I don’t need a name, a past, a history, to draw a crowd. I’m nobody, and they watch to see me fail–but I don’t, and I laugh from the joy of it. I flash the bottles from hand to hand in the hot dawn, flash and catch, throw. Street jinks aren’t allowed to work the plaza since we lost the witch war all those years ago, and it’s mostly swells out here watching–waiting on the cobbles for the morning wagons. Later on, the carts and foot traffic will jam up like logs on a river, but at dawn the guards haven’t yet come out the big gate that separates the city into them and us. Catch, toss, catch; no coins in my hat, but soon, I hope. I try to entertain. I’ve had a lot of practice, and the bottles are full (which ought to impress them), good wine I snitched right from a swell vintner’s wagon before the drought started back in the spring. Flash, flash, hand to hand, catch the weight, drumbeat rhythm–smooth going ’til I spot the ghost.
He’s hovering on the shoulders of the crowd near the wall: a misty skin-male swell in a black robe, and I don’t need magic to see the hate in his icy eyes.
I fumble the catch, and smash! Green glass flies everywhere, slicing up my legs, and my pilfered wine splashes all over the cobbles like a great bucketful of blood. A good piece of thievery, wasted!
Ghosts are old time, history, gone with the rest of the magic the old brights used to do back before the witch war. A hundred years now, and who sees ghosts anymore?
Not the swells in the plaza. They smirk at my mess and wander off–except for one of them, skin-female and sorrowful, looking like a crow in her swell black robe and black boots and tight bun of black hair. She comes over, dragging a little boy, a baby crow, behind her. She gives me a handkerchief, and she tosses coins at my hat on the ground.
“Young man,” she says to me, even though she’s only middle thirties, maybe ten years older than me, “young man, surely even a Brute can find steadier work which doesn’t disturb the public peace.”
She’s looking at my hands, counting fingers probably, all twelve of them. Curious about us brights–or Brutes I think to myself, mocking her stilted swell accent, just like we say swells and they say Souls. Them, and us.
I crouch to pluck the coins from the wine-soggy hat. “Food’s dear with the drought and all, dama,” says I. “So I brought my act where the coin is.”
That ghost is blowing closer like a storm cloud, close enough that I can see the badge over his heart–a rune strangled in gold vines, the same rune from my broken bottles. Marro, the richest name in the city. An old, tragic name. Whichever Marro this is, he’s got only a few gray strands in his thick brown hair; it wasn’t old age that killed him. His ten fingers are squeezing a string of counting beads. The way he’s glaring at the swell woman I’m thinking he’s going to choke her with them.
She doesn’t see the murder gusting closer. A little smile tips the corners of her mouth, like it’s a nice surprise to find a resourceful Brute who doesn’t want to starve.
“I’ve started a bread kitchen,” she says. She gives me the address in Bright-town. “Tell your friends.”
“Certainly. I’ll look for you there. What’s your name?”
“Folks call me Nix.”
“A pleasure, Nix. I’m Terez.” The friendliness from a swell surprises me.
Terez pulls the little boy back across the plaza. He watches me over his shoulder the whole time.
The ghost follows them right until the gate closes in his face. Then he pivots and bares his teeth at me like it’s my fault they got away. My bowels turn to ice.
From the plaza, Wide Street is the cobbled spine of Bright-town. Left and right the alleys are ribs sloping down through mountains of blasted rock that used to be a city, a hundred years ago. Brights get only one lifetime since the witch war; that was our punishment for losing. Nobody wants to waste it on fixing up old rubble.
I find a crevice between two listing houses that touch shoulder to shoulder. Panting in the urine-stinking shadow, I peek around the corner.
There’s the damn ghost coming straight down the hill.
Don’t find me, I beg, and run all the way to the back of the alley. I squeeze my eyes hard, trying to disappear.
“What did she say?” comes the ghost’s growl in my ear.
I open my eyes. He’s right there. I jump. I try to back up but there’s nothing behind me but rock, hard and cold and final.
“Damo, it was nothing, just directions to a bread kitchen. Don’t eat me! I’m half-used anyway, and dirty for sure.”
He comes so close our faces nearly touch; it’s like nosing up to a slab of winter, so cold it sucks my breath away.
“That was my wife,” he says. “A month ago she murdered me. And you’re going to fix it.”
Murder? Murder? And a murdered swell, no less? If I help this ghost, if I interfere, I could end up in front of a judge–and when murder, swells, and a bright come together in a law court, guess who never wins?
“Find somebody else, damo!” I charge right through him. The cold’s like a punch to the gut. I get two steps before it seizes me up, and I smash onto the cobbles, teeth chattering and limbs twitching.
The ghost floats over to me, scowling. “Need convincing? All right, then. We’ll ask the next Brute that walks past this alley.”
I try to stop shuddering, but my muscles don’t listen. After a minute or so, the ghost smiles. I manage to arch my neck to look. A street bright, eight or nine, walking jauntier than somebody in rags ought to. “Run,” I try to tell her, but my frozen mouth just grunts.
“Ehhh?” She spots me on the ground and takes a step into the alley. “You all right, mistro?”
The ghost pounces, a fast-moving shadow, and squeezes her throat. I can see through his fingers, and there’s no sign of pressure; he’s not really choking her, not with his hands. Still, her eyes bulge and her hands jump up to her throat. Stop, I try to say, but I can’t, and he doesn’t. The girl fish-mouths, frantic for breath. Her head jerks side to side. She drops to her knees. Her eyes plead with me.
The ghost gloats as he brings his mouth close, as he swallows her soul. When he’s done, she collapses right through him to the cobbles. Her dead eyes accuse me.
I’m unfrozen enough to roll to the wall. The ghost waits. I haul myself to my feet, but I can’t look at the dead girl.
I need to get this bastard out of town, away from the rest of my people.
“You win, damo. I’ll hear you out. But not here. Out toward my place. This way.” I’m happy to see he looks startled that a bright would dare give him orders. I lurch out of the alley.
I’ll come back for the girl later. Unless, of course, I end up as dead as her.
My squat’s in the Comb part of Bright-town, tucked between the Bats and the meat-gardens. The Comb’s not as crowded as the Bats, but still there are brights hanging clothes on windowsills to bake out the stink in the summer heat, brights racked out on piles of rubble like sunning lizards, a bright chasing a rib-skinny dog away from a rocking cradle.
I take him right through to the meat-gardens. Those’ll be deserted for sure.
Brights have been planting their dead for a hundred years. It was part of the surrender. Those old brights told the swells, You win, but you keep your burnings and your temple; we’re taking all the hills north of the city and we’re burying our dead. Some brights, mostly old ones, still sneak off to burn their corpses and say temple-ish prayers. Most of us, though, even temple brats like me, can’t be bothered. Too much work when you’re scrambling for food. Easier to give the bodies to the clayhands and let them take care of things.
Folks mutter about the meat-gardens–curses and bad luck and witchery. Me? I kind of like the aloneness.
Birds scatter when I wade through the drought-brown grass. It reeks of neglect here: a hot dirt smell like a dusty attic. The place is full of whispers. The grass rustles, but you never see a mouse. The air drones with bugs. Even the trees are rotting and squat, trailing dead moss that tickles the death-heads on their stumps and spikes–crumbling busts poking up among the weeds, leaning close together, gossiping. There are thousands and thousands of death-heads in that maze of hills and forest.
Under every one of those busts is a bright buried on his feet. I’m walking on the heads of the dead.
When I stop, the ghost perches on one of the pedestals, next to a death-head. Now that we’re safe out of town I’m a little less panicked. If he wanted me dead, I’d be dead already, right?
“So how does a swell end up a ghost, damo? Shouldn’t you be having yourself a new body somewhere?” It’s what swells do; they get reborn–just like brights used to, back before the witch war. But not this swell.
“Don’t be disrespectful.” Under the snappishness I hear uncertainty. He doesn’t know the answer. He doesn’t know why he’s still around, after the dying and all.
“You want my help? I need someplace to start. So. It’s been a month, you said?”
