Exploration: Tool

This references characters seen in White Marble and Cold Metal. Like them, it’s not really a self-contained story so much as an exercise in thinking about a character.

Regrets grow best by moonlight. For Leoth, this night held no exception. He had many in his life, now, that should have made him happy, and yet some small part of him still held on to what he might have had, if his life had gone differently.

He knew there were things he could never have affected. As a child he could never have helped his parents earn enough money to afford keeping him. He felt a slight pang for having never really known them — he couldn’t even remember their faces, now, or the sounds of their voices — but he knew he had wound up in a better place without them.

Surviving on the streets had been miraculous, by any measure. Some of the things he had been forced to eat should have killed him. Some of the things he had been forced to do for men for money should have killed him, too. Those were things he didn’t talk about with his friends, the sort of things that filled him with a shame so deep it felt as though his soul wanted to vomit.

He regretted those things, but still, he knew his life wouldn’t be the same without them. He didn’t know how the monks had seen it in him, but somehow, beneath the layer of grime that had covered his younger self, they had perceived his potential.

Despite all of the bad things in his life, there was only one real thing that he regretted, one thing that came floating back into his mind time and time again when the light of the moon fell through his bedroom windows and lit up his skin with its pallid ivory light. It brought back his recollections of the night he had left the monastery.

At the time, it had felt like the first real decision he had ever made. Even now, he supposed he thought of it that way. His parents abandoning him and the monks taking him in had both been turning points which had changed to course of his entire life, yet this was the first turn made of his own will.

He could feel the others in the night around him. Not literally, of course; but in his heart, he knew they were there. He knew where they slept. If he strained, even through the thick floor, he could hear the sound of Baruch’s snoring. The living wood of the house Yenevau had woven for them gave off a sweet scent, earthy, yet clean, which normally lulled Leoth into a sense of peace. Not tonight.

He would not be here if he hadn’t left the monastery. He knew that. He knew, also, that he was far happier with Baruch and the others in this warm wooden home than he could ever have been encapsulated in the cold stone walls of the monastery. The monks had taught him a great deal. Because of them, he knew how to read and do math, if not nearly as well as Cyrène. He knew a little bit about history and geography. But most importantly, to him, he knew how to use his body.

This is why he had left them, and why he wished that he could have stayed. The monks believed that the path to improving oneself as a being involved perfecting and sculpting the body through rigorous training and exercise. They did this through the practice of martial arts, teaching their students various moves and forms that disciplined the body and the soul and made them into tools of the mind, rather than a cage for it.

Leoth had excelled at their practices from the very first day. There was just something inside him that fit perfectly with their training. His body moved through the motions they had taught him as though he had been born knowing them. His muscles grew quickly and easily under their regimens, and despite his short stature, he dominated the human children of his age when they were allowed to spar.

Above all else, the monk’s method of manipulating their own vital energy came easily to Leoth. When they first showed him it could be done, he did it. They hadn’t even moved onto the point in their lesson where they’d begun instruction. The other students had looked upon him in awe when, after the teacher produced a white orb of energy in his hand, Leoth had done the same, as easily as flexing his fingers.

All of this — their training, their knowledge, the depth and breadth of things he would never learn because he had left — Leoth regretted losing. He wanted to learn more about what was possible. He had struggled through some of the Shuran scrolls the monks kept in their libraries, but his reading comprehension of the Shuran language was far below even that of his native language. He had gleaned only vague hints about what was possible with the power the monks had begun to teach him, enough to desire much, much more.

He had left because he had known that if he stayed, his life would be filled only with an unfulfilled longing. The monks refused to use their strength, and Leoth hated them for it. They existed in a state of endless contradiction: They believed in training and strengthening the body, in learning how to fight, in practicing methods that turned one’s own vital energy into a weapon, and yet, they refused to participate in violence.

Yes, the monks sparred with one another, and they used sparring matches to train their students. Yet attempting to harm another outside of those sparring matches, or even endeavoring too seriously to bring harm inside those matches, was met with harsh punishment and disapproval.

Leoth had wished, had begged and pleaded time and again, for the masters to put their prowess to use. He had felt, naively, that should the monks spend even a day attempting to cleanse Vanadram of its criminals, the city would be a far better place. Now, of course, he had the perspective to realize how unrealistic his dreams had been, yet he still felt frustrated that the city should contain such a powerful martial force and still be subject to the whims of the criminals therein, which the city’s police force struggled to contain.

Leoth had left so that he could have the freedom to walk down the street and, seeing a woman beset by a man with ill intentions, stop that man, with his fists if need be. He did not wish to stand idly by, knowing that his fists and his very body had been turned into a weapon, and yet refusing to use it out of some ridiculous idea that violence was always morally wrong. To Leoth, violence in itself held no moral standing of its own. Violence was a tool, like a hammer or a bow, and it was the use to which you put that tool that determined whether you were doing good or evil.

