Pre-Series Short Story: Mirror Ghost

Book 6 update: Still awaiting cover!  It will come when it comes.

Meanwhile, back to Halci and the War of Memory Cycle’s short stories!  The Temharat stuff is ongoing — I’m digging into the parallel draft of the first book now, and making good progress.  I wrote this short story in between writing the rough draft and this draft, so it was a momentary jump between worlds…but I think I managed to land fine on both sides.  At the least, this feels exactly like Young Ardent (Nemirin), and I’ve heard no naysayings so far.

There are a few more Ardent short stories to come, to complete what will be a braided Youth arc between her and Sarovy (whose arc there is completed).  Not sure exactly when the next will come — maybe between this Temharat draft and the next, heh.

ardentnemirin

Includes: death of a parent.  Also preteen angst, getting out of school early, pictures of unknown relatives.

Description: Young Nemirin adapts to her mother’s new existence. Or not.

Mirror Ghost

Nemirin didn’t learn her mother had died until a week later, when the half-formed eiyensuriel showed up at her weapons class.

It wasn’t how the process was supposed to go. Nemirin knew that from the nervous flick of the instructors’ eyes and the restrained anxiety in her mother’s minder. What she didn’t understand was why Ereshti Anmari had come here at all, to this mirrored room full of startled adolescents and uneasy adults. It was against procedure, against public courtesy—the opposite of anything she’d expect of her mother.

But perhaps that was the reason. In that distorted face, once the elder image of her own, she saw nothing of the woman she’d once known.

“We must honor her wishes,” the minder apologized yet again, her shadowmarked mouth twisted in a grimace. “Too much interference would be detrimental to her adjustment. But we needn’t stay. If you’ll release Nemirin—“

“To—what?” Instructor Kovo fairly barked.

Internally, Nemirin translated: To this thing? Kovo was blunt—if not to a fault, then at least to the sharp edge of propriety. She respected that in a weapons instructor, and on good days it pricked her like a challenge. On bad ones, it was a provocation, but that was her problem, not his. She was the one with the endless coiled ire of the scorpion-kin, the skulking grudge of the tiger-bloods.

Now, standing like a dark wall between her and the flickering stub-winged shape of her mother, he’d become a shield. It should have chafed her to hide behind him, but she couldn’t make her shaky legs move. Her bare feet felt rooted to the floor, the practice truncheons slippery in her sweating hands.

“To me, for now,” said the minder. “Overseer Ereshti headed for home first, but detoured here. I can only infer… Well. We’ll be watching over them. There is no need for concern.”

Instructor Kovo bristled and cast a look to her, as if seeking a weakness to raise in objection. Automatically Nemirin’s face tightened in a scowl. She refused to give him that.

He frowned and turned back to the minder. “Surely some time alone first to absorb the news—or with one of the crèche confidantes—would be best.”

“We have a confidante assigned. She’ll be meeting us at the apartment. Please, let us not disrupt class any further.”

The instructor opened his mouth as if to declare the disruption necessary, but in her fading paralysis Nemirin was aware of the tense silence of the other students, the white-rimmed eyes in the corners of her vision. The still-life they made in the mirrors. A part of her was trying to remember if any of them had an eiyensuriel parent or parents. Or was she the first in class?

First in a lot of things. Underneath the shock was another feeling, a lack of surprise.

“I’ll go,” she managed.

The minder gave her a beamingly false smile, the wince-lines around her black eyes speaking differently. “Good,” she said even as Instructor Kovo made another sound of protest, “let us be off then. Everything will be taken care of, Nemirin, never fear.”

She didn’t say anything. She just slipped past the instructor, past her mother’s shivering form, past the minder, ignoring the woman’s raised brows. Keeping her stiff quick clip right out the door and into the changing room, where she dropped her truncheons like so much litter and crammed her feet into her socks and boots, grabbed her bundled clothes. Beyond was the main room of the crèche center, with its broad circular play-space full of couches and rugs and strewn toys. Its occupants stayed silent and watchful as she strode along the curve past the other classroom doors, all the toddlers scooped into laps and hushed as the minder and the thing that had been her mother trailed after her.

Through the curtain, down the hall, into the foyer. She ignored the scheduler’s sympathetic glance and plowed on through the main doors and into the orange-smudged eternal night of the Spindle. For a moment, the nearby cluster of transit-strands tugged at her. She looked away, an ashen taste in her mouth.

