SONGS OF LOVE & DEATH
All-Original Tales of Star-сrossed Love
Edited by George R. R. Martin and Gardner Dozois
For everyone we’ve loved and lost
—you know who you are.
The earliest reference we can find for the phrase “star-crossed lovers” traces it to 1595, attributing it to Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, a tragedy about the doomed romance that blossoms between a young man and a young woman on the brawling streets of Verona, a romance that is destined to fail because the families they come from are locked in a deadly feud: “From forth the fatal loins of these two foes, / a pair of star-cross’d lovers take their life.”
It’s an astrological phrase, of course, stemming from the old belief (still held today by millions of people, as a look at any newspaper will tell you) that the position of the stars at your birth casts a supernatural influence that determines your fate. So to say that a romantic relationship is “star-crossed” is to say that the influence of the stars are working against it, that it’s opposed by fate, ill-fated, “thwarted by a malign star.” Not meant to be. That you’re destined to be kept apart no matter how hard you struggle to be together.
In real life, even without the influence of the stars or the dread hand of Fate, there are any number of things that can doom a relationship—differences in temperament, race, religion, social status, political affiliations, being on different sides of a bitter war, philosophical dogma, degrees of affluence (or lack of it). Even simple distance can work to keep people apart, and over the centuries there must have been many lovers who stood on the dock and watched their loved ones sail off to destinations like Australia or America thousands of miles away, knowing that they’d never see them again, since in the days before modern transportation, they might as well have been sailing off to Mars. Many, many immigrants must have left someone behind them in the Old Country, as they were forced into exile or set off to find their fortunes, and most were never reunited.
This is a theme that has been eagerly embraced by fiction and folklore, and world literature is full of star-crossed lovers desperately struggling to hold on to love no matter how overwhelming the odds against them: Paris and Helen, Pyramus and Thisbe, Lancelot and Guinevere, Roxanne and Cyrano, Cathy and Heathcliff. Recently, thanks to the booms in fantasy and romance, everyone knows of Buffy and Angel, Bill Compton and Sookie Stackhouse, Edward Cullen and Bella Swan.
Which brings us down to the book you hold in your hands at this moment (unless you’re using your mental powers to make it levitate or reading it off a screen), a cross-genre anthology called Songs of Love & Death, which explores the borderlands of fantasy and romance, stories from the heart and about the heart, tales of endangered love played out against every kind of setting, from ghost-haunted fantasy landscapes to mile-long spaceships in transit between the stars, stories where a lover’s heart is put in danger, and love, life, and happiness are at risk with great odds to be overcome to achieve them. Star-crossed lovers who are really star-crossed, with grave obstacles to be overcome before they succeed in finding love (if they do): a wizard who must battle both a supremely powerful vampire and the hidden desires of his own heart; a man who must seduce a reluctant maiden or forfeit his family’s life to the Queen of Faerie; a woman who falls in love with a superhero she glimpses hurtling toward the scene of a crime; a ghost who lusts for sex and blood long after he should be safely in his grave; a girl who must brave the wrath of an otherworldly prince to rescue the man she loves; a lonely man who falls in love with a woman he can never meet; a smuggler who dares to fall in love with the ruler of a star-spanning Empire; a soldier cast adrift from his world who will face immense hardships to return to his own time and place; a lover who may—or may not—exist; a love that persists across lives and worlds, and transcends death . . .
We’ve gathered for you here some of the most prestigious and widely read names in romance and fantasy, and the booming hot new field of paranormal romance, including Jim Butcher, Robin Hobb, Neil Gaiman, Diana Gabaldon, Jacqueline Carey, Carrie Vaughn, and eleven other first-class writers. Among other goodies, we are proud to offer you a brand-new Harry Dresden story, a pivotal story in the Kushiel series, a follow-up to An Echo in the Bone, and a new novelette set in the Farseer universe. And more star-crossed lovers, of every imaginable sort, than you can shake a stick at.
New York Times bestseller Jim Butcher is best known for the Dresden Files series, starring Harry Dresden, a wizard for hire, who goes down some very mean streets indeed to do battle against the dark creatures of the supernatural world and is one of the most popular fictional characters of the twenty-first century to date; he even had his own TV show. The Dresden Files books include Storm Front, Fool Moon, Grave Peril, Summer Knight, Death Masks, Blood Rites, Dead Beat, Proven Guilty, White Night, Small Favor, and Turn Coat. Butcher is also the author of the swashbuckling sword and sorcery Codex Alera series, consisting of Furies of Calderon, Academ’s Fury, Cursor’s Fury, Captain’s Fury, and Princeps’ Fury. His most recent books are First Lord’s Fury, the new Codex Alera novel, and Changes, the new Dresden Files novel. Butcher lives in Missouri with his wife, his son, and a ferocious guard dog.
Here he sends Harry Dresden up against one of his deadliest adversaries and also into battle with the secret desires of his heart—which may turn out to be even more dangerous.
Murphy gestured at the bodies and said, “Love hurts.”
I ducked under the crime scene tape and entered the Wrigleyville apartment. The smell of blood and death was thick. It made gallows humor inevitable.
Murphy stood there looking at me. She wasn’t offering explanations. That meant she wanted an unbiased opinion from CPD’s Special Investigations consultant—who is me, Harry Dresden. As far as I know, I am the only wizard on the planet earning a significant portion of his income working for a law enforcement agency.
I stopped and looked around, taking inventory.
Two bodies, naked, male and female, still intertwined in the act. One little pistol, illegal in Chicago, lying upon the limp fingers of the woman. Two gunshot wounds to the temples, one each. There were two overlapping fan-shaped splatters of blood, and more had soaked into the carpet. The bodies stank like hell. Some very unromantic things had happened to them after death.
I walked a little farther into the room and looked around. Somewhere in the apartment, an old vinyl was playing Queen. Freddie wondered who wanted to live forever. As I listened, the song ended and began again a few seconds later, popping and scratching nostalgically.
The walls were covered in photographs.
I don’t mean that there were a lot of pictures on the wall, like at great-grandma’s house. I mean covered in photographs. Entirely. Completely papered.
I glanced up. So was the ceiling.
I took a moment to walk slowly around, looking at pictures. All of them, every single one of them, featured the two dead people together, posed somewhere and looking deliriously happy. I walked and peered. Plenty of the pictures were near-duplicates in most details, except that the subjects wore different sets of clothing—generally cutesy matching T-shirts. Most of the sites were tourist spots within Chicago.
It was as if the couple had gone on the same vacation tour every day, over and over again, collecting the same general batch of pictures each time.
“Matching T-shirts,” I said. “Creepy.”
Murphy’s smile was unpleasant. She was a tiny, compactly muscular woman with blond hair and a button nose. I’d say that she was so cute I just wanted to put her in my pocket, but if I tried to do it, she’d break my arm. Murph knows martial arts.
She waited and said nothing.
“Another suicide pact. That’s the third one this month.” I gestured at the pictures. “Though the others weren’t quite so cuckoo for Cocoa Puffs. Or, ah, in medias res.” I shrugged and gestured at the obsessive photographs. “This is just crazy.”
Murphy lifted one pale eyebrow ever so slightly. “Remind me: How much do we pay you to give us advice, Sherlock?”
I grimaced. “Yeah, yeah. I know.” I was quiet for a while and then said, “What were their names?”
“Greg and Cindy Bardalacki,” Murphy said.
“Seemingly unconnected dead people, but they share similar patterns of death. Now we’re upgrading to irrational and obsessive behavior as a precursor…” I frowned. I checked several of the pictures and went over to eye the bodies. “Oh,” I said. “Oh, hell’s bells.”
Murphy arched an eyebrow.
“No wedding rings anywhere,” I said. “No wedding pictures. And…” I finally found a framed family picture, which looked to have been there for a while, among all the snapshots. Greg and Cindy were both in it, along with an older couple and a younger man.
“Jesus, Murph,” I said. “They weren’t a married couple. They were brother and sister.”
Murphy eyed the intertwined bodies. There were no signs of struggle. Clothes, champagne flutes, and an empty bubbly bottle lay scattered. “Married, no,” she said. “Couple, yes.” She was unruffled. She’d already worked that out for herself.
“Ick,” I said. “But that explains it.”
“These two. They were together—and they went insane doing it. This has the earmarks of someone tampering with their minds.”
Murphy squinted at me. “Why?”
I spread my hands. “Let’s say Greg and Cindy bump into Bad Guy X. Bad Guy X gets into their heads and makes them fall wildly in love and lust with each other. There’s nothing they can do about the feelings—which seem perfectly natural—but on some level they’re aware that what they’re doing is not what they want, and dementedly wrong besides. Their compromised conscious minds clash with their subconscious and…” I gestured at pictures. “And it escalates until they can’t handle it anymore, and bang.” I shot Murphy with my thumb and forefinger.
“If you’re right, they aren’t the deceased,” Murphy said. “They’re the victims. Big difference. Which is it?”
“Wish I could say,” I told her. “But the only evidence that could prove it one way or another is leaking out onto the floor. If we get a survivor, maybe I could take a peek and see, but barring that, we’re stuck with legwork.”
Murphy sighed and looked down. “Two suicide pacts could—technically—be a coincidence. Three of them, no way it’s natural. This feels more like something’s MO. Could it be another one of those Skavis vampires?”
“They gun for loners,” I said, shaking my head. “These deaths don’t fit their profile.”
“So. You’re telling me that we need to turn up a common denominator to link the victims? Gosh, I wish I could have thought of that on my own.”
I winced. “Yeah.” I glanced over at a couple of other SI detectives in the room, taking pictures of the bodies and documenting the walls and so on. Forensics wasn’t on site. They don’t like to waste their time on the suicides of the emotionally disturbed, regardless of how bizarre they might be. That was crap work, and as such had been dutifully passed to SI.
I lowered my voice. “If someone is playing mind games, the Council might know something. I’ll try to pick up the trail on that end. You start from here. Hopefully, I’ll earn my pay and we’ll meet in the middle.”
“Right.” Murph stared at the bodies and her eyes were haunted. She knew what it was like to be the victim of mental manipulation. I didn’t reach out to support her. She hated showing vulnerability, and I didn’t want to point out to her that I’d noticed.
Freddie reached a crescendo, which told us that love must die.
Murphy sighed and called, “For the love of God, someone turn off that damned record.”
“I’M SORRY, HARRY,” Captain Luccio said. “We don’t exactly have orbital satellites for detecting black magic.”
I waited a second to be sure that she was finished. The presence of so much magical talent on the far end of the call meant that at times the lag could stretch out between Chicago and Edinburgh, the headquarters of the White Council of Wizardry. Anastasia Luccio, Captain of the Wardens, my ex-girlfriend, had been readily forthcoming with the information the Council had on any shenanigans going on in Chicago—which was exactly nothing.
“Too bad we don’t, eh?” I asked. “Unofficially—is there anyone who might know anything?”
“The Gatekeeper, perhaps. He has a gift for sensing problem areas. But no one has seen him for weeks, which is hardly unusual. And frankly, Warden Dresden, you’re supposed to be the one giving us this kind of information.” Her voice was half teasing, half deadly serious. “What do you think is happening?”
“Three couples, apparently lovey-dovey as hell, have committed dual suicide in the past two weeks,” I told her. “The last two were brother and sister. There were some seriously irrational components to their behavior.”
“You suspect mental tampering,” she said. Her voice was hard.
Luccio had been a victim, too.
I found myself smiling somewhat bitterly at no one. She had been, among other things, mindboinked into going out with me. Which was apparently the only way anyone would date me, lately. “It seems a reasonable suspicion. I’ll let you know what I turn up.”
“Use caution,” she said. “Don’t enter any suspect situation without backup on hand. There’s too much chance that you could be compromised.”
“Compromised?” I asked. “Of the two people having this conversation, which one of them exposed the last guy rearranging people’s heads?”
“Touché,” Luccio said. “But he got away with it because we were overconfident. So use caution anyway.”
“Planning on it,” I said.
There was a moment of awkward silence, and then Anastasia said, “How have you been, Harry?”
“Keeping busy,” I said. She had already apologized to me, sort of, for abruptly walking out of my personal life. She’d never intended to be there in the first place. There had been a real emotional tsunami around the events of last year, and I wasn’t the one who had gotten the most hurt by them. “You?”
“Keeping busy.” She was quiet for a moment and then said, “I know it’s over. But I’m glad for the time we had together. It made me happy. Sometimes I—”
Miss feeling that, I thought, completing the sentence. My throat felt tight. “Nothing wrong with happy.”
“No, there isn’t. When it’s real.” Her voice softened. “Be careful, Harry. Please.”
“I will,” I said.
I STARTED COMBING the supernatural world for answers and got almost nothing. The Little Folk, who could usually be relied on to provide some kind of information, had nothing for me. Their memory for detail is very short, and the deaths had happened too long ago to get me anything but conflicting gibberish.
I made several mental nighttime sweeps through the city using the scale model of Chicago in my basement, and got nothing but a headache for my trouble.
I called around the Paranet, the organization of folk with only modest magical gifts, the kind who often found themselves being preyed upon by more powerful supernatural beings. They worked together now, sharing information, communicating successful techniques, and generally overcoming their lack of raw magical muscle with mutually supportive teamwork. They didn’t have anything for me, either.
I hit McAnnally’s, a hub of the supernatural social scene, and asked a lot of questions. No one had any answers. Then I started contacting the people I knew in the scene, starting with the ones I thought most likely to provide information. I worked my way methodically down the list, crossing out names, until I got to “ask random people on the street.”
There are days when I don’t feel like much of a wizard. Or an investigator. Or a wizard investigator.
Ordinary PIs have a lot of days like that, where you look and look and look for information and find nothing. I get fewer of those days than most, on account of the whole wizard thing giving me a lot more options—but sometimes I come up goose eggs anyway.
I just hate doing it when lives may be in danger.
Four days later, all I knew was that nobody knew about any black magic happening in Chicago, and the only traces of it I did find were the miniscule amounts of residue left from black magic wrought by those without enough power to be a threat. (Warden Ramirez had coined the phrase “dim magic” to describe that kind of petty, essentially harmless malice.) There were also the usual traces of dim magic performed subconsciously from a bed of dark emotions, probably by someone who might not even know they had a gift.
In other words, goose eggs.
Fortunately, Murphy got the job done.
Sometimes hard work is way better than magic.
MURPHY’S SATURN HAD gotten a little blown up a couple of years back, sort of my fault, and what with her demotion and all, it would be a while before she’d be able to afford something besides her old Harley. For some reason, she didn’t want to take the motorcycle, so that left my car, the ever-trusty (almost always) Blue Beetle. It’s an old-school VW Bug which had seen me through one nasty scrape after another. More than once, it had been pounded badly, but always it had risen to do battle once more—if by battle one means driving somewhere at a sedate speed, without much acceleration and only middling gas mileage.
Don’t start. It’s paid for.
I stopped outside Murphy’s little white house, with its little pink rose garden, and rolled down the window on the passenger side. “Make like the Dukes of Hazzard,” I said. “Door’s stuck.”
Murphy gave me a narrow look. Then she tried the door. It opened easily. She slid into the passenger seat with a smug smile, closed the door, and didn’t say anything.
“Police work has made you cynical,” I said.
“If you want to ogle my butt, you’ll just have to work for it like everyone else, Harry.”
I snorted and put the car in gear. “Where we going?”
“Nowhere until you buckle up,” she said, putting her own seat belt on.
“It’s my car,” I said.
“It’s the law. You want to get cited? ’Cause I can do that.”
I debated whether or not it was worth it while she gave me her cop look. And produced a ball-point pen.
I buckled up.
Murphy beamed at me. “Springfield. Head for I-55.”
I grunted. “Kind of out of your jurisdiction.”
“If we were investigating something,” Murphy said. “We’re not. We’re going to the fair.”
I eyed her sidelong. “On a date?”
“Sure, if someone asks,” she said, offhand. Then she froze for a second, and added, “It’s a reasonable cover story.”
“Right,” I said. Her cheeks looked a little pink. Neither of us said anything for a little while.
I merged onto the highway, always fun in a car originally designed to rocket down the autobahn at a blistering one hundred kilometers an hour, and asked Murphy, “Springfield?”
“State fair,” she said. “That was the common denominator.”
I frowned, going over the dates in my head. “State fair only runs, what? Ten days?”
Murphy nodded. “They shut down tonight.”
“But the first couple died twelve days ago.”
“They were both volunteer staff for the fair, and they were down there on the grounds setting up.” Murphy lifted a foot to rest her heel on the edge of the passenger seat, frowning out the window. “I found skee-ball tickets and one of those chintzy stuffed animals in the second couple’s apartment. And the Bardalackis got pulled over for speeding on I-55, five minutes out of Springfield and bound for Chicago.”
“So maybe they went to the fair,” I said. “Or maybe they were just taking a road trip or something.”
Murphy shrugged. “Possibly. But if I assume that it’s a coincidence, it doesn’t get me anywhere—and we’ve got nothing. If I assume that there’s a connection, we’ve got a possible answer.”
I beamed at her. “I thought you didn’t like reading Parker.”
She eyed me. “That doesn’t mean his logic isn’t sound.”
She exhaled heavily. “It’s the best I’ve got. I just hope that if I get you into the general area, you can pick up on whatever is going on.”
“Yeah,” I said, thinking of walls papered in photographs. “Me too.”
THE THING I enjoy the most about places like the state fair is the smells. You get combinations of smells at such events like none found anywhere else. Popcorn, roast nuts, and fast food predominate, and you can get anything you want to clog your arteries or burn out your stomach lining there. Chili dogs, funnel cakes, fried bread, majorly greasy pizza, candy apples, ye gods. Evil food smells amazing—which is either proof that there is a Satan or some equivalent out there, or that the Almighty doesn’t actually want everyone to eat organic tofu all the time. I can’t decide.
Other smells are a cross section, depending on where you’re standing. Disinfectant and filth walking by the Porta Potties, exhaust and burnt oil and sun-baked asphalt and gravel in the parking lots, sunlight on warm bodies, suntan lotion, cigarette smoke and beer near some of the attendees, the pungent, honest smell of livestock near the animal shows, stock contests, or pony rides—all of it charging right up your nose. I like indulging my sense of smell.
Smell is the hardest sense to lie to.
Murphy and I got started midmorning, walking around the fair in a methodical search pattern. It took us all day. The state fair is not a rinky-dink event.
“Dammit,” she said. “We’ve been here for hours. You sure you haven’t sniffed out anything?”
“Nothing like what we’re looking for,” I said. “I was afraid of this.”
“A lot of times, magic like this—complex, long-lasting, subtle, dark—doesn’t thrive well in sunlight.” I glanced at the lengthening shadows. “Give it another half an hour and we’ll try again.”
Murphy frowned at me. “I thought you always said magic isn’t about good and evil.”
“Neither is sunshine.”
Murphy exhaled, her displeasure plain. “You might have mentioned it to me before.”
“No way to know until we tried,” I said. “Think of it this way: maybe we’re just looking in the exact wrong place.”
She sighed and squinted around at the nearby food trailers and concession stands. “Ugh. Think there’s anything here that won’t make me split my jeans at the seams?”
I beamed. “Probably not. How about dogs and a funnel cake?”
“Bastard,” Murphy growled. Then, “Okay.”
I REALIZED WE were being followed halfway through my second hot dog.
I kept myself from reacting, took another bite, and said, “Maybe this is the place after all.”
Murphy had found a place selling turkey drumsticks. She had cut the meat from the bone and onto a paper plate, and was eating it with a plastic fork. She didn’t stop chewing or look up. “Whatcha got?”
“Guy in a maroon tee and tan BDU pants, about twenty feet away off your right shoulder. I’ve seen him at least two other times today.”
“Doesn’t necessarily mean he’s following us.”
“He’s been busy doing nothing in particular all three times.”
Murphy nodded. “Five-eight or so, long hair? Little soul tuft under his mouth?”
“He was sitting on a bench when I came out of the Porta-Potty,” Murphy said. “Also doing nothing.” She shrugged and went back to eating.
“How do you want to play it?”
“We’re here with a zillion people, Harry.” She deepened her voice and blocked out any hint of a nasal tone. “You want I should whack him until he talks?”
I grunted and finished my hot dog. “Doesn’t necessarily mean anything. Maybe he’s got a crush on you.”
Murphy snorted. “Maybe he’s got a crush on you.”
I covered a respectable belch with my hand and reached for my funnel cake. “Who could blame him?” I took a bite and nodded. “All right. We’ll see what happens, then.”
Murphy nodded and sipped at her Diet Coke. “Will says you and Anastasia broke up a while back.”
“Will talks too much,” I said darkly.
She glanced a little bit away. “He’s your friend. He worries about you.”
I studied her averted face for a moment and then nodded. “Well,” I said, “tell Will he doesn’t need to worry. It sucked. It sucks less now. I’ll be fine. Fish in the sea, never meant to be, et cetera.” I paused over another bite of funnel cake and asked, “How’s Kincaid?”
“The way he always is,” Murphy said.
“You get to be a few centuries old, you get a little set in your ways.”
She shook her head. “It’s his type. He’d be that way if he was twenty. He walks his own road and doesn’t let anyone make him do differently. Like…”
She stopped before she could say who Kincaid was like. She ate her turkey leg.
A shiver passed over the fair, a tactile sensation to my wizard’s senses. Sundown. Twilight would go on for a while yet, but the light left in the sky would no longer hold the creatures of the night at bay.
Murphy glanced up at me, sensing the change in my level of tension. She finished off her drink while I stuffed the last of the funnel cake into my mouth, and we stood up together.
THE WESTERN SKY was still a little bit orange when I finally sensed magic at work.
We were near the carnival, a section of the fair full of garishly lit rides, heavily slanted games of chance, and chintzy attractions of every kind. It was full of screaming, excited little kids, parents with frayed patience, and fashion-enslaved teenagers. Music tinkled and brayed tinny tunes. Lights flashed and danced. Barkers bleated out cajolement, encouragement, and condolences in almost-equal measures.
We drifted through the merry chaos, our maroon-shirted tail following along ten to twenty yards behind. I walked with my eyes half closed, giving no more heed to my vision than a bloodhound on a trail. Murphy stayed beside me, her expression calm, her blue eyes alert for physical danger.
Then I felt it—a quiver in the air, no more noticeable than the fading hum from a gently plucked guitar string. I noted its direction and walked several more paces before checking again, in an attempt to triangulate the source of the disturbance. I got a rough fix on it in under a minute, and realized that I had stopped and was staring.
“Harry?” Murphy asked. “What is it?”
“Something down there,” I said, nodding to the midway. “It’s faint. But it’s something.”
Murph inhaled sharply. “This must be the place. There goes our tail.”
We didn’t have to communicate the decision to each other. If the tail belonged to whoever was behind this, we couldn’t let him get away to give the culprit forewarning—and odds were excellent that the man in maroon’s sudden rabbit impersonation would result in him leading us somewhere interesting.
We turned and gave pursuit.
A footrace on open ground is one thing. Running through a crowded carnival is something else entirely. You can’t sprint, unless you want to wind up falling down a lot and attracting attention. You have to hurry along, hopping between clusters of people, never really getting the chance to pour on the gas. The danger in a chase like this isn’t that the quarry will outrun you, but that you’ll lose him in the crowd.
I had a huge advantage. I’m freakishly tall. I could see over everyone and spot Mr. Maroon bobbing and weaving his way through the crowd. I took the lead and Murphy followed.
I got within a couple of long steps of Maroon, but was interdicted by a gaggle of seniors in Shriners caps. He caught a break at the same time, a stretch of open ground beyond the Shriners, and by the time I got through, I saw Maroon handing tickets to a carnie. He hopped up onto a platform, got into a little roller-coaster style car, and vanished into an attraction.
“Dammit!” Murphy said, panting. “What now?”
Behind the attraction, advertised as the Tunnel of Terror, there was an empty space, the interior of a circle of several similar rides and games. There wouldn’t be anyone to hide behind in there. “You take the back. I’ll watch the front. Whoever spots him gives a shout.”
“Got it.” Murphy hurried off around the Tunnel of Terror. She frowned at a little plastic barrier with an Authorized Personnel Only notice on it, then calmly ignored it and went on over.
“Anarchist,” I muttered, and settled down to wait for Maroon to figure out he’d been treed.
He didn’t appear.
The dingy little roller coaster car came wheezing slowly out of the opposite side of the platform, empty. The carnie, an old fellow with a scruffy white beard, didn’t notice—he was dozing in his chair.
Murphy returned a few seconds later. “There are two doors on the back,” she reported, “both of them chained and locked from the outside. He didn’t come out that way.”
I inhaled and nodded at the empty car. “Not here, either. Look, we can’t just stand around. Maybe he’s running through a tunnel or something. We’ve got to know if he’s inside.”
“I’ll go flush him out,” she said. “You pick him up when he shows.”
“No way,” I said. “We stay with our wing”—I glanced at Murphy—“person. The power I sensed came from somewhere nearby. If we split up, we’re about a million times more vulnerable to mental manipulation. And if this guy is more than he appears, neither of us wants to take him solo.”
She grimaced, nodded, and we started toward the Tunnel of Terror together.
The old carnie woke up as we came up the ramp, let out a wheezing cough, and pointed to a sign that required us to give him three tickets each for the ride. I hadn’t bought any, and the ticket counter was more than far enough away for Maroon to scamper if we stopped to follow the rules.
“Sir,” Murphy said, “a man we’re looking for just went into your attraction, but he didn’t come out again. We need to go in and look for him.”
He blinked gummy eyes at Murphy and said, “Three tickets.”
“You don’t understand,” she said. “A fugitive may be hiding inside the Tunnel of Terror. We need to check and see if he’s there.”
The carnie snorted. “Three tickets, missy. Though it ain’t the nicest room you two could rent.”
Murphy’s jaw muscles flexed.
I stepped forward. “Hey, man,” I said. “Harry Dresden, PI. If you wouldn’t mind, all we need to do is get inside for five minutes.”
He eyed me. “PI, huh?”
I produced my license and showed it to him. He eyed it and then me. “You don’t look like no private investigator I ever saw. Where’s your hat?”
“In the shop,” I said. “Transmission gave out.” I winked at him and held up a folded twenty between my first and second finger. “Five minutes?”
He yawned. “Naw. Can’t let nobody run around loose in there.” He reached out and took the twenty. “Then again, what you and your lady friend mutually consent to do once you’re inside ain’t my affair.” He rose, pulled a lever, and gestured at the car. “Mount up,” he leered. “And keep your, ah, extremities inside the car at all times.”
We got in, and I was nearly scalded by the steam coming out of Murphy’s ears. “You just had to play along with that one.”
“We needed to get inside,” I said. “Just doing my job, Sergeant.”
“Hey, Murph, look,” I said, holding up a strap of old, worn leather. “Seat belts.”
She gave me a look that could have scoured steel. Then, with a stubborn set of her jaw, secured the flimsy thing. Her expression dared me to object.
I grinned and relaxed. It isn’t easy to really get Murph’s goat and get away with it.
On the other side of the platform, the carnie pulled another lever, and a moment later the little cart started rolling forward at the blazing speed of one, maybe even two miles an hour. A dark curtain parted ahead of us and we rolled into the Tunnel of Terror.
Murphy promptly drew her gun—it was dark, but I heard the scratch of its barrel on plastic as she drew it from its holster. She snapped a small LED flashlight into its holster beneath the gun barrel and flicked it on. We were in a cramped little tunnel, every surface painted black, and there was absolutely nowhere for Maroon to be hiding.
I shook out the charm bracelet on my left wrist, preparing defensive energies in case they were needed. Murph and I had been working together long enough to know our roles. If trouble came, I would defend us. Murphy and her Sig would reply.
A door opened at the end of the little hallway and we rolled forward into an open set dressed to look like a rustic farmhouse, with a lot of subtle details meant to be scary—severed fingers at the base of the chicken-chopping stump, just below the bloody ax, glowing eyes appearing in an upstairs window of the farmhouse, that kind of thing. There was no sign of Maroon and precious little place for him to hide.
“Better get that seat belt off,” I told her. “We want to be able to move fast if it comes to that.”
“Yeah,” she said, and reached down, just as something huge and terrifying dropped onto the car from the shadows above us, screaming.
Adrenaline hit my system like a runaway bus, and I looked up to see a decidedly demonic scarecrow hanging a few feet above our heads, bouncing on its wires and playing a recording of cackling, mad laughter.
“Jesus Christ,” Murphy breathed, lowering her gun. She was a little white around the eyes.
We looked at each other and both burst into high, nervous laughs.
“Tunnel of Terror,” Murphy said. “We are so cool.”
“Total badasses,” I said, grinning.
The car continued its slow grind forward and Murphy unfastened the seat belt. We moved into the next area, meant to be a zombie-infested hospital. It had a zombie mannequin, which burst out of a closet near the track, and plenty of gore. We got out of the car and scouted a couple of spots where he might have been but wasn’t. Then we hopped into the car again before it could leave the set.
So it went, on through a ghoulish graveyard, a troglodyte-teaming cavern, and a literal Old West ghost town. We came up with nothing, but we moved well as a team, better than I could remember doing with anyone before. Everything felt as smooth and natural as if we’d been moving together our whole lives. We did it in total silence, too, divining what each other would do through pure instinct.
Even great teams lose a game here or there, though. We came up with diddly, and emerged from the Tunnel of Terror with neither Maroon nor any idea where he’d gone.
“Hell’s bells,” I muttered. “This week has been an investigative suckfest for me.”
Murphy tittered again. “You said ‘suck.’”
I grinned at her and looked around. “Well,” I said. “We don’t know where Maroon went. If they hadn’t made us already, they have now.”
“Can you pick up on the signal-whatsit again?”
“Energy signature,” I said. “Maybe. It’s pretty vague though. I’m not sure how much more precise I can get.”
“Let’s find out,” she said.
I nodded. “Right, then.” We started around the suspect circle of attractions, moving slowly and trying to blend into the crowds. When a couple of rowdy kids went by, one chasing the other, I put an arm around her shoulders and drew her into the shelter of my body so that she wouldn’t get bowled over.
She exhaled slowly and did not step away from me.
My heart started beating faster.
“Harry,” she said quietly.
“You and me… why haven’t we ever…” She looked up at me. “Why not?”
“The usual, I guess,” I said quietly. “Trouble. Duty. Other people involved.”
She shook her head. “Why not?” she repeated, her eyes direct. “All these years have gone by. And something could have happened, but it never did. Why not?”
I licked my lips. “Just like that? We just decide to be together?”
Her eyelids lowered. “Why not?”
My heart did the drum solo from “Wipe Out.”
I bent my head down to her mouth, and kissed her, very gently.
She turned into the kiss, pressing her body against mine. It was a little bit awkward. I was most of two feet taller than she was. We made up for grace with enthusiasm, her arms twining around my neck as she kissed me, hungry and deep.
“Whoa,” I said, drawing back a moment later. “Work. Right?”
She looked at me for a moment, her cheeks pink, her lips a little swollen from the kiss, and said, “Right.” She closed her eyes and nodded. “Right. Work first.”
“Then dinner?” I asked.
“Dinner. My place. We can order in.”
My belly trembled in sudden excitement at that proposition. “Right.” I looked around. “So let’s find this thing and get it over with.”
We started moving again. A circuit around the attractions got me no closer to the source of the energy I’d sensed earlier.
“Dammit,” I said when we’d completed the pattern, frustrated.
“Hey,” Murphy said. “Don’t beat yourself up about it, Harry.” Her hand slipped into mine, our fingers intertwining. “I’ve been a cop a long time. You don’t always get the bad guy. And if you go around blaming yourself for it, you wind up crawling into a bottle or eating your own gun.”
“Thank you,” I said quietly. “But…”
“Heh,” Murphy said. “You said, ‘but.’”
We both grinned like fools. I looked down at our twined hands. “I like this.”
“So do I,” Murphy said. “Why didn’t we do this a long time ago?”
“Are we just that stupid?” she asked. “I mean, people, in general. Are we really so blind that we miss what’s right there in front of us?”
“As a species, we’re essentially insane,” I said. “So, yeah, probably.” I lifted our hands and kissed her fingertips. “I’m not missing it now, though.”
Her smile lit up several thousand square feet of the midway. “Good.”
The echo of a thought rattled around in my head: Insane…
“Oh,” I said. “Oh, hell’s bells.”
She frowned at me. “What?”
“Murph… I think we got whammied.”
She blinked at me. “What? No, we didn’t.”
“I think we did.”
“I didn’t see anything or feel anything. I mean, nothing, Harry. I’ve felt magic like that before.”
“Look at us,” I said, waving our joined hands.
“We’ve been friends a long time, Harry,” she said. “And we’ve had a couple of near misses before. This time we just didn’t screw it up. That’s all that’s happening, here.”
“What about Kincaid?” I asked her.
She mulled over that one for a second. Then she said, “I doubt he’ll even notice I’m gone.” She frowned at me. “Harry, I haven’t been this happy in… I never thought I could feel this way again. About anyone.”
My heart continued to go pit-a-pat. “I know exactly what you mean,” I said. “I feel the same way.”
Her smile warmed even more. “Then what’s the problem? Isn’t that what love is supposed to be like? Effortless?”
I had to think about that one for a second. And then I said, carefully and slowly, “Murph, think about it.”
“What do you mean?”
“You know how good this is?” I asked.
“How right it feels?”
She nodded. “Yeah.”
“How easy it was?”
She nodded energetically, her eyes bright.
I leaned down toward her for emphasis. “It just isn’t fucked up enough to really be you and me.”
Her smile faltered.
“My God,” she said, her eyes widening. “We got whammied.”
WE RETURNED TO the Tunnel of Terror.
“I don’t get it,” she said. “I don’t… I didn’t feel anything happen. I don’t feel any different now. I thought being aware of this kind of thing made it go away.”
“No,” I said. “But it helps sometimes.”
“Do you still…?”
I squeezed her hand once more before letting go. “Yeah,” I said. “I still feel it.”
“Is it… is it going to go away?”
I didn’t answer her. I didn’t know. Or maybe I didn’t want to know.
The old carnie saw us coming and his face flickered with apprehension as soon as he looked at us. He stood up and looked from the control board for the ride to the entranceway to the interior.
“Yeah,” I muttered. “Sneaky bastard. You just try it.”
He flicked one of the switches and shambled toward the Tunnel’s entrance.
I made a quick effort of will, raised a hand, and swept it in a horizontal arc, snarling, “Forzare!” Unseen force knocked his legs out from beneath him and tossed him into an involuntary pratfall.
Murphy and I hurried up onto the platform before he could get to his feet and run. We needn’t have bothered. The carnie was apparently a genuine old guy, not some supernatural being in disguise. He lay on the platform moaning in pain. I felt kind of bad for beating up a senior citizen.
But hey. On the other hand, he did swindle me out of twenty bucks.
Murphy stood over him, her blue eyes cold, and said, “Where’s the bolt hole?”
The carnie blinked at her. “What?”
“The trap door,” she snapped. “The secret cabinet. Where is he?”
I frowned and walked toward the entranceway.
“Please,” the carnie said. “I don’t know what you’re talking about!”
“The hell you don’t,” Murphy said. She leaned down and grabbed the man by the shirt with both hands and leaned closer, a snarl lifting her lip. The carnie blanched.
Murph could be pretty badass for such a tiny thing. I loved that about her.
“I can’t,” the carnie said. “I can’t. I get paid not to see anything. She’ll kill me. She’ll kill me.”
I parted the heavy curtain leading into the entry tunnel and spotted it at once—a circular hole in the floor about two feet across, the top end of a ladder just visible. A round lid lay rotated to one side, painted as flat black as the rest of the hall. “Here,” I said to Murph. “That’s why we didn’t spot anything. By the time you had your light on, it was already behind us.”
Murphy scowled down at the carnie and said, “Give me twenty bucks.”
The man licked his lips. Then he fished my folded twenty out of his shirt pocket and passed it to Murphy.
She nodded and flashed her badge. “Get out of here before I realize I witnessed you taking a bribe and endangering lives by letting customers use the attraction in an unsafe manner.”
The carnie bolted.
Murphy handed me the twenty. I pocketed it, and we climbed down the ladder.
WE REACHED THE bottom and went silent again. Murphy’s body language isn’t exactly subtle—it can’t be, when you’re her size and working law enforcement. But she could move as quietly as smoke when she needed to. I’m gangly. It was more of an effort for me.
The ladder took us down to what looked like the interior of a buried railroad car. There were electrical conduits running along the walls. Light came from a doorway at the far end of the car. I moved forward first, shield bracelet at the ready, and Murphy walked a pace behind me and to my right, her Sig in hand.
The doorway at the end of the railroad car led us into a large workroom, teaming with computers, file cabinets, microscopes, and at least one deluxe chemistry set.
Maroon sat at one of the computers, his profile in view. “Dammit, Stu,” he snarled. “I told you that you can’t keep coming down here to use the john. You’ll just have to walk to one of the—” He glanced up at us and froze in midsentence, his eyes wide and locked on Murphy’s leveled gun.
“Stu took the rest of the night off,” I said amiably. “Where’s your boss?”
A door opened at the far end of the workroom and a young woman of medium height appeared. She wore glasses and a lab coat, and neither of them did anything to make her look less than gorgeous. She looked at us and then at Maroon and said, in a precise, British accent, “You idiot.”
“Yeah,” I said. “Good help is hard to find.”
The woman in the lab coat looked at me with dark, intense eyes, and I sensed what felt like a phantom pressure against my temples, as if wriggling tadpoles were slithering along the surface of my skin. It was a straightforward attempt at mental invasion, but I’d been practicing my defenses for a while now, and I wasn’t falling for something that obvious. I pushed the invasive thoughts away with an effort of will and said, “Don’t meet her eyes, Murph. She’s a vampire. Red Court.”
“Got it,” she said, her gun never moving from Maroon.
The vampire looked at us both for a moment. Then she said, “You need no introduction, Mr. Dresden. I am Baroness LeBlanc. And our nations are not, at the moment, in a state of war.”
“I’ve always been a little fuzzy on legal niceties,” I said. I had several devices with me that I could use to defend myself. I was ready to use any of them. A vampire in close quarters is nothing to laugh at. LeBlanc could tear three or four limbs off in the time it takes to draw and fire a gun. I watched her closely, ready to act at the slightest resemblance of an attack. “We both know that the war is going to start up again eventually.”
“You are out of anything reasonably like your territory,” she said, “and you are trespassing upon mine. I would be well within my rights under the Accords to kill you and bury your torso and limbs in individual graves.”
“That’s the problem with this ride,” I complained to Murphy. “There’s nothing that’s actually scary in the Tunnel of Terror.”
“You did get your money back,” she pointed out.
“Ah, true.” I smiled faintly at LeBlanc. “Look, Baroness. You know who I am. You’re doing something to people’s minds, and I want it stopped.”
“If you do not leave,” she said, “I will consider it an act of war.”
“Hooray,” I said in a Ben Stein monotone, spinning one forefinger in the air like a New Year’s noisemaker. “I’ve already kicked off one war with the Red Court. And I will cheerfully do it again if that is what is necessary to protect people from you.”
“That’s irrational,” LeBlanc said. “Completely irrational.”
“Tell her, Murph.”
“He’s completely irrational,” Murphy said, her tone wry.
LeBlanc regarded me impassively for a moment. Then she smiled faintly and said, “Perhaps a physical confrontation is an inappropriate solution.”
I frowned. “Really?”
She shrugged. “Not all of the Red Court are battle-hungry blood addicts, Dresden. My work here has no malevolent designs. Quite the opposite, in fact.”
I tilted my head. “That’s funny. All the corpses piled up say differently.”
“The process does have its side effects,” she admitted. “But the lessons garnered from them serve only to improve my work and make it safer and more effective. Honestly, you should be supporting me, Dresden. Not trying to shut me down.”
“Supporting you?” I smiled a little. “Just what is it you think you’re doing that’s so darned wonderful?”
“I am creating love.”
I barked out a laugh.
LeBlanc’s face remained steady, serious.
“You think that this, this warping people into feeling something they don’t want to feel, is love?”
“What is love,” LeBlanc said, “if not a series of electro-chemical signals in the brain? Signals that can be duplicated, like any other sensation.”
“Love is more than that,” I said.
“Do you love this woman?”
“Yeah,” I said. “But that isn’t anything new.”
LeBlanc showed her teeth. “But your current longing and desire is new, is it not? New and entirely indistinguishable from your genuine emotions? Wouldn’t you say, Sergeant Murphy?”
Murphy swallowed but didn’t look at the vampire. LeBlanc’s uncomplicated mental attack might be simple for a wizard to defeat, but any normal human being would probably be gone before they realized their mind was under attack. Instead of answering, she asked a question of her own. “Why?”
“Why do this? Why experiment on making people fall in love?”
LeBlanc arched an eyebrow. “Isn’t it obvious?”
I sucked in a short breath, realizing what was happening. “The White Court,” I said.
The Whites were a different breed of vampire than the Reds, feeding on the life essence of their victims, generally through seduction. Genuine love and genuine tokens of love were their kryptonite, their holy water. The love of another human being in an intimate relationship sort of rubbed off on you, making the very touch of your skin anathema to the White Court.
LeBlanc smiled at me. “Granted, there are some aberrant effects from time to time. But so far, that’s been a very small percentage of the test pool. And the survivors are, as you yourself have experienced, perfectly happy. They have a love that most of your kind seldom find and even more infrequently keep. There are no victims here, wizard.”
“Oh,” I said. “Right. Except for the victims.”
LeBlanc exhaled. “Mortals are like mayflies, wizard. They live a brief time and then they are gone. And those who have died because of my work at least died after days or weeks of perfect bliss. There are many who ended a much longer life with less. What I’m doing here has the potential to protect mortal kind from the White Court forever.”
“It isn’t genuine love if it’s forced upon someone,” Murphy said, her tone harsh.
“No,” LeBlanc said. “But I believe that the real thing will very easily grow from such a foundation of companionship and happiness.”
“Gosh, you’re noble,” I said.
LeBlanc’s eyes sparkled with something ugly.
“You’re doing this to get rid of the competition,” I said. “And, hell, maybe to try to increase the world’s population. Make more food.”
The vampire regarded me levelly. “There are multiple motivations behind the work,” she said. “Many of my Court agreed to the logic you cite when they would never have supported the idea of strengthening and defending mortals.”
“Ohhhhh,” I said, drawing the word out. “You’re the vampire with a heart of gold. Florence Nightingale with fangs. I guess that makes it okay, then.”
LeBlanc stared at me. Then her eyes flicked to Murphy and back. She smiled thinly. “There is a special cage reserved for you at the Red Court, Dresden. Its bars are lined with blades and spikes, so that if you fall asleep they will cut and gouge you awake.”
“Shut up,” Murphy said.
LeBlanc continued in a calmly amused tone. “The bottom is a closed bowl nearly a foot deep, so that you will stand in your own waste. And there are three spears with needle-sized tips waiting in a rack beneath the cage, so that any who pass you can pause and take a few moments to participate in your punishment.”
“Shut up,” Murphy growled.
“Eventually,” LeBlanc purred, “your guts will be torn out and left in a pile at your feet. And when you are dead, your skin will be flayed from your body, tanned, and made into upholstery for one of the chairs in the Red Temple.”
“Shut up!” snarled Murphy, and her voice was savage. Her gun whipped over to cover LeBlanc. “Shut your mouth, bitch!”
I realized the danger an instant too late. It was exactly the reaction that LeBlanc had intended to provoke. “Murph! No!”
Once Murphy’s Sig was pointing elsewhere, Maroon produced a gun from beneath his desk and raised it. He was pulling the trigger even before he could level it for a shot, blazing away as fast as he could move his finger. He wasn’t quite fifteen feet away from Murphy, but the first five shots missed her as I spun and brought the invisible power of my shield bracelet down between the two of them. Bullets hit the shield with flashes of light and sent little concentric blue rings rippling through the air from the point of impact.
Murphy, meanwhile, had opened up on LeBlanc. Murph fired almost as quickly as Maroon, but she had the training and discipline necessary for combat. Her bullets smacked into the vampire’s torso, tearing through pale flesh and drawing gouts of red-black blood. LeBlanc staggered to one side—she wouldn’t be dead, but the shots had probably rung her bell for a second or two.
I lowered the shield as Maroon’s gun clicked on empty, lifted my right fist, and triggered the braided energy ring on my index finger with a short, uplifting motion. The ring saved back a little energy every time I moved my arm, storing it so that I could unleash it at need. Unseen force flew out from the ring, plucked Maroon out of his chair, and slammed him into the ceiling. He dropped back down, hit his back on the edge of the desk, and fell into a senseless sprawl on the floor. The gun flew from his fingers.
“I’m out!” Murphy screamed.
I whirled back to find LeBlanc pushing herself off the wall, regaining her balance. She gave Murphy a look of flat hatred, and her eyes flushed pure black, iris and sclera alike. She opened her mouth in an inhuman scream, and then the vampire hiding beneath LeBlanc’s seemingly human form exploded outward like a racehorse emerging from its gate, leaving shreds of pale, bloodless skin in its wake.
It was a hideous thing—black and flabby and slimy-looking, with a flaccid belly, a batlike face, and long, spindly limbs. LeBlanc’s eyes bulged hideously as she flew toward me.
I brought my shield up in time to intercept her, and she rebounded from it, to fall back to the section of floor already stained with her blood.
“Down!” Murphy shouted.
I dropped down onto my heels and lowered the shield.
LeBlanc rose again, even as I heard Murphy take a deep breath, exhale halfway, and hold it. Her gun barked once.
The vampire lost about a fifth of her head as the bullet tore into her skull. She staggered back against the wall, limbs thrashing, but she still wasn’t dead. She began to claw her way to her feet again.
Murphy squeezed off six more shots, methodically. None of them missed. LeBlanc fell to the floor. Murphy took a step closer, aimed, and put another ten or twelve rounds into the fallen vampire’s head. By the time she was done, the vampire’s head looked like a smashed gourd.
A few seconds later, LeBlanc stopped moving.
Murphy reloaded again and kept the gun trained on the corpse.
“Nice shootin’, Tex,” I said. I checked out Maroon. He was still breathing.
“So,” Murphy said. “Problem solved?”
“Not really,” I said. “LeBlanc was no practitioner. She can’t be the one who was working the whammy.”
Murphy frowned and eyed Maroon for a second.
I went over to the downed man and touched my fingers lightly to his brow. There was no telltale energy signature of a practitioner. “Nope.”
I shook my head. “This is delicate, difficult magic. There might not be three people on the entire White Council who could pull it off. So… it’s most likely a focus artifact of some kind.”
“An item that has a routine built into it,” I said. “You pour energy in one end and you get results on the other.”
Murphy scrunched up her nose. “Like those wolf belts the FBI had?”
“Yeah, just like that.” I blinked and snapped my fingers. “Just like that!”
I hurried out of the little complex and up the ladder. I went to the tunnel car and took the old leather seat belt out of it. I turned it over and found the back inscribed with nearly invisible sigils and signs. Now that I was looking for it, I could feel the tingle of energy moving within it. “Ha,” I said. “Got it.”
Murphy frowned back at the entry to the Tunnel of Terror. “What do we do about Billy the Kid?”
“Not much we can do,” I said. “You want to try to explain what happened here to the Springfield cops?”
She shook her head.
“Me either,” I said. “The kid was LeBlanc’s thrall. I doubt he’s a danger to anyone without a vampire to push him into it.” Besides. The Reds would probably kill him on general principle anyway, once they found out about LeBlanc’s death.
We were silent for a moment. Then stepped in close to each other and hugged gently. Murphy shivered.
“You okay?” I asked quietly.
She leaned her head against my chest. “How do we help all the people she screwed with?”
“Burn the belt,” I said, and stroked her hair with one hand. “That should purify everyone it’s linked to.”
“Everyone,” she said slowly.
I blinked twice. “Yeah.”
“So once you do it… we’ll see what a bad idea this is. And remember that we both have very good reasons to not get together.”
“And… we won’t be feeling this anymore. This… happy. This complete.”
“No. We won’t.”
Her voice cracked. “Dammit.”
I hugged her tight. “Yeah.”
“I want to tell you to wait a while,” she said. “I want us to be all noble and virtuous for keeping it intact. I want to tell you that if we destroy the belt, we’ll be destroying the happiness of God knows how many people.”
“Junkies are happy when they’re high,” I said quietly, “but they don’t need to be happy. They need to be free.”
I put the belt back into the car, turned my right hand palm-up, and murmured a word. A sphere of white-hot fire gathered over my fingers. I flicked a hand, and the sphere arched gently down into the car and began charring the belt to ashes. I felt sick.
I didn’t watch. I turned to Murphy and kissed her again, hot and urgent, and she returned it frantically. It was as though we thought that we might keep something escaping from our mouths if they were sealed together in a kiss.
I felt it when it went away.
We both stiffened slightly. We both remembered that we had decided that the two of us couldn’t work out. We both remembered that Murphy was already involved with someone else, and that it wasn’t in her nature to stray.
She stepped back from me, her arms folded across her stomach.
“Ready?” I asked her quietly.
She nodded and we started walking. Neither of us said anything until we reached the Blue Beetle.
“You know what, Harry?” she said quietly, from the other side of the car.
“I know,” I told her. “Like you said. Love hurts.”
We got into the Beetle and headed back to Chicago.
New York Times bestselling author Jo Beverley is the author of thirty-two novels of historical romance, including Something Wicked, Dangerous Joy, Tempting Fortune, An Unwilling Bride, A Lady’s Secret, Lord of Midnight, Lord Wraybourne’s Betrothed, and many others. She’s the winner of five RITA Awards for best novel, and is a member of the Romance Writers of America Hall of Fame. Her most recent novels are The Secret Wedding, My Lady Notorious, The Secret Duke, and The Stolen Bride. She lives with her family in England.
Here she tells the story of a man wooing a very reluctant maid—with his life and the lives of all his relatives in the balance, all doomed to die if he can’t overcome her resistance. Which is not going to be easy.
The Marrying Maid
St James’s Park, London, 1758
IT WAS AS if a new song entered his world, or a new taste, or a new sense—and yet one instantly recognized.
Rob Loxsleigh turned to look around the park, striving to make the movement casual to his chattering companions, so noisy in their silks and lace, but already fading under the power of his new awareness.
He smiled, with delight but with surprise.
The woman in gray? The one strolling through the park at the side of another woman just as ordinary, wearing a plain gown with little trimming and a flat straw hat?
She was his destined bride?
He’d been told he’d know, and for years he’d sought the unignorable. Sometimes, with a particularly pretty girl or fascinating woman, he’d tried to believe his desire meant that his quest was over. A kiss had quickly proved him wrong.
Now, however, he knew. She alone seemed real in an unreal world and his body hummed with a symphony of need, not just desire, but a hunger for everything she would bring.
Now, within weeks of disaster, Titania had sent his marrying maid.
A PRICKLE ON the neck.
When Martha Darby turned, she saw a man looking at her. A London beau in silk and lace with powdered hair and a sword at his side. A peacock in company with other birds of fine plumage, their bright laughter and extravagant gestures indicating that they’d escaped the gilded cage of court in the nearby Palace of St. James. But why was one of them staring at her, a very sparrow of a spinster?
He turned back to his companions. She’d imagined his interest, but now she couldn’t help staring at him. He seemed somehow brighter than his glittering companions. Merely the effect of a suit of peacock blue silk, she told herself, but he did seem perfectly made and he moved with such grace, even in ridiculous shoes with high red heels.
“Such extravagance in their clothing, and a shower of rain would ruin all.”
Martha turned to her mother, smiling at the practical comment. “I’m sure chairmen would rush to carry them to shelter. Let us admire nature instead. Trees welcome the rain.”
They strolled on their way.
Martha and her mother were enjoying the park, but also, it must be admitted, some glimpses of the follies of the great. Martha had certainly seen nothing like those courtier peacocks in York. But then, in York, she’d lived quietly for so many years, helping her mother nurse her father through a long, distressing illness. This visit to a relative in London was to help them regain their spirits and be ready to pick up life, but Martha wondered what form her life could take. She was too accustomed to quiet and routine and too old for adventures.
She was looking at that man again! She quickly turned away. “Let’s walk toward Rosamund’s Pond, Mother.” Away from temptation.
Ridiculous. Lord Peacock was a wastrel courtier and she was the virtuous daughter of a canon of York Minster and at twenty-four, long past the age of folly.
Yet she looked again.
Just to be sure she was safe, she told herself.
Safe? Did she think he would pursue her? Laughable…
But then she realized that he was looking at her again. He smiled.
She turned her back, heart pounding. Lud! Had he caught one of her glances and taken it as admiration? Even as lewd encouragement? Heaven defend her! The court was notoriously licentious. She urged her mother to walk more quickly, but plump Anne Darby was never energetic. Her strolling involved many pauses to admire a vista, or yet another pelican. For some reason this park was full of them. Pelicans and peacocks…
“Come, Mother. We must hurry.”
Martha came up with the only possible excuse. “I need to piss.”
“Oh dear, oh dear. Yes, very well.” Her mother did walk faster and gradually Martha’s panic simmered down. They were safe and she would not come here again.
