2014 issue. You can purchase a copy at the Spark website (ebook and print both available).
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