(As a heads up, this post mentions suicide.)
If you have read Show Yourself To Me, you likely will not be surprised by my love for the Tam Lin story. (My story, “The Tale of Jan and Tam” is a queer kink erotica Tam Lin retelling centering two disabled genderqueer characters, and set at Carter Hall, an accessible community dungeon that appears in other stories of mine.)
If you are unfamiliar with the Tam Lin story, which begs for queer retellings so badly, here is S.J. Tucker & Heather Dale singing it.
This election has created despair and fear for so many folks in the U.S.: Native folks, Black folks, people of color, Jews, queers, trans and non-binary folks, disabled folks, poor folks, survivors of violence and abuse, and particularly folks who are marginalized across many of those intersections.
In the wake of the threat to health insurance access that has devastated disabled and chronically ill folks all across the U.S., the person who ran a Tam Lin resource site and tumblr, known online as Non Linear Tam, took her own life, in despair over the threat to her health coverage. Her cats need homes, so if you are in the DC area and able to take in a cat, I hope you will consider it.
To honor Non Linear Tam, Kayla Bashe decided to release her f/f Tam Lin retelling, and has given me permission to post it here for you to read.
With Roses in Their Hair is a wonderful and swoony sci-fantasy romance. It centers two queer girls I fell hard for, and is about love and revolution and surviving abusive family. (As a heads up, there are detailed descriptions of emotional abuse and the internalized self loathing that can come with it. There are also quite a few battle scenes, some of which include blood and injuries.)
With Roses in Their Hair
By Kayla Bashe
The human resistance didn’t talk above ground. The creatures from between the stars could always tell when too many people were close together, sense their heartbeats and excited breaths. So they met in a concrete warehouse miles underground, filtering in through tunnels and vents. Jennet was the only person in her cell who’d been born after the Fall of Edinburgh. Discussion wove through the dusty air: supply runs for silver bullets, for real produce to supplement the gray mush the fairies distributed in too-small quantities. One woman brought up the idea of sabotaging the tribute run on All Hallow’s Eve, but others shot down the plan as an impossible risk. Jennet tried not to fidget as she listened, subtly flexing the artificial bones of her mechanical wings. Flying and fighting always felt much better than just talking about it. If she sat still for too long, she needed to move. She had big hazel-grey eyes that tipped gracefully up at the corners, giving her a watchful, wary look. Her chin-length dark curls were streaked with vivid green and sky-blue, a mockery of Visitor heraldry. Like all humans who eschewed the Visitor-distributed grey tunics, she wore whatever pre-invasion clothes she could scrounge from the ruins. Today it was a motley collection of stripes and florals, topped with an oversized military jacket (she’d cut two long slits in back, of course) and her lucky prized possession: fingerless gloves knitted on real needles with real wool, a thank-you gift all the way from a Resistance encampment in Scotland and dyed as bright as wildflowers and berries could dream up. Still, as the minutes wore by, patience felt impossible. She chewed on her full lower lip and swung her sneakered feet against the old crate.
“Last order of business. Where are the messengers?”
A large man spoke up. “I received a telegraph earlier- the Rosario sisters have been intercepted. They’re being held at Carter Hall.”
A round of gasps.
Jennet wrinkled her nose. “What’s so scary about Carter Hall?”
One of the oldest veterans, a woman with short-cropped grey hair, shook her head and shuddered. “Thorns as big as your arm on every rose bush, crawling with changeling soldiers in segmented armor. It would be a waste to go after them-”
Jennet couldn’t believe how easily everyone was willing to give up. “It’s not a waste! They’re younger than me, good candidates for wing implantation. Even if we can’t use them as messengers anymore, they’re just kids. Aren’t we supposed to look after kids?” After some more arguing, she wrangled flight clearance. Of course, they wouldn’t come after her if she got caught- but she was used to fending for herself.
To fly anywhere, a human had to be able to slip past the Visitors’ sentinels. They were made of clockwork brought to life by the death of violinists, the music of their war-cries sounding almost human in the polluted mist.
Carter Hall was nothing like Edinburgh, where everything green cowered close to the ground. The grass felt like a thick carpet; the scent of tall pines and hemlock trees sharpened the air. Carter Hall was a corpse of an old magnificent house, the bricks collecting chilly rainwater like tombstones. Moss and slick ivy spilled from each crack in the mortar. Everything felt lush with rain, the red roses seeming to swell under her gaze. The soft petals whispered across her hand. Nothing could smell more entrancing than life itself. Impulsively, she plucked one and slipped it into her hair; the scent wrapped around her, a forbidden delight.
At the center of the hedge maze, two girls were trapped in a dome made of thorny vines. They clung to each other, their brown eyes wide. As soon as they saw Jennet, they talked over each other in panicked voices. “Don’t, stay away!” “They’ll catch you, too!”
“Don’t worry. We’ll be gone before they notice.” She took out her rune-carved pocket knife and began slicing through the vines.
The older sister looked skeptical. “You seem too young to be a rebel.”
I don’t know how old I am, Jennet thought. Eighteen? I’ve seen more than anyone my age should be forced to. Instead of responding, she just shook her head, letting her razor-thin wings slide out just a few inches, and heard their amazed gasps.
