A firework exploded and the sound sent the animals cowering in their cages and rattling the bars in a feral chorus. Lan strolled along the drearily lit dust-track underneath the arena, to check that the hybrids were not too distressed. It was freezing, and the sounds from the half-empty arena seemed hollow in a way that reminded her once again of the near-pointlessness of her life in the show.
To one side, a two-headed cat growled at her meekly. Lan paused and put both her hands between the bars to rub each skull, calming the striped beast. It scratched one nose against her hand in utter contentment. She glanced aside at the rows of bars that glinted dully in the light of several cressets. How did these poor creatures feel – trapped, barely witnessing sunlight, and with hardly any food?
That goes for both of us. Rations decreased every now and then; a cost-saving, Astli explained, against the dwindling revenues. Lan’s grey breeches and thick black shirt appeared rather loose on her these days. Not only because of the lack of good sustenance for the performers, but because she didn’t like to eat under the suspicious gaze of the others. How long could she keep this up for?
Her life was reaching an important crossroads: what was the point of the circus, now that it couldn’t travel? With the icy weather, people didn’t want to move far from their homes, let alone travel to the suburbs of Villtreeb, a town the fraction the size of Villjamur. Astli had chosen this spot to settle because it was the transport centre of the island of Jokull, a shanty town that had spawned where muddied roads met and parted. Traders and travellers still depended upon Villtreeb even in the Freeze. Astli had recently ‘released’ half the entourage, and the trickle of visitors these days was barely enough to keep them in business. A few girls had even been sold into prostitution, or ‘servitude’ as he liked to call it. Whether or not Astli knew after all these years who Lan really was, she couldn’t be sure – but she was thankful to be able to scrape through without having to debase herself in this way. Everyone suffers. Just deal with it.
Astli incessantly declared that, even in the ice, people would need entertaining, perhaps even more so as it was something to take their minds off the difficult times. Perhaps, Lan thought disgustedly, that was why he brought in dancing girls. ‘Astli’s Aces’ had been present for several weeks now, to provide a fetish-performance to boost crowd numbers and provide some improvement in the accounts. Grubby men slumped in the front rows, drooling at the dancers’ contortions. Was this what women were reducing themselves to? Lan thought. Is this what it’s really like to succeed as a female on Jokull, an enlightened Empire island? At least tribeswomen seem to have respect from their men.
Drums rumbled in the distance, a crash of symbols, a muffled cheer: Astli’s Aces were on stage right now, prancing around in fever-inducing attire. The girls were certainly beautiful, sashaying around the arena with such vigour, and ignoring the whistles and cat-calls. Something primitive inside made Lan almost envious of the appreciative attention, despite knowing what she’d be in for if they discovered her true nature.
An echo of voices preceded a group of visitors who shuffled towards her. There were backstage tours these days, anything for quick coin. Ringleader Astli, with his ridiculous silk cape and a gaping smile, was leading them through.
Families came to ogle at the much talked-about hybrids. Children of all ages pointing and laughing at the exotics: chimera and chronos and the thousand-eyed kujata; there were creatures down here said to have existed only in mythologies. To Astli they were the freak-show, easy money, but Lan, pitying their mutations, felt too much kinship for them.
It wasn’t their fault they were different.
It wasn’t anyone’s fault to be different.
Lan glowered at the tourists as they were awed by the caged hybrids. Astli glared at her with narrowed eyes then shoved her to one side. ‘You sow, you should be preparing for your next act, not dawdling with these freaks.’
Lan sank back and whispered, ‘I’m sorry.’
‘I don’t pay you to be sorry,’ the scrawny man hissed. ‘I’ll rent you out as a whore if you don’t listen. Get to your room and get changed.’
Lan said nothing, just tried to avoid his manic gaze, those wild, wide eyes, that long dominating nose, and his age-blighted skin. He could be so cruel to the women – physically and mentally – it was one of the things that constantly surprised her, that women could be so consistently maltreated by some men, that their voices ceased to be heard, and they never fought back.
Astli turned his attention back to the gathered audience. ‘Ladies and gentlemen: regard the Satyr! Note its lower half is that of a goat, its top half that of a human. Look at the horns! It is said to be rather fond of wine . . .’
