Written by Trey Briggs || Art by Kokab Zohoori-Dossa
Bunni and Bosque
Chapter Two: Vulgar
There’s something endlessly pathetic about waking up to the same future every day. Something grotesque about opening your eyes, looking up at whatever ceiling you’re under, and being able to say where you’ll be in five minutes. Five days. Five years.
Where I’ll be is all mapped out on a calendar and stamped inside my head, each and every step of my life sectioned out neatly in a row of dates and milestones. Bunni is a representative of the Tivah family, and then she’s a representative of the Tivah family, and then she’s a representative of the Tivah family. The things I do and say are all pre-approved and scrutinized for quality. If I roll my socks the wrong way, a Tivah rolled their socks the wrong way, and the universe becomes undone.
“Not a Tivah! If they can’t roll their socks, no one can!”
If I cough, a Tivah coughed, and people panic.
“Wait, a Tivah got sick? That’s not possible, is it? If they get sick, what about the rest of us?”
If I smile, a Tivah smiled, and someone evil just prevailed. Most of us only smile when a fellow Tivah wins, when our enemies dash across rocks, or when another boon to our future presents itself. And the little people all smile with us, so blinded that they can’t feel themselves sink every time one of us rises.
On Monday, on Tuesday, on Wednesday, on Thursday, you can find me being a representative of the Tivah family.
When I’m not a representative of the Tivah family, which is never, I’m avoiding apologizing on behalf of the Tivah family. We’ve ruined someone’s life, and they want me to explain. We’ve decimated someone’s family home in favor of a mall or a rental property, and they want me to at least tell them it’s worth it. And I get to carry the weight of decisions I’m not part of with every day I mark off on the calendar.
When I’m not avoiding apologizing, I’m swallowing glares at my horns, oh flat and lovely as they are, and assuring local girls that they can show their legs around me. That’s my Auntie Omna that doesn’t like legs, local bitch, not me! That’s my Auntie Kelly that denies travel authorizations for bare shoulders. I don’t care where you go or what you do.
A long time ago, dazed look bagging around her eyes, my mother said it best:
“Everywhere I go, I’m a Tivah.”
Even doomed to be the same thing my entire life, there’s this piece of me that knows it’s only true for now. Some part of me understands that it’s only true for my mother, even, and that little thought bites back. So escaping with her was an honor. For seven days and nights, we’d planned our excursion. I even knew what I would say to my father on the way out the door. Rolling out of bed, grabbing my packed bags, and walking away from the store-bought, lame excuse for a tropical paradise I decompose in was all I cared about at the moment. The whiny girl laid up with me, all of her tiny breaths hitting my skin in shaky bursts, would have to deal with her own problems. Everyone has to deal with their own problems.
I’m taking my mother and running for good.
“Are you ready for today, Bunni?”
I rolled over in bed, pushed my hands anywhere warm, and tried to imagine my flesh sinking into lava. Beds claim more moments of my life than I’d admit to any Horn in existence. You know Horns – everything is backbreaking work, or it’s not worth doing. If you’re not coming up, you’re falling down. And that’s nice for them. I spend a lot of time avoiding responsibility, arching my back, and generally staring in the mirror from the warm knots of my blankets. If I could survive living on a rock floating in a pit of lava, I’d surely move to a volcano.
Hot suits me. Cozy suits me more.
“Hey? Are you ready for today?” The small, pathetic voice wouldn’t let up.
I turned, running my hand over her thin, curved horns. They wrapped around her head like a halo, narrowly missing each other twice. My fingers went from bone to trailing over the skin of her face, then her chest, barely connecting, until I hit the fabric. Tauris was annoyingly fit. All Laurdem women are, and it’s nauseating. There’s no poetry in her body, no curve, no fat pockets. She wriggled, trying not to suck in a breath, so I ran my hand over the top of her shorts until she did.
A note to the virginal: shy girls love being teased and then fucked unconcious. Trust me. I’m an expert. Whenever I feel like taking my anger out on a living being, I find a shy girl to stroke/choke until her eyes roll up in her head. Lovingly, of course.
I pushed my hand a little further under the fabric, digging into the tiny bit of softness cushioning Tauris’ belly, and almost growled when she grabbed my fingers.
“Bunni? Can you hear me?”
“Unfortunately.” Tauris little laugh huffed out, small and sharp, but she held my fingers firm. The nervous breaths at the edge of each laugh bothered me enough. Everything about the little debutant was mousy. Dainty. Polite.
“Listen. This can’t be easy. Please don’t feel bad today. I know you don’t want to do this, but you should look on the bright side.”
“There’s no bright side to look at, actually.”
“Of course there is! There always is. You’re saving my life out there, aren’t you? Think about it that way. You’re doing something so selfless that you’re saving an entire family’s life. It could be tons worse. I’m not so bad, really, and you’re definitely a catch!” She squeaked, rubbing her nose against my face. “Plus, you look so nice when you walk across the stage. I wish I were as confident as you.”
“So do I.” I pushed my face against her neck, smelling sweat and perfume and too much fear. Fear talks so much louder than most people realize. I could hear thoughts swirling in her head.
What if Bunni isn’t selfless?
What if I get abandoned again?
What if today doesn’t go well? What happens to me?
For her sake, I hoped someone knew the answer to the last question, but it wasn’t me.
A loud bang nearly toppled my bedroom door, and then the shrill sound of my mother screeching at Tauris’ kids invaded every inch of my Tivah-appointed house. I imagined lava bubbling up around me, blocking out the noise, and pushed my face harder against Tauris’ neck. Shivering, she relented a little, letting go of my hand.
“When- when we get married, do you think we’ll get more time to ourselves? It’s nice being alone with you. I always feel safe.”
I pinched her cheek as hard as I could, watching the red bloom out from my fingers and rush across her nose and chin. The boredom hit hard.
“Trust, Tauris, you don’t want more time alone with me. What would Raffi think?” She finally stiffened too much for me to enjoy myself. The door shook again, and I got up, stretching until I thought my back would snap.
“Well. Raffi’d better be happy we’re alive at all. They could still let us go at this point, especially with you on our side. So I don’t care what she thinks. We just have to make the best of the situation. She … if she cares about me, she won’t blame you for all of this. You’re saving my life.”
“Oh, no, you only have yourselves to blame, right?” Tauris didn’t have a response for that. I gave her a peck on the head before I reached into my closet. I kicked the packed bags further in, hoping she didn’t notice.
“Auntie Bunni! Auntie Bunni!” I pulled on a robe, ignoring the small way Tauris crawled out of bed and found her own clothing. When I opened the door, my niece rushed me, squealing in delight when I swooped her into my arms.
“My favorite diva,” I yelled, and she squealed louder. My nephew rushed up behind her, sweeping up into my other arm. They both shared the signature Laurdem family halo horns, something that brought them little love on my family’s land, but I thought the splotchy white bones were gorgeous. Tauris started to scold them, but I ignored her and walked out into the living room, flashing my grouchy mother a winning smile.
“You’re always lying somewhere with someone. It’s surprising you don’t have bedsores.” Igna Tivah, smooth chaotic, watched us from the couch, slowly cutting a package open. I eyed it, spotting my name, but didn’t say anything. I’m not afforded privacy in a house she funds. Tivah rules. There’s not much I keep from her anyway.
I won’t need any of this shit after tonight.
Igna’s horns always made her look scared or goofy. One flat bone shot straight up with the very top angled to the side, and the other draped her face. A startled rabbit, or at least my father thought so enough to call her Rabbit when she was young, and she named me accordingly. My own horns were more serious but still resembled bunny ears.
I ran my hand along one while she snooped. “Well, I’d definitely rather be lying somewhere with someone else, but you insisted.”
“Stop whoring around. Are you sleeping with Tauris already? Have you no sympathy for Raffi? Anyway, you’re not supposed to touch her until you’re married, you skank.” She mouthed the words whoring and skank, eyeing the kids.
“No, I have no sympathy for some beast bitch from Billoe. I’m the one who has to listen to the mouse squeak every night. So I can’t fuck the bitch? What fun is it if I can’t fuck my own wife?” I mouthed the words fuck and bitch, drawing a smirk from my mother.
“The bitch is not your wife, yet, is she? You brought this on yourself! How many times do you need to get caught sucking dick in allies before-“
“Yes, I know. Sucking pussy in my house is much better for the family-“
“Oh, shut up. We’re making the announcement in three hours. Why aren’t you dressed? You’d better show up and walk across that decrepit stage with me. I’m not going to be blamed for ruining another tradition. Are you determined to make your father kill you?”
