A Subtle Fire Beneath the Skin’, Hayley Stone

Illustrations © 2021 Cécile Matthey

 [ Shackles, © 2021 Cécile Matthey ]

The wall opens. It’s been so long since anyone visited that Gennesee cannot recall the word for door; it’s only the wall scraping off its body, taking apart the darkness with barely-recalled light.

Her chains rake the dusty floor as she crawls forward, muscles too atrophied to hold up her spine. Any sense of decorum has left her. She’s close enough that the fresh blast of air goes down her throat like lake water, fleshy and cold, no different from the fingers of the chief archivist after she swallowed a page of his personal musings. A single page probably wouldn’t have been enough for her to digest the shape of his mind, letting her pull the words she needed to command her release, but she’d had to try something.

That was more than two years ago.

She has not seen another soul in all that time, and has often wondered if maybe all of the archivists are dead. To aid that possibility, Gennesee used to paint epics of plague and war in her own blood on the walls. She tried strengthening the spells with heroic couplets, but the subject and form clashed. Had she succeeded, many innocents would have died along with her enemies, and there was nothing noble about drowning an entire ship to kill a few rats.

It wouldn’t have mattered, anyway. The magic of the Library is too old, unmoved by pretty turns of phrase. Its walls have rejected her every attempt to escape, bouncing back syllables like arrows pinging off a shield. In the time since her arrest, Gennesee has forgotten most of the Library’s history, and much of her own, but occasionally a dim memory surfaces, disturbing the stillness of her mind.

She is here because she tried to murder the wrong person—or failed to kill the right one. Words can be twisted to tell any story, as she well knows, having once strangled a foreign queen by manipulating a few trochees in a breathless poem about love.

The figure comes toward her. As Gennesee’s eyes adjust to the glare, she finally sees that it’s a woman, and not the man she was expecting. The question of why balances her on a knife’s edge between disappointment and intrigue. She had hoped for another chance to turn the chief archivist’s mind against him, building new verse off the disquiet magic of the Library itself to see if that made a difference.

“Will you take some water?” the woman asks gently.

Born between the ragged sighs of a dying god, Gennesee doesn’t need food or water to survive, only breath and will, but she nods. As the woman leans down to help her drink, Gennesee narrows her eyes. “I know you,” she whispers, voice husky from disuse. It isn’t the woman she recognizes, so much as her thin leaves of pale hair, the curving spine, and that miserable blinking tic while she’s waiting to speak.

“No,” the woman says, “but you knew my father.”

A child. The chief archivist has never said anything about a child. But then, their conversations over the years have mostly revolved around Gennesee, her past crimes, and all the knowledge she has accumulated over her long immortal life, rarely turning more personal than condemnations over her repeated attempts to escape.

“Why has he stayed away so long?” Gennesee asks, wiping her mouth. “I hope I didn’t frighten him too badly the last time he visited.”

“My father is dead. That isn’t why I’m here.”

Gennesee wants to ask questions, unpacking all the delicious details of his death, but instead she keeps silent, allowing a brief caesura for the archivist’s daughter to say what she has come to say.

“Many believe you are a monster, but I don’t share their conviction. I’ve dug up all the stories, read the firsthand reports. I know how you single-handedly beat back an invading army, and turned aside floodwaters during the Great Storm. You even saved the Library from burning back in the days of King Esthar, may his words last.”


“So our country is in danger. That same enemy you vanquished is once more at our gates, and you know their weak points.”

Gennesee almost laughs. That same enemy. There have been many. The Misks, whose language swarmed with beautiful similes, and the Aranar with their grating tendency to overcrowd stories with narrative asides—but that was also a long time ago. By her estimates, at least forty years have passed while she has been here in the Library, with only the chief archivist’s brief visits breaking up the monotony like the slow, ponderous blinks of a giant.

That same enemy. There is no such thing. The enemy of today will only be a thin, vestigial organ of opponents she faced in the past. People are as fluid as language, always streaming into new hatreds, new ways of killing each other. Nothing will be as Gennesee remembers, and for a moment that realization irks her, like a misplaced pause in the middle of a sentence. She will have to spend countless hours clearing away cobwebs, learning colloquialisms and slang, catching up to technology and culture, all so her words do not bear the moldering stain of her incarceration.

