Wednesday, June 27, 2018


Image description: statue of a mother holding her infant child. The child's hand is pressed to the mother's cheek.
This is a story I started working on three years ago. Since then, it has gone through a number of revisions and rejections, and ultimately I decided to let it be as is while expanding on the characters and world in what would become the Kevarya Universe and The Shapeshifter Prince, my project for the upcoming Camp Nanowrimo. Some details have changed since I wrote it; for example, Arkady's name meaning and how he acquires it is very different in this story than in The Man Who Is Revealed. Still, the emotional truth of Him remains an essential part of both Arkady and Thyld's character development.

Content warning for misgendering, transphobia, and attempted suicide.


My daughter was born in Blood Moon. It was a day so moist that each drop of sweat from my brow seemed to join with the vapor in the air around me, the sweltering humidity pressing against my skin. I lay naked on top of silk sheets. It was too hot to let them cover me, even for modesty's sake. Some of the young chambermaids had balked at the thought of seeing their King so vulnerable and undignified. They were used to me in fine, flowing robes, furs wrapped around my shoulders, head held high with the crown woven into the braided knot of my hair. They were used to imperious eyes and cold marble skin, a statue seated gracefully on the throne. When my breathing broke into a sob as the contractions refused to relent, they shied away and whispered among themselves how torturous childbirth must be, if even Mathylde, the mighty Woman King, could not help but beg the spirit of her dead husband to take the pain from her. But the midwives, those who had seen women of all stations through their labors, heard my cry and understood: today, I was a woman first, a King second.
And so they took my hand and told me to push.
My daughter is seventeen now and stands before me in a private conference chamber, surrounded by images of the Ancestors. The lush rugs and tapestries that line the wooden walls bear the faces of those dead to whom we pray each night—my husband Ionai, my father, my mother, and all the Kings who came before me, first-born sons of countless generations. I am the first daughter in the line of Kings, and Arkadya my first daughter. When I die, she will have every right to rule. I have spent my whole life fighting for that—on the battlefield, commanding an army against my traitorous brother to seize the crown, which half the country thought he deserved; in council, watching noblemen tear apart laws I had labored over while women's lives hung in the balance; and as a mother, making sure Arkadya was well-versed in history and government, skilled in diplomacy and benevolent in the imposition of her will, so that she might continue to show our people the strength in womanhood after my death.
I know that if I do not speak, it will all amount to nothing. Yet something keeps me silent a moment longer.
Arkadya is beautiful. She looks more like Ionai than me—her hair is ink-black to my gold, and her eyes are not round like mine but folded at the corners like the creases of a paper crane. She has shorn  her long, thick braids and donned a man's shirt and trousers. They’re earth-brown, her favorite color since the day she first took a handful of soil into her tiny fist. She has hundreds of brown dresses in her closets, but she never wears them anymore.
It is my responsibility to lay down the terms for her. I must turn my eyes cold and play the dispassionate judge, as if she were not my own child, born of my own flesh. Arkadya's fingers clench the hilt of the sword at her hip, then release, then clench it again. My knees weaken a moment, but I straighten my back. And I speak.
“The advisers and I have come to a consensus.” I exhale, slowly, and pray to my Ionai: dear love, let her understand. “You are to retain the status of Princess and all privileges and freedoms—as well as responsibilities—that that title grants you.”
Her eyes narrow until they are the tiniest slivers of black orbs, like the moon eclipsed. “Princess?”
“In the castle, at court, and any time you are acting in public as a representative of this crown, you are my daughter and will be referred to as such. You are to dress and behave accordingly.” For a moment, I let weariness take over me. My shoulders sag. My arms hang like dead weight, and my stiff spine is strained almost to breaking. I don’t know what I want anymore. “Your choice to live as a man will not be made public, nor will it be acknowledged in any statement of mine, public or private.”
Contraction after contraction moved like a wave through my body, coming faster and faster until it was all just one blur of pain. I can't survive this, I thought. I won't survive. Breathing and pushing and muscles tightening, one push after another. They'll bury me next to Ionai, in the Field of the Eternal, and someone else will place potato flowers in my hands and call us Ancestors. Ionai, King Mathylde, and this child of theirs, their first and last child, together in Arkadya—in paradise.
“No,” I murmured aloud, faintly. I would live for this child, this daughter of mine—for I knew she was a daughter, even though the seers had shaken their heads and told me the future was too cloudy to see. The magic of the crown flowed through my veins, and the heart from which that magic came had cried out to me. I would have a daughter, and I would live to see her.
The sun began to set, flooding the room with light in shades of bloody scarlet. A breeze came through the window to cool my face. “You will be a mother soon,” said the chief midwife. Her eyes were deep blue and full of the life that her old, pock-marked skin lacked. Though her face would be forever ashen, she had survived the Grey Death. Ionai had not. “One more push.”
All the muscles in me grew taut and all my energy, or what was left of it, rushed to my womb. Something gave.
My small, slick child was pulled out of me by the midwife’s steady hands. She was here. My daughter was here.
I know Arkadya's mind like I know my own. Her anger burns hard but slow. I can see it now in her eyes, flint and steel being struck, a single spark catching a candlewick. She will take her time stoking the fire before raging at me, giving me time to convince her to change her mind. No, Arkadya is not angry yet. But there is pain in her voice when she asks me, “Why?” One word said, one thousand unspoken.
“Our claim to the throne has always been contested-”
“I don't need a history lesson, Mother,” she says icily. Of all my subjects, only she dares interrupt me. “You have always had enemies, and you always will.”
“Hush, child, please.” My eyes meet hers and she is silent. “Our legacy depends upon us having heirs. I have you, but if you go down this path you might never marry or have children. Meanwhile my brother the traitor has a fertile daughter whose only obstacle to inheriting the throne is you.”
