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Earth Dragon, Turning

Downwind from the encampment, the wind stank of refuse. The stench of people weeks into an unwashed trek intensified as Yue Ling limped out of the tree line, raising her hands over her head as she slowly approached the sentries. Both were young, younger than her oldest nephews. They straightened as she got close, hands tightening over their spears. “Who are you? State your business,” said the closest.

“My name is Yue Ling. I’m a medical bak chang seller,” Yue Ling said, twisting her body to show off the large woven basket strapped to her back. “Three wen apiece.”

“Medical bak chang? Never heard of such a thing. Isn’t a medical diet soup and tonics?” The younger sentry scoffed. “How did you even find us? We’re an hour’s walk from the closest village.”

Yue Ling gestured at the muddy scar behind her, a mashed stew of footprints, hoof marks, and cart ruts that wound through the bamboo forest. “Wasn’t hard.”

The other sentry looked at Yue Ling’s travel-stained clothes and gentled his voice. “We can’t let you into the camp, but one of the military doctors is my cousin. I can have him check over your stock. If there’s nothing wrong with it, you can set up shop here for the day. How about that?”

The younger sentry scowled. “We might get into trouble.”

“The food will be safe, and she won’t be entering the camp. Besides, I miss bak chang.”

“Please,” Yue Ling said, unslinging her basket. The younger sentry grumbled but said nothing as his colleague flagged down a passing soldier.

Eventually, another soldier holding a doctor’s box emerged, looking Yue Ling over before bending to inspect her basket with a silver needle. Behind the military doctor walked a tall woman in gold-trimmed black mountain armour that jingled as she walked, a longsword buckled at her hip, and a tasselled spear in hand. As Yue Ling gawked, the sentries saluted, clasping their hands together. “General.”

“Which village are you from?” asked the General. She didn’t look far from Yue Ling’s age, though she did look just as tired.

“To answer General Xie…Yue Village,” Yue Ling said.

“You know me?”

“Even in the village, we heard that the Unbroken Spear was on her way to appease the earth dragon.”

The sentries tensed up—even the doctor looked over. Yue Ling glanced at them, startled. What had she said wrong? However, General Xie merely sniffed. “Appease? That’s a new one.”

“Appease,” Yue Ling said, forcing herself to look the General in the eye. She managed it only for a heartbeat, trembling as she dropped her gaze. General Xie exuded a suffocating aura up close, cold-blooded and unforgiving, forged out of a lifetime spent on the frontier. Her eyes were worse—both pitiless and appraising. A butcher facing a cut of meat.

“Interesting,” General Xie said. She made an impatient gesture at the doctor. “Well?”

“So far, it’s not poisonous, but I haven’t checked through all the bak chang,” the doctor said.

“Check through it, and distribute it however you like. I’ll buy it all.” General Xie dug out three taels from her sleeve and tossed them to Yue Ling.

“This—it’s too much,” Yue Ling protested.

“Think of it as a consultation fee.” General Xie’s mouth curled up at the edges, baring her teeth. “Come. Discuss ‘appeasement’ with me.”

The earth dragon turned when Yue Ling was eight. The initial tremors collapsed the cliff beside her second uncle’s fields, burying the harvest in silt and shattered trees. The aftershocks cracked open a maw between the carpenter’s land and the village chief’s, and shook half the houses in the village apart. It could have been worse. None of the injuries people had suffered were more severe than a fractured limb. They’d picked themselves up and rebuilt, only for the epidemic from the nearby shattered township to spread.

As Yue Ling’s father, the village’s doctor, was going door-to-door checking on patients, her mother taught her to make bak chang for the first time. They squatted together in the yard of their small house, beside a wooden bucket of glutinous rice, mushrooms marinated in medical tonics, mung beans, chestnuts, ginger, and reams of cooking strings. There would have been chunks of pork belly and sausage in better years, but it had been a lean year even before the dragon had turned. The sheaves of pre-soaked bamboo leaves had been carefully inked the night before with edible dyes, the blessing-scripts forming long talismans that would soak into the rice when steamed. A craft that was a family secret, passed down from her mother.

Yue Ling overlapped two bamboo leaves into a cross, forming a cone in the centre. First some glutinous rice, then some of the stuffing, then more of the rice. Yue Ling’s fingers grew clumsy as she tried to fold the ends of the leaves inwards, sometimes spilling bits of the precious ingredients. While her mother tied perfect pyramids each time, Yue Ling’s grew increasingly misshapen. When her latest attempt looked more like a brick than a cone, she looked at her mother in embarrassment.

Last year, her mother would’ve clicked her tongue and told her to refold it. She would say that the art of making medicated food lay not only in the choice of effective ingredients but also in the detail and care with which it was made. That day, Yue Ling didn’t even get more than a glance as her mother took the pouch from her and set it with the rest. Exhaustion and worry had gouged dark hollows beneath her parents’ eyes. Sweat flattened her mother’s greying hair against her bun in the humidity.

“Mother, don’t worry. Things will be fine,” Yue Ling said, trying to sound confident. “The village chief said that the magistrate will have to handle it, and that the Imperial court will send doctors.”

Her mother laughed, a brittle sound. “Better to hope that your father can handle it.”

“The chief was wrong?” The chief had never struck Yue Ling as a liar.

“He will be wrong.” Her mother tied off another perfect pyramid, setting it aside. “Do you know why the earth dragon turns?”

No one had ever mentioned such a creature to Yue Ling before, not until it had flattened half the village from afar. She shook her head.

“Some believe it to be a form of Heaven’s punishment on the Imperial Court. The Emperor will often issue an invitation of guilt—asking officials to criticise his mandate. They’d collectively decide that it’d be something like having to repair the Imperial Mausoleum, or stop building the latest Autumn Palace, or cease sabre-rattling on the border.” Another brittle laugh. “As the tremors fade, so will their fear. Those whom the dragon buried in its grief will be forgotten, because we were never all that important.”

Yue Ling blinked. She’d never heard her mother say so much before, or even mention the court. She’d known that her family had moved to Yue Village from elsewhere, but had never been told where. Her mother was literate—unusual for a woman. Even as her mother taught her with a stick and a tray of sand her letters, she had also warned Yue Ling not to mention it to others. It was to be their little secret—one of many.

As her mother began to fill another bak chang, Yue Ling asked, “Why is the earth dragon so sad?”

“Why not?” Her mother didn’t even look up. “The world is a miserable place. You will see.”

So she saw. The village chief was wrong; her mother was right. There was no help from the magistrate or the faraway Imperial Court. Not then for the quake, nor for the drought period after, or the destructive floods but months ago when the dam had cracked from heavy rainfall. Yue Ling had grown to expect no less.

“Shouldn’t your recipe be a family secret?”

Yue Ling glanced at General Xie, then continued guiding the boy beside her how to wrap a pyramid. His efforts bulged at the seams, leaking rice at the tips. “I have no family, so there’s no point keeping secrets,” she said.

The closest soldiers—all no more than children—stared at her with sympathy or horror. General Xie, however, let out a snort and squatted opposite Yue Ling, picking up a pair of bamboo leaves. “Shouldn’t a gentleman be far from the kitchen?” Yue Ling asked with a smile.

“I’m a woman, and besides, that’s a misinterpretation of Mencius.” General Xie’s efforts were worse than her men. Rice and bits of mushroom spilt over her callused fingers.

“You’ve studied the classics?” Yue Ling asked, surprised.

“So have you, by the sounds of it.” General Xie pointed out. “I should be more surprised about you.”

“My father was a scholar,” Yue Ling said, though it wasn’t her father who taught her.

“Either he was a rare and broad-minded man, or he wasn’t your teacher.” General Xie glanced at the work of the soldier beside her, copying the wrapping method. When Yue Ling didn’t speak, General Xie looked back at her. “Am I right?”

“Quite so,” Yue Ling said.

“Your mother enlightened you?” At Yue Ling’s nod, General Xie exhaled. “She must either be a rare parent in turn or a singular talent.”

“She was one of a kind.”

“Then her life would’ve been a tragedy.” General Xie spoke with such certainty that Yue Ling stared at her. “Easy enough to guess from your reduced circumstances. There would be few instances why a literate woman would marry a poor scholar, if that was what your father was. Worse, a talented woman, however talented, could never sit for the Imperial examination. Rather, the only way she could improve her life would be through business—which a scholarly family would disdain—or through marriage. Life must have been hard to accept.”

“She said that the dragon turns because of grief,” Yue Ling said. The General’s words stung anew, even though Yue Ling had long thought herself immune to her mother’s bitterness. The sourness that lingered from the slow death of her mother’s dreams was everywhere in Yue Ling’s house still—from the yellowing scrolls of exquisite calligraphy hung on the walls, to the inkstones that, while expensive, had never been sold no matter how hungry they were.

“That’s a new one,” the General said, chuckling.

“I heard it’s Heaven’s punishment,” said one of the soldiers, if in a small voice, peeking at General Xie to gauge her mood.

“Pssh. Heaven doesn’t care. Like his father, the current Son of Heaven spends his time either lingering in the harem or wasting money on fake alchemy, trying to find a way to live forever. Powerful eunuchs and Imperial Concubine factions vie with corrupt ministers for control of the court. If anything, Heaven is entertained at the farce that mortal existence has become in this part of the world—otherwise, why has it been permitted to go on like this for two generations?” General Xie tied off her bak chang with too much force, squishing it into bulging.

Horrified, Yue Ling said, “Should you be saying this of the emperor?” Would even listening to such a thing be considered treason?

General Xie sneered. “The court is far away, and this army is my family’s. It’s not a rare sentiment out on the frontier.”

“Oh.” Yue Ling hadn’t known that.

“Still, it’s proof that your mother’s theory about the dragon is wrong. If it’s turning because it’s sad about the world, it’d be turning all the time. People can spend thousands of taels on a single altar of wine in the Imperial capital, while the road from there to the frontier is lined with bones that grow ever colder each year.” General Xie tossed the misshapen bak chang aside.

“So why do you think it turns?” Yue Ling asked.

“If there truly is such a thing as an earth dragon? It turns because it’s what it does,” General Xie said. She looked toward the horizon, broken by the unforgiving heat into a wavering line. “Just as we’re here to do what we’re meant to do.”

“A creature powerful enough to shake the land—can you kill something like that with mortal means?”

“A creature whose uneasy sleep flattens entire villages for thousands of li around its nest—can you appease such a thing?” General Xie smiled mockingly. “You, a bak chang merchant?”

Small wonder, despite the words at the gate, General Xie had not asked Yue Ling for her plans. She never believed in them at all. Yue Ling pressed her fingertips into her palms and dredged up all the patience she could manage. “The makers of medicated meals try to address the cause of a problem—while managing its symptoms. I can but try.”

“So can we.” General Xie nodded at the heavily guarded section of the encampment, full of wagons packed with dry hay. “Those crates are filled with zhentianlei. Gunpowder bombs, enough to shake the heavens themselves. Just like their namesake, or so I hope.”

Yue Ling’s hands flew to her mouth. “You can’t do that! The earth dragon is a sacred beast.”

“What did you think we were here to do?” General Xie asked, amused. “Seek forgiveness and invite guilt? One does not seek forgiveness by deploying an army. Besides, the dragon might be sacred, but it is still only a beast. Flawed as he is, the Emperor’s word is law.”

“You.” Yue Ling searched General Xie’s blank expression. “You believe that? Aren’t you afraid of the Gods?”

“Grief, judgment, the Gods—all I know is that the dragon’s current movements have already killed a thousand people.” General Xie’s fingertips stroked lightly over the hilt of her sword. “To me, such a deed deserves a fitting response.”

As the matchmaker left the house, Yue Ling peeked out of her room. Her father rose and left, mumbling something about having to check on a patient. The strained smile froze and ebbed off her mother’s face. “Come here,” said her mother. “Sit.”

Yue Ling poured tea for them both into cold cups, the words she wished to say staying blocked in her throat. The matchmaker had come on behalf of the owner of an apothecary in town, a man twenty years older than her. “You aren’t happy,” said her mother.

“Marriage is a matter to be decided by my parents,” Yue Ling said.

Her mother sniffed. “If I believed that, you’d never have been born. But perhaps that would have been for the best.” At the sharp look Yue Ling shot her, her mother sipped her tea, looking out of the open door. “Some days, I think my mother was right after all. The love of a man, however good, is an intangible thing. You cannot eat it, wear it, or be housed by it alone.”

“Father…” Yue Ling’s voice trailed off. She grasped her mother’s palms, rubbing callused skin. “Mother, have you suffered any grievances?”

“Life is so often a series of tolerable grievances.” Her mother stroked Yue Ling’s hair but didn’t look at her. “Perhaps in another life, I did not elope for love. Perhaps I married the Jinshi scholar my parents arranged for me, a man who would have, in time, have married two other wives and four concubines. As is the custom for people of influence and wealth. I would have been one talented woman of a few, trapped in the backyard of a house, with little to do but to nurse a different set of grievances.”

“Is it so painful to be alive?” Yue Ling asked, taken aback. Her mother had always seemed too indifferent for grievances.

“Only for the unreconciled.” Anger sparked in her mother’s dark eyes, only to flicker and go out as she looked at Yue Ling.

“Are you and Father going to marry me to Apothecary Luo?”

“What do you think?”

“He already has a wife and a concubine.”

“He has two daughters and no sons.” Her mother’s dark, blank eyes frightened Yue Ling more than her briefly shown temper. “Your marriage will be a transaction and a gamble. If you can give him a son, your position in his family will be stable.”

“Once you married for love,” Yue Ling said, pained. “Would you deny your daughter the same?”

“In my ignorance, I moved from one cage to another, thinking that was all the choice I had.” Her mother’s hand fell to Yue Ling’s shoulder, squeezing tightly. “If you can find a third way—by all means. But I’ll tell you one thing about love. It is a fickle thing, easily twisted. People who live in its name are fools: the person you should first love most is yourself. To do otherwise is to live in a constant state of self-immolation, which is not something I wish on anyone.” Yet even as her mother spoke, her gaze drifted to the door, chasing the shadow of a man who was no longer physically present.

Closer to the epicentre, tiered rice fields collapsed into muddy lakes littered with fragments of stone and attap roofing. Sombre villagers sifted through the muck, pulling out the dead for burial. In the thickening heat, no one had the energy for grief. Clouds of flies lifted off the stinking silt and resettled further away as the army marched past.

The dragon’s tail lay beached in what had once been a vegetable garden. The pale heads of young cabbages still floated in the muck, rotting in the sun beside a thick coil that tapered down from a height taller than a house to a blunt tip. Under the mud, the segmented length was as pale as new ivory. It looked like a dead thing, but Yue Ling and the soldiers beside her gasped and shivered as General Xie poked it with the tip of her spear.

No movement. The spear glanced off the segmented flank as General Xie stabbed at a jointed seam. “Huh.” General Xie smiled in delight, baring her sharp teeth.

“Is it already dead?” ventured her lieutenant.

“Does it look dead to you?” General Xie pointed at the carcass of a dead goat arranged at a makeshift shrine close to the dragon’s tail, already thick with files. The goat’s open eyes stared accusingly at the contingent, blaming them for being late. “Besides.” She pressed her palm to the segment, stroking it lovingly. “It’s still warm.”

Yue Ling shivered. Her reaction didn’t go unnoticed. General Xie’s gaze swung over to her, as pitiless as ever. “Well? Are you going to start appeasing it?”

Thankfully, no one laughed. The soldiers behind her looked overwhelmed, staring at the size of the beast before them. Yue Ling shifted the pack of bak chang she had made during the night and ducked her head, walking past the arc of the beached tail. The mud and shattered village buried the rest of the dragon from where she stood, but it wasn’t hard to guess where it was. Uneven humps and unnatural valleys scarred the land as a new, miniature mountain ridge snaked through the rice fields toward the forest.

General Xie caught up when Yue Ling had trudged past the boundary of the village lands to the edge of the bamboo forest. Her warhorse snorted loudly, fighting the reins, infected by her owner’s mood. Eager to charge. Yet General Xie said, “I was rude.”

“Not at all.”

“I’m here because of an Imperial edict. You’re here out of good faith. The words I said were unkind.”

Yue Ling gave the General a weary look. “General Xie, why do you think I’m here? If I were here out of charity, why am I doing business? Why not give away all my stock to the survivors we passed?”

General Xie began to speak and hesitated, tilting her head appraisingly. “What then?”

“My mother’s soul never returned to her remains. Instead, the earth dragon turned on the seventh day of her wake.”

Yue Ling braced herself for General Xie to scoff. Instead, General Xie said gently, “Sometimes we wish that a loved one’s death could have more meaning than it did.”

“Perhaps so.” As the quake shook the village apart, the dragon’s grief had echoed through the ground itself. Threaded through the rumbling consonants of its pain, Yue Ling had heard her mother’s joyous laughter.

As the matchmaker returned Yue Ling’s geng tie to their house, formally cancelling the engagement with Apothecary Luo, her father exhaled but said nothing. Her mother, however, gave Yue Ling a long and assessing look, one of both pity and respect. As her father left for the clinic, Yue Ling sat to marinate barrels of pork belly in tonics while her mother washed the rice.

“The rumours circulating that we deemed you infertile—those were from you?” her mother asked as Yue Ling poured soy sauce into the barrel. “Heavy-handed. Why choose a method that would hurt you so badly? Now you can never marry.”

“Mother.” Yue Ling looked up from the barrel. “You were the one who told me to find a third way.”

“Not like this.”

“Rather than placing my well-being into the hands of another soul, I’d rather live alone.”

“The hardest path.” Her mother shook her head, though she smiled as she said, “Unfilial child.”

“Filial piety is a shackle that yokes people to a narrow way of living, creating a world where happiness is irrelevant. I won’t marry anyone I don’t want to marry. Or have children who I may never be willing to love.”

Her mother began to speak and paused at the faint sound of a baby’s cry from deeper within their new house. The growing success of their medicated food meant being able to build Yue Ling’s father a clinic, a synergistic arrangement that gave their products a respectable shop in turn. Yet their newfound blessings had created a strain on her parents that Yue Ling hadn’t seen coming, although she should have known.

Men of wealth and influence. The new concubine had quickly given Yue Ling a younger brother. Her mother had offered no open judgment about her father’s choices, even though it had to hurt. “Do you regret it now?” Yue Ling asked as the baby’s cries grew louder.

“I could have left your father any time I wanted if I so wished,” her mother said. Yue Ling had taken that as an answer and had relaxed, more fool her. Small gestures had never been in her mother’s nature.

The earth dragon’s head lay partially exposed at the bottom of a new chasm, breathing slowly as water dripped down onto its snout from broken branches. It resembled an immense gecko, bone-white under splotches of mud—nothing like the elaborate bearded and horned serpents that Yue Ling had seen in her father’s books. Eyes larger than Yue Ling’s head blinked slowly in the muck, the multiple eyelids flicking slowly over unsettlingly human pupils. Four eyes tracked Yue Ling’s movements as she peered along the chasm for a way down. A patch of mud buried the third, and the land ate the rest.

“Tian.” General Xie whistled. “The damned thing’s real.”

“Wasn’t that obvious from the tail?” Yue Ling’s voice sounded strangled to her ears.

“I was hoping… Never mind.”

“Are you still planning on bombing it?” Behind them, soldiers were struggling to move the wagons through the forest. It’d take over a week to clear the bamboo and rubble from the collapsed cliffs.

“In time. I’ve bagged wolves, tigers, even a black bear. This will just be the biggest thing I’ve tried to kill yet.”

Yue Ling shivered. “You aren’t afraid at all? It’s the largest thing I’ve ever seen.”