“I am determined to be killed and avoid this marriage, yes. My brother did it, why shouldn’t I?” Tauris gasped behind me, but I didn’t look. Adrian, my nephew, stiffened in my arm. I put the kids down and moved closer to my mother.
Jeez, Bunni, keep it cute, at least.
My mother eyed Tauris, swallowing nervously. Igna didn’t do sorrow well, though we managed my brother’s death well enough in private. We celebrated with lots of wine and laughter, but she kept herself respectful for his widow’s sake.
“Please don’t allow her crassness to bother you, Tauris. We are, of course, genuinely saddened by the loss of your husband. We are elated that you will remain in the family.” She paused, searching the room for more careful and deliberate words. “We are excited to have you here with us. Laurdem has been a boon to our … um … we adore Laurdem women, we just love you all! You’re so rich! And pretty! So we’re … we’re happy to join our families properly, or- or rather rejoin, and … and … um … That’s a lovely robe! You’re always so dainty.”
As polite as usual, Tauris gave a big wave of her hand. “I’m used to it by now. I know we all miss Darrion. I’m sure Bunni will make a great wife, Mrs. Tivah-“
“Please. Don’t call me that,” my mother said, and this time her voice chilled the room. I grabbed the package out of her hand and tossed it into my closet. “It’s Igna. Igna, Igna, Igna, and nothing else.”
“Like a Nameless?” Tauris asked stupidly. I motioned for her to put some real clothes on. She caught the mood, ushering the kids into my bedroom with a shy smile. My mother bit deep into her lip, rocking a foot along with her heartbeat.
“I’m relaxed. You relax! Of course, I’m relaxed.” The bones in her neck cracked as she sat up and glared at my robe. “Are you going to ‘walk’ with me or not?”
“Of course. I’d never leave you to be devoured by your kin.”
“You would. You have.” She held right at the edge of a whine, shaking thick hair over her shoulders. I had to move closer to hear the faint whispers she let out.
“I’m going right up there and denying the position of Head Tivah. Do you hear me, Bunni? I’m looking my mother in the eye and telling her I’m too good for some tacky, clever punishment. I don’t accept!” She pushed her finger into the air, determination crossing the lines of her face. “And you’ll stand by my side while I say it! I don’t accept! And my Bunni isn’t marrying anyone’s mousy widow! We’re leaving!”
“That’s right. And I’ll be right there with you. And then we’re getting out of here. I won’t let anyone touch you.” Excitement rushed through me, but I tried to maintain my composure.
“I wonder what Omna will say. The thought makes me sick, Bunni. I can barely stomach it! I’ve never been able to deal with her brand of anger. You’ll be fine, though. She’s always adored you. And I suspect you adore her, you traitor. You treat Omna like she’s your mother sometimes, that rotten pile of wrinkled skin, you-“
“Never! Never, ever, how could you think I do anything but tolerate that dead rat-“
She leaned forward, incited, ignoring my hand waving. “Look at you, covering your piercings! In your own home! Omna asked you to, and now you’re suffocating in this ugly house like a boring debutant! You’re going to abandon me!”
“The robe is just long! It’s long!” I showed my mother my legs, waving my hand over the thick ribbons and corset piercings that lead all the way up my thighs. “I don’t listen to anyone but you. And I’m not going or staying anywhere without you. My bags are packed, do you hear me? We’re out of here!”
“Lies. I know you, Bunni. You’re not like me. You’re defiant and strong, and- and this whole little forced engagement just destroyed whatever hope I have to keep you with me. It’s done. Marriage isn’t some normal thing you just have to get over. I’m not an idiot. You’re stressed out. You’re depressed. You’re going to leave me here. As soon as you find some dick or a more suitable cunt you-“
I clapped to pull her out of the dazed rant before she sunk too deep. “I won’t. I would never leave you. We’re going to leave together, right? How can I leave you if we’re side by side? Remember? You don’t accept, right? You’re my baby, I would eat my heart before I-“
“Regardless, Bunni. Get dressed. Your father wants to unhinge his manly beak and squawk at you. Be stern, but be smart. Behave yourself, or you’ll end up shipped off to the Hornless before we can step foot on normal soil. I’ll die if you leave me here, I will literally throw myself off a fucking cliff.”
“Why would I leave such a beautiful bitch to be put down? We’re walking on that stage, and we’re telling them we don’t accept.” I grabbed her chin and made a kissy face, shaking her head side to side.
My mother finally smirked again, cutting open another one of my packages. She laughed at the contents, wagging her finger at me, and pushed the whole thing in her purse. For a brief moment, I felt Tauris staring at me from my bedroom door. I felt her kids staring. Everyone in the house ate into me, stamping duties on the dates in my head, pushing me further and further away from myself.
“Oh, she’ll be heartbroken, won’t she?” Igna whispered, tsking. “And what of poor Raffi? But it’s not our concern. Don’t let them guilt-trip you, dammit. Now. Do the beautiful bitch a favor and take the walk of shame. Talk to your father before he sends his devoted pet after you again. I’d rather not deal with Oroh today.”
Every step I take on Tivah land is a walk of shame, and that happens even if I do what I’m supposed to do. Even with my hair cascading down my back like my eldest aunt likes, even with my long legs covered and my horns held high, even with my corset piercings wasted under a full shirt, I walk with the weight of mistakes made before I was born. Even opening the door to my tiny home, pulling my sandals on, and walking down the path to the main road, any eyes that land on me do so with slight disgust.
Don’t confuse disgust with hatred, though. They love me. They just can’t stand that they do. They take in the flat horns with envy, especially the Horns regular enough to be a Tivah only in name. I’m as Tivah as they come, right down to the bones I seem to have inherited from my great grandmother.
Unfortunately, I don’t live in a volcano. I don’t get to stretch and maneuver over a blazing pit of lava on a bed of molten rock. What I get is a walk through a beautiful garden filled with vapid, soulless bodies that call themselves my family. I get to feel their thoughts through hidden smiles and turned heads.
That walk of shame continues and thumps and blossoms throughout every step I make on Tivah land. Igna passed the disgust down to me when she ran away all those years ago. I never stood a chance. Tivahs and their ilk don’t forget a defector, the defector’s daughters (they forgive the sons well enough), or even their granddaughters.
They say I have ideas in my head, which shouldn’t be an insult, honestly. My mother and her siblings were the ‘spirited’ batch of Tivahs, and that legacy lives on in me alone. My favorite aunt and uncle abdicated, one of my other aunts tried, but my mother was the worst. To everyone, my mother was the most despicable, and here she was walking amongst them. Here she was, tainted with the love of some unworthy dirtball, and she dared walk around here like nothing ever happened.
I never stood a chance.
On three different occasions, Igna abandoned our prominent Tivah name. The first time, I wasn’t even born yet. By the time I was a kid, it was like a legend. She used to act it out for me, sitting me in the bathtub, checking the house for witnesses, and then sinking to her knees with the back of her hand pressed against her forehead.
“Oh, I don’t want to be a Tivah! Oh, the agony!” I would laugh in the tub, splashing water everywhere. “Oh, I’d rather be in love! Or loved! I’d rather be destitute with a beau on my arm! Why am I a Tivah!”
“You have to run, Mommy!”
“And run I did!” She ran in place, a frantic expression widening her eyes. I watched her swing around the bathroom, grabbing small items off the counters. “I packed my bags, every single custom-made, bone-lined bag! I stuffed my clothes, all sewn by Tivah seamstresses, all of it expensive and detailed in silks and golds, into the trash!”
“It’s trash,” I yelled, splashing the water.
“TRASH! They couldn’t keep me here with trinkets! They couldn’t buy me with stature! I snuck away with only a few items to my name, and I disappeared into the woods.” She got on her tiptoes and crept around the bathroom, making a terrified expression.
“The woods are dangerous!”
“Oh no, that’s just what they make me tell you. The woods are beautiful, they’re astounding! Imagine exotic animals and dirt and sounds and life, my little Gore Horn!” She always called me some type of sick Horn that I’d never be. I was Momma’s Little Gore Horn or a Wood Horn or a Small Horn. Igna cherished sickness like it was a sign of a good personality and noble intentions.
I swirled the water around my legs for a moment, thinking. “Then what, Mommy? Where did you go?”
“I went to a beautiful place called Guerille. Say it for me!”