Martha froze, then would have walked on if her mother hadn’t already turned, incapable of being cold or discourteous. Thus she must turn too, already knowing who had spoken. By logic, surely, not by a frisson on the back of her neck and a strange tension deep inside.
He stood mere feet away, his silk suit embroidered with silver thread as well as colors. The lace at throat and wrist would have cost a fortune, and his neckcloth was fixed by a gold pin that sparkled in the sun, as did rings on his fingers and the jeweled hilt of his sword. As did his eyes, as green as a summer leaf. His handsome, lean face was painted to give him fashionable pallor and then to restore color with rouge on cheeks and lips.
He was ridiculous, but Martha was powerfully aware of being dressed in mourning gray with only a silver pin for ornamentation, and of never having let paint touch her face. She should have been disdainful, but instead the peculiar sensation within could almost be awe.
He was smiling directly at her now and holding out a handkerchief. “I believe this is yours, ma’am?”
Martha glared at the linen, ferociously irritated that the handkerchief was indeed her own, marked by the embroidered forget-me-nots in one corner. How had it come to fall out of her pocket?
Before she could lie, her mother said, “Oh, see it is, Martha! How kind of you, sir.”
He bowed to them both in the most extravagant manner imaginable, dancing the handkerchief in little curlicues. “I am in heaven to be of service to so enchanting a lady.”
Martha plucked the fluttering linen from his fingers. “My thanks to you, sir.”
He put hand to chest. “No, no. Thank you, ma’am, for providing me the opportunity to do this small kindness.”
Providing? Was the wretch implying that she’d dropped her handkerchief on purpose? It was a well-known device of foolish women, but she would never stoop so low!
She sent him an icy look, but he’d already turned another bow on her mother. “Robert Loxsleigh, ma’am, at your service.”
Sensible Anne Darby curtsied, blushing, flustered and delighted. “So kind, so kind. Mistress Darby, sir, of York, and this is my daughter, Miss Darby.”
More bowing and greeting, and all of it mockery. If only her mother hadn’t been inveigled into exchanging names.
“May I hope to encounter you again in London, Mistress Darby?”
Martha quickly answered. “Alas no, sir. We leave tomorrow.”
Her mother began to protest, but Martha shot her a ferocious glare.
“Thus Town is left desolate. But York will soon rejoice. A charming city. I know it well, as my home is near Doncaster.”
Martha could have groaned. That he was also from Yorkshire would make her mother regard him as a friend.
“We really must go, Mother,” Martha said with meaning, reminding her of her spurious need.
“Oh, yes, sir, I’m afraid we must. I do hope we will meet again one day, in York, perhaps?”
He bowed to both of them, but was looking at Martha when he said, “I’m sure of it, ma’am.”
“Oh, my,” said her mother, watching him walk back to his friends, so lithe and elegant despite uneven ground and those shoes.
“Oh, what idiocy,” Martha said, steering away at speed.
That was the end of that—except that she was holding her handkerchief as if it were precious. She screwed it up and thrust it into her pocket.
“Why did you say we were leaving Town, Martha? We are to stay three more days.”
“Because I thought him up to no good.”
“Truly? But…” Her mother sighed. “We can’t be liars, can we, so we must leave. All for the best, perhaps. We can stay longer with your Aunt Clarissa in Newark.”
And thus I am punished, Martha thought. Aunt Clarissa was a very silly chatterer. It was all the peacock’s fault. Mr. Robert Loxsleigh had been playing a game for the amusement of his idle friends and fecklessly upset her life.
And yet—and yet—as she resisted an almost overpowering need to look back, Martha knew she would never entirely forget an encounter with a peacock in St James’s Park.
ROB RETURNED TO his companions, protecting Miss Darby from their curiosity by letting them assume he intended a seduction. It was no lie. If Miss Martha Darby seemed likely to succumb, he’d bed her tonight.
She was the one, the one, the one, his marrying maid, which meant that at first kiss his talent would awake, and when they lay together, it would roar into full power. He would be at last a true trouvedor of Five Oaks, and his family would be saved.
Rapid seduction was unlikely, but a kiss? Perhaps if he pursued her now. Not to do so was like refusing water when parched, but she seemed to be prim to a fault. Perhaps even a Puritan. His very appearance would have counted against him and any boldness could ruin everything. No, he must resume simple dress and manners and then court her carefully.
There was so little time, though. Just two weeks to his birthday.
But he’d found her at last, and she would be willing to be wooed. Faery would make it so.
Zounds! They left Town tomorrow. He separated from his companions, suppressing panic. He needed to untangle himself from court, say farewells, settle bills—
The Darby ladies would travel the York road, however, and surely on the public coach. He could follow post chaise and catch them in days.
As he walked toward his rooms, he wondered how Oberon had hidden Martha Darby for so many years? He visited York quite often.
That didn’t matter. Titania had prevailed. The heir to Five Oaks had found his marrying maid with time enough to woo and win her. It was always so. The dark Lord of Faery had never won this fight, not in five hundred years.
MARTHA SLEPT BADLY and spent the first hours on the crowded York coach braced for pursuit. What—did she think Mr. Peacock Loxsleigh was racing after on horseback, intent on dragging her from the coach for ravishment?
Such scenes, alas, had featured in her dreams. How could a lady’s mind produce such things? She had never even flirted, for a canon’s daughter should not. She’d had a few suitors over the years, all clergymen, but her mother and sick father had needed her, and truth to tell, none had truly appealed.
Now she was free, and returning to York to live a full life. She was emerging from a chrysalis, but too old, dull, and dry to become the simplest sort of butterfly.
No! She would not allow that man in her mind.
She did have a suitor. A perfectly eligible suitor.
Dean Stallingford had been a good friend to her family in recent years and had expressed his interest just before this journey, saying that he wished to make his intentions known before she was exposed to London’s temptations. Martha knew she should have committed herself then, but for some reason the words had stuck in her throat. He was fifteen years her senior, and a widower with three young children, but that was not to his discredit.
Very well. She would accept him when they returned and become a married woman with house and family to manage and a place in York society, but she was aware that he sparked no excitement within her. Robert Loxsleigh had created sparkles in a moment.
Such madness must be why women succumbed to seduction, racing fecklessly to their ruin. She was in no danger of that, but she wished the coach had wings. She wished they weren’t to stay for days at Aunt Clarissa’s. Once in York, she would become Mistress Stallingford as quickly as was decent, and be safe.
She repeated that like a litany over two long days of travel, and as they climbed out of the coach in Newark. They were soon in Aunt Clarissa’s modern brick house, awash with her chatter. Clarissa Heygood was a childless widow, having lost her soldier husband early to war, and enjoyed visitors very much. That evening they took a stroll around the town, eventually taking a path by the river. Martha enjoyed the exercise after so much sitting, but she dropped behind for relief from her aunt’s endless flow of gossip.
Her own company, however, gave space for dismal thoughts. Marrying Dean Stallingford would mean remaining part of the chapter of York Minster, and that felt… cloistered. Even York itself held no savor. She had few friends there because her time had been so taken up with her father’s care.
She was frowning at some innocent ducks when a man said, “Heaven is before me. ’Tis the lady of the forget-me-nots.”
Martha turned, heart pounding, and indeed it was the peacock. Except now he was a much more ordinary bird—if such a man could ever be ordinary. He wore riding breeches and boots with a brown jacket and his hair was unpowdered. Hair of burnished gold.
Stop that. It was a russet shade catching the setting sun.
“Alas,” he said, those green eyes laughing at her, “she has betrayed her handkerchief and forgotten me.”
“I certainly have not!” Regretting that, Martha walked on to catch up with her mother and aunt, alarmed by how far they were ahead.
He kept up without effort. “You remember my gallantry, Miss Darby?”
“I remember your impudence.” Heavens, when had she ever been so rude? Cheeks burning, she walked ever faster.
He stayed by her side. “For returning your handkerchief? A harsh judgment, ma’am.”
Good manners compelled. She stopped and dipped a curtsy. “I apologize, sir. That was kind of you.”
He smiled. “Then may I call on you at your inn?”
Martha thanked heaven she could say, “We stay in a private home, sir.”
“How pleasant for you. The home of the lady ahead?”
She could do nothing about it. He outpaced her with ease and made his courtesies to her mother, who of course introduced him to Aunt Clarissa, who was in ecstasies to give him carte blanche to call at her house whenever he wished. Martha was in danger of grinding down her teeth, and when he left with an invitation to sup at Aunt Clarissa’s within the hour, she could have screamed.
But what protest could she make? Both the older ladies thought him charming and were not immune to his good looks, either. Then, as they hurried home to make preparations for a guest, Aunt Clarissa stopped to exclaim, “From Five Oaks! Why, he must be a son of Viscount Loxsleigh. And by the stars, I do believe he has only one. Lud, we will have a future viscount to sup!”
She almost raced on her way. Martha trailed after. He was a lord? A future one, but it came to the same thing. He was as far above her as the stars, and for some strange reason that caused a deep pang of loss.
When Martha entered the house, her aunt was already calling frantic instructions to her cook. Martha’s mother said, “The heir to a viscountcy. And I believe I saw him look at you in a most particular way, dear.”
“Mother, for heaven’s sake. What interest could such a man have in a woman like me?”
Her mother sighed. “I suppose that’s true. But his company will make an agreeable evening.”
Martha considered claiming a headache as escape, but for some reason she couldn’t say the words. She went to her room to tidy herself, and slowly her good sense returned. It was ridiculous to imagine Mr. Loxsleigh was pursuing her, but she would be chaperoned by her mother and aunt.
She would enjoy the novelty, she decided, tying a fresh cap beneath her chin. She’d met no man like him before, and likely wouldn’t in the future. If he did attempt a seduction, that would be the most novel experience of all. She was not the tiniest bit vulnerable to his sort of tinsel charm, but watching his attempt could be diverting.
LOXSLEIGH DID NOT attempt to seduce her, and indeed how could he when both her mother and aunt fluttered around him like adoring moths to the flame?
He entertained them with the wonders and follies of the court. He pretended interest in Anne Darby’s impressions of London, and even in Aunt Clarissa’s chatter about Newark. His sympathetic manner soon drew out the story of Canon Darby’s long illness, and of Aunt Clarissa’s old tragedy. He mentioned his own mother’s death three years ago with tender feeling.
Where was the artificial peacock? This might be a different man.
All the same, beneath easy manners, he was intense. A strange word, but the only one Martha could find. And his intensity was centered on her. When their eyes met, she felt its power. That must be a skill of practiced seducers, and on a weaker woman it might work, for it created the illusion that she was special, that she was important to him.
When he invited them all to dine at his inn the next afternoon, Martha agreed with as much pleasure as the rest. It appeared he might plan an attempt on her virtue. Perhaps dry spinsters from the provinces were a new dish for such as he, and she looked forward to seeing what other skills he would bring into play. Would he attempt to get her alone? He’d fail, but it would be like watching a play, and the performance of this leading actor should be a wonder to behold.
However, the price for her amusement was more embarrassing dreams, and others even odder. Where did the woodland scenes come from? She’d spent her life in a city, but in the night she visited dense woodlands and glades woven through with a hauntingly beautiful song, where strange creatures danced, loved, and quarreled.
Quarreled over her.
An exquisite lady in iridescent draperies and a lord in dark velvet prowled and snarled. Over her…
When she awoke to her sunlit bedchamber, Martha felt as if the misty greenwood still surrounded her, but by the time they left to walk to the Crown Inn, she was sensible again.
She could wish Aunt Clarissa so. That lady was in alt at Loxsleigh’s high station and had spent the morning making inquiries of her friends, which also allowed her to spread the word about her interesting new acquaintance. “He is the heir,” she’d told Martha and her mother. “And the family is famously rich!”
As soon as they were seated at the inn, she said, “I understand your home at Five Oaks is most unusual, sir. Famous for its antiquity.”
“It is, ma’am.”
“A part of it dates back to the thirteenth century!”
“A small part,” he said as soup was served. “Only the old great hall and some rooms above it.”
“Five hundred years old!” Aunt Clarissa declared.
“Is it not rather uncomfortable?” asked Martha’s practical mother.
He turned his smile on her. “Which is why it’s hardly used, ma’am.”
“Are there five oaks?” Martha challenged.
“Of course, Miss Darby.”
“Trees die, even oaks. There cannot always be five.”
Her sharpness did not cut him. “There can if one counts saplings. But yes, there have always been five mature oaks.” Before she could debate that point, he added, “Or so legend says. There are certainly five now. Perhaps you would care to visit and see for yourself?”
He addressed it nicely to both Martha and her mother, but she knew it was intended for herself. So that was it. He wanted her in his home, under his power…
Before she could forestall it, her mother had agreed, and then she made it worse.
“I hope we’ll be able to return your hospitality soon, sir, and serve you a dinner when next you visit York. Perhaps we can show you some entertainments. We will soon be out of mourning. Dear Martha missed so much of her youth while helping me nurse Mr. Darby that I look forward to her enjoying parties and assemblies.”
“I’m past the age for such frivolities, Mother.”
“Why say that, dear? I declare I am not. I intend to dance when asked, and enjoy many entertainments.”
“And so you should, ma’am,” Loxsleigh said. “I will certainly ask you to dance.”
He addressed her mother, but Martha felt the message was to her. She found her hand tight on her knife and fork as if she’d need to fight him off.
Talk turned safely to musical evenings and assemblies, but then both Martha’s mother and aunt shared stories from their youth that implied more liveliness than Martha had imagined. Her mother had flirted with a number of suitors, and even slipped aside from a dance for a kiss? And not with the future Canon Darby, either. In their recollections, the older ladies became more youthful, brighter-eyed, rosier-cheeked, while Martha remained herself, dull and lacking memories to share.
Did everyone dance and flirt their way into their twenties except her?
She became aware of hunger, and not for soup.
She hungered for touches and dances and teasing and flirtation. All the things the older ladies remembered with such pleasure. All the things she’d missed and feared never to experience, especially in Dean Stallingford’s embraces.
Good heavens. She’d never let her imagination go so far, and now the idea revolted her.
She caught Loxsleigh looking at her and immediately envisioned embraces that would not revolt her. How was he doing this to her?
She seized her wineglass and drank. He also raised his glass, but sipped, his eyes remaining on her, bright as fire. Heat rose through her body. She began to sweat.
This wasn’t a play, and it wasn’t harmless. She would not go to Five Oaks. She would return directly to York and marry Dean Stallingford and be safe.
The meal seemed to take an age, and when they rose to take their leave Martha gave thanks that the torment was over. However, Loxsleigh insisted on escorting them back home and walked beside her as they left the inn. She could feel his presence, perhaps even a vibration. She welcomed fresh air and the hubbub of ordinary life—people in the street, vendors calling their wares, a line of chairmen offering transport.
“I feel quite fatigued,” said Aunt Clarissa. “I do believe I’ll take a chair.”
Loxsleigh summoned a sedan and paid the men. “Mistress Darby? Would you, too, care to be carried home?”
“I confess the idea appeals, sir. Don’t feel obliged to join us in laziness, dear,” she said to Martha. “I know you enjoy a walk and Mr. Loxsleigh will ensure your safety.”
If Martha’s senses were any guide, Mr. Loxsleigh planned the exact opposite, but she took a sudden resolve. Even if she refused to visit his home, he could follow her to York. The only way to put a stop to this was to directly dismiss him.
“Yes,” she said. “I should like to walk. It’s a lovely afternoon.”
AS SOON AS the older ladies were carried away she turned to him. “And now, Mr. Loxsleigh, we will talk plainly, if you please.”
He extended his arm. “I will be delighted, Miss Darby.”
Martha didn’t want to touch him, but propriety compelled. She curled her hand around his arm and they set off down the street. Even through gloves and sleeve, she felt that vibration again and it rippled into her. She twitched and glanced around. Had she heard that song again? The one from her dream…
“Plain talk, Miss Darby?” he prompted.
“I wish to know, plainly, sir, why you are pursuing my mother and myself. We can hardly be amusing to you after court.”
“Court is a constantly repeating play. Its charms soon wear thin.”
She gave him a look. “So we are a new play, a novelty?”
“As I am for you, I’m sure.”
“I’m certainly not accustomed to such elevated company.” She was launched on an argument about their different stations, but he said, “I assume you meet the archbishop now and then.”
“That is hardly the same.”
“But extremely elevated. Where does the Archbishop of York come in the order of precedence? Closely after royalty, I believe, and far, far above the heir to a viscountcy.”
Jaw tense, Martha said, “I have very little to do with the archbishop.”
“But would not reject his company as unsuitable. Come, Miss Darby, why are you so prickly? What have I done to offend?”
She glared at him. “Do you pretend that you encountered us in Newark by accident?”
“It is on the North Road, which we both must take. But I confess that I wanted to meet you again.”
Martha suddenly realized that they’d taken a shortcut through the churchyard. It was the route her party had walked to the inn, enjoying the tranquillity. Now the leafy quiet seemed dangerous.
She released his arm and stepped away. “Why?” she demanded again. “What interest do you have in us?”
“In you. Your mother is delightful, but you are the lodestone.”
“Lodestone?” But that was best ignored. “I insist you leave us be, sir. There is no connection, and can never be.”
“There was a handkerchief,” he said whimsically. “My dear Miss Darby, my intentions are completely honorable.”
“Honorable?” She was becoming an echo, but he’d opened the way to an attack. “That sounds as if you intend to propose marriage.”
She waited with relish for him to show panic, but instead he smiled. “I believe I do. But first I must kiss you.”
“What? You wretch, to make fun of me. And to suggest something so wicked!”
“A kiss is wicked? Then the whole world is destined for hell. Including you. With such tempting lips, you must have been kissed many times.”
“Certainly not!” Martha snapped, but instantly regretted the admission. “My father’s illness… Mourning…”
He sobered. “As your mother said, you have missed much.” He captured her hands. “Allow me to introduce you to the kiss.”
He didn’t wait for permission, however, but pulled her beneath a tree.
And kissed her.
A mere press of lips to lips, yet sparkles started there and spread throughout her body—into her chest, down her spine, right to her fingers and toes. She almost felt that her tight-pinned hair crackled.
She tried to step back, but that brought her hard against the tree’s trunk and he pressed over her, his hot mouth claiming hers hungrily, destroying both conscience and will. She gripped his jacket, lightning-struck and helpless, until a deep, urgent ache awoke her to peril.
She pushed him away with all her strength. He crushed closer, as if he might force her…
But then he put hands to the tree and thrust violently backward, as if breaking bonds, breathing hard, eyes bright and wolfish in their hunger.
A hunger that pounded in herself.
He went to one knee. “Miss Darby, will you marry me?”
She stared, then snapped, “Of course not!” from an instinct as sharp as that which snatches the hand from a burning pot.
His eyes still shone. “You must, you know.”
Martha backed away, but the infernal tree blocked her. “Must? From a kiss. A kiss forced upon me? I fear you’re mad, sir!”
And he looked it, with those wide, burning eyes and flushed cheeks.
“I will be if you reject me. Why do you refuse?”
“Why? My father was a canon. Yours is a viscount. You will be a viscount one day. I have an extremely modest portion to bring to a marriage and no idea of how to behave at court.”
“I don’t live at court,” he said, rising to his feet. “And I don’t need your portion, but in fact you bring a dowry of immense value.” He stepped forward. “Let me kiss you again.”
Martha pushed him away. “Stop that! I know what you’re about. You’re trying to seduce me.”
“I’m trying to marry you.”
“I don’t believe you.”
He sighed and looked up. “I thought an oak would have some power.”
He took her hand—“Come”—and dragged her toward the church.
“What are you doing? Stop this!” Martha stumbled along, unable bring herself to scream. They turned a corner, and there at last were people—two gravediggers, chest deep in the ground. “Sirs!” she cried.
“I want to marry this lady,” Loxsleigh interrupted. “Will you stand witness?”
The men grinned, showing crooked teeth. “If you wish, sir.”
“I do.” He tossed them both a coin. “Come.” He dragged Martha onward.
She grabbed a headstone. “You’re drunk, sir. You must be. It would serve you right if I took up your offer.”
He stopped, beaming. “Do, please, my marrying maid.”
“You, my dear, my darling Miss Darby, are my marrying maid. I have sought you high and low, long and far, despairing of ever finding you in time. But here you are, and here I am, and all is wondrous!”
He grasped her waist and swung her around in the air. Nothing so alarming, so wonderful, had ever happened to Martha Darby before. She swatted at his head, beat at his shoulders, and when her feet touched the ground again she exclaimed, “You’re mad, or drunk, or both!”
“Not a bit of it!”
But then he swooped down to dig his fingers into the long grass by the edge of the path.
Mad, Martha thought, tears gathering in her eyes. Tragically, the man was mad.
“See.” He straightened, showing her a small golden earring as if it were a wonder of the orient. “Is it not wonderful?”
“You must return it to its owner,” Martha said gently.
“Of course, but it’s proof, you see.”
“Proof of what?”
“That you’re my marrying maid. How soon can we be wed?”
“Mr. Loxsleigh, I am not going to marry you.”
He shook his head, as if she were a moonling.
Martha reached for the only weapon she had. “I’m promised to another.”
That did cloud his sun. “Do you love him?”
Martha couldn’t quite lie. “We are very well suited,” she said and set off along the path toward the street, toward people. Sane people.
He passed her and spoke walking backward. “You don’t love him. Of course you don’t. A marrying maid wants no other. I wonder why I didn’t find you years ago.”
“Perhaps,” she said tightly, “because we belong in different spheres and still do.”
“Ah! Your father was a canon. Did you live close to the Minster?”
The safety of the street lay ahead, but he blocked her way. “Yes.”
“And in the long years of caring for your father, did you mostly stay at home?”
“That explains it, then. Faery powers can’t work in powerful Christian spaces.”
Fairies. He was a worse case than she’d feared.
He turned and opened the gate for her. “If I try to explain, you’ll never believe me.”
“Quite likely I won’t,” she said, safe at last on the street.
“Martha, my dear, just say yes.”
She looked him in the eye. “No.”
“Come to Five Oaks.”
“What harm can it do?”
“Said the spider to the fly.” She marched on. Aunt Clarissa’s house was in view. Martha had never been so glad to see it.
“Come to Five Oaks,” he persisted. “It will change your mind. But if it doesn’t, I’ll bother you no more. And that is a painful promise for me to make.”
Martha was struck by his sincerity and slowed her steps. “Why?”
He didn’t immediately answer and seemed to be calculating her reaction. “If you don’t marry me,” he said at last, “I will die.”
“Die of love? We hardly know each other!”
“Simply die. And not just me. Many others.”
Mad, mad, but she was suddenly unable to abandon him. If she went to his home, she would be with her mother. Aunt Clarissa would know where they went. Perhaps his father didn’t realize how sad a case he was. There might be some way to help him.
“Very well,” Martha said at last. “I will visit Five Oaks.”
He beamed, all that bright light shining, but the song came from elsewhere, as did the burst of ethereal laughter. Martha looked around even as she knew neither was anything to do with the here and now.
Was insanity infectious?
BY MORNING MARTHA had second, third, twentieth doubts about the wisdom of her decision, especially in light of her dreams. That one kiss had unleashed wickedness beyond comprehension, and even more vivid images of impossible things.
Mr. Loxsleigh arrived, and though he was striving to appear normal, his eyes revealed that madness still rode him. Not dangerous madness, she assured herself. What was more, he’d brought a luxurious traveling carriage drawn by six horses, which meant three postilions who would hardly allow evil.
She guessed he intended rash speed, however, and said, “We will travel only as fast as is reasonable, sir.”
He handed her into the carriage. “We must reach Five Oaks today.”
Martha paused in the doorway. “Why?”
She caught him staring into nowhere, but then he was with her again, smiling. “My impatience to see you there, Miss Darby. But my word on it, we’ll travel no faster than is safe.”
With yet more misgivings, Martha took her seat at her mother’s side, facing the horses. It was difficult to be a well-bred lady who never behaved improperly, and did not upset arrangements.
“How lovely to travel post,” her mother said. “So kind of you, Mr. Loxsleigh.”
He took the opposite seat. “It is you who are kind, ma’am, agreeing to come to Five Oaks.”
As the carriage moved off, Martha gripped her hands together. She forced them to relax. She was safe. Any other impression was a lingering effect of her dream.
Or proximity to a man. The seating put her far too close to Loxsleigh. Their knees almost touched. Unless she chose to look outside all the way, she must look at him, be aware of how he looked at her with eyes that now seemed to gleam emerald bright.
She turned away as if fascinated by the sight of the castle over nearby houses.
He said, “Our road is good according to those coming south.”
In other words, he claimed speed was safe. To prove it, as soon as they left the town the horses picked up their pace. It did not jolt over ruts, however, so Martha couldn’t reasonably complain.
Extravagantly, they halted for new horses in an hour, and then again. They would have continued that way till dark if Martha hadn’t prompted him to stop to dine at gone two o’clock. He agreed, but though he smiled and conversed, he hurried them through their meal and out again to the carriage. Even Martha’s mother commented on it.
“Is there urgency, Mr. Loxsleigh? Do you have bad news from home?”
“No, ma’am. I’m merely anxious that we arrive before dark.”
“If it becomes dark,” Martha said, “we must stop.”
He looked at her with something like rage and she shrank back, wishing there was some way to escape with propriety. He instantly smiled, so that she might have believed she’d imagined the reaction, but she didn’t.
He turned to her mother. “There’s a family legend that might interest you, ma’am, as it concerns the oldest part of Five Oaks. May I relate it to pass the time?”
“By all means, Mr. Loxsleigh.”
“Long, long ago,” he began, “an ancestor, also called Robert Loxsleigh, traveled the land, seeking to do his knightly duty and defend the weak. One night, he became lost in dense woodland despite the fact that it was a full moon. When he came into a clearing he saw a beautiful woman being assaulted by a man. He leaped from his horse, drew his sword, and rushed between them. The lady fell on his chest in gratitude, but the man was furious. He declared Sir Robert was his prisoner for entering a Faery circle under the full moon. You see the warring couple were Titania and Oberon, Queen and King of Faery.”
“As in Shakespeare!” Anne Darby exclaimed. “‘Ill met by moonlight.’ How interesting.”
“Ill met, indeed,” Loxsleigh agreed, but when he turned to Martha, that fire of intensity burned. Worse, she felt it in herself now, as if she had urgent need to race to his home, but it fought with a desperate need to turn away from the course.
“Sir Robert sought to escape, but his horse had disappeared, as had his squire and all the woodland except for the five gnarled oaks that circled him. He knew of faery ways, and knew that a mortal who invaded a faery circle at full moon was their prisoner. He believed himself lost to our world, but Titania took him under her protection and declared that he should go free, and would even receive a reward. One wish.”
“What did he wish for?” Anne Darby asked.
“Remember, ma’am, he was a truly noble knight. He asked for some talent that would enable him to help the poor and helpless even more than before.”
“Ah, the good man.”
“What talent?” Martha asked, hearing her tension make it harsh.
Loxsleigh looked at her. “The ability to find lost gold.”
“Coins, salvers, jewelry.”
“Such as an earring?”
Their eyes were locked. “Quite possibly.” But then he turned to her mother. “Anything already mined and formed by man. Gold is a mystical metal, valued everywhere. Some believe it also has mystic and healing powers. It serves us well and shouldn’t be lost. According to this story, faery has the task of ensuring that lost gold is found and returned to use. Have you ever heard the story of the gold at the end of a rainbow?”
Martha clung to silence, unable to understand why she felt such threat. Her mother seemed unaffected and asked to know more.
“That legend appears in many places. It says that if a person can find the place where a rainbow touches the ground, they will find gold. Thus it is a way for faery to put some of their trove back into human hands. Or, sometimes buried gold is brought to the surface to be exposed by the plough, or coins hidden in a wall are revealed when someone is inspired to break it down.”
“I have heard of such cases,” Anne Darby declared, wide-eyed.
“It’s only a legend, Mother.”
That caused Loxsleigh to look at her again. “You doubt, Miss Darby, and therein lies the problem. Once, the fey folk lived close to humans, dwelling in the dense woodlands that surrounded every village and manor, interacting with people according to their whim. But much of that woodland has been cut down and the land put to agriculture, and modern thought has made skeptics of us all. Nowadays faery lives among us only in their mystic havens. To continue the work, Titania made Sir Robert her deputy, enabling him to find lost gold and put it to use to benefit the poor.”
“Then why,” Martha asked, “are his descendants so rich?”
“Martha!” her mother protested.
But Loxsleigh smiled. As if she’d opened a door.
“Queen Titania wished Sir Robert to found a line that would continue this work, so she bound him with rules. He must keep a seventh of the value of any trove and use it for his own health and prosperity. He must marry and sire children, so that an eldest son would carry on the work, and so must his heirs for all time. Those with the talent must do the work. If he or his descendants broke these rules there was a penalty—they would die within the year. Not just the trouvedor, for thus the gold finders are called, but all Robert’s descendants to that day.”
“Over five hundred years?” Anne Darby exclaimed. “That could be a vast number!”
“Faery is not benign, ma’am. We are as moths to them, dead in a moment.”
And that rang deadly true. Martha desperately tried to make sense of this, but she remembered him saying that if she did not marry him, he would die. He could not be claiming that this story was true, that he possessed a fairy gift!
“Those are easy enough conditions, Mr. Loxsleigh,” Martha said with deliberate flippancy. “To live a comfortable life and marry.”
“Martha,” her mother said again, becoming distressed.
Loxsleigh still smiled, but Martha was more and more aware of dark tension all around him. “As you say, Miss Darby. Except that Oberon does his best to thwart his queen.”
The coach lurched into an inn then for a change of horses, breaking the moment. Almost breaking a spell.
Was that it? Was she under a spell? Was that why she’d agreed to this mad journey?
But that would mean it was all true. Fairies. Gold finders.
He climbed down to inspect the new horses and pay the fees. She watched him, remembering the earring. His bright burning exultation. Him sweeping her up in that mad whirl. A predictor of this mad whirl. But she’d been alive then. Alive as never before.
No, she would have none of this. She was a rational Christian woman. The man was mad, and she could only pray he wasn’t dangerously so.
He climbed back in and the coach moved on.
Martha’s mother said, “You mentioned Oberon, sir. Do tell us more.”
Martha saw that he wanted to tell her, intended to tell her, and could do nothing to prevent it.
“You will remember that Oberon had reason to hate Robert Loxsleigh, but by faery law he could not deny his lady’s gifts. Titania had already imposed rules and a dreadful consequence, however, so he set out to make obedience difficult. He decreed that Robert Loxsleigh and his heirs would not achieve their talent until they married, and that they must marry a woman that he would choose, and before their twenty-fifth birthday.
“Titania insisted that the woman must be healthy, and of a suitable age and station, but she and her husband enjoy their battles, so she made no more attempt than that. Thus—if we are to believe my family lore—there will always be a destined bride for the Loxsleigh heir, but Oberon will make her hard to find.” He turned to Martha. “When found, however, there will be no doubt. On either side. We call the bride his marrying maid.”
Martha inhaled, clenching her fists.
How old are you?
She would not ask, she would not. She turned away, looking outside, and noticed gathering clouds. Rain often turned the roads to mud and she prayed for it. She didn’t want to reach his house, and with delay perhaps she could escape.
“What a charming story,” Anne Darby said.
Martha turned to her mother. “Charming?”
“Fairies, noble knights, and brides.”
“And threat of death for many, if there was any truth in it.”
“But there isn’t, is there, dear?”
Martha forced a smile. “No, of course not. I was swept away by it for a moment. The weather looks ominous, sir. We should stop at the next stage.”
“We can reach Five Oaks today, I promise,” Loxsleigh said.
Martha didn’t argue. If she was any judge, the clouds would do her work for her.
Her mother asked, “Does the name Five Oaks come from that legend? From the oak trees in the glade?”
“It does, ma’am. In fact, the legend says that the old part of the house was built in that very glade, as you will see for yourself within hours.” He looked out at the gathering clouds, however, and frowned.
“Do you have any other stories, Mr. Loxsleigh?” her mother asked.
Martha closed her eyes briefly, wondering what more there could be.
“I do have one more, ma’am, which is very whimsical. We left Sir Robert with his faery gift, and once he married his marrying maid, he used his talent but kept the seventh, thus obeying the rules. However, he began to find it harder to distribute the gold to the poor. His generous charities were beginning to cause comment. He tried leaving gold for people to find, as faery had done, but it offended him when it was found by rascals or the rich.
“He traveled farther to escape attention, and when returning from a benevolent journey he was set upon by outlaws. The leader took his purse and made a play of him having donated the purse to the poor. That gave Sir Robert an idea. He set up a trap and captured that leader and put a proposition to him. If he would give up his thievery, Sir Robert would protect him and his companions and provide money for them to live on. In return, Robin Ahood and his men would pass on the gold, claiming that they’d stolen it from the rich to give to the poor.”
“Robin Hood!” Martha exclaimed. “Now I see you play with us.”
“I did say it was whimsical, Miss Darby.”
“And many people think Robin Hood was real,” her mother said. “Especially around Yorkshire and Nottinghamshire.”
“They think fairies real, too,” Martha scoffed. “Or magic wells, or that eleven days were stolen from them when the calendar changed.”
“Oh, I remember that,” said her mother. “Such a furor. Even rioting. There are some still convinced that their lives will be shorter.” She turned to Loxsleigh. “One neighbor in York whose birthday was on the tenth of September that year insists to this day that she’s a year younger than she truly is.”
Loxsleigh didn’t respond. In fact, he looked dumbstruck. He looked outside at the gathering gloom, and then at Martha, eyes wide.
“Robin Hood,” Martha said sharply, hoping to bring him back to reason. “That device could only have lasted a while. Men die.”
He blinked as if her words made no sense, but then said, “No, of course. I mean yes.” He shivered. “A legend can live forever. The Robin Hood stories are spread over centuries, you know, and from Nottinghamshire to Yorkshire. To Barnsdale, where Five Oaks lies. One version links to the Loxsleigh name, though spelled differently. It could be true.”
It was a good attempt, but close to babble.
“How interesting,” said Martha’s mother, but he continued to look at Martha.
“You disbelieve all?”
“Robin Hood might have existed,” she said, “but fairies certainly do not.”
“Pray God you’re right,” he said and turned again to study the weather as if willpower could change it.
ROB DIDN’T KNOW how he was presenting a normal appearance. If he was.
The change of calendar! How could he have ignored it? How could his father?
Five years ago the calendar had been corrected by going from the second day of September to the fourteenth. As Mistress Darby said, many of the simple folk believed that eleven days had been stolen from them. There had been riots demanding their return. People with birthdays during the eleven days had fretted about how old they were.
He’d regarded all this with amusement. Why hadn’t he realized?
No one could tell how faery viewed such human matters as dates and calendars, but if the rules applied to the old date, it would explain the gathering storm—and not the one visible in roiling clouds. At first it had been a dark chanting in his head, but that had turned into a cacophonous chorus that flogged him toward Five Oaks. Hurry, hurry, hurry.
Over the past hours he’d become aware of them around him. Gleeful Oberon and furious Titania. No wonder. If the rules kept to the old calendar, his birthday wasn’t the twentieth day of June, eleven days away, but the ninth.
If he didn’t bed Martha Darby before tomorrow, perhaps before eleven in the morning, his hour of birth, Oberon would be free to finally exact his revenge on the line of Sir Robert Loxsleigh.
That left no time for niceties and wooing. By kind means or cruel, he must have her in the next twenty hours. He tried to compel calm. They would be at Five Oaks in hours, even with the worsening weather. Oberon’s work, he was sure. Once he took Martha to the old hall, where faery energy burned so fiercely, she would have to believe, have to agree to anticipate the wedding. Even she, the prim daughter of a canon of York.
Damnation. Oberon had chosen well and done his mightiest, but he could not be allowed to succeed.
But then the rain swept toward them, sheeting down, pounding the rough ground of the road.
“We must stop at the next inn, Mr. Loxsleigh,” Martha said. “We risk becoming stuck in the mud.”
“The road’s sound,” he said desperately, “and it’s not far now. Perhaps only an hour.” The coach had slowed, however, and he could feel the labor of the horses. The postilions would be miserable, but they must press on. Then the wheels sank and the coach stopped.
He opened the door to jump out. “We must lighten the load!”
The coach lurched forward then, the wheels finding new purchase. He fell back into his seat.
“This is folly!” his bride declared. “Look, I see lights ahead. We must stop. We can’t climb out to lighten the load in this weather. My mother could catch her death.”
He wanted to rail at her, but every word was true. They could not go on.
“Very well,” he said, desperately seeking solutions. “My apologies.”
The lights turned out to be a small inn, but called the Maid Marian. Was that a hopeful sign or a twisted joke? It had two tiny bedchambers for them, but they would have to take their supper in the common room. That didn’t matter. He made his plans.
He ordered supper for them and hot punch, making sure it had plenty of honey and spices. When it arrived, he strengthened it with the flask of brandy he had in his valise.
Mistress Darby declared it excellent and drank two glasses. Martha drank well of it, too. He topped up her glass when she wasn’t looking and saw her drain it again.
Mistress Darby began to nod off. She started. “Oh, my, the long journey has tired me out. I’m for bed.”
She left the room somewhat unsteadily. Martha rose and he saw her steady herself on the back of her chair. “I, too, am tired. You set too hasty a pace, Mr. Loxsleigh.”
“Perhaps I did. I am simply impatient to see you in my home.”
He watched her struggle to focus. “I am not going to marry you.”
“You must. You know the story now. Remember Oberon’s revenge.”
“Fablesh…” She frowned. “Fables for the credulous.”
He grabbed her and shook her. “Why am I cursed with such an impossible woman!”
She fought him off. “Cursed. Cursed. Because I will not sin in your bed I’m a curse?”
“I want to marry you!”
“I don’t want to marry you!” she yelled, inhibitions shattered by drink. She was magnificent. But adamant.
“You’re mad, Mr. Loxsleigh,” she said with the careful precision of the drunk. “It’s sad, but I will not bind myself to a madman.”
A man laughed, deep and dark.
Martha looked around, almost losing her balance again. “Who was that?”
“Oberon. Anticipating victory. Martha, listen to me. My birthday isn’t twelve days away, it’s tomorrow. We need to go to bed together. Now.”
She blinked at him. “That is a most improper statement, sir.”
“I know. Very well, we need to go on to Five Oaks. Now.”
“Mad, mad, mad.”
“We could ride.”
“I cannot ride.”
“We could share a horse.” He desperately wanted her willing. “Martha, if we don’t… wed by tomorrow I will die. My father will die. All the descendants of Sir Robert Loxsleigh, wherever they may be, will die within the year.”
She swayed slightly. “It is impossible for us to marry by tomorrow, sir. Banns… and I do believe that you have made me drunk.”
He approached again. “Certainly you are affected by the punch, Miss Darby. Permit me to escort you upstairs.”
She swatted at him. “Keep away from me, you… you… horny goat.”
That came so improbably from her lips that he laughed.
A mistake. She backed away, muttering, “Mad, mad, mad. Keep away from me. And I will not go to your home. Not tomorrow. Not ever!”
He watched her steer carefully toward the door. Some were made docile by drink, and some quarrelsome. Clearly Martha Darby was the latter. Some were made lusty, but he’d never trusted to that.
He followed at a distance, ready to save her if she stumbled on the narrow stairs. Halfway up her legs betrayed her and she sat down, leaning her head against the wall, muttering, “Drunk. I’m drunk. Oh, the shame…”
Then she slipped into a stupor.
Rob went to where she slumped and touched her prim cap. “Martha, my love, I wish it had been otherwise. Pray God you forgive me.”
He gathered her into his arms, aware of Titania’s exultance and Oberon’s fury and hating both equally. Titania’s lilting voice approved. But then Oberon changed his tone to coaxing.
Will you rape her? it murmured. Despoil her limp body? What will be the result when she regains awareness and understands what you have done?
She’ll love you, argued Titania. She’s your marrying maid. It is her destiny to love you just as it is your destiny to love her. Do it now, my knight. Do it now so you and your line can live.
Do it now and eat bitter bread forever. Perhaps it is not necessary. Perhaps I will allow your birthday to be as your worldly custom designates.
Rob carried Martha up to his bedchamber where he laid her on the bed. He untied the stings of her cap and took it off, then unpinned her hair. He spread it, astonished by its silky thickness, aroused by it and hungry. He leaned down and pressed his lips to hers…
Which were slack and unresponsive.
He inhaled, straightening. “I cannot,” he said. Titania screamed at him; Oberon laughed.
Where was virtue and vileness here? Where was right and wrong?
There was one last hope.
MARTHA WAS FIRST aware of a throbbing head, and then that she was cold and wet. Then that she was not in her bed, but being carried. Was this another odd dream?
She struggled feebly and realized she was trapped in something. In heavy cloth.
“Hush, love, we’re home. I’ll soon have you warm.”
“Home?” She forced her eyes open and saw a distant starry sky. Closer, she saw Loxsleigh’s shadowed face.
“What have you done?” Her mouth was almost too parched for speech.
“Brought you to Five Oaks. It was the only way.”
“No…” He was going to rape her, and here in his house there would be no noble Sir Robert to stand between. She felt her own hot tears on her cold cheeks.
He kissed them. “Don’t be afraid, love. I won’t harm you. But I had to bring you here. I had to try.”
He put her down on the steps to open the door, but only for a moment and still swaddled, so her feeble struggles achieved nothing. They entered total darkness, but he must know it well. Of course he did.
Then wild candlelight showed a high, painted ceiling. “My boy, my boy! You’re home and with your bride. Praise be to God!”
Martha turned her head and saw a tousled-haired man in a night robe, candle in hand.
“Welcome, my dear, welcome. Oh, happy day. But why such a journey? The poor girl must be chilled through. Bring her up, bring her up. She can lie in my bed for now.”
“No!” Martha cried. Not the father, too.
“No,” Rob Loxsleigh said. “I must take her to the old hall.”
“The old hall? She’ll catch a lung fever.”
“I hope she’ll catch credulity.” Already striding across the entrance hall, he called, “The calendar change. It changed my birthday. We have no time! Bring brandy and water. Rouse the servants to prepare her a bed.”
“Please,” Martha cried. “Please, don’t.”
But he rushed forward into darkness, struggling to open doors, leaving them wide behind him, and all around her a cacophony of voices swelled—high voices, low voices, merry and angry, coaxing and threatening, tangled up in a song. In that song. Her nightmare song.
A man growled, “He plans to rape you. Fight, mortal creature, fight!”
She tried, but was helpless.
Then Loxsleigh stopped. Small-paned windows let in a trace of light and Martha’s eyes were accustomed to the dark. They were in the ancient part of Five Oaks. And the nightmare song and creatures whirled around.
A dream. This had to be a dream!
He put her on her feet, supporting her still.
The lady was there, the one in iridescent robes. She smiled like a Madonna, but with blank eyes. Titania.
The man paced around them like the panther she’d seen in the Tower of London. “He cannot rape you. He’s too puny for that. You have only to resist.”
Titania pressed close in a cloud of woodland perfume. “Dear child, you have only to surrender to Rob, to that which you most desire.” Her hand brushed Martha’s forehead and the dull throb there faded. The room seemed brighter by the moment, and all her senses heightened. The song turned sweet.
“You love Rob Loxsleigh,” whispered the Queen of Faery. “He loves you. You were destined from birth. And the threat is real, dear child. Refuse and my lord will have his way.”
“Then stop him.”
“I have brought you together. Now it lies in your hands.”
“You demand that I sin!”
Titania laughed. “I demand nothing. It will annoy me if my lord wins this little contest, but there are many others.”
Faery, Rob Loxsleigh had said, are not benign.
Martha realized that whether the light came from a magical glow or from the fey folk themselves, she could see. The room was long and low and paneled in dark oak, but held no furniture. Rob stood nearby, wild haired and grim, watching her, but prepared, she understood, to abide by her decision.
Here, now, she could not deny the reality of the threat. It showed in Titania’s heartless smile and in handsome Oberon’s simmering anticipation. He waited to exact revenge for an offence half a millennium old. Others flowed around the room and in and out of the dark walls, watching and chattering. They were enjoying the show, as people watch animals fight to the death simply for amusement.
The unearthly song swelled—sweet, yes, but chanting both love and death.
Martha turned to Rob. “They are vile. We must deny them both.”
He took her hands. “Martha, Martha, they are as wind, wave, and lightning. Deny them if you will, but you will still die. Or rather I will, and my father. My uncle and aunt, my cousins and my cousin Cecilia’s newborn child. Who knows how many others carry Sir Robert Loxsleigh’s blood? Trust me, love. There is only one way. Come to my bed and lie with me. We will be married as soon as may be, but Oberon will be thwarted only if we love each other tonight.”
“It would be wrong,” the dark lord growled in her ear, “and you know it. What good can come from that?”
“We can pledge ourselves now,” Rob argued. “We can say our vows. I will keep them, as will you. There can never be any other for you or me.”
“By your beliefs, it must be in a church,” Oberon argued. “Think of the scandal. Your reputation…”
It was as if all around held their breath, as if the very room, the old house, the one built by Robert Loxsleigh in a faery glade guarded by five oaks, held its breath. Even the song stopped. But Oberon had misplayed his hand. Martha’s morals still quailed, but to let innocents die for her reputation would be vile.
She looked into the man’s eyes. “I will lie with you tonight, Rob Loxsleigh, my husband in all but the ceremony.”
The chorus burst into song again, a song of wild rejoicing that clashed with thunderous rage. Rob took her hand and raced her out of the ancient part of the house, back to the entrance hall, lit now by a branch of candles. The noises faded and then stopped.
Martha knew that the faery had gone. Gone on to other entertainments.
Rob took her into his arms, holding her tight and close, burying his head in her hair.
Her loose hair, Martha realized, as it had never been except between brushing and pinning.
He separated and kissed her, a gentle, reverent kiss. “You will not regret this.”
“No, I don’t believe I will.” But she swallowed before saying, “Do we do it now?”
He smiled. “We have all night. You’re damp in places and wet in others. Come up to your room and be comfortable.”
She went up with him, hand in hand, but still embarrassed. She could hear servants around, woken from sleep and talking softly. About her. They would all know…
But she would not sacrifice hundreds to her discomfort.
He led her to a room where three maidservants worked, still in their nightwear with tied shawls atop. They cast her looks, but smiling ones. Did they know? Did everyone here know?
The room was lit with candles and warmed by the flickering flames of a new-laid fire. Two of the servants were running warming pans through the bed. The other was spreading a nightgown over a rack before the fire.
“I’ll leave you in their care,” Rob said, smiling down at her.
She could do nothing but smile back. “I’m all awhirl.”
“I know. Be comfortable. I’ll return later.”
The subject still embarrassed her too much for speech, but she nodded.
He left and she surrendered to the maids’ care. They gave her small beer to slake her thirst, and stripped off her damp outer clothing. Martha wouldn’t let them strip her naked. She retired behind the screen to take off her shift and put on the nightgown.
The maids toweled dry her hair and then settled her into the warm bed with a cup of chocolate and a sweet cake. There was a plate of fruit as well, but Martha could eat nothing.
The servants left. She sipped the chocolate, which was richer than any she’d tasted. And she waited.
All awareness of faery had gone, making her realize how it had lived in her for days, ever since that encounter in the park. Instead, there was a growing peace, a growing certainty that all was now right, despite the lack of church and clergy.
She was drinking the last of the chocolate when Rob came to her, shining and handsome again, in a rich, blue robe.
“My peacock, I see.”
“At your command,” he said, crossing the room to her. “Always.”
He extinguished the candles until only fire lit the room and came into the bed beside her. “I’m sorry it must be this way, my love, but it will be holy.”
He was naked and she had to look away, even though she said, “I know it.”
Wildly she thought, It would never have been like this with Dean Stallingford!
He took her hand and she felt his warm lips on her knuckles. “Look at me, Martha.”
She turned her head shyly, but he’d pulled the covers up to his neck. There was nothing to embarrass her except that he was here, a man in her bed.
He took her hand, her left hand, and slid a ring onto her third finger. “My pledge to you, dear heart.”
Martha raised her hand and saw a complex ring of gold, set with small, smooth stones.
“I’ve carried that for years, love, as I sought my marrying maid. Come, let me love you now.”
He gathered her into his arms and kissed her, and there was all the magic she remembered from that other kiss, so long ago, a day ago. Heat and sparkles danced through her and this time she felt no need to resist. Shyly, she kissed him back. Her hands encountered his skin and she laid her hands on him, uncertainly but with growing pleasure.
She moved against him, her whole body twining with his so they seemed one. Especially when he raised her nightgown high, then took it off. She stared up at the bed canopy as he put hands to her naked breasts. And then his mouth. But then she was lost to anxiety and swept up into his passion, her need building so that when he thrust inside her, she cried out as much in satisfaction as in pain.
The pain was short and soon forgotten. The pleasure built until she thought she’d die of wanting more. Until it came, and she didn’t die, but ended up hot and sticky in his arms, laughing softly at the splendor of it. “So that,” she said, “is magic.”
He chuckled into her hair. “If it’s magic, it’s a magic available to everyone, love.” He nuzzled and kissed her there. “Thank you, my dear, my darling, my marrying maid. We will be gloriously happy—”
But Martha suddenly sat up. “Mother!”
Laughing, he pulled her back down. “Someone’s already been dispatched to bring her here safely on the morrow. The explanations may be delicate, but I think she’ll be mollified by our wedding.” He cradled her face. “Any regrets?”
Martha shook her head. “None. This is right and true.”
“We’ll follow faery’s rules and all will be well, and when our son is of marrying age we’ll work with him to circumvent Oberon’s wiles.”
A distant look came into his eyes, and Martha said, “What? More trickery from them?”
He focused on her again. “No, love. But I’m aware of the gold now. After the kiss, it was a whisper, and all I’ve found is nearby pieces. Now, it’s a symphony on the air, a choir in my mind, from near and far. Tomorrow, will you come with me to find lost gold?”
She snuggled into his chest, also hearing this new, sweet song. “I will, husband. And right merrily.”
Bestseller Carrie Vaughn is the author of a wildly popular series of novels detailing the adventures of Kitty Norville, a radio personality who also happens to be a werewolf, and who runs a late-night call-in radio advice show for supernatural creatures. The Kitty books include Kitty and the Midnight Hour, Kitty Goes to Washington, Kitty Takes a Holiday, Kitty and the Silver Bullet, Kitty and the Dead Man’s Hand, Kitty Raises Hell, and Kitty’s House of Horrors. Vaughn’s short work has appeared in Jim Baen’s Universe, Asimov’s Science Fiction, Subterranean, Wild Cards: Inside Straight, Realms of Fantasy, Paradox, Strange Horizons, Weird Tales, All-Star Zeppelin Adventure Stories, and elsewhere. Her most recent books are Voices of Dragons and a new Kitty novel, Kitty Goes to War. She lives in Colorado.
In the clever tale that follows, she demonstrates that the line between dreams and reality can be a thin one—and that sometimes it’s hard to tell if you’ve crossed it.
The wires were obvious, strung with LED lights that switched on the moment the hero launched upward, illustrating the fact that no one had yet figured out how to get a real flight-capable superhuman to act in a play or movie or anything.
“Well?” Otto Veck, acclaimed director, looked at Charlotte.
The stage was a mess. A chain-link fence formed the backdrop, supposedly suggesting the shadows of a forest. A pile of stuffed black garbage bags made a castle shape. A woman in a white bustier, panties, fishnets, and a black garter with a cute little bow clinging to her thigh lay at the foot of the tower of trash as if she had just thrown herself off it, to her death. Nearby another body lay, a twisted man dressed in a three-piece suit with a tire iron sticking out of him, suggesting a sword at the end of a duel. The hero, a handsome man with a clean-shaven face, wearing an alluring amount of leather, had been kneeling beside the woman, hand to his chest, overcome by the wretchedness of the world. Then he flew away, straight up into the rigging overhead, vanishing into the heavens.
The scene was supposed to look a mess, but it didn’t match the picture Charlotte imagined. She winced. “Can we make it a little more… I don’t know… pretty?”
Otto tilted a thoughtful head, as if regarding the stage from a slightly different angle. It was Marta, the actress, who sat up, appalled. Fred, who played the fiendish villain/bureaucrat, stood and set aside the tire iron as he stretched muscles and groaned. Harry, who played the tragic hero too late to save his lover, but not too late to exact revenge on the fiendish villain/bureaucrat, slowly descended, hanging passively in his harness as the stage crew lowered him back to earth. Out of character now, he looked tired.
“Pretty? You want this to be pretty?” Marta said. “What happened to the terrors of modernity? There’s nothing pretty about modernity.” She had her hands on her hips and glared with the air of an offended artist. The truth was, she looked good in the lingerie and knew it, and was probably afraid that “pretty” meant putting her in a floor-length gown.
Charlotte thought she had said something along the lines of wanting to recast classic gothic narratives as a vehicle for alienation—the terrors of postmodernity expressed as the sublime. They had the terrors of postmodernity down pat but seemed to be missing the sublime.
The last dress rehearsal was a little late to be rethinking the project. Was it too late to cancel the whole thing? It had all seemed so much more clever when she wrote it.