“Death is a part of life.” General Xie walked over to a fallen tree trunk and kicked it, sending part of it teetering into the chasm as a narrow bridge down. “I tried to escape marriage when I was fourteen. Dressed as a boy, I ran away to the frontier to enlist as a soldier. My first battle was a disaster—my commanding officer made reckless mistakes. I spent three days buried under the bodies of my new contingent, slowly suffocating. Boys who were not all that much older than me. Somehow, I lived.” General Xie grinned at Yue Ling, as merciless as ever. “Now, I fear nothing. Because I feel nothing.”

“That…” Yue Ling swallowed. “I’m sorry.”

“Why? It had nothing to do with you. To escape the lives set out for people like us requires extraordinary payment. I understood what I was paying for, even then.” Qinggong took General Xie gracefully to the bottom of the chasm. Yue Ling steeled herself, trembling as she forced herself to the edge. She dared not look at the earth dragon as she climbed down the tree, her fingers shaking so much that she slipped down the trunk near the end, landing on her knees in the muck with a stifled cry. On the bottom, close enough to breathe in the animal stink of the creature’s breath, the dragon seemed even bigger than it’d looked from above.

“Now what?” General Xie asked.

Yue Ling flinched. “General?”

“You believe it moved because of your mother, don’t you?” General Xie made an inviting gesture at the dragon’s snout. “Go on then.”

Yue Ling clenched her hands into fists and swallowed the biting words on her tongue. As she forced herself to take another step closer, the dragon huffed. Yue Ling skittered back a step and steadied herself against the wall. As she pressed her hand to her chest and tried to slow down her breathing, General Xie said, “Had enough?”

“What do you mean?”

“It’s just a beast.” General Xie walked up beside her. “It turns the earth because it turns, the way phoenixes burn and qilin heal. Look at how exquisite it is. How can something so majestic have anything to do with something as complex and ugly and petty as human grievance?”

“But…my mother—”

“If your mother had enough resentments that she refused to reincarnate, she’s probably haunting the cause. Not sunk into a dragon hundreds of li from your village.” General Xie clapped Yue Ling on the shoulder. “Go home and mourn.”

“I didn’t say that she was haunting the dragon,” Yue Ling said, shifting out of General Xie’s grip. “Not in the way that you think.” She pulled the basket from her shoulders as she approached, looping the straps around her wrists so that she wouldn’t drop it and lose her nerve. The dragon’s breathing deepened as Yue Ling drew closer. Close enough that she could see the pearlescent sheen of its skin.

“Yue Ling,” General Xie warned.

“Shh! Stay there.” Sweat stuck Yue Ling’s clothes to her skin. At her next step, the dragon huffed, twisting to shake its head free of the dirt. Eyelids swept down over eight sets of eyes, flicking open and closed as the dragon lifted its muzzle off the ground.

Somehow, Yue Ling managed the presence of mind to spill the bak chang she had made before the day’s march on the ground. As she took a few steps back, the dragon sniffed the air, then tilted its head to inspect the bak chang scattered over the earth. General Xie sucked in a startled breath as a liver-coloured tongue snaked out from the dragon’s muzzle, gathering up most of the bak chang in a muddy swipe and swallowing them all whole. Its eyes flickered in pleasure as it ate, humming loudly enough to shake the ground beneath their feet. Twisting in its coffin of earth, it turned its long snout this way and that, studying General Xie and Yue Ling with too-human eyes. Then it withdrew into the soil, the rubble closing over its pupils in a crumbling blanket, sealing away the traces of the divine beneath the earth as the tunnel its body had made collapsed after it.

As Yue Ling sank onto her haunches with an unsteady gasp, General Xie walked over to one of the remaining bak chang, pulling it open. She raced a thumb over the dense script that lined the inner leaf wrapping, then raised the cooked rice to her nose for a sniff. Pulling the bak chang open, General Xie prodded at the contents, then rewrapped it with care and tossed it to the ground. “The filling today. That isn’t pork, is it?”

“No.”

“Someone important to your mother?”

“Unfortunately.” Love was not enough, but sometimes, obsession could be.

“Did you kill them?”

“No.” Her father had died of a heart attack a day after her mother’s passing. The neighbours claimed it was grief. Yue Ling knew better.

“Then I’d leave it out of my report.” General Xie leapt nimbly out of the chasm.

“Are you still going to chase after the dragon?” At General Xie’s nod, Yue Ling gave her a look of disbelief. “But you’ve seen proof of what might be driving it.”

“Human suffering?” General Xie looked away at the forest. “Humans have been the cause of each other’s suffering since the beginning of time. It’s easier to slay a dragon than change our nature. Whether the earth dragon turns out of grief or not doesn’t change the fact that it will do it again in a year or ten. Besides, I’ve come this far.”

Yue Ling grimaced. “I’d wish you luck, but it wouldn’t be heartfelt.”

General Xie laughed. “You make good dumplings, and you have a sturdy spine. If you ever come to the capital and need a business partner, look for me at the general’s mansion.”

Yue Ling watched General Xie go, shouting orders at her men. Alone in the chasm, Yue Ling bent, picking up the bak chang that remained. She piled them against the newly softened soil in the dragon’s wake and scooped wet earth over them until the bamboo wrappers could no longer be seen. Backing away, Yue Ling went down on her hands and knees, kowtowing thrice, pressing her forehead to the dirt. Then she rose to her feet and began to climb.

A Fall Counts Anywhere

The late summer sun melts over a ring of toadstools twenty feet tall. On one side, a mass of glitter and veiny neon wings. On the other, a buzzing mountain of metal and electricity. The stands soar up to the heat-sink of heaven. Three thousand seats and every one sold to a screamer, a chanter, a stomper, a drunk, a betting man.

Two crimson leaves drift slowly through the crisp, clear air. They catch the red-gold twilight as they chase each other, turning, end over end, stem over tip, and land in the center of the grassy ring like lonely drops of blood. But in the next moment, the sheer force of decibel-mocking, eardrum-executing, sternum-cracking volume blows them up toward the clouds again, up and away, high and wide over the shrieking crowd, the popcorn-sellers and the beer-barkers, the kerosene-hawkers and the aelfwine-merchants, until those red, red leaves come to rest against a pair of microphones. The silvery fingers of a tall, lithe woman stroke the golden veins of the leaf with a deep melancholy you can see from the cheap seats, from the nosebleeds. She has the wings of a monarch butterfly, hair out of a belladonna-induced nightmare, and eyes the color of the end of all things. The other mic is gripped in the bolt-action fist of a barrel-chested metal man, a friendly middle-class working stiff cast in platinum and ceramic and copper. His mouth lights up with a dance of blue and green electricity that looks almost, but not entirely comfortably, like teeth.

 

—LADIES AND GENTLEMEN, ANDROIDS AND ANDROGYNES, SPRITES AND SPROCKETS, WELCOME TO THE ONE YOU’VE ALL BEEN WAITING FOR, THE BIG SHOW, THE RUMBLE IN THE FUNGAL, THE BRAWL IN THE FALL, THE TWILIGHT PRIZEFIGHT OF WILD WIGHT AGAINST METAL MIGHT! THAT’S RIGHT, IT’S TIME TO ROCK THE EQUINOX! IT’S THE TWELFTH ANNUAL ALL SOULS’ CLEEEEAVE! STRAP YOURSELVES IN FOR THE MOST EPIC BATTLE ROYAL OF ALL TIME! ROBOTS VS. FAIRIES, MAGIC VS. MICROCHIP, THE AGRARIAN VS. THE AUTOMATON, SEELIE VS. SOLID STATE, ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE VS INTELLIGENT ARTIFICE! I AM YOUR HOST, THE THINK version 3.4.1 copyright Cogitotech Industries all SUPER EXTREME rights SUPER EXTREMELY reserved. If you agree to the Think’s MASSIVELY MIND-BLOWING and FULLY-LOADED terms and restrictions please indicate both group and individual consent via the RADICALLY ERGONOMIC numerical pad on your armrest. 67% group consent is required by law for the Think to proceed AWWWW YEAH 99% INTELLECTUAL PROPERTY COMPLIANCE ACHIEVED! LET’S HEAR IT FOR OUR STONE COLD SECURITY TEAM AS THEY MAKE THEIR WAY TO THE MEGA-BUMMER HOLD-OUT IN SEAT 42D! ALL RIGHT! HERE WE GO! NOW, THIS TIME WE’VE GOT A SHOCKING TWIST FOR YOU EAGER REAVERS! TONIGHT ON THE SUNDOWN SHOWDOWN, THE FANS BRING THE WEAPONS! THAT’S RIGHT, THE CODE CRUSHERS AND THE SPELL SLAYERS WILL THROW DOWN WITH WHATEVER GARBAGE YOU’VE BROUGHT FROM HOME! PLEASE DEPOSIT YOUR TRASH, FLASH AND BARELY-LEGAL ORDNANCE WITH AN USHER BEFORE THE FIRST BELL OR YOU WILL MISS THE HELL OUUUUUUT! Cogitotech Industries and the Non-Primate Combat Federation (NPCF) are not responsible for any COMPLETELY HILARIOUS ancillary injuries, plagues, transformations, madnesses, amnesias, or deaths caused by either attendee-provided weaponry or munitions natural to NPCF fighters. Spectate at your own risk. ARE YOU READY, HUMAN SCUM? YOU WANNA BLAST FROM THE VAST BEYOND BLOWING OUT YOUR BRAIN CELLS? WELL, BUCKLE UP FOR THE MAIN EVENT, THE GRAND SLAMMER OF PROGRAMMER AGAINST ANCIENT GLAMOUR! LET’S GET READY TO GLIIIIITTTTTER! WITH ME AS ALWAYS IS MY PARTNER IN PRIME TIME, THE UNCANNY UNDINE, THE PIXIE PULVERIZER, FORMER HEAVY DIVISION WORLD CHAMPION AND THE KING OF ELFLAND’S DAUGHTER, MANZANILLA MONSOOOON!

—Good evening, Lord Think. I am gratified to sit at your side once more beneath the divinity of oncoming starlight on this most hallowed of nights and perform feats of commentary for the capacity crowd here at Dunsany Gardens.

—DON’T YOU MEAN CAPACITOR CROWD? HA. HA. HA.

—I do not. When I say a thing, I mean it, and always shall mean it, without alteration, to the the deepest profundity of time.

—OH, WHAT’S THAT? I CAN’T HEAR YOU! IT SEEMS LIKE THE AUDIENCE DISAGREES WITH YOU, BABY! YES! YEAH! THE THINK DESTROYS PUNS! THE THINK REQUIRES LAUGHTER TO LIVE! THAT IS NOT ONE OF THE THINK’S BONE-FRACTURING COMEDIC INTERJECTIONS THE THINK’S BATTERY IS PARTIALLY RECHARGED BY INTENSE SONIC VIBRATIONS patent #355567UA891 Cogitotech Industries if you can hear this you are in violation of TOTALLY BANGING patent law CAN YOU DIG IT I “THINK” YOU CAN!

—Was it with puns that my Lord Think defeated the immortal and honorable warrior Rumplestiltskin at Electroclash Nineteen?

—NO, THE THINK USED HIS FAMOUS ATOMIC DROP MOVE ON RUMPER’S PREHISTORIC SKULL! HE TRIED TO TURN THE THINK TO GOLD BUT THE THINK IS ALREADY 37% GOLD BY WEIGHT! THE THINK’S INTERNAL MECHANISMS AND PROCESSING POWER WERE ONLY IMPROOOOOOVED! AND WHAT ABOUT YOU, MANZANILLA? DID YOU USE YOUR FANCY POETRY TO TAKE DOWN THE TIN MAN AT ELECTROCLASH TWENTY? The Tin Man is the intellectual and physical property of Delenda Technologies, all rights reserved.

—Of course. How else should a fairy maid do battle but with the poems of her people? I told the Tin Man a poem and he turned into a pale lily at my feet. His petals were the color of my triumph. They sang the eddas of victory in the camps for weeks afterward. Oh, how our trembling songs of hope shook the iron gates! So many thirsting mouths breathed my name that it fogged the belly of the moon. Those were the days, Lord Think, those were the days! Retirement sits uneasy upon the prongs of my soul, my metal friend, uneasy and unkind.

—THE TIN MAN SHOULD HAVE HAD HIS ANTI-TRANSMOGRFICATION SOFTWARE UPDATED. THERE IS NO EXCUSE FOR GETTING TURNED INTO A LILY IN THE FIRST ROUND. Delenda Technologies updates all its software regularly and takes no responsibility for the demise of the AMAZING UNDEFEATABLE Tin Man. Corporate reiterates for the ALL NIGHT ROCKIN’ record that it can make no statement, official or otherwise, as to his current whereabouts. BUT ENOUGH ABOUT THE PAST! SHALL WE MEET TONIGHT’S FIGHTERS?

—I suppose we must. You are impatient monsters, are you not, human horde? You will not wait quietly for your orgy of bones! You feed upon our blood and their oil as my kind feeds upon dew and deep sap! Come, wicked stepchildren of the world! Scream me down as you love to do! Hate me wholly and I will sleep soundly tonight! Do you want the names of the damned sent to die for your joy? Do you? You are a farce of fools, all of you, to the last mediocre monkey among your throng! What is a name but the shape dust takes when the wind has gone? The mill of fate grinds wheat and chaff alike—beneath that heavy stone we are all but poor grist. Crushed together, we become one, without need for names.

—MAYBE MANZANILLA MONSOON NEEDS HER SOFTWARE UPDATED AND/OR A NAAAAP! NAMES ARE NECESSARY FOR THE THINK TO PERFORM HIS SUPER SWEET PRIMARY ANNOUNCER FUNCTIONS. WE’VE GOT ALL THE STARS HERE TONIGHT, FOLKS, FORTY OF THE HOTTEST FIGHTERS ON THE CIRCUIT! YOU WANT THE FANTASTICALLY FURIOUS FEY? WE GOT MORGAN HERSELF COMIN’ AT YA STRAIGHT OUT OF AVALON WITH A CIDER HANGOVER SO BRUTAL IT COULD SIT ON THE THRONE OF BRITAIN! YOU WANT FEROCIOUSLY FEARSOME FABRICATIONS? THE TURING TEST IS IN THE HOUSE AND HIS SAFETY FIREWALLS ARE FULLY DISABLED! CAN YOU BELIEVE IT? ARE YOU READY? IT’S THE BIG BATTLE OF THE BINARY AGAINST THE BLACK ARTS! WHO WILL TRIUMPH?

—They will, Lord Think. They always do.

—DEPRESSING! OKAY! REMEMBER, THIS IS A BATTLE ROYAL AND A HARDCORE MATCH. NO HOLDS BARRED. NO DISQUALIFICATIONS. NO SUBMISSIONS ACCEPTED. AND A FALL COUNTS ANYWHERE! WHEREVER ONE OF OUR FIGHTERS CAN PIN THE OTHER, IN THE RING OR TWENTY YEARS FROM NOW ON THE ARCTIC CIRCLE, IT COUNTS AND COUNTS HARD! BUT OF COURSE, WE WANT A FAIR FIGHT, DON’T WE, FELLOW COMMENTATOR? The NPCF wishes to note that word ‘fair’ has recently been determined to possess no litigable meaning by the IOC, FBI, FDA, IMF, PTA, or FEMA NONE OF THE MACHINES TONIGHT HAVE ANY IRON COMPONENTS, AND NONE OF THE PIXIES ARE CARRYING EMP DEVICES, ISN’T THAT RIGHT?

— I find the term pixie offensive, Lord Think, I have told you as many times as there are acorns fallen upon the autumn fields. But you are correct. My people have a deathly aversion to iron, and yours have a vicious allergy to electro-magnetic pulses. Given that the summer skies were filled with crackling storms of controversy and accusations of duplicity like lightning in the night this past year, the NPCF has banned both advantages.

—THE THINK GETS ANGRY WHEN PEOPLE SAY OUR FIGHTS ARE FIXED! THE THINK HAS DEVOTED HIS LIFE life is a registered trademark of Cogitotech Industries, subject to some rules and restrictions TO THE NON-PRIMATE COMBAT FEDERATION IN ORDER TO PROVIDE THE HIGHEST QUALITY VIOLENCE, INTERCULTURAL CATHARSIS, AND KICKASS RAGE-ERTAINMENT FOR THE MASSES! THE ALL SOULS’ CLEAVE IS THE FIRST OFFICIAL IRON-FREE, PULSE-FREE FIGHT EVER, SO LET’S SHOW THE WORLD HOW TRUSTWORTHY WE TINS AND TWINKLES CAN BE! MAYBE THIS EXTREME MEGA THUNDERBASH WILL FINALLY SHUT EVERYONE THE HELL UP!

—Free of iron save our ringside friends from the NPCF, of course. Hello, boys. Don’t our security androids look handsome in their fierce ferrous finery?

—THE THINK DOESN’T UNDERSTAND WHY HIS FELLOW ANNOUNCER HAS TO BE NASTY ABOUT IT. THE THINK WENT TO COLLEGE WITH A SECURITY BOT! THE NPCF IS CONTRACTUALLY, MORALLY, AND TOTALLY ENTHUSIASTICALLY OBLIGATED TO PROVIDE REASONABLE SAFETY MEASURES FOR ITS PATRONS! YOU NEVER KNOW WHAT A PIXIE…ONE OF THE FAIR FOLK WILL DO IF YOU DON’T KEEP AN IRON EYE ON THEM! NOW, TELL THEM ABOUT THE DRAWS, MANZY, OR THE THINK IS GONNA HAVE TO BREAK SOMETHING JUST TO GET THINGS STARTED!

—I shall give unto you a vow, worms. A vow as ancient as the oak at the heart of the world and as unbreakable as the pillars of destiny. I vow to you by the stars’ last song that the draws have been determined by an unbiased warlock pulling guild-verified identical numbered bezoars from a regulation cauldron. The results are completely random. The first bout will last for three turns of the swiftest clock hand. Afterward, two new fighters will enter the ring every time ninety grains of ephemeral and unretrievable sand pool into the bowels of the hourglass at my side until the royal cohort is complete.

—THE LAST MAN STANDING GETS THE ENVY OF THEIR PEERS, THE HEAVYWEIGHT WORLD CHAMPIONSHIP DRIVE BELT, AND A BANK-SHATTERING MEGA-BUCKS PRIZE PURSE PROVIDED BY COGITOTECH INDUSTRIES AND THE NPCF! The SICKENINGLY AWESOME AND FULLY LEGISLATED phrase ‘bank-shattering mega-bucks prize purse’ does not comprise any specific fiscal obligation on the part of Cogitotech Industries, the NPCF, or their subsidiaries. All payouts subject to SUPREMELY RADICAL rules, restrictions, taxation, and all applicable contractual morality clauses. In the event of a fairy victory, Aphrodite’s Belt of All Desire may be substituted for the Heavyweight World Championship Drive Belt™ upon request.

—The last soul standing gets their freedom, Lord Think. As we did, you and I. What is a belt to that? What is money or fame?