“It’s so lush and vivid! None of the plastic Tivah plants, REAL forests! You should’ve tasted the fruit, or heard the music, or-“
“Did you live there?”
“Yes! For three years, actually. Three entire years with people that were so interesting, they didn’t have last names. I … yes. I lived there. I existed there.” She sucked in a breath to continue but lost the energy.
“Who did you live with? Did they have first names?”
“I … ” Instead of continuing, my mother pulled the drain on the tub. We watched the water swirl around the tiny hole, watched the little tornado twist and bend. At the last second, she put the plug back in and frowned. “I lived with someone nice. Not a Brigante or a Laurdem or anyone else. Someone special. Someone who didn’t care about names and health and stature. She …”
I felt the mood shift so intensely that I worried I’d snapped something in her brain.
“Did she die?” The years she’d spent in Guerille grew and died in my mother’s eyes. She wore a diamond-studded tiara all the time back then, always the eccentric one, and it slid to the side and caught on her horn. I pushed it back in place, snapping her awake.
“I’m not sure, my little Translucent Horn. When I saw her later, she was married. People don’t wait the way they do in the radio shows. We all have to get on with our lives, after all. So … I don’t know. Maybe she met her right after I was … after I left. Maybe they fell in love and … people can’t wait for you forever. You can’t expect them to. And it wasn’t like I could stay. No one wanted me there. They taught me everything, but I was always an outsider—some monster. No one … ” She laughed a little, tapping her horns. “I thought I’d escaped, but some people are just stuck. Guerille, Billoe, even somewhere far like Antony or Hivven or Worden, it’ll never be far enough. Reputation will hold us back when the name doesn’t. The horns … I’m always a Tivah. Always.”
Igna’s hand ran up the curve of her straight horn until she stopped moving, swallowing, and then she stopped talking entirely. Heavy with emotions I couldn’t possibly understand, she stared down into the water until her eyes glazed over.
I pulled the plug again, chilled. “Well, it’s a nice story, Mommy.”
Before the water drained from the tub, she grabbed my chin. You really can’t beat Igna for beauty, and in her youth, she stunned with a simple glance. I sat mesmerized by the soft lines of my mother’s face, her lava-hot fingers, the plump peaks of her lips, the vibrant way her hair curved and rolled over small shoulders. Shit, I couldn’t imagine a person on this planet that would stop this woman from doing what she wanted, that would pull those colorful eyes away from whatever the fuck they wanted to rest on. I smiled, but she didn’t.
We sat like that for a long time. I shivered, naked in an empty bath, goosebumps invading every inch of my skin. Igna gave a little huff, and maybe it was the saddest she’d ever allowed herself to be in front of me.
“Well, Burnel. All I have left are stories. Wouldn’t it be nice if you lived for us?”
Momma Igna wasn’t as bold anymore. Didn’t tell me stories about her escape, didn’t sing about dirty girls with wooden horns. Didn’t call me sick Horn nicknames unless we were shrouded in privacy. Whatever personality she had left was drained out and bottled for use at parties, and I only ever saw a spark in her eye when she stood at the edge of our property, staring longingly at the woods. The only personality she expressed in front of others was in golden skirts and custom heels. I carried her shame on my back like a medal and let her rest when she wanted.
There was no way she could take over the Tivah line. The woods called to Igna. A real life somewhere interesting, somewhere with some soul, was what she needed. I would cross the border into Guerille by her side, and then she would live the way she always wanted.
Before I made it to my father’s office, I stopped and took a detour along the path. The smell of the cooked flesh hit me before I made it even halfway there. I tried not to gag, both out of disgust and pity, but I did anyway.
A small woman struggled against a post in the middle of a stone square, her back pressed straight by a board. Her hands wrapped around her back, bolted to the board straight through her palms.
“For touching Darrion’s wife,” my father said.
The woman’s feet were bolted to the ground, old dried blood staining the hole and the stone. One of her knees twisted badly against the board, a bolt stabbed through it, and the sound of it shivering and tapping the board reached me across the square. She’d been there for days, stuck naked in the blazing sunlight, and only had the dirty smock she wore because I’d insisted. My aunt wanted her naked out there. I asked what the point was.
“For killing a Tivah, my son or otherwise,” my father said.
Her hair wrapped around the post, forcing her head back, and she was just high enough off of the ground to put most of her weight on her toes. I didn’t look at her mangled Achilles tendons, but I’d seen them before. I started to walk forward but hesitated.
“You Tivahs don’t believe in forgiveness, huh?” Oroh boomed behind me. A wave of arousal sunk into my body, then annoyance, then more arousal. You can hear the outline of muscles in his voice. Every time he sneaks up on me, I imagine him grabbing my neck from behind and squeezing until I can’t feel my feet. The arousal quickly turned to disgust as I watched Raffi wriggle and whimper.
“We sure don’t.”
“Leave her with some dignity. Don’t stare,” Oroh muttered, starting to spit on the pavement. He thought about it and swallowed, giving me a nervous look. Two days ago, when I’d last seen him, he’d had on the same outfit. Something about the giant looked smaller than I was used to, maybe even sicker.
“I’m not the one that wants her there.”
“Sure. Still there, somehow.” Deep bags sat under his eyes, heavier than the mood in the air. The Boar looked like he’d been fighting, maybe with himself, maybe with strangers in the city again. Raffi let out a long, agonized moan, and he nearly shivered.
They’re killing Oroh, too.
“I tried to get them to let her down-“
“Sure.” Pure hate vibrated from him, digging into the corners of his mouth. I gave as polite a nod as I could, wishing I could hold my nose, but he grabbed my arm before I could leave.
“Listen. We never apologized for disrespecting your family. I know we’re not always on the best terms, but what happened was a disgrace.” He paused, giving me a chance to speak. I didn’t. “We don’t conduct ourselves like this in Billoe. Shit, we don’t conduct ourselves like this as Laurdems.”
“Tivahs,” I corrected quietly, and he squeezed his eyes closed and cursed under his breath.
“Right. As Tivahs. My sister is happy to marry you. I’m glad you’re doing that for her, but please consider forgiving Raffi. Or even just letting her go and make a new life somewhere else. I know it’s a long shot, but she’s not a murderer. Not normally, at least. I don’t know what got into her. We’ve been friends my entire life, and I’ve never seen her do something like this. We’re not exactly friends, Bunni, but if you let her go, we’ll do whatever we can to make it up to your family-“
“Why are you telling me this? Do I look like I enjoy this type of thing?”
“Everyone loves you, Bunni. Even with all the shit you pull. Talk to Omna. Plead with her. Nobody’s better at convincing your family than you. Shit, you got them to put the smock on her. Do you think anyone else could do that?”
“That’s a smock. I’m sure Omna just thought she looked funnier that way.”
“You got them to keep the square off limits!”
“My dad agreed that it wouldn’t be the greatest idea to let guests smell her.”
Oroh swallowed a ball of rage, blowing hot air out of his nose, tilting his immaculate antlers forward. Whenever he expressed any form of anger, the velvet shimmered, the massive bone titled, and my stomach tightened. They loomed over us, giving me a reprieve from the hot sun.
“Igna promised they’d reconsider if I kept you from getting in trouble again. I did. I’ve wasted time following you around and keeping you calm. Why is Raffi still out here?”
“I don’t know why she told you that. It’s not her decision.”
Oroh let out another breath. “I’d rather not follow some whore around all day, but I’ll do what I need to do to restore my family’s name. Raffi will, too, if you get her out of here. Please. I can’t sit and smell her dying all day. Your father keeps making me guard her. I can’t-“
“It’s not my problem.” Oroh’s horns swung down suddenly, nearly hitting me. He grabbed my shoulders, the bags pulling his eyes down, and blew more air into my face.
“We apologize. Tell your father that.”
Behind him, too far back in the square for me to hear, Raffi wriggled. I could make out the sounds rushing from her mouth, the weak groans fluffing out and falling to the ground. Waste covered the post and land around her.
Tough girl Raffi. I always liked the rude little banshee. Seeing her so feeble hurt in a way I didn’t expect.
Raffi’s bloodied mouth turned even redder, and fierce puffs struggled around the rope holding her torso in place. A shiver went through her toes.
Oroh gripped my shoulders for a moment, then sighed. “Look, Bunni. Tauris’ a nice girl, okay? She’s my only sibling. Please marry her. I know this is hard, but we’re begging at this point. If Raffi is going to die, at least save my sister. She didn’t kill Darrion.”
