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The Scholar of the Bamboo Flute

Liên’s first duel at the Phụng Academy was bewildering, and almost unfair in its simplicity.

She let Mei—the fey, mercurial schoolmate half the academy seemed to avoid—take her to the arena. They paused at iron-wrought gates with a huge lock and a clear sight of what lay beyond: a crumbling platform by the river, overgrown by banyan roots. On the lock were characters that slowly morphed into letters. Liên bent, and her seal—Mother’s seal, the one she’d carried on a chain around her neck for more than nine years—touched the lock, and the letters shivered and rearranged themselves to match Mother’s style name on the seal.

The Hermit of the Bamboo Grove.

The doors creaked open. Leaves rustled, the ceaseless sound of a monsoon wind whipping tree branches in the forest.

“I must ask,” Mei said. “Are you sure?” She was so oddly formal. Her tone and the pronouns she used for herself and for Liên sounded like something from a scholar’s chronicle.

“Why?” Liên asked. She readjusted the hairpins in her topknot: they’d slipped sideways while she was walking to the arena. She hadn’t been told much, merely rumors: that the arena was where the best scholar students went to prove themselves; that Mei was the key; that Mei’s revered teacher, the chair of the Academy, held power beyond Liên’s wildest dreams, and it all flowed through Mei.

Liên didn’t much care about dreams, or power, but she wanted to excel. She needed to excel, because she was the scholarship kid, the one on sufferance from the poorest family, the orphan everyone looked at with naked pity in their eyes.

Liên wanted to be seen for who she truly was.

Mei’s face was utterly still. Her skin shone with the translucence of the finest jade, as if she were nothing more than a mask over light incarnate. “Why? Because it’s dangerous.”

Liên frowned. “You mean, it might get me expelled?”

Mei laughed. As she did so, Liên finally realized the sound that had been bothering her since the gates opened wasn’t the background noises of the forest, but a slow and plaintive noise, the first bars of a poem set to music. “No. It might get you killed.”

Inside, on the platform, someone was waiting for Liên. They were nothing but a dark silhouette at first—and then, as light slowly flooded the arena, seeping from Mei’s body into the stone, and from the stone into the banyan roots and the neighboring river, Liên saw who they were. Dinh, another of her classmates, an arrogant and borderline abusive woman who thought the world belonged to her.

She was holding a flute. It wasn’t yet to her mouth, but her fingers were on the holes already, and everything in her suggested impatience to play. “Younger aunt,” she said, to Liên. “What a pleasure. Let’s get on with it.”

It might get you killed. “Wait. This is a music competition?” Liên said. “I don’t understand.”

But Mei’s hands were already on her chest—an odd flutter as they connected, then they did something that Liên didn’t fully see or understand, and a sharp, stabbing pain ran through her, as something that seemed to have become stuck between her ribs came out one small, excruciating bit at a time—and it hurt as it came out, and Liên couldn’t breathe anymore, and it felt like the time she’d knelt by her parents’ coffins, hoping against all hope they’d come back. “Mei,” she tried to say, but it tasted like fire and blood in her mouth.

“It’s all right,” Mei said. “Take it.”

“Take what?” But Liên’s hand closed on the thing protruding from her chest, and she drew it out with the same ease as she’d draw a brush from its holder.

It was a flute. A plain bamboo one, unlike the bone-white one Dinh was holding, with three simple holes and a shadowy, ghostly fourth one. It was so achingly familiar, so achingly comforting, and Liên let out a breath she hadn’t even been aware of holding. Her fingers fit easily onto the first three holes, and the flute was at her mouth, the smooth and warm touch of bamboo on her lips.

“Elder aunt,” she said to Mei. “What’s—”

Mei’s face was grave. “Your instrument.”

Liên lowered the flute away from her mouth. It cost her. “People just don’t grow flutes!” Not even the famed scholars, whose ranks Liên so desperately ached to join.

Mei’s hand swept the arena. It was awash with light, the banyan’s roots receding into shadow, and in the luminous mass of the river Liên saw a flash of large and iridescent scales. Dragons? No one had seen dragons in the world for centuries. Surely…“Many things are possible, here,” Mei said.

“The power—” Liên started, and then stopped, because she didn’t know what to say. She didn’t know what was being offered here beyond myths and legends. “You said it could change the world.”

Mei’s smile was dazzling. “It can do everything you could ever need or want, elder aunt. If you follow the rules. If you reach the end of the duels.”

“What are the rules?”

Another smile. “Play. Be ranked. Advance.”

Liên’s hands tightened on the flute. A chance to be the brightest scholar in the world, to advise emperors and sages. To leave her mark at the heart of things. “Power,” she whispered. And, to her dead, revered parents, “Watch over me, Father and Mother.”

“Begin,” Mei said. She was standing in the middle of the platform, on one of the banyan roots.

She didn’t know how! But then Dinh started playing, and Liên’s words of protest froze on her lips. It was haunting and beautiful: a slow-rising melody about solitude and the need for strength, and the beauty of geese flying in the sky, and the banyan’s roots seen from the moon. As she played, the light flickered in the banyan roots and in the river, and Liên could see how the flute in Dinh’s hands beat the same rhythm as the heart in her chest.

And then it was over, and Mei turned to Liên. “You,” she said.

“I can’t—” Liên began, but her hands were already moving.

When she breathed into the flute, she felt, not music, but words come out—all the poems she’d written in her room at the Academy, trying to capture the beauty of rivers as dark as smoke, of willow leaves scattered in empty rooms—all the essays and the memorials and the pleas she’d trained herself to write for the good of the empire—and the other things, too, the courtship songs she’d burnt before they ever reached the courtesan she had a crush on, the ones about lips like moths’ wings and skin the color of jade. Her fingers moved on the holes of the flute, towards that shadowy fourth hole at the end—finally touching it with a stretch that felt as natural as breathing. When her last finger slid over it she remembered Mother’s poems and songs, the ones about dragons in the river and cockerels whose song could destroy citadels, and pearls of blood at the bottom of wells—she was playing and speaking and it all felt like one long breath that burnt in her lungs forever and ever, and then…

Then it stopped.

Shivering, shaking, Liên lowered the instrument from her mouth. The banyan’s roots were alight. Overhead in the canopy, pinpoints of light shone like wayward stars—no, not stars, but a flock of luminous birds—and in the river something large and sinuous shimmered in and out of existence. She felt light-headed and empty, as if she’d just run from one end of the Academy to another. And Mei’s face…Mei looked not distant or fey, but like someone whose hunger had finally been sated.

Dinh was pale, but it wasn’t the pallor of light, just exhaustion and fear. She looked from Mei to Liên, and then back again. Mei said, simply, “Liên wins.”

“She—” Dinh opened her mouth as though she was going to argue, but Mei was by her side, gently closing her hand around the flute, which was slowly vanishing. Back to her own body? What were the flutes, exactly? Where were they coming from?

“Go home,” Mei said, and her voice wasn’t unkind. “There are other arenas to prove yourself in.” Mei watched, thoughtfully, as Dinh staggered through the door.

The light in the banyan tree was fading. So was the creature in the river, and Liên’s own flute. It did nothing to diminish the terrible emptiness inside.

“You’ll feel better after you eat,” Mei said, turning to Liên. Her gaze was dazzling and luminous. “Come on.”

“I—” Liên’s voice felt all used up. “Where?” She walked behind Mei because she didn’t have any willpower of her own left, and she might as well. They went through the gates and the deserted gardens of the Academy—how was it already night, where had the time gone?

A single path with a few lanterns led to a building a little apart from the other buildings. The path wove through a garden that had once been rich, but was now in a state of disrepair: the ponds had become masses of churned mud choked by lotus flowers, and the pavilions were dilapidated ruins with missing roofs, the rain dripping on chipped stone. As they walked up to the lone building that reminded Liên vaguely of a pagoda or a watchtower, the rain became a slow, warm drizzle that plastered Liên’s topknot to her skull.

The tower’s gates were closed. Mei threw them open, spattering water on the slats of the rich parquet. Inside, someone sat at a low table, sipping from a cup of tea: a man of indeterminate age, wearing the clothes of a scholar-official, his topknot impeccable.

“Child,” he said, rising with a smile towards Mei. When he moved, the same light as the one Liên had seen in the arena limned him for the briefest of moments. “Younger aunt.” His smile was dizzying and magnetic. Liên felt at the center of the world, held in the web of his attention, and sagged when his gaze moved from her to Mei. She hadn’t eaten anything, and it was only sheer stubbornness that had kept her moving.

“This is Liên,” Mei said. “She just won her first duel. Elder aunt, this is Hiểu Sinh, my Revered Teacher.”

“Liên.” Sinh turned back to her and smiled, and again that flash of warmth swept through Liên, making her feel larger and worthier. “Welcome home, Liên.”

There were rules, ones Mei hadn’t mentioned. Odd ones like not eating garlic or onions, which made this seem like an offshoot of a monastery. And odder ones still, un-monastery-like: that the winner of the duel would move into the house and share a room with Mei. Sinh said it with a meaningful glance at Liên, which Liên chose to ignore. It wasn’t that Mei was unattractive, but being set up together like that was just too weird, and at no point had Sinh asked for Mei’s opinion or permission. Besides, Liên wanted to climb through merit, not marriage.

The duels she’d expected. They were irregular, huge occasions that required intense and feverish preparations. Sinh hinted there would not be many to fight, but would never share more details. “You will know when you’re ready for the power,” he said, and never would budge from that frustrating statement.

There were classes, too. In between Liên’s usual regimen of Statehood and Classics and Poetry at the Academy, Sinh would invite Liên to his study and pour tea for both of them, and talk about…Liên was never too sure what they talked about, only of Sinh’s eyes shining like jet, and of Mei, sitting behind Sinh the entire time, occasionally moving to replenish tea or dumplings or dipping sauces.

“I don’t understand why the flutes,” Liên said.

Sinh had spread a chess board between them, though he made no move to play. “The flute is the scholar.”

Liên opened her mouth to protest it was not, that the Four Arts of the gentleman scholar included music but on the zither, and then Sinh flipped the board, and all words fled.

It was an old, old board, so old it was engraved with the characters of the Chinese colonizers rather than the letters of the Việt alphabet. Pasted on it, carefully held behind a pane of what looked like glass—but no glass was so fine, or shone with such pulsing, warm light—was a painting.

Whoever had drawn it had skills worthy of the old masters. The brushstrokes were flowing and sure, and they suggested details with economy. The painting depicted a single scholar, standing before a rocky spur, fingers on a flute of deep green jade with complex carvings. And in front of him…in front of him rose a great dragon, antlers gleaming, pearls scattered in her mane, and maw at the level of his flute.

“Scholar Vương,” Sinh said. Behind him, Mei had risen. She laid a hand on the painting for a brief moment, closing her eyes as if some memory were painful. “His music was so powerful it could change the world.” His hand nudged Mei’s aside, touched on the details of the scholar’s clothes. “Summon dragons from the river and speak to the Dragon Princess herself.”

“Power,” Liên said. Her breath caught in her throat. She’d seen the banyan tree, but she hadn’t realized…

Sinh laughed. “You want to be adviser to emperors, child. Don’t give me that shocked look, your dreams are written large on your face.” He laid his tea cup on the floor, stared Liên in the eye until she had to lower her gaze or be openly disrespectful. “You dream too small.”

“I don’t!” Liên said. She—she wanted to make her parents proud of her, whatever heavens they were watching her from.

“Mei told you this power could remake the world.” A gentle snort. “Adviser. You will never summon dragons if you keep yourself so contained.”

How could he dismiss her so easily? Liên opened her mouth to protest, and found a touch on her arm: Mei, gently holding her and shaking her head. Apologize, Mei mouthed.

She had done nothing wrong, but Sinh was her teacher now. “I’m sorry,” she said. The words tasted like ash on her tongue.

“Good,” Sinh said, nodding briskly, as if the whole matter weren’t even worthy of mention. As if he hadn’t called all her dreams small and worthless. “You have another duel in a week’s time, child.”

After the lesson was over, Liên exhaled. The breath hurt.

Mei walked with her as she steered away from the corridors, and towards the door of the house—and the waiting gardens. They were unlike the ones in the Academy, where everything was staid and named: here trees grew wild, and lotus flowers choked the ponds.

“He means well,” Mei said. “He’s seen a lot of students.”

“And how many have gotten as good as Scholar Vương?” Liên couldn’t help the sharpness in her voice.

Mei smiled. “A few. Younger aunt…” She smoothed out the folds of her tunic, and Liên realized Mei was nervous and scared. And no wonder, with Sinh being so overbearing.

“I’m sorry. You shouldn’t have to run peacemaker between the two of us.”

“It’s what I do.”

What did she do? “You don’t duel,” Liên said, before she could stop herself.

Another smile, but this time it was more relaxed. “No. I don’t have that talent. I’m not a scholar.” It was said easily and matter-of-factly. She didn’t care.

“You make the flutes.”

A laugh, crystalline and careless, and Liên heard the hurt beneath.

She laid a hand on Mei’s arm, felt the warm tautness of her—felt something shift within her, her heart becoming too large. “Big’sis.” The intimate pronoun—the one reserved for an older, close friend of one’s generation—rose to her lips as easily as breathing.

“I don’t make the flutes,” Mei said. “I just…” She spread her hands. “I just make it easier for you to manifest them. They’re yours.”

“You don’t approve.”

Mei jumped. “What makes you think that?”

“The way you speak.” They’d reached a dilapidated pavilion on a spur that looked like someone had tried, badly, to evoke Scholar Vương summoning the Dragon Princess.

“I think he shouldn’t push you so hard,” Mei said. “You’re sixteen? You remind me of a child I once knew.”

“Seventeen,” Liên said, stung. “I’m an adult.”

Mei’s face was unreadable. She leant on the chipped railing of the pavilion, looking at the river. “So you are. And an…” She stopped, then, looked at Liên. “A driven person.”

“You were going to say orphan,” Liên said, bristling. But Mei didn’t sound like the other students, the ones who had mocked her for having no family or connections.

“Yes,” Mei said. “Having no parents can be hard.”

Liên shrugged, though she missed them. “I lost them when I was young. I don’t remember much about them.” It wasn’t quite true. She had dreams with Father’s perfume and Mother’s voice singing her to sleep. But what was true was that she remembered the coffins and the vigil in the temple more than she remembered them living—the way the air had been heavy and breathless, as if before a monsoon that would never come, the smell of incense curdling in the air, the rough feel of the mourning band on her forehead, the way it kept falling down into her eyes—her eldest aunt’s hand, bringing it back time and time again, her grim frustration that she was a child and everyone expected her to keep silent and out of the way.

“Sinh would say you could bring them back to life with the power,” Mei said.

“And is that true?” She’d said Sinh, not herself.

Again, that unreadable look. Mei’s hand rested by Liên’s on the railing. Liên’s fingers ached to draw her close. “I don’t know,” Mei said, finally, and there was clearly something that she wasn’t saying.

“I don’t want to bring my parents back because there’s an order to things,” Liên said. “Rules in heaven and on earth. Why should I be breaking them?”

“You’re dueling.”

She was—and it wasn’t just about being like Scholar Vương—but also the way that the music of her flute flowed through her—the way that it seemed one long, slow breath, finally released—the way that her anger and her grief and her ambition finally merged together and became something beautiful and pleasurable. The way it made her feel alive. “Is that breaking the world? Mei, what is this power? Why is Sinh so evasive?”

“Do you trust me?”

And wasn’t that a barbed question? “I don’t know,” Liên said.

“Fair.” Mei sighed. “I can tell you this: the power breaks no rules. It’s merely an ascension, like the sages of old.” But again there was something she wasn’t saying.

“You asked if I trust you. Should I be trusting Sinh?”

“He’s my Revered Teacher and I love him,” Mei said. “Come on, let’s go back to the house.”

They walked back a hand’s width from each other, Liên acutely aware of the way Mei moved—of the sway of her hips, how her lips opened slightly when she walked too fast, barely revealing the nacre of her teeth—what would it feel like, her lips on Mei’s lips? But she was acutely aware of another thing, too.

Mei hadn’t answered her question about Sinh.

Liên’s opponent for this duel—her seventh at the Academy—was a much older girl, Thụ Kiếng. Everyone in the Academy had heard of Thụ Kiếng. She routinely organized poetry contests and won all of them, and her calligraphy was so good it was exhibited in the Academy’s classrooms and corridors.

Liên didn’t want to fight Thụ Kiếng, because she was going to lose.

“You won’t lose,” Mei said. They stood on the arena platform, between the banyan roots. Liên held her flute to her mouth: plain, unadorned bamboo with that fourth hole—four for death and all that had brought her so far. It felt so flimsy and inadequate.

It wouldn’t be enough.

“She’s a scholar. A proper one. The bright one. I don’t even know why I’m here, big’sis!” Liên’s hands clenched on her flute. She was an orphan from a poor family, a girl from the country playing at being a scholar. Who was she, to think she could attain the power of legends?

Mei wrapped one hand around Liên’s—gently reached with her other, to touch the flute—and Liên shivered, as if it were her lips Mei was touching. “You’re here because you’re worthy.” Her gaze, wide and luminous, held Liên’s—Liên’s throat was suddenly dry. “Because you are seen.”

Liên drew in a deep, shaking breath. “Big’sis.”

Mei’s hand moved from the flute, rested on Liên’s lips for a bare moment, and warmth spread from Liên’s face down her spine. She ached to reach out—dared not reach out. “I see you, lil’sis. Vương’s heir. I see you. You will do this, because you can no more fail this than stop breathing.”

Mei withdrew her hands, leaving Liên shaking. “Big’sis.”

“Ssh,” Mei said, but her gaze lingered on Liên’s face a little too long, and her eyes were half-lidded with hunger and desire. “I have Thụ Kiếng to fetch.”

Liên waited. She lowered her flute, and laid a hand on the banyan tree. It was cold and dark now, only brought to life by flute music. The river was lifeless, too. No, that wasn’t true. It teemed with those silver flashes she’d already seen. She knelt and trailed her hand in the water, heedless of the cold. The flashes came closer, nipping at her fingers. Fish. Small silvery carps, weaving in and out of her hand, gently tickling her—and for a moment she wasn’t Liên or the current champion of the duel, but simply the girl she’d been in a faraway past, the one who’d played in the river while her parents were in their study.

“It’s been a while, hasn’t it?”

Liên scrambled to her feet. Thụ Kiếng was standing next to her, holding a flute of glass. Mei leaned against the banyan tree, waiting for them to start. “What do you mean?”

Thụ Kiếng was tall, her hair brought back in an impeccable topknot, her face classically beautiful: smart and chiseled, her hands long and elegant. She made Liên feel like a country bumpkin. “The river.” She smiled. It was bitter and fragile. “We all splash into it as children, coming home muddy-handed with only a memory of fishes to show for ourselves. Until our parents remind us that it’s time to put aside childhood and study hard.”

Liên flushed. “I didn’t have that.” She wasn’t sure what to say.

“I know,” Thụ Kiếng said, and it wasn’t unkind. “You want to summon the Dragon Princess?”

Liên said nothing, but she thought of the painting she’d seen in Sinh’s study—of the dragon rearing up. What would that kind of power feel like? “Maybe.”

“Mmm.” Thụ Kiếng sighed. “The Dragon Princess vanished from the world at the same time as Scholar Vương.”

“Vanished?”

“No one knows what happened.” Thụ Kiếng’s voice was wistful. “I think they just reached a point where they couldn’t outrun the laws of nature anymore. Heaven doesn’t bestow blessings without some kind of expected behavior.” A sigh. “I don’t know what’s in the river, but I don’t think it’s the princess anymore. I don’t think anyone can reach her.”

Liên said, finally, “Does it matter?”

A long, measuring look from Thụ Kiếng. “To you? No, I think not. Come on. I think she’s waiting for us.”

“I don’t—” Liên stopped. She wasn’t about to tell Thụ Kiếng she was afraid, but Thụ Kiếng saw it anyway.

“You can concede,” she said. “But you won’t, will you?”

Liên clutched the flute. “I’d be shaming my parents if I lost.”

Thụ Kiếng cocked her head. “Would you?”

“What do you mean?” But Thụ Kiếng had already turned away from her, towards Mei.

It was Liên’s turn first, because she held the title. She raised the flute to her hands, still feeling the fish dart between her fingers—and when she played, the river came out. It was the fish and the mud and the sound of the water, and their barely remembered house—and Mother’s measured voice, composing poetry; and Father’s, laughing and answering her, his own voice weaving between verses. And as she remembered her parents her finger stretched, found the fourth hole of the flute, and the music poured out of her in a rush that lifted her and drained her at the same time.

She came out of the song with her heart hammering in her chest. The platform was awash with light. In the canopy of the banyan, the flock of luminous birds was larger, and the branches supported the looming moon. Something was climbing from the depths of the river, a dark shadow about to break the surface of the water, and Mei wasn’t leaning against the tree anymore, but looking at the river with tears in her eyes.

“My love…” she whispered, softly, slowly.

Thụ Kiếng was staring at her, and at Mei. “That’s hard to follow.” She lifted her own flute, slowly and ironically, and brought it to her lips. The music that came out of it was small and slow: a dirge for a girl who had refused Thụ Kiếng, and a boy she’d loved, but who fell ill and had left the Academy, never to come back. It all sounded…tinny, as if from a great distance, and when Thụ Kiếng lowered her flute, the tree had barely lit up. In the river, there was hardly anything, a shadow of a shadow, diving almost immediately out of sight again.

“I concede,” Thụ Kiếng said, bowing to Mei. And, to Liên, “Think of what I’ve said.”

And she left.

Liên wrapped both hands around her fading flute, trying to stem the shivering of her whole body.

What she’d said.

Would you? Would you be shaming your parents?

And she knew what she’d already known before playing: that she wasn’t scared of shaming her parents. She was scared of losing. Of losing her place in the house and Sinh’s cryptic lessons.

Scared of losing Mei.

Mei was leaning against the banyan tree, her eyes on the river. “Let’s go home,” Liên said, slowly, tentatively. “Big’sis?”

“It’s your second to last duel,” Mei said, and her voice was tight. “Did you see the river?”

The dragon rising from the heart of it, close enough that she could see their head about to break through the water. Close enough that she could touch them. The Dragon Princess, Sinh had said, but Thụ Kiếng thought that the princess was long dead. What was below the surface of the water?

Her second to last duel. That felt unreal. Unearned. “Surely—”

“Sinh will tell you. It’s almost over, lil’sis.” Mei turned towards her—and in that one moment as she started moving, in that one unguarded moment, Liên saw her face, and her bearing. It wasn’t tears of joy or nostalgia in her eyes, but rather of her entire being wracked by a pain so great it made her cry.

“Big’sis!”

“Lil’sis?” Mei’s voice was puzzled.

“You’re in pain.”

“I’m not,” Mei said, but it was as if the song had granted Liên double vision, overlaying Mei’s graceful demeanor with a deeper truth.

“You’re lying. What’s wrong, Mei?”

“There’s nothing wrong.” A grimace, utterly inadequate against the way her entire body was braced against the pain. “Nothing’s changed, lil’sis. Come on, let’s go home.”

That last rang with a sincerity like nothing else, but the implications were horrific. Nothing had changed? Liên followed Mei back to their quarters, watching her, watching the way she held herself: that small pouting with her lips she always did when she walked, that quiver. But it wasn’t pouting, was it? Merely a scream, held back, and the way she moved was elegant and graceful, a mask that slipped here and there—hips jutting out a bit too far when a thigh spasmed; lips closing a fraction, thinning; fingers clenching for a mere breath, pupils dilated just a bit too much.

Had she…had she always been like this, since the start? Had Liên been blind, the entire time? What did it mean?

What was wrong?

In their room, Mei busied herself, brightly—a little too much, a little too brashly—making dumplings and noodle soup. “You need food, lil’sis.”

Liên waited until Mei was done. “It’s Sinh, isn’t it?”

“I don’t understand what you mean.”

“He wants something from you, and you’re in pain because of that.”

“I already told you I’m not in pain.”

Liên drew in a deep, shaking breath. “Big’sis.” She put into her voice all the things that usually went into the flute song. “I can see it. I can see you. Ever since the duel. The last one.”

“You can’t possibly—”

Liên said nothing. She didn’t touch her chopsticks, either. She just stared until Mei gave up busying herself and sat cross-legged on the floor with her head cocked—and every so often she’d flicker, and Liên would see her bent backwards, her chest pierced with shadowy swords. Not just a few, either. There were so many impaling her, hilts and blades and crosspieces all jumbled together. How could she—how could she even breathe or talk or move?

“That’s not possible,” Mei said. Her voice was filled with dawning, fragile wonder.
“No one has ever—”

“No one. How many times have you done this, Mei?”

A weary sigh. “Too many.” Mei flickered again—arched backwards, face tense and slick with sweat, the swords’ blades glinting in the lantern light—they flexed as she moved, with the clear sound of metal on metal.

“You said it was the last duel. You said it was almost over. What’s happening, Mei?”

Mei said, finally, “I don’t want to see you hurt.”

“You held me. You touched my lips. Was that part of the plan, too?”

“No!” Mei’s voice was full of panic. “I would never. Lil’sis. Please. I would never—”

“Sleep with me? Sinh hinted, didn’t he? Putting us in the same room is kind of unsubtle.”

Mei’s face was drawn with pain, haggard. The blades in her chest glinted with blood and sweat. Liên fought the urge to hug her. “I would never lie to you by faking feelings. And you didn’t.”

“Didn’t what.”

