Content warning: Rape, abuse, the same as the original story. Rale is a deeply violent world with a number of highly disturbing characters and occurrences, but it is my intention that all of it is for a purpose. The greater story, and the story of the Crossroads in particular, has a lot to do with promises and obligations, and the way those sour and rot over time. In its way, Les Marquains’ story of growing up in that world is a surprisingly good microcosm of the theme.
A short time ago–a lifetime for some, but short nonetheless–two men arrived in the Southern Reaches. Neither much cared for their humanity, though they coped in different ways.
The first came from the desert basin to the east. Some time before, he had killed, and his people censured him for it. They declared him a demon and made to punish him, but he embraced their title: If he should be a demon to them, he should be a demon to all. He killed his pursuers and fled, but more followed. They chased him to a cave at the foot of a mountain, where he found a strange weapon, a knife which had fallen recently but waited for an eternity. It spoke to him, showed him how a lie might become the truth, and so a demon he became in truth. The demon, called Jin Gaenyan by those he had killed, called the Saraa Sa’een–Demon of the Sands–by those who hunted him thereafter, carried the knife from the cave, blowing south as a deadly storm and sating himself on the flesh of those who died in the flesh-stripping winds of his body. He turned west at the hills on the basin’s southern edge and continued on until he reached the Riverlands.
The second man came from the Bloodwood, far to the northwest. He had been born there, had been taught from childhood by the most careful of teachers that his human spirit was an object of shame. To redeem himself, he, like his fellow students, attempted to imitate his master’s form in hopes that his spirit would follow. He attempted to climb, feathered, into the boughs of the canopy, to aspire to the sky as humanity had long ago been tasked, but no matter the zeal he poured into his imitation, his studies of the teacher’s words, he could not wash away the filth with which he knew his essence was irrevocably stained.
One day, the teacher gathered her three most promising pupils–him included–and revealed to them the truth: The way of the Feathermen had been only a test, a path upon which the chosen would begin to understand what might allow humanity to ascend truly, without need for artifice, without need for feathers which were not their own. These three, she said, had discovered the first inklings of their missions, and thus they had to depart the Bloodwood to cultivate their virtues in mankind’s rotting garden.
The first and greatest of them, called the One-Eyed Hawk, for whom the stakes of his task had been well-impressed, was given the virtue of Control and sent to Mudhull to await the teacher’s arrival. The second, called the Serpent–later, the Dragon–was dispatched to the Westwood with the all-consuming virtue of Ambition. The third, the man who would arrive at the Southern Reaches, was given the virtue of Purity. Soon, he would be known across the Revián as Le Marquains.
Le Marquains arrived in the South a warrior and a prophet. In his long journey from the Bloodwood, his devotion to Purity had rewarded him with followers, those who heard his sermons, read his treatises, felt the weight of filth in their souls and longed to purge it. It had rewarded him with renown as a master of battle and combat, as a stern and fair leader with no patience for excess or deviance or failure–least of all within himself. It had rewarded him with a daughter who, in spite of her late mother’s weakness, met his high expectations in devotion and prowess.
In those days he did away with his feathers and shaved every hair from his body. He only ate lemons and hardtack, and even then, he forced himself to vomit the impurities that accumulated within him thereof. He never touched other men, for the human split into sexes was a festering wound in one’s spirit–to physically bond with a man was to accept this infection.
For one so obsessed with his own purity, it should be no surprise that when he arrived in the South, he found the country in disarray. The Saraa Sa’een had roamed there for some time, and through its rampages, no settlement could flourish. The nomadic tribes of Hazan had waged war upon the creature for a generation, to little avail: Though they sometimes forced their foe into retreat, the demon always returned.
Le Marquains was unimpressed by the nomads. They were hardy warriors, but they wore their flaws proudly, shamefully even. They were undisciplined, fond of drink, given to premature celebration and despair in merely transient failure, but there was one among them worthy of respect: Ali’Khazan, called the Tooth of the Barabadoon, a dogged spiritualist and a peerless warrior. It was with him that Le Marquains laid the foundation for an army of the Pure, and army that finally cornered the Saraa Sa’een and trapped the monster in a magical prison–for try as they might, they could not seem to kill it. In the battle, he recovered the knife the demon carried, and he would later bestow it as a gift to the Bloodfish on the advent of the War. Lord Ka, of course, cared not for the significance of the object and used it to spread butter.
But this has not yet become a story about the knife.
Le Marquains became a hero to the people of Hazan and the Revián both. The church of the Pure blossomed, the city of the Reach grew and flourished, and when the Bloodfish came to power, and the One-Eyed Hawk’s armies came to call, the man popularly known as the marquis of that borderland became, in truth, Le Marquains of the nascent empire of Bloodhull. To symbolize his loyalty, he married his daughter to one of the Hawk’s generals, and she soon bore him a grandson. But despite the boy’s auspicious pedigree, he was an immeasurable disappointment.