“Straight home,” said the minder behind her. “Groceries have already been sent.”

She grunted, straightened the neck of her practice tunic, and started walking.

Her boots sounded too loud on the paving stones, the world an awful hush around her. Thoughts whirled and clashed in her head, incoherent; walking at least helped to blur them out. She didn’t want to deal with this. Didn’t want to be at home with it, or in crèche with it, or in the vicinity of it at all. But she was twelve and it was her mother—it was her mother—and this was something every Kheri had to go through at some point, according to the teachers. Every shadowblood anyway, whose parent or parents could return to haunt them in person.

At least the minder didn’t talk to her. Smart enough not to try.

She led the way into the apartment building, up the moss-lit stairwell, to their floor. Went to open the big door with her key—like every day after crèche—but it was already unlocked.

Hatred spiked her heart. How dare they change even that routine? How dare another sympathy-eyed agent stand there in her boot-room like a funeral usher? How dare there be voices down the hall, and the sound of cupboards, instead of the calm and solitude she wanted?

She jerked out of her boots and steamed past the greeter, ignoring her overtures. Office of Oversight by her badge—one of Ereshti’s friends or coworkers maybe, though this seemed a cruel duty to give them. Down the hall, past all the mirrors and glassed-in portraits of people she’d never know, a little too fast, socks threatening to slip on the tiles. Slowing felt wrong, like she’d be caught from behind.

From the kitchen, someone said, “And the meat storage? Oh, of course.” She heard the cold-box open and close.

There was another black-clad shape through that doorway. She halted at the edge of the living room as if leg-trapped, suddenly uncertain where to go. Into her own room? Prickles crawled up her spine at the sound of the minder’s stockinged feet behind her and the faint whisper of feathers following. She was the mistress of this place in her mother’s absence. In her mother’s dead presence? So far, no different.

“Please get out of my house,” she told that person’s back, as polite as she could manage.

They turned, blinking, in their hands an empty grocery sack. “Hey kid,” they said, “don’t worry, I’ll be out of your hair in—“

“Get out. All of you.”

Another blink. They shot a look past her, to where she imagined the minder and greeter and her mother-thing lingered. “I sure will, kid, once we’ve made sure you’re stocked. Boss?”

The minder’s voice: “This isn’t typical, but it does have some precedent. Your mother is at a precarious point in her transition, Nemirin. Death…uproots us in many ways. She’s trying to put those roots back down where they belong, in soil she remembers. We’re here to guide her and support you through her restructuring.”

Nemirin shook her head hard, feeling the scorpion-tail braid tick across her back like a pendulum arm. “I don’t want support, I want you to go away.”

“You know we’re not allowed to do that.”

“This is my house—“

“Your mother’s house. Granted by her status and the will of the Regency. Subject to her decisions and to the rules of Oretcht’ke. This is one of those rules, Nemirin. She wants to be near you, but we can’t leave you two alone. Not yet.”

Nemirin stared at the sunken space of the living room, at the couch where she usually sprawled to read, at the fuzzy rug where she and her friends gathered to chatter and play games. The practice room across the way stood open, the curtain hooked back the way she’d left it this morning. She longed to disappear in there, among the mats and bars and the hanging bag and the cases for the practice weapons. But like the crèche practice room, it was lined with mirrors.

She didn’t want to see behind her.

“I’m going to my room,” she told the intruders, and went.

*****

The voices outside the door hadn’t ebbed. Sometimes they laughed, but mostly they talked in low tones about things she couldn’t hear and didn’t care about. She tried to hug the pillow tighter over her ears but she could still feel their sound touching her nerves, like every word was a faint fingertip on her back.

The mother-thing was outside her door. She could feel it.

Not knocking. Ereshti had never knocked. Not opening the door either, like she’d done at the most inopportune moments, which had caused Nemirin to drag a blanket around with her everywhere in her room just to hide from her mother’s sudden nosiness. Even when dancing to the music in her head, she did it shrouded like some silly story ghost. Even when daydreaming.

No daydreams now. She was trying hard not to think, to just empty her mind into the black space she found beneath the bathwater sometimes, the cool spot beneath the warmth. Pillow over head, blankets shrouding her in her practice gear and dirty socks.

