Title: The Illusion
Fandom: Infinite Space
Characters: Katida Lanco, Yuri
Warnings: Post-timeskip, spoilers for Katida's character arc
Rituals are lives.
Like a pair of shoes, they take time to get used to, might chafe and here and there at first, but soon settle snugly around the foot. Stable and sure, with a firm sole to stand on, as if they have been there forever. A good thing, too, for without them, the foot would soon ache, cut itself on thorns and splinters, lose its balance and go slipping over naked rock with no way to stop a fall. From rituals grows order, a comfortable routine like notes in a song, a sense of stability in an otherwise barbaric world.
For instance: Katida Lanco has been living in rituals for the past ten years. Sometimes, a step changes, a note shifts, but only slightly, and never far, nothing to cause the structure to shiver under the effort of displacement. Everything she needs. Everything she is allowed to need, all the range she has been given. Changing too many things would upset the structure, that careful balance of may-must-shall, with want or wish never factoring into it.
Just like this one: The timelaun spread out on the mantelpiece, its small twigs laden with blue tear-shaped blossoms. Three candles arranged in front of it, lit up and slowly dripping wax. Two white, for the dead. One red, for the living. A stick of incense placed on the rim of a bowl, its fragrant smoke slowly curling towards the ceiling. Two prayers on her lips — one for the souls of her parents, long departed, one for her grandfather, still alive and, judging from what she hears every once in a while, doing better than ever. A simple thing, the duty of a devoted child, and yet, it tightens around her, rendering the well-wishes nearly mute.
It's the red candle that does it, a must in conflict with want. Separation demands that she pray for her grandfather's good health and fortune, the long distance and the years between them turning it into an obligation she must observe as the heir to the House of Lanco. And yet, more than anything, Katida wishes she could grab the damnable stick and smash it, grind it to pieces under the heel of one pearl-studded slipper.
Another ritual. She wears what Desmond gives her, gifts for which many a woman would gladly give up anything, fine silk skirts embroidered with hand-spun lace, intricate necklaces clasping the galaxy's finest diamonds, fur-lined coats made from the silver-gray pelts of the yunoa, four hundred thousand credits a piece. Perfumes heavy with the cloying scent of Lugovalos's finest flowers, so persistent she has to scrub to get rid of them. None of them things she would choose for herself, just ornamentations for a girl who has herself become an ornament, a bauble on the crown of a Lugovalian conquistador, a small, petty man who has made Nova Nacio his own kingdom.
He delights in it, lavishing these trophies on her, usurping whatever sense of self may still remain. There is no reason to sugar-coat, to search for a comfortable euphemism that obscures the reality of it all, no use denying that what is left of Katida Lanco is getting smaller by the day — what isn't taken away is shrinking in on itself, bit by bit, like a cornered cat seeking to melt into the wall.
It wasn't always like this. At first, she used to scream, fifteen and furious at the indignity of it all, being dragged from her room in the family villa and having a ring thrust upon her finger the way one would slap a pair of shackles on a slave. No goodbyes, no time to pack her things, not even the permission to take her loyal steward with her, she got shipped off to this outpost on Mytilene, where there is nothing but sand, whipping around the ruins of an ancient temple and chipping away at the stone.
A room awaited her, chambers furnished for a royal concubine, plainly spelling out her duties — a wardrobe to keep whatever Desmond wishes for her to wear, a large, cushioned, impossibly comfortable bed where the deed was to be done. Being privileged gave her the fury of a righteous princess, shouting and throwing whatever might break, stomping on the gifts meant to buy her favor and proudly demanding to be returned to her grandfather.
That was before she learned the truth, before her voice dropped to a whisper and she began to bow her head, looking out at the world from under demurely lowered eyelashes. Before he grabbed her wrists to keep her from throwing a crystal goblet, and bent down so close that she could see herself reflected in the shine of his front teeth as he smiled, my dear sweet wife-to-be, just who do you think it was who agreed to our union?
Denial didn't last her very long, not when there was never a letter, never a word — Katida Lanco, the apple of her grandfather's eye, bundled and sold as the most valuable asset to Lanco Warship Manufacturing in order to keep it in business. Jozefo Lanco is a businessman through and through, and she used to admire him for it, the cunning with which he struck his deals, the benevolence with which he wielded his power. How silly of her to believe herself loved — to feel secure in it, precious and protected, to think herself the center of his universe and reward her grandfather's devotion as any princess would, with coquettish defiance and whirlwind escapades.
