by Alice Brook

 

One

I can still taste electric anise when I open my eyes. It’s been a week since that kid got himself killed and I came too late to do anything about it. An open-and-shut case.

I light a cigarette trying hard to ignore the boy in my bed tonight. He snores and I kick him on the ribs, “Out.”

I picked him up in Summer’s Night after Tiha knows how many glasses of gin. On the back of his neck is a cluster of dark freckles I hadn’t noticed the night before–my gods, a damn Academy student. A “scholar” I bet, just an ignorant kid who thinks magic’s only use is a quick high.

I get up and turn on the radio. A melancholy beat weaves itself around the smoke, edging by piles of filthy clothes, slithering into the wrinkled sheets until it reaches the boy. He squirms, pulling a pillow over his head. I tsk and have another drag of my cigarette.

The flavour of anise is still stuck on the back of my tongue. If only I had gotten to that kid sooner, the bottle laced with a dreamwake charm would’ve never reached his lips and I wouldn’t have magic jammed in my throat every time I woke up. Bloody dumb kids.

I snag the pillow off the boy’s head, lean to his ear so he feels the ember warming his skin. I stub out the cigarette on the sheets. The way the tobacco falls it looks like my skin is flaking, sprinkling brown-beige on greyed white sheets. A stray speck of ember jumps to the boy and he winces.

“Out.” I make my voice sound like a growl. He only puts his hands over his head, groaning. I wish his neck wasn’t on display. The smudge in the middle of it seems ordinary until you look closely and you realise it’s a puddle after a heavy storm, the boy’s Key. I harrumph at my stupidity for offering a place to crash. I tell him to hurry the fuck up and leave.

The radio’s finished its meandering song and a man is signing off, wishing us a good night. By the sound of fists slamming at my door looks like my night is just beginning. I roll my eyes when I hear Sergeant Heartnell calling “Open up, Ange!”

I wipe the dust off the book I got for Lou, The Key Dictionary. I should give it to him soon, before the shiny giftwrap dissolves completely, but this time I drop it right next to the boy. He jolts at the sound and gives me a look of a cow who’s just found out what a sledgehammer’s for. In reply, I point to the window. I assume he’s smart enough to use the fire escape, otherwise a dumpster laden with Cheng’s sauced-up garbage will cushion his fall. He’s none of my concern anymore. The boy mutters, “shitshitshitshit, as he scrambles to dress himself.

“Keep your knickers on, Sarge,” I yell as I pull on a loose blouse and a pair of pants. I wish they had deeper pockets though, not even basic charms can expand clothes by much. Like this, all I have room for are half a dozen ready-made magics–fainter, healquick, motion, flask–the necessities.

The window slams shut behind me as I open the door. Soon enough there’s a yelp and a thump. The boy should have known better than to follow a strange woman home.

Sarge has a look on his face that makes his wrinkles seem like canyons. “Nightmares getting to you?”

I shake my head no. Not tonight, I didn’t sleep anyway. “It’s 1 a.m., Heartnell. I was sleeping,” I lie to the pudgy pink face at the door.

“Like I’m gonna believe that.” His bulbous nose creeps up when he snorts. Gods, has that man ever heard of trimming?

“You know, there are special scissors, they’re real tiny so you can get ’em up the nostril and just – ” I make a snipping move with my fingers. “You’ll get a discount as soon as they look at you.” I also give him a grin, for good measure.

“Cut the crap, Magic,” he says with a ghost of a smile stuck to the corner of his lips. With that on his face he looks twenty years and a barrel of sadness younger.

“Well, gee, you’re just no fun at all.” I lean on the door frame and cross my arms across my chest. My no-fucking-way stance will be ignored, but, hey, can’t blame a girl for trying to crawl back to bed and fall into blissful, alcohol induced sleep.

“Grab your bag. We’ve got a shiner.”

I raise my eyebrow-an expert achievement of snark that never fails to drive Sarge crazy. All he does is glare and burrow his fingers inside his palms. He knows he can’t touch me. He and magic just don’t get along, to put it mildly. Admittedly, I did once make a receptionist burn from the inside out, so maybe there’s a smidgeon of fear somewhere in Heartnell’s anger. But the burning days are behind me now. Tiha’s honour.

“Sergeant Frank Heartnell, I don’t get up for less than blazing sun.”

“Don’t play wise with me, kid.” He turns to proceed down the decaying hallway.

I tie on my bespoke boots, silver-tipped with a mix of screetcher teeth and herbs under the heel, grab a coat and my satchel. I stuff Lou’s book in one of the pockets, too. Maybe I’ll have some time on the way back.

The door takes some banging before it finally shuts. I don’t lock it–those who know where I am know who I am, and those who’d dare steal would see only bare walls and one soiled mattress leaned to the radiator. Maintaining the concealer is a pain in the ass, but I can afford a few days of mild coma to keep it up for three years.

When I rush after Sarge, the bag slips off my shoulder. It’s not supposed to do that. Made of weathered leather and with a charm that enhances its pockets to untold depths, the bag is supposed to stay put as if glued to me. But then again, I’ve never been the bookish type so I don’t exactly know how it works. You never know with these bags, especially when you pick one off a stiffer.

We drive to Gallows Lane. A scent of lilacs seeps through the windows of the car, overpowering the stench of old tobacco and stale sweat. Heartnell’s knuckles have already turned white gripping the wheel. I take a deep breath and stare on.

Our strained ride ends at the edge of Verago, where centuries ago stood the Seventh Gate. Story goes its rock was black as the darkest sky, thicker than a giant’s midriff, and infused with magic that would spark the air blue, twisting it until it looked like billowing cloth. A row of gallows had flanked the door where the dead, while swaying in the wind, would howl and moan and wail. When Old Ellis did his jig, a couple of fellas went home with their ears bleeding and cheeks clawed raw. Old Ellis, the last man to hang, had given us a game of Telephone that’s lasted for over eighty years. A crazy faction says he never really died, despite the hanging body, but they also believe bees are magic-made surveillance. I don’t trust the crazies, but Old Ellis is still called merlinesque at Tiha Academy.

What’s left of the Gallows Lane looks like a discarded booger-stained kerchief by the road. On a plateau framed by four lilac trees, bronzed gallows stand as though they’d emerged from the earth itself. Sometimes I wonder if the air is cleaner up there, when your neck is wrapped in rope. The hanged were lucky, in a way. I breathe in the lilacs, savouring the scent as it makes my chest swell, and not failing to take a good look at the splintering imitation wood of the gallows.

I fake a cough as I adjust the bag on my shoulder and resist making any sort of comment. Heartnell’s sensitive about magic victims, and however we are to each other, I know where the line is.

He leads me to the gutters below the memorial where they found the shiner. Despite the cold breeze pushing against us, the girl looks like she’s just taking a nap. I suppose the chintz carpet she’s wrapped in kept the chill at bay. Somebody’s unfurled the top so that her face was visible. Eyes wide open, amber, stare up at the sky, no expression in them. I could pretend she’s counting stars.

“When did you find her?” I asked. It’s hard feigning nonchalance when her mouth was sewn shut with blue string and blood crusted over the corners of her lips. Except one of the stitches has been broken, the thread hanging from her mouth like drool. She’s not counting anything.

“About half an hour ago. Mad Maggie thought she was a pile of leaves.”

I stay crouched by her shoulder. Strayed lilac petals have dappled the mud around her body, as though she was suspended in the sky and I was looking up instead of down. I did not know the girl. But I could have. The skin’s turned waxy, but the falling moonlight does everything but make her look a corpse. Her features are sharp, cheekbones you could slice your finger on, a hard jaw that takes no excuses and a wide forehead with insidious lines between her brows.

I could imagine the girl frown. Demanding respect, she would force her lips in a thin line and stare you down till you cracked. When she danced, her face would pull her eyebrows up with each jump, her laugh painting the air like magic, I–I don’t know this girl in the gutters. Only, she reminds me of someone.

“We dubbed her Sparrow Rose.”

I start at Sarge’s voice. “Huh?”

“Just…” He waves his hand towards the girl’s face, then lets it fall.

When I push my finger between the broken X-shaped stitches on her lips, I swear I can hear blood cracking. A soft and crumpled thing.

“White rose petals and birds’ beaks.” I push them around my palm. This is bad. I outline a rune above the satchel, my finger cleaving the air and emitting a dim white light. The right compartment unlocks and I look for a container. “You haven’t seen her body yet?”

“We didn’t touch a damn thing.” Heartnell’s anger is almost palpable.

“Except for the mouth,” I add, nodding at the ruined thread.

I finally find a small jar and fill it up with beaks and petals from Rose’s mouth. This shit never gets any easier. Especially not for people like me, people who’ve traded a chunk of their souls. Something sharp pricks my thumb, sending spikes of coolness over my arm. I ignore it.

“You shouldn’t have done that, Sarge.” I tell Heartnell, then rise to face him, the coolness spreads to my neck now, almost choking. I clear my throat to get it out. “Get the crew here.”

Heartnell waves a gesture, wordlessly telling the officers to gather up. Except, there’s something off about the way Georgia leads the group forward. Seems to me like she forgot to walk, as if her legs were planks. More of them walk the same way, moving in a circle. Heartnell and I are being surrounded by seven of our own, even Shaun, who usually only ties rope around so that nobody sticks their noses where they don’t belong.

Heartnell opens his mouth to say something, probably a slew of curses.

“Don’t,” I tell him and it’s just blind luck that he’s not a part of the hunchback crew lumbering toward us.

All of them have some sort of amulet peeking out their uniforms. Shaun has one in the shape of a horse, it’s so heavy his head’s always a bit stooped. He beamed when he told me he got it off a “seer” in a secret shop tucked between the movies and Mack’s diner.

I warned him about the women with dangling sliver bracelets more times than I can count–con-women with a sense of drama. His “seer” just happened to be one of the more clever ones, considering how she opened a shop right next to the pictures. Since The Eyes of Magic opened in cinemas across the country, the whole amulet business blew up. I can’t go a bloody day without seeing somebody clutching at a necklace. Even Mad Maggie tugs at her iron comb when she sees me.

“Just don’t move, not yet,” I tell Heartnell. Georgia is so close I could reach her with the tips of my fingers. Her eyes are still a pleasant brown, which means she’s not too far gone. I snag the amulet off her belt, throw her glass dandelion away. Six of the squad turn and stare and stop. Only one keeps going, that damn horse swaying around his neck. Shaun believed with all his little heart the horse would protect him.

Truth is, a protection spell can’t be bound to any old bull. It’d have to be something the wearer actually cared about, and we’d pump it up. The price the magicians pay is anywhere from a three day migraine to a particularly nasty case of stomach flu or diarrhoea. That’s some real ugly business, and not worth the bother if you ask me. But when I saw a crystal stone dangling off Sarge’s neck, I made sure he chucked that in the trash. I made him the real deal, I owed him that much.

Shaun’s eyes gleam white. My muscles instinctively tense, every sinew’s ready to pounce, hit or hurl a ready-made charm. I reach the inside of my left pocket. Rummaging around for a blade when a ‘chanted is coming straight at you is no easy business.

“Just a little closer,” I whisper to Heartnell who’s already got his gun out. Tiha, can’t I get a goddamn case that doesn’t turn into a giant pile of shit?

Shaun lunges to Sparrow Rose, his hands enveloped with blue, iridescent smoke. I’ve seen it before. Hell, I’ve made it before. The smoke will swallow him up like he was a dumpling, then rot him from inside out. He’s a good kid, albeit too naive for his own good. Always blushes when I ask him about girls and can’t get past a tumbler of booze without getting redder than a drunk’s nose on a winter night.

I pull the spiked knife out and launch it at his liver, doing my best to aim properly when my thumb is now throbbing as though there were worms in. Close enough – Shaun sways as the knife sucks in the blueness. There is no blood coming out of the wound. Only Shaun’s face curling into a grimace, ageing thirty years in ten seconds. His wail feels like the only sound in the world.

“You killed him.” Cold blooms across my temple. I needn’t even glance to know it’s Heartnell’s gun.

“No. It did. It wasn’t Shaun anymore, Heartnell. He uncovered Rose, right? The second he touched those stitches, he was dead.” I keep my eyes straight, don’t look at my thumb.

Shaun’s body looks like a deflated ball before it disintegrates to dust. I shiver. A good thing. A person should shiver at a time like this. You gotta pay attention when a slice of soul is missing from your body.

“We need Lou,” I add.

I walk away to get the knife out the dust while uncomfortable questions are being answered. Georgia shoots me a look. I’ve been a recipient of the look since I was a seventeen year old brat, a good ten years now. It could rival my mother’s eyes when she found out my puppets turned our little house into a ball of flames.

“Get a fucking box, a bag, something! We do not leave him here,” Georgia yells. She’s on her knees, blocking the wind as much as she can. Her lips are tight between her teeth, her body twitching.

The officers all walk as if underwater. Some stare at their hands, flexing them into fists, then unclenching, like they wanna make sure it’s them who’s in control. Others are gingerly stepping on the gravel, scared of making a wrong turn lest the stones grow canines. More than a few fall to their knees and puke their guts out. Only Georgia is firmly on her feet, rushing back to Shaun’s remains with a box gripped to her chest.

Heartnell’s going from man to man, planting his hand on each of their shoulders and tucking their amulets back in place. Flashes of light from the gently waking traffic wash over them, and for a second they all look like angels. The lights from our car point directly at the scene, giving the sight an eerie tone of being outside of time.

When I pass Georgia, she spits. I drop the knife into my bag and curl my fists around its straps. If I didn’t, I might have clawed the sneer off her face.

It’s getting to me, too. I move the hurt thumb under the strap. Don’t look at it, Ange, gulp it down and shake it off. The thing, what ever it is, whatever it was, it’s big and bad and uglier than a pair of cauliflower ears. Nobody outside Tiha is supposed to have that kind of power.

The stitch around Rose’s mouth, that particular shade of blue, looks more familiar than I’d like to admit.

I take another deep breath, hoping the sharp sweetness of the lilac would wake me up from this goddamn nightmare. Not my luck.

My hand begins to throb all over. Bad ‘n’ ugly’s getting to me, alright. The cold pain sprints to my jugular, then drops, like a ton of burning rock to my stomach. I bend at the waist, hands on my knees, silently cursing all that is holy. It’ll have to work much harder to crack me like it did Shaun.

“Nobody touch her! Hold her by the carpet.” I stagger to the car, still breathing heavily. My chest is a pack of rats fighting for the last bit of cheese.

“Ain’t the dame gonna help?” Georgia’s remark’s backed up by the guys’ mumbling approval. I keep my trap shut and let Heartnell deal with it.

“Georgia, so help me, one more word–”

“It’s her, Sarge.”

“You will obey your superior officer.” He tilts his chin down at her, as to a naughty child.

Georgia audibly swallows before she says, “Yes, sir,” and begins to haul Sparrow Rose to the trunk.

“I like her.” I squeeze the words out my teeth, “Stubborn and smart.”

Heartnell hands me a lit cigarette and says nothing. I inhale, clearing my lungs. It doesn’t work though. There’s still a pack of rats (tied by their tails, they are filthy, livid, clawing at my meat, digging through bone, that bad’n’ugly) hooked to my flesh.

Rose’s magic seeped to Shaun and now it’s definitely seeping into me. This is much worse than I thought possible.

“You better know what you’re doing, Ange.” Heartnell’s gaze is locked to the crew, his hands folded across his chest. I can see how he digs his nails in his palms, so it does him no good hiding it.

I give the cigarette a deep drag and let the smoke unfurl through my nostrils.

I hope I do, Sarge, I hope I do.

 

 

Two

The pain is not as strong as it is consistent, like needles pricking flesh or bullets cleaving muscle. A breeze waltzing in the top of my head while a loop of rope tightens around my neck. The pain is like many things, but I’ll be damned if I let it beat me. I need a drink.

Inside the car, I can inspect my Key. I let myself sink into the seat, breathe a little while, before I lift my blouse up. On the side of my ribs is a latticework of scars, the shape barely recognizable, which is not a bad thing, per se. It’s a mark. To warn the rest I’m no good, to tell them my body is marred by banned magic. Not that I knew it was bad at the time. You can hardly blame a kid for being defiant and dumb, but nevertheless, Zora did. Expelled by the hand of my own mentor.

What my Key used to look like was a dagger pointed to my hips. A constellation of freckles in an unusual shape. Every magician has one, we’re born with it. They’re like blue eyes – sometimes they appear outta nowhere, but mostly, there’s a carrier in the family. I glide my fingers over it. Nothing. Or nothing yet, in any case.

I give it a pinch, just to make sure and the pain hits me. Down my ribs, grabbing each one, raking at my Key. I let out a yelp despite myself. The pain drills itself deep, then disappears.

The blouse falls back into place as I close my eyes and rummage through its breast pocket for a flask. I gulp down the rye until it’s half-empty.

Why in the hot hells am I even here? I take another swing, Smiley Val’s scarred face dances in my mind. Smiley Val. First time I called her that she grinned in a way that would make a mountain pack up and move two states away. We’ve been close ever since.

The first time she saw my Key, she pinched me so hard I almost jumped outta bed, but, Tiha, not even that could make me angry with her. If I stepped on the gas right now, I could be in her den in half an hour. Far from Sparrow Rose who’s like seeing a ghost, except my ghost is alive and well and most likely wishes me dead every day.

“Too bad, kiddo,” I tell myself and have another tug at the flask. “You’re stuck.”

The thing about losing some soul is you need to find another way to stay human, and saving kittens doesn’t do it for me. Sleeping beauties, also knows as tulips, also known as catatonics really are humans minus souls. And I ain’t done living. And anyway, if I ran to Smiley Val she’d just kick me out for disturbing her customers. The scar extending from her lip to the corner of her eye might help her play nonchalance, but both of us know gun smuggling is trickier than Val wants it to be. I’d be the biggest harm to her business in any case.

Heartnell knocks at the window. I flinch, which makes the flask spill a little. I lick the rye off my hand. “What? Want one too?”

Shit. There goes the line. And I don’t feel a damn thing, which is something you’re supposed to feel crossing the final frontier of human decency. Usually I’d shoot down the words before they even brush against my tongue. I give the flask a scowl.

“Enough,” he says. That means, if I dare touch more liquor, he’ll break his back to ensure I never do any good again, even if it meant risking the rest of his life as a toad. My fingers stumble to get the lid back on, then let the rye drop back in my pocket.

“You should know better.” Heartnell slaps the window before going round to the driver’s side. You wouldn’t tell by his skinny piano fingers and clean nails, but he could crush a melon just by pinching it if he put his mind to it.

As he revs the engine, I see myself pushing his face in mud. I shake the thought off and what comes through is a pair of amber eyes, blinking at me. Sparrow Rose is getting colder by the second. If Lou tells me what I think this is, there won’t be much time. The only person who could possibly perform that kind of magic is high up Tiha Order. Most likely.

The Key throbs (rat-king making a nest). As if through gauze, I see clots of blood drop from the back of Heartnell’s head, brains dripping over his collar, my boot kicking him down and stomping, stomping, stomping as red splatters on my clothes, stray drops warming my skin and trickling down.

I shake the thoughts off again. It’s not me who thought them. Not. Me.

There’s two ways this could go, and I have slim chances in both.

 

 

Three

The only safe business is the death business. People drop like flies every day, especially in Verago, and too few want to deal with decomposing flesh. Especially when the flesh in question can come with an extra appendage (or five), and still twitching if a magician died before the spell took its toll. A mortician is not a desirable profession. Unless you’re Lou, whose brain’s fit to hold hundreds of funerary rituals and who thinks stiffers walking around the mortuary are intriguing.

I push open the door to Lou’s and invite Sarge, along with the two officers wheeling the body on a rickety gurney, inside. Stuffed weasels clutter one of the giant chestnut tables that take up the entire length of the wall. Their eyes, attacked by the sudden light, beam down on us, so I have to blink away the yellow spots from my sight. Damn things creep me out. The other table is overflowing with papers, half-eaten pastry, mugs still filled with tea, and one brightly painted ceramic frog I got Lou for his sixtieth. There’s hardly room for two people, but the four of us, plus Rose, manage to squeeze in.

I make my way to the middle of the room, stomp on a square outlined in black tape, then quickly step away. As always, Lou’s deep down in his make-shift lab. What he’s doing isn’t exactly legal, but Lou, well, he’s no harm to anybody. Besides, his bony head holds more knowledge than the Academy teachers, so I need him when the shiners get complicated.

The officers rush back outside, leaving Heartnell behind. He approaches, then leans in until I can smell the stale coffee he had for breakfast. I better get him some mouthwash with those nose trimmers. I mind not to move a muscle except my fists, which I ball behind my back.

“You broke Georgia’s heart, you know that?”

“As far as I know, Georgia has no such thing.” The words just slip out. My jaw’s clenched and cold and I don’t wanna know what my eyes look like. “It’s bigger than Georgia, than Shaun, than all of us. This–”

Sarge looks like stone. One curt Heartnell-nod and he marches over a stuffed mouse as he leaves me to cajole Lou out.

I bite down my tongue. Shaun can’t be my fault, not him too. But the tingling in my fingers reappears, the rat-king and its tails.

“Lou,” I cough off the shake in my voice. “They’re good an’ gone, Lou.” A bone fide hermit, he wouldn’t come out if the cops were there. Lou gave me a pass, though, seeing how I’m not a “real cop,” just a magician on hard times.

The trap door opens with a creak and a bang before falling back. A hand appears, quickly followed by Lou’s spindly body. “They have no respect, those thugs. Thugs, all of them.”

“Come on, Lou. They ain’t all that bad,” I do the rune over my satchel to get his book out. Better do it now, coax him a little.

He’s gotten to be a worse old man now than when we first met. About two years ago I found him staring at me while I was cracking a ready-made charm over a heavy goon Val suspected was pinching cash from her. Lou was scribbling in a little book, his hands shivering as he did so. Well, I couldn’t just let him prance on his merry way, so I grabbed him by the collar and gave him a piece of my mind. Lou squealed and spilled all about his lab and magical mishaps. He gave me hot cocoa and asked as many questions as an eleven year old who’d just noticed his freckles were shaping in Key.

I laughed at him, remembering the same zeal a lot of us showed when we first stepped inside Tiha’s Academy. He was surprised when I told him how easily things go wrong in magic. If a wide-range concealment went awry, it would make the corpse crack days after death which was what had been haunting Lou’s parlour back then.

Lou bends to close off the trap door in complete silence. Strange. Usually, he talks like a wound up toy.

“We found a girl. Something big, I think.” I glance at Rose over my shoulder, hoping I would see the carpet rise and fall. I should know better than that by now.

“You all right, Lou?”

Lou shuffles to the junk-ridden table and begins pushing the papers away, carelessly siding the ceramic frog to the edge. There was the tiniest little wince spread across his face every time he shifted his weight to the left foot.

“What happened to your leg?”

“Oh, a tiny–” he shakes his head. “A small accident. No importance whatsoever.”

He coughs again, this time the burst sending him heaving over himself. I reach for his shoulders with my free hand and pat him on the back. Lou’s a skinny old man, the skull more visible now that his hair’s white and thinned.

The dimple on his chin looks like a crater sometimes, like that tiny black dot is to blame for his feebleness. But he doesn’t look any paler than normal. Gods know Lou can be clumsy. The stuffy lab can’t be any good for him either. He waves me away, so I retreat to the wall when he’s done and let him finish clearing the table. He wets his lips quickly with only the tip of his tongue.

“I got a book for you. Thought you might like it.”

When he doesn’t react, I frown. No, something is wrong here. An accident, my ass. I place the book on a chair. He is not speaking, his eyes don’t meet mine and he’s got that damn cough that makes him sound ten years older. I decide to ask about his favourite subject, see if that’ll make him confess whatever’s going on. Maybe his basement’s finally exploded or I’ll end up having to kill oversized rodents in the sewer. You can never know with Lou. Keyless are hardly able to even understand the workings of Tiha, let alone dare to dabble in it. Lou, he’s different. He did not explode, or turn to marble or perish in any way. Maybe this time, though.

“How are the experiments going? Anything I should worry about, old man?”

“Exquisite things.” He rambles on, his hands wildly gesturing as if they had minds of their own. He’s talking but not making any sense. He grabs at his cravat, tightening the knot, brushes away stray hair. The upsides of his palms are slick in the muted light. It makes my stomach pang. Scars, not from any sort of dabbling in magic, but from an open flame. He never told, I never asked.

It hurts, looking at his hands and seeing a different face, one that used to beg me to make little figurines out of fire and dirt, then make them dance for us on the floor.

Better just stick to the job tonight. Lou knows what he’s doing. I hope, anyway.

“I need your help, Lou.” I reach for his shoulder, but stop myself. My hand hangs in the air pathetically. “We found her by the gallows.” I flick my wrist, pointing to Rose.

“Of course. For a friend–”

“No. An associate, Lou. Just that.” My eyes tingle, so I frown and blink it away. All my friends end up dead.

He wets his lips in a motion no longer than a blink, like a frog or a snake. Then he presses his forefinger to his dimple. He often does this when he’s nervous. “On the table then.”

“Don’t touch her, Lou. The officers who did–”

Lou does not say a damn thing. So I tell him, “Yeah, yeah. You’re no amateur and all that.”

We heft her to the freshly cleared table, placing her head by the ceramic toad. His hand shivers as he unfurls the upper corner of the carpet, careful not to brush his skin against hers. His tongue slips out and in again, a flash of red among the browns, blacks and greys in the room. I cock my head to one side.

It’s not the first time I brought him a body to inspect, there’s no reason for him to be anything but excited. Maybe it’s Sally that’s making him jittery.

“Sent Sally the flowers I told you about?” I’m the last person to give love advice, but I figured flowers were a safe bet. Can’t go wrong with those, right?

He winces then, stuck with his hand poised above Roses chest. “Yes, the, the–” Lou’s frowning as if the memory’s slipping. “The chrysanthemums.” A smile of relief spreads across his face. “Yes.”

“You’ll have to talk to her, you know. She’s not psychic, Lou.” My eyes wander to his threadbare black shirt. The collar’s already frayed, loose strings glued to his neck.

He smiles sheepishly. “This girl,” he says and hovers his forefinger over Rose’s cheek. “Where did you find her?”

“The Seventh Gate.”

Lou’s head bobs, peas of sweat form above his brow as he inhales heavily. “I need a–I’ll go and get it now.”

Before I can even open my mouth to protest, he rushes back to his lab, crashing the toad in the process. It rolls to the corner of the room and stays there like it’s in ambush, the sticky tongue drawn to loll from its mouth.

I pick the toad up and put it where it belongs. The fall must’ve cracked it and it breaks in two while my hands are still on its sides. I lay both pieces on the table. It looks dead. Sparrow Rose looks deader. I tug the carpet open with a clot of hope in the back of my throat. Damn it, Rose.

I want to shake her by the shoulders until she wakes up. I want to look at the stars with her, I want her to tell me the boy she danced with was so clumsy her toes are blue. I bite my lip, willing myself to stop fantasising. Rose might as well have been a burglar. She might have been a schoolteacher as much as a cold-blooded killer. We shouldn’t pin pretty stories to people just because we like the look of them.

I hold my breath and lean closer to her body. Under her breast is a wound. Looks like a patch of skin was scraped off to reveal muscle and fat. I inspect it closer. There, on the cusp of torn skin – deftly cut out, whoever did this had both time and skill – is a brownish semicircle. A piece of freckle? Was Rose a magician?

A shuffling comes from behind me.

“Got what you need?” A hand grabs my throat and squeezes. I can’t breathe. The edges of my sight blur as I try to pry the bony hand off.

“It’ll come soon,” Lou’s breath is hot on my ear. It smells like rot. “Wakey, wakey, and we’ll be happy. It’ll make me whole, I promise.”

Lou tightens his grip, his coarse hand like sandpaper on my skin. I manage to swing my elbow and hit him on the side. He staggers into the gurney, which squeaks as it moves backwards, colliding to the table of twinkly-eyed animal corpses.

I turn to face Lou. There’s nothing there, he’s expressionless, though not like Shaun. Lou’s eyes are almost black, showing me nothing but a reflection of myself and, for a fraction of a second, they flicker.

I kick him in the stomach before he comes to his senses, the punch folding him again. His head is level with my knees. I could take a shiv from my satchel and peel his face off–stop, Ange! Not. Your. Thoughts.

I grab a stuffed fox from behind Lou and swing. A cry escapes my mouth as the fur connects with the side of his head and Lou slumps forward. I expected the fox to be softer, but the hairs are brittle and remain stuck to my sweaty palms when I let it fall from my hands.

When I catch my breath, I heave Lou up to the gurney and tie him up with rope I find under one of the tables. For once I’m grateful Lou’s sort of a slob. All my friends end up dead, but Lou might have a chance. He’s only stunned, not gone yet.

I reach into my pocket for a motion charm. I feel it, but don’t move a muscle. Again, the rat-king scurries in my chest, ripping at lungs, at meat, a dozen snouts and mouths and rows of teeth and claws scratch my sternum. The blackness is spreading. The tails are laced around my vocal cords, waiting for the right moment to crush them.

I gingerly move my hand to my face. My lips are moving in ohs, my tongue brushes against my nails, covering them with saliva and instead of dirt, I taste everything I’ve done and it tastes like bile.

I shut my eyes until the Key stops throbbing and the rat-king in my chest retreats. It takes a while for it to slither away, I can’t tell how long. But it goes. Tricky thing, being half-souled and infected with… whatever horror this is.

When I get my hands on whoever killed Rose, I swear to rip their legs off and make them eat them, toe by toe. I clear my throat. I shouldn’t even be thinking like that, but, hells. Every nerve in my body is leaden.

I need a drink. When I deem myself calm enough – and I say enough because I’m never damn calm, especially not now when I could take on the armies of all hells along with a dozen of Smiley Val’s goons – I rummage around the sleeve of my blouse and extract a crude motion charm. I’ll know if Lou moves, but not exactly where. It might show me a direction, but a ready-made charm is often unreliable because I suffer pushback (in this case only bruising) before I use it. Knowing when Lou moves and a vague direction is enough. I’ll know he’s fine, I’ll know I didn’t hurt him too much.

It could easily be mistaken for a jumping jack. A ball rubbery and dense with swirls of blue and white, lies smooth on my palm. Weighed with magic, it stays put as I level it above Lou’s face. His shirt is still pristine, only wrinkles so that the loose strings cluster on the sides of his neck. Like he didn’t attack, like we never even fought.

My heart is still thumping a beat of anger, a searing hot thing pulsing through my body. I shut my eyes. I imagine the faintest smell of dust and warm wood and strong coffee. When the sunset painted the sky crimson, that was when our little house looked most beautiful. I hear my sister’s voice pleading for magic puppets–she’d push my cheeks with tiny hands smeared with marmalade and yelp, “Again, again!” A wave swallows my body, leaving specks of sadness and guilt in its wake. I am calm. The rat-king won’t beat me.

I open my eyes and press the charm, cracking it like an egg. Threads of blue and silver unravel from its insides. They drift on Lou’s face, meandering through the air, making a cobweb pattern in the short time they’re between container and skin. When they reach Lou’s cheeks, he flinches, but does not wake. The threads spin themselves into spirals before elongating across Lou’s face and neck. With a faint glow, they sink into Lou’s skin and vanish.

I clasp my fingers over the halved ball, then drop both into the satchel. Ignoring the quiver in my knees, I brush a tear or two with the back of my hand and make sure the door slam when I exit.

 

Four

It’s close to 6 a.m. and the light shines hard on Heartnell’s eyes. He squints to the sky, one palm across his brows, the other cupping a cigarette. The crows’ cackling tears at my ears as though their beaks are a hairbreadth away.

My breathing is still a bit heavy and Sarge, his gaze locked on the birds who’ve started to move in large spirals, he asks me what the fuck happened. The veins on his temple bulge.

I stand abreast him and explain, all the while watching the birds. The crows settle for west, untangled from their circle, they flap their wings and advance. A small black thing plummets to the ground.

Heartnell spits and stubs out the butt in a pool of saliva.

“You all right?” he asks.

“Fine. But we need to burn Sparrow Rose. I don’t know what kind of magic this is, but it’s the strongest in centuries. Lou couldn’t have done it, not even many Tiha’s. But some of them could.” I frown at the picture of Zora blazing in my mind.

“I’ll lock him up. You go home,” he dismisses me with a wave. “You’ve done enough.” He begins to walk towards Lou’s, handcuffs already dangling in his fist. The rat-king squirms in the hollow of my chest.

I know his fingers have been itching to shut down the lab. I know he can’t stand the sight of me when I tilt my head just so and how he can’t stand the silk of the kerchief I pumped up with protection. To him, magic is a useless cheat, a fake, more like a rabid dog than a skill.

I know all this, and still, I grab him by the shoulder and say, “It’s not about Peggy, Sarge.”

Next thing I know, my cheek is burning and I’m struggling to keep my balance. Heartnell’s eyes are two kinds of firecrackers exploding on asphalt. “Peggy’s dead because of the likes of you. Shaun, too.”

“Peggy’s dead because she drank champagne at a tinseltown party,” I say and my voice is the voice of a stranger from the bottom of a well, from the darkness in the cave. “Peggy’s gone because the balcony was slippery and the only magician there was too damn drunk for a healer spell.”

Heartnell moves for a punch, but I tilt my head just so. Same way Peggy did when she felt stubborn.

Peggy was an ash blonde with a wide pearl smile and her father’s stormy eyes. I saw pictures, heard some gossip here and there. Story goes she was as stubborn as a mule, caught in raids countless times and stealing dad’s cash to pay friends’ rent if they needed it. We might have been friends, too. Though I suppose all her singing would get on my nerves soon enough.

I shouldn’t do this to Sarge. I’m trying to move my head, but the rat-king’s hanging inside my neck. I feel its tails coiled around my pipes, winding themselves around muscle and bone. Forcing me to say all the things I shouldn’t, releasing captive thoughts. Writhing, they slither to my jaw where they wring my bones and I think they’ll snap and I’ll be worse than Smiley Val – Ange with her mouth hanging down to her waist. All I can do is gasp. My eyes go blurry.

Sarge must have seen it because he lowers his fist. He’s still tense, his movements are those of a machine, sharp and crisp. He balls his fists until his knuckles whiten and we stay there, immobile. Tiha, help me.

“Your neck,” he says so quietly I almost miss it. “The veins are all black.”

He takes out his gun and aims. “Ange?”

I move my lips but that does no good. Nothing comes out. Then the world shakes. Heartnell’s figure jumps in and out if my sight, replaced with a fragment of grey cloud before he appears again, the barrel of his gun a gaping mouth ready to swallow me. The tails slither back, leaving a trail of what feels like frozen flesh. I collapse on the ground and retch.

“Wait,” I croak. I lean on my hands and push the bile out of me. My head is pulsing, my body feels made of ice and crumbling stone, and I can’t–I can’t do this anymore.

I spit out something tiny and black, a band of spit hangs loose from my lips. The black squirms, then dissipates with a hiss.

My face is wet with tears when I roll on my back. I shut my eyes and pray for the second time in my life.

“Sarge–” I start, around the lump in the back of my throat. “It wasn’t me, Frank.” I keep my eyes tightly shut.

“It’s never you, is it, Ange?” His tone is glacial. I don’t want to look at him. I don’t want to see the pain. “Get up.”

I prop myself on my shoulders. Sarge is crouching next to me, anger and pity nestled under bushy eyebrows. It’s not hard to imagine a once upon a time–a happy Sergeant Frank Heartnell, a wife and child gathered around the piano.

I give him a feeble smile, but the world collapses and my body falls to his chest. I don’t know who’ll make it out alive this time.

A sob escapes me when Frank closes his arm around me. We both know what it is to feel guilt and sorrow, to anaesthetize ourselves with liquor lest we feel anything other than anger.

“Sorry.” My voice comes out weak and muffled. I sniff and say, “We need Zora. I don’t know what this shit is.” I cough to stop my voice from dithering. “But she might.”

“Thought you said it might be Tiha themselves?”

“Yeah, most likely. But Zora will have an explanation.”

I clamber to my feet and start slapping the dirt from my clothes, but Sarge takes my chin between his fingers and forces me to look at him again.

“What the hell happened?”

“I can’t say.” I stare at the ground, blink away a tear or two.

“Don’t lie to me, Ange.”

I bite my tongue, but the words spill out anyway. “It got to me, Frank. Whatever magic was released, it got to me and it’s only gonna get worse.”

He releases my chin from his grip and moves a stray hair out my eyes. “Coffee first.”

It almost makes me laugh. “All right. But burn Rose now. Touch the carpet, but not the body.”

Heartnell nods and starts to the car. My body still feels like it’ll crumble, but I manage to catch up. I wait in the car for him to call a crew from a callbox.

“You’re good.” I lie to myself. “Fine.” I say and close my eyes to hide from the world.

I’m still pretending to doze off when Sergeant Heartnell comes back and starts the car. He shuffles and sighs, settling in the seat. In a moment, there’s a click of a lighter and the earthy smell tickles my nose.

“Whatever it is that you did, I hope Gianna forgives you,” he says and inhales.

And the mention of my sister hurts more than a thousand knives flaying me alive.

 

 

Five

I must’ve dozed off because I’m firmly on my feet in a dark alley. There are no sounds. The ground is made of cobbles of all sizes – some glint red, others blue or green. I know these are rubies, sapphires and emeralds from my mother’s hope chest. She’s never owned anything more expensive than a golden wedding band, but in this world, that’s not true. Here, the bowels of her oak chest freckle the street. They glimmer in the dusk in mean little tings, beckoning me to follow.

Fog snakes around the streetlights, which are too tall and too knotty to be made of metal, but they aren’t wood either. I am headless and have no eyes to see. There’s no weight of skull on me. Still, I move with purpose, though what that is I don’t know. I wish I had a gun.

I raise my hands and it’s only then, when I see one made of fire, the other dripping hot mud, that I realise this is my nightmare. I am a puppet, exactly like the ones I used to make for Gianna.

A chiming laugh makes me look up. A girl dressed in nothing but a bathrobe dances in the street. She has a glass of bright orange liquid in one hand, the other extends to a man in a bespoke suit. Happiness unspools from between her lips as she laughs, shrouding both of them in a soft pinkish light. The skin on her back is smooth and scarless.

I know this. I want this to be true.

My body staggers towards them, arms extended like in monster flicks.

In that damn twisted way of this nightmare, the girl is both Gianna and Sparrow Rose. She smiles at me and waves. The man’s vanished, along with the glass from her hand. The fog meanders towards her, rising slowly until it covers her body like a sheet.

My body totters to Gianna-Rose and we hug. Then she begins to scream, ablaze as if she was burning at the stake. She looks up and points at me because now my eyes are up and I’m looking down at both of us.

She keeps screaming, keeps wailing. I shriek for my body to let her go, but I have no mouth. I am both the puppet burning my sister and a pair of faceless, neckless, bodyless eyes swaying above the sight, higher and higher and higher, until my sister and I are two red specks in a sea of black.

Gianna-Rose bursts into ashes and cinder and ground bones.

I wake up whimpering.

“You okay?” Heartnell asks.

I massage my temples with an open palm across my eyes. “Sure. Are we there?”

“Yup.” He parks in front of Mack’s diner.

When I get out, I still see jewels gleaming on the asphalt. How many years has the same dream hunted me? I shake my head and rush inside the joint.

We settle in a vinyl booth so close to the kitchen I hear Pete sneeze and can only hope his slime doesn’t end up on our eggs. I unbutton my coat and tuck the satchel in the corner next to me.

Heartnell orders us coffee and scrambled from a waitress who has the self-assured walk of a woman certain she won’t be here for long. I bet she wakes up in the middle of the night, clutching at that gold cross of hers, promising herself she’ll get on a train first thing in the morning. It takes my all not to scoff. Verago isn’t nicknamed Reject-ville for nothing. When tinseltown stomps you good and hard, you drag your sorry ass here and try to make the best of it.

“This isn’t just a magician eliminating competition,” Heartnell says.

“Lou was nothing like Shaun.” I stifle a guilty shudder. “This was more conscious, like Lou knew what he was doing, like he was—”

“Like he knew what this was about?”

“Yeah. Except Lou’s a guy who thinks men should put their coats over mud for ladies.”

“Give me one good reason why we shouldn’t lock him up for good.”

“Information, Sarge. Whoever set this up knew Lou has a thing for magic. Sooner or later they’ll come back for him. And we have him on a motion charm.”

“I’m not losing any more officers to magic, Ange.” He extracts a deck of cigarettes from the depth of his overcoat and throws it on the table. He pulls one out, punching the butt to the table like it did him wrong before he strikes a match to it.

The waitress, Tommy according to the pin attached to her shirt, returns with a pair of plates and two mugs of coffee. Her makeup’s caked on her face, a little black on her eyes, a little rose on her swollen cheekbones, orange trails by her ears. Where it met with wrinkles, the paint cracked as if she was an old road, walked on by too many heavy feet. When Tommy grins at us, her paint shifts to reveal a dot of pink in the middle of her lip. Like Verago, she’s a pale shadow of her former beauty.

“You call me if you need anything else now,” she says as strolls back to the counter. Pete yells from the kitchen, a clatter of cutlery following suit.

A waft of burnt bacon hits me. I recoil, and decide to stick to coffee. Bitter with a hint of sour, Mack’s signature flavour. As long as I hold it to my nose and leave the plate steaming away from me, I won’t puke.

“We should do this more often,” I tell Heartnell. “You make good company.”

He only looks at me, lights another cigarette, before he says, “Start singing, kid.”

“You know Merlin?”

“This is no time for fairy tales, Ange.” He drums his fingers on the table, a rhythm I don’t recognise. Knowing Heartnell it must be one of the classics–more Bach and less Bessie Smith.

“We learn about him the moment we begin class in Tiha.”

“I thought the Order chucked you out.”

“They did, but not before I memorized a thing or two. Anyway, you know why we don’t seek immortality and bullshit like that? We make special effect for pictures, amulets, drugs, but nothing without limits.”

“Because you get headaches and puke.” He smiles like he enjoys the thought of magicians suffering.

“Yeah, that.” I glare at his damn smile. “Merlin wanted immortality. Story goes he found a way to do it.”

“You expect me to believe this was done by Tiha and Merlin?”

“I believe only someone from the Academy could produce a spell of this magnitude. Or someone connected to Tiha.”

“Like you.” Heartnell stopped drumming his fingers. He’s clutching his mug like he’s trying to break its neck. It’s hard to keep my breath level. Hard not to grab a knife from my satchel. I don’t know what Heartnell’s prepared to do. I move a wisp of hair behind my ear and continue.

“It affects me, Sarge. Dammit, if it was me, I wouldn’t be here, would I? I’d be off on an island somewhere, drunk and happy.” I don’t tell him that if it was me, I’d be dead. Soulless first, then on my goddamn way to the big sleep. I’m half-way there as it is.

“Sure. I’ll buy it,” he says but the mug is still choking in his hands. “Are we supposed to chase a fairy tale?”

“When Merlin cast his spell, every few hours he’d morph into a different creature. A cormorant, a roach, a cat, what have you. For a year and a day, you could set your watch by Merlin’s changes. Finally, he crystallized into a stained glass image of himself howling, then crash–he shattered with a bellow so horrible the closest village wept for a decade.”

Hearnell only raises his eyebrows. “You better have a point, Ange.”

“That was the first big rip in the worldweave–the Rising. The magic got loose, seeped into the world and threatened to crush it. Puff, bang, no more green earth to walk on. That’s why Tiha was made. A school, a training programme, a force to stop magic misuse. What happened to Sparrow Rose is—”

“The same thing?”

“I hope not. But I don’t really know how it works. There is a chance…”

I glance at Tommy. She’s standing by the counter, knife in hand. She moves her hips to follow the soft tones of Once in a While while she reaches for a pie. Her blonde bun’s dishevelled, strips of hair curl around her neck, wet with sweat. Tommy doesn’t seem to mind, only swings and hums along with Dorsey. When the song’s done, she stabs the centre of a pie with unusual force and begins carving it in uneven chunks.

The rat-king stirs in my chest, and I slap my goddamn Key.

“There’s more than you’re telling me, Ange.”

I attempt a smile, but fail miserably. “Zora.”

“The Tiha elder?”

I nod. “If anyone knows what’s happening, it’s her.” I don’t tell him Sparrow Rose’s stitches are most likely her handiwork.

He gestures for Tommy. “We still have time for pie, you know.”

I push my untouched meal toward him.

“You need a little sweetness in your life, Magic.” He gives me a look then, a look that says pity and pain and friendliness.

“I-” Looking at his kindly face, parchment-yellow and with as many wrinkles as a dried plum, I almost tell him everything. “I’ll get this one,” I say instead.

I hover my finger over the satchel’s clasp, moving it to make a rune that’ll unlock the particular compartment I need. Last time I forgot to do that, I was unpleasantly surprised by a maroon squirrel jumping at me. Sometimes I really hate this bag. By the time I finish rummaging, Tommy is back at the counter and Sarge is burying his wallet in his coat.

“You shouldn’t have done that.” I frown.

“Now you owe me.” He rubs his eyes, and continues, “Your neck turned black back there.”

“I’m sorry.” It’s all I can say. I lock my eyes to the blue formica table. I don’t have to look up to know his grey eyes are on me, tracing the tiniest lines of my face, the smallest twitch of my shoulders.

“You two would’ve been good friends,” he says so softly I almost miss it.

“I wouldn’t. I’d only bring trouble.”

“Yeah, well,” he stands to leave. “She did too.”

“I didn’t want to—” I start, still sitting on the sticky, grease ridden, vinyl seat, my hand clutched around a simple wallet. “Frank,” the word feels like a hot rock rolling out my lips and I can’t do a damn thing about it. He deserves monuments cast in marble. I have no such thing.

I clear my throat, stuff the wallet back in the satchel, then throw the strap across my shoulder. Heartnell is already by the door, but something isn’t quite right. Feels like when a stench follows you all day, and it’s only when you put your feet on the couch that you notice a speck of dog-shit on your heel. I pause for a while, sniffing the air despite myself.

Trailing the feeling, I inspect the inside of the satchel. This compartment’s a brown leather, a simple sack with two pockets on its walls. Inside is a notebook, couple of pens, a wallet and not much else. Lou’s charm is still a muted white and silent.

I pinch a crumpled tissue and throw it on the table with disgust. It didn’t stink, but, hells, I don’t remember where it’s been or what kind of sludge hardened it to almost cardboard. The pockets should hold two simple shivs I carry just in case. They’re as good as switch blades, steel and chrome with fake wood handles but, unlike the embellished knife I used on Shaun, these are barren. I feel around, expecting to find their curves under my fingertips.

I count one. There is only one damn knife in this bag and what I can do now is hunt down the sap who took it from me. Nobody touches my satchel, but a young magician wouldn’t be creeped by a weird bag, now would he?

Heaviness spreads on the back on my head, blood pumping through my body like water through a broken damn. I blink and I see red. I blink again and I see my hand deep inside the mouth of the bag.

“Hurry up, Ange!” Heartnell’s yell snaps me back to the here and now.

Why the hells would an Academy student want an ordinary knife? Lucky for me, Tiha is our next stop. The thought teases out a smile. When I get my hands on that punk, it’ll be days before he can chew. Rat-king thoughts come slithering back, flashing me the boy’s head on a platter.

I bite the inside of my lip until a speck of blood falls on my tongue. I won’t let this beat me. I can’t let this magic slaughter any more people than it already did.

This time, I won’t be the one who burns the house down.

Before the door closes I take one last look at Tommy. She’s dancing now, moving in a waltz as she carries some plates to the group in a booth by the window. Her eyes are closed, her head moving left and right like a snake following a fiddle, her free arm moves in circles and swirls. Tommy leans to place the food on the table, her eyes still shut in what looks like bliss. For a moment, I think I see her pulling a bread knife from her apron, but we’re already in the car, on our way to the Academy. Hells, it’s not only me, not only Lou.

The rat-king’s all over this place.

 

 

Six

Every breath feels like ice stabbing all over and it’s all I can do not to wince. So I keep looking out, at Verago passing in a blur.

Its main artery, Orla’s Road, pierces the city in two unequal halves. Heartnell’s side faces the smaller one, reserved for decrepit two-story buildings and alleys with blood trickling down from the butcher shops to the sewers. This blood is not always bovine. A hunched man is polishing a window that promises The Freshest Beef In Town while talking to a younger fellow over his shoulder. I assume the attention’s not wanted because he slips a cleaver out his apron and begins brandishing it. The younger one puts fists in the air and runs backwards while the older guy laughs and continues his work. Might be another consequence of Sparrow Rose’s murder, but honestly I can’t be sure. Verago people are made of taut nerves, sinewy muscle with a pinch of spite spicing the whole thing up.

More men, dressed in suits bulging in all the wrong places, move languidly across the street to the more opulent part of town. That’s my side of the car. The buildings even have little angels leaning on the topmost windows. Shadows render them menacing, chubby faces poised atop their tiny fists, staring down with gazes that look more demonic than carefree.

Heartnell parks by a concrete cube bordered with a wrought iron fence. The spikes glimmer cold silver in the morning sun. Gods, I still hate them.

“Looks more like a prison than a school,” he says as we get out.

“Felt like it too.”

We cleave through a gaggle of students who are all smoking ten kinds of crap. Between them and the main entrance is the Old Ellis bust, a head taller then Sarge, its hair sleek against the skull, the cheekbones high and thick, which only makes his fat lips look bigger.

Old Ellis was youngish when he got this statue – there’s not a single wrinkle marring his face. He gave a lot of cash to Tiha Academy, even taught a class or two. Or so the story goes. Not many talk about him, but there are rumours he locked himself in the Ellis Mansion attic and tried to harness wild magic. Whatever it was, he ended a mad man doing the jig.

Heartnell passes the bust in a loop wider than necessary. His father was a cop when Ellis was hanged, so it’s not surprising Sarge twists his mouth in something between a line and a pout when he passes it by.

When I was at school, we stroked Ellis’ nose for good luck. Half-rotten bits of paper are nestled in the statue’s dimple now. Must be a new joke. I pick some out, revealing a perfectly round crater on the bust’s chin. Whoever made this had a very poor idea of what a dimple looked like.

Inside the building, it’s cold and damp and smothering. The air is laden with a scent of rotting wood, the wall panelling so ancient I wonder if it’ll crumble if I touch it. So, no change there. I still think the cleaning people pluck the worms out at night. Heartnell scrunches his face as if he licked a lemon slice. Long, harrowing faces etched in the woodwork follow us as we advance through deserted halls towards Zora’s office. I flip the collar of my coat to shield myself. It’s like the damned things are cheering for us to fail. Tiha’s one of those places where you feel all the weight of the world whether you want it or not.

Heavy walnut doors slide open ten steps ahead of us. How typical. Always so eager to impress a Keyless. Good old Sarge only furrows his brows and waltzes inside.

Zora’s leaned over one of her plants. A gigantic, fleshy thing, it moves one of its vines to Zora’s cheek, curling over itself as if in pleasure, until Zora briskly slices its tip with a knife. The plant quivers, retreating its vine back under the blue petals spotted with orange stars. A sickly honey odour spreads across the room.

“It makes for the most wonderful tea, sergeant. Care for a cup?” She extends an open fist to reveal a desiccated leaf with a chunk of vine bleeding green.

Zora makes for an impressive sight, if you don’t know her. Her face is angular, like bones are gonna pop from her cheeks, with lips perpetually stretched taut in a line. You’d think she was a nice old lady with a prize-winning garden if it weren’t for her eyes. One is greenish, the other stares at nothingness. A film of cataracts renders it an immobile gem stuck in her skull. She would have perfect vision if she didn’t cast so many surveillance spells. I saw it only once – when she moulds another seeing tool, her blind eye looks a ball of cobwebs writhing with baby insects.

“Ah, well. You won’t mind if I have one.” She drops the leaf in one of three cups in the centre of her desk. Her skin’s so thin her veins are visibly curling over her knuckles, as if she was a river map. “Angela will surely join me.”

“You know why we’re here, Zora, so stop with this—” I gesture at the cups and her resplendent plant, “-performance.”

Zora clacks her tongue. “So full of spunk.”

She slips a hand in a deep pocket, then opens her fist above the burnished surface of the table and lets my knife drop with a loud clang. “Do you recognize this, bambina?”

“You. What the hells do you want from it?” The words barely seep through my teeth. It’s the goddamn knife the kid stole off me.

“You seem to be upsetting my partner, Elder Zora.” Sarge stands next to me, ostensibly relaxed, but the way he holds his neck says different.

“Partner? Hah! This one would get a rock to argue with her if you gave her enough time.” She takes a sip of tea and lets the cup clatter when she places back on the tray.

“Elder, we are not here for a cheap shiv. Please.” He gestures to the knife and then to me.

“We found your handiwork by the Gallows.” My voice turns deeper. The rat-king snatches my throat, pushing out what I want to say, instead of what I’m supposed to. My mind scrambles through ways to tame it, to dam it at least for a while, lest I begin twirling with a bread-knife in hand like Tommy. Focus, Ange.

“Of course,” Zora says. “You didn’t think I would allow the Rising, did you? But I see we are too late.” Her globe-shaped pendant swings so hard it hits her on the midriff. Her face flickers when she adjusts it in place, as though there is a layer of panic, maybe, under her coolness. I feel the urge to pounce at her.

Instead, I concentrate on the pendant. It’s a ball made of interlaced swirls than could be opened if its hinge weren’t rusted with age. While I was still at school there were rumours Zora kept the dust of the last dragon’s tooth in there. This would change by the week, with every new bout of drunkenness, to a goblin’s eye to screecher’s blood to a pair of fay wings.

I think it’s something much more personal. A curl of hair, for example. Once I almost found out. We were all drunk in our dorm when I got sick of all the guessing and promised to steal her damn necklace and solve the mystery once and for all. I never got farther than the threshold to her office. For a week I would wake up with snakes for hair and when Zora saw me she would smile an impish smile and tut at me. What that also taught me was that my old mentor doesn’t touch her pendant for nothing. She is more frightened than she wants me to know.

“With all due respect, Elder Zora, I need an explanation,” Heartnell has one hand on his gun, the other balled by his side. He’s beside me, and the gun so close. Zora wouldn’t lie about the Rising. Though I can’t believe her. My palms itch for attack, but I need to focusfocusfocus.

“Another one of your experiments gone wrong, Zora? Is that it?” I ask her, my jaw so stiff it’s a miracle I managed to speak at all.

Zora regards me for what feels like hours. “I sewed her mouth hoping it would hinder the Rising. However, I did not kill one of our students.”

“Bullshit,” I pat my Key. The only reaction I get from her is a twitch, like a sneer, and that makes it all the harder to do this civilly. If Sarge weren’t here–

Heartnell shifts his weight, as if unsure of what the hells is going on. “Unless you prove it, Elder, we’ll have no choice but–”

“To arrest me, yes.” She nods to me. “Care to explain, Angela? You’ve always had a talent for memorization.”

“Just like the movies, Sarge. If she stuffed Rose’s mouth and killed her, her blood will be sucked into the objects. We’ll see who made the Rising.”

I extract the sample from the satchel, spill the beaks and petals on her burnished table, and grab my knife. It’s cool on my palm, crackling with possibilities, the rat-king tempting me to stab Zora’s webbed eye.

“I don’t trust the movies,” he says, still standing in place.

“Trust me.” I slice Zora’s palm open. She doesn’t even wince. “Your amulet works, right?”

“Sure. But that’s different.”

“Fear not, sergeant.” Zora gazes at her wound, her webbed eye twirling, until it’s as though I’d never touched her. The knife falls to the table with a dull, heavy sound. “Though she carries destruction with her, Angela is educated.”

The puddle of Zora’s blood writhes. Slowly, a rivulet arises and undulates to the beaks. Scarlet waves lap at the white bones, crumpling the rose petals between them until they are nothing but tiny balls, like they’ve never been inside Rose’s mouth, like the birds never died and dragged another young magician to the depths of hell. The poor girl didn’t deserve this.

“Wasn’t her, Sarge. But she can cooperate.” Wild magic, the rat-king inside me, burrows deeper in my bones. “You owe me, Zora. As much as I owe you.”

“Maribelle.” Her stature remains rigid. A damn talking statue. “A fine student in possesion of the most brilliant mind. That is the girl you found at the source.”

“Source?” Heartnell asks.

“The Gallows,” she answers as if to a child. “The rip is widening there.”

Blue gleams from my satchel. The charm–Lou must be moving. It fades quickly, though. Too quickly, as though someone’s stopped it. Lou doesn’t know how, which only means he must be trapped, with the people who started this shitshow. “Get on with it, Zora.”

“You,” she says, her pointy chin raised toward me. “Simply put, the trail leads to you.”

The rat-king tickles my chest. I cannot react. “Bullshit. Her Key was carved out, mine’s just fine.”

“Not exactly.” Zora places the cup back on the table as her plant creeps toward her fingers. It vines seem to be swollen and longer. She’d always been arrogant, eager to flaunt her powers. “You bear a warning seal. I am surprised you can do charms at all. Has she told you this, Sergeant Heartnell?”

Sarge is somewhere behind me, his footsteps heavy thuds and pounding in my head like a funerary knell. “Enough,” I scream out and my voice is foreign to me.

“Ange, what is she talking about?” He clasps my shoulder, but I slide away, snatching the knife off the table and launching it to Zora. I miss for only a fraction. Her webbed eye twirls–I can’t be sure if she moved away. All elders have tricks up their sleeves, and Zora has most of them.

“Angela is missing a part of her soul ever since her trip to the Interweave, an incident during her time here. Can you see it, sergeant? Wild magic blackening her veins.”

I push down something bitter. “I’m not Merlin.”

“No. Yet books have gone missing from our library. Rare ones, at that. Are you aware of Lou, sergeant?”

“Old guy with a lab,” he says from close behind me. I can only guess at what Sarge looks like. Knowing him, his face is a stone mask, covering all emotion. Maybe his eyes glisten a bit more, maybe his hands are fisted by his sides. I don’t know.

“Precisely. I assume you wanted yourself healed, Angela. You would need a place to work, an accomplice. Who better than a gullible keyless?”

“No.” Lou is absolutely harmless, his only charm of any importance was infusing bread with a taste of boiled cabbage. And even that made my tongue itchy and swollen for days. No–Lou might be too curious for his own good, but he was taken over like the rest of them, albeit strangely.

I admit it was odd that he barely spoke, and his eyes and the limp because Lou is not a clumsy person. Probably too ashamed of his failure to talk to me, at least tonight. An unpleasant thought emerges from my haze–the frayed collar, were those simple strings?

Zora clutches at her pendant. “I admit I may have made a mistake, allowing such a spell to risk you falling in Interweave. Perhaps,” she sneers at me, “my mistake was getting you out. Perhaps a soul-lacking person doing magic is enough to set the Rising in motion.”

I reach for the ready-mades in my pocket when Heartnell’s voice booms across the room, warning me to stop. I stop rummaging, but keep my hand in the pocket.

“How possible is that, exactly?” Heartnell asks and I can tell he is no longer sure about anything. Sarge is stony in both movement and face, but I know. This is Hearnell hiding the way he thinks. I’ve seen it, I’ve helped it happen.

Behind his collected voice he’s making an inventory of my suspicious behaviours since we’ve found Sparrow Rose–from losing my breath at the scene to reminding him of Peggy to my blackened veins. The sight of me now must be a nightmare. My fingers search for a ready-made. I won’t have a chance to get away unless I act soon. I have to get to Lou. I won’t be responsible for another ruined life.

“Sergeant, she will need to be examined,” Zora commands. “We have made you a holding cage, yes? I suggest you use it while we deal with the rip, and find Lou.”

“Angela has a charm on him, we can—”

“I can see that, sergeant. And a useless one at that. However, I have one that works,” her eye lights up blue. “Angela’s very existence, the way in which she breathes magic, is a danger to us. Look out the window.”

Heartnell walks over and glances outside. His neck tenses up, even from a distance I can see the little vein on his temple bulging out. “Blood. Abandoned car. People on the ground.”

I don’t need to see his face to know he’s convinced. Both Zora and Heartnell want me imprisoned.

“In 48 hours, the effect of the Rising will spread to surrounding countries,” Zora’s staring at me with that damn swirling eye. “We have no time.”

I don’t know what’ll come out of my mouth, so I bite down my lip to keep them shut. Zora is standing between me and Heartnell. Her vine is following her movements like a puppy, one tendril is already too close to my foot.

I have to make sure Lou’s okay. Poor old sod has nothing to do with this. The rat-king patters its legs against my sternum and it’s all I can do not to explode in rage.

“Go to hell.” I’m not sure if I said this–or if it sounded like a growl or a hiss–all I know my throat felt as narrow as a drinking straw.

I grab a ready-made and hurl it to Heartnell. That’s enough to freeze him for a while. I stagger to Zora, but her damn plant curls around my foot. A sharp pain then, and my ankle goes numb. I fall, my arms flailing for support.

“You held such promise, Angela,” Zora walks over to me, her blind eye coalescing in webs, flicking blue then yellow then pearl white.

I have to get up. My Key pulsates like it’s not my skin, the rat-king coils around my neck, spreading throughout my body until it reaching the spot where Zora’s plant pierced my skin. In a moment, the vine blackens, disintegrated in dust. I shake off the remaining numbness from my feet then clamber up.

Zora does not get a chance to react. I give her a kick in the stomach–that’s the trouble with Elders, they don’t think to use anything other than magic–then dig out another ready-made and freeze her too. I bought myself a small advantage. I take the car keys from Sarge.

As I sprint out, I hum Gianna’s favourite song until I feel the rat-king release my windpipes. The melody burns too, but in all different places, in a spot rat-king can’t reach.

I’m sorry, Frank, but I can’t have this again. It can’t be my fault.

 

 

Seven 

The sun is a ball of menace burning the sky blue. Splotches of cloud have dissipated from their normal sheepish texture into melted wax, dripping between the outlines of matchbox buildings scattered across the horizon. I wipe the sweat off my head with the heel of my palm and march to the car, keeping my head down. The rat-king is hungry. It’s heavier, like Hindenburg’s tethered to my ribs.

I jump over a boy no older than eighteen with a neck bent to a corner. A few steps farther I have to step over a girl whose brain is boiling on the asphalt. Verago’s giving in to the whispers it hears in the middle of the night when no one’s watching. Its conscience has never been louder than a mouse, but now wild magic’s got it tied to a chair with lips taped shut and a hot gun that’s seconds from blowing it to high heavens. The Rising has begun.

Cigarette in mouth, I flick my lighter. Nothing happens. I flick it again, two more times. The metal stares back blankly. I just need to catch a breath, just a little while.

“Gods damn you.”

I hold the cigarette between my teeth when I see a familiar figure running toward one of the tottering two-stories. She’s dressed in a grey suit, brandishing a gun in one hand, a club in another.

I yell for Smiley Val and walk toward her. We meet on the curb across Heartnell’s car. I ask for a light and she gives one to me.

“Do me a favour for old times sake, yeah?” I give her one of my best pleading smiles.

“Last time you asked me that, you lingered at my place for a month.” Her scar’s a strip of pearl shimmering in the light and I think of the time I traced it with my fingers while she slept. A twist of her eyebrow can still make my knees quiver.

And what if I fail? What if Lou and Sarge and Zora end up dead? I could leave with Val. Wait it out. Leave the guilt to bite me to bits until there’s nothing left of me. I shake my head. I can’t do that. I can only warn Val.

“Val, this is bad. And your tenants,” I nod to one of the two-stories, “You better worry about all those goons who know where your guns are.”

“I’m not leaving them to the street. Never fucking again.” There’s lightning in her eyes, like a momma bear guarding her young. Smiley Val takes pride in her one and only kindness.

I let the smoke uncurl from my nostrils. “If you see Lou, just—” I hesitate then, remembering what Lou did back at the parlour. He might be–no, he is dangerous. Maybe more dangerous than I give him credit for.

A frail little man who occasionally dips his toes in magic. Lou’s no mastermind, he’s just odd. Lou would never–

The buttonhole right in the middle of his chin. Old Ellis and the dimple on the bust filled with papers, the tilt and top of his head, one I’ve seen before on a face I trusted. I was stupid not to see the family resemblance.

The way Lou spoke back at his place. That was not frayed fabric around his neck, those were blackened veins. Zora mentioned rare books missing. Lou “a gullible keyless,” and it was perfect, playing a lost little man. Lou played me.

The thought echoes in my mind and my gut suddenly drops to my heels.

It’s Lou. Gods damn it, it’s always been Lou.

Is he Old Ellis’s kid? The similarities are too many to be a coincidence, especially the dimple, which I know runs in families, his interest in magic too. If Lou is a keyless and a relation of Old Ellis, he is definitely not as harmless as I thought.

Shit.

Gunshots resound the alley from behind us. Val’s gun is smoking and a troll of a man is face down on the asphalt.

“What do you want?” She snaps at me.

“Thanks for the light,” I tell her, shrugging and turning to make my way.

“One of these days it’s gonna be your snout eating gravel, Ange,” she yells after me.

I flinch as a picture of me slashing Val’s jaw flashes in my mind. “I’ll make sure it’s not today then.” Damn it, Val, despite everything, you still make me see sense in the world.

I crack my neck, slap the Key hard and sit myself in the cop car.

Wild magic plunged its yellow talons into Verago and the longest one is wrapped around my ribs.

 

 

Eight

I have no idea where Lou is and all I can do is forage for clues like a starved raccoon. I stop the car in front of Lou’s parlour and jump out, leaving it free for grabs. No point in locks any more.

Inside I see only a stream of almost-black liquid on the floor. The usual clutter is dampened where the blood bent to fill the hollows of the floor. From beneath the broken toad, strips of red lead to a puddle by the splintered door. I have no time to think of the officers. No time to imagine them rasping for air while vestiges of their lives flutter away.

Pieces of rope on the floor. Dead things. I make my way down the rickety ladders to Lou’s lab, tying a scarf around my mouth and nose to lessen the heavy stench of formaldehyde and damp fur.

It’s a narrow space, not much wider than the length of my outstretched arms. I need to bow my head to move and walk crablike if I don’t want to break anything. The walls are covered with books, lined on shelves that stretch from the ceiling to my waist. There they meet with a wooden table, etched with writings and scratches. Books are scattered all over, cracked open and their insides underlined in blue and red, squiggly lines in the margin which I can only suppose are of Lou’s making.

I lift one book to my eyes, its dusty smell crushing the cloth border between us and I retch. I can barely see in the muted light of one lone bulb hanging on a chain, but it’ll do. There’s nothing in the blasted thing. It’s a book of theory we’d used in Tiha, and judging by the exclamation marks in the margins, Lou didn’t agree with the pillars of our teachings. I drop the book back on the table. I never liked Thornebud’s gibberish either.

So. There might still be a chance I’m wrong about Lou. Somehow I doubt it.

I trace my fingers along decanters brimful with dirt and expensive white sand, a pair of glass bowls one of which holds a decapitated raven’s head, its eyes unnaturally bright. The other is packed with skipping stones and wet cloth. The rat-king sends me a vision of Lou’s bowels falling to the mud. I do my best to ignore it while my shadow leaps in shapes I do not recognize. It twists to incomprehensible shapes, blurs, then snaps back to my shape except it has two heads. I can’t do a damn thing about it now, no matter how satisfying it would be to stab at it.

Among the fairly innocuous books–The Comprehensible History of Magic, Runes for Domestic Purposes, Collected Legends 958-1765–there is one that intrigues me.

A photo album. Except there are no photos left, not whole anyway. I flip the pages to the back. On the inner cover is a carefully drawn family tree, branching in marriages, deaths, births and illegitimate children. The opposite page holds a single photograph. A man with a stiff beard gazes straight into the camera. Hollow cheeks are obscured by wisps of hair clinging to his face, the beard–wild and dark and tangled, matted in places–falls over his chest. His eyes are scratched out in manic, furious streaks that broke through to the cardboard which is now peering from this man’s skin. Like he was flayed and instead of a skull, there is a void, staring out. This is Old Ellis himself.

My Key thumps. I take a closer look at the family tree, not bothering to quiet the rat-king.

Evelyn Ellis, who’s connected to Tristan Poole with a thick black line. A couple of generations later come Lenka and her brother, Lucius. Lenka and Old Ellis, I tap their names, the siblings who came looking for great power, believing Verago was special or some bull like that. Lucious got it into his head Merlin was speaking to him and spent the rest of his days locked in his study, scribbling notes and performing magic that once turned half the city into cats in mating season, I think, which is how he ended up the last man on the gallows. His notes were supposed to be burnt, but they never found them.

The only other thing I can remember is that Lenka’s child was born a mute – a semi-formed good-for-nothing Key that left him incapable of magic and the black sheep of the family. The poor kid could only ever do parlour tricks. And I know for a fact Lenka, or her husband, punished him by putting his palms over an open fire. Or maybe they hoped it would trigger the Key to growth, but somehow I don’t think they were kind people.

I follow the line to the bottommost name, the nephew: William Lucious Ellis.

Or, as I know him, Lou.

Lou must’ve thought patching a Key on his skin would cure him. So he tried to carve Mirabelle’s key off, obviously killing her in the process. I assume he then stitched her Key to his body. Maybe Lou snapped after so many years, and me prancing around him, showing off my magic. But this isn’t just about me. Gods damn it, Lou, you’ll kill us all.

How could I have been so stupid to allow, to bloody help, a man who has Ellis magic in his veins? Old Ellis’ game of Telephone is all gods-be-damned-to-hell true–silent for everyone but for his own blood. All this time he’s been summoning his descendants. Saliva gathers on my tongue, but I stop myself from spitting. I don’t know much, but I do have something. It’s all true. Proven to be true by a soggy photo album.

I hurl the book to the wall, dizzied by this whole mess. Nothing in here can tell me where Lou’s run off to.

The only thing I can do is a tag.