Otherwise her power will not work. But perhaps the woman is unaware of that fact.

“And in exchange for my help?” Gennesee replies, not bothering to correct her. She senses an offer coming. She can always tell when the turn is near, the same way an elder’s bones ache before rain.

“It’s not within my power to grant you permanent freedom, but I can give you something just as worthwhile,” the woman says, and reaching into a satchel at her waist, she pulls out a loose collection of papers, each a decaying shade of yellow. “During his time as chief archivist, my father made copies of every letter ever sent to him. You might recognize some names among their authors. In exchange for your help, and your word that you will return to the Library after the war, I will give you these letters.”

She must know what she’s offering. Such detailed correspondence will mean almost certain death for those who imprisoned Gennesee as soon as she moves beyond these walls. More than any other Bespoken, Gennesee is the reason critics stopped referring to her kind by that name and started calling them death poets. She needs only a sample of a person’s writing to know what poetic form their mind will accept, the words that will break or unmake them, putting them under her control. What is writing, after all, but one’s heart and mind tattooed upon the skin of a page?

Reading is her preferred method, but there are other ways of acquiring the words. Touching a few strands of inky scrawl is usually enough for Gennesee to lift text from a page and settle it in her mind, like sealing butterflies between glass. Eating prose can work in a pinch, but too often her teeth trap articles and pronouns, gumming up the context. Only desperation moved her to try this with the chief archivist’s note, knowing it would amount to nothing.

An entire letter—let alone a whole collection—is a feast compared to the scraps she relied on even before her imprisonment, when she had been forced to scour hastily-scribbled missives or badly printed pamphlets for weaknesses to exploit, killing in service to the crown. The situation must be dire for the woman to approach her with such a dangerous offer, or maybe she simply doesn’t care about the lives of a few powerful men and women. Both are intriguing possibilities.

Gennesee creeps forward on stone-scraped knees. Her decision is not a difficult one. “You have a deal,” she says.

She raises her hands, still shackled at the wrists, and reaches out to seize the letters. A hash of cuts on her palms show the journeys she has taken down the black aisles of her cell, following a ribbed path of spines, her long length of chain trailing behind her. The room had once been lit by rudimentary poems, sunlight filtering down from stanzas in the vaulted ceiling—poems one of her kind put into place back in ancient times—but the chief archivist had each of them scratched out before he left, punishing Gennesee with the presence of books she cannot read. All those words held hostage by the dark. Where better to store a culture’s forbidden literature than alongside a monster? Gennesee has tried picking up the stories with her fingertips, but the magic of the Library is too strong, blinding even her powers of touch.

At the sight of Gennesee’s palms, an expression of sympathy crosses the woman’s face, but is quickly gone, like a bat losing its shadow beneath the overhang of evening. She pulls the letters away. “Half now,” she says coolly, “and half when you return.”

“What good will the latter do me if I am trapped here?” Gennesee demands, her voice tightened by frustration.

“You of all people should understand the value of knowledge,” the woman answers, dangling the letters close again, adding in a seductive whisper, “the power of a few words.”

She is right, of course. This conversation has proven the impermanence of Gennesee’s situation, shaking her awake. One day in the future, after this bloody quest has ended, when another archivist makes the mistake of trusting her, or some foolish monarch finally pardons her, Gennesee will walk free from the Library a second time. She will serve the rest of the letters like knives to the throats of those who betrayed her, accused her, sealed her away. And she will start over, and she will be free.

“Very well,” Gennesee says. “I agree to your terms.”

“I hoped you would,” the woman says, stuffing the letters back into her satchel. She helps Gennesee to stand, and there is steel beneath her touch, all the strength Gennesee never sensed from the chief archivist, her father. Even more intriguing.

Off come the shackles, and Gennesee rubs her wrists as the chains coil to the dusty floor. Her legs tremble beneath her after so long on her knees, but it is nothing a sestina cannot fix. “And to whom do I owe my release?” Gennesee asks, gaze drawn to the woman’s satchel.

The woman gives a thin smile. “I am chief archivist of this library. That should suffice. Now, if you will please follow me…”

Door, Gennesee remembers suddenly, stumbling after the chief archivist, and passing through the great white wound in the wall.