“But you’re a girl!” one sister squeaked.
The other’s mouth fell open. “But you’re our age!”
“What can I say? I’m really good.” And in our line of work, she thought, people die young.
From her concealment in the shadow of a tall pine, Tamburlaine eyed the young rebel. She shifted her stance, subtly preparing to leap into action. She sensed the movement of wiry muscles in the girl’s small frame.
“Show yourself,” the girl demanded, putting on a determined expression. Tam could have stepped forward, intimidated her into fleeing. Flexed the black carapace of her armor in the burning afternoon sun. But there was something about the girl that interested her- so tiny, yet so unafraid, rooted in the loyalty and love of her strange human organization. A plan she hardly dared to consider coalesced all at once. If she stopped to think, she’d be lost. Tam pulled off her helmet and strode into the open.
The warrior pacing across the grass looked older than Jennet, but just around her solemn brown eyes. Messy curls dark as her armor tumbled around a narrow pale face; she had harsh, strong features and an unsmiling wide mouth. “You’ve stolen our flowers,” she murmured. “By our laws, I could strike you down where you stand.”
Jennet swallowed, but raised her chin. “Try me. I’m stronger and faster than you think.”
She moved closer. “Are you really?” An aura of psionic power made her appear more real and solid than her surroundings. The grass itself seemed to shiver away from her feet. This, surely, was how cleverer girls had died, thought Jennet. Staring at a changeling’s predatory, sleek-hipped grace until they turned to stone and the crawling touch of vines wound up their legs. Her fear felt mist-distant. She couldn’t even remember why she’d wanted to run.
One heartbeat away from Jennet, the changeling blinked: a languorous, heavy-lidded gesture, appraising her victory. It broke their strange connection for a moment. A flicker of time to wrench her senses back. That was all she’d ever need.
Jennet shifted her weight back and punched the half-alien warrior square in the face.
Against all the laws of probability, she grinned. It was an expression of exhilarated wildness, the pink streak of her tongue darting out to dab blood from her mouth, which seemed too wide for her narrow chin. It gave her a jagged, mismatched look. Her teeth were Visitor-sharp, but as she swiped her knuckles across her nose, she looked almost human, almost vulnerable. Darting forward, Jennet elbowed her in the stomach, a good solid blow that sent a shock of connection up her arm.
She doubled over in pain, but words escaped her lips along with a moan. “We’re being watched. My right fist, your left shoulder-” when the blow came, Jennet danced out of the way instinctively. Curious, she grabbed her and wrenched her closer.
Her breath was startlingly warm against Jennet’s ear, like standing too close to an underground fire. “Two cameras at 12 and 3 o’clock, the statues in the birdbaths. If you use my armor-“
Jennet’s thoughts filled this in. Break the cameras, rescue the girls, get out before reinforcements showed up. She gave the woman a hard shove, making her stagger back; her armored shoulder clipped one statue, taking it to the ground. She pushed herself up. The slight proud lift of her chin seemed to say, come at me.
Jennet hadn’t come off three years of teaching hand-to-hand combat to the Resistance’s gaggle of adopted orphans without knowing how to put on a bloody good show. She pushed off the thorn hedge and broke into a run, flaring her wings. The warrior slung an arm over her hips, flipped her onto her back. The sheer mastery in that movement astonished her even as she hit the ground. She picked me up like I weighed nothing, and I’m not some bit of dandelion fluff either. She scrambled to her feet, shaking grass from her hair. “You’re good.” It was the slightest breath of sound, but the warrior seemed to hear her.
“My name is Tamburlaine.” she admitted, as if the honesty hurt.
“I’m Jennet- I’ll go for your knees-“
So they reeled around the garden in a brutal dance of feigned hatred. Jennet had never fought a changeling before. She’d memorized their tactics, but nothing had prepared her for their humanity-she had never felt hot five-fingered hands scrabble for purchase against hers, never dug the crescents of her nails into such soft skin. Tamburlaine was clever and watchful, knowing just how to lower her center of gravity in the slightest telegraphed moment to sharpen Jennet’s awareness, releasing her chokehold in the instant before Jennet’s cries of mock pain lost their laughter-tinged edge. She didn’t have to maintain a stretched awareness of where every other combatant on the battlefield was, just of her own movement. Every time she caught Tamburlaine’s forearm mid-strike, or hooked her leg around the other girl’s ankles to send them both sprawling, a weight fell off her shoulders. Everything faded beneath the thrill of adrenaline and interplay. Words and breath against her ear as they struggled for leverage-
“Throw me into the other surveillance turret.”
For an instant they were pressed together, body to body, and she could feel the solid muscular curves beneath that carapace of armor.
It was a perfect throw. Tam came down in a plummeting clear arc, feet flexed and knees bent. Her beetle-black boots crashed the tarry in an explosion of dust. For a moment, Tam just looked at Jennet. She seemed consumed and breathless, black ringlets tumbling around the bewildered shine of her expression. “You’ve been outside the city?”
“Yes,” Jennet said, a little confused.
“Do you know the big oak tree?”
“What’s an oak?”
“By the ruined highway, tall as a building with leaves like hands. Come at dawn and alone, and I’ll give you some information about our battle plans. I swear on my life.”
