by Ginger Weil    

Freshman Year

‘It’s a very strange matter, fair maiden,’ said he,      

‘I canna blaw my horn but ye call on me.      

‘But will ye go to yon greenwood side?      

If ye canna gang, I will cause you to ride.’

-Lady Isabel and the Elf Knight 

My parents subscribed me to Out Magazine for my thirteenth birthday, but boycotted my eighth grade graduation because town rumor said the speaker was a magician. She was an economist with a perfectly respectable doctorate in fairy-human trade history.

They knew I liked girls, but they didn’t know I’d kissed my sister Rachael’s best friend. No one knew that, not even Rachael. And when it came to me and magic, my parents pretended not to know. They pretended so hard I ended up almost invisible.

Rachael felt bad I’d missed my own graduation. She invited me to a party she and her friends were having. One of those “don’t-tell-anyone” things that everyone knows about, a bonfire up in the woods, past the start of the Lye Brook access trail.

We hiked up before dark. My sister and her friends hoisted coolers of cheap beer over the rocks and tree roots. I carried the cardinal flints, the iron filings, and the canister of sea salt. People did still camp in the woods. But you made sure to set up camp before sundown.

The sun was low when we stopped. Slanting light painted the birches with honeyed streaks.

“Lay the circle, ‘Rene? You do it best.” Rachael was always casual. Not quite admitting I could do magic, not quite hiding from it. Besides, it gave me something to do while her friends talked about boys.

I didn’t want to talk about boys. “Shouldn’t we wait for Lucie?”

Rachael made a face. “You know how she is.”

Leaves crinkled behind me. The breeze carried the herbs and honey of Lucie’s body wash.

“I’m late again, aren’t I?” Lucie stepped past me as I laid a flint at cardinal west, steering so wide around me she hit a tree.

I mixed the iron filings and sea salt in my cupped palm. Where they touched my skin, the iron filings glowed. No one noticed.

Salt and iron blended to gray against the leafmold. I licked my thumb and spat to set the circle, then brushed my hands off over the fire.

Lucie leaned against Rachael, laughing. When Lucie turned away, Rachael threw me an apologetic look and a beer.

I couldn’t bear it. I knew I shouldn’t leave the circle. It’s one of those things mothers tell you, even mothers who hate magic as much as mine. Don’t take candy from strangers. Look both ways before crossing the street. Never listen when voices call your name from the dark, and never go in the woods alone at night.

Will o’ the wisps hung between the trees, thick as fireflies. Voices whispering in the dark didn’t fool me, but I couldn’t stay and listen to Lucie laughing. I crept behind a tree where Rachael couldn’t see, then stepped over the circle.

One of the things calling from outside the circle had Lucie’s voice. She hadn’t spoken to me in three weeks, and I missed that clear deep alto. I knew it wasn’t her, but I followed the voice anyway.

Our trees aren’t old. A hundred years ago this was pasture. Old fieldstone walls march beneath tree roots and down into streams. The darkness beneath was older than the branches that cast it. I’d only gone a few steps before shadows wove around me. I looked back and couldn’t see the firelight.

Nervous sparks jumped from my fingertips. I leaned against the scratchy bark of a pine, trying to fake calm. I popped the tab on my can because it seemed like the thing to do. Foam poured over my knuckles.

“ ‘Rene,” the voice called again. It didn’t sound so much like Lucie now, tenor more than alto. I came to my senses enough to know this was a mistake. I’d gone in to the woods alone. Maybe I wouldn’t come back, or I’d come back changed. I might go missing for seven years.

My knees locked. Not that running around will o’ the wisps was a good plan unless I wanted to wake up, at best, at the bottom of a ravine with a broken leg.

The dark pressed against me. It was almost a relief to be frightened of something beside the ache in my heart. I pulled an old silver necklace from my pocket. The metal links gleamed between my fingers.

In the dim light of old silver I could make out a shadow leaning against a tree a few feet from mine. Dark clothes shaded into dull gray bark. I heard the click of a lighter, flame and then ember lighting the edges of a face.

“You’re very young,” he said, “but then, you all look young to me now.”

I recognized him from locker room talk, something the other girls on the track team talked about while I half-listened and tried to look as if it were easy not to watch them changing. Not all Elfin Knights had started out human, but this one had. His name was Roland. He was supposed to be irresistible. Maybe it was the dim light, but he just looked shaggy and rumpled and a little sad to me.

“Lucie didn’t think I was too young.”

He stepped toward me, moldered leaves whispering beneath his feet. I flinched. He smelled like leather, cigarettes, and crumbling bark. He took the beer can from my hand, drained it, and grimaced. If I was going to want a boy, this should be the moment.

“How do you know?”

I knew.

“How do you know this Lucie doesn’t think you’re too young?” he asked again.

“She kissed me.” But she hadn’t talked to me since.

His face shifted. “She.” It was a reaction I’d gotten used to, but not one I hoped for. But then his face stilled.

“I’ve kissed a lot of girls.” He didn’t say it like he was bragging. I thought most boys would have. It was easy to forget he wasn’t exactly a boy, someone else who’d crept foolishly away from the campfire. “Some of them were definitely too young.”

Lucie was my sister’s age. Three years and eight months older than me. It hadn’t mattered to me. We’d been talking, leaning against the brick gymnasium wall behind the high school where I’d be a freshman next year. The sun was warm on my face, the brick warm against my back, and her body warm beside me. We leaned closer and closer.

Then she’d pulled away, started climbing up the brick wall, strong rock-climbing fingers gripping the ledges easily.

“She ran away, after.”

Roland lit another cigarette. “Sometimes they do that, after. I don’t know why. It doesn’t help.”

She’d dared me to follow her. Heights scared me but her laughter scared me more. And she smelled like honey, milk, and thyme. Marble cornerstones zipped the edges of the building together for the first few feet from the ground. After those first feet, smooth marble blocks gave way to thin rough lines of brick.

“I couldn’t climb up after her. I tried.”

Her hair fell in my face as she leaned over the edge. She grabbed my wrists and tugged me up. Her thumbs pressed between the bones, a sharp ache that made me want more. The skin around her eyes softened and her mouth leaned into mine.

Her lips were dry, scratchy. Her breath was hot against my teeth. I forgot I was halfway up a wall and stepped back.

“So it was a good kiss?”

I had a moment to decide if I would fall. I could have pushed back against the ground, held myself up. I could feel the magic waiting. If I’d used it, I could have kissed her again. But then she’d have known. And what if she didn’t want to kiss me, after she knew? So I let myself fall six feet to the ground. I used enough magic to keep it from hurting, that was all.

“It knocked the breath out of me.”

“Really good, or really bad, then.”

“And now she screens my calls, ignores my messages.”

She’d kissed me first. I knew about kissing. But I didn’t know what to do after. Roland couldn’t help me with that. Unless what came after was me walking with Lucie out into the middle of Bourne Brook and one of us drowning the other in the rust-clear water. Maybe we’d both drown. For a moment I wanted that. Our bodies would slide over the rocks and float face down to Benson’s Hole.

“Could be you’re too young.” Roland lit another cigarette off the end of the last one. I coughed, trying not to breathe in the reek of menthol and burning tar. “The last girl liked it better when I smoked. Then I got in the habit.”

“I’m not one of your girls.”

“That’s not up to me any more than it’s up to the mermaids. Cry seven salt tears into the ocean, get a mermaid. Be a not-even-barely legal girl alone and wanting in the woods at night, get an elfin knight.”

“I don’t want anything. I want it all to go away.” The silver chain blazed in my hand. Steam rose around my feet.

“What makes you think any of us get what we want? How old are you again?” He leaned toward me, blew smoke into my face. “I swear you get younger every year.”

Roland looked older than me. Everyone did, even Dave, and he was four months younger than me. “Fourteen. Almost.”

He ground the cigarette out beneath his heel. “Fourteen looks younger than it used to.” He reached for me. I should have run. Better to deal with the will o’ the wisps.

“Don’t run,” he said. “Please. If you run, I’ll have to chase you.” He grabbed my empty hand. “Can I help it if they always choose to run?”

Long fingers wrapped around my hand, turned my palm up. He didn’t kiss my hand. He sucked my fingers one by one, licked the little webs of skin between the fingers.

I stood there awkwardly and concentrated on not running away.

He put my hand down. “That’s really awful beer.”

“Yeah, well, that was a really gross kiss.” It might have been better if it were Lucie. Without the cigarettes or the cheap beer.

I pushed at his chest with the other hand, the one wrapped in spelled silver. “Back off.”

He stepped back. “Are you sure you don’t want me?” He looked happy. I’d always heard boys looked disappointed.

“It would be easier.”

“But no.” He took the chain out of my hand. It stopped glowing. He tucked it into my pocket, waiting for some reaction I didn’t give him. “I’ll walk you back to your fire,” he said. “There’s things in this wood that, if they chased you, it wouldn’t be your choice.”

He looped his arm through mine. After a few steps I could see the firelight again. In the moving shadows cast by maple branches and firelight, his face looked old, and lonely.

Sometimes they can cross salt lines, if they’re powerful enough. He stopped outside the circle.

He lit another cigarette. “You could come back some time,” he said. “It would be your choice.”

I stepped over the salt circle. When I turned around, I couldn’t see him. I sat down on a sawed off tree stump by the fire.

“I thought you’d wandered off,” my sister said. “If you hadn’t made it back, Mom and Dad wouldn’t have forgiven me.”

I laughed, though it wasn’t funny. “Mom and Dad would forgive you anything.”

Lucie didn’t even look at me.

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Sophomore Year

‘My curse on those wha learn d thee;  

This night I weend ye’d gane wi me.’

The Elfin Knight

 

Rachael wanted me to be happy. If I was happy she could enjoy college and not feel guilty leaving me behind. But magic haunted my bones, and I didn’t know what happy should look like.  Drinking quieted the swirling pulse beneath my eyes, beneath my skin. If I was an angry drunk sometimes, at least plates and televisions didn’t tilt and sway when I was angry.

First day of winter break, Rachael hugged me and wrinkled her nose at the alcohol in my sweat.

“Does Mom know?”

Mom hadn’t hugged me since third grade, when I boiled a pot of water by touching it.

Lucie texted me from college, breaking nineteen months, one week, and three days of silence. “I hope U fnd some1.” I had to believe a stranger chose those words, awkward text speak an excuse for that abbreviated “fnd” that could be “found” or “find.”

Second day of winter break, Rachael stole the liquor bottles from my closet and poured them down the bathroom sink. I went to Dave’s, hoping he’d give me a drink and not make a pass. We’d been good friends in middle school. It still hurt to wonder where that had gone.

If I drank enough, sometimes the magic and I forgot each other for a little while. It didn’t always work, and it took a little more alcohol every time. Rachael wasn’t telling me anything new, tipping vodka down the sink. If I didn’t want to commit death by stupid, I’d have to figure out some other way of dealing with it. This was just till I figured out something else.

We tucked ourselves away in the old sugaring shack behind his dad’s house, playing remember when instead of truth or dare. I remembered why I liked Dave when we were both snot nosed kids who read comic books together because fantasy novels hit too close to home.

The fifth shot of raspberry vodka shut off his brain. He tried to wrap himself around me. Just holding might’ve been ok. I wanted to be held too. But his breath was hot against my neck in the cold room.

“You smell good.”

“You smell drunk,” I said, and pushed my arm between us. He slumped against me like he thought I’d change my mind if he just looked soft enough. He pissed me off, not trusting me to tell the truth.

I pushed him the way I’d pushed against the ground the day I fell off the gymnasium wall. If drinking still worked, nothing would’ve happened.

He slid away from me and smacked into the barnboard wall.

“You could have just said no thanks.” He rubbed his head.

“I said no thanks last summer. When I told you I liked Lucie.”

“You could like me too.”

My hands pressed into the rough boards as I did my best not to shake sense into him. I knew it wouldn’t work, but it was tempting.

“What is this about, Dave? I mean, really? Girls chase you.” I’d watched them do it for years, wondered on lonely nights if it was a trick I could learn. “So why chase me? Because I don’t say yes?”

“Look at you. You’re phenomenal. Who wouldn’t want you?”

Mom hadn’t hugged me in a decade. Lucie saw me maybe use magic and didn’t talk to me for a year and a half. And here was Dave, wanting everything they didn’t, and I didn’t want him.

He dragged himself up the wall, breath hissing through his teeth as he straightened. That was my fault, for thinking I was too drunk to hurt him.

Maybe I didn’t know. It felt rock solid inside me, but I’d thought I couldn’t hurt Dave too. Roland’s kiss in the woods made my skin crawl, but he was what he was: blood-stained fairy creature, not a boy at all.

“Maybe I don’t know,” I said, even though I did. And I pressed my lips to his.

Roland told me to find someone to share my secrets with. This wasn’t sharing anything. Dave’s body gave off its own heat in the small room, but I felt cold.

Dave pulled back. His hand touched my face. His fingers trembled, but unlike mine they didn’t spark.

He kissed me again. My lips sat quiet beneath his. He pulled away. “I’d rather have just kept hoping.”

“You asked.” I clenched my fists and tried not to cry.

Dave kicked over the bottle as he backed away from me. Artificial raspberry filled the air.

“Maybe you should,” he waved at the door. Tears edged his eyes.

“I guess so.” The door slammed loud behind me.

After that I didn’t drink with Dave anymore. The fun had gone out of stealing, but it wasn’t as if I could buy my own drinks. So I just took old things out of the back of Mom’s liquor cabinet.

I could try drinking more, but I’d gotten close to where drinking enough to kill the magic would kill me. I tried not sleeping. That was worse than drinking. Being tired made me angry all the time, or made it harder to ignore how angry I was. And it didn’t squash the magic at all – just took away my focus and left the magic to do what it wanted.

Christmas Eve dinner, Mom toasted Rachael’s first semester of college.

“To Rachael,” Mom and Dad chorused. They said it with so much excitement, as if they thought this was it, I’d never make it to college. Maybe they figured magic made me stupid. Never mind that I’d tutored Rachael through her last two years of history class.

I squeezed the stem of my sparkling cider glass and chorused “To Rachael” with the rest, because I was happy for her. I was, but it hurt.

Jealousy prickled under my skin, worse than lust or magic. I went cold with envy, hot with shame. And I hadn’t slept in a week. Ice coated the glass under my hand, the cider inside heated from cold fizz to rolling boil, and the bulb of the glass exploded, sending shards across the table.

No one was hurt, but dinner was ruined. Glass shards sparked like deadly garnish on the ham and potatoes. Dad let me walk away. Making me stay and clean up the mess would have meant talking about magic.

Dad turned on the oven for frozen pizza. I walked through the kitchen to my bedroom and lay facedown on my bed in the dark. Not sleeping hadn’t worked out for me. I passed out fully dressed on my bed and woke to Rachael shaking me.

The nap gave me back enough control that I didn’t throw her across the room by accident. Small mercies.

“Brown has a magic studies program now.” My shoulder pressed against her leg. She rubbed her knee, as if she wanted to rub my shoulder and didn’t quite dare. Maybe worried magic was catching, I thought, and felt guilty. Rachael wasn’t like that.

“Unh.” I wanted to lean in to her hand, but then she’d pull away and I’d feel worse. I knuckled my eyes.

“And there’s gossip on campus about teachers all over… y’know, a couple of Harvard Law Professors, a math prof at Beloit, a handful of foreign lit profs at Vassar who specialize in really foreign languages.”

She was trying to give me hope, I guess. “Mom and Dad can’t afford to send me to any of those schools. I’m not scholarship material.” Would she make me spell it out to her? My tall, thin, pretty, clear-skinned sister was a genius in the lab. The “my science fair project paid my way to college” kind of genius. Schools had bidding wars over her.

“Fine then. Not that I agree, but there’s at least one mage teaching at the community college down in Bennington.”

My jaw dropped. Mage was a dirty word in our house.

“He’s an alchemist, not a natural like you,” Rachael said.

In high school, Rachael was a keep your head down, just-get-by kind of girl. Except in the lab. She was there for me, but conflict was not her thing. One semester of college and she defied Mom’s years of silence.

Rachael brushed my hair back. “You should visit me on campus. Maybe not this semester. Between the drinking and the exploding, you’ve dug yourself in kind of deep there.”

She turned away from whatever she saw in my face. “Dad’s worried about you,” she said to the wall.

“Mom isn’t.”

“Mom’s… high school isn’t forever, ‘Rene.”

“Easy for you to say now you’ve graduated.”

“It’s not easy.” She cut herself off. “Go back to sleep, ok? I’ll talk to Dad about you visiting.” She kissed my forehead.

Rachael’s vacation ended too soon. She hugged me goodbye outside the Albany airport security checkpoint. Mom and Dad both had to work, so Dave drove us down even though he only had a permit. We hadn’t talked since the shed, and I wasn’t looking forward to the drive back.

Rachael passed me a piece of paper. “Drinking isn’t going to work,” she said. “This guy at school gave me an herbalist’s address.” She said it too casually, so I knew the guy meant something to her.

“If I could get out of state that easy, I’d just come visit you.”

She smiled like I’d given her a present.

“Erik’s from around here. He knew someone local.” I glanced at the paper, saw an 802 number, stuffed it in my pocket.

“I gotta go,” I said, “Dave’s waiting,” but when she hugged me I didn’t pull away.

Outside, Dave leaned against his third-hand Honda, smoking a cigarette. “That’s not going to make girls want you,” I said.

“You don’t get a vote,” Dave said, and stubbed out the cigarette.

So we were talking, but it was awkward. No more nights drinking in his dad’s shed for us, staring at the ceiling and talking in soft voices about poetry, about the future.

I fingered the paper in my pocket. Dave cursed through the snarl of highway between the airport and Troy.

“Rachael thinks I should see an herbalist,” I said, once we were safely up the hill on to Route 7.

“If it means – did you see that jerk? Nice signal – if you won’t throw me into walls anymore then I’m all for it.”

“That was one time.”

“One time is all it takes, Irene. Worth trying.”

It would be gray market, of course. Herbs from over the border got sold legally and illegally. Legal you bought at the official markets, and paid three times the base cost in taxes and transfer fees. Illegal you took your chances that what you bought wasn’t fake, or swopped for something else that was real enough, but didn’t do anything you’d ever want. In between were small time dealers and alchemists, who sold some things on the books and others under the table.

Erik’s friend sold me long threads of rank-smelling herbs that steeped purple and tasted worse than burdock tea. They made my skin feel thick and spongy, like a padded envelope. Somehow, the padding held the magic in. On the downside, I ran a constant fever and couldn’t bear to touch anything. Even my fingertips were puffy. I wore soft sweatsuits to school; jeans chafed my swollen flesh raw.

Six months later the guy fell in love with some girl from Boston who called herself Lily. He sold me the rest of his supply cheap and packed himself out of state. Smuggling over the fairy line was harder in Massachusetts, more people per square foot, so I hoped he knew what he was doing. He laughed when I said something about it. “Love, y’know? Things will work out.”

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Junior Year

‘Cast off, cast off, my May Colven,      

All and your silken gown,      

For it’s oer good and oer costly      

To rot in the salt sea foam.’

-Lady Isabel and the Elf Knight

 

By July my stash was running out. The last of the drug seeped out of my pores and ate away at my skin, covering my arms in oozing raw-meat blisters. School was out, and Mom didn’t care. Folks stared at the post office though. As long as I kept the sores thickly coated with calamine, they pretended to believe me when I said I’d gotten in a bad patch of poison oak.

I fell asleep one afternoon, hoping a nap would keep me from scratching my burning skin, and woke up in a bed rimed with ice. It felt cool against my skin. The fever I’d been ignoring for six months had disappeared. Frost coated every piece of glass in the room: the inside of my window, my Tiffany knock-off bedside lamp, the row of unicorn statues my grandmother gave me when I was little. The ice gave their eyes a hard glitter, much more like real unicorns than their usual soft pink stares.

The drugs were gone. Drinking didn’t work. I started to cry. I tried to keep it quiet, but I guess I didn’t succeed. Mom opened the door. Her fingertips melted through the white lace of frost on the doorknob. The look in her eyes frightened me more than the icicles in my hair.

“Don’t you knock?” I tried to look tough while rubbing trails of mucus off my nose.

“We should upgrade the whole house to the cast iron window frames,” she said, “I’ve never heard of frost fairies doing anything like this.”

She’d broken her own rule about never mentioning magic things. But everyone knew frost fairies didn’t come out around here till after August. September, maybe, but not July.

Rachael was right: hiding was stupid. “This isn’t frost fairies, Mom.” I stood up. Ice cracked and fell from my clothes.

She stepped back. I wondered how long she’d been afraid of me. I could see it in her face, so plain it would have been rude to say more.

I grabbed a cold bottle of wine from the fridge, staring at her the whole time. She didn’t say anything to stop me. I’d left my backpack and iron screwdriver in the bedroom, so I stuck a fistful of nails from the jar by the door in my pocket.

“I’m going to the woods,” I said.

“Be back by morning,” Mom said. Mothers who cared wanted their daughters to be back by dark. But she knew what I was.

Nightfall found me leaning against the metal fence that separated scrubby woods from the interstate. Woods one way, water another, and the occasional passing headlight to reflect off the green glass of my wine bottle. Cold steel mesh guarded my back.

Mom was scared of me. I was scared to go any deeper in to the woods. I heard horns as soon as I crossed the bridge. I told myself horns were all I heard, not the baying of hounds, not the high-pitched screams of a girl out of breath and out of time. The quiet after was worse. I listened to the water and the rush of tires and tried not to think.

A cigarette lighter clicked. Most humans weren’t stupid enough to go for a smoke this close to the bubble-thin edge of fairy. Not many elfin things smoked tobacco. The toasted brown smell mixed with the yellow of settling pollen and the raw green of cut weeds. Town road crews with sickles and weed whackers cut the growth back from the highway edge every week. Fairy bramble grew fast.

“Hey,” I tried not to feel relieved.

“I told you the woods weren’t safe for you.”

A semi rigged in lights blared past, highlighting wet patches on Roland’s face and hands. He licked his mouth. He didn’t mean me to notice.

My sweating hands clenched on to the rusting fence post as I stood. Aluminum wouldn’t rust, but aluminum was only good for keeping out deer, and this fence was meant to keep out other things.

The post was almost rusted through. The town should put new ones in. But bridge and highway workers out here got hazard pay for fear of trolls and gnomes. The town put off maintenance as long as it could.

My veins itched as magic washed away the last of whatever that foul purple stuff had been. My bones burned inside my skin, like X-rays gone wrong. The mesh fence around my fingers glowed sparkler-red. Grass leaning against the fence sizzled and died. They could save money and just send me out to deal with the weeds. No one would worry if trolls ate me.

I leaned against the fence and didn’t burn.

“I’m not safe outside the woods either,” I said.

Magecraft wasn’t exactly illegal. Alchemists, sorcerers, charm workers and witches could open up legal businesses, even if zoning codes kept them off main streets and away from schools. People liked their magic with rules that could be studied, results that could be measured and tested.

Naturals were born magic, and their magic had its own variable and internal rules. For people like my mom and Lucie, that made naturals not quite human. Like changelings, or werekin.

Roland had been human once. Cold iron was no barrier to him. He wrapped his blood-streaked hands around mine. The hair on his knuckles burned where it touched the fence.

“So did you come out here because you’re ready to help me? We could claim such a territory together. A white horse for you, and a black stallion for me, and we’d ride green roads up the spine of the Green Mountains till the oak trees trembled and the women fell at our feet.”

“You want me to be a monster.”

“Call it what you want. There are worse things than either of us in these woods.” He brushed a tear off my face. I could feel the sticky track his fingers left behind.

I felt safe. Not because he wouldn’t hurt me, but because I didn’t have to worry about hurting him. Throwing him across a room, freezing his skin, sending a shard of accidental glass through his eyes. He peeled my fingers free from the fence and led me down to a rock a few feet above Benson’s Hole.

He could have pushed me in, right then. I wouldn’t have fought. The water rushed clean and swift over the reddish rocks. Instead he folded himself down to sit beside me, graceful as always. “If you ride with me, it should be honestly,” he said. “I’ve drowned five maidens in that stream.” The water was shallow, but you didn’t need a lot of water to drown someone. And Benson’s Hole was deep. I knew he’d killed girls; how could I not know? But hearing him say it was different from knowing, different even from seeing the bloodstains on his hands, his teeth. He put an arm around me and I should have pulled away but I didn’t. July nights shouldn’t be so cold.

If Rachael had been home, I wouldn’t have said it. “My Mom… the way she looked at me. I wish I never had to go home.” There are things that wait and listen for wishes in the woods. Something listened to me.

“You heard her, knight,” the thing said, and I flinched. It spoke with my voice. The accent was wrong, distorted as if it came through a microphone suspended in a well. But it was my voice.

Roland shook me. “You little fool. If you didn’t have more power than–” He turned to the thing. “She didn’t know what she said.”

“She didn’t know, didn’t know. As if that mattered.” The thing rocked toward me. With every movement side to side its arms and legs lengthened and stretched. When it stopped in front of me it took up the same space I did.

My armpits prickled with sweat.

“It’s afraid,” the thing said with my voice.

“Fetch,” I said, and shivered. It started to shiver too. Its movements matched mine.

“Changeling fetch,” Roland agreed. “A spare. The spares go a little mad if they’re not used soon enough. Like plucked fruit rotting.”

“Have I gone mad?” my voice asked. “Maybe I’m a monster. Maybe I’m not human. Maybe my mother will never know what sleeps in her bed.” The thing swayed closer and closer. It wanted a kiss. Kisses sealed so many kinds of magic. I stuck cold hands in my pockets.

My finger scratched against the rusty edges of an old nail head.

It kissed me with my own cold lips. I stabbed it with a fistful of nails, then set the nails on fire. The fetch burned like dried bramble heaped on a bonfire.

Roland stalked off. I sat there shivering. “Oh good,” I thought, “I’ve driven him away too.”

Then I didn’t think anything for a while.

Roland came back with a sweater and wrapped it around me. We sat there till false dawn. Roland smoked cigarette after cigarette and collected the butts in a pile at his feet. I stared at the water and tried to let it wash my thoughts away.

Dawn came and I snuck home. I washed the blood and ashes out of my hair in the bathroom. The sweater was expensive cashmere, with a department store label and tasteful gold-knot buttons. I’d seen it before. I tried to tell myself someone had forgotten it in the woods.

Next day’s Bennington Banner confirmed my memory. Trinity Vendeur had disappeared earlier that week. The picture in the paper showed her wearing the same sweater. I buried the sweater in the back of my closet. Maybe I would have showed it to someone, but Trinity’s body turned up the next day, down near where Bourne Brook met the Battenkill, across from the post office. I left the sweater in my closet and kept out of the woods for the rest of the summer.

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Senior Year

When he had told her these fair tales,      

To love him she began,      

Because he was in human shape,      

Much like unto a man.

-The Daemon Lover

 

I kept my head so far down, I actually started studying. Not just doing my homework, but studying after the homework was done. Halfway through senior year, the idea that I might go to college wasn’t impossible.

I sat alone in a lunchroom corner, staring at one of those “real students tell all” college guidebooks. I’d rather have sat outside, but the January thaw was over. A foot of snow covered the picnic tables.

My cocoa went cold while I read about Williams College. Not that I could afford to go to Williams. I should be looking for a college in the desert. Somewhere far from woods, trees, rivers. I looked around, then used a guilty edge of magic to reheat my cocoa. I hid my face in the steam and ignored the cell phone buzzing in my pocket. My sister kept texting to nag me about my college applications. I’d applied to three schools, but hadn’t told her. I didn’t want to get her hopes up.

I wanted coffee, but the stuff the dining hall called coffee wasn’t drinkable. Instant cocoa was safer. I stashed the college book and dragged out my history homework. The school hired a new AP History teacher over the summer, and she insisted on teaching an elective on the ethics and politics of magic. I signed up because the teacher was gorgeous and because it made me angry how many parents tried to get her fired when news about the elective leaked. The class was actually interesting.

The girl crossing the cafeteria toward me was more than interesting. Her back was straight and her hair wasn’t perfect but it looked like it would catch my fingers.

She dropped her tray on the table in front of me with a clatter of plastic cups and cheap aluminum tableware.

I stared at her spoon to try and keep from sneaking looks at her cleavage. There was this movement a couple years back to “arm” school students by giving us all iron and silver tableware, but that foundered when the school accountants started to price out four hundred silver table knives and the school lunchroom pointed out that iron forks would have to be washed by hand and oiled. Then the school attorney pointed out it was illegal to discriminate against werekin and changelings. Not that our school officially has either enrolled, since that info doesn’t get to be public record until you turn eighteen.

We still have aluminum cutlery and I stopped worrying about whether anyone would notice if I brought my own forks to school. I’m not allergic to iron or silver, but I didn’t need to be known as the girl with the glowing soup spoons.

“I heard you’re the person to ask for help with history,” she said.

I stabbed at a grape on my tray and watched it skittle away across the table like the Graeae’s lost eyeball. Late nights when I was trying not to drink, I watched a lot of old Ray Harryhausen animation.

“Heard from who?” I raised both eyebrows because I couldn’t raise just one.

She grinned. “I asked Mrs. S. She told me your essays were, what was it? Several standard deviations above the norm?”

Mrs. S. taught history but loved statistics.

“Busted, hunh?”

“And she said.”

“Yeah?”

“She said to tell you that if you wrote my essays for me the way you wrote that last one of your sister’s, she’d flunk us both.”

“What’s your name?” I asked, and she knew I’d given in.

“Amy, and you can never ask what it’s short for.”

“Noted.” She pulled out her books and we leaned over them together.

For a week, I looked forward to going to school. The feeling lasted till I showed up early one morning for a pre-class study session and saw Dave dropping Amy off by the back steps. She leaned across the seat to kiss him goodbye.

I know it shouldn’t have changed anything. Amy was smart and funny and charming, and Dave was my friend. It shouldn’t have changed anything, but it did.

Our town is too small to have a bus system or a full time truant officer. I turned around and started walking away from the school. If I stayed there, something would explode, or something would burn. I’d hurt someone. I didn’t think I wanted that. It had felt clearer when I was younger. Now I was caught between what I wanted and what I knew I should be ok with.

I remembered how easily the fetch caught fire, the feel of Trinity’s blood smeared across my face. The three miles from the school back to my house weren’t enough to cool my temper, even in the snow. Maybe that was why I turned up the Lye Brook trail.

Fat snowflakes drifted between the tree branches. The sun shone pale silver behind a thin scrim of cloud.

Branches lined in white stood out as sharp as runes written in marble. Off the path, a foot of new snow drifted over a crackling crust of old snow. Walking through it was hard enough work that I started to sweat. I took off my hat and unzipped my coat.

The snow must have hidden an old circle. People like to believe you have to see the circle, that you have to cross voluntarily. It’s pure myth. One step and those were just spaces between the snowflakes, glints of soft light reflecting off ice crystals that shook in the branches as birds took off at my approach. The next step and those spaces were the folds of white lace dresses, those glints the jewels woven crystal bright through long shadowed locks of hair.

Their feet barely dented the snow. My boots sank down to their drawstring tops. Their eyes were cold blue beneath long colorless lashes. If these were the ice fairies my mother worried about, I should have left the window open and prayed they would come in.

My cheeks flushed, breath puffing out in clouds. Their hands were long, clear skin over the blue rush of veins. I wanted to feel those cold hands beneath my scarf, against the hot beat of my heart.

The strings of their music wailed high and tight with cold. Brittle drums beat like soft feet skidding across the surface of a frozen pool.

A branch cracked behind me, loud discordant note in the music.

Roland stood behind me, with one foot in the circle. He reached out and I pulled away. I didn’t want to sit next to him in the snow, sexless and too young. I wanted to dance with those cold women till everything else fell away.

His smell changed first. The familiar reek of smoke and leather layered with something that made my pulse beat faster. I hadn’t realized my pulse had slowed to match the icy drumbeat of the dancers until it sped up. My fingers tingled with cold.

His hand closed around my wrist. His fingers felt different. Narrower knuckles, smoother skin, the same strong scarred palm against my wrist.

The dancers stole my breath, their bodies pale and perfect beneath snow-lace dresses.

Roland pulled me back and I sobbed, tears freezing on my face. There wasn’t anything I wanted more than I wanted to dance in that circle of ice and snow. Whatever made girls call out from their bedrooms, follow him into the woods, strip off their clothes and kiss him as they drowned, I’d never felt it. There were nights I wouldn’t have cared if I drowned, but it was never because I wanted him.

But Roland pulled me against his chest, soft beneath his leather jacket, and I wanted him. I peered up his neck at the planes of his face. Four years had made those shadowed edges familiar, but the jaw line above my face was smoothly strange.

The flat plane of his hips widened where he pressed behind me, and my whole body flushed. Roland’s hair had always been a long dark mess, but the locks that crossed my face carried a scent they’d never had before.

Breasts pressed against my back. Roland’s body burned warm behind me. I pushed away, longing mixed together in me for the dancers, for the body pressed against mine. Roland cursed and spun me around. The arms around me were still strong, corded with muscle. But I’d leaned against Roland on a dozen drunken nights, and this wasn’t the body I knew: rib cage too narrow, hips too wide, chest too soft, neck and chin too smooth, scent of skin and hair meltingly perfect.

Roland kissed me, rough lips against mine and her long fingers in my hair, my own hands tangled in those dark locks. Her breasts pressed against mine. She dragged me backward step by step. The muscles in her legs shifted as they moved between mine.

I’d been stupid and smug. Coming out in the woods, drinking with an elfin knight. Because his kiss left me cold, I thought I was safe. They had to seduce you before they drowned you. That was the rule. Roland had been mortal once, with mortal limitations. That was a long time ago.

I didn’t feel safe anymore. I kissed Roland back, her mouth hot against mine, my skin flushed. My cold hand wrapped around the warm skin of her neck.

Her chest flattened. Ribs rippled and pushed beneath her skin. The madness gripping me faded a little.

“I’d forgotten how much this hurts,” Roland gasped, and her voice cracked on every word.

Everything I’d known I shouldn’t feel when I watched Dave kiss Amy, that was nothing to the betrayal I felt staring down into Roland’s ridiculous lashes.

“Why?”

Her bones cracked again. I told myself I didn’t care. Heat poured out of me, melting the snow into a steaming puddle of leaf mold and sodden black twigs.

“Magic. Power. I was honest about that.” Roland’s voice cracked and dropped again as his ribcage reformed. “Together we’d have a queen’s territory. I spent years guarding you. I wouldn’t let you die now. But you’d already crossed the circle. Nothing else would call you back. You little fool.”

“I thought we were friends.”

“Weren’t we friends? I killed for you. I protected you. I listened to you. Again and again I saved your life.” His fingers were hot against mine, but the heat didn’t mean anything. For the other Roland, I’d strip off my clothes and wade at midnight into the deep water, and I’d be happy to do it.

“You lied to me.” I wanted to scream.

“You never asked.” He lay there, bones still again, his leather coat soaking with melted snow.

“You said you were not the most dangerous thing in these woods.”

“I don’t chase what doesn’t want me.”

I leaned my forehead against a tree. “I know. You were honest about that. For what it’s worth, I’m sorry.”

“Sorry I didn’t chase you?”

I leaned down and kissed him. He tasted of cigarettes, liquor, and blood. Nothing else. “Sorry I won’t be coming back.”

Sooner or later, he’d shift again. And I wanted her. And she would chase me, because that was what she did. Sooner or later.

Walking out of the woods was easier than walking in. The snow melted in a wide circle around me as I walked. I crossed over the bridge. I needed a dry change of clothes, and then I’d have to ask Dad to give me a ride back to school before he left for work.

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College – Freshman year 

‘O whare are ye gaun?’ quo the false knight,             

And false, false was his rede:      

‘I’m gaun to the scule,’ says the pretty little boy,             

And still, still he stude.

-The Fause Knight on the Road

 

For graduation, my sister Rachael gave me ten rings of twined iron and silver. I gave her a packet that held copies of all my college application letters. The SUNY system had just opened a new campus, one with a whole academic program in magic studies. I’d gone to apply in person. My presentation had been better than my essays, I figured, since that was the only school to offer me a scholarship.

My dorm room looked out over the woods. The residential advisor had been apologetic about it. “Some students aren’t comfortable with the exposure. We’ve put in charmed window frames. And you can always call for an escort after dark. Your roommate said she’d be checking in late.”

I’d have a roommate. I don’t know why I hadn’t thought through that part. I’d gotten the form and everything. I sat nervously on my mattress and waited for her to come in the door.

My roommate let herself in without knocking. She was the only one in the hallway, no parents hovering behind her.

She braided her hair with feathers. That took the whole “make yourself over in college” thing a bit far for the first day. She walked up to me, stood in front of the window with her hands on her hips.

The feathers weren’t braided in.

“I’m werekin. And kind of nocturnal. If that’s going to be a problem, tell me now. The RA said he could reassign me.”

That explained why she’d gotten here so late. It was probably early morning to her.

“Are you loud at night?”

She turned her head to stare at me with one sharp eye. Her nose had a great hook, and I tried not to think things that would only lead to trouble.

“Look, is this going to be a problem?”

Rachael had been right. This was college. I could set my own rules. “I’m a mage. And gay. Is that going to be a problem?”

“Do you blow stuff up?”

“Not lately.”

“Blow my laptop up and it’s a problem. Mages are hell on electronics. Do you want to bunk the beds? I like sleeping high up.”

I stood up and started dragging my bed frame across the room.

After that it was easy. We walked across campus to the dining hall. The rest of the floor huddled behind the resident advisor like ducklings as we walked under spreading old oak trees. The setting sun sparked on the leaves and picked out purple highlights in my roommates feathered hair. There were faces in the oak trees; there were voices in the brooks. I’d been in the woods before. I’d be fine.

___
Copyright  2015 Ginger Weil

Ginger Weil grew up in Vermont at the edge of the woods. She spends her spare time in libraries, can usually be tempted by caffeine, and often commits experimental baking. Her fiction has also appeared in Apex Magazine. She is on twitter as @gingerweil.

By Tracy Canfield

The false-gravity observation deck offered a spectacular view of the incandescent whorls and fronds of the Zeepardjes Nebula, but Vro Vrolik, a Solarium School of Business alumnus at heart, was more inspired by the spinning sign of the Golden Nebula Casino.

The only other human on the premises, Vro’s former classmate Nurt Çubiry, slumped against a deck-mounted viewscope. “Six months of spinning my wheels here. Zero-gravity slot tournaments. Payout tables so complex they’d make a cryptographer weep. Pheromone-drenched ad campaigns that left my office smelling like a French whorehouse. We’re the first, and only, modern casino in Boldengurd space, but I just can’t scratch up a profit.” Why can’t a Solarium grad succeed with an opportunity like this? thought Vro. It broke his heart.

Nurt’s alumnus badge was splotched with unnoticed mustard. If Solarium’s honor was to be salvaged, Vro would have to be the one to do it. And, of course, his future consulting career prospects would be limited if he couldn’t get a perfectly good casino into the black. He dabbed the mustard away with his cuff.

“Hi, boss,” drawled a voice from Vro’s wristpad. “Don’t you get offended, but can I cut in on your human groomin’ ritual?”

“Vro’s the boss here now,” said Nurt. “I’m just a guest.”

The Boldengurd who’d spoken through the translator software stood out from the crowd of tourists gawking at the nebula, thanks to the gleaming pompadour wig perched on his braincase and the rhinestones belted around his limbless body. Vro quelled his instinct to anthropomorphize the Boldengurd’s posture. The species’ supple white bodies were always roughly horizontal, and the candy-red braincase at the flared end never rose more than a few centimeters above the floor. Elvis wasn’t kowtowing. It just looked that way.

The Boldengurd clacked. “Came to tell you the time has come for me to pack up and move on,” said the translator. “Got me a new gig in the Rangifer Belt.”

“What? Wait, what? You can’t expect me to run a casino without Elvis,” said Vro.

A Universal Teapot trotted past. Elvis extended a manipulatory tendril to the Teapot’s dial and ordered up a steaming globe of some beverage suited for his physiology. “The Interstellar Guild of Elvis Tribute Artists can prob’ly send you a replacement,” he clacked

“I’d appreciate it,” said Vro.

“Takin’ care of business.” Elvis wriggled off towards the elevators.

“In a way I’m relieved the casino’s losing money,” said Nurt. “Makes it easier to walk away.”

Vro grabbed his friend’s shoulder with a fierceness that surprised them both. “Don’t say that,” he said. “You’ve put me in charge – you have to keep believing in the bottom line. Remember the Solarium fight song!”

Money demands of you the highest virtues, if you wish to make it or to keep it,” Nurt chanted.

“That’s more like it. Have some pride! What if someone from Polophylax heard you saying you’re relieved to lose money?” Polophylax Business College was Solarium’s archrival.

“Vro, Building Brand Loyalty 150 was about establishing a brand, not devoting yourself to someone else’s,” said Nurt. “Here comes my VP of Finance. Well, your VP, as of five minutes ago. Vro, meet Sirteg.” A Boldengurd with the Golden Nebula logo sprayed across its flat back bobbed a friendly tendril.

“I look forward to a remunerative working relationship,” said Sirteg. Vro still couldn’t tell Boldengurds apart if they weren’t dressed like Elvis. He configured his wristpad to tag every Boldengurd its cameras picked up.

“First priority: new Elvis,” said Vro.

“Is this a human religious matter?” said Sirteg. The translator’s intonation suggested curiosity.

“Not religion, just tradition.” Vro peered across the casino’s cheery iridescent hull, its peacock hues chosen to outshine the nebula’s. “What’s that red thing coupled to the parking garage?” Even alongside the casino neon, that ungainly bulge with the crimson lights zipping along its fuselage reached hitherto unknown pinnacles of garishness.

“Never seen it before,” said Nurt.

Vro straightened his tie. “Okay, second change we’re making? Is getting rid of that thing.”

He waved his wristpad at the nearest viewscope and paid a credit to zoom in on the crimson-lit pustule, revealing a tacky neon caduceus alternating with the words Party Bus in a variety of languages.

Boldengurd tourists squirmed over to see what the fuss was about. Black tendrils hesitantly pointed out the bus.

“That horror can’t be seen from the rest of the casino, right?” said Vro. “Sirteg, clear this place out while I take care of this.” He sprinted for the elevator, his wristpad scanner placidly tagging Boldengurd customers as he vaulted past.

Out onto the concourse he raced, past the buffet line, past the theater holos advertising Nibklung the Magnificent, past Boldengurd employees handing out comp-tracking bracelets for manipulatory tentacles. Past neglected slot machines warbling their ineffective enticements. Past the bear habitat, where the large, round Boldengurd predator’s fanged mouth and ten taloned limbs would have been intimidating if the beast hadn’t been sucking its paw. Past the Boldengurd dealers and croupiers waiting for customers to wrap themselves into the empty seats.

Vro hurled himself through the parking garage door like a jackpot coin from a slot machine’s hopper. Strapping young Boldengurd valet parkers wriggled their tendrils in confusion.

The functional gray pressformed parking garage was tarted up with glittering glowtubes and a viewing window that framed the observation deck. Too many of the expensive docking spots nearest the casino entrance were empty.

At the only airlock gate in this section where the seal light was a profitable green, a human woman in a miniskirted business suit with a blond Mohawk was shaking out a self-standing screen. Virtual Z-list celebrities from throughout the galaxy waved out at Vro. PARTY BUS – MORNING-AFTER RELIEF FOR THE STARS! trumpeted a built-in speaker. WE SCRUB YOUR INTERNAL FLUIDS CLEAN OF ALL KNOWN RECREATIONAL SUBSTANCES AND THEIR HARMFUL METABOLITES! A line of elderly Boldengurd already snaked in through the Party Bus entrance.

The woman looked Vro efficiently up and down. “Hello, good-looking. Overdo the complimentary drinks?” she said. “Fear not, the Party Bus isn’t just for Boldengurds. It’s configurable for over ninety-nine percent of the Galactic alliance’s sentient species. In humans, we can counteract hangovers, fatigue, overeating, and that sore spot you get on your ass after twelve hours of blackjack. Today’s special is a blood filtering and a whiff of citrus, jasmine, or clove-scented oxygen. I’m Jaffi Jiffert, proprietor.”

“Get out of my casino,” said Vro.

“I’m not going anywhere,” said Jaffi. “The MAEH and MAEH-II interstellar treaties specifically forbid non-military space stations to refuse available docking to newly-arrived long-hop starships, as defined in section XXXIV. A minimum of thirty standard hours notice is required for eviction, which may be appealed by petition to –”

She stepped aside for a Boldengurd customer exiting the bus. “Delightful,” cooed Vro’s translator on the Boldengurd’s behalf. The alien was so old its braincase had faded to a rosy pink. “My nodes haven’t felt this full since my grandkids were hatched. And the autodoc says my fluid pressure is magnificent.”

“Tell all your friends back home to ask for the Party Bus!” said Jaffi.

Vro glanced at his wristpad. Its tagger suggested none of the eager customers were hung over, or even buzzed; they were just old Boldengurds wanting their aches and pains coddled.

A Boldengurd with a security badge hurried over. Or at least Vro assumed it was hurrying by the standards of its species. Its gentle undulations put Vro in mind of a drifting sea of milk.

“I got your call, sir. Is everyone all right?” said the security guard. “Did someone sprain a tendril?”

Vro hadn’t decided what image he wanted for the Golden Nebula, but “sleazy celebrity-trash party hotspot” and “Boldengurd retirement home” weren’t in the running. He looked over his shoulder at the casino sign and composed himself.

“I will get this Party Bus out of here,” said Vro, “if I have to weaponize the casino to do it. This is a high-class establishment.”

“I don’t care what kind of establishment it is,” said Jaffi. Elvis inched past behind her. “I care about making money.”

Vro turned back to the sign and pictured all his tension draining away, like he’d learned in Internal Management Techniques 201. A creative man, he recited, is motivated by the desire to achieve, not by the desire to beat others. Running a casino could be expected to have its little problems, like Jaffi Jiffert; but she was only a little problem.

In the distance, the observation deck exploded.

“Rand on a bender at an open bar!” Vro yelped. He ducked reflexively despite the six inches of bomb-resistant plexisteel and twelve stories of empty space between him and the white-hot wreckage spraying frictionlessly in every direction. A chunk of girder sailed smoothly into the casino sign, which exploded obligingly.

“Don’t look at me,” said Jaffi. “I never even left the garage.” She tapped her wristpad. The prices advertised on the Party Bus flexscreen doubled.

At least we’d evacuated the deck, so there shouldn’t be any injuries. Vro sighed with relief. Or lawsuits. But just in case. He touched his wristpad to Jaffi’s. “The casino will cover treatment for any injuries due to the malfunction of the observation deck.”

“I feel a little shaken,” said the Boldengurd who’d been talking about her nodes. Vro forced a smile. His wristpad queried the casino records and identified the alien as Umrelk, a repeat customer with a room in the Lagoon Tower, with demographics more than one standard deviation over the average Boldengurd lifespan. Exactly the kind of customer Vro wasn’t looking to attract.

Vro’s wristpad beeped with a message from Sirteg, his diligent new VP. Observation deck completely destroyed. No injuries.

Vro tapped out a quick reply. If anyone seems upset, give them a free pass to the buffet.

“I’ll get you out of this casino if I have to pry your fingers off the airlock seal,” Vro told Jaffi sternly. “I’ll sic Legal on your ass.”

Jaffi beamed back. “I was wondering how to raise the topic of asses. Yours isn’t bad.”

Vro stared, nonplussed, at the remains of the sign, which now read GO D NO.

“This wasn’t an accident,” he said. “Someone’s sending us a message. Looks like the third thing we do is deal with the terrorists.”

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Vro came huffing and puffing into the casino theater in time for Nibklung the Magnificent’s finale. Sirteg coiled on a floor cushion in a private box. The alien VP might have adjusted her body towards Vro when she came in. Or she might not have. Boldengurds didn’t have faces or front ends, which made them hard to read.

Vro sat on the floor, level with Sirteg. “So the casino’s losing money,” he said. He brought up his business AI, licensed by the Solarium School of Business to all new grads, and fed it the demographics data that the wristpad had recorded for every Boldengurd he’d passed. “I need some data on the Boldengurd lifecycle and cultural norms.”

Sirteg touched her own pad to his. A Universal Teapot ambled by and Vro grabbed a cup of human-compatible tea.

On the stage below, Nibklung scuttled prissily around a large glass box. The Banyakangrem magician looked, to Vro, like a footstool-sized cross between a millipede and a scorpion. The act had been carefully choreographed so the hyperactive Nibklung and his slow-moving Boldengurd assistant could both end up in place at the beginning of each trick.

“Okay, initial analysis.” A graph bloomed into view on Vro’s wristpad, bulging at the right hand edge. “Aha. Most of our customers are elderly. That’s one of the great universals, like hydrogen and natural selection – old people of every species love to work up that little thrill that the body’s stopped providing in other ways. The only Boldengurds in this theater who are under a hundred and forty local years of age are Nibklung’s beautiful assistant, and you.”

Nibklung effortlessly scaled the glass box and whipped out an icy-smooth card trick, goggling at his own cleverness, while his assistant slowly escorted a Boldengurd volunteer to the stage. Vro’s wristpad had tagged that ancient Boldengurd before – this was Umrelk, the Party Bus’s first customer. Apparently the exploding deck had unsettled her enough to require a free physical, but not enough to keep her from participating in a magic act. “Sirteg, give me a sanity check on what I’m seeing here. Boldengurds begin their lives as eggs. I’m guessing eggs don’t have any disposable income. In time they hatch into juveniles, which don’t seem to earn any money either.”