“Yes, a month. These are death-heads, correct?” He rattles his beads at the busts all around us.
I nod. “Clayhands make ’em.”
“Terez gave me one the day she killed me.”
That’s surprising to hear. “Not a real one. Not from a clayhands, damo. Sorry.” Clayhands make the death-heads to honor the memory of our souls. Swells don’t need to honor their souls, ’cause they just keep getting born. No clayhands would waste time or talent on a dead swell.
“But this was more than simple artwork. A bust would have been chiseled marble, and this was whitewashed clay. It had the same shimmer to it as these have.” Clayhands put sparkle in the clay, part of their craft. On a sunny day the meat-gardens glitter. “It was crude, just like these. Ugly thing. Rough. She brought it into the house, then that very night I woke up feeling like I was stabbed in the chest. I couldn’t get my breath to scream, and all of a sudden I was looking down at my own eyes staring up at me. Terez just snored away until dawn.” He sounds bitter about it. I might have been, too.
He could have died from anything. The death-head thing, though–that’s odd. “Did she say why she brought a death-head?”
“For luck, she said, and she smiled at me like a simpleton. I was at the accounts. I’d been working around the clock; the vineyards are dying from the drought. Terez came into my study and held out the thing. ‘Get out,’ I told her, ‘I don’t have time for your nonsense.'”
“It was a fake, damo.” I’m thinking a jinx like me hammered together a lump of nothing and took Terez’s coin. If I’d known there was a market for it, I’d have done it myself.
“It was from a real clayhands. Terez knew one. He was teaching her magic.”
I’m shocked speechless for a half-dozen heartbeats. Swells can’t do magic. If they could, they wouldn’t have brought us brights here in the first place, and they certainly wouldn’t have had to set fire to Bright-town to win the war. Besides, there’s not a bright witch left to teach anybody anything: the war used up the magic. “Somebody was just stealing your wife’s coin.”
“Terez is certainly gullible, and she loves to waste Marro money on Brutes. But what if this Brute knew some old curse or other? What if it was an accident? Clearly something’s afoot, because I’m stuck here. This has to be looked into, and nobody can see me but you.”
“You’re sure she said magic?”
“Aurel said so. Our son. Yesterday he asked her if she was still learning magic from the clayhands. She hushed him and said she was done with such wickedness.”
“So she thought it was magic. Still, I don’t see what I can do for you, damo. I’m as magic as dirt.” Except, of course, for the suddenly seeing ghosts. “Anyways nobody can get unkilled.”
“No, but perhaps they can get unstuck. Look, this clayhands doesn’t have to unstick me for free. I’ll pay him more than Terez did, and I’ll pay you, as well.”
“Ghost coin doesn’t spend.”
“I’m a Marro, Eed Marro, richest Soul in the city. Terez has Marro jewels. I’ll show you where she keeps them. Sell them, and you can buy yourself the biggest house in Bright-town. Or you can refuse.” He smiles slow, his mouth a crack in the white ice of his face. I think of the dead girl, and I shiver.
Eed Marro. The Marro tragedy. Eed’s older brother, Bur, killed by some bright before I was born. The old brights still talk dark about it; the swells tore the town apart looking for the killer. Eed inherited the Marro fortune, so he’s not lying about being able to pay. “All right, damo. I’ll ask around. How do I reach you?”
“Come to the plaza,” he says, and he floats over, close enough to kiss me, although thankfully he doesn’t. His eyes are hungry black, and I shudder with the winter of him. “Dawn tomorrow,” he says. “You’ll have something by then, or I’ll come find you, Nix.” My name’s a frigid wind on his lips.
It’s too much. I scram, thrashing through the meat-gardens like a terror-blind deer.
By the time my steps slow I’m back in the Comb, panting like a dog and thinking about that dead girl. It wasn’t my fault. It wasn’t.
I can’t leave her there for the rats to chew. I ought to at least get her out in the open, out of the dark and the foul, where the swell guards can find her.
When I get to the alley, the guards have found her already.
A clayhands is loading the blanket-wrapped body onto a ramshackle cart. Of course the guards aren’t helping; instead, the pair of them lean against the wall, sullen and watchful in the morning heat.
The clayhands is young, maybe twenty. I wouldn’t have taken him for a clayhands at all, except for the clay disk on the cord around his neck. He looks good–cotton trous and vest that leaves his smooth arms bare, tea-colored hair corralled by a twist of rag. He appeals to me like nobody, skin-male or skin-female, has appealed since before the drought. Staying fed and watered doesn’t leave time or energy for touching.
When he glances at me there’s a spark of attraction. He flushes then quick goes back to his business.
I step over to the cart where he’s tying her down with crisscrossed rope. I like that he shows respect–that he tucks the blanket in around her body, that he pats her shoulder. “You need some help over the cobbles?” I ask.
“I’m used to them,” he says.
One of the guards interrupts us. “Body’s secured? Good.” He comes over and gives the clayhands a few coins. “Now get out of here, Brute.” They always make it an insult. The clayhands looks hurt. I wonder how he could have got to his age without realizing he’s scum.
He scurries to the front of the cart and grabs the poles. “I need a clayhands,” I say. He looks over his shoulder at me. When I step to the rear of the cart, between the wheels, he doesn’t order me away.
Grunting, we get the cart rolling up the hill. It’s not bad work with two of us, and the girl being slight, but it’s awkward and hot. We don’t say a word through the hills of the Comb, then we’re south of Wide Street, in the Bats.
The Bats is way worse than the Comb. Older, more desperate–more people, and more rubble. More shadows. Before the war, there were nice houses here, big mansions, and theaters and shops and a temple. Now the mansions are rotted, collapsed to their knees or fallen sideways–hulks of ancient monsters, burned and listing and dangerous. Stone pillars rest half-buried in the weeds like giants’ bones. Rats watch us, bold as day. Brights squint out from crooked windows, through the kudzu claiming the roofs and the gutters and choking the mountains of rock.
The clayhands’s squat used to be a little stable. Made of stone, it’s tucked between the carcass of a mansion and a crumbling wall. In the courtyard he sets down the cart handles then unties the girl and carries her behind the cottage. I follow. There’s a wood shack back there. After we put her inside, next to his shovels, he nudges his hair out of his eyes then offers me a clay-stained hand. “I’m Rine.”
“Nix. From the Comb.” His hand’s warm and a little damp. I like the strength in his fingers.
He gives me a little smile, a relaxed one. It feels like we’ve known each other a long time. “You need a clayhands, Nix?”
“I’m looking for one. Somebody who made a head of a swell, maybe a month, two months ago.”
The smile fades and he takes his hand away. “A clayhands did that?”
“So I’m told.”
“Who was the swell?”
“A vintner. Eed Marro?”
His fingers curl into fists. “It figures.”
“You know something?”
“The clayhands you’re looking for is Sojourn. Has to be. She’s got a shack way out past the old end of the meat-gardens, in a cleft between two hills. But you don’t want anything to do with her, Nix from the Comb. That bright, she dabbles in history.”
Sojourn’s shack looks accidental, a misshapen tumble of rocks. I tell myself she happened on that little glade among the trees, just a lucky accident, that she didn’t dig up the death-heads to carve herself a space–that there aren’t bright graves under the dead grass and the rotten trellis with its load of brown vines. But when I get closer to the shack, some of the stones look suspiciously round, and they’re weathered smooth.
What’s standing in the doorway must be Sojourn. The years have baked her to bone, all knobby through her rag of shirt and tattered trous. Her cheekbones are sharp, her chin pointed. Her skin’s sun-leathery and spotted, even the bald skull. She examines me, then she squints her hard black eyes. “At last, a bright who can see,” she says. She grabs my hand and jerks me inside. I’m too startled to resist, and it’s only as I’m looking around that it occurs to me how strong she is for an old bone.
