by Bogi Takács

Chani sat on the women’s balcony, racing through her prayers at the usual breakneck speed of the Orthodox. She was bored. She knew there was a Chasidic position that prayer should be as fast as possible, to prevent the yetzer hara, the evil inclination from getting a few thoughts in edgewise between the words. But she could recite at full speed and still have her mind wander.

The men below finally got to the Torah reading. Chani stood. The mechitza was ill-fitting and she could peek out from between two sheets of curtain. The reading was set to be chaotic as usual.

The rabbi yelled, looking for a kohen to say the blessings. Chani rolled her eyes. Yossi was out of town. Uri was traipsing around in space as usual. And who knew what Dovber was up to…

There was a commotion below. Finally they decided there was no kohen to be found, so they had to go with a levi, the next best option. Someone pushed through the crowd. Chani yawned.

Downstairs, the levi said the blessings and Shai began the Torah reading. Chani closed her eyes and leaned against one of the mechitza posts. She liked to listen to him read — he chanted precisely, but with feeling, an otherworldly resonance suffusing his words. He was very young — much too young to serve as a Torah reader, Chani had assumed, but still the community had picked him for this task.

Her attention drifted and instead of focusing on the reading, she wondered about Shai. With his sensitivities, he should be working with the planetmind in some capacity, she thought. But he can chant beautifully, and also…

She got a really bad feeling, like a lightning bolt streaking along her spine, leaving a burning sensation in its wake.

She winced and quickly looked around. The mechitza on her right trembled slightly, as if a breeze was blowing the heavy curtains. She swallowed — her mouth suddenly dry — and tried hard not to think of what was hidden there.

The mechitza on Chani’s right separated a further partition from the balcony. Men below, women above, and… those who were neither in the right corner of the balcony.

They had set it up just for one person. Could it still be called a person?

Best keep the distance — Chani took a cautious little sidestep to the left and slid her siddur, her regular prayer book along the slanted reading surface of the pew. It got stuck in a place where two pews joined. She yanked her hand nervously and the siddur dropped to the floor. She snatched it up, kissed her fingers and touched the cover with them — there was so much dust around that she felt bad about directly kissing the cover, even though she knew her immune mods could probably take care of everything. Best not to risk it, she thought. This is a frontier settlement.

There was a low thudding sound coming from behind the mechitza. She looked — the curtain between the men’s and women’s portions was practically translucent, but for the third partition someone had found an old and heavy brocade curtain. She could not see anything.

She could only feel the distress.

Her muscles tensed with such a force that the breath was pushed out of her lungs. She froze in fear. Why, why did she get up early on Shabbat — why did she decide to attend the morning prayers — why was she aware of other people’s minds –

A groan from beyond the curtain, then a high keening noise. Not very loud — the men below did not even notice it. The two women fussing in the kiddush room behind her back did not drop their pots to see what was happening, either, and she was alone on the balcony.

She swore, then instantly felt bad about it. She jumped to the curtain and yanked it away with one sweeping, theatrical gesture.

Behind the mechitza, Adira was sitting on the pew seat, clutching her stomach. She looked surprisingly human — just like before. Her hair was short and it stuck to her head in tight, dark curls. Her skin was an unusually pale white and her limbs were thin and gangly. She wore a striped shirt and a long flowing skirt in matching dark purples and blues. Everything was just like before.

She was throwing up insects.

Adira doubled up. The insects moved around on the pew rather dazedly — they were all shiny quicksilver and surprisingly large.

Chani had absolutely no idea what to do. Fear tied her tongue. “W-w-w- how can I help?”

Adira tried to speak, but another spasm shook her. The new insects looked even more dazed, and — Chani could not look away from them — slightly malformed. They toppled, their legs of different lengths; they fell on their backs; they dropped to the ground.

Adira gasped. “It’s the- the geomagnetic storm. Take me outside.”

Chani was overcome by the force of the command. She grabbed Adira’s small, slight body — her long limbs exactly like the legs of, no, no, she banished the thought, she would not go there — and dragged her to the kiddush room.

The tables were laid for kiddush. The yeshiva boys would also eat their lunch here, and a pot of cholent already steamed on one table. The room was otherwise empty. Where were Sarah and Liora? Maybe downstairs chasing the kids, Chani thought, and for a moment she was grateful.

Chani grabbed a plastic chair and pushed Adira down in it. Adira threw up again, not insects, only small lumps that wiggled slightly. “Outside,” she said, wheezing. “Beyond the limits.”

We can’t, it’s Shabbat, Chani wanted to say, but thought better of it and managed to keep her mouth shut.

Adira reacted regardless. “Pikuach nefesh,” she said, her voice hoarse. Life-saving, the one imperative that overrode almost all commandments, including all the Shabbat prohibitions.

Chani helped her to the door, supporting her weight, then the two of them stumbled down the stairs.

They had to rest in the grass outside the synagogue courtyard. Chani gasped for air. She knew she should’ve gone for those other mods — her body felt frail and she was sure she’d pulled her back on the way down the stairs, trying with all her might to keep Adira from toppling forward.

Adira attempted to get back on her feet, but she could not maintain her balance. Chani got up, tried to help her. Both of them ended up facefirst in the grass. Chani swore in Arabic.

“At least you’ve stopped throwing up,” she said, turning back toward Adira.

Her skin was coming off. Chani watched in horror. It looked like her flesh itself was peeling away, large slices of plastic-looking meat, entirely unreal. Underneath, the shiny silver substance of planetlife itself was glowing in the sunlight.

“What’s going on?!” She was close to screaming.

“Get me beyond the city limits,” Adira said, her longest sentence so far.

Chani jumped up. Some things were simply beyond comprehension. She tried to summon a floater pallet — she could sense there was one in the shed just behind the building.

The pallet responded. Its status message helpfully pointed out that it was locked down for Shabbat.

Chani swore again, something graphically obscene. Then she hit upon a better choice of words. Pikuach nefesh, she sent.

Override accepted.

The pallet whipped around the corner, landed in front of them with a smoothness belying its speed. Chani rolled Adira on it, jumped up — almost tripping in her skirt –, issued the right set of commands, then held on for dear life.

There was no forcefield at front and Chani lacked the skill to make one herself. The wind tore at her face, her eyes. She grimaced, looked down. The pallet obediently evaded obstacles. Still, they almost hit a young boy, and Chani could feel his gaze on her back for a long time.

Adira was shaking. The skin and flesh stopped falling off; instead, her body changed — she was turning into something noticeably less human, and Chani forced herself to squeeze her eyes shut.

“What’s going on,” she asked again, more of a demand than a question.

“If I cannot — maintain my shape, the body gets broken down into — less complex lifeforms,” Adira said. She spoke with eerie calm, but her voice was changing, acquiring odd overtones.

Chani gripped the edge of the pallet with all the strength in her hands.

You are now leaving the settlement limits, the pallet said.

Chani ignored the warning. They flew on. Adira was entirely silent and Chani forced her mind away from her — there was something about her that was profoundly nonhuman, and the other, local mind was more and more apparent in her, beyond her, through her.

You are now leaving the protected zone, the pallet said.

The world acquired a subtle saturation, all colors suddenly more vivid. Chani took a deep breath. She would be exposed to the planetmind here, with no mediation, no metaphorical curtains and veils protecting the awareness of those in the settlement. And she was habitually aware of other people’s minds. She would be –

She lost her balance. Her grip on the pallet did not loosen — her fingers felt completely stiff — and her elbow and knuckle joints protested the sudden tearing motion. She did not fall off. She did not fall off. She tried to breathe.

She was overwhelmed.

The planetmind drew back from her in an instant that still felt much too long. There was no attempt to communicate. Would we even be able to communicate, without Adira? Chani looked down. Was Adira conscious? Chani struggled to sort out her impressions. What would happen with her gone?

“I’m not — dead yet,” Adira said, with considerable difficulty.

“Where to now?” Chani was clumsily trying to hide her embarrassment.

“Find a lake.”

The lake was filled with the oily quicksilver fluid of planetlife. Chani parked the floater, then noticed with a fright that Adira had lost consciousness. She looked up to the sky, desperate for instruction.

The planetmind was all around her, keeping distance for the time being. Getting ready to swarm in for the kill? She was an intruder here.

Long, long seconds passed. The planetmind was anticipating something, she realized with a startle. Maybe the two of them could not speak in words without Adira, as she’d assumed.

The planetmind indicated the lake.

She tried to undress Adira. Her hands were shaking. She wanted to find an override for that–

The planetmind communicated urgency.

She took a deep breath and pushed Adira into the lake.

A heartbreaking crunching sound from the depths. Was Adira being digested? The surface of the lake was artificially calm.

Minutes ticked by.

Adira resurfaced, floating like an inflatable toy. She looked human. She opened her eyes, but made no attempt to look around.

“We can now speak,” the planetmind said through her.

“What’s going on?” she demanded.

“A solar flare causes a magnetic storm planetside.”

“What?”

“There are instabilities in the māwal.” The planetmind used the standard Alliance term, not the Hebrew. “It is hard for her to maintain her shape even during more peaceful times. Now it is even harder. Automatic processes have been set in motion. We have been concerned.”

“What are you talking about?”

“Expectations shape reality,” the planetmind said. She could feel the disappointment. The alien sentience was disappointed by her ignorance.

“I know, I know,” she grimaced and looked away. It was no use — the planetmind was everywhere. Lush green and red vegetation rustled, but this was only the surface — Chani knew if she were to cut any plant, its insides would show her that beautiful, lustrous shade of silver.

“If you understand this relationship, then why do you act the way you do?” the planetmind asked.

“What do you m–” she said, then froze, understanding what was coming.

“None of you have been helping her maintain her shape,” the planetmind said. “We were promised the community would help her maintain her shape.”

“The–” She could not bring herself to say what she wanted to say. She lashed out instead. “The community, the community is afraid! We don’t know how to deal with this! Cut us some slack!”

“These processes are automatic on our behalf. If your community no longer belongs to us, it is consumed.”

“How can you just–” She sputtered. “You are a sentient being!”

“We told you about this in advance. She is a part of us. She is a part of your community. If she is no longer a part of your community, we are no longer part of your community, and you are no longer part of us. Then you are consumed. You have always been aware of this.”

“But what do you want?” She turned around to yell at the forest, even though she knew the mind was probably even more present in the lake. “What do you want?!”

“We want you to help her maintain her shape, with your expectations.” The planetmind sounded tired. “You are all avoiding her. None of you would even touch her. You put her behind a separate curtain in your hall of worship.”

“But we can’t– Halachically–” Did the mind even know these words, know about Jewish law? If Adira was a part of the mind, then probably yes. Still Chani felt compelled to clarify. “She is a shapeshifter, she can be both male or female, and there is a ruling that in cases of indeterminacy we have to go by the stricter– She can’t just sit on the men’s side, but she can’t sit on the women’s side either, so–”

“This is a problem for you to solve,” the planetmind responded.

Chani sat on a stool in Rebbetzen Mushka’s kitchen and gobbled up one brownie after another. Adira was lying on the large leather sofa in the living room, tucked into a children’s blanket decorated with little cartoon spaceships, and comfortably asleep. The door of the kitchen was closed.

The rebbetzen sighed. “I can tell you — I’ve been there. Maybe you can even… how do you say that… sense my thoughts? Read my mind?” She gestured with short little fingers.

Chani shrugged, her mouth full of brownie mash.

I can bind you together even closer, the planetmind said. Chani choked on the brownies.

“There, there.” The rebbetzen handed her a glass of water. “A few stray crumbs?”

Chani swallowed. “Not really…”

Her thoughts were rushing ahead furiously. Have you followed me here?

I am aware of everything in the settlement. Now you are aware of me. The planetmind made an impression of calm reason. No anger. No practical jokes.

But I

You were exposed. No choice. No alternative.

Was the rebbetzen saying something? Chani tuned her out. I didn’t want to–

You are sensitive. You are that which you are. A pause. Is this such a problem?

Chani shook her head, tried not to grit her teeth. I guess not. “Sorry?” she asked the rebbetzen. “You were saying–?”

The memories were unexpectedly clear — Chani wondered how much was interpolation by the rebbetzen’s mind, by hers, or by the planetmind.

Not much, the planetmind said. We can compensate.

Thanks, just what I needed to hear.

Adira wore a simple white cotton robe.

“…white like a kittel and a shroud? That’s not necessarily the best choice of color for the occasion,” the rebbetzen said.

“The experience is in many ways similar to death,” the Ereni responded on a calm, even voice. She was short and stocky, yet there was something fragile in the way she moved, in the way her eyes flicked around the cavern, restless. Who was she? Probably the Rebbe’s advisor, the one who helped organize the move from Mars.

Yes, this is Esawāyun ta Udufayiwe. The Rebbe’s liaison who negotiated with us.

…Thank you. Such a strong mental link, that an unfamiliar person’s lengthy name made it across… Chani was surprised.

The planetmind did not say You’re welcome. Chani refocused on the memory.

“Look, I’m ready, can we just begin? All this talk is making me nervous,” Adira said. Chani could feel she was trying hard to suppress an involuntary shaking of the muscles.

Hey, how come I can feel her emotions? The rebbetzen is not māwal-sensitive.

We are overlaying our experience. Did the planetmind hesitate, just for an instant? Some of it.

She mentally shrugged.

The Ereni pulled out a knife from her elaborate robes. “The custom is for the person to make an entry wound themselves, so as to indicate consent and commitment.”

The rebbetzen’s mouth opened in protest, but the Ereni raised a hand. “I know deliberate self-injury is not allowed in Jewish law. Self-injury by proxy is also explicitly disallowed. But surgery in general is allowed. We had a long discussion with the Rebbe and we finally decided it would be permissible for me to do it. Adira–”

Adira stepped closer to the Ereni.

Rebbetzen Mushka looked away.

Do I have to watch this? Chani felt that somewhere, outside, her body was shaking.

You don’t have to watch anything you don’t want to.

But–

The moment had passed. Adira kneeled down and simply toppled into the silver pool, seemingly slower than what the local gravity would allow for, more floating than falling.

The viscous fluid began to move. The pool was relatively shallow and Adira struggled to stand, the fluid pulling her back. There was a series of cracks — the sound of bones snapping? — and Chani expected to hear screams, an inhuman howl, but there was nothing of the sort, just eerie silence. She could hear the rebbetzen’s breathing. The fluid still moved, and at one point Chani could see something like an arm sticking up, with one joint too many — a bone broken in half? She gagged.

Then everything was calm once more. She looked, straining her mind.

Where is she? She’s– she’s not there anymore– She knew the rebbetzen could not sense this, so why was the planetmind showing her now, all of a sudden, showing this and nothing else– You haven’t shown me how you felt, how she felt beyond the slightest surface awareness, why are you–

That would have been too much, and hardly relevant to the issue at hand.

But now you’re showing me she’s not there anymore–

She has been incorporated.

The Ereni bowed her head and said, “It is done. She has been incorporated. Now we can only hope for the best.”

“I thought I’d feel something,” Rebbetzen Mushka said, looking flustered. She pulled at her pink headscarf. “Since she’d merged with us, first… I’m not sure what the word is… she’d bound us together, and to herself…”

The Ereni raised her left eyebrow. “And you hadn’t felt anything?”

“I’m not sure…”

“She must’ve kept it from you.”

“Can that be done?” The rebbetzen was confused.

“Yes, that can be done.” The Ereni turned away. “Now we need to wait some time, for the reconstitution. There shouldn’t be any complications.”

“Reconstitution,” Chani whispered. The kitchen was suddenly small and cramped around them. “I didn’t know that. I didn’t know she was…” She bowed her head. “She was gone. I saw it. She was gone…”

“I’m sorry?” The rebbetzen pushed back her own kitchen stool with a loud creak.

Chani looked up, her eyes filling with tears. “This is even worse, don’t you get it? If this gets out–” She waved her hands around. She normally looked up to the rebbetzen, but now all her decorum was gone, forgotten, digested in that lake. “The entire settlement, everything will be all gone! If the others realize–”

The rebbetzen did not see the point. Chani felt a sudden urge to grab her annoying pink pullover and shout at her — she had been there, how could she have been so ignorant, how–

“I’m sorry? What do you mean?”

“Don’t you understand, halachically, I’m not sure she can even be counted as human anymore! Male, female, whatever, I’m not sure she counts as human!”

The rebbetzen paled. “But why?”

“I saw it, she was gone, she was completely absorbed!”

“I didn’t see that and I was there!” She stood, her short frame trembling with a mixture of anger, indignation, and… fear?

“The planetmind showed me! And the Ereni talked about reconstitution!” Chani was shouting, beside herself. “Reconstitution! Didn’t you realize the implications?!”

Rebbetzen Mushka covered her mouth with a hand, gasping. Chani went on. “She’s gone and what there is– I’m not even sure she is a Jew any longer, her entire body was gone, the planetmind ate her– it’s not just a transformation, she was gone, and what’s there now is just a reconstruction! If word gets out–” She ran out of breath.

“Sit down. Let us think.” The rebbetzen made a pacifying gesture with both arms. “You know the Rebbe says every sentient being can convert to Judaism, that means they can in principle be Jewish. So why would Adira lose her Jewish status if she became… another kind of sentient being?”

“Because it’s not her any longer,” Chani whispered, then sat, her eyes fixed on the rebbetzen. “Because it’s not her any longer.”

“And how can you say that?”

“Because I saw it and she was gone. And if the other people realize this, she will only become more isolated, and the planetmind will no longer sense us as part of itself, and we will all be killed!” Her voice rose and rose.

“Ssh. We’ll wake her up.”

Chani looked away, embarrassed. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to…”

“We’ll solve this situation. I’m sure the Rebbe knows, I’m sure the Ereni had told him and he’d considered every detail. We can just contact him.”

Chani pointed up. “The storm.”

The rebbetzen sighed. Messages going in and out of the jump point had indeed been disrupted for days. “Still, I’m sure he’d considered everything and found everything permissible and workable. He wouldn’t have asked her to do this if it were asur. I’m sure she still counts as Jewish, still counts as a member of the community…”

“Yes, but if the others catch wind of this– look how much trouble it caused when they realized she could shapeshift! In shul, they put up an extra curtain just for her because they didn’t want her on the men’s side and they didn’t want her on the women’s side either!”

“I’m okay with the mechitza,” Adira said from behind her. “I never liked it when people tried to chat me up while I was busy davening, anyway.”

Chani spun around. How much did she hear?

All of it, said the planetmind.

“All of it,” said Adira. “I’m potentially aware of everything that happens in the settlement. I just need to decide what to focus on.”

“You’re making it worse,” Chani yelled at her.

“Now, now,” the rebbetzen stepped next to them. “It’s all right.”

“It’s not all right, she will fail to maintain her what, her consistency, and we will all die!”

Adira frowned. “I thought you’d made a promise shortly before I woke up, out beyond the perimeter.”

She had. She had promised the planetmind she would intervene, try to convince the others not to push Adira aside. “Sure, but– none of this is helping, you have to realize it’s not me, the guys in the kollel spend their time debating technicalities all day, if they learn of this–”

Adira smiled. “If they learn of this, they’ll soon realize that if not for me, there would be no kollel, and they’d have to go back to Mars and full-time drudgery.”

Chani was speechless. Then she finally blurted out, “That sounds… utilitarian.”

The rebbetzen smiled. “That sounds workable…”

Rebbetzen Mushka and her husband, Rabbi Tzvi sat on kitchen stools while Chani paced, describing the situation. The rabbi nodded along, murmuring assent every now and then; Chani thought distractedly that he’d always been the malleable type. This might just work…

“You understand the danger, but most of the other men don’t,” she said. “A simple explanation wouldn’t sway them, but there is a way to demonstrate the danger without permanent harm…”

The rabbi picked a brownie crumb out of his beard. “Mmm. The Rebbe said as much.”

Chani jumped. “What did the Rebbe say?” The Rebbe said something? And you’re telling us just now?

Rabbi Tzvi was fortunately unaware of her roiling throughts. “That you would probably rise to the occasion,” he said mildly.

“What?! I would rise to the occasion?!”

“Yes, he said you would… not stand by the blood of your fellow,” he quoted the Torah.

“And the others?” Chani was again close to screaming. “Shai is also sensitive to, to the māwal– and Miri– Dovber–”

The rabbi looked away and picked up another brownie, put it in his mouth. He shrugged. “The Rebbe didn’t say anything about the others,” he said with his mouth full.

Chani felt like she could explode at any moment. “So this was expected of me? Couldn’t he in all his precognitive greatness have told me about it? I’m sure that would’ve helped!” She huffed, then turned and marched away, all her thoughts about explaining her plan evaporating in a haze of rage. Even still, she could feel the rebbetzen’s thoughts of concern, but Mushka remained silent.

Chani plodded along the main street of the settlement. Who could she talk to? The settlement was small and there were only a handful of māwal-users on the planet. There was Miri, about her age, but the two of them had never got along well. There was Nechama, who was probably surveying the detritus of their huge family lunch at the very moment; she’d best not bother her. Besides, Nechama constantly told her she was all too reckless and her plans were little more than harebrained schemes. Nechama even disapproved of the move away from Mars, she was so conservative.

How about the men? Could she even manage to find an opportunity to talk to them one-on-one? Jewish law did not allow two unmarried people of opposite genders to spend time together in the same room with no chance of someone else walking in. Who could she accidentally run into? She could’ve talked to Dovber, but as far as she knew, he was off-planet, busy with harebrained schemes of his own. He definitely did not show up to shul earlier that day, because then he would’ve said the blessing on the first reading.

Then there was Shai… Maybe getting Shai involved with the plan would be a good idea. Word was that he had been the Rebbe’s first choice for what ended up being Adira’s position. Chani could not fathom why Adira had no backup — if something happened to her, the entire settlement would be in danger. But the Rebbe was famous for his unusual decisions — his insistence on an Israeli pronunciation of Hebrew even when most of his followers were European Ashkenazic Jews, his ban on wigs that almost split the community, his decree that extraterrestrials could convert to Judaism… and, of course, his decision that his followers were to settle planets all across the galaxy.

Shai should’ve been the one picked to mediate between the planetmind and the community. Instead, he was studying and serving as the community Torah reader. Certainly, being a baal koreh was not an easy task — one had to memorize all the vowels and the cantillation marks which were absent from the scroll one used to read. On Shabbat Shai wouldn’t even be able to use his network interface, since it fell under the prohibition of electricity. Yet Chani couldn’t recall him making a mistake, while their shul on Mars had had a baal koreh who was constantly corrected by the people following along in the marked text. Shai was good at it, very good, but still it felt like such a waste. To Chani it felt like the māwal organized itself around Shai, and to waste all that potentiality, all that natural skill… Why couldn’t he serve at least as backup?

Chani could not understand the Rebbe, and she was beginning to become furious with him, safe with his retinue back on Mars, safe and ignorant of the situation here. She’d best get back to Adira and continue working on her plan… she was starting to disapprove of her own thoughts.

“This is the plan,” Chani said and leaned forward. They were sitting in the deserted kiddush room in the synagogue, on opposite sides of a table. “We’re going to give the people a fright. We just need you out of the picture for a bit. Just for the connection to weaken. When things start to go wrong, they will realize how much they need you. I could…” she hesitated, “injure you, then make sure you recover.”

“I don’t feel comfortable playing such a trick on them,” Adira said but didn’t flinch. “They are good people.”

Chani was awash with the heat of righteous anger. “They put you in a corner behind a brocade curtain! No one would even touch you!”

Adira blinked. “I don’t like to be touched.”

“You know it’s not about that! How will you marry?”

“We’d discussed this with the Rebbe back then and he said I’d probably find it impossible to marry. I said I was all right wi–”

“The Rebbe discussed this with you?!” Chani took a deep breath, then another, tried to calm down, without success.

“Yes, of course,” Adira said innocently, “I don’t understand your surprise… We’d talked about everything, with him, his wife Rebbetzen Michaela, the Ereni advisor… mostly the four of us. What did you expect?”

No one discussed anything with me! “I don’t like being left out of the loop.”

“If this helps any, I didn’t know anything about you either. The Rebbe only said I should not worry, Hashem would provide protection. I should just keep in mind that Hashem is Elokim, there is none besides him…”

Quotes, quotes, more quotes. Chani liked Torah quotes, but this was a time for action, not for words… She gnashed her teeth. “Do you want to spend the rest of your life alone? With no husband, no–”

“What would I do with a husband? Watch him die?”

“Eh?” That was not the response Chani had expected.

“If I can preserve my consistency, I can potentially live as long as the planet lives.” It sounded like a rehearsed phrase.

“I’d– I’d never thought of that.” Chani paused, just for a moment before marshalling the force of her argument again. “Still. You should not be alone. You should not allow the others to leave you alone. How will you preserve your consistency then?”

Adira looked away, out the window. “…Fair enough.” Then she turned back. “Your plan still sounds too risky. If you’re with me, you can’t be with the others and who knows what might happen to them. Can you just involve someone else too? How about Shai? I’m sure he could help.”

“Shai just wants to sit in a corner and study!”

Adira stood. “And why is that a problem? Isn’t that what men do?”

This is not your personal vendetta, the planetmind said.

Yeah? Wait until you see this, Chani responded.

Adira hesitated before the door. “I don’t see why this is necessary…”

“You want to participate in a women’s shiur, right?” And I want to talk to Shai, Chani thought at her.

Adira nodded, flustered. “Mhm. I’m just not sure it’s appropriate…”

“What’s the worst thing that can happen?” Chani grimaced.

“I suppose…” Adira bit her lower lip. “They could throw me out.”

“Do you think such pious women would throw you out?” Chani snorted with derision. “They’re much too cowardly and meek for that.”

“Don’t say such things–” Adira blushed.

Chani stepped next to her and pushed open the door. “Come on!”

Adira entered with trepidation. Inside, the women were sitting in a loosely organized circle, some on a large sofa, some on pillows on the ground, some on simple plastic chairs and stools brought into the living room from the kitchen. There was still no consensus about whether shapeforming chairs were permitted on Shabbat, so most people sat quite uncomfortably.

When Chani and Adira entered, people stiffened, and Chani could tell Adira noticed too.

They said their greetings. Chani looked around for spare chairs. “Is there something we could sit on?”

“We’re all out,” a woman said frostily. Chani recognized her — her name was Malka something and she was the mother of four children, all boys.

“All right,” Chani responded with as much iciness as she could muster, then sat down with her back to a wall. Adira also sat after some hesitation.

Shai’s mother hosted the shiur in their house, but it was held by a different person; a young brown-skinned woman with Ethiopian Jewish features. Adira remembered that her first name was Rachel, and she was from Earth, not Mars. Rachel cleared her throat and began. “Today we’re going to study the midah of rachamim…”

See, I told you they wouldn’t throw you out, Chani thought.

I didn’t exactly get a warm welcome either.

It will come with time… Chani smiled. Time, and something else.

I can’t believe you want to do that. Adira’s body went rigid. I’m not going to stand for deception.

Who said anything about deception? Chani had to lift a hand in front of her mouth to cover her broad grin. It’s going to be as real as possible.

The grin eventually wore off, and as the shiur went on, Chani realized that Shai was not even in the house, so that they could talk afterwards. Where was he? Time was running out; it was already late afternoon, and on weekdays, it would be much harder to get a large crowd in one place. She had to make her move soon…

Shabbat was coming to a close with the havdalah ceremony. Blessings were said on candlelight, cloves and wine in the usual disorganized manner. Very few women turned up for the occasion; most were at home, tending to the kids. Chani and Adira stood in one corner, away from the rest of the people.

Plastic cups of wine made their rounds; a young man stepped to them and offered Chani some. She politely declined and picked up a bottle of grape juice from one of the tables; the man stepped back into the crowd, visibly uneasy. No one asked Adira. Chani filled two cups with grape juice and handed a cup to her. They drank, and Adira wiped her mouth with the back of her hand — such a human gesture it made Chani’s heart ache. How could she have doubted…?

“It’s a good thing they’re doing kiddush levana today,” she whispered to Adira. “That’s a great opportunity.” The men would set out to bless the moon; it was usually not visible from the shul’s courtyard, and they customarily hiked up a small hill every month.

“You want to kill me,” Adira whispered back.

“If you don’t want to fake it, we can only do it for real,” she said. “Besides, I don’t want to kill you outright.”

We would advise against this course of action, the planetmind told them. We cannot predict events with the instability caused by the storm. But we sense danger.

Chani looked out the window and grimaced, as if staring directly into an invisible camera.

The crowd was thinning out as people were beginning to move outside; the stairs that led downstairs from the kiddush room proved to be a bottleneck. Chani shifted her weight from one leg to another; she was nervous, even though she did not appreciate the planetmind knowing that. Likewise, Adira was rolling some dried cloves in her fingers, smelling them again and again.

Finally, they could make their way downstairs unobstructed. Below, the men were talking with animated gestures. People were running to and fro with stacks of prayer books. Chani grabbed one and handed it to Adira.

“I know the prayers,” Adira said.

“Even for kiddush levana?”

“I had a network interface even… before.” She nodded in the direction of the forest. “I can just access the local net. Not on Shabbat, but Shabbat is already over.”

“You mean you still have your implants and stuff? In some way?”

“My body template was recorded with everything inside.” Adira began to walk as some of the men set out on the short hike to do the blessing; many were still shmoozing in the courtyard.

Chani fell in step. “I guess I never really thought about that. That’s kind of cool.”

It helps us integrate into the community even closer, the planetmind added.

“So you can read our email?” Chani chuckled.

We don’t need to read your email when we are already aware of your minds.

“Yeah… right. Hold on,” she said and ran forward, looking for Shai. Adira did not change her pace.

He was there, walking almost at front. Eager to pray?

“Shai,” she gasped, slightly out of breath. “We need to talk.”

Shai fixed his clear blue eyes upon her, just for a second — his cool, calm gaze penetrated all the way into her soul. He had a thick red beard — unexpectedly thick for his age — and long curly sidelocks, and he played with his tzitzit fringes as he walked. “Yes? Do explain.”

She was afraid Shai would become aware of her plan prematurely, with his exemplary command of the māwal. But apparently even he could not sense her plan through the chaos of the geomagnetic storm. He was clearly beginning to grow suspicious, though.

Chani began. “Something unexpected is going to happen. You’ll need to stay calm and–”

“How do you know something is going to happen?” Shai smiled. “Maybe because…” …you are the instigator yourself?

“Yes,” she wheezed. “Look, there’s no time. I can’t explain. You will understand everything soon. I just need you to know one thing. When I give you a signal, you will start shepherding everyone back toward the settlement. Do anything you can to keep them moving.” She looked around nervously, but no one seemed to be listening in on them.

Shai raised a hand, his smile unwavering. “I’m keeping the others from hearing this.”

Chani nodded. All right. “There will be… a measure of chaos. Some of the planetlife might mount an assault. It’s only going to be temporary.”

“Is this about Adira?”

Chani nodded again, her head bobbing up and down, and then a flash of understanding passed between them.

“I see,” Shai said with a tinge of sadness in his voice. “I should’ve realized. Count me in.”

Chani could’ve hugged him if not for the rules of modesty that kept her from engaging in any physical contact with an unrelated male. She ran back to Adira, grinning to herself all the while.

Just a few steps until the ravine that opened on the right side of the path up the hill.

Warn me before you push me, Adira thought. I want to cushion my fall somewhat, with the māwal… I don’t want to die outright. In this weakened state… just an injury, okay? A little loss of consciousness, a bit longer than back at the lake. Just to give them a fright. And then you can hurry back and down the slope to me and help me gather myself together.

Sure, Chani replied. But we need to take some risk. On a count of three, right?

All right.

One, two… three.

Chani pushed Adira — then her own feet slipped on the wet grass, she toppled against her and both of them fell tumbling into the ravine. No–

Thoughts ran through her mind, faster than prayer — this wasn’t planned, she wasn’t supposed to fall alongside Adira, she’d die–

Adira grabbed her, wrapped herself around her. I won’t let you.

They landed at the bottom with a sickening crunch.

Chani was stunned for a moment, then she instinctively rolled off Adira, who was lying underneath her.

Chani was alive, in one piece, but as she moved, pain shot through her body. She quickly examined herself in the sparse illumination afforded by the lamps lighting the path up the hill, well above. Her left leg was broken, an ugly open fracture. She could feel her mods already knotting up the bone and the flesh, toning the pain down to manageable levels, but she knew from experience that her leg would be useless for at least a day, and the blood loss would make her dizzy.

She did not dare look at Adira.

She forced herself to.

Her body looked — it was hard to tell in the dark — mangled, already disassembling itself. Her neck was bent at an impossible angle and her face was expressionless.

“Adira– I’m sorry–”

Don’t look at me, talk to me, keep on talking to me, Adira thought.

Chani could not look away.

You need to preserve my individuality. I am here as long as you talk to me. Turn away.

“Why?”

What you see works against your expectations, the planetmind answered.

She obediently turned her head; she could not move her leg.

I need to — there’s not enough māwal for me to– She could tell Adira was panicking; her thoughts had acquired a feverish quality all of a sudden. I cannot maintain contact with the rest and at the same time repair my–

“Take mine, take mine!” She turned back toward Adira, grabbed her hand. “I have a lot of māwal, take as much as you need!”

It was hard enough to keep you alive. A gurgling chuckle coming from the broken throat.

“Then I’ll call Shai, he can get down here fast, he can–”

You will need Shai to protect the men above, the planetmind said. It is starting. We are sorry.

“What are you talking about?!”

We cannot preserve her and keep up her contact with the community at the same time. Talk to her. Shai will protect the group on the hill. She will be restored sufficiently soon; the settlement will not be destroyed. Only the group on the hill is in danger.

Chani craned her neck but she could not make out anything in the glow of the lamps. She felt nauseous from the sudden head motion. Then she heard the screaming.

She could reconstruct the events from the participants’ memories fairly well. Immediately after Adira was cut off from the community, planetlife swarmed the men walking uphill. Shai screamed at them to run. They yelled and cried, but obeyed. Shai held off the assault and ran with the men, protecting them all the while. The planetlife sensed that he was holding it off and targeted its attacks on him.

We can assure you this is purely instinctive behavior, the planetmind said. This is our immune system. This is not a conscious decision on our behalf. We are sorry.

Chani talked to Adira, talked and talked. Recounted her life story, offered divrei Torah, ranted about the unfairness of life. She wanted to rail against Hashem, but she needed to focus on Adira. She went on, her throat sore, her eyes dry from the tears.

The men made it back to the settlement.

Shai did not.

He was lying on the ground, the settlement limits just a stone’s throw away. He was coughing up blood. He waited for the angel of death.

Shema… Yisrael,” he said with his last effort, not covering his eyes.

We can attempt to incorporate you, the planetmind said. We are sorry for the damage caused. We would prefer to incorporate you.

Shai stopped saying the ages-old prayer. He closed his eyes and was completely still. He felt at peace.

You have already turned us down once before. Please do not turn us down again.

Chani had no idea what the planetmind was talking about, but she supposed this was between the two of them.

“Take me,” Shai said with his last breath.

Adira, Shai and Chani sat on the steps in the synagogue courtyard, enjoying the late afternoon sun and a bit of Shabbat rest.

“At least this Shabbat is less hectic than the previous one,” Chani said.

Shai laughed, the sound like pearls falling from the sky. Then he rubbed his nose and looked up at the clouds. “Are you coming to the Gemara shiur? It should start soon, at Dovber’s place.” That’s a long walk.

“I thought the Gemara shiur was for men only,” Chani said.

“No, anyone can come,” Adira said. “Tzvi specifically told me, a few weeks ago.”

Chani blinked. “Then why didn’t you attend? Before, I mean.”

I was not sure I was welcome anywhere. Adira sighed.

“There’s only going to be more of us,” Shai said. “People would better get used to it. The Rebbe himself said so, he’d expected something like this.” He coughed nervously. “He wanted it to happen… if not with me, then with someone else. He wanted to force the issue.” That’s why Adira didn’t have backup.

Well, that solves the marriage problem, Chani thought.

“I’d elbow you hard, but I’m still not sure I’m allowed to touch you,” Adira said, grinning.

“You’re not allowed to hurt her, either way,” Shai pointed out.

“True enough!” Chani got up, brushing the dust off her skirt. “Let’s go, we’ll be late if we don’t get going…”

She still could not look Shai in the eye.

_____
Copyright 2014 Bogi Takács

Bogi Takács is a Hungarian Jewish author, a psycholinguist and a popular–science journalist. E writes both speculative fiction and poetry, and eir works have been published or are forthcoming in a variety of venues like Strange Horizons, Stone Telling, Apex and Jabberwocky, among others.

by Patricia Russo

We fucked up. We all know it, despite the fact that the others don’t want to admit it. The whole night was a series of fuck-ups, starting with Kerby and his stupid bottle of Latvian tequila – it didn’t occur to him to wonder why the stuff was in the discount bin, did it? (Dumber than a sack of hammers, as grandpa used to say.) And then we had Demetria and her chemistry experiments, and the rest of us fool enough to swallow whatever she handed us. (Demetria always acted like she was smarter than everybody else, which was annoying enough, but the kick of it was, with this bunch, she was probably right.) Plus there was that kid in the ratty jacket, Zack or Zacky or something, who’d started hanging around with us for no reason I could figure, who hardly said anything, and always looked like he either wanted to cry or fall asleep. He didn’t touch Kerby’s counterfeit tequila, or any of Demetria’s assortment of shit, but he was fucked up plenty without outside help. Something about his eyes. He looked at things too closely. Idiotic things, like an ashtray or a tube of lip balm. Like he expected them to do something, change colors, sprout fangs and leap at his throat. (Clearly a mental case.) Then Hannah showed up, pissed off at her brother, and after that there was nothing between us and total upfuckery except our own good sense, and we didn’t have any.

Except maybe that Zacky kid, when we found the old man. But that was later. He went along with the rest of it the same as all of us, even after the cats showed up.

“The cats were real,” he said to me the next time I saw him, a week, maybe ten days after that night. “If nothing else, the cats were real.” He didn’t ask me what happened once he’d left. I didn’t tell him. I’ve seen him on the street since, in passing, but I only talked to him that once.

I’m not excusing myself from any of it. I was the one who said to Hannah, about her brother, “You ought to do something to get him back,” and I didn’t raise any objections when she got all quiet for a minute, and then all excited, and then started jabbering in her mile-a-minute manner: Yeah, yeah, yeah, she knew exactly what she was going to do, listen, guys, listen, this is great, we’re going to go to his place, listen to this, it’s perfect, you guys gotta come with me, we’re going to get him good.

I can’t even remember for sure exactly why she was pissed off at her brother that time. Hannah was always getting into it with him, screaming at him on the phone, complaining to us about shit he’d done, or she thought he’d done. Once we were in the park and her brother came walking up on the bike path and Hannah picked up a rock and chucked it at him. Missed. Which I guess was a good thing. He just laughed at her and kept walking. Her brother was pretty much a douche bag as far as I could tell, but it wasn’t like Hannah was getting any prizes for interpersonal communication. That night, I think it was something about a box of their mother’s stuff that he was supposed to give her, but which wound up with their cousin or some shit, because the cousin had a house and could store it, but I wouldn’t swear to it. Anyway, it was the same flavor of crap he always pulled on her, promising this or that and then denying he’d ever said any such thing, breaking commitments, brushing her off.

“Okay, okay,” Kerby said. He was sprawled out on the sofa, taking up the whole damn thing, like he usually did, so that Demetria and I got the crappy chairs. The kid with the ratty jacket was sitting on the floor, in the corner, arms around his knees, as still as a gargoyle. (This wasn’t unusual for him.) “Your brother’s a dick.”

“You want anything?” Demetria asked. She was laughing at Hannah without letting it show big, just quirking her lip a bit. Demetria did that a lot. Used to do that a lot. To all of us.

“Listen!” Hannah’s eyes blazed. She was pacing, and had her hands up like she was about to catch a basketball. “We’re going to go to his place, right?”

“I’m not beating him up for you,” Kerby said.

“Like you could take him,” I said.

“Nobody’s beating up anybody,” Demetria said. “Come on, we’re not in fucking high school.”

“Listen!”

“We’re listening,” I said, because Hannah was starting to get pissed at us, now. “You want to go to his place.”

“Yeah. I know how to get in.”

“Really?”

“Yeah. Yeah. I got that part. Trust me. He’s not going to be home, anyway. It’s Saturday night.”

It was. It was, indeed. I’d only had a little of Demetria’s new stuff, but my head was buzzing, and even before Hannah showed up, I was telling myself that I was going to be sorry tomorrow. And that was a factor in what happened. We all knew we were going to be sorry tomorrow anyway, and being sorry for two things didn’t seem that much heavier than being sorry for one. Real smart thinking, that. “So this is breaking and entering?” I asked. Not protesting, merely wanting to be clear on the particulars.

“No breaking,” Hannah said. She grinned. “Just taking. We’re going to take his shoes.”

Kerby laughed.

“Not all of them. This is the best part, listen. We’re going to take all his left shoes.”

I looked at Demetria. She quirked her lip again and said, “I guess I was wrong.”

That zoomed right past Hannah, who had gone straight on to picturing the scene when her brother returned and discovered this. “He’ll freak. He’ll absolutely freak. He won’t know what the fuck happened. He’ll be running around going, ‘What the fuck? What the fuck?’ He’ll be looking for his left shoes everywhere. Nobody’s touching anything else, okay? We’re going to leave the place exactly the way it is. He’ll go mental.”

“Hah,” Kerby said. He was grinning. Hannah was grinning. Demetria rolled her eyes a little, but she nodded and showed her teeth, too. I thought, why not, it’ll be a funny story to tell someday. The kid in the corner didn’t smile, but then I don’t think I ever saw him smile once the whole time he was hanging out with us.

“And even if he figures out it was me,” Hannah rattled on, “what’s he going to do? Call the cops, say all his left shoes got stolen? They’ll think he’s a nutjob. It’s perfect. And if he doesn’t figure out it was me, I’m going to fucking tell him. Right to his face. Like, ‘Yeah, how do you feel now? How do you like getting fucked over, you fuck?’ Right?”

“Calm down,” Demetria said.

“You guys are going to come with me, right? You’re going to help me out, right? Come on, come on you guys, you’re going to do this with me, right?”

“Yeah, okay,” Kerby said. He tried to sit up, and had a bit of difficulty until he remembered that it would be easier if he got his feet off the armrest of the sofa and on the floor first. “Man. Right, Hannah, right. It’ll be great. We’re with you.”

Demetria said, “Sure,” and so did I.

And the kid in the corner nodded.

That’s when we fucked up the first time.

And this is just how fucked up we were when we fucked up the first time, when we all agreed that Hannah’s junior high school, forget high school, junior high school prank was, okay, not a swell idea, maybe, but something the rest of us could get behind, without voicing a single doubt, without investing even thirty seconds into talking her out of it – nobody thought to bring a bag. Any kind of bag. Not even the one from the liquor store, with the big yellow smiley face on it, that was lying there on the floor in plain sight. We were going to go steal a bunch of shoes. We didn’t think about where we were going to put them, how we were going to carry them. We all just got to our feet, more or less – Kerby had the most trouble – and followed Hannah out the door, and down the stairs, and out of the building.

The darkness surprised Demetria, who shook her head, then got her phone out to check the time. She muttered something I didn’t catch. The kid with the ratty jacket said, “Time’s funny, sometimes,” and she gave him this narrow-eyed look, like she thought he was making fun of her. He didn’t say anything else.

“I’ll drive,” Hannah said, and Kerby had his head straight enough to not even try to argue; he just handed her the keys. Five people in his little shitbox was a squeeze, but we were only going about a mile. I was in the middle of the back seat, and Demetria managed to stick her elbow in my ribs, but the Zack kid got the worst of it, just about flattened against the left-side door. In the front, Hannah kept burbling, and she ran a couple of stop signs, but no red lights, thank fuck. Kerby just laughed.

Hannah’s brother lived in one of two identical buildings, the sort of old heaps you didn’t see a lot of any more, six-floor walkups, eight apartments on each floor. The two buildings were separated by a narrow courtyard, where the super kept the garbage and recycling bins, and in which the smaller kids whose parents had washed up in one or the other crumbing structure rode tricycles or kicked a ball around. Hannah parked two blocks away. I’d forgotten until we got to Consolation Boulevard that her brother’s building was across the street from the police station.

“There’s never any parking by his building,” Hannah said. “We’re walking, okay?”

“Which one’s his? 2221 or 2223?” I asked.

“2221.”

Demetria poked me. “You’ve been here before?”

“Once.”

The kid in the ratty jacket glanced up and down the street. Saturday night, there were only a couple of cop cars parked outside the shop, the rest of them being on patrol, or down by the river where the condos and the taxpayers lived. But this street was quiet. There were a lot of older folks, if I remembered right from the previous occasion Hannah had dragged me there. Something to do with her brother, naturally. She wanted to give him something, that time. I had no idea why, or what, even. She was clutching this manila envelope with a lump in it, and all she would say was, “It’s his, so he should have it. It’s only fair.” We rang the bell, and rang the bell, and then we waited on the steps outside for over an hour, until I got fed up and said I had other things to do, and left her there. A couple of old people went in or came out of the building while we were waiting, and they smiled and nodded at us, real pleasant and friendly. In front of the twin building a few steps down, a mother with three kids, one of them in a stroller, chatted to a friend of hers, something about their trabajo.

You know. The sort of people who didn’t mind living across the street from a police station. Who didn’t mind the occasional siren, or the cop cars sometimes parking on the sidewalk, because they figured if any street in town would be avoided by burglars and old-lady-bashers and kiddie-snatchers, it had to be that one. I wondered how Hannah’s shithead brother had fiddled his way into the building in the first place.

The kid Zack kept looking around. Demetria must have thought that he was nervous about the cop shop, because she gave him a shove and said, “Be cool.” But he hadn’t been staring across the street. He’d been looking up and down this one.

“You said you knew a way to get in,” I reminded Hannah.

“Yeah.” She was buzzing, almost vibrating. She started to giggle. “Numbnuts hides his keys behind the library when he goes out drinking. I saw him.”

“The library?”

“Up the street.”

It was news to all of us that there was a library up the street, but we trailed along after her, and sure enough, there was the public library, and a pretty damn massive one, too, built in the old show-off style, with brass do-dads and do-dahs on the doors and stairs going up forever, and plaques all over the façade to immortalize the names of the politicians in office when the freaking thing was built, and dedicated, and rededicated, and all that crap.

Hannah disappeared into an unlit space between the library and the next building. Not an alley, exactly. More of a gap sort of thing. The rest of us looked at each other and stayed put, though that Zacky kid frowned. We heard her rooting around behind a big metal container that it took me a moment to figure out was the box you were supposed to put books in when you wanted to return them and the library was closed.

“You know,” Demetria said, quietly, “it’d be better for her if she could just let it go. Walk away. Forget about her brother, forget she even has a brother. Decide he doesn’t exist, and just get on with her life.”

“People can’t do that,” Kerby said.

“I did.”

I remember that she said that. It stuck with me, because Demetria never talked about her family. If somebody, I mean someone who didn’t know her very well, tried to push her on the subject, she’d go all stony. The rest of us had learned a long time ago not to go near the topic.

Forget them. Walk away.

“Ha!” Hannah shouted, from behind the book return box. “Got them!” She ran out, jingling the keys over her head, and grinning all over her face.

“It might be a good idea not to draw attention to ourselves,” Demetria muttered.

It was too late for that, though we didn’t know it yet.

“Right,” Hannah said. “Okay, you guys, just follow me.”

“We’re going to make this quick, yeah?” I said.

“In and out,” Kerby said.

“Hannah?” I prodded. She was grinning too much.

“Right, right. In and out. Quick.”

The kid didn’t say anything. Meanwhile, we were all walking back toward 2221. I was already thinking that when we were done with this little caper, Hannah was going to talk our ears off for hours, rehashing every single second a thousand times. Hours? This was going to become one of her favorite stories. She was going to be bringing it up every time we got together. But you had to put up with crap like that from your friends, even if it made you crazy sometimes. Why the hell else were we all there with her in the first place, doing this dumbass thing? Because we were her friends.

The cats were already pacing us. I didn’t notice the first one. Or the second one. Who pays attention to a couple of stray cats? The kid in the ratty jacket, though, he saw them.

We were between the buildings, between 2223 and 2221, just about where the street entrance to the courtyard was, when Zack stopped. Of course we didn’t pay attention to him, either. He was just this strange kid who always wore the same clothes and stared at commonplace things with a lunatic intensity. When he wasn’t giving the impression of either being just about to fall asleep, or burst into tears, that is. I never did figure him out. Once, I asked Kerby how come that kid had started hanging around us, anyway, and he said he’d tagged along after Demetria one day, but Demetria said it was Kerby who met him first, in Adams Park.

“Wait,” Zack said. “Wait.” And he said it louder than any of us had ever heard him speak before, and so we did stop, and swiveled our heads to glare at him, because who the fuck was he to tell us to wait?

And then we saw the cats. Dozens of them. Behind us, in front of us, on all side of us. And above us as well, on ledges, on fire escapes. And they were all eyeballing us, every single one of them.

“What the fuck,” Demetria said, softly.

One cat slinked forward, into the little pool of grainy light from the street lamp a couple of yards away. The kid eased forward, too, sliding between Hannah and Demetria, so that he and the cat were facing each other, so to speak. The cat didn’t look at all special. Black and white, skinny, a bit on the small side. Hannah made to move on, to the steps leading up to the front door of 2221, but I put a hand on her arm.

“Take care,” the cat said.

Swear to crap.

The kid said, “Should we leave?”

The cat blinked, and repeated, “Take care.”

And then in an instant all the cats were gone, vanished, into the shadows, under cars, into alleys, who knows where. They moved so fast all I caught was a couple of blurs.

“What the fuck was that?” Kerby yelped.

“Come on,” Hannah said. “Come on, you guys, let’s do this.”

