by Andrea Tang

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“My own heart!”

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

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

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

“What are you doing?” yelped Dom.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I thought they were just stories!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hostie dcrisse, please no.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The stranger recoiled from her. “Excuse me?”

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

Thing four: the young man had no heartbeat.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“She’s a friend to the animals.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ten minutes later, she gave in.

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

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

“Can I ask a question?”

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

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

“I understand.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Also by way of your mum?”

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

“Your father’s also from Shanghai?”

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

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

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

“I don’t remember –”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“When I was sixteen, and stupid.”

“How –”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh? Magicking how?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Trust me, I can tell.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Better. A puzzle.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“And fuck you very much, cherie.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Because they weren’t real names!”

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

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

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

“But –”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You’re hilarious.”

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

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

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

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

“Self deprecation isn’t becoming of you.”

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

“That wasn’t–”

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

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

“Your wife.” Ex-wife, now.

“Are the two so mutually exclusive?”

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

“That spell you cast as a teenager–”

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

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

“Like a corpse. No pulse, either.”

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

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

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

“Human?” Isabel supplied caustically.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What?”

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

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

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

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

Beneath her outstretched hands, the floor burst into flames.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stop running, Elias.

Elias, Elias, youve been running so long.

Arent you tired, Elias?

Come with us, Elias.

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

“How?” he panted back.

“Do you trust me?”

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

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

And there it was.

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

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

Join us, Elias.

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

The monsters closed in.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The cold abated.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I hope that wasn’t inappropriate –”

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

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

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

“You pushed me out of bed!”

“Why were we in bed?”

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

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

“What were you saying about the monsters?”

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

“I told you. Business.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Elias recoiled. “I don’t want that.”

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

“What?”

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

“You’re not serious.”

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

He paused. “No.”

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

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

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

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

And then, that familiar hiss: “Elias.

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

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

We knew youd play the good boy in the end.

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

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

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

“But you ran away, before we could.”

“Why did you run, child?”

“It doesn’t matter. You’ve returned.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dont interfere in family matters, kitchen witch.”

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

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

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

“Talk to my parents, huh?” he called at her over the roar of the wind. “Good talk!”

“I thought diplomatic negotiations might be worth a first shot!” Isabel yelled back. “Most Chinese gods aren’t nearly this unreasonable! How was I supposed to know a couple of entitled white English people would throw this kind of tantrum over not getting their way?”

The wind drowned out the rest of Elias’ reply. They had no sanzuwu-of-surprise up their sleeve this time. No magical energy left for a protective ring. They were going to lose. The truth settled into Isabel’s gut, rock heavy. What was one half-baked immortal boy and a blinded, failed demigod of a girl, against two full-fledged, self-made gods, running on the full power of the xiandan? Simple arithmetic spelled out their odds. Elias’ parents would get what they wanted, in the end.

And they’d probably go through Isabel to get it. What did they care, if they killed her? What was one measly stretch of mortal, magical life, in the face of all this?

Snow snuffed out the flames in Isabel’s hands. The tentative, wavering, sunlit magic broke.

And then, distantly: “You have to want this!”

Elias, she realized, dizzy with cold. Elias’ golden-voiced tongue, dripping her own words. “Own what you are, and then use it!”

You’re a quick study, sunshine boy.

Inside the stinging cocoon of the blizzard, eyelids clenched tight against the cold, Isabel reached for memory: Maman’s old, checkered tablecloth. The glint of the afternoon sun against a kitchen knife. The rosy apples of a much younger Dominic’s cheeks, as he giggled and snuck a moon cake on a table nearly taller than he was. And the lean, strapping man in the corner of the kitchen, laughing and wrapping a half-visible arm around Maman’s aproned waist, bending her into a kiss beneath the blue skied window.

Then she reached for the magic she alone had earned for herself, flush with foolishness, at age sixteen. And threw everything she had into the blizzard.

