Through the fine mesh of my mask, I studied the woman strolling through the marketplace and wondered if she knew where I could find one of my people. Her bald head reminded me of a brown hen’s egg. Her face resembled those of the gleaners all around us, eyes lost in an expanse of forehead without eyebrows to anchor them. But she wasn’t a gleaner; she lacked their paranoia, as if she had no hair roots left to worry about anyone stealing one of her strands for a spell. Her loose robe bared her arms, and she handled the flutes, rugs, and other wares in each tent with ease.
I envied her for a moment. Then I reminded myself how weak those who resorted to unnatural hair removal were. They dared separate something sacred from the body, rendering it lifeless and impure. Nail trimmings, shed hairs, and flakes of dead skin were inevitable, of course. Cutting was one thing, as I did with my beard, but to pull out the very roots? Shameful.
As the woman drew closer, she tried to ignore me like all the others did, although I stood out in this town like a kiwifruit among figs, a fuzzy import among all that smoothness. They’d rather disregard me than risk vexing me so I’d cast a spell with my own hair. Never mind that using one’s own hair, especially while still connected to the body, ached more than any other way of casting.
“Excuse me,” I said to the woman, just loudly enough that she could hear me above the hagglers and sellers.
Her lashless eyes narrowed. “Do I know you, sir?” We both knew she didn’t. But at least she acknowledged me.
“My name is Salim,” I said. “I couldn’t help but notice you’re not a gleaner.”
She eyed my clingy garb, my gloves, my skullcap. “And I can see that you are a shrouder. So you can see what I am not, and I can see what you are. Which do you think is more useful?” She started to move away.
“Forgive me,” I said—which halted her—“but I must know. How are you not afraid that some stray hair will grow back and fall into another’s hands?”
“Why? Are you thinking of freeing yourself of the burden of your hair at last?” Her sarcasm indicated she believed I’d sooner protest outside of whatever place had made her so confident, so unnatural. “If you’re looking to steal a stray hair or two, Salim, you won’t find one on me. You’ll have to find another source for your magic.” She gestured toward a shady row crawling with urchins hocking camels’ hair—which could only help spur another camel faster—and charlatans trying to pass off the useless hair of the dead as magical strands of the living.
“Please,” I said, “I’m only after answers. I know you don’t get many shrouders around here, and I hear that the ones who do come have gone missing.”
She waved as she might swat at a fly. “I don’t concern myself with such things.” She moved to leave, then stopped and glanced at me with a spark of curiosity. “If you think your kind is being targeted, why are you out here in such a public place? Do you feel safer in a crowd?”
“I’m not so sure we’re being targeted. I wonder if, maybe, those other shrouders ended up converting and are too ashamed to return to us. So they begin a new life.” It was common, expected, for a shrouder to seek out into the world, to explore and share our ways, but we always returned to our hometowns, at least to visit. We always kept our roots. But fewer and fewer seemed to come back these days.
“Is that what you’re looking for, Salim? A new life?”
“No. I’m just looking for my people out here. Even one. I have to know.” Had they turned to the same magic as her? I doubted she used to be one of us. No onetime shrouder could walk so carefree; they’d always slightly hunch their shoulders, faintly furrow the emptiness between former eyebrows, or bear some other trace of guilt. I’d seen it many times in new gleaners.
The woman rubbed her scalp and eyed the crowded stalls around us. She sighed and lowered her voice. “There’s a procedure, but I won’t talk about it in such a public place. Come with me.”
Was this the first step that had led other shrouders astray? I didn’t fear temptation, and certainly not abduction, not by someone so dismissive of me. I craved answers, so I followed her.
After a short, silent walk from the marketplace, we reached her eggplant-colored tent. We shrouders mostly lived in rocky abodes carved into cliffsides, homes so different from the blatantly impermanent dwellings of gleaners, who cared so little about rootedness. She held the entry flap open for me, followed me in, and laced it shut behind us to block out the late morning sun.
“It must be mercilessly hot under all that cloth,” she said, eyeing my clothing. “Are you able to drink in the presence of another?” She gestured in front of her face to denote my mask.
“Yes.” I unfastened the slit over my mouth.
“Very well.” She bade me sit down on a cushion while she grabbed a carafe of pink liquid. She kept an eye on me while pouring the drink into two short glasses with silver rims. I inhaled the sweet scent. Rose sharbat. The fragrance of sugar cane and flower petals delighted me, especially after the over-spiced, sweaty air of the marketplace.
