io9 is proud to present fiction from LIGHTSPEED MAGAZINE. Once a month, we feature a story from LIGHTSPEED’s current issue. This month’s selection is “Fanspell: Flowers in Spring (RobYung, NSFW)” by Anya Ow. You can read the story below. Enjoy!
I am ashamed of the way I learned magic, and shame has made me a coward. I stay silent as Arul circles the body of the girl who has made bright flowers of her flesh, silent as he says, “Unorthodox interpretation of Lee’s Symphony of the Meteor. Backlash ultimately fatal. Time of unmaking . . . midnight, give or take a couple of hours. Stop staring, Myei. Write it down.”
I write it down. The flesh column that was once a young girl stretches from the packed dirt of the kitchen floor to the belly of the longhouse above us, held high by stilts out of respect for the Mother River’s many moods. The kitchen beneath the longhouse is a proper outdoor kitchen, with a huge blackened wok and pits for charcoal just beyond the house, great ceramic vats for soups and a stone and earth oven. The women of the house are nowhere to be seen. Only the father of the girl stands just outside, his lips compressed into a thin line. He’s someone important in the village, to have a longhouse so central. Rangy chickens peck in the dirt beside a couple of wary goats.
“Why the Meteor?” Arul says to himself. As a Deathsworn chaplain, his black clerical robes cut a harsh contrast against the oven. He slices a sample from a bone flower, ignoring it as it shudders and tries to jerk out of his grip. “Strange variation too. Flowers instead of spines.”
“It’s an unauthorised remix,” I say. Shame makes my already unlovely voice brittle and thin. “Part Meteor, part Seo’s Ritual of High Summer.”
Arul frowns at me. I twitch a gossamer ball of light towards the flowers, a cantrip flavoured with spring morning rain. The closest flower snaps it out of the air and belches a bubble of warmth flavoured with the smell of a summer day, a Ritualist reaction. Arul flinches back. “Not bad. How’d you guess?”
Shame stifles any truth I might care to breathe, but I couldn’t help thinking of the two men in question. I’m no stranger to the process, after all—they both inspire me, if not in the way that Arul might imagine. Lee and Seo are globally popular High Cardinals of polar-opposite clerical Houses of Magic. Moonsworn Robyn Lee Weiming, Sunsworn Seo Byung-Jae. Both of them handsome and charismatic and seen together just often enough in Exhibition broadcasts to be shipped. The RobYung fandom already spawns lovingly crafted stories and art about lives that they could have lived together, so why shouldn’t it also spawn lovingly crafted magic that they could have made together? Fanmagic’s usually harmless, though—I should know. It’s how I learned and practiced magic.
I would say all of this but Arul would ask me uncomfortable questions, so I smile and lie. “Just a guess, sir.” Pretending to be normal is tiring but necessary.
Arul stares at me for a long moment. Maybe I haven’t been flippant enough.
“I need to see her room,” Arul tells the father, who nods tightly.
“What about . . . what about this?” the father can’t even look at the flowers. “Can it be cleared?”
He hasn’t asked whether the magic can be unmade, if his daughter can be returned. I’m not surprised. The lives of daughters are cheap. “You want it cleared?” Arul asks the father.
“Is it dangerous?”
“A remixed spell’s backlash?” Arul scratches his chin. “Eh, tricky.” The father scowls. “I want it cleared.” He throws up his hands. “This is what happens when you teach women to read. It’s the school in town. They put ideas in their heads.” He pauses and glances belatedly at me. “No offense.”
I say nothing, the words clenched in my throat. It’s rare for a woman to learn enough orthodox magic to be fully sworn into a House, let alone to move upward through its ranks. I can’t afford to be “difficult” in any way until I rise.
“Your late daughter Lesha was very powerful, untrained as she was,” Arul says, patting the father on his shoulder as he passes. “I suggest being kinder to her memory.”
“She was an unsworn cleric,” I say sweetly. “If she’s made unhappy in death, her spirit will become a hantu.” It’s my second lie of the day, and I say this one with satisfaction. Arul glances at me as I speak but grunts instead of correcting me. I thought he might. No one would remain at the rank of chaplain for over ten years, resisting being promoted out of fieldwork, but a person who cared in some way for the unjustly dead.
The father pales. “I’ll have incense offerings put around the flowers. And . . . if it’s harmless, I’ll leave it alone. Her. I’ll leave her alone. She was a good girl. I’m sure there won’t be a hantu.”
