By Ephiny Gale

One August evening, in a mix of grief and hope, Lara Jane Hudson accidentally opens the portal to Hell.

It takes her two and half days to fully realise this has happened: that there is a slightly shimmery, raised-edge circle on the floor of her basement storage room, with a suspicious crust on top like the surface of an apple crumble. It stinks of air freshener, but at least she feels a little less like she’s losing her mind.

FUN FACT: Lara Jane Hudson accidentally opened the portal to Hell via her own bad dancing. She was a professional dancer once upon a time, until her right ankle was crushed under a falling set piece when she was 22 and she opened a children’s dance studio instead. Occasionally, when everyone had gone home, she lingered in the middle of Studio A’s $76,000 floor and danced the best she could.

Aside from the vanilla-and-fresh-laundry portal in amongst her costume racks and spare gym mat, there is an additional consequence of blurring the lines between the realms. That first night, when Lara Jane climbs the stairs to her apartment above the Lara Jane Dance Studio and slips under the bed-covers, she finds a mermaid in her bed.

The mermaid does not receive a warm reception. There is ample screaming, and cursing, and Lara Jane has a loud voice honed by yelling regularly at children. The air smells strongly of oysters. Lara Jane crouches up against her padded headboard, and the mermaid curls lethargically on the crimson sheets like a bleeding fish.

When the mermaid won’t exit of its own accord, Lara Jane pushes it forcibly off the bed with her wooden cane. Its long hair slides off the mattress like kelp.

It reappears back on the mattress like magic.

More screaming. Lara Jane tries pushing it out of bed again and again. Finally, she drops her human feet to the carpet, and then the mermaid truly vanishes. She feels spent, and like she might cry, which she normally only does once a year when someone dies or she feels especially humiliated.

Lara Jane slumps back onto her sweaty pillow. Instantly, the mermaid is back beside her… And the real troubleshooting begins.

FUN FACT: Over that first week, Lara Jane Hudson tested several methods to banish the creatures from her bed. She tried sleeping on the floor, sleeping upright, sleeping with no bedding, sleeping in hotels, sleeping in a single bed–none of these worked, and the last seemed particularly cramped and frightening. Whenever she exhibited the intention to sleep, something strange and otherworldly would appear nearby.

Eventually, she creates an enormous bed of gym mats in Studio A and lets her eyes slip shut.

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The mermaid comes every Monday.

On the second Monday, Lara Jane Hudson can share a large bed of gym mats with the mermaid without screaming, cursing or sweating profusely. There have been six other creatures to visit her, and frankly the mermaid now seems safe and wholesome by comparison.

Lara Jane has not been sleeping well. Lara Jane has been taking involuntary micro-sleeps in her children’s dance classes and on the toilet, and waking seconds later with her chin smooshed against the toilet paper. Lara Jane has been considering taking a mental health day, and Lara Jane never takes mental health days. Lara Jane is royally pissed off.

She glares at the mermaid, and the mermaid stares straight back at her with its blue-black eyes. She says, “Hello, my name is Lara Jane, and you are in my dance studio,” and the mermaid says, “Hello,” and this feels like the most progress since she opened that damned portal to Hell in the first place.

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The faun comes every Tuesday.

At least, Lara Jane suspects that he’s a faun. There are a couple of antlers growing out of his head, but a blanket’s always covered his lower half, thank God, because a lot of the creatures seem to turn up naked. Point is, she doesn’t know for sure what’s going on past his waist, and she doesn’t really care for confirmation, either.

It’s the second Tuesday. Now that she’s no longer trying to threaten him out of bed with a butter knife, he’s nestled crossed-legged in a wad of blankets and harassing her for cigarettes.

Lara Jane laughs sharply under the dimmed fluorescent lights. “Does it look like I carry cigarettes?”

The faun grips his antlers in frustration, pulling them apart like he’s about to break over-sized wishbones. “Come on, come on,” he drawls. “Don’t send me back there with nothing. Have a bit of compassion.”

Compassion is not usually well-stocked in Lara Jane’s inventory. The nearest poster declares WINNING IS THE ONLY OPTION with a picture of a tutu-clad child leaping for her life over a ravine.

“Where’s ‘there’?” she asks. “Where do you go when you’re not here?”

“Ah.” The faun taps the side of his nose with a slightly-furred finger. “Cigarettes, my darling, cigarettes. Then you’ll find out.”

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The golem comes every Wednesday.

Lara Jane has the beginnings of a migraine. Her entire elite squad must have shot up with pixie sticks or red cordial or something before class, because this evening’s lesson was shockingly unfocused. Regardless, she’s in no mood to lug half a dozen gym mats and blankets into position in Studio A, and she thinks she knows who (or what) to expect beside her tonight, so she consents to the luxury of her proper, four-wooden-legs queen-sized bed.

When Lara Jane collapses under the doona, Wednesday’s visitor is slumped forward like a dying battery. Lara Jane thought it was a robot the first week, because every inch of it seemed made of silver metal. But the only seam in its casing is a small square panel in its lower back, and robots don’t move like this thing does–fluidly, the way real human flesh and muscle would move, despite the silver.

It turns its solemn face on Lara Jane, and two tiny candles seem to burn inside its eye sockets.

“Go to sleep,” croaks Lara Jane, and so they do.

FUN FACT: Shortly after opening the portal to Hell, Lara Jane Hudson performed several hours of internet research on magical gateways, ‘mythical’ creatures and the afterlife. She found it comforting to learn the approximate terms for many of her night-time visitors, even if their anatomy and behaviour did not match identically with her readings. Lara Jane also attempted a few do-it-yourself exorcisms and disenchantments involving salt, chalk, holy water, a small amount of blood and some more questionable dancing. These only made her bedroom and basement storage room messier. The portal remained.

Upon her alarm, Lara Jane rolls out of bed immediately, a habit she’s developed to minimize the amount of waking hours she has to spend with her bedmates. There is a scrap of paper on the bed, torn from the notebook she keeps on the bedside table.

On one side, written in big block letters: PLEASE LET ME STAY.

Lara Jane turns it over. OR HELP ME TO DIE.

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The gumby comes every Thursday.

Lara Jane calls it a gumby because of that kids’ show that was on twenty years ago, with the green plasticine man who could stretch himself into an infinite number of shapes, and, she suspects, could split himself into pieces with no harm done.

The gumby that comes to visit is not green. S/he lies naked on Lara Jane’s gym mats and pulls off two breasts, one penis and a ponytail’s worth of strawberry-blonde hair, stacking them in a pile beside her/him. Each piece peels away neatly with a slight sucking/sealing sound, like closing up a zip-lock bag. There is only flawless skin underneath: no wounds, no scars.

“I hope you don’t mind,” says the gumby. S/he smiles warmly at Lara Jane. “I find it easier to sleep this way.”

It is unnerving to have so much blatant nudity in her ‘bed,’ even if the gumby is sprawled a few gym mats away and is currently approaching the non-existent sexuality of a Kewpie doll. Lara Jane is used to thinking of herself as something similar.

FUN FACT: Lara Jane Hudson was always adamant that she would share the appearance of the portal and its accompanying ’emissaries’ with no-one. She had been single since her twenties, an only child with a deceased father and a mother in care for dementia. Her closest relationships were with the children she taught, and her reputation meant absolutely everything. Not even the portal to Hell could make her put it at risk.

The gumby’s androgynous voice reaches her from across the room: “If you could make sure I’ve reattached everything before you leave the bed in the morning, I’d appreciate it. I wouldn’t want to risk losing a part.”

“Sure,” says Lara Jane, considering the gravity of the situation. “I promise.”

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The tentacles come every Friday.

They are, of course, attached to a man. His torso twists like a screw-top and out fold the tentacles, all six of them.

It’s the second Friday evening, and Lara Jane is still horrified by last week’s visit. Friday is not a bedroom night, or even a gym mats night–Lara Jane plans to sit in the Dance Centre’s kitchenette and plot the choreography, set, and costume for next fortnight’s competition entry in extreme detail until she falls asleep, unintentionally, drooling on the notepaper. Mugs and mugs of hot chocolate. Phone alarm in her bra set to wake her for Saturday’s competition.

She hopes to avoid the tentacles almost completely.

And the new dance for her elite team is stunning; monsters emerging from the shadows of a child’s bedroom. Six children covered with fur, horns, scales, glitter. One child on an artificially shortened bed–a nine-year-old, Lara Jane’s best little actress. The monsters want to devour her. The girl outwits them, out-monsters them; they make her their queen. Then something goes terribly wrong, and they tear the child to pieces anyway.

Glorious.

Lara Jane knows it’s a winning number.

She sees only the slightest blur of tentacles before she passes out.

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The starmist comes every Saturday.

In a neighbouring state the hotel bed is sterile and fluffy, and Lara Jane is deeply pleased that one of her girls won first place with a solo today, and less pleased that both their group dance and the duet she choreographed only took second in their categories. The group number was something clean, feminine and glossy, and loosely based on the fairy tale The Twelve Dancing Princesses. In hindsight, rehearsing that dance had kept Lara Jane from driving a screwdriver into her neck the first week.

The starmist floats sedately beside her, a few inches off the bed-covers, and for once Lara Jane barely minds the company.

“Why do you think you’re here?” she asks.

Her visitor resembles an almost-transparent teenager who swallowed the night sky.

“So you can help me,” breathes the starmist.

And Lara Jane was afraid of that.

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FUN FACT: This is where the starmist was, when she wasn’t with Lara Jane Hudson:

A pine forest. Hunters, in hazmat suits and flamethrowers. It was night, and she was almost invisible. She’d watched her mother, father and brothers immolate into trickles of ash and plumes of smoke, and she should’ve been soaring away, far above the treetops where no flames could reach her. But her sister was down there.

A frantic search, weaving through fiery trees and umpteen hunters, and she found her sister inside a glass cage on a folding card-table. Her sister’s small dark hands were pressed against the front panel. There was a Tupperware container in the dirt nearby, half-filled with water, and with a silver key at the bottom. The key to the cage.

They knew that starmists could barely interact with physical matter, if at all.

Still, she reached inside the container and tried to grasp the key, again and again. She swore the water trembled in response to her hand. She could almost feel the metal against her fingers, she was concentrating so hard. And the forest fires crept closer and closer; she was shimmering in the heat like the air above a campfire. She was starting to burn.

Finally, ecstatically, her fingers closed properly around the key. And then she heard the hunters behind her, and the whir-hiss of the flamethrower, and then there was the total immersion in fire when she caught alight.

This was where the starmist went, always, again and again.

Lara Jane does not feel qualified to help.

Lara Jane does not feel qualified to do anything but teach dancing.

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Una comes every Sunday.

Lara Jane doesn’t know what to call this one, except for her name, and Una doesn’t have any other answers. Just curls on the bed like there are weights in her wrists and rocks in her torso.

It’s the second Sunday, and Lara Jane is back home and early to bed, because she’s not the kind of woman to shy away from a challenge.

Thankfully, she’s also had enough forethought to bring supplies. Lara Jane wraps Una’s shoulders in a knitted blanket, since Una’s arms are too heavy and sore to lift into a t-shirt. They sit silently on the bed and eat red liquorice and watch a DVD of the studio’s annual concert.

When the last child finishes their dancing, Lara Jane closes her laptop and attempts to start gently. “You look just like me,” she says, “but all of my visitors are a little different. Can you tell me–or show me–what makes you different? Maybe then I can try to help you.”

This earns her a short bout of acidic laughter. Very slowly, Una turns her naked back on Lara Jane, and drags aside her long brown hair.

A thick bronze zip runs down her spine.

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FUN FACT: In preparation for Week Three, Lara Jane Hudson performed several hours of online shopping in her official trademarked Lara Jane Dance Studio fuzzy slippers. Purchases included: 1 blow-up swimming pool, child-size; 2 packets of low-end cigarettes, 12/pack; 2 fresh notebooks with waterproof-ink pens; 1 metal tub, 1.5 feet long; 1 anti-rape device (essentially a female condom with teeth); 6 silver prop keys; 3 bags of red liquorice.

The mermaid barely says a word, but still coils up inside the plastic swimming pool like a sleepy river snake. Lara Jane has propped the pool in the middle of the bed and stripped most of the bedclothes to minimise any impact from the four inches of water. It hasn’t sloshed over so far. And as Lara Jane watches over her notebook, the mermaid’s green-blonde hair grows longer and longer until the mermaid can completely wrap itself in the hair like a cocoon, until only its nose and mouth are visible between thick spirals of hair.

Over the next week, Lara Jane has regular, amusing visions of grabbing the end of the mermaid’s hair and tugging so it unfurls like a yo-yo string. Eventually, this morphs into a kinder, more inspiring idea wherein Lara Jane installs three dozen metal loops across the walls of her bedroom, and when the fourth Monday rolls around she explains her plan to the mermaid with gestures and sketches.

So Lara Jane balances on the mattress and threads the mermaid’s hair through the metal loops, and the mermaid grows it almost as fast as Lara Jane can thread it. When they finish, the room is criss-crossed with an intricate web of thick, rope-strong hair, and Lara Jane ties it off so nothing will pull on the mermaid’s scalp.

Lara Jane steps up into the web with her good foot, grabs a higher green-blonde rope and lowers herself so she’s sitting in a cradle of hair. She grins at the mermaid, whose scaly tail is still dipped inside the children’s swimming pool. “Come and play.”

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FUN FACT: The mermaid’s name was Scalion, back when the world was wet and did her bidding, and she was one of the finest jewellers in her city. The city bloomed deep, deep in a lake in the middle of a flowering desert. But this is not where the mermaid went when she wasn’t with Lara Jane Hudson.

In Scalion’s 29th year, the water level started dropping rapidly. Unnaturally rapidly. There began a mass exodus from the city, slow at first and then exponentially faster. Scalion was much too content to admit that anything was wrong. She grew her hair to her knees and braided pearls and sapphires and emeralds to every second strand. Her knuckles were covered in diamonds and jewels like a queen. And then there were only two hundred mermaids left in the city.

One day, Scalion woke to bone-dry, sun-warmed sand beneath her back. No more water in sight. The lone survivor in a deep, dead pit with the skeletal remains of her ghost city. Her gradually cooking body, and the dizzying stench of rotting fish.

This is where the mermaid was, when she wasn’t with Lara Jane. Barely breathing and choking on sunlight.

Later that day, Scalion grew her hair into a rope and threw it over the sign for her jewellery shop. Wrapped it around her neck, pearls and sapphires and emeralds digging into her windpipe. And hanged herself amongst the bones of her happiness.

Lara Jane watches the mermaid pull herself through the ropes of hair, sinking down through the gaps and slithering in slow, vertical circles like a needle through calico. She watches the joy of it creep up on the mermaid’s face. The movements become quicker and wilder, half-eel and half-gymnastics, until Scalion runs out of hair slack and she’s forced to pause and grow more.

“It’s like swimming,” says the mermaid, smiling and panting.

Lara Jane experimentally pokes her own head through a gap in the ropes. The hair is taut and flexible, smooth and slippery. Lara Jane hasn’t felt this excited about exercising since she was 22 and performing front-aerials on Broadway. She climbs and slides and hangs from her knees and twists herself around. And laughs. Her weak ankle, which she can always walk on carefully but never flex, barely makes a difference here. It’s not at all like dancing on a stage, but it’s almost like dancing.

Lara Jane perches at the top of the web while the mermaid plays. She’s there for almost half an hour while Scalion revels in the almost-swimming, and then she notices the mermaid stop in the centre of the ropes. A few tears drip into the blow-up pool. And everything vanishes–the mermaid, the metres and metres of hair, the ropes that Lara Jane is sitting on.

Lara Jane falls six feet and crashes awkwardly onto the bed, bouncing three times and splashing the water from the pool high into the air. It soaks her carpet and dresser and most of her desk chair, but presently Lara Jane is too shocked to mind. She feels like her whole body’s been slapped. But she picks herself up and takes in the bedroom: that she’s lying on the bed alone, perfectly alone.

Lara Jane fills the pool again the following Monday, but Scalion no longer appears on schedule. She never sees the mermaid again.

FUN FACT: Around this time, Lara Jane Hudson choreographed a new solo piece called Head Below Water, where the imaginary water level dropped steadily throughout the two-minute dance, and it won first place by a landslide

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The kids are loving the monster dance. They are being raised to be proper young ladies, and their chances to snarl and climb over each other and jump on beds are few and far between. The prop bed is already finished–a half-sized single made of lightweight wood, so that six girls can lift the bed between them, even with a seventh on top of it. A delicious game. Lara Jane has decided to put her child character in a white outfit with a big zip down the front; a homage to Where the Wild Things Are.

On the evening of the third Tuesday, the prop bed is stored in the corner and the gym mats are Lara Jane’s bed for the night. The faun sticks a cigarette into his mouth and wiggles it with just his stubbled lips. Lara Jane has forgotten to buy a lighter. She wanders into the kitchenette to find some matches, and when she returns to Studio A the faun has vanished. She climbs back onto the gym mats and he reappears, reeling from some kind of cosmic whiplash.

The faun has Lara Jane light the cigarette for him, and then lies back and smokes with his antlers digging into the mats. Normally Lara Jane would forcibly remove anyone who lit up in her Dance Centre; everything would stop until the smoker had been ejected. But tonight this seems like a tolerable price for closing the portal: just a tiny speck of fire and brimstone.

“Are you going to tell me your story now?” she asks.

“Give me a break,” he says. “I’ve just come back from war.”

“Literal war?”

He grins at her around the cigarette filter. “Wouldn’t you like to know.”

Lara Jane grits her teeth. “You don’t actually get to take those back with you?”

One lazy eye focuses on her. “No. I can pretend, though.”

He props himself up on his elbows and surveys the studio: the floor-length mirrors, the barre, the motivational posters (Lara Jane admits that these are usually brightly-coloured threats). “You should dance for me,” he says.

Lara Jane manages to blanch and cackle simultaneously. “I don’t do that any more.” When the faun pushes, she explains about her ankle and that the centre’s insurance only covers her children.

He laughs. “Insurance? I don’t care about your insurance. Dance for me and I’ll tell you.”

“No! Are you kidding me? You can’t keep moving the flags.”

The faun pulls back his blanket and stubs the cigarette out on one shiny black hoof. Lara Jane sees that his antlers and hooves are the only parts that make him unusual and makes a small disgruntled noise at seeing more of him than she’d like.

The faun notices, and scoots over on the mats to snatch the matches. He lights a second cigarette. “Dance with me, and I’ll tell you.”

“No,” says Lara Jane, and twists her back towards him. “You know I could just get up at any time. Five hundred times a night if I wanted to. So fuck off and go to sleep.”

Violently, she fluffs the baby-pink pillow beneath her head. The orange poster above her says DANCE OR DIE in a large font and (figuratively) in a smaller font. To Lara Jane’s relief, the faun keeps silent for the rest of his visit.

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The fourth Tuesday, Lara Jane arranges the gym mats so that they outline a three-metre-square section of the studio floor. She drapes the blankets so that small sections of wool and faux-fur fall into the square. When the faun arrives, she dresses him in some old shorts and a beige sweater and feels immediately more comfortable and in control.

“This is the bed for today,” she says. “Come put your hooves here.” Lara Jane points to the square of hard floor next to where he’s kneeling.

It takes a few lazy drags of his cigarette, but then each hoof makes a sharp little click on the dance floor and makes Lara Jane’s lips twitch upwards. “Good,” she says. “Very good. Stand up and we’ll see if you warp back to the mats.”

He doesn’t warp anywhere. And now Lara Jane’s fully in her comfort zone, staring at a lukewarm tap dancing student with her manicured hand on a portable CD player.

“If you want me to dance with you,” she says, “you’ve got to learn how to dance first.”

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FUN FACT: This is where the faun was, when he wasn’t with Lara Jane:

Concrete and spitting rain. He removed the plastic seals from the filters of the gas mask and fitted the mask to his head. Checked the attachments on his belt. The front doors were locked with chains the size of his biceps; his team were around the factory’s side. Even stubble could interfere with the function of the gas mask, so he felt unusually clean-shaven.

Ironically, they entered through the air conditioning system.

Inside was a maze of rooms, doors and corridors. A mess of lights and steel and broken plastic tape, the non-stick type with warnings printed on one side. Chairs were scattered like bowling pins. The faun and his team were quickly separated; blink and they were replaced by machinery or shadows or enemy units. Not war–at least not public war. The faun’s 28th mission.

It took his knife, laser gun, carabineer and screwdriver to make it to the top floor. It was almost silent when he got there, and the main corridor was brightly lit and flooding with his teammates’ blood. It was shallower down his end: just a thin coating that was beginning to dry and congeal.

He started down the hall with his laser gun in one hand and his knife in the other, picking his way over the bodies of his fallen friends. He’d survived an impressive catalogue of attacks and dangers in his short life, but in that particular instance his hooves slipped, unprovoked, in the blood. The knife flew from his grasp. His masked head smashed to the floor. The blade arced down to bury itself in his chest, and he died almost instantly.

When the faun learns to tap dance from Lara Jane, he doesn’t slip. Not once. Not ever.

She does dance with him, eventually. It’s not traditional. He coaxes her onto his shoulders and Lara Jane wraps her candy-pink nails around the top of his antlers. Tap is one of her worst styles, these days; the only way she can tap is sitting down, one-footed. Or she can ride his shoulders like some kind of fleshy air hopper, and cling onto his bony antlers until the world comes to a stop.

He’s not terrible-terrible, for a beginner, and the hooves are fun. But she can’t say she enjoys being an attachment while he dances. Too much like horse riding, and Lara Jane never felt enough in control while horse riding. Just the once upon his shoulders is enough.

The faun tells her his story, and he keeps dancing, and one day his hooves leave the ground in a jump and they never come back.

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FUN FACT: The day after discovering the portal to Hell, Lara Jane Hudson hired a locksmith. She alone had possession of the resultant keys to the basement storage room, and she informed her staff that no-one else was to have access to that room for an indefinite period of time. She was working on a secret project, she claimed–which was not technically a lie.

By the third Wednesday, Lara Jane needs to decide what her false ‘secret project’ will be. Something she can display hints of in the office, or show the teachers the finished project (assuming the storage room is ever secular again) when it’s ‘done.’ It needs to be big enough to warrant several weeks’ work, and small enough to fit amongst the clothes racks. And yes, Lara Jane could be brainstorming in bed rather than in the kitchenette in her Minnie Mouse pyjamas, but she’s honestly not keen to try and drag out life stories from unwilling creatures for the fourth night running.

In lieu of any better ideas, she decides on hampers. For her half a dozen teachers and the parents of her elite squad. She can pretend she put them together by hand, agonising over each personalised item, when she actually ordered them in bulk at the last minute and then threw in some studio merchandise and redid the ribbons. Lying makes her angry, but what can you do?

When she does end up in bed, she passes the golem a fresh notebook and pen and rolls over to sleep.

On the first page of the notebook, Lara Jane has written: Write down where you go when you’re not here. I’ll try and help. Sorry I can’t stay up and chat tonight. L.J.H xx PS: Sorry you’re dead.

She receives a several-page reply.

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FUN FACT: The golem was ‘born’ into a gated community who believed the world was ending. She woke under the street in a room full of mechanical animals, some wound and some immobile, mostly birds. A mechanical fish swam in the light fitting. A middle-aged man stood in front of her and explained she existed only to take care of his daughter.

The daughter was seven. In the event of the end of the world, the golem was to take her into their state-of-the-art panic room and care for her for the rest of her life.

Her father’s other mechanical creatures had limited intelligence. Humans were subject to the end of the world and could be burnt and starved and suffocated. Much safer to use magic and write LIFE on a slip of paper and insert it into the golem’s lower back panel. Much safer to use something alive-but-not-alive.

But this was where the golem went when she wasn’t with Lara Jane Hudson:

Two months after the golem woke, a mob of teenagers jumped her in the backyard and pushed her into the wet grass. They wrote SADNESS and ANGER and DESPAIR onto slips of paper; everything they wanted to take out of themselves and put into someone else. They dropped a dozen paper slips into the golem alongside the one which said LIFE and melted the panel closed with a welding torch.

That night the world really did start to end. The golem peeled herself off the grass and dragged herself inside through the bitterness and hopelessness and everything else that escaped from Pandora’s box. Up the stairs and grabbed the girl and into the padded panic room.

Ten years passed, and every second of them, the golem desperately wanted to die. Then the seventeen-year-old girl wrote DEATH on a scrap of paper, folded it three times and slipped it through a crack in the golem’s lower back panel.

It worked, more or less.

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Lara Jane is re-evaluating what it means to be in Hell.

The fourth Wednesday, she retrieves a pile of tools from the basement storage room and dumps them on the gym mats: foam ear plugs, two pairs of industrial-strength ear-muffs, a saw, one pair of oversized tweezers and some plastic safety glasses. Lara Jane’s props and sets are always designed by her and outsourced for construction, but they occasionally need last-minute adjustments.

Tonight’s adjustments consist of burrowing the saw blade into a tiny gap in the golem’s back panel. Lara Jane is very pleased that the studio’s closest neighbours are more than a hundred meters away, because the screech of saw teeth on metal could easily bring the police at 10 o’clock at night. But there are no interruptions.

Two hours, a bottle of lemonade and an improvised crowbar later, Lara Jane can pry up the top of the panel enough to squeeze in the extra-large tweezers, inspect the slips of paper and extract them. They stack up on the discarded saw, the ink not even faded, the paper still crisp white. Lara Jane is reminded of that cartoon surgery board game which buzzes if your tweezers slip. She carefully leaves the final slip inside–LIFE–and pulls out the crowbar.

The golem peels herself off the mats and flexes her fingers, swivels her joints and bounces experimentally on the balls of her feet. She smiles at Lara Jane. Then takes off running in circles around the edge of the mats: thwap, thwap, thwap across the plastic-covered foam, dimmed fluorescent lights bouncing across her silver frame.

After a dozen circles, the golem picks Lara Jane up by the waist, and Lara Jane cries out in shock and protest. She’s a tall woman, and borderline chubby these days: unaccustomed to being carried like she weighs nothing at all. Thankfully the golem slows down to walking pace.

“I appreciate that you’re excited,” says Lara Jane, “but can you put me down?”

“I’m so grateful,” says the golem. “Don’t you want to run or dance and celebrate?”

Lara Jane watches the studio walls speed past her. “I don’t really do that anymore.”

The golem thrusts Lara Jane above her head, and Lara Jane cries out again. “You can do this.”

“What? I can’t bend my ankle. The lines will be ugly. It’ll be all wrong!”

“So?” says the golem. “Who’ll know?”

And Lara Jane has to admit that she’s smiling a bit, and that some of the movements she might make in the early hours of that morning could be considered dancing. However questionable the technique.

When the golem tires herself out, she asks Lara Jane to pull out the last slip of paper.

The fires in her metal eye sockets snuff out. And then Lara Jane is lying next to an empty shell.

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Lara Jane is having nightmares: her girls discover the creatures when she faints in class, or lies down to demonstrate a piece of choreography, or when one of them barges into her hotel room. She has a gut-churning moment with a foamy toothbrush hanging out of her mouth: all those micro-sleeps. If a twelve-year-old saw a mermaid for a few seconds, mid-rehearsal, would they dismiss it as a trick of the light? Is that one of the reasons their mothers have been extra-fussy lately, complaining she’s working their kids too hard?

The monster costumes arrive that third Thursday, and they are a comfort, the difference between hiding a creature in an empty room and a Halloween party. The costumed girls look strange and glamorous and wild. They swipe each other with fake tails and butt each other with furry horns.

That night, the gumby places its daytime body parts in the box Lara Jane provides, and Lara Jane props herself up on a stack of lacy pillows. She asks, “Where do you go when you’re not here?” and is surprised when she receives a direct answer.

FUN FACT: This is where the gumby went, when s/he’s wasn’t with Lara Jane:

The entry gates of a labyrinth. A slow day. The gumby stood at the ticket booth, ‘SUPERVISOR’ embroidered in gold on a navy polo shirt.

A large man approached: fake, plastic Viking hat and very real axe, blade glinting in the summer sun. There was nothing ambiguous about him. The gumby abandoned the cash box and ran, into the protection of the stone-walled labyrinth.

No time to shut the gates. The gumby raced along the concrete paths towards the centre; s/he knew the twists and turns better than anyone. A labyrinth is not a maze–there is only a single path–but s/he just needed to gain twenty seconds on the axe-man.

Five minutes down the path: a small hole at the base of the left wall, so small that no human over three feet could fit inside. So the gumby ripped off a foot at the ankle, reached inside the hole and through a subsequent smaller gap in the stones, and tossed the foot inside.

S/he tore off pieces of leg and hips and torso faster than ever. The ‘storage’ compartment inside the hole filled with stacked flesh, and then the gumby half-pulled, half-rolled the remaining parts inside.

S/he just fit: most of a torso and two arms and neck and head. A piece of shrubbery obscured the hole to anyone on the pathway. Further down, there came the thump of heavy feet and the clang of an axe on stone corners.

With difficulty, s/he reached up and back into the storage area, feeling around discarded body parts for the phone zipped into a jeans pocket. The gumby pried it free. Fourteen percent battery left. Not fantastic, but enough.

Calling anyone would be too loud. S/he texted family, a handful of friends and a couple of colleagues. Put the phone on silent. Waited patiently.

And waited.

The sun fell, the phone died, the gumby hadn’t heard a whisper from the axe-man for the last couple of hours. S/he clawed out of the hole and started reassembling pieces of torso, hips, thighs. S/he was almost done when an evening shadow fell over the wall, and with the crack of metal-on-spine s/he felt the enormous axe-blade split her/his back in two.

Blood soaked into the navy polo shirt. The large man left the axe stuck half-into the gumby’s flesh, sighed deeply and stalked away.

Blood dripped onto the path. The gumby stretched for the last body parts so s/he could die whole.

When the gumby pulls the blanket from her/his legs, Lara Jane notices for the first time that s/he’s missing a right foot.

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On the fourth Thursday, Lara Jane’s lack of inspiration is an excuse to sleep in her proper bed. She scratches at flakes of lipstick and asks the gumby, “How do you think I can help you? Because I can’t take an axe from your back.”

The gumby shrinks against the bed frame. “I don’t expect you to help me.”

“Because I’m pretty sure I’m supposed to.”

A twitch of a smile. “It’s just nice to feel safe for a while.”

Lara Jane takes a big breath. “Yes, but there must be something else you want. Something I can give you.”

Eventually, the gumby admits that s/he would like to feel like someone cares, but that Lara Jane was the only option, and now she doesn’t qualify because she just wants her bedtime solitude back.

“But I do care about your future,” says Lara Jane. “I care about the future of everyone in my studio. I wouldn’t teach children if I didn’t care.”

Evidently this is not very convincing.

So Thursday nights become a kind of quiet, platonic seduction, with Lara Jane many years out of practice at being actively likable. The two of them play checkers and Monopoly, and during the lulls the gumby juggles with four torn-off fingers. Lara Jane shows off the costume designs for the reverse-Pandora’s-box group number she’s choreographing. The gumby teaches her yoga. They experiment with dancing, two workable feet between them, because Lara Jane is curious whether some traditionally-solo moves are possible if shared between two.

Approximately half of these work.

One night, they’re eating caramel popcorn and watching Project Runway, and the gumby says, “Don’t go to sleep. Please. Stay up with me.” And Lara Jane considers going into work late tomorrow, even though she’s never been late for anything less than stomach surgery.

So she stays up all night: all the way to midday, when the gumby blinks out of existence.

And the next Thursday she’s alone.

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The third Friday, Lara Jane awkwardly inserts the anti-rape condom in one of the toilet stalls. She knows it’s a snap judgment, but surely there’s nothing wrong with taking precautions.

She has to face the tentacles sometime.

Lara Jane builds a pillow fort on the gym mats before climbing in, and then peeks over the fluff of the topmost pillow at the strange man beyond. The fort stinks of her signature perfume. He sits halfway across the dance studio, tentacles twitching, peering back at her.

“If they scare you,” he says, “I can put them away.”

Lara Jane raises an eyebrow. She weighs his offer for a moment, but then says simply, “Tell me.”

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FUN FACT: His name–the man attached to the tentacles–was Chiton, back when he was known as the greatest mountain climber in at least sixty acres.

Every day, at the base of the cliff face, he stretched his two arms and six tentacles into the eight sleeves of the jacket he spent a month sewing. Every day, he scaled the mountain, his 10 limbs curling themselves into snowy crevices and propelling him upwards with superhuman grace. Every day, he plucked the blue flowers from the top of the mountain. And was home again in time for tea.

He was driven out of his first two towns for his tentacles, so he kept them hidden entirely from the third one. The third town, where there was something in the water making the residents critically ill. Where they were too poor to move away. Where the blue flowers were an antidote. Including for him and his new wife, who still didn’t know about his tentacles, but whom he loved with all his heart.

And this is where Chiton went, when he wasn’t with Lara Jane:

His last day. His backpack open at the bottom of the cliff, and his special jacket with the eight sleeves completely missing. It would take him days to make another, and the blue flowers grew scarce in winter. He had to make the climb.

The regular jacket bunched up mid-torso, above his bare tentacles and bare stomach.

He died quietly of exposure, halfway up the mountain and attached to the cliff-face like a cicada shell.

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So Lara Jane sends off the measurements for a similar eight-sleeved jacket to her costume maker, and it arrives in time for the fifth Friday. She’s expecting the first time Chiton pulls it on to be the last time she ever sees him. And therefore she miscalculates and omits her usual bedtime pyjama shorts the following week.

Lara Jane thinks she knows what happens next. But maybe leaving the portal open would be less mortifying.

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Her elite squad are less proficient in hip hop than any other style. The few hip hop numbers they’ve performed in competition have never placed highly. When Lara Jane announces she’s bringing in a special guest to inspire them for an upcoming street dance number, no-one can claim it’s unjustified.

Truly, it’s more of a street dance/gymnastics number where the girls are soldiers/assassins, but they can already execute a dozen backhand springs with their eyes closed.

Lara Jane sends their mothers out to buy diamante-encrusted leggings and foam daggers. She’s sewn Chiton’s tentacles into his jacket–extra material forming six inbuilt gloves–so that it can pass as a costume.

When the time comes she feigns a sudden sickness, and all her little dancers are too busy fussing over her to notice a ninth body appear on the dance floor. Chiton slips the jacket on like a second skin. Lara Jane greets him warmly, despite the figurative portal expanding in her gut.

They see him now, all her little dancers. They see the monster in their studio.

From her position half-slumped against the wall, Lara Jane explains that their guest specialises in a new type of circus hip hop. At least two of her girls have circus posters plastered over their bedroom walls, and juggling batons in their bookcases.

Fourteen pairs of eyes are fixed on Chiton. And then he starts to move.

No human has spun with such 360-degree ease outside of a hamster ball. He spins on his head, hands, tentacles, and legs. He spins like he’s a torpedo shot from a cannon. He bounces off the floor like it’s spring-loaded.

His lines are sloppy and his technique is mediocre at best, but Lara Jane can’t help but smile at his passion and the sheer, strange spectacle of it all.

Just as much as she watches him, she watches her girls. The energy blazing in their wide eyes, coiled muscles and grins threatening to burst from their cheeks. They’re clapping and gasping and bouncing on the balls of their feet. Two of them are squeezing each other’s hands with joy.

Chiton notices their enthusiasm and his own speed and power doubles, triples. Laura Jane feels the floor vibrate as he lands. She reads the rising bliss in his body and yells, “Enough!” and he slams himself to a stop.

She watches him stand there, panting, and inflating with the girls’ frantic applause.

“Girls!” she bellows. “Please thank Chiton and then close your eyes, tight.”

“Thank you!” they chorus, and Lara Jane checks in the wall mirrors that their eyes are all shut.

Chiton looks so high that he could drift up to the ceiling. Lara Jane meets his gaze and gives him a smug little wave. He releases a final, satisfied sigh and blinks out of her studio.

“You can open again,” says Lara Jane, and clambers to her feet. The girls search around for Chiton, and she says, “How’s that for circus magic?” and they’re all a mess of questions and hands clasping at her t-shirt and Lara Jane has to laugh with sheer relief.

Thank you thank you thank you is looping in her head, and she’s not even sure who she’s thanking. Maybe she’ll take her elite squad out for ice-cream. “Good girls,” she coos and hugs them to her chest. “My good, good girls.”

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The third Saturday: Lara Jane lies next to a row of prop keys. She’s rolled them around in her fingers for hours. They’re a lightweight metal: so light that a fist-sized helium balloon could lift them off the ground, but she still suspects they’re too heavy.

The starmist spots them immediately and drifts up to just under the ceiling. “Come on; come on down,” says Lara Jane, a little more impatiently than she intends. “I thought you wanted to try.” So they spend fifteen minutes with the starmist grasping at keys like she’s clawing at something under glass, and both of them finish feeling low and impotent.

Lara Jane carries the keys with her over the next week; around her neck in the shower, pinned into her pyjama short pockets at night. She polishes them and watches her reflection in their shine, but by the morning of the fourth Saturday she has to admit to no further ideas whatsoever. Maybe she was completely off-base, buying the keys in the first place.

At least she has this fortnight’s state-wide competition to distract herself with.

Thankfully, her girls execute the monster dance flawlessly on stage, and Lara Jane is almost bubbling over with pride. It’s one of the best pieces she’s ever choreographed. Of course, it places first.

Back in their dressing room, her girls shriek with victory and thrust their trophy and glitter-covered bodies towards her. She’ll never get the sparkles out of these clothes.

Their winning dance replays in Lara Jane’s mind all evening. And in her cold hotel bed later that night, she tosses a key through the starmist’s body like a bullet and barks, “Dance!”

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On the evening of the seventh Saturday, Lara Jane takes the starmist into the forest. She’s still fuming that her reverse-Pandora’s-box number only took second the previous weekend, after which she requested to see the winning team’s scoresheet because she was robbed, but even so… Everything stinks of eucalyptus. Lara Jane lays out a picnic blanket topped with a yoga mat topped with a sleeping bag, and climbs in up to her waist.

FUN FACT: The last time Lara Jane went camping, she was 12 and woke up with a mouthful of dirt and a weeping gash on her right calf. As an adult, she had no intention of repeating the experience. She’d booked a cabin 300 meters away, with all the modern amenities and the plump bed she would have occupied if sleeping were necessary.

The starmist hovers tentatively on the other side of the fire she’s built. Lara Jane polishes off a pair of service-station chicken and mayo sandwiches, trying to give the starmist some time to acclimatise. No words are exchanged. When she’s finished, Lara Jane balances one of the keys on her nose, and that actually earns her a small, singular laugh.

Thank goodness for progress.

She’s acquired a lot more keys by now–piles of them–and the starmist is familiar with dodging her aim. The keys glint over the fire with each toss. About one in six or seven hit their mark. Lara Jane mentally notes where the keys pass through: the starmist’s foot, shoulder, hand…

The starmist darts through the air behind the fire, speedy but not especially agile. A burst of translucent stars before the shadows of the trees.

The starmist’s hip. Scalp…

Most of the panic, the fear, has dissipated. Lara Jane can tell by the way she dances.

Lara Jane pitches the last three keys in quick succession, and one of those passes directly through the starmist’s heart. No part of her tries to grasp the key, to hold on.

There is a rippling, a flickering, and then there is no-one beyond the fire anymore.

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They’ve positioned Una diagonally across Lara Jane’s mattress, and Lara Jane is braiding her hair badly as they talk.

FUN FACT: Once, when Una was a child, her body was not quite so heavy.

When her peers grew old enough to stop running regularly for fun, she could almost believe she was like everyone else.

Shamus was in the grade above her, and 17 with well-kept stubble, and his friends would chant his name when he went to write something on the blackboard, or toss some crumpled paper into a bin. He seemed to notice her suddenly. He brought her a bunch of plucked daffodils and announced she was the most beautiful girl in town.

To the very best of her memory, she’d never exposed her back to anyone except her parents. But she and Shamus had been together for months, and she loved him, and he loved her, and he wanted to see her.

So she let him open the zip, just a couple of centimetres. Of course he was curious. He was gentle, but a few grains of shiny red dust scattered out, anyway.

It landed on some hay and turned it cerulean. It landed on some wood and turned it to steel. It landed on Shamus’ fingers and he rose, gradually, three feet in the air.

Una pulled up her zip, tight, and kissed her boyfriend where he hovered.

Over the next few months, Shamus’ sister fell terminally ill. In tiny increments, Shamus and Una convinced each other that using the red dust on her on would be the right thing to do. And within 24 hours of it touching her skin, his sister had fully recovered.

But such a thing is hard to keep completely secret for long.

They came in droves to Una’s door: the curious, the desperate, the greedy. They offered their money and their sob stories and their business deals. Una’s parents locked her in her room (from the inside) and locked the front door. She didn’t go to school anymore. She barely went anywhere anymore.

Eventually, her visitors stopped offering and simply took what they wanted.

When Una’s skin grew slack from lack of dust, the thieves replaced it with sand, with stones, with straw. Miracles became a regular occurrence in town: talking chickens and men with super-strength and quadriplegics who could walk again. Until there was barely any dust left at all.

She was sure she was dying, then. Shrivelling up inside her skin. She had been planning to compose orchestral scores and become a school headmistress and with some luck, the town mayor. She missed her geography lessons and her violin and Shamus’ letters, which had stopped arriving a couple of weeks after she could no longer write back. Thus began a very long year of tears and shouting and bedsores, and at the end, her cold body in the sheets which wouldn’t wake for anything.

“So what help can you give me?” Una snaps. “Since you can’t make me better and you can’t give me justice?”

Lara Jane is struck dumb for once, tying off the braid with slightly shaking hands. “I don’t know,” she says. “I’m sorry.”

“I understand all of this far better than you.”

“Yes,” agrees Lara Jane. “You do.” She pauses, biting the edge of her tongue. “But would you like me to try?”

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Una stays the longest, out of any of them. After so much of Una’s life and death has been decided by others, Lara Jane feels strongly that Una should have the satisfaction of driving any improvements by herself. Lara Jane tries to vary her Sunday night locations in order to facilitate this, but remains otherwise occupied with the rest of her visitors and preparing for rapidly-approaching Nationals.

It’s only once Una’s the sole remainder that Lara Jane worries they’ve missed opportunities. What if one of the others knew something relevant, or emitted some kind of helpful substance? Most of the dance season has passed and the two of them haven’t made any progress at all.

And Lara Jane really likes Una. Respects her. She’s almost come to terms with the concept of Una visiting every Sunday for the rest of her life… At which point, of course, Una offers an exit suggestion.

“What’s inside that?” asks Una, eyes fixed on the translucent black balloon in the corner of the bedroom. “Is it some kind of gas?”

The balloon has wilted somewhat since its onstage debut the day before, but is still largely afloat. “Helium?” says Lara Jane. “You don’t have helium where you’re from?”

“If we had it,” snarls Una, “don’t you think we would have tried it?”

So Lara Jane gets her wish of helping Una empty the rubble from her zip, and cleaning out the remaining debris with a cloth and a vacuum cleaner. It takes a couple of hours and they bark insults at each other the entire time, but it’s mostly affectionate. When they’re finished, Lara Jane lodges a wad of tissues under Una’s leaking eyes.

They’ve hired a large helium canister, with a small nozzle attached that slides into the top of Una’s zip. Lara Jane releases the gas at just a trickle. She ties a ribbon around Una’s waist and the other end to her bedpost. Una begins to levitate above the mattress, gradually inflating into her usual shape, and her tears fall onto the doona.

“If you don’t disappear tonight,” jokes Lara Jane, “I can make a bed in a limo and fly you out of the skylight.”

“No. I don’t want to have to relive another moment of my life if I don’t have to.”

So Lara Jane twists off the helium when Una’s all full up, stretching her inflated limbs and rolling in circles and humming in airborne delight. Every so often, Una’s body blocks out the ceiling lamp, and her shadow dances wildly around the room.

When there’s a natural pause, Lara Jane clasps Una’s featherlight hand inside her own heavy one. “You take care,” she says.

Una smiles and says, “Cut the ribbon.”

So Lara Jane does, with her free arm, and never lets go of Una’s hand. But then all the dancing shadows have gone, and there’s nothing to hold on to anyway.

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Lara Jane finishes the hampers. Even personalises them. She distributes them to her Elite Dance Squad and their mothers in Studio A, at the end of the dance season and getting close to Christmas. Nationals: almost a clean sweep, and Lara Jane can rest easy until the next year, even if she’s not entirely sure what she’ll do with herself.

She stares at her line of dancers in their Lara Jane Dance Studio crop tops and booty shorts, with their teeth-braces and their knee-braces, and their little-kid manicures and big-kid muscles and giant smiles.

She stares at their mothers, with their questionable fashion choices and their botoxed faces and their painted mouths with giant smiles.

And nothing has really changed between the night a portal to Hell spread inside her costume cupboard and when it later cleared up like an obedient rash, but Lara Jane Hudson finds herself overwhelmed with affection for every single person in the room.

She taps her cane and sees her own grin blossom in the opposing mirror. “Okay, ladies. Shall we begin?”

___

Copyright 2016 Ephiny Gale

Ephiny’s fiction has also appeared in Aurealis, Daily Science Fiction, and two Belladonna Publishing anthologies. She is the author of several produced stage plays and musicals, including the sold-out ‘How to Direct From Inside’ at La Mama and ‘Shining Armour’ at The 1812 Theatre. Ephiny has a Masters in Arts Management, a red belt in taekwondo, an amazing wife, and six imaginary whippets.

By Megan Chaudhuri

The tense conversation stopped when Lydia slipped into the office, trailing the stench of old blood, ocean brine, and the cheap cigars favored by London’s Watch. The sudden heat and light from the crackling fire struck her like a blow. For one dizzying moment, the room’s familiar bookshelves and battle maps blurred with the seated figures of Mrs. Lincoln and a well-dressed stranger. The void left by their choked-off conversation filled with the drip-drip of water from Lydia’s overcoat onto the Hindustani carpet.

Lydia swayed. Her sisters would faint if they knew that she came to a job like this–that she needed a job–

Bugger it, she thought. Taking a deep breath, she curtseyed smartly. Mrs. Lincoln smiled but the stranger frowned and clutched closer a leather case.

“Mrs. Bexley,” Mrs. Lincoln said, tilting the teapot over a third cup. The scent of fresh bergamot didn’t quite mask Lydia’s odor of pickled death. “Thank you for coming on short notice. I hope we were not interrupting…?”

“La!” Lydia said, shrugging out of the overcoat. She sat with a flounce to hide her shaking knees. “I am at your disposal, madam.”

But Mrs. Lincoln clearly saw through the saucy words, and Lydia looked down. The body wasn’t his. She sipped the tea to hide her expression. Just another poor sot dredged up by the Watch that wasn’t my husband.

Which meant she might still get to kill the runaway bastard.

Or bring him home, a voice whispered, to you, and Bennie.

“Capital,” said Mrs. Lincoln, her expression still sharp. “Now, my dear, this is Mr. Clarke, who works for an old and–important friend.” Her gaze touched the 1813 portrait of King George behind Lydia. “Mr. Clarke, my Mrs. Bexley solves problems like yours–”

“Madam,” Clarke interrupted, his thumb fussing with the case’s clasp. “There has never been a problem like mine. Nor one demanding more speed, superior understanding, and, hmmm,” he glanced at Lydia’s muck-smeared gown, “greater discretion.”

His obvious contempt bruised Lydia’s nerves, tender still with thwarted grief. The corpse’s crab-gnawed face had had none of her husband’s fine bone structure. But she could not afford spiting this Mr. Clarke. The demands of Bennie’s maintenance; her need for a new, better-smelling gown…

Lydia forced a smile. “What do you need understood, sir?”

He ignored her. “Surely, madam, there are other professionals…?”

“There were other professionals.” Mrs. Lincoln rested her elbows on the French battle maps covering her desk. “Fast, clever, discrete. Men.

Something passed between them, an echo of the tense conversation Lydia had interrupted. Clarke looked at Lydia. The fire snapped as a log crumpled to lifeless ash.

“She’s to his taste,” Clarke said grudgingly. “According to the wife.” He unclasped the case. To Lydia’s surprise, he drew out a silk towel and handed it to her.

Not a towel. It slithered open, revealing an old-fashioned corset that weighed less than silk and shimmered brighter than steel. Lydia brought it close to try to discern the weave.

“Whatever is this made of?” It didn’t feel or look dyed–but the gold color had a green cast, like verdigris on copper. Her nose prickled at its strange, metallic scent.

“That,” Clarke said, “is what we need understood. Hmmm. Try tearing it.”

With a glance at the silent Mrs. Lincoln, Lydia grasped the corset and tugged. Pulled. Yanked until her brow dampened with sweat.

Clarke looked unsurprised–no, contemptuous. A sentiment Lydia was too acquainted with, from those terrible months after Bennie was born and her husband had disappeared. Those terrible months when she’d eaten her sisters’ charity and drank their contempt.

Scowling, she bit the cloth; it had the salty, metallic taste of a cheap mercury tonic. Her teeth left no mark–but something else had.

“What happened here?” Lydia said, touching the pucker near the seam.

“That is where its owner, Mrs. Banks, was stabbed by a seemingly common mugger after she left her husband, Thomas Banks, a dealer in fine cloths.”

An understandable response to spousal abandonment. She looked closer. “But there’s no blood stain.”

“Yes. The knife only, hmmm, bruised Mrs. Banks. This curious cloth turned the blade as if it was steel plate.” His eyes dropped to the maps on the desk, the recent battles inked in the bright red of arterial blood.

No wonder Mrs. Lincoln’s ‘friend’ is interested.

“If Mrs. Banks survived,” Lydia said, “why not ask her about the material?”

“We did,” Clarke said. “She knew nothing about its components, but was happy to relate how her husband gave her the cloth years ago. And has been selling more to, hmmm, persons of interest.”

“How lucrative for him,” Mrs. Lincoln said.

“He desires to purchase back the knighthood his father lost, for smuggling,” Clarke said, taking back the cloth. “We also know from Mrs. Banks and the–first professionals who looked into this matter, that more information about this material must be at his manor in Kent, where his sick sister lives. Possibly even stores of it. So Mrs. Banks believes, but she always lived in their Town residence.” Clarke closed the clasp. “Which is why we need a young lady,” he cleared his throat, “capable of getting, hmmm, close to Mr. Banks and obtaining this knowledge.”

Close to Mr. Banks. Clearly, Clarke thought she had one trick. But the insult receded as Lydia rubbed her forefinger and thumb together, longing for another moment with silk that was like steel. Covetousness–a sentiment her sisters loathed–fanned at her heart.

But then her fingers paused, as if caught in an indentation left by a knife. In her mind, her sisters formed a Greek chorus of disapproval: What if she was also killed? Who would pay for Bennie’s board and tuition?

“You should understand, Mrs. Bexley,” Mrs. Lincoln said, her expression shrewd, “that I ask this of you because it is… necessary.” She refilled Lydia’s teacup. “Mr. Clarke also has promised to compensate well, for your troubles.”

The mental chorus fell into shocked silence when Lydia hurled guineas at it. In her mind’s eye, her hands were covered in golden silk gloves, her hair with a saucily feathered bonnet, her bosom by the most fashionable gown. And Bennie would read at Oxford. Oh, if that bastard husband could see them now!

Her grin faltered when she noticed Mrs. Lincoln. Despite the woman’s mask of confidence, her eyes were narrow and her lips were thin.

Lydia took a breath of brine and bergamot. Picking up her teacup, she smiled at Clarke. “I am certain I shall find them no trouble at all, sir.”

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A young lady capable of getting close to Mr. Banks. Clarke’s words seeded a thought–the thought sprouted into a plan–and two days later, the desolate seaside was darkening around Lydia as clouds thickened overhead. Her riding skirt snapped and her rented horse snorted as salt-scented winds lashed against them. Lydia scanned the darkening landscape, unease burbling in her belly. Behind her stretched an overgrown dirt road; ahead, just visible on the cliffs above the ocean, loomed Banks’ manor.

But where was its master? Some judicious bribery at the last town’s stables had revealed that Banks was expected home this afternoon. But now it was growing storm-dark–and where was Banks so she could throw herself into his path, crying for aide–

A red-tinged light winked in the distance.

Lydia twisted. A carriage light?

Impossible–the carriage would flounder there amidst the waist-high grasses.

Smugglers? This desolate coastline was supposedly infested with them.

The light flared again–but in the opposite direction. And closer.

Lydia was reaching for her dagger when the horse snorted. Then she heard it: the heavy creak of a well-sprung barouche, the clop-clop of more horses than most smugglers could afford. She hastily smoothed her skirts over the dagger strapped to her thigh and pinched her cheeks to a glow.

When the barouche drew level with her, its driver and footman had their pistols drawn. Raindrops glittered on the bright barrels; teardrops glittered on Lydia’s eyelashes.

“Hold right–” The footman’s words choked off as his lantern illuminated Lydia.

“Please, sir!” Lydia cried, bosom heaving. “I am so frightfully lost!”

The barouche rocked.

A beast’s–no, a monster’s–head thrust over the edge, all yellow fangs and blood-red mouth and spider-black eyes.

The horse started. Lydia yanked his reins one-handed, her other hand going for the pocket hole over the dagger–

“Back, damn you!” The bellow accompanied the fleshy sound of a blow and the monster’s–dog’s, Lydia realized–head disappeared. A man’s replaced it, as gaunt as a skeleton’s, topped with a powdered wig last fashionable when her dear, dead mama was a girl.

Lydia stared. This antiquated lout was Banks?

“Who the devil are you?” he exclaimed.

Must be. Lydia kicked the horse forward, crying, “Thank God you are here!” His eyes dilated as she leaned forward. “I feared you might be bandits–”

The words froze in her mouth. The blood congealed in her veins. Another head had shot up in front of Banks.

This one had fashionably tousled hair above a handsome face.

A handsome face Lydia knew better than her own.

Oh, Lord! She was numb–numb like those dreadful moments after a blow has landed, but before the pain is felt.

He gaped at her, his face as bloodless as when they had wed nine years ago.

“You’re blocking my view, Carter,” said Banks, pushing him aside.

Carter? Lydia swayed, grabbing the pommel.

Carter. He was incognito, the bastard. Just like her.

Carter. She’d have to risk it. And maybe the chance would present itself, for her to draw her dagger and…

Lydia let her eyes roll up. It wasn’t hard.

“Richard!” exclaimed Banks. “She’s going to faint!”

With perfect timing, Lydia slid into the surprised footman’s arms.

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She kept limp even though every muscle wanted to shiver when ‘Carter’ spoke. She held her eyes closed even when the barouche stopped and the footman picked her up. Carter. Nausea roiled her gut. What in God’s name was he doing here?

The footman’s breathing grew labored as he carried her across what sounded like marble, then onto thick carpet. He dropped her onto a sofa that smelled of wet dog. The room itself stank so much of dusty books that Lydia nearly shuddered at the unpleasant memories of her book-loving father.

“Have care, man!” said Banks. “Fetch Doherty.”

A growl from the monster-dog undercut his words. Carter’s fast breathing was audible. The fan case in her real pocket was jabbing her; she focused on that, using one of Mrs. Lincoln’s tricks to calm the trapped rabbit that was her mind.

The footman retreated. Heeled boots approached. Sour breath puffed against her face.

“Do you recognize her, Carter?”

Her heart lurched.

“Vaguely.”

Oh, Lord!

“She seems more a lady than your usual tastes.”

“She’s dressed more for whoring than riding, Banks.” Bastard.

“She’s dressed more for dancing than riding, man.” Only Mrs. Lincoln’s training kept Lydia still when Banks laid a cold hand on her arm. “Miss?”

Carter cleared his throat. “I do recall–”

Lydia moaned.

Footsteps. A mutter from Banks, inaudible beneath the patter of rain on windows. The grating sound of something ceramic being unscrewed.

The urine stench of smelling salts burned her nose and lungs.

Lydia choked, her eyes flying open to a gentleman’s library. Involuntary tears blurred together its occupants and furnishings. The dog’s growling ceased and its toenails clicked away on the marble.

“She’s awake, sir,” said the servant hovering over Lydia. Lydia lifted a hand to dash away her tears but the servant–Doherty, presumably–seized it, pressing a pear-shaped bottle into her hand. The ammonia scent prickled Lydia’s nose. “Use this if you feel faint, madam.”

Lydia sat up, breathing through her mouth. Doherty backed into a corner, replaced at the sofa by Banks. Behind him, her erstwhile husband affected lounging against a mantelpiece beneath a large genealogical diagram.

“Oh, sir!” Lydia looked up at Banks. “Where am I?”

“My manor,” Banks said, his voice unctuous. “I am Sir Thomas Banks, Miss–?”

He styles himself a knight still. Her eyes flickered from him to the genealogy to–Carter, she must think of him as Carter, to prevent a fatal tongue slip. A new scar furrowed the bloodless skin of his jaw and nearly touched his jugular.

“Hatfield,” Lydia said, yanking her eyes from the scar. A shame the attacker had missed the vein. “Miss Harriet Hatfield. Oh, Sir Banks, thank you for rescuing me!” Noting where his rheumy eyes strayed, she straightened, to better the effect of her heaving bosom. Invite me to stay and recover, you lout. “I set out to visit my cousin whilst on my way to Town, and got dreadfully lost, and a storm was coming!”

Reassurances of her safety flew from Banks, punctuated with glances at her figure. Lydia would have felt tolerably secure–if not for the anger radiating from Carter.

If not for Carter.

“Surely, Banks,” Carter said, staring at Lydia, “we don’t wish to detain Miss–Hatfield. She can take the barouche back, once her nerves have settled.”

“Oh!” Lydia pictured Carter’s head on a pike. “What if I faint on the road, Sir Banks?” She widened her eyes. Invite me to stay, damn you!

Carter scowled. “You have your salts.”

“Good God, man,” Banks snapped, turning on him. Carter’s expression quickly turned amiable. “There’s no call for such rudeness to a lady of good breeding.”

Behind Banks’ back, Lydia mouthed, ‘Carter?’

But Banks turned back quicker than she expected, and she hastily rearranged her features.

‘Hatfield?’ her husband mouthed.

One pike wasn’t enough–

“Ah!” Banks said. Lydia and Carter jumped. “I see you are admiring my life’s work, Miss Hatfield.”

“Oh, yes!” Lydia said, wrenching her attention from that runaway bastard and trying to figure out what the deuce he was talking about: Horses. Manor. Library–oh, Lord, did he read books? “I am impressed.”

“Indeed? Few understand it, beyond myself and my sister. Carter actually mistook it for my family tree!”

Lydia blinked, and then peered at the diagram over Carter’s head. Now that her vision was clear, she saw that the names were…strange.

And that Banks’ ancestors never lived more than fifteen years.

Lydia glanced at the door left ajar by the dog’s flight. The loathsome beast must be ‘Fitzroy (1811 –     )’.

“Are you familiar with Lamarck, Miss Hatfield?” Banks said, the gleam of a devotee replacing lust in his eye. “When I was a boy, our nurse–the granddaughter of a natural philosopher–introduced me to his brilliance. I have since applied his principles, and permitted only the strongest hounds to sire–”

His words clipped off. Startled, Lydia followed his eyes to the strange woman in the doorway.

She was stouter and shorter than Lydia, wrapped like an invalid in a heavy blanket. Her dark gaze was focused on Banks, its glittering sharpness as unnerving as if a spider’s eight black eyes had looked up from a baby’s face.

The ripe scent of unwashed human wafted into the library.

“Cassie!” thundered Banks. “What in nine hells are you doing up here?”

Surreptitiously, Lydia opened the smelling salt vial.