“I already said I would do it.”
Those giant fingers dug into my skin. “I don’t believe you. Anyone with a brain knows you’re ready to get out of here. Just make the announcement like you’re supposed to, none of your theatrics. Don’t let her die. Raffi’s bad enough, but she caused this. Tauris isn’t bad.”
“You think I want to get married? To her of all people? I didn’t ask for the nice girl-“
“Think about your niece and nephew. You already lost your brother-“
“Should that be your argument?” He stopped, shamed. I let the memories of his mistakes dig at him uninterrupted.
“Sorry. You’re right. I’m asking you as a favor. Raffi’s asking, too.” Raffi didn’t confirm or deny this, her eyes rolling toward the sky.
“The mouse will be fine, Oroh. She’s better off, honestly. At least I’ll let her live out the life she wants. She can fuck any tiny bodyguards I hire. I won’t even care.” Something about that set Oroh off. He stepped back, slinging me forward, and wrapped his arms around me. I waited for him to squeeze, only a little worried, but he didn’t.
“First she gets stuck with an abusive psycho, now she’s stuck with a whore. You call that fine?”
“Only a whore sometimes. When it suits me. It just happens to suit me often.” Oroh smirked, pressing his face into my neck. Somehow, we’d ended up in a real hug. I rubbed his back and tried to avoid the giant antlers, but they pushed against my face painfully. One stuck under my jaw when he turned his head, choking me. He left it there.
“Don’t embarrass her. Just announce the engagement and let her get on with her life. Don’t mention the details. Just let her live, and you can be happy together. She’s better than you deserve. You’ll be happy.”
“You should be more worried about me enjoying her, don’t you think?”
“You’ll do this, and you’ll save my family. That’s all I care about. You’re not a monster.”
“Oh yeah?” I said, and despite myself, my tone was dark.
“Tauris just needed relief. Don’t fucking hit her, don’t yell at her, don’t make her miserable. She deserves better than this.”
“I’m not my brother.”
“So let’s make sure you don’t end up in the same place. We won’t sit around waiting to die. Not all of us.” Oroh let the words stale on the air, and then Raffi whimpered and shivered so hard that we both turned away. I finally couldn’t take it anymore and walked off.
It doesn’t matter. I don’t accept.
My mother and I would be crossing into Guerille soon, cutting the thick vines of leaves and finding our way to her old home. The one she ran to the first time. We’d get through the vines, and we’d be okay.
I made my way through the spattering of Tivahs, Brigantes, Laurdems, and whatever other prominent names this prison cell has to offer and tried to prepare for my father. My brother died, and he was no joy to know, but I’d give anything to see my father take his place in the garden.
Here’s a family line quiz that we little Tivahs had to take to graduate ‘high school’:
- What family owns all the mines in Notion?
- What family has the largest amount of accumulated wealth in The Country, Antony, and Worden?
- What family died out because of disease and unhygienic behavior?
- What family restored the righteousness and pride to the name Parthia after the Havareys bundled it?
If you get even one ‘wrong,’ you fail the entire fucking semester and have to take every class over again. You could pass through school just by knowing prominent family members from your line. You could get a college degree, Tivah-issued, just by continuously denying the truth and spewing devotion to my family.
The Country is history—every word we utter was blessed by one popular scumbag figure or another. Every sound we make is filtered through brainwashing, then spit back out in the correct tone. Having Horns like some god or goddess will get you rights you don’t even have to understand. You meet your enemies straight through textbooks, and you’d better hate them too or find a boat and live out on the water. You’re always on the good or evil side – there is no neutrality in our makeup.
You are a Nameless, and most times, you’re good. You help people, live a minimalist lifestyle, sing to the birds, and all that earthy shit. But you are sick, and you are dirty, and you are to be tolerated, not enjoyed.
You are a Laurdem, and you finance revolutions under the dainty halo horns that make up your women. You define generations of wealth and prosperity. You are generally good, but you’re exclusive and hostile to anyone that doesn’t share your Laurdem blood.
You are a Briganté, and you are an automatic baron. You produce, and you excel. You lead people into robust cultures and flavors, showing the world what it means to rule. You have never been good, but no one is silly enough to call you bad outwardly.
You are a Tivah, and you destroy it all.
My mother added questions to my test once, telling me they were bonuses. We sat in the gigantic hall that my father now calls his office, surrounded by the ceremonial trees of long-dead Brigantes. She’d just come back from an attempt at running, not even making it beyond our land. They wouldn’t let her wash the blood out of her hair.
“As a warning to the others,” my aunt Omna said.
Igna stared up at the great tree and let the worries of every one of her more sensitive siblings cross over her brows. Parts of her mouth were so swollen that her words whistled when she spoke too fast. With a tiny tsk, she started peeling the bark, giggling whenever she reached the lighter wood. I was supposed to learn with my older brother and the other kids, but she snuck me away as often as possible to ‘re-educate’ me, and this time she took me somewhere we weren’t supposed to be.
The lumps and bruises on her face scared me so bad, I didn’t speak.
“Here, my little Gore Horn, is a question that matters more than that filth they teach you. It’s filth, do you understand? Filth! Which family wiped out the accomplishments and standing of an entire civilization for no reason? For no reason?! And set us back centuries!”
I stared up at the tree with her, feeling the history of people I’d never know overshadowing both of our lives. The bark peeled noisily, piling at the base. Frantic, she pulled larger pieces, eyes following the strips as they ran up the tree.
“This question has the same answer. Which family murders infants born out of wedlock to keep the line clean? Which family sits and watches an entire country get sick and die even though they have the cure, then covers it up? Which family will take the people you love and destroy every instance of them, every cell in their body, to keep anyone from finding out about them? To keep you from embarrassing them?”
Before I could answer, she fixed her face and pointed down at the notebook between us, her slender finger bent and blackened. I sat crossed-legged on the ground, something I would never be able to do in front of the others. I started to write, then stopped, worried someone would recognize my handwriting. Igna looked insane, her hair all over the place, her dress covered in blood. She peeled more of the tree, smiling, and I thought her mouth would spill red.
“Which family forced your mother to marry a psychopath’s son so they could reap the benefits of his status? Which family lets- lets an older sister beat- beat her younger sist- sister with a ROCK when she tries to- to leave?”
My grandfather’s tree loomed over me, waiting. My grandmother’s tree mirrored him, and I felt them watching beyond the grave. Did I have the nerve to talk bad about the Tivah line in front of Brigantés, dead or alive, their loyal followers? Did I have the nerve to humor Igna, the runner, the only idiot who didn’t want a life of riches and lovers and health?
The answer to my mother’s question would always be Tivah. And Jodice Tivah was the worst. I saw my father as more of a biological necessity than a parent. Igna couldn’t make me by herself with her pretty ass, so they forced her to make me with a monster.
The Country is about rewriting history, and we’re cursed to hold the pen.
The trees my mother used to peel were my grandmother and grandfather on my father’s side, two vicious and unrelenting Brigantés. They remained in the grand hall around my father, keeping him ‘grounded,’ he said, their ashes producing great memorials. As far as I know, my grandfather was remembered for leading the court of Parthia with as little love or remorse as possible, destroying as much of the Nameless Lands as he could, wiping clean every mention of Briganté promiscuity or unfaithfulness from whatever record he could find, and then creating a long list of his own mistresses. My grandmother was known for killing said mistresses, implementing a dress code for young Briganté women (even in their own homes), and ultimately leading the High Court of Notion before dying of a heart attack because of my grandfather’s actions.
Their trees grew too large years ago, and my father had the entire building (a place my mother cherished from her youth) demolished and reworked to allow them to grow into the heavens. The hall used to be where we held parties and gatherings, but another was built to replace it closer to the mainland.
My mother peeled the bark off the trees so often that no one was allowed in the building in general without Jodice anymore, but no one wanted to be there. Even then, as I walked into the hall, huge chunks of bark were missing from my grandfather’s trunk.
I walked in slowly and stood in front of his desk, an elegant table meant to seat 30. He sat in the middle, magnifying glass held over a page full of small text.
“Just wear your glasses,” I muttered and then bit the inside of my cheek. I pulled my hands behind my back and stood straight up. He winced, squinting harder at the text. The shadows from my grandparents moved slowly over the table as I waited, crawling toward us. He scanned the papers for what seemed like forever, taking neat notes in a small book.
I fought the urge to clear my throat, chewing my cheek harder.