Jennet want to know more, to know why, but then they both sensed the distant flapping of fairy wings.
“Go,” she said, her voice harsh. “And take this-“
She threw something, and Jennet glanced long enough just to check that it wasn’t a grenade before tucking it into her belt. She grabbed the two young girls from the thorny prison and fled into the air with one messenger under each arm. When she reached the base, she wasn’t sure how to explain what happened. A Visitor changeling, helping? No one would ever believe her. Instead she just said that there had been no incidents of note. Only once they were all debriefed did she look at what she had been given. It was a beautiful scarlet rose, its perfume the sweetest thing she ever smelled. It was even lovelier and softer Automatically suspicious, she scanned it for magic. There was none, at least none that could hurt her.
Even if she never found out why the changeling had entwined goals with her, at least she knew that lovely flowers still existed somewhere. It didn’t matter that they grew far outside the human reserves, just that the Visitors hadn’t been able to destroy everything good. She covered a plastic bottle with a scruffy neon mosaic of old gum wrappers and kept the blossom in a place of honor by her underground nest.
Tamburlaine knew she was nothing next to the Visitors’ immense power, that she would never deserve the opium of their love. Even though they could have killed her for failing them, they thought she was valuable; they allowed to live. She always wept at these kindnesses, and bowed her head in further gratitude when they wove feeding tubes into her forearms. Her commanding officer kept her awake all night with menial tasks, juggling knives for her beautiful many-eyed mother. After a few days she ached with exhaustion and regret. She cleaned five interrogation cells on hands and knees before they let her have her armor back.
This was what she told herself: I’m not going to meet her. Even if I can use her resistance to prove that humans are strong enough to negotiate with, even if I can use her to prove I deserve to live, the risk isn’t worth it. But the memories of that brief encounter tempted her. Lured her away from obedience and into the woods. Honey and cinnamon mingled in her scent; Tam felt the heated velvet of her skin through two layers of thin cotton. The memories melted through her body on constant repeat. She had no name for it other than pain, and yet it served as pain’s respite.
“Why are you doing this?” Jennet asked one evening after Tamburlaine had shared details of a new base’s construction.
I want to force a negotiation. I would burn myself to keep my mother warm- I would do anything if she could just remember my name. But she could have achieved that same honor by killing Jennet when she first had the chance. That innocent upturned face lured a response out of her. She shook her head, letting a bitter laugh spill from her lips. “Damned if I know.”
“Well, thank you, anyway. You’re saving so many people, you know that? If we tried to get this information on our own- dozens of deaths, maybe even hundreds.”
“I’m a knight in their army. A high-ranking changeling. Do you know what that makes me? Pure, merciless evil.” The reassurance rang hollow. Pure evil? More like a pure mistake. And Jennet seemed to pick up on that weakness.
“If you say so. Just remember, Tamburlaine- you came here of your own free will.” She stuck out her tongue. It seemed that in the short months of their acquaintance, her irrepressible mischief had begun to overtake fear.
The air itself changed when she smiled. Strange memories flashed through Tam’s head. Two young girls crouched in a shadowed city-corner. Dark heads bent together, small hands clutched tight. She could remember the feeling of uprooted cobblestones under sneakers, a burst of excitement at seeing a still-living dove. “What are you doing to me?” she whispered, horrified.
“Are you all right?” Words spilled from her mouth as she ran back. “Did they know you’re here- are they hurting you-“
“I keep my secrets; my feelings are of no strategic value.”
Her armor was impermeable. She shouldn’t have been able to feel anything, even burning lava. But Jennet’s small hand catching her elbow? The awareness of that one touch seethed through her being. She exhaled, her eyes flickering closed. Changelings were supposed to be immovable warriors, holding no loyalties except to the progenitor that spawned them, no desires but victory.
At Jennet’s caress, though, everything changed. Tam wanted. She wanted to silence the chatter and melodies constantly streaming from Jennet’s mouth, to claim those soft lips with her own. To rip off her armor as if yanking out a splinter and guide Jennet’s hands over her body. She’d press that small, calloused palm to the hum of her heart. “Touch me,” she’d instruct- no, beg. Jennet would wrap peace and healing around them both, murmuring gentle words as her small fingers learned the topography of muscles and spine, and Tam would bury her face in Jennet’s curls and never fear the dark again.
Harm her, her father-commander would have instructed. Take what you want and make her pay. Prove that you feel nothing for her. But she knew, the way she knew how to disable an enemy combatant, that she had no chance of following that order. A single touch would shatter her. If she lingered, she would never be whole again.
Every week, she knelt in the bare cell that was her room, with only the moonlight witnessing her penitence. She pressed her forehead to the floor or traced thorns across her bare thighs. She shifted from one combat form to another, muscles straining in a picture of grace, or fenced with holographic enemies in uneven bouts that left her breathless and flushed. Every week, she made the same promise: I will not allow her to corrupt me. My only purpose here is to end this war. When my superiors find out about my actions, they will be proud of me at last.
She visualized her future behavior: impersonal coldness, her hands tucked behind her back. She would keep every question professional and each encounter short.