None of the letters she is given mention Gennesee by name. Others are discussed in passing, but she cannot tell whether the names mentioned belong to Bespoken in other countries, or simply men and women of a certain rank here at home:

Kiwiri’s attendance cannot be relied upon; they are too busy holding up the right flank… Monson left late this afternoon following a disagreement with Sariah over the decision to withdraw our forces from the Gate… Fallas traded barbs with me over that shipment I was going to send you… The Bespoken may be our single greatest asset now.

That last notation is of particular interest, as it suggests a new recognition of Gennesee’s usefulness, rather than centering her inside a dialogue of fear as before. She wonders what offer these traitors would have made her today, as opposed to the one they had used to trap her: promising rich moral rewards to assassinate a royal envoy, making her believe their cause was just, their complaints worthy of an answer, only to stage a very public failure for her and then claim she built the framework for the whole scheme herself. All so they would have a clear route to power, to controlling the king. With her out of the way, only the archivists remained to advise him, and they were far more concerned with preserving the Library than defending the sovereignty of the kingdom as a whole.

Gennesee pours over the letters, memorizing their contents, and especially their authors. When she agreed to the treason that led to her imprisonment, she had not known the names of her patrons. They visited her through young messengers with good memories who delivered the missives orally, though that was not unusual. Even before she had committed any crimes, she was mistrusted. Blamed for every sudden suicide or disappearance, as if she had nothing better to do with her time than torture strangers. The only people who wrote to her were other Bespoken, immune to one another’s forms, and her lover, who had died waiting for her freedom from the Library. Everyone else feared giving her an alley into their minds.

Perhaps they were right to do so, she thinks, watching as one of the authors spills his intestines onto his desk and begins organizing them for her pleasure, eyes growing blank as a clean page.

The man had pretended not to know who she was, feigning ignorance even as she introduced herself, even as her lips formed the poem that urged him to take up a letter opener and press it into his belly. The same themes had come up again and again in each of his letters, almost repeating himself, so Gennesee structured the spell around two repeating rhymes and two refrains. It was child’s play. The spell easily cracked the soft shell of his mind, and afterward, nothing he said made any sense, including his denials.

And yet.

For one fleeting moment after his heart stops, she worries she has made a mistake. His death sits with her, an uneasy companion. She tries to reason her guilt away. The letter was attributed to him, after all, and her spell would not have worked if those had not been his words.

So what if he did not confess to being involved in the plot to imprison her? Given more time, she could have gotten answers out of him, but she is not after explanations or excuses. She hungers for the peace of vengeance, a way of laying all her anger to rest. There is a hole inside her as dark and vast as the one she had been thrown into. Something must be done to fill it.

The frontline provides a decent distraction on the days she is not hunting for the authors of the other letters. The top brass aim her at the enemy, as if she is a weapon no more complicated than a club, and stand back watching her work. She drafts poems into the dirt that are felt behind enemy lines, as strong as an earthquake, toppling structures, and burying anyone alive inside them. Often she goes ahead of the vanguard during battle, moving enemy soldiers to madness inside of a breath, speaking in allusions and apostrophe, and commanding them to death.

On those days more than any other she feels the sharp truth of what she is: inhuman, more verse than body, syllables stretched into a flesh-shaped scream. Meter ripples beneath her brown skin, toned like muscle, and when she moves, the tight scrolls of her hair jostle each other like competing figures of speech.

She learns everything she needs to know about the enemy from the contraband smuggled into the army camps by their spies, mostly books but some propaganda material, too. Although they are designated eyes-only, often they find their way into the hands of bored soldiers. The two sides share a common tongue, give or take the odd turn of phrase and more flexible conjugation. In fact, Gennesee’s dialect sounds closer to that of the enemies’ than her allies. When she reads their words, it reminds her of home—not a place, but a time.

One evening she gets her hands on an enemy soldier’s unfinished manuscript and stays up all night reading about star-crossed lovers, sword fights, and other lighthearted escapades, and she scarcely understands how someone in the middle of a war could write something so genuinely hopeful, without a trace of bitterness. Later, when the casualty reports come in, and Gennesee spots the author’s name on the list, something fractures inside her. Something she had not known could break.