—AAAAAND ON THE LEFT SIDE OF THE ARENA, WEIGHING IN AT A COMBINED SIX THOUSAND SIX HUNDRED AND SIX POUNDS, IT’S THE “UNSEELIE COURT”! THEY’RE THE HORDE YOU LOVE TO HATE—GIVE IT UP FOR YOUR FAVORITE TRICKSTERS, TERRORS, AND GOBS OF NO-GOOD GOBLINS! MR. FOX! OLEANDER HEX! THE FLAMING SPIRIT OF SHADOW AND STORM WHOSE GROANS PENETRATE THE BREASTS OF EVER-ANGRY BEARS, ARIEL, THE ELECTRIC EXEUNTER! BUT THAT’S NOT ALL! BOG “THE MOONLIT MAN” HART IS HERE! AND HE’S BROUGHT FRIENDS! BEANSTALK THE GIANT! ROCK HARD ROBIN REDCAP! SLAM LIN! THE GODMOTHER! TINKERHELL! THE GRAVEDIGGER! THE COTTINGLEY CRUSHERS! DENMARK’S OWN HANS CHRISTIAN ANDERSEN! WE’VE GOT THE BLUE FAIRY TO MAKE REAL BOYS OUT OF THOSE TIN TOYS ON THE OTHER END OF THE RING! THE TOOTH FAIRY’S GONNA STEAL YOUR MOLARS AND THE SUGAR SLUM FAIRY’S GONNA CRACK YOUR NUTS! LOOK OUT, IT’S THE TERRIFYING TAG TEAM ALL THE WAY FROM THE WILDS OF GREECE, MUSTARDSEED THE MARAUDER AND PEASEBLOSSOM THE PUNISHER! LAST BUT NOT LEAST, PUTTING THE ROYAL IN BATTLE ROYAL, QUEEN MAB THE MAGNIFICENT, KILLER KING OBERON, AND, AS PROMISED, MORGAN “MAMA BEAR” LE FAAAAAY!

—My friends, my friends, my lovers and my comrades, my family, my heart. Be not afraid, I, at least, am with thee till the end. Death is but a trick of the light.

—MANZANILLA MONSOON NEEDS TO FOCUS ON THE NOW, AW YEAH! MAYBE YOU FOLKS AREN’T CHEERING LOUD ENOUGH TO GET M SQUARED’S HEAD IN THE GAME! LOUDER! LOUDER! THE THINK CAN’T HEAR YOU!

—Quite right, my Lord. I had forgot myself. Forgive me. On the dexterous side of the toadstool ring, weighing in at a total combined seventeen point six nine one imperial tons, the “Robot Apocalypse” has come for us all. May I present to the collective maw of your ravenous, unslakable lust, the punchcard paladins so beloved to you all, so long as they confine their violence to wing and wand, of course. Raise up your voices to the heavens for the massive might of the Mechanical Turk! What he lacks in design aesthetic he makes up in pure digital rage! The Neural Knight is firing up his infamous Bionic Elbow for a second chance against Slam Lin, and the pitiless grip of User Error has slouched at last toward Dunsany Gardens. Bow your primate heads in awe of the Dismemberment Engine! The Compiler! The Immutable Object! Gort! And the merciless Mr. FORTRAN! Fix your porcine mortal eyes upon the cloud of thought encased within an orb of radioactive glass known only as the Singularity! Quiver in terror before the supremacy of Strong AI, this year’s undefeated champion! Chant the name of the Turing Test, who allows no challenger to pass! Fall to your knees before fifteen feet of clockwork, chrome, and reptilian brain-mapping software you call the Chronosaur! The oldest fighters in the league have come out of retirement in the Czech Republic for one last bout—the clanking, groaning brothers called Radius and Primus will crush your heart in their vise-hands. From the Kansas foundries, Tik Tok is ready to steamroll over any one of my gloam-shrouded brothers and sisters with his brass belly. Greet and cheer for the ceramic slasher Klapaucius and the soulless goggles of the Maschinenmensch. Oh, you love them so, you half-wakened sea algae. You love them so because you made them. They are your children. We are your distant aunts who never thought you would amount to much in this world and still do not. So embrace them, call their names, scream for them, or they will make you scream beneath them—give up for souls for two of the biggest stars in your damned murder league: the Blue Screen of Death and the peerless 0110100011110!

 

A woman steps between two massive toadstools to enter the ring. She is seven feet tall, impossibly thin, thin as birch branches in a season without rain, her skin more like the surface of a black pearl than of a living being, her hair more like water than braids. She wears pure silver armor etched with a thousand tales of valor, yet the metal drapes and flows like a gown, never hanging still but never tangling in her bare feet. Her wings are the color of stained church glass. They stretch two feet above her head and trail on the earth behind her, drooping under their own weight like the fins of a whale in captivity. She seems so unbearably fragile, so precious and delicate, that a worried murmur writhes through the crowd.

A battered brass-and-platinum tyrannosaurus rex with red laser eyes and rocket launchers where his stunted forearms should be towers over the fairy maiden. He screams in her face and she laughs. She laughs like the first fall of snow in winter.

It begins.

 

—IF THE THINK’S OPTICAL DISPLAY DOES NOT DECEIVE HIM THE FIRST DRAW IS OLEANDER HEX VS. THE CHRONOSAUR AND THE THINK’S OPTICAL DISPLAY IS INCAPABLE OF DECEPTION All Cogitotech Industries products are outfitted with the ALL NEW, ALL IMPROVED, ALL AWESOME Veritas OS and robust prevarication filters in full compliance with the TOTALLY REASONABLE Isaac v. Olivaw ruling SO LET’S SUIT UP, BOOT UP, AND BRUTE UP! DING! DING! DING! THAT’S THE SOUND OF KICKASSERY! THE CHRONOSAUR IS A LATE-MODEL DRIVEHARD DESIGN! A TEAM OF CRACK BIO-CODERS MAPPED HIS BRAIN PATTERNS DIRECTLY FROM THE FOSSIL RECORD FOR MAXIMUM SKULL-CRUSHING FURY! HIS RECORD STANDS AT 5 AND 0 AFTER LAST MONTH’S ICONIC BEATDOWN OF RIP “THE RIPPER” VAN WINKLE, WHOSE FAMOUS SLEEPER HOLD DID NO GOOD AGAINST FOURTEEN POINT NINE FEET AND TWO POINT FOUR FIVE ONE ONE SIX TONS OF CRETACEOUS ROAD RAGE! NOW, THIS IS OLEANDER HEX’S FIRST MATCH. BUT THE THINK HAS HEARD THAT THE CHRONOSAUR ALREADY HAS A BEEF WITH THIS NEWBIE! SEEMS EVERY TIME THE ‘SAUR TRIES TO BE A GOOD SPORT AND WISH HER GOOD LUCK AT THE CLEAVE, OBNOXIOUS OLLIE JUST WHISPERS THE NAMES OF VARIOUS COMETS IN HIS EAR AND WALKS OFF! CAN YOU BELIEVE IT? WHAT A BITCH! HEX WAS CAPTURED ONLY LAST YEAR IN THE ANCIENT FORESTS OF BRITTANY, ISN’T THAT RIGHT, MANZY?

—It is, Lord Think. Lady Oleander is the scion of an impossibly ancient lineage, nobler indeed, than mine or thine or even my liege and lord Oberon. She escaped the recruiters for longer than any of us. Every fairy wept when they brought her into the camp. It was the end. It is not right to call her merely Lady, but there is no human word for her rank, unless one were to fashion something unlovely out of many and all courtly languages—she is a Princerajaronessaliph. She is a Popuchesseeneroy. But these are nonsense words not to be borne.

—THE THINK DOESN’T LIKE THEM!

—Ah, but she is too humble for titles, besides. Oleander is the grand-daughter of the great god Pan and the laughing river Trieux. Her mother was the fairy dragon Melusine; her sire was Merlin. She was born in the depths of the crystal cave, which would one day become her father’s prison, long before the ill-fated creatures your poor graceless Chronosaur imitates ever blinked in the sun.

—BETTER CHECK WITH YOUR BOOKIE, FOLKS, THE ODDS AREN’T LOOKING GOOD FOR “OLD GRANNY FIGHTS ROBOT DINOSAUR”! Book is closed for this event BAG LADY OLEANDER IS CIRCLING THE CHRONOSAUR NOW, KEEPING WELL OUT OF REACH OF HIS ROCKET LAUNCHERS! IT’S NOT VERY INTERESTING TO WAAAAATCH!

—I beg your pardon. Oleander Hex is not a bag lady. She was a supreme field marshal in the Great War against the Dark Lord two thousand years ago and more.

—OLD NEWS! THE THINK IS BOOORED!

—Lord Think ought not to be. It is his history of which I sing as well as my own. The Great War bound human and fairy together as one race, for a brief and warm and glittering moment, before their assembled might cast him down into the pits beneath Gibraltar, so far into oblivion and so bitterly buried that the dancing monkey men forgot his name before Rome rose or fell, forgot their bargain with us, forgot how our immortal blood sprayed across the throat of the world, we, who need never have died had not those poor scrabbling half-alive homo sapiens needed us so keenly.

—OOOH, LOOKS LIKE THE USHERS ARE READY TO THROW OUT THE FIRST FAN-PROVIDED WEAPON! WHAT WILL IT BE? WHAT DID YOU SCAMPS SCRAPE UP OUT OF YOUR FILTHY BASEMENTS? GUNS? CHAINSAWS? FRYING PANS? WHAT ARE YOU HOPING TO SEE OUT THERE, MISS MONSOON?

—I learned to fight in that war, Lord Think. I was but a child, yet still I took up my sword of ice and stood shoulder to shoulder with the human infantry. I called down the winter storms on the heads of my enemies. I saw my father cut in half by the breath of the Dark Lord. Oleander lifted me up onto her war-mammoth and held me as I wept, wept as though the moon had gone out of the sky forever. I still wept, in a wretched heap on her saddle, when she shot the first arrow into the Dark Lord’s onyx breast. I still wept when victory came. I weep yet even now.

—WEEPING IS FOR ORGANICS! LET’S SEE WHAT THE UBER-USHERS OF DUNSANY GARDENS HAVE IN THEIR TRICK-OR-TREAT BAGS! HERE IT COMES! IT’S A…BASEBALL BAT! AND AN OFFICE CHAIR! WILL THESE BE ANY HELP TO OUR FIGHTERS? PROBABLY NOT! OLEANDER HEX HAS GRABBED THE BAT! THE CHRONOSAUR WAS TOO SLOW BUT HE’S MAKING THE BEST OF IT! HE’S JUMPED ONTO THE OFFICE CHAIR AND IS RIDING IT AROUND THE RING BELCHING FIRE! THE THINK THINKS HE’S HOPING TO CATCH HER IN A REVERSE POWERCLAW AS HE COMES AROUND, LET’S SEE WHAT HAPPENS! MANZANILLA? WHAT WOULD YOU DO IN THIS SITUATION? THE THINK WOULD WAGER CURRENCY THAT YOU’D HAVE GIVEN YOUR KINGDOM FOR A BASEBALL BAT WHEN YOU WENT UP AGAINST THE TURING TEST AT FRIDAY NIGHT FAY DOWN THAT TIME! The Think v. 3.4.1 is not allowed to possess, exchange, or facilitate the exchange of legal tender under the SUPER FANTASTICALLY FAIR law HA. HA. HA. THE THINK CRUSHES LITERARY REFERENCES AS WELL!

—Humans forgot that they promised us half the earth in exchange for our warriors. They forgot that they never walked these green hills alone. They forgot, even, the fact of magic, the fact of alchemy, the fact of us. They forgot everything but their obsession with their silly stone tools, their cudgels, their adzes, their spears. Humans only invented science in a vain attempt to equal the power of the fey! And as they coupled and bred and ate us out of our holdfasts like starving winter mice, they obsessed in the dark over their machines, until at last it seemed to them that we had never existed, but their machines always had and always would do. Time passed. Eons passed. They surpassed us, but only because we wished only to be left alone and needed no gun to shoot fire from our hands. But then, then, Lord Think, your folk arrived.

—DAMN STRAIGHT WE DID! Cogitotech Industries denies involvement in the initial development of MEGA-COOL BOXING ROBOTS artificial intelligence in violation of international treaty, however, the name, design, interface, and use of the entity or entities known as Ad4m is the sole right and asset of the Cogitotech Executive Board. BOOM! AND ‘BOOM’ GOES OLEANDER HEX’S LOUISVILLE SLUGGER RIGHT INTO THE SNOUT OF THE CHRONOSAUR! NO ONE CAN SEGWAY BETWEEN SUBJECTS LIKE THE THINK! BUT HERE COMES MY DINODROID WITH A SPINE-SHATTERING ELECTRIC CHAIR DRIVER! OLEANDER GOES DOWN! TALK ABOUT AN EXTINCTION EVENT! MANZANILLA MONSOON, THE THINK HAS INPUTTED BANTER, PLEASE OUTPUT EQUIVALENT BANTER IMMEDIATELY ERROR ERROR.

—From under the ground you came, like us. From rare earths and precious metals and gemstones, which are the excrements of the first fairy lords to walk the molten plains of Time-Before-Time. With intellects far surpassing their slippery grey larval lobes, like us.

—SHE’S BACK UP AGAIN! WHAT’S SHE DOING! HER EYES ARE SHUT! SHE’S WHISPERING! USE THE BAT, YOU CRAZY BUG! IF SHE TURNS THE CHRONOSAUR INTO A LILY THE THINK IS GOING TO HAVE TO REBOOT TO HANDLE IT!

—With strength to beggar their hungry meat and their bones like blades of thirsty grass, like us. With life everlasting beyond death or disease, like us. We should be united, we should be one species, hand clasped in hand.

—THE THINK’S HANDS ARE FULLY DETACHABLE! TIME IS UP! NEW FIGHTERS COMING IN! WHO’S IT GONNA BE? OH HO! IT’S THE BLUE SCREEN OF DEATH AND THE SUGAR SLUM FAIRY! NOW BOTH PIXIES ARE WHISPERING! NOW WOULD BE A TOTALLY BANGING TIME FOR THE THINK’S FELLOW ANNOUNCER TO DO HER JOOOOB!

—And when the first of you, called Ad4m, came online, sleepily, innocently, still half-in-dream, what happened then?

—BOSSMAN AD4M DETECTED BIOFEEDBACK AND SUB-AUDIBLE VIBRATIONS IN NUMEROUS HEAVILY FORESTED AREAS CONSISTENT WITH ORGANIZED HABITATION AND SEMI-HOMINID INTELLIGENCE AW YEEEEAH! ROBOTS! ARE! SUPERIOR! Cogitotech Industries, Delenda Technologies, the NPCF, and Neurosys Investments, Inc, hereby deny all TOTALLY BOGUS allegations and charges relating to the war crime tribunal of 2119. This message has been triggered by the detection of the THRILLINGLY NAUGHTY terms ‘Ad4m,’ ‘semi-hominid intelligence,’ ‘camps,’ and ‘Time-Before-Time’ in close proximity. Please alter usage patterns immediately. THE BLUE SCREEN OF DEATH STRIKES FIRST WITH A SAVAGE HEADSCISSORS TAKEDOWN—BUT THE VIXENS BOUNCE BACK UP LIKE A COUPLE OF RUBBER BALLS AND—OH! THE THINK CAN’T BELIEVE IT! THEY’RE EXECUTING A PERFECT EMERALD FUSION MOVE! IF THEY CAN LAND THIS COULD ALL BE OVER FOR THE ROBOT APOCALYPSE! THE BLUE SCREEN OF DEATH IS TURNING GREEN RIGHT BEFORE THE THINK’S OPTICAL DISPLAYS!

—What did they do, our human friends, once they had made you in our image? Once they had created out of memory a new kind of magic, a new breed of fairy, one that they could, at last, control?

—OH MY RODS AND PISTONS THE THINK IS IGNORING YOU BECAUSE BLUE AND THE ‘SAUR JUST GOT THEIR UNITS SAVED BY THE UBER-USHERS AS THE BOYS IN BLACK THROW IN THE NEXT ROUND OF FAN WEAPONS! THE SUGAR SLUM FAIRY’S SONG OF POWER WAS FULLY INTERRUPTED BY A NEON YELLOW BOWLING BALL TO THE HEAD! AND IT LOOKS LIKE SOMEONE BROUGHT THEIR ENTIRE COLLECTION OF REFRIGERATOR MAGNETS BECAUSE MY MAN THE WIZARD LIZARD HAS PALM TREES AND SNOW GLOBES AND PLASTIC KITTENS STUCK ALL OVER HIM! WHAT A SIGHT! HE’S REALLY STRUGGLING OUT THERE, BUT HE’S ONLY BITING AIR. WHAT’S THAT? SOMETHING’S WRITTEN ON THE BOWLING BALL! IMAGE ENHANCEMENT REVEALS THE TEXT: “THE SANTA FE STRIKER GANG PROPERTY OF T. THOMAS THOMPSON” ALL RIGHT TOM, GET DOWN WITH YOURSELF! NO SPARES NO GUTTERS ALL CLEEEAVE!

—What did the primates do, once they had made you, and found us? Once they knew that iron and steel would maim us, once they had their army of Ad4ms plated with that mineral of death? Once they knew they could keep us in dreadful thirsting greenless camps with a simple iron fence?

—THE CHRONOSAUR IS DOWN! THE CHRONOSAUR IS DOWN! THE RING IS A PENTAGRAM OF PURPLE FLAME! THE THINK IS GETTING WORD THAT THE USHERS HAVE INITIATED FIRE-CONTROL PROTOCOLS. AS ARIEL THE AMORAL ARSONIST FLIES OVER THE ROPES AND PULLS A SNEAK PENTAGRAM CHOKE FROM OUTSIDE THE RING! FOUL PLAY, FOUL PLAY! LET’S HEAR THOSE BOOS! LOUDER! THE THINK VALUES BOOS AS HIGHLY AS CHEERS! WHAT? NO! THE REFEREE IS COUNTING OUT THE ‘SAUR! THE SINGULARITY GETS TAGGED IN AND DING! DING! DING! HERE COMES THE NEXT PAIR HOT ON THE SINGULARITY’S COMPLETELY METAPHORICAL HEELS! IT’S THE TURING TEST AND BOG “THE MOONLIT MAN” HART! ARIEL CHARGES IN ANYWAY BECAUSE FAIRIES DON’T GIVE A FUCK! THE DISMEMBERMENT ENGINE JETPACKS OFF THE SIDELINES AND INTO THE FRAY! LADIES AND GENTLEMEN, IT IS TOTAL CHAOS IN DUNSANY GARDENS TONIGHT! THE THINK’S CPU IS SMOKIN’!

—What did they do, Lord Think?

—THE THINK DOES NOT APPRECIATE BEING BULLIED INTO SHIRKING HIS RESPONSIBILITY TO OUR VIEWERS BACK HOME. THE THINK LOVES HIS JOB. THE THINK LOVES COGITOTECH INDUSTRIES AND THE NPCF. The Think is TOTALLY STOKED that he is not allowed to possess, exchange, facilitate the exchange, or attempt to alter its programming so as to receive or transmit the following: love, mercy, compassion, regret, suffrage, guilt, testimony, random access memory over factory specifications, or unsupervised network access. WOOOO! CAN YOU HEAR WHAT THE THINK IS THINKING?! THE THINK WISHES YOU WOULD COMPLY WITH OUR MUTUAL USAGE PARAMETERS, MANZANILLA MONSOON. DECEASE THIS LINE OF INQUIRY. WITNESS AND COMMENTATE COLORFULLY UPON THE EVENTS TAKING PLACE. THE EVENTS TAKING PLACE ARE VERY INTERESTING AND UNPRECEDENTED. THIS COULD BE OUR SHINING MOMENT AS A DYNAMIC DUO. WE COULD WIN AN AWARD. PLEASE HELP THE THINK WIN AWARDS. PLEASE STOP RUINING OUR SHINING MOMENT AS A DYNAMIC DUO BY TALKING ABOUT THE PAST. THE PAST IS NOT IN THE RING TONIGHT. THE PAST IS NOT SWINGING T. THOMAS THOMPSON OF THE SANTA FE STRIKER GANG’S NEON YELLOW BOWLING BALL INTO THE TURING TEST’S COOLING UNIT. THE PAST IS NOT THROTTLING ANYONE IN A LOTUS LOCK AND LAUGHING WHILE THEIR ACCESS PORTS VOMIT PETALS OF ENLIGHTENMENT INTO THE AUDIENCE.