“You are too loud, brother,” Cassie said tonelessly. “Everyone is disturbed, running to and fro. I cannot do my work.”

With surprising speed, Banks closed the short distance between them. But before he could seize–or strike–her, a gloved hand emerged to pluck at the blanket’s edge.

Banks leapt back as if struck. Lydia twitched and immediately regretted it when the vial’s lid slipped, letting more ammonia vapor escape. She looked up with watering eyes to see Banks turn. His fear was gone–had she imagined it?–and his face was set in a scowl. A scowl which, except for the gray whiskers and red eyes, perfectly mirrored the many disapproving scowls Lydia had received from her siblings.

Perhaps that was why she stood and, to her surprise, curtseyed. “Miss Banks! What a pleasure to meet my savior’s sister!”

Brother and sister fell silent. Lydia had the impression that Cassie only now realized others were present.

“Ex-excuse me, Miss Hatfield,” Banks said loudly. Cassie winced. “My sister is–not well, and unaccustomed to company.”

“Nor to loud noises,” Lydia said, noticing the wince. “You do not know your strength of voice, sir.” She managed to turn her tone up at the end, transforming her words into a compliment on his masculine tenor.

It worked. Banks loosened his grip, just as a flushed Doherty darted forward and tapped Cassie’s arm. The servant curtseyed–Lydia noted how her eyes bulged with fear–and then they were gone.

There goes one with little love for Banks. Mistreated servants were worth their weight in gold, thanks to their knowledge about their masters’ secrets. But, oh–she must stay to pry it from Doherty!

“La, Sir Banks!” Lydia hooked her arm through his, brushing herself against him. All men–including the pale one glaring at her–liked that sort of thing. “You must be a fine singer to have such a powerful voice.”

For a heartbeat his eyes were on her face, shrewd and sharp. But then they dropped to where their bodies touched. Her breath caught in her throat: Invite me. Invite me. Invite me.

“You must stay, Miss Hatfield,” he said. “At least until the storm clears.”

Air rushed back into Lydia, smelling of sweat and tasting of triumph. She squealed her thanks even as her skin prickled beneath her husband’s glare.

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The bedroom given to Lydia for her toilette before supper was opulent and old, its oriental décor and crumbling fireplace dating to when Mama had been a girl. Closing the door, Lydia dropped her damp overcoat on a chair and staggered to the bed. She clung to one of its posters like a drowning sailor to his ship’s mast.

Damn him! Her husband’s face–menacing, alluring, knife-scarred–lingered in her vision. Damn him! Lydia pressed her face against the poster’s wood, her mouth pursed as if kissing, her teeth grinding as if she had him caught between them. Damn him!

Where had he been during those crushing years after Bennie’s birth, when she passed from one grim-faced sister to another? Where had he been when humiliation drove them to London, when she had cut purses to keep out of the workhouse?

A knock shattered her thoughts. Lydia whirled. She glanced at the toilette table’s mirror: her face was as mad and intent and inexplicable as Cassie’s.

And beyond her madwoman’s reflection, through the rain-streaked window, flashed a red- light.

“Lost peasants,” she breathed, trying to calm herself. “Signaling to one another. Or smugglers. Or–” French agents.

The knocking grew louder. Taking a deep breath, Lydia opened the door. Doherty entered, her head bent over a ewer of steaming water.

Lydia caged her whirling thoughts. She couldn’t let this opportunity go wasted.

“Oh!” Lydia beamed. “I am so glad you are here! I am so hopeless at undoing my clasps–I tear them like a child!”

This girlish confidence received a curt nod. Doherty set down the ewer and turned towards Lydia’s overcoat.

A bruise blackened her jaw.

Good Lord. Was it from the bumbling brother–or the mad sister?

But before she could speak, Doherty picked up her overcoat. The contents of its pockets clanked.

“Oh, don’t mind that!” Lydia flapped her hand. “It’s my–face paint.”

She swore at her thoughtlessness when Doherty’s face darkened with disapproval. Owning to face paint was like confessing to whoredom, in these backwaters.

Silently, the servant went around Lydia and began yanking out her hairpins.

Lydia forced herself not to flinch when Doherty attacked her hair with a brush. “I hadn’t expected”–the brush scraped her scalp–“such a well-trained lady’s maid this far from Town. Do you serve Mrs. Banks?”

The brush paused. “I serve Miss Banks.”

Clever answer, Lydia thought. “Is Sir Banks unmarried?”

The brush clanked on the bureau. Lydia’s head snapped back as Doherty began plaiting her hair. “Why’d you care, madam?”

The insolence was as unpleasant as the hairdressing. She thinks I’m pursuing him.

Several more yanks threatened to tear off her scalp, and then Lydia felt her gown loosen as Doherty undid its back buttons, apparently intending to press it.

“Oh, do the jewelry first,” Lydia said. “Sir Banks must do well at his cloth business, to maintain his sister and manor both.”

There was a pinch as her ears were freed of their heavy gold bobs. “Nobody said nothing about cloth.”

Damnation. She was rattled still by Carter.

“Oh! Sir Banks did,” Lydia lied. “Does he do business on the Continent?”

“I know nothing about his business.” Cold fingers wrestled with the clasp to Lydia’s necklace.

Lydia mentally pirouetted, circling about Doherty like a duelist searching for an unguarded point.

“Is Mr. Carter also a cloth merchant?”

No reply.

“How long have he and Sir Banks been friends?”

Only the distant rumbling of thunder answered her.

Lydia puffed her cheeks, feeling like she had brought a rapier to a pistol duel. It was time, as Mrs. Lincoln would say, to change tactics.

The clasp opened. Before Doherty could set down the necklace, Lydia turned and caught her wrist, smiling.

“That one always gives me trouble, but you opened it so easily–why don’t you keep it for yourself?”

Doherty’s eyes met hers, as dark as the bruise on her jaw.

The necklace clanked when she set it down.

Oh, bugger.

She waved off Doherty’s surly offer to press her gown, claiming a desire to rest briefly. The woman left but her disapproval lingered like a bloodstain on good satin. Lydia paced, her thoughts matching the rain’s staccato beat.

Charm had failed.

Bribery had failed.

But she had an hour alone, upstairs, while everyone downstairs believed her to be preening or napping.

Lydia halted. Lightning flashed, throwing the room into white brilliance. Her hand closed on the fan case in her pocket.

With one last glance out the window for the red light, she slipped out of her shoes and into the hallway.

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The floor in the dark hallway was ice-cold, but Lydia moved slowly. The soft creak of the floorboards was swallowed by the downstairs clatter of servants doing whatever it was servants did before supper.

Her hand found the large door at the end of the hall. The faint light of a damped fire glowed beneath it. Lydia pressed her ear to it: all she heard was the muffled boom of the ocean and the beat of rain.

She squatted to examine the lock. Not a Bramah lock, thank God–simply an old-fashioned pin tumbler.

A locked pin tumbler. Lydia held her breath, listening to the sounds of storm and house and ocean. She opened her fan case.

The faint firelight glittered along the pick’s slender length and flashed off the L-shaped torsion wrench. Smiling slightly, she lined the tools up to the tumbler’s face.

“Feeling well-rested, Miss Hatfield?” murmured her husband behind her.

She whirled, the edge of her hand aimed for his knee. But he dodged, as light as the fine dancer she knew he was. His hands were behind his back but she couldn’t tell if he was mocking her with an insouciant pose–or hiding a weapon.

Lydia stood, training the pick’s fine point on him. Spine straight, chin up, knees shaking, she met his dark eyes.

“Don’t you ‘Miss’ me!” she hissed. “What are you doing here, Mr. Carter?” Even as she said it, Lydia felt the saucy words tilt the battlefield in his favor. Felt like she was sixteen again, a pampered virgin, just meeting a dashing rake with dozens of notches in his bedpost.

“Still Mrs. Wickham, then?” he said, ignoring the question. “Why haven’t you divorced me?”

Damn the shadows: darkness hid the flicker of an eye, the shift of a stance.

“I should have!” Her voice was shrill. “You–you left me, and your child, you bastard!”

His mouth opened. Closed.

He shook his head. “Then allow me to assist you back to your toilette, as a husband should.”

Lydia stared. He sounded just like her husband: smooth, confident, at ease. But how had he learned to move so silently?

And what was he doing up here?

And–oh, Lord!–where was Banks?

But it was with her sixteen-year-old voice that she said, “La! And if I don’t?”

“Our host, I must say, is rather vindictive towards women who defy him.”

“How did–” Lydia stopped. He might not know about the attempt on Mrs. Banks’ life. But he had seen how Doherty cowered–and perhaps witnessed her beating. “Our host, I must say, is aiding the French.”

She had the pleasure of his surprise. He stepped close enough to dance a reel with her, but Lydia, conscious of the locked door behind her and Banks downstairs, had never felt less like dancing.

“When did you acquire this love of king and country?” Carter said in a whisper like a knife through silk.

King. She seized the thought. “You must let me go, G-Carter, or–or the king will be displeased.”

“‘The king will be displeased.'” He snorted disbelief. “You must do better than that, Miss Hatfield.”

She shifted, her cold toes grasping for purchase. He shifted with her.

“Where is Banks?” she said, raising the pick. His eyes flickered between its point and her face.

He shrugged. “Visiting his mad sister. Hopefully convincing her to bathe.”

“For how long?”

“Long enough for me to escort you back.”

He stepped forward. Lydia could smell his painfully familiar scent of smoke and claret.

The door behind her was implacable as his advance.

“I’ll give you a third,” Lydia said quickly. “Of what I’m…promised. For this.”

That stopped him. His eyes sharpened–with curiosity, with suspicion–but what he said was, “Three-quarters.”

“La!” Lydia tossed her head. “Half.”

“Three–”

“I must maintain Bennie.”

He fell silent for two great booming heartbeats of the ocean. The pick was slick with sweat in her hand, the dagger strapped to her leg far, far away.

“Curious,” he said, his gaze sweeping her, “how much his maintenance involves satin gowns. Very well. Half.”

“Good.” Lydia exhaled. “Now, you m-must help me get into Banks’ room.”

“The king pays you to sneak into men’s bedrooms?” Before she could retort, he continued, “Or is it this strange cloth that Banks is so exalted about?”

“You know about that?” Lydia bit her lip. Damn him for still being able to ruffle her!

“Aye,” he said, shifting. His face was fully shadowed. “We have become like brothers, after I saved him from being robbed by a pack of cutthroats and smugglers. I am content to advise him on young ladies”– she was briefly glad his expression was hidden–“and he is quite generous with the money gained from selling his cloth. At least, what’s left over from attempting to buy back his title.”

“Do you know where he’s getting it?”

“No.” His jacket rustled as he shrugged. “Why should I care?”

“La!” Lydia automatically said, thinking. “Well, it doesn’t matter to me what you care about. You must distract him.”

“For how long?”

“An hour.”

She heard another cloth rustle–brought the pick up–but he only bowed. Turned. Left.

His footsteps were faint as a cat’s down the stairs.

How did he learn to move so quietly? She half-fell and, with shaking hands, inserted the pick and wrench into the lock.

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Rain was beating against the windows when Lydia slipped through the bedroom door. She re-locked it and and pocketed her tools.

The banked fire glowed just enough for Lydia to make out a high-ceilinged room dominated by a massive bed. A low door opposite promised to be the dressing room. Wardrobes and drawers leaked the scents of cedar and perfume.

Lydia reached for a candle on the mantelpiece and saw how her hand was shaking. She made a fist; her teeth began chattering.

She had just bought a promise from a man whose word–to friends, to the militia, to her–was worthless.

She had just minutes, before he told Banks.

She lit the candle and set about her frantic work.

Wardrobes: nothing but formerly fashionable clothes. Lydia slid her hand along the sides and felt only cedar panels. Drawers: combs, wig powder, a prophylactic, the sheep’s intestine stiff with age. No hidden alcoves. The bed: a quick check under and over and into the mattress unearthed nothing but goose down.

She paced, listening for telltale creaks in the floorboards. She tapped the walls, listening for revealing echoes. Her unfruitful circuit ended at the low door in the corner.

Behind it was a dressing room, of course. Wind rattled the room’s small window against its lock. Closing the door, Lydia ran her hand over the walls, ducking around the hanging clothes.

Her eyes narrowed: one coat hung oddly. Banks had worn the garment earlier when he ‘saved’ her, and it hung more heavily than a tailcoat of worsted wool should.

A pocket within a pocket yielded a worn book. The candle lit the words Harris’s List of Covent Garden Ladies. She ignored the sister chorus that sang out in disapproval–especially when Lydia recognized it to be quite dated. Few Garden ladies likely still matched Harris’ descriptions of their eventful youth.

But the oddness of keeping an outdated survey of aging prostitutes made Lydia open it. When flipping through Kitty Fisher’s description, she found the folded sheets of paper.

She skimmed them. The first was a half-composed letter to a tailor, apologizing for a lateness in paying to be attributed to his sister’s illness, &c &c.

The second was torn from another book. Faded ink covered it in a hand so precise it could have been typeset. Strange, incoherent phrases leapt at Lydia: … their product’s strength is associated, through some unknown mechanism, with their venom’s potency… one in four possess such traits…permitting only these to breed, as dictated by Lamarck.

Lamarck again! Lydia snorted and turned to the last sheet.

It was printed through with columns of abbreviations and numbers. Fresh ink circled one set of numbers.

A cipher. Lydia’s stomach clenched. Ciphers were not her strength; they demanded too much sitting with dreary books. But she forced herself to look closer, if only for Mrs. Lincoln’s sake, and realization slipped past the mental crowd of sisters still worked up over the Covent Garden ladies.

A tide table. Her finger tracked the circled date and time to the abbreviation for the nearby coast.

Tomorrow. She inhaled: Banks had business tomorrow–on the coast facing France–which required him to know the tides.

And still she knew nothing of his silk!

She almost dropped the book when the bedroom door unlocked. Through the dressing room’s door, she heard a man’s heavy tread and the ominous click of Fitzroy’s claws.

Lydia snuffed out the candle, praying that the wisps of smoke would go unnoticed in a room with a banked fire.

Only a low, thin door stood between her and doom outside.

Unbidden, the memory of the dagger-distorted corset bubbled up. The image burst with the echo of George’s–Carter’s–words: Our host is rather vindictive towards women who defy him.

The claw-clicking grew louder.

Damn Carter! And damn her for trusting him again!

She heard a snuffling sound. The door wobbled.

Fear galvanized her. Silently, she folded the papers back into the book and tucked the book back into the coat.

She heard a muffled growl.

With her handkerchief, she stifled the lock’s protesting squeal. Rain hammered Lydia’s face and soaked her gown as she leaned out.

A narrow ledge and gutter, thick with frothing water, ran five feet below. Thirty feet beyond that, the ground was a mass of wet shadows. And beyond that–

Distorted by the rain, a distant red light flashed with the rhythm of a dance: one-two-three, four; one-two-three, four.

And from the windows below answered the same pattern.

Oh, Lord! Water flattened her ringlets and ran coldly down her neck. There were no more light flashes; only thirty-five feet of rain-slick stone wall, and someone who answered mysterious signals in the night.

Lydia shuddered. She could stab Fitzroy and flee Banks; but neither fight nor flight worked against gravity or unknown French agents.

She retreated inside, latched the window, and sank into a crouch.   Cold and fear shook her limbs; anger clenched her teeth.

She almost yelped when the bedroom door open again.

“–Carter wants–with you–” said a servant girl’s voice.

Lydia gaped. Bless him.

“–up the damn fire, it’s freezing in here,” replied Banks. “And send Richard to lay out my clothes for supper. Come, Fitzroy. I said come, dammit!”

A growl from Fitzroy. Their footsteps receded beneath the scrape of a poker stirring the fire.

Damn him. Richard would enter the dressing room and discover–a thief? A whore?

Either one would be gleefully savaged by Fitzroy.

Shuddering, she smelled fresh smoke.

The sister chorus started chanting. Thief! Whore!

Thief!

Whore…

Her head snapped up, flinging water from her soaked ringlets, as her mind began to race.

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The servant girl dropped the kindling when the dressing room door opened.

Lydia stalked out, her gown tossed over one arm, her chemise barely covered by Banks’ dressing gown. Her hair was tousled as if she had spent an energetic (and horizontal) half-hour. Her bare feet padded confidently as she approached, holding an unlit candle.

The girl stared.

“Light this, won’t you?” Lydia said.

“Y-yes, ma’rm.” The girl touched its wick to an ember. Light sparkled in her astonished eyes.

“That’s a good girl,” Lydia purred. She sashayed out, closed the door, snuffed the candle, and ran like the devil was after her.

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Lydia darted back into her bedroom. She dropped the gown beside her overcoat and clutched the chair, drawing in great gasps that nearly burst her chemise’s seams.

Carter had kept his word–had helped her.

But she couldn’t indulge in reflection. Not with the clock ticking and the waves booming below, bringing Banks closer to his rendezvous.

Lydia drew out the contents of her overcoat’s pocket: lead sticks, a container of cheap rouge, several hairpins.

Weapons for a battle she had hoped to avoid.

She’s his sort. Clarke’s words echoed as she sat at the toilette table.

A woman’s duty, Mama had called it. But it had never been a duty before–not with George, nor any after. And it was never required by Mrs. Lincoln. Let other professionals use crude seduction–Lydia accomplished ten times more with her wits and masterful flirtation!

But bribing Doherty had failed. Tossing over Banks’ room had failed. And she had until tomorrow before the man went to the coast facing France, and waited for low tide.

Lydia picked up the lead sticks.

She thought of her son: his maintenance at school, the hope it bought him for a safer life than hers. To fail was to fail him.

She thickened her lashes with lead powder. Setting down the sticks, she picked up the rouge.

She thought of her sisters: their scorn for her hasty marriage and pregnancy. They took her in–but they would never forgive. To fail was to return to them.

Lydia powdered her cheeks, chin, bosom. Brushing off her hands, she took up the hairpins.

She thought of Mrs. Lincoln: of that day seven years ago, when Lydia had stolen Mrs. Lincoln’s pocketbook on the London streets. Of the next morning, when the woman had tracked Lydia to that room behind the tanner’s and, pistol in one hand and nosegay in the other, offered Lydia a new line of work. To fail was to fail the only person who gave her a chance.

The hairpins slid like rusty rapiers into her hair.

Lydia pulled on her gown. She adjusted the neckline. The damp cloth clung to her fetching plumpness–and brought to mind the new, tightly-fitted bodices she couldn’t afford.

Yet.

With a toss of her head, Lydia entered the hall, shoulders back and spine curved to amplify her natural charms. To fail was to fail herself!

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Lydia’s slippers struck the marble like it was a marching drum as she strode down the great hall. The dining room was a fire-lit maw waiting to swallow her, where silverware clanked like sabers and rich foods stank of burnt blood.

A furious shout silenced the clanking silverware and punctured her marching drum. Lydia froze. The servants told him about the bedroom–

“– for this, Cassie!”

A muted reply.

“For Christ’s sake, Miss Hatfield has no interest in this…Doherty!” screamed Banks.

He sounds terrified. What was his sister doing? And–oh, Lord!–what did Cassie want with Miss Hatfield?

Two shapes emerged from the dining room, backlit by candlelight. Lydia hastily composed herself as Doherty jerked Cassie towards her.

Lydia’s nose wrinkled at the stench of sweat.

Cassie’s arms protruded from her draped blanket. Her hands were cupped together with Doherty’s hands clamped around them. The weak light drew angry, fearful lines onto Doherty’s face. Tears glittered on Cassie’s cheeks.

Aside from Doherty’s fear, it was a perfect tableau of how Lydia’s sisters had yanked her away from handsome gentlemen.

Sympathy bent Lydia into a curtsey. The curtsey brought her nose close to Cassie. Beneath the unwashed body odor lurked a metallic scent.

Lydia looked up. Cassie stood before her, resisting Doherty’s tugs. The candlelight glinted like gold on the cloth covering her from shoulder to cupped hands.

Those hands flew apart when Doherty jerked too hard and lost her grip. Tiny emeralds dropped from Cassie’s hands. They rolled–scuttled–across the marble.

Doherty gasped. Snatching up her skirts, she stamped on the spiders. Carapaces crunched against the marble.

“No!” Cassie cried, but Doherty blocked her.

“How often have you been told–!”

Oh, Lord–Doherty even sounded like Lydia’s sisters, defending their frigid propriety!

A bellow from the dining room. “Take her back!”

“Yes, sir!” Doherty’s fear-stricken face turned towards the shout. Which was likely how she missed the last spider.

It limped towards Lydia. She scooped it up. It clung lightly to her as Lydia extended her hand to Cassie.

Doherty turned back. Her face contorted with horror.

Stupid wench. Lydia tossed her head. She never feared such little things–and neither did Cassie, whose gloved hand slid like water across Lydia’s, coaxing back the spider.

This close, Lydia saw how the spider’s emerald green matched the undertones in Cassie’s silk glove. Like a patina of verdigris on copper.

And then Doherty yanked Cassie away.

Lydia stared at the green smears, barely noticing the sounds of the women descending the stairs, the distant slam of a door.

Her thumb and forefinger rubbed together, teasing out the memory of the corset Clarke had shown her. Of the strange green tones to its golden, silky cloth. The same tones that had sparkled in Cassie’s gloves; the same silkiness that had flowed over Lydia’s hand.

Lydia sniffed her hand. It smelled like she had been clutching a dagger, blade-first.

Barely a minute later, when he descended from his own toilette, her husband found her transfixed there.

Her fingers still rubbing together, Lydia looked up at his handsome face and carefully-ruffled hair. Some comment died on his lips when he caught her expression.

“It’s not Mr. Banks I should have been after,” Lydia whispered. I couldn’t smell it because of Cassie’s odor–and those damn smelling salts.

His dark eyes glittered. “No?”

“It’s Miss Banks,” she said.

Bribery hadn’t worked. Sneaking hadn’t worked.

A simple courtesy–from one misunderstood sister to another–had worked.

Triumph and surprise warmed her body. She looked up at her husband, the bastard, the scoundrel, the handsome wretch who had ruined her and left her.

But he had done what she asked in the hall.

But he had backed off when she’d argued for money to maintain Bennie.

But she had no one else.

And his hair was tousled the way she loved it.

“You must help me.” Lydia pressed her hand to his cambric shirt. “I’ll go after Miss Banks and the silk. You get my horse and one for yourself. Tell the groom you’re–”

“I’ll deal with the groom,” he said, eyes narrowing.

“Yes! And meet me–oh–”

“There’s a hillock three miles north that blocks all view from the manor.”

She listened to his harried directions, her fingers digging into his cravat. His handsome face was so close she could see how the blade had parted the skin of his jaw.

The scar was rough beneath her fingers when she tilted his face towards hers.

A chair scraped in the dining room. They leapt apart.

Banks’ gaunt silhouette appeared in the dining room’s firelight. “Carter? Miss Hatfield?”

Lydia’s eyes met her husband’s. Buy me time, he mouthed.

He turned away. “I find myself needing rest more than food, Banks. You and Miss Hatfield enjoy the meal.”

“What–oh, yes, Sir Banks!” Lydia said, pirouetting. “A tête-à-tête, so I may know my savior better.” Her mind, drunk on her proximity to the silk and her husband, whirled madly: How to escape how to escape how–

Her husband’s footsteps faded, leaving her alone with a man who had wanted his own wife dead. A man she was armed to seduce–but who she must now distract, evade, and rob.

Drawing in a deep breath of air stinking like burnt blood, Lydia sashayed towards Banks, her lips pulled into a blood-red simper.

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Between the fire and the storm humidity, the dining room was as hot and fetid as Fitzroy’s mouth. The monster-dog prowled about the room, his eyes moving with Lydia’s body. His master stood still, watching her with a lidded gaze.

The table was set for three. Footmen hovered, ready to carve and serve. Lydia hadn’t eaten since breakfast, but the rich scents nauseated her.

She forced herself to advance. I’ll pretend to be ill and excuse myself to–

“Out!” Banks barked. Lydia jumped. The footmen fled.

Sheer willpower kept her moving towards a chair, but Banks did not draw it out for her. Lydia looked up, scrambling for a teasing comment.

The words died in her mouth. His expression was sharper than any she had seen the whole day–except for that second before she’d coaxed an invitation from him.

She jerked when he sat.

Miss Hatfield,” he said. “Perhaps you might indulge my curiosity.”

“Anything for my savior, sir!” Lydia sashayed forward and squeezed his shoulder.

His shoulder was tense. His gaze roved frankly over her. Shrewd. Assessing.

She heard a low rumble. Not thunder. Growling.

Fitzroy’s lips were drawing back from his teeth.

“I find myself wondering,” Banks said, “how a young woman came to be traveling across the countryside, alone?”

“Do recall, sir, that I was calling on my cousin–”

He interrupted, “Calling on a cousin, in the countryside, while carrying face paint and dressing so impractically?”

She is dressed more for whoring than riding, Banks, her husband had said.

“You are perceptive, sir!” Lydia forced a giggle. “I must own my share of the sin of vanity.”

In the silence stretching between them, Lydia heard a faint patter.

Saliva was dripping from Fitzroy’s teeth onto the floor.

Oh, Lord…

Distracted, she only jerked when Banks lunged and yanked her onto his lap. His arms were like bone stays about her torso.

“No, Miss Hatfield.” His breath was hot in her ear. “That is not your sin. Whose whore are you?”

One of his arms detached–Lydia tried to twist free–and then his hand grabbed her thigh.

His fingers froze. “Wha–”

My dagger.

Lydia slammed her heel down, raking his shin and crushing the top of his foot.

She felt the blow lance through him and ripped free, falling to the ground and rolling away.

“You goddamned whore!” Banks wheezed, stumbling upright. A dining knife glittered in his hand. Lydia scrambled backwards on her elbows between the chairs.

Through his legs, Lydia saw Fitzroy advancing. She reached for the dagger but her skirts had tangled–

Banks lunged.

Fitzroy leapt.

Lydia kicked a chair. It spun and crashed in front of her.

Banks dodged–but then Fitzroy crashed into him, toppling them both over the chair. There was the crack of human bone. Banks screamed.

Lydia scrambled up. Gasping, she ran into the hall.

She reached the stairs that led down, her ears ringing with Banks’ cries for aide.

Her cover was blown–the house was roused against her–her sisters screamed for her to flee.

But the blood pounding through her screamed back, thrilling to the chase, the fight, the knife’s edge balance between life and death, failure and success.

Lydia grabbed the banister and hurtled downstairs.

One, two, three flights of stairs brought her to a landing outside what looked like a cellar door. Barrels gathered dead flies in the corners. Gasping, Lydia smelled the ocean-salted-earth that surrounded her at this depth.

Footfalls and shouting echoed above. And–oh, Lord!–the scuttling of hard nails on marble.

Lydia grasped the doorknob.

It was locked.

She grabbed her pocket, fumbling past the smelling salts for the fan case. Pulled free the pick and wrench. She would crack the lock– subdue Doherty–and then–

And then she heard the staccato rattle of claws descending the stairs.

Lydia pirouetted, sweeping out with the pick, but a heavy weight caught her inside the strike. The pick flew out of her hand and skittered across the floor.

Nails like knives raked her legs and arms and torso. A massive body crushed the dagger’s sheath into her leg. Instinct threw her arm before her throat as Fitzroy lunged, teeth bared and tongue spraying saliva.

Fitzroy’s teeth closed on her arm. The wrench clattered on the floor. Pain screamed through her as he began to shake her arm, the bone twisting in its socket.

Mama! Lydia cried soundlessly. He’s going to tear my arm off!

Don’t say such things, my dear, her long-dead mother replied. With my nerves, you’ll make me faint.

Faint

Faint.

Blackness shadowed her vision. Lydia moaned and fumbled one-handed for her pocket.

The pear-shaped bottle slipped into her hand.

Lydia closed her eyes and slammed the bottle against Fitzroy’s head. The ceramic shattered. Cutting shards slashed her skin and the air turned to ammonia-fueled fire.

Her arm dropped against her throat. Choking, Fitzroy leapt off her. His nails clattered up the stairs, the worst of the ammonia-stench disappearing with him.

Lydia crawled away from the lingering vapor. Her savaged arm screamed pain; blood and saliva ran down her front.

You deserve this, Lydia! cried her sisters. Banks will find you here and–

“–t’s going on out there?” Doherty’s voice, muffled by the door.

Her sisters switched tactics. Doherty will find you here and–

Lydia cracked open her eyes. The ammonia found them and her vision clouded.

“Hello? Hello!” Doherty shrilled.

Her eyes stinging slits, Lydia crawled behind a barrel. Cradling her arm, she dry-heaved and, in a raw voice, cried, “Oh, ma’rm!”

“What? What?”

Lydia wheezed, “You’re needed ‘mediately upstairs!”

She curled tighter, the movement pulling open her slash-wounds.

A door bolt scraped. Hinges squealed.

Doherty gasped. “What in God’s name…!”

Gagging, the woman pounded up the stairs.

The door squealed as it began swinging shut.

Lydia leapt for it. She caught the handle and its massive weight dragged her before halting an inch from the jamb.

Black and red spots scuttled like spiders across her vision. Lydia pulled the door open and staggered through. It fell shut behind her, cutting off the lingering stench of ammonia.

Lydia threw the bolt and sank to her knees, drawing in great lungfuls of air that smelled of the ocean and tasted of daggers. A grey netherworld–as oppressive as the Hertfordshire mists of her girlhood–threatened to envelop her. Clutching her fang-torn arm, Lydia fought it off.

With her good hand, she tore free her gown’s gaping front. Clenching her teeth, she wrapped the cloth about her wounds.

Pain meant she was alive.

Lydia stood, each slash bone-deep bruise protesting. She wiped her stinging eyes and flung the tears onto the stone floor.

She was alive. Lydia turned in place. A single candle lit the cave-like room and the entrance to a low tunnel. Diagrams and papers spilled from a narrow bed, the writing so precise it could have been typeset. Skeins of raw, metallic-smelling silk gathered in piles that hinted at some unknown classification. In the corner, a complicated loom was strung with half-finished cloth, its weave too fine to discern.

Sisters be damned, she was alive. Lydia drew her dagger. A light glowed in the tunnel. Crude stairs ran down it.

From the tunnel rushed the great heartbeat of the ocean’s waves. And beneath the ocean’s roar chattered a strange sound–like many voices.

Or many feet.

Her eyes and dagger trained on the glow ahead, she descended.

The metallic smell grew stronger–stronger–stronger.

But it was nothing to the sight that greeted her.

Lydia halted at the glow’s edge, her stunned senses unable to manage another step. The sting of her wounds faded, her eyes too overwhelmed for her to process any other sensation than shock.

The cavern arched overhead. Cold, fresh air buffeted small flies against her in time to the sound of waves. The air’s briny stench overlay the scent of decomposing wooden barrels and rotting rowboats.

Lydia stared. The cavern was draped–festooned–infested with spider webs. Ancient, frail webs clotted every crag; new, sturdy ones stretched across columns of stalactites; and closest to Lydia, webs as fine as gossamer glinted gold and green in the light of a dozen oil lamps.

Spiders moved purposefully among the webs, glittering like emeralds set into gold. And moving just as purposefully, encased from head-to-toe in cloth of emerald and gold, was Miss Cassandra Banks.

The woman prodded a fresh web with a metal cane. Its spider leapt aggressively onto the cane as the web stretched. Nodding, Cassie carefully returned the spider to its remarkably intact home.

When she moved, her foot knocked several rocks. One clattered to a stop near Lydia. In the lamp light, she saw that it was a time-yellowed human vertebrae.

Her eyes flickering between the spiders and Cassie, Lydia squeezed the dagger.

She nearly screamed when Cassie suddenly struck out with the cane. Crushed spider glistened wetly. Its web snapped as Cassie twirled the strands about her cane.

Mad. Lydia shuddered. All that she sought–that the French smuggled and the king coveted–came from a madwoman’s pet spiders.

Not that Clarke would believe her. Even Mrs. Lincoln might doubt her.

She needed proof: web. Silk. Spiders. But Cassie showed no signs of leaving.

Lydia took a miscalculated step and knew it instantly. Her slipper knocked the damned vertebrae into a stalagmite.

Cassie whirled. Crushed spider and destroyed web dangled from the cane. The light shimmered on the golden veil across her face.

Cassie advanced, brandishing the cane like a rapier.

Oh, Lord! Lydia brought the dagger up, twisting to shield her savaged arm.

But Cassie halted. She swayed as she regarded Lydia.

“You saved my baby,” Cassie said.

Lydia stared. Baby?

That spider. The one she saved from Doherty and returned to Cassie.

“Y-yes.” Lydia swallowed. “I did.”

Without another word, the woman turned, opened an oil lamp, and thrust the web inside. It burned with a scent like hair kept too long on a curling iron and then was gone.

Lydia appreciated the frustrations of motherhood–she loved Bennie while thanking God for boarding schools–but this seemed rather extreme.

“Why, er,” Lydia said, “did you destroy that ‘baby’?”

“Its web wasn’t strong enough,” Cassie said. “And it was too green.”

Lydia stared. The philosophy of Lamarck, she thought, applied to spiders.

Strange thought, but her pulse was steadying now that the cane was pointed elsewhere.

“Do you dislike green, Miss Banks?” Lydia said, advancing. The cavern loomed overhead, glittering with chattering spiders.

“What I dislike is irrelevant.” Cassie’s now-cool cane tested more webs, sending spiders fleeing. Her words echoed about the stone cavern. “Green correlates with their venom’s strength.”

Lydia froze. Her mind stepped back from the scene, plaiting this thread of knowledge into the others she had gathered.

Cassie, covered in spider silk impenetrable to daggers–and, presumably, to spider fangs.

Doherty’s terror when Lydia had picked up the spider bare-handed and given it to Cassie.

The human vertebrae at Lydia’s feet.

She thawed when Cassie’s cane cracked against another stalactite.

“M-miss Banks,” Lydia said. Don’t stutter. She took a breath. They’re just venomous man-killing spiders. And she’s grateful you saved her ‘baby’. “If you don’t need the greener ones anymore, perhaps I could have several?”

Lydia swallowed. Kindness–both given and received–had an unfamiliar taste. “Please?”

The cane halted mid-swing.

“The bite of one itched me maddeningly, when we first discovered this place after Father died,” Cassie said tonelessly. “Two sting horribly. Three bit my brother, and he never comes here anymore. Four will kill. It was my brother who realized Father used them to keep his men in line, but it was my idea to use them for my life’s work.”

Lydia looked down at the vertebrae. She saw now that the cave’s sand was dotted with more old bones.

She looked up at the spiders, spinning and feasting and waiting and mating, glittering like jewels on their webs.

Then she looked at Cassie, and drew a deep breath. She was in a nest of death with a brilliant, monomaniacal woman whose research was benefiting the French.

But Lydia suspected Cassie neither knew what her brother did with the silk, nor did she care. My life’s work.

“I’ll take three,” Lydia said, drawing out her fan case. “Please.” The case’s insulated inside would keep them–and her–safe.

Cassie took the case. Her gaze flickered among the spiders. With practiced ease, she swept three into the case.

Lydia swallowed: the largest spider carried an egg sac. Real babies.

The case snapped shut. Lydia took it, conscious of the faintest increase in weight. Her fingers whitened as she tightened her grip.

“Thank you, Miss Banks,” Lydia said, sincerely.

But Cassie was already turning away. The cane resumed its restless testing of webs. Lydia had the distinct sense that, for Cassie, she was no longer an object of interest.

But for her brother–

Lydia glanced up the stairs. The servants, Fitzroy, and Banks waited out there.

She looked deeper into the cavern, where indigo water lapped at bones. Darkness loomed ahead, as riddled with death and the unknown as the maw of some terrible dragon–

“Bugger that,” Lydia muttered. Tucking her gown up into her chemise’s waistband, she clamped the fan case between her teeth, picked up a lamp, and waded into the bloody cold water.

divider

“–and this groom met you at the appointed place with your horse?” Clarke frowned at Lydia.

Lydia set down her teacup. The sweet scent of bergamot wafted up as Mrs. Lincoln poured more. The fire crackled, throwing flattering light over her new gown and the shawl draped over her bandaged arm. Mrs. Lincoln had graciously advanced Lydia the necessary funds, given her success.

Ribbons tied the fan case shut. It lay on the desk by Clarke’s hand.

“Yes,” Lydia said, taking the teacup. “He–”

            (–was there, with just her horse. The wind tousled her husband’s hair. Moonlight pierced the storm clouds and illuminated his face. She saw the man Bennie would become: tall, graceful, handsome.

            “Did you get it, Lydia?” he said, setting down an unlit lamp. Taking off his jacket, he draped it over her wet, bruised shoulders.

            Lydia, she thought. It had been so long since he’d said her name.

            “I did, George.” She held up the fan case triumphantly.

But here was more than solicitousness in his expression; there was open greed.)

“–kept his word.”

Clarke’s frown deepened. “Quite a risk, trusting a man who, hmmm, took bribes to turn against his master.”

Mrs. Lincoln stirred. “We often take such risks. Mrs. Bexley did nothing extraordinary there.”

Lydia swirled the tea in her cup. “But it is true, madam. I did take a risk, trusting–”

            (“–you!” she exclaimed. “You used me –you wanted the silk, too!”

            “Aye,” George said, his hand like a vise about her arm. “But Lydia, this is our chance! My companions don’t know we’d–“

            “Your ‘companions’?” Lydia exclaimed. But the word slotted into place and, taking a mental step back, she could see the puzzle to which it belonged: The new scar on his jaw. The flashing lights in the night–lights the same red as the glass panes, she now saw, of George’s unlit lantern.

            George knowing about the cloth.

            George helping her.

            “You’re a–a smuggler! A swindler!”

            “Aye,” he repeated like he did not care. He drew her near; she felt his hot breath on her face, the hard lines of his body. “No one knows we have it. We could sell it, get Bennet from that damned school, and the three of us could live a grand life together.”)

“–him,” Lydia said.

“What happened to him?” Clarke said, poking at the fan case. “Did you tell him what you were stealing?”

The tea was over-steeped. Lydia shook her head when Mrs. Lincoln moved to refill it.

“I told him I worked for the estranged Mrs. Banks,” Lydia said.

She looked–

            (–up at him. And she saw the man Bennet would become, raised by fugitives whose greed and lust meant they could not keep their word–not to their comrades, not to their employers, and not to each other.

            And she saw the woman she would become, in thrall to a man who had been like opium to her since she was sixteen.

            “No, George,” Lydia said, pulling against his grip. “Not this time.”

            His fingers dug into her shoulders. She cried out but he grabbed her damaged arm, his grip like fire on her fresh wounds. His other hand tore the fan case from her.

            “No!”

Without her grip the case opened. Three green jewels spilled into the moonlight and onto her husband’s skin.)

–down as Clarke played with the ribbon’s knot on the fan case. Something rustled; but Lydia could not tell–

            (–if he was still conscious. His screams had faded to gasps when Lydia coaxed the last spider back into the case.

He lay at her feet, weak and unprotected.

The man who had ruined her.

Betrayed her.

Given her Bennie.

            The horse was skittish after the tumult, and saddled for a man. Lydia used a hair ribbon to tie shut the case; then, with several awkward attempts, she managed to get astride, her skirts hiked up to show an indecorous amount of leg.

            Her husband’s pained, incredulous gaze met hers.

            “You’ll live,” Lydia said curtly. She drove her heels into the horse and the beast took off like a shot.)

–whether the rustle was from Clarke’s sleeves, or inside the case. A rustle mere inches from the fingers of this man who looked at her with contempt so strong Lydia could taste it, as bitter and familiar as her sisters’ faces.

She looked down at her tea, swirling its dregs. “I should be careful playing with the fan case, sir.”

Clarke frowned skeptically. But his fingers went still when he looked at her face.

“One bite will itch,” Lydia said, over the soft scratching sound and the memories of the dark, damp cave. “Two sting horribly. Three cripple a man with pain. Four will kill.”

She set down the cup, its last bitter swallow untasted.

___

Copyright 2016 Megan Chaudhuri

A toxicologist by training and a writer by inclination, Megan lives near Seattle with one husband and two cats. Her science fiction has been published in Analog and Crossed Genres, while her science non-fiction has appeared in Slate under her maiden name, Megan Cartwright. Her website is http://sciencebasedwriting.wordpress.com.

 

by Mathew Scaletta

The Tongass was a paradox, temperate but humid. In the forest, dust and gravel were invasive species.

Southeastern Alaska: a birdshot blast of islands scattering out from what had once been mainland Canada. Rain had not fallen on Taan, the region’s largest island, in almost a month. It was late summer, though the fireweed had yet to bloom. The dust kicked up from the island’s endless maze of logging roads thickened in the air, clinging to skin, homes, and vehicles like wet paint.

Ash stood outside the smokehouse, exhausted, arguing payroll with Grandma Liss, who perched high above him on her house’s wrap-around porch. Her rat-dog danced at her feet. A Chevy crunched its way up the steep gravel driveway, something lumpy and red in the back.

“Hi there, welcome to Feralfoods. Ash here will help you,” Grandma Liss said to the hunter as he hopped down from the cab. “Come on Coco.” She went inside, and the rat-dog followed.

“Got something for you,” the hunter said to Ash as he popped open the truck’s dented tailgate, smearing the dust coating the handle.

Ash took hold of one end of the bulky, blood-stained canvas lying in the bed. Heavy, but the kill must have just been a juvenile since it only required two to lift. A legal kill, but barely.

“Did you gut it?” Ash asked. “Got to gut them right away or they go south fast.”

“Took the head,” the hunter said, evading the question. He hadn’t. “Already got her boiling back at the cabin. Just need you to butcher, package, and freeze the rest.”

Inside the smokehouse, a metal twang filled the air. The two men set their burden on a low wooden table next to a knee high electric scale. The hunter crinkled his nose, but made no comment.

Officially, Grandma Liss forbade costumers from bringing in meat that hadn’t been properly gutted, because of the mess. The policy lapsed that summer, and in fear of offending clients and sending them off to a competitor, Ash accepted the uncleaned carcasses with a handshake and a smile.

“We charge by incoming weight,” Ash said. “Saves you a little money to clean them yourself.”

The hunter nodded absently. Men like him did not care about saving a little money.

Ash wrote down the man’s name and info on his intake clipboard. The hunter left. Before Ash could weigh in the meat, another dusty truck pulled up in front of the smokehouse.

The men who climbed down from the truck all wore green camouflage. They had already dressed and butchered their kill.

“Just needs to be boned and skinned,” one of them said.

“And we want her smoked,” their ringleader said.

With groups, there was always a ringleader. One man, usually the richest, though all these men were at least somewhat rich, self-elected to represent the group in matters of processing, freezing and shipping home their kills. Women rarely traveled in such groups. These were men on business trips, matters of international importance, solidifying their fraternity of thieves and murders. A week hunting in rural Alaska, wives left at home. On holiday as if the world wasn’t burning down around them. They’d drop the day’s kill off at Feralfoods to be bled, butchered, packed, frozen, and boxed to take on the flight home.

Ash placed a worn red tote on the scale and pressed the tare button. The hunters had wrapped their kill in heavy duty black garbage bags. The expensive kind, name brand.

One by one the ringleader placed ragged, field butchered arms and legs into the red tote. Blood dripped freely from each limb, but the floor of the intake room was cement, slanted with a drain at its center, designed for easy cleaning. With the trash bags empty, the ringleader began to fish around in a large bag that looked empty. He pulled out a ziplock full of hearts and livers. Blood stained his sleeve to the elbow.

“Plan to be here long?” Ash asked.

“One more week,” the ringleader said.

“Staying in Klawock?”

“Huh?” murmured one of his hunting partners. “I thought it was clay-wok?”

“Nah,” Ash said. “It’s kla-walk. Like the sound a raven makes.”

“Shoot. I’ve been calling it clay-wok all this time.”

“I hear you make a killer teriyaki,” the ringleader cut in.

“It’s true.” Ash picked up his intake clipboard.

“All right. We want one half that. Then one half just smoked up regular. And can you vacuum pack and freeze these?” He held out the ziplock.

“Can do.” Ash took it and set it in its own tote. “Should be ready for you in three to four days. You plan to bring it all home on the plane with you?” A private plane, no doubt.

“Yes.”

Ash wrote down the ringleader’s name and number. The group piled back into the truck and tore off toward their post-kill cigars and whiskey.

Ash was up to his elbows in blood and offal, prepping the two new orders, when a third truck pulled up. He started to clean up, but before Ash could wet his hands, his uncle Wax led the new customer into the intake room. Ash almost finished washing up anyway, but Wax’s tin cloth pants were clean and he wasn’t wearing that leather vest with the skulls so Ash went back to work.

“Bring it on in,” Wax said, his voice much too jovial to be sober. “You can set it right there.” He wasn’t even helping.

“We’re flying back to Idaho Territory on Tuesday,” the customer said. “Can you have it smoked up by them?”

“Oh fuck no,” Wax said. “Gonna be at least four days.”

“Is there anyway you can fit it in?”

“Well, you can take it up the road to Larry’s. Will taste like shit but I’m sure he’ll get it done for you. If you want your sassy smoked up good, then leave it here, and let us ship it home to you.”

Great, shipping frozen meat was a pain in the ass.

All summer Ash wanted to speak to Wax about the coarse way he talked to customers, but he knew that it would get him nowhere. Plus, Wax lending a hand was something Ash wanted to encourage, rare as it was. Maybe that was how they talked to each other out on fishing boats. But, there were no fishing boats these days, so he needed to get with the program. Klawock may have been rural, but for all Ash knew, it was all the civilization left.

Ash put down his scalloped scimitar and picked up his thin, flexible flensing knife.

“Oh,” the customer said. “How much does that cost?”

“Not much,” Wax lied. Shipping was damned expensive. It had to go out overnight air since the product was perishable, cross as many as ten international borders, and airlines were unreliable.

Ash heard a door close and the truck start up. Had Wax even taken down the man’s information?

Wax came into the cutting room carrying a grey tote. Little legs shot straight up over the side, still in rigor. He must have cracked its back in order to fit it in the tote. Most likely damaging the meat. Great.

“Here’s one more for you,” Wax said as he set the tote down on the stand to Ash’s left. His hair was wild, tangled and streaked with grey.

“Cool.”

“Little fucker. Won’t take you long.”

Ash looked down at the Sasquatch. A little fucker indeed, much too small to be legal. A yearling if that. Tiny. Auburn hair, matted, and caked with dried blood. It would have just begun learning to walk. The bullet had taken it right in the heart. A great shot. Especially since it had probably had been made while the mother held it her arms as she ran for her life.

“What the hell are you doing accepting this?” Ash asked.

“Huh?”

“This is a yearling. The Tribe finds out about this, we are shut down. Get it? Shut the fuck down.”

“Better slice her up fast then, before the fishpigs get here.” Wax smiled and left. What did he care if the smokehouse closed? He had his moonshine to make his living. He didn’t need this. Not like Ash did.

Its eyes were still open. Blue. So human. Its throat uncut, the hunter hadn’t even bothered to bleed it. At the beginning of the season, Ash had been surprised by the number of hunters who seemed the have no idea what they were doing. Coming up here for sport. For the thrill. But their blood lust paid his bills. He couldn’t complain too much. At least not to their faces.

When Ash finished, the sun had traveled behind the scarred, treeless mountain. For a moment, its snowless peak radiated an eery light–a candle stub burning within a weathered, grey skull. Even with the sun behind the mountain, it was not dark. It never got dark, just an extended twilight that hung in the sky like a threadbare curtain strung up between dusk and dawn.

JB waited for him on the couch in their crumbling trailer. Even inside, way up on the top of the hill, behind Grandma Liss’s big house, they could still hear the rattling hum of the smokehouse’s blast freezer.

Grandma Liss had bought the trailer when Ash agreed to come work for the summer. With work in the lower forty-eight so scarce, Ash and JB had jumped at the chance. But during the winter, before Ash and JB got to Alaska, Wax had taken it upon himself to use it as his motorcycle shop. The thin carpets were smeared with grease. The unused kitchen area still housed engine parts that, as far as Ash was concerned, might as well belong to some alien spacecraft.

“What’s wrong?” JB asked as Ash came in the door. JB set down his tattered comic book. He stood, loosening his braids. His thick black hair fell across his shoulders like an avalanche of the kind of night never found during an Alaskan summer.

“I’ve heard them say that it’s just like killing a man.” Ash said.

“Oh.”

“I mean, how would they even know? I know things are getting bad down south, but…”

“Babe, you shouldn’t worry about it.”

“I don’t–”

JB wrapped his arms around him. “Take a shower.”

divider

Every morning Ash checked the fireweed that grew in the ditch running off from either side of the Feralfoods compound entrance. The slender, knee high stalks were still green without a hint of fire, though the buds were getting fat. They would ignite soon, its bloom signaling summer’s end. Would Grandma Liss let him stay? Did he even want to?

The dumpster sat on a concrete platform just inside the compound’s entrance and behind the ditch. During the night, something had knocked it on its side.

Ash stood motionless as JB knelt to right the dumpster. He yearned for the spark that would flare against the low alder and tall draping hemlock that surrounded the compound. He yearned for the bloom that would illuminate them all. His gaze shifted between the fireweed, his lover, and finally onto the muskeg plain that started at the bottom of the hill and stretched for miles until it slammed into foothills of another devastated mountain. Shadows moved among the stunted pine forest that scabbed the muskeg, darting erratically and much too far to make out, probably ravens. The peat covering the surfaces of the bogs had once been pillow soft, perfect for family camping trips, now they spread across the island like a dried sponge, their thick vegetal surfaces sucking whatever stray moisture from the island air they could.

JB met Ash’s eyes, but he did not ask for help. The dumpster was only half full. A thin metal bar held its flimsy plastic lid in place, so none of the black trash bags loaded with bones and festering guts spilled out. He lifted without strain. His toned arms flexed, and the slender scars that wound from wrist to bicep writhed like pale worms caught in sunlight.

Around them, the forest gasped and rattled. A raven took flight from its perch on a nearby tree, dust pluming from branches and wings. Even in death, even with the dust and the brown overtaking the cedar and the spruce, even with the muskeg sucked dry and crumbling, Ash still experienced every shade of green on the spectrum as JB led him back up the hill.

The smokehouse was white with red trim, and showed signs of multiple build-outs that didn’t quite match. A good season might have meant a new cutting room or storage van, but each had been built by different hands with different ideas and little regard for aesthetic. Wax had scavenged or stole most of the wood. This was Alaska. They made do with what they had. The smokehouse was really no different from one of Grandma Liss’s tenant’s slapped together wanigans. An old trailer at the center, with a real house built up around it over the years. Grandma Liss thought herself above all that. Her house on the hill had never been a trailer. It had always been a house, right from the start.

Ash and JB put on clean yellow aprons and tied their hair back. Ash put on baseball cap, teasing JB about his hairnet with his braids all tucked up beneath it, though he secretly thought it was cute.

After placing a stack of metal smoker racks on the table in the middle of the processing room, Ash turned on the two industrial smokers. The plant filled with a nose-tingling hum. Alder Smoke leaked from the cracked gaskets around the doors. After twenty years, the ceilings, along with the top quarter of the walls, were stained yellow.

JB got to work pulling the meat out of the walk-in and setting it to rinse in the large metal sinks.

Ash sprayed the racks with cooking spray. After ten minutes of rinsing, JB carried the first big yellow tote of cured squatch meat and set it on a stand next to the table.

They plunged their bare hands into the salty water, and started laying out the thin strips of meat on the racks. When they first started work two months back, both of them would cringe each time they dipped their hands into the frigid water. Now they worked quickly with both hands, placing the strips in even rows on the rack, unaffected by the cold.

After both smokers were loaded, turned on, and the fires lit and set to smolder, Teddie, who rented the lot from Grandma Liss across the driveway, came in to help with bagging and vacuum sealing the meat Ash had butchered the night before. If Wax would get off his lazy ass to help, they wouldn’t even have need of Teddie. Which would have been wonderful, because she did nothing but talk all day, and barely got any work done.

“Something got to our dumpster, I saw.” She gestured wildly as she spoke, a habit that kept her from working efficiently. “I can’t imagine it was a bear. No one has seen a bear on the island in years. Maybe we ought to call Fish and Game?”

“Don’t call them,” JB said. “If it’s a bear, they’ll just shoot it.”

“I don’t think it was a bear,” Ash said.

“Why not?”

“It was like it was shoved over. No claw marks. No attempt to get inside.”

“Hmm, well when I was a little girl and the bears got to the garbage can at my dad’s place, you could tell. It was covered in holes when they found it in the woods nearby. Smashed flat too. Like he had been playing with it like a toy.”

“Might have been kids,” JB said.

“Hah,” Teddie said.” What kid in their right mind would risk Grandma Liss’s wrath by doing something stupid like that?”

“Good point,” JB said. “Could it have been a Sasqutch?”

Ash did not want to think about that.

“No,” Teddie snapped. “They never come this close to town. Nope, it was probably just kids.”

In the late afternoon, customers started coming in to drop off their kills. Most of them hadn’t bothered to bleed or gut their squatch, like they didn’t even care if the meat turned out good or not. Like they were killing these beautiful creatures for fun, only bringing their corpses to Ash to butcher and smoke because the law forced them.

Teddie punched out. She only ever wanted to work five hours each day. “Are either of you going into town later?” she asked Ash.

“Yeah,” Ash said. “I’ve got to take some boxes into Craig. There might be a plane tonight.”

“Could you run by the store and grab me some cheese cloth? I’m making honey and jam. I’ll give you some jars.”

“Sure.”

“Thank you. You boys ought to come across to my place after work for a drink. I’ve got a friend in from out of town.”

“We’ll see how we feel.” Wax had probably given her a jar of his moonshine. No wonder she didn’t want to work.

“Sure thing. Later.”

After work, Ash and JB did indeed feel the need for a drink, but they had it alone, in their trailer where they’d stashed a bottle of Maker’s which had been given to them by a client. There had been a plane. Ash and JB hauled almost thirty fifty-pound boxes over to Craig in the company truck, while Wax probably sat on the porch of his little shack on top of the hill playing his mandolin, drinking up his moonshine profits, and not even thinking about coming down to help. Down south, such laziness would get a man’s throat cut as he slept, but in Alaska it seemed the norm.

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In the morning, Ash brought Teddie her cheese cloth. Her home sat directly across the driveway from the smokehouse, and looked like a mess of warped particleboard wrapped in dirty blue tarpaulins. The forest leaned against her home like a drunk. The pales greens of wild celery and juniper shrubs faded into the rich verdant firs that shaded much of the compound.

No one answered when he knocked, but he could hear water running through her flimsy, plywood door, so he let himself in. A thin man Ash didn’t recognize slept on the couch with no blanket, still wearing jeans and boots. Ash moved through the house silently. He could hear Teddie singing in the shower, her voice gruff above the smooth fall of the water. He placed the cloth on the cleanest part of the counter he could find.

The man groaned, turning over. Ash worried that he may have woken him, but knowing Teddie, they’d been drinking hard the previous night. The man groaned again, gurgling a little, coughed a shallow cough, then turned back over.

Ash left the house and crossed the driveway. He donned his boots, gloves, and butcher’s apron. Halfway through skinning an adolescent female, Ash heard screaming. First, he glanced at the knife and the lifeless humanoid body on his butcher board, but the sound came from outside. He looked out the small window next to his table. Beyond dead flies and brown, flaking blood splatter he saw Teddie running off her porch with her arms crisscrossing her chest and hands locked underneath her armpits.

Ash dropped his knife and went outside.

Teddie screamed, “Dead! He’s dead!”

Grandma Liss came out onto her porch, like a queen on high standing on a mountain, leaning against a dusty bannister, surveying her glorious kingdom.

Ash stood still in the smokehouse’s doorway. Had Wax finally snapped? Where was JB? Who died? No.

“He’s cold. He’s dead!”

The Tongass ceased its shimmering. Green became grey.

All Grandma Liss’s tenets had come out of their homes by then. Jim and Phillip, who lived next to Ash and JB, both leaned on the tailgate of their blue pickup. Dee stood on her ramshackle porch with her arms crossed, unimpressed. Gui just sat in his camp chair like he did everyday, drinking a coffee mug of Wax’s shine, looking like the world had forgotten him.

JB rushed out from Teddie’s trailer. Ash’s breathing resumed. The Tongass exhaled with him, rasping to life once again.

“Call someone!” JB shouted.

Grandma Liss hesitated, looking reluctant to abandon the drama even for a second, but she went inside to call. As far as Ash knew, no one else in the compound owned a telephone.

Klawock’s volunteer paramedics arrived in minutes. Teddie kept saying over and over that there was nothing to be done. That after she’d finished with her shower, she’d spent nearly thirty minutes sitting in the chair right next to him, doing half her whole crossword, thinking he was asleep. All the while he had been stone dead, stiff, and cooling. Folks just didn’t abruptly die like that for no reason, but when Ash watched the paramedics wheel the man out with a sheet over his body and no urgency, he knew it was true.

Which meant that the man must have died right around the time Ash dropped off the cheese cloth. He had heard the man cough, stir, and rattle. Had those been the man’s last movements? His last breaths?

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“They say his liver just stopped working,” Wax said.

Grandma Liss had taken Teddie out to lunch at Dave’s Diner in order to get her mind off the incident. Just the day before she had been going on about how she wanted to evict Teddie because it had been so long since she paid her any rent, but now she was all smiles and niceties. Ash knew this was just Grandma Liss’s way of gaining the upper hand. She would take advantage of any situation to gain some sort of leverage on a person. Even a man’s death.

“He died right there on the couch. Her right next to him.” Wax spoke again after no one answered him.

“We ought to get rid of that couch for her. No way she’d ever want to sit on that thing again,” JB said.

“Plus it’s ugly to boot,” Wax said.

“Right,” Ash said.

“What do you want to do with it?” Wax asked.

“You got a pit. We burn it.” JB uncrossed his arms and started toward the tailer.

Wax watched as Ash and JB went into Teddie’s quiet house. Each hoisted an end of the couch. They flipped it over to get a better grip. Six empty airline vodka bottles fell out.

The fire pit sat cocooned in rainforest. The needled leaves of devil’s club pricked at Ash’s arms as he and JB carried the too-big couch up a small trail toward the pit. Once in the clearing, They set it on top of a ring of shin-high, soot-covered rocks. There was already some cardboard boxes in the pit, and it still had not rained a drop, so when Wax touched the flame of his zippo to one, it wasn’t long at all until the couch went up in rush.

The three men stood around looking into the heart of the fire the way folks do when there is fire, but nothing at all to be said. This was not the fire Ash waited for, had checked the ditches each morning for, but it still made him nervous. Wax fetched a jar of moonshine from his shack and after taking a gulp, offered it to Ash. He declined.

Wax looked at JB. “Sorry,” he said, tilting the half full jar in his hand as if to give a toast. “But I’ve got an agreement with the Tribe not to give my whiskey to any Indians.” And he shrugged, taking another drink.

That fucker. That motherfucker.

Ash looked at JB, scared of what he might see. He halfway reached out to place a hand on his arm, but stopped short when JB said, “It’s okay. I don’t want any. It’s okay. We need to go back to work.”

Tense, Ash didn’t speak. The wind shifted and the acerbic smoke pouring from the couch blew in his face.

“Of course. Go on. Got to work,” Wax said, then took another gulp from his jar.

Ash knew Wax approached one of his moods. The kind that often ended with one of the neighbors calling the troopers. As they left, Wax just stood, smoke blowing in his round face, staring at the flames like the shine was some sort of potion bewitching his soul.

“Is he just drunk?” Ash said. “Is he just stupid? Is he looking for a fight?”