It is only now that she can see this love for what it was, and her side of it — herself, a piece of trading stock awaiting its turn to change hands, and herself, a spoiled little girl whose entire ego rested on the surety of that love.
The prayer ends, another ritual successfully concluded, and Katida wets her fingertips, extinguishes the glowing tip of the incense. Time to move on to the next step, to think about what to wear for the day as any good trophy wife would, to pick the dress and jewelry that will most please her husband.
A long time ago, she used to like being pretty, more to appease her own vanity than anyone else, liked the way silk and velvet felt to the touch, the way the rose-petal baths would make her hair shine and send rapturous exclamations flying from the lips of her maids, my, such beautiful hair, Miss Lanco, the angels themselves couldn't be more radiant than you, my, what beautiful skin, white as alabaster!
Slowly, Katida removes the bathrobe, its satin spill long enough to conceal the wardrobe mirror. It is an important part of this particular ritual that she cannot see herself while she rummages around in the closet, fingers gliding over fabrics and pulling out a garment here and there to check its color. More important still that she cannot see herself once the lacings come undone and the nightgown slides to the floor, revealing all there still is to her, the only thing that still is to her.
A small, frail body that can be controlled by a pill, a stupid little pill the size of a fingernail, and yet, without it, she wouldn't even make it to the dock, much less out of orbit. Desmond gives her just enough that she can withstand the low gravity of Mytilene, enough to keep the flesh from peeling off her bones, but not enough to keep her from feeling faint and weak all the time.
In a bizarre way, his control over her has given Katida a little control of her own, and birth to a morbid new ritual, wherein she will try to keep him from touching her as long as she can. It's absurd how proud she is, the way a slave is proud to yield to the system of his enslaver, that she managed to reduce the sex from every few days to every few weeks because Desmond doesn't like the idea of her being sick all over him and the pillows. Not enough to change the dose, but enough to pose an affront to his oh-so refined Lugovalian sensibilities most of the time.
Eventually, her hands come to rest on a bronze-colored dress, its high collar delicately stitched with gold thread. She doesn't remember the occasion on which it was bestowed upon her. That makes it a better choice than most, when she doesn't have to bother with recalling at what party she was paraded around in it, at what function she had to endure the sycophantic compliments on Desmond's taste.
Pulling up the zipper and straightening the cuffs, Katida turns her attention to the bedside table, gathering up the brushes and her jewelry case. She has learned to do her hair blindly, gathering it up at the back of her head and tying it into a simple, artless knot, all so she can avoid having to look in the mirror. Loosening the cap from her lipstick — peach, just peach, a pale tone to emphasize the pallor of her face — she begins to mouth words to herself, phrases that she will need during the day.
Good morning, milord. Thank you, milord. If it pleases you, milord. It is as you say, milord.
Sentences like the chopped gibberish of a small child, devoid of personality and context. All her voice is ever used for is to concur, to echo her husband's every decision in toneless agreement. Secretly, though, in the corner of her mind not taken up by rituals, she thinks in tavern songs, in passages from The Legend of the Pirate Miravoslav, in flashes of playing under the blooming apple trees behind the estate on Populara. The small-ship thrum of the Nightingale all around her as she sat in that cargo box, feeling very clever and too excited at the thought of space to notice the waning flutter of her pulse.
It shouldn't be as precious as it is, the memory of pursuing her dream very nearly at the cost of her life. The memory of waking up in a hospital bed half a galaxy away and meeting the first genuine opposition to anything she'd ever done, that fiery young boy — Yuri, YuriYuriYuriYuri — placing both hands on her shoulders and lecturing, yelling — this is no game, Katida, how could you be so careless, Katida, think before you leap, Katida. She giggled at his worry and huffed at his insolence because that was what a princess did; a princess could bend the rules to her liking without regard to someone who was so dreadfully plain, just barely fit to be a servant.
How foolish, how silly of her to cling to this as her last moment of true happiness, being forced to swear on everything good and holy that she would take better care of herself, would be more considerate of others' feelings. It is only now that she understands in full the gift that boy offered her: worry not for Katida Lanco the princess, but worry for Katida the human being, and between going from heiress to a better prostitute, wasn't he the only one who neither bowed nor made her bow?
More childishness. She is just making herself heartsick, thinking about things that will never be hers, remembering, wishing... isn't it just so stupid, that when you scrape away everything of a person, the most whimsical things become greater than they are, more wonderful, shining beacons of escapist fantasy?