While she stood, I reached under my mask and skullcap and raked out a few loose hairs that had itched my forehead. She watched me glance around for an Izeera box so I could dispose of them. None. Not tucked under perfume bottles or between cushions. None stashed behind the wooden bowl of dates. Every other home I’d been in, whether a shrouder’s or a gleaner’s, kept at least one Izeera box in each room. I had my own travel version. I pulled it out, stuffed the hairs into it, and pressed the amber-colored circle of horn on top to destroy them.
Before the invention of Izeera boxes some years ago, we had no quick, easy way to destroy our hairs. I recalled when puberty had caused new hair to sprout all over me, my face, armpits, all the way down, front and back. Fear had brimmed in my mother’s eyes for her only child growing more vulnerable to magic, while my father’s eyes welled with sorrow at having gone through a similar change. My own body had betrayed me.
Then later on, the first time I’d held an Izeera box, my head had spun with the thrill of safely disposing of my sheddings, the simple press of horn against my fingertip.
Now, the woman plopped herself onto a cushion across from me while I tucked the box away. “I’m no longer a slave to those things,” she said. She handed me a glass of sharbat. I longed to ask what she expected guests to do if they ever forgot their personal boxes, but I dared not criticize her hospitality. “I suppose,” she said, “it’s harmless enough for me to speak in generalities about the procedure.”
“If you please.”
She sipped from her glass and nodded. “It’s new. It’s permanent. I won’t have to pluck ever again.” As relieved as her words sounded, she gulped the rest of her sharbat down far too quickly.
“What was it like?” I asked gently.
She squirmed on the cushion. “It wasn’t an easy decision. They interviewed me and had me come back a week later. Then they led me into a back room.” She shook her head.
I sipped the sharbat nervously while she described the procedure, only in generalities, focusing mostly on the pain. Worse, she said, than the time her cousin had grabbed a fistful of her head hairs to make her eyes burn and tear up so that she’d look guilty for something he’d done.
When she was finished, I leaned forward, set my glass aside, and said, “Please, I must go there. I must know if they’ve seen any other shrouders.”
“They wouldn’t let a shrouder anywhere near there. They’d think you were up to no good.”
“Not if you, a trusted customer, took me there.”
“You think they’d trust me, Salim, but how do I know I can trust you?” Even without eyebrows to lower, she looked guarded.
“I came away with you, didn’t I, even when I know my kind is disappearing in these parts? And I have taken your drink. Clear gestures of trust.”
“More like signs of foolishness.”
“Only the malicious would consider trust a folly,” I countered. “You’ve shared a fair amount about your experience in the procedure with me. Am I foolish enough to learn your name at least, too?”
Her face relaxed into a small smile. “Alia.”
“Alia.” I thought for a moment. “Have you ever seen a shrouder’s face?”
She smirked. “Of course not.” Then she realized my intention and grew serious.
First I peeled off my gloves and flexed my fingers to ease myself into such vulnerability. Then I pulled off my mask and skullcap and unrolled my hair. With the sharbat’s aroma long faded, I saw her inhale tentatively, as though she didn’t believe the common knowledge that we shrouders perfumed our hair whenever we combed out loose strands in privacy. Realization crossed her face, and she leaned forward to breathe in the long-forgotten scent of thriving, growing hair.
She reached a quivering hand toward my face. I flinched, but then I saw her eyes filled with such wonder, begging me for trust, that I held still and allowed her fingertip to brush the skin below my right eye. She pulled her hand back, index finger pointing up. A small black eyelash lay upon it.
“I remember,” she said, “seeing my niece the day she was born, her tiny head covered in fuzz.” Tears filled her eyes. “She had faint little eyebrows.” She sniffled. “Eyelashes.” She covered her face with her free hand and cried. Her other hand offered me the eyelash. When I took it, my bare fingertips touched hers just long enough for me to remember how soft—how joyously natural and soft—another’s hand could be.
With my eyelash, I cast a spell to stop her tears. My upper right eyelid twinged. Before she could look up, I wiped the residue of my pulverized eyelash off my finger.
“I’ll take you to their headquarters,” she said, “but I cannot get you in. Not even if you were a gleaner. There’s only one way they’ll talk to you.”
My heart sank as she spoke dreaded words.
“You’ll have to volunteer for their procedure.”
