Content warning: suicide
Annie visited me today. She hates me. She has done ever since she realised what being a singleton means.
Annie visited me today. Oh Annie. I'm not sorry. I'm not. You are too young to know how lucky you are. For every Traveller there is a Linker, after all.
I don't like this city. It's only just getting dark, but there's already a tension on the streets. I can see people twitch nervously as I pass them - not because of me, I don't think. Just because that's what it's like here. Tall dark buildings cast long sunset shadows on the streets, and scared people scuttle around beneath them getting ready to retreat to their homes. It makes me feel on edge, and I've been doing this for years. Almost the longest of anyone in the Alliseum. There are only two pairs who've been working longer than Yin and me.
The innkeeper has left me bread and cheese and a mug of ale. It can wait. I always prefer to Link on an empty stomach. Linking doesn't hurt me, but I know what it does to Yin and there's a kind of physical empathy which has left me nauseous in the past. I lock the door, check it twice, and seat myself on the floor with my back against the hard bed. Then I check the door again, and the windows. Only then can I take the tiny pinch of precious dust, wash it down with the ale, tip my head back against the bed and talk to Yin.
Here they are. Here to make me Link again. I can talk to Caith. Caith, my sister, my Traveller. The Masters are here again, with their little bag of herbs on its dish by my bed. Four of them; one to administer the drug and watch over me, one to ask questions, one to record and one to witness. My small room seems suddenly very full. I wish they wouldn't do the Link here. I'd rather go somewhere else in the Alliseum. I'd rather my room was safe. Maybe that's why they do it here.
The drug is bitter on my throat, but I don't resist. It's important not to resist. And Caith is my only real link to the outside world, after all. I miss her.
Hello Caith. I can't talk to you now. I know you can hear what I can hear, and see what I can see, but that means you hear the Masters, and you see the Masters. You don't see me. I don't see you. I can't hear you without you speaking to the Masters. But I know you are there, and it helps. I miss you almost as much as I miss Ydris.
They speak now.
"Caith, what is the situation in Tebris?"
Such a silly name for a province. My mouth moves as my sister speaks.
"Tebris is unsettled, but I don't think there is anything to be concerned about. The Prime holds onto power firmly, and has enough supporters."
Caith doesn't know what she reports on, of course. She just does as she's told. As blind an automaton as I am. I wonder if she knows? My sister is not stupid, after all. Does she think about it when she's out there asking questions?
The sorcerers confer amongst themselves. Then:
"Have you heard of trouble in Param province?"
Param is Tebris' neighbour. Almost as silly a name. Param, param, parampram. Like in a nursery rhyme.
"No," Caith says through me. "Nobody in Tebris seems to care about the outside world, sir."
Param, I remember the name.
They have a lot of work for educated men, I hear.
Where did I hear that?
Now it is time to deLink. I think I missed the rest of the conversation, even though it happened through my ears and my mouth. Goodbye, Caith. Take care, sister. Your fights are physical ones, but no less dangerous.
The Link always makes me feel sad. I know my words come through my sister, but I can't feel her, and she can't speak save when the Masters permit her. I miss Yin. Once we were so close, never apart from each other. As alike as two peas, small girls running through the Alliseum cloisters and fidgeting through our lessons together. Now.... I haven't seen her for three years, and that was only a brief visit. She's been through so much without me there. It has to be this way, but it still makes me sad.
Param... Param is to the southeast of Tebris. It's a large, fertile area with relatively little poverty, I believe. I can see the map on the wall of the Teaching Room, where Yin and I sat when we were just five years old, learning our geography. I have always wondered if Yin regretted being the Linker, but even if I could talk to her, I don't think I'd ask.
I'd be afraid of the answer.
I remember Param, though, in real life. It's not every day I get to spot a runaway Master, after all.
It must be sixteen years ago now that he fled the Alliseum. I heard about it while I was visiting Yin, just after Annie was born. They showed me a picture of him; a slight man with thick dark hair, a junior sorcerer. He ran away in the night. No reason given, but I suppose they wouldn't have told me even if there had been. Why would a Master leave? They know the penalties, same as we all do, and they have everything they could ever want at the Alliseum. It's not like they don't go out, either, there are plenty of peripatetic Masters. Although they have to wait, I think, until they achieve a certain rank.
I saw him in an inn in Param eight years later. It was a chance meeting. I wasn't even doing anything in the province, I was just travelling through. I stopped at the inn because I needed to find a room to Link, and he was there in my face, turning to look at me as I came through the door.
I recognised him immediately, and he knew me too. Not personally, but he knew the signs of an Alliseum Traveller. I wasn't surprised when he left hastily, making apologies all round - I think he had been working at the inn.