“Sleep with me. That…that mattered.” She made it sound like an extraordinary feat.

“That’s basic human decency,” Liên said. “Wait.” Her voice was flat. “You said this had happened too many times. There were others.”

Mei didn’t deny this, which was as good as an admission.

“They slept with you.”

“It’s…it’s nothing more than I deserved, for what I’ve done.”

“No one deserves—” Liên stopped, because she didn’t know how to say it. What kind of twisted universe did Mei live in? And—more pressingly and importantly—how long had it all been going on? “He’s thrown you at duelists, and they’ve taken advantage.”

“Not always.”

“Often enough.” Liên’s fists clenched. “Big’sis—” She did reach out then, not to kiss Mei like she desperately wanted, but simply to squeeze Mei’s shoulder, gently and slowly and watching warily for any signs Mei didn’t want it. But all she could see was the pain: the swords impaling Mei, their weight bending her backward. “I can see swords, Mei. They’re going through your chest. What are they?”

Again, no answer. “You can’t tell me. It’s Sinh, isn’t it? What hold does he have over you? Is it the swords?”

A silence. Then, “The swords are my fault. My pain to bear. Because I was the one who suggested it all, you see. The arena. The duels.”

Liên stared at Mei, suddenly chilled. “You—what does he want, Mei?”

“The music.” Mei’s voice was flat. She ran a hand through her own topknot, catching on the golden hairpins. “He lost it, and he was so desperately unhappy. He—” She breathed out, her face filling with that same wonder she’d shown, back at the river. “He was so young, once. So full of light and striding across the land as if he understood all of it, from the carps to the stars in the sky. He held my hand and saw me. Truly saw me, just the way I was.”

Somehow Liên didn’t think Sinh’s desperate hunger was going to be filled by simply listening to Liên play. “My flute. He wants my flute.”

“The flute of the player strong enough to summon the dragons in the river. Perhaps even calling the Dragon Princess Scholar Vương summoned. He won’t be able to play it for long. Playing a flute not your own burns it.” Mei’s voice was mirthless. “But he’ll have it. Sinh always gets what he wants.”

Including Mei. “Because you give it to him, don’t you?” Liên didn’t have words for how much it hurt her. Sinh’s betrayal was nothing unexpected, but to know that Mei would stand by him no matter what. “Always and always.”

A shadow of that same wonder in Mei’s eyes, brittle and dark. “He smiles, and I see it again. The heart he had when he was younger…”

And was that enough reason for what she was doing? “And what happens afterwards? When he’s walked away with the thing inside my chest? He just steals people’s lives and you let him?”

Bitter laughter from Mei. “It won’t kill you. Just—” She spread her hands. “It will hurt. Every day, it will hurt.”

“Like swords in your chest?”

“It’s not the same thing!”

“Is it not? Because it sounds like he’s just leaving a trail of broken people behind him. Including you.”

“You don’t understand.” Mei pulled away, stood up. The swords flexed as she did, driving deeper into her flesh—a clink of metal against metal, and Mei stopping, gasping, her eyes closing for a brief moment, sweat running down her forehead. “There’s nothing you can do, lil’sis. Nothing you can change. Just—just go. Find Sinh. He’ll know you’re ready.”

As if she wanted to find Sinh and offer herself for the slaughter. “You don’t trust me.” That hurt, a lot.

“You’re a child.” Mei’s voice was cold. “Playing with flutes and with songs and not understanding what’s happening.”

“You’re not helping me understand, are you?”

“Because you can’t!”

“That’s pointless!” Liên rose, too, scattering chopsticks and bits of herbs. “Help me, Mei.”

But Mei had turned away from her, and wouldn’t speak anymore.

Liên ran. She didn’t know where she was going and didn’t care—her feet pounded the shriveled grass of Sinh’s gardens, and the hills, and the road leading to the arena, and back to the buildings of the Academy—the classrooms where teachers waited to impart wisdom from the sages, where her classmates would be waiting for her to take her place—until she finally reached a knoll of grass. She sat, sheltered by the branches of a willow tree whose dense jade foliage cut off her view of the world.

You’re a child.

If she closed her eyes she would see, again and again, Mei’s drawn face, the careful way in which she moved.

Every day, it will hurt.

Sinh would take everything from her, just as he had taken everything from Mei, and she didn’t know enough to stop him. And Mei…Mei would stand by him, and that was the worst.

How many times have you done this, Mei?

Too many.

And yet…Liên remembered the hand in hers, Mei’s fingers on her lips for an all too brief moment. You are seen. That conversation in the gardens, Mei telling Liên that Sinh shouldn’t push her so hard. Mei cared, didn’t she?

And did Liên care?

“You look like a whole turmoil of thoughts,” an amused voice said.

Mei’s gaze jerked up. It was Thụ Kiếng.

The former duelist wore scholar’s robes and an impeccable topknot. Her seal—a match to the one that had allowed her access to the dueling arena—swung on her chest as she sat down next to Liên. It was a smaller and newer thing. Her personal one?

“Steamed bun?” Thụ Kiếng asked.

Liên took it, because she didn’t quite know what to do. They nibbled together in almost companionable silence. It was pork and cat’s ear mushroom, and a small but perfect quail’s egg in the center, the yolk dissolving into sharp, salty powder in Liên’s mouth.

“Feeling better now?”

Liên couldn’t see the point of diplomacy. “I don’t know what you’re trying to achieve.”

Thụ Kiếng laughed. “Not everyone has hidden agendas within hidden agendas. I’m out of the dueling game. I lost. But for someone who won everything, you look decidedly unenthused.” Her expression was distant, almost serene.

Liên stared at the swaying willow branches. She thought of Sinh and flutes and music and stealing the work of his students. Of Mei and swords and kindness. “It’s the last duel,” she said. And it would be against Sinh. “Why?” she asked, finally.

“Why do I duel? Because in spite of myself, I believe in miracles. There was a girl, you see.” Thụ Kiếng’s voice was wistful.

“You want someone to love you?”

“No,” Thụ Kiếng said. “You know that can’t be forced. But I wanted to show her that…stories could be real. That there could be happiness ever after.”

Liên remembered the song in the arena, the one Thụ Kiếng had played. “The boy. The one who loved you back.”

“He’s dead. Or out there in the world, which is perhaps the same thing. This is his seal,” Thụ Kiếng said, lifting the seal around her neck. “The last thing he gave me before he left. Why do you duel, younger aunt? And don’t tell me your parents. That’s what granted you access to the arena in the first place—your mother’s seal and all it symbolized—but that’s no longer true.”

Liên said nothing, for a while. “She’s in pain.”

“Mei? Nothing that she didn’t bring on herself.” Thụ Kiếng’s voice was almost gentle.

The swords are my fault. “How long has it been going on?”

A shrug, from Thụ Kiếng. “Who knows? They’ve always been there, insofar as I know. You hear about the chairmen of the school, but I think there’s only ever been one, wearing different faces and different names.”

“Always.” It was vertiginous and unwelcome. “All that time.” All that time in pain and denying it. “It shouldn’t be that way.” And she had something Sinh wanted. Her flute. Her music. All that had shaped her as a scholar. She could bargain, if she wanted it badly enough.

Did she?

What kind of person would it make her, if she walked away from Mei?

“You want to help Mei?” Thụ Kiếng stared at her for a while. “Oh, I see. That’s the way it is.”

“No,” Liên said, before she could think. “I don’t—”

“Care for her? Of course you do.” Thụ Kiếng laughed. “This doesn’t have to be a love that echoes down lifetimes, lil’sis. It just has to be enough. But you know that she’ll stand by Sinh. They’ve stood by each other all that time. Asking her to step away, no matter how well-intentioned…”

“She loves him.” It shouldn’t have hurt so much, when Liên said it. Because how could Mei possibly love Sinh?

“Sinh? Yes.” Thụ Kiếng played with the jade seal at her neck—the dead boy’s. “She will not thank you, you know.”

“For rescuing her.”

“You’re assuming she will view it as a rescue.” Thụ Kiếng sighed. “You’re a real scholar. Never standing for injustice or unfairness.” She used an uncommon word for “real,” one that meant “bright” and “real” all at once, like a miniature jewel. “Because I wouldn’t walk into that arena, myself.”

Liên sighed. She thought of Mei and of—not love, but a connection, and care for each other. “I guess it’s all up to me, then.”

Mei was waiting for Liên at the arena’s entrance. She was wearing the long, flowing, five-panel robes of the imperial court, red silk with golden embroidery of flowers and mythical animals. She’d unbound her hair, and it hung loose on her shoulders, with the golden hairpins scattered in their strands like stars.

She looked like someone out of myths, out of fairy tales—someone Liên would watch dance and later share celestial peaches with—someone breathtakingly, fragilely beautiful, like cracked celadon.

“Lil’sis?”

Liên just stood and gaped. “Big’sis.”

Mei walked to her. Linh breathed in a smell that was cut grass and the sharpness of a storm. And then Mei bent forward, and kissed her, and she tasted like steel and salt.

“Big’sis,” she said, gasping, when Mei stopped, and still stood close, close enough to touch.

For a moment, there was the same slow wonder in Mei’s eyes there had been in their room, when she’d understood Liên could see her pain. “I wanted…” Mei said.

“It’s all right,” Liên said. And slowly, gently, kissed her back until her mouth was full of Mei’s sharpness. “It’s all right to want.” She was everything to Liên, and they both knew it would not last.

“Not here, not now.” Mei’s voice was bitter. She pulled away. “But thank you. For the kindness.” She flickered again, and Liên saw the swords, sprouting from her chest as if she’d grown a tree of thorns from within, a tangled mass of gleaming sharpness and bloodied blades.

Liên said, finally—because Thụ Kiếng was right, because she couldn’t rescue Mei against her will—“You said I was a child. You said you didn’t trust me. I need you to—” She stopped, then, because she didn’t know what she said that wouldn’t be platitudes, or a rerun of an argument they had already had. Instead, she reached out, and wrapped her finger around the hilt of a sword in Mei’s chest. She hadn’t expected to make contact—she’d thought they’d be as ghostly visions without power to wound—but what she grabbed was cold and slick and hungry.

Old sins and blood and punishment and the will of heaven and the order of things and love cannot should not triumph because nothing is eternally unchanging…

She let go, gasping. “This has to end. It’s not fair. It’s not equitable.”

Mei’s face hadn’t changed. “I told you—”

“I know what you said,” Liên said. She raised her hand—slowly laid two fingers on Mei’s mouth, in the curve of those lips drawn back in a pain Liên couldn’t alleviate. “That it’s your fault. That it’s all for him. That it’s worth it. That I’m a child.”

“Do you think I kiss children?” Mei’s voice was stiff, barely audible. Liên didn’t move her fingers. She pressed, gently, against Mei’s lips.

“No. But still…things end,” Liên said, gently, and with more confidence than she felt. “And you matter. I’m not asking you to trust me, but will you stand by me?”

“I don’t know,” Mei said, and Liên knew then that she wouldn’t. That she couldn’t, because Sinh was her whole world and her whole being.

A chance. That was all she wanted. A chance for Mei to change. To cut the cord that bound her to Sinh, the chain of complicities and bargains Liên wasn’t privy to. A chance. Give me this, please, Mother and Father. Let me matter. This is how I want to leave my mark on the world. Please.

“Watch me,” she said, instead, and withdrew her fingers from Mei’s mouth, reluctantly. She wanted to kiss Mei again, but it was no longer time.

“Always,” Mei said, and her voice was sad.

The doors were closed, but this time they opened at Liên’s touch. The characters on the lock contracting to display, not the name on the seal around Liên’s neck, but a single archaic word in Việt.

Nhân.

Humaneness. Altruism. A fundamental virtue of the scholar. Liên would have laughed, if she felt in the mood to laugh.

As they walked, Mei laid a hand on Liên’s chest, and this time there was no splitting of the world, no difficulty to breathe—and Liên was still walking but she was also holding her own flute. “Why is it so easy?”

Mei smiled, and it was a shadow of the expression that had endeared Liên to her. “You’re so close to ascension. Didn’t you realize? You barely need me anymore. You could manifest this with just a thought.”

Liên didn’t feel close. She felt small and scared and powerless. How old was the thing she’d stepped into, and how presumptuous was she for thinking she could change even a fraction of it?

The arena was dark, but someone was sitting at the center. “Child,” Sinh said, and as he rose, the banyan lit up, and she saw that he’d brought the chessboard, the one with the painting of Scholar Vương summoning the dragon—except that he’d laid the pieces on the painting’s side as though for the beginning of a game.

Sinh had changed his clothes, too. He wore long, loose azure robes and a large sash adorned with peach-tree branches; his hair was tied in an elaborate topknot, held in place by silver pins. In fact—

Liên looked to the board for confirmation. He was dressed exactly as Scholar Vương in the painting. “Modeling what you’re trying to steal?” She hadn’t meant to be wounding, but she was acutely aware of Mei at her side.

Sinh raised an eyebrow. “I see you are not ignorant. You are wrong, however.”

Liên raised her flute, an inadequate shield. By her side, Mei had fallen to her knees, and this time the swords going through her weren’t ghostly. They were real, and Mei was bleeding on the floor, curled and gasping and struggling to breathe.

Mei. No no no no.

Mei!!!

“Wrong?” Liên knelt by Mei’s side, trying to grab a sword, any sword—to pull it out of the mass of sharpness and blood, but Mei kept writhing, and the swords moved with her, dragging across the floor, their hilts and blades clinking against the stones, the entire mass opening up with Mei’s ragged breathing and convulsions, like an obscene flower. Mei. No. No no no. “You’ve used her. You’ve used all of us to steal power. How wrong am I?”

An amused laugh. Sinh knelt on the other side of Mei, making no move to help her. “Almost. I’m not stealing. I made this power: I’m only taking back what is owed to me.”

Owed to him? “I don’t understand—” Liên said, and then she looked at him—really looked. Mei’s swords were now real, but so was another thing: the hole in Sinh’s chest, through which jutted a tip of a broken flute of deep, gleaming jade.

I made this power.

Sinh laughed. “Yes. I’m not a thief, child.”

“You’re Vương. Scholar Vương. You—”

“What became of him. What’s left of him.”

And Mei—Mei who was contorting and bleeding on the floor of the arena—Mei, who wore the dress of a princess of the imperial court….

“The Dragon Princess,” Liên said. The words didn’t feel real. They couldn’t be. “You. You cannot be alive.”

“Hunger will do odd things to time,” Sinh said. “Stretch and thin it, so that nothing is quite right—tea with dregs of ashes, a lover’s touch dragging bone fingers across my skin, the river shimmering with corpses. She was right: I only feel alive when I play.”

Her flute. Liên’s hands tightened on it. “And you broke your flute.”

A shrug. “Power can be used for many things, but I used mine wrongly. Too many worldly things: a palace and serving girls, and jade and silver, and the kingdoms of the world at my feet. I won’t make that mistake again.”

No, now he just enjoyed having one person utterly devoted to him. Liên had to stop herself looking at Mei. “So just the music, then.”

“You’ve felt it,” Sinh said. “You know.”

A heady rush of pleasure unlike anything she’d ever felt, the sensation that she could be anything and do anything, the wonders of the birds and the dragon in the river…“Yes,” Liên said, because she wasn’t him and didn’t lie.

“This is why I need your flute.”

“Are you asking?”

Sinh shrugged. “Usually, I’m the Revered Teacher, and the students will do what I ask because they trust me. But you—” He frowned, staring at her as if he didn’t quite know what to make of her.

Liên said, “Free her. And I’ll give you the flute.” She kept her voice low and emotionless, but it was hard, because Mei was screaming.

“Her?” He looked at her, and at Mei. He laughed, softly. “I’m not holding her prisoner.”

But some cages didn’t have overt jailers. Liên’s mouth clamped on pointless words. “Walk away.”

Again, laughter. “Give me the flute, and I won’t interfere.”

Of course, because he didn’t need her. His face said it all. He thought Liên was throwing herself headlong at useless hopes. Liên…didn’t know if she disagreed, but she had to do something. “Deal,” she said. “Now go.”

When she passed the flute to Sinh, she felt as if she was handing him the heart in her chest.

“Finally.” He laughed softly, gently, and seemed to grow taller—and as his hair came loose and fluttered in the rising wind, and as his skin glowed alabaster, she finally saw what Mei had: the young scholar flush with dreams and glory, the man whose music transcended this world, strong enough to summon from the heavens and the river’s depths.

“Mei. Mei.” Liên tried to grab the swords, but she couldn’t. They kept flickering out of reach, and the hilt was oddly shaped and always shifting out of her reach. “Mei, please.”

Sinh walked to the river, stood in the banyan’s shadow. When his fingers slid into the hollows she felt them, one by one, as if they were resting on her skin, above the collarbone—and a sibilant whisper rose from the tree.

Trespasser thief taker of songs.

A note like a plucked string, and there was a sword, hanging in the air—the same swords sticking from Mei’s chest, the ones Liên was desperately trying to pull out. Its voice echoed like thunder across the arena.

The will of heaven cannot be flouted punishment must be meted out the order of things cannot be violated.

Sinh barely glanced at the sword. He gestured, fluidly and carelessly, towards Mei. “Take her.”

The sword shifted towards Mei, the strength of its presence—sharp and slick and hating—sending Liên to her knees.

Do you consent?

Mei’s gaze rested, for a brief moment, on Liên. She smiled, with tears in her eyes. “You’re so young,” she whispered. “Playing with objects of power as if they were toys. There is no respite.”

“Big’sis, no!”

But Mei’s lips had already parted again. “I consent.”

The sword dove for her, just as Sinh started playing. “No!!!”

Each note felt drawn from the veins in her chest, and it was discordant and tentative—and Liên was on her knees, struggling to breathe, struggling to see anything through the tears in her eyes—her hands bloodied and cramped from trying to hold swords. The new sword joined the others, one more addition to a tangled mass—one sword for each stolen flute, one more nail in a coffin of everlasting pain. The banyan’s lights were flickering, and she couldn’t think anymore, she couldn’t—

Mei’s voice, a memory of that time they’d fought over the dumpling soup.

He held my hand and saw me. Truly saw me, just the way I was.

He’d seen her. What had he seen?

Sinh was still playing, and the lights were slowly filling the tree and the river. The huge and dark being in the river finally broke free—and it was the wizened and algae-encrusted shadow of a dragon, emaciated and infested with crawling, dark shapes like insect parasites, antlers broken and oozing dark liquid.

Seen.

How dare he? A wave of nausea and anger wracked Liên.

Seen.

“Princess,” Liên whispered. She pulled herself up, crawled to Mei, each gesture sending a fresh wave of pain down her chest. “Dragon Princess.” Her voice stumbled—she couldn’t remember the archaic words anymore. “Dragon.” She lifted a hand—drew, slowly and haltingly, the old characters. “I see you.”

Dragon.

Princess.

Mei.

The characters hung in the air for a brief moment, shifting to seal script, the same cursive shape on the seal around Liên’s neck. Mei’s face, drawn in pain, turned towards her, and Liên saw scales scattered across her cheek, iridescent patches that shone with a breathtaking light. “Mei,” Liên whispered, and Mei’s lips thinned on her name, and in her eyes shone the same slow wonder she’d shown before, and a shadow of her desire as she’d kissed Liên.

And abruptly Liên could breathe again—could, for a moment only, see Mei, curled around the shape of the swords transfixing her. One of them was less fuzzy and less shadowy than the rest. The last one, the one that had come from Liên’s flute: its hilt was the same color and opacity as the fourth hole in the flute had been.

Liên closed her eyes, and tried to remember what it had been like to play. All her poems and all her songs, and all of Mother’s old stories, and dragons in the river, and citadels brought down by theft, and people turning to stone by the seashore—and swords with jewel-encrusted hilts—and her finger, reaching out, slid and connected with hard metal and old, everlasting hunger.

The will of heaven is punishments there should not be mercy she consented…

“I do not,” Liên whispered, and felt the sword pause in its ceaseless litany. “It was my flute, and I do not consent!”

The blade came free. The weight of it sent Liên to the floor, before she pulled herself up, gasping. She held nothing but smoke and shadows, the vague shape of a sword. She—she could kill Sinh while he was still engrossed in the music. An eye for an eye, blood for blood. She could feel the sword’s quiescent hunger, its anger, its rage at the way student after student had lost their hearts to Sinh. It was not right. It had to be made right. She wanted—

She wanted to help Mei, not a bloodbath.

Help me. Father, Mother, help me do the right thing. The needful thing.

She drove the sword in the earth, feeling the shock of it in her bones; the shape of the hilt in her hand, what it had felt like when she’d connected, when she’d taken the weight of the blade in her hand.

Then, slowly and grimly, she went for the rest of them.

As when she’d played the flute, it was a matter of putting her fingers in the proper space—of reaching out across the length of metal or bamboo and finding a hole that shouldn’t have been there. She didn’t feel flush with words or poems, simply struggling to keep the emptiness in her chest from consuming her whole.

The flute in Sinh’s hand was burning now—slowly starting to fade, a dull, distant pain compared with the effort of grabbing one sword after another—to hold hilt after hilt, planting blade after blade in the floor of the arena. Her hands were slick with blood and sweat, and her legs shook and locked into painful spasms.

Sword after sword after sword, and there was no end to them, the countless students whose flutes Sinh had used up. It’s my fault, Mei had said, and yes, she had not stopped him, but an eternity of pain while he walked free…how was that fair punishment?

Liên reached out, again and again, and finally her hand closed on empty air. Surely she’d missed one…But when she looked, she stood in a field of swords, and Mei lay beneath her, gasping.

Traitor coward thief. The swords’ combined voices made the earth shake. Heedless, Liên knelt by Mei’s side. “Big’sis. Come on come on. It’s over.”

Mei’s lips were blue. “Lil’sis.” Her smile was weak. “It’s…never…over.”

A noise, behind her. It was Sinh. He held burnt bamboo fragments in his hands: the remnants of Liên’s flute. He looked, curiously, at the swords scattered around them. “A fine effort,” he said. “But in the end, it will avail you nothing.”

“Shut up,” Liên said. And, to Mei, “Look. Look.” And, gently cradling Mei’s head, turned her towards the river, towards the skeletal and almost unrecognizable dragon, slowly sinking back beneath the waves. “That’s what he sees, big’sis. Do you truly think that’s who you are?”

Mei’s face was drawn in pain. The swords were quivering, thirsting for blood. She’d earned nothing but a reprieve. “Lil’sis.”

“Look,” Liên said, and then everything she’d done—the swords, the burning of her flute—hit her like a hammer, and she flopped downwards, as the swords rumbled and started tearing themselves away from the ground. “Look!

Mei was crying. It was slow and noisy and heart-wrenching.

“Come, child,” Sinh said to Mei. He was halfway to the gates of the arena, one hand on the wrought iron. He tossed, carelessly, the fragments of Liên’s flute on the floor, and Liên felt as if she’d been stabbed as each one hit the stones. “Nothing ever changes. Come home.”

“Big’sis. Walk away from him, please.”

Mei didn’t say anything. Sinh waited, arrogant and sure of himself: for everything to start again, for the old games to resume. For other duels and other thefts.

“Please…” Liên’s words tasted like blood. “There’s no time left. Please.”

A final rumble, and the swords tore themselves free, and dove, again, towards Mei.

Liên screamed before she could think. “Take me, not her. I consent!”

In the frozen instant before the swords dove for her, she saw Mei’s shocked face—the same shock on Sinh’s face—rising, shaking and heavily breathing, stretching and changing, and saying a single word ringing like a peal of thunder.

“No.”

“You can’t—” Sinh said.

Mei’s voice was cold. “I do not consent.” The swarm of swords shivered and shook, turning from Liên to Mei and from Mei to Sinh. “She will not take my pain, and I will not take his anymore.”

“Child, please,” Sinh said. And another, older word. “Beloved…”

“No,” Mei said. She was long and halfway to serpentine, with the shadow of antlers around her snouted face, her hand gripping Liên’s shoulder like iron—and she was so beautiful, so heartbreakingly beautiful, brittle mane streaming in the wind, antlers shining with weak and flickering iridescence. “Find someone else to bear your guilt.”

The swords shivered from Mei to Sinh to Liên—the weight of their presence oscillating as they shook and shook and shook—and then they finally dived for Sinh.

His mouth moved. He tried to say something: words that were drowned by the rush of air, by the angry whispers of the swords as they came for him. They faded to a faint shadow, a shard of darkness lodging itself into his chest. He fell, gasping, to his knees, breathing hard—and finally got up, shaking. His face was slick with sweat, but his voice was assured and smooth.

“Nothing has changed,” he said. “I’m still the chairman of the Academy.”

He’d find someone else, wouldn’t he? He no longer had Mei, but it would just start all over again—the duels and the flutes and the abuse, sheltered by the Academy the way it had always been sheltered.

Nothing had changed.

“Come on,” Mei said. She pulled Liên up, slowly.

“Big’sis.” Liên was a mass of sore and unhealed wounds and fatigue. She’d freed Mei. That mattered. It had to. One person at a time, and yet how much it had all cost…“Big’sis…”

“Ssh.” Mei laid a shaking hand on Liên’s lips—two fingers, pressing against her flesh, and then the rest of her face, bending towards Liên: a brief, exhausted kiss that resonated in Liên’s chest, setting her entire being alight. “Let’s go, my love.”

“Where—”

A short, exhausted laugh. “Out there. The world isn’t the Academy, and it holds more than his games. Let’s go. Anywhere. Come.”

They walked supporting each other. They didn’t spare a glance for Sinh, who still stood over the shards of Liên’s flute, whispering “nothing has changed” over and over.

