by Patricia Russo


Three o’clock in the morning, and Ria could hear the baby crying from all the way at the other end of the hall. Never mind paper-thin walls; the units in this building could have been constructed from eggshells. All it took was the slightest bump or knock for cracks to appear in the one coat of hastily rolled-on light-green paint that covered the drywall that was the only partition not only between one room and another, but one apartment and the next.

Never rent from relatives. That one should have been high on the How Not To Be a Dumbass list, right next to never do business with friends. Tano, her clan uncle, was a scamming bastard and she’d always known it. But when the choices were couch-surfing with increasingly unfriendly friends, giving up altogether and just go squat in a bus shelter somewhere, or accepting your clan uncle’s offer–“I’ve got a room. I’ll let you have it cheap. You’re family, after all”–then what were you going to do? There was pride, and there was stupidity.

Sometimes Ria thought her whole life could be summed up as a tug-of-war between her pride and her stupidity.

So far, stupidity seemed to be winning.

Three o’clock in the morning, but she was awake, had been awake before the baby resumed its apparently default mode of endless wailing, because of her tooth. The second molar from the back, on the left side, on the bottom. It hurt like a bastard, and had been hurting for three months, and the guy she did business with for the pain was not answering his goddamn phone and she was sick of leaving messages. Well, crap, what could you expect from a sketchy little fucker like him? Everything in the world was for sale, and if you took the time to look you could find a buyer for anything, but it had actually surprised her that the skinny little fuck was cool with buying a toothache. Other kinds of pain–that was easier to understand. Some other kinds of pain could be useful; once she’d known a man who’d bought the pain of a slap in the face, about two dozen a month, in order to be absolutely sure he woke up on time. Best alarm clock ever, he’d said. And some kinds of pain could even be fun, depending on the circumstances. But a toothache? Not fun, that was for sure. And not useful in any good way she could think of. So the skinny dude, who never gave his name and now wasn’t answering his phone, was probably just a middleman, buying the pain to sell to a curse-caster. Great. It had taken her three months to figure that out. Stupidity winning again. The curse had probably served its purpose, and the caster didn’t need another month’s supply of tooth-pain.

That was her screwed, then.

Almost, she threw the phone against the wall. But the wall had enough cracks in it already, and if she broke the phone, there was no way in hell she could afford another one.

The baby wasn’t helping.

The baby wasn’t helping one bit.

Not its fault, Ria told herself. Of course not. Babies cried. That’s what they did. Poor kid probably had the, what did you call it, the colics or something. Them down at the other end of the hall, two youngsters with a newborn–man. How much worse must it be for them. She could always go get her tooth pulled at the clinic at the dental school uptown. A crying baby you just had to put up with. No other choice.

Ria sat on her bed (a bedspring and bare mattress) and rocked herself, but that gave her no comfort. She wanted to pace, but if she did, she knew the old lady downstairs would take a broom to the ceiling.

Shut up, baby, shut up, baby, shut up, baby.

She tried the skinny dude’s number again. Nothing.

She’d found him–or he’d found her–at Underpass Market. There must have been a hundred places with that name over the centuries. Nowadays it was in the northeastern quadrant of the city, the open-air section taking up more space than the Grand Municipal Park, with no sign or remnant of an overpass anywhere, but the name stuck. Civilizations fell and rose and fell and rose again, and Underpass Market changed venues, but not reputation. Ria hadn’t expected to be able to sell her tooth-pain there. She had gone to hawk something completely different: a set (well, most of a set) of silver (or silverish) figurines of old-timey forest people, the gray folks with the six-fingered hands and the overly large eyes. There was supposed to be a whole family: mother, father, two children, a grandparent, and a pet, if Ria remembered correctly from her childhood. She was missing the pet and one of the children, but the rest of the pieces were in good condition. She’d acquired them by stealth, and wanted to get them off her hands as quickly as possible. But she wasn’t stupid enough to take the first offer. She hiked the length of the damn market, trying every jewelry place, silversmith, knick-knack stall, even the charm sellers (the gray folks, back when they used to live in the forest, had been believed to have powers that other people didn’t–surely the figurines could be used to fashion luck-drawers or evil-averters) but in the end she’d gotten only a couple of decent bids. It had been pride that had made her trek up and down and round and round Underpass Market; she realized that even as she was doing it. She sold the figurines in the end, for a lot less than she was sure they were worth, and was just about to head home when the skinny dude stepped in her path and smiled.


The baby would not stop wailing. That baby, Ria was becoming convinced, would howl forever. When did it sleep? The damn thing cried twenty-three hours out of twenty-four.

Middlemen bought and sold things.

Dawn would break in three hours. By tradition, Underpass Market opened for business one hour after sunrise. But that was for the general public. Behind the scenes, the market was like a perpetual motion machine. Contacts and contracts, deals and wheels, forever turning, forever in movement.

If that baby didn’t stop crying, she was going to lose her mind. Her tooth was throbbing anyway, but the high-pitched bawling made her clench her jaw, and the ouch! of that sent a bolt of bright blue pain straight through her head.

Ria picked up her phone again. Hit redial. This time, she left a different message. Not, “This is Ria, you know, the one with the tooth? Call me back,” which had been her first, or “Call me, you prick,” which had been her last. This time, she said, “Fine, so you don’t want to make any money. There’s something I want to buy, and I thought of you first. But I guess you’re too busy, so never mind.”

That would get the skinny bastard’s attention. The satisfaction of knowing that eased the pain in her molar for a second or two.

But other problems now presented themselves. The first was the practical matter of her possessing absolutely no cash. The second was an ethical issue. Ria had always despised people who put workings on others without the knowledge of the second party. And all right, yeah, she’d probably been selling the pain in her tooth as an ingredient for some revenge curse or torture-casting, but she hadn’t realized that at first, and anyway, you had to look at it as a question of survival. Paying the rent, buying food. Life or death, basically.

This was different. The baby’s parents would have to know. The baby’s parents would have to agree.

Most importantly, the baby’s parents would have to pay.

Ria got dressed quickly. She stuck her phone in her back pocket. He’d call, the skinny dude. And if he didn’t, well, Underpass Market would open in a few hours. Either way, all she had to do was sell the parents on the idea and hope to hell they had some cash or tradeables. Young folks living in a dump like this were probably not rolling in it, but she bet they both had families –certainly they both had clans, because everybody did–and friends. And family and friends would shell out, the first time you asked. Sometimes even the second or third, but almost always the first. And it would be for the baby, so an automatic extra helping of sympathy would come into play.

Ria went down the hallway quietly, even though anybody on this floor who could sleep through such a skull-piercing racket must have stone earplugs or be deaf to start with. No need to be conspicuous, though. And hey, put a smile on your face, she told herself. Even though it hurt. Hi, I’m your neighbor from down the hall, and I’m here to help. She was not the old lady who banged on the ceiling with a broom. She was a nice woman, concerned, friendly, offering a solution.


She knocked on the door of the apartment at the end of the hall, waited a few second, then knocked again. Come on, I know you’re awake in there. She looked at the peephole and smiled. Ouch. She waggled her fingers. She knocked again.

When the door opened, it was the man who answered it. Hard-faced. Suspicious. Defensive. Well, she couldn’t blame him. Ria forced herself to smile again. “I’m not here to complain,” she said. “Relax, okay? Really I’m not. My name is Ria and I live in 3B. I think I know a way to help.”

The man, who even sleepless and haggard looked closer to twenty than twenty-five, started to close the door. Ria opened her eyes in wide, honest appeal. “First babies are tough,” she said. “Believe me, everybody gets overwhelmed. You’re never sure you’re doing the right thing, are you, no matter how many pamphlets you read or parenting classes you take. And sometimes nothing you do works, right?”

The kid stopped closing the door. “My mother said to rub his belly,” he said. “Like this.” He made slow, gentle circles in the air.

“I’ve heard that one. And pat his back, rock him, take him for a drive if you have a damn car–”

“We don’t.”

“Yeah, well, neither do I.”

“The doctor says there’s nothing wrong.”

“Marto?” came a voice from inside the apartment. “Marto, who are you talking to?”

The man looked back over his shoulder. “A neighbor. It’s all right, Sija. She says she wants to help.”

Ria said, “I bet the doctor told you the baby would grow out of it.”

The man looked back at her. “Yeah.”

“Yeah. That’s what they always say. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying the baby won’t. Of course he will. But how long are you prepared to wait?”

“Marto? What’s going on?”

“I mean, how long can you stand it? And the baby’s suffering, too. Clearly. He wouldn’t be crying like that if something didn’t hurt.”

“It’s his stomach,” the man said. “Colic.”

“Very common,” Ria said, nodding. “Very common.”


“Sija, hold on a second.” To Ria, he said, “The doctor said to put a warm cloth on his belly.”

“Does it help?”

“Not really.”

“I know what he needs,” Ria said. “And what you need, too. And your wife.”

The man jumped aside as the door swung open wider. A young woman with blazing eyes and hair that looked like it hadn’t been washed for a week pushed past him and stuck her face into Ria’s. The girl was short and barefoot and smelled of used diapers. “Who the hell are you?” she said.

“Sija, please.”

The mother was always going to be the harder sell. You had to expect that. Ria made her face compassionate. “I think I know a way to help. What the baby needs.”

“Really? What does he need, then?”

“Sleep,” Ria said.

Marto took Sija’s arm. The girl scowled. “Sleep. Well, you’re a genius, aren’t you. Of course he needs sleep. The only time he’s quiet is when he’s asleep. But we are not drugging our baby.”

“Who said anything about drugs?” Ria kept her eyes wide, her face open and kind. Her tooth was killing her and the baby hadn’t stopped wailing for an instant, but she had the husband already three-quarters hooked. She just had to get the mother on board. “Only idiots do that. And you’re not an idiot. That’s plain to see. As I was telling Marto here, sometimes this just happens with babies. And they do grow out of it. Usually. Like in a few months. But wouldn’t it be better if your baby could sleep through the worst of it?”

“Sure, but…” Sija sounded uncertain now. “How?”

“May I come in?”

A crucial moment. They’d either let her in, or they’d slam the door in her face.

Smile, damn you, Ria told herself, and forced her lips to obey.

“I think it’s all right, Sija,” the man said. “I’ve seen her before. She does live in 3B.”

“I’ve seen her before, too.” Stepping back, Sija crossed her arms. “All right, then. Come in. But I swear, if you’re trying to pull something, you’re messing with the wrong people.”

“I just want to help.”

Sija went inside, and Marto nodded at Ria and opened the door wider for her. Ria nodded back, and entered as a guest would, murmuring, “Let this home know peace.”

Sija was standing in the middle of the front room, her back to them and her arms still crossed. In the back room, the baby bawled. Ria had a quick look at the furnishings. Not much–table, chairs, shelves. One picture on the wall, a print of the view from the bay. No electronics. A few paper books on one shelf. She wondered if they even had a phone.

“So,” Sija said. “How can you help?”

“You know Underpass Market.”

“We do,” Marto said.

“You know you can buy or sell anything there.”

Sija muttered something, but Marto just said, “Yes.”

“You can buy sleep,” Ria said. “You can buy an hour’s worth, two, ten. There are lots of people willing to sell their sleep. I don’t know why. I guess some people just like to stay awake. Now listen, I’m not talking about dreams or nightmares or anything like that. Simply sleep.”

“Do we look like we have money?” Sija said, her back still turned.

“We’ve never been to Underpass Market,” Marto said. Ria saw from his expression that the idea did appeal to him, but he was hesitant. “We wouldn’t know how…how to find a seller.”

“I have a contact,” Ria said.

“We don’t have any money,” Sija said loudly.

“We could ask my brother. Your brother. It’s for the baby, honey. They won’t say no.”

Sija turned around. “And what do you get out of it?” she asked Ria.

“Nothing,” Ria said, with all the innocence she could muster. “You won’t be dealing with me. I’ll set you up with my contact.” If the bastard ever called back. “You do the business with him.”

“What’s his name?”

“I only have a number. He’s a skinny little guy, short hair. He’s a–facilitator.” She gave a little shrug. “I’m sure he’ll take a cut. Everybody’s got to make a living. But I know him. I can vouch for him. You’ll get quality merchandise. I haven’t been disappointed yet.”

“You’ve done business with him?”


“But you don’t know his name.”

“Kid, that’s the way these people operate.”

“Sija,” Marco said. “I’ve heard of this. We can try it. Even if we buy only an hour or two. Nothing else is working.”

“I’m not asking my brother for more money.”

“Then I’ll ask mine.” Marto looked at Ria. “All right. Call this guy, this contact of yours.”

“Only if you’re both sure,” she said. Had to keep in character, had to play the part to the end. Doubts could still arise. Something could still go wrong.


“All right,” she said. “All right, goddamn it.”

Pride and stupidity. How could Ria have not recognized it? Sija was just like her, only younger and more ignorant. Ria should have known. Afterwards, she paced up and down her room, asking herself how she had failed to see it. And when the old lady with the broom whacked the ceiling, Ria just stomped down harder.

The skinny prick called back when Ria was still in Marto and Sija’s apartment. “Excuse me,” Ria said, and went out into the corridor. Eggshell walls and all, better to snatch hold of any speck of privacy one could. Besides, the baby’s shrieking would cover a lot of what she said, even if they had their ears pressed against the door.

The skinny dude was all apologetic about not getting back to her earlier–things had come up, she knew how it was. Yes, Ria thought, she certainly did. Briefly, she gave him the run down– incessantly crying baby, parents going out of their minds, would pay decently if not handsomely for some sleep. For the baby, she stressed. (The decently if not handsomely part she pulled out of her ass. Marto would get the money somehow, she figured.) The skinny dude said he understood exactly what was required and could provide it within the hour, if the cash was ready. The cash was in another location, Ria said. The daddy would meet him at Underpass Market at opening time, if that was convenient. By the south entrance, near the café. Did that work for him?

That worked for the skinny dude just fine.

“Now let’s talk about me,” Ria said.

“What about you?”

“My cut.”

“Hey, wait a minute.”

“Wait a minute, nothing. I brought you a client, so I get a cut. Business is business. And the dental school clinic ain’t free, you know. It’s cut-rate and all you get is first-years working on you, but they still charge.”

“Oh,” the skinny dude said. “That.” He paused, and there was a quality to his pause that made Ria decide to let it run its course. Her patience was rewarded. Eventually, he cleared his throat and said, “I was just about to tell you. I’ve got good news. The order has been doubled. We’ll take two months this time.”

He’d just pulled that out of his own narrow ass, but she wasn’t about to challenge him on it. “Great,” she said, in her best neutral tone. She pushed him on the matter of her cut a little more, just for form’s sake, but she knew that that second month was all she was getting.

When she went back into Marto and Sija’s apartment, she discovered that each of them had a phone, and each of them was in the middle of a conversation. She nodded at Marto and gave him the thumb’s up. “Thanks,” he said into the phone. “See you soon.”

“Very soon, I hope,” Ria said. “My contact will meet you at Underpass Market in a couple of hours.” She described the meeting place, and she described the skinny dude, and reminded Marto that names were not commonly used by his sort. “Bring as much cash or tradeables as you can. You’re allowed to haggle, but you’ve got to be smart enough to know when a final offer is a final offer. You think you can do that?”

“Yes,” he said. He looked at Sija, who was still on the phone. She had her head down, and was talking very fast.

“All right, then,” Ria said. “Looks like everything’s set, then. Good luck.”

“Thank you,” Marto said. “Thank you so much.”

Ria went back to her apartment. Her toothache disappeared a couple of hours after dawn. The money transfer would appear in her account in a week; she knew that from the previous times. So that was the rent for next month taken care of. And if she was smart, she’d take the rest and just go to the dental clinic already. She’d think about that after she got some sleep, she decided. Shortly after the toothache vanished, the baby stopped crying, and she breathed a long sigh of relief. It had all worked out. Everything was fine.

She slept until mid-afternoon. When she woke up, the baby was still quiet.

It was still quiet the next day. And the next.

On the fourth day, Marto knocked on her door.

You’ve got to be kidding me, Ria thought, but she opened up.

The young man looked very worried. “He won’t wake up. Not even for a minute. Not even to nurse.”

“For fuck’s sake, man, how much sleep did you buy?”

“I don’t know,” he said. “Sija went, not me.”

And that was when Ria began to suspect that her bright idea of selling the parents on buying sleep might in reality have been one more occasion on which she had been very, very stupid.

The mother. Resisting too much. Protesting too much. Talking rapidly on the phone after saying she wouldn’t ask anyone for money. The mother, home with the screaming baby all day, while the father probably got a few hours respite at work, or going around looking for work. She hadn’t seemed like she was at the end of her rope, but then some people’s ropes were shorter than others.

“This is not my fault,” Ria said.

“Please. You said you could help.”

She went back with him to his apartment. No real choice. If she’d shut her door on him, he would have just kept pounding on it until she opened it again. She was the nice lady, the friendly neighbor. The one who said she could help.

“It can’t be true that he hasn’t woken up to nurse. Not for four days. He’d be dead if that was so.”

“Sija says he hasn’t.”

Then Sija was a bloody liar.

Ria fervently hoped she was.

She was holding the baby when Ria and Marto came in. It was the first time Ria had seen the baby, if a glimpse of a blanket-wrapped bundle with a tiny bald head sticking out of one end counted as seeing a baby. Sija turned away as soon as they entered.

“How much goddamn sleep did you buy?” Ria shouted. “Fuck, even if you bought a lot, you didn’t have to use it all at once. Don’t you have any sense at all?”

“Get out of my home. I don’t want you here.”

“Sija,” Marto pleaded. “Please.”

“Your husband said the baby doesn’t wake up to nurse. Either that’s not true, or what you’re holding there is a dead infant. So which is it?”

“He’s quiet.”

“Girl, I will slap you. So help me, I will. You said you were the wrong people to mess with? Well, believe me, I’m much wronger than you. So tell the truth. Is it dead?”

“No,” Marto moaned. “No. He can’t be. Sija. Let me see him. I’m begging you.”

“He’s fine.”

“Do something,” Marto said to Ria. “Please.”

I’ve done a shitload more than enough, don’t you think? Ria thought, but the young man still saw her as a helpful, friendly, a person he could turn to. “If he’s really not nursing, you’re going to have to take him to a hospital.”

“He’s fine,” Sija repeated.

“Show us,” Ria said. “Look at your husband. He’s terrified. Don’t do this to him. Show us the baby. Prove that he’s all right.”

Marto made to move toward Sija, but Ria put her hand on his shoulder. It was going to kill him to see his son dead, a limp, dehydrated sack of bones. Marto was going to fall to bits. There was no rush to get to that moment.

This is all my fault, Ria thought. I should have seen it. Seen what was hiding inside the girl. Why didn’t I? Because of a stupid, damn toothache?

Or because I’m just like her? Me first, and the hell with everybody, anybody else. I couldn’t see it because I was blinded by my own reflection.

Of course the skinny dude would have sold her as much as she wanted, no questions asked. Business was business.

“There might still be time,” Ria said, not because she believed it. It was a ploy to get Sija to turn around.

Marto moved forward again, and this time Ria didn’t stop him. Me and my big ideas, she thought. Me and my middlemen. What was it, now? Don’t rent from family. Don’t do business with friends. And don’t ever trust a single goddamn person on the planet, including yourself.

Ria had never seen a dead baby before, not in real life, and she didn’t want to see one now, but she made herself stand there and watch. Punishment. Or rather the first stage of her punishment. Marto would figure it out eventually. Turn on her. Blame her. And he’d be right. He’d be ninety-nine percent right.

Pride and stupidity. Now Ria’s pride told her, You’re going to take what’s coming to you. When that boy gets it into his head that you were the cause of all this and starts beating the crap out of you, you’re not even going to raise your arms to defend yourself.

She hoped he wouldn’t kill her. Her life might not have been much, but she still would rather be alive than not. Pain was a different matter. She’d had a lot of it in her life. And the pain of a beating, the pain of broken bones, well, those could be sold, if you had contacts. Even if you didn’t, bruises and broken bones healed, sooner or later. A child’s death created an abyss of pain that you had to fill in a grain of sand at a time over decades; you never reached the point when the abyss was full. If you were lucky, you could make it navigable. You could walk around the edges. Even tip-toe gingerly over the narrower sections. But it would exist for the rest of your life. I hope I live, she thought. And I am as sure as shit glad that I’m not either one of these two.

“Sija,” Marto said softly.

“Stop fussing,” Sija said. “Everything’s all right.”

“Then why won’t you let me see him?”

He put her hands on her then, and Ria expected Sija to scream, to fight, to kick and elbow and run, but she let Marto take the bundle from her arms. Then Ria expected Marto to scream, drop to his knees, howl at the universe. Marto just stood, holding the bundle, breathing hard, then turned to her with an expression of relief. “He’s sleeping,” Marto said. “He’s just sleeping.”

Wishful thinking?

“Let me see.”

Ria couldn’t believe it until she’d checked for herself, but the baby was indeed alive. Its respirations were shallow and its face thin, but it had been recently bathed. “When was the last time you fed him?”

Sija shrugged.

“He wakes up to nurse. You lied to your husband about that.”

“No. He doesn’t really wake up. He suckles in his sleep.”

“You have to suckle him more. Do you understand? He won’t grow otherwise. He’ll die otherwise.”

Marto took the baby from Ria. “Can you wake him up?”

“Me? It was her that gave him all the sleep at once.”

“She made a mistake.”

Ria doubted that, but there was no point saying so to Marto. “How much sleep did you buy, anyway, Sija? Tell us.”

Sija just shrugged again.

“If you can buy sleep, then surely you can buy wakefulness,” Marto said.

“I’m sure you can.”

“Your contact. If you could call him again. Please. I promise I’ll go myself this time.”

And for a second, Ria was tempted. The skinny fuck would have to cut her in if she set him up with a second business opportunity. But then the dread she’d felt when she was certain the baby was dead returned, a hard slap to the conscience. Do not embrace stupidity again, she told herself sternly. Just this once, don’t be an arrogant idiot. “Bought wakefulness on top of bought sleep? That’s dangerous, son. That’s like throwing a ball of flame into a dry forest, and hoping for a campfire.”

“And this isn’t dangerous?”

“Of course it’s dangerous. Your baby needs to be fed regularly, kept hydrated–you could still take him to a hospital. They could give him IV fluids.”

“No,” Sija said. “I know how to take care of my son.”

“Honey,” Marto said.

“I know what I’m doing!” Sija shouted.

“No, you don’t,” Ria said. “You should, but you don’t. You think you do, but you don’t. He’s quiet, and that’s good, but he’s so quiet you forget to feed him sometimes, don’t you? You put him in his crib and leave him there for hours, isn’t that right?”

“No,” Marto said. “She wouldn’t. Sija, tell her. She wouldn’t, I swear.”

“How much sleep, Sija?” Ria asked again. “Tell us.”

“Six months.”

Marto gasped, then looked at Ria in horror. “That’s not possible.”

Of course it was possible. Ria had just been the middleman to a middleman, but she could imagine a dozen different scenarios. The sleep didn’t all have to come from one person, for example. But the most likely one… “My contact. That skinny guy. You made the deal with him, right?”

Sija nodded.

“It’s an old man’s sleep, isn’t it? Or an old woman’s.”

“An old man’s. Your contact said the old man was selling his sleep because he wanted to spend as much of the time that he had left awake.”

“What did that cost?” Marto demanded. “Where did you get the money?”

Sija looked away.

It didn’t really matter. There were a whole hell of a lot of ways to get money–or tradeables–when you really, really wanted to.

Suddenly Marto said, “But people die without sleep. Don’t they?”

“They do,” Ria said.

“Sija, you really gave the baby six months of sleep all at once? All six months?”

She had. Ria could see it in her face.

Apparently Marto could, too. “Take it back,” he said.

“I can’t.”

“Sija, you’re going to kill that old man. And the baby? Asleep for six months? How is he going to learn to sit up, to crawl, to do anything?”

Ria said, “I think once it is done, all poured out, if you like, you can’t…pour it back. They must have told you how to use it. Drop by drop, right?”

“It was heavy,” Sija said. “It was like a sack of bricks that I had to carry inside my head. I couldn’t hold them all.”

“What are we going to do?” Marto said. He looked at Ria with desperation. “There has to be something we can do.”

“You’re going to have to make sure she feeds the baby enough. And I guess you should move its arms and legs around, you know. So the muscles don’t waste away.” Guess being the big word there.

“That’s not what I meant. I meant to change this.”

“Sometimes you can change things. Lots of times, you can’t.”

“But you…” Marco said.

Here it comes, Ria thought. At least he’s still holding the baby. He probably won’t try to kill me until he puts it down.

“I’m sorry,” she said. “I know. None of this would have happened if I hadn’t suggested buying sleep. It’s my fault. But I can’t change what’s been done, and I don’t know anyone who can.”

“It’s not your fault,” Marto said, which was the last thing Ria expected to come out of his mouth. “I should have gone to Underpass Market, not Sija. You heard her. It was too heavy for her. I should have been carrying it instead.”

Dear fuck, he wasn’t going to blame the girl, either? Ria felt a touch of awe. Could it be that she was actually standing in the presence of a nice guy?

More likely, he was just an idiot like everybody else. But if that was what was keeping him from bashing her brains in, then more power to stupidity.

“Wait a minute,” Marto said. “What happens when the old man dies? How long can you live without sleep, anyway?”

“I don’t know. Not months.”

“But what happens? If he dies–when he dies–what happens?” He gazed down at the baby.

Ria shook her head. “I know what you’re thinking. But the old man, whoever he was, he already sold it. It’s like–like you sell your car. You could drop dead the next day, but the car’s still sold.”

“It can’t work like that,” Marto said. “It makes no sense.”

Right, like so much in life did.

And Sija, the little bitch, smiled and said, “Six months is not that long.”

Marto didn’t get angry, even at that. “Why don’t you go rest now, sweetheart. Go lie down for a while, all right?”

Nice guy. Idiot. Maybe they were the same thing.

But when Sija had gone into the back room, Marto turned to Ria, and there was a different look in his eyes.

“We need to do some more business. Concerning sleep.”


“For the old man. So he doesn’t die. You have to call your contact. You have to explain what happened. We have to find the old man, and get him enough sleep so–so what we did doesn’t kill him.”

“How are you going to pay?”

“I’ll give him some of mine. And so will you. A couple of hours each, every day. That’ll do, won’t it?”

Ria looked at him for a long time. “All right. But there’ll still be a commission.”

“Your skinny guy?”


“Yeah. Nothing for nothing, even when lives are at stake. Don’t you hate this world?”

“Often,” Ria murmured.

“Commission. All right. Everybody says you can buy or sell anything at Underpass Market.”

“I’d agree with that,” Ria said.

“Then we’ll figure out a way to pay the commission.” He paused. “Sija must have done that. To pay for so much sleep, I mean.”

“I wouldn’t know,” Ria said.

“I love my wife. And I love our baby more than you can imagine. Sija made a mistake. I can forgive that. But I’ll never forgive myself if I let that old man die.”

“I’ll call my contact now,” Ria said. “Meanwhile, go see if you can get Sija to nurse the baby. She should do it every couple of hours, I think.”

“You’re going to help me with that, too,” Marto said. “Some days I pull twelve-hour shifts. So when I’m not here, you’re going to be.” A touch of steel in his voice.

Pride and stupidity had gotten her into this, as it had her into so many messes before. Time to change the pattern, she thought. To one of responsibility and duty. It might even be good for her.

And six months wasn’t really that long a stretch. It was going to be hell when her toothache came back, but she’d put up with it.

Six months without running away, ditching her clan-uncle’s shabby, slapped-together building and heading for the coast. What would she do there, anyway? Same stupid things she did in the city, probably.

“Yes,” she said. “I will.”

She took the phone out of her pocket. The battery was almost dead, but there was enough juice left to make a call and leave a message. She knew what to say. She’d had a lot of practice.

Within half an hour, she and Marto were on their way to Underpass Market. The skinny dude was waiting just where he said he’d be, with a big smile on his face.


Copyright 2015 Patricia Russo



by A.S. Diev

No retrospective of New Gonzo journalism would be complete without this well-known early example, a piece that saved the career of the woman who defined the genre. We reprint it here as it first appeared in the October 2027 issue of Crunch magazine.


At 7 a.m. on a bright Thursday morning last June, in the Mexican border town of Nuevo Laredo, 40-year-old Carlos Flores completed a week of double shifts at the shoe factory where he sometimes worked. He drove his rusted, powder blue Ford pickup a quarter mile through cinderblock neighborhoods to the Diosa Del Amor liquor store. There he purchased a carton of smokes, a 12-pack of beer, and a half pint of vodka. According to the police report, he drank one of the beers and all of the vodka while driving home. He pulled into the Rio Vista trailer park and waved to little Esperanza Delgado, who was walking along the dirt street in her school uniform and backpack.

As Carlos parked the truck in front of his trailer and climbed out, he heard the familiar sound of a herd approaching–the random bellowing of the cows, the turbine roar of the rancher’s engine. He looked up and saw a herd of about 30, moving at a good clip. Some were spotted, some a solid brown. A single, jet-black longhorn bull was flying in the lead.

They were so low in the morning sky that Carlos could see the lead bull’s dangling pizzle, the swinging udders of the cows, the sunglasses and white Stetson of the driver in a bright red air skiff behind them. The massive wings of the cattle pumped up and down in heavy, emphatic rhythms. Their legs jerked with each beat, kicking uselessly at the empty air beneath them. Each leathery wingstroke was a lunge upward, clawing at the air to climb a few feet, buying a little time in which to lift the heavy wings for the next cycle. From behind them Carlos heard country music playing on the skiff’s radio, cranked loud enough to be heard over the engine.

It had been a long week for Carlos, and the vodka was starting to loosen him up. He later explained to the police that he had worked too many hours and was just tired–of the grinding factory work, the petty supervisors, the low wages, the chronic debt. He was tired of American country music. And he was especially tired of cattle flying overhead, raining urine and feces onto the tin roofs and dirt yards of his trailer park as they flew northward and over the wall to the United States.

On impulse, he reached into the truck for his old U.S. Army surplus Springfield .30-06. It’s a bolt-action rifle, meaning that you have to take your hand off the trigger and slide a lever back and forth to load each bullet into the chamber. With a weapon like that, shooting wildly into the air without taking time to aim, you can fire three rounds in about five seconds. That’s how long it took Carlos to come to his senses.

“I didn’t mean to kill,” he told me when I interviewed him for this article. “I’m not a killer.” He says it a lot, like a mantra or an uncontrollable verbal tic, and when he says it he looks as though he is about to cry or vomit.

I asked him how he had felt in that life-changing moment.

“At first I felt happy, as light as air,” he said, “as if I could fly too. I didn’t mean to hit anything. I was just blowing off steam.”

One shot disappeared into the sky and was never accounted for. A second shot lodged in a cow’s leg near the hip–the sirloin, if you’re a chef–and the cow bawled in pain but managed to keep flying.

Another cow was not as lucky. The final shot pierced its thirteenth rib–the short rib, if you’re a butcher–traversed the lung, rebounded from the third thoracic vertebra, and severed an artery before sliding to a hot stop in the cow’s windpipe.

“I think it tried to scream,” Carlos told me through a hole in the plexiglass, sweating in the visitation area a few days before his trial. “But it couldn’t. And it couldn’t fly, either. It thrashed its wings, but was choking on the bullet and drowning in its own blood.”

The official report from the medical examiner states that the cow was still alive as it tumbled mutely out of the sky. If it could have remained aloft, it would have bled to death within a minute or two. But instead, its painful last moments were cut short when it landed on the one thing moving in Rio Vista trailer park at 7:30 that morning–small, pretty Esperanza Delgado, in her plaid skirt and backpack, on her morning walk to school.


Six weeks later, I answered an audio call at home and smiled at a familiar-sounding male voice.

“I’m looking for a writer who speaks Spanish, likes to travel, and isn’t super picky about, you know, jobs.”

“Speaking,” I said. Then I recognized the voice, and my smile faded.

“Attagirl,” he said. “Listen, there’s a murder trial next week in Mexico. It could turn out to be interesting, but we’re short-handed and can’t cover it. Someone suggested sending you down there. We have space for up to eight thousand words, if you can find a story in it. We can front you some expense money. But it has to be a real story.”