“Never mind,” she said. “It’s fine. It’s all fine.”
“Maybe the lighting,” Otto said, trying to be helpful. “More of a halo effect upstage.” He put on his headset. “Bob, is it too late to change that last lighting cue?”
She sat in her squishy velvet seat in the middle of the house and pondered. This was supposed to be her big break. Her jump from the bush leagues to the big-time, with a director like Otto, an award-winning actress like Marta starring, in a theater that didn’t seat its audience in folding chairs. Charlotte couldn’t help but feel that her career was already over.
Her phone rattled, and she dug in the pocket of her jeans for it.
The screen showed Dorian’s text: “Wrk late, won’t make dinner, sry, make it up to you.”
She quelled her disappointment and instead decided to admire Dorian’s dedication. An up-and-coming assistant DA like Dorian Merriman didn’t win cases like the one against the Midnight Stalker by going on dinner dates with struggling playwrights.
Otto and the three actors were all looking at her, and she might have blushed.
“Everything okay?” Otto said.
“Fine,” she said, putting her phone away.
“Are we done, Otto?” Harry said.
“We’re done. Call’s at five tomorrow.” Otto and the actors disappeared backstage.
Part of her wanted to curl up right here for the next twenty-four hours, until it was all over. Maybe she could sleep through it.
Instead, she found her coat and bag and went to catch a bus home. It was early summer, still daylight, still warm. She could have walked the whole way, scuffing toes on the sidewalk and thinking of everything that could go horribly wrong tomorrow night. She didn’t even have to go on stage and she was terrified.
As an alternative to going home and stewing, she decided to take herself to dinner. Just because Dorian couldn’t go out didn’t mean she had to stay home. She had to celebrate either the beginning of her career or mourn its incipient demise. She had a favorite place, a hillside café with a rooftop patio, perfect for watching the urban neon sunset. And it arranged its wine list by price, which she thought was postmodernly classy.
SHE DIDN’T PLAN for the jewelry store next door to the café to get robbed while she was there.
She had just ordered a salad and a glass of zinfandel. Something to take the edge off while she stared at the hazy city sky and reminded herself that she was lucky and she had a great boyfriend when he was around, and her dream was coming true and the play really was okay and no one was going to write wretched reviews calling her names. Everything was going to be just fine.
Alarms started ringing, clanging mechanically, vibrating through the floor. The police sirens joined a minute later. A dozen customers and waitstaff crowded along the patio rail to see what was happening. Charlotte was already sitting there and had a pretty good view of the street. But like many others, she also looked up and around at the sky and rooftops, wondering which hero would swoop in to save the day: Breezeway? The Bullet? Captain Olympus himself?
The police sirens approached, howling, then a half dozen Commerce City PD squad cars roared up the street and screeched to cinematic halts, skidding to angles that blocked the intersections. Uniforms bounded out and pointed guns at the building. Out came the bullhorn, and one of the officers called through it, “Come out with your hands up!”
Shouting echoed up the stairwell that led to the roof. Six men wearing purple Kevlar vests, fatigues, and ninjalike masks appeared. Two held heavy metallic briefcases, no doubt filled with something nefarious and stolen. Four held what had to be ray guns—plastic, streamlined, with parabolic dishes where the barrels should be. They made quite an impression.
They must have planned to jump to the next rooftop and keep running until they found a ladder to shimmy down while the police were still racing up the stairs after them. The police were a little too fast, and the thieves were a little too desperate, because they went for hostages.
The two gunmen pointed their weapons and yelled, “Freeze!” which nobody did. Instead people screamed and tumbled out of the way, covering their heads, falling to the floor, scrambling on top of each other. It was a pretty good strategy, because if they stayed in a mob and the gunmen fired, it would probably be somebody else who got shot.
Astonished, Charlotte just kept sitting there, back to the railing, instead of fleeing with the others. So one of the guys grabbed her, arm around her throat, and held her against the rail, purple parabolic dish to her temple.
Her captor shouted the obligatory “Nobody move!” She thought the other gunman was standing at the top of the stairs, pointing his weapon at the oncoming cops, preventing rescue. So much for a nice evening out.
Staring back at the gun, which had become very large in her vision, she wondered if the weapon would incinerate her or simply make her vanish in a stream of light. She wondered which one would hurt more. Maybe she wouldn’t have to go through opening night after all. Maybe Dorian would avenge her, after standing forlornly over her poor broken body. Would he feel guilty for missing dinner with her?
The tableau froze: heroine and villain, random crowd huddling like a Greek chorus, henchmen wreaking chaos. Time stopped, her heartbeat stilled to a moment of perfect silence, a universe holding its breath.
She didn’t know where the newcomer entered from, but the gun left her head and pointed at something else, and there he was in the middle of the patio, hands on his hips. He was also wearing a mask, and that may have been what set the gang of jewel thieves most on edge. One more variable must have been too many to handle.
The thieves had an out, and they took it: Her captor tipped her over the railing.
Charlotte gasped a breath as the sky spun past her feet. She was falling—then she wasn’t. She jerked to a stop, hanging two stories over the sidewalk. She didn’t even have time to scream.
She wasn’t sure how it happened, but she could see how it ended up: The masked man, the hero, gripped her hand and held her dangling thirty feet up. She swayed and came to rest against the concrete wall. His other hand held the railing. He must have dived over the edge as she fell, faster than a heartbeat, faster than a blink. He must have grabbed her, grabbed the railing, and stopped her mid-plunge. Her shoulder throbbed with the pain of being wrenched. His must have felt worse. Now they hung there, looking at each other.
“I’ll need you to climb up,” he said, voice tight with strain.
“What?” she squeaked.
“I’m fast. Not all that strong,” he gasped.
He lifted her partway until she could grab hold of his jeans, then his shirt, then his shoulder, panting and panicked, too shocked to be scared, unbelievably remembering not to look down. She used him as a ladder, until she put her arms around his shoulders. He swung his leg up to hook it over the railing, shrugged to hint that maybe she should make her way to the railing as well. She meant to dig her fingers more tightly around his shirt, but she got the muscle of his shoulder. He only flinched a little. She managed to slide over, hook her elbow over, then her leg, and the two of them rolled onto the patio together.
The ray gun–toting thieves had used the distraction to flee.
Charlotte and her rescuer looked at each other. He was nondescript, but the mask made all the difference. Without it, she’d have glanced at him once, maybe admired the muscled shoulders under the almost-too-tight T-shirt. No uniform, just T-shirt and jeans, plain black boots, well worn. But he wore a mask, a length of black cloth with eyeholes over his head and tied in back. She stared at his eyes, brown, rich. With the mask, it was like looking at someone through a window. She wasn’t sure she could really see him. He held her arms—maybe she looked like she was going to faint, falling backward, making him rescue her all over again.
Imagine it—her, rescued at the last second by a real-life hero! Just like one of her plays. Unbelievable. Thrilling.
He was breathing hard. The feat hadn’t been easy for him; sweat shone on his neck.
“Are you all right?” she asked.
“I should be asking you that,” he said, smiling. He had a very nice smile.
“No… well, yes… but you—that was amazing.” She sounded a little breathy. “I’m fine. Are you?”
“Just fine,” he said. He never stopped smiling.
Then, just as a crowd of police trooped up the stairs, he ran—and yes, he was fast. He sped to the other side of the roof, to the back of the building, where a fence gave him a chance to jump off, climb down, flee, and vanish—all in seconds. She couldn’t see movement, arms and legs pumping, just this shape that flowed away. Then it was dusk, and she couldn’t see anything.
“AND YOU HAVE no idea who he was?” the detective asked again.
“No. I have no idea.” When she arrived at the police station, someone put a blanket over her shoulders and a cup of coffee in her hands. Then she started shivering. She hadn’t realized she was cold.
The detective stared at her, annoyed, because she was clearly making his job more difficult. Sighing, he pulled over a three-ring binder, opened it in front of her, and started turning pages. “Are any of these the guy who rescued you?”
This looked almost like the binders the theater got from agents—catalogs of actors. The first round of cattle calls. Instead of headshots, the detective’s pictures mostly showed blurry full-body action shots of the masked vigilantes. She recognized a lot of them from news clips and reputation: the Invincible, dressed in red, white, and blue, who as far as anyone could tell really was invincible and could fly to boot; Black Belt, who dressed like a ninja and could shoot laser beams from his hands; Quantum Girl, a woman in a silver leotard and spike-heeled boots who could teleport; and more. There were maybe two dozen of them—more than she’d realized. No one knew much about them, where they lived or what they did when they weren’t out fighting crime. Maybe they had secret identities. Maybe they had secret hideouts, like Gothic castles. Maybe they were robots who only emerged when there was crime to be fought.
In her play, she had assumed that her hero was a person with a heart to break like everyone else.
She flipped through the whole book and shook her head. “He wasn’t anybody I recognized. He didn’t even have much of a costume, just a mask. Shouldn’t you be going after the thieves instead of him?”
“I need all the information I can get for the report,” the detective said flatly.
She finished making her statement, which she couldn’t see being very useful to any investigation. All she had seen was a swarm of masked men running around performing some mystery play.
Dorian Merriman, hot-shot assistant DA, on the fast track after that Midnight Stalker trial—front-page stuff. She hadn’t called him about what had happened. He had just known, probably through one of his connections in the police department.
He rushed to her side, heroically even, but she was a little too wrung out to be impressed by the feat.
“Are you all right? What happened? I came as soon as I heard. Are you hurt?” He turned to the detective. “Is she hurt?”
“She’ll be fine,” the man said. He straightened the pages on his desk, signaling that they were done.
“Hi,” she said, her smile weak.
He knelt by her side, smoothed back her hair like she was a child, and she beamed back at him. “Now let’s get you home,” he said.
Dorian had brown eyes.
Reporters had arrived at the police station, snapping pictures and demanding answers. Word had gotten out about the masked man, a new rooftop hero in the city, and they kept asking: What was his power? His name? Had he talked to her? What did he say? They already knew who she was; a witness at the restaurant had told them everything. She wondered what the papers would make of it; she’d been right there and she didn’t know what had happened. The detective told her not to say anything, so she didn’t.
In Dorian’s car on the way to her apartment, she got a second wind.
“You should have seen it; it was amazing, I don’t know who this guy was, and the way the cops were talking I’m not sure if they want to catch the thieves or him. You know, I’d have expected him to be wearing some suit or armor like the other ones do, at least maybe spandex, but no, just jeans, and you know how you joke around because you don’t think those flimsy masks would really hide anyone’s identity? But I can’t for the life of me remember what he looked like. I just saw the mask.”
“You weren’t scared?” He glanced at her.
“Well, yeah, sure.” But she let the thought fade. She only wanted to remember amazing.
Charlotte shared an apartment with several other starving-artist types in too small a space, an arrangement that worked because most of them were gone most of the time, at their theaters or band rehearsals or projects or day jobs. The place was in a part of town that in another ten years would be hip and gentrified, and they were all hoping they’d have made their fortunes by then so they could afford to stay.
He guided her inside, made her put on pajamas, tucked a cup of tea in her hands, and apologized.
“I have to get back to work. I want to tell the DA about this. We’ll get those guys. We won’t let anything like this happen again.”
Well, that wasn’t nearly as romantic as him rushing to the police station to tend to her emotional wounds. But Dorian was a very dedicated assistant DA. She didn’t feel quite right complaining.
“But… but I’m not sure I want to be alone right now.”
He gave her a quick kiss on the forehead. “I’m sorry, I wouldn’t leave if it wasn’t an emergency. Call me if you need anything, anything at all.”
And there he went, saving the city again. She sighed.
She couldn’t sleep, so she made another cup of tea and sat in a chair by the bedroom window. She half expected to see a shadowed figure running across the rooftops, pausing to strike a heroic pose against a backdrop of city lights. She fell asleep, wrapped in a blanket and leaning against the window, dreaming strange dreams, until one of her roommates came home, nudged her awake, and put her to bed.
HER PHONE RANG early. She had to scramble for it; it was still in the pocket of her jeans, on the floor somewhere.
“Have you seen the news? Was that really you? Are you okay?”
“Charlotte, are you all right?”
Muzzy-headed, she rubbed her face. Hadn’t it all been a dream? “Wait a minute. What? How did you—I mean, yeah, I’m okay. How did you hear about what happened?” It was the only conceivable reason Otto would be calling this early in the morning.
“It’s all over the news, hon,” he said. “They’ve been calling the theater. You’re a genius, Charlotte.”
“What are you talking about?”
“As publicity stunts go, this is over the top. I love it.”
“But it wasn’t—”
“I know. I’m teasing. You’re really all right?”
“I—I think so.”
“I know it’s opening night, but if you’re not up to coming out, don’t sweat it.”
Opening night. Almost as terrifying as dangling off a roof. “I’ll be there, I think. I gotta go.”
She clicked him off and went to the computer, to find two roommates already there, ogling over her. And Otto was right, the story was everywhere. Someone had gotten a cell phone picture of the guy in the mask—and Charlotte, looking flustered and windblown. It was all fairly dramatic. The more sedate Web sites had facts and figures, what had been stolen—a shipment of loose diamonds—and what the police knew, sparsely delivered news. Including Charlotte’s name, her association with the theater, and her profession—playwright. There it was in the news; it had to be true, right?
Her phone rang three times in five minutes, friends wanting to know if she was okay, really okay. She put them off as quickly as she could, which probably convinced them that she really wasn’t all right. They’d call again in an hour.
Then Dorian called. “Honey, are you okay?”
“I think so. Hey, do you have time for breakfast or lunch or something?” Anything?
“Well, not really, I’m afraid. I talked the DA into giving me the case. At least, when there is a case, I’ll get it. Isn’t that great? I have to get to the precinct and find out what they’re doing. They’d better not screw this up. This could make my career.”
I almost died, she wanted to mew. Her phone beeped to tell her of another incoming call. She checked—it was her mother this time. She canceled the call. “But you’ll be there tonight, won’t you?” she said to Dorian.
“The play, opening night.” It must have seemed like such a small thing to him.
“Oh, right. Of course I’ll be there. I’ll meet you at the theater.”
“And don’t forget about the party afterward. Otto rented out Napoli’s.”
“Of course I’ll be there.”
After Dorian hung up, the phone rang again, a reporter this time. She told the woman to call the police. Then the police called, telling her to tell reporters to call the police, which was a relief.
Mostly, though, she read everything she could find about what had happened.
THE MOST HELPFUL source was a Web site called “Rooftop Watch.” It tracked superhumans and masked vigilantes and villains, recorded sightings, and gleefully spread all manner of gossip. Her masked man had been seen two previous times. In both cases, he’d foiled residential robberies by racing in, shining a high-powered flashlight at the would-be burglars as they were breaking into the back doors of houses, then racing out before the thieves could react. Their cover blown, the burglars ran, and so did the masked man, but by then the owners were awake and on the phone with the police.
They were calling him Blue Collar, which seemed rude. It was a commentary on his wardrobe rather than his powers or personality. Nothing like Speed or Blaze or Comet. There was a lot of speculation about who he was, what he was doing. Most commentators in the know figured he was new and starting small, foiling robberies and break-ins. He’d work up to bigger feats—like snatching young playwrights from certain death. Maybe he’d even get a real uniform someday.
The cell phone picture of him standing with Charlotte was too good not to post all over the Internet a billion times. She hoped someone was getting rich off it. The possibility of prosecuting the case was certainly making Dorian happy.
She arrived at the theater two hours early and crept backstage, unsure if she should gather everyone together for a manic pep talk or hide in a closet. Unable to decide, she paced along an out-of-the-way section of wall backstage, while stagehands and tech crew bustled.
She’d gotten her dress at a fancy consignment shop, which meant she looked much richer than she actually was. Red, sleek, slinky, strapless. She’d even found the heels to go with it in the right size. She’d been in one of her good moods, thinking of the glamorous life and her possible place in it. Now she felt a bit like a dyed poodle. Unnatural, vaguely humiliated.
She’d been in a good mood when she met Dorian at a fund-raising party for an arts-in-the-schools organization. She was there helping run the party, and he was there to rub elbows, see and be seen, and all that. She liked to think that they swept each other off their feet with their mutual romantic notions.
The actors swooped in, Marta last of all, carrying on, and backstage got loud after that.
Marta even rushed over to stage-hug her. “Charlotte, I can’t believe you’re even here after what happened! My God—what happened? Are you all right? If it were me, my nerves would be shot, I’d be traumatized, I’d be in bed for a week, how are you even here? Oh, where’d you get that dress? Nice. Oh my God, what time is it—” And she rushed off again.
Charlotte wondered—should she be more traumatized by what had happened? It really did seem like a dream.
Otto had slipped in earlier, unseen, phantomlike, working his director magic backstage. When he found Charlotte he asked, “Are you all right? Are you really all right?” She glared.
“You look great, by the way.”
She still glared.
A half an hour before curtain, she didn’t dare peek into the house to see if anyone was actually there, if anyone had actually deigned to come. And Dorian was going to be late. She had his ticket. They were supposed to sit in the back, cuddled together, watching her big debut. She’d had it all planned out.
But she couldn’t honestly be surprised when her phone buzzed, showing Dorian’s number.
“I’m really sorry, I’m going to be stuck at work for at least another hour. I’ll come see the show another night. I’ll make it up to you.”
“Can you at least come to the party? It probably won’t start till eleven or so.”
“Sure, I’m sure I can make the party. I’ll meet you there. Napoli’s, right?”
“Right.” And he hung up.
Ten minutes before curtain, Otto ran from the wings, beaming. She nearly stumbled away, the sight was so shocking.
“It’s all right,” he said, coming up and taking her hand. “It’s going to be all right.”
“What? What is?”
“We’ve sold out. The house is full. It’s your adventure last night. You’re famous. They’re here because of you.”
That didn’t make her feel any better.
Otto continued backstage to the dressing rooms to tell the cast and jolt them into more spirited performances. Or greater heights of anxiety.
She couldn’t stand it anymore, so she crept to the edge of the curtain and peeked out. And it was true. The house was full, only a handful of empty seats left scattered as the last people filtered in. And those two empty seats in back meant for her and Dorian. The murmurs of the crowd hushed over her.
The theater was full. But what if no one liked it?
Because she couldn’t bear to watch, she waited backstage, pacing. Everything went well, she supposed, but all she heard from the faint voices reciting her lines on stage were the mistakes, awkward phrasing she should have fixed a long time ago, bad delivery that she couldn’t do anything about. From backstage, applause sounded muted and lackluster.
Then it was all over. At last. Otto came at her, grinning and nearly shouting. “There you are! Come on, get out front!”
“For the curtain call!” He took her hand and dragged her.
Opening night, of course the director and playwright would come out on stage as well.
“Smile!” he hissed. She scrounged together what poise she could.
Then they were under the stage lights, the cast around them applauding. Otto gestured, offering Charlotte to the audience, or the audience to her. They were on their feet, the whole audience on its feet, clapping and cheering. Someone pressed long-stemmed roses into her arms. She cradled the bundle like it was an infant.
They must have liked it.
She was still dazed as the curtain closed at last and the cast fell to laughing and embracing. Champagne appeared and Marta herself popped the cork—after shaking the bottle—letting the contents spray everywhere. The stage manager wouldn’t be happy about that. People came to hug Charlotte, and she held them off with the shield of roses and tried to be gracious. She was suddenly exhausted. All that pacing backstage. But everyone else was buzzed and manic as squirrels, and the night was just starting.
She realized that she hadn’t thought this far ahead. It was enough to have her play finished and actually staged, and she hadn’t dared think any further than that, except to assume that it would all be a dismal failure. But, by all appearances, the play was a success. Shouldn’t she be happy?
IF THE PLAY had been a failure, the invitation-only opening-night party would have been a wake, and they could have mourned in peace without having to talk to anyone but themselves. Since the play had been successful, it would be the most sensational and sought-after party of the month. Tonight would be a celebration. Charlotte tried to ignore a growing sense of foreboding.
Otto had reserved the restaurant, but Marta had rented the limo for them all to arrive in, them being Marta, the actors, Charlotte, Otto, and Otto’s young actress wife, Helen. Part of why Otto was a good director was because he didn’t automatically cast Helen in everything he did.
“Where’s your handsome lawyer? I didn’t see him at the theater,” Helen asked, and Charlotte blushed.
Helen acknowledged this happily enough, but Otto gave her a sympathetic, almost pitying smile.
Otto had Helen on one arm and Marta on the other as he swept them up the sidewalk to the door of Napoli’s. Harry and Fred tried to sweep Charlotte the same way, but she resisted, extricating herself from their grips in the restaurant’s lobby.
“Dorian’s meeting me here,” she said, faking confidence.
“Wait for him inside,” Harry said, pouting.
“Just another minute.”
More and more people arrived, passing through the restaurant’s lobby, checking their coats, hugging and kissing cheeks. Many were already drunk, all of them cheerful. There were reporters here, and photographers. Otto would get all the publicity he could hope for. It was fabulous. Charlotte paced. Her steps dragged, and the maître d’ kept asking if he could get her anything. She almost gave up. She almost lost faith.
Then there he was, in his sweeping overcoat and intense face, a man with purpose. He held a bundle of roses.
“You came!” she said, maybe a little too brightly.
“Of course I did. You look wonderful.” He pressed the roses into her arms and leaned in for a quick kiss on her cheek. He’d rushed, she could tell. He was still catching his breath and a faint sheen of sweat lay on his neck. “I’m sorry I missed the play. I’ll make it up to you. How did it go?”
She took a deep breath. The thrill was finally starting to build. “It was amazing. It was brilliant, it was—” She sighed. “Come inside, help us celebrate.” She took his hand and tried to urge him in.
“Honey, that’s wonderful. But I’m not sure I’m up for a late night with all your theater friends. Wouldn’t you rather have a quiet evening? We could celebrate in private, just the two of us.”
Her heart melted at that, a little. But she might only ever have one big successful opening-night party. She couldn’t be expected to pick between her dashing boyfriend and her opening-night party, could she?
“Just for a little while. Please?”
He finally slipped off his coat and gave it to the check clerk. Charlotte held the roses with one arm and him with the other as they entered the main dining room.
The room was full. She hadn’t realized so many people were here—the cast and crew and all their significant others didn’t account for everyone. How many invitations had Otto given out? He probably hadn’t expected everyone to come. But the show was a success. They were hip and cool. Who knew? She recognized a handful of celebrities, the deputy mayor, a popular news anchor. And was that the masked hero Breezeway, in uniform, posing with some of the cast? Maybe her own rescuer would be here. But she looked and couldn’t see him.
She could smell champagne as if it flowed from fountains. The place was in chaos, people sitting on tables, shouting across the room, accosting waitstaff bearing platters of finger food. No one should have noticed Charlotte and Dorian slipping in late. But they did.
“Charlotte!” Otto called from across the room, where he held court at a round table covered with a red satin cloth and a dozen champagne bottles. He was loud enough to draw the attention of the others, who turned to look.
“To our playwright! To the genius!” Otto raised a glass.
Marta, at her own table with a dozen fawning admirers, took up her own glass. “To the genius!”
And everyone raised glasses and cheered and applauded all over again. This was more than Charlotte had expected, more than she had imagined. She could only bask, silent. The playwright, wordless.
Beside her, Dorian looked at her and smiled. He put his arm around her shoulders and pulled her close.
“Congratulations,” he whispered, posing for pictures with her, making sure the reporter spelled his name right.
The party went until dawn, but they left early. He brought her home to his place this time and made love to her more attentively than he had since their first weeks together.
BY MORNING, TEN different people had e-mailed Charlotte a photo going around the news Web sites of the masked hero on surveillance footage thwarting a convenience store robbery yesterday evening, the same time she’d been pacing backstage. The photo was black-and-white, grainy, and showed him standing with one foot on a guy who sprawled in front of the checkout counter. A gun could be seen nearby, as if it had fallen and skittered away from the would-be robber’s gloved hand.
Is this the same guy? everyone wanted to know, and how would she know because all she saw was the mask. But she thought it was the same guy. He kept himself busy. She tried to put him out of her mind.
But she recognized the convenience store, on a corner a few blocks away from the theater. He’d been right there, almost.
The reviews of the play were all right, which was more than she’d hoped for, and while they didn’t sell out again after the opening, the house was mostly full every night. Maybe that first night had sold out because of the novelty of her instant fame, if people were just coming to see the play written by that woman who was rescued by that Blue Collar vigilante. But if that was all the play offered, ticket sales would have bombed soon after. Which meant that maybe she knew what she was doing, and maybe everything was going to be all right. Weeks passed, and the play continued its respectable run.
Then people starting asking, “How is the next play coming along?”
And it wasn’t. She stared at her laptop for hours, took her notepad to the park, the coffee shop, the library. She thought she had characters—another woman, another hero, another subversion of traditional gothic narratives, etcetera. But every line she wrote sounded just like what she’d already done, and the words didn’t fit anymore.
She’d sit in her chair by the window all night—even the nights she spent at Dorian’s—make notes in her notebook, and watch the sky grow light. If she was at Dorian’s, he’d wake up, see her sitting wrapped in a blanket, staring instead of writing, and try to be helpful.
“You’ll get there,” he said. “You did it before, you can do it again.” Like it was just a matter of arguing a case.
One morning at Dorian’s, she’d made it to bed and was still there when he was nearly ready for his day.
“The DA wants to come see your show. I told him I could get him tickets.” Looking in the mirror, he straightened his tie. “You can get tickets, right?”
“Sure,” she said, emerging from blankets. “For when?”
“That might be kind of tough.”
“Come on, honey, surely you have some pull. You guys always hold a few tickets back, right?”
Maybe, but she didn’t run the box office. She still had some of her comp tickets left for the run, but there might not be anything for tonight. “I’ll see what I can do, but I’m not a superhero.”
“Great. Text me when you get them, all right? Don’t forget to lock up on your way out.”
“Have a good day, Dorian.” He gave her the appropriate kiss on her forehead and then was gone.
THE BOX OFFICE did have a pair of tickets for that evening. They were even decent seats. Charlotte was very apologetic, promising she’d have more notice next time, and that this was an emergency, and she was very grateful. On the other hand, the box office manager outdid herself apologizing in return, making sure the tickets were the best ones possible, and thanking her for the opportunity to be of service.
Dorian would have known what to do in this situation. The problem wasn’t that Charlotte didn’t have pull. The problem was she didn’t know what to do with it.
The manager filed the tickets with Will Call, she texted Dorian, and went to her favorite coffee shop to write.
Then she saw him.
She was at a sidewalk table, chin resting on her hand, staring at the traffic moving along the tree-lined street, because staring somewhere else wasn’t any less productive than staring at a blank page. She caught movement. It might have been the flickering of a set of leaves at the top of one of the trees, but it wasn’t. It was a person on the roof across the way. Jeans, dark T-shirt, and a mask.
He seemed to realize that she saw him. He stood and ran, disappearing to the back of the roof.
She stood, jostling the table and tipping over her coffee, which streamed to the edge and dripped to the sidewalk. Grabbing her notebook and satchel, she ran across the street, dodging cars like a creature in a video game. At the first alley she came to, she ran to the back of the building to look, but of course he wasn’t there. Just trash that hadn’t made it into the Dumpsters and puddles from the last rain filling cracks in the asphalt. The back doors of various businesses, shut and blank.
Maybe if she waited here until after dark, she’d get caught by muggers, and the masked man would come to rescue her. She didn’t want to leave, she didn’t want to pretend that he was a ghost, that it hadn’t happened, that she could move on.
“Hello?” she called. Her voice rattled in the empty space and no one answered.
DORIAN WAS WORKING late again and asked her to bring dinner—Thai takeout—to his office.
“He’s a crazy superhuman vigilante. You know what they’re like,” he said when she told him the story.
She felt the need to defend the superhero. While not offending Dorian. “You’re both working so hard to catch these guys, maybe you should work together. Pool your resources. Collaborate.” That was a theater word. She should have used another.
He gave her a look, appalled and amused at once. A “yeah, right” and “don’t be ridiculous.”
That night, back at her own apartment, she tried to sleep, couldn’t. She collected her notebook and sat by the window. Still didn’t write a word, but sitting with a pen in hand at least made her feel productive. The moon was full; she could see every detail of the street, the apartment blocks, the row of shops and Laundromats with steel grates pulled over the doors; at night, all the colors washed out to various degrees of half-tone shading.
On the roof of a row of shops, a figure moved. Monochrome, like the rest of the scene. Black T-shirt. Charlotte couldn’t see his face.
He was watching her. He was. And her heart fluttered at the thought.
SHE HAD SEEN him at all hours. Mostly on rooftops. She couldn’t predict where he’d be, unless maybe she staged a convenience store robbery. But the odds of that ending badly were very, very high, so she didn’t.
Instead, she went to the top of a parking garage on the fringes of downtown with a set of binoculars and scanned the surrounding rooftops. She might have become a vigilante herself, searching for crime, because if she found crime, she’d find him. She didn’t see anything.
For another night, she sat at her bedroom window, wrapped in a blanket, waiting for a shadow to race across rooftops and strike a dramatic pose.
And she started writing. Just a few lines in her notebook.
Dorian took her to a charity banquet and introduced her to the mayor. She wore the red dress she’d worn on opening night, met the mayor, accepted compliments from the DA, and Dorian beamed. The evening was a strange echo of the first night they’d met, but different. She was different. An accessory instead of a novelty. She should have been thrilled—this was part of her dreams of a glamorous life, wasn’t it? But she was distracted. It all seemed shallow.
For real drama, some disaster would strike the banquet. Some villain or group of thieves—maybe the same gang that had robbed the jewelry store—would storm the hall, divest the women of their jeweled necklaces and the men of their gold cufflinks, along with wallets and platinum cards and stock portfolios. They would take Charlotte hostage. The red dress made her stand out.
Then he would arrive, an epic battle would ensue, there’d be flames and bullets, she’d be trapped behind a burning door and he would—
“What are you looking for?” Dorian asked her.
“Oh. What? Nothing. Nothing.” She’d been craning her neck, looking at the doors and windows for impending drama.
“You writers,” Dorian said, squeezing her hand.
SOME NIGHTS, SHE went to the theater to take in the atmosphere, but avoided Otto because he always asked about the next play. She watched the old play from the house once, but otherwise sat backstage, well out of the way, and made notes. She was like an observer on a rooftop.
The text messages from Dorian continued. “Sry. Work ran late. Will make it up to you. xoxo.”
So again, she took herself to dinner, to the same favorite café with the rooftop patio. It was raining, but she asked to sit on the patio anyway.
“But it’s raining,” the host said.
“I have an umbrella,” she said.
She dried off a chair with a napkin and sat in a sheltered spot near the wall that housed the main part of the café, under her umbrella, drinking coffee. The petunias and daisies in the large planters at each corner drooped, and the sky grew grayer.
And there he was. He didn’t seem to mind the rain. The T-shirt molded to him a little more, and water dripped off his arms and the edges of his mask. Quickly she stood, then thought maybe she shouldn’t—she didn’t want to scare him off. But when he didn’t run, she didn’t sit down.
“Hi,” she said.
A moment passed. “Hi.”
He seemed nervous; he kept looking away. So he was shy. That made sense. He had secrets to hide, no one could know who he was—it was all very romantic, she was sure. Beautiful, even right down to his jeans, to his ungraceful boots.
Then he said, “I have to go—”
“Wait!” But for what? For her? How did she talk a masked avenger into waiting for her? “Who are you?” She winced. So obvious.
He gave her a lopsided smile. “I can’t say.”
“But—” And what excuse would she give, about why she was different? Why was she any different, except that he’d once plucked her out of the air? “Why are you following me?” she said, surprised to say anything, even the first thing she thought of. She’d expected to let him flee.
“To make sure you’re safe. That gang—they could come after you again.”
He averted his eyes. So the answer was no. She hadn’t thought so.
“If you’re looking for them, trying to catch them, you should talk to Dorian. He’s my—” She didn’t want to say the word. She didn’t want to shut the door. “My friend, he’s an assistant DA, he’s got the robbery case if it ever goes to trial. He’s working with the police. He may have information you can use. Maybe you could work together.” It seemed reasonable.
“I don’t think so.”
“Is it just because of the mask? Because you’d have to tell them who you are? I mean, do you really have to hide who you are?”
“It’s traditional,” he said, and now he sounded apologetic. The only expression she could see under the mask was a flat-lipped frown, a gaze somewhere between determined and resigned.
“I’m sorry, I shouldn’t pry, but it’s just—I’m sorry.” It’s just that he was strange, and she wanted to help him.
“I saw your play,” he said then.
She wondered, How? Was he in the audience? In the rafters? How had she missed him? But what she asked was, “What did you think?”
“I liked it.” What a sweet smile. He turned bashful again. “I’d never seen a play before.”
“Really? Really? Oh my God, mine shouldn’t have been your first play ever! How could you have never seen a play?”
“I guess I don’t get out much,” he said, which seemed ironic.
They just kept standing there in the rain. She lifted the umbrella and stepped closer to bring him under the shelter—he stepped back, as if afraid.
She tried not to be hurt. Tried not to take it personally. She swallowed her pride.
“I don’t know anything about you.” A statement containing all her questions. “I mean, where do you live? What do you do? Do you have a day job? A… a girlfriend? What’s your name?”
He might as well have been an alien, a character, a face on a billboard. He seemed uncertain, pain in his eyes—biting his lips. He seemed to consider. When he returned, taking back the step he’d moved away, closing the distance between them, she thought he’d tell her everything. He moved quickly, with the reflexes that had saved her from crashing to the pavement. Touched her chin with gentle, calloused fingers.
She closed her eyes, waiting for that kiss, and so didn’t see him run away. Only felt a draft on her face where there should have been warmth.
“Wait!” She saw a shadow fleeing through the mist, then he was gone, and she was alone, the only one stupid enough to stay on the rooftop in the rain.
THE NEXT EVENING, Dorian’s text message about working late came later than she expected, but it came. It rained again, and Charlotte imagined the masked man out there in it. She watched the news for an hour, looking for signs of him. But he didn’t seem to be busy tonight, or if he was, the network wasn’t showing it. They were more interested in the flashier heroes, the Invincibles and Red Meteors, who had a sense of style and public relations. And she thought of Dorian in his courtroom attire, which was just as alluring as a vigilante costume, in its own way.
Then she wondered. Dorian had been so busy lately.
The masked man had brown eyes, Dorian had brown eyes. They were about the same height, and their chins—chagrined, she realized she couldn’t say that she had ever noticed Dorian’s chin before. It was a nice chin, average. She noticed the hero’s chin because the mask drew attention to it.
The masks were deceptive. They seemed like they shouldn’t be able to disguise anything, but it was more than a mask, it was a distraction. She had never, ever seen Dorian in jeans and a T-shirt. His version of casual involved Dockers, polo shirts, and loafers. Boating or golf attire. He always had a bit of polish because, as he said it, he never knew when he might run into someone who needed impressing. She could never imagine him standing out in the rain, wearing a T-shirt and a goofy smile.
Maybe that was the point. She had seen Marta in half a dozen shows, playing ingenues and dutiful daughters, unrecognizable from one role to the next.
Later that week, they didn’t meet for dinner, but she came over to Dorian’s place anyway, late, to spend the night. Dorian was in the kitchen, pouring himself a tumbler of scotch.
“You’ve been working late a lot,” she said, watching for his reaction.
“Yeah,” he said, in a mock long-suffering tone.
“What exactly do you do?” She winced because it sounded accusing.
“Paperwork, mostly, believe it or not. I meet with people all day so the paperwork gets put off. And the police work late. I like to keep track of them.”
“Ah. I guess I’ve never had a sense of what goes on in a real job.” She quirked a smile, trying to make it a joke.
“That’s why you have writer’s block. You need to get out in the real world and then you’d have something to write about.”
She tried to remember how the masked man had smelled. She’d been close enough to smell his skin, his sweat. Maybe she could tell if he and Dorian smelled the same. But all she remembered from him was the smell of rain on fabric, and the sensation of warmth when he touched her.
Get out in the world so she’d have something to write about. Yeah.
WHILE DORIAN SLEPT, Charlotte was about to go sit by the window when Dorian’s phone rang.
He seemed to be ready for it. “Hello? Yeah?” He rolled out of bed and took his phone into the next room. Sitting very still, she could hear.
“You got them? They’re cornered and not surrendering… Of course I want to be there. Give me fifteen minutes.” He came back into the bedroom and dressed quickly—he didn’t even bother with a tie.
“What?” she said.
“Never mind. Go back to sleep. It’s all right.”
He was out the door. He’d never even turned on the lights.
Something was happening. Or was about to happen.
Charlotte got up and went to the next room to turn on the TV, but whatever was going on, the news hadn’t picked up on it yet. Dorian’s laptop sat on the desk, and she went there next, fired it up, and checked “Rooftop Watch.”
A dozen updates had been posted just in the last ten minutes. “It’s those jewel thieves, the cops are there.” “Any supers?” “On the lookout for supers.” “The police seemed to be centered on 21st and Pine.”
She was turning into one of those superhero stalkers who haunted Web sites like this and posted conspiracy theories. She didn’t care.
Then she read the latest post: “Blue Collar’s been sighted! Just for a second!”
Charlotte found her phone and called Dorian. Waited, and waited, but got no answer. And maybe that was her answer. She called a cab while getting dressed, reached the curb just as it pulled up, trundled into the backseat, and told the sleepy-looking driver the address.
“And hurry!” she said, like this was some spy movie. He sighed.
They didn’t get there. The police cordoned off the area a block away. A dozen squad cars parked, flashing lights reflecting off the concrete walls of body shops and warehouses, red, white, and blue, fireworks and Christmas at once.
The driver glared at her like it was her fault. She paid him and left.
She ran, just to see how far she’d get until someone stopped her, which turned out to be pretty far, because no one was looking out to the streets for crazy women. They were all looking inward, to the unfolding drama. She joined the inner circle, the edge of the stage, and watched.
Six masked jewel thieves sprawled in a heap on the ground, their purple outfits streaked with dirt, their ray guns in a neat pile a few feet away, as though someone with superspeed had snatched them away and placed them there.
And there he was, her rescuer, standing over them and looking worn out rather than particularly heroic. His arms hung at his sides, and he seemed to be trying to catch his breath. A couple of suited men who might have been detectives stood across from the thieves, who seemed like prey that he’d caught and delivered to them. Also with the detectives was Dorian. Dorian and the masked man were looking at each other.
Then the masked man saw Charlotte. When he turned to look, so did everyone else. The jig was up.
Dorian called, “Charlotte! What are you doing here?”
The uniformed cops on either side of her looked her over and glared.
She didn’t say anything, hardly noticed that the tableau had unfrozen, and police were now collecting the thieves, putting handcuffs on them, and shoving them into cars. That left Dorian, the vigilante, and Charlotte.
“I told you you guys should work together,” she said lamely.
“Charlotte—” Dorian exclaimed again, a word that was a question, demanding explanation.
“Are you having an affair?” she asked him, because it was the only other thing she could think of.
“What? No! For God’s sake, what gave you that idea?”
He was indignant enough that she believed him, but she also wasn’t sure she’d be able to tell if he was lying. She watched actors on stage all day, and actors on stage did nothing but lie while convincing her they were telling the truth.
“It was all those late nights,” she said, and tried to explain all at once, to both of them. “All those broken dates and the evasions and I thought, I thought something must be going on. Then I met him”—and she still didn’t know his name—“and I thought, I don’t know what I thought. You both have brown eyes.”
He looked at the masked man, looked at Charlotte, and sounded a little forlorn when he said, “I told you, I was working late.”
“And how many men have said that to how many women? It’s like something out of a bad play.” She stopped. Here they were, three on the stage at the close of the curtain, a gothic postmodern shambles. The police lights flashed and didn’t seem real. She knew exactly what gels would make those colors on stage.
She walked away, upset at how disappointed she was and how foolish she felt. This all seemed so plain, so messy. Couldn’t we make it… prettier, she had said to Otto.
She got to the end of the block when the masked man appeared in front of her. That was what it looked like, he just appeared, after a blur of motion.
“The thing is,” he said, “I can’t take you out to dinner. I can’t be there for the openings of your plays. I can’t answer the phone every time you call. I can’t do any of that. But I can still… I can still try.”
She could have a hero, or have someone who was always there to take her to dinner, but not both.
He took off his mask, and she didn’t know him. He seemed young, but the faint stubble and even fainter crow’s-feet—laugh lines—gave him rough edges. He was handsome. He was sad. She knew nothing about him.
One thing he could do, though, was stand over her broken body, striking a pose and looking tragically bereft before he flew off into the night. And it would be pretty, dramatically speaking.
She leaned in, hand on his chest. He stood still, body tense. She felt his heart racing—much faster than a normal person’s. Faster than Dorian’s. He still smelled like rain. She brushed her lips against his, which trembled in response. Barely a kiss. More like an apology.
Then she walked home, and nobody tried to mug her. She was almost disappointed.
CHARLOTTE AND DORIAN split up. Dorian prosecuted the jewel thieves and talked to the press about putting in for DA in a couple of years. He started dating a painter whose gallery shows were making news.
Charlotte finished the next play. Otto liked it. Marta liked it. It needed some work. She would have been worried if it hadn’t.
This one was straight realism, which was a departure for her, and which meant not stringing the wires with lights when they flew the heroes in and out. She still had to have heroes, but this time she imagined what they said to each other when they sat on rooftops looking for jewel thieves. She imagined they talked about the weather and the girls they liked and how to avoid getting ID’d by the cops. The only non-superhero character in the play was the cop who was trying to figure out who they were. She never did.
A week into rehearsals, she sat on a chair at the edge of the stage, watching Otto block actors, listening to lines, following along in her copy of the script, making notes when she thought something else would sound better. She’d think something else would sound better long after the play had had its run and closed.
Otto had been on the same page for half an hour and was on his fourth try, arranging actors, repeating lines. In a minute he’d do something off the wall and unexpected and that would be the version that worked. All she had to do was wait, and wonder how it would all turn out.
Leaning back in her chair, she looked up into the rails, ropes, chains, and lights of the fly system, distant ladders and rafters lost in shadow, and saw a masked face looking back at her, smiling.
M. L. N. Hanover
New writer M. L. N. Hanover is the author of Unclean Spirits and Darker Angels, the first and second in the Black Sun’s Daughter sequence. An International Horror Guild Award winner, Hanover lives in the American Southwest.
In the hard-edged story that follows, Hanover shows us that not only can obsession persist through a lifetime, but can perhaps sometimes last a little longer than that…
There weren’t many three-bedroom houses that a single woman could afford. 1532 Lachmont Drive was an exception. Built in the 1930s from masonry block, it sat in the middle of a line of houses that had once been very similar to it. Decades of use and modification had added character: basement added in the 1950s, called “finished” only because the floor was concrete rather than dirt; garage tacked on to the north side that pressed its outer wall almost to the property line; artificial pond in the backyard that had held nothing but silt since the 1980s. The air smelled close and musty, the kitchen vent cover banged in the wind, and the air force base three miles to the north meant occasional jet noise loud enough to shake the earth. But the floors were hardwood, the windows recently replaced, and the interiors a uniform white that made the most of the hazy autumn light.
The Realtor watched the woman—Corrie Morales was her name—nervously. He didn’t like the way she homed in on the house’s subtle defects. Yes, there had been some water damage in the bathroom once. Yes, the plaster in the master bedroom was cracking, just a little. The washer/dryer in the basement seemed to please her, though. And the bathtub was an old iron claw-footed number, the enamel barely chipped, and she smiled as soon as she saw it.
She wasn’t the sort of client he usually aimed for. He was better with new families, either just-marrieds or first-kid types. With them, he could talk about building a life and how the house had room to grow in. A sewing room for the woman, an office for the man, though God knew these days it seemed to go the other direction as often as not. New families would come in, live for a few years, and trade up. Or traffic from the base—military people with enough money to build up equity and flip the house when they got reassigned rather than lose money by paying rent. He had a different set of patter for those, but he could work with them. New families and military folks. Let the other Realtors sell the big mansions in the foothills. Maybe he didn’t make as much on each sale, but there were places in his territory he’d sold three or four times in the last ten years.
This woman, though, was hard to read: in her late thirties and seeing the place by herself; no wedding ring. Her face had been pretty once, not too long ago. Might still be, if she wore her hair a little longer or pulled it back in a ponytail. Maybe she was a lesbian. Not that it mattered to him, as long as her money spent.
“It’s a good, solid house,” he said, nodding as a trick to make her nod along with him.
“It is,” she said. “The price seems low.”
“Motivated seller,” he said with a wink.
“By what?” She opened and closed the kitchen cabinets.
“Motivated by what?” she said.
“Well, you know how it is,” he said, grinning. “Kids grow up, move on. Families change. A place maybe fits in one part of your life, and then you move on.”
She smiled as if he’d said something funny.
“I don’t know how it is, actually,” she said. “The seller moved out because she got tired of the place?”
The Realtor shrugged expansively, his mental gears whirring. The question felt like a trap. He wondered how much the woman had heard about the house. He couldn’t afford to get caught in an outright lie.
“Well, they were young,” he said. “Just got hitched, and they had all these ideas and plans. I don’t like selling to newlyweds. Especially young ones. Too young to know what they’re getting into. Better to go rent a few places, move around. Find out what you like, what you don’t like.”
“Bought it and didn’t like it?”
“Didn’t know quite what they were getting into,” he said.
The sudden weariness around the woman’s eyes was like a tell at a poker table. The Realtor felt himself relax. Divorced, this one. Maybe more than once. Alone now, and getting older. Maybe she was looking for someplace cheap, or maybe it was just the allure of new beginnings. That he was wrong in almost every detail didn’t keep him from playing that hand.
“My wife was just the same, God rest her,” he said. “When we were kids, she’d hop into any old project like she was killing snakes. Got in over her head. Hell, she probably wouldn’t have said yes to me if she’d thought it through. You get older, you know better. Don’t get in so many messes. They were good kids, just no judgment.”
She walked across the living room. It looked big, empty like this. Add a couch, a couple chairs, a coffee table, and it would get cramped fast. But right now, the woman walked across it like it was a field. Like she was that twenty-year-old girl with her new husband outside getting the baggage or off to work on the base. Like the world hadn’t cut her down a couple times.
He could smell the sale. He could taste it.
“Lot of rentals in the neighborhood,” she said, looking out the front window. He knew from her voice that her heart wasn’t in the dickering. “Hard to build up much of a community when you’re getting new neighbors all the time.”
“You see that with anything near the base,” he said, like they were talking about the weather. “People don’t have the money for a down payment. Or some just prefer renting.”
“I can’t rent anymore.”
“I smoke,” she said.
“That’s a problem these days. Unless you’ve got your own house, of course.”
She took a deep breath and let it out slowly. The Realtor had to fight himself not to grin. Here we go.
“Wrap it up,” she said. “I’ll take it.”
MR. AND MRS. Kleinfeld had lived at 1530 Lachmont Drive for eight years, making them the longest-standing residents of the block. To them, the U-Haul that pulled up on Sunday morning was almost unremarkable. They ate their toast and jam, listened to the preacher on the radio, and watched the new neighbor start unloading boxes. She wore a pair of old blue jeans, a dark T-shirt with the logo of a long-canceled television show across the front, and a pale green bandana. When the breakfast was over, Mrs. Kleinfeld turned off the radio and cleaned the plates while Mr. Kleinfeld ambled out to the front yard.
“’Morning,” he said as the new woman stepped down from the back of the truck, a box of underpacked drinking glasses jingling in her hand.
“Hi,” she said with a grin.
“Moving day,” Mr. Kleinfeld said.
“It is,” she said.
“You need a hand with any of that?”
“I think I’m good. Thanks, though. If it turns out I do…?”
“Me and the missus are here all day,” he said. “Come over anytime. And welcome to the neighborhood.”
He nodded amiably and went back inside. Mrs. Kleinfeld was sitting at the computer, entering the week’s expenses. A trapped housefly was beating itself to death against the window, angry buzzing interrupted by hard taps.
“It’s happening again,” Mrs. Kleinfeld said.
IT TOOK HER the better part of the day to put together the basics. Just assembling the new bed had taken over an hour and left her wrist sore. The refrigerator wouldn’t be delivered until the next day. The back bedroom, now a staging area, was thigh-deep in packed one-thing-and-another. There was no phone service except her cell. The electricity wasn’t in her name yet. But by nightfall, there were clothes in the closet, towels in the bathroom, and her old leather couch in the living room by the television. She needed to take the U-Haul back, but it could wait for morning.
She walked briskly through the house—her house—and closed all the blinds. The slick white plastic was thick enough to kill all the light from the street. The new double-glazed windows cut out the sounds of traffic. It was like the walls had been suddenly, silently, transported someplace else. Like it was a space capsule, a million miles from anything human, cut off from the world.
She turned on the water in the tub. It ran red for a moment, rust in the pipes, and then clear, and then scalding hot. She stripped as the steam rose. Naked in front of the full-length mirror, she watched the scars on her legs and elbows—the tiny circles no bigger than the tip of a lit cigarette; the longer, thinner ones where a blade had marred the skin—blur and fade and vanish. Her reflected body softened, and the glass began to weep. She turned off the water and eased herself into the bath slowly. The heat of it brought the blood to her skin like a slap. She laid her head against the iron tub’s sloping back, fidgeting to find the perfect angle. She had soap, a washcloth, shampoo, the almond-scented conditioner that her boyfriend, David, liked. She didn’t use any of them. After about ten minutes, she turned, leaning over the edge to reach for the puddle of blue cloth that was her jeans. A pack of cigarettes. A Zippo lighter with its worn Pink Martini logo. The click and hiss of the flame. The first long drag of smoke curling through the back of her throat. She tossed cigarette pack and lighter onto the floor, and lay back again. The tension in her back and legs and belly started to lose its grip.
Around her, the house made small sounds: the ticking of the walls as they cooled, the hum of her computer’s cooling fan, the soft clinking of the water that lapped her knees and breasts. Smoke rose from her cigarette, lost almost instantly in the steam. The first stirrings of hunger had just touched her belly when the screaming started, jet engines ramping up from nothing to an inhuman shriek between one breath and the next. Something fluttered in her peripheral vision, and she scrambled around, dropping her cigarette in the tub and soaking the floor with water.
Something moved in the mirror. Something that wasn’t her. The condensation made it impossible to see him clearly. He might have had pale hair or he might have been bald. He might have jeans or dark slacks. The shirt was white where it wasn’t red. The movement of balled fists was clearer than the hands themselves, and somewhere deep in the airplane’s roar, there were words. Angry ones. Corrie yelped, her feet slipping under her as she tried to jump clear.
The noise began to fade as suddenly as it had come. The rumbling echoes batting at the walls more and more weakly. The mirror was empty again, except for her. She took a towel, wrapping herself quickly. Her blood felt bright and quick, her heart fluttering like a bird, her breath fast and panic-shallow. Her mouth tasted like metal.
“Hello?” she said. “Is someone in here?”
The floor creaked under her weight. She stood still, waiting for an answering footstep. The water pooled around her feet, and she began to shiver. The house had grown viciously cold.
“Is anyone here?” she said again, her voice small and shaking.
Nothing answered her but the smell of her spent cigarette.
“All right, then,” she said, hugging her arms tight around herself. “Okay.”
“MOM. Listen to me. Everything’s fine. We’re not breaking up,” she said, willing her voice to be more certain than she was.
“Well, you move out like this,” her mother said, voice pressed small and tinny by the cell connection. “And that house? I think it’s perfectly reasonable of me to be concerned.”
Corrie lay back on the couch, pressing the tips of her fingers to her eyes. Sleeplessness left her skin waxy and pale, her movements slow. She had taken the day off work, thinking she would finish unpacking, but the boxes were still where they had been the day before. Afternoon sun spilled in through the windows, making the small living room glow. The refrigerator had arrived an hour before and hummed to itself from the kitchen, still empty.
“It’s just something I need to do,” Corrie said.
“Is he beating you?”
“Who? David? My David?”
“People have habits,” her mother said. She raised her voice when she lectured. “They imprint. I did the same thing when I was young. All my husbands were alcoholics, just like my father was. I like David very much. He’s always been very pleasant. But you have a type.”
“I haven’t dated anyone seriously since Nash. I don’t have a type.”
“What about that Hebrew boy? Nathaniel?”
“I saw him a total of eight times. He got drunk, broke a window, and I never talked to him again.”
“Don’t turn into a lawyer with me. You know exactly what I mean. There’s a kind of man that excites you, and so of course you might find yourself involved with that kind of man. If David’s another one like Nash, I think I have a right to—”
Corrie sat up, pressing her hand at the empty air as if her mother could see the gesture for stop. The distant music of an ice-cream truck came from a different world, the jaunty electronic tune insincere and ominous.
“Mother. I don’t feel comfortable talking about the kind of man that does or doesn’t excite me, all right? David is absolutely unlike Nash in every possible way. He wouldn’t hurt me if I asked him to.”
“Did you?” her mother snapped.
“Did I what?”
“Did you ask him to hurt you?”
The pause hung in the air, equal parts storm and silence.