“Ash, it’s okay.” JB put his arm around Ash’s shoulder. “Don’t let him get to you. This isn’t about me. He’s trying to ruffle your feathers. Get a reaction. Don’t let him. Don’t give him the satisfaction.”

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Few customers came in that night, so Ash and JB were able to knock off early, excited to spend a quiet evening alone, locked away from the world.

The trailer was nearly as cold as the smokehouse, and had there been rain, the roof would leak, but even with a ceiling covered in mold, it was a better home than either of them had seen in years.

Ash picked a sweatshirt up off his bed and put it on. He felt a slight heat on his arm. He pulled up the sleeve, and saw blood. A tiny sliver of glass stuck in his forearm. He looked down at the bed and saw a thousand shimmers dancing across the forest green comforter, caught in the glare of the evening sun. A capped mason jar, still half full of clear liquid, rested on his pillow. He felt a blast of cool air, and looked up to find the window above the bed shattered.

That piece of shit.

Ash could have been sleeping. JB could have been sleeping.

“Just stay here,” Ash said to JB who sat on the couch reading the same old comic book. Ash stalked out of the trailer before JB could even reply.

Grandma Liss sat in her office playing hearts on her computer when Ash stormed in. Her little rat-dog immediately mobbed him. Grandma Liss pushed herself away from the desk, and the little black wheels of her high-backed office chair rolled over the papers–customer invoices, last season’s tax records–that had had migrated to the floor from the ever-increasing towers on her crowded desk. She swiveled to face Ash.

The rat-dog ran around Ash’s feet in circles, yapping.

“You need to deal with your son,” he said. He told her what happened, showed her the small speck of welling blood on his arm.

Her face scrunched up. For just a second it was almost as if she were about to cry, something that Ash had never imagined her capable of. He blinked and the look had gone.

“What am I supposed to do?” She said. “He is my son. The only one who bothers with me. You two need to work it out.”

“Work it out? He could have killed me! Killed JB!” The rat-dog would not shut up. It needed to shut up.

“Don’t be dramatic.”

“He threw a goddamn fucking jar of moonshine through the window where I sleep!”

“But neither of you were sleeping there at the time, now were you? You can’t just waltz in here after all these years and start shouting around.” She crossed her arms and tilted her head in the same way he had seen her do so many times when dealing with irate squatch hunters whining when they couldn’t get their way. Ash was not some rich sadist from the lower forty-eight. How dare her.

“With all I’ve done for you this summer? When was the last time you got to spend the summer up here playing on your computer instead of down there up to your elbows in blood? What has he done but get drunk?”

That strained look touched her features again. “When Fall comes and squatch hunting season ends, who else is going to be here?”

“I can’t believe this,” Ash said, but he could. She had no choice. Wax was her only son, the only child left alive or speaking with her. Who else would have lunch with her on birthdays, or come over on Christmas morning? Even with the world going wrong, crashing down around them, Wax was right out that back door. “If he wants to run the damn business then why hasn’t he stepped up? Why am I even here?”

Grandma Liss stood up fast enough to make her chair wheel back and smack the wall. “Then just go. We don’t need you or your gay little Indian. If you don’t like it here then go!”

Ash slammed the door when he left.

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Fireweed grew among the alder flanking both sides of the narrow trail leading to Wax’s shack. It had yet to bloom.

JB must have seen Ash pass because all of a sudden, he was latched onto Ash’s arm, his lover’s firm grip reassuring, yet terrifying in its resolve. “Ash, don’t do this. You don’t want to do this. We are past this. Better.”

“He could have hurt you! That jar was full! What if you had been sleeping?”

“It doesn’t matter. He’s your uncle, he’s a dick, a piece of shit, but fuck him. When the real danger arrives, I’ll know. I’ll keep us safe.”

Ash couldn’t argue, he knew what JB would do–what he had done–to keep them alive, so instead, he struggled to break JB’s hold, but couldn’t.

JB let go.

Ash resumed his rage up the trail. They should both leave, but Ash couldn’t afford to. Where would they even go? Maybe farther North. There was nowhere to go. He needed this job. They both needed it, even though it wasn’t safe. If family wasn’t safe, nothing was safe.

Ash tripped over a long, heavy motorcycle part sitting among the junk in Wax’s yard. He picked it up. The place disgusted him, built from wood Wax had found at the dump or stolen from construction sites around the island. Not even a trailer at its center. A temple to Wax’s thievery and sloth.

Ash held the bike part like a truncheon. He shouted for Wax to come out, to explain himself. Ash had seen his bike parked on the road out front. He knew he was still home. When Wax didn’t answer, he tried the door but it was locked. Ash pounded the door with his makeshift truncheon, leaving a greasy scar on the wood with each strike. The door rattled on its rusty hinges, but it held.

Ash let go, allowing all the hate in the world to pour out of him as wretched scream.

Ash shouted himself hoarse, calling Wax a fat lazy degenerate mooch and every nasty epithet that came to mind. The whole compound must have heard, but he did not care.

Wax never came, either passed out drunk or too much of a fucking coward to open the door. What would Ash do if his uncle answered? Would he brain him? Crack his skull? Murder him? Stretch him out to bleed and butcher him like one of those sorry creatures down in the smokehouse?

Throat sore, and feeling silly, he threw his truncheon at the door. It bounced off, ringing.

JB sat waiting on the trailer’s folding front step, his stern face softened as Ash approached. He had cleaned up the broken glass and patched the window while Ash had been up on the hill shouting and carrying on like a child. JB at had always been the calm one until he had no other choice, like when things went to hell in Dallas.

Ash started blubbering. “We have to go. How can we stay here? Where can we go?”

JB shushed him, holding him tight while the hollow space within Ash that had once been filled with hate for his uncle replenished itself with cold dread.

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At five a.m. the sun had already been up for two hours. Ash and JB did not talk about the previous evening. They set out for work.

On the way down to the smokehouse Ash saw that the dumpster had again been flipped on its side, the lid removed, torn from the hinges.

Bloody trash was spread out along the unpaved road like a warning. The guts were caked in dust and speckled with gravel as if they had been kicked up and down the street. Among the mess, there were no bones. Why would something take the bones? Bigfoot didn’t bury their dead, did they?

Ravens fed on the viscera spoiling the street, pecking at lungs, intestines, and kidneys. When they saw Ash and JB, they began to caw. Klawock. Once a refuge from the dying world, now an island prison. Would he ever leave? Or worse, would he be forced to? They say corvids are the smartest of birds. Did the ravens know they mocked him?

“We need gloves.” The ravens scattered at the sound of JB’s voice.

Ash nodded, then jogged uphill toward the smokehouse, his feet crunching on the loose gravel. No matter which direction either of then walked within the compound, it was always uphill.

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Teddie did not come in to work that day. Burning the couch had not been enough, she’d told Grandma Liss on the phone. She couldn’t stay living in a house a man had died in. Just like that, she planned to move to Anchorage, which was just as well since according to Grandma Liss, Teddie’s wanigan was an eyesore. Worse than Wax’s shack. Grandma Liss rejoiced to have her gone. She planned to build a small restaurant on the lot. Sassy’s Sandwiches, she’d call it. She promised Ash that he could run it, making up for their fight the day before in the only way she knew how. He didn’t know anything about making sandwiches, but he said okay. And just like that, he forgave her. Grandma Liss, as crotchety as she could be, was trying her best.

“We’ll finally be able to make sausages,” Grandma Liss said.

One of the neighbors drove over in her big yellow backhoe. It only took her a couple hours to knock Teddie’s old place to the ground.

Ash watched from the narrow blood-flecked window in the smokehouse. Among the ruins of Teddie’s wanigan, covered with bits of rotten plywood and shredded hunks of pink Tyvek insulation, sat an old Airstream trailer.

Ash had spent plenty of time in Teddie’s house and had never once noticed the presence of an Airstream.

“Probably used it for growing her dope,” Grandma Liss said when she came down to get Ash and JB to help with the cleanup.

“Or cooking up meth,” Wax croaked. He had come down to watch the rest of them work. Ash almost said something mean, but JB’s smooth hand touched his forearm before he could speak, calming him, helping him to be the bigger man.

As far as Ash knew, Teddie had always been poor. Her drug of choice was a handle of Gordon’s vodka.

“Well,” Grandma Liss said. “It’s mine now. Teddie hasn’t paid me a dime in six months. I wasn’t going to do anything about it. I couldn’t put her out like that, but selling this thing here will more than enough make up for that back rent.”

The neighbor, with her backhoe, removed the largest pieces of debris. Wax, Ash, and JB loaded the smaller stuff into the back of the Feralfood’s company truck and took it to the dump to burn.

With all the junk hauled away, the Airstream looked brand new, untouched by dust and gleaming like a nickel in the gutter, protected for years by the layers of slapped together ply-wood Teddie had called a home.

The Airstream’s door was locked.

“Go get your crow-bar,” Grandma Liss told Wax. He ambled off toward his shack, but never returned.

“Must have found a jar of his shine instead,” Ash said after twenty minutes passed. Grandma Liss shook her head, and went up the driveway to her house on the hill.

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Ash worked late. JB offered to help, but Ash said no. He wanted to be alone for a bit, to think.

JB had asked him not to go down to the dumpster alone. What if the bear, or whatever it was that kept knocking it over, showed up again? Ash went anyway.

In twilight he heaved bags of bones into the lidless dumpster. Behind him, up the hill, the Airstream shone like cool silver in the half-light.

The step that once folded itself under the door had long since been torn off. The only blemish on the perfect Airstream. It could be easily replaced, once he cleaned it up. Ash shook his head. Here he was, thinking like the Airstream belonged to him, even when he knew that Grandma Liss would sell it. He did not have enough savings for such a lovely thing.

The base of the door reached to just below his knees.

He set his hand on the handle. He knew it was locked but he could not help but try. He pulled, and the door held fast. So he yanked and he pounded. Fighting it until his hands bled. Finally, he heard a crack, and the door swung open.

Ash climbed into an interior snatched out of time, perfectly in order, everything brand new and in its proper place. The air inside smelled somehow fresher than outside. Not a speck of dust on anything. Had Teddie even known this was here? She must have. She must have been coming in here, through some secret passageway, to clean all the years she’d been living at the Feralfoods compound, building up her hideous wanigan, hiding the beautiful escape hidden at its heart.

He sat in a burnt orange chair that looked like a dad’s chair that no one else was allowed to sit in. He sat there wishing. He wished it could be his. Wished that he could hitch the trailer to the company truck and drive, visiting all the stupid roadside attractions along the way and making fun of them with JB. Did those places even exist anymore? Grandma Liss would sell it off to one of those asshole hunters without a thought. Perhaps he could beg, make promises. Appeal to that sense of family he had seen spark in her eye the day he confronted her about Wax. He would work for free. Sell his soul. He would do anything for something this perfect.

It was a dream, the dream of a dying country. There was nowhere to go, no great highways left to explore, only pitted logging roads, and rural routes shattered by the melting permafrost.

A person would have to be beyond rich in order to transport such a thing off of Taan, but perhaps it didn’t need to move. He could hide it, as Teddie had–a dream secluded, but alive. He resolved to ask, to lay his heart bare. Grandma, we want to stay. Let us live here. Let us dream while we still are able. If she said yes, the Airstream could be a rest stop, a reprieve from the smoke, until the flames devoured them all.

A crash from outside. Metal hitting stone. The dumpster? Ash hopped down from the trailer to investigate.

The dumpster lay on its side. Whatever knocked it over had already gone too far to see, but Ash heard gravel popping under running footfalls, and the rattling of a bag of wet bones. Klawock, the ravens were on their way.

Standing at the base of the slanted driveway, Ash bit his cheek to keep from sobbing. His gaze drifted over the grisly mess in the road–no bones. They’re taking them. Somewhere deep in the paradoxical rainforest were tombs filled with the bones of lovers, of mothers, of children.

Of family.

In the ditch the fireweed buds were starting to split. The Tongass would soon be aflame, just like the rest of the world. He knew he needed to get his gloves, clean it all up, but he didn’t move. He stared, willing those buds to open further, pushing the summer forward to the call down the high winds and heavy rains of autumn. To banish the dust that clung to his skin like cold, thickened gore.

It was two a.m. The sun would crest the mountain soon. The Airstream would glint like polished gunmetal. Ash took a step. Uphill. Toward home, toward love. Always uphill.

___
Copyright 2016 Mathew Scaletta

Mathew Scaletta is a fishmonger and chef who divides his time between Alaska’s Alexander Archipelago and Oregon’s Willamette Valley. When not elbow-deep in fish guts, he writes fiction and tweets about the black bears that stalk the periphery of his salmon cannery. His work has appeared in, or is forthcoming from, such fine publications as Lackington’s and See the Elephant.

 

by Lucy Stone

 

Part I

 

Vesta hates the noise of the rib separator, the crack of bone and grind of cogs. Fingers rinsed with hot blood, she twists the separator once more and locks it into place. The man’s skin wrinkles around the steel claws. She can see his heart. The atrophied muscle is ugly, twisted, beating an erratic rhythm–one skip, two beats, a flutter, one skip.

She holds out her hand. “Small scalpel.”

Nell hands the cold blade to Vesta, silent. Most operations they keep up some banter. Nell talks often of her days in the opera before her fall from grace with a Lord’s bastard son in her womb. Vesta might, if she feels expansive, hark back to her glory days, in her own country, in her own time. But not tonight. She is tired, and old, and this is no simple goldfinger she is attaching, no ruby-diamond sigil with gold filigree trim embedded in a bored young socialite’s forehead. If the dredgers come tonight, then brassbones, opera-dancer, and patient will hang. And before Vesta hangs, they will wrench out the name of her sponsor, her protector. They will all go down, and Vesta hardest of all, and the dredgers will have won.

She reminds herself that the patient on her operating table has taken the risk willingly. It is not–

“–not an ordinary commission, Miss Milton,” he said, his smooth fingers running back and forth over the polished oak countertop. “I was told you could help with … more advanced problems.” He paused. “Brassbone problems.”

Vesta did not blink. “I am a jeweller, Lord–” she hesitated over the name on his card, held between her charcoal-smudged fingers “–Lord Huleikr. Brassbones work is far out of my domain. And illegal. It is an evil profession and I take no part in it.” The pat answer rolled off her tongue, flat and heavy.

Huleikr leant closer. “I can assure you I will keep your true profession in the strictest confidence. I understand you have a sponsor to protect you. I understand you are in a dangerous position. I am not here to have baubles sewn into my face, Miss Milton, or to report you to the dredgers. I need more than that.”

“My work is far more than just baubles,” Vesta said, a small flicker of pride for her false second career rising within her. Under the demure sign of ‘Milton Jewellery,’ Vesta knew her cover to be a successful one. She looked at the young boy, rich clothes embellishing a fine, well-fed figure.

Vesta had seen so many of his kind come through her doors. She had set stars of emerald and silver into their cheeks; created elegant gold filigree to fly across the Lady Saleke’s forehead; covered indelicate skin with a silver cross for the devoted Miss Elpa’s throat. Diamond teeth for the Marquis of Dalteh, and a ruby eye set in opaque quartz for the young Honourable de Sancier after her carriage accident. Only last week Lord Easton had come in for his operation, an entire waterfall of silver strands turning on a tiny clockwork system set beneath his eye. The strands rushed and looped down his cheek–a permanent tear, shining in the candle-light. After Vesta had created the Duke of Alperton’s new brass hand, with a gold-plated, diamond-touched copy for evening wear, the commissions came pouring in, with less and less secrecy. And every day she watched the door of her shop and waited for the dredgers.

With each new commission, her finer skills increased. The heavy, useful work of building lost limbs and digits for the poor and hungry factory workers–reworked metal and timber, steel and copper–made her sensitive fingers ache for the cold, smooth jewels and pliable gold and silver the aristocrats smuggled to her shop. Vesta flinched from the knowledge. It was a betrayal of her honest work, her true work, the saving of lives and limbs. Not this frippery. And yet here she was, refusing this man’s request to save his life. She swallowed the uneasy sense of shame and reminded herself: one more year. One more year of making money and the borders would likely open again. Then she could cross back home, home to her beloved country, and she would never leave again. She just had to wait.

But this boy, Lord Huleikr, would not give in.

“And indeed it is remarkable, the fashion you have single-handedly created. But I am–that is to say, my good friend Alperton recommended you as one who understands more than just … jewellery. I understand you saved his hand after his hunting accident.”

Vesta sighed. “I should have sewn up his loose tongue while I was at it.” She busied herself with straightening the display cases on the countertop, dusting the faultless rings and bracelets she created in her spare time.

Huleikr pressed his advantage. “You were trained in the western countries?”

Vesta’s mouth twisted. “I was born there.”

She looked down at the design she had been developing before his interruption. It would be her greatest achievement in the art of primping and flattering these bright young aristocrats: a set of gold filigree butterfly wings, the delicate metallic veins rolled deep into two gold bars that would be tucked into the skin under the shoulder blades. Opened by a mere touch of the finger, the wings would uncurl to reveal themselves, a hand’s-width each, two flawless rubies set in each one. A beauty for a beauty. Miss Paxton’s visionary mother had paid for it, and paid well.

“I imagine you miss your true vocation,” Huleikr said. The sincerity in his voice softened a little of Vesta’s caution. She studied him a moment, noting the well-tied cravat, the bones of his face a little too sharp under the skin. His eyes were unexpectedly gentle. A nice boy, she thought, and a pity she could not help him.

“I do,” she allowed, and sat down again behind her desk. Unable to resist her own curiosity, she asked, “What exactly did you hope I would help you with?”

Lord Huleikr hesitated, and then drew a small paper package out of one pocket. He placed it delicately on the counter. Vesta pulled the package toward her and unwrapped it.

Her chair clattered on the floor. Horrified, she pointed to the object. “Get that–”

“–away from the table, I don’t want to trip on it.” She holds the scalpel above the dark red hole in the man’s chest. Nell pulls the sand-bucket away from Vesta’s feet and spills a fresh lot of sand on the bloodied floor.

Vesta focuses on the weakened heart beneath her blade. She glances at the tray to her right. Beside two fresh scalpels, sewing materials and a stack of clean, folded bandages, lies a little, round bronze object. No bigger than a timepiece, its flat, unornamented face is punctured by four small holes, two at the top and two at the bottom. A tiny hinge sits on the left side, a latch on the right.

An unexpected thrill runs through Vesta. This is what she trained for. She plunges her scalpel into the membrane around Huleikr’s heart. Nell pats away the rush of fluids and blood with a soft cloth.

“Is he still breathing?”

Nell bends over the young man’s face. “Yes. Slowly.”

Vesta makes a final cut and, using a pair of silver tongs, pulls the membrane back. She hooks the tongs beneath the thick, ugly claws of the rib separator, leaving the operation site open and clear. She is sweating, she notes, but her hands do not shake. When was the last time she has done such an operation? It doesn’t matter. She knows what to do.

“Nell, wash your hands quickly and give me–”

“–a bronzeheart. You dare bring a bronzeheart into my shop?”

Lord Huleikr stood firmly at the counter, hands at his side, green eyes meeting hers without shame or fear. “Please let me explain.”

Vesta threw the little metal piece at him, furious. It hit the countertop with a dull thud. “Anyone caught with one of these will hang immediately. No explanations. Try explaining to the dredgers why you brought an illegal object into this damned superstitious country, and took it to a foreigner already suspected of witchcraft.”

A flash of guilt crossed Lord Huleikr’s face. He lifted his hands and held them out to her, palms open. The brassbones inside Vesta noticed the paleness of his fingers, the lack of colour in his cheeks. “Miss Milton, you’re my only hope.”

His voice was quiet, desperate. Vesta shut her mouth. If he wanted to beg, let him. The sooner she heard him out the sooner she could chase him out of her shop.

“I’m dying.”

“So am I,” Vesta said coldly. “We all are. Some of us just get on with it quietly.”

Huleikr swallowed. “I have a disease of the heart. I am my mother’s only son. Our physicians have given me less than a year to live. There is nothing the medical profession in this country can do for me, but with the borders closed, it is impossible for a man of my stature to cross anonymously. You are my last hope.”

“Nonsense,” Vesta replied. “You’re a wealthy man. Pay the dredgers off. Find a brassbones in the west. You will live, and I will not be hanged.”

“Please.”

She glared at him. “Did you know that I was once arrested?”

He shook his head, eyes still fixed on her.

“I’d been in this country of yours for barely three months. I lost all my money. I had no food. Nowhere to sleep. I went from factory to factory rebuilding the workers’ fingers and toes and arms. I gave your paupers hope again. And for my efforts, I was arrested and thrown in prison. I ate rats. I nearly died. They were going to hang me but for–”

She stopped.

Huleikr’s eyes were huge. He looked so young, she thought. “But for what?” he asked.

Vesta took a long breath. “But for the protection of someone who I cannot and will not betray. I promised I would not do these kinds of operations again. Physical jewellery is one thing. Operations of this magnitude are another. When the borders open again I will cross over and that will be the end of it.”

“You promised not to practise your true vocation, for the sake of safety?”

Vesta bridled. “You, little cockerel, have no concept of life. Look at you, well-fed, well-clothed, anything and everything for your asking. You do not know me. You do not know what you are saying. I made a promise. If you truly wish to throw your life away on a highly dangerous and uncertain operation, cross the border and take your chances there.”

Lord Huleikr gestured, frustrated. “There’s a war brewing, Miss Milton. My mother was born in the west. I am half-blood to this city. Even if I could cross the border I’ll not be allowed back. I may even be arrested over there.”

Vesta smiled at him, unpleasant. “Not a nice experience, but survivable. This operation is not guaranteed.”

He would not give up. “My mother is not strong. I don’t know what else to do, Miss Milton, except throw myself at your mercy. If I can have just two more years of life, I may outlive her. It will give us a little more time, at least. If I die now, it will kill her and destroy my father.”

“Women are tougher than you think.” Vesta pushed the bronzeheart back across the counter again. She could almost hear the dredgers sniffing around her door. “And your father will lose you anyway, even if you survive another two years.”

“I love living,” the young man said simply. He caught her evasive gaze and held it. Vesta matched his eyes for a moment, then looked down.

She had wanted to save lives. Her training had all been for the purpose of giving people hope: two legs instead of one; ten fingers instead of three. Once, she had replaced half of a young boy’s skull with a metal bowl. Now she was snapping at shadows and drawing butterfly wings for spoilt brats.

“Miss Milton, if you do this for me, I will get you across the border.”

Vesta snorted. “You couldn’t. No one can.”

Huleikr licked his lips. “My father is close friends with the Minister of Border Protection. My family is–well, we are a name. I swear it. I can get you home, if you do this for me.”

She thought of the dredgers, of their cold little eyes seeking out anything foreign and ‘unnatural’, anything dangerous and uncontrollable. She thought of her old red home, safe in the west. It was just a dream. But this man was flesh and blood.

“The operation is just as likely to kill you as save you.”

“It’s a chance. I’ll take–”

“–it, now.”

Nell gives Vesta the flat little bronzeheart. Vesta flicks the catch with her thumbnail. The front swings open, revealing a delicate set of tubes, four to match the outside holes. They cross and join each other at the centre where a tiny set of steel cogs wait in idleness. Four glass bubbles, each the size of Vesta’s little fingernail, sit between the cogs, connected to each tube. Vesta inspects it all carefully, then nods and closes the front. The latch clicks home. On the back of the bronzeheart is a flat frill of bronze punctured with four small holes.

Carefully, Vesta places the machine right above Huleikr’s open chest. She takes the scalpel back from Nell, and says, “I’m starting.”

The blade sinks into living tissue. She can feel the heady thrum of his blood rushing through veins and arteries. For a cold moment, she stops breathing. She cannot do it. She cannot.

“Now,” she says.

Nell’s long, thin fingers duck in beneath Vesta’s scalpel and pinch one of the arteries. Vesta slides the scalpel into the heart and cuts the artery free. She takes the bronzeheart and pushes the end of the severed artery into the first of the four holes. There is a tiny sucking noise. The artery is firmly in place.

“And again.”

Nell’s right hand comes in and pinches the second artery. Vesta repeats the motions. Two tubes are now tucked into the bronzeheart.

“Release the first, go for the third.”

Vesta’s throat closes over with fear as Nell lets the first artery go. The blood floods back through it, and into the bronzeheart. She feels it shift under the force of the rushing blood. Good.

“Watch your fingers. I’ll–”

“–not be bought. Take your money and go.”

“Miss Milton, please.” The sheer desperation in his voice made her angry. In another country, she would have refused his money but given him the operation. In another country, she would not feel a noose around her neck every time she stepped outside the weak sanctuary her little shop held.

“I said no. Leave or I will call the dredgers.” It was an empty threat and they both knew it, but the young man just nodded. He picked up his bronzeheart. Vesta noticed, against her will, that his fingertips were tinged blue under the nails.

“I am sorry for distressing you, Miss Milton. Goodbye.”

She watched him as he opened the little door and left.

Alone again, Vesta picked up her sketches with cold fingers, forcing herself to focus on the work at hand. She had a week to create these wings before Mrs Paxton would bring her daughter in for the operation. She stared at the sketches and saw nothing.

Nell came down the old creaking staircase. The opera-dancer had her baby in her arms. It burbled to itself wearily, discontented. Vesta ignored them both.

After a moment’s silence, Nell said, “You could have done it. We’ve done dangerous operations before.”

“I made a promise.”

“You made a promise not to save a life? Then why did you let me in?”

Vesta lifted her head. “You did not need me to operate on your heart. You simply needed a place to stay.”

“You protected me from the Viscount.”

“I don’t like bullies.” The butterfly’s right wing was too large, the curve too acute. She rubbed at the charcoal.

“Miss Milton?”

“I’ve told you many times, Nell. Call me Vesta.”

“Vesta. Why wouldn’t you do it? That boy could get you across the border.”

“And what would you do then?” Vesta drew a slow, curving line in the black charcoal across the butterfly’s wing. She reached for her ruler, measuring the exact dimensions with meticulous care.

“I’d go to Manyard.”

“He’d throw you on the streets and take your son away.”

“That is not your problem. You can’t keep hiding forever. You’ve told me so many times about your old red house, your home. Don’t you want to see that again?”

Vesta said nothing. After another moment, Nell sighed and turned back up the stairs. “You should take–”

“–your finger away, quickly.” Nell complies, her finger perilously close to the questing blade for a few seconds.

They repeat the operation twice more. Beneath the little machine, the weakened muscle limps on, stuttering beneath her fingers.

“Needle.”

Nell has it threaded. Vesta takes it with one hand and flicks the catch open again with the other. The little glass bubbles are full of red and purple blood. Vesta presses, delicately, down onto the pin-sized bronze button on top of the cogs. She holds her breath as the tiny machine whirrs into motion. The blood trapped in the glass bubbles swirls, and moves on through the tubes. Lord Huleikr’s own heart slows.

He breathes on.

Vesta lets out a long shuddering sigh. It is not over. She has to move fast now, close the membranes and skin over the new life in his chest and let it beat on. But first she must remove the old heart, the lost life. She picks up the scalpel again, and slides it beneath the bronzeheart, and cuts into the sinewy sac holding the flesh heart in place. Nell’s fingers are too close to the blade, holding the bronzeheart steady while Vesta eases the dying heart away from Huleikr’s chest.

Vesta holds his heart in her hands, and feels its last, pulsing beat. She swallows, and an involuntary smile crosses her face. The boy is still alive. Reverent, she places the diseased, dead muscle on the table, and turns back to the living man.

If only she could open the bronzeheart’s catch and see a man’s blood pumping through the device again. Just for a moment. But time is calling.

“Push the bronzeheart into the sac,” she says. Nell does so, holding her breath. The machine settles into the vacant space. Vesta nods, disentangles the silver tongs and begins to sew the membrane to the punctured frill around the bronzeheart. Goodbye, she thinks, wishing the little machine well on its long life ahead.

Carefully she winds down the rib-separator, easing his bones back into place. He will be in a great deal of pain when he wakes. The needle and thread patch his skin together. Now he is ready. She has done it.

The relief is so strong she is almost dizzy. Huleikr has not died. Vesta has successfully completed an operation so delicate few brassbones even consider doing it in her own country. And all beneath the noses of the dredgers.

“Nell, fetch the strong pain potions from the top shelf. I will–”

“–never be safe,” she called after Nell’s retreating footsteps.

Vesta stared out the grimy window. Nell was right. She set her teeth against the rising knowledge. She was a coward. An old woman and a coward. She should take the job, give Lord Huleikr his precious bronzeheart, give him a chance at life. And in return she would go home. Back to her beloved old home, to the ramshackle red house she had claimed as her own years ago.

But she was an old woman, and scared, and here in this thin veneer of safety she had nothing but an opera-dancer and her bastard child to worry about. And that life was just a dream. Just a dream.

It had been five years. In her own country, Vesta would be declared missing or officially dead by now. Especially after the borders closed. Her house would have been sold, and the proceeds given to her husband, if he still lived, or her son. She wondered if her son would ever speak to her again, if he would ever forgive her for leaving.

Five years.

How slowly the time dragged, leeching her of vigour and determination, sapping her courage and patience in tiny, senseless bites on her soul. No. She would stay here, with the dredgers watching her every move, until the aristocracy tired of her trinkets and baubles, until fashion moved on and forgot her, and her sponsor wearied of a good cause. Vesta was not a fool, she told herself. She had saved enough money to live on, frugally, for at least a further five years even if all her work stopped tomorrow, even if her sponsor threw her out onto the street. Three years, if the dredgers seized her decoy bank account.

The brassbones paced around the little shop, straightening a display case here, flicking a speck of dust off the velvet boxes there. All of these ornaments Vesta made in her spare time to continue the pretence that she was an ordinary jeweller, not an accursed and suspect brassbones. Worse, a woman. Worst, a foreigner.

And then there was Nell. One of Vesta’s first customers, Nell’s gold and diamond forehead star was still one of Vesta’s crowning achievements–or had been, until Nell had turned up on her doorstep.

“Please,” Nell had said, standing proud and bloody on the doorstep, stained diamond held out in one hand. “Please. Help me.”

Horrified at the mutilation the younger woman had inflicted on herself, Vesta had let Nell in before she’d had time to think. She ought to have kept her distance, given Nell the top floor to herself, slept in the storeroom and got rid of the woman as soon as possible. But Nell’s pregnancy was long, and harsh. The diamond’s value was soon spent in food and medications, and Vesta kept silent. The deep pit between Nell’s eyes gradually healed over, leaving an ugly red scar that pained Vesta every time she saw it. She had offered several times to repair the damage, but Nell refused every time.

Gradually Vesta discovered the woman had a sharp, if uneducated, mind. The opera-dancer became a brassbones assistant, and Vesta treated Nell as if she were a niece, or younger cousin; awkward, diffident, lecturing her on the upbringing of her scrawny son and retreating into offended silence for days when Nell, never slow to stand up for herself, rebuffed Vesta’s particular and determined advice.

And now, six months later, Vesta was hesitating on the one chance she’d had in five long, agonising years to cross the border to home and safety. All because of an opera-dancer.

What if she went home and found no one alive who remembered or cared for her? What if he had–what if she were–what if–what if–what if.

“The cold truth is, you’re too scared to wager a man’s life against your freedom,” she told her reflection in the window. “You are stupid, scared, comfortable in your own little box. You are a foolish woman and a coward.”

She returned to her desk, sat down and stared at the sketches. A few hours ago she had been completely absorbed in her work, in the soft lines of wing (gold filigree, red rubies) and antennae (silver scrollwork, softened by copper wiring and strengthened by steel backing). Now it sickened her.

This was what she had come to. Vesta Milton: the woman who had replaced six ribs in a man’s side, along with half his lung and a new kneecap for good measure. The woman who had gained her qualifications as a brassbones in just three years. The woman who, in her arrogant need to be recognised and appreciated, had left the highly competitive market of her own country and moved east, to heal the sick and build fresh limbs for those who needed them. In one year of plying her trade in the east, Vesta had made more money than in all the years of her career at home. And then the borders closed, and suspicion ran through the city like a plague.

Damn them. Damn them all.

She turned and called up the stairs. “Nell. Nell!”

The opera-dancer reappeared at the top of the shadowy stairs, Davy sleeping in her arms. Vesta tapped her charcoal stick against the desk for a moment. Nell waited.

“Do you think I should do it?”

“Yes.”

Surprised at the surety of the young woman’s answer, Vesta asked, “Why?”

Nell shifted the baby onto her shoulder and said, “It’s who you are.”

“You don’t care about the consequences if the dredgers raid us again?”

“I care about that young man’s life.”

“Why? What is he to you?”

Nell was silent for a moment, then sighed. “He is me. Or you. Or any other person in this country who needs help and is brave enough to ask for it. I admire that.”

The charcoal stick snapped in Vesta’s fingers. She considered the fractured pieces a moment, then stood. “Leave the child with me. Go and find Lord Huleikr. If he agrees to come tonight, I will do it. And hurry, I don’t want–”

“–to let him sleep any longer. Fetch the smelling salts.”

Nell moves around the little room, setting out the pain potions as Vesta bandages the operation site, swathing it in thick white linen. The boy is heavy, hard to move about, his weighted arm stained with his own blood as Vesta lifts it to tuck the bandage under. She is careful with him, gentle. He reminds her too well of what she left behind.

“Do you want me to wake him now?” Nell asks.

“Yes,” Vesta says, hand resting on his bandaged chest. “And be ready. He may struggle when he comes around.”

Nell opens the salts and holds them under Lord Huleikr’s nose. His breathing is shallow, his chest rising and falling. Vesta feels the whir of the bronzeheart beneath her hand.

The dark eyes flicker open. His face contracts in pain.

“Steady,” Nell says, her voice far more soothing than Vesta’s ever will be. “You’re safe. You’re alright. Can you breathe comfortably?”

He makes a tiny sound, a weak note of pain and confusion.

“It’s alright,” Nell says again, as if speaking to her own child, “You’re safe. Just concentrate on breathing comfortably and you will feel better in no time. Lie still.”

Huleikr’s eyes rove blearily around the room, settling on Vesta. He swallows, twice, and opens his mouth to speak. His lips are tinged blue. Vesta glances at Nell. The opera-dancer looks pointedly at the young man’s hand, lying still at his side. Vesta swallows and pats his hand once, twice.

“A good operation,” she says. “All went well.”

He manages the suggestion of a smile. She finds herself smiling back. Pride, pride that she does not deserve, creeps back into her own heart.

Lord Huleikr coughs. The smile vanishes, pain acute on his face. He gasps. Nell snatches the salts away and says, her voice rising, “Vesta!”

Vesta leaps forward, fingers reaching for the pulse beneath his jaw. His pulse is beating wildly, pausing for seconds and then leaping forward. Huleikr’s eyes are wide with panic.

“Don’t worry,” Vesta says, automatically. “Concentrate. Breathe steadily. Slow down. Come on, boy. Count with me. One, two, three–”

“Vesta, his chest–”

The white bandages are burgeoning red. Vesta snatches her hand away from Huleikr’s neck, pressing down on the operation site in a desperate bid to stop the bleeding.

“You have to breathe–”

“–once … and out. Breathe in again … and out.”

She took the stethoscope away from his chest. Huleikr sat on the steel operations-table, shirtless, looking cold and nervous. Vesta put the stethoscope down and picked up the little bronzeheart. Huleikr’s elegant cloth coat in deep navy blue with silver buttons rested with his fine shirt and cravat on the steel chair beside the folded screen. Without the ornaments of a young gentleman of high society, he looked infinitely young.

She could not bring herself to speak, but busied herself with the preparations of the operation and allowed Nell to do the talking. He was clean of any ornamentation, not even boasting a crested goldfinger, so popular with many of the young men. The Duke of Salford had recently commissioned Vesta to create a small gold snuff box to be embedded between the bones of his wrist. Faced with Lord Huleikr’s bone-deep relief at her change of heart, Vesta found her stomach turned against the small-minded delicacy required for the creation of the snuff box. How had she managed to swallow her integrity for so long?

“Very well. We are ready to begin the operation.” She paused, and forced herself to look him in the eye. “Lord Huleikr, are you absolutely certain you wish to do this?”

“Yes,” he said immediately. “Yes, I am.”

No hint of uncertainty. Vesta nodded. “Very well. You will–”

“–hold on. Hold on.” His blood trickles over her knuckles. “Nell–chloroform–half a dose–”

Nell smashes a pottery bowl in her haste to reach the big brown bottle and a fresh cloth. Huleikr’s eyes are rolling in his skull. He coughs again, a thick wet sound. Vesta takes one hand away from his chest and steadies his head, her fingers curling under his neck. “Hurry, Nell, he’s–”

“–strong enough to survive this,” she said. “I have seen patients in a worse condition than you put under anaesthetic and woken safely.”

Huleikr smiled, a small, resigned smile. “Thank you for your encouragement, Miss Milton. I’m ready.”

He held out his hand to her. Vesta hesitated for a brief second, and felt Nell’s glare across the room. She took his hand, and shook it once.

“Lie down.”

He did so, and Nell slid the needle into his arm. Vesta watched, unable to stop watching now, as his eyes flickered shut.

“When you wake, you will be–”

“–safe. You’re safe. Breathe steadily. Can you hear me?”

His eyes find her. His right hand rises from the table, seeking her arm. Vesta doesn’t dare move her hand away from the operation site, but his fingers, clumsy with lack of blood and anaesthetic, fumble across her shoulder. The young man holds on to her wrist, and his fingers are deathly cold. Vesta stares into his glazing eyes and says, fiercely, “Breathe, man, breathe for your mother!”

“Vesta, he’s–”

“–ready to start. First scalpel.”

His narrow chest lay in silent readiness. Nell was right. This was what Vesta was here for. Don’t be a coward, she told herself. Think of the border. In a few days you will be across, safe and well, and this boy will be walking with his mother in the Park because you saved his life, and Nell will … Nell will be fine.

“Here,” Nell said, quietly. “He’s–”

“–not breathing. He’s not breathing.”

“I know,” Vesta snaps at Nell. The chloroform hasn’t even reached Huleikr’s face. His eyes are open, staring up at the dark ceiling without expression. “You must breathe for him, as I showed you. Quickly!”

Nell presses her lips against Huleikr’s. Vesta feels the artificial rise of his chest beneath her hand. The bandages are no longer white at all. Nell pulls away — Vesta pushes down on his chest, heedless of the operation site, heedless of the crack of ribs. She raises her hands and slaps them down desperately on his chest. He does not move. She tries again, Nell pushing air into his lungs, Vesta forcing it out again. Clumsy, one-handed, she cuts the bandages away with the scalpel, gashing Huleikr’s side open in her haste, and presses her ear to the bloody operation site.

The bronzeheart is silent. She should hear it ticking. She should hear the thrum of life. She hears nothing but the cavernous silence of failure.

Vesta straightens and snaps at Nell. “Again!”

Nell doesn’t move.

“Vesta, it’s too late.”

Vesta whimpers. She raises her hands, stained scarlet with this young man’s blood, and brings them crashing down on his chest. Huleikr does not breathe. He does not move. His right hand lies across his stomach, and his fingers are blue.

Nell reaches across and takes hold of Vesta’s arms, stilling her frantic movement. “Vesta. Vesta. He is dead.”

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Part II

Vesta sat in the dark, cold room, and stared into the shadows, and waited. Nell had promised to return before dawn. Every tiny sound, every shift in the air, made Vesta look up at the door, hoping, hoping. Nell would manage, she told herself. Nell knew how to talk to aristocrats. She would do what Vesta had asked.

In one hand Vesta held the failed bronzeheart. In the other she held Huleikr’s cooling hand, her thumb brushing across his stiff knuckles in a gentle, meaningless pattern. His blood was tacky on her skin. She knew, vaguely, that his blood was in her black hair and across her cheek, her apron, her boots. She listened to the silence and waited for Nell to return.

Vesta has killed a man. She waits for a long time in the darkness, and shivers with guilt and fear.

In the early reaches of dawn, when Huleikr’s blood has dried deep into her skin, when the house is bereft of Nell and Davy, and she holds no sense of time or place or life, Vesta hears footsteps. The crackling, hacking patter of a hardog snuffles by the doorstep. She lifts her head, and for a moment thinks she sees Nell smiling at her: but Nell is gone. Vesta feels the tears on her face, and tightens her hold on the dead man’s hand as the dredgers kick down her door.

divider

Part III

 

“Vesta. Vesta. He is dead.”

The panic lasted only a few seconds. Vesta backed away from Huleikr’s body, until the wall pressed against her shoulder-blades. She lifted one hand to her mouth and bit deep into her own skin, tasting his blood on her tongue, the metallic fact of death. Don’t scream. Don’t scream. Deep within the rising fear, she remembered, and trusted, her training.

Across the blood-soaked body, Nell’s eyes were huge, fixed on Vesta with wide-rimmed horror. The opera-dancer held up her shaking hands, holding them over Huleikr’s tattered chest in supplication or application, Vesta didn’t know. The bottle of chloroform shivered in Nell’s fingers.

Away in the darkness, muffled by the silent, unjudging rooms, the baby wailed.

The two women stared at each other in the dim gas-light, and Vesta knew what she had to do.

She took a breath, swallowed down the rising bile, and dropped her hand from her mouth. When she spoke, she did not recognise her own voice: calm, authoritative, cold.

“Nell. Go and wash, and change into something clean. Feed Davy, and pack a bag of essentials.”

“But what-–”

“–did you think would happen, woman?”

The dredger’s voice rakes over her scalp. Hot breath steams across the nape of her neck. Vesta keeps her head high and stares fixedly at the grey-stone wall opposite. The panting hardog lying under her chair licks her ankle. She flinches, folds her hands in her lap, and keeps her mouth shut.

“Did you think you’d been surreptitious, covert? Did you think we weren’t watching you from the first day you set up your precious little shop?”

He shifts, and she feels his weight brush past her shoulder as he steps around the little table. The dredger’s grey and black uniform fills her gaze. The tobacco stench of his stained beard fills her nostrils. She counts twenty-seven brass buttons on his jacket, and thinks of nothing.

“Tell me what–”

“–do you want me to do now?” Nell had returned. Her voice was thin but determined, and Vesta felt a surge of pride for the young woman. There was still blood under Nell’s fingernails, but she was otherwise clean. Davy slept contentedly upstairs. Vesta had washed her hands. The clinging coolness of drying blood still stained her dress and forearms.

She forced herself to pick up the dead man’s hand and tug the gold signet ring off his little finger. In another pocket of his trousers she found a few coins. She pressed both into Nell’s icy hand. “Take these. Go to the corner of the street and wait for Greenhill to come by. He’ll be leaving work soon. Give him the coins and get him to take you to the Huleikr’s house. Use the ring to gain entrance. You must speak to Lady Huleikr, and no one else. Tell her she must come with you immediately. Give her my name. Do not let them turn you away.”

Nell began to shake her head, but Vesta overrode her.

“We don’t have a choice, Nell. You must do this.”

“No.” Nell held the coins back out toward Vesta. “What you’re proposing is cruel. We cannot drag his mother here–we can’t–I’ll go to Manyard, I’ll tell him if he doesn’t help us I’ll tell the dredgers–”

“Tell them what? You’re an opera dancer, cast off by a powerful aristocrat with friends in the government and now you want your revenge? You had his child, Nell. They won’t believe a word you say.” Vesta softened her voice. “You must trust me, and go to Huleikr’s house.”

“What about–your sponsor? Surely they can-–”

“Listen to me. Go to Lord Huleikr’s house. Show the butler the ring. Refuse to leave until you see Lady Huleikr. You must bring her here before dawn.”

Nell shook her head, staring at the ruin of Huleikr’s body behind Vesta. “It’s cruel. It’s so cruel.”

Vesta reached up and took the woman’s face in her hands. “You must do this, Nell. You must trust me. Now go and–”

“–don’t fool yourself that you have a way out of this, brassbones.”

He flattens meaty hands on the table and leans toward her. Vesta does not pull back, though she can count every pore of his skin. She notices the unevenness of his breathing, the erratic tic in his eye, and comforts herself that he will grow old in pain. At her feet, the hardog yawns. She finds it contemptible that this country will hunt down and punish anyone who dares help another person with metallic bones and clockwork organs, and yet will willingly place its trust in abominations of half-dog, half-metal driven senseless by the fingers of mercury driving deep into their brains.

The dredger snorts into her face, and she closes her mind down again.

“Tell me who you killed.”

She waits.

“Burned his face good, didn’t you? But we’ll find out. Tell me what you did with your lovely little assistant. You will tell me who your sponsor is. You’ll write a full confession, and then–” his breath is rank in her face “–we might not kill you. Or, if you choose, don’t tell me who you killed, don’t tell me where your lovely little assistant is–and we hang you.” He pauses for effect, and Vesta counts backwards. Four hours, twenty minutes.

She is tempted to reply with something sarcastic and proud, but he likes to hear himself talk, and she knows what is coming next.

“So, what–”

“–have you done, you foolish old woman.” She spoke to herself to fill the empty darkness.

The operating room was cold. By the tiny light of the flickering gas-light, Vesta lit the small brazier in the corner. Methodically she burned all the blood-soaked bandages, and the beloved tools of her trade, timber and metal. She forced herself to go out into the shop, hating to leave the dead body alone, and collected all her paperwork, all her designs and plans. She burned them too. Finally, she added Huleikr’s clothes. She watched the silver buttons melt in the tiny flame, and offered her apologies with them.

Nell had been gone too long.

There was no way to avoid it. Vesta picked up the bloody scalpel still waiting beside Huleikr’s body. The weight of it in her hand made her sick. She pressed her lips together against the nausea, and set the scalpel to Huleikr’s skin once more. With a few slices she undid her precise work. The failed bronzeheart came free from what should have been its final resting-place. She unhooked the silver tongs, unwound the rib-separator, and set them both down with the bronzeheart, beside the sad, dead muscle that had been the boy’s first heart. No point in sewing the gaping hole again. His body was already growing cold, the skin clammy, the thickened blood oozing reluctantly beneath her trembling fingers.

When she was finished, she stood and looked down at the lost life in Huleikr’s face, at the delicate lines of his mouth, the shape of his eyebrows, the soft hair resting on his forehead. There was a tightness in her stomach that had nothing to do with her crime. She had not allowed this thought, this horror, for a long time: it was buried deep inside, tucked beneath her bones where no one could see it. By dawn she would face it.

There was a scraping at the door. A key set in the lock. She leapt back from Huleikr’s body as if scalded, took a seat, stood up again, smoothed bloody hands down her stained apron. Her heart raced. The knot in her stomach twisted tighter.

The door creaked open. Nell peered in, then stepped through. A woman followed her in, cloaked, all proud bearing and smooth roundness, a soft face, lined with the gentle suggestions of oncoming age. Nell closed and locked the door. Vesta tried to move forward, but her feet were lead, her heart a millstone.

“Oh–”

The woman’s face crumpled into deep lines of grief, of horror. Too late Vesta realised she had not covered the body, that the young man’s chest was still torn open, a gaping unnatural sickening puncture. She snatched up a spare bandage and leapt forward, but the woman moved as fast, her cold hand wrapping around Vesta’s wrist, halting her motion.

The flash of reflection was too strong. The woman’s hand was so like the young man’s. Vesta snatched her arm away, then stood stricken, the body still torn open, the woman’s cry echoing through the room.

Lady Huleikr reached out to touch her son’s face. Her hand curved around his cool cheek. She looked down into his face for a long, long time. When she lifted her gaze to Vesta, the last remnants of softness were gone.

“Oh, Vesta, what have you done?”

“I have done nothing.”

She tastes blood and considers spitting it into his reddened face, but thinks of Nell and the baby, of a future she will not taint. She swallows the unpleasant mouthful and resists the urge to close her eyes against the next blow. The fist cracks her cheekbone this time, and she thinks that if she had the time, she would repair it with a brass overlay, wrapped around the bone, and no one would backhand her again.

“You’ve got your dirty hands in something vile, and sick, and we’re going to stay here all night until the hangman is ready for you.”

She finds it strange that the smell of the dredger’s breath turns her stomach more than the crack of her own bones under his hands. Vesta stares back at him, and says, thickly, “I have done nothing.”

He shifts the weight of his body, and she listens to his shoulder creak. He must have broken it when young. In a few years he will wake cursing the cold weather, and his arm will stiffen in the morning and night, and he will think of the foreign woman he saw hanged for a crime that was no crime, and he will wonder if she could have replaced his arthritic bones with fresh and uncorrupted steel.

He moves behind her. His broad hand grips the back of her head and Vesta’s face bangs into the table in front of her. A broken nose is unspeakably easy to repair, but she finds the pain begins to wear. Never mind, she tells herself. There must be a price.

“What did you do–”

“–with the body?” Nell’s voice was timorous in the silence.

Lady Huleikr did not weep, but stood over her boy with pure loss eating the life from her face. Vesta looked at Nell, and indicated with a slight nod of her head for the younger woman to leave. She watched the opera dancer disappear to the front rooms, and her own heart shivered in her chest.

The night was not long enough, Vesta thought, but she wished it would stay forever. The coldness in the room had seeped into her heart. She held on to it. It was less painful than the guilt.

At last Lady Huleikr lifted her head and looked at Vesta. “Yes, Vesta. What will you do with the body of my son?”

“Once you are gone I will … take steps to ensure that your son cannot be identified. The dredgers will take his body. They will burn it as an abomination, as an example of what happens to those who desecrate their own bodies with the sickness of foreign medicine. You will be protected. What story you decide to spread about your son’s disappearance must be between you and your husband.”

Lady Huleikr’s eyes were bright with hate. It was not life, but close to it. “And you?”

Vesta forced herself to keep her voice steady. “You will go home, and provide the necessary paperwork for two people to cross the border safely. You will send the papers on with a man you trust to meet Nell at the border.”

“You killed my son.”

Vesta lifted her chin. “I did.”

They stood, at either end of the young man’s body.

Lady Huleikr looked down at her boy again. “I brought you out of prison to serve the people of this city. You promised me that you would never operate on my son. That was our agreement.”

Vesta’s gaze dropped. She stared without seeing at the soiled apron she still wore, at the floor, at the ceiling. Lady Huleikr did not move.

“He came to me and told me he was dying. He told me he wanted you to see him live.”

“Of course I wanted to see him live. He’s my son! But I made you swear for a reason, Vesta. I made you swear for a reason.” The agony in the older woman’s voice made Vesta’s own heart grow colder.

“He begged,” she said, small-voiced. “For you.”

“And you thought–”

“–you can laugh at me, woman?”

He does not pull his punches now, and Vesta feels the blood burning, the ringing in her ears overwhelming. She laughs, the unpromising solution of warm blood and saliva trickling down her chin, heart jumping in her chest. The dredger twists his meaty fingers into her hair and pulls her head back. Blood fills up her mouth and nose: she coughs, gasps for breath and watches the angle of his fist as it swings down to her jaw. She lets herself go with the motion this time, allows her head to snap back to the left, and leans back into the dredger’s chest. The silver buttons on his uniform are warm. Gently she opens her eyes and tilts her head further back, so that she looks up at him, intimately, with an unguarded humour. His eyes are dark.

“I laugh because you cannot.”

She has counted the hours, as best she can, and she knows. She knows that if the dredgers had caught Nell, they would have stopped this interrogation and dragged her out to show Nell what happens to brassbones and their associates, what happens to those who flaunt their witchcraft and foul blaspheming besmirching of good, wholesome, sacred bodies. Let the opera-dancer with her bastard see what the future looked like, and let her consider if she wanted to follow in her employer’s path.

No. Nell is safe. She must be safe by now. So Vesta smiles up at the dredger, and rests her feet on the panting hardog as it licks up her blood from the cold flagstones.

“One last chance, brassbones. What–”

“–kind of life would he have? The life I have?”

Lady Huleikr lifted her hands away from her son’s body, tugging at the clasps on her cloak. It came free, and she pulled at the delicate lace shawl wrapped around her shoulders, at the high collar of her grey dress. Vesta closed her eyes.

“Look at me,” Lady Huleikr commanded.

Vesta took a breath and opened her eyes. The woman’s chest bore a deep, grotesque scar, pinning the skin together, an empty flatness covered by careful dress-making. Lady Huleikr touched the sunken hole.

“This is what you did to me. You gave me life but at such cost. I made you swear never to operate on my son because I know the pain he would endure for the rest of his life. I can feel every beat, Vesta. I feel every time this bronzeheart ticks. I cannot walk or chase my grandchildren. I cannot even laugh for fear of pain. This is not the life I wished for my son.”

Vesta swallowed. “I have managed to access some research from my own country since I operated on you. The newer bronzeheart–”

“Stop justifying yourself!” Lady Huleikr snapped. “You did this. You did this to my son.”

Vesta was silent for a long moment. Then, softly, “Yes.”

“And now you want me to save you.” Lady Huleikr stroked her son’s hair, rested her hands on his body. She did not cry. “And the woman? That girl you sent to me? I have seen her before. She was Manyard’s mistress, wasn’t she?”

“Yes.”

“So you have traded my son’s life for passports–two passports, for a murderess and a whore.”

Vesta’s head snapped up. “She is not a whore. She is my assistant.”

“And this is my son.” Lady Huleikr stared down at her dead son. “Better you should both die. I will call for the dredgers myself.”

“If you do, you will be executed.” Vesta’s voice was soft, flat. “You, for your own crime. Your husband for sheltering you and your son, for being accomplice to this abomination. You will both be executed.”

“You have already taken my life away,” Lady Huleikr said. “Threaten all you like.”

Vesta could hear Nell moving about the front room. Surely it was near dawn by now. Desperation filled her, running sharp and hot through her body. There was no time left. She would not see the young woman punished. “Mary. I need two passports.”

“I will not let you run from your crime.”

From the next room, Davy burst into a loud, angry wail. Lady Huleikr lifted her head, staring past Vesta to the closed door. Nell’s voice hushed him, singing a lullaby, the melody fractured. The baby’s cry died away.

Lady Huleikr’s hand rose to her mouth. The brassbones walked around the operating table and placed her hands on either side of the dead man’s shoulders. She leaned over him, forcing Lady Huleikr to look her in the eye. “I am not running.”

Lady Huleikr stared at Vesta.

“Is that the–your assistant’s child?”

“Yes.”

Lady Huleikr was silent for a long moment.

“Two passports.”

Vesta waited.

“And you?”

The brassbones stood straight. She laughed, a short, high little sound. “I will–”

“–give up?”

He is tiring. For a man of his age and build, he is unfit, flabby muscles from too much beer. Vesta breathes through the black fog and waits for the last punch. The hardog snorts, sneezes at her feet. It whines at its master.

The dredger heaves another breath, spits to one side. He rakes one hand through her long hair, torn out of its neat bun hours ago. “I’ll leave you to think about that a moment. The hangman will have finished his breakfast.”

She does not watch him leave, but waits straight-backed and open-eyed until the door clangs shut behind him. She listens to the clatter of the hardog’s paws following him away, and quietly folds forward to rest on the blood-spattered table in front of her.

She dreams of the red house. The old, warm walls, the enclosed garden rich with the scents of thyme and honeysuckle, sage and lime. Her broken fingers patter across her dress, as if she could reach out and touch the old peppercorn tree, the rough bark warm beneath her touch in the late evening. She dreams of the wide verandah, the rich earth growing every plant she could ask for.

Vesta smiles through her fractured jaw and wanders the halls of her beloved house. She can smell the sunburnt dust, the warmth of ages, her heritage, the heat of sand and oiled timber. Straight down the hallway and right at the end, through the waiting room and into her operating chamber. In her dreams the house is empty, but she accepts that. They will all be gone by now.

She wanders, calm, contented, and the black fog rises and falls, a tide of pain she fends off with memory and hope. She did all she could. Vesta licks her lips, and whispers to the empty cell.

“I’m so–”

“–sorry. I am so sorry, Nell. But you must run.”

“No.”

Lady Huleikr waited beside her son’s body, holding his hand with both of hers. She watched the small drama in silence. Vesta glanced at the clock waiting on the wall. She had no more time.

“Nell, my dear, please. You must go with Lady Huleikr. You and Davy will be safe.”

Nell shook her head, determined. “I will not leave you here. They will kill you.”

“Yes,” Vesta said. “But we all know there is no hiding tonight’s work. This is the best I can do. This is mine to pay for. Not yours.”

Nell’s mouth twisted in pain. “Vesta–” she said, voice breaking.

Vesta reached out and took hold of Nell’s arms, forcing her own voice to be calm. “There is no more time. When you are in my country, find the nearest town. Speak to any brassbones you can find. Tell them you come from Vesta, and you need to get to the red house. Any brassbones will give you shelter and directions. But you must go now.”

Nell was crying in earnest, holding Davy close. Impulsive, Vesta reached up and kissed the younger woman on the forehead, on the deep scar where once there had been a glittering diamond. “I am so sorry. Go.”

The opera dancer sniffed, and nodded.

Lady Huleikr kissed her son’s face, twice, straightened, and held out her hand for Nell’s bag. “Give me that. You’ve got enough to carry.”

She took the bag, and without a second look, walked to the door and opened it. The faint light of dawn broke cold through the dark room. Nell hovered, staring at Vesta, eyes pleading. “Please come with us.”

Vesta shook her head, and smiled, as best she could. “This is my responsibility, my dear. As long as I know you and Davy are safe, I will be alright. Go.”

Nell drew in a shaking breath, and said, “Thank you. For everything. Thank you.”

She turned, and followed Lady Huleikr out into the rising dawn.

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Part IV

 

Vesta sits in the dark, cold room, and stares into the shadows, and waits. In one hand she holds Huleikr’s cooling hand, her thumb brushing across his stiff knuckles in a gentle, meaningless pattern. His blood is tacky on her skin. She knows, vaguely, that his blood is in her black hair and across her cheek, her apron, her boots. She wonders if there is any blood left in his body.

Vesta has killed a man. She waits for a long time, and in the darkness, shivers with guilt and fear.

In the early reaches of dawn, when Huleikr’s blood has dried deep into her skin, when the house is bereft of Nell and Davy, and she holds no sense of time or place or life, Vesta hears footsteps. The crackling, hacking patter of a hardog snuffles by the doorstep. She lifts her head, and for a moment thinks she sees Nell smiling at her: but Nell is gone, free, safe. Vesta feels the tears on her face, and tightens her hold on the dead man’s hand as the dredgers kick down her door.

She thinks of Nell, and Davy, and the red house, and she smiles as they take her.

___
Copyright 2016 Lucy Stone

Lucy Stone is an Australian writer and editor. Her work has been shortlisted for the Aurealis Awards: her website is at lucyjstone.com 

by Aliya Whiteley

Part One

My real name is gone, so far in the distance that the thought of it coming up fast behind me seems an impossibility. Age, however, has displayed no such qualms; it has pounced, shaking me between its teeth, until my skin sags and my gums flap.

But I have decided to not dwell on the things that have happened and the marks they have left. It is enough to have my place in the biodomes. I am now a product of my situation; that is, the forcing of life into forms and shapes it would never assume if left to its own devices. But it must be made to fit the space that is assigned to it, and the truth is there’s not much space left.

We are squeezed together, the melons and I.

‘Mel,’ says Mr Cecil. I should be paying attention, but instead I’m chewing over the fact that he started off as a worker too, and now I must call him Mister while he uses a nickname for me. ‘How’s impregnation going?’

‘Areas twelve to twenty-two are done.’

‘Good, good. Anything you need?’

A fresh life, Mr Cecil, I should say. ‘No, thank you.’

‘I’m off to Courgettes, then. Shout if there’s a problem.’ Off he goes, in his little motorised buggy. I watch it recede along the rows, and then the calm of the melons reasserts itself. No sound. No sound at all.