The wind paused, hesitating in its path, silence eerie after the scream of the storm.

“What is this?” A lazy, familiar voice replaced the blizzard’s howl. It took knowing that voice well, to recognize the fury simmering beneath the carelessly drawled syllables. “Amateur hour on my daughter’s doorstep?”

Heat blasted through the cold, shocking in its contrast to the snow that had been stinging Isabel’s face numb seconds before. “And so it is. A couple useless, sniveling baichi de laowai pumped up on Chinese magic, using power you’re barely worthy of to pick a fight with my child?” Long, methodical footsteps marched across the snow. Zao Jun’s voice dropped a deadly octave. “How dare you.”

Fire roared to life, fire greater and more terrible than anything Isabel could dream of summoning. It licked along the edges of her porch, uninterested in the very burnable wood, instead gunning forward like a rogue dragon, twisting its hissing, serpentine form toward that last source of cold. Elias’ parents began to scream.

“Stop!”

Isabel turned instinctively toward the voice. Elias, his voice raw, but still threaded through with that strange, sunlit power. Still alive, and still human-bodied. “Don’t kill them,” he said now.

“They would have killed my daughter, had she not kept her wits about her,” said Zao Jun. He sounded amused. “Why should I show them any greater mercy?”

“Because,” croaked Isabel, “as satisfying as killing the bastards would feel for about five seconds, it would feel immediately fucking terrible within the same hour.”

Her father’s regard hung heavy on her. “You wanted to be a god once.”

“Yes,” said Isabel.

“You don’t anymore.”

“No.”

“I think I understand why,” mused Zao Jun. “I may have been wrong. You are, in the end, quite inextricably human.”

“Thanks, Dad,” said Isabel, very dryly.

“It’s not a criticism,” said the kitchen god. “Not this time.”

“No?”

“Sometimes,” her father said, then paused. Began again, in the small, steady voice of a confessor: “Sometimes, I wish I could be mortal for you, Isabel.”

And there it was. Isabel blinked hot, sightless eyes, and said nothing.

But the kitchen god was already moving on, casting his regard toward Elias now. “And you, boy. Why spare your tormentors?”

“Blood is thick,” said Elias, simple, quiet, speaking words filled to the brim with a hundred different meanings. Real magic drifted behind that voice now, pulsing like the steady, spell-made heartbeat of the three-legged raven Isabel had pulled from her kitchen flames. “It always has been.”

Something shifted between them, then, stretching taut between the great and terrible kitchen god and the impossible, walking corpse of a young man. An unspoken conversation. A test of will.

Elias spoke again: “For my family, I can think of a fate better deserved than death.”

Zao Jun laughed, long and hard. “So shall it be.”

Heat flared, sudden and cutting. Gold filled the inside of Isabel’s head, magic and magic and magic. For a moment, she thought she’d pass out again.

Then as soon as it had come, the magic was gone. Two long, shuddering gasps, echoing one another, followed a staggering of footsteps, heavy and human and exhausted.

And then a third.

“Mum and Dad,” said Elias, from beside Isabel, his hand still caught in hers. His slow, steady pulse thrummed through her fingertips. “Welcome back to mortality.”

Elias’ parents didn’t stay in Quebec long. Neither left their son a forwarding address.

“I would say I’m surprised,” said Elias, around a mouthful of beignet. “But really, I’m not. How could I be?”

Confectioner’s sugar smeared from his wrist across Isabel’s thumb as they reached for the same donut. “Hey, back off, sunshine boy.” Isabel flicked sugar at him. “I made the damn things.”

“What are you willing to bet they staggered on to the first available flight back to China?”

Isabel shrugged, licking her thumb. “There are other magical cultures with immortality elixirs. Ever heard of the philosopher’s stone?”

Elias fell silent. Her fingers found his wrist, still startled at the warmth of the skin, the beat of blood flow through his veins. “I know ‘are you okay’ is a stupid question, but all you’ve done since your parents skipped town is sit in the middle of my mum’s pâtisserie, stuffing your face and staring broodingly at things.”