I took a deep breath. Perhaps this was the dreaded first step that had doomed other shrouders. But doomed them to what? My cheeks burned with shame that my first thought had jumped to betrayal. By Alia. Or by me, inviting the temptation of this procedure.
“What are you thinking about?” she asked.
I sighed. “The misery of a world without trust. One where you have to wear masks, or alter your appearance day after day, where you can never let your guard down and every stranger is more a threat than a potential friend.” I couldn’t meet her eyes with that last word, for fear of reading rejection in them. She’d given me a lead to follow, and finally curiosity overpowered me. “Very well. Please take me to them.”
We bobbed atop camels on our way to the hidden complex, moving farther from the city’s domed buildings and jewel-colored tents and deeper into desert sands shuffling in the hot wind. With no hair or mask to hide her face, Alia had to watch me outright through the corner of her eye, knowing full well I could keep a more covert eye on her. She’d seemed trustworthy enough from the start, but now, with each swaying camel’s step pulling us farther from civilization, doubt eroded my tender dune of confidence.
She turned to me, attempting to shield her eyes from the blowing sand with her arm. “You mustn’t tell anyone about this place,” she said. “And certainly don’t tell anyone I brought you there. Especially not the worker who interviews you.”
“I don’t suppose you’ll tell me what sorts of questions they ask?”
She shook her head. Just then, a gust made her blink furiously and cough. She squeezed her eyes shut and pressed the heels of her hands over them. She lowered her arms, still blinking fast and often.
I used a strand on the back of my neck to cast a spell to clear her eyes. Since the hair was still in me when it disintegrated, unlike the eyelash, it fired a sharp pang into my nape. I stifled a cry. I’d forgotten the excruciation of casting on an unshed hair. Through the corner of my mesh-masked eye, I saw Alia blink again, this time in surprise, and glance at me, wondering, no doubt, whether I’d helped cleanse the invasive sand from her vision.
Yes, this woman had freed herself of hair and its accompanying paranoia, upkeep, and disposal, but she’d also lost her ability to gift a spell to someone without harming another person. My mother always foreswore using magic, saying we all had enough other ways to hurt others and ourselves. I’d never quite understood why she took that stance, not when it could be a gift in the right circumstances. Now Alia’s face became a blend of tension in the upper half, slackness in the lower. She looked deep in thought, perhaps reflecting on the permanence of what she’d done to herself. The things we put our bodies through.
“You won’t actually go through with the procedure, will you?” Concern crept into her voice, and for once I felt the recipient, not the cause.
“No, no,” I assured her. “I’m just going to take advantage of the interview. I’ll let them ask me a couple of their standard questions, then I’ll start interviewing them.”
“You won’t get the answers you’re looking for. These people hold their tongues tighter than purses. They won’t like the fact you know their location. After I passed their interview, when I came back for my appointment, they covered my head with a heavy cloth while bringing me in and out of the procedure room. And there was a door in the back corner with the biggest lock I’ve ever seen.” She pressed her lips together as though she’d said too much.
When a large, flat-topped rock appeared on the horizon, she exhaled in relief and pointed at it. “There.”
“Inside the rock?”
“Yes. There’s a date tree not too far from it where we can tie our camels.”
We? Our camels? I hadn’t expected her to be willing to stick around.
“You don’t have to come,” I said. “I can’t miss it from here. And the main road isn’t too far back. I’ll find my way just fine.”
She looked skeptical. “I’ll at least feed your camel while you go in.”
I considered insisting that she needn’t bother, but I was too grateful for her company. I nodded.
We reached the lone date tree in the shadow of a dune. Alia dismounted and tied the reins to the trunk. I followed suit. The top of the rock seemed to leer with disapproval at me over the sand. I wondered how it would look to a shrouder who came here to forsake our beliefs, our way of life. I shuddered.
“You’re on your own from here,” Alia said, eying the rock. “I dare not let them see I brought you.” She pulled out a goatskin sack and reached toward my camel.
“I can’t thank you enough, Alia. For everything.”
She swatted the air, shooing me onward. “Go, before either of us changes our mind.”
As I scaled the dune, layers of my confidence and curiosity slipped away like the sand beneath my feet. Yet my quest for the shrouders—yes, even former shrouders—spurred me on. At the top I saw the entire rock, including, if I squinted into the shadow, a tall door tucked between two ridges. If I hadn’t known to look for an entrance, I’d never have noticed it.
Just before I disappeared over the dune, I heard Alia cry, “Good luck!” I turned and waved, then made my way through the shadow toward the entrance.