Slowly and carefully, they picked their way out of the arena, holding each other’s hands—walking measure by agonizing measure towards the iron-wrought gates—out of the arena, out of the Academy, and out into the world that awaited them both.

 

 

With thanks to @mainvocaljiu for help with naming Sinh.

 

Two Hands, Wrapped in Gold

My parents taught me to lie as soon as I could speak. Before I knew the meaning of the words, before I understood heat or fire, and long before I felt the pain of singed flesh, I learned to tell strangers that I burned myself by grasping a hot iron pot.

Once a day, my mother would pour water over my bare hands, then bandage each one down to the wrists, first with cloth of gold, then plain muslin. She had a technique for winding them in a way that left each finger separate but fully covered, and at no point would her skin come into contact with mine. When I was old enough, she taught me how to wrap them myself. By then, I also understood the danger that she had put herself in.

My parents allowed me to transform small items and only rarely, usually before we approached a large city where people would ask fewer questions about our wares. They let me play with other children, never roughly. After all, if I had burned myself, I would find it painful to use my hands. Other boys my age would wrestle and scuffle. I always ran from a fight.

I was happiest when we were on the road. I could relax around my parents. I was often clumsy because of my bandages, but I could perform basic tasks. My mother, Niraja, taught me how to slice vegetables and boil grains, how to groom our horses, and how to whistle like a bird. My father, Padmanabhan, showed me how to construct a simple bow and arrow, how to mark time by the sun, and how to navigate by the stars. They both shared their tricks for accounting.

“We are not so weak-minded that we need a ledger,” my father would say. “And our memories are safe from rain damage or theft.”

At night, they would take turns telling me stories from the Mahabharata, the Ramayana, and the Panchatantra, and point out the names of the constellations. I knew which stars pointed the way home—to my parents’ villages—and I knew the names of everyone from my great-grandparents onward; every cousin, aunt, and uncle, though I had never laid eyes on a single one.

We passed through many cities and countries. The great metropolis of Constantinople made a strong impression with its buildings decorated in golden domes and intricate tile mosaics. It bustled with people, some whose skin didn’t darken from the sun, others with eyes that gleamed blue or green like a peacock’s feathers. People came in all shapes, sizes, and colors, including those with missing limbs or eyes. No one cared about my hands. I wanted to stay there forever, but my parents would not hear of it.

“Too dangerous,” my father said. “What if someone discovers what you can do, Ram?”

And so we moved on, as we did for years, never staying in one place longer than a few days. I had no friends except for my golden fox.

Just before my first birthday, my father returned from several months on the road to the place my mother had stayed since her labor. He arrived a few weeks before the monsoon, the same rains that had trapped him a year earlier.

When my mother began to experience birthing pains, my parents were in the land of the rajputs, in a small state ruled by a newly self-anointed king. An old rishi, a woman who spent most of her time communing with the gods, took them in and helped with my mother’s labor. The streets flooded up to my father’s knees on the day I was born. Some locals said it was fitting that the clouds had ended their pregnancy on the same day as my mother. Others said that gods brought the water as an answer to our prayers. Either way, my parents named me Rampalalakshmicharan, after Lord Vishnu and his consort, the Goddess Lakshmi.

“When we named you,” my mother would say, “we laid you at their feet and asked them to bless you with health, wisdom, and prosperity.”

My mother learned to spin and weave while my father was away. She had a knack for producing gold thread, prized by the king, and found employment in the palace—temporary, until I was old enough that we could travel together.

My father gifted me a small wood carving that he’d acquired on his travels.

“This creature is called a fox,” he said. “I received it from a man with skin as pale as the rising moon. He was from a land called Bavaria.”

When the carving entered my grasp, it turned gold.

My parents were so astonished that my father snatched it away, causing me to sit and wail in protest. My father then bit it, marking the tail, and pronounced it real. He declared that I must have received Goddess Lakshmi’s blessing.

My mother, however, had heard the tale of King Midas, and panicked. “If he has a golden touch, it could be deadly. We should take him to see the rishi, the one who helped with his birth.”

“You watch over him,” my father said. “I’ll go get the woman.”

While he was away, my mother’s gaze fell upon the gold uttariya that she’d been weaving for the queen. She took the fabric and placed it into my hands. Being made of golden thread, it did not change, so she wrapped it around my hands and tied it tight. Then she took a piece of plain white muslin and placed it over the precious material. The cloth remained as it was.

When the wise woman arrived and saw what I could do, she left to meditate and commune with the gods. She was gone for an entire day and night. At last, she returned and said, “He is indeed blessed by the goddess, but it’s a dangerous gift. You must beware the king’s greed. If he discovers what your son can do, he will take the child away to be his personal coffer.”

Even my father was troubled by this. Monarchs weren’t the only people filled with greed. Anyone who learned of my gift might abuse me.

“Help us,” my mother begged the rishi. “Pray to Sri Lakshmi, and ask her to take away this boon.”

The old woman shook her head. “That might anger the goddess. You shouldn’t appear ungrateful.”

After some discussion, the rishi devised a curse, one whose words I know by heart because my mother repeated them to me every night before I slept and every morning when I awoke: “If Rampalalakshmicharan turns an object into gold for another person, they must give him whatever he demands in return. If they don’t, the golden object will turn to ash and he will lose his ability forever.”

It wouldn’t guarantee my safety, especially not while I was too young to understand the consequences of my actions, but it meant that no one could abuse my gift forever.

That night, my parents packed my mother’s few possessions into our family wagon and fled the palace. As a traveling merchant, my father already knew how to live as an itinerant. My condition meant that they moved more quickly than they might have otherwise, but it was our way of life, and for the most part, I liked it. My father picked up and traded wood carvings along the way, but the golden fox belonged to me. At some point, our journey gained a destination, one that all three of us felt curious about: Bavaria.

The air grew colder as we traveled further northwest than we had ever gone. The rains fell in heavy sheets, the wind blew mercilessly, and two days after we crossed the border into the land of foxes, my father fell sick. After my mother and I caught the same illness, we stopped near the next village. Fever held us all for a while, but we huddled in our wagon and drank tea and broth. I recovered my strength first. My mother followed. My father didn’t.

My mother wished to give him as proper a funeral as she could with no priest accessible. She drove the wagon off the road, into the surrounding forest. I helped her gather wood. My bandages were laced with splinters, and my arms ached, but after two days, we had collected enough for my father’s funeral pyre. They don’t burn their dead in that part of the world so we did our best. It’s strange what lingers in my memory all these years later—the overpowering smell of smoke, the quiet sobs of my mother at night, the first snowflakes falling from the sky.

It was too dangerous for my mother to continue alone with me, so we were effectively stranded in Talgove, a small village that mostly functioned as farmland and a waystation for travelers to Salzburg, our intended destination. The few stone buildings belonged to a man named Konrad, a vassal of the local noble lord, and consisted of his house, a watermill, and an inn. The bulk of the villagers worked the land and lived in huts made of straw. Of the many places I had seen in those early years of my life, this one did not impress me as a good place to stay, but my mother was too distraught over our circumstances, and I was too young to do anything else.

We didn’t speak Bavarian, but trade is universal, and we managed to get ourselves into an abandoned hut on the edge of a field in exchange for our horses and wagon. We kept the trading goods for a while, doling them out for food, but the village was small and we ran out of things they wanted. We might have starved to death that first winter but for the kindness of the miller’s wife.

I have only the vaguest memories of Herlinde’s face, but I remember her pale hair, which shone like my mother’s gold threads. She visited our hut once a week to bring us flour, which my mother turned into flatbreads. She and Blasius, the miller, had two daughters. Ilsebill took after her father’s looks, with darker hair and a stick thin frame. Trudy, the younger one, had her mother’s yellow hair and a softer figure. The girls would sometimes accompany Herlinde during her charity visits.

Ilse was only a year younger than me and plenty willing to run and play with a stranger who didn’t speak her language. I learned most of my Bavarian from her. Trudy, however, clung to her mother’s skirts and preferred quieter pastimes. She would sit while my mother showed Herlinde the various spinning tools she’d acquired during our travels. It was weaving season, and my mother learned as much from Herlinde as she taught, going so far as to trade looms with her. Ilse and I would head straight for the trees.

My first clear memory of Ilse has to do with my hands. We were out playing somewhere in the woods behind the hut, when she said, “Ram, why do you keep your hands like that?”

I tripped over the old lie about having burned them. We had lived in one place for so long that it no longer made sense. I was terrified. What could I say that she would believe? I grasped for a word and came up with schlecht. I knew it meant that something was not good.

“Oh.” She grabbed a low-hanging branch and swung from it. “Well, can you do this?”

I nodded, my heart pounding with relief, and proceeded to hoist myself up and onto the branch.

Ilse dropped down and ran off, calling, “Follow me!”

I did, tripping over unfamiliar roots and getting smacked by bushes from her wake.

She stopped in a small clearing surrounding two large beech trees whose upper branches had grown together.

“This one’s mine.” She pointed to the left. “And that’s yours. Race you to the top!”

Ilsebill scaled the tree like a squirrel. That first time up was no contest, but we visited the spot every time Herlinde came to see my mother, almost weekly. As spring warmed the land, I grew stronger, and by the start of summer, I could almost keep up with my friend.

And then one day, as the last of the spring blossoms fell, Herlinde stopped coming by. Three weeks later, she was dead. By mid-summer, one fifth of the villagers had perished from fever. Whatever the disease was, it ran its course. My mother and I escaped death once more. Perhaps our remote location saved us, or perhaps our gods, to whom we prayed daily, gave us protection.

I didn’t see Ilse again until the autumn. On a day when the leaves whispered in drifts against the hedgerows, and the harvested wheat stood in great sheaves, all work stopped in the village. Like everyone else, my mother and I went to the mill for the harvest festival. We had managed the summer by helping in the fields and foraging in the woods. Other than Herlinde, no one had befriended my mother, but they had grown used to our presence, or so I thought.

Konrad, the steward, presided over the festivities, which included free food and drink. As we approached a table, I heard someone mutter the word hexe. Being a child and without inhibitions, I looked around and spotted a cluster of adults speaking in low tones and glancing at my mother. Their expressions were unfriendly. I huddled closer to my mother.

We had dressed in our finest clothes for the occasion. The bright, intricate patterns made us shine like gems among the dyed woolen tunics around us.

“She can spin silk into gold,” someone muttered.

My mother, being an adult, kept her gaze fixed straight ahead, chin high. Her thick, black hair hung to her waist in a neat braid. No matter how cold, she washed daily and insisted I do the same. We did not resemble the people of Talgove.

My anxiety was forgotten as I devoured a piece of cake. I spotted Ilsebill and Trudy playing with a group of children. I waved, and Ilse waved back. She gestured for me to join them, and after a nod from my mother, I ran off.

The group stopped as I approached.

A tall boy with reddish-brown hair and orange freckles stepped forward. “I’m Konrad stewards-son. Who are you?”

“His name is Ram-pala-lakshmi-charan…near-the-wood,” Ilsebill said, enunciating each syllable with precision. It had taken her several attempts to learn my name.

Konrad snorted. “He doesn’t need a byname. We’ll not have another Rumpel…stick-man in our village any time soon.”

“You can call me Ram,” I said. There were parts of the world where the length of my name didn’t cause difficulty, but this was not one of them.

“Do you know how to play tag?” Ilse asked.

I nodded. Games of chase-and-catch were universal.

“What’s wrong with your hands?” Konrad demanded.

Before I could explain, Ilse spoke. “His hands have an infirmity. He has to keep them wrapped up always.”

I hadn’t heard the word before, but I memorized it on the spot.

Konrad grinned. “Then he can be It first! Don’t let the diseased hands touch you,” he shrieked as he ran off.

The other children screamed and fled. Before long, I was joyfully covered in sweat and dust as we chased each other. Their taunts might sound cruel to an adult, but at the time, I had no room for such qualms. I had playmates! I left them with heavy feet when my mother called me away.

“Can’t I stay?” I begged.

She shook her head. In a low voice, she said, “The men will start drinking soon. We’ll be safer at home.”

The next afternoon, Ilse showed up at our door with a basket of bread and cheese. She wore a gown like a woman rather than the tunic of the previous day.

“I asked Papa if I could do the charity work that Mama did. He said I’m old enough now that I have eleven years.”

“Can you play?” I looked dubiously at her dress.

A mischievous smile lit her face, and her brown eyes twinkled. She lifted the cloth wrapping out of the basket. It was a tunic.

“I’ll change in the woods,” she said.

We ran off and found our favorite spot. She made me turn around while she dressed. After an hour of practicing our acrobatic and balancing skills, she transformed back into a modest young woman and left.

When I returned home, my mother thwacked me across the head twice. “Once for playing with that girl who’s no longer a girl, and once for wasting time in the woods.”

“We’re just climbing trees!”

“Be sure that’s all you do.”

After that, I would always leave home a little later than Ilse, and I would forage for herbs and greens before I returned. My mother liked to prepare them in our traditional ways. She had learned to improvise when we ran out of the spices, rice, and legumes that we’d brought with us. As long as I came home with my hands full, she didn’t object to my time in the woods.

From then on, Ilse came every other week, just as Herlinde had. We snuck off to play for an hour unless it was too wet. Sometimes she had Trudy along, which prevented our play time, until one day, Ilse had a brilliant idea.

“Could you show Trudy those spinning devices?” Ilse asked my mother. “I can help Ram gather some herbs for you while you teach her.”

“Of course,” she said. “Perhaps she’d like to try the hand loom, too?”

After that, Trudy accompanied Ilsebill on every visit. My mother said Trudy had the knack for spinning, just as she herself did.

“If only I had gold, I could show her how to make thread,” my mother said after one visit. “That’s not a request, Ram.” She wrapped a freshly woven length of linen around my hands. “And be careful while you’re out in the woods. Don’t let the outer cloth tear.”

I suspect that my mother knew that Ilse and I did more than gather herbs, given the terrible state of my outer wrappings on those days, but she also realized that I was still very much a child, too much so to care about the trouble young men and women could get into. And while I tried to hide my loneliness, she would have observed that none of the other children ever came to play with me.

The apple trees were blooming when my mother and I took our first trip to Salzburg. She’d heard from some passing merchants that late spring brought spices and grains from the Far East up the river, and wanted to see if we could buy some. By then, the village had learned of her skill with spinning and weaving, and she spent more time making thread or cloth than in the fields.

We hitched a ride on a hay wagon, part of a train passing through Talgove. Clouds of pale pink blossoms covered the orchards we passed. My mother smiled a true and proper smile for the first time I could remember since we’d arrived in Bavaria. Trudy had gifted her a woolen shawl—one that Trudy had woven with her help—and she wore it over one of her old cotton traveling tunics.

That morning, she had taken my father’s silk clothes from our remaining bronze traveling chest, intending to sell them. I could tell it broke her heart from the way she clamped the delicate fabric in her fists.

“Amma, instead of those, let me turn something gold to trade,” I said.

She shook her head. “The villagers will be suspicious. I’ve told them for months now that I have nothing left to trade. I have only the box spindle and the small handloom, and I need those for myself. I can only hope the merchants in Salzburg will accept your father’s clothes.”

“There are caves not far from here that have gold veins, and the boys in the village say that sometimes you can find small nuggets by the river. I could transform some very small stones and cover them with mud?”

Her expression twisted with doubt.

I felt my father’s spirit at my shoulder, whispering that I should behave as a man, not a boy, and use my gift to help our family. “Please! I’m useless without my hands. I can’t work in the fields or chop wood. I can’t even do women’s work because I’m too clumsy for spinning or sewing. You’ve always said that one day I’ll be grown enough that I can safely use my gift.” I was twelve years old and nearly as tall as my mother. “How much longer do I have to wait?”

With a crease in her brow, my mother nodded.

Pebbles studded the soil liberally, and it took me minutes to find several the size of my littlest fingertip. As I loosened the bandage on my left hand, my mother stopped me.

“Tell me the words of the curse,” she said.

“If Rampalalakshmicharan turns an object into gold for another person,” I recited, “they must give him whatever he demands in return. If they don’t, the golden object will turn to ash and he will lose his ability forever. You make me repeat it every night.”

She smacked me lightly on the head. “And you should thank me for it. They are the most important words of your life. If you do this, you must also make the trades.”

I shook my head and continued to unwrap my hand. “I’ll give them to you in exchange for Appa’s clothes.”

Her eyes glimmered with tears. “Clever boy,” she said as I gently prised the clothing from my mother’s grasp.

I folded them neatly, and slid them into the secret compartment at the bottom of the trunk, along with my golden fox, our other silks, and a length of spare gold cloth for my hands. Traveling merchants have their tricks, and this chest had a false bottom to fool any thieves or bandits.

We arrived at Salzburg’s central market at midday. The sun shone high overhead in a blue sky dotted with cottony clouds, and the open space bustled with merchants and their wares. The city didn’t impress me nearly as much as Constantinople. From the way Konrad and other village children had talked, I had expected a much larger and grander metropolis. A lord’s manor dominated the houses on a low hill overlooking the Salzach river. The only other sizable structure was a church.

The market spilled out like a natural growth from the river docks. I heard languages that hadn’t fallen on my ears in a long time. I still remembered many of the basic words involved in trade, especially numbers. Most of the shoppers were Bavarian, but the merchants came from far and wide, and their appearance spanned a variety of colors and features. I felt at home in a way that I hadn’t during our years in Talgove.

It took some searching, but eventually my mother found and purchased some of the items she’d wanted. With the leftover money, she bought me a fur-lined leather cloak that hung to my waist. A few merchants looked askance at my bandaged hands. Diseases traveled as well as humans, and we couldn’t use the lie about my burns anymore, so I wore the cloak in spite of the mild weather, and hid my hands under it.

That was the first time I felt anger mingled with the usual fear of discovery. It struck me as terribly unfair that I had to conceal my ability, and worse, that it had turned me into a person who was shunned when I should rightly have been revered. My mother hadn’t allowed me to disclose my magic to anyone, but I had nothing else of value—no trade, no prospects. The lowliest peasant could work the land, but to preserve my deception, I had to act as if that was beyond me. I couldn’t even wear gloves, which only the noble could afford. My golden touch surpassed the abilities of kings! I shouldn’t have to hide in shame.

The market revealed a way to put my gift to good use. I could improve our fortunes, earn us a way home. If we lived among family, I wouldn’t have to hide the truth. People would appreciate my gift for what it was: a blessing of the gods. All I had to do was keep it a secret until then. On that day in Salzburg, my path to freedom lay ahead like a gleaming ribbon.

Word must have spread in Talgove that my mother had spent an unusual amount during our market outing, because a few weeks after our excursion, some of the young men paid a visit to our hut and dragged me and my mother outside.

“We’re here for your gold,” said the biggest one in a matter-of-fact tone. Walter Up-hill, I recalled. He had no children, but he had rounded up a dozen youths for this task. The sour smell of ale hung about them in an invisible cloud.

“We don’t have any gold,” my mother replied truthfully. She kept her eyes to the ground, her voice soft but firm. We’d traded all of the nuggets at Salzburg, and I hadn’t bothered to make more.

Walter smacked her across the face with the back of his hand, the sound of it sharp and quick, like the noise made by a length of wet cloth against a rock.

“Don’t lie to us, witch, or we’ll burn you at the stake!” He nodded to the two boys behind him. They entered our hut, and we could hear the crack of pottery smashing.

“Please, we have nothing,” she begged.

I watched it all with a building fury, but I had a child’s body and couldn’t match the men for strength. Besides, my parents had taught me never to fight. I had no idea how to handle myself in that situation except to make sure my hands stayed protected. So I did the only thing I could.

“I found the gold by the river,” I cried out. “But we spent it all.”

“Then find us some more,” Walter demanded.

“It’ll be dark soon. I’ll look tomorrow,” I said.

“All right. We’ll come back in three days at sunset. You’d better have some gold for us, little man.”

They left us alone. My mother trembled as she swept out the shattered remnants of our crockery.

“What will we do?” she fretted. Her lower lip swelled from the cut left by Walter’s blow.

“I can make some nuggets,” I said. “It’s easy.”

“Foolish child! You’ve memorized the words, but have you understood them? Do you think those men will give you anything you demand in exchange for the gold?”

“I’ll trade it to you first, like before.”

“And then what? Do you think they’ll stop coming after one time? What happens when I have nothing left to give you in return? I hardly own anything as it is, and if anything happened to me, you’d have no way to continue the bargain. You should have kept quiet.”

I unleashed my pent-up rage at her. “So they could destroy the rest of our things? Or drag you off and burn you? You should thank me for saving us!”

She met my glare with a sigh and shook her head. “I’m afraid you’ve done the opposite. When they return, you must tell them you couldn’t find any, that last time it took you many months of searching. We’ll stall for as long as we can that way. Perhaps they’ll tire of asking and give up.”

That night, I asked my mother to tell me again about my father, about our family back in their villages near Kanyakumari, a spit of land where three oceans met.

“One day, we’ll go back to the great Chola Empire,” she promised, “so you must remember who your people are. My name is Niraja. Your father’s name is Padmanabhan. His father is Lakshmichandran. His mother is Krishnapriya.” She had me learn all the names—my four grandparents, eight great grandparents, numerous uncles and aunts, all the cousins born before my parents left. She would tell me something special about each of them. How her father loved to sing. How her mother swam and bathed in the ocean.

“Your father taught you how to make bows and arrows,” she said, “when you were five years old. He showed you how to hunt for small animals and prepare the meat. Do you remember?”

I’m no longer sure whether my memories were true or whether hearing her stories impressed them into my mind, but I knew it would please her for me to say yes, so that’s what I did. My own recollections were blurred by the passage of time, more impressions than images—the warmth of my parents’ bodies on either side of mine as we lay in our wagon; the smoke from damp wood fires stinging my eyes; my father combing tangles from my mother’s long hair. We passed through many splendorous cities, crossed mountain passes, and drove along vast oceans, but it’s those quiet times at the end of the traveling day that have stayed with me. When the terror of flames threatens to overwhelm me, I take myself back to those moments of in between, the three of us safe and happy on our own, without a care for the rest of the world.

Walter and his small gang visited as promised. Taking my mother’s advice, I told them I had failed. They delivered a beating, which I accepted while curled into a ball on the ground beside my mother, my hands tucked into my armpits to protect the cloth wrapping. Some of them stood apart and watched. I gathered from their words that they had come mostly for sport, including Konrad stewards-son. Walter had debts to the elder Konrad. He’d allowed too many of his pigs to sicken, and he hadn’t given the vassal his due share of ham.

“Do better by next week.” Walter said as they left.

They came back again and again, and I gave the same excuse and earned us the same beating, but over time their numbers dwindled.

“We should leave this place,” I told my mother as we tended each other’s wounds. “I’m nearly a man now. We can travel again, buy a wagon and a horse once we get far enough from here.”

“You might be close to a man’s age, but you don’t yet have a man’s body. Your father faced worse men than Walter during our travels, and with your hands…you can’t fight them off.”

“I could turn Walter into gold and sink him to the bottom of the Salzach,” I grumbled.

“Don’t you dare!” My mother grabbed me by the chin and forced me to meet her gaze. “Never use your blessing to commit murder…or any other crime. You are better than that.”

I nodded, but there are days when I regret resisting that impulse.

The next afternoon, two days early, as the setting sun cast long shadows over the field, Walter stumbled into our hut alone and very drunk.

“I’ve had enough of you both,” he roared. He pointed a trembling finger at my mother. “This is all your doing, witch! You cursed my swine, I know it, and now you’ll pay.”

He wrapped one hand in her hair and yanked her off her feet. Without thinking, I launched myself at him.

“No,” my mother cried. “Ram, run away!”

But I didn’t heed her. Walter swatted away my pathetic attempts to strike him, then thrust a fist into my gut. I fell to the ground. As I gasped like a fish out of water, he stomped his booted foot once on my right arm, once on the left, and, over my mother’s screams, once on each leg.

“Be still,” he roared and flung her next to me.

He grabbed a piece of firewood and struck my mother’s head as I watched, helpless, unable to move or cry out. She slumped, unconscious, and began to bleed. Taking a flint, Walter dumped our entire supply of cooking tinder next to the straw hut’s walls and set it on fire. He waited until the flames caught well and smoke started to fill the small space.

As he ducked outside, he muttered, “Those who do the devil’s work must burn.”

I remember getting my wind back along with a lungful of smoke. I crawled to my mother and tried to grab her, to pull her out of our hut, which was now our pyre. I couldn’t work any of my limbs in a useful fashion. The sharp pain from my broken bones overwhelmed the sensation of searing heat, but the fear is what I can never forget. A terror not only of dying but of living with hands bare, that someone might find us only for me to turn them into gold. I rolled onto my stomach and tucked my useless hands under my body.

At some point, the smoke must have caused me to lose consciousness, because the next thing I recall is waking up and seeing stone walls and Ilse’s face looming over me. The terror returned full force, along with the sense over my entire body that the fire still blazed.

“Shhh,” Ilse whispered. “Don’t worry, I bandaged your hands again.”

Had she seen the gold undercloth? If there was anyone I could trust to keep it a secret, it was Ilsebill. With that reassuring thought, I fell into a restless sleep for many days, tormented by heat and pain. Flames danced behind my eyelids.

My mother perished in the fire. I didn’t know it for a long time, my mind too consumed by my injuries. Not only did I have multiple broken bones, but the skin over much of my body had burned. It took weeks to heal. My legs and feet, which had been closer to the hut walls, developed blisters. My mother had told me of the hospitals in our home kingdom, places where the ill or infirm could stay and be cared for. Bavaria had no such thing. I was left in the back of the church for God to look after me.