“How do you know it’s a brooding stare if you can’t see?”

Still licking sugar off her free hand, she kicked his shin.

“Ow! I really feel that now, thank you very much.”

“Well, I can feel you brooding.”

“I can feel everything.” He almost succeeded at pulling off the quip, except for how his breath hitched, just a little, at the end.

“It’s not wrong, you know,” said Isabel.

“What isn’t?”

“Whatever it is you’re feeling now.” Isabel turned her face toward the sun filtering in through one of the pâtisserie windows, eyes half-lidded in the wake of its warmth. “It’s not wrong.”

“I think they loved me,” said Elias, unexpectedly. “My parents, I mean. Or at least, I think they tried to. Fuck, how awful does that sound? ‘Tried to.’” He laughed, raspy and devoid of real humor. Isabel waited him out. “Trouble is, they’ve always been like that, you know? They think loving someone means making them do the things you do. Want the things you want.”

“Okay.” Isabel tipped her head back beneath the fall of sunshine. “Here’s the thing about family – or anyone, really, mortal or immortal. They can love you, or try to love you, and still be really, amazingly, gods-damned awful at it. Pun one thousand percent intended.”

The strapping man, face obscured, sunlight spilling through the kitchen, and arms twined round her mother’s aproned waist, while apple-cheeked Dom filched moon cakes from that checker-clothed table. The fleeting, uncomplicated joy of a snapshot piece of childhood. This belonged to Isabel.

Sometimes, I wish I could be mortal for you.

And that too, Isabel supposed, belonged to her. She shook her head, smile wry, aimed at nothing in particular. “Trust me, I’m kind of an expert in the subject.”

Elias snorted, but didn’t interrupt. She turned toward him, knee pressed to his. “Love doesn’t always redeem. You don’t need to apologize for holding a place in your heart for someone who doesn’t deserve it. Nor do you have to love someone back just because they love you – or claim to. ”

He laughed, bewildered. “That doesn’t make any sense.”

Isabel shrugged. “That’s humanity for you. Welcome to the rat race.” She popped the rest of her beignet into her mouth, speaking around the dough: “At least we have donuts and coffee. I think we’ve both earned that much, sunshine boy.”

She didn’t have time to reach for a second beignet, before she found herself pulled into a rough hug. Something between a protest and a joke died on the tip of Isabel’s tongue. Instead, her fingers curled into the crisp fabric of Elias’ shirt, paused over the heat of life thrumming in the skin beneath. She buried her nose against his chest, and felt the shuddering breaths rise and fall. The steady drum of the heart inside.

“Welcome back Elias,” Isabel whispered.

Later, Maman and Dominic would open the shop. Later, customers would fill the sunlit seats, buy the donuts and egg tarts and sweet-smelling mooncakes, laughing back and forth in French and English and Chinese and whatever other languages the city washed up on this particular day, in this particular piece of Rue St. Catherine. Later, Angelique would drape her long, silky arms across everyone’s shoulders, laugh, and whisper silk-wrapped truth through their ears. Later, Isabel would feed Horrible his supper, let Sunshine nest in her hair, roll her eyes at some horrible joke of Dom’s.

But in this moment, the life shaking apart and pulling itself together again in the ring of her arms was enough. Elias, and Isabel, and the sun warming their twined limbs. It was more than enough.

____

Copyright 2017  Andrea Tang

Andrea Tang is a speculative fiction writer currently earning her keep as an international relations consultant in Washington, DC. By virtue of both preference and profession, she likes asking how different cultures – and by extension, different people – collide, mix, or otherwise converse with each other. Her other stories can be found at Apex Magazine, PodCastle, and more. Catch her on Twitter @atangwrites, or pop by her website for a hello and a (sadly, strictly virtual) plate of beignets!