He had no inherent desire to be violent, but he did have a desire to do good, and given the ease with which he had taken to his martial training, he had felt for a long time that he was meant to use his fists to bring something better to the world.

If he hadn’t left the monastery, he would never have had the freedom to choose that for himself. He would never have found Baruch, would never have met Arriette or Cyène or Yenevau; he wouldn’t have a family and a home to call his own. He would have only cold stone walls and unfulfillment.

Just knowing the things he didn’t know made him long for them, though, even though sometimes he thought he might try to discover them on his own. After all, he had taken so easily to what the monks had taught him. It could be dangerous to experiment, yet sometimes he found himself tempted to try.

He held up his hand before his face. In the dark shadows of his room, he could barely make out his own skin. The moonlight fell across his legs in a band where his blanket covered them. Above him, the faint green glow of the luminescent moss Yenevau had created to grow on the ceiling gave the impression that the top of his room in fact expanded up outward into infinity.

A sphere appeared in Leoth’s hand as he extruded a small portion of his own life energy. It didn’t glow; not precisely, for it didn’t cast any light on the flesh of his hand or on the soft fabric of his blanket. Nevertheless, his eyes told him it was a source of light, because he could see it clearly even as he pulled his hand under the sheet, lifting it over his head to block out the light.

The sphere created an odd phenomenon, which, when he had first seen its like, had filled Leoth’s eyes with an odd discomfort. It cast no light, though he could perceive its white-gold face even in the darkest shadows; and, at the same time, no light nor shadow was ever cast upon it. It existed somehow outside of what Leoth would consider the physical realm, though he could force it to interact with the things around him.

Leoth split the sphere into two, and then three. He set the little spheres dancing around each other in the palm of his hand. He shaped one into a pyramid, and another into a cube, and onward they danced, as though playing with one another. The other students in his class had taken years to be able to do this, and even some of the masters struggled to coordinate several different shapes with ease. Yet Leoth did it as simply as though he were twiddling his fingers.

He drew the shapes back into his hand, feeling an emptiness he had hardly been aware of as it was suddenly filled by the reclamation of that tiny portion of his life energy. With his head still beneath the sheets, he contemplated doing something foolish. Something that he knew had gone poorly, when one of his fellow students had tried it.

He knew, though, that he was better than that boy had been. He didn’t think that out of conceit or arrogance. It was simply a true statement, like saying that Leoth was more flexible than his classmates, or that Cyrène was better at the flute than Leoth could ever be. Leoth would be careful. And, if something went wrong and he did burn his eyes out or blind himself, well, he could only hope that Yenevau could heal him.

He moved his vital energy around within himself, redistributing it. He didn’t have much to spare. Most beings, the monks had taught him, had no extra vital energy at all. When training began, many of the students would accidentally draw too much of their vital energy out and collapse. Leoth had fallen prey to that himself. Like a muscle, though, with time the amount of vital energy one could redistribute became greater, and one’s own store of it increased by tiny increments as one made unconventional use of it.

Leoth brought the tiny amount of extra he had built up over the years into his eyes. This was dangerous, because if he did it indelicately, or he pushed in just the wrong way, he could ruin his eyes, and he could do so in multiple ways: he could destroy them physically, which Yenevau could fix; or he could ruin their connection to his font of vital energy, making them useless to his body.

He felt just enough confidence that he knew what to do that, despite the risk, he pushed forward. The energy flooded into his eyes. He didn’t want to push it too hard, so aside from gentle guidance he allowed it to take its own path. He knew this could be done because he’d read something about it in a book, but also because he had seen some of the senior monks do it when observing them at practice.

Like a flash of lightning, Leoth’s perception of the world suddenly shifted. He wasn’t seeing just the woven wood of Yenevau’s creation, but deep, flowing lines of light-that-wasn’t-light, glowing rivers that, like the sphere he had held in his palm, held no glow. He was, he realized, seeing the vital energy of the house itself, flowing through its branches.

Leoth turned his head to the side, wondering if he would see the shape of Cyrène in her bed, just out of reach through the wall at his side. No, the wall still occluded his view, both physically, and with the net of energy that worked its way through the wood.

Leoth felt his eyes begin. He took that as a warning. He siphoned the excess vital energy out of his eyes, blinking as his view of his room returned to normal. In that moment, he regretted more than ever his decision to leave the monastery and all that he might have learned there. At the same time, however, he felt a sort of relief, for he thought that, maybe, he could learn on his own.

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