When the page was full, he looked up, always squinting. The shaved grooves in his horns looked odd in the light, but they were trumped by his thick salt and pepper hair that pointed to the ceiling. I always imagined an animal poking its nose out of the bushy mass, sniffing around.
“You wore actual clothes today. How kind of you.” Jodice Tivah shuffled his pages of small text, pulling one up for me to see. I didn’t move. “This is your marriage license. I never thought I’d need one for you, what with your desirability being so low. Why would anyone request to marry you when Darrion was right there? And yet, here we are. I shouldn’t be so shocked. Even broken Tivahs excel.”
“Isn’t that crazy? I didn’t think I’d get married either. Or want to. Some would say I’m destroyed by the thought.”
“Drown your sorrows in more piercings.”
“My piercings are perfect. I don’t need any more.”
He shifted, placing the magnifying glass carefully next to his papers. Sudden moves were trashy to the poised and delicate man, I’d learned. The sleeves of my shirt covered the piercings on my arms, but he glanced over them, his displeasure memorized.
“Even as a ghastly whore, you have the resounding confidence of a true Tivah. I’m proud to be your father, however much irritation that statement makes me feel. The decisions I make on your behalf are for your benefit.”
“I don’t need you to make decisions for me.”
“Interesting.” He started to turn back to his papers, then let out a sour huff. I gave it a moment before I spoke again.
“I won’t forgive you if you make me do this.”
He froze, staring down at his pages, then huffed again. “Tauris is a Laurdem.”
“Laurdem’s do not allow used goods in their family line. They will bash her head in with a rock, or maybe put her in an iron chest and let her bake in the sun.”
“Yes, I get it.”
My father gave another sour huff, looking around for help with his insolent daughter. “Where is this unburdened empathy you typically smother me with any time I make a decision you don’t like? You spent almost a week begging me not to murder that Hornless beast, and then another week whining about her being naked on the rack. Suddenly, you don’t care about the lives of those around you?”
“No. Just let Tauris stay a Tivah. Boom, no issue.”
He balked. “A Tivah? Without marrying you? Should she keep her name after dishonoring it the first time? You know our rules about adultery.”
“So does she. Why is it my problem?”
“If you don’t marry her, the Laurdems will kill her, or Omna will. Are you willing to accept that? It’ll be much worse than letting her little girlfriend die of exposure out in a pretty square. I hear the iron chest is grueling punishment, even by our standards.”
My eyes traveled his golden accents. The lining of his coat could fund the existence of every resident of Parthia for decades. When he tilted his head, puzzled by my silence, the sun hit one of his golden earrings and nearly blinded me. I adjusted, moving out of the light.
“It’s confusing for the kids. There are other ways for Tauris to stay in the family. Try one of your many nephews.” I tried to articulate my argument slowly, not wanting him to dismiss it, but he scoffed anyway.
“They’re embarrassing enough by themselves. None of them needs a cheating lesbian to tote around. Part of me wonders if this entire situation is somehow my fault. Darrion initially refused to marry such a weak woman. You two were so much alike. You always want a brute by your side. But I insisted, and he relented for the betterment of the family. He saw Tauris for the gallivanting strumpet she was but did what he had to do for us. A true Tivah. A saint.” He paused, sorrow stiffening his hands.
“It would be a shame to let such a wonderful acquisition to our little piece of the Tivah line die. I may have chosen the wrong Laurdem, and from Billoe of all places, but a Laurdem is still a Laurdem. Her life is in your hands now, and I know you find some power in that. You love lording over people. I thought you would be happy to torment the waif.”
He sat flustered for a moment, then recovered with another huff. “Fine. Here’s the truth of it. Oroh agreed to represent us as a Prime Boar candidate before all of this happened. Oroh! Have you seen that barbarian? We’ll be unstoppable. Don’t you dare repeat this, but our original choice declined. I’ve been in a tailspin over it, Bunni! Can you believe anyone denying us? Lukas is an ungrateful bastard, and I’ll do everything in my power to eradicate the Gortons from this planet. We have to take what we can, and Oroh is an exceptional replacement. If Tauris dies, we lose our opportunity to prevail! Your aunt doesn’t understand, but I know you do. You know how tirelessly I’ve searched-”
“Okay, find someone else from Billoe. They made two big beasts, I’m sure they have more.”
“We are not loved in that ghastly city. Your brother made his own connections while he was there, and marrying Tauris was the best way to get someone like Oroh on our side! Even in death, Darrion furthers the Tivah name with honor. He gave us leverage. He served this family. I truly hope you’ll do the same.” Worried, he gave me a small, barely noticeable smile.
“Not this way, I won’t.”
“Regardless of your feelings, you will marry her. I kept my word and let that murderous boulder live. You will marry Tauris and -“
“Raffi got to live a few extra weeks. You didn’t spare her life. She’s out there covered in feces and piss. If you’re so fond of Tauris, let her go. Hell, let them both go together, and then boom, you kept your promise to Oroh! Or pick a different Tivah and let her get out of here since you’re gonna marry her off to a woman anyway-“
“That is the strategy, isn’t it? She’s obviously got a thing for women. It only makes sense to pair her with my promiscuous daughter. My daughter who is an alley away from her own beheading. You can both redeem your names.”
“I’d like to see you try to behead me—any of you. You won’t make it to the axe,” I said, and this made my father swell with pride. He caught himself and deflated. “It’s not my job to punish your enemies.”
“Such a boorish girl. Such a Tivah!” Jodice leaned back in his chair, staring up at his mother’s tree. “Tauris should die, don’t you think? I’d like to hear her bones cracking as we throw stones, and she trembles, begging us to stop. She doesn’t get to cheat on my son for years with a Hornless and keep any ounce of happiness. The Briganté in me wants her tortured. I want skin peeled from every place that produces it on that whimpering, tiny body. I want her debilitated. I want her out in the square with her lover, boiling in the sun. They don’t get to plot my son’s murder and go live happily in Guerille like some fantasy Nameless children.”
“Don’t mention that Hornless beast again, or I’ll go out there and finish this conversation with a bag of honey. See how she likes the ants.”
I tried to think of something to say, but my father’s cruelty always stifled me. I shifted instead, trying not to look at my grandmother and grandfather’s growing shadows.
“Besides. I’m sure you’re a more suitable companion than that stump. Yes. That’s the right word. Stump. Doesn’t she remind you of one? And here you are, statuesque. Beautiful, despite your purchased flaws. I’m sure Tauris is happy to exchange such an ugly ruffian for my Bunni. I’m sure you’ll destroy her with adoration and then make her beg you to stay faithful while you consume lovers from city to city, leaving her crying at home. Treat the meek slut the way you treated all your other relationships. I’m counting on it.” He smirked to himself. I ignored it.
“It’s not my-“
“I’m oddly fond of you, Bunni, even with your penchant for annoying me into acts of kindness. Why don’t you do this for your family? You’re the only child I have left, have mercy. We need Oroh. He’s our Prime Boar candidate, for Tivah’s sake! Shame he’s already married. I could’ve paired him with one of your more reliable cousins.”
“I have my own life-“
“Do you? In the many alleys of Lyon?”
“Fine. Why not Rito? She’s single, she could marry her-“
“Victoria’s single as well.”
“Oh, no, I won’t waste her time. I want you to marry the traitor. I want you busy. We know how you behave when you get bored.”
“It’s confusing for the kids-“
“Confusion is better than death. You love children, yes? Raise them to be better than you are, and I’ll forgive you. Maya looks promising. She may even be a candidate for successor once your mother is too old, if one can get over her ugly horns. If you don’t want the title, throw her into the pot. I don’t care what your reasoning is, but do it. Be a good sport. You want to act like a young bachelor, you should have your own wife.”
“My mother is too young to think of successors. She hasn’t even accepted the offer.” At this, my father gave me a wonderful smile, leaning his head back. You could see the damage all the shaving had done to his horns over the years, all the rotting and painted pieces. He would rather have sick, dying horns that fit the flat Tivah genetics than be himself.
“Funny you should mention your mother. Have you spoken to her today?” I didn’t answer, sensing my approaching displeasure in his joy. “My darling Igna told me you were planning on running away from your privileged life. I have all the guards on high alert for just that situation. Again.”
“She didn’t tell you that.” I gripped the sides of my pants. “She wouldn’t do that.”