Every week, she broke that promise as soon as Jennet’s sweet voice slipped into her ears. She didn’t even remember to hate herself until she reached the compound. Then the sharp ice of disgust would pierce her body, and she’d want to rip desire from under her skin as if it was a parasite.
But by then, it was always too late.
“How much longer can you stay?” To her own ears, her voice was an uneven growl.
“A few minutes. I don’t want anyone to notice I’m off-route.”
“Then can you…” Speak to me, she thought. I don’t care what you’re saying, but your voice feels more like music than any song I’ve ever heard. She must have managed words, because Jennet remained.
She whispered details of inconsequential supply runs, Tamburlaine evaluating each possible path. Once her gesturing hand caught a loose lock of Tam’s hair; Tam could have leaned her entire being into that touch. All too soon it was time for Jennet to take to the sky once again, a beautiful golden bird vivid against the miasma of cloud.
A few weeks later, Jennet clattered down the metal steps into the place of uprooted cobblestones and dilapidated benches that the Visitors encouraged them to call a park.
The squirrels chuckled in guttural noises at each other, a typical territorial conversation, while pigeons mutated by cosmic radiation hopped along the ground divvying up the bones of rats. Some of the trees were so gnarled that they grew nearly sideways, and a child as graceful as Jennet had been could dance along them to the branches. A young boy hurried past, walking a three-legged dog. It gave a low, resentful bark, as if aware that he could no longer protect his master as dogs had once done.
The kids in this park would never know a time without the curfew sirens that went off at five PM each night, without the unblinking electric eyes wired into lampposts on every street corner. And neither would Jennet, except in old books.
“Stay right here,” a young girl’s mother warned her. “Remember, disobedient children get caught by the Visitors and reconstituted into soup!”
Dressed in colorless clothing, her eyes frightened and downcast, the child reminded Jennet of what she could have been if the resistance hadn’t found her. She wanted to think about something happier. Recently, she had flown messages to the resistance encampment in the highlands. Feeling around her pocket, she found a small piece of rock candy wrapped in wax paper. But as she ate, she noticed the girl watching her with fascinated hunger.
“That’s not rations. What are you eating?”
“Candy. It’s like food, only better.” She popped a fragment into her mouth. An impulsive idea struck her. “Want the rest?”
The child tried it-cautiously at first, then with an amazing, astounded grin on her face. Jennet leaned in, smiling back. “I always think it tastes like hope.”
From the way the girl nodded, she knew she’d just created a young rebel who would remember hope for the rest of her life.
That was when a horde of changeling warriors in beetle armor, like shadow figures of inhumanity, emerged from the trees. “Alert. The regulations of this area have been disrupted. Only 45 people are allowed in this public area at any one time. And there are currently 50 people occupying this area. Prepare for decimation.” They must have been hiding in the ruins of the skyscrapers, waiting for the mood in the park to approach a simile of cheerfulness before destroying any hope that this place could be one of broken refuge. A winged warrior flew straight for Jennet, his clockwork claws outstretched. She grabbed a tree branch and fended him off, kicking his legs out from under him. When he sliced through her weapon, she leapt over him and used the remaining pieces to drum a tattoo of pain on his back. Then she heard the child screaming from across the park. Her mother had tried to run away with her, but the woman had fallen under a blow, leaving the young girl unprotected.
A blast of psionic power that would have liquefied the child’s bones and turned her fingers into scuttling centipedes ricocheted through the air. Screaming, Jennet unfurled her golden wings, leapt with no thought but to stop this injustice. But she knew she wouldn’t get there in time. She couldn’t save this child of hope.
Except Tam did.
Tam, dodging a silver bullet, half-turned into the blast and caught its streaking force in her splayed hands. Still, even as the magic pulsed through her, she regained her footing. “Changelings, to me!” her voice boomed out. A dozen mirrored helmets turned towards her. “I saw some human rebels flying that way. I’ll finish cleaning up this refuse- cut off their escape!” As one, the other soldiers followed her pointing finger, allowing the people who’d been in the park to dart away.
Jennet could have fled with them; instead, she hurried to Tam’s side. “Are you hurt?”
“I’m fine,” Tam said, her voice emotionless. But the look of agony on her face when she tried to rise, the groan that slipped between her clenched teeth, screamed otherwise. Jennet helped her to her feet despite small noises of protest. “We have to get you somewhere safe. My hideout is right near here- come home with me.” Although she grumbled in protest, she allowed Jennet to help her stand, to hurry her through the ash-covered streets. “Stupid,” she grunted.
“Trying to save that child. Our weapons are too powerful. You would have died.”
“Sometimes things are worth trying anyway. You must know that, even a little bit. Why else would you have helped me fight?” The way Tam looked at her made Jennet shiver. Somewhere between incomprehension and reverence. Genuine, aching awe. Then the moment passed, lost beneath her grim determination to remain upright.
Jennet’s home, Tam realized, was just as bright as her smile. She’d taken an abandoned subway car and decorated it with old rugs and blankets, mirror-shards, magazine covers and vividly colored paint. Every corner seemed to hold some new scavenged treasure. As she sank gratefully onto a wicker loveseat covered with stickers, she noticed Jennet peering at her, hazel eyes intense.