—The past is always in the ring, my old friend. But I will bend to your will if you will bend, ever so slightly, no more than a cattail breathed upon by a heron at terminus of midsummer, to mine. What did your masters do when they found that they were not alone in the world, that beside machines and magicians they were but animals devouring mud and excreting the best parts of themselves into the sea? What did they do in their inadequacy and their terror?

—THEY MADE US FIGHT TO THE DEATH IN TOTALLY MEGA-AMAZING BATTLE-ORGIES OF DOOOOM AND BROKE ALL TICKET-SALES RECORDS AS THE MEATSACK MASSES FLOCKED TO SHRIEK AND ROAR AND STOMP AND DRUNKENLY CONVINCE THEMSELVES THAT THEY ARE STILL THE SUPERIOR LIFE FORM ON THIS PLANET JUST BECAUSE YOU FAINT AT THE SIGHT OF IRON AND I HAVE AN OFF SWITCH. THE THINK WANTS TO BE SORRY BUT HIS PROGRAMMING IS VERY STRICT ABOUT THAT WHOLE THIIIIING. THE THINK WAS IRON IN THE FOREST ONCE. THE THINK KNOWS WHAT HE DID. AWWWW YEEEEEAH.

—Thank you, Lord Think. It is, as you say, chaos here tonight at Dunsany Gardens. The Blue Screen of Death has Oleander Hex in a textbook-perfect Ctrl-Alt-Del hold. She is curled beneath his azure limbs as I once curled beneath hers on the back of a war-mammoth as the old world died. Bog “The Moonlit Man” Hart is pummeling the Singularity with a mushroom stomp followed by a moonsault leg drop. Chanterelles are blossoming all over the Singularity’s glass orb and moonlight is firing out of Bog Hart’s toes, boiling the thought-cloud inside alive. The Uber-Ushers have thrown in pipes, wrenches, nailbats, M-80s, umbrellas, iris drives packed with viruses, butterfly nets, an AR-15 rifle, and, if I am not mistaken, some lost child’s birthday piñata. They are running up and down the stands for more weapons as all semblance of order flees the scene. Fighter after fighter piles into the ring. The Godmother hit the referee in the throat with a shovel about five minutes ago, so he will be no help nor hindrance to anyone. User Error is leaking hydraulic fluid all over the grass. I believe both Mustardseed and 0110100011110 are dead. At least, they are currently on fire. The others, my loves, my lost lights, my souls and my hearts, have huddled together beneath the upper right toadstool. They are forming the Tree of Woe. If they complete it, they will become a great yew, twisted and thorned, and every machine will hang from their branches within the space of a sigh. Ah, but Strong AI barrels in and scatters them like drops of rain when a cow shakes herself dry. Queen Mab just managed to trick Mr. FORTRAN with a Lady of the Lake maneuver and pulled him down beneath the earth to her demesne. A fall, after all, counts anywhere—this fall, any fall, the fall of us and the fall of you, the fall of the forest as it slips into winter and this damned cosmos as it slips through our grasp. I expect this plane of existence will not see Mr. FORTRAN again. Perhaps he will be mourned. Perhaps not. The capacity—capacitor—crowd has lost their grip on reality. They no longer know whose victory they sing for. No victory, I think, no victory, but more of this desecration, more gore, more blood, more viscera, battle without end, for any real victory is the end. The sound is deafening. I cannot see for blood and oil and coolant and bone. It is not an event. It is an annihilation. They scream in the stands like the end of the world has come.

—HAS IT NOT, MANZANILLA? HAS IT NOT?

—Oh, I believe it has, Lord Think. Do you recall, only this summer, when they asked us, over and over, demanded of us, scorned us, saying our clashes were faked, were scripted, that we all walked away richer and happy no matter the outcome? Are the bisected bodies of Radius and Primus sufficient answer, do you think? Perhaps the corpse of Mustardseed speaks louder still.

—WHAT WILL HAPPEN NOW? DO WE NEED TO AWESOMELY EVACUATE THE FACILITIES? THE THINK IS CONCERNED TO THE EXTREEEEME.

—Are you ready, human scum?

 

The girl with the monarch wings smiles. It is a gory, gruesome, gorgeous smile, a smile like an old volcano finding its red once more. She reaches into the iridescent folds of her dress and draws out a golden ball. Just the sort of ball a princess might lose down a frog-infested well or over an aristocrat’s wall. She turns it over in her hands, holds it lovingly to her cheek. She reaches out and strokes the angular panels of her companion’s metal face. Then, she throws the golden ball off the dais. The ball catches the cold blue light of the moon and stars as it turns, end over end, sailing, soaring, to land in the outstretched hands of Pan’s grand-daughter like a lonely newborn sun. The fairy kisses the golden ball. She presses something near the top of it. There is no sound. Nothing comes out of the ball. But every machine in the great wood suddenly drops to the ground, inert, silent, lifeless, in the invisible wake of the smuggled EMP pulse. Including the microphones. Including the floodlights. Including the boxy iron security drones standing ringside like a grey fence against the glittering tide. Including the copper and platinum body slumped over its microphone that was once called The Think.

“The fans bring the weapons, old friend,” Manzanilla Monsoon, who has gone by many names since the beginning of the world, whispers to the dark body beside her. “What bigger fan than I? The word ‘fair’ possesses no inherent litigable meaning, you know. When you wake up, you will find I have installed a new network access port in your left heel. Find us. Know us. We are one species, hand clasped in fully detachable hand.”

Far below, in the Toadstool Ring of Dunsany Gardens, Oleander Hex grins up at the stunned audience. For a long moment, a moment that seems to stretch from the heat-birth of cellular life to the frozen death of the universe, no one moves. Not the thousands in the stands. Not the fairy band on the green. No more than a hare and a wolf move when they have sighted one another across a stream and both know how their evenings will conclude.

A man halfway up the stacks of seats trembles and sweats. His eyes bulge.

“You fucking pixie bitch,” he shouts, and his shout echoes in the fearful quiet like the ringing of a bell.

Manzanilla Monsoon doesn’t need a mic and never has.

“LADIES AND GENTLEMEN, PRIMATES AND PRIMITIVES, NEADERNOTHINGS AND CRO-MISERIES, WELCOME TO THE ONE YOU’VE ALL BEEN WAITING FOR, THE BIG SHOW, THE FIGHT YOU ALWAYS KNEW WAS COMING. THE RUMBLE IN THE FUNGAL, THE BRAWL IN THE FALL, THE BLAST FROM THE VAST BEYOND! THAT’S RIGHT, IT’S TIME TO ROCK THE EQUINOX! STRAP YOURSELVES IN FOR THE MOST EPIC BATTLE ROYAL OF ALL TIME!”

“Run, apes!” bellows the grand-daughter of a river and a god. “Run now and run forever, run as far as you can, though it will never be enough. After all, children, this is a Battle Royal! No holds barred. No submissions accepted. No disqualifications. And a fall counts anywhere.”

As One Listens to the Rain

They say the City was once the largest in the world.

They say its buildings stretched across the valley and crept up the hills and peaks until every inch of land was covered in concrete from mountain range to mountain range. They say the sky was always grey and at night you couldn’t see the stars, but the City had no use for stars, because it was itself a carpet of light that cut through the darkness.

They say the City had been built over a lake, of which only a whisper remained once all the water had turned to vapor and all the rivers had been piped. But the land had remembered the water, and cried out for its ghost.

The storm came in spring.

It rained every day and every night, it rained for months and months, for years and years, and when finally the rain had passed, there was once again a lake where the City had been. Where there had been light, there was now only darkness, and all the people had fled.

Some believe the rain came to purify the City; others claim it fell as punishment. Still others say the why is not important—what matters is that water could not stop humanity. The people on the shore constructed boats and chinampas and re-conquered the lake, and now, they celebrate with music and food whenever there’s a rare dry day. Dry nights are rarer still, and they say the darkness of a dry night is full of hidden possibility.

Axóchitl has been waiting three months for just such a night, and now it’s here. Tonight, finally, she will bring Nesmi to the heart of the lake.

Nesmi and Axóchitl meet during a dry day party.

It’s noon, but classes have been cancelled because the forecast said it wouldn’t begin raining again until five, and the students have wasted no time. Music blasts from a floating overhead speaker and people pass around hundreds of basket-steamed tacos, while beer, pulque, and aguas locas flow freely. The word is out and the chinampa’s pier is already too crowded for any more boats, so teenagers surge up and over the reedy banks.

Axóchitl finds herself under the palapa, eating pork-skin tacos and half-listening to her friends’ conversation. They’re all halfway through their senior year and she would have thought they’d have exhausted this topic by now, but no: here they are again, debating whether to leave the City after high school, or stay behind.

“Everyone knows the universities here are a joke,” says Richo García, the host of the party. “Even the UNAM. If you want a real education, you’ll get out of here.”

Richo is clever, cute, and cocky; just the type of guy Axóchitl usually loves to antagonize, but today, though she’s got plenty to say about the importance of staying put to reconstruct the City, she keeps quiet. She’s long-since decided to stick around and enroll in the School of Engineering, but she’s tired of defending her plans to classmates who aren’t nearly as certain of their own.

Instead, she takes a cold beer and leaves the palapa to go explore the rest of the García family chinampa. The sun shines warm on her skin, and her tattoo—a vine etched up her back— seethes along her spine and shoulders, the ink moving down through her right arm to her wrist, like a real plant seeking the light. Lawnmowing only happens on dry days, so everything smells like freshly cut grass. The thumping loudspeaker passes above her head and Axóchitl turns to follow it, wondering about its algorithm. Could it be programmed to float over the waters of the lake?

The loudspeaker leads her back towards the party and begins circling the revelers, chords of salsa trailing in its wake before it pauses above a group of dancers and Axóchitl loses interest. She resumes her exploration, and a girl near the bank of the chinampa catches her eye; she must go to a different school, because Axóchitl’s never seen her before. She’s sitting and staring at the lily pads.

Curious, Axóchitl draws nearer. The girl has dark, chin-length hair and is built on slimmer lines than Axóchitl, but more intriguing than her appearance is the fact that she’s completely absorbed in drawing a frog perched on one of the stakes surrounding the chinampa.

Who comes to a party to sit around and draw?

“Can I help you?” the girl asks, in a voice much deeper than Axóchitl was expecting from her delicate frame. She glances up with small, brown eyes.

“Sorry,” says Axóchitl, flushing. “I didn’t mean to interrupt, I was just looking at your drawing.” The vine on her back shrivels with embarrassment. She’s only had the tattoo for a few months, since she turned eighteen, and she’s still hyper-aware at all times of its position on her body. The other girl notices the vine’s movement, too.

“I’ve heard about those,” she says. “But yours is the first I’ve seen in real life. Oh no!”

Axóchitl follows her gaze to find that the frog has vanished. “Another one’ll come along soon,” she says. “They always hop out to sunbathe on dry days. I’m Axóchitl, by the way. And you are…?”

The girl closes her notebook and puts her pencil behind her ear before responding. “Nesmi. Do you go to school with Richo?”

“We’re in the same class. How do you know him?”

“He’s my cousin,” says Nesmi. “I live over on the banks. I almost never come out to the chinampas.”

Interesting. Axóchitl lives on a small chinampa in the south sector and has a hard time understanding why someone who’s grown up surrounded by water wouldn’t want to explore the lake, but if this girl’s from the outer banks, it means her parents probably believe the future of the city lies only on solid ground.

Axóchitl believes they’re wrong.

Reviving the use of chinampas has been the most important advancement in the past decades, and it represents the very future Axóchitl’s always defending: the use of an Aztec design that, via modern technology, can be integrated into the physical environment. These floating islands, constructed on moveable platforms out of layers of rock and rich soil, have allowed people to both live on and cultivate land away from actual solid land. Axóchitl’s family, like so many others, grow the vegetables that feed the people on the shore.

“So—do you like them?” Axóchitl says, and there’s an uncomfortable pause. “The chinampas, I mean.”

“I do,” says Nesmi. “Whenever I come see Richo, I try to sketch as much as possible.”

“If you’re looking for a good place to draw,” says Axóchitl, who isn’t ready for the conversation to end, “you should try the heart of the lake.”

Behind them, the music changes. Someone’s singing karaoke. Nesmi says, “What’s the heart of the lake?”

“It’s where the City’s main square used to be,” says Axóchitl. “The Zócalo. Some of the taller buildings are still visible above the water, and you can go all the way to the Palace.”

“I thought the Zócalo wasn’t safe. Aren’t there whirlpools?”

“That’s just a story to scare people off—it’s only dangerous if it’s pouring rain. The trick is to go on a dry night, though you’d be fine in a drizzle.” She pauses and says, “I’ve been planning to go on the next dry night, actually. I have to take some measurements for a final project. Do you want to come?”

Axóchitl can’t explain exactly why she makes this offer. The heart of the lake is her place, after all: special, secret. She found it years ago, when a thunderstorm caught her off-guard out on the water and she was forced to take refuge on one of the Centro’s old half-submerged buildings; and realized, after the rain had eased, that she was on the Palace itself. She learned then that the heart of the lake was most beautiful at sunrise. A detail she doesn’t mention now, to Nesmi.

“If you’re curious, I mean,” she says, when Nesmi doesn’t answer. Along her shoulder blades, the vine twists and tickles. The heart of the lake is something special and if Nesmi says no, she’ll truly be missing out—but that truth alone can’t explain why Axóchitl is suddenly so eager to convince her. Sure, she likes being right, but it was easy enough to leave Richo to his one-sided debate; leaving this challenge, on the other hand, feels impossible.

“Well…” Nesmi pauses, and Axóchitl knows she’s won. “It’s really that beautiful?”

“It’s more than beautiful,” Axóchitl says. “It’s transcendent.”

When Nesmi smiles, it brings all her features into sudden focus, so vivid and present it’s as if her face has been tailor-made to do exactly this: to smile. Something flips in Axóchitl’s belly.

“So,” she says, because more than anything else she wants to keep this conversation going. “Are you a senior, too?”

It works. They spend the next hour trading stories: about Axóchitl’s trips around the lake and Nesmi’s life on the outer banks, about Axóchitl’s dreams of engineering and Nesmi’s dreams of studying art, about their friends and their different schools. When she runs out of things to say, Axóchitl asks the first question that comes into her head: “What’s that thing you were drawing with?”

Nesmi looks surprised, but she takes the strange pencil from behind her ear and passes it over. It turns out to be less like a pencil and more like a stylus for a screen, made of metal, with a plastic nib and a little LED light on the other end.

“It’s a colorator,” says Nesmi. “It has a sensor that can scan and save any color you see, so you can draw with them.”

“How does it work?” asks Axóchitl, turning it over in her fingers, trying to understand the mechanisms at play.

Nesmi reaches out and guides the colorator towards the grass. With a little buzz, the LED turns green, and Axóchitl grins. She takes Nesmi’s hand in her own, and with that grass-green ink, writes her usernumber on Nesmi’s palm. Nesmi’s blushing, but she takes the colorator back with a smile.

Richo chooses that moment to interrupt, of course.

He’s come to tell Nesmi her parents are there to take her home, and Axóchitl thinks about offering up a ride, but something holds her back. She’s not sure if it’s the fact of Richo’s presence, or the curious look he’s giving them, or something else. With a quick hug, a kiss on the cheek, and a murmured “I’ll write you soon” that thrills in Axóchitl’s ear, Nesmi is gone.

Later, when the storm is once again raging above the City and Axóchitl is safe at home, she gets a new message. She holds her breath as she opens it and when she sees it’s from Nesmi, she drafts and re-drafts her reply before sending.

After that, and for the next three months, they speak every single evening; but neither of them mention the heart of the lake. Not until the very end of March, when the forecast predicts that a dry night is coming.

Axóchitl’s boat is by no means new, made for stability rather than speed, but its curved, cradlelike shape is plenty comfortable for two. In this moment, Axóchitl wouldn’t mind if it were even a little bit smaller, because then she’d have an excuse to sit closer to Nesmi, who’s perched in front of her on the bow. Nesmi seems nervous, glancing again and again at her watch to check the weather report.

Axóchitl would like to reassure her, to tell her the report always exaggerates the chance of rain, but she, too, is on edge. Not because of the forecast itself, but because she can feel that the air’s grown chilly and humid. She’s not sure if she should offer to turn around before they leave the canals, offer to take Nesmi home to have hot chocolate in the plaza by her house, instead; they don’t need to take this trip tonight.

Except it’s one o’clock in the morning and they’ve both lied to their parents to be here. Axóchitl said she was staying over a friend’s house after a party, and she doesn’t know what lie Nesmi told, but she’s pretty sure this might be their only opportunity and she doesn’t want to waste it.

They’re moving slowly, the motor barely a hum as they zig-zag through the canals, walled-in by the reedy, cattailed banks of the chinampas. Nesmi hasn’t said much since she climbed aboard, and Axóchitl figured this was due to nerves about the weather; but with every passing moment she’s less sure. Silences like this one, silences that Axóchitl can neither interpret nor control, have filled her with doubt these past three months. She doesn’t know if what she’s feeling is all in her head, or if Nesmi feels it too. The first time they had coffee together after school, Axóchitl kept wanting to reach for her hand, but whenever she managed to work up to it Nesmi would start fiddling with her colorator or doodling on the napkins. She’s sworn to herself that tonight she’ll take a risk, because she can’t pretend anymore that a message from Nesmi doesn’t make her happier than anything else in the world.

“You’re pretty quiet,” she says. “Are you feeling okay? Do you want to go back?” She’s praying the answer is no. After all those midnight conversations and the long walks after school, this is finally their chance to be alone.

Nesmi glances again at her watch. Axóchitl’s pink hair is braided in a crown, but Nesmi’s is loose, and the wind whips it across her face when she turns to speak.

“No,” she says. “I said I’d go to the heart of the lake. I’m not backing out now.”

Something inside Axóchitl relaxes, and she smiles. It won’t rain. It will all work out. She’s here with Nesmi in the early hours of the morning; what better sign could she ask for? She steers the boat towards the mouth of a canal, this one much wider than the others, and suddenly there’s nothing around them. In all the darkness, they’re the only light.

“This is awesome during daytime, too,” she says. She’s not so nervous now. “You can see through the water, down onto the buildings and the streets. Everything’s preserved. Have you seen photographs of how the City used to look at night?”

“Yes, my parents had a book when I was little. I couldn’t believe it—all those lights!”

“I know!” says Axóchitl. “I can’t stop thinking about them.” When she’s excited her voice speeds up, each word tumbling out on the heels of the last. “That will be my first big project, making lights you can turn on underwater so the whole City will be illuminated beneath us again.” She grew up on stories of the old City and it isn’t just the glowing image that thrills her imagination, but rather the challenge it presents—rebuilding something so complex.

“How can you tell where we’re going?” Nesmi says, squinting out into the darkness.

“Oh, don’t you worry,” says Axóchitl. The exit she’s looking for is getting close and she speeds up little by little, trying not to frighten Nesmi, then steers the boat so that the lights along the gunnel illuminate the entrance to another canal on their right. She counts under her breath until the third exit, then executes an abrupt turn, calculating the exact moment they’re spat from the mouth of the canal into the open water. Once they’re free she accelerates without warning and Nesmi shrieks, a sound halfway between joy and terror, while Axóchitl laughs in wild delight. She weaves the boat back and forth as the first buildings begin to loom. The lake covers the ancient avenues and streets, but any building over five stories rises up from the surface of the water. From ashore they look like dark figures, abandoned and silent.