I grab the photo album again, then sprinkle a fistful of white sand in a shape of a circle over all the trash on the floor. There’s dead cockroaches on there, specks I suspect are mice crap, crumpled papers, ashes and a curious patch of wet floor I don’t dare come near to.

When the circle’s done, I throw the Ellis book inside. I place my satchel on one of the tables, remove my coat, and straighten the wrinkles on my shirt.

Now or never, Ange, and it better be now.

With my fingers tapping the Key in the proper beat, I whisper the old tongue. It’s difficult remaining calm, but I do my best imagining a deep, shimmering lightness. I step into the circle.

Lou’s crummy basement dissipates into a curtain of billowing lights. Hues of red and periwinkle and a gleaming orange of melted iron stream to the floor. Almost ready. I grab Lou’s Ellis book from the floor – now swathed in a gun muzzle black – with one hand, the other I curl into a half-opened fist and push inside the orange streak.

I trace several runes inside the light, enough to form a question. A soft, silky string undulates over the pads of my fingers.

Pricks and pins sprint through my body. I suppress a painful shiver when they reach my left eye. This would be my price–blindness for sight, like Zora. My Key stretches across my chest, hurting, rendering my skin taut to the point I think it’ll crack like dry mud when I breathe. If I breathe. I scream, my grip tight on the string.

Broken bones, shattered skulls and burning limbs are speeding in my head, as though they were a carousel spinning faster, faster, faster. I keep my fist around the string, tugging it out, until it’s nestled inside my palm, squirming as if it was alive. I swallow a dry lump.

Nauseous and half-blind, I split the string with my longest fingernail. I tie one on the book, the other to my silver-tipped boot. All that’s left is to say the words and I’ll know the smallest move Lou dares make.

Looking at the shimmering display around me, it seems like everything will be all right. Inside the shine, if I tilt my head and squint, I can almost see figures waltzing along the strings. I know they’re happy–they must be, how they kick their feet up and flail their arms up and above and beside their elongated bodies.

Gianna beckoning to a gaggle of friends with whom she would dance and run and laugh. It’s been so long since I heard her laugh. I know she doesn’t want to see me. I let tears roll down my cheeks.

I open my mouth to finish the tag with a lockin, and then there are running footsteps and everything goes black.

 

 

Nine

When I wake up, nothing hurts, which is odd. I blink away the bleariness and realise both my eyes are working. Obviously – I failed to finish the tag. I have no idea where Lou is and nobody knows he’s gone slap-happy with Maribelle’s Key grafted to his own skin.

I curse loudly. The room I’m in is a metal cupboard of sorts. I barely have the room to stand up and when I stretch my arms my fingertips brush against the walls. There is no toilet, no chairs, no bed, save for a heap of threadbare blankets crumpled in one corner. The air is thick and musty, the only light inside comes from a small rectangular window that looks out to a brick wall. What a lovely view.

Another odd thing–the rat-king stays silent. Just like the bump I’m supposed to have on my head, it is simply not there. To test it, I try to provoke it–I think about hurting Lou. I think about stomping on Zora’s necklace. I imagine the look in Sarge’s eyes when I mention Peggy Sue.

No sign of rat-king. Not even my throat feels tighter. I move my arms about, checking if my chest or Key will flinch or twitch or anything of the sort. No, nothing.

I unbutton my shirt with all the hopeful intention to inspect it and find the black rat-king welt completely gone, pinkened to a scar. This does not happen. Of course it bloody doesn’t. What I see jammed inside my flesh, just beside the Key, is a brass plate the size of my palm. Its surface is covered with runes, some larger than others, as though the writing was sentences and paragraphs. A combination of runes this large is almost impossible. But not for all. Zora isn’t an elder for nothing.

I rebutton the shirt, conveniently emptied of all my ready-mades, and glare at the cell. So they got me. Zora must have known where I’d go first. Hopefully, she managed to untangle all my runes from the ready-made and unfreeze Heartnell too, before any real damage was done. Tiha, I hope she did. The temptation to crumble to the floor is getting stronger by the second.

I need to get out of this cell. Fighting the metal is pointles –whatever I throw at it, it’ll only boomerang back at me, along with the physical price of magic. But if I made a door on the floor…Knowing Zora, that would probably make one of my calves grow hinges and open to the bottom of a swamp, quickly filling up the cell with mud and sewer water.

The only other option is to overpower her magic. And to do that, I need a large gap in the metal. Like an open door.

“You alive in there?” It’s a melodious voice with only a suggestion of many cigarettes smoked in its background. Georgia would’ve made a great singer if she wasn’t as tone-deaf as a roasted canary. I look up and there she is, little ravines between her brows and a pair of eyes so amber they might as well be yellow.

“Why’s that? So you could jab me with a knife through that excuse of a window?”

She snorts then and says, “Yeah, you got that right.” She turns her back to the door, giving me a sight of her neck and some stray brown curls.

I tear the seams off the side of my shirt. Enough space to put my hand through and curl my fingers under the brass plate. I have to let wild magic overcome me if I want to get out of here. I’ll have to let the rat-king have a taste, make it hungry. Tiha save me, I don’t want to do this.

“I coulda been lounging in the sun if it weren’t for you,” Georgia continues.

I dig my nails deeper between metal and flesh.

“You should see me with a tan,” Georgia keeps talking.

“You mean shrivelled like a prune?”

When she doesn’t answer, I ask her about Zora and Heartnell.

“Zora did her magic thing and got her hand shattered. Sergeant Heartnell seems to be all right.” I can feel her biting on her teeth even behind the metal wall. “People like you should be left to rot.”

“Without magic, Heartnell would be a vegetable. So you want our dear Sarge dead, do you? Thinking of a promotion so soon, Georgia?” The brass plate is loose. The pain twists and turns under my fingers, sending jolts all over my body. I do my best to keep my voice a level, cold tone.

“Magic’s fine by me.”  Her voice is snakes ready to pounce. “It’s you I have a problem with.”

I jam my fingers deeper. Flesh splits with a wet sound, blackness spills in jagged lines I can feel thumping, pulsing against my heart, pumping my body with viscous black bile. Warmness trickles down my ribs. I ask about Shaun’s funeral.

She slams her fist on the cell door, the bang reverberating in the small space. “Death will be a relief after I’m done with you.” Ah, so the wild magic inside me acts this fast. Already grabbing Georgia.

Rat-king’s tails coil themselves around my vocal cords. I gasp for air and yank the brass plate with one, hard pull that sends my hand over my head. I let it drop and the brass clangs on metal like a lover’s last words.

What comes out of my mouth would fit a hyena. “Come now, Georgia. Everybody knows you’re no good. How many times have you dropped your gun? How many mugs fooled you and you couldn’t run fast enough to catch them? We all know you’re no cop.”

The rat-king is free, so close to a keyless I’m half-scared it’ll crush Georgia. Half-scared, because the big, bad and ugly is flowing through my meat too. All I need her to do is open the goddamn door.

The door slams open with a force that would shame the biggest goon in Smiley Val’s arsenal. Georgia is shaking all over, her gun pulled out and aimed between my eyes. Her jaw is straight, but those eyes are bent to tears and greyness. “Bird-shit magician.” She spews more insults, her hand uncertain.

She flinches at the sight of me. Her gaze darts to the heavy door and back. I assume I am not a pretty sight. Blood and bile streaming down my clothes, black veins webbing my skin, twisting around themselves.

“Should’ve kept the door locked.” I grin.

My body is not my own anymore. My head nods and her gun is in my hand, still warm and slick with her sweat. This is more magic than possible. “How’s Verago? In flames now, I expect.”

She opens her mouth, but then nods in reply. Her feet are glued to the floor, she’s a scared little thing torn between running for her life or doing what she was trained to do. Wild magic petrified her to stone.

My feet carry me toward her and I push the gun to her forehead.

We stand for what seems like eternity. I blink hard to keep the rat-king away. Bile rises in my throat and I cover my mouth with my free hand, the other still curled around the trigger.

In my mind, I see Gianna picking flowers and throwing them at her big sister. War, play war, she would screech in her tiny, childish voice and I’d pretend to be dead until I made her sob and hug me better. I feel her skin against mine, and the tails loosen for a hairsbreadth.

“Georgia, he–Shaun was a right guy,” I whisper over the rat-king’s tails.

I lurch around her and go on my way when my hand jerks upright before I have a chance to react and my finger twitches.

Georgia crumbles to the floor. A blunt thump hits my ears.

The gun slips through my fingers. I have to get the plate back. I have to walk over Georgia’s body and pick up the only thing that can slow down wild magic and its rat-king inside of me.

I breathe – quickly, heavily, humming Gianna’s song to give me strength – dragging my feet back to the cell. I might be howling. I might be in pain. None of these things matter.

A pool of blood spreads under Georgia’s shoulder. The sight of a nonfatal wound propels me further inside and I snatch Zora’s brass plate back from the floor.

A crack in the metal cage, radiating hot white light, reveals itself the moment I pick it up. I haven’t seen the void since my student days. They’re hazy now, as though I was inspecting the memory though a window smeared with soot.

I remember an argument, Zora’s wicked eye staring down at me. I remember exhaustion. I assume it was a particularly bad day–Zora had tried to correct all the runes I learnt by instinct, which made me look stupid. I had no excuse for making mistakes suitable for a girl who’d just developed her Key–I felt thirteen, instead almost eighteen. There was shame. Later, fury. When Zora dismissed my class with a nod that said more than a speech soaked with disappointment, I raked at my forearms so hard beads of blood began to swell on my skin.

I decided to show her who I could be. I’d made a circle, dug both my arms in the billowing lights, ignoring the pain plunging into the tiny wounds like fire streaming through my pores. I felt space shake, but I didn’t let go of the knots of string I had clutched in my fists.

Next, I was curled on my side in whiteness. Dipped in a pool of wild magic, I don’t know how long I was trapped in Interweave. Finally, Zora’s voice whirled around me, with clear instructions to trade a piece of soul for my escape. I did. Barely, but I did. I hadn’t the time to recover – I was promptly expelled and my Key transformed to scars. Zora hadn’t even looked at me. I was dung on the road, left to dry.

I shove the brass plate deep in my pocket, expelling a huff of angry air at both the crack and the unwelcome memory.

Silently, I exit the cell and follow where the wild magic leads me. I know it’ll guide me to the source of the rip, the Gallows. I don’t want to admit Lou will be there, though he must be, if he is responsible. No more excuses, Ange, no more.

I jostle my way through the ever growing crowd of sweaty, hungry bodies on the streets. Men, women and children are keeling, laughing, yelling victory, revenge or love, high to the skies which are nothing but a sheet of incandescent blue. Their shadows are inconsistent, changing from large splotches to packs of beetles to birds to beasts. A two-story is on fire. A shadow dances in one of the windows, its arms raised like it was holding a partner.

I tighten the grip on the brass plate. Rat-king writhes beneath my sternum. My entire torso is leaden and hollow at the same time. I lean on a deserted car and vomit. The bile hits the driver’s door, and hisses as the steel corrodes. Tiha knows what it’s doing to my body.

I wipe the spit off, and after I’m settled in the seat, jumpstart the car and speed to Gallows Lane. The car jumps as I drive over at least dozen bumps. I can only hope they were wreckage, but the rat-king in my chest sniggers and tell me all of them had once been alive. I feel its hunger churning, the Key thumping in its rhythm. I clasp my hands around the wheel until my knuckles whiten. I swirl the car out of St Adora Square, rushing towards Oneka Street which would take me through the old factory districts to the street parallel to the Gallows.

The car jolts again as I pass by a frenzied crowd of people, seemingly preparing for a fight. One of the men has a gash from the bottom of his hand to the curve of his shoulder. Audible over the sounds of chaos, their chants drum in a hollow beat, filling up the car as I drive by. Gods be damned.

 

 

Ten

I sprint toward two figures nearest the brightness of the gallows, just below the steps of the monument. Behind them, whiteness–whiteness as hot as a frying pan, as blinding as if the sun came down to burns us, as a million lightbulbs aiming at my eyes, my gods, the whiteness.

The figure a step closer to it is Heartnell, his arms up, he must have a gun. The lower figure’s gleaming, its shine equal to the whiteness behind Sarge. It’s Lou, with two interlaced strings coming out of his ankle and rising through the sky, vanishing inside one of the buildings. They’re taut, swaying only when Lou advances up to Heartnell, vibrating as they wind themselves around streetlights and over cars, over the crowd that’s gathered around the sight. On the string’s other side must be Zora. I could bet my life she’s in that building, her body shivering inside a screetcher-teeth circle. Zora knew where to go, she must have led everybody here.

I scream for Lou but there’s only wailing and laughing and a rip like flesh tearing wetly under a carving knife. I push my way through the crowd. Packs of them are holding hands, chanting the same chant like the man with the gash on his arm. Others look up at the rip in the world, their mouths agape and drool lolling from their lips. I have no time for this.

I elbow them away and let the rat-king squeeze my cords, rip my mouth open. I yell for Lou in the black tones of a crypt long forgotten by its minders. He flinches and turns his head just for a second. Sarge jerks his hands, but the gun doesn’t fire. Before he can do anything else, Lou has him by the waist and is pushing him up the steps to the fake gallows where the whiteness is brightest. Heartnell’s body goes limp.

At the foot of the stairs, Lou and I pause, regarding each other. The light makes shadows twirl on Lou’s face and it’s only now I realise that he’s only fifty pounds away from being Old Ellis’ exact copy. The whites of his eyes are a vicious red.

“Leave him,” I say in a language of fire and beasts.

The rat-king rakes at my sternum. I feel its talons break skin and blood begins gushing from my side. I tighten the grip around Zora’s plate. Not yet.

Lou grins at me. He glances down to his leg, where Maribelle’s Key flaps frantically. It was the shape of a boat. One of the strings emerges from the topmost sail, the other from under the patch of Maribelle’s skin, from the inside of Lou’s maimed Key. Lou keeps grinning. He cocks his head to the side and takes a step back.

The whiteness swallows Heartnell’s hand and what I hear coming out of his mouth terrifies me more than the rip behind the Gallows. It seems lower now, almost reaching the ground.

“Stop,” I command Lou and throw my body onto his. We fall onto the boiling ground and Heartnell rolls away from us. A hissing sound pierces the air.

I loosen my fingers from Zora’s plate, both letting and willing the rat-king to wash over me. The shock of falling to the ground gave me enough time to use Zora’s plate on Lou’s strings – only a fraction of a second and its edge breaks them from Lou’s leg. Wherever Zora is, whatever she’s been doing, it ended now.

Lou shivers in short little spurts like the bastard’s laughing. I dig my free hand into his flesh, my nails going deep.

Then I push our bodies into the rip, back into Interweave.

 

 

Eleven

 I am the whiteness. I am the rip spreading across the sky to shelter Verago with my wings. I am the rat-king, shining as if I was a dying star. I have my hands on the little man, my tails wrapped around his neck, my claw sinking in his blood.

The brass plate is in my hand. It slithers half-way inside the hill of my palm, sending warmth and calm and chains.

The little man–Lou–is no man. His skull is made of paper and scrolls. His skin held together with notes about spells and charms and transformations. His mind is writings in shaky lettering. There are spells there, runes unknown since the fall of Merlin. Lou is no more than a pile of papers made of flesh. Lou is Old Ellis’ nephew and a paperdoll, barely human. The crazies were right all along–Old Ellis did keep talking, but only to Lou.

Lou crackles, spreading in a pool of smoke until it too dissipates in white. I am in the Interweave, alone.

Zora’s plate burrows deeper with crackle. I scream, though I hear nothing.

A voice, an old one calls Ange, Angela, Ange, are you okay? A sharp pain runs over my shoulder, it bolts to my mouth and eyes and nose and I hear my name and it’s Sarge, calling for me. I swear loudly.

“That’s my girl!” Heartnell’s voice comes muffled.

“Step away, sergeant.” Another voice, hoarse and full of pride. Zora. “We are not done here.”

“Listen to the lady, old man,” I yell back, my throat sore.

I cough hard. Again and again, until I’m on my knees holding onto nothing. The plate travels further up my palm until only its corner’s visible. When I’m done retching, I tear the seams of my blouse and plunge a fist inside my flank, right next to the Key.

There are noises and dull pain, then finally my fingers grasp the rat-king and I yank it out. Looks like a ready-made charm except I know it’s a clot of wild magic. Almost immediately, it vanishes into white.

Voices come from somewhere above, or around, or below.

“We can restore your arm, but if we fail to do this now—”

“Zora. You cannot leave her in there.”

What follows are more curses, bickering and raised voices. I can’t say I care. I yell to Sarge to let Zora do her job. Whatever else they say, it doesn’t reach me.

I pull myself on my feet and will them to star walking away from the rip. Around me is whiteness, yet I feel the ground slope up, and the heaviness around my feet as though I was walking up a sand dune. My body has never felt this light.

I climb until the air cuts through my lungs like razors. I do not tire when I reach the top, far above the gallows and the voices and the world.

I pause to pluck Zora’s plate out of my hand. It slides out easily as though I was a ghost. I collapse alongside it, allowing my eyes to burn and wet my face. I gulp at the air like I was suffocating. The whiteness cloaks me, and, finally, when my knees are at my chest, I decide this is the place where I oughtta be.

“War, war, war!”

My eyes blink the Interweave into sharpness. Where is that chimy voice?

Gianna wraps her little arms around my neck. The weight of her body is slight, but for me it’s no less than two tonnes of steal. She’s leaned on my back and all I can do is pat her on the arm. I want to say – I can’t find the words.

So I trace two runes with my hands, one of which glistens red, the other marred with grime. Two puppets appear, more truthful than any I have ever made. The right one twirls while flame licks at her legs, the most marvellous of dresses in countless hues of red. The left glides around it, the mud swirling in patterns so that you never know if she’s facing this way or that, whether the line on its waist is straight or if it’s etched into waves and mermaids.

Gianna squeals in delight. I stop a sob from escaping.

None of this is true. Gianna is an adult, far away from any harm I can bring her. But I can pretend, at least for a while.

I make our dancers somersault into the air like trapeze artists with all their faith placed into their partner’s arms. And Gianna giggles in delight and puts her little finger on my Key.

“You can take me home,” she says.

“I could,” I tell her.

The two dancers intertwine with each other, folding themselves into one, then growing rapidly, engorged by magic, by wish, by heart.

When I first did this, I wasn’t able to stop them. I had no skill then, no knowledge. Then my little sister burst into tears and our house came burning down. Gianna ended up with scaring along her back, an unnatural curve of the spine and daily pains. And I ran away.

Before, Gianna would clap her hands at my tiny dancers and clumsily imitate them. Often she would fall straight on her ass, then pout as if the floor purposely snagged at her feet. But this Gianna–this Gianna only squeals in delight. This is not her. This is not even a child. This is one of Old Ellis’s tricks. Old Ellis trying to tempt me to bring him out of the Interweave. I crush the dancing puppet.

With one hand I snatch up Zora’s brass plate, with the other I grab the little body and yank it in front of me. It takes me a second to open its mouth and push the plate deep inside the girl’s throat.

I close its mouth and nose, forcing it to swallow. Old Ellis got everything right, down to the scar above Gianna’s brow, but what’s in my arms now is more like a rabid starved dog than my kid sister.

The creature’s bellow spreads across the Interweave, rippling it around me. The little body grows translucent, then bursts into flashes of colour, crying runes and bits of spells and the sounds are so strong my eardrums vibrate, my ears buzz wildly. I still have my hands around the creature until it bursts one last time, then fades into the whiteness.

I spit at where it was, then clamber back up.

It’s done. Tiha help me, it’s done. The combination of the inside of Interweave and Zora’s plate was too strong for Old Ellis. Even if he’s not dead, he’ll be lost in here. I can only hope no other idiot gets smart enough to open the Interweave and go look for him.

For now Old Ellis is gone–forever or folded into the whiteness, I don’t give a damn. The important thing is he is not in Verago, nor anywhere else in the world. And I did it.

As I turn to leave, a dot of colour catches my eye. By my feet is a greenish thing, a skipping stone of some sort, that looks more like jade than a piece of Old Ellis, or Lou, his vessel of a nephew. When I touch it, it spreads warmth deep inside my bones. I give it a smile, knowing exactly what I’m supposed to do. I push the stone in the wound on my ribs and run back to the rip. My sight is like cobwebs, wet and blurry, but the legs know where to go. I run so fast I almost fly.

Zora and her people are close to stitching the rip up. The space I have left is getting increasingly smaller. I launch myself over, hoping to glide through.

When I open my eyes, there is a sky above me–periwinkle with a hint of cloud streaked across it, sailing over what’s left of the gallows. Cracked in half, the two pieces are folded over each other like two fingers crossed in promise. I bite down on my lips to stop a smile. Omens have never been reliable to magicians, we’re taught to mostly ignore them, but I couldn’t help it. The broken gallows show good things coming. The glorious sight is spoiled by a crushing pain in my ankle.

“Hey, Frank,” I croak. “Could you get a girl’s foot free?”

 

 

Twelve

A while later, I’m sitting on the steps of the plateau with my arms wrapped around my knees. The people in the square have reverted to their old selves–several figures collect trash, some rock themselves and cry, their wailing carried by the wind away from me. Children play hide and seek like nothing ever happened. I think I even see Smiley Val peer from the shadows. Here is where I chuckle. In spite of the wreckage, my Key half-opened and pulsing in a raw, dull pain, I can smile. I got the piece of my soul back. The greenish skipping stone nestled in my side ripples, and as it does, I feel it stitch back the bit of soul – slowly, but surely.

This time, I did not burn this house down. I kept it whole. I reached to the beams and held them in place.

Heartnell gives me a mug of hot coffee before he says somebody should see me. The coffee burns my tongue and I curse just as an old, wrinkled woman stands before me. A pendant in a shape of a ball hangs down to her waist. She looks like old leather now. I never knew she was so old. She must have expended enough magic for a lifetime.

“Zora?”

The little woman grabs her necklace and stares at me with her one remaining eye. The white one has lost its feathery webs, and now looks like a hard marble jammed inside her skull.

“Elder? Are you all right?” I ask, stupidly. There’s a flicker of recognition in her good eye, then she speaks.

“You did good, bambina.” She smiles. “I, however, will need a long vacation.” She gestures in a way that clearly points to the ravines on her face.

I don’t know what to say so I sit there with my mouth agape like an idiot. Fear crosses Zora’s face and she grabs the pendant again as if to guard it against a thief. I call her name, and she turns to me looking like a deer in headlights.

I know very well this is what the magic cost her. And when it attacks the mind, sense and logic may never come back.

Zora begins to shiver, so I introduce myself. I tell her it’s one fine necklace she’s wearing. This makes her relax and stretch her lips in a smile that makes her face look like she was staring into a dream. She leans close, the electric smell of magic and sweat and wet wool rushing to my nose, and opens her pendant.

Two figures flicker in and out of the air, as they move into an embrace. The taller one is a man in uniform. His ears turn redder and redder as he moves his arms around a young woman with hair the colour of night. I look at Zora, then back at the couple. So this is why her sight was gone. Not surveillance magic after all.

“John’s coming soon. We’re getting married,” Zora whispers to me.

She snaps the pendant closed, and slides her palms over her clothes to straighten them. “This is no time to be sentimental. As I said, I am in need of a vacation. During that time we shall need a suitable Elder. Considering what you have done, I will put you in charge of Tiha temporarily.”

“You want me to be -”

“Don’t be ridiculous, Angela. My colleagues will help you summon a council that will choose a suitable successor. This–” she gives the space behind me a scowl, “person and what he’s done, they’d taken my all.”

I keep my eyes on the coffee and nod.

“You have shown considerable skill, and you’ve managed to take back what’s yours from the Interweave, which has only been done once before. I shall allow you to finish your schooling.”

I jerk my head up and almost spit the coffee from my mouth. I force it to go down instead. Hells. School? With tests and nonsensical rules, tomes heavier than cinder blocks. Not to mention the kids–I’ll be an old lady to them. I suppress a shudder. I raise my eyebrows and nod in fake excitement.

Zora’s face flickers again, settling into a distorted grimace of fear. Her hands wrap themselves around the necklace again. In a very soft, albeit hoarse voice she says, “I told him it’s a good, right thing to go. When is he coming back? Where’s my John?”

Her head moves left and right, frantically looking for her fiancé until a pair of arms leads her gently away and Heartnell sits next to me with a grunt. My gaze follows Zora’s confused aged body while she’s lead to a car and driven away. Just before she sinks into her seat, she gives me one wicked wink. Or maybe it was just a glint of a streetlight, slowly turning itself on.

“Why the long face?” Sarge asks.

I let out a wry laugh and say nothing.

“It’s weakened, this whole thing.” He moves his hand in a circle. “Zora and I need–what did she call them–Spinners to keep it all under control.”

I blink at him. “What?”

He answers with a stomach-heavy laughter and only says, “It ain’t that difficult to understand, kid. Zora explained a lot. And I was thinking.” He shrugs. “I should learn a thing or two about magic. Maybe I study it. The theories and all.”

“You?”

“It ain’t half as hard.” He pats me on the knee with his good hand. The other one’s shrivelled to the thinnest wail of skin covering bone, torn in more places than I can count, with welts of blood and meat edged with charred skin. I clutch the mug tighter and hide my face in it.

“Is Georgia okay?” I murmur.

I want to say more, I want to explain what I had to do, and I want to tell him all about Gianna, but the words melt on my tongue. When they reached Gallows Lane, Zora and Sarge must have known what I had to do.

“We got a healer. Georgia’s as good as new, but under mandatory house rest. She almost bit my head off at that.” He laughs then and adds, “Happy to have her home saved from the rip, too. You did what you had to do, kid.”

“But if I stayed inside, if I didn’t–”

“I’d be short a friend.”

I turn my face to him and there is worry spreading over his face. He puts his good arm around me.

“You’d have a hand. Zora wouldn’t be like…like this.”

“You did your best. Hell, you did more than any of us thought you were capable of. Even Zora.”

We sit for a while, watching Verago shroud itself in purple and grey, slowly shifting back to normal. There’s much to do, but the people of Verago are a steel-nerved bunch, so maybe we’ll make it.

“There are no heroes, Angela. Just people trying their best,” he says as he lights one of his cigarettes. “Stop trying so damn hard.”

When I’m done with my coffee, he asks, “So, you gonna keep me company at the Academy?”

I burst into laughter at the picture of the two of us sitting at a school desk. When I get my breath back, I ask him a favour.

“If I were to go visit Gianna at the–” I swallow the lump down. “At the convent, it’d be great to have a friend with me.”

He nods and passes me a cigarette. Overhead, the first star appears.

____

Copyright 2017 Alice Brook

Alice Brook writes stories in snippets of free time, between going to work in a century-old house and shooing her cat away from the computer. She tweets irregularly @ABrookWrites.

by Andrea Tang

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The oil boiling its displeasure at Isabel nearly got the best of her when Dominic waltzed through the door. Like a witch in a fairytale, she’d leaned over the Dutch oven, heat blasting her skin. “Give me five seconds!” she shouted.

“Is there a reason you’re attempting to set yourself on fire?” Dominic kicked off his shoes and loped over to the stove.

The oil perked up at this suggestion, and began clambering at the edges of the enormous pot. Isabel ducked its attack with the ease of long practice, then snatched half a fist of dough from the mixing bowl behind her.

Ciboire de tabarnac, don’t even think about it!” She kneaded willpower into the little ball with her flour-caked fingers. “Here, eat, you greedy little savage.” The sacrificial dough ball plopped into the depths of the oil.

The oil splashed around some more, considering her offer, trying to see if she’d blink. She didn’t. She never did. With a sigh, the oil allowed the dough to settle. Isabel grabbed a pair of tongs and rescued her creation before her fickle friend could change its mind again. “Pleasure doing business, petit.” Now, out came her favorite part: the sugar bowl.

Dominic sniffed at the air. “Beignets? For a Chinese bakery? Rather off the standard brand for you, isn’t that?”

Isabel flicked confectioner’s sugar off her fingers. “Moin chaud,” she ordered the beignet, and bit in, humming her contentment at the treat’s warm, airy consistency. “These aren’t for Maman.”

“You’re not cheating on Pâtisserie Chang with some upstart boulangerie in downtown Montreal, are you? Not my own sister!”

“Of course not. Unless the upstart boulangerie is my own stomach.” She held her free, comparatively sugar-free palm out to Dominic, fingers waggling. “You have what I asked for?”

Dom made a wounded sound. “Am I but a pack mule to you, my precious elder sibling, wo de baobei jiejie?”

“Yes,” said Isabel, and merciless, added, “Also, you speak Chinese like a white boy.”

“My own heart!”

“You know it’s true.” She waggled her fingers harder. “Here, quit dawdling, and you can have a beignet from the cooling rack. Free of charge.”

“Ah. Well, in that case.” Mollified, Dom deposited a lump of children’s craft clay into Isabel’s upturned palm.

Isabel smiled, closing her fingers around the clay lump’s delicately formed wings. “Very nice,” she relented. “Your fancy English university schooling hasn’t knocked all proper use out of you.” As she spoke, she tossed the sculpture into the still bubbling oil’s hungry embrace.

“What are you doing?” yelped Dom.

“Shh,” soothed Isabel. “Have a beignet.”

The oil roared. Something exploded over the rim of the Dutch oven in a flurry of feathers and offended croaks. It soared just past Isabel’s head.

Le corbeau, really?” Jaded amusement warred with pure delight in Dom’s voice. “Aren’t you afraid of playing into the stereotype?”

“Hipster,” accused Isabel around another mouthful of beignet. “I like ravens. They’re sensible.”

“You gave him an extra leg,” Dom observed. “He didn’t have a third leg when I made him. Is that an obscure Edgar Allan Poe thing I don’t get?”

“No, it’s a sanzuwu thing you don’t get, you culture-deficit ingrate. Did you pay no attention at all to Maman’s lessons when we were kids?”

“I thought they were just stories!”

“Just so…” The raven croaked its reproach and landed on top of Isabel’s hair, nesting happily in the hairpin-filled – and no doubt flour-dusted – expanse of her updo. “Sanzuwu are three-legged golden ravens. Birds of the sun, according to proper Chinese lore.”

“Yes, well, Horrible is going to gobble up your pretty three-legged sun bird and cast us all into eternal night.”

“Horrible is a lazy coward currently hiding in my bathroom because he’s afraid of the noises the kitchen makes,” Isabel pointed out, dry as the flour caking her apron. “The only things he knows how to gobble up are my beignets, no thanks to you.”

“I have to bribe him to keep his claws to himself!” protested Dom. “It’s not my fault your evil hellcat hates me.”

“That cat hates everyone. He’s probably mauling my toilet paper as we speak. And beignets will be the death of his digestive system, so quit feeding him every time you come over.” She cast about for a spare dish towel to wipe her fingers on. “Anyway, you brought me a sun bird – or, very well-formed raw materials for one at any rate – which means I owe you a favor. Name your price.”

“I thought you’d never ask! I met a boy at university–”

Hostie dcrisse, please no.”

“Let me finish! It’s not what you think. I met a boy at university with the most peculiar malady. I’ve taken him to Maman’s, but I thought you might be able to help.”

“Why didn’t you just take him to one of your posh English witches at school?”

Dom’s starched shirt sighed over his shoulders as he shrugged. “This is more up your alley. It’s a beastly puzzle of a curse. You like untangling that sort of thing. Besides, it’s a Chinese curse.”

Isabel tilted her head, intrigued despite herself. “A Chinese curse on an English schoolboy in Quebec, hmm? Curiouser and curiouser.” She dusted her hands on her apron. “Give me five minutes to put on something cleaner.”

The sanzuwu followed them all the way through the winding streets of Verdun, swooping between the siblings and croaking contentment at his newfound freedom. “Your new friend needs a name,” said Dom as they scurried to catch the train downtown. Isabel’s bird croaked his agreement, and fluttered down to nestle back on top of her head. “Have you chosen one?”

Isabel swiped her fare card and shrugged. If commuters on the métro noticed the three-legged raven nesting in the stout little Chinese girl’s hair, they evidently counted themselves too replete with Canadian courtesy to remark on the sight. “Bird. Raven. I don’t know, take your pick.”

Dom made a scandalized sound. “Those aren’t names!”

“This from a boy who named my cat ‘Horrible.’”

“Precisely! I chose a name that suited his presence and temperament. I didn’t just call him ‘Cat.’ How would you like it if Maman had named you ‘Girl’ or ‘Witch’ or ‘Curse Upon My Loins’?”

“I’m pretty sure ‘Curse Upon My Loins’ is trending in all the baby books this year.”

Her brother heaved a mighty sigh, but allowed Isabel to spend the rest of the commute in relative peace.

Pâtisserie Chang sat on a bustling little stretch of stretch of Rue St. Catherine, where it shared a wall with the popular tourists’ hostel that also brought Maman the majority of her customers. Isabel noticed two things straightaway when she and Dom walked through the door.

Thing one: the scent of freshly baked dim sum-style egg custards.

Thing two: the raw, golden magic filtering off the stranger curled up in the window seat, like heat from a miniature sun.

Isabel dropped to her knees at the window seat, entranced. “Mon dieu. What on earth is the matter with you?”

The stranger recoiled from her. “Excuse me?”

Thing three: the stranger – a young man, from the sound of him – had a voice like one of those fey folk in Western-told tall tales who lured maids to fairy revels in the woods. It carried the same intricate, golden threads of magic that twined through his veins. If he didn’t work in enchanted music or spoken incantations, Isabel would positively weep at the waste.

Thing four: the young man had no heartbeat.

“Crisse de câlisse de holy shit,” said Isabel, reaching for the stranger’s wrists with careful, clinical hands. His skin was marble smooth, pulse free, and cold to the touch, yet undeniably that of a living man. Given the circumstances, that meant thing five: “Someone cursed this kid with actual, bona fide immortality.”

“Er, Isabel?” Dom’s voice broke her fascinated reverie. “Boundaries? You’re frightening Elias.”

Visceral awareness crept in on Isabel all at once: how closely she’d crowded the young man, his impossibly cold wrists taut between her fingers. She let go, dropping back on her haunches. “Sorry,” she said, trying to tame the manic glee probably stealing across her face.

“The fact that he allowed you to put your hands on him at all is impressive.” Maman’s voice, speaking crisp, continental-accented French from behind the pâtisserie counter. She sounded like she was arranging the dim sum custards in the display case. “Your brother says Elias refuses human touch.”

“Charming,” said Isabel, “but I’m afraid I need some degree of tactility to diagnose you, so we’re going to have to work around that. Why don’t you touch people?”

“Why do you need to use touch?” asked Elias, instead of answering her question. His golden voice was suspicious and unhappy. “Can’t you just write out a spell, like standardized magicians do?”

“If a standardized magician was what you needed, I daresay Dom would have left you to your own devices back at McGill. And I can’t write, so my methods–”

“You can’t write?” Elias blurted out. “How do you cast magic? How do you do anything in this day and age without being able to write?”

“Creatively.”  Isabel deadpanned, rolling her shoulders. “But if you don’t like that, I can leave you to the mercies of some stuffy English sorcerer. Jmen câlisse –”

“Isabel.” Her mother’s voice was a quiet rebuke. “Have a little kindness. Your brother’s friend is terribly distressed.”

“Wait, did you just like, call yourself a chalice?” demanded Elias.

“You see, Isabel?” said Maman, made unnecessarily waspish by parental triumph. “I wish you wouldn’t inflict all that Quebecois street joual of yours on polite company.”

“El, just tell her what you told me,” coaxed Dom, slipping into French himself, genuine and honey-warm. “What my sister lacks in charm, she more than makes up in raw, magical talent.”

“She’s literally got a bird on her head.” Elias spoke French as beautifully as he spoke English, albeit with the most unbearably posh Parisian accent Isabel had ever heard. No wonder Maman liked him. He practically dripped judgment.

“She’s a friend to the animals.”

“She speaks French like an angry lumberjack from the Canadian wilderness.”

“She’s a woman of the people. Go on, it’s all right.”

The network of golden magic pulsing beneath Elias’ skin flickered warm – like caged sunlight – against Isabel’s awareness, a stark contrast to his corpse-cold body. She bit her tongue on a selection of smart-aleck comments, waiting.

Elias gave a great shuddering sigh, and spoke. “It happened in Beijing, when I was thirteen. My parents travelled there on business, and took me with them. Don’t ask me for details. My memory’s got all these gaps in it – I think that’s part of the curse. I don’t remember who cast it, or how. One day, I could eat and drink and bleed like a normal kid, and the next, anything I tried to eat or drink turned to ash in my mouth, and I couldn’t… feel things the same way, not anymore.”

“Feel things?” Isabel felt her brows go ‘V’ shaped.

“I couldn’t tell warmth from cold. I couldn’t even feel pain, not really.” Isabel heard the flick of a knife – the retractable pocket kind people kept for opening boxes – and a moment later, a sharp, indrawn breath from Dom. “I don’t bleed. Here.” Elias bared his forearm against her fingers. Isabel hissed, as her thumb brushed across the shorn, jagged skin where he’d cut himself. He’d told the truth. No blood.

The skin shifted beneath her thumb. A second later, it returned to eerie, marble-smoothness. Isabel whistled. “Healing factor, nice. So, you can’t be stabbed or starved or burned, among other things. Sounds like a feature, not a bug.”

“You’re not the one living it,” said Elias, his syllables sharpening. “If you’re generous enough to call it living. I’m… I know I’m slipping away, from being human. A little more, every day. That’s just about the only thing I can feel, and I can’t do anything to stop it. I’m losing pieces of myself, bit by bit. The longer I live, the further away the rest of the world falls – and the less I remember about who I was before the curse.”

He swallowed. “I’ve already forgotten what happened to my family. I don’t remember the last time I had a friend. I barely register physical touch anymore. And people who do touch me…” The sharp syllables dulled. “They… don’t usually react well. I don’t feel like something that should be alive. Dom’s the first living person I’ve spoken to in a while.”

Isabel turned her head toward where she’d last heard Dom’s voice. “And how did you find out about all this?”

Dom’s feet shifted, creaking on the old wooden floorboards. “Do you want to tell her this part, or shall I?” he asked Elias.

A few beats of silence, during which Isabel imagined the boys conversing with their eyes. She tried not to sigh aloud.

“Something’s following me,” said Elias, at length. How strange, to hear a voice so golden, so lovely with magic, sound so small. “Or somethings, plural, really. I don’t know how long they’ve been on my tail. That’s one of the last things I still remember: unsleeping things that come out at night, after the sun’s gone down, and hunt for me. That’s why I enrolled in university out here in Quebec, you know – I thought I could lose myself in the crowd of other students. Throw my mystery monster off my trail. It did work… for a little while.” A soft rustle, probably Elias shaking his head. “I don’t know who they are, or what they want. I just know that I can’t let them catch me.” His voice was high and angry. Afraid. “No matter what, you understand? I can’t.”

“I believe you,” said Isabel. She did. You couldn’t fake fear like that. “But something tells me this eldritch monster of yours came pretty close.”

“Once,” said Elias quietly. “I got stuck outside after a lecture ran late, right when the sun was about to set. You… they never shows themselves, you know? They stay hidden, so you don’t know their faces, and can’t see them coming. But you know they’re there. You always know. I’ve heard their voices, enough times over the years, to recognize when those things are on the hunt. They know my name.” A pause. The ghost, Isabel imagined, of what should have been an elevated heart rate. “I ran. They followed. And they would have caught me this time, except that Dominic’s flat is in that neighborhood. He picked up on what was happening, and let me hide out in his spare room for the night.” Of course. Dom had a thing about damsels – and dudes – in distress.

“I’m not the witch you are,” Dom shot casually at Isabel, “but I’ve got my uses.”

Isabel nodded distractedly. Her brother had never developed her knack with magic, but like most folks with half a brain and a modicum of sense, he’d nurtured at least a couple arcane talents. Dom had what their mother called a clever eye: he saw magic in all its infinite varieties and potentials. It made him good at finding and shaping useful conjuring material – like bits of craft clay that could form living ravens. Unfortunately, it also made him good at spotting trouble that crept past the notice of even seasoned sorcerers. Trouble that inevitably made its way to Isabel’s doorstep.

Isabel shivered, despite the warmth of the shop, and adopted a riddle-master’s inflections: “What could possibly frighten a boy who can’t die?”

A rasp of humorless laughter from Elias. “Something more monstrous than I am, I guess.”

“And I’ll bet my beignet recipe it’s the same thing that managed to curse you all those years ago in China,” muttered Isabel. Her hands balled into fists to hide their sudden tremor. “I’m not sure you can appreciate how little I want to touch a situation like this one.”

“Isabel, come on!” Dom’s voice was a plea.

She ignored him, with some effort, and held up her hands in what she hoped looked like a placating gesture. “It’s not personal. You seem like a nice enough guy, but unlike my brother, I’ve got a healthy sense of self-preservation. Whomever you pissed off badly enough at thirteen to land you in this mess at, what, twenty-something–”

“Please.” Elias’ voice was barely a whisper.

Isabel could still feel that innate, sunlit magic leaking off him, trapped behind the cold, heavy prison of the curse threaded into his bones. She hated herself for being so curious about it. She hated herself more for feeling so guilty. “I won’t,” she said, forcing down both feelings. “I can’t. It’s too dangerous. I’m sorry.”

Ten minutes later, she gave in.

“Okay, if we’re going to be stuck with each other for gods-only-know-how-long, I’m gonna have to lay down the law.” Isabel waggled her hand beneath her best guess for where Elias’ face was. Her little three-legged raven had launched himself back into the air as soon as they disembarked the métro, flapping low and croaking his presence a foot or two in front of her head. The sanzuwu’s noisy, guiding flight at least spared Isabel the need to hang on to Elias’ arm for direction, which probably relieved him even more than it relieved her. Uptight bastard. That she needed assistance getting around rankled less than it used to, but it still rankled.

“One.” She raised her index finger. “Don’t touch anything without my permission. Lethal magic’s not my thing, and you won’t find much around my building that’s truly deadly, but some of the charms I’ve set up around the place don’t react so well to strangers. You may be immortal, but I doubt you want a second curse on your head. Better safe than sorry. Two.” Up popped the middle finger. “Before you ask, on the list of things not to touch: my cat. He scratches. I know you heal, but I don’t want him spooking and destroying another roll of my toilet paper in vengeance. Those damn things add up.”

“Can I ask a question?”

She batted her spare hand vaguely in his direction. “You can ask as many questions as you’d like, once I finish explaining the rules beneath my roof. Three.” Ring finger. “Don’t bother me when I’m in the kitchen. Most of my spell-work is concentrated there, and dislikes being interrupted. Besides, interfering with someone who’s cooking is just plain rude.” Pinky finger. “Four. Do not refer to any of my magic as ‘exotic,’ ‘enlightened,’ or gods forbid, ‘Oriental.’ I really will lay a second curse on your head. Do not test me. Five.”

She wiggled all five fingers for emphasis. “This one is the most important, so listen closely. If anything scares you, hurts you, or just plain makes you uncomfortable, you tell me, understand? Curse breaking isn’t fun, least of all for the object of the curse, and while some discomfort can’t be avoided, I’d rather avoid doing you unnecessary harm. If you have questions, ask me. If you want me to stop doing something, tell me. I can’t promise to fix whatever’s wrong with you, but I can promise not to do anything truly against your will. But you have to communicate, tu comprends? I’m a witch, not a mind reader.”

“I understand.”

“Good. Now, what did you want to ask me?”

Embarrassed hesitation hitched back his voice for just a second, before the question catapulted off his tongue all at once: “Why haven’t you looked at me this entire time?”

Isabel blinked, not quite processing the words. “What?”

“If I’ve offended you or something, I’m sorry. I don’t understand what I did, but I can – why are you laughing?”

Isabel couldn’t stop cackling. “Tabarnac, Elias, you perfect idiot,” she gasped out between giggles, “I’m blind.”

“Before we do anything else,” Isabel announced, toeing her door open, “we need to get some food into that sad, neglected belly of yours.”

She felt Elias’ frown on her, heard the sound of it in his voice. “I told you, I can’t eat anymore. Food –”

“– turns into ash in your mouth, yes, yes, I remember. And for food I didn’t cook, I’d believe that.” She felt her way into the kitchen, considering her options. He’d need something savory, with protein. “You strike me as a chashu bao sort of man.” Isabel yanked her freezer door open. With luck, she’d still have – aha, yes, she did! – frozen pork, saved from her last batch of barbecue buns. Not as magically potent as meat fresh from the butcher, but it would do, for now. She thawed the pork with a careless wave of her hand.

“What, er – I don’t mean to sound rude,” began Elias, which was what people always said when they were about to say something incredibly rude, “but um, what are you, precisely?”

Isabel pinched the bridge of her nose with her free hand. Patience was a virtue. “I’m Chinese-Canadian.” Lucky thing she had the canned speech on standby. “Shanghainese, if you prefer precision, by way of my mum, whose parents lived and worked in the former French Concession –”

“No, no, I didn’t meant to ask… not that,” Elias amended hastily, sounding truly embarrassed now. “I meant, how can you do what you do? I’ve never seen magic like yours.”

Ah. Immortal and unbleeding, he might be, but that didn’t mean the kid wasn’t also sheltered as hell. “Your question amounts to the same thing,” said Isabel, more kindly now, and a little amused. She selected a knife, testing the edge with the pad of her thumb. “I’m not one of your standard-trained English magicians – not beyond the compulsory basics they teach in elementary school, anyway. I learned Chinese magic first, then French-Canadian street magic from the neighborhood kids and their parents. I’m a bit of a generalist, but mostly?” She grinned, and began chopping up the pork. “I’m what Dom calls a kitchen witch.”

“Also by way of your mum?”

Her knife paused. “My father, technically. Maman doesn’t have a lick of magic in her – but she taught me the right stories, she taught me Chinese and French, and she taught me to cook. Those are the important bits.”

“Your father’s also from Shanghai?”

“Let’s leave my father out of this particular conversation, shall we?” An affronted meow greeted her. “Ah. Horrible’s come out to play.” The smell of raw pork had probably overcome the stupid cowardly cat’s fear of the kitchen. “Horrible. Elias. Elias, Horrible. Don’t touch each other.”

“He’s butting his head against my leg,” said Elias, sounding helpless. “I did nothing to encourage this, I swear.”

And so the smug feline bastard was. The faint snuffling sound of fur whispering insistently across fabric – probably Elias’ trousers – was practically drowned out by Horrible’s mounting purr. Isabel snorted. “Well, I’ll be damned. You little traitor. Figures the only person in all of Montreal you’d like would be a stuffy English sorcerer-boy.” She pointed her knife roughly in Elias’ direction. “So tell me, stuffy English sorcerer-boy. What’s your story?”

“I don’t remember –”

“Bullshit. You may not remember everything, but you have clues. How does an Anglo-boy like you come to speak French the way you do?”

“It’s my dad who was Anglophone,” said Elias, defensiveness overriding his insecurities about his memory. “My mum was from Paris. They met during university, at Oxford, in England.” He sucked in a surprised breath of air. “I forgot I knew that.”

“Told you.” Isabel lined up marinade ingredients on the counter, the low buzz of magic from dark soy beneath her fingertips separating it from the light. “Human brains are a funny thing, even on magic, and they cling pretty damn hard to their humanity. You know more about yourself than you think. It’s just a matter of dredging it back up again.” She spooned the sauces into a bowl. “Hey, what do you look like?”

“Excuse me?” Elias sounded more surprised than offended this time. Who knew, maybe she was growing on him.

“Well, I could stick my fingers all over your face and try to figure it out myself, but I don’t think you want soy sauce all over your cheeks. Why don’t you help a girl out?”

“I’m not sure what you want to hear. My skin is pale. My eyes are blueish. My hair is… hair-colored.”

“Wow, fuck you, I think,” said Isabel companionably. “Hair-colored?”

“Well, it’s not quite brown or blond. More like that in-between shade that looks gold under the sun.” Like his magic, then. How apropos. “I don’t know, it’s grown out, so it’s a little curly at the ends?” he offered, then paused, abruptly embarrassed again. “Um. I’m sorry. Do you know –”

Isabel waved off his awkwardness with a sticky spoon. “Don’t worry, I know what gold looks like. I also know what curls look like. I wasn’t always blind.”

His voice went quiet. “When did it happen?”

“When I was sixteen, and stupid.”

“How –”

She wagged the spoon like a scolding finger. “We’re still talking about you. Don’t try and distract me. What magic can you use?”

“The same kind everyone learns. Academy-standard runes and incantations, with written spells composed in the approved meter –”

“Damn, that is the most posh white English definition of ‘everyone’ I have ever heard.”

“I tried experimenting more as a kid.” Elias sounded unexpectedly miserable. “My magic, it didn’t always fit within the textbook parameters, so I tried other ways. People didn’t like that. I’d mix English and French incantations, or make up runes, but I always got in trouble.” He shifted. Somewhere near him, Horrible’s purrs grew louder and more insistent. Elias was probably rubbing the cat’s ears. Suck-up. “Eventually, I got wise. Learned the textbook runes, like I was supposed to. Separated English from French. Turns out I can train myself into – or out of – most things, if someone needs it bad enough.”

And that ached, even as it explained the unruly restlessness of the sunlit power threaded through the young man’s veins. Elias wasn’t wrong. With enough motivation, you could force your innate magic into a shape it didn’t want. Still, you couldn’t ultimately wish it into something it wasn’t, not forever, and not without crippling your own potential as a magician. No wonder Elias’ power pulsed against his bones, as if trying to beat its way out of a cage.

“Let me guess,” said Isabel. “This ‘someone,’ it was your parents?”

She heard the smile in his words, sad and wry at the edges: “You’re the one who wanted to leave parents out of this conversation.” Which, granted, told her basically everything she needed to know.

Touché.” She found her batch of flour, and started on the dough. “Understanding your inborn magic – how you’ve used it, what its history is – gives me a better context for understanding the curse. Thank you.”

“That makes sense.” Curiosity colored his voice. “But why do you need to know what I look like? Does that have to do with the curse too?”

“Oh, that.” She dusted flour off her hands, and grinned. “That was just me trying to figure out how hot you are.”

The barbecue pork buns smelled, as ever, like heaven. Skepticism rolled off Elias in waves, as Isabel pulled the tray from the oven. “I don’t know. I’ve tried magicking food so I could eat it, but it’s never worked.”

“Oh? Magicking how?”

He huffed. “Well, I wrote all the standard –”

“All right, I’m going to stop you there.” Isabel set the tray of chashu bao down on the living room coffee table. “Your pretty, standardized English magic doesn’t mean shit in Montreal. Do you know how many immigrants live in this city? How many bilinguals, or trilinguals, or straight-up polyglots? Magic lives and breathes. It’s tied to expression and culture. Music, art, religion… and food. It code switches and evolves. Just like language. ”

Isabel offered Elias one of the buns, holding it out soft and warm on her palm. “Now, eat.”

He took the bun. “Oh.” A pause, as he chewed. “Oh.”

She leaned back, and waited. Cooking magic into Chinese food always felt subtly different to Isabel, than cooking magic into French food, or general Western-style fare. Chinese food belonged to Isabel’s childhood, to sunlit days in her mother’s kitchen: the bright primary colors of the vegetables, the expert flash of the chopping knife, and Maman’s painstakingly arranged presentation of dish after fragrant dish on the checker-clothed kitchen table. “It’s simple,” Maman had said, in that rare, quiet Mandarin Chinese that she used only when alone with her family. “Anyone can cook.”

Magic – the kind of magic Isabel needed, to cook for cold-skinned, golden-magicked, Chinese-cursed Elias, who hadn’t eaten since he was thirteen – that sort of magic demanded Chinese food.

“I can taste this,” said Elias, small and shocked. The coffee table creaked as he leaned over its expanse to take another bun, the motion reverent. “Isabel… Isabel, I can taste everything. I’d forgotten how food could taste, after you haven’t eaten in ages. It’s like color returning to the world.”

She brushed her fingers companionably over his outstretched hand, and grinned. “Told you so.” He still had no pulse, but there was a little warmth there now, life flickering in place of skin that had been stone cold a few minutes ago. “Am I a kitchen witch, or aren’t I?”

Internal debate over the exact nature of Elias’ malady kept Isabel up for most of the night, while the boy in question slept silently in her unoccupied bed. Dawn’s first light brought Isabel nothing but half-formed theories still dancing feverish through her head, while she rolled dough at a frenetic pace across her kitchen counter. Horrible mewled judgment from his place sprawled across the grave-still plane of Elias’ chest – the boy needed to be conscious, apparently, in order to breathe. Because he didn’t actually have to keep breathing to stay alive. Alive, as if that was the right word for someone who walked and talked and brooded with no heartbeat in his chest.

Isabel ignored cat and boy both, and glared sightless toward the scent of raw, rising bread, the limits of her knowledge shoving at the blank universe of the unknown. Her temples throbbed.

There was no help for it. She’d need to consult outside expertise.

Isabel had reasons to like and dislike that Pâtisserie Chang shared a wall with L’Auberge Dubois, and most of them came down to the Dubois’ proprietress. The lady in question didn’t do house calls or appointments – not even for Pâtisserie Chang’s second-best cook – which meant another train ride downtown. This time, though, a sleepy-voiced, cat hair-covered Elias gave Isabel the crook of his elbow. She’d raised her eyebrows toward the sound of his offer. “What happened to your thing about being touched unless absolutely necessary?”

“Are you always going to rely on your seeing-eye raven?”

“No,” admitted Isabel. Most in Montreal wouldn’t balk at the sight of a magic-made sanzuwu she’d cooked up for company, but a three-legged raven drew attention nonetheless, and attention from strangers wasn’t always desirable to Isabel.

“And is it easier, to get around this way?”

Isabel made a face. “I don’t want to bully you into accommodating me.”

“Not bullying if I’m the one doing the offering,” Elias pointed out, which was one of the first sensible things to emerge from his mouth. So Isabel had shrugged and taken the proffered arm. Muscle contracted briefly beneath the stone cold skin – so cold, even through the cotton layer of his shirt – then relaxed. Instinctively, Isabel’s grip loosened in response, her fingers feather-light on him. “Remember the house rules. You’re really okay with this?”

A hitch in his breath. Then he leaned into her, the pressure slight but firm as he pressed his elbow up beneath her hand, soft and cool. “Yes.”

L’Auberge Dubois’ neat little built-in, all-hours pub smelled consistently of wood and flame, those undercurrents of food and drink, even off peak hours, when hostel guests checking in could stop for smoked ale and smoked meat alike. Isabel was lucky – 3 PM on a Tuesday afternoon was lazy hour for the hostel, which meant the pub was blissfully free of hyperactive twenty-year-old university students screaming at each other about tourist maps, jet lag, and Unibroue beer. Isabel seated herself by a window, cushions velvet-soft against her bare legs, and waited. For about four minutes.

On the fifth minute, she knocked her shin loosely against Elias’. “Quit fidgeting.”

He knocked back rebelliously. “How can you even tell?”

“Trust me, I can tell.”

A beat of sullen silence. “You don’t act at all how I’d imagined a blind person might behave.”

Isabel pinched the bridge of her nose. “Please stop saying things for another five minutes. I was starting to like you.”

“Starting to like who, cherie?” The low, silk-smooth alto draped itself over Isabel’s ears, while its owner draped silk-smooth arms over Isabel’s shoulders. The faint whiff of pomegranates slid through the air, along with the low notes of subtle, effortlessly controlled magical strength, like velvet-wrapped steel.

“Angelique.” Isabel grinned into the curtain of dreadlocks that whispered across her cheek, as Angelique bent dramatically into the embrace.

“Don’t you ‘Angelique’ me, petite. Honestly, ever since you moved away into that hovel of yours in Verdun, it’s like you’ve forgotten the rest of us here in the city proper. You don’t call, you don’t write –”

“But I’ve brought you a present,” Isabel interrupted, tugging pertly on one of Angelique’s dreads. Angelique huffed again, the steel core of her power shifting in annoyance on the edges of Isabel’s awareness. Still, Isabel’s fingers remained intact. That was a good sign. “Will that do?”

“What’s this present then? A mooncake? A custard tart?”

“Better. A puzzle.”

A throaty laugh answered her. “Well then, let’s see it.”

“You’re looking at him. Allow me to introduce Elias, our very own bona fide English schoolboy. Elias, meet her highness, Angelique Dubois, esteemed witch-queen of Montreal.”

“Bah! What’s a title? I’m a mere hostel proprietress, so far as my tax statements are concerned. You, though.” Isabel sensed Angelique’s regard shifting toward Elias, sudden and sharp as a hidden razor. “You’re terribly pretty, for a white boy. Almost as pretty as Dominic Chang.”

Hot as suspected, thought Isabel wryly. From what she’d been told by a long parade of swooning-voiced women and men alike, Dom was the prettiest person to grace the city of Montreal. Angelique leaned in, all silky skin and silky voice. “Where are you from, beautiful?”

“I was – I think I was born in Toronto,” said Elias. “But my dad’s English – English from England, I mean – and my mum’s from Paris.”

“Paris!” Angelique made an approving sound. “The very gem of human civilization, where the most beautiful and correct French is spoken –”

“Angelique was born in New Jersey,” Isabel supplied cheerfully. “Off in the exotic boondocks of America.”

“And fuck you very much, cherie.

“I’ll do you one better,” said Isabel. “Go ahead and listen for his heartbeat.”

Two beats of silence, then an indrawn hiss from Angelique. “An immortality curse?”

“A Chinese immortality curse. I want an expert’s opinion on where it came from, and how to break it.”

Angelique slid back, her shoes a telltale whisper against the wooden floorboards. “In that case, you know whom you need to speak to.”

“Yes. I need to speak to the witch-queen of Montreal, who knows curses of all stripes better than most anyone.”

“That I may,” allowed Angelique, “but flattery will get you nowhere. I could make or break most any curse born of English or French-speaking tongues, can catalogue most African and European diaspora magic like the back of my hand, but you.” Her tongue clicked, unimpressed. “You. You have access to the one person in all the world likeliest to recognize a Chinese immortality curse, and – while I am many extraordinary things – I am not him. But I think you already realized that, no, cherie?”

The hostel door opened with a jingle. “Who aren’t you, my queen?” called Dom.

“Nobody!” Isabel called back, probably a little too loudly.

“Your sister is paying me a visit as an excuse to avoid speaking to You-Know-Who,” drawled Angelique. “Even though it’s clearly an inevitability.”

“I’m not using anyone as an excuse for anything,” snapped Isabel. “I’m consulting an expert on the problem you dragged me into, Dominic.”

“I’m still sitting here, you know,” Elias observed.

Isabel’s sanzuwu poked his head out of the nest he’d made of her updo, croaked happily at the sight of Dom, and flapped over to say hello. “Hello,” Dom cooed back. “Isabel, you really must invent a proper name for this poor creature.”

“I tried. You didn’t like any of my names.”

“Because they weren’t real names!”

Isabel threw her arms up, at her wit’s end with everyone present. “Elias can name him, then.” She ignored the small, pleased sound of surprise from Elias. “Here, give the raven back, I need to go back to the apartment to see about some business. Elias, why don’t you take a break and spend some time with Dom while he’s here? Friendship is good for reconnecting with humanity.”

Hesitation stretched taut between them. “You don’t need me to come back with you?” Elias sounded, of all things, oddly hurt.

Isabel closed her eyes. “Magical business for a witch like me is a sensitive thing. Dom can bring you back come evening, before the sun sets.”

“But –”

“You’ll be better off with Dom for the time being,” Isabel barreled on. “Right, Dom?”

Blessed, beautiful Dom – able to read between lines, think around corners, and interpret his sister’s bullshit – must have nodded, and possibly more, because Angelique gave another throaty laugh, sounding satisfied. “That’s settled, then. Stay here with me, gentlemen. It’s a slow day at the Dubois, and your queen demands entertainment.”

“The giving or receiving thereof, madame?” Dom’s voice hung in the air, reliably replete with flirtatious intention. Isabel released a breath she hadn’t realized she was holding.

“Let’s call it both, shall we?” The habitual innuendo in Angelique’s tone shifted subtly into something else, sphinx-like. “You pretty young things sit tight at the pub. Isabel knows what business she must attend to.”

Isabel’s nails formed little grooves against her palms. She stuck them in her pockets, baring her teeth with a smile. The witch-queen of Montreal always told the truth, but the truth wasn’t always what people liked hearing.

“Sure,” said Isabel. “Thanks for the counsel.”

The ritual ate up the better part of Isabel’s day. When you cooked, you poured energy into ingredients to mold something that fueled human life. That was, at its core of cores, the principle behind almost all magic. This, though, was different. The magic Isabel’s ritual demanded didn’t fuel anything human. For minutes that stretched into hours, she bent over the stove, magic pulsing hot through the kitchen, skittering beneath her skin and fanning the flame. Magic of this sort wasn’t made to create. Magic of this sort was made to consume. Isabel felt the drag of it hanging heavy in her human bones, as she slumped over the burner rings, eyes streaming from the smoke. It couldn’t be helped. Her guest wouldn’t arrive without the aid of fire, and plenty of it. Such was his nature. He’d arrive in the end, though. He always did.

Soot caked her eyebrows and eyelashes by the time she heard the first cough from the edges of the furthermost burner ring. “Isabel.” Even now, her name on his voice seared through her ears like a thousand human voices rolled into one. She’d never gotten used to how that felt. She suspected she never would. Heat fanned her face, as a column of flame sputtered across her stove. Her guest continued, in that eerie, precise Mandarin: “I wasn’t sure whether to expect an invitation from you.”

Isabel coughed out a laugh. “Hello, Dad. To be honest, neither did I. I wasn’t sure you’d come.” She bit back the obvious: I wasnt sure I wanted you to.

“It was the bargain you made, wasn’t it?”

Cold seeped through her veins, a white flash, despite the heat of her kitchen. “That’s not what I summoned you here to talk about. It’s not about that.”

“Bullshit. Every conversation we have is always a little bit about that.”

Isabel resisted that habitual urge to pinch the bridge of her nose. It wouldn’t help, not with Zao Jun. Not with her father, both more than and less than human. “That doesn’t mean I want it to be. I spent my entire childhood trying to get your attention, and you see how well that ended for me.”

“I never asked you to do what you did.”

A hysterical giggle bubbled up in Isabel’s throat. She tamped it down, leaning forward. “I shouldn’t have had to. You’re my father.” And just like that, the conversation she’d wanted to avoid since age sixteen was rearing its ugly, elephantine head.

Heat flared against her skin, as smoke curled around her like possessive, human arms. “The children of gods cannot reasonably hold the same expectations as the children of mortal men.”

Isabel, flinching backward from the heavy sting of the smoke, raked the back of her hand across watering eyes. “Are you still trotting out that tired old excuse? You’re not fucking Apollo. You’re a Chinese kitchen god who got turned into a deity out of pity more than anything else. Not to mention notorious for being the world’s worst husband.”

The burner flared again. “Is this about your mother? I never forced her hand, you know. She was always a cook, first and foremost, regardless of whatever else her family may have wanted for her –”

“Well, Dad,” said Isabel, in what she considered an admirably civil tone, “I’d hazard a guess they didn’t want her falling in love with a minor local deity who could never love her back in any meaningful human way, and they sure as hell didn’t want her running off to Canada to start a hole-in-the-wall bake shop on empty promises from you.”

“You think your mother would have been any happier traded away like a bargaining-chip Chinese trophy wife to some rich European expat in Shanghai? She had a mind of her own.”

“And piss poor taste in men.” Isabel walked to the other end of the kitchen, batting irritably at the smoky sent of her father. Why were gods all so horribly histrionic?

“Your critique is duly noted, daughter mine,” said Zao Jun, sounding sullen. “You’re welcome for your existence, by the way, however much vitriol you may harbor for the circumstances of your birth.”

“You’re hilarious.”

“I meant it seriously.” A pause, one that would have seemed awkward if immortal kitchen gods were capable of anything so human as feeling socially awkward in the middle of a fight with their mortal offspring. “How’s your brother?”

“You could ask him yourself.” Isabel was baiting her father, and knew it. She’d also stopped caring about Zao Jun’s opinion long ago.

Heat wafted toward her, as the sound of growing fire rose. “You know that’s not how this works.”

“That’s right, I forgot the way this deal went. You only pay attention to mortal children who literally blind themselves trying to attract your attention. Talk about daddy issues.” Stove heat chased her no matter which way she paced. The Verdun apartment really was too small. Isabel should have brought that up with her landlord when she signed the lease. Say, monsieur, how much square footage do you need to walk out on your melodramatic jerk of a divine parent?

“Self deprecation isn’t becoming of you.”

“I think you lost the right to tell me what is and isn’t becoming when you ignored my existence for the first fifteen years of my life.” Isabel laughed, a harsh little sound, as she dabbed sweat from her brow. “What was it that finally turned attention of the almighty Zao Jun, kitchen god of the Chinese pantheon, to his mortal child by a mortal woman? If you’d looked in on me or Maman or Dominic at all, you’d have seen the warning signs. A sixteen-year-old kid doesn’t just go from zero to trying to cast an immortality spell on herself.”

“That wasn’t–”

“Wasn’t what, Dad?” She spat the parental epithet like a Quebecois swearword. “Wasn’t responsible for my behavior? For my childhood obsession with trying to get you to come back to us, come back to Maman, after you got bored and left her playing the immigrant single parent to two human kids in Montreal, after you whisked her away from everything she knew back in Shanghai?”

“That’s not fair. Your mother…” The flames on the stove crackled, almost hesitant, as Zao Jun trailed off. “North America was always her idea. She wanted to see the world. She wanted to see how far her craft – her cooking, her culinary talent – could take her. I’m a kitchen god. Could I be blamed for encouraging my muse?”

“Your wife.” Ex-wife, now.

“Are the two so mutually exclusive?”

“See, I think you just answered any unspoken question you had about why your marriage with Maman fell apart.” Isabel shut her sightless eyes. She needed to change tacks. This wasn’t what she’d called her estranged, undying father for. This wasn’t what she’d slaved over the stove, practically vomiting magic into the flames, for. “What do you know about Chinese immortality curses?”

“That spell you cast as a teenager–”

“I told you, it’s not about me.” Isabel sucked in her exhale, massaging her temples. Dom owed her big. “There’s a boy. One of Dom’s friends, of a sort. An English schoolboy who went to Beijing with his businesspeople parents at thirteen, and came out the other end unable to eat or drink or bleed.”

The flames inched forward, with interest. “Cold skin?”

“Like a corpse. No pulse, either.”

The stove simmered, a sound of satisfaction. “That’s not a curse. Count that foreign boy lucky. He’s stumbled across a treasure emperors used to send ships of men to their deaths for. It’s a blessing. A blessing beyond value.”

“Did you miss the part where he can’t eat? What happened to ‘I’m a kitchen god, and your genius cooking mother was my sad abandoned muse’?”

Heat blasted her face. “This goes beyond my domain. Beyond food, or nourishment, or anything…”

“Human?” Isabel supplied caustically.

“That boy drank the elixir of life itself.” Zao Jun’s voice seared manifold across Isabel’s ears, surrounding her kitchen from all directions. “The xiandan. Do you know how many have lost their minds or hearts or lives to obtain even a drop of it? How many emperors nearly fell to their ruin for want of it? It doesn’t deserve your mockery.”

Isabel’s nails cleaved against her palms. “He’s unhappy. He doesn’t know how he became this way, and he doesn’t like it. He doesn’t want this. Shouldn’t that count for anything?”

The flames hissed, like laughter. “How like a westerner to be so misguided. The xiandan should make this foolish boy a god. That he’s so ungrateful must mean he only drank half of it. I can’t think why else a young immortal would have been sniveling around the earth in human form for so long.”

“Why wouldn’t he remember drinking it at all?”

The fire flickered. “Immortality… it plays tricks on the memory, even among young gods. Memory is too wrapped up in sentiment. Sentiment is tied to the mortal way of life. You understand that the two can’t exist in harmony.”

Isabel pressed her face right up to the ring of flames, close enough to burn her skin. “Then how do we fix it?” she hissed.

“My recommendation,” said Zao Jun coldly, “is to tell that boy to find whoever supplied him with the xiandan in the first place, and beg to drink down the remainder of the elixir. He’s halfway to godhood. He might as well ascend.”

Her palms felt as if they might split beneath her fingers. “Were you listening to me at all? He doesn’t want that.”

“Why not? It’s the only way he’ll ever stop being unhappy. It’s the only way to finish divorcing himself from being –”

“Mortal.” Isabel cracked the word like a whip. “Like me. Like Dominic. Like Maman.”

The sound and scent of crackling flame echoed across the cold pause between the kitchen god and his daughter. “You’re different from your brother and mother,” Zao Jun said at last, strange and quiet. “You always have been. Mortal child mine, you could have been something more. You almost were. You came so close, when you cast that spell. If things had gone just a little differently–”

The unlocked door creaked open behind them. A patter of footsteps made their way toward the kitchen. “Isabel! Are you still home? I know it’s a tad early still, but…” Elias’ voice trailed off somewhere at her shoulder.

The fire had gone out. The burner ring was cold. The only hint that Zao Jun had ever been present at all was the faintest whiff of smoke on the magic-heavy air. Slowly, Isabel turned around to face Elias.

If he’d had a heartbeat, she knew – with a detached, ugly sort of satisfaction – that it would be hammering. “Get out,” said Isabel.

Elias’ breath hitched, his Adam’s apple bobbing invisible in her mind’s eye, but no telltale pattering footsteps followed. She could practically hear the puzzle pieces clicking together in his head. This English schoolboy was many things, but he wasn’t all stupid. She could only imagine what sob stories Angelique and Dominic had filled his head with in Isabel’s absence. “You were talking to your father, weren’t you?”

“He thinks you should try to achieve godhood.” Isabel’s voice was dead, too tired to deny anything. “Fancy that. You could be a god. Just like him. Isn’t that nice?”

“What?”

