v. confused sounds beating against—
They woke up sad about something. There was a dream—
no, machines don’t have dreams; there are only recollections
—a recollection, then, of a woman with laughing eyes framed by harsh wrinkles, her hand clenched into a fist, her kind eyes turned away and portending thunder.
“I will not forgive you for this.”
They blinked away the memory and funneled the rest of their energy into powering up their system. They had to focus, they say, even as they were reeling from the thoughts of a lost past that hung over them like a specter.
That was the difficult thing about being two souls—before, when they both had bodies, it had been easy enough to differentiate them. Two individuals with two different thoughts in two different bodies. Now, the line was blurry, and it hurt in all the ways that having their head cut off hadn’t.
Your head wasn’t actually cut off. It was just a very deep neck wound,
one of them pointed out, but that didn’t really make them feel that much better.
She had a name, didn’t she? Did he? What were they doing here?
This time, the dream-woman had a voice, but her face was blurred. No. Looking closer, her face was crunched up, an unreadable smudge of human skin, emotions too complicated for them to possibly understand. But they could try, and what they got was like a mirror: a deep wave of shame, like a chasm, yawning up inside of their chest until it ripped out of her heart, where it carved itself deep into the wrinkles of the dream-woman’s face. It roared and clawed and became so cavernous that it threatened to tear the earth in two, and yet it would not do the one thing they wanted and swallow them whole.
They couldn’t go on like this, could they? Something was wrong here, something in this dream, recollection. They were like a puzzle with too many pieces; some were duplicates and some were missing, and yet none of them fit together.
he (she?) was saying, trying to make it sound comforting, but the deluge of shared sights and sounds was too much for her. There weren’t eyes to close when the outside world was too scary; there was no explanation for why their voicebox responded to him and not her. Outside, bluesteel legs that were not her own carried them ceaselessly across lands she couldn’t name. Inside, thoughts tumbled around without direction, waves crashing against the shore.
They were lost. That much she could figure out.
Once upon a time, there was a story, and the story went something like this:
Of all the creatures that roamed this mythical land of Orre, humans were unique for one factor.
(You’re partially correct, Rin. There are actually fourteen factors that make humans unique in Orre, but only one is important to this exact story.)
She (they? he?) didn’t quite care. The words of the story, repeated to her so many times that she knew it by heart, even now, were what mattered. This was a reality in which she could ground herself.
But it isn’t. Rin, we have to—
How did it go again? Oh, yes. The story went something like this:
Humans were the only species to put on and take off masks. And they did so with great frequency. There was once even a whole holiday where they would dress up as things they loved and things that they feared, things that made them laugh and scream. They had festivals in honor of this act, of this subtle art of skinchanging that even the youngest of them learned to perform at such a tender age.
It wasn’t wholly unusual that they did this for fun; there are several species of pokémon that transformed for jest and mischief. Some changed their shape, some changed their skin; granted with this innate nature, they all often learn to take it for granted.
It was the fact that humans could change and unchange their skin for serious purposes that made them unique. For you see, when a ditto transformed into a pidgeot to lure a mate into an unexpected surprise, when a zoroark projected into a tall tree to trick girafarig to forage for berries in midair, these weren’t meant to be taken seriously. The transformation reverted, the illusion shattered. That was the normal way that things were supposed to go. Even Mew, who takes all shapes, had a true form and did not forget it.
So often, pokémon were quite fascinated by the way that these humans donned and doffed their masks. There was a reason pokémon need to change back, you see. The closest metaphor that they had for it was flying. Fly at the height that you were meant at, and you’d be fine. You could fly there for miles; there was no real difference between the air above and the earth below.
But stray too long, too far upward, too far away from the lands in which you were born, and the air began to thin out. It became harder to breathe. And then your wings would fail and you’d tumble and then plummet, spiraling, out of control. You might sink back to the safe heights again, but at that point it no longer mattered. Gravity was famously lacking in concern for what your intent was.
But that was a story about a human girl, who flew too close to a sun of different sorts.