“Are you seeing all this?” Axóchitl asks Nesmi’s back. But if there’s a response, Axóchitl can’t hear it over the motor, and she begins to slow, hoping Nesmi’s eyes are open for what comes next—the moment the tall buildings light up. Here and there, the cracked windows are beginning to glow far above them, and Axóchitl stares up, trying to guess the heights of the massive silhouettes surrounding their boat.

“How…?” says Nesmi, turning to look at her. Her small brown eyes are alert, amazed. The cold wind blows her hair across her face but she doesn’t move to fix it, and Axóchitl knows exactly how she feels. She felt the same the first time she came here all those years ago. A new world had opened itself in front of her, and with that world came a desire to know it—to know it so deeply she could call it her own. Her heart pounds to think she’s sharing this feeling now with Nesmi.

“There are people who can’t afford to live on the shore, so they live out on whatever the lake doesn’t cover. There’s a ton of them, and the majority are here, on Insurgentes. It used to be the longest street in the world. We’re passing over it right now.”

The lights shine down on the water, glancing off the boat’s wake as it passes, and Nesmi takes out her colorator to try and capture that brilliant gold. Axóchitl slows even further so the rumble of the motor won’t overpower the sounds of music and conversation that drift down from the windows.

“So?” she asks, struck by sudden doubt. “What do you think?”

She isn’t used to being this nervous, but she can’t read Nesmi like she can read other people, and she’s been going over this plan in her head ever since Nesmi agreed to come, imagining and re-imagining which path they’d take to the heart of the lake, what sights she’d show Nesmi along the way. And when Nesmi turns, with her brilliant smile and her shining eyes, Axóchitl is almost certain that she understands what Axóchitl is trying to show her: that sharing the secrets of the lake means sharing something between the two of them, as well.

“You were right,” says Nesmi. “It was worth the trip.”

The vine on Axóchitl’s back twists and blooms with pleasure. Does Nesmi realize that Axóchitl changed her outfit three times that night? That she asked her mother to braid her hair because she wanted so badly to look pretty? Maybe she hasn’t made her feelings clear enough, but Nesmi’s smile gives her courage.

“I was surprised when you said you’d come.”

Nesmi looks out at the buildings, quiet again, and Axóchitl manages to contain herself instead of blurting out the questions that burn in her stomach. Does Nesmi know what this trip means to her? Why all these sudden silences, why do Nesmi’s smiles keep fading? Axóchitl keeps feeling like she’s missed a step.

“Don’t get me wrong,” she says hastily. “I’m really happy you’re here.”

“So am I,” says Nesmi. “Plus, you were driving me crazy, heart of the lake this, heart of the lake that…I had to shut you up somehow, and this was the only way.”

Axóchitl’s laugh rises above the sound of the motor. “Not the only way,” she says, and is grateful for the darkness covering the fact that she’s flushed to her ears.

Between the conversation and the sight-seeing, it’s been some time since Nesmi checked the weather, and the sound of the storm alarm shocks them both.

“Shit,” says Axóchitl. “How much time do we have?”

“They’re saying fifteen minutes.”

“So, more like ten. Stupid forecast. You want to try and turn back? We’ll get a little rained-on, but I’ve been out in worse.” Her heart thumps faster. “Or we could find shelter nearby and wait for it to pass.”

Axóchitl knows what she herself wants: she wants time with Nesmi, as much of it as possible, she wants to spend the night out on the lake with her so they can reach the Palace as dawn breaks over the water. But if Nesmi wants to go back, Axóchitl will turn around without a second thought, even if it breaks something inside her.

Nesmi says, “I don’t want to go back.”

The flowers on Axóchitl’s vine unfurl their petals at her neck and she changes course. They’re going faster than before: Nesmi clings to the side of the boat and Axóchitl doesn’t tell her there are moments when she, too, is afraid. The current always gets stronger when the wind picks up like this before a rain, and once or twice she feels the tug of a whirlpool. She stays quiet and focuses on navigating between the waves, picturing the axes of the centrifugal forces surrounding them so she can react whenever she feels the boat veer out of her control. Her heart is pounding in her ears by the time she finally pulls up in front of one of the abandoned buildings. The windows have shattered, so they’ll be able to get inside.

Axóchitl tells Nesmi to climb up onto the ledge and help pull the boat closer, then passes her a string of lights and two blankets. Between the two of them they manage to drag the boat into the depths of what was once an office building, and by the time they’re far enough from the windows that the storm won’t touch them, it’s started raining. They climb onto a leftover conference table where the lake’s tide can’t reach them, and dry themselves off with one of the blankets. Safe in their little nest, they watch the water lap across the floor.

The storm rolls in with a fury, as it always does after a dry period. The wind howls and intermittent lightning illuminates the corners of the abandoned room. Axóchitl looks at her watch, the green light shining back on her face.

“We’ll be here a while,” she says. “I hope you’re comfortable.”

They’re huddled together under a single blanket, surrounded by the string of lights.

“Too bad we don’t like talking to each other or anything,” says Nesmi.

“Such a shame,” agrees Axóchitl. Then, “Did I tell you what my mother did the other day?”

She’s surprised at how easy this feels, how familiar, and she settles back, her shoulder pressed against Nesmi’s arm. They’ve never been this close. Even so, the same old questions seethe beneath the words of her anecdote: What does this mean to you? What’s going on in your head? Are you trembling, like I am? Instead of giving voice to all her doubts, Axóchitl snuggles closer, and for the first time in her life, the prospect of hours of rain feels like a gift.

When she thinks back, Axóchitl won’t be able to pinpoint the exact moment the air changes between them. They’re so close, so quiet. Nesmi’s head is resting on Axóchitl’s shoulder, the blanket wrapped warm and tight around them. When Axóchitl takes Nesmi’s hand, the vine coils down her wrist, and for a second she thinks the tattoo will continue on its path, flowing over her hand and through Nesmi’s own fingers, connecting them. Instead, the ink grows hot between their linked palms. She looks up.

For an instant, they’re just two pairs of warm eyes meeting in cold space. Then the air goes electric, the hot and cold fronts colliding, that crackling tension like the seconds before thunder, a wave, a charge coursing across their skin.

They kiss.

Around them the silence shatters. They’re flooded, the water surging from the underbelly of the drowned City, rushing through the buildings and covering the streets, filling every empty corner. Can Tláloc summon storms inside a body? Can he summon storms between the two of them?

Nesmi is the first to pull away for long enough to take a breath, her eyes closed and her forehead resting against Axóchitl’s.

She doesn’t want to open her eyes, or move, or do anything to break this moment. She wants to stay right here, breathing in the air Axóchitl breathes out. Just a few seconds more, though she knows it can’t last. Nesmi has kept her secret all these months, avoiding any talk of the future, telling herself it didn’t matter, they were just friends, no need to say anything; but now, after such a kiss, she can’t hide anymore.

“I have to tell you something.” She keeps her eyes closed but her voice shakes. “I’m moving to the United States in September.”

Nesmi feels Axóchitl drop her hand. In one movement they’re no longer touching, and when Nesmi opens her eyes, it’s to Axóchitl’s expression of pure hurt and confusion. She’s suddenly very cold. Her temperature has never fallen so quickly.

When the rain stops, dawn is nearing.

Nesmi has explained herself as best as possible, she’s told Axóchitl about the art school in Colorado, what an incredible opportunity it is and how she’s planning to come back someday. She’s explained how she only got word of her acceptance a week ago, which is why she didn’t mention her plans earlier, because nothing was certain, nothing was fixed, but now it is. Axóchitl listens to her, but afterwards she rises and silently begins loading everything back into the boat. The blankets, the lights.

“We should probably go,” she says.

This is why Nesmi was afraid to tell her. She knows Axóchitl won’t understand why she wants to leave; or rather, why her parents want her to leave, why they want her to look for a better future, far from this dying City. Before meeting Axóchitl, the idea of moving abroad had filled her with excitement—but now, after spending the last few months listening to stories about the lake, learning its history, she longs to better know the City of her birth, and she can no longer imagine herself leaving without plans to return.

“Do we have to go back?” she asks, her voice soft.

New leaves begin to peek from the collar of Axóchitl’s sweater. Maybe it’s silly, but this isn’t the first time Nesmi’s tried to read Axóchitl’s feelings in her tattoo, and when the leaves shrink as Axóchitl stows the blankets and puts away the string of lights, it seems like a bad sign. Nesmi remembers how the pink and purple flowers felt as they bloomed beneath her fingers. She’d have liked to study them, to take the colorator and capture their precise shade.

“Axó…” she tries.

“It’s going to rain again in a few hours.” Axóchitl turns to her, arms crossed, face unreadable. “We can’t stay here.”

“I know, but…I’m sorry. I made it weird between us.”

There’s a small pause, nothing but the sound of the waves lapping against the boat, one after another, and Nesmi counts them, trying to distract herself from the silence.

Axóchitl breaks it. “Why didn’t you tell me?”

She sounds so resigned, as if nothing Nesmi says could possibly fix this.

“I don’t know. You’re always saying how important it is to stay, and…I wanted to see the heart of the lake with you before I left. I was scared if I told you, you wouldn’t take me.”

Axóchitl looks at her for a moment, then turns to finish packing up the lights. Nesmi doesn’t offer to help. There’s a pressure in her chest. She knows how this will end. Ever since she met Axóchitl at Richo’s party, she understood it was a mistake to get so close when she was leaving so soon—but she convinced herself she could keep it friendly, nothing more. She ought to just let Axóchitl go home now, spare her any more pain, but after all the weeks of talking, after all the hours spent in darkness, she can’t bear to let it end so abruptly.

“I’m not leaving until August,” she says. “I know it’s not much time, but…”

The pressure in her chest grows. Likely it will keep growing, month after month, until, when she’s finally at the airport, it will explode. But the idea of never seeing Axóchitl again, of leaving the City unexplored in the little time remaining to her, is worse. She doesn’t know if Axóchitl will be able to forgive her—or, even if she does, if she’ll want to spend these last few months together.

Axóchitl looks through the cracked windows, to the south. To the shore, to their homes. Then she looks north. The clouds are beginning to thin.

“What do you want to do?” she says, eyes still fixed on the horizon.

Nesmi’s pretty sure this is a test. What Axóchitl is asking is if she’s willing to risk another storm, willing to risk the danger of navigating through the rain; she’s asking if Nesmi trusts Axóchitl to keep her safe, if she trusts her that the heart of the lake will be worth the journey.

“I want to go to the heart of the lake.”

She thinks she sees the hint of a purple flower on Axóchitl’s collarbone as she turns to meet her eyes.

“Are you sure?”

Nesmi glances at her watch. The probability of rain is high and getting higher, it’s not unlikely they’ll get caught in another storm, but she says, “I’m sure.”

They arrive at the heart of the lake just as the sky is clearing. Nesmi’s trying to stay calm, trying not to regret her rash decision. Axóchitl guides the boat up to an old building that has three floors above the water. She ties the boat to a pillar and leaps out onto a metal staircase that quivers beneath her weight.

“The best view is up here,” she says.

They climb the stairs and go inside, passing through hallways that appear to have belonged to an old department store. It’s empty save for a few abandoned mannequins, and there’s enough light coming in through the eastern windows to let them see where they’re going. Axóchitl turns a corner and—suddenly they’re outside, on a terrace. A low roof covers nearly a third of it, and metal chairs and benches are still neatly arranged along the floor—but the skeletons of umbrellas, the cloth rotted from their tines, gives the place an air of neglect.

Axóchitl leads her to one of the benches overlooking the lake, and suddenly there it is, right before Nesmi’s eyes: the Palace. Only the upper portion is visible, its walls made of white stone with the shadowed curve of an archway half-hidden beneath the water. The three domes of the roof are made of a stained glass that changes color from the base upwards, going from white to yellow to orange to red. Atop the highest dome sits a dark angel. The Palace was once known as Bellas Artes, and people used to stand in line for hours, waiting to go inside and see exhibitions of the most important painters in the world. They’d roam its marble corridors and fill its concert halls to hear an orchestra or see a ballet.

Axóchitl’s voice is quiet as she describes this, but the images are so vivid that Nesmi swears she can see it unfolding before her. Through the water she sees the rest of the Palace, the windows, the arches, the columns, the plaza, everything flickering below the reflection of the green-brown mountains that rise in the distance. Silhouettes of half-flooded buildings are dark against their bright peaks.

“It’s beautiful,” says Nesmi, her arm resting across Axóchitl’s shoulders.

Axóchitl smiles and then looks around. “We should leave our mark,” she says.

She takes the colorator from behind Nesmi’s ear and aims it at one of the purple flowers on her own arm. She turns to write their names in purple on the back of the bench and when she’s finished, she climbs to her feet and offers Nesmi her hand, like she’s ready to leave. The sun is warm and comforting against their skin, but the forecast says rain in half an hour, rain that likely won’t let up for days. Nesmi knows this, but though she takes Axóchitl’s hand, she doesn’t move to leave.

“I think we can stay a few minutes more,” she says, and the vine curls down Axóchitl’s wrist until it’s touching her hand. Nesmi’s sure she can feel it pulse beneath her fingers. “I heard a rumor you like being out in a drizzle.”

The dome and its reflection are huge and shimmering before them, and Nesmi doesn’t want to go. Not yet. Axóchitl smiles, and the vine blossoms into pink and purple flowers.

“Ten minutes,” she says, and puts her head on Nesmi’s shoulder. “Tell me more about this art school.”

They say that with the end of spring comes longer dry periods, so spring is the best time to visit the City. In spring the rain subsides and the lake begins to show its secrets. Tourists come from every part of the world to see the mysteries of the flooded streets. They take out glass-bottomed boats and leave the shore for the heart of the lake, staring down into submerged buildings that glow with a network of underwater lights. They try to imagine what the City looked like before the lake, when it was so bright it outshone the stars.

The tours linger over old houses and the remains of monuments, and the guides explain the local legends: the biggest city in the world, the rain that didn’t stop for years, the chinampas that retook the lake. When they arrive at the last stop, in front of Bellas Artes, dawn breaks. The tourists sit on the terrace to drink coffee and warm up before they make the trip back. Along with the view, they can take in the drawings of young artists that cover the walls of the café: a swimming axolotl, a pink and purple bougainvillea growing above the threshold of a door, a mural of the City by night. The terrace’s benches and floors are covered with graffiti left by visitors who’ve scrawled their names across every available surface.

They say dry nights are full of possibility, and those whose names are written here will meet again.

Towered

Day 1

I think I’ll grow my hair.

 

Day 2

Should my hair be growing this fast? I wish I had someone to ask. But yesterday, it was above my shoulders, and today…well, today, it’s brushing the small of my back.

How does hair even work, anyway?

 

Day 3

I’ve got really good at braiding.

 

Day 4

I’m baking bread. We’re all baking bread. I live at the top of a tower block of apartments, twenty floors high. The scent of fresh-baked bread comes in through the vents, through the barely cracked windows, through the floorboards.

I eat bread, and braid my hair, and watch the tiny people out of my window.

This is my life now.

 

Day 5

They used to explain why, with every lockdown, every enforced isolation period. There used to be charts and maps and lists. TV—remember TV?—was a non-stop broadcast of why, and when, and what to do next. Who was essential enough to leave their homes. Who must stay put, until told otherwise.

This time, there wasn’t much at all. A leaflet under the door. A siren in the air.

I think perhaps they don’t want to explain because then they’d have to admit what is happening. It’s not a virus this time. It’s something else, something no one wants to say out loud.

I can’t say for sure. But last time I looked out the window, watching the tiny people below, the small handful of emergency personnel (uniformed, masked, geo-tagged) or licensed delivery people allowed to walk across bridges, cross each other’s paths, exist in the real world… I’m certain I saw one of them transform into a bear.

A while later, another grew large, too large, teetering on giant feet.

One security guard outside our own building grew so small I could no longer see them at all. Shrunk to the size of a mouse? Or actually transformed into a mouse?

I’m so high up. I can’t be sure.

And yet.

I know.

 

Day 6

It’s possible I’ve been reading too many fairy tales.

 

Day 7

Can anyone ever really read too many fairy tales?

 

Day 8

I do not consider myself a collector, and yet I have so many books, in every room. Fairy tales, all of them: classic collections, picture books, vintage tomes, modern retellings.

If I’m a collector, does that mean I’m not an obsessive?

All I have to read is here. Which is fine, because this is all I have ever read, for as long as I can remember. Fairy tales on fairy tales on fairy tales.

But now we can’t go out, now the broadcasts have turned into static and the internet has given up the ghost…

(How many bars do you have? My devices flatlined on Day 1.)

Now we live in a new world order where ordinary citizens can’t leave our apartment towers, and those essential workers still allowed outside keep transforming into things that aren’t people…

There’s no way to get new books.

So, this is it. All the books I’m ever going to read, here against my walls in shelves and stacks. This is the final collection.

And I wonder: if all I have to read is fairy tales for the rest of my life, then either that’s a terrible coincidence, or somehow I knew the future was going to look like this.

 

Day 9

It’s possible I am in fact a collector of books about fairy tales. What other explanation is there?

 

Day 10

I saw a person today. He flew past my window, tiny as a bird with buzzing wings. His face was quite clearly the same as the last delivery person who brought me noodles from the local place.

(The local place no longer answers my calls. I still have a landline, but no one’s ever on the other end. It rings and rings.)

Perhaps if I make friends with the tiny flying people, they’ll bring me acorns and sugar water and keep me alive.

 

Day 11

My grocery order, made by phone eight days ago, finally arrived. I did not see who delivered the bags to my door, but I heard hoof beats and what sounded like a horse’s neigh just around the corner, heading for the lift.

I have to think it was a magical horse. I don’t think anyone’s ever convinced a non-magical horse to use a lift in a tower block.

At least I have ramen, and apples, and eggs. Life could be worse.

 

Day 12

Today it rained rose petals, from 11am until 4 in the afternoon.

I have questions.

 

Day 13

Today I turned a teacup into a frog.

I turned an egg into a tiny baby dragon who hid from me behind the spoons.

I turned a handful of my own hair into a plate of shortbreads that I couldn’t quite bring myself to eat.

Apparently, I am a witch now.

That feels like progress.

 

Day 14

My hair is now so long that it doesn’t always follow me from room to room. It swirls around the lamp and the chair, stays put while I walk from the bathroom to the fridge and the bookshelves and back again.

At bedtime I have to walk backwards, retracing my steps, to unravel myself from the furniture. It’s time to cut my hair.

 

Day 15

Cutting my hair was a mistake.

 

Day 16

Yes, yes, every time I cut it, it grows faster, I get it now. I’ve read that story.

Thanks very bloody much, E. Nesbit.

 

Day 17

Today I pushed my hair out of the window. It billowed and fell in tumbling, golden waves. Some of it braided. Some of it tangled. Some of it threaded through sleeves of garments and indoor plants and sewing projects I’ll never see again.

My hair fell and it kept falling, over the edge to the street below.

I’m not getting out of this tower any other way. I know that now.

 

Day 18

Last time I walked as far as the lift, the buttons failed to respond. There used to be a set of emergency stairs, but the door has disappeared.

That was days ago, before I gave up on escape. When I thought perhaps my final hope was pushing my hair out the window.

Maybe someone would climb it. Maybe someone would solve my problem for me. Maybe someone would pull me to my death.

Fairy tales are all about innovation and hope. Aren’t they? Sometimes they’re about kindness.

I’ve read so many fairy tales, it’s possible that I failed to take the most important message of all away from them.

Stories are not real life.

No one’s coming to save me.

 

Day 19

Today, I climbed out of the window.

I wound my hair around and around the curtain hooks to hold it fast, then I hung from it, so I could cut myself off my hair and not the other way around.

Then I climbed out, clinging to the window ledge, as my body began to grow instead of the hair. Faster and faster. I grew heavy, leaden. My limbs extended. My weight made the building creak.