“Good, good,” Arul says. He climbs up bound bamboo to the longhouse, nudging off his sandals at the entrance. I follow suit. We bow to the women within the main room, who stare at us with silent grief and point the way when Arul asks respectfully to see Lesha’s room.
Lesha had a corner room in the far end of the longhouse, close to the side access to the washing facilities. It’s a stifling room with no windows and a narrow bed, rope strung along one wall to hold a few simple clothes. Lesha has made the most of it. The walls are papered over with pictures of Robyn and Byung-Jae, lovingly cut out of newspapers and magazines. Her Network node on her bed is a secondhand piece of bespelled slate decorated with printed washi tape with a white rose and sunflower pattern, part of any RobYung fan’s coat of arms. Arul opens a box under the clothes and grimaces at the thick scent of cloves, cinnamon, and rosewater. Lesha had been mixing her own focus. She’d also kept copious notes in an old notebook, squeezed between breathless verse.
I wince as Arul reads some out aloud. “Robyn smiles invitingly at Byung-Jae from the moonlit pool. ‘Come here, ae-in,’ he cooed, ‘the water’s perfect.’” Arul laughs and I flinch. As he flips through the pages, his eyebrows rise. Even without malice, his amusement hurts. “What in Shanti’s name is this?”
Shanti is the Goddess of chaos and love, I want to say. She would have enjoyed something like this written in her name. “No clue, sir.”
This time, Arul gives me a strange look. “What?”
“What do you mean sir?”
“You never call me ‘sir’ unless you’re trying to hide something. Did you know Lesha? Is that it?”
“No.” I swallow the honorific on the tip of my tongue. “She’s just so young.”
Arul isn’t fooled by the evasion this time. “So? You’re Deathsworn. You’ve seen death take everyone. Young and old.”
“She reminds me of me.” I’m sweating into my robes. I can’t keep Arul’s eyes. “I used to mix orthodoxy too. When I was that age. Just trying out things. You’d see bits and pieces of spells on the Network and paste them together.”
“Oh, that.” Arul is disarmed. Relief is bittersweet. “Everyone does that,” Arul says kindly, “and to be honest, it’s nothing to be ashamed of. Kids will be kids. This is a tragic accident. A waste of talent.”
Compassion hurts as well. I make a show of looking through Lesha’s notes. “I’m not an expert on Moonsworn doctrine by any means,” I lie again, “but I think this is the part that went wrong.” I point. The transcribed spell focus in Lesha’s notes asks for a pound of hearts, no more, no less. I’ve never seen RobYung spells this morbid on the Network. Granted, most unorthodox spells—let alone fanmagic—have no real effect at all. Fanspells are contributions of love with meanings ascribed to each ingredient and verse, usually more poetry than actual magic.
Actual magic. There it is again. Even now my shame conspires to demean the way I learned magic.
“Good guess,” Arul says, studying the page in question. “That’s a Deathsworn Ritual ingredient. I know, I know, pound of flesh, ha ha, but sometimes stereotypes really do bend reality.”
“I’ve never heard of any Deathsworn magic with that ingredient.” Yet another lie, a glib one. Deathsworn ingredients—real and guessed—are part of so many popular tragic fanwork tropes. I’d been surprised when studying to learn how many of the spell ingredients I’d read in fanspells were real. Though, then again. How many of the women in the Houses learned their way to where they were through fanwork? Yet most of us stay silent about the means. There are too few of us as it is, and nobody wants to rock the boat.
“Not yet. You’re still only an acolyte. This is chaplain stuff. Transmutation. Strange how a girl from a nowhere village heard of it.”
“You can find a lot of things on the Network.” I do not mention that for girls from nowhere places—like Lesha’s, like mine, destined to marry and beget children and be forgotten—there is no other way to learn magic. The Network is the great leveller of destiny. Lethal as it may have turned out to be for Lesha.
“Well, that’s your job then.” Arul pats me on the arm. “Find out what she learned on the Network. And get the techs to help you erase anything she might have put out there about this awry spell. Don’t want any more corpse flowers in the night popping up, eh?”
“I’ll see what I can learn.” Bile is sour in my throat, but I speak the right words to stitch them over the wrong ones. I pretend to sift through the box, breathing in a dead girl’s focus. I am doubly ashamed.
Being Deathsworn allows me to bypass Lesha’s imprint on the Network. I log in as she would have, sleeving myself in the skin of the dead. The slate lights up as the Network links me to the Hivesworn groupmind, never a pleasant experience when sleeved as someone else. I miss the muted colours of my own slate, the empty landing page. Lesha would have made a good Sunsworn—her slate setup is a riotous attack on the senses, an overwhelming scattergun of impressions and messages and likes and posts. She had been immersed in at least three Hiveform socials.
