Stories / Spirals /

Visions

from a serial by Lexi Summer Hale

Everything still feels slightly unreal, like I’m detached from the world around me. Like I’m caught up in a dream. Nothing I know seems to apply anymore. All the old rules have changed. Everything looks different, everything sounds different. Everyone talks and walks and dresses different. And everything I’ve ever known about myself has been turned on its head.

I’ve felt this sensation a couple times before. Getting the call from Destiny Garden at the end of the war felt just like this. So did the orbital strike that wiped out the Seventh. For years and years, the world is one way. An instant later and everything is irrevocably altered.

Bear gazes at me as he sips from a tall mug. “This is… a lot to take in.”

I nod numbly. “We were only talking for maybe ten minutes. It’s… how can so much change in ten minutes?”

“Did he help, though? Are you feeling better?”

“I… don’t know. I feel kind of shellshocked. Did you… did you know anyone else this ever happened to? Anyone else who had shanvol?”

Bear shakes his head. “If I did, they weren’t talking. And I don’t blame them.”

“Knowing there are… that other people have been through this…” I take a deep breath. “Bear, a lot of things happened in that war. A lot of really, really horrible things. There are so many people with the Blue Stripe out there who’ve been suffering without any help or hope for years. And we didn’t even know. Nobody knows.”

Bear nods gravely. “That’s a sobering thought. Knowing it happened to one person is bad enough. But thinking of all that pain, all that misery, all those lies a hundred, a thousand — I mean, ashes, maybe a million times over — shit, Kess, it might not just be the soldiers. Think about all the civilians. At least we understood what was happening. All those people who got caught in the crossfire—”

My eyes glaze over. “All the people I forced out of their homes…”

Bear looks stricken. “You don’t think…”

I flop over onto the bed. “All this time I’ve been… wallowing in self-pity. God alone will know how many people I’ve put through this same torture. How many people out there are waking up screaming in the night because of me—”

“Because of us. Don’t make this all about you. I’m exactly as responsible as you are for the things we had to do. And we weren’t the only people who had to evac civilians. That Shalvan guy was right, Kess. We saved their lives.”

“How many of them do you think killed themselves to make the visions stop?”

“Don’t. Kess, stop it. Don’t make this another reason to hate yourself.” Bear sits forward, clasping the mug with both hands. “You’ve found too many of those already.”

“Something has to be done. I have to do something.”

Bear leans back, crosses his legs, looks at me skeptically. “What are you thinking?”

“They need to know!” I blurt out. “They need to know they’re not alone. And to make the world respect them, just the way the People respect me.”

“That’s a tall order.”

“They need to know there’s hope. That they’re not broken.” I sit bolt upright. “You know what else Shalvan told me?”

“Never feed a pien şai just before a mating frenzy?”

“He told me that… that the other Blue Stripes will look up to me. That I can show them there’s a life after war. Bear, this planet fucking worships me. I can show them. I can tell my story and instead of thinking ‘what a sad, broken excuse for a hero,’ they’ll think, ‘my hero’s just like me.’ I can finally use my name for some goddamn good.”

“Did you forget all the good you’ve already done with your name? Like, damn, Kess, how many people did you bully the Senate into giving the White Stripe?”

“I don’t know. A couple, maybe. But this… this could help a lot of people. Bear, this could help people who aren’t even born yet. I’ve been saying again and again, we need to learn who we can be in this new world. Maybe this is Sapphire’s first lesson.” I rub my hands together absently. “We want to show the Empire we’re nothing like them? Then we cast aside their cruelty and teach each other compassion!”

“You know, you don’t need to give me a speech to convince me you’re right.”

I smile ruefully. “Sorry. It’s a hard habit to get out of.”

“Hey, I don’t even want you to try. Remember that firing squad?” Bear grins. “I thought we were dead for sure. But you didn’t even look scared. Just angry. Like a schoolteacher lecturing a dumb kid. And ten minutes later, they’re untying us and leading us straight to the armory.”

“God, I forgot about that.”

“How do you forget something like that? Don’t tell me you also forgot about that time you caught Lotus cheating at duam shai—”

I manage a weak laugh. “I remember. The way the cards came just spilling out of her sleeves—” I glare at Bear. “You’re doing exactly what Shalvan told me to, aren’t you?”

Bear looks at me innocently. “I can’t imagine what you mean.”

“You’re deliberately making me think about… about our victories. The good times we had with our people.”

“Mmmaybe.”

I shake my head. “I’m wise to your tricks.”

“They’re working, though. Aren’t they?”

I look down and nod. “Yeah. I think so.”

“Hey.” Bear pats me on the shoulder. “You might not like it but you’re always going to be a hero to me. Whatever uniform you’re wearing, you’re always going to be the Kestrel Winterblossom who’s always thinking about everybody but herself. Who gets her hands on a shred of power and right away starts trying to figure out how to use it to help folks. Whether you’re kicking den tsuang ass on the battlefield or getting junkies clean on the street — you never stop fighting. That’s why I followed you then. And it’s why I’m still following you now.”

