Category Archives: The False Mother

The False Mother

Parsaa Inno waited, cradling her sleeping children against her chest as the fetid bog swirled around her. Of course, they were not her children per say, but Scrabble and Clatter were as close as she was ever going to get.

In her private moments, she gave them civilized names. Tahmmin, after the scholar, for Scrabble, who was so smart that he could be an elector if only he put his mind to it. Lejja, after the wanderer, for Clatter, who could spin a walk down the alley into an epic for the ages. Raggon and Gahhay, after the founders of Shira Hay, for the both of them, for they were as close as hollow-born brothers.

Of course, Al Innai would not stand for it. They would earn civil names when they became civilized, he said, not when an aging woman whose face was beginning to wrinkle and whose breasts were beginning to sag gave it to them.

Parsaa Inno held her children close to her, and waited for Al Innai to return.

Her own name she resented. Parsaa everyone called her; Parsaa she was known as. That was no issue. It was the Inno that no one ever said that shamed her, that chained her, that implied her bondage.

Parsaa waited for Al Innai, wondering if something had happened to the man who held her tabula.

Clatter began to stir, and Parsaa ran a hand through his frizzy hair. She couldn’t be that old yet, she decided, even if Al Innai always said so. She couldn’t have been older than a score and five summers when she first found the two urchin children curled up in the rain. Now that Clatter and Scrabble were nearing ten, she had only reached thirty. She had a few child-bearing years yet.

Not that she would ever let herself bear another one of Al Innai’s children. Parsaa had made sure of that: the solutions of mercury and water had a flat, metallic taste and made Parsaa’s head pound, but they were better than the alternative.

It was fortune from the Ladies that she had stayed as a keeper of the Libraries even after Al Innai had bought her; she didn’t know where else she could have found the ingredients, or where else she would have even learned the contraceptive mix. The doddering alchemical elector had been perfectly happy to lecture her day and night on his latest formulas.

The job had been good while it lasted, but not good enough to outweigh the cost of war.

Now that they were in the wilds, Parsaa kept a small clay pot of lime, ground thorntree bark, and honey in her pouch. Al Innai did not know and would be livid if he found out, but thankfully there had been no need to apply the paste yet.

Something rumbled in the mist, and Parsaa flinched. She did not like Kazakhal. Disease was as thick as the fog in the air because of the damp, and she did not know any of the native herbs and flowers. She had begged Al Innai not to come, but the bloodlust had taken him, and he had not listened.

Parsaa looked down. She should not have pushed the boy from the cliff.

She should have done it cleaner, where the kill was guaranteed.

Scrabble mumbled something in his sleep, and Parsaa put a gentle hand on his cheek. The poor boys had been through so much; Scrabble said that he’d been haunted by bad dreams ever since they left Shira Hay. Parsaa was sure he dreamed of the riots, when the alsknights had torn apart anyone unlucky enough to stand in their way. Her sons had watched firsthand theirs friends captured and slaughtered. It must have hurt them deeply.

Parsaa was not blind. She saw the rough face Scrabble put on when anyone brought up the old gang, the almost cruel way that Clatter acted towards the child who had been a former member. She did not blame them for doing what they had to do to survive. But, in the end, no matter how tough they acted, they were just kids. They weren’t ready for that kind of loss.

She put her hand on Scrabble’s forehead again, just to make sure he didn’t have a fever. He hadn’t been eating well, either, ever since they left the city, and Parsaa feared the worse. His skin was warm but not hot; Parsaa let herself relax, if only a little.

Enough was enough. Gently laying Scrabble and Clatter down so that their heads were up and their feet were dry, Parsaa rose. The boys slept lightly. If anything came after them, they’d be up and calling for her in an instant.

Of course Parsaa was afraid, but she had to balance her fears against practicality. They were in more danger waiting for Al Innai than they were searching for him.

Al Innai was not a bad man. Parsaa had to remind herself that. He took care of her, and he treated her like she was free, and he let the boys stay. That was more than Parsaa could have hoped for from one of the riverside merchants.