And that was the second time we fucked up. Talking cats? Anyone with sense would have run like hell to the car, gone back to Kerby’s place, and finished off his crap tequila. Plus everything else Demetria still had on her. But sense was something none of us possessed that night. Zack said, “That wasn’t about Hannah’s brother. That was about something else,” so clearly he had some kind of a clue, but he came with us up the steps, and waited silently while Hannah worked out which key unlocked the front door, and the which key fit the inner door, while Kerby and Demetria kept cursing under their breaths and telling her to get a move on.

Once we were inside, Hannah put her finger to her lips. The stairs were at the far end of the corridor. “Fifth floor,” she whispered. Kerby groaned. Demetria pinched him, which only made him go, “Ow!” loudly.

Of course it was a walkup building. All those old piles of shit were. And of course we stumbled and swore and bumped into each other, and all of us except the damn kid were out of breath by the third floor, and once Hannah dropped the keys. They clattered down almost an entire flight before Zack, who was bringing up the rear, caught up with them.

I was surprised nobody poked their head out of any of the apartments to ask what the blazes was going on, or even yelled out from behind a closed (and barred, and deadbolted, I bet) door to keep it down. Maybe they were all quietly speed-dialing the nice cops across the street. Or maybe they just figured we were Hannah’s dickhead brother and some of his friends, staggering home somewhat earlier than usual for a Saturday night.

We made it to the fifth floor without Kerby having a heart attack, or me passing out, or the neighborhood watch (probably two old ladies and a guy with a cane and a yappy dog) swarming us. Hannah was panting, but still grinning. She waved us on. “This is it, this is the one.” The doors on this floor were all painted an ugly shade of green that reminded me of the color of plastic limes. They all looked the same, except for the numbers. No decorations, nothing personal on any of them. We had a couple of moments when we thought Hannah had mixed up the apartments, because the first key she tried didn’t work, and the second one didn’t, either. But then she got the bottom lock to turn, and eventually, by an extensive process of elimination (trying every damn key on the ring, including the ones for the outside doors, including ones she’d already tried three or four times) that made Demetria not only roll her eyes again, but start tapping her foot, Hannah hit on the key that opened the top lock.

And we were in. Mission accomplished, or almost. One thing left to do – grab the shoes and get out of there.

Hannah switched on the lights, and we all hustled inside. Zack shut the door quietly behind us.

Her brother’s place was a lot nicer than Kerby’s. Bigger, art on the wall, an entertainment center, furniture that hadn’t been salvaged from curbsides. He wasn’t the neatest guy in the world, though. Dirty plates on the table, mail tossed on the floor, stains on the walls and dust in the corners. Filthy windows. I went over to look out. Since the lights were on in the room, I had to put my nose against the glass and shade my eyes in order to see anything. His windows faced the courtyard. The first time I looked out, I didn’t see anything but garbage cans and shadows.

“So, the shoes,” Demetria said. All business. All, let’s get this over with.

“Don’t touch anything,” Hannah said. “Right? Don’t mess any of this shit up. We got to make it look like nobody’s been here. He’s going to go nuts trying to find the shoes. He’s going to be thinking it’s impossible anybody took them, right, when the place is just like he left it. It’ll be like a mystery.”

“I thought you were going to tell him to his face it was you,” I said.

“Right, yeah. Later.”

“The shoes,” Demetria repeated. “Where does he keep them? Closet? Under the bed? Shoe rack? What?”

“And how many pairs does he have, anyway?” I asked.

“I don’t know how many pairs he has. Lots, okay? He likes shoes. He’s got tons. Every time I see the fucker, he’s wearing a new pair.”

Just about that time, it finally occurred to me that we hadn’t brought anything along to haul the shoes away in. “We’re going to need a bag,” I said. “I’ll check the kitchen.”

“Don’t touch anything!” Hannah insisted. “None of you, okay? Just stay where you are.”

Kerby said, “Why did you want us to come along, if you’re not going to let us help?”

“You’re the only one with a car,” Demetria muttered.

“You’re going to help. You’re going to help, okay? Just let me think a minute.”

“You ever been inside your brother’s place before?” Demetria asked.

“Sure I have. Plenty of times.”

Which probably meant once. Twice, tops. When we entered, we’d stepped directly into the living room. From where I was standing by the windows, I could see the kitchen, which was separated from the room with the couch and the flatscreen and the natural-wood table and the matching straight-backed chairs with matching blue cushions on them by a counter that ran three-quarters of the length of the room, topped with tile that was meant to look like marble. I couldn’t see any doors, but there had to be at least two – the bathroom and the bedroom. “Okay, Hannah,” I said. “Why don’t you check the bedroom. I’ll just go over there to the kitchen area, and look for a bag. He’s got to have some. I won’t disturb anything, I promise.”

“The bedroom,” Hannah mumbled. “Right. The bedroom.” She wasn’t grinning anymore. She wasn’t pacing around, acting out basketball moves. She gazed at the entertainment center, with its stereo and iPod cradle and TV and X-box and stacks of DVDs and games and even CDs, all jumbled up together, and an expression came over her face, very much like the one dogs get the second before they spring at you. “I bet he loves this stuff more than he loves his shoes.”

“You’re the one who said no smashing,” Demetria said. “You wanted to make a mystery, not a mess, remember?”

“Right,” Hannah said, barely above a whisper. She was still staring at the entertainment center.

“Do you know where the bedroom is?” I asked.

“The bedroom. Right. The bedroom. Sure, of course I know where it is.”

“All right, then,” Kerby said. “Let’s get moving. I’ll help.”

“You stay here,” Hannah said. Louder. Almost in her normal voice. “I got this.” She turned away from the entertainment center, glanced at the kitchen, then moved left, around the counter. Past the cabinets, there was a narrow hallway I hadn’t noticed. No, I’d noticed it, but I’d thought it was an alcove, a breakfast nook type of thing. Hannah disappeared down the hall, and after a moment another light came on.

“It wasn’t the car,” the kid said.

“What?” Kerby said. Demetria pretended Zack hadn’t spoken.

“It was the dark.”

“What?”

“We all want companionship in the dark.” He stared at a spot on the floor. Looked like a cigarette burn to me. “Mostly.” He kept guard on the cigarette burn while we listened to Hannah thump around in what I hoped was the bedroom. I hoped Hannah hadn’t gotten detoured and decided to dump out all her brother’s shampoo and aftershave and whatnot into the bathroom sink.

“A garbage bag or something would be a good idea,” Demetria said. She glanced at the kitchen area, but didn’t move toward it.

“Hannah’s getting a little over-agitated. Even for her. Once she gets the shoes, we’re hauling ass out of here,” I said. “Everybody agree?”

Nods all around. Kerby had his grin back on his face. Demetria looked bored, but then Demetria enjoyed looking bored. Used to enjoy looking bored. Even the kid bobbed his head. For a minute there, I thought everything was going to work out, we were going to get the shoes and boogie, and Hannah was going to call her brother and laugh at him (probably before he even got home; she had the patience of a grasshopper on meth), and that would be that.

Then Hannah came stomping out from the back, with three shoes under one arm and two under the other. She marched straight up to me and said, “Open the window.”

“What?”

“Open the goddamn window!”

Kerby said, “Come on, Hannah, that wasn’t what –”

She slammed her forehead against the glass. Really hard. I jumped. I think we all jumped. “Shit, Hannah!”

“Open it up!”

“All right, take it easy!” She had the same look in her eye she had the time this perv in a car, a station wagon, really, waved her over, acting like he needed directions, and then asked her if she’d like to come over to his place to make a video. Hannah punched the guy’s windshield, then reached in through the driver’s side window to try to grab him by the throat. The perv tore out of there like there was an army of zombies after him, and Demetria and me had to take Hannah to the ER to get her hand X-rayed. Kerby missed that little bit of drama. When we told him about it later, Hannah with her hand wrapped up in an ace bandage and shit, me and Demetria still shaking slightly from the adrenaline OD, he laughed like it was the funniest thing he’d heard in his life, little Hannah hulking out on some asshole in a station wagon.

“Hannah,” Demetria said. She was trying to keep her cool, at least. And at least act like some serious shit was going down. “Let’s just stick to the plan, okay?”

“Open. The. Window.”

I opened the window. Twisted the latches, shoved the window up. I knew if I didn’t, Hannah would hurl herself against the glass again. And again. Until she broke it. Saturday night in the ER, I was thinking. Not the most appealing place to wind up. So yeah, I was thinking more about me then, not her, not her brother, not the stupid shoes. I wanted another hit of Demetria’s new recipe. I wanted to be home in bed. I wanted to zip back in time and take back what I’d said to Hannah about getting even with her brother. The only one of those things I had any chance of getting was more of Demetria’s stuff, but that was going to have to wait.

Hannah threw the shoes out the window. Even from the fifth floor, I could hear them thud and thunk as they hit the concrete of the courtyard below. Then she strode back through the kitchen and into the narrow hall.

“Somebody’s going to call the cops,” Demetria said.

Hannah came back with another armload of shoes. I couldn’t tell if they were all left ones. She dumped them out the window, too.

“Are you done?” I asked.

“No.”

Off she marched again, through the kitchen and into the hallway.

“How many shoes does this shithead have, anyway?” Demetria said.

“Take care,” the kid whispered. Kerby and Demetria ignored him.

“What?” I looked at him. “I thought you said that wasn’t about us.”

“I said it wasn’t about Hannah’s brother.”

“Then what is it about? Come on, man, it’s not every day a cat tells you to be careful.”

“No,” he whispered. “It isn’t.”

Demetria and Kerby seemed determined to pretend that the encounter with the cats hadn’t happened. Later, Kerby claimed that he didn’t remember anything after we all got into his car. That might even have been true, since when we got back to his place, he immediately killed the rest of the bottle of knockoff tequila in three long gulps.
He and Demetria both stared at a picture on the wall, some swirly-doodle thing that looked more and more like dancing penises the longer you gazed at it, and said nothing.

Hannah came back with more shoes, and hurled them out.

“Are you done now?” I asked.

“I’m going to throw his underwear out, too.”

“No,” I said. “No, you’re not. That’s it. Fun’s over. Come on, you guys. Let’s go.”

Me, the voice of reason. It wasn’t exactly a first, but it was rare enough. The kid nodded, and Demetria stepped toward her, lifting her hand, like she was going to try to take Hannah by the arm.

That was when the cry came from the courtyard.

It was human. I never had any doubt about that. It was a human voice, a man’s voice, high and wobbly. It wasn’t a cry of pain. Not physical pain. It was a cry of despair. It went on for a full minute, or at least it felt like it did.

The kid got to the window before me, then backed away fast. “We’ve got to go now,” he said.

“What’s down there?” Demetria asked.

Zack shook his head, and kept backing away. Hannah pushed past him, grabbed the window sill, and leaned out. “Hey,” she shouted. “What’s your problem?”

“Don’t,” I said. I don’t know why. Maybe the look on the kid’s face.

“Fucker!” Hannah yelled. “You better not touch anything!” Then she pulled her head back in, and ran toward the door.

“Shit,” Demetria said.

We followed her. We had to. She had the damn car keys.

Hannah had a good lead on us, though, and what with Kerby more than a little wobbly and Demetria and me not tremendously eager for a confrontation with some tenant who was probably going to call the law down on us, we didn’t exactly hurry. The kid came with us, bringing up the rear. I turned to look at him once. Even when we were all hanging out, just fucking around and bullshitting, half the time he looked like he was on the verge of crying. When he didn’t look like he was about to fall asleep. But that time on the stairs, he had for-real tears in his eyes.

We knew Hannah was heading for the courtyard. Where else was she going to go? And it didn’t really matter that she got so far in front of us that we lost sight of her; we could hear her footsteps clattering on the steps as she ran down. The concept of stealth had taken a leave of absence from her brain. And still nobody cracked a door to see what the ruckus was about, and nobody, except for the man who’d cried out in the courtyard, seemed to care that a bunch of idiots were in the building at all. Even at the time, that struck me as strange. Hannah had made a hell of a lot of noise chucking those shoes, and she was making even more noise now on the stairs. Where were the insomniac old ladies, where were the busybodies with the yappy little dogs?

Kerby paused on the second floor landing to catch his breath. Or to stop his head from spinning. Or both. “Don’t you dare puke,” I said.

“I’m not gonna puke.”

He didn’t sound all that convinced. Or convincing.

“I’ll tell you what you are going to do,” Demetria said. And she sounded real sure. In charge. The way she liked to act. The way she used to like to act. “You’re going to get hold of Hannah, and we’re going to get the keys. Your car keys, and her fuckhead brother’s keys. And you’ll carry her to the car if you have to. And if she kicks and screams, you’re just going to take it, got that?” She glanced at me. “You okay to drive?”

“Yeah.” I probably wasn’t, but we sure as hell weren’t going to let Hannah get behind the wheel.

“Why me?” Kerby whined.

“Because you’re the biggest.” Demetria’s tone could have sliced glass.

So that was the plan, and it wasn’t a bad plan. It was a pretty good plan, really, for a bunch of fuckups who hadn’t any real clue how to live like grownups to come up with while trying not to trip over their own feet, or vomit, or pass out from hyperventilating. That last one would be me. We were all in such crappy shape it wasn’t funny. I didn’t look at the kid again, but I knew he was behind us. Didn’t hear him panting. Didn’t hear him crying, either. I figured that when we got to the courtyard, it was going to be him, not Kerby, who would actually be able to grab hold of Hannah and keep her pinned long enough for us to get the keys.

Didn’t work out that way.

We made it out of the building, and we got to the narrow entryway to the courtyard, with the stupid little arch over it. We couldn’t hear Hannah anymore. Or anything else. Nobody yelling. No cats yowling. Or giving advice. Not even the wind. It was like the world had stopped.

Demetria went in first, like the leader she thought she was, then me and Kerby. Zack was behind us. He was with us up until we spotted the old man.

It was hard to see anything at first. There were no lights in the courtyard, and all the windows that faced out on it were dark. Except for the windows of Hannah’s brother’s place. Nobody had remembered to turn the lights off when we went after her. But a couple of illuminated windows up on the fifth floor didn’t help for shit.

We saw Hannah at last, because she moved. Jumped, really. Backwards, a good eight inches at least. The way you spring back when you realize you’re about to stick your foot into something with teeth. Kerby giggled.

I didn’t see what she’d leaped away from. Couldn’t see any of the shoes she’d thrown out the window, either, though she must have chucked more than a dozen. The light was really bad. Worse than it should have been. The two buildings blocked the street lights, but there should have been some light coming in from above. Lights from taller buildings. Or even some fucking starlight.

“Hannah,” Demetria called. Not loudly, but loud enough that Hannah had to have heard her. “You okay?” Hannah didn’t answer. She had her back to us. She was shaking her head. Naturally we assumed she was shaking her head at us.

Demetria tapped Kerby on the elbow. “Okay, we’re going to do this now.” She gave him a shove to get him moving, and we all advanced into the courtyard.

Kerby wasn’t super-enthusiastic about the role assigned to him. He kept trying to hang back, and Demetria kept pushing him forward. Again, I figured we were going to need the kid to step up when Kerby flubbed it, so I jerked my head around to check his position.

He’d stopped walking.

“Hey,” I said. “Come on. Help us out here.”

“I can’t help him.”

I thought he meant Kerby. Who else? But Zacky had seen the old man. Thinking back, it’s possible he might have seen him from the window of Hannah’s brother’s apartment. That kid had weird eyes. And weirder shit going on behind those eyes. From five floors up, had he really seen the old man crouching on what was not concrete anymore, but dirt? It took me a damn long time to realize the courtyard had changed. I don’t think Kerby and Hannah ever did notice. Had he seen that the old guy was holding something in his hands, hunched over it like a little kid trying to protect his most favoritest toy from being snatched away?

Maybe he had.

“I’m sorry,” he said.

“Kid,” I said. “Zack, Zacky, whatever your name is, get your ass over here.”

Hannah was sort of jumping up and down, like she was trying to shake ants off her legs. Demetria shoved Kerby again, and he took a step, but then stopped. Demetria stopped, too. They’d caught sight of the old man. I hadn’t, yet. I was too busy being pissed off at the kid.

“I’m sorry,” he said again. He sounded utterly miserable. Not that I gave a shit at that point. I just wanted to grab Hannah and the car keys and get the hell out of there. “I can’t…I can’t do it. It hurts too much.”

And then he was gone, out of the courtyard and away, and I only ever spoke to him one time after that, when he said that the cats had been real. By then, I didn’t blame him for running.

But I think, now, it was all real. Maybe not all of it was real in the same way, but it was all real in some way. That’s how I manage to get my head around it, to deal with what happened. Kerby says he doesn’t remember anything, and Hannah just goes evasive if I bring up the subject.

“Shit,” I said, when the kid ran off.

“Who are you?” Demetria said, and of course I didn’t know what the fuck she was talking about. When I turned back to them, she’d moved a few steps in front of Kerby. Hannah was still doing her twitchy dance. Kerby was just standing there like a lump.

“Hannah,” I said. “Come on, let’s get out of here. Kerby, she’s got the keys, remember?”

Neither one reacted to me. They were looking at what Demetria was looking at, what she was moving toward.

“What are you doing?” Demetria said, softly.

I heard the old man before I saw him. Later, naturally, I realized it must have been him who’d let out that long shaky cry that we’d heard on the fifth floor. But the first words I heard him speak were, “Can you forgive me?”

I moved closer, circling around the others. For some reason, I didn’t want to get too near any of them. I think it was then that I noticed the dirt. I knew the floor of the courtyard hadn’t been dirt before. The first time I’d come along with Hannah, a little kid had been riding his tricycle in there, on concrete. Tonight, when I’d glanced in through the entryway, before we’d even trailed Hannah up the block to the library, I’d seen the garbage and recycling bins lined up against the interior wall. I didn’t see them now. I didn’t see any of the shoes Hannah had thrown, either. This was something different than it just being dark in the courtyard. Something had changed, or something had…stopped hiding. Stopped concealing itself.

Of course we were all fucked up, still fucked up. You couldn’t have trusted any of us to operate heavy machinery, or add up a column of numbers with a piece of paper and a pencil. Hannah was blind with rage, and the rest of us were just blind stupid. Except the kid, and he was gone.

And except, maybe, Demetria.

“What have you done?” she asked, quietly. Gently, almost. Which was not her usual mode at all. “Why do you need forgiveness?”

I could see who she was talking to now. The old man, kneeling on the dirt, holding something in his hands, hunched over it protectively. It was so dark in the courtyard I could barely make out Demetria’s face, but I saw him clearly. White hair, white hands, shabby brown clothes. I shouldn’t have been able to see brown. I shouldn’t have been able to see the cracks in the leather of his boots, or the creases like old scars on his skin. But I did.

“I wasted my life,” the old man said.

And if it had been me talking to him and not Demetria, I probably would have said something empty and meaningless, like, I’m sure you haven’t. Because that’s what you do, right? People tell you some desperately awful thing, and you go, There, there, it’s not that bad, you’re making too much of it, it’s probably nothing. Even when, like with that old guy, it was most definitely something. I wished I couldn’t see him so clearly. Naked despair makes you want to turn away. Makes you want to close your eyes. Or say something stupid to pretend it isn’t there.

Demetria said, “A lot of people could say the same thing.” She wasn’t being sarcastic, or flip, or superior. She spoke to him gently. Compassionately. And Demetria never did that.

“I used to have a friend,” the old man said. “She would come to visit me from time to time, to make sure I was all right. Sometimes she brought me food. Little cakes from that bakery on Hinson Street. I liked those cakes. She doesn’t come anymore.”

Hannah had quit hopping about so much, but she was still wired. Confusion just generated more fury in her. “You weren’t here before. What are you doing here? Where are the shoes?”

“I’m always here.” The old guy looked down at whatever the hell it was he was holding in his hands. I could see him, I could see every wrinkle in his skin and every stain on his tattered brown clothes, but I couldn’t see what he held. “I’ve been here since I was young. I used to have a friend.”

Hannah made a lunge toward him, and finally Kerby remembered what he was supposed to do, and grabbed her. She flailed, and kicked him, but he got his arms around her and squeezed her tight enough that she stopped struggling.

Which was when we all should have gotten the fuck out of that courtyard, and found the car, and just fucking left.

Take care, the cat had said.

Take care means be careful. Take care also means look after. Tend. Nurture. Or it could. But that was take care of, though, wasn’t it? The cat had said Take care. As in watch out.

Watch out for the old man. Be careful, tonight is a night when he can be seen.

Did the cat mean, Don’t bother him? Stay clear?

I think so. Or else, Be careful if you see him. Don’t get too close.

Would the cats have stalked us, stopped us, talked to us, if Demetria had not been in our group? We all saw the old man, but Demetria saw something more. I wish that kid Zack would quit avoiding me. He might not have all the answers, but I figure he’s got some of them. The way he kept staring at things, like he expected them to change. And he said the cats were real. I want to ask him why the cats gave a crap. I want to ask him if it was us who brought the old man and the dirt floor of the courtyard and the strange darkness into our reality that night by messing around with the stupid shoes, if the cats were warning us that our nonsense was going to have consequences. Or if they just knew that Demetria was vulnerable.

I keep thinking that the next time I see the kid, I’m going to follow him. See where he goes, see where he’s hanging out now. Make him talk to me.

That night, the third time we fucked up was when we didn’t leave as soon as Kerby had bear-hugged Hannah. He just stood there, holding her. I was just as bad. Just as stupid. I should have moved. Should have gone to Demetria, pulled her away. I didn’t. None of us moved, or did anything, or said anything.

Except Demetria.

“Your friend probably died,” she said. But not in a mean way, or a nasty way. Not the way she used to talk to us.

“I know.”

“Why do you stay here?”

“What else can I do?” The old man glanced down at his hands again. I never saw what he was holding, but I think Demetria did. “I promised. It’s all been a waste, but I promised.”

“And if you put that down and walk away, what’ll happen?”

“Probably nothing. My whole life, for nothing.”

“A lot of people can’t keep a promise for a day. Almost nobody can keep one for a lifetime.”

“I threw away my life. I’ve done nothing, nothing but this. And this is worthless.”

“Is it?”

“Probably.” The old man dipped his head. “Can you forgive me?”

“Why me?” Demetria asked, gently.

“Anybody. Anybody.” He jerked his head up then, and looked at each of us, and we said nothing. I took a step back. His head sank again. “I used to have a friend,” he mumbled.

“You have another one now,” Demetria said.

Why? What the fuck made her say that? What the fuck made her do what she did?

I don’t know. I’d met Demetria when we were both doing time at the community college, but I had no real idea of who she was, under the sarcasm and the attitude.

She moved forward.

Did we still have a chance, then? One second, one instant, when we could have grabbed her and hauled her out of the courtyard?

I think about that a lot. I think that it had been too late for a long, long time, but we still should have tried.

The old man shook his head slightly.

“What’s your name?” Demetria asked.

“Will you bring me cakes from the bakery on Hinson Street?”

She eased toward him, the way you might approach a scared child, though he wasn’t moving; he hadn’t moved once all the time we had been in the courtyard. Only his head, nothing else.

She knelt, facing him.

She put her hands around his hands. “There is no bakery on Hinson Street,” she said.

“There used to be.”

“I believe you.”

“Demetria,” I said. My voice sounded strange. The air smelled strange. I was still standing on dirt, but just to the right of me, the courtyard floor was turning back to concrete.

She didn’t look at us. She didn’t say goodbye. She and the old man went into the darkness together, and when the starlight returned, there were shoes scattered all over the courtyard, and garbage bins along one wall, and a cheap-jack soccer ball some kid must have left behind, and nothing else.

I’ve been back since. Hannah’s brother spotted me once, and started yelling about breaking into his place, but that was the only trouble I’ve had. The stray cats don’t give me a second glance. The courtyard is always an ordinary, narrow courtyard between two old buildings. Kids play in there.

There is no bakery on Hinson Street. There isn’t even a Hinson Street anymore; the city council changed the name years ago.

Nobody’s come to talk to any of us about Demetria. Not officially. Not cops. Not family. (That was no surprise.) Some folks, yeah, they ask, what happened to that chemist chick, she skip town or something? Kerby just says he doesn’t know, and Hannah goes, yeah, she moved, too bad, right? She used to cook up some amazing shit.

I can just about believe that Kerby really has no clear memories of that night. Hannah’s such a flake she’s convinced she put a good one over on her brother, and that’s the major thing she remembers. She got her brother good. It was a famous victory. Like that. If I try to get her to recall the cats, the old man, the fact that Demetria never left the courtyard, Hannah gets all vague. Yeah, there were cats, but so what? There are always cats. Old man? Yeah, there was an old guy that yelled at us for throwing the shoes out the window. Demetria? Yeah, she…she went somewhere. She didn’t come back with us. And that’s as far as Hannah will go. That Demetria went somewhere.

I go to the courtyard. In the daytime, I just glance in as I walk by. Or if there doesn’t seem to be anybody on the street, or looking out the windows, I step in quickly, but I don’t linger. Cop shop across the street, after all. Any tenant could call me in as a trespasser. It’s easier to sneak in at night. I pace the length and breadth of the area. I run my hands over the interior walls, over the littered concrete floor. Sometimes I call Demetria’s name.

We fucked up. We fucked up so many goddamn times. And each time led to the last time, when we left her there.

So the old man wasted his life holding something, protecting it. Something that he believed was probably pointless to safeguard, but he had promised to do it. What the thing is, who made him promise, why he said yes…I want to know this stuff. That Zacky kid might not be able to tell me, but I figure he can point me to someone who can.

Demetria never liked sweets. Cakes, cookies, not her sort of thing. Pretzels, nuts, that was the kind of shit she liked. Salty crap.

Forgive me, the old man had pleaded.

Demetria hadn’t.

She’d fucking joined him.

I wasted my life, the old man had said, and Demetria had answered, A lot of people could say the same thing.

Meaning us. Meaning her.

Can’t say she was wrong about that. About us.

She saw what the old man was holding. Did it matter? Did she think, right, sure, guarding this is not a waste of time, a waste of a life, or was it more: well, waste my life one way, waste my life another, what’s the difference? Did she flip a coin in her head?

I don’t forgive her.

She left us. Yeah, it was our fault, going there to do such a stupid thing in the first place, not listening to the cats, not getting the hell out when the kid bailed, not stopping her when she went to the old man. We left her there, but she left us first. For a stranger.

I used to have a friend, he had said.

We were Demetria’s friends. She was our friend.

I don’t forgive her, but I want to find her.

Waste your life one way…or waste your life another.

The old man isn’t going to last forever. Maybe Demetria didn’t think she needed a friend. Maybe she thought she’d be better off on her own, free of losers like us. I think she’s wrong. I think she’s going to want a friend soon, someone to visit her once in a while, to bring her pretzels and nuts, to have a bit of conversation with.

I’ve got them, in my bag. Pretzels. A can of mixed nuts. And cupcakes, for the old man. Though he probably won’t like them. Store bought garbage, just lumps of artificial flavors and preservatives. I carry them around with me anyway. So the old guy won’t feel left out, when I find them. Because it feels like shit, being left out.

I haven’t told Kerby and Hannah what I’m doing. They wouldn’t understand. Or they wouldn’t care. No, I’m wrong. And they wouldn’t care. I still hang out with them. We still waste our time getting fucked up and talking bullshit. Though Hannah says I’m quieter than I used to be. And that I sit and stare at nothing. She laughs at me sometimes, though she says no, it was only that she thought of something funny. Which could be true, but not all of the time.

Cats, the courtyard, and the kid.

I do my best to make eye contact with every cat, stray or otherwise, that I encounter. I visit the courtyard. I keep an eye out for Zack. The next time I see him, I will follow him and make him talk. One way or another, I am going to find Demetria again, and get her to understand that however much of a fuckup I may be, I am her friend. I don’t want her to be kneeling in that courtyard some day, all alone, not even muttering that she used to have a friend.

It’s as good a way to waste my life as any other. I can think of worse ways. I just have to look at Kerby and Hannah, and dozen or two other people I know, for examples.

Can’t help but wonder if the old man’s friend had the same thought.

“Hey. Hey. Did you hear what I said? Man, you’re always in dreamland these days.” Hannah’s playing solitaire on her phone. She’s so out of it she’s dropped the thing twice already. Kerby’s sprawled on the sofa, like always. I thought he’d been talking, not Hannah. Must’ve lost a minute or two. I look at her and shrug. I guess she’s bored with her game, because she shrugs back, exaggeratedly. Mimicking me. Mocking me.

“I was only thinking about something,” I said. I’m not going to get mad. There wouldn’t be any point.

“What?”

“Cats,” I say, and Hannah laughs.

_____
Copyright 2014 Patricia Russo

Patricia Russo’s first collection, Shiny Thing, is available from Papaveria Press.

by S. Hutson Blount

The priest finished his elegy with the usual pronouncements, then added a turn of phrase Elo hadn’t ever heard a priest use.

“Gods and the Destroyer be merciful,” the old man had said. Just like any man of the troop might have, with Destroyer and Gods in the same sentence.

Elo looked around the bowed heads. No one else seemed to have noticed. Maybe the priest was an ex-soldier; maybe he’d just been among the profane company of soldiers long enough for their habits to have rubbed off on him.

“First Troop!” barked the lieutenant. The troopers came to attention. Elo’s indiscipline in ranks at a funeral seemed to have gone unnoticed as he snapped to with everyone else. “Now muster our honored dead.”

That was flag sergeant Elo’s job. Gods curse them both for idiots. “Trooper Frothdeg Miyo. Trooper Palam Beg. Fall in for final muster.” He kept the bitterness out of his voice, there being no point putting any more unpleasantness into this business.

The boys took both bodies, salted and swaddled up for travel, onto their shoulders and marched slowstep. Ordinarily, this would have been the part where they’d have been buried. But their family tombs were a long way down from here, and the nearest consecrated territory wasn’t much closer. The troop would stow the bodies until they reached their new destination.

“Mount! Up!” Sergeant Elo said in the command cadence long since become his natural dialect. There was a brief hesitation as the corpse-laden funeral detachment fought their automatic urge to obey the usual meaning of “mount up,” swarming up the leg spurs of a massive dust mite to reach the battlements built onto the insect’s carapace. Instead, they lifted their fallen comrades into slings, to be winched up and stowed with the rest of the troop’s baggage.

Elo had official reason to watch the sad bundles swaying up and out of sight, bumping a little as the line handlers raised them too quickly. Angry shouts from somewhere above the curve of Old Union’s back marked efforts to restore some funeral decorum. Elo noticed the priest watching too, a disapproving set to his expression. Maybe the old guy knew something about rigging, too. Elo felt a nagging lack of sadness. He should have felt sad, properly.

The lieutenant called Elo over. “Sergeant, it’s getting late in the day. We’re going to be losing light soon.” He gazed up at the formless sky. It showed no visible sign of dimming yet, but Elo didn’t doubt that it was probably drawing near the time that it would dim, leaving them to bumble around in only Roomlight if the angles were bad. “Get the troop mounted up as soon as possible. The Captain will be back shortly, and I’ve a feeling we’ll be diverted to an outpost to deliver those two for proper burial.”

“We’re leaving the caravan, sir?” asked Elo.

“Can’t be helped. Those nitwits got themselves killed too far out to be hauled all the way to the fort without rotting, and the Old Man doesn’t want to send us all the way back to Atlas Crossing. There’s an outpost towards the spine end of this Book, there should be some consecrated ground there. We’ll get orders to divert there, then put the spurs to Old Union and catch back up with the caravan.”

“That’s a lot of detail, sir, for someone who isn’t there overhearing the Old Man and the captain.”

“Bet me on it, sergeant?”

Elo adjusted his pickelhaub and scowled. The lieutenant had won some of Elo’s meager salary before. “Why don’t I just get everything stowed presently, sir?”

“Good man.” They exchanged abbreviated field salutes.

The lieutenant didn’t know as much as he thought he did, but Elo grudgingly admitted he was often right on target about what was going on in the minds of their betters. There was little else for Elo to do in the way of getting all the men and their gear back in their places on Old Union’s back. After the accident, no one was anxious to stay, even if it meant a detour further out to the sticks.

Elo knew it was unfair to pillory the dead in their absence, but he found he shared the lieutenant’s opinion of the two lost men. They’d deliberately stayed out during the giltfall, watching the huge shining gold fragment coming into view, confident it would pass them by. They’d gawked like simpletons, right up until the illusion of floating disappeared, and the awful speed it had was no longer cloaked by distance, and they were running and screaming, and then there was only the terrible noise of the impact. The vast bulk of it lay gleaming, utterly inert. The troop had emerged from their shelter beneath Old Union and pieced together what was left.

As a final insult from the Gods, no one else had been hurt; it hadn’t even been a disaster. Just two unlucky sods finding out how the old Books worked. In fact, some enterprising miners from down in the Reftlands would likely receive a claim to come and harvest the valuable gold and polymer. None of that was Elo’s affair. Not yet, anyway.

There was movement around the spiny trunk of Old Union’s leg. An oblong shape, about half as long as Elo was tall, was scooting around in blind circles. A wild bacillus, of the kind common enough near any caravan route, snuffled in search of mite droppings. Elo stilled his intense need to vent his frustrations of the day by kicking the scavenger away. It reminded him a bit of the pet he’d grown up with as a boy. He left the creature in peace and climbed up the rope ladder to his home away from home.

The little structures built onto Old Union’s vast domed back resembled little castles, yet their wickerwork walls were really more to keep out the elements than enemy fire. Four little towers provided fields of fire for the swivel guns, one housed the mite-mahout who goaded Old Union in the proper direction, and the largest, in the center, housed the troop and served as a mounting for their one real piece of artillery. Elo walked up the curve of the mite’s shell directly to the main castle, from where distinctly non-funereal noises were coming.

The men were all sobriety as soon as he ducked in, stooping low enough to get the spike on his helmet through the low doorway. Elo set his jaw and avoided glaring, letting them have their opportunity to shape themselves up.

“I trust this means we can get moving immediately,” Elo said. “Now that we’re busy dividing up all the issue gear.”

“Stowed and strapped, Sarge,” said Corporal Ferg. “We were just waiting on His Nibs to get done jawing with the Captain.” Ferg was as dishonest as Books were tall, but Elo did not doubt that they could leave straight away. They’d hardly decamped to speak of, before the giltfall, and he’d seen most of the restowing himself.

Elo finished the conversation with a stern look, but a minor grade of disapproving look by the standards of his vast arsenal. The boys had need of something to divert them.

“Sergeant, any of those to spare for a thirsty old man?” the priest asked.

Elo picked up his sack of wine. “I had no idea you imbibed, Father.”

“Hardly anything else to do on the climbs, is there?” Father Brix levered himself onto the forward wall of the central fort, which was horizontal now. “Old Union isn’t the fastest mite I’ve ridden in my time, we’ll be inconvenienced for a good while yet.”

Elo poured out several dozen molecules into the priest’s proffered cup. “So you have been on a few interShelf caravans. I was wondering.”

“That obvious, is it?”

“I don’t know that anyone else sees it.”

Brix laughed. “I don’t know that anyone else cares to.”

“You’ve been an Army chaplain for a long time? Or were in the service and then got religion?” Elo picked over his own wine the same way the priest did.

“Both,” Brix said. “Never cared for the easy life. What gave me away?”

Elo contemplated his diminished wine bag uncomfortably. “You mentioned the Destroyer so casually in the sermon. That’s not something I hear in cathedrals down in the Reftlands.”

The priest looked out over what was normally the top of the fort. “No,” he said. “I suppose they don’t. Up the Shelves, one tends to dwell on the dangers.”

“Hear, hear,” Elo said, hoisting the bag. “Do you remember the last time it came?”

“Gods distant, I must look older than I am,” Brix said, light in tone but not expression. “No, son. No, I don’t go that far back. But I read about it quite a bit in cloister.”

“Scary stuff.”

“I’m glad some of those sermons got through to you. Too many young folk think we made it all up.”

“It’s why we fight, isn’t it? The Gods-denying Aerosols, and all that.” Elo regretted the slip-up, not wanting to encourage discussions in this vein.

“Is it?” the priest asked. “Do you, personally, feel the need to stab some belief into the enemies of the priesthood?”

Elo watched the craggy vertical face of cellulose moving past. Some of it had a slightly chewed look where caravans past had harvested a few replacement logs. For a moment, he lost his thoughts in wondering who those past paperjacks had been.

“I fight because it’s my job, Father,” Elo said finally. “No other reason matters.”

Old Union snorted and clanked to a halt finally, horizontal again. The troop lost no time dismounting and forming ranks before the mite’s massive clawed forelegs.

“Sergeant Elo, set the men to,” said the Lieutenant. “Standard field precautions, less a labor detail to take the bodies down to the outpost.”

Elo saluted. “Sir!”

The Lieutenant walked off, swagger-stick tucked in, heading down the twisting trail that descended towards the just-visible bulk of Book Two Five Seven.

“Fall out by watches!” Elo barked. “Red watch, re-mount. You’ve got the duty first. Green watch, I need four volunteers. Ferg. Bax. Trig. Zem. You just volunteered. Unship the bodies and follow the trail down to the outpost. Father Brix will take charge of them once you’re there.”

“What in the Destroyer’s dander is this place, Sarge?” Ferg knew better than to argue, but considered complaining his own divine calling. “Book Two Five Seven? What kind of a name is that?”

“That’s what it says on the map. We’re too far up for any of the Books to have individual names.”

“Maybe the Moteriders call it something,” Ferg opined.

“Why don’t you ask them, Private? After you get back from burial detail. Get moving.”

They’d had their official ceremony, but there was a new sad finality in the departure of Miyo and Beg from Old Union. The two bodies and their four uniformed bearers disappeared over the curve of the rough ground, a melancholy caravan in miniature.

The company waited, slept, ate, gambled, and cursed their recruiters. After a time, the Roomlight blazed to life, illuminating the heavens above the page forest with the dazzling colors of a new day.

The wonders of the vista did not please Elo.

“Where the fuck is the burial detail?” he muttered. The Old Man, the Lieutenant, and Father Brix were overdue as well, but they couldn’t be called to accounts by someone with Elo’s number of chevrons. Ferg and the other men were a different story.

Up in the mite-mahout’s tower, Elo found the only other rank still mounted up.

“Colb, wake up.”

“Eh? We leavin’ at last?” The old mahout looked around his little room, blinking sleep from his eyes.

“No. We are not. I’m dismounting to go see what the delay is. You’re in charge until we get back.”

“Me?” Colb looked at Elo with rheumy astonishment. “I’m not officially-”

“I know. You’re the only other rank we’ve got left. I’ll be back quickly.”

The mite-mahouts were warrant officers, not in the chain of command of the infantry company that rode with them. Colb technically outranked him, but that was mostly honorary. Elo had nothing else to do. They were short officers, and somebody had to fix things.

The trail down from the Shelf was little improved, despite the outpost. It wound back and forth toward the spine of the unnamed Book in the manner of frontier settlements. The view was distracting in the early light, even to a veteran like Elo.

A long way down, Elo thought. If you were lucky, maybe you’d float on an air current far enough that no one you knew back home would have to see your body hit. At this height, you’d be falling for a couple of days, not counting any updrafts. Maybe even dead of dehydration before you hit.

No one who’d been up the Shelves any ways had failed to imagine what would happen if you weren’t careful. Elo stopped himself from jogging on the steep trail.

Soon enough, the trail flattened to the Book headlands, a small plateau atop the vast cellulose bulk extending off out of sight. At the edge of the headlands, perched fearlessly over the drop, stood a small blockhouse with a domed roof. Beside the outpost were a few storage sheds, and the freshly-covered graves of Miyo and Beg. It must have been murderous work, hacking them into the hard oxide scrabble here. Elo grimly shouldered his carbine and strode towards the single door.

Voices were audible well before he reached it. They weren’t intelligible yet, but Elo picked out the Old Man’s timbre, as well as that of Father Brix. There were others in the mix as well, strangers’ voices. Ferg and the rest of the burial detail were slouched about, drinking something hot out of mugs. They all gestured upward, glum. The argument sounded no signs of abating as Elo tromped up the spiral stairs.

The upper floor of the blockhouse was much more open than the base. Elo guessed it was all one large room. The dome held a turntable gun mounting similar to the one that rode in the battlement atop an army mite, though the carriage held something much larger and more complex than the breechloading cannon for which it had been built. Around the device were angry people.

“This is getting us nowhere,” the Old Man said, needlessly straightening his uniform. “Nothing I’ve seen here is more important than the reason this observatory was built in the first place, and-”

“You aren’t even looking!” said a woman about the Old Man’s age. “This telescope has us on the verge of discoveries much more important than looking for more things you can use your guns on.”

“You’re on the verge of blasphemy, is what you’re on!” said Brix, flushed a shade Elo had never seen anyone not in terminal cardiac distress.

“Who’s to call it blasphemy?” Countered the woman. “Did the Gods ever forbid us to capture their images?”

“Professor, this facility isn’t your toy,” the Old Man began, in the tone of going back to something he’d already said. The Lieutenant nodded on cue.

“They’ve been at this since before dawn,” said a new voice close to Elo. “I think they could keep it up for a day or more.”

Elo looked around for the source of the voice. There was another woman behind him on the stairs, whom he’d somehow managed to not notice either on the ground floor of the observatory blockhouse, or when she’d approached. She was younger than the Professor, and dressed a similar lab coat. Elo found himself distracted.

“If you’re thinking of trying to cut into that,” she continued, “you’d better be prepared to use that gun of yours. Come downstairs and wait, if you’d like.”

The three and a half arguments upstairs (Elo never heard the Lieutenant say anything other than “Quite right, sir.”) continued as they took seats downstairs.

“Quelle Jex,” the woman said. “I assist Professor Gosh with her work here at the observatory on Two Fifty Seven.”

“Nice to meet you, Miss. Vintner Elo, Flag Sergeant with the 22nd Dragoons. I see you’re already acquainted with the men.”

Bax, Trig, and Zem nodded, bored. Trooper Ferg grinned, lifting a cup of tea.

Elo scowled at him before continuing. “What’s the short version of the point under contention, if you don’t mind me asking?”

Jex stirred the tea she’d poured herself, which was still hot enough to be visibly shaking. “Your Captain is upset that Professor Gosh is using the observatory’s equipment to do something besides spot enemy moteships, is the short of it.”

“And there’s a priest involved,” Elo supplied.

“Yes, he was quite concerned about the nature of the work, as well.”

The argument progressed apace upstairs, with stomping on the floorboards that rather ruined the pregnant silence downstairs.

Jex stopped stirring her tea. “This is the part where you ask what it is we’re doing here that’s causing such a fuss.”

“No, Miss. This is where you might, I grant, but I assure you my interest has been thoroughly extinguished. I can recognize when something’s beyond my paygrade.”

Jex took a sip of tea, made a face, then resumed stirring. “Do you see that picture on the wall there?”

Elo took in a whole series of pictures, mostly spiky profiles of moteships used by Aerosol raiders: the sorts of threats that inspired the arsenal clanking about on the back of Old Union, waiting far above them on the Shelf.

“You mean that one, I suppose?” One was indistinct, and looked nothing like a moteship at all. “What is it?”

“Ah, you’ve become curious again,” Jex said. “Professor Gosh thinks it’s the first definite image we’ve recorded of the Destroyer.”

Elo looked more carefully at the picture. He’d stood up to do so, an action he didn’t remember performing. There was an irregular dark blotch, surrounded by a slightly lighter blotch. “What does it look like?”

“We’re still not entirely sure,” Jex said, smiling with a tiny concealed triumph. “Lots of issues. Parallax. Foreshortening. It’s a complex shape, though. Much like a mite or a person, it’s got a lot of appendages. And we know it’s big.”

“How big?” Elo asked, more quickly than he meant to.

“Best estimates? Five or six hundred thousand microns, end to end.”

“That’s pretty b- Wait, what?”

“Equal to the distance from Websterburg to Britannicport. Roughly. Or, put another way, about the altitude between here and the deepest mines.”

“That’s… That’s a very large thing.”

“You have a gift for understatement, Sergeant.”

“I always assumed the Destroyer would be like a mite, only bigger. Like a few times bigger. Something that could wreck a building, not…” Elo understood the pale looks on the troopers’ faces better now.

“‘Discovery of the age,’ is the way the professor put it,” Jex said. “You see why she’s adamant about not giving up use of the telescope.”

Elo’s insides churned with all the thoughts, which he tried to ignore. “So why’s she having such trouble?”

It was Jex’s turn to look glum. “All those other pictures.”

“The moteships?”

“Those. They aren’t the usual course of distant sightings for the month. Those pictures were all taken within the last few days. The ships are close, and headed this way.”

Some quick mental math based on what Elo knew of the Aerosols’ capabilities yielded some unpleasant results. “I’ll be right back down,” he said. “You men get ready to move.”

“-and if anything is going to give way, Professor, I say it is your intransigence!”

“Sir, a moment of your time, please?” Elo stood at the top of the stairs at attention.

“A moment, Sergeant,” said the Lieutenant, before the Old Man could. “Wait, if you’re here, who’s minding the company?”

“Begging your pardon sir, I left mahout Colb in charge after you were delayed.”

“Not now! We’ve only… Dear Gods, it’s light out.”

All four parties in the dispute suddenly seemed to notice daylight outside the dome.

“Yes, sir, it’s been some time. Miss Jex apprised me of the situation. Best we all get moving.”

“Quite so!” Said the old man. Elo could see him working out the times and distances. “Quite so,” he said again, haunted.

Elo felt queasy. He’d hoped the Captain would have worked out that it was going to be okay after all.

“Why don’t I locate the moteships’ current position?” Professor Gosh asked no one, already moving to the controls of the great telescope.

“There’s no time,” the Old Man snapped. “They’ll be upon us. If we can get mounted up, we have a chance.”

“I’m not leaving! Not now!” the Professor stopped fiddling with the telescope as quickly as she’d started.

“Best we abandon all this, anyway,” said the priest, just loud enough to be heard.

The Lieutenant looked on, helplessly.

Elo was already downstairs. “Miss Jex, I have a question. Where did you get that tea you brewed? It doesn’t strike me as the usual outpost supply fodder.”

“An odd question, Sergeant. We trade with some frontiersmen to supplement our usual supplies. Why do you ask?”

“Frontiersmen?”

“Paperjacks, I assume.” Jex gestured vaguely upwards to the unseen bulk of the Shelf above. “We see them every dozen days, or so.”

“Excuse me again, please,” Elo said, and tromped back upstairs. “Sirs and Madam, begging your pardons again,” Elo interrupted, “it’s come to my attention that the Aerosols may know something of what the Professor is up to here.”

The Old Man and the Professor didn’t take so much as a breath of pause at Elo’s interjection before they were at each other’s arguments again, but the Lieutenant and Father Brix were not.

“What do you mean?” they said in unison.

Elo told them.

“They have agents all through the Upper Reaches,” the Lieutenant muttered. “Of course.”

“Evacuate, sir?” Elo asked.

“Get it started,” the Lieutenant said. “I’ll…” he gestured at the still-raging debate.

“Right, sir.” Moments later, Elo was downstairs again. “What would it take to move all the work you’d done?” he asked Jex.

“Surely you’re joking, Sergeant. The photographic plates alone would be more than all of us could carry.”

Elo didn’t pause to consider long. “Trig,” he said, pointing at the startled trooper, “get back up to Old Union and tell Colb to bring him and the company down here.”

“Sarge, that’ll take-”

“I know. Get moving.”

Jex crossed her arms and stood as tall as she could make herself. “You don’t seem inclined to defend the observatory, Sergeant.”

“Without support, Miss, I am not. I’m sure the Old Man isn’t either,” he added, hooking a thumb upward to where the debate raged afresh. “But that’s what we’re left with. We’re going to be hip-deep in air-worshippers before Old Union can pick his way down here with the artillery we need to fight them off.”

“I see. Sergeant Elo, I hope you understand how important it is that the Professor’s work survives.”

“I do, Miss.”

“This used to be a fort, shouldn’t it be defensible?”

Elo looked around the blockhouse. The thick logs of tough white fiber looked solid enough; he imagined them hewn from pages in the forest below and packed up onto the headlands of Book 257. “What happened to the gun that used to be up there?”

Jex shrugged. “Everything like that had been taken down by work crews before I got here,” she said. “The covers for the main embrasure had to be removed, too—they were interfering with the telescope—and they went into one of the outbuildings. Perhaps there’s something there.”

“Show us, please,” Elo said. “You three, come help.”

Ferg, Bax, and Zem were bored enough that they forgot to look sour at the prospect of labor.

The outbuildings were little more than sheds, constructed of the same material as the blockhouse, only planks that had been shaved much thinner. Still, it took all of them to force the door on the largest and most recent of them.

A flight of nesting viral phages floated out from their roost, disturbed. The group squinted into the darkness unrelieved by daylight streaming in.

“There are the doors they removed,” Jex said, holding a warding arm over her head in case the phages should return.

“I see. And there in the back is the gun.” Elo pointed out the long, low mass of it.

“Can we move it?” Jex asked.

“With a crane, perhaps. There’s a few casks of powder still, though I’d not trust it after all this time.”

“Can’t we wait until Old Union gets here, and use fresh powder from our stores?” asked trooper Zem.

“The whole point of this exercise is to hold out until they get here,” Elo said, more sharply than was necessary. “If we had Old Union here, we wouldn’t need any of this. Start tearing through all this, see what else we can find. We don’t have much time.”

“Professor, for the last time can you not see that it would be better if you would simply flee to the safety of the mite? We can hold your findings for safekeeping with the men we have on hand until such time as they can be safely loaded aboard with us.”

Professor Gosh maintained her look of arch contempt still. Elo wondered how she made her face do that for so long without spraining something.

“No, Captain,” she sniffed. “I do not intend to commend my life’s work into unfriendly hands.” She looked pointedly at the priest. “I will stay.”

No one about the observatory looked surprised.

“Here they come!” came a shout from above.

“Numbers, Zem!” Elo shouted back.