Promise me. Promise me you'll take me to the stars. I want to see everything, Yuri! Everything there is! Promise me. Promise me promise me promise me—
What nonsense, when she doesn't even know where that boy is now, whether he is even still alive, or whether he has simply forgotten her, as more important people have already done.
Something lurches in her at the thought, and Katida flips her powder box closed, busies herself with combing through the earrings in her jewelry case. A dangerous misstep to stray so far from the rituals, and her thoughts go tripping and tumbling over each other as her hands are frantically turning over gold and silver—
Of course, milord. promise— This is most unfortunate, milord. promise me— Is there anything you require, milord? I promise—
The case tips over, the day knocked off balance by her clumsy mind, sending the contents spilling to the floor.
Katida fumbles for a moment, hands clutching at the bedside table as she lowers herself to her knees, but restrains herself from darting after the skittering beads. There are rules here, too, conventions she must observe, and the lady of the house doesn't just go lunging after her scattered belongings.
She can still fix this if she takes her time. One breath, one piece of jewelry. For every one that goes back in the case, one thought has to retreat back behind the boundary line, until everything is neatly back in place and ready to resume its due course. Just take it slow, and the thoughts will go quietly, replaced by the daily pantomime.
The last brooch in the case, and it snaps shut, Katida rising to stand with practiced grace. The only time she shows pride now is towards herself, when she has successfully stifled most of what is still her, squaring her shoulders in a way she wouldn't dare in public, smoothing out the wrinkles in her dress. She can do this. Whether she cares for it or not, this is the lot in life that has been assigned to her. Soon, Desmond will be here, and then they will resume their twisted little game.
Naturally not, milord. One should think these rebels would know their place, milord. Whatever good could come out of standing up to Lugovalos, milord?
Katida seats herself again, mumbling the words under her breath, steadying her voice for conversation.
She is almost back to normal by the time the door comes flying straight into the room, torn off its hinges by a maser blast.
Save for the thrum of the engines, the Nightingale is quiet, the lights in the corridors dimming as the night watch assume their posts. Nearly everything is the way Katida remembers — isn't it odd that she remembers? — the stairs to the crew quarters down the east corridor, the stairs to the west leading down to the mess hall and the infirmary, the north elevator heading straight to the bridge. Everything is clean and narrow, small, cramped facilities on a ship built for speed and maneuverability, and the amenities are slim at best — a gym and communal showers, a small bar on the observation deck for off-duty personnel.
So many unfamiliar faces, foreign accents and dialects mingling into an indistinct murmur, Elgavan, Kalymnian, and several dozen more she has never heard in her life, a couple so thick she can barely tell the words apart. All misfits, ex-pirates, ex-military, ex-scientists, ex-patriates, all the people for whom society never had a place, now even less so than ever before. And at the center of them, Yuri, changed so much she could hardly recognize him when he strode up and offered his hand for her to take.
Katida? Katida Lanco? Is that really you?
Tall and scarred and broad-shouldered, barely a hint of the scrawny, wide-eyed boy she found so easy to tease, and if it hadn't been for the honest incredulity on his face as he leaned towards her, she probably would have been afraid.
It took me a long time, but... I'd like to keep my promise.
Kindness. Who would have thought that it could be such a shock, that kindness would render her meeker than cruelty ever could, barely able to reach out in turn? She held out until the infirmary, where Yuri disappeared to turn the ship around, and she was hustled around by a cheerful nurse — it was the sight of the replicator that did it, spitting out a perfect, full-sized pill, exactly as it had done every week all those years ago, like it had been waiting for her all this time.
Katida felt like a fool, standing there with the tears rolling down her cheeks and the bewildered nurse stroking her back — there there, there there — unable to even begin to explain, knowing full well that the device still being here meant nothing at all, that it was just as likely that no one had found the time to remove it, and yet...
I'd like to keep my promise.
She ended up in one of the crew cabins, just as simple and functional as the rest of the ship, just as small, and still, its sparse comforts seemed to her more welcoming than any tapestry and silk sheets. A bed, a desk, and, in the walk-in closet, two identical black suits, cut from the synthetic fabric of the spacefarers' garb.
Hers now, should she want them, and this is what she has been doing for the past two hours, indecisively unfolding and refolding one of the uniforms, and, every once in a while, getting up, pacing a few steps, and holding the suit in front of herself.
It's a stupid, fanciful thing to do, like a child playing dress-up — to think that she has a right to wear it, that she has done something to earn it, when there is nothing she could add to this crew. 'Heiress' is the only skill she ever had, the ability to throw around her weight in money, and now, she doesn't even have information to give, plans or blue prints or knowledge of the fleet.