She does not know why, but she holds on to the pages of the story, carries them with her like a charm. When she visits death upon the next few letter-authors, the story is there with her, rolled up inside a hollow tube at her hip, and for every step toward vengeance she takes, the pages rasp softly like the hiss of a warning snake.

“You seem to have made good progress,” the chief archivist says cheerfully during one of their rare meetings. Gennesee refuses to set foot inside the Library until she absolutely must, and the chief archivist is smart enough to know the Library is all that protects her, so they speak through the threshold, one on either side. “I confess, I thought it would take you longer to move through the list. How many remain?”

“I thought you asked me here to discuss the war,” Gennesee says. “Whatever else I do does not concern you.”

If she sounds defensive, it is because the topic rubs her the wrong way, going against the grain of her conscience. The murders have brought her no measure of peace, nothing close to the calm pleasure she found while reading that soldier’s story. Nothing she has done has made the authors give up their doctored confusion. They react in the same predictable fashion when she arrives, good manners giving way to baffled horror. The last even accused the chief archivist of sending her, as if Gennesee were no more than a marionette twitching on strings.

“Yes,” the chief archivist agrees, practiced formality sliding back over her features, erasing the gloat. “How is the war going? I hear reports you are a great asset in the field.”

“It goes,” Gennesee answers in a clipped voice. Her eyes slide toward the satchel the chief archivist wears each time they meet, a deliberate reminder of what she is working toward, though it feels like a taunt.

Silence lays bricks between them, a wall as comfortable as lies. “Would you like to come in?” the chief archivist finally asks, as she always does.

“You already know the answer to that.”

“I have no reason to keep you here,” the chief archivist reminds her. “We have some papers on loan from the Archive in Trent I thought you might like to read. The collection includes an inspired treatise on metonymy as poetic reductionism, penned in the hand of one of our country’s first poets. Not Bespoken himself, but a man of humble origins.”

Gennesee resists the temptation, but cannot keep herself from asking, “Indeed? And what is so reductive about metonymy?”

“He believes there is danger in shorthand, in favoring simplicity over complexity. By substituting a name for a mere attribute, you diminish the reader’s capacity to empathize with the object or person in question.”

“That is the point,” Gennesee replies. “Not everything needs humanity.”

“I think you mean not everyone has humanity,” the chief archivist says, “and I would disagree, but such is a debate for another day. If you will not come in, perhaps I can have someone bring you something. Some refreshments, perhaps? You look weary.”

She does not merely look weary; Gennesee is weary. The past few months have drained her. She doesn’t like that the chief archivist sees it and likes her decision to comment on it even less.

“Was there anything else?” Gennesee asks pointedly. She surprises herself by longing not for violence, but for some place quiet, far away from this forsaken place, where she can be alone with her favorite story, following its familiar twists and turns, jolting down the same path toward an ending that does not exist—a happy ending. She knows it would have been a happy ending.

“Nothing for now,” the chief archivist says, sounding disappointed. “Good luck on your hunt.”

As she’s leaving, the words for the archivist’s destruction spring to Gennesee’s mind in the form of a stinging sirventes, but she fastens her lips and keeps walking.

 [ Gennesee, © 2021 Cécile Matthey ] While entering the sixth month of Gennesee’s mission, during a brief interlude in the war, she gets the idea to complete the soldier’s unfinished novel herself. She starts small, laying the groundwork for a finale that honors the original author’s intent. Something grand and romantic but without too many flourishes.

Gennesee has never written a book before. It takes time for her to learn how to stumble without reaching out to catch herself on poetry. How to curve a story without decapitating a line, and pull an emotion other than misery and pain through her words.

For a while, she forgets about the letters and their authors, the few who still live. This is more important. She has to believe that, to stave off the fear. Fear that she is wasting her precious moments of freedom, pointlessly fiddling with commas and periods and plot. Fear that when she finally finishes, nothing will have changed at all. Not the world with all its darkness, nor herself, a soulful poet monster-made.

Her desire for vengeance grows stale while she works, and as she nears completion, the fog of her grief begins to clear, and she begins to make out a single truth in place of her anger, like a plinth emerging from the mist; if she must return to the Library, she wants to leave something more behind than corpses.

