Short Story – Endings and Beginnings
This one was hard to write, but I like it. I went through two full drafts of info-dump before I sorted it out. (I think it may want to be a novel instead of a short story.) I’d love to get your input on whether I kept the right amount of worldbuilding and backstory, or if it needed more or less in order to make sense as a story. Thanks for reading!
Endings and Beginnings
My earliest memory is of my Matrina, Matri Lexa Taboldi. Matrinas are both less and more than a mother to their matrikas. They provide the love and guidance of a mother, but they never allow us to forget that it is their duty to train, and our duty to learn. Matri exist to serve the Empire. As a class, they maintain an unassailable reputation built on three core values – loyalty to the Empire, service to the people, and non-violence.
It’s that last part that I have always had trouble with, though I learned to hide it early.
I have always wanted Matrina to be proud of me, and I knew the only way to achieve that was to be as much like her as I could. She never told me how a matrika graduates to being a matri, but I knew that even as a matrika I must always strive to follow the matri code. In word and deed, I succeeded fairly well. Even Matrina’s superior, the Matri General of the Empire, complimented me more than once on being just like Matrina.
In thought, however, I struggled. How many times did I wish I could just slap some screaming ninny to get her attention and make her listen to me? Too many. And every time I saw the Guard deployed, I wondered whether the matri whose failure they were cleaning up after really failed her duty, or whether some situations simply require violence. Matrina would have been so ashamed if she knew what went on in the privacy of my mind.
When I was ten, I came upon some of the Guard practicing hand-to-hand combat and, being an active and curious child, joined in. Matrina came looking for me later that afternoon and found me practicing punches, kicks and blocks with them. I had never been scolded so soundly before. I had never felt so small, so worthless, as I did when I realized how much I had disappointed her. Worse, that practice had been fun, and I couldn’t stop wanting to do it again, no matter how much I tried to bury the desire under duty and my love of Matrina.
Practice wasn’t violent in and of itself, I reasoned. It was only violent if the moves were directed against someone else. One day, alone in my room, I ran through the exercises again. The movement was a simple pleasure, but the shame and the fear of being found out were crushing. I stopped quickly and tried again to forget.
Then I found carilla – a form of dance that some members of the Guard had brought back to the Capitol after foreign duty. It was beautiful, a graceful, athletic dance full of spins and high kicks. It was perfect for me – energetic and athletic, and also a way of seeing my friends in the Guard without the taint of violence. I was drawn to it long before I realized what it was – combat training in disguise.
By the time I realized, Matrina had already approved my lessons and bragged about my gracefulness to her friends. I couldn’t bring myself to sacrifice something I enjoyed so much, and which Matrina had praised me for, even if its potential for violence would have horrified her. It was only potential, I reassured myself. All I had to do was never turn that potential against another human, and Matrina would never know.
We were traveling in Zoni Prefecture, doing general public perception management, when everything went wrong. I fell asleep in our carriage, not an uncommon event, but when I awoke we were captive in an empty warehouse, prisoner to Groshwall agents.
They made it clear that they knew what to expect from matri. Matrina was gagged, blindfolded, bound tightly, and hung from a rope over one of the roof beams so that only her toes touched the floor. The only way they could have curtailed her ability to communicate further was if they had put her in a sack.
As a matrika, I didn’t seem to concern them so much. My arms were bound cursorily behind me, only a single loop of rope and a loose knot holding them together. I was sitting on the floor where I could lean against the wall, and instead of a gag, they had simply ordered me not to talk, under penalty of being trussed up like my Matrina. So far, I had done as they commanded and stayed silent.
I knew what Matrina would be doing if our positions were reversed. Flirting, acting frightened but attracted, seeking a way past their guard so that she could talk them into letting us go, maybe even into turning against Groshwall to serve the Empire. I knew I should try the same, but I couldn’t get past my own fear and revulsion. I had tried to looked into their eyes, seeking a sense of our shared humanity, a shred of empathy to build on, but the leader just slapped me, hard, and pushed me into the corner.
Now, the five of them sat a few body-lengths away from me, watching Matrina and not even glancing in my direction. How was I supposed to persuade them to let us go if they wouldn’t look at me or let me speak?
I felt like crying, and thought about giving in to it, using it. If I cried, they might take pity on me, let me speak, let me past their defenses. They might mock me, but even that was a potential entrance, any interaction was. The risk was that they would see crying as manipulation and hang me from a roof-beam like Matrina.
There was another option, though. There was carilla, and the potential it held for violence. The potential I held for violence.
The thought chilled me to the core. If I broke the matri code and attacked our enemies, Matrina would never forgive me. I would never be able to be a matri after striking another person, and to escape I would need to do far more than that – I would need to kill.
My Guard friends had made that clear, simply through gossiping about their deployments. Fighting to disable was fine if you were suppressing a riot, where none of your opponents were armed or trained to violence, and you needed them to go back to work once the violence was over with. But they said that when you faced trained opponents, you fought to kill, never to disable. If you fought to kill and fell short, your enemy might at least be disabled, but if you fought to disable and fell short, you might not get a second chance before they killed you.
Could I do it? I thought I could. Looking up at Matrina, I knew I would do anything for her, sacrifice anything, whether my life or her approval of me. But I had to know it was worth it, had to know what our captors intended. If they were going to keep us alive, ransom us back to the Empire, I would bide my time, keep my hands clean. But if they were planning to kill us, I had nothing to lose. Breaking the code would prevent me from becoming a matri, but so would being dead.
They hadn’t tied me carefully, and they had made a point of not looking at me. It took only a few minutes to free my hands, though I held the rope in place for the moment. It was time to live up to my training and take control of the situation.