“That is in accordance with my experience,” said Sirteg.

“Then they reach adulthood, and get jobs.” Vro’s tea was salty. “That’s good, because they could be spending their cash up here. They’ll be our primary market.”

“I couldn’t agree more,” said Sirteg. Onstage, the assistant helped Umrelk into the glass box, and Nibklung covered it with a billowing cloth.

“Eventually Boldengurds mate to produce their own egg clutches.” Vro ordered up another cup of tea. It smelled like fried chicken. “Sounds like a good secondary market. Surely mated adults want to get away from eggs and baby Boldengurds from time to time.”

“Boldengurds with clutches are quite territorial,” said Sirteg. “They won’t want to leave them for long. But I agree that one does sometimes wish for a respite from the demands of juveniles.”

“Mating is clearly a key event in Boldengurd life.” Vro checked a revenue report. “And yet no one’s using the chapel. Isn’t there a ritual associated with choosing a mate?”

“There is,” said Sirteg. “But we mate for life. Our older customers presumably mated many years before this casino was built.”

Vro nodded. “Most of them are in the final life stage, after the kids have grown up and left the nest. Whatever you’d call it. The clutch. The – the home. That’s the market we’re seeing. We need to appeal to the younger generations.” He rubbed his chin. “Nibklung’s razzle-dazzle magic act is pretty standard. What’s the other show like? Foot-Long Ovipositors?”

“It’s very popular. There are dancers,” said Sirteg. “Their braincases are painted to fluoresce red under the lights, and the females wear tasseled extenders on their ovipositors –”

“I get the idea. Younger Boldengurds should like it just fine. Nibklung’s act, on the other hand, makes the Zeepardjes Nebula look fresh and timely. So the first thing we change –”

“First thing: we get Elvis,” said Sirteg with tendril tap on her pad.

“The next thing. This is a new thing.”

“The fourth thing,” said Sirteg.

“The fourth thing. We get a new show. A blockbuster. The kids will be lined up from here to the far side of the planet to see it. There’s gonna be music. There’s gonna be explosions. There’s gonna be bears punching bears.”

Sirteg’s body language was unreadable.

“The bears are wearing little fezzes,” said Vro. Sirteg retracted her tendrils fractionally.

“One other thing,” Vro went on.

“The fifth thing?”

“If you say so.” He tapped the wristpad. “I’m telling my Solarium AI to find a legal way to get Jaffi Jiffert off board.”

Below, Nibklung waved his pincers joyfully and whipped the curtain from the box. The elderly Boldengurd was gone; in her place sat an enormous bear, scratching ten embarrassing itches with its various paws. The audience spritzed water from their tendrils in appreciation.

“I’ve reserved these same seats for Foot-Long Ovipositors,” said Sirteg.

“I’m afraid I’m too busy to see it,” said Vro with an involuntary shudder. He hoped Sirteg was as clueless about his body language as he was about hers.

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The theater exit opened directly onto the slots with the highest jackpot and the lowest chance of paying it out. An enormous mass of green cuprosklodowskite crystals in a radiation-proof thrusteel case loomed over the banks of gaudy machines. The crystals’ unpredictable radioactive emissions provided the slots’ random-number generation, and the continually-updated jackpot total was projected holographically above them. As the crowd made their gradual exit, Vro’s translator picked up Umrelk, the superannuated Boldengurd Vro couldn’t seem to avoid, chattering with her elderly friends.

“What was it like?” said a male Boldengurd nearly as ancient as Umrelk herself. “Being turned into a bear?”

Her answer sounded hesitant. “It wasn’t what I expected.”

Vro was gratified to see so many of the departing audience members taking places at the slots. “I like the display,” he told Sirteg. The Boldengurd numbers – the only Boldengurd that Vro could read without a translator – showed a mighty seventeen-billion credit payout. “But that crystal is dull. It just sits there. And I’d rather not have a huge chunk of radioactive rock around while we’re dealing with whatever terrorists blew up my sign. We need a new theme.”

Vro’s pad continued to relate Umrelk’s conversation. “I’ve seen Foot-Long Ovipositors five times now,” she said, “and the last time, I got home and my granddaughter had laid a clutch with fourteen eggs!” Vro tightened the radius on the translator so he wouldn’t have to hear any more of that.

“Shall we get some dinner before I lose my appetite?” he said to Sirteg.

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The Boldengurd buffet tables were low to the floor, of course, and filled with dainty, odorless crystals, sculpted with impeccable artistry. Vro helped himself to a ribeye Béarnaise and creamed spinach from the human-compatible table.

“Pardon me,” his translator chirped, “but could you tell me when the observation platform will re-open? What happened, anyway?”

Vro was unsurprised to be addressed by Umrelk, who seemed to have become his elderly Boldengurd shadow.

“Planned demolition,” he said. “We’ll be installing a free-flight dance floor with variable gravity. Your grandkids will love it!”

“Oh,” said Umrelk. She inched away.

Vro set his pad to translate the latest Boldengurd entertainment news and sliced into his perfectly medium-rare synthetic steak. “What do young Boldengurds like? What do you like, Sirteg? You’re young.”

“Me? Politics, mostly,” said Sirteg. She tucked a crystal into a tiny mouth. Vro felt, by comparison, like a prehistoric monster stuffing reeking, slimy food into a vast maw.

“I mean fun stuff,” he said. “People go on vacation to get away from serious stuff.” His wristpad had collated some intriguing headlines from the planet below. “Who’s this gal everyone’s talking about – Higota? Just got a million-credit deal for endorsing some pre-mating pheromone?”

Sirteg waved a tendril. “She’s a celebrity,” she said. “Improvises narrative songs about Boldengurd life.” The wristpad displayed a synonym too tentative to vocalize: ingénue.

“Do young people like her? Post-clutch, pre-mating age people?”

“That would be her audience, yes.”

“Males want to mate with her, females want to be her?”

“Well put.”

“I think that’s another universal. Get her manager on the line, bring her up here for a big promotional event. And while you’re at it, tell Nibklung to start training those bears for their new roles.”

“You seem very certain about this show,” said Sirteg.

“After the intermission, the bears make their entrance above the audience. On bungee cords. And they punch each other.”

“I suppose I can see the appeal.”

Vro’s wristpad chirped. “Okay, one problem solved.”

“Would this be the sixth thing?”

“No, this is the – it’s one of the other things.”

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Vro found Jaffi Jiffert in the bar, sipping aquamarine liquor from a glass in the shape of the Zeepardjes Nebula. A second glass sat on the table, already empty except for a neon peacock feather flashing GOLDEN NEBULA CASINO in English and, presumably, Boldengurd.

“Get your party bus out of my parking garage, Jafferts. Jibberts. Whoever you are.” Vro thunked his wristpad against hers. In authoritative red, it scrolled out a recent addendum which superseded treaties MAEH and MAEH-II for registered commercial enterprises.

“Give my software, oh, fifteen seconds to respond,” she said brightly. “In the meantime, do you want a drink?”

Vro liked the idea of discussing their disagreements over a friendly drink, like civilized professionals, until he spotted the badge on her chest. Proud Alumna of Polophylax Business College. Solarium’s sworn rival. Her AI beeped and he tapped it for the update.

“Your Polophylax AI is making a pretty big assumption,” he said. “You’re not going to get permission –”

Nurt strolled up to the table and took a swig from the peacock-garnished drink. “Vro!” he said. “Let me introduce Jaffi Jiffert. She has all kinds of interesting ideas for the casino. I told her to talk to you. Want a drink? These King Creoles are awesome.”

“Nurt asked Sirteg to let me hook the Party Bus up to an airlock in the main concourse,” said Jaffi. “So it is, in fact, out of your parking garage. And it’s obviously legal for me to stay as long as I have the VP’s permission. I don’t even need my AI to figure that out.” Nurt grinned dopily at her.

“Nurt,” said Vro desperately, “have some Solarium pride.”

Too damn many things were bothering Vro at that moment, but the worst was the way this Polophylax grad didn’t give a Boldengurd fart about their schools’ historic and cherished rivalry.

divider

One Boldengurd day later, a youthful crowd was waiting for the hot (by Boldengurd standards) young star Higota to unveil the new themed slots. In a moment of inspiration, Vro had hidden the machines under a curtain inspired by the nebula’s gauzy spirals. Higota and her entourage had been in the theater dressing rooms for an hour and were expected out any minute. The casino was booked solid.

Nibklung the Magnificent had asked to tear away the curtain with what he called his “usual showbiz pizzazz.” Vro turned him down, hoping that unlike Nibklung and Elvis, the new bear act would be headache free. After a long day spent punching each other, they’d probably be happy to go back to their habitat and nap. That reminded him: he still needed a new Elvis.

Vro waved at the shrieking crowd, then messaged Sirteg discreetly: Increase on-planet publicity budget by 30%. Get ads on Higota program.

“Pardon me,” said the translator. “Would you be Vro Vrolik? The casino president?”

The spindly Yarath’s nametag identified her as Pimiaweben. She had her species’ distinctive facial bladders and wore a crisp Galactic Peacekeepers uniform. A nearby Universal Teapot moseyed over and offered her an appropriate beverage.

“Indeed I am,” said Vro. “How can I help you? There’s no, uh, unrest around here, is there?”

“Oh, I’m not a soldier. I’m an anthropologist.” She sipped whatever she was sipping. “Investigating the local cultural-capitalist ecology.”

“Ah. Is there a problem with Higota?”

“Well, there’s the problem that her music’s crap.” Pimiaweben’s facial bladders deflated. “But since she’s not the result of outsiders manipulating the local culture, I can ignore her, thank God.”

“Homegrown crap is okay, I take it. What do you think of the Party Bus?” Vro said hopefully. “The Boldengurd don’t have any substance abuse issues that I’m aware of. Could the bus be creating a drug culture? Normalizing it or something?”

Vro halfway wanted the Galactic Peacekeepers to haul Jaffi off in gelcuffs. He was extraordinarily annoyed with the half of himself that didn’t want them to.

The audience’s cheers were giving way to impatient grumbles. On Vro’s wristpad, a message popped up from Sirteg. Higota can’t make it. Meet me at the chapel after the unveiling.

Vro responded. I’ll cover for Higota. He thought a moment, and added, Please be clear that I am not at liberty to get married to anyone at present. The clarification might conceivably break Sirteg’s alien heart, but Vro had no desire to end up inadvertently united with a Boldengurd in the eyes of the law.

He tapped a command to the casino AI. Nanobots dissolved the curtain into wisps of sweet-smelling gas, revealing the new Higota-themed progressive slots. The younger Boldengurds, according to Vro’s wristpad, were cheering again. The older ones weren’t.

Good, he thought. The more the older generation hates something, the more the younger generation will love it.

His translator murmured. “I expected more when I saw the nebula on the tarp,” Umrelk was saying. “Why would anyone play those?” Vro checked her customer records. Umrelk’s room was booked for another ten Boldengurd days. He had a feeling he’d be seeing a lot of the elderly Boldengurd during her stay. Such seemed to be his fate.

As a consolation, he had the AI run a quick calculation. Even if he lost all the elderly guests while keeping the young ones, he’d end up with more customers than Nurt had ever brought in.

More and more of the Boldengurds’ sensory tendrils were pointed away from the slots. From his human height, Vro could easily see Nibklung flowing through the knee-high crowd.

The magician snipped his pincers. The elderly Boldengurds around him clacked so deafeningly they overwhelmed Vro’s translation software. Vro set it to automatically summarize the crowd’s comments – they were running about 40% Love Nibklung’s show and 35% how often they’d seen it – and render Nibklung as voice.

Nibklung pranced up to Vro, pincers spread wide. Another universal, or damn close. Life forms make themselves look larger when they feel threatened. Vro felt a little threatened himself; those pincers were coming dangerously near parts of himself that he didn’t want pinced.

“So instead of me,” said the arthropod magician, “you’re going to feature this newly-hatched little singer?”

“Higota is very popular,” said Vro. “Very, uh, pheromonal.”

“Filth,” said Nibklung, in his prissy arthropod way. The translator reported that his elderly fans were 100% in agreement.

“We don’t have to get rid of your show.” Vro tried to take a step back and thumped against a slot machine. “We’ll … we’ll move you into the lounge.”

“The lounge is always a crap gig,” said Nibklung. “I quit. I just quit.”

Vro was privately delighted. Maybe Nibklung’s elderly fans would follow him wherever he went next.

Umrelk pointed her tendrils forcefully at Vro and clacked loud enough to bring down the walls. Vro reluctantly re-enabled translation for her. “I had tickets for the next eight performances,” she said unhappily.

“There’ll be bears punching bears,” said Vro.

“We want Nibklung!” shouted Umrelk. The senior Boldengurds took up the cry until their node pressure dropped too low, or whatever it was that wore them out. Nibklung preened his epicuticle like some sort of dapper krill.

“Are you Nurt?” said Umrelk, more quietly. “Or the other one? Vro?”

“I’m Vro.”

She waved her sensory tendril up and down Vro’s body. “I’m told that this one’s hindquarters are aesthetically pleasing to his species,” she told her friends confidentially. The other seniors crowded around Vro, pointing their tendrils at his ass.

“Jaffi Jiffert told me about his hindquarters,” Umrelk said cheerfully, “when she was testing my fluid pressures after that awful explosion. She and Vro are different human genders, you know. They could procreate together! Think how cute human babies must be! Like teeny tiny gurshpequats. I wonder how humans mate?”

“I have some pictures on my wristpad,” said Nibklung.

Vro dialed up a Scotch and water from the Universal Teapot, but he just got tea.

“The bears ride little motorcycles,” he said, “and punch each other off them.” He was still far from expert on Boldengurd body language, but Umrelk seemed unimpressed.

Vro’s wristpad buzzed. Chapel? said Sirteg.

On my way, Vro responded.

“I apologize, valued Golden Nebula customers,” he said, “but I must rush off to optimize your customer experience.”

Sirteg was waiting outside the chapel, along with a Boldengurd who Vro didn’t recognize, and, annoyingly, Jaffi, who was gazing at the waterfall filled with dancing Boldengurd seaweeds.

“Isn’t it romantic?” she said, with an appreciative look at Vro. He tugged on the hem of his jacket to make sure it wasn’t riding up over his ass.

“Sirteg,” said Vro, “please tell me you didn’t call me up here to marry Jaffi Jiffert.”

“I actually called about Higota,” said Sirteg. “She’s in the chapel.”

“She got married?” said Vro hopefully.

“Oh, probably,” said Sirteg. “But that isn’t why I called.” She pointed a tendril.

Now Vro saw the gobbets of mucus spattering the chapel, and the ropy gray objects lying across the cushioned indentations the Boldengurd used as pews. Egg cases, he realized, and Higota herself was coiled up smack in the middle of them. She’d laid a clutch.

Vro started into the chapel. Higota waved the narrow end of her body and clacked like a truckful of ScandSynthetic office furniture being dumped into a box canyon, which Vro had actually heard at his previous consulting job.

“Don’t you know who I am?” shrieked his wristpad translator. “My recording company will sue you into subatomic particles!” Vro took a step back – not quite fast enough to dodge a gold-plated datapad to his forehead.

“Boldengurds are very territorial about their clutches,” said Sirteg. “May I introduce Higota’s manager?”

“I’ve made every arrangement,” said the other Boldengurd. “You won’t have to raise a tendril. A construction crew is already en route to cut the room out and ship it back planetside.”

“Wait, what?” Vro stammered.

“Don’t worry,” said the manager. “The eggs won’t be addled in the least.”

“Let’s open some negotiations vis-à-vis the use of our chapel.” Vro rubbed his forehead. “Could we at least charge fans to see Higota’s eggs?”

The manager’s tendrils patted the air. “I was hoping you’d keep this quiet. Being a mated parent isn’t consistent with her public image, after all. The pheromone company she represents would be unhappy.”

“Higota’s contract has a contingency that allows her to modify the venue in the event of health-related developments,” said Sirteg.

Vro sighed. At least he’d gotten the slot tie-in and a promotional appearance of sorts.

“On the bright side,” said the manager, “everyone knows Golden Nebula has a terrorist problem. You can just say the terrorists blew up the wedding chapel.”

“I will give your suggestion the consideration it deserves,” said Vro through gritted teeth.

“Shall I make the announcement the new sixth thing?” said Sirteg.

“Make the consideration the new sixth thing,” said Vro. “Let’s not rush to do anything that’d scare off the rest of the customers.” He made sure he was well clear of the chapel threshold and called out “Congratulations.”

Higota started slowly towards the door. Vro was halfway down the hall when a jerk on his jacket sleeve brought him to an abrupt halt.

“You don’t have to go,” said Jaffi. “Boldengurds are just territorial about the eggs, not their own personal space.”

“Is that what you study at Polophylax these days?” said Vro. “Xenobiology? When do you find time for Advanced Accounting?”

“My Party Bus customers have been telling me about their great-grandclutches,” said Jaffi. “It’s market research.”

Higota undulated out of the chapel. Her manager quickly locked the door behind her.

A crowd collected around their tiny caravan of two humans, two Boldengurds, and a Universal Teapot that had decided to tag along. Cameras flashed. Pimiaweben aimed a scanner at them as they passed, the facial bladders on her cheeks puffing occasionally.

“Higota, dear, shall we give the paparazzi one last pose before you go?” said her manager.

The singer arched herself delicately and artistically beside a slot machine emblazoned with her picture. She waved her datapad. The reels spun – and lined up three twinkling nebulae.

Ten thousand simulated bells sang out. Pheromones misted the hall. The machine’s screen flashed JACKPOT. The crowd clacked joyfully and spritzed water from their tentacles.

“Quite the celebratory mood,” said Jaffi. “I should get back to the Party Bus and prep for incoming customers.” She dialed herself up a drink from the Universal Teapot.

Seven-sided Boldengurd coins tumbled out of the slot machine – not seventeen billion credits’ worth, but enough to make the crowd boggle. Vro’s wristpad sounded a siren loud enough to carry over the general din.

UNABLE TO AUTHORIZE PAYOUT, flashed the wristpad. INSUFFICIENT FUNDS.

Unmerciful Rand, thought Vro, we’re bankrupt. He groaned.

“See you later,” said Jaffi. She took a sip of tea and collapsed in a heap on the golden carpet.

“Security!” clacked Sirteg. “Get this human to the medical center!”

“No, wait!” Vro’s thoughts raced. “I’m not sure we can trust the medical center.” He checked Jaffi’s breath – it was ragged and shallow. “Whoever poisoned the Teapots had access to the casino’s security codes – they may have sabotaged the med center too. Recall all the Teapots and shut down the buffet.”

“The buffet line is all the way out to the blackjack tables,” said Sirteg.

“All the more reason.”

Jaffi lay spasming on the floor.”I believe she needs assistance,” said Sirteg.

“She’s going to get it.” He hoisted her over his shoulder. “Like she says, she should get back to the Party Bus.”

divider

Vro gazed out at the nebula’s ancient, blazing billows, light-years away but partly concealed behind the shattered casino sign. In the sunken heart-shaped bed, Jaffi gasped awake at last.

“Romantic spot,” she said. She tossed the portable Party Bus medical cleanse unit onto the pink satin cushions. “Imagine the alien passion that’s writhed in this very bed.”

“There’s no need to. As I understand it, Boldengurds just sleep in their beds,” said Vro. “They would actually mate in that heart-shaped mud tub, if they ever used the honeymoon suite. Which they don’t. I figured it was the best place for some uninterrupted privacy.”

“It’s very private,” said Jaffi. She patted a cushion. “Comfy, too. So where were we?”

“I ran diagnostics on the Universal Teapots,” said Vro. “They’d all been compromised – but just on the human setting. Boldengurds would have gotten normal Boldengurd beverages; Nurt and I – and you – would get poison. ”

“What about Banyakangrem?”

“Huh?”

“Like Nibklung.”

“He would have been fine.”

“Well, thank Rand for that,” said Jaffi. “I love his act.”

“Uh, okay. While your Party Bus machines scrubbed your blood, I analyzed the casino’s ledgers.”

He tapped his wristpad to hers. “The casino AIs thought our finances were fine, until they tried to pay out a jackpot and found the accounts were tapped out. I’ve turned the Solarium School of Business AI loose on the data, but it’s running in circles, confused –churning without identifying the problem, like a QuentaCorp Bloodhound following its own scent.”

“Do QuentaCorp Bloodhounds actually do that?”

“I dealt with it all the time at my last job.” Vro frowned. “I knew the casino was losing money, but the AIs should never have let that jackpot get too high to pay out. Someone was cooking the books.”

Jaffi rolled over coyly. “Do you want me,” she said, “to have the Polophylax AI take a look?”

“Only if it can cryptographically sign a non-disclosure agreement that’ll keep its report from going anywhere except my wristpad.”

“Deal.”

They tapped wristpads again. Vro scanned the automatically generated contract with a practiced eye. Wherever the phrase “to any other being, intelligence, or program” appeared, he redundantly appended “including Jaffi Jiffert.” He signed with his thumbprint and the Polophylax AI added its own mathematical equivalent.

“I should’ve known something was wrong when I saw the Elvis impersonator leaving.” Jaffi patted her squashed Mohawk into a facsimile of its former shape. “Elvises have a special sense for failing casinos. It’s like rats leaving a leaking starship. Ever notice how some people say ‘Elvi’ when there’s more than one Elvis? But if you wanted a Latin plural it should be Elvēs. Like ‘pelvis’ – it means ‘basin’ – its plural is pelvēs. That’s just the nominative –”

Vro sat bolt upright. “You’re right,” he said.

“Of course I’m right. Polophylax has a first-rate classics department.”

“No, I mean you’re right. Elvis left the building before the observation deck blew up.”

“I hate it when people work ‘Elvis has left the building’ into every conversation about the King. That, and ‘Thank you, thank you very much’.”

“I’ll take that under advisement. But here’s the thing. The casino was already near bankruptcy when the Elvis impersonator left – before the terrorist attacks. Nurt had no idea how bad things were, because the casino AIs were hiding the truth from him. And who’s responsible for the casino’s accounting?” He slapped the floor. “The VP of Finance. Sirteg. She’s been robbing the casino blind.”

He queried his wristpad’s demographics. “Sirteg’s in the theater. Let’s go down and confront her.”

“If she doesn’t just bug out now that the casino’s gone under.”

“Jaffi, she’s a Boldengurd. We have legs. We’ll get there in time.”

divider

Vro’s wristpad navigated them along the employees-only access tunnels, through a dressing room full of flustered Foot-Long Ovipositors dancers, and onto the theater’s antigrav stage where the bears would punch each other in free fall for the big finale.

Sirteg was sitting in the front row. She spritzed water from her tendrils.

“That spritzing means you’re happy, right?” said Vro. “Because you shouldn’t be.”

“It’s sarcastic,” said Sirteg. “Like the human slow clap.”

“We’re on to you, Sirteg,” Vro said managerially. “Making yourself rich on other people’s work. You’re nothing but a dirty looter.” He tapped a command into his wristpad.

Me?” said Sirteg. “You’re parking a space station in front of our sacred nebula.”

“Sacred nebula?” said Vro. “Wait, what?”

“You’ve turned our fertility rites into a tacky stage show, and our shamanic Boldengurd-into-bear ritual into … well, a tacky stage show. The mystical oracle crystals are just a random number generator for your slot machines. You’re exploiting our pious elders, and I am putting a stop to it right now.”

Twenty Boldengurd swung down from the overhead rigging on the bungee cords Vro had installed for the bears. They were leaking biological fluids, but since they were armed and Vro and Jaffi weren’t, they were quite intimidating.

“Meet the Religious Freedom Army. I told you I was political.” She writhed onto the stage. A terrorist peeled the Golden Casino logo from her back. “I blew up your observation tower, without harming any of our revered elders in the process. And now your own mismanagement has finished the job for me. You humans have been ruined by your own scheme. The seventh change we’re making will be getting rid of you.”

“Whatever you do,” said Vro, “please stop numbering everything.”

“I’m just a medical freelancer,” said Jaffi. “I don’t work here.”

“Oh, you’re okay,” said Sirteg.

“She is not!” said Vro.

A second voice rang out from Vro’s translator.

“Stop,” it boomed, “in the name of Galactic Peacekeepers! Refrain from using any weapons or natural biological defenses.”

A dozen Galactic Peacekeepers burst through the theater doors. Soldiers at the flanks tossed web grenades into the wings and exits, sealing off all the other escape routes, and raced up to the stage.

“Oh, thank Rand,” said Vro. “These terrorists were about to execute me.”

“You’re under arrest,” said Pimiaweben. The anthropologist’s facial bladders flared a no-nonsense blue. “For commercial exploitation of the Boldengurd religion.”

“Wait, me?” said Vro.

“If you don’t mind waiting, we were going to blow him up,” said Sirteg.

“Don’t do that,” said the nearest soldier.

“Let me check the local politico-legal ecology,” said Pimiaweben.

“Wait, what?” said Vro

Jaffi took a seat next to Sirteg. “I thought of something,” Jaffi said. “You guys poisoned the Universal Teapot’s human setting, right? So you’re the ones who nearly killed me.”

“Sorry about that,” said Sirteg. “We were trying to get Vro.”

“That’s okay, then,” said Jaffi.

“No, it is not!” said Vro.

“And you couldn’t buy better publicity for the Party Bus,” said Jaffi. “All’s well that ends well.”

Pimiaweben tossed a gel restraint that snaked out to envelop Vro’s arms. His wristpad beeped, as if in protest.

The theater doors slammed open. Umrelk ambled in at the head of a mob of geriatric tourists. Nurt dawdled along behind them.

“Bring back the crystal!” Umrelk shouted. “And Nibklung! Bring back the Boldengurd turning into a bear!”

“Rand damn you for a moocher, Nurt,” said Vro. “Why’d you go and monetize a local religion? Did you spend senior year sleeping through Galactic Regulations 540?”

“At Polophylax, that’s a freshman course,” said Jaffi.

“My granddaughter went to Polophylax,” said Umrelk. “And she just hatched fourteen young!”

“We’re throwing the moneychangers out of the temple, ma’am,” said Sirteg. “These aliens will no longer exploit your piety for crass materialist gain!”

“I know what you’re up to, Sirteg,” said Umrelk. “I’ve been following you everywhere. Well, don’t I get any say in whether I’m being exploited? This is way more fun than the old temple. I really like the way the new attendants bring you drinks instead of lecturing you. And they should have shielded that cuprosklodowskite crystal years ago.” She slithered over and snatched Vro’s wristpad off his arm. “I wonder if the legal AI has something to say about this.”

Vro hopped around to face Pimiaweben. “What they said. You heard them, they like it. Can’t you let me go?”

“Wait a minute,” said Umrelk’s voice, sounding strangely distant with the translating wristpad an unaccustomed three feet away. “You’re the human with the attractive hindquarters. The one who got rid of the crystal.”

“And he brought that tacky Higota girl here,” said another tourist.

“And he fired Nibklung!”

With a lusty mechanical groan the antigrav stage tilted. A dozen bears on miniature motorcycles roared down its slope, Nibklung perched atop the leader’s head. The bear’s fez was too large for the little magician to wear, and he swung it on his long segmented tail.

“Nibklung!” cheered the elderly tourists. “Turn us all into bears!”

“I won’t go quietly!” Nibklung shrieked. “I fight for dignity! For honor! For good, clean family entertainment!” Vro wished he could reach his wristpad and assign a less annoying voice to the tiny Banyakangrem. It wasn’t his fault Vro heard him that way.

What was his fault was the rampaging bear that was about to run Vro down.

“In the name of the Galactic Peacekeepers,” shouted Pimiaweben, “stop your bears!”

“Don’t you have to check on the local custom-value ecology?” said Vro.

The bears plowed through the crowd. Boldengurd terrorists and tourists alike twisted aside, splurting and squirting fluids in every direction. Soldiers fired shots into the air, but the bears – trained to perform beneath crowd-pleasing explosions – didn’t flinch. Pimiaweben got a close-up look at Boldengurd culture, or something, when she fell onto Umrelk and knocked Vro’s wristpad out of the elderly tourist’s manipulatory tendril.

The pad spun to a stop at Vro’s feet. With a grunt, he dropped to his knees and pressed his nose onto the pad, activating the command he’d tapped when he first entered the theater.

The stage’s antigrav hummed on, leaving the soldiers, Nibklung, the tourists, the terrorists, the bears, the motorcycles, and Jaffi Jiffert hanging in midair. One bear at the field boundary was yanked into a brief wheelie before falling clear. Its motorcycle clanged onto the footlights. The bear sat down heavily, confused, sucking its paw.

“Be quiet, everybody,” said Vro with whatever authority he could command while wrapped in a restraining gel. “Look at this.” He nodded at his pad.

“The Solarium School of Business AI couldn’t untangle the AI that was covering up the casino embezzlement,” said Vro. “That’s because the embezzler was using the exact same software. The Solarium AI can’t outsmart itself. But when I turned the Polophylax AI loose on the records, it discovered that Nurt was the thief all along. He knew that basing a casino on the Boldengurd religion would eventually bring the Galactic Peacekeepers to his door, and when it happened, he diverted all the cash into his own account. The casino was making a profit all the time. He didn’t hire me to save the casino; he hired me to take the fall for him.”

“Shit,” said Nurt. “I figured you were so irrationally loyal to Solarium that you wouldn’t try any other software until it was too late. But none of you are in any position to stop me from getting away.”

He pulled a photino pistol from his vest pocket and grabbed the nearest motorcycle’s tiny handlebars. The bear whipped its paw out of its mouth and punched him unconscious.

divider

The robot-controlled construction ship threaded the last cable into place, and Vro threw the theatrically oversized switch to light up the new sign. TEMPLE OF THE GOLDEN NEBULA, it said. 24-HOUR BUFFET. The elderly worshippers thronging the observation deck cheered.

Pimiaweben inflated her facial bladders. “Very anthropologically interesting topophilia,” she said. “I could get a book out of this.”

“It’s a good thing you’d programmed your wristpad to recognize your noseprint, Vro,” said Jaffi. She’d put on a hot pink business catsuit for the occasion and her Mohawk was sharp enough to scratch glass. “Do they teach you that at Solarium Business School?”

“Practical Computing 201,” said Vro. “And the new dedicated Bears Punching Bears theater will open next week. Want to move the Party Bus closer to it? It’ll draw a younger, heavier-drinking crowd than the religious attractions.”

Pimiaweben chittered in a minor key. “Galactic Peacekeepers is dealing with Nurt, but I’m still concerned about this Nibklung and his motorcycle-mounted bear platoon attack,” she said. “There are laws about endangering bears.”

“Let me consult with my Boldengurd legal advisor,” said Vro. “Umrelk?”

Umrelk fluttered a tentacle in what Vro now knew was the Boldengurd equivalent of a smile. “I’m giving him a raise,” she said.

“That settles that. Jaffi, want to join me in the bar? We just hired a Czoluru Elvis impersonator who sings 50s material with one throat and 70s material with the other. The Universal Bartender has Blue-Shifted Hawaiians for half price.”

“Your treat?” she said.

“You can afford it.”

She raised a blonde eyebrow. “It’s not a deductable business expense.”

“I think you’ll find that the Sattilebba Act allows medical providers to deduct up to one thousand credits per year of refreshments.”

Jaffi patted his ass. “Now you’re talking.”

____

Copyright 2015 Tracy Canfield

CNN once called Tracy Canfield a “Klingon scholar”. Her short science fiction and fantasy has appeared in Analog, Strange Horizons, and various other magazines and anthology. She’s a computational linguist who lives in the Midwest. She is on Twitter as @TracyCanfield.

 

by Phoebe Harris

It had taken me six years to grow my hair to my waist, where decent women kept it, but only five minutes for Lia to cut it, and now it lay scattered around her brother Mazi’s house like straw on a stable floor.

“Let me get a look at you, Ari.” Lia walked around me nodding. “By Brilliance! You look perfect. What do you think?”

I wiped my eyes, and then wiped my eyes again. In the mirror I saw a gawky, half-grown man, old enough to be out on his own, and young enough to want to be. It was the face of an intimate enemy, one I’d hoped never to see in the mirror again.

“Yes,” I said, closing my eyes. “You’re so smart to have figured this out. I can’t do it.”

“Of course you can. Tenacity, Ari, you’re the strongest, most confident woman I know. This should be easy for you.”

“You would think so,” I whispered. I opened my eyes, and stared into Lia’s face. Her sweet, round baby face had lengthened so much in the last year. This wasn’t the girl who’d followed me around the Fair Sight Inn like the little sister she wished she were. She was thirteen now, almost a grown woman — the same age I’d been when I arrived in Fortisma, ready for a new life on my own terms. “I’ll try. It’s a good idea, and I’m not yet ready to die.”

“Don’t worry, Aracin. It’ll work.” She paused. “But ‘Aracin’ won’t. How does ‘Araco’ sound?”

I shuddered. “I hate that name.”

“I just — Harmony, I call you ‘Ari’ most of the time anyway. And ‘Araco’ works with that.”

“Fine.” I shrugged. “It’s your plan.”

It was all unreal of course, as unreal as the moment Duke Krasnal and his Blood Crows entered the Fair Sight Inn. As unreal as a short-handed Ostigar sending his daughter into the hastily-cleared feast room, when Lia had never served actual soldiers before, much less a pack with reputations as poor as the Duke’s drunken vanguard. As unreal as the laugh and the smile and the flash of cleavage I gave Duke Krasnal to distract him from a cornered and overwhelmed Lia. But not as unreal as what happened after he grabbed me instead.

I have only a series of disconnected images: Duke Krasnal’s face near mine, laughter dripping from his wide smile like venom, my skirts pushed high and my terror rising higher as I realized his hand was between my legs, as what he’d find there could be my death. My left hand fumbling behind me until it found something solid I could fling at his face. A shining line of red drawn from his jaw to just shy of the corner of his eye, and the knife was in my hand, the Duke’s bloody table knife that seemed larger to me than even my father’s sword. There was no panic, only clarity, and I pinned the Duke’s right hand to the table with his traitorous knife, spun gracefully out of his slackened grasp and walked calmly to the kitchen before the drunken Duke could gather either the breath or wit to shout.

And then I ran.

“Meet me at Mazi’s house,” Lia had said, in the moment I took to grab my pack. And first I tried the city gates and first I tried seeing the witch Relnissa, but everywhere I went a Blood Crow had already been. So I met Lia at her brother’s and listened to her earnest explanations of her impossible scheme, while panic strangled me like smoke.

But I did as she said. Because after spending my life dancing thigh to thigh with impossibility, I knew the only moves worth taking are those with enough flash to be worth the failure.

So all evening and night and into the morning Lia watched me and drilled me and corrected me as I walked and talked and stood and posed and tried to do it all right all at the same time all while wearing Mazi’s clothes. The trick to acting like a man is to concentrate on straight lines and pushing down. Push down with the toe when you walk, instead of the heel, push down your voice till it’s flat and lifeless, push your hands down to your sides at all times, push your soul down into your shoes where it belongs and don’t worry about trampling it. And then widen your stance and your base, to support all that downward pressure.

I hated every moment, but could eventually do it all again without thinking, which satisfied my taskmistress.

“You look, you look fabulous,” Lia said at last.

“No,” I said. “I look fine. Men don’t look fabulous. Even when they do.”

She smiled absently as she continued to appraise me. “If only you had a sword. Then you’d be beyond question.”

“I do have a sword,” I admitted. “It’s rolled up in my pack. It’s, it’s my father’s sword. He served Duke Sornal, and…I can use it, too, or at least I could once. I haven’t touched it since I left home.”

“You’re just full of surprises. Why’d he give it to you?”

I shrugged. “I was his only child. He’d rather have had a real son, but I was all there was. We drilled together almost every day, until I was old enough to refuse. I hated it.”

“And yet,” Lia said, “you kept the sword.”

I shrugged again. “I had to keep something.”

Lia held the sword high and admired it, from the long double-edged blade to the upswept bronze wings of the crossguard to the wicked beak at the pommel. Then she belted it around my waist — clapping with glee at the results — and we left the house.

We hadn’t dared a fire, so the morning air tasted of the bitter leaves of childbane I choked down raw. The weight of the sword on my hip reawakened a swagger as we walked. My head was fuzzy with exhaustion, but I had gone on full alert and felt more aware of everything around me than I had in six years. Lia walked beside me so skittishly that I put my hand on her shoulder to settle her. There was a line at the gate, which was strange, but once we had snaked around the corner we could see why — the guards were interviewing everyone leaving the city.

And then the nerves hit. First I flushed and then I sweated and then I started to shake, and I could only hope the guards wouldn’t notice and I could keep my voice steadier than my thoughts. But all I could see were the Blood Crows in their dark red tabards, hung-over and glowering at everyone the guards questioned.

“Name?” asked the guardsman, and we were at the front of the line, and my mind was blank. Lia touched my shoulder, and said “For Patience’ sake, he’s talking to you.”

“Oh,” I stammered. “Araco.”

“What brought you to Fortisma, Araco?” he asked, and I realized that the guard was Kosicar. Kosicar with the easy laugh, and the long, strong fingers, and the unrelenting stamina. With the curly brown hair, and the muscular back, and the dimples that only appeared with his secret smile.

“V-visiting.”

Lia punched my arm. “Is that any way to talk about me? He’s taking me to meet his family.”

“Mmm,” Kosicar answered. “And you are…?”

But Kosicar was a regular at the Fair Sight Inn, he knew Lia. He must have recognized us, and if he had, then there was nothing more to fear. My fate — whatever it was — had already been decided. I said, “That’s my girl Liasnerene. We’re going back home to see if she’s tough enough to meet my mother.”

“From everything you’ve said,” Lia added, “She sounds sweet.”

“And where is home?”

“Toricham. Not too far.”

Kosicar nodded. “And when will you return?”

My cheeks twitched, but I suppressed the smile as unmanly. “I don’t know. I guess it really depends on Mother.”

“Have a safe trip,” Kosicar said. “Araco, you’ll want to stay on the main road. The patrols keep the bandits away.”

“Good to know,” I said, making myself nod. “Thanks for your help.”

Our eyes met for an instant, and then I walked through the gate, Lia on my arm. The hardest part was not turning to see if we were followed.

Once we were out of sight of the gates, I turned off the path and into the woods.

“He said there were bandits,” Lia objected. “We should stay on the road.”

“No, he said Duke Krasnal had sent out patrols, so we need to leave the road to avoid them. Weren’t you listening?”

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I knew the woods around Fortisma from hunting herbs for Relnissa. Relnissa was a witch, and a friend, maybe my best friend. She had shown me how to harvest blossoms of feverbright and sprigs of childbane and leaves of blackfern and seeds of leathertoe so I’d have a way to pay my debts to her. I must have done well, because soon after she’d offered me an apprenticeship, which I hadn’t quite accepted. Someday, I’d said, someday I’ll learn witchery, but not now, not when I can still lower my eyes and toss my hair and have any man I want follow me upstairs. And Relnissa smiled and shook her head and said she could wait.

It was strange to be in the woods without a basket on my arm, and even stranger to have a companion. Lia was excited and had trouble keeping her pace down to a walk, while I kept slowing down to evaluate the shade and soil for clumps of feverbright. And pausing near the fallen trees that harbor childbane. Everything felt incongruous, like the moment when two different dreams run together.

We stopped shortly after noon, when exhaustion hit. We camped at my favorite place to harvest blackfern, a cool and shady patch hidden by a tumult of boulders, almost impossible to find without your belly on the ground.

“Oh Purity!” Lia said crawling behind me. “I hate mud.”

“Then go home. Lia, you saved my life, and I thank you. But this isn’t your journey. Go home.”

“If I go home now,” she answered, “the Crows will be the ones asking questions. Besides, someone has to remind you not to sit like that.” She slapped my thigh and I spread my legs by an obscene amount.

“I was thinking that now we’re out of the city, I wouldn’t need to keep up the disguise.”

“In Prudence’ name! You were the one worried about patrols.”

“I know. I can’t even convince myself.”

“So,” Lia asked, “Olnexia or Rastikam?”

“Olnexia. Rastikam’s just too far. Don’t you think?”

“I suppose. But we’d have to cross the Selanek.”

“Shouldn’t be a problem. It’s not Duke Krasnal’s bridge.” I rubbed my hands together and asked. “How are we on food? On foot, off the road, we’re looking at two weeks’ travel.”

“I took what there was. It might last a week, Prosperity willing. We’ll need to stop at Toricham.”

I nodded, almost surprised my blood didn’t run cold at the suggestion. But I’d already begun preparing myself for it, guessing our supplies wouldn’t last the journey.

“Perhaps I’ll get to meet your mother after all,” Lia grinned.

“She’s dead. And even if my father isn’t, we won’t see him. Or anyone else I know. We’ll get supplies, and then we’ll go.”

“You’re going home. Isn’t there anyone you want to see?”

“Fortisma is my home,” I snapped. “Toricham’s just where I grew up.”

It took some work to get a fire going, but I felt much better once I had. Lia toasted some bread and cheese, tasty even over the pungent smells of smoke and blackfern. We were on an adventure. It wasn’t one I wanted, but the blood stirs regardless. We watched the sun set and the stars brighten, and talked about the woods and the weather and home.

“They probably didn’t even notice until this morning, when I wasn’t there to scrub the common room. They won’t raise a fuss — they’ll guess I’m with you and won’t want the guards asking questions”

“They’ll worry.”

“I’m sure your father worried about you when you left home, but it didn’t stop you from going.”

“Lia, when I left it just saved my father the trouble of throwing me out.” Whenever I thought of him, all I remembered was the look of shock and disgust on his face when he found me, barely conscious, blood still dripping down my thighs. He took me to Yranor, who saved my life, but after that I never saw him again. Or wanted to. “You’ve never disappointed your parents.”

“Or made them proud. They’ll miss you more, you know. Father’ll never find another serving girl like you.”

“Please,” I snorted. “There’s nothing special about me. Ostigar will have his pick of dozens — he might even end up with one he likes this time.”

“Comity, you can’t mean that?” Lia’s laughter was soft as fresh childbane. “He’s liked you from the moment you walked into the Fair Sight Inn and insisted on serving him lunch from his own kitchen. You told him you were the fairest sight in Fortisma, and that he’d be a fool not to hire you. He would have been, too.”

“I remember.” What I remembered was that I’d tried every other inn and tavern in Fortisma, and after his I’d have been out of money and prospects. “I couldn’t tell if he was mad or impressed. I just didn’t want him to ignore me.”

“Believe me, Ari, no one ever does.” Lia smiled. “I’d never seen anyone like you before. You were so tall and skinny, hair barely longer than now. You were just so, so — I’d never seen a woman talk to Father like that.”

I blushed. “I know. I wasn’t very polished back then.” I shivered and stood up, arms folded across my chest. “I’m going down to the stream to wash up,” I said. “I’m filthy.”

“The dirt hides the softness of your skin,” Lia said, touching my arm. “Leave it.”

“There’s no one to see,” I said, but I sat down again, facing the fire, knees hugged against my chest until Lia tapped me and I chose a more suitable pose. And I kept my silence and my seat while she cleaned up and made her bed next to the fire. “Good night, Araco,” she said at last, and that was when I made my pallet on her unprotected side, sword sheathed but at the ready, my back to her so she couldn’t read the shame on my face.

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The journey to Toricham was unremarkable. The weather stayed clear and cool as it does in early spring, and the succession of light woods and meadows soon ran together. Lia and I relaxed into each other’s company and I even learned to smile at the way she scolded me like her half-grown son.

The night before we made Toricham we camped in a field of maidenskiss. I slept restlessly and woke early, my head aching from the sweet scent of the delicate pink blossoms. By the time Lia was up I’d already washed without scrubbing and set my tea to boiling, so she toasted the last of the bread, along with some mushrooms that — as I’d assured her — hadn’t killed us the night before. We ate in that comfortable waking wordlessness, until Lia snapped to attention.

“Men don’t drink that,” she said, looking at my tea.

“No they don’t. It’d be rather silly if they did. They’d end up looking awfully girly.”

“You should stop until we get to Olnexia. It’s a giveaway.”

“I hope you’re not that erratic taking yours,” I smiled. “That’s a good way to end up with a brat you weren’t expecting.”

“Chastity! I don’t need childbane.” She wrinkled her nose. “I’m not interested in that.”

“You will be soon, I suppose; you’re certainly old enough.”

“Old enough to know the last thing I want is some stinky man crawling all over me.” She wrinkled her nose as though garlanded with blackfern.

“Oh I don’t know. The crawling,” I winked, “can be the best part.”

Lia shook her head. “You’re hopeless. But I know this story. I have a brother. It starts with a man and a romp and then I’m serving him for the rest of my life. Fidelity knows I don’t want that.”

“Oh Lia, I’m not trying to marry you off. But things happen fast sometimes. After all, if I hadn’t been there, you might well be carrying Duke Krasnal’s bastard.”

It was the first thing I’d said all week that actually quieted her. Lia returned to packing up camp.

I sighed. “I need to see Yranor, Toricham’s witch, and get more childbane myself. Come with me and talk to her. Then I won’t say another word, whatever the two of you decide.”

“We can’t risk–”

“She’s a friend. You asked if I wanted to visit someone? Well, I should visit her.”

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In the last six years, Toricham’s skin had been ravaged by sun and wind till it was aged and sagging, the faded wood buildings brightened by an occasional splash of fresh paint like rouge. But Toricham’s bones hadn’t changed. The spine still ran down the main road, from the Sheriff’s office at the head to the cluster of taverns at the ass. Houses stretched out on lanes like loosely-jointed limbs which spread into fringes of farms at the fingers and toes.

Yranor’s home was at the left elbow — far enough out she could gather materials, close enough for her patients to visit. All through town, Lia kept up a patter, nervously pointing out superficial details, while I played the protective beau. I could feel the whispers starting on the street ahead and swirling around us leaving questions in our wake. But I’d long ago trained myself to ignore such whispers for my own sanity. I assumed they were impugning my manhood and Lia’s virtue, as mocking travelers was one of Toricham’s few sources of entertainment.

It all came back as I opened Yranor’s door, and it was all the same — the ringing of the bells on the door handle, the smell of strange herbs I now recognized as rosemary and blackfern, Yranor sitting at her worktable with decanter to the left and scale to the right. Her eyes met mine, and I stood motionless on her threshold, trapped in her wordless stare.

“Well, Ari,” she said at last, “you’re certainly the last person I expected to walk through that door.”

“It’s complicated. I know it’s a strange time to come back, and an odd disguise. I’m being hunted, and Lia thought this would make me harder to find.”

“You have to admit,” Lia interjected, “it was a good idea. It’s taken work, but Grace, now she really could pass for a man.”

Lia didn’t know the quick twitch of the lip that meant Yranor was suppressing a smile, but I did. “You’re right,” Yranor replied, standing up. “She really could.”

And there were more lines around her eyes than I remembered, and more grey in her close-cropped hair, but she stood there with her arms crossed, leaning and staring, and it was the same, it was exactly the same. “We’re going to Olnexia, and you were on the way. I ran out of medicine — I wouldn’t bother you, but I ran out of medicine, and it’s another week–”

“So you’re only here because you need childbane?” she asked mildly.

“Yes. No! That’s not what I meant!” The tears were flowing now. “I shouldn’t be here at all, and you’ve done too much for me already. You’ve done — I’m sorry.” Without Yranor I would neither be alive, nor want to be. I turned towards the door. My vision was blurred beyond seeing, but I always know the way out.

Before I could take two steps, Yranor put her hand on my shoulder. “It’s all right, Ari,” she said. “Just tell me what you need.”

For what was left of the morning and into early afternoon, we talked. I told Yranor about Fortisma and the Fair Sight Inn, and Lia told her about Duke Krasnal and our journey — making me sound far too heroic in the process. Lia fished for stories of my childhood, but Yranor ignored her and talked about work — the herbs people no longer wanted, the ones she could no longer find, and the new ones they preferred. She never mentioned anyone in town, and I certainly didn’t ask.

After lunch she took Lia into the back room for an examination and the lecture her mother should have given her. The bag of fresh green leaves Lia returned with was so different from the dried childbane I use that at first I didn’t recognize it, but when I did I grinned at her shy blushing smile. We were there most of the day, and I loved every moment and itched to leave.

“There are two witches in Olnexia,” Yranor said. “Henisen is the one you want to deal with. She’s a good woman, and doesn’t have an apprentice.”

“You never give up,” I said, hugging her quick. “But I enjoy being a serving girl. It’s what I want, it really is.”

“And a fine serving girl you are, I’m sure. Just talk to Henisen.”

“I will,” I promised. “Yranor, please visit me in Olnexia. Once you see my life, you won’t worry. You can see me in my real clothes, and — oh, I wish you could have seen my hair! It was so, so –” and I was crying again, but I took my hands from the side of my face and gave her one last hug. “I love you, Yranor.”

“And I love you, dear girl,” she said, pushing me towards the door. “Now go, or you’ll have to stay the night and I don’t have beds for you both.”

The bells rang as I opened the door, and I took one last look at Yranor at her worktable, pretending we’d already left, and then the bells rang again as the door closed behind us.

Leaving Yranor’s house felt like the first moment emerging from a pool of clear water — the air was chill but the sun was warm, and the world itself felt cleaner. I told Lia, “Let’s go to Dobirel’s for supplies,” and she just nodded, unaware that this morning I’d rather have bought food from Duke Krasnal himself.