I check the most obvious culprit. Lesha’s RePositr was last updated yesterday with ReThreads of RobYung art that pop up over her cheap slate in muzzy focus. Most of her RePositr page makes her out as a lurker, one of a thousand Positives that click on the little green + instead of commenting. Her main contributions appear to be the occasional playlist, released to no fanfare and little attention. She has very few followers. As I browse the posts, a new message winks at me. I reach for it, allowing it imprint-to-imprint.
As Deathsworn I feel the shape of the connecting imprint at a visceral level: blood, bones, heartbeat. Someone young, Lesha’s age, identifying as a woman. She uses the imprimatur IridescentLaceyThing on the Network. My Deathsworn access tells me that offline she is Elena Lopez, and she lives across the ocean, newly enrolled as a student into a Deathsworn-affiliated academy. She’s also talented enough to sense something wrong in the sleeving. “Miki?” she asks, uncertain. Her words cross the sea, uncurling through the slate and into my mind.
“Hello,” I say.
“That Flowers in Spring spell? Don’t cast it, OK? I just showed my tutor a piece of its High Verse, I didn’t mean to, I got caught, and she freaked out so much that I only just got out of detention. Don’t cast it.”
“It’s too late.” My gentleness sounds forced against professional curiosity. “Elena Lopez? This is Deathsworn Acolyte Myei Lee. May I speak to you about Lesha?”
“Oh. Oh Gods!” Elena’s grief bursts down the imprint and makes my teeth ache. “I knew it oh Gods if only I wasn’t in detention I tried to get Santiago to let me go home early but then she called my parents and—”
“Breathe,” I say, less kindly now, “breathe.”
“I’m going to be in so much trouble. I’m sorry. Gods, I’m so sorry.”
“Why do you think so?”
“I sent her the spell,” Elena wails, “oh Gods, I sent her the spell. It’s fanmagic. It wasn’t meant to do anything. I thought it’d never work, I thought.”
“You wrote it?”
Another burst of horror and grief, then a pause. “No! No. It went viral. It’s the top fanspell right now on the RobYung tag. In the Host. It’s a Networked library of fanwork?”
“I know the Host.” I’ve been a member since the beginning, a year before Elena had even been born. “Send me a link to the fanspell. Do you know who wrote it?”
The link pops into my impression. “It’s . . . it’s anonymous. Most of the fanspells are posted anonymously nowadays. Everyone’s scared of a crackdown from the Houses.”
Some things don’t change. “Thank you, Elena. I’d like you to go to your local Deathsworn cleric, if you live near a clerical office. Tell them you’re there to make a statement and give them my name.”
“Okay. Uh. Okay, I’ll do that right now.” Elena hesitates for a while. “Is Lesha going to be OK?”
“I’m sorry,” I tell her. I close the message and read the rest of her file using my Deathsword access, everything from the scope of her life to the minutiae of her chosen studies. My mouth twists once I am done. We are not so different either, the both of us. Worse. Elena reminds me more of myself than Lesha had. Taking a breath, I log out of the access and open an official clerical link to the Hive. It’s answered nearly immediately by a chaplain—they’ve probably been monitoring my messaging with Elena. Annoying but not uncommon. Hivesworn clerics are naturally nosy, and the debrief takes well over an hour.
“It’s gotten worse,” Arul says, when I contact him afterward. “Lesha’s only the first victim. There are a couple of others getting logged. One in the Netherlands, though she survived. Saved by an incorrect measurement of rosewater. One in Tokyo, another fatality.”
“More corpse flowers?”
“Not exactly the same, but close. Netherland’s was more like a . . . mass. With a couple of flower-like protrusions. Tokyo’s was like a tree. Small ‘flowers’.”
“They might have amended the High Verse in the original fanspell.” I used to do that myself—with the permission of the author. Share and share alike is the general rule, as the unsworn pass the bones of never-spoken spells between ourselves. “The Hivesworn are going to have the posted spell taken down. And they’re trying to trace the spellwriter.” I feel sorry for them, whoever they are.
“Good luck to them. Don’t see what good that’s going to do. It’s probably some kid like Lesha. Even after the Proclamation Against Unorthodoxy, no House is going to be willing to prosecute something some kid puts up online for fun. The publicity will be hellish.”
“Some kid that knew about Deathsworn spellwork.”
“Or got lucky.”