Ilsebill came to see me almost daily. I don’t know how much her ministrations helped, but her presence certainly saved me from dying of a broken heart. She told me how she and other villagers had noticed the smoke from the direction of our hut. The column was large enough that they assumed the field had caught fire and rushed over. When they discovered the truth, they doused the flames and dug us from the ruins. Somehow, I lived, and since I had rolled over my hands, they remained bandaged.

My skin repaired itself faster than my bones, but those eventually knit themselves, too. The priest and Ilse had splinted my limbs as best they could. All four ended up somewhat misaligned. I could use my arms and legs, but they pained me. Ilsebill stopped visiting once I could walk.

“My father won’t allow it,” she said at her last visit. “If you need me, hide in the trees near our home and whistle like a snow finch. I’ll meet you at our climbing spot.”

I didn’t know what qualified as need, and I lacked both the strength and the courage to test her offer.

At first I could only cross my room, but eventually I made it to the field where they buried unbaptized children. There I found my mother’s remains. Even in death, Bavaria had disrespected her, and I, once again, had been powerless to stop it.

I spent many a warm summer night curled up on the dirt with my mother rather than in my cot. The priest’s eyes were always kind when I returned at dawn. And one day, as the wind blew chill from the mountaintops, I found that I had cried all of my tears, and my pains, both inside and out, had dulled to the constant companionship of aches.

The next day, I walked to the edge of the village. I rested for a time, then continued further until I reached the heap of ash and char that marked our former hut. I waded through it and searched for something, any small remembrance of the two people in the world who had loved me most. My foot bumped against a solid object. I knelt and swept aside the debris, my motions gaining speed as I realized it was the bronze chest. My hands trembled from excitement and fatigue as I opened it. The wood carvings in the main chamber had charred but were intact. I felt below them for the mechanism that released the hidden section. There I discovered our silks, cloth of gold, and the carved fox, my father’s tooth mark imprinting its tail.

With the last of my strength, I heaved the box from the wreckage and dragged it into the woods. Luck had saved it from discovery by the villagers, but I didn’t dare rely on that. I hid the trunk in some undergrowth near our climbing trees. No one had disturbed us there, and I trusted Ilsebill not to say anything if she happened to spot it.

I spent that night in the woods, cradled in the elbow of my beech tree. When I returned to the church, the priest didn’t comment on my absence or the filthy state of my clothing. He had allowed me to use some rags to wrap my hands. When I mentioned their diseased state, he murmured the word leprosia, and I filed that away in my lexicon for future use.

Every night, by my mother’s grave, I repeated the words of my curse, the names and habits of my family members, and the cities that would lead me back to my true home. I conversed softly in Tamil with her about my day so that I wouldn’t forget my first language. I said prayers to my gods. I vowed that once I was well enough, I would leave Talgove and find my way to Kanyakumari, to the point where three oceans met.

The priest asked me to help around the church as remuneration for my extended stay. Dependent as I was on his charity, I did as he asked. For a few hours, I would do various chores and errands. When the pain overwhelmed me, I would lie on my cot. After several months, another villager displaced me, one whose infirmity needed the comfort more. The cold stone floors didn’t help my aching body, but I had nowhere else to go.

That year’s winter came after a poor harvest, and the storehouses for the church grew bare as the needs of the village increased. As soon as the roads became passable, the priest put me on a wagon to Salzburg. I didn’t get a chance to say good-bye to Ilsebill.

The wagon left me at the abbey, where the monks took pity on me. I stayed with them as long as I could tolerate it, but they wanted me to pray to their God, to accept the Bible as my holy book, and I could not betray my parents that way. When I declared my intention to go, the monks gave me a sack of food and let me keep my bedroll. With these on my back, I left the city for the woods. I planned to “discover” gold that I could trade for passage on a ship, but I had to think of a safe way to do it.

Nearly a year had passed while I was at the abbey. I hadn’t seen Ilsebill once the entire time. In spite of my deformities, I could walk at a good pace and distance—the power of a youthful body to adapt—and I found myself going further east each day, toward Talgove. I needed to retrieve the bronze trunk I’d hidden away. I couldn’t leave Bavaria without it, and once I’d approached the familiar terrain around the village, the urge to see Ilsebill burned within me like the flames that had destroyed my life.

The time away had made me shy. I had spent days sleeping in the woods, failing to wash or launder along the way. I stood in the trees across the creek from the mill and watched the waterwheel spin until I spied her form outside. Ilse had grown more womanly during my time away, though her figure wasn’t curvaceous like her sister’s. Should I approach her? Could I consider her a friend anymore, with so much time having passed and both of us having grown? I teetered on the cusp of adolescence, past the poorly formed notions of a child, and glimpsed the responsibility that weighs on a man’s shoulders. In that moment, I wished I could turn back time and freeze ourselves in youth, at the age when we had no troubles but to reach the next branch.

Perhaps I gasped or made some other involuntary noise because she turned and looked directly at me. I froze when our eyes met. The urge to flee warred with the need for acknowledgement. When Ilse’s face broke into a smile, I could draw breath again. She waved. My heart sang. I whistled like a snow finch and pointed in the direction of our secret spot before retreating. I trusted that she would find me when she could.

I waited in the crook of my beech tree for the better part of two days. Ilse arrived just after a rain shower. Drops spilled from the canopy above us, and mud caked her boots. She wore a plain leather cloak, the oiled hood pulled up to cover her head. I jumped down and stood in the awkward silence of a fourteen-year-old boy.

“Padmanabhan Rampalalakshmicharan,” Ilse said with a grin. “It’s wonderful to see you.”

She stepped forward and flung her arms about me. I was so startled, I stumbled back, but the tree trunk held me up. I dared to embrace her. I trembled at holding her warm, sturdy body against mine. She pulled away and led me by the hand to the boulders where we usually sat when we weren’t climbing.

“How have you been? Tell me everything,” she demanded.

I delighted her with stories about the different monks in the abbey, about learning to read and write on the sly, about the boats that came and went along the Salzach, about my plan to buy my way back to my home country.

Concern wrinkled her brow. “You don’t have to leave,” she said. “You could stay here in Talgove and swear fealty to Konrad. You could teach me to read and write.”

I held up my hands, the bandages filthy with mud and splinters. “I can’t stay here. I can’t stay anywhere for too long, or I’ll be in danger again.”

“You won’t. Walter died last winter. You’ll be safe.”

The way Ilse looked at me then, I couldn’t lie, not anymore. No one alive knew my secret, and I wanted someone to have the truth in case I died. Who better than my only friend? Ilse had saved my life, as Herlinde had done, and the least I could do was trust her with this knowledge.

“My hands…they’re not diseased.”

“What do you mean?”

“Watch.”

I began to unwrap my left hand. Her aspect overflowed with questions. She raised her brows at the cloth of gold but stayed silent as I exposed my skin. With my right hand, I grabbed the smallest, thinnest twig I could spy and touched it with my left thumb and forefinger. Ilse’s sharp gasp made my heart skip a beat. Would this change things between us? Had I ruined our friendship?

“Is that…gold?” she whispered.

“Yes.” I wound both bandages over my hand and told her the story as my mother had told it to me. When I came to the rishi’s curse, I recited the exact words: “If Rampalalakshmicharan turns an object into gold for another person, they must give him whatever he demands in return. If they don’t, the golden object will turn to ash and he will lose his ability forever.”

Ilse’s brown eyes went round as saucers. “But this is wonderful! Why keep it a secret?”

“Because someone might threaten me or my family and force me to make gold for them, like Walter did. When I was small, my parents let me use my gift for some of their wares, but we never stayed in one place for long because they feared for my safety. After my father died, my mother was too afraid to continue our traveling ways. That’s why we stayed here in Talgove. It was a mistake.” I forced out the words I knew to be true: “Had we moved on, she would be alive today.”

“Oh, Ram, no! What happened was not your fault. It’s all that evil Walter’s doing. I’m sure he’s burning for his sins.”

My bitterness was still too fresh for me to accept her statement. “That’s why I can’t stay here—or anywhere. It’s too dangerous.”

“Will it be safe for you to travel alone? You’re small enough that people will think you’re a child. Wait a few years, until you grow into a man. I’ll help you in the meantime. I’ll leave you a small sack of food here every fortnight. I keep track of our stores now. Father won’t know if something is missing.”

She gazed at me with such earnestness that it confused my thoughts. There was sense in Ilse’s arguments, and staying was an easier choice than leaving, so I acquiesced.

Ilse beamed. “Listen, between here and Salzburg there are caves with veins of gold, right? We’ve all heard the rumors. Maybe you can make a vein and pretend to find it. Lead someone there who can mine it. You can avoid the Walter problem that way.”

“It’s a good idea,” I said. “But you must promise me: you’ll meet me here every fortnight with some food even if I can make this cave scheme work.”

“I will, if you swear to stay for at least two more years.”

We shook on the bargain. I watched her go with reluctance, then stowed the twig in my trunk and went to find a dry place for the night.

Over the next months, I familiarized myself with the local terrain. The triangular region formed by Salzburg, Hallein, and Talgove contained plenty of small cave systems. I ranged as far south as Hoven, where people mined for salt and copper. The climbing, scrambling, and swimming strengthened my limbs. My small stature allowed me to wiggle through tight spaces the Bavarians couldn’t reach. It made my deception easier.

I discovered that if I touched a layer of rock that was different from those around it, only it would turn into gold. Then, with my bandaged hands, I’d chip away at a small amount, take it back to Salzburg or Hallein, whichever was closer, and lead an expedition to the location of the vein that I’d “discovered.” When I found a cave at the mouth of a stream, I would go the gravel route, taking some of my made nuggets with me and leaving the rest for others to gather, as Walter had wanted. Sometimes I came upon salt or copper deposits, which were equally valuable to the local trade, and I wouldn’t have to use my magic at all.

To stay safe near the different towns, I established a set of caves where I kept stashes of firewood and blankets. I would share my space with the wildlife if they were peaceable, or chase them away if they became aggressive. I developed relationships with the local bishops and lords who owned the lands in the region. Merchants and villagers came to know me, as well, because I would stop for food, shelter, or directions to known cave systems nearby. They nicknamed me the Golden Spider for my ability to get into difficult spots and find this precious metal—and also because they could never remember my full name.

One year, I learned about a place high in the mountains above a tiny village about twenty miles south of Hallein. The locals said it was a gateway to Hell, which piqued my curiosity. The climb to the cave mouth was steep and treacherous, and the initial blast of air that greeted me was frigid. No heat or sulfur greeted me. Instead, I discovered a world of ice. I didn’t dare to explore very far, between the slippery surfaces and the wintery temperature, but the small amount I glimpsed was glorious and like nothing else I’d seen.

There, I set up a shrine to the gods of my people, to my patron, Goddess Lakshmi, and her consort Vishnu. I fashioned crude carvings from wood, hoping they would forgive my clumsiness, and turned them gold to preserve them from the elements. I went there to pray as often as I could, in thanks for saving my life, for giving me the gift of my hands, and for safe passage home one day. The cave allowed me to speak more privately to my mother and father than the grave in Talgove. Since no local would venture inside, it became my favorite sanctuary.

Once every fortnight, without fail, I returned to the climbing trees near Talgove. At first I needed the food, but as months and then years passed, I needed to see Ilse. People might enjoy the fruits of the Golden Spider’s labor, but none of them wanted my company. They might wonder at my absence if I died in a caving accident. Only she would miss me.

I didn’t realize that I was in love with Ilse until the day she told me her father had promised her in marriage to Konrad stewards-son. It happened on the day of the autumn festival, one that was unusually warm for the season. Ilse wore a new gown dyed buttery yellow with an embroidered veil over her hair. She’d come to see me as soon as the feasting had ended and the men began to drink. The setting sun filled the woods with a gentle glow that limned her form like a figure from an illuminated manuscript.

“I’m sixteen years old, and Father thinks it’s time,” she said. Her lips trembled as she drew a breath. “Ram—Padmanabhan Rampalalakshmicharan—marry me! Make lots of gold and offer it as a dowry. No one will question you this time. Please—I don’t want to be Konrad’s wife.”

I had given my heart to Ilse when we were still children. I just hadn’t realized it until she said the words: marry me. Now she was betrothed to a young man who’d once helped beat my mother and me.

In my mind’s eye, flames ate at a straw hut. I couldn’t see a future for us that didn’t end in disaster, pain, or both.

I grasped at excuses to cover my cowardice. “Your father would never agree to it, no matter how much gold I might offer. Look at me! I barely come up to your shoulder. My limbs may be strong, but they are still crooked. I spend my days crawling through caves. Besides, no priest would marry us.”

“Then convert! Embrace the church. You’ve lived here for most of your life. You don’t need your old gods anymore. If not for yourself, then do it for me.”

But it was my people’s goddess who had blessed me. My people’s gods who had brought me through blood and fire and kept me alive. They were my last connection to my family. I could no sooner let them go than I could cut my hands off, not even for Ilse.

I shook my head. “My life is one of ashes and stone. As long as I’m blessed with Goddess Lakshmi’s gift, I won’t be safe here, and neither will you. You’ll have a better life with Konrad in the big house—a far more comfortable living than you would roaming around with me.”

“Then let it go,” she said softly.

“What?”

“Your gift. You know how to break free of it. Make me a gold item and ask for something impossible in return. Live the rest of your life by my side as an ordinary man.”

Fear gripped me, so tight I couldn’t breathe. Who was I without my golden touch? Worse than the worthless creature I already was! “You would take away the only good thing in my life?”

“Am I not a good thing? Would it be so terrible to have hands like the rest of us, like me?”

Yes it would, I thought, though I couldn’t say the words aloud. My touch had been part of my existence for as long as I could remember, my only worthwhile skill, my unique talent. I couldn’t fathom a life without it. How could Ilsebill not see that?

I turned my back to her. “Go marry Konrad and be well.”

“You’re being a coward.”

I closed my eyes.

“If I marry him, I won’t come back here to meet you, not ever again.”

I know.

I heard the rustle of her footsteps as she walked away. My heart ached worse than four shattered bones. I vowed never to return to Talgove.

That winter was the coldest I’d ever experienced. After a brutally hot and brief fall, the season shifted with a vengeance. I had barely enough opportunity to get my caves stocked with wood and fill my pack with dried foods, much less to consider my escape from Bavaria. The upper inches of the Salzach river froze. The roads became impassable with mud and ice. I spent many days huddled under my cloak and blankets, convinced that I had made the right decision about Ilsebill’s union with Konrad. She would be safe and warm in her stone house.

Winters were always a lean time for me. Mining operations slowed. People didn’t want to risk the treacherous terrain to see what I’d found, so I stopped trying. I didn’t have enough wealth to stay in Salzburg, and I had too much fear to trust any village in the area. I considered begging for a place at the abbey, but the monks had warned me before that I would have to convert if I came back. I did not think they’d go back on their word.

With the spring thaw, I decided to break my earlier promise to myself: I’d visit Talgove one more time, to ensure that Ilsebill was happy, and then I’d leave as soon as the roads were passable. I’d head east and south and never look back.

I crept into the village like a thief in the night. I couldn’t face my friend—if I could call her that any longer—so I climbed a tree near her house and waited for daylight and a glimpse of her fortunes.

She came outside to hang the wash. Her hair hung free and wet down her back like a dark cape. Her face looked drawn—thinner perhaps—and shadows had formed below her eyes. Had she been sick? A cold winter would do that. Good that she had the food and shelter to live through it. If she’d taken ill in the caves with me, she probably would have died.

As her arms lifted, her sleeves fell back. In the morning sun, the bruises stood out clearly against her pale skin: the marks of hard fingers. I looked more closely at her face then and realized that some of the shadows were not tricks of the light.

A man has a right to beat his wife in Bavaria, and plenty of them did. My father never raised a hand to my mother—not that I could remember—and I, of course, had been taught to protect my hands, not use them as weapons.

It took every ounce of willpower not to jump out of my tree and go to her. I didn’t need to ask if she was happy to know the answer. At least she lived. Was she well enough that I could leave? Some men beat their wives to death. What could I do to defend her? Could I blunt Konrad’s violence with gold?

Over the next weeks, I tried to glean some answers from the villagers. Was the vassal in debt to the duke of Bavaria? Was the younger Konrad ambitious and therefore unhappy with his status? Did he want something he didn’t have?

A child. That’s what he desired that Ilse couldn’t give him. They’d been married for half a year, and she hadn’t gotten pregnant even once. It shamed him that he wouldn’t have an heir—or worst case, a daughter—by their first anniversary.

No amount of gold could help me solve this problem, could it? Was it possible to obtain a newborn infant and leave it at their doorstep? Would Konrad take it in? Ilsebill would, of that I was certain, given her good heart. But where and how would I get such an infant? I couldn’t stomach the thought of buying one.

Neither could I tear myself away from Ilsebill’s unhappiness. Had I caused it by refusing to marry her? Should I murder Konrad in his sleep? I was fairly sure I could sneak into his chamber at night, but far less sure that I could actually do the deed. My mother’s words came back to me: Never use your blessing to commit murder. You are better than that.

I was hidden in a tree near the mill when the Duke of Bavaria arrived in Talgove. I had never seen the man before, but the coat of arms matched the hangings I’d seen in Salzburg. The sizeable retinue stopped by the water wheel.

Blasius emerged from the building, staggering and red-faced from drink. “My lord,” the miller said, his face wrinkled in confusion, “the steward’s house and the inn are—”

“I’m here for Trudy of-the-mill,” the duke interrupted. “Your daughter, I presume?”

Balsius’s befuddlement deepened. “Yes, but—”

“I hear that she can spin flax into gold, that she has a special instrument from a witch who used to live in these parts. I wish to witness this skill for myself.” The duke grinned.

The miller executed a deep, sloppy bow. “My lord, indeed she is indeed talented spinner and weaver. Beautiful, too.”

“Then let us see this lovely and gifted creature.”

Still bent at the waist, Blasius went inside. I held myself as still as wood and waited. What was he up to? Trudy had never learned how to make gold thread from my mother, and she certainly couldn’t magically transform flax. I could. Had someone discovered my gift and mixed up their stories?

A sharp cry sounded from inside the building. Blasius emerged, holding Trudy’s wrist in one hand and one of my mother’s spindles in another.

“See here!” He thrust Trudy forward and gestured at her head. “She made the golden thread for this embroidery. This ring, and the chain about her neck, too. Those used to be silver. She learned from a witch who used to live near our village. Take her! She will do well in your household.”

My stomach twisted with rage and disgust. Trudy’s wimple came from one of my mother’s fabrics. She wore my mother’s wedding band and necklace. How had they obtained the jewelry except from my mother’s body? How dare Blasius abuse my mother’s memory like that? And why would he lie about it? He’s desperate to see her married well. With Ilsebill secured to Konrad, there was no good match in the village for Trudy. Her looks—the golden hair, the womanly curves—had always attracted attention from men.

A flush covered Trudy’s round cheeks. She kept her gaze fixed on the ground, and her hands trembled. I sat in my tree, frozen with indecision and fear. I could think of nothing in my power that would help her without revealing my secret.

“Quite attractive,” the duke murmured. Then, louder, “I will take her to Salzburg with me. I wish to have some gold thread made for my wardrobe. If she succeeds in her witchcraft, I will take this young lady to Regensburg and keep her safely with my treasury.”

The men in the duke’s retinue snickered. Trudy’s flush crept down and across her neck.

“Yes, good,” Blasius said. He bobbed his head and swayed.

“And if she fails, she will be burned.”

At that, Blasius fell to his knees, his face pale. “But, my lord—”

“I am your duke, and you will not deny me again or else you will hang for the crime of consorting with witches.”

Trudy put a hand on her father’s shoulder. To my surprise, she kept her chin level and her face calm as the duke took her up and placed her on his horse. Blasius stayed on his knees in the dust. As the retinue rode away, Ilsebill came running down the lane, Konrad stewards-son a few strides behind her. They stopped by Blasius’s side and stared at the receding horses.

“What happened?” Konrad demanded.

As the miller related a semi-coherent version of Trudy’s fate and his impossible claim about her, Ilse raised her eyes and stared straight at my perch. She inclined her head ever so slightly toward our old meeting spot. She couldn’t possibly have seen me, could she? But her head had turned so precisely in my direction, and that tilt…she must have caught me out. When? How often had she noticed me skulking around the village?

My ears turned hot. To think that Ilsebill had known I was spying on her, that I was aware of her misery and yet did nothing—I couldn’t pretend after that. For surety, I shaped my lips and tongue and whistled like a snow finch.

That evening, the spring moon rose full and clear. It illuminated Ilsebill’s skin with a pale glow as she approached our intertwined trees. I dropped from my usual perch to the clearing and met her gaze. For several breaths, neither of us spoke. Up close, I could see more clearly what suffering had done to her, the way her cheeks carved into her face, the sloppiness of the stitching along her sleeve, the shadows under her eyes. I wanted to lift her to the highest branches and fly away somewhere safe and warm.

“Will you help her?” Ilse said in a volume barely above the call of night birds and insects. “You can save Trudy. If you run, you can get to Salzburg before the night is over. Turn the duke into gold. Give my sister enough to get passage down the river. She may be spoiled, but better a woman of ill-repute than dead.”

I wasn’t so sure of that assessment, but I found myself nodding. Anything to make Ilse’s life a little easier. “I’ll go. I’ll do…something, but I have no desire to kill anyone, especially a duke.”

Ilse’s expression took on a grim hardness I’d never seen. “You would if you understood what it’s like when a man…well, you’ll never have to know, will you?”

But I understood exactly what she meant by that pause, and the implication about her relations with Konrad. My wrapped hands balled into fists. Perhaps I could kill the duke, if I thought of him as Konrad and Trudy as my dear Ilse.

“I’m sorry,” I whispered. About so many things.

She bowed her head and left me. No gifts this time, nothing to help me on my way, not even a word of thanks. Perhaps she thought I didn’t deserve the latter until after I’d saved her sister. Perhaps she was right.

I arrived in Salzburg a couple hours before matins. It took little effort to find Trudy’s whereabouts thanks to the torchlight seeping from the cracks of her room’s walls. Getting inside was more of a challenge, but stone is stone, whether it’s shaped by human hands or nature’s. I climbed up and squirmed my way through the gaps under the timber roof.

Trudy gave a startled gasp when I dropped into her room. “You! You’re Rum—Rumpel…you’re Niraja’s boy. What are you doing here?”

You have to help her, I told myself sternly, even if she can hardly recall your name.

I sketched a low bow. “I’m here to help, at the behest of your dear sister.”

When I straightened, I noticed the piles of flax around the room. One of my mother’s spindles—traded to Herlinde in our first year at Talgove—rested on a table. I waved at them and raised a questioning brow.

Trudy sat back onto a stool and burst into tears. “The duke—he said that he’s a man of his word, so he—he locked me in here and said that if I can spin this flax into thread as golden as my hair, he—he’ll let me live. I have no gold to work with, and even if I did, I wouldn’t know what to do.”

I didn’t ask if he had already taken her maidenhood. What difference would it make? At least he’d given her a way to stay alive. I wouldn’t have to kill him that night.

“Very well, you spin the flax. I’ll transform it into gold.”

Trudy gaped for a second. “You can really do that? I thought my father was telling drunken tales about Niraja.”

“He was, but he happened to guess right.” I didn’t bother to enlighten her about my mother or the truth of my gift. My gaze fell upon her finger. “You must give me your ring in return.”

She nodded.

“And promise never to tell anyone what I can do.”

“I swear.”

As Trudy set to work, I unwound the cloths from my right hand. She handled the spindle with the same deftness that my mother had, and soon, piles of thread coiled on the floor. I passed my fingers through them. It wasn’t perfect, but enough turned gold that the duke wouldn’t notice the spots I’d missed.

Trudy didn’t have the sharp curiosity and courage of her sister, but she was no fool. She saw what I did, and understanding grew in eyes. I hoped she stayed true to her word and didn’t give me away.

As dawn’s light seeped through the cracks in the walls, we finished.

Trudy clutched my arm. Her eyes were red from the long night with no food or water.

“Thank you,” she rasped.

Thank your sister, I wanted to say. Instead, I nodded and slipped away.

I found a place to curl up and sleep in Salzburg. The next day, as I was taking a meal, I overheard people gossiping about the duke and his golden lady, and the miracle she’d worked overnight. That it was now a miracle and not witchcraft did not surprise me. Rumor said that he would ask her to repeat her holy transformation again.

I skulked around the city until nightfall, then made my way to the manor and Trudy’s room. This time, she had a window. Through it, I observed her sitting by the spindle with an even larger pile of flax mounded on the floor.

Her face lit with relief upon seeing me. “Thank the Almighty! I made the duke believe that I could only work my miracle alone and at night.”

“And only with flax?”

“He hasn’t asked about other types of thread.” She frowned. “Is that a problem?”

“No.” I loosed the binding on my right hand. “I’ll need something of yours in exchange again.”

She reached behind her head and unclasped my mother’s necklace. “This?”

I nodded. “That belonged to my mother, as did your ring.”

She had the decency to blush. “I’m sorry. My father made me wear them. He’s had them ever since…the fire.”

You’re doing this for Ilsebill, I reminded myself, not for her father.

We set to work and discovered that both of us could go faster after all the practice from the previous night. In spite of the larger amount, we finished earlier.

“Will you come back tomorrow?” Trudy asked.