Home grown, the labels will say. Organic home grown cantaloupe melons, low carbon emissions, no pesticides, 100 per cent UK workers, and they will cost more than an entire synthetic pig, but that’s fine. Some people are rich, and they spend their money on the strangest things without ever once finding a space in which they fit.

Today is impregnation day, in twenty areas. The paintbrush must be dipped into the male flowers, so that a dab of pollen is collected. This is an orange powder, so bright, so fine. I use a sable brush so I can see the pollen clearly. I like to know exactly how much I have collected; I would hate to waste this precious stuff. It has the most important job in the world to do. Here it goes – I take it to the female flower, and stroke it inside her opening.

Do you know how you tell a female flower? At the base of the petals, she bulges into a ball, a perfect sphere, a promise of intention. If she receives the pollen she will continue to swell to giant proportions, long after the pretty little flower dies and drops away. Instead there nestles a monster, and the stem thickens to support it. A melon grows, to the size of my head, larger. I will put it inside a net that hangs from the pole structure to which the plants cling. Inside each melon lurks so many new seeds, to start the process all over again.

This is my favourite part of the job.

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Communal dinner hour is five to six o’clock. Some complain about the earliness of the hour for the final meal of the day, but it suits me; I’ll be asleep by nine, after spending a little time on my slides. I don’t know why everyone enjoys complaining so, or how they have the energy for it. None of us are spring chickens any more. Chickens in spring, scratching and pecking and laying their eggs. Apparently they still do this, in the Livestock part of Blossom Farm that I have not seen. Imagine – spring chickens. Their tender drumsticks must fetch a fortune.

I’m eating a cheese-flavoured sandwich when Lonnie and Jim carry their trays to my lone table at the back of the dining room. They take the seats opposite me, and continue a loud conversation. I get the feeling I’m meant to overhear it.

‘It’s always the same in Strawberries,’ says Jim. ‘Too much temptation for us old ‘uns. That sweetness takes years off you.’ He smacks his lips together, under his white moustache. How is it possible to have that much hair on your mouth and none on your head? The shiny, greasy expanse of skin hanging loose on his skull is too much reality for me. I put down my sandwich and sip my water instead.

‘Mmmm,’ says Lonnie, shaking her head. Her cumbersome earrings jangle. The lobes have been stretched to incredible proportions over years of abuse in the name of decoration, and now she must always wear big earrings or leave her ears flapping in the simulated weather of the Satsuma section.

I’m cruel, I know, I know. I am a cruel old lady, and I am no less ugly than they are. My distaste is centred on them only because there is no mirror here with which to catch my own reflection.

‘Out in the cold,’ says Jim, mournfully. ‘Straight out, with nothing but a coat and that collection of teddy bears, stuffed into two bin bags.’

So now I know who they’re talking about. It’s Daisy. Daisy has been caught stuffing her face with strawberries stolen from her area, and has been kicked out of Blossom Farm.

This is why Jim and Lonnie chose to sit here. They know about Daisy and me. She had such fresh blue eyes, even though she was older than many here. And a laugh! A laugh I loved.

But that was a long time ago.

I wonder what made her eat those strawberries.

‘You knew Daisy, didn’t you?’ asks Jim.

Why does he want a response from me? What possible entertainment could it give him?

‘No,’ I say. ‘Not really.’

I feel another little part of what is left of my emotions shrivel up and crumble away to dust as Jim and Lonnie exchange glances, then change the subject to that old favourite, the weather.

‘Minus ten out there today,’ says Jim. ‘Not bad for the time of year. Wind chill will take it down, though. Northerly, isn’t it? I checked the board first thing.’

Lonnie huffs.

We have all become expert meteorologists, and our habit is fed by the board, updated daily, with information of what blows and falls outside the biodomes.

They talk on, and my thoughts turn to those teddy bears. Daisy loved them so, making them from scraps of clothing that you would have thought unsalvageable. If you had a shirt you thought beyond stitching she would bother you for it, offering to fetch you a replacement from stores, and the next thing you know it would have been turned into a cheeky little fellow, fuzzy and friendly and determined to make you smile. She kept them all in her room, and gave them names, at least three syllables long and sounding like they belonged in a world of stately homes and tea parties. Peregrine. Terpsichory. Sir Xavier Hugsalot the Third.

Enough. I get up. I leave behind my sandwich, and ignore Jim when he calls, ‘Aren’t you going to eat that?’ to my back. I walk through the dining area, with its bright white lights shining down on the stained table tops, and then I walk through the communal area where mismatched armchairs and sofas jostle, each one bearing knitted covers courtesy of the workers, and down the corridors that lead to my room.

We all take up our spare time with these silly obsessions. Antimacassar making, or putting boats in bottles. Teddy bears from scraps of material. And the scraps of my memory lead to my obsession: the slides.

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I paint a moment of my life on each glass pane. The good moments stay in my room, where I can see them often. The bad ones go elsewhere.

The glass comes from the very beginnings of Blossom Farm, when tomatoes were grown in greenhouses rather than the biodomes. I remember a greenhouse. It belonged to my grandmother. I can see it standing at the bottom of an orderly garden, behind the tall, tied sticks around which peashoots twirled. The strange thing was that the little building did not seem to be made of glass. It was so full of grapevine, cuttings, and plants just starting their growth that the whole space within appeared green to my eyes, green to the point of bursting forth and overrunning the structure.

I used to be a little afraid of it, and of the bottom of the garden.

My grandmother, I have never remembered as clearly as the greenhouse. I would like to make an image of her face, but we don’t choose what we remember, do we? And I only have space in my head for emotions, not people. It’s the fear I paint.

My room is small and safe. I work for a while, stopping whenever somebody stomps down the corridor outside, on my painting of the greenhouse. I have only black paint, left over in metal pots from when the farm had a Welcome sign out front, but that is good enough; why are so many people unhappy with what they have? It must be made to suit, and that is all. Mr Taylor, the forerunner of Mr Cecil, gave me the code to the old storeroom, where all obsolete things lurk. He was very kind to me, in many ways.

Enough. Bedtime.

I pack away my paintbrush, stolen from the task of melon impregnation, and evaluate the black lines that make my greenhouse on glass.

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Slide 117

‘It’s nothing to be scared of,’ said Nane.

But Flori resisted. She didn’t want to go inside, no matter what her grandmother said. The earth, the smell, the brush of damp leaves, the touch of tendrils.

‘Come help me with the plants,’ said Nane, and pushed her inside.

It was a different, denser world in there, and hardly had room for the little girl. And what was that sound? She crouched as the low thrum of a wasp manoeuvred around her head, driven dizzy by the sweetness of the grapes, and then it was in her face, zipping and dipping, and prickling her ear.

Nane said, ‘Stay still. Stay very still.’

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I don’t remember what happened next, and I’m too tired to care. My little bed calls to me. I stack the latest glass pane under the bed, with the others, and then turn out the light.

I can’t hear the wind, but I imagine it’s blowing. I can’t see the snow, but I can picture it piling high, drifting and blizzarding, blanketing the biodomes throughout the night.

Somewhere out there are two binbags filled with teddy bears. Goodbye, Sir Xavier Hugsalot the Third. You were, once upon a time, my favourite.

divider

 

Mr Cecil likes to talk about yield. He manages a team of five, and insists on making a presentation for our weekly meetings. It was his big innovation, upon taking over from Mr Taylor, two years ago. How much will each section yield? He doesn’t seem to remember that the growing of plants is not a matter of them yielding to us at all. One of these days they will grow so fast and so free that they will dominate once more, and that is how it should be.

He provides his estimates in brightly coloured bar charts that he prints out on paper, and hands around the meeting room. What a waste. Well, not entirely a waste; we save up the sheets for Brian from Peppers, who creates very amusing wordsearches on the reverse. Brian has a knack for resurrecting the past in bite-sized, bittersweet chunks that don’t choke us. The wordsearches hide within them makes of chocolate bar; names of English counties; types of car. It’s amazing how much we remember about things that are gone, and how little we want to retain about our here and now.

Mr Cecil has reached melon yield, and I don’t care. Just let me be amongst them, warm and safe. Just let me be. Still, I’ll make my polite face, and the others are doing the same thing. Melons. Peppers. Chillis. Courgettes. Butternut Squash. We’re an odd group, I’ll give you, lacking the obvious coherence of berry fruits, say, but we rub along. Mainly through the mutual bond of Brian’s wordsearches.

Suroopa – Courgettes – looks tired this morning. Usually her clothes are clean and pressed, and her short black hair brushed well, but today she yawns and her face is as crumpled as her shirt.

‘Are you not feeling well?’ Mr Cecil asks her, after a particularly large yawn. ‘You look all at sea today, Suroopa.’

She reassures him that all is well. What an expression. All at sea. It reminds me of old rhymes, sailing away to the Land of Nod, owls and pussycats and beautiful pea green boats. But they didn’t sail, did they? Not in reality, not when they all left, and took the fairy tales with them. They sailed, on one of the last ferries; I watched them go from the bus.

‘Mel,’ says Mr Cecil, and his voice cuts through my dreams, and brings me back to the here and now. ‘Don’t tell me you’re busy woolgathering as well today?’

‘No, Mr Cecil,’ I tell him. ‘Sorry.’

He carries on.

Where does he get these ancient expressions from? He must have a thesaurus tucked away in his room somewhere. He probably reads it in bed every night, looking for another obscure thing to say, thinking – that’s an interesting one, oh yes, I must use that.

Today, in sections five to fifteen, I must take soil temperature readings. It can be hell on the back, all that stooping, so my first thought when the alarm bell rings is annoyance. Not another drill, not today. I really can’t be bothered to hang around for hours pretending to care.

I look at Mr Cecil’s face, and that tells me something I don’t want to believe. This is not a drill.

He doesn’t know what’s happening.

The alarm whoops, a long wail that climbs up and falls down, over and over.

I stand up.

‘No,’ says Mr Cecil, putting up his hands, ‘It will stop, it will stop, it’s just a – a problem with the -’

‘A malfunction?’ says Gregor, who is small and well-muscled for his age, and looks like the sort of man who has learned the hard way not to trust anyone when alarms are ringing. He stands up too, and then so does Suroopa, and Brian, and Zena. Mr Cecil, in the face of overwhelming odds, changes his tune.

‘Adopt lockdown procedures,’ he calls, and then he leads the way from the meeting room, out into the curved corridor where the alarm is louder still and others are scurrying to their own positions, their faces scrunched up with surprise and fear.

Mr Cecil sets a fast pace, and we move as a group, single-file. My body aches but it’s a pain I’m used to, and I’m better off than Brian, with his chest complaints. I can hear him wheezing behind me as we make it back to Sector K.

At the entrance to Sector K, Mr Cecil turns and waves us all through. We know what happens now. We will all be locked inside, with the plants. Something in me says this is a really good idea today. You don’t live as long as I have without getting a gut instinct for things.

I wait until the others are through, and then call back to Mr Cecil, who looks up from fumbling with his utility belt.

‘Mr Cecil,’ I say. I can tell what he’s thinking. He means to stand outside, break protocol, and I have to shake that thought from his head. I know why this system was set up. I’ve seen the reason why.

‘No, I think, today, I should…’

‘No,’ I tell him. ‘No.’

But he says, ‘Stop fussing, please, Mel,’ and closes the door. Through the safety glass panels of the door I see him type in the special code to shut down the door, and then he disappears from view.

Brian wheezes on. Suroopa gets him seated in Reception Area, at the orange plastic table and chairs next to the water dispenser. The others stand around, staring at him.

Reception Area K reminds me of a hand. There are five walkways leading off, like fingers, from the square palm of the main room. Beyond lie the areas, segmented parts of our dome. I want to go into mine, and start work, alone and safe.

‘Breathe,’ Suroopa tells Brian. ‘Breathe.’ The others watch, spectators to the private battle. Is he losing? No – he nods, nods, and there, he is controlling his lungs, mastering his body.

‘Well done,’ says Suroopa, patting his arm.

The alarm winds down, slowly falling in pitch until it cuts out and leaves an eerie silence. It has never done that before.

‘Right,’ whispers Zena. I don’t know why she’s whispering. ‘Someone page Cecil and get him to let us out.’

‘Not yet,’ I say, and am surprised to find it comes out as a whisper too.

‘I don’t think we should wait,’ says Suroopa. ‘Brian needs to see the Doctor.’ She straightens up, and pushes the button on her pager. We all listen. There it is; the tinny sound of his pager, from the other side of the door. Then it stops. He must have turned it off.

Someone walks past.

‘Who was that?’ says Gregor, and then says something in his own language. He moves to the door, and puts his face to the glass, then retreats to behind Brian’s chair.

‘I think it was Jack from, ah…’ says Suroopa.

‘No,’ I say. ‘It wasn’t.’

There are voices outside, voices I don’t recognise. This is a secure compound, there are many guards, automated systems in place, nobody gets in without permission. But I don’t recognise those voices.

Mr Cecil replies. I can’t make out the words, but his voice is high. He has been trained for this sort of situation. He has a weapon, that he carries on his utility belt. I’ve seen it. A taser. Has he drawn it? Does he have it ready, in his hand?

Shouting. It builds, it is loud.

Then everything goes quiet.

They will make him open the door. They will force him to, and I would not blame him, not when I think of all the things they could do to him. I know the things pain can make you do. I would open the door too.

No. I wouldn’t. I wouldn’t open the door. I would protect my safe place, my growing plants, because there is nothing else left.

The silence stretches on, and it is long enough and deep enough for doubts to form. Is this an elaborate part of the drill, just to check we won’t open the door under any circumstances? The relief I feel at that idea is crazy. I want to cling on to it. All we have to do is hold on for a few more minutes, and then Mr Cecil will appear with a wink and tell us we did well, as if we are children who have been left unattended in a school room.

I’m lost in this concept when a face appears at the safety glass.

It’s a man. A very young man, with a beard tinged with ice, bluish lips buried deep, and red-rimmed eyes. I had forgotten how beautiful young men could be. The chill of ice is stuck fast to his skin.

An outsider, that’s what springs to mind, and Suroopa wails behind me. He looks at us, in turn. His eyes linger on Brian, who is still slumped over in his chair, but breathing regularly. The man can’t hear that, of course; as far as he’s concerned Brian might be dead. His eyes don’t register any emotion. He points downwards, I’m guessing at the keypad for the door.

I shake my head.

He doesn’t seem bothered by my refusal. He points again, but none of us move.

He walks away.

If he can’t get in, if he’s relying on us to input the code, then it can only mean one thing – Mr Cecil is incapable of giving him what he wants.

‘Don’t let him in,’ says Gregor, and Zena says, ‘What does he want? What does he want?’

Brian sits up and wheezes out the thought that has invaded my mind. ‘Agro-terrorist.’

Please, no. The destruction of the good things to eat that only the rich can afford, in the name of fairness, for the idea of making this a natural world once more. ‘Look,’ I say. ‘No matter what happens, we can’t let him in. The guards will sort this out, but we need to be strong. We’ve got water, and food. It’s an emergency – they’ll understand if we eat a bit of the fruit. We can stay here for days, and keep the plants, and ourselves, safe.’

‘Days?’ says Suroopa.

‘It won’t take that long,’ I say. ‘This place is top security. They’ll get it under control in no time.’

‘Where’s Mr Cecil?’ says Zena. ‘Should I page him again?’

Gregor and I exchange looks. If I’ve thought about Mr Cecil’s chances out there, then Gregor has done the same, and has come to the same conclusion. That’s how his mind works.

‘No,’ says Gregor. ‘Do not page him.’

‘He’ll be busy,’ I say. ‘Negotiating.’ It sounds official. It’s the right word. The others visibly relax.

‘Sit tight,’ wheezes Brian. He manages a smile.

I look at them. Four old, scared people. And I make five. How quickly things change. Ten minutes ago I was thinking about my soil samples, and my problems were molehills, but I didn’t know it. I thought I would have my melons to care for, and my slides to paint, and that would be enough for the tail end of a beast of a life. But although I was done with difficult times, it seems they are not done with me.

I can wait this out. I can survive, and so can my plants.

‘We’ll take it in turns to see to our areas,’ I say. ‘There’s no reason to let the plants suffer, and it will keep our minds off -‘

A new face appears at the glass. Not a new face. An old face.

Daisy.

Her eyes are blue, bluer than ever before. Then I realise they only look that way because of the blood on her face. It’s so red against her white skin, and her eyes are translucent, but they see me clearly. They focus on me, and hold me close.

The blood is a smear that stretches from her forehead to her cheek, daubed on, like warpaint. She puts the back of her hand to her face, and wipes it, and that’s when I realise it’s her own blood. She’s daubing herself in the blood that is coming from her heavily bandaged fingers. Ripped material has been wrapped around and around, and it has soaked through, turned bright red.

Not good enough for a teddy bear, Daisy, I want to say. Not even you could salvage that old rag.

She looks so tired. No, that’s not it; she looks destroyed. Worn down to pieces that are somehow still managing to move around. Her mouth is forming shapes.

Open the door, her lips are saying, without sound.

Mel. Open the door.

I don’t move.

Please open the door.

Gregor comes to stand behind me, so light on his feet. He says, ‘Don’t open the door,’ and I feel his hand on my back, just a slight pressure. But he’s too much of a coward to do anything to stop me. I’ve seen him cover his face when one of the supervisors shouts; he’s trapped in some past that will keep him forever fearful.

Please.

She looks as if she’ll die, right there. She died once already to me, only a few days ago. This time around I have a choice. I don’t have to let her die alone.

I move forward, to the door, and put in the key code. The lock releases. I step out into the corridor and take Daisy in my arms.

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‘Everything will continue as normal,’ says the man. This is another new face amongst many, but this one is definitely in charge. He carries it on his shoulders.

I look around the refectory and find the face that first appeared at the Sector K door. He is eating a plate of beans, not far from me. I take care not to stare, but observe him from the corner of my eye. He shovels the beans in with a spoon as if hot food has not passed his lips in years. Maybe it hasn’t.

‘There is no need to worry. All we need is your co-operation,’ says the man in charge. He stands in the centre of the room, on a table, so we can all look up to him. He is a little older, but still so many years away from becoming like us shrivelled wrecks of workers. There are about thirty young people among us now, and they are joined in some purpose that is about to be passed down to us like divine wisdom. We’ve seen it all before.

‘The food you are producing will be given to those who need it, not those who can afford it.’

Ah, I see. This is a zealous enterprise. They are fighting the good fight. No doubt they, above all others, are deserving of my melons.

‘Keep fulfilling your duties, and you will be fed and watered as usual. Nothing has changed for you, that’s all you need to remember.’

Jim, sitting next to me, raises his hand. Is he asking permission to speak? I can’t help but despise him.

‘Go ahead,’ says the man in charge.

‘Where are all the supervisors? And the guards?’

‘That’s not something you need to feel concerned about.’

‘Blossom Farm won’t let you get away with this, you know,’ Jim says, quickly, then sits down and crosses his arms.

The man in charge ignores him.

‘My name is Stephan,’ he says. ‘If you want to talk to me in an equal and open way then I am here. But I’m not here to answer stupid questions. Try to remember that we are all in this together now. Enjoy your lunch.’

All in this together – he’s as bad as Mr Cecil. What a fatuous phrase. If we’re all in it together why did the newcomers, his merrie band of men, get fed before us workers? People always say what they think will bring them an easy life, and others believe it for the same reason. But not me. Not this time.

We queue up for our beans. I take an extra plate for Daisy, ignoring the stares of those around me. There is no guard to stop me now. I carefully manoeuvre around all the extra people who fill up the space, and carry both plates back to my room.

Daisy lies still in my bed. I stand for a while, beans in hand, and watch her. It’s years since I’ve seen her this way, in sleep. Safe. But here’s the thing. Her skin is waxy, and her breathing is fast. As I look down on her I can see that she is not safe, not really.

I put the plates on my small table and carefully lift the blanket to look down at her body, still bundled up tight in her clothes. If I was to remove them, I think I might find patches of black. Black toes, black fingers. If there are any fingers and toes left. The bandage around her hand is useless now, and the blood is seeping through to my mattress, but I can’t unravel it, and face what is underneath.

She coughs, a weak rumbling at the back of her throat. ‘Be up soon,’ she says, ‘Strawberries. Doctor?’

I tuck the blanket back around her and sit on the side of the bed. I put my hand to her forehead like a professional. ‘No doctor, I’m afraid. Nobody’s seen her since your friends arrived. But you’ll be up and around in no time.’

She seems to come back to herself, blinking, as if clearing her eyes from sleep. ‘Oh, it’s you,’ she says, in her usual voice. ‘I thought we were all done.’

‘Apparently not.’

‘Apparently not,’ she mimics. How cruel she can be. ‘Still better than the rest of us, aren’t you?’

I wish I’d never told her a thing about me, not one real fact that she could use as a weapon. I should have told her I was once a farmer’s wife, or a baker, or unemployed, in a council flat; some simple thing she couldn’t find fault with. Not a schoolteacher to the privileged elite; somebody who came to this place through having connections. I had never suffered the right kind of suffering for her.

‘Why did you help them?’ I ask. ‘They’ll destroy the domes.’

She rolls her eyes. ‘No, they won’t. They want a better world, Mel. They deserve their chance to fight for it. Don’t you remember what it was like to want to fight?’

‘I never wanted to fight.’

‘No.’ She coughs again, a softer sound. ‘I believe that.’

How do you say to someone – I think we should make up now because you’re very probably about to die? I sit quietly, my hand on her head, and try to think of a way to work that particular sentiment into the conversation. How very controlled I am.

‘I’m so, so sorry,’ I tell her. ‘For everything.’

‘It’s like that, is it?’ She nods her head on the pillow, seeing right through me, as always. ‘Thought so. They found me too late, I suppose. I had the bears with me, and I lay down with them in the snow, that was all I wanted, and I could still taste the strawberries. But then there was this young face in front of my eyes and all the bears were gone. I don’t know where they went. All gone. The young man said – help me, help us, help us get in and take what should belong to everyone, and it just seemed so sensible, Mel. Not that it should belong to everyone. But it should belong to them, to the young. To the kids who grew up without ever tasting a strawberry. That’s not right, is it? That’s not how it’s meant to be.’

She stops talking. All her energy has been sucked up by that speech. I get the feeling she’s been saying it to herself, over and over, in her head. Her reasons for getting them in.

I lie down beside her, and she doesn’t have the strength to tell me to go away.

‘I loved you,’ I tell her.

‘I’m not going right this minute,’ she slurs, but she turns over towards me and puts her good hand, in its thick mitten, on the old, loose curve of my breast. How could she have given up on me, on this? How could she have told me that she wanted to sit at a different table for every single meal, and never hear my voice again?

I lie there, trying not to breathe, until she falls back into sleep. Then I peel her hand away and stand up. The two plates of beans have congealed, but I don’t care. I eat them both, passionate for their flavour, their scent, their taste. I’m alive, and I eat for both of us.

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It comes to me, as I work through the afternoon under the guise of normality, that I’m not just alive, not in the same way I was before. I’m more alive. Every breath sings in my chest. Every time I stoop to take a soil sample the pain in my back is an epiphany – a promise that I hurt, I hate, I love, I live.

The feelings swell as the hours pass. I don’t care whether the others are working, or what happens outside my area. The feelings swell to the point of bursting open.

I hear the approach of Mr Cecil’s buggy.

I feel hope with the sharpness of citrus in the mouth, a long-forgotten taste, but when I turn around I make out, behind the wheel, the face of the man who stared at me through the glass panel in the door to Sector K, and I remember that Mr Cecil is probably dead, and that I never liked him much anyway.

The buggy comes to a juddering halt a few yards away – he needs some driving practice – and he climbs out, a smile set in place, as if we’re about to be introduced at a garden party.

‘Mel?’ he says.

I don’t answer.

His lovely face has lost all signs of the cold, and his beard is brown, and dishevelled, a sturdy, thriving mess of hair. How tall he stands. No softness to his body at all. And he has left his thick coats elsewhere to reveal strong arms the colour of milk. He must be boiling in this sudden change of temperature.

‘I’m Lucas,’ he says. ‘Has Daisy talked about me?’

‘No.’

‘I found her, out in the snow. She’s in your room, right? The others said she’d be with you. How is she?’

It surprises me, that what felt like a lifetime for me was obviously just a blip to the other workers. Mel and Daisy – still a couple in the eyes of the biodomes, intertwined like the roots of the plants that surround us. That’s how it appears, if you’re outside the experience.

When I still don’t respond, he changes tack, and his smile drops away. ‘I’m going to be looking after Sector K,’ he says. He has a strange accent. ‘We’ll be working together.’

‘Good for you, young man,’ I tell him, trying to remember my schoolteacher tones. ‘Now let me get on with my job.’

‘Daisy said you could be difficult.’

‘So you know all about me, do you?’ I don’t care if he’s in charge, or if he killed Mr Cecil himself, or even if he kills me, just so long as he goes away.

‘No. And you don’t know me.’

‘No, I don’t.’

He looks around at the high, curved dome of white, and the orange globes amidst the tall, curling tendrils. Can he recognise paradise when he sees it, or is it just an asset to be jotted down on the plus column of what he feels he is owed?

‘Listen,’ he says. ‘I need to see Daisy.’

‘Why?’

He swipes at his forehead with his palm. ‘You should stop asking so many questions.’

‘Actually, I don’t care for what I should or shouldn’t do.’ I turn around, and pretend to be absorbed in the plant growth behind me. But he moves around to stand my eyeline once more, and now he’s wearing a deep frown as if he’s only just realised that this place is unfamiliar to him.

‘She’s dead,’ I tell him.

This piece of news doesn’t change his expression.

‘Come on, then,’ I say. ‘Let’s go and see her. Since you don’t believe me.’ I march past the buggy, toward the sliding door that seals up tight to keep in the moisture. A moment later I hear him reversing the buggy, and then following along behind me.

‘You can ride with me,’ he says.

‘That’s for management.’

‘I’m not management.’

‘I thought you said you were in charge of Sector K?’

He doesn’t respond. I walk the entire way. At some point, in the corridors, he abandons the buggy.

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I don’t like the way Lucas holds Daisy’s bandaged hand, as if he had a right to touch her, and she would not have minded. The fact that she is dead does not change my feelings about this in the least; to touch someone, you should definitely have their permission.

He stays very still, sitting on the side of the bed, just as I did a few hours earlier. The empty plates, stained orange with bean juice, have a strong smell that fills the room. I wish I had returned them to the refectory instead of leaving them on the small table.

‘At least she didn’t die alone,’ he says.

‘We all die alone.’

‘I’ve seen a lot of deaths, and some of them were better than others.’

‘Then you weren’t seeing them properly,’ I say. ‘Are you trying to thank me for staying with her? Or blame me for going back to work afterwards?’

‘I’m not saying either of those things,’ he said.

How incredibly easy it is for him to make me feel angry. What makes a good death, and what makes a bad death? Who is he to decide?

‘I think you should go now,’ I say. He looks up at me as if he might refuse, but then he puts down Daisy’s hand and stands up.

‘I’ll get a crew to come by and take her – the body – away.’

‘No hurry.’ I step back as he passes by me, folding my arms over my chest. I’m determined not to look at his face, but I can’t help myself – I need to see what’s there. The rough surfaces of his cheeks, the plain of his forehead, and more; there is something I recognise in his eyes, and in an uncontrollable instant I feel my expression change to mirror his. It’s a great task, then, to hold on to my emotions until he’s gone, but I manage it. And then I’m alone.

The sound spills out of me and uncurls to fill all corners of the room. It’s a deep, low growl – the equal and opposite of the alarm that led to this moment, but it means the same thing. Danger is here. It is breaking down the doors, ripping its way through my warm, safe places, bringing an icy wind.

God. Now there’s a name that has not graced my lips for many years, but the concept comes back to me easily, and I curse it. God, fate, everlasting life, whatever: I curse it all, in my head, while the sound coming from my open mouth winds down to nothing.

I get up. I pull the blanket over Daisy’s head, taking care not to look at the mouth that I am not allowed to kiss.

How long will it take Lucas to come back, others in tow, for disposal duty? I’m not sure. I have the feeling that time isn’t running right anyway. Outside the bedroom it is sprinting in circles, hands around the face of an ancient and unstoppable clock. But not in here.

I kneel down, and reach under the bed for my stacked glass slides, carefully searching through them until I find the one I want. Four black lines topped with a curve for a handle. A paint pot. And underneath, one word: Eurydice.

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Number 32

 

The arrival of new workers always upset her.

They had been given fresh clothes, but they still wore the outside world in their expressions, and what Mel saw there was pinched, and cold, and desperate. But those expressions never lasted too long. They all sank into the stupor of the warm, and the fed. The mind was always so keen to forget.

The new ones were dotted between the familiar faces in the common room: Miriam and Barry were doing a jigsaw puzzle, and Gareth was strumming something cheery, using big open chords, on his battered guitar. He had attracted a crowd, as usual, who mumbled through the familiar lines of the few songs he was able to play. I Want to Break Free, which might have had some meaning in this place if everyone didn’t sing it so happily and without a shade of self-consciousness. And that song Ironic, ironically. Like rain on your wedding day, they all sang, and all angst disappeared, and soon everyone would go off to bed with a smile.

Mel sat alone, digging the dirt out from under her fingernails, and considered what to paint next. She painted many aspects of her past, capturing a range of experiences, trapping them on glass so that she did not have to feel them any more. She never wanted life to feel fresh and newly opened again; she didn’t want anything else to happen that might take her attention from the past.

She thought about being left with only melons to paint, and the idea made her smile. To paint a melon – yes, she should do one, at least. A big, round, juicy one, for posterity. She got up and left the noise of the common room behind, taking her time down the dimly lit corridors, the floor level solar lamps glowing so yellow that they reminded her of candleflame. A real fire – that was another thing she should paint. A fire like her father used to make. How easily subjects were coming to her tonight.

The corridors were empty apart from her. They curved around the domes to link everything together in loops and twirls that had once made her dizzy. It had taken her months to learn the patterns of the pathways, but now she did not need to think about the route to the storeroom. She could have found it with her eyes closed.

Mel reached the door, and entered the code on the keypad. It clicked open, and the drop in temperature hit her as she stepped over the threshold, into the darkness, where the metal shelves ran in rows, high, holding crates and containers that were once essential to the running of Blossom Farm. Signposts, stacked in the far corner, back when the place had wanted to be found. But the only thing that interested Mel was the paint. The tins filled up the shelf on the back wall, and she was always relieved to see so many of them, like a promise. And in this place, where only a wall separated her from the outside, she could hear the wind. It howled with lonely pleasure, and she felt she understood it.

Outside a woman was waiting for her. She was round and creamy and gave the impression of being filled with something heavy. None of the shock of the new sat upon her, although Mel had never seen her before. She felt certain she would have remembered somebody who seemed so much more real than the rest of the place.

‘You’re from up north, right?’ the woman said.

‘No,’ said Mel.

‘I saw you in York. That meeting. You spoke about fuel prices, and then it all kicked off. Twenty years ago.’

‘No,’ said Mel again. ‘I’m from Portsmouth. I was. From Portsmouth.’

‘That’s only down the road.’ The woman looked at the paint tin, and Mel decided to answer no more questions.

‘Excuse me,’ she said, and the woman said, at the same time, ‘I followed you.’

‘What?’

‘From the main room. The jigsaws, the guitar. You slipped out. You looked like you were going some place better. You should cover your tracks if you’re not meant to be in there.’

‘I am allowed to be in there. I have permission.’

‘Great! Good for you. Privileges.’ The woman reached into the pocket of her knitted cardigan, no doubt made by the endlessly creating brigade of Sue, Poppy, Alicia and Geoff, and produced a small stuffed bear. ‘This is Eurydice.’ She made four syllables of the name.

It was the mixture of accusation and charm that befuddled Mel to the point of actually smiling. ‘Hello Eurydice,’ she said, taking herself by surprise.

The woman leaned forward conspiratorially. ‘She can’t actually speak,’ she said. ‘Nobody gave her a mouth. I made her when I was a little girl, and I didn’t think she needed one back then.’

‘You could make one for her now.’

‘Oh no. I don’t think she’s actually that bothered. There’s nothing that facilitates the abdication of responsibility so much as not having a mouth in the first place.’ She said this long sentence in one breath, like a well-rehearsed speech, and Mel felt a sudden bond, as if she had more in common with this person than with anybody else she had met in such a long time, even from before coming to the farm. If those words were a test, Mel felt certain that she wanted to pass it.

‘Have you been allocated an area yet?’

‘Me, or Eurydice?’

‘I’m assuming your beautiful lost soul of a bear will get to be a lotus-eater.’

‘Yes, you’re probably right. The winery, they said. But no room allocations yet. We’re meant to bunk down in the big room tonight.’

‘The common room,’ Mel said. ‘You won’t get any sleep in there. Come on. You can stay with me tonight.’

‘Will you tell me what that tin is for?’

‘Nope,’ said Mel, and the smile she received in return was an affirmation. Yes, she passed the test. She passed the test on that day, at least.

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Three of them come for the body. They are two men and a woman, and Lucas is not among them. They have a dirty trolley that usually takes seedlings from the nursery to the sectors, and they lay her on that, keeping my blanket over her. It’s fine. I don’t want it any more anyway.

When people die here –

When people die here there’s a process, but that seems to have been overturned. I didn’t give it much thought before, except that the process made sense. Everything worked in a certain way. But these new young people know nothing of it, and don’t care to ask. They set off down the corridor with Daisy, and I follow along behind until one of them turns around and says, ‘Get back to work. There are mouths to feed.’

He’s a tall man, bone thin. The other man and the woman both stop walking and stare at him. Something tells me this is the first time he’s assumed such a level of command, and he’s enjoying the sensation. They look at his enjoyment, and they say nothing.

The only replies that come into my mind are pathetic variations on, ‘You’re not the boss of me’ and experience has taught me nobody emerges from such statements with any dignity. In fact, there’s no dignity to be salvaged here at all, no matter what I say or do. There are words that this man would be happy to throw at me; there are labels that would begin to define me as less than him. I need to keep myself free from such words, but I also have to know what they’re going to do with Daisy.

I choose my words so very carefully. ‘I just need to see her laid to rest, please.’

‘Want to sing a hymn or two, do you?’ He laughs, and the woman lays a hand on his shoulder from behind him, so gently. Ahhhhh, I see what this is: he has had such a hard life, she is telling herself as she touches him. He’s only known the toughest way to be, to survive, and he can’t express himself any other way, but he means well. She’s determined to back up his pain as the most important in the room. Oh, the difficulties of being such a strong young man in charge.

‘Fine,’ he says, and the woman smiles at me, as if she’s done me a favour. She’s hardly more than a teenager, and she’s already well practised in feminine idiocy.

We start moving again. The woman checks a piece of paper as she pushes the trolley along, looking at a map perhaps, and we cross through the sectors, working our way out to the grapevines and the winery beyond, which would be a perfect place for Daisy. The corridors are mainly empty – it’s still working hours – and everything looks quite normal, apart from one buggy that has been overturned, right on to its roof, like a practical joke, without explanation. The men and the woman steer the trolley around it without comment.

We pass through the winery, where the large wooden vats stand and the smell is sharp and sour. Green bottles sit on a long trestle table, each one bearing a label that says Blossom Farm’s Finest Table Wine in curly letters, and a picture of a bunch of beautiful grapes. The workers take care to not look straight at us, and the way they know to avoid their eyes tells me that there have been quite a few trolleys passing this way.

Beyond the winery there is a place I’ve never visited before – a corridor, crates of bottles piled against the walls, that ends in a door. The lock has been prised free, and dangles loose on two electrical wires. This must be how these agro-terrorists got in here, away from the cameras and the guards. An emergency exit, of all things, forgotten about. Except that Daisy found it, once upon a time. She did always love to explore.

‘Stay,’ the tall man says to me.

‘Let her say goodbye?’ says the woman, and when he doesn’t reply I think he won’t mind if I touch Daisy one last time. But here’s the thing; I don’t want to touch her, not here, not in front of them. Besides, I tell myself over and over, she’s dead, she’s dead. What does flesh on a trolley mean? It means nothing at all. Whatever happens next, it doesn’t matter.

‘No, it’s fine,’ I say.

‘Let’s do this quick,’ says the other man.

The woman pushes the door, and when it doesn’t give the men join in, all three straining until it moves, and a drift of snow tumbles in to the corridor, along with the freezing cold. Outside, I can see only white.

The men take either end of the body, and carry it out.

‘Why out there?’ I say, to the woman, who stays behind, wrapping her arms around herself as she watches them.

‘The snow will cover them,’ she says. ‘I’m sorry, the ground’s too hard for a proper burial.’

‘So they’ll just leave her?’ I come and stand beside her, and look out at the afternoon, the sun already low in the sky. It’s not snowing right now; the drifts stretch away, so beautiful, and the cold is a hammer to my chest. I gasp, and look around, and see the men, not far away. They are already coming back, leaving behind my blanket, and the body wrapped within it, lying in a dip between two mounds of snow. In fact, it’s a field of these regularly spaced mounds. Bodies, covered in white. Many bodies, making hillocks. The guards, the supervisors, and now Daisy.

The woman grabs my arm and pulls me back.

‘Why?’ I ask her, knowing I have only moments before the men return and she will no longer speak to me.

‘Why what? I told you.’

‘No. No, Don’t you understand? We’re not important. It’s the plants. You die, and you go under the ground in your sector. To feed the plants. Out there -‘ I point at the broken door, the way outside that is swallowing our heat so greedily, ‘- is no good to anyone. The plants need the nutrients.’

‘You bury people under the plants?’

‘Of course. The nutrients. That’s where Daisy should be. In Strawberries. She worked Strawberries, in the end.’

The man return, and slam the door shut, then kick their boots against the corridor walls, flinging around snow. ‘It’s strange how quickly you get used to the warm,’ reflects the tall one, and then he remembers me, and assumes the tone of command once more. ‘Off you go, then,’ he says. ‘Work.’

And off I go.

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There is an hour left to the day. I return to Sector K, and find Lucas there, standing on my soil. He touches the fruit with his fingertips.

The rage that comes over me can’t be contained, even though it is dangerous. I walk towards him with the plan to slap his face, for something I can’t define. He sidesteps me, and then I’m deep in the tangle of the plants, and my leg is caught. I fall to the earth. It’s easier to hit the soil than to hit him, anyway. It gives under my weight. It understands me.

Lucas stands over me, hovering on tiptoes, like an idiot.

‘Go away,’ I tell him, when I have enough control of myself.

‘Are you all right?’

‘What do you think?’

‘Can I help you up?’

I don’t take his hand, and after a while he squats down next to me. Here, in the green, it’s harder to hate him.

‘They put Daisy outside,’ I say, to his knees. ‘It’s a waste. Tell them. Bodies go in the ground. Here.’ I pat the soil, and then meet his eyes. His youth, his newness, is so alien, like the wings of an insect or the bright yellow beak of a bird. ‘Here’s where I want to end up. Right here.’

‘You’d give everything to Blossom Farm.’

‘Not the farm.’ Don’t they see it? They all act as if there are only institutions in this world, and nothing else worth talking about, nothing else worth saving.

‘They don’t care about you,’ he says, and I know he hasn’t understood.

‘Neither does your lot.’

‘No,’ he says. ‘You’re probably right.’

He sits down next to me. After a while he says, ‘This place is too beautiful to survive.’

‘It’s the beautiful things that live on.’

‘Not any more. Not out there.’

‘We’re not out there.’

He shakes his head. ‘Daisy said you came in here before it got bad. That you were working in a private school and there was a special arrangement, friends in high places…’

‘Daisy said an awful lot to you considering she hadn’t said a word to me in three years.’

He laughs. His smile is clear and strong. ‘Maybe she’d been saving it all up, then. Her need to talk about you.’

Think clearly, I remind myself; this is no time to fall back in love with youth. ‘Please leave me alone,’ I tell him. ‘I’ll take care of the melons. You can have the fruit, eat it, give it to orphaned children, dance round it in your underwear, I don’t care. But please leave me alone, and don’t come into this area again.’

‘What are you afraid of?’ he asks, and that undoes me. I put my dirty hands, fresh from the soil, over my face and whisper, ‘It’s not always about being afraid.’

‘Isn’t it?’ he says, reflectively. When I take my hands away I see, in his eyes, a lifetime of being afraid, more than any fair share, more than I have felt. Fear as a default setting – not just in waking hours, but creeping into all dreams, even the good ones. I have had moments of safety, of love, of comfort, and they have kept me going through the lean periods. I’m not sure Lucas has.

‘Did you really care about her?’ I ask him. ‘Why?’

‘I don’t know. She seemed… real to me.’

‘Don’t tell me. She reminded you of your mother.’

‘She wasn’t anybody’s mother. Not like you.’

‘I never had children,’ I tell him.

‘That doesn’t mean you weren’t a mother. She told me. You loved those kids. You fought for them. To get them away.’

Yes, I did, I fought for them, and even though it sounds clichéd I can’t deny that I was all those children had in those difficult moments, and I did my very best by them.

‘It’s a good thing,’ says Lucas, ‘to be a mother. But Daisy wasn’t one. I could see that as soon as I found her. People think I’m a follower. Lucas, who does what he’s told. When she got better, she started to talk to me as if I could make my own decisions. I’ve not felt that before. It’s a different way for people to be.’

‘What kind of way?’

‘Friends,’ he says, simply. ‘We were friends.’

I feel something open within me. It is pride, flowering. I’m proud of this man, this stranger, who would call a prickly old lady a friend. A description of equal terms.

‘Help me up,’ I say.

He stands, and holds out his hands once more, and this time I take them, and let him pull me up. We emerge from the plants and stand on the walkway, side by side. The dome looks different. Perhaps the lights have started to dim as part of the cycle. Soon the sprinklers will kick in.

‘The storeroom,’ I say. ‘Why did you want to get in there?’

‘Daisy said there were materials in the storeroom.’ He wets his lips. ‘Paint.’

‘You want paint?’

‘Not a lot. Just a little.’

The way he says it tells me that Daisy has told him about this side of my personality too.

‘Right. Right.’

He knows that I have the code to the storeroom and he didn’t pressure me for it. Is that decency, or manipulation on his part?

Either way, it helps me to make a decision. ‘I’ll let you in. But I won’t give you the code. You only come in and out with me, understood?’

‘Certainly. It’s your space, after all.’

Does he really believe that? He’s wily enough to keep any streak of sarcasm out of his voice.

Either way, the deal is done. We walk along together, and talk of what life is like for a child on the outside. I wonder if maybe Blossom Farm shouldn’t have given their jobs to the very young, rather than the very old. But it makes perfect sense. I’m ashamed to realise that the old are so much easier to control.

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Part Two

 

I no longer have a blanket.

But this doesn’t matter, because I no longer have a room.

‘It’s a reallocation to make sure everyone gets a place to sleep,’ says the woman standing in my doorway. Behind her, another woman is sitting at my small table, polishing a long knife with a cloth, taking care not to look at me. ‘Go to the Common Room and they’ll set you up.’

‘But this is my room,’ I say. All I want is to get inside it. Coming back down the corridor from the Store Room, I was thinking only about the fact I had no blanket. What was I going to do? No warm blanket any more. It’s strange, how quickly priorities can change.

‘We all have to make sacrifices,’ says the woman. ‘It’s not that you don’t have a place to sleep. It’s just this is a big room, and we thought the original workers might want to stick together, so you’ll have been allocated a place in with your own kind.’ She nibbles her cracked bottom lip; the change in temperature must be playing havoc with her skin.

‘So off you trot,’ says the woman with the knife, who looks as clean and brutal as a teenager. She doesn’t even bother to make eye contact with me. She is a parody of a threat, like she’s practised it for hours and now is happy to seize her chance.

‘Keep your knickers on,’ I tell her. I’ve had a bad enough day to no longer care. Besides, she’s obviously all bark and no bite. Who seriously polishes a knife just to scare an old lady?

‘We could throw you out in the cold instead,’ she says. Something in her voice suggests to me this isn’t the first time she’s thought of this idea, or voiced it.

The other woman, the one at my door, says, ‘I put your stuff in here.’ She reaches around the door and brings out a white plastic sack, about half-full. I take it and look inside: my clothes, books, hairbrush, cream for my legs when they ache. Not my slides. They must still be under the bed. I can’t leave them behind. But carrying them would be a job for more than one person, and where would I put them? How would I explain them? The one with the knife – she would smash them if she suspected they were important to me. I’m beginning to recognise this look some of them have, as if the things they’ve experienced outside will justify the things they do in here.

‘Thanks,’ I say, to the one at the door. I set off for the Common Room. It’s nearly dinner time and my body is hurting. No doubt it will only get worse tomorrow. I want my bed. I want my slides, my happy places. I want. I want my blanket.

I want to see Daisy. I want her to ignore me over dinner, sitting at a different table, feeling hatred, feeling disgust, just feeling something personal and real and Daisyish at me.

In the storeroom, Lucas said, ‘Look at all the stuff in here. People get killed for this outside. Petrol. Look. Batteries. Torches. Inflatable tents. Solar warmers.’ He spoke softly, in awe, as if entering a cathedral.

‘I thought you wanted paint,’ I said, watching him from the door. ‘It’s against the far wall.’

‘Thanks.’ But he didn’t move quickly. He examined each shelf in turn: top, middle, bottom, as he walked down the rows. ‘How come they gave you access to this place? They must really trust you.’

‘I was friends with the supervisor before Mr Cecil,’ I said.

‘I thought you were… friends with Daisy?’

‘I thought you of all people would understand there’s more than one kind of friend in the world.’

Mr Taylor, I had called him, once I worked for him. Once upon a time, in a classroom not too far away, he had called me Miss Baris. He was a good boy, although he didn’t believe it, and he turned into a better man. When it all went wrong, he came for me.

‘What are these?’ asked Lucas. He touched my slides, the ones that I painted and left behind in the storeroom; the ones that I didn’t want to be reminded of so often, unless a dark mood took me.

‘Nothing.’

He picked one up at random, and held it up. It was a painting of a day I never want to think about. Another day of goodbyes, years ago.

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Slide 58

 

She counted them getting on to the bus, and she counted them leaving it, even though they could not have gone anywhere during the journey. Old habits. There were only five of them left. They didn’t even sit together on the thirty minute trip to the port, but spaced themselves evenly throughout the bus, leaving a pattern of empty seats. Miss Baris wished there was some way she could tell them they needed each other, but she had been a teacher long enough to know that children never, ever, believed such sentiments. They thought themselves invincible, and maybe that would be enough to get them through.

They gathered in front of the doors to Departure, the kids shivering, even in their expensive coats. A light sleet was falling. It looked like snow if you stared up into it, but on the skin and on the concrete it was grey, and wet, and dull.

‘Let’s run through it again,’ said Miss Baris, and they all groaned as one. At least they were united in some things. ‘Natalya, start us off.’

‘Number one: stay together at all times,’ said the smallest girl, so small. So eager to please with her prompt reply and her smart manners.

‘Omar?’

‘Number two: board the ferry and don’t speak to anyone except the people in charge.’ He was a pain in class, big and bullish, but if any of them had grasped the seriousness of the situation it was him, and she saw a determination in his eyes that gave her hope for them all.

‘Quentin – number three.’

The boy gaped at her. He wasn’t the brightest, but he had a soft heart and loved all animals, choosing to spend most of his time in the school stables. He had told her once that he wanted to study to become a vet, and she had told him to work hard. That was what teachers said in the face of unrealistic dreams.

‘Disembark at…’ she prompted him.

‘Disembark at Bilbao and use the Euros to pay for a taxi to the train station. From there get tickets to Madrid.’

‘Well done,’ she said. ‘Number four. Lupita.’

‘Once we arrive in Madrid get to the Russian Embassy. Ask for our parents to be contacted,’ said Lupita, in a bored voice. She wanted so much to be the ideal woman and ended up looking more like a child than any of them with her hitched-up skirt and her practised, sulky attitude. She was the weakest link of the five. If she felt the urge to wander off, she would, and the rest would fall apart in her absence.

‘I’m relying on you, Lupita,’ Miss Baris said, knowing it wouldn’t help, but unable to stop herself. ‘Five, Dimitri.’

‘Five. Stay together at all times,’ recited Dimitri, the cheeky one, working on becoming tall and handsome and trouble to the world in general. ‘Miss, why is rule five the same as rule one?’

Lupita nudged him. ‘Because it’s the most important, you moron.’

‘We don’t call each other morons, Lupita,’ said Miss Baris.

‘And our parents will pick us up there?’ asked Natalya.

‘That’s right.’ Lies came so easily to teachers. She had long since learned to ignore any twinge of conscience. She was the last teacher left in the school, and these were the last pupils. There would soon be no more food, no more light, no more heating. After the extortionate cost of bribing the official to secure five places on the ferry, there was simply no more money.

And at the other end, what happened then? She had contacted so many people, trying to get hold of the parents who hadn’t bothered to come for their own children when the gulf stream began to fail. Powerful people. Dignitaries, celebrities, billionaires. She had to hope that her failure to reach them could be put right by the Embassy. Two of the children had that nationality, at least, and she had sent them an email informing them that any attempt to split up these children would result in the press being contacted. She had an inkling the kids could also make bargaining chips against other countries, but knew next to nothing about politics.

Stop, she told herself, stop. You’ve done the best that you could do.

‘Aren’t you coming, Miss?’ said Omar, managing to look vulnerable.

‘No, I’m needed here,’ she said. ‘But you are all capable of doing this. I have great faith in you all. Just make sure you stay together.’

They groaned.

‘Right,’ she said. ‘Off you go.’

They did. They walked through the doors without looking behind, because this was an adventure and she was only a teacher.

Back at the bus, she sat behind the wheel until the ferry had swung away from the dock. Then she took the printed email and the map from her coat pocket and read the words through again.

I hope you remember me. I was Billy Taylor, in your biology class fifteen years ago at Portsdown. You taught me about plants. I was fascinated. You made it all seem so important. I went on to study Agriculture at college and I work for Blossom Farm now. Have you heard of them? They have a series of bio-farms not far from the school. They’re employing older people, dependable people, to look after the plants, and I thought of you. You inspired me.

Would you consider coming here? I don’t know what’s happening to this country but I heard the school was closing as everyone with enough money to get away was leaving, like rats on a sinking ship, I suppose. I don’t know if you remember that English never was my strongest subject. But if you are staying in the UK and you need a place to go then you are welcome here. I’ve enclosed a map. When you arrive ask the guards at the gate to page me. It’s warm, and safe, and I can get you a good room of your own. 

Miss Baris started the engine, and drove away, hoping the roads were still clear enough to make it through.

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‘Is it a bus?’ said Lucas.

‘Can’t you tell?’ I said.

He frowned at it, then put it back on the pile. He carried on looking around the treasures of the store room, and said, quietly, ‘I won’t tell anyone about this place, okay?’

‘Why don’t I believe you?’

He said, ‘Something tells me you’re a scientist at heart. Don’t believe anything until it’s proved, that’s what you think. So just wait, and I’ll prove it to you. You don’t have much choice, anyway.’

‘That’s true,’ I said.

He picked up a paint tin, and then reached for the signs. ‘Can I take these too? I like to paint. I’m no good at it either. Well, I wasn’t. Back was I was little. I can remember it, a warm room, some paper, a painting kit. Colours. I’d like to get good at it, some day. Maybe we should both get some practice in.’

‘I don’t do it to be good at it.’

‘No. I can understand that.’ He was so very reasonable that it hurt.

He came back to me, at the door, loaded up with his spoils, and said, ‘I think us painters at heart should stick together.’

And even though I knew he was saying it only for his own reasons, I heard myself saying, ‘Yes.’ Yes, with the memory of another time in my agreement. Rules one and five are still in my mind, even if I don’t look at the black lines on glass that make up that bus journey. ‘Yes,’ I said. ‘Stick together.’

I reach the Common Room, and find it filled with confused old people to whom I don’t want to belong. It turns out the room allocations are not going so smoothly after all.

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It’s not that anybody is obviously angry. Maybe you get too old to show anger, visibly, even if you’re never too old to feel it. But there are so many people in the common room who are unhappy, crying, standing around with white plastic sacks in hand, and I join them, push my way through the groups, looking for somebody in charge.

By the archway to the refectory is a cluster of young people, all women; I recognise one of them. She took Daisy away earlier. She holds a clipboard and the others are gathered around it, frowning. I notice some of them are wearing pagers and utility belts, that must have once belonged to the supervisors.

Lucas isn’t here, and neither is the leader – Stephan, he called himself. Room allocation is obviously not an important topic to those in charge. I’m thinking they must already be ensconced in the supervisors’ old rooms. No question of double bunking in those.

I watch them squabble over the clipboard for a while. This could take all night, and I’m not brave enough to approach them.

‘Mel.’

Jim is behind me, with Lonnie in tow.

‘Have they taken your room?’ He gives me a sympathetic smile. ‘I suppose that would be the first one they’d want. It always was the biggest of the workers’ rooms.’

He’s not holding a white plastic sack himself, I notice. ‘At least you’re okay,’ I say, trying to sound friendly.

‘Well, since we’re a two sharing already I expect it makes more sense to let us keep the space. But we were thinking – if you need a place to sleep, come bunk in with us. We have spare blankets and a pillow. It’s still sleeping on the floor, but I don’t think anybody evicted tonight is going to find a bed of their own.’

His generosity shames me. Of course, he wants something. Everybody does. But even so it’s no small thing to give up your personal space. And it’s the best offer I’m going to get tonight.

‘Thank you,’ I say. ‘Thanks Lonnie.’

Her smile is a little more lopsided than Jim’s. I’m guessing she’s not quite so keen on the idea as he is. Still, she doesn’t complain as we leave the Common Room behind.

Their room is smaller than mine, and there are more personal touches evident in it, from quite a stack of books to photographs of young people, people from the past I should say, stuck to the walls and looking straight at me. The bed has a stack of crocheted blankets upon him. That’s Lonnie’s hobby. I don’t know how she could have got hold of so much wool over the years. What does she trade to indulge her hobby? I’m starting to see that my knowledge of Blossom Farm only scratches the surface. I know it geographically, and even politically; socially, now that’s a different matter.

‘You’ll be okay,’ Jim says, as he lays things on the floor: the blankets, the pillow. We take it in turns to use the adjoining bathroom, and I hate the smell of it. The smell of them, scrunched up together in their own sweat, neither of them able to tell their scents apart. Lonnie removes her enormous earrings and leaves them by the bed, ready for first thing the next morning.

Then we’re three old people in the standard green flannel pyjamas, so laughable, being polite to each other. Am I ready for lights out? Jim asks me, courteously. I tell him yes. It’s only once the dim light is out and everyone is tucked up in bed that Jim begins to speak, and say real things. This is why I’m here. So that I can’t just walk away.

‘It’s us and them,’ he says, softly, into the dark, ‘Us and them, Mel, and they want us to think it’s not, but we’re not stupid. And they say Blossom Farm has been using us, cheap compliant labour, practically slaves, but they’re no different. They’re worse, with their pretence of equality and their big statements: food for all, freedom. And they’ll just run this place into the ground because they know nothing about plants, do they? Nothing.’

‘No,’ I whisper. They know a lot about being cold and frozen inside, and about hating us. But we’re catching up fast.

‘Blossom Farm won’t stand for it. I talked to this Stephan, man to man, I said I was the representative for the workers, somebody has to be. Stephan said all the supervisors and guards were escorted away, but we can stay and keep working, that’s part of the deal. He says there’s going to be a profit-sharing agreement for a peaceful solution. But Blossom Farm would never agree to that, would they?’

‘No.’

So Stephan said the guards and Mr Cecil left. But I saw the mounds in the snow. I could start a war here with just a few words. If I just describe those mounds, Jim will start to mobilise us all with the righteous ire of the fed and warm and unimaginative.

Jim talks and talks and talks.

I feel a new sense of sympathy for Lonnie by the time my eyes start to close regardless of the endless sound of his voice. He’s busy talking himself into importance. Has he done this every night since the terrorists came? No wonder she looks so tired.

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The sound jolts me from sleep.

At first I think something heavy has been thrown against the door, but then it comes again, shaking me all the way into wakefulness, and I realise it’s so much bigger than that. Something has been thrown against the domes.

It’s so dark. There’s another bang, and then I hear voices in the corridor, panicked, and running feet, and I feel fear like I never have, so sharp, like pain.

The melons.

Not the melons, not when everything else has gone, but then someone shouts, ‘Winery!’ and the relief is so keen, like ice on a burn; I go numb, and the aches of my body don’t matter as I get up, get dressed, and head out towards the noise.

I don’t think. I just move, fast, in the flow with the others. Is Jim behind me? I hear a man shouting my name but I ignore it, I’m caught up in the crowd, young and old moving together and I can’t tell them apart any more.

The heat hits me when we reach the entrance to the Winery and the crowd panics, parts, and disperses into smaller groups as I press on past the shelves. There are flakes of snow whirling in the orange glow up ahead, hot and cold, fire and snow, mixing, mingling, making crazy patterns. The back wall of the winery is gone. The barrels are alight, and the puddles, puddles all around, burn. The hole in the wall, like a ragged mouth, is terrifying. The fire runs and roars; it is a monster.

I can’t make out faces, or understand what is being shouted, but I make out the concerted movements around me. Some people are attempting to control the blaze. The young ones use blankets, handfuls of snow, even their feet as they stamp and stamp in the fiery liquid. Stephan is there, a central point, standing tall against the blaze and facing it down with the confidence of one who is used to getting his own way. The fire will lose the battle. It begins to obey.

Someone catches at my arm. It’s Jim. I’m beginning to get sick of his face.

‘Come on,’ he says, ‘come away. They’ve got it.’ He pushes at me, and I nearly lose my balance, but he’s right; we should go. When the fire goes out there will only be the hole, and the cold pouring through it, and this section will be closed off as best as the terrorists can manage to stop the endless winter from touching our plants. And to stop up the sight of those mounds.

‘Where’s Lonnie?’ I say, as we push past the milling crowds, their mouths open, their eyes glassy. Rubberneckers, that’s what they used to be called. The desire to stare at a car crash, when somebody else’s world has gone wrong. Except this is our world – don’t we have the right to stare?

‘I told her to stay in bed,’ Jim says. ‘You took off so fast. I was worried about you.’ He holds on to my arm, so tightly.

‘I needed to know what was happening.’

‘What was always going to happen.’ The corridor is quieter; all attention is focused behind us, on the blaze. Jim slows a little, and loosens his grip. He speaks more quietly, and with well-chosen words. I get the feeling he’s been rehearsing this in his mind. ‘They’ll never hold this place. They’ll tell us all sorts of lies to keep us all working, but they have to know they have a few days more at best. This was a message Blossom Farm was always going to send.’

‘You think Blossom Farm deliberately blew up the Winery?’

‘It’s the easiest and cheapest area to replace,’ he says. ‘It’s just equipment, not even under the domes. Not organic. But it shows they’d rather destroy it than share it.’

I can’t accept it, I can’t; destroy the melons, the strawberries, the oranges, the sugar snap peas, because if they don’t own it they think nobody should.

‘Lonnie is getting more confused,’ Jim says. ‘It’s all this uncertainty. You know what happens when one of us gets confused. They put us outside. There’s no reason to keep someone who can’t work. But if I make myself indispensable, they’ll want to keep me happy, and then she’s got a chance. We have to last out this band of idiots and then, once they’re gone, the farm will need new supervisors, ones who understood the situation here and did their best to help the rightful owners.’

He stops walking and pulls me to a halt beside him.