But as we left the porch I heard a familiar voice behind me. “Seves told me he’d seen you in town. I guess I owe him an apology.”

“And a new shirt,” said another. “He’ll never get those bloodstains out.”

Two men were sitting on the old logs by the leathertoe bushes in Yranor’s side yard. Both wore the long leather coats of the Sheriff’s men — Toricham’s version of a town guard. “Hey Molanko,” I said. “How’ve you been?”

Molanko wasn’t any taller than I remembered, but he’d filled out with a man’s breadth, strong shoulders and chest, and no doubt a back as solid as the one I used to wrap my legs around.

“I’ve been better, Ari. Much better. It’s starting to look like a very bad day.”

Lia moved closer to me. “Araco, what’s happening?”

“Lia, this is Molanko, and Javino. Some old friends of mine.”

Molanko chuckled coldly. “Friends. Yes. I heard you were in town. I have to admit that I’m…”

“Curious,” Javino finished.

“Yes. Curious about why.”

“No mystery. Just stopping for supplies. I’m on my way to Olnexia. Going to start a new life there.”

“Really?” Molanko stood and stretched. “How many new lives do you need, Ari? Most of us manage with just the one.”

“Araco’s special,” Javino said, in a tone that reminded me what a whiny, jealous brat he was. “Surely you remember.”

“Oh I remember. I remember how the rules never seemed to apply. And I remember every lie Ari ever told me. Do you?” he asked.

“Mo, I never — I could never lie to you.”

“With a straight face, too. Impressive. I wonder, do you lie as easily to Lia?”

“Lia has nothing to do with this, Mo.”

Javino snorted.

“When you told me why you had to leave Toricham, I believed it. I didn’t like it, I didn’t understand it, but I believed it. I believed you. But now you dare,” Molanko said, “you dare come back, with her on your arm, and I see I’ve been taken for a fool. Did you really think I could ignore that, Ari?”

“Don’t hurt her,” I begged.

“Of course I won’t hurt her,” he roared, color rising into his cheeks, above his black beard. “Who do you think I am? But you, Ari. I’m done with you.”

“Mo–”

“You have no idea how he stands up for you, Araco. No one’s dared say a word against you in the last six years. Not even,” Javino said, “your father.”

“Leave my father out of it, Javi-nosy. He’s no concern of yours. Or mine.” I knew better than to use the old taunt, but I’d never had any resistance to his jibes.

Javino bristled, and tensed, but Molanko put a hand on his arm. “Araco,” he said, “I see you still have your sword. It’s been a long time since we crossed blades.”

“Oh Valor!” cried Lia. “This is insane!”

“It’s been almost as long since I’ve held one.” And given the blood and price of that night, I hadn’t had the desire. “If you want to kill me, go ahead and do it without the show.”

“What I want,” Molanko growled, “has never much mattered. Draw your sword, Ari.”

Javino took Molanko’s coat, and stepped back. Molanko twisted a few times to stretch his back, his muscular, bare arms raised high. Everything I knew about myself I had learned in those arms.

“Stay back, Lia,” I said, my eyes never leaving Molanko’s. “It’s all right. Just stay back.”

He stood eight paces away, and when Lia had safely retreated he drew his blade and held it level with the ground, pointing towards my eyes. It was the stance he used when showing off.

“Can we–” The violent shake of his head warned me off. I deepened my stance and tried to think back six years and more. My hand rested on the bronze hilt, the rough carved feathers pressing against my palm, strangely familiar after so many years. On an exhale, I drew my blade cleanly into a standard guard position.

The instant I was set, Molanko aimed a blow for my left side. I parried, and stepped back — “Move first!” I hissed to myself, hearing my father’s voice in my head — and he immediately threw a blow at my right cheek. As I blocked, I realized both blows had been so gentle they wouldn’t have broken skin.

His next blow was at my left calf, and then my right thigh, and suddenly it was a pattern my father had drilled into us — left then right, up then down, over and over again — and my blade lurched into the old rhythm. Rusty and slow, but I hit my marks, retreating and blocking, blocking and retreating, around and around in a wide circle.

I tried not to look at my blade, or his, but to stay focused on Molanko’s face. His eyes told me nothing, and I could no longer read his expression now that a beard covered the contours I’d known so well. His face had always been clean-shaven, though never smooth — I’d run my fingers over those cheeks many times, feeling the stubble which scoured my face when we kissed. “You’ll grow your own soon,” he’d told me once, with a twinkle, never guessing the horror that ran through my blood like acid at his words. Somehow, that hadn’t occurred to me before. It was that sudden horror, more than any other single thing, that pushed my life onto the track it had taken.

Molanko’s blows grew stronger and faster, and I was straining to keep my sword between us. I was mesmerized now, my sword flying entirely on its own bronze wings.

“Sah!” he cried, and broke the pattern with a sudden thrust to my chest. Quicker than thought I leaped aside with the automatic upwards cut that’s part of that defense. Molanko didn’t dodge or even twitch, and my blade bit into his sword arm, the shallow slice quickly filling with blood.

Molanko smiled wickedly then, all the way into his eyes, and leaped forward with a panther’s snarl, throwing a feint to my head that turned into a vicious slash at my forward leg. I interposed my blade with the wrong parry — my wrist twisting with his blow, rather than against, running the risk that momentum would drive my own sword into my right thigh. We were close enough I could smell his sweat, and with our blades still engaged he struck me in the face with his left hand. I staggered back, and my right leg collapsed from where I’d cut into it, just as I feared.

I heard bells as Molanko kicked at my left leg, and I was on my back, hands empty, looking up at him. He held his blade half-sword style — hands at pommel and mid-blade — poised to drive it into my belly. I heard Yranor’s voice, barking orders, but her words were meaningless. All that mattered were Mo’s eyes, and I drowned in them, wishing, wishing, wishing I could truly have been the person I had once tried to be. Molanko lowered his sword. “Don’t come back, Araco,” he said.

Footsteps ran towards me, and Yranor said something about bleeding, and I felt Lia strip off my pants, already sticky with blood. There was a sharp, indrawn breath. “Oh Verity!” she gasped, while the world faded around me. “Sheer unrepentant Verity!”

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And for a long time there were only vague impressions — darkness and distant pressure, lights and incomprehensible noise. These changed subtly to dreams, of the Fair Sight’s bustling common room, or endless trails stinking of blackfern. Part of me realized I was in Yranor’s sick room, like six years before, but most of my mind was elsewhere. There were flashes that were probably real — Lia slumping against the wall, eyes red-rimmed from crying — moments that were most likely memories — Yranor shaking her head, asking “What were you thinking, Ari?” while checking bandages — and things that were doubtless dreams.

My father sits at my bedside as he never has. “I just always thought,” he seems to say, “that there would be someone to carry on the line. Six generations of soldiers. My great-grandfather fought at the Battle of Vreskai, ‘with visage grim and spear held high’ as the song says. My father held the castle through the flame and fury of the Lanifar Uprising. I served in the vanguard of Duke Sornal the Swift through five campaigns — an original Blood Crow. We were the harriers of the battlefield, not the debauched braggarts under Sornal’s son. Sons! You raise them to serve, but they always blaze their own path, heedless of right or wrong, propriety or outcome. They always –” He pauses and I am aware of nothing so much as his missing teeth, his mouth half-full of their absence, aging him more than the papery skin of his forearms. “You were a good son, Ari, you always were. I was very proud. I just always thought that there would be someone to carry on the line. Six generations of soldiers…” And the image continues in my mind, lurching through the same words, left and right, up and down, over and over again. Words I’ve never heard my father speak.

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Eventually the world stopped flashing between disconnected scenes, and I had a growing awareness of solidity surrounding me. Awareness that the presence I felt had a name, and it was Lia, and the fact that she was sitting there meant that I was probably alive, and most likely Ari. She looked so small and contained that I wanted to tease her mood away, but all that came out was a groan, and a hacking cough.

“It’s about time you woke up,” she said. “You’re not very interesting when you’re asleep.”

“I-I-I-I’m not much better when I’m awake, I’m afraid.”

“Oh I don’t know, I’ve found you full of surprises.” Lia winced. “Vitality, I’m sorry. I’ll get Yranor; she wanted to know as soon as you were awake.” And she melted from the room.

Yranor was professional as ever. She examined me so gently I scarcely realized what she was doing. “You’re going to rest a few more days,” she said, “and then I’ll work that leg so hard you’ll wish you could stay in bed. But you should heal well. Maybe a slight limp.”

I nodded. “Thank you, Yranor, I don’t know how — wait, how’s Lia? She seemed…”

“She’s been worried. And angry. And confused. You’re not easy on your friends, you know.”

“I know.” I took a deep breath and allowed myself to float through the maelstrom of guilt churning in my head. “She deserves better from me. I just don’t have better to give.”

“She needs time, is all. Just like all you need is rest.”

I nodded and lay back gratefully. Yranor smoothed the blankets over me, and I was asleep before she left the room.

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Several days later, Yranor did indeed kick me out of bed. “Can’t have you just laying around,” she said, handing me a cane. “I want to see how much punishment that leg can take.” It wasn’t much, at first, so while Yranor did send me hobbling around fetching things, she also watched me like a crow and the moment my energy flagged, she’d sit me down with less strenuous work. I learned to wash herbs, and strip and grind them, and heard for the hundredth time that while the pulp inside tough leathertoe seeds makes a pleasant stimulant, tea from leathertoe leaves gives only unbearable stomach cramps. Yranor was so transparent in her desire that I learn witchery I couldn’t even be annoyed.

Lia helped by running errands and cooking, and the familiar fare of the Fair Sight Inn did wonders for my spirits. She didn’t avoid me, but felt distant in a way that made her presence hurt even more than her absence.

Soon the day came that I could walk from the leathertoe bushes to the maidenskiss patch and back without cane or pain. So that night, I told Lia and Yranor that I’d be leaving in the morning. Yranor looked startled, but nodded. “I suppose it is time.”

“I’ll go into town for supplies,” Lia said, “so we can leave straightaway.”

“I’ll be fine,” I said, “you don’t have to–”

“It’s already done. I sent a message to Mazi. He’ll be in Olnexia in a few weeks, and I’ll ride back with him. And for Charity’s sake, you’ll need my help.”

I could only nod, as I hadn’t dared hope Lia would come with me.

When we left, it was without tears. Yranor held me tight, saying “The next time you decide to bleed to death, please do it somewhere else. Cleaning up after you is exhausting.”

“Thank you,” I whispered, then let go and said, “Henisen. No promises, Yranor, but I’ll see her at least.”

She nodded. “Good. You deserve happiness, Ari. Do what makes you happy. Please remember that you’re a most deserving girl.”

Perhaps I was wrong about the tears.

I turned towards the fields, but Lia insisted otherwise. “We can leave by the main road. Molanko said.”

“You spoke with him?”

“Once or twice. At Dobirel’s. He’s nice.” She paused. “No, Honesty, not nice. Not safe. But open. Admirably open. He said you’d be safe on the main road. Especially,” she grinned, “if it got you out of town faster.”

“Mo would say it like that. Well thank you. That will help. Maybe the road is safe all the way?”

Lia shook her head. “He also said two Blood Crows had been through a few days ago, asking for a woman named Aracin.”

My blood froze. “And?”

Lia shrugged. “No one here had ever heard of her.”

I coughed up laughter like blood. “Of course not.”

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Lia and I tried to settle back into our comfortable routines, but they no longer fit. The weather was warmer, I was slower, and Lia was no longer as young. Several days passed in strained silence, until the third night Lia sat with me at the fire as I soothed my leg with blackfern.

“How many?” she asked. “How many people did you tell, without telling me?”

“In Fortisma? No one. Well, Relnissa knew from the first. But no one else.”

“Amity, Ari! What about Kosicar, or the others?”

“Oh,” I said, blushing. “Men. Well, that’s…I mean, there are things I do better than anyone in the Duchy. And there are things I don’t do at all.” I smiled. “And really, get a man in the dark and make him feel good enough and, well, he won’t notice as much as you’d think.”

“You don’t expect me to believe–”

“I’m serious. And I’m careful. I don’t take just anyone upstairs.” I paused, and then added in a whisper. “I’ve never asked any of my lovers what they think of me. I couldn’t bear to hear the answer. But they kept coming back, so that was enough.”

Lia said nothing for a long time. Then she said, “It’ll be different in Olnexia. It’s a real city, and no one knows you there.”

“It might be,” I admitted. “Of course, it doesn’t even matter with this hair. It looks like it belongs on a convict or in a convent.”

“I think it’s cute. You look ready to take on the world.”

Lia’s eyes shone like feverbright in the firelight, and I suddenly felt very stupid. “Would you,” I asked, “like me to cut yours?”

She nodded slowly, and so I gathered everything I needed — water, brush and comb, and a good sharp knife. “I could do a better job in Olnexia,” I said. “This’ll be pretty rough,” but she didn’t care. So I smoothed and cut, and combed and fretted, and in the end her glorious hair was scattered on the ground like shards in a nest. When I handed her the mirror, Lia whispered “Glory!” and stared at it until tears leaked from the edges of her eyes. Then she wrapped her arms around me in a fierce hug.

“Thank you,” she whispered, breath warm against my skin. A moment later I felt her body soften against me, and relief washed over me like vertigo as I knew I’d been forgiven. Three breaths later, Lia’s fingers gently brushed my cheek. I looked down to see her staring at me, her cheeks the shade of maidenskiss, and I dearly wished I knew which Ari she was gazing at. I took her hand in both of mine and smiled.

“No,” I said, “thank you. For all your help and strength. I’d never have made it without you.” Then I stood and began straightening the camp. Lia watched me intently, her eyes almost clear, until she crawled miserably into her blankets, while I pretended not to notice.

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Three mornings later we reached the Selanek River, which shouted its joy at our arrival. It was our companion for the morning, boisterous and swift, and into the afternoon, and it guided us to the road at the Selanek Bridge.

A guardpost stood beside the bridge, a small wooden cabin with two roans and a bay tied to the rail. Two Blood Crows sat in the shade and watched our approach while another leaned against a barricade at the bridge’s entrance.

“Who are you?” he asked, and “Why Olnexia?” and he accepted our answers with an acquiescence born more of boredom than belief. We thanked him and walked around the barricade, but he stopped me with a hand on my shoulder.

“Where,” he asked, “did you get that sword?”

Because its winged guard and beaked hilt matched his own.

“My father served with His Grace Sornal the Swift. When I came of age,” I replied, “he passed it to me.”

He frowned. “So why aren’t you in Duke Krasnal’s service? You obviously aren’t Blood Crow material, but one who bears that blade should be serving him somehow.”

“Oh, I served the Duke very recently. I’m afraid,” I said, “that I did a poor job of it. I don’t want to fight. As much as it shames my father, all I want to do is take care of, of my woman.” I looked to the ground and turned away from the Blood Crow’s sneer.

“He’s not ashamed,” Lia said. “He told me. Your father doesn’t like it, or understand it, but you’re serving your conscience with honor, and he respects that. Or by Loyalty, he’d have taken his sword back, useless as it is for the old gap-toothed crow.”

I stiffened and stared, but said nothing as the guard waved us on. “Try Count Selanek,” he spat. “That craven’s more your style. Maybe we’ll cross the river one of these days and take our blade back from your corpse.”

Olnexia lay at the other side, the open gates of the city but a few score yards from the bridge’s end. Soon we’d be inside, and I could bathe, and wear proper clothes — and burn these. Lia walked beside me, head held high and straight, eyes darting excitedly, a satisfied smile on her lips. I stopped short as I recognized the expression.

“You’re not going back with Mazi,” I said.

“I don’t think I am. I’ve a week to change my mind, but…I’ve been free. I can’t return to serving everyone but myself.”

I nodded. Then I unbuckled my belt. “Take this. I’ll never draw it again, and you might have need for a sword.”

Lia weighed it in her hand. “I can’t,” she said at last. “I don’t know how. I’m not a man.”

“So be a woman with a sword,” I shrugged. “Be yourself. And Liasnerene, for Integrity’s sake, be careful.”

She slung the belt over her shoulder like a bandolier, and clasped my hand. “All right, Aracin. By Integrity, I will.”

I hurried across the bridge to Olnexia, Lia beside me for one last moment, and then another, and then one more. The musky scent of blackfern rose from the river; I looked down to the bank where it grew, nestled around clumps of a pale blue flower I had never before seen. Someday, perhaps, I would learn its name.

___
Copyright 2015 Phoebe Harris

Phoebe Harris has a Stanford Linguistics degree and a CPA. She is a graduate of the Clarion West Writers Workshop and the father of two. Phoebe currently works as a financial analyst and lives in West Michigan with her wife and other random assorted family members.

by Sara Puls

Luna Moon was filled with the umbers and ochers of murdermemories when she became the last Xenophon dancer in all of One Territory.

Becameas if this were by choice or appointment, but no. Luna was the last because Irene Katsaros was dead. Slit down the belly like a slippery fish in the Square. To Authority, Katsa’s death would be treated as a significant triumph—a major step toward achieving Severance. To Luna, it meant the loss of one of her mentors, one of her lovers. It meant the loss of images, spirits, and colorwhispers—of almost everything she held dear.

She found herself in a Hoyal Clan neighborhood on the other side of the Territory when it happened. With a helmet of wasps gilding her head, she’d been completely immersed in a collection whirl with that morning’s dead—twelve dancers blown to bits by a series of widow-drone strikes. Someone on the inside had revealed their location, that much she knew.

Luna did not need to see the blood-bloom of Katsa’s death to know it true. She felt the loss instantly—a typhoon of new rose-petal hues in the wind, a bitter sensation forever inked onto the underside of her skin. This was the price of closeness with another dancer, the price of sharing more than words. Pain, suffering, pleasure—all of it left a permanent mark of remembrance.

In the next instant, Luna stopped whirling, straightened her dress, and moved her body into the Second Position, for strength, then onto the Third Position, for dignity, and finally onto the Fifth. This last was more personal than the other salutes to the newly fallen; this was in honor of Katsa’s beauty.

After, with vermilions of pain following in her wake, Luna turned on her heels and headed for Resistance Base A. Her conversation with the morning’s dead would wait. For now, all she could do was leap forward, onto another, suddenly more pressing task.

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Jeté—to leap in time, or to throw the weight of memory from one foot to the other.

Note: the memory space covered is not so much sideways as backward. It is possible to move forward while also looking backward, which would be the most dignified and sensible execution of existence.

- Excerpt from the Xenophon Dance Code, modified from the Manual of dancing steps with a compiled list of technique exercises and 39 original line drawings, by Elsa Pohl (the 1914th Year, Before Severance)

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Back at base, Luna sought out Cass Uzun. He’d been second in command behind Katsa. It took only a moment to find him among the bodies milling about. He was a large, muscular man with eyes like the Night River and a voice of honeywine. Luna knew him well. Better than probably everyone else among them.

Always formal when surrounded by other eyes, she called to him now. “Commander Uzun.”

He turned to her and with one blink, his eyes flashed bright. By the next, they flickered with anguish. No doubt he’d already heard the messages over the horns. Authority had been cheering Katsa’s death since moments after it occurred, trumpeting the accomplishment throughout One Territory as if telling the results of a chess match or datawipe.

Seeing Uzun’s pain, Luna wished to press her shape into his, to weep with him over the loss of their partner and friend. Instead, she bowed deeply, unemotionally, then cleared her throat of residual color.

Uzun stepped closer. Already, his shoulders sagged.

“Uzun, I—” Her voice wavered, betraying her, and she paused. Luna had experienced enough loss to handle it with dignity. She would not let this one cause her to falter, fresh and heart-twisting though it was.

Instinctively, her body moved into Second Position—for strength. She took a breath, then began again. “What Authority broadcasts over the horns is true. Katsaros joins the dead.” This time, her voice remained flat, stoic. “I felt it. Feel it now still. Saw it like a sunspot stuck behind my eyes.”

The pain on Uzun’s face intensified, then all but disappeared. “Take two guards and visit the Archivist. Tonight. When you return, we will discuss—” he paused, searching for a painless word when there were none. “We’ll discuss the future.”

For a moment, Luna lost herself in depth of that single word. Who would she be tomorrow and the day after? What changes would this single event bring?

Uzun cleared his throat. “Moon?”

With a jolt, she looked up at him. “Right. Sorry. Of course. I’ll leave by midnight.”

He nodded and she bowed her goodbye. This was not the time or place for the affections of lovers.

Uzun would be the first of their leaders who was not also a dancer. The Resistance had the support of nearly one-third of the Territory’s population—Hoyal Clan and others too—but so far, the balance of power had not been in their favor. And there was no guarantee that either Uzun or Luna would be enough to tip the scales.

As she turned away, an Authority Message began playing throughout camp. She slowed her pace to listen. One can never know enough about how the enemy thinks.

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THANK YOU SEVERANCE SUPPORTERS!

You are essential to our survival. Your efforts to cleanse our Territory of specious histories, of exaggerations that would tear us apart, will be rewarded just as soon as total Severance has been achieved.

Until then, be advised: the dead speak in colors, not words. The dead cannot be trusted. Colors and whispers and memories deceive, just as the Remembrance Resistance wants to deceive you. Deceive us all.

Be advised, supporters: we must move forward, forging a new, united path!

- A Daily Message, Brought to you by Severance Authority, read by Prime One Alexander

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As the sound faded, Luna shook her head—she could never quite believe the absurdity of those propaganda messages. Perhaps Authority leaders meant well, but they did more harm than good this way. Remembrance was not divisive and preservation was not dangerous. Most dangers, most hurts and wounds and betrayals, arose from the act of obscuring the truth. And yet, Authority sought to cure all society’s conflicts by erasing the past—wiping out consciousness of all injustices carried out at Authority’s hand. Severance fully realized, the Resistance stamped out, meant each citizen would have a new, collective mind. A mind absent of all the stories that give color to current power dynamics, a mind tuned and scoured at Authority’s whim. To Luna, to the Xenophon, and to all their supporters, this end was beyond unacceptable—it was to suffer a loss as great as death.

“Moon?” Again, this was Uzun’s voice, pulling her into the moment. Reality.

She looked back, over her shoulder. There was something like longing painted on his mouth. She understood how he felt, how torn he was between needing to hold her and knowing now was not the time.

“Are you alright?” he asked.

Her teeth found her lower lip as she nodded. “I’ll be fine. So will you. We’ll just move on. That’s what we do. What we’ve always done.”

In her quarters—a dome of steel, innards of soil and grass—Luna shooed her helmet of wasps into their paper-spun hive and peeled the sundew dress from her frame. The dress, a living suit of armor hungry not for battle but for truth, shifted and writhed in her palms. Its bounty of cilia quivered with glistening drops of memorycolors—colors that Luna had collected during her earlier dance. She needed to store these away for later transmission and analysis. But exhaustion gnawed dully at her tissues and bones. The rainbows of history do not leave the dancer either quickly or easily. From shades of pale fruit to black beetles, they saturate; they take hold—indelible secrets imprinted onto the soul. So for now, she submerged the dress in its open-bottomed vase and watched as it inched into the soil to sleep.

After washing up and dressing in a simple tunic of butterfly fractals, Luna found herself beside a small flickering of fire with her knees drawn up to her chest, childlike. As her eyes closed, she found not comfort but instead the colors of monsters and the memory of blood-wetted blades.

Eventually, a woman called Alexis Mara handed her a cupful of tea.

“Drink up. For the nerves. And the cold.” It was summer, but the night air was nearly empty of the sun’s warmth.

Luna took the cup with a nod. The tea smelled of pine and winter wind but not much else. Still, it was good to have something to occupy her hands, to combat the empty aching of her belly. She took a long sip and let the heat mark her throat. Then she looked to the woman beside her and tried to summon the will to converse.

Alexis Mara had never danced herself but had children and a wife with the gift. Had. The last of them, a boy of fifteen, was among the twelve who expired that morning.

Luna found it difficult to look the woman in the eye. As the ranks of dancers thinned down to almost nothing, she held herself increasingly responsible for the fate of the Resistance and its soldiers.

Mara placed a dried mint leaf on her tongue. “So it’s true what they say? About Katsaros?”

“Yes,” Luna managed.

“I’m so sorry,” Mara said. Her voice held only a hint of sadness and no anger.

Luna hadn’t broadcast her relationship with their former leader, but she never hid it. Neither had Uzun. “We all are.”

“Mint?” Mara offered, a sympathetic curl on her lips. As if Luna were the only one in need of comfort, as if Mara herself had lost nothing, no one. But these days, of course, everyone had stories of losing someone—of too much fresh dirt over graves.

Luna selected a small mint leaf and placed it in the hollow beneath her tongue. The cool freshness belonged to the spring season—the season in which she met Katsa and Uzun both, a year after her mother’s death and just before the Carriage of Arms.

“Any rumor of new dancers?” Mara tried. “I heard Uzun sent out another search party just yesterday.”

“Not that I know of,” she replied.

“But there must be others out there with the ability. Don’t you think?” Mara’s voice was full of hope.

Luna shrugged, unsure now of what she believed. It had been so long since they found someone new.

Mara put a papery hand on Luna’s knee. “Well I certainly hope so. At the very least, your children—” At this her loss caught briefly in her throat. She swallowed, then started again. “At least your children will dance.”

Luna felt she should say something about Mara’s son, but somehow could not bring herself to form the words. Where does one begin when the horror is so great? When the loss so wrong?

Instead, when her lips finally moved, all they managed was, “I have hope of that, yes.”

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When Luna last felt such emotion in her chest, she was just a girl. Her mother taught her to dance, in whispers more hushed than a black widow’s prowl, six months before Severance officially began. Already tensions were high in One Territory. Disagreements over the importance of the past had crowded out talk of almost all else. But this is why Luna needed to learn, her mother said. She had the gift; she was obliged to wield its power.

In the mirror room at the back of their little house, Luna’s mother taught her dances for deathmemories and dances for celebrationmemories, whirls for procuring tiny details and grand turns for absorption on a large scale. They worked every night, from the time Luna returned from academy until neither mother nor daughter could stand on her feet any longer.

Soon enough, Luna wasn’t merely dancing but was brushing up against the spirits like a honeybee brushes with pollen. Over and over and over again until she was one of the best, until she had deposited a hundred stories with the Archivist and seeded many corners of the Territory in the brassy hues of aggressions, the wet pinks of birthtales, the lemons of revenge.

Then Luna watched her mother die in the Square. A zealous, outspoken woman, she was one of the first blamed for the people’s obsession with old stories—with weaving meaning from the colorfabric of past wrongs and deeds and songs. Luna saw her mother’s dress bloom with red, like hot water soaking up pomegranate tea. But she did not shield her eyes or turn a blade upon her own flesh.

Her mother’s death meant she had to dance stronger, smarter, and more.

And now, four years later, Luna knew she would somehow have to become stronger and better still. Where once there were nine members of the Xenophon Council, only Luna and the Archivist remained. Before the war, the Council had been comprised of respected elders and young dancers alike, and power was spread evenly among them, like sunlight over an open field. Now, the Council as governing body had been subsumed by too many deaths into the Resistance Council. Luna’s mother had been a member, of course, and those still living looked to Luna to take her seat after that day in the Square.

At first, she had only listened as the other members discussed fortifying the walls around the Archive for added protection, and as they held heated debates on the propriety of using their skills to fight war. Later, she often took the lead in those debates, beside Katsa or the Archivist, advocating with passion and confidence for what she believed would bring just resolution to the chaos Authority had spun.

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In recent centuries, a particular subset of Hoyal Clan members, known as the Xenophon, learned to channel through dance the bodies and memories of the past. According to Severance Authority, these open channels put society at risk of continued distrust, fragmentation, and war. What Authority does not tell you of is its role in the past. But those who enter here shall know.

- Archive inscription, North Wall of Truth

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For the trip to the Archive, Uzun gave Luna a new weapon. A nightshade dagger, of purple teeth and shadow poisons, which she now gripped tightly at her side. Rarely were there breaches in these parts, but she could not afford injury or mistake. Not now.

Wearing her wasps to protect her mind from Authority memory nets, she walked briskly in the cover of rubble and ghosts. She was flanked on the right by First Guardian Ekene, a powerful woman of middle age, and on the left by the ever-smiling Guardian Parviz, a boy of no more than sixteen.

Crossing the bridge of lakes, and not even ten minutes into their journey, Ekene spotted in the distance two Authority Intelligencers—identifiable by their fire-red uniforms and the small stars they wielded as weapons. The outfits were brazen, but then, so were they.

“I will handle them,” Parviz offered.

Luna nodded, giving him approval, for she was a Lieutenant as well as Xenophon.

Seconds later, both Intelligencers fell, heart-pierced. Parviz was young and full of smiles, but deadly with his weapon of choice: a pair of bird’s beak spears.

As they approached, Luna winced. The Intelligencers’ deaths chameleoned through her—a terse, malachite green shifted into an achromatic grey, a striking opal faded to drab russet as it twisted around her neck. Standing above the bodies, she gave a small plié. She regretted the loss of even her enemies’ lives. But one could not hesitate in the presence of Authority operatives.

As the trio pressed on, she told herself it had to be done.

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Dancing is a universal form of human expression. It took shape from early attempts at dramatic storytelling and for some, eventually evolved into its present rhythmic but painful nature. It is the pain, above all, that links us to the past, that makes us strive for a better future.

- Xenophon Council Aide-Mémoire No. 3

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After this, Luna and her guards encountered no other obstacles. Before the hour turned, the Archive rose up before them, glimmering like a mirage. With everything crowding her head, the journey felt like nothing—a short slip of time. Not even long enough to catch her breath.

The walls outside the Archive were fortified with a century of memories—of Hoyal disappearances, and riots, and ill-accepted inter-clan marriages, fires set by Authority in villages where the gift of dance was strong. Maintained by the Archivist, the memorycolors here did not fade, but remained as they were when procured.

At the gates, Luna halted and turned to her guards. “Wait for me here. I won’t be long.”

Ekene opened her mouth to protest but stopped short. Despite Uzun’s precaution of sending guards, Luna could care for herself. She was skilled and disciplined in the art of war, just as she was in dance.

“Be quick, be graceful, and do no harm to the world,” Parviz said through a grin. This the Resistance farewell to dancers.

Luna placed her hand on the wall beside the gates and let it taste her identity. A moment later, as the structure permitted her passage, she turned first to Parviz, then Ekene. “Thank you. Thank you both.”

Inside the gates and beyond the walls, tunnels filled with kaleidoscopic traceries of memory led to the center of the Archive. One could spend years reading the colors, taking in the nuanced differences between rust and autumn red, sapphire and mid-ocean blue, without remembering even half of what came before.

As Luna walked with the nightshade dagger stretched out in front of her, she passed dozens of Resistance Guardians. Some bowed upon seeing her, others remained as stiff and tall as the Severance Obelisk. But all of them knew her and all would guard her as fiercely as they’d guard the Archivist, should the need arise.

Along the path, Luna’s eyes glittered with stories she hadn’t known before—the goldenrods of Hoyal Clan successes, crimsons of injustice, the cadet-blues of battle. The energy was palpable, like a feverish heartbeat, like blood pumping in veins. Eventually, after passing a final score of guards, she curled around an old man’s berry-black tale of the Carriage of Arms Massacre and found herself in the main room. The Life Room. Here the memories were heaviest of all, folding in on themselves like origami, each crease a different viewpoint of a story, and each shadow an emotion. Standing in an intricate swirl of blues, deftly sorting the color-filled air, was the Archivist.

A slender-bodied neutrois, the Archivist sang as they worked—ever the same song, a deep, melodic thing about a girl lost in a timeless world. The tune had a way of making the hair on Luna’s arms stand as straight as soldiers. She often wondered if these lyrics gave any insight into the Archivist’s own feelings. Never, though, had she asked.

As Luna stepped closer, she saw that today the stubble on the Archivist’s head hued shades of beet juice and lavender. There was so much knowledge inside them that some of it spilled out of its own accord—into their hair, their irises, the beds of their fingernails—and changed colors with the ticking of hours.

On their shoulders, they wore a wreath of black widows that moved in unison, a deadly cloud. Should anyone threaten the Archivist, the spiders would ensure the aggressor’s end. And this was as it should be.

The Archivist, more so than Luna, or Katsa or Uzun, or any other Resistance member, was the most important individual to the cause. They were the gatekeeper of all that Authority sought to lose forever in the name of forgiveness and unity and peace. They were the caretaker of meaning for the generations to come.

“Nur,” Luna spoke, just loud enough to grasp their attention, not so emphatic as to startle.

The Archivist turned. An elegant smile stretched out across their face and filled their eyes. “Luna Moon. A pleasure. Though I must say, this is sooner than I expected you again.” Their voice was gentle but commanding, neither male nor female in tone.

Luna curtsied. “I do apologize. But Commander Uzun sends me. I am now the last dancer of One Territory.”

The Archivist frowned. Their morning-frost eyes flickered with worry, surprise. Brushing a stray spider from their neck, they swallowed.

“Twelve died this past morning,” Luna continued. “Then Commander Katsaros expired just after dusk. Uzun thought it important I seek your counsel. Immediately.”

“It cuts me deeply to hear this, Luna Moon.” And then, when the silence had nearly filled the entirety of the Life Room, “What happened to Irene?”

“Several hours ago she was murdered by blade in the Square. I was not with her but felt the colors of it.”

The Archivist grimaced. They’d known Katsa for many, many years. The Archivist also knew the depth of sensation colorwhispers could bring. Knew the way residual color permanently marked those who had direct contact with the medium—they understood how Luna felt.

“I have not danced with her spirit yet,” Luna continued, watching the weight of spiders move across the Archivist’s collarbone. “In truth, I haven’t felt her since that moment. Until I do, you may examine the color beneath my skin. The feeling was strong. Unusually so, even in light of my relationship with her.”

While Luna was a Memorycolor Specialist herself, she had nowhere near the skills that Katsa did. And the Archivist surpassed them both by far. Beyond that, while Luna could feel the color beneath her skin, she could not read its tinges, its nuances. For that, they had to set it free.

“I’m afraid that you are right, soldier. We should start now, if you can manage it.”

Luna nodded.

“Very well. The arm?”

Again, Luna only nodded.

As the Archivist prepared their instruments, Luna tried to ignore the strange and growing sense of dread filling her body. She focused instead on the words and wisdom of her own mother. She focused on finding courage.

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The dead are the strongest connection to the past. The dead do not change, their memories do not grey or distort with time. The dead are the best vaccination against Severance with Before.

- Resistance Message, read by Sonya K. Moon during her penultimate breach of One Territory’s horns.

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Sitting back in the surgical chair, Luna outstretched her left arm and awaited the silver-toothed blade. She’d submitted to this procedure a few times before, but like dancing, it was never easy.

The Archivist worked quickly, minimizing the pain as much as possible. They knifed back Luna’s skin in translucent layers, Luna becoming the bloody pink of a red onion peel. Soon the shades shifted and a cloud of rose-petal red unspooled from her body. This color, complex and passionate but also heavy with deep pain, was the color of Katsa and no one else.

Luna glanced from the memorycolor to the Archivist and watched as their face twisted with confusion.

“Nur?” she whispered.

They did not look away from the cloud, from the story of Katsa hidden there.

Luna tried to swallow down the lump in her throat. It would not submit. “Nur, what is it? What do you read?”

The Archivist removed and disposed of their gloves, then ran a slender hand over their head. The deadly spiders stood still, as if frozen, as if also waiting for a response. “Katsaros has not perished, Luna Moon. I have no doubt.”

“But I…” Luna took a long breath, trying to make sense of the Archivist’s words. “But it’s right here. Her color. I know it as well as my own. How could that be?”

The Archivist’s eyes of song now looked a mournful jade. “This memorycolor is…is synthetic. Impeccably manufactured, but manufactured. By Authority.” They pointed to a curled edge of the color. “It is faint, but right here you can see Authority’s fleur-de-lis stamped into the memory. It is a clear tell. One they’d have left out if not so brazen.”

A sudden chill swept over the length of Luna’s skin. She ached to be held—by Uzun or her mother or even, oddly, Katsa.

“If I had to guess, I would say Irene has traded sides,” the Archivist said. “Truth for power.”

Luna did not respond as the meaning of this washed over her. Katsa had abandoned her. Katsa chose hegemony over bravery. Katsaros chose to forget all her pains and losses rather than use them, avenge them. Irene Katsaros revealed the location of the twelve Xenophon killed that morning—because who else would have done it? That woman, whatever else she really was, was a traitor and a fool.

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Public memory today is as thin and sterile as gauze, whitewashed down to a sterile nothingness. And that is precisely how Authority wants it. We must do what we can, and go where the universe guides us, to fight the muddy shroud of lies that is Severance.

- Quote from Triumphant Resistance, by Sonya K. Moon

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The first night they spent together, Katsa told Luna why she fought, why she danced.

“I’ve lost more than I care to remember,” Katsa began. She’d just stripped down to her underthings, tossing her uniform into a heap on the ground as if it were nothing. Watching her, Luna’s stomach nearly wrung itself into a new shape. To be so blithe—Luna had never been able to live that way.

“My mother and sister and uncle were all slaughtered by Authority before Severance began. My brother was taken prisoner just after we rebelled. I watched them execute him in the street—by memory nets, until all his mind was eaten, gone.”

Hearing this, Luna nearly forgot that the woman before her was half-naked, that they were almost certainly a few short minutes from making love for the first time. She went to where Katsa sat on her bed of grass and crouched down before her. After a moment, she took Katsa’s long, slim hands in hers and held them tight.

“That is why we have to win,” Katsa continued, squeezing Luna’s hands. “For them. So those horrors can never again happen. For your mother, too. So future memories can be of stars, not blood. Music, not gravestones.” As Katsa spoke this, her eyes gleamed bright and defiant, as though she would soon inherit the whole earth. Looking at her, Luna could see how much Katsa wanted—needed—to win.

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Tour Saute—one step preparation and one hop, turning completely around in the same direction of step.

Note: Given the abrupt motion, as well as the defiance the tour saute conveys, this movement should be reserved for instances in which one has no choice but to change course entirely, due to some insurmountable obstacle. Otherwise, one may unsettle the dead.

- Excerpt from the Xenophon Dance Code

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Now, for the first time, Luna wondered about that night, about the defiance in Katsaros’s words and eyes and posture. What was she really saying? How long had she been aligned with Authority? Could she have been planning this already when Luna met her? Perhaps now, so many years into battle, Katsa’s deep, almost unthinking need to win overtook her more reasoned desire to win on the side of what is right. Perhaps an end was all that mattered after so much loss.

Considering the possibilities, Luna felt a shiver tiptoe down her spine. Her thoughts tangled together like a mess of venomous snakes as they tugged her back into the Life Room.

Glancing down, she saw that the incision in her arm had been sewn shut. Also, someone was weeping, a loud and gut-twisting cry. Luna looked to the Archivist—to comfort them. But their face was dry and still—pristine, if not entirely at peace. Luna turned, wondering who else had joined them, and the sound shifted with her.

This is how she realized. She was the one crying, the one who had been crying all this time.

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As Luna walked home from the Archive, Ekene and Parviz close beside her, several Authority messages played over the horns. She ignored them all, except one. Except the one she recognized instantly as being read in Katsaros’s voice.

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SEVERANCE IS SALVATION. There is no turning back now, no redemption in remembering centuries’ worth of outdated tales. Every person who believes in freedom, in peace, must fight for Severance—for the preservation of the future, of One Territory, of themselves. I, myself, spent years searching for peace under the Resistance and never found it. One must forget to find peace, to find life. One must realize SEVERANCE IS SALVATION.

- A Daily Message, Brought to you by Severance Authority, read by Irene Katsaros

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As soon as she crossed the lines into Base A, Luna summoned Uzun and the Resistance Council to a meeting. The Archivist, unable to leave the Archive in such dangerous times, channeled in on the tails of ghosts, in the tone of weeping willows and sated bees.

Luna had a plan. And she wasted no time in telling it. After explaining what the Archivist revealed and fielding a whirlwind of questions, she turned to her solution.

“I want to invoke Subpart IV.”

Uzun paled at her words. Several council members began murmuring among themselves.

“I can do it,” she said, raising her voice, making it firm like the Archive walls. “We need to put an end to this. To all of this. Look at what the war has cost us already. Mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters, even the unborn. Countless Xenophon. Authority is weak as well. Now is the time.”

“We’ve never invoked Subpart IV,” someone muttered. “It is too dangerous. Too great a risk.”

“We’ve never invoked it because of the chance Authority would select one of our own in its place,” Luna reminded. “But this is different. Katsaros has chosen for us. Authority will choose her.”

Though reluctance marred his visage, Uzun was the next to speak through the soft hum of dissent. “It pains me to say this, but I fear Moon is right.”

He stood and continued. “Katsaros is bold enough to agree. If she carries any weight with Alexander, with Authority, and it is clear she does, they will almost certainly agree to invoke the provision.”

For a moment there was silence and then several nods.

“Unless anyone sees a better way,” he started, “I will send a message over the horns. Tonight.”

Not one of them spoke.

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Disputes of territory and ideology may also be determined by dance, so long as each side agrees to this method of resolution. Both Hoyal Clan members and Authority may each chose a single dancer to participate. The winner shall be the individual who lives, who dances until the other is dead. Given the Hoyal Clan’s distinct advantage in this realm, it is agreed that Authority may, if it wishes, choose a Hoyal Clan member, namely a Xenophon dancer, to serve as its representative. Authority may make this choice unilaterally, without consent of Hoyal leaders or the individual chosen….

- Section III., Part A., Subpart iv. of the Authority-Hoyal Treaty of Year 2217, Before Severance

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By midnight it was decided. Authority had agreed to invoke Subpart IV. Luna and Katsaros would dance in less than one day’s time.

Later still, as Luna slept in fitful spurts, she dreamt of killing her former lover and mentor and friend. With the nightshade dagger, she sliced Katsaros open, down the middle, mimicking the image Katsaros and Authority used to fake her death. Blood bubbled from Katsaros’s mouth, ran over her lips and down the slope of her strong chin. Through the blood, she spoke. The pain is too much, my little moon. Too vivid. I was never as strong as you. Never as strong.

When Luna awoke, it was with the taste of the same bitter, answerless questions on her tongue. Was that indeed why Katsa betrayed her? Because she’d lost hope? Grown tired of life on the losing side? Katsa had never been a coward. But this seemingly endless fight had taken its toll on everyone—whittled its way into veins and bones, a song of decay, a scream without hope. Most likely, Luna would never truly know Katsa’s reasons. Because war is never black or white but something in the middle, something impossibly sunless and bleak.

There was nothing to do but carry on, and by midafternoon, Luna had finished preparing herself for the task at hand. She had read through the entirety of Triumphant Resistance; reviewed her dance steps, focusing on those that required the least energy; and dressed in the attire of Xenophon. Only one thing remained to do before marching to the Square: she needed to apologize to Uzun.

She went to his quarters and let herself in without knocking.

He was there, as she expected, pacing the room like a young soldier on his first day of battle. Snakes, his animal-protector of choice, festooned the walls and ceiling vines like chains of garland or ribbon. Luna had never liked snakes—it was something in their eyes and the quick flick of their tongues more than their slithering nature. But Uzun had a way of making her appreciate almost anything, of helping her see all sides.

“I’m ready,” she said firmly.

Uzun stopped his pacing and turned to her. “You don’t have to do this.” His voice was barely a whisper.

“Yes,” she said. “I do.”

Uzun swallowed, hard. “It isn’t safe. What if you lose?” He filled his cheeks with air, then blew it out slowly.

It hurt—a deep, demon-grey sort of hurt—to see him this way. To see him in so much pain.

“The provision is obsolete,” he counseled through gritted teeth. “It’s…it’s—”

“Obsolete, maybe,” Luna agreed. “But still law. Besides, I won’t lose. She may be a better Memorycolor Specialist, and a better soldier, but I have always been the better dancer. You know that.”

Uzun sighed. “Yes, but what do you seek to accomplish? Even if you win, you are still the last dancer. It’s a losing battle either way.” Uzun stretched out his arm towards a large, yellow-eyed snake. The creature moved at his call, slithering across his arm and coming to rest as a golden ribbon across his shoulders. “What can revenge accomplish, now?”

“I don’t do this for revenge, Uzun.”

“Then for what?”

“For ceasefire. For peace.”

“Don’t be naïve,” he snapped. “You think winning this dance will put an end to the destruction and chaos and death? Not for long. A year, perhaps two. And then their intolerance will unfurl again.”

Luna stepped closer to him and reached out to touch the snake’s head with the back of two fingers—a demonstration of power and poise, a signal to Uzun that she was in control. “I think a ceasefire will buy us more time. Time to regroup. Time to find other dancers—in the outer provinces, in the nurseries, wherever. There must be more of us. There must. And if there aren’t, if I truly am the last, then buying time is all the more crucial. We need a new strategy.”

“If you are truly the last, buying time won’t save your traditions or your skills. Why risk your life for a mere chance?”

“For you, Uzun.” Luna made a wide gesture. “For all those people out there, fighting with me because I stand with history. Whatever becomes of me—those people deserve peace and the preservation of their minds, their identities.”

“But—”

Luna put up a finger as she closed the space between them and took his face in her hands. He smiled, ever so slightly, and with feather-light lips, she kissed him. “Do not doubt me. If not this, then we have just more fighting ahead.”

“I know,” Uzun murmured, wrapping his arms around Luna’s waist. His voice still held heavy hints of fear, but the anger had faded. “I know.”

“I’m sorry,” she whispered, embracing Uzun fully. “That is what I came here to say. If I fail, know that I am sorry it had to be this way.”

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Less than an hour later, with half the Resistance traveling behind her, including Uzun and Ekene and Parviz, Luna walked with steady pace to the Square. More than once she caught the face of Alexis Mara, whose bright eyes offered encouragement even while her wrinkle-worn mouth reminded of the seriousness of this venture.

Katsaros was already waiting with a sea of Authority Intelligencers behind her when Luna arrived.

She looked different. Like she’d peeled back a layer of skin and lies: this Irene Katsaros was someone new. Or was perhaps finally who she’d always been, revealed.

Luna wanted to look away but instead stared harder. She tried her best to ignore the pain of betrayal stuck in her heart like a splinter of wood, the pain coloring her vision as though she were staring at a white-hot sun.

This Irene Katsaros was not the woman Luna had known. This was not the woman who liked sex in the grass better than between sheets, not the woman who taught Luna that desire was as complex as history itself. This woman, with a force of black hair framing her face and nothing at all behind her eyes, was cold and tired and sad.

It didn’t seem fair to have to fight her. But then, war was never fair.

Luna glanced over her shoulder at Uzun. His face was without expression, unreadable. Guardians Ekene and Parviz stood in the glowing embrace of the sunset, just behind Uzun, each with a nightshade dagger drawn. Should anything go awry, should Authority breach the pact to settle this war by dance, these three—and the hundreds more behind them—would defend her.

Luna inched forward, toward Katsaros. “Why?” she demanded. “Why would you do this? What have you done?”

Katsaros blinked. Her eyes were like shadows, empty of yore. Then she set her jaw and firmed her stance, and Luna knew no response would come.

No matter. Luna already had enough of an answer within her. Katsaros was tired. Scared. Without courage. Hurt beyond repair. A victim. A decider of her own fate. Complicated. Complicated in a way that only Hoyal Clan Xenophon dancers could be.

Suddenly, a hundred memories washed over Luna, a wave of residual longing and love. She stretched out an arm and put her hand on Katsaros’s shoulder. Katsaros followed suit. For a moment, the two dancers stood like this, united by a strain of mutual burden. But at this close range, Luna refused to hold Katsaros’s eyes with hers. What was would never be again.

She took a deep breath that revealed neither nerves nor fear. Then, like a vine retreating from shade, Luna twisted away from Katsaros. Under Subpart IV, they would dance simultaneously, Luna adorned in her shimmering sundew dress, Katsaros in the austere Authority uniform, until one or the other could dance no more.

Cutting through the thick murmur of the crowd, Luna spoke one last time. “Be quick, be graceful, and do no harm to the world.”

The crowd hushed, awaiting Katsaros’s response. But again, no words came from her mouth. Instead, she gave a shallow bow, then backed away as well.

As the chimes of the dead rang alongside the clatter of Authority’s anthem, Luna closed her eyes. Behind them, she found a sea of grey, a thousand stories of pain and struggle.

The final bell tolled.

With the jewels of history inlaid as weapons in her heart, Luna moved into the Position of Strength. It was time for the battle to begin.

___
Copyright 2015 Sara Puls

Sara Puls spends most of her time lawyering, researching, writing, and editing. Her dreams frequently involve strange mash-ups of typography, fairy creatures, courtrooms, and blood. Sara’s stories have been published in Daily Science Fiction, The Future Fire, Penumbra, World Weaver Press’s Fae anthology, and elsewhere. She also co-edits Scigentasy, a gender- and identity-focused spec fic zine. On Twitter, she is @sarapuls.

by Judith Tarr

For Gwyndyn

I.

The winter field was planted, the seedstones buried to the depth of a woman’s wrist. Any deeper and they might decline to sprout. Any shallower and…

Well. There were tales enough of that. Children stayed up all night for the terror of them.

So did women in this season, taking turn and turn, but not for tales. For the real danger that slept in this walled and barricaded field.

It had been a strange winter, cold and then summer-warm and then properly cold again. Trees budded and flowers tried to bloom, then a new frost withered them. Charis had even seen a bat flittering in the dusk, aimless and confused, roused by the warmth from its long winter’s sleep.

She stood guard on the wall. The spearshaft was light in her hand, the horn disproportionately heavy at her hip.