The grandson was fat. He liked cakes and fatty foods. The grandson would eat lemon–but only on top of muffins. The grandson was addicted to touch and, as a baby, would scream to be held, though Le Marquains never allowed his daughter to give in.
As a boy, the grandson refused to control his appetites, to maintain himself as the Pure should. Le Marquains taught him to vomit all but the barest taste of food from his guts, taught him to scrub the grease from his skin until it bled, taught him that his body was not to be contaminated with the grime and gluttony toward which his malformed instincts drew him. The grandson failed his lessons often. When he did, Le Marquains broke his bones and seared his back with hot iron, but still he would not seem to learn.
When the grandson was ten years old, the War effort began to mobilize. His mother and father departed to lead the Bloodfish’s armies, and he was left alone, bereft of any shield from his grandfather’s ferric discipline. He began to try to hide the pain, to bind his wounds invisibly, to make himself seem a model of Purity, and though Le Marquains was not impressed by the boy’s token effort, though the violent reinforcement continued unabated, it was enough that the grandson’s horrible nature was concealed from the citizens of the Reach, the rest of the church. For this reason, Le Marquains stopped short of drastic measures.
In the early days of the grandson’s solitude, Le Marquains’ chateau was as a prison. The house was filled with objects that the old hero had infused with the fey-magics of the Feathermen as expressions of his ideal Purity, as homages to his long-absent teacher. Some he had created specifically for the grandson: the dish the boy was made to vomit in, the gown he was given for dress, the bandages wrapped around his seared skin. The boy could feel the death in them, the way they lapped at his suffering, hungry, as if one day they would wake, finally sated. But of course they never did. Instead, he felt his suffering flow into the house, accumulating in foreboding presences that loomed when Le Marquains was away.
As the grandson grew into his teenage years, his resourcefulness and curiosity began to butt against the chateau’s capacity to control him, and, begrudgingly, Le Marquains allowed him occasional wanderings beyond its walls. In the Reach and its surrounding villages, the customs of the Pure were mere norms rather than iron law, and the grandson was relieved to discover that the darkness which seemed to watch him at home would not follow him outside. He befriended the villagers there, queer but unobtrusive in his gown, and if they knew who he was, who his grandfather was, none of them ever mentioned it. They accepted him. He learned their sayings, ate their food. He even fell in love.
One day, he and a peasant boy caught a rabbit in the woods. They 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 his companion 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 grandson had not been attentive to the time. He would arrive home after dark, and his grandfather would certainly notice. Welling with dread, acutely aware of the rabbit fat still flecking his lips, he made his way back to the chateau. He needed his facade back up. He needed to find his dish. He needed to vomit.
But when he arrived, Le Marquains was waiting. He tore the gown from the grandson’s body, struck him with knuckles like horn, raped him until he bled, and again, and again.
“Is this how you like it?” he asked, breath hot against the boy’s ear.
What followed was hell for the both of them. For the next year, the grandson scarcely ate, could barely walk without a cane. Nightly, he screamed, sobbing, so loud it could not possibly have gone unheard, as his grandfather continued his sexual “corrections”, his crusade to expunge whatever blemish he continued to perceive within his progeny. But though the boy’s screams were not unheard, they went unanswered.
For Le Marquains, the shame was almost too much to bear. The grandson had shown the flock unignorable proof of his uncleanness, proof of the disgusting slime that had issued from him, which persisted under his own roof. That the Pure who lived near the chateau had to hear the boy’s nightly sow-squeals was unfortunate, but they would understand that he needed to be purged. But the boy never was purged. So the corrections had to continue, to Le Marquains’ mounting frustration.
The problem was that though the boy had inherited none of his grandfather’s conviction, none of his respect, none of his discipline, he had inherited his magical talent. The grandson was powerful, perhaps gifted with an even tighter grasp on death than Le Marquains, and he accrued expertise rapidly, showing an affinity for the manipulation of plants and the things that grew within the ground. So it came to pass that as the Bloodfish’s war machine stalled, and Le Marquains’ efforts to break his grandson escalated, well, the grandson finally broke. One day, as Le Marquains walked his garden, preparing to lead his army to the Westwood to reinforce at the Battle of the Ouroboros, the grandson seized control of a lemon seed his grandfather had swallowed, germinating it, forcing a tree to grow within him, roots and limbs holding him in place as it burrowed through his body, entombing him in plain sight within his own symbol of precious Purity.