“Someone dosed you with the elixir of life,” said Isabel, tipping her face up toward her kitchen ceiling. She wondered what color it was, whether you could see sunset shadows fluttering across it with dying sunlight. Her throat felt dry. “The xiandan. You’re living every ancient Chinese emperor’s dream. All you have to do is drink the rest, and ascend to the heavens, which sounds ridiculous, but who doesn’t want to leave all their earthly baggage behind with this mortal coil, eh?”

Elias emitted a sharp, angry exhale, like he’d just been punched in the gut, and wanted to hit back. “That’s the best you can do? You want me to just give up on ever being human again? What the hell kind of witch are you?”

Slowly, Isabel’s hands dropped from their fists. When she moved into the Verdun apartment two years ago, she’d laid painstaking, self-protective charms into every inch of every wall, layering them doubly thick across the surfaces of her kitchen. Here in her strongest circle, ringed by her cast-iron chains of magic, between stove and oven, Isabel alone reigned as queen, untouchable as ice.

“The kind that expects obedience when she tells you to get out.”

Beneath her outstretched hands, the floor burst into flames.

Losing your temper, thought Isabel, always felt so savagely satisfying in the moment you let it go, like knocking back a shot of whiskey. Coming to terms with the loss of your temper, though – whether in minutes or hours that followed – felt more like a hangover.

After Elias left, Isabel lost track of how long she sat cross-legged on the floor of her kitchen, back pressed up against the silent stove. The unburnt tile, still flaring with her protection charms, stretched out smooth beneath her bare legs, a passive-aggressive reprimand. The empty apartment was bleak and cool, and Isabel imagined, getting dark.

That last thought stopped her cold. It was getting dark. Daylight would disappear inside the hour.

Within seconds, Isabel rolled to her feet, ignoring the jolt to her knees. “Tabarnac, tabarnac, tabarnac! She bolted through the door, and swore again as a current of evening wind blasted into her face. The sun was practically gone already, the warmth of its rays ebbing on her skin. How long ago had she thrown Elias out of the apartment? How far could he have gone?

“Elias?” she called into the dark, stumbling down the street. “Elias!”

Her voice echoed down the empty street, eerie in its repetition. Elias, Elias, Elias.

And then, a fourth, sibilant hiss of the name, like a hundred voices layered into one: “Elias.”

Isabel whirled, gooseflesh rising on her skin. The monster spoke from everywhere and nowhere, impossible to pinpoint. The voice – voices? – called out again, as if speaking from a million street corners, around the bend of every driveway. A sigh, a caress, a cold and inevitable command: “Elias. Come out, Elias.”

Isabel stopped turning. Focus. Stop listening for the monster. Start listening for –

A patter of footsteps. A staccato of soft, indrawn gasps. And on the peripheries of Isabel’s awareness: caged, golden magic, like threads of sunlight in the dark.

She reached out, and caught a corpse-cold elbow. “It’s okay. It’s me.”

Tense muscle stilled under her fingertips. “It’s here. They’re here. The monsters.”

“I know. I’m sorry.” Her voice was rough. “We’ll get you inside.” She pulled, and Elias careened against her. He stumbled a few times as they ran, his longer gait out of rhythm with her stout-legged jog, but he stuck by her all the same, the sighted following the blind. The irony wasn’t lost on Isabel.

Stop running, Elias.

Elias, Elias, youve been running so long.

Arent you tired, Elias?

Come with us, Elias.

Wind tore at Isabel’s face. The voices were gaining. “We’re too far from the apartment,” she shouted at Elias. “You’re going to have to help me.”

“How?” he panted back.

“Do you trust me?”

They’d known each other for all of three days. His presence, puzzling and pretentious, had itched at her from the second he’d entered her life. He’d stuck himself under her skin. She’d lost her temper spectacularly. They didn’t really owe each other anything, much less a commodity as rare and selfishly guarded as trust. Then again, maybe it wasn’t about what you owed. Maybe it was about what you gave, defiant of fear.

“Friendship is good for reconnecting with humanity, right?” Elias’ wry voice flicked out at her, the offering unexpected and tentative. His fingers tightened on hers.

And there it was.

Isabel rasped a small, surprised laugh, squeezing back. “Right you are, sunshine boy. And now, I’m going to need to call on some of that pretty sunlit magic of yours.”

He nodded against her shoulder, and something loosened inside him, as he drew a deep, shuddering breath. His power flared, bright and open.

Join us, Elias.

Isabel’s hands slid up Elias’ chest, to his unbeating heart. Eyes shut, she imagined blood pumping through his frozen veins. Home. Hearth. Heat. Isabel breathed out, long and slow, steam from a kettle.

The monsters closed in.

Fire – white-golden with magic in the eye of Isabel’s consciousness, searing the edges of her world – roared to life in a ring around Isabel and Elias. The monsters shrieked.

“Are you strong enough?” croaked Isabel. Smoke stung her eyes and nose. “I can’t – the ring needs both of us, to hold.”

“I’m strong enough,” said Elias, a steady pulse of sunlit magic, his voice rumbling beneath her fingers. He sounded more certain than she’d ever heard him.

The monsters crashed against the edges of the flames, rocking the makeshift shield. Isabel’s head pounded. She opened her eyes, leaning her forehead against the crisp cloth of Elias’ shirt collar. Her fingers twisted upward into his hair. It curled at the ends just as he’d said, terribly soft against her callused thumb pads. “You have to want them to leave. You have to want this space for yourself.”

“I do. Of course I do. Why else would I – ”

“Words are cheap when you don’t back them up,” said Isabel. “Even yours. There’s power inside you. It’s not all mine, you hear? Be selfish, sunshine boy. Want what you want for yourself. Remember why you came to Quebec. No one owns those things, except you. Own what you are, and then use it.”

His chest stilled beneath her fingers. Their woven magics shifted through the air, a current turning around a river bend. For a moment, nothing happened.

And then a bird’s cry filled the air, as Isabel’s three-legged raven streaked overhead. The sanzuwu was shot through with golden magic and trailing fire like a miniature sun that even Isabel could sense, the same way she’d sensed the sunlight inside Elias the moment they met. He swooped low, and the monsters gave a terrible, collective scream, breaking away from the ring of flames. He swooped again, and they scattered, cries echoing, fading away into the night, as quickly as they’d appeared.

The cold abated.

Their little ring of flames simmered low, licking at the edges of Isabel’s ankles. She lifted her head, as the bird came to nest at the center, between her feet and Elias’, still sparking bits of golden magic. Preening between the two exhausted humans, the it gave a happy, self-satisfied croak, emitting a tiny puff of smoke.

“Well,” said Isabel into the empty night air. She untangled her fingers from Elias’ hair, and straightened his wrinkled collar with perfunctory awkwardness. “That could have gone a lot worse.”

In answer, Elias tipped his head back, and laughed with that beautiful voice of his, low and bright and lovely. And then, giddily, nonsensically: “We should name the raven Sunshine.”

A wordless epiphany jerked Isabel into consciousness. She woke spooned up against someone’s very cold chest, and yelped, flailing. The chest’s owner – Elias, she realized distantly – flailed back, rolled out of her bed with an echoing yelp, and crashed loudly on the floorboards.

“The monsters.” Isabel’s gasp was a drowning girl’s as she fumbled for her socks. “The monsters, the monsters, it all comes back to the monsters.”

“I didn’t mean to fall asleep in your bed –”

“I don’t know why it took me so long to think of –”

“I hope that wasn’t inappropriate –”

“It’s the most obvious thing – hang on, what?” Isabel frowned, rolling across the empty spot in her bed, one sock dangling off her big toe.

“You were saying something about the monsters,” said Elias.

“Are you on the floor?” Isabel asked incredulously. She stuck her un-socked toe out, which landed chilly against his sternum. “You are! What on earth are you doing down there?”

“You pushed me out of bed!”

“Why were we in bed?”

Elias sighed. “We came back to the apartment, after the monsters disappeared. You fell asleep with your shoes on, so I took them off, which is why your shoes are under the nightstand. Then I fell asleep too. I didn’t mean to take over half your bed. I’m sorry. I was tired.”

“Oh. I’m sorry too.” Isabel tucked her legs back against the mattress, holding her arms out. “Want to come back?”

“What were you saying about the monsters?”

“Aha!” Isabel’s legs shot back out, as she clambered out of bed, nearly tripping over Elias in the process. “Sorry, ouch, sorry, I’m still waking up – and by the way, I don’t actually mind spooning in bed with you, honestly, you’re cold, but you’re also very comfortable, and – no, no, tabarnac, we’re getting off track!” She raked her hands through her hair, pacing the length of the studio. “El, do you remember why your parents went to China? Any memory at all?”

“I told you. Business.”

“More than that! What kind of business? What did they want?”

Silence hung heavy as smoke. And then: “I don’t know what. They specialized in rare, expensive magical collections, probably wanted to expand their operations into Asia.”

“Yeah?” Isabel egged him on impatiently. “What were they looking for in Beijing?”

“I don’t know!” cried Elias. “I barely remember their faces. It was something famous, and powerful, like a gem, or a…” He trailed off abruptly, sucking in a breath. “A potion.”

“The xiandan!” yelled Isabel. Her hands flapped like raven wings. “The elixir of life. Your parents went to China to seek the elixir of life. They tracked it, drank it down, but only gave you – ”

“Half,” croaked Elias, golden voice strangled. “So they could wait until I was grown, before making me fully immortal. Christ. That’s why –”

“The monsters,” breathed Isabel. “The monsters are your parents. You ever hear the stories of what the xiandan actually does, when you have enough of it? You can rule the moon and stars. That’s why they only look for you at nightfall. They’ve been trying to find you, all these years, so you can be like them. You can be a god.”

Elias recoiled. “I don’t want that.”

“I know,” said Isabel. “But your parents don’t. So tell them.”

“What?”

“What time is it? Three AM? Four? Still dark out. Still time before the sun rises, to go out and seek them out.”

“You’re not serious.”

Isabel’s lids drifted shut. “I never told you how I lost my sight, did I.”

He paused. “No.”

“My father is the Chinese kitchen god. You figured that much out. But my mother is human as can be. That didn’t stop him loving her, once upon a time. It didn’t last, obviously – there’s a reason immortals and mortals don’t really cut it long term in the dating game, and not just the obvious lifespan difference. So Zao Jun left.” Isabel shrugged. “Maman and Dom took it in stride, as best they could. I didn’t. So I decided, all of sixteen, that the way to get my estranged father’s attention was to become just like him.”

“You tried to cast an immortality spell,” breathed Elias.

Isabel opened her eyes to the dark. “It backfired, obviously. Magic works in myriad and mysterious ways, but it tends not to reward sixteen-year-old hubris. The point of this story is, there were better ways to deal with my daddy issues than literally blinding myself.” She poked her toe against Elias’ ankle. “Stop running away from your parents. Go back outside like the civilized English schoolboy they raised. And talk to them.”

The temperature dropped as soon as the apartment door shut behind them. Blistering cold raked claws through Isabel’s thin pullover. Swearing, she burrowed her hands up the sleeves. Beside her, Elias’ breath stuttered, but he didn’t retreat.

And then, that familiar hiss: “Elias.

“Me,” said Elias, unwavering, despite his chattering teeth. “Hello, Mum. Dad.”

Isabel squeezed her eyes shut against the sudden blast of wind. “So youve stopped running long enough to recognize us at last.

We knew youd play the good boy in the end.

Finish your medicine, son. Weve got it right here, saved just for you.

The clink of a vial, and a flare of ancient, bone aching power. Isabel clenched her teeth against its pull. We saved you the other half, your mother and I. You were so young, we didnt want to feed it to you all at once.

“The idea was to wait until you were grown –”

“But you ran away, before we could.”

“Why did you run, child?”

“It doesn’t matter. You’ve returned.”

“Drink the rest. Ascend, and rule the moon and stars.”

“That’s not why I’m here,” said Elias. He swallowed, hard. Isabel heard him shuffle forward a couple steps. She could imagine him lifting his chin as he spoke. “I – I’m grateful, for all that you’ve tried to do for me. I know you… love me, in your way. But I don’t want to be like you. I want – I don’t want to be immortal. I want to eat, and drink, and keep my earthly attachments. I want to live and die alongside people I care about.”

Silence. Something freezing wet dripped into Isabel’s eyes. It took her a moment to realize it was snow. Snow had begun to fall, all around them, dipping the night deeper into the monsters’ cold.

Youre mistaken,” whispered one of Elias’ parents. “You must be mistaken. You were never so ungrateful as a child.

Elias flinched, but stood his ground. “I’m sorry. I want my mortality back.”

A harsh crack of laughter, like ice shattering over a pond. “Oh, my sweet, naive child. Thats now how this works.

The xiandan binds with the ties of blood, continued the other parent. If you sacrifice your immortality, then so does your family. Would you really do something so selfish?

Drink up, child. Ascend. You know its best. Youll be happier when you leave all this mortal sentiment behind.

“I won’t be happy,” said Elias. “Because I won’t be anything at all. Isn’t that the whole point of becoming a god?”

Weve quarreled long enough. Your father and I grow impatient. Drink, boy.

“Leave me as I am,” Elias offered, desperation creeping into his voice at last. “Immortal on earth, stuck between worlds. You keep your immortality that way, right? I can keep this, at least. I can stay tied to this world, even if it’s a half-life.”

“Hey! You don’t have to do that!” Isabel reached for him, impulsive. A blast of cold shoved her back, so hard she gasped.

Dont interfere in family matters, kitchen witch.”

Foolish boy. You wont last, in the state that you are. If you wont drink willingly, you will be made to see reason.”

The rising wind screamed over Elias’ reply, smacked whiplike across the porch. Snow caked Isabel’s hair and windbreaker, thousands of tiny needles sinking into her cheeks, trying to force her to her knees. “No, you dont,” she snarled, reaching inside herself.

Fire rolled along her fingertips, but it was barely a candle flame in the wake of a god-made blizzard. Still, she grit her teeth, and strode forward, closing the distance to Elias. Her hand scrabbled against his. His fingers clenched around hers like icicles, but that golden magic of his flared still, threads of sunlight whispering through their entwined fingers, a beacon against the cold.

“Talk to my parents, huh?” he called at her over the roar of the wind. “Good talk!”

“I thought diplomatic negotiations might be worth a first shot!” Isabel yelled back. “Most Chinese gods aren’t nearly this unreasonable! How was I supposed to know a couple of entitled white English people would throw this kind of tantrum over not getting their way?”

The wind drowned out the rest of Elias’ reply. They had no sanzuwu-of-surprise up their sleeve this time. No magical energy left for a protective ring. They were going to lose. The truth settled into Isabel’s gut, rock heavy. What was one half-baked immortal boy and a blinded, failed demigod of a girl, against two full-fledged, self-made gods, running on the full power of the xiandan? Simple arithmetic spelled out their odds. Elias’ parents would get what they wanted, in the end.

And they’d probably go through Isabel to get it. What did they care, if they killed her? What was one measly stretch of mortal, magical life, in the face of all this?

Snow snuffed out the flames in Isabel’s hands. The tentative, wavering, sunlit magic broke.

And then, distantly: “You have to want this!”

Elias, she realized, dizzy with cold. Elias’ golden-voiced tongue, dripping her own words. “Own what you are, and then use it!”

You’re a quick study, sunshine boy.

Inside the stinging cocoon of the blizzard, eyelids clenched tight against the cold, Isabel reached for memory: Maman’s old, checkered tablecloth. The glint of the afternoon sun against a kitchen knife. The rosy apples of a much younger Dominic’s cheeks, as he giggled and snuck a moon cake on a table nearly taller than he was. And the lean, strapping man in the corner of the kitchen, laughing and wrapping a half-visible arm around Maman’s aproned waist, bending her into a kiss beneath the blue skied window.

Then she reached for the magic she alone had earned for herself, flush with foolishness, at age sixteen. And threw everything she had into the blizzard.

The wind paused, hesitating in its path, silence eerie after the scream of the storm.

“What is this?” A lazy, familiar voice replaced the blizzard’s howl. It took knowing that voice well, to recognize the fury simmering beneath the carelessly drawled syllables. “Amateur hour on my daughter’s doorstep?”

Heat blasted through the cold, shocking in its contrast to the snow that had been stinging Isabel’s face numb seconds before. “And so it is. A couple useless, sniveling baichi de laowai pumped up on Chinese magic, using power you’re barely worthy of to pick a fight with my child?” Long, methodical footsteps marched across the snow. Zao Jun’s voice dropped a deadly octave. “How dare you.”

Fire roared to life, fire greater and more terrible than anything Isabel could dream of summoning. It licked along the edges of her porch, uninterested in the very burnable wood, instead gunning forward like a rogue dragon, twisting its hissing, serpentine form toward that last source of cold. Elias’ parents began to scream.

“Stop!”

Isabel turned instinctively toward the voice. Elias, his voice raw, but still threaded through with that strange, sunlit power. Still alive, and still human-bodied. “Don’t kill them,” he said now.

“They would have killed my daughter, had she not kept her wits about her,” said Zao Jun. He sounded amused. “Why should I show them any greater mercy?”

“Because,” croaked Isabel, “as satisfying as killing the bastards would feel for about five seconds, it would feel immediately fucking terrible within the same hour.”

Her father’s regard hung heavy on her. “You wanted to be a god once.”

“Yes,” said Isabel.

“You don’t anymore.”

“No.”

“I think I understand why,” mused Zao Jun. “I may have been wrong. You are, in the end, quite inextricably human.”

“Thanks, Dad,” said Isabel, very dryly.

“It’s not a criticism,” said the kitchen god. “Not this time.”

“No?”

“Sometimes,” her father said, then paused. Began again, in the small, steady voice of a confessor: “Sometimes, I wish I could be mortal for you, Isabel.”

And there it was. Isabel blinked hot, sightless eyes, and said nothing.

But the kitchen god was already moving on, casting his regard toward Elias now. “And you, boy. Why spare your tormentors?”

“Blood is thick,” said Elias, simple, quiet, speaking words filled to the brim with a hundred different meanings. Real magic drifted behind that voice now, pulsing like the steady, spell-made heartbeat of the three-legged raven Isabel had pulled from her kitchen flames. “It always has been.”

Something shifted between them, then, stretching taut between the great and terrible kitchen god and the impossible, walking corpse of a young man. An unspoken conversation. A test of will.

Elias spoke again: “For my family, I can think of a fate better deserved than death.”

Zao Jun laughed, long and hard. “So shall it be.”

Heat flared, sudden and cutting. Gold filled the inside of Isabel’s head, magic and magic and magic. For a moment, she thought she’d pass out again.

Then as soon as it had come, the magic was gone. Two long, shuddering gasps, echoing one another, followed a staggering of footsteps, heavy and human and exhausted.

And then a third.

“Mum and Dad,” said Elias, from beside Isabel, his hand still caught in hers. His slow, steady pulse thrummed through her fingertips. “Welcome back to mortality.”

Elias’ parents didn’t stay in Quebec long. Neither left their son a forwarding address.

“I would say I’m surprised,” said Elias, around a mouthful of beignet. “But really, I’m not. How could I be?”

Confectioner’s sugar smeared from his wrist across Isabel’s thumb as they reached for the same donut. “Hey, back off, sunshine boy.” Isabel flicked sugar at him. “I made the damn things.”

“What are you willing to bet they staggered on to the first available flight back to China?”

Isabel shrugged, licking her thumb. “There are other magical cultures with immortality elixirs. Ever heard of the philosopher’s stone?”

Elias fell silent. Her fingers found his wrist, still startled at the warmth of the skin, the beat of blood flow through his veins. “I know ‘are you okay’ is a stupid question, but all you’ve done since your parents skipped town is sit in the middle of my mum’s pâtisserie, stuffing your face and staring broodingly at things.”

“How do you know it’s a brooding stare if you can’t see?”

Still licking sugar off her free hand, she kicked his shin.

“Ow! I really feel that now, thank you very much.”

“Well, I can feel you brooding.”

“I can feel everything.” He almost succeeded at pulling off the quip, except for how his breath hitched, just a little, at the end.

“It’s not wrong, you know,” said Isabel.

“What isn’t?”

“Whatever it is you’re feeling now.” Isabel turned her face toward the sun filtering in through one of the pâtisserie windows, eyes half-lidded in the wake of its warmth. “It’s not wrong.”

“I think they loved me,” said Elias, unexpectedly. “My parents, I mean. Or at least, I think they tried to. Fuck, how awful does that sound? ‘Tried to.’” He laughed, raspy and devoid of real humor. Isabel waited him out. “Trouble is, they’ve always been like that, you know? They think loving someone means making them do the things you do. Want the things you want.”

“Okay.” Isabel tipped her head back beneath the fall of sunshine. “Here’s the thing about family – or anyone, really, mortal or immortal. They can love you, or try to love you, and still be really, amazingly, gods-damned awful at it. Pun one thousand percent intended.”

The strapping man, face obscured, sunlight spilling through the kitchen, and arms twined round her mother’s aproned waist, while apple-cheeked Dom filched moon cakes from that checker-clothed table. The fleeting, uncomplicated joy of a snapshot piece of childhood. This belonged to Isabel.

Sometimes, I wish I could be mortal for you.

And that too, Isabel supposed, belonged to her. She shook her head, smile wry, aimed at nothing in particular. “Trust me, I’m kind of an expert in the subject.”

Elias snorted, but didn’t interrupt. She turned toward him, knee pressed to his. “Love doesn’t always redeem. You don’t need to apologize for holding a place in your heart for someone who doesn’t deserve it. Nor do you have to love someone back just because they love you – or claim to. ”

He laughed, bewildered. “That doesn’t make any sense.”

Isabel shrugged. “That’s humanity for you. Welcome to the rat race.” She popped the rest of her beignet into her mouth, speaking around the dough: “At least we have donuts and coffee. I think we’ve both earned that much, sunshine boy.”

She didn’t have time to reach for a second beignet, before she found herself pulled into a rough hug. Something between a protest and a joke died on the tip of Isabel’s tongue. Instead, her fingers curled into the crisp fabric of Elias’ shirt, paused over the heat of life thrumming in the skin beneath. She buried her nose against his chest, and felt the shuddering breaths rise and fall. The steady drum of the heart inside.

“Welcome back Elias,” Isabel whispered.

Later, Maman and Dominic would open the shop. Later, customers would fill the sunlit seats, buy the donuts and egg tarts and sweet-smelling mooncakes, laughing back and forth in French and English and Chinese and whatever other languages the city washed up on this particular day, in this particular piece of Rue St. Catherine. Later, Angelique would drape her long, silky arms across everyone’s shoulders, laugh, and whisper silk-wrapped truth through their ears. Later, Isabel would feed Horrible his supper, let Sunshine nest in her hair, roll her eyes at some horrible joke of Dom’s.

But in this moment, the life shaking apart and pulling itself together again in the ring of her arms was enough. Elias, and Isabel, and the sun warming their twined limbs. It was more than enough.

____

Copyright 2017  Andrea Tang

Andrea Tang is a speculative fiction writer currently earning her keep as an international relations consultant in Washington, DC. By virtue of both preference and profession, she likes asking how different cultures – and by extension, different people – collide, mix, or otherwise converse with each other. Her other stories can be found at Apex Magazine, PodCastle, and more. Catch her on Twitter @atangwrites, or pop by her website for a hello and a (sadly, strictly virtual) plate of beignets! 

by L.S. Johnson   

  

1.

They came near the end of the day. We thought it was thunder at first, though there weren’t any clouds. Eight of them on horseback with Bill Boyland at their head. “Eight men for a woman and her kid,” Mam muttered as she loaded the revolver.

Once they came through our gate they stayed in their saddles. I couldn’t see their faces for their hats pulled low; I only recognized Bill Boyland by his voice and the shiny gold watch hanging from his waistcoat. He told us Mam’s letter and papers didn’t matter none. Mam started arguing with him; I couldn’t speak because my voice would give me away as a girl.

“Your Pa was a squatter,” Bill Boyland said to me. He spoke slow, like I was thickheaded. “Now your Ma is right: ten years ago it didn’t matter none, because ten years ago it was every man for himself. But that was then.”

“And this is now, and you’re nothing but a god-damned thief, William Boyland,” Mam said.

“Constance, I warned you and Matthew both. This land deceives. It looks good but the dirt’s cruel. Doesn’t matter how much you pray over it, it’s never gonna be good for anything but making meat.” His hat nodded at me. “You’re working your boy like a god-damned animal, and for what? You both deserve better than this.”

“Better than our God-given home?” Mam asked. “Better than what’s rightfully ours? I have blood in this land, William Boyland, blood and ten years’ honest work—not that you would know anything about that.”

A few of the men muttered when she spoke, but Bill Boyland raised his hand and they silenced quick. “Only the Land Office can give the homes out here, Constance. You should have filed claim—as you say, you had ten years to do it in.” He hadn’t raised his voice once. “Now I bought this land fair and square, Missus Norton, and I mean to have it. I want you gone before the next full moon.”

When they had ridden away I let the knife slide out from my sleeve and Mam untucked the revolver from beneath her apron. She went in the house, leaving me to put away the loys. I made out like I was tired from plowing, but in truth I worked slow because I thought my heart might burst from beating so hard. Eight men. We had the revolver and the shotgun, but we were close to being out of cartridges for both. Mam hadn’t wanted to go to town for weeks now; she was afraid Bill would have a man watching, who would come after she was gone and rob us blind and do worse to me. But I knew now that was a mistake. Eight men and he could probably come back with double as quick as you please, and it was less than a month to the full moon.

When I finally went in she had cleared the table and pulled the carpetbag out from under the bed. It was grey with dust; even before Da died Mam and I weren’t supposed to touch it, though I used to open it when no one was looking. It’s the past, Da would say when I asked him about it. From when we thought we knew better than God. We came here to get away from that.

The way Mam was laying things out, I knew I wasn’t the only one who had peeked inside. She didn’t even have to look, just put out the candles and the fancy drawings, and even the vials that I liked best. In your hand the stuff inside looked black, but when you held them up to the light you saw that it was really a dark, sweet red.

Beside these Mam put a knife I had never seen before, with a thick handle and two round blades folded up like a flower.

“I’ll show him,” she said. “I’ll show him my god-damned claim.”

“What d’you mean?” I asked. My voice sounded funny; sometimes I went so long without speaking I forgot what I sounded like.

Mam didn’t answer. She was peering at the drawings, holding them up to the light and talking to herself.

I started cutting up the potatoes for supper, but I kept looking at that knife. Not round, the blades; more like petals, tight as a spring bud. I reached out and touched the handle only to jump when the blades snapped apart. Now it looked like jaws ready to bite.

“Leave it be,” Mam said. She bundled everything up again and went back out into the yard. Under the beech tree she began dragging her heel in the dirt, making a circle.

I followed her outside. “Mam, what’re you doing?”

She grinned at me then, not her nice smile but the way she smiled when we killed rats in the barn.

“Calling down the god-damned devil on that sonofabitch Boyland,” she said, and got down on her hands and knees in the circle.

We had nearly three weeks before Bill Boyland was to come back, but as Mam explained it, sometimes the devil takes a while. We took turns watching the circle and keeping up with the plowing. Mam said it wasn’t a circle but a kind of snare. She had put the last of our salt pork in the middle and kept adding drops from one of the vials to it, her face getting grimmer by the day. I didn’t know why we didn’t just send the devil to Bill Boyland direct, rather than bring him to us, what if the devil decided to take us all? But Mam didn’t look like she was for questioning, so instead I said that the goats might get at the bait.

“Nah, Addy. It’s devil’s blood.” She touched my shoulder, which made me feel better. “The goats are smart, they know better than to touch it.”

“The devil will come for his own blood.” My voice nearly twisted up, making it a question, but I caught myself in time. Mam was fierce with the whip when she got the rage in her.

“They’ll come to rescue one of their kind,” she said. “They won’t come for food, they can get that anywhere. But they’ll come for one of their own. Any of them within a hundred miles, they’ll smell it.”

And then I really wanted to ask questions, because I had always thought there was just one devil, the one in the Bible. Now I pictured devils like rabbits, with horns for ears and long sharp tails. I wanted to ask Mam how many devils there were, and did they come in different kinds, and what if we got the wrong one? But she was smiling the rat-killing grin again, and all those questions weren’t really what I wanted to ask: If a devil came, what was to stop him killing us as well?

That night I took a while feeding the goats. They crowded around all warm and nibbled my fingers. We had to sell most of the animals when Da died, but Mam had made sure we kept the goats and the chickens. I watched the goats being born every year, and the ones I had to nurse I named in my head, though I never told Mam. When they grew too old for milking or making babies she would walk them down the road a ways to a fellow named Tom. He had a big herd that he rented out for clearing brush, sometimes even for the railroad. In the post office there was a print of the railroad coming through, and I would pretend our goats were just past the edge of the paper, eating up the dead grass and keeping the men safe from fire.

I whispered their names now as I fed them. Isaac, after one of my favorite stories. Leah and Rachel, because their story always made me feel sad, and I thought they would have been happier without Jacob. There had been one I named Matthew, after my Da, but he was with Tom now. Cain and Abel, for twins that kept butting each other. Even a little Addy, because she came so late like I had done.

If Bill Boyland got the land, we’d have to sell them all, maybe to someone for their meat.

Isaac butted my hand and I scratched his head. I knew him by his uneven horns. I knew them all and they all knew me, they would come when I called them. Mam wanted to keep the land because it was ours, because Da had cleared it and worked it until it killed him. But I wanted to keep the land for Mam and the goats, so we could all stay together.

I looked at Mam, sitting on the edge of the circle, waiting for the devil to come. Anything, to keep us here, together. Anything.

It was six days and nights before the devil finally came.

 

2.

The devil came up over the hill at sunset, hunched over and leading a lame horse. It wore a hat and coat like anyone. I thought it was one of Bill Boyland’s men, but Mam hissed at last and went behind the house. I didn’t know what to do so I just stood there on the far side of the beech and waited.

It approached slow, like it sensed something was wrong. I couldn’t see its face for the kerchief over its mouth. At the fence it stopped and waved at me. I waved back before I thought better of it, but there was nothing for it then.

Halfway across the yard it stopped again and looked around. I could see its eyes squinting, could see its nose wrinkle as it smelled the bait. It turned completely, looking back at the fence, and that was when Mam ran out of nowhere with the jaw-blades and drove them into the devil’s back, right between the shoulders, and snapped them shut.

It screamed then, its voice as high as my own, and fell like it’d been shot. The horse reared and ran to the far side of the yard.

“Get the little yoke,” Mam said.

The devil’s hat had fallen off. Its long brown hair fell everywhere, thick and snaking. There was a big stain on its back where the handle stuck out, and blood was dripping on the ground. With a moan it started to drag itself back towards the fence, hand over hand, its legs twisting up.

“Addy get the god-damn yoke!” Mam yelled.

I ran to the barn. The devil was cursing now, calling Mam terrible names, and I clapped my hands over my ears. It took me a while to find the little yoke, the one Da had made for our last, runty ox. When I came back out Mam had her knee on the devil’s backside and was holding its head down with one hand, pushing aside its hair with the other.

Her head, her hair. I didn’t know much about devils, but now that I was close I could see this one looked an awful lot like a woman.

“Look,” Mam said. She dug her nails into the devil’s neck, making her shriek into the dirt, and scraped something free. When she held out her hand to me there were shiny circles on her fingers. “Child of the serpent. You would never know it to look at her. For generations your Da’s people fought ‘em, to the death more often than not. Now she can start paying us back.”

My mouth was hanging open and I closed it tight.

The devil said something then. Mam lifted her hand away and the devil twisted her head to look at me. She looked like a woman, but her face was all hollow and a sickly gray, like she was ill. Her eyes were the same dark brown as mine.

“You’ve made a terrible mistake,” she said.

“That may be,” Mam said, “but it’s done now.” She took the yoke from me and latched it round the devil’s neck.

We tied the devil up in a stall in the barn, tying the yoke to the walls and her wrists to the yoke and hobbling her feet just to be sure. When I reached for the blade Mam slapped my hand and shook her head. The devil’s legs were still limp. She hadn’t fought when we dragged her across the yard, just looked from me to Mam and back again. Even knowing about the snakeskin she still didn’t look like a devil to me. She looked like a woman, sick and scared.

“Please,” she said now. “Please, I can’t feel anything. Just get me a doctor and I won’t tell anyone, I promise.” Her eyes looked wet. “I have family waiting for me, they’ll pay whatever you want.”

Mam just snorted and checked the knots.

“My name is Elisabeth,” she said, turning to me. She was crying; my own throat got tight. “Please, I have no money, why are you doing this? Please send for a doctor. I can’t feel my legs, oh God, why are you doing this?”

“Mam,” I whispered.

“You can save your breath.” Mam said. “We’ll let you go after the next full moon.” She jerked her head at the doors. “Men are going to come here, they’ve threatened me and my boy. You take care of them for us and we’ll let you go.”

The devil just looked at her, her eyes huge and weeping.

“If you don’t, I’ll take your blood and do the job myself.”

Still the devil just looked at her. I could see her trembling.

“Well,” Mam said. “We best get supper on.”

“Wait!” She leaned forward. “You can’t just leave me here! I may never walk again!”

Mam laughed. “If I took that blade out you’d have my throat before I could take a breath.”

“Mam,” I whispered again. She looked like she was hurting bad. What if we had made a mistake, what if we were killing her?

But Mam patted my arm. “It’s all right, Addy. Think about it. If she were what she claims to be she’d have bled out by now. She sure as hell wouldn’t have the strength to holler like that.” She turned towards the barn doors. “Come on. We’ve done a good day’s work.”

“No, you mustn’t leave me! Please!” The devil was looking at me, all wild and sobbing. “I just want a doctor. For God’s sake! I’ll do whatever you want, just send for a doctor!”

I bit my lip; I felt like I might cry too, but Mam hated tears. Only how could a devil even say God without getting struck down? “What if we’re wrong?” I whispered. “What if she’s just a person?”

Mam sighed then and crouched down in front of the stall, plucking at the old straw. “I know what you are,” she said to the devil. “Matthew’s da was an alchemist and a preacher, as was his da, all the way back to Thomas Norton himself. Matthew told me the real story of Eden, how the serpent tricked Eve so he could eat from the tree of life, and how all his offspring carry that in their blood. Mankind’s birthright gobbled right up. But it wasn’t all good, was it?” She smiled at the devil. “No, it came with all sorts of problems. Like your hunger, like how a little knife can leave you helpless. Like how even a foolish old woman can make a poison that will turn you to dust.”

At Mam’s words the devil’s eyes went hard, and her mouth became a line. She met Mam’s gaze square, and then she spat in the straw.

“That’s what I think of your fucking das,” she said. “Cruel madmen to a one. Rather like you, I suspect.” All the trembling and fear were gone. “So your plan—” she made the word sound dirty— “is to keep me tied up until the next full moon, and then what? I can’t walk, you idiot.”

“Not now you can’t,” Mam said. “But we both know it’s only the blade—”

“No, you know that,” the devil interrupted, and Mam’s face went dark. “I will tell you what I know, shall I? I know that if I don’t feed soon, I’ll be dead by the time your men come. I know that if you don’t give me time to heal after you remove the blade I will be nothing more than another bitch for them to fuck and kill. And I know you are in no way strong enough to drink my blood, not with that sickness in you.”

I stepped back, expecting Mam to go in a rage, but she didn’t. She didn’t even speak. She only stayed crouched, with her face dark and her hands twisting in her skirts, and then I was proper afraid. No one had ever spoken to her like that without her raging at them.

“Now your daughter here, she might be able to drink,” the devil continued, looking at me. The line of her mouth curled up and it was awful. “You’re as strong as a little horse, aren’t you? A god-damned mule of a girl. So your mother’s the mouth and you’re the muscle, is that how it is?”

“That’s my son,” Mam said then, but her voice was something I’d never heard before, all strained and cracked.

“I have given you the courtesy of my honesty,” the devil said. “I recommend you do the same.” She leaned forward again. “I’ve met your kind before, missus. You listen in on your menfolk, you sneak into their studies and read their books, and you think you know better than they did, and you always die worse.” She kept talking when Mam started to speak. “If you took the blade out now it would be days before I could walk again, and my belly was empty long before now; even if you hadn’t crippled me I’d barely be able to stand. I need at least three nights to heal and I need to eat. So put that in your fucking plan.”

Mam bared her teeth, then reached over and smacked my leg. “Go start supper,” she said. “Go on, now. I got business here to take care of.”

Just before the barn doors I looked back. Mam was saying something to the devil, something I couldn’t make out. What if it was true, what the devil said? What if Mam had read the book wrong, what if there was some kind of sickness in her? She was always tired, but we were both always tired, there was only the two of us to do everything.

Mam kept talking; her face was whipping mean. If the devil replied at all I couldn’t hear it, and I didn’t want to.

From the kitchen window I watched as Mam stormed out of the barn, cursing and kicking at the dirt, the shotgun in her hand. I thought to hide then but she went to the horse instead, seizing its reins and dragging it limping past the fence where she shot it in the head. I could have sworn I heard a cry from the barn but it could have been me. Just to shoot it like that, when it might have only needed shoeing. Just to shoot it. Mam stripped off the saddle and harness and as she was passing the barn she threw them in a heap by the door and then I did hear something, not a cry but the devil cursing like when Mam first stabbed her. She kept on long after Mam started the evening chores and I was making supper; she kept on until at last she just stopped, like someone had cut her throat.

“I don’t think she can stop all Bill Boyland’s men,” I said to Mam when she came in for supper.

“She will if she wants to live,” Mam said. “You just stay away from her. She’s got a mouth on her, that one.”

I stirred the soup, trying to think how to ask without asking.

“I get pains in my stomach, Addy,” Mam said then. “They come and go. Sometimes I sick up and there’s blood. That’s why it has to be this way. This land is all you’ll have after I’m gone. A woman can’t get by without money or a man. This land is as good as dollars.”

I heard her, but at the same time it seemed like she was speaking from a long way away. Tears kept coming out and I watched as they fell into the pot, making little circles in the soup. I didn’t dare sniffle or let on how I felt. It would only get me slapped.

“Maybe we should explain more,” I finally said when I could talk again. “Maybe we could pay her with some land. Maybe then she would want to help us.”

“Addy, she’s a devil.” Mam sighed. “The moment we take that knife out she’ll kill whatever’s to hand. We just gotta make sure that’s Bill Boyland and not us.”

 

3.

The next day I started the planting. It felt strange to be working, but as Mam said, it would be something to find ourselves rid of Bill Boyland only to starve next winter. I carefully tossed the seed onto the ground, whispering the prayers Da had taught me. Mam had mixed the seed sack the night before, adding the special powder Da had brought with us. He had said that the powder and praying made the ground more willing. We were nearly out of the powder now, but I wasn’t sure it mattered; each year the crops were mean, enough to keep us alive but not enough to sell.

I thought Mam was going to follow me with the harrow, but instead she went into the goat pen with a rope. I stopped and watched her. The goats had been upset that morning; the horse was starting to smell and it was scaring them. Had they done something? I tried to see Mam but she was bent over. There was a lot of bleating and then she stood up again, leading one of the goats out and kicking the pen shut. I could just make out his uneven horns. She didn’t lead Isaac to the road, towards Tom’s place; instead she led him over to the water pump and the half-log where Da had done his cleaning. I didn’t understand; why did she need to give him water? I had filled all the troughs fresh this morning.

I didn’t understand, and then I saw the knife and the bowl, and then Mam seized Isaac by the larger horn. An awful sound filled the air, a kind of bleating but worse, as if he was screaming. I opened my mouth but there was only the screaming. I was running and halfway to the log Mam dragged the knife across his neck and his skin peeled open and the screaming became blood.

When I reached the log the thing on it was Isaac and not, he was some other kind of animal, something that had a throat gaping loose and bloody and a tongue hanging out. Isaac, I said, but nothing came out, like she had cut my throat too.

Mam steadied the bowl under him, catching every drop of his bright, bright blood. It was so cold. Behind us the other goats bucked against the wall of their pen and bleated and I tried to say Isaac again but I was shivering too much. It was so very cold.

“Idiot,” Mam yelled, “you’re dropping seed everywhere!”

I looked down and in my hand was the sack of seed and what was left was spilling onto the ground. I got down and picked up the seeds one by one until they were just a blur. Mam hated tears. I scraped at the dirt, feeling for the little shapes. Isaac. Everything went dark and I looked up to see Mam standing over me, the bowl on her hip stinking of blood.

“I don’t dare take it to Tom,” she said. “Skin it and quarter it; we’ll figure out what to do with the meat later.”

I couldn’t speak for the pain in my throat, like there was a fist pressing everything down into my belly.

“What’s wrong?” She frowned at me and I shrank back, swallowing and swallowing.

“Tom?” I finally croaked.

“Of course Tom.” Her frown deepened. “Why, who else would we sell the carcass to?”

“I—I thought,” I said, but I couldn’t say any more. I hadn’t thought. I had never thought.

“Are you thinking of that herd he sold to the railroads? There hasn’t been anything like that for years now. More’s the pity, he charged them a fortune for the lot, said they were getting the brush cleared and a winter’s worth of meat besides.” She laughed. “Shrewd old bastard. That was a good Christmas, do you remember? You ate yourself sick on the candy your Da bought.” Steadying the bowl, she leaned over and touched my cheek. “Now be a help and skin it. I’ll clean it and make a nice stew, we still have plenty of onions.”

She went into the barn, bracing the bowl as she worked the door open and closed. As soon as the door shut I pressed my hand over my mouth so she wouldn’t hear the noises pushing up. From the pen the goats bleated softly, as if they heard me, as if they understood.

When I stood up the smell of the horse blew over me, now mixed with the smell of Isaac. The first vultures were circling. I hated the devil then, I hated her for coming and I hated Mam for calling her, I hated the land and the house and even the goats for making me like them. I took up the knife. Isaac looked small on the half-log, not much bigger than the bowl Mam had bled him into. I touched him and he was warm and his hair felt just like it had that morning. I remembered when he was born, how I had dried him and nursed him. I started crying hard, because I hated him too but I also loved him, and I wished I was the one on the wood instead of him.

The barn window was open. Mam suddenly said in her cold voice, the voice before she got angry, “you’ll drink it and you’ll like it.”

The devil started laughing. “I can’t drink that,” she said. “It’s worse than water.”

“It’s all I got.”

“Then you should have fucking thought of that beforehand!” the devil screamed. Her voice was so loud the chickens took up squawking.

There was a thump and the crack of the whip, over and over. I flinched and started to reach for Isaac, but there wasn’t any reason to protect him now.

“I don’t need you!” Mam roared, the worst I’d heard in ages. “I only need what’s in your veins, damn you!”

“Then come and take it,” the devil yelled, and there was no fear in her voice.

The barn door flew open and Mam came out. Blood was splashed all down her front; the empty bowl hung from her hands. Without looking at me she stomped back to the house, throwing the bowl against the side before she went in. It left a red stain on the wall.

I looked down at Isaac’s little body. Killed for nothing. Killed for nothing. What harm had he ever done anyone?

I pressed hard on my mouth, but the sound of crying didn’t stop. Only then did I realize that it was coming from the barn, that the devil was crying too.

It took me all afternoon to skin Isaac. I’d never done such a bad job of anything. I kept saying I’m sorry I’m sorry until I wasn’t sure if it was for letting Mam kill him, or for making such a mess of him after he was gone.

At supper I couldn’t eat. The stew was the color of dried blood and had pieces of meat and onion floating in it and just looking at it made my stomach hurt. Even worse was looking up at the cutting block, where I could still see his little feet. I tried to spoon up just the broth but pieces of meat kept coming in. The stew tasted like sick and sorrow; even in tiny amounts it all kept coming back up.

We sat in silence until suddenly Mam spoke. “Adelaide Norton, I’m only going to say this once.” She spoke quiet, like someone was sleeping nearby. “You have got to stop this. You’re not a child anymore. If you’re this soft over an animal, what will you do when Bill Boyland’s men start blubbering for their lives? You show them an ounce of mercy and they will cut you dead. That is the world, Adelaide. There is nothing out there—” she pointed her spoon at the window— “that will spare you at their own expense, not Bill Boyland and not that thing in the barn and not even your god-damned goats. This world isn’t founded on mercy. It is founded on survival, and God helps those who help themselves. Now you eat that god-damn stew or so help me I’ll make you.”

Slowly I spooned up a piece of meat, watching it shudder in its little puddle of broth, and put it in my mouth. Sick and sorrow. I swallowed it whole; when my stomach twisted I imagined the fist inside me pressing it down so it couldn’t come back up.

“Better,” Mam said. “Someday you’ll see that I’m doing this for you. Someday you’ll see just how close we came to dying out here.”

That night I couldn’t sleep for thinking. My hands felt sticky with blood though I had washed them clean. There were flies in the house and Mam was snoring and finally I got out of bed and went out into the yard.

Everything was quiet and still. There were so many stars above the black hills; their light made the grass look like silver. The air tasted like the smell of the horse, rotting where it had fallen. Something was chewing on it, a lean shadow that smacked its lips as it ate. I felt small. I went to the goat pen and watched them sleeping, and I thought of Isaac and hoped he was happy up in the stars, running and playing and eating whatever he wanted. I thought of his dark eyes and his little horns and how he knew me, he would always come to me instead of Mam. He knew me.

In the barn it was silent, but in a different way. The way it’s silent when you hold your breath.

“Are you all right?” I asked, for something to say.

She seemed to be asleep but then I saw her eyes were open. She didn’t say anything, so I crouched down like Mam had done and picked at the straw. The ropes creaked and when I looked at the devil she was looking at me. Her face was even thinner and bruised now too, and there were stains on her torn shirt and coat.

“I’ve had better days.” Her voice was rough. “Is it your turn, then? Like mother, like daughter? Or perhaps you’re like your father, you want to cut me up and see what makes me tick?”

“Da never hurt anyone,” I said. “He came out here so he wouldn’t have to hurt people anymore. He said people were supposed to make the world balanced. Like morning and night, or wild and tame things. That way God would give us His grace again.”

“Does this look like fucking balance to you?” She looked at me so hard I flinched. “Why were you crying before?”

I knew I shouldn’t tell her anything, but I felt desperate to speak. “The goat, the one Mam . . . ” I couldn’t say killed. “His name was Isaac,” I finally got out.

“I’m sorry, Addy.” And she did sound sorry, truly sorry.

I sat down completely then. “If you promised to help us,” I said, “I could try to get Mam to take the knife out.”

“I think your mother and I are past the point of bargains.” She lunged forward, so suddenly I yelped. “But we could bargain.”

Her fingertips curled towards my face and I jerked back, crawling until I hit one of the barn posts. Her eyes weren’t brown anymore; they were black and flat and huge. “Your mother needs me alive, Addy. That means she’ll keep killing your livestock, because she is desperate and there is nothing else she will give me.” Her lip curled up in the corner. “But you could give me something.”

I opened my mouth, but all that came out was “what?”

“You’re starting to bleed.” She said the word with a sigh, like it was a fellow she was sweet on. “Bring me your blood, and I’ll tell her I can drink something else—rats, or maybe chickens. Your goats, at least, will be safe.”

I gaped at her. “Why would you want that?”

She leaned back, smiling. Her teeth were bright with moonlight and it was terrible.

“It’s . . . it’s disgusting.” Just the thought made me shudder. I couldn’t even look at the rags; Mam always washed them for me.

At that her smile broadened. “But it’s part of being a woo-man.”

“Doesn’t make it nice,” I said. “Besides, nothing else does that. Only people.”

“Sadly we must live in the bodies we are given.”

“But you dress like a boy,” I pointed out.

At that the devil laughed, soft and bitter. “You meet all kinds out here.” Before I could say something she added, “but I don’t think you dress this way out of fear, do you? You like boy’s clothes.”

“Don’t you?” I’d seen the women in town, stuck on porches to stay out of the sun, talking about dresses and husbands. They couldn’t even ride horses. “I wouldn’t even know how to wear a dress now. I haven’t been a girl since I was little.”

“Did your mother decide that?”

“She cut my hair and took away my dresses when we came out here. Told Da to call me his son. He didn’t like it, though. He always said–” I took a breath; it felt funny to be talking about something so long ago. “He always said by the time I grew up there would be more folks out here, good folks, and I could go back to being a girl again.”

“Well,” the devil said, “I can see your mother once had some sense.” Her smile became sly. “Though it would be a pity to put you back in a dress. You wear those pants quite well.”

Her words made me go hot all over. For a moment I felt all sorts of strange things, things I didn’t want to think about. What had Mam said? She has a mouth on her. I got to my feet; I needed air.

“Strong as a mule and a rare kind of lovely,” the devil said, watching me. “Now we’ll see if you have any sense, eh? Bring me your blood, Addy. Bring me your rags. Because without them, you, your Mam, your goats . . .” She dragged her finger across her throat.

“I can’t,” I said. “Mam might find out, she’d whip us both.”

“Oh, you’re a clever girl—” I started walking away as she talked; she broke off and called “Addy!”

Like a fool I looked back. She was leaning forward again, just visible past the edge of the stall. She wasn’t smiling anymore.

“What did your mother do with your Isaac, hmm?”

Out of nowhere the fist filled my throat, so fast my eyes stung, pressing so hard I thought I would burst.

“Is your belly full of your little friend? Your friend who trusted you, who thought of you like you were his Mam, until your Mam cut his throat?”

And I could hear Isaac screaming again; I could see his head as the skin had come away and how when I brought him in the house Mam had slapped his body on the table and brought the cleaver up and down, up and down—

I ran out of the barn sobbing. I ran until I was at the beech tree and there I sat, crying and crying, thinking of nursing him in my lap, how quickly he had grown. Isaac, Isaac! I mouthed his name until it was nonsense and then I wept more.

It was dawn before I finally went back to bed. I felt nothing inside, nothing. I was as dead as he was.

 

4.

The next day I woke up aching with my monthlies, just as the devil had said. Mam bled out a chicken and went to the barn. I felt sick inside, thinking of what the devil might say to Mam, but there were no fights or hollering. When Mam came back out the bowl was empty but she wasn’t smiling. “Sicked up most of it,” she said when I followed her into the kitchen. She was plucking the chicken so hard she ripped a wing half off. “We’ll have to try again tomorrow.”

I nodded. I had decided to say as little as I could, in case I gave away about going to the barn, but I knew that Mam was totting up the days and the animals just as I was. Put that in your fucking plan. I was, and it wasn’t adding up.

That night I watched the moon rise. Just a thin curve of white in the sky, nearly all blotted out. But soon it would grow fat and full, and then they would come, and even if we kept the devil alive that long what if she chose to help Bill Boyland instead of us? For the first time in a long time I wished, really wished, that Da was still alive, so he could tell Mam if she was doing right or not.

After supper Mam sat down at the table with the carpetbag again. She read one of the papers carefully, then opened up some of the other vials and mashed their contents in the mortar until they made a black paste. When she saw me watching she said, “poison.”

“For who?” I asked.

“For the devil, who d’you think?” She laughed then, low and bitter. “If I could get away with poisoning Bill Boyland I’d have done it years ago. Would’ve saved this whole territory a lot of grief.”

I sat down across from her. “How will you get her to take it?”

“I won’t. We shoot it into her.” She heated the tip of an awl and made a little hollow in one of the bullets. With a spoon she pushed in the paste and scraped it smooth, then put it on the table. “Let it dry. It only takes a little. Turns their blood to powder.” She squinted again at the paper as she picked up a second cartridge. “No, sand, I think it says sand. That’ll be something, eh? Cut her and watch her pour out like a sack of flour.”

“What if it doesn’t work?” I asked.

At that her face grew dark. “I got her here, didn’t I? I’ve got a god-damned devil tied up in our barn, how many times have you seen that before? When your great-grandda would hunt them he would take six men with him, and still they would get killed often as not.” She shook her head. “You need to ask less and do more. Now go to bed.”

I got under the covers, listening to Mam singing under her breath:

The Son of God goes forth to war,
a kingly crown to gain;
his blood red banner streams afar:
who follows in his train?
Who best can drink his cup of woe,
triumphant over pain,
who patient bears his cross below,
he follows in his train.
 

I gave myself over to thinking, about what little we had and what might happen when Bill Boyland came. Mam seemed to be fixing to break her word to the devil, and that didn’t seem like it could lead to anything good. And even if she killed the devil, even if we got rid of her and Bill Boyland and all his men, we still wouldn’t have a proper deed to the land.

When Mam finally came to bed I listened carefully to her breathing, and then I went out to the barn with my stained rags wadded in my hand. There wasn’t much blood yet, but I didn’t want to wait; it felt important not to wait. In the distance I could hear things crawling in the horse’s bones, could hear the goats nervous in their pen, but I didn’t dare try to comfort them in case the noise woke up Mam.

It wasn’t silent in the barn this time; there was a wheezing sound, long and low. In the stall the devil was slumped in the yoke. She looked all bone in the moonlight; she looked like she was dead, until I heard again the slow wheeze of her breath.

I held out the rags and her head lifted. Her eyes were slits. She opened her hand but didn’t move so I had to step close to give it to her. The moment her fingers closed around them I hurried back to the edge of the stall.

She sniffed them, and then pressed the stains to her lips and began sucking on them. It made me feel queer, frightened and kind of excited all at once. I wanted to run but I made myself stay put. After all, we had a bargain.

After a while she stopped sucking and licked the cloths instead, turning them one way and another and wetting every spot.

“Ahhh.” She licked a last spot and looked at me. Her face was less gray, though she still looked sickly. “Thank you, Addy.”

I nearly said you’re welcome. But she was a devil after all. “Will you help us when Bill Boyland comes?” I asked instead.

She leaned back in the yoke, closing her eyes. “Tell me about your Boyland.”

“He’s a big cattle rancher. He owns most of the land around here. What he doesn’t use for his cattle he rents out to farmers. He even owns the land under the inn and the bank. The lawyer says he exhorts everyone.”

“Ex-torts,” the devil said. “Him and half the men in this territory.”

“Bill Boyland says Mam didn’t file claim so he bought the land fair and square, but Mam went to the lawyer and he said she has papers showing she was here first. Only she’s afraid to go to the city for a judge because she thinks Bill Boyland will just take the land while we’re gone. She got a letter from the lawyer instead but Bill Boyland says that’s not good enough.”

“Then send the lawyer for the judge,” the devil said.

I frowned. “I don’t think we can.”

“You didn’t go to this lawyer?”

“I had to take care of things here.”

The devil pursed her lips at this, but said nothing.

“Maybe the lawyer’s frightened Bill Boyland will have him shot,” I said. “That’s what happened with the last farmer who tried to keep his land. Bill Boyland went out there with his men and they shot them all, and they shot the lawyer so he wouldn’t tell anyone what they’d done. Then they burned all the buildings so there would be no papers, so when the judge finally came there was nothing.”

“Thorough,” the devil said.

“Mam says you can kill them for us.”

At that she laughed. “Your Mam talks a lot of shit.”

“She called you here,” I said.

“She didn’t call me here. I was on my way to the city and my horse went lame. I was partial to that horse,” she added, and there was a tremor in her voice now. “You’re not the only one who lost a friend in this.”

I didn’t want to think about that. “But she baited the circle—”

“Oh, I smelled your rotten meat. When I was inside your fence, not a hundred miles away.” She smiled at me, a nice smile. “The way I hear it, I’m supposed to be descended from a snake, not a god-damned dog.”

Before I could catch myself I smiled back at her.

“Look, Addy.” The smile went quick. “Your blood will keep me alive but little more. Even if you took out the blade right now? It would be days before I could walk, much less help you fight anyone.” She met my eyes square. “If your Boyland is honest, he’ll be here at the full moon. But if he’s not? He’ll be here a hell of a lot sooner, or he’ll send men out here instead.”

“Why?” I asked, startled.

“Because that way he can kill you both, and then come back at the full moon with plenty of witnesses and oh dear, it must have been thieves, that’s what happens when women homestead without a man, what a pity.”

She was right. He could do it; I could see him doing it. She was right.

“If you truly want me to help you? I need more blood, a lot of it, and I need that damn knife out. Now, preferably.”

I hesitated then, trying to think. “Mam says she can drink yours and take care of Bill—”

“If your Mam drank my blood she would keel over dead,” the devil said, as reasonably as if we were discussing planting. “And if you drank my blood you might keel over dead, but if not? You would become a devil like me, and to be honest I don’t think you’re cut out for it.”

I hesitated again. Now I wished I hadn’t come. Mam was right, she did have a mouth on her, one that said confusing things.

“The blood you need,” I said slowly, “it’s people’s blood, isn’t it? Not chickens or goats or anything else.”

She just looked at me.

“But there’s no one for miles except me and Mam.”

“I don’t make the rules, Addy,” she said. “That’s just how it is.”

I swallowed. Horrible, confusing things, but I understood that well enough. No one made the rules about land either, or about folks like Bill Boyland trying to do you out of it.

“How long do you think we have?” I asked.

“He said by the full moon?” At my nod she smiled again. “Then I’d say it could be any time now. Right now it’s nice and dark outside, and all sorts of things can happen in the dark. It’s long enough before that he could make up a good story about where he was, but not so far ahead that they won’t recognize you. Right about now would be a perfect time.”

I nodded again, my head jerking up and down like I was one of the chickens. Right about now. I thought I could hear hoofbeats.

“I’ll try to do something,” I said, though I couldn’t think what. “I’ll try,” I said again.

The devil waved the sodden rags at me and I took them quick, swiping them out of her hand. Her skin looked gray again. Silently I backed out of the barn and into the silvery yard. I looked around before cutting across, as if Bill Boyland might already be there, ready to shoot me dead.

Back in bed I thought it through again. There had been another family, far to the east, right where they were setting the county line. Thieves had cut them up and burnt their house and barn both. At the time everyone had just said what a shame it was, but I wondered now, because Bill Boyland had bought that land at auction right after. He had divided it up and rented the lots to eight different families, where before there had only been one.

Extort. I saw now that Mam and I were nothing compared to that, nothing compared to rectangles of land where people paid just to be allowed to live.

I held my arm up to the moonlight, looking at the lines of blood under my skin. We were nothing to Bill Boyland, but we could be something to the devil, maybe enough of a something to help when the time came. I just had to figure how I could bleed myself without dying.

That night I dreamed I was crouched by the beech tree, keeping watch over the circle, waiting for the devil to come. I picked at the bark and the sap ran, only it wasn’t sap but blood; I picked more bark off and underneath was goat hair. I heard bleating then. I pulled and pulled at the bark and underneath were the goats, all of them cut up and bleeding and stuffed inside the tree like sausage meat. They were all dying and when I tried to pull them out my hands kept slipping in their blood and their screaming filled my ears until I woke up sobbing. I was lucky that Mam had already gone out to start the chores.

 

5.

The next day I made my own count of the cartridges, and whatever else we could use to protect ourselves: knives, cast-iron pots, shovels and loys and Da’s two big sickles. Mam killed another chicken and bled it out. It was a waste, but if she knew what I had done with the devil it would be the whip for me. She had it out now, coiled on the ground by her feet as she wrung out the chicken.

Beside it lay the revolver. I wasn’t sure what that meant, but I didn’t like it.

“Addy,” she called.

I went over and reached for the chicken but she handed me the revolver, then the bowl of blood.

“I need your help,” she said. “We don’t have time for her games and I can’t have her sicking up again.” She took up the whip and gave it a good crack. When it struck the ground it made places on my body hurt. “Keep the gun behind your back so she can’t see it. That’s it. Now when we go in there, you just get that blood down her throat. I’ll do the rest. If she breaks loose, shoot her dead.”

She waited until I nodded, then led the way to the barn, her skirts tossing the dust one way and another. As we swung the door open a buzzard rose off the horse at the noise and Mam threw a rock at it with a cry. I hated when she was like this, raging and stamping her feet and with her shoulders pulled up. Before Da died she never got angry, she had been kind and gentle, always laughing and singing. She was still kind sometimes, but more and more she was this Mam, almost like she wanted to be angry. I’m doing this for you, she always told me. I’m doing this so you won’t be afraid of anything. Fear is death out here, Addy. Never forget that.

We went to the stall and I was afraid the devil would give us away, but she only looked from Mam to me and back again. Mam held up the whip and she flinched.

“You need to eat,” Mam said in a loud voice. “Now you’re going to drink this and you’re going to like it, understand?”

“I’m doing my best,” the devil said. “There are other kinds of blood that suit me better, as well you know.”

“Don’t give me that. Blood is blood.” Mam nodded at me. “Addy, help her drink.”

“Like meat is meat?” The devil’s eyebrows raised. “I don’t see you two dining on rats, or that horseflesh rotting out there. No, it’s all chickens and sweet little goats for you.”

I stopped halfway towards her, swallowing. Mam uncoiled the whip. “Addy, give her the bowl.”

As I got close the devil looked up at me and mouthed bargain, and then she took a sip from the bowl. She gagged at once, pushing me away as she strained to work it down, just as I had struggled to swallow the stew Mam made out of Isaac. Her face became damp and she made a choking noise.

“More,” Mam said. “She needs to drink it all.”

I started to angle the bowl and the devil shook her head. “Wait,” she gasped. “Wait, I—” She broke off, gagging.

“For God’s sake,” Mam yelled. She cracked the whip and I cried out as it whistled past me and struck the devil in the face. “Addy, get it down her throat!”

But I couldn’t move for looking. The whip had opened a cut on the devil’s face, a big ugly gash that was running dark blood. Only as I watched the blood became sticky and the edges puffed up, then moved together. At first I thought my eyes were playing tricks, I blinked and blinked, but every time I blinked the cut looked better. As if it was healing right in front of me.

“Mam, what’s she doing?” I whispered.

“I told you, Addy,” she said, and there was something heavy in her voice. “She’s a child of the serpent, a devil made flesh. You can’t kill ‘em like you would a man. Right now the only things keeping her from killing us are the blade in her backside and her hunger.” She pointed with the whip. “Now get that god-damned chicken blood down her throat.”

“A devil made flesh,” the devil repeated. “You should try looking in the mirror. Singing hymns while you whip me? Plotting murders? I think you want this. I think you’re enjoying yourself. I think you like the whip and you like blood and you even like killing. I think you even like it when your girl misbehaves, you like getting her scared and making her bleed, I bet you tell her it’s for her own good—”

The whip came crashing down, over and over, lashing one way and another. I stepped out of the stall, hugging the bowl to myself and my eyes shut tight, trying not to hear the devil screaming and Mam humming under her breath.

Then all of a sudden there was silence, just the sounds of panting, and Mam said, “Addy, give her the bowl again.”

I opened my eyes and the devil looked like she was in pieces, her clothes hanging in ribbons and her face all red gashes. She had one eye swelling and her mouth hung open. I could see her heaving.

“Addy,” Mam said in a soft voice, “give our guest something to drink, or I’ll turn her blood to dust.”

Slowly I walked towards the devil. I saw now she was crying, her tears mixing with her blood, and I felt like crying too. “She means it,” I said, forcing the words out. “She knows how.”

“All she knows,” the devil muttered, “is cruelty.”

“Please,” I whispered.

She looked up at me, her good eye black and red and swimming in tears, but she opened her mouth and drank the chicken blood down, throatful after throatful.

And then she jerked away, wrenching in the yoke as she began choking. Mam ran behind her and seized her jaw, holding her mouth closed. “Get the revolver out,” she said to me. I pulled it out of my pants and held it with both hands, keeping it pointed steady at the devil’s face. Her cheeks puffed out and her swollen eye cracked open; she was gagging and mewling as Mam kept her mouth shut tight.

And I remembered, suddenly: when Da had died I was sick soon after, and Mam had given me some medicine, something foul. It was a medicine I’d had before, only it tasted like it had gone sour, but when I tried to tell her how bad it tasted she had flown into a rage. She had poured it into my mouth, more than I’d ever taken, and then held my mouth shut, and I had sicked up inside so much I nearly choked. Later she had said how sorry she was, that grief was making her act strange.

“She’ll shoot you,” Mam was saying. “She’ll shoot you dead unless you keep that god-damned blood down.” The devil was going still at last, though she looked worse than I’d ever seen her. She looked like she might even die.

“Good girl,” Mam said. Slowly she released her hands. “Good girl.” She stepped back and the devil sagged limp. “See?” She pushed the devil’s hair out of her face, then gave her a pat on the head. “Now that wasn’t so bad, was it? No more games, now. You just drink, and you kill Bill Boyland, and everything will be just fine.” She wiped her hands on her skirts. “Come on, Addy. We got work to do.”

Grief, Mam had said. But that had all been years ago. What was she grieving now? Or did she still miss Da that much?

“You’ll pay for this.” The devil’s voice was raspy. “You just wait. You think you know things? Everything you know is nothing more than the fancies of sick old men. And we took care of them a long time ago.”

Mam picked up the bowl and handed it to me, then settled about coiling the whip up neat; she’d started humming.

“But I know something.” The devil’s voice rose until it filled the barn. “I know you’re a fucking liar. I know this has nothing to do with the land because it was never yours. You’re using me to mete out some kind of vengeance. You pretend you’re just a poor old woman done wrong by, but at the end of the day you’re nothing but a pisspoor squatter and when they come they’ll hang you and good riddance!”

I reached for Mam who had turned back, but she only looked at the devil, then at me with a broad smile, and I realized she was trying not to laugh.

“Seems like chicken blood agrees with her after all.” And with a chuckle she strode out of the barn, singing

A noble army, men and boys,
the matron and the maid,
around the Savior’s throne rejoice,
in robes of light arrayed.
They climbed the steep ascent of heaven,
through peril, toil and pain;
O God, to us may grace be given,
to follow in their train.

When we were getting ready for bed Mam suddenly said, “You want to ask me a question, Addy, ask me. You know you can ask me anything.”

I slowly buttoned up my nightshirt. I could just glimpse my reflection in Mam’s little mirror, that she had brought with her when we came out. It was the only fancy thing we had, with a frame made up of tiny flowers and ribbons all tangling together. From my old life, she would say when I asked her about it. It reminds me that we’re all a mix of good and bad, like your Da says. And that God wants us to live with our decisions.

I looked at myself, at my short hair and my peaky face. I was a mix of things, all right. I’d never even seen a girl like me, and I sure didn’t know what was good or bad right now. But there were things being decided that I was going to have to live with.

“What if we asked Bill Boyland to buy us out,” I said, choosing my words carefully. “We could go somewhere else and start over, maybe somewhere closer to the railroad.”

I tensed then, waiting for her to start yelling, maybe even to hit me. But she only sighed. “Addy, you can’t get caught up in wanting to change things. Change is never as good as it looks in your head. There’re always problems, there’re always men looking to take whatever you have—your money, your land, your pride. At some point even a woman has to take a stand, or you’ll always be running.”

She laid down and closed her eyes, but I blurted out, “is that why you and Da came here, because you were running?”

Mam opened her eyes and looked at me for a long moment. But all she said was, “running means different things to men and women.” She rolled over, turning her back to me.

“I don’t understand,” I said.

But she didn’t say anything; she only lay there. I knew she was awake and holding herself tight and still, like she had after Da died. All day crying and laughing over him in the field while I had walked the long, long road to Tom’s place, and then when they took Da away she had laid down just like this. Only Da was seven years gone now, and I was still alive.

Later that night I left the house again. I had my dirty rags but I also took a clean one. Outside I found the bowl and the skinning knife and brought everything into the shadow of the barn. There I hesitated, looking at the big cruel knife, but there was nothing for it, and it felt right that it should be this way. I had done Isaac wrong; I had done them all wrong, all these years, telling them they were going off to Tom’s to eat grass. Now I thought maybe I had known otherwise but I had wanted to believe it. The stew Mam made had tasted horrible, but it had also tasted familiar.

I cut my left hand at the base of my thumb. I didn’t use that hand so much, and I made the cut low so it wouldn’t rub against the plow. At first it didn’t hurt but then it did, oh God did it hurt, and it was hard not to bandage it at once but let the blood run into the bowl. So much pain. How long had Isaac suffered for, before God took him? What about all the others, the chickens and the little ox and the devil’s horse and even Da, what had they felt?

As if I was speaking out loud, something moved out by the horse, something that was picking at whatever scraps were left on the bones made blue by the starlight. There was no moon, I realized, not even the sliver anymore.

All sorts of things can happen in the dark.

When I started to feel faint, I pressed the cut closed and tied it with the clean rag, and then I took everything into the barn.

The devil was hunched over in the yoke. The whole stall smelled of sick; she was surrounded by puddles of the stuff, all sticky and shiny. When I stepped inside she flinched and tried to move away.

“Bargain,” I whispered. I held out the rags and the bowl.

She angled her head at me, as if trying to read something on my face. Her eye was open again but only just, and though her cuts had closed up I could see them still, pale lines that ran all over her.

“Bowl first,” she finally said.

I brought it close to her open mouth and tilted it, just letting the blood dribble in. She drank like she was thirsty. Her cold hand touched mine, bringing the bowl closer, and she drank it all, making me turn it until she got every drop out. I started to take the bowl away but her hand grabbed mine hard and kept the bowl close while she licked it clean with long strokes of her tongue, like a cat. When at last she let me go there were smears of blood on her face; she tried to rub them off with her bound hands and then lick them.

The lines on her face and body were gone.

I gave her the rags and she began sucking. She looked almost healthy, like she had fattened up just from that little bit of blood.

“I’m sorry,” I said.

She was silent, sucking on the cloth.

“It’s just—things have been hard since Da died.”

Still she sucked on the cloth. I was trying to think of what to say next when she abruptly spat it out and said, “I have not been beaten like that since I was a child.” Her voice sounded different, low and full. “I swore I would never be beaten like that again.”

“The serpent beat you?” I frowned, trying to imagine it.

At that she laughed, so loud I hushed her. “I have parents, Addy, just like you. A mother. A father who passed. It was my aunt who did the beating in my family, for as long as we let her.” Slowly her tongue ran over her lips. “I don’t let her anymore.”

“You have a family?”

“Of course I have a family. I also have friends, a lover, and a name. I even owned a horse once.” At the last her voice went soft.