Wearily, I nodded. “If I must, I’ll help you again, but we cannot allow the duke to exploit you like this forever. If he demands more, tell him that tomorrow is the last time you can do this, that God spoke to you and told him to be satisfied henceforth.”

Her eyes wide, Trudy agreed. I didn’t envy her position, having to lie to the duke and convince him of her limits.

I spent the next day thinking up ways I could spirit Trudy from the house. My golden touch wouldn’t help except to bribe the guards, but I wasn’t sure they’d accept coins from the likes of me. If anything, my possession of that kind of wealth might arouse suspicion. The window into the room was too small for Trudy to fit through. If I brought some chisels with me, perhaps we could loosen some stones in the wall and get her out that way. I wasn’t sure if we could work quickly or quietly enough for that, but it was the best I could come up with.

As I was about to barter for the tools, I overheard a new rumor: the duke had declared that tonight Trudy would perform her third and final miracle, and in the morning, the archbishop of Salzburg would witness their marriage before the couple departed for Regensburg. I abandoned the chisels. We already knew that the duke was a man of his word. I wouldn’t need to help Trudy escape.

I slipped into her room as early as I dared, for that night, the mounds of flax were enormous.

“Did he gather every bit he could find in all of Bavaria?” I groused.

Trudy glowed with happiness. “I don’t know, and I don’t care. A duchess! Just imagine it—me, a miller’s second daughter from Talgove.”

I frowned at her.

“What’s the matter?”

“I need you to give me something in exchange.”

She huffed impatiently. “I have nothing left but my gown, and you can’t have that. Wait until tomorrow. After I become duchess, I can give you anything you want.”

Would it work? I had never used my gift in trade for a promised item. If that failed, not only would Trudy lose her chance at marriage with the duke, I would no longer have my golden touch. I cursed myself for not buying the chisels when I could.

I didn’t want to risk my hands for Trudy, but Ilsebill’s quiet desperation rang in my mind. She had enough pain in her life. She didn’t need her sister’s death added to it. For the sake of her future, I decided to gamble with my own.

And that’s when the idea came to me.

“I want your first child with the duke,” I said.

Trudy stared.

“He’ll marry you tomorrow, and he’ll waste no time getting you with child. After the infant is baptized, I will collect it.” I will leave it at your sister’s doorstep, and perhaps then her miserable husband will stop tormenting her.

I had to hope that Trudy wasn’t as barren as her sister. It was my fault that Ilsebill suffered from Konrad’s abuse. Trading my hands—my gift—for her happiness seemed a fair exchange.

Trudy hesitated long enough that I thought she might refuse, but in the end, she agreed.

By the time we finished, both of our hands were raw from the work. The flax remained as golden as the other nights when I left it with Trudy.

I emerged from the building and made my way to the cave where I usually slept. The faint glow of pre-dawn painted the eastern sky with indigo. To be absolutely certain I hadn’t cursed myself, I touched a small pebble with my bare finger. It turned gold. I exhaled the breath I’d held. I wanted a good life for Ilsebill, but I couldn’t help the cowardly fear for my own fate had the worst come to pass. I tucked the precious stone into my pocket and fell into an exhausted slumber.

The next day, true to his word, the duke married Trudy. As the abbey bells pealed to announce the joyous occasion, I ran away from Salzburg. How long before Trudy spilled my secret to her noble husband? I could no longer consider Bavaria a safe place to stay. My unthinking feet carried me toward Talgove and Ilsebill and the travel chest that held my only valuable possessions.

I waited in my usual perch where I could see Ilse come out to hang laundry. When she came out of the house, I whistled like a snow finch. She turned toward me and nodded. I slipped away through the treetops and went to our meeting place. While I waited for her, I retrieved my chest and opened the false bottom. The clever device had preserved the family silks, my golden fox, and the last of my mother’s woven cloth-of-gold. I’d stowed them all in my pack. If I’d been inclined to take the roads, I would’ve worried about bandits, but I was used to finding game trails and dry stream beds to make my way through the wilderness.

A little while after sunset, I heard rustling footsteps, and Ilsebill arrived at the clearing. The moon gave us only a sliver of light, but that was enough for me to see the worry and hope that mixed on her face.

“You have a duchess for a sister,” I said.

Ilse blinked. “I—what do you mean? What happened?”

I told her almost everything. She worried when I divulged that Trudy now knew the secret of my hands. She understood when I told her I asked for Trudy’s jewelry in exchange. She wept when I told her about the wedding bells.

“Ram…thank you.”

I didn’t mention how many items of jewelry, nor the dangerous bargain I’d made. Ilsebill wouldn’t accept her sister’s child, but she would take in an abandoned one. The deception—much as it pained me—was necessary.

I dared to close the distance between us and took her hands in mine. “I can’t stay in Bavaria. If the duke learns the truth from Trudy, he’ll have his men looking for me.”

This time, she didn’t protest. “Farewell, Padmanabhan Rampalalakshmicharan.”

“Farewell, Ilsebill stewards-wife.” I lifted her fingers to my lips, pressed hard, then let her go.

I left Bavaria for half a year. In that time, I traveled east and did my best to trace a portion of the route that would take me home. I allowed myself to acquire simple jewelry and turn it gold so that I could pay my way. I also trimmed and curled my hair, shaved my face, and traded my clothes for the colorful robes of a Roman merchant—someone well-off but not wealthy enough to attract attention. Leather gloves covered my cloth-bound hands. Like my childhood days, I never stayed anywhere long enough for people to know me.

The most dangerous time came when I went to Regensburg. I had to know if Trudy was with child. As the seat of the duchy of Bavaria, the city had plenty of spying eyes. It wasn’t as big or busy as Salzburg, which made keeping my anonymity more challenging. Luckily, my new attire hid my crooked limbs, and my gold distracted people from my short stature. People see what they want, not what is.

I arrived by boat on a rainy day in autumn and stayed for three days and three nights, spending as generously as I dared, until I could comfortably ask the innkeeper whether the duke had an heir. The duchess was with child, he informed me, expecting a birth in spring. She would take her confinement in Salzburg, closer to the archbishop who would christen the child. I thanked Goddess Parvathi that Trudy was more fertile than her sister.

I spent the worst part of winter in the gentler climates of the Roman Empire before making my way back to Salzburg. I didn’t dare stay in the city—someone might recognize the Golden Spider—so I kept to my old caves and trees and subsisted on dried meat and fruit. My stashes of wood sat where I’d left them, dry and perfect for keeping warm. I listened for the abbey bells to tell me whether the child had been christened.

At last, on an unusually warm and cloudy spring day, I heard them ring. The rain started as the procession left the church and headed back to the duke’s residence in Salzburg. I followed them from my vantage points in the trees, eventually running ahead to hide myself where I could see Trudy and the baby enter the house. Only a few rooms had windows, and the duchess would certainly end up in one of them.

When the shutters flew up on an upper part of the house, I figured that was my target. I waited until night fell. I was soaked and chilled, but I gritted my teeth and climbed. As before, I slipped through the gap between the walls and the roof, dropping into a spacious chamber. Embers glowed in the fireplace. In the dim light, I could see Trudy and her infant asleep on the bed. I shook her gently to wake her.

She sat up in alarm upon recognizing my face. “You! Rumpel—”

“Shhh,” I cautioned, pointing at the babe. In a whisper, I said, “I’ve come to collect what I’m owed.”

Confusion and then distress painted Trudy’s face. She whispered back, “Please, have mercy! He’s only a month old. I can’t part with him so soon.”

“It won’t get easier with time.”

“I didn’t know then what I do now. I can’t give him up. Ask me for something else—anything! Please! I’ll find a way to get it. The duke is so happy to have a son, he won’t deny me.” Her voice rose with her distress.

I didn’t know if I could make a trade like that, and if it failed, I’d be ruined. I didn’t have enough saved for passage all the way back to Kanyakumari.

“I must have him and nothing else,” I said. “There’s no other way. I’m sorry.” I didn’t owe her any apology, but her pain softened my heart. “If you don’t fulfill your side of the bargain, the golden thread we made on the third night will turn to ash.”

“I don’t care about the gold!” she cried. “I only want my child.”

“And I only want to go home,” I spat. “I saved your life. You became a duchess. Now I need your help, and instead you want to condemn me to a miserable life. I should have expected this. You can’t even say my name. Why would you think of my welfare?”

“Trudy?” said a sleepy voice from the floor beyond the bed.

We both froze as a head rose into view: Ilsebill. I’m not sure which of our expressions was more shocked, hers or mine.

“Ram?” Ilse said. She shook herself as if she might be dreaming.

Trudy glanced wildly back and forth between us. “Ilse, help me! He’s trying to take Eberhard away!”

“Hush, Trudy, or you’ll wake him.” Ilsebill stood and came around the bed. “What’s going on, Ram? Why are you here?”

I was at a loss to tell her anything but the truth, so I confessed the terrible bargain I’d struck a year earlier.

“Why would you do such a thing?” The aghast expression on Ilse’s face didn’t surprise me, but my heart sank anyway.

“For you,” I whispered. “So that Konrad would treat you better. I planned to leave the baby at your doorstep as a gift.”

Ilsebill drew a sharp breath. She closed her eyes for a breath. When she reopened them, I saw fury and despair.

“Ilse?” Trudy said plaintively from across the room.

“I said hush!” Ilsebill hissed.

“I have to take the baby,” I said desperately. “You know what will happen if I don’t. Ilse—please!”

“Of all the foolish things to do, Ram—you should’ve spoken to me first.”

“I couldn’t! I was busy saving Trudy’s life.” I raised my gloved hands, palms outward. “With these, the only skill I have. Would you take them from me?”

“You should never have made such a demand! A child isn’t something to be traded. And Konrad would never accept someone’s cast off infant as his own. Don’t you understand anything about him? You should have thought this through instead of acting like a foolish boy.”

Her anger mirrored my mother’s, all those years earlier, when I’d spoken up to Walter. Flames danced in my mind.

“You have no one to blame but yourself,” Ilse said. “And unlike my sister, I do know your name, and I’ll say it once more.” She raised a trembling arm and pointed at the window. “Padmanabhan Rampalalakshmicharan, you cannot complete this trade. Leave the infant and go!”

I was tempted to snatch the child and make my escape. If Ilse didn’t want him, I could leave him at some other doorstep. As if reading my mind, she stepped between me and the bed, her face as stony as the walls around us.

“Go,” she repeated, “or I will raise the alarm.”

“You would let the duke kill me?” I asked, the words bitter in my throat.

“I don’t want to. I would never want to hurt you. But I won’t let you take my nephew.”

We were at an impasse, one that I knew I couldn’t win. I wouldn’t strike Ilsebill or Trudy. That kind of violence wasn’t in me, not even to save my blessed, cursed hands. And Ilse, like the duke, kept her promises.

Without another word, I fled through the window, leaping to the ground as soon as I’d dared. The fall wrenched my leg, and I limped toward the the trees. Twice, I slipped on roots and fell to my knees. The second time, I didn’t get up. The earth was cold and muddy. Heavy mist turned the night air liquid, and a bone-deep ache saturated my limbs. I wanted to be sick. I wanted to scream. I wanted to tear myself into a thousand pieces and hurl them into the starry void.

Instead, I slipped off the glove on my left hand, unwrapped the index finger, and touched a leaf at my feet. Nothing. I tore off the linen and shed the cloth-of-gold. With a maniacal recklessness, I pressed my hand to the tree root. It remained as wood. I hurled the rags into the night and buried my face in my hands. What could I do? Betrayed by the only person in the world I loved, bereft of the only valuable skill in my life. I considered walking to the ice cave near Hallein and ending my life in front my gods. Nobody would notice or care.

“Ram.”

Ilse loomed beside me, a lanky void in the fog. She knelt and took my bare hand in hers. I flinched, but she held it fast, and I felt the warmth of a human touch on my palm for the first time in my memory.

“I’m sorry,” she said.

“You should be.”

She sighed. “Maybe it’s for the best. You’re free now. You can go anywhere, settle down, have a proper life.”

“And what would I do with that life? Become a Bavarian peasant? Turn into a good Christian man? I belong nowhere and own nothing. I’m short. My limbs are misshapen. Who would have me for a husband?”

A gust of wind swirled around us and a heavy raindrop landed on the back of my hand.

“I would,” she said. Ilse’s eyes were dark pools as she looked into mine.

“It’s too late for that now.” I pulled my hand away. “I know—that’s my fault, too.”

She sat back on her heels and lifted her chin in the same unyielding way she had since we were children. “Then make it right. Take me for your wife.”

It took a minute for the import of her words to sink in.

“You’d leave Konrad and live in sin with me?”

“Would your gods consider it sinful?”

“I don’t know,” I said truthfully. I knew only what my parents had taught me, and whether a woman can leave one man for another wasn’t something they’d discussed.

“I’ll pledge myself to your gods. I’ll go with you to your family and make a home there. If you could spend all these years in Bavaria, then I can do the same in Kanyakumari.”

“What about Trudy? Your father?”

“My sister is a duchess.” As she spoke, she took my other hand and pulled off the glove. She began to untie the cloth. “Trudy is young, but she’s not stupid. She’ll be all right. As for my father’s fate, it no longer concerns me.” She took both of my bare hands in hers. “Will you have me?”

I did not make the same mistake twice. “Yes.” Wind gusted through the trees and showered us with heavy drops. “We need to get to shelter.”

“Where should we go?”

“I’ve been staying in a cave in those hills. It’s not a comfortable place.”

She stood and pulled me up. “Lead the way.”

Our journey lasted two full years. The first stop was the cave in Hallein, where we pledged our lives to each other in front of my gods. We had no heavenly witnesses except the stars as we consummated our marriage. Then we headed east. We kept to wilderness trails, but Ilse wasn’t used to all the walking so we took our time. We stopped at villages to work for food and shelter.

After we left Bavaria, we dared to catch rides when it seemed safe, but we didn’t risk it often. When we left the places I knew, our progress slowed even further. The further east we traveled, the more people resembled me rather than Ilsebill. She never wavered in her resolve. One evening in Constantinople, she traded her old wedding ring for two wooden bands and asked me to place one upon her finger. Then she slipped the other over mine.

It took me weeks to get used to touching things with my bare hands, months before I could wake without panicking at my exposed skin. The joy of holding Ilse’s face in my palms helped to make up for it.

By the time we reached my father’s village, Ilsebill was round with child. Konrad had been the barren one, not her. We made the last part of our journey in haste so that she wouldn’t have to give birth among strangers as my mother had.

The burden of fear that had weighed down my shoulders for as long as I could remember finally lifted when I greeted my family. My grandparents still lived. They recognized my parents’ features in my own. They wept when I told them of my parents’ fates and smiled when I introduced my wife. They had seen the traders from far away lands at the port in Kanyakumari, and they found her strange but not unacceptable. She towered over us all by almost a handspan. Until then, I’d thought that my stature was due to my broken bones, but it turned out that my people are naturally smaller.

On a balmy morning, Ilsebill and I carried our daughter to the temple where three seas converged. We prayed to Devi Kanya Kumari for our child to have a good life, but we asked for no blessings. One length of gold cloth had traveled home in my pack. I laid it at the feet of the goddess and left it behind.

 

(Editors’ note: S.B. Divya is interviewed by Caroline M. Yoachim in this issue.)

Requiem for a Dollface

The doll was dead. There was nothing for it. Bear had seen bad cases before: legs ripped off, heads torn from necks, hair rudely shorn. Dolls mutilated by ink, fire, even—once—the lawn mower. Not every child loved their toys gently. That was life.

This was murder.

He wondered if the little girl knew yet. It would be kinder for a human to tell her, rather than for her to stumble on the body in the middle of her bedroom rug. Dolly had been on the shelf recently, it was true, but nothing resurrected old fondness like new loss. Bear’s kind was built for comfort, and he hated to see the little girl in pain. He would have told her himself, but facts belonged to the human mind, and Bear could only speak to the human heart. Even that, only in the dead of night, when the little girl was sleeping and the whispers of an old friend could slip into her dreams.

Dolly’s remains lay in a pile of crumpled papers, bits of string, and illicit candy wrappers: the secrets of the bedroom wastebasket laid bare because a human left the door open, and New Puppy had gone exploring. In theory, the bedroom was a sanctuary for members of the household who could not defend themselves from claw and tooth. In practice, nowhere was safe from the canine menace.

Carefully, respectfully, Bear turned the body. He had been unjust to blame New Puppy. Dolly’s soft rubber head was sliced from hairline to chin, the victim of a cold blade, not moist toothy exuberance. That, she might have survived, but this…

Dolls lived so long as they had a face, or the memory of a face. If a human could look at the small dent where an eye had once been stitched, painted, or buttoned and see an old friend with their heart, the doll lived on.

No such hope for Dolly. The front of her head was now nothing more than a gaping maw, revealing only the inside of her scalp.

No accident or crime of passion, this had been deliberate. Surgical. Cold. The hope that remained to Bear was slim and cold indeed: that somewhere in the house, Dolly’s face was still intact.

If Bear could find the face, he could find a killer.

He had to wait until nightfall to begin his investigation, and the wait was interminable, but at last the house darkened, New Puppy was secured in his crate, and the humans slept. When the only sounds in the bedroom were the ticking of the hall clock and the rise and fall of the little girl’s breathing, Bear slid off the mattress and went to work.

He approached Old Cat first. The arthritic tabby’s senses might have dimmed since kittenhood, but little happened in the house without her knowledge. Old Cat and Bear had not always seen eye to eye—Bear bore the scars of an early encounter in a line of hand-stitching across his left ear—but they had earned each other’s respect.

Still, just because Old Cat knew didn’t mean she would tell.

Bear found her making her slow rounds, sniffing at spots of Particular Significance, alert to signs of trouble that Bear did not understand, but had learned to trust.

She hissed as he approached. “Leave it alone, Bear.”

At least she didn’t pretend not to know what he was after. He shook his grizzled, fuzzy head. “You know I can’t do that.” Bears were honest, loyal, and steadfast. He would pursue justice until his last fluff was gone and his fur loved into memory.

He was made that way.

“Did you see what happened?” he asked.

Old Cat wouldn’t, or couldn’t, meet his round, brown eyes. “The face is in the kitchen. She can tell you herself.”

Bear nodded his thanks. Old Cat sneezed and stalked away, her gait pained and halting.

Bear found the doll’s face under the baseboard radiator, her painted eyes striped by the slanting shadows cast by the range light across battered aluminum fins. Bear swiped for it with his paw, but his yarn claws only came back dusty.

“It’s no use,” the face said. “Old Cat couldn’t even reach back here.”

Old Cat hadn’t mentioned she’d tried.

“I’m sorry, Dollface,” said Bear. Dolly was dead, but a little bit of name, even from another toy, might help a piece of her hang on long enough to tell him what he had to know. “Who did this to you?”

She sniffled a little. “It doesn’t matter.”

“You know it does.”

“Not to me. I’ll be gone by morning. Let it go Bear, just this once. Don’t go looking for answers you don’t want to find. Let my death die with me!” Her voice had always been high-pitched, but without the rest of her, it was thin and shrill, filled with the last emotion she would ever feel: fear.

Her wail didn’t carry far, swallowed by the hum of the refrigerator, the tick of the heater, the thousand tiny sounds of the kitchen at night. Bear kept his good ear cocked while he thought. Something didn’t add up.

Dollface was dying. What did she have to be afraid of?

Nothing.

But fear had two faces: fear of and fear for.

Someone could be afraid of anything: strangers, the bathtub drain, the dark. But no one—child, pet, or toy—feared for something they didn’t love.

Toy’s hearts were simple. They were made to do one thing: love a child and teach love in return.

Tiny plastic tears welled up in Dollface’s painted eyes as she watched him unravel the story she hadn’t meant to tell. “Don’t do it, Bear. She doesn’t understand.”

“Then we have to teach her, Dollface. It’s our job.” The face was weeping now, and Bear gentled his growl to a soft rumble. “You know I’m right, Dolly.” He used her name one last time, to remind her of what she had been, of what she had lost, of why what the little girl had done mattered. “We teach them how to love, and their love makes us real.”

Dollface screamed with the last shreds of her voice: “If her love made me real, it means she loved me. Loves me!”

Bear nodded. “She does.”

He wished it weren’t true. It wasn’t murder to slice a piece of plastic. He could have let that go. But the little girl had killed something real. She had to learn that carried consequences.

Dollface’s desperation turned mean: “You’re the one she doesn’t love! You don’t know how to love. If you loved her, you’d forgive her…”

Bear wished she would use her last words for something kinder, but life had missed the chance to teach Dolly kindness. Death would have to be kind enough.

Bear sat by the face until the end. Her voice went first, then the hint of sparkle in her eye. By the time Old Cat’s creaking steps passed on her third patrol of the night, there was nothing left under the radiator but plastic and paint.

Dollface’s final words echoed in Bear’s stitched ear as he made his way back to the bedroom. “If you loved her, you’d forgive her.”

Bear knew he loved the little girl. He also knew she loved him in return. If she didn’t—or hadn’t—he himself would be nothing but fur and fluff, and the little girl’s crime would be someone else’s responsibility. Fur and fluff had no burdens, felt no pain.

Forgiveness was surely the easier road to travel, but if Bear granted a dying doll’s last request, what then? The little girl had also loved Dolly, and now her dead face lay abandoned in the dust, waiting for the heater to melt it into the curling, cracked linoleum. Maybe Dolly’s life hadn’t taught the little girl all that it was meant to. Her death would have to finish the job.

Before the night was over, Bear was back in bed, snuggled in the little girl’s arms. As she slept, he whispered, speaking the language only her heart could understand. His words wove into her dreams…and trapped her, an intangible net that held the little girl asleep and spellbound until her pillow was wet with tears and she began to understand the tiniest fraction of Dolly’s love and the magnitude of her own betrayal.

The little girl clung to Bear and wept soundlessly until he was soaked to the fluff.

He stopped then. Let her return to peaceful, dreamless sleep. She would need to rest and regain her strength. Love wasn’t an easy thing to learn.

But Bear would teach her.

No matter how many nights it took.

 

(Editors’ Note: “Requiem for a Dollface” is read by Erika Ensign on the Uncanny Magazine Podcast, 45B.)

Flowerkicker

Toby steals a look up-trail, decides they’re probably never getting to the top of this mountain.

Not because it’s that long a hike—four hours if they didn’t stop?—but because Cin, evidently, is some kind of nature nut. Not that he doesn’t like camping and fishing and all of it himself. He’s out every weekend he can get away.

Cin, though, it’s like she’s never seen a tree, a boulder, even just a wide meadow of grass. She’s stopping to take close-up, carefully framed photos of seedheads, of moss on the sides of trees, of every kind of flower. Worse, she knows the names of a lot of the plants, which means she’s mumbling those names behind Toby, probably just to taste them a little bit longer.

To Toby, the flowers are flowers, the grass is green, and there’s miles to go.

If he’d known Cin was more scientist than day-hiker, then…maybe he doesn’t invite her with, today? It’s not their first sort-of date—more like the third, counting that party?—but it’s the first where it’s just the two of them. And, sure, it’s supposed to be “about” nature, but not about nature, c’mon.

“Oh, oh!” he hears her say for the twentieth time, behind him.

He grimaces where she can’t see, erases that off his face by the time he’s turned around. Cin’s taken a knee in order to get her camera lined up on some columbine—everybody knows columbine. Why does everybody know it? Because it’s freaking everywhere. Which means it’s not exactly picture-worthy. At least so far as Toby is concerned.

“Hey, it usually starts showering once the clouds heat up enough,” he says, thinking he can prompt her with the threat of a drenching.

No such luck.

It’s like she’s in another world. It’s just her and that purple flower.

“There’s a big field of them up about two miles,” Toby lies, looking down their back trail now.

“Almost got it…” Cin says, and snaps her photo, then studies it in the little view screen to be sure.

“Cool?” Toby says, trying to get his mouth to sort of grin the littlest bit. He swore he was never going to become his father, specifically his father standing by the car at all the rest stops of their family vacations, unable to understand why his idiot family is taking so long, but, man. Sometimes the world doesn’t exactly give you a choice.

“Cool,” Cin says, popping back up, ready for the next amazing flower.

It’s about ten steps ahead of where they just were.

“Hey, listen—” Toby says, unable not to at least try to hurry things up, but when he turns this time, Cin’s just standing there with her hands steepled over her open mouth. In shock.

Toby tracks down to what’s got her going, and…

“Um, what?” he has to ask.

Cin nods down like it’s obvious: the columbine by the trail has burst, its petals down on the ground, its delicate stalk still poking up like it thinks maybe this can all still work out.

It and Toby both.

“Wasn’t me,” Toby says, sneaking a look down to his boots just the same, to be sure there’s not a guilty smear of purple there.

“No, of course,” Cin says, and chinpoints off-trail.

Toby squints, looks where she means.

“Hunh,” he says, impressed.

Her scientific eyes, he has to admit, they’re good ones.

There’s a swath of denuded stalks heading back into the darkness of the trees, purple wreckage all on the ground.

“Who would do that?” Cin says, her left hand gripping Toby’s right forearm, up high. That specific touch flashes him to all the weddings he’s been to, where his date, his sister, his aunt, whoever, takes his arm so he can seat them.

“Elk don’t care about flowers,” he says, processing through the first obvious maybe.

Meanwhile, Cin is maybe about to cry, here.

“It looks like it’s on purpose, though,” she says.

“Terrible,” Toby says, and actually means it. But he’s not talking about flowers, so much, but the minutes ticking away on his watch.

For flowers.