“Oh? She said you weren’t happy with her being Head Tivah, and you were depressed about the marriage. She said you tried to convince her to leave with you. I’m surprised by your behavior! You know how easy it is to convince Igna to run. We don’t need another episode.” I let his words hit me as hard as he knew they would, nearly wobbling. The longer he spoke, the wider his smile grew until his face almost split in half.
“Please, call me Jodice.”
“You know she doesn’t want to do this. Let Omna do it! She’s the one that wants it! Why are you punishing her-“
“Your grandmother is punishing her, not me, but it benefits us all.”
“I’m not announcing anything. My mother isn’t accepting anything!”
“You’re announcing your engagement to Tauris and your mother’s acceptance of the Head of The Family status. Igna isn’t feeling well, so she needs you to be there with her. I expect you to represent this family impeccably. There will be Laurdems, Brigantés, and even Gortons from Billoe in the crowd. We need to make an impression.”
“No. My mother doesn’t want to be in charge. I’ve talked with her about it a million times-“
“She’s an adult, and she agreed. She signed the documentation with Omna by her side. It’s been done for days. It seems my Igna confides in her husband more than her alley-loving daughter, hm?”
“Are you that dumb? She’s scared! She doesn’t want to fucking do it!” My father sat smiling and reading over more small text for almost five minutes, letting the silence calm me. I struggled to maintain my composure, everything from my mouth to my piercings burning with rage. When he finished reading, he leaned back, playing with the golden handle of his cane of the day.
“Maybe Tauris should go up with you. It would show dedication on her part, wouldn’t it?”
“I’ll beat her head in on stage in front of all your friends. I don’t want to get married, especially not to Tauris.”
He finally pushed the papers to the side and stood, digging his nails into the hardwood table. “The things you want, Burnel, they irritate me. Let’s pretend they don’t exist and save me the trouble of having to eradicate them.”
My mouth opened and closed quickly. The feeling of hot air forcing its way up my throat filled me until I let out a deep, anguished breath. I started to leave but turned at the last minute, still filled with air. Jodice watched me with annoyance, then amusement.
“Victoria is single! She adores Tauris already! Let her do this!”
“Victoria is a bore. You’re the one the girls want to emulate. You’re the one the boys daydream about. You are the popular one, the rebel, the showstopper! You’re my daughter, a true Tivah! The beautiful Tivah! When you are on stage, the people will see that their leadership is evolving. You show a part of us that people seek, Burnel. You’re … fun!” He raised his hands as if I was going to be honored. A flock of birds flew from my grandfather’s tree, scared off by the high squeal Jodice called a voice.
“I don’t want to-“
“Here’s how your day is going to go: You will go home and get ready for the party, and you will not stop to speak to that dying stump. The smell will stick to you, so do your best to ignore the little empathy bird in your head and go straight home. You will walk on that stage to announce your mother’s acceptance of your grandmother’s title. You will make it through the speech without so much as a whimper. You will express grief over your brother’s death in battle with the Hornless. Be sure to mention the many Hornless that died by his hand-“
“Yeah, wouldn’t want anyone to know a Tivah got cheated on and killed by a Hornless-“
“You will announce your marriage to Tauris. You will express EXCITEMENT over maintaining the Tivah – Briganté – Laurdem family lines. You will present Tauris and Oroh with their keys. We’ll finally have a big brute of our own to show off. We finally stand a chance at policing this country ourselves!”
“Raffi’s the one who killed the fucker, let her-“
“You love that Hornless wench so much. It’s sickening. Why don’t you go back to her native land with her, hmm? I could arrange it. You would adore Hivven this time of year. The Hornless shit in the streets, I’m told.”
I balled my fist and let my breath out slowly.
“Wear something exciting. It keeps your mother from getting bored. She’s been a bit distant lately. We don’t want another breakdown before she takes over. And stop whining about that Hornless stump. She is where she deserves to be. We’re Tivahs, and no one touches our property. You make sure Tauris doesn’t embarrass me again, or I’ll drown her in a river myself.” He wrote a slim line in his notebook, motioning for me to go away with the flick of his hand.
The sound of my footsteps felt disconnected from my feet as I rushed away from my father’s thick cologne, his shining golden everything, his dead fucking parents. Even the door opened silently, drowned out by the whistle in my ears.
Outside, I balled my shirt up and buried my face in it. I stood there screaming into the fabric until the sun roasted my belly. Until my body stiffened and I could open my eyes without wanting to tear my own skin off. A crowd of teenage Tivahs students walked by, mostly cousins and in-laws, and they all blushed at the same time. They still gave me excited nods, only some of them bold enough to be openly judgemental. I pulled myself together and gave them a smile and a wave.
Even broken Tivahs excel.
If you can count on a Tivah to do anything, you can count on them to marry their fucking kids off. All my aunts were married off before they reached the age of ten. My uncles had a little more time, most stuck with someone by the age of twenty. I was probably the only Tivah who made it to twenty-five without so much as a forced date, and that was by virtue of Igna alone.
A few hours later, I stood with my foot halfway in a heel that curved down so violently my ankle moaned before I tried it on. The tediousness of sitting through hours of makeup, listening to my cousins yapping and chirping about the dullest things, all sat on my shoulders. The couch in the dressing room was uncomfortable by design, keeping me from lounging when there were more important matters at hand. My family knows me too well.
I lounged anyway, pouting from the mirror to the chair. Lava could’ve poured over me from the ceiling right then, melting my body to a fine paste, and I would’ve been more comfortable. Instead, the shoes dug into my skin, the dress sat garish and unmissable, and I wanted the world to burn.
When the door opened, I knew who it was. Jodice never walked in unannounced. He wouldn’t waste an opportunity for an entrance. Omna, however, went where she pleased, as silent as a prowling dog. I smoothed my dress, cracked my neck, did everything but look up at my waiting aunt.
“Burnel. It’s not like you to run.”
“It’s not?” I didn’t risk another word. Omna’s soft flats slid across the floor, slow and angry like every other part of her body. She boiled in place. You never had to get on Omna’s bad side – everyone started and stayed there. I finally looked up, and she cracked her neck back at me, eyes alert like an animal. Somehow, my aunt always seemed half-dressed, half-awake, and half-annoyed.
“You’re planning on embarrassing me tonight.”
“Of course not. I wouldn’t hurt my mother’s reputation.” Omna’s eyebrow raised, probably with the thought of my mother’s escape attempts and bouts of depression and lost expressions, but she wouldn’t bad mouth my mother. She rarely did.
Omna’s all about action.
“Good to hear. Your little protest antics are getting out of hand. We shouldn’t risk misbehavior in front of Laurdems.”
“Are you saying I can leave?”
“I’m saying if you misbehave, the Hornless won’t be there in the morning.” I stiffened, fixing my face. “If I’m angry enough, Tauris and her bastards won’t be, either.”
Omna raised the other eyebrow at my silence, but I couldn’t think of anything to say. Instead, I ran my hands over my dress until nothing else could smooth, nothing else could adjust. She continued without me.
“As far as I’m concerned, they lost the Tivah name when their father died. None of them were born with flat horns. You shouldn’t waste time or status marrying your brother’s leftovers. You’re a beautiful girl. You can find a better woman easily. I understand your frustration.”
“She’s not bad,” I said carefully.
“Regardless. I’ll win more favor with the Laurdems by killing them all. So behave. Do we have a deal?”
“Sure.” The nod she gave me was so slow I almost didn’t see it, but you learn to document Omna’s moves until they play in your head like documentaries. That nod was the one she gave my cousins when they’d relented just in time to avoid being struck.
Omna’s dress fit her like it was sewn over her body, the sleek curves of her waist screaming for attention. The thick hair that all my grandmother’s children inherited swung around itself and curved over her breasts, the ends tied around the little golden Tivah crests that served as straps. Her horns were solid bone, clean and flat with little to no grooves, both jutting back over her head and curving down to her shoulders.
I couldn’t see them, but I knew every nail on her body was gold from the times she chased my Aunt Kelly down, digging the aureate claws into her scalp until Kelly screamed like an animal. I couldn’t see them, but I saw her white teeth blazing at my mother in the night, spit clinging between them as she swung a phone over and over until blood covered everything.
“Before you go on stage, deal with your friend.”
“What friend? Do I look like I have friends?” The anguish in my voice grated both of our nerves.
She motioned to the door. “Victoria spotted a Wood Horn in our garden earlier. I assumed it was your alley friend, the one Oroh so loudly described to your father. The Laurdems can’t see it here. We can’t be associated.” Confused, I waited for her to continue. She didn’t.