I didn’t know what to say. She went back to suckling and I crouched down, rocking on my heels. All of a sudden I could see her people, a whole lot of people who looked like her, who might be missing her. Maybe they just healed fast because they were lucky; maybe the scales on her neck were just a rash, or a birthmark, like the boy in town who had a big red patch on his face.

“This all feels bad.” Her voice was so quiet I wasn’t sure if she was speaking to me. “It feels like more than just a land dispute; it feels like an old grudge, maybe even from before your Da.” She gave the rag a lick. “Times are changing, Addy. You can’t just go about killing a man, not anymore. The Bill Boylands can still bend the law because they have money and men, but even that’s coming to an end. There are laws now, laws and officers to enforce them. More’s the pity,” she added, smiling a little.

“Mam says a woman has to take a stand,” I said.

“A stand for what? For a scrap of land? For something that happened years ago?” She shook her head. “The past is gone, Addy. The only thing worth taking a stand for is the future, the best possible future for those you love. Take it from someone who has an awful lot of past behind her.”

I frowned. “Maybe it shouldn’t be one or the other, though. Maybe it should be about balancing them, like everything is supposed to be balanced.”

“Oh yes, I forgot, your father and his bloody balance.” She laughed softly. “God save us from—”

But she stopped short. Her head turned in the yoke, straining the ropes. “They’re coming,” she whispered.

“Who’s coming?”

“At least eight horses—? And some kind of cart, or a wagon.” She looked at me, her eyes black again. “Take the blade out.”

I stood up, uneasy. “I don’t think . . .” But then I heard it too. Faint, like the first hint of a storm coming. It made everything go cold, even the pain in my hand. My mind seemed to empty all at once, I couldn’t think on what to do.

There was a cracking noise, and suddenly a hand seized mine, icy and so strong. She had pulled free of the stall and her hand was free. And then the rag was gone and she was sucking at the cut, biting it and sucking, and I screamed then because nothing had hurt like this before, she was chewing me up and I couldn’t get free, she seemed made of stone. I flailed and pulled and my free hand set upon a fork and I swung it at her. She fell to her side but it didn’t seem to even hurt her; she just began working the yoke off.

“Take it out,” she gasped. “Addy, take the fucking blade out!”

I barely heard her. I was pressing my hand tight, too scared to even look at it, it felt so raw. Her lips were shiny with my blood. You’ll take our throats, Mam had said.

“Addy!” She was hanging off the ropes, trying to stay upright. “Addy, listen to me. I promise you I won’t let anything happen to you. I give you my word. I can stop them, I can stop them all, but you have to take the blade out. For the love of your Mam and your goats and everything you hold dear, take the blade out.”

I didn’t know what to do. Everything seemed to be happening at once. I could hear the horses and a few shouts now and Mam calling my name and the animals were bleating and squawking and I could still smell the dead horse and what was I supposed to do?

“Addy, please.”

I tried, then. I tried to see her as Mam saw her, like a rabid dog to sic on people. But all I could see was how her hands were trembling, and Isaac’s little feet, and the way the horse had to be dragged like it knew what was coming. Whatever this all was, it wasn’t balance, much less anything good or right.

I got behind her and seized the handle and pulled as hard as I could, but she shrieked and waved her hand.

“No,” she gasped. “Open it, you have to open it.”

I felt the handle until I found the bump and pressed it. She wailed behind gritted teeth and then I pulled while she gasped “harder, harder” and I put my foot on her back and rocked it back and forth like a stuck spade until it suddenly came free in a spray of blood.

With a cry I flung the knife aside and started to run for the door but she seized my ankle and I fell. She pulled me back as I screamed and hollered for Mam, then grabbed my chin and pulled my head against her chest.

“Forgive me,” she whispered.

And then she bit my neck, and the pain flared sharp and stabbing and then everything went soft, soft, like a blanket had been dropped over me. All soft. It seemed only a minute or maybe it was hours when she finally let me go and I dropped onto the ground. I watched as her boot stepped over me, only to twist and stumble; she fell on top of me and I felt her weight but no pain, no pain. She got to her knees and began crawling towards the barn door. Just before the doorway she pulled herself up using the post and carefully unhooked one of the sickles. She stood for a moment, wobbling like a newborn kid; and then she kicked the door open and fell forward into the night.

 

6.

Everything was foggy, though it wasn’t the time for fog. My hand was throbbing sore and my neck ached. I got to my feet but I couldn’t see the barn doors, and then I saw them, only they kept swaying. I managed to walk to them by looking through them, at the space between them, which was glowing with a bright orange light.

I stepped out into a world on fire. Everywhere was shimmering with heat and flame; the smoke covered the stars. There was screaming, close and far off all at once, from everywhere and nowhere. I looked behind me and the barn was licked with flame, the hills sparking red.

It was hell. We had called the devil down and I had let her loose and she had brought us all to hell.

I made my heavy legs walk. The smoke caught in my throat, setting me to coughing. The goat pen stood open and empty. There were shapes in the far corner, small and still. I looked at them and I knew they were gone, yet I kept hearing them bleating like Isaac had bleated, all mixed up with the shouts and screams of the men and the echoing gunshots and a woman crying or laughing or both—

Mam.

There was no more house; there was only fire, curling around the beams and the chimney Da had laid stone by stone. I opened my mouth to call to Mam but started coughing. A hand caught me by the arm and spun me around. Before me stood a man, sooty and wild-eyed. He shook me hard over and over.

“I got the kid!” he hollered.

My head was snapping against my neck; my teeth flew up and bit my tongue hard. Blood filled my mouth. He swung me one way and another, peering into the smoke and flame.

“Bill!” he hollered again. “Bill, I got the kid! Bill—”

Something bright shot across his throat and it opened up and it was full of blood. My mouth was full of blood. He tried to speak and instead he fell over, his hand still gripping my arm, his tongue sticking out like Isaac’s. I started screaming then, I screamed as I never had before. The devil swung the sickle up and down into his chest. She was covered in blood. Blood sprayed out of the man as she wrenched the sickle up and brought it down again. Cold air ran over my belly and I looked down at the red cut in my nightshirt. Someone was screaming and screaming and it was me, I was turning inside out with screaming. I tore more at my shirt but I wasn’t cut, the sickle had only caught the fabric.

“Addy.” The devil’s voice was huge and echoing in the night. She bent and reached into the blood, her hand disappeared in the blood, and when she pulled it out with a grunt there was something round and wet in her palm. She held it out to me. “See? That’s all a man is inside. No evil, no divinity, not even your god-damn balance. Just flesh. That’s why your Da and his people failed: because they could never bring themselves to believe this. This is all there is.”

Seizing my cut hand, she pressed the organ into it, still warm, and my voice broke then from screaming. I dropped it and covered my eyes, waiting to feel her hands on me. But there was nothing. I peeked through my fingers, then lowered my hands.

The devil was gone.

The man at my feet looked different. With his kerchief twisted I could see how frightened he was and how young, as young as me. Everywhere now I saw the bodies of men: men in pieces, men with heads staved in and throats cut, men sprawled and men lying so peaceful they might have been asleep.

There was no more howling now, but I heard the crying laughter again and walked towards it.

The yard was another world. Everything was gusting smoke and ash. I wiped my face and my hand came away smeared with blood and ash. The cut on my hand throbbed and my neck too. Somewhere far away a man screamed and began pleading, and I turned one way and another but the wind carried him away. Only the crying laughter seemed fixed.

Soon I came upon a trail in the dirt and followed it to the beech tree. It seemed like I had walked for miles, but when I looked around there were the ruins of the house and barn, as close as they had always been.

Under the beech tree was a body and Mam was standing over him, her skirts hiked up and her foot on his face. I saw Bill Boyland’s fancy gold watch hanging from his clothes. Her face screwed up and her leg flexed as she pressed down. She was giggling and weeping all at once.

As I drew close, something cracked, and her foot sank lower.

She looked at me and then back at the man. Her face was wet. “I never knew,” she said. “Look at how soft a man is. I never knew.”

Beneath her foot all was red and black. She took her foot away and laughed again, that strange, weeping laugh, and it was that morning with Da all over again.

“Look, Addy.” She nudged at his face with the toe of her shoe and Bill Boyland’s eyeball pushed forward. I shrieked and she laughed. “An eye for an eye, how do you like that? An eye for an eye. Sometimes God does answer our prayers.”

“Mam,” I said. I could barely speak for trembling. “Mam, we have to do something.”

“You let her out, Adelaide Norton,” she said. “You disobeyed me and you went to her and you let her out.”

“Mam,” I said again. “Mam, we need to . . .” But I couldn’t think of what we needed to do. I kept looking at where Bill Boyland’s face had been, at that one shiny eyeball.

“I had a plan,” Mam said. “I was going to tell them I had a woman in my barn, I was going to offer her to Bill Boyland as a payoff, to spare you and I. He would go in to have her and she would kill him.” She pointed at my neck. “Now you got her taint on you, and there ain’t no fixing that.”

“She couldn’t drink that other blood!” My heart was pounding. “She couldn’t drink it and you knew it! She would have died if I hadn’t—” I broke off then, because suddenly the thought filled my head and it was awful. “Or did you know I was going out there to her?”

Mam just looked at me. The fist filled my throat, pressing down so much I felt sick; I opened my mouth but nothing would come out, not words or tears. Slow and careful, Mam reached into her skirt pocket and pulled out the revolver and aimed it at me. The barrel was so large. It was as large as a scream, as large as the hole we had buried Da in.

She stepped over Bill Boyland’s legs and I closed my eyes but nothing happened. When I opened them again the barrel was pointing just past my ear, and I turned and looked over my shoulder.

The devil stood there, Mam’s whip in her hand. Her eyes were black. Two long pointed teeth filled her mouth, stained dark against the white bone.

“You’re not tainted, Addy,” she said in her strange huge voice. “But you need to walk away now. Your Mam and I have unfinished business.”

“No!” I looked from one to the other. “Please. You can go now, we said you could go when you stopped them. Can’t she, Mam?”

Mam said nothing, only cocked the trigger.

“I made a promise to myself a long time ago.” The devil was staring at Mam. “And a woman is nothing without her word.”

“Amen,” Mam said. “And now we see you for what you really are.”

The devil pointed at Bill Boyland. “Amen.”

It happened all at once, then. Mam shoved me and fired and the whip snaked out, catching Mam’s wrist and sending the revolver flying into the air. We all three cried out and fell to the ground; the shot echoed against the hills.

Mam’s wrist was bleeding. She began crawling in the dirt, looking for the revolver. “Find the gun,” she whispered. “Hurry, Addy.”

The devil was on her hands and knees, hunched over, her sides heaving; and then she staggered to her feet.

“Please,” I said.

“Addy, find the god-damned gun!” Mam cried.

“Please just go,” I said.

The devil looked at me with those black, flat eyes. She pressed her fingers into her chest, all the way inside. With a grimace she twisted and dug and when she held up her hand again it was glistening black. Blood dripped off her fingers that held up Mam’s bullet like it was something precious.

She flicked it at Mam; it sailed through the air and struck Mam in the face.

“Shitty poison by shitty alchemists,” she said, but her voice was thick like she was sick again.

“It’ll burn you up,” Mam said. She was shaking; I had never seen Mam shake before. “You’re done for, serpent! You’re going back to hell where you came from!”

“My name is Elisabeth,” the devil said, “and the only hells are the ones we make.”

The whip rose up, catching smoke as it shot curling into the sky. When it came down Mam hunched over, covering her head with her hands.

“Stop it!” I got to my feet; it was then that I saw the revolver at the base of the beech tree.

Again the whip cracked. I ran as fast I could and seized the revolver. My hands were shaking as I swung it around. She was almost on top of Mam, swinging the whip up and down.

Not once did Mam cry out.

“Stop it or I’ll shoot!” I yelled.

The devil went still, looking at me, the whip dangling from her hand.

“Shoot her,” Mam hissed. “Shoot her dead.”

I steadied the revolver, sighting the devil square in the face. “Go away,” I said loudly. “Just go. You did what we asked, now we’re keeping our promise.”

“For the love of God, Addy, shoot the bitch!”

I glanced at Mam. Her mouth was hanging funny; the whip had caught her in the face. I turned back to the devil who hadn’t moved, who just looked at me with the same steady gaze. I curled my finger around the trigger.

“Elisabeth,” I said. “Please, please just go.”

“God-damn it!” Mam yelled. “What’s wrong with you? She’s just an animal, put her down!”

There was a shot, and a second and a third, though I hadn’t done anything. I looked at the revolver and suddenly the devil was spinning me around and holding my hands and together we squeezed. The man behind us bucked and fell. The devil pointed again, squeezing my finger a second time, so hard I thought it would break. His body jumped and went still.

I looked over at Mam and she was facedown in the dirt and I knew she was dead. I knew she was dead. All the air left the world. I reached for her only my hand was all cut up still, I would taint her with my touch. Everything seemed wrong. I looked at Mam’s wet hair and I looked at the cuts on my hand. I knew. I knew.

Liquid splashed on the ground. It took all my strength to turn away from Mam and look at her. The devil had a flask and she was pouring water on where Mam had shot her. My arm rose up and I aimed the revolver at her head.

The devil went still. “Addy,” she said, “your mother was a cruel, frightened woman—”

“I told you to leave.” My voice sounded different, deeper than I had ever heard it before, almost like I was the devil now.

Slowly she raised her hands. “There will be more coming, by daybreak if not sooner. We need to strip the bodies, make it look like a robbery—”

“Go away,” I said in the same dark voice. “Go away and don’t ever come back, or I swear to God I’ll kill you.”

And I meant it. I meant every word. She looked so small from behind the revolver, how was it that we had feared her? It would be nothing to shoot her, or cut her with the sickles. Nothing to watch her bleed out like a spilled jug.

My insides ached so bad I wished I was dead.

Slowly the devil took a step backwards, and then another, keeping her hands up. She looked so small. It would be nothing to squeeze the trigger, nothing to watch her flinch and cry out and fall; nothing and everything. I dropped to my knees, the revolver huge and heavy in my hands, breaking my fingers from its awful weight. All around me was the smoke and the dead and I was as good as. It was nothing to kill a person and it was everything. All of it cruel, the gun and the knife and the whip; all of it a flat blackness like the devil’s eyes and Mam’s too, when she had stepped on Bill Boyland’s face. All of it as flat as Isaac’s eyes when the life went from him.

I looked at Mam and I knew she was dead. I crawled to her and laid my good hand on her, the untainted one, and turned her on her side so she would be comfortable. I wanted to cry but the fist was solid inside me. Instead I smoothed back her hair and closed her eyes and mouth; I put her hands together so she could pray, wherever she had gone to. I thought to sing then, like she would sing to me when I was little, but no words would come. Instead I sat by her in silence while the world burned to the ground.

 

7.

It was the sun that made me move. That first gleam of light made everything visible; I saw every body stark against the ground, saw the house and the barn like they were more real now for being ruined. Smoke rose up into the sky, high enough that it could be easily seen from town.

I hurried then. I wanted more than anything to bury Mam but I couldn’t. I kissed her forehead one last time. She would have been proud of me: I hadn’t cried, not once, I had just sat there swallowing it all back and pushing it down until I didn’t even feel the fist anymore, until I didn’t feel anything at all. How many nights had Mam done the same after Da died? Pressing it down until she was empty, waking up to the same hard dirt in the fields.

In the cold blue dawn it seemed a terrible thing that Da had done, bringing us here.

I took the pants and shirt off one of the least dirty bodies, and the coat off another. I dressed as quick as I could, then ripped my nightshirt and threw it in the brush. Maybe they would think I got carried off.

The goat pen and chicken coop were ashes. I started trembling at the sight but I pushed it away until I was empty again. Instead I set about digging through the men’s pockets, taking whatever was worth something: money, watches, even their spare cartridges. What I couldn’t fit in my pockets I bundled in kerchiefs and tied to my belt.

The only horse left was the mare tied to the cart—not even a wagon, just a small cart with its wheel stuck against a tree. I came up on the cart slow, I didn’t want to spook her; she still looked wild-eyed. Only as I held out my hand I heard not a whinny but a bleating, and something moved in the shadows under the cart, and then all of a sudden little Addy stood there, sooty but bleating and bleating and I was hugging her close, smelling her good smell and her licking both my hands clean. And there was Rachel and a little one I hadn’t named, he had been born just fine and never needed naming, but now his fur was matted with blood and he hung back until I called “Joseph, Joseph” and he came to me and it was everything. I understood, then, that this was what was meant by grace, how in the midst of so much wrong there could be something that was beautiful and right.

I cleaned out the unlit torches and the corked jugs of beer from the cart and got the goats up inside. They seemed happy to be leaving. I searched the brush but I couldn’t find any of the others, and then it was time. It took the horse a little while to trust me, but I coaxed her back and forward again and she understood and that was a kind of grace too. There was a whip in its socket and I threw that away with the rest. When I saw little Addy watching me I told her “no more” and I meant it. No more of such things, ever. Together the horse and I steered the cart onto the road, and with every step I said “thank you” and I meant that too, I had never felt so grateful.

Once I was up in the seat, though, I found myself trembling again. From there the ruin of our land seemed a sorry thing, small and empty. Even Mam’s body seemed little more than a spot against the dirt. I stopped the horse so I could really look at it all, one last time. There was something white and crumpled beside her: my nightshirt had blown up against her, so it looked there was an Addy curled up next to her. So I was up on the road, alone, and down there was an Addy who had stayed by Mam to the end.

I touched my face and my cheeks were all wet, though it didn’t feel like I was crying, I wasn’t crying at all. Perhaps the other Addy got to cry at the end, perhaps Mam had let her, just the once.

The horse began walking without me telling her to and I let her have her head. I felt a little better for moving. The hills were warming into their browns and greens, and all the clouds were white against the blue sky. It was almost right, save for the aching inside me, save for how sore my throat was from holding everything in. It had all been wrong from the start, it had started wrong and ended worse. Behind me little Addy came up and nudged my elbow and I began laughing even though I was still crying, and I understood better how Mam must have felt all tumbled up inside. Maybe she had known it was wrong, only there was nothing for it but to see it through. A woman has to take a stand, but it was worthless if you weren’t standing for something right.

Behind me Joseph butted Rachel and she gave him a nip and little Addy wiggled onto the seat beside me, standing tall and proud. It reminded me of when we first came out here: we had passed by some folks camped by a river and they had been singing. The sun had lit up the water and the grass had been green as far as the eye could see and Da had said we’re gonna make this God’s garden, Addy, and the people had sung so prettily, nothing like my trembling voice now:

There let my way appear
Steps unto heaven
All that Thou sendest me
In mercy given
Angels to beckon me
Nearer, my God, to Thee
Nearer to Thee

I sang and little Addy bleated and I was sad but I was alive, I was alive, the fist loosening and my heart aching. I was alive and I had to stay alive, for now I had promises to keep, and a grace I dared not squander.

___

Copyright 2017  L.S. Johnson

L.S. Johnson was born in New York and now lives in Northern California, where she feeds her cats by writing book indexes. Her stories have appeared in such venues as Strange HorizonsInterzoneLong Hidden, and Year’s Best Weird FictionVacui Magia: Stories, her first collection, won the 2nd Annual North Street Book Prize and is a finalist for the World Fantasy Award. Her gothic novella, Harkworth Hall, was published in August. To find out more, visit her website.

 

 

By Wendy N. Wagner

Download EPUB With Perfect Clarity Wendy N. Wagner  Download MOBI With Perfect Clarity Wendy N Wagner

Everything about Councillor Rand is moisturized to the point of buttery softness. He even smells rich. The thick scent of coconut oil, an imported luxury I have only smelled on kept women with downtown addresses, drifts across the counter and crawls up my nose.

“It’s a simple inter-department water transfer. Why are there so many forms for such a small request?” His smile is the smile of someone used to getting his way.

I try to smile back. “Every request must be approved by the Water Council. Especially within the city departments. Because clarity is purity.”

The slogan is written on the wall behind me. The Councilor’s blue eyes scroll over it. His smile shrinks.

“But Charice Fleming is simply taking an advisory position in a different building. It’s less than a quarter of a mile from Finance to Water, and both departments are even on the same water main. Why do we need to file paperwork?”

Charice Fleming. Can he mean the same Charice Fleming, the beautiful Charice who once worked underground with me? Charice Fleming who now works in Finance?

He makes an impatient sound.

But … Charice Fleming. I have to clear my throat. “The water main may be the same, but the extra wear on the building’s pipes must be noted. Also, careful paperwork helps us predict leaks and maintenance requests.” I pause. This is all textbook information. “You’re on the Water Board. Don’t you know all of this?”

Councilor Rand’s eyes grow hard. “As head of the Water Council, I know a great deal about the water of this city, certainly more than a glorified plumber like you. If you knew who you were dealing with, girl, you would try a little harder not to waste my time.”

But I do know who I am dealing with, and the fact that he’s here in the office—in person—makes me deeply nervous. A councilor like Rand sends his flunkies to handle these details unless he has reasons to keep these transactions to himself.

Why is Charice Fleming’s water a matter of secrecy? Why doesn’t he want this request made in writing? And why is a member of the Finance Department (Charice Fleming, my Charice Fleming) coming to serve an advisory position in the Water Department unless—well, we wouldn’t be the first department to be absorbed by Finance.

I have to get more information so we know how to handle this.

I put on my most obliging expression. “As soon as the paperwork is finalized, we’ll make this request our first priority.” And my work-calloused hand slides a ration request form across the counter.

His eyes narrow, just for a second. Less than a second. Then his face goes bland again. “Thank you, Water Keeper. I commend your attention to detail.” He takes the form off the counter.

Then he walks away, his back stiff. A cold finger, like a trickle of water from a faulty pipe, runs down my spine. There have been changes in the city lately, and now they seem headed my way.

At the end of my shift, I fill out my paperwork and then hurry to the staircase leading to Shaba’s basement office. I need to tell her about Councilor Rand and my suspicions about the Finance Department.

Beyond the boiler room and the storage areas, Shaba’s office is a hinge connecting the world of undercity to the one above. The door is open, the yellow glow of her desk lamp spilling out onto the concrete floor. I hesitate in the pool of light. There is a pipe running along this wall, and I can feel coolness radiating from its sides. The water within waits patiently for someone to need it. It is only a matter of time before someone—a Water Keeper moistening his mouth before beginning the next shift at the Request Office, a secretary dehydrated from running errands, or even Charice Fleming, taking her first sip of our department’s water—needs a drink. To be human is to need water.

A pen scratches on paper. Shaba’s voice is too soft to echo, but I can hear it softly, the one-sided track of a phone conversation. But if she didn’t want me to hear it, she would have closed the door. I slip between door and frame, hesitating, and she gestures me in.

The space is barely larger than a closet, every wall filled with maps and notices. A stack of record books slump on a filing cabinet beside her desk. Shaba waves at me and turns her attention back to the phone in her hand.

“Yes, Border Master. I’m working on it.”

Her low voice is a comforting rumble. I let my gaze wander back to the maps on the wall behind her. The very battered geopolitical map of New America with its brightly colored city-states has been mostly buried beneath more relevant surveys of our region; now that communications are so spotty, the other city-states might as well be on the moon. Our city, our region: that’s what we have to protect.

On the biggest map, the borders of our watershed are drawn in thick black ink; the wastelands beyond are patterned with dots. Here and there along the border, someone has used a pencil to draw in gray patches, like scabs dotting the surface of a body afflicted with a disease it cannot quite keep at bay. It is not easy to fight against the desert. No one knows that like a Water Keeper.

“At this stage, it is impossible to know the full extent of the loss. I have to do the math.” She pauses. “Border Master, I will contact you tomorrow. Believe me, I’ve got my best people on this.”

She hangs up the phone and lets out her breath. Then she takes off her glasses and rubs her eyes. There are dark circles beneath them and swollen pouches that make her round face froglike. I have never seen a frog, but as a child I loved reading about them in the library’s older books. Like me, they belonged in neither water or air.

Then Shaba settles the black glasses back on her face. “What takes you away from your pipes, Yalan?” She takes up her pen and makes notes on a piece of paper, but she is listening.

She knows me so well. When I first came to train with her, only a few years before she was appointed Executive Water Keeper, her quiet unnerved me. It took my ears time to become accustomed to the language of water, and then I realized how much she said by letting the pipes speak for her.

Even aboveground, listening is the secret of all communication. There is always more to a citizen’s request than its first murmur.

“Councilor Rand came to the office this afternoon, Shaba.”

She lays down her pen. “Did he make a request?”

“He did not file paperwork, but he made a request. Someone from the Ministry of Finance is taking an advisory position within the Water Department.”

“The Ministry of Finance.”

I have to clear my throat. “Charice Fleming. You may remember her from her time in Electric.”

She rolls the pen across the pad of paper on her desk and rolls it back again. The folds of her face become severe as she thinks—she is not a beautiful woman, no Charice Fleming. But beauty is two-edged blade, and the tools Shaba has used to carve her way through the ranks of Water Keepers are far more practical: intellect and insight and a deep understanding of humanity. To her, these things are spanners and screwdrivers. I wait without speaking. We are only in a basement, but I can hear water moving in a pipe someplace nearby.

“Do you know where Councilor Rand started out? Where he first served as an apprentice?”

I shake my head.

“He worked at the City Bank. Now that trade between cities is so difficult, the bank is a very small appendage of the Ministry of Finance, but once it was very prestigious work. Members of the former bank board oversee almost every department of the city. Even the Ministries of Defense and Justice have staff who once worked within the City Bank.”

“The Water Council must seem like an unimportant post to a man like that.”

“But Councilor Rand is a very ambitious man.” She picks up her pen and turns it over and over. I can not see her face as she watches its plastic case catch glints of the yellow light from her desk lamp. “He has not cut his ties with the Ministry of Finance.”

I can’t help but glance back at the map behind her. The gray patches marking the desert incursions are not the only afflictions notated on the city’s face. Red pushpins bristle at certain corners, corners where water poachers have broached water lines or been apprehended with illegal water stores. I have been to most of these sites. My duties undercity are not limited to mending pipe and reading meters.

Water poachers are not the only ones who see water as a source of revenue. I do not trust the Ministry of Finance.

“Water must be free.”

“It is a human right.” She sighs. “Charice Fleming. I remember her from Electric. She was very pretty, very popular with everyone who worked underground.”

I have a sudden memory of Charice, petite, blond, smiling, her cheekbones casting hollows in the dim light of undercity. “She spent a week shadowing me as part of her initial training. She was …” So smart. So charming. How quickly she’d learned the twists and turns of the undercity. Once she knew the main paths, the routes Electric needed her to learn, she’d turned her dimples on me until I’d finally shown her the deeper, darker ways that only Water Keepers use. Only with her at my side, those paths had seemed as bright as the sunniest day aboveground. I’d never laughed so much in my life as I had down there with Charice.

I catch the tilt of Shaba’s eyebrow. “A friend,” I finish. “She was a friend.”

She nods. Of course she knows this already. Shaba knows everything. Whether it is information about undercity or aboveground, if it affects the flow of water, she makes a point of knowing it.

“When Electric was transferred from the Resource Ministry to the Ministry of Finance, I was surprised she was sent to work above.” I hesitate, not wanting to bring my personal affairs into the matters of water. “I haven’t seen her since Electric was disbanded.”

“Disbanded.” Shaba’s voice is strangely dry. “That’s what they call it when an entire department that once provided for our citizens is ripped apart and swallowed by an organization that counts pennies. Pennies, Yalan. What is a penny compared to the ability to turn on a light switch or keep your food cold?”

I open my mouth to answer, but see it’s a rhetorical question. She isn’t done.

“Do you know how much the average household spends on electricity now? How much do you yourself pay for basic service?”

“I live in the Water Keepers barracks, Shaba. You know that.”

“But for how much longer?”

I try to fill my mind with my duties and my belief in Shaba, but Councilor Rand’s cold eyes stay with me, and somehow I find myself aboveground. One moment, I’m patching a hairline crack on an old pipe and the next I’m climbing up through the network of drains beneath the downtown highrises.

When I emerge, no one says anything, not even the concierge in her red velveteen jacket and matching pillbox cap. My gray coveralls and dirty hands mark me as a Water Keeper, as invisible as floor tiles. I walk right out the “Residents Only” sign at the main door and then stand for a moment, blinking at the sun. I wonder if Rand lives nearby.

A woman shouts after a passing pedicab, running past me to wave down the cab. She blocks my way, and I can’t stop staring. Her long blond hair catches the breeze and floats in it, momentarily gilding the air all around her.

I don’t need to see her face to know her.

Charice Fleming.

She doesn’t notice me. She sees only the pedicab trudging past. Her lips have compressed into a tight line that makes her whole face look hard. I remember the soft smile she always had for me when we shared lunch in the big break room below the Pipes Office. Where has it gone?

I step forward, my mouth opening to speak, but Charice’s eyes run over my gray shape like they would a piece of concrete, a lump of dirt, a rock. Something inside me tightens like a vise grip closing on a broken pipe.

She’s so close I can smell coconut oil and shoe polish. Her high heels are new. They gleam like her hair.

“Charice!”

We both turn. A man waves from a pedicab whose driver is trotting toward us. I can see sweat trickling down the driver’s cheeks, and her shirt front is soaked. She has been running hard a long way. But tired or not, she swings her cab up to the curb precisely beside Charice Fleming.

Counselor Rand leans out to of the cab offer her a hand up. “I’m glad I caught you. I thought we could have lunch before our meeting with the Council.”

He doesn’t notice me at all.

Charice slips inside the pedicab and kisses him. “Lunch would be great. Henri’s?”

“Bien sûr.” Rand raps the pedicab’s frame. “Driver, Henri’s and make good time!”

The driver’s eyes meet mine. She gives a little head shake—what can you do?—and takes a long, deep breath. Then she’s off.

I make my way underground slowly, thinking about that pedicab driver and the long hours she spends walking the hot, dry streets. People like Councilor Rand have probably never thought about how much strength it takes to pull a pedicab all day or how sore the driver’s feet must get or how good it must feel to rub her skin with a cool washcloth after dragging rich people around the city.

When a pipe beneath New American Street ruptures, I beat the other Water Keepers to the call. It takes me far too long to close the decrepit valve, and water pours over me as I work. I feel a twinge for the wasted liters, but as I crouch frog-like in the cleansing flood, I do not think about Charice Fleming or the Ministry of Finance or soft, soft Councilor Rand, and it is bliss.

Three days later, I am reading in my room and the alarm bell rings. Not the bright chiming of a break or a flood, but the ugly clang of the Keeping bell. Someone is adding another red spot to Shaba’s map. I pull my thick denim jacket on over my coveralls and grab my biggest pipe wrench. The first time I ever hoisted it on a poaching mission, my hands trembled and my stomach churned. But after so many years, there is only calm, or perhaps an eagerness to see the work carried through.

Outside my room, the Pipe Master, Grandla, waits unsmiling. In the cold fluorescent lights, her silver hair sparkles against the deep brown of her skin. Her jacket, like mine, is peppered and splotched with dark stains, the kind that never wash out. She’s brought a pry bar, her favorite tool on these missions. But I like the weight of the pipe wrench. The symbolism.

We run out of the barracks. Our boots thud on the concrete floor, the steps growing louder as the rest of the Keepers fall in behind us. Each of us is one drop of strength, but together we are a troop, a river, a flood of righteousness no poacher has ever been able to withstand.

We turn into the tunnel that runs under the westernmost edge of the city. Beyond this, there is only desert. We alone stand between the city and that fate with our toolboxes and our ration tokens and our strong arms. Only us, the Water Keepers.

I see the woman kneeling beneath a pipe only a Water Keeper should touch, a dozen or more jugs at her feet. The blood of the city spills out onto the dusty ground.

A roar bursts from my mouth and resounds from the throats of my fighters. We are upon her in seconds. My pipe wrench weighs nothing in my hand.

Afterward, no one meets anyone else’s eyes. Someone rolls up the remains in a piece of oilcloth and drags it away. The others drift away, one by one or in pairs, leaving Grandla and I. All that is left of the poacher is a dark spot little different from the damp place beneath the newly repaired pipe.

I help Grandla gather up the poacher’s jugs. There’s something pink stuck to Grandla’s cheek, moist and fatty-looking. I brush it off and wipe my fingers on a dry patch of my jacket.

Her lips tighten. “It’s for the city, you know. What we do.”

“We keep the water. It’s what we do.”

She swipes her cheek with the back of her hand, then reaches for one of the filled water jugs. “We’d better get this back to the reservoir.”

The containers slosh and glug as we walk the long, dark path to the reservoir. We don’t speak again until we reach the barred doors of the reservoir entrance. Only Shaba has the keys, and she will join us soon: It’s a long walk from the Water Building’s basement to this corner of the city.

I have been on many Water Keeping missions, and Grandla was already a veteran when she and Shaba took me on my first, but no matter how many times you go out to protect the water, it never gets easy. I try not to remember the details of the woman’s pinched, pale face, the o of her mouth huge and dark when she saw us coming. There is always the chance I might remember her from the Request Counter, asking for a repair or an extra ration of water.

“Where’s Shaba?” Grandla drops the jugs on the ground. “She should be here by now.”

The water jugs give one last slosh as I set them down beside hers. I no longer carry anything, but I feel heavy. There is a rock in the pit of my stomach that weighs more than any water jug. Shaba has never taken this long to come to the reservoir.

“Where is Shaba?” Grandla asks again, and her voice echoes against the steel doors of the reservoir, the cold walls of the tunnel.

The investigators say it was an accident. That Shaba slipped on a wet stair hurrying from her office. No one will be punished, no blame assigned beyond the incrimination of a “wet stair.” As if any pipe could go unmonitored long enough to make a spot wet enough to slip upon. No Water Keeper would allow water to be wasted like that.

So Grandla and I have gone to the site. The pipe has been repaired, but Grandla points out the chipped paint, half-hidden in the curve between the pipe and the wall: the shape of a small wedge, cunningly applied. It had made a small crack, barely noticeable, and just large enough to wet the stair in the hour or two after the last Keeper’s round.

Someone clever must have made that crack, someone who knew Shaba would need to run down the little-used staircase connecting the Water Offices to the passage leading to the reservoir.

Grandla and I stand here studying the tiny mark in the porcelain. It is hard to make it out in the faint light. Light from the bulb at the top of the stairs barely reaches this point, and neither does light from the landing below. This particular step is the darkest point of the entire stairwell. Someone knew that.

Grandla reaches out to trace that terrible little mark. “Whoever did this knew the undercity.”

I can not bring myself to respond. All the moisture has gone out of my mouth, and my tongue, dry, clings to my hard palate. It takes years to know the undercity the way whoever had chosen this spot must know the underground.

“Who could do such a thing?” Grandla asked.

I can think of one person, but I refuse to imagine her doing it.

The bell on the counter rings. It’s been two days, but I can’t stop thinking about Shaba and what happened to her. Between patrons at the request counter, I have to lean against the wall and push down the feelings welling up inside.

The bell rings again. I force a deep breath, turn around, and fix my eyes on the plaque on the wall. I draw strength from the words: Clarity is purity.

I drop my eyes to the requestor. “How can I be of service?”

Councilor Rand smiles. Not a grudging smile, but a positive beam of happiness. He lays a sheet of paper on the counter and gives it a firm tap. “Just turning in my request.”

“Request?” My head spins. My stomach turns along with it.

His smile broadens. The tips of his canine teeth are unusually pointed. I hadn’t noticed that about him before. “It’s a personal request. I’m adding someone to my household.”

I pull the form toward me. It looks complete, with all the addresses and names in the right places. I touch a box and look up at him, sick inside. “Charice Fleming?”

“The plumber can read,” he sneered. “But can she also file? You’ll find my paperwork is quite in order.”

I can’t look at his face any longer. I glance over the forms, whose every box is checked and every line correct. “The Water Council meets to grant approvals tomorrow,” I manage to say.

“I think we should manage to address a few requests, despite our busy agenda. It’s a great weight on the Board, of course, Shaba’s loss. But we’ve got to look to the department’s future.”

The Council will vote for Shaba’s replacement tomorrow, then. I had wondered how long it would take them.

“Thank you, Councilor,” I say. He has turned away already. He doesn’t bother to reply.

The form looks up at me with its pale, flat face. Charice’s name stands out against the other words. I blink back a second wave of tears. I had spent so much time showing her around the undercity, carrying her tool box, sharing my lunches when she forgot. Had she been using me that whole time? Was that the only reason she put her hand on my knee and looked up at me with those beautifully sparkling eyes?

I throw open the filing cabinet and find the Fleming file. Five, ten, a dozen overages. Three ration token request forms, asking for extra water for visiting friends. So many friends using so much water. She’d clearly been just as popular aboveground as below.

I can’t breathe. I am so angry I slam shut the cabinet. If Shaba were here, she’d tell me to set Charice aside. She’d remind me that what mattered was Water Law and its clarity. That nothing mattered more than keeping the water.

Even thinking of Shaba’s wisdom doesn’t help. My stomach tightens around itself like fingers around the handle of a pipe wrench. Still, I file the request form in the appropriate basket. Procedure must be followed.

Water must be free.

The door to Shaba’s office is unlocked, but it takes me several long minutes to find the switch for the lamp on her desk. I have never seen this room dark before. Even before she’d been named Executive Water Keeper, Shaba could be found in here, reading old paperwork by the light of the battered desk lamp. Her predecessor had encouraged it, perhaps even depended upon it. Most everyone undercity had depended on her for something.

For the first time, I walk around to the desk chair and sit down. The cushion has flattened out in the center from years of her bulk pressing into it. I never thought about that, not in all the time watching her take a seat on that dusty thing. Why hadn’t I ever gotten her a replacement?

I cover my mouth with both hands. Pain rises up my throat like the tears that fill my eyes, a flood of pain, a torrent of longing. I blink it back. I don’t deserve to open that tap.

“I thought I’d find you here.” Grandla leans against the doorframe. Her brown face has grown ashy and dark patches float beneath her eyes. If Shaba’s death has been bad for me, it must have been many times worse for Grandla. They trained as Keepers together. They spent years living in the same hallway of the barracks, sharing meals in the mess hall and shifts in the office. Even Shaba’s promotion had failed to separate them.

“The council plans to vote on Shaba’s replacement tomorrow.”

Grandla follows the golden light to the desk and sits in the stiff wooden chair Shaba kept for visitors. “I know.” She closes her eyes for a moment. “A friend from Sanitation heard something today. The Ministry of Finance announced its intention to absorb the Water Department into its administration.”

I slap my hands against the desk top. “How? How can they do it? It goes against the city’s constitution.”

“They claim the city’s water is an asset, and that they are obligated to manage all such assets. They maintain the Water Department has reduced the value of water to absolute zero.”

“But water must be free. It’s a human right.”

She swallows. “There’s more.”

The beds of my nails go white as I press down against the worn wood of Shaba’s desk. “Of course there’s more.”

“Councilor Rand has already named a candidate for Executive Water Keeper.”

“Charice Fleming.”

Grandla nods. “She will support Finance’s decision.”

Shaba’s pen lays on the desktop. I squeeze the pen in my fingers. Its ancient plastic cap is prickly, the plastic surface smashed and battered by Shaba’s constant process of thought. I wish I could think half as clearly as Shaba did.

“Charice Fleming killed Shaba.” My eyes are dry and hot. “No one from Water would have done it. And Charice knew the undercity as well as any of us.”

“That’s the same conclusion I came to,” Grandla whispers. “And I hate it.”

“I hate her, Grandla. She knew us. She knew the undercity. How could she do this to us?”

“Even disbanded, water will still need plumbers.” Grandla attempts a smile, but it only makes her face look sicker than before. “At least Charice will keep us on for that work.”

I get to my feet. “We’re not plumbers, Grandla. We’re Water Keepers.”

Grandla stares up at me. “What are you thinking, Yalan? What are you going to do?”

I don’t answer her, but I give her shoulder a squeeze. The golden light of Shaba’s desk lamp pools around her small figure, and her shadow stretches long across the floor. My shadow stretches still farther, a long dark stain against the concrete.

I walk through the undercity in the dark. I don’t need my hand torch or a map. The water guides me, even though its murmur is quieter than I’ve ever heard it. I know that the city’s heartbeat slows in the later hours, but I never realized how quiet everything becomes. The pad of my bare feet against the concrete is the loudest sound in my ears.

At the end of the tunnel, I climb the ladder mounted on the wall. It follows the slender pipe running into a basement, and there’s an entry hatch beside it that allows a worker to check the overflow drain. Most people pay little attention to their basements, and Councilor Rand is no more observant than any other person.

The drain is narrow, but I am used to compact spaces. I slip my toolbox inside ahead of me and squeeze through the little hole in the floor. The basement smells musty and stale, like laundry long forgotten. My nose crinkles.

I leave the tool box, but I take what tools I need and put them in the pockets of my denim jacket. The pipe wrench, I pull tight against my body as I make my way upstairs. I do not dare risk it bumping anything and making noise. Like the pipes below me, I will be quiet.

It only takes me a few minutes to find my way to the bedroom, its big bed nearly as large as my entire room in the Keepers Barracks. Two shapes lay still in the center of the bed, two faces show in the faint light coming in through the window.

Tonight the councilor’s face is slack, his mouth open, his long eyelashes a fringe of darkness across his closed eyes. He hardly looks like himself.

Charice Fleming is curled around him like a spoon. Even though it’s night, I can still see the traces of her makeup, a little smudge beneath her eyes, a glimmer of glitter across her cheekbone. I can remember our one kiss, tender and a little sad as she said goodbye and walked out of the undercity.

If I walk out of this room, then at this time tomorrow, this woman will be my new boss. She will take over Shaba’s office and move all of it—the maps, the files, the ugly lamp—up into the bright dry world that is hers. I close my eyes for a second, imagining what would come next. How long would it take Finance to get rid of the ration credits and start issuing bills, just as they did with Electric? How long would it take for people to start missing their payments and then losing their water? I know ways for people to live without electricity, but water cannot be done without.

That’s why I am here, for those who would lose their water. Not for Shaba, who had been killed for this woman to secure the Water Department, and not for Grandla and the other Water Keepers. Not for me or the pain that still presses against the back of my eyes when I think about Shaba or the time I spent with the traitor who killed her.

I am here to safekeep the water.

I raise the pipe wrench. Charice stirs a little in her sleep, and my heart gives a squeeze, the same squeeze it gave every time I saw her when we worked down below. She is so beautiful. I can’t believe she left me for this man and the world aboveground.

The pipe wrench has never felt so light in my hand. I have to remind myself: This is for the water.

The screams begin as red spots dapple the wall like the pushpins in Shaba’s map. They don’t last long. I’ve been trained to do this quickly.

For the water. Of course.

___

Copyright 2017 Wendy N. Wagner

Wendy N. Wagner is a full-time nerd. She is the managing/associate editor Lightspeed and Nightmare magazines, and has published more than forty short stories about heroes, monsters, and other wacky stuff. Her third novel, a sci-fi thriller called An Oath of Dogs, was recently released by Angry Robot Books. She lives with her very understanding family in Portland, Oregon, and you can keep up with her exploits at winniewoohoo.com.

by Ian McHugh

  

Part One: To The End of the Earth

“Which way did my mother go?” Rhy-lee asked her father one day.

“North,” he said, and pointed without looking. Young as she was, she could see the small collapse that happened inside him when he heard the question, knowing that one day she, too, would leave him. ‘Distant heart’, her name meant. Her grandmother and aunts made sure that Rhy-lee and her father could hear when they said that her name was well chosen.

Rhy-lee loved her father. But even so, in her quiet moments, she took to climbing the ridge above the village, where she would sit with the warm red-and-white brush of her tail curled around her legs and just the inquisitive tip of her nose sticking out from the hood of her parka. She would look out from the top of the steep north face of the downs, over the forest and the bare plain beyond, all the way to the horizon.

Rhy-lee watched the plain change its colours, season by season, white to green to yellow to brown and back to white again. She wondered what her mother, that mysterious woman, had found out there, and whether she was wandering still.  Her mother’s name, Tiere-lene, meant ‘never turn’.

As she grew older, Rhy-lee began to set out on treks of her own. Some curiosity would catch her – a circling hawk, a distant crag that she had never climbed – or she would be taken by the simple urge to walk, and she would be off. For single days, at first, then for one night, then two. She knew her father fretted while she was gone, and that her grandmother and aunts would mutter among themselves where he could hear. But her wandering heart would not be stilled.

She tried to resist it, for a time, and become so miserable and ill that her father chased her out the door. When she returned, tired, filthy and elated by the things she had discovered, her father chucked her under the chin and said, “Come, tell me your stories by the fire.”

Once, she was away for three nights and returned with a bloody gash on her forehead that would certainly scar. In her hands, she carried a pair of antlers. She had been to the forest, she said, where she had been startled by a stag who accused her of coming to hunt his harem. She had tried to retreat but the stag had blood in his eye and insisted on a fight. She showed her father her knife, broken just above the hilt. The antlers she offered him as a gift, but when she saw his sick look and the tears in his eyes, she dropped them to the ground and hugged him fiercely.

“Soon, now,” said one of her aunts, where Rhy-lee and her father could hear, and the others nodded in sage agreement.

“Well enough that it happens before she marries and has a man and children to leave behind,” said her grandmother.

So they were dismayed when a young man of the village named Culm-mane, a homebody like her father, offered her his shawl and she accepted.

Her father refused any dowry. “You know what she is,” he said. He addressed himself to Culm-mane, but his eyes were on Rhy-lee. “She has her mother’s heart. Make best of the time you have with her, and live for what children she gives you.”

Rhy-lee and Culm-mane were married and, in due course, Rhy-lee gave birth to twin sons. Yfan-wyn and Aoin-rhys they were named, when they reached their second year – ‘secret path’ and ‘safe haven’ and, like Rhy-lee, their names reflected their natures. Yfan-wyn was an explorer from the moment he could wriggle out of his bassinet and squirm across the floor. Aoin-rhys was his father’s son and would watch from the bassinet, his nose tucked under the fluffy tip of his tail, while his brother went about his business.

Rhy-lee loved her husband and adored her sons. But still, she obeyed her wandering heart. Every so often, once her boys were weened, she would give it release for one night, or two, or three. But she always came back. She would touch her nose to Culm-mane’s and pick up her two boys and it was enough.

As he grew older, she began to take Yfan-wyn with her. He would come back, his eyes as bright as his mother’s, and regale his grandfather and father and brother with his adventures. Aoin-rhys preferred to stay at home with his father or, when Culm-mane was out tending the village flocks, with his grandfather.

And then Culm-mane was killed. He was out searching one night for a missing ewe and her lambs and found the animals being butchered by a company of wolves, one lamb already spitted over the fire. The wolves caught Culm-mane and tossed him over a cliff.

“Wolves,” Rhy-lee snarled. For a week, she stayed home and grieved with her boys. Then she went out. She took her bow and iron traps and hunting spear. She was gone for six nights.

When she returned, she had three wolf tails hanging from her belt. She would not speak to her sons of what she had done, just touched her nose to each of theirs and held them and, later, sang them to sleep with a cracked and weary voice. Afterward, sitting with her beside the fire, her father chucked her under the chin, which he hadn’t done since she was a child, and looked at her with serious eyes.

He held her while she wept. He did not comment – and growled at Rhy-lee’s grandmother and aunts for their comments – when Rhy-lee tanned the three wolf tails and sewed them onto her parka.

After that, Rhy-lee returned to sitting at the top of the ridge, gazing north. Yfan-wyn would sit with her, the two of them silent side-by-side, tucked up in their parkas and with their tails around their knees. And the urge grew in Rhy-lee – long delayed – to go, to walk and not stop and fill herself up with the world.

Aoin-rhys stayed home and sat on his grandfather’s lap by the fire. “Mother will leave soon, won’t she, Grandfather?” he said, one day. “And Yfan-wyn will want to go with her.”

“Yes,” said his grandfather.

“And I will stay here with you.”

His grandfather smiled with tears in his eyes. “I would like that.”

So, when the day came that Rhy-lee had to go, her father said to her, “Take Yfan-wyn. Aoin-rhys will stay with me.”

Rhy-lee started to shake her head. “It is dangerous, out in the world.”

“Then better if he wanders with you than being left to wander on his own,” said her father.

Rhy-lee recalled the nights she had lain awake as a child, camped out in the open and staring at the sky, trying to find some memory of her mother, wondering why she couldn’t have waited, just a little while, and taken Rhy-lee with her. She looked from one son to the other. Aoin-rhys hugged her hard, then Yfan-wyn took her hand.

When they were packed, Rhy-lee’s father chased her aunts and grandmother back into their houses, then he and Aoin-rhys accompanied her and Yfan-wyn to the top of the ridge.

“Thank you,” Rhy-lee said to her father, touching her nose to his.

He chucked her under the chin. “Come back one day,” he said.

Then Aoin-rhys and his grandfather watched while Rhy-lee and Yfan-wyn picked their way down the steep north face, stayed until they had splashed across the river and disappeared beneath the eaves of the forest.

And then they went home.

Yfan-wyn stuck close beside his mother as they went deeper into the forest. He was not so frightened, yet, but she had never before taken him beyond its fringes and he knew the story of the antlers above the mantel in his grandfather’s house.

Rhy-lee chose a path where the locked branches of the trees were most dense and so the undergrowth the sparsest. The leaves on the trees were brown and brittle. Many had fallen already, breaking up the canopy with patches of light. Underfoot, the moss that coated the rocks and the exposed roots of the trees was brown, too, and powder-dry.

At a creek crossing under open sky, pushing through thick bracken, they came face-to-face with a doe and her fawn. For an instant all of them froze. The doe and fawn looked at them with enormous, frightened eyes. Rhy-lee raised her hands, showing her empty palms. She caught Yfan-wyn’s arm and led him into the creek to splash across.

Yfan-wyn stumbled, staring at the deer, and Rhy-lee had to drag him upright. He took in the deer’s narrow faces and frail-looking arms with their short, black-hoofed fingers, the barrels of their bodies poised on spindle legs, tensed to spring and flee on all fours. He couldn’t make them fit with the frightening tale of the stag his mother had fought in her youth.

Then they were out of the creek again and the deer were lost behind the bracken screen.

At night they rested in the high boughs of a tree, where wolves couldn’t reach.

“The stalking cats won’t trouble us,” Rhy-lee said. Those beasts would take a deer, but avoided people who were eaters of meat.

“It feels strange to not be going home,” said Yfan-wyn, not quite willing to voice his fear.

“Yes,” Rhy-lee agreed. “It does.”

“It feels good,” he said, because it felt like that, too.

He saw the flash of her teeth and eyes. “Yes.”

He was quiet a moment, reassured by her smile. Then the magnitude of what they were about welled up again, so much greater than any of their past wanderings together. “How far do you think we will go?”

His mother looked past him, as though seeing past the trees and over the horizon. “Who knows?”

“I miss Grandfather and Aoin-rhys,” he said, softly.

“Yes. Me too.”

“I miss Father.”

“Yes.” The word was a rasp of air, with barely any sound.

Yfan-wyn hesitated, then confessed an idea that he had been nurturing since before his father died. “Perhaps we could find the end of the earth, so we can go back and tell them.”

She reached across to chuck him under the chin. “I think they would like that.”

When they came, at last, to the far side of the forest, Rhy-lee stopped and looked out over the vast brown plain, speckled with the first dusting of snow. She felt Yfan-wyn slip his hand into hers.

“It is a long way to the end of the earth,” he said.

“Yes. It is.”

Rhy-lee took in the distance to the horizon and filled her lungs. She felt bigger somehow, as though life in the village had kept her small, and now at last, out here, she had the room to grow.

They walked throughout the day. When Yfan-wyn began to lag, Rhy-lee slung her pack around to her front and carried him on her back. They shot hares for their dinner, and Yfan-wyn was very pleased to have shot his own, cleanly and on the first attempt. The animals’ fur was speckled white, their winter coats already growing through. Rhy-lee and Yfan-wyn camped in a little hollow that would hide the light of their fire from curious eyes.

In the morning, they awoke to find snow falling thickly. There was a rumble in the earth beneath them. They sat up and saw bison streaming past, a vast herd of them, jostling and lowing in their simple tongue, more than beasts but not-quite people. The steam of their breaths hung in a cloud over the creatures’ backs.

Another movement caught Rhy-lee’s eye. She gasped and grabbed at Yfan-wyn, but it was too late to duck out of sight. Stooping grey figures loped towards them – three in a staggered line, their lean bodies clad in rough furs, heavy hunting spears dangling from bony paws and round shields slung across their backs. Their yellow eyes were fixed on the bison herd. The closest wolf almost stepped on Rhy-lee and Yfan-wyn before it glanced down. Its eyes met Rhy-lee’s, the flat gaze of a predator, with no recognition of one person to another.

And then the wolf was leaping over their little hollow, accelerating.

A surge went through the herd, and the bison were running. The wolves yipped and whooped. A bison bawled in pain, crying out for help. Wolves closed in from all sides.

Rhy-lee clutched at Yfan-wyn’s parka. Her heart rattled. She lifted him, pushing. “Move,” she said. “Move!”

Quickly, they gathered up their packs and weapons.

“Don’t run,” said Rhy-lee, but she hurried him, nonetheless.

She didn’t let Yfan-wyn slow until the wolf pack and their kill were far behind, long lost in the veil of falling snow. They forded a river where it sprawled over shallow beds of rounded stones. Yfan-wyn slipped over and had to be pulled up spluttering from the water. On the far bank, Rhy-lee scooped out a hollow in the settling snow, and made a low mound of the stuff for a windbreak. Yfan-wyn sat and shivered while she lit a fire, his teeth chattering so hard Rhy-lee could hear them over the sound of the river. He stayed there, huddled in his parka and sheepskin blanket, with only his sodden tail visible, drying in the heat, while Rhy-lee went back to the ford with her spear and fished.

The land around the river was so flat that it seemed the banks hardly rose from the water at all. The horizon was lost from view, and the grey-white land and the grey-white river and the grey-white sky all blended together.

Rhy-lee stayed awake after darkness fell. During the night the snow stopped and the clouds rolled aside. She watched the stars wheel overhead. A few hours before dawn, she awoke Yfan-wyn to take his turn.

He yawned himself alert while she rolled up in her blankets and went to sleep. Yfan-wyn pushed back his hood, hoping that the cold around his head would keep him awake, and the better to listen. His ears twitched, searching for any sound over the chuckle of the river as it played with its stones. The land about was still.

In the morning, there was a blue sky and ice floes on the river. On the horizon to the north, they saw that the land rose and cracked.

Yfan-wyn took a turn at fishing, this time. There was a curious restfulness in it, standing tense beside his mother with the icy water rippling against their shins, spears poised to strike the instant any silver shape darted away from their shadows. His feet were numb with cold. All he could feel was a dull sensation of the rounded pebbles underneath.

Sitting down for a hot breakfast, he spoke the thought that had been turning in his head since the previous morning. “Mother, how did you kill three wolves?”

Rhy-lee didn’t answer immediately, but sat and looked out to the horizon. At length, she said, “Let us not waste a good day.”

When they reached the cracked upland, late in the morning, and climbed its slope, they saw that they would not be able to make their way along the top. It was so broken apart by the criss-cross of cracks and ravines that there was no way across.

“Through the ravines, then,” said Rhy-lee. Before they descended, she looked back over the plain. There was a herd moving along the river in the distance, of bison or caribou, dark against the snow. Closer at hand, white herons waded in the shallow water, fishing with their beaks. She saw no other movement.

It was slow going through the ravines and tiring. Sometimes, when they seemed to be turning too far from their course or came to a dead end, they scrambled up the crumbled, heath-covered sides and along the top to a crack that better met their needs. Occasionally, one or other of them had to climb up just to get their bearings, then back down into the deepening shadows below. At nightfall, they camped on a stub of ridge top that was sheer on three sides. Rhy-lee took first watch with an arrow nocked loosely to her bow.

Yfan-wyn was woken by grey pre-dawn light. His mother still sat watch. She looked at him with red-rimmed eyes.

“What is it?” he asked.

“We have been followed,” she said.

Yfan-wyn felt a chill of fear. “By the wolves?”

“One wolf,” she said. “Alone and therefore sick or mad. Probably driven out by the pack we saw. It would have crossed our trail while it was still following them.”

“What will we do?”

“We shall have to kill it,” she answered. “Today. We will find a place to ambush it.” She reached over to squeeze his hand.

Yfan-wyn followed her through the ravines with his ears pointed backward, straining for any sound of steps behind. He looked back frequently, dreading what he might see. Whenever he turned his attention to the placement of his feet, the fur stood up along his spine. When, inevitably, he stumbled, Rhy-lee picked him up by his parka and set him in front of her.

“I will keep watch behind,” she said.

She called a halt not long afterwards. They were in an unusually long, straight stretch of ravine. “Here,” Rhy-lee said. She pointed up to the ridge top ahead, where the ravine bent to the right. A clump of snow-capped boulders perched on the rim. “I will hide there and shoot when it comes past here. You,” she said, turning to look up the scree beside them, “hide up there. Once you hear me shoot it, jump up and shoot it from behind if you can and I haven’t killed it cleanly.”

Yfan-wyn chewed anxiously at his lower lip, his tail curled up behind his legs. “I want to stay with you.”

She shook her head. “You’ll be safer this way. It might have a shield. If I don’t hit it cleanly and it comes at me, I don’t want you close.” She knelt in front of him and held his shoulders. “And if you’re behind it, you can shoot it if it charges me.”

He swallowed, then nodded, wide-eyed.

They went past the bend in the ravine to climb up, so that the wolf wouldn’t see where they had ascended. Rhy-lee lay her spear beside her feet and stood with her bow ready at the place she had chosen. She watched Yfan-wyn scamper along and throw himself flat where she had told him to hide. He looked so tiny, carrying his bow and cut-down spear. He was tiny, she thought.

She squatted down behind the boulders and stilled herself, bow across her knees. She listened.

For a time, she heard only the wind, humming softly along the cracks in the broken landscape. Then a clink, a scrape of grit over stone. A low cough, half caught words – the wolf, muttering to itself. Mad, she thought.

Then silence.

Rhy-lee strained her ears. Nothing.

There was a clatter of falling rocks, a loud growl, a scream from Yfan-wyn. Rhy-lee leapt to her feet, raising and drawing her bow in the same motion.

Yfan-wyn sprinted towards her along the ridge top, his weapons abandoned. The wolf bounded after, gaining quickly despite a lopsided gait. Rhy-lee glimpsed ragged clothes and patchy fur. It was armed with a stone-headed axe, but no shield or other weapons.

“Get down!” Rhy-lee cried.

Yfan-wyn was too panicked to hear. The wolf ducked lower. With a curse, Rhy-lee dropped her bow and grabbed her spear. She charged. Now Yfan-wyn threw himself down in the snow. Rhy-lee vaulted over him. The wolf snarled, showing rotted teeth. Its skin was covered in scaly growths where it was bald. One eye was grown shut and tears of pus streaked its cheek.

She ducked under a wild swing of the wolf’s axe and stabbed at its belly. The wolf batted the spear upwards with its free hand. Rhy-lee’s momentum sent her crashing into its legs. She pivoted, using its own weight to fling it to the ground.

Yfan-wyn scrambled to get clear. The wolf’s axe flailed and he squealed. Rhy-lee didn’t see where it struck him.

Rhy-lee stabbed at the wolf’s chest but it moved at the last instant and she missed its heart. The wolf mewled like a hurt child. Again Rhy-lee thrust the spear and again the wolf moved and cried out. Rhy-lee screamed in anguish and struck once more. This time she struck true.

The wolf gripped the shaft of the spear, holding its head and shoulders clear of the snow. Its tongue flickered between its teeth. Its last breath rattled out in a fitful cloud of vapour. The wolf spat blood.

Its head fell back and it lay still.

Rhy-lee sank slowly down onto her haunches. The aftermath of the struggle, with her blood still hot, made her shake.

She wiped her face and looked up. Yfan-wyn sat a short distance away, regarding her with unblinking eyes. Blood seeped between his fingers, clamped around his calf, and speckled the snow beside his foot. His lips were pale, peeled back from his teeth.

“Yfan-wyn!”

She rushed over to him, hugged him, gently pulled aside his hands to see the wound. The axe had caught him above the top of his sheepskin boot. She pulled up his trouser leg to reveal a gash just below his knee. The sparse fur of his leg was matted with blood.

Rhy-lee made herself take a slower breath. “Let’s wash it and see how deep it is,” she said.

She hurried over to her pack for her water bottle and medicine kit. Kneeling again beside Yfan-wyn, she carefully slid off his boot, then splashed water over the cut. She peered anxiously into it. The gash was wide, but not deep.

“It’ll bruise around the joint,” she said. “You won’t be able to bend it or stand on it tomorrow.”

Yfan-wyn didn’t respond. His gaze was fixed on the dead wolf. It was good for him to know what killing was like, she told herself, the awfulness of it. But still, his shock was distressing. Rhy-lee tried not to think about how badly things had almost gone.

“This will hurt.” She unrolled a parcel of lime from inside the medicine kit and pressed a handful onto the wound. Yfan-wyn gasped. Rhy-lee quickly rinsed her hand, then bandaged his shin.

“The body will draw attention,” she said. “We need to be away.”

Yfan-wyn got himself back down into the ravine, then Rhy-lee carried him as far as she was able. They camped early and watched the crows descend in the distance. Their gathering would be visible for miles around.

“We can go home, back to Grandfather and Aoin-rhys, if you wish,” she said.

Yfan-wyn shook his head. “We haven’t found the end of the earth yet.”

Rhy-lee found a laugh in that, just a breath. She sobered. “I was afraid, when I saw the wolf chasing you.”

“Do you want to go home, Mother?” he asked.

Part of her did, the small part that feared the cost of her wandering, feared losing Yfan-wyn, never seeing her father or Aoin-rhys again. The greater part of her answered. “No.” Hearing herself say it made her more certain. “No. We will find the end.”

She let Yfan-wyn take his turn at watch, once he had rested, and fell into an exhausted sleep.

As Rhy-lee had predicted, Yfan-wyn’s leg had stiffened and swollen by morning and would not take his weight. Again, she carried him. She was thankful when, before noon, they reached the end of the cracked country and climbed up to find themselves on a plateau. This land was not so flat as the river floodplain they had left behind, but contoured instead with hummocks and hollows and low folded ridges, dotted with boulders large and small, left behind by the ice of ages past. Low heath bushes grew wherever the landscape offered the tiniest shelter.

The snow was deeper on the open ground, though, and soft with a new fall overnight. Rhy-lee was unable to carry Yfan-wyn far.

She found a cleft at the bottom of a ridge, partly hidden by a screen of heath and deep enough to shelter them from the wind and any casual gaze. “We’ll rest,” she said, “and see how your leg is tomorrow.”

“I can walk,” said Yfan-wyn – and indeed he could put his weight on it and hobble about.

Rhy-lee chucked him under the chin and said, “You will walk better tomorrow or the next day. There will be rabbits hereabouts, probably not all hibernating yet. I’ll set some snares.”

Once that was done, she opened the dressing on Yfan-wyn’s leg and checked the wound, then they took turns to nap through the afternoon. In the evening, she went out to check her snares and came back with a pair of rabbits, which she gutted and skinned. Yfan-wyn had set a fire, but Rhy-lee waited until full dark before lighting it. They sat close to watch the rabbits char, their noses dry in the heat of the flames and the fur of their tails hot to the touch, wrapped around their feet.

A soft sound, a clink of two hollow things bumping, made Rhy-lee’s ears twitch. She listened. When it came again she reached for her spear.

A massive silhouette rose up above the edge of the cleft. Rhy-lee froze. Bear.

A gust of wind brought its scent down to them, a pungent aroma of maleness and carnivore. Yfan-wyn gasped, only now noticing the arrival. Rhy-lee put her hand on his forearm to hold him still.

The bear stepped into the light. Rhy-lee’s gaze travelled up from his black claws, hanging over the edge of the cleft, each one as long as her hand. The bear’s limbs and torso were covered in a pelt of yellow-white fur that her spear and arrows would probably not even penetrate. He wore an apron made of the long bones of old prey and vanquished enemies, bound together with leather thong and decorated with feathers, claws and teeth. A girdle of wolf scalps bound the apron at his waist. He leaned on an iron-headed spear that Rhy-lee and Yfan-wyn would have struggled to even lift between them. Black eyes peered down at them from a startlingly narrow head.

Slowly, Rhy-lee stood. She picked up the spitted rabbits and held one up to the bear. She forced herself to meet his gaze. “Please, won’t you share our meal?”

Blood pounded in her ears. She waited for the bear’s response. Then he made a rumble deep in his throat – an approving sound, Rhy-lee thought – and stepped carefully down into the cleft. Just as carefully, he lowered himself to his haunches. The rattle of his bone apron put Rhy-lee’s hackles up. Their little fire looked tiny between his enormous feet, a spark. This close, he seemed to block out the stars.

He reached out and took the rabbit, so delicately that Rhy-lee barely felt the brush of fingers large enough to crush her head. “Thank you,” he said. The deep growl of his voice put her in mind of waterfalls in the canyons of the highlands.

Rhy-lee resumed her seat. She offered the remaining rabbit to Yfan-wyn. He didn’t move. The whites were visible around his eyes, his fur standing up all over. She took the rabbit off the spit and snapped its spine, then lifted Yfan-wyn’s hand and closed his fingers around the hind portion. He blinked, looking down in surprise.

The bear observed in silence. His rabbit dangled, untouched, from his finger and thumb, his acceptance of their hospitality not yet consummated. It was a morsel for him, barely a mouthful.

“You are far from home, little foxes,” he said.

“Yes,” said Rhy-lee.

“You have wandering hearts, as I have heard your people say. I have seen others such as you, over the years.” He lifted his chin to scratch his throat, seeming to be musing more to himself than them. “It is a curious affliction for a people who thrive when closed behind walls of stone.”

Thoughts of her mother boiled up. Rhy-lee wondered if this bear had ever met her. Might he have killed her, if he had? The bear noticed Rhy-lee’s reaction. She said, “My mother came this way, when I was a child.”

“And you seek her still.”

Rhy-lee shook her head at that, but inside, she could not be certain that it wasn’t true.

“I found your wolf,” said the bear. “That was well done. A mad wolf is a threat to young bears, who are wont to stray.”

Rhy-lee inclined her head but kept her eyes on him. The bear’s smell was overpowering. He examined his rabbit, but still did not eat.

“You have killed wolves before, I see,” he said.

“Wolves murdered my husband,” she replied.

“Ah.” He regarded her a moment, then added, “Yet you did not take the tail from this one.”

Rhy-lee said, “This was necessity. A mercy, even.”

“Rather than passion,” the bear said. He tipped his head to one side and his top lip curled up, a quizzical smile. His teeth were thicker than Rhy-lee’s fingers, and as long. “Mercy for wolves?” He harrumphed, then chuckled. As he dipped his head, she saw the scars that crisscrossed his muzzle and brow.

The bear sniffed, looking at Yfan-wyn. “Your son?”

Rhy-lee’s heart lurched. “Yes.”

The bear nodded slowly. “I have a son. He is grown, now, and left his mother.”

“I have two sons,” said Rhy-lee. “The other stayed home with his grandfather.”

“Ah,” said the bear, returning his gaze to her. “He has not your wandering heart.”

“No. Only Yfan-wyn.”

“‘Yfan-wyn’?” the bear repeated. He addressed Yfan-wyn again, “It is a good name. I am Inanakurekuri – ‘the death of all wolves’. Where does your secret path take you, little fox, if not in search of your lost grandmother?”

Yfan-wyn stared up at the gigantic being, his lips peeled back in terror. Rhy-lee answered for him, “Yfan-wyn wishes to see the end of the earth.”

“Aha!” The bear slapped his knee, making them both jump. He smiled broadly, a terrifying sight. “It is a fine ambition. A pilgrimage well worth the journey.”

Wonder made Yfan-wyn’s eyes even more huge. He forgot his fear long enough to gasp, “You have been there?”

He shrank back as Inanakurekuri’s gaze turned back to him. “I have.”

“Is it far?” asked Rhy-lee.

“Further than you have come, I expect. But not so very far,” Inanakurekuri said. He shrugged. “Further for little legs.”

Rhy-lee met his eyes in silence for a moment and felt no sense of threat. “I am Rhy-lee,” she said.

Inanakurekuri nodded. “Thank you, Rhy-lee of the wandering heart, for the hospitality of your fire.” He lifted his rabbit, peered at it briefly, then stuck the whole carcass in his mouth, holding it behind his teeth while he pulled out the skewer. He chewed three, four times, then swallowed. “I will rest.”

With that, he lay down his spear and shuffled around to lie with his back to them, filling half the cleft. Rhy-lee and Yfan-wyn sat still, listening to his deep, steady breathing. With excruciating slowness, Rhy-lee turned to Yfan-wyn. She carefully slipped the sheepskin blanket from his shoulders, then rolled it and placed it in his arms. Then she reached behind him and picked up his pack. She held the straps for him to slip his arms into and handed him his bow and spear. She picked up her own gear and, moving as silently as they could, they padded out of the cleft.

They hurried across the moonlit plateau, Yfan-wyn skip-hopping on his injured leg to keep up.

“Was he really asleep, Mother?” he asked.

“No,” said Rhy-lee. “No, he wasn’t.”

“Why did he pretend?”

“For his honour. Because he had decided not to kill us.”

They saw bears twice more over the following days, but only at a great distance. Each time, they slunk low and hurried on their way. Winter’s march reversed, briefly, as the skies stayed clear and the sun offered a last burst of summer warmth. Some of the snow melted, and everywhere there were tinkling rivulets of water, that pooled in the lower ground. Rabbits and other small creatures were out to nibble up the exposed grasses and heath, their coats caught between summer brown and winter white. Geese flew over in formations that spanned the sky. Rhy-lee and Yfan-wyn stopped to watch, shading their eyes with their hands.

They hiked for short days while Yfan-wyn’s leg healed, starting late and camping in the afternoon, until he said, one day, “I can keep going,” when Rhy-lee made to stop.