Lan strode away, down a set of stone stairs and through the labyrinthine corridors underneath the arena, where the crowd’s calls were muted. Only a few of the other performers were milling about down here. The knife thrower, Jak, slender and aloof, who always had time for her, though unsuccessfully tried to touch up any of the women when he was drunk. Two of the gladiators, Prett and Daloin, were strong-armed, oiled and clutching small swords. These men would mock fight some of the hybrids towards the end of the evening, and they seemed to have worked their way through half of Astli’s Aces in the darker hours, after showtime. It seemed all the entertainers did was drink and fuck, and Lan would only ever commit to one of those acts, fearing for her life should she engage in the other.
Lan marched past them to the dressing room, closed the door and allowed a moment of peace to embrace her. Performing in front of people tired her, as did spending so much time with others. It was only here, in solitude where she could be herself, that she could build up her reserves of mental strength, and regain her composure.
Clothes were strewn about the room. Aged dressers were speckled with crude drawings and trinkets and costume jewellery. Coloured lanterns shimmered in the reflections of several mirrors, making the room seem deep and endless. Snake-like scarves in multiple colours writhed over the top of an opaque dressing screen, alongside discarded lingerie, high-heeled boots and beakers of alcohol. A perfume cloud still lingered.
Lan shared this room with a couple of the stage girls – it wasn’t ideal and there were . . . difficulties, but while she was still being treated as a female, she considered herself lucky. It wasn’t easy, having to hide herself from the other girls every night, waiting for most of the others to rest or to be outside before she changed into her costumes. How she’d managed to avoid being outed for so long was a mystery to her. Girls stared at her, made a mockery of her height. They even commented whenever it seemed too long since her period, so much so that she had mentally partnered up her cycles with one of the other girls so she didn’t slip. The performers here were always judging each other, often unkindly, which contrasted sharply to the sense of community she had assumed there would be. Maybe it was her paranoia, but she swore they talked about her behind her back.
A thrilling cheer boomed from the arena. It wasn’t long until her act now, maybe thirty minutes at the most. She hurriedly changed into her costume, a simple, full-body, tight-fitting, dark-blue outfit that offered warmth and flexibility. Tonight it was the tightrope first, finished off by a couple of minutes on the trapeze.
Realizing the time, she hurtled out the door, around the corner, taking the stairs two at a time – and suddenly had to stop herself from colliding with a stranger, whose attention was fixed on the caged hybrids.
He wore layers of cream-coloured robes, and his hood was pulled up so she could only see his stubbled face.
‘Are you lost?’ Lan asked.
‘These are, quite simply, shit,’ the stranger announced, gesturing towards the animals with a flick of his hand. ‘They’re genetic freaks, that is all. Mechanisms of the natural world. These are not real hybrids.’
‘I’m sorry?’ Lan asked.
‘I said your fucking freak-show does not impress me much.’ There was something vaguely accented about his voice, despite his angry words, and come to think of it, the way he moved his hands seemed forced and exaggerated.
‘If you need a refund,’ Lan said, ‘I don’t think Astli—’
‘Money means nothing to me,’ he interrupted. ‘I came here only to research hybrids – to see how flesh and bone have been spliced and grafted with skill. Your freak-show is terrible, and I’ve seen better things in the wild. I could make more exotic things with my own hands.’
Lan was curious now. ‘You make them yourself, do you?’
‘My name is Cayce and I’m from the Order of Chirurgiens,’ Cayce declared with some pride, still regarding the animals with disdain.
A cultist, Lan thought. ‘And is your specialization . . . medical? It sounded like you said surgeon.’
‘Chirurgiens. I alter anatomy. I manufacture transformations. I can change, within theory, almost anything about an animal. Like I say I’ve made better—’
‘Can you change humans?’ she asked cautiously. There wasn’t a day that went by where she didn’t think about it.
Cayce moved away from the cages and faced her clearly. There was something remarkably noble about his long face, an elegance, a healthy, almost false sheen to his skin. He was delicate in his appearance and mannerisms, his full lips, his limpid blue eyes. Beneath his hood she could see his hair was blond and spiked. ‘Ah, you’re one of those people, then,’ he declared dismissively, and turned away.
‘One of what?’ Lan asked. ‘Hey, don’t just say that and look away.’
