It’s important, when breaking a man, to know the fulcrum at his core, and the lever that moves him. Everyone has a lever, though some snap at the point of pressure. I’ve cored men like bright apples, peeled them like fat grapes, snapped them like dry branches in a storm. Some lose the capacity for speech, the ability to apply rational thought to the jumbled mass in their head. Others find a moment of lucidity in pain and spill their secrets. It’s different every time. For Severus Nix, it was the degloving of his left hand.
You must understand, I’m not a monster. I’m a problem solver. In this case, the problem presented to me was how to open a Door. Capital D. Nine hands across, height three times the width at its peak.
Obsidian, the stone polished to a mirror sheen. Its frame, unadorned silver. It sat on the back wall of my study in mute observance. I didn’t place it there. They’d simply begun to appear, in offices and chambers across Alemani. From where, I couldn’t speculate, but I knew the effect. Chaos in the court. Unrest in the streets. The Chancellor demanding answers. Of his advisors, of his magicians, of his librarians. And when none satisfied him, he tasked me with the riddle.
There are few things capable of terrifying people in power more than the unknown. Perhaps the unexpected and change rank alongside, but for the most part, the unknown inspires an apoplectic reaction usually reserved for enemies of the state and righteous priests. But here it was, a black mirror, installed by either the bravest or stupidest masons on the planet, and now the Empire required my services.
They rarely call on me. There are protections written into their laws. Torture is explicitly prohibited. Interrogation must remain non-physical. Everyone equal, everyone treated fairly. I didn’t officially exist, much like the noirguard, or the diabolists. But power requires certain allowances, certain pacts made and sealed, often with blood.
Therein lay the true horror of the state. Not the blades on my table, or the hooks capable of hanging a man without bleeding him out. N slavering beasts or flesh-boring worms summoned by wizards, slick and hungry, nor the thundering rhythm of shod boots on cobbles. No, the hidden face of the state was a nightmare visage.
Where the public square raised up thinkers and heroes, backroom cabals wore cauls of blood and spoke with forked tongues. Where houses of law displayed the scales of justice, men who made those same laws designed them for their own benefit. Be damned anyone standing in their way. Particularly anyone who didn’t fit their mold in look, behavior, or social circles.
From the outside, society may look hung together on good will and best intention. Industry runs, the economy thrives, people are content. Inside, it’s rotten to the core. My job was to stitch together the failing organs of the body politic. Dissention, discontent, sedition. I was to root it out, pull its secrets from the diseased cells, and cauterize the wound. The rest went to the sea. And She kept Her secrets well.
Am I cynical? Perhaps. I prefer realist. There is no truth hidden which cannot be peeled free with a keen enough edge.
It took some questioning to find the answer to the Doors. I’d begun, as I always did, in the gutters. Those who live there are unafraid to speak. Perhaps because they’ve been swept under by the effluvium of the Empire. Perhaps because they think the right words will open a purse, provide a bottle. I did my best not to disappoint them. Service, in any form, is always rewarded.
I’d made my way to a hovel of an inn, the Dripping Bucket by name, a flophouse by any other. Men crowded asshole to elbow in the common room, where the stink of unwashed bodies and the buzz of flies fought one another for dominance. The tables were pocked and dirty, most carved with either an epithet or a name. The one my compatriot chose bore the sobriquet ASSRENDER in block lettering chiseled by what was no doubt the scholar’s knife.
The barmaid, angry and sagging, slammed our pints on the table. I expect she hadn’t seen a tip more than a couple of occasions in her career. Unfortunately, she wouldn’t see one tonight either. My job was to remain inconspicuous, not make friends with every downtrodden soul on the planet.
I paid at least, and it softened her sour demeanor, so I took that as some solace. Not that I cared what she thought of me, but I’d learned an angry person will remember details of the one who roused their ire.
The man at the table with me tucked into his ale while I inspected the surface of my drink. It was oily, and one of the aforementioned flies swam the breaststroke in my mug. I decided to avoid the flux after all and set it down. My companion, pug-nosed, with a scar across the bridge and more hair than a small bear, nudged my elbow.
“Gonna finish yers?” he asked in voice like cracked smoke.
I slid it toward him with what I hoped was a magnanimous smile. He snatched the mug up and emptied it in short order. When he finished, he slammed it down on the table and let a belch go capable of rivaling the horn on a barge. Finally, he squinted, and leaned forward.