“I’m trying to picture what you look like under all that armor. Isn’t it sweaty when you’re somewhere with proper heating? If your muscles aren’t real I will be very disappointed for at least twenty-five minutes.”
“I’m afraid to disappoint you, but the majority of it isn’t actually removable. We would disgrace our family were we seen to share organs with humans. The extremities, though… those are useful sometimes.” She unclipped her gauntlets up to the forearms: a sunset-like latticework of bruises and scars, inhuman green kisses bending around her wrists. Tamburlaine waited for the inevitable disgusted gasp.
Instead, there was just a quiet, curious: “Does it hurt?”
More than you could imagine, green rose girl, Tamburlaine thought. Instead, she said what her egg-siblings always wanted to hear: “You can touch them if you want. I don’t care.”
“Really? Cause they look like they hurt. And I care about that.”
“They’re sore as anything. Whenever I open my hands I feel like the metal of my gauntlets is slicing into me again. …no, but you don’t want to hear about that, it’s disgusting.”
“Nothing human is alien to me. That’s from a book I read ages ago. Here, I’ve got some bandages from an old first-aid kid. I bet they’re not too cobwebby.”
Do you really think of me as human? Tam wanted to ask. Instead she extended her arm. “If you really want to try, be my guest.” Don’t be too kind to me, little one. Act in a way I know how to react to. Spit in disgust.
“Let me bandage that.”
“You don’t need to-”
On her way to fetch a first-aid kit from atop a rickety crate, something happened.
Tamburlaine, stretching her arm experimentally, leaned over, jolting Jennet’s ankle. She stumbled a little, right into a wobbly magenta stool, and a china plate slipped off and shattered on the floor.
This is it, Tamburlaine thought. When it all goes wrong. I knew Jennet wouldn’t help me- I have to leave, fast.
“I’m sorry I broke your plate- I’m sorry I made you break your plate. I mean-“ She could feel her body going hollow, her consciousness burrowing deep within. Without her gauntlets, she felt extra vulnerable to whatever beating might come her way next. The subway car seemed too small.
But Jennet did something magnificent and unexpected. She just shrugged. “It’s only a plate. Now hold still, yeah?”
Her hands were just as deft as her wings; with quick efficiency, she swabbed the wound with peppermint oil, rubbed honey over it, and wrapped long strips of gauze around her palm. As she worked, she kept glancing at Tam’s face.
Having left her mirrored helmet back at the base, Tam felt exposed, flayed bare under her questing gaze. She bristled. “What?”
“There’s just so much I’m curious about. I mean, you know the details of my life, but… who are you? Where do you come from?”
“The Visitors didn’t conquer a thousand stars by raising their own children. We’re too easy to break underfoot. They leave us lying around like cuckoos, then come for us when we’re old enough to be useful. I wish I could stop disagreeing with my family, that I was obedient enough for them to love me, or that they could at least listen to my theories about how Visitors and humans could coexist.” She shook her head. “Never mind. What I desire is of no strategic value,” she finished.
“Maybe it is to me.” She leaned closer. Her mouth fell open, as if she was about to say something soft and important. Then she flinched back, rubbing her eyes. A green flicker of power snaked around her face. “For a moment, I thought… but never mind.”
Tam knew what psionic power could look like. It was a blindfold made of spiderwebs, earplugs that seemed to grow like mold. Why hadn’t she seen the line of scratches around Jennet’s throat, the motes of light playing around her hands? Someone had placed this girl under a network of eldritch suggestions when she’d had her guard down. Tam’s jaw clenched. My human, she thought. “Stay still. There’s some old influence on you.”
Jennet, it turned out, was awful at staying still. She wriggled and squeaked and flinched away whenever Tam tried to pull at the knots. Everything she did was distracting: her warm breath against Tam’s fingers, the shift of her curls. But at last Tam caught the last link and slipped it through. The network of star-born power melted into rotting wood, and she wiped it off on the segments of her armor, then more surreptitiously on the rug. “There. Feel any different?” She looked at Jennet and wished she hadn’t. Free of the magic’s fog, Jennet seemed even wilder and more beautiful, no trace of dust in her
Jennet tilted her head, examining Tam carefully. All at once, her eyes widened, and she jolted to her knees. “I know where I’ve seen you before. The Visitors don’t raise their own children, and when you were younger, you lived with us! With the resistance! I remember how small we were. Seven, maybe. All that dark hair, and your serious little face. You looked half-wild. Even the older boys, the sympathizers, were a little frightened of you. But I wasn’t. Not ever. And then they took you away from me, and I couldn’t do anything about it. Just watch as they carried you through the city walls. It was when I put myself up for the wing implant, even though the technology hadn’t been tested yet. I used to leave the city even when I didn’t have a mission, no matter the risk. I didn’t know what I was looking for, but now I remember. I was searching for you.”
Was she really something worth finding? It seems foolish that anyone could ever have loved her. But when Tam truly concentrated, bringing her own twisted power to bear on the ooze of alteration that covered her memories, she realized she knew this wild girl as well as she’d known herself. “Every time I got in a fight-”
Jennet tossed her curls in remembered pride. “I used to think myself quite a medic when I was a kid.”
