Shona practically skipped out of the ambulance, twirled around as she landed on one foot, and gave a wide wave before she finally touched down on both legs. “THANKS AGAIN FOR THE RIDE, GUYS!” she yelled to the drivers. “And see you tomorrow, Aisling!”
“No! Get some rest!” Aisling shot back. She gave a sidelong glance, but kept right up with frantically typing on her phone.
Mide scooted past Aisling and climbed out of the car without fanfare. “When was the last time you got any rest?” she asked.
“I’m not at risk of exploding if I don’t take a good nap,” Aisling deflected. “So don’t worry about me. I know how to pace myself.”
When did that girl last take a nap, anyway? Shona’d never figured out how literal she was about the whole “never sleep again” thing when they first met. Truth’s Lantern couldn’t lie, sure, but how… abstract could she get with that? Were figures of speech off-limits too? Whatever.
Mide froze in mid-climb, holding one foot just off the ground. “Hold on, exploding? I’m… is that a thing we need to watch out for?”
“Probably not. But you get my point, don’t you?”
“And why shouldn’t she see you tomorrow, anyway? We go to the same school,” Mide pressed.
Aisling leaned down, putting a hand to her forehead. “…Sorry, right, yes. Lots on my mind. Still putting in reports, making sure I’m not missing any info anyone has on Isobel’s Harbinger. I suppose there’s no harm in going to school if that’s what you really want to do, Shona. I recommend, though, that you do whichever mundane things make you particularly happy, and I don’t expect that school is at the top of your list. Feel free to correct me if I’m wrong.”
“Nah, sure, you got my number alright,” Shona admitted. “So I guess I’ll see you whenever! And… I’m sorry again about your friend. We’ll be on call whenever you know what to do next… er, and when I’m better,” she said, cutting off the objection she knew was coming otherwise.
“Thank you. I’ll keep you updated. Now go take care of yourself.” With that, Aisling pulled the ambulance doors shut. The van drove off, leaving them alone in front of Mide’s house.
“Whew,” Shona huffed. “WheeeEEEeew,” she sighed again, playing with the whistles and crackling distortions of her new voice. “That was a lot, huh? That was a fucking lot.”
“Mm,” Mide grunted, still watching the ambulance go.
“This’ll be fun, though, yeah? Like old times, only nobody can tell us when the party’s over!”
“…Yeah.” Eventually, she turned around, wearing the sort of strained smile she put on when she didn’t want to show anyone what she was feeling. “Shona, is it time yet to talk about… whatever happened back there? It’s fine if not, but it’s just us now, and…”
And if Mide never asked how she was feeling, she’d probably stuff it in the closet and keep pouring it out through her power until everyone could hear. Yeah. They’d been there before. Just never with something… something so…
The dam broke. Scenes from the Wound stabbed through her mind’s eye. That face staring through her in the last place it belonged. That voice, exactly like the one she’d spent so long running just to make it to a place where she’d never have to listen to anything it said ever again. Her skin charred off her bones by Shona’s power over and over and over and never enough to get away—
Mide wrapped her arms around her just before she started screaming into the night, her hoarse cries amplified into unearthly shrieks of noise-music distortion.
“Oh, and here’s some good news! I’ve booked you another interview!” Her producer – a broad, slightly pudgy man – looked all too pleased with himself.
“Great,” Shona said tonelessly, not trying at all to hide how she felt about his good news.
“Shona,” Mom hissed through her plastered-on smile. “That’s wonderful news. Thank you, Mr. Burke.”
At least this time, she kept the rest of the speech on how important it was to “keep your name out there” to herself. If Shona knew that the exit strategy they had in mind when she got too old to play a Keeper on a dumb kids’ show was dumb kids’ talk show host, of all the fucking things, she’d have thrown herself and her name into the sea years ago.
“Hey, and if you hear me out, I think you’ll be excited about this one,” he said, spreading his hands wide. “The guest is Irida Deveraux.”
Shona’d already started rolling her eyes before the name left his mouth. But when she heard it, the whole world froze.
“You… wait, okay, I’m just… how?” she croaked. Irida was the unchallenged King of New Claris. She’d climbed much too high to spend her time talking to any old idiot with a microphone. So why? What did she have to say to her of all people that she hadn’t said a hundred times before?