Up close, my head came about halfway up the door. I knocked, and a moment later a tiny window opened and a pair of lashless eyes scrutinized me. They disappeared, and right before the window swung shut, I caught the word “shrouder.” Then the door opened. A woman in a dark yellow cloak like honey ushered me in. Her whole body was bald, except for a prominent circular patch on the right side of her head from which sprouted a mass of long, thick hairs. She led me to an unadorned room with two stools in the middle and two doors at the far end, one marked “Procedure.” We sat facing each other.
“Did you come here alone?” she asked. Her gaze, intense and cold, easily penetrated the mesh of my mask. I got the feeling that she, like me, prided herself on reading people.
“No,” I answered truthfully.
Her eyes widened in stern alarm. Her fists clenched, and I could sense strong musculature under her robe.
“The camel I came on is outside,” I said. Technically not a lie.
She looked relieved. And unamused. “How did you find this place?”
“How do any of your clients find this place?” I countered.
She smiled. My answer seemed to satisfy her. “And have you told anyone about your intention in coming here today?”
I thought of Alia. Technically, she didn’t fully understand what had driven me here. Her kind was poised to increase as news of this procedure spread. My kind was dwindling. “No.”
She raised the area where her eyebrows used to be. “Really? You’re not worried about anyone shunning you back home?”
I shook my head.
“Very well. We’ll take you.”
It was that easy? Now it was my turn to raise my eyebrows. Perhaps if I set up an appointment, they’d cooperate more in answering my questions now. “Well,” I stammered, “I suppose I should be free next week.”
She smiled as though I’d unintentionally said something funny. “No, we’ll take you now.” She signaled toward a curtain, and two bald, emerald-clad women emerged, each as tall and solid as the first one. They’d obviously undergone the procedure. Their skin was as bald as Alia’s, no sign of stubble. They held a sack between them—a sack big enough for a head.
My heart raced. “You don’t even know if I can pay for this,” I blurted.
“You’ll pay,” the interviewer replied, and her smile widened.
I stood and raised my palms. “No, no, I still have some questions before…”
“My attendants will walk you through everything.”
I took a step back toward the door—the exit.
“Unless,” the woman said, leaning forward and making the room feel very small, “you didn’t actually come here for the reason you implied.”
Had Alia led me into a trap? Perhaps all her guilt during our trek here didn’t stem from regretting the procedure. Right now, for all I knew, she could be stealing away with my camel, my only means back to the main road. So much for my ability to read people.
My body froze as the two bald women threw the sack over my head. Perhaps I’d get my answers after all, I thought with fear and revulsion and a faint glimmer of curiosity.
“You’ll answer my questions before we get started, right?” I asked the darkness cynically. A door creaked open, the only reply.
They hustled me through what felt like a long hallway, then came the jingle of keys and the groan of another door opening, a heavy one. They pushed me through and shut it behind us. Finally the sack came off. This room was round and white, with a table in the center and a tall door straight in front of me with an enormous brass lock. We must’ve come through a similar door behind me, although I hadn’t heard them relock it. I glanced at the door across from me and then at the workers’ pockets, hoping to spy the outline of a ring of keys, but the fabric was too thick or the keys too well stowed.
They led me to the table, which looked suspiciously like an altar, and instructed me to strip down. They stayed in the room while I did so. Somehow, my face felt most naked of all. I folded my clothes and set them near the wall. The workers stood to either side of the table and directed me to lie on it. My jaw clenched as the chilly surface met my back. My feet felt distant and numb. I wiggled my left toes, just to be sure I still could, but one of the workers shot her hand around my foot like a falcon gripping a vole.
“Please hold still,” she said none too pleasantly.
By now, my curiosity had dissipated. My pulse raced at their clammy touches. My vision blurred. Were those curved walls sliding in toward me? I tried to swallow, but my mouth felt dry as though full of pulverized hair residue—dust. What was to stop their magic from reducing all of me to dust, not just my hairs? Perhaps that was the fate of tempted shrouders.
“We’re ready to begin,” one of them said. The other produced a needle. They reached toward me.
I cast spells on them using my own hairs, temporarily blinding them, cramping their muscles, burning their skin. My own skin burned too with the agony of casting while the hairs were still in me—my nostrils, the tops of my toes, the back of my neck. My eyes watered. I clamped them shut and writhed in pain as I attacked. The burning spread across my chest. The workers’ cries sounded dull in my ears, fainter than voices through my mask, even though now there was nothing physically muffling them. But at least those cold, sweaty hands no longer touched me.