I wasn’t sure I ever wanted to work with Crunch again, even if I was getting desperate. And what I needed was a staff job at a real news outfit like CNN or AltNet, not a freelance assignment for a pop music monthly. But the only other call I’d had that week was from American Express. As soon as he mentioned expense money, all I heard was dollar signs.

“A real story,” he said again, or something like that.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned as a journalist, it’s that money makes things happen. The first thing that happened was that I told him I’d do it. The next thing was that I paid my rent and threw some money to the attack dogs at MasterCard. And then I bought myself a plane ticket to Laredo.

Before I left town, the money also arranged me an exclusive private meeting with Carlos Flores in prison. I’ll spare you the details, but a friend from my Wellesley days works at a Texas paper now, and she had a contact in the Zeta cartel who was able to set it up. After a brief exchange, an anonymous email instructed me to show up at the prison carrying a paper copy of Crunch with twenty 500-peso notes tucked into its pages.

So two days later in Nuevo Laredo, feeling very Brenda Starr, I arrived at the prison and cable-locked my rented Vespa to a meter in the visitor’s lot.

The Centro de Ejecución de Sanciones, or CEDES, is a tan-painted brick complex that occupies several city blocks, completely surrounded by a high chain-link fence topped with razor wire. At the gate, I showed the guard my Crunch credentials and California driver’s license, and he looked at me in surprise.

“A woman.” He frowned disapprovingly but waved me through to the visitor entrance.

I was met in the lobby by a pot-bellied guard with shiny black hair who had been told to expect a visitor. He relieved me of my magazine as well as half of the cigarettes I had brought for Flores, then walked me past the assorted visitors sitting in the plastic chairs of the waiting area. When we got to his work area, behind the information counter, he dropped his bribes on the desk.

Beside the office, near the entry to the prisoner area, stood the familiar frame of a low-res security scanner, the same model you see at convenience stores and nursery schools. I started to step in, but he shook his head.

“It’s broken,” he said. “I’ll need you to raise your arms above your head.”

“The lights are on,” I observed. “It looks okay.”

“Looks can be deceiving,” he replied with a shrug. “We can call this off if you prefer.”

I raised my arms and tried to think of Nellie Bly.

The frisking was thorough but inefficient. His breath reeked of cigars, fish tacos, and old cavities, and I squinted and looked away. I had imagined something like this, a show of power combined with cheap sexual bullying, but it was somehow worse when done in full view of the visitor’s area. A small, gray-haired woman with a leathery brown face and thin mustache observed the entire search, her gleaming black eyes watching without expression. I was glad to have an ally, if that’s what she was, but something unreadable in the depths of those dark eyes made me shiver.

This drew an appreciative chuckle from the guard.

“It would be better if this were done by a female guard in a private room,” he said, almost sympathetically. “But some of the guards were given the afternoon off. You understand how it is.”

When he was satisfied that I had no drugs or weapons–even extremely tiny ones–he handed me a pamphlet about how to survive my visit. Then, before I could open it, he led me through a portal of sliding steel bars that locked us in with a heavy click.

For a few minutes I chugged busily along behind him, clutching his pamphlet, my tablet, and the remaining carton of cigarettes, on some not-quite-sensible Kate Spade pumps I’d bought that morning because they matched the Vespa. Eventually he deposited me in a fluorescently-lit cinderblock room that someone had decorated with dirty linoleum, chipped Formica, and layers of green paint. I settled into a sticky plastic chair and switched on my tablet. For better or worse I had managed to get in. Now the problem was to find a story.

Through a thick plexiglass partition I watched a metal door swing open in an adjacent room. A guard escorted a small, sweating man through the doorway to a seat behind the plexiglass. Except for the fluorescent sheen and the dark circles, he looked just like his newspaper photos. I took a deep breath of the stale air and tried to smile.

“I didn’t mean to kill her,” Carlos said through the partition, before the guard had even gotten out the door. “I’m not a killer.”

I nodded to show that I believed him.

“Sometimes I drink too much,” he said.

I nodded again.

“And I was tired.”

He looked tired sitting there, too, like he hadn’t slept in weeks. Tired and scared, I realized. I had been worried about getting him to talk, but he was so glad to have company that he chattered non-stop until our half hour was up. I needn’t have bothered to bring the cigarettes.

Orphaned by a factory fire at age ten, Flores had grown up in foster homes and institutions. Soon after high school, he escaped the factories of Juarez by following a girlfriend to Nuevo Laredo, where he’d been working in factories ever since. Over the years he’d done a little jail time for the kinds of things people do when they drink too much–writing bad checks, playing loud music, resisting arrest. But he didn’t strike me as a killer, or even an angry drunk. Just a stereotype.

He had a girlfriend who sounded like another kind of stereotype.

“Her name is Maria,” he told me. “She’s the only good thing that ever happened to me.” Maria had been with him for years, putting up with his occasional gambling, sporadic infidelity, and steady drinking. In his eyes, this made her a saint.

“I’ve had no way to reach her since I was arrested,” he said. “She works in the fields, sometimes for weeks at a time. I never know when she will be at home. If you can find her, tell her that I love her, and I’m sorry. Tell her I’m not a killer.” He looked earnestly at me. “Can you remember all that?”

I made a note in my pad, more for his benefit than for mine. “Where would I find her?”

“If she’s not at my trailer, then I don’t know,” he replied miserably. “She’s a beewalker, and she’s usually working at one of the ranches. But if you see her, please tell her.”

In Carlos Flores’s mind, his entire life had been a series of lousy deals, and the accidental death of Esperanza Delgado was just the latest bum draw. Something unlucky had happened to him. It could’ve happened to anybody. He clearly felt bad for the girl and her family, but you could see that he knew his life would never be the same. His fear of what lay ahead left little room for any other thought.

We were running out of time, and I still didn’t have what anyone would call a real story. I used my tablet to snap a few pictures of the perspiring man behind the safety glass, and asked him about the trial. What did he think of the public defender who had been assigned to his case?

“He seems like a good man,” Flores said, as if trying to convince himself. “But he doesn’t have a plan, and I don’t think he can help me. I don’t think anyone can.”

“It looks bad for you,” I agreed. “You destroyed the property of one of the world’s most powerful men. He can’t let you get away with it. He, or the Consortium, will have to make an example of you.”

Carlos nodded. “I know. I’m an idiot. I wish I had never shot those cows.”

But as he said it, something unexpected happened. It was quick but unmistakable. For the briefest fraction of a second, despite all his remorse and fear, Carlos Flores couldn’t hold back a smile.

I made a note.


There are now almost a dozen herds of flying cattle in the world. The herd in this case–or the murder weapon, if you’re the prosecuting attorney–belonged to Big Bill Benjamin. A Wall Street Journal profile of Big Bill last year described him as (in this order) All-American wide receiver at Baylor, youngest CEO of a publicly-held energy company, and “spiritual leader of the new-energy brat pack known as the Consortium.”

The Consortium, of course, is the investment group that revolutionized energy and transportation with the development of the powerful, expensive new woven-carbon mesh fuels. Mesh is to gas, the ads say, as gas is to dinosaurs. The Consortium’s mega-rich members have since become famous for their flamboyant displays of wealth. Prominent among these was the sinking of millions of dollars of their own personal money into the development of flying cows–because, and here I’m quoting the Journal again, “we could.”

Although the Consortium is headquartered in Dallas, the actual genetic and surgical work of creating the flying bovines was done at a Consortium lab near Nuevo Laredo. You might expect advanced biomedical experiments to be done at an American university, but in Mexico there are fewer animal rights activists, and fewer obstacles to things like vivisection and unregistered genetic modifications.

I didn’t really expect to get any quotes from Benjamin on that subject, or any other, but I wanted to at least say in the article that he declined to comment. To do that, of course, you have to call and ask. So I did. And to my surprise, after an hour’s work I found myself talking to his secretary.

In the monitor she looked expensively dressed and perfectly groomed, in a very Southern and professional way, and I wished I had spent some time spiffing up before the call. I explained that I was in town to cover the trial, and held my old Crunch credentials up to the screen. She peered at the badge as I smiled and tried to look like my photo.

“Isn’t Crunch a rock-and-roll magazine?”

I nodded. “Yes, they are. I mean, we are. I mean, yes, it is.”

“Then why does your little card-thing say ‘Fashion Editor’? Do they have a fashion department?”

I hadn’t used the badge since I actually worked at Crunch, so I’d forgotten about that little bit of cleverness.

“Oh, that.” I tucked the badge back in my purse. “It’s just a title they gave me, sort of an inside joke. It doesn’t mean anything.”

She looked doubtful.

“Actually,” I volunteered, “years ago we had a very popular sports editor who mostly wrote about politics. It’s only a–”

“Are you here to write about politics?”

I laughed at the idea before I could stop myself. “No, ma’am. I’m really not a political person. At all. I’m just here to cover the trial.”

She started to give me a well-practiced brush-off, but a voice interrupted her and she looked off-screen. I heard a man speaking to her, his voice too low for me to make out the words.

“Seriously?” she said. The man said something I couldn’t decipher.

She frowned and said, “But she’s not even a real–“, and the male voice cut her off again. She shrugged and turned back to smile professionally at me through the monitor.

Big Bill would agree to an interview, she told me, on one condition. I must meet him at his ranch, south of Nuevo Laredo, and join him for an early evening ride with his herd. Before she could change her mind, I accepted her offer, signed off the call, and hopped on the Vespa to find a decent pair of cowboy boots.

The heat of the day was breaking when I arrived at the ranch. The secretary–just as chic, seamless, and intimidating in person as she had been on the monitor–met me out front. We walked around the large ranch house and past some low outbuildings to a fenced-in acre of packed dirt. As we rounded the corner of a dusty aluminum tack shed, I saw a sleek red turbo air skiff parked next to a mesh pump. The little skyboat looked too trim to carry enough gasoline to fly for more than a few minutes, but could probably zip around for hours on the much more highly-processed mesh fuel. I mentally estimated how much it would cost to fly a craft like that, in paychecks per hour, and tried to imagine being wealthy enough to use it for herding cows. As a hobby. And wondered why anyone would even want to.

Then I saw them for the first time. A few dozen of them stood in the corral, the animals that The New Yorker once called “the Frankenholsteins.” Of course, real Holsteins are spotted black and white, and some of these were, too. And I must say, there’s something funny and very friendly about cows with spotted wings. But most of these creatures were just cows of the plain brown variety. With wings. Huge, colossal, muscular wings that arched and twitched in anticipation of flight as the beasts paced restlessly around the yard making, you know, cow noises.

A hundred questions occurred to me at once. The one that popped out was the most obvious: “Why don’t they fly away?”

My escort shrugged without slowing down. “We think it’s a herd instinct. Or maybe it just doesn’t occur to them.”

Big Bill Benjamin stowed a cooler on the air skiff and turned to walk toward us as we approached. He as large as his name suggested, with big shoulders and a strong handshake. He appraised me from head to boots with the quick glance of an auctioneer and advised me to “just try to stay in the boat until we can get this show off the ground.” I looked for reassurance at the secretary, who nodded and made a dismissive gesture, shooing me toward a leather seat at the aft end of the skyboat. She walked away as I climbed aboard.

It took him a lot of shouting and running around the yard, plus some loud blasts from an air horn, to get the first animal into the air. The next few were easier to convince. Presently the entire herd was aloft, and Big Bill leaped into the idling skiff. He goosed the throttle, and with a sexy turbine roar we went up to meet them.

The herd slowly climbed to cruising altitude, and Bill gradually adjusted their course until the late-afternoon sun settled on our right. He guided his little flock with a lot of nerve-wracking skiff maneuvers, an occasional horn blast, and a steady stream of unembarrassed cursing. As pep talks go, I did not find it particularly elevating, but it seemed to have an uplifting effect on the cows.

Most of them seemed to struggle at flying, fighting for altitude like big-footed puppies trying to lunge out of a bathtub. But a few seemed to genuinely enjoy it. My eyes were drawn to one large black bull, its massive wings rising powerfully from its rippling back, that quickly established a dominant position at the front of the herd. It flew more easily and masterfully than the others, and was even able to coast a little from time to time.

“That’s Goliath. Isn’t he beautiful?”

Big Bill reached into the cooler, handed me a sweating bottle of Michelob, and started explaining why we were herding cattle through the Mexican sky in a flying boat.

“You have to understand what these things are, what they mean,” he said, taking a long pull on the beer.

“I always wanted to be a cowboy and go on one of the great cattle drives, but I was born in the wrong century. There are too many fences now, and packs of modified dogs guarding the border. You can’t herd cattle over the land for any distance. And if you could, you wouldn’t find any water.

“But one day, driving past the border fence, I had a crazy idea about cows that could jump over it. I found a few investors, and we hired some engineers and microscope jockeys to look into it. It took five years, and cost more than any of us will admit, but we pulled it off. We broke the goddamn laws of nature, bent her to our will, and created something new.”

He gestured at the herd with his beer bottle. “Look at those beauties. I can’t believe people make fun of them, or would ever want to shoot one. I know they’re ridiculous–maybe even ugly–but they’re ugly and ridiculous in a big, beautiful, badass way. They’re like Mount Rushmore or the Hoover Dam. The fact of their existence says that anything is possible–that a man can set his eyes on a goal, no matter how insane, and make it happen. Force it to happen. That’s the attitude that made America great–the attitude of explorers and cowboys, Rockefellers and Fords. It says that we will not only survive, but we will forge our own destiny.

“I built flying cows, damn it, the biggest living things in the air. I own them, and they serve me. They represent the triumph of the human will.”

He tossed his empty bottle over the side and reached into the cooler with a look in my direction.

“No, thanks, I’m fine,” I told him, showing him my half-full bottle, but he handed me another anyway. I stowed it in an unoccupied beverage holder in the arm of the plush leather seat.

An air skiff is usually a dirty, stripped-down, casual affair, more or less like an anorexic hovercraft or a Florida swamp boat with multiple downward-facing widemouth turbines. There’s a good chance of the boat tipping over and flying directly into the ground, and an equal chance of a passenger getting sucked into a turbine and, well, mistified. It’s the most dangerous and uncomfortable form of transportation in the world, with the possible exception of going over Niagara Falls in a barrel of dynamite. But Big Bill’s cherry red air skiff was in a class of its own, as if a hot little speedboat got drunk one night at an Air Force party, and nine months later, out popped this beautiful skyboat–fast, curvy, and hopelessly addicted to jet-quality carbon mesh.

Impatient with the plodding herd, he dropped her down to the cracked desert floor for a little exercise. We skimmed across the flats, racing past long evening shadows dotted here and there with startled ground squirrels. A few times the boat clipped the top of a tall cactus, and the wet smell of bruised succulent mingled briefly with the powdery incense of desert sage. We discovered an arroyo winding across the desert floor, and then nothing would do but to fly along its rambling path playing Star Wars, several times nearly hitting a rock wall. Bill, obviously enjoying himself, shared his personal observation that flying close to the ground provides a more visceral sense of speed. I wholeheartedly agreed, and drank the second beer to relax my viscera.

As I finished it, we neared a small settlement outside any obvious reach of municipal power, sewer, or police protection. It was an impromptu slum of plywood and corrugated metal, vaguely reminiscent of the decor of big-chain Mexican restaurants in the States. Big Bill swooped down so low that he almost grazed a tin roof, and an old man ran out from under it and glared up into our exhaust. I waved at him over the back of the boat as Bill started speaking again.

“We really did break the laws of nature, you know. Those babies were a mess to engineer, and they’re even more of a mess to maintain. Flying takes a lot more energy than walking, so you can’t just feed ’em grass. You have to feed ’em oats, alfalfa, and clover. Craploads of clover. And clover won’t grow without bees to pollinate it, so we have to bring in beewalkers.

“On top of that, clover is a legume, like beans, so it gives the cows gas. Gas! The damn things fart like cheerleaders, all night and day. If you give ’em too much clover, too rich of a mix, they get bloated–they literally fill up with gas and get round as a basketball. When that happens, you have to poke ’em to let the air out before their guts burst and they bleed to death. We lost a few before we figured it out.”

He smiled sideways at me as he finished his bottle. The look conveyed a real pride in his accomplishment, a winking appreciation of his earthy humor, and, I realized, a powerful affection for his muscular 2,000-pound flying lab rats.

I was feeling very mellow from a combination of the beers, the stories, the leather cushions, and the surprising beauty of a herd of cows flying in silhouette across a sinking red sun. It must be a principle of human nature that from a high enough altitude everything looks all right. I grabbed my pad to snap a few photos and made a note for the article: “One thing becomes very clear when you’re sailing over the Mexican desert in a yar little skyboat, drinking beers with a Texas billionaire. Flying cows are awesome. Nobody should shoot these things. People should worship them.” I tossed my empty brown beer bottle over the side and smiled at Big Bill.

He squinted into the setting sun and pointed at the herd. “Those cows are my babies. You understand?”

I nodded encouragingly and he continued, his voice getting lower, so I had to lean forward to hear him.

“Let me share something with you, honey.” He put his hand on my knee and I nodded again to show that he had my complete attention.

“Nobody crosses the Consortium.”

He gave my knee a little squeeze.

“Nobody crosses Big Bill Benjamin.”

He gave the knee a shake and showed me his strong white teeth. His voice was sharp and intimate, like a blade against a throat.

“And no pissant little Mexican factory drone is going to kill my cow and get away with it.”

He released his grip on me and leaned broadly back into the pilot’s seat.

“Oh,” I said. I brushed hair out of my eyes and blinked into the dry wind. Over the port bow I watched the cows struggling slowly across the sky, climbing and falling in the desert sunset. A series of black dots dropped away beneath one as it labored, its silhouette legs kicking helplessly at the air. I made another note: “Tonight I saw Mount Rushmore take a dump.”

Back at the motel that night, standing for a long time in a steaming hot shower, I noticed I was humming a folk song I had learned as a child. “Speed, bonnie boat, like a bird on the wing–onward, the sailors cry. Carry the lad who’s born to be king, over the sea to Skye.”

The Skye Boat Song, as it’s known, was inspired by a Scottish revolt against British rule, centuries ago. When I was a child, I loved that song, and because it was so pretty I was sad to learn that the revolt had failed.


The Mexican city of Nuevo Laredo sits just across the border from Laredo, Texas. Their combined metropolitan area is home to three-quarters of a million souls. The once-proud Rio Grande flows through it, reduced to a weak trickle after running a gauntlet of dams, canals, reservoirs, algae farms, and frack sites from Colorado to Texas. The local economy is fed by the maquiladoras–factories in a duty-free zone that use Mexican labor to assemble American products without paying import or export taxes. There, as along most of the border, a big slice of everything good ends up belonging to American corporations, or Los Zetas, or both. Life is not especially easy for the people of Nuevo Laredo.

But I’ll say this for them: they know how to put on a show, and they outdid themselves at the trial.

It began with a series of skirmishes over whether Carlos could get a fair trial in Nuevo Laredo at all. Then there was a prolonged bout of jury selection. That was followed by two judges recusing themselves, citing vague concerns about health and family. All of that just to get a court, judge, and jury. When we finally heard the opening arguments, they were almost anti-climactic.

It was obvious from the start that the prosecution had the advantage. There was no question that Carlos had shot the cow–he apologized for it to anyone who would listen–and everyone agreed that Esperanza had been crushed to death when the cow landed on her. This much could have been established in the first hour of the trial, but the press was in the gallery and careers were being made, so it took most of three days and required five expert witnesses.

In case the jury didn’t understand the law, we heard testimony on the legal definition of robo de ganado (cattle-rustling, a felony), and were instructed that if someone is killed in the commission of a felony (such as robo de ganado, we were reminded) the law calls it felony murder.

And to keep things from getting too clinical, we were shown photos of the beautiful little girl, Esperanza, and heard tearful testimony from her parents, her babysitter, and her teacher at Saint Ursula Academy. We even heard from the priest who had baptized her, listened to her confessions, and been preparing her for her first Holy Communion. I have to admit that it was moving, and I felt terrible for the family. But it merely charged up the jury without having any bearing at all on Carlos’s guilt or innocence. Why didn’t someone object?

It was no secret that, before the trial began, there had been a bitter struggle at the Tamaulipas state public defender’s office over who would defend Carlos. The loser, Carlos’s attorney, was a thin, nervous young man with a small chin and large nose in an oversized polyester-blend suit. During all this testimony he made careful notes, but after each witness he declined to ask any questions. I began to wonder if he had any strategy at all.

On the fourth day of the trial, the prosecution was wrapping things up. As the final condition of the case for felony murder, it was necessary to prove that the girl’s death was a foreseeable consequence of the alleged cattle-rustling. For this, the prosecution produced a university physics professor who testified about the mass of the cow and the force with which it had fallen on the girl–in foot-pounds, kilojoules, and patronizing metaphors.

When the prosecutor had finished with the physicist, Carlos’s attorney slowly rose and cleared his throat.

“Your honor, I would like to question this witness.”

“I’m glad to hear it,” said the judge. “Please proceed.”

In a nervous voice, the thin public defender began asking simple, almost random questions about the effect of the wind, the drag created by the cow’s wings, and so on. Then he asked, “And how did you calculate the speed of the cow’s descent?”

“Well,” the physics professor explained, “the animals are worth a lot of money–several hundred thousand U.S. dollars apiece. So each cow has a tracking device embedded in its neck that transmits very precise location data. That’s how I know.”

“Precise data?”

“Yes, very precise.” The professor nodded.

“You can tell how fast the cow was going, and how high it was flying?”

The witness looked annoyed. “Mmm, yes, that’s what I said. My calculation of force was based on the recorded airspeed of 16 knots and an altitude of 100 meters.”

“One hundred meters,” repeated the defense attorney, like an idiot. “300 feet.”

“Yes. It’s beyond question. The devices are completely reliable, and I tested this one myself. There is absolutely no doubt in my mind.”

The defense attorney was looking a little shiny, and I realized he was sweating in that baggy suit. He closed his eyes and took a breath, as if in prayer. Then he turned to the judge and made his play.

“May it please the court, based on this testimony I would like to move for an immediate dismissal of all charges against my client.”

He paused to give people time to gasp–to his credit, a few actually did–before he continued.

“Your honor, the Mexican air authority has very clear regulations on the altitude of aircraft in flight. I quote: ‘Except when necessary for takeoff and landing, no person may operate an aircraft over any congested area at an altitude of less than 300 meters above the nearest vertical obstacle, or closer than 200 meters to any person, vessel, vehicle, or structure.’

“Since the cattle and Señor Benjamin’s skyboat were flying too low, and too close to buildings and people, the cows and driver were trespassing and posed a clear danger. It is no different than the case of someone driving cattle right through the trailer park. Señor Flores is not guilty of robo de ganado or any other crime. He was acting in self-defense.”

As his speech went on, the young lawyer warmed to his topic and even waved his arm a few times for emphasis.

“Furthermore, the danger of illegally flying so close was more foreseeable than the danger of shooting warning shots into the sky in self-defense. Thus the legal responsibility for the little girl’s death falls on the driver, Señor Bill Benjamin.”

“And so, your honor, I ask that you dismiss all charges against my client and order the arrest of Señor Benjamin on charges of criminal trespass, reckless endangerment, violation of civil airspace–”

He took a breath and turned to face the jury.

“–and felony murder.”

I have to admit I was impressed. For a moment the room was completely silent. Then someone in the gallery gave a low whistle, and near the back of the room an elderly woman with a small chin and prominent nose applauded for a few seconds, to the obvious mortification of the public defender. This caused the Fox cameraman sitting next to me to start snickering, and it took a couple of hard jabs with my elbow to shut him up. The judge’s eyes closed for a long moment as if in pain, and people started murmuring. The gavel banged down a few times, and the judge leaned forward to speak into his microphone in a low, sober tone.

“Bailiff, return the prisoner to holding. Lawyers, I will see you in my chambers. We’ll need to talk about this.

“That’s all for today, good people. The court is adjourned until ten o’clock tomorrow morning.”

He banged the gavel again, and then it was hard to see or hear over the excited crowd. Everyone was talking and moving in all directions at once. I caught glimpses of the sweating, smiling public defender shaking hands, and the uniformed officers escorting a dazed Carlos from the room in handcuffs. He blinked at the locals who reached out to touch him as he passed.

I’m not the largest or pushiest person I know. By the time I struggled out into the bright Mexican afternoon, other reporters had already picked over the crowd. All the experts, from ballistics to babysitting, had cameras and microphones in their faces, leaving no obvious players for me to interview. Journalism is a tough racket, and there’s no room for the slow. You always have to plan two moves ahead, and if you’re snoozing, you’re losing.

I walked away from the crowd, out to the farthest corner of the parking lot, and leaned against a rusted powder blue Ford pickup I had spotted on the way in.


I didn’t have to wait long until she appeared, a small woman hiding in a big hat and sunglasses. She was younger than I had anticipated, and prettier. I showed her my Crunch press card.

“Hello, Maria,” I said in Spanish. “I have a message from Carlos. Do you have some time to talk?”

Her shoulders slumped, confirming my guess that she had been hoping to avoid reporters. She sighed, then pressed her lips together and nodded. “But we have to go see my babies,” she said. “They’ve been working all day without me.”

We loaded the Vespa onto the back of the Ford and headed away from the crowded courthouse square.

Our first stop was the trailer she sometimes shared with Carlos. It looked a lot like any trailer from back home in the States–shag carpet, faux paneling, printed photos of Maria’s family, a couch, a La-Z-Boy, a big Sony entertainer. An avocado Frigidaire contained a Tupperware full of mold, some Heinz ketchup, and eleven bottles of Bud. I was debating the ethics of snapping some pictures when Maria reappeared, transformed into a border-town cliché–a yellow Disney princess t-shirt, faded Levi’s cutoffs, and Nikes. The hat was gone and she had tied her black hair with a well-worn yellow bandanna, Rosie-the-Riveter style.

She was working that week at one of the Consortium ranches in the foothills south of town, near the Benjamin ranch. Most of the 20-minute drive passed in dusty, bumpy silence. We left the truck parked under an olive tree and started across a surprisingly green field.

“It’s irrigated,” she explained, and pointed to an underfed trickle of a stream, not far away. “Diverted from the Rio Grande.”

To get her talking, I asked about her work, trying to convince her that Crunch readers would be very interested in bees. I couldn’t tell if she believed me, but it was enough to get her started.

“I knew Carlos would not support us,” she told me, “so I had to find work. I had three choices: the maquiladoras, the Zetas, or beewalking.”

She pulled up the back of her t-shirt to show me a tattoo on the small of her back–a smiling female honeybee with big eyes, delicate wings, an improbable bosom, and a pert stinger that pointed suggestively down into Maria’s shorts. For the first time, it struck me as odd that people still picture bees with wings.

“That’s how they looked before the hive death, before jimo bees were invented,” she went on. She spoke a mixture of Spanish and English. In her accent the familiar term “jimo bee”, coined by Japanese marketing execs to make the bees seem cute and non-threatening, came out as “hemo bee”.

“That was when bees could still sting. And fly. Their wings made a buzzing sound.” As if I was too young to remember, she recited the familiar story of how global hive-death had led to the development of GMO bees, the first genetically-modified insects created for non-military use.

“It was necessary to make them flightless to stop the spread of disease,” she said, reciting a wistful catechism of the beewalker collective, “and to reassure the public that they are harmless.”

We were walking through a green pasture transplanted into the Mexican desert from the American Midwest. Fields of grass and clover, kept short by grazing cattle, were shaded by occasional olive and oak trees. The pastoral scene looked out of place against the distant desert foothills. I tried to imagine how much water it must take to keep this area green. On a nearby hillside, a few winged cattle stood munching on the scenery, creating a surreal, mythical atmosphere.

I was about to ask her where the bees were working when I became aware of subtle motion in the grass all around us. Maria laughed musically at my startled reaction, and smiled for the first time.

“I wondered when you would notice. Don’t be afraid, they’re harmless. They can’t sting, and they can’t fly or even make a sound. All they do is work and dance.”

She opened her hip pouch to show me her beewalker kit–five little bottles of scent in a small box. “Each smell has a different meaning to the bees,” she told me. “I use the scents to tell them where to work, where to nest, and what places to avoid. I can wake them up and put them to sleep with smells. They’re my babies, my little hard workers.”

She reached down into the grass and picked one up for my inspection. It didn’t look like the cute pictures of jimo bees that had been marketed to the American public, or the winking, buxom bee tattooed on Maria’s backside. It looked more like a large brown ant with big eyes and stripes of yellow fuzz. Reluctantly, I let her drop one onto my forearm.

The sensation was like an electric shock. By reflex I jerked and tried to shake it off of my arm. But it had an intense grip, and I couldn’t dislodge it. Maria laughed again and touched my shoulder reassuringly.

“It’s okay,” she said, “she won’t hurt you. She just has a strong grip, that’s all. She’s very strong from walking up and down blades of grass all day.” Maria gently plucked the bee from my outstretched arm and, with practiced ease, deposited it gently back on the ground. We resumed walking.

“Me and my babies, we spend a few days on each of the ranches around here in rotation. Sometimes I stay with them all night, and they keep me warm with their dancing. But usually I find them a nest and rub the night signal on it.” She opened one of the scent bottles and held it up for me to smell.


She nodded, smiling, and used a little swab to dab the scent among some rocks on the ground, being careful not to get any of the scent on herself. Looking closer, I could see a hole among the rocks, a sort of miniature cave formed by a crack in the dry earth.

“When they smell the cinnamon, they know to stop working and go inside for the night. They crawl in and start dancing to stay warm. They dance all night in shifts, and in the morning I come back and put them to work. After a few days I load them into a carrier and take them to another field.”

Most of the things she told me about the jimo bees are common knowledge. They pollinate fields on foot, covering remarkable distances during the day. By dancing all night they can survive surprisingly low temperatures. And they truly can’t sting anymore–I asked twice to be sure. Maria seemed defensive about it.

“It’s better this way,” she reasoned. “Stinging is stupid. Most bees, when they sting something, it tears out their guts and they die. It’s a sacrifice they make to defend the hive. But I don’t want my babies to die that way. Really, the jimo bees are better off without stingers.”

As she talked, the drifting scent of cinnamon began to create motion in the pasture. The grass seemed to ripple and shimmer, as if I could see through it to catch glimpses of another world below, an undercurrent beneath the scenery, in which something very large was moving slowly toward us. It was the bees, walking just below the grass.

Maria stood near the cinnamon-scented entrance to her improvised bee motel, humming a little tune and smiling. She put away the cinnamon and carefully dabbed one of the other scents around her eyes, nose, ears, and mouth. “They know my smell, too,” she told me. “You’ll see. They’ll say goodnight to me before they climb into the nest.”

And as I watched for the next few minutes, the bees flowed in from the pasture and gathered around her sneakers. They gradually climbed up her bare legs, past her shorts, up onto her Disney t-shirt, and soon completely covered her body, leaving parts of her face uncovered. The sight was eerie and alien, and I felt uncomfortable witnessing something so intensely intimate and private.

As more and more bees crawled up onto Maria’s body, I stepped farther back, until I was standing at a distance and Maria was just a tall hill of shimmering yellow and brown, rising out of a blanket of bees in a field of grass and clover. Only her eyes, and a few strands of black hair, were visible within the tower of moving bees. She blinked at me from within all that silent motion. I briefly wondered if she needed help, but she seemed to be smiling and her dark, gleaming eyes looked happy and strong. I made a note: “I am looking into the eyes of Mother Nature. Give or take.” I raised the tablet to snap a picture.

“Say queso,” I called to her, and her right arm reached slowly up to wave. I took a picture, and another, and another. Then the bees began to flow down her body and past her, toward the cinnamon smell, and pretty soon they had all left Maria and entered their little cave for the night. Presumably they were dancing in the darkness there, moved by some music I would never be able to hear.

With the bees put to bed, Maria drove me back to Nuevo Laredo, telling me stories about her childhood and her time at beewalker school. We arrived at my motel and unloaded my little scooter from the truck. As she climbed back up into the driver’s seat, I thanked her for an amazing experience. I had almost forgotten about the murder trial.

“I’ll see you tomorrow.”

“Wait! We had a deal,” she said. “Tell me about Carlos. How did he look?”

“What do you mean? You saw him in the courtroom today.”

“Not really. How does he look up close?”

“Well, he looks a little rough,” I told her. “He’s a celebrity, for now, and he worries that it might make him a target. I don’t think he’s sleeping well.”

