Far Off Unhappy Things
Chapter 10: Mirrors
By Renko Doremi Rodenburg
“Mirrors are doorways,” Fleur explained. She wondered how much to dumb it down. Would Maxwell understand the complexer aspects of mirrors and what lies beyond them?
“Hmhm,” the boy said. It still messed with Fleur just how young he was. With his cloak on, unnoticeable yet not actually invisible, he was intimidating. A void. With his cloak on a coat hanger in his room, and him sitting cross-legged on his bed that was gone. All that remained of the inscrutable, surreal magician was a young boy with unkempt brown hair and pale, blue eyes. So light they might as well be gray.
“Normally, even if you knew how to pass through this doorway, you would bump into your own reflection. So we need to do a ritual. A banishment ritual to temporarily get rid of our reflections.”
“Aw,” Maxwell said. “I’d hoped I would get to meet Mirror Maxwell.”
“No,” Fleur said. “No, we can’t do that. Reflections are bad.” She had no idea if he just didn’t know that, or was messing with her. Annoyance and a tinge of anger at the boy bubbled up from her subconsciousness.
“Oh,” Maxwell replied. “That’s a shame. They would like, try to take our place like a doppelganger?”
So he did know. He was messing with her. “After the banishing ritual, we need to map out where we need to go, and ideally trace paths there with mirrors in the real world,” she continued her explanation. Maxwell put his hand up, as if he were in class and had a question for his professor.
“Yes?” Fleur asked.
“Because,” she spat, before she recollected herself. “Because,” she continued, in a nicer tone. “Because the mirrored world is a reflection created by mirrors. And what mirrors do not reflect starts to become runny. Unstable. It changes, and eventually becomes dangerous.”
“Alright, so we place mirrors around the city on our way to the target?” Maxwell asked.
“No, we don’t have to. We can walk around in the general vicinity and the road there with mirrors on us. I usually wear a mirror around my neck, so there’s a lot of paths I have already traced. It takes a while before they become unstable, too. Although some oddities might creep in.”
Maxwell nodded. “Nice, an excuse to walk around the city. I have a list of things I want to go out and buy anyway.”
“Again?” Fleur asked. “We’ve gone out to buy long lists of strange groceries at least once every week. What do you do with all that stuff?”
And it had been horrible every single time she had tagged along so far. Maxwell had an insufferably cheerful disposition. Her life was one steeped in pain, stained in the remnants of miseries so old they predated Maxwell’s species. She was incomprehensible to him, but he was clear as mirror-glass to her. A child with a child’s outlook on the world.
“Well, that depends,” Maxwell explained. “I need to buy things my girlfriends like, I need to buy things for little magics that I work in Akela’s backyard. Sometimes it’s stuff my dad asked me to get.”
“Girlfriends?” Fleur asked. The idea Maxwell was seeing not one but multiple women at the same time seemed odd to her, disconcerting.
“Hmhm,” he replied.
“Anway,” Fleur quickly continued, afraid of making herself look awkward or socially inept. “I have a mirror we can use to map our path to our target in Luson.
“I can borrow a mirror from Akela, or do you think one is enough?” Maxwell asked her.
“No, one is enough,” Fleur said. “And we need some candles, so if you’re grocery shopping while we make our way to Luson we should buy those.”
Maxwell jumped up from his bed. “Sounds good to me.”
Fleur watched as he put on his coat. She wondered what exactly he had woven into it, and where he had learned how to do it. Her sisters couldn’t do things like that, and if they could she had never seen them do it.
“Maxwell?” She asked.
“Hm?” he said, as he adjusted the cloak a little and pulled out a comb to re-do his hair, now ruffled by him pulling the cloak over his head.
“Where did you get that cloak?”
“Hogwarts,” he answered. She didn’t know the person or place that was referring too.
He threw open the door and hurried down the stairs. She paced after him, passing Amelie in the hallway.
“Fleur,” she said cheerfully, stumbling through the hallway carrying several small boxes in her arms.