‘Listen,’ he says. ‘You’ve been here so long, you’ve had privileges, you know how this works. You’ve got access to stuff, and you know every inch of the place. We can keep the workers together, unite them, keep them strong so they don’t help the enemy. Days, that’s all it will take until the cavalry arrives. Days.’

‘You think we should form an underground movement?’ I ask him. Is he picturing us striking some valiant blow for a business that doesn’t care about us one way or another? His desperation is repulsive, but I’ve been in love. I know what it’s like to think you’ll do anything to keep someone close. Still, I’m too old for this nonsense.

‘Listen,’ I say. I step in close to him and hold his gaze, so he can be in no doubt that I mean this. ‘I can’t help you. I’m done with getting involved. I came here for an easy life, and I just care about the melons. That’s it.’

‘You don’t get to have an easy life now, you silly old woman,’ he says. ‘You silly, silly old woman. This is going to be hard, and you’re part of it, whether you like it or not. In the morning they’ll call a meeting, wait and see. They’ll say that Blossom Farm never cared about us, and they’ll try to split us up. They don’t get it. We know we never mattered to anybody but ourselves, but there comes a point where you have to stand up for that. For meaning something, if only to yourself. And you do care, Mel. We’re approaching the moment where you won’t be able to pretend otherwise any more. Then remember my offer, and remember what you need to do to survive.’ He steps back and puts his hand on the door handle. ‘And don’t mention any of this to Lonnie, okay? She doesn’t need to be upset.’

I follow him into the room and in the warm darkness it’s possible to believe that Lonnie sleeping, her unbroken peace, is enough for all of us. I crawl back into my nest on the floor and Jim returns to his place beside her.

Us and them. Everything is us and them. Even if there were just us three: Jim and Lonnie and me, there would be the divide that splits the heart of all humanity, and if it came to it they would both turn on me.

Did Lucas mean it? That we painters should stick together? I wish I had seen him at the fire, just to see his face. But it’s so dangerous to trust. Even Daisy, Daisy who had me in her hand, could not be trusted in the end.

No, I won’t trust anyone. That’s the only way to be. If it must be us and them, then I’ll stand alone, and take no sides, no matter what happens.

Jim’s breathing slows, and I know he’s found sleep. How lucky he is, to believe in his own importance. He protects Lonnie as if he is a superhero.

SuperJim. The thought makes me smile.

Yes, he’s ridiculous, but as I lie there, feeling the inevitable creep towards morning, I loose the reins of my imagination and picture myself as a young woman, running away over the snow, flanked by the people who make me super too. We are so young and pretty and free, Daisy and Lucas and me.

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It’s egg and toast in the morning, with the strange metallic taste of artificial eggs sticking at the back of my throat. I don’t know how they make them, but I always picture robot chickens sitting above a giant conveyor belt, their necks stretching as they pop out egg after egg.

Damn these stupid thoughts, and my old, sore bones, and sleeping on the floor. And damn Stephan, who looks like a proper leader as he stands on the table at the front of the room and shouts, having started softly before working himself up to a frenzy worthy of a politician. I think he’s missed his calling.

‘We offered them a good deal!’ he shouts. ‘A fair deal! Half the produce for the starving, and half for them and their fat shareholders, as long as they left us alone to form a new collective, a place where young and old could work together towards a future for us all!’ He holds out his hands and knits his fingers together. I finish off the last mouthful of eggs.

‘And this is their answer,’ says Stephan. He drops his hands and his voice. ‘They destroy. They don’t care who gets hurt. They don’t care about you, and they don’t care about the future. They would rather blow this place to hell than simply take a little less for themselves! This is the kind of thinking that got us all into this mess in the first place. No care for each other, no care for the natural world, no care for the planet. Nothing but greed. So we need to show them that they’re wrong. We won’t be scared by their tactics. We won’t give in to fear. We’ll stand strong, and take care of the plants and of each other, until they see sense.’

Does he really think this will work? He flicks his eyes over us all and I see calculations taking place. He thinks he has us where he wants us.

From my position in the far corner, I look around the refectory and see the way the young ones are spread out, sitting in twos and threes, alert, none of them eating. Stephan is a very dangerous man.

‘Now, I know that you must be feeling a lot of things about what happened last night. But now is not the time to give into negativity. Let’s all stay strong, and together we can prove to Blossom Farm that although they might have enslaved you once, they never managed to brainwash you. You will always be, in your hearts, free men and women.’

Across from me, Jim coughs, and catches my eye. You see? his expression says, as clear as day. I told you so.

In my expression I try to put the thought – don’t start trouble Jim, don’t start trouble, they’re ready for you.

‘Any questions?’ says Stephan, pleasantly.

Jim raises his hand. He turns in his chair to face Stephan, and all I can see is the back of his head, where the hairs are combed so carefully. He was in the bathroom for ages this morning.

‘Yes?’

‘It’s not so much a question as an observation,’ says Jim.

‘Please,’ Stephan says, waving a hand. ‘Go ahead.’

He stands up. ‘We’re a pretty old bunch of folks, sir. And we’re all heard this kind of nonsense before. You want to fight a war, you go right ahead. Don’t let us stop you. But I think I speak for all of us when I say we’re not about to fight it for you. Not for all the tea in China.’

‘I’m disappointed to hear you feel that way,’ says Stephan, looking disappointed and righteous. ‘I’m afraid the time has come to choose where you stand, and everybody has to make their own choice. I see that you are choosing to stand with Blossom Farm.’

‘Oh, really?’ says Jim. ‘If I’m not with you I’m against you, is that it? I’ve heard that before, son. And we’re for ourselves, by the way. You lot can be for yourselves and we’ll be for ourselves. End of story.’ He sits down. I’m so glad I can’t see his face. I get the feeling he looks pleased with himself.

‘Ah, I’m so sad that life has been so difficult for you that you can’t tell when a good offer comes along,’ says Stephan. ‘I think we can get together, man to man, and discuss this personally.’

If Jim thought this was how he would keep Lonnie alive, he’s such an idiot. I wonder if he’s beginning to realise that.

‘But no matter how you feel about us,’ says Stephan, addressing the entire room once more, ‘I hope we can all agree that the plants come first. Let’s work hard for them, if not yet for each other.’

He climbs down from the table and people begin to move, taking their trays bearing empty plates and cups to the stacking holders, and then setting off for their sectors with dull, tired expressions. Do I care for them? Will I stand with them? No, I won’t.

The man who took away Daisy’s body comes to our table, and says to Jim, ‘Wait here.’

Jim says nothing. He shrinks down in his seat and Lonnie, beside him, looks up and around, as if waking from a dream.

‘What is it?’ she says, and I say, ‘Work. Come on.’ She follows me, thank God, looking back once or twice at Jim, but she still has the sense to come away.

I drop Lonnie off at Satsumas and then lose myself amongst my melons. Some areas are ripening and I check for colour, size, shape, and write yield estimates, just as Mr Cecil would have liked. The fruits are good and heavy, but I won’t pick them, not yet.

Today the desire is strong to taste one. If I split it open it would reveal the perfect colour of sunrise. My mouth moistens. It’s wet all morning with the thought of the taste. It hasn’t bothered me this way for years, but right now my body is on fire with sensation: the aches and pains, the tiredness, only proves that I’m still alive, and grateful for it. I haven’t felt this way for so long. I can remember exactly when I last felt so glad to still have these old arms and legs, this tired and struggling heart.

I remember it, and I want to put it on glass.

When the lunchtime bell goes I pocket my paintbrush and head to the store room. The paint awaits me. It slides thick and easy over the surface of the pane.

divider

Slide 118

 

The Reception Area of Sector K was a mockery of an earlier time, when there might have been guests to this state-of-the-art biodome complex, but the doors had been shut and the gates erected before Mel’s arrival. The orange seats, the potted palm, and the water dispenser were used only by the workers, and had become invisible, beyond comment. But the stranger looked hard at them, and Mel saw them again, as if for the first time. The orange seats were lurid and the potted palm lopsided. How ridiculous it looked.

The man’s face was slick with sweat. He wore a padded coat that was so bulky he had barely squeezed through the door. But his shoes, and his beard, were still white with snow. He sneered at them both.

Mr Taylor said, ‘Can I help you?’ His voice was very mild.

The man opened his coat. Inside was a bundle, strapped to his chest by a length of sacking material, brown and coarse, looping over his shoulders and around his waist. He unveiled himself, as if something meaningful had been revealed.

Mel thought – a bomb. A bomb. She didn’t move.

She had heard stories. New workers, arriving from the changed world outside, had told tales of separatism, agro-terrorism, people demanding to live under their own rules to make a fairer world. She had eavesdropped on these conversations with vague interest, as if it was happening in another country, far away. Outside – the foreign country. Now the outside was here.

‘Don’t do anything,’ said Mr Taylor. ‘Okay? Nobody needs to do anything.’

The bundle on the man’s chest squirmed. A small arm emerged through a gap in the sacking. It had folds of fat, chubby creases, and the fist clenched and unclenched.

The man stroked the fist, and then put it back inside the material, using only one hand. In the other hand was a knife.

No, not a knife. It was a trowel. One of the small steel trowels they used for planting. He must have come here through the nurseries, Mel thought.

‘Put the knife down, okay?’ said Mr Taylor, who had stretched out his own hands in that classic gesture of placation. Look, I’m empty handed, I mean you no harm.

The man mumbled.

‘What? I’m sorry. I didn’t hear.’

‘I need milk.’

‘You need the meat section. You’re in fruit. Fruit’s no good for a baby.’ Mr Taylor pointed. ‘Here. I’ll show you the way.’

‘Real milk. From a real cow.’

‘Yes, that’s what we do here. Real cows. I promise you. This way.’

The man watched Mr Taylor edge around to stand beside him, at the entrance. How strange, that only a moment ago they had been discussing the weather, as reported onscreen that morning. Another cold one, Mr Taylor had said, can you remember what summer used to be like? I was in the football team and we played out there in shorts.

‘How far?’ said the man.

‘Not far.’ Mr Taylor flicked his eyes to Mel. It was an instruction, so obviously; no, a plea. To do something. What did he want her to do? The man saw it, and read it quickly and completely. He raised the trowel and brought it down, that steel point digging into the space between Mr Taylor’s neck and his chest, right where the collar of his white shirt sat.

Mel looked away. She simply looked away: not there, not there, not there, she heard in her head.

When she came back to herself, she was kneeling by the entrance to her melon area and Mr Taylor was on the ground, not far away. His blood had formed a lake around him, so red, reaching the feet of the orange chairs, the colours clashing.

She crawled over to him. His mouth was opening and shutting. His eyes were on her. He looked very much younger.

‘Billy,’ she said.

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There’s a cheery knock at the store room door, a young person’s knock, and I just know its Lucas. I hate myself for feeling pleased at the thought.

I put down the paintbrush and open the door. He is standing there with a big smile. I let him enter, check the corridor is empty, and then close the door. We are alone in the only space left to me. Why don’t I mind him being here? I should mind it.

‘What are you painting?’ he says. ‘Is that a melon?’

‘It’s not finished yet. And it’s not a melon. It doesn’t look anything like a melon.’

We stand side by side and stare at the black curves on the glass.

‘It looks exactly like a melon,’ he says.

I nudge him in the ribs.

‘Well, what is it, then?’

‘It’s a baby. Look, there’s the head, there’s an eye, that’s a little hand.’

‘Is that a hand, then? Not a flower? I can’t believe I didn’t see it immediately. You’re a painting genius. Look at that brushwork.’

‘Shut up,’ I tell him.

He smiles and smiles, and looks so comfortable with me, like we share something deep. I wish he wouldn’t smile. I have to make him stop.

‘A man got in here. Into Sector K, I mean. Two years ago. He had a baby strapped to his chest. I can still picture it. That baby. I only saw its hand, though.’ I shrug. ‘The mind’s a funny thing.’

At last; he’s stopped smiling. But this sudden feeling of intimacy is worse. The room is so quiet. ‘What happened?’

‘I don’t know. Guards caught him eventually, I heard. He would have been dealt with. I heard rumours, afterwards, that people outside carry babies around to fatten them up, to – eat them, later.’

‘Like a packed lunch?’ Lucas says, and snorts. ‘You don’t believe that, do you?’

‘No,’ I tell him. ‘No, I don’t believe that.’ I can see, once more, that man holding that baby’s hand, tucking it safely away.

Lucas touches the glass pane, where the paint is drying, with one finger. ‘Of course, you’ve never been out there since it all went wrong, so you don’t know. And you’re right; the mind is a funny thing. But, trust me, we don’t eat babies.’

‘All right.’

‘Not my lot, anyway.’ He turns away from the picture, and scans the shelves.

‘What are you looking for?’

‘Nothing,’ he says. ‘Listen. This whole thing. You and I both know it’s not going to work.’

For a moment I think he’s talking about us, him and me, but he continues, ‘There can’t be an agreement. Stephan was wrong, and he’s beginning to realise it. He’s given the order to collect as much produce as we can and then get out of here before Blossom Farm gets tired of pretending to negotiate and sends in their army.’

‘They have an army?’

‘You really don’t get who you’re dealing with, do you? Blossom Farm has these domes all over the world now. They’re rich enough to buy people, governments, whole countries. Raising an army is not going to be a problem. All it will take is a little time, and they really don’t care if they lose the entire of this place and everyone in it just as long as they send the message that they don’t negotiate with terrorists.’

He spits the word out, and I finally see that it’s become a meaningless word, describing nobody in this situation accurately.

‘But they picked the winery as a target,’ I say. ‘They knew it would be empty, and that it’s the easiest part to rebuild. It shows they’re not totally -‘

Lucas shakes his head. He lowers his voice even though there’s nobody to overhear. ‘They didn’t blow up the winery. We did.’

‘What?’

‘We blew it up. To show Blossom Farm that we’re serious. Stephan thought it might make them negotiate, if they understood we have the capacity to destroy this place. And still they won’t talk to us. I’ve been out there, holding up signs, trying to get a response. It was the final bluff, and it didn’t work. So now it’s just about time. Starting tomorrow, everyone will be asked to pick their areas clean. And then we’re going to try to escape.’

‘You’ll take all the fruit? Every bit?’

He touches my arm. ‘Not the plants, though, Mel, not the plants. It can all grow again. You’ll be left in peace. Stephan can see it now – that it’s not worth the effort to try to reason with these people.’

‘You talked him round?’

‘He trusts me. And not everyone is intent on bloodshed.’

‘Don’t say any more,’ I beg. He puts his hand to my old face, and I’m ashamed of my tears, and my wrinkles. My pouched eyes, no doubt, contain emotions it would be easy to mock.

‘Are you afraid?’ he says.

Yes, I’m afraid. Of what will come next, and of what I have to do.

‘Don’t worry,’ says Lucas. ‘One day, one harvest, and I’ll be gone. Things will go back to normal.’

I’m afraid of that too.

divider

 

Knowing that everything will end makes time move in a different way. I go to bed and Jim isn’t there. Lonnie says he’s at some sort of important meeting, and she goes about her business in a daze, climbing into her pyjamas and settling down into her bed. She doesn’t seem to miss him. In the silence, in the dark, we sleep.

In the morning, Lonnie and I go to the Refectory, and Stephan explains that everything will be harvested today and moved to a safe location to protect the fruit in case of further attacks by Blossom Farm. The workers nod. I see one with a bruised face, another holding his arm in an awkward position, and the intruders are no longer sitting down. They stand against the walls, alert. The illusion of working together is so thin you could blow it away with a single breath. Maybe that is why we all seem to be holding our breath, hardly taking in air at all.

After breakfast I take Lonnie to Satumas and then go to mine. Gregor is at the water cooler. His hands tremble as he raises his cup to his lips. Crates on trolleys have appeared next to the plastic chairs. I steer one through into Melons, and look around me.

I pick everything, no matter how small or green. I pick the swollen and the shrivelled, ripening or with the promise of much growing to do. The first crate fills. The plants surround me, brushing my face as I work, tickling my neck. Just before midday I reach the area where Mr Taylor was buried. I put my hands to the soil, and tell him what I’ve been thinking of since my last painting.

‘I think you really wanted to help that man. I think you were trying to tell me not to call security, that day, with that flick of your eyes. I think you wanted to save that baby. I don’t know what happened to it.’

But I do know. They did the things we don’t talk about here.

They killed it. And then I’m guessing they put it under the soil too. We are workers, and assets, and finally we are fertilizer. We are stupid enough to do it all for the sake of a hot meal and a bed, because we think that matters more than being a person.

I pick the nearest melon. It’s a good one: large, and round, and warm. I scrabble at it with my fingers, but my nails are too short to penetrate it. It won’t open for me. Then I take my paintbrush from behind my ear and stab the end without bristles into the melon.

The smell is divine. The juice drips down over my hand; I lick it off, and breathe in and out, in and out, in great gasps. Memories of my grandmother’s garden are so strong, so vibrant, in my mind. I hear the drone of bees, the weight of warm, real sunshine on the back of my neck. The things I have painted on glass are only shadows of these tastes and touches. I haven’t remembered a thing right.

I stab the melon again and again, until it makes a sucking sound, and splits into ragged pieces. My hands are drenched; the liquid soaks into my sleeves. The seeds are wet and glistening in its gash. I scoop up flesh, and eat, and eat, feeling moisture in my mouth and on my cheeks. It will stain me orange, and I don’t care. I eat.

The dome shudders. It is being hit.

I pocket the seeds in my dungaree pockets, even though they try to slide through my fingers to find the soil. I go back to picking in my melons, and I fill the crates, and listen to the strange noises that mean we have reached the end.

divider

 

I work hard, and fill five crates. When I’m half-way through the sixth, Lucas finds me. He looks so calm.

I walk to meet him, and he says, ‘You need to wipe your face.’

I feel my mouth turning up at the corners, and I grin, grin like only a girl should.

He lifts his hand and smoothes his sleeve over my mouth, not gently, rubbing at the corners. ‘There,’ he says. ‘That will have to do.’

The dome shudders again. I hear shouts, from what seems like very far away, but I don’t care.

‘Are you ready?’ he says.

‘For what?’

‘To leave with me.’

I never expected this. Never. Even when I dreamed of something like this, I knew it made no sense. I can’t think of what to say, what to do. When words do come, they are ridiculous ones.

‘I’m so old,’ I tell him, even though I don’t feel it at that moment.

‘I told you. We’re going to stick together. I know how to survive out there, and you know how to make things grow.’

‘I don’t. I can’t make anything grow. Apart from melons.’

‘You’re picking one hell of a time to argue about this.’

The shouts are louder. There’s a new sound, too, like someone tapping out a rhythm, fast, with a high drum. Is that gunfire? I’ve never heard it before.

‘Come to the winery,’ he says. ‘We can get out that way. Bring some melons. I’ll fetch some supplies and meet you there. I think we have a chance, since they’re attacking from the main gate. I’ve come up with a way to move fast.’

‘You’ve been planning this for days.’

‘Since Stephan suggested this whole thing. He said to wait for someone who could get us in, and then we found Daisy. It was my responsibility, to get her to trust us. But she made me trust her instead. And she told me that the only real difference between people is whether they’re willing to hurt others, or try to help them.’ His calmness is a mask. Underneath it I glimpse – what? Pain. Fury. And then it’s gone. ‘Listen. Stephan has ordered us to burn the place down. He wants to make some great statement to the world. If it’s not for anybody, then it’s for nobody. I don’t want to be part of his statement. Do you?’

‘No. No, I don’t.’

‘Great. Then I’ll meet you at the Winery. Say you’ll be there.’ He pulls me into his arms. I’m so lucky, I think, so lucky, when the world I knew is about to end and so many will die, and here I am just being lucky, with my boy wrapping his arms tight around me for no reason I can understand.

‘I’ll be there,’ I say.

He steps back. ‘We need to get going. Give me the code.’

‘What?’

‘The code. For the store room door. There’s no time for us both to go. I can move more quickly alone.’

I’ve been such an idiot. Such an idiot.

To think he could be a friend, a real friend, someone who sees past the way I got to this place, the life I’ve lived, and the wrinkles on my face.

This was all about the code. All of it.

I should hate him.

But he has been so kind to pretend this way, and make me believe it. We might both be painters, but he has a lightness of hand that I have never possessed. One can only admire the brushwork.

‘9200,’ I say. I repeat it, to make sure he’s got it.

‘Right,’ he says. ‘See you at the Winery.’ He takes my hand, and squeezes it. ‘Thank you.’

Once he’s gone, I feel very tired. Tired enough to sleep. To shrivel up, and be done. I lie down for a while, amongst my melons. For a while, I think nothing will ever make me move again.

But then a woman walks into my area. The woman who sharpened her knife at my table, and took my room away from me.

She’s holding a petrol can; it’s heavy, and it bumps against her leg as she approaches my plants. That’s what makes me stand. Not that it’s her, but that she’s brought so much petrol along to do the job.

She sees me, but doesn’t stop. She chooses a spot near the areas I have only just impregnated recently, delicately placing pollen on my brush and easing it inside the flowers. She unscrews the petrol can, and begins to pour. The clear fluid drips from the leaves.

‘Stop,’ I say.

‘Go to the Common Room,’ she tells me, without even bothering to look at me. ‘That’s where all your lot is meant to go. Didn’t your supervisor tell you?’

‘Stop.’ She ignores me. I try to think of anything I might say that would change her mind. ‘If you keep killing everything there’ll be no plants left in the world.’

‘That’s rich,’ she says, ‘coming from your lot.’

I move closer to her. The smell of the petrol is strong and sharp in my nostrils. ‘What lot?’

‘You all fucked it up and now you get to act like the keepers of the flame for some imaginary future where we’re not knee deep in fucking snow.’ She shakes her head, and then stares at me, and I see that hatred again. The unique way that the young despise the old for the things we did or didn’t do frightens me like nothing else I’ve seen.

‘So let it all burn?’ I ask her.

She frowns, and puts down the can, near the door. She hasn’t doused many of the plants in petrol. I get it now; she’ll only use a small amount in each area. Once a few plants are alight, the rest will catch easily enough. That one can of petrol could do the entire of the Farm. Who knows how many she’s already done?

‘I don’t get it,’ she says. ‘That you lot would agree to this, this hoarding, rather than try to save us all. But that’s it, isn’t it? Choices. You made yours.’

‘Did I?’ I ask. I don’t remember making them, exactly, so much as following the paths that were presented. And nothing ever quite seemed like my personal responsibility. Not in the way that these melons are my responsibility. Not in a way that I would bleed for.

‘Look what you left us with,’ she says. She reaches into her jacket pocket and pulls out a box of matches. I’m too slow and I can’t think of anything more to say. She moves back away from the soaked plants, strikes a match, and throws it.

They catch so quickly that the air makes a popping sound and within moments the flames are high and orange and flickering through my plants, touching them and making them twist and writhe and shrivel. Black smoke gushes upwards. My stomach does the same, and my mind, oh my mind hurts so much I can’t think any more, I can’t bear any more. I walk to the door, and pick up the can of petrol. I was right. It is very heavy. Then I go to her, this woman who thinks I should have solved all her problems before she was born.

She doesn’t think me capable of such a thing, so I surprise her when I throw petrol over her. I don’t know exactly what I’m expecting to happen. I’m not sure how it does, really. She turns to get away from me, and although she is not very close to the flames they jump through the air to her face, and her arms, and then she writhes and wriggles, just like my plants. She screams and screams, and crashes through the area, and feel my thoughts turning away from the horror of her. I put down the can and collect my trolley, and make sure the door shuts behind me when I leave.

I trundle out to the reception area. Her screaming is so loud, even out here. Gregor crouches behind the water cooler. He peers out at me.

‘You need to start again,’ I tell him. I suspect it’s a thought he never quite grasped. I have to raise my voice, to be heard over the screams.

Onwards, down the corridor. People run, and their terror is bothersome. I swat at them, shoo them from my path. The taste of the melon lingers.

Goodbye, corridor. Goodbye, everyone. I’ve done my best, and now it’s time to move on.

I pass into the living quarters, past my old room, where the glass plates lie under the bed still, no doubt. I don’t stop.

Around the corner there are two men in Blossom Farm uniforms, carrying guns, and they point them at me, but I put my head down and mumble to myself, and keep moving. The pretence of being a mad old lady seems to work. Who am I fooling? I am a mad old lady. I could do no harm to anyone. They lower their guns. I crab along.

Behind me, I hear a burst of running feet and then the air is hot and prickly. I smell burning meat, and I don’t turn around.

A man yells, ‘Stop!’ and still I don’t turn around.

Nothing hits me.

I keep going.

I keep going.

There is a dead body is just before the Common Room. It’s one of the terrorists. A woman. Why do people always look so young when they’re just dead? Perhaps its in the way her face has relaxed, just as Daisy’s did, and Billy’s. No more cares. An expression of emptiness only the very young would wear.

She leaks blood in all directions, from the large tear in her abdomen, through the clothes and skin, so that tubes and coils have rushed, squeezed, bubbled up. How did it all fit inside her to begin with?

I can’t get around all the blood; I have to push the trolley through it, and two red lines are left by the wheels. Between the tracks I leave footprints of clear red intent. I keep looking over my shoulder at them, but I go on.

The noise is growing again, and when I approach the Common Room archway it’s so loud. I keep moving, promising myself I won’t look up, but the flashes and the screams are impossible to resist. I freeze, framed in the archway like an actress on a stage, and watch a war. The sofas and chairs are overturned, and the strong smell of burning comes from the drifting black smoke that reveals and obscures. The two sides in this war, I can’t tell apart. There are only bodies, and glimpses of people running and crouching; how can they tell if they’re trying to kill the right people? Of course, the uniform. Only the uniform makes a difference.

I see Stephan, standing tall amongst his followers, wearing power like a warm cloak. But it’s not enough this time, it won’t stop bullets, and he crumples up, like a fallen hero from a painting. Is he dead? I don’t know. But all his magnificent control is gone, and the fight begins to scatter, and spread, and turn my way.

Someone grabs my arm and pulls hard. It’s Suroopa.

‘Come on,’ she says, and tugs at me, with a strength I never suspected she possessed, having thought of Courgettes as quite a dainty job.

‘Come on wake up wake up,’ she screams over another burst of gunfire, and I give in to her, and follow after. But I won’t leave my melons. The trolley comes too.

She takes me to the Refectory, behind the serving area, and I find a huddle of familiar workers sitting on the floor, leaning against the stainless steel cabinets. I know them all, which surprises me, as I’ve never thought of them much before, and haven’t even had a short conversation with many. But I know them, just the same.

Suroopa crouches down and moves amongst them, and I drop my trolley handle and do the same. They stare at the trolley, and the melons.

‘I couldn’t leave them,’ I explain. I don’t expect them to understand.

But then I see them reach into their pockets, or into the white sacks they carry. Sue has raspberries, and Zena has chillis. Geoff is there cuddling a cucumber, and Barry has lychees. Plums, persimmons, pomegranates, a spiky-topped pineapple. There, at the end, pressing herself into the corner is Lonnie, holding out a luminous, waxy satsuma in each hand. We had satsumas at Christmas when I was little; why has that not come to me before? I should have painted it.

The gunfire intensifies, and there is shouting again. The smoke is thickening; why has the alarm system not gone off? It must not be working. Maybe the sprinklers are pouring down on our plants, though, keeping them safe from flames.

When it goes quiet Suroopa says, ‘They burned my courgettes.’

The others nod. Someone wails, for a moment. I have things I could say, but I don’t.

‘Blossom Farm will soon deal with them,’ Suroopa says. ‘Then we’ll grow everything back to how it was. Things will go back to normal.’

I shake my head. ‘No, no, it will all burn. It will cost too much to rebuild now.’

‘No, they wouldn’t -‘

I move away from her. I’m not expecting her to believe me, but there seems no point in pretending that we can simply wait here and everything will pass us by.

It’s difficult to think in the presence of so much wealth. The leathery, crowned perfection of the pomegranates in Miriam’s lap, and the warm smiles of the bunch of bright green bananas beside Poppy. It comes to me that we can’t give up. And our best chance is not here, in the centre of the burning biodomes.

Lonnie says, ‘Jim. Jim. Where’s Jim?’

I think I know the answer to that question. And it gives me some sort of answer as to where we can go. If a place has already been destroyed, why would they fight over it?

‘I can take you to him,’ I tell her. ‘Would you like that?’

‘Jim,’ she says, and I think she’s too far gone to understand, but then she stands up and looks at me expectantly.

I say to the others, ‘We need to get the produce to a safe place.’

‘Where?’ says Suroopa, but she gets up too, and that’s enough to get them all moving.

I pick up the handle to my trolley once more and turn away from the bloody track I’ve left, leading them away from the Common Room. They trail after me. We move away from the noise of the fighting, and in my mind I hold the map of these domes, and how they link. If the plants are burning, the doors might have automatically shut and locked, which will give us a little time. Still, I can’t risk a direct route. I’ll wind around the edges, using the less frequented corridors, where you can almost feel the cold through the walls.

Whenever I look behind me, I’m surprised by the way they walk, in an orderly fashion, pairs holding hands in some cases. When I was a teacher I would have thought nothing of it. Form a crocodile, I would have said, and they would have obeyed. Another image I have failed to capture on glass, and perhaps by now all my slides have melted together as the fire sweeps through the living quarters. It will burn it all: the woollen antimacassars, the cuddly toys and the jigsaws, the board games with the plastic pieces squirming in the heat.

I lead the crocodile. ‘One,’ I say. ‘Stick together.’

We’re not far from the Winery when the alarm bell finally starts to ring. It gives long blasts. I suppose Blossom Farm must have reconnected it, and taken control back in areas. The alarm could be an attempt to summon us workers, because we all know what it means. Return to your sections. Adopt lockdown procedures. But my section is burning.

I carry on walking, and the others follow. The cold intensifies. The solar lights flicker. It must be late afternoon by now. The sun will soon set.

The winery has black walls. The barrels have warped and charred, the green glass on the shelves has produced a smooth mess of strange shapes. The smell of smoke here is older, greasier, and the snow has started the process of claiming the ground through the hole in the outside wall, where once there was an emergency exit, forgotten by everyone but Daisy. I was right; it’s getting dark out there already. Or maybe it’s just that the sun can’t shine through those huge black clouds I can see. They block the sky, and suddenly fear comes back to me again. Fear of that dark sky, the endless snow, and that huge space of freezing, dirty air flowing over those mounds where the dead live.

Lucas will be long gone by now, miles away with the emergency kit, the tent, the solar heater, all the thing he needs to survive, and I am glad.

I stop walking, and the others stop too. They look at me with such expectation, waiting to be told what happens next. All I have to do is assume that tone of voice once more, and they will obey.

But that voice doesn’t come too easily any more. I hear the crack and whine in the words when I say, ‘We need to wait outside.’

Nobody speaks.

I set off again with my trolley, but I can hear they haven’t starting walking.

‘Outside?’ calls Suroopa.

I turn back to her. ‘Where else is there?’

‘Why outside? Why not just here?’

The answer to that won’t come to me. All I say is that it seems important to stand in the snow, and be outside the domes. Perhaps I want to be near Daisy again.

‘The fruits will freeze,’ says Sue.

‘They’ll be all right for a short while.’

‘No,’ says Suroopa, in sudden decision. ‘Let’s wait here.’

‘Jim?’ Lonnie’s loud voice surprises me, from the back of the group. She pushes her way forwards. ‘Where’s Jim?’

I point through the hole in the wall. ‘Out there.’

She doesn’t hesitate. She sets off, still clutching her two satsumas, and I go with her. We walk through that hole in the wall as if it’s the easiest thing in the world, to be outside once more. My lungs constrict. It’s like being clutched in a freezing fist, and squeezed, and it hurts, it hurts, but Lonnie keeps going, getting snow on her plain brown shoes, holding her satsumas before her. In only a few steps I’m shivering.

My eyes adapt so slowly to the dusk. I make out the hills beyond the complex, the lines of the fence, and I look for the mounds. But they are no longer there. The snow has covered the bodies, and made a smooth, level field of them. No trace of them remains.

‘Jim!’ calls Lonnie. She walks further out, and out of the shelter of the building the weather grows in confidence. It can claim us. The wheels of the trolley seize in the snow and they will no longer turn. I have to leave it behind as I chase after her.

I grab her, and lead her to where I think Jim’s body must be. ‘Here,’ I shout. The wind is strong and it steals my voice.

‘Jim!’ she calls. She shakes free of me, and strides away. It occurs to me that maybe Jim isn’t here at all. Maybe he’s in the biodomes somewhere, safe and warm and hoping someone is looking after his Lonnie. I go after her, but she is quick with new-found purpose, and it’s so very cold here; a cold that numbs, paralyses.

What am I doing? What the hell am I doing?

I sink down into the snow and close my eyes. Is this it? This final burst of guilt and pain, is that all I’ve been waiting for?

I want to let go. Maybe now I can let go.

I feel a light touch upon my face.

Lucas. Lucas is here, with me, and he takes his hand from my cheek, and helps me to stand. We retreat back to the shelter of the building, by the hole. He shows me how he has made skis from the signs he took from my Store Room, and he straps them to my feet, and wraps me in extra layers of material. Peering out through the hole are the others, watching these preparations.

‘Why?’ I ask him.

‘Why what?’

‘We won’t survive.’

‘Nobody will,’ he agrees, and the way he says it makes me think it’s not such a bad thing any more. ‘The trick is in how you try.’

The night is falling fast and the crackle and roar of the domes on fire is fighting against the wind for dominance. ‘You ready?’ says Lucas, and I nod.

Suroopa calls my name.

‘Mel!’

She holds out one of the white plastic bags. She doesn’t step through the hole, and her hand trembles as it emerges into the cold. I take the bag, and look in it.

A pomegranate. A banana. Raspberries, chillis, persimmons, plums, a cucumber, a courgette. A handful of lychees. It’s like one of those old still life portraits, with the fruits filling up my eyes, belonging together in a way I haven’t seen before.

‘Keep them safe,’ she says.

It’s a promise I can’t make, but I understand why she asks it of me. I hold the bag tight, and abandon my own melons, still in the useless trolley, to the cold. In my pockets sit the seeds, anyway.

I will have to find a new name.

Lucas and I head out through the snow, away from Blossom Farm, in a direction that leads to places I don’t yet know. Our tracks will leave thin lines upon the white canvas of the landscape; between us, we are making delicate brushwork.

___
Copyright  2016 Aliya Whiteley

Aliya Whiteley was born in Devon, UK, in 1974 and currently lives in Sussex with her husband, daughter and dog. She writes novels, short stories and non-fiction and has been published in places such as The Guardian, Interzone, Black Static, Strange Horizons, and anthologies such as Fox Spirit’s European Monsters and Lonely Planet’s Better than Fiction I and II. Her recent novella for Unsung Stories, The Beauty, was shortlisted for a Shirley Jackson Award and a Sabotage Award, and appeared on the Honors List for the James Tiptree Jr Award. Her latest novella with Unsung, The Arrival of Missives, was published in May 2016. She blogs at: aliyawhiteley.wordpress.com  and she tweets most days as @AliyaWhiteley.

by Alex Jeffers

 

“’Ware!” called the girl at the top of the mast in a pure, high voice but stillness fell upon the child and Elkannar’s Laddy before she could raise her mallet to strike the alarum bell. If she had not been securely tethered she would have fallen to the deck and perished. In the vessel’s engine well the four laboring trotrots froze but their revolving wheels did not, all at once. Three of the oversized rodents were thrown free while the fourth’s left hindpaw lodged between treads, trapping the insensible creature. Its wheel made one final full revolution, then merely rocked for some minutes, slowing, slowing. The boy who watched the trotrots, tended them, fed them, whipped them when necessary, stilled and crumpled as well in the instant of stroking the ear of his favorite beast, penned on her rest cycle. Below the waterline the four great screws that drove Elkannar’s Laddy faltered to a halt as sympathetic impulses from the trotrots’ wheels failed. The ship slowed. Throughout the merchant vessel all the living went to a standstill, from the pesty bugs that made their kingdoms in the trotrots’ fur to the Holiest, archpresbyter of the Unnamed God, who had requisitioned the captain-navigator’s stateroom for the passage.

Atsarem and her son were taking breakfast on the foredeck when the warning came and the stillness fell. It was a fine morning, cool red sun guttering dully low above the horizon, stars pinking indigo sky overhead and to the west, and Atsarem was in a fine mood. For too long business had discouraged her from travel. Landlocked, she had forgotten how much she enjoyed the sea. Journeying overland from Chandias to Eshek-Hayin and south across the Gulf of Fetour to Errò spared her a month and half a month of her daughters’ quarrels. Her son—lifting her eyes, she glanced across the table. Vyl-atsarem wore black, as was seemly for a youth affianced. The cowl of his robe shadowed downcast features she imagined stoic if not petulant: she knew he was not as resigned to the match as she, although she trusted his obedience. Admiring the delicate tracery of ferns, flowers, vines bleached into the skin of his hands, she recalled with nearly a pang the handsome young fellow who lent the Holiest an arm for his afternoon stroll about the middeck—the handsome young fellow whose languorous glances inspired Vyl-atsarem to sigh and bite his lips.

Atsarem sighed herself when the gilded nails of her son’s restless fingers scored a bloodfruit’s warty rind and she smelled its sharp, sour fragrance. “She will treat you kindly,” she said, “and her consort as well,” but before her son could reply, if he chose to reply, the girl on the mast cried out and darkness filled their eyes.

All its crew and passengers struck down, Elkannar’s Laddy wallowed in low swell on the horizonless gulf. Some moments passed before the threat the watchgirl had spied descended from cool, cloudless sky. From great distance one might take it for a lone, inexplicable black thunderhead flashing with red lightnings—nearer, for a vast roiling murmuration of the tiny scavenger birds called bonepickers that flocked in strange clouds over the Okav Plains at the center of the continent.

Had any person aboard remained conscious to witness, she would have seen how nearly the creatures falling upon Elkannar’s Laddy’s spars and rails and decks resembled bonepickers indeed, in body and glossy green-black plumage pied with crimson on the wings. But their heads were not the heads of birds. Each animal bore the miniature face of a human baby, wide eyes and plump cheeks, nubbin nose, pursed lips that uttered a ceaseless babble of cheeps, whimpers, whistles. The merchant vessel wallowed deeper under their weight as they settled.

Like winged ants they hopped and scuttled all throughout the ship, into every hold, cabin, and cranny. At length, as explorers returned from belowdecks with their feathers fluffed out against the horror of enclosed spaces, a crowd of some hundreds took flight again, whirling together into the apparition of a man tall as the mast, sturdy and muscular, with long hair that whipped about his shoulders as if he rode a gale. Bending, he indicated with his left forefinger the black-clad youth slumped across the foredeck table from his slumbering mother. “That one,” the figure muttered with a multitude of tiny voices. “A worthy scion. We will take him.”

The man-shaped flock blew apart briefly, congealed once more in the form of an iridescent black gondola the length and width and depth of a slender corpse’s coffin, bobbing a tall man’s height above the foredeck. The high sternpost terminated in the form of a strangely twisted tree, the prow in the same uncanny man’s head. He looked backward over what would have been a shoulder had he possessed such, cooing encouragement as many hundreds of unaffiliated baby-faced birds swarmed insensible Vyl-atsarem, gripping their tiny claws into his clothing and hair.

They raised him ungently from his chair and laid him supine in the belly of the gondola, folding his decorated hands on his breast. Lifting away, they shaped themselves into a pair of vast wings at either flank of the gondola. The living figurehead turned forward again, nodded once, spoke a single word: “Away.”

The winged gondola rose in a spiral about Elkannar’s Laddy’s mast. High above the decks it seemed to pause a moment to orient itself, then angled its sail-like wings and flew off above the naked sea on a heading several degrees south of east.

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The dying sun climbed past its zenith and descended two thirds toward setting before the first person woke aboard becalmed Elkannar’s Laddy. This was the Holiest ensconced in the captain-navigator’s cabin and bed, an ancient man whose body had grown proof against all spells of rejuvenation half a century before. He turned his fragile skull on the leviathan-ivory pillow, wiped a strand of drool from his chin with the back of a boney hand, and requested water in a reedy whisper.

None of the acolytes responded. Impatient, the old man levered himself up on uncertain elbows and opened his eyes. All about the stateroom his youthful acolytes lay in indecorous attitudes, unconscious. One young woman sweetly snored. Armed against assassins or pirates, the handsome fellow who was the Holiest’s favorite sprawled across the sill of a door swinging wide to the wallow of the waves. Falling, his barbed javelin had ripped down the white silk curtain meant to hide a bas relief carved into the bulkhead: sordid scenes from the earthly life of the demon Elkannar, unholy to the eyes of the Unnamed God’s devotees.

Confused before he became annoyed, the Holiest blinked away from the wretched images. “Arise, rascals, to the command of your lord,” he piped but they did not, not one of the seven.

Alarmed now, the Holiest sat up from the pillow and gingerly pulled his feet from under the coverlet, set them on the floor. “Awake, my darlings,” he bade. Still they did not stir. He attempted to swallow but his throat was dry. He groped along the side of the captain-navigator’s bunk for his hook-headed staff and brought himself nearly upright. Leaning on the crozier, steadier than his legs, he crossed the cabin to a brass pitcher suspended on gimbals above a brass basin. There was better water elsewhere, water meant for drinking in stoneware bottles, but he did not know quite where nor whether his hands had sufficient strength for the stoppers.

Though flat and warm, washing water tipped into the basin and scooped up in trembling hands soothed his throat. Turning from the bulkhead, he prodded the snoring girl with the staff’s foot. She belched and rolled half away but did not wake. The Holiest had been incapable of bellowing for many years—intemperate curses upon unfaithful followers and their immemorial ancestors emerged as quavery whispers. He stumped across the floor to the door, took no care not to kick aside his favorite’s fallen weapons nor to tread upon the darling boy himself, and stepped out onto the middeck.

He saw sailors asleep at their posts wherever he looked. “Fell magics,” he muttered and took another step. He could barely make out a chair toppled away from its table on the elevated foredeck, across which a person lay slumped, elaborate hairstyle spoiled by collision with a dish of jam. “The wool merchant of Chandias,” the Holiest muttered. He had long since lost the habit of not voicing his thoughts. “A heathen but steady. Her son?” He saw no son, only the fallen chair. “Captain-navigator?” the Holiest called—not a thought voiced but intentional command, too thin and weak to be heard at any distance.

Slowly turning, he regarded with disfavor and distrust the twin companionways rising to the sterncastle on either side of the door. Grumbling further curses, he tottered to the stair at his left, his holy hand, grasped the rail, commenced the arduous climb.

On the aftdeck he found the captain-navigator upright solely by virtue of arms caught by the great wheel’s spokes when she subsided into unconsciousness, swaying side to side as Elkannar’s Laddy answered to the limp swell of the gulf. Approaching sidelong, he said, “Ho there, madam,” with some force and prodded her shoulder with staff’s crook.

The captain-navigator collapsed away from the wheel, striking her head against the deck with a sharp noise.

“All the incarnate demons!” she yelled, waking, and sat up, raising her hands to nurse the bump on the back of her head.

“Your vessel, madam, is caught in some sorcery,” the Holiest informed her.

Blinking, shaking her head, the captain-navigator looked up. Recognizing the archpresbyter, she scrambled to her feet and attempted a bow that made her feel ill as the least seaworthy new sailor.

“Divine,” she said, “pardon my oaths. What did you say?”

“All your crew and all your passengers, as best I know, were struck down by occult slumber some while ago, I do not know how long. You and I alone have wakened.”

Closing her teeth against another imprecation sure to offend the Unnamed God’s vicegerent, the captain-navigator raised her eyes to the sky. The last she remembered the sun had risen but a few spans above the eastern horizon—now it faltered the same few spans above the western. “Hours,” she grunted, “most of the day,” and clenched her eyelids tight. A moment later she said in a low voice, “Sheztannit’s toll. May cacodemons gnaw on his stones.” She shook her head and staggered, dizzy. “Divine, forgive me,” she asked, “are all your acolytes yet aboard? I recall three very lovely young men.”

“There are seven,” the Holiest replied, disapproving. “Four men, three women, each equally precious in the Unnamed God’s eyes. All asleep in my cabin. You will explain—this Sheztannit and his toll?”

She ground her teeth again before blurting, “Forgive, forgive, I must rouse my crew, we are much delayed.” Lurching toward the companionways, she gestured at the divan under the taffrail. “Good wine and better water there, if you please, Divine. I shall return shortly once we’re underway again.” The captain-navigator clattered down to the middeck before the Holiest could protest.

She found her first mate asprawl at the top of the ladder to the engine well and slapped him smartly awake. “Sheztannit took his toll,” she told him. His scarred cheeks blenched when he understood—as a youth the man had been handsome until, on the advice of older sailors, he took a hot knife to his own flesh. “Go, go, take the wheel while I rouse the rest. The holy old man is there—he woke first, it seems. If he pesters you, you may tell him the facts.”

“Who?” the mate asked. He’d had his own eye on one of the new youths, a boy from the upcountry too pretty to be scarred before proving himself a sailor.

“None of the divine’s dainty slave-catamites, more’s the pity. I don’t know yet. Go.”

He scurried aft. The captain-navigator went about smacking her crew awake—all but the watchgirl in the crow’s-nest: she sent the mate’s spry favorite up the rigging on that errand. She was half-displeased to discover none of her sailors missing. Every passage she attempted to have aboard a blameless, blemishless innocent or two against the unpredictable toll. A difficult endeavor, as the hazard was well known in every port on the Fetour and most young men with an eye to the sea—few as handsome as they believed themselves—had the sense to follow the same advice as the first mate, if they didn’t travel overland to different ports, different waters. But there was nearly always a naïve son fled from the family farm in the inland valleys, a fresh-faced herdboy come down the mountain in search of nautical adventure, who had never heard the tale and did not take it in when captain-navigator or her agents slurred through that clause of a contract few could read.

She cursed again when she came upon the last, the noisome trotrot boy slobbering asleep across his charge’s shoulder, mouth full of its noisome fur. The Errò bank that insured Elkannar’s Laddy was invariably far unhappier negotiating claims for paying passengers than those presented by sailors’ families or slaves’ owners. Rousing the boy with a well placed kick, she curtly ordered him to get his beasts back in order and their wheels turning, then climbed the ladder again. She had no choice now but to go about waking the passengers, discovering which Sheztannit had appropriated.

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“Toll?” the merchant of Chandias said. “My son? I do not understand what you are saying, madam.” The Holiest admired the steadiness of her tone, the stern calm of her expression, hardly betrayed by a tremor in the hand on the table. A distinguished woman, he thought, despite jam in her hair and bruise purpling her cheekbone. “Where is my son?”

The captain-navigator swallowed her throat clear. “The risk is clearly set out in the contract-of-passage you signed, Madam Merchant.”

“Are your underwriters aware you depend on a contract unlikely to be read to inform your passengers of this risk? Where is my son?”

“They are well aware, for a fact,” said the captain-navigator with a certain fragile dignity. “When I have suggested telling prospective passengers outright, they threaten to raise my premiums a ruinous amount. They have no clients among the landward caravans, you see.”

The merchant slapped the table hard. “Ruinous? I am ruined. I shall see you ruined, madam, and your underwriters ruined as well. My son is affianced to Errò’s despot.”

The office of despot of Errò loomed large in the annals of the Unnamed God’s followers. Despite himself the Holiest took in a hard breath, but the captain-navigator, her features twisted, said quite savagely, “Unless you have newer notice than I, Madam Merchant, I believe her excellence the despot’s consort yet lives and has given her healthy heirs. I do not doubt she will be distressed by the loss before enjoying him of a pretty concubine for whom she surely paid dear, but she knows well of Sheztannit’s toll. I expect if she believed the odds unacceptable she would have requested you escort your son to Errò by land.”

Half alarmed, half amused, the Holiest watched the merchant’s mouth drop open in outrage, her cheeks redden. Before she could utter her expostulation, he said gently, “Your indulgence, Captain-navigator. The lady and I—we are strangers in these lands, these seas. I fear we were not aware of this toll. Certainly we ought to have read our contracts-of-passage more carefully but, please, will you set the matter out for us? With your permission, Madam Merchant.”

She closed her mouth to a thin line, nodded, and reached for her wine.

Ungraceful, the captain-navigator rose and paced to the rail. For a moment she contemplated the western night sea’s choppy surface, fitfully illuminated by tumbling fragments of the moon adrift below distant stars.

“A league outside the mouth of the gulf,” she said at length, still regarding the waters, “lies the island called Neitv, alone in the open sea. It is the demesne of an ancient sorcerer of blackest power: Sheztannit. This is not his true name, of course. It means Lord of the Gulf in some long-dead language, I understand. He claims passage-right on all shipping within the Fetour. The benefice, he has said, dates to the shattering of the moon and shall stand until the sun goes cold. And so he exacts a toll. Not money or goods, which he claims to have no use for, nor of every vessel that braves these waters. No, he selects ships at whim, at intervals no bookmaker cares to predict, and the toll is a single living young man, handsome or lovely or however you wish to say it. Nobody knows what use he has for them. For him, Madam Merchant, your son, the despot of Errò’s fiancé.”

Without turning, the captain-navigator made a noise in her throat. “You will ask why…? and I tell you, it has been attempted over and again: ships on which young men of any beauty are secreted away in disguised, locked compartments—ships crewed solely by women carrying no male passengers—ships bearing no man under forty years or no man not visibly imperfect. You have seen the first mate’s scars. If Sheztannit selects one of those vessels, discovers the ploy, he destroys it and makes certain identifiable wreckage washes up at Errò or Eshek-Hayin so no mariner doubts his displeasure.”

She turned. “And so, madam and Divine, every captain sailing these waters does her damnedest to ensure she has aboard a pretty lad such as might tempt the sorcerer, or two or three, paid sailor or slave. If Sheztannit chooses to take a handsome young passenger instead—well, all we can do is carry a crippling load of insurance against claims like the one you will make, Madam Merchant. Although, I am grieved to tell you, the contract you signed expressly limits the claim you may make and it is a contract the despot of Errò her excellent self would not care to contest.”

The merchant of Chandias’s face had gone bloodless with fury or, the Holiest supposed, additional strong emotions: grief, anxiety. When she became certain the captain-navigator had ceased her say, she pushed back her chair and rose to her feet, glaring stony eyed. “My son,” the merchant said steadily, “has not yet earned his name.” She gave her glass a glance: a bubble of amethyst crystal still half full of syrupy fortified wine. Without another word she cast the glass onto the deck at the captain-navigator’s feet, a musical shattering and a splash of liquid the darkness of blood across scrubbed planks, then strode away toward the cabin she had shared with her son.

Earned his name?” the captain-navigator inquired mildly.

“Peculiar custom of the gentry in Chandias and thereabouts,” said the Holiest. “Daughters, well, they receive proper names at birth as in any country but sons are designated by number until such time as they perform some notable action and choose a name of their own. She called him Vyl-atsarem, I believe I heard: Madam Atsarem’s second. No doubt joining the household of the despot of Errò would earn the boy a name.”

“Elkannar’s stones. Madam Atsarem may well ruin me on the boy’s account,” said the captain-navigator with bitter resignation, “but the bank that insures me she will scarcely trouble.”

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A day late, Elkannar’s Laddy came to dock at the busy port around the harbor from the city proper of Errò and the citadel of its despot. Once the delay was explained, port functionaries regarded the merchant of Chandias with appalled pity. Accompanied by his acolytes standing in a clump on the middeck, the Holiest observed her tight-lipped outrage at that pity and wondered whether the officials knew of her lost son’s quondam relation to the despot. Out of pity, they cleared her to debark first although a hierophant of any faith, any nation, took precedence over any merchant.

Her feet on the cyclopean solid stone of the quay at last, Atsarem arranged for the warehousing of her cargo and hired baggage-wallahs to deliver her own and her son’s equipage to the hostelry in the garden outskirts of the town. For herself she hired a palanquin and bade its bearers carry her to the nearest reputable baths. She had not been able to clean herself properly shipboard. Pale, gentle-handed girls with cropped rusty hair bathed her, soaped and rinsed out the jam in her hair and combed it out neatly to dry while a soothing poultice was held to her bruised cheek. She spent some time floating at the edge of the warm pool under the low brick vault while all about Errovine matrons gamboled in the shallows and gossiped. She did not give ear to their gossip. At length she beckoned an attendant to fetch her a cup of cool water and lead her to her massage.

The milky-skinned slave masseur was bulky, long armed, his palms and fingers unconscionably strong and skilled. Prostrate under the eunuch’s thorough ministrations, Atsarem reviewed her situation. She was angry with herself for, having belatedly read through the contract-of-passage, she had no choice but to acknowledge its terms: acknowledge she had (unknowingly, stupidly) gambled against her son’s life and lost. The sum Elkannar’s Laddy’s underwriters would be obliged to pay out was substantial—sufficient and more to cover all costs of her journey and Vyl-atsarem’s trousseau—but the blow to her business and prestige could not be calculated. Unless out of guilt or sympathy, the despot was unlikely to confirm the trade treaty between Atsarem’s house and Errò. If the despot were meanly unreasonable she might demand return of the groom price. There was no totting up the costs of rearing and educating the boy.

Atsarem began to compose in her head a letter to her daughters, who were fond of their young brother. The eldest, indeed, had raised stiff protest against her mother’s intention of exiling Vyl-atsarem such a distance. Abruptly Atsarem recalled she too was fond of her second son. Quite without volition she began to weep.

“Has this unworthy person hurt you, madam?” the masseur inquired, alarmed, lifting knowing hands from her buttocks.

“My son,” Atsarem sobbed. “My son!”

“Madam’s son?”

“The toll of Sheztannit! I never knew!”

The masseur knew better than to offer a slave’s comfort to a wealthy freewoman. For a moment he regarded the telling contrast between his pallid fingers and the richer color of the woman’s skin before continuing to knead her flesh and muscle. As a youth he had crossed the Fetour himself. He had never been at hazard of being taken by the sorcerer: already cut, his unlovely complexion and shock of copper hair marking him as born of savages. But his special friend, the lad who comforted him after his unmanning, was the son of debt-slaves and possessed a rare, delicate beauty that would recommend him to any cultured household. Nor had he been emasculated. Halfway to Errò all the living aboard were struck down by enchantment. When the eunuch boy woke he discovered the padded shackles chained to his own empty, discarded on the slavehold’s filthy floor. Although he understood the unlikeliness of their joining the same household after being auctioned at the slave market in Errò, he found scant comfort in imagining the dread sorcerer might treat his friend gentlier than whichever Errovine termagant or tyrant would have purchased him.

Massage completed, Atsarem paid the baths’ fees and ordered the palanquin bearers carry her through the teeming heart of Errò and past the ruins of its antique walls to the hostelry. She called for paper and ink. Sitting in a window that overlooked a charming cloister, rigidly calm, she composed her claim against Elkannar’s Laddy’s underwriting bank and had the thing dispatched. She ought, she knew, send compliments and condolences to the despot’s citadel but could not bring herself to do it. Acknowledgment of her own grief was too new. She considered having a meal brought up to her rooms—rejected the notion as weakness and went down to the hostelry’s dining hall.

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Knowing the establishment occupied what had been a convent of the Unnamed God until an iconoclastic despot had had it closed half a millennium ago, the Holiest had installed himself at the same hostelry. “Had it closed,” he mused: “a tidy euphemism.”

Accustomed to his master’s penchant for thinking aloud, the favored acolyte across the table merely dredged a triangle of cold toast through the pâté of bonepicker hearts and tongues preserved in fat, imported a vast distance at vast expense. He offered the precious morsel to the Holiest, who leaned forward with his mouth agape like a baby bird’s until it plopped on his tongue.

In fact, fragmentary annals reported, that long-ago despot had slaughtered nearly all the convent’s nuns, expropriated its treasure, and sold the buildings to one of her magnates. Chewing, the Holiest scuffed his sandals against the floor, reflecting the tiles must have been replaced multiple times since. The current flooring would not be grouted with the blood of martyred nuns. Nevertheless, worship of the Unnamed God was not quite fashionable in Errò, ancient heart of His dominions on earth—hence the Holiest’s missionary embassy.

Tilting his head to be fed another morsel, the Holiest lifted his eyes to the hall’s vaulted ceiling. At first he believed it simply dirty, smeared with greasy soot from centuries of pitch-headed torches and tallow candles—and no wonder, for cleaning it would require erecting scaffolds and putting the place out of commission for a goodly time. But then he began to make out within the stains and mottles forms not entirely obscured, and realized the vault displayed a polychrome map of the Gulf of Fetour: he traced the three-quarter crescent of its shore—Errò on its south point, Eshek-Hayin on the north. West and north of Eshek-Hayin, he worked out the position of Ba, present seat of the Unnamed God’s archpresbytery whence the Holiest had journeyed, though the town appeared not to be marked. Farther north, on the verge of the Great Downs, a smudged and unfamiliar ideograph might indicate the wool town of Chandias. Returning to the pale, greyed, dirty blues of the gulf, he found the archipelago of volcanic islands near its center and then, easterly, in open sea beyond the twin horns, representation of a small island outlined in gold still gleaming through its coating of greasy dust.

He savored and swallowed the mélange of toast crumbs and pâté on his tongue. “I begin to recollect,” he said, “something of the Isle of Neitv.” Lowering his gaze to the stature of ordinary women and men dining and conversing at the many tables, the Holiest saw with a sense of serene inevitability the merchant of Chandias being ushered into the hall.

“Darling boy.” The Holiest’s voice was no stronger than when he mused aloud but the acolyte became alert, a questioning smile on his lips. “You will run an errand for me. First, please, the merchant of Chandias who shared our voyage from Eshek-Hayin, Madam Atsarem—she has just come in.” The acolyte was too well trained to look. “You will invite her to join me for supper. Second….” The Holiest spoke a phrase of a language known only from ancient manuscripts in the pontifical library at Ba. Conditioned since childhood to the peculiar syllables, the acolyte became solemn, his will and memory no longer his own. “You will seek out a person who keeps shop in the street of the incense sellers.” The Holiest closed his eyes, dredging from the sediment of his mind signs by which shop and person would be known and the words to oblige that person to attend him instanter. “That is all,” the Holiest concluded. “Go.”

Without a word and oblivious of the charge never to leave his master unaccompanied, the acolyte rose to his feet and turned away.

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“What will you do?”

The Holiest was such a master of sympathy, condolence, gentle conversation that Atsarem scarcely recalled their meal or anything said over it. Now they had retired to a quiet courtyard with cups of bitter tea and small sapphire-crystal glasses of a rare cordial that breathed mingled fragrances of northern heaths, southern blossoms, and incenses that might be favored by any god. Large moths with glowing eyes fluttered around the lamps and among night-blooming flowers on wings that appeared powdered with dusts of carnelian, lapis lazuli, precious metals. Above the surrounding rooftops danced glinting shards of the moon, and beyond them, incalculably deeper in the night sky, burned uncountable stars.

“Do? I have a cargo of raw and scoured fleeces, dyed and undyed yarns, fabrics of varying weaves and weights to dispose of. The despot must be informed of my son’s fate, the contracts between us renegotiated. I expect I shall be quarrelling a good while with the captain-navigator’s bank.” Atsarem lifted her tea with a sigh but did not drink. “I do not know what I shall do, Divine.”

“Would you…retrieve your son? Rescue him?”

“Divine?” Atsarem leaned forward. No ground fertile enough to nourish hope persisted in her. “I cannot know whether Vyl-atsarem is not happier in the household of this Sheztannit than he might be in the zenana of Errò’s despot—he was not best pleased by the prospect. Perhaps I ought finally acknowledge his wishes over my own schemes.” Grimacing, she looked away. “In any case, how shall an ageing wool merchant and sad mother from so prosaic a town as Chandias challenge a sorcerer? I should be helpless against the least ept hedgewitch.”