“He should have thought of that before he got drunk and started shooting things.” She frowned as if she regretted saying it. “The trial went better today, don’t you think?”

“Better, yes. It was hopeful–more so than yesterday. At least his lawyer finally came up with an argument. But Carlos has made some very powerful enemies. The Consortium can’t afford to let people go shooting their herds out of the sky.”

She nodded. “You said he gave you a message for me. What is it?”

“He said he loves you, Maria, and that he’s sorry.”

She digested this. “That’s all?”

I shrugged. “He said he’s not a killer.” I managed to say it without thinking about little Esperanza.

“It’s a lie,” she said to the steering wheel, shifting the truck into gear. “What about me? He’s killing me.” Her brow wrinkled, and then her whole face, and then she was driving away before I could tell that she was crying.


At the courthouse the next morning, the pervading sense of theatre was gone, replaced by a grim, no-nonsense atmosphere. People leaned forward in their seats and didn’t talk much. I sat near the front of the room with some other journalists, using the opportunity to do a little networking.

I had heard that Bill Benjamin might make an appearance, and at the last minute he strolled in wearing a shiny, tailored gray suit and a bolo tie with a huge turquoise slide. He removed his white Stetson as he took a prominent seat near a back corner of the gallery, easily visible to everyone in the room. He actively looked around, smiling and nodding at people, but somehow managed to avoid eye contact with me.

I turned and smiled at Maria, sitting in the other corner. She had abandoned the hat and sunglasses, and her black hair was neatly tied in a bun. She had dressed attractively in a quiet blue skirt and white blouse, looking like a professional woman, not a field worker. Her worried dark eyes smiled back at me anxiously.

The first order of business was the defense attorney’s motion to dismiss. In carefully-chosen words, glancing frequently in the direction of Bill Benjamin, the judge reaffirmed that the shooting was the most proximate and foreseeable cause of the girl’s death, and therefore liable for criminal prosecution. Thus the motion was denied, and the trial would proceed. The prosecutor nodded as the judge made each point, and the defense attorney shook his head slowly but didn’t make any notes.

Next the physics professor was recalled to the stand. Under careful questioning by the prosecutor, he explained that he had reconsidered his testimony on the altitude of the cattle and the driver. Through a math error, he had mistaken the ground elevation of 100 meters above sea level for the altitude of the cattle above the ground. But in fact, he said, the cows were actually flying over 300 meters in the air.

There were murmurs in the gallery, and I heard whispers in the reporter’s section as we all made notes on our tablets. The defense attorney rose reluctantly to his feet, shaking his head.

“Apparently Señor Flores is a much better shot than we gave him credit for,” he said. “But please, Professor, can you explain to us how it is possible to confuse the ground elevation with the altitude of a flying cow?”

“It involves some sophisticated mathematics,” replied the physicist. “It would be hard to explain to a lay person.”

“I see. Then would it be possible to show us the figures from the tracking device?”

The professor cast a quick glance to the back of the room, then cleared his throat. “No, I’m afraid that would be impossible. The records were destroyed by a computer error.”

“I’m sorry to hear that. How did it happen?”

“It was an accident. It would be, mmm, hard to explain to a non-professional.”

The defense attorney aimed a frustrated look at the judge, who glanced again toward the back of the room before returning the attorney’s glare with a mild, impassive gaze. The attorney spread his hands, shrugged sadly, and touched Carlos apologetically on the shoulder as he returned to his chair.

And with that, really, it was all over but the part where somebody sings. After closing arguments, the jury members were ushered out to a sumptuous lunch that had been donated by an anonymous friend of the court. Then they retired to consider the merits of the case. By late afternoon, it was announced that a verdict had been reached, and the bailiffs marched us solemnly back into the courtroom to hear it.

The defendant, having been found guilty of illegal use of a firearm, destruction of property valued at almost a million Mexican pesos, and felony murder in the act of cattle-rustling, was sentenced to 30 years in prison plus restitution.

The gallery muttered and I think Maria gasped, but most people did not look surprised. The judge dismissed the jury and banged the gavel, and Carlos was led from the room blinking back tears. Maria stared at him, gray-faced, but did not try to fight through the gallery to embrace him.

A CNN stringer sitting behind me muttered, “He won’t last six months.” People around us rose to leave, and the Fox cameraman nudged me impatiently. I slowly stood up to join the crowd flowing toward the exits.

Out on the courthouse plaza, Big Bill Benjamin had actually left Goliath tethered to a hitching post, as if daring someone to rustle him. He apparently planned to fly back to his ranch on the beast’s saddled back. It was going to be quite a show, and people were gathering to study the bull from a safe distance. Word had spread that the big trial was over, and street vendors, anticipating a crowd, were arriving with beer and food. A rock band had set up some equipment on a small stage, and I wondered who was paying them. If I were good at describing things, you would hear someone tuning the bass and someone fooling around on the drums. You would see people talking in the square, admiring Goliath, waiting for the party to start. You would smell the tacos and fajitas, and the beer and cigars, and the bull.

Maria was standing at the base of the courthouse steps, hands in the pockets of her skirt. Thin-lipped and pale, she looked stricken to her soul, alone and small among the people clustering in the square. I walked up and hesitantly touched her shoulder.

“Are you okay?” I asked. I don’t care what you say, there really is such a thing as a stupid question.

“I didn’t honestly expect Carlos to go free,” she said, shaking her head. “But did you see that? They don’t even try to hide what they’re doing. Why do they have to make it so obvious?”

I shrugged as gently as I could.

“Look there.” She pointed at the Delgado girl’s parents, who were just leaving the courthouse. They were visibly upset by the sight of the huge winged animal tethered out in front, so much like the thing that had crushed their daughter.

“It’s not that they are bigger and stronger,” Maria said. “It’s not that they win every contest, and have more of everything, even while some of us truly don’t have enough.”She tugged at her neatly tied hair as she spoke, and shook it free.  Released from the tight bun, it fell loosely around her shoulders. I tried to read the flickering emotions on her face–grief and despair, I guessed, and something else, very old and dark.

“It’s that they still want more.”

Her voice was tired and flat, and I realized that she wasn’t complaining or asking me to agree. She was just explaining something, like when she explained why bees don’t have wings, or when Big Bill explained why cows can fly.

“They have to be above you, and step on you, and defecate on you,” she said. “They have to rub it in your face.”

I couldn’t think of anything to say. She pulled her hands out of her pockets and impulsively stood on tiptoe to hug me, putting her arms around my neck.

“So watch this, pretty Americana,” she said in my ear. In the growing excitement of the crowd around us, no one else heard her. She backed out of the unexpected embrace and gave me a fierce, bitter smile. She was beautiful in the fading sunlight, with her nostrils flared and her black eyes gleaming under all that hair. Her fingers brushed my cheek, and moved by the gesture, my own hand went up to touch the spot.

She turned and walked directly toward the spot where Big Bill was climbing onto his surreal leather-winged steer, preparing for his grand exit.  In the long shadows of late afternoon, he might have been mounting a giant long-horned bat from hell.

Maria’s sauntering stride assumed an exaggerated athletic grace as she moved toward him, like the prowl of a mountain lioness or the rhythmic sway of a trailer-park girl on the make.

“Señor!” she shouted, waving at Big Bill. He spotted her emerging from the crowd and smiled at her wide-open sashay. She had walked her bees on his ranch any number of times, but he didn’t seem to recognize her. He leered at her like a cartoon cobra that has spotted a mouse.

“Señor!” she shouted again. She stood a few yards from him, hands in her pockets, with one hip cocked to the side. “Can I touch your bull?”

He laughed and waved her forward. “Sure,” he said loudly, grinning through those strong white teeth. “Come here and touch my bull.”

Some of the men in the crowd laughed, but the women were quiet. She walked up to the bull and began petting his head and broad neck. The bull seemed to enjoy the attention, rolling his head back and forth in appreciation, his wings twitching lightly. Maria massaged his head admiringly, gently touching his shining nostrils, stroking his long, sharp horns, rubbing the ears seductively, running her hands along the leather bridle. She looked up out of the corner of her eye to see if Big Bill was enjoying the show. Seated upon the bull’s broad back, he smiled a wolf’s toothy smile and reached down to stroke her gleaming black hair.

My hand came away from my cheek where Maria had touched it, and I was briefly distracted by a faint odor, hard to distinguish amid the smells of beer and frying food in the busy square. On the small stage, the rock band had started playing a distracting Tex-Mex rock beat, and a spiky-haired teenager was singing a little too loudly about love into a microphone. Above the music I could faintly hear some men in the crowd actively whistling and cat-calling, urging Bill on. He leaned down to say something to Maria. She shook her head and started to back away. He grabbed her hair and said something else, frowning. The bull, which had been standing peacefully and enjoying Maria’s affectionate stroking, suddenly stamped a hoof and twitched his massive head.

I touched my cheek again where she had brushed it, and smelled on my fingers a faint scent of cinnamon.

Maria slapped Big Bill’s hand and tried to pull back while dodging the long horns of the bull, which was becoming increasingly agitated. His hooves shuffled impatiently and he snorted, swinging his broad head back and forth, almost jerking the reins from Big Bill’s hand.

I remembered trying to shake the jimo bee from my forearm. They can’t fly, but their grip is very strong, like an electric shock. In my mind’s eye I could still see Maria’s hands coming out of her pockets and busily, intimately stroking the bull’s bridle, and ears, and nostrils.

Cinnamon, I remembered her explaining, is a signal to the bees. It tells them to crawl inside and dance.

From where I stood, I couldn’t see Maria’s flightless babies as they crawled from under the bridle straps, where she must have placed them, to where she had rubbed cinnamon around the bull’s ears and nostrils. But I knew. Without wanting to, I imagined how it would feel to have jimo bees on my face, crawling into my nose and ears.

The bull snorted frantically and plunged his head up and down to shake loose the bees with their electric grip. Big Bill released Maria’s hair to yank on the reins, trying vainly to control the bull. She started walking away, more slowly than she should have, her back proudly turned on the struggle behind her. I held my breath for the first few steps, wanting her safely out of reach of those long, swinging horns. She was magnificent. But she should have run.

Big Bill’s white Stetson tumbled from his head and rolled away in gusts of air beneath the beating wings. The bull started leaping up and down, landing stiff-legged, and Big Bill bounced red-faced like a rodeo cowboy with one arm flung upward and his neck jerking violently. The restless, desperate sweeps of the great leather wings created drafts that flipped Maria’s hair up around her face as she walked slowly and resolutely toward where I stood in the crowd. For a moment Goliath reared back on his hind legs behind her, bellowing and snorting, his wings arched, his cloven hooves clawing at the air for balance.

“Maria!” I shouted. She smiled crazily at me, and I saw terror and triumph in her shining black eyes. I found myself smiling back at her in awe and encouragement, for a long second. Behind her, Goliath stumbled forward to regain his balance, almost tripping. One of his horns glanced off of the pavement before swinging wildly up and making contact. Her eyes widened as it pierced her spine and burst through the front of her blouse. Her head snapped backward as the bull lifted her off the ground, then rolled forward again as he shook her off like a ragdoll. Blood erupted in a convulsive gush from her mouth, and she collapsed in a twisted heap on the ground.

The bull’s frantic agony drove him in alternation rapidly up into the air, then back to the ground, then forward to repeatedly ram his head against a granite courthouse pillar. During one of the short flights, Bill lost his grip and tumbled 20 feet to the paved surface, landing on his head and not rising. No one rushed to help him, or to aid Maria where she lay broken and still on the courthouse plaza. The band had stopped playing and joined the crowd, retreating a safe distance to escape the widening gyre of violent death.

In the relative quiet the tormented bull, having lost all sense, came down awkwardly on one wing with a sound like exploding firecrackers. Screaming, he rose to his feet and stumbled sideways at great speed, breaking the other wing against the courthouse wall. He roared and defecated, repeatedly slamming his horns into the courthouse, still unable to dislodge the bees. As he danced in pain and rage, his heavy, now-useless wings dragged repeatedly across the bodies of Bill and Maria, leaving gruesome streaks on the square.

Finally a man in uniform drew a pistol and began firing at the bull, and then another did the same, and then a third. Goliath sank to his knees, wheezing, and slowly slanted forward to collapse on the ground. When the guns were empty, the men stood at a respectful distance, reloading. Goliath’s legs kicked weakly. Terrible, quiet groans escaped his twitching nostrils. A pool of dark blood appeared beneath his massive bulk, gradually spreading on the pavement. At last he gave a soft cough, and the shattered wings stopped moving, and the light went out in his monstrous, beautiful, anything-is-possible eyes.


That’s the story.

If it were up to me, I’d stop there. I worked pretty hard on that paragraph about Goliath, and I think we could end with it. And if you’re like me, by that point you’ve had about enough fun and you’re ready for the story to be over so you can go home to San Francisco and crawl into bed for a week. But Crunch says they’ll take me back as a staff reporter if I just please give their article a proper ending. And times are hard for journalists.


By the next day, when it finally occurred to someone to have a forensic veterinarian examine the bull, the jimo bees had wandered away from the taped-off courthouse square in search of clover. Despite all the wall-to-wall coverage you saw on CNN, Fox, and AltNet, no one knew about the jimo bees or even suspected that a murder was committed–a real one this time. You can forget all that crap the pundits were spouting about spontaneous flying bovine madness. There’s no such thing as SFBM.

Speaking of the media, I’m also spectacularly unimpressed that no one went back to follow up on Carlos. A week after the trial he was found in the showers at CEDES, dead of rope poisoning. None of the factory news outlets covered it. The medical examiner ruled it a suicide, and theorized that Carlos couldn’t live with the deaths of Esperanza and Maria.

Personally, I don’t buy it. My first instinct was to blame the Zetas, but they didn’t have any reason to kill him. I’ve tried to come up with another organization that might want him dead, but what organization that would be, I really can’t say. Really. I can’t say.

So let’s just agree that if someone as talkative as Carlos didn’t leave a note, it suggests he didn’t go willingly. I hope so. I hope he gave them a good fight.

What else is there to tell?

The Diosa Del Amor put up a framed photo of Carlos Flores in the liquor store and called him a tragic victim of corporate power.

Saint Ursula put up a framed photo of Esperanza Delgado in the school lobby and called her a tragic victim of liquor.

And the Consortium put a full-page ad in the Wall Street Journal to announce a large new animal research facility in the Chihuahuan desert, a tribute to the memory of Big Bill Benjamin, a great man of science and a tragic victim of SFBM.

As for Maria, well, as far as I can tell no one is planning any kind of memorial for her. And that’s probably as it should be. After all, whether she intended it or not, in the end she was a killer.

But I’d like to think that maybe, for a while at least, on cold winter nights along the once-proud Rio Grande, in holes in the dirt near olive trees and lush fields of clover, she will be remembered by the jimo bees, her flightless babies, her little hard workers, as they dance in silence and wait for dawn.

Cody Watkins
Fashion Editor


Copyright 2015 A.S. Diev

A. S. Diev is a technical writer, musician, and sometime roboticist in Mountain View, CA.

by Ginger Weil    

Freshman Year

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

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

‘But will ye go to yon greenwood side?      

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

-Lady Isabel and the Elf Knight 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Lucie didn’t think I was too young.”

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

“How do you know?”

I knew.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“She ran away, after.”

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

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

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

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

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

“So it was a good kiss?”

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

“It knocked the breath out of me.”

“Really good, or really bad, then.”

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

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

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

“I’m not one of your girls.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I stood there awkwardly and concentrated on not running away.

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

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

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

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

“It would be easier.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lucie didn’t even look at me.



Sophomore Year

‘My curse on those wha learn d thee;  

This night I weend ye’d gane wi me.’

The Elfin Knight


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

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

“Does Mom know?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You smell good.”

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

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

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

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

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

“You could like me too.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Mom isn’t.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

She smiled like I’d given her a present.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“That was one time.”

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

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

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

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


Junior Year

‘Cast off, cast off, my May Colven,      

All and your silken gown,      

For it’s oer good and oer costly      

To rot in the salt sea foam.’

-Lady Isabel and the Elf Knight


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I’m going to the woods,” I said.

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

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

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

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

“Hey,” I tried not to feel relieved.

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

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

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

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

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

I leaned against the fence and didn’t burn.

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

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

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

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

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

“You want me to be a monster.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My armpits prickled with sweat.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Then I didn’t think anything for a while.

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

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

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


Senior Year

When he had told her these fair tales,      

To love him she began,      

Because he was in human shape,      

Much like unto a man.

-The Daemon Lover


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mrs. S. taught history but loved statistics.

“Busted, hunh?”

“And she said.”


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

“I thought we were friends.”

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

“You lied to me.” I wanted to scream.

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

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

“I don’t chase what doesn’t want me.”

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

“Sorry I didn’t chase you?”

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

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

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


College – Freshman year 

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

And false, false was his rede:      

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

And still, still he stude.

-The Fause Knight on the Road


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

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

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

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

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

The feathers weren’t braided in.

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

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

“Are you loud at night?”

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

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

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

“Do you blow stuff up?”

“Not lately.”

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

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

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

Copyright  2015 Ginger Weil

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

By Tracy Canfield

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I’d appreciate it,” said Vro.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“First priority: new Elvis,” said Vro.

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

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

“Never seen it before,” said Nurt.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Get out of my casino,” said Vro.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In the distance, the observation deck exploded.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“The fourth thing,” said Sirteg.

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

Sirteg’s body language was unreadable.

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

“One other thing,” Vro went on.

“The fifth thing?”

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

“Oh,” said Umrelk. She inched away.

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

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

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

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

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

“That would be her audience, yes.”

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

“Well put.”

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

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

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

“I suppose I can see the appeal.”

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

“Would this be the sixth thing?”

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Ah. Is there a problem with Higota?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I’m Vro.”

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

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

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

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

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

Vro’s wristpad buzzed. Chapel? said Sirteg.

On my way, Vro responded.

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

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

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

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

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

“She got married?” said Vro hopefully.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Wait, what?” Vro stammered.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

“All the more reason.”

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

“What about Banyakangrem?”


“Like Nibklung.”

“He would have been fine.”

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

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

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

“Do QuentaCorp Bloodhounds actually do that?”

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh, you’re okay,” said Sirteg.

“She is not!” said Vro.

A second voice rang out from Vro’s translator.

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

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

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

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

“Wait, me?” said Vro.

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

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

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

“Wait, what?” said Vro

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

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

“That’s okay, then,” said Jaffi.

“No, it is not!” said Vro.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“And he fired Nibklung!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Your treat?” she said.

“You can afford it.”

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

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

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


Copyright 2015 Tracy Canfield

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


by Phoebe Harris

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I shuddered. “I hate that name.”

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

“Fine.” I shrugged. “It’s your plan.”

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

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

And then I ran.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh,” I stammered. “Araco.”

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


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

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

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

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

“And where is home?”

“Toricham. Not too far.”

Kosicar nodded. “And when will you return?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“They’ll worry.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“We can’t risk–”

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Curious,” Javino finished.

“Yes. Curious about why.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Javino snorted.

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

“Don’t hurt her,” I begged.

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Perhaps I was wrong about the tears.

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

“You spoke with him?”

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

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

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

My blood froze. “And?”

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

“You don’t expect me to believe–”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

Because its winged guard and beaked hilt matched his own.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Copyright 2015 Phoebe Harris

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

by Sara Puls

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

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

Uzun stepped closer. Already, his shoulders sagged.

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

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

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

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

Uzun cleared his throat. “Moon?”

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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


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

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

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

“Are you alright?” he asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes,” Luna managed.

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

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

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

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

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

“Not that I know of,” she replied.

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

– Archive inscription, North Wall of Truth


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

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

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

“I will handle them,” Parviz offered.

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

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

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

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


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

– Xenophon Council Aide-Mémoire No. 3


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Luna nodded.

“Very well. The arm?”

Again, Luna only nodded.

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


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

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


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

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

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

“Nur?” she whispered.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

– Quote from Triumphant Resistance, by Sonya K. Moon


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

– Excerpt from the Xenophon Dance Code


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

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

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

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


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


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

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


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

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

“I want to invoke Subpart IV.”

Uzun paled at her words. Several council members began murmuring among themselves.

“I can do it,” she said, raising her voice, making it firm like the Archive walls. “We need to put an end to this. To all of this. Look at what the war has cost us already. Mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters, even the unborn. Countless Xenophon. Authority is weak as well. Now is the time.”

“We’ve never invoked Subpart IV,” someone muttered. “It is too dangerous. Too great a risk.”

“We’ve never invoked it because of the chance Authority would select one of our own in its place,” Luna reminded. “But this is different. Katsaros has chosen for us. Authority will choose her.”

Though reluctance marred his visage, Uzun was the next to speak through the soft hum of dissent. “It pains me to say this, but I fear Moon is right.”

He stood and continued. “Katsaros is bold enough to agree. If she carries any weight with Alexander, with Authority, and it is clear she does, they will almost certainly agree to invoke the provision.”

For a moment there was silence and then several nods.

“Unless anyone sees a better way,” he started, “I will send a message over the horns. Tonight.”

Not one of them spoke.


Disputes of territory and ideology may also be determined by dance, so long as each side agrees to this method of resolution. Both Hoyal Clan members and Authority may each chose a single dancer to participate. The winner shall be the individual who lives, who dances until the other is dead. Given the Hoyal Clan’s distinct advantage in this realm, it is agreed that Authority may, if it wishes, choose a Hoyal Clan member, namely a Xenophon dancer, to serve as its representative. Authority may make this choice unilaterally, without consent of Hoyal leaders or the individual chosen….

– Section III., Part A., Subpart iv. of the Authority-Hoyal Treaty of Year 2217, Before Severance


By midnight it was decided. Authority had agreed to invoke Subpart IV. Luna and Katsaros would dance in less than one day’s time.

Later still, as Luna slept in fitful spurts, she dreamt of killing her former lover and mentor and friend. With the nightshade dagger, she sliced Katsaros open, down the middle, mimicking the image Katsaros and Authority used to fake her death. Blood bubbled from Katsaros’s mouth, ran over her lips and down the slope of her strong chin. Through the blood, she spoke. The pain is too much, my little moon. Too vivid. I was never as strong as you. Never as strong.

When Luna awoke, it was with the taste of the same bitter, answerless questions on her tongue. Was that indeed why Katsa betrayed her? Because she’d lost hope? Grown tired of life on the losing side? Katsa had never been a coward. But this seemingly endless fight had taken its toll on everyone—whittled its way into veins and bones, a song of decay, a scream without hope. Most likely, Luna would never truly know Katsa’s reasons. Because war is never black or white but something in the middle, something impossibly sunless and bleak.

There was nothing to do but carry on, and by midafternoon, Luna had finished preparing herself for the task at hand. She had read through the entirety of Triumphant Resistance; reviewed her dance steps, focusing on those that required the least energy; and dressed in the attire of Xenophon. Only one thing remained to do before marching to the Square: she needed to apologize to Uzun.

She went to his quarters and let herself in without knocking.

He was there, as she expected, pacing the room like a young soldier on his first day of battle. Snakes, his animal-protector of choice, festooned the walls and ceiling vines like chains of garland or ribbon. Luna had never liked snakes—it was something in their eyes and the quick flick of their tongues more than their slithering nature. But Uzun had a way of making her appreciate almost anything, of helping her see all sides.

“I’m ready,” she said firmly.

Uzun stopped his pacing and turned to her. “You don’t have to do this.” His voice was barely a whisper.

“Yes,” she said. “I do.”

Uzun swallowed, hard. “It isn’t safe. What if you lose?” He filled his cheeks with air, then blew it out slowly.

It hurt—a deep, demon-grey sort of hurt—to see him this way. To see him in so much pain.

“The provision is obsolete,” he counseled through gritted teeth. “It’s…it’s—”

“Obsolete, maybe,” Luna agreed. “But still law. Besides, I won’t lose. She may be a better Memorycolor Specialist, and a better soldier, but I have always been the better dancer. You know that.”

Uzun sighed. “Yes, but what do you seek to accomplish? Even if you win, you are still the last dancer. It’s a losing battle either way.” Uzun stretched out his arm towards a large, yellow-eyed snake. The creature moved at his call, slithering across his arm and coming to rest as a golden ribbon across his shoulders. “What can revenge accomplish, now?”

“I don’t do this for revenge, Uzun.”

“Then for what?”

“For ceasefire. For peace.”

“Don’t be naïve,” he snapped. “You think winning this dance will put an end to the destruction and chaos and death? Not for long. A year, perhaps two. And then their intolerance will unfurl again.”

Luna stepped closer to him and reached out to touch the snake’s head with the back of two fingers—a demonstration of power and poise, a signal to Uzun that she was in control. “I think a ceasefire will buy us more time. Time to regroup. Time to find other dancers—in the outer provinces, in the nurseries, wherever. There must be more of us. There must. And if there aren’t, if I truly am the last, then buying time is all the more crucial. We need a new strategy.”

“If you are truly the last, buying time won’t save your traditions or your skills. Why risk your life for a mere chance?”

“For you, Uzun.” Luna made a wide gesture. “For all those people out there, fighting with me because I stand with history. Whatever becomes of me—those people deserve peace and the preservation of their minds, their identities.”


Luna put up a finger as she closed the space between them and took his face in her hands. He smiled, ever so slightly, and with feather-light lips, she kissed him. “Do not doubt me. If not this, then we have just more fighting ahead.”

“I know,” Uzun murmured, wrapping his arms around Luna’s waist. His voice still held heavy hints of fear, but the anger had faded. “I know.”

“I’m sorry,” she whispered, embracing Uzun fully. “That is what I came here to say. If I fail, know that I am sorry it had to be this way.”


Less than an hour later, with half the Resistance traveling behind her, including Uzun and Ekene and Parviz, Luna walked with steady pace to the Square. More than once she caught the face of Alexis Mara, whose bright eyes offered encouragement even while her wrinkle-worn mouth reminded of the seriousness of this venture.

Katsaros was already waiting with a sea of Authority Intelligencers behind her when Luna arrived.

She looked different. Like she’d peeled back a layer of skin and lies: this Irene Katsaros was someone new. Or was perhaps finally who she’d always been, revealed.

Luna wanted to look away but instead stared harder. She tried her best to ignore the pain of betrayal stuck in her heart like a splinter of wood, the pain coloring her vision as though she were staring at a white-hot sun.

This Irene Katsaros was not the woman Luna had known. This was not the woman who liked sex in the grass better than between sheets, not the woman who taught Luna that desire was as complex as history itself. This woman, with a force of black hair framing her face and nothing at all behind her eyes, was cold and tired and sad.

It didn’t seem fair to have to fight her. But then, war was never fair.

Luna glanced over her shoulder at Uzun. His face was without expression, unreadable. Guardians Ekene and Parviz stood in the glowing embrace of the sunset, just behind Uzun, each with a nightshade dagger drawn. Should anything go awry, should Authority breach the pact to settle this war by dance, these three—and the hundreds more behind them—would defend her.

Luna inched forward, toward Katsaros. “Why?” she demanded. “Why would you do this? What have you done?”

Katsaros blinked. Her eyes were like shadows, empty of yore. Then she set her jaw and firmed her stance, and Luna knew no response would come.

No matter. Luna already had enough of an answer within her. Katsaros was tired. Scared. Without courage. Hurt beyond repair. A victim. A decider of her own fate. Complicated. Complicated in a way that only Hoyal Clan Xenophon dancers could be.

Suddenly, a hundred memories washed over Luna, a wave of residual longing and love. She stretched out an arm and put her hand on Katsaros’s shoulder. Katsaros followed suit. For a moment, the two dancers stood like this, united by a strain of mutual burden. But at this close range, Luna refused to hold Katsaros’s eyes with hers. What was would never be again.

She took a deep breath that revealed neither nerves nor fear. Then, like a vine retreating from shade, Luna twisted away from Katsaros. Under Subpart IV, they would dance simultaneously, Luna adorned in her shimmering sundew dress, Katsaros in the austere Authority uniform, until one or the other could dance no more.

Cutting through the thick murmur of the crowd, Luna spoke one last time. “Be quick, be graceful, and do no harm to the world.”

The crowd hushed, awaiting Katsaros’s response. But again, no words came from her mouth. Instead, she gave a shallow bow, then backed away as well.

As the chimes of the dead rang alongside the clatter of Authority’s anthem, Luna closed her eyes. Behind them, she found a sea of grey, a thousand stories of pain and struggle.

The final bell tolled.

With the jewels of history inlaid as weapons in her heart, Luna moved into the Position of Strength. It was time for the battle to begin.

Copyright 2015 Sara Puls

Sara Puls spends most of her time lawyering, researching, writing, and editing. Her dreams frequently involve strange mash-ups of typography, fairy creatures, courtrooms, and blood. Sara’s stories have been published in Daily Science Fiction, The Future Fire, Penumbra, World Weaver Press’s Fae anthology, and elsewhere. She also co-edits Scigentasy, a gender- and identity-focused spec fic zine. On Twitter, she is @sarapuls.

by Judith Tarr

For Gwyndyn


The winter field was planted, the seedstones buried to the depth of a woman’s wrist. Any deeper and they might decline to sprout. Any shallower and…

Well. There were tales enough of that. Children stayed up all night for the terror of them.

So did women in this season, taking turn and turn, but not for tales. For the real danger that slept in this walled and barricaded field.

It had been a strange winter, cold and then summer-warm and then properly cold again. Trees budded and flowers tried to bloom, then a new frost withered them. Charis had even seen a bat flittering in the dusk, aimless and confused, roused by the warmth from its long winter’s sleep.

She stood guard on the wall. The spearshaft was light in her hand, the horn disproportionately heavy at her hip.

If she turned, she could see the circles of houses in the village, all dark now, and all within asleep. One of those houses was hers, the children in a pile like puppies, and probably a puppy or three in it too, and Deion their father snoring between them and the door. He had been with her when her turn on watch began, but only for company. Men could not guard this of all the fields. As dangerous as it could be for women, for men it was deadly.

She yawned and stretched, but cautiously. The springlike warmth made her skin prickle. She peered down into the field, scanning the neat furrows.

Nothing stirred. The earth was still. The seeds slept as they should, hoarding their strength for the true spring.


The men liked to think they were the lords of creation–even here, where they should have known better. They sat in their circle while the wind howled outside the Mother’s house and the snow piled high against the walls–where only yesterday the grass had been trying to grow. They were plotting wars, though when Charis passed on her way to the looms, Deion glanced at her and said a little too loudly, “For defense, of course. If the rivermen are hungry for spring lamb. Or the horsemen have run out of grazing lands again.”

“But nobody can touch us,” young Melas said. He was new to the circle, more by courtesy than by right, having handfasted the Mother’s fifth daughter at the autumn feast. “What we grow in the walled garden–it protects us. We don’t need to go out and fight.”

“Strength feeds strength,” said Aias the Bull. “Our strength of mind and will, their strength of–”

“Everything else,” Melas said. “Why do we need to go out at all? We can stay home and be at peace.”

“Do we?” asked Deion. Even knowing she heard. Maybe because she was there. “What if they won’t grow any more? Every year the women range farther in search of the seeds. What if there aren’t any more to be found? What then? Who will defend us?”

“We will,” Aias rumbled. “We are men. We fight. It’s what men do. Peace is for women.”

“But men can’t lead them,” said Melas. “Only women can.”

“That,” said Aias, “as Deion said, could change.”

Charis let her foot slide in the rushes scattered on the floor. They rattled quite satisfactorily.

The men started like the guilty children they were. She smiled and bent her head and left them to wonder what price they would pay for their foolishness.


“Every winter we hear the same nonsense,” the Mother said. She was threading a new loom with spun wool the color of winter branches. She barely paused for Charis’ recounting of the men’s conversation. “Every spring the crop sprouts and they remember their place.”

“What if this time they don’t?” Charis asked. “What if my man is right? What if we go out in summer and there are no seeds to find? What do we do then?”

The other women shook their heads in much the same way as she had shaken hers at the men. So would she, if she had been hearing this from someone else. But the small cold spirit-feet walking down her spine told her this was different.

No one else felt it. Even the Mother, who should have felt it more strongly than she, said, “You know what will happen, if it must. But it will not. Not this year. Not next. Not ever, as long as our strength holds.”

Charis should have bowed to the Mother’s wisdom, but her back was still cold, and her throat had locked shut. The latter kept her from saying what was in her mind, but not from thinking it.