I lurched upright and saw the workers lying stunned and panting. Despite their breathing, they looked inanimate and haphazard, like two marionettes with cut strings. I jumped from the table, grabbed a towel, and threw it around my waist, never breaking stride as I bolted toward that forbidden door across from the one I’d blindly entered.
Locked, of course. The door behind me was not. I could easily escape, find my camel, and flee this wretched place. But still I’d lack answers. Even if I returned later with an army of shrouders, we wouldn’t know what we were fighting. I turned around and forced myself to ignore the unlocked door, like gleaners so often ignored me.
With the workers still prostrate, I found the keys easily on a chain around one of their necks. I removed the necklace and opened the bulky brass lock. After tightening the towel around my waist, I kept the keys, chain and all, in one fist as I lugged the door open. I removed and took the lock in my other fist, so they couldn’t lock me in once they came to. Who knew if I’d find another way out?
I closed the door and found myself in another hallway. A heavy black curtain hung across the far end. I brushed through it, its fabric comforting to my exposed skin, and found another curtain close behind it, and past that one was such a sight, I nearly dropped the lock and keys and gave myself away.
Crimson lanterns overhead flickered a dim, sinister red glow throughout a vast room. As my eyes adjusted to the low light, I could make out rows and rows of mats covering the floor, on which lay people covered with hair. Shrouders? My heart sank at the thought—no, the realization. The figures lying closest to me breathed in pained rasps through chapped lips, the corners lined with dried saliva. Their eyelids fluttered occasionally. They glistened with sweat.
A worker moved from mat to mat, sticking them with needles, probably keeping them drugged so they couldn’t defend themselves as I had done. Another worker forced water down their throats. A third worker was bent over a prisoner’s hand, filing bits of fingernail into a tiny hollow on the top of a box. Then he sealed something small and round over the hole. I could tell by its sickly yellow-brown gleam in the bloody lantern light that it was horn. He’d just made an Izeera box.
I looked at the prisoners again, and this time I noticed the slowly spreading bald patches, the hairs disintegrating haphazardly all over them as elsewhere, in rocky abodes and billowing tents far away from this complex, safe in their rooms with their carafes of sharbat and their plush, tasseled pillows, the owners of Izeera boxes disposed of their own shed or plucked hairs. My stomach twisted. These shrouders, these prisoners in front of me, fueled those boxes connected by their nail filings so that each use of the box triggered a distant and aching spell cast upon them. How many times had I inflicted pain upon them? How often had I unwittingly tortured them, my own people, just by pressing a circle of horn to destroy my own hairs? I sank to my knees, my mouth contorting with a silent sob.
The workers approached the row next to mine. I quickly lowered onto my stomach and waited. Once they reached the aisle, they turned toward my row. I held my breath. A stomach growled loudly—surely not mine? Thankfully, the workers chuckled, and one said, “Must be time.” They passed my aisle, and from the corner of my eye I saw them set their supplies on a shelf along one wall and leave the room.
I jumped up, shaking, and wondered how to wake the others. Would a strong nudge or a splash of water do it, or would I have to wait until the drug wore off? How could I do that when the workers would be back well before then to administer the next dosage?
The curtain behind me flew open. I dove back down, holding the lock and keys under my chest. A hair too late.
“You,” a voice said. It belonged to the interviewer, the one with the round patch of hair. She plucked one of her hairs. I expected her to cast at me on it, but she merely held it in front of her as a threat. “You don’t belong here. Come with me, and I’ll show you the way out.”
“Not likely,” I replied, standing and trying to tighten the towel around my waist while still holding the lock and keys.
She laughed. “Don’t bother with that.” She gestured at the towel. “I’m sure all your hairs cover everything anyway. Come, let us talk about why you’re really here.” She pulled the curtain open wider and waved me back toward the procedure room.
“I’m not going back there.”
“Don’t worry, I sent my attendants home to recover.”
“How considerate of you,” I muttered.
“And the three who just left this room were done for the day anyway.” She motioned again past the curtain.
“Not that room.”
She frowned and allowed the curtain to fall back into place. “Very well.”
I sensed her discomfort with me in this room, where constant reminders of her horrible operation surrounded me. She strode to the far side of the chamber, careful to leave me plenty of space, and opened the door. Beyond it I saw a small room with a teal divan and several potted plants. No sign of any other workers, nor an altar-like procedure table.