Cayce didn’t look back, merely shook his head knowingly. ‘You want to be made to look prettier, right? Vanity, just vanity, much like you find all over these islands. I blame your culture entirely. You are, it seems, all the same.’ He seemed to have formed his opinion of her in a heartbeat.
‘No,’ Lan replied desperately, tugging the sleeve of his cloak. His sharp glare forced her to let go. ‘Look, I’m interested in what can be done – I know I’m not the prettiest girl in the world, and I don’t much care about that. You say you can change humans, and I want to know more about that, really.’
‘Externally, why, I can change anything.’ He jabbed a finger against his skull and offered a smile. ‘The insides, though, they are often still a mess.’
‘Are you really a cultist?’ Lan asked.
‘How else, young lady, do you think it happens? Say a prayer in a Jorsalir church?’ He chuckled softly.
A thunder of applause erupted from the distance, a reminder that time was passing, that she’d soon need to be on stage. One more act before her own, and she didn’t have long . . . She might never see this man again.
‘Look, I really need to know something,’ she said. ‘You say you can change humans, but . . .’
Cayce gave her his full attention once again.
‘It’s not easy to say this . . .’ she stuttered. It never was, because it took her out of her mindset – to think of herself objectively, which she did not like to do, because it hurt, and it stopped her from coping with everyday life. Her heart clattered along and she dared to ask the question.
‘Can you keep a secret?’
Cayce went away, but told Lan to wait. Several torturous days drifted by without a reply. Her show went on. The show must always go on. Her concentration lapsed, and more than once that week she nearly stumbled off the high-wire. Astli very nearly struck her after that, warning her that if there were any slip-ups, if the accompanying fall didn’t kill her then he would.
For the first time in her life, though, none of this seemed to matter. Year after year she had thought herself unable to be true to what she felt, but now a miracle was being offered to her.
Messengers finally brought her letters. Furtively she would rip them open under the envious gazes of the other entertainers.
‘Care to show that to us, honey?’
‘Got yourself a lover out of town? Tell him I’ll take your place, honey – you know I’m much prettier than you.’
‘He can even bring a friend, I don’t care.’
Lan ignored them and read and re-read Cayce’s missives. First he had scribbled a resigned declaration that what she asked for simply couldn’t be done. Her heart broke, but then a day later she received another note declaring that he had changed his mind, that he had considered some new techniques and that the possibility of failure wasn’t a reason for them not to try. A few days after this, Lan received another letter telling her to travel to a tavern to the other side of Villtreeb, in a district cluttered with run-down taverns and dreary granite hotels. Slipping away after one performance, she took one of the workhorses, and braved the snow and ice. Only when she came out here, into the open plazas and past the decrepit shop facades, did she realize just how lucky her own life was. Irens here were void of much business, street corners became centres for illicit transactions, priests gave sermons alongside barrel-fires, dealing out nuggets of wisdom to a handful of onlookers. Lan climbed the slippery streets and passed under a hefty Jorsalir cathedral.
When she arrived at the rendezvous she found the tavern virtually empty. It was the usual kind of dive found all across the islands in which traders came to talk business and shake hands over nefarious deals. One secluded corner of the bar, beneath row upon row of antique agricultural implements, would become a meeting point between herself and the cultists over the next few nights.
Old networks had been dug up, they told her, and information was relaying back and forth across the island of Jokull, across the Empire. Her main contact smoked a roll-up, and every time he took a drag it seemed as if he might never complete a sentence, a habit that made the conversation agonizingly slow. Still, she had waited long enough. Cayce’s order of cultists was interested in her. It was suggested that they could be of help.
The second meeting, in their hooded cloaks, and with sharp shadows fallen across their faces, the cultists from the Order of the Chirurgiens – and Cayce himself – interrogated her. They searched her memories, dredged her soul. She told them everything.
‘I’ve always been a woman,’ Lan told them matter-of-factly. She’d repeated this to herself so many times in her head it was now like reciting a mantra. ‘It’s not a question of choice, I always knew I was a girl. That is my true gender. I’d played with dolls, with other young girls instead of boys, wanted to dress as them, and none of this ever seemed wrong. I guess some of us are simply born in the wrong body.’
They never released their gaze from her own; never gave her any indication of their opinion.