“Oh, now who’s making speeches?”

“Well, it’s a day of the week, so, probably Silverdawn.”

I smile faintly. “I should go check on the others. I’ve been holed up in here for too long.”

“Nah, you never take a minute more than you need away from the good fight.” Bear stands up. “Might want to start with Piper, though. Knowing her, the poor thing spent the last couple hours sitting on her bed and shaking.”

“Poor Piper. Hey, did you notice something earlier?”

“Hm?”

“When we were handing off our sapphires for inspection — I saw Piper putting something in a bag. Something blue.”

“You don’t think…”

“No, I don’t, but there’s something more going on here. Whatever it is, she probably needs someone to talk to.”

“Go be her hero, Kess. It’s all you know how to do.”

“Shut up. I can play a mean hand of duam shai too.”

“And doesn’t the whole battallion know it.”


Piper slides her door back a fraction and peeks out at me when I key the chime. “Oh! Ambassador!” She quickly pulls it the rest of the way open and clasps her hands behind her back. “H-how can I help you, ma— Ambassador?”

“Kestrel, Piper. My name is Kestrel.” I smile at her. “You can say it. I promise it doesn’t bite.”

“Uh. Um. Well, um, then, h-how can I h-help you, K-Kestrel?”

“Can I come in? I’d like to talk to you for a little while.”

“O-oh! Yes, certainly, of course!” Piper hurriedly steps back, crossing her palms on her chest. “Please come in.”

I take a seat on her couch and prop my legs up on the footstool. Piper hovers over me. “Can— can I get you anything? I found the water faucet, and I think they have tea—”

I put a hand on the seat next to me. “Sit down, you.”

“O-okay.”

I pat her on the shoulder as she does. “Tell me how you’re doing.”

“I’m— I’m okay. I’m fine, really. Um.” She looks down, then looks back up at me. “Amba— Kestrel?”

“Yeah, Piper?”

“About… earlier?”

I flinch. “I—”

“Are you okay?” Piper clasps her hands worriedly. “I’ve never seen that happen to anyone else before. You looked so scared.”

“I’m— hang on. Anyone else?” I stare at her. “You’ve… you’ve had that kind of episode?”

Piper nods. She looks away, squeezes her legs together. “I’m… yeah.”

I stare at her. “Do you relive memories too? Is there… something that happened, that you see right in front of your eyes again and again and again? And sometimes you could almost swear it’s real, like you’re trapped in a living nightmare?”

Piper nods again. “I thought I was the only one.”

“Yeah. So did I.”

“I’ve always felt so useless,” Piper murmurs. “I can’t… I’m so fragile and I can’t be normal no matter how hard I try. I’m never more than one wrong touch away from… from sobbing and throwing up on the floor.”

I put a hand on her thigh. “Piper, look at me.”

She looks up hesitantly. “Kestrel?”

“I’ve been talking to some of the Greens. They have people who… they help people fix their minds when they break. One of them came by and talked to me. You’re not alone. We’re not alone.”

“We’re not? They…” Piper’s eyes open wide. “They can fix us?”

“It’s called shanvol.” I squeeze her thigh gently. “This has happened to a lot of people. The Greens understand it. It’s happened to some of them. And there are a lot of people on Sapphire who have it too and think they’re alone.”

“How do you… how do you fix something like this?”

“I don’t know. I think it’s gonna take a long time. But the… the virtash who talked to me… he told me things I’d never imagined. Piper, they don’t think we’re pathetic. They respect us. And they care about us.”

“Oh my God.” Piper stares at her hands. “I’m… Kestrel, I’m so glad I’m here. I was so afraid at first but now… oh, I’m so glad I didn’t try and turn back. I never thought… I never imagined anything like this. I’ve had to hide it for so long. I was so afraid everyone would laugh at me.”

I take her hand. “I care about you too.”

Piper flashes me a grateful smile. “I— I know. You’ve always been so good to me. Gosh, I never imagined— I never imagined I’d meet you! I never imagined I’d meet the Kestrel Winterblossom. And I never thought she— you— I never imagined you might… I always thought you were so brave and strong. That nothing could ever take you down. I used to wish I could be like you. You always seemed the opposite of me.”

“You were like me all along.” I stroke her arm. “Hey. Can I ask you something?”

“Of course! Anything!”

“Earlier today… it looked like you had a sapphire necklace. And now it turns out you have shanvol too… Piper, were you a soldier?”

Piper shakes her head violently. “No! No, no, nothing like that. It’s… well, it’s kind of a long story.”

“I’d like to hear it, if you don’t mind.”

