After Fallen left Ardent’s reunion party, Jino went blank. She wanted to be forgettable, forgotten, irrelevant, unobtrusive. Fallen had made Jino brand herself on her first day in the Etherium, and it was not an experience Jino was eager to repeat. Especially since Fallen had waited a day before taking her out of the Etherium so she could speed the healing of it, and only then because it had been infected and looked bad. Fallen could not abide disordered things. Even healed, it still ached, and sliding down the streamers when dancing had made it worse. She’d thought that worth it at the time. Mirohirokon needed a victory. Maybe Jino’d needed one, too, just to prove that she was still capable of winning a skirmish. To remind herself that the war wasn’t over.
When she was alone with Fallen, though, it felt like the war was over.
Fallen had taken them to the garden of one of her palaces. This one was full of space-twisting magic that created impossible perspectives. There were trees that simultaneously grew both in front of and behind each other; flowers that blossomed from lily pads but appeared to be at the bottom of the pond, even while their muted fragrance hung in the air; leaves that reached for the sky and grew into the ground; mosaic scenes made of flowers that showed the same image no matter the vantage from which one viewed them.
Fallen paced along the steps of one circular path, dragging Jino behind her. It looked like Fallen was always walking down, and Jino felt like she was always walking upwards, but the scenery around them remained level throughout. Jino wished Fallen would stop and let her kneel at her feet like usual.
Instead, Fallen dispatched messages from a farspeaker in the shape of a crystal globe. She tapped one foot impatiently as she waited for responses, then twisted to yank on Jino’s collar. “You truly can screw up anything, can’t you?”
“Yes, mistress.” Jino made the tone of her little girl’s voice as dull and dutiful as she could.
“You can’t have resisted the cursed immersion. How could even you mess up a role so clearly laid out for you?” Fallen held the leash in her fist just a few inches short of the collar, pulling Jino’s much shorter form up to stand on her toes.
“I don’t know, mistress.”
Fallen slapped her, hard; Jino’s head rocked back as far as the tight leash would allow. “Don’t mock me, girl. Why did you lie about what your role was?”
“Stop that!” Fallen hit her again. Jino whimpered pitifully.
“I’m sorry, mistress!” Jino tried to cringe, which didn’t work well while standing on her toes and held up by the leash. “I was confused after the immersion. I thought what happened was real. Please don’t hurt me, mistress! I am bound to serve you and you alone.”
The gray fox-eared woman snorted. She put her fingertips to the side of Jino’s neck, and black needle-sharp claws sprouted from the tips. “Bah. The only thing you’re any good at is being hurt. Or perhaps making love to your son. That was a convincing kiss. Tell me, is incest common in the Sun Etherium or is it just you?”
Don’t use me to hurt Mirohiro, you vicious harpy. Jino twitched her neck against the claws, to make blood well from pinprick cuts. Voice dull, broken, hopeless, she said, “I live to serve.”
The white winged centaur from the party, the one who’d led the immersion, teleported into the garden beside them. Fallen dropped Jino to turn her attention to the centaur. “Reflections on Water. Were my instructions not clear enough? Why was Ardent Sojourner given Loreveroro’s part?”
Jino’d rather been wondering that one herself. Since Fallen had stopped pacing and released her tight grip on the leash, Jino sank to her knees at the fox-eared woman’s feet. Reflections bowed deeply to her. “My apologies, Lady Shadow of Fallen Scent. Lady Ardent refused to allow her servant Mirohirokon to be assigned the part and insisted she take it herself.”
“Insisted? By Duty, you imbecile, Loreveroro’s part needed to be done properly! If that cow wouldn’t let Mirohirokon take it, then it should’ve followed the script as part of the glamour. How stupid are you?”
Reflections hunched his shoulders. “A thousand apologies, my lady. Ophidion Memory didn’t realize how important this role was to the arc, and since the party was in Lady Ardent’s honor, she thought—”
“Oh, so this is Ophidion Memory’s fault, is it?”
“She was the one assigning parts for them—”
Fallen rested the hand holding Jino’s leash against her hip and leaned back, black eyes narrowed and a small, cruel smile on her dark lips. “Very well. Then you shall see Ophidion Memory punished for it.”
The centaur swallowed, his shoulders tensing. “I’ll reprimand her, my lady.”
“Reprimand? A mere reprimand? For ruining the entire immersion for everyone?”
“Lady Shadow – everyone enjoyed it, it wasn’t—”
“Don’t contradict me. You’ll see her blacklisted from all creative positions. Permanently.”
Reflections on Water raised his torso from his bow at last, shocked. “But that – that’s much too extreme—”
“Is it? Well. We can give her a choice, then.” Fallen smirked. She conjured a branding iron into her hand, with the inverted characters for “Worthless Failure” on it. “She can brand herself, and let the scar heal naturally. Or give up any hope of ever designing an immersion role again. Permanently.” Fallen created a fire pit in the middle of the path. “Send for her.”
Reflections looked as appalled as Jino felt. “Please, this can’t be the only—”
“Do you want to accept Ophidion Memory’s punishment for her, then?” Fallen snapped. She thrust the branding iron’s mark into the glowing coals of the fire pit. “Are you volunteering?”
The artist swallowed. With shaking fingers, he dispatched the message.
“You will administer the punishment, Reflections,” Fallen ordered while they waited. This time, the centaur did not argue.