“I wish I knew! Honestly, I wasn’t expecting much when the team reached out to her, but you miss every shot you don’t take, right?”
“Oh, I always knew you were too bright to ever burn out!” Mom cheered. Tears welled in the corners of her eyes, never quite falling. “Did you ever imagine, Shona? Isn’t that incredible?”
Shona couldn’t even get herself to argue on principle.
Her heart-bursting excitement faded a little when they got to the interview ground rules. Irida’s modest list of forbidden subjects wasn’t a problem, but the showrunners… same as last time, they pretty much wanted her to act like she was interviewing a guest-star Magical Guardian instead of an actual real-life Keeper. Nothing too heavy. Nothing too real. Nothing that would pop the show’s bubble-world where magic was all about punching your friends’ bad feelings away, then helping them feel better over a nice meal. Just ask her about shogi and her favorite things to do with magic, something like that.
“Plenty of people in the scene have talked to the Silver King. We want your audience to feel like they can talk to her too. Keep it on their level. Show them what’s fun about being her, alright?” Mr. Burke had said.
Bleh. Well, it was more than most people ever got to talk to Irida about. It sucked to come so close and know that Irida wouldn’t be talking to her in return, but she should really be happy with this much.
They’d decided to open the interview with a game. The producer thought it would be fun to teach everyone how the Silver King’s favorite game worked. That worked for Shona, who’d already decided without telling anyone that if she couldn’t actually ask or talk about Keeper stuff, she’d just let Irida guide that side of the conversation.
Sadly, Shona was not very good at shogi at the best of times, and in front of a live audience and maybe the whole world with the best, coolest Keeper in the city really didn’t feel like her best of times. She squinted, leaned over the shogi board, and pointed to the piece with the most complicated squiggly characters. “Uh, sorry, how’s this guy move again?” Beneath the table, she wiped her free hand on Magical Guardian Camellia’s flouncy pink skirt, desperately hoping the cameras wouldn’t catch her brushing off the sweat.
Today, Irida sat in an ordinary wheelchair rather than the palanquin she rode into battle, not that she looked any less majestic for it. Dressed in her Keeper outfit, the elaborate azure uniform of a general fighting for the sole cause of Fashion… well, if generals wore skirts and ribbons and tiny white gloves and hairpin insignias. Skin inhumanly pale and smooth as porcelain, silver-blue hair worn in an elaborate braid that trailed over one shoulder while leaving a few locks free on the other side — she seemed to have styled it differently every time Shona saw her. Sapphire-colored eyes twinkling with light and life. Literally twinkling — they were solid blue, with no whites whatsoever, and in place of pupils and irises they each had five flecks of light twirling around a tiny sun-pupil in an endless synchronized dance.
Irida lowered her teacup and passed it to the soldier at her side, still holding the teapot he’d poured it from — he was an odd half-real specter, a humanlike shape clad in something that seemed to waver mistily between being a stiff military uniform and old plate armor, his face covered by a thin cloth veil bearing a swirly glyph not quite like the ones on the shogi pieces.
“One square, forward or any diagonal direction,” Irida said.
“Right. Thanks!” Shona scooted the squiggly guy up to protect her knight.
“Are you sure you want to do that?” Irida asked. Her softly smiling face gave away nothing.
“Let’s see…” Shona gave the board a quick glance. If she was missing something big, she didn’t see it. “Yep! That’s the move!” She remembered how the knights moved from playing chess with Dad. Shogi knights weren’t as good, but their move was still the coolest. If she lost them, she’d miss her favorite little guys too much to focus on the rest of the game, so it only made sense to look out for them no matter what!
“Alright, then.” Irida picked up her bishop, slipped it through a gap in Shona’s wall left by the squiggly guy, and captured her king.
“Uh. Oh. Oops,” Shona stammered. “Hey, hold on, you can do that? You don’t have to say ‘that’s no good, your king’s in trouble now!’ or whatever?”
“I don’t! I usually would with a beginner, but, well. You did ask me not to go the least bit easy.”
“Ah, that’s okay,” Shona shrugged. “I resign! We all knew how this would go. But this is just the first time! I’m sure there’s a long way to go to catch up, but I won’t stop running ‘til I reach you!”