“Maxwell-” Fleur yelled, but then realized he would obviously wait for her outside. She was making a fool of herself already today, getting riled up by his hyperactive behavior, stressed, and didn’t like it. Was he doing it on purpose? “Hey Amelie,” she corrected herself. “What are you carrying?”
“Games that Mr. Weyer gave to me. I’m going to play them with Akela.” Amelie was smiling. Beaming. Overjoyed. At least for her, living in House Charis had markedly improved her undead life. She had been getting along with the elderly wolf-woman greatly. She had originally thought it’d be a matter of days before Amelie lost control and ate her or something, but the few times she had acted up Akela had wrestled her to the ground before calming her down with sweets or a hot drink.
And it hadn’t been all bad for Fleur either. There were no expectations. Nobody she had to force herself to interact with. She had enjoyed just hanging out in the little tavern so much that she’d stopped going to Ceremony, preferring to rest in her room, sit in the living room or garden. Still, she was stressed. She felt out of place, like she didn’t belong. A feeling that had haunted her as long as she could bring herself to recall. And there were things she had to do, things coming up that were screwing with her that she could not neglect. It would be soon that the next challenge would arrive, and then she would have to have a champion. She could quit, of course. Concede. But she would lose something, and she wasn’t sure she could bear that loss.
“Fleur?” Amelie asked. “Are you okay?”
She shook herself out of her thoughts. “Oh, I am. Go have fun with Akela. I’m going outside with Maxwell.”
“You have to sit down and play with me too, soon.”
“I will, I will,” Fleur said before hastening down the stairs.
Here, Akela interrupted her. “Hey dear,” the old lady said. “Maxwell is out front. I made lunches for the both of you, make sure he shares them with you.”
“Oh,” Fleur replied. There was something off here, but she couldn’t quite point out what. “I will. Thank you.”
“Have a nice day,” Akela said as Fleur hurried outside.
It was nice out. The skies were gray, and it was cold, but the skies could have been grayer and it could’ve been colder. A group of heavily armed soldiers, mercenaries or maybe adventurers passed by House Charis. Maxwell sat on top of the mailbox. He reminded her of a cat- but good luck explaining to anyone in the Lands Lost what a cat was.
He turned around and looked her straight in the eyes. “I know what a cat is,” he said. Fleur stumbled, staggered, and almost fell over.
“What?” She said.
“A cat. I used to have one when I was a little boy. You said that. ‘He’s just like a cat,’ under your breath.”
“No,” she said, shaking her head. “I didn’t.”
Maxwell shook his head and jumped down from the mailbox, and picked up a leather bag from the ground. “Akela made us lunch, so we can go sit somewhere nice this afternoon.”
There was something odd going on. A sour taste in the air. Like blood. Like linseed oil, she realized. A pressure.
“I’m older than Akela is,” she said. “She’s not my mom.”
“Nobody implied that she is, Fleur. She’s being nice to you. Come, let’s go. We’ve got to make a path to Raiments of the Riverlands. The office we’re raiding. It’s in the back of Luson, near the bridge.”
He strapped the bag over his shoulder and set out towards the city gates. It was odd, Fleur realized, to see him walk around. He wore that hood of his so often she had forgotten he wasn’t merely a phantasm appearing and disappearing whenever and wherever he wanted.
Together, they walked into the city. The guards averted their eyes, a little scared when they passed the gates. She wondered why nobody in Maxwell’s circle seemed to be afraid of her. It was posturing, she had told herself for the longest time. Putting on a tough front to try and intimidate her. But then she had seen the ease with which Maxwell weaved enchantments, enchantments that, despite being majorly illusions, she had to admit were beyond her. Occasionally an alien dread set in, a foreign feeling of fear- that perhaps there were forces greater than Autumn, greater than her sisters and that despite appearing to be human, Maxwell and his family might not actually be such.
Illusions, she realized. Maxwell was a master of illusions. The fact she felt like this might be exactly what he was trying to achieve. Trickery and deceit. All she had to do was push through it. She was immortal. She had ancient knowledge known to nobody but her. In the old days, when men were larger and the land was wild, she had taught mankind how to make mirrors, how to gaze into their reflections for portents. Maxwell was mortal- and a young boy at that.