The shack has one room. It smells like clay and goat and old shoes. There’s a nest of blankets by the hearth. To the right, under the window, sit a clay-stained table with a couple of stools, a bucket, and a head-shaped lump under a cloth. To the left a crooked shelf holds twigs, feathers, a chipped cup, a brass coin. Dangling from the wood beam over the shelf, like onions drying, are dozens of crystals, drops of color that catch the sunlight and toss it onto the mud-plastered walls. This place shivers with witchery. I’m suddenly as fear-chilled as if Eed Marro was breathing on my neck.
“You’re here to learn magic?” she rasps.
“There’s no such thing, mistra.” I say it hard.
“It’s growing back, like a burned forest. The right bright can learn it.”
“That’s not me.” I step toward the door.
“It is. You can see. It beams out of you.”
“Nothing’s beaming, mistra, trust me. I only came with a question. This swell named Terez Marro, she got a death-head of her husband, Eed, then he died. You know anything about that?”
“Depends who told you.”
“Somebody who thinks that head’s got more to it than clay. Maybe something murderish, or cursish.”
“And what if there was?”
“Then I need it uncursed.”
She laughs. “Unmagicking? Not me, no. You could, though. A bright who can see.”
“You’d show me how?” I ask her cautiously.
“I would, if you bring me that head. But first, you need your eyes opened.” She puts her hand on the covered lump on the table. “It has to be dawn. That’s when he speaks.”
“Come back at dawn,” she says. “For your first lesson.”
My gut’s a knot when I get back to Bright-town. It’s getting on suppertime, too, and this morning’s dried meat and sour apple are long gone. There aren’t many places a bright can eat for free. I decide to visit Terez’s bread kitchen in the South Neat. There’s a public well there, too, so I stop at the squat for my empty bladders.
The crowd’s so thick by the well that there’s hardly air to breathe. Everybody stinks; there’s no spare water for washing. The swell guards nudge the brights along the street in a ragged queue. Exhausted, the people shuffle. I spot a commotion over by the wall: an old skin-female arguing with somebody I recognize: Rine, the clayhands. I jog over to them.
Rine looks up. He gives me a nod, but his attention’s mostly on the old bright, and he’s frowning. “Nix, this is Iyo. From the Bats. She won’t go to the new kitchen, and the old ones are already out of food.”
Iyo’s wearing crazy layers of cotton and lace and beads. Despite the filth and her age and her rat’s nest of gray hair, she’s got high cheekbones and a full mouth. She must have been pretty before street life ground her up and starved her down to just plain old and skinny. The hungry angles of her face seem familiar as she nods me a regal hello. “Pleased to acquaint,” she says, then turns back to Rine. “The temple doesn’t run the new place,” she whispers. “Swells run it. Swells want to kill me.”
“Kill you?” I’m surprised. “You’re just a bright! They won’t even notice you, mistra.”
She purses her lips and shakes her head, then clutches her water skins in front of her like a shield. Rine sighs. I wonder if she’s a relative. It would explain the worry clouding his face.
“What if we both take you?” I hear myself saying. “Me and Rine. We’ll walk either side of you, like a wall. They won’t see you tucked down between us.”
Iyo considers. “Well, I am hungry….” It’s a surrender.
Rine mouths me a thank-you. Iyo lets us split her full water skins between us to share out the weight, then we make our way to the food queue a quarter mile away.
The sun sinks. Terez’s place used to be a theater, once upon a time. Now the brick face is pocked with holes, the windows are boarded, and the roof’s sprouted weeds among the shingles. The queue inches. When we get close, Iyo stiffens like she changed her mind; before she can grind her heels in, me and Rine drag her through the door into the cool shadow.
Empty benches form half-circle rows. The chandelier’s fallen down on them–just rusty bones, no crystals, a great dead spider. Down in front, on the stage, are barrels and crates and a mountain of bread loaves. There’s a yeasty, wonderful food smell wafting up to me, and my mouth starts to water. Marro guards with their viney-rune badges scowl from the edge of the stage, making a fence with upright spears. Terez is there with her little crow–Aurel–and some other swells, doling out food and charitable smiles to the brights passing in front of the guards.
Rine stops in his tracks. The brights behind us mutter and shove. “Keep moving!” somebody shouts, and Terez glances up. She looks right at Rine. The loaf she’s holding hits the stage and bounces into the benches, and a half-dozen brights scurry for it.
“I should have known,” Rine growls. He turns and flails back upstream through the disgruntled crowd. Iyo wades after him without a glance at me.
It’s a dilemma. Follow, or stay? Stay, says my stomach; I don’t owe them a thing. I’m still debating when a guard grabs my arm. Despite my protests, he hauls me out of line, drags me down the aisle, and pushes me through a side door and up a dozen stairs.
The corridor’s black and tight. The guard shoves me into a tiny room with a mirror and a rocking chair, and he shuts the door. When I jerk it back open, here’s Terez coming down the tunnel with bread in her hand.
She follows me back into the room, looking at me, intense. “That Brute with you in line. I need to find him.”
“I don’t really know him, dama.”
“He’s not in any trouble.”
“I don’t think he wants to see you.”
“So you know him well enough to know what he wants?” She hands me the bread, then squints at me. “Aren’t you Nix, from the plaza this morning?”
I tear into the loaf. It’s bliss. I find myself suddenly inclined to like her. “What do you want with Rine?”
She kneads the base of her thumb and gives an embarrassed little shrug. “I owe him an apology.”
“What’s in it for me if I talk him into seeing you?”
“How about food any time you want?” She watches me chew, and I’m suddenly aware of how desperate I must look–like a starving dog. It makes me defensive and a little blustery.
“Bread, I can find for free, dama. But how’s this instead? Be my patron. Hire me for a year, let me jinks swell-side. On a stage, in the plaza, bit of garden, wherever. Pay me regular, introduce me around, set me up with a hole to live in, clothes, good food, clean water. One year, if I convince Rine to talk to you.”
It’s a bold request. She takes a long time to answer.
“Agreed,” she says finally. “But only if you bring him within the next day or two. After that, I may as well trust my guards to sniff him out.”
Tomorrow? That’s tricky. Still, it’s win-win for me, so I take the deal and we shake on it. She gives me a token to get us through the gate to swell-side, then she has one of her people stuff me a sack of food. “For three,” I tell him.
Win-win. As I leave the theater I wonder why, with my sudden prosperity, my conscience nags. She just wants to talk to him. Talk, that’s all. Nothing wrong with talk, nothing sinister. But my instincts keep on twitching.
Rine sure looked angry when he stormed out of the theater. What did Terez do, I wonder, that she needs to apologize? What if she wants to do it again?
Well, no matter. Since I’m the one getting Rine into this, I’m aiming to get him out, too. Whatever happens with Terez, I’ll be right there with him. She never said he had to talk to her alone.
The Bats menaces, in the hot night, so I keep alert. Predatory brights loiter. I spot them on the street corners, sitting on piles of rubble, hanging over balconies, looking down–escaping the heat inside their squats, ready to pounce. They’re pale in the dark, like backward shadows. Little embers and flames flicker: pipes, candles, the occasional bob of a torch in an alley.
The moonlight paints Rine’s courtyard silver. When I knock on his cottage door, there’s a rustling inside, then comes a wary “Who is it?”
“It’s Nix. I have food.”
He cracks the door and peeks, then opens it wide.
The cottage is pretty big: one room and a high ceiling. Only the window farthest from the street is open, which tells me Rine’s cautious. He’s got reason to be; his stuff is worn but rich, and he’s got a lot of it. Along with his clayhands tools on their wood shelves, there’s a bed, not a mat on the floor but an actual bed with bolsters and a frame. It’s draped in blue-green silk that flows down to a rug. Near the bed sits a basket of children’s toys–dolls and a bundle of jackstraws; juggling balls; a skip-rope. A copper lamp perches on a mosaic table, swell work. The most impressive thing, though, is what’s next to the lamp: a book, an actual book, laying open to show colored drawings and words like ants. I haven’t seen a book since I was a brat, eight or nine, in the temple waif-house. “You can read?” I ask him in surprise.
“Yes.” He doesn’t elaborate.
I put the bag on the table and hand him the waterskins. “Iyo’s water.”