And? Maybe he’s thinking of weddings because it’s like a flower girl traipsed past here, right? Some nature wedding. No, no—a deer wedding, yeah.

Toby almost smiles, just manages to swallow it.

“It’s gonna rain on us if we’re not careful,” he says, and brings them around, directs them the right way. Which is up.

He doesn’t look back to see if Cin is looking back at the flower massacre, either.

He doesn’t want to know.

Ten, twelve minutes later, there’s white wreckage on the path: “Alpine Yarrow,” Cin identifies, taking a knee to place the pads of her fingers on the ground by all this white fluff.

This time, off to the right, where the Alpine Yarrow is thick, again there’s a wide swath of destruction where someone or something crashed through.

“Why didn’t they go around?” Cin asks.

Toby considers the question, studies, and she’s right: busting through these flowers does seem pretty willful. Especially when it would have been easier to loop around above, where there’s just grass. And just walking wouldn’t knock all the petals off.

Definitely intentional.

Which, of course, he doesn’t say out loud.

Neither does he tell Cin that who- or whatever was into kicking all that columbine back there, it’s kind of like…it’s kind of like they made a big loop ahead of them, going cross-country instead of switching back on the trail, and this is where they crossed back.

“It’s not elk, look,” Cin says.

Toby takes a knee, looks into the dirt she means, and it’s a boot print, the staggered chevron lugs as distinct as anything.

“Do you have your knife?” Cin asks, standing closer to Toby now.

“We’re not stabbing anybody over flowers,” Toby hears himself tell her.

Her hero, yeah.

You’re doing great, Tobidiot, he tells himself. Fucking wonderful. She’s definitely falling for you now.

“But he’s doing it on purpose,” Cin whispers.

“Let’s just keep moving,” Toby says, and leads them on. But, he has to admit, he’s watching the trees and the scrub closer, now.

Someone’s playing with him and Cin, aren’t they? Out here where the rules are off. Where there’s no witnesses.

Just, flowers.

And, Cin was right, with her choice of pronoun: going by the size of that print, it probably is a guy.

They can outpace him, though.

Toby’s done this hike in two hours, once, after bombing a mid-term. Whoever it is going cross-country out there, no way can they keep up with that.

“C’mon,” Toby hisses back to Cin, and she evidently—finally—hears the urgency in his voice, and keeps up.

Twenty minutes later they jump a doe with her spotted fawn. The fawn grabs onto the trail they’re using with its tiny hooves, but the mom’s already smoking away.

“Go,” Toby barks to the fawn, and, on spindly legs, it does.

“Was it them?” Cin says, and Toby gets what she’s saying, stops where the fawn left the trail.

The grass isn’t even folded down from its passage.

Cin doesn’t say anything.

Ten more minutes, and there are—or, were—some flowers that even Toby has to admit were more than likely pretty beautiful, before they got kicked to nothing.

“Fairy Trumpet,” Cin says, on both knees now, the red tubular petals or whatever trailing from her fingers.

This is a thick stand of them, the kind Toby thinks he might have even stopped to wonder at, had he been alone.

And now there’s a body-wide trail through them.

Whoever this is, they’re not turning sideways, stepping through. They’re kicking wide and purposeful. They’re maybe even turning their hiking boots sideways, to plow more flower heads into oblivion.

“Why would—why would…?” Cin’s saying.

Toby shakes his head, has no idea.

“Clouding up,” he says, though.

Hours earlier than usual, too.

Toby swallows, the sound loud in his ears.

This willful flower destruction, it’s coming from the left, going to the right now. Meaning, at least, it’s only one person, anyway. One fast person, on some kind of sick mission.

Toby palms his knife. Cin looks from it to him, and her eyes are brimming with tears.

“Just in case,” he says.

“It’s good I don’t have one,” she says with a little smile, and Toby grins too, has to look away.

He can actually like her, he thinks. He really can. He’ll stop at every stupid flower if she wants, next time. Maybe he’ll even learn some of their names.

“There’s a shed near the top,” he says. He’s heard it called the Stabbin’ Cabin, because of all the sex that’s supposed to go on in there during the afternoon showers, but, really, honestly, he just wants to sit the rain out in there, stay at least a little bit dry.

The first drops are cold and heavy.

He should have brought ponchos for them. His father would have, he knows.

Except—again—he’s not his father.

That doesn’t mean he’s not seeing him in his head, though, standing by the car at one rest stop or another.

He even remembers once, coming back from the river he’d promised not to let his brother fall into—oops—that there’d been a moment, coming over the rise by the picnic tables, when he’d stuttered to a stop, because there were two of his father, both of them standing by their similar cars, the doors open, each man tapping the face of his upheld watch.

Used to, Toby would wonder what would have happened if he’d gotten into the wrong car that day. Who he would be now. If he would have even noticed it, at first.

Maybe he wouldn’t be so stupid now, anyway.

He turns around to Cin and she’s got her shoulders up by her ears, her elbows drawn in—in addition to the rain, the wind’s coming cold too, like it does at elevation.

Toby shucks his pullover, hands it to her. She refuses, of course, but he insists, and finally she wraps herself in it, and they’re moving faster now, huddled together.

“How far?” Cin asks.

“Just up here,” Toby says.

But then they’re walking through a field he’s never seen before, he’s pretty sure. Or maybe it just looks different in the storm, he tells himself.

That’s got to be it.

“Coneflower,” Cin intones reverently, slowing her pace.

Toby’s slowed too, doesn’t get this.

“Do they even grow at this elevation?” he asks.

Cin, instead of answering, steps out into the clear path that’s been kicked, from right to left—coming from the right, heading up the mountain to the left, where the heavy timber is.

She lets his pullover fall behind her, and Toby cues into the fist her right hand’s balled into.

“Who would do this,” she says.

It’s not a question.

She flashes her eyes back to him, her teeth set, and then, trusting that he’s with her, she sets off in this wake of destruction, her footsteps on the bed of pedals making so little sound that it’s almost like she was never even here.

Minutes later, Toby’s still standing in the same place.

The rain that was coming, it never quite came.

The wind’s died down.

“Cin?” he calls out.

Nothing.

He swallows again, his eyes heating up.

“Cin,” he says again, quieter. Just for himself.

She didn’t even tell her roommate where she was going, he knows. Or who she was going with.

And—and it’s not like they’re dating, right?

Toby looks down the way she took, through the yellow flowers, and then he looks down to the knife he’s still holding.

There’s no blood on it. Nothing like that.

Still—his father, at that rest stop, right? When Toby, at eleven years old, could have gone to either car, and gotten in, gone to wherever?

Maybe he did go with the wrong family, he thinks.

Either that or—or the real him, the other him, the one that should have been, he’s still out there.

Toby, this Toby, kneels down to collect the pullover Cin left behind, and, under it—he can’t look away fast enough—is another of those footprints.

Not wanting to know but having to know, he presses his boot down beside it, steps away slowly.

Exactly the same.

Toby breathes in deep, his skin flushing, his vision blurring, and he steps back into the fragrant yellow, crushing even more of the “Coneflower.”

It doesn’t matter, though, he tells himself.

Flowers don’t feel it when you crush them. When you kick them. They’re just things, like so much else.

And he should have checked the weather, he shouldn’t have come hiking today at all. He shouldn’t have come—as far as anybody knows, or will ever know—hiking alone.

He closes his eyes, holds them shut in something like apology but not quite apology, more like unfocused regret, regret for something that wasn’t even really his fault, and when he turns, and also for the rest of his life, he sees, very distant, himself, stepping behind the nearest tall thing, and in his head there’s just the sound of a rushing river, louder and louder.

Under Green

The town had become a city, but a gentle one, and there were places to hide if you knew where to find them. Leah had lived in San Francisco, and in New Orleans. Those were not gentle places and she had not done gentle things. Going home was not the right way to disappear, but she bought a bus ticket anyway. She had changed, and she wanted to see how the town had changed. Her childhood was like a story about someone else, but maybe the town was a place where she could be reborn one more time.

The house where she grew up was still there. Her parents were long gone. Some people who she did not know lived in the house. She watched them from a bench on the greenway. When Leah was a child there had been only woods behind the house, no greenway. There was a creek she had played in. She had talked to the trees. There was one tree that talked back.

When she returned as an adult, her first order of business was to find a place to stay on an extremely limited budget. A nonexistent budget, really. She ended up in the Rose Garden. There was an abandoned amphitheater at one end and a thick stand of trees at the other and in between there were rose bushes growing on arbors and trellises. The roses and the trees there provided shelter, but they did not talk to her. The police did not seem to notice that she was camping out there. Other people who lived outdoors stuck closer to downtown, where there were shelters and opportunities to make money on the sidewalks. It was a gentle city, and she found a place to hide.

She started passing the time on the greenway. She got a map at the public library and started walking the entire circuit. There was an access point near the Rose Garden, where a swath of asphalt led off from the road, down past a culvert and then on. The greenway spiderwebbed across the whole county, following the creeks mostly. And, it turned out, it snaked up beside the creek that ran behind the house where she grew up. The creek even had a name, which she never had never known as a child: Cemetery Branch. It made sense, because it ran out from near the original town cemetery, out into the suburbs and finally into the reservoir lake north of town. Leah was more interested in hydrology as an adult. In the flow of things.

She got a decent pair of running shoes at the Goodwill; they fit her perfectly and were a ridiculous shade of red with gold trim. When she got tired, there were benches, and there were water fountains in the parks. People stared, but people had always stared at her. The city of the greenway was a mirror of the city of roads and buildings. Walk south and there were other people who camped out in the thickets and the high ground in wetlands. Most of them were harmless but word was that someone had been murdered in a parking lot of a convenience store, and the cops came and destroyed a site where a bunch of folks had tents. Maybe one of them was the murderer. Probably not. Walk far enough south and there were needles, crack pipes, and human feces on the greenway. The gentleness of the city was worn down in these places. The greenway ran through tunnels under the highway, and when Leah walked through them she thought about being back in New Orleans or San Francisco again. About her former life, where part of the job description was handling situations that could break out into irreparable violence. She used more of her precious stash to buy a knife at a head shop, a cheap thing for teenage boys, with a locking blade and a dragon embossed into the handle. She had never stabbed anyone, and didn’t like the idea of stabbing or being stabbed, but it made her feel safer to have the knife in her pocket. It was safety but it was also a foolish risk, because she still had an outstanding warrant in San Francisco. Nothing violent, but enough, if a cop stopped her and ran her in all the cop databases.

Walk north and there were people on new bicycles, many of them wearing colorful jerseys. Lots of people, most of them white, walking dogs or running or even birdwatching. One of her first days back in town, Leah passed a Boy Scout troop out cleaning up a stretch of greenway, and she thought she recognized one of the adult leaders. They had been in some of the same classes in high school, PE and health and Latin. He was staring at her as she trudged up to them. She tried to think of a name, tried to take the age off of the guy the same way he was trying to subtract the years from her. Rusty, that was his name. Maybe he was different now too; maybe he was Russell instead of Rusty. But it was all over in an instant. She passed the Scouts, said a quick “hello” to the staring man, who returned the greeting with a blank expression and a “hi.” She kept going. They had nothing to talk about. They had too much to talk about.

There were other things to stare at on the greenway. There was the backwards woman. The first time Leah saw her, it looked like the backwards woman was falling, twisting and trying to catch herself. Leah felt the urge to go help. But the woman wasn’t falling. She was running backwards. She wore glasses with little mirrors on them to see where she was going, and a cycling helmet. Leah hated questions, and she hated it even more when she was the one who had a question. “Why are you running backwards?” sat there on her tongue, waiting to leap out, but she kept her mouth shut. Questions and answers were bad news most of the time. From then on she saw the backwards woman every day. Here she’d come and then there she’d go, except she’d be facing Leah as she went, smiling but staring into her little mirrors. Leah never saw the backwards woman fall, even though the greenway was bumpy in places where tree roots were re-emerging, and slick in the moist shady places where moss grew.

Leah’s favorite place on the greenway was the spot behind the house where she grew up. There was a bend in the creek there, and on the other side a little hill, and on that hill was the brown house where she had lived from age zero to age seventeen. She sat on the bench and looked up at her past. That was part of the routine she fell into. She did not do drugs anymore, but she had done her share. She had been intimately connected with the consumption and sale of drugs. But now her drug was to take care of daily business—find food, wash up—and then to walk the greenway, and to end up sitting and staring up at that house. She half imagined that she’d see her younger self in a window there. A man and a woman lived there now.

She’d been doing this for a week before the tree finally spoke. The woman was working out back on the deck. Leah realized that she was the backwards woman from the greenway. She was potting flowers and smoking a cigarette. It made Leah want to smoke, but she’d quit that too when she quit the drugs, and so they were linked in her mind. It was a “negatively involved association,” that’s what a social worker in San Francisco had said. Besides, cigarettes were expensive.

“You do not need to smoke, and fire has no place here anymore,” is the first thing the pin oak said to her. Not the first thing in her whole life. The first thing since she returned.

“Well hello, friend,” she said. “I was beginning to think that you were gone. Or that you’d never been there. A figment, or a fragment.”

When she was a child, she could hear noises that the plants near the creek made. Talking noises, breathing noises. The ones who talked, most of them didn’t make words, or if they made words they didn’t make sense. The honeysuckle vine, she could just hear it breathing. Sometimes it would sigh heavily. There was a redbud tree that babbled nonsense constantly, but quietly. You had to get right up next to it, and even then it was just a ghost like wheeze. “Bifurcated revolving plasm angle in Z block,” it would say. “The thing that was left in the place there at the bottom was no longer in that place but moved instead into the protoregium,” it would say. Sentences but then sudden words she didn’t know, as she strained to hear and make sense of it. You could try talking back to the redbud, but it wasn’t listening. It just kept up its quiet patter. “Plainly Paris pinhook pie pencil pirouette buffalo turquoise flange protocol.”

But there was one plant who talked quite plainly, and who listened to her, and that was the pin oak. “Hello. I am a pin oak,” was the first thing that it had said. “Or you might call me Quercus palustris. But my name is Cleverwell. What is your name?” At the time, Leah’s name was Lee, and Lee was in need of a friend, and thus not particularly startled by a talking tree. In fact, quite happy to have a special friend. They were friends all through Lee’s childhood. Cleverwell gave advice. It was usually better advice than Lee’s parents gave, when you could figure it out. Cleverwell said, “I must stay here, but you can go anywhere.” And so Lee did go somewhere. Cleverwell said, “I will always be Cleverwell, and a Quercus palustris, but you can change.” And so Lee changed. At first into Leaf. When she was Leaf a lot of things changed. She grew her hair out and dyed it pink and then she let it mat up into dreadlocks, which she quickly regretted. She started wearing dresses that she got at thrift shops. She started hanging out with a different crowd at school. She thought that she had found herself, and by doing that, she left Cleverwell and the other plants behind. She didn’t spend much time in the woods anymore. She didn’t spend much time at home. She was out, staying on couches and in basements.

“Can you read my mind?” Leah said, sitting there on the bench. “I mean, in my memory I can hear your voice. What was I hearing, all those years ago?”

“We don’t need to make noises to communicate, if that is what you mean,” the tree said.

“And why have you waited so long to communicate? I’ve been back for days now.”

“Time moves differently for you and me. You know that. We used to discuss that at great length when you were here before. You were smaller then, and looked different.”

An older couple went by, power-walking as best they could. Leah had seen them often since she’d returned, and they were friendly enough. She waved. They both smiled. The man tipped his baseball cap. The Giants. She wondered why he liked the Giants, San Francisco’s baseball team. She had gone to a Giants game once with Manny. Manny was the dealer she had worked for in San Francisco, and in New Orleans. “You’re going to go straight, that’s funny,” Manny had said. “No way you can go straight, girl.”

“Can you hear what they are thinking?” she asked Cleverwell, speaking of the older couple.

“No,” Cleverwell said. “Do you not remember? You asked me that when you were a child.”

“That’s so long ago, tree.”

“It is not a long time, not for me. And my name is Cleverwell.”

“My name is Leah.”

“I know. Lee, Leaf, Leah. What will your next name be?”

“I think I’m sticking with Leah for good.” And she said that, and it was sort of true, but it did make her wonder if she was in a terminal state. Was there another change ahead of her? She felt the same on the inside. Maybe less confused.

“What else have you forgotten?” Cleverwell said. “Did you forget about the sun?”

A memory slotted itself into place. Leah saw herself, under Cleverwell’s guidance, stretching her arms out and facing the sun.

“Tell me about the world, Leah,” Cleverwell said.

“You know as much about it as I do.”

“Yes. But tell me of your travels. I want to hear your story.”

And so she told the tree her story.

Drop out. Try to get back in. Fall in with a fun crowd. The wrong crowd. Burn bridges. Take drugs. Sell drugs. Move away. Party on. Brushes with the law. Brushes with death. Brushes with ignorance. Move back.

When she was done, Cleverwell asked, “What are the trees like there?” She did her best to describe them. She didn’t really remember them that well, though.

Cleverwell said, “What is the line from the poem that you read to me? ‘The transformation of waste’? Perhaps you could get a job transforming waste. There is a lot of waste in the world. There is more of it every day. Everything falls apart.” And so she did get just such a job.

She got work doing the cleaning and recycling for a bar near the university. The owner had a line on a cheap garage apartment, too. She liked the Rose Garden. She knew it wasn’t really safe but it felt safe. Even though someone was clearly tending the roses, nobody much came there. Every Sunday afternoon people would show up to take engagement photos. But all in all it was a peaceful place. The plants there did not talk to her.

One day she asked Cleverwell, “Do other plants talk to people?”

“Some do,” it said. “But it is not common. You and I are rare. Mostly I just talk to the other plants here. We sing.”

“Sing me a song,” Leah asked. “Why have you never sung me a song?”

“You cannot hear my songs,” it said. “I am singing one right now, but you cannot hear it. I am almost always singing a song.”

Then when she worked at the bar, which she did every day until it opened in late afternoon, she started singing too. First she tried singing songs she remembered from her youth. Then she just started making up noises and stringing them together. Humming tunes that twisted and changed and reformed into different songs. Making space alien noises when she felt like it. No one could hear her in the back parking lot next to the dumpsters as she pulled the sticky, smelly empties from garbage bags and sorted them. Glass, metal, plastic, paper, trash. No one could hear as she sponged and swept and mopped up the previous night’s stains and debris. The bar owner’s name was Dwight.

And then the rain came, the first real soaking rain since she’d returned, and she realized that the garage apartment made sense, even if she’d be away from the beautiful mute roses. She moved her worldly possessions, which fit into a backpack and a large garbage bag, from their hiding place in the Rose Garden to the apartment. She didn’t have many possessions but there wasn’t that much space in the apartment.

Dwight gave her an old bicycle too, a rusted Schwinn Sting-Ray. It was older than she was, but it was the right size for her. She started riding it on the greenway, making herself that much more conspicuous. There was no way that she could blend in with the people in Spandex on their sleek new bikes. She didn’t have a helmet, and felt bad about that. But she could cover much more ground on the bike, roaming over the whole county. In the afternoons she still ended up back behind her childhood house, talking to Cleverwell, and meditating. The bench had a little plaque screwed into it. “In memory of Pemba Reendar,” who was someone she did not know. She felt like she should look up the Reendars, give them a call and ask if it was OK for her to spend so much time on the bench dedicated to Pemba. She’d read an article at the library about meditation, how it was good for you. Cleverwell quite respectfully did not talk to her when she meditated. It could read her mind, though, so for all she knew it was listening in as she breathed and tried to think of nothing but breathing. What does a tree think of nothingness? She never asked.

She rode the bicycle and when the hills were steep she got off and walked it. She catalogued the greenway: the rocks in the streams that looked like faces or like whales, the wetlands and the meadows, the backs of all the houses. As curious as she was about her childhood house, she had no desire to move back there. She did see a lot of places that inspired fantasies of owning a home, though. Houses that looked like mountain chalets, with big open windows. Older houses that were very close to the greenway, with sheds full of junk right there and “NO TRESPASSING PRIVATE PROPERTY” signs nailed up. The greenway was never boring. You could fantasize yourself into hundreds of lives on it, whether in the people that you passed or the houses that you could see. And Leah did just that, thought about a path to a new life. How would that even work?

She would get one of the more modest houses around the lake. The real estate around the lake was fairly exclusive but the lake itself was a great equalizer. The greenway encircled the lake, which had been built by the Corps of Engineers, and it was a park attended by people of all races and ages. The house she liked was up on a ridge, a little 1970s cabin, with big glass windows that faced the lake. The backyard was fenced in but there was a gate down at the bottom and a little path that led to the greenway. In the mornings she could make coffee and look out and see Canada geese, mallards, and the one heron that seemed to hunt in the lake. There were deer that prowled the underbrush. She would pay a neighborhood kid to mow the grass for her, and let the backyard go completely natural. There was a stone fireplace and chimney. She could get a big flatscreen television to hang over the fireplace. She imagined a big open kitchen, a laundry room, and a garage with a treadmill and her car, one of those electric ones. Just enough room left for a master suite and a guest room.

That was as far as she got, because while she could imagine the insides of the houses, she couldn’t imagine anything else about her existence. Even if this was all powered by a winning lottery ticket, there was nothing else inside.

One day she realized that these beautiful houses were still full of unhappy people. And in fact if she were to occupy one of them, she’d still be herself. With her same problems. Even if she had some money. She would still be alone. She would still be not the biggest fan of herself.

This made her happier, though. The realization that all these fantasies dangled in front of her, as daily she traversed this strip of nature or pseudo-nature, that they wouldn’t solve many of her problems, it helped. She’d have more space, but she wouldn’t be that much safer, living in one of those places.

One day she’d fallen asleep on her bench, exhausted because the night before she hadn’t got much sleep. While she was meditating the next day she dozed off, the Sting-Ray leaning against the bench. She had asked Cleverwell if it minded if she leaned the bike against it, and while it didn’t care, she still thought it was more respectful to lean the bike against the dead wood of the bench. When she woke up it was dark. She didn’t know where she was for an instant. She’d been dreaming about a punk rock toothbrushing contest, between Billy and Stewart, who were both actually dead now. Billy had OD’d and Stewart had jumped off the top of the college library, eleven stories up. In her dream they’d been stomping around in their engineer boots, frantically sawing away at their foaming mouths, trying to best each other at daily oral hygiene.

Cleverwell was silent, and when she reached out to it with her mind she didn’t get a response.

“Cleverwell,” she said aloud. Still no answer.

Around her the trail was dark but there were lights from the houses that bordered the greenway and the creek. Including in the house where she’d grown up. She could see the people in the kitchen. She sat and watched them. Her eyes were already adjusted to the dark, and her distance vision was good. The couple was having a fight. The woman paced back and forth behind the man, who was standing at the sink, facing out into the dark. Leah was still sure that this was the backwards woman, although now she walked in the normal direction. Neither the man nor the woman were wearing shirts. Maybe they were both completely naked. The fluorescent light was a sickly hue, not one of those new ones that were the same color as the sun. Maybe it was the same bulb from when Leah had lived there. She started thinking about all the other things in the house that might be the same. The place where she’d first written her new name, L-E-A-F, in cursive on the inside of her closet with a Sharpie. She had sat in there cross-legged on the floor, in a piled jumble of Converse and Vans shoes. Was the lock still broken on the downstairs back door? Had they replaced the 1970s wallpaper in the upstairs bathroom, all oranges and greens on a silvery background? Was it still the same house, or was it a different house now, and when exactly did it change from one to the other?

The man had a knife in his hand, a big chef’s knife. She couldn’t see the woman. The man held the knife up to his wrist and brought the blade across. Leah’s first thought was “That’s not how you commit suicide.” Everyone knew you cut lengthwise. That was something you learned…where? How did this terrible nugget of wisdom get distributed to the world? Then the surprise hit her, and she realized that she was actually seeing this. It was actually happening, not just a movie projected on a tiny screen up in the night. The man was screaming in pain, doubling over, but then there he was standing up again, turned toward the woman and still yelling. Maybe crying. The woman came over to him, but instead of dropping the knife and letting her tend to his wound, they began physically fighting. Grappling. His knife hand slipped free and that’s when she saw it. He thrust the knife into the woman. It wasn’t like in a movie. The woman kept moving. They kept struggling. But it was clear now, the man was trying to kill the woman. He stabbed her again, and then they moved out of the frame of the kitchen window.

Leah remembered the first time she saw a dead body. People died all over, not just in ungentle cities but in gentle ones too. Maybe there was no such thing as gentle.

Leah had no idea what to do. She had no phone. Run to a nearby house and demand they call the cops? That was a recipe for disaster, for her getting in way over her head when she was already just treading water. Run up the hill and break into the house, brandishing her little dragon-handled knife? She asked Cleverwell what to do, but again got no answer. She waited for a long time, maybe an hour, but nothing happened in the house that she could detect. No change in the lights. No one visible in the kitchen window. Maybe they were both bleeding out on the kitchen floor. Maybe she’d been confused by what she saw, still asleep and dreaming there on the bench, and they were fine. Leah decided to try and find a pay phone. They were thin on the ground these days, but she remembered one near the bar. She pedaled the bike back to the bar (which was closed, a Sunday) and went to find the phone. The little kiosk was still mounted to the side of a brick building next to a gas station. The phone was there but the handset had been torn off, and a piece of bright blue gum had hardened in place on the coin slot. Leah had no idea what to do. So she went home and went to sleep. She was used to sleeping under stressful conditions.