“-you’d kiss it better.”
“There’s no medical research proving it doesn’t work. The doctors didn’t get far enough to proving it does. If they’d had more time, though-” She kissed Tam’s hand, right on the bandage. “I bet anything you’ll be good as new by tomorrow morning at the latest. And then – maybe you could even help us make a real stand against the Visitor’s army! If the resistance knew that some changelings might be willing to turn sides-”
But the very thought of challenging her all-powerful parents made Tam shiver. She shook her head, solemn. “In case you haven’t noticed, I’m not brave like you, Jennet. I’m not rebellious… ostentatious. I could never speak up to them, not even the slightest word of rebuke. All I have done is hold my tongue and bow my head and craft kind subterfuge whenever I can- as half as often as I should.”
“I think you’re brave.”
A mocking smirk twisted her lips. “What have I done in my life that’s half as brave as the risks you take every day?”
“Well, to start with, you’ve survived. All the cruelty and poison the Visitors spew has made them as horrid to the world as they are to each other. But you remember… you know the world ought to be better. They despise you as much as they hate everything beautiful. And they still could never shape you into one of them.”
“Sometimes I think the last human thing about me is my tears. When I’ve cried all of them, there’ll be nothing of me left. Tears and blood and the rest of me is monstrous.”
“I’ll gather them up and put them back.” Jennet perched atop her rickety stool, swaying in little wobbly circles. At last she said, “Do you remember anything else from when we were young?”
Tam tried to grasp at those fleeting images, but memories of kindness faded away as they always did. She shook her head.
“I’ll tell you everything I can come up with. Maybe it will help break their hold.”
She could have spent forever watching Jennet’s gestures through half-closed eyes, listening to the soft cadences of warmer recollections. Imagining she was someone else.
At long last Jennet sighed, visibly exhausted, and rested her head on her arms. Tam never wanted to leave this bright, cozy nest. Still, she knew never to overstay her welcome. She stood up. “Thank you.”
“Thank me for what?”
You made me imagine that things could be different, Tam thought. That I could be human… that I could deserve anything other than this pain, this endless war. But there was no point in foolish daydreaming. Abandoning her delusions would only bring more grief- best to keep them from taking root. “I mean… I’ll bring you another plate. To replace the one I broke.”
“I don’t need anything so practical. I can just eat my food with my hands. I mean, that’s basically what they’re for. If you really want to repay me, though, I’d like another rose.”
“I’ll do my best to bring both,” Tamburlaine promised. With a running start and a flap of her wings, she vanished into the darkness of the underground tunnels. It was bleak down here, and nothing better would await her on her return home. Maybe, just maybe, if she was abject enough before them, they would show some form of mercy. But she didn’t deserve it.
Tam had hoped to sneak in and slip into her bunk, make up a story about her survival come morning. But her progenitor team had been waiting up for her, standing right inside the flower-draped hall with unblinking eyes.
Her flesh mother grabbed her bandaged palm in a three-handed grip. “Look at this. Honey? Human medicine? Are we no longer good enough for you?”
Her bone father shook his head; it rattled on his pale neck. “Our love is no longer good enough for you, it seems.”
“It’s not- I mean- Father, I’ve tried, I promise. I didn’t mean for- I didn’t mean anything-“ When her mother blinked, a deliberate gesture, the words disintegrated into meaningless strings of syllables. She felt meaningless, too.
“Maybe you’d like to go somewhere else.”
“Maybe you’d like to visit the Elder Queen for a sevenyear.”
She tried to shake her head, to refuse this torment. The Elder Queen’s realm was a dimension where space turned inside out and broken people were used to test new horrors. Somehow she managed words: “I have a plan to form a treaty with the humans! It might help our family!”
Her progenitors liked to practice human shape at home, or at least a half-hearted facsimile. But at these words, her mother’s control slipped. Tendrils shot out from her collarbones, smashing the complicated mechanisms that handled the fort’s climate and security. “Oh, look,” she said, her face blank. “Look what you made me do. I hate getting angry.”
Tam wanted to fall to her knees and beg for mercy- but by then another changeling, a loyal changeling, had already injected a paralytic into her arm port.
“At least try to be grateful for this opportunity,” her bone father said, stroking her face.
What would come back at the end of the seven years? This soul that inhabited her body, that sketched maps on scrap parchment and kept flowers alive and shortened her battle-name to Tam- would she still exist as she had recognized herself?
Maybe the Tamburlaine that would come back would deserve to live.
Jennet awoke after sunset. She jolted to her feet, stumbling over mismatched carpet scraps to her rows of soda-bottle vases. “No,” she whispered, feeling tears prick at her vision. The roses Tam had given her were all dead or dying, dropping petals that crumbled to decaying mold black. She closed her eyes and shook her head, because she knew what day it was.
All Hallows, a holiday in former decades. Now it was a night where the Visitors brought gifts to their relatives who lived in the cracks of existence. A night where sanity was as fragile as spun glass and the laws of physics turned refugees. A night where you stayed inside and prayed and hoped you’d still be alive in the morning.
They’d planned to use the captured rebel messengers for their gift. Now that Jennet had spoiled that…
What had Tam risked to save her? Over and over, she’d told Jennet, “I’m not important.” Who were the people who’d taught her those words, and what if they believed it too?