And if it did not?

She reached for her loom with the deep green fabric half finished on it, stretched it out and slipped the spindle from the weaving and went mutely to work.


The baby was off the teat and off the leash but still inclined to wander if her minders were distracted. Which, the day after the great snow, they all were, between digging out the houses and reckoning the casualties among the animals.

Charis found her with the sheep. The flock had been penned near the Mother’s house, but so much snow had fallen that it had buried the fence. They had walked over it to take shelter in the lee of the wall that protected the winter field, and found enough forage there to be comfortable.

The baby had no name yet. She would get one in the spring, now she was her own person and no longer bound to her mother. Charis called her Thistle, because she was prickly and pretty and inclined to catch the wind and drift away.

She had drifted a great distance for a small person in deep snow. Her cheeks were bright red but she was warm, curled up in a nest of drowsing sheep. Charis plucked her out and hauled her unceremoniously back to the house where she belonged.

Only once she had the little monster barricaded in a corner and fetched her a knot of day-old bread to gnaw on did she see what Thistle clutched in her hand.

It was a seedstone. A small one, small enough to conceal in a young child’s fist, but those, like young scorpions, could be the most dangerous.

Thistle howled as her mother pried the stone out of her grip, but Charis could not afford mercy. The stone was warm from Thistle’s hand–but not, please Goddess, too warm.

It looked like the tooth of a great predatory beast, larger than a lion, larger than a bear, but turned to stone. Charis had seen far too many of its like to linger. She plunged back out in the cold, wading through the snow to the stone house where the seeds were kept.

It was true, they were becoming harder to find. When she was Thistle’s age she remembered seeing half a dozen wooden chests in the stone house, and every one full of seeds. Then the hunters only needed to go out in order to replace what had been planted. But even in those days, the older women talked of a dozen chests or more, and only needing to go out every third year, because the seeds were so plentiful.

Now there were three chests, and the one in which she laid Thistle’s seed was more than half empty.

How had Thistle found it, then? The door to the stone house was barred. It had taken a fair amount of strength for Charis to lift the bar, and she was neither a small woman nor a weak one.

Thistle had words, but not enough to answer Charis’ question. All she would say was that the sheep had it–which was not possible. More likely she had found it on the ground where the sheep were. But who would drop a seedstone outside the wall? And why?

All Charis could be sure of was that it portended nothing good.



She kept her troublesome thoughts to herself. Everyone else seemed content, or as much as was possible in winter. They had enough provisions to last until spring, and enough weaving and mending and making and child-minding to do that every day was full.

Charis began to tell herself that it was nothing. The seed had fallen by accident; or it was lifeless, as they sometimes were, and a bird had taken it, found it inedible, and dropped it outside the wall. It was small; it might not have had the power to sprout.

The strange weather continued, now almost summer-warm, now brutally cold and wild with storms. The field slept through it all. No more stray seeds appeared, and Charis made sure that if there had been any, Thistle would not be the one to find it.

At the new moon before the first moon of spring, the storms retreated for long enough that bands of hunters could go out and assure themselves and the people that none of their enemies was stirring. The river was still locked in ice and the plain beyond was empty of horsemen.

When the moon began to swell again, two women would stand guard on the wall at night, and both would carry strung bows as well as spears and the horns that would sound the alarm when the seedstones sprouted. No one expected them to wake so early, but the guard had always doubled after this moon, and therefore it was done.

Tonight, for the last night between now and summer, Charis did her duty alone. It was a fine night, brisk but with a hint of softness in the air. The stars were brilliant overhead.

The field was dark under the glittering vault of the sky. Snow glimmered in the hollows, but had melted from the center and down between the furrows. Along the south side, something stirred in the wind.

There was no wind tonight. Nor did anything grow in that field but what the women had planted there. There was no fog anywhere but in that one place: a thin, curling stream of something rising up out of the ground.

Something else was there with it. Something dark and hunched. It seemed small, but Charis’ years of night watch told her it was the size of a man. A man kneeling, digging in the earth, where no man could ever safely be.

She should run, raise the alarm, fetch the Mother. But something in the shape, the way it moved, sent her toward it rather than away.

She swung down off the wall. The earth rose to meet her. It surged like the river in flood. Life swelled beneath it, growling too deep for the ears to hear; but it rumbled in her bones.

It was too early. The surge was too strong.

The raving fool who had caused it had fallen flat on his face. Darkness sprouted beyond him, springing up out of the ground, unfolding with preternatural speed. It looked at first like a monstrous fern, as thick at the root as a young tree. Then it straightened, until it loomed above the sprawling figure of the man.

Starlight made everything seem larger, but this was half again as tall as a tall man. It stood on two legs and raised two arms, but the face that turned to the stars was closer kin to the lizards that skittered on the walls in summer than to any human creature.

Charis braced both feet on the earth and set the full force of her will on it, to make it stop; to be still. There were words that she should say, rites that she should perform, but there was no time. All she could do was open herself to earth and stars and hope it was enough.

The ground was quieter underfoot. She breathed in, all the way to the core of her, and essayed a step. Then another. And a third.

The child of earth stooped over the idiot who had roused it. Charis trilled as she would to one of the cattle, to catch its attention; to calm it.


Even as doubt struck, the child of earth stopped short of rending the man at its feet and turned.

Its long saurian face could shape no expression, but the eyes were wide and golden, with a fierce light in them, like a hawk’s, or an eagle’s. They were intelligent, those eyes. They met hers.

She spoke to it as to one of her children–willful Thistle, who could have been dangerous if she had not been so small. “It’s too early to be up,” she said. “Go back to sleep.”

The child of earth tilted its head. Its clawed hands flexed. Charis well knew what those could do: how they could gut a man in a single stroke and rend him limb from limb. So had the people’s enemies learned, year upon year; and most remembered. But too many forgot, or grew so desperate that they would brave even the dragon warriors to rob the people of their riches.

“In the true spring,” Charis said, almost crooning, “when the air is warm and sweet and the earth grows rich with greenery–then you may wake. Then you may feast to your heart’s content. But not now. Not tonight. Not before the winter ends.”

The great jaws opened. Ivory teeth gleamed. Every grain of sense that Charis had screamed at her to run while she could.

But no human creature was fast enough to escape this terrible hunter. She stood her ground. The earth, she observed distantly, had gone still. Only this one warrior had waked, of all that the women had sown. And that was a man’s fault, as such things tended to be.

“Rest,” she said. “Sleep. Let the earth embrace you, and make you grow and be strong.”

The yellow eyes blinked. The jaws gaped wider. Yawning. The tall feathered crest, so much like the plume of a warrior’s helmet, folded flat.

“Sleep,” Charis crooned. “Sleep, and dream of spring.”

The child of earth sank down on its haunches. Its long tail curled around it; it folded its arms and tucked in its head.

It was purring, a soft melodic sound. Softly, like waves lapping over a stone, the earth covered it up.

Charis stood very, very still. In the field around her, nothing moved. Not even a breath of wind stirred.

For this night at least, the danger was past. The people were safe from their own defenders.

Charis had done her duty, nothing more. But she would be glad never to have to do that part of it again.

She hooked her foot under the body of the man who had nearly destroyed them all, and half kicked, half pulled him onto his back.

She knew the heft of him, the feel, the smell. And yet she stared blankly at the face that turned to the stars. It could not be Deion of all people. Deion was never so complete a fool.

“I should have let the dragon eat you,” she said, though he was not conscious to hear. Her voice was still and cold.

She left him lying there. If the earth woke again while she did what she must, so be it.



The Mother and the elders carried him out of the field and locked him in the springhouse until morning. He was senseless but alive; if he woke, he would have water to drink. If he did not, no one greatly cared.

Charis felt nothing at all. She had children to tend and feed, without the second pair of hands that she was used to. They would want to know where their father was. She had no words to give them.


“I was trying to save us,” he said.

He was damp and bedraggled and blue with cold, but he was not particularly apologetic. They had made him stand in the open, in sight of the wall that he had defied all laws and common sense to climb. And he said, “The seeds are almost all gone. I wanted to see if there was a way to divide the roots instead, so that one can grow into several. Then there would be no need for the women to go hunting for more.”

Even the Mother sat speechless. His clear gaze, his earnest expression, wore the mask of sanity. His wide eyes implored the women who stood in judgment. “What will happen to us when the stones are gone? How will we live?”

“We will live,” the Mother said. “We will build a wall if we must. Our men will turn their vaunts to honest fighting. But that will not happen. We will be safe.”

“How can you say that? You’ve seen how few seeds are left!”

“Yes,” the Mother said. Her calm was unshakable.

Charis wished that hers could be. All the people were there, watching and listening and glancing at one another. Deion spoke for more of them than not. Even Charis, when she lay awake in the dark, had had such thoughts.

The world was changing. Everyone knew it. But what he had tried to do . . .

“Maybe,” Aias said, “it’s time for a new Mother. If the one we have can’t see–”

“I can see,” she said. “It is you who are blind. Maybe we rely too much on our ancient magic. Maybe it is time we looked to ourselves.”

Now that was terrifying.

“We can’t do that,” Deion said. “How will we survive?”

“How have other people survived?” the Mother asked. Oh, she was calm, like a sky full of storm before the wind and the rain came down. “That will be the price you pay. You will go; you will take what you can carry, and walk out into the world, and learn. When you have learned enough, if you still live, you may come back.”

Deion’s face was white with shock. Charis found she pitied him, but more for his stupidity than his plight. If he had stopped at all, if he had taken a moment to think–

“Who else?” Her voice rang out over the song of the wind. “Who put you up to it? Who agreed that it had to be done?”

For the first time since all this awfulness began, he looked at her. “No one,” he said. “I did it all myself.”

“I don’t believe you.”

“No one else was foolish enough,” he said.

“Now that I believe,” she said.

She turned her back on him. As she did it, her eyes raked across the faces of the men who were nearest, his friends. Aias. Melas. The ones who were always saying the things that he had acted on.

She would remember.

He left alone, with head up and shoulders straight. He did not weep or beg for mercy. Charis had not expected that he would.

For one of the people to be sent away was a terrible thing. Charis was too young to remember the last one, and no one ever spoke of that, even in whispers.

No one would speak of this, either. His name and transgression would be forgotten. His memory would be gone from among the people.

She would remember that, too. She was one great painful well of memory.


Charis was not a sacred dreamer. Her dreams were relentlessly ordinary: dreams of the everyday, both joys and fears, from which she woke to a world not terribly different. No one would ever have chosen her to be a shaman for the people, let alone to hold the Mother’s place above and beside them all.

This dream, the night of Deion’s departure, was as ordinary as any other. In it, Charis was standing guard over the winter field, as she did so often. It was neither winter nor spring; the air was cold but there was a hint of softness in the wind. The stars shone brilliant overhead. Somewhere far away, a wolf sang: a sound to bring terror to anyone not safe in walls.

She was safe from wolves here. The field below was still, though in her dream as in waking, she knew it would sprout soon.

There was something about the field that made her stop and look closer. At the same time, because this was a dream, she was lifted up on wings, rising above the dwindling oblong of wall and field.

She had climbed a mountain once when she was young and slender, before the children came. She had seen the world stretched out below as she saw it in this dream.

The village was a rough circle of circles and squares. The winter field barricaded the western side, facing the long roll of land that descended to the river. On the eastern side, a long arc of houses made a wall of sorts, with the twisting lines of paths and alleys in between.

Charis hung in the air, entranced. The wind caressed her face. She breathed deep of it and for a moment closed her eyes.

When she opened them, the world below was the same, but her sight had changed, grown sharper. She saw the bones of the earth under grass and trees and patches of snow. The ridge that rose to the east; the gradual slope toward the west. The knob of rock above the river, that the people called the Mother’s Teat, but the rivermen called the Dragon’s Horn.

The village lay atop something else, something buried: a roughly circular shape, like a bowl made of earth and stone. There were smaller things in it, if small was the size of a house.

Slowly Charis understood what her eyes were telling her. Beneath the village was a nest like that of a vast bird. Its mother slept in the center, under the Mother’s very house, with the flock of her young around her: some barely larger than the shells from which they had emerged, and others large enough to overwhelm the village if they had risen and walked.

Under the winter field lay a clutch of eggs. With the eyes of dream Charis could see through the shells to the forms within. Each tightly curled shape recalled the larger shapes beyond. In each pair of jaws were rows of fiercely curved teeth.

Charis knew those teeth. She had seen one in her daughter’s hand. They were seedstones. The earth beneath the field was full of them.


She slipped from dream to waking, up and out of her cold and lonely bed and into the frosty chill before dawn. She walked between the worlds, with her feet on the earth and her spirit still halfway to the sky. She went down to the winter field, to the place where Deion had been digging.

She could feel the bones beneath her, and the seedstones above them, taking root, preparing to swell and burst and unfurl into the terrible defenders of the people.

She looked up into the Mother’s face. “We could just dig,” she said.

“That would be easy,” said the Mother. She lowered herself slowly to her knees and laid her palms flat on the earth that Deion had disturbed. Maybe it shifted at her touch. Maybe that was the starlight playing tricks with Charis’ sight.

“We have been given a great gift,” the Mother said. “But too much ease makes any creature weak. If we have to struggle, if only a little, that makes us stronger.”

“And when there are no more stones within reach, that we’re allowed to find? What do we do then?”

“Then we find a new way to protect ourselves,” the Mother said.

“I don’t understand,” Charis said.

The Mother sat on her heels. “What happens to the defenders after they go out from the field?”

“They go out,” said Charis. The Mother knew this, of course she did. But this was a lesson. Charis recited it as the Mother wished her to do. “Whatever threatens us, they kill. Sometimes they feed. When the fields and the river are clear, when there is no danger left for us, they sink back into the earth. They become stone again, and sleep the sleep of stone, that nothing can wake.”

“So we are taught,” the Mother said.

“Is that teaching not true?”

“Magic,” said the Mother, “cares little for human whims or fancies. It simply is. What is under us: that is a great thing. We tell ourselves that it is our blessing, and belongs to us; but the truth is that it would be here with us or without us. It’s not our town that the warriors protect.”

“But,” said Charis, “we find the seeds. We plant them. There would be no warriors without us.”

“Would there?”

Charis knelt beside the Mother. “My head hurts,” she said.

The Mother’s smile was wry. “It is a great deal for our little minds to hold.”

Indeed it was. But Charis clung to one thing. “Deion was wrong. We will be safe.”

“We will,” said the Mother, “while we stand strong. No weakness. No complacence.”

If that meant that the winter field should come to lie fallow and the people be forced to defend themselves, then so be it. That was clear in the Mother’s face, and her voice that had no yielding in it. She would not use what was beneath, or use it up. She would continue as she and her ancestors always had, to protect and guard, and never to give way.

Charis wished for that: to be like stone, hard and unyielding. Not to wake in the nights, reaching for a body that was not there, and drying tears she had never intended to shed.



That winter was the most tenacious that even the oldest of the people could remember. Having dangled a promise of spring, it set in hard and bitter and cold. The earth withered once more; a deep snow fell just before planting–which was a blessing in its way. A day or two later and all the labor would have been for nothing, and seed lost that they could ill spare.

After the cold and the snow came a powerful thaw, and warmth that spoke more of summer than of early spring. More than the earth stirred then. Horsemen on the plain, boats on the river–“If I were one to gamble,” said Charis’ sister Ione, “I’d be hard put to choose which will fall on us first.”

“Maybe they’ll go past us,” Charis said, not believing it even while she said it. They were the largest village in these parts, and the richest, even at the end of a hard winter. They still had sheep, and the lambs were coming: twins, most of them, which in other years would have been looked on as a great good omen.

This year they were treasure, and rivermen and horsemen both were starving. “You can count every rib,” the scouts said, “on man and beast.”

The men sharpened their spears and their long knives. The women filled their quivers with arrows and restrung their bows. They still watched over the winter field, but all of them agreed without saying a word: maybe this would be the year that the defenders failed them.

Charis did not know what she thought. Now she knew what lay under the earth she walked on, she could see it always, a trove of bones and unripe seedstones that no Mother or seer would dare to touch. It brought her no comfort.

She fletched her arrows with grey doves’ feathers and painted them with her mark: a stripe of ocher, one of indigo, and one of the deep red that came from summer berries and the earth above the dragon’s nest.  Her bowstring was spun from her own long hair. She was as ready as she could be.

And the wind blew and the snow flew, and it seemed there would never be a spring.


After the snow came torrents of rain. The river swelled over its banks. The plain was a quagmire. The people’s lands drained quickly, as always; the ancestors had chosen well, even without what lay beneath.

They had enough cropland to plant, at last, and a little green forage for the sheep. The sowers spread the seed under guard, and prayed that this time it would not wash away.

It seemed their prayers were heard. The snow and the wind and the rain had blown far away. The air was soft and mild, the sun pleased to stay for day upon day–with brief intervals of rain for the crops’ sake.

The people welcomed the blessings and kept watch for the price. The winter field lay still. The scouts went out and came back with nothing. No news. Nothing human stirred from her proper place, whether it be river or village or plain.

The calm broke on a warm soft morning, when the fields were green and growing and the plain was in bloom. It came in the form of a man walking out of the east, wolf-lean and footsore. He was much thinner and there were strands of grey in his beard, and his eyes had seen more than most men of the people ever saw. But he was still Deion.

He stood outside the farthest edge of the village, making no move to enter. He lifted his voice so that the whole village could hear, if it had a mind. “They are coming.”

“Horsemen?” Aias had been throwing spears at targets near the place where Deion had stopped. He hefted one in his hand, as if to cast it at the exile.

Deion did not look as if he would have cared if Aias had done it. “Horsemen in hundreds. And women–riding or walking or bundled in wagons with the children and the old. It’s not just the warriors this time, raiding for treasure. It’s their whole world on the move, rolling down on us.”

The world had gone still. The people who had gathered–most of the village by now, drawn by the rumor of the exile’s return–stood mute.

If what he said was true, this was no raid. It was conquest.

“You will take scouts,” the Mother said, “and show them what you have seen.”

No one had heard her coming. She was a large woman, as a Mother should be, but soft on her feet. She held Deion with her gaze, which few could meet.

He met it. She nodded as if he had answered a question. “Show them,” she said again.

Aias stepped forward, and Melas, though his feet faltered. And Charis.

She had not intended to do such a thing at all. Her feet had a will of their own.

It was not for Deion she did it, but for the people.

Maybe for Deion–though whether to reassure him or punish him, she could not have said.

They took a little time to gather weapons and provisions. Long enough for Charis to remember that she had no man to look after the children. But Ione’s man had already thought of that.

“You go,” he said. “We’ll keep them safe.”

Charis hesitated a breath or two longer. They had lost their father already. If they lost her, too . . .

“I’ll only be gone a day or two,” she said.

“Or three,” Ione said. “Go on. The sooner you start, the sooner you’ll be back.”


Charis half hoped, half feared that Deion would have vanished when she made her way back to the outer field, but he was still there, scrupulously outside the boundary.

All the children had come to stand in a line and stare. Or glare, if they happened to be his. Their eyes, unlike the Mother’s, he could not or would not meet. He squatted on his heels, head down, and endured.

It was no more than he deserved. Charis stepped over the boundary. “Let’s go,” she said.


It had been a long time since Charis went scouting. She was strong enough from working the fields and practicing with weapons, but walking and skulking and sometimes moving at speed needed different muscles. They were not long out of sight of the village before she was sweating and breathing hard, but she would die before she asked anyone to slow down for her.

The thought occurred to her that Deion might be leading them into a trap. Who knew what was in his mind, after all? She certainly did not, who could have sworn that she knew him better than anyone, before she found him digging up the winter field.

He said nothing, simply led them out toward the plain. Aias and Melas fell behind–to guard the rear, Aias made sure to declare, but his face was as red as Charis’ felt. She gritted her teeth and stayed directly behind Deion, with as much of an eye on him as she could spare between scanning the horizon for signs of horsemen.

They knew how to move quietly; to avoid flushing birds in the dead brown grass, and to keep the hawks and the vultures from circling and so betraying them. Where the land rose in ridges, they stayed below the summits.

When the sun set, they camped below one such ridge. Then finally Deion spoke, after Melas asked, “How far away are they?”

“Three days’ walk when I last saw them,” he answered, “but they’ll be closer now.”


Horsemen on raids could run faster than the fastest human, but with women and children on foot or in wagons drawn by oxen, they barely advanced above walking pace. Midmorning of the second day found the scouts flat on their bellies in a mat of last year’s grass with new spring shoots barely hand-high within it, trying to count the horde that filled the plain.

“Hundreds and hundreds,” Melas said. He sounded more awed than afraid.

“And hundreds,” said Charis, “and hundreds beyond that. So it’s true. They’re moving their whole world westward.” She narrowed her eyes and peered past the horde to the eastern horizon. “What’s chasing them, then?”

“Winter,” Deion said.

“Winter comes every year,” she said.

“Not like this one.”

She had to nod, though she hated to agree with anything he said.

“We can’t fight this many even with our defenders,” Melas said.

Now he sounded scared. Charis leveled him with her stare. “We’ll make the village a rock for them to break against.”

“Or flow around, like an island in a flood.” Deion rose to a crouch, still keeping his body below the heads of the grass.  “If we start now, the people will have a day’s notice, maybe a little more. Time enough to wake the defenders.”

“If they wake,” Melas muttered. Aias flattened him with a fist, but he had only said what they were all thinking.



Compared to the rapid slog of the journey out to the plain, the journey back was a race. Charis found reserves she had not known she had. Her feet were blistered, her thighs rubbed raw, and there was a white stab of pain in her ribs. But she ran, only stopping to drink briefly from such streams as they passed, or to sip from her waterskin in between.

They slept a little after dark, but rose in the deep night, drank again, ate a little of what was left in their packs, and ran on. Melas wheezed and staggered but somehow kept the pace.

Charis wheezed as little as she could, and stayed more or less steady on her feet. It took all the will she had. Deion ran ahead of her as if he had been a dragon warrior himself: never changing his pace, and never tiring.

When the hills took on shapes that she knew well, she happened to be on her knees, drinking from a stream that tasted of midwinter. The rumbling in the earth felt at first like the pounding of blood in her veins, but it had a different rhythm.

Hoofbeats–many of them. Not as many as the horde she had seen, but these she recognized all too easily. A raiding party was coming down through the valley.

They were as lean as Deion had said, men and horses alike. They had the look of starving wolves: hungry enough to eat anything, or die trying.

A thought was forming inside Charis’ belly. It was born of her dream and her premonitions, and the anger in her that Deion had been an idiot and had been cast out. His coming back had only made her angrier.

There was a clarity in certain sorts of anger, a piercing brightness in the world, as if it were edged and honed like the head of a spear.

Thirty bone-thin men. Thirty horsemen. It was not the smallest raid that had ever descended on the people, or by far the largest. It was what one would expect after a hard winter. The children of earth could dispose of them easily, along with any stragglers who might follow.

If Charis had been a horseman, she would have intended exactly that. She would have sent a few mad boys to lure out the defenders, to run if they could and die if they must, and leave the village with its riches wide open to the horde.

Deion’s glance met hers. For an instant she forgot to be angry at him, as full as she was of anger at the horsemen. He nodded; she nodded back. They understood each other.

Melas grunted. Charis had forgotten him, too, and Aias beside him. He lay flat on his face. Aias was out in the open, running across the raiders’ path, bellowing like a bullcalf with a bee up his tail.

Melas pushed himself up on his elbows, spitting out a mouthful of grass and dirt. “I tried to stop him. I couldn’t–”

Deion pushed him back down. “Be quiet,” he said.

Melas tried to get up again. Charis sat on him.

Aias was managing to stay ahead of the horses, but only just. What he thought he was doing, except getting himself killed, she could not imagine.

She strung her bow and nocked an arrow to the string, but she did not need Deion’s hiss of warning to realize that if she shot either Aias or the horseman nearest him, she would betray the rest of them. All she could do was sit on Melas, who had stopped struggling, and watch while Aias ducked and weaved and darted.

He was trying to lure the raiders away from the village. As if one man could make the slightest difference, or give the horsemen more than a few dozen breaths’ pause.

They were herding him down the valley, letting him run himself into exhaustion while their horses kept on at the same plodding walk as before. They let him go until he was stumbling and gasping, and then a little longer. Where the valley opened onto the plain of the river, just about where they would be able to see the village with its cluster of houses and its wall and its fields, one of the horsemen kicked his mount into a shambling trot.

Aias turned to meet the spear. It was an awkward blow, with little strength behind it, but it caught him in the throat. He went down with his hands around the shaft, thrashing like a speared fish.

The horsemen rode on by. None spared him a glance, though one or two of the horses slanted an ear and sidled.


He was still alive when Charis dropped to her knees beside him. His face was swollen out of recognition; his mouth gaped. His eyes rolled. The spirit had left them already; it was only the body lying there, bleeding out upon the grass.

Deion’s knife was in his hand. Charis plucked it from fingers that only briefly resisted.

She gave Aias the same mercy she gave a lamb at the slaughter. One thrust, swift and unwavering, up below the breastbone into the heart. It surged against the blade, and then burst, taking his life with it.

She would mourn when there was time. Or they would all be dead and together in the Mother’s arms, and there would be no need.

Melas wanted to linger and weep, but Deion pulled him away. Charis paused a few moments to compose Aias’ limbs and close his eyes. When she left him, she took the spear.

It was surprisingly warm in her hand, and more surprisingly, not hostile. It was a living thing, shaped out of a sapling and hung with a red horsetail. Its weight suited her; its balance was perfect. In a different world it might have been made for her.

It gave her strength from the earth that had made it and the blood that had fed it. It lightened her feet, so that she ran side by side with Deion.

He still had Melas by the arm. Melas had enough to do to keep up; there was no room for tears or resistance.

None of them spoke. They all knew where they had to go: slanting away from the horsemen’s trail. It seemed these raiders were new to this country; they did not know how the plain dropped away before it came to the village. They would come to the edge soon enough, and realize that there was no quick way down for men on horses.

If Earth Mother was kind, they would need the rest of the day, and perhaps part of the night, to find the place where the ridge dipped down and the plain rose to meet it. That left more than time enough for three of the people on foot to make their way down the steep narrow track to the outermost sheep-pasture.

It was deserted; the flocks would not come up here until summer was well settled in. They paused to breathe and to drink from the spring, and Deion tried to leave Melas in the shepherd’s hut. But he would not stay.

“Even to keep watch?” Deion said.

“This isn’t where the fight will be,” Melas said.

Charis could hardly blame him. Her belly was on fire, too. She had had enough of waiting and dreading and dreaming.

She found she had a last sprint in her, down out of the pasture and through the fields and into the village. The men puffed and wheezed behind–even Deion, which gratified her more than was seemly.

People were doing what people did on a fine spring morning: tending cookpots, counting lambs, gathering weapons and keeping a calm but wary eye on the plain. Charis did not need to say anything. At sight of her as she wound and wove, circling through the village, all the young men and most of the women left what they were doing.

Other villages had learned to build walls that stood from season to season. The people only walled off the winter field. But they had defenses enough.

The outermost houses were built taller than the rest, and their walls were thick. The paths between them twisted and bent: no straight lines to feed a horseman’s speed. As they wound inward, they narrowed, until they were barely wide enough for a woman walking with a basket on her head, hemmed in with thick-woven hedges.

Every child of the people learned to thread that maze. Charis came through it into the open.

She stopped there. Deion stumbled past her and managed not quite to fall. When he had gone a handful of furrows’ length away from the last of the houses, he sat in the grass, apparently alone. But on the roof of every house were archers with bows strung, waiting. In among the alleys and the hedges, men and women with spears and knives had settled to watch and wait.

Charis sat on her heels. Her bow was light in her hand, an arrow ready for the string.

The sun was warm on her head and shoulders. The air was sweet. For today at least, full spring had come at last.

She had no memory of rising, but she was on her feet. Remembering a promise, and the creature to which she had made it.

If the children of earth woke, the women on watch over the field would do what was necessary. Charis had no need to tear herself in two: to be there instead of here.

If the defenders woke now, they would be done and gone before the invasion itself came down off the ridge. As it would. She could tell herself they would choose an easier way, raid more distant villages, but her bones knew better. The horde was coming here.

No one had ever tried to keep the children of earth from waking when it was their time. Spring came, raiders came, the defenders woke and swept the raiders away. That was the way it had been for as long as the people could remember.

Charis had not known she had any speed left. Desperation swept her forward; made her almost forget the ache in her thighs and the stitch in her side.

Some of the children and a dog or two ran after her, but they dropped away quickly. Their elders either got out of her way or stared as she darted around them.

As Charis passed her own house, she nearly collided with Ione, who was coming out. Charis got a grip on her wrist and kept going. She had no breath to ask after the children, but she might have caught a glimpse of Andros’ bushy beard just inside the door.

Ione dragged and squawked at first, but Charis held on. Soon enough Ione stopped fighting.

She had her bow with her, and a pair of long knives. What good they might be against the defenders’ waking, Charis could not imagine. But she did not tell Ione to drop them. They might be useful. Who knew?


There should have been at least two women on guard over the winter field, but the wall was deserted. Everyone who could fight must be either waiting for the horsemen or guarding the houses and the children, the sick and the old.

Charis wasted no time in climbing up to see if someone was tucked in a corner asleep. She paused by the gate, to breathe and to calm herself.

What she was doing had not been done that she had ever heard of. Always when the defenders woke, the wall was lined with guards, all with spears that served as much to shepherd as to fight.

The earth was still. The signs of sprouting were visible to eyes that knew what to see: low hillocks at intervals along the furrows, and grass and new-sprung weeds beginning to wither over them.

Where Deion had dug up the one defender, the hillock was higher, the growth on it shriveled and dead. Others near it were almost as far gone. To Charis’ eye, it seemed that the signs weakened as they spread outward, with the circle around this one the strongest, which meant they were the most likely to wake.

When she closed her eyes, her dream of dragons was as clear as it she dreamed it all over again. The ground’s solidity thinned until she saw through it to the sleepers beneath.

No old bones, these. They were alive, tightly coiled in their nests of earth. The farther away they were, the more unfinished they seemed. Those directly beneath were fully fledged, their claws sharp and long, and their jaws lined with deadly teeth.

The one under her feet was breathing long and slow. She knelt, but that did not feel like enough. She lay full length, face down, and embraced the earth. “Sleep,” she sang to what was beneath. “Soon you may wake. But not now. Not today.”

She felt the shift of air beside her. She turned her head. Ione was kneeling in the furrow.

“What are we doing?” her sister asked.

Charis liked the we. When they were younger, it had usually meant adventures. “Keeping them in the earth until the horsemen come.”

“Aren’t they coming now?”

“Not all of them,” Charis said.

Ione’s eyes widened slightly. “Deion was telling the truth.”

“If anything, he understated the case.”

Ione lay flat as Charis was doing. “Tell me what to say.”

“Sing them to sleep,” she said.

Ione was a much sweeter singer than Charis. She was a poet, too, and a charmer of birds.

These things beneath, they had feathers, though they had no wings. Maybe they would listen as the birds did, and do as they were told.

Charis did not stop her own singing, though she sounded to herself like a raven croaking, and her words were nothing beautiful or clever. Maybe there was no need for it at all. But she was not going to gamble the lives of the people for a niggle of doubt.



The young fools came to the cooking fires that night full of vaunting and boasting. They made a dance and a song out of it, winding in a skein from house to house.

“We drove off the horsemen, we the mighty, we the beautiful. We shot them with our arrows; we stabbed them with our spears. We drove them all far away.”

“And no dragons!” sang Phryne, who had the strongest voice. “Every hand was a human hand, and every stroke a mortal one.”

Charis had been trying to sleep. No one but Ione knew what other battle had raged while the horsemen were being so magnificently destroyed. No one celebrated that victory; no one sang her name or her praises.

She was wrung completely dry. There was nothing left in her but air and wind and the memory of the dragons under the earth.

The singing crept into her dream, along with the warm and breathing weights around and on top of her. The last was Thistle, who seemed to think that if she held Charis down with her whole body, her mother would never leave her again.

Her father slept outside the village. His coming had saved them, but the Mother had said nothing to revoke his exile. Nor had Charis asked it. Anger was still laired deep in her, wrapped around betrayal.

It was sleeping like the children of earth. What would happen when it woke…

In her dream, the warrior whom Deion had awakened stirred in its nest and opened its eyes.