And he believed in Shira Hay: if not the people, then the idea of it. He believed in home, something rare for a plainsman, those people who acted like they had none.

All the same, a part of Parsaa couldn’t help but fantasize of leaving right now, returning to her sunlit alcove in the libraries, and living out the rest of her life with just the boys. There would be no war, no fighting, no hard truths. Only peace.

Parsaa’s foot sunk suddenly into the mud, and she flinched. It was cold and clammy and sucked at her ankles. She missed the flat plains of Shira Hay. They should never, never have come to this place.

Her hand found the stalk of an unfamiliar plant, and she plucked it out absently as she walked. There was still a trail of footprints in the mud where Al Innai’s large feet had stepped, and Parsaa rubbed the leaf between her fingers as she followed the trail.

Summer yearning, essence burning,” said Parsaa, as she crushed the leaf in-between her fingers. Little white fibers like hairs brushed against her skin as a white goo oozed onto her hand. “Winter’s kiss is only bliss.

The paste made Parsaa’s fingers tingle, and she brushed it off quickly. “Fall is faint but full of taint,” she recited. “And silence of the spring only ever shall death bring.

It was a nonsense rhyme, one that the old alchemical elector always sang as he prepared his new pots and jars of ground roots or crushed flower petals. Parsaa had taken on the same habit, as she tested the herbs and shrubs of Kazakhal. First, she decided, she needed to find out what was edible and safe to eat. Then she could find remedies for the sick, poultices and numbing herbs, although on Albumere, the line between poison and cure could be thin indeed.

Parsaa shook her head. That was the wrong line of thinking. She didn’t need to know Kazakhal because she wasn’t staying in Kazakhal.

She followed the tracks, uneasiness eating at her gut as she walked further and further away from Clatter and Scrabble. Where was Al Innai? He held her tabula. If she couldn’t find him, she wouldn’t be able to find her soul.

For the first time in her life, Parsaa prayed to the Ladies to help him. She made a circle over her forehead for wisdom, and on the small of her back for fortune, as she trudged through the marsh, trying to find him.

The trail twisted suddenly, curling around a gnarled white pine while at the same time Parsaa saw long furrows in the mud. Had this been where the boy and Al Innai had fought?

Except there was no trace of either of them, and Parsaa saw that the trail continued: now Al Innai’s feet were joined by a single, long line, like something being dragged through the mud.

As Parsaa followed, it took her a moment to realize she was holding her breath.

What tricks did that boy have up his sleeve? There was the beast with the long neck and the spotted fur, Parsaa knew, and the accomplice he had with him, although she should have died to the infection long ago.

Except, and Parsaa could have sworn she saw it even if Al Innai denied it day and night, the girl’s leg had healed the moment the boy had summoned her. Nothing—her herbs, her medicines, her remedies—could have done something like that so fast.

Parsaa clenched her fists. She hoped Al Innai was right, because if he wasn’t and she was, then a lifetime of stealing knowledge would be invalidated. That people like that existed on this world was…frightening.

Perhaps that was why Royya had fled. Parsaa had never liked Royya, with her constant smile and her vacant eyes, but she had a point. It was a fool’s errand, to chase down one person somewhere out there in the whole of Albumere; it was more foolish still if that person was an unknown. Better to stay safe and survive, Royya had said. Better not to take risks.

Al Innai had been adamant, though, and Parsaa knew why. He was a good man once, but ever since his dreams for Shira Hay had been shattered by the war…what did he have to survive for now? What was he risking? He lost that which was precious to him and had become an empty man, fueled by hate and anger.

She shuddered. If she ever lost her children, Parsaa feared the same would happen to her.

The trail went on into the water, and Parsaa paused. The boy’s track had led here, that Al Innai had been absolutely sure of: who else would always be accompanied by a beast with flat hooves, all the way from Shira Hay? The boy was traveling with a group, though. He had found others.

What if they were too much? What if the worst had happened? Royya had been right. Better to stay safe and survive. Better not to take risks.

Then she felt it.

There was a second of clarity as Parsaa heard the hum. A muffled roar echoed through the fog, and before Parsaa could react she felt a searing pain around her midsection. Her eyes burned as she felt an impact in her bones like she had just been kicked in the chest.