“Okay, we’re finished,” Corrie said. “I love you, Mom, and I really appreciate that you’re concerned, but I am not talking about—”
“You are!” her mother shouted. “You are talking about everything with me! I have spent too much time and money making sure that you are all right to pretend that there are boundaries. Maybe for other people, but not for us, mija. Never for us.”
Corrie groaned. The quiet on the end of her cell phone managed to be hurt and accusing.
“I’m sorry,” she said. “I understand that you’re scared about this. And really, I understand why you’re scared. But you have to trust that I know what I’m doing. I’m not twenty anymore.”
“Did you or did you not ask David to hurt you?”
“My sex life with David has been very respectful and loving,” Corrie said through gritted teeth. “He is always a perfect gentleman. The few times that we’ve talked—just talked—about anything even a little kinky, he’s been very uncomfortable with including even simulated violence in our relationship. Okay? Now can we please drop—”
“Is that why you left him?”
“We’re not breaking up.”
“Because that’s the other side, isn’t it?” her mother said, talking fast. “You find someone who isn’t your type, and you put yourself with him because he’s good and clean and healthy, and then there you are being good and clean and healthy. Like eating wheat germ every meal when you really want a steak.”
“All right, I’m lost now,” she said, her voice taking on a dangerous buzz. “Are you saying that David’s an abusive shit, or that he’s too good for me? What’s your argument?”
She could hear her mother crying now. Not sobs. Nothing more than the little waver in tone that meant tears were in her eyes.
“I don’t know why you’re doing this,” her mother said. “Why you moved out of David’s apartment. Why you’re in that house. I’m afraid you’ve gone to a very dark place.” The last words were so thin and airless, Corrie had to take a deep breath.
“Maybe I have,” she said, drawing the words out. “But it’s all right. I’m not scared anymore.”
“Shouldn’t you be? Is there nothing to be frightened of?”
Corrie stood. It was only four steps to the bathroom door. With the lights off, the full-length mirror showed her in silhouette, the brightness of day behind her, and her features lost in shadow. There was no other shape, no man with balled fists or knives. No promises that the damage was a sign of love. No cigarette burns or dislocated fingers or weekends of sex she was afraid to refuse. It was just a mirror. She was the only thing in it.
Is there nothing to be frightened of?
“Don’t know,” Corrie said. “I’m finding out.”
“OH,” MR. KLEINFELD said, suddenly off his stride. “So you knew it was…”
“Haunted?” the new neighbor—Corrie, her name was—said. “Sure. I mean, just in general terms.”
Mr. Kleinfeld smiled, but his eyebrows were crawling up his forehead. Across the table, his wife poured out cups of tea for the three of them; her smile might have meant anything.
“Is that how you heard about it?” Mrs. Kleinfeld asked. “You’re one of those ‘ghost hunters?’”
Sunlight pressed through the still air along with the distant chop of a helicopter formation. The new neighbor took the proffered cup and sipped at it. His wife put two small silver spoonfuls of sugar into his, stirred it twice neatly, and handed him his cup.
“Not really,” the new neighbor said. “It was just one of those things you hear about, you know? In the air. I don’t even know where I stumbled onto it the first time, but the Realtor was pretty up-front.”
“Was he?” Mr. Kleinfeld said. That had never happened before either.
“Sure. I mean, there weren’t a lot of gory details. I asked about why the price was low, and he said something about ghost stories and the old tenants getting freaked out and leaving.”
“The women,” Mrs. Kleinfeld said. “It doesn’t seem to care about men, but it hates women.”
“It?” the new neighbor said, and Mr. Kleinfeld watched his wife settle back into her chair. The first part of the meeting might not have gone along its usual path, but they were back in familiar territory now.
“There is a restless spirit in that house,” Mrs. Kleinfeld said. “Has been since before we came. It never bothers the men. They never see it.”
“The girls, though,” Mr. Kleinfeld said, shaking his head the way he always did. “I could make a list of the young women we’ve had banging on our door in the middle of the night, scared out of their wits. It’s not a fit house for a girl to live in. Especially alone.”
He sipped his tea, but it was still scalding. He blew across its surface.
“Weird,” the new neighbor said. “Any particular reason anyone knows about? Ancient Indian burial ground?”
His wife nodded slowly, the steam rising from her teacup swirling around her face. The chop of the helicopters grew gradually louder. Mr. Kleinfeld shifted back a degree in his chair. His part was done for now, and just as well. The missus was better at getting through to people than he was. She always had been.
“There’s a story,” she said. “I don’t know how much of it’s true and how much of it’s fancied up, but I’ve never heard or seen anything to contradict it. Twenty years ago, there was a couple of young people moved into that house you’re in today. Young man and his wife. Well, it wasn’t long before the wife started showing up at the grocery store in big sunglasses. Wearing long sleeves in the middle of the summer. That sort of thing.”
“Lots of domestic abuse in the world,” the new neighbor said. “Doesn’t make for a million haunted houses.” Her tone was light, but Mr. Kleinfeld heard something strong under it. Maybe skepticism. Maybe something else.
“He was an evil man,” Mrs. Kleinfeld said. “People used to hear them fighting. They say he used to try to hide the worst of the screaming under the jet noise, but the whole neighborhood knew. One fellow who lived on the other side, where that nice Asian family is now, tried to make an issue of it, and the man threatened to cut his nose off. And then one night they were gone. Man and wife both, vanished from the face of the earth like they’d never been. A few months later, her people came and packed up all the furniture and put the place up for sale. Rumor was that the wife was in some sort of asylum out West, with her mind all gone to putty, talking about demons and Satan. She never did get out of that place.”
The new neighbor was caught now, her expression sharp as a pencil point. Mrs. Kleinfeld had to stop for a moment while the helicopters passed overhead, the blades cutting through the high air with enough violence to drown out their words. Or their screams, for that matter.
“Next people who moved in were an older couple with a girl just in high school,” she said, her voice loud enough to carry over the falling racket as the copters flew on. “Six months they were there. Not more. The mother said she’d have tried to stand it, but the spirit started coming after the daughter too, and that was that. Sold the place at a loss and moved across to the other side of the base. Only time the place has had the same owner for more than a year since then was five years back when there were four young men sharing the place, and even then, I saw their girlfriends leaving in the middle of the night, crying too hard to stop.”
“What does it do to them?” the new neighbor asked. The hardness was still there, but it wasn’t skepticism. Something more immediate, more demanding. Something like hunger.
“It comes for them,” Mrs. Kleinfeld said, “and thank God they can feel it. No one’s ever stayed long enough to know what it would do if it caught them, but there are nights I can feel it hating all the way over here. I’m in my bed at night saying my prayers, and it’s like someone put ice against the wall. You couldn’t pay me to stay a night in that place. Not for a million dollars. Something lives in that house, and it hates women.”
The new neighbor nodded, more, Mr. Kleinfeld thought, to herself than to him or his wife. There was a brightness in her eyes. Not fear. Maybe even pleasure. The new neighbor’s smile disturbed him more than his wife’s story ever did. He cleared his throat, and she seemed to wake up a little. Her smile widened and became less authentic.
“Have you seen anything yet?” he asked. “Anything out of the ordinary?”
“Me? No,” she said. “Not a thing.”
THE COLD FRONT came on Friday, almost a week later; vicious winds blasting down from a cloudless sky. Gritty air ripped at the trees, stripping off leaves that were still turning from green to yellow and red and gold; the glories of autumn cut short and shredded. The low Western sun turned bloody as it fell, and Corrie wheeled her car into the undersized garage like a child pulling up a blanket. The thin walls were less protection than the idea of them. Every new gust battering against the house made the garage creak. Dust settled from the frame roof. She scurried from car to kitchen, hunched against the sound of the wind.
Once she got into the house itself, she unfurled. The wind still threw handfuls of dirt against the windows, the thick plastic blinds shuffled and clicked in the drafts, but the masonry walls seemed beyond any violence nature could contrive, solid and sober as a prison. Corrie turned on every light as she walked through the house. She examined each room in turn: the broken-down boxes in the spare bedroom, the legal pads and laptop docking station in her makeshift office, the sheets and blankets in the linen closet. In the kitchen, she counted the knives on the magnetic rack and checked the oven. In her bedroom, she squatted, her eye on a level with the unmarked bedspread. She took her shotgun from its place under the bed, counting out the shells under her breath as she unloaded it and loaded it again. In the bathroom, she lingered in front of the mirror for over a minute, her fingertips on the glass, eyes unfocused and attention turned inward. Nothing had moved. Nothing was missing. Even the raging wind hadn’t so much as rolled a pencil.
She microwaved a plate of lasagna, poured herself a glass of wine, and sat down on the couch. A few bites, and she was up again, pacing. Restless. Frustrated. Outside, the sun slipped lower.
“I know you’re here,” she said to the empty air. “I know you can hear me.”
The wind shrieked and murmured. The window blinds shuddered. The air smelled of tomato sauce a little, but burned at the edges—acid with a touch of smoke. She stood in the middle of the room, jaw clenched. Silent.
The moment lasted years before the hint of a smile touched her mouth and a mad, reckless light came into her eyes. She walked back to the couch, picked up her plate, and took it to the kitchen. She ate two more bites standing at the sink, and then dropped the plate onto the brushed steel with a clatter. The faucet swung easily, cold water drowning the food. Reddened bits of meat and pale sheets of pasta swum in a cold, ugly soup and then settled, clogging the drain. She looked at the mess and deliberately stepped back, leaving it there. Her chin rose, daring the emptiness around her.
Something within the house shifted. Walls that had been only block and plaster and paint turned their attention to her. The windows hid behind their blinds like closed eyes. She kicked off her shoes, chuckling to herself. The floor felt colder than it should have. The glass of wine still rested on the coffee table; she scooped it up, taking her purse in the other hand. The furnace kicked on, blowers roaring a thousand miles away.
In the kitchen, she leaned against the counter beside the sink. Goose bumps covered her arms and thighs. Her breath was coming fast and shallow and shaking a little. She lit a cigarette and then sipped the cool, astringent wine, rolling it in her mouth, feeling the alcohol pressing through the soft, permeable membranes of her flesh. When she swallowed, her throat went a degree warmer. She set the cigarette between her lips and stretched out a hand, lifting the half-full glass. Red trembled for a moment, as she slowly, deliberately, poured it out, the wine spilling over the floor and staining the tiles. She dropped the glass into the sink with her ruined dinner and stepped forward, grinding the soles of her feet into the puddle.
The storm outside sounded like a warning. She shifted her hips, twisted at the waist, dancing in the mess. She rolled her weight back and forth, humming to herself, and raised her arms over her head. Her joints loosened, her belly grew warm and heavy. Her nipples hardened and her breath became visible and feather-white in the sudden arctic chill. Voices came from somewhere nearby, raised in anger, but distant.
Still dancing, she pressed one hand to her belly, took the cigarette between her fingers, and drew the smoke back into her. The taste of it was like drinking fire. She flicked the ash, watching the soft gray fall down, down, down into the wide red puddle at her feet.
He stood framed by the basement door. A young man, and ageless. His shoulders were broad as a bull, his pale hair cut close to the skull. The dark slacks she’d seen in the mirror were tight and strained across the hip, as if designed to point out the thing’s barely restrained erection. With every deep, heaving breath, blood sheeted down his body from the hole where his heart should have been. She had the impression of corrupted meat beneath that pale skin. His lips curled back in wordless rage, baring teeth too sharp to be human.
The warmth within her was gone. Her face was pale, and the electric shock of fear turned her dance to stillness. The man shook his head at her once, slowly back and forth. When he opened his mouth and howled, she retreated two quick involuntary steps, the countertop digging at the small of her back. Hatred radiated from him. Hatred and malice and the promise of violence. The tiles between them were the slick red of fresh slaughter.
When she spoke, her voice trembled. It sounded very small, even to her.
“Don’t like it, huh?”
The ghost shifted his head side to side, neither nod nor shake, but stretching. Like an athlete preparing for some terrible effort. A clearer threat than balled fists.
“W-what,” she tried to say, then crossed her arms and took a fast, nervous drag on the cigarette. She lifted her chin in defiance. “What’re you gonna do about it?”
His eyes moved across her body like she was something he owned. The hissing sound of his breath came from everywhere.
“So, what? You want to hurt me? Come on, then,” she said, her voice taking on a little strength. “If you’re gonna do it, do it!”
He stepped into the room, filling the doorway. The death-blood, slick on his belly, glittered. He bared his teeth, growling like a dog.
“You want to hurt me? Then hurt me,” she yelled. “Hurt me!”
The ghost screamed and rushed across the room toward her. She felt its rage and hatred surrounding her, swallowing her. She saw its hand rising to slap her down, and she flinched back, her eyes closed, and braced for the blow. Every scar on her skin tingled like someone had touched them with ice. Filthy water poured into her mouth, her nose, corrupted and sour with decay. She felt the spirit pressing against her, pushing into her skin. Its rage lifted her like a wave.
And then it was gone.
She stood in the kitchen, her body shaking and her ragged breath coming in sobs. She was terribly cold. The wine on her toes—only wine—was half-dried and sticky. Storm wind battered at the windows, the walls. The furnace rumbled, fighting against the frigid air. She sank slowly, her back against the cabinet, and hugged her knees. A stray tear fell down her cheek and she shuddered uncontrollably twice.
Then, between one breath and the next, her mouth relaxed. Her body released. The breaking tension was more than sexual.
She started laughing: a deep, satisfied sound, like the aftermath of orgasm.
SUNDAY MORNING BROUGHT the first snow of the season. The thick, wet flakes appeared just before dawn, dark against the bright city backsplash of the clouds, and transformed to a perfect white once they had fallen. After the morning’s toast and tea and sermon, Mr. Kleinfeld, wrapped in his good wool overcoat, lumbered out after breakfast, snow shovel over his shoulder. He cleared his walkway and his drive, then the stretch of sidewalk in front of his house. The trees all around were black-barked and frosted with snow, and very few cars passed, the tracks of their tires leaving white furrows and never digging so deep as the asphalt.
Finished with his own house, he made his way through the ankle-high snow to his neighbor’s. No lights glowed in the house, no tracks marked her walk. Her driveway hadn’t been used. He hesitated, not wanting to wake her, but it was almost midday. He rang the bell, and when no answer came, mittened manfully on the door. No one came. He shook his head and put himself to work. The clouds above were bright as the snow when he finished, the air not yet above the freezing point, but warmer all the same.
His wife met him at the door with a cup of hot cocoa, just as he’d known she would. He leaned the snow shovel by the door, took the warm mug, and kissed his wife’s dry cheek.
“I don’t think our new neighbor made it home last night,” he said. He sat in his chair. “I figure she’s seen it. Won’t be long now before she moves on.”
It was a conversation they’d had before, and he waited now for his wife’s agreement, her prediction: two more months, another month, a week. The missus was better at judging these things than he was. So he was surprised when she stood silent for a long moment, shaking her head.
“I don’t know,” she said. “I just do not know…”
DAVID’S APARTMENT STILL showed the gaps where she had been. His clothes still hung in only half of the bedroom closet, the hangers moving into the emptiness she had left only slowly, as if hoping that her blouses and slacks and dresses might come back. The corner where her desk had once been was still vacant, the four hard circles that the legs had pressed into the carpet relaxed out a little, but not gone. The kid upstairs was practicing his guitar again, working on power chords that had driven her half-crazy when she’d lived there. They seemed sort of cute now.
“He’s getting better,” David said.
She rolled over, stuffing the pillow under her head and neck as she did. A thin line of snow ran along the windowsill—the first of the season. David, beside her, nodded toward the ceiling.
“He made it all the way through ‘Jesus of Suburbia’ last week,” he said.
“All five parts?”
“Kid’s going places,” she said.
“Please God that it’s places out of earshot.”
She brushed her fingertips across his chest. His skin was several tones darker than hers, and the contrast made her hand seem paler than she was, and her scars as white as the snow. He had his first gray hair in among the black, just over his ear. His dark eyes shifted over to her, his smile riding the line between postcoital exhaustion and melancholy. Quick as the impulse, she rolled the few more inches toward him and kissed his shoulder. He raised his eyebrows the way he always did when he knew that she was nervous.
“What’s your plan for the day?” he asked.
“Housework,” she said. “You?”
“Get up early and hit the Laundromat,” he said.
“And since that didn’t work?”
“Do an emergency load in the sink to get through work tomorrow,” he said. “I’ve got to meet up with Gemma at three to get back my scanner.”
“You’ll need to get hopping. It’s past noon now.”
“Another few minutes won’t make a difference,” he said, putting his hand over hers. He wasn’t pretty—his face too wide, his nose bent where it had broken as a child and never been put right, his jaw touched by the presentiment of jowls. Handsome, maybe, in an off-putting way. “Is there something to talk about?”
“Is,” she said.
He took a long, slow breath and let it out slowly. Not a sigh so much as the preparatory breath of a high diver. Or a man steeling himself for bad news.
“I think you should come over tonight,” she said. “Take a look at the place. Bring your laundry, too.”
He sat up. The blankets dropped to his lap. She looked at him, unable to read his expression.
“You’re changing the rules?” he said. Each word was as gentle as picking up eggs.
“No, I’m not. I always said that the not coming over part was temporary. It’s just… time. That’s all.”
“So. You really aren’t breaking up with me?”
“Jesus,” she said. She took the pillow from under her head and hit him with it lightly. Then she did it again.
“It is traditional,” he said. “Girl gets a house without consulting her boyfriend, moves all her stuff out, tells him he can’t come over. Says she’s ‘working through something’ but won’t say what exactly it is? It’s hard not to connect those dots.”
“And the part where I tell you in simple declarative sentences that I’m not breaking up with you?”
“Goes under mixed signals,” he said.
She took a deep breath. On the street, a siren rose and fell.
“Sorry,” she said. She got up from the bed, pulling one of the sheets with her and wrapping it around her hips. “Look, I understand that this has been hard. I’ve asked for a lot of faith.”
“You really have.”
“And given that I don’t have an entirely uncheckered past, and all,” she said. “I see why you would freak. You and my mother both.”
“She’s been reading me the riot act ever since she heard about it. She really likes you.”
He leaned back, surprise and pleasure in his expression.
“Your mother likes me?”
“Focus, sweetheart. I’m apologizing here.”
“And I don’t mean to interrupt,” he said.
Relief had left him giddy. Between his brave face and her attention being elsewhere, she’d managed to ignore the sadness and dread that had been seeping into him. Now that it was lifting a little, she saw how deep it had gone. She found her pants in a heap on the floor, sat down at the dressing table and lit a cigarette. The taste of the smoke helped her to think. When she spoke, her voice was lower.
“I’ve had a rough ride this life, you know? I used to be ashamed of that. I used to think that after Nash I was… broken. Damaged goods. Like that. And feeling like that has…”
She stopped, shook herself, laughed at something, and took another drag.
“Feeling like that has haunted me,” she said, with an odd smile.
“And this house is part of not feeling that way?”
“Then I already like it,” he said. “Sight unseen. If it helps you see yourself the way I see you, then it’s on my side.”
Corrie chuckled and shook her head.
“That might be going a little far,” she said. “But anyway. I want you to come over. I want you to see it. You should bring a sweater. It gets kind of cold sometimes.”
“And I want you to think about whether you’d like to move in.”
“There’s enough room. The neighborhood’s a little sketchy, and the jet noise sucks, but not worse than the jukebox hero practicing all the time.”
“Corrie, are you saying you still want to live with me?”
Her smile was tight and nervous.
“Not asking for a decision,” she said. “But I’m opening negotiations.”
He slipped to the side of the bed, slid to the floor at her feet, and laid his head in her lap. For a long moment, neither of them moved or spoke; then Corrie wiped her eyes with the back of her hand.
“Come on, silly,” she said. “You’ve got to get ready for Gemma. Go get that scanner back.”
“I do,” he said with a sigh. “Come shower with me?”
“Not today,” she said. And when he raised his eyebrows, “I want to smell like you when I get home.”
1532 LACHMONT DRIVE seethed around her. Every noise—the hum of the refrigerator, the distant roar of the furnace, the ticking of the wooden floors as the push-pull of heat and cold adjusted the boards—had voices behind them, screaming. The faintest smell of hair and skin burning touched the air. She knew they were meant to be hers.
Corrie hung her coat in the closet. A shape flickered in the basement doorway, dark eyes and inhuman teeth. She set a kettle on the stovetop and smoked a cigarette while it heated. When the clouds outside broke, the doubled light of sky and snow pressed in at the blinds. The kettle whistled. She took a mug out of the cupboard, put in a bag of chamomile tea, and poured the steaming water in. When she sat down, there was blood on the floor. A bright puddle, almost too red to be real, and then a trail as wide as a man’s hips where the still-living man had been dragged across to the basement door. When she looked up, the air had a layer of smoke haze a foot below the ceiling. It might have been her cigarette. It might have been gun smoke. She sipped her tea, savoring the heat and the faint sweetness.
“Fine,” she said.
She stood up slowly, stretching. The stairs down to the basement were planks of wood painted a dark, chipping green. The years had softened the edges. The basement had none of the brightness of the day above it. Even with the single bare bulb glowing, the shadows were thick. The furnace roar was louder here, and the voice behind it spat rage and hatred. She followed the trail of blood to the corner of the basement, where washer and dryer sat sullen in the gloom. She leaned down, put her shoulder to the corner of the dryer, and shifted it.
The metal feet shrieked against the concrete. The scar under it was almost three feet wide, a lighter place where the floor had been broken, taken up, and then filled in with a patch of almost-matching cement. She sat down on the dusty floor. There was blood on her hands now, black and sticky and copper-smelling. A spot of white appeared on the odd concrete and began to spread: frost. She put her hand on it like she was caressing a pet.
“We should probably talk,” she said. “And when I say that, I mean that I should talk, and you, for once, should listen.”
Something growled from the corner by the furnace. A shadow detached from the gloom and began pacing like a tiger in its cage. She sipped her tea and looked around the darkness, her gaze calm and proprietary.
“It’s funny the things they get wrong, you know? They remember that you threatened Joe Arrison, but instead of his cock, you were going to cut off his nose. They know I went to the Laughing Academy, but they don’t remember that I got out. Apparently, I was going on about Satan or something. ‘Mind gone to putty.’”
She stroked the concrete. The frost was spreading. A dot of red smeared it at the center, blood welling up from the artificial stone.
“And you really screwed me up, you know?” she said. “Shooting you really was worse than I thought it would be. I was so scared that someone would find you. I had nightmares all the time. I’d see someone who looked a little like you or I’d smell that cheap-ass cologne you liked, and I’d start panicking. I even tried to kill myself once. Didn’t do a very good job of it.
“I was one messed up chica. Every couple weeks, I’d do a search online. I just knew that there was going to be something. Bones found at 1532 Lachmont Drive. So what do I find instead? Ghost stories. There was one that even had a drawing of you. And so I knew, right?”
The shadow shrieked at her, its mouth glowing like there was something burning inside it. The blood at the center of the frost became a trickle. Corrie let the icy flow stain her fingers.
“I was so freaked out,” she said, laughing. “I spent years putting myself back together, and here you still were. I don’t think I slept right for a month. And then one day, something just clicked, you know? I’ve got a job. I can buy a house if I want.”
She sipped at her tea, but it had gone cold. She was sitting in a spreading pool of gore now, the blood spilling out to the corners of the room. More blood than a real body could contain. It soaked her pants and wicked up her shirt, chilling her, but not badly. The shadow hunched forward, ready to leap.
“David’s coming over tonight,” she said. “I wasn’t going to let him until I was sure it was safe. But tonight I’m going to make him dinner, and we’re probably going to get a little high, watch a DVD, something like that. And then I’m going to fuck him in your bedroom. And you? You’re going to watch.”
The blood rushed up. It was almost ankle-deep now, tiny waves of red rising up through the basement. Corrie smiled.
“You’ll really hate him,” she said. “He is everything you could never be, and he really, really loves me. And you know what? I love him too. And we’re going to be here, maybe for years. Maybe forever. And we’re going to do everything you couldn’t. And we’re going to do it right. So, seriously. How’s that for revenge?”
The shadow screamed, rising up above her, blotting out the light. She could almost feel its teeth at her neck. She scratched.
“You’re dead, fucker,” she whispered to the darkness. “You can’t hurt me.”
Blood-soaked, she picked up her teacup and walked to the stairs. The ghost whipped at her with cold, insubstantial fingers. It screamed in her ears, battering her with anger and hatred. Corrie grinned, a sense of peace and calm radiating from her. The voice grew thinner, more distant, richer with despair. With each step she took, the visions of blood faded a little more, and by the time she stepped into the winter light, she was clean.
There’s a cost for everything, but here we learn that sometimes the cost can be much too high, no matter how glittering and wonderful the prize is—or seems to be.
Cecelia Holland is one of the world’s most highly acclaimed and respected historical novelists, ranked by many alongside other giants in that field such as Mary Renault and Larry McMurtry. Over the span of her thirty-year career, she’s written almost thirty historical novels, including The Firedrake, Rakóssy, Two Ravens, Ghost on the Steppe, The Death of Attila, Hammer for Princes, The King’s Road, Pillar of the Sky, The Lords of Vaumartin, Pacific Street, The Sea Beggars, The Earl, The Kings in Winter, The Belt of Gold, and more than a dozen others. She also wrote the well-known science fiction novel Floating Worlds, which was nominated for a Locus Award in 1975, and of late has been working on a series of fantasy novels, including The Soul Thief, The Witches’ Kitchen, The Serpent Dreamer, and Varanger. Her most recent books are the novels The High City and Kings of the North.
She slept, and in the dark it came on her, heavy and sweaty, its weight all along her body. Its mouth quested greedily after hers and she rolled her head away, sick. She felt its nakedness prodding and poking against her thighs. Her body roused; even as she fought it, a gritty, shameful lust to submit coursed through her blood. Deep inside some ancient itch woke, longing for penetration. Her hips rolled, arching upward, her knees parting, and she heard its horrible, triumphant laugh.
She jolted awake, drenched with sweat. In the dark room around her, the other girls were still sleeping. None of them made outcries. None of them moaned in her dream. Fioretta slid quietly up off the pallet, her nightdress sticking to her, her long hair dripping down her shoulders. One tress had wrapped itself around her neck. She fumbled her way to the water basin, and washed her face; she felt dirty, all over.
The day was coming. Light began to filter into the room. Behind her now the others were waking. She kept her back to them. She did not want to see them, to know their faces. They bustled around her, whispering and yawning; without asking, they peeled off the damp nightdress, they brought her a clean shift, a fresh gown. They murmured around her like a crowd of bees. She did not look at them, afraid they would see the dream in her eyes. Afraid of what she would see in their eyes.
They hated her. She had felt that at once, behind their cooing, their simpering words, “my lady this, my lady that,” and their rigid smiles. They pulled and slapped at her, dressing her, yanking on the brush as they did her hair, tugged the necklace into her skin when they clasped it. One pinched her so hard she jumped. They slid golden slippers on her feet, and in their midst she went down to court.
They left the room on a cold stone stair, but as they went down the step smoothed under her feet, the space widened, the swelling light struck on burnished walls. The girls around her began to laugh and giggle. Ahead of them were tall white doors figured with gold, and as they approached the doors burst open and on a rising excitement they swept through into the brilliant, merry bustle of the court.
The room was full of young and beautiful people, in satin and lace, their faces smooth as silk. As she came in, they swooped toward her and bowed. Their eyes glittered, eager—or desperate. She went through them toward the throne at the far end, lifting her skirts in her hands; and the wizard-king stood up, his hand out. Tall and lean, he was dressed head to foot in a straight plain white gown, his hair hidden under a cap. His beard was a narrow dark fringe, his face with its long eyes and straight narrow nose chiseled as if from walnut.
He said, “Ah, my beauty. My darling one, today I shall call you Marguerite, for you are a pearl.” She could not speak; her breath choked in her throat, her skin creeping. He looked so well, but she knew now. Her eyes downcast, she went up the steps to the chair beside his. He laughed, as he had in the dream, triumphant.
FROM THE BEGINNING she had known there would be a cost.
She had been born in the village at the foot of the mountain. Her mother died when she was only a child, and her father was a drunkard, so they were very poor, but Fioretta was pretty and clever and worked hard, and as she grew into a handsome girl many young men thought well of her. She was getting ready to choose one to marry when her father, blind with drink, set the house on fire. She dragged him out of it, but the fire scorched her face and burned her leg so badly she needed a crutch to walk. The wound on her face faded, but the scar caught one corner of her eye, so she seemed to squint a little.
After that, the young men thought less well of her, all but the bailiff’s younger son, Palo, who was cross-grained anyway, his family’s black sheep. He was round and plain, a daydreamer, a stutterer. While her father went around drinking up everybody’s sympathy, Palo came to Fioretta and demanded that he marry her.
Fioretta stopped short. He had been waiting for her by the riverbank, down from the bridge, where she often went searching for herbs. She propped herself on her crutch, hostile, quick to sense pity. “What did you say?”
He stood there, squat and round, his hands on his hips, his blue eyes intense, and said again, “Y-You ought to m-m-marry me. This is a great f-f-favor to you, you know.”
At that she went hot with temper. She burst out, “What makes you so wonderful? You’re a fat, pompous oaf.”
He sneered at her. “You’re a c-c-cripple. And you’re poor. Your father’s the village d-d-drunk.”
She flounced off, tossing her head. “You’re a fool, then, to want me.”
“You’re a sh-sh-shrew, then, to turn down what you should gratefully accept,” he said, in pursuit.
She wheeled to confront him. “You’re pocky-faced. You’re shorter than I am and you smell.”
“You’ve got a tongue like a v-v-v-v—” He put his hands on his hips again. “You squinty gimp, you don’t even have the wits to kn-n-now what I’m offering you.”
“At least I have the wit to know to reject it.”
He flung his hands up, his face bright red, and stormed off.
At that she was suddenly very lonely. She sat down on the riverbank, exhausted. She had nowhere to go—she was sleeping in the church, and she would only eat if she found herbs and mushrooms and housewives in the village to buy them. The next day would be the same. She thought regretfully of Palo. Even fighting with him was better than being alone.
There was a convent in the village on the other side of the mountain; she could go there. Her gaze rose to the river rushing by. Or she could just throw herself in. Bitterly she wished the world were different.
“Good morning,” said a strange voice, beside her.
She looked up, startled, at the old man standing there. He wore a long gray hooded cloak, which shadowed his face, but his eyes shone bright and clear. His hands were tucked away in his sleeves.
“What are you doing here?” she blurted. “What do you want with me?”
“I have been watching you,” he said. “For a while.”
“Me.” A shiver went through her. She struggled up onto her feet and braced the crutch under her armpit. “Why would you wait for me? Who are you?”
He shrugged. The gray cloak obscured him, as if he went wrapped in a faint mist. Half turning away, he mumbled into his hand, “Call me Goodman Green’m, that’s near enough. Don’t remember.” Then he turned back toward her. “What is your name, child?”
“Fioretta,” she said.
“Ah,” he said, “such a lovely name. And so harsh a fate, as I have seen, for such a lovely girl.” His bright eyes glimmered inside the shadow of his face. “Fate is too cruel, isn’t it? But what if I told you there is a place nearby where you could be made whole, and beautiful again? More beautiful than ever.”
A ripple of yearning went through her, almost overwhelming. Resisting that, she gave a snort of disbelief. She said, “I would think you were a great fool.”
“Well,” he said. He began to drift off, like a mist, moving along the riverbank. “But the castle is just up the mountain. Only a mile or so on. You’re going that way anyway.” His eyes gleamed at her from the darkness of the hood. “Come,” he said. “Take the right path.” And went off.
She stared after him, her mouth open; she watched him until he disappeared in the busy crowd by the bridge. She rubbed her eyes with her hand, thinking, people shouldn’t say such things, that’s cruel. She saw ahead of her only the world, cruel and cold.
There was the convent. If they would not let her take the veil, since she had no dowry, they would give her work, and keep her. That was all she could hope for now. In fact, if she got less, she would not be hoping too much longer for anything. She started off toward the bridge.
The crutch dug under her armpit; her leg ached. But she had hours before sundown. One of a dozen people, she clumped across the bridge and turned onto the path up the mountain.
The other travelers soon turned off, and she was alone as she climbed. The path wound steadily upward, rockier and narrow between tall pines. The crutch slipped on the stones and she almost fell. She should try to walk without it; her leg seemed to get stronger when she used it. But it hurt more too, to walk without the crutch.
Far behind her, someone called out. She shivered. The voice was too far away to tell who it was but in her heart she knew it was Palo.
She could stop. Go back. Take whatever he deigned to give her. He wasn’t so bad, quick-tongued and sometimes funny. She imagined the drudge work of keeping house while he lay around, as her father had. Then the drudge work in bed at night. She hobbled along; he was far behind; he would give up soon. The path narrowed still more and turned a sharp bend around a boulder, and she stopped, startled.
Ahead of her the path divided in two. The left-hand way wound on up the mountain, paved with jagged rocks and overhung with scrawny trees.
The right-hand side led off through what seemed a glade, where the sun streamed in through tall, fair oaks and lit the flower-dappled grass between them, and the path led easily downward, smooth and wide.
She gulped. She had been up this road before, not often, but enough to know this right-hand path had never been here before. The old man’s words came back to her.
A place where you could be made whole, and beautiful, and happy again—
Behind her, closer, Palo called.
Uncertainly she took a step forward, into the right-hand path.
The air was warmer here. The sunlight touched her face. She walked on, hitching along on her crutch, the ground deep with leaves, soft underfoot. The trees seemed to spread their arms over her, like a ceiling overhead, so she walked down into a dark tunnel. The wind blew through their leaves and they whispered like voices, too soft to hear the words.
A wave of uncertainty broke over her: She should go back. She turned and saw, far up at beginning of the path, where the sunlight shone, Palo’s dark shape against the afternoon sky. Then, coming up the other way, she heard the bustle and laughter of a crowd of people.
She turned toward them, wondering where they had come from. They gamboled toward her, bright and pretty as a flock of butterflies, girls and men in beautiful clothes, gathering up armfuls of wildflowers as they passed through the grassy glade at the far end of the tunnel of oaks. Fioretta drew aside, to let them go by, but they did not. They gathered around her, mirthful and bright-eyed, and took the gathered flowers and wreathed her in them. She stood, too amazed to move, drenched in buttercups and violets and sprays of yarrow, and the crowd around her parted.
Through the gap came the old man. He had shed the gray cloak. He looked much younger, his beard darker. He wore white, head to foot, a gown, a peaked cap. He said, “Welcome home, Fioretta,” and took her by the hands, smiling.
She could not speak; glad, and grateful, she let herself be drawn forward, into the midst of these fair and merry people. They hurried her down the road. The trees ahead parted, and across a flowery meadow, a castle tower streamed a red pennant against the violet sky. That was where they were going, that white spire above the forest.
She thought suddenly of Palo, and turned and looked back, but he was gone. Good, she thought, relieved, and turned forward, toward the wonders that awaited her.
She had known, even then, that there would be a cost, but then she had not cared.
FROM THAT MOMENT on, she had been beautiful. Her legs were quick and her feet sure, her hands graceful, with delicate fingers; her hair was like spun silk, braided with ribbons and jewels. She wore a satin gown that glistened with embroidered figures and on her feet were soft leather shoes. That first day she sat on a raised dais beside the wizard-king, looking out over his great pillared gilded hall, and watched his glittering, exuberant court flirt and laugh, dance and declaim before them.
The hall was wide, and yet full of light, from lamps standing everywhere. Round golden pillars held the roof up high above them. The crowd whirled and dipped across the floor in a constant gaiety. And she was their queen. One by one they all came and bowed down before her. Servants brought trays of bread and fruit and cheese and she ate until she was stuffed.
She put her hand to her face; the scar was gone, her cheek as soft as a rose petal. Her leg was straight again; she was whole again.
Before her passed a constant stream of amusements. There were jugglers and tumblers, which made her laugh, and singers who played so tunefully she held her breath to hear them. She turned to the man on the throne beside her, and he smiled, and patted her arm. She wondered what to say to him, how to thank him, but he only nodded, and gestured toward some new fancy. She wondered how long this would last.
A clown in red pants brought out a bear, which turned in circles, smirking. Girls wearing almost nothing commanded monkeys in little red hats to ride dogs, and the dogs to run in circles, and then stand on their hind legs and yap, the monkeys clinging tight.
Three men rushed out bearing on their arms a host of brilliant birds that shrieked and flapped their wings, deafening. She put her hands over her ears at their screams, and beside her the wizard-king gave her a sharp look and waved his hand and said something, and abruptly they were ponies.
A little group of musicmen sat down below the dais, tuned their lutes and patted their drums, and the court began to dance. The wizard turned to her. “Dance, my dear one,” he said to her. “Let me see you merry.”
“With you?” she asked, shy; he seemed so solemn, too majestic to dance, and in spite of her gratitude, she did not really want to touch him.
“No, no,” he said, with a smile. “I will watch.” He gestured her toward the round dance forming on the floor. “Show me your grace and beauty, my queen.”
She stood, delighting in her nimble legs. She ran out neat-footed as a goat to the spreading circle of girls in the center of the hall. Without thinking, she knew every step perfectly, and she whirled and dipped so elegantly everybody else stopped and gathered to see it. The music was beautiful. The dance was a song her newly perfect body sang. But when, out of breath, she went back to the edge of the floor, to let someone else have a place, she heard the wall behind her murmur.
She turned her head, looking out of the side of her eye. The wall was of pale stone, the surface carved intricately into vines and leaves. At first she saw nothing, but then, in the spaces between the leaves, eyes appeared.
Desperate, gleaming with tears, they turned on her, and through a crevice between the stone vines a hand reached out.
She jerked herself forward again, her heart pounding, and stepped out a little into the middle of the floor. Out of reach. She would not see this misery. She was too happy. She could dance, and she had never eaten so well, and she was beautiful. That was what mattered. She made her way back to her place by the wizard-king.
But now she saw bits of people everywhere, eyes in the columns, too, hands, and feet, and the tables, she saw, had human legs, and the braziers were the bottom halves of people, with their open bellies full of fire. The lamps were long thin girls, all gilded, their hair aflame. When she looked down, she thought she saw the floor was made of twisted bodies jammed together. Yet it was smooth and hard as stone. She lifted her gaze to the happy whirling courtiers around her, and her heart froze.
She stood beside him, and said, too loudly, “I loved the dancing.”
The wizard said, “You were the most beautiful dancer there, my Queen Maeve.”
Then from the crowd suddenly a woman strode forward who was not joyous and not laughing. Her eyes flashed with anger. She cried, “No! I won’t have this—I was there, yesterday—”
Fioretta stiffened, her mouth falling open. She turned toward the wizard, and he gripped her arm, leaning toward her. His gaze turned on the angry woman. “Be warned,” he said, in a deep, harsh voice. “Remember what you were before.”
The woman flung her arms out to him. She was beautiful, tall and shapely, with long black hair and red lips. Her clothes were magnificent, sheets of silk and silver cascading from the glowing purple calyx of her bodice. Her hands reached toward him, pleading. “Please, my lord—I did everything you wanted, I—”
“Rosa,” the wizard said, and made a gesture.
Fioretta gasped. Before them the woman writhed a moment, shrinking. Her clothes shed from her like the petals of a blown flower, to leave behind a withered crone, her hair stringy and white, her arms with the skin hanging like bags off the bones. From the court looking on there went up a cry of disgust and contempt. Fioretta’s arm was still tight in the wizard’s grasp. The hag in the middle of the floor sank to her knees, sobbing, and then from all sides the others pelted her with food and hats and shoes.
Fioretta spun toward him. “No,” she said. “Don’t punish her so. I beg of you.”
The wizard smiled at her. His hand on her arm did not ease its grip. He said, “Sit down, my fairy queen, my Gloriana. Remember, I am master here.” His voice turned smooth. “Are you not happy here? What else can I bestow upon you? Only let me make you happy. That is all I wish.”
Fioretta stood rigid under his eyes; she tore her gaze from his. Down there they were dragging off the beaten woman Rosa. Another flower. His hand on her arm tugged commandingly. Then, where all the others were moving, her gaze caught on one who did not go with the others, who stood where he was, staring at her.
He wore a red tabard and spurred boots, a gold-hilted sword at his side, and a hat with a plume. She swallowed. He was tall, with brawny arms and legs, and a proud tilt to his head, but she knew those blue eyes. Palo had not escaped after all. Another tug, and this time, weak-kneed, she sat down. Beneath her, the chair shifted and sighed, and she sat as lightly as she could.
NOW IN THE night the horrible thing groaned over her, it slobbered over her lips, and poked at her body, and she wanted, she wanted to receive it. She wanted even its loathsomeness. She thought of the walls, and what Rosa had said, but she thought most of Palo. What a fool, to follow her. Yet it was her fault he was trapped here. She clenched her body against the dream and forced herself to waken in the dark.
The incubus was gone, when the dream was gone. She pried herself up from the bed. Six other girls slept around her, all deep in their slumber. She threw a cloak around her and went quietly among them to the door and out. She would find Palo, and she would help him escape.
She went down the great main stair in the dark, to the hall. There was only this one tower, and the hall; Palo had to be here somewhere.
The wizard was here somewhere also, and she dreaded meeting him. But she had to find Palo.
Even before she reached the hall she heard the sounds of voices. The two tall doors were wide open but no light shone beyond, only a faint blue glow, like moonlight. When she came to the last step, the broad, dim room before her was empty. Yet it was noisy with calling, sighing, weeping, cries, and curses. She stood on the step and saw, from every wall, from the columns, the hands reaching out, the fingers stretching out into the air, struggling toward the open. The tables trudged back and forth groaning and mewling, and the braziers and lamps sat slumped on the floor.
She could not bear this, and she could not find Palo anywhere. There was no sign either of the wizard, who was perhaps out prowling, as he had been when he caught her. She ran back up the stair to the next landing, below the tower room where she was supposed to be sleeping. On the far side of the landing was the narrow arched opening to another stairway, and she followed it.
This one spiraled around and down, darker with every step, soon pitch dark. The steps grew rough under her feet. Then ahead, below, the darkness yielded to a faint red light, shining on the rock.
She went around a bend into the full brightness, and stood on the edge of a kitchen, made all of fitted stone, where a fire burned in a great hearth, huge pots lined the walls, and spoons and forks hung in hooks from the ceiling. At a table in the middle sat a woman, her wispy gray hair only half-covered by a scorched linen cap, who was kneading a mass of brown floury dough.
Fioretta stopped. The woman lifted her head and gave her a gappy grin. “Well. It’s been long since anyone came to see me.”
“Who are you? What are you doing here?”
The woman wiped her wrist across her forehead.
“Why, I’m the cook, of course. Without me, you wouldn’t eat.”
Fioretta went farther into the kitchen, into the warmth and the good smells. She felt suddenly much better. The cook’s arms went back to her work, the dough constantly swelling, and her hands constantly kneading it down again. Fioretta said, “You aren’t—his?”
“You mean the one upstairs.” The woman’s arms thrust and beat on the dough. “We have an agreement. I don’t poison him and he doesn’t turn me into a toad.”
“Who is he? How can I get out of here?”
The cook’s eyes twinkled at her. “His name is written down around here somewhere. Can you read?”
The cook shrugged. “Neither can I.”
She turned to the hearth, with her burly arms poking and turning the fire, and the flames shot up. The light and the heat flooded the room. Behind her on the table the dough seized the chance to grow into a wild floury puff as tall as a man. The cook came quickly back, and punched it flat again.
Fioretta came to the edge of the table. “Is there any way out—back to the real world?”
“I don’t know. This is a haunted place, and since he came nothing is what it seems.”
“How did you get here?” Fioretta asked.
The cook looked startled. “I—” Her eyes widened, and she peered around as if she had just noticed where she was. “I’ve always been here, haven’t I? That’s why it’s…” Her gaze returned to Fioretta. “Maybe the question is, who are you?”
“I—” Fioretta stopped, not sure what to say.
The cook smiled at her, and then, on the stair, the young man in the red tabard came down around the corner.
“He’s come for you,” the cook said.
Fioretta got up. The young man stood there on the last step, his blue eyes on her, and without a word she went past him, up the stair, around the curve. He followed her, and when they were out of sight of the kitchen she faced him.
With the light behind him she could not see his face. He was taller, with brawny arms and chest. He said, “Well, here we are,” and it was Palo’s voice.
“It is you,” she said.
He said, “Yes. Not so changed as you are. I would not know you, had I not seen it happen.” His voice quivered. “You are so beautiful, and so graceful.”
He put out his hand to her, and she knocked it aside.
“Why did you come?” she cried. “You must get away, somehow, you must see what becomes of people here.”
“I knew you’d need help,” he said. His voice twinged with sudden anger, and he put his hands on his hips, as he was used to do. “You’ve really gotten yourself into something this time.”
“I do not need help!” But she was glad he was here, familiar even with his new good looks, his tall and broad-shouldered body. “There has to be some way out of this place.”
“I’ve looked,” he said. “I can’t find any doors that open out of the castle. At night everything falls asleep; I almost did too, and in a few more days I probably will.” He yawned, veiled in the half-dark, the light brimming him like a nimbus. “What are you doing out of bed, anyway?”
She blurted out, without thinking, “Looking for you.”
“Well,” he said. “Here I am.” He reached for her hand.
“No,” she said. “Don’t touch me. He’ll know.”
He gave a sharp twitch, as if she had struck him. He backed away, and slid his hands behind him. “Oh,” he said, in a different voice. “That’s how it is. I guess you have what you want already. You’d better get back where you belong, then, hadn’t you.”
She grew hot with shame. He thought she had yielded to the wizard. In a way, she thought, she had, coming here. His voice changed, almost wistful now, softer. “You are so beautiful. You were pretty before, and clever and brave, and after the fire I thought I’d have a chance with you, but now you are so much beyond me—Go on.” Brisker. “I can’t bear to think what could happen to you, if—”
The worst would be that he would see me again as I really am, she thought. Gimp. Squinty-eyed. The idea drove a sort of panic through her, and then a rising resolve: She would be happy, as long as she could, as long as this lasted. But she would try to get Palo out of it. She turned and went quickly up the stair.
IN THE MORNING, she came down to the hall, and the whole court bowed down before her, and the wizard stood to greet her. “You are as glorious as the sunrise,” he said. “Wherefore today I call you Io, my darling.” He led her to the chair beside him, and as he sat beside her, he said, under his breath, “I have done my part.” His eyes drilled into her. “Don’t you think you owe me something?”
She lowered her gaze; she began to feel guilty, ungrateful. A quiver went along her nerves; she felt herself weakening, dissolving into the illusion.
He said, “Or perhaps you need some additional persuasion? What do you think of my new knight here—the one who came in with you?”
She licked her lips. “I was alone.”
“There was someone else. What was his name—Buffo, Salo—”
He was playing with her, his eyes glittering. She looked away. Then a brassy blast of horns made her start.
Down the center of the hall walked a tall man dressed in black. Two trumpeters preceded him, blasting shrill challenges on their horns; after him came two more men, carrying a sword and a shield. He stopped before the wizard.
“I am here to claim your place, king of the wood! Send out your champion, and we will decide the issue now!”
The flock of courtiers had divided to let him through; now in one breath they cried out in scorn, and pressed closer. Fioretta sat up, her hands in her lap and her heart in her throat; she glanced at the wizard, wondering what this meant.
He did not look troubled. His mouth curved in a smile, and he never looked at the black knight, his gaze steady on her; she realized this was a trap.
“Name your champion,” cried the black knight. He turned to his squires and drew a long gold-fitted sword from the scabbard.
From the crowd, one man after another leaped forward. “My lord, name me!” “No, me!” “Me, my lord.”
The wizard’s look, heavy with meaning, never left Fioretta. He stood, lifted his hand, and pointed toward the mass of the court. “You, my newest knight, you shall prove yourself today.” She looked where he was pointing, and saw Palo.
Her breath stopped in her throat. If anything happened to him it would be her fault. The red knight came forward uncertainly, into the middle of the hall, took hold of his own sword, and drew it out of the scabbard, so awkward he almost dropped it. Fioretta clenched her teeth. She knew he was no fighter. The wizard watched her and she forced herself to look away.
The wizard said, “You don’t care for combat, my lovely one?”
She gave a cracked laugh. “I prefer the music and the dancing.”
“Ah,” he said, “but this is more amusing. Watch.”
The two men faced each other, and began to trade blows. The wizard paid no heed to them, his gaze steady on Fioretta. She glanced at the two men stalking around each other, slashing with their swords; Palo slipped and missed and almost dropped his. Inside the handsome body he was still the chubby boy who stuttered. Her hands fisted in her lap. Suddenly she longed for him to be that chubby boy again, back in the village, safe.
“Not much of a swordsman, this one,” the wizard said. He laughed, with a glance at her. “Perhaps I should let him lose.”
She said nothing. Her heart was hammering. If she said the wrong thing she was destroyed. Palo was destroyed. Out there the red knight staggered backward away from the black knight, inches ahead of the slashing blade.
“Well,” the wizard said. “Does he die? Or will you save him?”
She said, “Do as you will, my lord,” and stared off at the wall. Palo dodged behind one of the pillars. The watching court laughed, and the black knight with a roar pursued him.
Palo darted around the pillar, came up behind the black knight, swung the sword flat, and swept the other man’s legs out from under him. The knight sprawled on the floor, his sword clattering away.
Palo stood back, letting him up. The wizard said, under his breath, “What, a Galahad?” His voice had a rough edge, as if the red knight’s gallantry annoyed him.
Fioretta’s heart leaped. He was brave, after all, Palo, and good. And in the wizard’s annoyance she sensed some weakness. She pretended an interest in one of her hands, admiring the perfect fingernails, and watched from the corner of her eye.
The black knight rolled to his feet and snatched up his sword again. He rushed at Palo, flailing his blade from side to side. Palo backed up, stumbled, and went to one knee, and the knight raised his sword for the final blow.
The wizard said, “Shall he die, my Io?” He was watching Fioretta, not the fight. Fioretta bit her lip. But the knight, perhaps waiting for the wizard’s command, had paused, and now Palo rolled away across the floor and leaped up, out of reach of his enemy. The black knight yelled, and chased him, but Palo held his ground, and as the other man plunged recklessly toward him, brought his own sword up with both hands and struck the other man’s weapon sending it flying.
The black knight staggered back, his arms up. “Mercy,” he cried. He went down on one knee.
The wizard stood. “Enough of this. Kill him. As you are my knight, I command it.”
Palo came forward toward the throne. “My lord, grant him mercy.” His handsome new face was solemn. He never looked at Fioretta. “Let him have time to regret his inadequacy.”
The wizard gave a harsh laugh. He shot a quick glance at Fioretta beside him. “I give no mercy here.”
“My lord,” Palo said, “for your greater glory and the glory of your queen.”
The wizard’s teeth showed. When he spoke, it was clearly against his will. “You shall have his life, then. Go.”
The black knight knelt on the floor, his hands raised, imploring. “My lord—”
The wizard jerked his hand up in command and the black knight’s men hauled him off. Palo bowed and backed away into the crowd. The courtiers in their satins and gilt and jewels flooded back onto the floor, dancing and laughing again, as if nothing had happened.
She thought, Nothing did happen, really. He made it all up, to catch me. But somehow Palo had escaped. Had won, against the wizard’s will. He had found the edge of the wizard’s power. She dared not look at him, lost now anyway in the mass of merry, dancing people.
She thought, He has found a place here. Like me.
She looked down at her beautiful clothes. A servant was offering her a fine flaky pie and a cup of wine. The hall filled with laughter and chatter.
Maybe this is good enough, she thought. But something in her had divided, and the pieces didn’t quite match anymore.
Except for the wizard, there was no one to talk to. The other people were only shells, without conversation; they laughed, and said how happy they were, and whirled away from her into the general dance. It all looked the same as yesterday: Maybe it was all the same day. Then, at sundown, when they were all going off to bed, she saw Rosa again.
The fallen favorite had become the lamp beside the door. Her body was thin as a pole, glistening gold, her arms clasped across her middle; her white hair stood straight up, glowing. Only her eyes moved, sleek and hopeless, watching Fioretta. Wanting to be there again, to be what Fioretta was. Fioretta went swiftly up to the bedchamber, and let them undress her and put her to bed, but she lay stiff on the pallet, biting her lips and pinching herself to stay awake, until the others were all asleep.
Then she rose, threw a cloak around her, and went out.
SHE WENT STRAIGHT down into the kitchen, where she found the cook stirring a great cauldron, and the red knight, sitting on the steps.
He gave her a glancing look, his face stern. She sat beside him.
“You did very well,” she said. “I didn’t know you could fight.”
“When it’s your life,” he said, not looking at her, his voice cold, “you learn fast. You should go back. He’ll catch you.”
She said, “He’s already caught me.” She looked at the cook again, beseeching. “Tell us how we can escape.”
The cook was slicing onions, the knife so fast it was a blur. “You came here of your own will. You must stay until the castle falls.”
She groaned. Palo was watching her curiously. “You don’t want to stay—where you are so beautiful and so cherished?”