In all the years that the people had been raising the dragon warriors and wielding them against invaders, none of them had ever thought of the defenders as anything but weapons. Weapons that walked; that could as easily turn against the people as against those who threatened them. They were no more to be reasoned with than a flood on the river or a fire on the plain.

There was more in those eyes than raw hunger for blood. They regarded her calmly, as if to commit her to memory. Not to kill and eat her, she thought. To know her. To understand what she was.

A thought unfolded inside her. A mad, a terrible thought. A thought that could be the end of her. But it would not go away.

This must be the demon that had possessed Deion. It was a subtle spirit. It felt like her own heart, beating in her breast, and her own belly clenching.

She slipped from beneath the children and the odd puppy. They murmured and fretted but closed in together without waking.


Deion was sitting just as he had been when Charis left him, upright with his legs folded. He must have been sleeping, but his eyes in the wan moonlight were clear.

She sat a little distance from him, as she had before the raiders came. Her hands were empty now, her weapons in the house. She regretted leaving the knife, but briefly. No human weapon would be of any use for what she meant to do.

Nor would Deion, but since she would most assuredly be cast out for this, she found his presence comforting.

“They’ll be here by morning,” he said.

Children of Earth? she almost asked.

Of course not. He meant the horsemen. “That soon?”

“If were their chieftain, and my raiders failed to come back, I’d know my diversion worked. I’d want to strike while the people were lazy and full of their victory.”

Tomorrow. Maybe not in the morning, with as many of them as there were, and the land making itself difficult for horses. But they would press hard while they thought themselves safe.

The Mother would know this. So would the elders. They would be doing nothing to rouse the defenders, because no one ever had done anything. The defenders woke when it was time.

The defender under the earth would listen if she spoke. And that was mad, too, and she knew it.

She could feel the horsemen coming. The earth carried the thunder of hooves and the rattle of cartwheels.

The defenders still slept. She had made sure of that yesterday. As deep as their sleep was, even a war might not wake them.

It would be easier if she could do this in the winter field. But that was guarded. She would be caught as Deion had been, and waste precious time with all the consequences.

Here she was, then. Where she sat happened to be directly above the curve of the great mother dragon’s skeletal wing, buried in earth and covered with grass. The mother’s children were not all under the field. They were asleep in their nests everywhere that the village was, and out toward the river.

She did not remember that from her dream.

If this failed–if she proved to be as misguided as Deion had been, but worse, far worse–

It was too late now to stop what had begun. The horsemen rolled toward them with the coming of the light, advancing in their hundreds and thousands.

Now, Charis said in her heart to the one she knew, the child of earth who lay in the heart of the winter field.

It was a she, that one, like the great mother of dragons. She rose up out of the ground as her kind had done for years out of count. Her sisters rose with her, while the guards on the wall sounded the horn and gathered the people and did all the things that they had done since the people’s memory began.

And that was good. The horn had roused the people from their houses, sent the small and the weak and the ill to safety in the heart of the village and brought the strong to the gathering place with all the weapons that they had.

They gathered in the summer field, the open space behind the wall. Only the guards held their places within sight of the children of earth. The one who had drawn black stone from the pot was charged with coming down off the wall, unbarring the gate and flinging it back, and then springing out of the way.

Usually she survived. Sometimes the defenders made their first meal of her before the wailing of horns and the beating of drums drove them down the long aisle of houses, in between the hedges and out onto the plain.

Melaina had drawn the black stone today. She was light and fast and might have escaped if the children of earth had pursued her, but they took no notice of her. They were following the one who had roused first, and she was coming to find Charis.

Charis was two people then. The one sitting in the grass, watching the horizon fill with horsemen and spill toward her, and the one hovering like a hawk above it all. The latter counted the defenders who streamed out of the winter field behind the tall one with the lofty crest.

Twenty, thirty, forty. Of ninety seedstones planted. A poor harvest, the people would be thinking, from a poor and feeble planting.

They were still terrible as they came, moving more quickly than any human or horse. They ran like huge wingless birds, skimming the ground with clawed feet.  Their plumes were erect and gleaming in the morning light, red and blue and green and gold.

The first of them emerged upon the plain. The others spread behind her.

Charis stayed where she was, sitting with Deion silent and wide-eyed just out of her reach. She had no weapon but her wits and her empty hands.

The child of earth approached her, stepping delicately. She heard the sharp hiss of Deion’s breath as the creature bent over her. Thank the Goddess he was too shocked or too prudent to move; if he had, she could not have promised that he would live.

She was safe. She should not be thinking that, with those claws so close to her throat. Each one was as long as her hand.

The eyes that met hers were cold and flat and alien, and yet they recognized something in her. Not magic or wisdom or power. Maybe only that she would defend this place and these people with her life.

In some strange way, they were kin. The land made them so, and what lay beneath the land.

She glanced past the plumed head at the wall of horsemen bearing down on them. The child of earth hissed. Its tail lashed. It spun, gape-jawed, and bellowed louder than any bull. It launched itself against the enemy.

Forty dragon warriors were swift and fierce and deadly, but there were a hundred horsemen for every one of them. The people with their spears and arrows took down horses and riders that won their way past the children of earth. And still the horsemen came.

Despair had a taste like bitter herbs. It caught at the throat. Deion had a spear; she had not seen where he got it.

She only had her knife. It would do for slitting throats when the horde came this far–and it would. A dozen children of earth were down and trampled. A dozen more fought through wounds that might not kill them quickly, but every passing moment cost them in blood and pain. The screaming of horses and humans and the roaring of dragon warriors filled air and earth and broke the sky.

Charis straightened. Her knees creaked; her back voiced an objection.

She sat as nearly upright as her body would allow. The horde was well within bowshot. Already a handful of loose horses had stampeded into the village.

All its defenses were barely enough to slow the tide. Well before the sun touched the zenith, the horsemen would overwhelm the village and destroy the people.

“No,” Charis said. She could barely hear herself through the cacophony of battle.

She set her teeth and her will. The earth’s voice was all confused. She could not see what was beneath, not any more. But she could still feel it.

She set the point of her knife to the long vein that ran from her wrist up her arm. Her life pulsed in it. A brief, craven fear of pain made her flinch, but she forced herself through it.

It was not so horrible after all. Childbearing was worse. Bloodier, too, if something went wrong.

Bright blood streamed from the long wound, pouring out on the earth. It was foolish, she knew; people were bleeding everywhere. But this was blood of sacrifice. Blood given freely to the dragon queen under the grass.

The queen’s life was done. She would never rise again. Her children . . .

Old bones turned to stone. Lives lived before the first human thing walked the earth. A world long gone, forgotten everywhere but in this one place.

It was as dead as the dragon queen. The magic of the seedstones was nearly gone; after this year’s harvest, there might never be another. That age of the world was fading fast.

Maybe. Charis was fading, too, as the blood flowed out of her. Horsemen streamed around her, shying away from Deion’s spear.

Stupid man. He would do better to help her bind up her arm before she lost any more blood. She would fight then, as they all would, and die with the rest of the people, but not before she took with her as many horsemen as she could.

She was growing dizzy. She struggled out of her shirt and wrapped it around her arm, clumsily. She should not be this weak, not yet, but there was no denying it. She was not at all sure she could stand if she tried.

The ground lurched. She looked for the horse that must have fallen hard, but all those near her were on their feet–veering, and one screamed.

These were dragons indeed. The children of earth were tiny beside them, like a flock of sparrows before an onslaught of eagles.

One rose up full in front of Charis, all feathers and fangs and talons. It seized the horse that had screamed and swallowed it whole.

Its eye rolled toward Charis. It could swallow her, too. She had no defense against it.

It was even more alien than the child of earth, even colder and even wilder. Her little bit of meat would barely blunt its hunger. And yet it saw in her . . . something. She belonged to this earth, this place from which it also came.

It turned away from her. There were horsemen in hundreds to feed on. Even fleeing, they were no match for its strength or its terrible speed.

She should stand up. There was still fighting to be done, wounded to dispatch, horses to herd into the most convenient enclosure, which happened to be the winter field.

She got her feet under her. Someone had dropped a spear. It made a decent enough support.

So did the hand that gripped her arm. Deion glared at her.

She glared back. He steadied her, firmly, and transformed her shirt in a bandage, wrapping it smooth and tight.

She was still shaky and dizzy, but she was no longer losing blood. She pressed forward.

Deion let her go, but stayed close by. So did Ione. Charis had not seen her come, but she was there, with her strong bow and her deadly speed with knife and spear.

They gave Charis strength. Yes, even Deion. Whom she was forgetting to hate.



The horde’s back was broken. Its chieftains were dead, its strongest warriors gone to feed the dragons. But there were still horsemen in hundreds, and they had nowhere to go. They turned in desperation; they fought for every drop of blood and every scrap of ground.

The dragons had eaten till they were sated. The children of earth, those that survived, for once had enough battle to fight, but even they were flagging.

The sun sank toward a horizon the color of blood. There was no order left, and no division, only flailing and tearing.

Charis was most of the way out of her body. She had dispatched a horseman whom the dragons had torn so badly that there was no healing him, and found herself attached somehow to his horse: a sturdy dun-colored creature that refused to be chased away.

The children of earth were driving the last of the horde into the river. They would go, too, after that, as they always had before, into the water or out upon the plain. No doubt the dragons would do the same. And that would be the end of it–for this year and maybe for years after.

Charis could rest then. She told herself that as she turned back toward the village, with the horse following like an enormous and persistent dog.

It felt wrong. Her feet wanted to take her away from her house rather than toward it. They yearned toward the river and the gnashing jaws and tossing plumes and the great beasts that had risen at her call.

She was doing what her people had always done. She should be content. Which had nothing to do with the fact that she had started walking, and had no power to stop until she was almost to the river.

The children of earth turned at her coming. One of them, the tall one, loosed a shrill cry, like a hawk’s grown large enough to fill the sky. It was a call, and the dragons came to it, striding over the torn and bloodied earth.

They were coming for her. She had roused them; now she would pay. Her blood would complete the spell.

She was ready. She faced them with her head up, too far gone to be afraid.

The horse snorted. No wonder it followed her; it was too stupid to run away from dragons. It flattened its ears and snaked its head and snapped teeth in the face of the tall child of earth.

The child of earth had eaten enough of its kind today that she had no appetite left. She blinked lazily at the horse, and hissed.

The horse lunged. Charis hauled it back.

They stood poised, she and the horse and the child of earth. The horse would kill if she let it, and be killed in return. And that might rid her of the meddlesome thing, but there would still be the rest of it to contend with.

They were all waiting for her to move, to speak–something. “Come home now,” she heard herself say as if they had been her children. “It’s time to sleep.”

That was the maddest thing she had said or done in all this mad season. The earth’s children never came home. They always went away. And that was a good thing, because if they had no horsemen to feed on, then they would turn on the people.

Not if she told them otherwise, the tall one’s gaze said. They would go back into the earth. They would sleep, as she bade them; and wake when she called, too, if the rivermen came. Or more horsemen. Or–

“Why?” she asked. “Why would you do it?”

The golden eyes lidded. The tall crest went flat. It was an answer, but not one her human mind could understand. The closest it could come was a vision, an image behind her eyes: young Thistle objecting strenuously to maternal discipline, but giving in in the end, because Charis was even stronger-willed than she.

“I’m not your mother!” she burst out.

Was that laughter? Could a dragon know such a thing?

Not their mother, no; that great power had never inhabited a frail human body. But she had something that no human had had before. She was not afraid of them.

“No,” she said. “I’m terrified.”

The child of earth opened its jaws and hissed. That was laughter, oh yes. Danger, too; teeth that could rend a horse in half and jaws that could swallow a human whole.

“Home,” she said, which was a surrender of sorts, and a command. If it wavered slightly, the children of earth seemed disinclined to notice. “Home, and sleep.”


The winter field was quiet again, the children of earth asleep beneath it. Where the dragons had come up out of the ground, the grass had already begun to grow.

The plain was empty once more, and as clean as the aftermath of a battle could be. The pyres of the dead had burned for a hand of days, until a storm came out of the east and quenched the flames. The people had a herd of horses now, which some of the more enterprising were already teaching themselves to ride.

The world was changed, but some things were still, in spite of everything, the same. Thistle, who could not be kept off the back of the dun horse that had followed Charis home. Deion, who refused to enter the village even yet. And Charis, who had come back in the dark with the children of earth, and told no one what she had done.

Charis began to think that she might breathe again. Maybe even forget her great transgression, since nothing had been said of it. No one but Deion and Ione appeared to know, and they kept it to themselves.

No one needed to know. The people were safe. Would be safe now for as long as she was alive.

She went out one morning when the heat was already rising, for the summer that year had come early and strong. Deion had a tent now, pitched in a fold of the ground so that the wind off the plain swept over it rather than through it. He had a campfire, and one way and another there was always something cooking over it. Much of it he hunted for himself; and people slipped him whatever they could spare.

He was not so thin now, but the brightness that had gone out of him had never come back. She saw the faintest glimmer of it as he glanced up from tending his fire, before his eyes lidded and his face locked shut.

She had brought a knob of sheep’s cheese and a basket of berries from the summer pasture. They went pleasantly with the rabbit that turned on a spit over the flames.

“You could leave,” she said as they shared the last of the bones, cracking them and sucking out the marrow.

“Is that a command?” he asked.

His voice was as flat as his expression. She had a sudden, powerful urge to slap him silly.

She tossed the last cracked bone into the fire. “Tell me why you stay.”

“Where else would I go?”

“Anywhere in the world,” she said.

“Do you want me to leave?”

“What would you do if I said yes?”

He prodded the embers until they burst into flame. His hand shook ever so slightly. “If you meant it, I would obey.”

“Of course I would mean it!”

“Then say it,” he said.

Her teeth clicked together. She would say it. She was long since finished with him. What he had done–

She had done worse. His sin was to try to save the people, but to fail at it. She had succeeded. Except that no one knew, except this man and her sister.

He paid every day for his transgression. She…

She stood without a word, turned and walked away.


The Mother heard her out in perfect and awful silence. The elders twitched and murmured at parts of the tale she told, but she was not speaking to them. She kept her eyes on the Mother’s face.

It gave her nothing back. Belief, disbelief–nothing.

“And now,” Charis said when she was done, “they sleep again beneath the earth. Even the children of the stones. In spring they’ll wake. Or sooner if there’s need. They promised me.”

Still, nothing.

“And I will go,” she said. “I know the penalty.”

“Do you?”

She was so steeped in the Mother’s silence that the words seemed to come out of the ground, with no lips or tongue to speak them. Her mind focused slowly. “I know what I did.”

“Do you?”

Every mother could drive her daughter to distraction; so could Charis. It was an art of mothers.

“Tell me what I don’t understand,” Charis said.

“Most things,” the Mother answered.

Charis could hardly argue with that. She stood in the elders’ circle, with the sun beating down even through the branches of the tree that had shaded their summer councils for time out of mind. People had wandered over, curious, or looking for a respite from the labor of making land and people whole again.

She wondered if any of them could feel the sleepers beneath. Every part of the village now had its defenders. A whole nest of them slept under the winter field, that would need no seedstones planted this autumn, or for many an autumn after.

Charis had done that. She would see to it that the Mother and the elders looked to Ione for the things that Charis would not be there to teach them. Ione knew what to do and say and sing when the time of waking came.

She opened her mouth to speak, but the Mother’s uplifted hand forestalled her. “I am not going to let you go,” she said. “That would be the easy thing, and the simple one. I command you to stay, and see us all through to the end of what you have done.”

“That could be a long sentence,” Charis said.

“Longer than your life,” said the Mother.

Charis shivered. Death was part of life; everyone knew that. But the Mother was binding her to this place as the defenders were–from life into life, down all the long years.

It was a fair price, all things considered. Terrible, but fair.

She bowed to it. There was a moment, a brief flicker of regret, that she would not be faring out into the wide world after all. It vanished quickly.

This was her place. Her people were here. Her kin; her children. The children of earth, who had bound themselves to her, or she to them. She was not entirely clear on the finer points of that.

She would learn. The Mother had made sure of it.


Deion was still sitting where she had left him. She had not been entirely sure he would be. If it had been she, she would have packed up and gone.

He had always been slower at the simmer.

“Take down your tent,” she said, “and cover the fire. You won’t be needing them any more.”

His breath caught: all the sign of shock that he would let her see. “And you?”

“I’m condemned to stay,” she said.

“I’m sure that grieves you.”

“As much as it would you.”

“That’s not my choice, is it?” he said.

“No.” She doused his fire with water from the skin that lay near it, and swept earth over it.

He stood stiff, watching her. She straightened. “Now the tent.”

“You hate me that much,” he said.

“That depends,” she said.

“On what?”

“On what you do with all this,” she said, “once it’s down and packed.”

“What can I do but leave?”

Idiot man. Maybe he should just go.

Then who would make her want to laugh or slap him in equal measure? And who would mind the children when she needed another set of hands?

“You can come back,” she said, and her voice was as steady as it needed to be.

His face went perfectly blank. “You know I can’t do that.”

“Have you tried?”

He opened his mouth. Shut it.

She set her hand to the tent. After a long count of breaths, so did he. When it was down, the poles wrapped in the painted felt and all lashed together, she left him to do what he would do.

She heard him behind her: the grunt as he lifted the bundle of tent and poles and balanced it on his shoulder. She would not slow or turn, but her ears strained. Dreading to hear him walking away.

He kept a steady distance–a few steps behind. Through the maze. Into the village. All the way to the house the two of them had built, not so far from the winter field.

He went past and around it to the lean-to in the back, where he stowed his bundle, along with the rest of the odds and bits that a man and a woman and their assortment of children might find useful. When he came out, he stood straighter, and the light was back in his eye: not so bright yet, but it would grow.

He was home. And so, at last, was she.

Copyright 2014 Judith Tarr

Judith Tarr is the author of numerous novels and short stories including the World Fantasy Award nominee for Best Novel, Lord of the Two Lands, and the Epona Sequence of “prehistorical” novels, which opens with White Mare’s Daughter. She is a member of Book View Cafe, the online authors’ cooperative; she lives near Tucson, Arizona, where she raises and trains Lipizzan horses.

By A.C. Wise


I. The Magician

“What do you think?” the Old Man asks, turning my question back at me. He taps the tarot card with one finger, nail tobacco-yellow and tipped in a crescent moon of dirt. “Sacred or profane? Sinner or Saint?”

He pushes the card closer as if I haven’t already looked my fill. The photograph pasted to the board shows the woman whose story I’ve come to gather – Erzebetta, no last name – the Carnival Queen. Feathers ring her collar and rise from her hair. There are shadows around her head, what could be smudges on the photograph, but distinctly in the shape of feathers, beaks, and the blur of wings.

The photograph is worn, edges made velvet-soft from handling, lightning-struck with pale creases. Even faded, Erzebetta’s expression is defiant, head held high. Yes. A queen. A goddess even.

I look up to catch the Old Man grinning. Light slides through his eyes, winking without lowering a lid. It’s as if he’s read my mind and seen it made up before I even talk to the list of people he’s given me. My neck prickles, and I try not to blush.

“I’m just here to write a book, sir,” I say.

“But you must have an opinion, hey? It’s been nearly a month since the conflagration. Plenty of time for rumor to spread, especially with tongues wagging right from the start.”

I shake my head, but it’s answer enough for him. He leans back, lanky frame barely contained by the whole of his smoke-stained trailer, crowded with the ghosts of cigarettes past.

“So, you have your list,” he says, expectant weight in the words.

“Sorry. I almost forgot. The smokes you asked for.” I hold out four cigarettes fished from my shirt pocket. “Are you sure you wouldn’t rather have the whole pack?”

“Four will do.” He plucks them from my hand one by one, pushes Erzebetta’s picture out of the way, and lays them out in a row. He takes a penknife from his pocket and a packet of rolling papers.

“What about the girls?” I ask. “I don’t see any of their names on the list.”

“Most of them ran off after the troubles. Can’t blame them, me. Besides, a man like you doesn’t want the chatter of a bunch of silly birds cluttering up his book.”

I open my mouth to answer, but the movement of his hands catches my attention, though I swear I never took my eyes off them for more than a second as he slit each of my four cigarettes down the middle and re-rolled their contents in his own papers. The battered table is lined with sixteen cigarettes, sixteen dead soldiers, shroud-wrapped and waiting their burial day.

“Good trick, hey?” He looks up. For a brief moment, his eyes are gold. It must be the light, or all the smoke – curing the Old Man in his trailer, like dried meat and old leather.

At the thought, I can’t help another glance at the Old Man’s handiwork, mounted on the walls, all the other eyes watching me – The Fiji Mermaid, the Jackalope, the two-headed calf, the werewolf pup, and even a demon or two. The Old Man swears his are the originals, he gave Barnum the idea.

“Smoke?” he offers. I shake my head.

He shrugs, sticks the cigarette in the corner of his mouth and produces a strike box of matches seemingly from thin air. There’s a lewd picture of a woman on the top that looks stuck there by hand. The Old Man breathes out, adding more smoke ghosts to the wall. The smell is cloves and cinnamon, nothing that was in the cigarettes I gave him. He smiles slow this time, gaze half-lidded, which only makes him seem more watchful.

“So,” he says, and taps the picture again. “I suppose you want to hear about the day Erzebetta fell from the sky?”


II. The High Priestess

Say what you want, but I’m no fool, me. Except when I am, but that’s another tale and nothing you need worry yourself with just yet.

I know when trouble’s coming. I can feel it like a wind up my tail. That night, it came in a storm, all done up in lightning and thunder. So I set myself up with a smoke, poured a little whiskey in my tea, and stood right in my trailer door to see what the howling night would bring.

That’s how I was the first to see her when she fell out of the sky.

She was a sight, right enough, tumbling ass over teakettle into the mess of mud outside my trailer. If I hadn’t seen her fall, I would have sworn on my own mother’s grave she was nothing but a pile of old rags being picked over by birds. I even heard those birds shriek just before she stood up to show she was a woman, not a bundle of cloth and wings.

Even with her boots heels sunk deep in the dirt, and mud spattered all up her legs, even wearing scarce more than silk panties, with her skirt bunched behind her, a froth of black fabric just as pretty as a peacock’s tail, dragging down in the muck, she lifted her chin and glared right at me like I was the one trespassing. Feathers peeked out from her corset, and only a fool would think they grew right out of her skin, despite the tricks the lightning played. There were feathers in her hair, too, all draggled by the rain. Crow, they were, black as her eyes, which wept more black where her make-up ran. Only thing about her not black or mud spattered were her teeth. They were white as milk and sharp as anything when she showed them to speak.

“Old Man. Aren’t you going to invite me in?”

What does a body say to a thing like that? I did the charitable thing, me. No sense giving trouble anger for fuel on top of everything else. I let her track mud all over my floors, let her trail her fingers over my things, like she was marking me by what I owned. I poured her whiskey, which she took without tea. I let her pace round and round my trailer, and never said a word aloud as to how she smelled of life and death, sex and blood.

“Do you know who I am?” she said at last.

Her eyes were fierce, all black lightning and wicked as the storm. I could see by their look she wanted me whipped, tail tucked between my legs and all. She wanted my belly, rolled for her wicked-sharp teeth, or failing that, my throat.

But I’m in no hurry to see my own demise, me, and,  “I think I got a fair idea,” says I to her, stalling for time.

I gave her a look like maybe I was trying to place where I’d seen her before. I knew exactly who she was, but I figured there was no sense in showing my hand too soon. By the look she gave me right back, I wasn’t fooling her. Erzebetta wasn’t like me. She was in a rush to put her cards on the table and see if I’d fold from the blow.

“Well then, Dad,” she says. “Since we got a lot of catching up to do and I’m going to be around for a while, why don’t you start by offering me a job?”


III. The Empress

Snips, they call me. Ain’t my real name, but I reckon you guessed that already, what with your book smarts and all. And I don’t guess you want to hear about me or what name my mama gave me. It’s no account, like me, which is what Daddy always said about me, so much I almost thought that might be my name for a while. No Account. But there I go rambling when you’re here to hear about Miss Erzebetta, our Carnival Queen.

She was real pretty. But I guess you know that already, too. She wasn’t pretty like the dancing girls, mind you. They were a soft kind of pretty, one you could touch. Miss Erzebetta was different. Like the kind of pretty what scares you, you know? Like a shiny bug, and you don’t know if it’s poison til it bites you.

The Old Man, that’s what we call him, he gave her the girlie show to run. She popped right up one day and asked for a job, and he gave it to her, no questions asked. It’s funny, though. The Old Man ain’t really in charge. Charlie’s the boss. Leastwise it’s his trailer we line up outside of on payday, but even Charlie knows the real score.

So when the Old Man said Miss Erzebetta was going to run the girlie show, well, that’s just what happened. I think he did it to needle her. She was real proud-like, Miss Erzebetta. Like I said, a Queen. The Old Man probably thought it’d be funny to give her girlie show, but if he was looking for her to turn her nose up, she never did give him the satisfaction.

I’ll tell you, she flipped the show round right quick, and got all the girls eating right out of her hand like birds to seed. One of the first things she did was bring me on her crew.

When she asked, “Is there anyone here I can count on to do whatever I say, with no questions or back-talk?” I said right away, “Yes’m, that’s me.”

The other boys, Rib, and Toad-Licker, and even Geech teased me about being in love with her. I’ll allow as maybe they were right. I only knew I wanted to do things to make her happy, you know? Or maybe it was just that I never wanted to find out whether her bite was poisonous. I ‘spect Rib and Geech and Toad-Licker felt the same way, though they never said as much, and it never stopped their teasing.

Anyway, she brought me on her crew to work the lights. Geech ran the curtain, Toad-Licker cleaned up the stage, and Rib guarded the door just in case there was any trouble.

I don’t know when Miss Erzebetta got all the girls together to rehearse her new show. She never let us see beforehand. I guess she trusted us to get everything right on the first try without any practice, and I’ll tell you what – we did.

Thinking on it now, maybe it was some kind of magic, you know? Like maybe there was a spell cast on the whole room the night Miss Erzebetta put on her first show. Otherwise I can’t explain it.

Miss Erzebetta’s show weren’t like no girlie show I ever saw before. It was almost like going to church, and you can say I’m a sinner for saying so, but it’s the truth. That’s just what it felt like, with all the men sitting on the wooden benches like pews, and a hush over everything while they waited for the curtain to rise.

There was a kind of ‘lectricity in the air, like a storm about to break, and I swear the hair stood right up on the back of my neck. I felt like laughing and dancing and crying all at once, and even now I can’t say why.

The Old Man even showed up, like he wanted to see what Miss Erzebetta would do, same as the rest of us. He didn’t sit in the seats, of course. He just leaned in the doorway with his arms crossed, like he didn’t care one way or the other about being there, except he did care. I could tell.

I guess at some point Miss Erzebetta decided the waiting had gone on long enough. I don’t remember how I knew the right moment, but I did. Smooth as butter, I flipped the first light on – a spot as full and bright as the moon, right in the center of the stage – right as the curtains glided back like water. There was a gasp, a kind of rippling thing that spread across the room like wind over tall grass. There weren’t no girls on the stage yet, just a pile of rags and a bunch of birds settling their wings.

Before anyone got angry so that Rib had to throw them out, the rags unfolded. I don’t know how to say it any better, or how Miss Erzebetta pulled it off. It was like a magic trick. I swear when the curtain went up it was just rags and birds on the stage. Then suddenly Miss Erzebetta was there, stretching herself up to her full height. The birds circled her once, then they just kind of disappeared into her so everyone could see they must have imagined them after all.

After that, Miss Erzebetta started talking. She was wearing a skimpy costume and all, the same thing she always wore, and it showed plenty of skin, but she never took any of her clothes off. She just stood there and told a story. Funny thing is, all those men who’d paid to see girls flash their titties, not one of them got mad or tried to leave. They all sat with their feet rooted in the floor like they’d grown there.

The story Miss Erzebetta told, well, I’ll remember it word for word til I die. The first thing she was: “In the beginning, in the dark before the world, there were the People, and the Spirits, and Coyote was among them.”

When she said that, it was just like someone dropped a handful of ice right down my back. I don’t know what made me do it, but I looked over at the Old Man right as she said those words. He nodded, like he knew what she was going to say, and could tell the story word for word along with her if anyone asked. There was kind of a faraway look about him, too, like he was sad and wicked, mad and bad and crazy all at once. It put a picture in my head of a mangy dog chasing its tail and trying to get rid of fleas, but grinning wild the whole time, with a red tongue hanging out between its teeth as it spun.

I can tell you, it scared me more than anything and I had to look away quick-like. The other funny thing, when I looked away I saw my hands had been working the lights the whole time, like they knew what to do and didn’t need me at all.

The stage was lit up all pink and orange like the sun coming up at the beginning of the world. Miss Erzebetta raised her arms, and the dancing girls came onto the stage. They weren’t dressed in their spangles and beads, mind you. They were dressed like regular folk, only some were dressed like women, and some like men.

The next thing Miss Erzebetta said was: “The men and women lived in harmony with each other, and with the Spirits, except for Coyote, who grew bored. So Coyote thought of a good joke to play. He pissed a river to separate the women from the men, and he laughed while he did it like it was the funniest thing he’d ever seen.”

Pardon my language, but that’s just how she said it, and I want to tell it right. She used an awful lot of words most folks don’t say in polite company, let alone a lady sayin’ em. But that’s how she was, Miss Erzebetta.

A shadow flickered on the wall behind her. My hands were playing tricks with the light again, making a monster with bristled fur and jaws stretched wide. The light on the stage changed, too, pooling yellow between her feet, like there really was a river of piss there.

Then Miss Erzebetta said: “At first the men and women made a game of the river. They put words and gifts and toys into clay pots and boats woven out of twigs, and tried to float them to the other side. They called to each other, and danced and laughed. But after a time, the women sang, not with words, but with sweet, dark sounds from their throats. And they changed the way they danced so it wasn’t playful anymore. The dancing and the song made the men feel their pulsing blood, and it put thoughts of everything they couldn’t have into their heads. And you can bet that was Coyote’s doing, too.”

When she said that last bit, her tone change, and she looked right at the Old Man. Her eyes were black-black, just like ink, and it scared me almost as bad as looking at the Old Man and seeing that mangy dog.

While Miss Erzebetta stared at the Old Man, the girls dressed like men hung their tongues out and panted, and the girls dressed like women danced. And I don’t mind telling you how the dancing put thoughts in my head, just like Miss Erzebetta said in the story.

I’d rolled with a few of the girls from time to time. Lots of us had. If they were in the mood, the girls would give us a good price, and sometimes, if they were in a really good mood, they would roll for free. But even the ones I knew, well, when they danced up there on the stage, they were like nothing I’d ever seen before. They were wild and strange and I don’t know what. If I didn’t know better, I’d almost say they weren’t human.

“And even that wasn’t enough for Coyote,” Miss Erzebetta said. “So he put thoughts of fucking into the women’s heads, too. And because they couldn’t reach the men, the women gathered branches and stones, smooth-polished bones and horns from the ground. They stripped off their clothes, and laid down right there on the river bank and pleasured themselves where the men could see, but not touch.”

You’ll pardon my language again, but that’s just what she said, word for word. Anyway, the girls up on stage acted out what Miss Erzebetta said. They took their clothes off, but it weren’t like no normal girlie show. Like I said, it was like being in church, only with naked girls doing all kinds of ungodly things.

Sometimes, when Miss Erzebetta spoke, it sounded like birdsong. Sometimes it sounded like thunder. All the while my hands were doing things with the lights. The girls on stage gleamed blue; they turned into starlight and moonlight.

As Miss Erzebetta spoke, the girls gathered stones and bones, smooth wood and horn and feathers from the stage. I don’t know where they came from, they were just there for the girls to pick up. When they stroked them slick and wet between their legs, moaning and crying out just like they were lying with a man, I had to look away. I swear I heard someone in the benches cryin’, and someone else being sick.

I didn’t look to see for sure, but I’ll bet out of everyone there, the Old Man was the only who never looked away, never blinked either, cuz he’d seen it all before.

Then Miss Erzebetta said, “In their desire, the men built creatures out of mud, things they could fuck while the women pleasured themselves.”