The next morning she got the paper from the mailbox in front of the bar—Dwight still “took the paper,” as he called it. Nothing in it about a murder. She biked over to the public library and checked the local news sites, but there was nothing there either. A fatality in a DWI accident. A train derailed. A possible hurricane on the way. No mention of blood in a suburban kitchen.

She did the morning recycling, just trying to focus on the colors of the glass. A working meditation. But after she was done, she cycled the greenway over to her childhood house. She passed some of the mid-morning regulars, although she didn’t see the backwards woman. Instead of parking at her bench, she took one of the access paths out to the neighborhood itself. Something she’d not done since coming back, worried that the confused pain of nostalgia would knock her over. But there she was, walking up the slope of Edgewood Drive. There were no sidewalks, because it was a suburb built when people rode in cars everywhere. Some of the houses were unfamiliar—newer McMansions built where smaller houses had been. Then up the last curve, and there was the driveway to her old house. The mailbox was different, which didn’t surprise her because it was always getting knocked over when she was a kid. It was a strain to pedal the bike uphill with only one gear, but still she rode slowly past instead of stopping. Swiveled her head around to see if anyone was out in their yards. Were there any neighbors there who remembered her? When she was a kid, the Wainwrights had split up, and Mrs. Wainwright had kept their house. Maybe she was still there, although now her house was covered in English ivy and had trees planted close to all the windows. Mrs. Wainwright had gone crazier than anyone else in that neighborhood. Until now, at least. As far as Leah knew, knife murder was a new thing for the neighborhood where she grew up.

Leah turned and rode back down the hill. She tried to be casual as she stopped and flipped open the mailbox lid. Printed in there, in marker on a white card under some packing tape, were two names. She committed them to memory. She wasn’t sure what she was going to do with the information. She needed advice. And so she went to see Cleverwell.

She explained to it what she’d seen the night before. “Do you go to sleep at night, or something? I tried to talk to you, but you didn’t answer.”

“We do not sleep, not the way you do. But we never talk after the sun goes down. Only singing.”

“So you saw what happened?”

“Yes, I did.”

“What should I do?”

“Something brave, I think. You should do something quite brave.”

“What’s that?”

“You will think of it, I am sure.”

Cleverwell logic. Tree logic. No point in trying to push past it. They talked about how nice the weather was now. Leah tried to explain Daylight Saving Time, but Cleverwell didn’t comprehend her. The light was going to last longer in the day. It was going to get warmer.

She rode to the library again, checked the local news sites again. Nothing. There was more news, but none of it was about a bloody knife murder. Or murder/suicide. Or whatever had happened in there. She was getting more comfortable with deciding that it hadn’t happened at all. Or maybe it had been staged. A play fight. Some kind of fantasy kink. She’d seen plenty of that kind of thing in San Francisco. Maybe it was even for her benefit—Leah was a denizen of the greenway, and there were plenty of regulars who saw her on it every day. Maybe the people in the house wanted to freak out that strange woman who sat on that bench down by the creek.

The crisis of what she’d seen made her think about the greater crisis of existence. She was getting stronger, riding that bike all over the county. But she still had no idea what to do with her life. When she left, Manny had said that she was welcome to come back and work for him any time. She’d be the one taking all the risks, though. Manny couldn’t afford a third strike. His operation now was so big, he didn’t need to touch the business directly. He flew around, checking on production, checking on supply channels, making sure product moved from point A to point B without actually getting that close to the product.

She realized that she had to go back into the house, all these years later. That was the only way to find out what had happened. And she knew exactly how to do it, maybe, if the old back door still worked the way it once did. It locked, but it wasn’t a deadbolt, and the lock was broken to where if you lifted the door up just so you could coax the latch to open. She discovered this when she was twelve, and in her teens Leah had snuck back in the house late at night many times by this method.

She rode back out to her bench, her headquarters, and waited. The sun went down and Cleverwell fell silent. They’d been talking about mountains. She was describing mountains to him, how it got colder the higher you went, even in summer. She had a sneaking suspicion that Cleverwell knew all about mountains and weather and axial tilt, but was just playing dumb.

It was like watching herself in a dream, when she got up and started walking to the nearest access path, the one that would take her to Edgewood Drive. She didn’t know why she was doing it or what she would find, but she was slowly making her way to the house. A ghost looking for a place to haunt. She moved up the street. All the other houses were full of people, probably all staring at their televisions. When she got to her old address she turned and walked quickly down the drive to the back.

So close, so close to her personal history, running on adrenaline now and feeling kind of faint. But she had passed the point of turning back. She had a bandana and she used that to keep her prints off the doorknob of the back door underneath the deck. It worked exactly as she remembered. Lift it slightly, work it back and forth, and it clicked open with ease. She thought about the murderous man in there; she thought about alarms. She decided that a murderous man was more probable than an alarm system, and she decided she preferred that scenario. No alarm went off. She walked into what had been, and what still clearly was, the laundry room. Moonlight streamed in through the windows, and her eyes had adjusted. The familiar old wood paneling was gone. Now the walls were white. The floor was carpeted. She left her shoes in the laundry room and continued into the house in her socks.

She went upstairs to the kitchen, thinking that she was either about to solve a crime or become the victim of a crime. But there was nothing out of the ordinary there. She looked out of the kitchen window down toward the creek, toward Cleverwell. She thought of the woman. There was no one in the house, she was sure.

She walked down the hall to her childhood bedroom. The door was open. It was darker in this room, more shaded from the moonlight. She could make out the shape of a desk and computer, and a lot of boxes. Probably used for storage or an office now. She walked over to the closet and opened the door. She walked in, right into the clothes hanging there. She turned and lifted her arms and felt for the pipe that ran just below the ceiling of the closet. She slid her hand across it until she felt something that was not a dusty pipe. It was a ribbon tied around the pipe, down at one end. It was the ribbon she’d tied there years before, when she was Leaf, before she left home. She stood there and worked at the knot until it came free.

When she finally got it loose, she panicked. Her eyes had adjusted to the deeper dark and she could see everything now, and she realized that she was standing in a house that she’d broken into, one where quite likely a serious crime had been committed. She took the ribbon, went and padded down the stairs and got back into her running shoes. She pulled the back door shut behind her and the wonky latch clicked into place. She thought about trying to stumble down the hillside through the trees and brush, but that would attract more attention and could break an ankle. After ten deep breaths she walked up the drive and back down Edgewood. Back onto the greenway, to her bicycle, and then to the apartment. A light rain had started. She had the old ribbon in her pocket. She wondered if it was still bright green, or if it had faded.

Days passed. Leah checked the news constantly but saw nothing. She became convinced that she’d seen a play, a bit of misdirection for her benefit, and that the couple had gone on vacation. Backwards woman was no longer on the greenway and so that was definite, it had been backwards woman living in her old house. The house stayed empty and dark and she would sit down by the creek watching the sun go down, talking and then waiting for Cleverwell to fall silent.

One morning when she arrived at her spot she saw something yellow flapping in the breeze, surrounding the house. Police tape. So something was amiss. She couldn’t risk talking to cops, though. She pedaled back to the bar as fast as she could. She was getting faster, and stronger, even on the ridiculous bike.

The television was already on when she got to the bar.

“They caught the guy who killed that woman,” Dwight said, pointing. The shot was of a reporter standing in the front yard of her house, just outside the police tape. The reporter was saying something but Dwight talked over the noise of the television.

“I mean, they’ve got him in Canada, trying to extradite him. A jogger spotted his wife’s body dumped at a construction site. All carved up and soaked in bleach. I don’t know why people do this stuff. You know they’re gonna get caught. Don’t they watch TV?”

“Can we listen to the news story?” Leah asked.

“That’s about all there was to it. They’ve already done the autopsy. Didn’t have much family, just a cousin from Montana. Gonna bury her in the old town cemetery.”

Dwight was kind enough to give her a job and find her a place to stay, but he wasn’t much on conversational skills. She wanted to talk to Cleverwell. Leah thought about the woman lying there out in the elements. About her getting stabbed. Could Leah have saved her?

Before she could leave, the emergency broadcast system kicked in on the television. A tornado warning. Funnel cloud spotted. Take cover immediately. So she and Dwight went into the back office. The rain came, and the power went out, and the wind blew hard enough to rattle the building, but they were not in the direct path of the tornado. Dwight was prepared. He had a little battery-powered radio, so they didn’t have to try to converse.

Eventually they both fell asleep in their chairs. In the morning, the power was back on. She got up and went into the bar and flipped on the television. The tornado had touched down in the city, skipping through in a path just north of downtown. An image of a map was displayed, with the line of the tornado superimposed. She already feared the worst. Then they cut to the live feed. Oh, the irony, that a neighborhood shocked by a bloody murder would be hit again, this time by a force of nature. Shreds of police tape, trees and power lines down everywhere. The camera panned around and her house was crumpled under the weight of two big trees, the roof mostly torn off and sitting in the front yard. The camera zoomed to show the path of the tornado. How it had come up the hill from the creek.

And there, at the end of the shot in the distance, was Cleverwell, now fallen, lying across the greenway, completely uprooted.

Leah raced back up the greenway, to sit with the corpse of her friend, but she could hear noises before she got to the bend in the creek where the tree had been. Pemba Reendar’s bench had been crushed when Cleverwell fell. Leah heard voices, and the roar of a chain saw. She ditched the ridiculous bicycle and started running. There was the Boy Scout troop, and Rusty was wielding a chain saw, cutting up the corpse of Cleverwell into sections. The Scouts were heaving these into a wheelbarrow and carrying them over to dump in the creek. Others were picking up limbs and piling them in the woods. It was more than Leah could bear, even if it made no sense. What was the city, the gentle city, going to do, leave a tree lying across the path? Leah ran over to the far end, near the top of Cleverwell’s corpse, away from where most of the Scouts were working, trying to hide herself in the branches that still bore green leaves. She bent down and put her hand on Cleverwell but she heard no voice.

Rusty stopped his chainsaw and told the Scouts to take a water break. He walked up to Leah, who still knelt turned away from him.

“This tree meant a lot to you?”

“Yes, it did.”

“Well, it’s going to mean a lot to the beavers now.”

“I want to keep part of…the tree,” Leah said.

“What, you want to roll a log out of here? That sounds a little impractical, uh. Remind me your name?”

“My name’s Leah.”

“Sorry. Leah. How about a branch? Maybe you could make you a crooked walking stick or something. A memento.”

“Yes, a branch.”

Rusty went and got a bow saw and started cutting on a branch about six feet long, a straight branch that bore green leaves and acorns.

“I can do that myself,” Leah said, and she got up and took the bow saw out of Rusty’s hand and finished the job.

“Thank you,” she said, and she carried the branch away in her arms.

She carried it up the greenway. She passed the whispering redbud, unscathed by the tornado, but didn’t even try to listen to its random babbling. She passed the modern house, and the swim club, and she made the precarious road crossing near the Catholic school. She started talking to Cleverwell along the way as she carried part of his remains. She carried him back to her apartment.

The next week, at the cemetery, she found the grave of the murdered woman. She gently laid the branch on top of the sod. There were no flowers, nothing beyond a simple marker set in the ground with a name and dates. She introduced herself and Cleverwell to the dead woman, and then she pulled a ribbon from her pocket and tied it around the top of the branch. Faded green against the bright green leaves. She sat on the ground with her feet tucked under her, picturing all of Cleverwell as if it were still here, a giant tree standing in the middle of the graveyard. Picturing the woman walking backwards, smiling, unknowable. She started humming a made-up tune, wordless, something to commemorate the two of them. She wanted to sit there all night, but she spotted a little golf cart in the distance, puttering up the paths of the cemetery. Some kind of graveyard cop. So she left, going back the way she came.

When she returned the next day Cleverwell was gone, and there were some flowers on the marker. Three red roses. There was also a woman at the grave, standing and staring down at her feet as Leah walked up.

“Oh, hello,” the woman said, as she looked up at Leah. She waited a moment, and then asked, “Did you know her?”

“I saw her…around town. On the greenway, mostly. We never really talked.”

“Greenway, yes,” the woman replied, nodding. “I was her friend.”

A breeze blew, rattling the roses on the bronze plaque. The woman stepped sideways toward Leah and held out her hand. Leah took it.

After a moment, Leah opened her mouth and began to sing. Not even a melody, just a long, low drone. The woman joined in, harmonizing. Leah changed pitch and the woman followed, slowly moving up an unknown scale. It was like meditation. Finally they stopped.

“Thanks for that,” the woman said. “I was feeling really lonely today, and now I don’t feel so lonely anymore. Maybe we’ll see each other again tomorrow.”

And they did see each other again the next day, and every day after that, and so they became friends, Leah and this new woman. In the days they worked and talked and held hands, and they walked the greenways and they hiked on trails, sometimes forward and sometimes backward, although Leah wasn’t as good at that. In the nights they did not talk so much. But there was always singing.

Hundred-Handed One

(Content Note: Attempted Child Death, Abuse, Self-mutilation)

 

When the doctors tugged me from Ma I gripped on so tight with all my hundred hands that I left little handprints all over the umbilical cord. I grasped before I gasped. And then I was crying because they had to peel my fingers away, one by one, and swaddle ninety-eight of my hands in cloth so tight it felt like bumpy flesh against Ma’s breast, against the thin hospital gown. Are all babies this lumpy, she asked.

It’s all that flopping around in the womb, said Grandma, in her acerbic, to-the-point Teochew. Leaves a dent. Your milk will puff him back up.

Later she went to the feng shui man at the bottom of our block and asked what they had done to deserve this not-child.

Pa,

When you threw me into the sea I gasped first and then I tried to grab onto you but you were already walking away, striding through the foaming surf, and all your footprints in the sandbed were washed away.

It was like being unborn. First I ran out of air, and then I was sinking into the water. But it was so soon, Pa, so soon after they cut the cord, that I never forgot how to live without breathing. And it was so soon, the little nub in my belly still flopped like a little worm, and as the currents teased and swept me into the dark it opened up like a flower and remembered again. It sucked at the water the way I fed at Ma’s breast, and the sweet life flowed through me again, a thousand metres out from shore and a hundred metres under it.

I drifted, arms paddling gently, taking it in turns. The sea was filled with such wonderful things, that everywhere I floated there was something astonishing to look at. There were jellyfish with glowing tendrils that wove tapestries on the ebb of the current, and hurricanes of fish that blotted out the light filtering through the surface, and corals that spread like crystallised forests beneath my pale feet.

The water coddled. When I breathed it in it was sharp and salty like memory. Grandma, returning with the amulet and the knife and the plastic lighter from the convenience store to cauterise the wounds. The creaking click, the flickering flame, dancing shadows across the crib, startling the lizard that had crept up close. She came close, but could not bring herself to do it. And so, Grandpa, kneeling at the altar, lifting joss sticks that trailed wisps of smoke across the living room and curled around the offerings of oranges and cake. Pa, your silver cross with the man spread out to die. The air was so thick with desperate faith in different gods it must have cancelled each other out. In the end the compromise was the default of all the islanders that there ever were—to offer up the horrors to the ocean, and hope the wax and wane of the seas brought back something transformed.

After nine months of drifting the sharks found me. They burst through the water trailing bubbled froth, almost silver in the dappled moonlight. I reached out with as many hands as I could and skimmed their velvety hides, nuzzled their rounded noses. Their curiosity made me laugh, the way babies laugh, giggling and gurgling the brine. I grasped onto their fins and knew I had been born again.

How many years, Pa? One loses track of time. Many, many moons. I learned to swim, with purpose, to grasp onto the tides and bend them to the intent of my body. I swam all the way up the peninsula and all the way back down, further than you have ever been. The sharks taught me to flatten my arms against myself to slip through the slivers in the currents, and throw out my palms to stop, fanning like a wall of white coral. I caught eels and rays and snatched tuna from the schooling hurricanes, one after another, arms darting in and out of the swarm.

The ships frightened me. They passed overhead like eternal storms, casting absolute darkness into the depths. Their nets stirred frenzy in the black, the sounds of thrashing, keening creatures pressed against the ropes, eyes bulging in the gaps, tails beating furiously against one another. They reminded me of the blankets, being swathed so tightly my arms lost all feeling, bound and twisted to my chest.

They took the tuna hurricanes, gobbling them up with one big bite. They took the turtles and the dolphins that weren’t quick enough to get away. Their chitters, sliced into squares by the gridded ropes, echo long after the ship has passed on. They took the sharks. Great whites with rows of dagger teeth swept up like minnows, vanishing into the depths of the groaning steel leviathan.

The sharks were the worst casualties. My kin, my protectors, my kings, falling like rain, falling like comets with scarlet tails. Sharks cannot live when they cannot swim; sharks cannot swim when their fins have been cut off. The boats lifted them to the sky, took what they wanted, and cast them back out. The water ran red and I could do nothing but drift in the grisly shower, see them wriggle like bloated eels with panting gills, crawling towards death. I wished I had a lighter from the convenience store, so I could sear the rotting edges of their wounds. I wished I had jasmine altars and gods to pray to. Pa, I could only pray to you.

When they pulled me from Ma and you saw the arms all across my body, like maggots you said, you left the room. You only returned when the doctors assured you I had been made presentable. Then, though your cheeks were pale, you managed to make a joke. So many hands, must be good for something, right? I cannot say what you imagined for my future. Standing on a factory line, perhaps, fifty workers squashed into one, like a foreman’s wet dream.

Grandpa was the one who ventured, Become a dealer, ah. Good at holding cards.

Many moons, many ships, many showers of soon-to-be corpses.

Desperation makes gamblers of men, just like Grandpa pronounced; I was blind and wild with grief when I found the sharp edge of shale lying on the ocean bed. The first time I cut off one of my arms and presented it to a dying mako, it was penance. It was a brand of solidarity, of suffering. How was I to know the arm would take? That the sinews would meet, crawling toward each other like lost lovers, entwining in flesh and blue blood, pale meeting grey, fingers going rigid?

With my flesh erect on its spine, blood sealed away from the salt, the writhing shark became graceful again. It flicked its tail and jettisoned through the water, a gleaming satin blur.

You believed in God to judge the value of your life. I found, that day, that I was worth one hundred lives. It was little. Too little. But I did what I could, Pa. I only did what I could.

You know what else came to me, Pa, as I anguished over the lives I restored with the centesimal of my own? Your voice, floating into memory like waves. Something you must have said in all your fervent prayers when I was still on land.

This is my body, broken for you.

You want to know how I returned to you.

Once I was careless, distracted by the way the sunlight trickled through the water, and made the little fish that darted through it glitter in its shafts. I didn’t notice the ship until it was far too late. I was swept up in the fleeing swarm, and I could not get away. I kicked furiously, but for every fish I pushed away a hundred more swelled into the gap, and all the time the net closed in. It engulfed us like a whale and began to drag us up, up, up. I was pressed against a thousand flailing fish, their scales writhing against my scars, tearing them open. My blood flowed into the ocean below, and the sharks came, circling. I wondered if, by then, they recognised the scent.

I was spilled onto the steel deck, gasping and flopping. The air was so brittle and dry, the sky so scorching and bright, the steel so severe against my skin. All around me were the sharp slicks of metal hacking away at scales, sawing away at cartilage. The air was so thick with blood it devoured all else. My own blood pooled and dried, copper in the afternoon. I thought of that man around your neck, dying on top of a hill, his limbs splayed out for the world to see.

You had aged. It was no longer the face that swirled in inchoate tides in my memory, earnest and dark-haired, with a dimple in one cheek and a widow’s peak. You were an older man, skin browned, fingers calloused. You had a scar on one cheek and heavy eyes.

You didn’t recognise me either. We stared at each other, on opposite ends of that sterile white bed, wondering if the people who had brought us both here had gotten it all wrong. You stepped forward, opened your mouth, shut it again, looked out the window at the snaking highway.

Ma perched over your shoulder like a pheasant, but when she saw me her eyes widened and she pushed past you and rushed to my side. Tears streamed down her face. She said a name over and over, cradling my face between her hands, until I realised it was my name she was saying. She ran her fingers through my long coarse hair, skimmed her thumbs over my cheekbones.

Then she seemed to realise how the blanket was draped over my chest, tucked neat around my body. She stopped, and hooked her fingers under the edge, and with one swift, triumphant motion threw the covers back, as though she had been waiting for this my entire life.

This is where we had our wedding dinner, Ma whispers. She rubs my shoulders and her hands slide down my smooth torso. She isn’t fazed. She almost revels in knowing. You see, she tells you, nothing to hide from me anymore.

The restaurant is gilded and gold, with dragons on the banisters and cranes on the folding screens. Fish swim languidly in tanks stacked against one wall. We are ushered to a table in the very centre, with the cream tablecloth draped, the places set, the lazy Susan polished to a mirror shine. You, Ma, me, and Julia, who is a pretty young woman studying to become a lawyer and who eyes me with the cool, practiced appraisal of the trade. My sister. She has two arms and ten fingers, the nails painted rosy pink.

Tea is served. Ma blows onto my cup—hshshsh—and then offers it to me, pressing the ceramic gently against my lips. I let the chrysanthemum trickle down my throat. Julia nibbles at the peanuts.

So, she says, how did you end up in the middle of no fucking where?

Julia, Pa snaps.

She shrugs with one shoulder.

It’s okay, dear, Ma says. Hshshsh. You can tell us the story when you’re ready.

We sip tea in silence. It has been so many years that we have nothing to say to each other. Ma works as a florist. You are a big manager at the harbour, where thousands and thousands of ships come and go every day. The thought makes my head spin. We went for a drive the other day, and you showed me the shipyard from a distance. See, you said proudly, those are the cargo ships. Those are the shipping containers from Europe. Those are the loading cranes. Those are the fishing boats. In the passenger seat of your grey Audi, with the air-conditioning cold and dry against my cheeks, the ships were merely specks that disappeared as we rounded the bend. I thought how small you must think they are, if this is how you see them, every hour of every day.

Finally, Julia says, relieved, as a waitress appears carrying a large dish.

The ceramic clatters lightly on the lazy Susan, and the waitress sets down bowls and pepper shakers and plates of beansprouts and scallion. She lifts the lid to a steaming brown broth, strewn with pale shreds and green coriander. She ladles the thick soup into the bowls and serves one to each of us. For your health and prosperity, she proclaims, just barely stuttering when she lays eyes on my floppy sleeves. Quickly she averts her gaze, tops off the bowls with a flourish, and whisks away the empty dish.

Ma shakes pepper over my soup and adds the vegetables, then scoops and blows. Hshshsh. She lifts it to my lips. Shark fin soup. The strips are spongy and chewy. They taste like nothing, and taste the same. I swallow, imagining the sinews making their way through my bloodstream to wriggle their way to my scars, returning life to lent limbs.

Jiak, jiak, you murmur, burying your gaze in your own soup. Eat, eat. The sound of your voice stirs another phrase, another devotion. A second part, I think, to the first. Eat, eat. There is a voice that is neither yours, nor mine, but a discordant harmony of ages. Eat, eat. Eat in remembrance of me. Down the ridges of my abdomen, my stomach stretches, clenches, closes like a newborn’s fist.

How to Safely Store Your Magical Artifacts After Saving the World

1. The Sapphire Sword, its luster dimmed. In another world, you held the Sword aloft and it blazed blue in your hand. It made you feel a hero, even on the days you hacked and stabbed and felt anything but. Yet now you have saved that world, you have returned through the portal, you have come home. Modern battles are waged through words and tweets and press conferences, and you have no need of three feet of enchanted steel. Wrap the Sapphire Sword in several layers of blue tarp, smudge it with sage, and bury it in your backyard under a full moon.

 

2. Seven-League Boots, mended. Once, you used these to cross the country in a matter of minutes. You were ready and willing to be at the side of those who needed you. Without steady access to a supply of enchanted wax, the charms on these will soon fade. Keep them in a dark closet until you can wear them around your house without smashing through doors. After that, you can safely wear them when you attempt to return to your old life, the life you knew before you first stepped through the portal and found yourself in the midst of a battle. This old life will feel unfamiliar and strange, like a scratchy sweater. The Boots, once uncomfortable, now fit like a glove. Be careful, as the Boots, even without their charm, have a tendency to wander.

 

3. The Cape of Protective Armor, torn. Please note that the Threads of Life Energy sewn into the cloth are still active, and will continue to consume the wearer unless removed. You will need to pick them out with a seam ripper, and store the bits of Thread in a sealed mason jar. It is normal to weep over the Cape as you pick it apart. You may be surprised, as it seems as though it would be a joyous occasion to set down the Cape that once protected you as you fought. You may find yourself reaching for it for long after. Again, this is perfectly natural. With the Threads removed, it will lose its magical properties but it will also no longer draw on your own lifeforce. If it comforts you to continue wearing it, do. There is no wrong answer.

 

4. Missives from your Companions in the Heart of Enemy Territory, painful. We understand that many Heroes arrive home with these letters still in their pockets. The paper these are written on cannot go into mixed recycling, as it has a mystic coating. Yet leaving them where they may catch you unawares can make the healing process harder. Tear these letters of love and resistance into strips, and disperse them. One in the pocket of a warm jacket, offered to an acquaintance. Several more as cushioning for cut wildflowers, a gift for a new neighbor. There is no substitute for losing your chosen family. But some of the fragments will take root and grow.

 

5. The Glass Ring of Portal Transportation, broken. The stress of the final trip home invariably shatters the Ring beyond repair. Please consign the broken pieces to the fireplace. This door is closed, and will not reopen.