She surveyed the land ahead. A line of hills, steep but low, marched across in front of the horizon. Rhy-lee pointed to a gap between two hills. “Can you get that far?”

Yfan-wyn eyed the distance doubtfully but nodded. “I think so.”

As it turned out, his leg began to ache before they reached the hills, and his pace slowed. He was determined, though, and Rhy-lee let him go on, even though it meant that it was nearly dark when they reached their goal.

Yfan-wyn’s leg was stiff again when he woke the next day. His mother smiled at him and chucked him under the chin. “A short day’s walk, today,” she said.

He grinned, feeling sheepish, but still pleased by yesterday’s effort. She gave him a little while to hobble around the campsite and loosen up before they set out.

The valley curved gently to the west at first, then doglegged back to the east. The hills were wider across than they had looked from the south. The hills of the valley grew steeper, smooth and nearly vertical.

“This is a made place,” said Rhy-lee, softly.

Yfan-wyn’s hackles stood straight up. “Made?”

She nodded. “Let us see.”

Her ears were up, showing no sign of fear. Yfan-wyn’s wanted to lie flat against his head. His mother did not slow, though, and he scurried after.

Another turn pointed the valley almost directly northward. Here, it widened out, and here Rhy-lee and Yfan-wyn stopped.

Wooden posts flanked the path – whole tree trunks stripped of leaves and branches but otherwise uncarved. More posts surrounded both sides of the space. On top of each post had been placed a skull. Yfan-wyn moved closer to his mother.

“Hunters,” she said.

Alarmed, he turned to see. “Where?”

“The skulls,” she said. “Look – wolves, panthers.” She pointed up at one of the posts nearest to them. The skull on top of it was broad and heavy. “That is a bear.”

Yfan-wyn looked up at the other near post. “What about that one?”

It was a similar shape to the panther skulls, but much bigger and with bizarrely oversized fangs, like scythe blades.

“A sabre-toothed lion!” his mother exclaimed.

“I thought they were only in stories,” said Yfan-wyn.

“So did I,” said Rhy-lee. “It has been here a long time.”

All of the skulls had the decayed, crumbling look of bones that had been out in the weather for many years.

Yfan-wyn took a step away from her and looked around with renewed wonder. “What place is this? What could defeat all of these hunters?” He thought of Inanakurekuri and the others like him that they had glimpsed. It seemed to him that a white bear should defeat any person or creature in the world.

“I think I know,” said Rhy-lee.

She strode past him. The ground inside the ring of posts was filled with low hillocks, covered in heath and moss. Yfan-wyn thought he spied pale rocks peeking through the plant cover. No… Not rocks.

Dry wood?

His mother reached the closest hillock and, with a heave, pulled aside the heather branches. The object was covered in moss and so large – longer than his mother was tall – that it took a moment for Yfan-wyn to realise that it was another skull. Long tusks descended from its jaw, their points buried in the earth. Rhy-lee pulled aside more heath, revealing a rib cage the size of a shepherd’s hut.

“A mammoth,” Yfan-wyn breathed.

His mother nodded. They looked around. The other hillocks – all of the hillocks – were really enormous, overgrown skeletons.

“It is a graveyard,” said Rhy-lee.

Yfan-wyn stared at the monstrous skull in front of him. He tried to imagine what these greatest of all people had been like when they were alive. Even one as fearsome as Inanakurekuri would have had to yield to these. He felt a sudden thrill of fear.

“Mother, we should go. Before any mammoths come.”

Rhy-lee shook her head. “There have been no living mammoths here for generations. This is an old place, long forgotten.”

It was true. The decayed skulls on the posts and the overgrown skeletons said as much. He could feel, too, the weight of time and long years of stillness.

“But you are right, we should go,” Rhy-lee said, after a while. “This is no place for the likes of us.”

Quietly, they picked their way across to the other side of the graveyard, where the valley opened out once more onto the surrounding plateau.

Rhy-lee paused to look back. She put her hand on Yfan-wyn’s shoulder. “Now that was a rare thing,” she said.

It felt wrong, somehow, to just scurry away from the place. After a moment’s thought, she took an arrow from her quiver and went back to lie it at the foot of the nearest guardian post. Yfan-wyn followed her, uncertainly, and laid a second arrow across hers.

She reached out to scratch him behind the ear.

“Are there any mammoths, anymore?” he asked.

“Not in this part of the world.” Might there be somewhere else? Now that would be a wonder. “Perhaps in the east,” she said, “where the land stretches on. Perhaps there might be some there.”

“Perhaps we will go there one day.”

She looked down at him with a smile. “Perhaps.”

By the end of the day, the plateau had started to rise. It continued to slope steadily as they continued in the morning. The sky grew leaden again, clouds heavy with snow. As they neared the crest, Yfan-wyn saw that the rise broke off along a ragged edge. Beyond, he could see a white horizon, a perfectly even, barely perceptible curve. His ears caught a sound, and he saw from their twitching that his mother’s did too, a low rumble, a crashing and hissing that rose and fell but never stopped. He caught a scent – salty, but more than that.

And then, suddenly, they were at the edge. Below, water smashed and boiled over the feet of black cliffs. A few crags and broken spits of rock scattered out from the cliffs but, beyond them, there was no more land, only chill grey water and floating ice.

“The end of the earth!” Yfan-wyn breathed.

He filled his lungs with the heady smell. The wind tugged at his parka, snuck underneath to lift it from his shoulders and fill it with cold air. Beside him, his mother laughed aloud. Behind them, to either side, lay all the earth that was theirs to walk.

“The sea,” said his mother. “It is the sea!”

Movement in the water caught Yfan-wyn’s eye. Tall black fins broke the surface, piebald backs curved out of the water and under again. A blunt snout broke the surface, jaws agape to show pointed white teeth.

“What are they?”

“Hunters,” said Rhy-lee. “What their name is, I do not know.”

Yfan-wyn took a big, shuddering breath. “What will we do now?”

“Now?” She smiled. “Now we will wait for the clouds to lift and darkness to fall. Then we shall see.”

They lit a fire, back a way from the lip of the cliff and somewhat out of the wind, and huddled up together to wait. Yfan-wyn dozed on Rhy-lee’s shoulder while she chewed mutton jerky.

It snowed, briefly. Then, just on sunset, cracks appeared in the grey blanket to show a pink and mauve sky. Rhy-lee watched the sun touch the horizon, turning orange, then red, before sinking below. She glanced at the sky behind her, then nudged Yfan-wyn awake.

“Now,” she said and turned him around.

Yfan-wyn gasped.

Curtains of light rippled across the northern sky. Ghostly, dancing, never still.

“What is it?” he asked.

“It is the souls of the dead,” said a deep voice, “dancing before they are reborn into the world.”

They turned. Inanakurekuri approached, leaning on his spear to climb the last stretch of slope. This time, Rhy-lee felt no fear.

“You forgot your snares,” he said, laying a handful of rabbit corpses by Rhy-lee’s knee. He sat.

“Thank you.” She turned her gaze back to the sky. “My people say it is the birth light of the world.”

Inanakurekuri rumbled deep in his chest. “It is that, as well.”

“You followed us,” said Yfan-wyn, peeping around Rhy-lee.

The bear smiled at him. “I did. I found I had a notion to see it again, too.” He was quiet for a time, then said, “I am not one who finds sport in hunting little folk. Some do. Wolves I hunt, for necessity and satisfaction, both.” Another pause. Rhy-lee looked up at him, sitting as still as a mountain, his eyes on the lights in the sky. His black tongue came out and he licked his teeth.

“Years ago, I was badly injured and starving, unable to hunt or even gather herbs to clean my wounds. A fox found me. By then I was mad with pain.” He touched a ragged scar on the side of his belly. “This wound had turned sour, and the sickness was in my blood. In my fever, I tried to drive her away. Or kill and eat her, I do not know.

“Rather than leave me to my fate, she brought me food, herbs to cure my sickness and lime to clean and seal my cuts. When I had the strength, again, to walk, I followed her to her campsite, but when I reached it she was gone and had covered her scent. She left me a last gift of salmon, caught from the river. I left a token in exchange. When I came back, it too was gone.”

He held out something to Rhy-lee. The half-jawbone of a wolf, she saw, its teeth still attached. Angular letters were etched into its surface. “It is the Word of Inanakurekuri,” he said. “While you carry it, no bear will harm you. Most wolves will think again. Perhaps you will find another wanderer who carries my Word. I cannot say that she will be your mother, but she will be a kindred heart.”

Rhy-lee felt her ears tremble. It was known that, on a rare occasion, a white bear might carve their name as an honour gift, a mark of respect when a fine deed had been done. But what had she done?

Her tail curled as she asked, “Why?”

Inanakurekuri shrugged a huge shoulder, as if not quite certain himself. “Because I like the thought of a fox who hunts wolves,” he said. Another shrug became a shake of his shoulders and head and he added, “Because my heart, too, is often distant. It would please me, if your quest was successful.”

Rhy-lee felt tears come, unexpected. A great balloon of a sob rose up from the pit of her belly, squeezing her heart on its way through her chest and bursting out between her teeth. Another followed and a third. Yfan-wyn held onto her hand with both of his.

Inanakurekuri looked at the sky. “The birth light of the world,” he said.

Yfan-wyn touched the carved jawbone. “Will we go home?”

Rhy-lee felt it, too – a longing for her father’s reassuring stillness, for Aoin-rhys’s comfortable warmth in her arms. “Yes,” she said. She wiped her eyes. A slow smile tugged the corners of her mouth. “Yes. But we will go the longer way.”

Part Two: The Long Way Home

The bull elk stood over them, hoofed fingers planted on either side. He bent his head to peer at the half-jawbone, etched with sharp-angled letters, that Rhy-lee held up for him to see. Rhy-lee’s heart battered the inside of her ribs. Antlers as wide as tree branches fenced her and Yfan-wyn in. One swipe would be enough to kill both of them.

The elk snorted. “The Word of a white bear,” he said. “Though this elk does not read such marks. This elk has little time for bears.” He growled deep in his throat and lifted his head to bellow, “Bears kill young elks!”

Rhy-lee flinched as he shook his antlers. Yfan-wyn squirmed underneath her. He had tripped when the elk charged suddenly out of the river – having watched them, seemingly unruffled, for several minutes while they filled their flasks. What had triggered the elk’s sudden change of mood, Rhy-lee had no idea. Hearing Yfan-wyn’s cry, she had turned and flung herself over her son just as the elk reached the shore.

“It is the Word of Inanakurekuri,” said Rhy-lee.

“‘The death of all wolves’”, said the elk. “This elk knows of that name.” He harrumphed and withdrew a short way. Cautiously, Rhy-lee got her feet under her and stood.

“It is a good thing to kill wolves,” the elk mused.

The gigantic head lunged back towards Rhy-lee. She yelped and fell over Yfan-wyn. “This elk sees that this fox, too, is the death of wolves,” said the elk, nudging his nose at the wolf tails sewed to Rhy-lee’s parka. He withdrew once more. “This is unusual for a fox, who this elk knows is littler than a wolf.”

The elk shook his head again and grimaced, as though trying to dislodge a stuck thought.

“Mother…” Yfan-wyn gasped.

Rhy-lee hissed at him to be quiet.

“A bear kills elk. Wolves kill elk,” the elk said. His voice rose with each sentence. “A bear kills wolves! A fox kills wolves!” He punched the pebbled beach. “A fox is a friend to bears! A fox–”

Rhy-lee cut him off, “You said you knew the name of Inanakurekuri.”

“Hmm?” The elk blinked at her. “Yes. This elk has seen the Word of this bear before. Or at least,” he frowned, “this elk recalls that was what the fox said who carried the bear’s Word.” He looked hard at Rhy-lee. “Perhaps this fox was that fox.” He nodded to himself. “Yes, that must be the case, for bears do not give their Words freely, this elk knows.”

“No,” said Rhy-lee, getting her feet under her again. “That wasn’t me–”

“This fox was that fox,” the elk declared. He turned and splashed back into the river. “Though this fox had no youngling with it when it was that fox.”

“Which way did she–” Rhy-lee began, then stopped. Her mouth worked silently while she reframed her question. “Which way did this fox go, when it was that fox?”

The elk dipped his muzzle into the water and snorted, making bubbles. He lifted his head again and answered, “East. And now this fox has returned from the west. This fox is going in circles.” The elk chuckled to himself. “Perhaps this fox is not so clever.”

Rhy-lee stared at him for a moment, then stooped to haul Yfan-wyn up by his collar. She hurried him across the pebble beach to the edge of the trees.

“Mother,” he exclaimed. “He’s seen her!”

“We don’t know that it’s your grandmother,” she replied, gruffly. “Inanakurekuri didn’t promise us that. And we don’t know how long ago.”

She was not inclined to press her luck by asking the elk any further questions. But still, her mind burned with the same need to know that she saw lighting Yfan-wyn’s face. Need, but also fear. What if it was her mother? Did she really want to meet that woman who had left her behind so long ago? Who had not thought to wait for her, as Rhy-lee had waited for Yfan-wyn, before she let her wandering heart take her.

“East takes us towards home,” Yfan-wyn said.

Home, Rhy-lee thought, where she had left Aoin-Rhys with her father. Aoin-rhys, who did not share her wandering heart as Yfan-wyn did, preferring the sameness and solidity of stone walls around him, like his grandfather. Like his father, Culm-mane, had done, she thought with a pang.

“Mother?”

She nodded, dragging herself back to the present, and chucked him under the chin. “We will go east,” she said. “Perhaps we will build ourselves a raft and make our journey easier for a while.”

She was pleased to see him smile at that. Yfan-wyn fidgeted with his parka. His wrists stuck out further from the sleeves than they had done when they set out from home. “You have grown,” she said.

Building the raft took most of the rest of the day and when it was done it was a rough and rickety looking thing. But it took their weight well enough to keep them dry. Rhy-lee cut long poles to push them along the shallows and fashioned rough paddles of bound twigs for when they reached the deeper water. They poled down to where the forest river emerged from the trees and camped there under the leafless eaves, looking out over the still-white plain. The forest river meandered out to join the greater watercourse that looped across the plain, both rivers fat and smooth with the first snowmelt of spring and reflecting the darkening blue of the sky.

A breeze had come up by morning, that wrinkled the water and sent bits of cloud scudding overhead. Rhy-lee and Yfan-wyn poled the raft out onto the great river. Rhy-lee could feel the strength of the flow underneath, but the current was not fast. She unwrapped the fish they had smoked a couple of days before and they ate that for breakfast as they drifted along.

Around noon, Yfan-wyn stood up and pointed at a triangular ripple that was spearing across the current towards them. “What’s that?”

Something swimming, Rhy-lee thought, but not a fish. The river had curved away from the forest and the country was too open for beavers. Her fingers had just closed around the haft of her spear when a blunt, brown furred head popped up at the side of the raft. Stout fingers caught hold of the logs. Long whiskers and small, round ears twitched. Black eyes fell on the spear in Rhy-lee’s grasp.

“Foxes on a raft,” said the creature, with a little chuckle. “I am alone. May I share your perch a while?”

Keeping her eyes on it, Rhy-lee nodded. “You may.”

The creature laughed and pulled itself up from the water, revealing a long, sleek body and short, thick limbs and tail. It – he – wore shorts made of some hairless animal hide and had a heavy wooden club slung from a thong around his neck. Other weapons were strapped to his thighs. An otter, Rhy-lee realized, but far larger than any she had ever heard of, almost wolf-sized in his length of body and breadth of chest. She wondered if allowing him aboard might have been a mistake.

“Where are you from, friend otter?” she asked, trying to keep her tone light.

The otter grinned, showing sharp, black-stained fangs. “From the sea.” He took an oilskin parcel from his pocket and unwrapped it to reveal dark-coloured leaves. The otter squeezed some together and stuck them into the corner of his mouth to chew. “And what of you, little fox?”

“We are wanderers,” said Rhy-lee. “Returning home.”

The otter’s interest sharpened. “Oh? And where is home?”

“The downs,” said Rhy-lee. With the sudden intensity of his stare, she felt oddly uncomfortable to share even that much.

He stretched himself up to peer that way, to the ridge of bare hills in the distance beyond the forest. “Ah,” he said. “A pity.”

Rhy-lee frowned, wondering what he meant. Out of the corner of her eye she could see that Yfan-wyn’s ears were flat to his head.

The otter shivered suddenly, but not from cold, Rhy-lee thought. “But east,” he said. “You are headed east, where the river wills?”

Rhy-lee shrugged warily. “For now.”

The otter nodded back, seeming pleased by that. He leaned forward to hawk a black gob of spit into the river.

Rhy-lee chewed her lip, considering, then reached into her parka and brought out the etched half-jawbone. The otter’s eyes glittered, watching.

“It is the Word of Inanakurekuri,” she said.

The otter scratched his throat. “Is that your god, little fox?”

“God?” Rhy-lee repeated, confused.

He chuckled. “I do not know this Word. It looks like a wolf’s jaw to me.” With a sharp bark of amusement, he slipped back off the side of the raft, making it wobble. The otter clung to the side a moment longer. “Go east, little foxes. Let the river take you and you will find the sea.”

Then he was gone.

Rhy-lee watched the ripples of his passage speed ahead of them downriver. She suppressed a sigh of disappointment and looked at Yfan-wyn.

“He was very strange,” said Yfan-wyn. “I didn’t like him.”

“Mm,” said Rhy-lee. She showed him a lopsided smile. “It seems it is a day for strange meetings.”

They had no more unusual encounters on the water, although they passed by wading herons and a herd of caribou, paused to drink at the water’s edge. The caribou eyed them with dumb incuriosity, having not even an elk’s simple intelligence. The river curled back towards the forest and, by evening, they were close enough to the trees that Rhy-lee decided to pull the raft ashore and make their beds up in the branches.

They had just dragged the raft up out of the shallows and onto a stretch of sloping bank when the wind shifted for a moment. Rhy-lee whirled to see tall, grey-furred figures stalking out of the trees.

“Wolves!” cried Yfan-wyn.

It was too late to flee. Rhy-lee reached slowly into her parka and brought out the Word of Inanakurekuri. The wolves fanned out, a dozen of them including two old grandmothers with white in their fur and a trio of half-grown cubs. They wore vests and kilts of roughly tanned hide, sewn together with gut, and carried spears and round hide shields. At their belts were stone axes and looped leather slings.

One she-wolf strode forward ahead of the rest. Rhy-lee’s hackles went up when she saw that this one’s vest was made of fox skin. In her hand, the she-wolf carried a rusted iron axe.

The she-wolf circled them. Rhy-lee turned with her, keeping her back to Yfan-wyn’s.

“I see you are a wolf-killer,” said the she-wolf.

“And you a fox-killer,” replied Rhy-lee. She was amazed that her voice was steady.

Several of the wolves growled. The she-wolf sneered.

Rhy-lee held up the etched jawbone. “It is the Word of Inanakurekuri.”

The she-wolf stilled, glaring at the jawbone with yellow eyes. A wolf’s jawbone. Her fingers tightened around the haft of her axe and for a moment Rhy-lee thought she was about to attack.

The she-wolf snorted. “This Word is known to me,” she said. “The name of this bear is known to be true.”

“The bear is far from here,” said a large male, with a ridged scar from his right eye across the top of his scalp and over his left ear.

The she-wolf rounded on him, baring her teeth.

“The ears of a bear hear far,” said one of the grandmothers.

The scarred male growled at her but was shouted down by the rest of the pack.

“There is no sport here,” the lead she-wolf declared, turning back to Rhy-lee and Yfan-wyn. “We will trade. You will give us metal.”

Rhy-lee worked her tongue around her mouth, trying to generate some moisture there. Carefully, using only her forefinger and thumb, she pulled her skinning knife from its sheath. “I will give you this,” she said. “If you will answer my question.”

“A question?” The she-wolf’s ears came up in surprise. She eyed the bright blade of the knife. “Ask it.”

“Have you seen another fox who carries the Word of Inanakurekuri?”

Rhy-lee’s heart thudded as the she-wolf gave a quick nod. “There is one who has returned to these parts for many years – since I was a cub.” The fingers of the she-wolf’s free hand twitched. “She often shelters in the forest in the winter.” She thrust out her hand. “Give it to me.”

She. Rhy-lee handed the knife over. “Has she been seen this season?”

The she-wolf grinned slyly. “One question, for this blade,” she said. “More metal for more questions.”

Several of the pack yipped their appreciation of her cunning.

Rhy-lee took a deep breath, gathering her thoughts. She. “I will give you wire snares to trap rabbits,” she said.

But the she-wolf’s gaze had shifted beyond Rhy-lee. Her brow furrowed. Rhy-lee started to turn. The she-wolf’s eyes snapped wide. Behind Rhy-lee, Yfan-wyn cried out in alarm.

She spun to see long-bodied figures burst out of the river, heavy clubs raised over their shoulders. Otters! Several of them lifted narrow tubes to their lips. The wolves howled and charged. Rhy-lee grabbed Yfan-wyn and lifted him bodily, away from the fight, then pushed him ahead towards the trees.

“Run!”

Something bit into the back of her neck.

She ran another dozen paces before her legs gave way underneath her.

“Run!” she cried to Yfan-wyn, and then her tongue was too thick to say it again.

Her vision darkened as wolves fled past. One stumbled and fell. Otters bounded after. Then the darkness was complete, and she knew no more.

Yfan-wyn was under the trees before he realised that his mother was no longer with him. In horror, he stopped to look back and was knocked off his feet by a fleeing wolf.

He scrambled quickly back up. Otters bounded towards him. He couldn’t see his mother. Something whisked past his face. He saw an otter lower a dart tube from its mouth.

With a sob, Yfan-wyn turned and sprinted after the wolf.

Even with its canopy bare of leaves, the forest still grew dark before the open plain at the end of day. Yfan-wyn could hear the otters behind him, whistling to each other in the gloom. They seemed to be falling behind. He slowed, listening hard.

A hand closed around his arm, another clamped down on his muzzle, preventing him from crying out. Yfan-wyn found himself dragged, struggling, towards a tree trunk – hollow, he discovered, when he was pulled through a narrow gap and inside.

“Be still,” his captor hissed. “They are close.”

Yfan-wyn stopped fighting. He could smell that his assailant was a fox. She released her grip on his mouth.

“They will smell us,” he whispered.

“No,” the word was barely a breath. “Their noses are dull, as are their ears. Only their eyes are sharp. Be still. Their ears are dull, but they are not deaf.”

Yfan-wyn heard movement outside the tree. A loud whistle, close at hand, made him jump. Others responded, further away.

The otter’s claws scraped over dirt, just outside. Yfan-wyn could smell its wet fur. He held his breath.

Then the otter moved off.

Yfan-wyn listened to the whistling calls move away.

“They are giving up the chase,” said the other fox. She shifted away from him and he felt her rummage about.

“My mother fell,” Yfan-wyn said. His lip trembled.

Flints sparked in the darkness. “Then she is alive,” was the reply. “And that is all that can be said for her.”

A light flared from the sparks, and the other fox closed the side of a small glass and tin lantern. Yfan-wyn looked at her face. She was old, he saw, with the white on the sides of her snout spread across her cheeks and forehead. The pupil of her left eye was milky pale.

“Better to forget her,” she said.

Yfan-wyn could only shake his head in horror.

“Where is home for you, little one?”

“The downs.” Tears were coming. He tried to keep them in, but couldn’t. He hung his head, hiding his face behind the sleeve of his parka.

“Of course. The downs.” There was an odd heaviness in the way she said it. “I will take you through the forest, to the foot of the ridge.”

Yfan-wyn shook his head, more vigorously this time. “No. I need to go back for my mother.”

“And do what?” the old woman said harshly. “Be caught yourself?”

Yfan-wyn glared at her.

She sighed through her nostrils. “So be it.”

“My name is Yfan-wyn,” he said. “My mother is Rhy-lee.”

He thought he saw her start, ever so slightly, on hearing his mother’s name. The reaction was so small that he wondered if he had imagined it. He stared, searching for some resemblance to his mother. Could this really be his grandmother?

She turned her face aside, so that he could see only her blind, milky eye.

“I do not need to know your name,” she said. “Rest here tonight, at least. They will not have gone anywhere in the dark.”

Yfan-wyn stared at her. Are you my grandmother? he wanted to say. But how could she be? How could she hear her child’s name and turn aside? The pressure of the words stuck inside him escaped in a tiny whine. Her ears twitched, but she did not look at him.

Rhy-lee woke up to find her wrists and ankles bound together with rope. She raised her head. The she-wolf lay less than an arm’s length away, bound as well, staring at Rhy-lee with yellow eyes.

The she-wolf bared her teeth but said nothing. Then she rolled over so that her back was to Rhy-lee.

Rhy-lee twisted her neck to look around. She wriggled onto her belly, then awkwardly pushed herself up onto her knees. Also lying bound on the riverbank were four more adult wolves and the three wolf cubs. There was no sign of Yfan-wyn. Otters armed with clubs and dart tubes stood guard around them. Beyond them, on the river, was a sight that caused Rhy-lee’s jaw to drop open in amazement.

It was built of timber and floated on the water like a raft, but was larger than any house Rhy-lee had ever seen. Its sides curved upwards, higher than a bear’s head. Rows of oars stuck out from holes set near the tops and wooden ribs arched overhead. At the vessel’s front and back its sides came together and rose to carved peaks. The front peak was fashioned into the shape of an eagle’s head, the rear carved to resemble a feathered tail. A high pole rose from the centre of the vessel, a long crossbeam near its peak wrapped around with the loosely tied, pale canvas of its sail. Similarly bundled canvas joined the wooden ribs at their peaks – a roof for inclement weather, Rhy-lee realised.

“A ship,” she exclaimed aloud. She had only heard them described in traveller’s tales. The sea, the first otter had said he was from.

The sea. Rhy-lee’s stomach tightened.

She called out to the nearest guard. “What will you do with us?”

The otter lifted its club and snarled something in a language Rhy-lee didn’t understand. Another barked, “Silence! Property does not speak unless it is told to.”

Property? Rhy-lee stared at him blankly for a moment, wondering if he had misspoken. Then understanding hit: the otters were slavers and they would take her away across the sea.

Sometimes, among the villages of the downs, if a person committed a crime, their punishment might include a period of bonded service, but slavery – the owning of one person by another – was something she had only heard told of as a distant myth of barbaric lands, far away. Panic rose up inside. She clenched her fists, digging her claws into her palms until she was sure they would bleed.

Yfan-wyn had escaped, she told herself. Yfan-wyn was safe. They were near enough to the downs now for him to find his way home.

Further along the bank lay the bodies of the two old wolf grandmothers. Too old for slaves, Rhy-lee thought, tightening her fists even more, holding her terror inside

Yfan-wyn had escaped, she repeated. He was safe.

Yfan-wyn watched from the branches at the edge of the forest while the prisoners were loaded aboard the otters’ gigantic, high-sided raft. He saw the flash of his mother’s red fur among the grey bodies of the wolves. He clutched helplessly at the hunting spear the old woman had given him.

Not his grandmother. He could not believe that she would let his mother be taken away if she were.

The oars along the side of the giant vessel were rising and falling, turning it to point the carved eagle head downriver. They were leaving!

Yfan-wyn slithered down from his perch, barking his shins and falling the last little way. He sprinted through the trees, keeping the vessel in sight but staying under cover. For a while he kept up, as the river meandered away from the forest and back again in a lazy loop, but then his strength began to falter and the river began to veer away from the trees in a long, steady curve. Yfan-wyn’s lungs and legs burned but he was left further and further behind.

Almost, he let himself stop and collapse to his knees and give up. But his mother would not have given up on him. Whimpering, despairing, he left the trees and kept on going in a ragged jog.

They would stop for the night, he told himself. The ship would stop, and he would catch up.

And then what?

He squashed the hopeless thought. She would not give up on him.

He ran on, as best he could. Now and then, the snow drift deeper and he would stumble and lie, panting and exhausted, with his pulse pounding in his ears and his vision turning black, wondering if he would rise again. Then the freezing cold of the snow would begin to soak through his fur, waking him from his stupor, and he would struggle up and get his feet back under him and moving again.

Sometimes he would get a stitch in his side, or a cramp in his legs, and he would lean on his spear and hobble on until it passed and he could run once more. And always, the ship faded further and further into the distance, until he wondered if he was only imagining that it was still in sight at all.

The blue of the sky began to deepen ahead. Yfan-wyn’s shadow began to stretch further ahead of him, as if it, too, would leave him behind. The sunset painted the snow golden, then crimson, then mauve. Then the sun was gone, and only the stars lit the way. Still, Yfan-wyn ran on.

At last, long after dark, he caught up.

The otters’ vessel was stopped again by the far bank, held against the current. From within its high-walled sides, Yfan-wyn could hear the frightened, confused cries of bison. A dull red glow rose from within the sides of the vessel. The smell of cooking meat wafted across the water.

A wolf howled. It sounded close. Yfan-wyn wondered if the wolves were following, too.

He eyed the otters on guard at the front and rear of the vessel and wondered, doubtfully, if he could sneak aboard. There was a large hummock in the snow closer to the riverbank. Yfan-wyn thought he might have a better vantage – and be better hidden there, too.

It was only when he neared it and the hummock suddenly moved that he realised his mistake. Only then, as an enormous hand lashed out to close around his body, crushing the breath out of him, did he smell the bear.

The bear’s narrow head came up from where it had rested, chin on the snow, and turned to look at him. The jaws opened, displaying fangs longer than his hand. Yfan-wyn would have screamed, but he had no breath to do so.

“Stop!”

The bear paused. Yfan-wyn twisted to see. It was the old fox woman who had saved him in the forest. She held up the half-jawbone of a wolf for the bear to see the letters etched into its surface.

“It is the Word of Inanakurekuri,” she said.

The bison packed into the bottom of the ship lowed incessantly, confused and distressed by the smell of one of their number being barbequed by the otters on the forward deck. Rhy-lee hunched in the shadows beneath the ship’s rear deck, manacled alongside the captured wolves and a half-grown bear who hiccupped softly as he tried not to cry. The chains that joined their cuffs passed through thick iron rings bolted to the keel of the ship.

The bison were all juveniles, too, Rhy-lee had noted when they were winched, unconscious, into the ship. They ranged from newly weaned calves to pubescents. Young, scared, easy to train, she thought. What did it mean for her and the adult wolves?

She spoke to the she-wolf. “Will those of your pack who escaped come for you?”

The she-wolf stared at her in silence for a long moment. Rhy-lee wondered if she would reply at all. Then she stretched her jaws in a wide yawn and said, “The pack will choose a new leader. We are dead to them.”

Dead, thought Rhy-lee, and wolves did not attend to their dead. She leaned across to the bear, catching his eye. “What is your name, young one?”

The bear sniffled, his dark eyes flitting from Rhy-lee to the wolves. “I am Babuk, born of Nuganaksaramun,” he said.

“I am Rhy-lee, born of…” Rhy-lee hesitated over her mother’s name, “Tiere-lene.” It felt strange to say it, so long unspoken. She asked, “Did your mother escape the slavers?”

The bear cub nodded. “I was not with her and Megi, my sister, when they caught me.”

“Then she will come for you,” Rhy-lee said, because it was certainly true.

Babuk glanced up at a pair of otters walking along the central gangway, overhead. The ship’s hold was largely open for most of its length, the areas of solid decking at the front and rear connected by the central gangway and narrower platforms along the high side walls. The gangways were joined by broad-topped ribs that held the rowing benches, above the backs of the frightened bison.

“But they are so many,” said Babuk.

“Too many, even for a bear,” said the she-wolf.

Rhy-lee wondered if that were true. Could the darts of the otters pierce the thick fur of an adult bear?

“Then we will need to help ourselves, as well,” she said. But both the she-wolf and Babuk had turned away from her.

Rhy-lee looked down at her manacled hands.

She wondered what had become of Yfan-wyn. He would have kept going, she told herself. He would find his way home. She had to push the thoughts back down, in case the fear undid her – that she would never see him again, nor Aoin-rhys or her father.

She watched the sparks from the otters’ cooking rise up into the night, past the ribs of the ship’s open roof, quickly fading. She would never know if that other fox, the other who bore the Word of Inanakurekuri, was her mother.

No, she told herself. She was not beaten yet.

She began to work her hands around in the manacles, trying to find a way to pull them free.

The otters’ vessel was a small red glow across the blue-white snow. There was a bank of cloud to the south, deep shadowed underneath and silver-lit on top, but directly above the skies were clear. With the moon not yet risen to outshine them, the stars formed a sky-spanning river of brighter and fainter sparks.

Yfan-wyn trudged after the bear, his ears twitching at the soft rattle of her bone apron. His perhaps-grandmother walked beside him, a barrier of unasked questions in between.

The bear slowed and growled a low inquiry. A snowdrift shifted off to their right. A young bear stood up, only half-grown but already several times larger than the two foxes. She carried a heavy iron spear and bow and arrows like her mother, but wore a girdle of tanned hide rather than an adult’s apron. Her mother held out a paw and the young bear ran to her, tucking herself against the larger bear’s side.

The mother bear faced Yfan-wyn and the old fox, her face in shadow as she peered down. “I am Nuganaksaramun,” she said. “The name of Inanakurekuri is known to me, as it is known to all bears.” She paused a moment, then added, “My son, Babuk, is aboard the slaver ship.”

Yfan-wyn’s tongue was sticky inside his mouth. “Yfan-wyn, is my name,” he said. “My mother, Rhy-lee, is aboard the,” he hesitated over the unfamiliar word, “ship.”

The old fox cleared her throat. Her voice was taught when she said, “I am Tiere-lene.” Yfan-wyn’s heart jumped. It was his grandmother’s name. She met his gaze as he stared at her. “My daughter is on that ship.”

“Can we get Babuk, Mama?” asked the young bear.

Yfan-wyn watched Nuganaksaramun’s head sink lower and his hope fell with it. Nuganaksaramun pulled her daughter tighter to her side. “I do not think we can, Megi.”

A whimper escaped between Yfan-wyn’s teeth, a wail bursting to follow. “What will happen to them?” he said.

“In the morning they will go,” said Nuganaksaramun. “They hunted the bison herd this afternoon and their ship is filled.”

“They will be taken to the south, to the cities of swine and dogs and fowl, where lions rule,” said Tiere-lene. “They will be sold.”

They were silent for a moment, their eyes all fixed on that distant glow.

Nuganaksaramun said, “In the tale of Inanakurekuri, he was taken by slavers as a cub, and he escaped and returned. But his is the only such tale.”

“Is there nothing to be done?” said Megi.

Her mother shook her head.

A wolf howled, sounding near.

Yfan-wyn’s grandmother said, “If we can distract the slavers, then Yfan-wyn and I are small enough to sneak aboard the ship and cut the prisoners loose.”

“How will they be distracted?” asked Nuganaksaramun.

“With an attack,” Tiere-lene replied.

The bear thought about that a moment, then said, “Megi and I will not be able to do that alone.”

“You will not be alone,” said Tiere-lene.

They smelled the smoke of the wolves’ campfire long before they spied its glow. The wolves had dug out a hollow in the snow, piling it around them. Their huddled bodies further shielded the fire’s light.

Yfan-wyn stared at his grandmother’s back as she walked ahead of him, the pressure of questions crowded up inside his chest almost unbearable. She had offered nothing, though, and he did not know how to begin.

Every so often, one of the wolf pack would lift their head and howl to the night. The sound made Yfan-wyn’s skin crawl.

Nuganaksaramun led them towards the camp from upwind. The wolves remained unaware of their approach until the great bear loomed up close beside them. Then there was a flurry of growls and startled activity as the wolves lunged for weapons and peered wildly into the darkness for other threats.

Nuganaksaramun raised a broad hand. “I have not come to fight.”

The wolves crouched behind their hide shields, weapons ready.

“There is a slaver ship on the river,” said Nuganaksaramun.

“We have seen it,” said a wolf. “It has not troubled this pack.”

“It has troubled other packs,” said Tiere-lene, stepping into view at the bear’s side. “There are captured wolves aboard.”

“That is of no matter to us,” said the wolf.

“The slavers have weapons and tools of iron,” said Nuganaksaramun. “We wish to attack the slaver ship and rescue our kin, but we have no interest in the slavers’ wealth.”

Yfan-wyn peered past his grandmother’s shoulder. The wolves cast sideways glances at their leader. Several licked their muzzles as the thought of iron riches took hold.

The leader straightened, lowering his weapons. “Even together, we would struggle to overcome them,” he said. “Slaver darts will pierce our skins and then we too will be as the dead.”

“We can beat them if we are cleverer than they,” said Tiere-lene.

Yfan-wyn shivered at the freezing touch of the river. The water rippled around his bare shins as he waded after his grandmother. They had left their clothes and gear on the shore, carrying only their hunting knives on thongs around their necks. His grandmother showed no sign of discomfort at the cold. The breeze ruffled the sparse, greying fur on her back and shoulders.

Tiere-lene launched herself into the current. Yfan-wyn braced himself and plunged after with a splash. His breath whooshed out at the shock of the water closing around him. The bears and wolves were meant to have crossed further downriver.

Teeth chattering, Yfan-wyn paddled downstream towards the red-rimmed silhouette of the slaver ship.

Rhy-lee gritted her teeth, bracing the manacle with her feet and her free hand. The first cuff she had wriggled her hand out of relatively easily, but this one was bent tighter. Blood trickled along her fingers from where she had skinned her knuckles on the metal. She twisted her hand, smearing it over the inside of the cuff, making it slick.

She pulled again. Her knuckles ground painfully against each other, but her hand started to slide through. The wolves and the young bear watched in silence, their nostrils twitching at the smell of blood. A nearby bison calf stamped its hoof.

With a sudden wrench, Rhy-lee’s hand came free. She flexed her bruised knuckles, wincing. She was free. It would be easy enough, she thought, to jump up onto a rowing bench and over the side before the otters could react. They could swim better than she, but she thought she could probably lose them in the dark.

Babuk and the wolves watched her in silence.

Rhy-lee hesitated. Her first thought should be to get free and find Yfan-wyn. But could she leave them to their fate? She knew the answer before she even asked herself the question.

“Can any of you get free?”

It was immediately obvious that the wolves, including the three cubs, were stuck, with their broad palms and bony wrists. Young Babuk had a bear’s thick forearms, but his hands were not so flexible as hers.

“Try,” she said. “I will get the key if I can.”

Exactly how, she did not know.

She slunk to the edge of the overhung deck and peered up. An otter sentry stood on the high gangway at the side of the ship, peering out into the night. Rhy-lee could not see if he carried a key on his belt or not – not all of the otters did.

Suddenly the otter staggered backwards. He stepped off the edge of the platform and fell. Rhy-lee barely had time to duck out of the way. The otter landed with a thump, a white-feathered arrow almost as long as Rhy-lee was tall protruding from his chest. A roar echoed across the river. Bear!

Young Babuk lifted his head and bellowed in reply.

On the forward deck, Rhy-lee saw otters dash for the anchor chains, only to be driven back by a hail of rocks. Slingshot, she thought. Wolves! A heartbeat later howls joined the roars of the attacking bear. The captured wolves howled back. The bison began to bawl and tug at their shackles.

A trio of otters leapt down after their shot fellow, clubs ready and barking angrily at the prisoners. Their eyes fell immediately on Rhy-lee, standing unshackled in front of them.

Yfan-wyn was so cold clinging to the slaver ship’s anchor chain that he wasn’t certain he would be able to climb up it and into the ship.

“Soon,” said his grandmother. “Hold on just a little longer.”

Yfan-wyn’s teeth chattered, making it hard to speak. He tried anyway, the words suddenly coming unstuck inside him. “Why did you leave?”

She glanced at him, just briefly. “Because I had to. You understand that,” she said. “But why didn’t I wait for your mother, you mean, as she waited for you?” She was quiet a moment, then continued, “She loved her father so much, and he her. I could not part them. And there was much of him in her, besides.” Another, smaller hesitation, then, “Does he live, still, your grandfather?”

Yfan-wyn nodded. “Yes.”

“That is good,” she said, her voice distant. “I did not think her heart would take her far, not as a child, anyway.” Her teeth flashed, suddenly – a smile, perhaps, but one without mirth. “If I had waited, then she would never have had you, would she?”

A bear roared – Nuganaksaramun, launching her attack. Wolf howls joined in a moment later and the ship erupted with barks of alarm from the otters and cries from the prisoners within.

“Up!” said Tiere-lene, giving him a boost.

Yfan-wyn almost slipped straight off the chain, but he gripped tight with his legs and fingers and hauled himself up. He kept his eyes fixed on the side of the ship, expecting to see an otter appear at any instant and raise the alarm, but the slavers were evidently all occupied with the attack from the shore, on the opposite side of the vessel. His arms burned before he was even halfway up, but he kept going.

Fingers cramping, he raised his head to peer through the hole where the anchor chain fed through the ship’s side. A rock arced out of the darkness and banged into the planks directly below the hole. Yfan-wyn jerked back, almost slipping.

He clung hard to the chain, while his grandmother demanded to know what was wrong.

Heart clattering, he looked again.

A pair of otters sprawled on the deck close by, one with a bloody face, the other with an arrow through his back. A brick fireplace stood with a spit-roasted bison unattended over its flames. On the far side of the deck, a group of otters crouched under cover, hauling frantically on the other anchor chain. All along that side of the ship, otters leapt up from cover to fire their dart tubes and bows. Yfan-wyn couldn’t see where the prisoners were held, but he could hear their shouts.

“Is it clear?” said his grandmother.

“I think so.”

“Then go!”

Yfan-wyn pulled himself up and over the side, drawing his knife as he landed on the deck, expecting to be spotted immediately by the slavers. Tiere-lene was right behind him. “Go! Down into the hold!”

She pushed him towards the edge of the deck where, down in the bottom of the ship, he could see the captive bison pulling against their bonds. He ran that way and leapt into the space below. He landed heavily and rolled into the legs of a bison calf, which bucked and kicked him painfully in the hip.

His grandmother hauled him upright. “Quick! Out of sight.” She pushed him ahead of her, between the rows of bison. “Hush,” she said to the bison, “we are here to free you.”

Yfan-wyn stopped. “They are chained,” he wailed. “We cannot cut their bonds.” His mother and Nuganaksaramun’s son would certainly be chained too.

Tiere-lene swore. “Then we will need a key. Go forward, we will find your mother first.”

Rhy-lee stumbled back from the otters’ clubs. There was a roar and a tearing, popping sound. Babuk had ripped the bolt that held his chains free of the ship’s keel. He lunged at the otters, ignoring the blows of their clubs, grabbing the head of one in both paws.

Rhy-lee leapt onto the shoulders of a second and heaved backward with all her weight, setting the otter stumbling off balance and towards the chained wolves. She hit the planks with the otter on top of her. His shrieks mingled with the snarls of the wolves as they caught hold of him. Rhy-lee wriggled out from under, expecting to confront the third otter or to hear him raising the alarm.

Instead she found him lying dead and a naked, greying fox standing over him with a hunting knife in her hand. Rhy-lee stared at the other woman. Memories of that same face crashed over her – that face, red-furred and with two good eyes, seen from below, a small child’s memories.

“Rhy-lee,” said her mother.

Rhy-lee’s legs gave way and she sat down sharply.

A small face peered around the Tiere-lene’s arm. “Mother!”

Yfan-wyn launched himself at her. Rhy-lee caught him reflexively, held him fiercely, then pushed him away to look at him, scarcely believing the evidence of her eyes. “I thought you would have gone home.”

“We need a key for these cuffs,” said Tiere-lene.

“There!” said Yfan-wyn. He started to reach for the belt of the otter that Babuk had killed, but looked up at the young bear, with his bloody hands, and thought the better of it.

Tiere-lene plucked up the key ring and unshackled Babuk.

Rhy-lee gathered herself together. “And them,” she said, indicating the wolves.

Tiere-lene hesitated, then tossed the ring to the she-wolf. Rhy-lee watched the wolves fumble awkwardly with the keys. “We must go,” said Tiere-lene, as Rhy-lee moved to help them.

Mother, filled Rhy-lee’s thoughts. Mother, mother, why did you leave? Why did you never come back? She pushed it down. Later, she told herself. When we’re clear of this and safe.

“How will we get out?” asked Yfan-wyn, looking at Babuk. “They will see us.”

“We fight,” said the she-wolf, picking up an otter’s club.

“No,” said Rhy-lee, her mind focused now and racing. “I have a better idea.” She pointed along the side of the boat furthest from the attackers on the riverbank. “Go up behind the bison. Once we have unlocked them, we need to get them all on the other side of the ship.” To Yfan-wyn and Babuk, she said, “Stay hidden.”

Glancing up at the otters lining the side of the ship, their attention still focused on the riverbank, she ran out between the chained lines of bison. The young animals stopped bucking, with the wolves moving among them. They stood shivering, their eyes rolling. She unlocked the first pair of chains and started to pull them free. A hand grabbed the chain beside hers. She looked up into her mother’s eyes, one clear, one clouded.

“Keep unlocking them, I will pull the chains free,” said Tiere-lene.

Rhy-lee moved on. The bison they had just released surged away from the wolves, towards the side of the ship where the otters stood. Those still chained watched Rhy-lee and Tiere-lene tensely, their ears flicking. One older calf gulped an enquiry in its simple tongue. “We are setting you free,” Rhy-lee answered.

She looked up at a yell from above. An otter tumbled backward, short limbs flailing. He bounced off the back of a bison and hit the planks beside Rhy-lee. He struggled to sit up, a bloody gash across his brow from a slinger’s rock. He saw Rhy-lee and froze.

Tiere-lene lunged past her, knife arm extended, but not before the otter let out a piercing whistle of alarm. He was answered from above as his comrades turned to see.

“Now!” Rhy-lee cried.

The wolves charged towards the freed bison. The terrified animals tried to scrabble up the side of the ship. The ship leaned abruptly with the sudden shift of weight. The otters yelled. The last few bison still chained bucked and kicked. Rhy-lee and Tiere-lene dodged among them, releasing the remaining chains. A bison tripped, bowling Rhy-lee over.

She scrambled up as the ship tipped even further. Darts shot down into the confusion of bodies. Rhy-lee saw the she-wolf leader clutch at her neck and sag. The ship rocked, halfway over. A couple of otters fell backward over the side. A couple more were dragged down from their perches by the wolves.

Not enough weight, Rhy-lee thought. There weren’t enough of them to get the ship over. There was a roar. Something huge thumped against the outside of the ship. The head and shoulders of an adult bear appeared over the side.

“Mama!” yelled Babuk.

The ship began to topple. It was going over.

“Yfan-wyn!” Rhy-lee cried.

She saw him, clinging to Babuk, the young bear’s arm locked around him as he charged up the side of the ship and leapt overboard. The bison surged after, sweeping the otters ahead of them. Rhy-lee saw the she-wolf struggling to follow as water poured in. In the manner of wolves, none of her fellows stopped to help her.

Rhy-lee ran to intercept her. She caught the she-wolf as she stumbled, pulled her backward into the water. They went under. Rhy-lee kicked furiously. Then she felt the she-wolf kick too and they broke the surface, gasping at the cold.

Still clinging together, they swam for the shore.

The otters had evidently already tried to force their way onto the riverbank. Two of their number and a wolf lay dead at the edge of the water. The rest of the wolves were off along the bank, harassing the otters who were now swimming away downstream. Babuk was in the arms of his mother and another juvenile bear. Yfan-wyn sat shivering close by. Rhy-lee could hear the frightened bawling of the bison calves as they fled into the night.

Rhy-lee gathered Yfan-wyn up.

“We need to get warm,” she said, after she had held him for a time.

The she-wolf crouched close by, ears raised and nose twitching, staring after the departing pack. Her fellows who had been captured with her were gone with them. She swayed unsteadily, even braced on hands as well as feet, with the otters’ dart potion in her blood. She noticed Rhy-lee’s gaze.

“I will not run under another pack’s leader,” she said. Her words were slurred. “And I am twice-dead.” Her lips curled back from her teeth in an expression of anguish. “I do not know my place, anymore.” She drew a deep breath, and nodded to Rhy-lee. “I will remember you, little fox.”

With that she rose, weak and unsteady as she was, and walked away in the opposite direction to where the other wolves had gone.

An enormous hand engulfed Rhy-lee’s shoulder. She looked up at the mother bear.

“I am Nuganaksaramun,” said the bear. “Come, we will light a fire.”

Rhy-lee nodded, looking out over the water.

“Where is she?” said Yfan-wyn.

Of Rhy-lee’s mother, there was no sign.

In the morning, the wolves returned to loot the half-sunk slaver ship, shouting and squabbling over their treasure.

Nuganaksaramun presented Yfan-wyn with a carved piece of antler.

“You are brave, little fox,” she said. “You will carry my Word truly.”

Rhy-lee had to laugh at her son’s incredulous expression as he stared at the gift in his hands.

They found Yfan-wyn’s gear where he had left it on the on the opposite bank. Tiere-lene’s clothes and possessions were gone. Her tracks led away across the thinning snow.

“Will we follow?” asked Yfan-wyn.

Rhy-lee shook her head.

“Do you think we will see her again?” he said.

She gazed out across the plain, wondering why her mother had run away once more. Too afraid, she thought, and wished it could have been different. She chucked Yfan-wyn under the chin, swallowing her sadness.

“Perhaps one day,” she said.

They went home, then, across the plain and through the forest, up along the first ridge of the downs. That was where they found Aoin-rhys and Rhy-lee’s father – sitting tucked up in their parkas with their tails around their knees, staring out over the plain, the way Rhy-lee and Yfan-wyn had used to sit together before they left, daydreaming of the wide world.

Aoin-rhys saw them first. He leapt up and launched himself at Yfan-wyn, bowling him over and tumbling with him a short way down the slope. The two brothers wrestled and laughed in the new spring flowers. Rhy-lee’s father got stiffly to his feet. She was surprised by how old he looked, when only a season had passed.

He touched his nose to hers, then pulled back.

Rhy-lee could barely get words out past the lump in her throat. “I found her,” she said.

She saw his expression change, ever so slightly – just a fractional tightening around his eyes. He held her gaze in silence for a long moment. Then he said, “Come down into the warm and tell me about it.”

Weeks later, Yfan-wyn came out of his grandfather’s house and happened to glance up to the ridge top above the village. A person stood there – a fox – ears upright and parka hood thrown back, leaning on a hunting spear.

Yfan-wyn stared. His heartbeat tripped.

He crashed back through the door into the house, getting a yelp from Aoin-rhys.

“Mother! Mother! Grandfather, come and see.”

His mother caught him as he barrelled into her, knocking the air out of her with an “oof!”

“What has got into you?” she gasped, trying to get enough air to laugh.

He wriggled free. “She’s here!”

“Who is here?” demanded Aoin-rhys.

Yfan-wyn turned. His grandfather stood in the kitchen door. “She’s here.”

His grandfather nodded. His ears were up and his tail was straight, but his expression was peculiar. He didn’t speak, just took a deep breath and started walking towards the front door.

Rhy-lee caught hold of both her sons, saying, “Shush, now.”

She let them tow her to the door, then stopped them on the step. Yfan-wyn watched his grandfather disappear between the houses, and re-emerge a moment later, climbing the slope of the ridge. His grandmother, having come partway down, stopped.

She waited while her husband climbed up to meet her. For a long time they stood still, and it seemed to Yfan-wyn that they were not even speaking, just staring at each other.

“Mother…” he began.

“Shush.” Her hand on his shoulder was shaking.

Then his grandfather leaned over and touched the tip of his wife’s nose with his own.

___

Copyright 2017 Ian McHugh

Ian McHugh’s stories have appeared in publications including Asimov’s, Analog, Beneath Ceaseless Skies and (this year) The Year’s Best Science Fiction. His debut short story collection, Angel Dust, was shortlisted for Australia’s Aurealis Awards in 2015. His full bibliography and links to read or hear much of his previous work free online can be found at ianmchugh.wordpress.com 

 

 By Octavia Cade

  

Bletchley Park

Helen woke to a room grown smaller than before. It was no illusion, no result of short sleep and poor light, a head grown soft and malleable under code. Her knees knew before her brain. They barked up against the bed that lay beside her own, the iron of its railings, the thin mattress and the covers all smoothed over.

It had not been a large room to begin with. There were too many men, too many women, and all the billets were taken, all the houses filled. Helen never minded sharing – she’d shared with her sisters all her life, six of them, and sharing a room now with only one of them – and that her twin, the closest of all – was a marvel of quiet and space in comparison. Even if it were only a small room, even if it were only two feet between cots and one of those feet gone now: the walls coming inwards, the beds inching closer together and that was something they had tried before, her and V., cuddling together for warmth and comfort when news of bombs came in, and battles.

But the two beds pushed together made it harder to get through the door, so Helen and V. had pushed them back into place, the little narrow beds, and gone to sleep with their arms stretched across the gap, their hands clasped together in darkness. It wasn’t the same, but it was hard to balance themselves together on a narrow bed and sleep when concentration was required of them in the waking hours, in the shifts before Colossus, in the codes and ciphers and breaking of Bletchley. Now, the beds were somehow shifting towards each other again.

The door opened then and V. was there, her face fresh-scrubbed and more open-eyed than Helen had ever seen her – Helen who had learned talking with her, and walking and running down hills with kites streaming behind. “Do you see it?” said V. “It’s the same all along. The rooms are getting smaller. Everything’s getting jumbled up together.”

“But why?” said Helen, still stupid with sleep and rubbing at her leg. “Is it a new regulation?” There were so many: rules thick as branches and woven all about, rules to keep them quiet and safe. To keep them all locked in together when the geography of their isolation did nothing to keep others out.

“Strange if it is,” said V, fond and patient at once. She slid between the cots and sat beside Helen, their sides pressed close that Helen could feel, through her nightdress, the warmth of her sister’s body. “I’m sure we’ll hear about it if we’re supposed to.” It was the constant refrain, the determined avoidance of question. Bletchley was a place of packages, of little separations, and it was not the place of WRENs to open up every one.

“I wonder if it will happen again,” said Helen, eyeing the bed across, the tiny distance between. The way it reminded her of home.

Los Alamos

The Lodge inched closer to the horizon than it should have done. When Frank, atop his horse, held his hand out at length he blotted out its stories with a single knuckle, and the growing distance between them made his stomach clench in a way that was more than war, that was more than absence. The only thing that approached that hot, tight gut-sink was the news of his twin, dead on far fields and never coming home now, the sense of unlocking, of dislocation – the uncoupling of Frank from his former life, from the world in which he was embedded. He was an island now, a brother that was, that had been, and no more. In that he was not alone – Los Alamos was a place of isolation, an island in a dry land, weighted down with distance. He was not the only one so cut off – it was the undercurrent, the ties that bound together and underpinned as ignimbrite the mesas of this new life. All there had left someone behind, had gone on ahead in secrecy and in silence, leaving universities and family homes, leaving that family behind, sometimes, on a continent blackened with war and with no help to come. No help, unless, unless…

Frank had gotten used to it, the sense of insulation, of, isolation: the dream state of Alamos. He had tied himself to work and rock, found the island as a place to stand and then the island shifted and he was outstripped. The Lodge moved further from the laboratories, and further still, until the land between unravelled as if its elastic had been lost, as if the isolation weren’t enough. As if the country around was determined to see him truly alone, a man without a brother left to stand in an empty stretch, with all the landmarks gone and all the world in silence.

It was as if he existed at the midpoint of a landscape defined by war: by the gouge and stretch and pillage of it, and Frank at a place of beginnings, an epicentre. All around him waves spread outwards as if a pebble dropped into a pond, and those waves pushed the world away and left him grasping: a single man upon a mount, riding past a pond that he had thrown stones in so many times before. Ashley Pond, that he might have thrown a stone across in summer, had his aim been good and his arm strong. Ashley Pond, that now belied its name and had the appearance of a lake, perhaps, or a small inland sea though it did not have the salt for it, though its growth was untainted as yet by tears.

There were plenty of those, more now than ever. Frank had seen, in the stables, a WAAC being comforted, her face blotched and being blotted, a handkerchief clutched in one hand. He had squeezed her shoulder himself, a silent gesture to reach across the gulf between them. Contact, on the mesa, had become a precious thing.

Bletchley Park

Helen had never been so prim. With all her sisters, there had never been any room for primness – or privacy, or personal space. She was used to encroachment. It was natural, something to be expected – it was why she and V. had adapted so easily to the crush at Bletchley, to the close quarters of people who lived in each other’s pockets, to the quick tempers and easy forgiveness. Not everyone had been so lucky, not everyone found it so natural.

It was always so simple to tell the only children. To pick up on the small things, the little cues that spoke of space and silence and the expectation of room around. Helen had never had that, had never missed it – until now.

Now she sat apart, or as apart as she could when the walls were pressing closer and the rooms shrinking, when even the manor house was assuming the aspect of dolls. She wasn’t the only one. They were all the same now, and everyone sat with shoulders drawn up, hunched in, trying to make themselves smaller in turn. Trying not to touch one another. Touch, now that it was so difficult to avoid, had become a thing of rudeness, of flushed cheeks and muttered apologies.

Helen and V. no longer wanted to share a bed at night. No matter the news, the long lists of friends killed, of acquaintances missing, there was no comfort in clinging. Where once V. would have laid her head on Helen’s shoulder, cried a little perhaps, they turned from each other, balanced on bed ends and slept poorly, kept awake by nightmares of crushing and darkness. Of entanglement, of being trapped by tree roots and buried alive.

“It was different before,” said V., her voice flat and exhausted. Helen couldn’t see her face. They were on night shifts now, but with the windows blocked as if for black-out there was no hint of expression. “We chose to be together then.” To sign up together, to go through training together and request a posting where they wouldn’t have to be parted.

“You’re so lucky to stay with each other,” their Dad had told them. “Most of you young ones are shipped off with strangers. You look after each other now. Your Mum and I will be depending on it.”

It had been such an easy promise. “Of course we will,” they’d said in concert, for who else could do it better? And now their relationship was one of shrinking, of trying to make a distance between them because closeness had become a thing of horror. How could they explain? How could Helen write home and hint at schisms – confess that when she reached behind her at night, reached for her sister’s hand, their flesh passed through each other because closeness was gobbling them up? Because the walls were moving in and the space between was so thick it could hold both of them – all of them – at once.

“You make me feel like a ghost,” said V.

Los Alamos

“I’ll never see my family again,” said Doris. Frank’s handkerchief was clutched in one hand, damp and crumpled.

“You don’t know that,” said Frank. Even to him the sound of his voice was shot through with uncertainty, and fragmented. He wished he were a better liar. He didn’t have much experience with crying girls, and all he knew to do had been to offer her his handkerchief, to take the reins from white-knuckled hands and settle down next to her in awkwardness. It might have been easier, but he was dizzy in his isolation, in the way that he was being dragged from a close-knit and often cramped community to one where the gaps were breaching friendships and forcing insularity. He shifted on the bale, uncomfortable. The straw made him want to sneeze.

“I’m sorry,” said Doris. “It’s difficult for you too, I know. It’s difficult for everyone. And I’ve been trying so hard to be cheerful. And the horses make it easier, somehow.”

“You’re not the only one to think so,” said Frank. There weren’t enough of them, not really, and with the distances in Alamos increasing the horses were ever more important. They were a comfort, too, as well as a help. More than once he’d come into the stables and found someone with their face buried in mane, with soft wet little sounds and stifled breaths. He’d laid his own cheek against one of those long smooth necks more than once, let his tears fall silent into hair. “I’ve done it myself.”

“That does makes me feel a bit better,” Doris confessed. “Terrible, isn’t it?”

“I don’t know,” said Frank. “It all seems terrible lately. Sometimes I feel…” Too much. He felt too much, and he didn’t know how to stuff it down or make it come out and share it.

“Who was it?” said Doris, and her hand on his was warm as horse’s hide.

“My brother,” said Frank. “In France. And sometimes I think that if there are more miles in Alamos than there should be then well. So what? There’s more distance out there than that, isn’t there, and it’s not so easy to cross.” There was a long silence.

“My husband’s in France,” said Doris. “I lie awake at night and wonder if it’s the same for them as it is for us. If he goes to sleep at night with his men and wakes up to find himself alone in the trenches. If he has to go calling for them. If they’re too far away when he needs them.”

“It’s only here, as far as I’ve heard,” said Frank, turning his hand palm up to squeeze her own. “So far it’s only Alamos.”

“Do you think we’re causing it?” she said, the two of them joined by hands and absence and clinging. By loneliness, by the experience and expectation of grief. “What we’re doing here. Is there something we’re doing that’s making the world all move apart?”

“I don’t know,” said Frank again. He hoped not. If it were true, the only thing to do would be to stop, and he didn’t know if they would stop. If they could, even, or if they should. It was too late for his brother but there was still a war on, still hundreds, thousands of brothers out there even if they weren’t his.

And wouldn’t it be a funny thing, if what they were building at Alamos could save the lot of them and push them away from each other, all at once.

Bletchley Park

In Bletchley Park, Helen dreamed of the man who would have been her brother-in-law. She had never dreamed of him before, even in her fascination at the person who would marry the girl who looked and thought and loved like her, but was not.

The courtship had been a hasty one, born out of leave and the desire for life amidst the bombs, the desire to connect with more than carnage. V. had begun spending her evenings apart, coming back with her face flushed and her blouse slightly askew and Helen would tease and giggle and make sure she was all straight before inspection, would cover for her sneaking. It was easy to cover when they had the same face, the same body – although their paths were diverging, it was still a small divergence as yet.

Then the leave had ended and the telegram had come, addressed to Miss Veronica Halliwell, and that divergence was cut off at the roots, cut off when it had barely begun to bloom and V. was alone with nothing but Helen and memory.

“You can talk about it if you want to,” said Helen, and that was something she had never needed to say before but V. hadn’t cried, had kept her lips shut and pressed together and Helen had wanted to make the invitation explicit. To give V. a chance to grieve in a way that wasn’t alone.

“I don’t want to,” said V. and her ring was put away, the pretty blue-stoned ring that she and Helen had gasped over and admired together. “Alright?”

“Alright,” said Helen and that was the end of it until she found herself dreaming in a room smaller than before. She was in a private room at a dance, or near one, with music and laughter coming through the door and a blue stone on her finger, and she was kissing the man who was to marry her sister, kissing him until she was breathless and feeling his hands come up under her blouse and he was kissing her neck and saying “V., I love you so.” And that had been enough to shock Helen into almost waking, into pushing him away and seeing on top of that same body a different face, the face of a boy Helen had danced the whole night with, the night that V. had disappeared with her boyfriend and come back to the dance with a ring on her finger.

Then she was awake, sat up sudden and straight and gasping, with V. pressed too close on a shrinking bed, their flesh merging where they brushed together and shocked awake herself, staring at Helen with a strange sullen dislike. “Those are my memories,” she said. “Mine.”

Los Alamos

Frank dreamed of a world he never saw. Dreamed of seeing his own face in a mirror, muddied about the edges and him scraping away the hair with a blunt razor with the trenches rising about him and water in his boots. He knew at once the face was not his own. There was no sense of dislocation, of entrapment. Their ways had parted a long time since, and there was normalcy in separation.

“Sure you should go to college,” his brother had said. “If I had your brains I might go too. Course, I got all the looks so I can’t really complain.”

It was an old joke, and Frank had never understood how the same face could have such different personalities, such different minds behind it. They had diverged early, with Frank more and more at school and his brother working at the shop, making up bundles and delivering packages, flirting with the girls that came in and taking them out every weekend while Frank was in his dorm, marking time with equations and homework instead of bra straps and soda pop. Then the war had come, or they had come to it, the sea between no longer enough to keep their country out, and Frank had been sent to science on the southern mesas and his twin had been sent overseas, tall in his uniform and neither of them knowing he’d never come back.

When the telegram came, the one that told Frank that he had been cut off forever, that he would never come together again, he had been patted on the back and comforted. There had been friends around, other scientists who had their own families and too much imagination and they had bought him drinks and the girls had come and hugged him as they’d always hugged his brother, because he was a twin alone now and that made it extra-sad, apparently. Frank had carried on, had borne up wonderfully, they said, but all the pats and drinks and hugs couldn’t make up for what the telegram didn’t say.

It never told him how his brother died. A bullet, a grenade… did he suffer, was it quick? Was anyone with him, and did that even make a difference when the only one who should have been with him was home safe and learning to ski in his off hours, exploring the old pueblo, horse riding? Horse riding, for God’s sake, while somewhere his brother’s heart was stopping, while his guts were spilling out, while he was drowning in his own blood.

Frank dreamed all these deaths, one after the other, and in each new end his brother was further away, the space of trench between them lengthening out until Frank couldn’t reach him, until he could barely see his face, the face that shaved in that beaten little mirror and even running couldn’t keep up.

In the last dream, the dream that woke him, his brother had been ripped apart by an explosion, his legs torn free from his body and when Frank tried to go to him he realised that it was his own legs, dressed in a uniform like his brother’s. His legs were blown off, blown far – tens of metres away and receding fast and there was nothing below his hips but separation.

He woke screaming.

Bletchley Park

When Helen finished her shift and returned to her room to change, V. was waiting for her at the door. Not inside, for inside was too much for them now, too close, and that closeness had become so stifling that they’d changed shifts, worked opposite hours so not to see each other, so not to be forced into touch.

“You need to see this,” said V. She waited while Helen slipped out of her uniform, looked away as she donned another dress – and that was another measure of the distance between them, for they had never bothered to look away before. What good would it do, when all they would ever see was themselves? There was no need for privacy when you shared a body, shared a face, but V. looked away and her hands were behind her back, an image of parade rest in a world where long lines and organisation still held meaning.

“I’m ready,” said Helen, and if she didn’t comment on V.’s stance or gaze it was because she fell into a distance of her own, a half-step behind until the corridor was passed and they were disgorged into open air, into the lawns around Bletchley, the manor gardens less smooth now than they had ever been with the house full of people, the temporary tacked-up buildings around. Less smooth, and smaller – but smaller was no longer something to comment on. Smaller was all around, the slow contraction of life under war, of rationing and lack and loss. It was boundaries of claustrophobia and silence a lawn all covered-over in footprints, because the space between treads was lacking.

“It’s here,” said V., herding her up to hedges, through trees and broken earth and the brief scattering of others, for V. had not been the first or only to notice, and the boundaries of Bletchley were no longer empty places. A dozen other people stood there, hands outstretched or stuffed into pockets, and as they stood back, too-careful to let the sisters through without bumping, Helen thought she saw shimmering, a slight glistening in the air.

“Gone all solid,” said one of the men, and Helen recognised him as one of the drivers, someone too leaden for mathematics but mechanically competent, someone used to fixing things. His palms were stained by wrenches, and there were tree branches round his feet, and crowbars. “There’s nothing that goes through it.” He looked at them, pale and disturbed, almost pleading. As if there were something they could do. “I’ve got nothing,” he said again, curiously blank. That was what Helen remembered afterwards, as if through prisms: how they all stood there, polite in their confusion and keeping careful distance. And quiet, because what if this was something that was planned, something that was meant to happen and they weren’t meant to know about? Something that shouldn’t be talked of, and they were all old hands at that.

When Helen reached out to touch it, her palm left little waves on the surface. She couldn’t push her fingers through, and the texture against her was strong and thin and flexible, like the surface of silk stretched loosely over frames. It made her skin itch, and when she took her hand away she could see V. scratching at her palm.

Los Alamos

Frank woke from trenches and disembowelling to a cold hand in his. “Mike,” he said, “Mike,” but the hand was too small, too unfamiliar. It looked nothing like his own. When he looked up, he could see Doris above him, her face shining in the moonlight and her hair was heavy about her face, as if it had dried from wet without styling, the strands roped together and limp. “What the devil are you doing here?” he hissed, and disappointment made him harsher than he would have been otherwise.

“I didn’t mean to startle you,” said Doris. “But you need to come with me.”

“Keep your voice down!” said Frank, still annoyed but with a hold on himself now. He turned his back, pulled his trousers on over his pyjama bottoms because he didn’t want to ask her to turn her back, didn’t want to try wrapping the sheet around him in preservation of modesty. Even as he said it he felt her roll her eyes – the room he shared was the size of a large hall now, his room-mate pressed up against a distant wall and undisturbed. He fumbled with his shoes and even before they were fully on he was being tugged out of that cavernous room, down a corridor that stretched ahead and down stairs much longer than they needed to be, out into the dark.

“The stars look so bright here, don’t they?” said Doris, but all the stars that Frank could see were lower down, the lights on in the labs – only the true night-owls in them now, and the ones too exhausted to sleep – further away than they should have been. “I was in Ashley Pond” – “At night?” Frank interrupted, and he was even less interested in stars then, for their brightness on the mesa might be enough to show how his cheeks flushed – and Doris giggled. “Yes, Frank, at night,” she said, and he would have liked the way she sounded if there had been anything about her that was his, that could have been his if only things were different. “I was swimming. Floating, really, on my back and looking up. And I felt… I felt…Well. It’s easier just to show you.”

It was a long, quick-stepping walk to the Pond and when they arrived, Doris let go his hand and began to unbutton her blouse.

“Frank?” she said, smiling up at him from where she had bent to get out of her shoes. “Get on with it, will you?” There was something in her voice that sounded like a challenge, and for a moment Frank wondered if he should shrink from it, from vows that weren’t his but were vows nonetheless, but there was a little voice in his head then – a voice that sounded like his, the same tone and timbre and lilt. A voice that wasn’t his, warm and teasing in its familiarity.

“What are you waiting for?” that voice said, and it was a voice he’d never hear living again, that only came to him now in dreams. “Don’t make the lady ask twice, you idiot.”

He didn’t ask twice, but holding his tongue didn’t stop all the reservations in his mouth and they crouched there, heavy on his tongue as Frank stood in water up to his neck, feeling his feet in the mud, his flesh cooling in dark water, weighted down with wanting. Doris was almost pressed close to him, close enough that his brain stutter-started and all thought of wedding rings were gone, her hands resting on his shoulders because the water was too deep for her.