If she turned, she could see the circles of houses in the village, all dark now, and all within asleep. One of those houses was hers, the children in a pile like puppies, and probably a puppy or three in it too, and Deion their father snoring between them and the door. He had been with her when her turn on watch began, but only for company. Men could not guard this of all the fields. As dangerous as it could be for women, for men it was deadly.

She yawned and stretched, but cautiously. The springlike warmth made her skin prickle. She peered down into the field, scanning the neat furrows.

Nothing stirred. The earth was still. The seeds slept as they should, hoarding their strength for the true spring.

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The men liked to think they were the lords of creation–even here, where they should have known better. They sat in their circle while the wind howled outside the Mother’s house and the snow piled high against the walls–where only yesterday the grass had been trying to grow. They were plotting wars, though when Charis passed on her way to the looms, Deion glanced at her and said a little too loudly, “For defense, of course. If the rivermen are hungry for spring lamb. Or the horsemen have run out of grazing lands again.”

“But nobody can touch us,” young Melas said. He was new to the circle, more by courtesy than by right, having handfasted the Mother’s fifth daughter at the autumn feast. “What we grow in the walled garden–it protects us. We don’t need to go out and fight.”

“Strength feeds strength,” said Aias the Bull. “Our strength of mind and will, their strength of–”

“Everything else,” Melas said. “Why do we need to go out at all? We can stay home and be at peace.”

“Do we?” asked Deion. Even knowing she heard. Maybe because she was there. “What if they won’t grow any more? Every year the women range farther in search of the seeds. What if there aren’t any more to be found? What then? Who will defend us?”

“We will,” Aias rumbled. “We are men. We fight. It’s what men do. Peace is for women.”

“But men can’t lead them,” said Melas. “Only women can.”

“That,” said Aias, “as Deion said, could change.”

Charis let her foot slide in the rushes scattered on the floor. They rattled quite satisfactorily.

The men started like the guilty children they were. She smiled and bent her head and left them to wonder what price they would pay for their foolishness.

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“Every winter we hear the same nonsense,” the Mother said. She was threading a new loom with spun wool the color of winter branches. She barely paused for Charis’ recounting of the men’s conversation. “Every spring the crop sprouts and they remember their place.”

“What if this time they don’t?” Charis asked. “What if my man is right? What if we go out in summer and there are no seeds to find? What do we do then?”

The other women shook their heads in much the same way as she had shaken hers at the men. So would she, if she had been hearing this from someone else. But the small cold spirit-feet walking down her spine told her this was different.

No one else felt it. Even the Mother, who should have felt it more strongly than she, said, “You know what will happen, if it must. But it will not. Not this year. Not next. Not ever, as long as our strength holds.”

Charis should have bowed to the Mother’s wisdom, but her back was still cold, and her throat had locked shut. The latter kept her from saying what was in her mind, but not from thinking it.

And if it did not?

She reached for her loom with the deep green fabric half finished on it, stretched it out and slipped the spindle from the weaving and went mutely to work.

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The baby was off the teat and off the leash but still inclined to wander if her minders were distracted. Which, the day after the great snow, they all were, between digging out the houses and reckoning the casualties among the animals.

Charis found her with the sheep. The flock had been penned near the Mother’s house, but so much snow had fallen that it had buried the fence. They had walked over it to take shelter in the lee of the wall that protected the winter field, and found enough forage there to be comfortable.

The baby had no name yet. She would get one in the spring, now she was her own person and no longer bound to her mother. Charis called her Thistle, because she was prickly and pretty and inclined to catch the wind and drift away.

She had drifted a great distance for a small person in deep snow. Her cheeks were bright red but she was warm, curled up in a nest of drowsing sheep. Charis plucked her out and hauled her unceremoniously back to the house where she belonged.

Only once she had the little monster barricaded in a corner and fetched her a knot of day-old bread to gnaw on did she see what Thistle clutched in her hand.

It was a seedstone. A small one, small enough to conceal in a young child’s fist, but those, like young scorpions, could be the most dangerous.

Thistle howled as her mother pried the stone out of her grip, but Charis could not afford mercy. The stone was warm from Thistle’s hand–but not, please Goddess, too warm.

It looked like the tooth of a great predatory beast, larger than a lion, larger than a bear, but turned to stone. Charis had seen far too many of its like to linger. She plunged back out in the cold, wading through the snow to the stone house where the seeds were kept.

It was true, they were becoming harder to find. When she was Thistle’s age she remembered seeing half a dozen wooden chests in the stone house, and every one full of seeds. Then the hunters only needed to go out in order to replace what had been planted. But even in those days, the older women talked of a dozen chests or more, and only needing to go out every third year, because the seeds were so plentiful.

Now there were three chests, and the one in which she laid Thistle’s seed was more than half empty.

How had Thistle found it, then? The door to the stone house was barred. It had taken a fair amount of strength for Charis to lift the bar, and she was neither a small woman nor a weak one.

Thistle had words, but not enough to answer Charis’ question. All she would say was that the sheep had it–which was not possible. More likely she had found it on the ground where the sheep were. But who would drop a seedstone outside the wall? And why?

All Charis could be sure of was that it portended nothing good.

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II.

She kept her troublesome thoughts to herself. Everyone else seemed content, or as much as was possible in winter. They had enough provisions to last until spring, and enough weaving and mending and making and child-minding to do that every day was full.

Charis began to tell herself that it was nothing. The seed had fallen by accident; or it was lifeless, as they sometimes were, and a bird had taken it, found it inedible, and dropped it outside the wall. It was small; it might not have had the power to sprout.

The strange weather continued, now almost summer-warm, now brutally cold and wild with storms. The field slept through it all. No more stray seeds appeared, and Charis made sure that if there had been any, Thistle would not be the one to find it.

At the new moon before the first moon of spring, the storms retreated for long enough that bands of hunters could go out and assure themselves and the people that none of their enemies was stirring. The river was still locked in ice and the plain beyond was empty of horsemen.

When the moon began to swell again, two women would stand guard on the wall at night, and both would carry strung bows as well as spears and the horns that would sound the alarm when the seedstones sprouted. No one expected them to wake so early, but the guard had always doubled after this moon, and therefore it was done.

Tonight, for the last night between now and summer, Charis did her duty alone. It was a fine night, brisk but with a hint of softness in the air. The stars were brilliant overhead.

The field was dark under the glittering vault of the sky. Snow glimmered in the hollows, but had melted from the center and down between the furrows. Along the south side, something stirred in the wind.

There was no wind tonight. Nor did anything grow in that field but what the women had planted there. There was no fog anywhere but in that one place: a thin, curling stream of something rising up out of the ground.

Something else was there with it. Something dark and hunched. It seemed small, but Charis’ years of night watch told her it was the size of a man. A man kneeling, digging in the earth, where no man could ever safely be.

She should run, raise the alarm, fetch the Mother. But something in the shape, the way it moved, sent her toward it rather than away.

She swung down off the wall. The earth rose to meet her. It surged like the river in flood. Life swelled beneath it, growling too deep for the ears to hear; but it rumbled in her bones.

It was too early. The surge was too strong.

The raving fool who had caused it had fallen flat on his face. Darkness sprouted beyond him, springing up out of the ground, unfolding with preternatural speed. It looked at first like a monstrous fern, as thick at the root as a young tree. Then it straightened, until it loomed above the sprawling figure of the man.

Starlight made everything seem larger, but this was half again as tall as a tall man. It stood on two legs and raised two arms, but the face that turned to the stars was closer kin to the lizards that skittered on the walls in summer than to any human creature.

Charis braced both feet on the earth and set the full force of her will on it, to make it stop; to be still. There were words that she should say, rites that she should perform, but there was no time. All she could do was open herself to earth and stars and hope it was enough.

The ground was quieter underfoot. She breathed in, all the way to the core of her, and essayed a step. Then another. And a third.

The child of earth stooped over the idiot who had roused it. Charis trilled as she would to one of the cattle, to catch its attention; to calm it.

Foolishness.

Even as doubt struck, the child of earth stopped short of rending the man at its feet and turned.

Its long saurian face could shape no expression, but the eyes were wide and golden, with a fierce light in them, like a hawk’s, or an eagle’s. They were intelligent, those eyes. They met hers.

She spoke to it as to one of her children–willful Thistle, who could have been dangerous if she had not been so small. “It’s too early to be up,” she said. “Go back to sleep.”

The child of earth tilted its head. Its clawed hands flexed. Charis well knew what those could do: how they could gut a man in a single stroke and rend him limb from limb. So had the people’s enemies learned, year upon year; and most remembered. But too many forgot, or grew so desperate that they would brave even the dragon warriors to rob the people of their riches.

“In the true spring,” Charis said, almost crooning, “when the air is warm and sweet and the earth grows rich with greenery–then you may wake. Then you may feast to your heart’s content. But not now. Not tonight. Not before the winter ends.”

The great jaws opened. Ivory teeth gleamed. Every grain of sense that Charis had screamed at her to run while she could.

But no human creature was fast enough to escape this terrible hunter. She stood her ground. The earth, she observed distantly, had gone still. Only this one warrior had waked, of all that the women had sown. And that was a man’s fault, as such things tended to be.

“Rest,” she said. “Sleep. Let the earth embrace you, and make you grow and be strong.”

The yellow eyes blinked. The jaws gaped wider. Yawning. The tall feathered crest, so much like the plume of a warrior’s helmet, folded flat.

“Sleep,” Charis crooned. “Sleep, and dream of spring.”

The child of earth sank down on its haunches. Its long tail curled around it; it folded its arms and tucked in its head.

It was purring, a soft melodic sound. Softly, like waves lapping over a stone, the earth covered it up.

Charis stood very, very still. In the field around her, nothing moved. Not even a breath of wind stirred.

For this night at least, the danger was past. The people were safe from their own defenders.

Charis had done her duty, nothing more. But she would be glad never to have to do that part of it again.

She hooked her foot under the body of the man who had nearly destroyed them all, and half kicked, half pulled him onto his back.

She knew the heft of him, the feel, the smell. And yet she stared blankly at the face that turned to the stars. It could not be Deion of all people. Deion was never so complete a fool.

“I should have let the dragon eat you,” she said, though he was not conscious to hear. Her voice was still and cold.

She left him lying there. If the earth woke again while she did what she must, so be it.

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III.

The Mother and the elders carried him out of the field and locked him in the springhouse until morning. He was senseless but alive; if he woke, he would have water to drink. If he did not, no one greatly cared.

Charis felt nothing at all. She had children to tend and feed, without the second pair of hands that she was used to. They would want to know where their father was. She had no words to give them.

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“I was trying to save us,” he said.

He was damp and bedraggled and blue with cold, but he was not particularly apologetic. They had made him stand in the open, in sight of the wall that he had defied all laws and common sense to climb. And he said, “The seeds are almost all gone. I wanted to see if there was a way to divide the roots instead, so that one can grow into several. Then there would be no need for the women to go hunting for more.”

Even the Mother sat speechless. His clear gaze, his earnest expression, wore the mask of sanity. His wide eyes implored the women who stood in judgment. “What will happen to us when the stones are gone? How will we live?”

“We will live,” the Mother said. “We will build a wall if we must. Our men will turn their vaunts to honest fighting. But that will not happen. We will be safe.”

“How can you say that? You’ve seen how few seeds are left!”

“Yes,” the Mother said. Her calm was unshakable.

Charis wished that hers could be. All the people were there, watching and listening and glancing at one another. Deion spoke for more of them than not. Even Charis, when she lay awake in the dark, had had such thoughts.

The world was changing. Everyone knew it. But what he had tried to do . . .

“Maybe,” Aias said, “it’s time for a new Mother. If the one we have can’t see–”

“I can see,” she said. “It is you who are blind. Maybe we rely too much on our ancient magic. Maybe it is time we looked to ourselves.”

Now that was terrifying.

“We can’t do that,” Deion said. “How will we survive?”

“How have other people survived?” the Mother asked. Oh, she was calm, like a sky full of storm before the wind and the rain came down. “That will be the price you pay. You will go; you will take what you can carry, and walk out into the world, and learn. When you have learned enough, if you still live, you may come back.”

Deion’s face was white with shock. Charis found she pitied him, but more for his stupidity than his plight. If he had stopped at all, if he had taken a moment to think–

“Who else?” Her voice rang out over the song of the wind. “Who put you up to it? Who agreed that it had to be done?”

For the first time since all this awfulness began, he looked at her. “No one,” he said. “I did it all myself.”

“I don’t believe you.”

“No one else was foolish enough,” he said.

“Now that I believe,” she said.

She turned her back on him. As she did it, her eyes raked across the faces of the men who were nearest, his friends. Aias. Melas. The ones who were always saying the things that he had acted on.

She would remember.

He left alone, with head up and shoulders straight. He did not weep or beg for mercy. Charis had not expected that he would.

For one of the people to be sent away was a terrible thing. Charis was too young to remember the last one, and no one ever spoke of that, even in whispers.

No one would speak of this, either. His name and transgression would be forgotten. His memory would be gone from among the people.

She would remember that, too. She was one great painful well of memory.

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Charis was not a sacred dreamer. Her dreams were relentlessly ordinary: dreams of the everyday, both joys and fears, from which she woke to a world not terribly different. No one would ever have chosen her to be a shaman for the people, let alone to hold the Mother’s place above and beside them all.

This dream, the night of Deion’s departure, was as ordinary as any other. In it, Charis was standing guard over the winter field, as she did so often. It was neither winter nor spring; the air was cold but there was a hint of softness in the wind. The stars shone brilliant overhead. Somewhere far away, a wolf sang: a sound to bring terror to anyone not safe in walls.

She was safe from wolves here. The field below was still, though in her dream as in waking, she knew it would sprout soon.

There was something about the field that made her stop and look closer. At the same time, because this was a dream, she was lifted up on wings, rising above the dwindling oblong of wall and field.

She had climbed a mountain once when she was young and slender, before the children came. She had seen the world stretched out below as she saw it in this dream.

The village was a rough circle of circles and squares. The winter field barricaded the western side, facing the long roll of land that descended to the river. On the eastern side, a long arc of houses made a wall of sorts, with the twisting lines of paths and alleys in between.

Charis hung in the air, entranced. The wind caressed her face. She breathed deep of it and for a moment closed her eyes.

When she opened them, the world below was the same, but her sight had changed, grown sharper. She saw the bones of the earth under grass and trees and patches of snow. The ridge that rose to the east; the gradual slope toward the west. The knob of rock above the river, that the people called the Mother’s Teat, but the rivermen called the Dragon’s Horn.

The village lay atop something else, something buried: a roughly circular shape, like a bowl made of earth and stone. There were smaller things in it, if small was the size of a house.

Slowly Charis understood what her eyes were telling her. Beneath the village was a nest like that of a vast bird. Its mother slept in the center, under the Mother’s very house, with the flock of her young around her: some barely larger than the shells from which they had emerged, and others large enough to overwhelm the village if they had risen and walked.

Under the winter field lay a clutch of eggs. With the eyes of dream Charis could see through the shells to the forms within. Each tightly curled shape recalled the larger shapes beyond. In each pair of jaws were rows of fiercely curved teeth.

Charis knew those teeth. She had seen one in her daughter’s hand. They were seedstones. The earth beneath the field was full of them.

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She slipped from dream to waking, up and out of her cold and lonely bed and into the frosty chill before dawn. She walked between the worlds, with her feet on the earth and her spirit still halfway to the sky. She went down to the winter field, to the place where Deion had been digging.

She could feel the bones beneath her, and the seedstones above them, taking root, preparing to swell and burst and unfurl into the terrible defenders of the people.

She looked up into the Mother’s face. “We could just dig,” she said.

“That would be easy,” said the Mother. She lowered herself slowly to her knees and laid her palms flat on the earth that Deion had disturbed. Maybe it shifted at her touch. Maybe that was the starlight playing tricks with Charis’ sight.

“We have been given a great gift,” the Mother said. “But too much ease makes any creature weak. If we have to struggle, if only a little, that makes us stronger.”

“And when there are no more stones within reach, that we’re allowed to find? What do we do then?”

“Then we find a new way to protect ourselves,” the Mother said.

“I don’t understand,” Charis said.

The Mother sat on her heels. “What happens to the defenders after they go out from the field?”

“They go out,” said Charis. The Mother knew this, of course she did. But this was a lesson. Charis recited it as the Mother wished her to do. “Whatever threatens us, they kill. Sometimes they feed. When the fields and the river are clear, when there is no danger left for us, they sink back into the earth. They become stone again, and sleep the sleep of stone, that nothing can wake.”

“So we are taught,” the Mother said.

“Is that teaching not true?”

“Magic,” said the Mother, “cares little for human whims or fancies. It simply is. What is under us: that is a great thing. We tell ourselves that it is our blessing, and belongs to us; but the truth is that it would be here with us or without us. It’s not our town that the warriors protect.”

“But,” said Charis, “we find the seeds. We plant them. There would be no warriors without us.”

“Would there?”

Charis knelt beside the Mother. “My head hurts,” she said.

The Mother’s smile was wry. “It is a great deal for our little minds to hold.”

Indeed it was. But Charis clung to one thing. “Deion was wrong. We will be safe.”

“We will,” said the Mother, “while we stand strong. No weakness. No complacence.”

If that meant that the winter field should come to lie fallow and the people be forced to defend themselves, then so be it. That was clear in the Mother’s face, and her voice that had no yielding in it. She would not use what was beneath, or use it up. She would continue as she and her ancestors always had, to protect and guard, and never to give way.

Charis wished for that: to be like stone, hard and unyielding. Not to wake in the nights, reaching for a body that was not there, and drying tears she had never intended to shed.

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IV.

That winter was the most tenacious that even the oldest of the people could remember. Having dangled a promise of spring, it set in hard and bitter and cold. The earth withered once more; a deep snow fell just before planting–which was a blessing in its way. A day or two later and all the labor would have been for nothing, and seed lost that they could ill spare.

After the cold and the snow came a powerful thaw, and warmth that spoke more of summer than of early spring. More than the earth stirred then. Horsemen on the plain, boats on the river–“If I were one to gamble,” said Charis’ sister Ione, “I’d be hard put to choose which will fall on us first.”

“Maybe they’ll go past us,” Charis said, not believing it even while she said it. They were the largest village in these parts, and the richest, even at the end of a hard winter. They still had sheep, and the lambs were coming: twins, most of them, which in other years would have been looked on as a great good omen.

This year they were treasure, and rivermen and horsemen both were starving. “You can count every rib,” the scouts said, “on man and beast.”

The men sharpened their spears and their long knives. The women filled their quivers with arrows and restrung their bows. They still watched over the winter field, but all of them agreed without saying a word: maybe this would be the year that the defenders failed them.

Charis did not know what she thought. Now she knew what lay under the earth she walked on, she could see it always, a trove of bones and unripe seedstones that no Mother or seer would dare to touch. It brought her no comfort.

She fletched her arrows with grey doves’ feathers and painted them with her mark: a stripe of ocher, one of indigo, and one of the deep red that came from summer berries and the earth above the dragon’s nest.  Her bowstring was spun from her own long hair. She was as ready as she could be.

And the wind blew and the snow flew, and it seemed there would never be a spring.

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After the snow came torrents of rain. The river swelled over its banks. The plain was a quagmire. The people’s lands drained quickly, as always; the ancestors had chosen well, even without what lay beneath.

They had enough cropland to plant, at last, and a little green forage for the sheep. The sowers spread the seed under guard, and prayed that this time it would not wash away.

It seemed their prayers were heard. The snow and the wind and the rain had blown far away. The air was soft and mild, the sun pleased to stay for day upon day–with brief intervals of rain for the crops’ sake.

The people welcomed the blessings and kept watch for the price. The winter field lay still. The scouts went out and came back with nothing. No news. Nothing human stirred from her proper place, whether it be river or village or plain.

The calm broke on a warm soft morning, when the fields were green and growing and the plain was in bloom. It came in the form of a man walking out of the east, wolf-lean and footsore. He was much thinner and there were strands of grey in his beard, and his eyes had seen more than most men of the people ever saw. But he was still Deion.

He stood outside the farthest edge of the village, making no move to enter. He lifted his voice so that the whole village could hear, if it had a mind. “They are coming.”

“Horsemen?” Aias had been throwing spears at targets near the place where Deion had stopped. He hefted one in his hand, as if to cast it at the exile.

Deion did not look as if he would have cared if Aias had done it. “Horsemen in hundreds. And women–riding or walking or bundled in wagons with the children and the old. It’s not just the warriors this time, raiding for treasure. It’s their whole world on the move, rolling down on us.”

The world had gone still. The people who had gathered–most of the village by now, drawn by the rumor of the exile’s return–stood mute.

If what he said was true, this was no raid. It was conquest.

“You will take scouts,” the Mother said, “and show them what you have seen.”

No one had heard her coming. She was a large woman, as a Mother should be, but soft on her feet. She held Deion with her gaze, which few could meet.

He met it. She nodded as if he had answered a question. “Show them,” she said again.

Aias stepped forward, and Melas, though his feet faltered. And Charis.

She had not intended to do such a thing at all. Her feet had a will of their own.

It was not for Deion she did it, but for the people.

Maybe for Deion–though whether to reassure him or punish him, she could not have said.

They took a little time to gather weapons and provisions. Long enough for Charis to remember that she had no man to look after the children. But Ione’s man had already thought of that.

“You go,” he said. “We’ll keep them safe.”

Charis hesitated a breath or two longer. They had lost their father already. If they lost her, too . . .

“I’ll only be gone a day or two,” she said.

“Or three,” Ione said. “Go on. The sooner you start, the sooner you’ll be back.”

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Charis half hoped, half feared that Deion would have vanished when she made her way back to the outer field, but he was still there, scrupulously outside the boundary.

All the children had come to stand in a line and stare. Or glare, if they happened to be his. Their eyes, unlike the Mother’s, he could not or would not meet. He squatted on his heels, head down, and endured.

It was no more than he deserved. Charis stepped over the boundary. “Let’s go,” she said.

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It had been a long time since Charis went scouting. She was strong enough from working the fields and practicing with weapons, but walking and skulking and sometimes moving at speed needed different muscles. They were not long out of sight of the village before she was sweating and breathing hard, but she would die before she asked anyone to slow down for her.

The thought occurred to her that Deion might be leading them into a trap. Who knew what was in his mind, after all? She certainly did not, who could have sworn that she knew him better than anyone, before she found him digging up the winter field.

He said nothing, simply led them out toward the plain. Aias and Melas fell behind–to guard the rear, Aias made sure to declare, but his face was as red as Charis’ felt. She gritted her teeth and stayed directly behind Deion, with as much of an eye on him as she could spare between scanning the horizon for signs of horsemen.

They knew how to move quietly; to avoid flushing birds in the dead brown grass, and to keep the hawks and the vultures from circling and so betraying them. Where the land rose in ridges, they stayed below the summits.

When the sun set, they camped below one such ridge. Then finally Deion spoke, after Melas asked, “How far away are they?”

“Three days’ walk when I last saw them,” he answered, “but they’ll be closer now.”

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Horsemen on raids could run faster than the fastest human, but with women and children on foot or in wagons drawn by oxen, they barely advanced above walking pace. Midmorning of the second day found the scouts flat on their bellies in a mat of last year’s grass with new spring shoots barely hand-high within it, trying to count the horde that filled the plain.

“Hundreds and hundreds,” Melas said. He sounded more awed than afraid.

“And hundreds,” said Charis, “and hundreds beyond that. So it’s true. They’re moving their whole world westward.” She narrowed her eyes and peered past the horde to the eastern horizon. “What’s chasing them, then?”

“Winter,” Deion said.

“Winter comes every year,” she said.

“Not like this one.”

She had to nod, though she hated to agree with anything he said.

“We can’t fight this many even with our defenders,” Melas said.

Now he sounded scared. Charis leveled him with her stare. “We’ll make the village a rock for them to break against.”

“Or flow around, like an island in a flood.” Deion rose to a crouch, still keeping his body below the heads of the grass.  “If we start now, the people will have a day’s notice, maybe a little more. Time enough to wake the defenders.”

“If they wake,” Melas muttered. Aias flattened him with a fist, but he had only said what they were all thinking.

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V.

Compared to the rapid slog of the journey out to the plain, the journey back was a race. Charis found reserves she had not known she had. Her feet were blistered, her thighs rubbed raw, and there was a white stab of pain in her ribs. But she ran, only stopping to drink briefly from such streams as they passed, or to sip from her waterskin in between.

They slept a little after dark, but rose in the deep night, drank again, ate a little of what was left in their packs, and ran on. Melas wheezed and staggered but somehow kept the pace.

Charis wheezed as little as she could, and stayed more or less steady on her feet. It took all the will she had. Deion ran ahead of her as if he had been a dragon warrior himself: never changing his pace, and never tiring.

When the hills took on shapes that she knew well, she happened to be on her knees, drinking from a stream that tasted of midwinter. The rumbling in the earth felt at first like the pounding of blood in her veins, but it had a different rhythm.

Hoofbeats–many of them. Not as many as the horde she had seen, but these she recognized all too easily. A raiding party was coming down through the valley.

They were as lean as Deion had said, men and horses alike. They had the look of starving wolves: hungry enough to eat anything, or die trying.

A thought was forming inside Charis’ belly. It was born of her dream and her premonitions, and the anger in her that Deion had been an idiot and had been cast out. His coming back had only made her angrier.

There was a clarity in certain sorts of anger, a piercing brightness in the world, as if it were edged and honed like the head of a spear.

Thirty bone-thin men. Thirty horsemen. It was not the smallest raid that had ever descended on the people, or by far the largest. It was what one would expect after a hard winter. The children of earth could dispose of them easily, along with any stragglers who might follow.

If Charis had been a horseman, she would have intended exactly that. She would have sent a few mad boys to lure out the defenders, to run if they could and die if they must, and leave the village with its riches wide open to the horde.

Deion’s glance met hers. For an instant she forgot to be angry at him, as full as she was of anger at the horsemen. He nodded; she nodded back. They understood each other.

Melas grunted. Charis had forgotten him, too, and Aias beside him. He lay flat on his face. Aias was out in the open, running across the raiders’ path, bellowing like a bullcalf with a bee up his tail.

Melas pushed himself up on his elbows, spitting out a mouthful of grass and dirt. “I tried to stop him. I couldn’t–”

Deion pushed him back down. “Be quiet,” he said.

Melas tried to get up again. Charis sat on him.

Aias was managing to stay ahead of the horses, but only just. What he thought he was doing, except getting himself killed, she could not imagine.

She strung her bow and nocked an arrow to the string, but she did not need Deion’s hiss of warning to realize that if she shot either Aias or the horseman nearest him, she would betray the rest of them. All she could do was sit on Melas, who had stopped struggling, and watch while Aias ducked and weaved and darted.

He was trying to lure the raiders away from the village. As if one man could make the slightest difference, or give the horsemen more than a few dozen breaths’ pause.

They were herding him down the valley, letting him run himself into exhaustion while their horses kept on at the same plodding walk as before. They let him go until he was stumbling and gasping, and then a little longer. Where the valley opened onto the plain of the river, just about where they would be able to see the village with its cluster of houses and its wall and its fields, one of the horsemen kicked his mount into a shambling trot.

Aias turned to meet the spear. It was an awkward blow, with little strength behind it, but it caught him in the throat. He went down with his hands around the shaft, thrashing like a speared fish.

The horsemen rode on by. None spared him a glance, though one or two of the horses slanted an ear and sidled.

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He was still alive when Charis dropped to her knees beside him. His face was swollen out of recognition; his mouth gaped. His eyes rolled. The spirit had left them already; it was only the body lying there, bleeding out upon the grass.

Deion’s knife was in his hand. Charis plucked it from fingers that only briefly resisted.

She gave Aias the same mercy she gave a lamb at the slaughter. One thrust, swift and unwavering, up below the breastbone into the heart. It surged against the blade, and then burst, taking his life with it.

She would mourn when there was time. Or they would all be dead and together in the Mother’s arms, and there would be no need.

Melas wanted to linger and weep, but Deion pulled him away. Charis paused a few moments to compose Aias’ limbs and close his eyes. When she left him, she took the spear.

It was surprisingly warm in her hand, and more surprisingly, not hostile. It was a living thing, shaped out of a sapling and hung with a red horsetail. Its weight suited her; its balance was perfect. In a different world it might have been made for her.

It gave her strength from the earth that had made it and the blood that had fed it. It lightened her feet, so that she ran side by side with Deion.

He still had Melas by the arm. Melas had enough to do to keep up; there was no room for tears or resistance.

None of them spoke. They all knew where they had to go: slanting away from the horsemen’s trail. It seemed these raiders were new to this country; they did not know how the plain dropped away before it came to the village. They would come to the edge soon enough, and realize that there was no quick way down for men on horses.

If Earth Mother was kind, they would need the rest of the day, and perhaps part of the night, to find the place where the ridge dipped down and the plain rose to meet it. That left more than time enough for three of the people on foot to make their way down the steep narrow track to the outermost sheep-pasture.

It was deserted; the flocks would not come up here until summer was well settled in. They paused to breathe and to drink from the spring, and Deion tried to leave Melas in the shepherd’s hut. But he would not stay.

“Even to keep watch?” Deion said.

“This isn’t where the fight will be,” Melas said.

Charis could hardly blame him. Her belly was on fire, too. She had had enough of waiting and dreading and dreaming.

She found she had a last sprint in her, down out of the pasture and through the fields and into the village. The men puffed and wheezed behind–even Deion, which gratified her more than was seemly.

People were doing what people did on a fine spring morning: tending cookpots, counting lambs, gathering weapons and keeping a calm but wary eye on the plain. Charis did not need to say anything. At sight of her as she wound and wove, circling through the village, all the young men and most of the women left what they were doing.

Other villages had learned to build walls that stood from season to season. The people only walled off the winter field. But they had defenses enough.

The outermost houses were built taller than the rest, and their walls were thick. The paths between them twisted and bent: no straight lines to feed a horseman’s speed. As they wound inward, they narrowed, until they were barely wide enough for a woman walking with a basket on her head, hemmed in with thick-woven hedges.

Every child of the people learned to thread that maze. Charis came through it into the open.

She stopped there. Deion stumbled past her and managed not quite to fall. When he had gone a handful of furrows’ length away from the last of the houses, he sat in the grass, apparently alone. But on the roof of every house were archers with bows strung, waiting. In among the alleys and the hedges, men and women with spears and knives had settled to watch and wait.

Charis sat on her heels. Her bow was light in her hand, an arrow ready for the string.

The sun was warm on her head and shoulders. The air was sweet. For today at least, full spring had come at last.

She had no memory of rising, but she was on her feet. Remembering a promise, and the creature to which she had made it.

If the children of earth woke, the women on watch over the field would do what was necessary. Charis had no need to tear herself in two: to be there instead of here.

If the defenders woke now, they would be done and gone before the invasion itself came down off the ridge. As it would. She could tell herself they would choose an easier way, raid more distant villages, but her bones knew better. The horde was coming here.

No one had ever tried to keep the children of earth from waking when it was their time. Spring came, raiders came, the defenders woke and swept the raiders away. That was the way it had been for as long as the people could remember.

Charis had not known she had any speed left. Desperation swept her forward; made her almost forget the ache in her thighs and the stitch in her side.

Some of the children and a dog or two ran after her, but they dropped away quickly. Their elders either got out of her way or stared as she darted around them.

As Charis passed her own house, she nearly collided with Ione, who was coming out. Charis got a grip on her wrist and kept going. She had no breath to ask after the children, but she might have caught a glimpse of Andros’ bushy beard just inside the door.

Ione dragged and squawked at first, but Charis held on. Soon enough Ione stopped fighting.

She had her bow with her, and a pair of long knives. What good they might be against the defenders’ waking, Charis could not imagine. But she did not tell Ione to drop them. They might be useful. Who knew?

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There should have been at least two women on guard over the winter field, but the wall was deserted. Everyone who could fight must be either waiting for the horsemen or guarding the houses and the children, the sick and the old.

Charis wasted no time in climbing up to see if someone was tucked in a corner asleep. She paused by the gate, to breathe and to calm herself.

What she was doing had not been done that she had ever heard of. Always when the defenders woke, the wall was lined with guards, all with spears that served as much to shepherd as to fight.

The earth was still. The signs of sprouting were visible to eyes that knew what to see: low hillocks at intervals along the furrows, and grass and new-sprung weeds beginning to wither over them.

Where Deion had dug up the one defender, the hillock was higher, the growth on it shriveled and dead. Others near it were almost as far gone. To Charis’ eye, it seemed that the signs weakened as they spread outward, with the circle around this one the strongest, which meant they were the most likely to wake.

When she closed her eyes, her dream of dragons was as clear as it she dreamed it all over again. The ground’s solidity thinned until she saw through it to the sleepers beneath.

No old bones, these. They were alive, tightly coiled in their nests of earth. The farther away they were, the more unfinished they seemed. Those directly beneath were fully fledged, their claws sharp and long, and their jaws lined with deadly teeth.

The one under her feet was breathing long and slow. She knelt, but that did not feel like enough. She lay full length, face down, and embraced the earth. “Sleep,” she sang to what was beneath. “Soon you may wake. But not now. Not today.”

She felt the shift of air beside her. She turned her head. Ione was kneeling in the furrow.

“What are we doing?” her sister asked.

Charis liked the we. When they were younger, it had usually meant adventures. “Keeping them in the earth until the horsemen come.”

“Aren’t they coming now?”

“Not all of them,” Charis said.

Ione’s eyes widened slightly. “Deion was telling the truth.”

“If anything, he understated the case.”

Ione lay flat as Charis was doing. “Tell me what to say.”

“Sing them to sleep,” she said.

Ione was a much sweeter singer than Charis. She was a poet, too, and a charmer of birds.

These things beneath, they had feathers, though they had no wings. Maybe they would listen as the birds did, and do as they were told.

Charis did not stop her own singing, though she sounded to herself like a raven croaking, and her words were nothing beautiful or clever. Maybe there was no need for it at all. But she was not going to gamble the lives of the people for a niggle of doubt.

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VI.

The young fools came to the cooking fires that night full of vaunting and boasting. They made a dance and a song out of it, winding in a skein from house to house.

“We drove off the horsemen, we the mighty, we the beautiful. We shot them with our arrows; we stabbed them with our spears. We drove them all far away.”

“And no dragons!” sang Phryne, who had the strongest voice. “Every hand was a human hand, and every stroke a mortal one.”

Charis had been trying to sleep. No one but Ione knew what other battle had raged while the horsemen were being so magnificently destroyed. No one celebrated that victory; no one sang her name or her praises.

She was wrung completely dry. There was nothing left in her but air and wind and the memory of the dragons under the earth.

The singing crept into her dream, along with the warm and breathing weights around and on top of her. The last was Thistle, who seemed to think that if she held Charis down with her whole body, her mother would never leave her again.

Her father slept outside the village. His coming had saved them, but the Mother had said nothing to revoke his exile. Nor had Charis asked it. Anger was still laired deep in her, wrapped around betrayal.

It was sleeping like the children of earth. What would happen when it woke…

In her dream, the warrior whom Deion had awakened stirred in its nest and opened its eyes.

In all the years that the people had been raising the dragon warriors and wielding them against invaders, none of them had ever thought of the defenders as anything but weapons. Weapons that walked; that could as easily turn against the people as against those who threatened them. They were no more to be reasoned with than a flood on the river or a fire on the plain.

There was more in those eyes than raw hunger for blood. They regarded her calmly, as if to commit her to memory. Not to kill and eat her, she thought. To know her. To understand what she was.

A thought unfolded inside her. A mad, a terrible thought. A thought that could be the end of her. But it would not go away.

This must be the demon that had possessed Deion. It was a subtle spirit. It felt like her own heart, beating in her breast, and her own belly clenching.

She slipped from beneath the children and the odd puppy. They murmured and fretted but closed in together without waking.

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Deion was sitting just as he had been when Charis left him, upright with his legs folded. He must have been sleeping, but his eyes in the wan moonlight were clear.

She sat a little distance from him, as she had before the raiders came. Her hands were empty now, her weapons in the house. She regretted leaving the knife, but briefly. No human weapon would be of any use for what she meant to do.

Nor would Deion, but since she would most assuredly be cast out for this, she found his presence comforting.

“They’ll be here by morning,” he said.

Children of Earth? she almost asked.

Of course not. He meant the horsemen. “That soon?”

“If were their chieftain, and my raiders failed to come back, I’d know my diversion worked. I’d want to strike while the people were lazy and full of their victory.”

Tomorrow. Maybe not in the morning, with as many of them as there were, and the land making itself difficult for horses. But they would press hard while they thought themselves safe.

The Mother would know this. So would the elders. They would be doing nothing to rouse the defenders, because no one ever had done anything. The defenders woke when it was time.

The defender under the earth would listen if she spoke. And that was mad, too, and she knew it.

She could feel the horsemen coming. The earth carried the thunder of hooves and the rattle of cartwheels.

The defenders still slept. She had made sure of that yesterday. As deep as their sleep was, even a war might not wake them.

It would be easier if she could do this in the winter field. But that was guarded. She would be caught as Deion had been, and waste precious time with all the consequences.

Here she was, then. Where she sat happened to be directly above the curve of the great mother dragon’s skeletal wing, buried in earth and covered with grass. The mother’s children were not all under the field. They were asleep in their nests everywhere that the village was, and out toward the river.

She did not remember that from her dream.

If this failed–if she proved to be as misguided as Deion had been, but worse, far worse–

It was too late now to stop what had begun. The horsemen rolled toward them with the coming of the light, advancing in their hundreds and thousands.

Now, Charis said in her heart to the one she knew, the child of earth who lay in the heart of the winter field.

It was a she, that one, like the great mother of dragons. She rose up out of the ground as her kind had done for years out of count. Her sisters rose with her, while the guards on the wall sounded the horn and gathered the people and did all the things that they had done since the people’s memory began.

And that was good. The horn had roused the people from their houses, sent the small and the weak and the ill to safety in the heart of the village and brought the strong to the gathering place with all the weapons that they had.

They gathered in the summer field, the open space behind the wall. Only the guards held their places within sight of the children of earth. The one who had drawn black stone from the pot was charged with coming down off the wall, unbarring the gate and flinging it back, and then springing out of the way.

Usually she survived. Sometimes the defenders made their first meal of her before the wailing of horns and the beating of drums drove them down the long aisle of houses, in between the hedges and out onto the plain.

Melaina had drawn the black stone today. She was light and fast and might have escaped if the children of earth had pursued her, but they took no notice of her. They were following the one who had roused first, and she was coming to find Charis.

Charis was two people then. The one sitting in the grass, watching the horizon fill with horsemen and spill toward her, and the one hovering like a hawk above it all. The latter counted the defenders who streamed out of the winter field behind the tall one with the lofty crest.

Twenty, thirty, forty. Of ninety seedstones planted. A poor harvest, the people would be thinking, from a poor and feeble planting.

They were still terrible as they came, moving more quickly than any human or horse. They ran like huge wingless birds, skimming the ground with clawed feet.  Their plumes were erect and gleaming in the morning light, red and blue and green and gold.

The first of them emerged upon the plain. The others spread behind her.

Charis stayed where she was, sitting with Deion silent and wide-eyed just out of her reach. She had no weapon but her wits and her empty hands.

The child of earth approached her, stepping delicately. She heard the sharp hiss of Deion’s breath as the creature bent over her. Thank the Goddess he was too shocked or too prudent to move; if he had, she could not have promised that he would live.

She was safe. She should not be thinking that, with those claws so close to her throat. Each one was as long as her hand.

The eyes that met hers were cold and flat and alien, and yet they recognized something in her. Not magic or wisdom or power. Maybe only that she would defend this place and these people with her life.

In some strange way, they were kin. The land made them so, and what lay beneath the land.

She glanced past the plumed head at the wall of horsemen bearing down on them. The child of earth hissed. Its tail lashed. It spun, gape-jawed, and bellowed louder than any bull. It launched itself against the enemy.

Forty dragon warriors were swift and fierce and deadly, but there were a hundred horsemen for every one of them. The people with their spears and arrows took down horses and riders that won their way past the children of earth. And still the horsemen came.

Despair had a taste like bitter herbs. It caught at the throat. Deion had a spear; she had not seen where he got it.

She only had her knife. It would do for slitting throats when the horde came this far–and it would. A dozen children of earth were down and trampled. A dozen more fought through wounds that might not kill them quickly, but every passing moment cost them in blood and pain. The screaming of horses and humans and the roaring of dragon warriors filled air and earth and broke the sky.

Charis straightened. Her knees creaked; her back voiced an objection.

She sat as nearly upright as her body would allow. The horde was well within bowshot. Already a handful of loose horses had stampeded into the village.

All its defenses were barely enough to slow the tide. Well before the sun touched the zenith, the horsemen would overwhelm the village and destroy the people.

“No,” Charis said. She could barely hear herself through the cacophony of battle.

She set her teeth and her will. The earth’s voice was all confused. She could not see what was beneath, not any more. But she could still feel it.

She set the point of her knife to the long vein that ran from her wrist up her arm. Her life pulsed in it. A brief, craven fear of pain made her flinch, but she forced herself through it.

It was not so horrible after all. Childbearing was worse. Bloodier, too, if something went wrong.

Bright blood streamed from the long wound, pouring out on the earth. It was foolish, she knew; people were bleeding everywhere. But this was blood of sacrifice. Blood given freely to the dragon queen under the grass.

The queen’s life was done. She would never rise again. Her children . . .

Old bones turned to stone. Lives lived before the first human thing walked the earth. A world long gone, forgotten everywhere but in this one place.

It was as dead as the dragon queen. The magic of the seedstones was nearly gone; after this year’s harvest, there might never be another. That age of the world was fading fast.

Maybe. Charis was fading, too, as the blood flowed out of her. Horsemen streamed around her, shying away from Deion’s spear.

Stupid man. He would do better to help her bind up her arm before she lost any more blood. She would fight then, as they all would, and die with the rest of the people, but not before she took with her as many horsemen as she could.

She was growing dizzy. She struggled out of her shirt and wrapped it around her arm, clumsily. She should not be this weak, not yet, but there was no denying it. She was not at all sure she could stand if she tried.

The ground lurched. She looked for the horse that must have fallen hard, but all those near her were on their feet–veering, and one screamed.

These were dragons indeed. The children of earth were tiny beside them, like a flock of sparrows before an onslaught of eagles.

One rose up full in front of Charis, all feathers and fangs and talons. It seized the horse that had screamed and swallowed it whole.

Its eye rolled toward Charis. It could swallow her, too. She had no defense against it.

It was even more alien than the child of earth, even colder and even wilder. Her little bit of meat would barely blunt its hunger. And yet it saw in her . . . something. She belonged to this earth, this place from which it also came.

It turned away from her. There were horsemen in hundreds to feed on. Even fleeing, they were no match for its strength or its terrible speed.

She should stand up. There was still fighting to be done, wounded to dispatch, horses to herd into the most convenient enclosure, which happened to be the winter field.

She got her feet under her. Someone had dropped a spear. It made a decent enough support.

So did the hand that gripped her arm. Deion glared at her.

She glared back. He steadied her, firmly, and transformed her shirt in a bandage, wrapping it smooth and tight.

She was still shaky and dizzy, but she was no longer losing blood. She pressed forward.

Deion let her go, but stayed close by. So did Ione. Charis had not seen her come, but she was there, with her strong bow and her deadly speed with knife and spear.

They gave Charis strength. Yes, even Deion. Whom she was forgetting to hate.

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VII.

The horde’s back was broken. Its chieftains were dead, its strongest warriors gone to feed the dragons. But there were still horsemen in hundreds, and they had nowhere to go. They turned in desperation; they fought for every drop of blood and every scrap of ground.

The dragons had eaten till they were sated. The children of earth, those that survived, for once had enough battle to fight, but even they were flagging.

The sun sank toward a horizon the color of blood. There was no order left, and no division, only flailing and tearing.

Charis was most of the way out of her body. She had dispatched a horseman whom the dragons had torn so badly that there was no healing him, and found herself attached somehow to his horse: a sturdy dun-colored creature that refused to be chased away.

The children of earth were driving the last of the horde into the river. They would go, too, after that, as they always had before, into the water or out upon the plain. No doubt the dragons would do the same. And that would be the end of it–for this year and maybe for years after.

Charis could rest then. She told herself that as she turned back toward the village, with the horse following like an enormous and persistent dog.

It felt wrong. Her feet wanted to take her away from her house rather than toward it. They yearned toward the river and the gnashing jaws and tossing plumes and the great beasts that had risen at her call.

She was doing what her people had always done. She should be content. Which had nothing to do with the fact that she had started walking, and had no power to stop until she was almost to the river.

The children of earth turned at her coming. One of them, the tall one, loosed a shrill cry, like a hawk’s grown large enough to fill the sky. It was a call, and the dragons came to it, striding over the torn and bloodied earth.

They were coming for her. She had roused them; now she would pay. Her blood would complete the spell.

She was ready. She faced them with her head up, too far gone to be afraid.

The horse snorted. No wonder it followed her; it was too stupid to run away from dragons. It flattened its ears and snaked its head and snapped teeth in the face of the tall child of earth.

The child of earth had eaten enough of its kind today that she had no appetite left. She blinked lazily at the horse, and hissed.

The horse lunged. Charis hauled it back.

They stood poised, she and the horse and the child of earth. The horse would kill if she let it, and be killed in return. And that might rid her of the meddlesome thing, but there would still be the rest of it to contend with.

They were all waiting for her to move, to speak–something. “Come home now,” she heard herself say as if they had been her children. “It’s time to sleep.”

That was the maddest thing she had said or done in all this mad season. The earth’s children never came home. They always went away. And that was a good thing, because if they had no horsemen to feed on, then they would turn on the people.

Not if she told them otherwise, the tall one’s gaze said. They would go back into the earth. They would sleep, as she bade them; and wake when she called, too, if the rivermen came. Or more horsemen. Or–

“Why?” she asked. “Why would you do it?”

The golden eyes lidded. The tall crest went flat. It was an answer, but not one her human mind could understand. The closest it could come was a vision, an image behind her eyes: young Thistle objecting strenuously to maternal discipline, but giving in in the end, because Charis was even stronger-willed than she.

“I’m not your mother!” she burst out.

Was that laughter? Could a dragon know such a thing?

Not their mother, no; that great power had never inhabited a frail human body. But she had something that no human had had before. She was not afraid of them.

“No,” she said. “I’m terrified.”

The child of earth opened its jaws and hissed. That was laughter, oh yes. Danger, too; teeth that could rend a horse in half and jaws that could swallow a human whole.

“Home,” she said, which was a surrender of sorts, and a command. If it wavered slightly, the children of earth seemed disinclined to notice. “Home, and sleep.”

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The winter field was quiet again, the children of earth asleep beneath it. Where the dragons had come up out of the ground, the grass had already begun to grow.

The plain was empty once more, and as clean as the aftermath of a battle could be. The pyres of the dead had burned for a hand of days, until a storm came out of the east and quenched the flames. The people had a herd of horses now, which some of the more enterprising were already teaching themselves to ride.

The world was changed, but some things were still, in spite of everything, the same. Thistle, who could not be kept off the back of the dun horse that had followed Charis home. Deion, who refused to enter the village even yet. And Charis, who had come back in the dark with the children of earth, and told no one what she had done.

Charis began to think that she might breathe again. Maybe even forget her great transgression, since nothing had been said of it. No one but Deion and Ione appeared to know, and they kept it to themselves.

No one needed to know. The people were safe. Would be safe now for as long as she was alive.

She went out one morning when the heat was already rising, for the summer that year had come early and strong. Deion had a tent now, pitched in a fold of the ground so that the wind off the plain swept over it rather than through it. He had a campfire, and one way and another there was always something cooking over it. Much of it he hunted for himself; and people slipped him whatever they could spare.

He was not so thin now, but the brightness that had gone out of him had never come back. She saw the faintest glimmer of it as he glanced up from tending his fire, before his eyes lidded and his face locked shut.

She had brought a knob of sheep’s cheese and a basket of berries from the summer pasture. They went pleasantly with the rabbit that turned on a spit over the flames.

“You could leave,” she said as they shared the last of the bones, cracking them and sucking out the marrow.

“Is that a command?” he asked.

His voice was as flat as his expression. She had a sudden, powerful urge to slap him silly.

She tossed the last cracked bone into the fire. “Tell me why you stay.”

“Where else would I go?”

“Anywhere in the world,” she said.

“Do you want me to leave?”

“What would you do if I said yes?”

He prodded the embers until they burst into flame. His hand shook ever so slightly. “If you meant it, I would obey.”

“Of course I would mean it!”

“Then say it,” he said.

Her teeth clicked together. She would say it. She was long since finished with him. What he had done–

She had done worse. His sin was to try to save the people, but to fail at it. She had succeeded. Except that no one knew, except this man and her sister.

He paid every day for his transgression. She…

She stood without a word, turned and walked away.

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The Mother heard her out in perfect and awful silence. The elders twitched and murmured at parts of the tale she told, but she was not speaking to them. She kept her eyes on the Mother’s face.

It gave her nothing back. Belief, disbelief–nothing.

“And now,” Charis said when she was done, “they sleep again beneath the earth. Even the children of the stones. In spring they’ll wake. Or sooner if there’s need. They promised me.”

Still, nothing.

“And I will go,” she said. “I know the penalty.”

“Do you?”