She put her hand on his arm. “You were so brave. And you were good, when he wanted you to be wicked. You defied him when you did not kill the black knight, and he had to accept it. You gave me some reason to hope I can keep on resisting him.” He had turned toward her, at her touch, and she looked into his eyes. “That was wonderful,” she said, and she kissed him.
He flung his arms around her and kissed her back. She shut her eyes, reveling in the strength of his arms, the sweetness of the kiss. If the wizard destroyed her tomorrow she would have this one real, true moment, this one real, true knight. Palo’s hand stroked her hair and she laid her head on his shoulder.
“I love you,” he said. “I will always love you.”
“You have saved me, so far—without you, I think I would already have given in to him.”
“You haven’t. Thank God you haven’t.”
“I don’t know how long I can fight him off. I’m afraid—”
“Sssh,” he said. “I’ll think of something—hush, my darling one.” He kissed her again.
The cook was watching them, smiling. Fioretta made herself draw back. The memory of Rosa flooded her mind. “That’s not good enough. I don’t know if we have much time.”
He said, “No—stay—” and grabbed for her hand.
She held herself away from him. “At any moment he can ruin us. I saw him—you saw what he did to that other woman. If he finds out—”
She faced him, her heart pounding. She had found a wonderful man to love but she could never have him. She turned and ran up the stair, a sinking feeling in her heart that in fact the wizard already knew.
SHE HAD TO sleep, and when she slept, the demon came on her, whispering. “Kiss him, will you? Want him and not me, will you? After all I’ve done for you, you heartless whore!” It ground itself on her, pinching and tugging at her breasts, poking her between the legs, stirring her to a thick, greedy lust. She struggled against her own body, which longed so for the consummation. Palo, she thought. Palo.
She knew that to give in would doom her and Palo both. But her lecherous body yearned for the coupling, for the demon’s thrust; she could not hold out too much longer. Between her legs was damp and thick with heat, and an evil voice inside whispered, “Let him. He’ll keep me. I will be queen forever. He’ll love me, and I’ll be different from the others.” She thought, Palo. Palo. She made herself see him in her mind—as he had been before, the round untested boy. With a wrench she woke up, and lay there struggling to stay awake until the dawn came.
In the morning, the other women dressed her, and they hurried down to the court, to the senseless merry laughter and the endless wild dancing. When she came in, the wizard rose, as he had before, but this time he was scowling at her.
“Behold, the adulterous one! I name you Helen, Queen of treacherous women!” She stopped before his throne, and the court fell silent. The wizard sneered at her. “I ask one act of gratitude, and instead I am traduced. You shall not sit by my side today, slut.” Then Palo stepped up out of the crowd.
“Wizard.” He walked between her and the throne, and his voice rang out, loud and brave. “I challenge you for this woman!”
“Ho ho,” the wizard said. “You do, do you?” He came down from the throne and paced around Palo, the hem of his white gown sweeping on the floor. “You think you can fight me, you fool? Hah!” He flung one hand up. “Go back as you were, Palo!”
Fioretta cried out. Palo seemed to buckle. His red tabard flew off, and he shrank, and grew wider. His handsome face bloated into the plain round pock-marked face of the bailiff’s black sheep son. He gave a yell, and drew his sword, and the blade melted away to nothing.
The court let out a lustful howl. All at once they rushed forward, snatching off their hats and shoes to throw. Fioretta leaped forward toward the wizard, her hands pressed together.
“No. Let him live—I will do what you wish—only, let him go!”
The wizard seemed to grow taller and his eyes blazed. His voice hissed out. “Too late for that, hussy. Too late, Fioretta!”
She staggered. She felt her beautiful clothes fall away, and she stumbled on her bad leg; she put her hands to her face and felt the slick ugly scar. A shoe hit her shoulder. The crowd of the court pressed closer, their eyes glowing, their faces ugly with hate. Palo wheeled, his arms out, trying to shield her.
Her name. She understood, suddenly, in a gust of memory, how the wizard had only spoken her name twice, and each time changed her. Something else hit her on the cheek. Palo jerked his arms up to fend off a hail of missiles. She had heard the wizard’s name, once—what was it—
He stood there, laughing. Palo clutched her, as hard things rained down on both of them, and she flung her arms around him to stay on her feet.
She shouted, “Goodman Greenough, Greengood, Greenman, Greenham, Godham—”
The wizard laughed, disdainful. She sagged under the weight of the attack.
“Greenam, Goodman, Goodgreen—”
The wizard laughed again. But he was slowly turning, spinning around in place. His white robes flew off; what they had covered was not as tall, was lumpy, green, damp, covered with leaves or feathers or scales. It spun faster and faster, and the court besetting Palo and Fioretta let out a screech.
Their target had changed. The walls and columns erupted hands, legs, bodies. The great throne behind the wizard reared up into a scrawny old man and two brawny boys, who hurled themselves on the whirling green demon. The floor burst up into waves of bodies, wild hair like spume, and the arch of shoulders rising. In pieces and as one, the prisoners of the castle flung themselves past Fioretta and Palo and onto their tormentor. Fioretta cried out. Something struck her from above, and she looked up; the roof was sagging down, as legs and hands and heads rained down from it. The floor was rising around her, breaking into a tumble of arms and legs, buttocks, elbows. She clutched Palo’s hand. In the door, through the thickening downpour of the collapsing roof, she saw the cook, laughing.
“Run,” Palo shouted in her ear. “Run!”
She turned and hobbled after him. He caught her hand and held her up. They struggled against the tide of bodies rushing at the wizard. The air was thick with some kind of damp hot green mist and she could see nothing, but she followed blindly where he drew her. Her leg hurt. Palo’s hand in hers dragged her on through the confusion. She could not breathe. The ground under her was falling away.
Then under her feet was the rocky forest floor. Suddenly she could see again. She limped along, gasping for breath, her hand in Palo’s, along the mountain path. Turning, she looked back.
Back there the last of the castle was vanishing into a clump of trees clinging to the mountainside. The screaming and howling faded. She slowed, panting, her bad leg caving in, and he slid his arm around her waist.
He said, “G-g-g-ood enough?”
She turned to him, to his plain, pocky face, smiling at her. Her one true, brave knight. He had always been there, but neither of them had known. A gust of love swept over her, warm and sweet. She still held his hand and she squeezed it tight. “Good enough,” she said, and kissed him.
Melinda M. Snodgrass
Here’s a compelling drama set in deep space that reunites lovers long parted by rank, social status, and circumstance—although, as they both soon come to realize, it may not reunite them for very long…
A writer whose work crosses several mediums and genres, Melinda M. Snodgrass has written scripts for television shows such as Profiler and Star Trek: The Next Generation (for which she was also a story editor for several years), written a number of popular science fiction novels, and was one of the co-creators of the long-running Wild Cards series, for which she has also written and edited. Her novels include Circuit, Circuit Breaker, Final Circuit, The Edge of Reason, Runespear (with Victor Milan), High Stakes, Santa Fe, and Queen’s Gambit Declined. Her most recent novel is The Edge of Ruin, the sequel to The Edge of Reason. Her media novels include the Wild Cards novel Double Solitaire and the Star Trek novel The Tears of the Singers. She’s also the editor of the anthology A Very Large Array. She lives in New Mexico.
The Wayfarer’s Advice
We came out of Fold only twenty-three thousand kilometers from Kusatsu-Shirane. “Good job,” I started to say, but was interrupted by blaring impact alarms.
“Shit, shit, shit,” Melin at navigation chattered, and her fingers swept back and forth across the touch screen like a child finger painting. Our ship, the Selkie, obedient to Melin’s sweeping commands, fired its ram jet. My stomach was left resting against the ceiling and my balls seemed to leap into my throat as we dropped relative to our previous position.
A massive piece of steel and composite resin, edges jagged and blackened by an explosion, tumbled slowly past our front viewport. It had been four years since I’d been cashiered from the Imperial Navy of the Solar League, but the knowledge gained during the preceding twenty years was still with me.
“That was an Imperial ship,” I said. My eye caught writing on the hull. I had an impression of a name, and my gut closed down into an aching ball. It couldn’t be… but if it was… I had to know. I added an order. “Match trajectory and image-capture.”
Jax, the Tiponi Flute, piped through the breathing holes lining his sides, “Not good news for Kusatsu-Shirane if the League has found them.” The alien had several of its leafy tendrils wrapped around handholds welded to the walls, and his elongated body swayed with the swoops and dives of the ship.
“I’d call that the understatement of the year,” Baca grunted from his position at communication.
Three hundred years ago, humans had developed a faster-than-light drive and gone charging out into our arm of the Milky Way galaxy. There we had met up with a variety of alien races, kicked their butts, and subjugated them under human rule. But two hundred years before the human blitzkrieg began, there had been other ships that had headed to the stars. Long-view ships with humans in suspended animation, searching for new worlds.
Most of these pioneers were cranks and loons determined to set up their various ideas of utopia. Best guess was that probably eighty percent of them died either during the journey or shortly after locating on a planet. But some survived to create Reichart’s World, and Nirvana, and Kusatsu-Shirane, and numerous others.
The League called them Hidden Worlds, and took a very dim view of human-settled planets that weren’t part of the League. In fact, the League rectified that situation whenever they ran across one of these worlds. The technique was simple and brutal: The League arrived, used their superior firepower to force a surrender, then took away all the children under the age of sixteen and fostered them with families on League planets. They then brought in League settlers to swamp the colonists who remained behind.
But it hadn’t worked this time, because there were pieces of Imperial ships orbiting Kusatsu-Shirane. Something had killed a whole battle group. Whatever it was, I didn’t want it destroying my little trade vessel.
“Contact orbital control, and tell them we’re friendlies,” I ordered Baca.
“I’ve been trying, Tracy, but nobody’s answering. Worse, the whole planet’s gone silent. Nobody’s talking to nobody.”
“Some new Imperial weapon to knock out communications?” Melin asked.
“Are you picking up anything?” I asked.
“Music,” Baca replied.
We all exchanged glances; then I said, “Let’s hear it.”
Baca switched from headphone to speaker, and flipped through the communication channels from the planet. Slow, mournful music filled the bridge. It wasn’t all the same melody, but they all had one thing in common. Each melody was desperately sad.
Something terrible had happened on Kusatsu-Shirane, and judging by the debris, something equally terrible had happened in orbit. Periodically, Melin fired small maneuvering jets as she dodged through the ruins, but despite her best efforts the bridge echoed with pings and scrapes as debris impacted against the hull.
“Not the safest of neighborhoods, Captain,” came my executive officer’s voice in my left ear, and I jumped. Damn, the creature could move quietly! I gave a quick glance over my shoulder, and found myself looking directly into the Isanjo’s sherry-colored eyes. Jahan had settled onto the back of my chair like Alice’s Cheshire cat.
“We’ll grab an identification and get out,” I said.
Jahan wrapped her tail around my throat. I couldn’t tell if the gesture was meant to convey comfort or a threat. An Isanjo’s tail was powerful enough to snap a two-by-four. My neck would offer little challenge.
As if in answer to my statement, the screen on the arm of my jacket flared, adjusted contrast, and the name of the ship came into focus: Nuestra Señora de la Concepción. My impression had been correct. It had been her ship. I gave the bridge of my nose a hard squeeze, fighting to hold back tears.
“Holy crap, that’s a flagship!” Baca yelped as he accessed the computer files.
“Under the command of Mercedes de Arango, the Infanta who would have held the lives of countless millions of humans and aliens in her hands once her father died,” Jax recited in his piping tones. His encyclopedic memory baffled me. I had no idea how that much brain power could reside in something that looked like an oversized stalk of bamboo.
“Instead, she precedes him into oblivion,” Jahan said.
The attention of my crew was like a pinprick, the unspoken question hung between us. “Yes, I was at the Academy with her,” I said.
“So, did you know her?” Baca asked.
“I’m a tailor’s son. What do you think?”
Baca reacted to my tone. “Just asking,” he said sulkily.
A fur-covered hand swept lightly beneath my eyes. “You weep,” Jahan said, and I was glad she had used her knuckle. An Isanjo’s four-fingered hand is tipped with ferocious claws, capable of disemboweling another Isanjo or even a man. She leaned in closer and whispered, “And I note you did not actually answer the question.”
“Twelve ships were destroyed here. Six thousand starmen died. If things had fallen out differently, I might have been among them,” I said loudly. “Of course I’m upset.”
“They came here to do violence to the people of Kusatsu-Shirane,” Jax tweeted.
“It wasn’t a duty they would have relished.”
“But they would have done it,” Jahan said. “The Infanta would have ordered it done.”
I shrugged. “Orders are orders. I cleared a Hidden World once. When I was a newly minted lieutenant.”
“And now you trade with them and keep them secret,” Jahan said.
“Making me a traitor as well as a cashiered thief.” I changed the subject. “We need to find out what happened down the gravity well.”
“It will take a damn lot of fuel to set the ship down,” Jax tweeted. Flutes were famous for their mathematical ability, and Jax was no exception. He was our purchasing agent, and I was pretty damn sure he was the reason the Selkie ran at a profit. He counted every Reales and squeezed it twice.
“I’ll take the Wasp,” I said, referring to the small League fighter craft we’d picked up at a salvage auction. The cannons had been removed, but it was still screamingly fast and relatively cheap to fly.
Melin had given us enough gravity that I could grip the sides of the access ladder, and slide down to the level that held the docking bay. Even so, Jahan, using her four hands and prehensile tail, reached the lower deck before me.
“I take it that you’re coming along,” I said as I hauled a spacesuit out of a locker.
“I will need to report to the Council.”
“Chalking up another human atrocity,” I said with black humor.
“It’s what we do,” the creature said shortly and she removed her suit from its locker. Isanjo suits always looked strange. They were equipped with a tail because the aliens used their tails for their high-steel construction work.
“And what happens when the ledger gets filled?” I asked as I stepped into the lower half of my suit.
“We will act,” she said, and I knew that she was speaking of all the alien races. “There are a lot more of us than there are of you.”
“Yeah, but none of you are as mean as us.” I shrugged to settle the heavy oxygen pack onto my shoulders.
“But we’re more patient.”
“You’ve got me there.”
I reflected that Isanjos now built our skyscrapers and our spaceships. Under human supervision, of course, but my God, there was so much opportunity for mischief if the aliens decided that it was time for them to act! I had a vision of skyscrapers collapsing and ships exploding.
I thought about the Hajin who worked as servants in our households. How easy it would be to poison a human family.
And the Tiponi Flutes did our accounting. They could crash the economy.
Humans were fucked. Good thing I worked on a ship crewed mostly by aliens. Maybe they liked me enough to keep me around.
We secured each other’s helmets, and headed for the Wasp, which sat in the middle of the bay. Even sitting still, it looked like it was moving a million miles an hour. The needle nose and vertical tail screamed predator.
I took the front seat, and Jahan settled into the gunner’s chair. The canopy dropped, I flipped on the engines, instruments, and radio, and called to the bridge. “We’re ready.”
For a few seconds, we could hear the air being sucked out of the bay and back into the rest of the ship. No sense wasting atmosphere. It cost money to make, as Jax frequently pointed out. Once the wind sounds died, the great outer doors swung slowly and ponderously open. Our view was dominated by the curving rim of the planet. Green seas and a small continent rolled past us. Beyond the bulk of the world, the stars glittered ice-bright. I sent us out into space, and immediately dodged a piece of broken ship.
“Do mind the trash,” Jahan said.
Something was niggling at me. Something missing in the orbital mix—but I was too busy negotiating the floating debris to figure it out. Instead of heading directly to the planet, I took the time to explore the expanding circle of debris that had been the Nuestra Señora de la Concepción. We soon saw bits of floating detritus that had once been people. I studied each frozen face haloed with crystals of frozen blood.
“She’s dead,” Jahan said.
“I know,” I said. But I couldn’t accept it. She was the heir to the League. There may have been added protection for Mercedes. There had to have been. She could not be gone. Twenty minutes later, I admitted defeat, took us out of the debris field, and headed toward the planet.
We were passing relatively close to a small moon—Kusatsu-Shirane had five but the others weren’t presently in view—when I heard it. A distress beacon, sending its cry into the void. We locked on and followed it. The life capsule had clamped itself limpetlike to the stony surface of the moon. The tiny computer brain that controlled the capsule had rightly figured that it was safer for the occupant not to be floating in a battle zone, and found refuge.
I landed the Wasp, popped the canopy, and pushed out with such force that I almost hit escape velocity from the tiny planetoid. Jahan’s tail caught my ankle, and pulled me back.
Moving with a bit more caution, I approached the body-shaped container resting in a small crater. The black surface was etched with messages in every known League language, urging the finder to contact the navy headquarters on Hissilek. There was also a dire warning to any that might stumble upon the body that the DNA of the human inside was not to be harvested or touched in any way.
I brushed away the layer of fine dust and ice that covered the faceplate of the life capsule. It was Mercedes. Placed into a deep coma by drugs injected by the capsule. Her long dark brown hair, streaked now with silver at her temples, had been braided, and the braid lay across one shoulder. A few strands of hair had come loose, and caught in her lips at the moment that the capsule had slammed shut around her. I wanted to reach out and brush them away. I studied the long, patrician nose, the espresso-and-cream-colored skin. She was so beautiful—and she was alive.
“Hmm, I thought a princess would be prettier,” Jahan said.
“She’s beautiful!” I flared.
“Ah, I see now. You’re in love with her.”
WE RETURNED TO the Selkie. There was no way to fit the capsule inside the Wasp. I reprogrammed the clamps and secured Mercedes to the hull. It made me uncomfortable treating her in such a disrespectful way, but I couldn’t open the capsule in vacuum and I had no suit for her.
“That was a quick trip.” Baca’s voice filled my helmet.
“We found a survivor,” I radioed back as I brought us in through the bay doors and dropped the Wasp onto the deck.
It was the work of minutes to unclamp the capsule from the side of the Wasp, and blow the seals. I eyed the tangle of IV tubes and the pinpricks of blood that stained her arms and legs where the needles had driven through her clothes and into her veins. While I was trying to figure out how to remove them without causing her pain, the capsule sensed warmth and atmosphere, and withdrew the needles that kept her in a deathlike coma.
I slid my arms beneath her and picked her up. I’d like to say that I swept her into my arms, but at five feet eight inches tall, she was not much shorter than me, and I had to work to carry her.
“You could have waited for a stretcher,” Jahan said as she listened to my panting breaths, and noticed the way I braced myself against the wall of the lift. I shook my head, not wanting to waste the air. “And have you considered that you have put us all at grave risk by bringing her aboard? We were smuggling to a Hidden World. The League will not only imprison us for that, they will assume we know the location of other such worlds, and they won’t be gentle in trying to elicit that information.”
“I couldn’t just leave her there.”
“Because you’re in love with her.”
I summoned up a glare. I didn’t have the breath for a response. We reached the fourth deck level, and I carried Mercedes into our small, but well-equipped, sick bay.
DALEA WAS WAITING for us. I wasn’t sure if Dalea had a medical license, but whatever her training was, she was very good. There had to be a story about why she’d signed aboard a ship, because she was Hajin, and the herbivores weren’t common in space, but I hadn’t managed to worm it out of her yet.
Her coat was white with streaks of red-brown, and a thick shock of chestnut hair curled across her skull and ran down her long neck and even longer spine to disappear beneath the waistband of her slacks. Somewhere along the evolutionary chain, a creature like a cross between a zebra and a giraffe had stood upright, the front legs had shortened to become arms, and the split hoof that passed for feet developed a third digit that served as a thumb.
I laid Mercedes on the bed, and Dalea began her examination. I was jiggling, shifting my weight from foot to foot, waiting. Finally, I couldn’t contain my anxiety any longer.
“Is she hurt?”
“Bumps, bruises.” Dalea filled a hypodermic. “She took a pretty good dose of radiation, probably when the flagship blew. This will help.”
She gave Mercedes the injection. A few moments later there was a reaction. Mercedes stirred and moaned. I laid a hand on her forehead.
“She’s in pain. What was in that shot?” I asked, suddenly suspicious of my alien shipmate.
“Nanobots that will repair her damaged DNA. That’s not why she’s moaning. She’s coming out of a rapidly induced coma, and she’s got that feeling of pins-and-needles in her extremities.”
Dalea exchanged a glance with Jahan, who shrugged and said, “He’s in love with her. What else can you expect?”
“Would you stop saying that,” I said, exasperated.
“So stay with her,” said Dalea. “I’m assuming that if you love her, you must know her, and she should wake up to a familiar face.”
The two alien females left the sick bay. I broke the magnetic seal on a chair, pulled it over to the bedside, and sat down. I took Mercedes’s limp hand where it hung over the side of the bed, and softly stroked it. It was her left hand, and the elaborate wedding set seemed to cut at my fingers.
She should wake up to a familiar face. What would that have been like? To sleep next to this woman? To have her scent in my nostrils? To have her long hair catch in my lips? Once, twenty-two years ago, I had experienced only the last of those fantasies. We had violated lights out at the Academy and met on the Star Deck. We had kissed, and her hair, floating in free fall, had caressed my face.
I was lost in a daydream, tending toward an actual dream, when Mercedes sighed and her fingers tightened on mine. My eyes jerked open, and I shot up out of the chair. She looked up at me, smiled, and murmured,
“Tracy. I dreamed I heard your voice. But you can’t actually be here.”
“But I am, your highness.”
She frowned, and reached up. I leaned forward so she could touch my face. She looked around the tiny space, and she accepted the truth. “Once more you rescue me,” she murmured.
WALKING ONTO THE bridge, I was met with three conversations all taking place simultaneously.
“Why are we still here? No trade, no money,” from Jax.
“Are you going down?” from Baca.
“I think I know what killed the Imperials,” from Melin.
I answered them in order of complexity. “Because I say so. Yes. What?”
Melin picked the question out of my surly and laconic reply. “Kusatsu-Shirane only has three moons now.”
I sat down at my post. “They blew up two of their moons?”
“Yep. Apparently, the Imperials closed with the planet in their normal arrowhead formation. Given the regularity of the moons’ orbits, the folks on Kusatsu-Shirane picked the two moons closest to the ships to destroy. The resulting debris went through the ships like shotgun pellets through cheese. Boom!” Melin accompanied the word with an expressive gesture.
“That would imply that the other three are booby trapped too.”
“Madre de Dios! I landed us on one of the remaining moons.” I wiped away the sweat that had suddenly bloomed on my upper lip.
“I think it took a person with a finger on the trigger to set off the explosions,” Melin offered. It was comfort, but not much.
“New plan. Let’s stay away from the remaining moons,” I said to our navigator.
“Good plan,” she said, and turned back to her console.
Baca spoke up. “Then why the dirge from the planet? They won a mighty victory.”
“But short term,” Jahan said. I jumped. Damn it, she’d done it again. Her fur tickled my left ear.
I nodded. “What Jahan said. The battle group’s course was filed with Central Command on Hissilek. When they neither call home nor come home, the League will come looking for them. Kusatsu-Shirane is going to be discovered.”
Mercedes’s voice had always had this little catch in it. Very endearing and very sexy. I stood and turned around. She was on the platform lift, and she looked shaky. I hurried to her side, and assisted her into the chair Baca hastily vacated. He was staring like a pole-axed bull. I couldn’t blame him. How often did an ordinary space tramp meet the heir to an empire?
“Uh… hello, ma’am, Luis Baca, communications. I’ll get a message off to Hissilek.”
“Where are you bound for next?” she asked me.
“A message won’t reach League space faster than this ship. There will be military ships at Cuandru.” She was right about that; Cuandru was the largest shipyard in the League. Mercedes smiled at me, but I noticed that the expression never reached her eyes. They were dark and haunted. “You’re the captain.”
“I am,” I said.
“Congratulations. You finally made it.”
“On a trading vessel.” I hoped that the resentment didn’t show too badly.
“Believe me, it’s better than being an admiral,” Mercedes said softly.
“I’ll have to take your word for it.”
“So why are you still in orbit?” she asked.
“We have no communication from the planet,” Jax trilled. “We are uncertain if there is anyone to trade with.”
“Tracy was on his way to the planet when he picked up your distress signal,” Melin said.
“Did they evacuate?” Mercedes asked.
“It’s possible, but not likely. There were close to a million people on Kusatsu-Shirane,” I said.
Mercedes stood. “Then let us go and find out what has become of them.”
“I’m not sure that’s a good idea.”
“I’m not asking. You’re still my subject.”
The final words came floating back over her shoulder. I followed her onto the lift.
THE WIND WHISPERED down the deserted streets of Edogowa. There were no vehicles parked on the streets. It was all very tidy and orderly. It was near sunset, and to the west magnificent thunderheads formed a vibrant palette of blues, grays, reds, and golds. Two long but very narrow bands of rain extended from the clouds to the chaparral below. The bands looked like sweeping tendrils of gray hair, and where the rain hit the ground, the dust on this high desert plateau boiled into the air like milk froth.
“Where is everybody?” Baca asked. His eyes darted nervously from side to side.
Jahan came scrambling down the wall of a four-story office building. “Nobody’s there. Lights are off. Computers shut down. It’s like everybody’s taken a holiday.”
Mercedes shivered. I started to put my arm around her shoulders, but thought better of it and drew back. “Let’s go to a house,” she said.
“Why?” Jahan asked.
“When you think something terrible is about to happen, you want to be with your loved ones,” Mercedes answered.
We had ended up landing the Selkie at the small spaceport. The Wasp could only comfortably carry two, and the melancholy music and the lack of human voices had me jumpy. I wanted backup. Jahan radioed our plan back to Melin, Jax, and Dalea.
Our footfalls echoed on the sidewalk and bounced off the sides of the buildings. I realized that something else was missing besides the people: the smell of cooking food. There were hundreds of restaurants in Edogowa. Most business was conducted over a meal, and deals were sealed with alcohol. Food was a ritual on Kusatsu-Shirane. But now all I smelled was that pungent mix of dust and rain and ozone as the storm approached.
The business district gave way to small wood houses with shoji screens on the windows, and graceful upturned edges on the roofs. Now we found vehicles, carefully parked at the houses. The clouds rolled in, dulling the color of the flowers in perfectly groomed beds. Overhead, thunder grumbled like a giant shifting in his sleep.
We picked a house at random and walked up to the front door. I knocked. Silence. I knocked again. Mercedes reached past me, grasped the knob and opened the door.
“Trusting kind of place,” Baca muttered.
“They want us to come in. To see,” Mercedes said in a hollow tone.
No one asked the obvious see what question. It had taken me longer, but I had finally come to the same point as Mercedes in my analysis. Japanese-influenced culture, imminent loss of their children and their way of life—for the people of Kusatsu-Shirane there was only one possible solution.
The family was in the bedroom. The children lay in their mother’s arms. Her lax hands were still over their eyes. She had a neat hole in her forehead. The children had been shot in the back of the head. The father slumped in a chair, chin resting on his chest. Blood formed a bib on the front of his shirt. The pistol had fallen from his hand.
Mercedes remained stone-faced as we toured more houses. It was the seventh house before she finally broke. A sob burst out, she turned toward me. My arms opened, and she buried her face against my chest. She was crying so hard that in a matter of moments, the front of my shirt was wet. It made me think of the father in the first house, his shirt wet with blood. I closed my arms tight around Mercedes, trying to hold back the horror.
“Why? They would have had a good life! Especially the children. Why would they do this? They’re insane!”
“Because the life we offered wasn’t the life they wanted,” I said softly. “This was the last choice they could make for themselves, and they made it. I’m not saying it’s a good choice, but I can understand it.”
“They killed their children,” Mercedes whispered. “Thousands of children.” She broke out of my embrace, dragged frantic fingers through her hair. “Why? To keep them from us? We’re not monsters!”
“That depends on where you’re sitting in the pecking order,” Jahan said in her dry way.
There was a silence for several long moments. Mercedes stood in the living room, surrounded by the dead. She looked lost and terribly frail. I stepped to her side and put my arm around her.
“Let’s go,” I said softly. “There’s nothing here.”
“Ghosts,” she whispered. “They’ll be here.”
MELIN PLOTTED OUR course for Cuandru, the Isanjo home world. We boosted out of orbit, heading for open vacuum between the planets before we entered the Fold.
I left the bridge and went to visit Jax in his office/cabin. He was standing in a wading pool of water rehydrating his leaves, and holding a computer while he ran figures. Nervous whistling emerged from the sound valves that lined his sides. Each valve emitted a different, discordant tone. It was like a dentist drilling.
“How bad?” I asked.
“Bad. We didn’t sell the low-tech farm equipment on Kusatsu-Shirane, which meant we didn’t pick up loads of lacquer knickknacks to sell to your jaded ruling class on League worlds. We must hope for a big reward for rescuing the Infanta,” Jax concluded.
“That’s it? That’s your only reaction to the death of a million people? We couldn’t make the sale?”
The seven ocular organs around the alien’s head swiveled to regard me. “What was it one of your ancient dictators said? One death is a tragedy; a million is a statistic. And, bluntly, they were not my kind, nor is it a choice I can condone.”
And that’s why they call them alien, I thought as I left. I decided not to ask the other alien members of the crew how they felt.
The bizarre philosophical discussion had meant that I hadn’t voiced my real concern: that the League would decide we were somehow behind the destruction of the fleet and slap us in prison. It would be a black eye for the navy and the Infanta if the government had to admit that the citizens of a Hidden World had destroyed a battle group. Better to blame a slightly shady trading vessel commanded by a disgraced Imperial officer. I decided that it couldn’t hurt to clear things up with Mercedes.
I had given her my cabin. It was slightly larger than the crew cabins, and the bed could actually hold two assuming they were friendly. Privacy on ships is the opposite of what one might expect. You’d think that people living in close confines inside a tin can would want the closed door and a private place. Instead I found that crews tended to live in a constant state of togetherness, like a group hug. We walked in and out of each other’s cabins. When we weren’t on duty we played games that involved lots of people. I think it’s because space is so vast, so empty, and so cold that you want the comfort of contact with other living things.
Which is why I just walked in on Mercedes. She was kneeling in front of the small shrine I maintained to the Virgin, and she was saying the rosary. The click of the beads set a counterpoint to the bass throb of the engines, and I was startled when I realized she was using my rosary. But of course she would have to. Hers had been reduced to dust and atoms along with everything else aboard the Nuestra.
She gave me a brief nod, her lips continuing to move, and the familiar prayer just the barest of sound in the room. I sat down on the bed and waited. She wasn’t that far from the end.
I closed my eyes and took the opportunity to offer up a prayer for my father, still laboring away in the tailor shop on Hissilek. A stroke—brought on, I was convinced, by my court-martial and subsequent conviction—had left him with a crippled right leg, but he still worked, making uniforms for the very men who had ruined me. Sometimes it felt like the most personal of betrayals, and I hated him for it, but in more rational moments, I realized that he had to eat, and that he had spent a lifetime outfitting the officers of the Imperial Navy. It wasn’t like he could become a designer of ladies’ fashion at age sixty-eight.
I jumped and my eyes flew open when I felt cool fingers touch my cheek. Mercedes was standing directly in front of me, and so close. She jerked back her hand at my startled reaction. I didn’t want her to take my response as a rejection, so I reached out and grabbed her hand.
“It’s all right; you just startled me,” I said.
While at the same moment she was saying, “I’m sorry. You just had such a hurt and angry look on your face.”
“Memories.” I shrugged. “They’re never a good thing.”
“Really? I have some nice ones of you.”
“Don’t.” I stood up and brushed past her. “All this proves is that the universe is a bitch and she has a nasty sense of humor.”
“We were very good… friends once.”
“Yes, but that was years ago, and a marriage ago.” I couldn’t help it. I looked back, hoping I’d hurt her, and was embarrassed when I realized I had.
But it was hard, so hard. She had married my greatest enemy from the Academy. Honorius Sinclair Cullen, Knight of the Arches and Shells, Duke de Argento, known to his friends and enemies as BoHo. He was an admiral now, too. I touched the scar at my left temple, a gift from BoHo, and his mocking tones seemed to whisper in the throb of the engines. Lowborn scum.
Mercedes sank down on the bed. “We all do what we must. That must be what the people on Kusatsu-Shirane thought.” There was an ocean of grief in her dark brown eyes.
I walked back and sat down next to her. Sitting this close, I could see the web of crow’s-feet around her eyes, and the two small frown lines between her brows. We were forty-four years old, and I wondered if either of us had ever known a day of unadulterated happiness.
“Has it been so bad?”
She looked down at her hand, twisted the wedding set, and finally pulled it off. It left a red indentation like a brand on her finger. “The palace makes sure his affairs are conducted discreetly, and they vet the women to make sure they aren’t reporters or working for political opponents, and thank God there have been no bastards.” She paused and gave me a rueful smile. “Unfortunately, no legitimate children either. If I don’t whelp soon, my father may remove me from the succession.”
There was a flare of heat in my chest. If she wasn’t the Infanta, wasn’t the heir, she could live as she pleased. Maybe even with a tailor’s son. There was also a bitter pleasure in learning that BoHo was sterile.
“But look at you. Captain Belmanor. How did you come by this ship?”
“I won a share of it in a card game. It seemed great at first. Then I discovered how much was still owed on the damn thing. Sometimes I think Tregillis lost deliberately.”
Mercedes laughed. She knew me too well. “Admit it. You love it. You’re a captain, you go where you please, no orders from highborn twits with more braid than brains.”
“Yes, but I wanted to stay in the navy. To prove that one of my kind could be an effective officer.”
There was a silence; then she asked, “Were you guilty?”
“I thought not. But the evidence against you was—”
“Overwhelming. Yes. That should always be a clue that someone’s being framed.” I sat frowning, shifting through all the old hurts and injustices.
She hesitantly touched my shoulder. “I’m sorry. I thought about doing something.”
“So why didn’t you?” And I realized that I was less angry than honestly curious.
“I was afraid…”
“Of—?” She held up her hand, cutting off the rest of my question.
“There would have been whispers.” We sat silent for a few minutes. The memory of the Star Deck returned. “Have you married?” she suddenly asked, pulling me back to the present.
“No. I never met anyone I wanted to marry.”
“Liar.” Her look challenged me. I realized that our thighs were touching, shoulders brushing. Her hair was tickling my ear and cheek. She smelled of sweat and faded perfume and woman.
“Mercedes, I’m… um…”
“You saved my life,” she said softly, and she took my hand and laid it on her breast.
I jumped up and looked down at her. “No. Not because you’re grateful. That would be worse than never having you.”
“You loved me once.”
“I still do.” She had tricked me, and I had said it. I fell back on the only defense and the source of my greatest pain. “And you’re another man’s wife.”
She stood. “Damn your middle-class morality! My life has been bound by expectations, rules, and protocol. I married a man I do not love. I became a military leader because of my father’s frustration over his lack of a son. And now I’ve led my fleet to destruction, and the very thought of me and what I represent has driven the population of an entire planet to commit suicide! But I’m forced to live on with all the loss and regret. Can’t I have one moment of happiness?” The agony in her voice nearly broke my resolve.
She turned away, hiding her tears. I gently took hold of her shoulders. “See if you still feel this way after a night’s sleep. I don’t want to add to those regrets.”
I left before temptation overcame scruples.
WE TOOK THE Selkie out to an area of open space, well away from any planetary bodies in the solar system, and folded. The ports now showed the strange gray filaments, like spiderweb or gray cotton candy, which was the hallmark of traveling past light-speed. I checked the watch implanted in the weave of my shirt. Midafternoon. I decided to check on Mercedes. There was no response to my gentle knock. Concerned, I slipped into the cabin and found her asleep, but there were traces of tears on her cheeks. She murmured disconsolately and her fingers plucked at the sheets. Feeling like a voyeur, I quietly left.
And was caught by Baca, who with unaccustomed seriousness said, “I was thinking about saying a Kaddish for the people, but I realized it was more Masada than Holocaust, and then I had to wonder if it was a righteous choice. To die rather than submit. Is that noble, or is it more noble to survive and persevere? What do you think?”
I looked at this stranger in Baca’s body, and tried to compose an answer. We had stood at the edge of a massive graveyard, and I couldn’t grasp it. All I knew was that this burden of guilt rested on the shoulders of the woman I loved. I couldn’t do anything for the battle group or for Kusatsu-Shirane, but maybe I could do something for Mercedes.
She joined us that evening for supper. With Mercedes, it was a tight fit around the small table in the mess, but we all squeezed in. Jahan had prepared a slow-simmered stew of rehydrated vegetables and lamb for the omnivores, and there was a vegetarian dish for Dalea and Jax. Like all Isanjo food, it was highly spiced, so I drank more beer than normal. Perhaps it was due more to sitting so close to Mercedes.
Once the plates were cleared, Melin brought me a reader. I was embarrassed to display this silly ship custom in front of Mercedes. I hedged. “I don’t remember where we were.”
“The chapter entitled ‘Wayfarers All,’ page 159, second paragraph,” Jax offered helpfully. I mentally cursed the creature for its perfect recall.
“What is this?” Mercedes asked.
“We read aloud after the final meal of the day,” Jahan said. “Each one of us picks a book from our species. You never really know a culture until you’ve heard their poetry and read their great literature.”
“An interesting way to spread understanding,” Mercedes said thoughtfully.
“Yes, you don’t allow it in your human schools and universities,” Dalea said.
Mercedes blushed and I glared at the Hajin.
“And what human book did you select?” Mercedes hurriedly asked me, to cover the awkward moment.
“The Wind in the Willows.”
Mercedes shifted her chair so she could better see me. “Please, do read.”
I was embarrassed, and cleared my throat several times before starting, but after a few sentences, the soft magic of the story and the music of the words made me forget my special listener.
“She will clothe herself with canvas; and then, once outside, the sounding slap of great green seas as she heels to the wind, pointing South! And you, you will come too, young brother; for the days pass, and never return, and the South still waits for you. Take the Adventure, heed the call, now ere the irrevocable moment passes!” My voice cracked on the final words. I coughed and reached for my beer and finished off the last sip. “That’s all the voice I have tonight,” I said.
There were a few groans of disappointment, but the party broke up, some of the crew to return to the bridge, others to their cabins to sleep. I escorted Mercedes back to the cabin.
We stopped at the door, and an awkward silence fell over us both. “I’ve slept a night,” she finally said quietly.
My collar suddenly grabbed my throat. I ran a finger around it. “Ah… yes, you have.”
“I believe I’ll take the wayfarer’s advice,” she murmured, and she kissed me.
I had enough wit, barely, to lock the door behind us.
LATER, WE LAY in the narrow bed. I liked that it was narrow. It meant that she had to stay close. Her head was on my shoulder, and I twined a strand of her hair through my fingers. I was very aware of the scent of Mercedes—the deep musk of our sex mingling, the spice and pine smell of her hair—her breath, which seemed to hold a hint of vanilla. I kissed her long and deep, then pulled back and smacked my lips.
“You taste like vanilla too,” I answered. She blushed. It was adorable. She ran a hand through my dishwater blond hair. “I know, I’m shaggy. I’ll get a haircut on Cuandru.”
“I like it. It makes you look rakish. You were always so spit and polish.”
“I had to be. Everyone was waiting for the ‘lowborn scum’ to disgrace the service.”
She laid a hand across my mouth. “Don’t. Forget about them. Forget the slights.”
“Hard to do.”
“Don’t be a grievance collector,” Mercedes said. She changed the subject. “Lot of silver in there.”
I stroked the gray streaks at her temples. “Neither of us is as young as we used to be.”
“Really? I would never have known that if you hadn’t told me.” She pulled my hair, and we laughed together.
I was on the verge of dozing off when she suddenly rested a hand on my chest and pushed herself up. Her hair hung around her like a mahogany-colored veil. My good mood gave way to alarm, because she looked so serious.
“Tracy, do something for me?”
“Don’t report that you’ve found me. Not just yet. I want a little more time.”
I did too. So I agreed.
Late in the sleep cycle, I was awakened by her cries. Tears slid from beneath her lashes and wet her cheeks though she was still asleep. She thrashed, fighting the covers. I caught her in my arms, and held her close.
“Mercedes, mi amor. Wake up. You’re safe.”
Her eyes opened and she blinked up at me in confusion. “They’re dead.” She gave a violent shiver, and covered her face with her hands, then looked in surprise at the tears clinging to her fingers. “I see those houses. The children. I killed them.”
I rocked her. “Shhh, hush, you didn’t.” But it was only a half-truth and she knew it. And she was only mentioning half the dead. There was no word of the battle group. The men she’d commanded, and who had died no less surely than the people of Kusatsu-Shirane.
Eventually, she fell back to sleep. I lay awake, holding her close and wondering when the full trauma would hit.
SINCE THERE WAS AN Imperial shipyard at Cuandru, I came out of Fold at the edge of the solar system. I didn’t want the big point-to-point guns deciding that we were some kind of threat. I ordered Baca to tight beam our information—ship registry, previous ports of call (excluding the Hidden Worlds, of course), and cargo—to the planetary control. My radio man gave me a look.
“We’re not mentioning the Infanta?”
“Not yet. Her orders,” I answered, striving to sound casual. Melin and Baca exchanged glances, and Melin rolled her eyes. I felt the flush rising up my neck, into my face, until it culminated at the top of my ears. Not for the first time, I cursed my fair complexion.
“Then she better be a crew member,” Jahan said. “Otherwise, they’ll think we’re white slavers and we kidnapped her.”
“She’s not young enough,” I said.
“Oh, boy,” Baca muttered.
“Better not let her hear you say that,” Jahan said.
“What?” I demanded.
Melin said, “Captain, somebody’s got to take you in hand and teach you how to be a boyfriend.”
“I’m not her boyfriend. She’s married. We’re friends.”
“Okay. Then you got a lot to learn about being a lover,” Melin said.
At that moment, I hated my crew. I made an inarticulate sound and clutched at my hair. “Get her on the crew list.” I stomped off the bridge.
I DECIDED TO take us in to dock at the station. I shooed Melin out of her post, and she proceeded to hover behind me like an overanxious mother. Through the horseshoe-shaped port, we could see the big cruisers under construction. Spacesuited figures, most of them Isanjos, clambered and darted around the massive skeletal forms. Against the black of space, the sparks off their welders were like newly born stars.
There was a light touch on my shoulder. I glanced up briefly. It was Mercedes, and sometime in the past few hours, she had cut her hair, dyed it red, and darkened her skin. Dalea loomed behind her.
“What’s this?” I asked, hating the loss of that glorious mane.
“We had to do something to keep her from being recognized,” Dalea said.
“I’m sure the port authorities will be expecting to find the Infanta aboard a tramp cargo ship,” I said sarcastically, as I tweaked the maneuvering jets.
Jahan, seated at my command station, said “Tracy, her face is on the money.”
And so it was. She graced the twenty Reales note. The picture was taken from an official portrait that had her wearing a tiara, long hair elaborately styled, and a diamond necklace at her throat. Now she wore a pair of my stained cargo pants, and one of Melin’s shirts.
Jax came rustling onto the bridge. Now the entire crew and Mercedes were watching, but I wasn’t nervous. I knew I was good. With brief bursts of fire from alternating jets, I took us through the maze of trading ships, station scooters, racing yachts, and military vessels. With a final burst of power from the starboard engines, I spun the ship ninety degrees and brought us to rest, like a butterfly landing on a flower, against a docking gantry at the main space station.
There was a brief outburst of applause. Mercedes leaned down and whispered, “You were the best pilot of our class.” The touch of her lips and the puff of her breath against my ear sent a shiver through me.
She straightened, and addressed the crew. “So what now?”
“We try to find someone to buy the farm equipment, and we pick up another cargo,” Jax fluted.
Melin stretched her arms over her head. “I want a martini and a massage. And maybe not in that order. Or maybe both at the same time.”
Jahan uncoiled from the back of the captain’s chair. “I’m going home to see my mates and kids.”
“If the captain will give me money, I’ll replenish our medical supplies,” Dalea said.
Mercedes smiled at Baca. “And what about you?”
He blushed. “I’m gonna find a concert. Maybe go to the opera, depending on what’s playing.”
Mercedes tugged my hair. “And you need a haircut.”
“I take it we’re going planetside?” I asked.
“Oh, yes,” Mercedes assured me.
Dalea’s makeover worked. The guards glanced briefly at my ship papers, and waved us through and onto a shuttle to the planet.
IT WAS FOOLISH, crazy even. I planned to check us into an exclusive hotel, a place frequented by aristocrats and famous actors. It was going to take most of my savings, but I wanted… I wasn’t sure exactly what I wanted. To make sure she was comfortable. To show her that I could be her equal. Fortunately, Mercedes was wiser than me. When I outlined my plan, she took my face between her hands and gently shook my head back and forth.
“No. First, you don’t have to prove anything to me, and second, I’m likely to be recognized, red hair or no, and third, I’ve spent my life with these people. Let me have another life. A short time where I don’t have to remember…” But she didn’t finish the thought.
Jahan advised us, and we ended up in an Isanjo tree house hotel that sprawled through an old-growth forest on the outskirts of the capital city. To accommodate the occasional human visitor, there were swaying bridges between the trees, which Mercedes and I used with white-knuckled effort. As we crept across the swaying bridges, the Isanjo traveled branch to branch, and crossed the intervening spaces with great soaring leaps. The Isanjo were good enough to deliver meals to our aerie, so we spent our first day planetside in bed.
Wind whispered and then roared through the leaves as it brought down a storm from the mountains. It set our room to swaying. Lightning flashed through the wooden shutters, and thunder growled with a sound like a giant chewing on boulders. We clung to each other, torn between terror and delight. The rain came, hammering on the wooden roof, forcing its way through the shutters to spray lightly across our bodies. It broke the heat, and we shivered and snuggled close.
It would have been perfect except for her nightmares.
The next day, Mercedes took command. We went to explore the city, and to find a barber. Mercedes and the Hajin hairdresser discussed every cowlick, natural part, and the consistency of my hair before she would allow the alien to cut. Between them, they decided I should wear bangs. It felt strange, and I kept pushing them off my forehead, only to have my lady reach out and muss my hair each time I did.
We strolled through the Old Quarter, and I bought Mercedes a string of beads that she’d admired. We moved on, strolling along the river walk. Everyone seemed to be taking advantage of the good weather. Families spread blankets on the grass, children tussled like happy kittens, babies cried. Mercedes and I sat on a bench at the water’s edge, listening to the water gurgle and chuckle while we shared an ice cream cone.
We ate dinner at an outdoor café. The Isanjo, being almost complete carnivores, know how to cook meat. Our steaks arrived running blood, tender, and subtly flavored by having been stuffed with cheese. We polished off a bottle of deep red wine between us, and talked about books and music and the wonderful things we’d seen during the day. She scrupulously avoided all talk of the empire, the navy, or Kusatsu-Shirane. We shared a dessert, a lighter-than-air concoction of mangos, some local fruit, cream, and pistachio nuts. I drained my coffee, and steeled myself for a conversation that had to happen.
“You need to talk to someone. About what happened.”
“I will. This policy can’t stand. Not if it’s going to lead to mass suicide,” she said.
I shook my head. “Stop deflecting. You need to face what’s happened, and figure out why you’re identifying more with the people on Kusatsu-Shirane than you are with your own battle group.”
“That’s not fair.”
“Tell me I’m wrong.” She stayed silent. I left it there. “So, shall we go?”
I left money on the table, and we walked out onto the street. The air was soft after the tumultuous storms of the night before. The restaurants were still busy, and the many voices and many languages wove into something that was almost music. Then we heard real music. Dance music. Mercedes turned to me.
“Do you like to dance?”
“No,” I said.
She grabbed my hand. “I love to dance.” And I came along like the tail on her kite. There was a small band playing on a pier that thrust out into the river. Multicolored lanterns hung overhead. The Isanjo danced on the narrow wires that supported the lanterns. The humans, earthbound and awkward, danced on the wooden pier. I felt graceless and stupid. There had been no deportment and dance lessons in my youth, but Mercedes was gifted with grace and rhythm. She made me look good.
The dance ended, and we went off to the small bar to buy drinks. She took a long sip, and then kissed me. I tasted rum and basil.
“So, I’m forgiven for poking at you?”
“At least you notice when I’m crazy,” she said.
“You’re not crazy. The people on Kusatsu-Shirane were crazy.”
“Were they? No one got to force them into a life—”
But she didn’t get to finish the thought because there were murmurs from the crowd. Everyone was looking up. We followed suit and watched pinpricks of light appear and flash like brilliant diamonds in the night sky.
“That’s a fleet coming in,” I said.
Mercedes gripped me tightly. “Take me home.”
It was a misnomer. We had no home, but I understood what she wanted. The comfort of bed, bodies pressed close, a roof to shut out the image of duty and responsibility now orbiting overhead.
We returned to the hotel and our lovemaking had a desperate quality. She clung to me, clawed at me as if she wanted to crawl inside my skin. Finally, I had nothing more to give. I lay gasping, body sweat-bathed, blood pounding in my ears.
Mercedes was curled up in a ball. I put an arm around her waist and spooned her. “Tracy.” It was barely audible.
“Let me stay. Really be a member of your crew.” Tension and desperate longing etched every word, and her fingers clung like claws to my wrist. She turned over suddenly, her face inches from mine. “They think I’m dead. We can go away. Be together.”
For an instant, I was giddy at the prospect. I thought of the worlds we’d visit together. Nights in my cabin. Listening to her read to the crew. But reality returned.
“No, love, they know you survived. Your capsule was beaming out continuous messages. When those signals stopped, they know you were found and the capsule opened. They would search for us, and they could never admit that you joined us voluntarily.”
“And they would kill you,” she said, her voice flat and dull.
“And beyond personal concerns, what happens if you don’t take the throne? You know BoHo will try to rule in your place.” She shuddered at the prospect. “We’ve had this moment. We couldn’t expect it to last.”
“It will last. At least until morning.”
We didn’t sleep. It would have wasted the time we still had together.
SHE WANTED TO say good-bye to everyone. I called them, and the crew assembled at a popular, if low-rent, diner. I ordered huevos rancheros because I could stir it together and no one would notice that I hadn’t eaten. There was a brittle quality to our laughter, and only at the end did we discuss what lay between us.
Mercedes encompassed them all with a look. “Thank you all for your kindness. I’ll never forget you and what you did for me. I also wanted you to know that there are going to be changes when I take the throne. There won’t be another Kusatsu-Shirane, and I’ll see that there’s a review of the alien laws.”
The parting took a while because Dalea wanted to “make sure her patient was fit.” Mercedes and the Hajin retreated to the bathroom. Jahan joined me and stretched out her claws.
“Will you survive?”
“I’ll have to,” I said with forced lightness.
Mercedes and Dalea returned. Mercedes had an indescribable expression on her face. I briefly took her hand. “All good?” I asked.
“Yes. Oh, yes,” she said in a faraway voice.
Our next stop was the hair salon. My hairdresser from the day before stripped the red from Mercedes hair, and restored it to its lustrous dark brown. Once he was finished, the Hajin studied her closely. Mercedes went imperious on him.
“All you’ve seen is a remarkable resemblance.”
He stepped back, extended a front leg, and gave her a dignified bow. “Quite, ma’am.”
We took a cab to the League Embassy. Barricades and guards surrounded the building. The driver cranked around to look at us. “They won’t let me any closer than this,” he said.
“That’s fine,” I said.
Mercedes and I looked at each other. Mercedes’s eyes were awash with tears. I swallowed hard, trying to force down the painful lump that had settled in my throat.
“Good-bye,” she said. She started to reach out a hand, then threw herself into my arms and pressed her lips to mine. She pulled away, opened the door, and got out.
I got out too, and watched as she walked quickly toward the elaborate gates of the embassy. She didn’t look back. There was a flurry of reaction from the guards. The door of the embassy opened, and a flying wedge of men, led by BoHo, rushed out. Medals and ribbons glittered on the midnight blue of his uniform jacket, and the sunlight glinted off his jet-black hair. He was still handsome, though middle age had softened the lines of his jaw.
He went to kiss her, and Mercedes turned her face away.
MY THREE ALIEN crew members found me in a bar late that night.
Jax shuffled closer. “The ship’s note’s been paid off, so we own her free and clear. And we got a reward. A most generous reward. The Infanta meets her obligations. And I’ve procured a new cargo. We’re ready to leave whenever you are.”
Jahan curled up on the bar stool next to me. “The fleet has withdrawn. They’re rushing back to Hissilek. Apparently, the emperor’s had a stroke.”
That pulled me out of my rapt contemplation of my scotch. I met those alien eyes, and I had that cold sensation of being surrounded by hidden forces that were plotting against humans.
“How… convenient,” I managed.
“I think she’ll be a good ruler,” Jahan said. “Now the final bit of news.” She gestured to Dalea.
“The Infanta is pregnant.” I gaped at the Hajin. “Congratulations,” Dalea added.
I’m going to be a father. My child will be the heir to the Solar League. I will never know him or her.
And I realized that maybe none of us ever gets to choose our lives. Our only choice is to live the life that comes to us, or go down into darkness.
I drained my scotch, and pushed back from the bar. “Let’s go see what tomorrow holds.”