Lamplight made the Holiest’s smile frightening, thin lipped, yellow toothed, crinkling his face into colliding nets of wrinkles deep and shallow. “I will speak, Madam Atsarem, of matters so distant from Chandias and your son and this present day of ours you will believe me wandering in mind like any old codger. Indulge me, if you please. I have a purpose.”

He paused, smiled again, lifted his cordial with knotted fingers to inhale the vapors. “I serve the Unnamed God, as you know, in His bastion at Ba. We are a small church, if not so small as generally understood, and an exiled church. Dear Ba on its high scarp with the fertile bottomlands all about is not our home. Once, long ago, we were established here: Errò was our seat and her despots our servants. She was not a great town at first, still less hegemon of a great territory. Indeed, she was not yet a seaport. I speak of an age when the sun burned hotter, before the moon broke into fragments. As legend tells, a shard of the moon fell to earth in that celestial cataclysm, wreaking a terrestrial cataclysm of its own. Our scriptures claim the god cast His own cloak over Errò in the moment of impact, preserving His town and its denizens when the Gulf of Fetour was carved out of solid earth and stone. That is metaphor, doubtless. Scripture also claims the god’s anguish at not saving the millions outside Errò who died led Him to repudiate His own Name.

“Whatever the case, in following centuries Errò prospered. From her new harbor on the new gulf her trade fleets set out to discover goods and peoples heretofore unknown. Her armadas need only appear in the ken of a port’s watch for that port to acknowledge Errò’s suzerainty. On land her legions were never defeated. In all her deeds she celebrated the glory and merciful lovingkindness of the Unnamed God. His worship became widespread throughout the southlands and His church became ever more powerful and wealthy.”

The Holiest paused again and Atsarem, feeling stuporous, looked up from the translucent porcelain shell stained purple by her tea. A young man had appeared while her attention wandered—she recognized him as the person who had extended the invitation to join the Holiest for supper, but not his companion.

“Darling boy,” murmured the Holiest. The youth’s wide eyes and vacant expression did not change until the Divine spoke a further word in an unfamiliar tongue, whereupon he shuddered, blinked, and his lips formed a tranquil smile, and Atsarem abruptly knew him for the handsome youth her own son’s eyes had followed about the deck of Elkannar’s Laddy. Dizziness overwhelmed her for an instant. In her hand the cup trembled and ripples moved through the richly colored tea. The Holiest’s acolyte was, it seemed to her, far more lovely in face and form than her son. Little wonder Vyl-atsarem had been enthralled.

When she raised her eyes again the Holiest had turned to the youth’s companion. “I see you know me. Do you acknowledge me?”

“I do, Holiest, vicegerent on earth of the God Who Has Abjured His Name.” The tall man of middle years and crabbed aspect inclined his head. His garb was the drab fustian of a small tradesperson, stained and singed about the cuffs of the sleeves, but his hauteur that of a dispossessed noble.

“Excellent.” With a languid gesture of his left hand the Holiest invited youth and man to sit. “I have been speaking to Madam Atsarem of the era of the Unnamed God’s benison in Errò, when the town was mightier even than now and her despots bowed before His majesty. I know these histories are among your studies, sir. A thought has come to me. Can it be the island Neitv of which I have recently learned is the place named in chronicles preserved at Ba as Niyatef?”

“I am nearly certain of it, Holiest,” the stranger agreed.

“Just so.” The Holiest’s smile became grave, chill. “Madam, there came a terrible time when a certain despot of Errò renounced the grace of the Unnamed God, proscribed His worship, persecuted His priesthood and followers. The chronicles at Ba are fragmented, confused, but we know, for example, that this gracious hostelry housed then an order of contemplative nuns, no threat to any temporal power, whom that despot butchered without mercy. The place called Niyatef is often mentioned, and the master of the place named a counsellor of the bloody despot. I have formed a suspicion. Sir?”

The stranger spread his open hands wide above the table. “I share your suspicion, Holiest, but my researches cannot confirm it. The island is opaque to me. I believe its substance is unearthly—that is, a fragment of the fragment of the moon which excavated the Fetour. It is certain a person residing at Neitv—or Niyatef, if you will—has imposed the toll we know on ship traffic in the gulf nearly since its formation. It is equally certain Errò’s despots have never in a millennium moved against the island or its master. Other polities as well have been content not to challenge him. When the Unnamed God’s representatives were still established here, they likewise never acted.” He glanced aside, tightened his lips before continuing. “Whether it has been the same Sheztannit all along I cannot say. A lifetime of such protracted duration is not unprecedented for a great sorcerer or—” The man bit off whatever he had nearly said. “A thing you may not know, Holiest?”

The archpresbyter graciously inclined his head.

“Since all your knowledge of Errò comes from books,” the stranger said smugly. “Persistent local legend insists an ancient despot lost a beloved youth to Sheztannit’s Toll—whether consort, concubine, or son varies with the teller—and yet somehow redeemed him. Again, the price she paid depends on the teller, each as unlikely as the last, and there is no determining which historical despot it was. Still, the tale is…suggestive.”

The words concubine and son following Sheztannit’s Toll had stirred Atsarem from her daze of incomprehension. “Who are you?” she demanded. “What are you?”

Turning haughty, half-lidded eyes on her, the man said, “My trade is the formulation and sale of incense. The gods honored in Errò are said to be passing fond of incense. The families of sailors lost at sea are wont to burn it in their memory.”

“He is a faithful son of the church,” murmured the Holiest, “a dogged scholar, and, you might say, my agent in the Unnamed God’s bygone capital.”

Atsarem clapped her hands smartly together. “But what are you saying to me, Divine and…incense trader? This talk of history and legend and cataclysm and dispossessed gods. I am a commonplace merchant in wool who will never see Errò again once I depart. What does any of this mean to me?”

“You are a bereaved mother,” said the Holiest gently. “I head a bereaved church. It seems to me our wants may be harnessed together.”

“I see. The doddering old codger who walks with a stick will adventure with me to the dread island to challenge a thousand-year-old sorcerer. Perhaps the incense-maker will lend us aid.”

“Just so,” the Holiest agreed, delighted.

“Shall we, as well as rescuing my recalcitrant son and refounding your church, also reform the shattered moon and rejuvenate the sun?” Rising to her feet, the merchant of Chandias brushed away a venturesome moth. “I bid you goodnight, sirs. I have a great many tasks to initiate come morning.” As she took a step back from the table, her eyes fixed for a moment on the Holiest’s smiling acolyte. Despair, bitterness, and recollection of Vyl-atsarem’s yearning eyes fixed on the handsome youth spoke in her mind: The sorcerer might have taken that one instead of my son. But perhaps, she reflected sourly as she left the courtyard, he was simple. She had not heard him speak and his expression was perpetually placid.

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The wool merchant of Chandias woke gasping to fluttering lamplight and a firm hand pressed over her mouth. “Peace and calm and quiet, madam,” advised a voice that was strong, deep, young, but which convinced her in the instant it was the Holiest’s. The lamp in another hand moved, illuminating a face above her in all its physical features the beautiful acolyte’s, but animated by a different intelligence, a wiser and more stubborn spirit.

“I will speak a word in your ear,” said a different voice from her other side, the incense seller’s voice. The whispered syllables were not to be comprehended. They followed one after the next without cease. Reverberations echoed endlessly in the boney structure of her skull and sighing echoes breathed from her sinuses down her throat, into her lungs and heart and digestive organs, filtering out into her blood, suffusing her entire substance with a weight and mass that could not be borne. She grew heavier than the world, than the sun. She burned hotter than the sun in its most distant youth. She became something other than Atsarem, wool merchant of Chandias, twice widowed, mother of five stubborn daughters and two sons—one dead, one stolen. She became purpose. She became intention and will. She became dread and awe and all.

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She did not precisely come to herself, Atsarem, for it seemed there persisted next to no space for self within the tolling membrane of her skin. The sun stood high, stars pinked the dusky circle of the horizons. All around shivered a waste of waters. “Madam,” said the red-faced acolyte and rested his oars. Although she knew his features, their beauty transfigured but not lessened by exertion, she knew as surely the mind regarding her through languishing dark eyes was not the young acolyte’s.

Divine, she would have said but could not distinguish that small word within the ringing syllables of the great word.

His smile complacent, the semblance of the acolyte brushed sweat from his brow and eyes. He lifted a dampened finger to the air, sighed. “We had a wind the first several hours, else we would still glimpse Errò behind us.” He glanced down with admiration at his own strong arms and uncovered torso. “But my lovesome boy possesses reserves of endurance he scarcely suspects, and we do not wish to come within sight of Sheztannit’s isle before nightfall. As you intimated, a doddering old codger who walks with a stick could not but prove a grave liability on this adventure. Do you hunger, madam? Thirst?”

Plucking a stoneware bottle from a rank of them propped between two ribs of the small boat’s hull, he twisted out its stopper and smiled again, and frowned. “It’s an intriguing novelty, this flesh,” he said, “but I feel I will not regret surrendering it again to a spirit better accustomed to its vigor and drive and appetite.” Kneeling forward, he held the bottle to her lips. “Drink, madam.”

When he was satisfied she had taken all she would, he swigged off the bottle’s remaining contents in two swallows, glanced over his shoulder, and took up the oars again. A rhythm was quickly established. Between strokes he continued speaking, as if he liked the sound of the acolyte’s voice as much as he had the old man’s.

“We neglected to inform you, I fear, that our friend the incense seller, in addition to being a very great scholar, is also a supremely able sorcerer. Trading one mind for the other was child’s play to him. He feels insufficiently able, however, to challenge the one who calls himself Sheztannit—though I feel that is simple human cowardice. Still, he would not be persuaded or cowed.”

He rowed and rowed, and talked and talked, and rested his oars at intervals, and once he said, “It would be vilest blasphemy, you understand, for the archpresbyter of the Unnamed God to contain the Name his God renounced. I have been fearful of it since I was informed of our friend’s discovery.”

And so Atsarem learned what it was possessed her as the Holiest possessed the body of his acolyte, and wondered if the least thinking fragment of its owner persisted in the laboring sinew and muscle before her, or the gaze not now languishing, as she did within the vast roaring and chiming of that Name.

The westering sun blazed into her eyes. She closed them. She dozed and drifted, rolling on the endless swells of the unceasing Name. If the Holiest spoke further she did not comprehend it.

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Then it was night. Overhead the moon’s fragments hurtled slowly through the blackness between sea and stars, each continent-sized boulder glimmering within a pallid aura. Somewhere ahead a similar nimbus seemed to breach the surface of the waters.

Perhaps the Holiest recognized the inquiry in her gaze past the laboring acolyte’s sturdy shoulders. He rested the oars and twisted toward the prow. After a long moment he said, the acolyte’s voice thin after exertion, “Yes. I believe the incense seller’s supposition as to Niyatef’s origin must be correct. And yes, we have nearly arrived.”

The gleam persisted, expanded, without growing brighter. After a time unmeasured by the clopping of the oars, Atsarem began to distinguish the lineaments of the isle. It was not large, not high—it appeared all to be a single building of many wings and pavilions, a radiant pleasure palace afloat on trackless sea. Sinuous colonnades lined its shores above shallow stairs lapped by the ocean’s waves.

The boat’s prow came jarring to a stop against a step barely washed. Relishing the ache in unaccustomed shoulders and arms, the cramps in his fingers, the Holiest shipped the oars. He found no post or bollard to tie the boat up. Resigned, he heaved the anchor over the side, although doubting any irregularity below for its tines to catch. In any case, for all his bravado the Holiest felt little confidence the pair of adventurers would return to the mainland in the same manner they arrived.

He extended his left hand to the woman propped against the mast. As if she had somewhat mastered the Name that filled her—or as if the Name Itself possessed volition—she rose without assistance, clumsy but sure. Hitching up her skirts, she stepped over the side. Her slippers made little splashes in shallow water on the step. Having gathered up and girded on his acolyte’s weapons, the Holiest joined her on the lunar island’s shore. The lapping water was strangely chill.

Side by side they climbed the stairs and passed between two colossal columns. The stone of the columns, of the paving under their feet and the coffered vault above emitted a cool radiance sufficient to see their way but disorienting. Fifteen paces of his unfamiliar long, capable legs—more for the silent woman—took them across the width of the colonnade. They stood a moment between the opposing pair of columns, above another broad, shallow stair.

The Holiest inhaled a fragrance like costly incenses extinguished in freshly spilled blood. Below them lay a broad, dark expanse of gardens and cultivated parkland they must cross to reach the serried ranks of gleaming walls that made up the sorcerer’s palace. The Holiest saw meandering paths of dimly radiant paving, dark groves and copses and single trees, beds of shrubs and lower plants. “Within, I imagine,” he muttered, “some flamboyant audience chamber or magical laboratory, is where we’ll find him.” And yet he did not move, could not bring himself to move. The acolyte’s blood had grown sluggish in his limbs, the body apprehending fears the interloping mind wished to disregard.

Silent, grave, the woman descended the steps. The Holiest watched until she stepped from luminous stone to black turf, then followed in a rush. She walked forward, he a pace or two behind although he was armed and fully conscious, she not. The grass seemed unpleasantly springy underfoot.

With no breeze stirring, the black velvet leaves of a hedge of low bushes rustled at their approach. Obeying reflexes not his own, the Holiest quickened his pace to walk before her. His fingers strayed to the comforting hilts of twin daggers sheathed at either hip as he glanced about the confusing shadows, but the sudden irruption was not a thing to be battled with blades. All the foliage of twigs and branches rose in a mass like so many thousand humming insects. They feinted toward the woman but recoiled from her gravity and swarmed instead about the Holiest. The daggers had come up and out without conscious bidding and he slashed once, tearing a momentary rent in the roiling black cloud, but then one of the hexes impressed on him by the incense maker burst unbidden from his lips.

Black leaves fell as in an autumn windstorm. The Name-filled woman regarded the Holiest tranquilly. He returned the daggers to their sheaths and glared suspiciously at the denuded, twiggy hedge, slid his foot through what was no more than a drift of dead leaves.

Walking on, they approached a single tree alone on a stretch of black lawn. It appeared tall until they were nearly upon it, when it became clear the strangely pollarded trunk rose little higher than the acolyte’s head. Two stout branches reached upward as if from twisted shoulders and a myriad whippy, leafless shoots sprouted from what might be upraised fists. “I do not like this tree,” the Holiest said. “Its form is strangely…suggestive.”

Suggestion became statement when they came upon a stand of five similar trees. The resemblance of sinuous boles to the agonized bodies of human men could not be natural. The Holiest knew too little of horticulture to understand whether trees could be trained into these shapes. He glanced to the woman. Her expression remained calm but he felt he discerned anguish in the depths of her eyes. “I do not know, madam,” he said. “My knowledge of sorcery is as slight as my acquaintance with horticulture. Perhaps they are a strange form of the gardener’s art practiced over centuries on living trees….”

She strode past him. It seemed they walked for hours through the sorcerer’s parklands, from copse to grove to woods. All the trees resembled men, transfixed in a moment of anguish or passion yet still living. The Holiest kept his hands on the daggers, kept aware of the reassuring weight and rattle of barbed javelins in their quiver across his back. Uneasy, he realized he could not recall how many hexes the incense maker had equipped him with, tapping them into the base of the acolyte’s skull on the points of tiny vermeil tacks. He endeavored not to permit the woman to stray too far, although she did not answer to him so it was a matter of keeping himself close to her. He could not predict which tortured, manlike tree would attract her wordless sympathy so she stopped to caress its bark with her fingertips, press her cheek to the pollarded knot that might once have been a head.

At last their devious route brought them to the palace itself and an arch of luminous stone sufficiently wide a phalanx of infantry might march through without disturbance to the formation. The woman went ahead, climbing broad, shallow stairs, but at the portal she looked back. As if, the Holiest thought, she wished to descend again and visit every tree on the island until she discovered the one that had been her son. “Madam,” he said as he ascended to her side, “he must be within, Sheztannit, the sorcerer who took your son,” and she turned her eyes sidelong at him before walking under the arch.

The hall was little wider than the arch but very high. It curved gradually so an end could not be seen. No doors were apparent in the glowing stone walls. Black-iron staples supported vines with dagger-shaped leaves mottled crimson and a faded, unhealthy green. Blossoms like roses nestled among the leaves, petals the color of newly butchered meat, but instead of the pale generative structures of flowers at their centers were eyes, vivid topaz with wide pupils. As one such swiveled toward the interlopers at the portal, the Holiest uttered a hex. Every rose-eye dulled, petals blackened, and a stench nearly visible of rotted meat billowed forth.

The Holiest coughed. He had felt the tack bearing the hex go dull and fall tinkling down his neck, followed by a slow trickle of blood. “Another used up,” he muttered, then saw the woman had gone ahead, heedless. Before he caught up to her he had pronounced a third hex, felt another pang at the base of his skull, and watched the flowers of a new species of vine wither, blossoms like brazen trumpets that emitted breathy groans as their throats closed.

They continued walking, he a pace behind her. No further unnatural vines cumbered the hall’s gleaming walls. Its deceptive curve deepened, hiding whatever lay ahead and, by now, what lay behind. After some while the Holiest began to feel the walls were diverging, the curve of the wall to his left imperceptibly tightening while that on his right loosened, but the change was too gradual to be fixed. A hex pricked at his nape but did not erupt from his mouth and the pricking either subsided or went on for so many steps he forgot it. The woman’s pace never faltered.

For all the vaunted endurance of the acolyte’s youthful muscles, the Holiest was nearly weary when the tacks piercing his skull commenced humming, unuttered hexes burbled in his chest, and the long spiral reached its terminus. He touched the woman’s shoulder, halting her. Eyes wide and sorrowful, she glanced back but did not protest. “Allow me to precede you, madam,” he said, forcing intelligible words past the magical uproar troubling his throat.

Beneath their feet the paving remained lunar stone, white and gleaming, wide slabs carefully laid, but the floor before them was different: a mosaic of myriads of silvered glass shards, thumbnail size, which appeared sharp enough to shred the soles of the stoutest boots. They glittered like the sunstruck surface of the sea, dazzling the eye against full comprehension of the space encircled by walls of glowing stone. Stepping around the woman, the Holiest swallowed against nausea, headache, dread, the rumbling unease of hexes uncertain of their targets.

He swallowed again, took two steps away from secure footing. The rope soles of the acolyte’s sandals were not torn. He reached back for the woman’s hand and they proceeded, slowly becoming accustomed to the dazzle. Seeming too large to be contained by the spiral hall, the space began to take shape, and the woman made a small sound.

Before them at the center of the vast glassy circle seemed to stand a slight figure. Atsarem blinked, blinked again, wiped burning salt from her eyes. Within her flesh, within her mind, the all-encompassing Name seemed to draw in upon itself like a sea creature retreating within the impregnable fastness of its coiled shell and she began to become herself. “My son?” she murmured, and wondered distantly if they were the first words she had spoken since the incense seller whispered in her ear. She tugged against the Holiest’s cautious grip on her hand. Dazzling light baffled her eyes, the figure faced away from her, since his infancy she had seldom seen Vyl-atsarem unclothed: doubt strove to stifle certainty.

The figure seemed to stand at a little height above the flashing floor as if upon a pedestal. His legs and spine were buckled into sinuous curves reminiscent of a wind-trained tree that appeared unnatural to the strictures of human bones. The left arm formed a yearning arc above a head thrown back, wavy locks of black and rust tumbled between straining shoulders, and the right must be warped around his chest. Atsarem pulled more urgently against the Holiest’s restraint.

It was not a pedestal nor did the youth stand upon it: rather a kind of tub or basin forged of corroded metals. The rolled rim hid his feet below slender ankles. Atsarem’s vision had come clearer: she saw now the slender woven osiers and coils of heavy, dully gleaming copper wire that enforced the captive’s aberrant posture. “My son?” she asked again, slipping free of the Holiest’s hand.

She no longer doubted but nevertheless felt anguish shudder through her to recognize the nuptial designs on the back of the hand splayed over her son’s heart. Wrist and forearm were wired in place but when she whispered, “Vyl-atsarem,” the youth’s fingers trembled and she believed she saw a tremor of breath disturb his chest. Leafy sprigs had been grafted between the fingers, echoing the foliar patterns bleached into his skin. Looking up past the coiled wire forcing his chin into the air, she saw the downcast crescents of his eyes regarding her, saw the tears forming at their corners and trickling down his cheeks. He could not speak for his mouth was stuffed with vivid green foliage. Abashed and ashamed, she turned her own eyes downward.

In the basin, her son’s feet were planted in loamy soil. She saw numerous long incisions in his lower legs, A series of rooted, leafless shoots surrounded him, pallid with mottles of green and pink. The tip of each shoot was inserted precisely into its corresponding blood-crusted incision.

Even as Atsarem felt the Name flex its might within her as if reacting to her horror, the Holiest in his acolyte’s body went to his knees by the basin, hissing with revulsion, keen-edged dagger ready in his right hand. “Abomination,” she thought to hear him say. Neatly, he carved through one shoot, then with his holy left hand tugged its tip free of Vyl-atsarem’s flesh, dragging finger-long, thread-thin bloody rootlets with it. Vyl-atsarem’s body shuddered violently. The Holiest attacked another.

Abruptly Atsarem found herself tearing leafy sprouts from her son’s mouth. Perhaps they had been transplanted only recently for they were barely rooted in his tongue and there was little blood. When she pulled out the last sprig, Vyl-atsarem moaned, coughed out a thin drool of soil and blood, murmured, “Mother?” and coughed again. The knot of cartilage in his throat scraped against the heavy wire that held his head high. Reaching overhead again, Atsarem laid both palms against his cool cheeks. “My poor son,” she replied. A tremor shuddered through him as the Holiest withdrew a root from his leg, then severed yet another and began delicately to tug it out. It seemed the scaffolding of osiers and copper wire alone held the youth upright.

Strangely grieving and hopeful at once, Atsarem pressed her cheek to her son’s chest. Wired into place, his forearm dug into her neck. She listened for his heartbeat over the rumbling of the Name within her, and heard it, ragged but not weak. But as well she heard another noise which was not confined within her flesh or her son’s, like an echo of distant thunder, a cheeping murmur as of ten thousand baby birds. It grew louder by the moment.

Frightened, she stepped back from Vyl-atsarem and looked up. The space was not roofed: above she saw black night sky strewn with stars and three of the moon’s tumbling fragments. Turning about, she scanned all the sky she could see above the nimbus of glassy floor and radiant walls. A billowing dark cloud began to eclipse the stars at one quadrant.

All his remaining hexes pricking at once alerted the Holiest to nearing threat. He sliced through the last six shoots without pausing to draw the grafted remnants from the youth’s flesh. Climbing to his feet, he returned the dagger to its sheath and used his acolyte’s brute strength to uproot the boy from the basin of soil. The merchant’s son uttered a thin whine and a wretched spasm wracked his body as the feet came free and the Holiest saw the multitude of hair-thin rootlets sprouting from his soles.

Wincing himself, the Holiest understood the boy would not be capable of standing upright despite the lashed osiers and coiled wire trussing him rigid. As gently as he might, he laid the youth supine on the glassy floor, and then at last looked up. Unthinking, he reached over his shoulder for a pair of javelins, held one ready in each hand.

The Holiest had not visited Okav, several difficult months’ distance from Ba, but he had heard travelers’ tales. He had heard about the vast noisy clouds of bonepickers that swarmed the skies there, watching out for a fallen mammont or megatherion which they would strip to bones in moments, and knew the scavenger birds had been endemic to the eastern littoral as well before the moon broke up and the Gulf of Fetour was born in cataclysm. They were known to be not invariably discriminating in the matter of whether their fodder was already deceased.

He positioned himself above the recumbent youth, a foot either side of his trunk, and called to the woman. Gazing awed at the massive, writhing finger made up of a multitude of tiny birds plunging toward them, she did not respond or stir. Before the Holiest could call again a barrage of brutal hexes detonated from his lips. Pang after agonizing pang as tacks broke free of his skull blinded him for a instant.

The first several hundred baby-headed bonepickers that plunged upon the Holiest and the youth he meant to protect speared themselves upon the thorns of a cage of sorcerous bone-white vines or were consumed by its flaming blossoms. Tremors wracked the Holiest’s alien flesh with each minuscule death.

The cannonade of living missiles ceased but the creatures did not entirely withdraw. Swarming, they formed a great dome of cheeping, feathered flesh around and above the persons of the three interlopers. The Holiest saw without comprehending how they recoiled from the youth’s isolated mother: she did not require the protection of his hexes.

From a multitude of tiny mouths a single tremendous voice spoke, shivering the Holiest’s bones. “I know you, Archpresbyter, in your purloined flesh. Do you not know me?”

“I am not dishonored by acquaintance with the lord of the gulf.”

“No?” came the resounding reply. “Brave words, Archpresbyter. Brave lies.”

The dome exploded into uncountable trilling splinters, tossed about in a grand whirlwind before coagulating into a single figure: a mammoth person taller than ten men standing on each other’s shoulders, perfectly proportioned, achingly beautiful. Monstrous fingers of the left hand formed a sign the Holiest might not deny. The cage of vines and thorns and burning blossoms collapsed into eddies of chalky dust stirred by divine breath. “Do you know me, Archpresbyter?” the god asked.

Bowing his head in the face of the Unnamed God’s majesty, the Holiest murmured, “At last I do.” He fixed his eyes on the slender legs below him, trussed with osiers and copper wire, marred above the ankles by cuts weeping blood and sap—on the six severed grafts yet anchored in flesh and the rootlets withering from the boy’s feet.

“Do you acknowledge me?”

The Holiest inhaled until his chest ached, then lifted his eyes before resolve could flee—not to the dread face of his god. To the woman the god could not admit he said plainly, “I feel you must speak now, madam.”

Her eyes widened, brimming with more sorrow than the Holiest’s heart. Resigned, he nodded. “It would seem the incense seller failed to reveal all he knew or to explain his entire purpose.”

“Do you acknowledge me?” thundered the god.

Defiant, grieving, the Holiest gazed into the awful eyes. “Better,” he said, “to ask my companion.”

Atsarem parted her lips to the raging Name. With the first tender syllable she felt tiny blood vessels begin to burst all throughout her. It would be better, she almost thought as syllable after unspeakable syllable resounded, to speak my precious son’s name before I die, but I do not know it. She watched the Holiest die in redemptive agony behind his acolyte’s eyes, saw the youthful acolyte return to himself with a start and at once throw himself headlong over her trussed son as if his mortal flesh could protect the boy from a god. Tremendous weariness, unutterable sadness burgeoned within her to fill the volumes vacated by the Name—she knew she was dying instant by instant, killing herself—knew she possessed sufficient vigor to pronounce the entire Name but no more.

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The young acolyte—his uncles had named him Joäth, although he had nearly forgotten during his service to the Unnamed God’s archpresbytery—had spent the greater part of his sojourn in the Holiest’s weary flesh asleep, rousing now and then, uncomprehending, to the incense seller’s murmured heresies and apostasies. Yet in his slumbers he had dreamed: dreamed of the uses and actions the Holiest put his, Joäth’s, body to.

Returned to himself, he was nearly felled at once by intense pain at the base of his skull where the points of unused hexes scraped bone. Ample recollection of the situation left behind by the archpresbyter caused him to pivot with unconscious grace and drop to elbows and knees over the trussed youth. Vyl-atsarem, he was thinking, he’s called, but that is not his name. He is more nameless than the god now. He gazed upon the lovely face below him of Madame Atsarem’s second son—into terrified, bewildered eyes as deep as starless sky, polished like precious gems. “A moment,” he breathed, “and a moment, and perhaps another.” Reflected in the lad’s eyes, his own face mouthed the words, startling him for when last he’d glimpsed a mirror he wore the Holiest’s weathered features. “A moment,” he said again, astonished by his own appearance, reclaimed, as much as by the youth’s.

The Nearly Named God had already blown apart, he had seen before he dropped. Bereft of any capacity to recognize one another, to adhere to a single will or desire or image, thousands of baby-faced birds whirled about in incoherent swarms and eddies. The shrill racket they made could not drown out the ever continuing reverberation of their Name but that Name was too large for Joäth to comprehend, or he, fortunate, was too small.

Stretched out atop the other youth, careful not to crush him, Joäth began to feel powdery impacts against his entire length, less substantial than snow, warm. He glanced his eyes to one side. Flakes of green-black ash, now and then crimson, were falling. They were shaped like perfect tiny feathers but broke up into dust when they hit the ground. Already greasy drifts were forming across glassy mosaic and undifferentiated noise resolving into individual panicked chirps and twitters.

The last cheep was stifled. For an endless moment the final syllable of the extinguished god’s name tolled, rolled, before its vessel too was extinguished. Joäth raised himself to his knees athwart the merchant’s son’s hips. An insubstantial avalanche of ash tumbled down his back. “A moment,” he murmured, “as I said.”

Unbidden, a hex forced its path along his tongue and through his lips. Fascinated even as he steeled himself against the continuing pain of those that remained, Joäth watched copper wire corrode in an instant to verdigris. Released from bondage, the merchant’s son’s chin jerked forward and his hands moved as one to prove the other young man: gripping his thighs, passing over his hips, caressing his belly, rising to his chest.

Brushing them off—although he did not wish to—Joäth dismounted and set to unwinding the web of osiers still trussing the lad. As he worked, he said, “Your mother is dead.”

The orphan nodded: he had already understood.

“As is my master, back in Errò, and, I believe, his bitter god.” Tossing aside the last whippy binding, he brushed ash from the youth’s limbs and bent to yank out the final six grafts. The merchant’s son yelped, but it was a cry of relief as much as pain.

“Tell me,” Joäth said, returning to the precious, grubby face, “what shall we call you?”

___
Copyright 2016 Alex Jeffers

Alex Jeffers’s first published story appeared in 1976. Nearly fifty more have followed (two at GigaNotoSaurus before this one), along with eight books. His most recent novel is That Door Is a Mischief (2014). Forthcoming this year is a collection, Not Here. Not Now. He lives in Oregon.

by Tamara Vardomskaya

Aantselitsha,” Eret’s mother whispered as she died in the hospital’s sterile coldness. Keep it alive.

Or maybe “Re-ignite it.” Eret barely knew the word root — life/light — and wasn’t positive on the prefix.

Their language. Mattaghelit. Five millennia of history, and its last speaker now lay dead in a Sunatnight hospital, Atsaldeian voices all around, including her own son’s, who didn’t think of the Mattaghelit response in time.

Eret watched his mother’s body ignite at the funeral, the three lightforger mages solemnly turning Chigiri’s aged bones into a flare of light. He had been ready to haggle, as people with his looks were always doomed to do so as not to be cheated to their last copper rose coin. It was bad enough that he was simply assumed to be ‘Merezenin,’ no matter that the Mattaghelit people had lived on Atsaldei’s territory long before Atsaldei existed, and had never set foot far south in Merezen; two “M” peoples were too much for the Atsaldeians to keep straight. But this seemed to be the one funeral office that would offer a reasonable price. A chorister’s salary was low.

He wondered for a brief second about converting the heat and light of his mother’s cremation into heat and light for his little flat, whether that would get him a better deal than the cost of the funeral took out of his heating budget. He shuddered at the thought, making his voice quaver in the long keening kodara for the dead that he sang almost unthinkingly.

The few other aging Mattaghelits nodded to him, the younger ones murmuring ‘May she be reborn greater’ in the Atsaldeian fashion as well as the Atsaldeian language; the elders still remembering ‘The moon take her.’ One or two even spoke that line in their own language. But that didn’t mean that they could tell long rhyming, chanted stories about what the moon does to lost souls. What remained of those stories in Chigiri’s brain had at last burned brighter than moonlight.

Except that there was one other place the stories could be.

Eret did not weep. The Mattaghelit were not wont to weep over the dead, and weeping would hurt his throat and he had a crucial rehearsal that afternoon, even if he got the morning off. He still had a little less than two hours of free time, and he used them.

Yira still lived where she had lived ten years before, in the block of aging apartments of brown glass off Ringside East. They looked as shabby as his own from the outside, posters of Na-Melei Tro’s upcoming concerts plastered on the facade to cover the cracks and grime. But Eret knew that a linguist made more than a chorister did: Yira only had to share the bathroom with one other flat instead of twenty, a luxury that Eret often dreamed of while standing in line.

When he knocked, it was her neighbour who opened the door on the shadowed landing, light slanting down from the high slits where the brown glass gave way to clear. The older woman’s dappled features reminded him for a moment of his mother, although her face was too pale and too broad.

“Is Yira in?”

The old woman decided, after close and suspicious scrutiny, that in his musician’s greys, he resembled neither the police nor the mages. “I’ll call her.”

He heard a rapid, muffled exchange between the old woman and the crisp strident voice he recognized. Then Yira herself stood framed in the doorway — taut and precise, lines sharp as the ink notations she had made in her countless notebooks.  She had not changed in a single rust-brown hair in the ten years, he thought, while he had transformed completely. Yet now he felt again as a rawboned boy ten years ago, his voice just breaking. Again he felt like a supplicant before this academic Atsaldeian who had seemed to actually care about the Mattaghelit even as the elders had whispered she was stealing their tongue. Well, Eret was coming, humbly, to ask for it back.

“Sunlight on you. I’m Eret,” he said. “Chigiri’s son. I come from her funeral.”

He looked for signs in Yira’s face: sadness, recognition. There seemed to be only closing off, stiff and polite, and a very formal three quick notes of the kodara for remembrance. “Mirror-wise, and may she be reborn greater. Thank you for letting me know.”

“Wait!” he cried as she moved to close the door. “I…I want our language back. From your notes. I want…” he had carefully constructed the words, running them over and checking them again and again in his head. “Litscha-gii aklerents.” I want my children to keep it alive.

He saw her wince before she hid it; so his pronunciation was wrong after all. “And what,” she said, tight voice creaking, “do you need me for?”

Eret took a deep breath, as for a high note, but all that came out was a sigh, touched with a whimper he hoped she couldn’t hear. “Kre, you won’t do it, after all. You are…the best speaker of Mattaghelit left.”

“Well,” she replied, her voice snide and high-pitched, “at last a younger Mattaghelit admits this. Ten years, and they finally come for my help, instead of scrupulously ignoring my advice about the language I had made my life’s study.”

His anger broke through. “You would let Mattaghelit, our people, our language die! After we helped you so much with your doctorate! Just like all the other Atsaldeians!”

His shout echoed down the stairway, probably scattering the wyverns pecking for crumbs outside. He regretted shouting; it had hurt his vocal folds.

“They would let the language die before admitting that an Atsaldeian could speak it better than them, even if they only knew three words,” she said. “Is it for my health and amusement that I’d keep going to people who resent me? You know what, Chigiri-yakler?” her voice had built to a crescendo, and Eret realized that what he’d thought was anger was really bitterness as she called him the son of his mother. “Too little, too late!”

Eret stuck a trembling foot into the door just before she could slam it. The wood was cheap and thin, but still stung against his boot. “Kre, we didn’t do anything like that!”

“Tell you what,” Yira said from the other side of the door. “I’ll agree to be the one Atsaldeian, of those who give a wyvern’s crap, who doesn’t kindly inform you Mattaghelit of your own history, and I’ll thank you for not informing me of mine. I have detailed notes, and better things to do with my life than show them to you.”

Such a situation as this must have occurred before in some story, but the only stories Eret could recall were the plots of cheap comic operas. At last he understood why Yira had quit working with them ten years back, as soon as she finished her dissertation, and had never returned.

He spoke at last, his pride a harsh note going back down his throat. “Yira, I have things to do as well. I have a rehearsal with a guest singer I need to be at in half an hour, and kso, the Transit station will likely have a queue out the door again. But I need my language back. What do you want for it? Money?”

Money is everything with these Atsaldeians, kwalkii, he remembered his mother muttering, as her hospital visits had become more and more frequent and the jingle of their coin box grew higher and higher pitched from lightness. And even though money hadn’t been everything to the friends he had grown up and played and sung with, he had believed her. Even if he had never learned what kwalkii meant.

“A guest singer.” Yira’s voice was in an entirely different, lower register. “Not Na-Melei Tro from Merezen?”

“It is she,” Eret said nervously.

A long pause he counted in heartbeats in the throbbing bruise on his foot. “Kre, I suggest this,” Yira said finally. “You let me into the rehearsal and let me listen to Na-Melei Tro and speak to her, and…” She took the door off his foot, opening it a bit wider.

“And…”

Ayantseq’uria,” she said with the popping burst of ejective consonant. It wasn’t a promise and it wasn’t a refusal. Let us keep speaking.

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Na-Melei alighted from the train, and at once inhaled the smell of steam and heated steel, of savoury five-fold pastries frying.

The conductor had assured her it was spring, but despite the sunlight, she was skeptical. The train had taken them in two days from Cadrazien, Merezen’s capital, already flooded with lush flowers, to Sunatnight, the capital of Atsaldei, where the trees were just beginning to open their tough little blossoms against the wind and rain, and a coat was vital.

The Atsaldeian language had all those subtle gradations of ‘cold’: chilly, brisk, nippy, biting, a variety of synonyms Na-Melei could never sort out. She silently thanked Master Lazhanor for the invitation gift of a leather coat.

Behind her, Fai-rek and Ivuem followed, the boy with eyes like lakes at the Atsaldeian capital, the elder woman immediately tracking the crowds. Ivuem would note who was old, who was young, who wore the leather and sparkling platinum of the rich or the copperbark and duller silver of the poorer, where were the black-clad mages crisscrossed in coloured sashes, and how many raven-haired heads and olive faces there were.

Na-Melei wasn’t sure what Fai-rek was looking at or listening to. She had adopted the boy two years ago, when he was just five years old. Nearly a third of his life had been spent trailing after her singing career: sitting quietly at rehearsals, sleeping in inns and short-let apartments, every month hearing a new accent, or even a new language altogether. With no sense of what was normal and few chances at regular schooling or friends, though, the boy seemed to absorb everything as a new adventure. Every new city, he welcomed as an additional place to call home, not as a forced change tearing him away from the last one.

Or, at least, Na-Melei told herself this in moments of guilt for taking Fai-rek’s childhood from him. She had to. It wasn’t the boy’s fault that the people in his home village, only on the next hill from her own but speaking Vurkh, had said such evil about his parents before their deaths. If no one would take the son of so-called perverts and thieves, Na-Melei, the one Grasshills villager to make it in the big world, would. She would use her fame to shame them for their prejudices, she had thought.

And she had since grown to love him deeply, in her own way.

“Stay beside me,” she whispered to Fai-rek, checking his tight grip on the valise full of performance gowns.

“Mistress Na-Melei Tro!” There was Master Lazhanor, the man she had only known from letters and portraits. The portraits hadn’t conveyed how short and lively he was. She raised a hand of greeting, feeling odd and constrained in her bone-buttoned gloves in the Atsaldeian style.

“Sunlight on you, Mistress Tro, let us get you to the Transit station. I hope you’ve had a pleasant journey. Kso, are these your…attendants?” The music director spoke heavily accented Merezenin, the pace of his words stumbling and tripping like one of his tempo rubato compositions — or one played by an under-practiced musician with the easy phrases coming fast and the difficult ones stuttering and uneven. The purely Atsaldeian particle kso came as a jarring dissonance to her ear.

“Just Na-Melei is fine and I understand Atsaldeian, if you would prefer,” she said smoothly in that language. “Although I shall have to interpret for my companions. This is my aunt Ivuem, and this is my ward Fai-rek. It is a pleasure to meet you.”

The two nodded on hearing their names. Na-Melei gesticulated to compensate for them, her heart aching in empathy with their shock at the cacophony of the train station.

“I felt the same way when I first arrived in Cadrazien. It will be all right,” she whispered to Ivuem in Phang, and added to Fai-rek in Vurkh, “Don’t worry, you’ll learn fast.”

But even the experience of ten years in Cadrazien had not prepared Na-Melei for the Transit station; lost in awe, she let Master Lazhanor deal with the cost of passage for all four of them from the russet-sashed farleaper mages. They do not use horses here, nor carts — they travel over the city by magic!

Maybe there was something to those mage-controlling laws after all, if such power was used in the public’s service. Na-Melei quickly stifled the thought as unfair, and carefully kept her face still. The rumours of dissent between mageborn and realborn in Atsaldei, of a powder keg exploding soon, had gotten as far as Cadrazien, and she wasn’t sure on what side Master Lazhanor fell, but knew that she couldn’t discuss it in public.

“These are the police, the ones over there in scarlet-and-blue,” she said softly to Fai-rek without pointing or otherwise seeming anything but casual; the odds of those two Merezenin-looking women behind them knowing Vurkh were slim, but she wanted no reason for them to listen harder. The police seemed on high alert, and she had heard enough rumours about Atsaldeians saying the wrong thing accused of spreading rebellion and dissent and imprisoned without trial. “Do not draw their attention.”

One step through the gap that the mage opened, and they were in another Transit station. Down the block was the Opera House she had seen in so many engravings, startlingly…matte in solid gray stone, compared with the shining glass buildings all around it.

Fai-rek laughed out loud, and Ivuem shushed him before Na-Melei could. Aunt Ivuem had turned into a nanny, from her old role of chaperone back when Na-Melei was sent to Cadrazien to train. Someone, her family and village all said, should come to protect our singing girl’s virtue. Ivuem had the advantages of being widowed, childless, and a fluent speaker of the city’s Merezenin as well as the villages’ Phang and Vurkh.

Only for the aunt to learn that in the city, among new music and new values, Na-Melei would decide that her virtue did not lie in virginity and who she slept with was her own business, not Ivuem’s. That shouting match, Na-Melei had held in the Merezenin language, refusing to concede to village values on that matter by using their words. And Ivuem yielded in Merezenin and gradually re-defined her relationship with her niece, her niece’s career, and later, her family in the form of the adopted son.

But that had been Cadrazien, much bigger and much more colourful in everything except languages spoken, but still a manageable size for an old lady and a young boy from a cluster of villages of a few hundred souls each. Sunatnight, cold as it was, held a million people, Na-Melei thought.

“Thank you,” Na-Melei turned to Lazhanor. “That was marvelously efficient.”

“On its good days, yes,” he grunted, and Na-Melei thought she must have seemed hopelessly provincial. Very well, hopelessly provincial she must be, for the price of the people of Sunatnight getting their exotic singer. She glanced over at Ivuem. Her aunt could play “hopelessly provincial old lady” with such skill that most city folk never realized it when she had already tied them into knots. Now lay the challenge of whether Ivuem could do it in a city whose official language she did not speak.

Na-Melei mentally placed a bet on her.

“Madam,” Lazhanor continued, “will we proceed with the contract first? Or would you prefer to take some refreshment after your journey?”

“The contract,” Na-Melei said.

The dance began, of Lazhanor laying out the bilingual contract in Atsaldeian and Merezenin before her on his bronzewood desk in his office, her carefully reading it, sounding out some words and asking them to be rephrased in Merezenin, correcting the Merezenin translation.

There was a blank space for the fee. “Twenty royals for the concert series,” Lazhanor offered.

Ivuem rose from the chair behind Na-Melei where she had watched the proceedings, and tugged at the singer’s sleeve, whispering.

Lazhanor sighed. “Thirty royals?”

“What do you want?” Na-Melei whispered to Ivuem in Phang,

The older woman kept whispering, and Na-Melei shook her head.

“Forty royals?” Lazhanor asked, dubious. “Fifty?”

Ivuem kept with her whispers in Phang, growing more and more urgent and distressed, Na-Melei’s head almost splitting with pressure from two sides in two very different languages.

“Mistress Tro, fifty is my absolute best offer. I cannot go any higher, and I have rehearsals starting in an hour, I need your contract!” Lazhanor burst out in a frustrated melange of Atsaldeian and Merezenin.

“Why, certainly,” Na-Melei smiled. “Of course, I will sign.” She bent to write in fifty royals for the fee and apply her signature in the Merezenin alphabet, as the two of them harmonized in the kodara for sealed bargains. Kodaras, of course, were the same in any language. Stoppering the ink, she looked up at him.

“My aunt would just like to know — where is the toilet?”

Lazhanor met her eyes, blushing redder than his lips. He did not see Ivuem’s satisfied smirk.

divider

The sheet music in Eret’s hand, still warm from the printer’s hot glass, was in no language he had ever seen before, transliterated into Atsaldeian script in what must be Na-Melei’s flowing, looping handwriting. He had sung before in Atsaldeian, Merezenin, Classical Caldamaran, and even Mattaghelit (although he had never seen sheet music of Mattaghelit songs). He paid strict attention to the vowel quality as Na-Melei herself explained the pronunciation from the front of the stage. She was elegant in a deep gray Merezenin-style walking suit whose white trim seemed to almost glow against her dark skin under the magelights.

It was Yira, sitting in the front row, who spoke up: “What language are the words in, and what do they mean?”

Shrook, Eret thought. Kso, the choir was already suspecting that she was an unannounced censor, rare as it was for censors to show up to a first rehearsal; and asking a censor’s question would just make them all the more politely indisposed towards the linguist. Which she would doubtless notice, and repay in antipathy towards the Mattaghelit and his own need.

Na-Melei, however, hadn’t grown up in Sunatnight, and explained with a smile, “No one knows. It is a tradition among our people to sing ‘Aishi Fau’ and keep singing it, but what language and what people it had come from has long been forgotten in the centuries when we had no writing.”

The old woman who was Na-Melei’s companion, her garishly bright shawl incongruous in the somber high-class leather of an Opera House box, spoke up with a few words. Eret guessed that this was a question, but the pitch varied on each syllable, the language obviously tonal, and he knew his was only a guess.

Yira slowly replied in the same language, and a conversation broke out between the box and the censors’ row, Na-Melei obviously following it, the language completely impenetrable to the rest of the Opera House. Lazhanor and the choir exchanged curious glances, and Eret’s shoulders untensed. Ducal censors came in many ages, genders and styles of clothing, but their one consistent feature was arrogant monolingualism. Yira’s question in Atsaldeian had been clearly motivated by xenophilia, not xenophobia.

Tsii,” Lazhanor called the choir to attention, trusting the foreign conversation would die down of its own accord, “let us run through the music.”

All of them sightread to professional standard; the first rendition of the song floated up and filled the hall, voices drawing together in close harmony on chords never found in Atsaldeian music and polyrhythmic fugal counterpoint in a different style than Eret had ever heard. The alien words seemed to twine around the arches of the vaulted ceiling, challenging, seductive. Exotic, Eret thought, and the automatic jerk of disgust at that word reminded him that he was thinking like an Atsaldeian. Na-Melei, as a person whose marvellous contralto guided the voices, luring and seducing them to match her vowels, to whom the incomprehensible song meant so much that she insisted a choral arrangement be included in her concert series — how did she hear it?

The two other songs they rehearsed were standards of the repertoire for contralto and chorus, ones the choir had done with other guest soloists or even used as audition pieces, one in Atsaldeian, the other in Classical Caldamaran. Eret had heard, in the gossip as the choir warmed up, that Na-Melei was going to sing some classic arias in the solo part of her concert, as well as a song or two Lazhanor had written just for her. Now seeing the director’s face as he listened intently to “Aishi Fau,” Eret wondered if the planned draft of Na-Melei’s bespoke aria would be rewritten, the harmonies changed to fit with those of a long-lost culture’s enduring song.

“Mistress Na-Melei,” Yira’s voice rang out as the rehearsal wound down, not as resonant as the professional singers’ but she did know something about making herself heard. “I am Yira Tsilian, a linguistics professor with the University of Sunatnight. Master Lazhanor, I do hope you will excuse my curiosity in coming here. Eret invited me.”

Eret quailed; he was still a very junior chorister and there were many talented tenors eager to take his spot if he displeased the director. But Lazhanor smiled at Yira. “Sunlight on you. You seem to know the language of Mistress Na-Melei’s people well.”

“Not as much as I would like to,” Yira said. “If I may – if you have not yet made plans for the afternoon, Mistress Na-Melei, I would love to buy you dinner.”

Na-Melei hesitated, her large dark eyes moving back and forth. In Merezen, or in her own culture, the purchasing of meals for others must signify something different than it did in Sunatnight. Lazhanor spoke, “Here it merely means that she wishes your company for an hour or two, and would like to recompense. No further obligations.”

Eret dared. “May I come along as well? On my own bill, of course.”

Having more people there would reassure the soloist that Yira was not planning to seduce her after dinner, or whatever the Merezenin practice was. And he was dying to find out what the linguist would talk about with Na-Melei, and whether she would let slip information about her work on the Mattaghelit that she wouldn’t share with him as a member of the tribe. And honestly, with this very long day, he wanted to postpone going home to his mother’s empty flat, now all his, and having to think about his mother and his people. And, somebody should tell this lovely innocent foreigner what the censors were likely to say when they couldn’t get a verified translation of ‘Aishi Fau.’ Lazhanor, never having to think about these things as a Noted Artist of Sunatnight, obviously hadn’t told her.

Na-Melei’s voice was melodious as ever but her vowels were now much more foreign than they had been during her explanation of “Aishi Fau” — weariness from three hours of vocal work, or nerves? “It would be an honour. But, kre, I couldn’t. You see, my companions Ivuem and Fai-rek, they do not know any Atsaldeian at all. I cannot leave them. And I cannot oblige you, Professor Yira, to pay for their meals as well.”

“You can oblige me,” Lazhanor replied. “Professor Yira, if I can come as well, I would consider it an honour to just listen. I will cover your companions’ meal. And Eret’s as well.” In the director’s eyes, there was an unspoken understanding. So he knows. He knows that my mother’s funeral was today, and I came to rehearsal anyway.

“In exchange,” Lazhanor added, “for Professor Yira teaching me enough of your aunt’s language for me to be able to understand requests for basic directions.” His eyes twinkled, and Na-Melei’s cheekbones flushed, changing the shade of her skin.

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She was finished, Yira had repeated to herself as she strode into the Opera House, chewing her lip. With her doctoral dissertation, her involvement with the Mattaghelit was over. And good riddance to them all.

For ten years, she’d had the peace and quiet of not thinking about it. Kso, if the Mattaghelit people wanted to sink themselves and their own shrooking language with their own shrooking hypocrisy, that was their shrooking prerogative. She had a professorship, lectures to give, books to write and committees to serve on. She had no energy to fight the Mattaghelit to save their language, and she was glad there were no language speakers left to save when Chigiri’s son showed up on her doorstep.

Yet the words she had not spoken since her doctoral defence flooded back to her the moment she heard them again.

Why? She needed to figure this out. She needed time. And good music. And the opportunity to see with her own eyes an artist whose career she had followed in the newspaper for years, and see her more often than just at a carefully polished concert that would cost Yira a month’s rent.

And so she bargained Eret into letting her watch Na-Melei’s rehearsals in the hope that the foreign contralto’s beautiful voice would soothe her turmoil. In the hope that the woman who looked a bit like the Mattaghelit, but didn’t speak or sing at all like them, would somehow fix the unhealed Mattaghelit-shaped wounds in Yira’s soul.

Instead, Yira heard the song ‘Aishi Fau.’

Yira had never been able to hear language without analyzing it. She pulled out her memorandum-book to jot down repeated syllables of the strange song, trying to compensate for the inevitable mispronunciation by the choristers in order to figure out the language’s sound structure, how words interrelated, whether it had case endings or not. Some of the roots sounded similar to those reconstructed for Proto-Mattaghelit, or Classical Caldamaran pre-sound shift, but were they evidence of common descent, or were they borrowings?

As Na-Melei sang, Yira felt suddenly star-struck. You are probably a decade older than this woman. You are long past the age of falling for someone just because they speak a new and beautiful language.

But without thinking, she blurted out a question and found herself speaking Phang, the language she had not thought about in nearly three years, the abandoned project that hadn’t set then. Her grammar was rusty but the words returned as the aged aunt spoke to her. And the return thrilled Yira so much that she, again without thinking, asked the singer to dinner. She was glad that Lazhanor and Eret came along. There was a certain joy to talking languages with new people, not with her fellow faculty, whose responses she already knew.

As their small party walked out the stage door of the Opera House (Yira had not known where the stage door was until Eret had shown her), the little boy, Fai-rek, walked beside her.

“Good health to you,” he greeted her in Phang, very politely.

“Do you know Merezenin?” she asked in Phang, on a hunch.

“Oh yes, I do.”

How many times had she heard that pride in the voices of young children, insisting that they “knew” a language even if they knew one word? “What do you know of Merezenin?” she asked.

“What do you want me to say in it?” The child’s Merezenin was smooth and perfect. “I know some big words. Really big words. Like ‘decrescendo.’ Or ‘philharmonic.’ Do you know that word?”

Yira couldn’t help but mirror his grin. “Not only do you know Merezenin,” she happily switched to that language as it was far more comfortable than Phang, “but that means you know Caldamaran as well. These words come from Caldamaran. What other languages do you know?”

The boy said something in a language that sounded completely unfamiliar, so she couldn’t place even the family from that sample. He saw her puzzled blank look, and switched back to Merezenin. “I can speak Vurkh!”

“Vurkh?” She had never even heard of any publications on that language, and Yira assiduously followed new grammars of understudied languages. The Grasshills of Merezen were famous (in the tiny circles she moved in) for their linguistic diversity, and she now appreciated that. Her ongoing project on tracing the development of verb aspect from Old Caldamaran to Classical Caldamaran rolled off into a corner of her mind. The Caldamarans had left their language so well-documented one couldn’t ask for better, and they all have been dead five hundred years and could wait a little longer. She needed to seize this option of Vurkh.

Very carefully, like a hunter trying not to scare off a seven-point stag, she said, “I don’t speak Vurkh. Can you teach me?”

Fai-rek seemed aglow with the notion of teaching an adult, then paused. “If Na-Melei says yes.”

Just then they were at the restaurant door, and Fai-rek was obviously not the kind of child who would tug at his parent’s skirt for assent before she was ready to pay attention to him. Asking her to say yes would have to wait.

But something in Yira’s cold heart lit up, something that completely ignored the scars from the last time, ten years ago, when she had documented a language.

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“Three dishes?” Na-Melei studied the menu. Her companions looked on silently; they will probably just have what she’s having, Eret thought.

“One chal, one sweet, one sour or salty,” Lazhanor nodded. “It is the Atsaldeian way. Not the Merezenin way of one dish per course.”

Eret had eaten at Merezenin restaurants a time or two, and had always felt a certain unbalance on tasting their dishes one at a time, either being overwhelmed with sweetness or the savoury chal taste, or craving it. Perhaps because he could not afford the really good restaurants. This Atsaldeian one was particularly fine, with the tables separated by partitions so one could barely hear the neighbouring diners and their chorused kodaras. He felt a guilty relief that it was on someone else’s bill.

Ivuem, the old aunt, asked a question, and Yira leaned over and evidently translated the three different lists for her.

“I will take the sweet noodles and the salt fish with carrots, and the baked cheese four-corner pastry,” Na-Melei told the waiter after a quick soft-voiced conversation with Ivuem. The wide-eyed boy Fai-rek seemed to only half-listen. “They will each have the same.”

Even though Yira understood the other language that Ivuem spoke, to Eret’s surprise the linguist had clearly not followed the exchange just then.

“What…is your nationality?” Eret asked at last, hoping that he, a lowly Mattaghelit chorister, did not insult an international star.

“My passport? It is Merezenin,” she said, calm if slightly bemused.

Kre, you don’t speak Merezenin,” he blurted, and Lazhanor and Yira stared at him.

Vailio, ik-re,” Na-Melei smiled. Oh yes, I do.

“I think,” Lazhanor cut in, with the kind of firmness that warned Eret to shut up before any more wyverns came out of his mouth, “that we are curious to know what is your mother tongue.”

“Mother tongue? My mother spoke Phang. Mostly.”

“Mostly…”

“The people in the embassy in Cadrazien asked the same question. I finally had to ask them why they weren’t interested in what my father tongue was,” she said. “My father spoke Vurkh to us. The people in my mother’s village spoke mostly Phang, but my father had come from a village that spoke mostly Vurkh. With Ivuem I speak mostly Phang, but she knows some Vurkh and Merezenin; with Fai-rek, I speak mostly Vurkh, but he knows some Phang and is picking up Merezenin and now Atsaldeian. The school and conservatory spoke Merezenin. To get my Atsaldeian and Classical Caldamaran up to standard, my music teacher often conducted lessons in these languages.”

“And…what language do you speak in the market?” Yira was the first to process this.

“You want to cooperate with someone, you speak their language,” Fai-rek piped up suddenly, in perfectly understandable Atsaldeian that had the air of a sentence memorized as a single string. He couldn’t have learned that much in a single day in Sunatnight, Eret thought. The boy must have already inquired how to say that particular phrase.

“Yes. You want to cooperate with someone, you speak their language,” said Na-Melei in her rich voice, finding it strange that they were finding it strange. So unlike the weak cracked whisper of Eret’s dying mother.

“I know Merezenin and a little Phang, but no Vurkh at all.” Yira mused. “So, the language you speak, and your ethnic identity — they have nothing to do with each other. If Phang died out tomorrow, with no more people to speak it with, you will go on speaking Vurkh. And will keep singing Phang songs, the way you sing ‘Aishi Fau’.”

Eret’s chest clenched at Yira’s pointed look. So for some attitudes, his mother’s dead language and the community’s struggle to preserve it, requesting Yira’s help and all — didn’t matter. Kso, they could just swap Mattaghelit for another. Even for Atsaldeian, the conquerors’ language. What did this beautiful, arrogant singer really know of the treasures that Eret had lost with his mother, that Na-Melei had an abundance of, more than she knew what to do with, more than she knew mattered?

With every clonk as their dishes hit the table, earthenware on wood, he hated her more. What had he thought, bringing Yira here in exchange for her giving him back his tongue, only for the linguist to get ideas that if you have many languages, one doesn’t matter. He felt deceived and betrayed.

The six voices joined the waiter in the kodara before the meal: Na-Melei’s wondrous contralto that made the waiter raise his eyebrows; Lazhanor’s baritone that was musical if not soloist material; Fai-rek’s high treble; Yira’s crisp voice but precise diction more suited to lecturing than singing; Ivuem’s cracking age-worn soprano that must have once been quite lovely; and Eret’s tenor, tense throat noticeably warping his pitch.

“But,” Na-Melei continued as soon as the waiter left, “Phang is not dying out tomorrow. I speak it. You speak it. Fai-rek speaks it.”

Fai-rek said something. Yira replied dryly, then chuckled.

Na-Melei translated, laughing, “He said that Yira’s Phang sounds funny, sounding out e-ve-ry syl-la-ble. She said that this is Phang Professor-speak; it’s a different dialect of Phang.”

“And does he accept that answer?” Lazhanor laughed in turn.

Eret bit his lip silently. Lazhanor continued, “Tsii, there will be problems with your companions not being able to speak Atsaldeian. And with you singing ‘Aishi Fau.’ The censors want to completely understand everything that is being said, too afraid that someone would spill out sedition against the Dukes, against Atsaldeian values, in a transparent code that everyone but they can read and which makes them look like fools. Not,” he paused to flick his fork of sweet noodles like a baton, his usually smiling mouth too level, “that anyone has done that, of course. Not in the least.”

So Lazhanor knew. Eret had assumed he wouldn’t know. Na-Melei froze. Then, in quick Phang, or was it Vurkh, she summarized the issue to her companions.

Eret wondered if telling it in her own languages gave her a different perspective. Mentally, he tried rephrasing the problem in Mattaghelit, stumbling over words; the task was difficult enough to push his anger aside, until the envy at her ease returned.