When would they go away? When would it?

Not like her mother had ever been home more than a week out of any month. She had her work. She’d have to get back to it eventually. Eiyensuriel had jobs too.

How did she die?

Nemirin bit her lip. She didn’t know and wouldn’t ask. She could guess, though. Mother was some kind of diplomat, one of Oversight’s top deal-makers in the Taradzur-Kanrodi-Zerr Avori triangle. Trying to coordinate between the three Pajhrasthani city-states’ governments, to squeeze concessions for the Kheri, to make the other faiths work together productively. To steal secrets from the Academy and coax them from northern expatriates. She was aware that these were dangerous tasks, even if her mother had never shared details.

Assassination, then. Someone had killed her mother because of her work, but had been too stupid to catch her away from the shadows.

She wouldn’t be allowed to do anything about it. She wasn’t even allowed to elect the Enforcement branch yet, even though she’d known she would go there since she was nine. Since—

Her teachers thought they knew better. Thought she’d calm down eventually and follow in her mother’s footsteps like a dutiful daughter: the expected product of Ereshti’s sharp tongue and quick wits, ferocity and charm. Everyone told her how alike they were at crèche—the biggest difference being her preoccupation with conflict, combat, physicality, not that anyone told her it was a bad thing. Not when she was top of her weapons class.

The other difference: none of that charm.

It was fine. She didn’t need it. These days, all she wanted in life beside being with her friends or focusing on a book was hitting the hanging bag. Working the anger and frustration and confusion out; releasing it from her muscles for a moment even if it refused to leave her mind.

Assassination. Knives? Poison? On the street, or in some back room? It had to have been quick or sneaky, because otherwise the shadows would have boiled with her mother’s protectors. Enforcement agents like she planned to be.

Who were they, who had failed her mother?

They would never tell her, and Ereshti had never brought people over—had only taken her out sometimes to Oversight parties in other people’s homes or public ballrooms, where she’d stand stiffly in a corner and drink her mixed juice until no one was looking and she could slip away. Go peer at strangers’ things or try to find a roof access or a secret passageway. The Spindle was honeycombed with them, its public areas hiding back-wall labyrinths for the qar and eiyets even outside of the strange folded space beneath the Downward Gate.

She’d hidden and listened, sometimes, but she’d never heard anything that was useful here. That would tell her how or why her mother had found her death.

There was the thing, of course. The eiyensuriel outside the door.

It didn’t make noise, but she knew it was there. Waiting with inhuman, un-Ereshti patience. She’d met some eiyensuriel before. They’d all seemed like normal people at the time, until suddenly they weren’t. Which was fine, she supposed, as long as you were aware that they were actually dead. But she’d never known one from before and then after.

Did it remember? Was it really still her mother?

“Nemirin?” called someone from down the hall. One of those strangers.

She felt the mother-thing move, like a dog hearing a familiar name. Didn’t know how it was possible, really, to know that it moved, except that it had to. It was her mother, it knew who she was enough to come to the crèche for her. Of course her name would move it.

“Nemirin, the housekeeper has prepared dinner, if you’re ready…”

Had it been that long? She wasn’t hungry. Didn’t want to go out there with that shivering facsimile and all those artificial smiles. If she stayed here, silent, would they eventually go away?

No. They had their jobs. That was always the excuse.

She got up. For a moment she imagined bringing the blanket: walking out there wrapped and hooded in it, shielded from their prying eyes. But she wasn’t a little child, and that thing wasn’t her mother. It hadn’t even tried to open the door. She didn’t need her covering.

In anger, in defiance, she sloughed off that shielding layer.

When she opened the door, the hall was empty.

*****

Dinner was stupid.

She sat at one end of the table, pushing food around with her spoon. Normally she liked this spicy root stew, but the peppers were dull on her tongue, the slivers of meat near-tasteless, everything just wrong. Still, she ate mechanically for the sake of the housekeeper qar, who’d always done their best for her. Who watched, this time, with worry somehow evident on their immobile three-eyed face.

The interlopers watched too. The delivery-person had gone, but the confidante and the minder sat in the living room on chairs angled to let them see into the dining room. Nemirin tried not to look at them, even though they were mostly watching the mother-thing. Some part of her hoped that if she ignored them hard enough, they would disappear.