I almost couldn’t bear to look, but it was like I had to, you know? The girls dressed as men, they were doing just what Miss Erzebetta said, too. They had buckets and they poured mud onto the stage and built it into shapes that looked almost like women, but like monsters, too. I can’t say for sure, but I swear some of the girls had man-parts between their legs when they took their clothes off.

The last thing Miss Erzebetta said, while the women writhed around with the bones and the wood, and the girl-men fucked the things made of mud was: “And, because they copulated with bones and horn, branches and feathers and stone, the women became pregnant. And because the men fucked the mud, the river bank became pregnant, too. And because it was the time before the beginning of the world, the river dried up when the sun rose, and the men and the women, together again, had to live with what they’d done. And the women and the riverbank gave birth to monsters – girls with feathers in their skin, and boys with mud in their bones – by the next fullness of the moon.”

Then just like that, the lights went out. Bam! Without me even touching ‘em. I expected folks to yell in the sudden dark, but it was so still you could hear a pin drop. The men just sat there, breathing quiet, and even I felt like I was half asleep. When I finally shook myself up to turn the lights on, I felt all heavy, like pins and needles going up and down my legs.

Well, I got the lights on, and the men were all still sitting right where they were when Miss Erzebetta said the last word. They were staring up at the stage, only it was empty now, like they were waiting for her to come back. If me and Rib and Geech hadn’t finally thought to shoo them away, they might be sitting there still.

I don’t know what Miss Erzebetta did, but her telling that story was like a magician with a pocket watch. From that night on, Miss Erzebetta was our Queen, without anyone saying so, and we were all under her spell.


IV. The Emperor

I’m going to tell you a story. It’ll sound like two stories, but it’s really only one story, see? This story is just for you. Oh, you can put it in your fancy book if you want, but really, this story is for you and me.

After the time of the river, the men and women got to being afraid of the things they’d made by fucking mud and bone. So they made offerings of smoke and food to anyone who would listen. A bunch of us got together and came down to see what all the fuss was about, and everyone got to arguing about whether the monsters should live or die.

Those creatures had been born through no fault of their own, but that didn’t seem to matter much to anyone. No one likes having their wickedness shoved back in their face, I suppose. Everyone was too busy being ashamed of what they’d done that I guess no one remembered the whole mess was my fault. And since I can yell louder than most, me, everyone listened when I told them I had a plan.

There’s a thing about monsters most people don’t understand. What really makes a monster is wanting, always wanting to be something you’re not, and fighting against what’s down deep in your bones. Too many folks spend too much time trying to make their bones match their skin, but a bone’s never going to be but what it is. You fight bone-nature, and that’s when you become monstrous.

While everyone was arguing and worrying, I’d looked over all those so-called monsters. I knew which ones wanted and which ones knew their bones and skin. I know a thing or two about what kind of monsters the world needs, just to keep things interesting, see? A good joke gets spoiled if you don’t tell it all the way to the end.

So I said we’d draw lots for the monsters, a stick that was either cut with a mark or not for each one. If there was a mark on the stick, then the monster would be drowned, and if there wasn’t, they’d live in exile, far away from the folks that fucked them into being. The men and women all agreed, because even though they didn’t want their get around, no one wanted death on their hands, either. They figured it wouldn’t be wicked if they left it up to fate.

I like games, me, but I like the ones where I win the best. So I rigged the draw. And in the end, I decided each and every time which of the monsters would live, and which would die. So I birthed them twice, the ones who lived. I pissed a river so they got born in the first place, and I didn’t cut a stick for some, so they’d be born again. Some of them never forgave me for that.

You might think I’m wicked, me. But I am what I am in my skin and my bones. Trying to be otherwise, that would make me a monster.

Now here’s the other part of the story, which is the same story, see?

In the Starving Time, there were hard winters, and dry summers. Men didn’t have enough food to put on their tables, and cattle were scarce more than skin and bone. There was no grass to feed them, but men went right on breeding, making more mouths they couldn’t fill. And I was hungry, too.

There’s belly hunger, and there’s hunger that goes deeper and wider and all the way through. I was both kinds of hungry, me, so I set to singing under the moon and calling all my brothers and sisters, all my husbands and wives and children together. I told them about all the good things the men had to eat in their camps and behind their fences, and I sent them down from of the hills, all hungry jaws and wide smiles.

Course, when they got there, they found nothing but the bones of cattle, because whatever men had in those days, they’d already picked clean and still their bellies sang for more. My kin, they sang right back to that belly-hunger, howling their frustration in the shadows, just outside the circle of men’s hearth fires and campfires.

And didn’t that just put fear up the spines of the men, thinking about their loved ones falling to white teeth and wide jaws? So they loaded up their guns. They shot my brother first, and nailed his skin right up a barn door so the rest of us would know to stay away.

With my brother shot, there was more food for the rest of us. Just a mouthful, mind, but it was still one mouthful more than we’d had before. The thing about one mouthful is, it ain’t powerful enough to kill a hunger. One mouthful feeds a hunger, gives it teeth, makes it howl.

It wasn’t difficult to convince my kin to keep harrying those farms and those campfires, despite my brother’s skin up on the wall. Even his sons and daughters went right under their daddy’s eyes, all dripping buzzy fly tears, pissing and scratching and trying to mark the farmer’s land for their own. They even managed to snatch a babe right out of its cradle, under its mam’s sleeping nose, and didn’t that make a feast between them, tearing all that lovely red meat from those delicate bones?

If our singing put shivers up men’s spines, the death of a babe put rage in their bellies, enough so they almost thought they were full for a while. Those men howled almost as good as me and mine that night, calling for blood.

And while they were all het up, I walked right into the men’s circle of firelight, me, going on two legs, growl traded for grin. I told them where to find the dens; I told them where to put their snares; I left the fire and laid down musk and piss as lures, and led my kin right into the muzzles of those death-screaming guns.

Without all my brothers and sisters, husbands and wives, daughters and sons gobbling up what scarceness there was, just imagine how many mouthfuls were left for me.

And with all my kin gone, the men put their guns away. After a while, they felt so safe, they even started leaving their windows open again. And you can just imagine what a feast I had then.

When it was all said and done, my belly was full to bursting. It was a good joke I played, me, but I had no one to share it with. So I lay down among the corpses of my sons and daughters, my brothers and sisters, my husbands and wives. I let the flies tickle my ears and dance on my snout. And I wept a flood to cleanse the earth of every sin. Or enough to end the drought and bring the crops back, leastwise.


V. The Hierophant

I guess Snips already told all about the show, so there’s no sense in telling that part again. I can tell you what came after though, cuz Miss Erzebetta kept me on to guard the door, even when she changed everything, on account of I’m big, so people think I’m mean, too.

After that first night, there weren’t no more girlie shows. Instead, Miss Erzebetta taught the girls to tell fortunes. She made her own set of cards, Miss Erzebetta, I mean. She used pictures of people in the carnival. She even used one of me. Ain’t nobody ever thought I was worth putting on a card before, let alone to tell the future, but she did and that was fine by me.

She said something to me once that I don’t full understand, but it stuck with me, I guess. She said: “Rib, if you let the world tell your tale, nothing will ever be like you want it. You have to make your own story. It’s the only way to get the world to fall in line. They’re powerful things, stories. They can shape just about anything, if you tell them right. You remember that, Rib.”

I did just that, I guess, even though I don’t know what it means. Except that now I think back on it, maybe that’s what Miss Erzebetta was doing with the cards, telling a story. It’s like her girlie show told the way the world used to be, and the cards told the way she wanted it to be. I guess that sounds crazy, don’t it?

Anyway, even though there weren’t no more girlie shows, men still lined up at Miss Erzebetta’s to get their fortunes told. Some of the girls got pretty good at reading those cards, too. Some of them even were cards, like me, part of Miss Erzebetta’s story.

Well, there’s another part, which I probably shouldn’t say, but I guess it’s all over now so it don’t matter much. Even though they weren’t dancing no more, you could still pay some of the girls for their time, after they told your fortune and all. I guess that must be how some of them got pregnant. Anyway, I just wanted to add that bit in case it’s important, for your book and all.



“Hey,” the Old man says. “Let me give you a piece of advice for free.”

He taps the table, startling me. Then in one smooth motion he sweeps up the cards laid between us, Erzebetta’s photographs, and shuffles them in his yellow-nailed hands.

“Stories got their own rhythm and flow,” he says. “You got to let them take their own shape, tell the bits they need you to know in their own order and time. That way you get to skip all the boring parts, hey?”

He spreads the cards out on the table in a new order. His hands are quick, just like they were rolling cigarettes that became sixteen from four.

“There,” he says, and taps the first card in the new pattern. “That’s a good one. Start here.”

He lights another cigarette, breathes out a picture in smoke, and grins.


XII. The Hanged Man

That’s right, Elb, with an El and a Bee, Constable. You got that down? Right then.

The whole thing was an awful business, I can tell you that much. Right from the get go, the missus got after me about rousting them up and sending them on down the road, going on about the ‘sorts’ the carnival attracted. Tell you the truth, I didn’t like having the carnival right on our doorstep either, but I told her let it be – carnival usually only stays a week at most.

Least that’s how it was every other year. They blew into town and right back out again, leaving pockets a few dollars lighter, but folks happier for all that. ‘Cept this time, they stayed. Planted themselves down and never got back up again. The missus was right, not that I’d tell her so.

She kept at me, though. Especially after the tent city grew up with all the folks who styled that woman who joined up with them some kind of prophet. I don’t rightly know what that was about. I heard tell of some kind of show, and talk that she could tell the future. Most of the time, I just kept my head down and let it wash over me. Weren’t none of my business, way I figured it.

Sure every now and then we’d get a call about a fight getting out of hand, and I’d gather some of the boys to go see. More often than not, all it took was us showing up in uniform for everyone to settle down and go their separate ways. It was a nuisance, but no real trouble. I wasn’t fussed much, but the missus, well… I guess you’re wishing you could talk to her, too. I’m sure she’d give you an earful, but to tell you the truth, she don’t even talk to me much these days. She’s staying up with her sister now, so I guess you’ll have to take my word for her side of the story.

Anyway, she wasn’t the only one worked up about matters. There was a whole group that met up at the church pretty regular, the committee for moral decency or some such.

I don’t know what all is truth since I never did see anything too bad with my own eyes. But I can tell you what the committee for moral decency thought was going on up there. They said all the folks from the carnival and the folks from the tent city would gather up in the field and dance around without their clothes on, rutting like animals, and worshipping the devil.

Like I said, I don’t know what’s true and what’s not. All I can say is the business with Bessie’s little girl was a tragedy, and what happened after with that carnival gal wasn’t right neither. A thing like that isn’t justice, it’s…well, I’ll just say sometimes even good, decent people can get to feeding off their own bile until they’re no better than a pack of starving dogs.

The carnival gal, she was a real looker. Etoile was her name. That’s French for star, on account of how she was the star of, ahem, the show, before that odd bird came in and changed it all. Well, I guess maybe she was still the star, but in a different way. Like I said, I don’t pretend to know what went on up there. I never did go and get my fortune told. Truth is, the idea kinda scared me. Though I guess if the cards had told me the missus was gonna up and stay with her sister, maybe I could have done something about it. Maybe not.

What I can say is what set everything to unraveling was Bessie Williams’ little girl going missing. She was a pretty thing, blonde curls and sweet little apple cheeks and the bluest eyes you ever saw. She had her daddy and her momma both wrapped around her little finger, and she was barely even talking yet.

Anyway, as soon as she went missing, the committee for moral decency pointed their fingers straight at the carnival. I tried to talk some sense into them, the missus mostly, but she would have none of it. Let’s not be hasty, is all I said, and I’ll have my boys look into it. And we did, but I don’t mind telling you she gave me the cold shoulder just the same.

We did find Bessie’s little girl, two days later, but there wasn’t much left of her. Nasty business. She’d been tore up, like some animal got at her. My money’s on a rabid dog, or maybe a coyote. The committee for moral decency wouldn’t hear any of it. They said it was a blood sacrifice, and maybe they fed that little girl to wild dogs after she was dead, but sure as anything, it was the carnival folks who were to blame.

Now, I’ll admit, maybe my blood got up a little bit, too, seeing that poor little girl torn apart and Bessie so heartbroken. I like to think I couldn’t have done more to stop what happened next, but some days I just don’t know.

My boys and me, we did our jobs, I can promise you that. We’re not the type of lawmen who look the other way when one of our own is involved, no sir. But there was only so much we could do. A whole mob descended on the carnival, so I can’t even say any one person was to blame.

Still, it is a shame. Like I said, Etoile was real pretty. She used to get up all in silver and crystal beads, hanging everywhere in ropes on her so you couldn’t quite tell whether she was wearing anything under them. Ahem. Well, maybe it’s best you don’t put that bit in your book right there. For decency’s sake, you know

Anyway, like I said, it wasn’t right what happened to her. It wasn’t justice, stringing her up like that by her ankle, her throat slashed, leaving her to bleed dry. They cut her belly, too. There was a baby. Of sorts. At least that’s what I heard. I mean folks said it wasn’t natural, but I don’t know.

I do have a picture here somewhere, though, if you want to see. A word of fair warning: It’s not for the faint of heart.


XV. The Devil

Who was it you think put the idea of the hanging into those people’s minds in the first place? Sometimes the old tricks are the best ones. And sometimes what looks like two stories or three, is really all the same story. And every story needs a villain. You either have to be one or the other, hero or villain, to get written into the fabric of the world.

I am what I am, me. In my skin and in my bones.


XVI. The Tower

The Old Man leans back, blowing smoke at the ceiling. Sixteen cigarettes have become four again, but this time by the normal means.

“One spark is all it takes to set a pyre to blaze so long as it’s built right,” the Old Man says. “Me and Erzebetta, we built that pyre right and high all summer long. She thought she was raising up an army against me with her girls, showing she could birth monsters every bit as good as me, but she had no idea.”

He seems proud, like he knows my mind was made up the moment I saw the pictures of the girl with her belly cut and the thing they cut out of her. The way he grins, with all his grisly creations framing him on the wall, it’s like he’s just waiting for me to ask.

“How did you do it?” I say, not because I want to give him the satisfaction, but because I want him to see how quick I caught on to him.

“Some of my best work, if I do say.” The Old Man chuckles. “Turtle skin and squirrel bones, painted with tar. I’m wicked-clever, me. The demon infant cut out of the dead girl’s belly – proof the Devil’s work was being done. A glimpse here and there, and that’s your spark.”

I open my mouth, but the Old Man goes right on talking, with only the barest glance to make sure I’m writing everything down. There isn’t a bit of shame in him, like he can’t wait to boast to the whole world about what he’s done.

“Not that it mattered much. Folks had made up their minds already, hey? All they needed was a little shove in the right direction.

“They came with torches in hand, a mob to bring the demon down, to smoke the devil from her hole. Of course the men and women in the tent city fought back. They were ready to lay their lives down for Erzebetta at that point. All the fate and destiny she shaped in her cards did her some good, I suppose.”

The Old Man taps the cards piled neat on the table. He picks them up and shuffles them slow.

“Course, I doubt she ever promised a conflagration, hey? I doubt many folks would be so eager to sign up if she’d showed them that.”

The Old Man deals the cards, face down. They make dry, snapping sound against the table, like old bones.

“The tents caught first, all that canvas going up in a rush and the smoke pouring over everything and the wind catching and blowing it all around. What the wind didn’t carry, the men brought with their torches, marching toward Erzebetta’s temple to burn it to the ground. Oh, it was a sight, all that bloody-red gold, and sparks swirling up to kiss the stars.”

The Old Man pushes the remaining cigarettes aside to make more room for the cards. I read up on tarot when I first heard about Erzebetta’s deck, but this pattern I don’t recognize. It loops and swirls, taking up almost the entire table.

“It was a night of miracles,” the Old Man says. “Or of black sorcery, depending who’s doing the telling.” He looks at me, flashing a grin, like he’s going to ask my opinion again: sacred or profane? But he says nothing, waiting for me to speak first.

“So what happened?” I ask.

My notebook is full of different versions of what happened that night: Erzebetta walked untouched through the flames and vanished; a flock of dark birds dropped out of the sky and stole her away; she sprouted wings of her own and flew up into the stars. But I want to hear what the Old Man has to say, his side of the tale.

Instead of the glint in his eye and another boast, he surprises me and merely shrugs. “I don’t know. She would have said I’m not the kind of daddy that looks back after the birthing is done. Maybe she’s right, at that.”

“That’s it?” I say. I can’t help myself, I gape at him.

“That’s all,” the Old Man says. “Everything you need is right there.” He taps the edge of my notebook with one yellow-nailed finger. If I didn’t know better, I could swear the nail has grown.

I glance at the pattern of cards spread before him. There’s one left in his hand, but he doesn’t put it down. He holds onto it and looks up at me.

“Now, if don’t mind, I’m an old man, and old men need their rest, hey?”

That’s when the glint comes back into his eye, wicked and bright. He shows his teeth, just a fraction, and this time it isn’t a smile. Knowing everything he’s done, and proudly claimed, I can’t help myself. I gather up my papers and run.


Null. The Fool

I’m going to tell you a story, and it’s the same story. It’s about a girl and her daddy, and how the girl hated her daddy and blamed him for every wrong thing that had ever happened in her life. It’s about how the girl set out to take away everything her daddy had built over long years, on account of hating him so. And it’s about how the girl failed, being as how her daddy was wicked old and had been telling tales since before the world had even thought to be born.

Thing is, she saw the carnival and thought it was all of my tale. But the carnival is only one story, which is the same story, and I’m wicked-good at tales, me. I’ve been telling this one so long hardly anyone sees the head or tail of it. Cut one part out, and the rest just keeps on going.

Now this part here, this is just for you, see? Not that boy and his book. Poor holy Fool, clutching his notes to his chest, full of fire and knowing  just what kind of tale he’s going to write. Gone running to proclaim my wickedness to the world.

He’d already made up his mind when came to my door with that picture of Erzebetta clutched in his hand, see? He had his hero. All he needed was a villain. I sent him off with the best there is, tucked in his back pocket.

Never let it be said I’m a poor host, me.

I’ll tell you a secret, and you can have this one for free. Tell someone they can’t have something, they’ll go to wanting it so bad it cracks the marrow from their bones. Tell them something’s no good for them, and it’s all they’ll be able to think on for days. Give them a devil, and it’ll set thrill up their spines, thinking on all that wickedness. They’ll tell its story to their children and their children’s children again and again, whispering its name in the dark, so as to keep feeling that thrill. And won’t that name just live on and on.

Oh I’m wicked, me.

Here’s another secret, and you can have this one for free, too. Misdirection is an easy thing. Put something smack in the middle of the frame, and most people won’t bother to look to the edges, the background. When most people look at the Fool card, what do they see? They see the bright, motley jester, dancing his way to the cliff’s edge. What they rarely notice is the little dog, snapping his bright sharp jaws at the Fool’s heels, driving him closer.

That’s my story, me.

Coyote, blurring out from the edge of the picture frame. Coyote grinning, and driving the tale.


Copyright 2014 A.C. Wise.

A.C. Wise was born and raised in Montreal and currently lives in the Philadelphia area. Her fiction has appeared in Clarkesworld, Shimmer, Apex, and the Year’s Best Weird Fiction Vol. 1, among other places. She also co-edits the online magazine, Unlikely Story. You can find her online at and on twitter as @ac_wise. 

by M. Huw Evans

It’s easier when I pretend not to know him–when I think of him as a stranger and remind myself that he will still have a normal life. Maybe a better one, even.

I used to wear a mask or a fake beard to disguise myself, but he hasn’t recognized me for a long time.

I let myself into his second-floor apartment using a key hidden under the mat. I sit on his couch and hit play on the stereo remote. Radiohead’s Amnesiac, like always.

At thirty-two minutes past the hour, I kill the music and walk to the kitchen window. Rain splatters the street below. I can almost hear it.

I try not to see the chef knife on the counter. Nightmares are made of the time when things went bad. When I screwed up the dose and he woke up. There was a struggle and I panicked. I avoid knives, now.

He rides up to the building and locks his bicycle to a post. I retreat to the bathroom and wait behind the door. I remind myself how much I need this. It’s not hurting him. Not really. If you don’t know what you’ve lost, you can hardly miss it.


I first met Annabelle one year, twenty-seven weeks, and two days prior to our wedding. That was nineteen weeks and six days before my dissertation defense; three years, fifteen weeks, and a day prior to the birth of our daughter, Maggie.

I met Annabelle at an Italian restaurant near Green Lake.

What I remember about the evening–the thing about that first meeting that I’m surprised I remember–is the bit of cork floating in my wine. Each time I return to that scene, to my seat at the bar, as close to the piano as possible, it’s the tiny cork raft that I see, floating on the black-red ocean. And it’s a nocturne for piano that I hear.

I was the token grad student at a faculty recruitment dinner. My adviser, John Hicks, was present, along with several other epidemiology professors. My job was to eat quietly, drink little, laugh at the candidate’s jokes, and answer occasional questions. Patrick, someone might say, tell us about the temporal trends in your VA cardiovascular cohort, and I would tell them.

Disjointed phrases of “Girl From Ipanema” filled the space between personal anecdotes and pithy discussions. I had noticed a piano over by the bar when we entered, but I couldn’t recall when the music had started. I strained to assemble the notes in my head–to follow the syncopated melody. Then it ended, to be replaced by Chopin’s “Murmures de la Seine.” I lost track of the table conversation completely–hadn’t a clue who or what was being discussed. By the time I recognized my distraction, there was no way to recover. I couldn’t go back and replay the conversation that I’d missed. The only way to avoid embarrassment was to head for the restroom before anyone asked my opinion.

The pianist sat with her back to the diners, facing the lounge. Pale braids circled her head and a halter top dress displayed a tall neck and smooth shoulders dotted with freckles. Her elbows floated away from her body with each swell of the melody. Long fingers dripped from her hands to the faux-ivory keys. Extended trills and rapid arpeggios seemed effortless. I allowed myself a backward glance as I passed. Her eyes were closed, her lips parted.

On my return to the table, she was playing “Time Is On My Side.” She looked up and smiled.

I have no memory of the rest of dinner. I must not have said anything too foolish, as the candidate ultimately took the position, but my mind was far from the conversation. I was consumed by fantasies–dreams of summoning the nerve to speak to her. No conscious ideas of sex or romance yet prevailed. I just wanted that smile again.

When dessert was finished, John offered me a ride.

“Thanks,” I said. “But I’ve got my bike and it’s barely sprinkling.”

“Come by my office tomorrow,” he said. “I’ve got an opportunity with your name written all over it.”

Avoiding new projects is a critical skill for grad students actually interested in finishing their degrees. “Sure,” I said. It was a skill that I had not acquired.

I followed him out, and made a show of unlocking my bicycle, but when he’d gone, I locked it up again and returned to the bar. The pianist saw me, smiled again, and transitioned from Bizet’s “Habanera” to Pearl Jam’s “Wish List.” I ordered a glass of the house Chianti.

She played a mix of familiar classics, pop songs, show tunes, and jazz. When she finished a piece, sometimes there would be applause; usually she would go straight into the next. After an hour, when only a few diners remained, she joined me at the bar.

I had rehearsed what I might say: you play beautifully or you have such elegant fingers.

She took the stool beside me and said, “There’s a floater in your wine.”

“Um…” I began, but intelligent speech failed me.

“Could I have mine sans cork?” she said, then, extending a hand, “I’m Annabelle.”

She worked in a music shop during the days and played piano at the restaurant four nights a week. I told her about my work and she put on a convincing show of interest. We talked of music and local artists. We had attended many of the same shows.

“Would you like another glass?” I said, when she’d finished her wine.

She hesitated a moment before blurting out, “I don’t want a relationship.”

I was startled and didn’t reply, so she continued.

“I mean–shit. I’m sorry… I wanted to get it out there, so… you know, less confusion. I broke up with someone and I’m not ready.” Neither of us spoke. We looked at our empty glasses, mine with its bit of cork stuck to the wall.

Finally, she said, “I’ve just ruined–”

“No,” I said. “I understand. I don’t really want…” I couldn’t lie. I wanted.

She folded her napkin, unfolded it, set it down, picked it up again.

“Do you think we can pretend I didn’t say anything?” she said. “Go back to a minute ago, when you suggested another glass? If I’d accepted one, where might that have led us?”

“The counterfactual scenario?”

“Counterfactual?” she said.

“It’s the term for ‘what if things had been different?’ We use it in epidemiology. Say you want to figure out how many heart attacks are due to eating hamburgers. You have to know how many of the people who ate hamburgers and had heart attacks would have had heart attacks anyway if they hadn’t eaten hamburgers.”

“Can’t you just look at how many people who don’t eat hamburgers have heart attacks?” she asked.

“That’s pretty much what we do,” I said, “but it’s not perfect. See, you can never know for sure that the non-hamburger eaters don’t differ from the hamburger eaters in some other way. Some factor that we can’t detect. And maybe that other factor also influences the risk–”

She started laughing. “I don’t eat burgers.”

“Desserts, then,” I said. “The point is, we’d like to be able study the exact same group of people twice–once with them all eating dessert, and once with no dessert.”

“Have your cake and eat it too, huh?”

“That’s the counterfactual,” I said. “What would be different now–”

“I get it,” she said. “So let’s go back and try again. Let’s say you just asked me if I wanted more wine.”

“It’s not the same,” I said. “We’re different people than we were even five minutes ago.”

“Now I think you’re missing the point,” she said. Her hand found my knee and she winked. “Pretend?”

I raised my glass.

“Alright then.” She snapped her fingers, and said, “No, thank you, I’ve had plenty of wine for a first date, but I’d love some tiramisu.”

That was four years, thirty-eight weeks, and one day prior to Annabelle’s death by motor vehicle accident, three blocks north of the Aurora bridge.


A key turns in the lock and the apartment door creaks. I hear his voice talking into a phone.

“…a quiet evening in with the data. Why? …but John, I’ve come to three of these dinners already and… Can’t you parade one of the other… Okay, okay. I’ll just clean up and then bike over on my own.”

His cycling shoes clatter against the linoleum floor. He enters the bathroom and I strike. He sees me in the mirror too late. My left arm circles his neck, and I pull his head to my chest. I squeeze his throat in the crook of my elbow. He struggles, fights, but I know his every move before he makes it.

As consciousness deserts him, our eyes meet in the mirror. What he sees in my face–I don’t know what he sees. I’m not him.

What I see in him is surprise. Surprise, anger, confusion, denial, and maybe, for just one moment before he passes out, acceptance. I envy him that–the acceptance.


“How’s the paper coming?” John Hicks leaned back, his head silhouetted against dual monitors cluttered with spreadsheets, code windows, and manuscripts for review. He looked tired, older even. Maybe he’d returned to the office after dinner and worked all night.

“I’m still waiting on GIS overlay figures,” I said, “but our part is done. Should go out to co-authors by Tuesday.”

I didn’t need that long. I was padding my time. A pleasant hint of premonition nagged and I hoped to enjoy the weekend.

“Good. What else is on your plate?”

“Well… we’ve got another dataset from the Group Health cohort and–”

“Anything that can’t wait a couple days?” he said.

“Why? What do you have in mind?” The next grant deadline was weeks away, so he shouldn’t be panicked about our renewal yet.

“There’s a sort of fellowship. A job.” A day could hardly pass without him pushing another funding opportunity on me.

“It’s by referral only,” he said. “A short-term appointment to test new protocols. Novel techniques for longitudinal cohort studies. I want you to apply. Get the training, at least.”

“Training?” I said. “What, like a new software package?”

“No… actually, I can’t tell you yet. There’s some proprietary technology and right now it’s all a bit hush-hush.” He chuckled. “I’m involved though, and I can tell you, this will revolutionize our field.” He leaned forward. “And the pay–if you were accepted, you’d make more than most full professors.”

“I’m intrigued,” I said. “Why me?”

“You get stuff done,” he said. “No procrastination, no whining, no bullshit.”

I didn’t reply, so he shifted in his seat and tried again.

“What’s the big problem with cohort data?” he asked. Was he quizzing me on study design?

“Well,” I began, “you’re limited to measuring a small set of exposures, which–”

“Skip that. You finish your data collection and  you’ve got perfect follow-up on all subjects. What do you still have to worry about?”

“Underlying differences between exposed and unexposed… that are unrelated to the exposure of interest.”

He clapped his hands. “Bingo. Comparability across exposure groups. And there’s nothing we can do about it unless…”

He seemed to want me to finish his sentence. I waited. After a long pause he said, “Patrick, are you seeing anyone?”

“What?” I said. He wasn’t the sort to pry.

“It’s none of my business. Forget I asked. This job though–they’re only considering single applicants.”

Was I seeing anyone? An evening’s conversation. Wine and dessert. The touch of her lips on my cheek before she ran to a bus. It meant nothing. Technically, I was as single as I’d been twenty-four hours before. No, I wasn’t seeing anyone.

“Actually, I kind of am,” I said.

He raised an eyebrow. “Kind of?” he said. “You’ve never mentioned.”

“It’s a new thing,” I said. Was it really even a thing? “We just met. Last night.”

He frowned. “After the dinner?” I could see him puzzling it out. “The girl at the piano, right?”

I nodded, shifted my feet.

“I can’t tell you what to do, Patrick, but this job–it’s not something to miss.”

“Neither is Annabelle.” Until I said it, I hadn’t realized that it was true.

“I guess you can’t regret this if you don’t know what you’re missing, but if you knew, I think you’d choose differently.”

“Another damned counterfactual,” I muttered.

He chuckled. “Right. Sure.”

Then, after a pause, he said, “I guess I’m happy for you, Patrick. She must really be something, this pianist.”

She was.

And for a time, we were–really something. Me and Annabelle, and later, me and Annabelle and Maggie.


There are some things that cannot be.

A visit at work, in the middle of the day, from a police officer with beads of rain studding his jacket. Words that could not be, coming from his mouth.

A home appliance delivery truck, southbound on Aurora avenue. Its driver asleep or drunk. A blue hatchback rolled and crushed. A broken body on wet pavement. Words that made sense, sounded plausible, but would not fit with my world. Could not be true.

I asked one of Annabelle’s friends to assemble the music. I probably suggested Barber’s “Agnus Dei”–Annabelle’s favorite. I don’t remember whether it was played. What I do remember–what I remember hearing that day is Nirvana’s “Come As You Are” when someone hit the wrong playlist. There was a stifled laugh. I remember that.

I remember that the sun shone that day, and I remember Maggie. I remember how she wouldn’t be held. How she cried the whole time. Stumbled around on wobbly legs, calling for her mother. Fell down and cried more. My parents tried to distract her. Eventually, she fell asleep on a pew and later, I carried her to the car.

The people who should have been at the reception were there. Annabelle’s mother and sister. My parents. Annabelle’s friends, my friends, John Hicks.

What I remember about John that day is that he wore a hat, and when he came into the church, he took it off. His hair was thinner than I’d remembered. He probably said something to me. I don’t know.

Afterward, at the reception, I ate some carrot sticks and a piece of cheese. That’s all I remember of the day. A day that could not be.

Then anger, bargaining, depression. I was told acceptance would follow. I could not accept that.


“How are things, Patrick?” John’s voice through my phone. “How’s Maggie?”

“John, I can’t come back yet. To work.”

“No worries, Patrick. Take next quarter off. I can teach your seminar.”

“Yeah,” I said. “Maybe.” I was sitting at my desk, looking at the wall. Looking at photographs on the wall. Photographs of me and Annabelle, and of me and Annabelle and Maggie.

Maggie was asleep beside me. I had moved the crib into my office to keep her close. She was irritable and if I wasn’t there the moment she woke, she might cry for hours.

“Is there anything I can do?”

“Come explain to a seventeen-month-old why her mother’s gone. Get me something better than aspirin for this headache. Remind me how to focus…on anything.”

“What about the grandparents? I met your folks and Annabelle’s mom at the–” He couldn’t say it. The other F word.

“They help a lot,” I said. “But if I’m not with Maggie, she gets… It might be a while.”

“Can you work from home?” he asked. Drafts of three unread papers sat on my desk, awaiting comments.

“I don’t seem to be making any progress,” I said. I flipped through the first manuscript. It was covered with notes and edits, written in my own hand. I couldn’t even remember making them. “I’m just not functioning,” I said. “I’m falling apart. Forgetting stuff.”

“If you don’t mind me asking, Patrick, how are you set financially?”