Trooper Zem’s head appeared at the top of the opening in the dome. He pointed off in the distance. “Two motes just cleared the Shelf. Too far away for me to make a count of how many aboard.”

“Guess.”

“Smallish, Sarge. Maybe ten-man jobs.”

“Okay, get down here.” He moved to where the officers were peering into the distance.

“There they are,” the Old Man said. “Your trooper is right on about the estimate. We’d better hope those ships are too small to carry a swivel gun, we’ll have trouble enough with twenty air-worshiper troops.”

Elo couldn’t resist taking a peek himself. Even without a spyglass, he could see the approaching moteships plainly: hulls of ragged, irregular outline, probably ash or dander. Fragile things, but light enough to waft on the air and carry a small crew besides.

“Here’s your igniters, Sarge!” Trooper Ferg came bounding up the stairs into the dome, holding two bottles.

“Two?” the Old Man asked.

“I thought it prudent to have a spare ready, sir.” Elo said. “Ferg’s idea, sir.”

The Old Man went back to his spyglass. “Good thinking, Trooper.”

Ferg beamed, then took his place with the others.

“Damn shame we couldn’t have remounted that gun,” the Captain continued. “This bit of chicanery with wires and matches will have to do.”

Elo tested the tension on the wire they’d rigged from the observatory to the armory shed. “Indeed, sir. As our total assets remain four rifles, my carbine, and your and the Lieutenants pistols. Neglecting edged weapons, sir.”

“Ahem,” came an indignant reminder.

“And Miss Jex’s hunting rifle,” Elo said. He looked back to where the young academic stood in file with the men.

“Yes, it’s a damn cocked-up situation all around,” the Old Man said. “Can’t be helped. Still, all we’ve to do is hold out. Get down!”

The Old Man hadn’t changed tone, and so it wasn’t until he saw the captain throw himself away from the embrasure that Elo understood what he meant.

The first shots from the Aerosols came whistling past the opening in the dome; a few spanged off the thick walls of the blockhouse. Elo found himself prone. He didn’t remember reacting.

“You may return their fire, Sargeant.” The Old Man didn’t sound any different than he usually did.

“On the brace!” Elo yelled from the floor, struggling to right himself and ready his carbine all at once.

His four troopers dashed up the former gun embrasure, kneeling behind the lip, rifles ready. After a moment, Jex followed suit.

Elo joined them straightaway, crouching behind them and aiming over their heads. “Pick targets!”

Bullets continued to peck at the thick outer wall. The Aerosol marines shot light loads, needle-pointed tin bullets moving at man-killing velocity.

“Four rounds rapid!”

Four rifles thundered in rapid unison, each punching out fat, greasy gold slugs. Elo’s own carbine snapped out lighter, faster shots, more for assurance than actual effect at this range. Jex had been taken by surprise again, and fired a single desultory round at the end of the volley.

“Recover!” Elo snapped. The troops dropped prone and started to reload. “Are you all right, Miss jex?”

The woman’s hands shook as she reloaded her big single-shot weapon. “Yes,” she said unevenly. “What’s stopping them from shooting us while we’re sitting there shooting?”

A bullet glanced off the edge of the opening, burying itself in the back wall.

“Fortune, Miss Jex.”

She nodded. “Marvelous. Go again?”

Elo peeked around the edge of the opening. The two moteships were settling on the headlands, easy shots away. He saw no sign of the first volley having had any effect. “On the brace!” he yelled again.

They smashed out three more volleys, and then Trooper Bax pitched backwards, gasped blood, and lay still. Before returning to cover, Elo counted unmoving figures on the ground beside the motes outside. Too many of them were moving still—moving outside their field of fire.

“They’re at the base of the blockhouse,” Elo said. “Watch for hooks. Fix bayonets. Captain! They’re here!”

There was an ominous thud from downstairs, then another.

“I agree with your assessment, Sergeant,” said the Old Man. “They’re trying the door. If you’re going to try your pyrotechnic stunt, now’s the time.”

Elo slung his carbine, and reached down to where he’d stowed his two makeshift detonators. “Squad! On the brace! Fire as you bear!”

“That means just shoot anything you see, Miss,” supplied Trooper Ferg when Jex hadn’t moved. She was still staring at Bax’s slumped body. She forced herself to look away, and crawl to the embrasure, and not notice that her boot was touching the dead man.

They began to pick targets, slow measured aimed fire, as the battering ram thumped out the Aerosol’s displeasure on the blockhouse door. Whether due to the suppression provided by the squad, or by the fact that they were concentrating on breaking in, the fire slackened. Elo hooked one bottle to the wire, and let it go. He could hear the skittering noise as it slid down towards the storehouse shed.

“Cover!” he yelled a moment before a tremendous low rumble shook the blockhouse, sounding more like another giltfall than an explosion. The great telescope wobbled in its cradle above Elo’s head.

“All okay?” came the Lieutenant’s voice from downstairs.

Elo looked around at the people picking themselves off the floor. “Excepting Trooper Bax, sir, yes.” Elo motioned to the opening. Zem and Ferg dashed up to the rim.

“They’re moving off, Sarge!” said Trooper Zem. A moment later, a ragged hole had opened in his chest. Zem mouthed something soundless and slumped over the embrasure’s lip.

Ferg returned fire without being ordered, leaving Elo and a horrified Jex to clutch at Zem’s legs to keep his body from falling out.

“Did it work, Sergeant?” The Lieutenant had come up partway up the stairs.

“Run, you Gods-denying bastards!” Ferg yelled out the port, emptying his rifle again.

“Lost another man, sir,” Elo said, “but it seems the Aerosols are retreating.” Elo lay there, panting, with Zem’s life slowly draining onto him.

“Hard luck,” the Lieutenant began, before his eyes went wide.

A grenade bounced off the deck, and began to roll, sputtering, down the stairs.

The Lieutenant took a moment to register the small object for what it was, sputtering and clattering down each step as if walking.

In that moment, Trooper Ferg had dropped his rifle and turned to follow the grenade’s path. Goldbrick Ferg, slacker Ferg, laughing insolent short-timer Ferg dove down the stairs after it.

Ferg and the Lieutenant had the same idea. They fouled each other, and the grenade bounced away from them as they tumbled.

Elo lay flat. There was a scream, and then the floor jumped.

By the time Elo had disentangled himself from Zem’s body. There were only groans from below. “Stay down, the both of you,” he said.

Jex didn’t respond, but looked unlikely to do anything but remain shocked.

Elo picked his way down the stairs. The grenade had splintered the bottom steps. He looked around. The blast had also converted the compressed cellulose into a hailstorm of lethal fragments. Gore painted every wrecked surface.

“Call out, sirs!” Elo said, looking for any footing. The cluttered abbatoir of the blockhouse was a danger in itself, now.

Another groan. Elo moved over the entangled remains of the Old Man and Professor Gosh, pushing a rack of documents out of his way. “Hello?”

Father Brix groaned again, a gurgling sort of groan that Elo tried not to think about. He finally pulled the last of the debris off the old preacher—and saw the arm-length fragment of wire protruding from his gut.

Brix’s eyes acknowledged the look on Elo’s face. Elo shook his head. Neither had to say anything more.

Elo came back up the stairs, and wiped his bayonet, and sat down.

Jex had recovered somewhat. “Did every-”

“Yes. All of them.”

“What are we going to do?” Jex asked.

“What’s going on outside?” Elo asked, toneless.

“They took off, both ships. I don’t think they had as many men as when they landed.”

Elo absorbed this intelligence for a moment, silent. “Miss Jex, you understand that you’re the most important human being on the Tree now, don’t you?” he said finally.

“Professor Gosh-”

“No. Don’t look.”

“All her work! Everything she’d discovered!”

“You’re what’s left, Miss. The explanation for what you’ve discovered is you, and anything that can be salvaged downstairs.”

“What if they come back?” she asked, looking around the dome. “We can’t hold off another attack like that.”

Elo felt oddly detached. “No, but they don’t know that. That’s why they won’t fiddle around with trying to rush us next time. They’ll bring up bigger ships and wreck this place with gunfire, or burn us out. We have to hope Old Union gets here first.”

“You think they can get him down here that quickly?”

Elo closed his eyes and did some math. “Sure,” he said. “Colb’s a weird one, all the mahouts I’ve ever known are, but he isn’t one to dawdle around if he thinks there’s trouble. We should see them before the end of the day.”

“That’s a relief. I’d hate to try this at night.” Jex was looking down the stairway, unmoving.

Elo sighed. “I may have to ask you to stay down there, Miss Jex.”

“Quelle,” Jex said. “Call me Quelle. And no, I’m not staying down there.”

“Nothing we do here matters if you’re hit by a stray round. Your life is more important than the extra rifle, at this point.”

“Being downstairs didn’t save them, did it?”

“Point taken. But I still think that…”

“What?”

Elo looked up to the ceiling of the dome. “What’s that noise?”

“Sounds like steam escaping,” Jex said.

“I’ve heard that before,” Elo said. “Somewhere.”

“It’s getting louder,” Jex said. “Outside? Is it the Aerosols?”

Elo picked himself up, horror and fatigue shut away again, and ran to the opening in the observatory dome. He looked skyward.

“Oh Gods,” he said without the energy for emphasis. “It’s Old Union.”

Jex rushed to join him.

Far above, in the panorama of the Shelf-dominated sky, the world arced into imperceptibility. Beside it, coming out of the indeterminate grayness of distance, fell an object too far away to have perceptible speed.

The mite fell, hissing and squealing in panic. Tiny lights on its carapace marked where the fort and supporting towers burned.

Elo knew there would be a whole cloud of smaller objects falling around it. Things as small as cannon or soldiers couldn’t be made out—small things like the hundred-odd troops of the company.

Old Union began to show his speed as the creature neared the headlands plateau.

“Get down on the floor,” Elo said. “Away from the telescope.”

They didn’t hear the impact, but they felt it. Again, the blockhouse twitched and wobbled. And again, it was over.

The two of them lay motionless much longer than was necessary.

“Perhaps the priest was right,” Jex said. “Perhaps this is for the best.”

Elo sat up. “Miss Je-”

“Quelle.”

“Quelle. What do you need to recreate what Professor Gosh has discovered here?”

“You can’t be serious,” she said, sitting up to face him.

“There are ships up there,” Elo said. “Big ones. Moteships the size of Old Union. We have to get away from here with you, and anything you can think you might need.”

“I’d need a telescope, and all our notes and film plates, and Professor Gosh.”

Elo slammed the butt of his carbine down, levering himself to his feet again. “You’ll get another telescope. You won’t get another Professor. Of the things you can carry, what do you need to convince other people?”

Jex’s mouth worked, but nothing came out at first. “The Professor’s summary notes. At least one plate.”

“Now you’re talking, Quelle. Are those boots of yours any good?”

Jex looked down. “They’ll do.”

Elo didn’t quite grin. “Sore feet are still better then murder, that’s right!”

“Sergeant, I have to admit I’m puzzled. What’s gotten into you?”

It was Elo’s turn to struggle for words. “All I’ve ever had is duty. I never had another reason to go on. I never wanted or trusted any other reason. I passed on orders and did my job and made sure everyone did theirs and I felt nothing. I never wanted to feel anything. That picture you took changed that. It’s important to make sure everyone sees it. I guess I have a new duty now.”

Jex didn’t smile, not exactly. “It suits you,” she said.

Jex squared her shoulders and followed the Elo downstairs. She blanched when she saw the Professor’s body, but dug out the implements she needed.

“Let’s go,” she said, facing the door and not looking back.

“One last thing,” Elo said. He started the blockhouse stove, and placed the remaining liquid detonator on it.

The door swung freely once they’d thrown the bar, and they emerged onto the blasted headlands. The Aerosols had retreated in haste after the storehouse explosion, leaving their fallen.

The enemy soldiers had been scattered by the blast, flinging them away from the beam they’d been using to batter the door. They were slightly-built men, pale-skinned and ethereal-looking.

“Mysteries of the Gods and Destroyer,” Elo said. “I always heard they had points to their ears. I guess that was just a rumor.”

The trail up wound up into the fading roomlight; the day was ending. Darkness, speed, and rough terrain were their only shields now, though they both carried rifles. Behind them, the observatory had begun to burn, ceding all trace of the Reftlander claim to Book 257.

“What if we don’t make it?” asked Jex. “I mean, beyond the obvious.”

Elo squinted up into the fading light. “I aim not to find out.”

_____
Copyright 2013 S. Hutson Blount

S. Hutson Blount has worked with nuclear propulsion systems, robotic laser welders, and mutant cats, but as yet has no experience with mythological figures. He lives in the San Francisco Bay area with a wife who tolerates his foolishness to an alarming degree.

by Rachel Sobel

Nurzanah found him in the dust-eaten ruins of the library, seated before a broken writing desk. He was thinner than she’d ever seen him, the bones in his wrist showing clearly under the long sleeves of his kurta, and as she hesitated in the doorway he set his head against his hands, fingers pressed into his hair.

“Seda,” she said, and he startled, hand going to the place in his sash where she knew he kept a pistol and then stilling as he saw her. He closed his eyes for a moment.

“Captain,” he said. His voice was very quiet and nearly gentle, and had she been less angry, she might have felt for him, kneeling in the ruins of his boyhood home, his face smudged with ash and his soul showing at the edges of his eyes.

The wall behind him was blackened with tracks of fire in coarse fernlike patterns that reminded her unnervingly of the light that followed Asamerid’s ghost, and she swallowed back memory and despair and lifted her head to meet his gaze. He looked back at her without much emotion in his face, but there was a bruised quality to his expression that told her he didn’t believe in their easy friendship anymore either.

“You stupid son of a bitch,” she said softly, and shoved her rifle back. Seda rose as she came toward him, stumbling a little but not taking his wary gaze from her face; if he had not risen on his own, she thought she would have dragged him to his feet. She could not look away from him; she wanted to be able to hate him for what he’d done, she thought, for what he had taken her from, but the horror of her knowledge was too raw in her even for that. The color rose in his cheeks as he looked back at her, his eyes steady even though his mouth was drawn tight with lines of strain.

“There’s nothing here,” he said at last, very low, and Nurzanah’s hand closed into a fist at her side. It felt as if her mouth were choked with broken glass and soot, as if whatever words she spoke should come out in blood and the shrieks of wild birds rather than any human sounds. She could not forget the last retreat, falling back and back before the Hedi artillery as men and horses screamed around her, the weight of despair settling onto her shoulders like a mantle of dusty and implacable iron. If this was what their fallen star had shielded them from, she’d thought, no wonder they’d lost when she died.

“There’s nothing anywhere,” she said, and at his look of bleak incredulity, she said again, “Seda.” He did not look away, this time. “When I left them,” she said, “they were being forced into the Karossim in retreat.”

It was the end of autumn, and even here in the lowlands, the leaves were shredded and dull with age. In the mountains, there would be no hope of food to support an army, even supposing that the mountain lords would hold faith with the oaths they had sworn. She saw that knowledge slide across Seda’s gaze in the moment before he turned his face away. She gave him his silence, counting it out in the slow beats of her heart and the deeper silence of the mountain, and watched the crows over his shoulder, squabbling in the burnt ruins of trees in what had once been a garden courtyard.

“We should go,” he said at last, and Nurzanah nodded, and helped him gather together his few possessions without a word.

It was not far to Iskerim, but the road was old and had been left untended in the war since the great villa had burnt, nearly seven years ago. It was unlikely that they would make it into town before dusk fell, and Nurzanah did not let herself think of what he might see then. She knew too well the cost of hope.

The slope pulled at her bad knee, and she fell back a little with that pressure, letting him take the lead. It had been most of two months since she’d seen him, and though her anger nestled with dull familiarity in the corners of her heart, she found herself studying him as if he were a stranger to her. It would have been easier, she thought, if she could blame his failures on some new fatigue, some weakness she had never seen before; but she had always known him for what he was.

She had been sixteen when they’d met, already more the young soldier than the stocky silent girl she’d been, already carrying the fury of a childhood steeped in poverty and humiliation; not yet Yuta’s right hand, but very close to it for a city-born peasant girl of no particular clan. Stationed to guard the door of her lord’s illegal meeting, she had listened to the quick chatter of the city insurgents punctuated by Yuta’s quiet answers, finding with surprise that in her two years of service she had grown accustomed to the slower speech of the mountains.

After a while, Seda had come out to stand in the doorway behind her, a striking young man with the hawk features and dark skin of a hill lord. She glanced at him, assessing whether he meant her harm and then discarding the possibility, but even so she was surprised by the light in his face.

“I had thought we could not do it,” he said, and smiled with an unselfconscious sweetness. She wondered what Yuta had wanted him for. He was unarmed, and barely older than she herself, too threadbare to possibly hold any money or estate of his own, but tonight Yuta had invited only those he thought could be most useful to his cause.

“And he likes my satires,” Seda said, and Nurzanah realized with a little shock who he was. She stared at him. Even before she had gone to the mountains, people had not come to her to speak, and she had learned to expect their silence. He turned that sweet smile on her, this time putting a fraction more intent behind it. She wondered how many girls had fallen for it, and was surprised, too, at the cool certainty in herself that she would not be one of them.

“He likes the spirit in them,” she said, and watched him beam helplessly up at the heavens, by now beginning to mist over with high cold clouds. The pole-star had been just visible then, nested between her two guardians, and Nurzanah had looked at the too-familiar symbol and felt her mouth twist. The Hedi had for many years adopted the three stars to fill the banners of their southern provinces, settled easily into their winter positions beneath the great egret crest of the empire, and there was no one in the country who did not understand this symbolism.

Eventually, the rest of the meeting had spilled out of the building in twos and threes, and they’d gone off talking and laughing together into the brisk spring night while she’d waited. When she’d felt Yuta’s presence at her side, she’d turned in time to catch his fleeting, weary smile.

“We did well tonight,” he’d told her, and she had felt herself warm with his approval.

She had never until now fled danger and left him to it, she thought, and the bitterness stung at her like thorns. Yuta had sent her, now as ever, but it was Seda’s failure that had driven her here, and she did not think she could forgive him for it.

And she could not, even now, make herself stop remembering. He had been the only man behind the traitor, the only one in the whole suddenly frozen hall who could’ve done something. It should have been an easy shot from his place behind the doorway, but he had hesitated too long, his hands clumsy on the unfamiliar weapon.

It had all happened so quickly; fast enough that she had thought, at first, that the traitor had missed his mark after all. It wasn’t until she’d seen the blood flowering against Asamerid’s breast that she’d realized that Asamerid must have thrown herself between Yuta and the gun, faster than anyone human could have.

A good thing, then, that Asamerid had never been human, no matter what pretense they’d all clung to.

Seda was walking a little ahead of her in the gathering twilight, his back very straight, and Nurzanah wondered how he had borne the silence that must have filled his days since he’d fled Yuta’s camp so many weeks ago. She had never felt the same need he had, to fill all the world around her with words and grandiloquent speeches, and even so, even despite Asamerid’s quiet night-time company, she had felt the drowning pull of loneliness upon her soul. She was a little surprised to have found him alive, having so carefully tracked him by the rumors of his presence; she had not thought, precisely, that he would kill himself, but like the many academics who had ever been his companions, he had often been injudicious with his health. He had so much more reason to be so now.

The sun was nearly down; they would not reach the town before it set. Nurzanah wondered if she should have warned him. It seemed unlikely that he would see anything at all, and it was easier to hold her silence now and apologize later, if she must. Even so, she found herself holding her breath for long enough spans of time that she called a halt beside the road, handing Seda her canteen without a word. He smiled thanks at her, brief and strained, and while he drank she turned away to look out across the sharp valley to their left.

As the sun sank beneath the long distant ridge of the mountains, it seemed as if the whole world shivered in the vanishing twilight and then was still; and then, very slowly, the light of the dead star opened out around them like some strange night flower putting forth its petals, sliding brassy and dappled across the uneven surface of the road. Nurzanah waited for the sound of Seda’s sharp breath, for him to say her name with a trembling uncertainty or catch her arm and draw her back, but there was nothing. After a moment she turned around.

“So,” said Asamerid, her face lit by her own strange and shifting light. “You found him.” She was looking at Nurzanah with cool dark eyes that showed nothing of her emotion, while beside her Seda capped the canteen and held it out to Nurzanah. If it had been the first time Nurzanah had watched Asamerid beside people who did not see her, she might have made some error in her deceit, but instead she simply took the water from Seda and drank.

Wiping her mouth on the back of her hand, she slung the bottle back into its place. She did not want to admit to herself how much she’d hoped that Seda would see truth standing beside him; tried not to watch the dead star pacing slowly around him, like nothing so much as some giant hunting animal around its prey. She didn’t want to remember the way they had looked in the first years of the war, radiant just to be around each other. She didn’t want to remember, either, the way Seda had looked when he kissed Asamerid, as if all the terror that held him rigid in the ordinary course of things had slipped away from him.

“We should go on,” she said stiffly, and Seda dropped his eyes to the ground and nodded. They went on, Asamerid’s light casting changing shadows onto the ground before them, and in the growing darkness Nurzanah watched Seda stumbling over the potholes and overturned rocks, and did not let herself wish for anything at all.

It was not long before they reached Iskerim, where a few thousand people clustered together under the great looming shadow of the cliffs. In the days before the war it had been a thriving merchant stop, one of the major breaks in the road from Puriyat. The mosque beside the river with its bright mosaics had been a destination for highland pilgrims for three hundred years and more.

Of course, the bridge across the gorge had been blown out five years ago, and now Iskerim was a stranded and pitiful thing, all half-burnt buildings and crippled deserters. Nurzanah did not look too closely into the corners of the sole surviving inn as she bargained with the innkeeper their night’s lodging, not wanting to see which of the other patrons sported the missing limbs and scarred faces of veterans, much less to know if any of them were broken enough to see Asamerid before them.

To her relief, Asamerid chose to leave the room, heading for the stairs to what the innkeeper had told them was their room for the night, leaving her free to guide Seda to a table. Even here, so close to the mountains, she knew there could be Hedi agents. They had all lately suffered very badly from assuming otherwise; but then, she thought, Seda had never before been forced to recognize such a personal price of war, never forced to see treason in those he loved. She did not think he’d make that mistake again.

The lamb was overcooked, when it came to the table at last, nestled in plain rice with a parsimonious spoonful of yogurt, but she was so hungry she scarcely cared, and Seda for his part tore into it as if he’d been starving for a month – which was, perhaps, not entirely improbable. They were nearly finished when the door banged open against the wall.

Nurzanah blinked into the light that filled the doorway, and found herself on her feet with her pistol in her hand, wondering through the inner thunder of her heartbeat if she were going to have to fight her way out of this on her own and half dead with fatigue. She took a careful step away from the table, pistol raised warily, and relaxed minutely only when it became clear that the torch did not belong to the beginning of a mob, but rather to a very young man with the scarf of a courier around his neck. The interior of the inn was silent with expectation.

“The news,” said the courier, and he swallowed, and put one hand up to touch the crest on his scarf, as if for reassurance. Nurzanah felt as if she were stretched between the words, nothing but a great arc of frozen dread, and she closed her hand hard around the grip of the pistol as the young courier looked around the room. Then he said, quietly, “Prince Yuta has surrendered at Hesirat.”

A woman swore, loudly and with great feeling, and Nurzanah was aware of a feeling like falling, as if she had stepped from the edge of a cliff without thought. She thought that Seda might have gotten up, but in the sudden hollowness inside her chest she lost him, and when she thought to look for him again, he was gone.

She would have gone after him, then, if the courier had not caught sight of her and blinked in obvious astonishment. “Sir,” he said loudly, shaking free of the people asking hurried muddled questions he could not possibly know the answer to. “Aren’t you Nurzanah Hazi Dahar?”

“Yes,” she said, against her better judgement, and found herself trapped in a maelstrom of questions, all the petty little people of the ruined city surrounding her at once. How had she come here, so far from her lord? Had he sent her away? Was she the center of some plan of restoration?

She answered the questions as brusquely as she could, resorting to direct lies only when she had to. She was afraid, now, that they might think to ask after the identity of her companion, and though they might not know yet the details of Asamerid’s death, she was sure they must have heard something of it.

The thought of Seda pricked her numbness with irrational worry, and she struggled to extricate herself from their questions. It was a long time before she managed to escape, and when she reached the room she had hired she wanted nothing so much as to sleep without dreams, but as she opened the door she came to a stop and stared, appalled.

There was blood sliding down Seda’s hand to pool onto the table among the shards of broken glass, and in the burnished and uncertain light from Asamerid’s ghost it shone with a dull honey-colored liquidity strange enough that Nurzanah did not at first recognize what he had done. He was not crying, and she stood in the doorway and looked at him; at the uncorked bottle of wine on the table and the ruins of the wine-glass, and at the injury he had done himself with it.

“Do you think that you’ll amend your sins so easily?” she said eventually, and her voice was level, without inflection. She felt a distant anger uncoiling in her stomach, and did not try to rein it in. She knew what he was doing, and when she glanced at Asamerid through the peculiar light rippling around her, she thought that she saw that recognition in the dead star’s face as well.

“It’s not that,” Seda said, very low, and his eyes flicked up to her face, hesitant and dazed enough that she wondered how long he had been sitting there. The uneven table was limned with bloody handprints where he had smudged at it.

“I didn’t think it was,” she said, and didn’t bother to point out that it hardly mattered whether he had crippled himself in an attempt to break the skill that had spared him from the brunt of the war, or merely to satisfy his self-loathing; in either case he could not be any use to her. She wasn’t sure he’d realized yet that they were running from something other than his own despair. “But I’m not sure you’ll be able to shoot any straighter if you can’t use your hands.”

She saw from his flinch that she had hurt him, and was fiercely glad of it, but she could not stand there and look at him. She turned and left the room, letting the door swing heavily closed behind her, and it was not until she was halfway down the stairs that she saw that Asamerid had followed her.

Standing in the yellow light of the candles on the landing, she was harder to see than she had been in the little dark room above. Here, she looked nearly human again, a slender brown woman leaning against the corner of the stairwell, her hair loose about her shoulders, and so Nurzanah found it much easier to look at her without judgement.

“Yuta’s dead, isn’t he,” said Asamerid. There was something wrong with her voice, a distance that had not been there before, and even under the raw yellow light, Nurzanah found it hard to believe that she had ever forgotten the star’s inhumanity during the war.

“He will be,” she said, and she could hear the flat callousness in her own voice even as she had to force herself to stand still and not turn and run. She knew that once she had looked at Asamerid as everyone else did, seeing in her the radiant love Seda had written into every word of his poem; had seen her as the literal embodiment of their country, a miracle in human form and their only savior.

Now she seemed little more than any of the other soldiers: stained and filthy with the grinding misery of the war, with what she had done and seen and failed to stop, and worse than all of them for her dreadful courage in the end. Nurzanah could scarcely bear to look at her.

She wanted to ask Asamerid why she’d done it, but forced herself instead to go find the innkeeper and a roll of bandages. Asamerid made no move to stop her as she went back into the room.

Picking glass out of Seda’s palms under the uneven candlelight, she wondered if she should have stopped him, if she should’ve known. Asamerid had gone out into the hall to pace or stand or whatever it was that the ghost of a dead star did when she was alone, and from time to time the shivering light of her passage would slide under the door. There were people shouting in the streets, their voices indistinct.

“She shouldn’t have done it,” Nurzanah said, looking at the glass dust shimmering on the table. His left hand was long and fine-boned, bloodstained but otherwise undamaged, but the right hand lay torn and swollen on the table, sliced open wherever the glass had pushed into him. She could see him shaking with the effort it took to keep from flinching away as she tied off the bandages.

“I shouldn’t have missed,” he said, and she knew that if only for the sake of practicality she should tell him that it wasn’t his fault, that anyone could have missed, but she would not lie. He had hesitated when he could not afford to, and she wanted to ask him how he could have faltered when he did; if it’d been only stupid clumsiness, or if he really could have had such trouble choosing between Yuta and some half-mad playwright he’d gone to school with a dozen years ago. Asamerid’s blood had been red as she lay dying in his arms, shockingly so, running against his coat and seeping onto his fingertips, and he’d left bright stains streaked across his cheekbones as he wept into his hands afterward.

Nurzanah shook her head to clear it. “The boy who brought the news recognized me,” she said. She felt tired enough that she didn’t want to think of how. “I’ve no idea how you expect to be well enough to walk with your hand like that, but if we stay here it won’t be long before someone makes a lot of reward money off of us.”

There was a faint tremor in his shoulders, but he tried to smile at her, even with his face lined with weariness and shadows. “I don’t think they’re after you, particularly,” he said, and Nurzanah wanted to strike him for the suggestion that he was too much of a coward to really make, or maybe for the temptation of it.

“That’s right,” she said, her voice heavy with sarcasm. “I could even sell you myself, and make a profit out of it.”

“You could,” said Seda, looking about as tired as she felt, and Nurzanah shrugged and pushed back from the table to stand up.

“Make my life any more difficult and I’ll shoot you myself,” she said, and left him there, sitting at the table with his own blood streaked over everything. She knew that it would’ve been wiser to sleep, considering how early they would have to leave in the morning, but just then she couldn’t face the idea of staying in the room with him any longer.

“He’s an idiot,” said Asamerid behind her, as she let the door swing closed. Nurzanah turned with exaggerated patience.

“You’re one to talk,” she said, her temper fraying. “If you hadn’t–”

“Yes,” Asamerid agreed. “If I hadn’t. But I did.” She did not give any sign of understanding that she should feel anything so small and human as guilt, and if Nurzanah had not known her so well, she might have believed it

“Why?” Nurzanah said, and she could hear the bitterness in her own voice. It was the question that had haunted her since she’d left Yuta; since she had first known that they were lost, watching Seda clutch Asamerid’s corpse to him. She’d wanted to ask since the night she’d awakened to find Asamerid curled up beside her, shining with a shattered light like fire seen through green glass, shaking so hard she couldn’t speak.

Asamerid looked at her for a long time without speaking, her eyes black as river stones. “Because he didn’t understand that we had already lost,” she said, and drew a careful shivering breath, the corner of her mouth curling up with more irony than humor. “It was better to end it,” she said, but her face was bleak.

They set out into the foothills the next day, keeping to goat-paths and rocky divulges to avoid running into anyone who could report their presence later. She pushed them both a little harder than was wise, considering Seda’s condition; he had kept his hand bandaged overnight, but he was weakening already, and she didn’t think he’d slept. Knowing what awaited them if they were caught, she could not let them falter or even rest.

She had been here once before, as a girl first in Yuta’s company. It had been winter, then, bitterly cold and snowing hard enough that they’d lost their way through the mountains despite all the accumulated knowledge of Yuta’s companions, and they’d only stumbled upon the village by chance. She did not think that it would be easy for anyone else to find.

It was warmer now, though breathy with the chill end of autumn, and as they came up the shallow road into the village, she saw the children shepherds watching them from the hilltops, curious and afraid at once. The village headman reached them as they made it to the edge of the dirt-paved central square, and out of sheer stupid habit Nurzanah moved as if to draw back and let Seda make the careful ritual greeting for her before she realized the strength and foolishness of her assumptions. Seda was stumbling with exhaustion, and though he was the son and brother of lords, she did not think he was liable to be very good at the business of courtesy. She had spent too many years as Yuta’s shadow to be comfortable in this, but she was no one’s soldier, now, and so in the end she did it herself, bowing her head when she gave her name to hide her shakiness.

The entire scene was so familiar that she did not trust herself to speak beyond what was required of her, and in the end she was grateful to be led to the headman’s three-room guest quarters and given food – only naan and rice cooked with onions, for the people here were very poor – and then a place in warmth to sleep. And for the first night in a very long time, she did not dream.

The next day, the headman apologetically left them in the care of his oldest daughter; he had other business to attend to, but his sense of propriety was offended by his neglect of his guests, and before he would leave them Nurzanah had to assure him several times over that she did not mind at all. Despite the scarcity of his followers, the solicitous care of her opinions reminded her very strongly of mountain lords that she had known.

She swallowed back the sorrow that threatened to choke her, and went to see about breakfast.

The headman’s daughter was named Mehri, and she would not let Nurzanah help her, but rather gave her a guest’s seat beside the iron stove and talked, in a light and inconsequential way, of the troubles of the village and of her herds, occasionally catching Nurzanah’s gaze in a quick bright smile. In other times, she might have found the conversation dull, but Mehri had a gentle good humor that made her a very pleasant companion, and by the time the tea was ready, she found herself smiling a little despite everything. There were pieces of almond and dried apricot chopped up in the rice this time, and the first time she found one it was as if a little window of sunlight had opened up inside of her.

As they were finishing, a little girl wandered into the room sleepily and came to a sudden halt as she saw Nurzanah. The child stared unabashedly for a moment before accepting the bowl of rice Mehri handed her.

Her kinky hair was coiled about her face in great disarray, the odd pale wheat color more suited to a Hedi foot-soldier than to a little girl.

“My daughter, Badria,” said Mehri, her tone suddenly very cool, and Nurzanah turned to meet her immovable gaze, accepting the wariness in it as deserved. She struggled to find something to say, but there was nothing in her, all words stolen as breath by the wind; she found it painful even to look at the child, with her heritage marked so clearly on her face. At last, Mehri gave her a wry look and let her go.

Finding Seda still asleep, Nurzanah walked out alone into the village, very conscious of the curious eyes of the villagers. Despite the season, the sun was out, bright and clear in the sky, and the wind had died to a low whisper in the corners of the divulge. She spent the day as if in a dream, walking the brown-green hills of their pasture and talking at quiet intervals with the people of the village. Very late in the morning, Seda rose from his bed and went out, but he did not speak to her, and she made no effort to force him to.

At dinner that night, talking with Mehri and a young house guard, she learned that early in the war, many of the youngest villagers had been sent to Korae up the mountain, larger and more heavily guarded and therefore, they had thought, somehow safer. It had been overrun twice before they had come home.

“Those of us left the second time were too stubborn for them, I suppose,” said Mehri, and smiled, more painfully than she might have, and it was the unwilling honesty in that expression that spurred Nurzanah to speak haltingly of the end of the war in the lowlands. She would not lie, but the news brought her no pleasure, and it seemed from their reactions that it came as a terrible surprise to them. Her eyes caught at Seda’s as she spoke, but she did not tell them of what had passed in the end, only listened to their incredulity and answered what they asked her.

Mehri alone seemed unsurprised. “He fought hard for us,” she said, and nothing more.

The days passed without any great separation marking off the time between them, as if they were no more than ripples on the surface of her life. Nurzanah had thought, at first, to go on as soon as Seda seemed capable of it, but he was so distant from her that she could not think how to judge his health. She knew that she ought to confront him, so that they could say their farewells and move on, but there was something strangely reassuring about the measured poverty of the village.

They lived very hard lives, she knew, from the peasant soldiers she had commanded and the villages she had encamped in; yet even so, there was a horrible, crawling relief in it. She would not have to watch them killed, she thought, watching Badria go tearing across the hills after one of her cousins.

At dinner she more than once caught Mehri’s gaze lingering on whatever corner Asamerid occupied, a faint frown on her face. Nurzanah did not know of it if they spoke, but she was certain of Mehri’s vision.

She often found her own gaze following Asamerid, even when in conversation; it was so hard to look away, and harder still to remember the black-eyed woman who had stood so silent and so still at first, until she learned to laugh and then to cry; harder, if anything, to recall the girl with such steady hands whom she had slowly become. And it was for this that Seda confronted her, in the end, catching her shoulder to drag her into a deserted corner. The heat and shadow of the bonfire danced against their backs.

“I know you talk to her,” he said, and the level fury in his gaze caught and held her. He was as charismatic as he’d ever been, even as angry as this. “I know she’s here.”

“She’s dead,” Nurzanah pointed out, but she was shaking, and she didn’t think the lie was going to convince him.

“Her ghost, then,” he said. He was ashen beneath the dark of his skin.

“You might as well tell him,” said Asamerid calmly. “It won’t change anything.” She shifted, sending light rippling around her. “Knowledge so rarely does.”

“You saw her die,” said Nurzanah instead. “Surely even you remember that.” She looked at him flatly, the dumb brute soldier look she sometimes used to intimidate Yuta’s scholars into doing what she told them, but he knew her better than that and would not bend.

“Nurzanah,” he insisted, his eyes not leaving her face. He looked hungry and exhausted, dark shadows lingering under his bones and the hint of stubble ragged along his jaw, and Nurzanah wanted him to stop pushing at her, to let it sit and let it be and not make things any worse than they were already. She didn’t know what to do.

“Tell him,” said Asamerid. Her voice was implacable, and Nurzanah glanced at her before she remembered. Seda’s face shifted into grief as she looked back at him, and she saw then that she had given herself away.

“She doesn’t want to see me,” he said, and Nurzanah didn’t know what to say to that. She wasn’t sure that was the whole truth of it, but it wasn’t wrong. She’d seen the way Asamerid looked at him, her face drawn with exhaustion and her shoulders tense. She didn’t think it would help him to hear it.

“It isn’t like that,” she said, and she could hear the lie in her voice as she spoke. She watched his weariness write itself across his face, and felt so sorry for him.

“It’s all right,” he said, and even though they both knew it wasn’t, there was nothing to be done. “It’s all right.”

He spent a long time the next day walking the hills alone despite the chill grey clouds that gathered overhead, and when he returned there was a queer look in his eyes, and he would not speak to her. She sat in the kitchen with Mehri beside the warm stove and looked into the fire, as if she could find some kind of answer there; but nothing came.

The headman returned with his soldiers that evening, and almost as soon as he had settled his horse and greeted his children, he came to pull her aside. It was scarcely a surprise, and she listened to his description of the chaos in Korae without much emotion. They wanted the poet who had raised the countryside to defiance, he said, so carefully not mentioning any names that she thought he must know already; they wanted the man who had written the star Asamerid down from the sky, who had not been with Yuta when he was captured, and –

“Yes,” said Nurzanah, quite calmly. “He wrote it.”

She knew perfectly well what the Hedi would do to the villagers, if they found him here. It had been a pretty lie, to imagine that they could stay here.

“We’ll have to leave,” she told Seda, meeting him back in their room, and he smiled a bit as if he’d known.

“Of course,” he said, and she felt herself shiver at the look on his face. “We wouldn’t have much luck raising an army here.”

They reached Aseti just before dusk the next day, and as they made the long greeting at the fortress gates, Nurzanah caught the first glimmer of Asamerid blossoming into existence out of the corner of her eye. She did not turn to look, but simply stood, watching Seda ask after the health of their host, who assured them that he was well, his house blessed by gods and saints alike, his daughters brave and his sons virtuous.

Seda, for his part, made the required replies, courteous and funny by turn; and for all that, he looked like a man terribly ill, the bones of his face too prominent and his free hand shaking when he let it rest. Their host’s sharp gaze rested for a moment on the hand bound up in his protective sling before sliding back up.

“Be welcome to my house,” he said, taking Nurzanah’s hand to bow over it, and he led them into the guest room, Asamerid following behind and casting strange shadows across the room. Nurzanah was certain that the lord of the house could not see her following behind, but she caught several of the younger men glancing across the room with troubled expressions. They were close enough to her age that she thought they must have fought in the war themselves, and their wariness betrayed their understanding of its cost.

After dinner, Seda took the senior position in the guest room, looking as uncomfortable in it as if he were wearing borrowed clothes; he might have done better to defer to his host, in this, Nurana thought, but she seated herself at the far end of the room next to a stocky young woman with the muscles of a house guard and refrained from question.

“I am very grateful for your hospitality,” said Seda, quietly, and his gaze caught hers for a moment; his eyes were brilliant with some internal fire. He listened without particular expression to the lord’s easy and casual dismissal of his thanks, the impatience of a man whose guests should know the laws he is bound by, and when their host had finished, he held up one hand, the gesture curiously arresting. The lord blinked at him, and Nurzanah bit down hard on her lip as she realized what he was doing.

“You know me, I think, more by reputation than face,” said Seda, “but even so, I salute you for the risk you’ve taken for me.”

“And what risk is that?” said the lord of the house, not very loudly. In the years of the war, Nurzanah knew, he must have grown used to having dangerous men and women in his house, protected by his law, but he could not like it any more than anyone else, and she saw in his face the worry for his children for a moment before he shuttered it away behind impassive calm.

Seda looked at him without speaking for a long, quiet moment, and then, with the curious resonance of a man reciting familiar poetry, he said:

We are the children of the land of lions,
The heirs to wind and rock and ragged cliff,
The tall descendants of the mountain kings;
The rough-cut rock that breaks their wings.

The room was silent as he spoke, a wary, listening silence that spread and drew in the rolling stanzas of the poem, drowning out the brightness of the words with their fear. She could see in the set of Seda’s mouth that he knew what he was facing, and yet when he had finished telling them who and what he was, he went on, speaking as lightly as if he were asking them only a trivial favor, of Yuta’s capture and the brutal indignities of their Hedi overlords, of the need to fight on for whatever vengeance they could force from the end of hope. He spoke of Yuta walking barefoot in the snow with his soldiers, of their first fierce struggle for justice and freedom; of Asamerid’s birth first in fire and glory in the heavens and second in the blotted grey ink of a starving satirist in his garret, writing the only true poem he had ever written as if one cold and distant star could hold all the hopes of their people, all the strength and courage that had nearly been crushed out of them by the dreadful weight of the occupation, painted as the bright living heart of the mountains.

But he was helpless against the long years of the war that they had already suffered, and it was as if she could see them slipping slowly further and further into disillusionment and despair. Like any house, they had lost their children to the war; and like any house, they would not forgive the perpetrators. Nurzanah did not think that she would like to strain the guest-laws any further than a single day of their company, and resigned herself to leaving the next day.

“We will not go,” said the lord, and the rest of the men went quiet, though the women talked a bit longer–to establish that they would not either, Nurzanah supposed, and wished they hadn’t bothered.

To her surprise, Seda treated them very politely, with the sort of delicate feudal courtesy that she had come to expect from Yuta and not from him, and it was only when they returned to their room that he vented his anger at her, pacing back and forth until he was stumbling. Asamerid stood to the side and watched him with the look of a woman going to her execution, and for the first time, Nurzanah was glad that he couldn’t see her.

At last he fell asleep, and she could leave him curled on the low camp-bed their hosts had put up for him, their only real concession to his injury. Under other circumstances, Nurzanah might have been offended on his behalf; as it was, she shrugged, and took their canteen down to the makeshift kitchen across the courtyard to bring up some tea. On the way back, she was accosted by a slender young man she vaguely recognized; some minor relative of the lord of the house, she thought.

“Who is she?” the young man demanded. He had caught her arm and held it, and she looked down at it and then up at him, raising an eyebrow. He flushed and stepped back, but did not turn away. “The woman with you. She looks like–” And he hesitated.

“She’s not a god,” said Nurzanah, before she’d thought. Perhaps she should have lied, tried to claim themselves the emissaries of gods, but she was not sure at the back of her mind that it would have been a lie, so far as Asamerid was concerned, and she didn’t want to think about that.

“Then what is she?” he whispered. He was very young, but even so there was a scar down one cheek and across his lip. She wondered if he’d gotten it in the war, or only in some ordinary way as peasants did. He didn’t need to know.

“She’ll be gone in the morning,” she said. “It isn’t anything to do with you.”

She saw in the shape his mouth formed all the truth that she had been pretending not to understand, and she wished she had said nothing.

When she returned, Seda was still asleep, his coat bundled up under his head. Asamerid was sitting on the bed beside him, one knee pulled up to her chest, and the quiet grief in her face stopped Nurzanah in the doorway. As she stood stricken, Asamerid bent to brush his hair back from his face, her hand lingering at his brow, and the intimacy in the gesture was painful. It would have been less private if she’d kissed him.

As quietly as she could, Nurzanah retreated from the room, canteen swinging from her hands, and at the end of the crumbling hallway she turned and walked back, letting herself make the noises that ordinary people in a hurry do, scraping the ground with her boots and banging the canteen against the wall. By the time she reached the door and turned to look at them, Asamerid was standing at the window, her back so straight she might have been there forever.

“How is he?” said Nurzanah, and Asamerid turned to look at her. The light of her presence rippled, leaving dappled shadows streaked across the walls.

“Tired, I should think,” said Asamerid, and the corner of her mouth quirked up in that odd gesture she had picked up from Yuta. It hurt, seeing it on her face and having to know that he was dying somewhere far away, and Nurzanah swallowed and looked away.

“I should imagine so,” she said, and she did not press any further, but as she hesitated in the doorway, something changed in the quality of the dim golden light, washing across the walls of the room like waves. She looked back at Asamerid, waiting.

“I have spent all the years of my waking life watching men walk into pits,” said the fallen star precisely, her gaze resting light and unseeing on Nurzanah’s face, and Nurzanah took a sharp breath, feeling the pain like a knife under her breastbone.

“I know,” she said, very low. If she had been someone else, cleverer with words or less rough-edged, she might have been able to say something more, but she had never had any talent for kindness.

Asamerid’s straight dark brows drew together as she looked at Seda, until she could not do it any longer and had to look away. She put one hand on the wall beside her as if for support, and the filthy mottled stone shone beneath her touch. “I used to sit with Yuta in the night,” she said, “when it seemed like all the world was asleep, watching him go over the supply lines until I thought he would go mad.” She looked at Nurzanah, her eyes clear and dark and endless. “He never told me what he was so afraid of,” she said.

Nurzanah thought of training the iron habits of survival into her soldiers, of watching them go forward into the dark without her, the war opening like a chasm around them until they emerged utterly changed or not at all, and she swallowed.

“Why are you following me?” she said. “I’m not the one who called you out of the sky. I’m not in love with you.”

“You know me,” said Asamerid. She was silent for a moment, and if Nurzanah had been more certain of her, she would have guessed she was struggling with the answer. At last, Asamerid said, “He thinks I’m still what he wanted, the one he saw, when he began writing to me. He doesn’t know she’s dead.”

“You’re dead,” Nurzanah pointed out, clinging to logic as if it would save her from understanding. “I’m fairly certain he caught that one.”

“The girl he wants has been dead for five years,” said Asamerid. Her voice was brutally calm as she spoke, as if there were nothing in all the past years of misery that could hurt her anymore. “She began to falter watching soldiers blown to pieces, and she felt herself failing when she sent children into battle armed with knives when their opponents were carrying machine guns. It was not so long before she died of it.” Her unreadable eyes did not leave Nurzanah’s face.

“What you must think of us,” said Nurzanah, feeling unbearably tired, and Asamerid said nothing.

The day they got the news of Yuta’s death, they were in Osirae, high in the mountains. He’d been injured in the skirmish before the surrender, an unnecessary piece of nastiness caused mostly by a misunderstanding, and they’d had to tie him to a chair before the firing squad: an ugly death, without any honor. He had faced it as bravely as anyone, the northern courier told her; he had not fought back or wept, in the end, only sat with his back straight and flinched convulsively as one man’s rifle went off before the rest, hitting the wall beside him and not him at all. He had been dead for a month and a half now.

She could feel herself beginning to tremble, but she didn’t think there was anything on her face. She wanted to run away, hide in a corner and never look at anyone again. She managed to thank the messenger for his news before turning and walking into the shadowed hall behind her.

There were no candles, here; they were too poor to afford them for the daytime, and so the building stood filled with shadows in the afternoon. It had been a great caravanserai, once, its rooms full of jade and precious stones carved out of the mountains, but now it was an empty shell, housing half a hundred peasants and their goats, and she made it into an unused and crumbling room to wait for Asamerid. She could not bear the idea of telling Seda herself.

He found her, of course, having managed to track down the northerner on his own, and from the look on his face, she wished she had told him after all. It could scarcely have been worse than this.

She stood to greet him, not sure she was capable of words, and it was only then that she saw the pistol in his hand, glinting with the little light from the doorway. He lifted it slowly, hands trembling, to point at her breast.

She felt numb, as if the news had blasted her clean and empty inside, and she knew that there was nothing that would fill her again. It hardly seemed to matter if he shot her, and she would have let him but she was afraid for Asamerid, and for him; she could not see them surviving her death very well, if survival was the right word for this ruin. She was not sure it mattered very much anymore.

“Seda,” she said, and then she had nothing else.

He stood there shaking, the pistol pointed at her. His shattered right hand was wrapped around it over his left, though it still could not close all the way, and his face was filled to brimming with despair.

“We can’t,” he said, and his voice was low and frankly terrified. “Nurzanah. He wouldn’t have wanted us to. He would have had us fight, he would have–”

She took a step forward and caught at his right wrist roughly enough that he cried out and let go of the gun. It was a heavy, stupid thing, worn down by time and pitted by powder, and she took it by the business end and struck him hard across the face with the grip of it. He staggered back.

“We would die,” she said, not much louder, and she realized that she was shaking too. “We can’t win it. The best we can hope for is to get ourselves killed.”

“It would be better,” he whispered. “This–”

“It would be stupid,” said Nurzanah. She didn’t want to think about it, because it couldn’t help; she wanted nothing so much as to turn north, to hunt down Yuta’s murderers and kill them. But there was no chance of anything but failure, and she could not think that that would be better.

“I can’t think of anything that wouldn’t be,” said Seda. There was a brightness in his eyes that should not have been there.

Yuta had told her to bring Seda back, in that little room he kept for himself behind the wide command quarters, but they’d both known it wasn’t what he’d meant. There was nothing for any of them to return to, there, and he had always wanted very badly for them to live, even after Asamerid’s death. Even knowing it could have been averted.

She had wanted him to live as well, and standing there they had both known that he would die. She could see it in the set of his face, the fine tremor in his hands as he moved his papers and maps around casually, but he would not speak of it to her. He had never been a man to put his own emotions to voice.

“He killed her,” she said. “Or as good as.”

Yuta smiled, a little, that same wry and tired look that made her love him first, and shrugged one shoulder, rubbing at the scars across his knuckles. “I was careless,” he said. And that was all he would say of it when he sent her away, and now she was standing in a dingy little caravanserai room watching Seda come to pieces at last and wondering how Yuta had looked as he died.