“Touch me,” she said and Frank reached for her, one hand lost in darkness below around the smooth flank of her waist, the other reaching up through the water and there she was in his hands, the smooth round flesh of her, the way her nipple felt in his palm. “Not like that,” she said and he jerked his hand back then, his face hot all over and perhaps if he’d done what his brother did, spent less time studying then he’d never have needed the instruction here, never have got it all so wrong and even if taking his brother’s path meant death in France, meant blood and slaughter then at least there wouldn’t be such embarrassment in it, such humiliation. But “It’s alright,” she said, and held his hand to her, forced his fingers open and encouraged his hand back to her breast, arched into him as if it were alright, really, and when she breathed out again, slipped further down into water her other hand slipped cool and wet over his face, closing his eyes to her. “Like this,” she said, and in the new darkness he felt her skin change. “Do you feel it?” she said. “Do you?”

Los Alamos

There were times when Helen wasn’t quite sure if she were asleep or awake. She existed in a shrinking world, one where beds were vanishing, merging into each other as the boundary on the edge of Bletchley tightened, drew ever closer. No-one was willing now to share beds, to become so entangled with their partner, to share flesh and bone and brain and dream. Instead, they slept in shifts and corners, and Helen woke once on one of the last cots to find a Colossus nudging against her mattress, its own bed-frame form fusing with the iron stead at the foot of her own.

For a time she and V. had kept themselves separate, on opposite shifts and their sleep cycles timed so as not to coincide. It didn’t make any difference – Helen was beginning to see through more eyes than her own and consciousness was no barrier. When she slept, she dreamt that she was transcribing code, checking tables and winding paper tapes onto machines, her fingers smelling of the French glue that kept the tape circling for decoding in giant speeding loops. When her fingers smelled of glue in truth, the letters blurred before her waking eyes and there was V.’s ring on her finger, a dream-state of love and naked flesh with nothing for her to do but clamp her legs together under the little desk and try to pretend that the pulsing between her thighs was a figment, a distraction from an often-boring job and not her sister’s sex.

And that still wasn’t the worst of it. V. was first and easiest, for all their caution, for they had been one to begin with once and this was just coming back together again, a natural thing. But every day there were different dreams, different persons coming all the way into her as the borders slimmed and deadened down to nothing, down to dregs and secrets and silence. As they were all opened up to her, laid bare.

Los Alamos

Her body was a puzzle to him. Frank had learned the shape of it first, the taste and heat and smell of it and on one level it was no longer a mystery to him. Still exciting, still forbidden and that made it even better, making sure not to get caught, not to be seen in betrayal. But when he closed his eyes Doris became a puzzle to him, a problem he couldn’t figure out, he who could use equations and models to map almost anything, to feel his way around the building blocks of cosmos. When he closed his eyes, he didn’t feel flesh – but his brother’s eyes were gone now, closed for good in the mud of trenches so it was no wonder that his sight was coming out all wrong for their eyes had been the same.

“I was floating in the Pond,” she said, “and I was thinking of how nice it was, and how nice I felt and even when you’re alone it can be lovely, the way it feels. And I got so caught up I forgot to worry about it, about any of it – France and Alamos and the bomb, and Harry out there all on his own. I wasn’t thinking at all. And I closed my eyes and I could feel it – the water and the way it held me and how my own fingers moved so nicely” (Frank had blushed here but hadn’t looked away, had wondered about repeat experiments, how it would feel to watch) “and then I felt other things.”

Rock. Ignimbrite, the dusty surface of mesa, the small green prickles of pine. Frank felt them too, over the surface of her body, over the surface of his own.

“They can’t both be right,” he said, afraid it was his mind – her mind as well, maybe all their minds, twisted somehow in the shadow of the bomb, a cruel consequence of physics. After all, when his eyes were open his hands felt what they should feel and that was soft, pliant, absent of geology.

Doris sat up in his bed, wrapped the sheet around her. Frank’s roommate was gone for the day, wrapped up in his section, in a flurry of calculation and breakthrough and the distance between rooms come too disturbing for casual visits. Most stayed in the crowds, now, where contact was an easier thing. “Close your eyes,” she said again. Then, “hold your arms up, that’s right. In front of you. Now walk.”

“Where?” said Frank, as if it mattered. As if there was anything in this room, the size of a baseball field (the room that was once so small it had seemed too tiny for two) that he could trip over. “Anywhere,” he heard, and so he walked forward, confident in the space around, and in three paces his hands hit a wall.

When he turned around, Doris was curled up on his bed, a hundred yards away.

Bletchley Park

Helen’s world had walls now, in a way that she’d never had before, back when she had believed the world was an open place, a place for her to be open in. Certainly, there had been times when she felt cooped up, locked in – so many sisters, such an omnipresence of her face – but she’d always been able to go out into the garden, look up at night and see the stars. See infinity, with her life at the centre of it and space all around.

Then she came to Bletchley and that was a world that was circumscribed, where the walls were more than the walls of her bedroom: temporary, and with windows. She learned stifling there, and suffocation, but even so it was a considered thing, a place where she could still exist under starlight, for Bletchley was a microcosm, a line between. She was there, and V. was there and all the rest, for purpose – so that the world outside would still be felt, would still exist in ways that mattered more than telegrams and casualty lists and radio transmissions.

“One day, this will all be over,” V. had said to her once, when Helen had come off a long shift, her head swollen and aching from cryptography, from the cramped and crucial efforts of code. “One day we’ll look back and think this was fun. We’ll laugh.”

“We won’t,” said Helen. “Because we won’t talk about it.” Because they had signed to say that they wouldn’t, because they had given their word. But their silence would be the silence of the world that they would go out into, the nature of their binding invisible.

And yet it was not temporary. Bletchley shrank, and the walls were hard up against them, brick and plaster and wood part of their bodies now as they were part of each other, as they were part of all the bodies at Bletchley, and all the glass and all the code, and pressed up against the outside of them was a world they could never reach, never fully be part of again. A world without their density, a world without their weight, where their presence was a shadowed thing and felt in absence. Outside, the world was fish-eyed: skewed around, bent as if in lenses. Helen could see the places that Bletchley had been, the places it had touched, and they were separated from her: the empty pits in London where the bombs had dropped, the memorials, the safer seas. All this she felt, at distance, and could not say how it was that she knew it. Bletchley was heavy, dense, a black hole in the Buckinghamshire countryside and on its edges was Whitehall, was Dollis Park, was the sinking, shrinking orbit of everything around, everything affected.

She could see the dome of Saint Paul’s from her bedroom window, from the windowless rooms where the Colossi were kept locked in and blacked out. She could see London bridge at the manor gate.

On clear days, Helen could see that she was surrounded by ocean.

Los Alamos

As the mesa stretched around him, Frank wondered whether it would crack in the stretching, whether it would become thin as eggshells and as fragile, baked under the hot summer sun of New Mexico, baked in the shadow of a different sun. Whether it would crack under his footprints, able to be levered up then and the old world underneath, the world that existed before the energy of atoms came to change it.

Doris, he thinks, would have called that an unworthy thought. “You know what we’re doing here,” she had said, naked against him and her wedding band shining in the light because she never looked away and there was no shell thick enough for her to hide her adultery beneath, no shell she wouldn’t have cracked to keep the truth from being buried under. “You know what we’re doing here.”

No. It wasn’t a shell. He watched Alamos stretch, watched the distances between their labs and themselves and knew that the new world they were creating wasn’t one that could be dug up again. It didn’t come in layers – distinct, with edges that cut. It came with softness, with sympathy, and so thin now that Frank could see through it, as though the essence of Alamos had spilled over the steep walls of the mesa, bleeding through into other lands, other countries.

When his time at Alamos was over, he carried it with him. He saw the labs superimposed on college campuses, the calculations carved into rock. All the scientists he ever met wore pork pie hats and everything he ever touched was gritty, as if overlaid by sand.

It made secret-keeping a mockery, really, when the secrets were so open, blasted into prominence on islands across the Pacific, and handed off on little bridges. Always, always there was that little bridge, on the edge of sight and on it stood a man who Frank worked with, sometimes, and never really knew. His name was Klaus, and he carried Alamos in his briefcase as Frank carried it in his eyes, in his touch – carried it to give away to outsiders on bridges, and to cover the world over with Alamos, to spread it wide and thinly so the holocaust that first ignited on the White Sands could spread everywhere, could spread all over.

Frank had never been a spy, never been a traitor, so he never took himself off to Moscow, to any of the cold countries come up with the end of one war and the beginning of another, but he saw photographs, sometimes, and the Lodge was there, pressed cheek by jowl first against the Kremlin then other buildings, other governments, and he wondered, sometimes, if when Stalin breathed in of a morning he could smell pine trees and mesquite.

Frank existed in two worlds, as if his twin had come back to him in ignimbrite and undercurrents. He spent his days walking between old landmarks and dust and white sands followed him all his days.

Bletchley Park

The thing that had been Helen – when she was Helen, when she was a separate creature, one who had boundaries and who understood islands, and what it was to be one – had only sensations of weight, and pressure, of rapid mental blinking. Bletchley now was so heavy, so massive, that it drew them all in together, bound them with its own gravity, stamped secrecy on their bones. They had signed in blood, all of them, or good as, and even when the outside world pressed against them that thin signed sheet left smears of ink along what had been cheekbones and glass valves and precedence, and kept silence.

A thought came: It’s like being in trapped in glass, but all the glass was smashed when the Colossi were destroyed, the machines broken down into little pieces no bigger than a fist. And that thought wasn’t Helen’s, that blink had never been hers – but neither was the feel of a blue-stoned ring on her finger, the sensation of another moving inside her and these had come to be her own. All of them had come to be her own, with Bletchley compressed down, smaller and smaller and oh, so heavy.

Perhaps we’re the size of a football now, thought one and she didn’t know if it was her. Perhaps we’re the size of a cricket ball. Perhaps we can fit on the head of a pin. A strong pin, not to buckle under. Not when there was such injustice in the squeezing.

Not fair, thought another when news came in from the outside, news of another computer – one called ENIAC, and feted as the first. Not the first, not the first! And Helen wanted to cry out in protest as much as the rest of them but space was not their friend, nor secrets, and Bletchley was so dense, the space between so tiny that there wasn’t any shouting that could breach the barrier, that couldn’t be pulled back by weight. And even if there was a way, even they could, they had made promises and that made the silence heavier than anything else.

No good. It was no good. There were some boundaries that couldn’t be crossed, some experiences of closeness, of bringing together and insularity, that could never be communicated. That could warp away, that could shift space-time and keep them enclosed in pockets, away from what was once familiar and which had become untouchable.

V., the thing that had been Helen thought. V. And it was cry and recognition at once, for V., was with her, pressed against and inside and the two of them closer now than they’d ever been in the womb, with all the space between them, between each separate atom of them, each cell divided away from each other, gone away. V.

I’m here.

____

Copyright 2017 

Octavia Cade’s stories have appeared in Clarkesworld, Asimov’s, and Strange Horizons, amongst others. She has a particular interest in science history, and this story is one of a series that she’s writing that are linked to the WW2 cryptographic work at Bletchley Park. She lives in New Zealand, and attended Clarion West 2016.

 

 

by Tracy Canfield

 

The stereopsis module clicked open in Wren’s fingers. “For the next five minutes,” she said, “try not to play any ping-pong.”

She sliced deftly into my abdomen, and though my somatic subsystem signaled pain, I didn’t wince – wouldn’t want her to think I was nervous.

Usually Wren’s workbench loops were stuffed with starship components for customers brave enough to scavenge the Drift or rich enough to pay someone else to. Today, though, she was down to a disassembled Kviksølv cyborg body. Well, a knockoff Kviksølv. Wren unclipped a cable and my view of the bench sank to 2D as my eyes automatically switched to my backup visual processor.

“Okay, Buffalo, here goes.” She waved theatrically. Her fingers were grubby, but her burgundy nail polish was unscratched.

With a flare, the new Kviksølv stereopsis module brought the third dimension surging back. The workshop had developed a red tint, though, like a bootleg romcom dribbling over the ansible from seventy light-years away. I tried to recalibrate off my memories of Wren’s dark skin, but it didn’t help.

“Don’t tell me,” she said. “The camera’s adding ten pounds.”

“Depth’s good,” I said. “Color’s off. Might need a software patch.”

She drummed her fingernails on the bench. “I’ll see what I can do, but I doubt anyone’s ported the drivers. Your operating system is …” Obsolete, I thought. “Legacy,” she finished. “Now, if you wanted me to upgrade you into the Kviksølv –”

The comms rack hooted. Wren squinted past me at the screen. I have the parts to connect to the repair base computers directly, but I never enable them. I’m too much of a machine as it is.

“Someone called the Plasma Push wants clearance to land.” Wren’s gaze flicked back and forth across the display. “Ever hear of these guys?”

“Nope.” I leaned back and scanned the screen anyway. Had Ypsilanti Rowe ever heard of them, that’s what she meant.

“Base broadcast,” said Wren. “‘Plasma Push, you here to buy something? Otherwise you can dock at the Flotsam.’

The Plasma Push replied with a flash of torpedo tubes.

“Guess he doesn’t like their two-drink minimum,” said Wren. “I hope you can still shoot with that Kviksølv, Buffalo, ’cause there’s no time to pull it out.” Worry creased her face. Base defense had been hard enough back when there were three of us.

I held my guts shut with one hand and vaulted easily into the gunners’ chair –Wren had set up her repair shop on an asteroid where gravity was less of a law and more of a gentle suggestion. The incoming torpedo was still half a klick out, so I spared a precious half-second to fire off an automated alert to the sheriff. I didn’t expect any help from that quarter, but the record would show that we’d asked.

“I’ll handle the Push,” said Wren. “You keep those torps from flattening my mechanics.”

The combat display limned Wren’s magnetic bursters streaking towards the red ellipse of the Plasma Push. She was hoping to knock out its computer systems and salvage it. How much would we get for a high-end armed cruiser like that? I wondered. There might be flashier tech in the Drift, but the Push would bring in good cash, even after the sheriff took his cut. Maybe enough to hire a professional programmer from out in the Intersolar to code up some custom optical drivers for me.

But right now I had other worries. I latched my targeting ring onto the torpedo and squeezed the bars, blasting out high-impact rounds. I didn’t want the chair’s control ports – or need them. I have Ypsilanti’s memories, fresh as the day he stuck his head in the braincaster: Orbital Patrol flight school and freelance piloting through the roughest parts of the galactic arm. Plus my own fifteen years scavenging the Drift.

I stole a glance at Wren’s sly smile. My drives had plenty of room for one memory more.

I hated to turn back to the screen. The Push‘s torpedo pulsed closer, an inflamed red teardrop, and my shots’ gentle green trajectories curved to intercept it. Closer, closer – and then the attacking teardrop split in three.

My false-green bullets obediently wiped away the center target, the chunk of the torpedo that had stayed on the original course. That one would be a dummy – the warheads were on the daughter torps. I snapped my guns to spray.

The Kviksølv components rattled against the bench padding. Wren’s mechanics had loosed an artillery barrage from the gun battery in the spinward bay. With luck, even civilians like them could keep our airspace too hot for the Plasma Push to land. The Push could still bombard us from above, though, until and unless Wren and I brought it down.

Wren’s own burster shots were still only halfway to the Push. She fired off a second wave. “Buffalo, you got those baby torps under control? I want this jackass’s hide. Ammo costs money.”

“Don’t you worry,” I said, but I was worrying a little myself. The torpedoes were closing in on the base, and our domes wouldn’t hold up to a direct hit. I didn’t care about air, but I did care about Wren.

My autonomic modules wouldn’t switch on my synthetic sweat glands in the cool workroom air, but my hands were tight on the firing bars. I raked my shots across the torpedoes’ course.

The combat display chittered. A new dot was streaking into range – a second warship. Some bizarre model I’d never seen, a mass of chrome bubbles never meant to taste atmosphere. It didn’t even have viewports. The sheer strangeness of it confirmed what the combat screen’s plot of its course was telling me: it was straight out of the Drift.

“Wren, I guess even jackasses have friends. And this guy’s from the wrong side of the tracks.” The Drift was a Darwinian stew of wild AIs, endlessly devising new tech and building new ships to battle each other. Fortunately for everyone, they stayed there. Or they had, until, apparently, now. Too bad there wasn’t time to blast out another message to Sheriff Thibodeaux. “Drift ship attacking” would certainly grab his attention.

Wren rattled off some high-octane profanity. “That’s not a salvager, that’s salvage. The hell with capturing the Push. Let’s just stay alive.”

My bullet spray wiped one warhead off the display, and I turned my guns on the second. This close, the torpedo’s jammers were fuzzing the base sensors. The target jittered on my screen.

I instinctively switched to cameras and zoomed in. The display couldn’t keep the tactical overlay synched, and the torpedo was barely a gray smudge against the starfield. In a few seconds, it would smash into the base. I had one shot.

I dialed up the precision fire controls. The smaller caliber wouldn’t have the punch to knock the warhead out altogether, but if I could lead it just right …

My vision flickered.

I held my breath. My atmospheric sensor bleeped a warning.

The world reappeared, and I fired.

My bullets trimmed away the torpedo’s fins and sent it spinning into the dead rock beyond the base walls. I felt the slam of impact.

“You got it!” Wren whooped. “I’m not even going to complain about re-forceforming that landing field.” Wren was still alive, and I was still – well – me.

I swung my targeting ring toward the Plasma Push, but the rotten little bastard was racing away, out of our orbit and out of range. Had that Drift ship scared it off? If so, they weren’t working together. I wasn’t sure if that was good news or bad.

The Drift ship hadn’t fired. My screen showed a data squirt, but it wasn’t a standard ship hail, just a series of plaintext words: clip clock block solder light to tendon guard cover cushion keep keep safe.

“Should we be writing this down?” I said.

Not having received whatever mad answer it hoped for, the ship fired its torch and turned back Driftwards.

“Well,” said Wren, “that’s interesting. I’ll have some mechanics come up and warm our gun chairs for a few hours. I think it’s time for a visit to the sheriff’s office.”

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Everyone told Iron Jill she should’ve named the Flotsam the Corkscrew. “We can’t serve wine until Tramptown starts growing grapes,” she’d say in her gritty monotone. Same delivery every time. I never knew whether she was joking – I think her emotion chips were burned out.

The Flotsam was a vast spiral of metal and forceformed concrete, cruising among the miscellaneous scavenging ships that comprised Tramptown. It was too big and balky to be called a ship; the Flotsam’s engines were barely big enough to spin up a gentle half-Earth gravity that comforted visitors from the Intersolar and discouraged the locals from brawling.

The Flotsam’s bulky backbone was probably built to house starships while they were under construction, but long before my time, Jill towed it out of the Drift and set up shop. The only habitable section was the domed bar inside one end of the vast tube. But the Flotsam was more than a watering hole; salvagers came here when they didn’t feel like attending the Tramptown Baptist Church but still needed to see someone besides their own shipmates. Automated trade shuttles brought in what we couldn’t rig up for ourselves – like snacks from the middle of the food chain instead of the sludgy bottom, or Kviksølv cyborg bodies – and left with whatever technology we’d scavenged from the Drift. Iron Jill could even afford decent ansible bandwidth to the Intersolar. Someday the Flotsam would be the nucleus of a real town.

It was purely logical that Sheriff Thibodeaux would set himself up in the back room. Nothing to do with the Flotsam having the best stills in Tramptown. Of course not.

Thibodeaux’s office reeked of fried seaweed and mustard; he obviously didn’t take his meals with the common salvagers. He clinked his shot glass onto the magnetic coaster installed in his desktop.

“Nothing comes out of the Drift except salvagers,” he grunted, “so what makes you think that’s suddenly changed?” The counter app I’d coded on the fly popped a 3 into my visual display.

“Look at my logs if you don’t believe me.” Wren leaned her elbows on Thibodeaux’s smart desk. “And I’m a lot more interested in this Plasma Push newcomer, seeing as that’s who actually shot at me.”

“Which I understand to be illegal,” I said. Thibodeaux snorted at Wren, like her communicator had warbled some embarrassing cyborg boy-band ringtone, and poured himself another shot.

Thibodeaux had turned up in the Drift last year with an armed ship and an intriguing proposal. He’d heard Tramptown was getting big enough for a sheriff, and he wanted the job. He ran unopposed – truthfully, most of us had been thankful for the chance to give that authority to someone without a stake in any of Tramptown’s long-running feuds.

Wren tapped her wristpad against Thibodeaux’s desk. Logfiles and photos scrolled by under the grease stains.

“That’s a Silverback-model cruiser,” said Thibodeaux. “Like the Intersolar cops have. Wouldn’t mind flying one myself, if people would get better about paying their ten percent into the law enforcement budget.”

He sipped his whiskey. “When the Plasma Push‘s crew gets to the Flotsam, I’ll talk with them about the local customs. Now, about this ship you say came out of the Drift …” I bumped the counter to 4, set my ears to record the conversation, and started replaying my favorite memory. My first.

Wren tightened the pads around my head. I closed my eyes as Ypsilanti, and opened them as me. Silver threads had appeared in her black braids, and her smile was tight. I noticed the roundness of her face before her pregnant belly.

“You hear me okay?” she said. “Because I won’t fit into my v-suit much longer, and I could use some help around here.”

That bulge was her son Prentiss. Another, less welcome memory bubbled up – Prentiss ambushed by the Drift ship Absolute Magnitude, gasping, metal tendrils wrapping his throat.

My recording program blinked: Wren and Thibodeaux’s conversation had shifted to a new subject. I replayed the last few seconds.

“You still keeping Ypsilanti’s cyborg around?” said Thibodeaux’s recorded voice. I switched my attention to the here-and-now.

“Buffalo works for me,” said Wren, matter-of-fact. “Gets a paycheck and everything.”

Thibodeaux uncoupled the shot glass and swished whiskey in his mouth. “Don’t suppose you’ve seen Ypsilanti lately.”

“Can’t say I have.” Wren’s voice had cooled. I didn’t think Thibodeaux picked up on it.

Thibodeaux looked me over appraisingly. I’d liked it better when he ignored me.

“So Ypsilanti abandoned this cyborg. That means that if you plan to hang onto it, you’re salvaging it, and you owe me ten percent of the value.”

“God damn it,” said Wren. “What is it with you? Every couple of weeks you come nosing around my base, checking whether I’ve picked up anything I owe you on, even though you and I both know it’s been years since I went into the Drift – and even though Buffalo’s lived, uh, been in Tramptown since before you got here. My mechanic business is a full-time job and then some, but there you are, clomping around with your scanner and your spreadsheet. I might as well outsource my inventory management to the sheriff’s office. To think I voted for you.”

“Never let it be said I showed my supporters any favoritism,” said Thibodeaux. He stood up – the meeting was over. “I’m off to tell the Pechins to keep their hands off other people’s nori webs. We’ll talk later about what this cyborg’s worth.”

“You might never have been to the Drift,” I said, “but you oughta know that around here, some salvage shoots back.”

“I’ll keep it mind,” said Thibodeaux, and held out his hand. I spent way too many computational cycles deciding whether shaking it was manly or cowardly.

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Iron Jill was spraying down the bar with a jet of carbonated water from her finger. I bellied up and ordered moonshine, coconut extract, extra grenadine – real liquid, not the algae gel you settle for out in micrograv. “For Wren?” Jill creaked.

She was a cyborg too, an older model, all metal and plastic. My silicone skin made me look human, but she’d never fool anyone.

“For Wren.” Neither Jill nor I ran on calories. “Throw in some of those chili strips. Hey, you seen any new ships around – maybe someone called the Plasma Push?” I thought about mentioning that strange ship from the Drift, but didn’t know how to answer the questions Jill was sure to ask.

“No new ships.” Jill counted my credit chips with her left hand, a surgical prosthetic designed for finer work. After she’d lost her factory-install in a docking accident on an Intersolar world years ago, she’d flown a cheap freighter to Tramptown, scavenged a dumb chunk of concrete from the Drift, and fused the two into the Flotsam. My color vision flickered, tinting her green.

Iron Jill was my future. I could replace my failing parts, for a while. But eventually there’d be nothing on the market I was compatible with, and Wren and I would jury-rig until our skill ran out. You can’t patch old jeans with new denim.

Wren waved me over – she’d snagged a table with a privacy hood. The Flotsam’s floor was transparent, and when the local gas giant Kameekoru slid past in the viewpane, she bounced her lucky ping-pong ball off it.

“Chili strips? Don’t mind if I do!” She broke one under her nose. Kelp flakes fluttered past her smile. “Gets the smell of Thibodeaux’s lunch out of my sinuses.”

I snagged the ping-pong ball on the rebound and snapped it at a distant, familiar flicker. Even through a viewpane, the Drift always gives me the shivers; I feel like I’m being watched. “Sounds to me like we’re on our own,” I said, “unless the Push parks in Thibodeaux’s docking space. We were better off without a sheriff.”

“Don’t say that,” said Wren, suddenly fierce. The ping-pong ball rattled under the table. “How many repairs did I barely break even on because some tough guy decided he deserved a discount, and I didn’t have the firepower to say no? Now at least we have a sheriff, and a two-cell jail, and a random lottery for jury slots. The old Tramptown was no place to raise a kid–” She stopped, hearing her own words.

I wanted to reach for her hand. That’s what Ypsilanti would’ve done, though he would’ve been more interested in looking like a compassionate guy – and maybe getting somewhere with Wren – than in how she actually felt. Instead I changed the subject. Fifteen years as friends had taught me she’d welcome the distraction.

“Maybe someday we’ll have an actual lawbook,” I said, “not just what Thibodeaux picks up from the Intersolar cop shows.” The seam where Wren had glued my abdomen back together tickled. Too bad there wasn’t a ping-pong match to distract us even more. The Flotsam was the only place in Tramptown that pulled enough g for a proper game, but all the customers were buzzing around the bar instead. “Shit, Wren, you’re right; life’s better. But we both know that if some scavenger broke me down for scrap, Thibodeaux might maybe warn them for littering.”

“Is it really two years to the next election? Christ.” She ran her burgundy fingernail around the lip of her glass.

Kameekoru slipped past the edge of the transparent floor panel. We scavengers didn’t bother orbiting it. There’s nothing there, unless you like hydrogen and gravelly little moons.

But we wouldn’t be here without it. Any object in its orbital zone was nudged by Kameekoru’s vast gravitational dominance, herded into the Lagrange points in its orbit. One cluster of asteroids at the L4 point was forever running away from the gas giant– that’s where we’d built Tramptown. And there was stranger cluster anti-spinward at L5 – the Drift. Once it had been a military shipyard, back in our granddads’ wars; now it was a bubbling Petri dish of combat AIs evolving new ways to kill each other.

Wren toyed with her swizzle stick, staring into the swirling liquids like a kid – it wasn’t something you got to do every day in the microgravity back on base. She looked more sad than dreamy.

“I wonder if Thibodeaux hates Jill the way he hates me?” I said, to lighten things up. “He doesn’t act as hostile towards her. Maybe he doesn’t want to piss off the gal who could put silicone lube in his whiskey.”

“Watch out for Thibodeaux,” said Wren. “He might take it into his head to collect his ten percent by weight.”

“If he hasn’t done it yet, he’s not going to.”

“I wouldn’t bet on it.” She sipped the red-swirled booze. “I don’t know why you stick around here. Some worlds in the Intersolar give cyborgs citizenship. The traders who pass through here can always use pilots, and gunners, and mechanics; I’d vouch for you.”

I thought of Prentiss’s body, the wet hole through his head.

“I like it here,” I said.

“Bull and also shit. I’ve known you longer than you’ve known yourself.”

The body language around the bar was looking rowdy. “Whatever’s so exciting over there, we don’t want to get left out of it,” I said. I snapped the privacy hood off, thankful for any excuse to change the subject.

Spacers were slapping money down on the bar for Iron Jill to sort into surgically precise piles. Natsuki Tedjo tossed in a chit. “Nobody’s ever flown through the Flotsam’s spiral at full speed,” the stocky red-booted scavenger was saying, “and I’ve got a pair of lifters says this new guy can’t do it either.”

Actually Ypsilanti Rowe had done it – raced his souped-up freighter down the Flotsam’s massive forceformed coil and mooned the bargoers on the way past. I remember every white-knuckled second. But he’s gone, and I have too much sense to try it myself. I quit pulling stunts like that when Prentiss was born.

Wren tossed back her drink. “With luck, flyboy’ll oversteer and come to us with repairs. With real luck, he’ll clip someone else’s ship, and we’ll get two paychecks.”

“With the luck we’ve been having, he’ll take out this dome and land square on our heads. Let me see what I can do.”

I got up to look for whoever was fool enough to try this stunt, but a heavy hand on my shoulder stopped me.

“Buffalo,” creaked Iron Jill. “I have a message for you.”

“Not now,” I said. “For the love of Euler, you and I’ll survive if this guy crashes into the glass, but won’t you mind losing all your customers?”

Her artificial grip didn’t loosen. “A message,” she said. She opened her mouth and the synthesizer where her tongue should have been spooled out the recording. “Watch watch over sentinel … all flesh will see buffalo … conserve preserve defend.”

It had to be from the same ship that had scared off the Plasma Push. Weird enough for some Drift ship to turn up at the Flotsam. It couldn’t be following me…could it? All flesh will see buffalo.

“Awaiting your response,” said Iron Jill. The crowd jostled around the bar viewscreens, peered up at the transparent ceiling, searching for the glint of the daredevil’s ship.

Shit, shit, I needed to do something before this dumbass stunt killed us all. “Tell it to hang on,” I said.

“Contact broken,” said Jill. “The source ship has left comms range.”

I dodged around her. There was no sign of the Drift ship’s chrome spheres on the bar screens, which were already tracking the incoming daredevil, extrapolating his course down the Flotsam’s throat. Only a couple of meters’ margin on either side. I didn’t like it.

The screens cut from camera to camera, algorithmically seeking the optimal shot. On the spiral’s exterior, customer ships bobbed at the ends of their tethers. One of the Flotsam’s engines, cannibalized long ago from Iron Jill’s freighter, glowed a lazy nuclear blue.

A blaze leapt among the stars – the daredevil ship had fired its torch. It raced towards the cameras, towards us. The plotter spun out one delicate extrapolation after another; the pilot had a light touch on the stick, adjusting again and again every second, feeling out the course that wouldn’t splatter him flat across the Flotsam‘s ribs.

“He’s cutting it too damn close,” I murmured. I looked up at the ceiling viewframe, but braced myself for impact.

The ship whipped into sight, and as it did, it flipped its atmospheric wings open, waggling them while it blew past. It missed the dome by centimeters, but it did miss. I replayed the split second. The wings were painted with naked mermaids. I simulated an internal groan.

The bar screens flicked up the ship’s request for a video feed, and Iron Jill obliged, though no one could hear over the shouting.

Grinning from the cockpit, slouching back in his pilot’s chair and running a hand through his tousled hair, was none other than Ypsilanti Rowe.

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Ypsilanti strutted across the bar, ankle-deep in Tramptown scrip and Intersolar credit chits, shaking hands and tossing down vacuum-sealed duck eggs to the cheering spacers. He had money to blow through, and it hadn’t all gone for party favors – the palms of his hands flashed a fishy white, the telltale sign of pricy rejuv. He was king of the mountain, and we weren’t.

“Hear about that civil war on Perun?” he said. “C’mon, Jill, you can’t show Intersolar sports all the time; you need to broaden folks’ minds. I met this very interesting – algae rum? don’t mind if I do – this very interesting Perunite, smart guy, university professor, who wanted to make sure Perun’s heritage wasn’t wiped out in the bombing.”

“And you helped him relocate it,” said Natsuki. Ypsilanti threw her a baggie of paprika, and she tucked it into her boot. “What a humanitarian.”

“Well, I did receive a modest payment from the collector who found the artifacts a happy new home.” Ypsilanti hooked a thumb through a belt loop, casual, like he’d never considered the monetary aspect until now.

But his practiced cool faltered when he saw me. He scratched his chin, to cover his facial expression, and I was annoyed to notice I was doing the same thing.

“It’s like looking into a mirror,” he said. Was he vain enough to think so? His rejuv was good, but he didn’t look fifteen years younger. “Hey, Wren.” He reached for her hand. “Guess you just couldn’t stand to give me up.”

The spacers guffawed. What did they really think of Wren keeping me around? What would they say if we’d been a couple?

“How’s the Bellerophon?” said Wren, the way she’d ask another guy about his wife and kids.

“Better than ever, and ever was pretty damn hot,” said Ypsilanti, scooping up his winnings. “New sensor rig. Orbital Patrol itself doesn’t have this stuff yet.”

If I’m vain enough to think I look better than him, I mused, he’s vain enough to think I don’t.

“Sorry, folks, got a date with the lady.” Ypsilanti flipped a credit chip to Jill, but the cyborg missed the catch, and the chit clinked into a jar of pickled kelp.

“Usually dates get arranged ahead of time,” said Wren. “Guess you wanted to see if there were any girls who were younger, prettier, and buying your brand of bullshit.”

Ypsilanti slipped his arm around her waist. Wren never had rejuv – the fifteen years that had passed had left crinkles around her eyes, a more generous curve at her hips. But she was still beautiful and she knew it. A perfboard barrette snapped back her crinkly curls, and her flight suit was tailored to flatter. Ypsilanti’s showing her off, making sure everybody knows he has money in his pockets, mermaids on his wings, and a woman in every port.

He gave her a roguish squeeze. “Let’s talk somewhere private.”

Wren jerked her thumb towards a booth with a hood.

“More private than that. I think Jill can read lips. Your place?”

Wren smiled indulgently. “We don’t need that much privacy.”

“Maybe we do.”

They faced each other, irresistible charm versus immovable grit. I could guess what thoughts were turning behind Wren’s narrowed eyes. Last time around, Ypsilanti’s deeds hadn’t lived up to his promises, and now here he stood, just as he had so long ago, hinting at bigger and better promises. At last she nodded and started for the airlock.

“How could she resist?” said Ypsilanti. “This way she gets two of me.” I snorted, which was kind of for the crowd too.

I had Ypsilanti’s memories of making love to Wren; I replayed them often, savoring her purring little laugh, her half-lidded eyes, the delectable nape of her neck. But right at that moment, I was so jealous I could have erased them all.

In the airlock I felt intensely self-conscious. Wren and Ypsilanti were still safety-checking their v-suits long after I’d pulled my hood on. All I need is the heater in my clothes and enough air pressure to talk.

“Planet-raised food for Natsuki Tedjo,” said Wren. “Who you hate. So you’re finally rich?”

“Not as rich as I’m about to be,” said Ypsilanti. “And you are going to be part of it. And so are you.” He turned his roguish smile on me. I had to fight to keep my facial tensors from mimicking the expression. It was uncanny, like looking into a mirror with a mind of its own. “I guess you would be Ypsilanti?” he said. “Maybe Little Ypsi?”

“They call me Buffalo,” I said.

“Let’s set up a secure channel,” said Wren. She bumped Ypsilanti’s helmet, then mine. My transrec light clicked to blue.

The lock seals drained air back into the Flotsam. Beyond the hatch, the stars glittered like a fistful of diamond dust: ten thousand worlds I could wander if I hadn’t planted myself in Tramptown.

The three of us clumped down the magnetic path that led between the starship tethers. Iron Jill didn’t see any profit in maintaining that much enclosed tunneling.

“So, Ypsilanti, now that we have all this privacy, tell me something.” said Wren over the transrec. “You show up at the exact same time as a cruiser called the Plasma Push. And you’re both interested in me. Don’t tell me that’s a coincidence.”

“The Plasma Push?” said Ypsilanti innocently. He might really not have known about the ship; he and I are pretty good liars.

“Someone looking for you? Did you run out of places you’re welcome?”

“I piss off a lot of people, Wren. You know that. But I wasn’t followed – I set course for Tramptown in a stretch of vacuum light-hours from any scanners.”

We padded past Iron Jill’s old ship, the nameless freighter that brought her to Tramptown. The life support and toilets had been stripped out – Jill didn’t need them – and incorporated into the bar. It was little more than a shell, more decrepit than the cyborg herself.

“If you know how to get so rich in the Drift, why didn’t you do it fifteen years ago?” said Wren.

Ypsilanti’s rangy strut was unmistakable, even in his v-suit. “That professor I was telling you about, the one from Perun? He taught robotic archaeology. He’d studied a dozen AI nations – spent years out there, back when he was young enough to shuttle in and out of gravity wells.” Listening to Ypsilanti was like listening to a recording of myself. The timing, the phrasing, the wording was right, but it sounded so strange in my ears. “Well, this professor taught me some interesting things. And that is where you come in, Buffalo.” He waved a glove at me. “You can be my sidekick. How’s that?”

We were approaching the familiar form of the Bellerophon, battered but solid, its hull plates scarred by torpedo charges. It occurred to me that this was the first time I’d actually seen it. I had plenty of memories, but the Bellerophon, and Ypsilanti, had been light years away by the time Wren initialized me.

“I’m not a machine psychologist,” I said. “I’m just a pilot.”

“You’re not just a pilot,” he said. “Not with what you got from me.”

Even wearing magnetic boots, I’d say Ypsilanti swaggered into Bellerophon‘s airlock.

“Easy money,” said Wren. “Same old song.”

I had memories of Ypsilanti’s pillow talk with Wren, reassuring her that this plan or that was bound to succeed. I had older memories, from before he met her, of failed get-rich schemes on worlds throughout the Intersolar. I didn’t, of course, have memories of him telling her how those schemes had worked out.

I bumped my hood to Wren’s helmet for a new secure channel.

“Tell me I don’t talk that much,” I said.

She giggled. “Not anymore.”

“And, Wren … don’t trust him. I know him better than you do.”

“I know exactly how much I can trust him,” she said. “I trust you, don’t I?”

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“I’m surprised this thing worked at all,” said Wren from her perch on the Bellerophon‘s disconnected sensor rig. “I’ll need an angular refractor just to calibrate it.” I unclipped one from her workbench and tossed it over.

Ypsilanti stretched out in the gunnery chair. “How long will it take you?” he yawned.

Wren didn’t bother to look at him, but she didn’t frown, either. “Remember, you’re not my only customer.”

“Then let me speed things along.” He strolled over and unsnarled the dish’s web of cabling, as easily as if the fifteen years since they’d worked together had been fifteen minutes.

Wren wove the refractor in among the lines. “I saw something about your little artifact smuggling ring on the ansible at the Flotsam,” she said. “Apparently, when the dust settled, the artifacts were in the hands of the very people who should have been the first up against the wall when the shooting started. I knew you were in on it. You might as well have signed your work.”

Ypsilanti leaned in closer. “You know me too well.”

“You haven’t explained,” said Wren softly, “what makes this latest scheme of yours so brilliant.”

I double-checked that my voice would come out calm. “Don’t mind me,” I said.

Ypsilanti shot me a sidelong smile. “That robot archaeology professor, from the smuggling ring,” he said. “When he was younger, he’d spent months in micrograv, studying different machine societies – never the Drift, though, it’s too rough for an academic. And he said they all have similarities. For one thing, there’ll be some kind of monetary system – even if they don’t trade with the rest of the galaxy.”

“And where there’s money,” said Wren, “there’s Ypsilanti Rowe.”

He pouted. “I’m hurt. No, see, even in a ship-eat-ship wasteland like the Drift, some of the AIs will team up – maybe for microseconds, maybe for centuries. And they need some way of tracking who owes who what. Points. Credits. Tally marks on an asteroid. Probably, though, it’s cryptographically-signed certificates, with one long-lived ship acting as the server.”

“That money, if you want to call it that, is no good to anyone but a Drift AI,” I said. “You can’t spend it back in the Intersolar.”

“For my plan,” said Ypsilanti, “that’s not a problem. Remember that huge Drift ship, size of an orbital, always had smaller ships swarming in and out of it like a screenful of static?”

“The one we called the Absolute Magnitude,” I said.

I’d seen the Magnitude hundreds of times. Prentiss and I used to hunt the smaller ships that would cluster nearby. I scanned my memories, painful as they were – the mechanical tendrils reaching for Prentiss, Prentiss pointing his gun the wrong direction… “You’re right – other ships came and went, when the newer ones took them apart, but the Magnitude just got tougher.”

“Why would those other ships trust it enough to go inside?” said Ypsilanti. “And why would it trust them? I think it’s because they had an arrangement. The Absolute Magnitude is the cash server, and the other ships are all clients. They damage the Magnitude, they lose all their money – and so do all the other AIs in the Drift. Making the Magnitude untouchable. Every single customer doubles as a security guard.”

“And there was always a lot of comms chatter between the Magnitude and the rest of the Drift, even if we never decrypted any of it. This is just fascinating,” I said. “Maybe your professor friend can get tenure out of it. But the Magnitude is pretty hostile to Tramptown scavengers.”

“You gotta be smart,” said Ypsilanti.

“That’s not always enough,” said Wren. She lay back on a creeper and scooted under the sensor rig.

“Here’s where my plan comes in. If we had a Drift cash account on Magnitude‘s server, it’d trust us. We could fly in, just like all the Drift ships do, find the best tech on the Magnitude, and then run like hell with it. A ship that big and mean has to have cooked up some interesting innovations of its own over the years. And the Intersolar will pay and pay and pay to get them.”

“It’s a top shelf plan,” said Wren from beneath the rig. “The one little niggle I have is that we don’t have a Drift cash account. Or any way of getting one. And since your professor friend never went to the Drift, I don’t suppose he has one he’d let us use.”

“Ah, but I do,” said Ypsilanti. “Or at least I can get one. I’d scavenged one of those little ships just before I – went back to the Intersolar. I know I saw something in its files that said cash passphrase, even tried it out while I was decrypting its data, but it didn’t unlock anything.”

“But if you’d transmitted the passphrase to the Absolute Magnitude,” I said, “you would have accessed a bank account.”

“And you think that account’s still there fifteen years later?” called Wren.

“Deleting data – does that sound like any AI you’ve ever heard of?” said Ypsilanti.

“You’ve got the passphrase. You’ve got the Bellerophon. You’ll have this military-grade sensor rig by the time we’re done,” I said. “What do you need us for?”

“I don’t have the passphrase,” said Ypsilanti. “You do, Buffalo.”

Wren’s wrench rang against metal. “How’s that even possible? Buffalo’s memories from back then are copied from yours. If you don’t know it, he can’t, either. Right, Buffalo?”

“Usually,” I said, “unless …”

I skimmed the memories of that salvage run, how Ypsilanti had puzzled over the chaotic mix of English, assembly language, and AI cant in the data; how he’d tried 0940 sauce anapest throe MOV charioteer noggin as a decryption key while hissing a series of imaginative spacer oaths.

“By the time you gave up, you felt like the passphrase was worthless,” I said. “You never thought about it again. And at some point, you just forgot it.

“But you forgot after the braincast. When that memory was recorded, it was still fresh. And my memories never fade.”

Ypsilanti studied my face. “You remember it,” he said. “Yeah, you remember. What was it?”

“Why should I tell you?” I said.

He looked disconcerted. Then he chuckled. It was patronizing; I didn’t know I had it in me.

“Yeah, you’re me, all right,” he said. “You’ll get a cut, don’t worry.”

“How much of a cut?” I said.

“I’ll think it over.” Ypsilanti sauntered over to the workbench and inspected a side screen with Prentiss’s picture. “Hey, Wren,” he said, “who’s this?”

“My son,” she said.

“He around here somewhere?”

Wren slid the creeper out and sat up. “He’s dead,” she said, letting her wrench dangle. “Died in an accident, out scavenging the Drift. He was nearly fifteen.”

Ypsilanti reached down to touch her hand. “I’m sorry,” he said. “The Drift is no place for a kid.”

Wren flinched away. “Now you take an interest.”

Ypsilanti stood open-mouthed. “I didn’t know, Wren,” he said. “I didn’t know.”

“Prentiss was a great kid,” I said into the painful silence. “Smart, handy, natural pilot. And he had a good eye for salvage. We’d go out together.”

“I need to check on that pack venter at Bay Three,” said Wren. “Be right back. This is how I make my living.” She pondered something. “Buffalo, you were working that one, right? Can you spare a moment?”

There was no such repair. We walked casually out of Ypsilanti’s earshot.

“You thinking about helping him?” she said.

“Yeah,” I said. “Honestly, I am.”

“I – look, I’m not giving you an order. No matter what Thibodeaux thinks, you’re my employee, not my possession.” She tucked a stray corkscrew of hair behind her ear. “But you don’t have to do what Ypsilanti wants.”

“Wren, what Ypsilanti wants is – pretty much by definition – what I want.”

“Is it?” She looked at me from beneath long lashes. “You don’t have to justify wanting the money.”

“But I’m not settling for a cut,” I said. “We’re going in as partners.”

Back in the workshop, the comms honked. Wren brought up the details on the wall monitor and laughed. “Ships coming out of the Drift, Ypsilanti showing up after fifteen years – and now Iron Jill has left the Flotsam. She’s got that old hulk of hers in orbit, wants clearance to land.”

“I’m astounded that thing can fly,” I said. “I thought she’d stripped it to the bones.”

“I’d be surprised if she can take off again,” said Wren. “And that is no insult to our mechanics. That thing’s a hazard to navigation.” I pictured the aging cyborg, taking her ship out for one last run. I didn’t like the places that thought led me.

Wren tapped the screen. “The message is encrypted with Jill’s private key, but she says even that’s not secure enough for what she wants to talk about. Gotta be face to face. I’m clearing her for Bay One.”

“Have you started believing in coincidence?” I said.

“Nope,” said Wren. “Let’s invite Ypsilanti along. I want to see the look on his face when he realizes he’s activated Jill’s interest modules. Might be informative.”

“Ypsilanti!” I called. “Come say hello to our visitors.” Minutes later, the three of us were unsealing the Bay One hatch.

On the other side stood a big man holding a big gun. Behind him, crudely welded inside the empty hulk of Iron Jill’s ship, squatted the Plasma Push. The stranger dumped Jill’s head at our feet.

“Good to see you again, Kochevar,” said Ypsilanti.

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Shooting Jill, Kochevar said, had been the easy part.

“Told her I had some tanks of Viognier I could ship in. Gave her a sample; she stuck her finger in, said she’d take it if the price was right. Got her onto those magnetized walkways outside the dome, out of sight of the customers, and blasted her. Already had a program for rifling cyborg minds to pull out her private key.”

I took the hint. “I’ve set an auto-erase to run if I don’t have an orderly shutdown,” I said, “and I’ve never been backed up.” It was true – I’d enabled the erase procedure while he was marching us into Wren’s workshop.

“You’re not a perfect copy. You’re a little too smart,” said Kochevar. If we called the mechanics, he’d explained, he’d shoot; if we made a funny move, he’d shoot. He wasn’t yet ready to shoot us for talking out of turn. “After I sawed off the cyborg’s head, I quick-welded the Push inside the hull of its ship. That was a little harder.”

He grinned sardonically, baring gold canines. “Has Ypsilanti told you about the little smuggling ring we ran on Perun during the civil war? We’d milked all we could out of it, and then he bragged about this plan he had to make a killing in the Drift. He just needed a new sensor rig for the Bellerophon, which I could invest in, and then we’d come back and pick up some equipment he’d left here – something that would give us the edge we needed. But then we got busted for the artifacts. Oh, did he leave that part out? Ypsilanti was looking out for his own skin –”

“Which you would never do,” said Ypsilanti.

Kochevar leveled his gun and blasted Prentiss’s picture off the wall. Ypsilanti didn’t flinch. Wren and I did. “Ypsilanti turned informer. Set me and my partner up. My partner escapes; I get twenty years; Ypsilanti gets six months’ work release shoveling frozen methane on Epona. I hear he served two and got out with good behavior.”

“What a rebel,” said Wren.

“And then,” Kochevar went on, “I guess he figured he’d just mosey back here and get all the loot to himself.”

He was a massive man, with the kind of muscles you don’t normally see on a spacer. Drugs, probably, and monotonous hours spent pushing cargo crates back and forth in the Plasma Push‘s holds. Even in micrograv they have mass.

The pistol in his scarred hands had been police issue, once, before it was beefed up with a speed-load magazine. If we rushed him, there might be as many as one survivor.

“Turns out I didn’t even serve a year of my sentence,” Kochevar said. “A guard got sloppy on a transfer shuttle. First I had his gun, then I had his cruiser, then I was plotting a course to Tramptown.”

He centered the gunsights on my power supply. “This piece of equipment Ypsilanti wanted – that would be the cyborg?”

I looked him square in his massive face. This was a guy who took what he wanted and didn’t think it over afterwards. There was no guarantee he’d honor his deal. For a moment, I wished I’d let Wren copy me into the Kviksølv; I might die, but at least I’d leave a descendant.

“The way I see it,” I said, “you and Ypsilanti had a deal. Which means you and I have a deal.”

“Three-way split,” said Ypsilanti.

“Not happening,” said Kochevar. “If you want to pay your cyborg out of your share, be my guest. But I’m not getting dealt short so that you can get a double payday.”

The comms rack squawked. Kochevar leveled the gun at Wren.

“Who’s that? Who did you call?”

“I didn’t call anyone,” she said, exasperated. “I’m a mechanic. People come here. It’s kind of how my business works.”

“Tell them to come back later.”

She walked gingerly to the rack. “It’s that crazy ship again.”

“What?” said Kochevar.

“The one that showed up right after you did. It’s from the Drift.” She reached for the send button and Kochevar’s gun hand twitched. “We thought it was following you.”

“Think we can salvage it?” said Ypsilanti. “Since it’s here.”

“It’ll be gone before we can lift off,” I said. “It sends its little messages about couch cushions, then hightails. Let’s get going.” The sooner I got Kochevar away from Wren, the happier I’d be.

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“I’d forgotten what it’s like,” breathed Ypsilanti.

On the Plasma Push‘s huge viewscreens, meant for spotting smugglers and gunrunners, swarmed ten thousand identical Drift ships the size of my pinky. The Push‘s screens busily tagged them with individual IDs.

I hadn’t been back to the Drift since Prentiss died, but I felt the old excitement rise. Little ships like the swarmers weren’t good hunting. They weren’t a hive mind, didn’t have any new technology you could sell; they’d found a simple program that gave them strength in numbers. Still, wherever you saw them, you saw bigger game – like what was cruising towards them. At a glance it was nothing more than a pitted gray asteroid, brainlessly orbiting the L5 point, but then you noticed the hatches and gun barrels in its craters.

The stealth ship drifted, unnoticed, within a few meters of the swarm, and unfurled a charged net twice its own length. Immediately the smaller ships reacted, darting up into a glittering torus formation.

The stealth ship scooped at a straggler, and the swarm jinked – but not to attack. A sturdy warship with a maw full of spinning rippers had lined itself up behind the swarm, using it as cover. It charged the stealth ship, rippers whirling, grinding swarmers to shavings as it came. The swarm scattered. The stealth ship retracted its nets and fizzed its torch, seeking an escape route, but the warship fired grapplers and reeled the smaller stealth ship in. Titanium claws snapped, and data cables swayed like anemones, ready to eat the stealth ship’s secrets.

Ypsilanti and I were locked in one of the Plasma Push‘s cabins. There wasn’t much to occupy us besides dumb screens displaying the Drift’s familiar unfamiliarity. There were no controls, of course, nothing to sabotage; I suppose we could have plugged the toilet and made a puddle on the floor. And here we sat, disarmed, waiting for Kochevar to summon us, so I could introduce the Plasma Push to the Absolute Magnitude and Ypsilanti could point out the best tech to salvage. I was by far the more experienced salvager, of course, but Ypsilanti was human, and that shipped more weight with Kochevar.

On the viewscreen, the warship drew the stealth ship’s stony prow closer to the grinders, centimeter by centimeter. I winced.

But then the stealth ship thrust out a synthetic-ruby drill and whirred it into its enemy’s guts. The warship released its grasp too late – the gunship had drilled out its brains. The swarm darted around the carnage, snatching up shrapnel, the raw materials it needed to copy itself once more.

“Go get ’em, little drillslinger.” Ypsilanti looked at me obliquely. “How’s Wren been?”

I watched the screen tag more bogeys and sketch the cones of where they might be in one, two, thirty seconds. “When Prentiss died,” I said, “I told her the news, and she went right back into the freighter torch she’d been working on with the mechanics, got it done ahead of schedule. But she didn’t say a word the whole time, and then she just went back to her quarters and sobbed.”

“Prentiss,” said Ypsilanti. “I still can’t imagine I had a kid, and he’s gone before I ever met him. Tell me about him.”

“He was born behind the bar at the Flotsam,” I said. “Wren figured she’d let gravity do some of the work. Iron Jill rolled seaweed cigars.” Everyone agreed they were awful – I couldn’t smoke them, of course, and neither could Jill. Maybe she’d had a sense of humor all along, along with the driest deadpan in the galaxy. May her electronic brain patterns rest in peace.

“Wren made Prentiss’s toys in the machine shop,” I said. “He’d bounce around the base with these little ships. He could identify more than a hundred makes and models when he was five.”

His first word was Mama. His second was Baba, and that meant me. But I didn’t care to share those memories with Ypsilanti.

A tiny Drift ship, no bigger than a basketball, pulled in alongside the Plasma Push. I used to turn the spotlight on those to scare them off before they started munching on my hull. Which is free, but Kochevar’s solution cost a few cents’ worth of ammo. A shot whizzed through the Drift ship and sent it spinning, trailing shrapnel.

“I can’t believe Wren let her kid come out here,” said Ypsilanti.

“We – Wren didn’t want to,” I said. “But that’s what Tramptown kids grow up and do. We knew Prentiss would head in anyway when he was old enough, whether or not he had any experience. In the long run, it was safer to apprentice him with me.”

Numbers whirled in my peripheral vision. The Kviksølv vision module was performing a self-check.

“Prentiss started salvaging when he was ten, hauling things into my loading bay, but pretty soon I let him man the cockpit while I boarded Drift ships that were too big to drag back. Prentiss learned fast what was worth salvaging. We gave him a cut of the profits, and when he turned thirteen, Wren built him a little scout ship so he could go in on his own. He was mad as a badger in freefall when Sheriff Thibodeaux started taxing us ten percent.”

“I knew a Thibodeaux once,” said Ypsilanti. “They’re assholes.”

Even teenagers without Ypsilanti’s genes usually decide to piss off the world at some point. Prentiss came to consider himself a salvager no different from the grown men and women at the Flotsam. As far as he was concerned, Wren and I couldn’t tell him anything.

The Plasma Push‘s screen assigned one distant speck a number, then added a name: Absolute Magnitude. Ypsilanti gazed at it, rubbing his chin. Once again I spotted his white palm. In this part of the galaxy, his carefully-cultivated image wouldn’t do him any good.

I wondered if Ypsilanti would be happier not knowing about Prentiss’s final flight.

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The kid’s invitation to come scavenging as his co-pilot had been laden with teenage contempt, but I still accepted. At the time, I thought that if I blew off his needling, he’d outgrow it faster.

Prentiss’d planted a tracer on a mid-sized Drift sloop during his previous trip, and the signal led us to the surging cloud of Drift ships that surrounded the Absolute Magnitude.

The Magnitude might have begun its life as a shipyard during the war, or as an orbital intended to house a billion people – after a century of self-modifications, we would never be sure. It was a three-dimensional lace of forceform and steel five thousand kilometers long, without a single straight line. Photovoltaic patches the size of planetary cities dotted its sunward side. Other Drift ships teemed in and out of the arching gaps in the Magnitude‘s skeleton.

Prentiss approached the tumult of smaller ships a little closer than I liked, and he was stuck on a topic I didn’t like either.

“I woulda shot her,” he said. “Bam. Not like there was a sheriff back then.”

“I didn’t care what Elspeth said about me,” I replied. “Still don’t. All kinds of damn fool stuff comes out of her mouth.”

“There’s my ship.” Prentiss zoomed the screen in on a boxy sloop with his red R sprayed across its back. It was pulling away from the Magnitude and we slid in alongside.

Prentiss plotted an intercept and fired a non-explosive torpedo smack in front of the sloop. When the torp reached a preset distance, it opened a hatch and scattered scrap from our base.

The sloop took the bait, nosing at the chunks of dumb metal. Prentiss and I took advantage of the distraction to eject and EVA over to its ventral surface.

I ran my hand scanner over the hull, but Prentiss waved stop. “This is how I got in before,” he said over the transrec. He pointed out a crude hatch cut into a hull plate and started rerouting the new circuitry that had grown up around it.

“Be careful,” I said.

“I am being careful, Buffalo,” he groused. Nowadays I was Buffalo, not Baba.

And he was careful. But careful enough? You can’t assume a Drift ship will be the same from one contact to the next. Biological organisms evolve from generation to generation. When machines adapt to their environment, though, they re-engineer themselves.

We slid into the chamber beyond the hatch, where wall-mounted waldos were fiddling with the scrap we’d jettisoned. I spotted a hydraulic landing strut I’d discarded last week, destined for who knew what mad recycling.

“I’ve figured out a way to get my next delivery out to the Intersolar without paying the sheriff his cut,” said Prentiss.

I smiled. I – well, Ypsilanti – would’ve felt the same way in his place. The kid came by it naturally. But Ypsilanti could only get away with it because he never stuck around.

“How much would you pay to stay out of jail?” I said. “Never mind, I have a better question. When do I get to find out why you’re coming back to a ship you already salvaged? The Intersolar won’t buy the same tech twice.”

Prentiss reached into the mesh-lined wall. A spark fired and an internal door split open, and the nausea the sight aroused was so intimate that it didn’t matter that I wasn’t equipped to throw up.

The sun-bright compartment lights glared down on a web of flesh. Fused heads, sheared at the jaw and capped with steel, wriggled on plastic hooks. Thrusting pistons pumped oxygen into blushing meat. Human tissue, cloned and cultured from spacers who’d never returned to Tramptown – maybe even from the crews who’d manned the shipyard generations ago, when the AIs still worked for humans. Mismatched eyes turned to look at us.

“Everyone talks about selling tech,” said Prentiss smugly. “But art collectors have plenty of money too, and my contact tells me AI outsider art is going to be the next big thing.”

“Prentiss, no,” I said. “This is wrong.”

“You’re not my dad, you know.” He snapped a wristpad photo of a fountain of branching bones. “You’re only three months older than me.”

He had my nose, my eyes; he had my laugh, though I hadn’t heard it much lately. I hoped like hell he had Wren’s conscience, since he wasn’t going to inherit one from Ypsilanti Rowe. “Let’s take the incendiary and burn this thing,” I said. “Put it out of its misery.”

“It’s mine,” Prentiss snapped. “You’re my co-pilot, you’ll take my orders. Get that big one over there.” He nodded at a fluted tower of flesh wrapped around a plastic cloche where plump lips pursed and whispered. It’s just a reflex, I thought. Has to be.

“They have laws against this, in the Intersolar,” I said. “That’s why I never used to carry human-fusion –”

“You’ve never been to the Intersolar! That wasn’t you!”

I tuned down my anger response. I’d been a hothead at his age. “Prentiss,” I said, “let’s talk this over.”

“Don’t tell me what to do!” He snatched out his gun. I don’t think he was planning to shoot me – I don’t think he knew why he drew. I think he just figured guns solve problems.

Behind him, an inquisitive silver tendril snaked out of the wall, bobbing back and forth, delicately balanced.

“You belong to my mom and me,” he said. “If you don’t do like I say, I’ll shoot you and leave you out here for the AIs to eat.”

“Watch out,” I said.

“Oh, now you’re going to threaten me? When I tell Mom –”

“No, behind you –”

The tendril slammed itself into Prentiss’s helmet. I heard the crack over the transrec. The kid’s eyes widened as his air hissed out. He looked desperate, desperate, and he looked so young. Then the tendril punched into his skull.

The Absolute Magnitude had spotted us boarding the sloop, and spun a single deadly filament, stretched it out across the kilometers, hoping to find humans to eat.

I couldn’t save Prentiss. But I could toss that vacuum-rated incendiary grenade so there’d be no body left for an AI’s art gallery.

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Ypsilanti’s voice snapped me out of my reverie. “Does Wren talk about me much?” he said.

“Maybe when I’m not around,” I said.

Light from the Plasma Push‘s cabin viewscreens played across his carefully-chosen expression.”I’m not the kind of guy who could settle down with Wren,” he said.

No, I thought, that’s not quite it. You don’t want people to think of you as the kind of guy who’d end up a woman who looks the age he is. He was playing the part of Ypsilanti Rowe as much as I was.

The cabin door chunked open to reveal Kochevar and his gun. “Let’s get rich,” he said.

Up on the bridge, the Absolute Magnitude loomed on the viewscreen, which had identified a receptor bank on the Magnitude‘s undulating surface and obligingly circled it in white. “As soon as we get a laser link, the cyborg will send the passphrase,” said Kochevar.

While the screen cycled through old comms protocols and newer ones we’d learned from Drift AIs, I ran a quick set of diagnostics on my mismatched internal components. I’d be in enough danger on the Magnitude without my body unexpectedly giving out on me.

The screen chirped. “Good morning, Mr. Magnitude,” I said. “I’d like to make a transaction.” I transmitted the passcode and caught myself trying to hold my breath.

The circle on the viewscreen changed to a white lock. We were in.

Kochevar flicked the Push‘s torch, and we coasted into the throng of Drift ships. A thousand wildly different designs, AI imagination run riot, churned around us. Any one of them could have earned a spacer a year’s living in Tramptown. Gunports tracked us warily as they gauged whether they could take us.

“I just want to gather these up and buy myself my own planet,” said Ypsilanti.

Kochevar tapped the pitch thrusters and nudged us inside the Magnitude. The vast labyrinth was woven from struts the size of skyscrapers, formed without a thought for human perspectives. Immense nodules, as richly folded as cerebella, nestled at the interstices.

“Spotted something promising?” said Kochevar. He didn’t bother to turn his gun on us. He could tell that once we got this close, we’d want the big score as badly as he did.

“Go deeper in,” I said. Kochevar probably would have argued if he hadn’t thought Ypsilanti was talking.

Metallic boluses shuttled along the translucent plastic tubes that flickered in the Magnitude’s frame. A shimmering fall of blue spread over a strut, then ebbed away, sucked into unseen ports.

“There,” said Ypsilanti. “That one right there.”

The nodule before us was richly connected to the others around it, and its coils swelled and receded in syncopation, as if it were constantly being rebuilt from within.

Kochevar maneuvered the Push onto a swaying strut many times its size, and we suited up.

“No one’s ever scavenged the Absolute Magnitude,” said Ypsilanti over the transrec.

“Maybe they just never came back,” I said.

“Aren’t you two cheerful?” said Kochevar. “Take your guns if they make you feel safer. Let’s fly.”

The Magnitude‘s surface didn’t contain enough ferrous metal for our boots to get a purchase. We pushed off from the strut, puffing air from our suits to nudge us towards the enormous AI brain. The smaller Drift ships that flocked here were ignoring us, for now. I marked some snapshots for long-term storage, in case I survived to scavenge here again.

The transrec light fluttered, and a message played across the HUD. imposter roster foster sentinel of the joined small, said the scrolling letters.

“It’s that ship that was following me,” said Kochevar. He raised his gun and took aim on the mass of chrome spheres that peeked out around the Magnitude‘s strut.

“Go away,” I said over the transrec. “Go! Leave us alone!”

The insistent little Drift ship reversed direction and drew away, losing itself in the crowd.

“I don’t like it,” said Kochevar. “Feel like I’m being watched. Let’s not waste time.”

I teased apart the fibers of the Magnitude‘s hull, re-routing connections, meticulously replacing the AI’s hardware hackery with stable wiring. If I did this right, the Magnitude would never realize it had been touched. Ypsilanti assisted me – our last fifteen years had been spent in different kinds of ship repair, but we worked together more smoothly than Wren and I ever had. It was like having a second pair of hands. Or being one, I suppose.

“Here we go,” I said. I lifted the section I’d cut away.

My vision flared and failed.

I queried the Kviksølv – but it was responding correctly to the glaring searchlight painting our space-black shadows across the Magnitude‘s hull.

“Don’t make any sudden moves,” said Sheriff Thibodeaux’s voice over the comms. I adjusted for the light levels and looked up at his ship, the sheriff’s star emblazoned on its belly. For the first time as Ypsilanti or myself, I was grateful to see him.

“Wren sent me a data squirt,” Thibodeaux continued. “Said someone by the name of Kochevar had kidnapped Ypsilanti Rowe and stolen that cyborg of his.”

“Don’t worry, you’ll get your ten percent of the haul,” I said. Thibodeaux laughed.

“Kochevar!” he shouted. “Heard you were in jail. Nice to be wrong.”

“Thibodeaux!” Kochevar answered. “How’d you end up scavenging here?”

“What a lovely little reunion,” said Ypsilanti warily. “Hello, partner.”

Thibodeaux chuckled. “I’m not scavenging here – law enforcement seemed like a safer way to pass the time. When I got away from the cops after our little artifacts deal in the Intersolar, I thought about Ypsilanti’s plan to salvage something big from the Drift. I knew he’d left something behind, something that would help, and thought I’d find it for myself. Figured it was some kind of astrogation equipment – maybe a tracer. Probably left it with the woman he’d dumped. You wouldn’t believe how many times I searched her place.”

“And it took you a year to realize that equipment might be me,” I said.

“Shit, I thought of that right off the bat, but I ruled you out. I already knew Ypsilanti didn’t have anything worth shit in that head of his. Stay where you are, I’m suiting up.”

“Watch out,” said Kochevar. “The cyborg’s smarter than he looks.”

“If he was that smart,” said Thibodeaux, “he would’ve noticed the tracer I planted on him when we shook hands on board the Flotsam. We’ll see what this cyborg’s worth soon enough.”

The entrance we’d carved led into a perplexity of rippling corridors, a soft blue glow like a planetary sea. Strange components bubbled across rounded walls. I inspected my hand in the cool light and spotted the speck of the tracer, planted in the decorative layer of silicone that served me as skin and encased my functional parts. I felt like a damn fool.

A hose snaked towards us, slick with gel. Ypsilanti and I reached as one for our guns. I was a little faster on the draw – after all, I hadn’t aged.

“It’s like a playground,” said Ypsilanti. “There should be kids eating chocolate cake, and slides through the gel.”

“This thing killed your son,” I snapped. Ypsilanti turned aside, refusing me a view of his face. Thibodeaux drifted up next to us, and I led the way into the Absolute Magnitude‘s brain.

The memory banks and data stores around us would have been worth trillions in the Intersolar. But we four were in silent agreement – now that we’d come this far, we were after the biggest prize of all.

The walls yielded at our touch, curving inwards towards the core – a quivering globe of microscopic circuits suspended in gel, the Absolute Magnitude‘s mind. You could cut it open and drown yourself in its thoughts.

“That’s it,” said Kochevar. “That’s what we’re taking.”

Ypsilanti and I fastened flash-plane explosive charges around the core, setting the timers to cut it out as simultaneously as technology allowed. Kochevar, less experienced with salvaging, took the cruder task of setting up the explosives that would open our route to the surface. Thibodeaux helped by staying out of our way.

“You sure that’s right?” said the sheriff as we placed the last charge. “Because you’re a screw-up, and that cyborg is a copy of a screw-up.”

“Yep, I’m sure,” I said.

“You have no doubts whatsoever that our one and only shot at robbing a vicious century-old AI can’t go wrong?” he said.

“I could not be more certain of it,” said Ypsilanti.

“Good.” Thibodeaux shot him.

Or he would have, but I knocked Ypsilanti aside and took the blast across my face. One of my eyes cracked, and ERROR 41313 flashed in my reduced field of vision. Ypsilanti spun into the soft blue wall. I drew my pistol, superimposed a crosshairs over Thibodeaux’s chest, and shot him through the heart.

“I warned you,” I said, unheard – the shot had mangled my hood along with my face. “Around here, salvage shoots back.”

“Don’t know who shot who in there, but that’s a bigger share for whoever’s left,” said Kochevar over the transrec. “On the count of three.”

“Hang on there,” said Ypsilanti.

I pulled off Thibodeaux’s helmet for myself, and wired an incendiary grenade to his head. “If a Drift ship incorporated him it’d probably just get dumber,” I said, “but let’s not take a chance.” Inside the helmet my olfacs registered fried seaweed and mustard. I shut them off.

We stood back from the core and Kochevar hit the trigger.

The Absolute Magnitude convulsed. Ypsilanti and I braced ourselves against the blown-out wall and shoved the core outwards – I could hear him over the transrec, gasping with strain. The core sailed serenely in the microgravity, and Ypsilanti and I kicked off to follow it.

Kochevar was waiting above the brain chamber’s surface, which rippled and rolled as the autorepair struggled to rebuild everything at once. The Plasma Push, cargo bay doors open, hovered above us the best it could. In the distance, the Magnitude‘s immense struts buckled. Dumb processors, robbed of the core’s guidance, had begun to miscalculate the millions of tiny adjustments that kept the great ship running. The elegant web of struts tangled, crushing nodules and Drift ships alike.

You killed my son, you AI bastard, I thought. I’m glad I’m here to watch you die.

From what I could see, we had a few seconds before the breakdown reached this part of the ship. The Magnitude‘s core was still skimming obliviously along its path.

“It’s the galaxy’s biggest game of ping-pong,” said Ypsilanti. He laid a hand on the core, sighted along it, and puffed out a precious burst of air to aim it into the Push‘s hold.

I held back. A pack of four small Drift ships approached and circled at about fifty meters, feeling us out. It’d take more than a searchlight to scare these off. I kept the leader in my gunsights. Damn, I hoped that little pistol would have enough kick to pierce the ship’s hide.

The Magnitude‘s core bounced off the padded walls of the cargo bay and came to rest. The Push‘s thrusters spat to compensate for the core’s momentum. Over the comms, Ypsilanti exhaled heavily. I knew how he felt.

The bay door swung closed, and the Push lit its thrusters again. It cruised out into the Drift, leaving us behind.