“Iyo said you’d steal it. I told her you wouldn’t.” He loops the skins over the back of a chair and sits, then opens the bag and peeks inside. “Is this from Terez”
“For you and Iyo. How do you know her?”
“Iyo? We’re sort of family.” He deliberately misunderstands. I can tell by the way he stalls, pulling out the food and making careful piles. Bread here, bread there. Cheese here, cheese there.
“Not Iyo. Terez Marro.”
Instead of answering, he grabs a loaf of bread in both hands. They’re shaking. I let him eat for a minute before I go on. “She said she wants to apologize. She sounded sincere.”
“Oh, she’s sincere, all right. She throws herself into things with her whole heart. But she jumps out again just as quick.”
The way he says it, a little bitter, I realize one of the things she jumped into was him. I stare at him. “You were her lover? A swell?”
“It happens.” He flushes.
“It’s illegal! Castration and the work farms? Not worth the risk. Not to me, anyway.”
“We didn’t get caught. It was five years ago, anyway.”
I don’t know why I’m angry about it. It’s not my life. If he wants to cross the wall, it’s no matter to me. Then I realize it’s not that he hip-danced with a swell, although that’s rare enough.
It’s that it’s Rine.
I’m jealous over somebody I’ve known for a day.
I don’t like it. It’s dangerous and intimate and sudden, like lightning. It’s inexplicable and random. It’s unbalancing. I try to shift back to business–my Eed problem–but jealousy squeezes itself into that, too. “Was it Sojourn who introduced you to Terez?”
“Other way around. I met Terez in the temple. Her husband was a cold bastard, in love with his money. She used to volunteer in the waif-house just to get away from him. I was doing the same thing–working in the waif-house, to get away from Sojourn.”
“How’d you know Sojourn?”
“I was her apprentice. Clayhands. Although what she really wanted to teach me was magic.”
I nearly fall out of my chair. “Rine, are you out of your head, admitting that? Let ’em burn Sojourn if they want, but you can’t be blabbering about magic to strangers!”
“So that’s two secrets I told you.” There’s no guile in Rine. He smiles a little at me, not regretful, just…aware. He knows I’m worried. He knows I’m jealous. This thing between us, it resonates. His smile warms, becomes an invitation. I lean across the table and cover his fingers with mine; he rolls his hand over and brushes my thumb with his.
For a while I don’t think about the Marros at all.
The touching is good; it’s been a long time. Afterward we head to Iyo’s in the moonlight, me with my arm around Rine’s shoulders, and Rine carrying Iyo’s food and water. I’m feeling so relaxed that I don’t notice where we’re going until suddenly we’re in the worst part of the Bats: the west-end hill where the fallen mansions make a honeycomb of caves. We thread our way through ravines in the rubble to a curtain of ivy–a cave mouth that used to be a doorway. Rine calls through the ivy. “Iyo? Its Rine.”
After a minute she pokes her head out like an old turtle. She frowns at the water skins. “I gave up wine. Too dangerous.”
“It’s water,” Rine says.
“Your water, from the well. And Nix brought food.”
“You should have said! Come on in.” She turns and scurries back inside.
That hole gives me the jitters. The caves around here are none too sturdy, and I’m not anxious to be buried. “I don’t want to go in,” I tell Rine.
“It’s bigger inside. Or are you worried about people? She lives by herself.”
That takes me aback, though I hadn’t been thinking in that direction. “A bright like her, squatting alone? Feeble-headed? That’s dangerous.”
“I told you, we’re in sort of a family. We look after one another.”
“No, wall-crossers. Brights who had swell lovers.”
“You’re kidding me. Iyo? With a swell?”
“Not now. When she was young.”
Now I want details, so I quash my nerves and follow Rine inside.
The mansion’s fallen into itself, and Iyo lives up in what used to be the ceiling. The floor’s made of rubble tamped down to gravel flatness. Tops of archways lead from room to room; bug-chewed crown moldings hang at eye level. With my head brushing the roof, I feel like a giant.
Iyo’s down the tunnel, holding aside a ratty curtain. “Hurry,” she whispers. “Before they see the light.”
We duck under the curtain. Iyo’s got one room, filled with rubbish: broken mirrors, stained cushions, the frame of an old window, a busted wagon wheel. The light comes from a tarnished candelabra as out of place as pearls on a pig. It’s dripping wax on the wood crate it’s resting on.
Rine drops the bag on the crate then sits cross-legged on the ground. The cushions look none too savory, so I join him on the bare floor.
“I wasn’t sure you’d be awake,” he tells Iyo.
She sits on a little stool and drags the bag into her lap. Her gnarled fingers unwork the knot. “Too hot for sleep. Besides, I was reading. It’s a good one. History of the war.” She toes a book out from behind the crate. On the cover is a painted peacock, copper and green. “Take it, when you’re done the one you’ve got now.”
I’m flabbergasted. Bizarre enough that a clayhands can read, but this old beggar, too? “Where are you even getting books?” I blurt.
She pats the wooden crate.
A whole chest full of books? “But from where?”
Iyo looks at Rine. “Does he know?” she asks.
She looks at me. “Then you know.”
From her swell lover, that’s what her answer means. She had her trysts, and the lover gave her books. It occurs to me that that’s where Rine’s things came from, too–his silks and his table and his lamp. Gifts from swell-side, from Terez.
“I should get myself a swell,” I say.
“No. You shouldn’t.” Clutching her bag, Iyo gives me a grim, intense stare. “They’re murdering bastards.”
“Believe me, I know.” Before she or Rine can ask me why I’m so sure, I quick change the subject. “So what does your book say, anyway? About the war?”
The distraction works. Iyo peeks inside her bag and starts stacking food on the crate. “Says it was about inheritance.”
Rine picks up the book. He fingers the peacock on the cover. “It was. Sojourn told me. Swells brought the brights to the city to cast magic for soul-finding. A swell would hire a bright witch to do a soul-seeing after his death; the witch would bespell newborns until she found the dead swell’s soul, and that’s who’d inherit his money, instead of his sons and daughters. And other swells were always going to the witches and getting their newborns looked at, in case the baby turned out to be somebody rich.”
“So the sons and daughters started the fighting?” Makes sense to me. If somebody gave my fortune to some stranger’s baby, I’d fight.
But Iyo, nibbling at her bread, shakes her head. “The book says the brights got greedy. Offered to see things that weren’t there, if the price was right.”
“Sojourn said it wasn’t the brights,” Rine argues. “She said it was the swells. They started paying brights to make up lies, and other swells caught on, and it turned into a big mess. Instead of fighting each other the swells ended up trying to wipe out the brights. They would’ve, too, except that when the swells started setting fire to Bright-town, the brights tried one big magic to seal off the city. It took all the magic with it, and all the brights’ souls, and then after a while the spell failed anyway, and Bright-town burned.”
“If it took all the magic, how can Sojourn be teaching it?” I ask.
“I didn’t say she really teaches it; I said she claims to. Either way, I didn’t want anything to do with it, so she taught me clayhands instead. I dug the graves, and she showed me the craft stuff–how to mix the clay, how to make the likeness, how to fire it special–everything.”
“Would Terez have tried to learn magic from her?”
Iyo looks up from her bread and frowns. “Swells can’t do magic.”
I’m watching Rine. He doesn’t seem surprised by the idea of Terez studying magic, or believing she was. “Terez was taking lessons,” he says finally. “She loved brights, so I introduced her to Sojourn, who’s older than dirt and knows everything there is to know about us. After a while, a few months maybe, Sojourn started shooing me away when Terez came to the shack. I peeked in on them once and caught them at that creepy altar of Sojourn’s.”
“Sojourn was stealing from her.”
“I know! I was going to talk to Terez about it, but before I could, she told me we were finished. Sojourn and I had a huge fight over it, and that very day I left the shack and came to the Bats to live.”
“Terez seems to feel pretty guilty.”
His mouth sets, and he looks stubborn. “She made her bed.”
“You should let her apologize, Rine.”
“Why? It’s long over.”