“Maybe someday,” Irida said with a patient smile.
“Someday! For sure! You just wait and see.” Shona aimed a finger-gun her way and winked.
“Maybe so! Until then… well, in your position, I would’ve accepted the handicap. Nobody dives into anything as complex as shogi and conquers it in a day. There’s no shame in approaching something new as a beginner, taking your time to learn it properly.”
“Yeah, you’re absolutely right! Big things, like people, always start small. It’s okay to work within your limits starting out!” Shona nodded along eagerly. They’d love that backstage. It felt a bit like one of those end-of-episode morals, but it still sounded like Irida. If anyone could find a way to make this cool, she could. “That in mind, anything you want to tell us about the right way to learn? How’d you pick up the game? I don’t think there was much of a shogi scene here until you came along, so what made you choose it over chess or something?”
“What kind of monster would choose to play chess?” Irida asked, scowling in a way that didn’t quite reach her eyes.
Shona laughed, several voices in the audience joining her. Irida only grinned and sipped her tea. Now and then, if you poked her just the right way, Irida would go off on a passionate rant about the game design failures of chess. Everyone loved those screeds, even the ones who had no idea what she was talking about. It was just fun to see the city’s unflinchingly kind and polite hero taking something so silly so seriously.
“No, no, that’s not it… well, it is, of course, but I’ll answer the question you were actually asking, too,” Irida said, prompting the noise to die back down. “A local community helps, of course, but we all have the Sea. Really, shogi just called to me in a way those other games didn’t. The pieces in shogi are unique, but they’re all part of a single complete system. They only make sense when you look at them in context, in terms of how they come together with the others. And the way the game works means that they never just go away. Their circumstances change, they become part of something different, their entire perfect arrangement falls apart in the face of a confrontation that only grows more complex…”
As she spoke, Irida swiftly arranged the pieces on both sides of the board, staging an elaborate endgame showdown between them. Fluid and graceful, she held the pieces deftly between the sides of her index and ring fingers as she moved them, as a professional of her standing would. Every movement ended in her placing a piece with that satisfying wooden clack Shona never managed to do quite right.
“…until someone pushes through all the chaos and finds the way to organize them, just so. I don’t see life in it or anything so cliche, mind you. No one game can contain the world. But I do see what I see when I look at the world. My place in all this, my strengths, my limitations and how I work around them. It isn’t my only calling in life, certainly not my highest, but it’s become a big enough part of how I think to shape my magic around it.” She gestured over her shoulder with her free hand, nodding to the two ghostly soldiers beside and directly behind her.
“…What if someone else had chess magic? Would they have to be your rival? Or is chess just not cool enough to give someone powers?” Shona prodded.
“Shogi didn’t give me powers,” Irida chuckled. “But no, I don’t see any reason why another Keeper couldn’t use chess as their implement, if they saw things through it the way I do through my game. They’d just have very poor taste,” she finished to a few more scattered laughs.
“Well, there you go! And I’m sure you’d beat them at their game as badly as you just beat me!” Shona pumped one fist in a quiet cheer.
“Oh, I don’t know about that.” Irida lowered her head and set her now-empty cup aside, where the teapot-soldier picked it up and stored it away… somewhere. “Just because I don’t think something is worth doing doesn’t make me good at it. I don’t even know if I’ll ever be the best player at my game, you know?”
“Wait a sec, you aren’t the best player?” Shona gawked at her, playing up her disbelief. “Who do I need to run from if I ever meet them?”
“As of last month, I’m the second-best Clarish player. If you’re watching, Glaisne, congratulations again!” Irida turned and waved to the camera. When she looked back at Shona, her smile seemed a bit wistful. “I know. Ironic, isn’t it?”
“…Huh.” Shona’d never thought about that. She’d already been Irida’s fan, everyone was, but she didn’t know enough shogi to follow her in the rankings or anything. “But you were one of those super prodigy kids, right? What changed?”
“Well, it’s the same way with people who are the very best at anything, isn’t it? You can’t just be good. You have to take every opportunity to improve yourself. The top players all eat, sleep, and breathe shogi, and I can’t do that anymore. I’ve taken other opportunities. Which I don’t regret at all, mind you! You don’t need to be the best at something to keep appreciating it.”