There were rules for the sacrifice. The Visitors had rules for everything, even if you only discovered those rules by breaking them. If she could convince Tam to come with her, and if they could both escape, they couldn’t try to use her as the sacrifice again. Someone had done it a few dozen years ago- in the first months of Visitor rule, when people thought the world could still be fixed. A man who’d pulled his husband from the motorcade, and the Visitors had shot them both, but they’d died real deaths as themselves. Hundreds of people, older and stronger and braver than Tam, had lost everything attempting that same risk. But if one could defy them and survive… It was an enormous and terrible if, but one sculpted from love. And she needed to try.
The Visitors didn’t ride real horses, just alien constructs of psionic energy squeezed into four-footed shapes. If you looked at them out of the corners of your eyes, you could see how teeth and pupils wavered across their bodies, smell how the leaves singed under their hooves. Jennet saw a horse made of molten firelight and a steel-gray horse with a snake-like tongue. And then, on a horse as white as bone, Jennet saw Tam. She seemed utterly dead behind her eyes, unaware of the riotous laughter and celebration happening all around her. Unaware of how they were celebrating her impending death.
Strike now, Jennet thought, or I’ll never have the chance. In a single motion she spread her wings, pushed off the ground, and leaped at Tam.
Or, at least, that was the plan. In reality, she hit a stinging forcefield and bounced back. The electric power left her sprawled in a pile of dead leaves, gasping for breath.
One woman detached her horse from the pack and rode over to peer down at Jennet.
She’s exquisite, Jennet thought. As long as I don’t look at how many mouths and eyes she has, how they move under her skin. Her voice was like a dozen orchestras playing just out of tune. “Sweet, dear, brave Jennet. What hair you have. Like maple leaves and ocean kisses… and your brown eyes like wilted marigolds.”
She smelled like a perfumed corpse. Jennet swallowed. A Visitor is speaking to me, she thought. The mother of thousands, progenitor of a hive. What am I next to her? She wanted to shiver out of her clothes, fly home as quick as the stars could guide her, wrap herself up tight in a blanket and never have ideas again. Instead she lifted her chin and got to her feet stood fast, careful not to let those sinuous violet eyes meet hers straight on.
This act seemed to amuse the queen. With a chuckle, she glided closer. “Have you ever seen a marigold, human child?”
“No, ma’am,” Jennet managed.
“I’ll make you one.” For a moment, as she gestured, her hands were fully other- froglike green skin covered with little red sores. Then they were smooth, pale human skin again, and she held a beautiful flower. It was the color of clouds in a just-beginning sunset. The color leaves had been in autumn when seasons were real. Its petals were ruffled like origami labia, and it smelled like old tea and silk curtains.
When we drive you out, Jennet thought, I’ll grow flowers. Real ones. My children will roam through them wearing crowns of wild roses and lightning bugs. “If I take your token, I’ll be yours. Isn’t that how this works?” I’m sharper than you think, she wanted to say. I’ve spent my strength on survival, but my soul has always been my own. I’m ready for anything. You’ve never known someone like me.
“Wouldn’t you like to go home with us, green-kirtled girl? I’d be glad to welcome you both to the family.”
“I’ve got one already, thanks.”
“A mockery of one, you mean. Strangers encountered on the streets.” She laughed, a high and splendid sound. “Why, blood is the strongest tie there is!”
At that Jennet forgot herself, and met the Queen’s eyes straight on. The void itself shifted within her pupils, but still Jennet managed to speak. “You only say that because you’ve never heard of love.”
“Then take my daughter,” the Queen murmured. “If you dare.”
Jennet rushed back to the white horse. “Come on, Tam. Their technology can only hold the portal open until midnight. If we escape, they won’t be able to make you go back, I promise.”
Even though she was trapped within her body, Tam wanted to laugh. Kindness? Friendship? The values that the human world thrived on were ideas she had learned to live without. Raised to fight and kill, was she any better than an animal?
At the Queen’s smile, Tam transformed. “If you can keep my daughter, take her!”
Now it was an eldritch beast that Jennet held, a cruel patchwork of dangerous animals. Each creature strained to return to their tormentor. “Tam! They’ll hurt you. You can’t go back!”
Even though the many mouths snapped at her hands, spiked alien proboscis curling around her bare ankles, she grabbed Tam’s sharp-nailed paw. “Stay with me,” she begged, pressing each word into that strange oozing fur. “You should sleep until the sun is high over the silver ruins, and bathe in crushed roses, and be held when you’re scared-”
But kindness is poison, Tam thought, and I am even more dangerous. She would do anything to writhe away. Her body twisted and expanded; heat flooded over her vision as her blood ran cold.
Jennet sought to soothe her even as the barbs of Tamburlaine’s scales cut into her palms.
She held on with all her flight-sparrow strength, with selfish persistence and fierce love. They can’t have you, she thought. As long as there’s breath in my body, I’m keeping you safe. It was like wrestling a waterfall. She wrapped her legs around the thrashing serpent, stifling a scream when the sharp scales ripped through denim to slice across her legs. Enormous muscles thrashed, and still she clung, thought flashing away in a hot flare of pain-
At last Tam felt her own mouth and muscles again. A weak voice cracked from her throat.” Is it over? Tell me it’s over.”