I can’t think of any lie that’ll work better than the truth, so I tell him what she promised: to be my patron for a year, in return for a few minutes of Rine’s time.
He looks surprised. “She agreed to that?”
“I’m telling you, she feels bad. I’ll split the coin with you. And you can live swell-side with me, if you want.”
“I’m not for sale, Nix.”
“You are, for the right price,” Iyo says.
“And what’s that?” I ask her.
She whispers, like she’s sharing a secret. “Rine wants a child.”
That startles me, then I remember the toy chest in his squat. “You’d raise a kid in the Bats?” I ask him.
Rine blushes scarlet and looks away. “Hopefully I’ll save enough coin to get into the Comb, maybe even the Neat. I work hard, Nix. I even bury bodies for the guards.” There’s determination in his voice. Iyo’s right. Rine’s ready for a child, and he wants one bad.
“Well, what’s the holdup?” Jealousy bubbles in my words a little, like a pot coming to boil. “You got a mother picked out?”
“I haven’t met anybody I’d settle with, ’til….” He looks at me, then looks away again.
“What about the waif-house? There’s always orphans.”
“The temple swells want a bribe. I don’t have that kind of coin.”
“So here’s your answer, Rine. Marro money.”
Iyo screeches. She throws her nub of bread at me. It smacks me in the temple and bounces away. Still shrieking, she jumps to her feet, knocking the stool over behind her.
Rine scrambles up and grabs my arm. He pulls me toward the door. “She doesn’t like that name,” he says.
“You don’t say.”
Iyo’s swearing, her face twisted in rage, and purple, and I’m starting to worry that she’ll give herself a fit. Then she throws the candelabra. It thuds against the crown molding right by my head. In the sudden darkness, Rine and I stumble out of there.
“She’ll be all right,” he tells me. Still, it’s a silent walk back to his place. I’m thinking about Marros: my ghost, the cold bastard in love with his money. I don’t know what Rine’s thinking about. Maybe Iyo. Maybe Terez. Maybe the child he wants so bad. Maybe the dead girl in his shed; he’ll have to bury her tomorrow.
When we get to Rine’s cottage we share a drink of his precious water, then we lay on his bed. It’s too hot to touch more than fingers. After a while, Rine starts snoring. I can’t fall asleep, though. A couple of hours before dawn, I slip out of bed, wiggle into my clothes, and sneak out of the cottage.
I have a date with Sojourn. It’s growing back, she said. The magic. The right bright can learn it. I can’t help but wonder if her right bright really is me–and if it isn’t, then what am I going to do about Eed?
In the dark, Sojourn’s window is a square of flickering candlelight. The shack might look cozy if the trees weren’t looming like gnarled trolls and the death-heads weren’t watching from the shadows.
Sojourn yanks open the door. “It’s almost dawn,” she snaps. “There’s no time to waste.”
She drags me not to the altar shelf but to her clayhands table under the window. Smoke ribbons up from a nub of incense smoldering in a clay dish; it burns my nose. There’s twenty or more candles sitting in a pool of tallow, and in front of them is that cloth-covered head-shaped lump. The hair on my arms quivers like my skin’s trying to crawl away. Sojourn pushes me down to a stool, then she swishes the cloth away.
It’s the strangest death-head I’ve ever seen: not glittery white but black-streaked pink, fissured and bruised and eroded. In the candlelight it glistens and throbs. It lacks clear features–just a pinch for a nose, thumb pokes for eyes and mouth; still, I swear those eyeholes twinkle. That head’s watching me. “What’s it made of?” I ask. Somewhere between curious and disgusted and terrified, I stick a finger out to touch it.
She grabs my hand and presses it on top of the thing. I brace for a shock, expecting something maggoty-squirmy or soft like warm clay, but it doesn’t move. It’s unexpectedly cool, surprisingly dry. “He’ll show you how to see a soul. For starters, I’ll let him show you mine.”
“You’re a bright. You don’t have a soul.”
“Well, I have half a one. My father was a swell.”
Sojourn? Half-souled? It’s jarring to hear her admit the stigma so readily, even to a bright. The half-souled have one foot on either side of the wall–half-swell, half-bright, with the blessings of neither: they don’t get reborn, and they don’t get remembered. The swells don’t acknowledge them, the brights don’t trust them. They live, they die, they’re forgotten.
I try to tug my hand away but she’s pressing it down with that impossible strength in her bony fingers. She starts swaying and muttering a word over and over, a strange word that makes me dizzy just hearing it, like I’m standing on the edge of a cliff. The smoke’s burning my eyes, and the curtains are breathing in and out, and I feel a scream building in me when all of a sudden the head yields an image.
It rises between Sojourn and me like a ghost–an old swell in an old-fashioned hat, wrinkled skin, white winter breath. He’s glaring past my shoulder at something he sees in his ghost world. After two, three seconds the vision scatters. Sojourn slumps, panting, and she lets go of my hand. I check my fingers. They’re shaking and tingling, but they don’t look damaged. “Was it your father?” I ask Sojourn.
She shakes her head. “It was me, or a piece of me, a rag of soul-memory from back in history. That’s what a half-soul looks like. When you do a full swell, it’s like he’s in the room with you. They talk, even.”
Like he’s in the room with you? “You did something like that for Eed Marro?”
“No. No! Terez came looking for magic, it’s true. She wanted Eed’s vineyards to prosper. She thought he’d be happy.”
“You made the death-head for her. Since swells can’t do magic, if there’s anything cursish on it, you’re the one who did it.”
“It was a harmless charm, a nothing. Look, our friend here saw it all. Put your hand on his head and ask him to show you.”
She seems a little sly. I don’t trust her, but if all this thing does is show memories, I’ve got nothing to lose except ignorance. I touch the head gingerly.
“Say the word,” Sojourn orders. She means that slippery word, that cliff-edge, dizzy word. It takes me a few tries to wrap my tongue around it, then the head spits out another image.
This time it’s a younger swell. He’s bare-shouldered and looking down, at a lover I think because he’s smiling gently while he mouths words I can’t hear, while his black hair falls like a curtain from behind his ear. He pauses, listening maybe, then he laughs. He touches something below him–his lover’s face, I’m guessing. He’s the very image of Eed, if Eed were young and strong and happy. Then the image scatters like so much smoke, and I’m left panting for breath. My heart’s pounding like I ran up a hill. I guess I expected that, after seeing how it drained Sojourn, but what I don’t expect is the outraged glare on her face.
“That wasn’t me!” she says. “That was you.”
“I made the picture?”
“No, I mean that soul there, that was yours, Nix. You should have said you’re half-souled.”
I’m horrified. “I’m not! I’m a full bright, a temple brat.” But that image touched a truth, didn’t it, Nix, some deep piece of rightness, and suddenly my past, my history, my self is quaking underneath me.
“It looked like Eed Marro,” I argue. Maybe it’s not a soul-memory. Maybe it’s an Eed memory, something stuck in my head cause I’m fretting about him.
“It couldn’t have been. Eed was still using his soul when you were born. You’re twenty-four, twenty-five?”
“Give or take.”
She considers for an instant, then her eyes narrow. “The brother.”
“Eed’s older brother, Bur.”
My heart starts hammering. I think I’d puke, if there was anything in me to come up. “What about him?”
Dawn claws through the window. The light brushes the pink clay and renders it dull, just another lump of rock. Sojourn retrieves the cloth from the floor and covers the head. “Eed didn’t die until a month ago, but the brother was killed twenty-five years back, just around when you were born. And no, don’t argue–I know a soul-memory when I see one. You know what this means? It means half your soul used to be Bur Marro. The heir to Marro. The one who was murdered all those years ago.”
“She lied,” Rine says. “It’s what she does.” He was awake when I ran into his courtyard, panting and gibbering and sobbing; now we’re sitting on the edge of his bed and he’s trying to calm me down.
“She’s not lying. I feel it. What she said, it’s true. I don’t know what to do.”
“Why do you have to do anything?”