“Sorry if I’m a little stuck on this, just… what’s a normal person have to do to be better than someone with literal shogi magic?”
“Not at all! It’s interesting to think about, not to mention a bit uplifting for everyone who isn’t a Keeper. More tea?”
“Oh, sure. Thanks.”
Irida flicked her eyes at the soldier to their side, who immediately retrieved her cup and teapot from the same mystery space he’d been holding them in and topped them off. She inclined her head in thanks and took a long sip before she spoke again.
“It’s like this. Shogi doesn’t exactly have a city it’s from — islander ascetics developed it, that’s why the pieces are all labeled in that old classical Thalassic script — but it’s most popular in Rima. There, nearly all of the best players have been studying with experts since they were children. They even have a maximum age to join the professional player’s guild: if you haven’t made it by the time you turn 21, you’re no longer qualified. I don’t know if I quite agree with that rule, there are exceptions in everything, but there is a certain logic to it. If you’re approaching the game as an art, it does make sense to focus on nurturing the people called to it, players who’ve loved it more than anything all their lives. That’s where most of the masters who’ve elevated the game came from.”
“Right. Thanks,” Shona said slowly. “You’ve mentioned things calling to people a few times now. Could you tell us what you mean by that?”
Irida’s eyes literally lit up, the tiny stars inside them brightening. Their endless dance seemed to move a little faster.
“I can! I think some careers are more like callings. The people who take them up do it because they need to. Because it’s what they were made for, or where they feel like they belong, or the only way to achieve what they want the most. That’s not to say I’m only speaking of the biggest, grandest things anyone can do! There are callings great and small, from shogi professionals to airship pilots to Sanctuary workers to city council members. We need them all — well, maybe we don’t need shogi in quite the same way we need those other things, but you understand — and they’re done best when they’re done by people who, for their own reasons, have to do them.”
“Careful, Shona. This could get a bit out of bounds,” someone’s voice said through her earpiece.
“Thanks. Is…” Shona stopped herself, chewing on her words for a few long seconds. Blurgh, of course they’d cut her off here, right when it seemed like she’d found something the Silver King actually wanted to talk about.
She knew why they didn’t want to hear it, obviously. Camellia would have missed it. She’d say something about how cool it was that anyone who really committed to what they love could be the best at it one day and move right along. But Shona didn’t. Shona wasn’t too blind to tell when someone was talking about two things at once.
Well, fuck what Camellia would do. She wasn’t going to be the girl who had the coolest Keeper in the city on just to ignore everything she had to say.
“Do you think… being a Keeper is one of those?” Shona asked. Forcing the words out felt like trying to make herself touch a hot stove, but there they were.
“I do,” Irida said, mildly but without hesitation.
“What are you DOING?” the voice in her ear snapped at the same time. “That was the first thing on our no-go list. Okay. Fine. See if we can bring it back to…”
Shona wasn’t listening. Her mouth went dry. Even if she had any idea what to say, the words would shrivel up and die on their way out. Could Irida hear them prompting her? Obviously, it would be weirder if the Silver King didn’t have any kind of super-hearing power by now. Oh Goddess, she’d hate her, she’d never want anything to do with some pathetic little puppet again-
Irida shifted in her chair, looking directly into the nearest camera. Her eyes narrowed into the faintest beginning of a stern glare.
The earpiece cut off abruptly.
“…Okay,” Shona said, glancing nervously around the stage. The voice never came back. No one in the audience looked too confused or distraught.
“Let’s talk a little more about that, then,” she said experimentally, expecting all the while to be dragged off the stage or struck by lightning or something. “For everyone who doesn’t know what they want to do yet, how do you find your callings? How’d you know you were meant to be a shogi genius, or a Keeper? I guess maybe that last one’s for the Messengers to say, but was there a point when you were sure you’d do it if you could?”
“Hmmm.” Irida hummed to herself for a few seconds, tapping her fingers on her wheelchair’s armrest.
The lightning strike never came.
Finally, the Silver King’s calm smile widened into what Shona could only see as a conspiratorial grin. “This wasn’t exactly the kind of interview I was told to prepare for, but it is starting to look like the kind I prefer. Alright, Camellia! Let’s speak a little more freely, shall we?”