“That’s another problem,” I said. “I guess I can move in with my folks if it comes to it.”

There was a long pause. John doing the math on how long he could get the department to keep paying me after I’d stopped teaching or writing grants. Finally, he spoke.

“You remember that job I mentioned a few years back?” He took my silence for acknowledgement. “I can still get you in, and it pays a lot.”

“I can’t,” I said. “I have to be with Maggie.” She stirred and started to fuss. I rubbed her back, stroked her head.

“You’d have to go in for a day of training and orientation, but after that, you’d work from home and Maggie could have you all the time.”

On cue, she started crying. I told John I’d think about it and I hung up. I lifted Maggie from the crib and held her. She kicked and wailed. I carried her to the kitchen and prepared a bottle.

“I need her,” I said, as Maggie sucked greedily at the rubber nipple. “I need your mother.”


I met John in the cafeteria of the university hospital. The hospital where Maggie was born–where I’d attended prenatal classes with Annabelle. To John, it was just a convenient place to talk–and eat.

“You don’t look so good,” he said. “You eat today?” I hadn’t seen him in person since the memorial service. He looked like he’d aged a decade.

“You’re looking a bit run down yourself,” I said. “Everything alright?”

“Let’s get some breakfast,” he said.

When we’d sat down with our trays, he squeezed ketchup onto hash browns. I picked at a bagel.

“So, recall that old problem,” he said, “with ensuring comparability across exposure groups?”

I nodded.

“There’s a way,” he said. “A way to do it perfectly.”

“Don’t tell me,” I said, “you’ve got cohorts of human clones that you’re raising on desert islands?” I tore a chunk from my bagel.

He laughed. “Nope,” he said. “Better.” He shoveled eggs into his mouth and chewed. “I remember being in your shoes,” he said, “when they first told me. Your world’s about to turn upside-down.”

“Again?” I said. “I don’t know if I can handle that.”

What John told me, sitting there in the hospital cafeteria over eggs and hash browns was that time travel, when it finally came along, was a big disappointment.

“Think about it,” he said. “Say you’re the secretary of defense. People are always pushing new technologies at you. Stuff with military potential, you know. When a team of physicists out on the West Coast claims to have transported a video camera into the past and back, it’s got to be a joke, right? But if it’s not… well, think of the applications!”

Early on, the few scientists and defense guys who knew about it were scared. “You don’t have to be a physicist or a sci-fi geek to understand the inherent dangers of traveling into the past. Paradoxes, accidentally erasing your own parents from history, et cetera.”

So they ran tests, out in remote locations–tried to alter insignificant events. In the Mojave Desert, a concrete plinth was transported five years into the past. In the present, there was no trace of it. A reconnaissance drone was sent to the same time and place. It returned, bearing three weeks of astronomical observations–enough data to definitively prove that it was transported to the past. “But the plinth–it wasn’t in any of the drone’s photos.”

Bacteria, fungi, and plants were sent back and then examined on their return. No adverse effects. Then mice, rats, dogs, a goat, and two pigs all made the round-trip without mishap.

“Safe for animals; safe for humans,” said John. “And at first it seemed that way. Travelers went and returned over and over. They could snap pictures, bring shit back with them, describe historical events, but any time they tried to change little bits of history, when they came back, our present was exactly as they remembered.

“There was a setback when a traveler went twenty-four hours into the past, planning to tail himself for a day, watch his own departure, and then just stick around and pick up where he left off. He’d have lived one day of his life twice. A loop.”

John stopped talking and took a long swig of coffee. He pushed wisps of hair back off his forehead.

“So, what happened?” I said.

“It didn’t work,” John replied. “That guy, he left and, he was just gone. He never returned. Ever. After that, human trials were suspended for a long time.”

“Okay, John,” I said, “you keep talking about the past. What about–”

“The future?” he said. “Yeah, theoretically, it was supposed to work as easily as going into the past. All the drones sent to the future disappeared though. Never came back as scheduled. And they are never sitting there, broken down and waiting for us, when their target date rolls around.”

Every destination in time, John told me, regardless of whether the traveler is drone, human, or a single atom, becomes a branch-point. A divergence. The birth of a new parallel universe.

“All those changes that people tried to make in the past… they were successful,” he said. “They changed the past, alright–just different pasts that can never influence our own.” John laughed. “The military–the politicians that knew about it–they were pissed when they found out they couldn’t use it to fix their mistakes.”

The reason none of the drones returned from the future, was because when they jumped back to the present, they were creating a branch point. They returned to a present that looked like their own, but it was really a different present with a different future.

“And that guy who jumped back a day, and disappeared,” said John, “he was successful too. He went back, watched himself for a day–watched himself disappear–then continued living the rest of his life, presumably working on the same project, performing more travel tests. He just did all that in a different universe and never even knew it.

“I guess that wasn’t any comfort to his wife and kids,” I said.”

John shook his head. “He was single,” he said, “but his parents don’t know what he was doing, and they’re still scouring the globe for him. Won’t give up.”

John wiped his hands on a napkin and said, “Now, say you’re a scientist, and you’re looking for an ideal study population.”

“John,” I said, “have you actually done this? Created other universes–gone back in time?”

“And say you’re sick to hell of dealing with institutional review boards and ethics panels and–”

“Shit, John,” I said. “Ethics panels? This is insane. You’re serious about this? You’re really…this is real?”

“Sure, you’ll have to prove your findings in your own timeline too,” John said. “Nobody will buy the answer to a question that hasn’t been properly asked.”

John pushed his chair back and stood. I followed him to the exit. He held the door for me and grinned.

“But when you already know all the answers,” he said, “you always ask the right question. The one for which the answer is yes.”

No more negative studies. No more investigational dead ends. What the world sees as intuitive genius–an uncanny knack for getting it right every time–it’s still trial and error. It’s just that all the errors are hidden. They’re dumped on another universe.

And if it nags at your conscience a little bit–what you might be doing to all the people in all those other universes you’re creating, well…it’s amazing, given enough time and incentive, what a person can justify to himself in the name of science. History is full of it.

John led me through a cold drizzle toward a two-story brick building by the lake. Lake Union. Where Annabelle and I would sit and talk. About the future. About us. Where Maggie would babble and point out the ducks, the boats.

With every trip to the past, John–or whoever–had created a whole other Lake Union. Other ducks. Another Maggie. Annabelle. Another me.

My stomach folded up and I got dizzy. I thought I might be sick.  I believed John’s words even while my mind rebelled against them. Words that could not be true; that threatened my understanding of the world.

John kept walking. I took a couple deep breaths and caught up.

“How did our department get a hold of the technology?” I asked.

“Everything trickles down eventually,” John replied without turning round. “Defense engineers slide into private industry jobs. Senators gobble up campaign contributions. Favors are repaid, and that which was secret is soon for sale.”

We passed the main entrance to the building and continued around two sides, to the back.

“The original scientists, though,” he said, “–the physicists who developed time travel in the first place–they were here–right here–and they were smart. They understood the subtleties of intellectual property law.”

The university held exclusive rights to non-governmental applications. When the Department of Defense cleared the technology for civilian use, the university bared its teeth. “Made the corporations beg,” said John. “Forced them to contract with us for all of their time travel needs. And we aren’t cheap.”

Small black lettering on the door of the building read Experimental Physics Library Annex. John punched a series of numbers into a keypad and the lock buzzed. We entered a low room, ten feet square, with bare walls. Cameras glared down from the ceiling. Another door with a keypad faced me. I heard the lock of the first door click behind me and John keyed us in through the second.

“What if you meet yourself?” I said.

“In another universe?” said John. “It can get complicated. Dangerous. I’ve done it a couple times. I had to get myself out of the way in another past to prevent some of my own research.”

“Out of the way?” I said.

“We’ll assign you to projects that are completely unrelated to your real-world work,” John said. “You’ll never have to meet yourself.”

I followed him through a series of windowless hallways. At an elevator door, John posed, wide-eyed before a camera that scanned his retinae. There were no buttons in the elevator. The door closed behind us and my insides jumped with the rapid descent.

“Was this building ever a library?” I asked.

“Some little corner of it still is, I suppose. We just call it EPLA.” Ee-pluh.

We exited the elevator into a concrete tunnel lit by fluorescent tubes. Heavy doors lined the walls. John picked one marked “Procedures” and grasped the handle. He turned to face me.

“This is right for you,” he said.

“What if I back out now?” I asked. “Just refuse to proceed?”

“You would get an injection–a cocktail of benzos and such–and then you’d wake up a few hours from now, with a headache, and no memory of the past couple days.”

“John,” I said, “I had a really bad headache last week.”

“Grieving takes time, Patrick. A few days can make a big difference.” He opened the door. “I think you’re ready now.”


I watched the surgery in real-time on a monitor. I watched the surgeon’s hands as she anesthetized the back of my neck, and then cut a vertical incision. She held a tiny cigar-shaped capsule up to the camera.

“Doesn’t look like much,” she said.

It was an inch long and a quarter that in diameter. White metal, with a sandblasted surface. She inserted the capsule into the space she’d created and then sewed the layers of flesh closed over it.

When finished, she handed me her card. “I’ll see you again to remove the sutures. You can call me for anything, but only me. No hospitals.”

After that, John and I watched TV.

“John,” I said, “when you return–when you come back from an alternate timeline–how do you know you’re in the right one?”

“What, that you’re not like the guy who went back to watch himself and never came back?” said John. “I could cite experiments. They might reassure you. Ultimately, though, you never know. You always wonder. Is all this happening somewhere else–without me?”

Sharp pains pricked my neck–not just at the incision, but above and below too. I reached a hand to the place, but John stopped me.

“It’s the tendrils growing,” he said. “They pass through sensitive tissues on their way to the brain and spinal cord. If they weren’t so small, you’d be on the floor, right now, writhing in agony. Tell me when you start hallucinating.”

It wasn’t long. First, a simple square–just four straight lines–floated across my visual field. Then a circle and a triangle.

John sat with me in front of a monitor, while I learned to move the shapes around with tiny flicks of my eyes. He typed a series of commands into a terminal and a menu of options blinked into my vision.

“Try scrolling up and down,” he said. “Kick your gaze right to select and left to move up the directory tree. Nothing is active yet, so don’t worry about going anywhere by mistake.”

My visual overlay was mirrored on John’s monitor and when he was satisfied with my progress he said, “Now you learn to travel.”


When I arrived at my parents’ place, Mom opened the door and Maggie ran to greet me. I picked her up and held her for a long time–until she started squirming and saying, “down, down. Down!” I had only been away from her eight hours. I hadn’t seen her for two weeks.

After a series of short training jumps to and from various desolate locations, I had traveled back two weeks and holed up in a guest suite inside the EPLA building of a parallel universe. I ate instant meals, ran on a treadmill, and studied.

“You need a haircut,” Mom said, after she’d hugged me. “I didn’t even notice it this morning–how shaggy you’re getting.”

I studied theory and applications of travel until the stitches came out. A traveler could keep jumping forward within a parallel timeline and still return to the point of origin in his own universe. Downstream effects of his actions could be observed, elsewhere, in other people, without consequence for his own world.

“You’ll stay for dinner, won’t you, Patrick? You look exhausted.” I followed Mom into the house, through the toy-strewn living room, to the kitchen. She poured me a glass of water and I watched her cook.

For a price, EPLA would assign teams of consultants to design and execute studies. Marketing firms, insurance companies, and financial institutions all contracted regularly. My work would be for a Swiss pharmaceutical giant.

Maggie marched into the kitchen with a tattered paperback of Lost Horizon that she’d decorated with purple crayon. She presented it to me and I showed Mom. “This okay?” I said.

“Oh, dear,” she said, “I just can’t keep up with her anymore.” I followed Maggie to the living room, where she climbed up on the piano bench and banged out a song of her own invention. In a couple years, Annabelle would have started teaching Maggie to play.


I go back thirty years. I spend a day in February of 1987–in another universe. I plant information about the latest hypertension med–a drug that isn’t even out of phase one trials in my own present. I pass the tip anonymously. It looks like a leak from a disgruntled employee of a competing firm.

I jump to 1992 of the same timeline to verify that they have acted on the information. Their front-line blood pressure cocktail is thirty years ahead of its time. I make five more stops in that timeline, at four-year intervals. I collect the results of major cardiovascular studies in the alternate past and in that past’s future.

My employer wants rapid turn-around, so I eat and sleep in alternate time. I spend an extra day at the final point, analyzing and compiling the results. Then I jump back to my exact moment of departure. Eight days in the blink of an eye.

And then I do it all again. Three more times.

First, I replicate the previous trip. Then I go back to two more alternate pasts to plant bogus data. Nothing that will set researchers back in their work. Just negative controls to account for unmeasurable impacts of my interference.

It’s never perfect. I don’t stop aging, changing. I’m a slightly different me each trip and, at least in theory, even the subtlest differences could have significant effects. John says that they can track my travels–check up on me. He also says that so long as I deliver the goods, they probably won’t bother.

At the end, I take my four parallel universe meta-analyses to a dedicated workspace in an alternate near past and compile a report. All told, I spend thirty-four days on the project. I deliver my report two minutes after receiving the request.

I linger a moment over Maggie, asleep in her crib beside my desk. Maggie. Above her hang the photographs. The three of us together. Annabelle.

I blink up my travel interface and take another trip.


As his body relaxes, goes limp, I release his neck and ease him to the bathroom floor. I only have to delay him. Prevent him from going out tonight. And, of course, he has to forget that I was here.

I’m good with the needle. It helps that I’m going for the same vein in the same arm of the same person every time. A hefty slug of midazolam greased with just a whisper of propofol. He’ll wake up with a headache.

Sometimes I talk while I drag him down the hall to the living room and arrange him on the couch. I try to explain. I tell him why I’m there.

I tell him it’s for her, that it’s better if he never meets her. Maybe that way she won’t die. But of course, all of this is really for me. It’s my fix. Those early days with her, again. And again and again and again.

I can have it all. My daughter by day and a new Annabelle every night. It’s almost enough.

Sometimes he wakes up a little when I turn on the stereo. This time he even opens his eyes for a moment and I think maybe he understands.

And then he forgets.


I wait for Annabelle at the bar. Wait for her to finish playing. I swirl the wine in my glass. The bit of cork is there, just as it should be.

She’s played Chopin, “Ipanema,” Pearl Jam, the Stones. And she smiled when I walked past.

When she finishes at the piano, she will join me and we will talk. I might be older than she would like, now, but I will understand her. I will say the right things. She will see past my age.

Maybe this time I won’t overplay my hand. She won’t be spooked by how I know her so well, so quickly. It will all feel natural and I will reclaim what I’ve lost. At least for a while. Weeks or maybe a month. There’s a limit to how much I should age. Too much and people will notice. Maggie will notice.

Perhaps, one of these times, I’ll forget all of that. I’ll forget my daughter and I’ll stay here forever. We will be us again. Me and Annabelle. And then maybe me and Annabelle and… someone. But not Maggie, not my Maggie.

Some things cannot be.


“Everyone is impressed with your work, Patrick.”

John and I sat in a cedar-paneled restaurant by Lake Union, eating chowder and drinking ale. “You’ll be getting your five-thousand-hour bonus soon.”

“Not bad for two weeks,” I said.

“Be careful, Patrick. That’s five months you’ve lived in fifteen days. You look like shit.”

“I’m just doing it till I’ve built up some reserves.” I mopped up the rest of my chowder with a bread crust. “I want to put something away for Maggie–you know, for college, grad school if she wants.”

“You’ve got plenty of time.” He waited for me to meet his eye, then said, “Don’t you? You’ve aged a lot more than five months. Anything you want to tell me?”

“Ever since Annabelle…” I began. “Well, I just can’t seem to get over it. And Maggie… If something ever happened to me–”

“The best thing you can do for Maggie is stay young and healthy. Be a dad for as long as you can.” His hand, thin and freckled with liver spots, trembled as he lifted his glass for a sip.

When I didn’t speak, he continued. “I wouldn’t have given you this if I didn’t think you could handle it. I want to help. But I’m concerned about whatever else it is that you’re doing. Do I need to start tracking–”

“You’re concerned, John?” I set my glass down too hard. People at other tables turned, but I ignored them. “Look at you,” I said. “When we met, you were what, forty-five? Just how many trips have you taken? You could be ninety! How can you sit there and–”

“I don’t have anyone.” His words cut me. “I was alone when I started, and I’m alone now.” Neither of us spoke. We gazed across Lake Union at the houseboats. Rain dulled the water. Millions of grey rings forming on a flat cold surface, spreading, colliding, and then gone.

“So why do you do it, John?” I said. “You could have retired long–”

“Retired? I’ll never retire.” He paused. “I’m hooked.”

“So you travel for your own–”

“Of course I do, Patrick. Just historical curiosity at first, poking around here and there. Now I’ve lost track of the number of parallel timelines I’ve created. The pasts I’ve changed–tried to fix–for other universes. God, I’ve fucked up a lot of universes.” He laughed and gestured to the waiter for another round. “I tell myself it’s okay because I’m not hurting anyone who matters, but…”

The beers arrived and we both took long draughts.

“Fact is,” he said, “I don’t even know who I’m hurting–or which universe is real. Ours sure isn’t.”

I choked on my beer and coughed.

“Funny, right?” he continued, “A small team of scientists, at one single university, discovers this impossible technology. On their own. Do you really believe that? In a world still slurping fossil fuels? A world that cuts tumors out with knives and can’t even cure a cold?”

“You’re saying the technology was planted,” I said. “That we’re part of someone else’s–”

“It doesn’t matter,” said John. “What’s important is that this is the world you’ve got and it’s time for you to start living in it.”

“But if it’s contaminated by some other universe’s future–”

“Shit, Patrick, you know how it works. Nobody matters if they’re not in our timeline. That’s what we tell ourselves, right?” John’s voice was getting loud and sloppy. How many beers had he drunk before I arrived? He continued, “Hundreds–maybe millions of people we’ve affected and they’re each living their own lives, without a clue, and we don’t give a damn and…”

“What’s your point?” I said.

“Hell, I’m not sure anymore.” He got quiet. “But what you’re doing–what we’ve both been doing–this cherry-picking and re-living of favorite moments… it’s the behavior of an addict and it’ll destroy you and everyone you love.”

“It’s a job,” I said. “As soon as I get my finances straight, I’ll quit.”

“It’s not just a job, Patrick. Not for you or me or anyone. You have to let Annabelle go. Get out of this. Live.”

“I can’t.”


When she finishes at the piano, Annabelle walks past me and sits at the far end of the bar. I have to remind myself that I don’t know her name. I ask the bartender to pour her a glass of wine. She turns to me and frowns, puzzled. I approach and sit, leaving an empty seat between us.

“I saw you earlier,” she says. “You’ve been here a long time.” She doesn’t look at me.

“You play beautifully,” I say. “When I finished dining, I thought I’d stay and listen.”

“My father used to do that,” she says. She hesitates. I can see her thoughts. See her asking whether I’m creepy or harmless. In either case, I’m old. “When he was alive,” she continues, “sometimes he would be in Seattle on business and not tell me he was coming. He’d just show up and listen to me play.” She says nothing for a while, then “This is going to sound strange, I know, and it’s not that you look anything alike, but when I saw you earlier, you reminded me of him. The way you seemed so deep in the music.”

Old and harmless. And fatherly. The role I crave is lost to me now. It was bound to happen.

I push my glass away. “You miss him a lot,” I say. Anabelle–my Anabelle–had rarely spoken of her father’s death. It was still a fresh wound when we met. Would be equally raw for this Annabelle now.

“I do,” she says. “Especially here. It gets lonely, playing like this. Before, I never knew when he might show up, so I always hoped and it was always possible. But now…” She swallowed and looked away.

“Thank you for the Chopin,” I say. “Someone I– My wife used to play that nocturne. Your interpretation is the same.”

She says nothing for a while. Then she turns to look at my face. What she sees in my eyes–I don’t know what she sees. What I see in hers is compassion. “Do you have children?” she says.

“No,” I say. It’s a habit. It’s what I always say when she asks. But this time I say, “I mean yes, I do have a child. A daughter.”

She waits for me to say more, but I don’t. She reaches out to place a hand on mine, but I stand and fumble for my wallet.

“I’m sorry,” I say. “I need to go. I should be with her–my daughter. She’s…” I leave a twenty on the bar. “She’s waiting.”

Annabelle smiles and says, “Come back some time.”

Some things cannot be. I step out into the rain.


Eleven people attended John’s memorial service. He’d made all of the arrangements in advance. A minimum of ceremony. By a normal calendar, John Hicks was only fifty-one; he died a very old man.

The end was on his own terms. He’d purchased the revolver a week before–the day after I’d last talked to him. A letter explained that he had a brain tumor and wasn’t going to let the cancer turn him into someone else. He’d lived a full life and didn’t want anyone to grieve.

The EPLA Surgeon was at the service, and afterwards, I followed her to the parking lot. We sheltered under her umbrella to talk while rain pelted the vehicle beside us.

“It’s the device, isn’t it,” I said. “It was killing him.”

“No,” she said. “That had nothing to do with it. If you live long enough, you have to die of something. John was old.”

“I want mine out,” I said. “Can you remove it.”

“It’s part of you now,” she said. “The tendrils are everywhere. In your brain, spinal column–even peripheral nerves. It can’t come out.”

She looked around. We were alone. “I can turn it off, though,” she said. “If that’s really what you want.”

“There’s something I have to do first.”

“One more trip?” she said. “Don’t. Stop now, if you’re going to.”

“This is different,” I said. “I’ll be okay.”


One final trip. This time, with a knife.

I don’t go to his apartment. I don’t stop him from meeting Annabelle. I don’t try to replace him at the bar. I can’t be that me ever again.

I don’t even go to that day. I go to a later one. Four years, thirty-eight weeks, and one day later.

I rent a car and drive to a warehouse north of Seattle. Boxed appliances are being loaded into a truck. Nobody notices as I edge up beside it. When the truck is full, a man climbs into the cab and starts the engine.

I strike. The tire is tough and I nearly break the knife. I try again. I slash, rather than stab, and I cut part way through the sidewall. The wound is deep, and with another stroke, the blade penetrates. The screech of air from the tire is covered by engine noise.

I escape undetected.

Twenty minutes later, I stand beside Aurora avenue, just north of the bridge. I watch cars speed through pockets of standing water. A blue hatchback, driven by a young blonde, passes. It continues across the bridge, out of sight.

Annabelle. Not my Annabelle, but still, an Annabelle, and she’s safe.

A single selfless act. A final gesture. Does it compensate for the thousands of universes that I have created, sabotaged, and exploited? Does ninety minutes of beneficence atone for some twenty-five years of selfishness?

But, of course, ultimately, this trip is selfish too. This universe–it’s for me. I won’t inhabit it, but I will know that it exists. My one perfect counterfactual.

The me that is here, in this timeline, will never travel. He will never sacrifice years of his life–the healthy years that should be spent with his daughter–in order to pursue a love that he will never have lost.

I could watch his future unfold, if I wanted. I could jump forward to see him grow old with his Annabelle, watch them with their Maggie. But that is their future, not mine.


When Maggie asks why I look as old as her Granddaddy, I tell her I’ve just lived fast. She doesn’t understand, but she giggles anyway.

We sit by the lake, watching geese, until the rain drives us to the shelter of a pastry shop.

Sometimes Maggie asks about the scar on the back of my neck–the surgical site. I tell her that I got hurt when her mother died. She’s old enough, now, that she doesn’t reach up to touch it anymore. She knows there’s something about it that’s not right.

Remotely deactivated. That’s what the surgeon said, but sometimes I still wonder. If I called up the interface, would it be there for me?

“But Daddy,” she says, through a bite of cinnamon roll, “I thought you weren’t in the car when she died.”

“No,” I say, “but I still got hurt.” She seems to accept this. At least for now.

Some things cannot be. Others just are–even some impossible ones.

I can accept that now. This me can.


Copyright 2014 M. Huw Evans

After devoting the first decade and a half of his adult life to medicine, research, and public health, M. Huw Evans put away such noble callings to pursue his life-long dream of writing fiction. In 2012, he attended Clarion West, where he wrote the first version of this story–for none other than the master of time travel herself, Connie Willis. In addition to writing, Evans is a stay-at-home dad and the new workshop administrator at Clarion West.

by Laura E. Price

Corwyn’s hair smelled of death. Again.

She smelled it–rot, blood, sweat, and mud–as she trudged through the back streets of San Xavier, out of Cobbler’s Hill toward Pallasgreen. After three washes with lye soap, she sat awake as her hair dried and wondered, if she cut it all off, would she still smell death whenever she moved.


Corwyn was awake, scrubbed, and drinking her third cup of coffee in their small kitchen when she heard Gwen getting up and moving about.

“Have you slept?” Gwen asked from behind her.

“A little.” Corwyn sipped her lukewarm drink and kept her eyes on the table.

“You’re brooding.”

“I’m trying to get tired enough so that I’ll sleep without dreaming.”

“Well, that ain’t going to help you, Wyn,” Gwen said, nodding at the cup and skirting around Corwyn toward the cupboards.

“We were out of milk to warm.”

Gwen pulled a glass jar full of beef jerky–sent over last month by a client as a thank you for a lesson in knifework–from the cabinet, unscrewed the top, and selected a piece as she asked, “Was it a bad one?”

Corwyn’s eyes felt grainy every time she blinked. “Not particularly. Not more so. Just … the same. Dead, probably only three or four days.” They’d had this conversation before, so she didn’t say maybe she’d be alive if they’d come to me sooner. The living folks she found–the runaways, the kidnapped, the lost–were fewer and fewer. The dead seemed to multiply.

“Time for a sign on the door that you’re not taking on any more cases,” Gwen said briskly, pushing herself away from the sideboard.

“We need the money!” Corwyn called after her.

“Ain’t like we’ve never been broke before, Corwyn!”

“Ain’t like I want to live on the damn street again, Gwendolyn!”

“Ain’t like I want you to run yourself to death–”

Someone knocked on their flimsy front door, and Gwen answered it. Corwyn shoved herself up from the table, arriving at the door in time to see a face from their not-so-distant past in the outside hallway and hear Gwen, voice studiously cheerful, greeting her with, “Why, Mattie Singh, you do clean up nice.”

“I’m here to see if Corwyn wants a job,” Mattie said.

Gwen leaned across the doorway, arms crossed, effectively trapping Corwyn inside the apartment. Corwyn, too tired to be irritated at her sister’s protective streak, stepped up behind Gwen and peered over her shoulder at Mattie Singh.

“You sure you ain’t here spying for the old lady?” she asked.

“I don’t–I ain’t living at Mrs. Simcote’s anymore.” Mattie looked from Corwyn to Gwen and quickly back again, uncertain. “I left not too much longer after you did. A bunch of us left, point of fact. All of us as liked Gwen, anyway. Wasn’t right, what she did to you.”

Nobody but Corwyn would have seen how Gwen’s jaw went tight even as Gwen’s body visibly relaxed. Corwyn looked away from Gwen and said, “All right, then, Mattie, what’s this job?”

Mattie glanced around herself and spread her arms a little, smiling just slightly. “You really want me to do this in the hall?”

Corwyn tapped Gwen on the shoulder; Gwen stepped back grudgingly to wave Mattie through the door.

Mattie perched on one of their two kitchen chairs. She did look nice in her dress and jacket, with combed hair and a clean face. Corwyn remembered her as a kid, running round Mrs. Simcote’s with her hair smoldering and her face sooty–Mattie Singh’s knack was such that she could mix salt with water and likely make it explode.

“So. I work at the museum now,” Mattie began.

San Xavier was home to a number of museums: it boasted a natural history museum, a respectable art museum, the not-so-respectable Rausch Gallery, and even a children’s museum full of dusty paintings of saucer-eyed kids and downright disturbing toy displays. But when the residents of San Xavier mentioned the museum, they referred to the Methyl R. Crookston Museum of Classical Rarities. Not that its collection was all that rare. Or classical. The name of the place was in the old lady’s will, and Corwyn always imagined she’d have been irritated that no one used it.

“The curator I’m ‘prenticed to, he’s lost something–”

“I can’t find things,” Corwyn interrupted. “Just the living. Or the used-to-be-living.”

Mattie’s eyes were lit up like she had a secret to spill. “I remember. I remember lots of things about you, Miss Corwyn. Like how excited you got whenever Mrs. Simcote gave you something new to do with your knack. And you know how to keep your mouth shut.” Corwyn shifted her weight back on one foot, uneasy, as Mattie went on. “This thing he’s missing, it ain’t quite a person, and it ain’t quite a thing, neither. You want to see if you can find a golem?”


Corwyn couldn’t rightly say she had that much intellectual curiosity, but Gwen had let out an enthusiastic “Yes!” and shoved Corwyn out the door. Now they sat in the office of one Jarvis Eggleston, curator, waiting on Mattie to unearth the man from whatever dusty room of the museum he might be working in.

“I’m still not sure why we’re here, Gwen.”

“Well, Corwyn, headcracking jobs are scarce on the ground at the moment, which means I ain’t bringing much money in–so I’m bored and you’re worried about money, and I know how you’re fixing to get, with your coffee and your not sleeping. Even if this golem’s dead, you likely won’t find it lying in a pool of blood.  So why not?”

Corwyn couldn’t decide what to say to all that, so she ignored it to look around herself. The room was full of things, made mundane by wooden shelves and layers of dust until she peered more closely: paintings, what looked like musical instruments, and more books than Corwyn had ever seen in one place. There were tiny stoppered bottles; odds and ends of clockwork; skulls that might be from animals (though Corwyn had very little experience with animals, alive or dead, and so couldn’t be sure); stones covered in runes; jars filled with specimens that had too many eyes, or limbs.

You’ll see the world, she remembered Mrs. Simcote telling them, and maybe they would have, but now they’d burned that bridge, she supposed museums were the closest she’d get to seeing anywhere besides San Xavier.

Mattie’s return with the curator, a middling-tall man with round glasses, graying hair, and a slouch, pulled Corwyn out of her woolgathering. “Dr. Eggleston, these are the young ladies I spoke to you about–Corwyn and Gwen Teachout.” Mattie’s accent had gone all schoolteacherish; Corwyn resisted the urge to sit up straighter and pull her feet in under her chair.

Dr. Eggleston smiled at them. He needed a good night’s sleep:  his eyes were heavy-lidded, dark all around, and his skin sagged.

“Miss Singh says you have a knack for finding people, Miss Teachout,” he said, leaning back against the front of his desk. His accent was cultured but not fancy. Genteel poor.

She matched it as she answered. “Yes. But not for finding objects, I’m afraid.”

“My sister is selling herself a trifle short,” Gwen cut in, ignoring the what in nine hells are you up to smile Corwyn sent her way. “Her knack is only for finding people, but she’s quite the detective without it.”

“Are you her business manager?” Dr. Eggleston asked, tiredly amused.

Gwen dimpled and sat back in her chair, crossing her legs demurely–or as demurely as one could when wearing trousers. “I’m the muscle.”

The curator’s smile grew broader at that–he thought she was adorable, good grief–and turned back to Corwyn. “Miss Singh told you we’re looking for a golem, yes? So I’m not certain what category he falls into. He is, of course, made of usually inanimate material, but he is also clearly alive … ”

“How exactly did you lose it?” Corwyn asked. “I imagine a giant clay man would be difficult to misplace.”

“He’s not that big,” Dr. Eggleston said. “He’s really more an homunculus.  A miniature man. ”

“Not in the strictest sense,” Mattie said to him.

“He’s self-aware and self-willed,” said Dr. Eggleston crisply, “which is not much like a golem.”

This was clearly an old argument. Corwyn glanced at Gwen, and the two of them looked at Mattie, bored.  Which, to anyone who knew them, was almost as good as a threat.

“So it, what?  Ran off? Was stolen?” Corwyn asked.

“Kidnapped,” Dr. Eggleston corrected.

“Did you receive a ransom note?” Corwyn asked.

“No, no–someone saw it being snatched,” Mattie said.

“From the museum?” Gwen asked.