I reported him that night, of course. I think they sent out other Masters to catch him. They stopped asking us to look for him two nights later, so I just assumed he was dead. I didn't really think about it at the time, but it comes back to me now and then.
So much to lose, so little to gain. I always wondered why he did it.
As long as I can remember, I knew it would be Caith doing the travelling. I don't ever remember resenting her for it, although I know some other twins feel that. It just seemed the natural way of things. I don't really regret it even now. I have never set foot outside the Alliseum, and I don't think I ever will, but there are compensations. Annie... and Ydris. I miss you both, now. Just two weeks until you are free, Annie, and then I can stop worrying.
Param was the place he talked about. That's why I know the name. He said he would go there, that he would be able to find work.
I know he's dead, of course.
Oh Ydris. Annie. I'm so sorry.
Param is not a happy place either. The best inn I can find is grubby, with patched-together furniture and heavy locks on the doors. The Prime has raised the taxes, the dour innkeeper tells me, and he's throwing parties on such a scale it's clear where the innkeeper thinks the money has gone. I think he is right. The little man is nervous as well as grumpy, glancing frequently towards the door as he complains.
When I have negotiated my bed and board, I go out, to see what the tenor of the city is like. Is it just one grumpy innkeeper, or is it the whole city? Is it just grumbling, or likely to become more physical? I need to report as much as I can when I Link.
They've come again. Has it been a week already? Annie didn't visit me this week. I will miss her when she goes, but all the same I can't wait. It will be so good to know she's safe. She doesn't know it, but she hasn't been safe since she was born.
I've always wondered why they never wanted any more children from me. Was it because Annie was a singleton? If that's so, I'm even more glad we did it. I love Annie so much, despite what she thinks of me, but having to do it all again would be terrible. Impossible, even. I was lucky - so very lucky - that first time. I hope they never have to know just how lucky we all were.
The Masters crowd in, herbs and papers in hand. The drug works quickly, making me relax into my bed. The weaker I am, the easier for Caith to speak through me. That's why we can't take turns. I remember her asking, back when the decision was made. We stood in white gowns, bare feet on cold stone, nine years old and listening to the rest of our lives being pronounced. Caith would be the Traveller, I would be the Linker. Just as we had always known. And before the Master could pass on to the next twins, Caith pushed forward and said, "Can't we take turns?"
"Silence, child," said the Master, dismissive. Caith bristled all over on my behalf. I thought she was wonderful and I was afraid for her. But she stayed silent through the rest of the ceremony and later on one of the older twins, who had already entered training to be a Traveller, explained. She said the drugs made it hard to keep training, and a Traveller had to be fit and ready so couldn't take the drugs except for the very little required to initiate the Link.
She didn't say anything about the dependency, the physical weakness, the pain. I hope she didn't know.
Caith's training lasted another six years. I didn't really get any training. There's no way to train someone for a lifetime of addiction and obedience. Even childbearing was something that just happened. They have to do it early, before the drugs take too much of a toll. That was my only break from the drugs, in fact, those fifteen months of pregnancy and breastfeeding.
I don't regret any of it, though. Ydris and Annie are the best things that have ever happened to me.
Two weeks? One? Not long to go. She'll come to say goodbye, won't she?
Param makes me nervous now. It didn't the last time I was here, despite all that happened. The mood in the city is precisely like that of my host, who brought up my meal just ten minutes ago. Menace gathers in the alleyways and lurks within the small, mean houses. Soldiers in unfamiliar uniforms - the Prime's personal guard? - walk in pairs, talking loudly to hide their nerves. They know something is wrong. I didn't see any violence, and honestly, that surprised me.
I don't think the Masters will like my report. Still, I can't do other than to tell them everything. And I'm looking forward to Linking again, it's my only connection to Yin.
The drug is making my head spin slightly. I can see, faintly, through Yin's eyes. Our Link was never quite perfect, but it's not bad. There are four of them, old men, standing over me. Over Yin. Yin lying in her bed.
No, I must talk to the Masters.
Hello Caith. Do you know I'm saying hello? No, you haven't even paused in your report. Tebris was boring, I'm glad you've left. You've gone to Param, haven't you? Param where you saw the traitor. Param where you Linked. Where you spoke through me, and my mouth formed the words that betrayed him.
You hear all sorts of gossip, you know, when nobody expects you to be able to do anything. It was the cleaners, of all people, who gave me the details, paused in their duties to pass on the tale of the runaway Master who fought to the end against four Seniors, and was killed in a burst of spellfire in Param's main square.