“Have you ever been there,” Maxwell said as they passed a cafe built on an overhang, on something that might’ve been a bridge or perhaps an aerial loading dock in ages past. “The view is great, the food is good. Cute girls come there, upper class ones.”
“Nobles?” Fleur asked.
“Nobles, daughters of traders, children of adventurers. It’s a nice place.”
“I’ve never been. I have no reason to.”
“I see,” Maxwell said. She hated when he did that- when she purposefully left out information, but he acted like he could see straight through her anyway.
Together, they made their way to Raiments of the Riverlands, a company that sold clothes, it seemed. Imported from the riverlands, probably made by slaves. She made sure to point the mirror around her neck in most every direction, to make sure there wouldn’t be any gaps in the path.
“Yeah, my dad is not happy with these guys,” Maxwell said, standing before their building. He whistled.
“What did they even do that we need to steal their bookkeeping?” Fleur asked.
“Cut my dad off getting a trade deal. He would’ve been able to expand his business all the way to the south, but now we’re shit out of luck. He suspects they’ve been screwing Autumn out of taxes owed though, so we’re stealing their books.”
Fleur shook her head. Bringing down the hammer of Autumn on your competition, it was almost cruel. It was also dangerous, but she wasn’t scared of the Deer God. Ages ago, He had picked a fight with Clementine, who had smacked him all across the Twin Cities in retaliation.
“Well, we’re done here. Let’s go to the market on the other side of the bridge, in Lusan, and then eat lunch at the cliffside,” Maxwell said.
“Sure,” Fleur muttered as the boy took off again.
A while later, as they passed the massive bridge between the two cities, she asked him. “Maxwell?”
“Where are you from?”
He chuckled. “I grew up in the Riverlands. But Allestar moved his entire business, and the family with it, here when I was still young. So I’m a child of both worlds, you could say.”
“I see,” Fleur replied. It wasn’t the answer she was looking for. “What was your childhood like?”
“It was messed up,” Maxwell said. “It wasn’t, well. It wasn’t fantastic, but I can’t complain either, I guess.”
“What do you mean by that?”
“My mom left while I was still young. My dad left me mostly alone. Too busy with work. I was raised by books, and by our maids. It was lonely, but my father’s always been proud of how well I did on my own, so I guess I didn’t want to ask him for more either. I was happy he was proud. I still am, I guess I can appreciate it more now that I’m older.”
She had no real idea how to answer. It was a little pathetic, she thought. That he thought that that was hardship.
“Maids? Like Octavia?” She asked, realizing Allestar Weyer kept a very eclectic collection of servants.
“Yeah,” Maxwell said, an audible tinge of sadness and pain in his voice.
“Did she hurt you?” Fleur asked. Octavia was a vampire- it was reckless that Weyer kept her sister’s demonic spawn around as some kind of trophy slave.
“No,” Maxwell replied. “I hurt her. At least, I think I did.”
Fleur shook her head. “What do you mean by that?”
“I latched onto her, first as a mother figure, but later as, well, something more akin to a comfort object, I guess. I think I saw her like my dad does- as property. She’s silent, and obeys most every command. She’s conditioned like that, you know. And I was a teenage boy, I didn’t think my actions fully through. So it took me a while to realize what I did wasn’t entirely consensual.”
She started a sentence, “I have no idea what you’re-”, before the weight of his words actually set in.
“You two slept together?”
“It wasn’t anything that romantic. I don’t like to sugarcoat it. I raped her. Regularly.”
The brash, abrasive way he put it shocked her.
“I’m-” she began, but he broke her off.
“You don’t have to say anything. The sins are in the past. Though, I’m still looking for a way to fix what I did. For what my father did, too, I guess.”
Fleur stayed quiet.
“She’s a person you know. There’s a person somewhere in there. There must be a way to heal whatever they did to her, so she can be set free.”
“That’s noble,” Fleur said half-heartedly. She didn’t really care about vampires.