“A Wood Horn? What makes you think I know one?” I couldn’t think of a single Wood Horn that I knew in person. I’d heard all of my mother’s stories, even listened to some tales from my more adventurous cousins, but I didn’t know any. Trying to connect the proud and pompous Oroh Laurdem to one hurt my brain.
“I want it gone before the festivities are over. Be back in time to walk with your mother to accept her role. She didn’t want it, after all, so she needs your support.” Omna, daughterless and full of regret over never being the favorite, opened her mouth to say something else to me. Maybe she wanted to whine about not being picked as successor. Maybe she wanted to tell me how disappointed she was that I was running away, now, too. But, instead, the aging diva gave me one last look, her anger subsiding for a moment.
I lifted my head high and matched her gaze.
“I don’t even remember meeting a Wood Horn,” I muttered. “Maybe they’re here for someone else. I’m not the only troublemaker in the family.” Regret curdled in my mouth, but I held Omna’s blank stare.
“Don’t let this marriage destroy you, Burnel. You’d be a huge loss to me, much more than anyone else who disappeared over the years. Your actions are bringing up old wounds, ones I don’t want to deal with. Get rid of that Wood Horn and stay in my good graces where you belong.”
I opened my mouth to respond, but nothing came out, so I sat on the couch like a sullen child.
“If he’s not here for you, maybe he’s here to make a fuss in front of our guests. There’s a problem Nameless I’ve been dealing with for years. It would make sense. Let him know that I don’t care what immunity my mother gave his family. If I catch him dirtying up my land again, he can join the rest of his father’s body.” Omna allowed herself a smile and slid out the door.
The night air felt good enough to put me down forever. I kicked off my ugly, impractical shoes and walked the Tivah land until I couldn’t find a single hiding spot, bypassing so many giggling cousins and uncles and aunts and party-goers that I got tired of ducking behind bushes. It thinned out eventually, and I slowed my pace around the square.
For the life of me, I couldn’t remember meeting a Wood Horn. It was entirely possible. I’d fucked and sucked my way through drunken stupors, Oroh fast on my heels, since I’d heard the news about my brother’s death. First out of celebration, then out of worry for my niece and nephew, then out of devastation at being married off to Tauris. Not that I was any better before, but the past few weeks were hazier (and filled with more than a few Translucent Horns, Gore Horns, and Rots) than usual.
I thought hard on the way through the garden, flashing through faces in my head until I gave up. There was no one out there, anyway. The tones of the evening bathed the heavily manicured bushes and grounds in pink light, and I sat across from the square when I was too tired to continue. What would a Nameless do in all this fake nature? He’d see himself out.
Are there even any left?
My cousin Rito rushed by with a golden dress tucked under her arm, struggling on her too-high heels. She paused when she saw me, exasperated.
“Where’s Auntie Igna? She’s supposed to speak tonight! You, too! You’re getting your hair wet! That took me hours, Bun!” I nodded, waving her away. The outfit she held hit every single light that came near it, shining brilliantly, and I knew it was my mother’s. There was barely enough fabric to make a toddler hat, so it had to be my mother’s.
Rito sucked her teeth and rushed off. I sighed and laid back on the fountain, ignoring the spray of water over my dress. The uncomfortable updo unraveled slightly against the concrete.
Above the square, a lone light shined down on the rotting woman. Thick bushes blocked my view, but Raffi’s body shook in my imagination, and this time I couldn’t look away. I let the ground heat my heels, struggling to sit up. When I couldn’t stomach it anymore, I charged ahead.
How the fuck am I gonna get her down by myself? Where is she gonna go?
I heard voices as I approached. The husky, aristocratic depth of my mother’s. The tired wheezing of Raffi. Another voice chimed in, gently asking Raffi to hold still, and something closed in my throat. The sound was familiar, too familiar.
Someone I had sex with for sure. When? Where?
I stopped short of the square, staring at the two as they fussed around Raffi. A skinny, sickly Boar struggled to pull a bolt out of Raffi’s knee, and my mother struggled to hold her limp body up. He grit his teeth, shaking sweat out of his eyes and pulling with all his strength. A long braid wriggled out of the wraps around his horns, pouring over his shoulder. Without thinking, I rushed up and grabbed the braid before it could sink into the pool of piss and feces at Raffi’s feet. My mother and the Boar froze in place. Something about his eyes, the defiant way he glared up at me, made my stomach curl.
Are his horns wood? Shit, I can’t tell. Maybe we didn’t have sex. Did I fight him somewhere?
I couldn’t think of anything but the smell of Raffi’s dying body, her skin sunburned and sticking to the post. I tried to imagine touching his skin and only felt Raffi’s blood sticking to my fingers.
“Well, are you going to help or just stand there ogling?” Igna grumbled, struggling to hold Raffi up. “I’m supposed to be on stage in mere minutes, Bunni. I won’t be able to get this smell off of me!”
I rushed over and took over for my mother, gagging at the smell of her. As empty and small as she was, Raffi weighed a billion pounds. My arms shook as the Boar struggled with the bolt, his teeth pressed together as he pulled.
Igna stepped back and watched us, trying to place the stranger. I shrugged when she pointed at him. Another shadow loomed over his head, and my mother suddenly sucked in a breath of relief. Oroh walked up, nervous, his eyes wide. “Oroh, please, the boy is struggling!”
“We didn’t plan this. We’re not trying to escape. Please, don’t punish Tauris for-“
“Oh, hush! We’re all in trouble here. You didn’t send this man?”
“I wouldn’t go behind your backs. Didn’t think this was the smartest way to get her down and out of here, Mrs. Tivah,” Oroh muttered. Igna groaned but didn’t correct him.
“Neither did I, but I found this nice stranger out here trying to take her down all by himself. It seemed a shame to let him struggle alone. I probably should’ve thought about it some more before I implicated myself. Who are you here with?” The stranger looked up but didn’t speak. “Well, we know you’re not a Tivah, or you’d be too busy cowering from Omna and Jodice with the rest of us to do something so stupid. Not a Laurdem either, and not big enough to be from Billoe. Let’s get a look at those horns. If you can’t speak, I can figure it out-“
“Mom, let’s focus. Oroh, could you get the hose from those bushes? She won’t get far smelling like this.”
“Let him get it,” Oroh muttered, moving the skinny Boar out of the way, holding his breath, and easily yanking the bolt out of his friend’s feet. Raffi shuddered but didn’t make a sound, her gaunt face waving back and forth. The apprehension in the air thickened with each body part that moved from the post. I imagined the limbs ending up cut off the next time and Tauris being buried alive with them.
The only thing Omna punished worse than betrayal was escape.
“Sorry. I haven’t eaten in a while,” the stranger said, but he wasn’t embarrassed or shown up by Oroh’s strength. Honestly, he didn’t seem to like us enough to be ashamed. He focused entirely on getting Raffi down, helping Oroh with the rest of the bolts and ties.
He has to be the Wood Horn.
The rags hid his horns well enough, but his body was so thin he could’ve sat with Raffi on the post and looked at home. Oroh’s massive antlers kept smashing into the post or narrowly missing the Wood Horn’s face, probably on purpose.
“What are you doing here, dirt mound? You enjoy getting on my nerves that much? You’re Parthia’s new superhero, out here saving every woman you find?” The strange Boar ignored Oroh completely, focusing on untying Raffi’s matted and clumped hair from the post. When they reached the last bolt, he pulled the cloth from his horns and shook out two shirts, releasing a burst of dirt and the rest of the braid that dangled to the back of his heels. The brown horns showed every sign of Wood Horn. More of him crossed my memory, and I finally recognized his face but couldn’t think of his name.
Raffi fell forward, but he grabbed her before she hit the ground. He gently cradled her body, the smell apparently nothing to him. Even Oroh gagged and turned to spit, thinking better of it and swallowing instead. Raffi’s eyes were open, but she didn’t move. If it weren’t for the ragged rise and fall of her chest, I would’ve thought we were too late.
“She’s a Hornless? Or did you remove her horns?”
“We wouldn’t do such a thing,” Igna said, but it fell flat.
What was once a small, masculine woman was now an empty sack. The Wood Horn held a bag of loose bones with skin wrapped tightly around, every gap or muscle in her body apparent. Oroh nearly snatched her limp figure away, tossing the stranger’s shirts off and removing his own.
“So you’re the Wood Horn Omna sent me to find. Surprise, surprise,” I said, gagging again. My mother scoffed. In the dark, you could barely tell the color of his horns. Squinting, Igna shook away the suggestion.