I smile. Arul won’t be able to see that over the secure Network connection. “That’s true. I’ll keep looking—” I hesitate. Logged into the Network as Lesha, I’m beginning to see notifications pop up with “my” name. First a few, then a cascade. “Something involving Lesha’s going viral.”
“What?” Arul’s disapproval radiates down the message. “Is it that girl you talked to? Did she leak something on the Network already? I swear, kids nowadays will do anything for publicity.”
I look closely and feel my stomach twisting. It’s a list of names titled PERVERTS/ABUSERS. Lesha’s has been checked off. “I’ll call you back, sir.”
“It’s a callout list,” Elena says, when I get hold of her through Deathsworn encryption. She’s in a Sending room too, and her image is mirrored into a chair in our own room. She smiles nervously, red-eyed from crying. Beside me Arul taps his foot on the ground impatiently, but he’s hidden from Elena’s sight. Just as the Deathsworn cleric accompanying Elena into the Sending is hidden from me.
I know what that is. “Go on,” I say.
“It’s, you know. It’s the thing nowadays. Most people in fandom are great. But when you have a lot of people doing a thing, a small number of them can be awful. Those people, they can be real loud? Drown out everyone else in bad faith discourse.” Elena took a deep breath. “They’d abuse people who like certain things. Tropes, ships, the works. Or just abuse people who they think are too old for fandom. Write callout lists and get into packs and doxx people, or send threats, or. There was a fancon recently in Taiwan where someone was giving out cupcakes with needles baked into them to people who shipped RobYung.”
“Why do people have a problem with RobYung?” I ask. I know this answer too. I’m sweating it into my robes.
“Well. It’s RPF, real person stuff, some people don’t like that. And others think Robyn’s young? Like he’s twenty-three? Byung-Jae’s thirty-four. Some people, especially the younger fans, they’ve been calling RobYung shippers pedophiles. For shipping people with an age gap. That kind of thing.”
I pretend to take notes, though I don’t need to. It hasn’t been long since I last tried to disengage, and I always relapse sooner or later. Fervour is addictive, and the sense of belonging somewhere is even more so. The experience had been mostly joyous, sometimes ugly. Isn’t that generally already better than what people like us could hope for in life? The glass ceiling stretches above Elena and me, across oceans and the magic of young women. We are both conscious of it in different ways. She is drawn in defiance, shoulders squared, ready to speak in the memory of her friend. I am eaten quiet by shame, which is nothing new. It has long soured itself into my bones, swallowed my tongue.
Arul clears his throat pointedly. I have a job to perform.
“Has Lesha ever received any threats? Did she have enemies?”
“No. Not that I know of. She didn’t write fic or art. Or spells.”
“Why not? She had talent.”
“I don’t know. She always downplayed what she could do. I don’t know that much about her personal life. She usually just complained about her dad. Not in a bad way. I mean. Kind of a bad way, but not to do with this. The dad is pretty strict?”
“I’ve seen that. Why would her name end up on a callout list?” I ask the question that had sat uneasily in my mind since I’d seen the viral post. “Someone knew that she was dead. And that’s not common knowledge beyond this area. It’s not in the news. Or on the Network.” The girls who had died in Tokyo, in the Netherlands—they had also been on the list, their names struck out.
Elena nods, her hands twisting together. “I was thinking about that too. The list. They usually list like, big name fans. Popular artists, writers, spellwriters. Lesha mostly lurked.”
“I don’t think it’s a callout list at all.” I don’t dare to look at Arul. “I mean, it’s written to look like one. I think it’s more of a list of victims. Did you know anyone else on it?”
“Well,” Elena says helplessly, “I know everyone on it. But I don’t know them. Not in real life.”
She doesn’t need to explain any further. I know what she means—of course I do.
The Hivesworn take down the callout list. The fanspell’s link is broken when I try to access it. The Houses put out a global message about the dangers of fanmagic. Cardinals go on talkshows, many of them older men who’d never heard of fanmagic until it turned three young women into flesh flowers. Now they see only the worst of it. I read article after article on the Network misjudging the way I learned magic and I am ashamed all over again. I stay quiet. There are no more “accidents” for now and matters are in the hands of the Hivesworn. There are, unsurprisingly, also no attempts to improve access to clerical education for young women.
I stay quiet, for I have already solved the case. It has done me no good to do so, and I have said nothing to Arul. I wait and watch as the Hivesworn fail to trace the anonymous person behind the list, behind the spell. It does not surprise me that they fail. The culprit is, after all, someone a little like me. We are used to hiding from the Houses, from our families, from ourselves. We are used to being dismissed. We are used to contempt. Being misunderstood on top of all that is nothing new.