He tucks my hair behind my ear and looks at me with exasperated worry. Before I know it, I’m spilling it all: the ghost, Terez and the death-head, the bright who Eed strangled. “I’m thinking the reason I can see Eed is ’cause I used to be his brother.”
Rine’s gone pale, shaken up. He’s drumming his fingers on his knee. “You can’t go back there.”
“I just want to get free of Eed–which means I need to take that death-head to Sojourn. Please, Rine. Come with me, let Terez speak her piece, I’ll grab the bust, and we’ll leave. Sojourn unmagics Eed’s soul, and you and I take Terez’s money, and that’s the end of it.”
He draws away a little and chides me with his eyes. “But it’s not. If I talk to her, then you’re hers for a full year. You’ll see her every day. I want nothing to do with that.” Nothing to do with me, he means. He’s making me choose: Terez’s money, or him.
He’s the first friend I’ve had in a long time, so long. When I look at his face I know I can’t lose him; already, he’s become that dear. But how do I say no to all that coin? A chance like this doesn’t come but once in a bright’s one lifetime.
Damn him for making me choose. Cruel or not, I loose the only arrow I’ve got. “It’s the only way you’ll have money for a child.”
He stares at me like I punched him. It’s done, I’m thinking. I’ve lost him. Then he looks away and blushes like he does, and I realize he doesn’t want to dump me, either.
He can be angry, though. “Five minutes,” he says, coolly. “I’ll give her five minutes. And Nix, you’ll work out some other deal. You hear me?”
It’s midmorning when Rine and I get to the plaza. Farmers are unloading their rickety wagons–bushel baskets only half-filled with wizened beans, bony pale carrots, stunted apples. Eed’s glaring at the farmers while he hovers by the wall twisting his beads. I eye Eed with my knew knowledge, but he still looks like a stranger. I’m happy about it, but oddly a little sad, too.
When we approach, Eed turns the glower on Rine. “Who’s this?”
“My friend Rine,” I say, and Rine jumps a little when I start talking to nothing. “A clayhands. Rine, this is damo Eed–no, not over there. Right here, by the wall.”
“Pleasure,” Rine says in the direction of Eed’s left shoulder. He doesn’t sound pleased, though. He sounds tight and nervous, talking to the ghost of his old lover’s husband. I give his fingers a squeeze.
“Is this the one who made the death-head?” Eed asks.
“No. His teacher did, though. If I take her the bust, she’ll be able to free you.”
“Good,” Eed says. “Let’s finish it, then.”
The guards at the gate scrutinize Terez’s token. I’m thinking they aren’t going to let us through, but after some discussion, they do. I walk through the tower tunnel and get my first glimpse of swell-side.
The cobbled plaza’s a half-circle mirror of ours, but what strikes me is what’s missing. Rubble, for one: no houses burnt to bones, because no soldiers came here to fire out the witches. No weeds, no broken glassy. Instead, clean cobbles, neat curbs. The wall and the guardhouses are whitewashed. There are trees. I smell flowers and, from an open window, baking bread.
No jinks or beggars. No rats. No crowds. There are people, sure, but a whole lot less of them, and all swells. Around the plaza, they saunter in and out of the shops, unhurried shadows in their black robes. They nod to one another–gracious, not desperate.
No dirt. Horses pull the wagons through the gate tunnel then head north and south on the cobbled roads. When a horse lifts a braided tail, a guard rushes over to whisk up the dung before it can offend.
From the half-moon plaza radiate streets like sunbeams, gentle lanes flanked by trees. The narrower ones are paved in tiles: mosaics, pictures of history–the old city, dead people in old-fashioned clothes. Marro guides us down one of those. We pass odd-shaped buildings with stained-glass windows; walled gardens, brown with the drought; iron statues; dry fountains; a library (“A place full of books,” Marro says). Useless, the lot of it; then I realize: if you know you’ll be born again, you make sure to leave yourself a place full of pretty.
Rine’s eyes aim straight ahead; his mouth is a tight line, his shoulders stone-stiff. I realize why when I see the trio of swells coming down the street from the other direction. They meet my eyes, then their expressions reorganize. In half a second, they’re looking right through us like we don’t exist. They’ve swept us away before we can offend.
Marro’s estate is a walled country all its own: brown rolling hills, a distant stone castle, and a ribbon of road alongside a lake. The lake’s nothing but a bowl of sludge crusted with mosquito eggs and fringed with dead cattails–then I start remembering.
The little boat bobbing under me, honeysuckle summer; all around me, blue water; by the distant shore a crowd of lily pads, and willows that finger the water’s surface, lazy in the breeze. I pull the oars then drift; pull, then drift.
The memory’s interrupted by ice stabbing through my ribs. It’s Eed charging past me at a run, although his boots don’t kick up any gravel. Teeth chattering, I collapse against Rine, and we follow Eed slowly.
Up at the house a couple of swell servants are unloading bottles from a cart while the harnessed horses swish their tails. I’m surprised we don’t see more servants; Eed answers, like he knows what I’m thinking. “Terez let the servants go, to save money. The vineyards are dying.” His voice accuses, like the drought’s Terez’s fault.
The two swells straighten up and frown at us, but I hold up Terez’s token. “The dama asked us here,” I say. They don’t look pleased, but they don’t challenge us, either, and we march right through the front door.
My feet know where they’re going. It’s disorienting. With Eed right there beside me and Rine a step behind, I head down a long marble hallway to a flight of stairs wider than my squat. The rug is red. On each step a gold bar traps it in place. Hanging from the ceiling are dozens of empty birdcages. I remember.
The hall echoes with the chatter of birds. It’s redolent with the damp earthy smell from the watered plants on the landing, the waxy tang of polish. I hear distant mangled music–little brother Eed on his pianoforte…
I slam the door on the memories. The thought of Eed as a boy disarms me, and I can’t afford to be disarmed when he’s right here with me, at the top of the stairs, glaring murder.
“Dama?” I call.
Terez comes out of a doorway down the hall. Her hair’s a wispy mess and her black robe’s wrinkled. She’s holding a pen in ink-stained fingers.
“My ledgers!” Eed gusts past her into the room.
Terez is staring at Rine. The pen in her hand starts to shake. She grabs it with the other hand.
“I’ll give you and Rine a minute, dama,” I say. “Listen…you made a bust of your husband. Or Sojourn did.”
Distracted from Rine, she looks at me in surprise. “You know Sojourn?”
“She’d like the head back, dama, if you don’t mind.”
“Take it if you want it–down the hall, third door. It brought nothing but bad luck.”
Rine goes to her, slowly. She reaches for his hands. He lets her take them. The look on their faces twists me: it’s the same look, a questioning look, painful and vulnerable and childlike. So Rine never did get over her. All that anger of his was just posturing, just hiding from the truth.
It’s unexpected. It’s devastating. I walk away.
The third door leads to a dusty closet of a room with a window in a sloping bit of ceiling. On the windowsill are living plants in clay pots, well watered; a little jungle that hasn’t heard that brights are dying of thirst. The only other things in the room are a wood-paneled screen and an altar. The altar’s like Sojourn’s, but richer: a marble shelf, a crystal cup, a gold dish for the incense. Staring at me from the middle of that altar is Eed’s death-head, glittery gray, its mouth a sour slash.
A shape unfolds from behind the painted screen, a little boy shape, a baby crow. Aurel. He’s looking at my hands. “A Brute!” he says with surprise.
I wince. “Halfish.”
“Can I ask you something?” He’s polite, Aurel, with a dignity that’s old for a little boy. One hand grips the edge of the screen like a chubby crab, the other hangs at his side. There’s no fidget to him, no shuffling. He should be wiping his nose on the back of his hand, stealing apples from wagons, chasing around with other kids. Instead he stands there unsmiling, like his joy’s been trained away.
“I did something wrong,” he says.
His expression is so distressed that I find myself kneeling to meet him eye to eye. “It can’t be that wrong.”
“It is. It was magic.”
He starts with this: Hiding behind his screen, he saw Terez do magic.
“Well she can’t, you know. Not really. Swells–Souls–they can’t.”