She was so steeped in the Mother’s silence that the words seemed to come out of the ground, with no lips or tongue to speak them. Her mind focused slowly. “I know what I did.”

“Do you?”

Every mother could drive her daughter to distraction; so could Charis. It was an art of mothers.

“Tell me what I don’t understand,” Charis said.

“Most things,” the Mother answered.

Charis could hardly argue with that. She stood in the elders’ circle, with the sun beating down even through the branches of the tree that had shaded their summer councils for time out of mind. People had wandered over, curious, or looking for a respite from the labor of making land and people whole again.

She wondered if any of them could feel the sleepers beneath. Every part of the village now had its defenders. A whole nest of them slept under the winter field, that would need no seedstones planted this autumn, or for many an autumn after.

Charis had done that. She would see to it that the Mother and the elders looked to Ione for the things that Charis would not be there to teach them. Ione knew what to do and say and sing when the time of waking came.

She opened her mouth to speak, but the Mother’s uplifted hand forestalled her. “I am not going to let you go,” she said. “That would be the easy thing, and the simple one. I command you to stay, and see us all through to the end of what you have done.”

“That could be a long sentence,” Charis said.

“Longer than your life,” said the Mother.

Charis shivered. Death was part of life; everyone knew that. But the Mother was binding her to this place as the defenders were–from life into life, down all the long years.

It was a fair price, all things considered. Terrible, but fair.

She bowed to it. There was a moment, a brief flicker of regret, that she would not be faring out into the wide world after all. It vanished quickly.

This was her place. Her people were here. Her kin; her children. The children of earth, who had bound themselves to her, or she to them. She was not entirely clear on the finer points of that.

She would learn. The Mother had made sure of it.

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Deion was still sitting where she had left him. She had not been entirely sure he would be. If it had been she, she would have packed up and gone.

He had always been slower at the simmer.

“Take down your tent,” she said, “and cover the fire. You won’t be needing them any more.”

His breath caught: all the sign of shock that he would let her see. “And you?”

“I’m condemned to stay,” she said.

“I’m sure that grieves you.”

“As much as it would you.”

“That’s not my choice, is it?” he said.

“No.” She doused his fire with water from the skin that lay near it, and swept earth over it.

He stood stiff, watching her. She straightened. “Now the tent.”

“You hate me that much,” he said.

“That depends,” she said.

“On what?”

“On what you do with all this,” she said, “once it’s down and packed.”

“What can I do but leave?”

Idiot man. Maybe he should just go.

Then who would make her want to laugh or slap him in equal measure? And who would mind the children when she needed another set of hands?

“You can come back,” she said, and her voice was as steady as it needed to be.

His face went perfectly blank. “You know I can’t do that.”

“Have you tried?”

He opened his mouth. Shut it.

She set her hand to the tent. After a long count of breaths, so did he. When it was down, the poles wrapped in the painted felt and all lashed together, she left him to do what he would do.

She heard him behind her: the grunt as he lifted the bundle of tent and poles and balanced it on his shoulder. She would not slow or turn, but her ears strained. Dreading to hear him walking away.

He kept a steady distance–a few steps behind. Through the maze. Into the village. All the way to the house the two of them had built, not so far from the winter field.

He went past and around it to the lean-to in the back, where he stowed his bundle, along with the rest of the odds and bits that a man and a woman and their assortment of children might find useful. When he came out, he stood straighter, and the light was back in his eye: not so bright yet, but it would grow.

He was home. And so, at last, was she.

____
Copyright 2014 Judith Tarr

Judith Tarr is the author of numerous novels and short stories including the World Fantasy Award nominee for Best Novel, Lord of the Two Lands, and the Epona Sequence of “prehistorical” novels, which opens with White Mare’s Daughter. She is a member of Book View Cafe, the online authors’ cooperative; she lives near Tucson, Arizona, where she raises and trains Lipizzan horses.

By A.C. Wise

 

I. The Magician

“What do you think?” the Old Man asks, turning my question back at me. He taps the tarot card with one finger, nail tobacco-yellow and tipped in a crescent moon of dirt. “Sacred or profane? Sinner or Saint?”

He pushes the card closer as if I haven’t already looked my fill. The photograph pasted to the board shows the woman whose story I’ve come to gather – Erzebetta, no last name – the Carnival Queen. Feathers ring her collar and rise from her hair. There are shadows around her head, what could be smudges on the photograph, but distinctly in the shape of feathers, beaks, and the blur of wings.

The photograph is worn, edges made velvet-soft from handling, lightning-struck with pale creases. Even faded, Erzebetta’s expression is defiant, head held high. Yes. A queen. A goddess even.

I look up to catch the Old Man grinning. Light slides through his eyes, winking without lowering a lid. It’s as if he’s read my mind and seen it made up before I even talk to the list of people he’s given me. My neck prickles, and I try not to blush.

“I’m just here to write a book, sir,” I say.

“But you must have an opinion, hey? It’s been nearly a month since the conflagration. Plenty of time for rumor to spread, especially with tongues wagging right from the start.”

I shake my head, but it’s answer enough for him. He leans back, lanky frame barely contained by the whole of his smoke-stained trailer, crowded with the ghosts of cigarettes past.

“So, you have your list,” he says, expectant weight in the words.

“Sorry. I almost forgot. The smokes you asked for.” I hold out four cigarettes fished from my shirt pocket. “Are you sure you wouldn’t rather have the whole pack?”

“Four will do.” He plucks them from my hand one by one, pushes Erzebetta’s picture out of the way, and lays them out in a row. He takes a penknife from his pocket and a packet of rolling papers.

“What about the girls?” I ask. “I don’t see any of their names on the list.”

“Most of them ran off after the troubles. Can’t blame them, me. Besides, a man like you doesn’t want the chatter of a bunch of silly birds cluttering up his book.”

I open my mouth to answer, but the movement of his hands catches my attention, though I swear I never took my eyes off them for more than a second as he slit each of my four cigarettes down the middle and re-rolled their contents in his own papers. The battered table is lined with sixteen cigarettes, sixteen dead soldiers, shroud-wrapped and waiting their burial day.

“Good trick, hey?” He looks up. For a brief moment, his eyes are gold. It must be the light, or all the smoke – curing the Old Man in his trailer, like dried meat and old leather.

At the thought, I can’t help another glance at the Old Man’s handiwork, mounted on the walls, all the other eyes watching me – The Fiji Mermaid, the Jackalope, the two-headed calf, the werewolf pup, and even a demon or two. The Old Man swears his are the originals, he gave Barnum the idea.

“Smoke?” he offers. I shake my head.

He shrugs, sticks the cigarette in the corner of his mouth and produces a strike box of matches seemingly from thin air. There’s a lewd picture of a woman on the top that looks stuck there by hand. The Old Man breathes out, adding more smoke ghosts to the wall. The smell is cloves and cinnamon, nothing that was in the cigarettes I gave him. He smiles slow this time, gaze half-lidded, which only makes him seem more watchful.

“So,” he says, and taps the picture again. “I suppose you want to hear about the day Erzebetta fell from the sky?”

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II. The High Priestess

Say what you want, but I’m no fool, me. Except when I am, but that’s another tale and nothing you need worry yourself with just yet.

I know when trouble’s coming. I can feel it like a wind up my tail. That night, it came in a storm, all done up in lightning and thunder. So I set myself up with a smoke, poured a little whiskey in my tea, and stood right in my trailer door to see what the howling night would bring.

That’s how I was the first to see her when she fell out of the sky.

She was a sight, right enough, tumbling ass over teakettle into the mess of mud outside my trailer. If I hadn’t seen her fall, I would have sworn on my own mother’s grave she was nothing but a pile of old rags being picked over by birds. I even heard those birds shriek just before she stood up to show she was a woman, not a bundle of cloth and wings.

Even with her boots heels sunk deep in the dirt, and mud spattered all up her legs, even wearing scarce more than silk panties, with her skirt bunched behind her, a froth of black fabric just as pretty as a peacock’s tail, dragging down in the muck, she lifted her chin and glared right at me like I was the one trespassing. Feathers peeked out from her corset, and only a fool would think they grew right out of her skin, despite the tricks the lightning played. There were feathers in her hair, too, all draggled by the rain. Crow, they were, black as her eyes, which wept more black where her make-up ran. Only thing about her not black or mud spattered were her teeth. They were white as milk and sharp as anything when she showed them to speak.

“Old Man. Aren’t you going to invite me in?”

What does a body say to a thing like that? I did the charitable thing, me. No sense giving trouble anger for fuel on top of everything else. I let her track mud all over my floors, let her trail her fingers over my things, like she was marking me by what I owned. I poured her whiskey, which she took without tea. I let her pace round and round my trailer, and never said a word aloud as to how she smelled of life and death, sex and blood.

“Do you know who I am?” she said at last.

Her eyes were fierce, all black lightning and wicked as the storm. I could see by their look she wanted me whipped, tail tucked between my legs and all. She wanted my belly, rolled for her wicked-sharp teeth, or failing that, my throat.

But I’m in no hurry to see my own demise, me, and,  “I think I got a fair idea,” says I to her, stalling for time.

I gave her a look like maybe I was trying to place where I’d seen her before. I knew exactly who she was, but I figured there was no sense in showing my hand too soon. By the look she gave me right back, I wasn’t fooling her. Erzebetta wasn’t like me. She was in a rush to put her cards on the table and see if I’d fold from the blow.

“Well then, Dad,” she says. “Since we got a lot of catching up to do and I’m going to be around for a while, why don’t you start by offering me a job?”

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III. The Empress

Snips, they call me. Ain’t my real name, but I reckon you guessed that already, what with your book smarts and all. And I don’t guess you want to hear about me or what name my mama gave me. It’s no account, like me, which is what Daddy always said about me, so much I almost thought that might be my name for a while. No Account. But there I go rambling when you’re here to hear about Miss Erzebetta, our Carnival Queen.

She was real pretty. But I guess you know that already, too. She wasn’t pretty like the dancing girls, mind you. They were a soft kind of pretty, one you could touch. Miss Erzebetta was different. Like the kind of pretty what scares you, you know? Like a shiny bug, and you don’t know if it’s poison til it bites you.

The Old Man, that’s what we call him, he gave her the girlie show to run. She popped right up one day and asked for a job, and he gave it to her, no questions asked. It’s funny, though. The Old Man ain’t really in charge. Charlie’s the boss. Leastwise it’s his trailer we line up outside of on payday, but even Charlie knows the real score.

So when the Old Man said Miss Erzebetta was going to run the girlie show, well, that’s just what happened. I think he did it to needle her. She was real proud-like, Miss Erzebetta. Like I said, a Queen. The Old Man probably thought it’d be funny to give her girlie show, but if he was looking for her to turn her nose up, she never did give him the satisfaction.

I’ll tell you, she flipped the show round right quick, and got all the girls eating right out of her hand like birds to seed. One of the first things she did was bring me on her crew.

When she asked, “Is there anyone here I can count on to do whatever I say, with no questions or back-talk?” I said right away, “Yes’m, that’s me.”

The other boys, Rib, and Toad-Licker, and even Geech teased me about being in love with her. I’ll allow as maybe they were right. I only knew I wanted to do things to make her happy, you know? Or maybe it was just that I never wanted to find out whether her bite was poisonous. I ‘spect Rib and Geech and Toad-Licker felt the same way, though they never said as much, and it never stopped their teasing.

Anyway, she brought me on her crew to work the lights. Geech ran the curtain, Toad-Licker cleaned up the stage, and Rib guarded the door just in case there was any trouble.

I don’t know when Miss Erzebetta got all the girls together to rehearse her new show. She never let us see beforehand. I guess she trusted us to get everything right on the first try without any practice, and I’ll tell you what – we did.

Thinking on it now, maybe it was some kind of magic, you know? Like maybe there was a spell cast on the whole room the night Miss Erzebetta put on her first show. Otherwise I can’t explain it.

Miss Erzebetta’s show weren’t like no girlie show I ever saw before. It was almost like going to church, and you can say I’m a sinner for saying so, but it’s the truth. That’s just what it felt like, with all the men sitting on the wooden benches like pews, and a hush over everything while they waited for the curtain to rise.

There was a kind of ‘lectricity in the air, like a storm about to break, and I swear the hair stood right up on the back of my neck. I felt like laughing and dancing and crying all at once, and even now I can’t say why.

The Old Man even showed up, like he wanted to see what Miss Erzebetta would do, same as the rest of us. He didn’t sit in the seats, of course. He just leaned in the doorway with his arms crossed, like he didn’t care one way or the other about being there, except he did care. I could tell.

I guess at some point Miss Erzebetta decided the waiting had gone on long enough. I don’t remember how I knew the right moment, but I did. Smooth as butter, I flipped the first light on – a spot as full and bright as the moon, right in the center of the stage – right as the curtains glided back like water. There was a gasp, a kind of rippling thing that spread across the room like wind over tall grass. There weren’t no girls on the stage yet, just a pile of rags and a bunch of birds settling their wings.

Before anyone got angry so that Rib had to throw them out, the rags unfolded. I don’t know how to say it any better, or how Miss Erzebetta pulled it off. It was like a magic trick. I swear when the curtain went up it was just rags and birds on the stage. Then suddenly Miss Erzebetta was there, stretching herself up to her full height. The birds circled her once, then they just kind of disappeared into her so everyone could see they must have imagined them after all.

After that, Miss Erzebetta started talking. She was wearing a skimpy costume and all, the same thing she always wore, and it showed plenty of skin, but she never took any of her clothes off. She just stood there and told a story. Funny thing is, all those men who’d paid to see girls flash their titties, not one of them got mad or tried to leave. They all sat with their feet rooted in the floor like they’d grown there.

The story Miss Erzebetta told, well, I’ll remember it word for word til I die. The first thing she was: “In the beginning, in the dark before the world, there were the People, and the Spirits, and Coyote was among them.”

When she said that, it was just like someone dropped a handful of ice right down my back. I don’t know what made me do it, but I looked over at the Old Man right as she said those words. He nodded, like he knew what she was going to say, and could tell the story word for word along with her if anyone asked. There was kind of a faraway look about him, too, like he was sad and wicked, mad and bad and crazy all at once. It put a picture in my head of a mangy dog chasing its tail and trying to get rid of fleas, but grinning wild the whole time, with a red tongue hanging out between its teeth as it spun.

I can tell you, it scared me more than anything and I had to look away quick-like. The other funny thing, when I looked away I saw my hands had been working the lights the whole time, like they knew what to do and didn’t need me at all.

The stage was lit up all pink and orange like the sun coming up at the beginning of the world. Miss Erzebetta raised her arms, and the dancing girls came onto the stage. They weren’t dressed in their spangles and beads, mind you. They were dressed like regular folk, only some were dressed like women, and some like men.

The next thing Miss Erzebetta said was: “The men and women lived in harmony with each other, and with the Spirits, except for Coyote, who grew bored. So Coyote thought of a good joke to play. He pissed a river to separate the women from the men, and he laughed while he did it like it was the funniest thing he’d ever seen.”

Pardon my language, but that’s just how she said it, and I want to tell it right. She used an awful lot of words most folks don’t say in polite company, let alone a lady sayin’ em. But that’s how she was, Miss Erzebetta.

A shadow flickered on the wall behind her. My hands were playing tricks with the light again, making a monster with bristled fur and jaws stretched wide. The light on the stage changed, too, pooling yellow between her feet, like there really was a river of piss there.

Then Miss Erzebetta said: “At first the men and women made a game of the river. They put words and gifts and toys into clay pots and boats woven out of twigs, and tried to float them to the other side. They called to each other, and danced and laughed. But after a time, the women sang, not with words, but with sweet, dark sounds from their throats. And they changed the way they danced so it wasn’t playful anymore. The dancing and the song made the men feel their pulsing blood, and it put thoughts of everything they couldn’t have into their heads. And you can bet that was Coyote’s doing, too.”

When she said that last bit, her tone change, and she looked right at the Old Man. Her eyes were black-black, just like ink, and it scared me almost as bad as looking at the Old Man and seeing that mangy dog.

While Miss Erzebetta stared at the Old Man, the girls dressed like men hung their tongues out and panted, and the girls dressed like women danced. And I don’t mind telling you how the dancing put thoughts in my head, just like Miss Erzebetta said in the story.

I’d rolled with a few of the girls from time to time. Lots of us had. If they were in the mood, the girls would give us a good price, and sometimes, if they were in a really good mood, they would roll for free. But even the ones I knew, well, when they danced up there on the stage, they were like nothing I’d ever seen before. They were wild and strange and I don’t know what. If I didn’t know better, I’d almost say they weren’t human.

“And even that wasn’t enough for Coyote,” Miss Erzebetta said. “So he put thoughts of fucking into the women’s heads, too. And because they couldn’t reach the men, the women gathered branches and stones, smooth-polished bones and horns from the ground. They stripped off their clothes, and laid down right there on the river bank and pleasured themselves where the men could see, but not touch.”

You’ll pardon my language again, but that’s just what she said, word for word. Anyway, the girls up on stage acted out what Miss Erzebetta said. They took their clothes off, but it weren’t like no normal girlie show. Like I said, it was like being in church, only with naked girls doing all kinds of ungodly things.

Sometimes, when Miss Erzebetta spoke, it sounded like birdsong. Sometimes it sounded like thunder. All the while my hands were doing things with the lights. The girls on stage gleamed blue; they turned into starlight and moonlight.

As Miss Erzebetta spoke, the girls gathered stones and bones, smooth wood and horn and feathers from the stage. I don’t know where they came from, they were just there for the girls to pick up. When they stroked them slick and wet between their legs, moaning and crying out just like they were lying with a man, I had to look away. I swear I heard someone in the benches cryin’, and someone else being sick.

I didn’t look to see for sure, but I’ll bet out of everyone there, the Old Man was the only who never looked away, never blinked either, cuz he’d seen it all before.

Then Miss Erzebetta said, “In their desire, the men built creatures out of mud, things they could fuck while the women pleasured themselves.”

I almost couldn’t bear to look, but it was like I had to, you know? The girls dressed as men, they were doing just what Miss Erzebetta said, too. They had buckets and they poured mud onto the stage and built it into shapes that looked almost like women, but like monsters, too. I can’t say for sure, but I swear some of the girls had man-parts between their legs when they took their clothes off.

The last thing Miss Erzebetta said, while the women writhed around with the bones and the wood, and the girl-men fucked the things made of mud was: “And, because they copulated with bones and horn, branches and feathers and stone, the women became pregnant. And because the men fucked the mud, the river bank became pregnant, too. And because it was the time before the beginning of the world, the river dried up when the sun rose, and the men and the women, together again, had to live with what they’d done. And the women and the riverbank gave birth to monsters – girls with feathers in their skin, and boys with mud in their bones – by the next fullness of the moon.”

Then just like that, the lights went out. Bam! Without me even touching ‘em. I expected folks to yell in the sudden dark, but it was so still you could hear a pin drop. The men just sat there, breathing quiet, and even I felt like I was half asleep. When I finally shook myself up to turn the lights on, I felt all heavy, like pins and needles going up and down my legs.

Well, I got the lights on, and the men were all still sitting right where they were when Miss Erzebetta said the last word. They were staring up at the stage, only it was empty now, like they were waiting for her to come back. If me and Rib and Geech hadn’t finally thought to shoo them away, they might be sitting there still.

I don’t know what Miss Erzebetta did, but her telling that story was like a magician with a pocket watch. From that night on, Miss Erzebetta was our Queen, without anyone saying so, and we were all under her spell.

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IV. The Emperor

I’m going to tell you a story. It’ll sound like two stories, but it’s really only one story, see? This story is just for you. Oh, you can put it in your fancy book if you want, but really, this story is for you and me.

After the time of the river, the men and women got to being afraid of the things they’d made by fucking mud and bone. So they made offerings of smoke and food to anyone who would listen. A bunch of us got together and came down to see what all the fuss was about, and everyone got to arguing about whether the monsters should live or die.

Those creatures had been born through no fault of their own, but that didn’t seem to matter much to anyone. No one likes having their wickedness shoved back in their face, I suppose. Everyone was too busy being ashamed of what they’d done that I guess no one remembered the whole mess was my fault. And since I can yell louder than most, me, everyone listened when I told them I had a plan.

There’s a thing about monsters most people don’t understand. What really makes a monster is wanting, always wanting to be something you’re not, and fighting against what’s down deep in your bones. Too many folks spend too much time trying to make their bones match their skin, but a bone’s never going to be but what it is. You fight bone-nature, and that’s when you become monstrous.

While everyone was arguing and worrying, I’d looked over all those so-called monsters. I knew which ones wanted and which ones knew their bones and skin. I know a thing or two about what kind of monsters the world needs, just to keep things interesting, see? A good joke gets spoiled if you don’t tell it all the way to the end.

So I said we’d draw lots for the monsters, a stick that was either cut with a mark or not for each one. If there was a mark on the stick, then the monster would be drowned, and if there wasn’t, they’d live in exile, far away from the folks that fucked them into being. The men and women all agreed, because even though they didn’t want their get around, no one wanted death on their hands, either. They figured it wouldn’t be wicked if they left it up to fate.

I like games, me, but I like the ones where I win the best. So I rigged the draw. And in the end, I decided each and every time which of the monsters would live, and which would die. So I birthed them twice, the ones who lived. I pissed a river so they got born in the first place, and I didn’t cut a stick for some, so they’d be born again. Some of them never forgave me for that.

You might think I’m wicked, me. But I am what I am in my skin and my bones. Trying to be otherwise, that would make me a monster.

Now here’s the other part of the story, which is the same story, see?

In the Starving Time, there were hard winters, and dry summers. Men didn’t have enough food to put on their tables, and cattle were scarce more than skin and bone. There was no grass to feed them, but men went right on breeding, making more mouths they couldn’t fill. And I was hungry, too.

There’s belly hunger, and there’s hunger that goes deeper and wider and all the way through. I was both kinds of hungry, me, so I set to singing under the moon and calling all my brothers and sisters, all my husbands and wives and children together. I told them about all the good things the men had to eat in their camps and behind their fences, and I sent them down from of the hills, all hungry jaws and wide smiles.

Course, when they got there, they found nothing but the bones of cattle, because whatever men had in those days, they’d already picked clean and still their bellies sang for more. My kin, they sang right back to that belly-hunger, howling their frustration in the shadows, just outside the circle of men’s hearth fires and campfires.

And didn’t that just put fear up the spines of the men, thinking about their loved ones falling to white teeth and wide jaws? So they loaded up their guns. They shot my brother first, and nailed his skin right up a barn door so the rest of us would know to stay away.

With my brother shot, there was more food for the rest of us. Just a mouthful, mind, but it was still one mouthful more than we’d had before. The thing about one mouthful is, it ain’t powerful enough to kill a hunger. One mouthful feeds a hunger, gives it teeth, makes it howl.

It wasn’t difficult to convince my kin to keep harrying those farms and those campfires, despite my brother’s skin up on the wall. Even his sons and daughters went right under their daddy’s eyes, all dripping buzzy fly tears, pissing and scratching and trying to mark the farmer’s land for their own. They even managed to snatch a babe right out of its cradle, under its mam’s sleeping nose, and didn’t that make a feast between them, tearing all that lovely red meat from those delicate bones?

If our singing put shivers up men’s spines, the death of a babe put rage in their bellies, enough so they almost thought they were full for a while. Those men howled almost as good as me and mine that night, calling for blood.

And while they were all het up, I walked right into the men’s circle of firelight, me, going on two legs, growl traded for grin. I told them where to find the dens; I told them where to put their snares; I left the fire and laid down musk and piss as lures, and led my kin right into the muzzles of those death-screaming guns.

Without all my brothers and sisters, husbands and wives, daughters and sons gobbling up what scarceness there was, just imagine how many mouthfuls were left for me.

And with all my kin gone, the men put their guns away. After a while, they felt so safe, they even started leaving their windows open again. And you can just imagine what a feast I had then.

When it was all said and done, my belly was full to bursting. It was a good joke I played, me, but I had no one to share it with. So I lay down among the corpses of my sons and daughters, my brothers and sisters, my husbands and wives. I let the flies tickle my ears and dance on my snout. And I wept a flood to cleanse the earth of every sin. Or enough to end the drought and bring the crops back, leastwise.

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V. The Hierophant

I guess Snips already told all about the show, so there’s no sense in telling that part again. I can tell you what came after though, cuz Miss Erzebetta kept me on to guard the door, even when she changed everything, on account of I’m big, so people think I’m mean, too.

After that first night, there weren’t no more girlie shows. Instead, Miss Erzebetta taught the girls to tell fortunes. She made her own set of cards, Miss Erzebetta, I mean. She used pictures of people in the carnival. She even used one of me. Ain’t nobody ever thought I was worth putting on a card before, let alone to tell the future, but she did and that was fine by me.

She said something to me once that I don’t full understand, but it stuck with me, I guess. She said: “Rib, if you let the world tell your tale, nothing will ever be like you want it. You have to make your own story. It’s the only way to get the world to fall in line. They’re powerful things, stories. They can shape just about anything, if you tell them right. You remember that, Rib.”

I did just that, I guess, even though I don’t know what it means. Except that now I think back on it, maybe that’s what Miss Erzebetta was doing with the cards, telling a story. It’s like her girlie show told the way the world used to be, and the cards told the way she wanted it to be. I guess that sounds crazy, don’t it?

Anyway, even though there weren’t no more girlie shows, men still lined up at Miss Erzebetta’s to get their fortunes told. Some of the girls got pretty good at reading those cards, too. Some of them even were cards, like me, part of Miss Erzebetta’s story.

Well, there’s another part, which I probably shouldn’t say, but I guess it’s all over now so it don’t matter much. Even though they weren’t dancing no more, you could still pay some of the girls for their time, after they told your fortune and all. I guess that must be how some of them got pregnant. Anyway, I just wanted to add that bit in case it’s important, for your book and all.

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Shuffle

“Hey,” the Old man says. “Let me give you a piece of advice for free.”

He taps the table, startling me. Then in one smooth motion he sweeps up the cards laid between us, Erzebetta’s photographs, and shuffles them in his yellow-nailed hands.

“Stories got their own rhythm and flow,” he says. “You got to let them take their own shape, tell the bits they need you to know in their own order and time. That way you get to skip all the boring parts, hey?”

He spreads the cards out on the table in a new order. His hands are quick, just like they were rolling cigarettes that became sixteen from four.

“There,” he says, and taps the first card in the new pattern. “That’s a good one. Start here.”

He lights another cigarette, breathes out a picture in smoke, and grins.

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XII. The Hanged Man

That’s right, Elb, with an El and a Bee, Constable. You got that down? Right then.

The whole thing was an awful business, I can tell you that much. Right from the get go, the missus got after me about rousting them up and sending them on down the road, going on about the ‘sorts’ the carnival attracted. Tell you the truth, I didn’t like having the carnival right on our doorstep either, but I told her let it be – carnival usually only stays a week at most.

Least that’s how it was every other year. They blew into town and right back out again, leaving pockets a few dollars lighter, but folks happier for all that. ‘Cept this time, they stayed. Planted themselves down and never got back up again. The missus was right, not that I’d tell her so.

She kept at me, though. Especially after the tent city grew up with all the folks who styled that woman who joined up with them some kind of prophet. I don’t rightly know what that was about. I heard tell of some kind of show, and talk that she could tell the future. Most of the time, I just kept my head down and let it wash over me. Weren’t none of my business, way I figured it.

Sure every now and then we’d get a call about a fight getting out of hand, and I’d gather some of the boys to go see. More often than not, all it took was us showing up in uniform for everyone to settle down and go their separate ways. It was a nuisance, but no real trouble. I wasn’t fussed much, but the missus, well… I guess you’re wishing you could talk to her, too. I’m sure she’d give you an earful, but to tell you the truth, she don’t even talk to me much these days. She’s staying up with her sister now, so I guess you’ll have to take my word for her side of the story.

Anyway, she wasn’t the only one worked up about matters. There was a whole group that met up at the church pretty regular, the committee for moral decency or some such.

I don’t know what all is truth since I never did see anything too bad with my own eyes. But I can tell you what the committee for moral decency thought was going on up there. They said all the folks from the carnival and the folks from the tent city would gather up in the field and dance around without their clothes on, rutting like animals, and worshipping the devil.

Like I said, I don’t know what’s true and what’s not. All I can say is the business with Bessie’s little girl was a tragedy, and what happened after with that carnival gal wasn’t right neither. A thing like that isn’t justice, it’s…well, I’ll just say sometimes even good, decent people can get to feeding off their own bile until they’re no better than a pack of starving dogs.

The carnival gal, she was a real looker. Etoile was her name. That’s French for star, on account of how she was the star of, ahem, the show, before that odd bird came in and changed it all. Well, I guess maybe she was still the star, but in a different way. Like I said, I don’t pretend to know what went on up there. I never did go and get my fortune told. Truth is, the idea kinda scared me. Though I guess if the cards had told me the missus was gonna up and stay with her sister, maybe I could have done something about it. Maybe not.

What I can say is what set everything to unraveling was Bessie Williams’ little girl going missing. She was a pretty thing, blonde curls and sweet little apple cheeks and the bluest eyes you ever saw. She had her daddy and her momma both wrapped around her little finger, and she was barely even talking yet.

Anyway, as soon as she went missing, the committee for moral decency pointed their fingers straight at the carnival. I tried to talk some sense into them, the missus mostly, but she would have none of it. Let’s not be hasty, is all I said, and I’ll have my boys look into it. And we did, but I don’t mind telling you she gave me the cold shoulder just the same.

We did find Bessie’s little girl, two days later, but there wasn’t much left of her. Nasty business. She’d been tore up, like some animal got at her. My money’s on a rabid dog, or maybe a coyote. The committee for moral decency wouldn’t hear any of it. They said it was a blood sacrifice, and maybe they fed that little girl to wild dogs after she was dead, but sure as anything, it was the carnival folks who were to blame.

Now, I’ll admit, maybe my blood got up a little bit, too, seeing that poor little girl torn apart and Bessie so heartbroken. I like to think I couldn’t have done more to stop what happened next, but some days I just don’t know.

My boys and me, we did our jobs, I can promise you that. We’re not the type of lawmen who look the other way when one of our own is involved, no sir. But there was only so much we could do. A whole mob descended on the carnival, so I can’t even say any one person was to blame.

Still, it is a shame. Like I said, Etoile was real pretty. She used to get up all in silver and crystal beads, hanging everywhere in ropes on her so you couldn’t quite tell whether she was wearing anything under them. Ahem. Well, maybe it’s best you don’t put that bit in your book right there. For decency’s sake, you know

Anyway, like I said, it wasn’t right what happened to her. It wasn’t justice, stringing her up like that by her ankle, her throat slashed, leaving her to bleed dry. They cut her belly, too. There was a baby. Of sorts. At least that’s what I heard. I mean folks said it wasn’t natural, but I don’t know.

I do have a picture here somewhere, though, if you want to see. A word of fair warning: It’s not for the faint of heart.

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XV. The Devil

Who was it you think put the idea of the hanging into those people’s minds in the first place? Sometimes the old tricks are the best ones. And sometimes what looks like two stories or three, is really all the same story. And every story needs a villain. You either have to be one or the other, hero or villain, to get written into the fabric of the world.

I am what I am, me. In my skin and in my bones.

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XVI. The Tower

The Old Man leans back, blowing smoke at the ceiling. Sixteen cigarettes have become four again, but this time by the normal means.

“One spark is all it takes to set a pyre to blaze so long as it’s built right,” the Old Man says. “Me and Erzebetta, we built that pyre right and high all summer long. She thought she was raising up an army against me with her girls, showing she could birth monsters every bit as good as me, but she had no idea.”

He seems proud, like he knows my mind was made up the moment I saw the pictures of the girl with her belly cut and the thing they cut out of her. The way he grins, with all his grisly creations framing him on the wall, it’s like he’s just waiting for me to ask.

“How did you do it?” I say, not because I want to give him the satisfaction, but because I want him to see how quick I caught on to him.

“Some of my best work, if I do say.” The Old Man chuckles. “Turtle skin and squirrel bones, painted with tar. I’m wicked-clever, me. The demon infant cut out of the dead girl’s belly – proof the Devil’s work was being done. A glimpse here and there, and that’s your spark.”

I open my mouth, but the Old Man goes right on talking, with only the barest glance to make sure I’m writing everything down. There isn’t a bit of shame in him, like he can’t wait to boast to the whole world about what he’s done.

“Not that it mattered much. Folks had made up their minds already, hey? All they needed was a little shove in the right direction.

“They came with torches in hand, a mob to bring the demon down, to smoke the devil from her hole. Of course the men and women in the tent city fought back. They were ready to lay their lives down for Erzebetta at that point. All the fate and destiny she shaped in her cards did her some good, I suppose.”

The Old Man taps the cards piled neat on the table. He picks them up and shuffles them slow.

“Course, I doubt she ever promised a conflagration, hey? I doubt many folks would be so eager to sign up if she’d showed them that.”

The Old Man deals the cards, face down. They make dry, snapping sound against the table, like old bones.

“The tents caught first, all that canvas going up in a rush and the smoke pouring over everything and the wind catching and blowing it all around. What the wind didn’t carry, the men brought with their torches, marching toward Erzebetta’s temple to burn it to the ground. Oh, it was a sight, all that bloody-red gold, and sparks swirling up to kiss the stars.”

The Old Man pushes the remaining cigarettes aside to make more room for the cards. I read up on tarot when I first heard about Erzebetta’s deck, but this pattern I don’t recognize. It loops and swirls, taking up almost the entire table.

“It was a night of miracles,” the Old Man says. “Or of black sorcery, depending who’s doing the telling.” He looks at me, flashing a grin, like he’s going to ask my opinion again: sacred or profane? But he says nothing, waiting for me to speak first.

“So what happened?” I ask.

My notebook is full of different versions of what happened that night: Erzebetta walked untouched through the flames and vanished; a flock of dark birds dropped out of the sky and stole her away; she sprouted wings of her own and flew up into the stars. But I want to hear what the Old Man has to say, his side of the tale.

Instead of the glint in his eye and another boast, he surprises me and merely shrugs. “I don’t know. She would have said I’m not the kind of daddy that looks back after the birthing is done. Maybe she’s right, at that.”

“That’s it?” I say. I can’t help myself, I gape at him.

“That’s all,” the Old Man says. “Everything you need is right there.” He taps the edge of my notebook with one yellow-nailed finger. If I didn’t know better, I could swear the nail has grown.

I glance at the pattern of cards spread before him. There’s one left in his hand, but he doesn’t put it down. He holds onto it and looks up at me.

“Now, if don’t mind, I’m an old man, and old men need their rest, hey?”

That’s when the glint comes back into his eye, wicked and bright. He shows his teeth, just a fraction, and this time it isn’t a smile. Knowing everything he’s done, and proudly claimed, I can’t help myself. I gather up my papers and run.

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Null. The Fool

I’m going to tell you a story, and it’s the same story. It’s about a girl and her daddy, and how the girl hated her daddy and blamed him for every wrong thing that had ever happened in her life. It’s about how the girl set out to take away everything her daddy had built over long years, on account of hating him so. And it’s about how the girl failed, being as how her daddy was wicked old and had been telling tales since before the world had even thought to be born.

Thing is, she saw the carnival and thought it was all of my tale. But the carnival is only one story, which is the same story, and I’m wicked-good at tales, me. I’ve been telling this one so long hardly anyone sees the head or tail of it. Cut one part out, and the rest just keeps on going.

Now this part here, this is just for you, see? Not that boy and his book. Poor holy Fool, clutching his notes to his chest, full of fire and knowing  just what kind of tale he’s going to write. Gone running to proclaim my wickedness to the world.

He’d already made up his mind when came to my door with that picture of Erzebetta clutched in his hand, see? He had his hero. All he needed was a villain. I sent him off with the best there is, tucked in his back pocket.

Never let it be said I’m a poor host, me.

I’ll tell you a secret, and you can have this one for free. Tell someone they can’t have something, they’ll go to wanting it so bad it cracks the marrow from their bones. Tell them something’s no good for them, and it’s all they’ll be able to think on for days. Give them a devil, and it’ll set thrill up their spines, thinking on all that wickedness. They’ll tell its story to their children and their children’s children again and again, whispering its name in the dark, so as to keep feeling that thrill. And won’t that name just live on and on.

Oh I’m wicked, me.

Here’s another secret, and you can have this one for free, too. Misdirection is an easy thing. Put something smack in the middle of the frame, and most people won’t bother to look to the edges, the background. When most people look at the Fool card, what do they see? They see the bright, motley jester, dancing his way to the cliff’s edge. What they rarely notice is the little dog, snapping his bright sharp jaws at the Fool’s heels, driving him closer.

That’s my story, me.

Coyote, blurring out from the edge of the picture frame. Coyote grinning, and driving the tale.

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Copyright 2014 A.C. Wise.

A.C. Wise was born and raised in Montreal and currently lives in the Philadelphia area. Her fiction has appeared in Clarkesworld, Shimmer, Apex, and the Year’s Best Weird Fiction Vol. 1, among other places. She also co-edits the online magazine, Unlikely Story. You can find her online at www.acwise.net and on twitter as @ac_wise. 

by M. Huw Evans

It’s easier when I pretend not to know him–when I think of him as a stranger and remind myself that he will still have a normal life. Maybe a better one, even.

I used to wear a mask or a fake beard to disguise myself, but he hasn’t recognized me for a long time.

I let myself into his second-floor apartment using a key hidden under the mat. I sit on his couch and hit play on the stereo remote. Radiohead’s Amnesiac, like always.

At thirty-two minutes past the hour, I kill the music and walk to the kitchen window. Rain splatters the street below. I can almost hear it.

I try not to see the chef knife on the counter. Nightmares are made of the time when things went bad. When I screwed up the dose and he woke up. There was a struggle and I panicked. I avoid knives, now.

He rides up to the building and locks his bicycle to a post. I retreat to the bathroom and wait behind the door. I remind myself how much I need this. It’s not hurting him. Not really. If you don’t know what you’ve lost, you can hardly miss it.

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I first met Annabelle one year, twenty-seven weeks, and two days prior to our wedding. That was nineteen weeks and six days before my dissertation defense; three years, fifteen weeks, and a day prior to the birth of our daughter, Maggie.

I met Annabelle at an Italian restaurant near Green Lake.

What I remember about the evening–the thing about that first meeting that I’m surprised I remember–is the bit of cork floating in my wine. Each time I return to that scene, to my seat at the bar, as close to the piano as possible, it’s the tiny cork raft that I see, floating on the black-red ocean. And it’s a nocturne for piano that I hear.

I was the token grad student at a faculty recruitment dinner. My adviser, John Hicks, was present, along with several other epidemiology professors. My job was to eat quietly, drink little, laugh at the candidate’s jokes, and answer occasional questions. Patrick, someone might say, tell us about the temporal trends in your VA cardiovascular cohort, and I would tell them.

Disjointed phrases of “Girl From Ipanema” filled the space between personal anecdotes and pithy discussions. I had noticed a piano over by the bar when we entered, but I couldn’t recall when the music had started. I strained to assemble the notes in my head–to follow the syncopated melody. Then it ended, to be replaced by Chopin’s “Murmures de la Seine.” I lost track of the table conversation completely–hadn’t a clue who or what was being discussed. By the time I recognized my distraction, there was no way to recover. I couldn’t go back and replay the conversation that I’d missed. The only way to avoid embarrassment was to head for the restroom before anyone asked my opinion.

The pianist sat with her back to the diners, facing the lounge. Pale braids circled her head and a halter top dress displayed a tall neck and smooth shoulders dotted with freckles. Her elbows floated away from her body with each swell of the melody. Long fingers dripped from her hands to the faux-ivory keys. Extended trills and rapid arpeggios seemed effortless. I allowed myself a backward glance as I passed. Her eyes were closed, her lips parted.

On my return to the table, she was playing “Time Is On My Side.” She looked up and smiled.

I have no memory of the rest of dinner. I must not have said anything too foolish, as the candidate ultimately took the position, but my mind was far from the conversation. I was consumed by fantasies–dreams of summoning the nerve to speak to her. No conscious ideas of sex or romance yet prevailed. I just wanted that smile again.

When dessert was finished, John offered me a ride.

“Thanks,” I said. “But I’ve got my bike and it’s barely sprinkling.”

“Come by my office tomorrow,” he said. “I’ve got an opportunity with your name written all over it.”

Avoiding new projects is a critical skill for grad students actually interested in finishing their degrees. “Sure,” I said. It was a skill that I had not acquired.

I followed him out, and made a show of unlocking my bicycle, but when he’d gone, I locked it up again and returned to the bar. The pianist saw me, smiled again, and transitioned from Bizet’s “Habanera” to Pearl Jam’s “Wish List.” I ordered a glass of the house Chianti.

She played a mix of familiar classics, pop songs, show tunes, and jazz. When she finished a piece, sometimes there would be applause; usually she would go straight into the next. After an hour, when only a few diners remained, she joined me at the bar.

I had rehearsed what I might say: you play beautifully or you have such elegant fingers.

She took the stool beside me and said, “There’s a floater in your wine.”

“Um…” I began, but intelligent speech failed me.

“Could I have mine sans cork?” she said, then, extending a hand, “I’m Annabelle.”

She worked in a music shop during the days and played piano at the restaurant four nights a week. I told her about my work and she put on a convincing show of interest. We talked of music and local artists. We had attended many of the same shows.

“Would you like another glass?” I said, when she’d finished her wine.

She hesitated a moment before blurting out, “I don’t want a relationship.”

I was startled and didn’t reply, so she continued.

“I mean–shit. I’m sorry… I wanted to get it out there, so… you know, less confusion. I broke up with someone and I’m not ready.” Neither of us spoke. We looked at our empty glasses, mine with its bit of cork stuck to the wall.

Finally, she said, “I’ve just ruined–”

“No,” I said. “I understand. I don’t really want…” I couldn’t lie. I wanted.

She folded her napkin, unfolded it, set it down, picked it up again.

“Do you think we can pretend I didn’t say anything?” she said. “Go back to a minute ago, when you suggested another glass? If I’d accepted one, where might that have led us?”

“The counterfactual scenario?”

“Counterfactual?” she said.

“It’s the term for ‘what if things had been different?’ We use it in epidemiology. Say you want to figure out how many heart attacks are due to eating hamburgers. You have to know how many of the people who ate hamburgers and had heart attacks would have had heart attacks anyway if they hadn’t eaten hamburgers.”

“Can’t you just look at how many people who don’t eat hamburgers have heart attacks?” she asked.

“That’s pretty much what we do,” I said, “but it’s not perfect. See, you can never know for sure that the non-hamburger eaters don’t differ from the hamburger eaters in some other way. Some factor that we can’t detect. And maybe that other factor also influences the risk–”

She started laughing. “I don’t eat burgers.”

“Desserts, then,” I said. “The point is, we’d like to be able study the exact same group of people twice–once with them all eating dessert, and once with no dessert.”

“Have your cake and eat it too, huh?”

“That’s the counterfactual,” I said. “What would be different now–”

“I get it,” she said. “So let’s go back and try again. Let’s say you just asked me if I wanted more wine.”

“It’s not the same,” I said. “We’re different people than we were even five minutes ago.”

“Now I think you’re missing the point,” she said. Her hand found my knee and she winked. “Pretend?”

I raised my glass.

“Alright then.” She snapped her fingers, and said, “No, thank you, I’ve had plenty of wine for a first date, but I’d love some tiramisu.”

That was four years, thirty-eight weeks, and one day prior to Annabelle’s death by motor vehicle accident, three blocks north of the Aurora bridge.

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A key turns in the lock and the apartment door creaks. I hear his voice talking into a phone.

“…a quiet evening in with the data. Why? …but John, I’ve come to three of these dinners already and… Can’t you parade one of the other… Okay, okay. I’ll just clean up and then bike over on my own.”

His cycling shoes clatter against the linoleum floor. He enters the bathroom and I strike. He sees me in the mirror too late. My left arm circles his neck, and I pull his head to my chest. I squeeze his throat in the crook of my elbow. He struggles, fights, but I know his every move before he makes it.

As consciousness deserts him, our eyes meet in the mirror. What he sees in my face–I don’t know what he sees. I’m not him.

What I see in him is surprise. Surprise, anger, confusion, denial, and maybe, for just one moment before he passes out, acceptance. I envy him that–the acceptance.

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“How’s the paper coming?” John Hicks leaned back, his head silhouetted against dual monitors cluttered with spreadsheets, code windows, and manuscripts for review. He looked tired, older even. Maybe he’d returned to the office after dinner and worked all night.

“I’m still waiting on GIS overlay figures,” I said, “but our part is done. Should go out to co-authors by Tuesday.”

I didn’t need that long. I was padding my time. A pleasant hint of premonition nagged and I hoped to enjoy the weekend.

“Good. What else is on your plate?”

“Well… we’ve got another dataset from the Group Health cohort and–”

“Anything that can’t wait a couple days?” he said.

“Why? What do you have in mind?” The next grant deadline was weeks away, so he shouldn’t be panicked about our renewal yet.

“There’s a sort of fellowship. A job.” A day could hardly pass without him pushing another funding opportunity on me.

“It’s by referral only,” he said. “A short-term appointment to test new protocols. Novel techniques for longitudinal cohort studies. I want you to apply. Get the training, at least.”

“Training?” I said. “What, like a new software package?”

“No… actually, I can’t tell you yet. There’s some proprietary technology and right now it’s all a bit hush-hush.” He chuckled. “I’m involved though, and I can tell you, this will revolutionize our field.” He leaned forward. “And the pay–if you were accepted, you’d make more than most full professors.”

“I’m intrigued,” I said. “Why me?”

“You get stuff done,” he said. “No procrastination, no whining, no bullshit.”

I didn’t reply, so he shifted in his seat and tried again.

“What’s the big problem with cohort data?” he asked. Was he quizzing me on study design?

“Well,” I began, “you’re limited to measuring a small set of exposures, which–”

“Skip that. You finish your data collection and  you’ve got perfect follow-up on all subjects. What do you still have to worry about?”

“Underlying differences between exposed and unexposed… that are unrelated to the exposure of interest.”

He clapped his hands. “Bingo. Comparability across exposure groups. And there’s nothing we can do about it unless…”

He seemed to want me to finish his sentence. I waited. After a long pause he said, “Patrick, are you seeing anyone?”

“What?” I said. He wasn’t the sort to pry.

“It’s none of my business. Forget I asked. This job though–they’re only considering single applicants.”

Was I seeing anyone? An evening’s conversation. Wine and dessert. The touch of her lips on my cheek before she ran to a bus. It meant nothing. Technically, I was as single as I’d been twenty-four hours before. No, I wasn’t seeing anyone.

“Actually, I kind of am,” I said.

He raised an eyebrow. “Kind of?” he said. “You’ve never mentioned.”

“It’s a new thing,” I said. Was it really even a thing? “We just met. Last night.”

He frowned. “After the dinner?” I could see him puzzling it out. “The girl at the piano, right?”

I nodded, shifted my feet.

“I can’t tell you what to do, Patrick, but this job–it’s not something to miss.”

“Neither is Annabelle.” Until I said it, I hadn’t realized that it was true.

“I guess you can’t regret this if you don’t know what you’re missing, but if you knew, I think you’d choose differently.”

“Another damned counterfactual,” I muttered.

He chuckled. “Right. Sure.”

Then, after a pause, he said, “I guess I’m happy for you, Patrick. She must really be something, this pianist.”

She was.

And for a time, we were–really something. Me and Annabelle, and later, me and Annabelle and Maggie.

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There are some things that cannot be.

A visit at work, in the middle of the day, from a police officer with beads of rain studding his jacket. Words that could not be, coming from his mouth.

A home appliance delivery truck, southbound on Aurora avenue. Its driver asleep or drunk. A blue hatchback rolled and crushed. A broken body on wet pavement. Words that made sense, sounded plausible, but would not fit with my world. Could not be true.

I asked one of Annabelle’s friends to assemble the music. I probably suggested Barber’s “Agnus Dei”–Annabelle’s favorite. I don’t remember whether it was played. What I do remember–what I remember hearing that day is Nirvana’s “Come As You Are” when someone hit the wrong playlist. There was a stifled laugh. I remember that.

I remember that the sun shone that day, and I remember Maggie. I remember how she wouldn’t be held. How she cried the whole time. Stumbled around on wobbly legs, calling for her mother. Fell down and cried more. My parents tried to distract her. Eventually, she fell asleep on a pew and later, I carried her to the car.

The people who should have been at the reception were there. Annabelle’s mother and sister. My parents. Annabelle’s friends, my friends, John Hicks.

What I remember about John that day is that he wore a hat, and when he came into the church, he took it off. His hair was thinner than I’d remembered. He probably said something to me. I don’t know.

Afterward, at the reception, I ate some carrot sticks and a piece of cheese. That’s all I remember of the day. A day that could not be.

Then anger, bargaining, depression. I was told acceptance would follow. I could not accept that.

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“How are things, Patrick?” John’s voice through my phone. “How’s Maggie?”

“John, I can’t come back yet. To work.”

“No worries, Patrick. Take next quarter off. I can teach your seminar.”

“Yeah,” I said. “Maybe.” I was sitting at my desk, looking at the wall. Looking at photographs on the wall. Photographs of me and Annabelle, and of me and Annabelle and Maggie.

Maggie was asleep beside me. I had moved the crib into my office to keep her close. She was irritable and if I wasn’t there the moment she woke, she might cry for hours.

“Is there anything I can do?”

“Come explain to a seventeen-month-old why her mother’s gone. Get me something better than aspirin for this headache. Remind me how to focus…on anything.”