Nobody else was hurt. The Masters are nothing if not precise. And I was so relieved, so relieved I found it hard to hide in front of the cleaners. After all, why should I care about a traitor, or about the common people of Param?
The common people are threatening to revolt, I hear myself say, Caith continuing her report. The Prime assigned to the province has been raising taxes to line his own pockets, and there are rumours of an uprising.
The sorcerers confer amongst themselves. Why should they care about the common people, indeed? They rule with a light hand, our Masters. Better that the Primes should be brought down by the common people than by their overlords, since in the end it is the common people we all rely on.
That's good wisdom, I know, but harsh on those who will die in the conflict about to start in Param.
There's a conflict about to start in Param.
The Masters tell my sister to head through the province but with caution, and not to intervene unless necessary. She is to strike out for Arburath to report on whether the situation in Param is affecting its neighbour province.
A conflict about to start in Param... But he is dead nearly eight years since. But he died alone. I didn't let myself think too much about it then, but I have always thought, always hoped... and now I don't know enough!
Ydris! Oh, Ydris! If there is a revolt in Param....
Annie has one week, I think. One week! This is too hard...
I think I am crying.
I wish I could do something.
The Masters have turned away, or they'd see my tears.
If I could speak...
They want me to travel to Arburath. It's too close, physically, geographically and financially, and the Prime there is brother-in-law to the Param Prime. Of course they'd be worried about Arburath. I am to report in four days' time, just before I cross the border.
I watch the indistinct shadows move away from Yin's bed, and then I hear something faintly, as though they were speaking but hadn't turned round. Something about a child named Ydris. Watch for a child named Ydris.
"Yes, sir," I say, and almost feel Yin's lips echoing mine. They say in the best Links it's as though the Traveller and the Linker are one, and the Traveller can feel everything the Linker does, including the movement of mouth and tongue in speech. But although our Link is good, it's not that good. I know that I slur when speaking through Yin's mouth. I can't feel anything from her, only hear well and see faintly. It's usually enough. The Masters don't turn around, so it must be all right.
A child named Ydris?
Annie! You came! How much longer? One week? No, five days.
You look so grown up, standing on one foot at the door to my room. Like a bird about to take flight, poised and wary.
And angry. You are always angry, recently.
No, I don't care. Come here. Five days until I will never see you again. Please, let me hold you. Everything is so on edge now, if only it could have waited another week! Or even five days...
Caith, I hope to hear and yet I hope not to, because when you report they're going to find out what I did.
What was that? Well, I can't help your birth, Annie. It's not my fault you were a single birth.
It was. It was, but I can never admit that. Annie resents me for something that is my fault but she doesn't know that, so she hates irrationally.
You do know you might have been the Linker, don't you?
Of course you wouldn't. Nobody dreams of being the Linker. Everyone is sure they'll be the Traveller.
Yes, I know what you think.
Come and say goodbye. Before you go. You will, won't you?
The innkeeper doesn't know of any Ydris. I'm going to have to move on, they wanted me in Arburath in a week. I need to report on Param once more before crossing the border. I'll ask after Ydris on the way.
It's a strange request. I've never had anything like it before.
Four days to cross Param, and the border is nearly in sight. They asked me to report before leaving and in any case I haven't found Ydris so they might want me to stay longer. The mood in this area is the same as before; sullen rebellion and an unwillingness to talk to strangers. This innkeeper is tall and fat, but in other respects identical to the one before, down to his complaints.
They like the money, so all is well for me.
I take the drug in my little room, door and windows locked, checked and double-checked as always. The floor is hard beneath me and the bed which I'm leaning against is hard and lumpy. I'm not looking forward to sleeping on it tonight. My head starts to spin faintly as the tiny dose takes effect.
No, no, this is too early! Caith, please... I lost track of the days, I thought Annie would be gone by now! You can't report yet! Just one day, please, please...
Am I sick? They are asking, am I sick? I suppose I am, the drugs are like that..
.. No, no, I am sick! I can't take the drug. I can't Link. Just one day, please, give me just one day and then I will be all right. Then I can Link, and you can listen to Caith's report. She will wait.
I am sick.
She is a strange one, I hear them say. Had my doubts ever since that weird false-twin pregnancy. A Linker whose scan is so misleading has to be weird. But then perhaps it was him, you know. Who knows what he did to her before he fled? Poor thing. And she's always been a good Linker in every other way.
Well, they say, one day won't hurt. Give her time to recover.
It's not normal for the Link to be rejected. I hope Yin is all right. I did feel her, but something stopped me Linking fully. It's happened before, but rarely. Perhaps she's not quite well enough to Link, and they decided not to permit it today.