“The traitor's daughter hasn't set foot on this land in twenty-five years. The people would never support her.”
“They would if word got out that the King was letting her daughter pretend to be male and engage in deviant behavior. I will not have our family scandalized and our right to rule put in jeopardy, Arkadya.”
“I am not pretending to be a man, I am one. This isn't something that can be lit and unlit like a candle at my bidding, Mother! I am a man, only no one else can see it! No one can look past this wretched body!”
“None on our earth can choose their own bodies, Arkadya. Your body is beautiful.” I smile. I move to touch her cheek, but she steps back, and the smile on my face fades. “You have breasts, a womb, the ability to bear a child. That doesn't make you weak, that makes you strong. You are nothing to be ashamed of, nothing to be denied. You are a woman-”
“You are the King! The first woman King cannot be anything other than a woman, and yet she expects her son to pretend to be anything other than a man?” She takes her hand off her sword and crosses her arms over the breasts she has bound to flatness. Her eyebrows furrow, settling into a look of implacable determination that I know far too well. This battle is all she has left. And she will not yield, lest it break her.
 “You know what they would say?” I take a step towards my daughter. “My allies, not my enemies. They would say that by supporting your choice to spurn femininity, I am implying that womanhood is so inferior to manhood that women must want to become men. That I have taken the title King out of deference to male power, instead of to subvert it. That I have betrayed my gender and everything I have taken a stand for ever since I first put on that crown. They would say that all that I have done, all that I have fought for, for you, for your daughters—that that is all a lie! A facade!
I move to leave. My winter cloak drags on the floor, slowing me down until I stop before the door. I do not turn around. I do not let her see my face. “And the men will say, How foolish we were to trust a woman on the throne.”
“What will be the girl's name?” The midwife’s voice was far away, echoing in the distance as I closed my eyes and let out the breath I did not know I had been holding.
We have passed moments in silence. The wind beats against the outer wall of the room. A bitter laugh escapes Arkadya's lips. “So this is it? I am in agony, and you let politics dictate whether or not to give me human consideration?”
“As a King, I must be ruled by the kingdom, just as I rule it,” I say. It is an old saying, and one of little comfort to either of us. “The same goes for a King's heir.”
Her hand is on her sword's hilt again. “I didn't ask to be born a King's heir! Just as I didn't ask to be born in this body!”
“And you think you'd be better off in poverty, married to some farmer in exchange for a few sheep, beaten senseless every time you dared speak a word against your husband? Be grateful for what the Ancestors gave you.”
Steel slides out of scabbard. Arkadya's wrist flicks the sword up to parallel her stance, a mocking salute, an invitation to the duel, and then she's gripping the hilt with both hands and cutting through her tunic, through the strip of cloth wrapped around her breasts. I lunge forward, but I am too slow to stop the the blade or the blood that bursts from her skin as she tries to cut her breasts, her womanhood, away. She cries out and I sob, memories blowing through my body—
—the warmth fading from Ionai's hands as he holds me—
—the height of labor pain, my muscles pulled so tight it feels like I am being ripped apart—
—and now, the words bile-thick in my throat as I whisper a frantic prayer, begging the Ancestors not to take my child away from me, not like this
My body collides with hers. I press myself against her breast to stop the blood. I wrest the sword from her hand. She tries to pull me off of her and an irrational part of me is glad she's angry, she's fighting, she has a reason to stay alive, even if she hates me.
“I don't want to live a lie, mother,” she whispers hoarsely. Her very voice is breaking.
“What will be the girl's name?” asked the midwife, and I answered, “Arkadya.” There had never been any other name for her.
“Arkadya.” I weave my hand through a few stray locks of her hair and pull her closer to me. There's blood on her body and on mine, just as when I gave birth to her. “Let me get the wrap, we can use it as a bandage,” I say, but my eyes do not leave her face as I grasp the ripped cloth that has fallen to the floor.
There is something like a smile on her face as I wind the bandage around her torso. She places her hand on top of mine and says, “I have done this before, you know.” I blink, uncomprehending, then realize with a start that I am binding both her wound and her breast.
My mind twirls like a drop spindle, spinning fibers of truth into the lie I must tell: The Princess Arkadya is of ill health and must be taken to the countryside to recover. She will return as soon as her health improves. Her status as my heir remains unthreatened by her current condition, and I am confident that she will return to her normal state soon. And those few who know of Arkadya's secret manhood will nod and smile, secure in their knowledge that the King sees the Princess's perversion for the sickness that they think it is.
Only she and I will know the truth. Only she and I will ever know what words I say to her next, softer than a whisper as I press my lips to her forehead and my hand to her heart. “What will be your name, as a man?” I ask. “What will I call you in my mind?”
“My father gave me a woman's name when I was born,” my child whispers back. “I want you, my mother, to give me a man's name now.”
I close my eyes and let myself linger on the memory of Arkadya. I let myself mourn the girl who died to birth the son I hold in my arms—a girl who never was, a girl only alive in my hopes. Arkadya, the rhythm of my pulse beating daughter, daughter; the cry that pierced the dark and silent night, the cry of a fierce girl whose voice would send walls crumbling down. I remember the thrill of cradling her in my arms, holding her to my breast and letting her suck, feeling our two bodies as one, as they had been when she was still inside me. Ionai had named this girl after paradise, and I remember thinking that she would never leave me as he did, that she would be my daughter until the day I died—
And then I remember the child who saw the brown of the soil and called it beautiful, this child who has grown to be so much more than the seed of hope I once carried inside me, and I take the roots of Arkadya and shape them into a new name: Arkady, the man who has found a paradise of his own, a world of his and my creation.

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