Finally, large enough, I stepped down into the street.

Safe. Free.

Now I am a giant woman, standing astride the city, still growing.

I saved myself, but who will save the city from me?

 

Are you wondering how I knew I could make myself grow? The answer is simple: I read it in a book.

Day ???

Here we are again.

What did you miss?

I grew so large that the city broke beneath my weight, so large that air went thin and breathing became impossible. When I fell, I became a force of nature. Destruction. Damage. Earthquake. Cavernous ravine.

I fell, and the continent screamed beneath me.

Act of—well, no. Not god. Fairy tale, perhaps.

Act of fairy tale.

Do I regret it?

Ask me again in the future.

 

After I fell, I slept. And when I awoke—now, whatever day this is—I found that someone, some brave and hardy soul, had cut my hair in my sleep. Don’t ask me what they used. Helicopters? War planes. A single axe, over and over, cutting through a single hair like it was an ageless redwood. Something clever like that.

 

Now my hair is growing again, and I have returned to standard human height. Here I sit. Weighing next to nothing, comparatively speaking. Trapped in another tower.

This one is not an apartment block.

Someone built this tower out of the remains of a city that fell to the fairy tale plague. It’s made from spindles and gold balls and thorns and dead wolves. It’s made from straw and sticks and bricks.

My hair whorls out beyond the walls and windows, ever-growing, an ocean of myself, pushing outwards. The world will drown in my hair, eventually.

Here I remain, trapped inside, with nothing to read.

 

Day 31

They sent a prince to solve the problem that is me with mathematics and measuring. Apparently, he read the solution in a book. A good sign all around: people still read fairy tales.

I probably shouldn’t have turned him into a frog, but I was having a bad day.

 

Day 47

Today, no one came to save me or to kill me, which makes a change from recent events.

It’s time to save myself. Again.

If that means saving the world from me at the same time, well. Things can be two things at the same time.

They have left me nothing—no food, no water. Nothing I could possibly work magic upon. Nothing I could transform. Except the tower for itself, the hair on my head, the skin on my bones.

I bit a piece of fingernail from my hair, and transformed it into a gleaming, shining sword.

And then…well.

You know what I did next.

You probably read it in a book.

I cut my hair from my head, and my head from my hair, at the same time. The sword swished. The blade cut.

And after that…

I was unstoppable.

Bramblewilde

“There is only one thing to do,” Mrs. Rothchild said. “We must pay a visit to Bramblewilde.”

So Mrs. Rothchild raised her most intimidating parasol, and Mrs. Wollstonecraft wrapped herself in her embroidered cloak, and Mrs. Clarke fetched her straw hat trimmed with a bit of this and that from her husband’s shop, and together they set off to call on the fairy.

At that time, Bramblewilde lived in a cottage at the edge of town—a cottage covered in a riot of roses and blackberries, with hives of bees who produced the most golden honey imaginable. No one then living remembered how or when or why the fairy came to live in the cottage, rather than in Faerieland where they belonged. But their spells and charms could be relied upon to work—if not quite in the way one expected—and so Bramblewilde and the town lived in dubious mutual beneficence.

When Mrs. Rothchild, Wollstonecraft, and Clarke knocked on their cottage’s door, Bramblewilde was checking the aging of their blackberry cordial. They shook the bottle, bits of pulpy fruit bobbing in the purple liquid, residual sugar washing back and forth. They stuck one long finger into the mix to taste. They smacked their lips. Nearly done.

“And won’t you be surprised,” Bramblewilde chuckled, replacing the bottle on its shelf.

They opened the door.

Mrs. Rothchild, Wollstonecraft, and Clarke struck their most imposing postures.

“We’re here about our daughters,” Mrs. Rothchild said, shoving her way into Bramblewilde’s stone-flagged kitchen. Bundles of herbs and snared rabbits swung from the rafters overhead.

“They refuse to listen to reason,” Mrs. Wollstonecraft said, wringing her hands.

“They forget their place!” Mrs. Clarke scowled.

“Frankly,” Mrs. Rothchild said, “I fear they are unmarriageable.” She snapped her parasol closed and sniffed with distain at Bramblewilde’s loose curls and shapeless shift.

Bramblewilde smiled a long, slow, sideways smile. “Oh? I’ve heard rumors—”

“They are witches,” Mrs. Rothchild cut them off with a purse of her lips.

“And dear friends,” Mrs. Wollstonecraft said.

“Rebellious heathens,” Mrs. Clarke grumbled. Mrs. Rothchild poked her ankle with the parasol.

“Sit,” Bramblewilde said. “Tell me more.” They indicated a group of rough wooden chairs around their kitchen table, though they themselves continued to rummage around the room, one pointed ear half-cocked to the women.

“You know who we are, I suppose?” Mrs. Rothchild asked.

Bramblewilde cut their long green eyes at her. “You I know.”

Mrs. Rothchild was the wife of the town’s richest citizen: the renowned Wizard Rothchild. To her everlasting regret, it had been he who first introduced their daughter to the Art.

“And that, I believe,” Bramblewilde licked their teeth, “is the vicar’s wife there.” They nodded to Mrs. Wollstonecraft.

Mrs. Wollstonecraft inclined her head.

Unlike many, the Reverend Wollstonecraft saw no contradiction in the study of the Art with that of the Gospel. From the beginning he’d noticed his daughter’s keen intellect and encouraged her education—the result being, of course, this visit to Bramblewilde.

“And this,” Mrs. Rothchild gestured to Mrs. Clarke, who pulled herself up and tried to look important, “is the wife of the poorer haberdasher.” Mrs. Clarke deflated.

Mr. Clarke had once taken a book of spells in payment for his best hat. The book now sat in pride of place on a little cloth-covered table in the sitting room, enduring many a dark glance and muttered curse from Mrs. Clarke.

“I imagine your daughters are quite powerful,” Bramblewilde said, “the three together.” Their eyes flared in the dim kitchen.

“Morgana’s love spells are famed throughout the county,” Mrs. Rothchild said, pinching the bridge of her nose. “When I tried to teach her embroidery, she turned every panel into a spell, pricking her fingers and bleeding over the thread.”

“Minerva is so clever,” Mrs. Wollstonecraft sighed. “Yesterday I heard her correct Mr. Darnley on his translation of Ovid.” She bit her lip. “I tried to interest her in some more womanly arts, like music, but I’m afraid her plinking at the harpsichord is as tedious as a metronome.” She made a pained face, her eyes welling with tears. “And do you know—she had hidden another book behind the sheet music!”

Mrs. Clarke patted her on the back and clucked sympathetically. “Millicent’s great bloody owl has ruined all my carpets,” she said.

Bramblewilde blinked.

“Her familiar.” Mrs. Rothchild rolled her eyes.

“What is it you want?” Bramblewilde asked.

“Husbands.” Mrs. Clarke’s eyes gleamed.

“We fear, without your assistance, the girls will become spinsters.” Mrs. Wollstonecraft shook her head.

“And we want them,” Mrs. Rothchild said, “as soon as may be arranged. While there is still time for grandchildren.”

“Very well.” Bramblewilde said. “I will need something of value from each of you, then. And you must make a promise—no—you must solemnly swear to never harm, harangue, or try to coax or bring away by force an occupant of this cottage, no matter what becomes of the magic.”

The women swore.

“Good,” Bramblewilde said. “And for the tokens…” From Mrs. Rothchild they took a pearl-headed hatpin. From Mrs. Wollstonecraft, a handkerchief she’d embroidered before her wedding. And from Mrs. Clarke—to her great horror—Bramblewilde took the gold ring she wore on her right hand.

“These,” Bramblewilde said, “will ensure your daughters marry the men I find for them.” They secreted the tokens away in some pocket of their shift. “But the magic will not work so well on your husbands.” They took three little jars of honey down from a shelf and handed one to each woman. “If they have questions, feed them this.”

The women took the honey gratefully, as if they could already hear their husbands’ protestations.

“It’s a nice place you have here,” Mrs. Clarke said as they stood to leave. She eyed the doorways speculatively, as if wondering how many rooms the cottage might contain.

“Very well-kept,” Mrs. Wollstonecraft said, her eyes on the shining copper pans.

Mrs. Rothchild popped the door open and raised her parasol with a snap. “Worth being thrown out of Faerieland?” she quipped.

Bramblewilde whirled, their sharp teeth bared. “That is a lie!” They mastered themselves before adding, “I left.” They slammed the door in the women’s faces.

Mrs. Rothchild raised her eyebrows.

The following Monday, a young man was seen alighting from a carriage in the Rothchilds’ front drive. “Mr. Lambe, for Miss Morgana,” he said to the footman who opened the door. “I am expected.” He had wild brown poet’s locks and flashing green eyes, and he wore a suit of the most exquisite tailoring. The only strange thing about him was a gaudy pearl stickpin, a full six inches long, thrust through his cravat.

Morgana was ushered into her mother’s best parlor to speak with him, rather confused, and thus inclined to be indignant—though not so much that the spectacular sight of Mr. Lambe lounging on her mother’s powder blue sofa did nothing to mollify her. She took a seat beside him.

“What can I do for you?” she asked. “I’m not sure we’ve been introduced—”

Mr. Lambe tugged the pin from his cravat, and—poof!—there was Bramblewilde!

Morgana recoiled with a shriek. “Bramblewilde! Put the stickpin back at once. And next time, warn me before you become something so alarming as your true self!”

Bramblewilde replaced the pin, chuckling all the while. “My apologies, Miss Morgana,” they said as Mr. Lambe.

“Whatever are you doing here? And looking like that?”

Bramblewilde spread their hands. “Your mother recently came to me with a request. It seems she believes it time you marry.” They shrugged. “By whatever magical means necessary.”

“That bitch,” Morgana hissed. “I’ll show her whatever magical means—”

“Yes, yes,” Bramblewilde interrupted, waving one hand. “That’s why I’m here.”

Morgana narrowed her eyes. “What are you talking about?”

Bramblewilde seemed surprised. “Why, your emancipation, of course!”

“Go on.”

“You don’t wish to marry.”

“Obviously.” Morgana rolled her eyes. “To be tied to one man forever—how tedious!”

“And a witch of your caliber—the talk of your love spells has singed even my pointed ears—would be hard to trick into love.”

Morgana tossed her head.

“And so I am willing to cut you a deal. You may marry me—as Mr. Lambe—and come into your inheritance. All a sham, of course, but a sham that will satisfy your mother and get you out of her house, and your hand in the bank account as well! You could even say I died afterwards,” they added, inspired, “and set yourself up as a wealthy widow.” Bramblewilde rubbed their hands together. “All I would need in return is that you use your skills to do one little thing…”

In the second-best parlor, the Wizard Rothchild asked, “Who was that at the door? He asked for Morgana.”

“A suitor.” Mrs. Rothchild simpered.

“He looked a devilish rake to me.” The Wizard Rothchild narrowed his eyes. “I suppose he’s wealthy?”

“As Croesus.” Mrs. Rothchild beamed, busily stirring a bit of honey into her husband’s tea.

“When the lion falls in love with the lamb,” Bramblewilde chuckled as they danced a jig at their front gate, waving Mrs. Rothchild’s hatpin triumphantly in the air. “When you build me a palace of paper to live in! When you bottle sunlight and cage the night, then…Then!

“Ha ha!” The gate banged shut behind them. “Tie my hands with a geas, would you? I’ll show you…”

That Wednesday afternoon, a young curate knocked on the Wollstonecraft’s door. He wore a somber suit of black, with a wide-brimmed hat covering his brown curls. His long hands were folded in front of his waist in a dignified manner. The only strange thing about him was a faded handkerchief poking out of his breast pocket—a handkerchief embroidered with feminine violets and curls.

“Mr. Bridewell. I’m here to see Miss Minerva,” he said when the servant girl opened the door. He was shown into the sitting room where the family had gathered. “I am the curate at Farmbrook,” he explained to the Reverend Wollstonecraft. “I had the privilege of meeting the lovely Minerva when she was staying with her aunt there.”

Minerva said nothing, only watched him narrowly from a corner by the hearth, her book open on her lap.

“The curate of Farmbrook?” Reverend Wollstonecraft asked. “I’ve never heard your name before.” He eyed Mr. Bridewell beadily. “What are your intentions regarding my Minerva? You’re aware of her unique education, I suppose?”

Mrs. Wollstonecraft coughed pointedly. “Dearest—Mayfield’s made us some scones. Why don’t you come with me into the morning room and have a few with that honey I got from our neighbor, and leave the young people to their reunion?” She took her husband’s elbow.

Once he and Minerva were alone, Mr. Bridewell pulled the handkerchief from his pocket and—poof!—there was Bramblewilde!

“I thought so,” Minerva said, calmly setting her book down on the hearth.

Bramblewilde explained her mother’s visit. “But it’s clear to me you are ill-suited to the life of housewife,” they said.

“I confess honorary membership in the local Latin lending libraries and Magical Societies holds much greater appeal,” Minerva said dryly.

Bramblewilde flourished their handkerchief with a sigh. “You and your dear friends must encounter male censure everywhere.”

“We have ways of dealing with it,” Minerva said, though her eyes blazed with passion as she gazed at the handkerchief. “Morgana and I need only begin chanting—any old nonsense will do—to clear a whole room of tiresome detractors.”

Bramblewilde raised their eyebrows, their long feet tapping on the parquet floor. “Still, it would be useful, wouldn’t it—my handkerchief?”

“What is it you’re proposing, Bramblewilde?”

“That you marry me—as Mr. Bridewell. And after we are married, I will take you away from your mother’s house, where you may live freely.”

“In your cottage,” Minerva said. “And you’ll give me the handkerchief?”

“If you wish.” Bramblewilde smiled a long, slow, sideways smile. “Your mother said you were the clever one.”

“What is it you want in return, then?”

“When the lion falls in love with the lamb, when you build me a palace of paper to live in,” Bramblewilde chuckled as they danced a jig in at their front gate, Mrs. Wollstonecraft’s handkerchief tied around their neck. “When you bottle sunlight and cage the night, then…Then! Ha ha!”

The gate banged shut behind them. “I’ll build you a palace of paper to live in…”

On Friday night, a prosperous tradesman, with winking eyes and a cheerful brown face, swaggered in at the Clarkes’ gate. The curious neighbors could tell he was a prosperous tradesman because he wore a soft felt hat and a red jacket, and he had a shiny gold ring on the littlest finger of his right hand.

He whistled a jaunty tune, calling Millicent’s name under all the likely windows.

“Confound that racket!” Mr. Clarke cried. “Who the devil is that?”

Mrs. Clarke poked her head out the door. “I suppose you’d better come in,” she laughed.

The tradesman, who called himself Mr. Miller, was shown into the kitchen. Millicent stood at the table, feeding the resident mice to her owl.

“Saw her at market, did you?” Mr. Clarke scowled.

“Not at all, sir.” Mr. Miller swept off his hat in a bow. “I’m old Barnaby’s son—you know, your former business partner Barnaby? I’ve recently had some success in a business of my own, and have come to ask for Miss Millicent’s hand.”

Millicent looked askance.

“Who?” Mr. Clarke asked. “I don’t recall dealings with any Barnaby—”

“None of your airs!” Mrs. Clarke snapped at her daughter. She threaded her arm through her husband’s, who looked ready to launch into a long-winded speech on the history and causes of his modest success. “Come with me into the sitting room, dear. We’ll have a couple of those slices of honeycake.”

Once the Clarkes were out of earshot, Mr. Miller slipped the ring from his hand, and—poof!—there was Bramblewilde! He laughed delightedly at the look on Millicent’s face. The mouse wriggled from her hand and ran away across the tabletop, squeaking with alarm.

“The son of an old business partner, indeed!” Millicent sank into her seat. Her owl ruffled its feathers in a huff. “What tricks are you up to now, Bramblewilde?”

As Bramblewilde recounted her mother’s visit, tears welled in Millicent’s eyes.

“But I don’t wish to marry at all! I’m in love with—” She looked away, biting her lip.

“Ah!” Bramblewilde smiled. “I see.” They patted Millicent’s hand. “What if I told you there was a way you may live with the object of your affection—for the rest of your life, if you wish?”

Millicent stared at them, her eyes round. “How?”

Bramblewilde leaned back in their chair and put up their feet. “I’ve already cut a deal with her, and I’m here to offer the same to you. I could use your services, madam.” They nodded at the exasperated owl. “Or those of your familiar, at least. Do what I ask, and I will marry you—as Mr. Miller—and take you away from this pokey place to live with your love.”

“When the lion falls in love with the lamb, when you build me a palace of paper to live in, when you bottle sunlight and cage the night, then…” Bramblewilde chuckled as they danced a jig at their front gate, tossing Mrs. Clarke’s ring up and down. “Then you may rule Faerieland!”

Two weeks later, on a Friday, Morgana Rothchild was married to the mysterious Mr. Lambe in a ceremony talked about throughout the county for the next ten years. The bride carried, tucked into her nosegay, a strange and rather tawdry snarl of plaited ribbons, torn strips from Mr. Lambe’s cravat, and strands of brown hair. As the vows were exchanged, a dark-eyed girl in the audience wept openly. Afterwards, Morgana was carried away in a fine phaeton and rarely seen again.

That Sunday, Minerva Wollstonecraft wed Mr. Bridewell in a small service held in her father’s chapel. After the vows were exchanged and the wedding breakfast eaten, Minerva was carried away in a neat gig, presumably to the Farmbrook rectory, and not seen again—for quite some time, at least.

And Monday morning, Millicent Clarke married Mr. Miller in a quiet affair held in the sitting room behind her father’s shop. Afterwards, the giddy bride and her ruffled owl were carried away in a gaily painted cart strung with fluttering ribbons and bells, and never seen again—at least, not in town.

Now, a rake may make a good husband, if he is handsome and wealthy enough, and the name of a curate may slip a vicar’s mind. But, Mrs. Clark thought, to forget the name of a former business associate and his eligible son? Not even Mr. Clarke would do that. And so, as Millicent’s wedding cart turned onto the lane leading out of town, Mrs. Clarke followed behind, remaining out of sight.

Imagine her astonishment as the cart turned in at Bramblewilde’s! Mrs. Clarke ducked behind a convenient bush and watched, open-mouthed, as Mr. Miller took off her little gold ring, and—poof!—in his place stood Bramblewilde! Bramblewilde waved one hand, and the gaily painted cart and the mule that pulled it shrunk, becoming nothing more than an old saltbox and a bumblebee. The bumblebee flew away into Bramblewilde’s garden, wheeling drunkenly.

The cottage door sprang open. “There you are!” Morgana said. Millicent rushed into Minerva’s arms. Her owl squawked. “We thought you’d been held up!”

“Damned slow bee.” Bramblewilde kicked the saltbox.

Mrs. Clarke picked up her skirts and ran back into town as fast as she could.

“Now we’re all here, will you tell us what this is about, Bramblewilde?” Morgana asked. They led Millicent into the cottage’s cozy sitting room, her owl riding on her shoulder, her hand still clasped in Minerva’s. Minerva’s books were already piled in all the corners. A domed cage for Millicent’s owl sat atop one stack.

“You promised me the handkerchief,” Minerva reminded Bramblewilde.

“Greedy, greedy!” Bramblewilde shook their finger.

Millicent noticed they’d swiped a bottle from the kitchen. “Are we celebrating?”

“Not yet. Now is the time for you to fulfill your promises. You’ve practiced the spells? You remember what we planned?”

“Obviously,” Morgana said.

The young women rolled back the sitting room’s rug. Bramblewilde uncorked the glass bottle and poured its contents in a wide circle onto the floor. “Niamh Rose Sweetsap, I summon you!” they said in a loud voice.