Piper smiles timidly at me. “Okay. Well. Um. I… I was a kid, when the war started. For so long it was just this far-away thing we heard about on the tavern radio. I lived in this little town, Eagle’s Landing—”

My eyes widen. I take a sharp breath. “Eagle’s Landing? You’re from Eagle’s Landing?”

She nods. “I guess you know, then.”

“Piper. I am so sorry. God, I’m so sorry.”

“My parents died. Everyone I knew died.” Piper squeezes her hands into fists. “When I was young, my father used to cut marks into this one beam every so often to show me how tall I had grown. It fell on me. M-my leg is broken and I can’t get out from under it.”

“Oh, Piper.”

“It hurts too much. Crying for hours and hours and nobody’s coming.” She stares at the floor. “My mother’s lying face down. Her clothes were all red. Then…” I feel her trembling in my hands. “Then they found me. They— I—” She cringes back. “God, God, no, why can I still see their faces, I don’t— go away! You’re dead! You’re not real! Stop touching me!”

“Piper!” I stand in front of her and take her by the shoulders. “Piper, come back to me. It’s not real. It’s not real. I’m here, okay? Kestrel is here. Kestrel Winterblossom is here and she’s going to protect you.”

“You… you weren’t there…”

“That’s right. I wasn’t. I’m here now.”

Piper takes a deep, shuddering breath, blinking again and again, shaking her head. I can’t help but stare. It’s like looking into a mirror. Seeing all the same things that happen to me—

“I—I’m sorry. We’re— we’re in the Embassy, right?”

“We are, Piper. It’s okay. You’re safe.”

“What was… I was telling you something.”

“You were telling me what happened to you. The night the bombs fell.”

Piper looks distant for a moment, then she nods. “The den tsuang.”

“Oh, no.”

“I thought they were there to help me.”

“Oh, Piper.”

“They took me away and… and…”

I put a hand on her cheek. “You don’t have to finish. I can fill in the blanks.”

Piper nods wretchedly, tears streaming down her face.

I sit back down, squeezing her hand. “I’m going to ask that Green I talked to to come by and see if he can do anything for you, okay?”

“Okay.” Her voice is small, faint.

“I meant what I said. I’m going to protect you with my life. Nobody is going to hurt you again. I won’t fucking let them.” I try to remember what Shalvan told me. Maybe if I can get her thinking about something besides that night…

“What about the sapphire? Where’d you get that, Piper?”

“There… there was a cadre in town. Some of them survived. They tried to break out before the Guard could close ranks. And they found me. I was… alone, broken, naked, and helpless. So they took me in. They took care of me.” Piper’s hand moves to where her pocket would have been, then stops. “Do you… do you remember anything about the Battle of Cauldron Pass?”

“The…” I stare at her. “Where did you hear about that? God, that was… that was some of the ugliest fighting I ever saw.” I take a deep breath, trying to keep myself focused, ignore the shadows of screaming voices and thundering of shells and hundreds of feet crunching frantically through the snow that I can almost hear, just off to the side somewhere. “H-how did you know I was there?”

“There was a boy. At the camp. His name was Fox. He would smile at me and bring me food and call me ‘comrade.’” Piper fiddles with her robe. “He was so sweet. So brave. He’d come back from battles and teach me to read. He’d hold me when I was upset. I was alone and he took care of me.” She looks up at me.

“You saved his life.”

“I… what?”

“At Cauldron Pass. That was his unit. The reinforcements got there just in time. He came back to the base a week later. On a stretcher. Both his legs were broken in the avalanche when they set off the charges. It took months before he could walk again. And he told me he saw you. The legendary Commander Winterblossom. Like an angel descending from the heavens to smite the Guard, he told me. He would have died. His whole unit would have been wiped out. But you saved him.”

“Is… is that his stone? Did something happen to him after?”

“No. No, he survived. He made it all the way to the other side. Just like you.” Piper rubs her arm distractedly. “He gave me my own. After he found out what I’d been through. He told me… he pinned it around my neck himself and he told me that I deserved to wear it as much as any soldier. That I had suffered and fought just as hard as all the rest of them. It never seemed right, I never even fired a gun, but everyone agreed with him. The base commander would salute me and call me ‘captain’ sometimes. They were all so good to me. They made me feel like I had a family again.”

I exhale, my thoughts racing. “I… had no idea. I didn’t know I meant so much to you.”

“You mean so much to everyone!” Piper blurts out. “Everyone has a story. Everyone who ever fought for the Revolution knew someone who knew someone. A squad you pulled out of the fire. A soldier whose life you saved. It was like you were everywhere, looking out for us, ready to swoop down and tear the den tsuang apart wherever they threatened us. You made me think we could actually win.”

She flashes me a small smile. “And then we did.”

“I…” My vision is swimming. This is too much. I can’t process any of it. “I don’t… I didn’t…”

Piper looks up at me. “Ambassador? Kestrel?”

“I… yeah?”

“Thank you.”