The mother-thing wouldn’t. She couldn’t imagine enough mind-force to make it vanish from its spot across from her, where it twitched occasionally as it stirred the water in its bowl. Eiyensuriel could eat, but they didn’t need to, and this one didn’t seem ready to do more than toy with bowl and spoon. Apparently the minder had asked for this set-up to keep it distracted.

Nemirin flicked glances at it between bites. Lingering too long made her skin crawl.

There wasn’t anything wrong, really. No death wound. No ligature mark around its neck or gash anywhere on its head or throat, which was pretty much all she could see. Someone had dressed it in an all-covering black robe, like the big fluffy one Nemirin wore after baths, which was so unlike what Ereshti usually wore—stiff, close garments with fashionable embroidery—that it was hard to believe this was her. This lumpen dark body-shape with its flickering inconstant wings, its bland befuddled face.

Sometimes, though, the features began to drift. The mouth slackened, the eyes drooped, and darkness rose from beneath the skin to flux across it like bruises or rot. Just for a moment, it looked like what it really was. Then those shades snapped away, the mouth clicking shut, the features steadying, dark eyes clearing in brief lucidity. Fixing on something: the plate, the fancy centerpiece of painted glass flowers. Nemirin.

The first time Nemirin met that stare had felt like an electric shock. Now, halfway through her unwanted stew, it was starting to feel the same as when her mother barged in. The annoyance of abruptly-forced coexistence, the sudden prod of human contact.

Why couldn’t you have just—

Nemirin closed her mouth, though she knew she hadn’t said it. The words remained safe behind her teeth like so many she’d managed to trap over these past few years. When she was younger, she’d screamed at her mother a lot—not for any reason she could remember, just childish pique buoyed by her bloodlines’ dual animosities. Her mother had always absorbed the noise with chilly equanimity, to shame her later or simply ignore that it had ever happened. Perhaps she’d learned that tactic from her own mother, who must have dealt with much the same sort of behavior—though with less of the tiger in it, seething and thinking itself cunning. That, Nemirin had supposedly gotten from her unknown father.

But now the mother-thing watched her, as if it had heard the words. The bitterness.

Not with any expression Ereshti would have worn. An unfamiliar emotion marred its smooth brown face, its blood-black lips, its smoke-ringed eyes. Sadness?

She couldn’t help it. “What are you sad about?” she stung, spoon raised half-loaded. “You never cried for me before.”

Never cried at all, that Nemirin had seen. Never seemed gloomy, or hurt, or the same sort of angry that Nemirin had felt for a long time now, like a cinder flaring cyclically in her heart. The only expressions that face should have made were mild amusement, stony sympathy, weary dismissal, and contempt.

The others had gone silent. She tried to shove them out of mind. The mother-thing hadn’t moved, hadn’t changed its expression. The lowered lids, the downward curve of the mouth. Its hair, half-loosed from its complex braids, seemed to stir and flicker in an unfelt breeze.

All of a sudden, Nemirin couldn’t contain all those words. “Did you miss me?” she mocked. “Did you run home because you just had to see me after getting yourself killed? Is that it? Did you interrupt me at crèche because it had been so long, almost a month, and would probably have been a month or two more if you hadn’t gotten dead? Did you think oh no I left my daughter alone, and choose to change that? Suddenly?”

It was hard to say exactly where the mother-thing was looking. It always was, with strong shadowbloods. Probably people thought the same about Nemirin, her irises and pupils the same color, the black spiderweb of capillaries eclipsing her whites. Was Ereshti actually looking at her, or past her, through her? What did she see, there at the edge of that murky dead realm from which she was meant to be emerging?

Did she understand anything at all?

“Would you see me if I wasn’t where you put me?” she wondered out loud. “If I went somewhere you didn’t expect to find me? Are you here because I am, or because it’s habit?”

A weak habit at that. She couldn’t remember a time before her mother’s missions. Couldn’t remember more than a week at a stretch when they’d been together. She knew her friends’ mothers better.

Had there ever been a moment when she’d rested her head against Ereshti’s chest, hearing the beat of that now-stilled heart?

She let the stew fall from her spoon. It wasn’t worth eating, not even for the housekeeper’s sake. “Am I allowed to go out?” she asked loudly, for the interlopers in the other room.