Rather than waiting for the quartermaster to fill her request for more parchment, she begins writing over the faces of the remaining letters, over the words that mean nothing to her, and the names that mean even less. She scrawls the final scenes across the backs in one heady burst of inspiration, squinting against a stab of sunlight as morning comes, as it inevitably must.

The next day, she returns to the Library and when the chief archivist invites her inside, she accepts.

Gennesee follows in silence as the chief archivist leads her back to her cell. Around her the Library looks unchanged, with all the same antechambers and channels, reminding Gennesee of a heart more than a building. The walls glow, inscribed with poems too ancient to be read and too powerful to be understood, but as Gennesee passes, her body angles toward them of its own volition, like one magnet attracted to another.

“You surprise me,” the chief archivist remarks over her shoulder as they reach Gennesee’s room. She struggles to keep her hands from tightening into fists at her side as they speak, her nervousness plain. “I trusted the letters would be a powerful incentive, but I had no idea how deep the well of your hatred is, that you would return immediately for the rest… It is unexpected.”

“I did not come back for the letters,” Gennesee says.

At that, the chief archivist stops.

“Even more unexpected,” she murmurs, facing her. “Tell me then—why?”

“You always offered me refreshments before,” Gennesee says, some of her old spite returning. She smiles leanly. “Are we doing away with the formalities now?”

The chief archivist stalls, blinking rapidly. “The others are dead, aren’t they?” she blurts after a moment, the question she has no doubt been dying to ask from the moment Gennesee entered the Library.

“Many,” Gennesee says, “not all.”

“Then you are not done.”

“On the contrary.” Gennesee glances down at the tube housing the completed manuscript. “I am quite finished.”

“The war…” the chief archivist begins to say.

Gennesee cuts her off. “This has never been about the war. Neither for myself—or, I suspect, for you. Amara.”


Gennesee approaches the frozen archivist, close enough that her warm breath makes the woman turn away her face. “Did you think I would not figure it out? None of the letters had anything to do with me. But many had a great deal to say about you. And the men and women I killed—they were all far too young to have been involved with my imprisonment.”

“Yet you killed them anyway,” Amara points out.

“Metonymy,” Gennesee says, feeling her throat tighten around the word, squeezed against her neck by guilt. “I confused myself for my poetry. Anger for right. Violence for justice. I have returned because it is what I owe them, not for any of your fake letters.”

Amara is silent a long moment. “And my name? Where did you learn it?”

“Every author I visited had it written down somewhere. Did you think I would not go through their letters?” Gennesee gave her a pitying look. “Oh, Amara. That is sad, lazy planning.”

Gennesee moves past the stunned archivist and into the room, running her gaze across the space. In the soft light of freshly-carved sonnets, the shelves shimmer and glow, as though she is looking at them from across a distance of hot stone. She approaches one shelf, running a hand across the embossed title, smiling to herself.

“Some even guessed you were responsible for unleashing me on them,” Gennesee adds, turning back to Amara, “eliminating those who were voices for your removal as chief archivist. Those advocating for negotiation and peace. You neglected to mention that it was our side who began this war—on your counsel. I expect your successor will not behave so recklessly.”

Amara opens her mouth to speak a denial, or perhaps defend herself with a confession, but Gennesee shakes her head. “Careful, Amara. You, of all people, should understand the power of a few words.”

“You think you’ve won,” Amara says in a shaky voice, sounding just like her father had that last time he and Gennesee spoke, when the old man was closer to death than either of them realized, the stress of his job slowly pulling him into an early grave. His fear had been palpable then, as his daughter’s is now. “But you will never leave this room as long as I am alive. I will make sure of that. Here.” She yanks the remaining letters free from her satchel and pitches them at Gennesee. “Your reward.”

The letters catch like wings in the air, before floating down to rest at Gennesee’s feet. She selects one from the pile, picks it up, and turns it over.

Both sides are blank. There never were more letters, only the premise for a trap.

“Clever,” Gennesee says, and nothing more. She knows Amara wants her rage, her hatred. But she will not have them. Gennesee will never give such priceless pieces of herself away again.

After the chief archivist is gone, and the wall sealed shut, Gennesee withdraws a quill and inkwell from a pocket in her dress. She sits beside the chains that once held her, and marrying pen to paper, opens a new door.

© 2021 Hayley Stone

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