Le Marquains’ army collapsed in chaos with the disappearance of their leader, for they were unable to enter the magically-protected chateau to search for him. Without their reinforcements, the rebel forces of Harmony defeated the Dragon at his citadel. In short succession, the rebels’ revealed their true aim as well: Their leader, the mysterious Matze Matsua, had already maneuvered a second army to sack Bloodhull, beginning the end of the War of the Roaches, burying unceremoniously everything Le Marquains had worked for. And soon, the grandson emerged to seize control of the disarray that had spread over the Reach.
He became known as Les Marquains, the feminine form of his grandfather’s title, though stories disagreed as to whether he propagated the name for himself or if his terrified subjects called him this out of spite. He ruled for a decade through a combination of social division, abject terror, and infectious, gleeful debauchery.
He threw lavish orgies at his grandfather’s chateau, in his grandfather’s bed. He would have the former clergy of the Pure hunted, compelled to attend, forced to gorge themselves on cakes made with lemons plucked from the tree which grew from their hero’s corpse, and when their customs were fully befouled, he and his guests would visit cruelty on their bodies far in excess of even his grandfather’s corrections.
For ten years he reigned this way before finally, an angry mob arrived at his gates, only to find that Les Marquains and his chateau both had vanished from the countryside. All that remained was ruins dusted lightly with sand and shadows that loomed too dark for too long–and the fleeting conceit that something within that place was keeping watch, waiting for something. But nothing that remained was valuable, and very little could be carried away, and so the folk of the Reach, fatigued and frightened but relieved at the departure of the disgusting She-Lord of Ka, soon lost interest, turning at last to the task of rebuilding their home in the aftermath of the War.
But men, even within their lifetimes, have short memories. Amid the furor of those who sought to overthrow Les Marquains, little regard remained, even, for the tolerated tyranny of his fanatic grandfather. They did not remember their fear for the iron and unnatural tenets of Purity, much less the respect and admiration that Le Marquains’ entrance into their lives had earned. They certainly did not remember the defeat of the Saraa Sa’een or the feat of magical brilliance which had accomplished it.
But Lan al’Ver did. Which is why he was not surprised when, thirty years later, Les Marquains and his chateau reemerged upon the outskirts of the Reach, finally free of the pocket reality in which he had sealed himself–in the exact same way his grandfather had sealed the Saraa Sa’een more than half a century before.
Since his return, Les Marquains had seemed a different man, older, more careful, less prone to excess but infinitely crueler; and the Reach had suffered for it. On their ride in, the four of them–Lan, Naples, Ty, and Devlin–had seen the effects of his new regime firsthand. The majority of the Reach’s outlying villages had been vacated as those who could afford to flee their lord’s crackback upon their livelihoods did so. The remainder almost flaunted their squalor. Their citizens–peasants, half-naked, undernourished–worked through the heat of midday in grain fields and orchards under the watch of well-armed guards nearly as numerous as the peasants themselves. And ahead of them, the Reach loomed upon the cliffs above the river, its gates fortified but only lightly surveilled. After all, there was little worry as to what might approach them from without. They had been bolstered, rather, to keep people in.
“Do they really need all those soldiers on the farms?” Devlin asked, watching the laborers in the distance. “They don’t really look like they want to fight.”
“They don’t want ‘em running away,” Ty said, swiveling his gaze, wary of any attention their passage might have attracted.
“Where would they go?”
“Doesn’t matter.” Ty did not clarify further, but Naples interjected:
“They might well die, but Les Marquains’ problem is that he can’t chase very well. They say he has some sort of magical tie to the Chateau that prevents him from leaving. So he can compel the townsfolk who don’t want to leave, and they oppress the peasants. But if they have to leave to chase a runaway…then they might just run away too. Better to make sure there are no runaways.”
Devlin nodded, looking characteristically ill, clearly overwhelmed by the answer.
“We’re getting close,” Ty said, focus narrowing on the cliffs ahead.
“Well what’s our plan?” Naples asked, arms crossed. “Your target is in Les Marquains’ direct possession, yes? And Captain, is Orphelia to emerge in the Chateau itself?”
Lan nodded breezily. It was fortunate that Naples had been the one to accompany the rescue. He was accommodating and had not pressed upon the bonds Ty had taken to acquire this mission. The currents were sometimes vague, and it was good that the scholar’s place had not been taken by, say, Bleeding Wolf. As it was, Lan was confident that the importance of Ty’s treasure would be apparent by the time they returned to the Crossroads.
“Then we don’t really give a shit about the Reach,” Ty said. “The house is outside the city, right?”
“Yes,” Naples replied. “Though a run through the rumor mill could be valuable to us. The Reach maintains a policy of strict noninterference with merchants, provided they keep their dealings to the nobles, so I imagine a stop in port would be safe enough.”