“We’ll talk in here,” she said.
I nodded a curt approval. Time for some answers at last. I followed her into the room. She shut the door behind us. For once, this door stayed unlocked. I made sure I stood between her and it, just in case she tried to summon help through the one where her workers had left. I held the lock, chain, and ring of keys in front of me like a shield.
“I am Izeera,” she said, amber cloak glistening like the horn of her boxes. “You must have really lost your nerve about the procedure to have fought your way here. And inflicted quite a bit of pain on yourself.” Her gaze lingered on my chest, which probably had telltale bald spots from my earlier casting. I felt so small, especially this close to her. “But my other customers never lose their nerve. You never came here for the procedure, did you.”
She withdrew the hair she’d plucked earlier and kept her distance. Did she fear my willingness to cast at others at my own expense? No wonder she’d been so keen to get me out of the room where she kept her prisoners. She must have known that, even if I wouldn’t dream of using their hairs to cast with, they could inspire me through any necessary pain with my own.
“Why are you singling out shrouders?” I asked. “We use your boxes more than anyone. How could you, of all people, have a problem with our beliefs?”
She shrugged. “You have the quantity and length of hair that’s required, that’s all. It takes a lot of magic to run our boxes, and even more to work our new procedure. That requires so much magic it’s painful for both the source and the client, there’s no way around that.”
“Both types of magic hurt your ‘source.’ My people.”
“Only the weakest shrouders break down and come to us. Do you really want them out there telling everyone how wonderful their new life is after the procedure? Not having to use the boxes all the time or wear all that restrictive clothing? Blending in with the gleaners? Your kind would die out even faster. You should be thanking me.”
After all my travels, visiting this land that so many other shrouders avoided, ignoring the rumors about the disappearances, and trusting Alia, a total stranger, now at last I had my answers. And now I didn’t want them.
I knew I should cast at her using my own hairs. I tried to think of the rows and rows of tortured shrouders to inspire me, but all I could picture was that circular white room, and the fire spreading across my body. I couldn’t bring myself to reignite the pain. Izeera knew it, I could tell, for she smiled cruelly and raised her pinched hair.
Just when I expected her spell to hit me, she cried out and snapped her head back. She flinched once, twice. Someone else was casting at her. Her strand fell to the ground.
Alia appeared beside me, gripping a thin group of hairs in one hand and extracting one at a time from the bundle to cast with. She staggered toward Izeera, and with each step both women’s shoulders shook and their heads drooped lower as pain seared them. Izeera fell to the floor, one arm supporting her upper body while her free hand shook in mid-reach toward her patch of hair, unable to complete the journey because of Alia’s spells. She could’ve cast with the hairs in her, but no, she weakly wanted to pluck them first, too afraid to take on the pain of self-casting over the pain of another’s spells. She’d never have made it out of that circular room as I had.
Alia dropped to her knees and thrust her hand out toward me. “Take them,” she snarled, voice animalistic with pain.
I took them.
“Cast with them.”
I did. I tried to block out Alia’s cries, but they were too much for me. With just a few of her hairs remaining, I stopped casting on them and used my own instead. Alia grabbed Izeera’s hands and pulled them behind her back. I stopped casting and wrapped the chain around Izeera’s wrists, tied several knots in it, and put the lock on for good measure. If anything, it weighed her hands down and hindered her from trying to maneuver free.
I handed Alia the last of her hairs. “How did you—?”
“I cut a lock of my hair as a souvenir before my appointment here. It’s all I’ve got left.” Her eyes watered. I reached for one of my hairs to cast her tears dry, but she waved for me to stop. “You were in here so long, I knew they couldn’t still be interviewing you.”
“I can’t thank you enough,” I said. I wanted to collapse with relief, as much for her help as for the fact that my instincts about her proved right. She had never betrayed me.
“Right now we’ve got to do something about her,” Alia said, nodding at Izeera, “before she’s able to start casting at us.”
“Right. I say we give her a taste of her own magic.”
I explained to Alia what I’d seen of the process for constructing the boxes and how the filings determined whose hair fueled the box. We fetched supplies from the prisoner room: an unfinished new box, a circle of horn, and the nail file. Alia filed Izeera’s nail into the top of the box, then we glued the horn on top. I picked up Izeera’s fallen strand, one thick, threadlike hair, and stuffed it into the box. The three of us watched, wide-eyed, as I pressed the circle of horn. Izeera sucked air in through her teeth and shook her tied up hand, the one with the fingernail we’d filed, as though I’d stomped on it. Overall, though, it didn’t seem to hurt her as much as a typical spell.