“What about the grandparents? I met your folks and Annabelle’s mom at the–” He couldn’t say it. The other F word.

“They help a lot,” I said. “But if I’m not with Maggie, she gets… It might be a while.”

“Can you work from home?” he asked. Drafts of three unread papers sat on my desk, awaiting comments.

“I don’t seem to be making any progress,” I said. I flipped through the first manuscript. It was covered with notes and edits, written in my own hand. I couldn’t even remember making them. “I’m just not functioning,” I said. “I’m falling apart. Forgetting stuff.”

“If you don’t mind me asking, Patrick, how are you set financially?”

“That’s another problem,” I said. “I guess I can move in with my folks if it comes to it.”

There was a long pause. John doing the math on how long he could get the department to keep paying me after I’d stopped teaching or writing grants. Finally, he spoke.

“You remember that job I mentioned a few years back?” He took my silence for acknowledgement. “I can still get you in, and it pays a lot.”

“I can’t,” I said. “I have to be with Maggie.” She stirred and started to fuss. I rubbed her back, stroked her head.

“You’d have to go in for a day of training and orientation, but after that, you’d work from home and Maggie could have you all the time.”

On cue, she started crying. I told John I’d think about it and I hung up. I lifted Maggie from the crib and held her. She kicked and wailed. I carried her to the kitchen and prepared a bottle.

“I need her,” I said, as Maggie sucked greedily at the rubber nipple. “I need your mother.”

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I met John in the cafeteria of the university hospital. The hospital where Maggie was born–where I’d attended prenatal classes with Annabelle. To John, it was just a convenient place to talk–and eat.

“You don’t look so good,” he said. “You eat today?” I hadn’t seen him in person since the memorial service. He looked like he’d aged a decade.

“You’re looking a bit run down yourself,” I said. “Everything alright?”

“Let’s get some breakfast,” he said.

When we’d sat down with our trays, he squeezed ketchup onto hash browns. I picked at a bagel.

“So, recall that old problem,” he said, “with ensuring comparability across exposure groups?”

I nodded.

“There’s a way,” he said. “A way to do it perfectly.”

“Don’t tell me,” I said, “you’ve got cohorts of human clones that you’re raising on desert islands?” I tore a chunk from my bagel.

He laughed. “Nope,” he said. “Better.” He shoveled eggs into his mouth and chewed. “I remember being in your shoes,” he said, “when they first told me. Your world’s about to turn upside-down.”

“Again?” I said. “I don’t know if I can handle that.”

What John told me, sitting there in the hospital cafeteria over eggs and hash browns was that time travel, when it finally came along, was a big disappointment.

“Think about it,” he said. “Say you’re the secretary of defense. People are always pushing new technologies at you. Stuff with military potential, you know. When a team of physicists out on the West Coast claims to have transported a video camera into the past and back, it’s got to be a joke, right? But if it’s not… well, think of the applications!”

Early on, the few scientists and defense guys who knew about it were scared. “You don’t have to be a physicist or a sci-fi geek to understand the inherent dangers of traveling into the past. Paradoxes, accidentally erasing your own parents from history, et cetera.”

So they ran tests, out in remote locations–tried to alter insignificant events. In the Mojave Desert, a concrete plinth was transported five years into the past. In the present, there was no trace of it. A reconnaissance drone was sent to the same time and place. It returned, bearing three weeks of astronomical observations–enough data to definitively prove that it was transported to the past. “But the plinth–it wasn’t in any of the drone’s photos.”

Bacteria, fungi, and plants were sent back and then examined on their return. No adverse effects. Then mice, rats, dogs, a goat, and two pigs all made the round-trip without mishap.

“Safe for animals; safe for humans,” said John. “And at first it seemed that way. Travelers went and returned over and over. They could snap pictures, bring shit back with them, describe historical events, but any time they tried to change little bits of history, when they came back, our present was exactly as they remembered.

“There was a setback when a traveler went twenty-four hours into the past, planning to tail himself for a day, watch his own departure, and then just stick around and pick up where he left off. He’d have lived one day of his life twice. A loop.”

John stopped talking and took a long swig of coffee. He pushed wisps of hair back off his forehead.

“So, what happened?” I said.

“It didn’t work,” John replied. “That guy, he left and, he was just gone. He never returned. Ever. After that, human trials were suspended for a long time.”

“Okay, John,” I said, “you keep talking about the past. What about–”

“The future?” he said. “Yeah, theoretically, it was supposed to work as easily as going into the past. All the drones sent to the future disappeared though. Never came back as scheduled. And they are never sitting there, broken down and waiting for us, when their target date rolls around.”

Every destination in time, John told me, regardless of whether the traveler is drone, human, or a single atom, becomes a branch-point. A divergence. The birth of a new parallel universe.

“All those changes that people tried to make in the past… they were successful,” he said. “They changed the past, alright–just different pasts that can never influence our own.” John laughed. “The military–the politicians that knew about it–they were pissed when they found out they couldn’t use it to fix their mistakes.”

The reason none of the drones returned from the future, was because when they jumped back to the present, they were creating a branch point. They returned to a present that looked like their own, but it was really a different present with a different future.

“And that guy who jumped back a day, and disappeared,” said John, “he was successful too. He went back, watched himself for a day–watched himself disappear–then continued living the rest of his life, presumably working on the same project, performing more travel tests. He just did all that in a different universe and never even knew it.

“I guess that wasn’t any comfort to his wife and kids,” I said.”

John shook his head. “He was single,” he said, “but his parents don’t know what he was doing, and they’re still scouring the globe for him. Won’t give up.”

John wiped his hands on a napkin and said, “Now, say you’re a scientist, and you’re looking for an ideal study population.”

“John,” I said, “have you actually done this? Created other universes–gone back in time?”

“And say you’re sick to hell of dealing with institutional review boards and ethics panels and–”

“Shit, John,” I said. “Ethics panels? This is insane. You’re serious about this? You’re really…this is real?”

“Sure, you’ll have to prove your findings in your own timeline too,” John said. “Nobody will buy the answer to a question that hasn’t been properly asked.”

John pushed his chair back and stood. I followed him to the exit. He held the door for me and grinned.

“But when you already know all the answers,” he said, “you always ask the right question. The one for which the answer is yes.”

No more negative studies. No more investigational dead ends. What the world sees as intuitive genius–an uncanny knack for getting it right every time–it’s still trial and error. It’s just that all the errors are hidden. They’re dumped on another universe.

And if it nags at your conscience a little bit–what you might be doing to all the people in all those other universes you’re creating, well…it’s amazing, given enough time and incentive, what a person can justify to himself in the name of science. History is full of it.

John led me through a cold drizzle toward a two-story brick building by the lake. Lake Union. Where Annabelle and I would sit and talk. About the future. About us. Where Maggie would babble and point out the ducks, the boats.

With every trip to the past, John–or whoever–had created a whole other Lake Union. Other ducks. Another Maggie. Annabelle. Another me.

My stomach folded up and I got dizzy. I thought I might be sick.  I believed John’s words even while my mind rebelled against them. Words that could not be true; that threatened my understanding of the world.

John kept walking. I took a couple deep breaths and caught up.

“How did our department get a hold of the technology?” I asked.

“Everything trickles down eventually,” John replied without turning round. “Defense engineers slide into private industry jobs. Senators gobble up campaign contributions. Favors are repaid, and that which was secret is soon for sale.”

We passed the main entrance to the building and continued around two sides, to the back.

“The original scientists, though,” he said, “–the physicists who developed time travel in the first place–they were here–right here–and they were smart. They understood the subtleties of intellectual property law.”

The university held exclusive rights to non-governmental applications. When the Department of Defense cleared the technology for civilian use, the university bared its teeth. “Made the corporations beg,” said John. “Forced them to contract with us for all of their time travel needs. And we aren’t cheap.”

Small black lettering on the door of the building read Experimental Physics Library Annex. John punched a series of numbers into a keypad and the lock buzzed. We entered a low room, ten feet square, with bare walls. Cameras glared down from the ceiling. Another door with a keypad faced me. I heard the lock of the first door click behind me and John keyed us in through the second.

“What if you meet yourself?” I said.

“In another universe?” said John. “It can get complicated. Dangerous. I’ve done it a couple times. I had to get myself out of the way in another past to prevent some of my own research.”

“Out of the way?” I said.

“We’ll assign you to projects that are completely unrelated to your real-world work,” John said. “You’ll never have to meet yourself.”

I followed him through a series of windowless hallways. At an elevator door, John posed, wide-eyed before a camera that scanned his retinae. There were no buttons in the elevator. The door closed behind us and my insides jumped with the rapid descent.

“Was this building ever a library?” I asked.

“Some little corner of it still is, I suppose. We just call it EPLA.” Ee-pluh.

We exited the elevator into a concrete tunnel lit by fluorescent tubes. Heavy doors lined the walls. John picked one marked “Procedures” and grasped the handle. He turned to face me.

“This is right for you,” he said.

“What if I back out now?” I asked. “Just refuse to proceed?”

“You would get an injection–a cocktail of benzos and such–and then you’d wake up a few hours from now, with a headache, and no memory of the past couple days.”

“John,” I said, “I had a really bad headache last week.”

“Grieving takes time, Patrick. A few days can make a big difference.” He opened the door. “I think you’re ready now.”

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I watched the surgery in real-time on a monitor. I watched the surgeon’s hands as she anesthetized the back of my neck, and then cut a vertical incision. She held a tiny cigar-shaped capsule up to the camera.

“Doesn’t look like much,” she said.

It was an inch long and a quarter that in diameter. White metal, with a sandblasted surface. She inserted the capsule into the space she’d created and then sewed the layers of flesh closed over it.

When finished, she handed me her card. “I’ll see you again to remove the sutures. You can call me for anything, but only me. No hospitals.”

After that, John and I watched TV.

“John,” I said, “when you return–when you come back from an alternate timeline–how do you know you’re in the right one?”

“What, that you’re not like the guy who went back to watch himself and never came back?” said John. “I could cite experiments. They might reassure you. Ultimately, though, you never know. You always wonder. Is all this happening somewhere else–without me?”

Sharp pains pricked my neck–not just at the incision, but above and below too. I reached a hand to the place, but John stopped me.

“It’s the tendrils growing,” he said. “They pass through sensitive tissues on their way to the brain and spinal cord. If they weren’t so small, you’d be on the floor, right now, writhing in agony. Tell me when you start hallucinating.”

It wasn’t long. First, a simple square–just four straight lines–floated across my visual field. Then a circle and a triangle.

John sat with me in front of a monitor, while I learned to move the shapes around with tiny flicks of my eyes. He typed a series of commands into a terminal and a menu of options blinked into my vision.

“Try scrolling up and down,” he said. “Kick your gaze right to select and left to move up the directory tree. Nothing is active yet, so don’t worry about going anywhere by mistake.”

My visual overlay was mirrored on John’s monitor and when he was satisfied with my progress he said, “Now you learn to travel.”

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When I arrived at my parents’ place, Mom opened the door and Maggie ran to greet me. I picked her up and held her for a long time–until she started squirming and saying, “down, down. Down!” I had only been away from her eight hours. I hadn’t seen her for two weeks.

After a series of short training jumps to and from various desolate locations, I had traveled back two weeks and holed up in a guest suite inside the EPLA building of a parallel universe. I ate instant meals, ran on a treadmill, and studied.

“You need a haircut,” Mom said, after she’d hugged me. “I didn’t even notice it this morning–how shaggy you’re getting.”

I studied theory and applications of travel until the stitches came out. A traveler could keep jumping forward within a parallel timeline and still return to the point of origin in his own universe. Downstream effects of his actions could be observed, elsewhere, in other people, without consequence for his own world.

“You’ll stay for dinner, won’t you, Patrick? You look exhausted.” I followed Mom into the house, through the toy-strewn living room, to the kitchen. She poured me a glass of water and I watched her cook.

For a price, EPLA would assign teams of consultants to design and execute studies. Marketing firms, insurance companies, and financial institutions all contracted regularly. My work would be for a Swiss pharmaceutical giant.

Maggie marched into the kitchen with a tattered paperback of Lost Horizon that she’d decorated with purple crayon. She presented it to me and I showed Mom. “This okay?” I said.

“Oh, dear,” she said, “I just can’t keep up with her anymore.” I followed Maggie to the living room, where she climbed up on the piano bench and banged out a song of her own invention. In a couple years, Annabelle would have started teaching Maggie to play.

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I go back thirty years. I spend a day in February of 1987–in another universe. I plant information about the latest hypertension med–a drug that isn’t even out of phase one trials in my own present. I pass the tip anonymously. It looks like a leak from a disgruntled employee of a competing firm.

I jump to 1992 of the same timeline to verify that they have acted on the information. Their front-line blood pressure cocktail is thirty years ahead of its time. I make five more stops in that timeline, at four-year intervals. I collect the results of major cardiovascular studies in the alternate past and in that past’s future.

My employer wants rapid turn-around, so I eat and sleep in alternate time. I spend an extra day at the final point, analyzing and compiling the results. Then I jump back to my exact moment of departure. Eight days in the blink of an eye.

And then I do it all again. Three more times.

First, I replicate the previous trip. Then I go back to two more alternate pasts to plant bogus data. Nothing that will set researchers back in their work. Just negative controls to account for unmeasurable impacts of my interference.

It’s never perfect. I don’t stop aging, changing. I’m a slightly different me each trip and, at least in theory, even the subtlest differences could have significant effects. John says that they can track my travels–check up on me. He also says that so long as I deliver the goods, they probably won’t bother.

At the end, I take my four parallel universe meta-analyses to a dedicated workspace in an alternate near past and compile a report. All told, I spend thirty-four days on the project. I deliver my report two minutes after receiving the request.

I linger a moment over Maggie, asleep in her crib beside my desk. Maggie. Above her hang the photographs. The three of us together. Annabelle.

I blink up my travel interface and take another trip.

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As his body relaxes, goes limp, I release his neck and ease him to the bathroom floor. I only have to delay him. Prevent him from going out tonight. And, of course, he has to forget that I was here.

I’m good with the needle. It helps that I’m going for the same vein in the same arm of the same person every time. A hefty slug of midazolam greased with just a whisper of propofol. He’ll wake up with a headache.

Sometimes I talk while I drag him down the hall to the living room and arrange him on the couch. I try to explain. I tell him why I’m there.

I tell him it’s for her, that it’s better if he never meets her. Maybe that way she won’t die. But of course, all of this is really for me. It’s my fix. Those early days with her, again. And again and again and again.

I can have it all. My daughter by day and a new Annabelle every night. It’s almost enough.

Sometimes he wakes up a little when I turn on the stereo. This time he even opens his eyes for a moment and I think maybe he understands.

And then he forgets.

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I wait for Annabelle at the bar. Wait for her to finish playing. I swirl the wine in my glass. The bit of cork is there, just as it should be.

She’s played Chopin, “Ipanema,” Pearl Jam, the Stones. And she smiled when I walked past.

When she finishes at the piano, she will join me and we will talk. I might be older than she would like, now, but I will understand her. I will say the right things. She will see past my age.

Maybe this time I won’t overplay my hand. She won’t be spooked by how I know her so well, so quickly. It will all feel natural and I will reclaim what I’ve lost. At least for a while. Weeks or maybe a month. There’s a limit to how much I should age. Too much and people will notice. Maggie will notice.

Perhaps, one of these times, I’ll forget all of that. I’ll forget my daughter and I’ll stay here forever. We will be us again. Me and Annabelle. And then maybe me and Annabelle and… someone. But not Maggie, not my Maggie.

Some things cannot be.

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“Everyone is impressed with your work, Patrick.”

John and I sat in a cedar-paneled restaurant by Lake Union, eating chowder and drinking ale. “You’ll be getting your five-thousand-hour bonus soon.”

“Not bad for two weeks,” I said.

“Be careful, Patrick. That’s five months you’ve lived in fifteen days. You look like shit.”

“I’m just doing it till I’ve built up some reserves.” I mopped up the rest of my chowder with a bread crust. “I want to put something away for Maggie–you know, for college, grad school if she wants.”

“You’ve got plenty of time.” He waited for me to meet his eye, then said, “Don’t you? You’ve aged a lot more than five months. Anything you want to tell me?”

“Ever since Annabelle…” I began. “Well, I just can’t seem to get over it. And Maggie… If something ever happened to me–”

“The best thing you can do for Maggie is stay young and healthy. Be a dad for as long as you can.” His hand, thin and freckled with liver spots, trembled as he lifted his glass for a sip.

When I didn’t speak, he continued. “I wouldn’t have given you this if I didn’t think you could handle it. I want to help. But I’m concerned about whatever else it is that you’re doing. Do I need to start tracking–”

“You’re concerned, John?” I set my glass down too hard. People at other tables turned, but I ignored them. “Look at you,” I said. “When we met, you were what, forty-five? Just how many trips have you taken? You could be ninety! How can you sit there and–”

“I don’t have anyone.” His words cut me. “I was alone when I started, and I’m alone now.” Neither of us spoke. We gazed across Lake Union at the houseboats. Rain dulled the water. Millions of grey rings forming on a flat cold surface, spreading, colliding, and then gone.

“So why do you do it, John?” I said. “You could have retired long–”

“Retired? I’ll never retire.” He paused. “I’m hooked.”

“So you travel for your own–”

“Of course I do, Patrick. Just historical curiosity at first, poking around here and there. Now I’ve lost track of the number of parallel timelines I’ve created. The pasts I’ve changed–tried to fix–for other universes. God, I’ve fucked up a lot of universes.” He laughed and gestured to the waiter for another round. “I tell myself it’s okay because I’m not hurting anyone who matters, but…”

The beers arrived and we both took long draughts.

“Fact is,” he said, “I don’t even know who I’m hurting–or which universe is real. Ours sure isn’t.”

I choked on my beer and coughed.

“Funny, right?” he continued, “A small team of scientists, at one single university, discovers this impossible technology. On their own. Do you really believe that? In a world still slurping fossil fuels? A world that cuts tumors out with knives and can’t even cure a cold?”

“You’re saying the technology was planted,” I said. “That we’re part of someone else’s–”

“It doesn’t matter,” said John. “What’s important is that this is the world you’ve got and it’s time for you to start living in it.”

“But if it’s contaminated by some other universe’s future–”

“Shit, Patrick, you know how it works. Nobody matters if they’re not in our timeline. That’s what we tell ourselves, right?” John’s voice was getting loud and sloppy. How many beers had he drunk before I arrived? He continued, “Hundreds–maybe millions of people we’ve affected and they’re each living their own lives, without a clue, and we don’t give a damn and…”

“What’s your point?” I said.

“Hell, I’m not sure anymore.” He got quiet. “But what you’re doing–what we’ve both been doing–this cherry-picking and re-living of favorite moments… it’s the behavior of an addict and it’ll destroy you and everyone you love.”

“It’s a job,” I said. “As soon as I get my finances straight, I’ll quit.”

“It’s not just a job, Patrick. Not for you or me or anyone. You have to let Annabelle go. Get out of this. Live.”

“I can’t.”

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When she finishes at the piano, Annabelle walks past me and sits at the far end of the bar. I have to remind myself that I don’t know her name. I ask the bartender to pour her a glass of wine. She turns to me and frowns, puzzled. I approach and sit, leaving an empty seat between us.

“I saw you earlier,” she says. “You’ve been here a long time.” She doesn’t look at me.

“You play beautifully,” I say. “When I finished dining, I thought I’d stay and listen.”

“My father used to do that,” she says. She hesitates. I can see her thoughts. See her asking whether I’m creepy or harmless. In either case, I’m old. “When he was alive,” she continues, “sometimes he would be in Seattle on business and not tell me he was coming. He’d just show up and listen to me play.” She says nothing for a while, then “This is going to sound strange, I know, and it’s not that you look anything alike, but when I saw you earlier, you reminded me of him. The way you seemed so deep in the music.”

Old and harmless. And fatherly. The role I crave is lost to me now. It was bound to happen.

I push my glass away. “You miss him a lot,” I say. Anabelle–my Anabelle–had rarely spoken of her father’s death. It was still a fresh wound when we met. Would be equally raw for this Annabelle now.

“I do,” she says. “Especially here. It gets lonely, playing like this. Before, I never knew when he might show up, so I always hoped and it was always possible. But now…” She swallowed and looked away.

“Thank you for the Chopin,” I say. “Someone I– My wife used to play that nocturne. Your interpretation is the same.”

She says nothing for a while. Then she turns to look at my face. What she sees in my eyes–I don’t know what she sees. What I see in hers is compassion. “Do you have children?” she says.

“No,” I say. It’s a habit. It’s what I always say when she asks. But this time I say, “I mean yes, I do have a child. A daughter.”

She waits for me to say more, but I don’t. She reaches out to place a hand on mine, but I stand and fumble for my wallet.

“I’m sorry,” I say. “I need to go. I should be with her–my daughter. She’s…” I leave a twenty on the bar. “She’s waiting.”

Annabelle smiles and says, “Come back some time.”

Some things cannot be. I step out into the rain.

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Eleven people attended John’s memorial service. He’d made all of the arrangements in advance. A minimum of ceremony. By a normal calendar, John Hicks was only fifty-one; he died a very old man.

The end was on his own terms. He’d purchased the revolver a week before–the day after I’d last talked to him. A letter explained that he had a brain tumor and wasn’t going to let the cancer turn him into someone else. He’d lived a full life and didn’t want anyone to grieve.

The EPLA Surgeon was at the service, and afterwards, I followed her to the parking lot. We sheltered under her umbrella to talk while rain pelted the vehicle beside us.

“It’s the device, isn’t it,” I said. “It was killing him.”

“No,” she said. “That had nothing to do with it. If you live long enough, you have to die of something. John was old.”

“I want mine out,” I said. “Can you remove it.”

“It’s part of you now,” she said. “The tendrils are everywhere. In your brain, spinal column–even peripheral nerves. It can’t come out.”

She looked around. We were alone. “I can turn it off, though,” she said. “If that’s really what you want.”

“There’s something I have to do first.”

“One more trip?” she said. “Don’t. Stop now, if you’re going to.”

“This is different,” I said. “I’ll be okay.”

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One final trip. This time, with a knife.

I don’t go to his apartment. I don’t stop him from meeting Annabelle. I don’t try to replace him at the bar. I can’t be that me ever again.

I don’t even go to that day. I go to a later one. Four years, thirty-eight weeks, and one day later.

I rent a car and drive to a warehouse north of Seattle. Boxed appliances are being loaded into a truck. Nobody notices as I edge up beside it. When the truck is full, a man climbs into the cab and starts the engine.

I strike. The tire is tough and I nearly break the knife. I try again. I slash, rather than stab, and I cut part way through the sidewall. The wound is deep, and with another stroke, the blade penetrates. The screech of air from the tire is covered by engine noise.

I escape undetected.

Twenty minutes later, I stand beside Aurora avenue, just north of the bridge. I watch cars speed through pockets of standing water. A blue hatchback, driven by a young blonde, passes. It continues across the bridge, out of sight.

Annabelle. Not my Annabelle, but still, an Annabelle, and she’s safe.

A single selfless act. A final gesture. Does it compensate for the thousands of universes that I have created, sabotaged, and exploited? Does ninety minutes of beneficence atone for some twenty-five years of selfishness?

But, of course, ultimately, this trip is selfish too. This universe–it’s for me. I won’t inhabit it, but I will know that it exists. My one perfect counterfactual.

The me that is here, in this timeline, will never travel. He will never sacrifice years of his life–the healthy years that should be spent with his daughter–in order to pursue a love that he will never have lost.

I could watch his future unfold, if I wanted. I could jump forward to see him grow old with his Annabelle, watch them with their Maggie. But that is their future, not mine.

divider

When Maggie asks why I look as old as her Granddaddy, I tell her I’ve just lived fast. She doesn’t understand, but she giggles anyway.

We sit by the lake, watching geese, until the rain drives us to the shelter of a pastry shop.

Sometimes Maggie asks about the scar on the back of my neck–the surgical site. I tell her that I got hurt when her mother died. She’s old enough, now, that she doesn’t reach up to touch it anymore. She knows there’s something about it that’s not right.

Remotely deactivated. That’s what the surgeon said, but sometimes I still wonder. If I called up the interface, would it be there for me?

“But Daddy,” she says, through a bite of cinnamon roll, “I thought you weren’t in the car when she died.”

“No,” I say, “but I still got hurt.” She seems to accept this. At least for now.

Some things cannot be. Others just are–even some impossible ones.

I can accept that now. This me can.

___

Copyright 2014 M. Huw Evans

After devoting the first decade and a half of his adult life to medicine, research, and public health, M. Huw Evans put away such noble callings to pursue his life-long dream of writing fiction. In 2012, he attended Clarion West, where he wrote the first version of this story–for none other than the master of time travel herself, Connie Willis. In addition to writing, Evans is a stay-at-home dad and the new workshop administrator at Clarion West.

by Laura E. Price

Corwyn’s hair smelled of death. Again.

She smelled it–rot, blood, sweat, and mud–as she trudged through the back streets of San Xavier, out of Cobbler’s Hill toward Pallasgreen. After three washes with lye soap, she sat awake as her hair dried and wondered, if she cut it all off, would she still smell death whenever she moved.

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Corwyn was awake, scrubbed, and drinking her third cup of coffee in their small kitchen when she heard Gwen getting up and moving about.

“Have you slept?” Gwen asked from behind her.

“A little.” Corwyn sipped her lukewarm drink and kept her eyes on the table.

“You’re brooding.”

“I’m trying to get tired enough so that I’ll sleep without dreaming.”

“Well, that ain’t going to help you, Wyn,” Gwen said, nodding at the cup and skirting around Corwyn toward the cupboards.

“We were out of milk to warm.”

Gwen pulled a glass jar full of beef jerky–sent over last month by a client as a thank you for a lesson in knifework–from the cabinet, unscrewed the top, and selected a piece as she asked, “Was it a bad one?”

Corwyn’s eyes felt grainy every time she blinked. “Not particularly. Not more so. Just … the same. Dead, probably only three or four days.” They’d had this conversation before, so she didn’t say maybe she’d be alive if they’d come to me sooner. The living folks she found–the runaways, the kidnapped, the lost–were fewer and fewer. The dead seemed to multiply.

“Time for a sign on the door that you’re not taking on any more cases,” Gwen said briskly, pushing herself away from the sideboard.

“We need the money!” Corwyn called after her.

“Ain’t like we’ve never been broke before, Corwyn!”

“Ain’t like I want to live on the damn street again, Gwendolyn!”

“Ain’t like I want you to run yourself to death–”

Someone knocked on their flimsy front door, and Gwen answered it. Corwyn shoved herself up from the table, arriving at the door in time to see a face from their not-so-distant past in the outside hallway and hear Gwen, voice studiously cheerful, greeting her with, “Why, Mattie Singh, you do clean up nice.”

“I’m here to see if Corwyn wants a job,” Mattie said.

Gwen leaned across the doorway, arms crossed, effectively trapping Corwyn inside the apartment. Corwyn, too tired to be irritated at her sister’s protective streak, stepped up behind Gwen and peered over her shoulder at Mattie Singh.

“You sure you ain’t here spying for the old lady?” she asked.

“I don’t–I ain’t living at Mrs. Simcote’s anymore.” Mattie looked from Corwyn to Gwen and quickly back again, uncertain. “I left not too much longer after you did. A bunch of us left, point of fact. All of us as liked Gwen, anyway. Wasn’t right, what she did to you.”

Nobody but Corwyn would have seen how Gwen’s jaw went tight even as Gwen’s body visibly relaxed. Corwyn looked away from Gwen and said, “All right, then, Mattie, what’s this job?”

Mattie glanced around herself and spread her arms a little, smiling just slightly. “You really want me to do this in the hall?”

Corwyn tapped Gwen on the shoulder; Gwen stepped back grudgingly to wave Mattie through the door.

Mattie perched on one of their two kitchen chairs. She did look nice in her dress and jacket, with combed hair and a clean face. Corwyn remembered her as a kid, running round Mrs. Simcote’s with her hair smoldering and her face sooty–Mattie Singh’s knack was such that she could mix salt with water and likely make it explode.

“So. I work at the museum now,” Mattie began.

San Xavier was home to a number of museums: it boasted a natural history museum, a respectable art museum, the not-so-respectable Rausch Gallery, and even a children’s museum full of dusty paintings of saucer-eyed kids and downright disturbing toy displays. But when the residents of San Xavier mentioned the museum, they referred to the Methyl R. Crookston Museum of Classical Rarities. Not that its collection was all that rare. Or classical. The name of the place was in the old lady’s will, and Corwyn always imagined she’d have been irritated that no one used it.

“The curator I’m ‘prenticed to, he’s lost something–”

“I can’t find things,” Corwyn interrupted. “Just the living. Or the used-to-be-living.”

Mattie’s eyes were lit up like she had a secret to spill. “I remember. I remember lots of things about you, Miss Corwyn. Like how excited you got whenever Mrs. Simcote gave you something new to do with your knack. And you know how to keep your mouth shut.” Corwyn shifted her weight back on one foot, uneasy, as Mattie went on. “This thing he’s missing, it ain’t quite a person, and it ain’t quite a thing, neither. You want to see if you can find a golem?”

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Corwyn couldn’t rightly say she had that much intellectual curiosity, but Gwen had let out an enthusiastic “Yes!” and shoved Corwyn out the door. Now they sat in the office of one Jarvis Eggleston, curator, waiting on Mattie to unearth the man from whatever dusty room of the museum he might be working in.

“I’m still not sure why we’re here, Gwen.”

“Well, Corwyn, headcracking jobs are scarce on the ground at the moment, which means I ain’t bringing much money in–so I’m bored and you’re worried about money, and I know how you’re fixing to get, with your coffee and your not sleeping. Even if this golem’s dead, you likely won’t find it lying in a pool of blood.  So why not?”

Corwyn couldn’t decide what to say to all that, so she ignored it to look around herself. The room was full of things, made mundane by wooden shelves and layers of dust until she peered more closely: paintings, what looked like musical instruments, and more books than Corwyn had ever seen in one place. There were tiny stoppered bottles; odds and ends of clockwork; skulls that might be from animals (though Corwyn had very little experience with animals, alive or dead, and so couldn’t be sure); stones covered in runes; jars filled with specimens that had too many eyes, or limbs.

You’ll see the world, she remembered Mrs. Simcote telling them, and maybe they would have, but now they’d burned that bridge, she supposed museums were the closest she’d get to seeing anywhere besides San Xavier.

Mattie’s return with the curator, a middling-tall man with round glasses, graying hair, and a slouch, pulled Corwyn out of her woolgathering. “Dr. Eggleston, these are the young ladies I spoke to you about–Corwyn and Gwen Teachout.” Mattie’s accent had gone all schoolteacherish; Corwyn resisted the urge to sit up straighter and pull her feet in under her chair.

Dr. Eggleston smiled at them. He needed a good night’s sleep:  his eyes were heavy-lidded, dark all around, and his skin sagged.

“Miss Singh says you have a knack for finding people, Miss Teachout,” he said, leaning back against the front of his desk. His accent was cultured but not fancy. Genteel poor.

She matched it as she answered. “Yes. But not for finding objects, I’m afraid.”

“My sister is selling herself a trifle short,” Gwen cut in, ignoring the what in nine hells are you up to smile Corwyn sent her way. “Her knack is only for finding people, but she’s quite the detective without it.”

“Are you her business manager?” Dr. Eggleston asked, tiredly amused.

Gwen dimpled and sat back in her chair, crossing her legs demurely–or as demurely as one could when wearing trousers. “I’m the muscle.”

The curator’s smile grew broader at that–he thought she was adorable, good grief–and turned back to Corwyn. “Miss Singh told you we’re looking for a golem, yes? So I’m not certain what category he falls into. He is, of course, made of usually inanimate material, but he is also clearly alive … ”

“How exactly did you lose it?” Corwyn asked. “I imagine a giant clay man would be difficult to misplace.”

“He’s not that big,” Dr. Eggleston said. “He’s really more an homunculus.  A miniature man. ”

“Not in the strictest sense,” Mattie said to him.

“He’s self-aware and self-willed,” said Dr. Eggleston crisply, “which is not much like a golem.”

This was clearly an old argument. Corwyn glanced at Gwen, and the two of them looked at Mattie, bored.  Which, to anyone who knew them, was almost as good as a threat.

“So it, what?  Ran off? Was stolen?” Corwyn asked.

“Kidnapped,” Dr. Eggleston corrected.

“Did you receive a ransom note?” Corwyn asked.

“No, no–someone saw it being snatched,” Mattie said.

“From the museum?” Gwen asked.

Dr. Eggleston shifted his weight back and forth, looking toward the shelves. “Orson came to us with the odds and ends of the estate of Virgil Fairchilde. His only son took everything of value, and anything he didn’t want or didn’t know what to do with, he gave to us. Orson was in a sealed box–I doubt the son even tried to open it–along with some of Fairchilde’s notes. Orson was de-animated, and I … well, eventually I managed to bring him back.” He stopped again and looked at them, seemingly expecting Corwyn and Gwen to make some sort of disapproving protest; when they didn’t, he shook his head slightly and started the story again. This time he managed to look directly at them as he spoke. “I thought he’d be a golem. Small, certainly, but mindless, mute. Orson was aware, though, and after a day he was able to speak.”

“Likely why Fairchilde locked it in the box to begin with,” Mattie said.

“Had he been merely a golem, we would have exhibited him, or put him to work, but he isn’t–he has a personality. He’s polite, well-spoken–”

“Sarcastic as anything,” Mattie put in.

“I imagine,” Dr. Eggleston said mildly, “that you might be inclined toward sarcasm, yourself, Miss Singh, had you spent most of your life having parts of you cut off.”

Corwyn sat up slowly, her wooden chair suddenly uncomfortable. “What do you mean by that, Doctor?” she asked.

Dr. Eggleston spoke carefully. “I thought Miss Singh had told you? Virgil Fairchilde did most of his work with clockwork limbs. Orson was his test subject–he’s more than half clockwork. One arm, both legs.”

“Its heart ticks,” Mattie added.

“That is, of course, part of the issue,” the curator went on. “He’s quite a valuable piece, a tiny, half-clockwork man. Collectors, alchemical engineers–some legitimate, some not–hells, even one or two of my own colleagues here … well. None of them would see Orson as anything but a commodity.”

“You took him home,” Corwyn said. “And he got snatched from under your nose.”

Dr. Eggleston took off his glasses and rubbed at his eyes. “More or less. He was out walking with my husband, Gerard.” Gerard was, no doubt, as academically built as the curator, Corwyn thought, and likely not much of a threat. “Miss Teachout, Orson is very much like family to us, now.  I don’t know who might have him, but there is no outcome to this that I can imagine he would deserve. Bad enough that I’ll have to bring him back to the museum, since he’s clearly not safe outside … ”

“How much are you willing to pay?” Corwyn asked, impatient at how the obvious care the curator had for his charge made her chest twist like someone had a hand inside it. She didn’t have time to waste like that. “For us to find him, and to keep our mouths shut about your stealing and losing him in the first place?”

The curator straightened, put his glasses back on, and named a sum. Corwyn glanced at Gwen, who raised an eyebrow and her right shoulder, putting her left palm face up on the arm of her chair to signal her approval.

It was a solid chunk of change.

“All right,” Corwyn said. “I’ll take the case. I don’t know if I’ll be able to find Orson–”

“You’ll be required to pay us either way, but we’ll only charge half if we can’t track him down,” Gwen put in quickly.

“–but I’ll try my best,” Corwyn finished.

divider

Sometimes, too many times, merely hearing a name would set Corwyn running after her knack as it dragged her to whoever it was or whatever was left of them. On more occasions than she cared to remember, her knack didn’t need a name or a request, just up and yanked her wherever it felt she ought to go like she wore a leash. But there were times it stayed quiet, and those times she could, maybe, coax it along. Not by touch–what a fresh hell that would be–but with smell. Bring something he wore, she told the frantic relatives.  Bring what she slept in, she told the abandoned lovers. The kids at Mrs. Simcote’s used to make bloodhound jokes when a shirt or a blanket set Corwyn running.  Gwen cracked their ribs for it.

“How tall is he?” Corwyn asked as Dr. Eggleston rummaged in his bag for the pillow Mattie had told him to bring. Mattie did remember quite a lot about Corwyn’s knack, as it turned out.

“About a foot or so. Thirteen inches, I think?” Mattie replied.

“Here you are,” said Dr. Eggleston, straightening and passing the pillow over the top of the desk.

“Did Gerard get a good look at the person who took him?”  Corwyn turned the small pillow in her hands, wondering briefly if the bedclothes were borrowed from the children’s museum.

“Gerard said he was a tall man, maybe six feet, with blond hair,” Dr. Eggleston said.

“Well, that rules out part of the city, anyway,” said Gwen, more cheerfully than Corwyn felt was strictly warranted, as Corwyn lifted the pillow to her nose.

It smelled like clay, like dirt and clean river water. And mint? That was unexpected.

Corwyn’s knack didn’t so much as twitch. It felt odd to coax it and feel nothing. Even when it decided to lay low, there was usually a thrumming: a yes feeling, a confirmation. This was like, well, a pillow.

Mattie stood across the room, likely remembering some of Corwyn’s more dramatic exits from Mrs. Simcote’s office. Gwen, who had more arm strength and very little fear, as a rule, crouched next to Corwyn’s chair.

“Nothing?” she asked quietly. Corwyn shook her head. “You got ideas?” Gwen asked.

Corwyn didn’t respond, just thought. It didn’t seem like someone planned to snatch Orson, doing it out in the street like that–too many people might see, and in Pallasgreen someone might actually call the police; on the other hand, it wasn’t showy enough to be someone trying to make a point or send a message. This looked more like some magpie-brained lug saw something shiny and thought to make a quick buck with it.

That meant either selling him to a gang that knew how to fence a thing like Orson, or going direct to Chaffins Grove to offer him to the alchemical engineers, likely door-to-door. Corwyn knew which route she’d take.

“Arthur Goldberg’s the only one I remember as dealing in this kind of thing,” she finally said, trying to sound confident.  “Billy Hayden’s still one of the Goldberg crew, ain’t he? Maybe he’s heard something.”

Gwen, either actually fooled by her tone or also putting on a good show for the client, bounced up and clapped her hands. “We’re going to Cobbler’s Hill!” she sang.

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It was early in the day by Cobbler’s Hill standards, so the brothels were closed and whatever thieves and morphine addicts were awake were blinded enough by the sun to be discreet. The air still smelled of home: piss, vomit, and the occasional tinge of blood. There were new potholes in the streets; the buildings were falling down even more. Decay was the constant in the Hill.

Gwen moved, watchful and gleefully so, past the other people on the sidewalk–this was much more her element than Pallasgreen and their apartment there. Truth be told, while there was no way in nine hells she’d ever live here again, Cobbler’s Hill was the only place Corwyn ever felt right.

She and Gwen turned as one to glare at a skinny man with the wrong sort of expression on his face. He smiled, gap-toothed, and put his hands up as he backed away from them. “Sorry girls.  Sorry sorry.  Didn’t recognize you in your nice new clothes.”

Corwyn turned around, as they’d come to 43rd Street and the tiny gentlemen’s club that the Goldberg gang used as their home base.  Gwen stared a while longer; she had a reputation to tend.

Corwyn thought it had been long enough since Gwen’s unfortunate incident with Art Goldberg’s nephew that the bouncer might be new and not know their faces; she was right. He went and got Billy, who came out the door wearing the same wide confidence man’s grin he’d had when they were kids. Back then he’d also been a skinny Haitian kid with close-cropped hair. Now his hair and his frame were both filled out, and the smile dropped from his face as soon as he saw them.

“Goddammit, get round the corner before someone sees you,” he said, grabbing Corwyn by the elbow and dragging. Gwen followed, fast and tense. “What do you want?” he asked once they were out of sight of the club’s door.

Corwyn, tired, got right to it. “You heard anything about someone wanting to sell a little clockwork man?  Only it ain’t all clockwork, and it can talk on its own?”

“You are downright terrible at this, Corwyn,” Gwen said.

“It ain’t like I’ve got practice at it, Gwen.”

Billy looked simultaneously disdainful, wary, and confused. “Why would I tell you?  That sounds right valuable.  And in our scope of interest.”

Corwyn narrowed her eyes and poked at his chest with a finger. “You owe me, Billy Hayden–a couple times over.  And at least one of those debts ain’t the sort you can repay.”

“Only you, Corwyn Teachout, can make me regret getting pulled out of a damn fire.”  He blew his breath out his mouth and rubbed a hand over his hair before saying, “I ain’t heard about nothing like that. Mr. Goldberg would have us all over it if we did–and he will, soon as I go in and tell him about it.”

Corwyn groaned, silently. Of course he’d tell–why wouldn’t he? “You wouldn’t be willing to give us a day before you say anything?” she asked without much hope.

Billy laughed. “Maybe an hour. But, hey, you find it first, bring it to me–we can work out a good price.”

Corwyn watched him head back around the corner; she could tell Gwen was watching her but didn’t want to return the look. “I really am downright terrible at this,” she said, aiming to sound like she thought it all a lark.

Corwyn could hear the shrug in Gwen’s voice. “Ain’t like it wasn’t bound to happen, what with Orson being paraded round Pallasgreen. It’s inconvenient, but it ain’t worth brooding over.”

Corwyn wasn’t comforted; there wasn’t much Gwen found to be worth brooding over. “How many men you think Art Goldberg has round the Hill?” she finally asked Gwen.

“Not enough to stop us.”

Corwyn took a breath, hoping Gwen’s desire to head off her brooding would outweigh that time Corwyn came home covered in fine green fur, because she surely did not have time to argue her into this. “I have one more idea,” she said.

“And what is it?”

“We go see Miss Vadoma.”

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Vadoma Hildago’s house was never defaced; the people who’d tried sported visible scars. Its paint was relatively fresh, its windows were whole, and its small porch was covered with live plants. Corwyn led the way up the stoop and into the shade.

The witch of Cobbler’s Hill opened her door and, after a long look at each of them, slipped out onto the porch along with a smell of roses and … was that fish? Miss Vadoma was darker than both Corwyn and Gwen; taller, too, as she stared down her crooked nose at them.

“And what are you two doing here?”

“Ain’t a person in the Hill that’s happy to see us anymore,” Gwen observed.

Corwyn ignored her. “I need to ask you something.” She wasn’t entirely happy about it–for years she and Miss Vadoma had worked a push and pull of debts and evens; Corwyn was loathe to upset the balance back into the witch’s favor.

Still, it was a good amount of money.

Miss Vadoma’s long, knobby fingers pulled her door shut with a solid thud.  The story went that nobody ever went in the witch’s house, but Corwyn and Gwen had been inside as kids.  It looked like an everyday house inside, breathlessly exotic and entirely fearsome because of it.

“Ask, then,” Miss Vadoma said, drawing herself up even taller.

“We’re looking for a golem,” Corwyn said.  “Little thing, maybe a foot tall.”

Miss Vadoma shook her head.  “You know I don’t mess with alchemy.”

“I ain’t saying you have it–but you hear about everything,” Corwyn said, trying to smile winningly. Judging by Miss Vadoma’s expression, she did not entirely succeed.

“Why are you girls looking for it?”

“Because someone’s paying us to,” Gwen drawled from where she leaned on the porch rail, out of reach.

“So, a foot tall man?  Any distinguishing features?”

“From the hundreds of other foot-tall men running round San Xavier?” Gwen asked.

“Exactly that, yes.”

Corwyn crossed her arms over her chest. “He’s made of quite a lot of clockwork,” she said.

“Lars Hallstrom,” Miss Vadoma replied with hardly a pause. “Last little girl he shacked up with got him good and drunk and took off when he passed out.  Saw him … day before yesterday? Prowling about. Today I hear he’s got a kid with clockwork legs. Or maybe it’s not a kid.”

Corwyn exchanged a long look with Gwen. Every kid in Cobbler’s Hill had identical grudges against Lars Hallstrom, and though neither of his encounters with the Teachouts had ended particularly well for him, neither Corwyn nor Gwen had come out of them entirely unbruised, either.

Corwyn turned toward the porch steps, not saying anything because you didn’t thank the Cobbler’s Hill witch if you valued your skin. She already felt her knack waking up, stretching toward the front of her head, ready to start pulling her to go find Lars Hallstrom, whether or not she was happy to go.

“I’ve seen you, Corwyn Teachout,” said Miss Vadoma, and Corwyn turned despite the protest of her knack, because the voice was the witchy one Miss Vadoma saved for intimidating kids and actual magic. She’d slid partway into her house but held the door open with one hand. “You follow your knack in and out of the Hill, looking darker and bloodier every time.”

Gwen went still before drawing herself up off the rail slowly. Corwyn, trying to make it sound offhanded, asked, “You talking about my soul, Miss Vadoma?”

The witch snorted, apparently not one to bother with souls. “All round you, girl. And I remember you, little and willing to eat or drink whatever I handed you without asking what it was. Not like that one–” She tilted her chin at Gwen, who didn’t move, still ready to spring.  “–she was always smarter than that. I like you. Find this thing you’re looking for. Maybe it helps you, clears some of that blood away.”

And then she shut the door in their faces, so they went down the front steps to the sidewalk. It was a relief, giving into the pulling; it left no room to wonder about some bloody, dark cloud hovering round her head. “Come on,” she said, grabbing Gwen’s arm.

“Here we go,” Gwen said with a slanted grin. “Good thing these boots are comfortable.”

Corwyn’s muscles wanted her to run, follow her knack along as fast as she could, and her thinking self didn’t want to dawdle, either. The docks were a long ways away, though, and Corwyn knew she couldn’t keep up a run that long, so she settled into a fast walk.

“Why did you always eat all the stuff Miss Vadoma gave you?” Gwen asked.

“I was hungry,” Corwyn said. “And I remember thinking if she owed me enough, she’d have to do what I said.”

Gwen chuckled. “And she calls me the smart one.”

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By the time they got to the docks, it was mid-afternoon slanting toward evening. Salt and fish and tar mingled with the regular smell of the Hill. “This place ain’t changed much,” Gwen said as they paused on Selwin Avenue to get their bearings. She sounded disgusted and pleased in equal measure. “Orson got a lot more than a walk around Pallasgreen,” she continued, musingly.

“Think he’ll ever get to venture outdoors again?” Corwyn asked, nudging Gwen toward Portcullis Boulevard, headed south.

“He can’t stay inside forever,” Gwen said. “Unless they lock him up.”

The uneven skyline of Cobbler’s Hill was streaking black as the sun sank lower; Corwyn could feel the buildings looming all round the two of them. “There’s all sorts of cages in the world, ain’t there?”

“And they all have keys,” Gwen replied equably, jabbing an elbow into Corwyn’s arm. “Quit brooding so damn much. If Orson wants to see the world, the curator can hire me as his bodyguard and I’ll tour him all over.”

Corwyn snorted. “You’ll end up fighting off the whole Goldberg gang every time you venture out.”

Gwen grinned, pleased. “A girl can but dream, Wyn.”

It took longer than Corwyn would have liked to get down among the docks to Lars Hallstrom’s boat, but running made people chase you, and they didn’t have time nor patience for that. He’d hauled in his gangplank and let the run-down trawler drift a bit from the dock, but Gwen jumped the gap easily and caught Corwyn’s arms when she landed short. The knack eased off as soon as she stood up on the deck and brushed off her knees.

They found Hallstrom drunk and in his bunk, which was no surprise, alone save for the company of a half-full bottle of something brown and a mighty assortment of bruises. He eyed them blearily from swollen slits in a resplendently purple face.

“That you, Corwyn Teachout? The hell you want?”

“Aw, Wyn, between the bruises and the drink, he’s not going to notice if I bang his head off a wall.”

“That Simcote bitch send you?” he asked, hauling himself to sit up, the bottle spilling behind him and filling the room with the smell of alcohol. “I ain’t got it now, they took it.”

“Who took what, Lars?” Corwyn asked evenly.

“I ain’t telling you nothing.”  He stood up, swaying, for a moment looking huge and broad and dangerous like he had when they were kids and he’d had Corwyn cornered, seven years old and casting about for a weapon.  She’d found one, and used it, but her stomach still dropped a little as she shifted her weight to fight.

Gwen had never been scared of Lars Hallstrom, even when they were kids, and he gave her no pause. She took a step to meet him, planted four fingers in the worse of his two black eyes, then shoved him backwards onto his bunk again. He hissed as he went, his eye watering, the bunk squelching.  “I will dump all your booze overboard before I start breaking your bones. Just for funsies, and because you got no more room for bruises,” she told him, her voice careless.

“The Goldberg crew,” he said. “They took it. Waste of a beating, anyway, I didn’t want it no more. It’s tiny, but it’s a grown man.”

Billy hadn’t even given them a damn hour, and the Goldbergs knew how to move merchandise quick. Corwyn thought fast, rummaged through facts she hadn’t thought of in years–

“They still keep their junk in the factory on Button Street?” Corwyn asked.

Lars nodded. Gwen punched him in the side of the head. He howled, wincing as he brought a hand up to it. They’d jumped back to the dock before Gwen asked, “Why don’t we just kill him again?”

“Because–” Corwyn stopped. “Because we had other concerns to tend to. And then because Mrs. Simcote always said not to kill a source.” Lars Hallstrom was a source of many things to the old lady: Information. Kids. But they didn’t live with Mrs. Simcote anymore. Nine hells, look at that. There were advantages to all this poverty and isolation.