New York Times bestseller Robin Hobb is one of the most popular writers in fantasy today, having sold more than one million copies of her work in paperback. She’s perhaps best known for her epic fantasy Farseer series (Assassin’s Apprentice, Royal Assassin, and Assassin’s Quest), as well as the two fantasy trilogies related to it: the Liveship Traders (Ship of Magic, Mad Ship, and Ship of Destiny) and the Tawny Man (Fool’s Errand, Golden Fool, and Fool’s Fate). The last one was reprinted in 2009. She is also the author of the Soldier Son trilogy (Shaman’s Crossing, Forest Mage, and Renegade’s Magic). Her early novels, published under the name Megan Lindholm, include the fantasy novels Wizard of the Pigeons, Harpy’s Flight, The Windsingers, The Limbreth Gate, The Luck of the Wheels, The Reindeer People, Wolf’s Brother, and Cloven Hooves; the science fiction novel Alien Earth, and, with Steven Brust, the novel The Gypsy. Her most recent books as Robin Hobb are the novels Dragon Keeper and Dragon Haven.
In the poignant story that follows, she shows us that although love can build bridges across the widest of chasms, those bridges can be swept away by a flood of troubles—but that sometimes, with luck and persistence, they can be built again.
She was sitting on the splintery landing of the rickety wooden steps that led up to the kitchen servants’ quarters. The sun had warmed the steps and it was her free day. Timbal had an apple, crisp from the tree, and she was swinging her boots and watching the swooping swallows as she ate it. Summer was winding to a close and soon the birds would be gone. Idly, she wished she were going with them, then just as quickly changed her mind. Life at Timberrock Keep was good to her; she should be thanking the goddess Eda for such a pleasant day, not wishing for more.
Azen the minstrel came out of the kitchen door. As he passed her, he casually reached up and knocked on the bottom of her boots. “’Morning, blue boots,” he said, and walked on. She sat, apple in hand, staring after him as he made his long-legged way down the winding gravel path. His trousers were blue, his jacket a deep gold. His head was a tangle of loose black curls that jogged as he strode along.
In that moment, Timbal fell in love with him.
It does not take that much to fall in love when you are seventeen and alone in the world, and Timbal was both. Her father’s death had cut her adrift; she knew she’d been lucky to find a post as a kitchen girl at one of the lesser keeps in Buck Duchy. It was much better than the inn where she’d first found employment. Here, she had daily work, hot food, and her own room and bed. There was a future for her here; most likely was that she’d keep working year after year and that eventually she’d become a cook. Less likely was the prospect of getting married and becoming a wife to one of the other Timberrock servants.
A handsome minstrel had no place in either future. Traditionally, minstrels never wed or settled down. They were the wandering record keepers of the Six Duchies, the men and women who knew not just the larger history of the world, but the details of inheritances, the bloodlines of the noble families, and many particulars of agreements among the small holders and even the business of the many towns and cities. They wandered where they would, supported by the largesse of titled families and innkeepers and patrons, slept where and with whom they pleased, and then wandered on. There were minstrels’ guilds in the larger cities and informal associations in the lesser towns where orphans and the bastards of minstrels might be raised to follow in their trade. It was a high and artistic calling that was not at all respectable or secure.
In short, handsome, melodic Azen was the worst possible sort of fellow for a girl like Timbal to fall in love with. And so, of course, she had.
She had seen him before the morning he knocked on the soles of her boots and she opened her heart to him. In the evenings, when the day’s work was mostly done, all the folk of Timberrock Keep were welcome to gather in the lord’s hall to listen to music and tales while they finished whatever chores could be done inside of an evening. Stable boys mended harness, housemaids stitched torn sheets or darned socks, and kitchen maids such as Timbal could bring a big basket of apples to core and slice for the next day’s pies. And so she had seen Azen, standing in the late-evening light from the open doors and windows, singing for Lady Lucent and her husband Lord Just.
For Lord Just, long crippled from a fall during a hunt, Azen chanted tales of ancient battles or songs about deeds of daring. Lord Just had been a muscular fellow before his fall, she had heard. Confined to a chair, his body had dwindled, and his black curls were starting to turn gray. When he thudded his fist on the table and sang the refrains to some of the old songs, he reminded Timbal more of a small child banging with a spoon than a man enjoying a drinking song. The strength of his lungs and depth of his voice had diminished along with his body. Yet when he sang along, often as not, Lady Lucent would set her hand on his bony shoulder and smile at him, as if remembering the man he had once been to her.
For Lady Lucent, Azen sang romantic ballads or recited in dramatic tones the tales of love prevailing against all odds, or failing in heart-rending circumstances. When Azen performed for her, Lady Lucent’s eyes never left the minstrel’s face. Often she kept her kerchief to hand, for more than once his songs wrung tears from her eyes. She was not alone in that. On her very first evening in the hall, Timbal had been surprised to find her own eyes overflowing with tears at Azen’s tale of a wandering warrior who finally returned home to discover he was too late; his lady love was in her early grave. Timbal had been a bit embarrassed to weep at such a sad and sentimental song; it was evidently a familiar favorite to many at the keep, for they hummed along and kept at their tasks, some whispering to one another, untouched by his words. She had no kerchief and was reduced to wiping her cuff across her streaming eyes.
And when she lowered her wrist from her face, she realized that Azen was staring straight at her. As their eyes met, perhaps a small smile quirked at the corner of his mouth. Not a mockery, but his pleasure at her response to his song. His eyes had said the same, and she had dropped her gaze back onto the potatoes she was slicing, confused and embarrassed to be noticed by him. Long minutes later, she lifted her eyes again, and was relieved to find the minstrel singing directly to Lady Lucent, as if she were the only listener in his world. Timbal managed to sit through the rest of his performance without letting her emotional responses to his songs be too obvious. Surely it wasn’t appropriate for her to weep like a child at a simple song. A tender-hearted lady might break down at such a thing, but not a kitchen maid.
When evening was deep and the minstrel announced with regret that he must give his voice a rest, Lady Lucent spoke softly to Lord Just, and the man beckoned the minstrel forward. A little purse of red fabric tied with a gold cord appeared on the table at the lord’s elbow. His lady might have readied it and passed it to him; Timbal hadn’t seen. The minstrel thanked them both profusely, sweeping a low bow to the lord and going down on one knee to kiss the lady’s hand. Timbal, relatively new to such goings-on, watched curiously; so this was how things were done in a keep! She wondered if she had blundered into a special performance on her first evening here or if this was a nightly occurrence. The minstrel rose gracefully from his obeisance and made his way out of the room. She looked up at him from her seat on the floor as he passed close by her. He looked down at her. And winked.
Or blinked, perhaps. He was gone and she was left wondering what, if anything, she had seen. The conclusion of the minstrel’s performance had signaled the end of socializing in the hall. All around her, people were packing up their work. On the dais, the queen was bidding good evening to the aristocratic couple who were currently visiting at the keep, while the four stout men who carried the king’s pole chair were standing by to await his orders to move him. Timbal gathered up her empty bucket, her knife, and her basin of cut potatoes, and carried them back to the kitchen. Her bundle was still in the corner where she had left it. She gathered it up and waited until the cook had a free moment, and then asked him, “Please, sir, where may I sleep tonight?”
He scowled briefly, and for one terrifying moment, she wondered if he remembered that earlier that day he’d offered her room and board in return for her labor in the kitchen. Then he said, “Out that door, to the left, up the wooden stairs two flights. I think there’s a room or two empty up there. Whatever’s left in the room, you can use. If it’s empty, well, manage as well as you can tonight, and tomorrow I’ll see who can spare what. Good night, girl.”
She’d found an empty room, as he suggested, and was fortunate that it had a mattress stuffed with rather musty straw, and a simple but well-made table, and even a basin and ewer. That night, she’d taken the time to draw wash water for herself, but had slept on the mattress as it was.
In the days since then, Cook had learned her name, and she’d freshened the mattress with clean straw, and been given a rag rug and some empty sacking that had become curtains for the small window in the room. Most of the other kitchen help kept their shutters closed, winter and summer, but Timbal judged the fresh air worth the nuisance of flies in the day and mosquitoes at night. Her extra apron and servant’s robe hung on a hook at night, her shoes beneath them. Her personal clothing hung on a separate hook, with the blue boots her father had bought for her arranged neatly beneath them. She knew they would not last forever, and so she wore them only on her days off and when she wasn’t working in the kitchen.
There was little enough left of her former life; she’d make the boots and the memory of her father presenting them to her last as long as they could. They’d been tinkers while he was alive, and fairly good at that. Her mother had left them years ago, but she and her father had managed well enough, moving from town to town to find enough trade to keep them busy. Some months had been fat ones, with meat in the cook pot or a meal at an inn, and some months had been hard, with little more than mushrooms, roadside greens, and the occasional trout from a stream. But they had been happy, and more rare still, known they were happy with their simple life. Each night when they made their beds, her father reminded her to thank gentle Eda, goddess of the fields and farms, for her kindness to them.
In one town, they’d done exceptionally well, mending all the pots at a rich man’s manor. At the next town, her father had bought her a soft shawl of gray wool, and the pair of blue boots. The boots were well made, cut trimly to her foot, and came almost to her knee. They were an indulgence and she knew it, especially the rich blue dye that the cobbler had applied to the leather, just for her. She’d hugged her father tight when he’d given them to her, and he’d told her they were no less than she deserved for being the best daughter a man could ask.
A month later, she was an orphan. Even now, when she thought about it, the events jumbled in her mind. The robbers had come to their campfire one night, brandishing clubs and an ugly knife. Coward that she was, when her father shouted at her to “Run, run!” she’d obeyed him. She fled and climbed a tree in the darkness and clung there, shaking and weeping silently until dawn grayed the sky. Then she’d crept back to their campsite, or tried to. It was noon before she found her way back to the road, and thence to where they had camped. The wagon and team, the tools of her father’s trade, their clothes and supplies, all were gone. Her father lay as they had left him, his face battered and his arm broken with the bone jutting out. It had made her feel queasy even to look at it, but she had sternly mastered her horror and fear. Her father’s life had depended on her and she knew it.
She’d given him water and tried to ease his pain, and then flagged down a passing teamster. Hastily she’d gathered the few scattered belongings left to them and bundled them into her blanket. The teamster had given them a ride back to the town they’d just left. An innkeeper had given them a room and called the town guard, who had decided that it was a matter for the King’s Patrol. The Patrol arrived two days after her father had died. They’d given her sympathy and money for a gravedigger, promised to keep an eye out for her team and wagon, noted her name, and then left her to her own devices. The innkeeper had let her work off her debt, and offered to keep her on as a tavern girl. His daughter Gissel had shown her great kindness and likewise begged her to stay on, but Timbal could not bear to stay in the tiny room where she had watched her father die. The same day that her debt was settled, she’d bundled her few possessions into her blanket and set off, following the river road upstream.
She’d regretted that decision more than once before she found the kindly cook at Timberrock Keep. The hardships of the road and the dangers of being female and traveling alone had convinced her that any job that offered her shelter was better than venturing out again. So she’d become a kitchen girl.
She’d never imagined that one day she would live in a keep. Lord Just was well thought of, and a good steward of his lands and people. Lady Lucent was lovely and gracious, as a lady should be. Minstrels played for them every night, and Lady Lucent loved to entertain visiting nobility. She was a decade younger than her lord, and as able as he was crippled. Despite his misfortune, her lord was a kindly man who seemed pleased to see her dancing with other partners and eating heartily while he himself picked at his food. All the servants spoke well of Lord Just, and mourned the fall that had crippled him. They said less of Lady Lucent, but none of it was ill. Timbal decided it was probably because Lord Just had been their lord and master since he was a young man, and so their fondness for him was deeper than what they felt for the woman he had married.
As days turned to weeks, she found she shared the local sentiment. The lord was a kindly man, and even if he never noticed her personally, his easygoing and generous nature meant that his servants lived better than most servants did. As witness her two days off every month! And her being welcome to come into the hall every evening and listen to the minstrels perform. It was a good life for a girl who had been homeless and alone but a few weeks before, and she did not forget to thank the goddess for providing it. She lacked for nothing.
Usually on her days off, she chose to walk into the nearby town, sometimes to treat herself to a meal not of her own cooking at the tavern. But on the day that Azen knocked not just on her soles but her soul, she decided that she would, perhaps, return early to the keep for his evening performance.
Azen was not the only minstrel at Timberrock, but he was obviously the lady’s favorite. Timbal had heard the tale of his life, for Gretcha, one of the housemaids, was fond of bragging of all she knew of the great folk and their affairs. She did not deign to speak to lowly kitchen help such as Timbal, but if Timbal were near, Gretcha seemed to take every opportunity to air loudly her special knowledge. Gretcha had come with Lady Lucent from her family home, and had served as a maid in the lady’s household since she was a child. And thus Timbal knew that Azen had grown up near Lady Lucent’s family home and had been her playmate in her childhood. He was himself the third son of a minor noble. There had been no inheritance share for him, but he had not minded. Instead, he had taken up the minstrel way and spent most of his winters at Timberrock Keep, playing for his old friend and her husband.
The other two minstrels were less impressive to Timbal. The apprentice, Saria, did little more than tune instruments, sing choruses, and flirt wildly. Chrissock, Lord Just’s resident minstrel, was an older man with a deep bass voice. He performed with a variety of drums, and specialized in the oldest tales, recited exactly as they had been handed down through the years. Some evenings, Timbal could barely stay awake through his long recitals of ancient battles and who had died and how. He twisted his pronunciation and used words that she didn’t understand and sometimes she wondered why any of it mattered anymore. But sometimes he told tales of brave warriors that were as stirring as any romance that Azen had ever sung. And for those, she sat as close to his dais as she could get, hugging her knees and watching him perform with awe.
It was while she was enraptured one evening that she chanced to glance over at Azen. The minstrel was behind Chrissock and to one side. He had been supplementing Chrissock’s percussion with his harp, but had broken a string and stepped away from the music to make his repair. He was finished now and was waiting easily to take his own turn performing. And while he was waiting, he was watching Timbal.
At first, she thought it was only chance that their eyes had met. She put her gaze back on Chrissock. The toes of her blue boots tapped in time with his telling. A sideways glance at Azen found him still watching her, a half smile on his face. Her toes lost the time and she glanced down at her feet, confused. Half a chorus later, she dared to look up at Azen again. This time he nodded to her and smiled. A blush flamed her face; she could not say why. He had done no more than smile at her. She put her eyes back on Chrissock and kept them there, desperately willing her heart to stop pounding and hoping her scarlet cheeks would cool.
When the song finally ended and she dared to glance in his direction, he was gone. She plummeted abruptly into disappointment, though she could not have said what she had anticipated. When she looked over her shoulder, she found him. He was standing before Lady Lucent’s chair, his head inclined to hear her whispered request. An instant later, she dismissed him with a conspiratorial smile and he returned to his place on the minstrel’s dais. Chrissock played another song, this one obviously for the children of the keep. It was the tale of an old man who lived up a steep flight of stairs and had a succession of late-night visitors. It required the children to stamp and clap the rhythm back to him, and Chrissock gradually increased the tempo of the old man running up and hopping down the steps until it all dissolved into an impossible cacophony of stamping and shouting children. He bowed off the stage, surrendering it to Azen.
Timbal lowered her eyes and watched her boots as he sang. His first song was a melancholy tale of love gone awry, with the maiden choosing wealth over fondness and regretting it evermore. His second song was the old one about the miller’s daughter floating notes down the river to her true love. His third song was one he had sung before. The refrain mentioned his true love’s raven hair, tiny hands, and deep blue eyes. She closed her eyes to listen to it, but was jolted out of her reverie. For in the last stanza, he sang not of her blue eyes, but of her blue boots. She lifted her gaze, shocked, but his face was calm, his eyes on his patron as he sang. If anyone else had noticed the change in lyrics, they did not react. She wondered if she had imagined it.
Azen sang two more songs before a signal from Lady Lucent declared the evening’s entertainment over. The minstrel rose from his seat and stepped away from his harp, lightly leaping down to advance on his patron and bid her good night. Timbal rose with the other maids and servants of the keep and followed them out of the hall into the warm evening. Light still lingered though it was fading fast. Tomorrow’s work meant another early morning for her. She went up to her room to get her ewer, and then strolled down to the well to fill it. She hummed as she went, the refrain of Azen’s last song still ringing in her head.
Gretcha was at the well before her, filling her own ewer. Timbal waited while she scooped handfuls of water to splash her face and finally to drink before eventually handing the bucket over to Timbal. The housemaid silently watched her lowering the bucket into the well. Timbal did not know her well, and was shocked by the note of resentment in her voice when the older girl spoke to her.
“Don’t let him make a fool of you, missy.”
“I’m sorry. What did you say?” The bucket plashed into the water.
“You heard me.” Gretcha was already turning away from her. “Don’t pretend to be stupid. The minstrel Azen. Yesterday, he asked me if I knew your name. I told him yes, that you were named ‘Trouble.’ And his name is the same for you. He’s toying with you. Don’t take him seriously. Surely your mother taught you that minstrels are never to be trusted? He’ll flirt with anyone, of course, and sleep with any girl who opens her legs to him after a few sweet words from that golden tongue. Enjoy it, if that’s the sort of girl you are. But don’t expect it to come to more than that. He’s Lady Lucent’s minstrel, and everyone who’s worked here more than a season knows that. But you’re new. So I thought I’d warn you. Just to be kind.”
“Thank you,” Timbal faltered, though the girl’s tone had been anything but kind. Gretcha made no response but turned and sauntered away, her filled ewer in hand.
As Timbal hauled the bucket up, to drink, and wash her face and then fill her own ewer, she wondered. Did Gretcha think that what she had said was a kind warning? Timbal doubted it. There had been jealousy in her voice, or something like it. Something nasty and vengeful. She wondered if somehow she’d made an enemy at Timberrock, but could think of nothing she’d done to Gretcha.
Nothing save draw Azen’s attention.
He’d asked Gretcha what her name was. That meant he’d noticed her as more than a face in the crowd. She smiled to herself. He might be Trouble, but she doubted he was trouble she couldn’t handle. She wondered if he’d been ‘Trouble’ to other serving girls and then nodded to herself.
Was that it? Had the minstrel once been attentive to the housemaid? Or was he truly, as Gretcha had accused him, a pastime for Lady Lucent? Lord Just’s legs were withered. Timbal wondered if that meant his other lower parts were useless. She had heard of highborn ladies and lords that did not keep their marriage vows but dabbled where they would. She thought again of how the lady summoned and then dismissed the minstrel, and wondered if she summoned and dismissed him for other duties as well. Were they secretly lovers, joined at the heart? She imagined the minstrel clasping the lady to his breast and kissing her. A strange thrill shot through her, one tinged with envy. Oh, she was being stupid! To have thought for one instant that she could have caught the eye, let alone the heart, of a handsome young minstrel like Azen! Of course he would be at his patron’s beck and call, performing whatever services she wished of him. Everyone knew that minstrels never truly gave their hearts. What had she been thinking? She filled her ewer and carried it back to her room.
Yet that night, despite her best efforts to clear her thoughts of him, she fell asleep still humming the refrain, with “blue boots” where “blue eyes” should have been. And the dream she had of him awoke her long before dawn, and did not allow her to easily fall asleep again.
Her love for him was like poison ivy, she thought. She rose early and went to her work, resolved not to allow her thoughts to touch on him. But they did. And with every touch of her mind, her infatuation spread and enflamed her. Infatuation, she told herself sternly. A silly little girl’s wild dream of a handsome and popular older man. What was wrong with her? He was the least eligible of the men in the keep. All he could do for her was break her heart, or get her pregnant if she were foolish enough to dally with him. Set him out of your thoughts and get about your work, girl!
So she told herself sternly and to absolutely no avail. Useless to recall that she knew next to nothing about him, and that what she did know indicated than any sensible girl would avoid him. He was a minstrel, and possibly the Lady Lucent’s lover. He had no fixed home, no income other than the largesse of his listeners, and probably few possessions other than the clothes on his back and his harp. The only thing she could share with him was trouble.
She was scrubbing the big iron stew pot when he came into the kitchen yard. It was the biggest pot the keep owned, and it was seldom empty. Once she was finished with it, it would be filled with water, onions, turnips, carrots, and a tough haunch from an old milk cow. It would cook for a day, and for the next week or so, more vegetables and pieces of meat would be tossed in to replace most of what was ladled out to the serving folk. Sometimes the soup kettle would go a month without a scrubbing out. And when it was finally time for a cleaning, it had to be rolled out of the kitchen onto the flagged court, where the lucky cleaner of the pot might spend half the morning scraping and scouring to get all the scorched scraps out of it.
Timbal had tied back her hair and covered her head with a rag. She’d turned the pot on its side and was on her hands and knees, with her head and shoulders inside the kettle, scraping away. Two small dogs had appeared from somewhere. Tails wagging, they awaited every handful of scraped-off debris, cheerfully snapping and snarling at each other to see who would claim it. In the midst of one of their yap fests, she heard her name in a questioning tone. “Yes?” she replied as she backed hastily out of the pot.
“Excellent,” Azen replied merrily. “I’ll see you then.” The minstrel swept her a theatrical bow that fluttered his blue summer cloak, and turned away from her.
“I don’t know what you asked me…” she called after him.
He turned around, walking backward away from her. He was smiling. “And yet you agreed? I call that a good sign for me!”
“Agreed to what?” She could not keep the smile from her face, even as she touched the greasy cloth that covered her hair, and wondered suddenly how foolish she had appeared to him, with her rear end sticking out of a soup pot.
“You agreed to walk out with me this evening, after your chores are done. I’ll meet you at the bottom of your stair.” He had not paused in moving away from her. Now he turned and walked rapidly away.
“Don’t you have to sing tonight?” she called after him.
He spun around once, laughing. “Only if you want me to!” he replied. “It’s my night to do as I please,” he added, and then he turned a corner and disappeared behind the milk shed. She stared after him. Her heart was hammering, the kettle scraper in her hand forgotten. What did it mean? For a time she remained crouched on her haunches, staring after him, her task forgotten. Should she go? She had said she would. But she had said “yes” before she knew what he was asking, or even who was speaking to her. She hadn’t really said “yes” at all! Would she have, if she had emerged from the pot and heard what he was asking her? Of course not! She had decided he was not for her. An instant later, she admitted the truth to herself. Yes. She would have.
And she had.
It seemed Cook gave her every dirty and disgusting task the kitchen offered for the rest of that day. When finally the day’s work was done, she was greasy and sooty and bone weary from scrubbing. Any other night, she would probably have gone straight to her bed. Instead, she hurried down to the women’s bathhouse. She scrubbed herself there and washed tangles and grease from her hair. She wrung out her hair and knotted it up on the back on her head, and hurried back to her room. Unfortunately, Azen was already waiting at the foot of the stairs. He arched his brows in surprise at her dripping hair. “Just a moment!” she assured him, flustered beyond words, and fled up the rickety steps.
She changed hastily out of her servant’s dress and into the only “good” clothes she owned. Her skirt was green with white trim, and her blouse was pale yellow. As she fastened the simple silver hoop earrings that her father had given her on her sixteenth birthday, he was very much on her mind. What would he have thought of what she was doing now? Would he have approved of her walking out with a minstrel? For an instant, sadness washed over her that she could not ask his permission or opinion. She wondered what had become of their old cart and team, and if the men who had killed her father had profited from his death. Then she shook her head clear of such thoughts. They had never helped her, not in the days right after his death and certainly not now. She would have to make her own way in the world, and live with her own decisions.
She tore a comb through her dark hair, braided it, and pinned it up, hoping the wet would not be so noticeable. She pulled on her blue boots, took a breath, and left her small room to descend the stairs. Thoughts of her father had driven some of the giddiness from her. If she made any mistake with this man, she reminded herself, she’d have no one to rely on except herself.
She cautioned herself to wariness, but as she came down the steps, Azen was looking up and smiling at her. His dark eyes seemed suddenly a pool that she might drown in. “There you are!” he exclaimed, as if completely surprised by her presence. He lifted a small covered basket from the ground and hung it on one arm while offering her his free one. It seemed only natural to take it, and once she had, she could think of no polite way to let go of it. “I know a place where the night birds sing,” he told her, and off they went.
She did not have to talk much at first, for which she was grateful. He entertained her with an accounting of his day, turning his simple tasks to a tale full of humor and mischief. She could not help but laugh, and for a time, he seemed to expect no more from her save that she listen and smile at his nonsense.
The place where the night birds sang proved to be a sandy river beach backed by trees, downstream from the footbridge to town. Where the forest met the shore, he found a bleached-out log for them to sit on. The sun was making its lazy journey toward the horizon, sending the forest shadows reaching toward them. His little basket held a large honey cake for them to share and a bottle of wine. He used his sheath knife to pull the cork, doing it badly. “It will never go back in,” he told her gravely. “We’ll have to drink it all here, or waste it.”
“No more than a glass for me,” she demurred, only to discover that he had forgotten to bring any sort of cups for them. He offered her first drink from the bottle, which she shyly accepted, and then made her blush when he smiled slyly before he drank, saying it would be his first taste of her lips. She knew he was altogether too glib and that she should take warning from his clever way with words rather than be charmed by it.
But she was seventeen.
When the bottle of wine was half-gone in shared sips, he began to draw her out with questions, and though she tried valiantly to tell the tale of how she had come to be alone in the world in a calm manner, her throat closed and her eyes filled with tears when she spoke of her father. She looked down at her blue boots, and then reached down to touch them as if by doing so she could remember the touch of his hands when he’d given them to her. That was when Azen put his arm around her. He said nothing, but simply held her for a moment. And when her tears broke forth, he gathered her into his arms and let her cry.
She could not have said how or when she ended up in his lap, leaning her head on his shoulder. Nor did she really know when drying her tears changed to kissing her mouth. His lips held her as firmly as his arms. Perhaps she was not as alone in the world as she had thought. Evening and the forest shadow cloaked them from all eyes. She let him kiss her, and listened only to his sweet murmurs and the language of his knowing hands.
He never asked her if she would and so she never told him no or yes. She did not tell him it was her first time, but he knew, for he spun her a golden string of words and glistening kisses, telling her that opening a woman for the first time was like opening a wonderful bottle of wine, and that the first sip was to be savored slowly. His words formalized his touches, banishing any thoughts of resistance or reluctance. He promised her delight and he delivered it. She did not wonder then if his words were too practiced and his touches too deft. She did not wonder then how many other women he had opened.
In the depths of the night, they walked slowly back to the keep. There was enough moon to silver the road before their feet. He hooked her hand through the crook of his arm and she trusted him to guide her home. They were more than halfway there when she began to wonder what the morrow would bring. She tried to frame a question around her sudden uncertainty.
“What does it mean, to you?” she asked him.
“What does what mean?”
“Tonight, and what we did.” She wished she had his gift for words. She spoke so bluntly, she felt as if she threw rocks of question at him.
He was silent for a time. “Something like that means more than can be put into words,” he said at last. She tried to take comfort in that answer, but suddenly she wished he would try to put it into words.
“What do I mean to you, I mean? What do we mean to each other?”
“I think that, as time goes by, that is something we will discover,” he said easily. “I do not think we should worry about it on a night like this. This is a time to savor the moment, blue boots, not map out all of our lives.”
“Spoken like someone who cannot get pregnant,” she said, and then wished with all her heart that she could call those words back. Like a hammer, they broke the fragile bubble that had contained the moment.
He was quiet for a time and then said stiffly, “I have heard that women seldom conceive on their first time.”
“Except when they do,” she replied morosely. She had shattered whatever magic they had made. Now she was suddenly aware that she ached in new places, and that until she bled again, she must fret and fear. The possible consequences that might befall her from this one night loomed large, as did all the consequences of what might not befall her. What had she ever imagined it might mean? That the minstrel loved her, that he would marry her and share his life with her, take care of her if she were ill, help to raise their children?
“Let’s not worry about that right now,” he suggested, and she wondered what worry he referred to. She did not let go of his arm. It suddenly seemed to her that it might be as much of him as she would ever hold. The road was uneven and she tried not to lurch against him as they walked. The inference that Gretcha had made days ago came back to haunt her suddenly. Was he the lady’s plaything? She suddenly longed to ask him if he loved another, if he was bound in some way to the lady.
She bit back that question and instead asked him, “If I asked you something important, would you feel bound to speak the truth to me?”
He laughed, and she was shocked.
“Why do you laugh?” She tried to keep the hurt from her voice.
“Because, without intending, you have nearly spoken the words of the old curse that used to be hurled by one minstrel at another. ‘May your tongue be tied to the truth!’ they used to curse, and a fearsome curse it was.”
“And why was that?”
“Because while we are the keepers of record, and must be meticulously honest and correct about what land was ceded or sold, or the year a couple was wed, or what agreement was made between two nobles, we are also the keepers of dreams. There are times when we must flatter and lie, in order to earn our bread. Heroes become stronger, queens more beautiful, and quests more dangerous when we sing them. So, to curse a fellow minstrel to have his tongue tied to the truth was to condemn him to live a life of frugality, depending only on what he could earn as a record keeper rather than what he might spin for himself by singing dreams to others.”
Perhaps she heard in his words more than he meant to tell her. For it seemed to Timbal that he had spun a dream for her that night, a tale that perhaps she was not so alone, and in return she had paid him with the coin that a woman can only spend once. Her virginity was gone, and she knew that to some men, that would matter a great deal when it came time to broker a marriage. She suddenly saw that of the small store of things she possessed, first knowledge of her body had been a good she hadn’t counted. Now she had given it to him, and though they had both enjoyed the experience, he was not bound to her by it. She would never be able to look her husband in the face and say, “Never have I known any man but you.” That was gone, carried off by the golden tongue of a minstrel.
It seemed useless to rebuke him with that. Doubtless he thought it no more than she owed him for a honey cake, some wine, and some sympathy. He would not understand what he had taken from her. She sighed and he told her, “Cheer up. We are not so far from the keep and your bed.”
At the foot of the stair he paused, holding on to her hand. The few torches that still burned outside the keep were but nubs in their sconces. She could scarcely see his face.
“You know, Blue Boots, I don’t know your proper name, even.”
Shame rose in her. She’d given him her maidenhead, and he hadn’t even known her name.
“Timbal,” she said quietly. “I am Timbal.”
“Ah, a little drum, and one that sets a lively beat. It suits you. And yet I prefer Blue Boots.”
Those were his last words as he left her at the foot of the servants’ stair. Although he drew her close and kissed her a gentle good night, it did not thrill her as his first kiss had. She stepped back from him, groped for the railing in the dark, and began to climb the stair, treading close to the edge to keep the risers from creaking. She was halfway up when she halted, hearing angry whispers from below.
“There you are! I was sent to find you two hours ago! Where have you been? Did not you give your word you would be standing by, ever ready to serve the need of the Lady Lucent? A fine friend you are to her!”
Even hissing, there was no mistaking Gretcha’s voice. Cold washed through Timbal. What was this about? A tryst he had failed to meet? She crouched low, pressing her body against the wall, hoping the darkness shielded her from view. Azen’s voice was low, both apologetic and indignant. “Well, how was I to know it was to be tonight? I was told I could have the evening to myself, for once! I cannot recall the last time I was given that freedom.”
“And I can guess how you used it, minstrel! Hurry. Don’t waste your time in trying to justify it. You may have put all the plans awry. Go to her now, quickly and as quietly as you can. All else has been made ready. You are the only fault in this scheme.”
“How much do you know, housemaid?” Azen’s voice had dropped. It was bitter with resentment.
“Enough to know that without you no heir can be made! And that, I think, is something you must have known as well, and yet your precious night of ‘freedom’ was worth more to you than that. All her girlhood she loved you, and counted on you! She would have married you, if only you’d asked her! But no. And now that she needs you, see how well you repay Lady Lucent for her years of favor!”
Gretcha had pushed Azen too far. “Go yap elsewhere, bitch! You know nothing.”
She heard his boots as he strode away across the cobbled yard in the darkness. Had Gretcha followed him? Her lighter slippers would make no sound. Timbal was frozen, her heart thumping so loud that her ears rang. What did it mean? And what would become of her if Gretcha came up the steps now and discovered her? She would know she had overheard. Was the secret worth her life? She lost track of how long she crouched there. Her left foot began to buzz with numbness before she dared rise and continue her climb up the stair.
She groped her way to her room, letting her garments fall as they would, and crawled into her bed. And there she lay, sleepless, and wondering exactly how Azen served Lady Lucent. She could think of only one way to interpret Gretcha’s words. Azen would get the lady with child, that the lord might claim an heir. And if that were so, if that were his “duty” that kept him at the lady’s beck and call, what then could a kitchen maid possibly mean to him? Nothing. A pastime, a way to spend his “freedom.” She’d been a fool. When morning came, she rose and went, sandy-eyed, to face yet another day of toil. She felt both changed and unchanged by the events of the night before, and could not say which was more terrible.
She went about her work that day as if nothing had happened. Her premonition that she had been a fool only deepened as the day went on. She tried to find satisfaction in the simple tasks that had occupied her hours, and could not. Her mind wandered, she felt impatient with chopping the onions, annoyed with searching the kitchen gardens for turnips that had not gone wormy. She did not, as a rule, see the minstrel during her workday, so she told herself she should not wonder at his absence. She tried to ignore the hard-eyed look that Gretcha gave her each time they passed, but could not. “I wish I could just die,” she said to herself, and then was shocked at her own whisper. She saw Gretcha muttering to two of the upstairs maids at lunch, and then all three of them turned to stare at her. Gretcha’s plump little lips writhed back at her in a snide smile. Timbal looked away, pretending she had not seen her smirk. How had she known? Had Azen gossiped of his conquest? Was she a joke among all the house servants now? Her heart sank and her spirits grayed. What a silly strumpet she had been, so easily seduced by the first man who ever kissed her or offered her a bit of sympathy. She spoke to no one that afternoon, but chopped the vegetables with a vengeance and scrubbed the big griddle as if she could scour Azen from her memory.
By evening, she was resigned to knowing she’d been used. Neither Lady Lucent nor Azen appeared for the evening’s pastimes. Timbal sat a little apart from the other servants, picking over gooseberries for pies, and listened to Chrissock without watching him. The night seemed overly long, and her task with the berries endless. She stole glances at Lord Just, but without lifting her head. She was not surprised that he looked lonely and preoccupied. He had to know what was going on. Chrissock sang sonorously of battles and warriors long dead, but they were sorrowful songs of old defeats and heroes dying in vain. Lord Just stared through him, his face still and his eyes distant.
The evening ended early. Lord Just summoned Chrissock to come forward for a purse and then apologized for ending his performance early. “I have no heart for music with my lady gone from the keep. When she returns, then we will rejoice. Eda willing, she will bear back to us that which we all most devoutly desire.”
Chrissock bowed deeply. “I am sure the goddess will be willing, Lord. You have done all possible to smooth the way for her to favor us.”
Timbal glanced around at the other servants, only to find them exchanging equally puzzled looks. It was seldom that any event in the keep was not presaged with days of gossip, and she had heard no rumor of Lady Lucent going on a journey. As the workers of the Timberrock Keep rose to leave the hall, the buzz of gossip increased in volume. But for the most part, all Timbal heard were questions until Gretcha and her two cronies happened to pass near her.
“Oh, yes, they had me packing all yesterday for the trip,” Gretcha was assuring her friends. “It’s not officially said yet, but the mistress has me doing more and more tasks for her. Soon enough I’ll be sleeping upstairs near her room, I expect. Lady Lucent likes to keep all her personal maids close, you know. And she has come to trust me so much, I can’t help but think that she’ll soon make me her personal maid. I’ve known about the plans for this journey for days, but of course, intimate servants cannot gossip about the keep like ordinary housemaids.”
Gretcha’s friends looked both impressed and annoyed to be dismissed as “ordinary housemaids.” Timbal desperately wanted to be disinterested. She kept her face impassive as she drifted closer, the basin of picked-over gooseberries on her hip. Gretcha shot a glance back at her. Were her next words intended for Timbal’s ears?
“And, of course, Azen the Minstrel must go with our mistress, or what would be the point of the journey? What? You haven’t heard?” Gretcha leaned closer to her friends, but her voice carried as clearly as ever. “Well, I suppose I should say nothing… but it does no harm to remind you what you already know. Lord Just has no heir and, of course, his health grows no better, and with his, er, difficulties, he is unlikely to get his wife with child. But a baby there must be, if he does not want Timberrock Keep to fall into his cousin’s hands when he dies. You’ve heard of Lord Spindrift? Even his own servants call him Lord Spendthrift. He’s gone through all of his inheritance already and rumor is that he’s been able to borrow more funds only because he can assure the lenders that when Lord Just dies, Timberrock Keep will be his. And all have heard that he is a cruel man to dogs and horses as well as to women and servants. Lord Just has not allowed him to even visit here since that horrible incident with the hound puppy six years ago! So there’s no chance at all that he will let the lack of an heir make Timberrock Keep fall into his hands! So, there I will leave you all to think what you will! Lady Lucent goes off on a visit to her sister and her husband. She takes with her a very handsome minstrel to keep her company. My guess is that when she returns, the imminent birth of Lord Just’s heir will be announced… No, no, I won’t tell you a word more than that! Not a word! A lady’s maid is supposed to be the soul of discretion!” She tittered as she said this, fluttering her hands before her face as if to forbid her friends to ask her any more questions. They looked suitably scandalized by what she had implied, but neither ventured a query.
Timbal put her eyes on her gooseberries and increased her pace to pass the threesome. She resisted the impulse to give a bit more swing to her hip as she passed Gretcha. She knew she had the muscle to send the housemaid flying. But then people would wonder why and the truth was too painful to admit. She hated Gretcha because the housemaid knew that Timbal had made a fool of herself over the minstrel. Hated her even more because Gretcha had warned her and she’d ignored the warning. The woman must think her an idiotic slut. Her cheeks burned as she hurried into the clamor and crowding of the kitchen. Everyone was rushing to put their chores to bed. As Timbal covered the basin of berries and disposed of the stems and rotten ones, she forced herself to consider the obvious. Gretcha had known of the journey. That meant that Azen must also have known. Yet he hadn’t admitted it last night, or even hinted at it. No. He’d simply taken advantage of her, knowing well that he’d soon be on his way and gone for months. Why would he be so heartless?
The reason for that dropped on her like a gush of cold water: If she turned up pregnant, no one would believe the minstrel had lain with her. He’d had her virginity; perhaps the novelty of that was all that had drawn him to her. As she tottered up the stairs to her room, a new fear battered her. He was gone, and if she found herself expecting a child, she couldn’t even plead with him to help her. “Sweet Eda, let that not be,” she prayed to the goddess. “I’d rather be dead than a mother with no husbandman!”
She spent another near-sleepless night. She berated herself for being a fool to have given in to him, and for being a bigger fool for longing to feel his touch again. She finally fell asleep clutching the dream that he swiftly returned to the keep with some reason for his cruelty. It did not help that she herself could imagine no explanation for how he had treated her.
Instead, she dreamed that she disgraced herself by running out to him as soon as he returned. In her dream, she was heavily pregnant, and he denied and mocked her, and Gretcha led all the servants in first laughing at her, and then driving her away from the keep for her terrible lies about the minstrel. In the dream, she had to flee barefoot, wearing only her servant clothes, and she wept because she had lost her blue boots, the last vestige of her father’s love for her.
She awoke late, her tears still wet on her cheeks. She had to rush to dress, and when she hurried down the stairs, she heard Cook calling her name in frustration. She rushed into the kitchen, was scolded harshly for being late, and put to washing up all the dishes by herself.
That night, Lord Just seemed pensive and weary. Chrissock chanted long historical lays about ancient battles. They were boring and depressing. Lord Just drank too much and was carried off to his bed early. Everyone in the keep seemed out of sorts as they drifted away early from their master’s hall and off to their own rooms. Gretcha was wearing a new cap and apron, so perhaps she had been elevated to a lady’s maid. She stood gossiping with her cronies in the kitchen yard. As Timbal passed them, one whispered something to Gretcha, and then they all burst out laughing. She could not keep herself from glancing toward them, and found them flatly staring at her; she was the object of their mirth and they didn’t care if she knew it. She forced herself not to hurry, but knew all the same that she fled as she retreated up the stairs to her room.
There she let her foolish hopes shatter. He’d had all he wanted of her, and now Azen was gone. Was his mission truly to get Lady Lucent with child so that the baby could be passed off as Lord Just’s and the line would have an heir? It seemed wildly unlikely, and yet there were songs about such things happening. Both Lord Just and the minstrel had the same dark eyes and curly black hair, but that was true of three-fourths of Buck. And if Azen had been chosen as a stud, why send them off for the deed to be accomplished? Surely it would be more believable if the lady never left her home? But perhaps the process was too humiliating for Lord Just to tolerate under his roof. Or—and like a cold finger down her back, she recognized the truth—was it a woman’s decision, one that Lady Lucent had made out of her husband’s need for an heir and her need for a bed partner livelier than a crippled old man? But how could she hope to deceive her husband if he were unable to impregnate her? Unless he believed her already pregnant from some effort of his own?
Timbal felt suddenly shamed to be dwelling on the intimate affairs of the nobility. Did not the folk who had taken her in and given her work and a place to live deserve a bit of respect from her? She thought of Azen and resolved to harden her heart. Whatever had happened between her and the minstrel had been her doing as much as his. She’d gone with him, she hadn’t resisted him, and if he had no more interest in her than what he’d had, well, she had only herself to blame. Put it aside and go on with her life.
And so she did. For a week or so, Gretcha continued to laugh mockingly whenever she saw her, but Timbal ignored her, and hoped that her shame did not show. The keep was a quieter, drabber place without its mistress. The rains began and did not let up. The kitchen yard became a sodden mucky wreck, and Timbal walked barefoot across it rather than ruin the leather of her blue boots. She did her work by day and went to bed at night. It was her life. It had not seemed intolerable before Azen had stepped into it, and logic told her that it was not intolerable now. She tried to remember how pleased she had been with it when her tasks were new, how happy she had been to settle in at Timberrock Keep. Now it seemed tedious and pointless. She would spend the rest of her life preparing food for other people. That was all. It was life, it was what one did. One worked, and ate, and slept. With time, she’d remember how to do that without it feeling like each breath did no more than carry her one step closer to death.
On her next day off, Timbal resisted the urge to visit the river beach and moon over what had befallen her there. Instead, under lowering clouds, she walked into the village and treated herself to a mug of cider at the tavern and listened to a white-haired old minstrel who specialized in silly drinking songs and humorous tales. She even managed to smile a time or two. At the end of his performance, he announced that he would soon move on to the next town, and asked if there were news he could share with friends and relatives there. Half a dozen people sent greetings to extended family, one man announced the birth of a son, and another issued a warning about an upriver bridge that he proclaimed was so dangerous that carts should avoid it. The minstrel nodded to each message, repeating it back word for word. It was a common way for messages to be sent, especially those intended for the public or for folk who could not read and write.
Next, with a salacious grin, he asked for rumors and gossip worthy of being spread. A minstrel, he told them, could make more from a rumor than most men could from a pot of gold. So he begged them for whatever they had heard, no matter how unfounded. Much of what was offered had to do with the best whores in town, men bragging of their endowments, a warning to “whoever” had stolen six sheep from a high pasture, and a great deal of bawdy innuendo. The minstrel took note of it all with great good cheer, repeating the missives back so dramatically that even Timbal laughed until her belly hurt. Then a field hand from Timberrock Keep, somewhat the worse for drink, stood up to announce that “soon enough there will be an heir at Timberrock Keep. And Lord Just will be just as delighted as if the babe were his!”
“Eda’s tits, Lowl, you loud-mouthed drunk!” someone else at the table rebuked him, and gave him a friendly punch in the arm that sent him sprawling to the floor.
Another man at the same table shouted out, “He’s drunk! Pay him no mind!”
Even the minstrel seemed to sense that the man had crossed a boundary, for he parroted back, “The field hands from Timberrock Keep are loud-mouthed drunks. Pay them no mind,” and received a roar of approval for his amendment. But Timbal sat, suddenly silent, the grin faded from her face and the laughter dried up in her mouth. She put down her coppers for her cider and left, to walk back to the keep alone.
It was pouring rain when she left the tavern. Timbal had not even worn a cloak; there was nothing to do except get soaked by the chilling downpour. For the first half of her walk, she allowed herself to think about Azen as she had known him. She thought of the songs he’d sung, and how it had always seemed he was singing for her, even when his eyes sought out Lady Lucent’s. She thought of his softly curling black hair and how it had smelled when it had danced across her face as they made love. She let herself think of his lips, not just his kisses, but his kind words, and how gently he had held her and let her weep out her sorrow for her father. She had one night of him. Could she truly say she knew him, let alone loved him?
Love wasn’t based on knowing someone. Love, it seemed to her, simply was. It shamed her that he had treated her so badly and still she was mooning after him, recalling every whispered word and every touch. It was bad enough to be stupid once; did she have to recall her stupidity with such longing? For the first time, she let herself think the thought. Timbal wished she had the courage to kill herself. Wished she were dead and no longer feeling this pain for which she had no remedy. “But I don’t have the courage. El should kill me for a coward, for lacking the spine to do the job myself.”
She came to the footbridge she had crossed earlier that evening. The river was up. All the debris that had littered its banks all summer had been lifted and floated down to catch against the footbridge. The water pressed it against the bridge’s wooden supports, flowing through the debris and in several places across the top of the bridge. She hesitated, and set a foot out onto the wooden planks. They trembled with the push of the waters, but the bridge seemed sound enough. She glanced back toward the village to see if anyone was coming, wishing she could ask someone’s opinion on the safety. But the falling rain obscured her vision, and she doubted the others from the keep would start for home before nightfall. It would be fine, she decided.
In the pouring rain, she stooped down and pulled her boots off. Her bare feet would give her a better grip, and she had no desire for the water to pour inside her boots and ruin them. She clutched them to her chest and walked out onto the bridge. The wooden planks muttered and shuddered under her step. The water was cold as it rushed past her bare feet. Then suddenly it skipped up over the top of her foot, and on her next step, she found herself ankle deep. The water tugged at her and with one hand she snatched her skirts up out of its reach. She glanced back, but she was already in the middle of the bridge. As well go on as back.
Timbal took two more steps before the world bucked and lurched. For a moment, nothing made any sense. Then she realized that she was clinging to the bridge railing with one hand while clutching her precious boots to her chest with the other. The bridge was still there, under her bare feet, but she had lost her grip on her skirts. They tugged at her wetly as the water that was now knee-deep rushed past her. Her mind made sense of the tangle of lumber that loomed over her, pressed hard against the footbridge. The cart bridge upstream had given way, just as the fellow in the tavern had predicted. It had washed downstream, slammed into this bridge, and now other debris and the press of the flood waters was threatening to rip her bridge free of its supports and send it hurtling downstream. With her on it.
Or most likely, not on it, she realized, as timbers groaned and the bridge gave a lurch under her. She could not separate the thundering of her heart from the vibration of the bridge, nor the ringing in her ears from the roar of the water. “I cannot be this afraid,” she told herself sternly. “Not if I want to live.” And in that instant, she realized that she very much did want to live, Azen or none. The realization that she had asked dark El for death and the god had abruptly granted it to her shook her to her core. “NO!” she shouted above the harsh roar of the furious water. “I don’t want to die! I won’t die here!”
She flung her precious boots as hard as she could. The pouring rain obscured her vision but she thought they landed on the bank. Then, with both hands free to grip the shuddering railing, she began to lurch and sidle across the bridge toward the shore. She was a body’s length from the jutting stone support for the bridge when the wooden part tore free. She knew three seconds of a wild ride on a lurching raft of wood before it became merely a jumble of timber. It parted beneath her and she fell through it, into water thickened with forest debris and the broken jumble of planks and timbers the river had made of two bridges. She caught wildly at chunks of wood that turned under her, dousing her yet again. Her skirts caught on a tumbling snag. The roots bore her under, then up, then under as she frantically tried to breathe, scream, and tear her skirts from her body. Before Timbal could get her skirts free, the snag suddenly discarded her as abruptly as it had snatched at her. A floating plank slapped her, then spun away before she could catch at it. Flotsam that was close enough to bruise her floated tauntingly out of reach when she tried to cling to it.
The choking clog of debris that had smashed the bridge slowly dispersed. In the torrential downpour, she finally caught hold of a splintered section of bridge planks. When she tried to climb up on them, they shifted, dunking her again. She found a new grip and held on, her head barely above the water. Her existence narrowed to a single task. When there was air on her face, she took a breath. When there was not, she held it. When her chilled hands wearied, she clamped them more tightly, willing the pain to keep them awake enough to grip.
Darkness soon cloaked the river, but the rain and the push of the water did not ease. She shifted her grip, was dunked, nearly lost her plank, and then found a new hold with her elbow wedged between two of the boards. She had no breath to weep or cry for help. All she could do was cling and pray to Eda, mother Eda, that she would be carried to shore out of cruel El’s reach.
In the dark of night, her raft fetched up against something and stopped. She held to it in the darkness, glad to be still even as she dreaded that some larger snag might come with the current to slam into her. Once, she tried to drag herself up out of the water, but when she did so, the wood she clung to came loose and turned for a moment before once more halting. The rush of water against it now sheared up in a spray. Timbal averted her face from it and stayed as she was. She would wait for morning and light before she tried to move to a safer place. She pressed her elbow down into the crack between the planks and tried to stay conscious.
She did not think she slept, but there came a moment when she suddenly knew that dawn had come and passed before she was aware of it. The rain had lessened but not stopped, and the river still raged past her. But by the gray light of the overcast day, she could see that she and a great amount of branches, planks, and one dead sheep were all tangled into one large mass braced against a fallen tree that jutted out into the river. She did not shout for help. There was nothing but forested riverbank as far as she could see.
The arm Timbal had used as a brace was numb, and her other hand so cold it scarcely worked. Her legs dangled and tugged in the water that swirled past her. It took half a lifetime for her to work her numbed arm free. Slowly, she dragged her body up onto the tangle of timbers and wreckage. She lay there for a time, trying to decide if she was colder now that she was out of the water. She worked her ankles, trying to feel her feet, and moved her arm. When finally it tingled, she shrieked breathlessly at how much it hurt, until she remembered to give thanks to Eda for being able to free it at all.
Perhaps her prayer to the more kindly goddess of the fields angered sour El. She had lifted her head to try to decide her best path back to the riverbank over the packed debris when she saw what she had feared. A large chunk of the cart bridge had decided to join the rest of itself. It was moving down the river in a majestic chaos, rolling in slow splashing turns that sent gushes of white water shooting up. It was coming straight at her. It was unavoidable.
She scrambled up on the debris raft, slipped, fell between pieces of wreckage, and for one nightmare instant was trapped beneath it. Then she saw a slice of daylight and frantically clawed her way up into it. She got her head above water, hooked an arm over a tree trunk, and then just had time to see the bridge bearing down on her. “Damn you El!” she shrieked to the merciless sky. He’d taken everything from her, father—lover, even her precious blue boots. Taking her life would probably be the only act of mercy he ever committed.
Much later, she would wonder if she said those words aloud, or if a god did not need the words spoken to respond to them. The last thing El would do was to give mercy to anyone. By a superhuman effort, she pulled herself up on the floating junk just as the bridge hit it. Timbal saw it turn as it came, saw it crashing toward her, and then saw a blast of white light.
A DRENCHED WOMAN awoke on the bank of a river. Her wet hair was strewn across her face. Her clothes were waterlogged, her skirts tattered. She was barefoot. Blood was thick on her hands. It took her a little while to understand that a cut on her head was still seeping blood. And she could not recall who she was or how she had come to be there.
The sun had come out and a thin light warmed the air. She managed to stand, and then to limp. She followed the river downstream until she saw a bridge, then climbed up the bank, through a shallow edging of forest, and found a road. She followed it, staggering gamely along until a woman driving a donkey cart came by and gave her a ride.
She awoke later in a room at an inn. She gazed around her groggily, then lifted her hands to look at the heavy bandaging that wrapped one of her forearms. Her head was bound also, her hair cut away from one side of her skull. She could not remember who she was or how she had come to the inn. A girl came to her room, bringing her a simple meal on a tray. “You’re Timbal,” the girl told her. “You used to work here, but you left here months ago. Looks like you fell in the river, or maybe got beat up and left to die in the storm. But don’t you worry. You’re safe here, and with friends. The King’s Patrol has been looking for you for quite a while. They found your father’s wagon and team, and the men who killed him. They had to sell off the team and wagon when they couldn’t find you, but the money they got for them has been waiting for you for a while now. So don’t you worry. We’ll take good care of you.”
It was all too much to take in. It took several long days for her to accept the past the innkeeper and his employees assigned to her. It took longer than that before she could cross the room without staggering sideways. Gissel, the pleasant girl who had been tending her, assured her that she had plenty of money to pay for her care, but Timbal soon insisted on coming down and resuming her tasks at the inn. The work seemed familiar and pleasant enough. Bits of her old life came back to her, and she fit them together as best she could. No one could tell her where she had gone after she left the inn’s employ, or how she had come back, and eventually she let that year of her life go. The money from her father’s team and wagon gave her a nice little nest egg, and she was able to add to it with her wages from the inn.