“My thanks. Gotta lubricate the noodle if’n ye gots questions. Now what was it ye wants to know?”
“Tell me about yourself.”
Surprise registered on his face. The lift of eyebrows, the curl of lip. Distrust followed. I understood. A stranger, buying a drink, taking an interest. An overture to sex? Prelude to an interrogation? Closer to the latter, I supposed. Finding secrets is the art of cutting away at the mind as well as the flesh. Depending on who you spoke toyou never had to lift a blade. You could find if a man was trustworthy, or not. A liar, or painfully honest.
“Aye, and whya wants to know that? Slumming it, are ye?”
“Simple curiosity. I bought you a drink, figured we could have a conversation.”
He eyed his empty mug, and I signaled to the waitress. She disappeared to draw two new draughts. He stayed silent until she returned, stomping over to our table. She plopped the mugs down with the same ceremony as before and took my money with the same grudging respect. For my companion’s part, he slugged down the booze, belched again, and wiped his lips. Finally, he leaned back.
“Cotter’s son, originally. Me da, he worked the land for thirty years. I watched his back bow and his hands break. The dirt’d ne’er leave his nails.” He paused, looked around the room. “Thought I might do better, ye unnerstand?”
I nodded. “And what is it you do?”
He laughed, bitter. “Labor. I break me hands and bow me back.”
“You must hear things, being around all sorts all day.”
“Aye, mebbe.” He squinted. “Why?”
I shrugged. Picked at the splinters on the table. “Looking for a man. Might be a learned man. Might be he knows sommat I need to know.”
“Ah, yer onea those.”
“One of what?”
“A seeker. I seen yer kind around. Sniffin’ ‘round libaries, nose in a book. Never gots enough for ye, though. Gots to know more, ye do.”
“Is that so bad?”
He turned his head and spat on the floor. “Ain’t honest work but can’t fault a woman fer wantin’ to learn herself more. I wanted that once, yeah? Better than me own ma, fat and sad at the cookpot.”
Charming. “Yeah. So, you know anyone like that?”
“What’s it to ye?”
We’d reached the crux of our discussion. Mercenary sensibilities. The ones inconvenient to break, they still had their levers. This one, it was money. As it was for so many. A great number of the world’s complaints had been soothed by the music of coin.
I considered. Was he an honest man? I looked at his hands, broad shoulders. The tangle of his beard and the set of his jaw. Considered how readily he’d shared the brutal truth of his life. Yes, I thought. This was an honest man, insomuch as anyone bent under the labor of the state might be honest. He’d likely tell me what I needed, provided I put the right kind of pressure against the fulcrum of his core.
I slipped a hand under my cloak, came up with a small pouch. It was well-padded and did not clink. Still, it was heavy, and it landed on the tabletop with a soft thump. He snagged it, pulled it in, tugged the drawstring, then snapped it closed again. His eyes widened a little. The vein in his temple pulsed visibly. I knew if I chose, I could cut him in the alley and recover the funds. But I honor my contracts.
The pouch disappeared, and the man leaned in, conspiratorial.
“What’d ye like to know?”
“This man, he’d be conspicuous. Possibly the head of a number of colleagues, possibly wealthy. He’d have access. Maybe he put in several masonry orders lately?”
The man frowned. “Masonry? Ne. Ne masonry.”
I let that go. It was a ridiculous theory, put forward by the Chancellor. The man was a paranoid. Worse, he was an uneducated paranoid, exacerbated with age, a febrile moral backbone, and years of cinderseed abuse. I needed only pay lip service to his theory. I knew the chancellor had watchers for his watchers, and it was more than likely the man I spoke to now would end his night under the question, if only to verify I was doing my job. The state was nothing if not an ouroboros of inefficiency and malignant fear.
“What about books?” I followed up. “Not from the library. A personal collection. Likely with strange bindings.”
The man screwed up his eyes, stroked his beard. He seemed to be contemplating the jeweled workings of the universe. Or perhaps working up a fart. Regardless, he finally stopped, the light of memory dawning in his eyes.
“Aye, mebbe a man. Severus Nix. Put in a new door fer im las week. The Hedges.”
“Aye, onea them fancy hosses on the nurth side.”
I pushed my chair back. “Thank you.”
“Leavin’ already?” he asked.