 

6. The Potion of Healing, full. Place this by your bedside and drink as necessary when the memories are too much to bear. You will wake at the slightest noise for a long time. A branch, tapping on the window, is an ogre, ready to spear you. A squirrel skittering is a burst of dragon fire, the second before it ignites. You will wake in the morning, jaw already clenched, eyes searching for the royal messenger, running to you with news of fresh horrors. There is silence in your bedroom and the silence will seem a trick.

 

7. The Handbook of Heroism, stained with your own heart’s blood. Once you consulted this guide for advice on everything; how to fletch an arrow, how to make an undetectable poison, how to fall and fall and yet get up again. You annotated notes of resistance in it. You wrote of your triumphs, and your despair. It has always had the knack of opening to the page you need. Pick it up and watch it open to a page very near the end. How to Safely Store Your Magical Artifacts After Saving the World. You read about the storage of the Sword, and the Missives, and the Boots, and you place the Ring in the fireplace and the Potion by your bed.

Drink from the Healing Potion, it says. Drink again, and you do.

Turn the page when you are ready.

What did you readily recycle? What was a challenge to set down?

The Sword, waiting at the bottom of the garden, is regenerating. It needs time for the blood to leach from its metal, for the protection of the earth to creep over it and heal.

The Book, with the memory of what you felt and saw and heard, is a touchstone to which you can return when you are met with lies in the future. I was here, it will say to you. These are the truths I saw, these are the horrors I tried to fight.

The Ring remains shattered. Portals are not always required to reach the battles. And the problem with worlds is that they never stay saved.

Rest now, instructs the Book. Let your body heal.

And wait.

The Clockwork Penguin Dreamed of Stars

It was one of those rare nights when the smog thinned out enough for stars to be visible in the sky above the penguin enclosure. Gwin adjusted her synthetic feathers with her beak, arranging them neatly and plucking out any that were broken or bent. She didn’t want to groom, but her programming said it was preening time, so she had no choice.

“You should get Zee to bring you some new feathers, you’re looking a little ragged.” Victor slithered between the bars that were built to keep humans out of the enclosure, back when there were humans. He coiled up on top of a nice warm rock, and his metal scales screeched as they scraped against each other. “Hopefully she still has some oil to quiet down these scales.”

“Get your oil if you want to, but I don’t need new feathers. I hate preening. I want to pluck myself until I’m smooth and streamlined so I can fly out into space and see the stars.” Gwin was a dreamer. The other animals judged this to be a flaw, but she saw nothing wrong with snapping at fish that were beyond the reach of her beak. She was tired of being confined, tired of the constant noise of the automated educational recordings, tired of acting out the same routines day in and day out.

“We are designed to teach humans about the animals that used to live on this planet. Traveling to the stars is not part of our programming.” Victor loved to lecture and was always looking for opportunities to give his overblown speeches. “You are supposed to waddle, swim, catch fish in your beak…and preen. We all behave the way we must—each within our limits—from the moment of our creation until the time we cease to function.”

“There aren’t any humans to teach, and there hasn’t been a real penguin for centuries.” There weren’t even any other clockwork penguins, not anymore. A few had broken down so badly that Zee couldn’t repair them, but most of the others had found a way to escape the zoo.

Gwin continued preening. She’d been trying for weeks now to violate her programming, even in the tiniest of ways, but there were firm limits to what she could and couldn’t do. She could download constellation charts and space shuttle schematics under the guise of “updating her knowledge database,” and she could dream of the stars when she slept, but when it was time to groom, she had to groom. “Why do you care what I do, anyway?”

“I’m a creature of my programming, just as you are.” Victor said. Which didn’t explain anything. “I’ve called Zee to come repair us.”

“I told you—I don’t want feathers.” Gwin lowered her head and glared at Victor. Her programming told her it was time to swim, but the water in her pond had long since evaporated away. She waddled around the perimeter of the dry pond, faster with every circle she completed, needing to do something but unable to comply with her programming.

Zee swung herself over the bars of the fence. Her black fur was ragged, with patches of orange where she’d used synthetic orangutan fur to cover her metal frame. “Real animals did that, too. Not out in the wild, but in enclosures like this.”

Swimming time ended, and Gwin stopped her frantic circling.

“Zoos aren’t good places for animals, even artificial ones. We’re not meant to be contained. I wish I could make it so you don’t have to do that anymore.” Of all the animals at the zoo, Zee was the closest to human, and she used her opposable thumbs to replace corroded wires and worn-out gears. She’d even recruited a small army of mechanical rats to scavenge the streets for spare parts. She’d trained them to avoid the sweepers that kept the city clean. Her willingness to help with maintenance should have made Zee popular, but no one trusted her because she was the only animal at the zoo whose programming allowed her to lie.

Victor uncoiled himself, and Zee cringed at the high-pitched whine of metal against metal.

“Sorry, Victor, I’m out of oil. The old tanker my rats were draining corroded through, left a huge mess down a couple city blocks. You’re making a terrible noise, though. I’ll see if we can’t find another tank, or sop up some oil off the street or something.” Zee turned to Gwin. “You need fixing?”

“Victor seems to think so, but no.” Gwin hoped Zee would go away and fix someone else.

“I could at least get you some feathers—”

“I don’t want feathers,” Gwin insisted. “I’m trying to get rid of feathers.”

“Why?” Zee asked.

“She thinks that if she makes herself more streamlined, she can fly to the stars,” Victor said. “Which is silly. Flying to the stars isn’t in our programming.”

“The bigger problem is the flying, not the programming. Even if she was streamlined, penguins are flightless birds. She wouldn’t be able to take off, much less leave the planet.” Zee stared off into the distance. “There are lots of abandoned shuttles in the city. My rats find animal components in some of them. Even feathers, sometimes.”

“No feathers. Not for me.” She wondered whether the shuttles were a truth or a lie. She’d have to ask the rats. Even if it was true, though, her programming was clear—her job was to educate humans, so her place was here in the clockwork zoo. Victor was wrong about the feathers, but he was right about that.

It was preening time again, and Gwin systematically plucked her feathers out. Doing that satisfied the need her programming imposed on her, but it was a deviant behavior. If any of the zookeepers had been around, she’d have been reprogrammed. Maybe that would even be a good thing—with an upgraded program maybe she’d be smarter, more like Zee. But there were no zookeepers because there were no humans, which, in Gwin’s opinion, invalidated her programming. Even so, she couldn’t ignore the urge to preen entirely, she could only stretch the rules, bend them a little.

“Those are perfectly good components.” Zee pointed to the pile of delicate synthetic feathers Gwin had left at the edge of her enclosure.

“Why can’t you believe that I don’t want feathers? I’m not like you—I can’t lie.”

“No, it’s fine you don’t want them,” Zee said. “Can I have them? Not for me, of course, I’m happy with my fur, but there are birds in here that could use some good feathers, even if they aren’t quite the right color. Here, we can trade. I’ll take the feathers and you can have this radio.”

Gwin peered at the ancient human artifact. The animals could communicate with each other via a radio signal, but she’d never seen an external radio unit before. “How does it work?”

“You tune it with this knob.” Zee demonstrated. “And if you find a station with signal, you’ll hear talking, or music.”

Zee got a faraway look on her face and Gwin wondered if the music was a lie. She poked at the radio with her foot, then tapped the knob with her beak. “I can’t turn the knob.”

“Well, let’s set it here for now.” Zee adjusted the knob, and the red line that indicated the frequency slid left until it was near the middle, between 100 and 101.

“Couldn’t we find one with music?”

“They all play static, mostly. But sometimes if you wait, there are other things.”

Gwin waited, but there was only static.

“Try again tomorrow. I think this station is a good one.”

The next morning, Gwin preened off all the feathers from her left wing. She liked the shiny metal underneath, dotted with tiny holes where the feathers had once been installed. It looked like the hull of a space shuttle—or, at least, it looked like what she’d always imagined the hull of a space shuttle might look like.

When preening time was over, she waddled to the radio and used the tip of her beak to flip the power switch. The radio hissed with static.

Gwin stared at the radio, listening. Her programming told her it was time to rest, so she edged her belly down onto the warm stone floor of her enclosure and lay there listening to the crackle of white noise.

The static stopped, and a voice spoke. “This is Lieutenant Navigator Lunares-Jove, calling from the Endeavour 7. We are holding position at the Saturn orbit checkpoint, awaiting permission to approach Earth. Please acknowledge.”

The message repeated three times. Gwin listened carefully and committed the words to memory. She didn’t understand all of it, but there was one word that particularly caught her attention—Saturn was one of the bright lights she sometimes saw in the night sky, though according to her charts it was a planet, not a star.

Gwin repeated the message to Zee the next time she came by. “What does it mean?”

Zee picked through her fur, searching for bugs that were never there. Her life was controlled by her programming as much as anyone’s, but Gwin had never heard her complain about it. When she finished grooming, Zee looked up. “The message means there is a shuttle that wants to come to Earth.”

“Humans?”

“What else would speak in a language we understand?” Zee asked. “The reason we have language is to communicate our repair needs to the zookeepers and provide interactive educational experiences to human guests. Over time, we’ve stretched our programming to talk to each other, but these are their words.”

Victor slithered through the bars of the penguin enclosure. His scales didn’t screech when he coiled himself up, so Zee must have found him some oil. “Humans sent us a message? They’re coming here? This is something everyone should know about. It should not be kept secret.”

“Wait—” Zee started, but Victor broadcast the news about the humans to all the other animals. Soon every creature that could get out of their enclosure had gathered outside the fence. Meerkats ran back and forth, periodically standing on their hind legs to peer in. A badger with a missing leg pressed its face through a gap in the bars. Lions and zebras and other large animals took up positions farther back. All of them stared at the radio Zee had given to Gwin.

“We should prepare a welcome for them, here at the zoo.”

“And an answer to their message, so they know we’re here.”

Other voices began shouting out suggestions. Gwin stared at the radio, which now produced only static. Zee leaned in, as though she was also listening, but instead she whispered to Gwin, “There are humans in space, and you are programmed to educate humans.”

Gwin processed this information.

Zee turned the radio off. “There are shuttles in the city, my rats can show you where. Be careful to avoid the sweepers.”

Zee left the penguin enclosure. Instead of swinging over the bars, she used some kind of special card to unlock and open the gate. Gwin was free to roam the zoo, but her programming wouldn’t let her wander.

A lion pounced at one of the meerkats, nearly crushing it. All the small animals scattered, rushing back to the relative safety of their enclosures. Zee shooed the other animals away, too, spending an extra few moments talking to the lion that had attacked. Gwin wasn’t sure why she bothered—hunting was part of the lion’s programming.

With all the other animals gone, it was finally quiet in the penguin enclosure. Even the automated education tutorials had shut down for the evening, as they did every day at closing time. Gwin spent the evening thinking about what Zee had said, trying to put the pieces together.

She was supposed to educate humans.

The humans were out in space, among the stars.

Therefore…Gwin could go to the stars?

Gwin left her enclosure shortly after dawn, during a time when her programming instructed her it was time to swim. The zoo was much as she expected, from the descriptions of the few animals that had visited her—concrete pathways that wound around animal enclosures and concession stands. Most of the enclosures were empty, and the stands were filled with moldy stuffed animals and other decomposing toys. She hurried along, mostly driven by her urge to swim, but not wanting to linger here anyway.

Zee waved at Gwin from a fake tree in the chimpanzee enclosure.

Gwin paused, shifting her weight from one foot to the other to satisfy her need to move. “Zee, what’s your dream?”

“To see the stars, same as you.”

“Then why don’t you come with me?”

“I can’t leave the others behind,” Zee said. “No one else can do repairs.”

All those things sounded true, which made Gwin sad. She wished there was a way for Zee to have her dream, too, but she couldn’t think of anything that would help. “Goodbye, Zee.”

“Good luck.”

Gwin followed the path to an open courtyard, and beyond that was the main entrance. She expected some kind of resistance as she passed under the wrought iron archway, but being outside the zoo felt no different than being inside it.

Not far beyond the gate, she came across a rat.

“City?” it asked. “Shuttle?”

“Yes.” Gwin assumed the rat was part of Zee’s scavenger army.

“Follow, okay?” The rat scurried forward. Rats were small creatures with simple minds, better suited for scavenging than conversation. “Good shuttle. Passcode already cracked.”

Gwin followed the rat down a wide road, lined on either side with abandoned vehicles. Near the zoo, there were lots of open areas filled with trees—Gwin couldn’t tell if they were fake or real—and an assortment of small buildings in various states of disrepair. It was hard to tell where exactly the city started, but as she followed the rat the buildings got taller.

It was time for preening.

Gwin shouldn’t linger on the street, but she couldn’t help it. She listened carefully while she preened, but the city was silent. She plucked all the feathers off her right wing to make it match the left. She discarded the feathers in a pile, and it wouldn’t be long before a sweeper came and cleared away the mess.

Her rat guide fidgeted impatiently while she preened. “Not far, let’s go.”

The rat led her through a maze of streets, scanning constantly for threats. There were no trees here, nothing green, only towers with sometimes-broken glass windows that stretched up to the sky. “Four more blocks down this road, then right on the alley. Good shuttle. Lots of gears inside.”

They passed a rusted-out oil tanker at the top of the hill, and one side of the road was slick with spilled motor oil. Gwin waddled down the other side, not wanting to risk slipping and injuring herself. She was listening to the scraping noise her feet made on the pavement when she noticed another sound—a soft swishing in the distance. The rat froze in place. Gwin waited, too, not daring to move. The sound got louder, closer.

“Sweeper.” The rat said. It bolted down a side street.

Gwin paused, undecided. Should she follow the rat? The alley with the shuttle was only a few blocks away, but what if the shuttle was one of Zee’s lies? The sweeper turned a corner and came into view, a bright green truck with a rotating brush to sweep debris into a giant tank. Steam hissed out from the top of the tank.

The truck was headed straight toward Gwin.

She waddled as fast as she could into the middle of the road, to the edge of the oil slick. The sweeper was only half a block behind her, and closing fast. Once something went into a sweeper tank it never came back out. The hill was steep and the road was hard, but Gwin couldn’t waddle fast enough to escape. She flopped onto her belly. The oil-covered road was like ice, and she slid down the hill at top speed.

The pavement scraped the last of the feathers from her belly and began to wear away at the metal underneath. Buildings blurred by on either side as Gwin sped down the hill. The sound of the sweeper truck was covered by the screech of metal against the road.

She reached the bottom and skidded to a stop.

It was time to rest, but if Gwin didn’t get up she’d be swept away. She tried to resist her programming, but her belly remained firmly pressed against the pavement.

The sweeper truck barreled down the hill.

She had to find the humans that were out in space; that was part of her programming, too. She pitted her opposing drives against each other, making her need to educate humans overpower her basic scheduling routines. It was time to rest, but Gwin stood up. She waddled down the road and turned into the alley—away from the path of the sweeper, safe.

The shuttle was the most beautiful thing Gwin had ever seen, sleek silver metal dotted with little round windows, located exactly where Zee’s rat said it would be. The others had been too hard on Zee—just because she was capable of lying didn’t mean she did. And wasn’t choosing not to lie every bit as good as not being able to? Better, maybe, because it showed such good intentions.

The sweeper turned into the alley.

She was so close to her dream, too close to be swept away. The alley was a dead end. Her only chance was to get into the shuttle. Gwin found a hatch, but she had no idea how to open it. She accessed the schematics in her knowledge database.

With her beak she flipped the cover of a keypad with numbers laid out in a rectangle, one through nine, zero, a pound sign and an asterisk. Scrawled below was 0-6-1-7. What had the rat said about the shuttle? Passcode already cracked. Gwin tried the sequence, pecking each number with her beak, but nothing happened. The roar of the sweeper was so loud the shuttle was vibrating. Gwin stared desperately at the keypad.

The asterisk looked like a star.

She pecked it. The hatch opened.

Gwin hopped into the shuttle. The brushes of the sweeper made contact with the hull, and—sensing a threat—the hatch automatically closed. Safely inside, she watched as the sweeper cleaned the edge of the shuttle, then backed away to clean some other street.

She left the little round window and examined the rest of the shuttle. The control panel was a chaotic quilt of square buttons in several different colors, but off to one side was a switch that Zee told her would engage the autopilot. Gwin used her beak to flip it.

“Engage autopilot? Voice confirmation required.”

In the best imitation of a human voice she could muster, Gwin answered, “Engage the autopilot and initiate launch sequence.”

“Destination?”

“Saturn orbit checkpoint.”

The control panel flashed and sensors clicked and beeped. The engines roared and the entire shuttle began to vibrate. Beads of water streamed across the windows as the shuttle rose through clouds and smog. Above the atmosphere, the sky was black and filled with tiny points of light. Stars. More than Gwin had ever seen, and as beautiful as she’d always dreamed.

Back at the clockwork zoo, Zee led the other animals to a radio broadcast tower at the northeast corner of the African savanna enclosure.

“I know that many of you are eager to welcome humans back to Earth, but there’s something you should hear.”
Zee played them the message recorded on a tape: “This is Lieutenant Navigator Lunares-Jove, calling from the Endeavour 7. We are holding position at the Saturn orbit checkpoint, awaiting permission to approach Earth. Please acknowledge.”

But it didn’t end there. The voice on the tape kept talking. “We are here to provide aid to survivors of the transcendence plague, but we cannot approach without confirmation that the quarantine is lifted. We will remain at the checkpoint until midnight, coordinated universal time, 17 March, 2206. Please acknowledge.”

“So they aren’t out there?” a zebra asked.

The specified time was nearly two hundred years ago, only a few years after the zookeepers had disappeared.

“They’re out there somewhere,” Zee said, looking up at the night sky and wondering where in the blackness Gwin’s shuttle was. “But they’re not coming here.”

“Maybe we should go find them,” one of the meerkats suggested, hesitant.

Zee smiled. There were plenty of shuttles in the city. Once she got all her clockwork animals to the Saturn orbit checkpoint, she could tell them whatever new lies they needed, and together they could search for the missing humans, somewhere out among the stars.

White Rose, Red Rose

That morning, there was a white rose on my windowsill, and my heart cracked.

I took it inside. I knew well the only things that mattered were that it was a rose and it was white, but I examined it anyway. It had been in full flower recently, but was quickly withering. Several petals were gone; another came off in my hand. The petals wore traces of dirt that browned them, and I wondered if that had been purposeful. A missive of death: white for the bone, earth for the grave. I was probably thinking overmuch.

I plucked the petals into a bowl and washed them, then put them to boil to make a sweet tea. As far as we knew, the armsmen didn’t know our resistance codes, but I didn’t like to leave evidence.

How? I wondered, and chastised myself for wondering. There couldn’t be another message until tomorrow; our communication process came in slow trickles, frustrating but necessary, according to the resistance leaders. I wondered anyway. Throughout the day, as I patched uniforms for the occupying armsmen, and baked bread to bring my neighbor with the broken leg, and scrubbed every floorboard in the house, I wondered: how?

Quick? Painful? Bloody? Horrible? Unlucky? Slow?

How had my brother died?

The tea was too sweet. I brought it to my neighbor along with the bread.

I woke before dawn when the night was only just not-quite-black.

In my dream, I’d been sobbing—great full-wracked, wrenching sobs torn out of my chest, burning in my throat. My face had been wet with tears; so were my eyes, my hands. I shook with tears like a tree bending in a storm.

When I woke up, my eyes were dry, and I couldn’t be surprised. Some people say a body only has so many tears. If that was true, mine had been spent as a colicky baby. I’d never as much as wept since learning to walk.

It was too early to check the windowsill, but I did anyway, barefooted and in my night’s wear. There lay a scrap of red silk. So, he’d died on the battlefield.

I sewed it into the lining of my heavy winter greatcoat, to cover the tear that had opened in the seam of the breast pocket, near my heart.

I work quickly; by the time I finished, it still wasn’t dawn.

The next morning, a needle. He’d been injured first then, taken to a battlefield hospital, put in the charge of some fumble-fingered butcher, no doubt. I’d sewn his stitches myself when we were children, the time he broke open his knee, the time when he gashed his hand, the time when—well, many times.

The needle was sharp enough to draw blood from my thumb. I put it with my others, shut the box, and shook it. When I opened the box again, I couldn’t spot it anymore; it was just another jab of pointed metal.

There was the pit of a fruit, gnawed, and my heart iced.

They say a witch’s heart is the same texture as the stone in a peach.

A revenant, then.

So, the enemy had taken him as one of their own. Unless they used him as grist for their own side of the battlefield, he would be coming home to join the other barrow-wights that had once been our defenders, those who now occupied the city, harassing children and old men on the streets.

They say the dead come to roost like homing pigeons. He’d try to make the house his barracks if I couldn’t turn him out.

There was no message the next morning which was its own message. Wait.

A revenant armsman came to pick up the mended uniforms, and to leave another heap. If it galled—and it did—to sew for the enemy, at least it was not the worst recourse to which women could be forced in wartime.

I looked at the witch’s marks that ringed the revenant’s neck like brands, and at the gold of his eyes which they say are riches brought back from the land of the dead, and at the nervous smile he gave when he saw me looking too hard.

“Trouble with food?” he asked.

Before I could answer, he’d unslung his bag. Among his provisions, I saw bloodied ribbons of the kind that tie children’s hair. Light glinted on brass knuckles spiked with a ground mixture of glass and teeth. He gave me a rations cube and a stick of toffee.

I tried to protest. He held up his hand. His nervous smile stretched.

“Take care, okay?” His hands fretted, uncomfortably, at his pockets. “Next week.”

I gave the bar and toffee to my neighbor. Her leg had turned black.

My brother came at dawn, precisely, as if driven by a clock. His movements were strange; sometimes, he would be still like a rabbit listening to the wind, and then become suddenly, bonelessly rapid like a centipede. His eyes were gold; the marks on his neck were newly bright like fire.

He couldn’t talk yet. It would take time, I’d heard, for him to grow a new tongue.

He gave me his coat which I had sewn for him before he left. He gave me what remained of his shirt, hardly more than blood and buttons. He gave me the bag I’d sewn for his keepsakes; it was empty. He tried to hug me.

I eyed the pots on the stove, the poker by the hearth—but there hadn’t been a message that morning so as far as I knew my instructions remained: Wait.

I slipped out of the hug, but I let him in, and I shared the day’s bread between him and our neighbor both.

I did not watch him eat.

No message.

My brother took up the unmended uniforms and tried to help. I had to shoo him off. He’d never been good with a needle, but he’d never been this bad. I had to take all the stitches out and start over.

He looked so sad while he watched me do it. I felt bad, and gave him the hug I hadn’t the day before.

There were tears on his face that wetted mine. It felt so human.

They say the dead see the world as if it’s a nightmare.  Everything they knew is remade as an incomprehensible, unpredictable assault on their senses: too loud, too bright. A dog rolling on the grass is no different from a subterranean monster writhing out of the earth. Love and shock and pain are one merged, hungry thing.

In my brother’s nightmares, it seems, he can cry.

Well, in mine, so can I.

No message, but my brother was gone when I woke, out patrolling with the other armsmen. He returned with the light. He smelled of rank, fresh blood, and his hands were crimson. On his belt, there hung a child’s fingerbone.

He tried to hug me and was so confused when I pushed him away.

There lay, at last, the red rose on the windowsill, young and delicately colored, petals still tender.

What surprised me was the second rose that lay beside it, a red bud still clinging closed.

They smelled like sweet earth, and they were soft against my cheek. I wondered if their beauty was meant as a gift of apology for what the resistance required me to do. I was probably thinking overmuch.

I stripped the petals for tea.

My brother came home from his rounds with a second armsman, the one who came once a week to pick up and drop off uniforms. I looked at the puffy, scarred witch’s brands around the second armsman’s neck, and wondered how long he’d been in this nightmare of the dead. A long time, perhaps, considering how many words he could join together.

He had one hand around my brother’s shoulder. “Take care,” he said, nervously smiling.

It couldn’t be a coincidence, I thought. One young, red rose for this young man. Another still budded for my nascent brother.

A sweet smell wafted from the tea brewing in the kitchen.

My heart balked, as hearts will do, over things like an anxious smile. Over things like the boy you helped raise wanting a hug.

These were things I knew:

That we could not win our city back if every time one of our defenders died, it only strengthened the invaders.

That other cities had fallen and died because no one wanted to hurt their fathers, husbands, brothers, sons, even their remains.

That once I had the dead men sitting in my kitchen, waiting for tea of roses, a pair of blows from the poker would crack their brittle bodies like dried leaves.

That I wouldn’t cry when it was done because I never cried.

That I had to let my brother hug me one more time first, even if it left bloody handprints on my back.

That I had a duty to the living.

I brought my neighbor the provisions from both men’s packs once I had sorted out the gruesome parts, using a clean sack so she wouldn’t have to know where they were from. Her leg had died; the sawbones was set to cut it off. Her husband was somewhere in the city, I knew, watching his nightmares through golden eyes.

When she saw the handprints on my back, she didn’t say anything.

“Take care,” I told her.

I went home to pack.

On the windowsill, I left one of my brother’s buttons: it’s done.

A young woman came from the resistance at midnight to take me to a safe house. She found me in the kitchen, standing by the stove, wearing my winter greatcoat.

The poker lay where it had fallen. She looked over the twice-dead men with a neutral expression, and then nodded. “Do you have your things?”

“I do,” I said, taking my bag from the floor.

When she led me out, I was crying.

Maybe the dead are right; this world is a nightmare.

 

(Editors’ Note: “White Rose, Red Rose” is read by Erika Ensign on the Uncanny Magazine Podcast, 43B.)

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(Editors’ Note: “The North Pole Workshops” is read by Matt Peters on the Uncanny Magazine Podcast, 43B.)

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