Polybius

Polybius blinks owlishly against the sudden flood of light into his cell. “Yes? Who’s there?” His voice is cracked and reedy: a mistuned oboe.

“Shut him up, quick quick,” someone growls, and rough hands grab him, stuff a soapy rag into his mouth and an oniony bag over his head. He struggles, but he’s never been valued for the strength of his arms. They carry him out into the halls, and even through soap and onions he can smell blood and offal. He starts to heave and they slap him, pummel him until he subsides in agony.

He panics when they get outside. Where are his brothers? Where are their tender cruelties? His skin starts to burn at the unaccustomed glare of the moon and he weeps. “He’s an ugly damn worm, isn’t he?” one of his abductors says. There’s a sound he knows well: fist meeting flesh over bone. They travel again in silence.

Hours or minutes later they’re inside again and he’s forced into a chair. The bag is ripped from his head and his eyes weep uncontrollably with the light. The sisters surrounding him are slender, beardless, and short, but he recognizes the room, twin to his own. “Ours now,” says one sister, and hands him a pen. “Write!”

Held to High Standard

In the thick of the fighting all that long summer: a leather-lunged voice raised in stern dispute, and a pen worn down to the rachis with writing, Pythia of Mericourt is hounded on all sides, by those who love her as much as those who hate her. “Whore of the people,” they call her. “Every son’s mother.” She rattles her saber against her thigh, and keeps her guns loaded and lashed against her side.

In the long march to the palace, she is there at the front, high and mighty and furious on a horse, whipping them on, a voice crying out for justice. She has herded cattle and sheep; revolutionaries are no harder.

There is a moment — just one, not long — when they break down the doors, where she feels the world shudder and tilt toward change. For that heady second, all seems possible, everything become thinkable.

Alas, no: the world is vast and the groove of history is deep. Twenty years later they have locked her away, “for her own good,” and she bears them prophesy; witness of another world, where the women she led were armed and unbroken, where the banner of empire was never sewn from the skin of revolution.

Transitioning

Fog, and weeks of fog. Mold and moss digs furry fingers into every nook and crevice, and the greasy face of the Sailor’s Quarter goes piebald with crusted salt summoned from the slate grey pucker of the bay. Markfeet is cold to the core of her, no matter what fires she builds or drinks she swallows; she swaddles herself in colorless, bulky sweaters, festoons herself with charms against the dusk. No matter — her fingers still ache, bloodless and so stiff she can hardly hold flame to her cigarette. Forensics has to do it for her, her face moony and foolish in the red light of the match.

“So? What did you learn?”

Forensics flinches. “Not much, alas. Vegetarian. A drinker, to judge by the liver, but not a smoker, going by the lungs. Brain raddled with worms, but–” she holds up a hand to forestall Markfeet’s next, obvious question– “years old. Probably got exposed during the last skirmish.”

“Sailor, then?”

“Hard to say. Could’ve been an islander, or maybe just unlucky. Worked with his hands, sure enough; see the calluses? That says sailor, right enough, only his feet are soft as lambskin.”

“Maybe they were new-grown?”

Forensics purses her lips. “Y-e-e-e-es,” she drawls. “that could have been it. Hard to tell in this weather, but they do seem pale, don’t they? We’ll get you a list of backalleys that could have put them together for him; maybe they’ll know something.”

Missionary Work

We have been mountains rising out of the seas, the true gods of Olympus: shaggy-bearded with clouds, potent with rain. Months beyond sight or hope of land, a smooth bowl of water and air and us, moving restlessly upon the surface of the water.

We were mustered out of the navy; driven out, say. Long work to bring us all together again, a life’s work and more, to gather us onto this portless argosy that flies no flags, claims no license. They have seen us coming, up from Olympus, riggings black with sailors in stolen uniforms, spars bare and daring above the white belly of our sales; seen us coming, turned tail, and ran. They fear contagion. We bear ideals like sickness, and they run too late: already we have wormed our way into some few willing eyes, bred a few impossible thoughts, shown a different way for those daring few.

A bloody war, fought among waves the size of office towers, tangled in spirals of plastic and perfume. Hours of mutual negotiation to bring us into conflict. The guns fire once an hour throughout the night, stars ill-regarded fallen to the sea but unresigned. Every death is a new member of our crew, come home at last.