At last she reached out to touch Seda’s shoulder, letting her hand rest very lightly on the sharp edge of his collarbone. He was so still beneath her hand that she could feel the little hitch of his breath in his throat, and she looked at the expression in his face and took in a quiet, careful breath of her own before she pulled away.

“We’ll go in the morning,” she said, and strode out past him.

She lay awake all that night, face buried in her blankets, wishing she could cry and finding herself unable to. Asamerid did not return until just before dawn, casting tawny golden light before her, and until then Nurzanah kept her rifle close to hand, her pistol even closer. She had very little ammunition for either.

They ate naan for breakfast, steaming hot and very good even without anything else, and then, having bid farewell to their hosts with as much courtesy as either of them could manage, they went on higher into the mountains as the wind snapped and tore at their clothing.

It was cold, and hard going, walking up the long slope with the wind before them. There was a village beyond, the lord’s nephew at Osirae had told them, less than a day’s walk out, and so they kept on, striding into the young winter. Seda was tired, his hand hurting him, and kept stumbling on the clumps of dead and wilted grasses along the path, his pace slowing each time. It was getting on toward dark and they still had not come within sight of the next village.

She was so tired she wanted to fall down and die rather than endure anything further, but she kept walking and kept her grief penned in. She felt that it could not matter very much if they died now, alone up in the hills; she did not see that anything did, very much.

At last she called a halt. She could not see the village in the dimming light, and she didn’t think they’d find it now; they would have to make their camp here against the cliff wall. She was still considering the available outcroppings when the sun sank behind the mountains.

The clearing filled with the familiar brassy light, and Nurzanah turned around tiredly, to find Seda standing as one transfixed, his eyes wide with shock and his face strange in the dead star’s light. The bruise on his cheek stood out like blood.

“O God,” he whispered, and she saw that he was looking at Asamerid. He had gone very still, and Nurzanah wanted to cry at the expression on his face. Instead she looked away, blinking into the bitter wind.

It was very cold.
_____
Copyright 2014 Rachel Sobel

by Vylar Kaftan
(NOTE: “Christmas Wedding” appeared previously in Warrior Wisewoman, and has been podcast on Escape Pod.)

Today was a perfect day, with three flaws. It was snowing here in Miami, one of her brides had trouble recognizing her, and her cummerbund wouldn’t stay up. The cummerbund was the only problem Mel could fix. She brushed ashes off the church office’s desk and rummaged around for safety pins. She found typed notes for an old sermon, some yellow pushpins, and three tampons. Mel took the tampons and left the rest. Not a single safety pin, which surprised her–for a place that looters hadn’t been through, there was little here. Underneath the desk, Mel found a paperclip. After a moment’s thought, she opened her pocketknife and cut two holes in the cummerbund’s back. She unbent the paperclip, wired the cummerbund together, and attached it to the belt loop on her black jeans.

Her bridesmaid poked his head in. “How’re you doing in here?”

Paul had a fake poinsettia flower wedged behind his ear. Mel laughed, a tense noise that hurt her throat. “Paul, where did you get that flower?”

He grinned and walked into the office. Paul had been a small-town Georgia fireman, in sunnier days. He wore a plain gray shirt that exposed his well-muscled arms and new blue jeans that fit well. Mel wondered where he’d found them. Paul said, “I look like a hippie, don’t I? Well, a hippie on steroids. You look sort of James Dean meets Roy Orbison. I like the bow tie.”

“I told you–you didn’t have to get girly. You can be my best man.”

“I’d rather be a bridesmaid,” he said. He hummed the first few notes of “I Feel Pretty.” Mel laughed again, relaxing into the moment. Paul did a clumsy pirouette, stomping snow from his boots into the ash-streaked carpet. Florida snow was moist and sticky–hard to believe it was so acidic. It was the kind of snow that people used to make snowballs from.

“I’m stressed out,” said Mel. “Today has to be perfect.”

“No wedding has been perfect, ever,” said Paul, stopping mid-twirl and regarding her more seriously. “Something always goes wrong. That’s the nature of them. But that’s what makes them perfect–they’re all different. This one is yours.”

Mel thought about it as she looked out the window. The church was in a neighborhood that had survived better than others. The damage was mostly broken windows and stolen property. A man dressed in black walked across the street, carrying an AK-47. When Mel caught his eye, Jose saluted her through his facemask and kept patrolling. Eight other Warehouse members guarded the church, and twice as many were still at home. No one expected the foreign armies in Georgia to sweep down to Miami, but they couldn’t be too careful.

“I guess so,” she said, “but there’s a damn lot of things that could go wrong here.”

“It’ll be fine,” he soothed her.

“This isn’t exactly how I pictured my wedding day.” Across the street, Jose took aim at something. A dog scampered off down the snowy street.

Mel had read about supervolcanoes once, years ago as an undergraduate. She had taken geology as an elective to supplement her biology coursework. She’d read about the volcanic activity in Yellowstone Park. Facts had entered her mind, as guests into a home: an eruption 2,500 times worse than Mount St. Helens. Lava and burning gases flowing 600 miles in all directions from Wyoming–enough to destroy Seattle and Santa Fe and everything between. Enough to bury the American West under 13 feet of pure rock, release trillions of tons of volcanic ash into the atmosphere, and trigger the San Andreas Fault. Yellowstone erupted about every 600,000 years. It had been 620,000 years since the last eruption.

These facts were entertaining companions for a while; they served her well at a party that night, where a bunch of bio students got drunk in a dorm room and compared their favorite doomsday scenarios.

“Global warming, rising oceans, flooding of all coastal cities,” said Carlos, on his fifth beer.

“Unprovoked nuke attack on the Middle East, retaliation, global warfare,” said Kate.

Mel raised her glass and said, “Supervolcano buries the western U.S. and throws the whole planet into nuclear winter.”

But Taresh won with, “American public watches worst season of TV ever, yet remains enthralled. Government runs amok and no one cares.” Everyone laughed, and conversation wandered elsewhere.

Mel forgot that conversation for the next fifteen years. The facts lived in her brain, sitting quietly in the spare room. She went to grad school in Berkeley and wrote her dissertation on trumpeter swan migration patterns. She met Corie–a loan officer at the bank–and fell in love at first sight. She got her first teaching job in St. Louis and brought Corie with her. Mel was thirty-five years old, and her worries were–in retrospect–small. She wanted tenure. She wanted to buy a house. She wanted to write a groundbreaking paper.

Then Yellowstone erupted, and the facts became a nightmare–the guests that demanded every minute of her day and gave no sign of leaving.

Someone knocked on the door. “Come in,” Mel said.

Dr. Green spoke as she entered the office. “Corie’s having an episode.”

“Dammit,” said Paul.

Mel’s heart sank. “What kind?” she asked. “Anxiety? Trouble recognizing people?”

“Places, this time,” said the doctor, tucking her hair behind her ears. She was the only Warehouse member who didn’t go by her first name. Mel respected Dr. Green’s skills, but found her brusque and condescending. The older woman had never mentioned it, but Mel suspected she had religious reasons to dislike lesbians. The doctor added, “She doesn’t know where she is.”

“Well, where is she?”

“In the sanctuary.”

“The what?”

“The main worship space of the church.”

Mel was horrified. “In there? What were you thinking?”

“I didn’t put her there,” said Dr. Green stiffly. “It was Jess and Hernando. They thought she’d like the stained-glass windows. Besides, she had to wait somewhere.”

The sanctuary had been decorated for an expensive wedding–presumably last year, for the Sunday after Yellowstone. No one had taken anything down. It must have been spectacular once–the bouquets of carnations, roses, and baby’s breath, tied with red and green ribbons to the wooden pews. The pair of arrangements next to the altar, with silver bells at their bases, might have cost nearly a thousand dollars. Now, the ash-stained ribbons held tarnished bells and dried flower husks. Mel thought of Corie, alone in that dark mausoleum where someone’s dream had died. “I’ve got to go to her,” she said.

“I’ll go,” said Paul. “Old tradition–she won’t want you to see her, not before the wedding. Bad luck.”

“I’ve seen her a zillion times before.”

“She’s the one who wants to do this the old-fashioned way,” Paul reminded her. “You might upset her more if you go in there. Let me. I’ll talk to her.”

“She does better with Mel,” said Dr. Green. The doctor folded her arms and looked at Mel expectantly.

Mel was deeply torn. She wanted to run to her partner’s side, but Paul was right. The last thing she wanted to do was upset Corie on her special day. “I can’t believe you left her alone in there,” she said to the doctor. “Someone should have stayed with her.”

“She’s not alone,” said the doctor. “Rayvenna is with her.”

Mel sighed with relief. “Why didn’t you say so? Rayvenna can handle this. She and Corie are great together.”

“Mel,” said the doctor, in a tone that carried a warning. “I’ve been meaning to talk to you.”

The last thing Mel needed right now was a lecture. She adjusted her bow tie with a sharp tug. “I don’t have time for this.”

“Hear me out, Mel. I have to speak up. My conscience won’t let me be quiet. I don’t think you should do this.”

“I–”

Dr. Green held up a hand and silenced Mel with a look. “I don’t think you’ve thought this through. Corie isn’t herself–not really. She’s heavily brain-damaged, Mel, in a way that people don’t usually survive. I’m not even talking about the physical problems–you know what I mean. She doesn’t recognize you half the time, nor anyone else. She has trouble understanding where she is and what’s happening around her. You know how unreliable her memory is–the anxiety, the depression she suffers.”

Mel’s temper flared. “We’re all pretty anxious and depressed, in case you hadn’t noticed.”

“I don’t think you understand how changed she is.”

“If you’re going to say something, say it.”

“I don’t think Corie understands what’s going on today.”

“You’re wrong,” shouted Mel. She balled her hands into fists. Paul moved behind her silently and put a hand on her shoulder. Mel took a deep breath and forced calmness into her voice. “I know Corie. I’ve been with her for eight years. You’re right, she’s changed–but I’ve changed, you’ve changed–we all have. I know Corie. I know what she wants, and what I promised her.”
“Mel–”
“She’s been talking about this wedding all month. She remembers my promise too. And she understands the risk of leaving home. She knew how dangerous it was to split the Warehouse between home and here. She told me she was worried about a raid at home and the Chinese army coming this way. She understands, Doctor. She remembers. She knows.”

Dr. Green clasped her hands together in front of her. “I’m sorry,” she said. “It’s so hard for you. I know you think this is about your sexual orientation–don’t look at me like that, I hear things through the Warehouse the same way you do. It’s not about that, I swear. I admit it took me a while, but as I got to know you I saw that you love each other. I won’t separate two people that God has put together. I’m just saying–don’t bring Rayvenna into this.”

So that was the real problem. “Rayvenna matters too,” snapped Mel. “She’s part of us now.”

“It’s not fair to Corie.”

Mel pushed past the doctor. “Screw tradition. Corie needs me. So does Rayvenna.” She stormed towards the sanctuary.

Corie had always dated men, before Mel. She looked like a mischievous cherub, with fluffy blonde hair and sly blue eyes. The women had started as friends, during a conversation at the bank as Mel took out more student loans. It turned out they both liked birds. Mel invited Corie birdwatching. They spent hours together hiking in the wilderness, with just each other for company. Soon Corie got Mel interested in her own hobby: volunteer work. Together they picked up trash along the highway, served oatmeal in a soup kitchen, and sorted clothing donations in a women’s shelter. Corie’s wicked sense of humor and generous spirit made her irresistible. Mel had a huge crush on her, but tried to bury it for friendship’s sake.

Hugs turned into kisses turned into exploration. Mel’s friends warned her away from “the straight woman,” but Mel was firmly in love and certain that Corie wasn’t as straight as she claimed to be. Corie moved into Mel’s place, and they dated for two years without calling it that. When they were together, Mel felt more like herself. She couldn’t explain it any differently–she just felt it was okay to be Mel, to let down walls she’d built in her childhood. And Corie said that when they were together, she felt wanted and loved. One night Mel asked the question, after they’d made love in an obviously non-straight way.

Corie said, “There’s just one thing holding me back, and it’s ridiculous.”

The afternoon light through the window made squares across their naked bodies. Mel stroked the soft curls resting against her shoulder. “What’s that?”

“You’re going to laugh.”

“Swear I won’t.”

“Ever since I was a little girl… I’ve wanted a white wedding. You know, the whole shebang. White dress, champagne, flowers–everything. I think it comes from being Catholic. I had it beaten into my head… but I want it. I want my family there, and all my friends, and–well, just the perfect day. I used to play dress-up with my mom’s bedsheets. I held my veil in place with a tinfoil tiara.”

Mel didn’t laugh, although she liked the idea of Corie in a tinfoil tiara. “So?”

Corie reached up to rub the top of Mel’s head. “Well, there’s usually a groom in a white wedding. I guess there doesn’t have to be. There can be two brides. But I still want the wedding. Does that make me a bad feminist?”

Mel’s breath caught in her throat. “I can wear a tux. I’d look better in one anyway.”

“You can wear a dress if you really want,” said Corie, with a naughty grin and wandering fingers. “Except mine has to have more sparkly bits. I’m the princess here.”

Mel felt like she was flying. “It’s a deal, Your Highness.”

When Mel moved to St. Louis to take a teaching job, Corie transferred to a local branch of her bank. They rented a small house near the university and registered as domestic partners. They figured they’d do the wedding someday, when they had more money. After a while, the wedding became something on their to-do list, somewhere after “buying a house” and before “traveling around the world”.

On the day of Yellowstone–sometimes Mel just called it The Day–she’d been shoveling snow. She didn’t mind the chore, especially in late afternoon when the holiday lights sparkled in the twilight. The weather was clear and cold. Corie was inside, soaking in a cranberry-scented bubble bath. Last night they’d had a low-key birthday dinner for Mel, where Corie had given her a new pair of binoculars and a gold locket. They’d planned to make Christmas cookies together later–the most subversive thing she could think of for two queer women to do on a Saturday night.

In Missouri, the supervolcano was a sight before it was a sound. The western sky darkened. A plume of black smoke rose like a nuclear cloud, then fell and rolled across the horizon. The sky rumbled, and the wind roared down the street. A blast of warm air struck Mel’s face. Mel put down her shovel and stared, just before the ground shifted under her feet. She threw herself onto the snowy yard and grabbed the mailbox. She clung to the metal pole, protecting her head as houses collapsed around her. The air smelled like gas and smoke. It felt like years passed, although it must have been minutes. When the earth was still, she lifted her head. The front corner of their house had fallen. She rushed inside.

Corie lay partly submerged in bloody bathwater, her head underneath a broken shelf. Mel dragged her out and emptied water from her mouth–too frightened to scream. She restored Corie’s breathing, but couldn’t wake her. When she called 911 and got no answer, she bandaged her partner’s head herself with a clean bedsheet. She looked out the window for help. In the streets, people panicked–a neighbor with a ham radio told her it was a volcano in Wyoming and half the country was buried in lava. “New Madrid fault ruptured,” he said. “San Andreas too. Like cracks in an eggshell. Things are bad out there.” Mel saw few choices. She wrapped her partner in a blanket, carried her to the Jeep, and strapped her down in the backseat.

Mel thought The Day was the best name for it. No other day could really be referred to anymore. Pearl Harbor, 9/11–these were days with names, minor events that could be described with words that went in a history book. The Day overshadowed them all.

Mel headed southeast, away from the epicenter. Traffic was a lawless nightmare, zooming past her both on-road and off, underneath the dark rumbling sky. Mel figured everyone knew this was big. Like her, they held little hope of a place outside the disaster area–not in the United States, and maybe not even on the planet. Mel got ten miles out of St. Louis before someone rear-ended her–a crash of metal, a violent shaking, a hot airbag pressed against her face. The other driver–a terrified-looking teenage boy–died minutes after the collision. She and Corie were only bruised, but their Jeep was wrecked enough that she couldn’t drive it. She sat by the side of the road, her head pressed against the steering wheel, out of ideas.

Mel found Corie in the sanctuary. The room was cold; snowy air blew through broken stained glass windows. At first Mel couldn’t understand what she was looking at: a pile of impossibly white fabric in Corie’s wheelchair, with Rayvenna hugging it. The fabric spilled over the chair’s arms like a waterfall, with pearl beads swimming through a satin river. It was a photograph from the past–a miraculously clean dress from before The Day.

Then she understood–Corie was underneath all that. Tears streaked Corie’s face. The translucent veil was arranged to cover her paralyzed left side, and her shorn golden curls peeked under its edge. Mel knelt by her side and hugged her–one arm around Corie’s shoulders, and the other clasping Rayvenna’s waist. Someone–somehow–had found a wedding dress for Corie. Mel’s throat tightened with gratitude.

Corie whimpered and choked. Mel kissed her cheek. “Corie, we’re here. It’s okay. You’re safe.”

“Isn’t she beautiful?” whispered Rayvenna. “Luisa found it in someone’s attic, wrapped in plastic. She wanted to surprise us. The dress was way too big, so we duct-taped it together in the back. We found lipstick too, but it didn’t look right on her so we wiped it off again.” She dabbed a lipstick-stained cloth at the corner of Corie’s mouth.

From this side, Corie’s partly-veiled face was expressionless underneath. She was shaking, and she hadn’t acknowledged Mel at all. “All dead,” she said, slurring the words. Her voice had the plainness of a child with the dissipation of a drunk. “Everybody dead. Dead, dead. Dead flowers. Dead people.”

“Let’s get her out of here,” Mel said to Rayvenna.

“She wouldn’t go,” said Rayvenna. “She said we had to stay at the wedding because it was the only place you’d find us. She said we all had to stay together.”

“Who’s that?” asked Corie, her voice rising sharply. “Ray, who’s that? Who?”

“I’m Mel.” Her heart broke every time this happened. “See? Look at my fuzzy head. That’s Mel’s head. You can feel it if you want to.” She tilted her head forward, waiting for Corie to rub it.

Corie looked, but didn’t touch. “Where’s Mel’s necklace?”

Mel yanked off her bow tie and dropped it. She pulled the small gold locket out of her shirt collar. “There it is, see?”

“I, uh. Gave that. To Mel.”

“Yes, that’s me.”

“You’re Mel.”
“Yes.”

“Mel,” Corie said, and broke into a lopsided smile. “We’re all here, all. All three of us. Me, and Ray, and Mel. Now we can get, get… get married.”

Mel reached for Corie’s right hand and squeezed it. She looked at Rayvenna. “Let’s go somewhere else. Where to?”

“Um. Can’t do the community room–Tina’s setting up the reception there. The hallway is full of everyone waiting to go into the chapel. Maybe the women’s bathroom? There’s a little couch and a powder room.”

Hanging out in a powder room on her wedding day. Well, why not. “Fine, let’s go.”

Mel called herself agnostic, but for a moment she’d believed in miracles. The enormous RV pulled up alongside them like a chariot from heaven, gleaming as white as an angel’s smile. Cars behind it honked angrily as it blocked the lane. Rayvenna leaned out the passenger side, her long black hair whipping in the wind. “Need a ride?”

Inside the RV, the ashtrays were taped shut and the blankets lay flat on the bed like they’d been ironed. It looked like the vehicle had been created only minutes ago, just to save them. Mel put Corie on the bed and joined Rayvenna in the front.

Rayvenna had the corn-fed goth-girl look common in the Midwest–dark hair and eyes, but Rubenesque curves and healthy pink skin. She spoke with sunny optimism, but her eyes revealed pain. It took less than a minute for her to tell her story, while pushing past maniac drivers on the road. “Don’t worry,” she said, “we’re bigger than they are. We’ll win any collisions.”

“I hope you’re right,” said Mel. “So how’d you get here?”

“I was with my boyfriend in a dealership–Kansas City–looking for an RV. For Burning Man next summer. Mark was talking to the salesguy inside the showroom. I headed out to the RV for a test-drive. That’s when it hit. I took cover inside the thing. When the shaking stopped, all the cars and buildings were wrecked except the RV. I got out and stood there, looking at where Mark had been. I couldn’t lift the rubble, and he couldn’t have survived underneath there. I saw the dark cloud in the west, and cars speeding past on the freeway.”

Mel didn’t know what to say, so she kept listening. Rayvenna continued, “I had two choices. Either give up and cry–or take the keys and run. I didn’t know what was up. Nuclear bomb maybe. But I had an RV, and a full tank of gas.”

“What about your boyfriend?” Mel asked.

Rayvenna’s grin froze. “He didn’t deserve that. No one did.” That was all Mel got out of her on the subject, until a few days later. In retrospect, it was the first example of Rayvenna’s gift: always living in the present, and leaving the bad things behind. It was contagious, and it was what Mel needed.

They looted a gas station for nonperishable food, bottled water, and plastic gas cans. Rayvenna knew nothing about medicine or first aid, but she held Corie’s hand in such a compassionate way that it helped Mel feel better. “She looks like a girl I had a crush on in high school,” Rayvenna said.
“I’ll…” Mel swallowed. “I’ll drive for a bit if you stay with her.” She felt like if she had to look at Corie’s injury anymore, she’d break down and be useless. Now she had to hold herself together, like a vase glued with elementary-school paste, until there was a time and a place to be vulnerable.

They wheeled Corie down the hall and into the powder room, with Mel pushing on the chair handles and Rayvenna carrying the vast train of the wedding dress. It took both of them to maneuver the chair with all the trailing fabric. Mel wished Corie could have a motorized chair, but that was a fantasy.

The powder room had a thick blue carpet coated with ash. Vanity-bulbs lined a wall-sized mirror–the lights didn’t work, but at least they were whole. Corie looked much happier to be out of the sanctuary. Mel couldn’t blame her for that. Mel wheeled her up to the mirror. “You look so wonderful. Like a princess.”

Corie smiled. “I’m a funny princess! Broken. I drool.”

“You’re beautiful,” Mel whispered.

Rayvenna set down the pile of satin and knelt beside Corie. “You’re the best princess ever.” She kissed her cheek.

“My castle is uh, uh, a bathroom. Bathroom castle. With uh, a toilet.”

Rayvenna smoothed Corie’s veil. “Sounds useful. Your guests will always have a place to pee.”

Mel liked to watch them together. Corie was more relaxed with Rayvenna. Mel sometimes got impatient with Corie’s slow progress. She wasn’t good at watching Corie struggle to name pictures or remember a list of words. It tore her up when her partner couldn’t recognize her face or remember how they met. Rayvenna was a natural therapist, and she found Corie’s determination inspiring. The younger woman had a gentle touch that Mel envied sometimes. Right now, Mel was so stressed that watching Rayvenna and Corie made her feel left out. It reminded her of the nagging feeling she had–that today would go wrong, just like everything else had.

Mel finally noticed Rayvenna’s clothes. “What the heck do you have on your head?”

Rayvenna wore a bow tie like Mel’s–they’d found them in a theatre–along with black pants, a gray lace shirt, and an almost-empty roll of duct tape around her arm. On her head she wore a small white veil, held in place by a circlet of tinfoil and some tape. She laughed. “It’s the lining from Corie’s veil. There’s no real place for a third person in this whole traditional wedding thing, so I thought I’d go half and half. Bow tie and tinfoil tiara. The mad scientist goes to prom.”

“Tinfoil,” said Corie, and she winked at Mel. Mel knelt down and kissed her. It was terrifying sometimes, what Corie remembered, and what confused her.

Mel hadn’t meant to fall in love with Rayvenna any more than she had with Corie. The feelings were like spring cleaning in a house, trying to create more space–and realizing the spaciousness was built into the architecture itself. She had to clear away the junk before she could see what was already there.

They made it to Nashville, but the hospitals were jammed. One of them was on fire. The nearby houses showed that the quake had damaged Tennessee too. Traffic was alternately deadlocked, then dangerous. Visibility was close to zero. Mel and Rayvenna discussed what to do. Their best hope was to keep traveling southeast, looking for medical help. They had no way to feed and hydrate Corie without choking her. All they could do was hope she woke soon. A coma could last for days, weeks–and there was no telling how much of Corie had survived.

The gas station had provided a good amount of food and water, including a large supply of peanut-butter cups that Rayvenna insisted on bringing. As she put it, munching on chocolate, “I’ve already committed grand theft auto. If there’s anyone looking to prosecute me when the dust settles, they won’t be worried about eight boxes of peanut-butter cups.” Later, Mel would tease her mercilessly about saying when the dust settles.

They stopped in small towns along the way, looking for a doctor. They found a kind pharmacist in Murfreesboro who gave them medical gauze, amoxicillin, and OxyContin. “For when she wakes,” he said. “End times are here anyway.” The sky was nearly pitch-black as he spoke, and the air smelled like burnt matches. He said there’d been a chemical spill in India–not sure yet whether there were more quakes, or if someone panicked. He told them rockslides blocked I-24 into Chattanooga and they should try US-41 instead, which led to a terrifying night down a nearly-invisible road. Mel thought that the pharmacist was right–these were the end times, and all these years she hadn’t believed. She wondered how long it would be until they died, before the waking nightmare turned into sleeping peace. She tried to think about something other than Corie. The only thing that came to her was how all the lovely trumpeter swans she’d studied were probably dead.

Corie woke up 29 hours after her accident, just outside of Chattanooga. She moaned like she was dying, then vomited on the bedding. She didn’t respond to her name. Rayvenna supported her while Mel poured sports-drinks down her throat. It was risky to move her, but riskier not to give her water. Her head wound was ugly, but it didn’t look infected. Mel kept it safely covered. In Chattanooga, they finally found a hospital. The doctors gave Corie an IV for hydration, but said they were nearly out of backup power. The EKG reading showed that Corie would probably live, but would need a lot of rehabilitation–and given the current situation, the doctor told Mel bluntly, “There are no guarantees that kind of care will be available.”
Mel wanted to shake him. Take care of Corie. Help her. Save her. But the supervolcano, long-dormant, had woken something in her–recognition that she was on her own, like she’d been for so many years.
“I’ll take care of her myself,” she said, folding her arms. “Tell me how.”
The doctor looked like he would argue, then smiled sadly. He gave Mel a five-minute crash course in head injury care. Around them, the hospital filled as more and more people arrived.

The three women spent the week together in the RV: Corie sleeping on the large bed in the back, Mel and Rayvenna scrunched together on the smaller bed. Rayvenna was younger than she looked–only twenty-three, just out of college. Her boyfriend had been a decade older, and a successful computer professional. She’d met him in Nevada last year just after her first girlfriend had dumped her. She spoke of him briskly, and for a while Mel was fooled into thinking she didn’t care about him.
Outside the RV, everything stayed dark. The volcano was still erupting. The wind made their skin itch and their throats burn, so they stayed inside when they could, even though the vehicle smelled like sweat and urine. Mel and Rayvenna took care of Corie, spoon-feeding her applesauce and OxyContin. At one point, while they were counting their remaining supplies, Rayvenna said, “Mel, there’s something I want to tell you.”
“What?” Mel was lifting a flat of bottled water, not entirely listening.
“I… I was raped.”
Mel put the flat down and looked at her. Rayvenna added, “Six years ago,” but that’s not what Mel was thinking. She was thinking about how it wasn’t a non sequitur, how it made perfect sense in context.
“Shit. I’m sorry, Ray,” she said. “No. Sorry isn’t enough. I’m–”
“It’s okay. It’s over now. I just wanted you to know. I thought you should.”
“Do you want to–”
“No. It’s fine.”
“They tried to drown me once,” Mel said, not realizing she’d say it until she had. “The other kids, I mean. I grew up queer in rural Idaho. Usually they just beat me up until I learned to fight back. But one time I think they really would have killed me.” She told Rayvenna the story she kept walled off and rarely told anyone, about a fast-moving mountain stream and icy water. After that, the walls crumbled: they talked about ex-girlfriends, secret fears, and childhood Christmas presents. Both liked the Great Pyramids, neither wanted to have kids, and each had her own idea for creating world peace that no longer mattered.
When, after three days, Rayvenna broke down sobbing, it was natural for Mel to hold and comfort her. Later that night, it was just as natural for Rayvenna to hold Mel as she cracked open, burdened with the weight of loss and the extent of Corie’s injuries, knowing that her partner would be damaged for life. She wanted to forget what awful things she’d said that night–something about, “We’re better off dead–we should have died that afternoon–” Rayvenna rubbed her head, and kissed the tops of her ears, and Mel cried until nothing was left inside her.

They had occasional visitors to their RV, which sat in a Chattanooga mall parking lot. It was from these guests, and the occasional pickup of a local AM station, that they learned more details. The western states were a wasteland of igneous rock. Toxins from the Indian disaster were spreading across Asia and Africa. They heard a tsunami had destroyed Japan, but that turned out to be rumor. “Which is good,” commented Rayvenna, “since a tsunami would be kind of anti-climactic after all those Godzilla movies.”

The ash was the immediate problem, and the most obvious one. It was six inches deep in Tennessee and still accumulating. Ash settled across the Great Plains like snowfall–ten feet deep in some places. Dust filled the air even in Moscow and Tokyo. No one had seen the sun in days. People were dying of particle inhalation, they heard, and the situation would get worse before it got better.
Mel and Rayvenna welcomed anyone who knocked on their door. Most visitors were well-behaved and accepted whatever food the women spared. Four men tried to steal the RV one night, sneaking up to it with knives in hand. Mel punched one in the face as Rayvenna switched the ignition and floored the gas. They thudded against something as they sped away. Mel didn’t look back to see who it was.

After that, they changed cities each night. They used their extra gas cans and headed toward Daytona Beach. The ashfall was shallower here, and driving was easier. Corie was often frightened, and didn’t know where she was or who she was with. Mel stayed with her constantly, and Rayvenna drove the RV. At nights Rayvenna would join them in the back room, and all three women would sleep together. Mel needed Rayvenna now. She had a way of smiling that made it all bearable. Rayvenna brought hope when Mel had none.

After three days, Rayvenna commented, “We’ll be out of gas soon. Not really sure where we’ll get more–and even then, we’ll run out eventually. I’m glad the volcano finally stopped.”

“Think we should park somewhere permanent?” Mel was thinking of the men with knives.

“Yeah. But somewhere safe. I just don’t know what will happen, long-term.”

“This is global,” said Mel. “I’m serious. Nuclear winter is coming.”

“Well, things will sort themselves out eventually. Won’t they?”

“I don’t know. Maybe. But there’ll be a lot of killing until that happens. Last time a supervolcano went, it knocked humanity down to a genetic bottleneck of about 10,000 people or so. Toba catastrophe theory, it’s called. Anyway, we’re going to need better shelter and protection than this RV. We need more people. A community.”

“We could head south,” said Rayvenna. “Miami. I’ve got Burning Man friends there. We should have enough gas.”

“It’s a start.”

“At least we have the RV. I tell you, this thing was a steal.”

Mel laughed so hard her sides hurt, grateful that Rayvenna was always–well, herself. She didn’t recognize that feeling as love, not until much later, and when she did it took her months to accept it. It helped to learn that Corie loved Rayvenna too.

Paul stuck his head through the restroom door. “There you are,” he said. “They’re just about ready in the chapel.”

“What are they doing in there?” Mel asked. “No one’s let me near the place all morning.”

“You’ll see,” he said, with a mysterious smile. “By the way, Jake wants to talk to you. He’s here with me. Says it’s important.”

Jake was one of the original Warehouse members, who’d held down the place with shotguns to drive looters away. Mel didn’t like him. He was short-tempered and violent, and he made Corie nervous. She’d overheard him comment about “hot lesbian action” once. He spent a lot of time talking about the next generation of the Warehouse and building a good future for them. But he was family now, for better or worse, and if nothing else he was strong and young and able to defend them. Mel had to admit that Jake was great with the Warehouse’s kids.

Mel looked at her brides. If Jake had come down from his sniper’s nest on the church roof, something was really important. Corie said, “Is Mel going away?”

“I’m not going anywhere.”

“It’ll be just a moment,” said Rayvenna. “I’ll stay with you. Mel will be nearby, I promise.”

“Okay,” said Corie. Rayvenna stroked her hand. Mel leaned over and embraced both women. She kissed Corie’s cheek underneath the veil. Corie looked up at Rayvenna, who rubbed the top of Mel’s head. Then Corie smiled. “I’m not a, uh, afraid now,” she said.

Mel kissed Rayvenna, then slipped out the door. Jake stood there with Paul, one hand in the pocket of his beat-up jeans. He carried a sniper rifle under his arm. His hair was ash-gray and snowy, like he’d aged four decades by stepping outside. His breathing mask hung around his neck on a dusty cord.

“I’ll go see Corie,” said Paul, as he went into the bathroom.

Mel stared at Jake, her guard up. He looked like he was going to say something, and then changed his mind. “What do you want?” Mel asked.

He shuffled his feet. “Just wanted to say congrats. On the wedding. It’s kind of a weird wedding and all, but it’s nice to have something for the Warehouse to celebrate. I hope God blesses today for you.”

Mel was taken aback. “Well, that’s very nice of you to say.” But surely he hadn’t come off the roof just to say that. There’d be something else, something stupid he’d go and say–

“All three of you are really sweet girls and all. You’re great people.”

Mel didn’t think she qualified as a “sweet girl,” but she understood what he meant. She relaxed a little. “Thank you. It means a lot to hear that from you.”

“I have a question. I guess I shoulda asked this before, but–you’re going to let Rayvenna have kids, right?”

“What?”

“Rayvenna. She’s bi, right? So she could have some kids or something. You all could raise them no matter who the father was. I wouldn’t ask you–I know you’re a dyke and all, and you wouldn’t like to do it, but–”

And there it was. “What the hell are you talking about?”
Jake looked uncomfortable, like he regretted bringing it up. “I just mean–you know, repopulation. She’s young and healthy. You three can raise the kid, of course.”

Mel wanted to swear and punch him, but she held her temper. “Get the hell out of here, Jake. She doesn’t want kids, and if she did it certainly wouldn’t be with you.”

“I mean it,” he said, “I hope God blesses your day. I just mean, think about kids.”

“Go away.”

Jake eyed her and stepped back. He walked down the hallway, past the Warehouse members who were standing outside the chapel, and out the front door. Mel pressed her face into her hands. Everything about today was tense, wrong, out of place. Something terrible was coming, she felt sure–a blizzard, an attack–there was no way to know, no way to predict it.

After a moment she heard the bathroom door open. Soft familiar hands touched her arm. Rayvenna took her hand and squeezed it. “Corie sent me to check on you. Hey. You’re sweating.”

“And your hands are like ice.”

Rayvenna drew her hand away. “I heard what he said.”

Mel blew out her breath. “I’m sorry. I didn’t want that. But I bet he’d just love to have sex with you. Asshole.”

“It’s okay,” said Rayvenna. She took a deep breath. “Do you think he has a point, though?”

Mel stared at her. “Are you serious?”

“Well, I mean–about kids. Maybe he has a point.”
“I thought you said you didn’t want kids.”

“Well, I used to think that, but–I don’t know, maybe I would someday–”

Mel felt the ground beneath her slipping away, like she was back in the earthquake. “Are you saying you want kids? Well, fine, have kids. I don’t care. I won’t hold you back. Find a man and have some. I can’t help you there.”

“Mel, that’s not what I’m saying!”

“Then what are you saying? Just say it. I’m sick of all the implications around here and the innuendos and no one really says what they mean. I’m sick of having my judgment questioned. I’m sick of dealing with everyone else’s issues and problems and I just want one thing to go well, for once in the past year. I want something to go right.”

Rayvenna’s face closed off. “It’ll be fine, Mel. Today will be fine. I’d better go back to Corie.”

Mel stared at her, recognizing the mood she’d seen in Rayvenna the day they’d met. It wasn’t calmness, but a barrier–a sheet of glass over a choppy ocean. “I’m sorry, Ray,” she said, her shoulders tense.

“It’s okay,” Rayvenna said, but Mel felt it wasn’t entirely. They pressed their lips together, but the kiss was cool.

Rayvenna went back in the bathroom. Paul came out, scowling. “Where the hell did that come from?”

“What?”

“I heard it all too. Rayvenna didn’t deserve that. What’s your problem? Why are you looking for a fight?”

“I’m not!”

“You are. You’re wanting someone to fight.”

“I want today to be peaceful. Everyone else wants to preach to me.”

“For someone who wants a perfect day, you have a hell of a chip on your shoulder.”

“It’s not for me. It’s for Corie. It has to be perfect, for Corie.”

“Ha! Corie’s happy with today for what it is. You’re the one who wants it perfect. But you can’t make it that way. Why can’t you accept one good day? Not perfect–just good?”

Mel opened her mouth, then closed it again. Finally she said, “But everyone else–”

“Forget them.” Paul held her by the shoulders and looked in her eyes. “Mel, let today be what it is. Leave everything else behind.”

Everything? Mel thought about it. The Day. Corie’s injury. Their future dreams. Rayvenna’s lost boyfriend. A week in an RV. The biggest breakdown of her life. Without The Day, she and Corie wouldn’t have met Rayvenna.

“I can’t leave it behind,” she said. “It’s part of who I am. Who we are.”

Mel loved them equally, but differently. Rayvenna and Corie were separate people–not similar, but not opposites either. Some of the Warehouse called them a triad, but that didn’t feel right to Mel. A triad implied that each woman was a third of the relationship. But she felt like each woman was more than a third. It was like the colors of visible light. If Mel was red, and Corie was blue–then Rayvenna was green, the color they needed for completion. In pairs they made every color of the rainbow–and all together, they made the brightest light possible, the pure light that showed every other color in its true form.

In Miami, they found Rayvenna’s friends–a group of ex-hippies she’d met at Burning Man who knew survival skills and sustainable farming. In the circumstances, they’d joined up with some gang members who’d taken over a mega-store in the Miami suburbs. They’d figured that a good supply source offered the best chance of survival. When people started dying over the next few months–of lung disease, exposure, and dehydration–the Warehouse did their best to take care of their own. Dr. Green developed a rehabilitation program for Corie, and when the doctor got too busy, Rayvenna took over as her assistant.
Mel often saw Corie and Rayvenna together, their heads bent over a book, reading out loud to each other. At first Mel felt jealous, then guilty as she felt like her place should be beside Corie. But she was busy helping fortify the Warehouse and she couldn’t do more for her partner. Rayvenna was much better for the job. When Corie was depressed late at night, frustrated with her limitations, she asked Mel to hold her–and Rayvenna too. Corie said, “Sunshine,” and Mel understood exactly what she meant. When all three women embraced, it seemed natural and right–like light coming through an open window.

When foreign armies showed up on U.S. soil, the Warehouse strengthened their natural defenses. The community took each day as it came. Every so often, there were arguments–usually about whether Miami was a sustainable place to live long-term, how bad things were in the Eastern Hemisphere, and whether the group should relocate somewhere safer like Europe or West Africa. A few people left. The Warehouse was home, though, and the group stayed.

Rayvenna earned a place in the Warehouse because of her friends. Mel showed off her rusty knowledge of supervolcanoes–she predicted the long-term climate change, warned them about acid snow, and estimated a ten-year period of crop failures. On some level, it amused her that the resident scientist of the Warehouse was really an ornithologist–specializing in a dead species, no less. At least Yellowstone had wiped her grad school debt.

Everyone else thought the three-way marriage had been Rayvenna’s idea–something weird from her counter-culture past. But the idea had been Corie’s. Late one October night, the three women lay together in their king-sized bed in the home-decorating section. Corie had made great progress that day–she’d read an entire page of text without stumbling and remembered details an hour later. She’d already recovered more than Mel dared hope for. More often now, Mel saw that spark in her–the one that felt like the old Corie.

“Mel,” she said, “When are we getting married?”

“We already are,” Mel told her. She glanced at Rayvenna, on the other side of Corie as she always was. Rayvenna reached over and squeezed Mel’s hand. Mel looked at her partner again. “We’ve been married for a while now. It was sort of gradual, but we’re doing all the things married people would do.”

“I didn’t get my, my–my wedding. Did I forget it?”

Mel shook her head. “I’m sorry, hon. I wanted to give it to you.”

“And we’re not, not. Married. I know we’re not. Ray’s not.”

Mel was confused. “No, Ray’s never been married.”

“I want to marry Ray.”

Mel and Rayvenna looked at each other. Finally, Mel said, “Ray will stay with us, Corie. She’s not leaving.”

“She has to marry–marry us,” insisted Corie. “I want my wedding. And I want Ray too. And you, Mel. All of us.”

Mel’s mind unfolded, like the pieces of a cardboard box.

The next morning, she talked to Luisa, who thought it was a wonderfully romantic idea. She and Jess hunted down a nearby church, one that they thought would be suitable for the event. To Mel’s surprise, the whole Warehouse got involved. Everyone threw themselves into wedding planning: ex-hippies, ex-gang members, and ex-ordinary people. It was a good distraction from everyday survival. For a while it felt unreal to Mel, then she was overcome with worry. Nothing they could do would be good enough for the loves of her life.

Mel stood alone outside the chapel. Rayvenna and Corie were still in the bathroom. Paul had brought Mel here to wait for her entrance. Someone had swept away the ash, and the hall was cleaner than the rest of the church. Mel still felt tense and angry–like if one more thing went wrong, she’d break down. Don’t be silly, she told herself, you’ve been through much worse.

True, another part of her said, but this is supposed to redeem it all.

The music rolled out through the hallway. Amazed, Mel listened to the notes, like something from childhood memory. A piano–a nice one, from the sound of it–playing “Here Comes the Bride.” Where had a piano come from? And who was playing it?

Paul opened the door for her, the fake poinsettia still behind his ear. “Everybody’s ready,” he said, smiling. “Come on in.”

Mel’s eyes widened. Through the door she saw hundreds of poinsettias, clustered around the small chapel. The red-and-green centerpiece on the altar blossomed like a holiday garden. White candles, wreathed with pine, flickered on the sides of the pews. Collagework covered the walls–thousands of pictures, carefully clipped from bridal magazines. Green garlands edged the windows at the chapel’s sides, framing the snowy scene outdoors. Red and green ribbons draped down from the ceiling, connected to a suspended cluster of–

“Mistletoe!” she exclaimed.

Paul laughed. “We thought you three might need an excuse to kiss each other.”

“Where did you get all this?”

“From all over. We’ve been working hard. The worst part was trying to keep it a surprise.”

“It’s amazing,” Mel whispered, turning her head so she could take it all in. The room smelled like gingerbread air freshener. In the pews stood forty-three Warehouse members. Mel saw their faces, smiling at her–Jess, who’d taught her how to cook on an open fire. Okapi, who’d listened to her late one night when she needed to talk. Yusef, who’d built the simple machines Corie used for her physical therapy. Dr. Green was playing the piano, she noticed with surprise. So many people were here, all watching her, the shorter people straining on tiptoe to look over the crowd. The Warehouse kids were in the front row, where they could see everything.

Too late, Mel realized she’d left her bow tie on the sanctuary floor. Dammit. She wanted to run and grab it. But the music was playing, and she was supposed to go in. Her eyes dampened. She looked at Paul. His eyes were filled with love. It was the same love from all the people inside this chapel, who’d dedicated weeks to creating the perfect day for her. They had done all this for her, all this gorgeous hard work, and she’d lost her damn bow tie.

Mel touched her neck, trying to decide what to do. Paul saw the gesture and ran out the door, looking at the floor as he went. Mel tried to explain where it was, and her throat choked.

Screw the tie. I’m going in, just like I am.

She marched down the aisle, feeling all eyes on her. She held her head high. The walk to the altar was short, about twenty steps, but felt like forever as her heart pounded. Mel planted her feet firmly on the floor before the altar. Luisa, their impromptu minister, leaned forward and hugged her. She whispered, “Do you like the place?”

“It’s incredible,” said Mel. “And that dress for Corie!”
Luisa’s face was already red and blotchy. “Berta would have loved a wedding like this,” she said, and smiled at Mel. She took a Kleenex out of her pocket and dabbed at her eyes.

Mel remembered that Luisa’s daughter had been engaged. She’d lived on the Air Force base in Colorado Springs. Mel touched Luisa’s shoulder in sympathy, but the older woman shrugged her off. “None of that now,” she said, still smiling. “Berta is watching, you know.”

Mel nodded. The music kept playing. Mel turned to face the back of the chapel, where her brides would arrive. They’d planned an entrance–rehearsed it a few times–but everything was going crazy today. Where were they? Had something happened to Corie–another episode? Something worse? Was Rayvenna still angry at her? She couldn’t be so angry that she’d leave now. Would she?

Paul raced through the door and saw Mel at the altar. He paused, the bow tie dangling in his hand. Finally he walked up the aisle and offered her the tie. He turned to the audience. “Sorry I’m not a blushing bride,” he said. Laughter swept the room. Paul took his place next to Mel. She was glad he was there.

Mel had a lump in her throat as she hooked the bow tie into place. She stood there for what felt like hours, listening to Dr. Green patiently play “Here Comes the Bride” on repeat. The crowd was restless. Mel took a deep breath. Paul was right. Whatever happened today, it was hers–and Corie’s, and Rayvenna’s. White light against darkness. Past the windows at the chapel sides, the snow fell heavily. The wind picked up outside, blowing dirty snow against the streaky glass.

“We now interrupt the wedding in progress to have a blizzard,” someone called from the audience. Even Luisa cracked up. Mel forced a smile. The crowd talked among themselves above the piano music. Overhead, she heard someone walking around on the roof. Boots, heavy ones. Maybe Jake’s. What if something was happening out there?

“Paul, where are they?” Mel asked.

Relax,” he said. “It’ll all be fine. They’ll be here in a minute.”

“I’m scared,” she blurted out. “What if it goes all wrong?”

Paul sighed. “Want me to go see what’s happening?”

Mel almost said yes, then she paused. It already has gone all wrong. But we’re still here, aren’t we? She shook her head, glad that Paul was there with her, glad for this moment.

And then her brides were at the chapel door. The audience fell silent, leaving only the music. Corie’s wedding dress was tacked to the chair with three long strips of duct tape. Rayvenna grinned, held up the empty roll in triumph, and tossed it aside. Mel wanted to laugh and cry at the same time. Of course they hadn’t practiced with the dress. They hadn’t known there would be a dress. Rayvenna couldn’t move Corie alone, so she had to improvise. That’s what we do, Mel thought. Just work with what we’ve got, and do the best we can.

Rayvenna pushed Corie down the aisle. Both were the most beautiful women in the world, each in her own way. Their faces shone in the candlelight. Rayvenna’s held forgiveness and love, while Corie’s radiated a joy brighter than anything Mel had ever seen. Thank God, she thought. No, a mischievous side of her answered, thank the divine RV.

Mel broke into laughter as her brides arrived, a genuine joy she hadn’t felt in months. The three of them held hands in a circle, then turned to face the altar. Everything had gone wrong. Today was perfect.

____
Copyright 2008 Vylar Kaftan

by C.S.E. Cooney

There’s that old saying:

Truth is costly, dearly bought.
Want it free? Ask a sot.

Don’t you believe it. There’s no wisdom in wine, just as there’s no brevity in beer. And while I don’t accuse Da of malice aforethought, I wouldn’t have minded some–any!–aforethought in this case, being as times are harrowed enough, without you add magic in our midst.

In a fit of drunkenness, Da had slobbered out the sort of rumor our own local pubbies wouldn’t half heed, chin-drowned in gin as they were. But the Archabbot’s Pricksters from Winterbane, having hungry ears for this sort of thing, ate the rumor right up and followed him home. To me.

“And just who are these nice folks, Da?” I asked as he stumbled through my new-swept kitchen. The Pricksters who had trooped in after stood in a half circle. They blocked the door, thumbs in their belts, staring.

“My friends, Gordie!” he belched. “Best friends a man could have.”

If these were friends, I’d sooner have climbed out the back window than face his enemies. Poor drunken bastard. By this time of night, the whole world was his friend.

I curtsied with scant grace, and they smiled with scant lips, and Da fell to his cot. His beatific snores started midway between air and pillow. I looked again at the Pricksters. No question they were strangers to Feisty Wold, but anyone awake to the world would recognize them. They each wore a row of needles on their bandoliers, a set of shackles on their belts right hip and left, and there were silver bells and scarlet flowers broidered on their boots to protect them from Gentry mischief.

“Miss,” they said.

“Misters and Mistresses,” said I. “Care for a drink? We have milk straight from the udder, or the finest well-water in Feisty Wold.”

I did not let Da keep spirits under Mam’s roof–not if he wanted his clothes mended and his meals regular. Truth be told, he’d do near anything in her name. It was not her dying that had driven him to drink. It’d been her living that had kept him from it.

The head Prickster waved away my offer with a gauntleted hand. Her hair was scraped back under the bright red hat of captaincy, leaving large handsome ears and a strong neck exposed. She was a good-looking enough woman, but even under other circumstances, I’d’ve her disliked her on sight, for the pinch at her nose and cold glint in her squinted eyes.

She said, “Your honored father has been boasting of his only daughter.”

I never had that trick of arching just one eyebrow. Both shot up before my frown mastered them.

“Nothing much to boast of, as you see,” said I.

“Your unrivaled beauty?” suggested the Prickster woman.

“Pah,” was my reply, and several of the other Pricksters nodded in agreement. Not a lot of beauty here, just your average pretty, and only that by candlelight and a kindness of the eye.

“How about your, shall we say, quiet success with your cattle?”

“Annat’s the grandest milk cow in the Wold,” I retorted, bristling. “Wise and mild, as fertile as she’s fair. And Manu’s worth three of any other bull I’ve met. A sweetheart still, for all he’s kept his balls. Bought those cattle both myself from a farm at Quartz-Across-the-Water, with some money my mam left me.”

“Yes,” grunted the Prickster woman, “so we’ve heard. And just what was your mother, pray?”

“My mam?” I asked. “She…”

Had sung a thousand songs while washing dishes. Had woken me at night to watch stars falling. Had made us hot chocolate for sipping while the thunder gods drummed. Couldn’t sew a seam for damn, but could untangle any knot given her. Walked long hours on the shore, or under the leafy Valwode, which is now forbidden. Had sickened during the First Invasion and slowly faded through the Second. Said her last words in a whisper. Left her man a wreck and me in charge. Missed her every morning first thing as I woke.