Shona pumped her fists. She couldn’t help it. This was going to be too cool to care who’d yell at her when it was over.
“So, to be honest: yes, some of this is up to the Messengers,” Irida began. “I don’t know what makes someone a Keeper. I wouldn’t trust anyone who claims to know. I felt that this was where I needed to be for a long time before I met Yune, so it can’t be a simple matter of desire or passion like other callings. Instead, I’d like to talk a bit about the kinds of people I believe should be Keepers. To my mind, that’s the same as talking about who should want to be Keepers. It’s a difficult, dangerous, frightening role, and it will become the most important part of your life. There’s no avoiding that. If there’s something else you were passionate about, you shouldn’t expect that being a Keeper and having powers connected to that passion will be like doing what you loved, but more.”
If that lightning was going to strike, now was its last chance. No, it had probably missed its window. No one could stop the Silver King from popping that bubble now. Shona doubted anyone could even bring themselves to try.
“Like I said before, though, there’s some things that can’t be done any other way. Every Keeper I know has something like that, some change they’re determined to make. Every great Keeper is someone who’s looked at the world and found something they want, more than anything, to change for the better. When people ask me about my favorite Keepers, I’m really never thinking about who’s the coolest or most popular right now. I think of the Saints, who devoted everything they had to making a better world for all of us. And I also think… it doesn’t always take magic to change the world. Certainly not to change someone’s world.”
The audience was silent. Shona was silent. It was a lot to take in, even for her — especially for her — and for all that she’d invited this, she wasn’t sure how to follow it up.
“…When does it not take magic?” she finally asked.
“Almost none of the people who connected every city to the Sea were Keepers, and who could say what any of this would look like without their work?” Irida answered immediately. “We protect what all of you build, but it doesn’t turn around us. We’re just pieces on the board. Major pieces, yes, but I wouldn’t be much of anything on my own. Without all the people who help me, I couldn’t accomplish anything. And without the people I fight for, nothing I accomplish would matter. So please, whatever you take from this, remember that magic or no, everything you do matters.”
“…And to all of you who do make the Promise someday, I trust you to do better than Flower’s Fangs!” she finished with a wink to the audience. That got a few laughs. A few more uneasy ones. “Honestly, I trust all of you who don’t to do that as well. I’m not asking a lot there. Let’s not digress too much, though! A little earlier, you asked me when I knew what I was meant to do…”
“Well, I think our time is about… actually, our time was up a few minutes ago,” Irida finally said, glancing off at a clock on the wall. “I guess nobody wanted to interrupt us! Sorry if I’ve caused any trouble behind the scenes! So, much as I’d love to continue, I wouldn’t want to make things any harder for the rest of the shows on your schedule.”
“Yeah, I’d lost track of it myself… thanks for catching me there!” She really hadn’t been paying attention, but honestly, she’d be happy to dump all those shows for more of this and so would everyone else.
“Thank you again for having me on, Camellia! This has been a lovely time.”
“Oh, no, thank you! But I really am coming for you, y’know! When you see me again, you’ll be the third-best Clarish player!”
Irida laughed, and Shona joined her. “I’ll look forward to it. And to everyone else watching, whether or not you’ll ever be a Keeper, whether or not you want to, I think it’s good for us all to look around, take in the world, and think: is this right? Should that be the way it is? If you find something that isn’t, try to change it! And if you try and try and find that you just can’t… well, maybe you’ll meet the Messengers one day after all. Thank you all for listening.”
Irida bowed her head, waved to the crowd, and gestured to the soldiers at her back. The tea-server vanished, and his comrade began to wheel the Silver General away.
“And thank you for watching, everyone! I’ll be seeing you again real soon!” Shona called into the audience with an excited wave, then dashed away.
It had been a great interview. Maybe good enough to justify this dumb meta side-show thing all on its own. Shona wanted to hug whoever’d gotten Irida to agree to it. Sure, some of the geeks in charge of the show’s branding or whatever were probably fuming, but everyone else would love it and then the whole thing would blow over.
Backstage, she was greeted by a roomful of wordless glares.