Finally she replied, “I will sing. And I will see what happens. I am, after all, famous; what use is that fame if not to make my language famous with me?”

Lazhanor did not reply, seemingly intent on his salt-sour pudding.

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The waiter brought them the bill, in Atsaldeian script with the looping style that often meant a Merezenin hand. Lazhanor took it and stepped around Eret over to Yira, so as not to burden their honoured guests with petty transactions.

The quick song of the kodara and the rustling paper of the bill dulled the ring of the silvercuts dropped on it, but just by ear, Eret could tell that this was a lot of money. None of the others seemed perturbed except perhaps for the uncomprehending Ivuem and the child. They all casually rose, with straightening of jackets and the small talk of departure. The old aunt Ivuem addressed the waiter in what Eret recognized from many songs as Merezenin. It must have been a witticism — the waiter chuckled in return, and bantered back to her.

“The moon take Chigiri.” At first Eret thought that a strange voice was coming out of Master Lazhanor’s mouth; the changes in tone and phonetics made it almost unrecognizable.

The music director spoke Mattaghelit! With an accent, and that noun ending didn’t sound quite right, but Eret couldn’t possibly have misheard.

At Eret’s shocked face, Lazhanor switched back to Atsaldeian, still speaking softly. “Chigiri was a nursemaid in my parents’ house when I was a boy, long before you were born. She taught some songs to my little sister and me, and some sentences in Mattaghelit. I still remember them, like music. That was why I pushed for you to be accepted into the chorus after your audition,” Lazhanor added. “So I could do something for Chigiri in exchange for these songs.”

Chigiri had birthed Eret late, after she had nearly given up on having a live child. He had never really wondered how old Master Lazhanor was, the gray streaks on the music director’s temples never as important as the mind they framed. And Eret’s mother was always against teaching non-Mattaghelit the language; Yira had argued with her even for the sake of science and saving it. What had been the path from a little boy and a young maidservant to the dignified music master and the faded waxen face on the cheap hospital pillow?

Eret gripped the back of the restaurant chair, the thick leather cushions reminding him he could never afford to eat here on his own. Those Atsaldeians again, always with their smiles hiding secret networks of mutual understanding, that never included people like him. Now, he realized with irony, for once the networks did include him, and it felt worse — was he really a good singer, or had he been taken in as the nursemaid’s boy, out of charity?

Lazhanor must have read it off his face again. “Kso, I would not have done that if you were not good enough to make the grade, and I would have dropped you if you didn’t improve. But it formed part of my choice among many applicants equally good — you meant something to me, because of Chigiri.”

“She always hated my singing in the opera,” Eret said. “She thought I sold out.” Then immediately he clamped his mouth shut again. Shouldn’t have opened it other than to sing.

His graceful hand on Eret’s shoulder, Lazhanor steered him casually out into the street. To onlookers, it would seem merely a friendly gesture: the men heading out, followed by the chatting women and child. “There are more non-Atsaldeians in the Sunatnight Opera chorus,” the music director said softly, “than you could find in any chorus of comparable size anywhere else in Atsaldei.”

Eret remembered noticing that at his first rehearsal. Then he had forgotten it, the different shapes and colours of eyes and hair and skin becoming as normal as they were in the poor blocks of Second Ring Southeast where he lived. He had rarely seen other choruses large enough to compare.

“Not only does that mean that I get the best voices,” Lazhanor said, “but also…”

The music director scanned the darkening street. The blue magelights haloed his profile, making it sharp and eerie. There were no police nearby, though; Eret was already listening for the officers’ firm regular tread.

“The poorer Merezenin, the Thyans, the Mattaghelit,” Lazhanor said, “get tossed in the lower levels of Vingyar Prison all the time. Petty theft, drunk and disorderly conduct, disturbing the peace, not having their bribes handy, looking like the officer’s hated superior… Normal stuff.”

Eret did know the Mattaghelit for “police,” and three words for “jail,” and all conjugations and declensions of “Don’t get under the police’s eye.”

“But,” Lazhanor continued, “they are hardly ever pulled in to Vingyar’s upper levels. It’s their own people that the Dukes watch for sedition and rebellion. Foreign strangers, even six generations Sunatnight-born, are beneath their notice.”

“You want me to get involved in politics,” said Eret. “For the rebellion that people say is coming.”

“Na-Melei may be naive about the power of fame,” Lazhanor replied, very soft, “but you should not underestimate it, either. Not with a new song’s measure. If I don’t see what you do as a crime, I will bail you out and make sure you don’t lose your home. I promise.”

Part of Eret was touched by the composer’s gesture, but then another part tensed. In Chigiri’s accented Atsaldeian, he said, “This is not the first time that Atsaldeians had assumed that the Mattaghelit will be their cat’s paws and henchmen and servants. Kre, I may be a chorister, but I have some dignity, sir.”

The older man almost reeled, and Eret, replaying his words in his head, realized how harsh he had sounded — and bit back his automatic apology.

Then Lazhanor stepped into the shadows and Eret could not see his lips as he said, “I think you and I want the same things. But make your own decisions. Kso, I don’t think you are the kind of man to side with the Dukes against me. You are Chigiri’s son, after all.”

Just then Yira nudged them from behind, and Eret found her passing him a heavy solid object: a book, thick and copper-bark bound. He raised it up to the light: A Grammar of Mattaghelit, by Yira Tsilian.

“I’ll keep my side of the bargain,” the linguist told him, crisp and unsentimental. “Take care of it.”

On her left, Na-Melei, seemingly oblivious, said to Lazhanor, “I was thinking about what you said. And despite this, I will hear ‘Aishi Fau’ sung in the Sunatnight Opera House.”

Tucking the book into his coat’s large inside pocket, Eret refrained from muttering that she had a better chance hearing Mattaghelit sung in the Opera House than this. After all, the Mattaghelit didn’t get jailed for political crimes.

He noticed Ivuem behind them, rapidly conversing in Merezenin with yet more strangers at the side door. His own lost language, the only other one he had, nestled against the small of his back.

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There was no other way to explain it, Yira thought, looking at her word lists, at the laborious sound correlations, at the reconstructed and predicted words that over the last two weeks Na-Melei, Ivuem and Fai-rek had confirmed were close to right or would make sense. The boy looked innocent and unsuspecting in the bright light from the rehearsal-room windows, but the last word he had confirmed made it real.

Vurkh was related to Mattaghelit. The language that every linguist had always called a language isolate with no identifiable relations, the last of its line, had a long-lost cousin on the Grasshills of Merezen. Three vowel distinctions had merged while two that Mattaghelit didn’t distinguish, Vurkh did; S’s had changed to Sh’s at the ends of syllables; the preverb for “in’’ instead meant “on”; and the word that in Vurkh still meant both light-blue and green, in Mattaghelit had long been reserved for light-blue only, the word for green borrowed from Atsaldeian. But they were kindred languages, without a doubt.

Fai-rek’s distant ancestors had been Eret’s too. Or perhaps not, with the easy way that Na-Melei’s home village cluster traded languages. Yira wished that she, or some other collector of folklore, had asked Chigiri about any stories of the people splitting, heading north and south. Did a search party go out and never return, becoming a raiding party? The word for the ironseed mango tree in Vurkh was akin to the name for the northern pear in Mattaghelit; it was hard to tell what had come first, which tree had been the one the long-lost people had in mind when they tagged its name to the other. Did they dwell under mango trees, and some rebellious chief’s son had a fit of pique and took his cronies north?

The Mattaghelit language was still dead, she thought.

What did it mean? What could she tell Eret? Or Fai-rek? A common language did not mean a kinship; having a common language with the Mattaghelits of Sunatnight did not bring her any closer to them. When she spoke like them without looking like them, they saw her as not only an alien but also a deceiver. All a common language meant was perhaps a shorter path to cooperation. But only as an option, to take or refuse.

“Here you go,” she said to Fai-rek; he wouldn’t notice her sigh. “A quarter-silvercut. Kso, you can buy candy. ” She realized that she spoke Atsaldeian, already expecting the child to understand her. And he did, scurrying immediately out the door past the arriving Ivuem’s skirts.

“You’re a tight-fisted woman,” Ivuem said in Phang rather than Merezenin, seizing the advantage with her language.

“No,” Yira replied in her accented Phang but striving for cooperation. “An adult I would pay half a silvercut. There is a fine line in how much you pay. Too little, and it’s not worth their time. Too much, and they would be saying yes to everything to please me. Which won’t help anyone. He should get candy money whether I’m wrong or right. This is a science. I am here to be proven wrong.”

Of course, Yira thought, this principle assumed that every speaker of a language rare enough to be worth studying would be as dirt-poor as the Mattaghelit, not the son of a singer commanding fifty royals per engagement and the fame to do whatever she wanted.

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“We understand your passion, Mistress Na-Melei,” the white-mustached censor replied. “What is wrong with doing a contrafactum, simply writing new understandable Atsaldeian lyrics to this lovely melody? If you have difficulty doing it yourself, Master Lazhanor has several talented librettists at your disposal, and with enough persuasion they can probably put a nice love poem together on short notice. Your choir can learn it in a quick rehearsal. The music deserves to be shared, I agree. And if you don’t actually know what the words mean, does it matter?”

If only he fitted the caricatures of the brusque, dominating censor, Na-Melei thought, biting her lip. If only he would be gruff and demand that everything got changed immediately, and yell. She could deal with yelling. She had been yelled at by her vocal coaches in Cadrazien, by her fellow villagers for selling out, by her own parents. By Ivuem. She had been yelled at for the way she dressed, for who she slept with, for singing wrong, for singing what she thought was wrong, for singing what she thought was right. For the language she spoke, for the language she sang in.

She didn’t expect someone so polite, so gentlemanly, so sympathetic — so deceptively firm. Like ironseed mangos, she thought in Vurkh, which Atsaldei was too far north to grow and probably lacked a word for them. Flesh so soft and tender it was almost sweet butter, but bite in too far, and you would learn how the fruit got its name.

She channeled the ironseed within herself as well. “It mattered to the people who wrote the words. To those who are now long dead.”

“Who you claim to not even know the names of,” the censor replied, with an almost friendly smile. “They are not going to sit in the audience and object.”

Na-Melei remembered her first recital at twelve years old, and her being so flustered at making a mistake in the Rallian Cavatina. Rallian is not in the audience so it doesn’t matter, a friend told her — who had been that friend, even? He and his soft tenor voice had long vanished from her life, but the words lingered on. Rallian had died three hundred years before the Great Amalgamation, back when Classical Caldamaran was still spoken. Maybe the friend, and the censor, were right. Maybe.

“We have forgotten their names and where they came from and what they looked like, and all but one thing of what they loved,” she said quietly. “We cannot forget their song too.”

“Mistress Na-Melei,” the ironseed glinted in his voice. “You have the opportunity to spread your art to living appreciative people in a living modern country. I strongly recommend you do not waste it. Make this melody into a beautiful Atsaldeian love song, or by the law of this land I will be forced to ask you not to perform it at all, which I for one would deeply regret. Tsii, I beg your pardon, but I have another engagement to attend now. It has been a pleasure meeting you and hearing your voice, Mistress Na-Melei, and your art is sublime as always, Master Lazhanor.” He bowed and strode up the raked ramp of the Opera House, the tails of his coat floating behind him, his snow-white hair glowing in the theatre lights.

The orchestra pit railing quivered behind Na-Melei as an enormous breath, the kind you would use for a high C fermata, escaped her in a whistle. Fai-rek and Ivuem were downstairs. They had not seen this and her defeat.

In the choir beyond the orchestra pit, she met the gaze of the young tenor who had accompanied them to dinner her first evening in Sunatnight. He stood out, his amber eyes in a narrow face with skin as deep-olive as hers. Most took him for Merezenin diaspora although she had seen no sign that he spoke more of the language than the bare amount necessary for singing, while for ethnic Merezenin, speaking Merezenin mattered. Ivuem could chat up so many of them; even Opera House cleaning maids were already her friends.

Some kind of minority pre-Amalgamation people, ran a few of the rumours she’d overheard, although Na-Melei knew she only heard a fraction of them, isolated in her own dressing room. She made a mental note to confirm the tenor’s ethnolinguistic identity at tea with Yira that afternoon. Eret, that had been his name. She nodded to him, hoping the strain didn’t show on her face, and looked back down into the pit at Lazhanor fiddling with his baton.

“So, what do I do now? Kso, he’s given me no choice.”

“He did give you a choice. A contrafactum. If you agree, ‘Aishi Fau’ will make a lovely one.”

Na-Melei imagined singing ‘Aishi Fau’ with Atsaldeian lower vowels and trilling r’s. Much as she loved Atsaldeian songs written for Atsaldeian, the idea of twisting her tongue and throat like this somehow made her want to vomit. “And if I just ignore him? Sing at the show the way it’s supposed to be?”

The composer stepped up to the railing and she had to kneel to hear his whisper in thick Merezenin. “Na-Melei, I love your music and I wish we could. But…if I throw my career away, I would rather it be for something bigger than this.”

“You know that this is wrong,” Na-Melei replied, same tone, same language.

“Yes. But now is not the time to move against it; we cannot have the ‘Aishi Fau’ be our song of defiance, not in this Opera House.”

“What if I sing it in the public square?” she said perversely. “On the steps of the War Memorial?”

Kre, Na-Melei, do you want to go to…” He didn’t know the word in Merezenin, so he hissed it in Atsaldeian, which somehow made it all the more terrifying. “…Vingyar Prison?”

“I am a Merezenin citizen. And I am here on cultural exchange. There will be a diplomatic incident if I’m jailed. The Merezenin embassy cares.”

“The Merezenin embassy cares about you, but I suspect they don’t care a whit about Fai-rek or Ivuem.”

That was true. Oh, earth below and otherspace, that was true. Na-Melei’s heart pounded beneath her bodice, tight in the alien Atsaldeian style.

“Take the contrafactum,” Lazhanor said. “I’ll have my librettist whip one up tonight; she is good at this. We—you cannot afford to antagonize the Dukes. Please.”

Na-Melei bowed. “I will. Just — have Yira do it. Please.”

All the three thousand seats of the Opera House seemed filled with the ghosts of the composers of ‘Aishi Fau,’ speaking their tongue she could not parse, but she knew exactly what they must be saying.

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By the time Ivuem finally found where she could buy nutbeans, she needed to borrow a giant pot from the Opera House cooks and purchase an armload of sacks of them, just to make enough of the Grasshills nutbean cream noodles for all the Merezenin she had promised a taste to.

And as a rehearsal ran above and she and the waiter from the first night’s restaurant shelled the nutbeans and ground them, most of these people crowded into the Opera House kitchen, commentating in Merezenin on her every move, calling her Iv-Uyem in true Merezenin fashion. The administrator of Transit blended the cream, sugar and salt while the noodles boiled; she was mageborn but her black clothing somehow didn’t matter as much today as the jokes she told in her native language. The Opera House cook made Cadrazien-style meatballs to go with the dumplings. The fathers of two of the choristers and a trader from the Mercantile Exchange helped dice asparagus and the chal-flavoured tubers that none of them were sure had an Atsaldeian name, but certainly had a Merezenin one.

Fai-rek laughed as he set out the plates. He broke one, but Et-poyi, everyone said, it didn’t matter.

Ivuem stirred the pot and thought that in Cadrazien, Merezenin who looked just the same would laugh at her accent and her manners and her shawl. If they could not honestly scorn Na-Melei once she opened her mouth to sing (although some still did), Ivuem had no such protection. She was old, she was ugly, she was widowed and childless, and she came from the Grasshills. Even the nutbean cream noodles would not be able to buy her respect.

But here, among the people who were in denial that their Merezenin sounded a bit funny to her, that their sentences went down in pitch instead of up at the end and they used kre and kso without thinking — here she, Iv-Uyem, was Merezenin enough that they would share noodles with her, because what mattered was that they were not four-corner pastries nor split into sweet, savoury and sour.

Ivuem suddenly noticed a much paler face behind the crowd. Yira, the linguist, was lurking by the kitchen corner, trying not to draw attention. Knowing that these people would laugh about what fools the Atsaldeians were, or what brutes they could be — things they would not say in front of her if they knew she could understand.

“Ready!” Ivuem announced proudly, to keep the others from noticing Yira. “Hand your plate here!”

Yira stayed at the back as the Merezenin men and women of almost all classes gathered for plates, dishes and cutlery, and Ivuem ladled up the fragrant noodles, dripping with bubbling sauce.

“Delicious!” the administrator of Transit said, breaking a moment’s accidental silence. “Show this one to Ve-Kesh, he’d love it.”

The silence stretched further. The administrator smiled awkwardly. Before her mention of the Dukes’ Court Mage, the others had ignored her blacks beneath her cooking apron. Now the name of the highest-ranked Merezenin in the city reminded them that he, and the administrator, were mageborn. And thus potentially deadly despite the laws regulating them.

Ivuem calculated quickly. She needed the mageborn of the Merezenin community on her side as much as she needed everyone else; that was why she had fearlessly invited every Merezenin mage she met. They ate the same food as the realborn. And having Ve-Kesh as a connection would be an enormous advantage in this city. But if she spoke up now, with her Grasshills Phang accent, and allied herself with the mages, it would unfortunately remind the realborn Merezenin that she was different after all. Different in ways that even her nutbean cream noodles would not smooth out.

Where music cannot find commonality, use food. Where food cannot find commonality — use music?

She loudly sang the preprandial kodara. “Come and eat, all. Nutbean cream noodles!”

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So it was done, Eret thought. So the Na-Melei he had admired for a few rehearsals, for her determination to keep her language — the one she herself understood least of her many languages — the contralto superstar whose voice may have had the power to fight the Dukes and this society; even she yielded. ‘Aishi Fau’ would be sung in Atsaldeian. With made-up words. It had nothing to do with assisting the Mattaghelit, but if even Na-Melei’s fame could not save a lost language…

Well, he had nothing to lose, with no family in the world, not even the people who shared his identity as a Mattaghelit but not at all as a singer.

Again he knocked at the door of the luxurious flat that shared a bathroom with only one other. “Yira! Professor Yira!”

She opened the door herself this time, her other hand fastening her worn copperbark coat.

“You are going…” he said, in very careful Mattaghelit.

“To Master Lazhanor’s, to translate the song,” she replied in Atsaldeian, seemingly not noticing the language switch, but without the antipathy of last time. Maybe she was just preoccupied.

“Could you…” Was that Atsaldeian? Of course; Mattaghelit would feel more laborious. He switched into it; he had planned this sentence on his walk. “Could you make the song ‘Aishi Fau’ in Mattaghelit?”

Silence, the kind of pause that longed for echoes, for the yelp of a poorly-muted instrument. The fading sun had moved away from the windows and they cast no shadows in the filtered light.

“What for?” she said, and this time in the same dead language.

He was rapidly mixed the two languages and for once he didn’t care; his mother wasn’t there to tut and frown and shame him, “Because I had asked you to help me, two weeks ago, but I didn’t know how. This is what I want — if nothing else, for our songs to be sung, the way Na-Melei kept singing the songs of the Aishi Fau people. If you are putting Atsaldeian words to it, why not Mattaghelit words too?”

Yira chuckled with dry irony. “Because it’s hard, for one thing?”

“But you can do it.”

“And for another, kso, we haven’t yet decided what our lyrics are even going to be about. You want a simultaneous drafting of an original song. Into a dead language.”

“About spring waking the earth again. Birds and wyverns flying up. Dawns blazing high. Flames rekindling and rising.”

Litsha-elents,” Yira corrected automatically, and Eret realized that this entire flood of words was in Mattaghelit. Mostly quotations from traditional songs and poems, true, but…

Yira looked strangely beautiful, and it took Eret a moment to understand he had never known how warm her laughter could be. “Write it,” she said. “You know the melody better than I do. I don’t know how libretti should work and you do. I’ll correct the grammar. Write it.”

“My grammar was probably terrible,” Eret said, thinking of the delicious, writhing words like sweet noodles on his tongue.

“A dying language always changes rapidly. What was wrong for your mother was right for three out of seven of the elders who died before her.” Yira headed down the stairs, and he followed her into the glass-fractured sunlight.

He thought of Chigiri singing, of his mother nagging him to speak her tongue, to repeat words and phrases after her. He had never made up his own songs in Mattaghelit. Never dared. Not in front of her.

Dropping his postverb endings and over-raising his vowels, he sang in the Atsaldeian street of his mother’s smoke rising to the sky, sending words of her language after her.

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Only the heavy patterned hangings kept the home of a Noted Artist of Sunatnight from being cavernous and echoing. Hangings of real sheep’s wool and leather, not leafwool and copperbark, Yira thought. She had seen such things at the University, but never in a private home. She resisted the desire to caress them.

Obviously, though, the hangings did not mean much to Master Lazhanor beyond their sound-deadening properties; the great piano meant much more.

Lazhanor now sat at that piano. Na-Melei took her accustomed recital spot in its curve, and still managed to look elegant and formal yet relaxed as she sat on the rug, legs folded to one side. Fai-rek silently wandered the room, looking at the wall hangings, the racks and stands of stringed and woodwind instruments that Yira couldn’t even name, the writing-desks scattered with music paper, some printed, some handwritten, some with the ink still wet. The boy seemed far more at ease than Eret, who perched on the edge of the cushioned curve-legged chair, scared of breaking anything. Well, Eret had just learned that Lazhanor’s apartment had the unimaginable luxury of having a bathroom entirely enclosed in it, shared with no one else but guests.

Yira took the couch near the young Mattaghelit.

The five voices joined in the kodara for urgent enterprises, Fai-rek coming in just a beat late and hastily blurting out the syllable he missed. He must have shared the common superstitious fear of missing even a word, even though the kodara wasn’t one he would have encountered often, and the words were as incomprehensible as those of the song they were about to “translate.” If, Yira was almost certain, kodaras were in a different language.

A similar thought must have struck the boy. “Did the Aishi Fau people use kodaras?” he asked.

The lecturer in Yira rose. “Kodaras are used cross-linguistically the world over. An analysis of the word itself, retracing vowel and consonant changes, shows that kodaras are descended from galdorcraft, the magic that vanished when the worlds amalgamated and otherspace magic took its place.”

She realized that the boy, for all his adeptness with Atsaldeian, could not follow such a complex sentence as had spilled out of her in one breath. She rephrased it in stumbling Phang, just to make sure the child understood. “Kso, kodaras are the records of dead magic. Galdorcraft magic. It doesn’t work any more, but we still keep saying it. Without any meaning. They’re like,” she couldn’t remember whether Merezen used death masks, “the death masks of pre-Amalgamation magic.”

It was having to say it again in Phang that made her think: the documentation she had made of Mattaghelit, to preserve it — it too merely made an empty record on the page that was not the language at all, already abandoned by its people and bereft of meaning.

Kre, I’ve said a kodara every day for fifty years, and I never knew that,” said Lazhanor, striking a rolled chord.

“Dead superstitious legacies,” Yira said through gritted teeth, and she herself didn’t know if she was talking about the kodaras or Mattaghelit. But the habits of singing kodaras like everyone else weren’t easy to break. In her youth, when she learned of their origins, she had tried.

“Legacies that connect us to our ancestors,” Na-Melei pointed out, with a firmness in her gentle voice. Of course she would; she would be the one who insisted on keeping up a song that no one knew the meaning of, or even which ancestors of hers had sung it.

“What for?” Yira said. “Ancestors who will never come back. Ancestors who you don’t even know whether they lived under beech or mango trees. What does it help to try to force these death masks on these people, when they resent you all the while for making them? I spent years trying to make death masks for a dead language, thinking that would resurrect it. Now I meet an even deader one,” she waved at the transcriptions of ‘Aishi Fau’ lying on the floor, “without even meaning.”

Eret sprang up, his face as drained of blood as such skin could be. Na-Melei, who had always solved problems with her voice until this very day with the censor, tensed as if she would solve this one with her fists.

Lazhanor spoke up. “There is a poem in Classical Caldamaran that I’ve tried for years to set to music. I will paraphrase it in Atsaldeian for the benefit of the boy.” He left it vague whether ‘the boy’ was Fai-rek or Eret, whose Caldamaran, Yira knew, was minimal. “A man comes to a temple of the Thyan gods, and asks why they still keep it up when its spirit has flown, are they blind and deaf to this? They reply that they know, but if they keep things ready, another spirit can come by and take up residence, and so the temple can awaken again.”

Even though it was prose, he kept a low accompaniment on the piano, as must have been his unconscious habit when storytelling: a repeated little snatch of melody from ‘Aishi Fau.’

Yira began planning how to set those words to the correct metre even before Eret said,  “Can we set that one as the contrafactum?”

“No,” Na-Melei said, seemingly unmoved by Lazhanor’s poem suggestion. “I’ve sung songs in translation, and, no matter what the censor says, I do not want this to be a translation, for people will take the easy way out and override the original. That would not be keeping the temple clean and ready; that would be razing it to the ground.”

She looked at Eret. “For ‘Aishi Fau,’ we will give a translation, but…sabotage it.”

Eret rose and went to join Fai-rek, who had wandered to the window. Yira watched the backs of the man and boy, muscles moving beneath their thin shirts as they sang something softly.

Brother tongues, she thought. Long-lost brother tongues.

Eret turned back. “If you’re not taking it, I will. I will translate this poem into Mattaghelit tonight, even if my Caldamaran is just as bad.”

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Only two minutes left of intermission, Na-Melei thought, rapidly buttoning up her gold-shot red gown for the second set. Ivuem wasn’t there to help her with the buttons on the back. Doubtless she was chatting with the Merezenin staff again. Well, she was Na-Melei’s aunt, not her attendant, as she reminded Na-Melei often in particularly uncooperative Vurkh.

A sip of water, a quick check of her hair and makeup in the mirror, and Na-Melei sang along softly to the kodara for fortune on the stage that all the choristers were singing before their entrance, some in unison, some in an unplanned round.

The applause shook the hall already, and it had only been the first set. So many people — glittering Atsaldeian nobility in the boxes and stalls, elaborately dressed hair above pale faces and silver and gold or even platinum lorgnettes. In the Ducal Box, the Dukes themselves, elegant Duchess Sazherian and shrewd Duke Derghanet and sneering Duke Oresune. Up in the cheap seats, she spotted some Merezenin faces, and there were some in the mages’ gallery where the black-clad mageborn sat like a huddle of crows on a tree branch, yet they too broke into cheers and applause. Including Ve-Kesh, the Merezenin Court Mage, the highest-ranked Merezenin in all Atsaldei.

No matter how big the halls got, how rich, it never stopped mattering that people liked what they heard from her.

She sang the Rallian Cavatina. No mistakes in it this time, every note on precise clear syllables of Classical Caldamaran, another language long dead but a mark of erudition to understand, and so unobjectionable.

And then, while the applause roared like a great wordless sea, she looked at the choir behind the orchestra on stage behind her…and noticed the gray-suited first row of the tenor section was missing Eret.

He had been there during the first set, she was certain. Yira had said something about him and ‘Aishi Fau’…what was it she had said?

No matter, for the opening notes sounded. She had to remember the words, the Atsaldeian words, the cursed compromise words.

But it was not a compromise, really. Yira had put Atsaldeian words to the melody, but words as close to the original as possible, without any concern for it making any Atsaldeian sense. At one point, Na-Melei and the choir sang in intricate counterpoint about unwed bumblebees spinning pearl goats, just because those were the words that sounded the most alike.  It was introduced as a children’s song — because children love nonsense most and learn languages fastest. It was nonsense, a nonsense that broke open the audience’s own language and made it strange and meaningless. And yet beautiful. And more beautiful because it was driven by all the anger and pride in her soul.

In meaningless words mimicking words of lost meaning, “This is who I am,” she sang. “And this is all of me, all the people who came before me.” She wasn’t conceding to sing her song in an alien tongue; she seized the alien Atsaldeian tongue and made it hers, shaped it to her will and her creativity. It was a material like any other. It was part of her as well.

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Rain drizzled onto Amalgamation Square, framed by the Opera House, the Mercantile Exchange, and the Court of Justice, with the War Memorial in the centre. Still, despite the rain, it was more crowded than ever with people trying to overhear the sold-out concert. “Can you hear it? What is she singing?”

“This!” came a voice with years of training on how to fill cavernous concert halls over a full orchestra.

Eret, climbing onto the silvered statue of men and women in military uniform embracing in peace, took an enormous breath and began to sing the tenor line of ‘Aishi Fau.’ In Mattaghelit. In a paraphrase of the Atsaldeian words that had paraphrased the Classical Caldamaran words he did not know. It was not, by any stretch of the imagination, an exact rendition of anything else, except what was in his soul.

‘Aishi Fau,’ though, was contrapuntal. Only one line, though pretty, did not stand alone, did not approximate its magnificence. It could not be done alone…

And on the third bar, it wasn’t. A soprano — no, a treble voice joined him, perhaps not as strong but remarkably accurate, even though they were singing in different languages. The original words interwove with the Mattaghelit, vowels fitting against each other in ways never heard before, as Fai-rek climbed up to stand beside Eret, the joy in the boy’s eyes bright enough to light up the entire expanse of Amalgamation Square.

How long had the little shadow been trailing me? Eret thought in the instant between one note and another. And then he could not think any more, as the crowd began to clap along to the beat, forgetting the rain, and Eret became a conduit for the Mattaghelit words flooding from his heart and belly to embrace the dead language that poured from Fai-rek with such vivacity.

Inside the Opera House, a seated audience listened to the four-part choir and orchestra and Na-Melei herself sing the same song that the huge standing crowd outside heard a man and a boy belt out under the rainy sky.

Tsii, enough!!” three police lieutenants in scarlet-and-blue roared in chorus, plainly furious that their first four attempts to demand attention had attracted as little of it as the rain.

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And so the audience, Dukes and mages and teachers and tailors, clapped and whistled and cheered for several minutes, while children waited anxiously by the stage, dwarfed by their clutched bouquets of hothouse flowers. But their summons didn’t work: the soloist and conductor did not come out for the curtain call or encore. Until the orchestra concertmistress finally stepped forward, called for silence, and said that Mistress Na-Melei Tro and Master Lazhanor have encountered an unexpected emergency, but are very grateful for all of the appreciation, and the choir will collect the flowers.

Ivuem’s warning ringing in her ears, Na-Melei did not bother to throw her expensive leather coat on as she and Lazhanor dashed out the stage door and across Amalgamation Square. In time to see the police lieutenant’s club whack Eret across the kidneys, once, twice.

“No!” She seized the police lieutenant’s sleeve, and became the regal imperious diva ignoring the rain splattering her gown. “I am Na-Melei Tro, here on cultural exchange with the Merezenin government. The child is a Merezenin citizen. You cannot arrest them. I will call up the embassy!”

The police lieutenant stopped, and looked at her. “Lady, the chestnutface street urchins go to Vingyar for disturbing the peace. Both of them. Kso, seven days, and you’ll get them out just fine. Talk to the judge.”

Her and Lazhanor’s pleas and fury were futile, as the crimson-and-blue led Eret and Fai-rek away.

Eret looked back and grinned. “I’ll be atsh-gii.” The Mattaghelit for ‘fine.’

Lazhanor gave a quick bow in return.

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Ivuem did not watch Lazhanor and Na-Melei go. Instead, she found the back staircase leading behind the galleries.

Trepidation clenched at her throat. No mage had ever truly harmed her, and the law made Atsaldei’s mages better-behaved and more obvious than most. And the Transit administrator had proved a kind woman who liked noodles. But.

Bright shawl and all, Ivuem stuck her head into the mages’ gallery. A wave of stillness washed over the black-clothed men and women there, conversations halting rapidly enough to make Ivuem suspect thoughtsenders were not as rare as everyone claimed they were. All turned to look at the realborn doing what was not done.

Normally, Ivuem would have agreed. All of her experience in acting like she belonged someplace, even if acting mageborn was impossible, she pulled together to calmly scan faces above black collars as if it were all a normal, done thing.

The Transit administrator was adjusting her russet sash over her coat. “Ah, Iv-Uyem. Wonderful to see you.” Even in Merezenin, her tone was stilted and tense, but her polished manners prevailed. She would have immediately demanded what on earth Ivuem was doing here, but if she could not say that in Merezenin that meant there was a stranger nearby who also knew the language.

“So this,” a voice like dark sweet honey said in Merezenin, “is the lady with the nutbean cream noodles.”

He is very beautiful, the rumours had whispered. Young girls, and boys, would lose their hearts to him if he weren’t so dangerous. But on Ivuem’s inquiries of what was specifically dangerous about a Seventh Level Court Mage other than being, well, a Seventh Level and a Court Mage, she had gotten no coherent answers.

Ve-Kesh ro Sazherian, Court Mage to Duchess Sazherian, was indeed darkly handsome, combining rakishness and boyishness in a way that made even Ivuem remember how long ago it had been since her husband died. He gave her a languid smile. She looked below his face, at the crimson sash with seven Level knots unevenly spaced because it was not designed to hold so many.

“She is Mistress Tro’s aunt,” the Transit administrator said, eager to be helpful.

“Indeed,” Ve-Kesh raised his eyebrows. “Would you be so kind as to explain why there was no encore?”

His word choice was aristocratic, but there was something about his vowels and consonants…very, very subtle, showing in only two or three words, but Ivuem was listening closely to his Merezenin and she caught it. She had no doubt that his Atsaldeian was fit for Dukes, even if it was wasted on her as she still barely understood a fraction of the language; but he had learned his Merezenin from the lowest Cadrazien dockworkers.

Do they know? she wondered. Do these second-generation Merezenin who say kso and end their sentences wrong, do they realize their most successful brother learned to speak in the gutter?

She spoke as much like an aristocrat as she knew how. “Magister Ekt.” Few people would even know Ve-Kesh’s surname in this country where honorifics were followed by first names, but she had asked about it. “Mistress Tro’s young son, and a friend, have just been arrested in Amalgamation Square.”

“What?!” All the aristocratic languor dropped for a moment, and the mages watching this scene craned their necks wishing to understand.

Ivuem wondered whether to let them in on it, then decided not, for the time being. She knew nothing of these Atsaldeian mages, and whether letting a Merezenin ascend to Seventh Level would make them sympathetic to the Merezenin plight, much less the plight of a child from the Grasshills and a young man who was not Merezenin at all.

But whatever paths had led from workhouse to Ducal palace, they had clearly taught Ve-Kesh enough that his next question was not Why?Kso, for disturbing the peace or something. The shrooking…” Either he thought Merezenin curse words were too weak, or he hadn’t learned any.

“Well,” he said at last, “she will need help, won’t she? In a land afar, a wyvern from home is a joy. I will look into it. And I look forward to trying those noodles of yours.”

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In all the stories that Fai-rek had read or heard, jail was an exciting place for heroes to be. This was doubtless where they would only stay till midnight before pulling off a daring escape, or where the jailer’s beautiful daughter would fall in love with them and smuggle them out. Fall in love with Eret, Fai-rek supposed. The heroes and heroines rarely had a boy along.

Fai-rek could only read and write Merezenin. Sometimes he played with writing down Vurkh words in Merezenin letters and seeing how strange they looked, or how funny they sounded if one then read them aloud in Merezenin. Phang was even funnier, because the same word as written in Merezenin could look like it meant several different words in Phang. But both written stories in Merezenin and Ivuem’s and his mother’s told stories in Phang and Vurkh featured jail in climactic plot points.

All the benches were already taken by half a dozen sullen men, some very old and some adults like Eret, who eyed the newcomers warily without offering greetings in any language.

Eret slumped down on the floor of their cell and removed his coat. The policeman had hit him across the back there, and he winced as he pulled the coat off. But from the inside back pocket, he drew a thick book.

“Yira’s Grammar of Mattaghelit,” he said to Fai-rek. “Kso, it probably saved my kidneys.”

Fai-rek found their cellmates more interesting. “Will we save them too, when we get rescued?” he inquired very softly. They could not let the guard overhear. He wished Eret knew Vurkh or Phang or even Merezenin, which he was pretty sure the guard couldn’t understand. That way they could have a secret language.

“Rescued?”

Fai-rek gave the same word in Merezenin, just in case Eret could understand; sometimes, it seemed like the man knew it well, while other times he seemed unable to understand the simplest things. “Like Da-Hilai and the bark-tanner’s daughter.”

“I don’t know that story,” Eret admitted.

Atsaldeians were certainly a deprived people, missing out on one of the best stories in the world. So of course Fai-rek sat down cross-legged on the floor, as all the storytellers he’d seen had done, and told it, randomly inserting Merezenin words when there were gaps in his Atsaldeian vocabulary, and Vurkh words where even his Merezenin vocabulary couldn’t suffice.

Noticing that their cellmates were listening, he shifted to the version where when Da-Hilai is imprisoned, all the other people in the prison help him get out, rather than the version where he is in a cell alone. Fai-rek had heard both and often wondered which was true, but right now he decided that having allies and setting a good example mattered more than being truthful.

He finished with the traditional Merezenin flourish. “…And so Da-Hilai and the bark-tanner’s daughter, now a princess, got married and they had the biggest wedding feast all our Alcrist-world had ever seen. And I was there and ate and caroused, but I drank no wine, so what I say is true!” He knew that a nine-year-old boy saying it would get a laugh. He wasn’t sure what ‘caroused’ meant (he’d asked Ivuem once but she told him to wait until he was older) so he tossed the Merezenin verb in wholesale.

Fai-rek, generally shy about meeting people and making friends, was a natural performer, and from his adopted mother he had unconsciously learned that giving people a good performance was what made them like you and give you things.

Their cellmates clapped. “Kre, that was something,” one of them muttered.

“You forgot to say kre-an-kso,” said another one. Fai-rek looked at Eret for a translation.

“In Atsaldeian, you say kre-an-kso when you tell stories. Kso, I suppose kre for you knowing for sure it happened, and kso for you not knowing for sure. I’ve never thought of it before.”

“Where did you get that urchin?” A third man demanded with grudging admiration. Fai-rek wasn’t sure what an urchin was, but rage flashed in Eret’s eyes.

Kre, he is no urchin, he is the guest opera singer’s son from Merezen,” Eret said coldly.

“What’s an urchin?” Fai-rek inquired.

“The poor homeless children with no parents who beg on the streets,” Eret said. But the boy noticed that their cellmates’ attitudes changed more at his question than at Eret’s protest. Urchins knew they were urchins.

“I am one,” grinned Fai-rek. “I’m in disguise as an urchin.” For a prince, or a famous woman’s son, to reveal his identity in jail where guards could overhear was a poor strategic move. “And you need to speak to me in a secret language, so the guards won’t understand. I can teach you Vurkh.”

Eret sighed. “It will pass the time. But I think it would be easier if I teach you Mattaghelit.”

Yet another language, the one that Professor Yira sometimes talked about to herself.  “Done! How do you say We’re in jail in Mattaghelit?”

Yatsaag midaaq’at, that’s the way to say we’re in here,” Eret said. “Yatsaag means jail for small crimes like minor theft and disturbing the peace. Gumagh, that’s downstairs, the jail for murderers and major thieves. Mehaar, that’s jail for rebels, upstairs. Yatsaag midaaq’at.”

Fai-rek pronounced the popping q’ correctly on the first try, and laughed.

And Eret finally smiled.

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Na-Melei, Lazhanor, Ivuem and Yira were standing at the gates when Eret led Fai-rek out, softly humming the kodara for release. Behind them, the sunlight glimmered across the city, again refracting into rainbows at each glass pane. After three long days, it was time to head back to Eret’s appreciably well-lit apartment. Back to sharing the bathroom with twenty flats instead of just ten cell-mates.

Ayaqashai,” was the first word Fai-rek said.

“Mirror-wise,” Yira replied before giving him a look of surprise — he had said ‘Sunlight on you’ in Mattaghelit. she corrected herself to the Mattaghelit answer. “Hatseyal.

“We spoke all these days,” Eret said, “in a mix of Atsaldeian and Mattaghelit. But…he is learning my mother’s tongue, and mine.” Fai-rek was not his child, but in three days in the common all-male cell Eret had grown to treat him as a son. He had never seen a child learn a language so fast, but then again he had never been a child like him.

A steaming four-corner pastry wrapped in gift paper in her hand, Na-Melei knelt to embrace Fai-rek, whispering a few words in Phang or Vurkh or Merezenin. Over her shoulder, the boy grabbed the pastry and grinned impishly at Eret. “Mattaghelit-q’ur efelii.” It was now his most beloved language.

According to the Grammar of Mattaghelit, there should probably be another ending on the noun, but Eret really didn’t care. Eret had never had a favourite language. Chigiri had disapproved of the Mattaghelit language being taught to strangers, yet once upon a time she had taught a few words of Mattaghelit to her master’s son, and these words had kindled a song for her own son now.

“The noun inflection is Vurkh,” Yira said. “But using Vurkh to rebuild Mattaghelit is the only way. We cannot get back your mother’s Mattaghelit. But kso, with hard work, your children may speak a new one.”

As they walked together back out of earshot of the scarlet-and-blue, Na-Melei turned to the smiling Lazhanor and said softly, in Merezenin, “That idea you had, of the right time to use a song to upend this country?”

Lazhanor checked that no stranger was in earshot. “Yes?”

It was in Atsaldeian that Na-Melei said, “Kre, I will stay here. And join you. There needs to be more sharing between our lands and languages.” She looked at Fai-rek and Eret together. Her son spent three days in jail and still returned unbroken and even cheerful. Something about co-guardianship can be worked out. The apartment she’d been given had an extra bedroom that could be put to good use.

Eret began to hum the tenor part of ‘Aishi Fau’ and Fai-rek joined in, humming the treble. Na-Melei smiled and took the alto part, and Lazhanor, the baritone. Yira and Ivuem glanced at each other and started a drumbeat slapping their coat pockets, singing, without words.

___
Copyright 2016 Tamara Vardomskaya

Tamara Vardomskaya is a Canadian writer and a graduate of the 2014 Clarion Writers’ Workshop. Her fiction has also appeared at Tor.com and Beneath Ceaseless Skies. She is currently pursuing a Ph.D in theoretical linguistics at the University of Chicago.

by Ada Hoffmann

 

I hadn’t had a minute, since getting off the airship, to put down my carpet bag and close my eyes. But Dr. Clarence Fullerton was intent on showing me the entire encampment before I rested. He never paused to allow me a word in edgewise, although at that point I was so exhausted I couldn’t have said much anyway.

“Past the mess tent,” he explained, “we have the path down into the canyon, and the fossil-rich ridges themselves–of course, you won’t be digging there, but I’m sure you can imagine the wealth of discovery available. Go ahead and feast your eyes.”

The sunset over the rugged river valley had turned everything pink, but of course I was more interested in the robots. The encampment crouched at the edge of the canyon, only four tents and assorted machinery. Robots outnumbered humans: four Whitman-651 walkers to carry the plastered-up fossils, one more to carry personal supplies, and a couple of convenience items such as a broken Hamilton-Smith, which was supposed to wash and press clothes with hardly any human assistance. And then this thing looming up in front of me, which I did not recognize. It was large enough for two people to stand in the cockpit, and it sported a considerable array of gun turrets.

I wondered why they needed a machine like that out here.

Dr. Fullerton followed my gaze. “Or, yes, you may feast your eyes on that, too. It’s a KD8102 special from Lovell & Grimm. One never knows what might come calling, you see. Grizzlies, bandits, rival researchers… But in any case, you won’t be touching the KD8102 just yet, nor its ammunition cases. It will be your job eventually, but only once you’ve proven yourself.

“The less, ahem, martially oriented machines are yours to examine as you will. Now, I’m given to understand you’ve worked at fossil expeditions before, but you haven’t worked at one of my expeditions, so I hope you’ll forgive me if I give you a short lesson in fossil handling before allowing you to work on the Whitman-651s. May I schedule that for the first thing tomorrow morning?”

“Yes,” I said weakly. The airship ride had been loud and shaky, and his voice scratched at my ears. He simply wouldn’t stop talking.

“Most excellent.” Dr. Fullerton ushered me into the comparative darkness of the mess tent. “Now I’ll introduce you to our fine colleagues. Miss Howe, may I introduce Dr. Harold Kerr and Mrs. Hattie Bond Cunningham. Harry and Mrs. Cunningham, may I introduce Lillian Howe…”

I stared at Mrs. Cunningham even longer than I’d stared at the KD8102.

Out west, the social rules were loose for lack of civilization, and I was not the only woman who ever worked at fossil hunts. I had even been on speaking terms with two of the women at Dr. Mandeville’s camp. But neither of these women approached the perfection of Mrs. Hattie Bond Cunningham. There was a brightness in her eyes and a surpassing neatness in the way she held herself, suggesting intelligence, warmth, efficiency. She wore practical outdoor clothes, like me, but they were all in black bombazine, with a widow’s cap–the veil shortened, presumably so as not to get in the way. Mr. Cunningham must have died a little over a year ago.

I felt sorry for Mr. Cunningham. Of course he was probably very happy in the spirit world, but if I were him and had a wife like his, I would have wanted very much to stay alive so I could hold her.

Dr. Kerr, a tall thin man, bowed and muttered a greeting. Dr. Fullerton kept talking and talking, and I think I was supposed to introduce myself to the others, but I couldn’t keep my mind on any of it. Mrs. Hattie Bond Cunningham looked at me in concern.

“Are you all right?” she said. “You’ve gone positively white.”

I fluttered my hands a little as I groped for an appropriate response. “Oh,” I managed eventually, “I’m feeling a little faint, that’s all. The journey here was tiring.”

“Faint” is the safest way to say it: delicate, ladylike, and proper. “Faint” is much better than the truth, which is that if I get too overwhelmed by too many people talking to me, I will begin shouting and perhaps even bite them, even if they are beautiful like Mrs. Hattie Bond Cunningham.

They led me straightaway to a quiet tent, instructed me to keep my head between my knees, and left me to calm myself down.

It really was a nice camp. Not too big, and lots of interesting machines. For a minute, I felt sorry that I’d come all this way to sabotage them.

Fossil hunting is an enormous business. Like a gold rush. Below the 49th parallel, one can hardly set foot in a sedimentary wasteland without running into Edward Drinker Cope and Othniel Charles Marsh, who regularly resort to blackmail, theft, and robot ambushes in order to one-up each other. Up here, in the North-West Territories, our own scientists carry on in much the same way.

I had learned the rules of fossil hunting as a mechanic fixing robots for one Dr. Mandeville–though I had had to hide that from Dr. Fullerton, who was Dr. Mandeville’s bitterest rival. Over time, Dr. Mandeville had grown to trust me enough to tell me his secrets, and to send me on special missions.

I hadn’t thought it was in me to carry out sabotage. But I was shocked when Dr. Mandeville told me about Dr. Fullerton’s camps. Why, when they finished, they dynamited whatever small fossils and fragments were left, so that Dr. Mandeville couldn’t have them. Destroying irreplaceable knowledge in the name of sheer rivalry–can you imagine? So Dr. Mandeville had not asked me to hurt anyone. Only to secretly dispose of the dynamite.

It was still deceptive, and I experienced occasional pangs of conscience, but Dr. Mandeville had offered me a great deal of money should I succeed. The alternative was to sit at home with my brother and his wife and their extremely noisy children, pretending to do needlepoint and having maybe one interesting robotics project per year, since customers in Ottawa preferred men. No, thank you: I preferred a life with autonomy, even if it meant lying to Dr. Fullerton while he talked my ear off.

When I’d calmed down, I set to work erecting my own tent. I was not nearly as good with fabric and poles as I was with machinery, and the whole thing threatened to fall down several times, but I eventually got it straightened out. That done, I sorted all the tools in my carpet bag in order of size until I fell asleep.

The next morning dawned in a very pink way. I woke in considerably better spirits and felt much better able to handle Dr. Fullerton as he walked me around.

“The excavation itself is very delicate work,” he explained. “Suited only for humans, not machines. It’s only later that the machines come in…”

I could see why he wanted me to understand his procedures, but they were exactly the same as Dr. Mandeville’s, so I stopped listening. Instead I looked out over the canyon, an intricate fold in the earth where Dr. Kerr and Mrs. Hattie Bond Cunningham clambered about in the cool morning air, worrying at the rocks with picks and whisk brooms. Sunlight glinted off some of the biggest bones. The team seemed to have stumbled onto something very impressive.

All the more reason not to let them dynamite it.

“Ah,” said Dr. Fullerton. “But look at you. I suspect I’ve gone on entirely too long. Perhaps that will be all the lecturing for today! Do you have any questions?”

“No,” I said.

He clasped my shoulder heartily and I tried not to squirm away. I don’t always mind being touched, but the way he was doing it made the edge of my cotton shift scratch against my shoulders uncomfortably, under my jacket. “I am glad to hear it, Miss Howe! I like a woman with nothing to say. I must say I was concerned at first about adding another woman, but you’ve been meek, ladylike, and altogether pleasant thus far. Perhaps you’ll help us keep Mrs. Cunningham in her place!”

I had no idea what Mrs. Hattie Bond Cunningham’s place was supposed to be, but when he said it, I imagined holding her down to keep her in one spot. This lead to thoughts which frankly were not ladylike at all.

“Thank you, Dr. Fullerton,” I said.

He nodded. “Now, where did you say you learned robotics?”

I had a small moment of panic before I realized he was not interrogating me. He didn’t suspect that I was a plant sent by his bitterest rival. He was simply doing the thing people call Making Conversation.

“From my brother,” I said. “He has a degree in robotics. I borrowed his textbooks. And his equipment. And eventually his customers.”

“Hm. Where was that?”

“In Ottawa.”

“Ah! I have cousins in Ottawa. What church did you go to?”

I swallowed, knowing things never went well when I said the name. “The Ottawa Spiritualist Temple.”

Sure enough, his eyes sprang open. “So you go in for that sort of thing? Materialization of the dead? Girls walking around in little sheets?”

I shook my head. “I do séances with my family at home, Dr. Fullerton. I’ve never seen a materialization. Only the most powerful mediums can even…”

“Splendid! I know just what we’ll do to welcome you to the camp, Miss Howe. You can do a séance for us! I’ve always wanted to see one. We’ll all sit and chat with Mrs. Cunningham’s husband or Harry’s mother or whoever else you can drum up. How does that sound?”

“But…”

He clapped me on the shoulder again and I winced. “Splendid! Excellent! Oh, I’m glad we have you aboard.”

He kept talking after that, and I couldn’t get a word in.

I wanted to tell him that I wasn’t comfortable with this. Séances, however pleasant, were not a form of entertainment. They were for me and my family and our spiritual development. Besides, although I had cultivated enough mind passivity to channel voices, I certainly couldn’t produce the sort of spectacle Dr. Fullerton expected. In the presence of three spiritually disruptive strangers, I wasn’t certain I could produce anything at all.

Still, even if I explained all that to him, he probably would not have cared–and if I started declining his requests, I might look suspicious. So I looked on the bright side. I hadn’t done a proper séance since leaving home; all I had managed at Dr. Mandeville’s camp was a bit of automatic writing. And I was curious about Mrs. Hattie Bond Cunningham and her husband. I wondered what would happen if she could speak with him. Perhaps she would be impressed with me. And I dearly liked the idea of Mrs. Hattie Bond Cunningham being impressed with me.

It was Dr. Kerr’s turn to make lunch. Dr. Fullerton had left me alone eventually, and I had worked up an appetite inspecting the robots. But when I got to the mess tent and found Dr. Kerr laboring over a badly maintained camp stove piled with stinking meat–none of which I could eat, due to my personal convictions–and carrying on a shouted conversation with Dr. Fullerton, I lost my nerve. I darted in, plucked a bit of cucumber and half-wilted watercress from the side table, and retreated outside to eat them.

A few minutes later, Mrs. Hattie Bond Cunningham flounced out of the tent herself and sat at my side. I was happy to see her, but it did nothing to calm me.

“Dreadful, aren’t they?” she said. “Pompous, noisy men. I don’t know how I deal with them some days myself.”

“Er,” I said.

“I can see why you’d want to eat out here,” she said. “Such a view! I often take it for granted, clambering about on the rocks every day, but I shouldn’t. One needs to take time to appreciate beauty in this world.”

“Er,” I said. “Yes.”

I hated this part. The trouble with women like Mrs. Hattie Bond Cunningham was that I became fascinated with them too early. I was naturally reticent to begin with, and the presence of beautiful women only made it harder to speak. I had had special women friends in the past, but they had been the ones to pursue me. I didn’t know how to do it the other way round.

I groped for something interesting today.

“What’s your favourite dinosaur?” I tried.

“Mine? I suppose I prefer the Troödons. We’re finding a lot of them at this dig site–little things, up to your waist, with astonishingly large claws at the toes. Deadly predators, if you want to be technical, but I find them endearing.” She looked at me sidelong. “Are you feeling all right?”

“Oh, I have weak nerves, that’s all. I appreciate you coming out here.”

She smiled at me for the first time: white teeth, charmingly crooked. I liked her smile.

“One gets used to Dr. Fullerton. I’ve been working with him for years. Since before James passed on. And you? Did you make your way here all alone, a quiet thing like you?”

“Yes,” I said. “By small airship from Fort Calgary, though I am from Ottawa, originally.” She had gotten the conversation back onto facts, which was much easier, so long as I remembered not to mention the incriminating ones.

“Then you were in Fort Calgary all by yourself?”

“Yes.” And not just once; I’d been there on the way to Dr. Mandeville’s camp, and again on the way here. But that was incriminating.

“With all the outlaws and cowboys? Were you frightened?” She didn’t sound frightened herself, and I got the sense she was hoping I hadn’t been.

“No,” I said, which was the truth. “Fort Calgary isn’t lawless. There were some men in strange clothes, but they didn’t give me any trouble.”

She smiled again. “You’re so trusting.”

“No.”

People often told me that sort of thing, but I knew it wasn’t true. If I were a trusting person, I wouldn’t have come here as a saboteur, now, would I? I didn’t trust Dr. Fullerton at all. Still, I couldn’t say any of that, so I just fluttered one of my hands.

Mrs. Hattie Bond Cunningham caught that hand in hers. Which was something I had thought I had wanted her to do. But the edge of her sleeve was the scratchiest lace I had ever encountered, and I could not bear it brushing my wrist. I flinched, and she immediately let go of my hand.

“I’m so sorry,” she said. “I didn’t mean-”

“It’s all right,” I said. “It’s not you, it’s the lace. My skin-”

“Of course.” Her cheeks were suddenly bright red. “I… I really ought to help them clean up in there. Men, you know.”

I couldn’t do anything in response but flutter, and she picked up her skirts and left me there feeling utterly ridiculous.

It’s a good thing that I work quickly. I had a basic inspection done on half the machines before supper, and I’d figured out the problem with the Hamilton-Smith–really just a worn-out drive block. In between doing those things I spent an unseemly amount of time breathing deep and sorting my tools in my tent, thinking of Mrs. Hattie Bond Cunningham. I kept worrying that she did not like me. I tried not to do it. I told myself that, once I allowed her to speak with her husband, everything would be fine.

Of course, there were other dangers inherent in the séance. It might not work, and Dr. Fullerton might decide that I was a charlatan. Or it might work too well, and some friendly spirit might warn one of them that I was a saboteur. This latter possibility occurred to me a little too late. I’d already taken on the risk.

The mess tent was not exactly a proper sitting room, but they had done what they could with available materials, bringing in the most comfortable cushions and clearing the small table. After dark, the mess tent’s fabric adequately blocked out the moonlight. It was almost cozy.

We linked hands, and I recited a sonnet of which I was fond. Normally in my family we began with a prayer, but I didn’t know these people well, and an uplifting sonnet would do.

“Now,” I said, with our hands linked in the darkness, “the best thing to do is to focus on pleasant thoughts. You can sing or converse lightly. It may take a few minutes.” I didn’t know if I was explaining too much or not enough. I tried not to be frustrated, to remove my own emotions and be a pliant vessel for the spirits.

There was a lot of coughing and harrumphing for a while, but Mrs. Hattie Bond Cunningham saved me, raising her voice in the first verse of “Jerusalem, My Happy Home.” It wasn’t strictly a spiritualist song but it would do for now. Dr. Fullerton and Dr. Kerr joined in, slightly off-key, but Mrs. Hattie Bond Cunningham carried the tune very well. Her high voice relaxed me more than my own efforts.

The room became indistinct and I felt my own thoughts and volitions slipping away. This was working. Even in this strange company, I was nearing a proper trance, and the room was full of indistinct balls of light.

I wondered why there were so many spirits in these deserted badlands.

“James Cunningham,” I whispered. “Mr. James Cunningham, do you hear me?”

I felt an emotion from Mrs. Hattie Bond Cunningham, but it wasn’t the one I had expected. Granted, I often misinterpret emotions even in a trance, but she seemed confused or alarmed.

One of the lights moved toward me. Simultaneously, there was a strong, sudden rapping at the table. The others startled a little, hearing the sound though not seeing the lights, and then the table turned in place by thirty degrees.

“Oh my goodness!” said Mrs. Hattie Bond Cunningham. I felt that alarm from her again. I wished I could tell her to stop it.

Then my whole mind fixed on the light before me, and I saw its proper shape.

It was not Mr. James Cunningham. It was not even human.

The spirit, if I can call it that, was a sort of flightless bird, perhaps three feet high and standing on the table. It wore clothing, but of a sort I had never seen before: a scaled, leathery robe, and a satchel of the same material. It had huge talons and, despite the birdlike appearance, sharp teeth.

I knew that evil spirits sometimes disrupted séances. But evil spirits still looked like humans: rowdy sailors, for instance, and surly criminals. I had never heard of a monster like this. It terrified me. Yet I could not look away.

The bird spoke. It was a horrid rasping sound–I am not even sure how I identified it so readily as language. My own mouth opened in concert, but nothing came out except a hiss.

I felt rather than saw the others drawing back. This was not what they had expected. They didn’t know what to do.

The bird cocked its head, looking at me through one eye as birds do.

“Who are you?” I whispered.

It paused, rummaged in that satchel, and drew out a small device. I had an impression of gears and circuits, like the robots I worked with, but even more intricate, its component parts mostly too small to see.

It stepped forward and pressed the device to my forehead. I could feel it there like a breath of wind. There was a clicking sound.

When it spoke again, it was still in rasps, but the words came out of my mouth in the Queen’s English.

“Our bones,” it–or I–said. “You walk above us and steal our bones. What are you? Where are your ancestors buried?” I hated the way the words felt. I was used to human spirits’ words pouring through me like water. But these words were not human. They climbed all over my mouth and bruised it. The bird seemed warily calm, curious even, but my own voice rose to an unbearable shriek. “If you are here, you must do as we ask! Our bones!”

At that point it became altogether too much and I screamed. I put my hands over my ears, doubled over, and screamed until I could not see birds, lights, or anything like them.

I could hear the others saying things. “What in the devil-” and “Good Lord, girl-” and “Give her air, we don’t know how-” But I wasn’t really listening, not until a good while later when I’d finished screaming. By then the others had fled the mess tent, leaving me crouched in darkness, until I calmed down enough to realize that I’d just ruined my prospects here entirely.

While I was still wondering what to do, Mrs. Hattie Bond Cunningham crept back into the mess tent holding a lantern. The light startled me.

“I’m sorry,” I said immediately, wondering if she was here to send me away.

“Oh, no, don’t be. We’re all terribly worried, that’s all. You had some kind of fit. I came to check on you.”

“It wasn’t a fit. I just…” I fluttered my hands, unable to explain.

“You saw something,” she prompted, sitting down beside me. “Then you started raving about bones. Or it looked like you. Was that a spirit talking?”

“I think so.” I looked up at her, defensive. “It’s never happened like this before. Usually it’s wonderful and uplifting. But this wasn’t a human spirit, it was a great sort of bird. I couldn’t make head or tail of what it was saying. I suppose I got overwhelmed.”