“Was your mother Gentry?” the Prickster woman pressed.

“My mam?” I asked again, stupidly.

“Did she pass along her Gentry ways to the daughter of her blood?”

“She’s wasn’t a…”

“Where did you get the money for those cattle?”

“I told you, from…”

“Yes, your mother. And what a wealth she must have left you. Does her immortal Gentry magic flow through your veins?”

What?”

“Your uncanny talent’s hidden in your surname. Faircloth.”

“That’s Da’s name, for his Da was a tailor. Himself,” I indicated the treacherous snore-quaker on the cot, “was defty with a needle before the shakes got to his hands. Mam was an Oakhewn before she married him.”

The Prickster woman smiled and my little kitchen grew chill and dim. I’d’ve laid another log on the hearth if I dared.

“Ah, yes. Now we come to it, Miss Faircloth. Your honored father. This evening in Firshaw’s Pub, he boasted to one and all that as he loves his soul, his only daughter, comely as a summer cloud, clever as a cone spider, has fingers so lively she can spin straw into gold. What say you to that, unnatural girl?”

“I can’t spin to save my life,” I blustered. “Not nettle-flax nor cotton thread nor silk!”

“You’re lying,” said the Prickster woman, and drew a needle from her bandolier.

I knew what it was for. Three drops of blood, no more no less, to be kept in a small glass vial. Later tested by the Archabbot’s wizards. If they found my blood tasted of honey, if it sparkled in the dark, if it cured the sick or lame, if it caused a maid to fly when the moon was full, or bewitched a man into loving only me, I’d be doomed and dead and damned.

Of course, I knew my blood would do none of these things, but I fought the needle anyway. My blood was mine, and it belonged to me, and I belonged here, and if they took me away to Winterbane, who would care for my cows?

“Bind and blind you!” I shouted. “I’m no Gentry-babe, no changeling! I was born in Feisty Wold! Right here in this kitchen–right there on that hearth! Ask the neighbors! Ask the midwife, who is the old midwife’s daughter. Me, I don’t know a spindle from a spearhead! Let me go! Hex your hearts, you blackguards!”

I think I bit one of them. I hope it was the woman. I tried to wake Da with screaming, but he snored on, bubbles popping at the crease of his lips. In the end, I called to my cows, “Annat! Manu! To the woods! To the wild! Let no mortal milk you, nor yoke you, nor lead you to the ax! To the woods! Be you Gentry beasts, to graze forever in the Valwode–so long as you be safe!”

In retrospect, I realize that this was the wrong thing to have shouted. I shouldn’t have shouted at all, in fact. I ought to have been docile and indulgent. I ought to’ve exposed Da as the only sot in town who could light a fire with his farts alone. I ought to’ve paid them off, or batted my eyelashes or begged, or something.

But I didn’t.

So it was that the Pricksters of Avillius III, Archabbot of all monasteries in Leressa, our Kingdom Without A King, collared me, caged me, and carted me off in chains to the Holy See at Winterbane.

Don’t think I’m the only victim in Feisty Wold. The Archabbot’s Pricksters are everywhere, in numbers and urgency ever increasing since the Gentry Invasions began twenty years ago. You can meet them any time, smaller teams combing our island villages, or strolling in force around the greater towns and cities across the water on Leressa proper.

They’ll haul an old gray gramamma all the way to the Holy See just for sitting in a rocker and singing while she knits. It might be a spell, after all–a Gentry grass-trap that will open a hole in the ground for the unwary to fall through–or a Wispy luring like the one that bogged King Lorez on the swamp roads and drowned him dead. (Not that many grumbled over that. “Old Ironshod,” we called him, on account he liked to stomp on people’s throats.) You can guess how long gramamma survives in His Grace the Archabbot’s forgetting hole, down in the darkness without food or warmth.

Not long ago, the Pricksters bagged a young schoolteacher at Seafall just because he kept both a cat and a dog as pets (this being unnatural). He tested mortal on all counts. Cold iron didn’t scorch him. His blood dried brown. Starved just like a real man when fed on naught but nectar. Did that prove anything? No–the Pricksters got all muttery about changelings having better mortal glamours than their pureblood forebears, therefore harsher methods must be applied!

Out came the dunking stool, and there drowned a nice man. His poor dog and cat were driven off the cliff at Seafall and into the tides below.

I know we’re supposed to hate the Gentry for killing our king, for putting his daughter into a poisoned sleep for (they say) one hundred years, and enchanting his son to look like a bear. For the many thefts and murders that made up the First Gentry Invasion, we should despise them, ring our iron bells at dawn and at dusk to drive them out of range, never leave the house in summer but we primp ourselves in daisy chains, or wreaths of mistletoe in winter. For the horrors of the Second Invasion we should take right vengeance–for the wives and daughters and sisters who bore Gentry-babes as a result of passing through a fall of light, a strong wind, a field of wildflowers. For the appropriation of our wombs and the corruption of our children.

But some of us ask questions.

Why did the Gentry invade at all, when our people have always coexisted in a sort of scrap-now, make-up later, meet-you-again-at-market-maybe, rival siblings’ harmony, occasionally intermarrying, mostly ignoring each other? All easy enough to do, what with that Veil between our worlds, the Gentry keeping mostly to the wild Valwode, us mortals to our mills and tilled earth and stone cities. Why did they invade, why so viciously, and why in our retaliation did we turn against ourselves?

Some of us ask these questions. I’m not saying I’m one of them. I’m no troublemaker, but I always listened, especially to Mam as she washed dishes, and later when she did nothing but stare out the window and whisper to herself.

The closer my cage-on-wheels came to Winterbane, the more these questions weighed on me.

Let them be as locks upon my lips. Let me say nothing that will bring me further harm. Let Da at home wake with the world’s worst headache but with memory enough to milk Annat and let Manu to pasture. Gods or ghosts or Gentry. Any who will listen. Hear my plea.

Avillius III had rosy cheeks and lively light blue eyes. His white hair had all but receded, but the baldness suited him, made him seem sleek and streamlined, like a finch about to take flight. He was slight, his skin only faintly lined. His robes were modest blue wool with no gold crusting, and he played with his miter as though it were a toy. A young lady in the undyed cotton shift of the Novitiate sat on a stool near his knee. Her hair drew my eye, a russet thorn bush just barely beaten into submission, curling like a tail over her shoulder.

She looked at me, and I could see the fox in her eyes.

Changeling, I thought, Gentry-babe. Foxface. Skinslipper.

She looked at me with slotted yellow eyes that saw everything, even those things I’d hoped to keep hidden: the opal on my finger, the locket at my throat, the cow hair on my skirt. All the songs my mam had ever sung me fisted in my throat.

She smiled at me, and I could not help but smile back, though the Prickster guard at my elbow jostled me into a bow.

“Your Grace,” he said, “we picked this one up at Feisty Wold. Her own father claimed, out loud and in the public house, that she spins straw into gold. As you know, such gifts are a trait of Gentry royalty. Her mother was a woodcutter’s daughter, so she claims. But the Veil Queen sometimes glamours herself as common raff and lives a spell in the mortal world. Could be this girl is her get.”

I snorted, very quietly. Surely any Veil Queen worth her antler crown would’ve chosen better for herself than Da. Even when young and sober and ruby-lipped with charm, he can’t have been much of a prize.

I felt the foxgirl look at me again, but did not dare meet her yellow eyes.

“Good afternoon, young lady,” said the Archabbot in a kindly way. He leaned forward on his great, curvy chair, hands on knees. I swear his nostrils flared.

“Morning, Your Grace.”

I looked at his face and read nothing but concern. Was this the face of the monster who drowned a man for keeping a dog and a cat under the same roof? Was this the highest authority of the red-capped woman who had insulted my mother and dragged me in chains from Feisty Wold?

I reminded myself to take care, to beware–no matter how syrupy and convincing the Archabbot’s voice when he asked:

“Are you Gentry then, child? Do not fear confession; it is not your fault if you are. Are we to be blamed for the indiscretions of our parents? If indeed you have a talent for ore-making, why, you are still half-mortal, little spinner, and may use it for the good of mortal kind.”

“Your Grace.” My voice echoed in that vast glass-paned hall. “I have no gift but for calming the cow Annat so she’ll stand for milking. Or for leading the bull Manu ‘round a shadow on the ground he mistook for a snake. I’m a milkmaid, not a spinner, and my mam was a woodcutter’s daughter. She could whittle a face from a twig, but I did never see her vanish into the heart of a tree. We’re just plain folk. And Da’s a drunk fool, which is why he was tongue-wagging at Firshaw’s in the first place!”

The Archabbot nodded and sat back, idly stroking the foxgirl’s russet tail of hair. His eyes were lidded now, all that avid interest shuttered. Still with that curling smile, he asked the foxgirl, “Is she telling the truth, Candia?”

That wench ain’t Gentry-born.” Her voice was rough and low, like a barmaid’s after decades of pipe smoke and gin. Her years could not have numbered more than twelve. Her voice was well at odds with her irregular, gawky features, her translucent skin. “There is something about her, though.” Her gaze flickered quickly to my ring, my locket, my narrowing eyes. With a shrug of her pointed shoulders, she finished, “She does look sly, don’t she? Shifty-eyed. Tricks up her sleeve. Up to just about anything. Your Grace, I’ve no doubt she could somehow manage to turn straw to gold if she wished!”

“I don’t wish it!” I flashed, angry at the lie. “Who would?”

The foxgirl, with a quick sharp grin, seemed about to reply when the Archabbot tweaked her tail. The motion was short but vehement. Tears stood out in her eyes from the sting.

“Enough, Candia.”

The Archabbot’s hands bore no jewel but a thick colorless seal. Cold iron. I was not close enough to make out the mould, but I felt the violence in it, as if the ring had smashed across a hundred faces, as if the memory of shattered bones and broken teeth hovered all about it. I wondered if the foxgirl felt the threat of iron every time he touched her. Doubtless.

“I am satisfied that this woman is not Gentry-born,” the Archabbot announced. “Have I not had it on authority of the Abbacy’s own housetrained Gentry-babe?” This, stroking the head of the novice. “Therefore, I deem that Miss…”

“Gordie,” I said.

“…Gordenne Faircloth,” continued the Archabbot.

“Gordie Oakhewn.” But I only muttered it.

“…shall be retained at Winterbane as a…a guest…until the confusion surrounding her alleged talent is resolved. After all, it is obvious she has a splendid power, one that princes will covet and alchemists envy. And if her power is not a curse of the Gentry, it may prove to be a gift of the gods. Candia, will you show her to her…”

But the words fell unfinished from his mouth. The Archabbot bounded to his feet, looking at something past my shoulder. The roses on his cheeks spread until even the crest of his skull glowed. No longer did he seem kind and concerned. Angry as a salamander in a snowstorm, more like. I shrank back. There was no cover for me, no escape.

“Good afternoon, your grace,” said a voice behind me. I shrank from that too, for the sound sent sick ripples up and down my spine. I had no place left to go but inside myself and very still.

The Archabbot spat, “The Holy See does not recognize the petitions of pretenders!”

“I did not come to petition, Your Grace. I came to attain your little ore-maker here. My army has need of her services.”

I spun around then, hoping that the speaker–whoever he was–did not mean who I thought he meant. The tallest man I’d ever seen stared right down into my face. Me. He’d meant me.

“My dear, my fairest Gordenne Faircloth! I am your obedient servant. Allow me to make my bow!” He did, and the very jauntiness of the gesture mocked me. “Rumor has it you spin straw into gold.”

Whatever sauce I’d served to the Prickster woman had dried with my spit on the long ride to Winterbane. I could only shake my head, mute.

The man’s hair was like sunlight striking dew, his eyes so cold and bright and gray that they speared me where I stood. He laughed to see my look, casually swinging his red cloak off his shoulder to hand to his page.

The youth untangled the rich cloth and folded it over his arm. His movements were graceful though he was a gangly thing. His face tugged at me, familiar and strange. Red hair. Slotted eyes. A face too triangular to be completely human.

It all came clear.

The tall man and his cruel mouth faded from the forefront of my mind. Even the Archabbot’s fury slipped away. My ears filled with silence, a roar, a twinned heartbeat. All I saw were two Gentry-babes staring at each other with whole other worlds widening their yellow eyes. If I could imagine words to fit what flared between them, they would go like this:

“Brother!”

“Sister!”

“You are unhurt?”

“Yes, unhurt. You? Unhappy?”

“Not unhappy. But unwhole.”

“How you have changed!”

“How I have missed you!”

“Say nothing.”

“Be still.”

“Look away.”

The lightning of their gazes sparked once, went dark. As if such shuttings off had been polished by practice. The foxgirl gave me a furtive look from under the bloody fringe of her lashes. I had only a dizzy countenance to show her. No time, however, to further unmuzzle this mystery, for the tall man grabbed my right elbow, and the Archabbot darted down his dais to grab my left.

“General,” said Avillius III, “our interrogations here have not yet reached a satisfactory conclusion. We must retain Miss Faircloth for further questioning, perhaps rehabilitation…”

The tall man smiled. “I myself heard your little vulpona bitch pronounce this maiden mortalborn. As she does not traffic with the dark spirits of the Valwode, Winterbane has no jurisdiction over her.”

“If Winterbane has none, Jadio has less so!”

“No, no jurisdiction,” laughed the tall man, “but an army at my back. Come, Miss Faircloth; my palace awaits you. Your Grace, I am your most humble…” He laughed again, and did not finish.

It was then I knew what I stood between. On my left, Avillius III, who, with his Pricksters and his parish priests, wanted total control over Leressa, secular as well as spiritual. On my right, the one man who stood in his way: the great General Jadio, Commander of the Kingless Armies, and Leressa’s unofficial liege lord.

My nose had swelled shut, my eyes burned, and my throat was parched.

Had I been crying, sobbing, begging General Jadio on bended knee for my freedom? No. Wouldn’t have done any good anyway. Jadio was a right monster, no mistake, and if you could prove that blood ran through his veins instead of bitter winter waters, I’d eat my own dairy stool.

What I had done was been shut up in a silo with enough straw to stuff a legion of scarecrows. From the itching in my arms and the tickle in my nose, I apprehended a heretofore unknown but deeply personal reaction to straw. In sufficient quantities, and given enough time, the straw might actually murder me.

Time was one thing I didn’t have.

If I didn’t spin all of this sneeze-making, hive-inducing stuff to gold by dawn–so declared my gold-haired, laughing captor–I’d be hung toe-first from an iron tree, pocked by stones and pecked by crows until I had no flesh left to pock or peck, and by which time, I’d heed neither foul wind nor fair, for, and I quote, “the dead feel no discomfort.”

Huddled in a hollow between mounds of the wretched straw, I stewed.

How are you supposed to spend your last hours? Praying? Cursing?

The first option was out. I was too mad to pray. Who did the gods think they were anyway, sticking people like Jadio and Avillius in charge, who were good for nothing but drowning dogs and mangling men and was that any good at all? It was the gods that killed my mam with a long, low fever that had sapped even her smile, the gods that drew the Pricksters to Feisty Wold, snatching me up and leaving my cows in the care of drunken folk like Da. A pox of itches on the gods. I’d rather be a heathen and worship the beauty of the Valwode, like the Gentry.

Curses it was.

So I bundled up a fistful of straw into two tight bunches perpendicular to each other and bound them tightly with thread torn from the hem of my skirt. I used another ravel of thread to differentiate the head from its cross-shaped body. Holding the poppet high with my left hand, I glared at it and growled:

“General Jadio, Commander of the Kingless Armies, I curse thee, that all thy wars will be unwon and all thy wenches as well. Oh, and,” I hastened to add, forgetting formality, “that, being as they are unwon, you lose all taste for war and wenching until you sicken and turn flaccid. And when you die, I hope it’s a querulous and undignified death. You jackass.”

I punched the little bundle with short, vicious jabs until the threads loosened and the whole thing burst apart. The straw fell. I gathered up a fresh fistful and fashioned another faceless poppet.

“Avillius III, Archabbot of Winterbane, I curse thee, that your shackled pet will bring thy order to ruin. That she will escape you, to rouse mortals and immortals alike under the banner of the red fox and win Leressa back for all free people. I curse thee to rot forgotten in thine own forgetting hole, and that after thy death, the word “Archabbot” is used only in stories to frighten uppity children.”

I kicked the poppet so hard it flew up over my head and was lost somewhere behind me. Wiped my nose. Went on. There was nothing else I could do.

I’d have spun gold from that straw if I could, spun until my fingers were raw, I was that scared. The creeping cold fear numbed even my screaming red skin. But Annat the cow might as soon have used that spinning wheel as I. I bent to work on another straw doll. Shook it and squeezed it until I felt the muscles standing out in my neck. Rage choked me, thickening my words.

“Prickster woman who dared blood me, who mocked my mother and took the word of a known sot as law, I curse thee to get lost in the Valwode without thy rowan-berry-broidered boots or silver bells, and to suffer what befalls thee there! That thou wilt be dragged before the Veil Queen herself for judgment and be shown such mercy as thou hast shown me.”

I spat on the poppet, wrenched off its head, and crushed it under my heel.

One more bundle. Just one more. Then I’d stop. I was tired, though outside the silo I was certain it was not yet dusk. Besides, if I kept on, I’d fray my only skirt past the decency required for burial. Not that Jadio had any plans to bury me, I’d been assured. Burn my remains, maybe. After they’d been displayed a goodly time.

“Da,” I said. I stopped. My eyes filled up. Blight this straw. If only I could sneeze, I’d feel better.

“What’s the point, Da? She died and left us, didn’t she? Any punishment after that would only pale. Poor bastard. Oh, Da. When your pickled innards finally burst to bloody spew, I hope you die with a smile on your face. That’s all.”

I laid the little effigy gently on the ground and covered it.

“Does it help?” asked a voice from the corner, near to where the spinning wheel stood.

My head snapped up too quickly, and that’s when the sneezes started. One–two–three–four–five–six–seven! So violent they knocked me backward into a pile of, that’s right, straw, which jostled another bigger pile into toppling all over me. Dust and critters and dry bits filled my nose and mouth until I flailed with panic. But a pair of hands locked around my wrists and pulled. I was heaved out from under the avalanche. Exhumed. Brushed off. Set down upon a stool. And smiled at.

Which is how I found myself face to face with the ugliest man I’d ever seen.

Now, I got nothing against ugliness. As I’ve said, I’m no Harvest Bride myself, to be tarted up in fruits and vines and paraded about the village on a pumpkin-piled wagon. General Jadio was pretty much the prettiest man I’d seen to date and right then I was in the mood to cheerfully set fire to his chiseled chin.

This man was an inch or two shorter than I and so thin as to be knobbly. His crooked shoulders were surmounted by a painful-looking hump, and his wrists stuck out from ragged sleeves. A mass of hair swirled around his head in unruly black tangles, framing a face irregular with scars. His mouth, well… Was smiling. In sympathy. And though some of his teeth were crooked, some too sharp and some completely missing, those he had kept seemed to glow in the dark.

Besides the teeth, it was his eyes gave him away, set at a slant so long and sly. The starry black of his stare left no room for white.

“You’re Gentry!” I stammered.

“Me? You just hexed four folks in effigy,” he said.

Red and sweaty and covered in rash as I was, maybe he wouldn’t notice that I blushed.

“Mam always told me hexes only work if you’ve a bit of the hexies with you,” I explained. “To put in the poppet, like? Fingernails or hair or a bit of their…. You know. Fluids. Plus, you must be magic to begin with. And I’m not.”

“Mortal to the bone,” he agreed, smiling. His smile sort of made his face disappear, the way certain smiles do. He had a good voice too. Not as smoky as the foxgirl’s, but greener and freer, like it had matured by sunlight. And if I was mortal to my bone, that is where his voice echoed, and I trembled there.

He plucked a poppet from his sleeve and dangled it. ‘Twas either Da or the Archabbot; I couldn’t tell, nor how he’d managed to unearth the thing without my noticing.

“What did your hexies do to deserve such censure?”

“Cads,” I snorted, “one and all. They took me from my cows and slandered me with lies and forgot to feed and water me. In a very few hours, one of them will kill me for not being the miracle maid he says I am. And that’s after he does whatever comes before the killing.”

“What does he say you are, miracle maid?”

“Spinner,” I told him, “ore-maker. Sent by the gods to the armies of Jadio to change all their straw to gold. Thus will the soldiers of the Kingless Army, richly clad and well-armed, march against the Gentry demons and purge Leressa of their foulness. Pah!” I spat, though I had nothing left to spit with. “Had I a hammer, a piece of flint and some steel, I’d break that spinning wheel to splinters and use it for kindling. This place would go up in a poof and me with it. I wasn’t born to hang.”

The little dark man laughed. A green flame erupted in the palm of his hand, shooting sparks so high I flinched. He blew lightly on the flames until they spiraled up to flirt with his fingertips.

“Say the word, lady. If truly thou wouldst have this death, it is in my power to give it thee.”

I, despite my morose boast, said nothing.

Laughing again, the little dark man urged the green flames to chase up his arm, his neck, his face, the crown of his head, where they raced in gleeful circles. By their weird light, the silo seemed a vast undersea trove, the mounds of straw gone verdigris as waterweeds, softly breathing.

“You do not desire the burning? All right, then. What do you wish?”

“To go home. To my cows.”

“The soldiers of Jadio will find you there and bring you back. Perhaps first they will slaughter your cows and make you feast upon their flesh, that you taste your own defiance. What do you really wish?”

“I don’t know!” I threw up my arms. “To make this go away?”

I meant everything that had occurred since Da’s ill-advised boast in Firshaw’s Pub, up to and including this current assignation, enchanting as it was. But he took it literally. He picked up a single piece of straw and tickled my nose with it.

“Where to? There will always be another cell, another spinning wheel…”

I batted the straw away. “Ah-choo!”

“Blessings befall.”

“Thank you.”

His turn to flinch.

“Oh!” I yelped. “Sorry. Mam taught me better! I know I’m not supposed to thank Gentry. She said it’s like a slap in the face to them–to you, I mean, your people–but she didn’t say why, and anyway, I forgot! Are you… Are you all right?”

He waved his hand. “It’s naught. Briefer than a sting. Like a Prickster’s needle, I’d wager.”

I pressed the pad of my thumb where three weeks ago in my own chilled kitchen my blood had welled. It was still a bit sore. I wondered suddenly what the Archabbot’s wizards might do with that tiny vial now that they knew I was no Gentry-babe. Destroy it? Drink it? Put it in a straw poppet and influence me from afar?

I shivered.

“What do you wish?” the little dark man asked for the third time. His voice was barely a whisper. I stomped my foot.

“Ack! Very well! I wish to change this mess into something that doesn’t make me sneeze.”

“Such as gold?”

“Such as gold.”

“I can do this thing.”

“Can you?” I eyed him, remembering what the Prickster had told the Archabbot about Gentry ore-makers. How only Gentry royalty had the golden touch. How my own mam must’ve been the Veil Queen herself, to have borne a child with such gifts as mine. And if I was not that child, who was he?

“Whyever would you want to?” I asked.

He shrugged. Shrugging could not have been a simple or painless gesture with those shoulders. It cost him something.

“Word reached me,” he said, “through regular but reliably suspicious channels, that you had something on your person I would find of value.”

I felt his gaze fall on my hand before I thought to cover it. As though kindled by his verdant flames, the opal began to burn green.

“This ring belonged to my mother!” I protested.

“It belonged to my mother before that,” he retorted.

“It–what?”

“What use does a milkmaid have for such a bauble?”

“For keeping’s sake. For memory.”

“Do you know what the jewel is called?”

“Yes–the Eye of… The Queen’s Eye.”

“Did your mother tell you whence she had it?”

“She said it was a gift. From a friend.”

“Your mother was my mother’s friend. Mortalborn, ignorant and common as she was, she was kind when my mother needed kindness. Not once, but twice. Give me that jewel, and I will turn this straw to gold.”

“For friendship’s sake?”

He shrugged again. How he punished himself, this little crooked man, for no reason I could tell. He was a stranger to me. But if he missed his mother half as much as I missed mine, we were kin.

“Right.” I tugged my ring a bit to loosen it, breathing deeply. “Well. Mam didn’t hold much with worldly goods anyhow. Never owned a pair of shoes but she gave them away to the first beggar she crossed.”

“I know,” said the little crooked man. “And so my mother went shod one winter’s night, when the cold had nearly killed her.”

Hearing this, I tugged harder. The ring would not come free. I’d never tried to take it off before. Fact is, until the day I’d stood before Avillius III and his clever foxgirl, I’d mostly forgotten it was there. As with Mam’s locket, which I also wore, the ring had always seemed able to hide itself. I couldn’t remember it once getting in the way of chores like dishes or milking or scrubbing floors.

Now it burned. But it wouldn’t budge.

I almost wept with frustration, but the little crooked man took hold of my hand and I quieted right down. Just like Annat, I thought, when she is upset and I scratch behind her ears…

And then he bent his head and kissed the fiery opal. Kissed that part of my hand when fingers met knuckle. Kissed me a third time on my palm where I was most astonishingly sensitive. His tongue flicked out and loosened everything. Before I knew it, the ring was in his hand.

“You are bold. But you are innocent.” He looked at me. Had Mam bequeathed me jewels enough to deck all my fingers and toes, I’d have handed them over that instant.

He slipped the silver ring onto his thumb.

“What comes next, you may not see. Dream sweet, Miss Oakhewn,” said the little crooked man, and rubbed the opal once, as if for luck.

The stone responded with a sound like a thunderclap. A flash there came like a star falling, followed by a green-drenched darkness.

I know what that is, I had time to think, that’s the sound of a Gentry grass-trap.

He’s opened one up to swallow me down, and will I sleep now a hundred years the way they do in stories when mortals fall through grass-traps in the Valwode, and will a ring of mushrooms sprout up all around me, followed by a ring of fire, and will he be there to pull me out when at last I wake…

Tar his limbs and boil his skin
Carve his skull for dipping in
Acid piss and stony stool
Wrack his eyeballs, rot his rule
All hail Jadio! Let him hang!
Long his rope and brief his reign.

My rhymes were improving. With no one to talk to in this vast dusty room but myself, all standard imprecations swiftly palled.

I stomped around Jadio’s warehouse. Slogged, more like. Not an inch of floor to be seen under all that straw, and I was knee deep in it, not to mention hampered by satin skirts. I’d lost one pearl-studded slipper already while pretending one of those straw heaps was a recumbent Jadio (sleeping peacefully and off his guard) and subsequently kicking him to death. I did not mind the slipper’s loss, but I think I pulled a muscle in my enthusiasm.

It had been an eventful month. The Kingless Armies finally had their king. With the golden skeins he had found piled high in the silo the morning after he’d set me to spinning, General Jadio had bought himself Leressa’s crown and the Archabbot’s blessing with it. (Or the appearance of a blessing. Remembering the Archabbot’s sweating red pate, his furious grip on my elbow, I was not convinced.)

King Jadio decided not to take up residence where old King Lorez’s palace lay in ruins. Lirhu is a city of ghosts, a drowned city. They say one of the Deep Lords of the ocean destroyed it with a great wave after the First Invasion, when the Crown Prince was enchanted into bear-shape and his sister sent into a hundred-year sleep, and King Lorez lured by a Will-o’-Wispy off his road, bogged in a marsh, and drowned dead.

Whether the Deep Lord had sent the wave out of solidarity with his landed Gentry-kin or out of pique because Lorez, being dead, did not tithe to the tides at the usual time and place, no one knew.

No, Jadio was too canny to repeat Old Ironshod’s mistakes. He had built his grand house inland, in a very settled city, far from any wilderness, where even the river ran tame. There he brought me, across the wide waters and away from the island where I had been born, under full guard and in chains, but dressed up in such gowns and choked with such jewels that I was the envy of all who looked on me. Plenty did. Jadio liked a good parade.

I’d glared back at every crowd he set me against. My face froze into an expression of bitter unfriendliness. Before the Pricksters had invaded my cottage, I was perhaps a bit brusque by temperament, but I’d harbored goodwill to my neighbors, and smiled and sang, proud of being Mam’s daughter and wishing to do well by her name.

Now my name might have been Stonehewn, my heart was that cold. I wished that instead of eyes, I looked with mounted cannons on the world, to blast all gawping bystanders to the other side of the Veil.

But I wasn’t quite alone. They say beggars can’t be choosy, and as Jadio’s slave I was less than a beggar. But even they (whoever they are) would’ve blinked at my choice for friend. Indeed, he was the only friend I had at Jadio House–if a milkmaid might call a fox “friend” and keep her throat untorn.

Jadio’s young page Sebastian, twin to the Archabbot’s novice, sometimes came to my cell to slip me news of the outside. If he felt generous, he’d bring a bit of fruit, or bread and cheese, along with his gossip. Jadio insisted I sup on the rarest steaks and richest wines, but I had no stomach for these victuals.

“His Majesty’ll soon have you spin again,” Sebastian had told me at his last visit.

I’d been startled. “By rights last batch should’ve lasted him three lifetimes!”

Sebastian enjoyed riling me, friend or not. He grinned, sharp-toothed. He tapped out a tattoo with his strangely jointed fingers on the bars of my door. “I’ve met some ignorant peasants in my life, but you sure do take the dunce cap, my milksop maid. Don’t you know anything? His Majesty’s been selling off yon goldie skeins like he’s afeared they’ll fall to ash.”

My eyebrows sprang high. “If the Gentry ore were going to go bad, would it not have done so overnight? I thought those were the rules.”

Sebastian shrugged. He had bony elbows and skin so clear it was like looking into a pail of skimmed milk. His rusty hair smudged his forehead like a fringe of embers.

“Depends on your enchanter. Some Gentry tricks don’t last an hour. Some last a year. Some last the life of the enchanter. Hard to say.” His forehead scrunched. In so many ways he was still a child, but creased up like that, his expression went deep and devious.

“What’s that look for?” I asked. “Is there something else?”

He nodded. “Gossip goes you must be Gentry, no matter how loudly the Archabbot proclaims you gods-gifted. Folks want you quartered in the square and all your witchy bits exposed on the Four Tors. I never did see a dead witch in pieces. Promise I can watch while they kill you?”

“Bloody-brained child!” said I, approaching the bars and prying his tapping fingers free. “You’ve lived among soldiers too long. Even your sister Candia insists I’m mortal.”

He tweaked a lock of my ash brown hair, but I pulled away before he could kip a strand.

When young Sebastian grinned, the fox flashed out in his face. Oh, in a couple of years, give this pageboy a velvet suit and silver swordstick and let him loose upon the town. Won’t be a maid within miles not pining for those sharp white teeth to bite the plumpness of her thigh.

“What Candy says and Candy thinks are as different as cat’s purr from catamount’s hunting cough. She lies all the time, for spite or jest, and ‘specially when the Archabbot tugs her hair. She hates that, always has. Might even have lied for the sheer wanton pleasure of it. Never can tell. Not even me.”

“Do you lie as well as your sister, Sebastian?”

“His Majesty does not let me lie.” The foxboy showed me a thin ring of iron welded about his left wrist. I had one like it, but of gold. A braid of the gold thread I had ostensibly spun for him, to remind me of my place.

“Nor may I change my shape, nor pierce the Veil between worlds with my Gentry sight. He’ll have his cub to heel, he says.”

Sebastian’s yellow eyes with their thin vertical pupils warned me not to put my trust in him. That though he may like and pity me, he was treacherous by nature. And had been a prisoner longer.

“What do you think I am?” I asked him.

“I know what you are,” the foxboy answered with a gods-may-care shrug. “Fair warning, Gordie. You’ll be put to spinning soon.”

He’d been right. Not three days after that conversation, here I was. A warehouse stuffed with straw and my ears stuffed with dire death threats if I didn’t do something about it. Gold was wanted. Mounds of gold. Pounds of gold. Gold to rival a field of daffodils on a sunny day.

My lot hadn’t notably improved since the last time I’d been locked up with enough straw to make a giant’s mattress tick, though I was perhaps cleaner as I paced and sneezed, lavished with lavender soap as I was, my hair braided with ropes of pearls, half a pair of useless slippers on my feet. This time, the spinning wheel squatting in the middle of the warehouse was made of solid silver. None of it helped me. I was still going to die at dawn.

All I could do was invent couplets to curse my captor with.

All hail Jadio: let him hang
Long his rope and brief his reign
Yank his innards, chop his head…

A voice I had not heard in a whole month finished: “Grind his bones to make my bread!

Unthinking, I laughed, spinning on my heel all the way around. Haste lost me my battle for balance. From a heap of satin and straw, I sat up again and craned for the voice–there he was! My hunch-backed goblin wreathed in smiles, straddling the spinning wheel’s stool, with his arms draped over the machine and his head resting on crossed wrists.

He, too, looked less raggedy than last time. Perhaps he had combed his hair once or twice in the days since I met him. My opal still flickered on his finger.

“You! How did you find me? I was afraid, when they took me from the island you wouldn’t–I mean, did you traipse all this way? The roads are so dangerous for Gentry…”

A torque of his crooked shoulders. I winced, but he did not.

“I did not take the roads. I took the Ways. Time is different in the Veil. It did not seem a month to me.”

I humphed. No better reply came to mind than: “I hope it felt a full year then, you flame-crowned bugaboo, for that’s how it did to me,” which would not have been at all prudent to speak aloud. He spun the silver wheel with a lazy finger.

“So,” he observed, “another room.”

“Yes.”

“Mmn. Bigger.”

“Much.”

“Still sneezing?”

“Ayup. Enough to cause typhoons in Leech. Also, I have new rashes.”

“Rashes even?”

“Rashes in places no rash e’er ventured yet.”

“My condolences.”

“Ah, stick ‘em where they’ll do most good.”

We lapsed. He spun the empty wheel. I drew my knees up, wrapped my arms about them and thought of all the questions I did not dare ask. What were the Ways like? Did he walk them alone? Had he many friends in the Veil? Did he drink nectar with them in Gentry pubs, dance barefoot when the sweetness went to his head? Did any raucous movement jar his crooked back–or did his body only hurt him in the mortal realm? What had his life been like all this while I’d never known him, and what would it be when I was dead and gone?

He seemed to have been thinking along some of these same lines. Or at least the part about my corpse.

“What will happen to you tomorrow, milkmaid, if this straw is not spun to gold?”

I related Sebastian’s jolly vision of my witchy bits exposed on the Four Tors.

“Not,” I added, “that I have any witchy bits. Not real ones anyway.”

“Not a one,” he concurred, looking deeply at all of me with his thorn-black eyes. “Though what bits you have are better clad than last I saw them.”

“Yes,” said I, “a pretty shroud to wrap my pieces in.”

“Pearls do not suit you.”

“No–I prefer opals.”

“A healthy milkmaid needs no adornment.”

“Doesn’t mean we won’t prize a trinket if it comes our way.”

“What good are trinkets to you, lady? You’ll die tomorrow.”

“Maybe so, Mister,” I huffed, “but it’s rightly rude to mention it out loud like that.”

He scratched his nose. It was not so blade-thin as the foxboy’s, but it was harder, more imposing, with a definite downward hook like a gyrfalcon’s beak. Such a nose would look fine with a ring through the septum, like my good bull Manu had. A silver ring, I thought, to match the one on his finger, and when I wanted him to follow me–wherever–I’d need only slip a finger through it and tug a little.

My blush incinerated that train of thought when his eyes, which seemed to read words I did not speak aloud as written scrip upon my face, widened with surprise. The instant he laughed, green flames danced up from his hair and swirled about his skull.

“Come, milkmaid!” he cried, standing up not-quite-straight from his stool. “Do not be so melancholy, pray. Am I not here, merchant and laborer? Is this warehouse not our private marketplace? Your life is not yet forfeit. What have you to trade?”

I laughed at his ribbing but shook my head. “Not a thing that is my own, sir!”

“I have it from my usual source–“

“ –‘regular if reliably suspicious’?”

“–yes, of course–that you wear a fine ivory locket on a black ribbon ‘round your neck.”

The locket was hidden now beneath layers of silk. I clutched it through the cloth and shook my head.

“Mister, you can have any pearl that pleases you. You can have my braided hair with it! Take my gown, my slippers, see? Gifts from a king! But do not take my locket…”

“It belonged to your mother?” His voice was gentle.

“Aye.” I scowled at him. “And I suppose it belonged to your mother before her?”

“Aye,” he mocked me, glare for glare. You quite forgot he was an ugly creature while his shining eyes dissected you. “Your mam, may I remind you, never cared for worldly treasures.”

“Unlike yours?” I asked.

“My mother is made of treasure, though decidedly unworldly. Opal and ivory, silver and gold. If you ever meet her, you will understand.”

“If I die tomorrow, I’ll never meet her,” I growled.

“Just so.” His smile became a coax. Almost a wheedle. “Give over, milkmaid, and you’ll live another day in hope.”

“Who says I want to meet your mother?”

“Is the friend of your mam not your friend too? Have you so many friends in this world?”

There he had a point. Back at Feisty Wold, our neighbors had liked Mam well enough, but during the Invasions, as illness queered her and fever weakened her, they dropped out of her life. Sometimes one would leave a basket of jams or new baked bread at our doorstep, but not a one wished speech with a sick woman who only ever whispered, and never of safe or comfortable topics. The memory stung my eyes. My hands flew up to unknot the ribbon. That little ivory locket hung around my neck with the weight of a dead heart. I could almost feel it bleeding into my lap.

“I can’t!” I cried. “It’s stuck!”

Then he stood before me, his nearness calming my struggles. My hands fell to my sides. He seized my wrists, squeezed once, then inched his grasp upward, my arms the purchase his arms needed to attain any height above that of his chest. The crease of pain between his eyes deepened to agony. The hump on his back shuddered. The gesture I took for granted while combing hair or brushing teeth cost him ease of breath, grace, comfort of movement.

By the time his hands had gained my shoulders he was gasping. His head bent heavily before me and his whole body sagged, but his grip on me only tightened. I placed my hands lightly on either side of his ribcage, hoping to support him if he should collapse. His flames were utterly damped by the sweaty dark tangle of his hair, which smelled of sweetgrass and salt sea. A few strands of shining green twined with the black. I pressed a brief kiss to the crown of his head.

“Mister,” I told him, “take the locket quickly. You look pale and weary.”

He wheezed a laugh and loosed the knotted ribbon at my neck with a touch. The ivory locket fell into his palm. He pressed it hard against his heart.

“Let me,” I whispered. “Let me.”

He did not relinquish it, but allowed me the ribbon’s slack. I tied it around his neck, smoothing his wild hair down over the knot. He shivered.

“Are you very hurt?”

“No.” His voice was almost as gruff as the foxgirl’s. “Where did you learn to be kind?”

I shook my head and turned away. “You saved my life. Twice if we include tonight.”

“You paid that debt. Twice if we include tonight. You did not, do not have to–to…”

I wished he would not speak so, not in those tones, not brokenly. My heart was on the verge, if not of explosion than of collapse, hurtling to an inward oblivion, sucking down with it the very ground I stood on. For a moment I believed my bones were Gentry bones, hollow as a bird’s. I was that light. I missed the locket’s weight around my neck. I missed my mother.

Without turning back to him, I confessed, “There is no one here who cares for me. For me to care for. I feel like I’m dying. The parts of me that matter. If you save my life a thousand times it won’t mean anything unless I–unless I can still…feel something. Tenderness.”

“Yes,” he whispered. “That is it exactly.”

I covered my face with both hands, unwilling to sob in front of him.

“Put me out!” I begged. “Now! Please. Like you did before. I am so tired.”

This time his grass-trap was less like a thunder tunnel, all green flash and brash spectacle, and more like a hammock of spider silk and flower petal rocking, rocking, rocking me to slumber on a dozy summer evening. I swear I heard him singing lullabies all the way down.

Another month went by, much like the last: too much satin, too little hope, and only intermittent visits from my friend the foxboy to alleviate the tedium of despair.

It was early morning–not Sebastian’s usual hour for visiting–when I woke to footsteps outside my door. The king strode into my cell, his gold-braided crown bright upon his pale hair, his long red cloak sweeping the tiles of turquoise and lapis lazuli. He leaned one hip against my pillow, stroked a single fingernail down my face, and when I flinched fully awake, smiled.

“How do you feel, Miss Faircloth?”

Should I sit up? Cover myself with the blanket? Dare answer? It seemed safest to bob my chin. The dagger on his belt was very near my cheek. He was not looking at me, but at what the blanket did not cover. My shift was thin, made of silk. His cold eyes roved.

“My page is in regular contact with his twin at Winterbane. She apprises him of the Archabbot’s movements. Did you know?”

I shook my head. I hadn’t known, but I had guessed.

His hand, as if by accident, drifted from my face to my collarbone. Had I anything of value left, I’d’ve wagered it that he felt my pounding heart even in that lightest graze.

“Just this morning,” said the king, “Sebastian passed me the latest of his sister’s news. Avillius is conscripting an army of his own. He thinks to march on Jadio House, to wreck all I have assembled, and from the rubble rebuild a temple to his gods.” He leaned closer to me, studying my face intently. “But I am favored of the gods. They have turned their faces from him. They have sent me you.”

“Me?” This was no time for sudden movement. His palm pressed me hard into the mattress, very hot and very dry.

“You, Gordenne Faircloth. The Archabbot’s coffers are fat, but they are no match for the treasure troves of heaven. He cannot feed and clothe his army with prayer–especially when by his actions today he proves himself a heretic. His toy soldiers are of tin while mine are of gold.”

They are not toys, I wanted to scream. They are people! Not gold or tin but flesh. And if this war is let to rage, we shall all be crushed to dust between the inexorable convictions of crown and miter. You shall be king of a graveyard realm. The temples will stand empty with no one to worship in them, and the Archabbot will have only himself to pray to.

But I said nothing.

First of all, and obviously, Jadio was bent on this war. Lusted for it. Had done his damnedest to incite it, for all I could see. Secondly, I knew very well (for her brother had told me, not that he could be trusted to keep tail or tale straight) that half of what Candia gabbled were tales so wild only a consummate actor could hear them with a somber face. Thirdly, if Avillius were building an army, it wouldn’t be an army of tin weaklings as Jadio seemed to expect. Pricksters Avillius had already, and zealots. He would hire mercenaries, too, and not hesitate to use those Gentry or Gentry-babes who had fallen under his power, whether from greed or grief or some dark hold he had over them to swell his ranks. He was not the kindly man he appeared, no more than Jadio was as good as he was beautiful.

The king hauled me out of my thoughts and onto his lap, where he proceeded to crush me breathless.

“Therefore, Miss Faircloth. Gordenne.”

“Your Majesty?” I braced both hands against his chest, hoping to keep some distance, but he took it as an invitation for further intimacies. After swiping my mouth soundly with his tongue, mauling my ears and sucking at my neck, he pulled back and grasped my shoulders, shaking me. His fingernails drew blood.

“Therefore, my darling, today you’ll get to spinning. I have filled the ballroom at Jadio House with all the straw in Leressa. You are not to leave the room until your alchemy is performed. You are not to eat or drink or see a soul until that gold is mine. And when it is, Miss Faircloth,” he crushed me to him again, harder, letting me feel the power of his body and the weakness of my own, “when you give me that gold, I will give you my name, my throne and my seed. You shall be Queen of Leressa. The saint of our people. The mother of my child–and my wife.”

I opened my mouth to explain how I could not do what he asked, had never been able to do it, how I’d started out a nothing, and now was even less than that. But he dug his nails again into the gouge wounds he had made and shook me by the shoulders all over again.

“If you do not!” he whispered. “If you do not!”

I waited in the shadow of the spinning wheel. Dusk came, and midnight, and dawn again. He did not come. By the king’s orders I’d nothing to eat or drink, no blankets to cover me, no visitor to comfort me. Dusk, then midnight, dawn again. I cleared a small space on the floor and pressed my face to the cool tile, and slept. High morning. High noon. Late afternoon. Twilight. Night.

Perhaps a hundred years passed.

He held a flask of water to my lips. Quicksilver, crystal, icicle, liquid diamond. Just water. Followed by a blackberry. A raspberry. An almond. The tip of his finger dipped in honey. I sucked it eagerly.

“Milkmaid,” he said.

“Go away.” I pressed the hand that pressed my face, keeping him near. “I have nothing left to give you. And anyway, why should Jadio win? Keep your gold. Go back to the Ways. There’s a war coming. No one’s safe…”

“Hush.” He slipped a purple grape into my mouth. A green grape. A sliver of apple. His scars were livid against his frowning face.

“Milkmaid.” He sighed. “I can do nothing without a bargain. Even if I–but do you see? It doesn’t work without a bargain.”

I felt stronger now. I could sit up. Uncoil from the fetal curl. My legs screamed as I stretched them straight.

He’d been kneeling over me. Now he kept one knee bent beneath him and drew up the other to rest his chin on. This position seemed an easy one. The frown between his brows was not of pain but inquiry.

“I heard how you were… I could not come sooner. I was too deep within the Veil.” He smiled. His teeth glowed. “With the Deep Lords, even–in the Fathom Realms beneath the sea. Do I smell like fish?”

I sniffed. Green and sweet and sunlight. Maybe a little kelp as an afterthought. Nothing unpleasant. On an impulse, I leaned my nose against his neck and inhaled again. He moved his cheek against mine, and whispered with some shortness of breath:

“Milkmaid, have you nothing to offer me?”

I shook my head slightly so as not to disconnect from him.

“You are not to take my cows in trade! Gods know what you Gentry would do to them.”

It was he who drew away, laughing, and I almost whimpered at the loss.

“Much good they’ll do you where you’re going.”

“Eh,” I shrugged, pretending a coldness I did not feel. “Da has probably already sold them off for mead.”

“Perhaps he did,” my friend agreed. “Perhaps he sold them to a hunchbacked beggar whose worth seemed less than a beating, but who offered him, in exchange for the fair Annat and the dulcet Manu, a wineskin that would never empty.”

For that alone I would’ve whapped him, had he not tucked a wedge of cheese into my mouth. The finest cheese from the finest cow that ever lived. It was like being right there with her, in that homely barn, where I sang Mam’s songs for hours and Annat watched me with trustful eyes.

“You have my cows already.”

“Aye.”

“So I can’t trade ‘em. Even if I wanted to. Which I don’t.”

“Nay.”

I smoothed my silk dress. Three days worth of wrinkles smirked back at me.

“Time moves differently, you said, in the Veil?”

He nodded carefully, smiling with the very corners of his mouth.

“It does indeed.” He sounded almost hopeful.

“Well. That being so, would you take in trade a piece of my future? See,” I rushed to explain, “if he gets that gold, Jadio means me to wear his crown. Or a halo, I can’t tell. When that happens, you may have both with my blessing, and all the choirs of angels and sycophants with ‘em.”

I do not want his crown,” the little crooked man growled. For all he had such a tortuous mangle to work with, he leapt to his feet far faster than I could on a spry day.

“You’re to wed him then?” he demanded, glaring down.

Oh.

This needed correcting–and quickly.

He’s to wed me, Mister, provided he deems this night’s dowry suitably vulgar. Oh, do get on going!” I begged him. “Let us speak no more of trade. Leave me with this tinderbox and caper on your merry way. For surely as straw makes me sneeze, I can withstand Jadio’s torments long enough to die of them, and then it will all be over. But if he marries me, I might live another three score, and that would be beyond bearing.”

He snorted. A single green flame leapt to his finger, dancing on the opal there. The light lengthened his face, estranged the angles from the hollows, smoothed his twists, twisted his mouth.

“I’ve a trade for your future.” His voice was very soft. “I’ll spin you a king’s ransom of gold tonight–in exchange for your firstborn child.”

“Jadio’s spawn?” I laughed balefully, remembering that hot dry hand on my neck. “Take him–and take his father too if you’ve a large enough sack.”

“You barter the flesh of your flesh too complacently.”

“No one cares about my flesh. It’s not even mine anymore. I’m not even me anymore.”

“Milkmaid.” He stared at me. It was strange to have to look up at him. How tall he seemed suddenly, with that green flame burning now upon his brow. “Some of my dearest friends are consummate deceivers, born to lie as glibly as they slip their skins for a fox’s fur. I was sure they were lying when they told me you were sillier than you seemed, soft in the head and witless as a babe. Now, I must believe them. To my sorrow.”

“What are you talking about?” I asked.

“Your flesh,” he murmured, rolling his eyes to the ceiling. “How can you say no one cares for it, when I would risk the wrath of two realms to spare it from harm?”

My heart too full to speak, my eyes too full to see, I lifted both my hands to him. When he grasped them by the wrists, I tugged gently, urging him back to the floor, and to me.

He fingered the ribbon of my bodice. Triple-knotted as it was, it fell apart at his touch. The sleeve of my shift sagged down my shoulder. Our eyes locked. There was a pearl button at his collar. A black pearl. I unhooked it. For the first time I noticed the richness of the black velvet suit he wore, its fantastic embroidery in ivory and silver, the braids and beads in his hair.

“Were you courting a Deep Lord’s daughter?” I asked. “Is that why you were in the Fathom Realms? Did the distant sound of my sneezes interrupt you mid-woo?”

The sound he made was maybe a “No,” more of a sigh, slightly a groan. Then I was kissing him, or he me, and we were both too busy happily undressing each other to do much talking, although when we did, it all came out sounding like poetry, even if I don’t remember a word of what we said.

Of my wedding three days later I will say nothing.

That brutal night of consummation, and all nights following until Jadio marched east with his armies to meet the Archabbot at the drowned city of Lirhu, I will consign to dust and neglect.

Though I would not have wished Jadio near me again but we had an impregnable wall spined in spikes between us, I did regret the loss of the pageboy Sebastian. Upon taking his leave, he told me with his usual feral insouciance, “I’ll probably not return, Gordie. You know that?”

I knew the look in his yellow eye–that of a fox in a trap, just before he chews off his paw to escape. Not long was that rusty iron bracelet for Sebastian’s wrist. Nor would too many months pass, I guessed, before King Jadio learned this cub would never again come to heel.