Triss, the baker’s daughter. There wasn’t much to say: she was sharp in wit and tongue, but a baker is judged by the work of her hands. Had she been a bard’s child instead, she may have had a happier life.
The travelers arrived one night when Triss was seven. It was a grand affair that utterly changed her world.
You see, for a quiet village, the day the travelers chose to arrive was utterly unexpected and also the best day in the whole world. Their wagons were filled to the brim with strange treasures: lanterns filled with vileplume powder that could burn with blue fire when lit aflame, a strange piece of ice from the east that was not cold and would never melt, costumes made with more colors than most villagers would ever need in their entire lives. But that wasn’t all that they brought, nor was it the most important: they brought stories from far and wide, impossible sights, tales true and false of far away worlds. They brought imagination and wonder.
For a little baker’s daughter, this was a true delicacy indeed. Triss clapped and cheered with the other village children as the traveling troupe donned their masks. They told a funny story about a group of forest pokémon who accidentally mistook a shining pidgeotto for the goddess ho-oh, and a sad story about a minior that tried to make a wish on itself, and an altogether confusing and very long, rambling rhyme about a girl’s misadventures with her murkrow. There was quite a bit of imagination to be had, and there were dramatic parts and triumphant parts and everything in between.
For you see, baking bread was a fun task, but it was also not a glamorous one. It was very consistent. You mixed the parts together. You kneaded, mixed again. Too much flour, add water. Too much water, add flour. The bread rose in the same way, and it did so slowly. It was easy to shape bread.
But the travelers were masterful jugglers indeed, coaxing the threads of a story out from the hearts of each watcher. They must have woven mirrors into their costumes, or in their hands, or in their masks, for they then reflected that story back into the eyes of their adoring audience, where it nestled back in hearts as something wholly different. It was tricky work, but they had dedicated their lives to it.
Triss laughed and clapped with all the village children. The travelers did their bows and were coerced back onto the stage for one more performance, and then another, and then another, until the night did pass them by. Triss stayed up all night with the travelers, enraptured, and when they made their turn to leave she scraped together all the money she had (which wasn’t very much, but it was good money, mind you—three copper pieces mean all the world when they’re earned with flour) and proudly tossed them into the travelers’ pot.
And with that, the travelers left in a cloud of wagon smoke. Triss watched them trail away over the horizon, and then she quietly went back to make bread and patiently waited for the next time they would return.
Except that wasn’t what happened, because that would’ve made for a very boring story.
What happened instead was altogether more sad, as interesting stories often are.
As she turned to leave the village square, all sign of the travelers lost on the horizon, Triss stumbled upon something very strange indeed. It stubbed her toe first, and she bent down to pick it up and brush the dust off. It was a little too big, especially for one as small as she, but she recognized it immediately.
The paint had chipped where someone had dropped it, and she wasn’t quite able to smear the mud away from its porcelain white surface, but it was unmistakably a performer’s mask. Perhaps it had fallen off of the back of a wagon as the travelers went about their busy work tearing down the platform for the imaginary world they had created. Perhaps it had sensed that it would have a greater life here, and so it had answered the call of the child.
It didn’t quite matter the reason, you see. For Triss immediately put it on, let the bone-white surface, smoother than anything she’d ever felt, touch the skin of her cheeks and obscure her face from view. And in that moment, Triss was no longer a baker’s daughter, but whatever else she wanted to be.
Triss put on her own performance that night. The crowd was far larger for the travelers, but that was quite to be expected. And she wasn’t quite good at recreating their stories, after all, for there was just the one of her and she had no magic lanterns that glowed with blue vileplume powder, but that was quite to be expected as well. Her peers didn’t applaud nearly as heavily, but they laughed and had a good time.
The next night, Triss tried to perform the same thing. It was hard, you see. The travelers had only performed the one time, and she was sharp of wit and of mind, but there was quite a lot of ground to cover and Triss only had quite so much memory. She stumbled over the lines this time, and some of the parts got lost. Had the pidgeotto had seven feathers or eight? Was the minior blue or green?