Gwen’s eyes were wide, almost shining in the twilight. Every kid in the Hill had grudges against Lars Hallstrom, but Gwen held them tighter than most.

Corwyn pointed at her. “Now, hang on, we have a job right now, and it’s got a deadline.”

Gwen nodded. “Yes, we do. Once we get paid for this,” she said, turning to look back at the boat, “I am finally going to burn that trawler down to the water line.”

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“We should have gotten coffee with the falafel,” Corwyn said, trying not to yawn as she and Gwen peered down at the factory floor of the Goldbergs’ warehouse. Cobbler’s Hill was the only part of San Xavier where a body could get falafel, and even detectives needed to eat, but they’d done it on the move.

The gang looked to be planning something: a main group gathered around a table, the rest scattered through the shadows on the floor and occupying themselves with cutting their nails or glowering at each other.

“Nobody ever looks up,” Gwen observed.

“Judging by the climb up the building, ain’t none of them can get up here, anyway.” Corwyn scanned the room; looking for a foot-tall golem by the light of hanging oil lamps was a chore.

Gwen had the better eyes. “There,” she said, nodding toward a spot just below and to the left of the observation platform where they crouched. Corwyn could make out a form inside a cage, suspended underneath the balcony, but couldn’t tell what, if anything, he was doing.

Corwyn was pulled out of her spying by the platform shuddering as Gwen threw a leg over the railing.

“Where are you going?”

“I’m going down there to cause a ruckus so you can climb down and get Orson.”

“I do believe we could both climb down there and get him without getting caught.”

Gwen gave her a wicked grin. “But I’m bored. Come on, I distract them, you grab him, we meet up at home. Easy.” She threw her other leg over the rail and dropped, quiet, to the floor.

Corwyn waited until the fight started before following Gwen down.

The drawback to staying in the shadows was that a lot of folk knew it was a good idea. On the other hand, a good portion of Goldberg’s boys were bored, too, and rushed to join the fight. The one left in the shadows — smarter, scared, or shorter than the others, anyway — had his back to her, so she looked around, came up with a broken-off piece of wood, and slammed it into the side of his head.

The thud of his body hitting the floor was covered by Gwen catcalling. It didn’t do her any good in a fight, but even though Corwyn’s knack always knew where Gwen was, hearing her let Corwyn know she was still up and moving without having to pay strict attention.

The cage hung from a hook screwed into one of the pillars supporting the observation platform; it swayed and shook over a pile of stacked boxes and leaning sacks full of whatever the hell the Goldbergs were selling now. Opium. Whiskey. Hard to find elements for alchemical engineers. Maybe weapons.

It wasn’t the sturdiest of foundations for a rescue. The pile wobbled underneath her as she climbed, and once or twice she lost her footing and held her breath, expecting the deafening crash of contraband goods smashing all over the warehouse floor.

Corwyn reached the top. The stack gave another ominous shudder. She grabbed the cage to try and steady herself. The golem started, then slid until his feet slammed into the cage bars, his eyes wide and alarmed. She recoiled, just a touch; his eyes were all black, no iris, like a bird’s; he had no hair; and even though she had expected it, he was tiny–no man should be that small and look so real.

“Who are you?” he asked. His voice was tiny, too, and pitched higher than a full-grown man; still, he didn’t sound like a kid.

“I’m a friend,” she said. “Dr. Eggleston sent me.”

“Oh thank god,” he said, all in a rush.

Corwyn turned her attention to the lock on the cage door. She’d learned to pick on locks like these. No magic, just tumblers. “All right,” she said. “I can do this fast, or I can do it without jostling you around. So hold on.” Orson grabbed the bars to either side of him and braced his feet as Corwyn pulled a pin from her hair. “Look out at the fight; tell me how it’s going?”

“Depends on what side you’re on,” Orson said. “I assume we’re rooting for the girl?”

“Yup.” Corwyn never thought she’d be grateful that Mrs. Simcote made her practice picking locks blindfolded, but the shadows were deep.

“She is carving a swath of bloody destruction through the thugs,” Orson said, adjusting his grip as Corwyn tilted the cage to one side for a better angle. “And some of the drunker ones are fighting each other, I presume for the fun of it. Still, there are far more of them than there are of her.”

“Well, that is how she prefers it,” Corwyn said absently. The lock opened with a click she felt more than heard. “All right,” she said, “Should I … it’d be easier if I carried you?”

Orson scrambled out of the cage, over her shoulder, and down the back of her shirt. His brass legs and arm were cold; their charms pricked against her skin as he dug his feet into the waistband of her trousers. He was heavy, but she’d expected that–clay and metal, of course he’d be heavier than he looked–and adjusted for it as she cautiously slid one foot down the pile, looking for a hold to start their descent.

In retrospect, it wasn’t so surprising that the stack collapsed under them–there was the deafening crash of contraband on the floor, and a rank cloud of alcohol–what was surprising was that Corwyn managed to land on her side and not on Orson, who clung stubbornly to her back the whole way down.

She lost her breath with the pain of the impact, felt Orson scrambling out of her shirt, and heard Gwen’s voice in her head telling her, Get up, Corwyn, so much for easy.

She hauled herself to her feet in time to see one of Goldberg’s boys headed her way.  “Mr. Orson, I advise you to run,” she said, though she didn’t have time to see if he was anywhere around to hear her.

There wasn’t much help to be found in the debris: broken bottles of whiskey; wet, fleshy things she had no desire to look at more closely; an astounding number of cigars; no weapons. Fate was not on her side today. Corwyn reached down and grabbed a broken bottle, then straightened to face the skinny young lug coming at her.

She dropped to the wet floor as he reached out to grab her, glass crunching under her boots and whiskey dampening her knees as she swiped his shin with the bottle and jammed it into his stomach as she came back up. There was another guy coming behind him; she turned this one roughly and shoved him, howling like a baby and the bottle still stuck in him, at his buddy before turning and bolting for the back wall. Gwen had taught her a lot over the years, but Corwyn didn’t have a knack that would help her thrash an entire gang at once.

Her side hurt, her hip clawed at her, and the window directly in front of her was boarded over. Wait, there was one, farther down on the right and broken; lantern light glinted off the shards, and it wasn’t that far away. If she could get out and catch her breath she could try and figure out where Orson might–

A hand twisted into her hair and yanked her backwards off her feet. It felt like she slammed back-first into the walls of St. Philomena’s cathedral; the voice in her ear was about as rough as one of those walls, too. “You think she’ll slow down, she sees I got you?”

Corwyn squirmed as he wrapped an arm around her and tightened his grip to keep her arms pinned. She heard Gwen laughing over someone cursing at her.

“I think if you want to see her stop playing and kill you all like it’s a job, you take me out there,” Corwyn said with a grunt, then brought her boot down, hard, into his foot. She dropped to her knees when his grip loosened, scrambling away on her hands and knees toward the inside of the warehouse. Maybe she could get lost in the bigger fight–some more of Goldberg’s boys were fighting with each other now, and she caught a glimpse of Gwen, grinning, arms held behind her back by one lug, shifting up fast and smashing both feet into the face of another one.

Corwyn got a hard kick in the ribs as she started to get up onto her feet, but her new friend skipped back and away, grunting and favoring the foot she’d stomped. She got up to her own feet, slowly, both sides hurting like seven kinds of hell, and turned her head to look at him, then past him.

Time to do something blindingly stupid, she thought. She grinned at Broken Foot, hoping it looked cocky, and took off toward him at as much of a sprint as she could muster.

He looked surprised, which Corwyn felt was highly flattering; she veered around him and managed to skim past his grasping hand. He couldn’t run after her very well–frankly, Corwyn couldn’t run away from him very well, either–but she could hear him thumping along as she reached the boarded window and put a foot on its sill. She heaved herself up, off-balance, to grab the bottom of the hanging lantern, burning her fingers as she yanked it off the hook. Then she hit the ground, turned, and threw it at Broken Foot.

It went wide. His surprise was turning into a sly grin, but then the lamp shattered in the pool of whiskey on the floor, and the surprise came back again. It turned to downright panicked when the cuff of his pants caught fire.

That was all Corwyn paused to see, though she could hear him fumbling to put it out and yelling like hell for his friends. She ran–awkwardly, but at a good clip–to the broken window, knocked out the last of the glass, and climbed through.

Corwyn hung off the outside window ledge and gave a quick whistle to let Gwen know she was leaving. The drop wasn’t far, but it was enough to send a jolt all up her sides and make her hiss when she landed.

“Miss?” she heard, from near to the ground.

“Orson?”

He shifted so that the firelight reflected off his brass bits. “I’m afraid I don’t know how to get back to Pallasgreen from here. Would you be kind enough to escort me?”

Corwyn hadn’t even begun to think about where to look for him once she got out of the warehouse, but relief that she wouldn’t have to washed through her like water through a pump. She matched his highbrow accent when she replied, “Certainly, Mr. Orson.” She kneeled carefully next to him. “Climb aboard, but mind my ribs, please.”

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Gwen arrived at their apartment later smelling like smoke, with a bloody lip, skinned knuckles, scorched trousers, and shining eyes starting to blacken from her broken nose. It was downright miraculous Gwen had any nose left, as many times as it’d been broken.

“I will undoubtedly be an entire gang of enormous lugs tomorrow,” she told Corwyn as she strapped Corwyn’s ribs. “But someday, Wyn, someday, those men will proudly tell their grandchildren of the time Gwen Teachout knocked their teeth loose.”

“And a glorious day that will be, indeed,” Corwyn replied easily. Gwen enjoyed knocking heads and tossing drunks too much to make it steady work; those that hired her got nervous after a while. Corwyn, however, had lived with Gwen her whole life, and knew to treat it like a bender.

Gwen tied off the strapping, leaned back on their sagging couch, and shut her eyes, fingers lightly exploring her re-set nose. “So how is our treasure?” she finally asked.

“Asleep.” Corwyn shifted in their only armchair, stiff and trying to find a comfortable position in which to rest her abused bones.

“I’m not, actually.” Orson stood in the doorway to their bedroom. “Your bed is too big, Miss Corwyn.”

“You want me to make you one in a dresser drawer?” Gwen asked, sounding still mildly drunk on violence.

He was very cunningly made, Corwyn thought; the look of disgust was as clear as if he’d been made of skin and muscle rather than clay. She guessed he had a right to be tetchy, considering.

He climbed up onto the couch next to Gwen, though he sat a good distance away from her. Corwyn got comfortable–turned and leaning more on the kicked side, strangely enough–and let out a long breath. The tips of her right-hand fingers were sensitive, but no longer hurt whenever she touched something. Her ribs felt better. Her scalp had stopped stinging. She could hear, between her breaths, the faintest tick and tock of Orson’s heart. It was approaching cozy, sitting in the lamplight with her battered sister and the clockwork homunculus. “I’m sorry about the bed, Mr. Orson.”

“I appreciate the bed,” he said, his voice delicate and barely disturbing the stillness of the room.  He blinked his black eyes, and Corwyn felt a ghost of that first startled sight of him, tiny and bird-eyed, not quite human.  “I prefer feeling slightly more … contained.  And really, I’m not quite ready to let go of the day.”

Gwen turned her head on the back of the couch and grinned at him. “It was quite the adventure, wasn’t it?”

“It was terrifying,” he said, meeting her grin with a smile. “And yes.”

“How’d you get out of the warehouse?” Corwyn asked.

“There are some quite enormous rats in there, to judge by the holes. I barely had to crouch.” He fell silent for a while, the smile playing on his face before gradually fading.  “I suppose Jarvis will have to move me to the museum.  I suppose I belong there.”  He looked down at his clockwork hand and flexed his fist open and shut, the lamplight flowing over and catching against the tiny fittings. “Had Mr. Fairchilde not died, I’d likely be all clockwork by now.”

“There’s worse places for you than the museum,” Corwyn offered.

“They’ll never let me out again.  Nor should they.” It came out on a breath, the merest wisp of a sigh. Well, nobody liked a cage, especially when they’d thought they’d found a way out of it. Corwyn knew that more than most.

She glanced at Gwen, whose eyes were shut. “You’re very solid,” she said to Orson.

“How solid?” Gwen opened one eye to peer at her.

“My back says pretty damn solid–he’s made of brass and clay.”

Gwen opened her other eye and, without lifting her head from the back of the sofa, appraised Orson like he was a new and interesting weapon.  Or something she could use as one. “So if you knew what to do, you get grabbed, you could maybe fight off one or two guys.”

“Do you think so?” Orson asked. “I’m so small.”

“You ain’t going to roundhouse punch a grown man, but there’s things you can do, nonetheless.  And they’d underestimate you,” Gwen said.

Corwyn snorted. “‘Til word got round, anyway.” The two of them hadn’t had the element of surprise on their side in years.

“And then they might leave you alone,” Gwen said, unperturbed.

“Could you … teach me that? What to do?” Orson asked.

“For a nominal fee,” Gwen replied. She was fading fast, but as she hauled herself off the couch she said, “You tell Dr. Eggleston. You’re a valuable commodity, you know. You ought to be able to defend yourself.”

Gwen shut the bedroom door behind her, and Corwyn sat with the golem without speaking. She could feel the long day on not enough sleep seeping into her bones as she listened to Orson’s ticking heart and the sounds of Pallasgreen settling down for the night. She dozed and only half-remembered Orson prodding her to her own bed, whispering, “Thank you for finding me,” before she fell completely asleep.

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The next day they went to the museum, Gwen still cheerful despite the bruises and the nose. She didn’t heal any faster than other people, and she felt pain, she just didn’t much care about it.  Orson rode on her back today to spare Corwyn’s ribs, with his head above her shoulder, while Corwyn did her grim best to keep up.

“At least they won’t cut me into pieces here,” Orson said as the black stone turrets of the museum appeared at the end of the street.  Corwyn’s lips quirked at that; every cage had silver gilding. Or some such.

Mattie, at the front desk, ran to get the curator as soon as they walked through the museum’s enormous front doors. Dr. Eggleston’s sagging face lit up when he saw them; he seemed thrilled and relieved to see his treasure once more and willing to engage Gwen to teach Orson ways to fight. “You should get out in the world, and if you can defend yourself, then I can try and make a case for it,” he told the golem as he kneeled before him. “Though perhaps not another trip down to the docks.”

“Surely some sea captain would hire a thirteen-inch half-clockwork sailor,” said Orson; they both laughed, but it echoed oddly in the hallway, flattened out and thin.

“Thank you, ladies,” Dr. Eggleston said, standing to pull his billfold from his jacket pocket and count out their fee. “I will be sure to recommend you to my colleagues when we have things that need finding.”

They watched the curator and Orson walk away down the hall.  “He means it,” said Mattie.  “They’re always losing junk. Or hearing about weird things they simply must have.”

Corwyn nodded, unwilling to think too much about a future possibility when she had so much present to stare in the face. At least her present currently included a large sum of cash, which she and Gwen divided between them for the walk home before following Mattie to the front doors.

Gwen grinned to split her face as she bounced down the front steps of the museum.  “We retrieved a lost treasure. And I got a job!” she said, smug or gleeful. Likely both. “And nobody died‑‑just some maiming!  But I’m still putting a sign on the door. No missing people cases for a while.”

“All right,” Corwyn allowed. “I guess I could do with more sleep.”

“And baths for us both,” Gwen said, nose wrinkled as she sniffed at herself.

Corwyn smelled sweat. A bit of whiskey. Some clay, probably from Orson. Food from a restaurant. She took a deep breath and let it out, forgetting Gwen next to her, the museum behind her, and the only slightly rundown buildings of Pallasgreen surrounding her in the sudden awareness of the clean scent of her hair.

___

Copyright 2014 Laura E. Price

Laura E. Price lives in Florida with her husband and son.  Her stories have appeared in Cicada, On Spec, Strange Horizons, and Beneath Ceaseless Skies.  You can find her blog at seldnei.wordpress.com

by Vanessa Fogg

The world is filled with spirits who would take a child. The gundarram, who hide in banana trees and send out their foul breath to sicken sleeping infants. The gargar demons with red fur and black wings, who fly through the rainforest looking for naughty children to snatch. Momimo, who appears as a little lost boy crying in the mangrove swamps, begging children and adults alike for help. There are even spirits who steal the lives of babies still in their mothers’ wombs.

My aunties warned, scolded and threatened me with such tales. My cousins and I retold the stories we heard, alternately terrified and delighted. But my mother never warned me of the spirits of the jungle.  The only ones she ever warned me against were the Nai-O, the beautiful swimmers, the shape-shifters of the sea.

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Sometimes I can see dolphins out in the bay. A flash so quick I can hardly be sure: a silver arc, a moment of flight, the curve of a leap which drags my heart along with it. Sometimes I see a pod: two and three and more leaping and spinning together, breaking again and again out of the water into the empty air. I stare at them from the shallow water near the shore, a scoop-net in my hands. I can swim, but I will never get close to them; I can’t swim that far, and I will never be allowed in the painted boats that venture out in the deeper waters beyond the reef.

All I can do is stare.

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“Dolphin blood,” some families are said to possess. It is known that the Nai-O, who delight in taking dolphin form during the day, sometimes take human form on land at dusk. There are tales of young women seduced and left carrying half-human offspring. Men are no less lucky—they are often driven hopelessly mad by an encounter.

“But why? Why would they even leave their home?” I asked once. I could not fathom it. There is no death in their undersea kingdom, no suffering. Beautiful music plays; the water is cool and refreshing; the Nai-O, ultimately neither dolphin nor human, laugh and dance under the waves. Some say they live in castles of coral and moon-pearls. Some say they eat fruit off plates of shining gold.

“They’re drawn to humans,” Auntie Tippi said simply. It was the resting hour after the mid-day meal, and we lay under the thatched palm shade of Auntie’s small courtyard, too drained by the heat to move. Even my little brother was too hot to run about, and he lay draped on the ground at my feet like a beached jelly. “They’re drawn to human songs, human music.” Auntie slapped at a gnat on her arm.

“They’re drawn to the human world because it’s different,” an older cousin guessed. “Maybe even spirits want to see new things.”

One of the littler cousins pinched another, and wails split the air. My mother spoke quietly, so quietly that perhaps only I heard. “They’re drawn to sorrow,” she said.

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There is no shortage of sorrow in our world. Every few years a great storm batters the coast, tearing the roofs off our homes, flooding our fields, breaking our boats. There are unlucky men and boys caught and dragged under by the sea. There are people bitten by snakes and poison spiders, lost to the jungle; there are the rains that bring the coughing sickness and the sun which brings the prickly fever; there are shallow wounds that blacken and rot. The gundarram steal the breath of babies; and there are other spirits who take the breath of laboring women and babies together with a single hand.

There is sorrow in my household. I have always felt it. My mother goes silent and her gaze slips past me, staring at what no one else can see. She was pounding herbs and salt into a paste for dinner, but her hands have grown still. I in turn grow nervous, for Father will yell if dinner is not done to his liking.

“Mother,” I say tentatively. I cannot predict her moods. There are days that she smiles and laughs and she is with me and my brother. But other times she snaps at us; her voice goes shrill, and she bursts into tears. She sings to herself songs from her old village, but she won’t teach them to me and gets angry when she hears me singing them in my turn.

“Mother,” I say, and she might come back or she might not.

Father can’t stand to see her this way. I gently take the mortar and pestle from her hands and try to finish dinner myself. I’m not as quick or skilled as she can be, and Father will grumble when he gets home. But he would grumble anyway.

Many women have sorrows. Many women have lost children. My mother is not the only one. But she’s the only one I know who loses herself like this, who grows clumsy and forgetful even as she’s cracking open a coconut or spreading fish out on racks to dry in the sun. She is weak, I think to myself. Accursed. Why else would she lose two children still in the womb even though she wore a garland of shells and fresh sippi flowers every night?  Why else would she be unlucky enough to lose my other brother to the rain-sickness when he was barely a year old? Why can’t she be like my aunties and the other women—often short-tempered and scolding yes, but also strong and stoic and always capable?

To escape her sorrow, I run to the sea. I laugh and dive and splash with the other children. We wade in the shallows with our scoop-nets, catching crabs and small fish; at low tide we dig up clams. I’m only a girl, but I can swim faster and farther and hold my breath longer than anyone, even than Rakao, the son of the chief fisherman. He and I dare each other to swim out farther and farther, until we’re nearly at the reef and it’s just the two of us, floating on our backs in the warm still water. The blue sky tilts above like a second ocean and we’re weightless, suspended between expanses. I think that my body might go transparent with water and light. I think that I might stay like this forever. I think that I might never leave.

Then I hear Rakao’s voice, crying out that there are dolphins.

I turn upright to look. We see them flashing beyond the reef, past the fleet of fishing boats. A man in one of the boats is angrily waving his arm at us—Rakao’s father–gesturing at us to head back.

So we do.

“My father is taking me out tomorrow,” Rakao boasts when we are back on shore. “He says I am old enough now to be of some real help.”

I am silent. It’s true; he is old enough. Rakao’s father first took him out to the reef when he was six, but such trips have not been regular occurrences. I see now that they will soon be; he will learn to use the lines and elaborate nets and traps that only the men can use, and he will spend every day on the reef or open ocean while I stay confined to the inner lagoon with the women and children.

He doesn’t notice my silence. He’s chattering as we walk back to our homes. He heads to the chief fisherman’s house of multiple rooms, while I walk to a small house that needs new thatching for its roof. I find my little brother crying inside, hungry, and my mother just sitting on the floor, staring blankly out through the open doorway at the sea.

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They say that festival times are the riskiest for a Nai-O encounter. All the voices of a village lifted in song—the swirl of melodies, the sounds of flutes and drums—it’s like a great fire in the dark. The Nai-O hear and come. The priest always draws a protective circle around the main celebration space. The elders jealously chaperone the young maidens and youths.

Still, there are tales. There is the story of the girl who foolishly ran home in the dark by herself to fetch a belt of shells to wear. She met a Nai-O and nine months later gave birth to a child with silver hair and fingerless hands like fins. The baby gave a single high, nearly soundless cry, and then died, unable to breathe this world’s air.

And there is a story that took place in our own village, within living memory. Old Uncle Turo was once the handsomest youth of his time. The great-aunties sigh and shake their heads, remembering. He was brave and gifted, and reckless as only a young man can be. No one remembers how or why he slipped from the New Year’s festival. But when they found him the next morning it was already too late; the once-laughing boy was sitting empty-eyed in the sand with seaweed in his hair. He never spoke sense again. He drifted aimlessly about the village and sang at the sea; he grew old, rocking and mumbling to himself. He lives still: a silent bent man forgotten in corners, until someone chances to remember and tell the old story.

Don’t walk by yourself at dusk, they tell the youths and maidens. Don’t sing alone near the sea.

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The aunties of the village look after my brother and me. They pull him out of the mangrove swamp and then scold me for not keeping an eye on him. They watch us alongside their own children as we play. We call all the older women of the village “Aunt,” but Auntie Tippi is our real aunt, our father’s younger sister. She reminds Mother that our small garden needs weeding, that it’s time to pull the aro roots. She tells Mother that Little Brother has outgrown all his clothes. We harvest shellfish and gather palm fronds with her family, and she and Mother weave baskets together in the late afternoon, as my brother and I play with our cousins.

Auntie Tippi’s fingers are gentle as she threads flowers through my hair for the Harvest Festival.

“Your mother wore flowers like these when we first met,” she says, smiling. “You’re already nearly as pretty.”

I feel myself go still. My mother–my tired, drab mother—was once pretty?

I’ve never heard Auntie Tippi say anything like this before. I’ve never heard anyone in the village talk of what my mother was like when she was younger, before I was born.

“Was that at the Harvest Feast?” I ask. “When she and Father first met?”

But my aunt looks as though she regrets her words. Sadness like a shadow flickers over her face, and she doesn’t say anything more.

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I was playing alone on the beach. I was perhaps four years old. It was the cool time of evening when families gather to enjoy the reprieve from the heat; children splash and run in the sea as their mothers sit weaving baskets and the men mend nets or clean out traps for the next day’s fishing. The fishing boats have been dragged ashore, and their painted eyes and charms glint in the day’s last light.

I had wandered far from my friends and from any adult. Orange streaks from the falling sun lit the sky, but my feet seemed to be moving in a separate world of darkness. I watched my own feet splashing through the dimming water; I followed them, fascinated, as though I were following the appendages of some mysterious creature. And I was singing a lullaby as I went, something my mother would sometimes sing to me, a song from her own inland village.

Kirri, kirri sing the little birds.

They call for you in the dawn.

Mik, mik calls the mouse in the field.

He misses your shadow passing by.

I was singing, and was there an echo I heard, a second voice tracing those words? I sang louder and it seemed that the waves were growing stronger. That second voice sang with me, a half-beat behind, and I could hear the curiosity in its uncertain refrain. The current sucked at my legs . . .

And my mother was screaming my name, running at me; she grabbed me and swung me away from the water, up into her arms. “Don’t,” she cried. “Don’t ever sing that song, don’t sing here at night, don’t you know–”

She shook me, she was so angry, and I saw the tears glinting on her cheeks. I burst into sobs.

The Nai-O, she explained as she carried me crying back up the beach. The Nai-O, the singing dolphins, didn’t I know that they took small children?

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My friends didn’t believe me.

“The Nai-O don’t take children,” Rakao said, frowning. “Or not little ones. They take the older ones, the ones who are almost grown.”

“Everyone knows that,” an older boy, Kaavo, scoffed.

“My mother said so,” I insisted.

Kaavo tapped the side of his head with two fingers, the same gesture people made when they spoke of Old Uncle Turo. “My mother says your mother is crazy,” Kaavo said.

My mother was not crazy. Not then.

Back then she still sang to me, and stroked my hair, and held me in her arms. She spoke and listened and looked at the world, even if her eyes were sometimes scared and sad.

I kicked that boy in the shins for disrespecting one of his elders.

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The seasons blur–planting and harvest and sun and rains and sometimes a cool breeze off the sea, stirring the air. The Four Great Festivals slowly wheel around in their turn. There are harvest seasons for fish as well as aro and rice—there are times when the large spotted specka run, and a full moon when huge schools of berbekki throw themselves into the fishermen’s nets. Rakao tells me of all this when we meet. He tells me of the great green turtle nearly as large as a man, whom they call “Grandfather,” and who greets them every day on the reef. He talks of bright fishes with colors and patterns I’ve never seen—too clever and quick to be caught. He speaks of undersea forests of coral. He tells me of rowing past the reef into choppy water, of feeling the boat rise and fall; the lurch in the stomach, the great rolling hills and valleys of water.

Father takes Little Brother out to sea as well, although not often. He’s not a patient man, and Little Brother gets bored and restless in the confines of the boat.

Rakao meets me at the beach as the sun is setting. He tells me of the pod of dolphins he saw, closer than he’s ever seen. He gives me a piece of pink coral.

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How do you tell a Nai-O from an ordinary dolphin?

The differences are subtle. Some say the Nai-O are slightly larger. Others claim that they are smaller. All agree that their skin is brighter, more silvery. They leap just a little higher in the air, cut through the water just a little more swiftly. They are curious and fearless, and often swim alongside boats. At sea, the Nai-O are almost considered good luck; they often bring good weather and fish.

Still, it’s best to keep your distance. It’s best not to draw their attention.

Rakao says he’s never seen one, but promises to tell me if he does.

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When the rains fall, it’s time to light candles for the dead. On the family altar Mother places coconut shells of fresh water and jasmine flowers. We peel and cut guava fruit as an offering. We kneel and recite prayers for our relatives’ well-being and blessings: ancestors I’ve never known, my father’s parents, and their parents in turn. My father’s siblings who died in childhood, and his older brother who died before I was born. We and Auntie Tippi are all that’s left of his family.

In my mother’s village they pray for her ancestors and family, but here she makes offerings for her husband’s. She and Father’s lost children are the last names to be spoken. Her tears start before she gets to her first son’s name; she’s crying as she lights the candle for Father’s older brother, for an uncle I never knew.

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The stories always leave something out. What happened to the girl with the belt of shells, after she gave birth to her Nai-O baby? What happened to the half-Nai-O children who survived, whose descendants are said to live in certain villages on the coast? Were they happy? Did their mothers love them? Did they ever long to leave their human families and go to live in the sea?

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Rakao and I meet when we can. It’s hard, for we’re both busy with new duties. It’s been years since we swam in the lagoon together. Long ago, I was told to put on a maiden’s proper clothes, to leave the sea to unshirted little girls.

But we can still meet on land, for a short space each day. We can still talk and be together.

We’re almost always surrounded by others—family and friends gathered around us on the beach or working with us during chores. But there are still moments when we catch each other alone during the daily routine—moments when he still seeks me out, meeting me by my home. He spends most of his time with the other boys, of course; working with them, trading cheerful insults with them, kicking around a woven rattan-ball. But I know he speaks truly only to me. We stare at the sea and wonder aloud about the islands across the water. He tells me the stories he hears from visiting sea-traders. He talks of running away to join them. He tells me of a quarrel in his family, of something his father said. He speaks of the expectations of his father and of the expectations of all his uncles. It’s like a dozen eyes always watching you, he complains; it’s like the heat of the sun always on your back. And then suddenly we’re laughing at his imitation of a stern old uncle; we’re laughing at an auntie’s manner, and at some silly happenstance; we’re laughing at nothing at all.

I ask him to tell me of the sea.

He smiles. “You’re the one who should be on the boat each day,” he says.

Later, I watch as he swims freely in the lagoon with his friends. I think of a game that the two of us used to play. When we were children, we built a great boat out of palm fronds and branches: the greatest boat that has ever been, a deep-sea voyaging canoe with sails like white wings. We stocked that boat with coconuts, and Rakao caught a shark to tow us, and we sailed across the ocean itself to the lands beyond the sunset.

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I heard two new Nai-O stories last year. It was at the Clear Moon Festival, and I heard them from a girl from M’kai village. She was visiting with her family, honored guests of one of our chief families. She told us the stories as she and her mother helped with the feast preparations: pounding roots, shelling nuts, and folding countless banana leaves around fillings of sweet rice and fruit. A story! we demanded while we worked, for it was the fee asked of all visitors. The girl smiled demurely and glanced at her mother. The woman nodded, and the girl, clearly proud to tell a story she had learned well, told her tale.

Long ago in M’kai village there lived a gentle young man. He was kind and well-liked, a good fisherman and hard worker. But he was also an odd, dreamy youth, prone to spells of silence and unexplained sadness.

One day this youth was out at sea with his brother when a large dolphin, bright silver in the sunlight, surfaced next to them. The dolphin followed as they rowed out to their fishing grounds, and fish flooded into their nets. They could scarcely drag them all into the boat.

From that day on, the dolphin visited with them. Nearly every day she appeared, leaping and swimming beside them. She swam so close that the men in the boat could reach out to touch her. But it was only the younger brother, the sad-eyed dreamer, who did so.

The dolphin brought fish, and the brothers brought home nets nearly bursting with their catch. Their mother and sisters were nearly worn to exhaustion drying, salting, and preparing for trade all that could not be eaten in the village. Their father strutted and grew fat with pride.

But even as they grew rich, the family and others worried. For the younger brother cared nothing for dried fish and money; nor for fresh fish, either. If he had been somewhat dreamy before, he was now three times worse. His eyes turned ever seaward, and they looked only to the silver dolphin that greeted him each day.

The unease grew. The boy’s older brother had married, and now the father tried to marry off the younger son as well. But the boy would not look at any of the girls that the match-makers found for him. He cared only for going to sea and singing to the dolphin from his boat, regardless of the warnings of others.

And then one day it happened. One day the boy simply swung his legs over the edge of his boat and slipped into the sea, after the dolphin who waited for him. The elder brother saw the sleek silver shape in the water; he saw the younger boy reaching for a fin; he watched the boy slide smoothly onto the dolphin’s back. The elder brother shouted and jumped into the sea after them. But the dolphin and boy skimmed through the water quicker than bird-flight. Men on other boats saw as they flashed past, and they watched as the dolphin dived deep, the boy holding onto her fin. No one ever saw them again.

There was a silence as the girl finished her story.

“No one?” said a young girl-cousin, a child of four. And she began to cry.

There was a rush of soothing words and comfort for the child, and then praise and questions for the tale-teller. The girl from M’kai flushed under the attention. “No,” she said in response to one question. “It’s the only tale like it that I know.” She paused. “Or maybe not. There’s also a story of a girl who went into the sea after the Nai-O. Some say that she had met one on the beach the night before, and afterward refused to be left behind. Some say that she was part Nai-O herself. For one dusk she took off her clothes on the beach–in front of everyone—and walked naked into the sea. There were shouts, and someone tried to go in after her. But something of the Nai-O’s speed touched her then, for she swam faster than was human, and she disappeared into the waves.”

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“Do you think she’s pretty?” I later asked Rakao about that girl from M’kai. Everyone knew that she and her family were visiting because our head chief was looking for a match for his son. All through the festival people had gossiped of it. The girl was generally held to be beautiful, with her large round eyes and shining black hair.

Rakao shrugged. “She’s pretty enough.” He grinned and flicked away a wisp of my hair that had fallen into my eyes. “I hear her younger sister is even prettier.”

I’m nearly of age, and my parents should be looking for a husband for me. But my mother looks through me, lost in her own world. My father has never looked at me at all.

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Sometimes I can’t sleep at night. I slip outside, then, and I sit just outside our doorway, watching the sea. The black waves glitter and heave. Beneath the roar of the surf, beneath the rhythmic pounding as familiar as the beat of my heart, I think I hear another sound. Another song. Voices. It’s not the voice that once sang my words back to me when I was a child. It’s not anything repeating human words, or trying to understand and imitate human song.

It’s something pure. Something of water and starlight and sunshine and cold. Something of deepness and vastness and height. Something I can’t grasp. I try, I concentrate, I reach out—and it fades and melts, like foam on the sea.

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The Harvest Festival nears, and Auntie Tippi says she’ll help me with my festival clothes. It’s been a good season for rice; each family’s granary is full. It’s been a good season for fish: the migrating berbekki passed by the coast in schools so thick they were said to resemble black clouds beneath the water. I’m fifteen, and I will be joining the women’s chorus in the singing this year.

Rakao is nearly sixteen. I hear that his family has been consulting the match-makers for his bride. I hear that a girl from an inland village has been invited to the festival to meet him.

“Why would I wish to marry an inland girl?” Rakao says to me in disgust. For once, we’re alone together on the beach. “She won’t even know how to properly clean a fish!” he says. Has he forgotten that my mother is from an inland village? Or is he remembering it all too well? I hate this other, unknown inland girl, yet I also feel a brief, intense desire to kick Rakao in the shins.

“Her father is wealthy, and they say the kanat should be renewed.” Rakao’s voice falters. The kanat is a bond between families and clans; it’s a bond between villages, too. Each family and village is bound to others in a complicated web that only the priests and match-makers, those wise women with their marked tablets of bamboo wood, fully understand. I think of my own family’s ties, of the kanat that brought my mother and father together.

“I’m too young to marry,” Rakao says. I look into his eyes, and the panic in them is like something I would see in my little brother just a year ago—before he grew too old to run to me for comfort and a hug.

Rakao is right. He’s younger than most boys when their families start looking for a bride. What have the matchmakers said to them? Are they only trying to seal an engagement? The girl from M’kai never came to our village; they say our head chief waited too long, and her family accepted a different marriage.

“Nari,” Rakao says quietly, calling me by my name. His back is turned to me; he’s looking out at the sea. “Do you remember that game we used to play when we were kids? The one about building a great boat and sailing across the sea to the other side of the world?”

Could I ever forget? I think. I feel my heart clench.

“I still wish sometimes that I could run away like that,” he says now. We’re both quiet, and when he finally turns back to me his eyes are calm. “I wish I could sail away in that great deep-sea boat.” He smiles a little sadly, fondly. “Or that I could meet another girl like you.”

I can’t tell him what’s in my heart. What my heart wants is impossible. I blink quickly and look away.

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I can’t marry him; I know that. There’s the kanat, there are blood ties, there’s tradition. Marriage within a village is discouraged. There are exceptions—Auntie Tippi was allowed to stay and marry her village sweetheart. But the match-makers pored through their charts of bloodlines and ties; the priest cast shells and prayed. A dispensation of the type given to her and her sweetheart– kind Uncle Kanoa—a dispensation granted by gods and ancestors and elders and family alike—is granted once a generation, if that.

And why would Rakao’s family seek such a dispensation for us? He is the eldest son of the chief fisherman of our village and nephew to the head chief. What am I but the daughter of a dwindled, accursed family? We may as well ask the gods for a dispensation allowing me to go to sea, to sail beyond the reef in the deep-sea boat of mine and Rakao’s imagination.

Rakao and I have never spoken of any of this. He flicks my hair and teases me. And he calls me, “Cousin,” the greeting that we all give one another in our village. The proper greeting.

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My mother is always worse near the time of the Harvest Festival. This year she couldn’t even be relied on to participate in the village’s shared rice harvest; I took her place in the village fields, trying to work doubly hard under the accusing eyes. She stayed in bed, sleeping or staring blank-eyed at the wall.

But something seems to rouse her this year as the festival preparations get underway. She watches me as I sew bright beads on the shirt I mean to wear. She comes to listen when I and the other women and girls gather to practice our songs.

“Don’t go,” she tells me one day. We’re alone in the house, just her and me. With both the rice and fish harvests in, the men have been indulging in impromptu pre-festival activities; Father is drinking rice wine with the other men, and Little Brother is off with his friends. He takes every chance he can to flee our home.

I look at her in surprise, for I had thought her asleep. In the lantern light her face is a patchwork of shadow and golden-lit skin. She’s sitting up straight, and her hair is a flow of shadow, catching the light dully here and there.

“Don’t go, Nari,” she says urgently, and something in her voice reminds me of that day when I was four, when she rescued me from a suddenly threatening sea.

“Don’t listen to him,” she says, and I realize she’s weeping. “He can’t take you, he can’t keep you; it’s all a lie. You don’t belong there. I didn’t belong there. But I don’t belong here, either. Nari, you won’t leave me, don’t leave me.” Her thin arms stretch out to me. I am terrified. I promise her that I won’t leave her; I promise not to sing by the sea, I promise her anything she asks. But I don’t leave my seat to cross the room to her and comfort her. I don’t touch her at all.

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I have always loved the music of our festivals. The drum-beats that pound in your blood and move your feet; the high, clear notes of the flutes, sweeter than birdsong. But the human voices are sweetest of all: the choruses interweaving their separate lines of melody, the voices rising and falling and rising again in a sound that melts away time. We rehearse in groups: the youngest children in their own choir; girls and boys separate from the women and men. But on the nights of festival we all come together, and together we sing songs of thanks and praise; together we sing old stories and legends into being. No one sings alone.

When we sing like this, I can feel myself disappearing into the music; I can lose myself completely. And I can believe that spirits from the sea would want to hear this. I can believe that they would leave their undersea paradise to listen to us, to try to share in our songs.

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People from other villages trickle in, as happens every Harvest Festival. Visiting chiefs and elders, relatives and marriage prospects. I know when the inland girl and her parents arrive. Rumor travels fast, and the day after their arrival Rakao himself comes to my home to tell me.

“She’s stiff as a dried fish, Nari,” he tells me miserably. “We had to share sippi-leaf tea with everyone watching. Then they left us alone to talk. It was horrible.”

I try to say something sympathetic, but my heart is beating fierce and glad.

I wonder if he sees it; he looks at me sharply. And then he gives me the message he was sent with. “They want to visit with you this afternoon. The mother and the girl.”

I gape, and he laughs a little as he says, “They’re your blood relations, you know that, don’t you? The mother is your mother’s true-cousin. They grew up together.”

I’m still gaping at him. His smile fades. He knows what I’m thinking; he knows me so well. “It will be alright, Nari,” he says softly. “Your mother’s been doing well; she’ll be alright.”

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But she’s not.

Silently I serve juice and sweet rice cakes as the woman, this Auntie Ona who I’ve only just met, struggles in conversation with my mother.

Auntie Ona seems kind. Her face is round and pleasant; she sits and talks of how glad she is to see Mother again. She says it’s a comfort to think that her daughter might marry into a village where there is at least one kinswoman, one good friend, to help guide her. She praises me, says that I am beautiful and well-mannered, and mustn’t Mother be proud?

I’m not supposed to speak unless spoken to. So I sit at the low table and sneak glances at the girl across from me: Rakao’s intended. She’s tall and skinny where her mother is soft and round; her face is long and plain. Her expression floats between vacancy and unhappiness.

“Oh?” my mother says absently in response to the other woman’s words. I can see her drifting. She seemed to behave well enough when our guests first arrived; she smiled and embraced them both. But I saw the flash of shock on Auntie Ona’s face just before she reached out to hug my mother. What did she see?

I try to look at Mother as through a stranger’s eyes. She’s dressed neatly and her hair is combed. But she’s so thin, so fragile looking. Her hair is brittle and tipped with white; she looks far older than Auntie Ona, who is the same age. And she’s shown no real warmth or interest in her cousin, whom she last saw fifteen years ago. She’s barely asked any questions of the daughter. She nods and drops polite syllables here and there, but she’s distracted; it’s as though she’s listening to a different conversation in the room, one that only she hears.

I think even the skinny girl across from me is beginning to realize that something is wrong; she seems to come out of her own distracted thoughts to look with puzzlement at my mother. I feel a kind of queasy shame in the pit of my stomach.

“Nari,” Auntie Ona says, turning to me with desperate enthusiasm. She praises my cooking and plies me with questions. I answer, feeling my face hot with embarrassment. I don’t want either of these guests here; why do I care what they think? Mother is leaning against a wall, her eyes unfocused, somewhere else entirely.

And then, suddenly, she is paying attention again. “Marriage?” she repeats, looking at Auntie Ona. Auntie had just been mentioning again her daughter’s possible betrothal to Rakao. Mother looks at the girl and tenderness fills her eyes. “Oh,” she breathes. “Do you love him?”

It’s a breach of etiquette so great that we’re all speechless.

My mother shakes her head. “I loved him,” she says. She sways a little in her seat. She says it like a song: “I loved him. I did. I did.”

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I go to bed early that night.

I lie on my mat and think fiercely that I don’t mind how Mother behaves; I don’t care what those inland relations think. Perhaps Mother has even scared them away from marrying into this village. Look what happens when inland girls come here. Good, I think; Rakao will thank me. That girl should thank me, too. It’s obvious that she doesn’t want to marry Rakao and live here; it’s as plain as her face is.

But part of me wants to cry, and then to run to the house where Auntie Ona is staying and knock on the door and beg her to talk to me. Tell me, I want to say. Tell me what she was like when you knew her. Tell me about the girl you remember. Tell me who my mother used to be.

I don’t ask anyone about the last words my mother said to the girl. I know that she wasn’t talking about Father. I know that she’s never felt that way about him.

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“I won’t marry her,” Rakao tells me, waiting for me outside my house in the early morning light. He knows that I’ll be the first one up during these slack days of holiday. “They can’t make me; I refuse.”

“Good,” I say, my voice low but as strong as his.

Something of the fierceness in him seems to leak out. We stand staring at each other. The sky is whitening around us. But in the early blue shadows it’s still hard to make out his eyes. I don’t know what I see there.

“Well,” he says. He sounds confused. “I just wanted to let you know. They’ll be looking for me back home. . . “

“I know,” I say. And I feel as though I’m answering a question he’s never asked.

We stand still a moment more. The moment stretches and echoes; I feel as though the world is tilting.  “I—“he stops. “I’ll see you tonight,” he says finally. “At the Festival.” And then he turns and is sprinting away from me, past the row of stilt houses slowly emerging from the dawn.

Tonight. The first night of Festival. It feels a year away.

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I’ve never told anyone of how I sometimes hear the ocean singing. I’ve never even told Rakao.

It’s not just at night that I hear the music. Now I sometimes catch it during the day, in whispers beneath the wind and surf. I hear it calling while I hang clothes up to dry, while I sweep the floor or prepare supper. It pulls and teases at the edge of my hearing. It’s something that can’t be held, can’t be grasped—like water itself.

But I hold still and try. I let the music into my mind, as much of it as I can. I feel it moving and spreading through me. Then human voices interrupt the song.  My mother calls my name. The music’s gone, and even in the hottest sun I feel myself shivering.

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I sew the last bead on my new shirt. I help carry armloads of floral offerings to the temple grounds, where the festival will be held. I help Auntie Tippi and the other women cook for the Harvest Feast, and then Auntie Tippi braids my hair.

I walk to the festival grounds with my family, holding onto Mother’s hand. Little Brother runs ahead of us, looking surprisingly grownup in his new clothes.

I take my place in the women’s choir for the first time. I catch Rakao’s eyes in the men’s choir across from me. He nods.

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I’ll tell him, I’ve decided.

I’ll tell him and he’ll agree with me; he’ll think and feel exactly the same. Together we’ll find a way to win over the elders and families and everyone. It’s right, he’ll know it’s right; what we have goes beyond kanat; Rakao and I will make our own kanat. He feels it just like I do. Doesn’t he?

But there’s no time to say anything now.

Now there’s singing, melodies tossed back and forth between the separate choirs; melodies entwining, voices running over and under and around one another. There’s music rising in me and from me. Now there’s the great bonfire, and children running about giggling in the shadows. Later there will be the patterned, formal dances of the different age-groups, and later still the dancing for all ages.

I try to find Rakao after the singing, but there are so many people. New faces from outside the village, new youths as well as new young women. I find myself caught in introductions, even as the daughter of a poor low-status fisherman. I see Rakao on the other side of the fire, still playing host to the long-faced inland girl.

Two of my other friends, Auntie Tippi’s older daughters, grab my hands and pull me into a dance.

Later I see that inland girl talking to one of the visiting boys from outside our village. Rakao is standing off to the side, looking relieved.

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There’s no time to talk to him alone during these days of Festival, but there’s time for my mother to cling close to me, to worry at me. “Where are you going?” she says. “Where are you?” Her thin hands clutch at me. She hasn’t gone to a Harvest Festival in years, but now she goes each night, stuck to my side. She lets go reluctantly when a boy takes my hand to dance. She pleads, “Come back soon,” as I step away to fetch a drink or fill her banana-leaf with rice.

“Stay close,” she whispers, her nails digging into my wrist. I grit my teeth. From the side of my eye, I see our priest walking a circle around the celebration space. He’s sprinkling blessed water on the ground, keeping us safe from jealous spirits of the sea.

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Rakao and I glance off each other in the bright chaos, stumbling into each other and then spinning away again. He seizes my hand during one of the dances; he spins me till I’m laughing with dizziness. I see his smile before the dance line moves and turns and I’m handed to the next partner.

My friends are gossiping under the trees. Rakao’s inland girl and her family left this morning, off to prepare for their own village’s Harvest Festival. A few last visitors are expected tomorrow. That family from M’kai, the one that came to the Clear Moon Festival last year—have I heard? They’re coming back, this time with their younger daughter. And a son, too.

This last is said with a sly smile by a girl-cousin. There’s laughter.

But I’m not paying attention, because Rakao has joined our group. He settles in with ease, joining the conversation in mid-flow. Does he look at me as I look at him? Our eyes keep catching. Even as he laughs at his cousin’s joke or debates a fine point of fishing technique with a friend, his eyes keep returning to mine.  It’s as though we’re holding a separate, secret conversation. I feel my heart blooming with each look.

Tomorrow night, I think. Or the day after. We’ll find the time to talk. We will.

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That night I hear the music of the sea in my dreams. Larger and louder than I’ve ever heard. Even in my dreams I can’t grasp it, but dimly I sense its themes. Something about wind and waves and tempests. Something about depths and freedom and the flight of the gull. Starlight in a black night, and a far distant shore.

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It’s the last night of the Harvest Festival. I’m standing with the women’s choir, waiting for the singing to begin. My cousins are chattering behind me, still gossiping of the family from M’kai. Cousin Palani saw them today; she’s nearly swooning over how handsome their young son is.

Then I see them myself. They’re taking their seats among the honored guests. I recognize the tall, broad-shouldered father with his greying hair. I recognize the graceful mother. I see the son they’ve brought with them, and the young daughter, sister to the one who told the Nai-O stories last year.

Rakao is with them, guiding them politely to their seats. I realize that the rumors he told me last year were right. The younger daughter is even prettier than her sister.

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It took me so long to understand.

A name spoken, and a name misspoken. The things my mother said, and her tears over an uncle I never met. The silence in our household. The story I finally coaxed from Auntie Tippi about my mother’s first betrothal. The way my mother warned only me against the Nai-O, and never my brother.

The night that Father came home late, drunk on rice wine. I was sitting in the doorway, looking out at the sea. He almost stumbled over me. I said something, I don’t remember what—perhaps it was just his name, “Father.” And he was silent. I could feel him looking at me in the darkness–a rare thing, for he never looks at me. “You’re not mine,” he said finally, flatly, and he pushed past me to his bed.

These are the memories that finally fell together in my mind. These, and the music of the sea.

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It’s surprisingly easy to run away from a Harvest Festival.

The aunties and uncles think they’re keeping watch, but they’re distracted with food and drink and dancing and talk. The circle the priest has drawn has no power over humans; it’s easy enough to step over.

It’s easy enough to run into the darkness, to flee.

I watched for as long as I could bear it. I watched Rakao talking with that M’kai girl after the singing; I saw the way the two of them made a private circle in the golden lantern-lights. I saw the way he looked at her. And the way she looked at him.

Did he ever look at me that way? Did I imagine it all?