Dr. Eggleston shifted his weight back and forth, looking toward the shelves. “Orson came to us with the odds and ends of the estate of Virgil Fairchilde. His only son took everything of value, and anything he didn’t want or didn’t know what to do with, he gave to us. Orson was in a sealed box–I doubt the son even tried to open it–along with some of Fairchilde’s notes. Orson was de-animated, and I … well, eventually I managed to bring him back.” He stopped again and looked at them, seemingly expecting Corwyn and Gwen to make some sort of disapproving protest; when they didn’t, he shook his head slightly and started the story again. This time he managed to look directly at them as he spoke. “I thought he’d be a golem. Small, certainly, but mindless, mute. Orson was aware, though, and after a day he was able to speak.”

“Likely why Fairchilde locked it in the box to begin with,” Mattie said.

“Had he been merely a golem, we would have exhibited him, or put him to work, but he isn’t–he has a personality. He’s polite, well-spoken–”

“Sarcastic as anything,” Mattie put in.

“I imagine,” Dr. Eggleston said mildly, “that you might be inclined toward sarcasm, yourself, Miss Singh, had you spent most of your life having parts of you cut off.”

Corwyn sat up slowly, her wooden chair suddenly uncomfortable. “What do you mean by that, Doctor?” she asked.

Dr. Eggleston spoke carefully. “I thought Miss Singh had told you? Virgil Fairchilde did most of his work with clockwork limbs. Orson was his test subject–he’s more than half clockwork. One arm, both legs.”

“Its heart ticks,” Mattie added.

“That is, of course, part of the issue,” the curator went on. “He’s quite a valuable piece, a tiny, half-clockwork man. Collectors, alchemical engineers–some legitimate, some not–hells, even one or two of my own colleagues here … well. None of them would see Orson as anything but a commodity.”

“You took him home,” Corwyn said. “And he got snatched from under your nose.”

Dr. Eggleston took off his glasses and rubbed at his eyes. “More or less. He was out walking with my husband, Gerard.” Gerard was, no doubt, as academically built as the curator, Corwyn thought, and likely not much of a threat. “Miss Teachout, Orson is very much like family to us, now.  I don’t know who might have him, but there is no outcome to this that I can imagine he would deserve. Bad enough that I’ll have to bring him back to the museum, since he’s clearly not safe outside … ”

“How much are you willing to pay?” Corwyn asked, impatient at how the obvious care the curator had for his charge made her chest twist like someone had a hand inside it. She didn’t have time to waste like that. “For us to find him, and to keep our mouths shut about your stealing and losing him in the first place?”

The curator straightened, put his glasses back on, and named a sum. Corwyn glanced at Gwen, who raised an eyebrow and her right shoulder, putting her left palm face up on the arm of her chair to signal her approval.

It was a solid chunk of change.

“All right,” Corwyn said. “I’ll take the case. I don’t know if I’ll be able to find Orson–”

“You’ll be required to pay us either way, but we’ll only charge half if we can’t track him down,” Gwen put in quickly.

“–but I’ll try my best,” Corwyn finished.


Sometimes, too many times, merely hearing a name would set Corwyn running after her knack as it dragged her to whoever it was or whatever was left of them. On more occasions than she cared to remember, her knack didn’t need a name or a request, just up and yanked her wherever it felt she ought to go like she wore a leash. But there were times it stayed quiet, and those times she could, maybe, coax it along. Not by touch–what a fresh hell that would be–but with smell. Bring something he wore, she told the frantic relatives.  Bring what she slept in, she told the abandoned lovers. The kids at Mrs. Simcote’s used to make bloodhound jokes when a shirt or a blanket set Corwyn running.  Gwen cracked their ribs for it.

“How tall is he?” Corwyn asked as Dr. Eggleston rummaged in his bag for the pillow Mattie had told him to bring. Mattie did remember quite a lot about Corwyn’s knack, as it turned out.

“About a foot or so. Thirteen inches, I think?” Mattie replied.

“Here you are,” said Dr. Eggleston, straightening and passing the pillow over the top of the desk.

“Did Gerard get a good look at the person who took him?”  Corwyn turned the small pillow in her hands, wondering briefly if the bedclothes were borrowed from the children’s museum.

“Gerard said he was a tall man, maybe six feet, with blond hair,” Dr. Eggleston said.

“Well, that rules out part of the city, anyway,” said Gwen, more cheerfully than Corwyn felt was strictly warranted, as Corwyn lifted the pillow to her nose.

It smelled like clay, like dirt and clean river water. And mint? That was unexpected.

Corwyn’s knack didn’t so much as twitch. It felt odd to coax it and feel nothing. Even when it decided to lay low, there was usually a thrumming: a yes feeling, a confirmation. This was like, well, a pillow.

Mattie stood across the room, likely remembering some of Corwyn’s more dramatic exits from Mrs. Simcote’s office. Gwen, who had more arm strength and very little fear, as a rule, crouched next to Corwyn’s chair.

“Nothing?” she asked quietly. Corwyn shook her head. “You got ideas?” Gwen asked.

Corwyn didn’t respond, just thought. It didn’t seem like someone planned to snatch Orson, doing it out in the street like that–too many people might see, and in Pallasgreen someone might actually call the police; on the other hand, it wasn’t showy enough to be someone trying to make a point or send a message. This looked more like some magpie-brained lug saw something shiny and thought to make a quick buck with it.

That meant either selling him to a gang that knew how to fence a thing like Orson, or going direct to Chaffins Grove to offer him to the alchemical engineers, likely door-to-door. Corwyn knew which route she’d take.

“Arthur Goldberg’s the only one I remember as dealing in this kind of thing,” she finally said, trying to sound confident.  “Billy Hayden’s still one of the Goldberg crew, ain’t he? Maybe he’s heard something.”

Gwen, either actually fooled by her tone or also putting on a good show for the client, bounced up and clapped her hands. “We’re going to Cobbler’s Hill!” she sang.


It was early in the day by Cobbler’s Hill standards, so the brothels were closed and whatever thieves and morphine addicts were awake were blinded enough by the sun to be discreet. The air still smelled of home: piss, vomit, and the occasional tinge of blood. There were new potholes in the streets; the buildings were falling down even more. Decay was the constant in the Hill.

Gwen moved, watchful and gleefully so, past the other people on the sidewalk–this was much more her element than Pallasgreen and their apartment there. Truth be told, while there was no way in nine hells she’d ever live here again, Cobbler’s Hill was the only place Corwyn ever felt right.

She and Gwen turned as one to glare at a skinny man with the wrong sort of expression on his face. He smiled, gap-toothed, and put his hands up as he backed away from them. “Sorry girls.  Sorry sorry.  Didn’t recognize you in your nice new clothes.”

Corwyn turned around, as they’d come to 43rd Street and the tiny gentlemen’s club that the Goldberg gang used as their home base.  Gwen stared a while longer; she had a reputation to tend.

Corwyn thought it had been long enough since Gwen’s unfortunate incident with Art Goldberg’s nephew that the bouncer might be new and not know their faces; she was right. He went and got Billy, who came out the door wearing the same wide confidence man’s grin he’d had when they were kids. Back then he’d also been a skinny Haitian kid with close-cropped hair. Now his hair and his frame were both filled out, and the smile dropped from his face as soon as he saw them.

“Goddammit, get round the corner before someone sees you,” he said, grabbing Corwyn by the elbow and dragging. Gwen followed, fast and tense. “What do you want?” he asked once they were out of sight of the club’s door.

Corwyn, tired, got right to it. “You heard anything about someone wanting to sell a little clockwork man?  Only it ain’t all clockwork, and it can talk on its own?”

“You are downright terrible at this, Corwyn,” Gwen said.

“It ain’t like I’ve got practice at it, Gwen.”

Billy looked simultaneously disdainful, wary, and confused. “Why would I tell you?  That sounds right valuable.  And in our scope of interest.”

Corwyn narrowed her eyes and poked at his chest with a finger. “You owe me, Billy Hayden–a couple times over.  And at least one of those debts ain’t the sort you can repay.”

“Only you, Corwyn Teachout, can make me regret getting pulled out of a damn fire.”  He blew his breath out his mouth and rubbed a hand over his hair before saying, “I ain’t heard about nothing like that. Mr. Goldberg would have us all over it if we did–and he will, soon as I go in and tell him about it.”

Corwyn groaned, silently. Of course he’d tell–why wouldn’t he? “You wouldn’t be willing to give us a day before you say anything?” she asked without much hope.

Billy laughed. “Maybe an hour. But, hey, you find it first, bring it to me–we can work out a good price.”

Corwyn watched him head back around the corner; she could tell Gwen was watching her but didn’t want to return the look. “I really am downright terrible at this,” she said, aiming to sound like she thought it all a lark.

Corwyn could hear the shrug in Gwen’s voice. “Ain’t like it wasn’t bound to happen, what with Orson being paraded round Pallasgreen. It’s inconvenient, but it ain’t worth brooding over.”

Corwyn wasn’t comforted; there wasn’t much Gwen found to be worth brooding over. “How many men you think Art Goldberg has round the Hill?” she finally asked Gwen.

“Not enough to stop us.”

Corwyn took a breath, hoping Gwen’s desire to head off her brooding would outweigh that time Corwyn came home covered in fine green fur, because she surely did not have time to argue her into this. “I have one more idea,” she said.

“And what is it?”

“We go see Miss Vadoma.”


Vadoma Hildago’s house was never defaced; the people who’d tried sported visible scars. Its paint was relatively fresh, its windows were whole, and its small porch was covered with live plants. Corwyn led the way up the stoop and into the shade.

The witch of Cobbler’s Hill opened her door and, after a long look at each of them, slipped out onto the porch along with a smell of roses and … was that fish? Miss Vadoma was darker than both Corwyn and Gwen; taller, too, as she stared down her crooked nose at them.

“And what are you two doing here?”

“Ain’t a person in the Hill that’s happy to see us anymore,” Gwen observed.

Corwyn ignored her. “I need to ask you something.” She wasn’t entirely happy about it–for years she and Miss Vadoma had worked a push and pull of debts and evens; Corwyn was loathe to upset the balance back into the witch’s favor.

Still, it was a good amount of money.

Miss Vadoma’s long, knobby fingers pulled her door shut with a solid thud.  The story went that nobody ever went in the witch’s house, but Corwyn and Gwen had been inside as kids.  It looked like an everyday house inside, breathlessly exotic and entirely fearsome because of it.

“Ask, then,” Miss Vadoma said, drawing herself up even taller.

“We’re looking for a golem,” Corwyn said.  “Little thing, maybe a foot tall.”

Miss Vadoma shook her head.  “You know I don’t mess with alchemy.”

“I ain’t saying you have it–but you hear about everything,” Corwyn said, trying to smile winningly. Judging by Miss Vadoma’s expression, she did not entirely succeed.

“Why are you girls looking for it?”

“Because someone’s paying us to,” Gwen drawled from where she leaned on the porch rail, out of reach.

“So, a foot tall man?  Any distinguishing features?”

“From the hundreds of other foot-tall men running round San Xavier?” Gwen asked.

“Exactly that, yes.”

Corwyn crossed her arms over her chest. “He’s made of quite a lot of clockwork,” she said.

“Lars Hallstrom,” Miss Vadoma replied with hardly a pause. “Last little girl he shacked up with got him good and drunk and took off when he passed out.  Saw him … day before yesterday? Prowling about. Today I hear he’s got a kid with clockwork legs. Or maybe it’s not a kid.”

Corwyn exchanged a long look with Gwen. Every kid in Cobbler’s Hill had identical grudges against Lars Hallstrom, and though neither of his encounters with the Teachouts had ended particularly well for him, neither Corwyn nor Gwen had come out of them entirely unbruised, either.

Corwyn turned toward the porch steps, not saying anything because you didn’t thank the Cobbler’s Hill witch if you valued your skin. She already felt her knack waking up, stretching toward the front of her head, ready to start pulling her to go find Lars Hallstrom, whether or not she was happy to go.

“I’ve seen you, Corwyn Teachout,” said Miss Vadoma, and Corwyn turned despite the protest of her knack, because the voice was the witchy one Miss Vadoma saved for intimidating kids and actual magic. She’d slid partway into her house but held the door open with one hand. “You follow your knack in and out of the Hill, looking darker and bloodier every time.”

Gwen went still before drawing herself up off the rail slowly. Corwyn, trying to make it sound offhanded, asked, “You talking about my soul, Miss Vadoma?”

The witch snorted, apparently not one to bother with souls. “All round you, girl. And I remember you, little and willing to eat or drink whatever I handed you without asking what it was. Not like that one–” She tilted her chin at Gwen, who didn’t move, still ready to spring.  “–she was always smarter than that. I like you. Find this thing you’re looking for. Maybe it helps you, clears some of that blood away.”

And then she shut the door in their faces, so they went down the front steps to the sidewalk. It was a relief, giving into the pulling; it left no room to wonder about some bloody, dark cloud hovering round her head. “Come on,” she said, grabbing Gwen’s arm.

“Here we go,” Gwen said with a slanted grin. “Good thing these boots are comfortable.”

Corwyn’s muscles wanted her to run, follow her knack along as fast as she could, and her thinking self didn’t want to dawdle, either. The docks were a long ways away, though, and Corwyn knew she couldn’t keep up a run that long, so she settled into a fast walk.

“Why did you always eat all the stuff Miss Vadoma gave you?” Gwen asked.

“I was hungry,” Corwyn said. “And I remember thinking if she owed me enough, she’d have to do what I said.”

Gwen chuckled. “And she calls me the smart one.”


By the time they got to the docks, it was mid-afternoon slanting toward evening. Salt and fish and tar mingled with the regular smell of the Hill. “This place ain’t changed much,” Gwen said as they paused on Selwin Avenue to get their bearings. She sounded disgusted and pleased in equal measure. “Orson got a lot more than a walk around Pallasgreen,” she continued, musingly.

“Think he’ll ever get to venture outdoors again?” Corwyn asked, nudging Gwen toward Portcullis Boulevard, headed south.

“He can’t stay inside forever,” Gwen said. “Unless they lock him up.”

The uneven skyline of Cobbler’s Hill was streaking black as the sun sank lower; Corwyn could feel the buildings looming all round the two of them. “There’s all sorts of cages in the world, ain’t there?”

“And they all have keys,” Gwen replied equably, jabbing an elbow into Corwyn’s arm. “Quit brooding so damn much. If Orson wants to see the world, the curator can hire me as his bodyguard and I’ll tour him all over.”

Corwyn snorted. “You’ll end up fighting off the whole Goldberg gang every time you venture out.”

Gwen grinned, pleased. “A girl can but dream, Wyn.”

It took longer than Corwyn would have liked to get down among the docks to Lars Hallstrom’s boat, but running made people chase you, and they didn’t have time nor patience for that. He’d hauled in his gangplank and let the run-down trawler drift a bit from the dock, but Gwen jumped the gap easily and caught Corwyn’s arms when she landed short. The knack eased off as soon as she stood up on the deck and brushed off her knees.

They found Hallstrom drunk and in his bunk, which was no surprise, alone save for the company of a half-full bottle of something brown and a mighty assortment of bruises. He eyed them blearily from swollen slits in a resplendently purple face.

“That you, Corwyn Teachout? The hell you want?”

“Aw, Wyn, between the bruises and the drink, he’s not going to notice if I bang his head off a wall.”

“That Simcote bitch send you?” he asked, hauling himself to sit up, the bottle spilling behind him and filling the room with the smell of alcohol. “I ain’t got it now, they took it.”

“Who took what, Lars?” Corwyn asked evenly.

“I ain’t telling you nothing.”  He stood up, swaying, for a moment looking huge and broad and dangerous like he had when they were kids and he’d had Corwyn cornered, seven years old and casting about for a weapon.  She’d found one, and used it, but her stomach still dropped a little as she shifted her weight to fight.

Gwen had never been scared of Lars Hallstrom, even when they were kids, and he gave her no pause. She took a step to meet him, planted four fingers in the worse of his two black eyes, then shoved him backwards onto his bunk again. He hissed as he went, his eye watering, the bunk squelching.  “I will dump all your booze overboard before I start breaking your bones. Just for funsies, and because you got no more room for bruises,” she told him, her voice careless.

“The Goldberg crew,” he said. “They took it. Waste of a beating, anyway, I didn’t want it no more. It’s tiny, but it’s a grown man.”

Billy hadn’t even given them a damn hour, and the Goldbergs knew how to move merchandise quick. Corwyn thought fast, rummaged through facts she hadn’t thought of in years–

“They still keep their junk in the factory on Button Street?” Corwyn asked.

Lars nodded. Gwen punched him in the side of the head. He howled, wincing as he brought a hand up to it. They’d jumped back to the dock before Gwen asked, “Why don’t we just kill him again?”

“Because–” Corwyn stopped. “Because we had other concerns to tend to. And then because Mrs. Simcote always said not to kill a source.” Lars Hallstrom was a source of many things to the old lady: Information. Kids. But they didn’t live with Mrs. Simcote anymore. Nine hells, look at that. There were advantages to all this poverty and isolation.

Gwen’s eyes were wide, almost shining in the twilight. Every kid in the Hill had grudges against Lars Hallstrom, but Gwen held them tighter than most.

Corwyn pointed at her. “Now, hang on, we have a job right now, and it’s got a deadline.”

Gwen nodded. “Yes, we do. Once we get paid for this,” she said, turning to look back at the boat, “I am finally going to burn that trawler down to the water line.”


“We should have gotten coffee with the falafel,” Corwyn said, trying not to yawn as she and Gwen peered down at the factory floor of the Goldbergs’ warehouse. Cobbler’s Hill was the only part of San Xavier where a body could get falafel, and even detectives needed to eat, but they’d done it on the move.

The gang looked to be planning something: a main group gathered around a table, the rest scattered through the shadows on the floor and occupying themselves with cutting their nails or glowering at each other.

“Nobody ever looks up,” Gwen observed.

“Judging by the climb up the building, ain’t none of them can get up here, anyway.” Corwyn scanned the room; looking for a foot-tall golem by the light of hanging oil lamps was a chore.

Gwen had the better eyes. “There,” she said, nodding toward a spot just below and to the left of the observation platform where they crouched. Corwyn could make out a form inside a cage, suspended underneath the balcony, but couldn’t tell what, if anything, he was doing.

Corwyn was pulled out of her spying by the platform shuddering as Gwen threw a leg over the railing.

“Where are you going?”

“I’m going down there to cause a ruckus so you can climb down and get Orson.”

“I do believe we could both climb down there and get him without getting caught.”

Gwen gave her a wicked grin. “But I’m bored. Come on, I distract them, you grab him, we meet up at home. Easy.” She threw her other leg over the rail and dropped, quiet, to the floor.

Corwyn waited until the fight started before following Gwen down.

The drawback to staying in the shadows was that a lot of folk knew it was a good idea. On the other hand, a good portion of Goldberg’s boys were bored, too, and rushed to join the fight. The one left in the shadows — smarter, scared, or shorter than the others, anyway — had his back to her, so she looked around, came up with a broken-off piece of wood, and slammed it into the side of his head.

The thud of his body hitting the floor was covered by Gwen catcalling. It didn’t do her any good in a fight, but even though Corwyn’s knack always knew where Gwen was, hearing her let Corwyn know she was still up and moving without having to pay strict attention.

The cage hung from a hook screwed into one of the pillars supporting the observation platform; it swayed and shook over a pile of stacked boxes and leaning sacks full of whatever the hell the Goldbergs were selling now. Opium. Whiskey. Hard to find elements for alchemical engineers. Maybe weapons.

It wasn’t the sturdiest of foundations for a rescue. The pile wobbled underneath her as she climbed, and once or twice she lost her footing and held her breath, expecting the deafening crash of contraband goods smashing all over the warehouse floor.

Corwyn reached the top. The stack gave another ominous shudder. She grabbed the cage to try and steady herself. The golem started, then slid until his feet slammed into the cage bars, his eyes wide and alarmed. She recoiled, just a touch; his eyes were all black, no iris, like a bird’s; he had no hair; and even though she had expected it, he was tiny–no man should be that small and look so real.

“Who are you?” he asked. His voice was tiny, too, and pitched higher than a full-grown man; still, he didn’t sound like a kid.

“I’m a friend,” she said. “Dr. Eggleston sent me.”

“Oh thank god,” he said, all in a rush.

Corwyn turned her attention to the lock on the cage door. She’d learned to pick on locks like these. No magic, just tumblers. “All right,” she said. “I can do this fast, or I can do it without jostling you around. So hold on.” Orson grabbed the bars to either side of him and braced his feet as Corwyn pulled a pin from her hair. “Look out at the fight; tell me how it’s going?”

“Depends on what side you’re on,” Orson said. “I assume we’re rooting for the girl?”

“Yup.” Corwyn never thought she’d be grateful that Mrs. Simcote made her practice picking locks blindfolded, but the shadows were deep.

“She is carving a swath of bloody destruction through the thugs,” Orson said, adjusting his grip as Corwyn tilted the cage to one side for a better angle. “And some of the drunker ones are fighting each other, I presume for the fun of it. Still, there are far more of them than there are of her.”

“Well, that is how she prefers it,” Corwyn said absently. The lock opened with a click she felt more than heard. “All right,” she said, “Should I … it’d be easier if I carried you?”

Orson scrambled out of the cage, over her shoulder, and down the back of her shirt. His brass legs and arm were cold; their charms pricked against her skin as he dug his feet into the waistband of her trousers. He was heavy, but she’d expected that–clay and metal, of course he’d be heavier than he looked–and adjusted for it as she cautiously slid one foot down the pile, looking for a hold to start their descent.

In retrospect, it wasn’t so surprising that the stack collapsed under them–there was the deafening crash of contraband on the floor, and a rank cloud of alcohol–what was surprising was that Corwyn managed to land on her side and not on Orson, who clung stubbornly to her back the whole way down.

She lost her breath with the pain of the impact, felt Orson scrambling out of her shirt, and heard Gwen’s voice in her head telling her, Get up, Corwyn, so much for easy.

She hauled herself to her feet in time to see one of Goldberg’s boys headed her way.  “Mr. Orson, I advise you to run,” she said, though she didn’t have time to see if he was anywhere around to hear her.

There wasn’t much help to be found in the debris: broken bottles of whiskey; wet, fleshy things she had no desire to look at more closely; an astounding number of cigars; no weapons. Fate was not on her side today. Corwyn reached down and grabbed a broken bottle, then straightened to face the skinny young lug coming at her.

She dropped to the wet floor as he reached out to grab her, glass crunching under her boots and whiskey dampening her knees as she swiped his shin with the bottle and jammed it into his stomach as she came back up. There was another guy coming behind him; she turned this one roughly and shoved him, howling like a baby and the bottle still stuck in him, at his buddy before turning and bolting for the back wall. Gwen had taught her a lot over the years, but Corwyn didn’t have a knack that would help her thrash an entire gang at once.

Her side hurt, her hip clawed at her, and the window directly in front of her was boarded over. Wait, there was one, farther down on the right and broken; lantern light glinted off the shards, and it wasn’t that far away. If she could get out and catch her breath she could try and figure out where Orson might–

A hand twisted into her hair and yanked her backwards off her feet. It felt like she slammed back-first into the walls of St. Philomena’s cathedral; the voice in her ear was about as rough as one of those walls, too. “You think she’ll slow down, she sees I got you?”

Corwyn squirmed as he wrapped an arm around her and tightened his grip to keep her arms pinned. She heard Gwen laughing over someone cursing at her.

“I think if you want to see her stop playing and kill you all like it’s a job, you take me out there,” Corwyn said with a grunt, then brought her boot down, hard, into his foot. She dropped to her knees when his grip loosened, scrambling away on her hands and knees toward the inside of the warehouse. Maybe she could get lost in the bigger fight–some more of Goldberg’s boys were fighting with each other now, and she caught a glimpse of Gwen, grinning, arms held behind her back by one lug, shifting up fast and smashing both feet into the face of another one.

Corwyn got a hard kick in the ribs as she started to get up onto her feet, but her new friend skipped back and away, grunting and favoring the foot she’d stomped. She got up to her own feet, slowly, both sides hurting like seven kinds of hell, and turned her head to look at him, then past him.

Time to do something blindingly stupid, she thought. She grinned at Broken Foot, hoping it looked cocky, and took off toward him at as much of a sprint as she could muster.

He looked surprised, which Corwyn felt was highly flattering; she veered around him and managed to skim past his grasping hand. He couldn’t run after her very well–frankly, Corwyn couldn’t run away from him very well, either–but she could hear him thumping along as she reached the boarded window and put a foot on its sill. She heaved herself up, off-balance, to grab the bottom of the hanging lantern, burning her fingers as she yanked it off the hook. Then she hit the ground, turned, and threw it at Broken Foot.

It went wide. His surprise was turning into a sly grin, but then the lamp shattered in the pool of whiskey on the floor, and the surprise came back again. It turned to downright panicked when the cuff of his pants caught fire.

That was all Corwyn paused to see, though she could hear him fumbling to put it out and yelling like hell for his friends. She ran–awkwardly, but at a good clip–to the broken window, knocked out the last of the glass, and climbed through.

Corwyn hung off the outside window ledge and gave a quick whistle to let Gwen know she was leaving. The drop wasn’t far, but it was enough to send a jolt all up her sides and make her hiss when she landed.

“Miss?” she heard, from near to the ground.


He shifted so that the firelight reflected off his brass bits. “I’m afraid I don’t know how to get back to Pallasgreen from here. Would you be kind enough to escort me?”

Corwyn hadn’t even begun to think about where to look for him once she got out of the warehouse, but relief that she wouldn’t have to washed through her like water through a pump. She matched his highbrow accent when she replied, “Certainly, Mr. Orson.” She kneeled carefully next to him. “Climb aboard, but mind my ribs, please.”


Gwen arrived at their apartment later smelling like smoke, with a bloody lip, skinned knuckles, scorched trousers, and shining eyes starting to blacken from her broken nose. It was downright miraculous Gwen had any nose left, as many times as it’d been broken.

“I will undoubtedly be an entire gang of enormous lugs tomorrow,” she told Corwyn as she strapped Corwyn’s ribs. “But someday, Wyn, someday, those men will proudly tell their grandchildren of the time Gwen Teachout knocked their teeth loose.”

“And a glorious day that will be, indeed,” Corwyn replied easily. Gwen enjoyed knocking heads and tossing drunks too much to make it steady work; those that hired her got nervous after a while. Corwyn, however, had lived with Gwen her whole life, and knew to treat it like a bender.

Gwen tied off the strapping, leaned back on their sagging couch, and shut her eyes, fingers lightly exploring her re-set nose. “So how is our treasure?” she finally asked.

“Asleep.” Corwyn shifted in their only armchair, stiff and trying to find a comfortable position in which to rest her abused bones.

“I’m not, actually.” Orson stood in the doorway to their bedroom. “Your bed is too big, Miss Corwyn.”

“You want me to make you one in a dresser drawer?” Gwen asked, sounding still mildly drunk on violence.

He was very cunningly made, Corwyn thought; the look of disgust was as clear as if he’d been made of skin and muscle rather than clay. She guessed he had a right to be tetchy, considering.

He climbed up onto the couch next to Gwen, though he sat a good distance away from her. Corwyn got comfortable–turned and leaning more on the kicked side, strangely enough–and let out a long breath. The tips of her right-hand fingers were sensitive, but no longer hurt whenever she touched something. Her ribs felt better. Her scalp had stopped stinging. She could hear, between her breaths, the faintest tick and tock of Orson’s heart. It was approaching cozy, sitting in the lamplight with her battered sister and the clockwork homunculus. “I’m sorry about the bed, Mr. Orson.”

“I appreciate the bed,” he said, his voice delicate and barely disturbing the stillness of the room.  He blinked his black eyes, and Corwyn felt a ghost of that first startled sight of him, tiny and bird-eyed, not quite human.  “I prefer feeling slightly more … contained.  And really, I’m not quite ready to let go of the day.”

Gwen turned her head on the back of the couch and grinned at him. “It was quite the adventure, wasn’t it?”

“It was terrifying,” he said, meeting her grin with a smile. “And yes.”

“How’d you get out of the warehouse?” Corwyn asked.

“There are some quite enormous rats in there, to judge by the holes. I barely had to crouch.” He fell silent for a while, the smile playing on his face before gradually fading.  “I suppose Jarvis will have to move me to the museum.  I suppose I belong there.”  He looked down at his clockwork hand and flexed his fist open and shut, the lamplight flowing over and catching against the tiny fittings. “Had Mr. Fairchilde not died, I’d likely be all clockwork by now.”

“There’s worse places for you than the museum,” Corwyn offered.

“They’ll never let me out again.  Nor should they.” It came out on a breath, the merest wisp of a sigh. Well, nobody liked a cage, especially when they’d thought they’d found a way out of it. Corwyn knew that more than most.

She glanced at Gwen, whose eyes were shut. “You’re very solid,” she said to Orson.

“How solid?” Gwen opened one eye to peer at her.

“My back says pretty damn solid–he’s made of brass and clay.”

Gwen opened her other eye and, without lifting her head from the back of the sofa, appraised Orson like he was a new and interesting weapon.  Or something she could use as one. “So if you knew what to do, you get grabbed, you could maybe fight off one or two guys.”

“Do you think so?” Orson asked. “I’m so small.”

“You ain’t going to roundhouse punch a grown man, but there’s things you can do, nonetheless.  And they’d underestimate you,” Gwen said.

Corwyn snorted. “‘Til word got round, anyway.” The two of them hadn’t had the element of surprise on their side in years.

“And then they might leave you alone,” Gwen said, unperturbed.

“Could you … teach me that? What to do?” Orson asked.

“For a nominal fee,” Gwen replied. She was fading fast, but as she hauled herself off the couch she said, “You tell Dr. Eggleston. You’re a valuable commodity, you know. You ought to be able to defend yourself.”

Gwen shut the bedroom door behind her, and Corwyn sat with the golem without speaking. She could feel the long day on not enough sleep seeping into her bones as she listened to Orson’s ticking heart and the sounds of Pallasgreen settling down for the night. She dozed and only half-remembered Orson prodding her to her own bed, whispering, “Thank you for finding me,” before she fell completely asleep.


The next day they went to the museum, Gwen still cheerful despite the bruises and the nose. She didn’t heal any faster than other people, and she felt pain, she just didn’t much care about it.  Orson rode on her back today to spare Corwyn’s ribs, with his head above her shoulder, while Corwyn did her grim best to keep up.

“At least they won’t cut me into pieces here,” Orson said as the black stone turrets of the museum appeared at the end of the street.  Corwyn’s lips quirked at that; every cage had silver gilding. Or some such.

Mattie, at the front desk, ran to get the curator as soon as they walked through the museum’s enormous front doors. Dr. Eggleston’s sagging face lit up when he saw them; he seemed thrilled and relieved to see his treasure once more and willing to engage Gwen to teach Orson ways to fight. “You should get out in the world, and if you can defend yourself, then I can try and make a case for it,” he told the golem as he kneeled before him. “Though perhaps not another trip down to the docks.”

“Surely some sea captain would hire a thirteen-inch half-clockwork sailor,” said Orson; they both laughed, but it echoed oddly in the hallway, flattened out and thin.

“Thank you, ladies,” Dr. Eggleston said, standing to pull his billfold from his jacket pocket and count out their fee. “I will be sure to recommend you to my colleagues when we have things that need finding.”

They watched the curator and Orson walk away down the hall.  “He means it,” said Mattie.  “They’re always losing junk. Or hearing about weird things they simply must have.”

Corwyn nodded, unwilling to think too much about a future possibility when she had so much present to stare in the face. At least her present currently included a large sum of cash, which she and Gwen divided between them for the walk home before following Mattie to the front doors.

Gwen grinned to split her face as she bounced down the front steps of the museum.  “We retrieved a lost treasure. And I got a job!” she said, smug or gleeful. Likely both. “And nobody died‑‑just some maiming!  But I’m still putting a sign on the door. No missing people cases for a while.”

“All right,” Corwyn allowed. “I guess I could do with more sleep.”

“And baths for us both,” Gwen said, nose wrinkled as she sniffed at herself.

Corwyn smelled sweat. A bit of whiskey. Some clay, probably from Orson. Food from a restaurant. She took a deep breath and let it out, forgetting Gwen next to her, the museum behind her, and the only slightly rundown buildings of Pallasgreen surrounding her in the sudden awareness of the clean scent of her hair.


Copyright 2014 Laura E. Price

Laura E. Price lives in Florida with her husband and son.  Her stories have appeared in Cicada, On Spec, Strange Horizons, and Beneath Ceaseless Skies.  You can find her blog at

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