I knew he didn’t care. Some part of him, maybe manners beat into him by his mother decades ago, insisted you didn’t let someone who brought you gifts leave empty-handed. It was rote. I tossed two more coins on the table despite the fortune I’d already handed over. It wasn’t my money, anyway. The state provided. I nodded once more to the barmaid, and when she came over, pulled her close. She stiffened, and I pressed two more coins into her palm. I whispered into her ear.
“He’s six crowns on him. Bed him and do what you will.”
She nodded, gave the man a blinding smile. I took my leave, stepping into the wind-swept streets. I wrapped my cloak around me. I knew the woman would likely slit his throat for that kind of money. In six months, she’d be a mysterious debutante on Hedge Row, or dead in the gutter from seed. Either way, I’d spared him the question best I knew how.
The wind gusted, kicking at my heels, and I made my way back to the tower.
I stared into the Door in my chamber. It made me uneasy. I’d never been comfortable with mirrors. I’d spent my adult life digging into the secrets and insides of others. I was less comfortable having my own flaws brought to the light. The hypocrisy of chosen profession? Perhaps. Regardless, I was too busy for introspection. There were traitors afoot.
As if on cue, the door to my chambers swung open, the opening yawning black in the reflection before me. Something moved in it, pale and thin, and I spun, heart tapping in syncopation. My hand slid to the blade in my cloak. Paused on the hilt. The Chancellor halted. He stood opposite; face a thunderhead.
“You have a name?” he asked without preamble.
“I have a lead.”
“A lead is not a name. I have a friend, a tremendous friend, he’s done amazing things in the space you’re working in, and I’d hate to replace you, this friend, he tells me he’s already rooted out several members of the revolt, and this is going to really bolster our economy. That’s what the people want, really, isn’t it? They talk about justice, but what they want is money. Make me money, Sept. Make them money. When they’re fat and happy, I’m happy. Unless you’re a secret member of the revolt. Are you? No, of course not. Kidding, kidding. You’re a patriot. The best patriot. Find me these men, Sept.”
He stopped to breathe. His pupils were dilated, his breathing heavy. Sweat stood out on his forehead, smearing the makeup giving him a perpetual sun-kissed glow. Vanity. Pride. Greed. I knew his wife, and whence she had come. Lust. And—
“FIND ME THE TRAITOR AND REMOVE THESE DOORS!” he bellowed. “I cannot lose the Empire to this scum. They think they’re better than us. And they will not have what I’ve worked so hard for.”
Right on time. Wrath, jealousy, lies, and arrogance. The Empire was no more his creation than goods sold by a shopkeeper. I bowed my head meekly. He spun on a heel and left, door open in his wake. I watched his personal guard file by, their footfalls echoing on the tiles. When they were gone, I turned back to the Door and ran a hand over its surface. Cold, unfeeling. Impassive. I took a moment to right myself, to be more like the stone.
Outside, voices raised in chant broke the plane of dawn. The protests had begun anew. I knew what would follow. Brutality, arrests, hangings. The Empire was not without mercy, but it could also not be allowed to crack. The people needed to be corralled, pacified. For their own good. For the good of the Empire.
That was the thing with people. They were, by and large, sheep. Quietly stupid and placid. But the thinkers—thinkers were dangerous, wolves in their midst. They would bend the masses, cause them to stampede. Cause them to think. In this, I agreed with the Chancellor. I wouldn’t have taken his money had we not shared some core belief.
The voices grew louder, and I wondered if I’d made a mistake, all those years ago. I listened to impassioned speech echoing across the square. Found flaws I might exploit later, found stones to weight their soul when I sent them to the sea. I buried the dregs of my doubt, gathered my things, and left the tower.
The home of Severus Nix was a sprawling manor of stone, the grounds carefully sculpted, the walk swept, the gravel fresh-crushed quartz. I took my time getting to his door, uncaring who saw me. I was dressed as a fellow scholar, robes simple, tools well-concealed. A book was tucked under my arm, pages hollow. Inside was a vial of nepenthe, a sedative powerful enough to fell even the most stalwart warrior or hardened addict.
Small sculptures lined the gardens. They represented the ideals of the empire. Truth, Justice, Glory, Duty. Lies, each of them. A marble façade on a rotting body. Perhaps that was ungenerous. The people certainly believed in those ideals. But those who pulled the strings knew they were little more than bywords, hooks to move the body politic in a desired direction.