Elena startles when she spots me at the back of the ceremonial hall five years later. Something goes tight in her face, and she’s quiet and pale through the rest of the graduate ceremony. Time has been good to her. She wears the grave well, and has gained gravity with the robes of its House. She looks more Deathsworn than me, even in the plain robes of an acolyte. I wait. After the ceremony, she finds me on the garden grounds by the hedges of pale flowers. Deathsworn clerical houses grow our calling cards in ugly rows, tangled weedy things with flowers like snowflakes. I’d been picking at one as Elena approached, and its sap stains my fingers pink.
“I thought you’d be here,” Elena says, trying to be brave. Something is breaking in her anyway. I know it because I see the same fractures when I look into a mirror. “I thought you’d be here earlier.”
“No denials, I like that.”
“No. I thought you might have known. When we talked, so soon after Lesha died. Or when you looked me up. Only someone with Deathsworn access could have written that ‘callout list’.” Elena lets out a bitter laugh. “I never meant to hurt her. I thought she was joking about wanting to cast it. I didn’t even think she could. I didn’t know she had that much talent.”
“I’m sorry I tried to shift the blame. I panicked. Was that what tipped you off?”
Elena nods jerkily. “I’m glad. I regretted that.”
“At least you didn’t shift it to an actual person.”
“I still did harm. People tried to guess. The Houses RPF fandom was eating itself for a while.”
“Drama’s nothing new to anyone in that fandom.”
Elena gives me an uncertain stare. “You’re . . . are you going to bring me in? Report me?”
“Why would I have waited for you to graduate if I was?” I pass her the lightly crushed flower. “Do your tutors know?”
“No! No. You’re not going to tell them?”
“I meant, do they know about how you learned magic?”
Elena looks my chaplain’s robes up and down. “No. Did yours?”
“No. Nor does my boss. I came here to congratulate you.”
“I know it was an accident. I’ve written fanspells myself. Added elements from third Houses to try and make sure that the spells won’t work.”
“But mine did,” Elena says. Grief and guilt husks her voice raw. She laughs again, a hoarse cough. “Did you know. They’re studying the spell here, trying to figure out why it worked. My spell. Calling that horrible thing an ‘accidental work of genius’.”
“It haunts you.”
“Of course! It killed my friends. I should have handed myself in. I still think I should.” She ducks her gaze, her misery worn on her sleeve. “I’m so ashamed of myself. I didn’t want to ever do magic again.”
“Falling on your sword won’t do anyone any good. It won’t bring back the dead.”
“Then why are you here?”
“To see whether you’d forgotten about Lesha.”
Elena’s chin snapped up, incredulous. “How could I?”
“Someday you might feel that it’s easier to. Or give in to the shame. Name yourself a fraud. Hide forever, anonymous. You created something as a child that had damnable if unintended consequences. You’re an adult now. You can’t change the past, but you can make up for it. And—” I took in a breath, “—fanmagic’s nothing to be ashamed of.”
Elena studies me. “You don’t sound like you believe that yourself.”
“Knowing it and personally believing it isn’t always the same thing. Someday, maybe.” I reach out and she clasps my hand. “Stay well, Elena. Don’t forget.”
She tightens her jaw and doesn’t reply. Pulling away, Elena retreats into the church, the flower crushed within her fist, its sap the only high colour between her fingers.
Anya Ow is the author of The Firebird’s Tale and Cradle and Grave, and is an Aurealis Awards finalist. Her short stories have appeared in publications such as Asimov’s, Uncanny, Fantasy Magazine, the 2019 Year’s Best Dark Fantasy and Horroranthology and more. Born in Singapore, Anya has a Bachelor of Laws from Melbourne University and a Bachelor of Applied Design from Billy Blue College of Design. She lives in Melbourne with her two cats, working as a graphic designer, illustrator, and chief studio dog briber for a creative agency. She can be found at www.anyasy.com or on twitter @anyasy.
Please visit LIGHTSPEED MAGAZINE to read more great science fiction and fantasy. This story first appeared in the September 2021 issue, which also features work by Adam-Troy Castro, Alexander Weinstein, Thomas Ha, Lizz Huerta, Violet Allen, Adam R. Shannon, Meg Elison, and more. You can wait for this month’s contents to be serialized online, or you can buy the whole issue right now in convenient ebook format for just $3.99, or subscribe to the ebook edition.
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