Fiction Friday: Truth Beyond Paradox

Mage: The Ascension

Today we look at Seanan McGuire’s Shadows Cast by the Memory of Giants from Truth Beyond Paradox.

I studied my reflection in the mirror, searching, assessing, looking for a flaw I could hang myself upon – something I could point to and say, “There, you see? Most of this is magic, most of this is art, and alchemy, and someone else’s rules… but that piece there, that crooked tooth, that freckle, that discoloration, that’s me, that’s mine.”

There was nothing. Of course there was nothing. The people who’d been responsible for remaking me, like turning lead into gold, had done their jobs perfectly; there were no errors to find. Everything I saw was flawless, in a soft, boring way that left no hooks in the heart. They’d transformed me from someone who was plain but memorable into someone lovely but perfectly forgettable.

Laughter bubbled up my throat, as thick and bitter as vomit. I pressed a hand over my mouth, pushing it back. This was what I’d always said I wanted. This was the future I’d bartered five years of my life to claim, with two more years to go before I could stand before Tribunal and say, without hesitation, “I pledge myself completely, heart and soul and future, to the service of the Houses of Hermes, the Order they have found between them, and the balance we must all pursue.” I’d practiced those words so many times that they should have lost all meaning by now, becoming light and effortless, but they’d grown heavier and heavier instead, becoming a stone upon my heart.

Every step I’d taken had been one step closer to too far; can’t go back. Apprenticeship carried its own oaths, as inviolate and unforgiving as the oaths binding a grown Magus to service. First I’d given my freedom, letting the Order dictate what I did and when I did it, letting them sever my ties to the world one by one. Then I’d given my name, consigning “Barbara” and whoever she might have become to the ranks of “never-was” and “didn’t.” Barbara Mitchell might have been a wife, a mother, a beloved member of her community. Barbara Mitchell had been going to college to become a teacher. She might have inspired young minds, might have changed a hundred lives forever. But Barbara Mitchell was never anything but a passing fancy, a life I lived until I realized there was something more.

Apprentices were required to cut ties with our old lives by the end of our third year of study, although the symbolic “deaths” of those abandoned selves didn’t come until year four. I wondered, sometimes, whether my parents had cried when heard that their long-absent daughter’s body had been found, or whether it had been a relief by then, one more thing to push aside and not talk about. I grew up in a house full of careful silences and measured responses. Maybe that was why the voice of the Order spoke to me so loudly, when I finally let myself hear it. I wasn’t alone anymore, when I listened to the Order.

I wasn’t Barbara, either. “Bryony” was a much better name for me. It always had been. It had just been waiting for me to grow into it.

So first went freedom to choose what I did with my own self, with my own time, and then went family, all the people who had made and shaped and defined me until the day the Order found me, and finally, as I teetered out of fifth year and into sixth, they had come for my face. I had to be perfect. I had to be someone who could move through the world without leaving ripples, unless I wanted to. That was what it meant, to be Hermetic. We were like pondskaters, those little bugs that danced on the surface of the water and never broke through. We had to be above.

Read more about the newly-forged Bryony and many other stories in Truth Beyond Paradox, now available in ebook and print from DriveThruFiction. Truth Beyond Paradox is a follow-up to the classic Mage anthology Truth Until Paradox.