I reached the stairs and announced my arrival with an iron ring set into the door. The knock boomed inside, the acoustics of the house sending the sound reverberating through the halls. A man opened the door in short order. Tall, lean, with a patrician nose and grey hair thinning at the top. Full lips quirked upward in a hesitant smile. Scholars, like dirty laborers, rarely get female visitors, I imagined.
“Yes?” he asked.
“Severus Nix?” I asked.
“I am.” He turned his body a little, a small defensive move.
I had already underestimated the man’s intelligence. Of course he’d be suspicious of strangers at his door, especially if they knew his name beforehand. I cursed to myself, and rushed my speech, hoping to cover for the mistake with enthusiasm.
“You wrote the dissertation on Livy’s Annals of Empire, right?”
“Yes,” he brightened visibly, and some of the tension went from his shoulders.
“I was hoping we might talk about your views on Pius’ use of the Arachnae Guard in the Helot Uprising.”
“Ah, Pius.” His eyes unfocused for a moment. “Yes, yes, come in.”
It took some work to track down information on Nix. Fortunately, several of his neighbors recently noticed his odd hours, and his appointment to tenure at the university had made the broadsheets. The remainder was research. His writings, habits, public life. After, I only needed to construct a persona to take him off-guard. The levers that move men are varied, but for some there are consistencies, no matter who they are. And for men like Nix, attention and fame were certainly a small key to a larger lock.
I stepped past him into the foyer. The interior was tastefully decorated, understated, if anything. He led me from the cool marble entry to a hall of hardwood flooring and pale wallpaper. We turned a corner and stopped at a door, and after a moment, he fiddled with the locks, leading me inside. I’d noticed no servants, no slaves. If staff walked these halls, they did so quiet and invisible as the plague.
Bookshelves filled the room floor to ceiling. Loose sheaves and scrolls overflowed the shelves, spilled from their cubbies into piles like snowdrifts on the rich carpet.
“Drink?” he asked.
I smiled. “Allow me,” I said.
“I never argue with a woman who wants to discuss Pius,” he said, and flopped into an overstuffed chair.
I turned away to prepare drinks and inspect his shelves. Works by Livy and Pius, Herod and Pliny. And among those, folios with black spines. Steel-encased manuscripts. He’d collected quite the esoteric library. I opened my book and glanced back. He was busy poring over a tome he’d plucked from the floor. I pulled the draught of nepenthe from its hiding place and poured a measure into his glass, then added the alcohol. Nepenthe is bitter, but undetectable in liquor.
That done, I slipped the vial back into its hiding place and brought him a glass. He set the book down and watched me. He raised his tumbler.
“To the Republic.”
Yes, I thought, this is the right man. “To the Empire,” I replied.
He downed his drink, and I followed suit. The Amasec left a trail of pleasant fire down my throat. I settled into the chair across from him and smiled over the rim of my glass.
“I know you,” he said.
He’d set his glass down, and his hands were folded in his lap.
I gave him a smile I hoped conveyed confusion. “I’m sorry?”
“You. I know…” the nepenthe was kicking in. “Sept.”
His eyes fluttered once, and he fell unconscious, head lolling to the side. His mouth dropped open, and a tremendous snore erupted from between his lips. It would have been comical had his words not unsettled me so.
He’d seen me coming?
The guard waited nearby, as they did for all my operations. It was an unspoken contract. I found the dissenters, they brought them back. We moved Nix to my tower, and I strapped him to my table. I’d had it made special. Steel, with channels leading to drains in the metal. Those drains led to tubes, and those tubes led to a hole in the floor leading to sewers draining into the sea. I found it fitting. We were told from birth that we came from the sea. It was only proper to my mind then that the men I opened returned to Her.
While he slept, I laid out my tools. Long knives, short knives, hooks, and needles. Tincture and seed. A use for every tool, a tool for every question. This, a long flensing knife, made for asking hard questions. This, a short blade made for stabbing, designed to sever nerves. A hook made to slip into the fatty layers of flesh, to tug them away from muscle. A hammer, to make a brute point.
When they were arrayed to my satisfaction, I opened a vial of brightwake under his nose. He snapped to, shaking his head to avoid the sharp scent. I set it to the side and waited for his eyes to focus. In the interim, I’d pinned my hair back and donned my apron, but still he recognized me.
“Sept,” he croaked.
Had the old man been right? Had the Chancellor, like a blind dog, happened upon a meal by accident?