Even if I didn’t imagine it, it’s not me that he’ll marry. I heard the gossip swirling before and after the singing. A marriage was not made last year between the older M’kai girl and the head chief’s son, but the priests are insistent that a kanat be arranged between the two villages. It’s overdue, they say.

And Rakao is the head chief’s nephew. If he marries the younger M’kai girl, the clans will still align.

From what I saw, I don’t think he’ll object.

It was easy enough for me to slip away from my mother, to wait for a moment of distraction. I fled the Harvest Festival; I ran to the sea.

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My throat is burning, and pain cramps my side. I’ve run so fast, so far. I’m at the very end of our village’s strip of beach. When I turn to look back, I see the lights of the festival tiny and golden against the great night.

I pant, catching my breath.

It’s not the Nai-O’s fault, I know. It’s not their fault that some people can’t choose. It’s not their fault if some are left stranded behind, unable to make the leap, to let go fully of their human ties. The Nai-O don’t mean us harm. They’re only curious. They only want to hear our music. And to offer us their own.

I know the Nai-O never meant my mother harm.

The sun went down long ago, but it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t have to be dusk. A nearly full moon lights the sky and burns a cold path across the waves. I face the sea and begin to sing.

I don’t sing the songs of the Harvest Festival, or any of the songs of my village. I sing my mother’s songs. The sad, lonely songs of her inland home.

And I know that years ago she stood on this shore and sang these same songs at the sea. She was lonely and sad. She had fallen in love with a boy at a Harvest Festival and had been pledged as his bride. But illness took him before the marriage could take place, and to preserve the kanat she was wed to his younger brother, the last of the family line. A younger brother who Auntie Tippi claims was not always so grim and rough, but who was forced to grow up and old before his time. A brother who could never take the place of the one who was lost.

The inland girl was alone among strangers, with a man she didn’t love. No one warned her of the Nai-O. She didn’t know.

But I know, and I sing her songs now, flinging my voice out over the waves. Her songs are filled with human sadness, but I realize that I myself am no longer sad. What’s burning through me is exultation. My voice rings stronger and truer than it ever has.

I sing to my father who came from the sea. I sing to my home, and all my undersea kin.

They sing back, and I begin to undress.

I take off the beaded shirt of which I was so proud. I take off the matching skirt that Auntie Tippi made for me. I take off the necklace I always wear, the necklace made from a piece of pink coral that Rakao gave me when we were ten.

I let these items fall onto the sand and I step into the sea. I think briefly of my little brother, but he’s almost grown–he doesn’t need me anymore. I wade in, and the cool water closes over my thighs. I hear a voice calling my name. My mother’s voice, crying frantically for me. But I spread my arms and kick forward, gliding into the waves.

The music of the Nai-O rises for me, and I understand it at last; it fills my head and my body and bones, catching and lifting me to the stars, to the deeps.

___

Copyright 2014 Vanessa Fogg.

Vanessa Fogg writes of dragons, cyborgs, and other oddities from her home in the American Midwest. She spent years as a research scientist in molecular cell biology and now works as a freelance medical and science writer. Her fiction has appeared in LabLit, NewMyths, and Literary Mama. 

by Benjanun Sriduangkaew

 

Zhongquijie when the stranger arrives, and so they ply her with mooncakes of every size and filling: no yolk, double-yolk, or the extravagance of triple. Every family wants a foreign woman in the house, and no excess is too much.

For her part the stranger is receptive. She eats all she’s given, taking honey straight from the jar, licking her fingers and smiling at the village apiarist Zhang Xiaoli. At this some raise eyebrows. Xiaoli has a family but not a household, living apart as she does to keep her bees. To attract a foreigner all for herself seems like sheer avarice.

“Have you ever used a phone?” Xiaoli asks once she has cornered Jinhuang’s attention. “Fax machines? Ridden a train? Driven a car?”

The stranger stops laughing. “Well, yes.”

“Can you tell me how they work?”

“After a fashion.”

“Oh, please come stay with me. I’ll cook for you. You won’t owe me anything.”

So it is that Jinhuang follows Zhang Xiaoli home, much to the disapproval of everyone save Xiaoli’s family, who holds out the hope that not only will she move back into the Zhang compound but also secure an outsider bride. A coup, and already Xiaoli’s Fourth Aunt is wiping her eyes with pride. To bring the clan such a prize! Far better than being top of the class or being very good indeed with bees.

Xiaoli takes Jinhuang to look at her apiary, cautioning the stranger to put on mask and suit. Jinhuang does not; the bees give her wide berth. They rub their wings and their dusted legs and watch her from the roofs of their boxes, yellow-black buzz limned in garden lights.

“I’ve never seen them act like that,” Xiaoli says later as she takes off her veil.

Jinhuang smiles faintly, but offers no explanation. Xiaoli serves her jasmine tea and honey sorbet. They talk against the noise of distant cicadas and Jinhuang draws diagrams for her, speaking of communication that happens instantly, with pictures and sounds–“Better than telephones.”

Better than telephones. Xiaoli can’t imagine such a thing. “What is that like? How does it work? Tell me everything. Do you have photographs?”

“How can you have cameras but not phones?”

“Oh, we make things haphazardly. It happens like that. We’ve got televisions too, but not much to watch except tapes brought back from Earth we rewatch a few hundred times.”

They are sitting knee to knee, and Jinhuang leans forward as though expecting something other than this enthusiasm for screens and circuitry. When what she anticipates does not occur, she widens her eyes at Xiaoli. “Am I so plain?”

“You’re absolutely exciting. It’s just that I’ve never met an outsider. Let me show you my house.”

“I was hoping you would show me more than that.”

“You’ve already seen the bees. I could show you where I make honey? How about the guava trees? They’re nice.”

Jinhuang shakes her head. “Please, show me your house.”

She introduces Jinhuang to the family shrine, where one portrait presently rests. “My birth-mother, Zhang Yuexiang. My other mother Lai Jielin has gone back to the Lunar Village.”

Xiaoli is excellent with her courtesies; she’s been raised well, steeped in manners as tea leaves in hot water. She gives Jinhuang the spare bedroom.

Morning leaves windows in a scrim of frost, which crackles to pieces when Xiaoli lifts the slats. The same ice clings to the veranda where she brings a breakfast of steaming congee thick with pork balls and little plates of sliced lachang, rousong, diced ginger and scallion.

“Winter must be murderous,” Jinhuang says as she adds lachang to her bowl.

“We’ve got heaters and electric blankets.”

Jinhuang looks at her through lowered lashes. “And other things to do to keep warm. Do you manufacture appliances by yourselves?”

Xiaoli reels off an excited applause to wind power and a factory run by the Ding and Jiang families. “We can’t make everything–and some things we just don’t need many of–so when people visit Earth they bring back what we don’t have. I haven’t made a journey yet, though I mean to someday. Soon. My elders thought I wasn’t ready, but that’s two years ago.”

“You aren’t afraid of men? They throng the central realm in uncountable millions.”

“I’ve seen pictures of them. They’re odd–a handful of girls get fluttery about them. It’s so outlandish; why would they like creatures so strange? Not liking anything or anyone at all that way, well that’s understandable, but to want men.” Xiaoli wrinkles her nose. “Some fad.”

“What do you like, then?”

“The normal thing, of course?” Then she realizes what the outsider means. This happens rarely, for Xiaoli is not what her family would call the most astute when it comes to reading people. “You mean do I like anyone specifically? Not really. My clan will help me pick, probably from Lunar Village, when the time comes. Someone who doesn’t mind bees.”

Jinhuang tilts her head. “I don’t mind bees in the least.”

“I saw! You’d make a wonderful apiarist.”

The outsider sighs heavily. “I will do the dishes. Then you can show me around.”

Xiaoli thinks it a fine thing indeed to have someone do household chores for her, a comfort she hasn’t enjoyed since she started living on her own. If all outsiders are like Jinhuang, she decides, Earth must be a splendid place.

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In the middle of Solar Village, as all villages in Nuguo, there is a water clock.

The flow of it fluctuates: oozing slow as Xiaoli’s honey, gushing like an unseasonable monsoon, and sometimes slowing down so each drop hangs still for days, glittering in the sun. Children would cup hands around them, careful not to disturb the perfect little spheres, and adults would take pictures. It does not often happen, and no one owned much jewelry. The land provides, but not for frivolities.

Jinhuang kneels by the clock. “This is how you determine when to travel?”

“It’s primitive. Widow Ding and some of her grandmothers are working hard on improving it. One clock to tell Earth-time, one clock to tell ours. Much more accurate, don’t you think? I’ve seen some of the prototypes, they’re an amazing family–really I should’ve introduced you to them! I’m just an amateur, and you wasting all your diagrams on me.”

Jinhuang gazes up at her, her frown deepening.

“Did I–say anything wrong?”

“Nothing. You’re simply too young.”

“I’m sixteen,” Xiaoli says. “Almost old enough to drink from the River of Mothers.” Though she’s never been courted in that way girls practice on each other, a point of embarrassment that can’t help being decidedly public. She chooses not to admit that.

“Nevertheless. I think we should meet again after you’ve seen Earth.”

They have a picture taken together. Jinhuang makes her farewells to those who’ve given her hospitality. The Zhang family retreats into mortification, alleviated only by the outsider’s lack of interest in any other house’s girls. Cousins and aunts interrogate Xiaoli afterward; she recounts some of their exchanges, at which her relatives and sisters put their faces in their hands. One, taking pity on her, points out that Jinhuang was putting no little effort into wooing her.

“And you let her get away!” cries Ping. “Did you let the bees have your brain, cousin? Has your brain become beeswax?”

“But,” Xiaoli tries, “she didn’t say anything like that. She didn’t even ask to see any elder. That’s what a suitor is supposed to do, isn’t it? I’ve read treatises. There’s a process.”

Ping throws up her hands. In the end the Zhang household reaches an agreement that their beekeeper is a lost cause. Next time a traveler happens by they will do better. They pin their hopes on Ping.

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The following season Xiaoli’s thoughts of Jinhuang knot into an obsession, but the outsider does not return.

At year’s end she is allowed to visit the central realm for the first time, guided by a Ding veteran. When Ding Yurong left Nuguo, Xiaoli’s Second-Grandmother Jiaxin was a girl of thirteen; on the date of Yurong’s return Jiaxin was celebrating a seventy-third birthday. A large differential, but time disparities between the two realms have never been logical or simple to predict.

Ding Yurong looks over Xiaoli and Ping; what she sees evidently does not please. She tells them briefly of their destination, Hong Kong. “They speak a different dialect, though ours will be understood. No one on Earth reads Nushu.”

“Why not?” Ping pouts. “It’s beautiful. I’ve seen their scripts, and there isn’t anything to recommend them.”

“Because it was only ever used by a fraction of our ancestresses, who were forbidden to learn any other. Because it died out with them and their poetry.” Auntie Yurong’s expression, already a perpetual scowl, tightens to knots. “Earth is a funeral house and an abattoir. I do not know just why we’ve made it our rite of passage.”

Ping and Xiaoli look at one another. Everyone always says Auntie Yurong is a little strange. All that time away from Nuguo.

The next temporal overlap will last nine days, but for caution’s sake they will stay for only seven. It seems too few to Xiaoli; surely there is no way to understand a whole country in just a week? But there’ll be other trips. They have much to prepare, Xiaoli needs to select a surrogate for her bees, and finally there’s a whole new territory to cover: the matter of dress.

“Not that,” Yurong snaps. “That skirt is too short. That neckline plunges too deep. This is not the attention you want to attract.”

“But Auntie–”

Ping, more directly: “I want to catch the eye of a central girl.”

“It’s not going to be the only thing you catch, fool child. On Earth you’ll be thought of as displaying yourself for men. There’s nothing you can do about this, so wear the clothes you would wear gardening: sensible things to get filthy in. How you conduct yourself in the central realm when you’re older–that will be your business. For now, mind me.”

Xiaoli’s first glimpse of Hong Kong is the sea. It will imprint onto her thoughts, and for decades after haunt her dreams with the blare of ferry horns and colors she cannot find in Nuguo.

The buildings, too–so tall and many they strain the gaze, so splendid they must house the immortals themselves– she thinks this even though she knows from textbooks and magazines they are only offices and hotels and malls, utterly mundane by Earth standards. Even the footpaths seem extraordinary, and were Yurong not there to restrain her Xiaoli might’ve taken off her shoes so she can feel them under bare toes.

Both she and Ping keep an eye out for men, those alien creatures said to choke and wither under Nuguo’s air.

Some men are tall, others short. There are outward, immediate differences like a propensity for facial hair and their manner of dress. On the whole they don’t interest Xiaoli, and once more she fails to understand why those few girls so much want to meet them. The automobiles and MTR arrest her far more, and she could have been happy stopping at every station to marvel at the bakeries, billboards, the sheer noise–and the maps. That an entire island can be compressed into so simple a layout captivates her.

By the time they reach the flat owned by Nuguo chaperons, Xiaoli is dizzy, and has to sit down to keep from fainting of sheer wonder. Her cousin, who has kept a firmer hold on her senses, asks Yurong, “Do they have so many more things than we do because there are men in this country?”

Auntie Yurong’s amusement is contemptuous. “Not so. It’s only that theirs is a much larger world than Nuguo–one day you may even comprehend the sheer scale–and there’s far more to supply, far more to exploit, far more to break. It looks wondrous, but underneath it is a bed of rotten meat. You’ll find they all have foreign names in Hong Kong, and there’s a reason for that. The bank account we hold is under Emily Tse. But don’t let me upset you. What you need to know is the now. The immediate, so you can survive first and think later.”

Ping and Xiaoli agree on few things, but on this they hold a consensus: that Ding Yurong is a very angry woman, and that Emily is a wonderfully outlandish name.

The flat has a television set and a stack of tapes and CDs. Xiaoli takes the opportunity to rummage through them, exclaiming delight when she feeds a disc to the player and the opening theme of Justice Bao rings out percussively. Every television in Nuguo is small and clunky; this has half the thickness but a screen so large Xiaoli needs to stretch her arms to span it.

The next day Yurong hands each of them a cellphone. Xiaoli nearly dances for glee; to her it is as if New Year has come twice, and her red envelope has been stuffed with diamonds. She takes to it as children take to her honey sorbet, and browses through the stored numbers. A few are for emergency–police, ambulance–but most are the numbers of other Nuguo women who sojourn in the central realm. A few live in Malaixiya and Taiguo, names that have hitherto been just untidy shapes on an age-bitten atlas.

“With luck this won’t be necessary,” Yurong says, “because I’d just as soon leash you both like difficult toddlers, but bad luck happens. Never talk about Nuguo. Say you’re from Gansu on the mainland when you must say anything. Avoid saying where you went to university, what you do for a living. Avoid conversation at all.”

Ping sulks, but neither of them objects aloud. Auntie Yurong does know best. She further instructs them to bolt the door. “There’s food in the fridge–Xiaoli, you know how to use the microwave, so you be in charge of that. If you so much as set foot in the hallway I’ll tell your mothers so they can cane you like the little children that you are.”

This is no trial to Xiaoli, who finds TV news absolutely riveting and each piece of furniture an exhilarating alien artifact. Ping paces the flat in endless circles, until Xiaoli sighs and suggests that she could maybe look through the rest of the building. “As long as you don’t tell Auntie Yurong.”

“I’m not stupid, older-sister.” Ping grins. “I won’t go far. I’ll be back soon.”

And she is back in time that day, and all the days after, until the week ends and it is time to return to Nuguo. She does not appear in the evening or late in the night, nor answer the phone Yurong gave her.

They wait for as long as they can, but Ping never comes. This is Xiaoli’s first grief, and her first glimpse that the country of Earth is not stitched all of delight.

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Xiaoli is betrothed at twenty-eight: a comfortable average, neither too old nor too young, with the wedding slated for next year when she would have a nine in her age. It astonishes her that Huang Yingzhi of Lunar Village has been chosen for her; that Yingzhi and her mothers have in turn accepted. Yingzhi looks gorgeous in red, with the widest shoulders and the sweetest laugh, chiming high and young.

“Will you want children?” Xiaoli asks, at their engagement where they exchange matched slippers they hand-sewed, cinnabar boxes they carved, and jade phoenixes inherited from elders.

“I want so many,” her bride says and looks out at the River of Mothers, on which their barge drifts.

“Oh.” She tries to reconcile the concept of keeping both bees and a bevy of daughters happy. It will probably require a complicated division of labor. In the recesses of her memory, the Victoria Harbor blazes. “Have you ever been to the central realm?”

Second-Grandmother Jiaxin never forgave her, even on her deathbed. Xiaoli accepted that dully, emptily, because what else was there to do but to pay her respect every day in the Zhang shrine, and burn her plenty of comforts and money every Qingming? It still does not make up for Ping’s absence. It makes up for very little. There are aunts who now refuse to speak to Xiaoli, not least of them Ping’s mother.

“Several times. I had a fling in Kuala Lumpur–that is, Jilongpo.” Yingzhi believes in frankness between wives. “It was fun, but I could never tell her about Nuguo. You can’t live together like that. Anyway she doesn’t compare to you.”

Xiaoli smiles. “That’s very kind of you.”

“You say that, but you look so sad.” Yingzhi touches Xiaoli’s hair, careful not to upset the ivory comb. “Are you having second thoughts? I know I’ve been forward.”

Xiaoli thinks, briefly, of an outsider who was very forward indeed twelve years ago. “Not at all. If you’d left it up to me we’ll be going so slow we reach nowhere at all.”

They sleep together well before they are properly wed, and Xiaoli discovers her soon-to-be wife is sweetly shy about undressing for the first time. This makes her giggle–Yingzhi blushing as bright as the bridal drapes they’ll soon have–but when she begins kissing Yingzhi’s waist the shyness flutters away like the ribbons in Yingzhi’s hair. It fascinates Xiaoli that the woman who’ll soon be her bride is so taut everywhere, calves and thighs muscle-thick, so much power locked in long sun-coppered limbs.

On their wedding night Yingzhi proves this by carrying her to the canopied platform bed and laying her on linens freshly washed, in a room full of red anthurium. Xiaoli wastes no time in pulling Yingzhi down, and for a while it is possible to forget both Ping’s absence and a strange woman who tried so hard to woo sixteen-year-old Xiaoli.

She watches the bees mate and die, and smokes them out to collect honeycombs. Yingzhi proves unafraid of stings or buzzing wings. When she isn’t helping at the apiary, she goes to work at the power plant.

In the second year Yingzhi takes a sip from the river–a precisely measured sip; they have discussed and decided they are ready for just one girl, not twins or more. The birth is easy, baby as strong as mother, and watching them Xiaoli finds her heart unlocked and upended.

Little Anhua grows up in a house that smells of honey, and sometimes in a wind-power plant built of recycled and appropriated iron. Her first day at boarding school in Cloud Village she is solemn, and fearlessly advances into a playground full of slides and swing-sets suspended from ancient oaks. Newly assembled air-conditioners hum in the background as Teacher Xie comes to receive her newest charge. She carries a bamboo switch, but not even this can faze Anhua, who will let nothing take away from the newness of her indigo-and-white uniform.

It is Xiaoli who can’t bear to part, and who spends a while sobbing into Yingzhi’s back on their cart-ride home, for no good reason at all.

“Teacher Xie is good,” Yingzhi tells her gently. “She taught me from seven to fourteen. I turned out well, didn’t I?”

“I know I’m being a child.”

“You’re being a mother,” Yingzhi says and kisses Xiaoli on the nose.

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By forty-two Xiaoli has made the crossing to Earth four times and given birth to twins, Huifang and Huiliang. Memory of Jinhuang has been relegated to a patina of dust, locked away in a cinnabar box: a single photo of them and the water clock, which though outmoded by Ding inventions remains in respect for its age and the service it has rendered Nuguo.

Anhua is beginning to show a glimmer of interest in other girls, a relief to her mothers and elders, for a teenager sighing over glossy pictures of men is a terrible tragedy waiting to happen. Nuguo has many dangers: drowning, electrocution, being eaten by mountain tigers. But they are preventable, whereas running away to Earth is not.

Xiaoli’s fifth crossing takes her to Bangkok, where she amuses herself in street markets and chooses gifts for her daughters and wife. She picks up a secondhand laptop in MBK. In Nuguo there’s now a local network in each village hall, and it is the fashion to participate in message boards and share pictures.

She stops at a Siam Square cinema to catch a wuxia title. In the queue, equipped with her own phone now, she dials the number of a Jiang who runs a girls’ dormitory near Praharuthai Convent. There are always rooms reserved for Nuguo use. Once she thought women who lived on Earth and did this duty were simply unable to find fulfillment at home, but having known the central realm she has come to understand it is courage that drives them, not bitterness.

To abandon all they know; to leave behind their families. The thought alone makes her ill.

“Zhang Xiaoli?”

Xiaoli jerks and twitches, nearly losing her hold on the bags. The cellphone drops.

Jinhuang picks it up and puts it back in her hand, one single fluid movement. Bend, unbend. “It is you.”

Xiaoli leaves the box office behind in a daze, and remains in a daze when Jinhuang presses iced tea and donuts into her hand. They stand under a tree that offers scarce shade, in heat this side of blistering. The sweetness of the tea jolts Xiaoli into lucidity.

“How long,” she says softly even though she doubts passersby speak Putonghua, “has it been? For you. Here.”

“Not long.” Jinhuang’s gaze darts quick and sharp, and Xiaoli’s skin prickles with the hurt of knowing how old she must look.

“You’ve grown up.”

Xiaoli nearly splutters. “I’m old. I could be your mother. You should be calling me auntie.”

“You couldn’t, and I shouldn’t.” Jinhuang’s fingertips are cool on her cheek.

She finds herself breathing oddly. She finds herself wanting to cant her face into Jinhuang’s palm, and clasp that soft unlined hand with her own. “I’m forty-two.” And though that has never been anything but natural, though thirteen of those years have been with Yingzhi and Anhua and the twins, her voice breaks. Jinhuang looks precisely as young as the day they first met. Twenty-six years ago. Twenty-six.

“That doesn’t matter. Let’s get out of the sun.”

They turn in to a boutique whose proprietor is so used to college students coming in with drinks and crepes that she only sighs at Xiaoli’s tea. They head up the second floor, where yukata and cheongsam mingle on a single rack and window mannequins stand draped in sari and heavy brass.

“I’ve been looking for you,” Jinhuang says between a corkboard lined with earrings and a wall of artist’s graffiti. “Entry to your country can be difficult, and its time just speeds by.”

“Why would you look for me?”

“To say what I did not say. I’m usually much more direct than I was, but love makes us all strangers to ourselves.” Jinhuang straightens. “I wanted to ask you to marry me. I wanted to ask you to let me stay with you and your bees, if you would have such a thing from someone as strange as I.”

Xiaoli’s throat clinches. “I’m married.” Something seems to slip away as she remembers the evenings she replayed Jinhuang’s visit over and over, between sixteen and twenty-eight. Between a girl who knew nothing and a woman who became a wife. “I’ve had three daughters.”

For a long moment Jinhuang looks at her. Then she steps away and puts her hand to her mouth. “Why,” she says between her fingers, “does my kind give our hearts to humans, whom we know will trample them to gristle and pulp? Why did I, when I’ve seen others’ mistakes?”

“You couldn’t expect me to wait.” Xiaoli’s mind snags. “What are you?”

“A demon, what else? I’m five hundred sixty-seven and counting. Forty-two, why would that mean anything?” Jinhuang rubs at her eyes. “I’m sorry. You are right. For a mortal twenty-six years make a life. May I visit you, even so?”

Afterward Xiaoli will never know what drives her to say, “I’d like that.”

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Yingzhi piles Xiaoli’s arms high with red anthurium on the day Anhua leaves for her final year at school, her little sisters in tow. She is already a disciplinarian, taking after Teacher Xie, and when she wants the twins’ attention she would clap her hands just as her favorite teacher does.

Xiaoli holds the flowers in her arms, her chin brushing leaves that gleam like lacquered paper. “What are these for? I didn’t forget any dates, did I?”

“You didn’t, but it’s a close one.” Yingzhi flicks her head, coquettish as a girl. “I’ve a holiday, and the children are gone. So much free time.”

It is true. Yingzhi always comes home exhausted. When the bees leave her free, Xiaoli occasionally goes to help at the Ding-Jiang lab. She can’t quite remember the last time they did anything in bed together but small chaste touches, falling asleep holding hands. Xiaoli leans over the anthurium, careful not to bruise them, and kisses Yingzhi’s earlobe. Feeling a little young she murmurs against it, “What do you want to do?”

“Everything. There’s a spot in the woods I want to show you.”

Xiaoli arranges for a niece she’s been training to come bee-sit. They put red-bean buns, blankets and a radio transceiver in a rattan basket. Nuguo changes slowly and gently, but it doesn’t take long for them to leave the rice paddies and water buffaloes behind, to find the wilderness beyond that’s said to once hide shadows gold as candlelight, shadows striped like flogging bruises.

Yingzhi brings a rifle passed down two generations of Huang. It is for show, a charm. Xiaoli has seen her wife at target practice, but never killing anything. Chickens are Xiaoli’s to open throat to belly, Anhua’s to defeather, Huiliang’s and Huifang’s to clean. Only when all the blood is washed away will Yingzhi enter the kitchen to dice garlic.

Leaning into Yingzhi’s shoulder she murmurs nonsense into her wife’s neck, and when they’ve found the place Yingzhi wanted her to see they spread out a blanket. They unbutton each other eager as newlyweds, and Xiaoli forgets what it is to feel forty-four, what it is to wake up to aching joints and a stiff back. She looks up at Yingzhi framed by grass and catkins, the hard strength of her delineated by greened sunlight, and knows herself to be the most fortunate woman born in the worlds that are and the worlds yet not.

Between sweat beading and rasped breathing she thinks she sees, beyond the lines of Yingzhi’s hips, a yellow that is not orchids, a movement that is not aerial roots swaying in the wind. It is fleeting. Yingzhi’s salt and heat become the totality of her awareness.

They drowse in a tangle of twined legs and crumpled clothes, musk and sweat. Xiaoli jolts awake when cold gunmetal touches her flank; she sits up to find Yingzhi gripping the rifle, white-knuckled.

“I saw a tiger,” Yingzhi says, less than a whisper.

“Nobody’s seen one since forever.” But she saw it too.

They dress, gather their things, and head home.

At their door Xiaoli’s niece is wringing her hands, pointing at a visitor saying, “She says she knows you, Auntie.”

Jinhuang sits at the veranda, legs folded and hands prim in her lap. At her side is a bag of mandarins and a pile of electronics: power supplies, phones, an external hard drive and two slim laptops so new they are still wrapped in plastic.

“I thought you might find a use for those,” Jinhuang says, demure. “There’s data in the drive. How to make this and that.”

She looks at the phones and hasn’t the heart to say that Ding ambitions far outpace reality. They are years away from cell towers. But the rest–“This is an incredible gift,” she says before remembering to introduce wife and stranger to one another. Jinhuang gives a formal, courtly bow and appraises Yingzhi in that abrupt, undisguised way.

“Jinhuang visited our village years ago.” Xiaoli meant to say more but does not.

Yingzhi smiles. “And she managed to get away?”

“I’m very fleet, Mistress Huang, and won’t be caught unless I choose to.” Jinhuang begins to peel the mandarins, separating the segments on a plate she must have commandeered from Xiaoli’s niece. “I almost did, too.”

“How did you find your way?” Xiaoli says quickly.

“It’s not impossible for me, only tricky. But this time specifically I came with your cousin, Zhang Ping.”

All the wind leaves Xiaoli. Vertigo seizes her and her knees fold. Yingzhi catches and holds her until she can breathe again, until she can find the strength to ask, “Where is she?”

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Ping sits by the water clock. It seems the entire Zhang household has turned out for the occasion, and half the village as well. This does happen: a girl vanished only to return years later. But the other fate is by far more common–young women who are never heard from again, for the central realm devours, gluttonous.

Xiaoli half-expects to see Ping fifteen, untouched by time just like Jinhuang, but she looks thirty and it shames Xiaoli to feel relief at this. In Ping’s lap there is a girl, three or four, and by her side crouches a strange woman with skin the hue of teak. She is dressed crisply, pencil skirt, jacket and black hose. None of it suits the weather or the village, a costume everyone expects to see only on Earth and in magazines brought back from the same–and therefore a subject of instant fascination, for what Nuguo woman ever has the occasion to put on such imported polish?

Her name is Sulekha, a linguist who worked at the University of Hong Kong. When the interrogations come to a lull, for even nosy aunties need to eat, Sulekha sees the wall-scrolls written in Nushu and hugs Ping so hard Xiaoli’s cousin has to yell for oxygen. There is a tense moment when one of the remaining Zhang women says, “So whose child is that?”

“Mine, I’m afraid.” Sulekha makes Putonghua thrum. “I fear I’m not a very good girl.” This is said politely, but it rings challenge.

Frowns pass from one Zhang to the next, but as long it is not their own flesh and blood who comes back with a child begotten the central-realm way…

Little four-year-old Indira considers them all with the grim concentration of the very young until one aunt scoops her up and declares she needs a name appropriate to her new home.

Her mother stands and smiles and smooths down her skirt. “Indira, please, auntie. It has an auspicious meaning, and isn’t hard to say.”

Again, this moves eyebrows. A foreign daughter-in-law, and already so much trouble; several Zhang reconsider the prestige such a bride will bring, Sulekha and Indira both being so dark. Very dark.

“What will you wear for the wedding?” asks Ping’s mother, pointedly, already thinking of powders for Sulekha’s face.

“A sari, Mother. Let me unpack and show you. I hope you’ll approve.”

A reluctant dispersal: Sulekha to the Zhang household, Ping to Xiaoli’s for dinner.

“There was going to be a child on me,” Ping says. “The Earth way. I got rid of it. Don’t tell anyone that, will you?”

“An elephant couldn’t wrench it out of me.” Xiaoli looks at her cousin, and looks again. “Did everyone tell you… everything?”

“I heard about–” Ping swallows and blinks rapidly, making a little gasp to ward off grief. “Second-grandmother. And I think I caused you a lot of trouble.”

Xiaoli does not say that it is nothing, that all is right and forgiven. There are two decades of regret and sleepless nights; the fault falls on them both.

She finds Yingzhi and Jinhuang setting the table side by side, laying out lobsters in black bean sauce, steamed scallops daubed in chilli paste, and braised abalone on a bed of bok choy. The table wafts thick and rich with fragrances rare to Nuguo. It could have been a Hong Kong restaurant, a proper high-rise one with a glittering harbor view.

“I took the liberty,” Jinhuang says, almost shyly. “It struck me you don’t get to eat seafood much over here.”

“She brought an ice bucket.” Yingzhi wipes her hands on a dishrag. “It was all packaged and clean. Very nice. If the Ding would just start looking into a refrigerated communal storehouse. Instead it’s silicon this fiber optic that. As if we needed those.”

Xiaoli pinches her wife’s arm. “You aren’t old enough to be a technophobic grandmother.”

The abalone has been steamed expertly, chewy without being tough, and the scallops are the right softness, not overcooked to flaking. Xiaoli breathes in the spicy-sweetness of the chili paste and knows that this must be Jinhuang’s work. Yingzhi’s would have been heavier on the bean paste, lighter on the garlic.

“For a while I wasn’t sure which was the wife.” Ping puts her chin in her hand, peering at demon and woman washing dishes in the garden under the house’s only tap. “Why didn’t you choose Jinhuang? Your first love.”

Xiaoli thins her mouth. She wonders what they are discussing among the buzzing honeyed air. “What makes you say that? She courted me, not the other way around.”

“It’s a little obvious.” Her cousin laughs. “Why not marry them both? Some do that in the central realm. There are countries where men can have many wives.”

“Earth has had you too long. Not a principled bone left in you.”

“It’s true, Earth is licentious. But it’s big and wild, and–I don’t regret it. I didn’t mean to be gone so long, but I don’t regret it.”

“You broke second-grandmother’s heart.”

“I know that. I… I’ll apologize at her grave.” Ping purses her lips. “You didn’t even look glad to see me. Can’t you be a little happy for me?”

At sixteen, Xiaoli recalls, she did not truly like Ping. With the hindsight of subsequent decades she recognizes that Ping was selfish, difficult, unbearable. “I think Sulekha is lovely and I hope everyone won’t tear her apart. My twins are a little too old to be Indira’s playmates, but maybe they’ll be good friends in a few years. You’ll settle in the village?”

“After the wedding.” Ping gives Xiaoli a considering look, unsatisfied with the lack of congratulations. “Sulekha assured me she can deal with any Zhang, since she’s already tamed the most difficult of us all.”

“Goodness,” Xiaoli murmurs. “Does this mean she’s trained you to be a kind person?

A low chuckle. “Motherhood and marriage finally hardened your head and straightened up your backbone. Well done, cousin.”

That evening she goes out to see her bees. Jinhuang is waiting for her, crouching between hives. Just as unmasked and unprotected as before, and equally unafraid.

“Do you go out of your way to keep in company so I won’t catch you alone?”

“It’s been a busy day.” Xiaoli is glad of the veil that makes a black grid of her face. She bends to check one of the hive-boxes. This season she’ll have to give them more sugared water. “A portentous one, as well. We saw a tiger in the woods, and Ping was born in a tiger year, so after a fashion it makes sense.”

“There are tigers here?” The blade of grass Jinhuang has been playing with snaps.

“Rarely seen.” A demon, Xiaoli remembers. “Is that what you… are? A tiger?”

“A litter-runt, though I outgrew that. You must’ve heard the saying that a single cave is too small for two tigers. In truth, not even a whole forest is large enough.” Jinhuang shakes herself. “Are you happy?”

“I’ve got three excellent daughters. I love Yingzhi more than I can say.”

“I could’ve donned age for you and it’d have been silk to me, been pearls. For you I’d lie down and never hunt again. If you’d asked I would have borne you girl cubs, and they would have been beautiful.”

“Some things aren’t meant to work out.” Xiaoli knows it would have–they would have wrangled it into working out–if Jinhuang had found her sooner; if she had said no to a broad-shouldered Lunar woman who did not, back then, drive her pulse to racing. But years have passed and she can no longer imagine Yingzhi’s touch or glance failing to warm her, Yingzhi’s smile failing to delight.

“Can I have just one small thing?”

“That depends.”

Jinhuang takes her hands, pressing her lips into Xiaoli’s life-lines. She does this for each palm; her tears are hot, near-scalding, and when she looks up her eyes have become green-gold.

When Xiaoli blinks again the tiger is gone.

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Zhongquijie auspices. A marriage begins.

Xiaoli can hardly recognize her own daughter stepping out of the palanquin, painted face behind red tassels. All Zhang jewelry is Anhua’s to wear this morning: the peacock buyao and diamond earrings, the jades clinking against the mirror around her neck. She treads carefully in her slippers, shining fabrics in crimson and gold to match the bridal incandescence of her gown.

An applause of firecrackers and laughter from younger sisters, younger cousins. It will be a wedding of rooster to ox: by luck their birth-signs are complementary, a relief to all involved. Sitting in heavy robes Yingzhi and Xiaoli watch Zhang women giggle, their hands outstretched for bride-gifts from Fan Shuling’s family.

“Cloud Village seems so far away,” Xiaoli says, her words made private by the din of cymbals.

Yingzhi pulls Xiaoli’s hand into her lap. “Just two hours’ ride.”

“I know. But I’ve gotten used to seeing her all the time. I thought she’d take over the apiary.”

“Huiliang’s better at that, and you know it.”

“I wish I could keep them all with me.” The Zhang host parts for the Fan entourage. Bride and bride kneel before Xiaoli and her wife, one in greeting, one in farewell. They speak all the formal words, the formal blessings, and Xiaoli bites the inside of her cheek so she won’t embarrass everyone by weeping.

They light incenses that waft honey from Xiaoli’s bees, and bow before the gods of heaven, the spirits of the village, the departed grandmothers of Zhang. They have a banquet of nine exquisite courses, and then it is time to see them off to Cloud Village, where Shuling’s mothers will receive a new daughter.

Xiaoli knows that Anhua has scarcely let go of Shuling’s hand, but to a mother this almost seems a theft. Ritual songs have already been sung to lament the parting of daughter from parents, but it doesn’t feel enough. For a time she remains in the Zhang hall, where clumps of ash and scraps of food litter the tiles, and wishes Mother Jielin was here to see all this, to be proud. She hasn’t sent word whether she’ll attend her granddaughter’s wedding at the Fan house. They haven’t spoken for a long time. Most insist the falling-out was due to a ceremony conducted on a bad date or because they didn’t pay sufficient respect to the gods, but Xiaoli knows very well it was her birth-mother’s temper that drove her Lai mother back to Cloud Village. It was also the whole Zhang family, who always scrutinized and criticized too far because the Lai won the coveted right to run the school.

The twins come to fetch her when her absence is noticed.

Huifang hugs her. “Mother Yingzhi said to tell you we aren’t marrying any time soon.”

“And,” Huiliang says, “I will never marry at all.”

Xiaoli smooths down Huifang’s braids. One’s come loose; out of habit she starts replaiting it. “Well and good that you’re both devoted to your mother, but don’t decide your lives like that just because I’m a foolish old woman. Though it’d be wonderful if you can bring your future brides here.”

“But Mother, I really don’t want to marry.” Huiliang glances at her twin, furtive, then gathers herself in one long deep inhalation. “I mean, I’m nineteen going on twenty. If I’ve never been interested in another girl I don’t think I ever will be. I’ve heard everyone talk about… about such things since I was eleven. I just really don’t want much to do with it. Or with boys for that matter. So I won’t give you grandchildren but I think with Older-Sister Anhua and Huifang taking care of those there should be enough, unless I could drink from the river without being married? Maybe?”

Huiliang has stopped, panting, and swallows as she looks down and up and away, anywhere but at her mother’s face.

There’s no help for it. Xiaoli starts to laugh. “I thought you were going to say something shocking like ‘Mother, please let me go to Earth so I can fall in love with a young man and there bring up his sons.’”

“Well.” Huiliang bites her lip. “I thought you’d be a bit disappointed.”

“As you said, Anhua and Huifang will have grandchildren. You Yingzhi and I will get to keep. When you are old you’ll have to live in the Zhang compound though, so you’ll have nieces to attend you.”

“Oh, Mother. Old is far away.”

“Old,” Xiaoli says gently and takes Huiliang into her arms too, “is always closer than you think.”

Less than a decade later she will wonder just why she ever said such a thing.

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Xiaoli is sixty-four and there is death in the count of her years, death in the spots that blotch her hands and arms. There is death where Huifang should be.

Twenty-eight, the age of Xiaoli’s betrothal. Twenty-eight, the age Huifang was going to be. She has never considered the prospect of outliving her daughters. They are so young. There’s so much they haven’t done, there’s so much Huifang did not get to try and taste.

She cannot comprehend it. A tiger. There are so few of those beasts, they are seldom so desperate as to attack humans. The body has been brought back and she looks at it–looks at Huifang in a sleeping bag–and she cannot understand. The claw-marks that have cut to bones gleaming perfectly white as new ivory. The puncture wounds made by incisors larger than her fingers, by maw lined with knives.

Then Yingzhi is screaming at everyone for letting Xiaoli see this and pulling her into the house, into the garden where the honey drowns out the gore. She is sat onto the stone bench, under the swing they’ve put up because long ago the twins made such noises over the lack, for at school they had their choice of swings.

When Yingzhi begins to cry–in harsh shaking sobs, then long shattered howls–Xiaoli is startled, because she is usually the first to splinter, Yingzhi the first to comfort. Those are the grooves they have worn into the stone of their marriage. She touches her wife and presses herself against Yingzhi’s back, against the rocking of grief, but that only makes it worse.

It is wrong. All of this. But she does not know how to make it right.

They gather for the funeral, the Zhang and Huang households. Mother Jielin, at last, comes: the first time they’ve met in fifty years. She is dry-eyed, white-haired, and snaps at the Lai women attending her when they try to push her wheelchair.

Xiaoli regards her own mother, her living mother, and does not know how to react to that either. In the face of this sorrow joy is inappropriate, so it is duty rather than love that puts her at Lai Jielin’s feet, her knees creaking their age as she does. Mother Jielin puts her hand on Xiaoli’s forehead and says, very quietly, “I’m going to stay with you for a week.”

One does not deny one’s mother. It may even be meant as comfort, but Xiaoli can only answer with flat detachment. That too is how she holds Yingzhi while the priests–who have come down the mountain for this occasion–chant. Prayers for sending, prayers for a brief and painless afterlife, though all know of course that will not be: Huifang is guilty of dying before her parents, and that is not done. In hell there’s a court just for such ungrateful offspring.

It is for this reason that Xiaoli and Yingzhi must stay away while the priests, white-robed and shaven, perform the rites they brought with them down from the mountain, with voices long kept in silent seclusion. Being elder, neither mother may shed public tears.

Propriety permits them to see Huifang one last time. She has been cleaned and her face shrouded in yellow muslin, the wounds concealed by the finest silks she ever owned, though that is not much; her last good dress was donned at age twelve, and after that Huifang acquired a taste for canvas and baggy shirts. The gown on her now is new, bought for other people’s weddings and festivals. She never had the chance to wear it.

Younger cousins burn gold paper for her–a pipa, electronics, jewelry, and a house of many floors. That too is an activity Xiaoli and Yingzhi may not join, and out of them four Huiliang alone is free to openly weep before the coffin. Anhua is the elder, and stays at their mothers’ side trying to cry as silently as possible. It is such a terror, and so graceless, to die young.

Halfway through the mourning period Xiaoli puts aside the chives pancakes Yingzhi is not eating and tells her, “I am going to show you the sea.”

Her wife smiles, wan and thin. “I’ve seen the sea before, my love. We’re a little old to make the crossing.”

“Even so.”

They wait for the clocks to align–these days every house owns a pair–and choose a safe period, one week. Not too long, not too short. They agree that this trip will be their last. From now on they want to be in Nuguo for every moment of their daughters’ lives.

On a walk along the sunlit coast of Victoria Harbor, Xiaoli says that she is sorry they did not have as many children as Yingzhi planned. To that Yingzhi only shakes her head. “Having raised three I wouldn’t have wished five or eight on any one. They are girls, not bees.”

“But it could’ve have helped.”

“I don’t know.” Yingzhi gazes out at the sea a little longer, absorbing its sounds and inhaling its smells. When her breast is full of them she starts eating again, and exclaims the excellence of scallops they have at a street eatery.

Xiaoli doesn’t cry for Huifang until a year and three months later, when they go to her grave and watch Huiliang sweep until it is clear of dead leaves and twigs, and pull the weeds until not a single growing thing is left by the plague that bears the name Zhang Huifang.

During the third anniversary of Huifang’s passing a tiger appears by the water clock, which no one looks at anymore. This one is striking in its stillness. This one is dead, with wounds in stomach and chest precisely inflicted, like the copying of a poem by hand.

The corpse brings Huiliang feral satisfaction, but Xiaoli knows who has done this and cannot say this is what she wanted, then reprimands herself for being ungrateful. Tigers kill tigers; is that not natural? Such things happen.

Xiaoli waits, but Jinhuang never appears to claim either credit or accountability. She makes sorbet desultorily, and feels as if a guest she has invited has the indecency of never turning up.

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Five years after Zhang Xiaoli has buried Huang Yingzhi, she comes to live in the compound of her family. It is not that her daughters do not take care of her; more loving and dutiful children the Solar Village has not been able to produce. But Anhua, the eldest, has her own children and soon a grandchild.

Zhang Huiliang, it is said, has become far too taken with the woods and the mountains to fit polite company. Little wonder she has never married, for she would sooner stalk shadows gold as candlelight, chase shadows striped as flogging bruises. Even so some younger women have been known to gaze after her with longing sighs. Huilliang is just over forty, but what of that? Her wife can be the one to drink from the River of Mothers. Girls dare each other to seduce and recivilize her.

Zhang Xiaoli is seventy-nine. It is the year when Ding labors and ambitions have at last culminated in timepieces which tell, exact to the minute, how long each overlap between the central realm and Nuguo will last. Portable versions are made.

Overnight the Ding inventor who finalized this becomes a local goddess, venerated almost as much as the mountain priests. No longer will women leave in the blush of youth and return to find their sisters creased and white of hair, their mothers in ash jars and shrine portraits.

Against probability and a leg broken a year back Xiaoli can still walk on her own strength, a feat in which she takes no small pride. She often seeks a garden pavilion, where she shares solitude with seven bamboo-caged birds: white mynahs fed by delicate Zhang daughters who rim their eyes with blue paint in the manner of their charges.

On an afternoon a woman comes to see Zhang Xiaoli. Immediately speculations ignite: is she an illegitimate granddaughter? The right age for that. If Xiaoli wasn’t publicly wild in her youth, why, she spent time on Earth and all know anything can happen there. Nevertheless this young woman is admitted and led to the pavilion by a dutiful grandniece.

At the sight of the stranger Xiaoli murmurs, “You are late.”

“I know.”

The grandniece is dismissed. She goes: there are many girls in the house who would have eavesdropped, but this grandniece is blessed with an abiding incuriosity. She’s a favorite of aunties with clandestine inclinations and much maligned by clan gossipmongers.

Stranger and old woman look at one another for a time. “Which name did you give my grandniece?” Xiaoli says during a pause between myna songs.

“Hu Jinhuang. She seemed insistent on a surname.”

Xiaoli laughs. “It took only sixty years to wring one out of you.”

The tiger looks away. She has aged herself so she no longer looks sixteen. Thirty, perhaps. “Hu is only what I am, a categorization, a breed. It gives me no family. I would be proud to be a Zhang.”

“Did you wait for me to become a widow?”

“I’m not so vile. I’ve been traversing many worlds looking for an elixir of youth. An unguent that will restore vitality and reverse years. Some concoction that will grant you immortality. I have obtained this.” She has put in Xiaoli’s hand a twist of rice paper, which reveals a slice of peach browned and shriveled, as age-wracked as Xiaoli’s own skin. It retains little juice, and doubtless little sweetness. The tiger says, “This isn’t much. It will turn the clock of your heart and ligaments back by twenty or thirty years, nothing more. Please take it. Your mind will be clear, your eyes will be bright.”

Xiaoli looks up and smiles, showing gaps between yellowed enamel. “Is it so you will think me beautiful again?”

“You are beautiful to me, always. The flesh is only paper through which the lamplight of your spirit blazes.”

The old woman holds the fruit in her hand, nestled between age-spots and the life-line Jinhuang wept into long ago.

“Take the peach.” Jinhuang touches her arm, but gently, as if afraid a grip too fervent will tear and bruise. “I will find you a gift more whole, more purified, and we’ll travel all the realms together unfettered by any bonds or obligation.”

“Why are you doing this?”

“Because sixty years ago I should have said: Zhang Xiaoli, I would like to be your wife, if you will have me, for I find your honesty startling, your simple wants like new gold. Forty years ago I should have said: Zhang Xiaoli, consider me for a second wife, for I find your steadfastness heartwrenching, your simple delights like fresh ivory.” Jinhuang takes a deep breath. “I would say now: Zhang Xiaoli, consider me for a wife, for my heart has not changed, and I hold out the hope that neither has yours.”

The peach has not lost all the sugar of its flesh. The mortal woman inhales its fragrance. “Sixty years are nothing to you, Jinhuang, but they are everything to me. I waited for you when you killed the tiger which took my daughter. I didn’t understand why you did not come.”

The mynahs resume music. They’ve been taught certain words, scraps of poetry to lull and soothe, on the matter of calm lakes and the sudden death of turtles.

“I didn’t,” says the woman who is a tiger, “want you to see me draped in blood, smelling of it. That isn’t human. That isn’t for you.”

“Wives share much, Jinhuang. All the successes, all the failures. The suffering. Suffering, sometimes I think, is all we are. I’m sorry, but I cannot take this.”

“Have I never meant anything to you?”

“You have. You have, so much. But I’ve lived a life and I’d like to think I lived it well. To ask for more is sheer avarice, and in hell I’ll find Yingzhi and Huifang. I will tell my daughter that she’s forgiven for her death and plead with the magistrates to punish her no more.” The old woman’s head droops to rest upon the stone table. “There’s always the next life, though I don’t expect you to wait.”

It takes a long time before Jinhuang empties her tears. She does so in perfect silence, for Xiaoli has fallen asleep, as very old women do.

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On the day of Zhang Xiaoli’s funeral a woman ascends the mountain that has no name and has never required one, for there is but one of it: it exists, stern, tipped always in snow and paved over with orchids that bloom in winter. Beyond the flowers stands the Monastery of White Grass.

As Zhang Xiaoli’s daughters, granddaughters and nieces wail by her coffin, the woman sits in a certain chamber in the monastery. Her hair falls away in lustrous handfuls, shorn then shaved until her skull gleams like moonstone.

As Zhang Xiaoli’s body is lowered into the earth, the woman dons white for the first time. Her boldness falls away in shining tufts and stripes, plucked and pulled until only quiet poise remains.

It is said that this woman remains in the monastery throughout the ages of Nuguo, unchanging and unaging. It is said that ever after no tiger is seen again in woods or mountain.

For no country is large enough for two tigers.

____
Copyright 2014 Benjanun Sriduangkaew

Benjanun Sriduangkaew writes love letters to cities and space opera when she can get away with it. A finalist for the Campbell Award for Best New Writer, her fiction has appeared in Clarkesworld,  Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Phantasm Japan, Dangerous Games, Solaris Rising 3, various Mammoth Books and best of the year collections. Her contemporary fantasy novella Scale-Bright is forthcoming from Immersion Press.

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