“Luck.” I clasped his arm. “Cunning. Speed. Whatever you need, may it await you at the crossroads.”

“Same to you, Your Majesty,” he said with a cheeky grin. (He had no other kind.) “If I can’t stick around to see you hacked apart and flung about, you may as well live a few years yet.”

I flicked the back of his russet head. “So young and yet so vile.”

“You’ll miss me.”

“More than I can say.”

“Gordie?”

“Aye?”

“When he comes to claim his own, ask yourself, the One-Eyed Witch lives where?” I blinked. That was the name of an old children’s skip-rope rhyme. But Sebastian did not let me catch up with my thoughts. “Go to her. She’ll have a notion how you’re to go on.”

Gentry pronouncements are often cryptic, indefinite, misleading and vacuous–which makes them, amongst all oracular intimations, the most irritating. But just try to interrogate a fox when everything but his tail is already out the door.

In my neatest printing, I wrote, “The One-Eyed Witch Lives Where?” on a thin strip of parchment. When this was done, I whittled a locket out of ash, the way Mam had taught me, shut Sebastian’s advice up safe inside it, strung the locket with a ribbon, and wore it near my heart. It had not the heft of ivory, but it comforted me nonetheless.

After Jadio’s departure came nine months of gestation, the worst of which I endured alone.

I was face down in a chamber pot one morning when a messenger brought me news of the Archabbot’s victory at the Cliffs of Lir outside the drowned city. Heavy losses to both sides, after which Jadio’s soldiers retreated, regrouped, and launched several skirmishes that further decimated the Archabbot’s armies.

Some weeks later, another messenger came to shake me from my afternoon nap. The Archabbot had found the lost heir of Lirhu wandering the ruins of the city. The prince, dead King Lorez’s only son, was still enchanted in the form of a great black bear and wore a golden crown to prove it. This bear had challenged Jadio to hand-to-hand combat in the field for the right to rule Leressa.

Jadio had defeated, beheaded and skinned him, then drove the Archabbot’s armies out of Lirhu and into the Wayward Swamps.

In the turmoil of their retreat, the Holy Soldiers abandoned a most singular object: a glass coffin bearing the sleeping Princess of Leressa, whom no spell could wake. This too they had discovered in the ruins of the drowned city. Jadio claimed the princess as a prize of war but did not destroy her as he had her brother. He would have sent the coffin back with the bearskin (it was explained) but he feared some harm might befall it on the road.

The bearskin made me sick every time I saw it, so I avoided the great hall and took my meals in my rooms.

When at last the hour of the birth came upon me (and an early hour it was, sometime between midnight and the dusk before dawn), I bolted the door to my room and paced the carpet like a she-wolf.

I wanted no one. No chirurgerar with his bone saws and skully grin. No Prickster midwife with tainted needles and an iron key for me to suck that I might lock up the pain. I’d do this alone or die of it. Mam survived my bursting into this world, after all, screaming blood and glory. Mam survived fourteen years of me before she up and snipped her mortal coil from the shuttle of life.

“Mam!” I pressed my back hard against the bedpost. “Please. Let Jadio’s spawn be stillborn. Let him be grotesque. Let him be soup, so long as I don’t look on him and love him. I don’t want to love this child, Mam. Don’t let me love this child.”

After that I screamed a great deal. And once I fainted. I seem to remember waking to a voice telling me that this was not the sort of thing one could really sleep through, and for the sake of my cows, my house, my hope of the ever-after, would I please push?

If he hadn’t’ve called me Milkmaid in all that begging, I might’ve chosen to ignore him utterly. But he did, so I didn’t.

Some hours later the babe was born.

“Give her over, Mister!”

“That your rancor may cast her forth into yon hearth fire?”

“I did not know she would be yours! Come on! Give. She’ll need to feed.”

“Had I tits, Milkmaid, I’d never let her go.”

I smirked sweatily, winning the spat. His cradling arms slipped her onto my lap, where he had arranged clean sheets and blankets, a soft pillow for her to rest upon. She was a white little thing. White lashes, white lips, white eyes. Silent when she looked at me. No mistaking her for a mortal child. A Gentry-babe through and through.

“What’s your name?” I asked my daughter. She blinked up from her nursing, caught my eye, grinned. Gentry-babes are born with all their teeth.

The little crooked man laughed. “She’ll never tell.”

“Not even her mother?”

He laid hands on my belly and the bleeding stopped. Aches, throbs, stabbing pains, deep bruises–all vanished. Warmth spread through my body. He stroked my hair once before walking quickly to the hearth, turning his hunched back to me. I stared after him. Best, perhaps, he could not see the look on my face.

“That you are her mother does not matter,” he muttered. “There is war between our people. The Gentry have learned never to speak our names out loud. Not to anyone. Too much is at stake. Our lives. Our souls.”

“You have those, then?”

No answer. He crouched near the hearth, poking at the blinding green flames there. In my lap the baby choked.

“What’s wrong?” I yelped. I lifted her, tried to burp her. “Did I–I didn’t curse her, did I? When I was giving birth? And all those times before. Little one, my sweetest girl, I didn’t mean you! I meant Jadio’s son. Never you.”

My friend came to my side. “It isn’t that. It’s the milk. The more magic flowing through a Gentry-babe’s veins, the less able we are to suckle at a mortal’s breast.”

“She’ll starve!”

“Nay, sweet,” said he, “for do I not have the prize cow of cream-makers in my very barn?”

The panic clenching my heart eased. “She can drink cow milk?”

“She’ll suck it like nectar from Annat’s udder. It’s what we like best.”

“But–“ I stared at my baby’s still white face, the bead of milk trembling on her lip. I wiped it off quickly, for a rash of color spread from it across her skin, along with a feverish heat.

He touched one finger to her mouth. The rash vanished. “She must eat. She will die if she remains, Milkmaid. You owe me her life.”

“What?”

“Our bargain.”

“You said Jadio’s–“

“I said your firstborn.”

“You didn’t say ours.”

“Nay, but it mightn’t have been.”

“You!” I picked up the nearest pillow and threw it at his head. Another and again–until the bed was in disarray. “You swindler! You cheat! You seducer of innocent maidens!”

My arm was weak, but he did not duck my missiles. Pillows bounced from his fine black clothes. He stood very still.

“Take me with you!”

“I cannot.”

“Why?”

“You are wed to another.”

“As if Gentry cared for such mortal nonsense!”

He shrugged. By this I knew he cared.

“I was sent,” he said softly, “to fetch three things from the mortal realm. My quest is done. When I return to the Veil, the Ways will close behind me and I will breathe this cursed air no more. You cannot follow.”

“Why not?” I demanded. “You came to me. To help me. You took the Ways. I’ll take the roads. I’d chase you to the Valwode itself, Mister, no matter that it’s forbidden. Into the Fathom Realms even! Do you think I fear the drowning?”

He shook his head again, more slowly this time, as if it wearied him. Then he approached the bed and lifted up our daughter from my arms. She sighed deeply, whether content or dismayed no one but she could say. My tears fell onto his sleeve. When they touched him, they turned to diamonds. None of my doing, I’m sure.

As he made to leave, I grabbed the tail of his velvet jacket, fisted it hard as I could and yanked. I knew it could shred to smoke the instant he desired it. Velvet it remained.

Desperately I cried, “A bargain! I’ll bargain for the chance to win you. Both of you. It doesn’t work without a bargain, you said. Let me…”

Before I’d blinked, he’d turned back ‘round again, his free hand flush against my cheek. His fingers were cool, except for the silver ring, which burned.

“Gordie Oakhewn,” he said, “you have seven days to guess my true name. If on the seventh day you call it out loud, the Veil shall part for you, and I will pull you through into my household, where you might stay forever with the child, with me–as, as my–in whatever capacity you wish. This is our bargain. Do not break it.”

I pressed a frantic kiss to his palm. “Call you by name? But you said Gentry never–“

Smoke.

Gentry leave semblances of the children they steal. My semblance was a red-faced boy-brat who squalled like a typhoon and slurped my breasts dry. For two days he kept me awake all hours and scratched me with his hot red hands. On the third day he sickened and turned black. We buried him in the garden of Jadio House. A peach tree shaded his grave. I wondered if any lingering levin of Gentry magic would affect the taste of its fruit.

The chirurgerar assured me that sudden deaths were not uncommon among firstborns, that Jadio’s was a virile enough appetite to populate a dozen nurseries, that it was none of my fault. It was kind of him. His grin seemed less skully than sad. He left me with a soothing drought which I did not drink. I had packing to do. Maps to consult. Lists to make. Lists of every name I ever knew or could invent.

That night I recited to myself:

There’s Aiken and Aimon and Anwar and Abe
Corbett and Conan and Gilbert and Gabe
There’s Berton and Birley and Harbin and Hal
Keegan and Keelan and Jamie and Sal
There’s Herrick and Hewett or whom you might please
So long as you love me, your name might be…

“Sneeze?” asked the three-legged fox who had climbed through my casement window. “He’s not the one allergic to straw, Gordie. Remember?”

“Sebastian!” I scrambled up from my escritoire. “How do you do?–you’ve learned to skinslip!–no more iron bracelet?–what a handsome fox!–your poor hand!”

Next a vixen slid through the aperture, shuddering off her russet fur as she leapt to the floor to stand bright in her own bare skin. Her hair flamed loose about her shoulders. The only thing she wore was a heavy gray signet ring on her index finger. I’d seen it once before on the Archabbot’s own hand. There was a smear of rust upon it that I knew to be blood. Had she taken it off his dead body? Had she bitten it off his living one? Either thought made me grin.

“Candia!”

She made a warding gesture. “Candy, Candy–call me Candy! Sweet as syrup, twice as randy. Hallo, Gordie. We’ve come to warn you.”

“Warn me? Of what?” Even before they began to answer, I folded my maps, buckled my boots, and fetched my quilted jacket with the deep red hood.

“Jadio is but a day’s march behind us,” Sebastian said. “But he’s sent a deathly rumor running before him. Claims you were a Gentry witch all along, who’d fuddled the Archabbot into thinking you were holy and glammed his own gray eyes the same. That you tricksied him into wedding and bedding you.”

“An honor I’d have sold my left ear to live without,” I growled.

Candy had strolled across the room to examine the empty cradle. She said over her shoulder, “Jadio claims you killed the babe you bore him, and mean to replace it with a changeling that will bring ruin to Leressa.”

“Really?” I looked from one twin to the other. “Wouldn’t that be a shame?”

Grins all around.

“Jadio claims,” Sebastian finished, “that he will see you hang ere the week’s out. That he will wed Princess Lissa of Lirhu by the light of your funeral pyre.”

This stayed my hands where they’d been strapping on my pack.

“Old Ironshod’s daughter?” I asked. “But she sleeps, doesn’t she? A hundred-year sleep. Poisoned by Gentry magic, same as what changed her brother to a bear. How did he manage to wake her?”

“He did not,” Candy said. Her blade-thin nose serrated at the bridge, as though she had smelled something foul. Her yellow eyes glowed in the dark. “But an heir of her blood will strengthen his claim to the crown.”

“Who will wake her?” I asked wildly. “We can’t let him… We must wake her!”

“Not you!” laughed Sebastian. “That’s for other folk to do, milksop, in some other tale. Don’t you know anything? As if you didn’t have the hardest part of your own ahead of you.” He paused and looked at me, yellow-eyed and mischievous. “Do you remember what I told you, before I left?”

I clutched the ashwood locket at my chest and rattled off through a suddenly dry thoat: “’The One-Eyed Witch lives where?’”

“That’s it. You ain’t milky as all that, if I say so my own self, Your Majesty.”

“Am too!” I ruffled his hair before he jerked away, baring his teeth not so much out of displeasure as habit.

Sebastian waved his one good arm like a conjurer. It had been the right hand, I’d noticed, that he’d managed to chew off, or chop off, or what. The left was still skinny as a branch, wiry as whipcord. He let me admire the brutal unevenness before explaining.

“Candy did it for me. With an ax. Good and clean. Licked it once to seal it. Then we escaped.” So proud he sounded, so nonchalant.

“Brave children. How many died chasing you?”

“Oh, one or two,” said Sebastian.

“…dozen!” coughed his twin.

“You should not be here,” I scolded. “Jadio will surely punish you if he finds you.”

“We’re fast, Your Majesty, and double sly,” returned Sebastian. “It is you who should escape, who have no real witchy ways to save you.”

Candy looked up from my escritoire, at my lists of names in long columns labeled: Common, Diminutive, Pet, Famous Mortal, Famous Gentry. She started snickering at something she saw written there.

I hesitated before asking, “I don’t suppose you know his name?”

“Whose?” both said at once, wary.

“Are you not his friends? Born liars, his two young foxfaces, his ‘regular but reliably suspicious informants.’ You have spied for him and lied for him and led him to my many cells. Will you not help me find him now?”

“We’ll never tell,” the twins said together. They puddled down in copper fur and clicking claws, black muzzles, twining tails, and rubbed against my legs, barking:

It’s Ragnar! It’s Reynard!
It’s Stockley! It’s Sterne!
It’s Milford! It’s Misha!
It’s horny old Herne!

They leapt out the window. I stopped just long enough to add those names to my list, then left Jadio House myself, under cover of night.

The old skip-rope chant called The One-Eyed Witch Lives Where? goes like this:

Where does she live?
In her cottage of bone.
Where are the bones?
In a city of stone.
Where is the city?
At the edge of the sea.
Where the Deep Lord drownded
You and me
.”

In other words, if I were interpreting the riddle aright, and if Sebastian hadn’t been flaunting his tail and canting my path astray, I had four days to get to the drowned city of Lirhu, find a one-eyed witch, and make her tell me the crooked man’s name.

The road was long. I was not as bold as I once had been.

Had not the squalling semblance left to replace my daughter dried my milk and the little crooked man stopped my bleeding after the birth, I’d never have lasted the first day. As it was, the worst I felt were twinges. And a nagging clench that nine months meant nothing if I failed now.

If mortal roads were not safe for Gentry in these dark days of civil strife, they were no more safe for a youngish woman on her own, be she ever so plainly dressed. On the first day I encountered soldiers. Jadio’s men–possibly sent ahead to the House to prepare it.

“Ain’t she a pearl?” one asked.

“Cute hood,” said another, flipping it off my hair.

“Where’s your basket of goodies for gramamma?”

A year ago, I’d’ve clouted them with a dishrag, or sniffed and stuck my nose in the air, or showed them the sharp side of my tongue. A year ago, this kind of behavior had got me clapped in chains and dragged to the Holy See at Winterbane. Instead I made my eyes wide and mild, slightly popped, with the whites showing all around. All gentleness, all complacency, all bovine. With the mightiest will in the world, I pretended I was my cow Annat.

“Moo?”

The first soldier laughed, “Is that your name? Little Miss Moo?” and tried to tickle me. I backed away and pawed the dirt of the road with the scuff of my toe, and then galloped forward and rammed his stomach with the hardest part of my head. He went down with an oof and an oath. All his comrades laughed.

I reeled back, nostrils flaring–like my bull Manu on a cranky day when the flies are at full sting.

“Moo!” I bellowed, and bent my head again.

“Easy there, Bessie!” cried a square-faced man, catching the hem of my skirt to pull me off-balance. I staggered, spun ‘round and glared, huffing. The soldier had blunted hands and a beaten face, but his squinting eyes were kindly. Though he’d not been among those teasing me before, he seemed fully in charge now and he took my measure at a glance. His chin jerked in a slightest nod.

“She’s Gentry-touched,” he told the others. “Best not brush up too near her or the enchantment’s like to run off and addle you. How’d you like to show up to Jadio House chewing cud and sucking at each other’s teats? His Majesty’ll have us butchered for his wedding feast. Come on. Move along, men.”

The soldiers marched back the way I’d come. They gave wide berth to the one who’d tickled me and been rammed, as if waiting for him to grow horns and a tail and start a stampede at the first loud noise. The square-faced man sauntered after them, after giving me a shy salute and a wink.

As soon as they were out of sight, I ran.

On the second day, I hitched a ride with a vegetable seller as far as Seafall, where I scrounged for an unoccupied bit of mossy embankment beneath a bridge and slept there like a troll, shivering. From Seafall to the Cliffs of Lir was thirty miles, and I started at dawn on the third day, following the sea road south.

No one traveled to Lirhu regularly anymore since it was wave-wrecked by the Deep Lord. The road was in disrepair. There were signs that Jadio’s army and the Holy Soldiers had been through. Graves like raw wounds in the chalk. On the fourth day of my journey and the seventh day of my quest, I came to Lirhu by twilight.

This near the sea, a frantic, long-smothered homesickness burst upon me. The drumming of the breakers, that tang on my tongue, the whip of the wind. So long as I had time enough to drown myself before they took me back, I’d never live inland again.

Dry-mouthed and with cracking lips, I chanted my litany of names as I walked, punctuating the rhymes with every blood-blistered footstep.

“Jack Yap or Jessamee. Pudding or Poll. Gorefist the Goblin. Tonker the Troll. Dimlight the Dwarf King. The Faerie Fin-Shu. Azlin the Angel. The Wizard Samu.”

The ruins of Lirhu rose before me, white stone streaked with veins of rose quartz. Ragged battlements, perilous parapets, watchtowers and clock towers–all crumbling to rubble. Each blind, weed-wracked, ivy-grown window seemed a doorway into some lightless, airless, awful hole in reality. Wind howled through a shattered labyrinth of arches and pillars.

I glared about the city to fend off my fear of ghosts.

“What a racket! So the Deep Lord drowned you, stones and bones and all. The earth might have quaked and done the same. There are droughts and forest fires and plagues too, and all manner of horrid things in the world–without you add the Gentry into it. Do you hear the rest of us whinging?”

“I quite like the wind,” said the woman beside me. “I find the sound of futility soothing.”

She had materialized so naturally out of the twilight I could no more question her appearance than that of the first evening star. Her one eye, white, with no hint of iris or pupil, washed now and again with a pulse of gold, like the tide. Her skin glowed like antique ivory. Her hair was silver-gilt and fell about her like a mantle. The plainness of her robe, the long scars running down her face and her chest, these made her no less beautiful.

The Witch gestured for me to sit with her on a stone that may have once been a pedestal.

“I would invite you in for tea, but you might find the architecture of my cottage upsetting to your digestion.”

I sank with a grateful groan, letting my pack tumble to the ground. “No argument here, lady. I’ve had enough of walls for a lifetime.”

The Witch sat very near me, palms on knees, straight-backed and still as the lost statue she replaced might have been. We watched the fireflies blink about for a while. Then she sighed.

“You’ve come a long way, Gordie Oakhewn. Tell me what you’ve learned.”

So I recited the five hundred seven names I’d clobbered together on the journey, mortal and Gentry, royal, ridiculous, just plain bad. The Witch listened patiently while the ghosts of Drowned Lirhu did their best to shout me down.

When at last I gasped to a halt, the Witch shook her head. I’d known already I had failed. Had I guessed his name aright, he would have appeared himself, in rags or velvet or verdant flames, to part the Veil with one hand and draw me through with the other. Where I might see our daughter, and hear her laugh, and learn her name.

I bowed my head. Nine months for nothing, and a whole empty life ahead. For what? Maybe someone would hire me as a goose-girl or shepherdess. How far would I have to run to flee the shadow of Jadio’s gallows?

“Your mother was fond of stories,” said the Witch, breaking into my thoughts. “Are you?”

Elbows on knees, head hanging, I nodded. “Mam told the best.”

“She had the best from me.”

I snorted. Had Mam known every single Gentry exile stuck this side of the Veil? Sure would’ve explained her distress at the Invasions, being friendly with our sworn enemies and the killers of our king. Though not why I never’d seen even a one before that day at Winterbane.

“Long, long ago,” the Witch began, and my thoughts fell away with her words, “one full score and a year more, the Veil Queen set down her antler crown and ventured forth from the Valwode. No Gentry sovereign may evade this fate. It is laid on them to bear their heirs to mortal lovers, renewing the bonds between our people. Thus, she arrayed herself nobly and presented herself to Leressa’s king. Lorez the Ironshod was a widower with two children of his own. Prince Torvald, a boy of nine. Princess Lissa, two years younger. They mourned their mother’s passing and did not take well to their father’s new mistress.

“Truth be told, the Veil Queen did not overmuch concern herself with wooing the children. Lorez it was she wanted. Handsome, with a sharp black beard and teeth like a tiger’s. She gave herself to him and took pleasure in it. By and by she bore a child of that union.

“At first Lorez seemed pleased with both of them, but his people whispered, and his children complained, and soon he waxed wroth. One night he visited his mistress’s chambers, drunken and angry, a sprig of rowan on his tunic to protect him from enchantment. He rang a silver bell that froze the Veil Queen where she stood (had he not surprised her, such a tawdry spell would hardly have been effectual), then bound her with that iron against which she could do nothing.

No bastard son, he declared, would threaten Torvald’s crown.

“While the Veil Queen looked on, Lorez snatched her baby from his cradle and dashed him to the floor. This would have killed a mortal babe, for it broke his back and cracked his skull and snapped his neck. But this boy was a Gentry prince, heir to the antler crown, and possessed of great magic. Nearer to a god you cannot come while breathing. He did not die. Lorez left both child and mother bleeding. Greatly weakened, for the Veil Queen could not remove her iron shackles on her own, she managed to flee with her broken child in a small coracle across the sea. She took shelter on an island, in the village of Feisty Wold.

“The village tailor’s young wife helped her. She struck the shackles from her wrists. Cleaned and bound the baby’s wounds as best she could. He had already begun to heal, too rapidly, before his bones could be reset. In gratitude for this good woman’s kindness, the Veil Queen removed one of her eyes and set it in a ring.

Should any of my people see this ring,” she said, “they will know the wearer to be under my protection and do what they can to aid you.

“This debt of gratitude repaid, the Veil Queen returned to her people.

“Her curse was on Lorez. She called the Folk from their hollows and hidey-holes, from tree and bog and bedrock. The Will-o’-Wispies, the hobs and hobgoblins, the wolfmen, the crowgirls, the Women Who Wail. She called to her brother the Deep Lord in the Fathom Realms of the sea. Together they roused the Veil against Leressa. They drowned Lorez and demolished Lirhu. They trapped Torvald in the body of a beast–and rightly, for it fit the shape of his soul, and consigned Lissa to the long dark of dreaming, to match the darkness of her scheming. They sent warriors to grapple back mortal-worked lands for the wild, to seed Gentry children in the wombs of mortal women.

“Fiercely did the Gentry fight for their queen, but in one thing they would not yield. They would not put a monster on their throne. A hunchback boy to wear the antler crown? A scarred and crooked thing to be their king? Never. Yet while he lived, no one but he could ascend the throne. A few of the Queen’s bravest and brazenest subjects set upon the child–who was now just three years old. They tortured him almost unto death.

“Again the Veil Queen took her child and fled. She returned to Feisty Wold, hoping to find succor and friendship again. The tailor’s wife, Mava Oakhewn, welcomed her to her house. She whittled wooden toys for the boy in his convalescence. She set him to sleep in the same cradle as her own tiny daughter Gordie. Mava entreated the Veil Queen to stop the battle between their people. The Veil Queen refused.

Your heart is hardened, Mava told her in despair.

Then will I give it over to thy keeping, did the Veil Queen reply. I have no use for it now.

“So saying, she cut out her heart and strung it on a ribbon, disguised it as a bauble under Mava Oakhewn’s stewardship. For a third time she took her son and disappeared, to a place where neither Gentry nor mortal could find her. She raised her son in the ruins of that city which had ruined him.”

In the silence that followed, the wind shrieked.

She was his mother. I sat not a hand’s span from his mother. My own mam’s friend. Queen of all the Valwode and cause of the war. Just cause, if her story was to be trusted.

Did I trust anyone anymore?

Yes. One. And she was his mother.

“Now,” said the Witch, “this broken boy is full grown and of an age to rule. He is both wise and good, as puissant with power as ever his mother was. Still the Gentry cannot bear that he must wear their antler crown. The war rages between Gentry and mortalkind; the Valwode withers without its sovereign. But the Folk are stubborn.

“One year ago today did the Gentry Prince come before the queen. He knelt before her–he, to whom all worlds should bow!–and begged to give his life for his people, to make way for another heir. This the Veil Queen could not stomach. She bargained with him instead.

Go you questing to the mortal realm, said the Veil Queen. Return only when you have my eye, my heart, and a child of our blood to sit upon the throne.”

The Witch subsided. My whole face was numb with revelation, but when she said, “The rest you know,” I leapt off our sitting stone.

“No!” I cried. “The rest I don’t! For I don’t know his name. Without his name, there’s no end for me. And no beginning neither! It’s all just another ghost story.”

The Witch rolled her one eye up to me. The long white oval pulsed with gold. When she spoke again, the subject was so changed I nearly kicked up a foot and popped her in the knee.

“Were children never cruel in your village, Gordie Oakhewn?”

“Aye,” I snapped. “All children can be cruel.”

“Did they never sing songs while clapping hands or jumping rope?”

I jerked my chin and began to pace. “Of course.” I did not say, “That’s how I found you, isn’t it?

“Did you never join in their games?”

Turning to scowl at her I said, “Me? Mam would’ve clouted my backside with her dishrag, she heard me singing some of those naughty rhymes. Which you’d know if you’d really met her, Your Majesty.”

“But you listened,” the Witch continued. “You watched from your window. You stopped at the side of the road to hear their songs.”

“Sometimes!”

“What did they sing?”

“What did they sing?”

“What. Did. They. Sing.”

With a rub of my face and a shrug, I rattled off a few of the old chants. “Shark in the Cellar. How the Fox Ate the Moon. Come and Cut the Cute Cat’s Head. The One-Eyed Witch Lives Where?” I gestured about extravagantly. “Here, apparently. Oh, and the companion song, about the Witch’s…” I stopped.

That gold eye glared.

“About the Witch’s Crooked Son.” My gorge rose too fast. That terrible song. In her last days of life, Mam had lain beside her open window whispering it, frail and sobbing, and I could do nothing to comfort her.

“Sing it.”

“I won’t!

“Sing it.”

“Never! How could you ask it of me? His own mother?”

The Witch grasped my chin in her hand. I had never felt fingers so strong and fell. I, who’d been wife to boorish Jadio. Cold as the claws of the White One, they were, who rides your neck until you run off a cliff to escape her.

“You are not your mother’s daughter. You are craven. You do not deserve him.”

“Listen, you!” I bellowed, knocking her hand aside. “Twenty years the tots of Leressa have been singing that song. Cutting his soul into snippets and wounding him with every unwitting word. How could you–the Queen of the Valwode–you who know better–let his name be wrecked like that? Gentry never tell, he said–not even their own mothers. Is this why? Who let his secret name out? Who gave it like a golden ball into the hands of heedless children, until years of low games so dirtied and dented it you can hardly see the glistening? Twenty years of mockery. It must have been like a knife in his back every time some kiddie jumped rope.”

The Witch’s white shoulders seemed almost as hunched as her son’s. She whispered, “In the early days I trusted Lorez too dearly. I underestimated his knowledge of the Gentry. Too well did he understand our ways. The night he betrayed us, he called Torvald and Lissa into our room. Witness the Witch’s imprisonment, he said. The ruins of your baby brother on the floor. Do you see what your father does for you?

“Perhaps they were repulsed at the sight. Perhaps they were delighted. The faces they showed their father were pitiless as his own. Then Torvald made up that rhyme to sing while Lissa danced around the baby’s body. He had been silent until then. Stunned. That was when he began to scream. How they made him dance, rhyming him back his own name.”

The night air was wet and cool, but my skin baked so with anger that it might have been high summer. Shrugging off my quilted coat, I rummaged in my pack for the length of gold-braided rope I’d planned to sell off in pieces for food if my quest failed, or hang myself with if Jadio’s soldiers captured me.

My hands shook. Nevertheless, I stood, turned my back on the Witch, and began to skip.

Swoop, slap, thud. Swoop, slap, thud. The old rhythms entered me. My breath came faster. My heart began to drum.

Rickedy-din, the Wicked One
Quick – let’s kill the Witch’s Son
Roast his hump until it’s done
How meet’s the meat of Ricadon!

Tears slicked my face. My nose began to run. My throat tightened ‘til I could do no more than squeak. A few skips more and the rope tangled my legs. I stopped to extricate myself, puffing for breath.

It came to me then, doubled over, that I’d been a rhymer for nearly as long as I’d been a prisoner. True, my couplets had all been curses like the one Torvald and Lissa had laid upon the Witch’s Son. I’d never tried to compose a counter-curse to coax a shy thing from the Veil. Point was, rhymes meant something to the Gentry, where a song was life or death depending on which you followed through the bog. Rhymes could make a broken baby dance with pain, or a twisted mouth flash out with laughter in the dark. My golden rope glittered in the moonlight as I got my breath back. I began skipping again.

Rickedy-din, the Kindly One
How I love the Witch’s Son
Woo him well until he’s won
My vows I’ll make to Ricadon.

The ruins of Lirhu vanished. The Witch with one eye vanished (but a second before she did, I saw her smile). So did the night, and the chill, and my weariness. I could not breathe. My innards turned to soup and streamed out of holes in the soles of my feet. Then the world steadied. My body unjellied. I stood in a sunlit cow pasture–near enough the sea to smell it, though I did not know in which direction it lay.

My cow Annat grazed not far from me, her brown-dappled hide agleam. My heart jumped for joy in my chest.

“Annat, my love! You’re looking fat and happy!”

In a distant corner of the pasture, my good red bull Manu trotted back and forth, a tiny white figure clinging to his corded neck and giggling.

Now, I knew time moved differently in the Veil, that Gentry children did not develop as mortals did, but oh! I feared for her! She was so small, both her worlds so unsafe. I thought of my fox twins, and others like them. The war was not over–not by many a long mile and a longer year. King, Archabbot, Prickster, peasant, Gentry warrior, mortal soldier: our battles would rage ever bloodier before we knew an end. Such a tangle. Such a terror. If only the children were let to reach a reasonable age, perhaps together they might build a more reasonable world. But they had to survive it first!

“Be careful!” I shouted, “Manu, not so fast!” and set off at a run. Not two steps I’d taken before someone had caught the back of my skirt. People were always stopping me this way. I should start wearing trousers.

“Peace, Milkmaid! She won’t fall. We’ve taken to calling her the White Raven. If we don’t tie a thread to her ankle and tether her to something solid–like Manu–she’ll fly right up into the air and only come down again when she’s hungry.”

My body strained forward, not quite caught up to my ears.

“But–she’s–just–“

“A child. Our child. Seven days old and stubborn as the sea.” He released my skirt abruptly. I splattered into the dirt as was my wont–charmingly, just shy of a cowpat. This was so reminiscent of the moment we’d first met, I laughed.

His long black eyes danced as he gazed down. His hair was wild as a thundercloud. Clad like a farmer but for the opal on his finger, the ivory at his throat, the green flame on his brow, he looked… healthy. His shoulders still hunched, his torso still torqued, but his brow was unfurrowed, free of pain. No farmer or fisherman, prince or soldier had ever been so fine and fey, so gladdening to my eyes. Wiping my face briefly with the hem of my skirt, I took my first true breath in what seemed like a lifetime.

“If our Raven can fly, Ricadon, she gets it from your side of the family. Me, I’m mortal to the bone–remember?”

“Not anymore, Gordie Oakhewn,” said my friend and lifted me from the ground.

___
Copyright 2013 C.S.E. Cooney

GigaNotoSaurus has been a labor of love from the beginning. I’m very proud of the fiction I’ve published since its start in 2010. And I’ve had a lot of fun editing–I can tell you from experience that when editors say they get a happy thrill out of discovering a gem in the slush, they really, really mean it. And it’s been amazing to work with every single one of the writers whose stories I’ve published.

But editing takes real time and energy. And, unlike in 2010 when I opened GigaNotoSaurus, I’ve got big projects with deadlines staring me in the face.

Closing GigaNotoSaurus wasn’t an option–I still feel that it’s important to have some sort of venue for longer fiction, and surely more stories were coming in the future, just as good as the ones I’d already found, that would need a home.

No, I didn’t want to close up shop. And the more I thought about it, the more I figured it would be good for an editorial changeup. Given a bucket full of gems, no two editors will select the same ones. Maybe it was time to see what someone else would pick!

So I asked Rashida J. Smith if she’d like to be editor. And she said yes! She’s smart and fabulous, and I believe she’ll pick great fiction. You might have heard her narrate stories for Podcastle or Psuedopod, or you might have read her story “Small Strange Towns.”

The best part, for me, is that just like the rest of you, I get to sit back and see what she brings us.

–Ann Leckie

by Patricia Russo

Mother Roughcoat lived in a one-room shack in the center of the city. She wasn’t, and never had been, anybody’s mother, but because she was older than the municipal hall, or looked it–in truth, she looked older than the Foundation Fountain, and that thing was crumbling to sand–people called her Mother out of an old-fashioned sort of politeness. The Roughcoat part came from her attire, a formidable piece of old tech that nobody really believed could possibly work anymore, a personal protection device of great gray and bristly ugliness that covered her from neck to knees. The chances of there being any poison left in those spines, or any charge remaining in the stun-spikes, was infinitesimal, but folks gave Mother Roughcoat her space. Just in case.

Aunt Far Away lived a considerable distance from town, out in the sticks in the back of the boonies, miles and leagues and long muddy stretches from where the streetcar route ended. Not that she ever took the streetcar. Aunt Far Away walked everywhere, slowly and steadily, with a rucksack on her back and a pouch tied around her middle. People could always tell when she was coming, because Aunt Far Away liked to sing. Loudly. The fact that her singing sounded very much like cracked shrieks stitched together by gasps never stopped her. Folks put up with the singing. She was family, or family to someone they knew. Over the years, Aunt Far Away had accumulated many, many brothers and sisters (of the chosen kin sort), and therefore many, many brothers-and-sisters-in-law, and consequently many, many nieces and nephews. And grandnieces and grandnephews. You had to be polite to your relatives, if you didn’t want people to think you were a total asshole. Folks also put up with the singing for another reason. Since Aunt Far Away walked everywhere, she saw many things and heard a lot of news, and once you got her to take her rucksack off, sit down, and have a cup of tea or three, she was always happy to kick off a story-telling session, and Aunt Far Away was a good storyteller. She always made sure that everybody was clear about when she was recounting something she had seen herself, and when she was passing along a tale, or anecdote, or bit of rumor or gossip, that she had been told. People looked forward to her visits.

Now all of this takes place after the gods who made nice things for the city had taken themselves off somewhere else, so there was a lot of grumbling and muttering and yearning for the old days. Mother Roughcoat, even though she never removed her personal security suit (people figured she slept in it, and as for washing, it was clear as soon as you got within a couple of meters that Mother Roughcoat didn’t), wouldn’t hold with such talk. The old days are gone, she said. The old stories don’t do anybody any good. People have to live in the here and now, and if they don’t like it, the least they could do was keep their mouths shut and not spread the misery around. Mother Roughcoat’s suit might not have had any juice in it any longer, but if she wanted to she could make the spines quiver and the spikes spring up (bioelectrics, that was, said folks in the know, or who claimed to be in the know, powered by a tiny charge drawn from her own skin), and when she did that, cheap trick or not, folks took to nodding fast and agreeing quick.

Aunt Far Away had nothing against a good grumble. She was a cheerful sort herself, but she never begrudged anyone else having a bit of a moan. She would sit and sip her tea (if there was any tea to be had), and listen. People did seem to feel better once they’d told their stories, and cried a little, and smashed an old framed photograph, or thrown a plate against a wall, or punched a dead com screen.

On most sunny and not too chilly days, when the sky was a tranquil hue and no uproar beyond the usual was going on (no new building fallen over, no blight suddenly appearing on the greenstuff in the roof gardens, no reports of decades-old roads dissolving into muck and crumbs of tar), Mother Roughcoat would sit outside her shack, on a three-legged stool, with her hands folded her in lap and a little smile on her star-burned face. Everybody knew that this was Mother Roughcoat’s way of signifying that she wanted company. Mother Roughcoat was a neighbor it was important to keep on the good side of, so folks would gather behind a shed or inside a courtyard and draw lots. Or play rock-paper-scissors. Or simply argue until someone gave in and sighed, “All right, all right, already. I’ll do it.” Everybody else would also sigh, in relief. “Brave fellow.” “Good woman.” “Better you than me.”

Aunt Far Away walked to the center of the city sometimes. Every pair of months or so, one of her meandering routes would circle around this and about that and cut through that other stretch, and end up in the middle. The people there were as eager for news as those in any other district or region, and they smiled more than most, so Aunt Far Away was always sorry when she had distressing information to impart.

That day, she found that she didn’t have the heart for singing.

It took folks a while to notice.

The center of the city was the most densely populated area. It was the place where the old gods who made nice things had bestowed many of their gifts: shade trees that bore fruit three seasons of the year, self-repairing bricks, kind bees, and a park that once provided endless hours of entertainment for both children and adults. Ever since the fountain had crumbled, the park wasn’t used very much, but it was still as green as ever, and that was something. The residents of the city’s central neighborhood counted their blessings.

Mother Roughcoat was an anomaly. How she had come to live there, nobody knew. And where that shack had come from, built of scraps of this and scrag-ends of that, with no windows and one door that had once obviously belonged to a garden shed, was a mystery. The walls were plywood and tarpaper, and the roof was planks tacked down haphazardly, covered with plastic sheeting tied down with twine. And the interior – reported the neighbors who had accepted Mother Roughcoat’s occasional offers of refreshment and conversation – was tacked all over with plastic as well. More intriguingly, the shack was crammed with wooden chests and metal caskets and boxes of all sorts. Mother Roughcoat was clearly rich. She might not have been born in this neighborhood, and she certainly had an abrasive personality, but nobody ever dared to treat her with anything other than respect, at least to her face.

Now, for years Aunt Far Away had tried to be friendly toward Mother Roughcoat, waving whenever she walked by her shack. Mother Roughcoat never waved back. In fact, Aunt Far Away was sure that the bristly-suited woman sitting in front of her lashed-together hut sneered at her every time she waved. Glowered. Scowled. Even, once, Aunt Far Away would swear, stuck out her tongue.

Mother Roughcoat’s attitude presented an obstacle, because today Aunt Far Away needed to speak to her urgently.

Even though Aunt Far Away did not sing as she made her way toward Mother Roughcoat’s shack, and didn’t walk with her usual jaunty air, eventually folks did spot her and begin to call out greetings. They expected her to smile; they expected her to shout back cheerfully, to toss out a teaser or two for the tales that were to come, to joke that there had better be plenty of tea on hand, and biscuits, too, if they wanted to hear her first-rate stuff. Aunt Far Away tried to smile, but she had never been very good at dissembling. People glanced at each other. Some began to follow her, slowly, keeping their distance, their faces anxious. Parents sent their children inside. Others, the bravest ones, or the most eager, called, “Is it bad news? Aunt Far Away, is it very bad?”

There were always some who were keen to hear the grimmest reports. Aunt Far Away found it hard not to chide them, particularly when they giggled. She did not think anybody would laugh this time. She did not bring rumors of a fresh bloodfeud between the six-fingered lot that had taken to what was left of the woods (or what was returning to woods) and their usual trading partners downstream, who were still doing their damnedest to levy tolls on anybody traveling on what they considered to be their section of the river. (She had heard such a rumor, complete with claims that a six-fingers had been drowned, and a child of the river country had had her eyes torn out in revenge, but that was not the tale Aunt Far Away meant to tell today.) She did not carry a story of huge and terrible worms chewing and writhing in the red clay far beneath the foundations of the city, growing larger and stronger and hungrier with each passing month, until the time came when they would rise to the surface and devour them all. Aunt Far Away had told that story to great effect at a housewarming party just the other week, taking care to ensure that everyone present, drunk or sober, was clear about the fact that it was only a tale, an invented entertainment. She was not going to be giving that tale today, either.

The people following Aunt Far Away began to guess where she was heading, and she heard a susurrus of curiosity and concern swell up behind her. She took a quick glance over her shoulder. Twenty or so folks were trailing her, still at a cautious distance. Twenty was a good number to sit and hear stories, to drink tea and laugh and exclaim, to relax and exchange news of their own. Twenty, she thought, might also be a good number to witness what she had come to tell Mother Roughcoat. She doubted the presence of an audience would make the bristly old creature behave herself, but sticks and stones, as the old saying went. The important thing was that witnesses would ensure that what passed between them could not be kept secret. There were times for secrets, but this was not one of them.

Though it was not a particularly fine day, the sky overcast and with more than a hint of wet in the air, Mother Roughcoat was sitting outside on her three-legged stool. The expression on her face was not welcoming. Aunt Far Away had heard of Mother Roughcoat’s periodic longings for company; she found such a desire perfectly natural, though she felt sorry so many folks considered it a chore that must be performed in order to keep Mother Roughcoat pacified. “What does she talk about?” Aunt Far Away had asked a group of news-listeners once, when one of them complained that he’d had to sit with Mother Roughcoat and drink her hooch for hours the day before, and had a hell of a headache weighing on him in consequence. “The old days,” people said.

“About the gods that made nice things for the city?”

“No. About how she used to be rich and had lots of nice things for herself.”

Then, of course, somebody asked, as someone always did whenever the gods that made nice things were mentioned, if Aunt Far Away thought they would ever come back. No, she said, as she always did. New things would come, though. Why, look around yourselves, she said. Hadn’t dozens, hundreds, of new things already come into the world?

“But they aren’t nice things.”

“It’s all a matter of how you look at it. The sky sculptures the pigeons create in the spring, they’re very pretty, aren’t they? And what about this tea, right here? We never had this sort of tea before. I don’t think any of you are old enough to remember that when that little blue-leafed bush started growing, here, there, and everywhere, people didn’t know what to think. They were afraid it was a weed that would run wild, invade their gardens, choke their crops. They were even afraid it was poisonous. Oh yes, they were. And see?” Aunt Far Away took a sip from her cup. “Perfectly nice.”

She felt it was her duty to say those sorts of things, when people got depressed or angry about the old days being gone, especially young folks who had no knowledge of what the old days had really been like. A pernicious nostalgia was worse than religion, in Aunt Far Away’s opinion.

As Aunt Far Away approached, Mother Roughcoat’s expression, which had started as a scowl, deepened into a glare. All the spines and spikes and needles of her suit were twitching. She looked like a great angry porcupine, Aunt Far Away thought, if porcupines wore boots and smelled of decades of dirt and liquor. Aunt Far Away checked again to see how many folks were trailing her. Not so many as before, not twenty or so. Perhaps ten or twelve. Aunt Far Away hoped that no more would melt away.

“What do you want?”

It was good that Mother Roughcoat had spoken first. Aunt Far Away smiled, and inclined her head. She felt very little desire to smile, but the forms of friendliness were her own suit, her second skin between her and the world. “I bring news.”

“Go take it somewhere else.”

“It is grave news.”

“I don’t want any.”

Behind her, Aunt Far Away heard the murmurs rise again. Grave news, grave news.

“On Hinson Street, there is a tree,” Aunt Far Away said.

Mother Roughcoat’s suit bristled. She looked away, then said, mockingly, “Once upon a time, there were three little princesses who lived in a red house on a hill.”

“The tree cracked, and a bird flew out.”

Mother Roughcoat jerked her chin dismissively.

“The bird flew away, but the crack is still there. The tree is gone, but the crack is still there. The crack grows larger by the hour.”

“Aunt Far Away, Aunt Far Away!” The people who had followed her to Mother Roughcoat’s shack had not moved closer. They stayed a good ten meters back. Some of them, she saw, were holding hands. “Is that a true news?”

“Yes. I would say you may go to Hinson Street to see for yourselves, but I think it is best for everyone to keep away from there. The crack is very wide now, and stretches up to the clouds.”

“I suppose swarms of monsters are clambering through this crack, eating babies and slaughtering the chickens?”

“No monsters.” Aunt Far Away looked back at the people listening. “This I saw myself. This is not a tale I was told. There are no monsters coming through the crack.”

“Not yet,” Mother Roughcoat muttered.

“And you wonder why people find it such a chore to visit with you.”

“I don’t.” Mother Roughcoat’s lips twitched. “Wonder.”

“A bird flew out,” Aunt Far Away said. “It was a small bird, with gray feathers. It circled the crack where the tree had been, and circled it again. When it flew behind the crack, it disappeared from sight. Do you understand what I am saying?”

“Not a word.”

“It landed on my shoulder, and whispered in my ear.” Aunt Far Away turned, so that the people behind her could see her face. “The bird said that a great storm had shaken and quaked its world, a storm without rain or thunder or wind, and a thousand cracks had broken the earth and the sky, and now, in its world, there was almost no air left to breathe. To save themselves, the people had settled themselves into sleep, underground.”

“These people being birds.”

“Different worlds, different people.”

Mother Roughcoat snorted. “Different birds, too. This one didn’t go to sleep, eh? You’re telling us it went on a tour-of-ten-worlds instead.”

“Tour of ten worlds,” Aunt Far Away repeated, softly.

“It’s just an expression.”

“You remember.”

“Old stories. Nobody really believed them. Except the same fools who believed in gods that made nice things for the city.” Mother Roughcoat touched the collar of her suit. “It was only ever us, who made the nice things and the cruel things and the useful things and the silly things.”

“There are ten worlds,” Aunt Far Away said to those who were listening, who had not fled, and they nodded eagerly.

“There might be a hundred. There might be a thousand.” Mother Roughcoat stamped her foot, and all the spikes and spines of her suit leapt into warding mode. “Why are you bothering me with this nonsense? If you think I’ve got a load of cryogenic cylinders tucked away in the cellar, you’re more crack-minded than I imagined. I don’t even have a cellar.”

“The bird told me that its people had made the wrong decision by making themselves sleep. The cracks in its world have continued to grow. When they wake, if they wake, it will be to devastation.”

“Quite a chatty little bird.”

“It wanted someone to know, and to remember them, its world, its people. That’s why it flew through the crack. Our crack, the one on Hinson Street. That one was different, it said. It did not suck air from its world. The other cracks lead to nothing, it thinks. The space between the stars, perhaps. Not one of the ten worlds. It plunged into ours, hoping to find friends.”

The listeners had crept a bit closer. “Where is the little gray bird now?” a pinched-faced man asked.

“On my shoulder.”

Mother Roughcoat laughed.

The listeners did not.

“Is it still talking to you?” Mother Roughcoat asked.

“No. Not since I left Hinson Street.”

“May that be a lesson to you. Even imaginary friends will let you down.”

“The bird told me,” Aunt Far Away said, more loudly, “that the crack on Hinson Street may be just the first. It would take masses of people to seal it, and they would have to do that with their own bodies. If the crack is not closed, the air, and light, and life, from our world will seep into it, and though this might take ten seasons, or fifty, in time everything that is in our world will bleed into its, which will not help the people there at all, as none of their cracks has been closed, and so whatever trickles into it rushes out again almost at once.”

“There is no bird on your shoulder.”

“There is,” a thick-necked woman called out. “I can see it. It has a short blue beak, and skinny black toes.”

Mother Roughcoat looked at Aunt Far Away. “See what you’ve done. So, will you lead these fools to Hinson Street, gathering more and more along the way, and cheer them all on as they jump into this crack of yours?”

“It does have a blunt blue beak, and thin, well, toes isn’t the right word. Claws, isn’t it? And it is sitting on my shoulder, on the strap of my rucksack, to be precise, and it is exuding sadness the way a cradlewood tree sweats bitterness. Just because you can’t see it doesn’t mean it isn’t there. And no, haven’t I told them all to stay away from Hinson Street?”

“Which shoulder?”

Aunt Far Away looked at Mother Roughcoat for a long time. “No,” she said at last. “You will not harm it.”

“It’s your friend now, I suppose.”

“Yes.”

“Have you adopted it yet? Oh, no, you don’t do that. You just collect play-siblings.”

“Will you listen to me? We cannot seal the crack. The cost is much too high. And there may be more, the bird says. So we must do another thing.” She turned again to the listeners. “Pay heed, now, pay heed. There is a thing we must do.”

They edged closer. “Yes, Aunt Far Away. Yes. Yes.” The woman who claimed she could see the bird was in the lead now, squeezing hands and patting shoulders.

“You and the bird,” Mother Roughcoat said.

“You and I,” Aunt Far Away replied. “We must begin it.”

“Go away now,” Mother Roughcoat said. “Go away to your Far Away place, and leave me in peace. I’m tired. I’m going to take a nap.”

“We have to build a door.”

“There are carpenters who will do that, for a pot of soup and half a kilo of scrap metal. Or, in your case, maybe even for a story about three little princesses who lived in a red house on top of a hill.”

“You know the sort of door I mean.”

“What sort, Aunt Far Away?” called the pinch-faced man.

“I know,” said the woman who could see the bird. “A door out of this world. Not a crack, but a door.”

“Yes,” said Aunt Far Away. The bird whispered, and automatically she cocked her head. She noticed Mother Roughcoat’s eyes narrow. She knew which shoulder the bird sat on, now. Aunt Far Away whistled softly: take care.

The pinched-faced man said, “Must we leave this world, then? Is that the only way to be safe?”

“The kind of doors this mad old woman is babbling about do not exist,” Mother Roughcoat said. “Never existed.” She paused. “And there is no safety.”

“There were doors, in the old days,” Aunt Far Away said. “That is how it came to be known that there are ten worlds. Ten worlds where people – different worlds, different people – live. That is how the bird knew that this world, our world, is the fourth in the chain. Its world is the ninth. They had doors, too, but the cracks swallowed them all.” She listened again. “The crack in Hinson Street felt to it like a door twisted inside out. It thinks the crack from its world engulfed an old door in this one. We cannot use it, because it would take us only to the ninth world. We must build a new one.”