The villagers did not applaud so hard this time, but they were kind. The smith pulled her aside and offered her surprisingly sage advice, something she’d come to expect only from the kinds of adults who spent their time reading books, not the kinds of people who wrought with their hands. In metalworking, he explained, there were only so many problems you could solve by copying other people. At some point you had to strike out on your own, to apply what you’d wanted to learn to the craft. Otherwise it wouldn’t learn and grow.
Some crafts weren’t the same as bread, you see. These crafts didn’t have a fixed recipe. In bread you could add three scruples of flour and two of water and expect the same thing every time; in theater you couldn’t add three grams of heart and two of tears, because for some of the arts you needed to add a bit of yourself as well, and that was altogether harder to measure out in scruples and grams.
The next day, Triss donned the mask and performed a story about a baker’s boy who found a strange mask that let him turn into anyone he wanted. And he changed himself into a handsome prince, and tried to woo a beautiful princess, and there was a whole bunch of drama in the middle. It was interestingly structured and eventually the both of them realized that they were madly in love with other people—this was to save Triss the trouble of acting out two people kissing each other when she was just the one person in the mask.
They applauded quite hard at that one, which Triss thought was strange—couldn’t they see that this was just the same story they’d played out before their very eyes, but the people were in slightly different shapes?
She looked at the mask in her hands. It didn’t seem magical, and yet she knew with certainty: this gave her the power to be someone else. It was incredible.
The next day, the baker died. It was an altogether horrible accident involving an alchemist’s cart and a stray rapidash, the kind that would leave villagers whispering sadly for months.
Triss screamed, and sobbed, and for one day and one night she was inconsolable. She locked herself in the bakery and refused to come out, clutching herself in a tight ball and sobbing by the base of the unlit ovens.
Until she realized one terrifying thing indeed: beneath the porcelain mask there was someone who was unbothered, unbusy, unshaken by the shattering that her world had undergone.
That evening, in the town square, she performed a truly heartbreaking story. It was about a little firebird who could speak to ghosts and a tall tower, and the journey that the firebird and her ghost went on. In the end she learned that the bird was a ghost too, and the world had missed them but had moved on. She sang the bird’s part, and when she did so, it was with a crystal voice that was so pure, so sweet, that even the most stoic man among them was moved to tears.
The villagers sobbed and applauded as the masked girl took her bow, but the porcelain face was unflinching.
The performances got more stilted, more sad. The travelers always brought a happy twist to things, you see, but while the mask’s surface wasn’t visibly changed, something had colored it beneath the surface. It was like adding drops of lavender essence to a frosting you were mixing: the color changed, slowly at first, and then all over, until it was purple everywhere and altogether impossible to remember exactly what shade of cream it had been in the first place.
Surely, at some point, there was an obvious point of no return. But which story was the last straw? There was one about a boy who rode on the back of a mantine to the edge of the world, seeking his lost father, and they went to the very ends of the earth only to mourn him still. There was a story about a little dragon trapped in a magic mirror world, who would accidentally make anyone who looked into the mirror become trapped alongside them, until the entire world was reflected through.
One night, Triss took a bow and did not take the mask off.
She did, of course, look like she was taking the mask off to the villagers, so none of them questioned it. But that night when she looked at her reflection in her water basin, she could clearly see it, affixed as if welded to her cheeks. She touched the porcelain gently, and while the girl inside was happy, her reflection made no smile, no response. The girl in the basin was not happy for her understanding, nor was she sad for her lost mother. It made more sense that way, you see. It made far more sense to be the face beneath the mask rather than anything else that the world could see above it.
And the stories grew darker, darker still. A fire-vulpix and an ice-vulpix who fell in love with one another, and yet their clans were sworn enemies, so when the two finally met as enemies on the battlefield, she slew him with her flames and, as he melted, he quenched her fire. A froslass who smiled sweetly as she guided human children up a frigid mountain, and they lit her aflame her in an attempt to bring an end to the blizzard that had buried their village.