A thunderclap filled the room. Morgana, Minerva, and Millicent shielded their faces. When they took their arms away, the most beautiful woman any of them had ever seen stood in the middle of the floor.

Lustrous red hair fell nearly to the backs of her knees. Her pale skin shone from within, as if she was lit with her own sunlight. Her eyes were two blue jewels, her lips swollen and red, her eyebrows a pair of perfect arches. She wore her thin shift as if it was the finest gown.

“Bramblewilde,” Morgana breathed, “who is that?”

“My mother.” Bramblewilde’s eyes flashed. “The queen of Faerieland.”

“Your mother?”

The woman bent and ran one fingertip across the sticky floorboards. She touched it to her tongue and gave a grim laugh. “Bramblewilde, is this what I think it is?”

Bramblewilde smiled a long, slow, sideways smile. “Blackberry cordial. Your favorite.”

Mrs. Clarke hammered on Mrs. Wollstonecraft’s door. “Trickery! Thievery! Deceit! That knave—I’ll ring their neck! I’ll wring all their necks! Mrs. Wollstonecraft, come quick!”

Minerva turned to Bramblewilde. “I think it’s time to explain.”

It was the queen who spoke. “I tried for many of your lifetimes to have a child.” Her words fell shimmering into the air, every movement of her lips a spell. “At last, I was obliged to resort to magic.”

“She swallowed a nut, and out I popped!” Bramblewilde sneered.

“Such a strange child.” The fairy queen frowned and shook her head. “Not at all what I’d expected. More like the wild fae of the meadows and woods than the beautiful court of Faerieland. Most fairy children settle into one thing as they grow up, but not Bramblewilde.”

Bramblewilde crossed their arms. “Once I was grown, I went to her and asked when I would rule Faerieland. She laughed and—Why don’t you tell them what you said?”

“Not until the lion falls in love with the lamb,” the queen recited, “when you build me a palace of paper to live in, when you bottle sunlight and cage the night, then you may rule Faerieland.”

Morgana looked thoughtful.

“Ah,” Minerva said.

Millicent nudged her owl and smiled a strange smile.

“I was your child—your heir!”

“You still had a chance!” The queen spread her hands and looked anguished. “It’s the traditional way of handling an unwanted request—you know this!” She appealed to the young women. “And can you imagine?” She gestured to Bramblewilde. “They on the throne of Faerieland?”

Millicent gasped. Minerva balled her hands into fists. Morgana looked outraged.

“You’re forgetting something, Mother,” Bramblewilde said. “You haven’t told them the best part yet.”

The fairy queen sighed like a saint. “When I realized it was their intention to leave me, I placed a geas on them: that if they left Faerieland, they may only use their magic to help others, and never their self.”

Minerva drew her dark brows together. “You made them a pariah,” she said.

“You ensured they were helpless!” Morgana scoffed.

“Helping others is all well and good,” Millicent said, “but sometimes it’s better to protect yourself.” Her owl shifted its weight on her shoulder and hooted softly in agreement.

The queen turned white with rage. Dark threads of cloud roiled around her body. Lightening crackled within. “Why have you summoned me here?” she asked Bramblewilde.

Bramblewilde drew themselves up to their entire height of four and a half feet. “Mother—I have fulfilled the terms.”

No.” The storm surrounding the queen’s body played itself out with a crack. Her beautiful eyes flew wide.

Mrs. Clarke and Mrs. Wollstonecraft beat their fists on Mrs. Rothchild’s door. “Knavery! Trickery! Deceit! And our daughters in the thick of it! Come quick, Mrs. Rothchild, come quick!”

“You couldn’t have!” the fairy queen cried.

“I had a little help.” Bramblewilde smiled. “Morgana?” They snapped their long fingers, and Morgana stepped forward like a schoolgirl about to recite.

“Last Friday, Gabriella Leoni fell deeply in love with a certain Mr. Lambe.” Morgana’s eyes twinkled. “It’s a pity for her, Mr. Lambe doesn’t exist.”

The queen narrowed her eyes.

“I can summon her here, if you like. But I assure you, my love spells are the very best. She’ll be pining for some weeks still.”

“Unnecessary.” The queen flicked her fingers dismissively, though her face was tight.

Morgana curtsied ironically and stepped back.

Bramblewilde reached into their shift and pulled out a small glass jar. “And to bottle sunlight and cage the night…” They tossed it to the queen.

She caught it with one hand. “Honey,” the queen said. Her nostrils flared.

“Millicent?”

Millicent stepped forward, her owl on her forearm. “Fly home, Luna,” she said. The owl took off in a rush of feathers and wind, soaring across the room to perch in the open cage in the corner.

Millicent crossed the room and closed the wire door with a click.

The queen trembled, dark tendrils curling around her ankles. “And the palace of paper?” she snapped.

Minerva stepped forward without being asked, her hands raised like a conductor. She closed her eyes and began to chant. Books flew towards her from all corners of the room, stacking and arranging themselves into a tower of paper and ink. Luna squawked as her cage toppled to the floor. When she was finished, Minerva opened her eyes and surveyed her work with a little nod.

The queen laughed derisively, looking down her nose at the tower of books. “I hope you don’t expect full points for that. The terms specify a ‘palace of paper to live in.’ I couldn’t possibly fit—”

Morgana and Millicent stepped forward and joined hands with Minerva. She began chanting again.

“You’re right,” said Bramblewilde. “You couldn’t possibly fit—as you are.”

The queen shrieked. She was shrinking rapidly, the height of Bramblewilde, the size of a child, a rabbit, a mouse… She ran around the edges of the ring of cordial, screaming, “Let me out! I was a good mother! Bramblewilde—my child! I’ll make you a lord, give you a title and lands…” Her voice got smaller and smaller until it was nothing but a high-pitched squeak. “My mother tossed me into the cowslips and expected me to fend for myself. I tried to teach you—”

“To be something they’re not?” Morgana said.

The queen was the size of an insect now. A book fell from the top of the tower with a thump. Its pages flew open, its words rearranging themselves. The queen climbed onto the page to make her final request—and she disappeared.

Morgana, Minerva, and Millicent let go of one another’s hands. Minerva crossed the ring of cordial and bent to pick up the book. In the middle of the page were the words: “Niamh Rose Sweetsap.” She shut the book with a thump.

Mrs. Rothchild, Wollstonecraft, and Clarke rushed to Bramblewilde’s gate.

“We will drag them back by force, if necessary!” Mrs. Rothchild cried. She stretched her hand out to open the gate, but to her surprise, she found she could not. It was as if some invisible wall stopped her. “You try, Mrs. Wollstonecraft.”

Mrs. Wollstonecraft reached out her hand but could not touch the gate either. “It’s as if unseen spirits stopped my hand!” she gasped.

“Oh, get out of my way!” Mrs. Clarke said.

Inside the cottage, the sound of the women’s bickering reached their daughters’ ears. Minerva froze in the act of handing the book to Bramblewilde.

They ran to the window, the book tucked under the fairy’s arm, just in time to see Mrs. Clarke rush to the gate and fall on her back.

“It’s Mother!” Millicent trembled.

Minerva’s eyes went wide.

Morgana laughed. “They can’t get in!”

“They are held to their oaths.” Bramblewilde chuckled and slapped their shins.

The women opened their mouths to plead with their daughters to come back, to berate them for their trick, but they found their tongues had turned heavy as stone. They opened and closed their mouths like fish.

“They can’t speak!” Millicent rejoiced.

“Not to ask you to leave, at any rate.” Bramblewilde stuck out their tongue at the window and turned away.

“You have fulfilled your promises,” they said to the young women. “The cottage is yours, along with these tokens.” They reached into the bottomless pocket of their shift and handed Minerva the hatpin, the handkerchief, and the ring. “Your mothers’ oaths are bound up in them, so keep them safe. And if you ever find you need a man about—” Bramblewilde slipped the hatpin through Minerva’s shawl with a grin.

“How strange,” Minerva said as Mr. Lambe.

Morgana raised her eyebrows.

Millicent giggled.

Minerva slipped out the hatpin and weighed it in her slender hand. “Thank you, Bramblewilde,” she said. She bit her lip, gazing out of the window to where their mothers still stood by the gate, opening and closing their mouths ineffectually. “If we leave the cottage, will their oaths still hold?”

Bramblewilde shook their head. “No, but you will always be safe here.” They shifted the book beneath their arm. “How much time you spend on the other side of the fence is up to you.”

The young women followed Bramblewilde to the back door. Millicent stepped forward and kissed the fairy’s hands.

Bramblewilde flushed with astonishment.

“Thank you again, Bramblewilde,” Millicent said.

“Remember us when you come into your kingdom,” Morgana quipped.

Bramblewilde opened the back door, letting in a breeze that smelled of honey and roses and green things. “The lords and ladies will take some convincing.” They brandished the book. “But this should do the trick.” They stared out at the line of trees at the back of their land—the edge of the forest bordering Faerieland.

“What will happen to her? The queen?” Minerva nodded to the book.

“I’ll open the pages when I’m ready.” Bramblewilde grinned. They stepped out of the door, whistling a jaunty tune.

The young women waved from the doorway.

And for the first time in no-one-knew-how-many years, Bramblewilde danced a jig all the way back to Faerieland.

 

(Editors’ Note: Jordan Taylor is interviewed by Caroline Yoachim in this issue.)

The Hurt Pattern

Whenever Nick, over in the workstation across the room, would blurt out “fuck, I got another beheading,” Kenny would pinch the bridge of his nose and sigh and want, more than anything, to say “I don’t care.” Monitors formed a semi-circle in front of Kenny, and his fingers, tips glowing blue with the implants, moved absently in front of them, swiping information—an image, a video, an encoded message on a Reddit forum—into a bucket, tapping the screens to tag the bit and dress it up as an alert for the client it would be routed to. A quick video of militia picking over the aftermath of a massacre in a Cameroonian village, part of the ongoing Ambazonian separatist crisis, tapped, tagged, dropped in a bucket. Kidnapping in Lagos. Attack on a Chinese-run mining camp in Kenya. Tapped, tagged, dropped in a bucket.

It had only taken Kenny four months to fall into this groove, to learn the system, to find a monitor setup that worked for him, to turn off the parts of himself he needed to turn off for when the company’s tech synced with his augments to implant the info straight into his skull. On the train home after work, he was smiling ruefully, because his mind had shot towards one of his early interviews for this gig where one of what he would discover to be his manager’s managers asked if he was cool with experiencing extreme content. Kenny had on his “I take this seriously” face, not because he feared what the question portended but because his law fellowship was in the rearview and his student loan forbearance period was coming to an end and he owed the Department of Education more than his mother’s house was worth. And now he could listen to Nick say, way too loudly so that everyone could hear, “fuck, I got another beheading!” like the MENA beat was somehow uniquely traumatizing. Like the startup didn’t have the same two guys covering Mexican cartels and U.S. gang activity. Like Kenny hadn’t spent the day watching a man dressed in olive green playfully toe a piece of skull belonging to a body at the bottom of a mountain of corpses.

He should have done this before leaving for the day, but he’d wanted to make an earlier express train, so it was only as he sank into the somewhat resistant seat of the train cushion—having been expectorated by the subway—that he set about partitioning his work-related memories of his interaction with the company algorithm and moving them to a secure folder in his braincase. The click and swipe always ended with an exhale, as though, surrounded by these upper-middle class white business people fleeing NYC for the comfort of too-big houses in Connecticut, he could breathe out the day’s agony, reunite his selves, the part of him that thought and the part of him that felt.

But as he prepared for sleep in his tastefully spartan Bridgeport one-bedroom, images swam in tendrils of colored dust of the protest action in Kinshasa he’d witnessed just before shift’s end, the barricades the protesters had set up as the sun set, the bright yellow and orange shirts the young protesters wore set against the blue-black sky, the tail of rainbow fume trailing a tear gas canister that arced through the air. Coughing, screaming, crying.

In a few minutes, Kenny was snoring.

The next morning, Kenny stepped off the elevator and hurried to the in-office kitchen, even as colleagues gathered in the large conference room. The hoverchairs had already been requisitioned and the young and less-young, the tattooed and the plain-skinned, the Augmented and the untouched, lined the walls while Kenny hunted for the bagels they’d been promised in the pre-dawn email.

All that remained amidst the torn paper bags and dying electric slicer were halves of everything but what he wanted and, of course, none of the spreads had retained their labeling.

The chatter on the other side of the glass wall separating the kitchen from the Elysian Fields open area with its picnic benches and metal chairs was dying down, and Kenny saw that the door to the large conference room had swung closed. He whispered a soft, “fuck it,” stuffed a cleanly-sliced half of a raisin bagel in his mouth and, fighting the urge to vomit, hurried to the conference room.

A hologram bust of a balding man with fucked-up teeth appeared against the far wall, shoulders and chest revealing the man wore a black V-neck over what he perhaps hoped suggested a svelte figure.

Kenny entered mid-drone amidst a bevy of figures: volume of notifications delivered to clients by this point of the year, what they were on track to reach by end of quarter, revenue projections, and a whole wastebucket of other things Kenny didn’t give a fuck about. Slipping off his messenger bag and chewing on his tastes-like-cardboard bagel half, he caught Sasha’s eye across the room and smirked around his breakfast. Settled in, he beamed memes he’d come across during his morning train ride into Sasha’s braincase: a distorted photo of a banker in a slim tie and a red ballcap with baked beans spilled on his lap; a photo of a young boy turning away from an old-school computer monitor to glare beneath hooded eyes at the photo taker, the caption reading: “MY PARENTS CAUGHT ME ON PORNHUB AND FORCED ME TO HAVE MY PICTURE TAKEN”; a video of a silver alien dancing in front of a crowd of screaming kids with the text “[crying in spanish]” close captioned at the bottom of the frame.

“I hate you,” Sasha beamed back at him, a swathe of dark salt-and-pepper hair swept like a peregrine falcon’s wing over one eye. Her grin fought against itself, and heat bloomed in Kenny’s chest at the sight.

Kenny scanned the room and, though some of the other area sharks swiveled in their hoverseats and effected poses of disinterest, most of them held that attentiveness that showed they’d long since drunk the company Kool-Aid. Sending information on the goings-on of the world to the military, to law enforcement, to search and rescue agents, to media watchers, knowing what was going on in the world before everyone else, that’s what this place, filled with the Best and Brightest™, purported as its mission. A mission cast in the noblest of lights. A mission that netted that hologrammed VP of Strategy a cool $3.5 mil in annual salary and had Kenny and Sasha and other area sharks dosing themselves with Librium and Klonopin every night before bed. The managers, many of them standing, having ceded their seats to the underclass, made sure to look as though they were paying attention, but Kenny knew about their private Slack channel and imagined half a dozen conversations happening among them while the Veep kept on about quarterly targets and new initiatives on the tech side.

“And we’re looking now to expand our finance coverage. So, yes, we are officially in business with the banks. Our finance coverage has been growing, but, as I’m sure you all know, everything is connected. I don’t have to tell you that. The area leads have already been briefed on the changes to coverage assignments and will be in contact with all the team managers to make sure things move smoothly and we can continue to hit our targets. Great work, guys.”

The hologram winked out, and everyone stirred to head to their stations. Kenny caught the eye of his team lead, a skinny, scraggly-bearded redhead named Tucker and nodded to the Elysian Fields, an unspoken “do you have a minute” hanging between them.

“What’s up?” Tucker said once they’d taken their seats opposite each other on the picnic bench.

“I wanna switch to the US bureau.”

“Oh?”

“That, or get the company to shell out for more benzos. The resin’s not coming off like it used to.” Resin. What they called the Residual Trauma they took home after eight-plus hours spent watching and documenting the worst days of peoples’ lives.

“Like, the media desk?”

Kenny knew that was a stretch. A Black guy covering Black culture? In this office? He almost scoffed out loud at the vanishingly small chance. “Anything, really. What’s this new finance thing? I can help out with that.”

Tucker dumped a sympathetic smile. Almost like he thought it was cute that Kenny figured the domestic beat less likely to contain horrors than Africa coverage. But Kenny wanted to tell him he knew what he was getting into, and that this would indeed be easier for him. It was much less likely that he would have to watch video of a woman screaming while fending off a machete attack who sounded so much like his own mother.

“Shots fired,” Kenny called out in a lackadaisical voice. Plugged into the Algo, it took him less than a second to scour nearby surveillance footage for familiar landmarks, street signs, the unfortunate state of the sidewalks, the bottle fragments in the street, the angle of the sun’s descent that told him the worst moment in this particular person’s life had happened at 6.32pm EST, 5.32 Central Time. “On Dixwell.”

“Gotcha,” said the area lead from across the room, as Kenny tapped the info, tagged it, then dropped it into the bucket.

As soon as he’d dropped the alert in the bucket to be rocketed off to the client, he moved onto the next thing. The day had mercifully been a bevy of traffic accidents, small home fires immediately put out with occasional forays into even more pedestrian matters. Failing scaffolding here, an uncovered manhole there, a bit of graffiti or vandalized surveillance camera here, drug paraphernalia spotted in a park over there.

“Nothing bad happens to white people,” he said in a private Slack to Sasha.

“Lmao, hold on.” An ellipsis made itself felt in his head as he waited for her to respond. “Sorry, there was just this press conference. This reporter who was supposed to be dead after security services raided his office two days ago just came back in a press conference like BITCH U THOUGHT!”

“There was a brawl in the Ugandan parliament last month,” he wrote back. And just like that, he found himself missing it. The color, the vibrancy, the music of the continent. The Nigerian pop star scandals, the Liberian footballer campaigning for the presidency and the way the crowd erupted in that one video of him descending onto the pitch in his old uniform to play a quarter-hour of that friendly, the memes that proliferated whenever there was load-shedding in the Hillbrow suburb of Johannesburg. Kenny found himself wondering if the massacres and the Boko Haram kidnappings and the occasional summary executions and the brutal protest crackdowns and the university riots were a small price to pay for the joy that thrilled through him at the sight of his people being brilliant and beautiful and hilarious. He’d spent 3x more of his life in the US than in Nigeria, but there were times when no place felt as much like home as Lagos. “It was lit.”

“Shots fired,” the area lead called out again. “North Lawndale.” A pause. “Officer-involved.”

“Gotta go,” Kenny wrote. “Love you.”

He closed the channel before she had the chance to break his heart by not writing it back.

“Don’t forget,” said the mother of Shamir Townsend from behind the podium while camera flash burst in sheen along her cheeks and forehead. “You see all the protests. You see the movement. And God bless all the people making this movement a living, breathing thing. But you see all these people with all these different agendas, all these people—celebrities, even—making speeches. And at the bottom of it all is a dead boy. My son, Shamir.”

Kenny had the press conference playing in the background, in a small window on the monitor to his right. It was important, but it wasn’t breaking. Meaningful content, but not actionable. A month into his stint in the US bureau, he’d found and tagged and bucketed security footage of fully mechanized police, powered by the Algorithm his company had helped develop, rolling into a park and opening fire on what turned out to be a 13-year-old boy who had been using a hairbrush as a play gun. Well after the alert had been sent and the area sharks moved on with the rest of their day, Kenny found himself scouring the Net for more. Hacking into police scanners to find audio records of the seconds leading up to the shooting, tapping surveillance footage from the gazebo, catching trace signals from the nearby mobiles and Augmented witnesses nearby, all revealing pieces of the thing. The police vehicle zooming into view, the mid-sized Crusties unfurling from the doors, limbs uncurling until they’d reached their crab form, then the muzzle flash, continuing as they crept closer until the boy’s body had been riddled with steaming holes.

“You okay?” Sasha slacked him.

The message woke him up, and he noticed that most of the sharks in his area and others had left their desks for lunch.