“We aren’t merchants.”
“Well, yes, but the Captain is, and we can pose as his manservants until nightfall. We are thinking we’ll try at night, yes?” Ty exhaled, frustrated, though not clearly with anything in particular.
“Obviously,” he said. “What’s the point, though? Just talking with the nobles is going to get them asking questions.”
“Do you know anything about the Chateau de Marquains?” Naples asked.
“Les Marquains lives there?”
“Yes, and who else?”
“Sorry, trick question: Nobody knows, actually. Most say he lives alone. Some rumors say he has a daughter there who he never lets outside. But more importantly, the stories say the house is filled with traps. He used to throw parties, and it was apparently common for guests to touch the wrong statue or piece of furniture and lose a limb. Or worse.”
Devlin shivered as Naples spoke, but the scholar continued:
“Point is, what we are trying now is damned insane. The house is supposedly a death trap even when Les Marquains isn’t in it, and if we’re going to get out alive, we’re going to need more precise info than the vague rumblings that make their way up north.”
“It’s decided, then!” Lan said, deciding it. “Young Devlin and I will carry our wares to market while you and Ty negotiate with the harbormaster and glean what morsels you will.”
The others either agreed or had little energy to argue the point with him, so they proceeded on, navigating through the Reach’s deep canyon to its harbor, nestled between the striated crags at the base of a massive staircase hewn in the rock, which led up into the town proper. They docked, and Ty and Naples haggled with the harbormaster, a gaunt man in a stained and yellowed gown with both cowardice and viciousness apparent in the set of his jaw, as Lan made for the staircase, pulling a small, collapsible cart laden with crates of pelts up to the gates of the Reach, with Devlin following closely. They found a stall in the market without much trouble, and eager buyers began to stop by soon after.
Lan kept careful watch over Devlin as they conducted their commerce. The boy was not naturally suited to following the flow of mercantil conversation, and he struggled to have product on hand for demonstrations or hands free when it came time to accept currency, but he clearly understood the role of this step, the pageantry, in the rescue effort, and his dogged determination helped ensure that he only ever disappointed Lan a little. Lan realized, though, that the boy was fighting more than his nature.
Part of it, certainly, was distraction. Lan had visited the Reach many times before, but for Devlin, the backdrop of stunted and maimed peasants working in the streets, collecting trash, hauling goods as the marketplace clientele–sometimes other merchants, usually Les Marquains’ slavish “aristocracy” in their ersatz makeup, dirty gowns, and ornamental, pointedly-symbolic chains–did their shopping was no doubt something of a culture shock, if one could ethically call it that. But still, Lan surmised that most of Devlin’s distraction was with himself.
The boy’s position in the stream at this point in his life was…unlikely. Not impossible, but it did seem that at points when Lan’s attentions were elsewhere, Devlin was being pulled to extremes that a boy of his temperament would not seek on his own. And the subterfuge of it–Lan was unsure whether whatever force gripped the boy wanted to remain hidden or whether it was his own doing. Or both. It was fortunate that his ties to his sister kept him close to lan in this instance. Better to keep such influence in a place it might be easily contradicted.
Such thoughts gave Lan pause. The day went on, the purchases and sales wheeled, and a steady stream of coin jingled uselessly into his purse, but the question stuck, oozing its implications across his thoughts on Devlin, on Ty, even on Orphelia: What did he care? Why should he brandish scissors at the strings holding the boy? Whe should he take personal interest in Ty’s desperate quest for someone else’s treasure? Why even glance at Orphelia’s departure from the stream? These people would always be people, poor students of history, unmoored from principle, easily entangled by alluring promises and grand-sounding ambitions. And the water was roiled now, he’d made sure of that–what did he care if its flow became more circular with each passing year?
“You are a merchant now, right? You deal in debts, not gifts. And that is well–a debt is reason to care for the future.”
The words leapt from his memory like a chill spray of winter brine. Everything had grown so hazy of late, but that was right: He carried a debt, to the accord he’d made with his siblings, to the strange man who had reminded him of it.
“Mr. Lan?” Devlin’s voice intruded upon his ruminations. He blinked. The sky was orange, and the market was nearly empty. Ty and Naples stood before the stall, eyeing him with some concern.
“You good?” Ty asked. Lan nodded slowly.
“I have never been better, my friend,” he replied, unable to muster enthusiasm to match the sentiment.
“Well…” Naples said, looking about the emptying square, “I think we ought to get going. We were able to get some details from the folk at the inn, and we have the bare bones of a plan. We’ll need to move your vessel, though, and–”
“Yes, yes,” Lan interrupted, shaking himself awake. “Don’t just stand there! Help me load the cart, and we may speak on the way!”