Still, every time she lifts up the uniform, something comes unexpectedly undone — a cuff's buttons popping open, a zipper sliding just a bit from where it should be, three strands of gold-set amethysts clattering uselessly to the floor. The fabric, when it finally slithers up her legs and hugs around her belly, feels cool and smooth, a little loose in places, but Katida can't say she minds, not after so many years of being made to dress just to show off her body.
The last to go are her slippers, kicking themselves on top of the heap that used to be a dress. How silly it all looks, a mass of tacky magpie things, some six hundred thousand credits rolled together and looking like a pile of trumpery.
Slowly, she gathers them up in her arms again, and slips out the door.
If she were to hang onto these things, they could fetch a pretty price in the next colony, enough to repay in some small way the fact that she has not been forgotten. The necklace at the very least could be sold to a black-market dealer without problems, and yet, she finds that stuffing them in a closet, even handing them to someone to be kept on the other end of the ship, is still too good, too close.
The starboard airlock is held in place by a heavy spinning lock, one that doesn't budge no matter how hard she tries, not even when she drops her load and pulls at the spokes with her entire weight.
"They won't open at our current speed."
Katida flinches even as the large hand comes to rest next to hers, stilling her violent tugging.
"The strain on the hull would be too great here." Yuri's face changes very little, just a hint of puzzlement sliding across his features, nothing at all like the sprightly boy she remembers.
Barely enough time to wonder how ridiculous she sounds, with that tiny voice that is only used to whispering anymore, before he bends down, scooping up the discarded belongings. Regarding her in silence for a moment, he hands the bundle back to her, and not for the first time, Katida finds herself wondering what he sees when he looks at her, whether she seems as strange to him as he to her, a shadow of her former self. She couldn't bear it, she thinks, if Yuri were to pity her.
"Are you all right?" So much that could be said here, or asked, and she's grateful Yuri is sticking to the simple questions for now, because they are already hard enough to answer.
"Yes. Yes, I'm fine, I was just..." She shrugs, lips twitching, resists the urge to direct her gaze at the floor. "Doing something really stupid, apparently. I wanted to... I guess I was..."
"Ah, I see," Yuri says and turns, motioning for her to follow.
Even if she hadn't been spending the past ten years practicing obedience, there is something about the gesture that is rather hard to resist, a kind of strange certainty that he doesn't want to show her the way to storage. Katida isn't quite sure how she knows that, whether it was something in his voice that suggests he really does see, or a momentary gleam in his eyes, but still follows after him without question, down some stairs and then another flight of stairs, down a sliding pole and over metal grates, to the very stern of the ship.
They arrive at a door marked with red stripes that slides open at the flick of a card key, revealing a maze of gigantic metal tubes and moving cranes. Yuri is already moving between the tubes, leading her to one in the back of the room.
With a sharp hissing sound, a panel on the side slides open, revealing a flat, gray cylinder about the size of a man's trunk.
A quantum torpedo.
Katida never cared much for the technicalities of her grandfather's business, but she knows enough to know how dangerous these weapons are, that all the workers in the factory were getting triple hazard pay for handling the warheads.
Unperturbed, Yuri disables the safety on top, revealing the insides of the empty chamber meant to pack extra scatter ammo, and moves aside.
"There's no problem with the airlocks here."
A grin, there and gone again, almost mischievous.
She isn't quite sure what eventually gets her moving, going from disbelieving stare to stuffing the damnable items in the chamber, fingers flying so fast she can't even remember to worry about the warhead behind the thin piece of separator, just inches from her hands.
The lid falls shut, a discordant warning ushering her away from the missile tube as the paneling slides closed again, the lights along its length slowly switching from red to green. Yuri has been typing away at a console in the corner, a screen flickering to life to show the rear of the ship from the outside, a trail of blue-white energy propelling it through space.
Katida nods firmly, surprised to find herself standing tall, her stance as sure as it ever was when she was still a princess. "Fire."
A tiny flash on the screen, the torpedo shooting out the hatch and into inky nothingness. A moment's quiet, enough to catch sight of Yuri's face again, before something in the distance erupts into a million points of light.
He steps back to her side, the screen showing the sparks flying in all directions like superheated fireflies, and gives her an oddly gentle smile. Watching her old life spreading in atoms across the galaxy, it takes a little while for Katida to realize that she is indeed smiling back.
A/N: Man, that reunion with Katida in the game? Broke my heart into a million pieces. So this got written. C&C is appreciated, as always.