She cut the long hair on one side of her head to match the short curly crop that was rapidly covering the scar where the healer had stitched her scalp closed. Soon she could serve in the tavern again as well as cook in the kitchen. She made friends easily with the regulars and was a favorite with the King’s Patrol when they were in town. Her life, she decided, was good. The only time she became melancholy was when minstrels came to the inn to entertain, and even then, it was only certain old songs that brought tears to her eyes.
Three months after her accident, she was waiting tables on the evening that the good news arrived from upriver at Timberrock Keep. “Lord Just has an heir!” a young teamster announced loudly as he entered. Timbal was shocked at the roar of approval that went up. That night it seemed that everyone in the little town and surrounding farmsteads flocked into the inn to raise a mug to the wonderful tidings. Timbal was kept busy trotting back and forth from the kitchen to the hearth tables, and only learned in snatches of gossip from Gissel why the rejoicing was so raucous. It was no newborn child they celebrated; the people of Lord Just’s holdings had reluctantly given up the hope that their beloved but crippled lord could sire a child. Instead, they had lived in fear that his lands and holdings must be inherited by his cousin Lord Spindrift. All knew how he had already plunged his own inheritance into ruin and taken all his folk with it, enacting taxes no one could possibly pay and running up debts that would never be settled. The prospect of the reckless young noble becoming their lord was now at an end.
Lady Lucent had traveled to her home, taking with her a minstrel loyal to her and her husband, so that her adoption of her sister’s son might be witnessed and made legal before Lord Spindrift could mount an objection. To hear the teamster tell the tale, it had been a plot long in the making, with the minstrel sworn to secrecy and the lady herself begging on her knees that her sister would give up her youngest son to them. By all accounts, he was a good and likely lad, open-faced, friendly, and an excellent horseman. All the folk at Timberrock Keep were rejoicing, and all who lived in Lord Just’s holdings could now know and share the good tidings.
Timbal rejoiced in the lively trade and good spirits that provoked such excellent tips that night. The names rang familiar in her ears, but of course they would; had not she worked at this very inn since before her accident? She was accustomed to names and bits of old news that jangled oddly in her mind and almost stirred a memory to the top.
So there was no reason for her melancholy to deepen over the days that followed. Yet it did. She awoke weeping in the dark of the night, felt a weariness that had no reason, and could not find a smile for anyone’s jest. She knew her life was good and nightly thanked Eda for blessing her. But, as she explained it to Gissel, “I cannot find my heart. I feel I have lost something, that I am missing something very important, and can know no peace until I find it.”
“You lost your father not that long ago,” Gissel ventured, but Timbal shook her head.
“I grieve him. I recall him, in flashes. His face seen by firelight, and how his hands clasped my shoulders, and even that he taught me to thank the goddess for every good fortune. No, Gissel. I recall enough of him to miss and mourn him. But there is something else. Something I had and I lost.”
“Tomorrow,” Gissel announced firmly, “we will tell my father we need a day off and we will walk up to Smithfield. It’s the next village on the river. We’ll visit my cousins, for I want you to meet Seck. I believe you’ll like each other, and he may be exactly the cure for whatever you’ve lost.”
Timbal was reluctant, but Gissel pestered her until she agreed. Her father agreed to give them both the day off, for trade was slower in winter. But he frowned at Gissel’s plan to visit her cousins, reminding her, “Seck has been seeing the farrier’s daughter. I heard he was quite taken with her.”
Gissel shrugged that off. “Perhaps he is, but I am not. And once he meets Timbal, he will likely forget all about scrawny Missa and her shrew’s tongue.”
They set out the next morning, catching a ride with a carter that Gissel knew. He was taking a load of late cabbages to Smithfield and would be happy to give them a ride back as well. Timbal sat on the tail of the cart while Gissel shared the seat with the carter, and soon divined that this was a ride that had been arranged well in advance of any favor that Gissel hoped to do for Timbal. He even kissed her before he set them down at her cousin’s house.
Her father’s gossip was correct. Seck was not even home that day, having gone to his sweetheart’s house to help her father repair a fence. Timbal found she didn’t care. The cousin’s house was a noisy place with several small children and an adorable new baby. The women there were as friendly as Gissel, and Seck or no Seck, the visit lifted Timbal’s spirits. She was reluctant to bid them farewell and lingered as long as she could. It was evening when they set out for the Smithfield inn where Gissel’s carter was going to pick them up for the ride home.
“Oh, and if I’d known, I’d have sent you on your way sooner, so you could have had a bit of music there, too,” Gissel’s cousin told her. “I’ve heard rumors of the minstrel playing at the inn. Tall and dark he is, and setting all the girls to swooning over his voice, but not a one of them will he look at! They say he mourns a lost lover, and always plays his last song to her memory.”
That was enough to pique the curiosity of both girls, and they hurried, shawls up against the light rain, until they came to the inn. Gissel’s carter was late, but they found a table near the back. Gissel’s cousin had been right. The inn was crowded with a mostly female population. The minstrel was repairing a harp string when they came in, his head bent over his work. “I’ll get us some cider while we wait for your carter,” Timbal offered, and Gissel declared, “He’s not ‘my’ carter. Not quite yet!”
“Oh, but he will be,” Timbal called over her shoulder and made her way through the throng to reach the tavern keeper.
The minstrel struck up while she was trying to get the man’s attention. The chords rang strangely familiar to her ears. She did not recall learning the song, but she knew it. It was about a warrior come home from his wandering too late. His love was lost to him, carried off by death. A strange prickling ran over her skin, lifting the hair on her scalp. Slowly she turned as he sang of his lost love, and her raven hair and her tiny hands. Then he sang of her blue boots.
Cider forgotten, she pushed her way slowly through the crowd, ignoring the unkind comments of those she jostled. She found him by the hearth, seated on a low stool, his harp leaned against his shoulder as he played. His fingers knew his strings, and as he played, his eyes rested only on the chair before him. Enthroned on the chair were a pair of blue boots. They were clean, but water stained. She knew them. Then suddenly she knew herself. She looked at the minstrel. Her eyes devoured him, and at the sight of him, a flood of memories thundered through her blood.
Azen did not see her. Not until she reached the chair and took the blue boots from the seat. Wordless and pale, he said nothing as she sat down and pulled them onto her feet. But when she stood, he was waiting for her. He was shaking as he embraced her. “I thought I had lost you!” he managed to say through the uproar of the crowd’s delighted response. “Gretcha told me you were dead. That they’d found your boots on the riverbank, that you’d thrown yourself in!”
“Gretcha lies about many things.”
“Yes. She does. Blue boots, you must never go away from me again.” He folded her close and held her tight.
“Eda willing, I never shall,” she promised him.
As demonstrated by the subtle and melancholy story that follows, memory can be a very unreliable thing, even in matters of the heart. Or perhaps particularly in matters of the heart…
One of the hottest stars in science fiction, fantasy, and horror today, Neil Gaiman has won four Hugo Awards, two Nebula Awards, one World Fantasy Award, seven Locus Awards, four Bram Stoker Awards, four Geffen Awards, one Mythopoeic Fantasy Award, and a Newbery Medal. Gaiman first came to wide public attention as the creator of the graphic novel series The Sandman, still one of the most acclaimed graphic novel series of all time. Gaiman remains a superstar in the graphic novel field. His graphic novels include Breakthrough, Death Talks about Life, Legend of the Green Flame, The Last Temptation, Only the End of the World Again, MirrorMask, and a slew of books in collaboration with Dave McKean, including Black Orchid, Violent Cases, Signal to Noise, The Tragical Comedy or Comical Tragedy of Mr. Punch, The Wolves in the Walls, and The Day I Swapped My Dad for Two Goldfish.
In recent years he’s enjoyed equal success in the science fiction and fantasy fields with his bestselling novel American Gods winning the 2002 Hugo, Nebula, and Bram Stoker Awards, Coraline winning both Hugo (2003) and Nebula (2004), and his story “A Study in Emerald” winning the Hugo in 2004. His novel The Graveyard Book won the Hugo and the Newbery Medal in 2009. He also won the World Fantasy Award for his story with Charles Vess, “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” and won the International Horror Guild Award for his collection Angels & Visitations: A Miscellany. Gaiman’s other novels include Good Omens (written with Terry Pratchett), Neverwhere, Stardust, and, most recently, Anansi Boys. In addition to Angels & Visitations, his short fiction has been collected in Smoke and Mirrors: Short Fictions & Illusions, Midnight Days, Warning: Contains Language, Creatures of the Night, Two Plays for Voices, and Adventures in the Dream Trade, and Fragile Things. He’s also written Don’t Panic: The Official Hitchiker’s Guide to the Galaxy Companion, A Walking Tour of the Shambles (with Gene Wolfe), Batman and Babylon 5 novelizations, and edited Ghastly Beyond Belief (with Kim Newman), Book of Dreams (with Edward Kramer), and Now We Are Sick: An Anthology of Nasty Verse (with Stephen Jones). His most recent books are The Graveyard Book, and two YA novels, Odd and the Frost Giants, and, with Gris Grimly, The Dangerous Alphabet. A movie based on his novel Stardust was in theaters worldwide in 2007, and an animated movie based on Coraline was in theaters in 2009.
The Thing About Cassandra
So there’s Scallie and me wearing Starsky-and-Hutch wigs, complete with sideburns, at five o’clock in the morning by the side of a canal in Amsterdam. There had been ten of us that night, including Rob, the groom, last seen handcuffed to a bed in the Red Light District with shaving foam covering his nether regions and his brother-in-law giggling and patting the hooker holding the straight razor on the arse, which was the point I looked at Scallie and he looked at me, and he said, “Maximum deniability?” and I nodded, because there are some questions you don’t want to be able to answer when a bride starts asking pointed questions about the stag weekend, so we slipped off for a drink, leaving eight men in Starsky-and-Hutch wigs (one of whom was mostly naked, attached to a bed by fluffy pink handcuffs, and seemed to be starting to think that this adventure wasn’t such a good idea after all) behind us, in a room that smelled of disinfectant and cheap incense, and we went and sat by a canal and drank cans of Danish lager and talked about the old days.
Scallie—whose real name is Jeremy Porter, and these days people call him Jeremy, but he had been Scallie when we were eleven—and the groom to be, Rob Cunningham, had been at school with me. We had drifted out of touch, more or less, had found each other the lazy way you do these days, through Friends Reunited and Facebook and such, and now Scallie and I were together for the first time since we were nineteen. The Starsky-and-Hutch wigs, which had been Scallie’s idea, made us look like we were playing brothers in some made-for-TV movie—Scallie the short, stocky brother with the thick moustache, me, the tall one. Given that I’ve made a significant part of my income since leaving school modeling, I’d add the tall good-looking one, but nobody looks good in a Starsky-and-Hutch wig, complete with sideburns.
Also, the wig itched.
We sat by the canal, and when the lager had all gone we kept talking and we watched the sun come up.
Last time I saw Scallie he was nineteen and filled with big plans. He had just joined the RAF as a cadet. He was going to fly planes, and do double duty using the flights to smuggle drugs, and so get incredibly rich while helping his country. It was the kind of mad idea he used to have all the way through school. Usually the whole thing would fall apart. Sometimes he’d get the rest of us into trouble on the way.
Now, twelve years later, his six months in the RAF ended early because of an unspecified problem with his right knee, he was a senior executive in a firm that manufactured double-glazed windows, he told me, with, since the divorce, a smaller house than he felt that he deserved and only a golden retriever for company.
He was sleeping with a woman in the double-glazing firm, but had no expectations of her leaving her boyfriend for him, seemed to find it easier that way. “Of course, I wake up crying sometimes, since the divorce. Well, you do,” he said at one point. I could not imagine him crying, and anyway he said it with a huge Scallie grin.
I told him about me: still modelling, helping out in a friend’s antique shop to keep busy, more and more painting. I was lucky; people bought my paintings. Every year I would have a small gallery show at the Little Gallery in Chelsea, and while initially the only people to buy anything had been people I knew—photographers, old girlfriends, and the like—these days I have actual collectors. We talked about the days that only Scallie seemed to remember, when he and Rob and I had been a team of three, inviolable, unbreakable. We talked about teenage heartbreak, about Caroline Minton (who was now Caroline Keen, and married to a vicar), about the first time we brazened our way into an 18 film, although neither of us could remember what the film actually was.
Then Scallie said, “I heard from Cassandra the other day.”
“Your old girlfriend. Cassandra. Remember?”
“The one from Reigate. You had her name written on all your books.” I must have looked particularly dense or drunk or sleepy, because he said, “You met her on a skiing holiday. Oh, for heaven’s sake. Your first shag. Cassandra.”
“Oh,” I said, remembering, remembering everything. “Cassandra.”
And I did remember.
“Yeah,” said Scallie. “She dropped me a line on Facebook. She’s running a community theatre in East London. You should talk to her.”
“I think, well, I mean, reading between the lines of her message, she may still have a thing for you. She asked after you.”
I wondered how drunk he was, how drunk I was, staring at the canal in the early light. I said something, I forget what, then I asked whether Scallie remembered where our hotel was, because I had forgotten, and he said he had forgotten too, and that Rob had all the hotel details and really we should go and find him and rescue him from the clutches of the nice hooker with the handcuffs and the shaving kit, which, we realised, would be easier if we knew how to get back to where we’d left him, and looking for some clue to where we had left Rob, I found a card with the hotel’s address on it in my back pocket, so we headed back there and the last thing I did before we walked away from the canal and that whole strange evening was to pull the itchy Starsky-and-Hutch wig off my head and throw it into the canal.
Scallie said, “There was a deposit on that, you know. If you didn’t want to wear it, I’d’ve carried it.” Then he said, “You should drop Cassandra a line.”
I shook my head. I wondered who he had been talking to online, who he had confused for her, knowing it definitely wasn’t Cassandra.
The thing about Cassandra is this: I’d made her up.
I WAS FIFTEEN, almost sixteen. I was awkward. I had just experienced my teenage growth spurt and was suddenly taller than most of my friends, self-conscious about my height. My mother owned and ran a small riding stables, and I helped out there, but the girls—competent, horsey, sensible types—intimidated me. At home I wrote bad poetry and painted water colours, mostly of ponies in fields; at school—there were only boys at my school—I played cricket competently, acted a little, hung around with my friends playing records (the CD was around, but they were expensive and rare, and we had all inherited record players and hi-fis from parents or older siblings). When we didn’t talk about music, or sports, we talked about girls.
Scallie was older than me. So was Rob. They liked having me as part of their gang, but they liked teasing me, too. They acted like I was a kid, and I wasn’t. They had both done it with girls. Actually, that’s not entirely true. They had both done it with the same girl, Caroline Minton, famously free with her favours and always up for it once, as long as the person she was with had a moped.
I did not have a moped. I was not old enough to get one, my mother could not afford one (my father had died when I was small, of an accidental overdose of anaesthetic, when he was in hospital to have a minor operation on an infected toe. To this day, I avoid hospitals). I had seen Caroline Minton at parties, but she terrified me and even had I owned a moped, I would not have wanted my first sexual experience to be with her.
Scallie and Rob also had girlfriends. Scallie’s girlfriend was taller than he was, had huge breasts, and was interested in football, which meant that Scallie had to feign an interest in football, Crystal Palace, while Rob’s girlfriend thought that Rob and she should have things in common, which meant that Rob stopped listening to the mid-80s electropop the rest of us liked and started listening to hippy bands from before we were born, which was bad, and that Rob got to raid her dad’s amazing collection of old TV series on video, which was good.
I had no girlfriend.
Even my mother began to comment on it.
There must have been a place where it came from, the name, the idea: I don’t remember though. I just remember writing “Cassandra” on my exercise books. Then, carefully, not saying anything.
“Who’s Cassandra?” asked Scallie.
“Nobody,” I said.
“She must be somebody. You wrote her name on your maths exercise book.”
“She’s just a girl I met on the skiing holiday.” My mother and I had gone skiing, with my aunt and cousins, the month before, in Austria.
“Are we going to meet her?”
“She’s from Reigate. I expect so. Eventually.”
“Well, I hope so. And you like her?”
I paused, for what I hoped was the right amount of time, and said, “She’s a really good kisser.” Then Scallie laughed and Rob wanted to know if this was French kissing, with tongues and everything, and I said, “What do you think,” and by the end of the day, they both believed in her.
My mum was pleased to hear I’d met someone. Her questions—what Cassandra’s parents did, for example—I simply shrugged away.
I went on three “dates” with Cassandra. On each of our dates, I took the train up to London, and took myself to the cinema. It was exciting, in its own way.
I returned from the first trip with more stories of kissing, and of breast-feeling.
Our second date (in reality, spent watching Weird Science on my own in Leicester Square) was, as told to my mum, holding hands together at what she still called “the pictures,” but as told to Rob and Scallie (and over that week, to several other school friends who had heard rumours from sworn-to-secrecy Rob and Scallie, and now needed to find out if it was true), the day I lost my virginity, in Cassandra’s aunt’s flat in London: The aunt was away, Cassandra had a key. I had (for proof) a packet of three condoms missing the one I had thrown away and a strip of four black-and-white photographs I had found on my first trip to London, abandoned in the basket of a photo booth on Victoria Station. The photo strip showed a girl about my age with long straight hair (I could not be certain of the colour. Dark blond? Red? Light brown?) and a friendly, freckly, not unpretty, face. I pocketed it. In art class I did a pencil sketch of the third of the pictures, the one I liked the best, her head half-turned as if calling out to an unseen friend beyond the tiny curtain. She looked sweet, and charming.
I put the drawing up on my bedroom wall, where I could see it from my bed.
After our third date (it was Who Framed Roger Rabbit) I came back to school with bad news: Cassandra’s family was going to Canada (a place that sounded more convincing to my ears than America), something to do with her father’s job, and I would not see her for a long time. We hadn’t really broken up, but we were being practical: Those were the days when transatlantic phone calls were too expensive for teenagers. It was over.
I was sad. Everyone noticed how sad I was. They said they would have loved to have met her, and maybe when she comes back at Christmas? I was confident that by Christmas, she would be forgotten.
She was. By Christmas I was going out with Nikki Blevins and the only evidence that Cassandra had ever been a part of my life was her name, written on a couple of my exercise books, and the pencil drawing of her on my bedroom wall, with “Cassandra, February 19, 1985” written underneath it.
When my mother sold the riding stables in 1989, the drawing was lost in the move. I was at art college at the time, considered my old pencil-drawings as embarrassing as the fact that I had once invented a girlfriend, and did not care.
I do not believe I had thought of Cassandra for twenty years.
MY MOTHER SOLD the riding stables, the attached house, and the meadows to a property developer, who built a housing estate where it had once been, and as part of the deal, gave her a small, detached house at the end of Seton Close. I visit her at least once a fortnight, arriving on Friday night, leaving Sunday morning, a routine as regular as the grandmother clock in the hall.
Mother is concerned that I am happy in life. She has started to mention that various of her friends have eligible daughters. This trip we had an extremely embarrassing conversation that began with her asking if I would like to meet the church organist, a very nice young man of about my age.
“Mother. I’m not gay.”
“There’s nothing wrong with it, dear. All sorts of people do it. They even get married. Well, not proper marriage, but it’s the same thing.”
“I’m still not gay.”
“I just thought, still not married, and the painting, and the modelling.”
“I’ve had girlfriends, Mummy. You’ve even met some of them.”
“Nothing that ever stuck, dear. I just thought there might be something you wanted to tell me.”
“I’m not gay, Mother. I would tell you if I was.” And then I said, “I snogged Tim Carter at a party when I was at art college, but we were drunk and it never went beyond that.”
She pursed her lips. “That’s quite enough of that, young man.” And then, changing the subject, as if to get rid of an unpleasant taste in her mouth, she said, “You’ll never guess who I bumped into in Tesco’s last week.”
“No, I won’t. Who?”
“Your old girlfriend. Your first girlfriend, I should say.”
“Nikki Blevins? Hang on, she’s married, isn’t she? Nikki Woodbridge?”
“The one before her, dear. Cassandra. I was behind her in the line. I would have been ahead of her, but I forgot that I needed cream for the berries today, so I went back to get it, and she was in front of me, and I knew her face was familiar. At first I thought she was Joanie Simmond’s youngest, the one with the speech disorder—what we used to call a stammer but apparently you can’t say that anymore—but then I thought, I know where I know that face. It was over your bed for five years. Of course I said, ‘It’s not Cassandra, is it?’ and she said, ‘It is,’ and I said, ‘You’ll laugh when I say this, but I’m Stuart Innes’s mum.’ She says, ‘Stuart Innes?’ and her face lit up. Well, she hung around while I was putting my groceries in my shopping bag, and she said she’d already been in touch with your friend Jeremy Porter on Bookface, and they’d been talking about you—”
“You mean Facebook? She was talking to Scallie on Facebook?”
I drank my tea and wondered who my mother had actually been talking to. I said, “You’re quite sure this was the Cassandra from over my bed?”
“Oh yes, dear. She told me about how you took her to Leicester Square, and how sad she was when they had to move to Canada. They went to Vancouver. I asked her if she ever met my cousin Leslie—he went to Vancouver after the war—but she said she didn’t believe so, and it turns out it’s actually a big sort of place. I told her about the pencil drawing you did, and she seemed very up-to-date on your activities. She was thrilled when I told her that you were having a gallery opening this week.”
“You told her that?”
“Yes, dear. I thought she’d like to know.” Then my mother said, almost wistfully, “She’s very pretty, dear. I think she’s doing something in community theatre.” Then the conversation went over to the retirement of Dr. Dunnings, who had been our GP since before I was born, and how he was the only non-Indian doctor left in his practice and how my mother felt about this.
I lay in bed that night in my small bedroom at my mother’s house and turned over the conversation in my head. I am no longer on Facebook and thought about rejoining to see who Scullie’s friends were, and if this pseudo-Cassandra was one of them, but there were too many people I was happy not to see again, and I let it be, certain that when there was an explanation, it would prove to be a simple one, and I slept.
I HAVE BEEN showing in the Little Gallery in Chelsea for over a decade now. In the old days, I had a quarter of a wall and nothing priced at more than three hundred pounds. Now I get my own show, every October for a month, and it would be fair to say that I have to sell only a dozen paintings to know that my needs, rent, and life are covered for another year. The unsold paintings remain on the gallery walls until they are gone and they are always gone by Christmas.
The couple who own the gallery, Paul and Barry, still call me “the beautiful boy” as they did twelve years ago, when I first exhibited with them, when it might actually have been true. Back then, they wore flowery, open-necked shirts and gold chains; now, in middle age, they wear expensive suits and talk too much for my liking about the stock exchange. Still, I enjoy their company. I see them three times a year; in September, when they come to my studio to see what I’ve been working on and select the paintings for the show; at the gallery, hanging and opening in October; and in February, when we settle up.
Barry runs the gallery. Paul co-owns it, comes out for the parties, but also works in the wardrobe department of the Royal Opera House. The preview party for this year’s show was on a Friday night. I had spent a nervous couple of days hanging the paintings. Now my part was done, and there was nothing to do but wait, and hope people liked my art, and not to make a fool of myself. I did as I had done for the previous twelve years, on Barry’s instructions, “Nurse the champagne. Fill up on water. There’s nothing worse for the collector than encountering a drunk artist, unless he’s a famous drunk, and you are not, dear. Be amiable but enigmatic, and when people ask for the story behind the painting, say ‘My lips are sealed.’ But for God’s sake, imply there is one. It’s the story they’re buying.”
I rarely invite people to the preview any longer: Some artists do, regarding it as a social event. I do not. While I take my art seriously, as art, and am proud of my work (the latest exhibition was called “People in Landscapes,” which pretty much says it all about my work anyway), I understand that the party exists solely as a commercial event, a come-on for eventual buyers and those who might say the right thing to other eventual buyers. I tell you all this so that you will not be surprised that Barry and Paul manage the guest list to the preview, not I.
The preview begins at 6:30 p.m. I had spent the afternoon hanging paintings, making sure everything looked as good as it could. The only thing that was different about this particular event was how excited Paul looked, like a small boy struggling with the urge to tell you what he had bought you for a birthday present. That, and Barry, who said, while we were hanging, “I think tonight’s show will put you on the map.”
I said, “I think there’s a typo on the Lake District one.” An oversized painting of Windemere at sunset, with two children staring lostly at the viewer from the banks. “It should say three thousand pounds. It says three hundred thousand.”
“Does it?” said Barry, blandly. “My, my.”
It was perplexing, but the first guests had arrived, a little early, and the mystery could wait. A young man invited me to eat a mushroom puff from a silver tray. Then I took my glass of nurse-this-slowly champagne and I prepared to mingle.
All the prices were high, and I doubted that the Little Gallery would be able to sell them at those prices, and I worried about the year ahead.
Barry and Paul took responsibility for moving me around the room, saying, “This is the artist, the beautiful boy who makes all these beautiful things, Stuart Innes,” and I would shake hands and smile. By the end of the evening I will have met everyone, and Paul and Barry are very good about saying, “Stuart, you remember David, he writes about art for the Telegraph…” and I for my part am good about saying, “Of course, how are you? So glad you could come.”
The room was at its most crowded when a striking red-haired woman to whom I had not yet been introduced began shouting, “Representational bullshit!”
I was in conversation with The Daily Telegraph art critic and we turned. He said, “Friend of yours?” I said, “I don’t think so.”
She was still shouting, although the sounds of the party had now quieted. She shouted, “Nobody’s interested in this shit! Nobody!” Then she reached her hand into her coat pocket and pulled out a bottle of ink, shouted, “Try selling this now!” and threw ink at Windemere Sunset. It was blue-black ink.
Paul was by her side then, pulling the ink bottle away from her, saying, “That was a three-hundred-thousand-pound painting, young lady.” Barry took her arm, said, “I think the police will want a word with you,” and walked her back into his office. She shouted at us as she went, “I’m not afraid! I’m proud! Artists like him, just feeding off you gullible art buyers. You’re all sheep! Representation crap!”
And then she was gone, and the party people were buzzing, and inspecting the ink-fouled painting and looking at me, and the Telegraph man was asking if I would like to comment and how I felt about seeing a three-hundred-thousand-pound painting destroyed, and I mumbled about how I was proud to be a painter, and said something about the transient nature of art, and he said that he supposed that tonight’s event was an artistic happening in its own right, and we agreed that, artistic happening or not, the woman was not quite right in the head.
Barry reappeared, moving from group to group, explaining that Paul was dealing with the young lady, and that her eventual disposition would be up to me. The guests were still buzzing excitedly as he was ushering people out of the door, apologising as he did so, agreeing that we lived in exciting times, explaining that he would be open at the regular time tomorrow.
“That went well,” he said, when we were alone in the gallery.
“Well? That was a disaster!”
“Mm. ‘Stuart Innes, the one who had the three-hundred-thousand-pound painting destroyed.’ I think you need to be forgiving, don’t you? She was a fellow artist, even one with different goals. Sometimes you need a little something to kick you up to the next level.”
We went into the back room.
I said, “Whose idea was this?”
“Ours,” said Paul. He was drinking white wine in the back room with the red-haired woman. “Well, Barry’s mostly. But it needed a good little actress to pull it off, and I found her.” She grinned modestly: managed to look both abashed and pleased with herself.
“If this doesn’t get you the attention you deserve, beautiful boy,” said Barry, smiling at me, “nothing will. Now you’re important enough to be attacked.”
“The Windemere painting’s ruined,” I pointed out.
Barry glanced at Paul, and they giggled. “It’s already sold, ink splatters and all, for seventy-five thousand pounds,” he said. “It’s like I always say, people think they are buying the art, but really, they’re buying the story.”
Paul filled our glasses: “And we owe it all to you,” he said to the woman. “Stuart, Barry, I’d like to propose a toast. To Cassandra.”
“Cassandra,” we repeated, and we drank. This time I did not nurse my drink. I needed it.
Then, as the name was still sinking in, Paul said, “Cassandra, this ridiculously attractive and talented young man is, as I am sure you know, Stuart Innes.”
“I know,” she said. “Actually, we’re very old friends.”
“Do tell,” said Barry.
“Well,” said Cassandra, “twenty years ago, Stuart wrote my name on his maths exercise notebook.”
She looked like the girl in my drawing, yes. Or like the girl in the photographs, all grown up. Sharp-faced. Intelligent. Assured.
I had never seen her before in my life.
“Hello, Cassandra,” I said. I couldn’t think of anything else to say.
WE WERE IN the wine bar beneath my flat. They serve food there, too. It’s more than just a wine bar.
I found myself talking to her as if she was someone I had known since childhood. And, I reminded myself, she wasn’t. I had only met her that evening. She still had ink stains on her hands.
We had glanced at the menu, ordered the same thing—the vegetarian meze—and when it had arrived, both started with the dolmades, then moved on to the hummus.
“I made you up,” I told her.
It was not the first thing I had said: First we had talked about her community theatre, how she had become friends with Paul, his offer to her—a thousand pounds for this evening’s show—and how she had needed the money, but mostly said yes because it sounded like a fun adventure. Anyway, she said, she couldn’t say no when she heard my name mentioned. She thought it was fate.
That was when I said it. I was scared she would think I was mad, but I said it. “I made you up.”
“No,” she said. “You didn’t. I mean, obviously you didn’t. I’m really here.” Then she said, “Would you like to touch me?”
I looked at her. At her face, and her posture, at her eyes. She was everything I had ever dreamed of in a woman. Everything I had been missing in other women. “Yes,” I said. “Very much.”
“Let’s eat our dinner first,” she said. Then she said, “How long has it been since you were with a woman?”
“I’m not gay,” I protested. “I have girlfriends.”
“I know,” she said. “When was the last one?”
I tried to remember. Was it Brigitte? Or the stylist the ad agency had sent me to Iceland with? I was not certain. “Two years,” I said. “Perhaps three. I just haven’t met the right person yet.”
“You did once,” she said. She opened her handbag then, a big floppy purple thing, pulled out a cardboard folder, opened it, removed a piece of paper, tape browned at the corners. “See?”
I remembered it. How could I not? It had hung above my bed for years. She was looking around, as if talking to someone beyond the curtain. “Cassandra,” it said, “February 19, 1985.” And it was signed, “Stuart Innes.” There is something at the same time both embarrassing and heartwarming about seeing your handwriting from when you were fifteen.
“I came back from Canada in eighty-nine,” she said. “My parents’ marriage fell apart, and Mum wanted to come home. I wondered about you, what you were doing, so I went to your old address. The house was empty. Windows were broken. It was obvious nobody lived there anymore. They’d knocked down the riding stables already—that made me so sad. I’d loved horses as a girl, obviously, but I walked through the house until I found your bedroom. It was obviously your bedroom, although all the furniture was gone. It still smelled like you. And this was still pinned to the wall. I didn’t think anyone would miss it.”
“Who are you?”
“Cassandra Carlisle. Aged thirty-four. Former actress. Failed playwright. Now running a community theatre in Norwood. Drama therapy. Hall for rent. Four plays a year, plus workshops, and a local panto. Who are you, Stuart?”
“You know who I am.” Then, “You know I’ve never met you before, don’t you?”
She nodded. She said, “Poor Stuart. You live just above here, don’t you?”
“Yes. It’s a bit loud sometimes. But it’s handy for the tube. And the rent isn’t painful.”
“Let’s pay, and go upstairs.”
I reached out to touch the back of her hand. “Not yet,” she said, moving her hand away before I could touch her. “We should talk first.”
So we went upstairs.
“I like your flat,” she said. “It looks exactly like the kind of place I imagine you being.”
“It’s probably time to start thinking about getting something a bit bigger,” I told her. “But it does me fine. There’s good light out the back for my studio—you can’t get the effect now, at night. But it’s great for painting.”
It’s strange, bringing someone home. It makes you see the place you live as if you’ve not been there before. There are two oil paintings of me in the lounge, from my short-lived career as an artists’ model (I did not have the patience to stand and wait), blown-up advertising photos of me in the little kitchen and the loo, book covers with me on—romance covers, mostly, over the stairs.
I showed her the studio, and then the bedroom. She examined the Edwardian barber’s chair I had rescued from an ancient barbers’ that closed down in Shoreditch. She sat down on the chair, pulled off her shoes.
“Who was the first grown-up you liked?” she asked.
“Odd question. My mother, I suspect. Don’t know. Why?”
“I was three, perhaps four. He was a postman called Mr. Postie. He’d come in his little post van and bring me lovely things. Not every day. Just sometimes. Brown paper packages with my name on, and inside would be toys or sweets or something. He had a funny, friendly face with a knobby nose.”
“And he was real? He sounds like somebody a kid would make up.”
“He drove a post van inside the house. It wasn’t very big.”
She began to unbutton her blouse. It was cream-coloured, still flecked with splatters of ink. “What’s the first thing you actually remember? Not something you were told you did. That you really remember?”
“Going to the seaside when I was three, with my mum and my dad.”
“Do you remember it? Or do you remember being told about it?”
“I don’t see what the point of this is… ?”
She stood up, wiggled, stepped out of her skirt. She wore a white bra, dark green panties, frayed. Very human: not something you would wear to impress a new lover. I wondered what her breasts would look like, when the bra came off. I wanted to stroke them, to touch them to my lips.
She walked from the chair to the bed, where I was sitting.
“Lie down, now. On that side of the bed. I’ll be next to you. Don’t touch me.”
I lay down, my hands at my sides. She said, “You’re so beautiful. I’m not honestly sure whether you’re my type. You would have been when I was fifteen, though. Nice and sweet and unthreatening. Artistic. Ponies. A riding stable. And I bet you never make a move on a girl unless you’re sure she’s ready, do you?”
“No,” I said. “I don’t suppose that I do.”
She lay down beside me.
“You can touch me now,” said Cassandra.
I HAD STARTED thinking about Stuart again late last year. Stress, I think. Work was going well, up to a point, but I’d broken up with Pavel, who may or may not have been an actual bad hat although he certainly had his finger in many dodgy East European pies, and I was thinking about Internet dating. I had spent a stupid week joining the kind of Web sites that link you to old friends, and from there it was no distance to Jeremy “Scallie” Porter, and to Stuart Innes.
I don’t think I could do it anymore. I lack the single-mindedness. The attention to detail. Something else you lose when you get older.
Mr. Postie used to come in his van when my parents had no time for me. He would smile his big gnomey smile, wink an eye at me, hand me a brown-paper parcel with “Cassandra” written on in big block letters, and inside would be a chocolate, or a doll, or a book. His final present was a pink plastic microphone, and I would walk around the house singing or pretending to be on TV. It was the best present I had ever been given.
My parents did not ask about the gifts. I did not wonder who was actually sending them. They came with Mr. Postie, who drove his little van down the hall and up to my bedroom door, and who always knocked three times. I was a demonstrative girl, and the next time I saw him, after the plastic microphone, I ran to him and threw my arms around his legs.
It’s hard to describe what happened then. He fell like snow, or like ash. For a moment I had been holding someone, then there was just powdery white stuff, and nothing.
I used to wish that Mr. Postie would come back after that, but he never did. He was over. After a while, he became embarrassing to remember: I had fallen for that.
So strange, this room.
I wonder why I could ever have thought that somebody who made me happy when I was fifteen would make me happy now. But Stuart was perfect: the riding stables (with ponies), and the painting (which showed me he was sensitive), and the inexperience with girls (so I could be his first) and how very, very tall, dark, and handsome he would be. I liked the name, too: it was vaguely Scottish and (to my mind) like the hero of a novel.
I wrote Stuart’s name on my exercise books.
I did not tell my friends the most important thing about Stuart: that I had made him up.
And now I’m getting up off the bed and looking down at the outline of a man, a silhouette in flour or ash or dust on the black satin bedspread, and I am getting into my clothes.
The photographs on the wall are fading too. I didn’t expect that. I wonder what will be left of his world in a few hours, wonder if I should have left well enough alone, a masturbatory fantasy, something reassuring and comforting. He would have gone through his life without ever really touching anyone, just a picture and a painting and a half memory for a handful of people who barely ever thought of him anymore.
I leave the flat. There are still people at the wine bar downstairs. They are sitting at the table, in the corner, where Stuart and I had been sitting. The candle has burned way down, but I imagine that it could almost be us. A man and a woman, in conversation. And soon enough, they will get up from their table and walk away, and the candle will be snuffed and the lights turned off, and that will be that for another night.
I hail a taxi. Climb in. For a moment—for, I hope, the last time—I find myself missing Stuart Innes.
Then I sit back in the seat of the taxi, and I let him go. I hope I can afford the taxi fare, and find myself wondering whether there will be a cheque in my bag in the morning, or just another blank sheet of paper. Then, more satisfied than not, I close my eyes, and I wait to be home.
Marjorie M. Liu
New York Times bestseller Marjorie M. Liu is an attorney who has worked and traveled all over Asia. She’s best known for the Dirk & Steele series, detailing the otherworldly cases of the Dirk & Steele detective agency, which include Tiger Eye, Shadow Touch, The Last Twilight, and The Wild Road. She also writes the successful Hunter Kiss series, which includes The Iron Hunt and Darkness Calls. Her latest books are In the Dark of Dreams, the tenth Dirk & Steele novel, and A Wild Light, the third in the Hunter Kiss series. She lives in Indiana.
In the taut and suspenseful story that follows, she takes us to a postapocalyptic future, one of people just managing to scrape out a meager living from the soil, where every shadow has teeth and very real and deadly Things That Go Bump in the Night lurk in the darkness, kept at bay only by the strangest of alliances—and by the power of the blood.
After the Blood
Lost in the forest, I broke off a dark twig
and lifted its whisper to my thirsty lips…
I didn’t have time to grab my coat. Only shoes and the shotgun. I had gone to sleep with the fanny pack belted to my waist, so the shells were on hand and jangled as I ran. I had forgotten they would make noise. Not that it mattered.
No moon. Slick gravel and cold rain on my face. Neighbor’s dogs were barking and I wished they would shut up, but they didn’t, and I kept expecting one of them to make that strangled yip sound like Pete-Pete had, out in the woods where I couldn’t ever find his body. I missed him bad, nights like these. So did the cats.
The cowbell was still ringing when I reached the gate, and I heard a loud thud: a hoof striking wood. Chains rattled. I raised the shotgun, ready.
“They’re coming,” whispered a strained voice, murmuring something else in German that I couldn’t understand. “Amanda?”
“Here,” I muttered. “Hurry.”
Hinges creaked, followed by the soft tread of hooves and wheels rolling over gravel. Slow, too slow. I dug in my heels, hearing something else in the darkness: a hacking cough, wet and raw.
“Steven,” I warned.
“We’re through,” he said.
I pulled the trigger, gritting my teeth against the recoil. The muzzle flash generated a brief light—enough to glimpse a hateful set of eyes. And then, almost in the same instant, I heard a muffled scream. I fired again, just for good measure.
Steven slammed into the gate. I ran to help him set the lock—one-handed, shotgun braced against my hip. I heard more coughs—deeper, masculine—and got bathed in the scent of rotten meat and shit. All those unclean mouths, breathing on me from the other side of the fence. A rock whistled past my ear. I threw one back with all my strength. Steven dragged me away.
“Son of a bitch,” I muttered, breathless—and gave the boy a hard look; his body faintly visible, even in the darkness. “What the hell are you doing here?”
Steven let go. I couldn’t see his face, but I heard him stumble back to the horses. I almost stopped him, needing an answer almost as much as I feared one—but I smelled something else in that moment.
I stood on my toes and reached inside the wagon. Felt a blanket, and beneath, a leg.
When? I wanted to ask, but my voice wouldn’t work. I clung to the edge of the wagon, needing something to lean on, but that lasted only until Steven began leading the horses up the driveway. I followed, uneasy—trying to ignore the sounds of rocks hitting the fence and those raw hacking coughs that quieted into whines. Sounded like dogs crawling on their stomachs, begging not to be beaten. Made me think of Pete-Pete again. My palms were sweaty around the shotgun.
Steven remained silent until we reached the house. Lamplight flickered through the windows, which were crowded with feline faces pressed against the glass. It felt good to see again. Steven dropped the reins and walked to the back of the wagon. He was a couple inches taller than me, and slender in the shoulders. Just a teen, clean-shaven, wearing a dark wide-brimmed hat. His suspenders were loose and his pants ended well above his ankles. A pair of old tennis shoes clung precariously to his feet.
“They hurt him bad,” said the boy, unlatching the backboard. “Even though he saved their lives.”
“He didn’t fight back?” I asked, though I knew the answer.
Steven gave me a bitter look. “They called him a devil.”
Called him other things, too, I guessed. But that couldn’t be helped. We had all expected this, one way or another. Only so long a man could keep secrets while living under his family’s roof.
I tried to hand my gun to the boy. He stared at the weapon as though it were a live snake, and put his hands behind his back.
“Steven,” I said sharply, but he ducked his head and edged around me toward the back of the wagon. No words, no argument. He did the job I was going to do, taking hold of those blanketed ankles and pulling hard. The body slid out slowly, but the cooked smell of human flesh curdled through my nostrils, and I had to turn away with my hand over my mouth.
I went into the house. Cats scattered under the sagging couch and quilt, while kittens mewed from the box placed in front of the iron-bellied stove. I left the shotgun on the kitchen table, beside the covered bucket of clean water I had pulled from the hand pump earlier that evening, and grabbed a sheet from the line strung across the living room. I started pulling down panties, too, and anything else embarrassing.
Just in time. Steven trudged inside, breathing hard—dragging that blanket-wrapped body across my floor. He didn’t stop for directions. Just moved toward the couch, one slow inch at a time. A cat peered from beneath the quilt and hissed.
I helped sling the body on the couch. A foot slipped free of the blanket, still wearing a shoe. The leather had melted into the blackened skin. Steven and I stared at that foot. I wanted to cry—it was the proper thing to do—but except for a hard, sick lump in my throat, my eyes burned dry.
“What about you?” I asked Steven quietly. “They know you brought him here?”
“I put the fire out,” he replied, and pulled off his hat with a shaking hand. “Don’t know if I can go home after that.”
I rubbed his shoulder. “Put the horses in the barn, then take my bed. This’ll be awhile.”
“Our dad,” he began, and stopped, swallowing hard. Crumpling the hat in his hands. He could not look at me. Just that blackened foot. I stepped between him and the couch, but he did not move until I placed my palm on his chest, pushing him away. He gave me a wild look, haunted. I noticed, for the first time, that he smelled like smoke.
But I didn’t have to say a word. He turned and walked out the front door, head down, shoulders pinched and hunched. Some of the cats followed him.
I stayed with the body. Sat down at the bottom of the couch, beside that exposed foot. It took me a long time to peel off the shoe. Longer than it had to. I wanted to vomit every time I touched that warm, burned skin. I peeled and pulled, and finally just cut everything away with a pair of old scissors. Steven passed through only once, from the front door to my bedroom. If he looked, I didn’t know. I ignored him.
I unrolled the body from the blanket. Worked on all those clothes—and the other shoe. Stripped off what had been hand-sewn pants made of coarse denim, and a shirt of a softer weave. The beard I knew so well was gone. So was that face, except for blackened skin and exposed bone. His mouth was open, twisted into a scream so visceral his lower jaw had unhinged.
“Stupid,” I whispered to him, rubbing my eyes and running nose. “You had nothing to prove.”
Same as me. Nothing to prove. Nothing at all.
I had brought in a knife with the scissors—sterilized in boiling water and wrapped in a clean rag covered in some faded drawing of a black mouse in red pants. I did not want to touch the blade, but I did. I did not want to hold my arm over that open mouth, but I did that, too. Sucked down a deep breath. Steeled myself. Cut open my wrist.
Nothing big. I wasn’t crazy. But the blood welled up faster than I expected. My vision seemed to fade behind a white cloud, and I almost lay down on that burned body. But I took a couple quick breaths, grit my teeth, and stopped looking at the blood.
Just that mouth. Just that mouth I held my wrist over. Swallowing all those little drops of my life.
It took a while. I didn’t want to make a mistake. This was the worst I had ever seen. So bad I began to wonder if this was the end, the last and final straw. Got harder to breathe after that. My throat burned. Cats pawed my legs and took turns in my lap, butting my chin and kneading my thighs with their prickly little claws. One of them licked a charred finger, but didn’t try to chew, so I let that go.
My wrist throbbed. So did my head, after a time. I kept at it. Until, finally, I noticed a little color around his lips. A hint of pink beneath the blackened skin. I closed my eyes, counting to one hundred. When I looked again, it wasn’t my imagination. Pink skin. Signs of life.
I pressed my wrist against his burned mouth and felt his lips tighten just a hairsbreadth. Good enough for me. I was exhausted. I didn’t move my wrist, but stretched out on the couch beside him, ignoring the smell and crunch of cooked skin. A cat walked up the length of my hip, while another perched on the cushion above me, licking my hair. Purrs thundered, everywhere.
And that mouth closed tighter.
I closed my eyes and went to sleep.
I WOKE CHOKING, water trickling down my throat.
But there was also a hand behind my head and something hard on my lips, and both flashed me back to the bad days. I sat up fighting, heart all thunder. My fist slammed into a hard chest.
A naked man squatted in front of me, gripping a cup of water in his hand. Scared me for a moment, terrified me, part of me still asleep—but then I took a breath and my vision cleared, and I saw the man. I saw him.
He was bald, scorched, raw. Not much better than a half-cooked chicken, and certainly uglier. But his eyes were blue and glittering as ice, and I smiled crooked for that cold gaze.
“Henry.” I wiped water from my mouth, trying not to tremble. “Aren’t you a sight?”
“Amanda,” he replied. But that was it. Only my name. That other hand of his still held the back of my head. I looked down. My wrist had been bandaged. I saw other things, too, and dragged the quilt from the couch to toss over his hips. His mouth twitched—from bitterness or humor, I couldn’t tell—but he leaned in to kiss me.
Just my cheek. Slow and deliberate, lingering with our faces pressed close. I slid my arms around his neck and held tight.
“Don’t make me cry again,” I whispered.
Henry dragged in a deep breath. “How did I get here?”
He leaned harder against me. “Did anyone see him?”
“We haven’t talked about what happened. But I’d say yes.” I pulled away, speaking into his shoulder: a patchwork of pink and blackened flesh. “He said you saved lives.”
“I gave in.” Henry’s fingers tightened in my hair. “I killed.”
“I killed,” he said again, shivering. “I violated God’s rule.”
You did what you had to, I wanted to tell him, but those were cheap words compared to what he needed; and that was more than I could give him.
Bedsprings creaked from the other room. I glanced toward the window. Still dark out, but it had to be close to dawn. I heard birds, and the goats; and farther away, that dog barking. I tried to stand. Henry grabbed my wrist. “You need to rest. What you did last night—”
“I’m fine,” I lied, blinking heavily to keep my vision straight. “Stay here.”
But he didn’t. He wrapped the quilt around his hips and limped outside with me, followed by several cats, bounding, twining, pouncing in the grass. Little guards. Cool air felt good on my face, and though Henry did not take my hand, our arms brushed as we walked.
I had built the rabbit hutch inside the barn. Horses stirred restlessly when we entered, and so did the goats in their dark pen, but the chickens were quiet. I felt all the animals watching as I undid the latch and reached inside for a sleek brown body. The rabbit trembled. So did Henry, when I handed it to him.
“I wish you wouldn’t watch,” he murmured, but almost in the same breath he bit the rabbit’s throat. It screamed. So did he, but it was a muffled, relieved sound. I looked away. All the other rabbits were huddled together, shaking. I could hear Henry feeding, and it was a wet sucking sound that made my skin crawl and my wrist throb.
I counted seconds. Counted until they added up to minutes. Then I took another rabbit from the hutch and held it out, head turned. Henry took it from me and walked away. No longer limping. I heard the rabbit scream before he reached the door.
I did chores. Freshened the water for the goats, brushed the horses down with handfuls of hay and the palms of my hands. Thought, again, about building a pen for some pigs and how much I’d have to trade upriver for several in an upcoming litter I’d heard about in town. I wanted to get set before winter. Trees needed cutting, too, for firewood. I had been putting that off.
When I left the barn, I found Henry near the garden, digging a hole just large enough for two dead rabbits. Soil was wet and smelled good, like the tomatoes ripening on the vines. I saw light on the horizon.
“I’ll finish that,” I said. “You need to get inside.”
“I need a walk,” he mumbled. I realized he had been weeping. “I don’t want to see Steven.”
“Too bad.” I crouched, taking his hand. His skin appeared healthier, burn marks, fading. “You may be all he has now. Besides, it’s too close to dawn for a walk. Don’t be stupid.”
“Stupid,” he echoed, and pulled his hand away. “You should have seen how my dad—how they—looked at me. How they’ll look at Steven now. My fault, Amanda. I was too weak to leave.”
The rabbits were still warm, but hollow, flattened. Drops of blood coated their throats. I dropped them into the hole Henry had dug and pushed dirt over their bodies.
“Staying was harder than leaving,” I said, but that was all. The house door creaked open, somewhere out of sight, then banged shut. Henry tensed. I backed away. I doubt he noticed. Too busy watching his brother, who strode down the path toward us—just a shadow in the predawn light, shoulders hunched, hands shoved deep in his pockets, hat tilted low over his eyes.
I left them alone. Went back to the house for my shotgun and a coat, and then headed down to the fence. Looking for monsters.
Cats followed me.
THE LAND HAD been in the family a long time. Long enough for stories to be passed down, stories that never changed except for the weather, or the animal, or the person: stories involving my kin, who were neighbors and friends to the Plain People. Or the Amish, as my mother had called them, respectfully.
She was dead now, gone a couple years. She and my father had both survived the Big Death, though cancer and infection finally killed them. Mundane, compared to what had destroyed most everyone else: a plague that struck cities, a virus that killed in hours or days. My brother was lost that way—gone to college in Chicago, which didn’t exist anymore. It was for him that I didn’t like hearing stories about the Big Death, though some refugee survivors seemed to get kicks from the attention they received when telling the tale. Blood in the streets, and riots, and the government quarantining the cities and suburbs with tanks and barricades, and guns. No burials for the millions dead, no burials for the cities.
Just the forests that had grown up around them. An unnatural growth, some said. Cities of the dead, swallowed by trees. And, in the intervening years, other strange things. Unnatural visitations.
But folks didn’t like to tell those stories. Plague was easier to swallow than magic.
The fence around my land was made of wood planks instead of strung barbed wire. Maybe my great-grandfather had built the thing, or his father—I didn’t know for sure—just that it was older than living memory, and had been tended and mended over the last hundred years by people who knew what they were doing; so many times over, there probably wasn’t much original wood left in the damn thing.
It was a good fence. And I’d made my own additions.
Still dark out. Skies clearing, revealing stars. I checked the gate at the end of the driveway. Couldn’t see much on the other side, except for a splash of something dark on the gravel. Blood, maybe. No body. Dragged away into the woods with Pete-Pete’s bones. I undid the lock, crossed over. Shotgun held carefully. Cats walked with me, but didn’t hiss or flatten their ears. Just watched the shadows beyond the road, in the trees. I didn’t hear anything except for birds.
“Hiding from the light,” said a quiet voice behind me. I didn’t flinch. One of the cats had glanced over its shoulder, which was warning enough.
Henry stepped close, still naked except for the quilt. I said, “You should be in the house.”
“I have time. Not safe here, all by yourself.”
“Got an army.” I held up my gun and glanced at the cats. “Steven?”
He said nothing. Just took a few jolting steps toward the woods. I grabbed him, afraid of what he would do. He didn’t fight me, but the tension was thick in his arm. I pretended not to see the sharp tips of his teeth as he pulled back his lips to scent the air.
“They’re in there,” he said, his voice husky. “I tasted their blood last night.”
I tightened my grip, both on his arm and the shotgun. Cats twined around our legs. “Did you like it?”
Henry looked at me. “Yes.”
“It’s not a sin,” I said, “to be yourself. You told me that.”
“Before I was turned into this.” He touched his mouth, pressing his thumb against a sharp tooth. “I was called a demon last night. Dad put the torch to me himself, and I didn’t stop him. I kept hoping he would stop first.”
I squeezed his arm. “Come on. Before the sun rises.”
“I have time,” he said again, but gently, holding my gaze. “Please, let’s walk.”
So we did. On the dangerous side of the fence, outside the border of the land; my cornfields, and the potatoes, and the long rows of spinach, green beans, tomatoes, and cucumbers. I didn’t have a rabbit problem. Cats strolled along the rails and through the tall grass, which soaked the bottoms of my jeans. Henry did not notice the wet, or chill. He watched the forest, and the sky, and my face.
“Stop,” I said, and knelt to examine a weather-beaten post. It was hard to see. I had no batteries for the flashlights stored in the cellar, but I had traded for some butane lighters some years back, and those still worked. I slipped one from my pocket, flipped the switch. A little flame appeared. I needed it for only a moment.
“It looks fine,” Henry murmured.
“You always say that,” I replied, and held out my finger to him. He hesitated—and then nipped it, ever so carefully, on the sharp point of his tooth. I felt nothing except a nick of pain, and maybe sadness, or comfort, or affection—love—but nothing as storybooks said I should feel; no shiver, no lust, no mind-meld. I had done my research in the library, which still stood in town, governed by three crones who lived there and guarded the books. I had read fiction, and myths, and looked at pictures on the backs of movies that couldn’t be played anymore. But in the end, none of it meant much. Problems just had to be lived through.