‘Throughout my childhood,’ she continued, ‘my father would incessantly plead with me to act “normal”. He’d hit me, at times viciously, trying to make a man of me. I was lucky enough to be schooled well, though bullied massively. I was beaten up more times than I care to remember. My father and teachers didn’t stop any of this, they said it would do me good. When I showed no signs of changing, I was taken to medical cultists, given erratic and eccentric treatments to make me more masculine. I was kicked out of school and whilst at home would try on my mother’s pretty dresses. After I was caught doing this my parents locked me in a room for days, whilst Jorsalir priests attempted to exorcize the demons within me. Apparently in our blessed church you are either male or female, and your gender matches your anatomy which matches your soul, and there’s no changing it. The world is black and white through Jorsalir eyes.’
‘I wouldn’t put too much trust in the words of priests,’ one of the cultists muttered, possibly a woman – it was hard to tell with any of them, which was strangely comforting. ‘The Jorsalir church has never been a fan of . . . development. That they are so entwined with the structures of the Empire remains saddening. They loathe people like us.’
Yeah, well I’m sure you didn’t have one abuse you at length, she thought, repressing that bitterness. ‘Anyway. I’ve conditioned myself to not let any of it affect me. I assume that they just feared what they didn’t understand.’
‘One of the many reasons that we cultists must keep to ourselves,’ Cayce observed dryly.
‘So eventually I fled from home and spent a couple of years in various rough spots of the city, even a short while in the caves of Villjamur. I found happiness with a friend for a while, but I can’t remember much of those days.’
They said nothing, merely listened.
‘Do you need any money, for all of this?’ Lan offered. She had some money tucked away, not much – her late father had grown fat off the ore industry and had dealings in Villiren. Because of their rift she hadn’t spoken to him in five years, so it had come as a gut-wrenching surprise when she inherited what little was left of the family money. Cancer had eaten up her mother a year ago, and Lan being the only blood relation left, and because of a quirk of Villjamur law – she was legally a man – the property deeds became hers without much question.
‘It may surprise people like you, but we are not at all interested in money,’ Cayce replied. ‘You see, where we come from, it is not of much use.’
‘Ysla.’ They breathed the name of their home island as if it was some nostalgic memory. She thought about the strange things that might go on there. An island populated only by cultists. She dreamed of magic.
‘We will be in touch,’ Cayce said, ‘so, if you please, do not go anywhere for a while.’
The cultists filed out one by one and Lan returned across the cold streets in deep thought. It had seemed like this questioning was all a formality, that Cayce already understood her needs, but she didn’t want to get her hopes up.
Another long wait followed, whilst she moved through the same routine: performance after performance, in front of diminishing crowds. How long would she have left before Astli reduced his staff again?
Night after night, while the other performers retreated to the dormitory, she waited alone by the moulded entrance to the amphitheatre in case another letter arrived.
Another freezing evening and another show, but this time there was a knock at the dressing-room door and a bald man kitted out against the cold asked her to travel with him to an outpost on Jokull. ‘Bring whatever you need for a short trip, and most of all prepare for cold weather. Snow’s deepened along the east of the island. Roads are shitting precarious at best.’
This is it then.
Lan was out of there. Her pulse was uncontrollable and she wanted to cry with joy, but she held herself together. She threw a few items into a bag whilst the others stared on impassively. One of the girls blurted out, ‘Where the hell d’you think you’re going?’
Lan thought she heard someone mutter ‘Dyke.’
‘I need to go out for a while.’
‘Show’s about to start. Think you can just walk out now?’ Marre, a thickset girl in a shimmering silver outfit, made for the door as if to try to block Lan’s path. She fingered her dark locks and pouted her lips.
‘Don’t tell Astli, please,’ Lan whispered, pausing from her packing, emotion bubbling in her eyes.
‘This once,’ Marre grunted, exposing a rare glimpse of humanity, and lumbered back to her chair.
Lan’s hands around her escort’s waist, they rode for days across Jokull in the biting cold, deep into raw wilderness. Much of the island was layered in snow and ice, the landscape so similar no matter where they rode, a dull and bitter place to live. Animal life here was sparse, and how anything could salvage an existence here was beyond her. Tiny hamlets persisted, names she had never before come across – Thengir, Valtur – and people managed to make a living on simple rations, fresh fish, berries and seabirds. It was a humbling journey.