An uncomfortable minute trickled past. The branding iron sizzled in the firepit, an unnecessary bit of drama. No, Jino thought, correcting herself. It’s necessary for Fallen’s purposes. This is all about dramatic effect. Jino’s arm ached in sympathy. She hoped Ophidion Memory chose blacklisting.
The aether near Reflections uncoiled at last, and a woman with a snake’s body instead of legs curled out of it. “Hello, my lord, what’s the matter?” she asked. Her black and red tail shifted nervously, and she glanced at Fallen and Jino.
“You…ruined tonight’s immersion.” The white winged centaur kept his eyes on Ophidion Memory, but sweat sheened on his forehead.
She blinked. “What? But it went fine, everyone was—”
“It did not go fine. Loreveroro’s part was too far off-script. Ardent Sojourner should not have been permitted to take it.”
“But it was her party! We went over this already—”
“And you didn’t get it the last time, so we’re going over it again,” Reflections snarled. He stopped, swallowed, glanced at Fallen and the brand, then shook his head. “No. We’re not going over it again. I’m removing you from Through the Glass.”
“What?” The naga recoiled, curling her tail around herself protectively. “You can’t do that!”
“Yes, I can. This is my creative group, and I decide who does and doesn’t belong. And you’re out. In fact, I’ll tell everyone who composes immersions to steer clear of you, Memory. I suggest you find a new pastime.”
“No! No, please, Reflections, I’m sorry, I won’t do it again, please. Immersions are my whole life. You can’t – please don’t do this.” She folded her hands together, cowering before him.
“I can’t rely on you,” Reflections said, harshly.
“You can! Please, there has to be a way I can prove myself!”
Fallen made a little noise in the back of her throat, and the centaur flinched. Slowly, he said, “You…you can…brand yourself.”
Ophidion Memory stared at him, in blank incomprehension.
Reflections pointed a shaking finger to the branding iron. “With that. It’s the only…acceptable punishment.”
Fallen twisted her gray features, irritated. But when she spoke, her voice was even, almost gentle in her disappointment. “Your Queen was counting on this immersion to be perfect, Ophidion Memory. Your ill-considered actions have done great damage to her plans. But pain is a great teacher. Perhaps through that, you will learn to do better in the future.”
The naga hesitated. She picked up the branding iron, shuddered at the glowing, inverted characters. “Isn’t there anything else I can do?” she pleaded, looking from Fallen to Reflections.
“No,” Reflections whispered.
“You can put it somewhere no one will see it but you,” Fallen offered. “Stomach, perhaps. But it must heal naturally. To reinforce the lesson.”
Don’t do it, Jino thought. She understood the point to this tableaux now. It was about control. Getting the fey to do this particular thing didn’t matter. What mattered was making them accustomed to doing what Fallen wanted, no matter how little they wanted it. Fallen would make this cruelty feel like a mercy. She wasn’t using up her influence to compel them: she was expanding it. Both Reflections and Memory would feel more indebted to her after this. It’s not worth it, Jino thought at Memory. Get another hobby. Fallen’s time will pass.
Memory lifted her tunic, revealing skin above her scaled tail, and took the branding iron in aether to hold before her. She had to do it to herself; she’d be invulnerable to anyone else’s attack on her.
“Do it fast, if you’re going to do it,” Reflections said, his voice hollow.
“Don’t do it,” Jino said, and didn’t realize she’d spoken aloud until everyone turned to look at her in surprise. Oops. She spoke quickly; no point in stopping now. “They can’t make you hurt yourself. You’re free. They don’t own you, or the concept of immersions. You don’t have to do this, Lady Ophidion Memory.”
Fallen scowled at her. Jino expected her to hit her, but Fallen shrugged instead. “It’s up to you, Memory,” she said, lightly. “Some prefer disgrace to redemption. Perhaps you’d rather end up like Jiji, here.”
Memory braced herself. She thrust the brand into her stomach, and screamed at the raw agony of it. Jino curled around her own arm reflexively. She didn’t mean to whimper in sympathy but it was impossible not to remember the horror of it, the way the pain of the burn went on and on, long after the iron was removed. She heard the clatter as Memory dropped the branding iron, smelled burning flesh in the air. Jino struggled not to vomit.
Memory shuddered, clutched at her stomach, and let go at once. “Ahhh Justice it hurts, it still hurts, I have to—” she made a little helpless gesture, gathering aether and releasing it.
“Don’t heal it.” Reflections knelt beside her, took her head in his arms to console her. “It’ll be all right. It’ll mend. Just let it be.”
Tears ran down the naga’s dark cheeks. “Aggh, it’s awful, I don’t think we get this kind of pain right in an immersion. It’s so much worse than being cut,” Memory babbled. Reflections almost smiled at that. “Can I cool it, at least? What do you do for a burn, I don’t even know, why won’t it stop hurting? Please, please, just heal it, please.”
Reflections glanced to Fallen, helpless, pleading. The gray woman stepped closer, and stroked Memory’s hair. “There, now. Have you learned your lesson already?”
“Yes, yes, please, my lady, I won’t ever mess up again, just—”
“Shh. All right. I think we can waive the rest, then, Reflections?”
“Yes,” he growled.
Fallen healed the injury for Memory, and she curled up in relief, still crying. “There, now. Not even a scar,” she said, soothingly. “All better. You won’t ever disappoint us again, now, will you, Ophidian Memory?”
She shook her head, babbling her thanks. Part of Jino had to admire the way Fallen had manipulated her into being grateful for a rescue from Fallen’s own punishment. Jino wondered what she’d see now, if she’d had her son’s soulsight. You were free. But you aren’t any more, are you?
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