“To take us – and you are very free with the word us, aren’t you, Far Away? – where? To the third world, which is desert, or the fifth, which is tower upon tower of glass, or the tenth, where the people, if you can call them that, fight war after war, with stone weapons and pointed sticks hardened in flint-struck fires?”

“Those tales are a hundred years old. Many things change in a hundred years. Haven’t many things changed here, in less time than that?”

“But to leave our world,” the pinched-faced man said. “I don’t think I could.”

“Let us build the door,” Aunt Far Away said. “Then each can chose, to stay or go. No one will be forced. But would you deny others the choice?”

“Your bird is talking again,” Mother Roughcoat said, and she was staring directly at it.

“It asks why you are so afraid.”

“It has a shifty look. I suspect it made that crack itself.”

Aunt Far Away did not believe Mother Roughcoat could actually see the bird. “The bird flew a long and arduous way to warn us.”

“Brave bird!” the people cried, and some began to applaud.

“Do not be sad,” said the woman who could see it. “We will be your friends.”

“Enemies may come in innocent guises,” Mother Roughcoat said.

“And the strong in weak ones,” said Aunt Far Away. “And fear in angry ones. Take off your suit. A door has many parts. I will make one. You will make another. Two parts will allow us to fashion a third. And three parts will point us to the fourth.”

“From my suit? Make a door from my suit?”

“A small part. The smallest part, if that is all you can bear.”

Mother Roughcoat stood up from her three-legged stool. “I will kill you now.”

“You will not,” said the woman who could see the bird, and she walked up to Mother Roughcoat and put her arms around her. All the spikes and spines and needles of her suit were raised, but when the woman embraced Mother Roughcoat, she did not cry out, though Mother Roughcoat shoved against her, driving the points into her skin. The woman was broad and strong, and held on tight. Aunt Far Away saw a flash of panic cross Mother Roughcoat’s face.

“No one must be forced,” Aunt Far Away said.

“I am not forcing her. I am hugging her.”

“You will not take my suit!” Mother Roughcoat cried.

“No one will take your suit,” Aunt Far Away said.

“Let go of me!” Mother Roughcoat pushed the woman hard, making her stagger. “Idiocy atop idiocy! Lies stacked on lies!”

“This is no lie,” Aunt Far Away said, and gestured to the woman to move away from Mother Roughcoat. Before she did so, the woman dipped her head down and kissed Mother Roughcoat on the cheek. When she stepped back, her skin was dotted with drops of blood, but she did not wince, or wipe them away, or appear to care about them at all.

“Look,” Aunt Far Away said, coming closer. She held out her hands.

“No.”

“Look. I’ve already made a start on my part.”

“What’s that? That is nothing. It is a length of dry bone.”

“It is my bone, from my body, and I will shape it into a doorknob.”

“Lies.”

“Touch it. Touch it and tell me that I lie.”

Mother Roughcoat did not move. “You are a fool. Doors are exits, but entrances as well. Open one, and you have no way of knowing what will come inside.”

“Both exits and entrances are necessary.”

“You don’t know how to make a doorknob.”

“I will learn.”

“May you use up every bone in your body, and die as a sack of pus and fat.”

Aunt Far Away felt the bird launch itself from her shoulder. She locked her eyes on those of the woman who could see the bird. With relief, she saw that the woman understood. The woman said, casually, “If Aunt Far Away uses up all her bones, then I offer mine. And you, Mother Roughcoat, no one is asking for your bones, but only a scrap of old tech.”

The bird landed on Mother Roughcoat’s head, and Mother Roughcoat screamed.

“It won’t hurt you!” Aunt Far Away cried. She slid her bone back into the belt-pouch she had taken it from. There were other items in that pouch, as well, some of which the bird had led her to. And in turn, she had led the bird to Mother Roughcoat. There are two of us in this city who can try to do what you advise, she had told it. I am one, and I will take you to the other. And the bird had trusted her, and ridden on her shoulder the whole long way to Mother Roughcoat’s shack.

The courageous, the curious, the people who had followed, and who had stayed through the telling and the showing, did not run. Ten or twelve of them, the best in the city, Aunt Far Away thought. Or the best in the city on that day, on that path she had taken, at that hour of the afternoon. Terrified, magnificent people. Aunt Far Away was very proud of them.

And the bird, which had battled its way here from the ninth world, a world now lost to it, except as a grave, which had every reason in the universe to be brusque or impatient, or burning with fury, or insane with grief, did not scratch with its claws or stab with its beak or flap its strong wings in Mother Roughcoat’s face. It perched on her head lightly, enduring her screams, ignoring the attempts she made to bat it off. Aunt Far Away loved that bird, that stranger, that lost and caring soul, more at that moment than she had ever loved her very, very favorite brothers and sisters and nephews and nieces. She grabbed Mother Roughcoat’s wrists before she could try to hit the bird again.

“All it wants to do is to tell you something.”

“Get it off me! Get it the fuck off me!”

“You can’t see it, can you, but you can feel it. So you can’t deny it’s real.”

“I can deny anything I damn well like!”

“Mother Roughcoat, listen, please. I think you will be able to understand the bird’s words.”

Aunt Far Away nodded to the bird, which bobbed its small gray head in response.

The bird whispered. Mother Roughcoat listened, a sour expression on her face. A young woman tugged at Aunt Far Away’s sleeve. “Is it talking?”

“Shh.”

“What is it saying?”

“Shhh!” the others admonished her, and the pinched-faced man pulled her back.

Mother Roughcoat looked like she wanted to spit. Spit acid, if she could have. The bird bobbed its head a final time, and flew to perch again on Aunt Far Away’s shoulder.

And Mother Roughcoat picked up her stool, went inside her shack, and shut the door.

“Aunt Far Away?”

“Come,” she said. “We need to give her time to think. Will one of you put me up for the night?”

“Of course.”

“Gladly.”

“My home is yours.”

“She’s going to sit in there and get drunk, and won’t come out for days,” the woman who could see the bird said.

“If that’s what she does, then that’s what she does. Meanwhile, we can begin our own work.” She laid a hand on her pouch. “I will continue to fashion the knob. And you, you can warn people about Hinson Street, tell them the news – but tell it true and plain – and see if we can get any old engineers or tech collectors to come along and share some tips, or maybe even a tool or five. And dear heaven, what I wouldn’t give for a cup of tea.”

They gave her tea, and they gave her stew, and they gave her the most comfortable armchair any of them possessed (after squabbling a bit over which one that was), and one very young man who was Aunt Far Away’s great-great nephew said, “But what about the bird?”, even though he couldn’t see it himself, and so they set out a cup of water and a plate of bread heels, and Aunt Far Away thanked them for their kindness. She did not tell them that the bird was well content with a few sips of tea from her own frequently refilled cup.

Eight of the folks who had followed and stayed and listened and seen set out to spread the word about Hinson Street. The other three (so there had been eleven who’d stuck with her the whole way, Aunt Far Away thought), the woman who could see the bird, the boy who’d mentioned shyly that he was her great-great nephew, and the pinched-faced man (they’d ended up at his house, as it was the largest) stayed with her. The pinched-faced man (no kin) and the woman who could see the bird (“I think my sister-in-law’s cousin’s father was one of yours”) got busy with slates and styluses, sketching out all manners of doors, and parts and elements and accoutrements of doors. Aunt Far Away let them. It kept them busy and it did no harm. She had a picture of the type of door that was needed in her head, down to the tiniest detail. Her kin-boy stared hard at Aunt Far Away’s shoulder. Trying to see the bird, she knew. She said nothing to him, either. Some could, and some couldn’t, and some others might be able to in time if they kept trying.

At one point, the woman who could see the bird asked, “How big a door do you think we’ll need?”

Aunt Far Away was smoothing the length of bone (a lower rib, nothing she couldn’t spare, though her side did ache a bit where it had been removed; the bird had done it with its beak, without much mess at all; the little crimped scar where the bird had pressed the sides of the wound together nip by nip was rather pretty, Aunt Far Away thought) with a pumice stone. A doorknob, she had said, but really it would be more like a handle, a thin curved handle that she hoped would be welcoming to the touch. “Not a very big one, dear,” she replied. “I know you’re thinking about crowds and mobs and panics. But I believe most will go one by one, or in small groups. And some will not go at all. And besides, once we build one door, it shouldn’t be a difficult matter to construct others, in various parts of the city.”

“And outside the city?” said the pinched-faced man.

“Of course, outside the city as well.”

“This will take hundreds of people,” her line-nephew said. “Tons of material.”

“I expect so.”

“Aunt Far Away.”

“Yes, son.”

“Is the bird asleep?”

Tell the boy he may ask what he wishes, the bird whispered.

“No, not yet,” Aunt Far Away said. “Do you want to say something to it?”

“I was just – it’s only that – ” The young man squirmed. “It ran away from its world. Or flew away, I mean. And when it came here, when it battled out of the crack, how did it find you?”

“I was there. I was on Hinson Street. I told you all, this is news I saw myself, not a tale I have carried from other mouths.”

“It told you about the cracks that broke all over its world.”

“Yes.”

“And how the crack on Hinson Street is only the first one to appear here, that there will be more and more?”

“Wait,” Aunt Far Away said, sternly. “No, it did not tell me that. Do not elaborate the story. If you want to be a good tale-carrier and news bearer, you must always be very careful about when to embellish and when not to. With news, you do not. And if you are not sure of certain details, then tell your listeners that you are not sure. Do not invent things simply to hold their attention, or to keep the story going. Do you understand?”

“Yes, Aunt Far Away.”

“The bird told me that there may be more cracks coming, not that there will be.”

The bird whispered to her again.

“But that is not what you wanted to know, is it?”

Her line-nephew looked down at his hands. “Whose idea was the door?”

“The bird was very tired after its journey, and very afraid. It grieves, for the friends and kin and world it has lost, but it is not afraid now. It sees that the people here are people like its own – different worlds, different people, but people all the same – and it wants to help us.”

The boy looked up.

Ah, Aunt Far Away thought. We come to the nub of it.

“We thought of it together,” she told him. “The making of doors is old-days knowledge here, written down in books that have long since moldered to mulch, recorded on tech no one can coax a byte of data from anymore. But there are other ways to hold on to knowledge. The bird knew of the doors, and I remembered them. And we thought, yes, this can be done.”

“Why does the bird want to help us? It could fly far away, to the other side of the world, if it wanted, and live out its life in peace, long before all the air in this world is sucked away.” Her kin-boy seemed embarrassed to give voice to the question. He hugged himself, and would not look at anyone.

“It came in the hope of finding friends. We are new friends, that is true. But don’t friends help each other?”

The bird whistled sharply.

They all heard, the pinched-faced man, the woman, the line-nephew.

Aunt Far Away smiled. “Is there any more tea?”

“Certainly,” the pinched-faced man said, rising quickly.

“But Mother Roughcoat,” her line-nephew said. “You went to her, you and the bird, because of knowledge, and not merely memory. Or am I wrong?”

“No. You are correct.”

“But she won’t help.”

“Give her time,” Aunt Far Away said. “She has her own fears to work through, and many of those fears are very old. And she needs a while to think through what the bird told her.”

“What did it tell her?” her nephew asked.

“That is not for me to say.”

“She will not come,” said the woman who could see the bird.

The next day many people came, those who had heard the news of the crack on Hinson Street (some of whom had gone to see it, despite the warnings), those who had heard rumors of the news and wanted to hear Aunt Far Away give the account, those who wanted comfort, those who wanted to help.

Mother Roughcoat did not.

“She is in her shack,” a neighbor reported. “Talking to herself. Smashing things.”

“Leave her alone,” Aunt Far Away said. She had almost finished her handle. Two girls who were good weavers sat on the floor at Aunt Far Away’s feet, plaiting slow sunlight. Now that was old tech, and old knowledge, and old skill, and the girls, who were cousins, had learned it from an old man who had learned it from his grandmother. The lengths of light the girls were able to knit had the solidity and consistency of soft glass. It was hard work, and painful, but the girls sang to each other to keep their spirits up.

“That is very useful,” Aunt Far Away said. “Energy! And better than any battery. We’re getting somewhere now.”

The reports from Hinson Street were alarming. The crack continued to expand. Everyone who ventured within a kilometer of the area could feel a constant wind blowing past them, rushing into the crack. The neighborhood had been evacuated. Some people had even fled the city, though Aunt Far Away thought that was a bit premature.

She said nothing about it. She told stories to keep the worried calm and to lighten the strain on the workers. She told the bird the history of the city and its old customs and beliefs, and the bird expressed great fascination. She waited.

Mother Roughcoat came to the pinched-faced man’s house (it had become the de facto base of operations) on the fourth night. She knocked on the door.

“I’ll get it,” Aunt Far Away said, and everybody in the house went silent.

Mother Roughcoat was wearing her suit. Aunt Far Away had expected this.

Mother Roughcoat looked like she wanted to cry. Aunt Far Away had been expecting this, too.

“I’m glad to see you,” she said.

“Shut up,” Mother Roughcoat said. She held out her hand. “Here.”

Aunt Far Away put out her own hand. Mother Roughcoat dropped a small piece of metal into it. She turned away.

“Wait.”

“That’s all you’re getting.”

Aunt Far Away examined the object Mother Roughcoat had brought. It was a hinge. It was, in fact, a perfect hinge for the sort of door they were laboring to create. And with this perfect hinge as a model, others would be, not easily, but accurately, fashioned. The bird cooed happily.

“You can tell that bird to shut up, too.”

“Mother Roughcoat,” Aunt Far Away said, “thank you. We all thank you.”

“Don’t.”

“Mother Roughcoat – ”

“Don’t. I cannot bear it.”

She walked away.

She never came to see the first finished door, nor any of the others. She never went through one, but then many people chose not to, preferring to wait and see if things got worse before making such a major decision. Aunt Far Away did visit her again, about a year later. The bird did not accompany her. It had already gone ahead, to the tenth world.

Mother Roughcoat was sitting on her stool. “You,” she said.

“Me.”

“Where’s the bird?”

“On a trip.”

Mother Roughcoat snorted. “That bird was a piece of work. You know what it told me? Of course you do. You were listening.”

“Yes. It told you the same thing you told us. That there were never any gods who made nice things for the city, that it was only ourselves, making the good and the bad, the helpful and the harmful.”

“Do you believe that?” Mother Roughcoat asked.

“Yes.”

Mother Roughcoat nodded.

“The hinge you made was very helpful.”

“Don’t start that shit again.”

“I’m sorry. I won’t. May I sit down?”

“I don’t have another stool. And you are not welcome in my house.”

“The ground is fine,” Aunt Far Away said, and lowered herself to the grassless, lumpy earth before Mother Roughcoat could protest. “I have a favor to ask.”

“No.”

“You haven’t heard what it is yet.”

Mother Roughcoat clenched her fists. “All right. Fine. What?”

“Tell me a story.”

“I have never liked you, you know.”

“That doesn’t mean you can’t tell me a story.”

“What kind of story?”

“Any kind. Whatever sort you like.”

Mother Roughcoat spat.

Aunt Far Away waited.

“How about,” Mother Roughcoat said, “the one that goes, Once upon a time, there were three little princesses who lived in a red house on the top of a hill.”

“That will do splendidly,” Aunt Far Away said. She folded her hands in her lap, and shifted her right leg a bit, to get more comfortable.

Mother Roughcoat grimaced. Then she sighed. “Once upon a time.” She paused. The pause stretched.

Aunt Far Away waited. Patience had always been one of her strengths.
____
Copyright 2013 Patricia Russo

Patricia Russo’s first collection, Shiny Thing, is available from Papaveria Press.

by Rashida J. Smith

Ben

When Nana left Ben the house and acreage it took him a full week to remember he’d spent much of his childhood in Strange. A month after the funeral he missed and between jobs, he decided the Saab could use a good road trip. Time to figure out why he could barely recall the closest thing he had to a hometown.

Crossing into the valley from the cool California coast was like entering a hostile planet’s atmosphere. He cruised up Highway 101 to Ukiah taking the exit for Highway 20 and enjoying the way the car handled the swift succession of turns as the road wound around Clearlake. By eleven o’clock, the sun pounded his scalp and the dust kicked off the road from fruit laden semis clogged his sinuses. He put the convertible top up and turned on the AC. He almost missed the turnoff for Highway 16. A quick downshift and a tap on the brakes earned him a tight turn with the hint of tire squeal on pavement. He loosed a self-indulgent grin at his own reflexes. Ahead, the narrow two-lane road opened up into a valley with a string of simply named towns: Capay, Barley, Reed. So this is home.

The town Strange didn’t exist according to the navigation and not a single green county road sign marked it from the highway. He pulled over, scanning the directions from the lawyer in Woodland who had executed Nana’s will. They ended at a grocery store: Four Corners Market. Then, without looking, he pulled onto the road and sank his foot on the gas. Brakes squealed behind him over the accelerating purr of his own engine. In the rearview mirror he caught an extreme close-up of the big pickup he’d cut off. He gunned the Saab’s engine.

“Sorry, farmer John,” he said.

He left the pickup in heat waves rolling off the pavement, turning at the faded brown road sign pointing to the town. Buildings appeared out of dust and glare: old homesteads bleached grey by weather and often so shapeless it was impossible to tell the farmhouses from barns. In cracked fields irrigation pipes rusted. The real estate agent had said the house, two almond orchards and a pasture Nana rented to local ranchers turned out to be worthless on the market. Looking at the neighbors he wasn’t surprised. Nothing could be worth much around here.

As he entered Strange proper, he noted cracks in the pavement sometimes large enough to set two pieces of road uneven. He winced every time the Saab bumped over the cracks. He peered through the fine powder on the windshield at the town. If memory, dejavu and vertigo all could be rolled into one it would be the feeling washing over him. How could he not remember this when it seemed so familiar?

On generous consideration, Four Corners Market was an overgrown convenience store with a wraparound porch. Beside the door, a man that could have been anywhere in age from a hard-lived forty to a sprightly sixty reclined in the warped rocking chair.

“Martinez,” he said, rising to greet Ben.

In his youth Martinez had been a big man, with a barrel chest and a long back now bent from age. His grip was one of a man much younger. He sized Ben up with a good head-to-toe look leaving him feeling like the sandy haired elementary school kid he had been years ago.

“You’re the Goodwin boy,” Martinez said, without waiting for an answer. “Looking for the house then.”

“Benjamin,” he said. “Ben.”

Martinez didn’t seem to consider the lack of directions odd. He combined hand signals and traditional directions, landmarks thrown in for good measure, concluding with:

“That’s what I heard this morning from Tom.”

What the hell was that supposed to mean, and who was Tom – the city planner?

Ben looked out into the heat at the rumble of an engine to see an old red Chevy with more dents than paint left pulling a horse trailer down the broken pavement. Face shaded by a wide brimmed hat, the driver raised an index finger from the steering wheel. The old man cracked a smile full of tobacco-yellowed teeth and lifted a hand from his belt buckle. Ben also made the gesture with a lopsided smile. The driver’s chin lifted enough for him to see a narrow chin with skin color of Madrona bark and a full lipped, frowning mouth. While he watched she replaced the single raised finger with its less polite, next-door neighbor.

So this was the truck he’d cut off.

“It’s Farmer Joan then,” he said under his breath.

“Joan,” Martinez said, scrutinizing him as though he’d just started reciting Shakespeare. “That’s Mara Hughes. She’s down the street from Nana’s these days.”

Great. He’d already made friends with the neighbors. The truck slowed without braking. The old man jerked his thumb in the direction of the road leading into the rolling hills east of town. The hat brim tipped down once and the truck made the next turn, up the Second Street.

“I guess it’s been a while,” Ben said. “Better get up to the house before it gets dark.”

“Power’s off.” Martinez hitched his belt beneath his paunch and took a few laborious steps into the store, still talking. “You’ll need some candles and a lantern. Susie at the post office will get the power on in the morning.”

Great. The post office doubled as the utilities station?

“And a phone, she’ll fix that up too,” Martinez said from the back of the store.

And the phone company. Rich. The headache migrated to his temples.

“You’ll want dinner,” Martinez said, returning to the porch holding an oil stained paper bag with the top rolled down to the lumpy contents within. “Nana had everything town couldn’t use donated to the food bank.”

The old man flashed broken teeth and held out the bag. Nana had a particular attachment to Spam. Ben’s imagination jumped to his father’s stories of growing up on Spam sandwiches. To be polite he took the bag and mentally vowed to starve before he ate anything in it.

“Tina’s got mincemeat pie tonight, best in town,” Martinez said, gesturing down the road to a little brick building with an empty table out front.

He wheezed laughter at his own joke.

“Only in town,” he said. “Still the best.”

Feeling more foolish, Ben thanked him and started down the sidewalk.

Attached to a canary colored house, the restaurant perched on the corner with honeysuckle climbing the cyclone fence around the patio. A dog, almost identical to the building in color but faded with age, lay in the shade under the awning. The dog heaved itself to its paws, clumsy with the belly hanging under its ribs. That didn’t stop it from limping around Ben’s heels with a wagging tail and bright eyes.

Again recognition darted just out of his reach. He dragged open the restaurant door. Inside the sensation grew stronger. The smell of the place washed over him and his stomach rumbled despite the heat. His nose picked out cilantro, garlic and peppers.

“It’s little Ben Goodwin!”

The lanky woman behind the counter grinned, slipping a long silver braid over her shoulder so it raced down her back. She came around the counter and opened her arms for a hug.

“¿Cómo estás mijo?” she said, “¡Mira cuánto has crecido!”

The awkward smile returned before he could speak. The other diners, two ranchers and a woman in a postal uniform, looked up and nodded greeting.

“Let go of your Spanish, then?” She pushed him back to arm’s length and frowned. “Used to be I hardly tell you apart from my own kids, you spoke so good.”

“I’m sorry,” Ben said, shaking his head. “It’s been a long time.”

Her eyebrows lowered. He could see the fine lines in her face this close. She must have been near 50 but her age was as elusive as the place in his memory where she should have been.

“It’s Tina,” she said. “You’ll remember more once you’ve been here a bit.”

She looked up into his face, searching for something familiar. Like Martinez her eyes had a youthful glow.

“Welcome home,” she said. “I’ll get you some dinner. You’ll eat here, right?”

“I’m headed up to the house,” he said, hesitating before he added: “I’m just in town to settle things. I live in the city now.”

She disappeared into the kitchen before he could finish. He grabbed a seat at the counter and waved his fingers at the two jean and Stetson clad ranchers who kept glancing his way. They looked like father and son. He realized what struck him as odd – they spoke Chinese. Embarrassed at being caught starting, he focused on his phone until Tina came back with a heavy foil covered plate. She tried to make conversation but he pleaded a desire to get to the house before dark and left as quickly as he could.

The house smelled as if it hadn’t been opened in months. Dust formed a protective coating over the furniture and windows. He walked through the main hall and into the parlor, scanning the photos on the mantle. Some of them must have been over a hundred years old. In a fading Polaroid, a girl no more than 11 sat astride a pony. An unsmiling boy stood at the pony’s head, holding a suitcase in one hand. Himself, he realized with a start. He looked miserable.

“Get the house settled and get the hell back to civilization,” he said to the boy on the mantle. “They don’t want you here anymore than you want to be here.”

The oil-stained bag contained candles, a lantern, matches, and a few lighters. He stuck with the battery-powered lantern; not confident the dusty old place wouldn’t burn down in candlelight. A wise choice, considering he didn’t last a minute once he’d lain down on the musty mattress.

He woke once during the night. He had the same disoriented sensation he’d experienced after waking to find an massive earthquake caused a section of the Bay Bridge to collapse on itself. He turned over, certain it came from sleeping in a new bed. He didn’t remember fault lines in Strange.

In the morning he put on his running shoes. The short jog to the Post Office would be a good warm-up for a longer run out to Highway 16. He hoped to use his cell phone – he got no reception in town. The post office was not “just down the street from Tina’s,” as Martinez indicated the day before. He got in the better part of his run looking for it. On his third time running past Four Corners he noticed Martinez on the porch and smiled with a little wave.

“First Street, past Oak,” Martinez said, pointing in the opposite direction.

Ben raised a hand in salute and wondered if something was wrong with the old man’s memory.

Mara

She pumped the brakes, cutting her wheel to avoid slamming into the Saab darting from the shoulder into the single lane of blacktop. The trailer loaded with horses swayed behind her truck and her arm went over the bench seat across the boy beside her.

“Asshole city drivers,” she said.

“Ouch, Mar,” Manny said, clearly more put out by the gesture than any discomfort.

She gave Manny a slantwise look.

“I forgot eight year olds are made of rubber,” she said. “Next time I’ll let you bounce off the dashboard.”

His eyebrows dropped beneath a shaggy forelock of dark hair.

“I have my seatbelt on,” he said, rubbing his solar plexus. “You cussed.”

“I’m a grown woman,” she said. “And until you’re 18, I’m the boss of you. So do as I say, not as I do.”

Squinty eyed at the glare, he scowled and stared out the window. She smiled, peeking at him. If he were a colt, she would have said he would be big and bold– a champion sporthorse. They often started out like he did: all limbs and the largest head she had ever seen on a kid his size. According to his teacher he read at a fifth grade level, and Mara ignored the implied surprise that an orphan raised by a horse trainer could be smarter than most kids his age.

Too bad his mom hadn’t stuck around to find out just how great he turned out. She supposed small towns could be like prisons in some ways; getting adjusted to the outside was too hard for the ones who weren’t hell bent to get away. Strange had it’s own pull. The folks that started out there never did fit right anyplace else. Mara had years on the outside to prove it. It wasn’t until she came back that she realized what she hadn’t been able to see when she left.

She watched the Saab pull away. It followed the faded brown county sign pointing out the turn for Strange – 11 miles – vanishing into the heat waves rising from the baked pavement over the next hill.

“What’s he doin?” Manny’s eyes tracked the plume of dust from the car’s tires. She slowed the truck and put on her blinker.

“I supposed if he made a wrong turn we’ll find out when he tries to run us off the road on his way back,” she said.

“And if not?” Manny said.

“We’ll hear from Tina when we take you to get a haircut,” Mara said.

Manny groaned as the truck rolled onto the gravel and Mara focused her eyes ahead just in case the Saab did come tearing back her direction. She’d have to stop at Four Corners; even at this distance she could see things had changed.

“What do you think that city a-hole wants in Strange?”

“Manuel Enrique Fonseca.” Her voice held the same edge of warning that made the young horses settle down.

“Didn’t say it.” He grinned.

She sighed.

“Dunno,” she said. “But Martinez will know first.”

“Everybody stops at the Corners for directions,” he said.

“Yup,” she said. Welcome to Strange.

Manny

I hate haircuts. Miss Tina’s cool and all, but I hate being told to sit still for the ninety-ninth time in Spanish and English. She thinks if one doesn’t work, the other will? Then the hundredth time, Tina slaps the back of my head, mangles both and says, “Be still mijo.”

She cuts it too short, too.

Today, she and Mara can’t stop going on about Ben Goodwin. He’s been in town a couple of days talking to people. Sizing things up, she says. Mara says ever since the city people decided a slower paced lifestyle was the next new thing they’d been zooming up and down the valley in their European sports cars buying up property right and left. Perfectly good farms and ranches turned into weekend playgrounds for yuppies.

Mara says he’s one of them but I saw him at the Post Office talking to Suzie about the power. He looks like Nana Goodwin in the eyes. Like he watches everything. He’s tall like Nana too. I think people and horses are similar, you can tell a lot about how they’re gonna act by which ancestor they look like. Tina says Mara’s the spiting image of her dad, except pretty, who himself was the image of the first Hughes; a retired buffalo solider who came to Strange to raise horses. Mara’s as good a trainer as both, maybe better, so there’s truth to that. Ben said hi to me, but Mara said not to talk to him so I just looked at him out of the corner of my eye and nodded.

“All done,” Tina says, brushing the hair off my shoulders and ears. “People who belong in Strange always find their way back. You should understand that better than most.”

At Corners, we wait to talk to Mr. Martinez because Mrs. Fitzgerald who runs the boarding house is on a tear. I call her Fits cause she’s always p.o.’d. Her freckly face looks like a tomato when she’s fired up. Mara calls Mrs. Jansen a recluse and says Fits hasn’t had any boarders in years so no wonder they got put next door to each other. People always get put where they need to be. Look at Mara and me. Both our dads have tombstones in the cemetery.

I go to the counter while Mara pretends to read the stock listings. Mr. Martinez winks and slides a peppermint across the glass at me.

“Things’ll change soon enough,” he says to Fits.

“It’s that Goodwin boy,” Fits says. “My place is next to Nana’s, so nothing moved.”

“Be careful not to put the blame where it don’t lay, Ellen,” he says, calm as Mara working one of the stubborn colts. “Lots of things been on the move since Ben arrived. Just not your block. You might consider why that might be.”

Then he just acts like she isn’t there. Fits storms out. Mr. Martinez shakes his head and smiles.

“Mara, what’s in your bonnet?”

“Ben has been talking to people, interviewing them,” Mara says.

Mr. Martinez hooks his thumbs in his belt and joins her at the window.

“Shaker had puppies last night,” Mr. Martinez says to me. “Behind the counter. Go see.”

The three puppies are small and chestnut colored. Their eyes aren’t even open, and they wiggle around each other mewing like kittens. Shaker wags her tail at me, licking each one. I know she’d never take off. I pick the smallest one up and hold it against my neck where it’s warm and safe. Mara said that’s how she got me to stop crying the first morning.

“He’s just trying to figure it out,” Martinez says. “Nana said he works as a reporter for a big newspaper. He asks questions, that’s his way.”

“He doesn’t belong here,” Mara says. “This is our town.”

“Careful how you talk there, Miss Hughes,” Martinez says, and I look up cause he never calls anybody formal. “Your grandfather and Nana Goodwin’s folks were the ones who made the bargain of this town because of talk like that.”

“The can’t-we-all-just-get-along-crew?”

“Yess’um,” Mr. Martinez doesn’t even get upset when Mara talks about the founders that way. I guess he has lots of practice.

“If he writes a story and word gets out,” Mara says. “It could be the end of things. We can’t take the chance.”

She’s standing with her arms crossed over her chest. Her jaw is clenched so tight I can see the muscle bulge. The weird thing is, she looks more scared than mad.

“You forget,” Mr. Martinez says, “Ben Goodwin is Strange folk.”

“He left a long time ago.”

“A boy just a bit bigger than Manny left here. Seems you and Mr. Goodwin got some business to finish up.”

“I don’t owe him anything.”

“Did the city folks give you a hard heart with all the book learnin, Mara?”

I go back to looking at the puppies – I don’t want to see Mara cry.

Ben

Out of the corner of his eye, Ben saw Tina approach with the coffee carafe and leaned back from the napkin he’d been doodling on. She poured a little too early. Ben flung himself away from the hot splash of coffee landing on the napkin.

“Damn!”

Tina smiled, finishing the refill. “I didn’t get cha did I?”

Ben looked at her, annoyed by her utter lack of alarm. He dragged his napkin out of the mess, but the ink was blotted. So much for his map.

“It’s fine,” he said, forcing a smile.

“What are you working on there?” She said, peering at the rest of the papers as she swiped at the wet table with the rag in her other hand

“Research for a story,” he said.

“May I?” She said, slipping into the booth across from him before he could nod. He dragged a notepad over the photocopied aerial shot of the valley.

“I heard you were a reporter,” she said. “Or do you write books? You used to talk about how one day you would write a book about space ships and Martians or a cowboy and his horse.”

He shook his head, even as a chill raced up his spine.

“No time for a book,” he said. “Maybe one of these days.”

“What paper do you work for?”

“I sell my stories to lots of different papers and magazines,” he said, amending. “Mostly the Examiner though.”

Her fingertips played at the edges of the photocopied articles. He resisted the urge to pull them away.

“How long have you owned the diner?” he said.

“It’s been in the family for generations,” Tina said. “Like writing’s in yours. Did you know your abuela was a fine chronicler?”

He shook his head.

“She kept all the records of this town,” Tina said. “Writing’s in your blood.”

“What is it about this town Tina?” he said, leaning toward her. “There’s a story here, I can feel it. I just have to find it.”

She laughed again and slid out of the booth, lifting the carafe.

“Is that why you’re making silly napkin maps and going to Woodland looking for plans?” she said. “For a story?”

He covered his papers with one hand. She started back toward the counter then turned halfway and met his eyes. He couldn’t decipher the look on her face, but her eyes were no longer laughing.

“Just don’t miss what’s important,” she said, “looking for your story.”

After lunch Ben wandered outside, sucking down the last of a soda from the glass bottle and wondering why they always seemed to taste better than in cans. He squinted out into the heat waves rising off the cracked pavement. It was 10am and almost 90 degrees in the shade. The rest of the day would be unbearable.

The man he had nicknamed Sisyphus after the doomed Greek pushed his wheel barrel full of gravel along the road. At every crack he would pause and scoop shovelfuls into the deepest fissures. Everyone Ben met called Sisyphus by a different name, and he didn’t speak a word as far as Ben could tell. He ate at Tina’s and slept in a shed out back of the diner, Ben supposed in exchange for his endless public service. Social services, Strange style. On impulse, Ben lifted his hand in greeting. Sisyphus smiled back at him before looking into his wheelbarrow and continuing down the road.

Ben finished his soda and set the glass in the recycling bin next to the door. For a moment he allowed himself to think his theory was an early warning symptom for heatstroke. If he believed it, he’d say things that shouldn’t be moving were. The reporter in his brain refused to let it go. He’d started writing down addresses, noting the changes, and talking to everyone he could.

After a week in town the only thing he knew for sure was everyone was hiding something. His Nana’s old friends were polite or senile, or at least they seemed to be when it came to questions about the town. There were no more leads in town to follow. He checked his notepad and the single name that had not been stricken.

Mara Hughes. Thirty-four years old, college educated and training horses in a nowhere town. They had been in the same grade and bussed to nearby Capay for school as kids. Like a tic under the skin she just kept popping up. She lived alone with the kid Manny, who wasn’t hers but shadowed her everywhere. People in town deferred to Mara almost as much as Martinez, but Ben never saw her around. On days he managed to find the house it was empty. As the sign on the door constantly indicated, she was “out riding.”

He considered a trip out to the highway to get cell reception. Maybe something in the water or air brought on some kind of mass delusion. Who did he know in psychiatry? He kicked at a pile of pebbles next to the road. The lines were still there, dividing the pavement in no discernable pattern.

He looked up at the sound of an engine cutting off and the creak of an old pickup door. Mara stepped out, the toes of her boots peeking out from jeans faded thin over her knees. It was as though age had only stretched the girl on the brown pony in the picture to adult height.

She leaned back into the truck, laughing, and emerged with Manny dangling piggy-back around her lean frame like a baby possum. Small for his age — except for an enormous head — his weight hung against the wiry arms wrapped around her shoulders. Then she saw Ben. She said something and Manny slid to his feet, running into the Post Office. When the boy was gone she straightened up, brushing the hank of sun faded dreadlocks, each twisted and no thicker than a pencil, over her shoulder.

She crossed the street without looking: the act would have been suicide in the city. In Strange, the fact that he couldn’t leave the curb without checking twice made him stand out. She walked straight toward him. Considering he had been trying to track her down most of the week he couldn’t explain why his mouth felt August dry. He pushed a hand through his hair, wincing at the soreness that was probably pre-cancerous sunburn on his scalp.

She stopped at the curb a few feet from him, resting her foot on the angled concrete. Beneath hat brim’s shade her pale brown eyes were freckled and ringed with black. She did not smile.

“A good hat will save your life around here,” she said. “Ben Goodwin, it’s been awhile.”

“We were kids around here at the same time?”

“Neighbors. For a while.”

He tried to read her but her expression gave nothing away.

“I’m sorry for cutting you off,” he said. “On the road.”

“I’m learning to drive defensively around you folks,” she said. “How long are you in town for?”

“A few more days I think.”

“That’s too bad, ” she said, without a hint of disappointment. “No time to catch up then.”

“Maybe we could get a cup of coffee?”

Her eyebrows lifted at the suggestion, making him aware of the bead of sweat rolling down his temple.

“Iced tea?” He amended.

“I’m working a horse for sale all week and I have a feed shipment coming,” she said. “I won’t have spare time.”

“It would just take a few minutes,” he said. “I’m working on a feature piece, for the Weekender Magazine. I was hoping to talk to you.”

Any sort of humor left her eyes. “About what?”

“Rural farming communities,” he said. “Did you know most towns this size are dying – but Strange – funny thing is the population has been increasing over the last few years. I looked at the census data and the increases aren’t so much in birthrate as in adults. People are coming back.”

He flashed the smile that had broken down many a resistant subject. “Like you. Your name popped up on the competition circuit down south. I heard you made it out to Ocala. That’s big time for horse people.”

“You want to interview me?”

“Is there a better time?”

“No.” Her arms crossed her chest and locked there.

“Okay, if I could just get a few minutes,” he said, pulling out his recorder.

“You misunderstand – I’m not a subject for your article.”

“It’s about the town, and peoples’ relationship to it.”

“No thanks,” she said. “Nice seeing you again.”

She started to turn away.

“Four horses you’ve started have gone on to be grand prix contenders,” he said. “People have shipped them from as far Florida and New York for you. You could live and train anywhere. Why a dried up town in walnut country, California?”

She spun on one heel, her mouth set in a tight line.

“Who are you to tell me where I belong?” she said. “This land has been in my family for generations, Strange is my home. I don’t expect you to get that.”

He’d pushed to far without knowing what had set her off. He took a deep breath, might very well be his last chance. “You probably know this town better than most then. What do you make of the changes?”

“Changes?”

He heard caution, not confusion in her voice.

“You know, here one day, over there the next,” he said.

She paused.

“It’s been hot,” she said, her voice low and a little husky with effort of control. “I know you’re not used to that. Maybe it’s making you think there’s something going on that’s not.”

To his reporter’s ear, the end of her statement was almost sympathy. He had one last card – rather, a bluff.

“Look, they’re going to run the story,” he said. “I’d be delighted to work with you. I’ll also run it without you. I’ve got enough interviews. Hell, the guy that cut up his wife when she killed herself is in the state facility in Sacramento. Said he was trying to ‘rearrange’ her like the town did ’cause no one would believe him. Makes for some interesting stuff.”

He realized the composure on her face had been a mask when it slipped away. A memory sparked from the Polaroid photograph on the mantle struck him between the ribs like a stitch in his side.

He pushed Brownie’s nose away before the tears in his throat could spill free. Behind him, his dad honked the horn.

“Come to the city,” he said to her backing away. “When you grow up.”

She twisted the pony’s reins with uncharacteristic impatience and gave it a kick. The pony crow hopped and Ben leapt sideways to avoid hooves. In a cloud of dust she was gone. He crawled into the car beside his dad and tried not to cry.

“Don’t worry Ben,” his dad said, patting his shoulder. “Where we’re going there’ll be lots more kids like you.”

He winced, looking at the woman with the girl’s eyes. They hadn’t just been in the same grade riding the same school bus; they’d been friends.

“I’ve heard lots of things about reporters,” she said, never raising her voice. “But you are ruthless. What happened to you?”

She walked into the Post Office.

Ben picked up a bottle of water at Four Corners and lingered on the porch, keeping his eyes on the old pickup. Mara and Manny emerged from the post office hand in hand. She opened the door to the truck. Before the boy slid across the seat he put his arms around her neck. She planted a kiss on his forehead. When the boy was inside, she hopped up the step to the bench seat, meeting Ben’s eyes. He looked away first.

Rocking in his chair, Martinez lifted a hand as the Chevy pulled away. “Something the matter with your water, Ben?”

He shook his head, studying the heat waves rising off the baked pavement.

Ben got lost on his way back to the house. Flummoxed, he stood on the corner of Oak and Second Street and counted houses. He walked back a block, looking for Ash Street. He scrambled through his notes. Sheets of paper fluttered around his feet and he crouched over them on the sidewalk, shuffling.

He snatched up a yellow page torn from a legal pad. “Goodwin House, 117 Second Avenue, left on Second past Corners, cross Elm, third house on the right. Left.”

He puzzled at his own handwriting. The word ‘right,’ once written distinctly had been crossed out. Elm – once had been Ash. He glanced over his shoulder the way he had come. Six or eight blocks down he could see the yellow building and the house –- Tina’s –- and if he looked farther down he could see the American flag hanging still in the heat in front of the post office.

Wait. He stared, then rifled through his notes again. “Post office, 23 Oak Street?”

“What do you have there boy?”

An age spotted hand snagged the yellow piece of paper from between his fingers and shadow fell over him. He rocked back on his heels. An old woman with skin the texture of thin parchment and an enormous, lumpy head held his note page in her spider thin fingers.

“Jesus,” he muttered.

She bared her teeth and put her hands on her hips, defining her bony frame in the otherwise shapeless floral muumuu.

“When I was a girl, you take the lord’s name and ‘WHAM’ with a ruler,” she said. “Nowadays you wretches talk like the devil is in your mouth and nobody even blinks. World’s off to hell and gone.”

“Sorry, Mrs.–” he said.

He stood, towering over the slight figure and caught a whiff of Mentholatum and bourbon. On closer inspection, the lumps outlining her head turned out to be rollers jutting out from the scarf covering her graying hair and adding inches to the circumference of her skull.

“Jansen,” she offered.

“Ben,” he said.

“Goodwin,” she finished. “I know, boy. It’s a small town. Even I hear everything – especially now that red-headed biddy is next door talking sun up to sun down.”

She cast her voice loud enough for the stout woman in the neighboring yard to pause pinning a sheet to the line and look. The woman flung a glare at Mrs. Jansen before her face softened into a brilliant smile.

“I heard you were in town Benny and I was wondering when you’d make it down this way,” she said. “Mrs. Fitzgerald, from Sunday school.”

“I’m sorry ma’am, it’s been a while,” he said.

“You can’t have forgotten Mrs. Fitzy?” She pressed her palm between her abundant breasts.

“Of course he did dear,” Mrs. Jansen said. “This good looking boy has no reason to remember an old hen like you. Now get back to your laundry – it’s my turn to tell tales, right Ben?”

He nodded, not trusting himself to speak and risk the chance of smiling.

“I’ll make you something cold and we’ll talk,” she said, tugging his arm.

Jansen’s house smelled of mothballs and Mentholatum. She sat him down at a chipped Formica table that wobbled on the linoleum floor.

“You’re wondering how we keep the lights on, and the stove burning, with all this moving around.”

He pulled out his notepad.

“Not so fast, Mr. Hot Shot reporter,” she said, sucking her teeth.

She snapped the pad out of his hand.

“Those fools think you’ll come around on your own,” she said, waving her hand. “Or Miss Mara ‘high horse’ Hughes will help you, but I know better.”

“I’d just like to jot down a few things,” Ben said, reaching for his notepad.

She tapped his temple and pulled the pad out of his reach. “Jot away.”

“So how do you keep the lights on,” he said. “The phone for that matter. I can’t even reception on my cell.”

“You won’t be able to,” she said. “There’s more to living in a place than turning on services. You have to agree.”

“Agree to what?”

“To be a resident,” she said, smiling. Years rose off her cheeks and chin. “Did you know I was a beauty queen once?”

She rose without waiting for his answer and left the room. When she returned she laid a little photo album on the table between them. She pointed at the plump, attractive young woman in a rhinestone Miss Central Valley crown.

“May I?”

She handed it to him. He slipped the photo from the sleeve, holding it by its edges and peered at the date on back. If he believed the photo the woman in front of him had to be in her eighties. He covered his surprise with a wink.

“That can’t be you,” he said, half teasing. “Is this your mother?”

“You always were a sweet talker,” she said and her smile turned impish.

“You remember me?”

“Benjamin James Goodwin,” she said. “When you were 6 years old I caught you in my strawberries, you had eaten every berry right off the crown. You told me it was my fault for growing the best berries in the valley.”

“When you were 10,” she went on. “You and Mara Hughes come through my yard on that old brown pony. Riding the same horse and calling yourselves cowboys and Indians.”

She shook her finger at him. “Kicking up dust all over my laundry. Mrs. Fits and I used to laugh at you little ingrates after we finished yelling. We would make coffee and complain when the Hughes place wound up too close to town. Course that was before she and I had a falling out.”

She paused, a former beauty queen’s smile on her face.

“I hardly remember it,” she said. “Isn’t it funny?”

“You two were friends?”

She nodded, looking out the window.

“Oh my Lord! Ben, get Martinez.”

“What’s wrong?”

“It’s Ellen.” Mrs. Jensen ran for the door.

Ben glanced out to see Mrs. Fitzgerald in a crumpled heap next to her laundry basket in the opposite yard. He would have thought her a discarded pile of wash, if not for the red hair.

Mrs. Jansen tottered out of the house to the clothesline. “Hold on, Birdie!”

Mara

She praised the Saab’s speed as they roared along the two-lane road. Damn sports cars were good for something after all.

“My cell’s in the glove box, should we call ahead?” Ben didn’t take his eyes off the road.

She had the phone out, dialing before he finished.

She had been waiting at Corners for Martinez when Ben ran up. His shirt was stained dark with sweat. She knew he liked to run, but thought even he had better sense than to go for a jog in 100-degree heat. Before she could write this off as some extreme sport she noticed the look on his face.

“We need an ambulance,” he panted, looking into the shuttered and locked store.

“Martinez is gone,” she said, jogging down the porch. “And there’s no time anyway. It’ll take an hour to get here and back. We need a car. Who is it?”

“Mrs. Fits collapsed,” he said, and remembered to add. “Oak and Second.”

He put his hands on his knees, swallowing great gulps of dusty air. She started running. He followed for a pace or two then dropped back.

“I’ll get my car,” he said.

She had just reached the yard when she heard the little Saab’s engine roaring down the street. It took both of them to get Mrs. Fits into the back seat and Mrs. Jansen refused to be left behind.

At the hospital Mara talked to the doctors and nurses. She knew hospitals well and it was easier the second time around. She remembered the call from Tina and the older woman’s voice fuzzy on the line as she explained how Hank Hughes had collapsed working a three year old in the round pen. His heart just quit. By the time Mara got there, all there was to do was talk to doctors. Her father never regained consciousness.

Coming back to Strange hadn’t seemed optional at the time. The ranch and his horses needed her. The owner of Hill Jumper Farms had made it clear there would be no more rides for her if she left during the peak of show season. She could have gotten work at another barn or sold the place and started a few horses on her own. But when she pulled into Strange she knew she was tired of living above someone else’s stalls and answering to some idiot owner who wanted so much out of a horse too young to give it.

Coming home helped the hurt some but it did not ease the loneliness.

While they waited, she watched Ben drop to one knee at Mrs. Jensen’s feet like a suitor. He pressed her fingers around a coffee cup. She patted his cheek and tears escaped her lashes. While Mrs. Jansen dabbed her cheeks he looked up and met Mara’s eyes. Something sad and hard lingered about edges of the man he’d grown up to be.

How he’d changed from the boy who helped block her father’s path to an age beaten pony standing listlessly in the pen.

“Mar this pony is a hundred years old and sour,” Hank Hughes said. “He’s not worth half the work it’d take to bring him around.”

Mara shook her head, unable to speak.

“We’ll take him,” the boy said. “Mara can do the training. I’ll help.”

Mara gaped at him. Ben nodded. She looked back at her father.

“You said I could have my own horse,” she said.

“Mara you don’t want that old jughead,” he said. “I only brought him home because somebody needed to put him out of his misery. What about the jumper we looked at in Woodland?”

“Brownie’s got good legs and a nice eye,” Mara said. “Somebody was mean to him but he was a good pony once. We can turn him good again.”

“Strange takes care of everybody,” the boy said. “Even ponies.”

Her father’s lips twitched under his thick mustache. That was always how she knew they’d won. Then he handed her the halter. “Your pony, your responsibility. Solid feed. I’m taking it out of your allowance. Light exercising in the pen. No riding until I say.”

In the hospital waiting room Mara watched the grown up version of the boy. Assigning blame came easy: this is your fault, she thought, coming to town stirring things up. On the ride home Mara kept her face to the darkening fields out the passenger window. It was easier to think he’d changed beyond recognition. She didn’t like seeing the familiar in him.

“They want her to move to Woodland?”

“A home,” Mara said. “It was mild, but it was still a stroke.”

“Do you think she will?”

“Mrs. Fits is old Strange,” Mara said, shaking her head. “She’d rather die at her clothesline than in a home somewhere. As soon as they let her go she’ll be back. Sounds like Miz J might move in with her, though. It’ll be good, neither one of them needs to be alone at their age.”

“I guess whatever static between them is cured,” Ben said.

“That’s Strange for you.”

“You believe this town rearranges itself to make people resolve their problems with each other.”

“Martinez says making you forget things might be the town’s way of protecting itself,” she said, as a peace offering. “You’ve forgotten a lot.”

“What happened to Brownie?”

Surprised, Mara hesitated.

“I remember a few things,” he said.

“He died in his sleep, nose in his feed bucket, when I was 16,” Mara said. “He never changed much. Still as likely to nip you as do tricks for treats.”

“How did you wind up with Manny?”

“After his dad died his mom had a hard time,” she said. “She wasn’t from Strange. One night she packed up and left everything, including Manny. In the morning my bedroom window was facing their yard. I heard him crying. He’s been with me ever since.”

“I guess Strange still takes care of everyone,” he said.

Goosebumps rose on her arms. He took his eyes off the road when she spoke.

“Even ponies,” she said.

He dropped her off at the driveway to the farm.

“Are you sure, I could–”

Mara shook her head and climbed out of the car. “Thanks for the ride.”

“I’m sorry,” he said. “For coming here. If it’s made it hard for you.”

Mara shook her head and her smile touched her eyes. “You saved Mrs. Fits.”

Mara fed the horses and left Manny watching a horror movie marathon. She spent some time scanning the stock auction listings for a couple of good Thoroughbreds that hadn’t made much of themselves on the track but might be good prospects. She went to bed, tossed and turned. It wasn’t the heat or the restlessness that sometimes kept her awake.