Ypsilanti and I shouted. I don’t know which of us said what. Kochevar waved frantically – no, he just pointed at the Push, and a glittering line shot from his glove to the hull. The Push accelerated away, reeling him in as it went. Ypsilanti and I were on our own, three hundred million kilometers from home.

“Ypsilanti, can you fly the sheriff’s ship?” I said, just in time to see the Push fire its missiles and blow Thibodeaux’s old cruiser to scrap, stranding Ypsilanti and me on a dying ship.

The Absolute Magnitude thrashed in slow motion, like a wounded animal as big as a moon. Was it trying to switch over to a backup brain? I doubted any wild AI had ever run a practice disaster recovery exercise.

A kilometer away, a strut broke open, spilling smaller parts into space. The smaller Drift ships broke into frenzied maneuvers. I guess they figured that if their cash server was in its death throes, they might as well get a chunk of it while there were chunks to be gotten.

But the pack of predator ships stalking us had other prey in mind. My suit’s HUD fluttered as they bombarded it with queries, seeking a vulnerability that would let them take control. Ypsilanti took aim at one of them, but held his fire.

Then the four predators wheeled as one and backed away.

“Behind you,” said Ypsilanti. I glanced at my rear cameras.

The bubbly chrome Drift ship had returned. Guns extending from among its bulges tracked the predator pack. A tube unfurled towards us.

Ypsilanti clambered in. I hesitated.

“Beats the alternative,” said Ypsilanti. “Come on.”

My vision went black. Clunky white error listings rolled by. I wasn’t sure where the problem lay, but my brain and the Kviksølv vision module were no longer on speaking term.

Something gripped my wrist. “Get on in here,” said Ypsilanti. “Damn, your face is a mess. Gives me the creeps.”

“I can’t see,” I said. “Vision gave out.”

“Well, there’s a … I think there’s just one chamber. Switch on your headlamp so we can get another –”

Impact rocked the ship. We were under attack.

“At least we got inside before those little ships charged,” said Ypsilanti. “There’s cables and parts wiggling around all over the walls. No controls I can see. Not even any viewscreens.”

Something brushed against my hand. “Hang on,” said Ypsilanti, “you’ve got something crawling on you.”

I ran my fingertips along a twining cable. It split absurdly into a dozen types of standard connectors, like a data bouquet.

“I think I just found the controls,” I said, and plugged a compatable connector into my data port.

A desperate electronic thirst infiltrated every crevice of my mind – of my self. My brain frantically mapped the ship’s incoming data onto things I might understand, awakening long-unused sensations: eggnog prickles that stabbed at my fingers, leaving streaks of electric sweat; multicolored mud that smothered nonexistent lungs. I clenched my thoughts together, trying to withhold some granule of myself from the Drift ship’s probes.

The other mind relaxed without withdrawing. It wasn’t trying to read me, I realized – it was spreading itself out, showing me what it wanted me to know.

The ship riffled through its hacked-up subroutines, some optimized to black hole density, some mere globs of alien hackery, and brought up a recorded video feed. I watched the ship watch two tiny humans approaching a Drift sloop with a red P sprayed across its hull. I was watching a recording. A recording from a long time ago.

The camera drone putted closer to the sloop’s access hole and poked in a mechanical eyestalk, watching Prentiss, watching me.

Our captured transrec conversation had been overlaid with annotations.

help i you help i you lift guide assist, said my image.

no help different help, said Prentiss, threat bluff bluff.

benefit help help, I replied.

And then the Magnitude struck. I squeezed myself shut, but I couldn’t keep the images out – the broken corpse, the burning. The Drift ship was trying to tell me something.

“Cover,” I mouthed. “Cushion. Sentinel. Preserve. All the ways to protect.”

foster

And I understood. Prentiss and I weren’t like the swarmers or the pack of Drift predators. We hadn’t been built for each other. But I’d protected him, even when he didn’t know he needed it. And this little AI ship wanted a friend like that. It wanted to be a friend like that. The teeming Drift was the loneliest place in the galaxy.

The ship tumbled – I felt a double dose of spin, once from the ship’s sensors, once from my own vestibular module.

“If you’re planning to fight back, now would be a good time to start,” said Ypsilanti.

I looked through the data streams for the four attacking ships – only to find the Plasma Push on our tail.

The Push dodged among the Drift ships that were taking the Absolute Magnitude, and each other, to pieces. Colossal struts jolted together – vast collisions in slow motion. The Push loosed a torpedo, and the Drift ship and I took the engines in hand, merging my skills and its talents to spin safely away. I felt out the weapons systems, but they were too slight to crack the Push‘s hull.

To starboard, two tremendous struts twined together. If we could lose ourselves behind them, the Push‘s sensors might not pick us out from the crowd before we’d put some distance between us.

The Drift ship was my body now. I leaned in towards the groove between the struts and felt a pulse of worry – not mine, but the ship’s. trust trust hope, it sent.

“Don’t worry,” I said. “You should’ve been there when I flew the Bellerophon through the middle of the Tramptown bar. This is nothing.”

The mighty pillars, the mindless mass that had been the Absolute Magnitude, clasped together in a frenzied attempt to fuse into something greater.

I shot between the pillars. The ship flattened itself in fear. Behind me, Ypsilanti yelped. The two of us were sealed in like duck eggs in plastic.

Kochevar fired through after us, riding a column of nuclear fire. He was coming through – and then the struts fell together on the Push‘s tail. The Push spun apart, a pinwheel of buckled metal and molten plastic.

Drift ships darted into the wreckage. When I saw their probes coming out red, I turned away and set course for Wren’s base.

“So much for the Magnitude‘s core,” I said. There was no one around to witness my fancy flying. Ah well.

Ypsilanti must have picked up the profanity he let loose during the last fifteen years. It was new to me.

“Kochevar’s down,” I said over the transrec. “I wonder what the Drift will make of him.”

“I wonder what your kids will be paying ten percent on,” said Ypsilanti.

I stretched out. The Drift ship eased its compression. “I wonder what you mean by kids.”

“Between you and Wren,” he said, “you’ll jury-rig something.”

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Beyond the Bay Two viewport, a mechanic gave us the thumbs up. The sensor rig had been re-installed, and the Bellerophon was ready to slingshot off Kameekoru and head back to the Intersolar. Even with my new eye, the view was flat – Wren had put my old vision module back, and I’d returned the Kviksølv module to the workbench where it belonged.

Ypsilanti peered out at his ship. “Okay, we didn’t get the payout,” he said. “But the way I see it, I got rid of my two worst enemies without so much as a scratch on the Bellerophon, and that’s something.”

“That’s the way I see it, too,” I said. I knew him too well to worry that he’d pick up on the lie.

Ypsilanti’s cocky smirk looked great, but it couldn’t fool someone who’d seen his memories. He couldn’t wait to jet off to some other world where no one knew he’d been taken down a peg.

“You want to see the galaxy?” said Ypsilanti. “Come with me. I’ve always wanted a co-pilot I could trust. I know a guy who can fix your face –”

“No thanks,” I said. “There’s something here I want more.”

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Wren and I watched the Bellerophon‘s departure from the breakroom screens. She clinked a squeeze tube of algae vodka against my hand.

“To absent friends,” she said. “May they remain so. Imagine what kind of trouble Ypsilanti’ll be in when he shows up in another fifteen years.”

“We better start writing the lawbooks now,” I said.

“I’ve got some ideas about that myself.” Her burgundy lipstick did nice things for her smile. “Now that there’s a vacancy, I’m running for sheriff.”

“You’ve got my vote,” I said. “Want to go to the Flotsam on Thursday?” The Flotsam didn’t have a new owner yet; a few low-ranking spacers from various ships were running it as a socialist collective. Wren said some of the food was way better and some was way worse, but it averaged out the same as Jill’s cooking.

“I’m in the mood for a drink I don’t have to chew.” Wren straightened her flight jacket. “We can go to the Flotsam right now.”

“We can,” I said, “but we have to set it up ahead of time for it to be a date.” She laughed and snuggled up against me. I liked it. Maybe I could upgrade my tactile modules and like it even more.

“There’s something I never said about Prentiss,” I said. “Wren, I wanted so bad to save him.”

She was quiet for a long time. “I doubted you’d stick around to be a father,” she said. “I’m glad you did.”

divider

I was so impatient for Thursday to come that I thought about shutting myself down for the intervening hours. But I had too much work to do.

I was just finishing up when Wren showed up in front of Bay Five, looking great from head to toe. “Take your hood off and change,” she said. “We have a date.”

“I’m not about to forget it,” I said. “I have one last thing to take care of, and then I’m one hundred percent a free man.”

The bubbly Drift ship was nestled in Bay Five. It might have been nervous. Certainly, when I came out, it perked to life, blinking its lights up and down the spectrum.

It extended a cable. I’d been planning to chat over the transrec, but what the hell. I plugged in.

“I don’t know how much time I have left,” I thought at it. “Maybe years, maybe not.”

repair you I please you I

I laughed. “It’s be interesting to see what you’d come up with, but I had something else in mind.” I opened the bay hatch and the Kviksølv body came loping out.

“Ship, meet the new copy of me,” I said over the transrec. “Copy, meet ship.”

“How do you do?” said the Kviksølv. “I’d introduce myself, but I don’t have a name yet.”

buffalo?

“I have dibs on that one,” I said. “Like I said, I don’t know how much time I have left. I guess none of us do. What I do know is that I’m going to spend that time with Wren.”

The Kviksølv laughed. “Yeah, I kinda figured I didn’t have a shot with her.”

“You don’t,” I said sternly. “But I know you’ll get the itch to wander. I got it from Ypsilanti, and you got it from me. So head out of Tramptown, out to the Intersolar, on past it if you have a mind to. See the stars. Or pick a world you like. Find a girl. If the knockoff Kviksølv parts are as good as the name-brand, you have fifty years ahead of you.”

The Kviksølv put a hand on the ship’s hull. “How’s that sound to you?”

yes

“Be happy,” I said. “Be wild. But you don’t have to be Ypsilanti, or me, unless you want to.”

___

Copyright 2017 Tracy Canfield

Tracy Canfield is a computational linguist who CNN once called a “Klingon scholar”. Her short science fiction and fantasy has appeared in Analog, Strange Horizons, and many other magazines and anthologies, and her game set in the same universe as “Salvage” is scheduled for release in Fall of 2017. Find her on Twitter at @TracyCanfield.

by Alter S. Reiss

The man who’d set himself up out on the point by Gray Lagoon had conjured up a house out of rocks and sea-wrack, but he didn’t wear the badge of any guild or house. He was always polite, but the people who talked to him couldn’t place his accent, and people in Cartau could place every accent in the world. It wasn’t in the least bit hard for Jione to understand why people said he was someone to avoid.

They smelled a whiff of brimstone on him, and Jione could see them smelling it. When he came down to the Anside docks, nobody even dared to chase him off; they just looked away, and hoped that if he was violent, he would hurt someone else. He was sitting up on the shingles of the beach, watching the work when Jione went down, and he was still there when she came back up.

She sat on the sea-wall for a moment, her apparatus off, and watched him. He gawked like a child at the air traffic—the spinners and the liners and the fortress patrol all seemed to overawe him equally—and he seemed equally entranced by the diggings, and the workers, and the machines.

Folk from the countryside would have that look about them, between the time they came to Cartau, and the time they were fleeced. But Jione didn’t think anyone would try to fleece him. There was a hardness to the man, a tension like a compressed and rusty spring. He wore an old-style long knife on his hip, its handle curved to match his grip, but that was almost unnecessary. Everything else about him said he was dangerous, but only when he was pushed.

Dangerous and deadly and innocent; it was a strange combination. Jione headed over, her helmet under her arm. He was watching the crane lowering the number 63 pipe segment into place, but as she got closer, he looked at her. There was an intensity in that look that made Jione fight back a flush. She was a diver, and a good one, and that’d be obvious to anyone looking at her. But whoever this man was, he didn’t seem to know what a spinner was, or a traction-crane. So she’d look like a gangly woman with the left side of her hair shaved down, and wearing a dive suit going ragged at the cuffs and seams.

“Good afternoon,” he said, standing as she came close. “My name is Tam.” There was an odd motion after that, like he was about to bow, and then caught himself.

“Jione,” she said.

“Are you one of the house diggers?” asked Tam.

“Digger?” Jione gave him an incredulous look. “I’m a diver.” She tapped her helmet. “Free swimming, right? Diggers work inside a bore, or on a tether.”

Tam gave a quick nod. “I understand,” he said. “But you do excavate?”

“Not on this job, I don’t,” said Jione. “I steer the pipes in, as they’re coming down, and I weld sections together. Also, I’m not a house diver; I’m on contract with Mecater and Daim, but my rig’s my own, and so’s my time.”

Another intense look, but a different sort of intensity; he hadn’t expected that, and there was something else that he wanted. “Would you be available for contract work?” he asked. “There’s a project–”

Jione laughed. “I don’t come cheap,” she said. “And you’d have to pay a penalty to Mecater, and they don’t come cheap either. If–”

Tam dropped something into her hand. Heavy. Jione had done enough salvage to know what she was seeing. A gold imperial. Too perfect to be a forgery, but so clear that it might have just been minted, rather than five hundred years old. “Perhaps this will pay the penalties,” he said.

“Perhaps,” said Jione. She weighed it in her hand. The penalties, and a good chunk more. Mecater wouldn’t even mind—the heavy pipes were in, and it was mostly just support diving for the diggers below. Penalties would be worth more than the work she had left. “Is it clean?”

“Clean?”

There was a pause as the fortress patrol went overhead, the throb of its main engines and the whine of the spinner escort making conversation impossible. Tam had been fascinated before, but he didn’t look up as it passed overhead; he stood watching her, head cocked to one side, waiting for her to speak. “Clean of enchantment,” she said, when she’d be heard. “Gold not tampered with, and no owner’s mark from someone who’d be able to make a claim of theft and make it stick? Because the dive assayers will check.”

Tam shook his head. “It’s clean,” he said. “The terms of my . . . your assayer will find nothing amiss.”

Jione hesitated. She could just give him back the coin, and walk away. He was interesting, he was friendly, but there was that coiled-spring threat, that whiff of something wild and strange. She didn’t know him; he didn’t know how business worked in Cartau. Dealing with Tam wasn’t a good risk. And yet. He was a handsome man, trimly built, and when he looked at her, he seemed to see her. That wasn’t something she could say for guild or house agents, or other divers, or shopkeepers, or anyone else, really.

She flipped the coin, caught it out of the air, tucked it into the grouch-pocket of her suit. “Yeah, okay,” she said. “Where and when?”

“Tomorrow morning, at Gray Lagoon,” he said. “Unless you need more time to prepare, or—”

“Tomorrow,” she said. She’d made her call; no point in delay.

Against reason, Jione had chosen to help Tam, but that didn’t mean she was going to neglect basic prudence. The gold imperial checked out; it was what it purported to be, and there weren’t any spells or marks on it. The dive guild knew where she was going, so if she turned up dead, there’d be a record. The next day she headed out to Gray Lagoon, her apparatus in a duffel over her shoulder, and her heart in her mouth.

Tam was waiting on the point, looking back over the lagoon, at Cartau’s towers. “They’re beautiful,” he said, as she came up.

“From far enough away,” said Jione.

He started, turned, and smiled when he saw her. “Yes,” he said. “Most beautiful things require distance. But not all. Are you ready to begin, or are there preparations?”

Jione sighed, unslung the duffel from her shoulder. “I’ll have to get into the dive suit,” she said. “And calibrate the apparatus, and get that on. How deep is your site? And how much area are you going to have to cover? What sort of equipment am I going to need? And, most importantly, how much are you paying?”

Tam threw back his head, and laughed. Jione raised an eyebrow. It wasn’t as bad as she’d feared, but that didn’t bode well.

“My apologies,” said Tam. “I must sound like ten kinds of an ass. It’s just that I’m only recently arrived, and I don’t know a damn thing that I should. Start with the last. Two imperials a day, fine as the one I gave you, should cover the costs?”

Jione swallowed her own laughter. Two imperials a day, even if they were clipped and smoothed and marked, would pay for three, maybe four divers. But hell, if he was paying, she wasn’t going to say no. “Yeah,” she said. “That’ll do fine. What do you want me to dive for?”

“A thread of gold,” said Tam. “Long enough to reach from a man’s fingertip to his heart. As wide around as a flower’s root.”

“More gold in one of your imperials than that,” said Jione.

“Yes,” said Tam. “But that’s what I’m looking for. And if you were to draw a triangle between this house that I’ve built, and the Castle of Doves—you can see the ruins, looking out over the water, on the spit of land there—and the line of the old stone quay, it should be somewhere within those limits. I believe the quay can still be seen?”

“I think so,” said Jione. “There’s a line of rocks and dirt, anyway, not too far from the shore.”

“Dirt?” asked Tam. “So it’s not silted over, there?”

Jione shook her head. “Since they built the Five Dams, the silt’s been going down all along the coast. Fifty years ago, Grey Lagoon was half as deep as it is now. The rocks you’ve built your house on are being washed out too; another fifty years, there won’t be anything between the lagoon and the sea.”

Tam stopped, and considered. “What I am seeking won’t have washed away,” he said. “That is the area I would have you cover. I’ve no idea what equipment you’ll need; that’s your field of expertise.”

Jione considered. He was asking her to cover a hell of a lot of the lagoon. And while there wasn’t much silt left, there were still stretches of sand there that’d take days to move. “Nothing I don’t own,” she said, after a while. “It’d be easier with an airlift, but there’s deep water there. No point in bringing it out for maybe 15% coverage. It’ll be a sea-dredge, and a sniffer, and a few other things. Sniffer’ll cost you worse than I will, though, if you’re going for gold.”

“I will put my trust in you,” said Tam. “Despite not having the slightest idea what you’re talking about. The sniffers I know are lyme hounds and rachet hounds, and I scarcely see what use they’d be in your work.”

Jione shook her head. “Most sheep,” she said, “don’t ask to be fleeced.”

Tam smiled. “I’m overpaying you already,” he said. “That’s clear enough. You’re not going to risk that by trying to get another peck or two of wool.”

“Watch me,” said Jione. “Besides,” she continued. “It’ll be less than anyone else would take. Sniffers. . . they’re a spell, right? Bound to a tool. If you’re looking for gold, they burn gold. The idea is that where you find a bit of gold, you’d find more, but it’s going to burn . . . shit, sixty, maybe seventy grains a day. Even not counting what you’re paying me, which is less than you should be, that’s a hell of a lot of gold chasing down a thread.”

“It’s a thing I’ve lost,” said Tam. “You are probably right about its worth, but I want it back.”

If she found it—when she found it—she could probably tuck it into her grouch pocket, and see what she could get for it. Someone as green as Tam wasn’t going to stop her. “You have anywhere I can suit up?” she asked.

“My home is yours,” he said, seriously. “Have you your dredge and sniffer with you? I would see what I’m paying for.”

“I’m not going to unseal the dredge in the air,” she said. She rooted around in her duffel for a bit, took out the sniffer. “This is the sniffer. Don’t break it.”

She headed along the debris-littered beach, out to the house he’d called up on the point. As she walked, she could feel his eyes on her, and she put a hint of a sway into her walk. It wasn’t . . . people usually didn’t look at divers like that. And given what he was paying, she figured she could afford to throw in a show.

It wasn’t like her, but none of this was like her. Breaking guild and house rules wasn’t too different from breathing in while surfacing; it would feel fine, and you’d die a few hours later. Safe was the only way a diver could play things. Only now she wasn’t playing by guild or house rules. Tam was too strange and different to be safe. She wasn’t playing things safe, so she wouldn’t play things safe, at least not until Tam’s gold ran out. Once she was in, no reason not to go all the way in.

She swept into Tam’s house, a surprisingly trim building, with stone floors, a timber roof, and a fire burning cheerily in the grate. If she hadn’t known that he’d called it up out thin air, she’d have thought it had been standing there for centuries; it felt old, comfortable, lived in. The sort of place that you’d expect to see far out in the countryside, or in an old-times talkie.

Tam might be green, but he was paying, and while she was going to soak him, she was also going to do the work. She changed into her dive suit, fastened all the cuffs and collars, and then got the apparatus seated. Lung-blood ports always stung going on, but the sea-eye felt cool and sat right on her left eye. She’d shaved down before she headed out to the lagoon, so the whole thing fit like it should, no chafing, not too heavy. She’d gone in feigning confidence, but came out feeling it; this was who she was, what she did, and she was good at it.

When she came out, Tam looked up from the sniffer, and smiled to see her coming, helmet under her arm. “By my judgment,” he said, “your sniffer will destroy three and a half grains of gold every hour; while I appreciate the energy on your part, it does not seem wise for you to attempt to work for twenty hours a day.”

Jione hesitated, then laughed. Green, but not without resources. Green, but not stupid.

“Yeah, true enough,” she said. “Won’t have more than four, maybe five hours of bottom time anyway, not at depth.” As he passed her the sniffer, she had a horrible thought. “You haven’t done anything to it, have you?” Fun was fun, but if he’d damaged it…

“No,” said Tam, “I would not interfere with your tools. And it’s a very clever working; complex, but elegant. Any improvement I would make would take some time, and at best would improve its effectiveness by a tenth part.”

Jione was tempted to snort, but held back. Tam was as green as a fresh broken stick, and seemed to think that spinners were something marvelous and strange. But he’d also pulled a stone house out of nothing, and it seemed that none of the houses or guilds had decided to dispute his right to do so. Maybe he could improve a sniffer by ten percent. Be a hell of a thing to bring back to the diving guild, if she could.

“Maybe some other time,” she said, taking her sniffer back, and strapping it into its sheath on her leg. “You’ve got an odd angle on things, Tam. Sooner or later, you’re going to have to tell me about where you came from.”

“I have most recently spent a term in hell,” said Tam, amiably. “It’s where I learned my skills.”

He hadn’t said that as though he was deflecting your question, or as if he was talking metaphorically. It was as matter-of-factly as though he was giving a street address. There were still some folks who believed in that stuff, mostly out in the country, but even they didn’t believe it like that.

“With fires and demons?” she asked, trying to keep it light.

“There were demons,” said Tam. “No fire. There was all the pain of fire, but none of the heat. It is a cold place, hell, cold and distant and dark. I’m hoping to avoid a return visit; that’s why I need to find this thread.”

“If you say so,” said Jione, and she walked out into the surf. Could be he was crazy; if so, she didn’t want him crazy at her.

Once she went below, things were a bit more normal. There’d been construction work in Gray Lagoon, plenty of it. Pipes from the offshore rigs, pilings for a dock that never got built, that sort of thing. It was deep enough and close enough to the shore that there was plenty of garbage there as well, and a few wrecks. If it weren’t for the sniffer, it’d take years to comb an area like that. As it was, if the gold was there, two, maybe three days.

First dive was a survey. Just to see what the state of the bottom was, get a sense of current patterns, the movement of sand and silt. And Gray Lagoon was close enough to Cartau that she didn’t expect many surprises; anything interesting would’ve been found long ago.

Only, with the five dams, the silt had been going down all across the coast. And damn if something interesting didn’t come up, right in the middle of the search area Tam had given her. There were always wrecks, sure, but this one was different. There was a figurehead rising out of the muck, and it was a two-headed lion, carrying a sword in one mouth, and a book in the other.

The Grand Invincible. She’d found the goddamn Grand Invincible. When it had disappeared, it’d bankrupted the last king in Cartau; the crown and regalia had been aboard, and three quarters of the imperial treasury. Thirteen million imperials in gold and silver. There were timbers and cannons lying scattered on the bottom, crockery and black lumps that looked like corroded masses of silver coin.

Jione had dived salvage before. She’d worked on the Tranch, and they’d recovered three tons of silver specie. They’d also been so wound up by spells by Aen House that she couldn’t even clear her filters without explicit permission.

If she tried to salvage the wreck herself, one of the houses would nail her, and the diving guild would either sell her claim out, or take ninety-nine parts out of every hundred in fees and licenses. Tam. Whatever he was, wherever he was from, however crazy he might be, he was a talent. The way he’d talked about hell . . . Jione wouldn’t want to try to take something from him. Even the houses would tread lightly near a claim made by someone like that.

She laid out claim-stakes near the biggest pieces of debris, and across where the main body of the wreck would have to lie. Then she headed back up. It was a deep enough survey that she needed to pause on the way up to keep from getting a blood boil or depth joints. It was a chance to settle herself before going back up to see Tam. It was the biggest damn thing that had ever happened to her. Maybe the biggest thing that had happened to anyone. She floated in the middle depths, above the Grand Invincible‘s figurehead, until the blood gauges clicked over to clear.

Then came the awkward climb out of the surf. Tam was watching her, and she fought back a flush. He hadn’t done anything, hadn’t said anything that wasn’t entirely polite, neutral. And yet, there was a deep hunger there, a delight in looking at her that made her feel awkward and strange.

“You have the most amazing luck,” she said, once she was clear, and her helmet was off. “There’s a wreck down there that’s worth half of Cartau. Since I wouldn’t have found it without you, how about we go in on this together? Partners? I’ll do the work, do the hiring; you’d have to keep the houses off, but I’d think that if–”

“What wreck?” asked Tam.

“It’s a treasure ship. Biggest there ever was. The Grand Invincible. Wreck hunters are going to straight up shit themselves when they find out how close it was, all these years. They’ll . . .” Jione caught Tam’s expression, and trailed off. “What?”

“The Grand Invincible went down in a hurricane; she lies off northern Jessail, fifty leagues from shore,” he said.

“I saw the figurehead, Tam,” she said. “Whoever told you that didn’t know what they were talking about.”

“I heard it from the steersman and the pilot both,” he said. “And from twenty other men beside. There are few sailors who walk through heaven’s gates.”

“Tam—”

“Perhaps I sound like a fool. But it seems that obstacles are being set in my path; if you do not trust me, you will be led astray.” He looked at her, terrible fear and terrible need held under the tightest of control.

“Look, even if you’re right, there’s no way that I’ll be able to pick up what you’re looking for. The sniffer is going to show gold all across the bottom there. I’m going to have to—”

“No,” said Tam, and there was a triumph in that, like he’d solved some deadly puzzle. “If it does, perhaps I was misled. But it won’t. Silver and bronze, diamonds and rubies—those you’ll see in abundance. But no gold, not gold that can fool the spells on your sniffer. You’ll have to let all the rest go, all the silver and the gems and whatever else they show. If you take even the smallest silver coin, it will not be well. But the sniffer will smell the truth, and true gold cannot be faked or corrupted.”

Jione shook her head, but there was the ring of truth in that. Anyway, if he was wrong, she’d find out the next time she went down. If there wasn’t any gold there, there was no way that the wreck was the Grand Invincible. The discovery had been like a shock, like a dream, and she could feel it ebbing as she unhooked her apparatus. But hell, she’d done things right. She’d checked with her land crew before engaging, and while Tam hadn’t specified what would happen if she went after the finds from the wreck, it seemed like she’d dodged whatever it had been.

By the time she was finished unhooking her apparatus, Tam had spread out a blanket on the sand, and opened a hamper which smelled amazing. “Something you’ve conjured up?” she asked, sprawling down beside the blanket.

“Conjured?” Tam shook his head. “I’ve had enough and more of conjured feasts. Honest bread and honest meat, though it took longer than I would have dreamed to find good capons.”

Jione sank down to beach next to him, and started unpacking the hamper. “Not worried about suffering for the sin of gluttony?” she asked.

“Gluttony isn’t a loaf of crusty bread,” said Tam. “Or a . . .” he held up a bottle, and tried to puzzle out the label.

“Lime phosphate?” suggested Jione, taking one for herself.

“Yes,” said Tam. “Or a lime phosphate. It is forgetting one’s humanity in pursuit of bread and phosphate.”

“You’re the expert,” said Jione, raising up her bottle of soda to clink it against his. Nothing wrong with lime phosphate, and whether it was a chicken or a capon, the bird Tam had prepared was delicious. As was the bread, as was the candied fruit.

“S’it okay if I forget my humanity while I’m eating?” asked Jione, through a mouthful of fruit. “Because I think I did, when I got to those pears.”

Tam laughed. “I appreciate the compliment,” he said. “And I do not recall seeing many who were damned by enjoying a dessert.”

“What about the other sins?” asked Jione. “Anger, despair, all those?”

“More or less the same,” said Tam. “It’s not that people live a decent life, and find themselves in hell because they were mad about a cast horseshoe, or because they desired a hawk that was not theirs. Those I met in hell were there because they destroyed themselves to gratify their wrath, or because they let their sight fall only on what they did not have.”

“And which one sent you there?” asked Jione. She took a swig of her lime phosphate, looking out at the waters of the lagoon. There was a long pause, but she didn’t look over at Tam, didn’t want to see if she’d been wrong to ask.

“Call it greed, if you like,” said Tam, finally. “I saw a great prize, and did not consider well enough the costs. And I gave o’er my father and all his lands, and spent a year and a day with the queen of fairies.”

“First hell, now fairies,” said Jione. “You do know those are stories, right? Not real?”

As an answer, Tam leaned forward, and moved the hair back from the nape of his neck. No matter how green he’d seemed, how innocent, Tam had never looked vulnerable, but just then he was. And where his shoulders met his neck, there was a glowing knot of rainbow color. “The mark of the fey,” said Jione, and Tam let his hair fall, straightened up to look her in the eye. “It’s all real?” she said. “All of it?”

“As real as ships which swim in air, and spells that burn gold to find it,” said Tam. “I went with the queen of fairies, and after a year and a day, she paid her tithe to hell. I had given myself to her, and she spent what I had given.” His shoulders tensed, and those last few words dropped like coals; endless pain there, endless hurt.

“But you’d done nothing…I mean, you didn’t deserve . . .”

“I was not properly condemned,” said Tam, “and I was not subject to the full rigors of the place. But the tithe had been fairly paid, and fairly claimed, and I was bound to hell for a long time. Longer than I could bear. So I made a bargain, though bargains with hell are ill advised. Should I claim again that thread of gold, it will not have happened. I’ll never have left my father’s hall and gone to the fairy court, never have taken nectar and honey from she who is queen there, and I will never have gone down to hell.”

His eyes lit with so much hope at that, she had to look away.

“Were things that much better back then?” she asked, after a while.

“Things were smaller,” he said. “Less grand. Easier to understand, maybe? But it’s my home, and I had not seen . . . had not endured. It is not that my world was better than this; it’s that I gave so much to the queen of the fairies, and I have lost so much in hell, that there is too little left for me. That thread of gold is a cable that shall haul me back to where I had not lost those things. If I claim it, I get it all back, and I will never even know that it was gone.” He looked back out over the waters of the lagoon. “It was a foolish bargain that I made, to come here, a foolish risk that I took. But if I had not taken it, if I had served the rest of my term in hell, there wouldn’t have been anything left when I was freed.”

“Risk?”

Tam nodded. “If I cannot gain the thread, I will go back down to hell. And there will be no end to that stay, no difference between me and those who earned their place through their life.”

“I’ll get it,” said Jione. She hesitated for a long time, on the verge of saying something more. Tam seemed to sense that, and did not interrupt.

Hell with it. She’d gone alone with someone she did not know, and risked crossing the diving guild for him. She’d taken enough risks already, trusted deeply enough already. Why not go for it? “Getting back to lust,” she said. “If you want to come back and help me with the dive suit. . . .”

Tam groaned, from his core. “You don’t know what you’re asking, Jione,” he said.

She looked at him, and did not look away. “I have a pretty good idea,” she said. “There isn’t much love in hell, is there?”

“There is none at all,” said Tam.

She turned and went back to his house, and he followed, and helped her with the diving suit. The canvas was treated by skill and spell, and he was nothing but gentle, but she could feel how close he was to tearing it apart.

Tam was careful and controlled, at least at first. But it didn’t take long for the control to slip; he was hungrier than she would’ve believed. She came apart in that hunger, and he came apart in her, hands on her hips, mouth on her breast.

He fell asleep in her arms, his face trusting and open. She held him for a time, before she fell asleep herself. The whole story—the fairies and hell, the bargain and rest of it—was still hard to believe. But Tam was real and was with her, wild and strange, innocent and knowing, so controlled and so open to her that it hurt to see. If the thread was there, she would get it for him.

When Jione awoke, Tam was sitting beside the fire, with a brass-bound book on his lap.

“Morning?” she asked, hoping that the answer was somehow no, despite the sunlight streaming through the windows.

“Morning,” agreed Tam. He smiled at her, and he was again as open as he had been; as hopelessly lost. “There’s coffee, and pastries,” he added, the control reassembling itself.

The coffee was good, better than her usual half-chicory swill. Pastries were good too, but less sweet than she’d expected, and not the sort of regular shapes that machine bakeries made.

“There will be other obstacles beside the wreck,” he added, when she came up for air.

“Mm?”

“Once you get hold of the thread, if you let it go, that’s it; it would be lost, and I would be lost with it. There will be attempts to make you let it go.”

“What is this thread, anyway?” asked Jione.

“My soul,” said Tam. “The better part of me. All the things that I lost; everything I gave to the Queen, everything I lost during my years in hell.”

“I’ll hold tight,” said Jione.

“Thank you,” said Tam, and he meant it. “I haven’t been able to determine exactly what will happen once you touch it; it may be that it will grow heated or chilled, or it may change its form? I don’t know. It will hurt you, Jione.”

“I’ve been hurt,” she said. “But if it gets too hot, I won’t be able to hold.”

“That would be . . . that would violate the terms of my agreement. It will hurt, but not more than you can bear; it will do you harm, but no permanent harm.” He paused, shook his head. “At least not physical harm.”

Jione waited for him to finish.

“I am sorry,” Tam said. “I had meant to observe, and then learn the diving myself. But it seems that I have not been given sufficient time for that.”

Jione didn’t laugh or interrupt, though she was tempted to do both. He didn’t have the build for it, and it took months for someone to learn to use the apparatus safely, even for a simple trip to depth.

“There are the false hopes—that is the wreck, I think. And the thread will change. After that . . . I am not certain what the last is. The closest that I have come is that you shall, ‘learn a true thing.’ I don’t know what that means, and I don’t know what it shall do, and I cannot quantify the harm the last shall cause. Whatever it is, I will not be permitted to gainsay, nor make any argument. Once you take up the thread, the matter will be entirely in your hands and your heart.”

“I’ve been hurt before, and I’ve learned true things before,” said Jione. “Pay me the three imperials you owe me–”

“Two.”

“The two Imperials you owe me, charge the sniffer, and I’ll go get you a thread of gold.”

Tam proved almost as adept at getting her into the diving suit as he had been at getting her out of it, which sped things along, and then it was back into the murky waters of Gray Lagoon.

The visibility wasn’t as good as it had been the day before; the currents were moving faster, sending up puffs of dirt and dragging in bits of floating garbage. The wreck was still there, Jione’s claim stakes still marking it as hers, but when she turned the sniffer on, nothing pinged.

There were loose gemstones scattered across the bottom–sapphires and rubies, emeralds and amethysts, large as pigeon’s eggs–there were those black corroded masses of silver coin and plate, there were cannons and porcelain and everything else. But the sniffer didn’t show any gold. There was the wealth of kingdoms there, and she passed it by, doing her sweep with the sniffer. If there had been anything–any blip, any possible match, Jione would’ve counted Tam wrong and gone chasing it. But there was nothing. Not until she got to lowest part of the search area, when the sniffer showed a match for the gold it was burning. Small quantity, but pure. And buried under eight feet of sand.

Well, hell. Nothing she couldn’t handle, but eight feet of sand was a pain in the ass. Jione got to work with the dredge, and what looked like a pain in the ass turned out to be worse than it looked. The current shifted three times, and each time it happened to line up so that the stuff she’d dredged out got blown back in where she was digging. And the visibility got worse, almost as bad as if there was a storm blowing on the surface, for all that it’d been clear when she went down.

The current shifted three times, so she reoriented three times. When the visibility went down, she switched the sea-eye over to sound spotting, and when flecks of opal started showing up in the spoil, she kept after the gold, rather than trying to figure out what she was hitting. It wasn’t two imperials worth of work, but it was a lot of work, and she was twelve and a half fathoms down for most of it.

By the time the thing came up, she was so tired she didn’t even think about what it was she was doing; there was a flash of light, and she reached out to clear it. For the merest flicker of an instant, it was a length of gold thread in her hand, and then she was holding on to a stonefish.

Reflex should’ve made her let it go. Most divers—all divers—wouldn’t have held on to a stonefish that was twisting in their hand. One spine would permanently maim, more than one would kill. But there was that instant of gold thread, the way that Tam had looked when he slept.

She held, and it twisted and stabbed. Then, she almost did let go. It was death. All her senses said that it was real, and all her training, all her experience told her that it was death. But she held, though her hand was growing numb, though she could feel the poison coursing through her veins, as the stonefish stabbed, and stabbed again.

Then it wasn’t a stonefish. She was holding onto the tail of a fifteen-foot long praecursor shark. In one way, it made it easier; she knew that Tam had told the truth, that she hadn’t been poisoned by a stonefish, that the shark wasn’t real. In another way, it had been a lot easier to hold onto a stonefish; the shark was strong and fast and mad. In its first twist, it knocked two blood feeds loose from her apparatus; she could see the blooms of red from the corner of her eye, and the thrashing of the tail nearly pulled her arm loose from its socket. She held. The sandpaper roughness of its skin tore at her hand. She held. It turned and snapped at her with a mouthful of teeth like daggers, and she held, and then it was thread of gold, long enough to reach from a man’s fingertip to his heart, and as wide around as a flower’s root.

Jione wrapped it three times around her wrist, so it wouldn’t fall, refastened her feeds, checked all her gauges and dials, and made her weary way back up to the surface. Until the gauges clicked over into warning, and she took her depth break, floating in the space between the bottom and surface until the pressure of the air in her blood was close enough to the pressure of the surface air to let her return in safety to the world above.

There was no voice, no infernal growl or heavenly choir. But as she floated there, she knew. When Tam claimed that thread of gold, he’d have his soul back. Everything that he had given away, all the damage that had been done in hell, that would all be undone. Everything would be undone; he’d be back where he’d been when a line of dirt and rock was a quay, when the ruins he’d pointed to had been the Castle of the Doves. He’d never have gone to hell, and he would grow into a fine knight and lord. And things would be different. Unavoidably. Small changes would cause large changes, which would unmake everything and make it anew.

Everything she ever knew, everyone she ever loved, would have never been. There’d be something else there; maybe something better, maybe something worse. But if Tam claimed that thread of gold, it wouldn’t merely kill her. She would never have been born at all.

Once, twice, and a third time, Jione let the thread unloop from around her wrist, so that she was just holding the very end of it. If it had then become. . . if it had become anything, even the smallest minnow, it could have flown away on its own. But it didn’t, and she couldn’t let it go.

The gauges clicked back down to normal, and still she floated there, neutral. There was no chance of mistake, or fraud; Tam had said that she would learn a true thing. She could let the thread drift away. Maybe her Imperials would still be in her duffel, and maybe they wouldn’t. But Tam would be gone, and would never return. Or, she could go back, and give him the thread. Maybe she would have that one moment, where he saw what she had done, maybe she would see the bottomless hurt vanish, before she was gone, before she never was.

They were both wrong, but those were her only choices. Maybe . . . maybe Tam didn’t know. She would go, and explain. He would know that she hadn’t failed, he would know why. It wouldn’t be much comfort when he went back down to hell, but it was what she could give. Jione headed back to shore, made her awkward way through the surf to where Tam waited.

He rose to meet her, with his heart in his eyes, and she stood and tried to firm herself to choose. She held it out, but did not let the thread drop from her hand to his. “I can’t,” she said. “It’s not just your past that would be undone, Tam. It would be everybody; everything. I can’t.”

He reared back, as though he’d been stung by a stonefish. The pain she’d seen was doubled and redoubled. He put his hand back down to his side, though his eyes said that he wanted more than anything to reach out to her. “I’m sorry,” she said. “I’m so sorry. But I cannot let you claim this.”

Then there was a sudden light, like when he’d realized that gold couldn’t be faked. He tried to say something, but though she was right there, Jione couldn’t hear it, couldn’t read his lips; it was as though he was already fading. He could not gainsay, or make any other argument. But he held out his hands, and though he could say nothing, Jione could hear him pleading.

She had made her choice, but now she had to choose again. Was this a bluff—had he chosen to live and not go down to hell, and let the future sort itself out, or had he seen some escape, some way in which the harm she saw would not come to pass?

Jione had held on when it was stonefish and a shark, and when she had learned what it would mean if Tam claimed what he had lost. Now, she let the golden thread slip from her hands into Tam’s. For just a second, she saw what might have been; Tam in his father’s hall, his corslet inlaid with silver, his eyes free of the pain and the fire she had seen. It would. . . .

“No!” he said, and she could hear him again. “I have gained this, but I do not claim it.” He drew back his arm, and threw, and the thread arced, high, high over the waters of the lagoon, out to the open ocean, where it sank without a ripple. “I have done what I said that I would; the bargain is fairly won. But I do not claim what was taken; I will not undo what has been done.”

Jione waited, but there was no response; no voice from above or below, no return of the thread that Tam had thrown. He didn’t disappear, and she was still there, Cartau’s towers still rose the same as they always had. “If you gained that golden thread,” she said. “You didn’t have to return to hell. And if you claimed it, you’d get back what you’d lost. Seems a fine point to argue; what if it didn’t work?”

“There is always the possibility of failure,” said Tam. “But it seems that I did not fail. Or at least, that I found a space between the word ‘claim’ and the word ‘gain’, and I left through it.”

“And if someone else finds that thing, and you do claim it?”

“It may come back, when I am feeling lost, or in despair,” said Tam. “It is as much a lure as the wreck you saw, as false as the shark. I cannot say that I will never chase it, but I do not chase it now.”

“Tam,” started Jione, and then stopped.

“I know,” he replied. “I owe you everything; you put your trust in me, and I will not betray it.”

“Everything,” she said, “And three–”

“Two.”

“And two Imperials.”

She’d put the whole world in his hands, and he’d given it back to her. “Y’know,” she said, and hesitated. She was going to say it wrong, and sound like an idiot, but she was going to try. “You need a partner.”

“Partner?”

“Sure. There’s no way the houses or the guilds are going to give you a fair shake. I mean, a ten percent improvement to sniffers, and a probable search area for the Grand Invincible? You need someone who knows what things are worth, or you’re going to get cheated, and maybe killed.”

Tam looked at her, and the flush came from beneath her dive suit, all the way up to her hair. He knew what she was asking. She didn’t look away, and neither did he.

“I have been spending recklessly,” he said. “I thought it didn’t matter; either I would fail, and go back from where I came, or succeed, and go further back. But it seems that I have washed ashore here.” He took her hand; it hurt, because of the spines of the stonefish and the sharkskin, but she gripped back hard, harder than she had held the golden thread. “It’s cold at night, Jione. Cold and dark, and I cannot trust myself to dream, lest the dreams take me back where I do not wish to go. If you will have me, I am yours.”

“All that and three—”

“Two.”

“Two imperials.” Jione put her arms around Tam’s neck, leaned forward. “Deal,” she said, and kissed him.

____

Copyright 2017 Alter Reiss

Alter S. Reiss lives in Jerusalem with his wife Naomi and their son Uriel.  According to his mother, his first word was “book,” which seems about right.  He likes good food, bad movies, and hopes that at some point his apartment won’t be under construction.

by Julie Novakova

It had been the most desperate moment of Angelo Neumann’s life so far, and you were certain to live through many such moments if you lived for the opera. When he closed his eyes, he could still picture his friend of so many years and partner in so many troublesome events, wildly running away from the new opera house and crying: “Can’t get me in there again! I’m done! Hear me?! Done!” Which were the most articulate parts.

Paul Leger had been Neumann’s close associate since Leipzig and had followed Neumann on his Nibelungen-Tournée: ten months across Europe with the whole cast and scenery on a train, playing the complete The Ring of The Nibelung in all notable cities. Both men had nightmares about it before they even started. But thanks to Leger’s skills, no serious incidents occurred during the tournée, which could be considered a miracle. And yet, Leger had run away screaming from the building of Prague’s Neue Deutsche Theater two weeks before its official opening.

Angelo Neumann’s future had never looked this dark.

A knock on the door broke his unhappy train of thoughts. “Enter,” he called.

His chief dramaturg, Heinrich Teweles, entered with a worried expression. “He’s not coming back, is he?” he asked quietly.

Neumann shook his head. “I’ve never been more certain about anything in my life.”

“I shall call the editors of Prager Tagblatt and Bohemia as soon as possible and tell them – that the construction work is taking longer than we’ve expected and the building cannot be opened as originally scheduled. Do you agree?”

The director nodded in gloom. “No one can know about this. Imagine the rumors it would undoubtedly start…”

He immediately regretted saying it as the picture of such events came to his mind all too well.

No, they couldn’t possibly let anyone know that his chief exorcist had nearly lost his mind in the new opera house and they had no replacement at hand. They’d be opening to an empty auditorium. Only those with a death wish or too much love for risk would come.

“We have to find someone capable,” he said aloud.

Teweles knitted his brows. His thoughts no doubt converged to the same problem as Neumann’s: How would they find a skilled exorcist on such a quick notice and as secretly as possible?

“Well,” the dramaturg broke the all too gloomy silence, “for now, we should announce the opening as we discussed in our contingency plan before, correct?”

“Correct.” Neumann sighed. He wanted the opening ceremony to coincide with the anniversary of the premiere of Mozart’s Don Giovanni. This remarkable piece was first played in Prague one hundred years ago. Neumann wished to build up on this strong tradition and make the declining German theatre in Prague a worthy competitor of the successful Czech National Theatre.

However, without an exorcist, they had no choice but to postpone the opening. It would have to be at the beginning of January instead of this November. He would move the Don Giovanni performance back to the Estates Theatre, which had sufficed for this purpose a century ago after all, and start with something else. He had already bought exclusive rights to Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg. The public loved their Wagner as much as they loved their Mozart. This ought to be the best choice he’d been left.

“In order to make sure this plan runs on schedule, we should find ourselves an exorcist at the latest by the end of November,” Neumann concluded. His mind was already running through all the possibilities. With a frown, he realized he had no chance of luring any of the other central Europe opera houses’ established exorcists. He had known them all and their loyalty was nearly incorruptible. Nearly – but he didn’t have the conditions that would corrupt them here.

That left him some ancillary staff, retired exorcists or unskilled beginners, mostly self-taught.

“I’ll let the fact that we’re looking for someone become known in the right circles,” Teweles promised him. “These people won’t tell anyone distrustful.”

“And I shall do the same,” Neumann sighed. “Let us see whom destiny brings us.”

By the end of the month, it had brought them two half-blind retired exorcists previously employed by small local theaters, one complete amateur who almost set himself one fire during the interview and then a young man. Neumann was horrified the second the last candidate had walked through the doors of his office. He was barely a man, more like a child! He couldn’t have been more than twenty. The situation was most certainly getting worse.

But Heinrich had recommended he see this youngster, a boy of one of their actresses. What else did he have to lose by talking to him but a few minutes?

“Gustav Meyer,” the boy introduced himself. His manner was calm, polite and concise. He didn’t seem to make any unnecessary movements or indulge in unnecessary words – an opposite of Neumann, who knew very well his manner was very theatrical and jovial, for which people in his kind of world loved him.

“All right, Herr Meyer. Do you have any references?”

“I do not.”

“So you never worked as an exorcist before, correct? And what did you do?”

“I have some experience with banking. However, I believe it to be irrelevant in this situation.”

A barely grown-up not-even-banker. What on earth did Heinrich see in the boy?!

“Do you know the requirements for the position you’re inquiring about?”

“I do.”

“Well,” Neumann coughed a little, “forgive me for saying that, but you look awfully young. Most exorcists study long before they practice. How old are you?”

“I’m turning twenty in January.”

Not even twenty! Neumann tried to mask his horror. It worked; after all, he used to be an actor. Yet the boy seemed to notice it very well – and remained as calm and composed as he had the moment he walked in.

“Why are you looking to refill this position?” Meyer asked suddenly in his quiet voice.

The director took a deep breath. “I’m going to be frank with you, but I have to remind you that nothing you’re going to hear leaves this office. Ever.”

The boy kept looking at him with his calm bright blue eyes.

“We’re having trouble with the new opera house. Our previous exorcist, a very skilled man who could handle… ahem, a lot, left us a month ago.”

“Dead?” the boy asked with no sign of worries.

“Dear God, no! It didn’t go that far – no casualties. But we’ve encountered a nasty poltergeist during one of the rehearsals and getting rid of it nearly cost Paul his mind – and that was just the last incident of many. He swore that this house was cursed and he wouldn’t set foot there ever again.”

Neumann paused, waiting for the improbable candidate to finally give away his fear–from a mortified expression to fleeing the office. Yet he displayed no signs of fear whatsoever. His behavior puzzled Neumann.

Maybe one of those crazies with a death wish? The thought occurred to him suddenly. Yes, that had to be the case. He certainly didn’t want one of those as his exorcist.

“How many of these incidents were there?” Meyer asked.

Reluctantly, Neumann said: “Five in the course of one month.”

For the first time, the young man showed some kind of emotion. It was curiosity. “From what I’ve heard, it’s usual for a frequented opera house in an old city to have around five in a year.”

And this bloody building hasn’t even been opened yet, Neumann added for himself.

“Interesting. And what was their nature?”

“Three poltergeists, two common ghosts. Probably very old judging from what we could glimpse of their apparels.”

“If you were willing to employ me, I would like to prevent any of those in the future.”

“Forgive me, but I’m not at all sure that a man of your age had time to acquire all the skills necessary for this work…”

“You can end the employment any time you consider appropriate. How are you going to find out whether I’m fit for the job without trying it?”

“You could easily come to harm – or even end up dead.” Neumann feared that this Meyer still didn’t understand the risks. He should be fleeing now, had he any sense. “I’m not going to take this responsibility. I’ve seen pride betray too many underskilled exorcists. You come with no references, no official learning certificate, a boy of barely twenty. What can you really do?”

“I studied Kabbala, the nature of divinity, sophianism and mysticism.” The young man’s face remained composed. “I’m familiar with most of the teachings of the Catholic, Protestant and Orthodox church, as well as with Jewish literature and to some degree also Indian and Chinese sources concerning the divine.”

Neumann was left speechless for a moment. “How did you come to that?”

“My interest was piqued at the age of sixteen, shortly after I came to Prague. For some personal reasons, I was considering ending my life. An act of destiny changed my decision at the last moment and set me on the path of the occult. It saved my life and transformed it.”

This time, the director didn’t try to conceal his horrified expression. “Suicide? When you were just sixteen?”

“As you said, I trust that nothing of this leaves the office. However, you’re right that this can be a somewhat shocking revelation. If I ever mention it to anyone else, I should probably tell them it had been a couple of years later,” Meyer was still looking at him calmly. His porcelain face, cleanly shaven, resembled a statue.

Suicide attempts don’t qualify people to become exorcists, a warning voice in Angelo Neumann’s head kept reminding. You don’t want anyone with a death wish near the opera.

However, this young man was observing Neumann with his bright, intelligent eyes and looked like someone with more sangfroid than the rest of the opera house’s employees together. Which, Neumann had to admit, wasn’t that hard.

“Alright,” he heard himself say, “you’re hired. But if you make any misstep or we find someone more qualified, I’d be obliged to let you go. Are you comfortable with these conditions?”

“I am,” Meyer said.

Neumann wasn’t sure if he imagined the faint smile of the young man’s lips.

Lately, Angelo Neumann always felt a sting of worry when approaching the Neue Deutsche Theater. With Meyer for the first time at his side, it was more an air of anticipation. The young man looked up at the spectacular Neo-Renaissance building with a curious gleam in his eyes and stepped inside without a word. Neumann felt proud as he showed him the magnificent interior full of golden ornaments. This was how a respectable opera house was supposed to look.

However, the exorcist showed no signs of awe, which somewhat disappointed Neumann.

“Can you show me where the previous incidents happened and explain their nature in more detail to me?” Meyer asked in his quiet baritone.

Neumann did so. He gave the youth a tour through the backstage. Here, Meyer seemed finally impressed by the elaborate devices hidden in the insides of the house. “These are beautiful,” he remarked. “But they also provide many opportunities for things to go wrong. We’ll have to be careful here.”

“It’s much better than in the Estates Theatre,” Neumann admitted. “Rather have a lot of complex machinery in a brand new building than crammed into an old house.”

“Yes, I see,” Meyer whispered, running his hand on the hydraulics tube of the stage machinery. He seemed captivated by the technology enabling the opera spectacles, hidden from plain sight.

He was right, though; it provided many ways potentially leading to a serious accident. One of the specters they had encountered did meddle with one of the limelights so that it nearly burned its operator.

“There’s a full rehearsal of Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg here this afternoon. Be careful and pay attention to everything,” Neumann bid Meyer and hoped from the deepest part of his heart that he did not make a mistake hiring the boy.

Gustav Meyer was left alone in the so far empty, quiet backstage. He used the time before the rehearsal to explore the recesses of the opera house. He soon familiarized himself with the small niches and pathways of the place. As he climbed up the ladder to the new electrical spotlights that had promptly replaced limelights after the incident, he suddenly picked up a faint scent of apricots. It was more a whiff than a lasting sensation but it had left him wondering about its source.

He took a pack of cards from his pocket and randomly picked one. The Moon. Hmm.

“Hey, what are you doing up there?”

Meyer looked down at a short stumpy man in a worn-out tweed vest and a shirt with rolled up sleeves. “Gustav Meyer, an exorcist,” he introduced himself to the man and tipped an invisible hat.

The man’s face underwent an interesting change. “Oh,” he managed. “I, ahem, expected someone else.”

Older, translated Meyer for himself.

“I’m Kollar, the chief scene-shifter. I’m just making sure everything is prepared for the evening’s rehearsal.”

“Pray continue. I won’t be getting in your way.”

And he wasn’t. He found a quiet place in the green room and started laying out the cards into the Celtic cross. First, he chose a signifier representing this place. He thought of the Fool for a moment but then decided for Wheel of Fortune. After all, what else but a rapidly rotating wheel of fortune was the life of an opera house?

He shuffled the deck carefully and then picked the second card. It was the Moon, again, pointing at some present danger or deception.

The third one, signifying what to expect soon, was the Tower. Destruction.

Fourth, representing hidden fears and worries, came the Hanged Man: sacrifice and loss. Meyer frowned slightly at this development.

Well, at least the worst cards had come already. The rest…

Fifth, showing recent past, was Death: change, end of a cycle and a new start. That would be the opening of the new opera house and moving most of the Estates Theatre production here.

Six for nearest future: Judgment. It corresponded well to Death, stressing the need of good decisions and new beginnings.

Seven for himself: the Hermit. The corners of Meyer’s mouth twitched. Was he really the detached observer of this world, needing to distance himself even more?

Eight then should represent his current surroundings, nine the thoughts and feelings about the situation and ten, finally, the probable result. Meyer drew the eighth card and stopped in the middle of a motion, just before laying it on the table.

The Moon.

The faint smile froze on Meyer’s lips instantly. He collected himself and exhaled. No point in stopping now; he had to finish the divination.

He half expected the next card: The Tower. After all, it reflected his own thoughts at the moment.

For the final one, the Fool, he was almost grateful. In this context, it was a wild card. There was no most probable, written future yet; it all depended on the right decisions. His decisions, most likely.

But the reappearance of the Moon and Tower had alarmed him. The cards in his deck were theoretically capable of transforming to reflect the reality most accurately but it had never actually occurred before.

He was no longer wondering why his predecessor had left so abruptly.

There must be more to it than the usual apparition and poltergeist trouble

Meyer’s ruminations were interrupted by voices coming from the back entrance. He checked his pocket watch. The rehearsal was due in less than an hour. The actors must be arriving.

Meyer went to the door to see them. He recognized many of them from his visits to the Estates Theatre. Laura Hilgermann, whose voice he had always admired. Otto Brucks, the famous baritone. Adolf Wallhöfer, lead actor in many of Wagner’s operas in Prague – a truly great heroic tenor was quite hard to find. Ludwig Rochelle, who was deeply frowning now – perhaps not just in getting into the role? And there was Gustav Mahler, the kapellmeister. Meyer had heard some of his own compositions and found that he liked Mahler’s musical style a lot.

Overall, an exceptional company to be in. And one that would likely attract attention not just from this world.

Meyer decided to stay in the green room. He found a chair in the corner far from the waiting actors, which also allowed him to observe his surroundings. The singers paid him little or no attention. Presumably they didn’t know about his assignment yet.

He paid each of them little attention himself; instead, he focused on observing the scene as a whole, searching for anything that didn’t quite fit. But so far, everything looked and felt perfectly ordinary, at least as far as ordinary goes for opera. No disturbing mood changes (everyone seemed a bit strained and nervous, therefore normal), no temperature drop in the room, no bad gut feelings, odd shadows or anything else that might give away a supernatural presence. The deck of cards, resting on the table, didn’t move. Divining rods were safely tucked in Meyer’s pocket for now; he wouldn’t want to disturb the singers.

Meyer sat patiently while the rehearsal started, and listened to the opera. While he liked Wagner, he considered Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg one of the composer’s weaker works. But he had to give Neumann’s ensemble credit for their truly excellent performance. He didn’t see them but if they moved on the stage as well as they sang, the premiere would be a huge success.

Despite the music, he began to feel a bit weary and impatient near the end of the rehearsal. Even after some cuts, the performance would be over four hours long and the rehearsal naturally took even longer due to Neumann’s and Teweles’s remarks and suggestions.

Just as Adolf Wallhöfer as the knight Walther started his magnificent prize song Morgenlich leuchtend im rosigen Schein, Meyer in spite of his immersion in the song noticed a slight chill in the room. He closed his eyes, extended his arm and tried to feel where it was most noticeable. It led him to one of the chairs at the other end of the green room. No one had sat there tonight, Meyer remembered – at least no one of corporeal nature.

However, he was sure it was occupied now. Not taking his eyes off the chair, he started incanting in a quiet, barely audible voice. The air above the chair began to shimmer. And then, vaguely human-like features started to be discernible in the corner of one’s eye. Meyer realized he knew these features. There was probably no one interested in opera who wouldn’t.

“Herr Wagner,” he bowed a little. “I’m very sorry to bring you this news but your presence in this opera house might endanger the course of your wonderful play. I’m sure you’ll understand and let the performance of your great piece run smoothly.”

He kept a cautious eye on the ghost. You never knew on what ground you were with them, not even after happily chatting for a few hours; they might start demolishing the room the next second.

The master composer wasn’t even looking at Meyer, as far as the young exorcist could tell. The gaze of the flickering apparition seemed to be focused on the singers at the other side of the waiting room who were listening eagerly in order not to miss their appearance, though they had stagehands to take care of that. So far none of them noticed Meyer or the strange silhouette barely visible on the chair.

Meyer felt a strange sensation of static in the air. The hairs rose on the back of his neck.

“Your musical highness,” he risked a perhaps too pompous flattery – but you were rarely too pompous with ghosts – to calm the spectre. “Can you hear how beautifully they perform your masterpiece? Isn’t it just marvelous that you can be here, listening to them?”

Another thing you could almost rely on: they rarely caught up with irony.

The crystal chandelier in the room shattered into pieces. Meyer heard the waiting singers cry out in horror.

Now the apparition became dark gray and very much visible. His face no longer resembled that of the dead composer. Or actually it could, if Wagner spent a lot of time with his face horribly contorted in anger, Meyer supposed.

He shouted a kabbalistic binding spell. It usually worked.

Unfortunately, relying on things that usually work could get you killed in this line of work.

Meyer felt a burning chill as a dark cloud in the shape of an arm reached out to him, going to touch his heart and stop it, he realized. He had no time to speak, nor to get away or otherwise avoid it.

The fingertips of the ghastly arm went through the fabric of his jacket and then suddenly drew away.

In this line of work, you could only count on things that always work. No otherworldly creatures whatsoever liked enchanted tarot packs. Too bad you couldn’t fight with them.

Das ich erträumt, das Paradies,” a pleasant deep heroic tenor sang from the stage. And then, during the last verse, turned into a not very musical shriek. Meyer got on his feet and ran after it. As he saw the performers cringing behind a fake tree and two – no, three dark shapes flying above it, he muttered a very foul curse in old Hebrew. Not that it had any effect on the spectres; it had only ever scared away one extremely puritan and well-educated ghost in an old cemetery, as far as Meyer could remember. He scanned the area. Wood. Paper. Fabric. Metal… not good against those. Damn it, wasn’t there any stone nearby?

There wasn’t, not anywhere close enough; only the papier-mâché decorations supposed to look like stone city walls behind the meadow where the scene had taken place.

Meyer smiled a little and closed his eyes for a moment. The image of the city walls stayed in the focus of his mind and grew into almost ridiculous proportions, in a way more real than the real thing. Meyer started whispering a strong binding spell. He felt the energy flow through him, knowing that he mustn’t stop at any moment before the spell ends lest he might incidentally cross the border himself, getting forever trapped at the other side.

Frost condensed on his hands. He kept chanting, raising his voice from whisper to speech encompassing the hole stage.

The poltergeists abandoned the rigging and turned to Meyer. They emanated a foul stench of rot.

He overcame the urge to retch, let the last verse of the chant slip off his lips and focused his gaze on the walls. On the thick, old walls of stone around the majestic city of Nurnberg.

Powerful wind swept through the stage and almost knocked Meyer off his feet. The geists flew angrily to him, their dark contours sharpening, but they couldn’t go on against the wind. Finally, they were swept to the stone wall – and consumed by it, once they had touched it.

Meyer sagged to his knees, panting heavily, frost thawing off his hands.

And he still felt the presence of the other entity. The ghost was weakened but not driven out.

Silence, for a couple of heartbeats. Then shouts and screams and calls filled the auditorium. But none of the singers ventured nearby Meyer. He was grateful for their fear.

From the backstage emerged Angelo Neumann, looking utterly devastated. He coughed a little. “Eh, I assume you sorted that out, then? Thank you. I thank you very much. But… this cannot go on,” he said quietly. Meyer detected a slight tone of anger in the director’s voice. Rising panic.

“It will not,” Meyer assured him. “There’s one ghost here that needs to be exorcised – and with him will leave also all the small poltergeists who were lured here by his presence.”

“And what kind of ghost is it?”

“A quite powerful one,” admitted Meyer. “Richard Wagner’s, to be specific.”

For a moment, Neumann’s face brightened. “Wagner? But I’ve known him, he actually liked me, I could…”

“You can’t do anything,” Meyer interrupted him. “Ghosts aren’t replicas of the people they’ve originated from. They have some traits from the original personality vastly exaggerated, some diminished. Reasoning is usually not their strong side, nor are patience, kindness – or plain ignorance. Imagine three of your most apparent personality traits, especially the negative ones, and multiply them a hundredfold. That’s what most ghosts are.”

“Well, yes, I just thought… such a brilliant man…”

A brilliant composer known for his impatience, moodiness, misanthropy and prejudices, Meyer added for himself. True ghost material.

“We got Mozart once when I became director, did you know that? And he was possible to work with, though one had to be careful and maintain good humor… He meant no harm.”

Meyer believed him. For what he knew, Mozart had had a spirit of an innocent, easily enthused and easily bored child throughout his whole not so long life. A ghost of a child with all their demands for attention and fun would mean no harm. But that didn’t say anything about not causing it.

“Please, just do not think about the apparition as Richard Wagner, can you do that? It’s not him. He’s dead and cannot come back – not the real him. Let me find a way how to get the ghost out of here for good.”

Neumann nodded hesitantly. Meyer could see that the director didn’t place much trust in his efforts. He was probably already considering what would it take to declare the building unfit for running an opera house and to return gladly to the old Estates Theatre.

Meyer didn’t try to assure him that things were going to turn out well. Matter-of-factly, he just said: “Please resume normal schedule regardless of what the others say. It’s vital for the work.”

Leaving Neumann temporarily speechless, he started climbing one of the ladders up to the fly gallery.

Frequently visited libraries, theaters and opera houses: these were the kind of places that attracted ghosts like a flame irrevocably attracts moths. All the most renowned opera houses in the world had their highly valued exorcists. A skilled one was not easy to find. And not many people ventured into a line of work that could make them mad or even get them killed, though casualties became quite rare over time. Meyer understood the despair of situation in which Angelo Neumann had recently found himself.

Alas, this kind of situation was not common for an opera house which hadn’t even been in operation yet. From what Meyer had known, he might expect a few easy-to-get-rid-of poltergeists, maybe a weak and fading ghost, but not anything like this by far. Something was amiss.

He wondered what the experienced previous exorcist had seen that made him abandon his life’s work.

From the detached heights of the upper catwalks, Meyer had observed the hum of the stage. From up here, it all seemed so distant. He sat next to one of the winches with ropes attached. Down there, Angelo Neumann was trying to calm the singers and musicians. Meyer caught a part of his words: “…a highly recommended, accomplished exorcist.”

He was accomplished now. You learn new things all the time.

Something was slightly off on the stage. The wall, of course, but that wasn’t what bothered Meyer. He could almost feel the presence of something else, unbound and angry. Too weak for the present moment but determined to strike later.

Meyer would be prepared for that.

The following morning, Meyer carefully placed sets of artifacts throughout the whole opera house. They had been small relics, vials of holy water, three horseshoes and chosen cards from an incomplete deck Meyer owned and kept for this very purpose. The pattern they formed should keep any unwanted off-worldly presence safely out. If they by any chance didn’t, Meyer would at least know what ground he’d been standing on. If nothing else, it should prevent such attempts at directly harming people as the ghost had tried yesterday.

Soon the opera house began to fill with people – mostly musicians, with the occasional scene-shifter or carpenter. There was just an orchestra rehearsal scheduled for today. Even as it was, Meyer overheard some disgruntled remarks on how hard Neumann works them: a rehearsal now, a performance later, then another, not a day to be spent outside the opera…

From the replies, Meyer also caught an interesting piece of fact: The personnel mostly loved Neumann. No matter how hard he worked them sometimes, his charming, jovial and generous personality made him a hard man to dislike.

Yet someone was most likely trying to bring him down – and the whole opera house with him. Which was the primary target?

The rehearsal commenced. Meyer sat in the auditorium, in the first row, just above the orchestra pit.

It was a delight to see Mahler and his orchestra at work. Music, thought young Meyer, was in a way a door to another realm as well. This one, unlike divination or spells, however, remained a mystery to him.

Suddenly he felt a chill going down his spine. The air felt colder and somewhat thinner.

He didn’t have to turn to know who had appeared beside him.

“Good afternoon,” Meyer said silently. “Have you come to listen to the rehearsal? They’re brilliant, aren’t they?”

He heard a snort. “Brilliant? I should be conducting! Then they would be brilliant!”

Do not argue. Not with a ghost Meyer hesitated for a second. If he angered the ghost he’d risk more imminent incidents. However, if he didn’t draw his attention to himself, the same might occur. And in the first case, he might at least learn something.

“You conducted many of your operas truly masterfully,” Meyer nodded.

He avoided mentioning the fact that Wagner drove many musicians and singers to tears in his days. But then again, so could the otherwise cheerful and jovial Neumann when he thought they weren’t working hard. Meyer could see what Wagner used to like about the director.

“Why have you come to this rehearsal?”

The ghost didn’t answer.

“And this opera house? What has driven you to visit it before the grand opening?”

Wagner turned to him abruptly. His eyes seemed like black pits to… Meyer wasn’t sure where. He had studied various Christian, Jewish, Islamic, Buddhist and Hinduist philosophies and each branch differed in what lies beyond. He would like to put the matter under close scrutiny someday, if he could devise a workable method.

“Cannot one visit an old friend?” The ghost’s voice sounded nothing like human this time. The eyes, pitch black a moment ago, shone brightly. Meyer nearly couldn’t see the swift motion as the spectre moved and disappeared from his view.

Meyer stood up and looked into the pit. The rehearsal seemed to be continuing normally…

He dived into his pocket for just one card and produced the Tower.

“Herr Mahler! Please, stop the rehearsal!”

The conductor faltered for a second but resumed his work immediately while looking around his shoulder at Meyer, who had to admire the man’s skill. His movements never ceased, even as he was paying his attention to the young exorcist.

“I believe there’s danger coming very soon. Please, stop until I –”

Meyer couldn’t finish. In the corner of his eye, he spotted a sudden movement. Before he could really comprehend his own action, he leapt into the pit and knocked down the shocked Mahler. A bow quickly flew through the space where Mahler’s head had been just a moment ago.

The ghost appeared above them on the conductor’s platform, blazing rage in his eyes.

“You – a disgrace to my work! A filthy Jew!”

Ah, Wagner’s hardly secret antisemitism. Meyer shouldn’t be surprised. Negative traits made it into ghosts most easily.

Meyer didn’t wait for the ghost to finish his spiteful speech. Still covering Mahler with his body, he scanned his surroundings quickly.

Chants and charms alone would do nothing with such a strong spectre, cards could only show the probable future… He needed something to amplify the effects of spells. If only someone else could chant along with him, but he couldn’t expect anyone to know the obscure words –

Oh.

“Can you do some improvisation conducting based on the rhythm of verses?” he whispered.

“I think so,” Mahler answered quietly.

“Let’s start then.”

Before he even finished the sentence, Meyer was standing again and began chanting. Mahler’s conductor’s baton drew several circles in the air.

The orchestra was too fazed initially but then the first members collected themselves and started playing. The rest followed in the matter of seconds.

Wagner stopped talking. He must have realized what Meyer was attempting.

A surprised cellist squeaked when his bow was snatched from his hand by an invisible force, hang in the air for a moment and turned to young Meyer.

He couldn’t break the chanting. With his eyes, he pleaded the players to emerge into the strange music, focus on it instead of the ghost. If Wagner gained power over more instruments…

Meyer ducked as the bow raced at him like an arrow.

This is beginning to be rather tiring, he thought as he continued incanting. His voice grew louder, the chant more intense, and he saw that Mahler’s arms were moving rapidly…

“To banish me from my own opera! I’ll send you all to hell!” roared Wagner’s ghost.