“She did! She said a word that made my ears hurt, then she asked Papa to love her, but she wasn’t talking to Papa, she was talking to her altar. She wiped her eyes with a napkin and burned it and said ‘Take away my tears.’ That’s just what she said. I heard her. I didn’t want her to cry, so I did what she did, only I used raindrops instead ’cause I wasn’t crying. I caught them in a napkin and I burned it with a candle and I said ‘Take away her tears.’ Then I said the ear-hurting word.”
My belly twists with the rightness of it, that same lurch I got when Sojourn mentioned Bur. It’s a sickening sensation. “Aurel, has it rained since then?”
He shakes his head, then bites his knuckle. I pull his hand away from his mouth before he can chew right through it.
Aurel started the drought.
I’m shocked bone deep that a little boy could cause this kind of damage. But how? Swells can’t work magic.
But half-swells can.
The timing’s right. Five years ago, Terez crossed the wall. She crossed it with Rine. Eed isn’t Aurel’s father; Rine is.
Eed will be furious. He’ll go berserk. I think of the dead girl in the alley, and her accusing eyes. Aurel, Terez, Rine–they’re all at risk. I’m at risk. Every bright in the city’s at risk, because that’s what angry swells do: they burn us down.
“I’ll handle it, Aurel. Don’t say anything to anybody else, not even your mother. All right?”
I grab the bust. The best chance for all of us is to get Eed taken care of. There’ll be plenty of time after that to fix the drought, and to tell Rine he’s got his child after all.
Down the stairs, through the door, I run with the Eed-head tucked on my hip like a baby, past the startled swells with their wagon, down the gravel road.
I’m all the way to the lake when I hear footsteps pounding after me:. Rine, red-faced and coming fast. “Nix! Wait!” He doesn’t see Eed blowing after him, glowering murder, with his black robe flapping like wings.
“How dare you!” Eed howls. He’s howling at Rine.
Not good. Eed must have figured it out, watching Rine and Terez together–not about Aurel, maybe, but that Terez crossed the wall. If Eed catches up to Rine, Rine’s dead. If Eed gets time to think, he might work it out about Aurel, and then Aurel’s dead, too. I have to distract Eed.
I stop and wave the bust in the air. “I’m taking this to the clayhands,” I shout. “You’re finished!”
It gets Eed’s attention. He passes Rine and swoops over to me. Face to face with me, he bares his teeth; his ghost breath is cold as snow. “Put it down. I’ve decided it can stay here a while.”
With that soul-memory, that part of me that sees, I know what he’s thinking. Defiler, he’s thinking, and I understand that clear enough: Rine defiled the Marro name. Punish, he’s thinking, and it’s easy to see he means punish everybody concerned.
Brother, he’s thinking–and that one brings me up cold. He knows?
Eed enfolds me in darkness, swallows the world with his cloak until there’s nothing left but night and his icy voice. “Souls who couple with animals need putting down.”
The sound of gentle laughter, my laughter, me. Bur. I’m looking down at a face, a bright woman’s beautiful face on the pillows, and she smiles up at me but only for an instant before her expression changes to horror, then something grabs my throat, squeezes, drags me off her, chokes, crushes. I feel the cutting force of the counting beads garroting me, then darkness.
The pain of Bur’s death drives me to my knees, and all of a sudden I’m back in the world, kneeling in the gravel and looking up at Eed’s face. “A bright didn’t kill your brother. You did.”
I thought he was angry before, but now he hurricanes down, savage. The wind of him whips me, and his eyes come closer ’til all the world’s nothing but the black of his pupils, bloodshot lightning streaking outward, and I feel the brush of bones on my throat. Here it comes, I think. Death.
Then the neighing of horses cracks the shadow, scatters it, and I’m kneeling under lashing hooves while a horse’s body rears against the dry noon sky.
It’s Terez, driving the cart from the front of the house. I scream the word, the magic word, and Eed jumps back away like it burns him. Rine jumps down and tosses me into the back of the cart; then he crawls up in front with Terez, she snaps the reins, and Aurel and I have to hold on for our lives.
Eed recovers. He swoops behind us, shrieking. I curl around the death-head and try not to listen as we bump along. “As fast as you can, to Sojourn’s!” I shout.
The horses are as scared of Eed as I am. They charge through the gate and gallop up the road. Eed plunges after us.
Kill. The murder’s pouring off Eed like fever heat as he dives behind us. Punish. His rage slips under my skin, coursing through me like poison, pulsing. When I don’t respond, when I press my hands against my ears and pull my knees up to clutch the bust against my waist, he changes tack.
“Kill Terez,” he bellows. I grit my teeth and bounce. None of the others see Eed, but Aurel pats my shoulder, trying to comfort. Maybe he senses Eed somehow, with that bright magic part of him.
I scream the word at Eed to keep him at bay, again, again, but every time it’s harder, like I’m lifting a weight that’s just this side of too heavy. Every time, I need a few minutes longer to catch my breath.
By the time we get to the north edge of the meat-gardens, the horses are stumbling. They’re still terrified, looking back at Eed with rolling eyes.
I tumble out of the wagon. Kill her, Eed urges, sweeping down. My fingers are tightening on the bust. Terez is jumping down from the wagon, and how did I get so close to her? When did my hands lift the bust over my head?
I scream at Eed again, then I take off through the trees. I hear the others thrashing after me, but Eed’s not going for them. He wants the death-head I’m clutching. He chases (Kill!), harries, and I holler back at him, trying to drown him out, until my voice is gravelly and I’m tasting blood. Roiling ink, a billowing cloud of poison intention, he goads me to slaughter, to kill Terez, to kill Rine. All the way to Sojourn’s, he besieges me.
Sojourn’s waiting by her shack, scowling down the ravine, and never was I so happy to see a decrepit old bone of a bright. All around the shack she’s planted hundreds of death-heads, some weathered and cracked, some clear-featured and new, all of them yanked right off their graves. It’s an army of heads, all staring outward. I try to negotiate through them at a run, but my feet catch. Eed’s head goes flying. I fall on the heads and a sharp crack in my ribs takes away what’s left of my breath. I roll to a stop, hugging my chest, and here comes Eed flying toward us, coming to swallow me.
Sojourn steps past me into the center of her army, and she points at Eed and hisses the alien word, then “Stop right there, Eed Marro!”
Shockingly, he does. Sojourn can see him. Eed looks as surprised as I am.
He growls and gathers himself, then launches at Sojourn, but her army of heads make a wall he can’t penetrate. He crashes against it and bounces back. Magic.
I try to stand up but I’m shaking too hard, and I dry-retch a little. I’m heaving into the dirt, clutching my ribs, when the rest of them show up behind Eed. Rine’s carrying Aurel.
Sojourn chants words that twist in the air like snakes, that snap and cut and hurt my ears. Eed freezes a minute, glowering, and in that instant Rine grabs Terez’s hand and hauls her in among the heads.
Sojourn looks at Rine then at Terez. Her eyes are narrowed, her back is stiff, and both of them look guilty. I feel the tension of their history, the three of them, like three jackstraws in a pile and you can’t draw one without touching the others: Terez learning magic, Rine learning clay, the two of them picking what piece of Sojourn they want, what piece of her brightness.
She turns her back on them. Without a word she retrieves Eed’s death-head and kneels next to me in the dry dirt.
“You can see him because you made the head?” I ask her.
She nods. She screws the bust into the ground. Right next to it is the tongue-pink head that showed me Bur’s image.
“I trapped his soul,” she says. “I gave him a taste of not being reborn. Let them feel it, the swells; let them feel what the brights feel.” Obstinate old bone. I know it then: she killed him. She killed Eed with her curse.
Eed’s still scowling at her, bared teeth and fury, but he’s stopped battering the invisible wall. Now he starts to circle, prowling, testing for weakness.
“Lay your hands on the clay like so,” Sojourn tells me, “and I’ll show you how to send him on.”
I start to, but Rine shouts out. He rushes over and pulls my hands away. “Make her do it herself, Nix. Or ask her the price.”
“There’s a price?”