Her companion maintained an almost complete silence, grunting his replies to her. His face was permanently screwed up in concentration. She wondered if he had been born with such a scowl.
The cultist must have known what she was, and maybe that was the reason he treated her with virtual hostility – he was not the first. He was indifferent to her every need, as if he resented having to accompany her to the destination. Bringing up her concerns wasn’t something she was prepared to do – as she always had, she would silently plod on without initiating that conversation.
Isolating and imposing, the wilderness continued to unsettle her, with the ice wind blustering into her. She could have been on another world entirely. For so long, all she had known was the chaotic clamour from the auditorium, screams of the crowd, girls cackling at her in the changing rooms, the animals screeching . . . And now the only sound was that of the horse doing her best to plough across the long-forgotten roads of Jokull, and when they rested all she could hear was her own breath. She didn’t have any idea of where they were or where they were going. And she didn’t care. Soon she would be free.
On the second night they rode through thick bushes right into the heart of a dying forest that her escort declared portentously as Vilewood. Little could calm her nervousness at entering the darkness. The pungency of the sodden vegetation was intense, and occasionally a bird would dart past, startling her.
Eventually, she could see pairs of white lights bordering a path towards a clearing, and their horse headed instinctively in that direction. On closer inspection the lights were shaped like candles, but the flames were like none she’d ever seen, tiny spheres balanced on the tips of sticks – cultists were indeed the proprietors of bizarre objects. The trail of lights cut through the forest, and her vision was soon limited to no further than their radiance.
‘We now dismount,’ the cultist declared.
They arrived at what she thought was a small shack of a church, but it wasn’t the male and female gods, Bohr or Astrid, who were worshipped here, but that mysterious technology over which the cultists had a monopoly. Any Jorsalir carvings had been destroyed – instead, diagrams of bizarre instruments and etchings of numbers and symbols were scrawled across the walls.
Lan was ushered through the arch and down a spiral staircase, her bag of clothing in her hands, and guided onto a small plinth in the dark where she sat with her legs dangling over the edge, waiting, shivering and listening to an increasing hum.
It was all so quick.
Bright lights and disjointed thoughts, and her eyes closed as if by force—
Eyes wide open.
White stone carvings and columns and friezes filled her vision. A massive daedal mural covered the ceiling, a picture of metallic landscapes and curious, box-like creatures. For a moment she stared dumbly, and then the contents of her stomach began to churn.
Men and women in pale-coloured garb glanced over her as she shakily pushed herself up. Their presence was a blur. Instantly Lan made to vomit and a woman darted in to throw a bucket under her head. She threw up into it, collapsed to her knees, clutching the container and, when she’d finished spluttering, looked around embarrassed, cautiously wiping her mouth on the cloth handed to her.
Lan pushed herself upright and breathed heavily. ‘Sorry about . . . doing that. I couldn’t help it.’ What an entrance, Lan.
The faces of those gathered were pleasant, full of cheer, and she could sense that they meant her no harm.
‘It’s all right, sister,’ a voice chimed.
‘Such methods of travel have side effects,’ another explained. ‘These things often happen when your body is snatched from one place and relocated thus.’
They seemed like a chorus narrating her progress in a play.
‘Where am I?’ she said.
Sensual incense and warm lighting drifted from strange sources; this room appeared acutely modern. Seeing Cayce’s face, and it being the only vaguely familiar sight, she floundered towards him.
‘Ysla,’ he said. ‘Welcome to Ysla.’ She remembered his voice, his particular tones. Cayce stood aside and watched as the gathered people began to analyze her and sketch her. A hubbub fluttered around the room as more people came in to observe this newcomer, this outsider.
‘Ye-yes. Of course,’ Lan stuttered, and then her reason for being there struck her in force. As she became utterly self-conscious of being a freakish experiment, the muscles in her legs gave way and she almost collapsed.
Cayce swept in, took her arm and, with one hand under her shoulder, eased her back onto her feet. He hauled her hessian bag across his shoulder and the crowd parted to let them through.
Her legs wobbled again as they went up a set of stairs up to the exit. Then suddenly, there at the top, in this world beset by ice, she experienced such warmth, such brightness . . .
There was not a single cloud in the sky.