Content warning: Rape
The boy was raised to be clean. His father was heir to the largest domain in the Riverlands, bastion of the Pure, and in his grandfather’s house, all chose: They would be made clean, or they would be expelled. Grandfather taught him to vomit all but the barest taste of his food from his guts, taught him to scrub the grease from his skin until it bled. He was taught that his body was sacred, that it must not be contaminated with the grime and gluttony of lesser folk. When he failed–and he failed often–Grandfather broke his bones and seared his back with hot iron.
The boy was raised to be resilient. When he was ten, his mother and father departed to lead the Bloodfish’s armies in the war. Grandfather would not hear a word otherwise. Lord Ka had brought the ways of the Pure out of a great, lost darkness, mustering the strength to force upon the wretched the cleanliness they were too weak to maintain in themselves, and Lo Markhan, the hero of the Riverlands–Grandfather–would help him realize that revolution at any cost. The boy was alone, bereft of any shield from the marquis’ ferric discipline. He learned to hide his pain, bind his wounds invisibly, make himself seem a model of Purity, for to be expelled was to join the roaches and Lo Markhan’s other creations of mud and bile.
The boy was raised to be strong. Grandfather had studied the fey-magics of the Feathermen in the Bloodwood, and his house was filled with death-infused creations. Some of these were for the boy, like the dish he was made to vomit in, the gown he was given for dress, the bandages wrapped around his seared skin. They lapped at his suffering, hungry, as if one day, finally sated, they would wake, but of course they never did. Instead that suffering flowed into the house, accumulating in foreboding presences that loomed when Grandfather was away.
Other objects, the boy was never to touch. There were shackles in the cellar that slowly gnawed the flesh of whomever they held, spools of thread, gifts from the Dragon of the West, that wormed into any skin unfortunate enough to be nearby. These were meant for Grandfather’s guests-of-low-regard–prisoners, perhaps, or idle, sadistic diversions–but there were still other oddities whose cruelty was not quite so direct. The boy’s favorite was a painting in the sitting room near where he slept. It was an arid, hilly landscape, unremarkable as a work of art, but fascinating in the way its pigments and smudges danced and drifted across the surface. Birds flew in the painted sky, dust blew, and branches swayed. It confused him, even as it filled him with wonder: How could this expression of beauty be at home amidst Grandfather’s other trinkets? The boy understood these creations to be fueled by suffering, maiming, the pursuit of Purity, but that darkness did not seem to be there in the painting.
It was a visiting emissary of the Dune Men, a tall, intense man with yellow eyes, intrigued by the child’s interest, who finally revealed the answer: The painting was a prison. Years ago, Lo Markhan had assisted in the subdual of the Saraa Sa’een, a terrible, wandering monster responsible for centuries of destruction. This painting was possibly his greatest creation, a cage of color and fiction that would keep the demon bound forever. That was it, the boy realized. This beauty was still of death, but death was not confined to the ugly austerity Grandfather so revered. His bewilderment was gone, but wonder remained.
As he grew into his teenage years, the boy was allowed to travel beyond the house’s boundaries, down to the villages of Grandfather’s domain. There, the customs of the Pure were merely one of many superstitions, and the darkness that watched him always seemed to abate. He walked among the villagers, queer but unobtrusive in his gown, absent the regalia and symbols of Ka or his manor. Among them, he found companionship, a sense of commonality in survival–even flourishing–in a world the boy felt so acutely to be immersed in death. On his days of escape from Grandfather’s house, he joined them in their goings-on, he learned their sayings, he ate their food, he even fell in love.
One day, he and a peasant boy caught a rabbit in the woods. The cooked it over a fire and shared it. Overcome by an affection the boy had never known under his grandfather’s roof, he kissed his companion, and the peasant boy kissed back. The two made love into the evening until the responsibilities of reality set back in, and, flush and delighted, they parted ways. But that delight soon soured–the boy had not been attentive to the time. He would arrive home after dark, and Grandfather would certainly notice. Suddenly welling with dread and acutely aware of the rabbit fat still flecking his lips, he made his way back to the manor. He needed to find his dish. He needed to vomit.
But when he arrived, Grandfather was waiting. He tore the boy’s gown from his body, struck him with knuckles like horn, raped him until he bled, and again, and again.
“Is this how you like it?” he asked, his breath hot against the boy’s ear.
The boy did not eat for days. He did not walk for weeks, and even then, he needed a cane. He did not return to the villages for some time, and he never saw the peasant boy again.
But he wasn’t broken. He simply understood: He was raised to be strong. He began to grasp at the death he felt writhing in his broken body, in the house, in Grandfather’s demented trinkets. He found he could speak to it, and it would make things change. Perhaps it was his startling memory of first love in the forest, perhaps it was simple coincidence, but he found it easiest with plants. He could make them grow, flower, entangle constrict. He practiced first with the vines growing on the manor walls, snatching insects from the air, crushing them, savoring the odor of their pain. Then he embedded those vines in the lungs of a manor worker malingering in the shade on a hot day. He watched the man claw at his throat, eyes wide, gasping as the leaves emerged from his mouth. In that moment, he understood his grandfather’s cruelty, and he understood his strength.
He was raised to be resilient. As the war grew more fierce, Grandfather’s attentions became ever more drawn to it. The boy began to look for a particular opportunity, a pretext for removing the marquis from his sorcerous bastion and separating him from his lieutenants. For a single day, he slipped away, finding the commander of the Bloodfish’s enemies in a remote village. He made the man a proposal: Attack the domain of the Dragon. Lo Markhan would marshal his forces to defend his ally, and the boy would ensure the marquis would never arrive to the battlefield.
The commander did as the boy proposed, and when Lo Markhan departed to join his troops, the boy met him in the forest at the edge of his domain and entangled him in thorny branches. He planted a briar in his grandfather’s throat, and it grew rapidly, bursting through the skin of his face and chest. In his final moments, Grandfather could not speak, but he did not need to. The boy knew he was meeting the old man’s expectations.
He was raised to be clean. When the soldiers returned to the manor months later, they found a new marquis there, decadent, flamboyant, everything his grandfather had not been, save for cruel. The new marquis had found a diversion in the torture of his subjects, and he had begun to tax the villages of his domain for meat and wine and able-bodied men to satisfy him. Some of the soldiers rebelled against Le Markhan, the sickening She-Lord of Ka, but they were defeated, tortured and executed in the village squares by the marquis’ thorns. Those that survived left without a backward glance, but to Le Markhan, it did not matter. He did not much care for Ka or his war.
He ruled there for many more years, leeching the despicable world and its despicable people for all they were worth. He, himself, was despicable–he knew that. But he had been taught that cruelty somewhere.