One day, there was no human performing at all. The words from the mask were not anything that anyone in the village understood. They tried to shepherd the performer away, but she stood firmly in the town square.
“Take it off of her,” the smithy said at last, as if it was the most obvious thing in the world.
But when they tried and pulled, they found that the thing would not come off. It was stuck to her face, almost grafted horrifically to her skin, and although he grabbed his tools and the cartwright used his ox-like strength, nothing they could do could dislodge it from her face.
The smith looked on sadly, but there was nothing the villagers could do. One by one, they trickled back to their homes. The smith stayed in the center of the square a moment longer, knelt down and wrapped calloused hands on her shoulders, looked into her wild eyes. “You can take it off now,” he said quietly, gently. “You need to take off the mask. It’s just an act, Triss.”
And in a hollow, echoing voice, she grated back, “Act… tress.”
The smith hung his head in shame, and left her to her duty.
A fortnight passed, and a traveling scribe came into the village. The masked performer was still in their town square, crying out a mournful performance in a song with no words, but the villagers had been unable to bring themselves to show up any more.
The scribe whispered low and quiet to some of the village folk, asked in a hushed voice what they’d done to lure a cubone orphan to their midst, how they’d managed to teach such a rare and shy pokémon how to perform for coppers, and the villagers had no true answer to say. Because what could they say, truly? That they’d applauded her into her cycle of grief?
No, better to remain silent, better to say it had happened by chance.
The next year, the travelers came by and took the dancing, wailing cubone into their troupe, and the incident faded from the village’s memory, like the taste of bread on your lips after an hour has passed you by.
For you see, that was the altogether too logical truth that pokémon understood intrinsically: zoroark knew that their illusions would need to shatter the instant someone questioned them, ditto reverted as soon as they could, because the alternative was to forget that which lay beneath.
Humans were so different. They put their masks on and off and on again, as if unaware that every time you did this, a little more of yourself went into the performance. The face you had for your friends, for your families, for your strangers—there was you in it, but you had to be so, so careful, for if you were too generous with what you passed around, you’d eventually forgot what you had on beneath.
But at the same time, in their kind of company, what more were you to do? Humans had two kinds of fighting, unlike pokémon, because they weren’t very happy with either of them. The casual battles, and then the war.
This created an uncomfortable sort of a dichotomy, a backstage and a center stage upon which they unwittingly performed. For how could the same voice that coaxed out your son’s first laugh also be used to chastise him? How could the same lips that welcomed a lover also be used to shout battle cries? It couldn’t; they couldn’t; humans couldn’t. And so the first mask had to be put on, and then the second, until humans were playing so many roles that no one, not even you, could really know what was beneath.
The story of the cubone girl was a sad one, you see, but it was hard to remember from how it had started out that this was the way the story was supposed to end.
“How long has she been like this?”
“Our minds have been fused for almost ten years,”
the robotic voicebox of a golem croaked.
The ending of the story blurred and shuddered, and then the smudgy outline of a woman’s face returned. She was three dimensions, but she looked like two—harsh, thick lines painted her furious eyebrows until the anger was dripping out of her eyes and down her face.
“I’m sorry, Kana. I did not know what to tell you earlier, so I did not say anything at all. I hoped it would never come to this. But she is in grave danger now that Cipher knows about her, about us. Rin—“
“You.” One finger stabbed through the air. A command for silence. The dream-woman’s knuckles went white on the table. There was no more laughter in her eyes now, not even in the dream, or recollection, or fantasy. “You. Ruined her. You don’t. Get to talk. About keeping her safe.”
This wasn’t how things were supposed to go.
But the dream-woman was already pulling herself upright, her spine snapping vertical almost like it was being pulled on strings. She was stiff, disjointed, like a toy tin soldier, her twisted in a stony mask, when she looked at the golurk and said the words that would begin their undoing: “You took her from me. You took my daughter.”
Daughter. She latched onto that word, turned it over in their mind, trembling. She was a daughter.