“Who are you?” I asked.
“Come now. You know me, but I don’t know you. Surely you can be polite.”
“Considering my position, I doubt you intend this to be a polite conversation.”
I picked up the flensing knife, let the light catch its surfaces. “That depends entirely on your disposition. You know, the men who occupy that table all share the same trait. Not one of them has considered the power dynamic. I ask, they answer. Eventually. It’s the implied contract. But it never has to be adversarial. All you have to do to avoid pain is answer.”
“I am Valerian Rex, hero of the Republic.”
I set the flensing knife down and picked up the hammer. “Perhaps we should be formally introduced, then.”
“I know who you are, monster. You’re a dog snapping at the end of your masters’ leash.”
“Now, that’s not civil,” I said.
I broke his kneecap.
To his credit, he only screamed for a few minutes before he found control.
“Bitch,” he spat.
“Misogyny?” I tutted. “You revolutionaries are all the same. Name-callers.”
“And you tyrants are all the same. Insecure cowards with the moral fiber of an invertebrate. You crow about justice and truth and believe in nothing. You stand for nothing. I know you, Sept. I know your masters. And you are to a soul, irredeemable.”
I broke his other knee. He screamed longer this time. Already, the first joint was a blackened ruin. I would have to work fast, before a clot or shock took him. I picked up the knife again.
“Tell me about the Doors.”
I cut him then. Around the wrist. Deep enough to slip blade beneath incision, loosen the flesh from muscle without severing tendon or vein. I slipped the hooks under the flap. Then I pulled. Peeling the flesh from a man takes a lot of strength. It resists. Fat and tissue and blood form a bond. The body want the insides to stay inside. I wanted the opposite.
Nix screamed and wept and turned his head and vomited. But the curse of brightwake is once you’ve inhaled it, you remain awake for several hours.
Blood poured from the wound as I exposed his hand, white tendons embedded in red striations. Blue veins pulsing like a roadmap across crimson landscape. I tore the flesh free with a final tug, and his screaming changed as his blood pattered to the floor, becoming burbling laughter. I cast the skin aside. Had madness taken him?
“You find humor in this?” I asked.
“In this… I do,” Nix replied.
Somewhere above, I heard the creak of hinges, stone moving on an inexorable path.
“What is this?” I hissed.
He laughed again, and blood bubbled at his lips. “You had the right man for once. But it was my blood. My… blood… Opening the doors.”
Panic gripped my chest. The doors. I didn’t know how, but he’d bound the curse of those portals to his life. I leaned in, pressing the flensing knife below his ear.
“Take it back!” I demanded.
“Fuck. You,” he coughed.
Seizures grabbed hold of him then, and he made a gurgling, choking sound, body snapping against the restraints. Then he stilled, sudden as a slammed door. He’d thrown a clot.
On the stairs above, screaming. Something dark and wet moved through the tower, its tread heavy. I thought of the bodies I’d sent to the sea. I thought of the dissidents cold in the waves. I thought of the Chancellor and knew some small comfort he would finally get to confront his own fears.
I felt the rage of the thing released as a palpable chill. My guards charged up the stairs, and scant seconds later, a body tumbled past my door, its face riven in two, a gaping cavity where a man once looked out. The beast on the stairs shambled downward, and I knew it to be insatiable.
Another corpse tumbled by, and shadow darkened my door. I saw the outline of a pale thing, mouth puckered, features indistinct, as if time and tide had smoothed them over.
Greed guttered like pinpoints of flame in obsidian eyes. Its hunger filled the room, palpable, infectious. A need more than purely physical pulsed beneath. It filtered into my guts like lust. A wave of images followed. Bodies hanging in the square. Mock tribunals. Bodies in chains, toiling at the whims of the cruel.
On its heels, the impulse to correct those things. The need for justice—not the mockery playing out in stone halls presided over by wealthy, stale men, but true justice.
My hands shook. The beast filled the door with its soft-sweet pale flesh. A scent like cut flowers filled the air. It moaned softly, unintelligible. An accusation. An indictment. I picked up the flensing knife, pressed the edge against the rapidly pulsing vein in my throat.
Was this my urge, or its own?
Did it matter in the face of judgement?
A trickle of blood spilled into my collarbone as the blade nicked skin. I found I had no will to resist, and considered what question I might ask myself, and whether I would be truthful.
The story first appeared in TCM 8/2020