A few quiet moments, then the minder appeared in the doorway, throwing a worried glance over the eiyensuriel before focusing on her. “I’m sorry. This is a fragile time for her. I really think it’s best that you stay here, to help her remember who she was.”

“Maybe you should bring her to her office instead.”

The minder faked another smile, flat and tight. “Ereshti is known for her diligence, yes. But that’s not… No one should have their job as their backbone. Not in life or the afterlife. She needs to remember why she strove and struggled. She won’t find that in paperwork. I know it’s hard, Nemirin, but this is for both of your sakes. It’s essential to your future.”

For a moment, she flashed on daylight. The sun-washed streets of Taradzur, the gardens and beaches of Tamravaasa, where Ereshti couldn’t reach. Couldn’t exist anymore.

The taste of ashes.

Why is it my responsibility? she couldn’t ask. She knew that answer.

Because as Ereshti was all she had, she was all Ereshti had. All those people in the glassed-in portraits were dead.

There was family, of a sort, still in the mountains and cliffs of Varaku, but scorpion-folk didn’t cling to their kin and didn’t do much tracking of heritage. And the other parts of her mother’s line were impossible to trace, with tiger-bloods as solitary as they were and so much time already gone. Eighty years or more, according to what she’d been told. For her mother’s mother, or any mortal siblings she might have had, time had already run out.

Nemirin looked down at her stew, the pepper-red bloody mess of it. Solitude was Ereshti’s choice, not hers. She had friends. She didn’t know anyone her mother was friends with, not even the glittering party hosts. Ereshti had taken her along like an accessory, to be unclipped and set aside while business went on. And she certainly hadn’t had romances.

Nemirin had always been glad enough for that last part. Now, she resented it.

“Why can’t you do whatever you do with loners?” she aimed at the minder.

The woman sighed, a shade of something crossing her face. Frustration, distaste, anger? It wasn’t her fault Nemirin and Ereshti didn’t get along. “Because she’s not a loner. Because she wanted to see you, and wants to stay here.”

“I don’t want her here!”

“It’s her home, Nemirin.”

It’s mine more than it was ever hers. I’m the one who eats here, sleeps here. The one who’s lived here almost every day for eight years. She couldn’t remember the apartment that had come before, though she knew there was one. All of her memories of home were of this place, these walls, this furniture. Those mirrors, those portraits.

“Well, what do you expect me to do? She doesn’t talk, she doesn’t do anything, she just stares.”

“Isn’t there anything you do together?”

Argue. Spar. She honestly couldn’t think of anything beyond that. And the sparring had ended when she was nine and Ereshti’s increased workload, coinciding with Nemirin’s own swelling fury, had led her mother to shift her from simple self-defense to proper weapons classes despite her opposition to Enforcer enrollment. Nemirin could count on one hand the times since then that she’d seen her mother in the training room.

“No,” she said. “Not really.”

“Well… Would you like to sit down with the confidante? Maybe something will come up.”

“No thanks.”

“Nemirin…”

She dropped her spoon onto the stew—splat!—and shoved back from the table. “Why should I have to talk if I don’t want to? Why should I be here, anchoring a ghost, just because she wants me to? I don’t like her and she doesn’t like me. I’m just an annoying part of her routine. So if that’s what’s important, being the routine, then I’m going back to my room!”

“Nemirin!”

She didn’t care what the minder thought. But as she whirled away, she glimpsed the mother-thing rising. Staring after her.

Spine prickling, she dashed down the hall and slammed her door.

*****

Bedtime, like all time in the Shadow Realm, was arbitrary. She didn’t know what clock the crèche was tuned to. It had never seemed to matter. Still she could tell when the others had decided it was night, for there were sounds in the hall that she recognized from sleepovers as those of a household winding down. Voices lowering, the front door opening and closing, the shuffle of feet to the guestroom only her friends had ever used.

She lay where she’d been since storming out, nose pressed to the far wall, bundled up tight. Protected. There had been no point in trying to do anything else, like read or dance, and she hadn’t brought any crèche-work home. Hadn’t dared slip out to the training room after storming off like that.

Hadn’t slept, though she told herself it was the easiest way to get through this. Just sleep a lot to make the time pass until the minder and the Regency higher-ups decided they could leave her alone again. Just sleep until the mother-thing got bored of her.