“What are you going to do with us?” I let my voice quiver with emotion as I asked the question. Let them think the dread was for them, rather than for what I was planning.
“I warned you,” the leader said as he stood and walked towards me. As he walked, he pulled a gag out of his pocket, ready to make good on his warning.
“Please!” I pushed myself up to stand against the wall, turning my face away as if recoiling from the approaching gag. “I just want to know!”
He paused, glaring at me. I looked back, looking into his eyes at last. I saw nothing there but hatred.
“You ‘just’ want to know, so you can better work your matri wiles on us,” he said, then spat and shoved the gag into my mouth. As he tied it behind my head, he leaned close and whispered in my ear. “You’ll have time enough to talk once the interrogator gets here, matri-girl. And when he finally decides to silence your screams, ha! No one else will have to take the trouble of silencing you again.”
That was enough – we were to be tortured and killed, and he wasn’t going to give me any chance to use matri methods against them.
He turned, shouting to the others for a rope to hang me up by. Even as he spoke, though, I caught his head in my hands and twisted as hard as I could. He fell, maybe disabled, maybe dead, and I ran towards the other four men.
They hadn’t even turned to look yet when I took the first two down with spinning kicks to their heads.
I caught the third one lower than I intended, grazing his shoulder and making him stagger. His face was a caricature of shock as he turned to look at me, and he didn’t even dodge when I tried again. My heel slammed into the bridge of his nose and knocked him to the floor.
The last one was drawing his sword as I turned to him, and fear spurted through my veins, driving me to more speed and strength than I had ever felt. Conscious thought lagged behind motion, and the sound of his sword-arm breaking was faint, distant. It was as if someone else had kicked, connected and spun around to kick again, while I only watched.
I tossed my gag to the ground and panted where I stood for a moment, staring at the groaning man rocking weakly at my feet. Then my mind caught up again. I slid his knife out of its sheath and into his throat, ending his pain and the threat he posed to us, then I swiftly did the same for the other four. Two of them were dead already, including the leader whose neck I had managed to snap, after all.
I crouched beside him, disturbed to realize I was grinning. Had I enjoyed that? Enjoyed fighting, killing? I didn’t know, all I knew was that I was alive when they would have killed me. Part of me wanted to laugh, to celebrate my triumph, but I pushed it down.
I was disturbed, but I knew Matrina would be horrified, and that any smile or laugh might push her over the edge into viewing me as the enemy. I had already sacrificed my relationship with her, and everything I had worked for in my life. Now I had to make sure it was worth it and get her to safety.
“I am very disappointed in you.”
It was Matrina’s voice. I looked up, and shock froze me in place as I crouched over the incontrovertible evidence of my failure as a matrika.
Matrina stood free, her ropes and gag on the floor and her arms wrapped tightly around herself. Next to her, in full uniform, stood the Matri General, and behind them a double rank of the Guard.
“I can’t believe…” Her gesture encompassed all five dead men, and her face was twisted into an expression of utmost disgust. At me.
“They were going to kill us. They wouldn’t let me speak.” I heard myself offering excuses, my voice high and pleading, but even as I spoke my mind found the missing connection. “A test,” I said, practically whispering as the weight of my failure became clear. “It was only a test?”
My eyes seemed to move of their own volition, looking at each corpse in turn. Dead. At my hands. For nothing?
“Yes, a test,” Matrina said. Her voice was choked with sorrow, and I watched tears stream down her face with a feeling of horror and spreading numbness.
The Matri General continued when Matrina sobbed and turned away. “A test which you have failed more spectacularly than any matrika in recorded history. You are not one of us. You will never be one of us. You have wasted the best years of Lexa’s life, for nothing.” She turned to the Guard Captain. “Dispose of her. She is worthless.” She placed a gentle hand on Matrina’s shoulder, and they walked away without a backward glance.
I watched until they were out of sight, then a hand intruded on my vision. I looked up to see the Captain holding out his hand to help me up. I took it, though I wondered if he was only helping me stand to make it easier to execute me. “Are you going to kill me now?” I asked. I hoped it would be quick.
He laughed, one quick “Ha!” like a bark.
Was he mocking me? I looked into his eyes, trying to understand.
“No, girl,” he said, and his voice sounded happy. “No, we’re not going to ‘dispose’ of you that way. You killed five men, when they had weapons and you didn’t. Seems to me that means you belong in the Guard. What do you say?”
Become a Guard? Me? I looked over at the Guards, still standing at attention, then back at the corpses. “But… didn’t I just kill my country-men? If this was a test… they can’t have been real Groshwall agents. I’m not just worthless, I’m a murderer.”
He kicked the nearest body, the one whose neck I had snapped. “Prisoners, offered a role to play and a swift death instead of execution in the Square. They were dead men anyway, you just saved us the trouble of doing it when we came to the ‘rescue.’ The matri may have no use for you, but we do. You’re not worthless, just different. Now come on.”
He took me by the arm and lead me towards the warehouse’s false wall and the corridor beyond.
I felt dizzy from the speed with which my world had changed, changed, and now changed again, but I followed willingly. What else could I do? Several of the Guards smiled as I passed, and they reminded me of the friendly, welcoming men and women I used to practice carilla with in the Capitol. Maybe these Guards would be friendly and welcoming too. Their expressions seemed happy enough, like their Captain.
I paused once to look back at the bodies. I failed the test, lost everything for nothing, but maybe I could still serve, still be of use.
I’m not worthless, I told myself, repeating the Captain’s words as I followed him into my new life. Just different. I didn’t believe it, but if he did, maybe that was enough.