She had only felt like this once before, when her first master had died.

Her vision danced before her, and dimly Parsaa felt her knees sink into the mud. She saw Al Innai standing before her, his mouth slightly ajar, shock and fear in his eyes. As she watched, his skin began to split, golden blood oozing from the wounds as his head twisted back and his mouth was wrenched open by some unseen force.

His tongue writhed and warped until a thread of green spiraled out of his mouth, and Parsaa took a reflexive step back. She felt herself falling, sinking, as ocean waves crashed above her and a watery sun shone through the surface of the water. Amber tendrils reached around her, wrapping around her body, anchoring her arms and legs to the bottom of the ocean itself, as the forlorn roar continued through the murky waters.

Then the vision was over, and Parsaa was on the ground, her clothes stained with mud. She stood shakily, her head spinning.

And she knew, without a doubt, that Al Innai was dead.

She had seen it with animals all the time: when their owners died, they recoiled, flinched, shrunk back, and spent the next few seconds dazed and confused. The first time Parsaa had felt it, she must have been barely a year or two past Fallow, but she still remembered the golden eyes, the choking grasp, the feeling of desiccation and rot in her very bones as the old man died. When the master’s tabula broke, the slave felt it.

Now it had happened again. Now Al Innai was dead.

Parsaa Inno did not wait to find out what killed him.

She ran back, heedless of the mud flying off her elbow and arm. The boys—she had to get back to the boys—they were her priority. The roar faded into the fog, but now it felt to Parsaa like she was running over an earthquake; the ground itself seemed to be trying to stop her from reaching her children.

“Scrabble!” she shouted, scrambling over a rotting log. The maggotpoles inside were writhing and squirming to get out, and as Parsaa’s foot split the bark they spilled out onto the ground. Every single one began to wriggle away from the epicenter of the shaking, in the direction Parsaa ran. “Clatter!”

“Ma!” shouted Scrabble’s familiar voice, and Parsaa breathed again. Scrabble was a light sleeper. Scrabble was in no danger. As she made her way through the fog, she saw them standing there: Scrabble awake and alert, Clatter rubbing his eyes and yawning.

She wrapped the both of them in a tight hug, trying to stop her body from shaking. Closer than brothers. More kin to her than her lost son.

“Go, go, go,” she said, ushering them away. As long as they kept their wits about them, it would be easy enough to reach the border of the Quiet Marsh, the surreal line where badland and swamp were divided.

“What’s about Innai-Innai?” asked Clatter, looking over his shoulder. “Where he do-.”

“He’ll meet up with us,” Parsaa lied. She saw Scrabble look up sharply, and knew she could not hide the truth from her son. Now, though, was not the time to tell it. They never should have gone into Kazakhal.

It was only as all of three of them began to run that Parsaa realized what she was missing, the reason why she had gone to find Al Innai in the first place.

The dead man still held her tabula.

For one insane moment, Parsaa considered turning back right then and there to find it. She couldn’t, though, not with her boys now running, not with freedom so tantalizingly close on one side and death so treacherously hidden on the other.

Her step did not falter, even as Parsaa already began to feel a hole in her chest, an itch deep down inside of her heart. What fool would willingly leave their tabula behind in a place as strange as this? What if she was summoned away again like a newborn at Fallow, or, even worse, what if her tabula broke under the foot of some wild beast out here in the marsh?

Whatever had killed Al Innai, she had to risk going past it. It was the only way to get her tabula back.

Parsaa tightened her fists. Better to stay safe and survive, Royya had said. Better not to take risks. She had learned her lesson. She had to balance her fears against practicality.

Already, Parsaa could see the light of the Shira Hay sun peeking through the fog. There was no turning back now, not when home was so close.

She loved her sons. Parsaa knew that without a doubt. There would be a time to return, and a time for them to find her. For now, she would take her four years as just Parsaa, no Inno. She would take her four years to watch her sons grow into little men on their own right. She would take her four years.

After all, the Ladies seemed to think that was enough.

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