Sojourn answers quick. “Nothing you’ll miss.” She grabs my hand.
For a second it’s tug-of-war between Rine and Sojourn with me in the middle, and in the struggle I realize what the price is. The seeing part of me knows.
It’s the same price as always, for doing magic. It’s why the swells can’t do magic themselves. It’s Bur’s afterlives, that’s the price. His rebirth. His soul. “My soul. You can do magic or you can get reborn, but you can’t do both.”
“What soul?” Terez asks. “You’re a Brute!”
Aurel corrects her. “Halfish.”
I yank my hand out of Sojourn’s.
She looks at me and pleads. “You’ll have one life only, but a long, long life, Nix.”
A long, long life like hers–until time sucks me dry, leaves nothing but an old bone and magic, a hairless skull, eyes as deep and black and used up as an ancient well.
Rine still has my other hand. He squeezes it hard, and I feel his fingers shaking. “And what’s he supposed to do with all those years after everybody who loves him is dead?”
“He’ll have me,” Sojourn says. She says it with stiff dignity, even though her knees are grinding into the dirt, even though she’s dressed in rags and filthy.
“Your apprentice?” I ask her.
Terez runs over and crouches right in front of Sojourn; she grabs both Sojourn’s shoulders. “Half-Souls have afterlives?” she asks fiercely. She glances at Aurel, over by the shack.
At Aurel, who’s Rine’s son, which makes him half-souled, like me. Like Sojourn.
“They do, dama,” I tell her. “My half-soul’s Bur Marro.”
If shock has a sound, it’s the rustling of mice in the grass, of a breeze through dead weeds.
Snarling like a rabid dog, Eed renews the attack, diving for me, pounding at the wall like a hammering shadow. He’d kill Bur again for the sin of loving across the wall. He’d kill again, to inherit all that money. Eed would kill again, just to kill. His soul is stone, hardened and unchangeable; the best thing I could do for him is send him to rebirth. Make him clean. Give him another chance.
Is one soul, even a brother’s soul, worth all my forevers?
Sojourn’s watching me watch Eed. “Don’t do it for him,” she says. “Do it for this.”
She spits in her palms and reaches for one of the death-heads–not Eed’s, but one of the old ones from her time-scarred army. She sings her alien word, then she cups the back of that stone head, and she hunches down and kisses it.
That kiss charges the air. I vibrate with the power of it–like lightning on its way to striking, like a dropped bowl right before it shatters. Then, smash!–the death-head explodes in her hands, knifing us both with shards.
It yields up a soul.
It’s an old bright, nudging his lank hair out of his eyes. I see deep wrinkles, age freckles, a stained white cap. I smell flour on him, and the tang of sweat. It’s just his shoulders and head, but he looks at me and gasps. I hear it. This bright, this old soul, is no vision.
Sojourn’s cut palms stream blood; she cups them beneath her chin and breathes the word into her hands. The old soul shivers. He looks at Sojourn, and he smiles a brown-toothed smile, and he keeps smiling, and while he’s watching her, he starts to fade.
It’s not a scattering like the memories in Sojourn’s shack, but a dissipation, like a smoke ring–expanding, stretching, thinning until finally you can’t see the smoke anymore. But the air still smells like smoke, and maybe where it used to be there’s a ghost of warmth.
The seeing part of me knows what happened: that old bright, he’s gone to someplace new. Not to be reborn, like the swells are, but to something beyond bright, beyond soul, beyond graves and names and birthrights. That soul–Sojourn freed him. She unstuck him, so he could move on.
The heavy weight of my new understanding presses down on me, but it doesn’t crush me. Instead I push back up against it, and I find myself feeling lighter. Catch and throw. Balance. I know what I have to do.
The death heads are prisons. They hold trapped souls.
Thousands of them, nailed on their posts, driven into the dirt. Those heads are anchors pinning our souls to the ground. “There’s a bright in every bust,” I say. The wonder of it dizzies me.
“It’s where your long life will come from.” Sojourn sounds annoyed. She didn’t want to share the secret; she must have known for a hundred years. “Clayhands have been doing soul magic since the war. They never knew it. If they had, the swells would have killed them, so the old witches lied. They hid the teachings, disguised them in clayhands tricks, taught them, master to apprentice for a hundred years. They knew the magic would grow back, if they buried it. If they waited.”
“And I can free them? The brights?”
“A few every day.” It takes me a second or two to figure out why the words are so bitter, then I get it. Sojourn’s long life comes from that buried power, the dead brights; every one I free will steal some of the magic away, will make her life a little shorter. That’s how bad Sojourn wants a disciple: so bad that she’s willing to let her life be whittled down.
How lonely she must be. Am I willing to be so alone?
I spit in my hands.
I press them against Eed’s skull.
While Rine shouts next to me, begging me not to do it, I sing Sojourn’s word, over and over until I quiver with the force of it. Eed shrieks, not in rage, but in sudden terror. I grit my teeth. I send my screaming brother to his new skin, and my futures to the sun.
Eed shatters like stone into wind-borne dust.
Sojourn stands up and reaches a hand to me, but I don’t take it. Instead, I stand up and walk over to Rine. He’s looking at me, shiny-eyed with unshed tears as he wraps his fingers in mine, and I realize Terez chased him down because he told her no. He told her no.
He’s mine, until his short bright life comes to its end.
The sudden joy makes it easier to say what I have to say to Sojourn, the lonely old bone. “The clayhands and me, we’ll figure it out without you.”
The brights. Rine and me. Us. Not Sojourn, not ever. Not somebody who knew all this but kept it secret ’til she could use it to get an apprentice.
She stares at me in shock. It never occurred to her, I guess, that I’d take her teaching and not take her, that I wouldn’t settle for whatever bits of craft and half-truths she decided to spoon me in the coming centuries.
Maybe she figures she’ll wait me out. I guess we’ll see. Forever’s a long time. Either way, she watches us, eyes full of sorrowful secrets, while me and Rine and Terez and Aurel pick our way through the death-heads and out into the meat-gardens.
While we trudge through the weeds Rine squeezes my hand as though our forevers would be the same size. “You’ll free them?” he asks. He’s peering around at all the death-heads guiltily, even though he had no idea he was trapping those souls away.
“As fast as I can, Rine. As many as I can.”
“You’ll be famous,” he says.
That’s the punishment. Not the reward.
The first thing we figure out, me and the clayhands, is how to make it rain again. Flooding’s a big problem now, but we’ll work it out. It distracts the swells, anyway, so they don’t see what we’re doing, we brights. Getting stronger. Getting witchier.
I’m guessing Sojourn’s still out there, searching for her posterity. I hear her shack’s gone empty. Maybe she bought a real house with all those crystals hanging over her altar–Terez’s gems, taken in payment for teaching. Ironic, that what Eed promised me was something Terez had already given away.
We live in the old theater. I juggle on stage now, catching, tossing, flashing my bottles, and offstage I juggle our odd little family: Terez with her charities, and me and Rine, and Aurel, who did magic of his own when he made the drought and will live as long as me. He helps me in the meat-gardens. Me and Aurel, we’re freeing brights together, as fast as we can, trying to shorten our forevers.
In the meantime, I throw, catch, flash, and I learn. Clayhands come from everywhere, with snippets of old wisdom to share, and This word, Nix, my father taught me it, is it magic? Or they beg me to free their dead: the souls of their lovers, their fathers, their mothers, their sons. They ask for me by name.
Iyo’s with us in the theater, because it turns out the swell she crossed the wall with was Bur Marro. But that’s another tale, just one more stick in our pile of jackstraws, our bright jumbled lives.
Copyright 2011 Eljay Daly
About the Author
Eljay Daly lives and works somewhat northwest of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA. She’s an alumna of the Viable Paradise workshop and the University of Southern Maine’s Stonecoast MFA program. Her fiction has appeared in Strange Horizons, Fantasy Magazine, and Beneath Ceaseless Skies. She likes big dogs, full moons, and sleeping in tents, but generally not all at the same time. You can find her on the web at www.eljaydaly.com.