The pain from the flayer’s knife is like a flower of razor blade petals unfurling in my mind. A searing agony whose beautiful results will make me weep with joy as well as pain. At last he sets the blade aside and hangs the skin ever so carefully across a willow rack.
“Another insightful chapter.” He wraps soothing bandages around my arm. “But you are running out of skin.”
I look at the rack, at the words I so carefully tattooed on the skin, accompanied by precise diagrams of the peonies I have made the subject of my studies. Blood seeps into the bandages and my body shivers with shock.
It will be worth it.
“How many are left?” I whisper, looking at the work of other scholars hanging on the flayer’s racks.
“Two.” With delicate fingers he ties the bandage. “You and Jong. Bey dropped out this morning. He had no gift for succinctness, and ran out of skin.”
I nod in understanding. Only the pristine skin of a scholar’s first work can go into the Imperial Library, to be preserved down eternity. Anything else would not last, even with the Library’s charms. Either my study of the heredity of peonies or Jong’s work on the feeding of roses will be this year’s entry to the botanical section.
I intend to ensure that it is mine.
My quill trembles over a scrap of paper. I look across my desk and see the beauty of the flower unfurling in the window, a reminder of why I must win – to preserve not just my name but all I have learned.
But I cannot get the words right. The wealth of details refuses to be condensed. The more I write, the more skin I must sacrifice. Though I tell myself over and over that I do not fear the pain of the flaying knife, still I shake at the thought of it.
The words will not come.
All my life I have worked for a place in the Imperial Library. What else could a scholar want if not to see their work endure? But perhaps I cannot do that. Jong has a gift for brevity. Having come this far, if he is finished before me the place will be his. I lack the time to shorten my words, or the skin to write them all down.
A tear runs down my face, and I wipe it away with my bandaged arm.
Both flayers are on duty today. With the end so close, they must make time for both Jong and I.
My eyes are closed, my whole face screwed up in pain. Still I can hear Jong’s grunts and whimpers. Knowing that he suffers too is not the reassurance I had hoped for. It only adds to my pain.
“We should stop,” one of the flayers says.
“No,” Jong whispers. “Keep going.”
“You have lost much blood.”
Jong’s screams are not enough to blot out my pain, but when he falls silent it brings me no peace. As the knife comes again, and the salt scent of blood fills my nostrils, I finally pass out.
Three days after the funeral I am well enough to attend Jong’s grave. I light incense and place a jar of peonies by the headstone. Already their pink petals are wilting.
“Your place in the Library is secure.” One of the flayers stands beside me, the woman who tended to Jong on that last day. The one under whose knife he died. “Your wisdom will endure forever.”
She sounds resigned. How many scholars’ graves has she stood by?
A petal falls from the peony onto Jong’s grave. I remember his face, and the incredible insights of his mind.
“Nothing endures forever.” I turn away.
After leaving the school, I find a place teaching botany in the provinces. One day the bandage slips from my arm, revealing the last chapter of my thesis still half-written on pale skin.
“Why do you have that?” one of my students asks.
“Because all things must pass,” I reply. “Now tell me, how will you ensure the hardiness of your peonies?”
* * *
This story was inspired by several things – a conversation with Marios Richards, a Writing Excuses exercise, and some comments from Ben Moxon following that exercise. Thank you all for the inspiration.
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