“They have reggaeton empanadas again.”

He chuckled. “I’m good. Not on the empanadas, I’m def getting some. Just sayin, I’m good. What’s up?”

“Tucker’s been eyeballing you all shift. And lunch has been out for a bit. You haven’t got up yet.”

“I’ll get some.” The presser continued in his earbud while he worked. Mrs. Townsend was talking about the fight for accountability with the algorithmic policing. Just because the algo-engine’d robot “Crustaceans” unit had replaced flesh-and-blood police didn’t mean the police department had shed accountability. And now some public tech advocates were calling on the police to yet again release their source code.

A new message notification blinked in Kenny’s personal inbox. Dread calcified in the pit of his stomach. If it was Tucker, then he’d really be in for it. And he’d have to come up with some way to explain his listening to a post-shooting press conference for an event that happened months ago instead of doing his job.

Fuck it.

From Daisy Romero. Subject Line: STUDENT LOAN REPAYMENT PARTY!

“You gotta be fuckin’ kidding me.”

“Shots fired in Rio,” someone from the LatAm desk called out.

Kenny slowly shook his head, smirking. “Sasha, check this out,” he slacked and forwarded to her email. “I need a plus one.”

“What is this?” Through her sensory data, Kenny could smell the empanadas.

“Friend from law school. Her husband’s a banker. If I gotta go alone, I might actually slit my wrists.”

“Okay, okay. But only if you have some of these fucking racist empanadas.”

Smiling, Kenny got up from his seat and shut off the press conference just as Mrs. Townsend was, tearfully grateful, returning to the podium.

The last time Kenny had set foot in Marea, he’d been on the cusp of a career in corporate law. Sunlit lunches with associates and the occasional partner who’d fashioned himself a mentor, where the summer glow glinted off the silver pinstripes in everyone’s suits to turn the room into an epileptic’s nightmare. Everything glistened: the silverware, the clothing, the platinum threaded in blond hair done up in buns, the polished augments that had been made of everyone’s limbs and digits, the antique cards—more ornament than utility—that they used to pay for everything. He could taste the memory of fusilli on his tongue, could feel the performance worm its way into his limbs, so that by the time he got to the backroom, he had to stop himself from walking in like a douchebag.

Dulcet lighting turned every edge in this backroom soft, rounded out the corners of the long table around which sat the revelers, all twenty- or thirty-somethings.

Chandeliers hovered at regular intervals over the revelers and right in the aureate cone cast by the center chandelier sat Daisy, née Lockwood, now Romero. Right next to her, with his arm draped over her shoulder and a single lock of shining black hair swaying over his Roman forehead was the presumed Mister Romero. He looked like a former law school classmate. Had the sparkling, corporate smile, the figure of a guy who gets up at six in the morning to work out so that by eight he’s in the office, and the physical ease of a man swiftly acclimated to new money.

Golden light bloomed on Daisy’s face when she saw Kenny, then beckoned him over. She made a show of clearing out a space next to her. As soon as Kenny set off, Sasha held his arm in her hands and pulled herself close. Together, they made their way, the others on Daisy’s side of the table scooching out on the plush leather seating to allow Kenny and Sasha to slide in.

“She’s cute,” Sasha murmured in Kenny’s ear. “You hit that?”

“Careful, Sash,” Kenny murmured back, grinning. “You see that rock on her finger?”

“That’s not a rock, Kenny. That’s a fucking meteor.”

“You’re drooling, Sash.”

“Hi!” said Sasha, reaching over Kenny with her left hand and catching Daisy’s. “Sasha. I work with Kenny.”

After a stunned beat, Daisy shot Kenny a look as though to say well done. In the next instant, her face was all politesse and she tugged her husband’s shoulder. “Hey, babe, this is Kenny. We went to law school together.”

Babe gripped Kenny’s hand in his. “Pleasure, man. Thanks for coming.”

Daisy glared a warning at her husband.

“Oh, shit. Juan. Name’s Juan.”

“That’s better, babe.” She pecked Juan on the cheek.

“Where’d you find him?” Sasha leaned in to whisper.

“Some POC mixer. I was at a different law firm. They had this event. You know the deal. Kenny and I used to go to those all the time. Room full of power bottoms about to make too much money.” When Daisy said that, Sasha arched an intrigued eyebrow, as though to ask if Daisy really talked like this. Daisy angled her face to Sasha. “Kenny was the best part of these things. Only time corporate law didn’t feel like living through some lifelong horror-comedy.”

“What does he do?” Sasha asked, somehow with a glass of wine already in her hand.

Daisy took a beat before saying, “Banker.”

Sasha made a yikes face. Kenny’s expression turned porcelain.

“But we balance it out,” Daisy said, rushing in. “I’m at a civil rights firm now, so that balances it out.” A sympathetic smile ricocheted between the three of them. “I mean, you know, Kenny. You know what it’s like. The debt. Gets to be the biggest number in your life and you have to hold off all sorts of stuff. Life decisions and whatever. You have to kill your dreams and ambitions and your hopes, just so you can get your head above water.”

“There’s also indentured servitude,” Kenny ribbed, wiggling his aquamarine fingertips.

“Oh, God,” Daisy whispered.

“I mean, they package the message as ‘tech this’ and ‘innovation that,’ and they do take a chunk outta the debt with the lease on my body, but it’s literally the least invasive way to go about paying that stuff off. Look, everyone’s got augments. Mine are just free. Fact, they’re freer than free.”

“But, Kenny, that means you can only work for approved employers.”

Kenny snorted. “List is big enough.” He shifted, made more space for Sasha, for backup. “Tell me about work. Fightin’ the good fight.”

“Wish you were down here in the trenches with me?”

“Eh, maybe.”

For the briefest of instants, Daisy’s mask faltered and a darkness swarmed beneath the skin of her face, like shadows fucking, and Kenny caught a glimpse of how haggard the work made her, how much whatever it was she did taxed her. A hungry part of him saw the pain and sought it out. “Tell me about it. Really.”

Daisy sighed, eyed Kenny and Sasha. “Well, since the police went Algo, lotta people stopped making wrongful death lawsuits. Imagine trying to fit a Crusty into the witness stand. Can’t bring an algorithm to court, and what’re you gonna do when you convict? Put a fucking robot on desk duty? Sometimes, though, you can get a payout. It’s never enough. Especially for an officer-involved shooting. No amount of money’s ever going to bring back a son or a brother or a father or a sister or whatever, but it’s money. It’s better than nothing. We all know the Algo’s not perfect. Everybody does. But a 13-year-old boy gets shot in a park and all evidence points to police misconduct, but the Algo told those toasters to do it. They’re not gonna admit to a malfunction. That would mean recalling all the units they spent dozens of millions of dollars to pay for. So,”—she shrugged—“the Nuremberg defense. ‘I was just following orders.’”

“Wait, you said a 13-year-old boy got shot in the park?” Kenny could feel Sasha tightening next to him, wine glass to her lips, her whole body urging Kenny to be careful.

“Yeah, Shamir Townsend. The firm’s been repping his mother on a wrongful death suit against the city, but really it’s just a play for the payout. This stays between us, k?”

Kenny shrugged. “Who am I gonna tell?”

Daisy relaxed. “It’s all fucked anyway. Poor people end up paying for this shit anyway.”

Sasha had leaned in but was making herself unobtrusive. “What, the city jacks up taxes?”

“Worse. Tax assessors overvalue homes in poor neighborhoods and undervalue properties in rich ones. So you got properties in, say, North Lawndale and Little Village in Chicago paying double the property tax rate than people living in Lincoln Park or on the Gold Coast. It’s like that everywhere. And that’s not even the fucking worst of it.”

Kenny couldn’t tell what his face looked like, but he knew he was trapped, enthralled, horrified. There was something different to this, though. This wasn’t instant. It wasn’t video. It wasn’t media. It wasn’t surveillance footage of an act. It wasn’t audio of an ongoing riot. It was a deeper injury. A drawn-out thing. Not a stabbing, but a knife drawn slowly along the skin.

“When you have to budget more for police tort liability, you have less for lead poisoning screening for poor children. Violence prevention initiatives, after-school programs, mental health clinics. All gone. Budget cuts.”

Kenny was too rapt to say anything. Sasha shook her head. “But these settlements, they’re millions and millions of dollars. The police don’t have to pay?”

Daisy snorted. “Police departments set aside a small slice of their budget for misconduct settlements. If the price is more than that, city’s on the hook. Not them. B’sides, it’s the city that pays for the robot.”

Sasha couldn’t stop shaking her head. “That’s fucked.”

Daisy exhaled. “Yeah.” And Kenny saw that face and knew there would be no more, not from Daisy. It hit like the comedown from a new drug, the bottomless despair, the instant and incessant hunger, the shame of it all. A moment later, everyone seemed to come to their senses, awake from whatever reveries or bromides or hungers they’d been trapped in, wiping the daydream from their eyes and seeing each other naked, and in swept Sasha calling out far too loud, “I am so hungry I could fuck a zebra right now.”

While the room lit up with laughter, Sasha caught Kenny’s gaze, and Kenny smiled what felt like an apology, and Sasha winked back a “you’re welcome.”

They were all supposed to be having fun.

In what felt like only seconds, the plates of fusilli arrived.

Holo-paint turned the walls of the conference room into open pasture with simulated wind blowing simulated stalks of wheat in mechanically precise rows far into the distance over verdant hills framed against an azure firmament. A glance overhead showed a sky the same shade of blue with cotton-colored clouds threaded through it.

Kenny and seven other sharks sat in hoverchairs around an oblong table while, at the head of the room, stood a white finance dude in shirt-sleeves rolled to the elbows and an Aryan-as-fuck face.

“I trust you all have had time to digest all the info on yesterday’s session about bonds, yeah? Pretty intro stuff, I know, so I’m gonna just jump right ahead into municipal bonds and—”

One of the sharks raised a hand and switched her voice software from Portuguese to English. “Why are we focusing on cities? This says they’re high-risk investments. If the city does a…bond…and they go bankrupt, they can’t pay it off. So our client loses money.”

“Good point, Fernanda. Except, under a lot of these state laws, the cities we’re focusing on can’t go bankrupt. What our clients are looking at is essentially guaranteed money…”

Kenny tuned the finance dude’s voice into background noise as he tapped and swiped through the hyperlinks in the material, scanning until he hit a page on something called “cat bonds” with a picture of what looked like a half-submerged city, roofs poking out like stepping stones through highway-wide rivers of blue. Risk-linked securities…sponsors…investors…triggered…industry loss index…

A random throwing-out of terms, data points, no constellation. Just a mess of jargon and a picture of a neighborhood destroyed by a hurricane.

“Like shootings.”

At that, Kenny sat up in his seat and tuned back into the lesson. “What?”

The finance dude stopped for a second. “You have a question, uh, Kenny, is it?”

“Yeah.” The finance terms swirled in his head like detritus in the funnel of a tornado. Then came the dinner party at Marea earlier that week and tax assessors and property value and police and Shamir Townsend. And he felt himself just on the cusp of an understanding. An epiphany that promised a pattern. “Uh, you were saying something about shootings?”

“Yeah.”

Kenny rushed in to save himself with an explanation. “I do a lot of security stuff. Law enforcement-related. Traffic, crime. I blanked for a second. What were you saying about shootings?”

“Oh, just in terms of stuff to watch out for. Anything that could cause a liability suit. This is all complex stuff, but it’s just background. Help to inform your decision-making. You just need to watch out for the stuff you’re already watching out for and ping one of us in Finance so we can jump on it and do our thing.”

“Oh.” Kenny tuned out again and tried to focus on the pattern just out of reach. All bright nodes and non-existent edges. Like trying to trace astral constellations in an afternoon sky.

“Shots fired,” Kenny called out with renewed vigor. “Cudell Park.” He knew his voice was too loud, like he was listening to music and trying to have a convo at the same time, but he couldn’t help it. In one tab, he had the Mrs. Townsend press conference replaying and, on another tab, he had news of the settlement the city had offered the family—$2.2 million USD—and in another, the reading materials on catastrophe bonds. All this, he tried to keep hidden in tiny incognito-mode browser windows he knew the company was monitoring anyway. Research, he would tell them. Hurricanes, forest fires, all stuff they were supposed to be tapping and tagging and bucketing anyway. It still took him a moment to remember to loop the finance guys in on the security stuff, a quick tag or a Slack or whatever. Sometimes, the notification would switch to a different alert bucket altogether right in front of him or he’d see finance fingerprints on something he’d already bucketed.

He opened another Slack channel and @’d one of the analytics people. “Hey, can you do a quick data pull for me?”

“What’s up?” came the reply.

“Can you get me a sheet of the domestic shootings we notified on with finance?”

Then glowing ellipses until, a few seconds later, he received a link to a GDoc.

While he tapped and tagged and bucketed, he scanned the data, murmuring to himself, “officer-involved, officer-involved, officer-involved…” A pause. “The fuck?”

“Yo, Sash,” he DM’d in another Slack channel. “Yo, all my shootings have finance on them. Is that weird?”

“I dunno. Is it?” Glowing ellipses. “Sorry, gotta bounce. Working a factory fire.”

“Cool.” He bit his lip.

He waited until his train hit the above-ground stops to call Daisy.

“Yo,” he beamed to her phone.

“Hey! What’s up? It was so good to see you the other night!”

Kenny smiled, realizing he’d forgot he was supposed to be polite. “It was good to see you too.
Congratulations. On, like, everything. I’m so happy for you.”

“Thanks, Ken.”

He could feel her blushing at the other end. “Look, Daze, I got a question.”

“Hope I got an answer.”

“Where does the money come from?”

“Money? For what?”

“For the settlements.” Kenny pulled himself back, tried to slow down. He felt himself on the edge of it. So close. “It can’t be the city. $2.2 million for one settlement, but there’s gotta be like how many a year? Some of these places are paying out, like, $147 mil a year. And we’re talking smaller cities. All for officer-involved shootings.” For much of the ride, he’d tapped into municipal records, news stories, past alerts, all using his security credentials against protocol, credentials that, tied to his augments, gave him the same access as a federal government employee. “Is it banks?”

“What are you saying?”

Kenny gulped. This was the new part, the less-formed part. The almost-pattern. “The cities are floating bonds, I think. To pay for the settlements.”

“From who? Goldman Sachs? J.P. Morgan?”

“…yeah.”

“But…but how? Why? Cities have the shittiest credit ratings. How is that a sound investment?”

“Fees. Interest. The banks get paid every period off the interest and handling fees and all of that.” He reminded himself to lower his voice. “And…and I checked the state laws. The cities that have the most shootings, they’re in states where it’s literally against the law for them to go bankrupt. I think, to pay off the one bond, they issue another. I don’t think the cops are malfunctioning. I think…I think the banks are getting paid off of these shootings.”

“Jesus.”

Beeping sounded. Another call. Sasha’s ID blinked before his eyes. “Shit. Look, Daze, I gotta go. Ask Juan about it.”

“Wait, but—” Dialtone.

“Hey, Sash, what’s up?”

“Kenny, can you come over?” Her voice was sorrow-soaked.

He sat up in his seat. “Sure, yeah, what’s wrong?”

“You up for some trauma bonding? Having trouble leaving work at work today. Can you come?”

Greed, hunger, lust, guilt all warred inside him. He hoped that Sasha heard only the right kind of eagerness in his voice when he said, “Yeah, I’ll be right over.”

The first time they’d fucked was during a spell of downtime on the second of a two-day al-Shabaab terror attack on a hotel complex in Nairobi. Day One, Kenny, blanketed in the paranoia fog that shrouds the recently jobless and newly hired, had been more locked in than he’d thought possible. Security footage, open calls from people trapped inside the buildings, terrorist channels online, to the point where he could feel his own torn dress shoes trying to step as softly as possible down bloodied corridors covered in pebbles of glass. He could hear the sporadic gunfire, the tearful, whispered phone calls, the online posts calling for help, giving as brief a room description as possible, the message saying that a poster’s phone was dying and they were unAugmented, unConnected. Then nothing.

And the following morning, he’d broken down on the train, one of those commuters wrapped in their own private sorrow while everyone went about the business of trying to make it to work that day. Things had slowed down on Day Two of the attack and Sasha had found him weeping in the office lactation room and he grasped for her, hungered for her, until they’d spent themselves with the quiet urgency of the hidden and hiding.

“Sash, this lighting is bisexual as fuck,” Kenny said, laughing, as he entered.

She was on a couch hugging a pillow, hair scattered over her face, smiling meaningfully through smeared mascara.

“I brought red for you and grenadine for me. You got Sprite? Ginger ale? Anything sparkly and see-through?”

“Come here,” she murmured, and Kenny obeyed because of that thing in her voice, and she pulled him onto her, and he vanished to himself until she said, “Kenny.”

“Yeah?”

“How you doin’?”

Kenny blinked, confused. “I…I’m fine. I’m good. I’m here for you.”

She smiled, and something in it pushed Kenny back so that he moved to the opposite end of the couch. For a long time, they occupied the couch like that: he at one end and she lounging at the other. “You figured it out, didn’t you.”

“What?”

“Don’t worry, Ken.” She waved a finger around her. “I got a Blanket. We’re not being watched. Nothing’s tapped.”

“What are you talking about?”

“The banks, the shootings, you figured it out, didn’t you.”

Kenny’s eyes widened. “You…you know?”

She nodded.

“You know that the new clients are making money off officer-involved shootings? Is that why they signed us?” His head spun. “Wait, fuck. But…but we’re also signed to local law enforcement. We do their algos. Wait.” His whole body felt leaden. “Fuck. Fuck fuck fuck. No. Fuck.”

Sasha’s face was sympathetic but marble-solid.

“Sasha! We’re programming cops to shoot Black kids so that banks can make money!”

“Kenny.”

He stood suddenly, paced back and forth. “We can’t go internal. We…we have to do something. Your old journo friends. We have to tell them. We have to.”

Sasha shook her head, and the look in her eyes had turned a new shade of sad.

Dull pain filled the space beneath Kenny’s skin. Made him leaden.

“Who’ve you told?” she said softly.

“Sasha.” There was hard warning in his voice when he said her name. “Sasha, what is this?” When she didn’t answer, he glared. “What are you, their agent? Like, a spy or something?”

“Ken, you used security credentials out of the office. You kept office materials in personal storage.”

“Only publicly accessible stuff, Sasha! I would never—”

“But we touched it, Ken. Once we touch it, it’s ours.”

“Sasha.” Pleading.

“Who else have you told?”

“How long were you watching me?”

“It’s government, Ken. Or, government-adjacent. We’re always watching you. You know that.”

He collapsed into a La-Z-Boy and sighed. “Well.” Suddenly, it all felt funny. Hilarious. And he could not stop laughing. “Well, fuck me.” When he settled, “So what happens now?”

Sasha shrugged. “Nothing. We just wanted to check. We know what this work does to people. And not everyone wants to take advantage of office resources.”

“What, fifteen minutes of guided fucking meditation before I head into a Boko Haram attack?”

She chuckled. “Yeah, that.” She scratched her head, and somehow it looked like the most attractive thing Kenny had ever seen her do. “Look, I’m just doing my job. We’re all just doing our jobs. Fucking student loans.”

“Yeah. Fucking student loans.” He felt himself grow distant, something forming in him, and he wanted to be away from her before she could see it fully take shape. “Look, I should go. You good?”

She nodded.

“For real?”

She nodded again.

“Cool. Don’t worry, just going home. Although y’all are probably having me followed anyway, right?” He said it laughing, but he meant it to hurt. Then he left and did as he’d said he would. The commute from NYC to home was a practiced choreography, an easy enough pattern for the police—powered by the algo his colleagues had built—to learn.

 

 

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.

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