I smeared a spot of my blood on the fencepost and said a prayer. Nothing big. It was the feeling behind the words that mattered, and I prayed for safety and light, and protection. I prayed to keep the monsters out.
We moved on. A hundred feet later, stopped again. I repeated the ritual. Weak spots. No way to tell just from looking, but I knew, in my blood, in my heart.
“They got through last night,” Henry said, watching me carefully. “Past the fence to the front door. That’s what started it. I was in the barn, cleaning the stalls. I heard Mom scream.”
“I’m sorry.” I glanced at the sky—lighter now, dawn chasing stars. Sun would soon be rising. “I’ll swing around the farm today and see if I can’t shore up the line without your folks seeing me.”
“Take Steven with you.”
I shook my head, patting the tabby rubbing against my shins. “Won’t do that. If they try and hurt him—”
“Then we’ll know. It’s important, Amanda.”
I started walking. “Have him talk to me about it. His choice. No pressure from you.”
Henry stayed where he was, clutching the quilt in one hand. His broad shoulders were almost free of burned skin; and so were his arms, thick with muscle. He had been teethed on hard labor, and it showed.
But Henry was a good-looking man when he wasn’t burned alive; and it hurt to feel him staring at me. Staring at me like I wanted to be stared at—with hunger, and trust, and that old sadness that sometimes I couldn’t bear.
I looked away, just for a moment. One of the cats meowed.
When I turned back he was gone.
NO ONE KNEW, of course. About the blood on the fence. Prior to last night, no one had known about Henry’s affliction, either. Just Steven and me.
Small town. Caught on the border of a government-registered Enclave, one of hundreds scattered across the former United States. Not many official types ever came around, except a couple times a year with fresh medicines and other odds and ends—military caravans, powered by gas. No one else had fuel. Might be some in the quarantined cities, but I couldn’t think of anyone who would go there. The virus might still be active. Waiting in the bones.
Twenty years, waiting. Little or no manufacturing in all that time; no currency, no airplanes, no television or postal service, or ice cream from the freezer; or all the little things I had taken for granted as a kid and could hardly remember. Just stories now. Lives that were and would never be again. The past, gone unmissed.
Maybe it was for the best. Survivors of the Big Death had to make do with leftovers. Farming experience was more valuable than guns. So was living without electricity and plumbing. Which meant—to the dismay of some—that Amish, and folks like them, now held the real power. Government was encouraging them to spread out, establish new agricultural communities—from Atlantic to Pacific. Nothing asked for in return, though it had created an odd dynamic. I’d heard accusations of favoritism in business dealings, complaints about cold shoulders and standoffishness. Other things, too—bitter and sour.
But not all communities were the same, and if you were a good neighbor, the Plain People were good to you. Even if, when you knew them too well, they had their own problems. Religion was no cure for dysfunction.
I rode in the wagon beside Steven. Brought my shotgun—unloaded in case anyone checked. Shells were in my pockets. Knives, hidden inside my boots. We weren’t the only ones on the road, which had been one of those two-lane highways back in the old days. Still a highway, just not for cars—which rusted at the side of the road. Relics of another age. None had been dumped in the fields. Plenty of land, maybe, but it all needed to be used to grow food. Vast vegetable gardens and grazing cattle surrounded several battered trailer homes. Little kids playing outside waved to us, and went back to chasing the dog.
Steven and I didn’t talk much until we reached the border of his family’s farm. I made him stop twice and pricked my finger for blood. Blessed the fence.
“God has a plan,” Steven murmured, watching me.
I glanced at him. “I hate it when you and Henry say that.”
“Better God than the alternative.” He leaned forward, studying his hands—his trembling hands. “I want God to be responsible for what changed us. I want God to have a reason for us being different. We’re not demons, Amanda.”
“I agree,” I replied sharply. “Now let me concentrate.”
“You don’t even know how you do it,” he murmured, still not looking at me. “Or why your blood works against… them.”
Because I will it to, whispered a small voice inside my mind. But that was nonsense—and even if it wasn’t, years of considering the matter had given me nothing worth discussing. The same instincts that had led me to dot fenceposts with my blood seemed just as powerful as the driving urge of birds to fly south for winter, or cats to hunt—or Henry to drink blood.
I worked quickly, and climbed back into the wagon. Steven clucked at the horses. I kept my gaze on the fence, watching for weak spots—listening for them inside my head. But it was near the gate where I saw the breaking point.
“Those boards are new,” I said, jumping down and crouching. “Or were, before last night.”
“Dad replaced them. No one told Henry or me.” Steven’s voice was hoarse, his face so pale. He looked ready to vomit. “Found out too late.”
“You don’t have to do this. We can go back.”
He closed his eyes and shook his head. “I need them to understand. None of us could stop what happened.”
Not before, I imagined him adding. But we could stop it this time.
I stared past Steven at the woods. “It’s been hard for you, these past few years. Helping your brother pretend he’s human. Keeping up the illusion, every day, in your own home.”
A strained smile touched the corner of his mouth. “Lying all the time. Praying for forgiveness. Wears on the soul.”
“Cry me a river,” I said. “You know you’re a good person.”
“By your standards, maybe.”
“Ah. My weak morals. My violent temper. The jeans I wear.” I gave him a sidelong glance. “I thought pride was a sin.”
He never replied. I finished blessing the fence and pulled myself back into the wagon. Less than a minute later, we turned up the drive, almost a quarter-mile long, from the fence to the house. It was a sunny day, so bright the white clapboard house near glowed with light. Purple petunias grew in tangled masses near the clothesline; chickens scattered beneath billowing sheets, pecking feed thrown down by a little girl dressed in a simple blue dress. A black cap had been tied over her head, and her curly brown hair hung in braids. She looked up, staring at the wagon. Steven waved.
“Anna is getting big,” I said, just as the little girl dropped the bowl of chicken feed and ran toward the house—screaming. I flinched. So did Steven.
He stopped the horses before we were halfway up the drive. I slid out of the wagon, watching as a man strode from the barn. He held an ax. My unloaded shotgun was on the bench. I touched the stock and said, “Samuel, if you’re not planning on using that cutter, maybe you should put it down.”
Samuel Bontrager did not put down the ax. He was a stocky, bow-legged man; broad shoulders, sinewy forearms, lean legs; and a gut that hung precariously over the waist of his pants. He had a long beard, more silver than blond. Henry might look like him one day. If he aged.
Last time I’d seen the man, he had been admiring a new horse; a delicate high-stepping creature traded as a gift for his eldest daughter. Smiles, then. But now he was pale, tense, staring at me with a gaze so hollow he hardly seemed alive.
“Go,” he whispered, as the house door banged open and his wife, Rachel, emerged. “Go on, get out.”
“Dad,” Steven choked out, but Samuel let out a despairing cry, and staggered forward with that ax shaking in his hands. He did not swing the weapon, but brandished it like a shield. Might as well have been a cross.
I took my hand from the shotgun. “We need to talk.”
Rachel walked down the porch stairs, each step stiff, sharp. Her gaze never left Steven’s face, but her husband was shaking his head, shaking like that was all he knew how to do, his eyes downcast, when open at all.
“Out,” he said hoarsely. “I saw a crime committed last night that was against God, and I will not tolerate any who condone it.”
“You saw a young man save his parents from death.” I stepped toward him, hands outstretched. “You saw both your sons take that burden on their souls.” To keep you safe, I didn’t add. Making amends for what they couldn’t do years ago.
I might as well have spoken out loud. Rachel made a muffled gasping sound, a sob, touching her mouth with her scarred, tanned hands. I saw those memories in her eyes. Samuel finally looked at his son, his gaze blazing with sorrow.
“You held them down,” he whispered. “You held those men down… for him.”
I gave Steven a sharp look, but he was staring at his father. Pale, shaking, with some strange light in his too-bright eyes.
“They were going to kill you,” he breathed. “I did nothing wrong. Neither did Henry. We did not forsake the Lord.”
“You held them down,” Samuel hissed again, trembling. “And he ripped out their throats. He used nothing but his mouth to do this. We all saw it. He was not human in that moment. He was not a child of God. He was… something else… and I will not have such a monstrosity in my home. Nor will I bear the sight of any who would take that monster’s side.”
“Samuel,” I said, looking past him as his weeping wife, who swayed closer, clutched her hands over her mouth. “Those were not human men he killed.”
“Then what was my son, if those were not men?” Samuel tossed his ax in the dirt and rubbed a hand over his ashen face. “I would rather have died than see my own child murder.”
He was telling the truth. I expected nothing less from a man of his faith. Nor could I condemn it. He believed what he believed, and it was the reason so many towns and Enclaves had become safe places to live. It was also why so many local men of the Amish were gone now, in the grave.
And why Anna Bontrager did not look like either of her fair-haired parents.
“Steven,” I said quietly. “Get out of the wagon. We’re going.”
“No,” he whispered, flashing me a desperate look. “Tell them, Amanda.”
Tell them what happened years ago in the woods.
But I looked at Steven, and then his parents, and could not bring myself to say the words. Not yet. Maybe not ever.
“Steven and Henry’s belongings,” I said instead. “We’ll take them.”
“Gone,” said Rachel, so softly I could barely hear her. She drew close to her husband’s side, and her bloodshot gaze never left Steven’s face. “Burned.”
Steven sank down on the wagon bench. Breaking, breaking—I could hear his heart breaking. I suddenly hated Henry for not being here. For asking me to do this.
I grabbed my shotgun off the wagon and touched Steven’s leg. “Come on. Let’s go.”
He gave me a dazed look. Samuel, behind me, cleared his throat and whispered, “Take the wagon and horses. I don’t want anything he touched.”
I ignored him, still holding Steven’s gaze. I extended my hand. After a long moment, he took it, and I pulled him off the wagon. He kept his head down and did not look back at his parents. I pushed him ahead of me, very gently, and we walked down the long driveway toward the road.
Samuel called out, “Amanda.”
I stopped. Steven did not. I glanced over my shoulder. Samuel and his wife were leaning on each other. I wanted to pick up handfuls of gravel and throw it at their faces. I wanted to ask them to remember the bad days, and that violent afternoon. Maybe the choice not to act had always been clear to them, but not to Henry. Not to his brother.
“If you keep the boy with you,” Samuel began, but I held up my hand, stopping him.
“Don’t,” I said. “Don’t threaten me.”
“No threats,” Rachel replied, pulling away from her husband; pushing him, even. “We care about you. Our families have always been… close.”
More close than she realized. Close enough that she would not want me here, should the truth be known. All those little truths, wrapped up in lies.
All I could do was stare, helpless. “Then don’t do this to Steven. No matter what happened last night, you have to forgive him. It’s your way.”
Rachel’s face crumpled. Samuel clamped his hand down hard on her shoulder.
“Forgiveness isn’t the same as acceptance. Steven will be held accountable,” he said, with ominous finality.
Rachel shuddered. For a moment I thought she would defy her husband, but she visibly steeled herself and gave me an impossibly sad look that reminded me of my mother when she would dig out old pictures of my brother.
“I know about the violence that was committed against you,” she whispered, so softly I could barely hear her voice. “But don’t let that be an excuse to harbor violence in your heart.”
“Or my home?” I gave her a bitter smile. “There are just as many kinds of violence as there are forgiveness.” I looked at Samuel. “You set Henry on fire. You killed your own son. No one’s free of sin in this place.”
I turned and walked away. Steven waited for me at the end of the driveway. I grabbed his arm and marched up the road, holding him close. Even when the Bontrager farm was out of sight, I didn’t let go.
I said, “You told them what happened to me?”
“She just knew,” Steven whispered. “It was the same men, and she knew.”
I didn’t want to think about that. But I did. I had time. It took us more than an hour to walk home. Longer, because I detoured to check other parts of his family’s fence; and then mine. No need to bless any other borders in these parts. Folks had their own problems, but not like ours—though this road, between his place and mine, had a reputation amongst locals: few traveled it at night. Years ago, men and women had gone missing; parts of them found at the side of the road, chewed up.
We walked slowly. Met only two other people, the Robersons: a silver-haired woman on a battered bicycle, transporting green onions inside the basket bolted to the handlebars; and her husband, ten years younger, riding another bike and hauling a homemade cart full of caged chicks. On their way to town central. Mr. Roberson wore a gun, but his was just for show. I was the only person in fifty miles who still had bullets. But no one knew that, either, except Henry and Steven.
Steven kept his head down. I forced myself to wave. Mrs. Roberson, still a short distance away, smiled and raised her hand. And then glanced left, to the young man at my side.
Her front tire swerved. She touched her feet to the road to stay upright, but it was rough, and she almost spilled her onions. Her husband caught up, deliberately inserting himself between his wife and us. He touched his gun.
And then they were gone, passing, pedaling down the road. I stopped, turning around to stare. Mr. Roberson looked back. I felt a chill when I met his gaze.
“Amanda,” Steven said.
“What?” I replied, distracted, thinking about the farm and the land, and those crops I would need help harvesting. I thought about the pigs I wanted to buy, and all the little things I needed that only town businesses—businesses run by the Amish—could provide.
“I’m sorry,” he said, and then, even more quietly: “Everyone is going to know. My parents will have already told the Church about Henry and me. We won’t be able to stay here.”
“They think Henry is dead.”
“Doesn’t matter. You won’t have it easy, either.”
“I don’t care,” I lied.
We got home. A small part of me was glad to see it still standing. Cats waited at the gate. Several perched on the posts, watching the woods, and one of them—a scarred bull-necked tom—lay a dead mouse on my boot when I stopped to undo the lock and chain. I thanked him with a scratch behind the ears, and then nudged the small corpse into the grass.
Steven did not talk to me. He headed for the barn. I didn’t ask why. I went into the house, trying not to trip on cats, and set my shotgun down on the kitchen table. Blinds had been pulled. Henry sat on the couch in the dark room. He still wore the quilt. Kittens squirmed in his lap, chewing the fingers of his right hand. In his left he held a small heart carved from wood.
“I wondered, all these years, where this had gone,” he said softly.
“You could have asked.”
“Maybe I was afraid of the answer.” He tore his gaze from the heart, and looked at me. “You had it hidden under your mattress.”
I tilted my head. “Been going through my things?”
“It was an accident,” he said, unconvincingly. “Why was it there?”
So I could touch it at night without having to see it, I almost told him. So I could remember watching your hands as you made it.
Instead I said, “Today went badly. But we both knew it would.”
Henry stared down at the kittens. “I hoped otherwise.”
I hesitated, watching him, wondering how so much had changed. Seemed too far in the past—too painful—but I remembered, in clear moments: fishing on Lost River, eating corn fresh from the stalk under the blazing sun; holding hands, in secret, while hiding under the branches of an oak during some spring storm. We had loved being caught in storms.
I walked to the cellar door, grabbed a candle off the shelf, and lit the wick with the butane lighter. Down the stairs, into the cold dark air. Shadows flickered, some cat-shaped; fleeting, agile, skipping across the cellar floor, in and out of the light as they twined around my legs. I passed crates of cabbage and potatoes, and dried beef. Walked to a massive chest set against the wall and knelt in front of the combination lock. A new shiny lock, straight from the plastic; part of a good trade from an elderly junk woman named Trace who rode through a couple times a year.
Cats butted their heads against my hips, rubbing hard, surrounding me with tails and purrs. I opened the chest. Held up the candle so that I could see the boxes of bullets, and guns wrapped in cloth. Two pistols. One rifle. One hundred boxes of ammunition. Twenty alone were for the shotgun, making a total of two hundred shells. My father’s stash. He had been a careful man, even before the Big Death.
And now I was a rich woman. But not in any way I wanted to make public.
“Going to battle?” Henry asked, behind me.
“Make love, not war,” I quoted my father, and shut the chest, nudging aside paws that got in the way. I locked it one-handed, and turned to face Henry. He still wore nothing but the quilt. Candlelight shimmered across his smooth chest and face. His gaze was cold. Had been for years, since the change.
“Been a while since I saw you without a beard,” I said.
“I never could bring myself to shave it,” he replied softly. “I didn’t want to look unmarried.”
I tried to smile. “Too bad. I’ve heard you’re a catch. Aside from an aversion to the sun, and all the blood.”
“Aside from that.” Henry’s own faint smile faded. “About today. Whatever happened, I’m sorry.”
“Talk to Steven.” I walked to another metal chest, this one unlocked. Inside, clothes. I set down the candle and pulled out my father’s jeans and a red flannel shirt. Musty, old, but no mice had been in them. I fought back a sneeze, and held out the clothing to Henry. He did not take them. Just stared.
“You’re a dead man,” I said bluntly. “To them, you’re dead. Would’ve been that way even if your father hadn’t set you on fire. You couldn’t pretend forever.”
His gaze was so cold. “That doesn’t change who I am.”
I tossed the clothing at his feet. “You changed years ago, even before what happened in the woods. You’ve just been slow to admit it.”
I picked up the candle, stood—and his fingers slid around my arm. Warm, strong grip. I closed my eyes.
“Wife,” he whispered.
I flinched. “Don’t call me that.”
Henry tried to pull me closer. I wrenched my arm free, spilling hot wax on the stone floor and myself. Cats scattered. Upstairs, a door banged. Footsteps passed overhead. I stopped moving. So did Henry. My eyes burned with tears.
“Amanda?” Steven called out from the cellar door. “Henry?”
“Coming,” I croaked, stumbling toward the stairs. Henry grabbed my arm again, and pressed his lips against my ear. He whispered something, but I couldn’t hear him over the roar in my ears and my thudding heart.
“Not again,” I finally heard, clearly.
“What?” I mumbled.
But Henry did not answer. He let go, and passed me. I heard him say something to Steven, but that was nothing but a buzz, and I pushed him aside, running up the stairs, from the darkness, from him.
Steven stood in the kitchen. He had been crying. His eyes were red, same as his nose and cheeks. He glanced from my face to Henry—who appeared behind me at the top of the stairs—and his expression twisted with grief or anger. I could not tell.
“I made a bed in the barn,” he said.
“I’ll cook something,” I replied, because it was the right thing to say, and I couldn’t think. “Then we’ll talk about where to put you. The attic will be too cold in winter, but so will the barn.”
“Won’t be here that long,” Steven said. “Not me, not any of us.”
I stared at him. Henry said, “Steven.”
But the young man gave us a look so hollow it chilled my bones. He backed away, across the living room to the front door, whipping off his hat and crushing it in his hands.
“I see what I see,” he said, and then turned, stumbling from the house. Henry started after him. I grabbed his arm, yanking hard.
“Sun,” I said.
“I don’t care,” Henry replied harshly, but stayed where he was, staring at the door. I did not let go. My hand slid down his arm until our fingers entwined. He squeezed, hard.
“What happened?” he whispered. “Out there? What changed us? We were human, Amanda. And then we weren’t.”
“We’re human,” I said. “Just different.”
“Don’t be naïve.” He tried to pull away from me, but this time I was the one holding on, stubborn.
“It wasn’t our fault,” I told him. “Everything was out of our control.”
“Not everything,” he replied, and grabbed the back of my neck. “I made a bad choice. Crawled on my stomach back to what was familiar and normal. I should have stayed instead. Stayed for good, instead of returning to you only when something was wrong.”
“Something was wrong almost once a week,” I reminded him. “I pushed you away. We both needed time.”
“And now this.” Henry’s fingers slid into my hair. “What do you want, Amanda?”
“Nothing,” I told him. “You’re here only because you have to be. You’re like a fox smoked out of its den. Secret marriage, secret life. You’re good at pretending to be something you’re not. Ask yourself what you want, Henry. But don’t ask me.”
I pulled his hand off my neck, and walked toward the front door. He didn’t stop me. I escaped into the sunlight.
I WALKED THROUGH the fields and ate a tomato fresh from the vine, biting into the red flesh like it was an apple. I ate a carrot, too, and then some raw ripe corn, but threw down the cob after only a few bites. Restless, aching, heartsick: a man in my house, a boy in my barn, and the world beyond the fence, threatening me now, in more ways than the woods could harm me.
I stood on the border of my land, staring over the fence at the dense shadows beyond the trees. Cats twined around my legs and climbed the boards and posts. Watching the woods.
You’re not free, I told myself, holding still, holding my breath. It had always been Henry who was caught—in his own lies, his confusion, his conflict. Before, after. And me, trapped in limbo. Waiting. Not for him, but for myself. Years, waiting, to wake up from the haze and bad dreams. Waiting for a little peace.
I had built my fortress. Guarded it with guns and blood. Told myself it would help. Bit by bit, help. Only nothing had changed. Until now.
What do you want, Amanda?
A cat hissed. I glimpsed movement deep in the woods. A flash of white twisted around two dark spots and a moving hole. I saw it again, never still, but always facing me. Restless and hungry.
I stood for a long time, staring, prickly with heat. Burning up, burning, hardly breathing. Caught, trapped. Caught, trapped. Two words that filled my head, droning on and on, until I forced myself to grab the fence, fingers digging into the wood.
What do you want, Amanda?
I climbed the fence. Stopped halfway up, swaying on the rails, and then kept going. Relentless. I jumped down on the other side, the wrong side, tasting blood as I bit my tongue. Cats followed, yowling, ears pressed flat against their skulls. I ignored them and walked across the grass toward the woods. This was my neighbor’s land, but his house was far away on the hill. I heard his dog barking. I didn’t know if the old man ever entered the woods, but his nights were safe. He had not been marked like me—and Henry, and Steven.
It was late afternoon, sun leaning west, lines of light falling away from the trees. Only a matter of time before the shadows grew thick and long. My feet bumped cats—spitting, hissing, growling cats—but I kept walking. Sweating, heart thudding, stomach hurting so badly I wanted to sit down and vomit.
Instead I stood on the other side of sunlight, a golden barrier bathing the grass between the woods and me. Less than a stone’s throw from the dense tangle of branches, vines, knotting together like awful fingers an undergrowth that seemed made to scratch and bind and close around bodies like barbed, clawed nets. Forests had become strange places after the plague—not just here, I had heard, and not just around the dead cities, but everywhere. Made me wonder, sometimes, if there were others out in the world like me and Henry, and Steven. Others, like them.
I forced myself to look at the pale monster that waited in the shadows, holding my breath as it licked the edges of its lipless mouth with a long pink tongue. No eyelids. Hardly a nose, just a stub that looked partially melted, as though it had frozen in middrip off that ashen face.
We stared at each other. Years rolled. Memories. I remembered the woods, and the coarse laughter, and the fear. I still felt those hands on my body. I felt naked again, without my shotgun.
“I know you,” I breathed, trembling—and then, again, louder. “I know you. Doesn’t matter how much you’ve changed, I still know who you were, before.”
I picked up a cat, hugging its quivering body against mine. No purrs. Just a deep-throated growl. I watched that monster in the woods tilt back its head, cutting its cheeks as those long curved nails sank into its thin skin. That pit of a mouth made a rasping sound, like a sob.
“Yeah. You cry,” I whispered, scrubbing my wet cheeks with the back of my hand. “Living for night so you can finish what you started. But I’m not going to let you.”
Cats pushed hard against my legs, reaching up to claw my thighs. I backed away from the woods, gaze locked on the monster. Branches broke somewhere deeper behind it, and wet coughs hacked the air, followed by a faint whine. Sun was sliding lower. The cat in my arms struggled free, hitting the ground with a hiss. I continued to retreat. Never breaking that gaze, though the terror crept on me, harder and heavier with each slow step, something building in my throat—a scream.
Until, finally, my back hit the fence. I climbed it, flew over it, tumbling over the rails and landing on my ass. I sat there, light-headed, heart pounding. Sweat-soaked. My finger throbbed, and so did my wrist. I looked down. Blood seeped through the white bandage and dotted the end of my index finger, which I had been nicking all day. All my fingers were lightly scarred.
I looked through the rails. The monster was gone, but I heard wet coughs and the struggling movements of slow-waking bodies. Men, rotting, rising from their day-graves; pushing aside leaves and brush; ripping the sod pulled over their bodies. Cats gathered close. I petted heads and tried to stand. Took several attempts. My knees were weak, and my skull throbbed.
But I made it. Sun was sitting pretty on the horizon. I walked, slowly, staring at the land and the fence, and those long rows of crops I had planted with my own hands. For a moment it didn’t seem real. I should have been somewhere else. I didn’t know where—all I’d had were books and pictures from old magazines, conversations with my parents—but I knew there had been universities and jobs, once—all kinds of work that needed doing, and that had to be easier than growing food to stay alive.
The world had been smaller, before—and brighter. Faraway cities that took only hours to reach. Endless streams of music and art—so much brilliant color—and those never-ending aisles in pharmacies and grocery stores where nothing ever ran out and no one ever went hungry. A world with laws and justice, and safety. Where being… a little different… was not a black mark on the soul.
The Big Death had stolen away that simpler life.
I saw the house long before I reached it. Small, white, just a box beneath the golden haze of the sky. Red roses grew in massive bushes that surrounded the neat rows of my herb garden.
Henry stood on the porch, dressed in my father’s clothes. They looked strange on him—almost as odd as seeing him bald, without a beard. I stopped walking, caught differently than I had been earlier when facing the monster—another kind of heartache.
He saw me standing on the hill, and strode to the edge of the porch. He held a knife and small block of wood, which he pushed into his pocket. Sun was almost down, but not quite; and I was too far away to stop him as he walked down the steps. Smoke rose from his skin. I started running. Henry did not return to the porch shadows. He teetered, but kept moving toward me. Walking, then stumbling. He fell before I reached him, fire racing across his smoking scalp.
I barreled into his body, rolling us both into the grass. Fire went out before we hit the ground—a little patch hidden from the sunlight by a low-rising knoll. I lay on Henry anyway, covering him, pressing my hands against his partially charred face. Blisters formed on his scalp, and his lips were pressed together in a tight white line of pain—but he stared at me, stared as if none of it mattered—just me and him, me and him, like the old days.
“Stupid,” I whispered. “Sometimes you make me hate you.”
“I hate myself,” he said, grimacing as I pulled my hands from his head—taking some of his burned skin with me. It was disgusting. I tried to sit up, but he touched my face, sliding his other arm around me. He was stronger than I remembered, and I closed my eyes, holding my breath as he brushed his lips over mine. Brief, warm. I relaxed, just a little; and the next time he kissed me, I kissed back.
Henry pulled me down beside him. I lay against his chest, listening to his heartbeat. The sky had darkened. I saw the first hint of stars in the purple east. Purrs rumbled as cats pressed near, settling warm against our bodies.
“You were in braids,” he murmured. “My first memory of you. Sitting on a white sheet in braids and a dress, playing with a doll. My mother told me to look after you. I remember that.”
“I remember other things.” I fingered a button on his flannel shirt. “Maybe we didn’t have vows ordained by any minister, but we made promises to each other.”
“Which I broke,” Henry said quietly. “I failed you. Not just that night, or after—but all those years before, when I loved you and never said a word to anyone. You deserved better than that. And now I’m supposed to be dead.”
I unsnapped a button and slid my hand inside his shirt to press my palm against his bare skin, above his heart. Henry stopped breathing, fumbling for my hand. He held it tightly against his chest.
“You’re not dead to me,” I said. “But I don’t know what to do, Henry.”
“If I was a better man, I would take Steven and leave.”
Bitter laughter choked me, and my eyes started burning again. “Don’t start doing the right thing now. I don’t think I could take it.”
“Neither could I,” he whispered, and reached into his pocket. He pulled out the small block of wood. I thought it must be a scrap from the stove bin. He had started carving into it. I could already see the promise of what it would become.
“It’s not much yet,” he said, turning it around in his large hands.
“It’s going to be a heart.” I reached out and touched the edge, lightly.
Henry cleared his throat. “I wanted to make you a new one.”
A warm ache filled my chest. I tried to speak, lost my voice, then whispered, “Don’t take your time.”
Henry exhaled slowly, closing his eyes. I kissed the edge of his jaw—once, twice. When I kissed him again, he turned his head and caught my mouth with his. Gentle at first, then harder. His sharp teeth cut my lip. I tasted blood. He broke away.
I grabbed his jaw. “Don’t.”
Henry shuddered, twisting out of my grip. “Amanda—”
He stopped, looking sharply to the east. A moment later, I heard the neighbor’s dog begin to bark. Distant, urgent. Cats scattered. I sat up, Henry following me—both of us holding still, listening.
“They’ve left the woods,” I said. “Hunting.”
Henry made a small, dissatisfied sound. “Hunting just us. I’ve always wondered why they never actively sought out other families. If all they wanted was to kill—”
I cut him off. “That’s all they want.”
He frowned, but made no reply. Simply tilted his head, as though listening to something beyond us.
“Where’s Steven?” he asked suddenly.
We stared at each other—and I stumbled to my feet, running toward the house. I called Steven’s name. He did not respond.
My shotgun was on the table where I had left it. I grabbed the weapon and the fanny pack full of shells. Henry appeared in the doorway. I took one look at his face and knew.
“He’s not here,” I said breathlessly, belting the ammunition around my waist.
Henry’s expression darkened. He turned and disappeared. By the time I reached the porch, he was already at the gate. I followed, running hard down the driveway. Cats bounded alongside me.
Henry glanced over his shoulder, his eyes glinting red in the shadows. I almost slipped, went down—and he was there in a heartbeat, holding me up.
“Steven must have gone home,” he hissed.
“Why?” I asked, even as Henry dragged me to the gate. “Why would he do that?”
“To warn our parents, to make certain the fence is locked. Just in case those creatures don’t follow us here. On his own, Dad always left the gate open at night. Steven and I were the ones who made certain it was shut.”
“You should have told them the truth,” I muttered. “I should have.”
“They wouldn’t have listened.” Instead of fumbling with the lock and chain, Henry climbed the fence, straddled the top—and reached down to pull me bodily over. I held the shotgun tight across my chest. Cats followed, over and under.
I was ready when I hit the ground, my finger on the trigger. Listening for monsters in the dark. I heard nothing. Not a breath, or cough, or the dragging slough of bellies on the road.
We ran. Henry was faster than me, but I did not tire. Cats raced at my side. I lost count of them. They had never left the land before this night, and I did not know why, now, they came with me. The wind was soft. So was the night, and the light of stars behind thin veils of gathering clouds. Henry was pale and his legs so quick—just a blur.
I heard the screams a long time before we reached the farm. Henry made a strangled sound and burst ahead of me. I lost sight of him in moments. Somewhere distant, that dog was barking. I ran harder. I could hear the roar of my blood, and feel it pulsing like fire beneath my skin. My wrist throbbed. So did my fingers.
I felt more heat when I finally saw the Bontrager farm. Real fire, licking the shadows, climbing wild up the sides of the barn. Horses were screaming, and so were children. I could hear those young, shrill voices, and part of me kept waiting for them to cut out in the same way Pete-Pete had, the same way I kept expecting my neighbor’s dog to stop barking, strangled and choking. Caught. Dead.
The gate stood open. Blood pooled beside the road, trailing into a smear that covered the broken concrete toward the woods. I glanced at it but did not slow. Smoke cut across me, burning my eyes and lungs. I rubbed my tearing eyes, coughing, searching out those screaming children.
Something large came at me. All I saw were ragged remnants of clothes and a bloated white belly—but that was enough. I braced myself and fired the shotgun. The boom was thunderous, and I turned my face as hot blood sprayed across my body. Some got on my lips. I scrubbed my mouth with the back of my hand and skirted the writhing mass of white flesh bleeding out on the ground in front of me.
I found the children behind the farmhouse, near the open doors of the storm cellar. Doors, blocked by hulking creatures with curved spines and odd joints that kept them low to the ground, bellies and knuckles dragging. Others drifted near, but these were upright, closer in appearance to the men they had been. Pale, puffy, with holes for eyes. Feces covered their naked bodies. I could smell it, even with the smoke.
Rachel stood with her three little girls—sobbing, all of them—holding that ax in her shaking hands. Samuel lay in the dirt at her feet, bleeding from a head wound. He kept trying to stand, but his legs wouldn’t work. He looked dazed, terrified.
But the creatures were not staring at them. Their focus was on Henry.
He stood so still, barefoot in the dirt. Firelight made his face shimmer golden, and the red in his eyes was more animal than man. More demon than animal.
“Come away,” he said to them. “Kill me first.”
“And me,” I whispered, tightening my grip on the shotgun. “Don’t lose your chance.”
The creatures hesitated, swaying—until one of them, upright and shaped like a man—made a low rasping moan and looked straight at me. I knew that pitted gaze. I had stared into it this afternoon, and years before: that heavy, hungry gaze, and that hungry, searching mouth. I gritted my teeth, gripping the gun so tight my fingers hurt.
Finish what you started, I thought at the creature, and took a deliberate step back. You know what you want.
I stepped away again, lowering the shotgun. Playing bait. Cats pressed against my legs, growling. Henry slid toward me, his hands open at his sides. Neither of us looked away from the creatures—monsters, once-men—still men, trapped in those bodies, with those instincts that continued to be murderous and hateful.
But I thought our distraction would work. I was certain of it. Until Rachel moved.
It should have been nothing. She lowered the ax, so slowly; but the blade flashed in the firelight and one of the creatures at the cellar door snapped its jaws at her. She flinched, crying out—and her little girls’ sobs broke into startled screams.
Everything shifted, twisted—monsters, turning inward, toward them—all those glittering teeth and long fingernails, those bloated, rippling faces with those tongues that protruded from stinking mouths to lick the rotting edges. I never saw Henry move, but he suddenly stood between his mother and a sharp hand—his teeth even sharper as he leaned in and ripped out the throat of the creature. I ran to help him, cats swarming ahead of me—leaping upon those awful bodies to tear at them with their claws. I heard screams—not human—and jammed my shotgun against a shit-encrusted stomach. I pulled the trigger.
Blood drenched me, and guts. I didn’t look. I moved on, reaching into the fanny pack for shells. My hands were hot, slippery.
I loaded the shotgun, glancing up in time to see Henry stand over his wounded father and punch his fist through a distended chest, his hand disappearing through broken ribs and emerging beside a curved spine. The creature screamed, flailing backward as blood poured from the wound. I heard a sucking sound as Henry yanked free. He stood there, so calm—and slowly, deliberately, licked his arm clean. I wondered if he knew what he was doing. His expression was monstrous—totally, utterly, merciless.
And I didn’t care. I loved him for it.
I turned, shotgun jammed against my shoulder, ready to fire. But the monsters were retreating, staggering toward the front gate. I ran after them, skidding on gravel, and shot one in the back. I tried to shoot another, but missed.
Henry didn’t seem to notice. He knelt beside his father. Samuel could barely hold up his head, and his eyes were dazed, wild. I wondered how he had gone years without acknowledging that anything was wrong beyond the borders of his land, when even others in his community had warned him to be careful at night. His only excuse was those monsters—those changed men—had never been consistent. Weeks could go by without seeing one.
I surveyed the yard. Nothing else seemed a threat. Cats sat in the dirt, fur raised. Growls rumbled from their throats. Corpses everywhere, and the air stank. Rachel dragged her daughters close as she crouched beside Samuel, but she stared at Henry and not her husband.
“You’re alive,” she whispered to him, and I could not tell if that was fear or wonder in her voice.
He gave her a helpless look, marred by the blood around his mouth, on his clothing and hands. “I’m not…” he began, and then stopped, looking past his mother, at me. “I’m sorry if I frightened you.”
Rachel looked down. Samuel stirred, pushing weakly at Henry.
“Get away,” he mumbled. “Oh my God. Get away.”
Henry stared at him and then stood. I moved close, and when his hand sought mine, I gave it to him. Rachel saw, and looked at me, deep and long.
“Steven,” I said. “Where is he?”
“Gone,” Rachel replied softly, and her face crumpled. “He’s gone. They took him first. He tried to fight, and they dragged him away. And then… they came for us.”
I knew that some of her despair had nothing to do with her missing son. “Rachel. It’s not like before. It’s over.”
“Don’t lie to me,” she whispered harshly, clutching her belly, finally meeting my gaze. “I recognized him. He might have… changed… but I know him.”
Him. I leaned back, unable to break her gaze, unable to stop remembering her face, years ago, ravaged with cuts and bruises. Same as mine. Mirrors should have disappeared with the rest of technology. I had buried two of them behind my barn, unable to stand seeing my eyes every time I walked down the hall or entered my bedroom.
“We’ll find him,” Henry said, tugging on my hand. “We’ll bring him—”
He stopped before he said home, but Rachel gave him a sharp look. Samuel seemed barely conscious.
“No,” said his mother, wrapping an arm around her daughters, all of whom clung to one another, weeping quietly. “No, don’t bring him here if you find him.”
Henry’s jaw tightened. Rachel tore herself from her daughters and stood, staring up at her son, searching his eyes with cold resolve. “It doesn’t matter that I love you. It doesn’t matter that I would forgive you anything. There’s no place for you here. Any of you.” Rachel looked at me. “You won’t be free if you stay.”
I touched my throat. Felt like it was too tight to breathe. I wanted to protest, fight, argue—but I couldn’t even speak. Rachel swayed, and turned away. Henry squeezed my hand. Staring at his mother.
We left them. I could hear distant shouts, the sounds of horses. Help, coming. The fire would be visible for miles. Even the nighttime reputation of this stretch of road wouldn’t be enough to stop the neighbors.
Henry and I stood at the front gate, staring at the trail of blood that led into the woods.
“He could be dead,” Henry said. “You should stay here.”
I reloaded the shotgun. It took all my concentration. I wanted to say something brave, but couldn’t speak. So I looked at Henry and he looked at me, and when I lifted my face to him, he kissed my cheek and then my mouth. Cats rubbed against our legs.
We entered the woods.
IT HAD BEEN three years. Maybe I expected snakes instead of vines, or razor blades in place of leaves, but everything that touched me was as it should be: a soft tickle of brush, the snag of thorns on my clothing and skin. I was almost blind in the darkness, and I was too loud. I crashed through the woods, crunching leaves and breaking branches, like a wounded creature, breath rasping. Henry moved in perfect silence, and only when he touched me did I know he was close.
“I can smell my brother,” he whispered; and then: “I wish I’d had more time to explain.”
“You had years.” I touched trees to keep from tripping. “Time runs out. When I saw you tonight, I couldn’t imagine how you had pretended for so long to be like everyone else. And I don’t know how they were so blind not to see that you’d changed.”
“Easier to believe,” he said quietly. “Easier to pretend than face the truth. Even when I had you and Steven helping me adjust to my new… instincts… I kept thinking I could be something else. If I prayed hard enough, if I stayed with the old ways.”
My fingernails scraped bark, and I felt heat travel through my skin into my blood, simmering into quiet fire—a sensation similar to knowledge, the same that guided me when blessing fences.
“The world is remaking itself,” I found myself saying. “Men die, forests swallow the cities and bones. And what remains… changes. Life always changes.”
“Not like this,” Henry replied. “Not like us.”
You’re wrong, I wanted to tell him, but heard a low, distant cough. All the calm I had been fighting for disappeared. I reached down, nearly blind, and cats trailed under my shaking hand.
When we found the clearing, it didn’t matter that I couldn’t see well. I felt the open space, I looked up and saw stars, and my teeth began chattering. I gritted them together, trying to stop, but the chills that racked me were violent, sickening. Henry grabbed me around the waist and pressed his lips into my hair.
“I’m here,” he murmured. “Think about what you told my mother. It’s different this time.”
I squeezed shut my eyes. “I didn’t think I’d ever have to come back to this spot.”
“It can’t be the same one.”
I pushed Henry away. “I shouldn’t have visited you that night. I should have run and hid when I heard your mother screaming.”
He froze. So did I. And then he moved again, reaching out, fingers grazing my arm. I staggered backward, clutching the shotgun to my chest.
“Amanda,” he whispered.
“I’m sorry,” I breathed, ashamed. “I’m so sorry I said that.”
But even as I spoke, my throat burned, aching, and when I opened my mouth to draw in a breath, a sob cut free, soft, broken, cracking me open to the heart. I bent over, in such pain, shuddering so hard I could not breathe. Henry touched me. I squeezed shut my eyes, fighting for control. Not now. Not now.
But my mouth opened and words vomited out, whispers, my voice croaking. “When they saw me, when they chased me into the woods, you and Steven shouldn’t have followed. You knew… you knew you were outnumbered, that they had weapons. If you had just stayed behind—”
“No,” he said hoarsely, and then again, stronger: “No.”
His hands wrapped around my waist, and then my chest, and he leaned over my body in a warm, unflinching embrace. His mouth pressed against my ear. “I couldn’t protect my mother and I couldn’t protect you. But I had to try. Nothing else mattered.”
I sensed movement on the other side of the clearing. Cats hissed. So did I, struggling to straighten. Henry let go, but stayed close.
Bodies detached from the dense shadows, some on two feet, others crawling over the ground, bellies tearing the undergrowth. I raised the shotgun, but did not fire. One of them separated from the others: tall, bloated head, those black eyes.
I knew him. Rachel had known him. She was right—there was something about the shape of his face, the lean of his body. Still the same. Still him. Leader of the pack.
The woods were so quiet around us. A dull silence, like a muted bell. I expected to see a flash of light, or feel that old fire in my veins, but nothing happened. I expected to feel fear, too, but an odd calm stole over me—like magic, all my uncertainty melting into my hands holding the shotgun, down my legs into the soles of my feet. I took a deep breath and tasted clean air.
I heard a muffled groan. Henry flinched. “Steven. Give him to us.”
No one moved. I forced myself to take a step and then another, certain I would trip or freeze with fear. But I didn’t. I made it across the clearing, Henry and the cats close at my side, those small, sleek bodies that crowded into the clearing, like swift ghosts.
I stopped in front of him. Just out of arm’s reach. That lipless mouth opened and closed, and his black eyes never blinked. I wasn’t certain he had lids. Nor did I question why I could suddenly see him so clearly, as though light shone upon his rotting face.
My finger tightened on the trigger. I let out my breath slowly. My heartbeat was loud. I could feel my pulse, my blood, bones beneath my skin. But I still did not fire, and the creature in front of me stared and stared, motionless. I tried to remember what he had looked like when he was still a man, but that face was a blur. Dead now. All of us had died a little, and become something new.
I heard another groan. Henry strode past me. Bodies stepped in his path. He did not stop. I heard a snarl and a ripping sound, followed by splashing. I smelled blood. The creature in front of me never moved, though the others behind him swayed unsteadily.
“Amanda,” Henry called out hoarsely.
I tightened my grip on the shotgun, and sidled sideways, never taking my gaze from the leader, the once-man. A rasping growl rose from his throat, but that was the only threat; and none of the others came near me.
Henry stood beside a massive tree, a giant with a girth that reminded me of a small mountain rising fat and rough from the earth. Roots curled, thick as my forearm—cradling a body.
Steven. He was pale, wasted—and bleeding. So much blood, dripping down his skin into the soil, as though he was feeding the tree. Maybe he was. I heard a sucking sound in the roots, and when Henry bent to pick up his brother, I grabbed his shoulder, stopping him.
“Watch our backs,” I murmured, all the hairs on my neck standing up as I knelt beside Steven and set down my shotgun. The boy’s chest jerked with shallow rasping breaths, his fingers twitching in a similar rhythm. His wrists had been cut open, as had his chest and inner thigh. Cats sniffed his body, ears pressed flat.
My palms tingled. I almost touched him, but stopped at the last minute and laid my hand against the tree. I didn’t know what I was doing, or why, but it felt right.
Or not. A shock cut through me, like static on wool—but with more pain, deep inside my skull. I tried to pull away, but my muscles froze. And when I attempted to call for Henry, my throat locked.
This is what you want, whispered a voice, reverberating from my brain to my bones. This is what you need.
A torrent of images flashed through my mind: open human mouths screaming, echoing in the air of stone streets bordered by towers made of steel and glass; men and women staggering, falling, slumped in stiff, decaying piles as blood and rotting juices flowed between cracks in the road, or in grass, upon the roots of trees that grew in shady patches. Bodily fluids, watering the earth.
Heat exploded in my chest. I could move again. I grabbed awkwardly at Steven’s clothes, hauling him off those roots. Henry helped. My muscles were weak. So was my stomach. I leaned sideways, gagging. Cats pressed close, dozens, surrounding me.
“Amanda,” he said.
I shook my head. “Use your shirt to wrap his wounds. We need to stop the bleeding.”
He did as I asked, but glanced over his shoulder at the pale bloated bodies waiting so still in the shadows. “What about them?”
I hardly heard his question. I stared at the spot where Steven had been sprawled—a cradle made of roots—and suffered the weight of all those trees bearing down on me, as though full of watchful eyes, and watchful souls, and mouths that could speak. Steven’s blood was invisible against the bark, but I felt its presence.
Something changed us that night, I thought, and those once-men stirred as though they heard, coughs and quiet groans making me cold. They had laughed, before. Laughed and shouted and sung little ditties, and made hissing sounds between their teeth. Horror swelled inside me—mind-numbing, screaming horror that I was here, with them, again—but I fought it down, struggling to regain that spectral calm that had stolen over me.
Henry touched my shoulder. “We can go.”
Steven hung over his shoulder like a dirty rag doll. I picked up the shotgun but did not stand. I held up my finger. “Give me blood.”
He hesitated, glancing wildly at the monsters surrounding us. I knew what he was thinking. Any minute now they would attack. Any minute, they would try to rip us to pieces and feed on our bodies; as in life, so now in this twilight death. I didn’t understand why they waited—though I had a feeling.
“Please,” I whispered.
Henry’s jaw tightened, his gaze cold, hard—but he leaned forward and bit my finger. Blood welled. I touched the tree.
And went blind. Lost in total darkness. I could feel the sharp tangle of vines beneath me, and hear Henry breathing—listened, with a sharp chill, to wet, rasping coughs—but those sounds, sensations, might as well have been part of another world.
Another world, whispered a voice. We are more than we were.
My finger throbbed. I bowed my head. Pressure built in my stomach, rising into my throat—nausea, but worse, like my guts were going to void through my mouth.
Instead of vomit, my vision returned. I saw those dead bodies again, endless mountains of corpses sprawled on stone streets, and the sun—the sun rising between towers, glowing with crisp golden light. Beautiful morning, with clouds of flies buzzing over blood that was still not dry.
We were born from this, said the voice, which I felt now in my teeth, in my spine and ribs. Blood that killed made us live.
Time shifted. Again, I witnessed blood, and the fluids from those decaying bodies flow and settle, feeding the roots of grass and weeds, and the trees that grew from stone inside the dead city. I felt a pulse sink beneath the streets into soil and spread. I felt heat.
A rushing sensation surrounded me—as though I was being thrust forward, like a giant fist was grinding itself between my shoulder blades. Faster, faster, and all around me, inside me, I felt a surge of growth—my veins, bursting beyond my skin, branching like roots, bleeding blood into the darkness.
Blood, that became a forest.
A forest that swallowed a city.
Many forests, I thought. Every city swallowed.
And the blood spread, whispered the voice. The blood changed us all.
As it changed you.
I slammed down on my hands and knees, as though dropped from a great distance. Fire throbbed beneath my skin, a white light burning behind my eyes. I remembered that night, naked and bleeding, on the ground—Henry screaming my name, Steven sobbing, both of them beaten bloody—and I remembered, I remembered a terrible heat. I remembered thinking the men had set me on fire, that I would look down and find my skin burning with flames.
We tasted all your blood, whispered the voice. We tasted a change that needed waking.
So wake. And feed us again.
I opened my eyes. I could not see at first, but the shadows coalesced, and became men and trees, and small furred bodies, growling quietly. My hand was still pressed to the blood-slick roots of the tree, and something hummed in my ears. I felt… out of body. Drifting. When I looked at Henry, I saw blood—and when I looked at the monsters who had been monsters, too, while they were men, I also saw blood. Blood infected; blood changed by something I still didn’t understand.
The trees are alive, I thought, and felt like a fool.
The leader of the pack shuffled forward and dragged his clawed fingers over his face with a gape-mouthed groan. He cut himself, so deeply that blood ran down his skin and dripped from his bloated cheek. I heard it hit the ground with a sound as loud as a bell. And I imagined, beneath my hand, a pleasurable warmth rise from the bark of the tree.
“Henry,” I said raggedly, without breaking the gaze of the pack leader, the first and last man who had held me down, so many years ago. “Henry, put Steven down. You’re going to need your hands.”
“Amanda,” he whispered, but I ignored him, and picked up the shotgun. I settled it against my shoulder, my finger caressing the trigger, and looked deep into those black, lidless eyes.
Feed us again, I heard, rising through me as though from the earth itself. All we want is to be fed again.
I hated that voice. I hated it so badly, but I could deny it. Like instinct, stronger than knowledge; like my blood on the fence or Henry burned by sunlight. We had been changed in ways I would never understand, but could only follow.
“You know what you’re doing,” I said to the creature, which stood perfectly still, bleeding, staring, waiting. “You know what you want.”
What it had wanted, all these years, I realized. Living half-dead, hungry for peace, listening to voices that wanted to be fed. Like me, but in a different way.
So I pulled the trigger. And finished it.
I NEVER DID buy those pigs.
I found someone outside the Amish who would trade with me, and bargained for horses, good strong Clydesdales, almost seventeen hands high. Four of them. I had to travel a week to reach the man who bred them, and all he wanted was four boxes of bullets.
We left at the end of summer. No one bothered us, but no one talked to us, either. We were alone on the hill, though people watched from a distance as Steven and I took down the fence, board by board, and used each rail to build the walls of two wagons. Real walls, real roofs, windows with solid shutters. I had seen abandoned RVs, and always admired the idea of a movable home. Even if it was something I had never imagined needing. What we built was crude, but it would keep the sunlight out.
We left at the end of summer. I wrote a note and left it on the last post standing. My land, free for the taking.
I drove one wagon, while Steven handled the other. One of them was filled with food—everything we could store and can—and the other held Henry and our few belongings. The goats followed without much prodding. Cats were good at herding. When asked politely, anyway.
Henry rode in my wagon. He had a bed behind the wall at my back, and a hollow pipe he spoke through when he wanted to talk. After a day or two, I tied a long red ribbon around my wrist and trailed it through the pipe. Henry would tug on it when he wanted me to imagine our hands touching.
“Do you dream of them?” he asked one day, his voice muffled as it traveled through sawed-off steel. It was sunny and warm, and birds trilled, voices tangled in sweet wild music. Pasture land surrounded us, but beyond the tall grass I saw the dark edge of a forest. I looked at it as I would a narrowed eye—with caution and an edge of fear.
We had traveled more than a hundred miles, which I knew because we followed old roads on my father’s maps, and we calculated distances every evening around the fire.
“I dream,” I said. “Tell me you don’t.”
“I can’t,” he said quietly. “I still taste their blood, and it makes me afraid because I feel nothing. No regret. No sorrow. I pray all the time to feel sorrow, but I don’t. My heart is cold when I remember murdering them. And then I feel… hungry.”
Sometimes I felt hungry, too, but in a different way. I hungered to be back inside the forest, bleeding for the trees, hoping that they would give me knowledge, again. More answers. Not just why we had been changed, but why we had been changed in so many different ways. I told myself that the virus that had caused the Big Death had affected more than humans. I told myself that maybe we had all been infected, but some had lived—lived, ripe for some new evolution. I told myself I was a fool, that it didn’t matter, that I was alive, starting a new life. I told myself, too, that I was a killer.
I tugged on the ribbon and he tugged back. “Do you feel cold when you think of protecting your parents and Steven, or me?”
“No,” he said. “Never.”
“Then you’re fine,” I replied. “I love you.”
Henry was silent a long time. “Does that mean you forgive me?”
I closed my eyes and pulled the ribbon again. “There was nothing, ever, to forgive.”
From the second wagon, behind us, I heard a shout. Steven. I pulled hard on the reins, untied the ribbon from my wrist, and jumped down. The cats that had been riding on the bench beside me followed. I took the shotgun.
Steven stood on the wagon bench, still holding the reins. Fading scars crisscrossed his face and throat, and his bared wrists were finally looking less savaged. Pale, gaunt, but alive. He still wore his plain clothes and straw hat. Unable to let go. If he was anything like his brother, it would be years—or maybe never. His gaze, as he stared over my head, was farseeing.
“Someone will be coming soon,” he said. “Someone important.”
I stared down the road. All I saw was a black bird, winging overhead. A crow. I watched it, an odd humming sound in my ears. Cats crowded the road, surrounding the bleating goats. I couldn’t count all their numbers—twenty or thirty, I thought. We seemed to pick up new ones every couple of days.
One of the windows in my wagon cracked open. Henry said, “Are we in trouble?”
“Not yet,” I replied, but tightened my grip on the gun. “Steven?”
“We don’t need to hide,” Steven murmured, staring up at the crow; staring, though I wasn’t entirely certain he saw the bird. “She’s coming.”
I didn’t question him. Steven had become more enigmatic since that night in the woods—that second, bloody, night. Or maybe he had stopped fighting the change that had come over him all those years before.
Clear day, but after a while I heard thunder, a roar. Faint at first, and then stronger, ripping through the air. I couldn’t place it at first, though finally I realized that it reminded me of the military caravans. A gas engin