She lay on her back in the rubble, the rocks pressing into her bare scars, Jennet’s warm weight on top of her. Tam wanted to reach up and brush the tears from her scraped cheeks, but her limbs felt too unsteady. Instead, not daring to look at her family, she brought her closer.
“By the Elder Queen herself, Tam, I never dared suspect you could be this disloyal. To walk away without so much as a backward glance, to go with a homeless miscreant you’ve known for mere days.” Her mother dismounted from her horse, and Tam flinched at the aura of crinkling burnt leaves that followed her every step. “Oh, don’t flinch like I’m going to hurt you. I’ve never laid a hand on you. And even now, you try to manipulate me rather than being an emotionally mature adult who thinks about people beside herself! I’ve sacrificed so much to ensure the future of this family. I’ve worked without sleep, without rest, without peace. But the hardest part of this process has been realizing that I don’t have the love and support of my youngest child. I love you, Tam. I love you in a way that no one else will ever have the strength and patience for. Without your contribution, our lives will be so cold.”
By clumsy reflex, she scrambled to her feet. She could no longer feel Jennet’s arms wrapped desperately around her, only the chill of the Halloween air.
Did they need warmth? She could make herself a source of warmth. With the grace born along practice, she drew a burning thread of power down from their orbiting spaceship’s molten core. It twined around her limbs and features, outlining the bars of a beautiful cage. She stumbled towards her family, shrinking like a candle with each unsteady step.
“We’re the only people who will always be on your side,” her father said in the rhythm of his bare teeth.
Her mother held out a trembling tendril. “Do you see what you make me go through?”
As one, they spoke with mouths that seemed pasted inexpertly on their faces. “We love you more than anyone else.”
The fire licked at Jennet, too. But she’d forgotten how to let go of this amazing girl who’d risked everything to help her. Maybe she could make it to the river, a few steps away. But Tam would have to help her. “Tam, I need you to remember everything you want in life. Everything they’ve kept from you. Think about how much you deserve to live-and as long as you don’t let go, neither will I. That’s a promise.”
And even more than the fire that seemed to melt her from the inside out, Tam felt Jennet’s touch. Dreams flooded her mind as she struggled to take one step, then another. She wanted to wear a crowd of dandelions and march in the bright whirl of a parade, to embroider her name in gold and fireworks across the sky. She wanted to kiss Jennet. She wanted to live. The weight of her family’s expectations pulled at her, but she made her feet move towards that perfect idea.
Together they tumbled into the river.
They came up shivering, crying and laughing at the same time. Tam clutched Jennet to make sure she was real. “We made it,” she gasped, “we really did it-“
“You did it! I helped!” Jennet hugged Tam with all her strength, and Tam hugged back. She felt their heartbeats pressed together, like matching drums. But her parents’ gaze crawled over her neck like a spider. From atop their horses, they stared at her with indifferent hatred.
“You’re a monster.”
“What have we done to deserve this?”
And then, with chilling calm: “You’re going to regret this for the rest of your life.”
“It’s over,” Jennet whispered, holding her. “You’re free, got it? They can’t take you back. They would break all their power over this domain if they did. We beat them. They won’t come after you, I promise.” As if responding to those words, the current of carved strength animating Tam’s armor began to die. The black beetle shell melted into an oily film. Without thinking, she let the running water wash it away, leaving her in the soft leather underlayer of her battle suit. Her skin looked so smooth, so human. Maybe it would even freckle in the summer.
“I want to go home,” she murmured into Jennet’s neck. When Jennet stiffened in surprise, she added, “your home. The resistance, or the subway car. Anywhere but here.”
Jennet agreed. She got a running start, splashing through the creek and onto the opposite bank; the cold running water took the ashes from their feet. Onto the clean wet mud, the grass touched with frost, and with a pulse of her powerful wings, she was in the air.
They can’t hurt me anymore, Tam thought. She still shivered imagining their past fury, or how they may take her betrayal out on someone else. But that wasn’t her fault, and she wouldn’t spend the rest of her life thinking about it. The rhythm of steady wing beats began to lull her eyes closed. She would sleep for hours, she decided, maybe even days- no, she couldn’t sleep! What was she thinking? It was barely sundown. She had to feed her father’s wolf, and polish mother’s ornamental skeleton. If they wanted something in the night and she wasn’t there, if they had an idea at sunrise and needed her input- and she jolted awake, breathless. Almost immediately she was aware of Jennet’s strong heartbeat, of the spectacular gentle ripples of the clouds below.
“You’re not scared of heights, are you?” Jennet teased.
“Now that I remember who I’m with, I’m barely afraid at all.” The cold air invigorated her, and the stars seemed infinitely close, like gemstone sewn onto the tapestry of night. A smile tugged at her lips, and she let it blossom forth. Tam’s alien relatives had ripped so much away from humanity. Their cities, their children. But they hadn’t been able to ruin the stars. She knew the core of her soul held something similar, unchanged and glittering with love. And she had the whole rest of her life to chart the constellations of that inner sky.