“Hmhm,” Maxwell replied.
In silence they continued to the market Maxwell wanted to go to. Fleur had found white candles and salt quite quickly, for the banishment ritual, and gave the merchant a few gold florins for his troubles. Maxwell had more trouble finding what he was looking for, some kind of esoteric spices or foreign seeds.
“What do you need those for,” Fleur asked as they went from market stall to market stall.
“I’m seeing a Dryad, and I want to make something to impress her,” Maxwell said.
Again, Fleur was shocked. “Maxwell,” she said. “Dryads eat people.”
“I know,” he answered.
“Max, if she’s charming you, coming onto you, that’s probably not because she’s into-”
“Trip,” Maxwell said, and Fleur did. She didn’t see it coming, and didn’t manage to catch herself in time. She slammed face-first into the rough cobblestone of the road.
“Autumn,” she cursed as she got up, a horrible fury welling up from her stomach. “What did you do that for,” she spat at the boy.
“Don’t take me lightly, Knives. Don’t patronize me,” he said, cold and stern.
Her anger made way for guilt, and her guilt made way for anxiety. The way he made her feel small, the way he always seemed to be in complete and utter control was terrifying. It didn’t befit his small, human frame.
“Where have you learned to throw your words like that,” she asked after a while, trying to get the conversation to move on quickly. Forget what just happened.
“Nowhere you could comprehend,” he said. It stung. It was patronizing. She was halfway certain he was doing it to piss her off, payback for just now. He probably didn’t actually believe there were things she could not comprehend, she told herself.
At the end of the market, Maxwell had been unsuccessful. He shook his head, and started pacing back, disappointed.
“Hey,” she said after an uncomfortably long amount of silently walking after him. “What is it you need? I could help you, you know?”
“Hm?” He said. “Seeds for orchids. Tropical flowers.”
“Just the seeds, or do you need the flowers?”
“The flowers, but they wilt and die within hours after being picked, so you have to farm them yourself. But they’re rare these days. It’s too cold for them,” Maxwell explained.
“Do you think you can get me a picture of the flowers you need,” Fleur tried. “I could get them for you.”
“Really?” He asked, his original cheerful mood returning. Or perhaps it had long returned, and she had been the one too anxious or upset to make conversation. It didn’t matter, she decided.
“Yeah. If you get an accurate enough picture, I can get you the reflection of such a flower. It’ll be just like the real thing, except mirrored. I hope that doesn’t matter for whatever you need it for.”
Maxwell stopped, seemingly lost in thought for a bit.
“That’s very cool, you know,” he eventually said. “And I don’t think that would matter much. See, we’re such a good team.” He smiled at her, and put one of his hands up.
She had no idea what the gesture meant.
“Tsk,” Maxwell said as he grabbed her by the wrist, lifted up her hand and tapped it against his. “It’s called a high-five, it’s a sign of teamwork and appreciation,” he explained.
“Oh,” she stuttered. It was odd, him suddenly touching her. She stared at her wrist, a little upset he had touched her without permission.
“You know,” Maxwell said.
“I don’t know,” she replied. “What do you mean?”
“You’re all skin and bones, it’s a good thing Akela made those lunches for us. Let’s go sit at the cliffside and eat.”
“Oh,” she said as he hurried off again. She followed him to the bridge, where he took a path to the left and down. There were little ledges in the cliff that separated the cities, and some people had put down benches on some of them.
“God,” Maxwell said.
“Which one,” Fleur said, sarcasm dripping from her voice.
“All of them. This place is beautiful, Fleur. Have I ever told you how glad I am to live here?”
He had, plenty of times. Every time he repeated it, she grew more convinced he had lost his little mortal mind long ago.
“You have. You’re insane. It’s a cesspool of death and decay. A violent and cold land.”
“It’s,” he said before pausing for a second. “It’s better than where I came from, Fleur. A lot better.”
A tear formed under his pale, empty eyes.
Once again she was certain that he didn’t mean the Riverlands, or any other place in the Lands Lost.