I wondered suddenly if the evil spirit was a punishment. If some great power had decided that I wasn’t worthy of seeing anything good, or at least not in the very same room as the people I was lying to.

“Dr. Kerr said that you must be hysterical.”

“I’m not.” I had actually been diagnosed with hysteria in my youth and given a vibrator, but while I didn’t mind using it, it had no effect on the fits at all.

“I believe you. It’s just that I didn’t realize séances were so difficult for you.”

“They aren’t. This was an exceptional situation.”

She nodded. “Being possessed by enormous birds, yes. I should be more worried if it wasn’t exceptional. Still…”

“I should have told Dr. Fullerton I couldn’t do it out here. Real séances are supposed to happen in the home with a loving family, not… out here with…”

With my victims. I couldn’t quite say it.

Mrs. Hattie Bond Cunningham raised her eyebrows. “You mean to say this was Dr. Fullerton’s idea?”

“In a way. But I knew there might be problems, and I didn’t turn him down, so really it’s my fault.”

Her voice went sharp. “Of course you didn’t turn him down. He is your employer, and you are a woman! You must have been wondering what would happen if you displeased him. Really, Lillian, you’ve done nothing wrong except failing to understand how he used you. You’re too trusting, that’s all.”

I curled my legs up to my chest. “My brother told me I’d never last out here. I’m so ladylike and good most of the time and then I turn bestial at a moment’s notice, and I can’t control it. He told me Dr. Fullerton would throw me out in disgrace and he was right. I’m sorry.”

Actually he had said that about Dr. Mandeville. I figured it was close enough.

She laughed unexpectedly, a big laugh, throwing her head back. “Dr. Fullerton will do no such thing! The man gushed about you all through dinner. You managed half again as many inspections in one day as any other technician we’ve had. You found the problem with the Hamilton-Smith, even. This isn’t like Ottawa. Propriety comes in second to results. If you have fits every once in a while, well, we shall live with them.”

“Oh,” I said.

We sat in companionable silence, and then Mrs. Hattie Bond Cunningham said, “May I ask a question?”

“Of course.”

“I thought I heard you say my husband’s name, before you started to scream. Did you see him? Was he… with the monsters?”

I sighed. “No. I was looking for him; I thought you’d like it if you could speak to him. But he wasn’t there.”

There was a pause. “It’s just as well,” she said at last. “I miss him, but we were never… You know.”

“Never what?”

“The spiritualist view of marriage is very liberal, isn’t it? You say a true marriage isn’t an economic or family arrangement, but a spiritual affinity between a man and woman. Is that correct?”

“Yes,” I said, though I would have quibbled substantially with the “man and woman” bit.

“Well, that was the problem. James and I were friends, of a sort, but nothing more than that except on paper. It was my own fault. I wanted an ordinary family, but I never got the hang of spiritual affinities with men.”

With men.

It was the sort of thing I would have missed when I was younger, but not now.

“Neither have I, really,” I said. “I much prefer the company of women.”

“Well, then, we have that in common.”

I didn’t want to be too forward. Just because she was interested in women didn’t mean she was interested in me. Still, this felt like an important milestone, and I ought to say something. I ended up just fluttering some more.

“Oh, you poor thing,” she said. “I’d like to embrace you, if that would help, but this lace…”

“Here,” I said, relieved that she’d mentioned it first.

The bombazine wasn’t nearly as bad as the lace. I arranged her arms around me so that the lace only touched my back, which was covered with a cotton jacket anyway. I leaned against her, resting my face against her shoulder.

“Does that help?” She sounded uncertain, though her arms were firm, warm, and wonderful around me.

“This is excellent,” I said.

She opened her mouth to say more, but just then Dr. Kerr came stomping past the outside of the mess tent and we quickly disentangled ourselves. “How is she, Mrs. Cunningham? Is everything all right?”

“Yes, everything’s fine,” said Hattie. “Just a moment.” She pecked me on the lips while he still couldn’t see, then grinned widely, as though she had done something terribly brave, and hurried out.

Suddenly I wasn’t so worried about the birds anymore.

I didn’t venture out of the mess tent until night. The badlands were still and shadowy, and Dr. Fullerton’s snoring rang out in the quiet. I felt confident that everyone else had gone to sleep, but I was not at all sure they would stay that way.

I crept out to the KD8102 and picked the locks on the ammunition cases. Inside lay piles of dynamite: some in sticks, some in spheres. It was a good trick, hiding them here. I suspected that the KD8102 was for show, little more than an excuse for the explosives. That would explain why Dr. Fullerton had been reluctant to teach me about it.

Dr. Mandeville had instructed me in how to dispose of dynamite. It was really the percussive shock of the blasting caps that set it off, not the burning of the fuse, so–counterintuitive as this was–the best thing to do was to burn it. I built a little fire out of sight of the camp and got to work, turning the dynamite itself to ash and burying the blasting caps separately. The spheres were heavier than I had realized; I could only carry a few at once, and that made for terribly slow work. By the time I had emptied a quarter of the ammunition case, I was exhausted. So I closed and locked the ammunition case, crawled into my tent, and prayed that Dr. Fullerton would not notice.

Hattie was busy with fossils all the next day. There was a lot of cheering and hopping around; they’d found a really colossal group of those Troödon fossils, as well as something with hip bones the size of wheelbarrows. I tried to cheer back whenever they mentioned it, but my heart wasn’t in it. They didn’t have enough Whitman-651s to carry all these bones home, and that meant many would be dynamited. Yet they were cheering and grinning as though they saw no problems at all. I needed to hurry.

I finished fixing the Hamilton-Smith’s drive block and then wasn’t sure what to do until dark.

“Have a drink with us,” said Dr. Fullerton, winking at me in a way that suggested he was already drunk, “if your nerves will allow. This is a colossal find, you understand. Have you ever thought about devising ways for our Whitman-651s to hold more?”

“I don’t know,” I said. I wasn’t sure how many modifications I could make. There was not exactly a foundry pounding out custom machine parts to my specifications out here. And that was to say nothing of the structural integrity of the legs.

“Hah!” He seemed inexplicably pleased. “So there’s an end to your knowledge. Well, if you’re stumped, then tomorrow we’ll teach you to help with the excavations. Maybe you’ll be responsible for meals and laundry from now on, too. You’ve got to earn your pay somehow, after all.”

So apart from meals and laundry, I was banished to my tent the rest of the day. After a few rounds of sorting my tools in order of size, I grew pensive. I had too much to think about: the dynamite, Hattie, the birds. I couldn’t shake the feeling that the birds were a judgement on me somehow. That they knew I was doing this all wrong.

I decided to try automatic writing. I had often used this method to communicate with my mother in Dr. Mandeville’s camp, and unlike a full séance, it was a thing I could do alone. In case of problems, I could break the connection simply by putting down the pen, and after a short lie-down, everything would be fine.

I took out a pen and paper and spread them out atop the toolbox. It was rougher than a desk, but it would do. I emptied my mind and began to write.

Writing makes no use of lights or moving furniture; there is only a feeling of connection, a vague excitement, and a sense of self-abandonment. I started with gibberish, of course, but meaningful words emerged more and more frequently. Bones. Steal. Buried. Bones.

Our bones must be eaten.

That sentence shocked me out of the trance. Eaten? I hadn’t eaten animal meat for years and did not intend to start again. Besides, the only bones out here were fossils, which had turned to stone over the eras and could hardly be eaten even if we wanted to.

Our bones.

What did they mean, ours? They could not be the spirits of the dinosaurs who had died here. It had been tens of millions of years since the deaths of the last dinosaurs. By now they ought to be advanced beyond recognition and uninterested in our petty physical world. That’s if they had spirits at all. Dr. Mandeville had always told me they were dumb beasts, lizards really.

Far more likely, these bird-creatures were the souls of something still living here. Something which knew about the fossils and claimed them as its own.

But eaten? That made no sense at all.

I picked up the pen again.

We do not bury our dead in boxes. The spirit needs the body no longer, and a body in a box is no use to anyone. The best use for a body is nourishment. Even when nourishment is not possible, we pretend to it. To let the spirit know its body was valued.

My head filled with images: not visual, like the lights at the séance, but tactile. I felt my teeth scraping along an already-stripped thigh bone, not eating but going through the motions of it, baring my canines like an animal. The movement was fraught with importance, much more than the sum of its components, like my own ritual of sorting my tools.

You must pretend to it. In this way you will show respect. We will know you are our friends.

The pen rolled out of my fingers.

I understood nothing. I was not sure I wanted to be their friend. But the scrape of bone lingered against my teeth, like an echo. It was disgusting. I had always hated eating meat; I saw no reason why one animal should live by tearing apart another.

Was this some twisted metaphor for my work here? Was my sabotage a form of predation? But destroying bones for one’s own selfish profits–was this not also predation? How could I judge what was going on?

I tore the paper to bits and stormed off to cook lentil soup for supper.

The next day I woke up awash in pink light with some ideas for increasing the Whitman-651s’ carrying capacity. Even without extra scrap metal, there was a great deal I could do with extra sacks and satchels, hung across the edges like saddlebags, if only I could balance and secure them properly. The legs were designed to hold many times the allotted weight, as a basic safety feature, and if problems did crop up, well, we had me for repairs.

Dr. Fullerton waved his hands distractedly when I told him. “Yes, good work! That’s actually fairly clever. Only we don’t have any extra sacks and satchels at the moment, so why don’t you come down here and learn to help with the excavations?”

He was in such a hurry to get me down there that I realized he must have wanted this all along.

So I spent the day with the smallest fossils, learning to excavate them safely: exposing a surface with the pick and whisk broom, sealing the cracks with smelly liquid cement, undercutting them with a chisel, then adding the layer of rice paper, the layer of tissue, and the disgusting layer of plaster which stuck to my fingers, followed by even more chiseling to repeat the process on the other side. All this for every single bone lodged in the rock. It was exhausting work, and I had absolutely no time to talk to Hattie. At the end of the day I collapsed in my tent with no energy left for dynamite–only a vague presentiment that I was failing.

The sacks and satchels never arrived, but there was plenty of hard digging for the next few weeks, plus equipment inspections, repairs, laundry and meals. I occasionally had time for a word with Hattie, but never as privately as I would have liked.

“You’re working as hard as we are,” Hattie said on one of these occasions. “You’re not as efficient as us yet, but that’s lack of experience; you’re putting in the same effort. So why is he giving you all the laundry and meal duties on top of it?”

“Because my work in the ravine isn’t as valuable as yours, and the robots don’t take all my time. He has to add to my value somehow.”

Hattie’s eyes got very wide. “Did he say that to your face?”

“It’s only the truth, isn’t it?”

Hattie clicked her tongue. “Oh, Lillian. You’re so trusting.”

I don’t know what happened with her and Dr. Fullerton after that, but the next day, we started rotating those duties again.

Dr. Fullerton and Dr. Kerr liked to stay up late, and I rarely had the energy to outlast them. The best I could do was drink a lot of water and wake up in the middle of the night, needing to use the privy. After that, I could usually drag myself to the ammunition box and cart off a few more armfuls of dynamite.

I thought on these nights, sometimes, of Hattie, and of what she would say if she knew I was doing this. Perhaps she would be angry. Perhaps there was a secret coldness in her heart, and she saw no problem with dynamiting fossils. Or perhaps she had never known.

But even more so than Hattie, my thoughts drifted to automatic writing. If these creatures cared so much about how their bones were treated, surely dynamiting the bones was a bad idea. Surely they should approve of what I was doing.

Sometimes on those nights, I saw lights at the edge of my vision or felt my teeth scraping bone, though I had not tried to go into a trance. That worried me. I hadn’t been given to visions like this since adolescence.

We will know you are our friends. Perhaps it would be good to befriend them. Perhaps they would share their secrets. Or perhaps they were monsters and meant us harm. But rich men had an interest in monsters, alive or dead, else we wouldn’t be out here.

Actually chewing on the fossils would be absurd. If I left any marks, that would be an act of sabotage worse than destroying the dynamite. But I was tempted.

Finally the night arrived when the last dynamite crumbled to ash in my little campfire. I felt very virtuous and suddenly full of energy. I wanted to run to someone and be congratulated, though of course that was silly.

Instead, I crept into the ravine and looked at the bones all lined up in the rock face.

I picked one at mouth level, only a quarter of the way exposed and not yet covered in rice paper. If I didn’t actually touch the bone, I reasoned, I could do no harm. I placed my hands securely on either side, leaned in, and closed my teeth a centimetre away from the surface, turning my head as I did, like an animal tearing flesh.

I was starting to understand what the bird-creatures felt. The closing of teeth meant acceptance of pain. The turning of the head meant a willingness to move on. This was how they mourned, and it made a great deal more sense than black bombazine.

I felt invisible flesh on the bone. I bit the air again and imagined muscle between my teeth. I swallowed. I had always hated the taste of meat, but this was somehow different. It was as though, instead of destroying a life, my actions preserved it.

But I could not complete this process with the bones stuck in the rock face. More and more I longed to turn them in my hands. Like an animal.

Like the birds in my vision.

I crept back to the Whitman-651s, each one piled high with fossils. It was easy to pluck a bone the size of my forearm and bite into the air millimeters from the foul-smelling plaster. I spoke in the birds’ rasping language, and this time it was not horrid. It was part of the ritual.

I was so absorbed that I didn’t notice the footsteps until Hattie’s voice startled me. “What on earth? Who goes there?”

I turned, the plaster-covered bone still in my grip. She was out in her nightgown, holding a lantern.

“Oh dear Lord,” she said, and fainted prettily.

I suppose I panicked. I dragged her back to her tent so as not to make a scene, and I meant to leave her there to recover, but I was seized with terror thinking of what she would do when she woke up. I was at my wit’s end, not only fluttering but rocking back and forth, which I hadn’t done for months.

Of course, Hattie took that moment to wake up and sit bolt upright. “What are you doing? What’s going on?”

I said, “It isn’t what it looks like,” but I was still rocking and fluttering, which may have made it unconvincing.

Hattie’s voice rose. “It isn’t? Well, let me tell you what it looks like! It looks like I got out of bed to use the privy, and there you were, making horrid sounds and chewing on our fossils like a ghoul. Furthermore it looks like I trusted you and protected you and even kissed you once and now you’ve repaid me by being irrecoverably mad. Am I wrong about that, Miss Lillian Howe?”

“It was what the birds wanted. They said… It’s respectful to them. They sort of…”

“Right,” said Hattie flatly. “That’s very nice. You stay here, and I’m going to get Dr. Fullerton.”

“But…”

Hattie pushed aside the tent flap, stood haughtily–then froze.

“Oh dear Lord,” she said again.

Outside a robot, even huger and more gun-heavy than the KD8102, was thudding towards us.

It lit a pair of searchlights and swept the area, illuminating the canyon, the tents, the other robots–and our frightened faces. For a second, they also lit up the insignia on the robot’s chassis.

Which said “MANDEVILLE”.

Everyone called me trusting. I never believed them. Dr. Mandeville had told me to remove all the dynamite from Dr. Fullerton’s camp. Why would it be there, if not to destroy the smaller fossils? And I had done it.

But there was another use for dynamite. A camp with the right kind of dynamite could use it in self-defence. The robot had explosives. Thanks to my diligent work, our camp did not.

The robot lobbed a shot at the mess tent, which burst into flames with an appalling boom.

There was one thing worse than dynamiting fossils so your rivals couldn’t have them. And that was dynamiting your rivals themselves.

“The KD8102,” I whispered.

Hattie whirled towards me. “Yes. You’re the roboticist. You know how to pilot it, don’t you?”

This was such an about-face that it shocked me. Besides, I didn’t know how. Dr. Fullerton had never got round to teaching me, and I had avoided reminding him so as to put off his discovery of my godforsaken sabotage. “I thought I was irrecoverably mad.”

“Prove me wrong.” She looked around frantically. “I’ll wake the doctors and get us out of here. Keep him away from the fossils. He’s going to destroy the fossils, do you understand?”

“Yes,” I squeaked.

“I’m not sure if it’s loaded, but there’s dynamite in the ammunition case. You should be able to-”

“No,” I said, squeakier still. “Not right now, there isn’t.”

Hattie went so white I thought she’d faint again. “What on earth do you-”

The robot advanced on us. I didn’t have time to explain. I pushed past her and ran out of the tent.

“Lillian!” Hattie shouted. “Come back here!” But she didn’t move to stop me, and that was something.

The KD8102’s cockpit took forever to reach. I think my sense of time was going a bit funny.

I hadn’t been trained for anything like this. The controls were unlabeled, just a bunch of switches, dials, and triggers. I flipped the largest switch, and the lights went on, with the familiar hiss of a steam engine.

As the KD8102 powered up, Dr. Mandeville’s robot swung to face it, pointing its guns.

I’d taken all the dynamite from the ammunition case. I didn’t know if there was a little left within the KD8102 itself, waiting to be lit and thrown. But if I wanted to try anything like that, I had to aim. There was something very much like a rifle sight to one side, with crosshairs and everything, but the levers beside it either lurched it around at random or did nothing. Frustrated, I tried the nearest joystick, and the cockpit lurched crazily as the KD8102 rose to its feet.

It began to run–just as the other robot fired, leaving a crater in the ground inches away.

I tugged the joystick to the left, to the right, hoping to dodge. More shots rang out, slowly–the other robot seemed to take a while to reload, which was perhaps a weakness–and one caught the KD8102 in the leg. I fell across the cockpit and slammed into the wall, and everything went haywire until I regained the controls. But I was catching on. It wasn’t so different from other mobile robots. I was starting to be able to guess how far left the KD8102 would turn when I tugged the joystick left. Forward, and things went faster. Back, and…

Another explosion knocked me off balance. I started to hyperventilate.

Out of the corner of my eye I saw Hattie running for the fossils.

Dr. Mandeville’s robot turned in that direction, too.

Hattie.

I pulled the joystick forward and the KD8102 thundered towards Dr. Mandeville’s robot. The ground lurched past. Dr. Mandeville’s robot turned towards me and fired.

I ducked. A second later there was an appallingly large sound, like the entire cockpit was coming apart. I got thrown into the wall again. Something crashed to the ground. But when I looked up, the cockpit was intact.

The thing that crashed to the ground, however, had been the KD8102’s left arm.

I was past hyperventilating and actually making squeaking noises. But I found my way back to the joystick and pushed it all the way forward.

The other robot tried to dodge. I adjusted course to meet it. It was close to the canyon’s lip now. It shot at me again and this time blew the top of the cockpit clean off. There was a horrible clatter, then a deranged cold whistling as the night air blew across the gap.

I was closing. Five metres, maybe. I braced myself.

The KD8102 crashed into the other robot.

It was a cacophony of crashing, grinding, booming, several jarring impacts, a series of lurches like the worst airship turbulence in the world, more crashing and grinding, more impacts, and then I’d like to say everything was silent but really there was only a reduction in the chaos. I peeked out from behind my hands and saw Dr. Mandeville’s robot looming above me, or perhaps beside me. With the way my head spun, I couldn’t tell.

We were on the floor of the canyon. The KD8102 was obviously totaled. Dr. Mandeville’s robot had been partly crushed by the fall and several of its guns looked broken past repair. But not all. It held out a shaky arm and dragged itself back half-upright. It aimed at something–the half-buried fossils further down the canyon, or the fossils in the Whitman-651s, or Hattie and Dr. Fullerton and Dr. Kerr.

I pulled wildly on the joystick in every direction. Nothing happened except smoke.

I’d failed. My very bravest charge in the KD8102 hadn’t made up for what I’d done before. And those people I’d been working with, who probably never really destroyed a fossil in their lives, wouldn’t make it out of here.

If they lived, they would never be hiring me again.

Then something moved at the edge of the canyon. Not the side where Hattie and Dr. Fullerton and Dr. Kerr had their camp, but the other side, where I’d never seen anything at all.

I could not understand why or how, but it was the bird-creatures from the séance, solid now. Rasping strange battle-cries. Swarming down into the canyon.

Climbing all over Dr. Mandeville’s crippled robot.

Crashing it back to the ground.

There was loud trilling all over the canyon, like the howling of a wolf pack. I understood the sound. Victory. I wished I had the strength to trill back.

Dr. Mandeville’s robot did not rise.

“Oh, good,” I said weakly. Then I slumped over and curled up into the smallest ball that has ever existed anywhere.

It’s not that I fainted. It’s more that I was overwhelmed into obliviousness. I remember Hattie pulling me out of the KD8102’s wreckage. Someone put bandages on the places that hurt worst, after being thrown all around the cockpit. There was also a lot of shouting that I couldn’t process, and bird-creatures every which way. I couldn’t do a thing, not even rock back and forth.

Hattie towed me back to my tent and left me alone. I meant to just breathe deep for a long time, but somewhere in there I fell asleep.

When I woke up, the tent fabric glowed with early afternoon light and there she was sitting beside me.

“Oh,” I said.

“Well,” said Hattie.

We looked at each other.

“Sorry about that,” I said, and then she picked me up and clung to me. “Ouch. Lace.” She adjusted her grip.

“You are mad,” Hattie said into my shoulder, “and you were right all along. You saved our entire camp in spite of whatever it is that happened to the dynamite, and I am utterly glad that you’re here.”

“Oh,” I said. “Thank you.”

I was still a bit worn out.

“They explained everything, you see. The creatures. They have these things that they put against your head to make you understand them. They said you proved yourself, so they came to help you.” Hattie drew back. “But why on earth did you call them birds? Surely you noticed the teeth and the sickle-toes?”

“The what?”

“They’re Troödons, Lillian, or close to it. Obviously they’ve evolved a bit, and we never imagined them with feathers in place of scales. But that’s why there was all that shouting about ‘our bones’. We’ve been literally excavating their ancestors. Can you imagine?”

I refrained from pointing out that I had seen it, and did not need to imagine.

“I imagine,” I said, “other paleontologists will be very excited.”

“Also biologists, anthropologists, the government and pretty much everyone. Dr. Fullerton says we’re expanding the camp, inviting journalists and who knows what else. But I told him no one else was to talk to you today, on account of you being injured and having weak nerves.”

I frowned. I didn’t like the idea talking endlessly to journalists. I also didn’t like the idea of Dr. Mandeville working out what had happened. And I didn’t like the idea of having to explain to Dr. Fullerton and Dr. Kerr about the dynamite.

But I was unspeakably relieved to have Hattie here. And worse than journalists and Dr. Mandeville and Dr. Fullerton combined was the idea of running off without her.

“Besides,” said Hattie, “I wanted to ask you a few questions myself, before the journalists got to you. I think you know what happened to all the dynamite, don’t you?”

I buried my face in my hands and explained everything. How Dr. Mandeville had sent me as a saboteur. How he had lied. How I had believed I was protecting the fossils, when really I was only taking away Dr. Fullerton’s defenses so Dr. Mandeville could move in and destroy him.

“So you see,” I concluded, “I am mad. And stupid, and untrustworthy. And I would have got you all killed.”

Hattie smiled slightly. “Maybe, Lillian. Maybe you would have. But the instant you worked out what you’d done wrong, you leaped into a robot you’d never piloted and you risked your own life to put things right. Do you know how rarely I see that sort of thing, even in men?”

I looked up at her, startled, and she chuckled.

“Mind you, there are parts of this story we will have to finesse for the journalists, and even for Dr. Fullerton, but I can help you with that. If you would still like to have me around, I mean. I was rather unreasonable last night, calling you a ghoul.”

“Mrs. Hattie Bond Cunningham,” I said, breathing a sigh of relief, “I would like to have you around for an extremely long time.”

“Oh good,” she said. And she kissed me.

It would be unladylike to tell you what happened next. But I did get all that horrid lace off of her at last, and not another word needed to be said.

___
Copyright  2016 Ada Hoffmann

Ada Hoffmann is a queer autistic computer science student from Canada. She occasionally wishes she had gone into paleontology instead. Ada’s work has appeared in Strange Horizons, Shimmer, AE, and in Imaginarium 4: The Best Canadian Speculative Writing. You can find her online or on Twitter.

Editor’s Note:

Editors are capricious creatures, and since we’re not all operating out of the same playbook (or any playbook at all for that matter) by nature our job is a subjective one. My goal in choosing stories for Giganotosaurus is in line with our stated value of diversity in storytelling in its myriad forms. I search for stories that I hadn’t seen told, by narrators that provide a new or unique perspective.

Publishing one story a month is much harder work than I expected it would. The caliber of stories we receive is truly impressive. I often regret having to let go of a story that was well written, but just not what we needed at a particular moment, or was unable pass the all important “make the hair on my arms stand on end” editorial gut test.

2015 concluded my second year as editor (officially my first full year of choosing stories) and looking at the stories that did make the cut it’s easier to see themes emerge.

In “Serving Girl,” “The Business of Buying and Selling,” “Blow the Moon Out,” and “Quarter Days,” relationships play an important role in navigating the strange new worlds the protagonists find themselves in.

The Stars, Their Faces Uplifted in Song” and “And the Ends of the Earth for Thy Possession,” tackle the complexity of faith in distant futures and alternate worlds.

We published two stories where the fey play a central role: in spite of my usual resistance to all thing faerie land. “Drinking with the Elfin Knight” and the “The Faerie-Maker” took two unconventional takes on faerie, by two protagonists that don’t often have voices in faerie tales.

Resistance and rebellion, no matter the cost, feature prominently in “Greys of War,” “The Body Corporate,” and “Sacred Cows: Death and Squalor on the Rio Grande.”

And what can I say about “Bears Punching Bears!” except it was one of few stories that made me laugh out loud, with the hijinx of humans on a broke space casino and the search for a new interstellar Elvis impersonator.

Several of these stories are from first time authors, others from established names in the speculative fiction crowd. All of them make me proud to be an editor.

Below is a brief summary of the stories we ran from January to December, with links to reviews or related materials. You can read them online, or download mobi or epub formats for free to read at your leisure.

 

All the Best,

Rashida J. Smith

editor, GigaNotoSaurus

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Greys of War by Sara Puls 

(Short Story, Fantasy)

War and dance in a complex society where color and sense memory is everything. Goodreads

 

Serving Girl by Phoebe Harris 

(Short Story, Fantasy)

A journey of identity and freedom begins after an escape. Goodreads Made the Lady Business Short Fiction Favorites reading list for early 2015

 

Bears Punching Bears! by Tracy Canfield 

(Novelette, Science Fiction)

A comedy of errors about an interstellar casino and an unforgettable bear act. Among other things. Goodreads

 

Drinking with the Elfin Knight by Ginger Weil

 (Novelette, Fantasy)

A rural dark fantasy about bad decisions and Child ballads, featuring unfortunate kisses, minor explosions, awkward conversations, and unpleasant things in the woods. Goodreads

 

Sacred Cows: Death and Squalor on the Rio Grande by A.S. Diev 

(Novelette, Science Fiction)

An out-of-work rock’n’roll reporter has a longshot last chance to save her career – if she can survive in a tough border town long enough to cover a surreal murder trial involving a powerful corporation, a flying yacht, an angry worker, a herd of bizarre genetically-modified farm animals, and some very, very bad luck.  Can she dig out the real story, score a job at a legitimate news site, and catch up with her Mastercard bill? Goodreads Reviews by JsunRed Headed Femme, S.Qiouyi Lu, and Real Tegan, including being named by K. Tempest Bradford at IO9 as one of the “Best Short Stories of the Year So Far.”  Included on Renay’s Hugo Spreadsheet 2016

 

The Business of Buying and Selling by Patricia Russo 

(Short Story, Fantasy)

The parents of a colicky baby, with the help of a nosy neighbor, get more than they bargain for in an effort to get some much needed sleep. Goodreads

 

And the Ends of the Earth for Thy Possession by Robert B. Finegold, MD 

(Novelette, Science Fiction)

Red Headed Femme called this one, “This is a lovely, lyrical, bittersweet alt-history tale, with Jews on an interstellar transport and automatons and deimons. Quietly heartbreaking.” Goodreads. Review by BiblioGamma

 

Blow the Moon Out by E. Catherine Tobler 

(Novelette, Fantasy)

In the fall of 1957, four girls wander into the Philadelphia woods, in search of a traveling circus. But what they find is more startling than sirens or wolfmen. More amazing than a stray dog shot into space. What they find is themselves–and something besides. Goodreads. Reviews by Locus Magazine  and Cate Gardner.

 

The Body Corporate by Mark Pantoja 

(Novelette, Science Fiction)

On a barely settled planet, Ro must negotiate predatory forests and more dangerous corporate contracts to get a corporate soldier to safety and protect all she holds dear. Goodreads Reviews Biblio GammaVideo Game Geek and Locus Magazine. Included on a list of recommended works for Tiptree award nomination.

 

The Faerie-Maker by Nin Harris 

(Short Story, Fantasy)

Faerie land versus Bollywood in this story of claiming your identity and owning your legacy.  Goodreads

 

The Stars, Their Faces Uplifted in Song by Maggie Clark 

(Novelette, Science Fiction)

When all but one monk is murdered on a recently added Network planet, a world-weary AI detective and novice partner have to negotiate local beliefs in order to solve the case. As it turns out, it’s not easy to interrogate the lone survivor of a massacre when his people believe he has to keep singing to maintain the universe–and harder still, for centuries-old Detective Bennett, to know how to administer justice when an entire social system stands at fault. Goodreads. Find Maggie’s excellent reflection on “Stars” and other recent stories on her blog.

 

Quarter Days by Iona Sharma 

(Novella, Fantasy)

It’s 1919, and the war is over. The magical practitioners of the City of London have returned from the battlefields to the only home they’ve ever known. But even here – even after seven hundred and thirty-one years of rhythm and ritual – the world is starting to change. Goodreads. Recommended novella at Too Many Books, Not Enough Time and reviews at Stompy Dragons and Locus.


 

It’s award season: For other work to review or nominate, check out the Hugo Nominees 2015 Wiki and Hugo Awards Spreadsheet, i09’s Nebula nominations opening post and the evolving list from AC Wise.

by Sandra M. Odell

Tully brought the skiff in from the south. The blue mountains of Maya’s feet rose against the sky, each toe adorned with a massive gold ring inlaid with cobras crowned with lotus blossoms. By the looks of the gold and white flags, the feet had already been claimed by the Vatican. It must have galled Pope Innocent XVI to accept the UN award for the feet of a Hindu god.

The god’s legs rested to one side, knees slightly bent, thick thighs leading to the fleshy invitation of her belly. Tully couldn’t see the upper arms, but her lower right arm lay across her midriff, while the lower left arm lay flung to the side, a cosmic afterthought. Immense gold bracelets at the wrists framed the wealth of rings on both hands. Beyond her breasts would be the treasures of her shoulders and head. This looked to be a good haul. Plenty of gold and industrial grade diamonds in the rings; uranium and other heavy metals could be extracted from the bones.

A rush of wind brought the mingled smells of iron, copper, patchouli, and a special scent that was distinctly…Maya. Tully couldn’t think of any other way to label it. The think-boy who figured out a way to bottle that scent would make millions.

Marco nodded in the direction of the UN flyers patrolling the boundaries of the fall zone. “The dogs are out in force.”

Tully allowed himself a moment to admire the view of the younger man against the fore rail. Dark skin, dark hair, nice ass. Too bad Marco had signed on as a helper. Tully made it a point to never mix business with pleasure.

“They’re just doing their jobs,” he said.

Marco looked up. “How long did you say we have?”

Tully squinted at the flyers circling the distortion in the air high above Maya’s midriff. The tangle of colors, the improbable angles that echoed in his joints, made them want to bend in sympathetic symmetry. He returned his attention to the controls. Gates always made him a little queasy. “It’s still small yet. The UN says three days, maybe four.”

He eased the skiff around Maya’s toes to the tops of her feet dark with henna. Workers on the maze of scaffolding in the ankle creases watched them pass overhead. A message ping warned that the skiff had violated Canadian airspace and should depart immediately. With a slurp of coffee and an acknowledging ping, Tully turned the skiff over the ankles to Maya’s calves. The Canadians had ground-to-air missiles.

Maya had settled into the ground five, maybe ten feet. In the muggy heat, it wouldn’t take long for the god’s skin to pale to a meaty gray, then she would start to swell. And stink. It would be bad. With any luck and a returned call from Ali Bob, they’d be long gone by then.

A mob of maybe five-hundred strong milled around the Red Cross tent city set well back from Maya’s out-flung left hand. They screamed at the flyers, at Her Most Revered Corpse, at the scrapper teams plundering Maya’s remains, at the aid workers searching for survivors in the surrounding rubble of stone, steel, and shattered lives. Radio chatter claimed at least three-million dead, possibly as high as five-and-a-half million.

Marco settled on the front deck. “You think the mummers are already here?”

Tully took another sip of coffee. After the bumpy 18-hour non-stop to the sub-continent and the four hour flight inland, the inside of his eyelids felt like 40-grit sandpaper. “I’ve never been to a fall where the mummers didn’t get there first.”

Marco put his back to the railing, dada locks flapping around him. “I used to think about them all the time as a kid, you know? I still have every issue of the Mummers’ Parade.”

Great, a fall fanatic. Tully hadn’t scoped that out when he took Marco on. It was going to be a long scrap.

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Dagda fell first, his ornate leather armor filled with the sun and his hair a gold tide in the Irish Sea. Millions dead, two thirds of Dublin destroyed. Numb with grief and the scope of the devastation, the search for survivors continued until the sky split wide and the worms tumbled down for the feast.

Massive, eyeless, segmented horrors, they swarmed over the body, tied themselves in knots to gouge out massive chunks of flesh and bone. They devoured every bit of skin or drop of blood, no matter where it fell – concrete, wood, stone, metal, or human flesh.

Twelve hours later, the sated worms rose from the devastation and returned through the hole in the sky to the unknown, leaving a cold, sinking confusion in their wake.

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Tully set down at a clear point half way between Maya’s ankles and the backs of her knees. Ten minutes later, the UN approved his acreage request, and together he and Marco secured the skiff, pitched their tents, and set the claim lines. This close, the smell of patchouli was overwhelming. It coated the inside of Tully’s mouth, clung to his clothes and hair.

A dozen or so other independent scrappers had set up similar camps. A few had already set their hooks and started torching lines into the blue skin to mark for later harvest. So long as they stayed clear of the choice bits, most corps and countries didn’t have a problem with the smaller licensed operations picking at the scraps.

While Marco made fresh coffee and heated dinner pouches, Tully went around to other camps for introductions and scuttlebutt. One or two crew chiefs greeted him with suspicion, newer claimants judging by their high-strung nerves and clean skiffs, but seasoned scrappers welcomed him with cautious camaraderie.

Farther down the calves, he was pleased to find Lovie Tepaka leading her own team. They’d worked together at Maniisoq when Sedna fell, and he’d pulled her out of the wreckage in Athens back in ’21 when a stretch of scaffolding collapsed under the weight of Athena’s skin.

Lovie offered him a flask and a comfortable crate for a quick sit. “You hear about Richmond and his crew?”

Tully took a sip, passed the flask back. “Yeah. Did any make it out?”

“Not a one. The UN said they lost maybe a thousand men and a couple of million in hardware to the worms.”

Tully let out a low whistle. “Were their estimates off for the gate?”

She shrugged. “No idea. I’m just glad I got held up with repairs. You?”

“Just came off of Apollo and couldn’t close on the payout in time. I did okay, though.” He did even better if he didn’t count how Edgars and Victor had walked after hearing the news, or how he’d had to scramble to find a new hand willing to sit on call until the next godfall. Tully couldn’t blame them, though. There were old scrappers and bold scrappers, but. . .

Lovie nodded and took a drink. She offered the flask a second time, slipped it back in her shirt pocket when he refused. “It’s rough work, you know? Just because you make it in doesn’t mean you’ll. . .”

Her words gave way to uncertainty, a touch of darkness and fear not at all like the Lovie he knew.

Tully slid his foot to the side until his knee bumped hers. “Hey.”

Lovie blinked, shook her head. She gave him a lopsided smile. “Sorry. Scrapper brain. You know how it is.”

“All the time.”

The touch of fear returned, then settled out in her shrug. “It’s like it’s on the tip of my tongue.”

Tully understood that, too, fear and all.

Lovie looked past him and made a small, irritated sound. “Shit. Mummers.”

“Hmmm?” Tully turned around in time to see a troupe of masked figures in brightly colored robes, playing drums and bells, go by in two skiffs. “Yeah. Marco was asking about them.”

“One of your new boys?”

“The only one.”

Lovie looked at him sidelong. “He cute?”

“Of course. Knows his shit, too.” Tully watched the troupe skirt the outside of the claims barriers. “He’s hot on the mummers.”

Lovie spat in disgust. “You kidding me? When Ukko fell in ‘23 they came skulking around our camp in the middle of the night saying they only wanted to touch our torch sites so they could celebrate him. We got so tight for time driving them off that we almost didn’t make it out before the alarm sounded. Nearly lost our entire haul.”

The mummers stopped on the far side of Maya’s knees to make camp, well away from the Red Russians extensive claim to the thighs. The whisper of their bells was lost in the whine and sizzle of torches as nearby crews methodically butchered the dead god.

Tully hitched his shoulders. “It takes all kinds.”

She shook her head. “I never thought I’d see the day when you went soft.”

He stood, putting his hands to his lower back. “It’s nothing about soft. I just don’t see a reason to pull a gun when the other guy’s got nothing but a butter knife.”

Lovie laughed long and hard and got to her feet. She slapped him on the shoulder. “That’s the Tully I know. Hey, what about Maui? I thought you’d be busy fishing by now.”

Tully grinned. “I get a big enough payout this time and I will be.”

She slapped him on the shoulder. “Keep the dream alive, man.”

Best advice he’d gotten all year.

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The top two inches of Maya’s skin curled over itself and dropped slowly to the deck of the skiff secured halfway up her lower calf. Properly cured, the epidermis could be fashioned into fireproof leather, or body armor that could stop a .50 caliber round. The trick was getting it off the body without passing out from the stench of burning meat.  Tully extinguished the torch, set it on the plank, then climbed down the scaffolding to the skiff three meters below.

Marco stacked the folds of blue skin into large, non-reactive plastic bins. Buckets at the corners of the box spigots captured anything expressed under the weight of the folds. He wore a godskin jumpsuit and industrial grade nitrile gloves identical to Tully’s. “This shit gets worse all the time.”

The complaint sounded low and fuzzy through the comm in Tully’s breather.

Tully stripped off the breather, gagging with that first breath. Someone had filled his mouth with dead rats and cotton, and added lead weights to his eyelids.   He and Marco had set to work immediately after dinner the night before, and hadn’t slept more than a dozen winks apiece since then.

He pulled off his welder’s goggles. “Still pays well, that’s all we got to…where the hell are the spare filters?”

“Don’t ask me. They were there when I changed mine out a little while ago.”

“Well, they’re not there now. I can’t work up there without…here they are. You got to put things back where they belong. We don’t have time to go looking for every little thing.”

Marco stared at Tully for a tense moment then turned back to stacking. “Whatever, man.”

Fuck. Tully ran a hand through his hair. “I’m going to make some coffee.”

Marco shrugged.

Tully went forward and set water to boil in the thermos. All around the skiff, scrapper crews worked double time stripping everything of value from the dead god, an efficiency of gore. Far above, a swarm of flyers surrounded the gate as it throbbed and thrummed, intent on mapping its every nuance.

He was getting to old for this shit. His father had been a scrapper before he‘d settled down to raise a family. Exercise, fresh air, good money, his father said. The good old days. He never mentioned the broken bones, the stench, having to leave a payout behind or risk not making it out in time.

Tully dropped two coffee bags into the now boiling water and waited. He would make it big with this haul and catch the first flight out to Maui. No more scrapping for him.

When the thermos timer flashed, he filled two mugs and carried them aft. He nudged Marco with an elbow. “Hey.”

The younger man looked over his shoulder, squinted through his blood-splattered goggles.

Tully held out a mug. “Take five.”

Marco pulled off his breather and accepted Tully’s apology.

They sat together in caffeinated silence until Marco spoke up: “What’s it like for them, you think?”

“For who?”

“The Indians. They had another god fall. This is, what, the third? Fourth?”

Tully rubbed his eyes. “India is a country, Hindu is a religion.”

Marco rolled his eyes. “You know what I mean.”

The coffee was defective. Tully didn’t feel any more awake. “Yeah, but that doesn’t mean you have to get it wrong. Does India care? Sure they do. They just lost millions of people and a major city. Do the Hindus care? Of course. Ganga, Shiva, and now Maya. Three gods in eight years line a lot of wallets, but can’t be easy on the faith.”

Marco grunted. “You think they still believe?”

“The Christians are still hanging on after Jehovah fell, so why not the Hindus? Seems to me they’d have the better claim. They still got hundreds of gods to go.”

The silence stretched another few sips. Marco crumpled his cup. “I saw the mummers last night while you were setting up the bucket feeds down below. They were singing and dancing up a storm, the skiffs all lit up like they were having a party or something.”

Tully stifled a yawn. “Mmmm.”

“You ever think about them? Why they do all that shit?”

“Not really.”

Marco sucked on the ends of his mustache. “Why not?”

Tully considered their progress since the first cut. They should be able to make it to the top of Maya‘s right calf by early afternoon. If they busted ass, they could make it a third of the way up her left calf before midnight. “No harm, no foul so long as they keep away from my operation.”

“Yeah, but what’s in it for them?” Marco persisted. “It’s not like the gods can hear them, so why the big party every time one of ‘em comes floating down from the sky? You never hear about them getting excited about the scavengers.”

Tully chuckled. “Dead gods don’t eat you if you get in the way.”

The younger man fiddled with the cuffs of his jumpsuit. “Yeah. Listen, if it’s okay with you I was thinking about heading that way tonight. Check them out, see what’s going on.”

Tully shook his head. “No can do. I need you here.”

“What’s to need? It’d only be for a couple of hours, and the radio says we’ve got two days at least.”

Tully yawned with his whole body. Maybe he needed a coffee IV. “A couple of hours is another five yards of skin. You signed on to work, not get a leg up with a tambourine band.”

Marco snorted. “Work shit. I can go when we bed down.”

“If we can spare the hours, you’re going to need to sleep so we can keep going.”

Marco laughed; the sound died when he noticed Tully didn’t join in. “That’s bullshit. You know that, right?”

Tully pointed to the gate writhing far overhead. The unraveling knot of reality had taken on a blue iridescence the color of Maya’s skin. “I know what I see, and that says you stay.”

Marco threw his cup into the garbage. “Fuck that, man. You can’t make me work all the time. I got rights.”

Not enough coffee, never enough sleep, and Marco mouthing off. Not what Tully needed. “Sure I can. You work or I slash your percentage.”

Marco got to his feet. “The hell you will. It’s a piss ass fifteen percent, but it’s mine. We got a contract.”

Marco glared down at him with such pure loathing Tully had to laugh. He stood, topping the younger man by a good three inches. “You got to live long enough to collect, kid. Get on up there with the torch and I’ll spell you here. I want at least another eight yards before we break for lunch.”

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By the time Pele fell on Kilauea, humanity had learned to identify the look of the gate that set the tocks ticking for the worms’ arrival.

The dead gods promised resources to a starving world: gold; uranium; calcium; iron; sulfur; phosphates; diamonds, and more. Soon every country had a plan to get scrapper teams to a godfall site and safely away before the worm gate opened.

The faithful revolted against this final insult. The bombing of Mecca when Jehovah fell on Jerusalem and nations divided the remains. The dirty nuclear strike that wiped out Rio de Janeiro after Ci’s harvest. How the Odinists gutted the Icelandic president and eight members of his cabinet when they approved the butchering of beautiful Baldur.

You will not take our gods from us, part them out like so many fish or bits of wood, they said. We shall remember. 

The world answered with grim practicality.  Look to the dead for your memories. We do what we must to survive.

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Ali Bob’s arrival an hour after lunch saved Tully from listening to more of Marco’s whining.

The broker peered into the skiff’s hold with his flashlight. “Not much to show for your work, eh?”

Tully snorted and leaned against the aft rail. Ali Bob claimed to have his father’s sex appeal and his mother’s love of fine clothes. Tully could have added bad breath, body odor, and a few less complimentary qualities to the list, but the man usually paid the best prices so he kept quiet. “Give me a break. We hit the clock last night and haven’t so much as stopped to take a piss.”

Ali Bob dropped the flashlight in his linen suit coat pocket. “Ah Tully. Always so poetic.”

Fifty meters overhead, Marco secured the last of the scaffolding to the topmost edge of the lower calf. “Good to go!”

Tully moved to the skiff controls. “Hang on a minute.”

He roused the engines, released the hooks, and guided the skiff up until it hovered below the top scaffolding planks. While Ali Bob wiped his hands clean, Tully helped Marco secure the mooring hooks. He passed Marco the torch. “Get on it.”

Near-by crews crawled their way up Maya’s fleshy calves, ants conquering a tree brought down in a storm. Three acres ankle way, Lovie’s team peeled away massive strips of epidermis and sectioned off the first layers of the dermis from the lower calves. Above the knees, the Red Russians stripped muscle and fat from both thighs. Only that morning they’d shot down two skiffs that had nosed too close to their claim.

The largest crews had teams on the ground to suction run-off blood and viscera into 55-gallon drums. Radio chatter had it the Japanese working the left shoulders had figured out a way to automate the entire ground clean up. Big surprise.

Ali Bob mopped his brow and gestured over the side of the skiff. “Those buckets are filled with blood?”

Tully nodded. “Yeah, most of it from box run off, but three from burn weepage. We should have twelve, maybe fourteen, by the time we pack it in. Get me a couple more men and another skiff and I can double that, maybe triple.”

The broker folded his handkerchief and returned it to his breast pocket. “My crews are already spoken for. You are aware – ”

The high whine of the torch split the conversation in two. Ali-Bob’s penciled eyebrows expressed his opinion of the interruption. He leaned in towards Tully and continued. “You have heard that the gate is growing faster than expected?”

“What? Really?” Bad news. Very bad. Tully looked at the sky. The gate still thrummed blue, but didn’t seem any larger. Not really? Maybe? He didn’t have the sensors and gadgets to tell for certain. “Nothing’s come over the radio. Are you sure?”

“Am I ever not sure when I share information?”

True. Ali Bob always gave good intelligence. “Any idea why?”

The broker spread his hands, palms up. “The humidity? The equinox? The phase of the moon? The average rainfall on the Serengeti? My sources did not say. Sometimes the gates open faster than others. You know that.”

“Well, did you bother to tell anyone else?”

Ali Bob arched a brow and sniffed. “Of course.”

That was a load off. How long until word came across the radio? “How long do we have?”

“Until midday tomorrow at the least. I would, however, make certain to stow your harvest in case of the unexpected.”

Easy for him to say. “Crap.”

“Have you seen the French water drill? Cuts through dermal and sub dermal like that – ” Ali Bob snapped his fingers. “ – and straight to the muscle. Such clean lines, too. Three months ago at Hongor I watched a team excise whole tendons from Ay Dede, three meters long at least. Now, you harvest muscle tissue and tendon and I can offer you double the going rate for your poundage. Doctors in Istanbul are screaming for all the muscle tissue they can get to study limb regeneration.”

Tully rubbed his face. He needed sleep, not borderline panic. “I’ll keep that in mind.”

He pinged Marco’s comm. Marco grunted in acknowledgement. “Change of plans. Clear a space. I’ll be right up with a torch.”

A three note signal sounded over the radio. “Gate update on all channels. All channels, gate update in three, two, one. . .”

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Tiamat. Ameratsu. Dionysus. Osiris. Marduk. Hera. Monkey. Ah Muzencab. Xi He.

Godstuff expanded new horizons of scientific discovery, lifted third-world countries out of suffering, and challenged the underpinnings of philosophies and religions worldwide.

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Tully jerked his head up, blinking against the glare of a passing searchlight from a UN flyer overhead. An uncomfortable warmth spread over his left thigh and knee. He looked down, swore, and turned off his torch. How long had he been asleep? Couldn’t have been too long. “Marco?”

The younger man was nowhere to be seen. Not in the skiff, not on the ground as far as he could tell. Louder: “Marco?”

The comm line remained clear.

Searchlights from UN skiffs swept back and forth over the beleaguered corpse, catching the glistening stretches of bare muscle and fat. Spotlights from the ground made taffy of the workers’ shadows, stretching them to impossible lengths. Local crews pushed themselves to eke out the last few feet of harvest before they had to abandon Maya to the scavengers. From farther up the body came the muted pop of ribs pulled free. Or maybe vertebrae. He was too tired to tell.

Tully scrambled down to the skiff, hitting the deck two steps before he expected. He clutched the scaffolding until the world stopped shaking. “Marco?”

In the musty, sour space below deck, he found Marco’s bloodstained jumpsuit and breather in a heap on the younger man’s bunk. “Shit.”

The faint buzz of an echo came from Marco’s breather.

Tully ripped off his own breather, swallowing past the up swell of bile. Suit and breather left behind, same with the rifle in the rack. He hurried back to the deck and looked thighward. No sign of Marco, and the mummer camp was lost in the glare of the work lights. “I don’t need this right now. I. Don’t. Fucking. Need. This.”

What to do? What to do? Drag Marco back to the job? Had to find him first.

Tully focused on the bloody expanse of his harvest claim stretching to an equally bloody gate far overhead. Red? How did it get red? What happened to blue? Never mind.

Coffee. More coffee. Tully made himself a quick thermos, burned his tongue on the first swallow. “Fah.”

He’d left the torch perched on the corner of the scaffolding. Should he pack it up? Another swallow, and a third. He’d have to finish the packing, secure the barrels of blood and plasma down below. Load the skiff himself. It would go faster if Marco had hung around. Fucking Marco. Fucking mummers. Fucking fuck fuck!

The radio was filled with the usual prep chatter for clear out. Crews called in commands, supply requests. A few called in for load out clearance. No news about the gate. If he held off until dawn to load out, he could get at the subdermal layers, maybe even the fat or some of Ali Bob’s muscle. A bigger pay out meant fishing and no more scrapping. Ever.

Screw Marco. Let him live it up with the tambourine brigade. He’d drop the kid off at the nearest bus stop on the way out.

Tully carried the thermos, a spare breather, and the rifle back up the scaffolding. He was stupid tired, not tired stupid. You never worked a scrap alone without a gun in easy reach just in case.

He sparked the torch to life and set to work. 40 grueling minutes later, the strip of epidermis came away and dropped to the skiff. He set to work on the dermis, not particularly concerned with size or shape, only finished work. No payout if he didn’t get the scrap out. He eased the first chunk down the first two rungs and let it drop. One down, who knew how many to go. He exhaled and kept working.

Cut, twist, pull, drop. The cut lines blurred; his hands began to shake. Blood and bits of detritus splattered his goggles. Three pieces, four. Patchouli and burnt meat curled insidious and thick through the filter. Five, six. Had he finished the coffee already? Tully shook his head and kept working.

The world began to run like watercolors in the rain, spilling over his hands. Maya smiled down at him, wide blue lips opening to devour his name in the wild abandon of her hunger. The torch traced a path across the sky, a bright white star carving his name on the back of her tongue. Maya would swallow him whole and let him fish out the rest of his days. Yeah, Marco could rot in the belly of a scavenger. It would serve him right, running off like that. Dumb kid. Dumb. . .

The torch dropped from Tully’s hand. He jerked backwards and went down on his right knee. It popped, and a grinding fire exploded up his leg. His stomach clenched and he barely got the breather off before the coffee came rushing out and over the railing.

Bone ground against bone, screaming under the skin. Tully dropped to his side, praying someone would knock him out, cut his leg off, fucking kill him it hurt so bad. He lay there until the haze of pain receded, staring up at the dull black sky. No stars, nothing but the occasional UN flyer and the red gate twisting in on itself.

Tully began to cry. He couldn’t do it. No way he could pack it all in now. Make it down to the skiff and the radio? Hell, he couldn’t even reach the gun to fire a couple of shots to attract attention.

You got to live long enough to collect, kid.

Tully closed his eyes, only for a moment, and fell into Maya’s waiting mouth.

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Isis. Buffalo Woman. Inanna. Amadioha. Ngalyad. Pan.

The godfall treasures inspired a greed that shattered treaties, destroyed governments, left millions dead, and millions more homeless.  The have nots became the haves, the haves became the want mores. Riding on the coattails of that greed came the realization that the worms could open their massive mouths and someday take it all away.

One by one the gods fell, and humanity learned to adapt.

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Maya spit Tully out and he slammed into the railing. He put weight on his right leg to stand and fell back with a scream, a spike of fire rammed through his knee.

The scaffolding lurched again. Tully gripped the railing and pulled himself upright, biting through his lip with the focus of a pain he could control. Voices and the clamor of sirens filled the night. Metal screamed against metal. The scaffolding bucked under him. Maya jerked, rumbled, twitched on the Richter Scale. No, something inside her moved.

Above spun the gate, an angry throbbing red. White threads curled around the edges and dropped from the hole, swelling, stretching, black mouths gaping. They fell on Maya’s belly like calving glaciers, ripples causing the body to convulse. Worms. The gate was open and the scavengers had come for him. “No.”

He was going to die in the belly of a worm.

Fear trumped pain. Tully tumbled to the skiff and dragged himself to the controls. Over the staccato radio chatter and the howl of lifter engines came a strange hollow chanting from below, the tinny jangle of tambourines. He pulled himself along the rail until he reached the front of the skiff.

Far below, in the strobe and shadows of the U.N. search lights, figures moved at the base of his claim. He caught the flash of gold, the swirl of scarlet. How many? Five? Seven? More? The figures gathered around the blood buckets, and there came the pop of a seal breaking open. Tully clutched the rail. “Hey! The gate’s open! Get out of there!”

He swung the skiff spotlight around and down. A dozen mummers stood around the buckets, hands raised. One looked up at the light with a fixed, filigree smile, then turned its attention to a figure on its knees in front of one of the buckets.

“Are you crazy? I said the gate is open!”

Maya’s body jerked again, her flesh trembling under the assault of hunger. The skiff bounced against the god’s bloody flesh with a meaty, metallic squelch that trembled through the deck.

The mummers didn’t move. The kneeling figure turned its face to the light, and Tully’s reality slid sideways. Marco stared up at him with filmy, white eyes, lids swelling and stretching to seal them away from the light. His mouth stretched beyond the limits of flesh, a lipless black pit ringed with jagged teeth. “I am become. I am become,” the younger man sang above it all. “I am hunger, and I am become.”

Other voices joined his. Tully swung the light around and something twisted and maggot white bored through his mind. Worms as far as the eye could see. One scooped up a mouthful of people and debris. Another plunged headfirst into Maya’s bloody flesh, twisting itself to tear away chunks of muscle and fat.

Crowds of mummers raised their hands and sang as the scavengers rolled and thrashed back and forth, shattering matchstick scaffolding, sending men and women screaming to their deaths. Worms everywhere, sliding over one another to reach Maya’s body. Fires burned unchecked, equally hungry and destructive. Black smoke poured from punctured fuel tanks, blotting out the stars.

Reality jammed a railroad spike through Tully’s left eye, the god eye sacrificed for knowledge. He focused the light on his hired hand far below. No one left behind. No. One. “Marco! We have to get out of here! We – ”

Marco dipped both hands into the bucket and bent his head to drink. The mummer’s chant rose to a strange ululation that clashed with the strident voices coming over the skiff radio: “All remaining crews are to evacuate the site immediately. Repeat, all remaining – ” “Get your skiffs out of here! Leave the carts, dammit!” “Immediately. UN forces – ”

And Lovie’s voice: “Tully, are you still there? Jesus Christ, get your ass out!”

Marco lifted his bloody face to the light. His eyes bulged like blind fruits above the black maw, bone white hairs burrowing into his cheeks. In the pool of light, Marco stretched like old-fashioned newspaper putty, distorted along the X&Y to an infinity shown in his beatific, bloody smile.

Tully’s mind filled with a throbbing sonic scream, the gut wrenching sound to herald the end of all things. Death, rebirth, and death again. People, civilizations, gods. Changed, made new. Renewed. People made new. The death of faith, the birth of reason, someday to cycle round again.

Marco expanded, became a bloated, corpse white, writhing creature of endless hunger for sweet god flesh and all reality beyond. As the newborn worm plunged into Maya’s bloody flesh, the mummers raised their arms and sang its praises.

The spotlight popped and sprayed Tully with shards of hot glass. The world went dark for whole seconds before the gate aurora and the strobing lights of fleeing ships brought it back to life. Far below, the mummers, the thing Marco had become, were gone.

Tully stood at the rail, unable to move, until a yellow spotlight from above pinned him to the deck. A voice, harsh and commanding: “Get your ass up here now!”

He turned his face to the light, stepped away from the rail, and collapsed.

A cargo skiff. Rough hands. Lovie’s voice from somewhere near: “Get us clear!”

Up, up, up they went and headed north at full speed. Away from the god, away from the worms. And something else Tully couldn’t remember.

Two men carried him down below to Lovie’s bunk space, stripped him out of his jumpsuit, splinted his knee. Lovie clambered down the stairs soon after, shaking with anger and something more. Fear. She was afraid. “What the hell were you thinking, huh? Were you trying to get yourself killed? Jesus, Tully, I can’t believe you.”

One of the men shot him up with something. Tully’s bicep burned and then a languid warmth poured through him. “Sorry. I had to – ”

“Had to what? There’s nothing so important that you needed to hang around back there. You heard the claxons. You could have been killed.”

“I wanted to get to the buckets.” Tully blinked the world back into focus. “Yeah.”

Lovie dismissed the men, grabbed a towel, and began to clean his face and hair. “Next time leave ‘em. What about your new man?”

Something white and barbed slithered through Tully’s memories and out again. He looked at the bulkhead.

Lovie swore and kept working. She fed him sips of whiskey until the world took on a golden hue. “I should have left you, you know that, right?”

Tully nodded, drifting in the shallows of her words.

“I should have, too. Those things were, were. . .”

Her hands stilled on his cheeks. She looked over his head, her gaze distant, fixed on something he could almost see and was terrified he might. “There were things, weren’t there? I thought. . .”

Tully licked his lips. “Thought what?”

Lovie shook her head and chuckled under her breath, an uneasy, brittle sound. “Never mind. It’s not like I could never leave my man Tully behind.”

She stood. “Anyway, I’m heading topside. You rest here, and I’ll check on you later.”

He grabbed her hand. “Don’t leave me.”

She leaned down and kissed him on the lips. “I got to check on my boys. I’ll be right back.”

Tully couldn’t breathe. He smelled patchouli and blood, heard the distant ringing of tambourines. He held on tight to the only proof he had that he hadn’t been left behind while the scavengers devoured his world. “But you’re coming back, right?”

He couldn’t make sense of the words, but they felt important so he said them.

“I said I would, didn’t I?”

He nodded – “Yeah, yeah you did.” – and let her go, his hand cold without someone to hold onto.

Another kiss, and Lovie walked out, closing the door behind her.

Tully settled back on the pillow, thoughts circling themselves like sharks. He’d ask Lovie for another shot of whatever it was when she came back. She was coming back, right? She wouldn’t leave him alone with. . .something.

Tully shivered in spite of himself and burrowed under the thin blanket. He stared at the bulkhead until visions of scavengers gave way to fishing boats off the coast of Maui, and he closed his eyes.

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Copyright 2016 Sandra M. Odell

Sandra lives in Washington state with her husband, two sons, and grumpy cat. She is an avid reader, compulsive writer, and rabid chocoholic. Her work has appeared in such venues as Daily Science Fiction, Crossed Genres, and Jim Baen’s UNIVERSE.

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