So hard to close her eyes, though. She kept seeing the eiyensuriel’s face, its unsuitable expressions. Its hair slipping from its braids, like her mother would never have allowed.

It wasn’t her. It would never be her again.

So hard to close her eyes…

*****

In the blackness beneath the blankets, rising up from the stir of images and sensations that had passed for sleep, she felt a dip in the mattress behind her.

Suddenly she was very awake, a ball of ice in her belly. Her breath caught firm in her lungs, congealing there even as her legs went to water. The blankets swaddled all but a strip of her face, and yet suddenly they felt like no shelter at all. Like the ghost, the haunting, could reach right through them and grip her spine, squeeze her heart to dust within her chest.

The room was silent, but not the silence of emptiness. More like something had absorbed all the creaks and shifts that should have been there, the faint sough of the air through the communal ducts. Drawn it all in and condensed it to nothingness, like a dollop of the Void leaning there just behind her. Breathless, waiting.

Tears pricked her eyes. Where was the minder? How could any of this be allowed? The dead returned—she’d always known that. She’d held a dead girl’s hand and helped her to die for real. But even then, even as that girl dissolved into ash in the light, she hadn’t comprehended the horror of her home. Hadn’t known, hadn’t wondered, how it happened.

How many came back wrong?

“Why are you here?” she scraped out. Hardly aware how she dared—except, when hadn’t she spoken her mind? Maybe not as furiously as when she’d been a child, or as bitterly as she’d wanted to, but she’d learned to argue from Ereshti. If anything was a habit, it was that.

But if anything wasn’t a habit, it was Ereshti in her room, on her bed, leaning over her.

Or was it?

Dimly some sense memory rekindled. A wisp of a dream, or something felt while dreaming. That presence, that gaze, that dimple on the mattress-edge where someone sat.

Silence. Slowly, the fear began to wane. Not because her tears had dried; they still dripped down the side of her nose, pressed out by the choke of feeling in her throat. Not because she wasn’t petrified of looking up, seeing that shifting face, that replacement thing. Not because she’d accepted this. She didn’t think she ever would.

No. It was the recognition that what she felt in that presence behind her was nostalgia.

Why? she asked the silent sentry, just as silently.

But didn’t she know? Face to face, she and her mother had always stung each other. She’d found it harder and harder to be happy when Ereshti was around, harder to welcome her home and not immediately want her to go away. It had felt, sometimes, that the real bond between them was their mutual repulsion—a shared annoyance with the ties of blood.

It was easier to look at Ereshti when her back was turned than to see her mirror-face.

Maybe that was what her mother felt too. Maybe, when she looked down at Nemirin wrapped like this, a caterpillar in its frustrated cocoon, she saw what they had always been. At arm’s reach of each other, out of sync, a step too close and a leap too far away.

She didn’t uncurl. She couldn’t change who she was, anymore than her mother could. Would never reach out like the minder and the confidante probably wanted, to somehow guide Ereshti home. What was home, for them?

Wasn’t it this? One back turned to the other?

The weight rose. There was, perhaps, the shuff of fabric settling. The faint brush of house-slippers across floorboards, the rustle of half-grown wings.

She didn’t want to look. But it was her turn.

Easy enough to shift onto her back. To tilt her head, eyes opening in the shadowed room, lit only by traces of ultrablack paint and embroidery. To find the dark, still shape of her mother by the door, the tangle of her braids like a nest of snakes, the wings a tattered cloak. Her hand on the door-frame, fingers curling slowly as if she could feel Nemirin’s gaze.

One breath. Another.

Then Ereshti eased the door open and stepped out, silent as the grave.

Nemirin watched it until it closed, tears still dribbling from the corners of her eyes. Then, with a faint sound of disgust, she rolled over and resettled.

If what they wanted was habit, she could give them that. They wouldn’t like it, but that wasn’t her problem. Every family was its own thorny knot, stinging the hands of outsiders. Their knot just had a few thorns extra, and she could think of ways to bring back her mother’s sting. Like yelling until Ereshti yelled back.

In the core of her, that hot cinder lit, banishing the last of the tears.

About H. Anthe Davis

Worldbuilder. Self-published writer.
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