“What the fuck was that?” Mr. Burke was first to break the chilly silence. She was a little taller than him, now, but looking down at that tired, dead-eyed scowl didn’t feel any different.
Shona flinched, waiting for Mom’s sharp “Language!” to crack through the air as if she’d said it herself. But Mom only stared at her.
“Look, it’ll… this’ll be fine, okay?” Shona muttered. “How many years have we been doing this? Audiences, they grow up with the things they like, yeah? It’ll be good… good for them to…” She’d had it all planned out. It all sounded great in her head. But no one here cared what she had to say. They just wanted her to quit ruining everything and go back to being cute.
“You really had to do this the one time there’s no way we can redo it or throw it out, didn’t you?” Mr. Burke sighed. “If you’re trying to fuck us all over, I really wish you’d just say you’re done already.”
“That’s not it at all. Please give us a minute,” Mom said. She grabbed Shona’s arm and dragged her out into the halls.
Mom let Shona’s arm slip through her fingers once they were away from prying eyes, but didn’t turn around to face her. There was a silence as she stared off in the opposite direction, looking down the corridor at a poster with her daughter’s face on it spread across the far wall.
Shona tried to speak up, to explain herself to the one person who she could trust to understand. She had really done something this time. For once, she had made something wonderful entirely on her own. “Mom, I—”
“Do you really hate me that much?” she asked, swiveling on her heel. Her whole body shook, and her eyes, already red and watery, had started to well up again. Her makeup ran in messy streams down the side of her face, the kind she’d always rush to fix the moment she noticed them.
“…What?” Shona mumbled.
“I just can’t understand why else you’d be like this! We worked so hard to get you this role. We were all so happy for you when you booked it.” Her voice trembled and croaked. “So proud. So why are you doing everything you can to ruin it now?”
Shona wrapped a strand of hair around her finger and tugged, trying her best to steady herself. “I’m… look, I’m sorry, it’s nothing to do with you, okay? Maybe I just… don’t want to be someone else for the rest of my life.”
“What do you mean someone else?” Mom forced out through a heaving sob. “Is that how you think about our life’s work now? We’re only here because you asked to be! You wanted to do what I did, didn’t you? And you’re an idol now! The whole world loves you! What do you have to be so nasty about?”
“Yeah, ‘cause you made acting sound really fun when I was six! There was a kid my age in class who wanted to be a bear when he grew up! I didn’t think I was promising to do it forever! I changed! I grew up!”
“Grew up?” Mom whispered. “That’s… is that all you think of…” Her voice trailed away. A second later, she burst into a wailing weeping, fit. The door cracked open behind them.
“Oh, FUCK OFF ALREADY!” Shona roared, and stormed away before she could even see who was coming. Mom could deal with it if it was so fucking important to her that she couldn’t live without deciding how she had to live.
What were they doing back in there, anyway? Worrying about her interview crushing some poor kid’s dreams? They really shouldn’t be. If Shona hadn’t already been desperate to be a real Keeper and quit playing a fake one, she was now. She’d just have to find something she wanted to change more than herself.
Until then, Mide would listen. If nobody else in the world ever looked at her and saw anything but Camellia, she’d still have one place of shelter.
Shona spent the rest of the week at Mide’s house. They went to school once, but Aisling really did have her figured out. It wasn’t that she didn’t have the energy, or she had any problem with how everyone reacted to her awesome metal voice, she just… being around all those people, she couldn’t help but wonder if all the changes would ever be enough for them to see her as her.
So she stayed home after that, and Mide stayed with her. They spent the days walking around the city out-of-uniform, the nights watching movies and concerts and, on one night Mide blocked out ahead of time, a stream of the yearly fencing championship in Horizon. Shona didn’t quite know enough to follow what was happening, but the sheer energy of Mide’s commentary on the event was enough to make it fun, like listening to Irida argue about board games.
It was a good week, despite everything. It really was. Mide’s family was happy enough to have her around that they treated every night as deserving of a big fancy meal for a guest, and while she wouldn’t say no to good food with people who actually liked her, she couldn’t help but feel like she was imposing. She couldn’t exactly ask them to keep her around forever.
So finally, that Sunday night, she headed home to face the masked monster who haunted her in her sleep.