I'll try again tomorrow.
Annie! Is this it? But why are you looking so upset, I thought you couldn't wait to be gone?
All right, all right. I won't ask any more. You will be safe now. You look splendid in your new clothes, proper clothes at last and not the Alliseum gown any more.
Two silvers? No, it's not very much. But you are better off outside with two silvers than in here with plenty of food and no way out.
You'll believe me one day.
Yes, I am glad you're going, but not for the reasons you think.
Goodbye. Take care.
I love you.
I spent the day after the failed Link searching for Ydris. There's no reason to expect I'd be any more successful here than I was for the past few days, and indeed, no-one knows who I'm talking about. Still, it's better to do something than nothing. So I return to the inn with the tall, fat, grumpy innkeeper, to try the Link once more, feeling just a little nervous. Like I did on my first Link, the evening of the first day I Travelled. I think now, as I did then, what if it doesn't work?
And then as I mount the steps to the inn door, there's a rummaging in my pocket. It's a slight, deft touch, but I know it instantly and before I even turn I have snatched the slim brown wrist of the pickpocket. The child struggles immediately, swinging off the wrist and kicking at me with hard bare feet. Reflexively, I raise my arm and she - I think it's a girl - puts her feet down to relieve the pressure on her wrist, clawing at my hold with her free hand.
She has a shock of thick dark hair and a narrow, hungry face twisted with fear and anger. I shake her, and she looks up, startled.
Wide grey eyes fix on my face, full of resentment and fear, but I find them strangely, disturbingly familiar. I can't place her, though. And I ask, like I have done the whole day:
"Do you know Ydris?"
And now at last the enquiry has borne fruit. Coincidence is a wonderful thing. I don't know why the Masters want this scrawny sneak thief, but I tie her wrists and ankles securely and hoick her over my shoulder to take her in. Nobody will interfere. Everybody saw me catch her red-handed.
The innkeeper doesn't bat an eyelid at my request that he lock the little wretch up in a secure room. I take the key when he is done. I can't have her listen in to the report, after all. Once I know what the Masters want with her... then I'll know what to do.
I hope I can get through this time.
Annie left at least three hours ago, I think. I don't have the best grasp on time, but it's been a while since they brought me my food at noon, and the evening meal comes after the Link... and now here they are, but it's all right because Annie is gone and with three hours she should be safe.
Shouldn't she? Or will they pursue her if they realise the truth? Caith, have you found Ydris? If you have, you will report, won't you, my faithful twin? If you haven't... you will report anyway, and they will be confused, and they will suspect me because how else could you have had a false command, but they won't know. Not really know. Might they guess?
The drug makes my head spin dizzy, and I close my eyes briefly. I can feel Caith there, waiting and ready, primed with her own tiny dose of the drug. Tell me, sister, what have you done today while you were waiting for me? I so wish I could speak to you without them listening!
Instead, I listen, passive while you use my mouth.
"Masters. I am sorry for the failure yesterday."
"It is of no importance," the sorcerer says dismissively. "Your Linker wasn't well. She is fine now."
"I have heard nothing of further import on the situation in Param, Master. But I did find the -"
What? I can't speak any more. Something is holding my mouth shut. Yin's mouth. Yin? Is it you? Why would the Masters gag you? I can't see, Yin's eyes are shut too, and I can't feel anything. All I can hear is confusion and commotion from the Masters. They will fix it, won't they? Oh Yin, Yin, please be all right!
I did it! My mouth, my will, I did it! Caith can't speak any more of the child, can't betray my daughter's whereabouts. The Masters are running around like headless chickens but I keep my mouth tight shut. I wonder what Caith is making of what they're saying? How well can she hear them?
"Go for the healers," they're saying, and something about a seizure. But that won't hold them off forever. What can I do?
I can't stay. I can't stay here, can't be a Linker any more. Annie is gone, and safe, and Ydris is safe too now, or she will be once I have told Caith what she needs to know. If only I can find a way to do that...
Yin, what's wrong? Yin, please, don't be sick! I wish we could talk, I wish... I wonder if she could feel me trying to talk? Even if I don't talk? How deep does the connection go?
The drug is still working. I take a deep breath, and concentrate on moving my lips ever so slightly.
I can feel her trying to talk, but subtly, not vocalising, just moving her lips. If I concentrate, I can tell what she's saying.
"Yin, are you all right? Yin, what is happening?"
Over and over again. I wish I could reply... if only they'd all go away and leave me alone!
If she's listening, perhaps I could reply quietly? They're not concentrating on me right now, they're waiting at the door. The healer will be here too soon...