“Wood Horn? She’s delusional. Why would a Wood Horn come to this hellhole? They have their own sacred land. They rarely leave it. He looks like a Gorton, maybe.”
“We’re not magical creatures-” The Wood Horn started, nearly angry, but Oroh shushed him. Igna glanced at her watch, eyes wide, and pecked me on the forehead.
“You stay and take care of this, Bunni. Omna is going to murder us. She’ll literally shred us into small pieces when she finds out Raffi is missing. Tauris is as good as dead, Oroh.”
“I know,” he grumbled.
“They’re not touching her. They can try.” My voice shook, barely holding on to the small amount of confidence I had against my father and aunt.
Igna groaned in frustration. “What about the children? For Tivah’s sake, I almost want to put the damned girl back on the post!”
“Would you really do that?” The Wood Horn stared at us as if he’d never seen people so revolting.
“Of course not! It’s too late! We’re stuck in this situation because of you, don’t act so simple. She’s down now, no turning back, though I hope you know what you’ve gotten her loved ones into.” Igna stopped and tried to place him again, then gasped. “I’ve got to get dressed. It’s almost time! I’ll make an excuse for you, Bunni. I’m sure if I do good enough on stage, they won’t even notice.”
“No way I’m letting you walk alone. I promised. Just let me wash up, and I’ll-“
“Don’t you dare come back into that building with those snakes! Those fiends! This is the life you should be living. A savior! A warrior! Better than any Boar, out here destroying the plans of your snooty relatives!” For a second, I thought Oroh was going to crush Raffi in his arms. He hummed quietly, calming himself, eyes squeezed shut as he cradled his friend.
Exasperation was all I felt. I held on to my mother’s hands until I couldn’t feel my own, trying to think of something to say. My bags were still packed. Igna kept her bags packed my entire life, and I knew they were sitting in her closet, waiting. All we had to do was go.
“You should be living that life, too, Igna. You should be happy.”
“Well. I may have led you on a bit this time, and I apologize for that. I don’t have anything left but stories, my little Gore Horn, and here I am with a new one. That’s all I ask.” Speechless, I tried to grab her, but she just smiled and rushed off.
The Wood Horn disappeared into the bushes and came back with a hose. “This is the one she was talking about, right? You should wash her before we leave.”
It took a lot of coaxing to get Oroh to let Raffi go, and then I got busy washing the filth away as best as I could right there in the square. Oroh and the stranger stood awkwardly, waiting while I scrubbed the blood out of her hair and cleared as much grime as I could from her legs and arms. I even rubbed my fingers over her teeth, doing my best to wipe away as many stains of death as I could.
“What are you doing here, dirt mound,” Oroh asked the Wood Horn, but there was no confidence in it. He didn’t answer, letting his eyes wander the dim square.
“How many innocents come here and die on posts or get dragged to the city in chains by you monsters,” he muttered.
“I’m a Laurdem, not a Tivah. Watch your mouth. You should’ve stayed your dirty ass in the graveyard with the rest of your people.”
“Good thing I decided to drag my dirty ass here, or an innocent Hornless would still be dying on the post.” I dried Raffi off as best as I could, ignoring the disgust in the Wood Horn’s voice. The smell of his skin came back to me, the scent of grass and rivers and stone. The taste of him, sweet and thick, coated my mouth. That day hit me hard, shaking me awake. The sound of his soft moans, the way his body arched at the slightest touch.
He was fun. A real Nameless, too!
When I looked up, he was glaring down at me.
“I just want to make sure she’s fine before I go. I don’t know what I expected, coming to Tivah land. Guess I got carried away with your antics. A Tivah is a Tivah.” My heart sank. I didn’t even have one before I’d walked into the square, but it sank deep into my stomach and stayed there. I stood, trying to pull Raffi up, but Oroh snatched her from me. He gently put his shirt on her body.
“Thank you for risking your ass, Bunni. I appreciate this. I mean it.” The sounds of Tivahs dancing and singing filled the night, and then I could hear my mother making her announcement. Igna’s charisma reached us even all the way in the square.
“Omna will kill those kids,” I said, but Oroh shook his head.
“I’ll get my uncle to take them. I saw him get off the boat with the rest of my family this morning. He’ll take Raffi, too. He’s not a natural-born Laurdem, so he can probably get them out of here. I was thinking about asking him anyway. Maybe I had an entire plan. I didn’t need a dirt mound to ruin it. Just keep an eye on Tauris. They’ll be furious after this.”
After a brief pause, he threw a rough grunt at the Wood Horn.
“Come on. The Tivahs are gonna execute you if you don’t get out of here.”
“I doubt it. I’m sure they remember the last time they made that mistake,” the Wood Horn said, and I finally got the point. Here was someone else my family destroyed, another victim that saw me as their dead loved one, or their burned home, or their badly rolled socks.
The Wood Horn walked up to me, rolling his tongue over his teeth. “You probably don’t remember me at all. I’m sure you play with a lot of little peasants that you can’t name. We met at Lyon’s Market. I saved you from your friend here, but I guess that was just a game, too.”
“I remember.” He dug through his pocket and handed me a small bundle of vines with tiny metal bells on them.
“Something simple for your complicated life. It looked better when I got here, but saving one of your victims was more important than keeping it nice for you. Are you actually a Gore Horn?”
Oroh rolled his eyes and walked off, Raffi barely visible in his arms. I stared down at the dirty vines, moving them around in my palm. A thorn nicked my hand, and a small bubble of blood appeared.
The question threw me off. “Of course not. I’m immune. Why would you say that?”
“Ah. A term of endearment for the healthy? You call each other the names of the people you let die in quarantines?” Blood rushed to a million different places in my body, settling right behind my nose. There was no pretense of friendliness in his voice. No sign of the shyness he’d fumbled around when I was on my knees in front of him. Now he talked to me with bait at the end of every word, wanting a fight.
“You don’t know how I feel about the things my family decides to do, so don’t waste your time talking down to me. Most of them wouldn’t have helped you free her. They would’ve killed you, Nameless or not. I helped because-“
“How long has she been there? You didn’t realize?” He crossed his arms and waited. There was some grace in the question, but I swatted it away. I’m not a liar.
“Days. I helped get her down now. That’s good enough. That’s enough to fuck my entire life up, actually. You can be virtuous and good all you want. You’re not stuck living here with the consequences.”
Finally, he blushed, and I could barely see it around the dirt on his face. There was a general griminess to him that I hadn’t noticed when we’d met. Even his clothes were dingy, the colors faded. As if he couldn’t stop himself, his fingers suddenly ran over the groves in my horns, pure disappointment emitting from him.
“I got in here easy enough, little ‘Gore Horn.’ Sorry you can’t seem to figure your way out unless you want to play with the silly sick kids for a bit. Spare me next time.” When he turned, the thick knots of his hair fell loose and swung down to his feet, the filthy braid waving back and forth until I couldn’t see anything but his silhouette. I stood there swallowing anger with the little ball of vines, water rushing from the hose and crowding my feet with liberated shit, piss, and blood.
Before the party was even over, I crept home. I held on to the vines in the shower, letting them itch my palms as the events of the day cascaded off me and went down the drain. Every droplet of water was volcanic, so hot I hoped my skin would come off with it. I turned the knob until nothing but steam and boiling water came out, gritting my teeth and letting my rage burn away. By the time I got out, there was nothing but fear left behind.
Jodice told me to do something, and I didn’t. Omna asked me to find the Wood Horn, and I did, but I helped him get Raffi out. I couldn’t imagine them assigning blame to Oroh or my mother. How would they know they were out there? The only person unaccounted for was me.
I stared at Tauris in my bed. Oh, the shitshow she was gonna wake up to, the fucking absolute mayhem. So instead of bothering her, I curled up on my small loveseat, imagining lava covering me from head to toe, and imagined myself picking up my bags, carrying my mother’s as well if she needed. I imagined running full speed into Guerille with the only person that mattered, crossing that jungle and disappearing into the night.
You know, there’s something endlessly pathetic about waking up to the same future every day. Something grotesque about opening your eyes, looking up at whatever ceiling you’re under, and being able to say where you’ll be in five minutes. Five days. Five years. But the Wood Horn’s words rang in my ears until they glowed red in the dark.
For the first time in nearly my entire life, I had no idea what would happen next. And yet, I somehow still went to sleep a Tivah representative.