She went down to the horses. In a big stall at the end of the barn, a leggy mare waited with head thrust over the door as if she had been waiting. Called Azza, the horse never made money because, as the trainer told Mara: “She just loves to run. Not race. Not win. Just run.” It suited Mara fine. Mara threw a looped rope around the horse’s neck then opened the stall door and vaulted astride.

When she came back to Strange she came home. Before tonight, she would have been sure Ben was not one of them. Being in Strange meant taking care of their bonds and learning to work it out, because they had to or they were all lost. He hadn’t forgotten the important things.

Ben

If there was thing he appreciated about the central valley summer it was the way night settled on a warm breeze over the sun soaked hills. He dropped off his car, opened up the windows to let the house air out and decided to go for a walk. Sisyphus and the faded yellow dog were out front at Tina’s. He waved as he passed. The lights were on at Four Corners and he wandered in without thinking. Martinez greeted him with a six-pack and they drank four in companionable silence on the porch.

Just before midnight, he declined the wad of chew but took the offered beer and started for home. He forgot to ask for directions. He wondered if Mara cracked a beer once in a while and what she was like when she had a few. Had she outgrown the churlish giggle that drifted up through his memories of riding behind her on the sway-backed pony? He was walking toward where the house should be – or maybe where it was yesterday or the day before – when he heard hoof beats.

A coal black horse stared down at him. “I have to show you something.”

Talking horse? Nonplussed, he looked higher. From the horse’s bare back, Mara smiled down at him as if reading his mind.

“You want me to ride?” He asked.

It hadn’t seemed so scary when he was ten and the horse had been a lot smaller.

“That’s the plan,” she said.

He took a deep breath and shrugged. “As long as I’m not driving.”

She maneuvered the horse next to the fence. He climbed onto the low rail and wavered. She offered her hand. It was warm and callused across the palm and fingertips. He slipped. She sighed.

“Don’t you remember how to get on?”

“It’s been a while, Mar.”

He got it on the second try, only just.

“Have you been drinking?”

“Martinez,” he grunted by way of explanation as hung on.

She caught him before he slid off and spent a minute calming the startled horse.

“Hold onto me, and whatever you do, don’t kick,” she said.

The horse felt like flesh-covered steel beneath him. Its every breath pressed against the insides of his thighs. He scooted closer and wrapped his arms around her waist, resisting the urge to look down at the ground. The scent of lavender and alfalfa came from the hundreds of thinly twisted locs pressed between them. She clucked and the horse started to walk. He lost track of the time and the distance they traveled. It took the better part of his concentration to hold on to her.

When he looked up again they were in the hills outside the town. Strange lay before them, an imperfect grid of houses and shops splaying out to a rambling assortment of barns and sheds, ranches and orchards around the edges.

She faced the town and the horse dropped its head, grazing.

“No one knows how it does what it does, Strange,” Mara said. “But you can feel it, when it changes.”

“How often?”

“It’s not every night these days,” she said. “But if it does it’ll be soon.”

It started slow, the air shifting the same way heat waves did rising off pavement. When he glanced up, the stars wavered in the sky. The more he tried to follow the shifting movement the more it evaded focus. Instead he watched the houses as each one became less distinct. As the waves dissipated the towns new placements were revealed.

Memories hit him physically, knocking the wind from his chest. In the strongest one they lay belly down in the grass and shoulder to shoulder, counting the stars that streaked across the sky until one of them nudged the other.

“It’s starting.”

“What do you see?”

“Nothing yet.”

“There it is?!”

The familiar clench in his gut, like vertigo or an earthquake.

“Oh where’s the ranch?”

“By Jansen’s.”

“Bet I can find the Post Office first.”

Ben returned to himself. Did she realize she had let her weight go, leaning into him? “How many times did we do this?”

“Almost every night until you left for good.”

Mara

When Strange shifted she saw a patchwork quilt being rearranged before the seams were set. She watched Mrs. Jensen’s house rise and spin over the Post Office, and Tina’s diner drift a falling leaf into place past Elm on Third. Her own ranch on the edge of town slid sideways and Nana Goodwin’s place wiggled underneath it, settling in the space at the bottom of the long driveway.

“You snuck out most nights,” she said. “Your dad thought I was a bad influence.”

“He said you didn’t know how to be a girl,” Ben said.

She snorted and gave her calves a squeeze, indicating to the giant horse: move on.

“Stay put,” she said to Ben.

She asked the mare for a jog and then an easy lope. Ben’s grip on her tightened and his body tensed. Relax, she willed him, remember. She didn’t ask for a walk until they reached the edges of town. Behind her, Ben began to breathe again.

“You okay back there?”

“I’ll live,” he said.

“You used to like that part,” she said.

She laughed as the horse’s hooves clopped on the pavement.

“Why did you leave Strange?” he said.

“Is this part of your interview?”

“Will you answer if I say yes?”

“Strange seemed small at 18,” she said. “Hell, you told me I should come to the city.”

She was glad he couldn’t see her face flush. Azza halted at the touch of the rope on her neck, nosing the rose bushes beside Nana Goodwin’s gate.

He slid down from the horse and looked up at her. “Can you come in?”

She looked at him, eyebrows raised.

“I finally got you talking,” he said.

“Only if I can leave my horse in your yard,” she said.

“I suppose so.” He cracked a tired smile.

He apologized about the state of the house twice before they reached the front door, and once more after he’d found the lights. She sat down at the table where he’d spread his research from Woodland, flipping through the photocopied pages and notes.

He returned with an armload of photos and a dust-coated bottle of wine unearthed from the back of the pantry. Frames clattered against each other. The loose ones fluttered as he walked. He wobbled to the table and she caught the top one as it slid off the pile. She held the Polaroid of a little boy standing next to a girl on a skinny brown pony. The day he left Strange. He dumped the photos on the table.

“Tell me,” Ben said. “Remind me, of these stories.”

She handed him the Polaroid in exchange for a glass of wine.

“Your dad thought we were pretty crazy for sticking around,” she said. “You told him it would be boring to live anywhere where everything stayed the same. I guess he figured it was time to get you out of here before you were lost completely.”

“The Founders.” She held up another photo.

In this one, toned sepia with age, a team of heavy-set horses stood in front of the original Four Corners Market, pulling a wagon load of grinning kids that could have come out of a multicultural 70’s Coke commercial.

“A bargain was made, three maybe four generations back,” she said. “We asked for help to live together. This is what we got.”

“And Strange has rearranged itself ever since?”

“Or Martinez fixes it the way it needs to be,” she said. “The man is older than dirt and he always seems to know what’s going on. Odd, huh.”

She pulled out another set of pictures – teenaged Jansen and Fitzgerald girls standing arm and arm beside crates full of artichokes labeled with the Jansen logo. In the next, young a couple stood on the steps of the little chapel on their wedding day. He recognized Nana’s script: Mr. and Mrs. Manuel Fonseca. Manny’s parents. When he yawned she stopped telling stories.

“I should go,” she said, rising from the table. “These are good memories and without Nana we have no one to keep them safe.”

When he put his hand on hers she knew loneliness because of its sudden absence. They went up the stairs together, two at a time.

She woke up alone in the dark. She slipped on her jeans and t-shirt, carrying her boots to avoid clacking across the floor. Ben slumped over the dining room table in front of his laptop in a pair of shorts, his breath deep in the crook of his folded arm. Her heart beat hard against her collarbones. She brushed her finger across the touchpad and the screen came up with the title bar “Small Strange Town, For Weekender Magazine.”

He’d described everything in unmistakable detail.

If he had his way, Strange wouldn’t belong to just them anymore. He blinked owlishly at the sound of the laptop fan and she jumped. He looked from her to the screen and back.

“Mara-”

“Still working on that story?” She said.

He wouldn’t meet her eyes.

“Damn you Ben Goodwin,” she said. “You saw it. You know what it is. Why would you threaten it?”

The center of her ribcage had the same sharp pain as when a horse landed a kick.

“Mar, wait.” He caught her arm.

“When I got to the city, I thought I would find something better than what’s here,” she said. “You know there’s nothing better than Strange. I’m not gonna lose that. Publish your story Ben. We’ll deny every damn word of it.”

“It’s a great story, Mara,” he said, his voice tender. “I don’t mean any harm. If people come here it might save the town.”

“We don’t need saving but from folks like you,” she said. She yanked her arm free.

In the front yard, Azza had grazed Nana Goodwin’s roses to the thorny stems with the pleased expression of a child given free rein at a candy dish. The mare had also left a steaming pile right in front of the gate to the driveway where Ben’s Saab was parked. Mara noted it with distinct satisfaction as she vaulted astride and rode away. She was feeding horses an hour later when Manny staggered down to the barn, yawning.

“No more midnight marathons, Bub,” she said. “Get that truck ready to leave, we’ve gotta take the grey to the gal in Santa Rosa today. If we leave by 10 we can catch dinner and a movie.”

His eyes grew wide. “In the theater?”

She grinned.

“Sure, we’ll get a nice steak somewhere and a movie or two.”

He vanished into the house. After she finished dumping hay she spent a long moment watching the horses. They were much better at figuring out how to live with each other. We’ve lost a lot, she considered, getting civilized.

Ben

He watched the plume of dust rise behind the Chevy as it towed a shiny slant load horse trailer out of town. He thought of Mara sleeping soundly in the space he’d never known was empty, and the sound hooves on the lawn as she rode away.

When the truck disappeared he went back into the house and finished packing his bag. The screen on his laptop registered new mail – the phone had been working this morning so at least he had dialup. His editor wanted a status update on the story.

He stopped at Tina’s for lunch though his stomach felt as if a rock had settled in the space it used to be.

“You leaving hoy, mijo?” Tina refilled his iced tea.

“That’s the story,” he said.

“Gonna miss you, ¿lo sabes verdad?” she said. He found himself missing her already. She cleared his table and smiled. “Persistent, more than most.”

“Terco, necedad.” Stubborn, he said. Amazing how much had come back to him almost overnight.

“That’s Strange folk for you.” She laughed, shaking her head. “We have to be to make it out here. Don’t be gone por mucho tiempo Ben, ¿me escuchas?”

He promised to come back soon and left a big tip. Driving out of town he stopped at Four Corners to say goodbye.

“How’s that story,” Martinez said.

“Stranger than most,” Ben joked.

Manny

Mara drives to Woodland every Sunday since Ben left. Sometimes I go along if she says we can stop at the library. She buys Ben’s paper, turns every page and then throws it all away. At the library she searches the Internet for his name. I don’t know why she’s searching; when Ben calls the house once a week she shakes her head at me when I answer the phone. He asks me about the pup Martinez said I could keep and school. He’s gotten pretty good at not sounding disappointed cause she never calls back. One Sunday, she finds it. We stand at the corner of Cherry and Main in Woodland while she reads every last word.

“He didn’t do it,” Mara says, hugging me so hard I think my ribs might crack.

On the way home I read it too. The article is called, “Small Strange Towns,” but there’s nothing about our Strange at all. At the bottom it says writer Benjamin Goodwin lives in Strange, California and is taking a break to work on his first novel.

I wonder if he’ll be home when we get there.

____
Copyright 2013 Rashida J. Smith

Rashida J. Smith is a Pacific Northwest based writer. She blogs occasionally at www.rashidajsmith.com but can be found more often on Pinterest as reddiesmith and Twitter @eddygrrl. Some folks call her Eddie. It’s a long story.

by Ken Liu

The fifteenth day of the first month in the seventh year of the Huayin Era:

The old man, Hae-wook Lee, had been bedridden for months. He lay on the sleeping mat, wrapped in a blanket. The drugs helped him sleep, and forget about the harsh words of his son.

It was an unseasonably warm winter day, here in this corner of Northeast Asia. Though the fire in the kitchen hearth next door had been extinguished, the gudeul smoke passages below the floor would continue to radiate residual heat for several hours. The room was so warm that the maid, Kyoon, had left the windows open to give the old man some fresh air, dry and invigorating after the new snow of the day before.

He dreamt that he was having a dinner of gogi gui. That pretty girl from years ago served him. He felt a pang of regret.

The marinated meats made his mouth water, and he felt the heat from the grill on his face. He reached out to pour some water on the grill to lower the heat a bit, but the grill only grew hotter.

The old man coughed and could not breathe. He opened his eyes. Smoke filled the room, and tongues of flame licked the ceiling and the walls. The straw mats, wooden furniture, and even the jangpan paper floor were all on fire. He cried out for help, but no one came.

“Mistress, a man is here to see the old Master.” Jiyin, thirteen, her face still showing baby fat, knelt by the door to the kitchen.

The woman she addressed was barely more than a girl herself, but she carried herself with an air far older than her nineteen years. Sui-Wei Far was dressed all in white, wore no makeup, and her dark tresses were pinned into a knot covered with a white kerchief. Grief had made her eyes red and tired.

She nodded and stood up.

“Jiyin, finish making the offering to the hearth spirits in here for me. Be sure to thank them for keeping the food from our kitchen healthy and safe these last few weeks, when we were all so distracted. And then bring out tea for the guest.”

Sui-Wei went to the front hall and knelt so that the silk screen in the middle of the room hid her from the view of the male guest, in accordance with the precepts of her Confucian teachers.

“Honored Guest, you wish to see my father?” She bowed.

Through the silk screen, the hazy outline of the man bowed back. “I am Yeon-joo Lee, son of the silk merchant Hae-wook Lee. I have urgent business to discuss with Litigator Far.”

The mention of her father’s name made the grief fresh again. She struggled to keep her voice as calm as the surface of a lotus pond. “My father passed away last week.”

The hazy shoulders slumped. “My condolences. I just lost my father as well.” His voice sounded young, uncertain. “Is there a young master who will carry on Master Far’s trade?”

“I am my father’s only child.”

“That is too bad. An innocent girl’s life is at stake.”

She thought about the times, when she was younger, when her father would take her on investigations, have her copy out petitions to the magistrates, explain to her the intricacies of the law, lay the evidence before her and ask her to explain how she thought the deed was done.

“If only you weren’t a girl,” her father would say. “You are brighter than any apprentice I’ve instructed, and you would make a fine litigator.”

“Stop talking nonsense,” her mother would say, back when she was still alive. “You need to think about finding her a husband. Men do not want their wives running about assisting criminals.”

Jiyin came in with a tray of tea and snacks, knelt, and poured two cups, placing one on each side of the screen.

What would her father have wanted?

She reached out and pushed the silk screen aside, ignoring Jiyin’s gasp of surprise. Yeon-joo, as she had suspected, was barely in his twenties, and his eye were kind, if sad.

“I am Litigatrix Sui-Wei Far. How can I be of assistance?”

“The ignorant think that litigators turn black into white, guilt into innocence. That is not so,” her father had said. “A litigator must always seek out the truth, and defend only the truly innocent.”

It was not always easy to find the truth in the chaos of Yiefeng, capital of Dawul.

The tiny kingdom, founded by a Chinese general who had escaped the turmoil of the civil wars in China at the end of the last dynasty, occupied a few hundred square li on the border between China and Korea. Its inhabitants were a mix of Chinese, Koreans, Mongols, and Jurchens. Beijing left Dawul alone because Dawul carefully acknowledged Chinese suzerainty, and Hanseong left Dawul alone because the Korean kings deemed it too much trouble to conquer such a small mountainous state.

So Dawul made itself into a trading hub, and Yiefeng was filled with adventurers of all stripes: Chinese merchants and Korean nobles, masterless ronins escaping the incessant wars between the daimyos in Japan, Christian and Buddhist missionaries, rogue Tibetan smugglers, and even voyagers from distant Europe with blond and red hair.

Crimes were bad for business, and worse for the collection of taxes. The kings of Dawul ran an efficient system of yamen courts. The magistrates investigated crimes and prosecuted criminals, determined guilt and meted out punishment.

“The magistrates mean well,” her father had said. “But they often make mistakes in their haste and zeal. Though they despise the litigators, our work is crucial. We cast doubt on their theories, force them to examine and consider all the evidence. And when a man is wrongly accused, litigators are the only ones who can save his life.”

Yeon-joo and Sui-Wei walked through the smoldering ruins of the Lee house. She spoke to him in Korean, and he to her in Chinese, each trying to make the other feel comfortable. Through the piles of rubble capped by broken ceramic shingles, the general layout could still be discerned.

Though a prosperous merchant, Hae-wook’s house was tiny and modest, combining both Korean and Chinese features. It followed a square plan around a central courtyard that provided light and ventilation. On the north and abutting the street was the front hall, where the old man received guests and conducted business. Other residents along the street, a little-trafficked thoroughfare connecting two much larger avenues, saw no strangers pass through on the day of the fire. They did report seeing the maid, Kyoon, leave the house during the first hour after noon, and Yeon-joo himself left about a quarter of an hour later.

Beyond the front hall, the central courtyard was filled with potted bonsai (all consumed by the fire) and several large scholars’ rocks. To the west of the courtyard were the kitchen and the maid’s room, and to the east, Yeon-joo’s room and the study, where the old man had kept his books and did his correspondence. It would have been impossible for intruders to enter the house from either direction due to the thick, windowless, brick firewalls that separated the house from the neighbors.

South of the courtyard was Hae-wook’s bedroom, where he had been confined due to his illness. The bedroom had outside windows facing south, and when healthy, the old man had enjoyed the view, where, beyond a grassy yard and a sharp bank, a small stream flowed past. A close examination revealed no sign of anyone having climbed up the bank recently.

By the time the fire brigade had been summoned, the entire house was already in flames. No one could say definitively where the fire had started.

Magistrate Wu and two of his inspectors were on site, along with a couple of other men, likely friends of the dead merchant. One of the men was a thin Portuguese with light brown curly hair. Another was older, bald, and dressed in the furs of a Jurchen merchant.

“Yeon-joo,” Magistrate Wu said, “I am now even more convinced that this was a case of arson, and that your maid Kyoon was the perpetrator. Except for you and Kyoon, no one else could have entered the house and then left without being seen by any witnesses. You, of course, are above suspicion.”

“Could it not have been an accident?” The Portuguese ventured. “The underfloor heating system must be prone to the risk of fire.” His Chinese was accented with both the flavor of his native tongue and the speech of the southern coast of China.

The Magistrate shook his head. “I’ve examined the masonry floor and the underfloor heating passages and found no cracks. The fire must have started in the kitchen. Although Yeon-joo said that he saw no flames in the hearth after lunch, it’s likely that the maid banked the fire so low as to escape his notice. The key is that the girl acted very suspiciously. Inspectors found her at her parents’ house, agitated and in distress. When they told her that her master’s house had burnt down, she fainted. A search of the premises revealed a small pouch of jewelry that the family claimed to be ‘gifts’ from her employer – likely story! It’s a pretty plain case of a greedy servant committing theft followed by murder to cover up her tracks.”

“Kyoon is not a murderer,” Yeon-joo said. “The jewels were gifts from my father to the family for her long service.”

“Yet the family could produce no letter indicating it was a gift. Surely they would have treasured such a letter from Master Lee.”

Yeon-joo had no answer for this. But he went on, stubbornly. “Kyoon was nervous because any sixteen-year old girl would by frightened by the sight of the police showing up at her house. You must catch the real killer. I’ve retained Miss Far to prove her innocence.”

Magistrate Wu eyed Sui-Wei, who shifted awkwardly under his intense gaze. “I did not know that you were taking up your father’s habit of arguing with the law. This is hardly a suitable pursuit for a lady of good breeding.”

Sui-Wei stiffened. “Is it not in accordance with the teachings of Confucius, Your Honor, for a child to aspire to be viewed with the same estimation as her father? Whence the dishonor?”

The Magistrate’s face grew red, and he coughed to cover his embarrassment.

“Based on what I’ve heard of Master Far, the young lady has apparently inherited her father’s quick wit,” the Portuguese said. He winked at Sui-Wei, who smiled back politely.

Still, it’s best to not make the Magistrate angry with her. “Your Honor, my father spoke often of your fairness and willingness to be persuaded. I would rather have your respect than the respect of the gossiping public.”

The judge softened his gaze. “Though he constantly vexed me with his questions and arguments, I appreciated the zeal your father brought to the pursuit of the truth. I’ll see you in court in two weeks, when I’ll try her.”

Sui-Wei bowed in farewell as Magistrate Wu departed.

Yeon-joo introduced her to the Portuguese, who had adopted the Chinese name Ben-Ni Lo and was in Dawul to purchase furs and silks for export to Europe, and the Jurchen merchant, whose name was Aguda, both a friend and competitor of the Lees. They offered Yeon-joo their condolences. Aguda and Ben-Ni did not know each other but bowed respectfully.

“I came as soon as I heard, as I was out of town on business until this morning,” Aguda said. “It will be hard to run the business on your own. Please do not hesitate to call on me for help. It has long been my dream to partner with the Lee name.”

“I’m sorry I didn’t get to see Old Master Lee one more time,” Ben-Ni said. “He had very strong ideas about how things ought to be done and I respected that. But perhaps you’ll consider some changes that can only be advantageous to his legacy.”

Keeping one ear on the conversation, Sui-Wei examined the scholars’ rocks. Carved from natural sedimentary formations at the bottoms of lakes, these rocks were as tall as a man and full of holes from eons of erosion. Contemplating their thin, wrinkled shapes and thousands of open perforations was said to cultivate the mind for more elegant thoughts. Although they were now covered in soot and water from the fire brigade, Sui-Wei, careless of her dress, knelt down to examine the lower holes. She saw bits of paper that had been trapped in them and thus saved from the fire. Reaching in with her hand, she retrieved what seemed to be fragments of accounting records and personal letters, as well as a decorative rooster cut from red paper.

“Might Miss Far permit me to call on her at some point in the near future?”

Sui-Wei straightened and saw that the speaker was Ben-Ni. She blushed at the rudeness of the bold request. The way he stared at her openly with his hazel eyes was unnerving – but she also felt flattered by his attention. “I shall be at your service.”

“And I shall repay you by showing you some of the wonders of Europe, unknown in Asia.”

Aguda gave Ben-Ni a surprised and calculating look. “You aren’t thinking of getting in trouble with the law, are you?”

“Not at all. But it’s always a good idea for a merchant from far away to know men – and women – who can defend him in local courts.”

“You might want to purchase some jade ornaments from me. They improve luck, especially the sort that keeps legal troubles away.”

Sui-Wei continued to the south side of the house, next to the bank. The fire had melted the snow and ice covering the yard, revealing the dead grass below. In several spots, the grass lay flat, as if something heavy had been placed there.

“The fire destroyed Old Master Lee’s collection of ice sculpture too,” Aguda said. “He, a far more poetic man than I, said that they reminded him of the transient nature of all life. I just like making them as a hobby. I had given him an ice statue of a dancing girl drummer for his birthday last month, but the statue is now gone, like the recipient, long before the natural course of life.”

Kyoon, the accused maid, huddled in terror in her holding cell, and it took many minutes before Sui-Wei was able to coax the young girl’s story out of her.

On the morning of the day of the fire, the girl had followed her routine. She gave the old master breakfast, cleaned the house, and then served an early lunch. Afterwards, while the old man took his afternoon nap, she left to run errands and to visit her parents. She had made sure that the fire in the hearth was put out.

Yeon-joo confirmed her account. He had studied in his room all morning, and saw Kyoon from time to time. He spoke to the old man briefly after lunch, and then left the house to check on the warehouse in another part of the city. Before he left, he checked to be sure that his father was safely asleep, and that nothing was out of place in the kitchen.

“What did you buy at the butcher’s?” Sui-Wei asked the maid.

“Rib tips.”

“For the Chinese radish and pork soup?”

“Yes, the master likes it for the cold winter nights.”

Sui-Wei silently berated herself. It was just like a woman to be interested in such irrelevant trivia about groceries and cooking. Her father would never have asked such stupid questions.

But her father had also told her, “Don’t overlook details. You never know which thread will untangle the whole mess.”

She told the doubting voice in her head to be quiet.

“After the butcher shop, your last stop, you went to your parents?”

“Yes, straight away.”

“Which path did you take?”

“By the city gates. It’s longer, but I like to walk through the market there.”

“Oh, I like the hanfu dresses there too. The Su family’s styles are striking this year.”

“Yes, Miss Far. Though I couldn’t see their display that day. The hour was late, and they were deep in shade under the awning.”

And on and on it went. Sui-Wei found out nothing of any use.

The only point on which she did not feel entirely confident of Kyoon’s answers concerned the small pouch of jewels found in her house. She claimed that they were gifts from the old master, and Yeon-joo confirmed it.

“But it’s very unusual for employers to give a maid such generous gifts without a formal letter of explanation. Was there a special reason?”

Kyoon looked at Yeon-joo with terrified eyes and the young man took over. “My father had always been generous with servants. He felt a special bond with Kyoon and her family because her mother used to work for him before her marriage, and Kyoon herself has worked for us ever since she was a little girl.”

Sui-Wei remained unconvinced. Something about the way Kyoon looked at Yeon-joo troubled her.

Just because Magistrate Wu said there were no witnesses didn’t mean that it was true.

Sui-Wei and Jiyin arrived at the ruins of the Lee house just after dusk, the hour of dinner. Yeon-joo was staying temporarily as a guest with Aguda, so the place was deserted.

“Mistress, I don’t like ghosts,” Jiyin said, shivering in the darkness.

“Don’t worry. We’re just here to visit the household hearth spirits.”

Jiyin was relieved. Men did not pay much attention to the lowly hearth spirits. But Sui-Wei and Jiyin always took care to keep up the offerings to their own house hearth spirits for safety from fire and for the rice to not be burnt. From a basket, Jiyin took out dumplings and candied fruits and set them out on small plates in what remained of the hearth. Sui-Wei lit the candles beside them and began to pray.

“Honored Spirits of the Hearth of the Lee Family, it is time for dinner to be made. I have rekindled the flames in this cold hearth.”

Poor spirits, she thought. The hearth spirits were having a hard time these days, with so many households converting to Christianity and driving them out. Homeless spirits could sometimes squeeze in at hearths in other houses. But no spirits would want to share the hearth with refugees from a burnt-down house because they were bad luck. In this cold winter, it would not be many days before they faded away with no sustaining fire.

Gradually, as the flames from the candles flickered in the wind, two translucent forms, an old man and an old woman, appeared in their faint glow.

Thank you. Thank you.

“Honored Spirits, can you tell me what you remember of the fire?”

Terrible light.

Sui-Wei had to strain to hear their weak voices above the wind.

So hot. So bright.

“Did you see how the fire started?”

From the sky. From the floor. From the sky. From the floor.

Sui-Wei frowned. They were not making any sense.

“Did you see who started the fire?”

The couple began to dance. The old man jumped about, holding an imaginary buk barrel drum over his shoulder and hitting it with an imaginary stick.

Tum-tum, tum-tum. The old man and woman chanted as they danced.

“You are celebrating,” Sui-Wei whispered. An idea hit her. “A celebration involves fireworks. You’re saying that the fire began when someone launched lit fireworks into the house? That’s what you meant by ‘from the sky’?” But that couldn’t be. Somebody would have seen or heard the explosions.

The old couple ignored her and began to bicker.

She’s your flesh and blood!

I’ve done all I can for her.

Not nearly enough.

Sui-Wei shook her head. She had come too late. The spirits were old, and the destruction of the house must have shocked them and driven them mad.

Jiyin was flabbergasted. For a man to visit an unmarried woman at such a late hour was scandalous. But Sui-Wei told her that it would be even ruder to refuse him entry.

Jiyin made a show of banging the teakettle in the kitchen as loudly as possible.

Oblivious of the lack of welcome, Ben-Ni sat down. “Miss Far, I hope the investigation is going well.”

“Actually, I’ve made no progress at all.”

“You seem exhausted. Perhaps a conversation with a foreigner would help you think of a new perspective on familiar persons and things. Ah, perspective, that is what I have come to show you, a marvel of European ingenuity.”

Ben-Ni pulled out a metal tube from his traveling pouch and went into the courtyard. Sui-Wei was intrigued. Like her father, she enjoyed learning about all sorts of subjects.

He set up the instrument on a stand so that it pointed into the sky, peered through the lower end, made some adjustments, and gestured for Sui-Wei to take a look for herself.

It was a view of the Moon, but a Moon that was much closer and bigger. She gasped and pulled back.

Ben-Ni laughed. “This is a telescope. It employs the principles of optics to magnify distant objects.”

Sui-Wei bent down again. The Moon appeared as a piece of jade etched with dark shadows and patterns. She looked in vain for signs of the Rabbit and the Osmanthus Tree from the fairy tales of her childhood.

“Astounding,” she murmured.

“The mechanical inventions of Europe are as delightful as the fine water silk of Korea, and such marvels ought to be shared. But Korea forbids her merchants from selling to us because we sell weapons to Japan.”

“Is that why you wanted to trade with Master Hae-wook Lee here in Dawul, to get around the restrictions?”

Ben-Ni nodded. “I was willing to offer him higher prices and an exclusive on European goods, but Lee was suspicious and did not want to offend his buyers in China, and he saw no use in my mechanical clocks and other ‘toys.’ His son, however, is much like yourself, and intrigued by the possibilities of the new. I understand that father and son did not get along.”

Sui-Wei filed away this information in her head.

She asked Ben-Ni to explain the principles of optics, and pressed him to sketch out the means by which lenses focused and bent light. Ben-Ni then excitedly trained the telescope on another part of the sky. As Sui-Wei bent to look through the tube, Ben-Ni hovered behind her and put one hand on her shoulder.

Sui-Wei froze and looked back, but Ben-Ni’s guileless face, eagerly anticipating her reaction, showed that he had not meant to insult her. She tried to relax, and gazed at the rings of Saturn through the telescope. But her mind was not among the stars. She blushed at the heat of his body, transmitted through his hand and her thin dress.

Long after Ben-Ni left, she remembered the feel of his hand.

“Did your father have enemies?”

They were walking back from an interview with Kyoon’s parents, a simple couple. The mother had moved to Yiefeng from the countryside twenty years earlier and found work as a maid for Hae-wook Lee, and the father was a Jurchen laborer. They shed no light on the situation.

Yeon-joo chose his words carefully. “I don’t know my father very well. As a boy, I was sent away to study in China, and returned only last year. But I believe that he was a careful and fair man. While he made sure that he got his due, he did not exact unfair advantage from his trading partners. The only man who might dislike him is Aguda. My father and he were fierce competitors, but it was my father, not Aguda, who won the license to import Korean silk. They were civil to each other though, and Aguda visited my father during his illness.”

“But he was away on the day of the fire.”

“Right. And he’s been pleasant to me since then, offering to acquire my father’s – my – Korean silk license and our entire inventory on hand until I can get my affairs sorted out to buy the license back from him. Indeed, I’m staying with him now. His offer is low, but I might have to take it. The fire destroyed all our business records, and it will take a while to reconstruct accounts and customer lists.”

They had passed by the Lee warehouse earlier. Sui-Wei remembered glancing at the lifeless building, doors locked, the snow in front pristine, unsullied by the footprints of laborers and buyers, as though it were in mourning for its master.

Sui-Wei stopped at the market to purchase food for dinner. She had been running the household since her mother’s death, and she didn’t mind doing the errands herself.

“Could I have some rib tips?”

“I’ve none left,” the butcher said. “Everybody wants rib tips for soup in the winter. You have to come early if you want them.”

Disappointed, Sui-Wei settled for some inferior pigs’ feet.

“I’ll walk you back to Aguda’s,” she offered.

Aguda’s house was in the style of a Jurchen hunting lodge. There was no central courtyard, and all the rooms were in a row.

“Please excuse my appearance,” Aguda said, laughing as he wiped the sweat from his face and neck with a cloth. “I was not expecting visitors.”

“Master Aguda has been pursuing his hobby,” Yeon-joo said. “He’s the best ice sculptor in Yiefeng.”

“Young Master Lee is far too kind.”

“Why don’t you show Miss Far your workshop?” Yeon-joo asked.

“Oh, it’s dark and damp and cold, hardly a place for a lady.”

Sui-Wei’s face grew hot at this. “No, I do want to see it. I am not so delicate.”

Reluctantly, Aguda led them through a shed into an underground ice cellar. There was an empty workspace in the middle, lit by several large oil lamps backed with curved, silvered mirrors to focus the light. Sui-Wei appreciated the novel design of the lamps, now that she had learned something about optics from Ben-Ni. Aguda was clearly a clever man to have discovered such principles on his own.

“I keep this cellar insulated with straw and stock it with river ice all winter so I can work even in summer.”

The sculpture he was working on was a great ice dragon, half finished, so that it seemed as if the translucent creature was leaping out of a block of ice. Chisel and hammer lay on a bench nearby, testifying to Aguda’s exertions.

She looked around the cellar and saw ice wolves, soldiers, dancers lifting buk drums over their heads.

“Was this one of the sculptures you gave to Master Lee?”

Aguda nodded, his face clouding over with sorrow.

She walked closer to examine the sculpture. The ice dancer stood on her tiptoes, lifting the buk high over her head, one of the flat surfaces tilted slightly downwards. Sui-Wei imagined the statue outside the window of Hae-wook’s bedroom. Even lying down, the old man would have been able to see the girl’s head and arms, and of course the drum, glowing bright with the sun behind it.

“I stand in the presence of a great artist,” Sui-Wei said.

Aguda brushed away the compliment with a laugh that sounded forced.

The cold and stale air in the ice cellar made Sui-Wei uncomfortable, and the flickering shadows unsettled her. Aguda’s demeanor was not exactly warm. Everything made her want to leave.

She grew annoyed with herself. Her father had often gone into shadowy places and met with distrust. If she was going to carry on her father’s legacy, she had to be bolder. She decided to ask for something from this cellar to prove that she was not frightened.

“May I ask for a memento of my visit?” She asked. “I truly admire your art.” She pointed to a small, rough cylinder of ice on a workbench.

Shadows flickered across Aguda’s face, but he soon grinned. “That is nothing more than the core I drilled out of the model of a well.”

Sui-Wei forced herself to overcome her natural instinct to be diffident. She had to learn to push. “Nevertheless, I’d like to have it, if you would honor me so.”

Aguda handed it to her wordlessly. One end of the cylinder of ice had carved markings that imitated the rim of a well. He was telling the truth.

She thanked Aguda, and the three emerged from the cellar to take tea in the backyard. It was a bright day, but still not too warm.

Sui-Wei placed the ice core next to her on the swept earth. In natural sunlight, she noticed that the ice cylinder seemed to be grey. Looking closer, she saw that many fine particles were suspended in the translucent ice, giving it the dark coloration instead of the expected brilliant, cloudy white.

The warm teacup in her hands chased the memories of the chill and dank ice cellar away. They chatted of inconsequential things.

After tea, Sui-Wei stood up to say goodbye. But as she bent down to pick up her memento, she saw only a tiny frog carved from ice, but ice so clear that the frog almost disappeared against the ground.

She picked it up in her palm, amazed. “How was this done?”

Aguda scratched his head and mumbled, “I was trying to make a sculpture of the frog at the bottom of the well. I wasn’t sure it would work.”

Sui-Wei remembered the dirty appearance of the ice cylinder. “You carved the frog first, out of the clearest river ice, with no trapped air or imperfections. Then you immersed it in a solution of water and fine river silt, so that the frog was frozen inside a column of dark ice. Just like how we sprinkle coal dust to melt ice before doorways, the dark ice of the ‘well’ melts first to reveal the clear ice frog within.”

“Miss Far is indeed wise,” said Aguda. “I’m certain that the truth of Master Lee’s murder will soon be revealed to your gaze just as this frog has been revealed by the heat of the sun.”

As Sui-Wei handed Jiyin the basket of groceries, she paused and considered the pigs’ feet, a poor substitute for rib tips.

You have to come early if you want them.

“You lied,” Sui-Wei said.

Kyoon began to cry. She put her arms around her knees and rocked herself.

“You bought rib tips on the day of the fire. Many favor the cut for its richness in these cold winter days, and the butcher generally sells out by early afternoon. The distance between the butcher’s and your family’s house is only a quarter of an hour’s walk. Yet you told me that you could not see the Su family’s dress display in the shadow of late afternoon. There’s a missing hour or more in your account of the day.”

Mixed in with Sui-Wei’s disappointment was also some pride. This was a detail that even her father might have missed. A woman’s detail.

“Tell me how you really spent the hours between the butcher shop and your family.” Is the girl guilty after all?

“I can’t. I just can’t.” The girl wiped the tears with her sleeves. “I didn’t start the fire. I would never do anything to harm the old master.”

Instinctively, Sui-Wei believed the girl. But, she is hiding some other secret.

The maid’s face was porcelain white from the lack of sunlight and nourishing food, pale like the pristine snow before the Lee warehouse.

No one had been there since the last snow, which was on the day before the fire.

Sui-Wei shuddered. Yeon-joo did not go to the warehouse on the day of the fire. He had lied too.

In her mind, she saw again how the frightened girl had looked to Yeon-joo for direction the last time she was here.

She took a gamble.

“You met Yeon-joo.”

The girl stopped crying and stared at her, her mouth open in shock.

Sui-Wei’s heart pounded in her chest.

He gave you those jewels, didn’t he? You were in love and he wanted to give your parents your bride price.”

But the girl emphatically shook her head. “No, no. The young master … it’s ridiculous, what you suggest.”

Again, Sui-Wei believed the girl. If Yeon-joo was not in love with her, then what was he doing meeting the maid in secret?

She made a show of nodding in approval. “Good. That shows the proper mindset of a servant. Young Master Lee already told me everything. He could not allow you to speak freely last time because prison guards were around. Just now, I was testing you, to make sure you weren’t getting any wrong ideas after all he’s done for you.”

Kyoon sighed in relief. “Thank you, Miss Far. But you’re like the young master, kind, yet unpredictable.”

“He really shocked you that day, didn’t he?”

“Oh yes. That morning, when he and the old master shouted and argued, I was so scared that I ran into the kitchen and hid behind the woodpile. But he caught me later on my way to my parents’ and insisted on giving me the bag of jewels. I was so confused.”

Sui-Wei tried to keep her voice level. “He told me you had a nice long chat.”

Kyoon nodded. “He asked me so many questions. What it was like when I was little, what foods did I enjoy, what did I think of the old master. And then he asked me whether I heard what he and the old master were arguing about. I said no because I was so scared that I stuffed my fingers in my ears. He said that was fine. Just don’t ever talk about the argument, or our chat. And he said that the jewels were from the old master. ‘It’s what you deserve.’”

Sui-Wei’s mind was a chaotic mess. She paced around her room and waved Jiyin away in irritation when she came to inquire about dinner.

Kyoon and Yeon-joo were the only two who had access to the Lee house on the day of the fire. They were the only plausible suspects.

The good news is that her client was innocent. The bad news is that her employer was probably the murderer.

Yeon-joo had admitted that he was not close to his father. And Ben-Ni had indicated that there was tension between the father and the son over the direction of their business. Impatient with the old man’s conservative approach, was Yeon-joo tempted by the idea of getting his father out of the way?

The argument that morning was probably the last straw. Once Kyoon was out of the house, Yeon-joo had ample opportunity to start the fire and leave, or even kill Hae-wook in sleep and use the fire to destroy the evidence. The chase after Kyoon, the jewels, the extracted promise of secrecy—these were the actions of a man intent on silencing a witness with bribes to cover his tracks. His insistence that the jewels were a gift from his father was a lie to get Kyoon to accept the jewels. The questions he asked the girl were probably intended to test whether she lacked sophistication and could be easily dominated and manipulated.

Or, even more deviously, were the jewels an attempt to make the authorities suspect Kyoon? In that case, hiring Sui-Wei Far to defend Kyoon just added another layer of deception. After all, who would suspect the person paying to defend the accused of intending to frame her for murder?

Sui-Wei gritted her teeth. Yeon-joo probably picked Sui-Wei Far as the litigator specifically because of her lack of experience. He thought she could be easily fooled.

“Which would you obey,” she asked, “your employer or your conscience?”

Sui-Wei had agreed to help Ben-Ni select a suitable jade ornament from Aguda’s eclectic collection of curios and antiques. Aguda was away for the moment to take care of some business while he left his guests to browse in his shop on their own.

She could not decide on the right course. To save Kyoon she had to find out the truth, but if the murderer really was Yeon-joo, then her investigation also seemed a kind of betrayal. Ben-Ni was the only one she felt she could talk to.

Ben-Ni stopped his examination of a small jade horse and turned around. “I’m not sure. Life is often about compromises. But there’s a satisfaction in giving the truth its due that is sweeter than anything else.”

Sui-Wei nodded and mulled over Ben-Ni’s words as she continued to look around the cluttered storeroom. Scholars’ rocks and corals were in one corner, and bronze weapons and ritual vessels in another. Shelves along one wall held clocks, jade figurines, intricate jiguan models and Tang porcelain. Aguda had acquired his collection with little organization or taste.

She picked up a metallic tube from one of the shelves. It was a telescope, smaller than the one that Ben-Ni had shown her.

Where did you get that?” She heard Ben-Ni’s shout and saw that his face was drained of color. Startled, she dropped the telescope, and it cracked against the ground, scattering rolling glass lenses around the floor.

As they both knelt to collect the pieces, Ben-Ni lowered his voice and apologized. “I’m sorry to have startled you. I was surprised that Aguda had such a thing in his possession.”

“He must have gotten it from another European.”

Ben-Ni nodded. “I beg you not to mention this mishap to him. He will gouge me on the price for the jade if he is in a bad mood. Please hand me the pieces.” He hid them away in his pouch. “After the purchase, I will show him these and explain that it was my fault.”

Aguda came back, and they haggled over the price for the jade horse a bit before concluding the deal.

“Miss Far, would you mind departing on your own? I have some additional matters I’d like to discuss with Master Aguda.”

Sui-Wei happily made her escape. But as she was about to leave the house, she realized with dismay that one of the lenses of the telescope had been caught in the folds of her voluminous sleeve. She picked up the smooth, curved glass, and hesitated. She did not want to go back, but it would be wrong to deprive Aguda of a chance to fix his instrument because of a missing piece. Reluctantly, she turned around and walked back to the storeroom.

As she prepared to knock on the door, she heard shouting voices from within.

“How could you have been so careless as to leave it out in the open? We aren’t even supposed to have met till the old man died. She’s very clever.”

“You were the one who insisted on sniffing after her like an eager puppy. What game do you think you’re playing?”

For a moment, the noise of blood rushing into her ears drowned out all other sounds. Sui-Wei forced herself to calm down. She carefully backed herself down the hall into the room next door, a pantry for sacks of grains and potatoes, and put her ear to the thin wall.

“… tabs on what she knows.”

“You should have stayed away. Let the stupid magistrate hang the maid.”

“She’s beginning to suspect Yeon-joo, and I nudged her a bit. If he hangs, even better.”

The pantry was stuffy and dark. But there was a small window high up, and a slanted shaft of light, through which a million dust motes floated, cut through the darkness.

She had no coherent thoughts. Idly, she held up the lens into the light. It cast a fuzzy image of the scene outside the window onto the opposite wall. She stared at the image but could not make any sense of it. She remembered that Ben-Ni had explained that this was because the light was not in focus.

“Buy Yeon-joo’s license as soon as possible, as we planned. If she accuses him and he is convicted, it will escheat to the state.”

Sui-Wei moved the lens so that the image fell on her opened palm. She moved the lens up and down, trying to make the image clearer. As the rays of light were focused into a single bright point, she almost cried out. The point of light was so hot that it burned.

But the pain also cleared her mind, brought it into sharp focus. An image of the hearth spirits miming a drum dance, lifting an imaginary buk drum high overhead, came unbidden into her head.

“Are you confident that you can save Kyoon?”

Sui-Wei nodded.

Yeon-joo shuffled awkwardly for a bit. “I can’t actually pay your fee right away, as I have very little cash and you insisted that I not sell my inventory and license to Aguda. I’m grateful for your hospitality. It just seems unfair when I am supposed to be paying you.”

Sui-Wei had insisted that Yeon-joo move into her house from Aguda’s before the trial, despite the gossip such a move created. She had explained that she needed to consult him often to prepare for the trial. She was much relieved when he complied.

Magistrate Wu emerged from the door at the front of the yamen courtroom in his formal robes and hat. The bailiffs, standing in two lines along the front of the courtroom, pounded their staffs against the flagstone floor rhythmically as he ascended the dais to take his seat behind the bench. The murmuring among the audience quieted down. Sui-Wei looked around and saw that both Aguda and Ben-Ni were in the crowd.

The Magistrate slapped his hardwood ruler, the symbol of justice and his authority, against the surface of the bench in a loud snap that rang around the room. The court was in session.

“Now we hear the case of the murder of Hae-wook Lee. My staff and I have diligently investigated the matter and concluded that the cause of death is arson, committed by one Kyoon, maid of the Lee household.”

The Magistrate surveyed the audience with cold eyes as two of the bailiffs brought Kyoon in shackles. She was made to kneel before the bench.

“On the day of the fire, you stole valuable jewels from Hae-wook Lee and did mischief in the kitchen to start a slow fire that would grow out of control after you left the house. You had the motive, the means, and the opportunity. How do you plead?”

Sui-Wei stepped out of the audience and stood beside Kyoon. She bowed deeply. “Your Honor, I am Litigatrix Sui-Wei Far, here to speak for the accused. We plead innocence.”

“Very well. What do you have to say?”

“You think she kept a low fire going in the kitchen, but I can prove that the fire did not start there.” She reached into the folds of her sleeve and retrieved bits of crumpled paper, and handed them to one of the bailiffs to bring up to the bench.

“These were found lodged in the holes in the lower sections of the scholars’ rocks in the Lee courtyard. A burning fire pushes hot air away from itself on top, and replenishes itself by drawing in cold air below. So these bits of paper were blown into their refuge by the cold air currents fueling the fire before it had spread to all the rooms. The accounting records and letters clearly came from the study, on the east side. And the red paper rooster was the kind of charm commonly hung on the wall of the kitchen for New Year’s. Together, they show that air was drawn out of both the east and west sides of the courtyard at the beginning of the fire. The murderer started the fire not in the kitchen, but in Hae-wook’s bedroom.”

The Magistrate stared at Sui-Wei. “But how could that be? Yeon-joo saw his father’s bedroom after Kyoon already left, and there were no signs of any fire. No one could have entered the house during the relevant hours.”

“I will show you.”

Sui-Wei placed a piece of paper on the floor of the courtroom.

“This is called a lens,” she said, and took out the glass lens that she had kept from Aguda’s telescope. “It has the ability to bend light rays and focus them.”

She held the lens over the paper, adjusting the distance until sunlight from the windows along the southern wall was focused into a single bright point on the paper. Soon, the paper began to smoke, and a tongue of fire began to dance on its surface. The crowd gasped.

“On the day of the fire, there was already a lens at the Lee house, ready to do mischief as the sun reached the proper alignment.”

From the sky. From the floor.

Sui-Wei raised her voice to be heard above the excited crowd. “Your Honor, I will prove my claims. But first, you must immediately detain the merchants Aguda and Ben-Ni for conspiracy to commit murder.”

As Magistrate Wu watched, Sui-Wei directed the bailiffs to carry out the ice sculptures of the drum dancers from the cellar.

“Since Hae-wook refused to sell Korean silk to Ben-Ni, both Aguda and Ben-Ni desired to get the old man out of the way and force his son to sell the silk license cheaply to Aguda. Combining their knowledge of optics and ice, they planned murder for profit.

“The greatest advantage of using an ice lens to start a fire is that the instrument would be destroyed by the heat, leaving no evidence. And the murderers would not need to be nearby, giving them good alibis. But the disadvantage of such a method is that it is unreliable, and success depends on the right weather and more than a bit of luck. That is why they made multiple statues, so that if one should melt and fail to ignite, others could be gifted to Hae-wook to try again.”

The Magistrate walked gingerly around the ice drum dancers, as if they could burst into flames at any moment. “But where is the lens?”

Sui-Wei pointed to the buk drums over the dancers’ heads.

“Aguda has discovered the art of creating ice sculptures in layers that would reveal themselves as darker ice melted before light ice. He hid a clear lens inside a drum made of dark ice.”

Carefully, Sui-Wei melted the layer of dark ice with her hands dipped in warm water until the clear ice lens emerged.

“The murders knew that Hae-wook would be left alone at home most afternoons. They calculated the angle and focal length of the lens to bring the heat of the sun to a single burning point on the paper floor of the bedroom when the sun was high in the west. Then, Aguda installed a statue outside Hae-wook’s window as a gift. They only needed to wait for a warm day to bring forth fire from ice.”

“Litigatrix Far,” Magistrate Wu said, his voice gruff, “ignore the gossips. Your father would be proud to see you today, and I shall always be honored to have your assistance in my court.”

Sui-Wei bowed deeply and hid her surprised tears of gratitude with her sleeves.

As Magistrate Wu read out the formal charges against Aguda and Ben-Ni and placed them in shackles, he seemed to have forgotten about the bag of jewels that made him suspect Kyoon in the first place. And that was just fine. Not all truths needed to be broadcast. A good litigator knew when to be discreet.

Yeon-joo stood protectively next to the freed Kyoon. Now that Sui-Wei knew the truth, she could easily see the family resemblance.

“She’s your flesh and blood!”
“I’ve done all I can for her.”
“Not nearly enough.”

The hearth spirits had been repeating a fragment of the argument between Yeon-joo and Hae-wook. Yeon-joo was endeavoring to pay for his father’s sins in secret, to recompense the girl ignorant of her own paternity without bringing shame to the family.

Both of them, she realized, were working to preserve the legacy of their fathers, one by uncovering the truth, the other by hiding it. Some day, she hoped, Yeon-joo would find the courage to tell his sister who she really was.

Kyoon stepped away for a moment to be embraced by her parents.

“Litigatrix,” Yeon-joo said, bowing to her. “The Lee family is in your debt.”

“There’s a satisfaction in giving the truth its due that is sweeter than anything else,” she said, her voice barely above a whisper. “Now, would you come with me to welcome your hearth spirits into my house, until you can rebuild a house of your own?”

___
Copyright 2013 Ken Liu

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