Meyer finished the chant, exhausted, and at the same time the apparition suddenly vanished. He collapsed on the platform, feeling fully drained. The next second, the conductor was helping him sit up and shouting orders at the orchestra.

He must have blacked out for a moment because when he came to, he was already in the backstage and Neumann was leaning over him. The director let out a sigh of relief as he saw Meyer’s eyelids flicker.

“Oh, thank god! Are you all right?”

“Yes,” Meyer nodded.

“And is he gone?”

“Yes –”

“Wonderful, young man! You may have just saved our theatre!”

Yes, for a while, Meyer wanted to say.

Christmas time came, working its way into people’s lives. The delicate fragrance of clove and cinnamon, along with the stronger air of fresh pine twigs, filled the air. The opera personnel was free for the three holiday days, however, the time between them and the New Year’s Eve would be full of work. There was no time to lose before the grand opening.

Luckily, no ghost whatsoever had made an appearance since the last Wagner incident. Several members of the house already congratulated Meyer for his impeccable action. But he remained doubtful. His last spell was a powerful one indeed, one that exhausted him greatly, but even that had a limited power. With time, it kept growing weaker, and one day the balance would be inevitably tipped back in favor of the ghost.

He should make himself ready by then.

One day before the New Year’s Eve, the penultimate rehearsal was scheduled. Meyer watched it from his favorite place up in the fly gallery.

Opera, he thought with a hint of nostalgia as he gazed down at the performers. Every emotion is stronger, luxury shinier, danger deadlier than in reality. Every single detail, better than life. At least if you belong in this particular world. This unbelievable Wheel of Fortune that never stops turning.

It truly never stopped, not even that day. All of a sudden, Gustav Meyer felt a slight chill.

The whiff of cold air came from the opposing fly gallery, accompanied by a faint smell of apricots, which wasn’t a part of the Christmas spirits. Probably an altogether different spirit indeed. Meyer stood up carefully and walked across the narrow catwalk connecting both galleries.

He could already make out a dark silhouette leaning against the back railing. A few steps further, he even heard the silent muttering.

“…my opera …foul Jew …thought Neumann a friend… deserve to suffer…”

Oh dear. But ghosts were rarely subtle in their feelings and actions.

Meyer thought of using another spell but this spirit was evidently a powerful one, drawn here urgently. If the previous spell, amplified by the music, worked only for a few weeks, what good would be another short-term solution – especially as its effect might diminish at the time of the opening?

However, before he could decide whether to use any of the more exotic – not speaking of dangerous and ill-practiced – solutions, his train of thought had been interrupted by an angry roar of the ghost.

And there goes the plan to talk first. Meyer gripped the railing closely, painfully aware of his station on a narrow bridge some ten meters above the stage.

“Come to attack me again?” When the spirit’s face emerged from the shadows, its eyes were like pits into the depths of a vast nothingness. Meyer averted his gaze with some difficulty.

And then again, maybe some talking will be feasible. “No, maestro. I –”

“Good! Then you won’t stop my plan!”

Opera ghosts could sometimes be very theatrical.

Down onstage, Eva and Walther were just planning to run away together.

But that wasn’t where the ghost’s glare traveled.

“Stop the rehearsal!” Meyer cried out as loudly as he was capable of. No one seemed to have heard him. And before – they surely would have heard the ghost’s shriek, wouldn’t they?

The thing that looked like Wagner laughed aloud. “I too have a couple of tricks up my sleeve, boy.”

 

The ghost didn’t look away from the orchestra pit even for a moment, but Meyer saw his hand move. At first, he saw nothing else suspicious, then he spotted movement: a rope started swaying, lightly at first. The motion gained speed.

Meyer glanced at the end of the rope and at its direction and a muttered curse escaped his lips.

The counterweight!

And at the end of its path, if he didn’t do something, the conductor.

He followed the rope to the pulley and found the other end tied to one of the pinrails.

The next second, the rope gave way and sent the weight on its other end flying across the stage by its unnaturally high momentum.

No time. Meyer threw himself at the rope, catching it just so and swinging with it above the heads of the singers. The illusion broke since he had heard a few cries and shouts instead of singing.

He must have been somewhat heavier than the counterweight, alas, the ghost failed to show proper respect to laws of physics. In a fraction of a second, Meyer could imagine the consequences: the counterweight hitting the conductor before he had a chance to jump aside, himself landing just after.

With a rare presence of mind, Meyer shouted one of the more concise spells, a not very powerful one – a thing that would anger the ghost rather than expel him. And that was exactly what happened.

The counterweight, put off course by the ghost’s miscalculation of strength, missed the conductor’s place only by a few inches and ended up in the first row of the auditorium.

So did Meyer: shaken, perplexed, vaguely surprised at the notion that he might just have got through it all right except for some bruises and that his desperate momentary plan had worked.

He glanced up. He couldn’t see the fly system from here but something was telling him that the ghost was gone. For the moment.

Everything was very still for a second and then excited and horrified voices filled the stage.

Neumann was hurrying to the front from his place in one of the back rows. From the orchestra pit emerged Gustav Mahler, pale as death. Meyer collected himself from his rather undignified position, amazed that he truly escaped quite unscathed, and hastened to them.

“I cannot conduct the piece if I’m in mortal danger,” the kappellmeister was just saying in a quiet voice. “I’m sorry, Angelo. We’ve been friends for many years, you’ve given me a chance when I was still a nobody, but I hope you can understand that I won’t risk my life for the premiere.”

Neumann nodded gloomily. “I understand.”

Lost was the director’s usual loud cheerfulness. Neumann had been the kind of person who could get even an elephant to act on the stage. However, he seemed to understand it would be futile to insist. Persuading a respected friend to risk his life for opera crossed a line.

It was therefore Meyer who spoke: “Herr Mahler, it is of the utmost importance that you conduct the premiere. I cannot stress how essential it is.”

The conductor’s surprise was quickly replaced by a deep frown. “Is it?”

“Vital.”

“I’m afraid that not attending the opening may prove vital for me.”

Meyer fished for something in his pocket and produced a small silver pendant. “I usually don’t let this out of my hands but in this case… Please, take it and always have it by yourself. It’s a strong protective charm. The ghost may still be able to reach you but won’t do you any serious harm.”

Mahler took it reluctantly. “I should rely on this with my life?”

“I did.”

“So why give it away?”

All eyes – now the whole ensemble was gathering around them – turned to Meyer. The young exorcist remained detached. “Because we need the grand opening to go smoothly. And for that, we need you, am I right?”

“Quite,” said Mahler after a pause. He exchanged a look with Neumann. “I… I’ll stay. For now. But if there’s another incident…”

“I’ll take care of it.”

The young man’s thoroughly confident tone seemed to assure the conductor and director. It didn’t do such a splendid job assuring himself – but no one else needed to know about that.

Was the theatre safe for now? The Tower, the Moon and the Hanged Man gave a rather gloomy answer. Meyer sighed inwardly. It seemed that trouble was not entirely over for the day. Should he stay?

Ah, well, he felt tired and aching after his escapade but not at all sleepy anyway.

With his cards and divining rods, he stalked the dark corridors. He followed the trail of bad omens such as drawing the Moon or the Tower at a junction, the rods shaking rapidly in that direction or foreboding patterns in the dust settled on the floor. They were all there for those who knew what to look for. Strong ones, too. Meyer’s calm was beginning to wear out.

The signs led him to the conductor’s room. A faint glimmer emanated from under the door.

By this time, the opera house should have been deserted. He saw Mahler leave. Even the director had already gone home. Was it the cleaning boy? Meyer doubted the easy explanation. And after what had happened, this room was too much for a coincidence.

He knocked on the door slightly and entered without waiting for a reply.

A figure sat slouched by a table, face buried in his hands, resembling a marble statue. Exhaustion was the first label that came across Meyer’s mind.

Meyer bowed a little. “Master composer.”

Wagner raised his head. Was that a hint of bitterness in the spectre’s expression?

“Am I still that? Or are you going to banish me from here again by force?”

He seemed calm, composed. The ghost’s rare moment of clarity should not go wasted. Meyer approached him slowly. “I would not resort to that if you didn’t constitute a danger to this theatre. I’m sorry, but you are that. Do you remember what you’ve done earlier today?”

“The fool was using too fast tempi, ruining the piece. When I had been conducting…”

He had the aura of someone trying hard to remember something long forgotten; an old man grasping for the precious blurred memories of his childhood. Meyer felt sorry for him – but he had a responsibility to the living.

“You trust Angelo Neumann, don’t you? He chose the best kappellmeister. Everyone will love the performance. But you need to leave. I’m afraid your interference isn’t helping the rehearsals.”

“Damn you,” the former composer whispered. “You can’t imagine what it is to see all this and be unable to act on it as you could when you… were alive. When it takes a tremendous effort even to hold one’s mind together. What would be left of you had you become a ghost after you died, Meyer?”

The young man thought about it for a second. “Hunger for learning about the world and beyond, I suppose. Curiosity. Observant nature. But these are, of course, features I would like to characterize myself with. They might have nothing in common with the deep-rooted things that would be left after everything else had been carried away by the river Styx.”

Despite his air of despair, the ghost chuckled. “Oh, how lovely, you actually believe in Styx!”

“I believe it’s a powerful metaphor,” Meyer said placidly.

“Let’s see what would become of you, shall we?”

“I would hope for this finding to be delayed some decades.”

“Hah, I bet you would! I bet…” The dead ghostly eyes sparkled. “What if we made a little bet?”

Urgent words flickered through Meyer’s mind: Never make any kinds of bets with the other world. You can only lose. You always lose, one way or another.

“What kind of a bet?” he said.

“Oh, something easy and fun.” Wagner seemed to be right in his element. Meyer remembered the rumors that Richard Wagner had been driven to hazard in his life, and wondered it they were true. “Since you love cards so much,” the ghost continued, “if you can win over me in a game of cards, I leave for good. If you can’t do it, you give me your life. Let’s see what would you turn into then.”

For a moment, everything was perfectly still. Meyer could hear the sound of his own breath.

It sounded like music.

“Only if you promise not to hurt anyone and let the grand opening take place in peace,” he heard before he could even realized it was himself speaking.

Wagner’s ghost burst into loud laughter. There wasn’t anything happy or sincere about it. “All right, young man! Tomorrow here at this time of the day, we shall see who can outplay whom.”

With these words, he disappeared as if he had never been there. Meyer had to blink away the sudden gray spots in front of his eyes.

A thoroughly unpleasant feeling settled over him.

As though he had just plunged into a pit and there was nothing he could do now – nothing but accept it and try to devise a plan before he fell too deep.

The next late evening, Meyer turned up in the so far empty dressing room – luckily, no rehearsals were scheduled for today. It did not remain empty for long. As he felt a slight drop of temperature, a whiff of cold and somehow summer air at the same time, he knew he was not alone even without having to turn.

The ghost had kept his word. That had always been a good sign. Perhaps, through the sheer willpower of adhering to the original human personality, the ghost would retreat on his own will. Meyer could hope. But did he truly believe it? Not for a second.

He turned and reached for his cards but Wagner laughed. It wasn’t an entirely unpleasant laugh. “Oh no, we are not playing with this wondrous deck of yours. Who knows what enchantments might lurk there? Besides, I wouldn’t touch those if my life depended on it, even if I still had one. No – and before you say it, neither am I supplying the deck. But what kind of an opera house would this be if there was no place at all where the riggers and scene-shifters go to play cards?”

A new one, Meyer thought but he remembered seeing the men gathered by a game of tarock in one of the shops in the basement.

“I may know…”

As soon as he mentioned this fact, the ghost waved a hand slightly and a deck turned up in it.

Now it was Meyer’s turn to laugh. “Do you expect me to believe that it’s their deck and not yours, conjured out of thin air?”

“I may be dead, but I’m not any sort of conjuror. Examine it as you like. You’ll find it’s a completely ordinary deck of cards, quite worn out by frequent use.”

And so it seemed to be. No signs whatsoever pointed to its possible unearthly origin.

Meyer and the ghost sat to the small table.

What shall we play? Meyer almost asked but caught himself in time. He’d have put himself in a worse bargaining position. Instead, he reached for the cards, shuffled them and said: “Twenty-one?”

The ghost shrugged. “As you wish.”

Meyer dealt one card to himself, one to Wagner, both face down. Then each of them looked at his card. Meyer had the Seven of Swords. Good, he thought. One card of three, one third of twenty-one.

“Do you want another?” he asked his opponent.

“Yes.”

Both received their second cards. Meyer’s was the Five of Cups. Twelve was a good value to have in two cards – it meant that the third one was fairly safe and would with most probability get him very close under twenty-one.

“Tell me,” Meyer spoke while Wagner was ruminating over his second card, “why have you decided to visit this place in particular, at this time?”

The ghost looked at him across the table. “Why, I couldn’t resist such a powerful drag. And one should always remember to pay a visit to old friends. Well, can we move in the game?”

Meyer’s hand stopped above the deck. “Do you want the last one?”

“Yes.”

There was no emotion in the spectre’s face as he saw his card. Meyer gazed at his one just a second later and held his breath.

It was the Ten of Swords. A card of death and destruction when used for divinatory purposes.

It had never seemed as acute to Meyer as right now.

Twenty-two. He had lost his life.

With surprisingly steady hands, he held the cards face upwards. The ghost was just doing the same. In his greyish, somewhat translucent hands, were the Five of Wands, Eight of Pentacles and Nine of Swords. Twenty-two.

Meyer exhaled slowly.

The ghost produced a sour smile. “So it seems we have both lost our bets.”

“Or none of us.”

Wagner was looking at him through eyes narrowed in contemplation. “We both lost, my good friend. If we both had the same value of twenty-one or less, I would agree with you. However, on this occasion… I believe we should both collect our respective bets, what do you say? I leave, you die?”

Words had stuck in the middle of Meyer’s throat.

“Or possibly we could postpone it a bit so that we both could witness the grand premiere… Yes, that shall do it. Until then – au revoir, Herr Meyer.”

And he vanished into thin air, leaving the young exorcist staring at the cards that had brought forth his impeding doom.

Angelo Neumann could be found in the Estates Theatre. Meyer wondered if the director ever spent his waking time outside one of his two theaters. As Neumann spotted him, he clicked his tongue and ushered him to one of the empty dressing rooms. As discussions with exorcists went, he would rather have no ensemble present to hear the conversation.

“I have some good and some bad news for you,” Meyer started, confirming his suspicion.

Neumann frowned. “Well, go on.”

“The good are, your problems with ghosts have a clear explanation. Someone has been deliberately drawing them in, Herr Wagner’s ghost practically verified this for me. If there wasn’t any strong lure or drag in here, my warding pattern would have kept them out.” Meyer paused. “The bad news are, I still don’t know what the lure is and how to get rid of it. Oh, and I had made a bet with the ghost. I had no other choice at the moment.”

“What bet exactly?”

“For my life.”

All color drained from Neumann’s face. “You can’t be serious,” he gasped.

“I am. Please, trust me. I will do my best.”

“Somehow, I have no trouble believing that,” the director murmured. “And this bet, did you…”

“Yes, we’ve played already. It was inconclusive. But let us focus on the source drawing the ghosts in. Do you have any enemies?”

“I didn’t think so up until now.”

“None?”

“Well, I’ve had to let some people go but surely they wouldn’t…”

“Any of them recently make an appearance here?”

“Not that I know of.” Neumann sighed. “There’s a lot of competition in the operatic world but certainly no one would resort to such means. It just doesn’t fit. I’ll think about it, though. But what should we do with the premiere? Should we cancel the event?”

It was apparent how much it pained the director to say this. Meyer hoped his answer would relieve him: “No. That would not be necessary. However, I’m not sure whether I can ensure its safety completely. I’d say it would be a calculated risk.”

Neumann gulped. Beads of sweat formed above his brows. “We… don’t usually take these. What about the safety of the viewers and the performers? If lives are at risk, we should at least postpone…”

He caught the exorcist’s glance and his voice died off.

“It is reasonable to go forth as planned. Please, trust me.”

And so he did.

After Meyer had left, a nagging thought formed in the director’s mind: He’s saying that a lot.

“Move it! We haven’t got all day! Raise the church wall in three, two…”

The day of the grand opening arrived. Everyone had been up and about since the small hours, making sure everything would go according to plan, except for Meyer, who had spent a whole night in the house and only came back in the afternoon. But this was opera. You could never make absolutely sure, only do everything in your power and then hope and pray it would suffice. Trouble could resurface practically from anywhere, and so praying was what most of the ensemble did, to any number of entities. From what Meyer had heard, Dionysus was rising in popularity among the thespian folk.

A superstitious lot, they were – especially now.

Meyer could see the horseshoes hanging above several dressing room doors, the traditional exchange of small keepsake gifts and hear the silent mutterings. At one occasion, he almost got a dash of salt into his eyes as one chorus girl threw it over her shoulder without noticing his approach. Such were the smaller, quite harmless dangers of being an opera exorcist.

So far, there were no signs of ghost trouble. But Meyer had no doubts that Wagner’s ghost would choose the most vulnerable moment to strike.

The auditorium filled with the chattering crowd. The performers gathered in the green room. Already, the scene-shifters and lighting technicians stood at their posts.

Meyer spent the last moments before the start walking inconspicuously around the house, checking his wards and occasionally drawing a card from his pocket. The Wheel of Fortune kept coming up constantly. In a way, it reassured him. Nothing was certain yet.

The curtain went up and a loud cheer greeted the director on stage. Meyer found a quiet place from where he could observe most of the auditorium and the stage well and listened to Angelo Neumann’s speech. It wasn’t overly pompous, yet it carried a positive air of grandiloquence. Meyer had to admire the director for his theatrical skills.

Neumann, having finished talking, bowed to another round of applause and then left the stage to the performers. Parcival de Vry’s scenery was just magnificent and quickly drew the audience to 16th century Nurnberg. There were Eva Pogner and the knight Walther von Stöltzing, falling in love with each other; Walther cradling the hope of winning Eva’s hand in marriage in the oncoming song contest of the master singers guild; Beckmesser, furiously marking Walther’s mistakes on the blackboard…

The first act and intermission had gone by without any incident and Meyer found himself enjoying the performance very much and admiring the work of the ensemble, though every once in a while he reached for the cards and kept checking the motionless divining rods. Well, motionless; up until now, to be precise. As he grasped them again, they started shaking fiercely, pointing slightly left. Meyer got up and hurried where they led him, while trying to look as inconspicuous as possible under the circumstances.

A card fell out of his pocket. He glanced at it and saw the Hanged Man.

Oh, brilliant.

The rods led him backstage. He slowed down his pace then and hid the rods under the edge of his evening jacket. Underneath it, they were still twitching wildly, indicating the direction of the disruptance. Meyer, with a faint exasperation, looked up.

The fly system was anything but deserted now. It buzzed with activity and Meyer elicited more than a few surprised and disgruntled looks by appearing up there. But no one dared to question the presence of an exorcist, not after what had been happening in the past two months. They continued doing their job with more alertness than ever, some whispering silent prayers, touching crosses or other talismans and throwing wary glances in Meyer’s direction.

He didn’t bother to hide the rods any longer. After all, a rapidly twitching and shaking edge of a jacket is suspicious by itself.

“Excuse me,” he mumbled to a suddenly very pale rigger and squeezed past him on the catwalk.

Meyer had to clutch the rods now to prevent them from flying off on their own. A moment later, they snapped and the useless remains fell down on the stage, luckily not on anyone’s head. He drew a fitful breath, staring down in disbelief.

A card shot out of his pocket and he had to apply himself to catch it before it drifted down too.

The Moon.

Meyer suddenly understood what was going on. Icy sweat ran along his spine.

Contrary to the public folklore, ghosts rarely possessed living people. It took a very strong and determined ghost to do that and a lot of effort to hold the possession. Why bother if the strong ones could already influence the corporeal world quite easily without going through such trouble?

However, if they plainly wanted to hide from unwanted attention…

Meyer looked around slowly.

It can be anyone.

The old rigger in a checkered vest? The frowning stout little man by the nearest pulley? The freckled lighting assistant?

He could perform a general exorcism, true, but trying to draw the spirit without knowing the target might injure or kill the possessed person. Meyer had no choice but identify him first. Without letting the ghost know when he does, preferably.

The cards were his favored method of choice but they were too conspicuous. He scanned his surroundings and found himself conveniently near a little spilt sand from one of the counterweights. Abacomancy was not among his well-practiced techniques but it would have to do. He pretended to be leaning on the railings and examining the adjacent section of the rigging system. Presumably to see it closer, he knelt for a moment.

He ran his fingers through the sand and whispered.

To his dismay, though not really surprise, the sand grains didn’t do anything as overt as forming an arrow clearly pointing at one of the men. However, the resulting shape certainly held a pattern of sort – only Meyer couldn’t immediately see what it had been supposed to represent. He had a vivid and wild imagination but one that expressed itself in feelings and situations rather than purely visual terms.

What does it look like? What does it signify?

He recalled a game they sometimes used to play with mother when he had been a little boy. What do you see in the clouds? Look, there’s a locomotive! And over there an opened book

What do you see now?

A few heartbeats went by. Then he saw it.

A ship.

Meyer knew, thanks to his actress mother, that in some countries the chief of riggers, or flymen, was called the fly captain – a tradition stemming from the fact that the fly crew often originally used to be former seamen.

Here, the fly coordinator was a rather young man, unusual for someone with that kind of responsibility, but then again, Meyer himself had been barely twenty. The rigger probably worked the fly loft since he’d been a teenage boy.

Meyer walked casually to the young man, letting a small cross slip into his hand. “Excuse me, sir?” he asked calmly, and when the man turned, he pressed the cross onto his forehead and started incanting in Latin. He was using Vade retro satana the old-fashioned Christian exorcism, the one most people in these parts of the world imagined when they heard “exorcism”, though it was actually a rather rare occasion.

The man’s features bent and distorted, a low growl escaped his throat, but he could not move.

A moment later, the fly captain’s body sagged, unconscious but breathing. But the spirit inside was not gone; only unleashed. Meyer gestured at two riggers to take the man to safety, then threw a handful of sand into the air and followed its trail.

Down onstage, Beckmesser started his serenade to Eva, accompanied by Hans Sachs’s hammering of shoe soles.

The ghost formed into a human-like shape again, descending on the catwalk. His expression seemed to be varying between rage and sad disappointment by less than seconds.

“I might have wanted to spare you, in spite of your insolence, only if you let me be just for today!” His tone swung between emotions as he spoke.

Meyer shrugged. “Then you shouldn’t have told me with certainty that you would take my life.”

“What if we make a new agreement now? I let you be, you let me be…”

Meyer didn’t let any emotion show on his face but he was smiling inwardly. So he’s afraid.

“If you tell me what you’ve been planning when instructing the other riggers, I may consider being kinder than otherwise,” he admitted. “It couldn’t have been anything obvious, else they would spot it immediately; they’re capable and experienced workers. Therefore, if we eliminate the most outré possibilities, it leaves us with something much more subtle: You were just preparing ground for yourself, for when you abandon the man’s body and are free to act with the prerequisites in place. Am I not mistaken?”

“Change of plan,” the ghost growled and went for him.

Unlike most of the riggers, Meyer did not have a safety harness. He clutched the railings and waited. And waited. It took a fraction of a second but felt like a lifetime until he sensed the right moment, at least hoped to have done so, and pulled the invisible threads he had woven last night.

The elaborate rigging of the fly system gave him the inspiration. He presumed the ghost would manifest himself in that area, as he seemed to have developed a liking for it and it would give him a chance to strike where it felt most.

So Meyer had prepared a rigging of his own.

As soon as the threads closed in upon them, the ghost realized the trap he had fallen into. He went after the young exorcist with the more fury. Meyer, having expected some dissatisfaction, braced himself. He wondered if his amulets, spells and personal resourcefulness would suffice this time.

As it was, they did. At least the observation – him being still alive as the ghost charged and then again – suggested that.

Meyer stood a little unsteadily on the catwalk, panting, not taking his eyes off the ghost.

A second of silence followed, then a loud applause. After it died away, near silence fell again.

The second intermission started.

Under normal circumstances, the backstage would come into frantic activity, shifting the scene, repairing costumes and make-up, re-checking the rigging system, loading new counterweights. However, now everything became mortally still.

“A stalemate, is it?” Wagner asked then, suddenly calm as a pond surface in a late summer day.

“It would seem so.”

Around them, the order of things was slowly returning to… not exactly normal but at least the pretense of normalcy. People returned to their work cautiously, hoping the source of trouble had been contained. In truth, it had – temporarily. Meyer hoped the interwoven threads would hold them through the whole intermission.

Time inside the barrier seemed to have passed slightly like in a dream. Lazily, like honey dripping off a spoon.

None of them spoke for a moment. Then the strange passage of time was brought forward by the beginning of the third act.

“The prelude,” Meyer remarked quietly. “They’re playing it exquisitely, aren’t they?”

The ghost frowned a little but didn’t make any retort or any move at first. Then David, Sachs’s apprentice, began singing joyfully about the St. John’s day festivities, and Wagner’s face distorted in bitterness.

“We all rejoice when we’re young fools,” he muttered, “and what is it all for? What do we get for all our trouble in life? All our sacrifices, all our efforts are ultimately in vain.”

He extended his arms and felt for Meyer’s threads. They were weakening by the moment.

He touched them, interlaced them with his fingers, and pulled.

Meyer felt the web disentangle.

The time was running out.

Just as Hans Sachs started his famous Wahn! Wahn! Überall Wahn!, accursing madness and futility in the world, Meyer could feel the wise shoemaker’s state of mind. He too would lament the course of things and where he had led it. Madness, above all.

All in vain. And what do we get

What do we get?

“The music,” he said.

Wagner looked at him in surprise, for a second stopping pulling at the thread.

“We get the music,” Meyer repeated. “Among other things. Listen.”

Mann, Weib, Gesell und Kind fällt sich da an wie toll und blind Gott weiss, wie das geschah?

In the rhythm of the song, Meyer started whispering. A quiet incantation, unobtrusive, in contrast with the intensity the song had reached. But it was enough.

Wagner faltered. He listened; listened to his own music, his own words, and Meyer’s.

A strange gleam covered his eyes.

He lowered his arms.

“This I leave on the earth…” He looked in the direction of the auditorium. He couldn’t have seen the audience, though – or maybe he could, being a supernatural being. He was silent for a while. “Then I think this is enough. But I… I don’t know how to go away.”

Meyer considered this for a moment. “I may have an idea.”

The ghost picked a card; so did Meyer. Each looked at their own.

One card escaped the pack and fluttered down like a leaf in autumn. Meyer glimpsed enough to see it was Judgment. It touched the stage lightly.

“Do you want another one?” Meyer asked.

“No.” Wagner shook his head. “I don’t.”

Meyer drew another and showed both to the spirit. They added up sixteen.

The ghost of Richard Wagner showed him his one. It was a seven.

“Goodbye,” the ghost said. He closed his eyes for a moment. The opera was just reaching the finale. “If I go someplace as beautiful as my Walther is singing about, I shall rest happy.”

Meyer had no knowledge of where souls went or whether they just disappeared if not drawn back to the world of the living, so he nodded. “Goodbye.”

The exorcist observed the apparition becoming more and more transparent, until not visible at all. Then he, just to be sure, carefully drew out a card. It was the Magician.

Tired and calm, Meyer smiled.

Down below, the music stopped, followed by a great applause.

Later that evening, Meyer sat in Angelo Neumann’s office, on the verge of exhaustion but happy – and so was the director. He praised Meyer’s actions, thanking him. So did Mahler before he retired home. The conductor also wanted to return him the talisman. Meyer assured him he could keep it for luck, though its warding power was probably lowered after today’s events. He couldn’t bring himself to tell Mahler that it was just a piece of cheap jewelry – to make an efficient amulet for a person, he would have to spend days around him forging the spell. He’d needed the conductor present at the premiere for his plan.

Now Mahler was safely home and Meyer and Neumann sipped tea, while most of the city of Prague slept soundly.

Neumann repeated what a success the exorcism was, and added in a less excited tone: “I’m still concerned about what drew the spirit in. I mean, if someone meant this theatre ill will, what if he tries again?”

Suddenly, Meyer broke into an uncontrollable laughter. Neumann watched him with apparent concern for his sanity.

“Oh! Of course,” Meyer said when he caught his breath. “I’m sorry, I’ve been so slow! You see, it wasn’t deliberate at all. Naturally, something was drawing the ghost in. Or, rather, somebody.” Meyer’s lips twitched. “Herr Wagner must have formed strong memories of the man who managed to perform the Nibelungen cycle all across Europe traveling by a train literally filled with opera.”

Neumann’s jaw dropped. “You mean…”

“Yes. The ghost has been lured here simply by your presence.”

“But why hasn’t anything happened in the Estates Theatre? We performed Wagner all the time!”

“You did, but the building had seen so many operas, plays and ballets that Wagner’s influence had been limited. After all, the composer most related to that theatre had been Mozart – and he did appear there. How many years have you been doing Wagner’s works in the Estates Theatre? His power simply couldn’t compare in that place.”

“But… we planned to open with Don Giovanni here! If it hadn’t been for the ghost trouble, the Master Singers would only come second!”

Meyer smiled a little. “Exactly.”

It took another second before the conclusion dawned on Neumann too. “Oh.”

“Maybe he felt like you owed him. Or he just wanted his opera to be remembered for the grand opening of a theatre he may have believed in – he certainly believed in you.”

Neumann looked a trifle stricken but not quite persuaded.

“In the end, I relied on one thing I had realized much too late, as I must admit in shame,” Meyer continued. “Ghosts tend to retain the most characteristic features of their former personalities. If you were to describe Richard Wagner by just one characteristic, what would it be?”

Neumann gazed at him, puzzled.

“Music lover,” Meyer explained. “Wagner must have loved music above all. You knew him: he had lived by it, hadn’t he? Eventually, everything had to come down to music. That was his legacy. Tonight’s premiere allowed him to finally go in peace.”

It took a while for the director to find his voice again. “I… guess I should be honored.”

“Don’t worry. There shouldn’t be any more trouble like this.”

Angelo Neumann laughed a little. “Yes – there is undoubtedly going to be some whole different trouble soon! Luckily we have you.”

Meyer put down his tea and hesitated. “Being an opera exorcist was a most intricate experience, no doubt, however I’m not sure whether I am truly the best person for this job, Herr Neumann. I’m still studying. If you didn’t find yourself in such a desperate situation before, I would not even apply.”

“Damn it, you saved this house!”

“Someone else might have achieved it sooner, and avoided risking the lives of the people. Let us agree, director, that when you find someone more suitable for the job, I’ll leave. Until then, you can rely on my help, of course.”

Neumann didn’t seem very happy about it but finally nodded. “But I hope you change your opinion anyway…”

“I would not rule out the possibility, yes. Opera can grow on you.”

“Ha! You’ve seen nothing. Our Carmen was once sung by a deceased diva getting ahold of the living singer’s body. We couldn’t do anything until the end of the opera. Though I have to admit I’ve never heard it sung better. The audience was astonished. And wait until we do Orpheus and Eurydice here. In Leipzig, the Furies became a bit too literal during one rehearsal. Apparently, the chorus members impersonating them had been briefly possessed by the real ones.”

Meyer thought about the job his father had planned for him: a banker. It was not a career Meyer himself would prefer. However, for the family…

He could still do some things he liked in his free time. That reminded him…

“Before we part today, Herr Neumann, may I ask you one more question? Would you allow me a loose inspiration by the witnessed events should I ever have a notion to write about it?”

“So you’re a writer too,” Neumann exclaimed. “I wouldn’t be surprised if you admitted tomorrow that you can also act and sing. If that loose inspiration is sufficiently loose, I shall have no problem with that, I’m sure. I’ll be looking forward to seeing your name in the newspapers and magazines.”

“You shall not see my own name. I’ve decided to use a pseudonym,” said Meyer, who didn’t think that writing ghost stories would add to a banker’s reputation.

“What name should I look for then?”

“Meyrink. Gustav Meyrink. Good night, Herr Neumann.”

 

Dedicated to Angelo Neumann, whose determination, enthusiasm and grand dreams led to establishing an opera house which stands proudly to this day and became the State Opera in Prague.

By the way, Neumann really did bring a live elephant onstage.

____

Copyright 2017 Julie Novakova

Julie Novakova is a Czech author and translator of science fiction, fantasy and detective stories. She has published short fiction in Clarkesworld, Asimov’s, Fantasy Scroll, Persistent Visions and other magazines and anthologies. Her work in Czech includes seven novels, one anthology (Terra Nullius) and over thirty short stories and novelettes. She is an evolutionary biologist and is currently working on her first novel in English. Follow her on her website and Twitter @Julianne_SF.

by Alex Acks

To Mr. T.H., happy birthday.

 

She was just here a moment ago, round chin on his shoulder, her laugh low in his ear, fingers brushing his arm. But Bill blinks, and everything changes in an instant, over the course of ten years. He’s still got blue eyes and curl to his hair, and it’s August, sky swearing-blue and without a cloud, sun howling heat down on the cracked sage-covered soil outside. The endless hum of the AC unit has a rattle in its voice that spells a new suicide threat from the machine. But she’s not there, even though she should be.

He’s at the sideboard in a silent house, rumpled Brillo pad in one hand, dripping glass pitcher in the other, sleeves of his plaid shirt rolled up to the elbows and decorated with water anyway. Splashing’s inevitable, that’s what Micci always says. And then flicks water in his damn face and laughs.

When he glances down, seeing something pale from the corner of his eye, there’s a skull at his elbow. It’s the size of a pomegranate, bone-white, smooth and shining, painted with vivid patterns in red, orange, intense purples and poison greens. The skull grins at him, and gold shows between its teeth.

He slides the gold out with two wet fingers that blur the lines of color and melt away one of the skull’s canines, and he feels a pang of guilt for having destroyed something beautiful, like seeing the tattered orange wings of a butterfly poking out from under the pointed toe of his cowboy boot. Like when she looks at him with those soft brown eyes after burying her nose in his collar, and he knows that she knows, but she won’t out and say it.

Micci’s wedding ring sits in his palm, heavy and cold, and he no longer feels bad about the skull’s gap-toothed grin. That ring’s been parked on her finger for ten years, since the dusty day they pulled over at a neon-lit chapel and said what the hell, why not, let’s get married by Elvis. She said she couldn’t even take the damn thing off without just cutting off her finger, like her flesh grew around and made it part of her hand. “Micci?” he calls.

The house is silent except the water running, running down the sink. Bill closes the ring in his fist and runs through the halls like the faucet streaming along behind him. “Micci? Micci? The hell’s going on?” He checks under the bed and in the closets, like he’s looking for a five-year-old kid and not his grown woman of a wife, and then bursts out the front door still calling, calling.

The air is heavy with sulfur, gray and choked out with tiny stink-claws that drag the back of Bill’s throat. The front porch. The goddamn porch of his goddamn house is on fire and stinking like the devil as it burns. “Micci? Micci?” He hacks out his wife’s name a time or two, ineffective and too damn soft anyway, before his vision clears.

Orange flames lick the sun-grayed boards like they’ve just been touched by a brand fresh from the fire. Hoof prints, the size of his spread hands—and he has decent-sized hands, big enough to span the strings on his guitar or an octave plus three on a piano with no trouble. Cloven hoof prints.

There are songs everyone knows, in the dry, flat plains that fools only call ranch land because it’s populated by cattle too damn mean and cunning to die. Bill learned them when he moved here with Micci, because those are the songs the leathery ranch hands want to hear when they’re three cervezas in and the social order says it’s okay to tear up. They go on with a twang and a mournful wail:

my love, she got taken by la Vaca Muerta

off into the sky on the Devil’s tour

and ai yi yi yi

she’ll smile, she’ll sing no more

With the signs of Vaca Muerta still smoldering in the wood, there’s no point in calling the sheriff’s department. Run off, they’d say, shake their heads, spit from under the brims of their Smokey the Bear hats. Skull made of baked sugar is just sugar and nothing more, nice of her to leave the ring, cash it in at a pawn shop. And those ever-smoldering, sulfur-stinking circles? Goddamn kids. There’s always a rational explanation for when the truth is too scary to look in the eye.

Bill’s never been a particularly stubborn man, but he’s the dusty plains in human form. Not much to look at on the surface, but there’s hidden beauty and an endless expanse full to the bursting if you just know where to look. Micaela, she always knew where to look, how to look. Now it’s his turn to figure that out.

Bill grabs his hat and his guitar case. The first goes on his head, the second on the bench seat of his pickup truck. No gun for him. His image is pure cowboy, but he’s never shot anything with more kick than a capgun and real bullets make him nervous, the idea that death can just roll around in the palm of his hand before getting spat out a tube.

He watches the smoke still rising from his porch in the rearview mirror, winding gray into the sky until it’s lost in the clouds of dun dust torn from the pitted road by his truck’s tires. Doesn’t rightly know where he’s going at first, but it plucks at him like a chord, Oh the devil in hell they say he was chained, as he turns from dusty road to shimmering blacktop, highway 90 to 277 through Laredo and onto 83, away down south along the Rio Grande. Scorpions and tarantulas gambol by the roadside, skitter across the asphalt, make eight legged tumbleweeds that race his tires along the road pitching down, down, down.

Bill doesn’t stop driving until the diesel gauge creeps down to E and tries to drop past it, and his truck’s rumbling takes on that unsteady, surging cadence that’s as close as a V10 can get to whining like an unhappy dog. The Rio Grande’s canyon and the unassuming bridge across it are just down the two lane road as he pulls in to a dusty service station with a broken sign that declares it’s ope.

“’N’ done run off,” the clerk calls, laughing, as Bill walks in. “Everyone asks about it.” He’s got a stained red and white feed cap pulled low over his eyes, little black and grey curls of hair poking out from under it.

Bill hadn’t planned on asking. The floor crunches with dust underfoot. The drinks cases are cracked and clouded with scratches like they’ve been sand blasted, the shelves packed with seventeen flavors of pork rinds, packs of peanuts in the shell, a prominent space at the front waiting to receive bags of fresh-made tortillas.

“Tortillas done run off too,” the clerk calls. His lower lip’s puffed out with a wedge of chew. The cup by his elbow probably hasn’t seen a drink in decades. “Check back tomorrow and there’ll be more.”

“Just want to pay for pump three.” Shouldn’t have to say anything; he’s the only one at the station. “Though I’ll take a cup for sweet tea, too. For the road.” There are two big cisterns further down the counter, labeled with black marker on yellowed paper. Bill slides his credit card across the countertop. It scrapes like his feet on the floor.

“Tea done run off too.” The clerk slides the card back toward him. His leathery brown skin clings to his finger bones. But his fingernails, they’re clean and perfect and pale, shining almost silver. “And mighty sorry, sir. Card reader don’t work.”

“Run off?” Bill laughs, practice and not humor, already squirming desperately inside.

“Naw, just don’t work.” The clerk smiles at him, showing every tooth in his head, covered with a sheen of brown. “Cash only.” He taps another piece of yellowed paper, held to the counter with cellophane tape gone brown and cracked.

“Don’t have that much cash.” His mouth is suddenly dry. He could really use that tea. “Got an ATM?” The door isn’t that far, he thinks. His keys are in his pocket, he’s got a remote for the door locks. He could be out and into the cab of his truck before the clerk’s over the counter.

“Naw.” The clerk reaches down and pulls out a shotgun, sets it down on the counter, follows it with a friendly smile. “Hope you’re not plannin’ on runnin’ off yourself.”

Bill stares at that black barrel like a ribbon of black water, ready to just leap off the counter and drown him. Despite the heat beating in through the windows, he shivers. “There’s somewhere I’ve got to be.”

“Man’s still got to pay his debts. Got anything good?” The clerk’s eyes read Hell yeah, I’d shoot, like a neon sign.

In desperation, Bill pulls out his wallet again, just in case some cash has mysteriously appeared in there by way of divine providence. The divine hasn’t had time for him since he stopped singing in the church choir and hit the open road, and there’s nothing in his wallet but a single crumpled dollar and Micci’s wedding ring. He shrugs helplessly, trying to think of words, of a song that’ll appeal to the better nature of a man he’s not pretty sure doesn’t have one. For all the clerk’s smiling and drawling, his eyes are hard, calculating, old. The sort Bill’s never liked, because they cry at sentimental songs but never tip their waitress.

“Take either of those.” The clerk nods toward his wallet, and then picks up the cup by his elbow, spits into it. His other hand stays on the shotgun, finger slowly tracing the curve of the trigger like it’s the shoulder blade of a woman. “I got eclectic tastes.”

Bill pinches the dollar between his fingers, but doesn’t pull it out. “Dollar isn’t much.”

“Look, I know you’re Billy Buffalo, and that there’s the first dollar you ever made. You sign it, it’ll be worth a lot more.”

Being recognized isn’t the unusual in this part of Texas, though; he used to tour here often, before he hit it… well, not big, but bigger. “You want a song or two instead?”

“Can’t rub a song between my fingers.”

He should just hand the dollar over; it’s only a dollar. Only a dirty little piece of money. But he remembers the dark-eyed woman that dropped it into his guitar case as he played near a park bench in Laredo. Her lipstick had been red like the idea of blood, brown eyes dancing with mischief under heavy black lashes. So he drops the gold wedding band into his hand and then sets it down on the counter, just a soft click on the cloudy glass.

The clerk pinches the ring between two skeletal fingers and squints at it, like it’s just a thing. “Real gold. Guess you’re not as stingy as I thought.” He holds it up to the light and looks at Bill through it, yellowed eye cold and alien. “Lady this belonged to run off?”

Bill crosses his arms over his chest. He didn’t hate this man for his dirty counters, for his shotgun, his threats. But damn, he hates him now for hammering that sliver of doubt right under his thumbnail where it throbs and aches. “No. Vaca Muerta took her.”

“That so.” So many words in those two syllables, all of them pure mockery. “Then you best hop on the train now, boy.” He points out the dust-streaked windows. “I’ll watch your truck for you til you get back. For free. Might even wash the windows.”

White clouds the street, but it’s not the chuffs of a steam engine, but the froth of white skirts and robes. Six women with their hair braided and curled around red roses bear a long pine box on their shoulders, sixteen men rattling dice that sound like bones march somberly in front, sixteen more men sing in a familiar twang behind.

There’s no way in any fresh hell that Bill’s going to trust this man and his greasy brown teeth. But a truck’s just a thing, far less precious than a ring, than the dollar in his wallet. He slaps the keys down on the counter and walks from the store, eyes fixed on the mourners in white, and stops just long enough to grab his guitar case from the truck. He doesn’t look back as he walks after the parade; there’s been no looking back since he saw the hoof prints of Vaca Muerta, because every time he’s so much as glanced into the rearview mirror there’s just death sitting there, grinning and grinning like he’s reading the joke off a wooden popsicle stick and is waiting for everyone else to just be polite and chuckle.

The mourners give him cold looks over their blindingly white shoulders when he trots up to join the line, until he shuffles his guitar out and abandons the case on the road. Then he plucks a few notes, feels the right notes sing out of his fingernails, and wails along with them as they drift their stately way over the Rio Grande to the roll of the drums.

As their feet cross to the dusty black road from the silver spider web of the Rio Grande bridge, the mourners shiver and writhe, exploding into puffs of feathers. Squawking and shrieking, chickens run out across the heat-vined asphalt and out into the prairie on horny yellow feet. Angrily cooing doves flap away, red eyes snapping fire and wings beating the air with ungainly rage. The pine box crashes to the ground and shatters like glass, leaving behind shining white bones covered with intricate patterns of red and orange, green and blue. Dice, all up snake eyes, sit yellow among the pale knuckle bones.

And behind, the bridge is gone, the river a shimmering ribbon of heat, its water the color of a sunset washed from upstream. Bill sucks in a breath and tastes pecan smoke and sugar not quite burning, then dulce de leche thick against the back of his throat. Like standing in Micci’s oven as she stirs the pots overhead, pouring milk and sugar as she listens to his road stories and smiles.

It’s the grief that seizes his throat, not the heat. He remembers cotton and denim against his hands, Micci’s body firm beneath, the smile directed at him, but it’s fading, centuries lost and baked to a ghost in the sun. He could lean a hip against the counter and burn his tongue on a piece of candy while they both laugh at what an idiot he is sometimes, but he can’t grasp the idea of taking that sugar from her mouth, like it’s gone to foreign territory.

So he walks on, because that doesn’t take imagination.

He’s got blisters on blisters on blisters in his cowboy boots, the boots Micci always laughed at as a stupid affectation. At home, he wears slippers and canvas sneakers, but who heard of a country music man yodeling while he knocks around in classic black and white chucks? His feet squash strangely, a billow of skin detached from flesh and kept from floating away by the constricting boots. Feathers drift on the wind around him, brush past his cheeks like ghostly fingers.

It starts as the growl of an engine, the death rattle of a pickup truck. But it’s too low and organic, gargling with spite. Brown dust billows across the orange sky, turning the setting sun to a red coal waiting for a branding iron. The sun’s been setting in the same damn place for over half a day, just glaring at him with patent disapproval for his stupid footwear. The sound becomes the impact of a thousand hooves and the snarl and yip of unearthly dogs.

Black longhorns stampede in across the sky, glowing red eyes like miniature suns, their hooves throwing clouds of orange sparks that die to gray ash in the breeze, snow straight from hell. Ash gets in his mouth, grits up in his eyes, sucks the moisture out of his tongue and leaves behind only the taste of sulfur and hair. Great brown and gray dogs weave through the herd, drooling out long strings of saliva as they dart back and forth, snarling and barking and sometimes yelping in pain when a hoof lashes out and connects. And behind them are riders like wisps of shadow and smoke, the bare outlines to suggest horses, the curve of a hat brim. There’s nothing but eyes, glowing like jewels, blue and green, amber and brown that looks more like deep, welling blood than anything else.

The prairie cracks like lightning as the first hoof touches down in a shower of sparks. The dry grass shrivels and turns to black curls—like Micci’s hair, really, but this is the worst possible moment to think of that, the red highlights that showed in the sunlight, because all of that hell on earth is headed right for him. Bill clutches his guitar tight and runs best he can, which isn’t much of a run at all. It’s a limping waddle, like he’s got a load of shit in his pants. He might as well, the way the herd’s bearing down on him, heat rolling ahead of it like a wall.

An unearthly sound weaves through the thunder, high and low and high again, the cattle calls of the damned. Yippie yai yoo, yippie yai yee, hey yo hey ho hey yey

He feels the heat of their fiery breath on his neck, burning his skin and charring the collar of his shirt. One horn, hot as a branding iron, draws a line of agony across the back of his shoulder. And if he falls—if he falls he’ll just be red mud soon burned black. In desperation he joins into the cattle calls. It’s not a language he knows, the secret tongue of herdsman and cattle, but there’s a music to it, a rhythm, an endless life and sadness that he can catch with his voice. They sing to let the cattle know they’re close, they’re safe, they’re kin. Yippie yi yo ki yay, yippie yi yo ki yay… His voice cracks as another line burns across his right triceps, but then black bodies like shiny coal flow on around him as he keeps calling, calling.

A hound the size of a horse pads up next to him, claws throwing up gouts of dust every time they touch the ground. It pants with a tongue like raw beef and gives him a lopsided, canine grin around bone-white teeth. A tail like a whip swats him on the shoulder, not to sting, but more like hey, hey brother.

Bill’s breath is running away from him. He was never much of an athlete, never much for running even before he got busy with tours and every little thing in between. Take a chance or be trampled, he’ll take the chance and hope he doesn’t get eaten. Legs churning, he awkwardly wraps one arm around the dog’s neck and scrambles aboard, shoving his guitar back on its embroidered strap. He never learned how to ride a horse, and the dog’s laughing at him like only a dog can do, prancing and squirming between his legs, its black hair like the bristles of a brush.

“You a singer, cowboy?” The voice is thin as a breeze, one of the ghostly riders up next to him. Light, that voice, more woman than man.

“Singer, not a cowboy,” Bill answers. Anyone with plain eyes, let alone glowing green stars, could see he hasn’t ridden a thing in his life.

“You know the one that goes like this? Bum bum bum doo doo doo…?”

Of course he does. He always does. “Bum bum bu doo doo doo‘s my specialty, right up there with da dee dah ai yi yi.”

“Ah yeah, that one,” the ghost breathes out. “Gimme that one instead.”

Voice a bit shaky from the running and the fear and the getting bounced on the back of a giant dog, Bill still manages to turn his guitar, tune it, strum out the chords and sing the one everyone knows, about the lone cowboy at the crossroads, gone to meet the devil when his woman run off. When it’s done he almost loses his seat, from the dog capering so much.

When the song’s done, the ghost’s eye glitter just a bit more, and Bill says, “I’m just here because Vaca Muerta took my wife.”

“Stole her away, huh?” That chime is the sound, he realizes, of insubstantial teeth being sucked.

“One of yours?” he asks. Because this is a whole herd of the dead. Maybe one of them strayed just long enough to pick up a woman who smells like caramel off a porch.

“Don’t reckon so. But Sebastian likes you,” the ghost observes. “She’s my best bitch. Tell ya what. You sing us a few more, til we hit the crossroads, we’ll let her take you in to town. Not much music, out here but what we make calling the cattle.”

“That’s music a-plenty.”

“Sure do appreciate it.” The ghost touches rides insubstantial fingers to a hat that’s not there, and they ride on.

It’s still sunset, always sunset when they hit the crossroads. Bill sings one last note, holding it as they pass over the road like a kid holding his breath in a tunnel. The herd goes straight on, and Sebastian slides between the heaving black wall of living-dead beef and out into the clear prairie.

The dog yelps and keens, and Bill quickly starts playing another one, a square dance because he knows the dog likes the bouncier songs by now even if the seat of his britches sure don’t. Long black legs stretch to cover miles in a stride and eat the horizon down to nothing, taking them to a town that’s a bud burst open on the dry plains. Flowers of every color fill window boxes and beds lined with white and black stones. The adobe houses are painted with stripes in every shade of the rainbow, and the men and women look to be clothed in candy that folds and wrinkles like cloth. They all wave to Sebastian as she skitters by, dodging down streets and weaving around lime trees, knocking the sweet water from fountains with swipes of her tail.

The center of town is a court of pink stone, a dais on one end, a throne of marigolds and copper wire waiting at its top. Folk wrapped in brightly colored boleros and rebozos converse and share rainbow glasses of aguas frescas. But Bill has no eyes for them, only for the enormous black longhorn that takes up the space that should rightfully belong to a building, standing to the right of that throne. Flames crackle from its nostrils and curl around its hooves.

Sebastian simply dumps Bill on the slick stones so abruptly that he slides halfway across the square on the seat of his jeans, which tear. Only a hasty curl saves his guitar, but it’s instinct, the way a mother throws herself on top of her child. And Sebastian, that traitor, gambols at Vaca Muerta’s feet like a puppy and exchanges an affectionate headbutt with the massive animal.

Bill straightens carefully, every inch of him an interconnected bruise. With all the dignity he can muster with his ass flapping in the breeze, he points at the black longhorn and says, “I’ve come for my wife.”

There’s tittering, gasping, some whispered conversations. A woman flips a fan made of bone and translucent pink sugar and hides a red smile behind it. The longhorn snorts flame and paws the ground with one massive hoof, leaving molten streaks in its wake.

But there’s another sound, like wooden wind chimes or rattling bones or maybe water on rocks, and he can’t help but look toward the dais. There’s a woman in the throne, her froth of white skirts embroidered with red and blue thread, her face covered with a wooden mask carved into a skull. Black hair tumbles around her shoulders in boundless curls woven with yellow and orange marigolds, an orange rebozo loops around her shoulders, patterned like a Monarch butterfly’s wings screaming beautiful poison. And he knows, he knows as she rises and walks down to greet him, who this is, because he watched her walk toward him just like that down the aisle with her black curls brushing the brown curve of her neck, just so.

It’s not the sight of his Micci dressed so strangely that stops him, but the way she wears it like a second skin and he can’t understand the how of it. And as she reaches out to take his hand, he feels the coolness of her dead flesh and not the twist and pull of love reunited, that sweet agony he tried to capture in song again and again and could never quite manage because it’s too fleeting. He feels loss, the hanging might have beens in the air, the pensive and distracted smiles faded to ghosts.

“Shit, Micci,” he says. “I done goofed.”

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“Only a little.” There are other words for it, Bill with his ass hanging out of his pants, all of my people wondering why he’s shouting at my cow. But awkward and ridiculous or not, it’s still like watching an old friend get off a dusty train that’s running three hours late.

I push the mask back so I can kiss him on the cheek. I grimace at the stubble; he grimaces at the feeling of cold lips on his skin. But there’s always magic in a kiss. Everyone knows this; it’s why we kiss at weddings, why we kiss the lips of the corpse at a funeral. Love is a kind of magic, and kisses make links in the chain between souls, pin moments of life and death in time for us to remember.

“It’s all right, Bill. I’ll take you home.” I pull on that chain winding over us both and lift us back out of the dusty well at the bottom of the Rio Grande rift valley.

Hot breeze and dust, not warm skin and stubble on my lips. Our house is a yellow dot in the distance, unnatural and bright against the sun-baked tans and browns of the flats, the pale red dust. The dirt track that wants to be a driveway when it grows up, speckled with foreign black river rock, breathes heat through the heels of my shoes.

“We’re home,” Bill says, surprised. “That easy.”

I take his hand for a moment, squeeze. There used to be a spark there, like static on a dry day. It’s still warm with trust, this hand clasp, but it doesn’t make me want to pull him in and drink his lips, wrap my legs around his hips and sing. “We’re never going to go home again,” I say, as gently as I can.

“We could try.”

Try isn’t magic.” I shake my head and start walking, my sandals scuffing against the ground, dust powdering my toes. Light winks off one windshield instead of two in the drive; Bill took the truck to come looking for me. The air has a heaviness to it, a clinging and sour stink that sickens the sweetness that should be coming from all the little yellow flowers dotting the fields.

There’s a dribble of shadow like ink on the drive, legs going in all directions, matted black fur and blood gone dark and sticky in the baking heat. I squat down, breathing in rot and breathing out clean air. What catches in my throat isn’t stink, but futility. Coyote, probably, too wily for a dog that’s had the wolf domesticated out of her in the distant past. And how did the dog come to be on our driveway? Probably abandoned by the side of the road by someone cruel in their utter stupidity. It happens all the time, where we live, and makes the local predator population happy. And despite that betrayal, the dog had tried to make it to our house, had smelled humans and through it meant help. Had died at the end of the drive, unseen but eventually smelled.

I wipe my eyes. I’m still enough of a child that I think unfairness is worth crying over.

The drive stretches out into a path, leading forever back to the horizon. Back to where the dog got pushed out of a car door and ran into the cloud of dust thrown up by the wheels, barking frantically. Back through a spotless and larger house with furniture accented by teeth marks, back to a pet store, to a dank room that smells like old blood and old fear and a whining black bitch giving her puppies hopeless licks in case this time it will be different and they won’t be taken immediately away.

I squat down, skirt blowing around my ankles in the hot breeze. The dog’s eyes are open, ants crawling on them.

“Micci,” Bill says, alarmed. “What are you doing?”

“What I did.” I reach out to pat the still head, fingers skating past the bared, yellow teeth. Shadowy vines like kudzu curl around the dog’s limbs, sink deep in the dead flesh and hold it down to the ground—can Bill see them? He’s always been so good at not seeing things he thinks are dark and ugly. When my hand touches the stiff, sticky fur, I see it all, see a million branches of a simple life that might have been stretching out ahead of me like an ever-growing tree. Something snarls deep inside me, some hot flash of pain—or maybe it’s anger. I snap that tree off, make my anger a machete, and slash into the dirt to cut those vines off at the roots. They crack like thunder, rip and tear, and turn to ash in my hands.

The dog blinks the ants from her eyes. Torn sides move up and down like bellows and I smell meat that’s hot and red and just on the edge of rotting, a breath like a furnace in miniature. Red sparks ignite in the dog’s eyes, a deep fire kindled by touch. Because that’s what you do, when you reach through someone’s heart and into their soul; you put a fire there that’s part you, part them, and then it grows and grows. Bill should know this. On a good day, when he’s channeling whatever ancestral spirits want to talk through him, whatever power that lets his voice haunt when he’s sliding through the joints between notes, he does this to an entire crowd and brings them back to life.

“What the fuck,” Bill breathes, not a question but an exclamation, a prayer.

The dog shakes her head, collar rattling. I reach to unbuckle the stiff leather. The people that gave it to her don’t have a claim any more, don’t have any business holding on to even a corner of this animal’s spirit. The tag on the collar reads Sebastian. “You still want to be Sebastian?” I ask the dog, even as I fling the collar away. Let a coyote use it as a chew toy.

The dog’s head follows the gold glitter of the collar for a moment, some instinct whispering fetch while another suggests stay. The latter wins, and she lets the old life go, turning back to me and giving me a tongue-lolling doggy smile. The ragged tail thumps once.

“You sure? You don’t look like a Sebastian to me.”

Bark. Another tail thump. I don’t speak dog, but I speak to everyone’s heart but my own, and the dog’s telling me: weren’t all bad times, some things are worth remembering.

Maybe a little girl gave her that name, that pretty collar, and used her like a pillow until she went away to school. Maybe an old man whose feet she slept on and slippers she chewed and then he passed off into the west on the backs of sixteen gamblers. There’s a thousand stories, and it’s not my life or my business to demand they be shared. “Sebastian it is, then.”

“You can bring back the dead, but you can’t come home,” Bill says, incredulous.

“You don’t bring back the dead with trying,” I say, rising back to my feet. I scrape off the worst of the ash from my hands, leave gray streaks on my skirt. Sebastian capers in circles around us; she knows Bill, remembers him. Time in the land of the dead flows backwards, sideways, in spirals. She’s always known Bill and never known him. “All you can do is free them and hope they come home, one day a year.”

“She’s sure lively, for a dead dog.”

“Death’s just another life.” Everyone has her own path, and even if we’re running in parallel sometimes, even if we trick ourselves into thinking we’re together and surrounded by loved ones, we still might end up on a lonely highway that goes we know not how long, without another soul in sight and only memory to keep us warm.

“What’s that?” Bill points.

There’s paper clutched in my ash-stained hand now. Sebastian runs off, barking, chasing a bird. Even dead dogs are still dogs. I uncurl my fingers from the crumpled envelope and smooth it out. The return address says Mercy General, the rest torn off. “Mail,” I say shortly.

I don’t resist as he takes the envelope from me and begins to tear the paper, tear the sky, rip the endless blue away to reveal the green and white wallpaper of our kitchen, and tear something in my gut until it’s raw and ragged and hot at the back of my throat.

“Why didn’t you tell me?” he asks, the paper crinkling in his hand as he reads it. Lab Results, it says. And We regret to inform you. “A text, Micci. An e-mail. Anything. I would have come home.”

I shake my head, cover my face with my hands. They’re sticky too, they smell like blood and rot. Not because of Sebastian, but because I am blood and rot. “There wasn’t anything you could do, Bill. Better for you to stay on the road.” I had sent him texts and emails, asking to talk, saying it was important, but stopping short of the word. Because words have power, and some of them are like grenades. But if I hadn’t wanted to say it, he also hadn’t wanted to hear it. I start looking through the cabinets for a skillet, to fry some tortillas. I want to feel cinnamon and sugar crunch between my teeth.

Bill grabs my wrist, shoves the cabinet door shut. It slams like a car door, that’s right, and it’s so goddamn dark outside. My headlights are cutouts in the night. The truck was gone from the house not because Bill was out, but because I’d taken it to go into town, to the clinic that had experimental in the name. Because you try everything, you see. Everything but looking at the truth straight on.

My mouth tastes of metal salts and my head swims and rolls, my inner ears clucking like chickens. A dark, still form lies in the headlights: the dead dog. I tear my wrist from Bill’s hand and stagger the few steps to fall to my knees in the dirt beside the still form. The fur is wet with fresh blood, it’s so hot against my hands.

I tear a piece out of my heart and shove it into the dog, because I don’t need my heart any more, it’s rotting from the inside. I want to save something. Let the dog have the last pristine piece, the only corner untainted. And this choice tears open something new in me, something that floods over my tongue like caramel and fills my bones with hot knowledge that nothing human can wield. Sebastian rolls to her feet and whines, licking my face. But she’s not a living dog any more, she can never go back just like I can never unread those words or unknow this power. There are flames in her eyes. There’s a rot in my guts that’s death and magic.

Bill stands at my shoulder, but he doesn’t touch me this time. “Which way did it happen?” he asks.

“Both.”

“This isn’t you.” He shakes his head.

“How can you be so sure?” How do you know someone you only see a few days out of the month that start with him smelling like another woman while you pretend not to notice? How do you speak to someone you only know in half-conversations over a shitty cellular connection?

He slides his hands around my waist and holds me tight, sighs against my shoulder. And hums to himself, swaying back and forth.

It puts us back in that kitchen, with the radio on and playing twangy guitar, scratchy with distance from the transmitter, as the air fills with the warm, sweet smell of baking biscuits. “See, we know each other.” This is the day, I remember, he tells me that he’s got a second record deal. We create imaginary children and set them free to play in the yard. It was a good day, a day that I can take from my memories and warm my hands on no matter how cold the night, because how often do you get the chance to be so unabashedly joyous at the fortune of someone else?

I slide back, forcing him to follow, so I can lean a hand on the counter. “When did this stop being your home and become a place you just come to rest when you stop rolling?”

“We agreed that I needed to be on the road.”

It wasn’t fair of me to say that. I lay a cold hand on his too-hot cheek. “We did. Sometimes… sometimes things just happen.” Like continents drifting apart. Like cancer.

“Then that makes it no one’s fault. Not mine, and not yours either. Or do you wish we’d never met?” And he slides his arms around me again, pulls me away from the counter and takes me on a turn around the scuffed linoleum floor. Dancing. We always both loved dancing.

Would that have made a difference? I’d still have the seeds of my own destruction ready to eat me into a hollow shell. He’d still have the wandering feet that let our marriage wither on the vine. But I don’t want to abandon these remembered moments of joy because I’ll never have them again. Every moment we live is one we’ll never have again. “Would you let me do it over again?” Knowing that I’ll leave?

I slide away from him into a greener place, a park in the past.

Bill’s still wearing those same, incredibly stupid cowboy boots, or maybe it’s the first time he’s worn those boots. He sits on a wrought-iron bench painted green against rust. Jeans are faded, shirt’s straight from a rodeo with faux-buttons that are actually snaps, and a battered white Stetson that he bought at a flea market along with everything else for an even $10. Only now, the shirt’s a bit tight across his chest and belly, the belt buckle with its steer horns—silly when you think about it, at that age he was a city slicker who’d never seen a live cow before—tucked under his little gut rather than over it. He’s between songs, guitar laid across his lap.

“I’ve seen cattle now,” he says, almost apologetically. “Other than the one—other than Vaca Muerta. The whole devil’s herd running across the plains.”

“That’s not what you said to me when we first met.” I’m dressed in my old clothes too, leggings and ugly boots and a shapeless gray sweater. Neither of us had a lick of fashion when we met, but when someone’s got eyes that pretty, it doesn’t matter.

“That’s not what you said either.”

We’re not following the script, but it’s because we know the story forward and backwards, even if we’re not those characters any more. He’s on the bench, picking away at a Hank Williams tune. At the time, I don’t know who Hank Williams is, though now I could sing half his songs from memory, and the other half if I just need to hear a few bars first. Bill sings a lot of Hank Williams when he’s not doing his own lyrics. It’s a style that speaks to him.

He twangs out the opening notes of Why Don’t You Love Me.

“That’s unfair,” I whisper, and offer a crooked smile. “You don’t smell like a worn-out shoe.” And wrong besides. That day we’d met, it had been Hey, Good Lookin’. He’s not shy about saying it with a song, even if he’s tongue-tied when you try to talk to him straight on.

“I know.” He laughs. “I’m sorry. Sometimes I still make those dumb jokes where you only laugh to be nice.”

“Hush, Bill. You’re not supposed to know that yet.”

A paper note crinkles in my hands. This is how it goes: I smile at the handsome young wannabe cowboy, with his voice like an angel and those blue eyes with enough soul for three men. He smiles back, shy and crooked as a falling fence. And I hear the magic in his words, his music, see it sparking from his fingertips even if he doesn’t quite realize it’s there, dancing over the guitar strings in shimmers, a rainbow from red to violet, life and death and back around to life.

Bill fingers chords that ask me what my problem is, when his hair’s still curly and his eyes are still blue, instead of what I’m cookin’. I don’t have a good answer for him, not like I did before when I said I was cooking up some sugar if he wanted some. But I know I wouldn’t miss any moment of what we had, even if it always ends with me cutting the throat of the most annoying chicken we own to call down Vaca Muerta while every earthly bond that held me to Bill, to our little house curls up like a dead snake drying in the sun.

I let go of that crumpled dollar bill—the last dollar I have, a tip from a job I just quit because it had stolen my dreams, then sleep, then health—and it whirls down like a samara onto the blue faux-velvet lining his cheap guitar case. The dollar cracks and pops, roots and tendrils running from it, digging through the thin plywood and down into the ground. It bursts upward, curving brown branches and shivering green leaves, so beautiful and alive against the deep blue sky. It’s the most alive thing I’ve ever made. And Bill waters it with sweat and blood from his fingertips, and feeds it with song, and countless people hang on to the branches just to listen.

In the shade of that tree there’s a house, with me looking out the kitchen window, wondering when Bill will come home from his next tour. Feeling something gnaw at the lining of my heart. But also laughing, and knocking over bottles of flavored olive oil when he backs me up to the counter with kissing. This is where it all begins, where it all grows, the good and bad and everything in between.

“You want a lemonade, Micci?” Bill asks.

Rocking chairs on the sunbaked porch, table between them, pitcher of lemonade. How we relax. How we make up to each other after a fight. He holds up the pitcher, jiggles it slightly to set the ice cubes shaking, drops of condensation running down its perfect curves.

I don’t ask if he’s sure. He wouldn’t have offered if he wasn’t sure. Instead I slide into the rocking chair next to his. “Hot day like this? Hell yeah.”

He grins, pours a glass for us both, nudges the second over to me. We drink our lemonade and look out over the scrubby, dry land, out into the endless horizon. The lemonade is sour and perfect.

Bill slides a hand down to take mine, his fingers thick with callouses, and that’s all right too. Warm, strong, solid. “Will I get to see you again?”

“You want to?”

“Think it’d be pretty painful, to just amputate so much of my life. Never really been in to pain. And you still play a mean game of cards, I bet.”

“The meanest.” I hated him, sometimes, for being gone. But what we’ve created together is beautiful, and for that I can forgive anything.

Like he reads my thoughts, which he annoyingly does at times, he says, “And you should forgive yourself.”

I squeeze his hand back. “Always easier to say than do. And you might not be so forgiving in an hour.” I pull a pack of cards out from under my rebozo and tap it on the table.

“Oh, we’ll see about that.” He snatches up the cards, starts dealing out the cards for gin rummy.

I beat him three times in a row. He deals out a fourth game, because Bill’s never cared that much about winning. He’s just in it to play. Halfway to laying down a straight, his hand pauses, cards in a fan between his fingers. “Shit, you’re going to be the next big thing. Bigger than me. Bigger than anyone in the world.”

I laugh. “Never had your taste for fame.”

The sun sinks toward the horizon, going sullen and red. A black shape gambols in the distance: Sebastian. Another moves through the sky, leaving a trail of orange flame.

“That your ride?”

“Yeah.” I finish my lemonade, stand, and pull down my mask. The black speck comes to land and shakes the earth with each step as she trots up to the porch. A trail of fiery, cloven hoof prints shows where she’s stepped. Sebastian runs in cheerful circles around her, deftly avoiding the sweep of her bone horns as she tosses her head.

Bill rises to his feet to gather up the pitcher and the glasses. “Promise me something, Micci.”

The cow next to me stamps her feet, eager to be gone. I stroke her neck, feel the furnace within. “What is it?”

“You’ll come for me yourself. When it’s my turn.” There’s a catch in his voice. It’s a hard thing to think about, for a man still in his prime. But I’d been a woman in my prime too.

I draw a circle around my heart with one finger. “That’s what friends are for.”

“But will I see you before that? Maybe?”

“As long as you care to remember. I’ll bring a pack of cards with me, one day a year.”

“I’ll make the lemonade.” He heads inside to do the washing up.

I leap onto Vaca Muerta’s back like I’m a teenager again. Death has a way of curing your aches and pains, exchanging them for new ones to go with the new life, the new person you become. Sebastian runs at Vaca Muerta’s side as she launches herself into the air. She barks at me, and I hold my hand out for the circle of gold that glimmers on her hot red tongue. “Found it, huh? Good girl. Hope you ate all that man’s shotgun shells.”

Tail whipping, Sebastian lets out a happy doggy belch that stinks of gunpowder.

I glance back over my shoulder. My cow’s hoofprints still smolder on the porch, and I see Bill watching me through the window, crumpled Brillo pad in his hand and his sleeves rolled up to the elbow. I roll the ring around in my fingers, and then turn to flip it back toward the house, like throwing a coin into the wishing well. Memory’s a funny thing. It melts away like sugar and leaves only sweet ghosts to linger.

Then I set my gaze on the horizon, to see the clouds of dust kicked up by the black longhorns that stampede through the sky, and hear the cowboys wailing yippie yi yo yi yey, lonely and beautiful. Sebastian tears off to catch them, tail whipping through the hot, thick air. And Vaca Muerta and I follow, riding into the sun that’s always setting.

____

Copyright 2017 Alex Acks

Alex Acks is a writer, geologist, and dapper AF. They’ve written for Six to Start and been published in Strange Horizons, Lightspeed, Daily Science Fiction, and more. Alex lives in Denver with their two furry little bastards, where they twirl their mustache, watch movies, and bike.

 

 

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