... and I have it! They're at the door, they're not looking at me, and beside my bed is the dish with the drug. It's so quick and easy to grab the bag and eat the rest. It's dry, making my throat itch, and bitter, so I want to gag, and I cough and retch, but then it's in and done. The Masters turn round, I can hear them coming to me, shouting incoherently, but with the rush of sensation the drug gives me, I can reach Caith.
And the rest of what it will do to me, I already know.
I am waiting, quietly repeating the words over and over again like a mantra, when all of a sudden I'm not in control of myself any more. Someone else is moving my mouth, someone else has my arms. It's the worst feeling in the world, and I struggle in vain, but then my own mouth says "Caisssh, ssshtop!" and I realise it's Yin.
Yin is inside me? Yin? And I taste a faint bitterness at the back of my throat, an echo of what she has swallowed, and a horrible sinking feeling grabs my stomach.
Yin, Yin, what have you done? But she is speaking, clumsily, and I must listen. These will be her last words.
They're slurred because she's never done this before, and she's probably got the same issues with talking through me as I do talking through her. She's not vocalising with her own mouth, only with mine; I can hear, dimly, the tumult in the room where she is lying, but the sounds I am making, I can hear only with my own ears.
I can understand. I nod, slowly. Can she feel that?
"My... wi' Annie."
Ydris with Annie? Perhaps she realises I don't follow her, because she speaks again, hurriedly.
And now I understand. Now I see. And a rush of sorrow fills me for my sister, my twin. And, oddly, for Annie, who always longed to be a twin and resented her single birth, and who, in the end, was actually a twin after all. I wonder if she'll ever know how lucky she was. I wonder - and then I know what I must do. I wait, but Yin doesn't have the strength to say any more. The dose was far too strong, and she is dying.
"Yin, I'm so sorry."
I have to say it, because it was I who found him all those years ago, and I who forced Yin to say the words that would betray him. Yin's sight is growing dim, and I wonder if she is still conscious.
I hear you. I hear you, and Caith, I forgive you. Only please, please, take care of Ydris. And Annie.
"I'll look after them," I promise through my tears to the empty room and to my twin, dying hundreds of miles away. I hope she can still hear me. I hope nobody else can. If I can't be physically with Yin when she dies, I at least want these last words to be private. And as the Link twists and fades, my mouth twitches one last time under someone else's control.
An eternity passes before I stop crying. It's not just Yin I grieve for but poor sullen Annie, for little Ydris on the streets since I all-unknowing betrayed her father, and for the man himself, who must have known what he was risking when he fled the Alliseum with his newborn daughter. I don't even remember his name. I grieve for him, for the life he never had with my twin, for Ydris' childhood that Yin never got to see. This has all been such a wrong.
What happens to a Traveller when her Linker dies? Yin asked that once, with a streak of morbidity I hadn't known she entertained. The teacher told us that there was only a risk if one died within a Link. Otherwise, whether it was the Traveller or the Linker who died, the other would survive. If Yin had died outside the Link, I would be expected to return home immediately.
I wonder if they'll believe I died? Will they check up? They can't be here in time to check the body, and I ought to know enough to be able to arrange a funeral for myself, anyway.
More important things right now. The room where Ydris is imprisoned is next door to my own. The girl is lying still on the floor, her eyes fixed on the door. She looks so much like Yin - so much like me - I'm astonished I didn't see it before. It must be the hair, which she inherited from her father - but then, Annie has the same hair. I just didn't see it.
"I'm sorry I tied you up, Ydris." How am I supposed to say this? She's still watching me with Yin's big eyes. I untie the gag, and she stays silent.
"Do you remember your father?"
She nods. I untie her feet but stay ready to grab her if she makes a run for it.
"Did he ever tell you about your mother?"
A shake of the head. That was probably wise. I swallow, close my eyes briefly and untie her hands.
"I'm your mother's sister. Your aunt. She asked me to come and find you."
Disbelief is obvious in her face. I tug her to her feet and through to my room, where there's a small, cracked mirror on the desk. Side by side, the resemblance is obvious. Anyone would believe she was my daughter. Ydris looks at me and at herself again, and the scepticism fades.
"I've got a lot to tell you. But... right now, I have, ah, a few things to arrange. Will you wait here while I see to them?"
A pause. She studies me, thoughtful. Then she nods, and speaks for the first time:
"What happens after that?"
"After that, we're going to find your sister." There's a lump in my throat making it hard to speak. Ydris blinks solemnly at the news of more family she didn't know of. "Then I'm going to tell you both how amazing your parents were."
toothycat.net is copyright Sergei and Morag Lewis
toothycat.net is copyright Sergei and Morag Lewis