Alia plucked a hair from Izeera’s patch—I winced at the brazen act but kept quiet—and tried to cast on it. Nothing happened. The hair remained whole. I glanced at the box. When fueled by her own filings and used on her own strands, it had rendered all her hairs magicless, as sterile as those of a corpse, even those outside the box. This simple spell, just a mere tweak using Izeera’s own boxes, could revolutionize our way of life. It was the procedure without a procedure, without an enslaved source—a quick onetime fix using your own nails and hair, with lasting benefits. I expected to see shock on Izeera’s face at the realization; instead, she looked defeated.
“You knew about this?” I asked her. She avoided my gaze. “I should’ve guessed. You wanted to keep everyone dependent on your boxes. I’ll bet your new procedure isn’t even permanent.”
Alia’s eyes widened with hope.
“It’s quite permanent,” Izeera snapped. “We don’t want people doubting it while the word spreads, now, do we?”
Alia’s face fell.
“And once it becomes popular,” I asked, “what then? Switch to a more temporary version? Keep them coming back?”
Izeera’s head drooped just enough to reveal her guilt, much like a former shrouder. Alia grabbed a nearby cloth and gagged the woman. So much greed in Izeera, keeping people dependent on her devices and procedures, enslaving shrouders so that each time a hapless box owner pressed the horn to remove their shed hairs, or a gleaner showed up ready for the procedure, they unknowingly cast a spell on one of those prisoners.
I studied the box. “I wonder…” I pried the horn off and blew the nail filings out of the hollow. This simple device could eradicate magic. The enormity of that hit me. The permanence of removing it from one’s life, like tearing something out by the roots. Alia’s earlier comment about not being a slave to the boxes. The fact that there were actual slaves involved. My mother’s stance against using magic. We had enough other ways to hurt others and ourselves, she’d always said. And, I realized, to help others and ourselves. Maybe giving up magic would be worth it.
“Do you think it will work again on the same box?” Alia asked.
“I hope so,” I said. “We could spread the solution to everyone, and they could use the boxes they already have at home to rid themselves of this affliction.” I realized that by saying “we,” I was assuming she’d take up the cause with me. I looked at her hopefully.
She nodded in agreement, eyes set with determination. “You first, Salim, so we can test your hair afterward.”
I filled the hollow with my filings and reaffixed the horn. I combed out a couple of my loose strands, placed them inside the box, and held my breath. I activated it. A sharp, smashing feeling ached my nail, then quickly dissipated. I pinched one of my head hairs.
“Here we go,” I said. I tried casting on it.
No effect. My heart skipped with hope. Alia tried casting on another one of my hairs. Same result. We clasped our hands and cheered. We filled the hollow with Alia’s nail filings and destroyed the remains of her last lock of hair. This time when her eyes watered, she beamed.
“Let’s wake the others,” she said. “A whole bunch of Izeera boxes are about to break.”
“Yes. Just give me a couple of minutes first.”
She gaped at me. “What could possibly be more important right now?”
“You can start without me, but I’d like to put my clothes back on first.”
Alia’s whole head blushed, and she had no way to hide it. We both laughed. I went to gather my clothes, still folded in the white room thankfully. I changed into my robe and left my skullcap, gloves, and mask behind for good.
As I ran to wake my fellow shrouders, I enjoyed the cool rush of air on my face, the velvet brush of the hallway curtains, and a surge of gratitude toward Alia. Whether waking the prisoners would be as easy as a splash of water or as time-consuming as waiting for the drug to wear off, together Alia and I would ensure they woke. Yes, they’d open their eyes to the strange sight of an unshrouded shrouder and a gleaner who was now their advocate—and to such news! We’d no longer have to glean nor shroud ourselves. No one would. At last, we could all just be.
About the Author
Katherine Quevedo lives with her husband and two sons just outside Portland, Oregon, where she works as an analysis manager. Her fiction has appeared in Short Édition’s Short Circuit, Factor Four, Apparition Literary Magazine, Heroic Fantasy Quarterly, Myriad Lands Vol. 2: Beyond the Edge, and elsewhere. Find her at www.katherinequevedo.com.