She had retired to the swamp because she liked the color. When the Contagion College came back for her thirty years after she had fled into the swamp’s warm, black embrace, the color was the same, but she was not.
Which brings us here.
The black balm of dusk descended over the roiling muddy face of the six thousand miles of swampland called the Freeman’s Bath. Packs of cannibal swamp dogs waded through the knobby knees of the great cypress trees that snarled up from the russet waters. Dripping nets of moss and tangled limbs gave refuge to massive plesiosaurs. The great feathered giants bobbed their heads as the swamp dogs passed, casual observers in the endless game of hunter and hunted.
Two slim people from the Contagion College, robed all in black muslin, poled their way through a gap in the weeping moss and brought their pirogue to rest at the base of a bowed cypress tree. Light gleamed from openings carved high up in the tree trunk, far too high to give them a view of what lay within. There was no need. This tree had been marked on a map and kept in the jagged towers of the Contagion College in the city for decades, waiting for a day as black as this.
“She’s killed a lot of people,” the smaller figure, Lealez, said, “and she’s been wild out here for a long time. She may be unpredictable.” The poor light softened the contours of Lealez’s pockmarked face. As Lealez turned, the lights of the house set the face in profile, and Lealez took on the countenance of a beaked fisher–bird, the large nose a common draw for childhood bullies and snickering colleagues at the Contagion College who had not cared much for Lealez’s face or arrogance. Lealez suspected it was the arrogance that made it so easy for the masters to assign Lealez this terribly dangerous task, rushing off after some wild woman of legend at the edge of civilization. They were always saying to Lealez how important it was to know one’s place in the order of things. It could be said with certainty that this place was not the place for Lealez.
Lealez’s taller companion, a long–faced, gawky senior called Abrimet, said, “When you kill the greatest sorcerer that ever lived, you can live wild as you like, too.”
Abrimet’s hair was braided against the scalp in a common style particular to Abrimet’s gender, black as Lealez’s but twice as long, dyed with henna at the ends instead of red like Lealez’s. Lealez admired the shoman very much; Abrimet’s older, experienced presence gave Lealez some comfort.
Full dark had fallen across the swamp. Swarms of orange fireflies with great silver beaks rose from the banks, swirling in tremulous living clouds. Far off, something much larger than their boat splashed in the water; Lealez’s brokered mother had been killed by a plesiosaur, and the thought of those snaky–necked monsters sent a bolt of icy fear through Lealez’s gut. But if Lealez turned around now, the Contagion College would strip Lealez of title and what remained of Lealez’s life would be far worse than this.
So Abrimet called, “We have come from the Contagion College. We are of the Order of the Tree of the Gracious Death! You are summoned to speak.”
Inside the tree, well–insulated from the view of the two figures in the boat, a thick, grubby woman raised her head from her work. In one broad hand she held the stuffed skin of an eyeless toy hydra; in the other, a piece of wire strung with a long white matte of hair. An empty brown bottle sat at her elbow, though it took more than a bottle of plague–laced liquor to mute her sense for plague days. She thumbed her spectacles from her nose and onto her head. She placed the half–finished hydra on the table and took her machete from the shelf. The night air wasn’t any cooler than the daytime shade, so she went shirtless. Sweat dripped from her generous body and splattered across the floor as she got to her feet.
Her forty–pound swamp rodent, Mhev, snorted from his place at her feet and rolled onto his doughy legs. She snapped her fingers and pointed to his basket under the stairs. He ignored her, of course, and started grunting happily at the idea of company.
The woman rolled her brown, meaty shoulders and moved up to the left of the door like a woman expecting a fight. She hadn’t had a fight in fifteen years, but her body remembered the drill. She called, “You’re trespassing. Move on.”
The voice replied—young and stupidly confident, maybe two years out of training in the city, based on the accent, “The whole of this territory was claimed by the Imperial Community of the Forked Ash over a decade ago. As representatives of the Community, and scholars of the Contagion College, we are within our rights in this waterway, as we have come to seek your assistance in a matter which you are bound by oath to serve.”
The woman did not like city children, as she knew they were the most dangerous children of all. Yet here they were again, shouting at her door like rude imbeciles.
She pushed open the door, casting light onto the little boat and its slender occupants. They wore the long black robes and neat purple collars of the Order of the Plague Hunters. When she had worn those robes, long ago, they did not seem as ridiculous as they now looked on these skinny young people.
“Elzabet Addisalam?” the tall one said. That one was clearly a shoman, hair twisted into braided rings, ears pierced, brows plucked. The other one could have been anything—man, woman, shoman, pan. In her day, everyone dressed as their correct gender, with the hairstyles and clothing cuts to match, but fashions were changing, and she was out of date. It had become increasingly difficult to tell shoman from pan, man from woman, the longer she stayed up here. Fashion changed quickly. Pans dressed like men these days. Shomans like pans. And on and on. It made her head hurt.
She kept her machete up. “I’m called Bet, out here,” she said. “And what are you? If you’re dressing up as Plague Hunters, I’ll have some identification before you go pontificating all over my porch.”
“Abrimet,” the shoman said, holding up their right hand. The broad sleeve fell back, exposing a dark arm crawling in glowing green tattoos: the double ivy circle of the Order, and three triangles, one for every Plague Hunter the shoman had dispatched. Evidence enough the shoman was what was claimed. “This is Lealez,” the shoman said of the other one.
“Lealez,” Bet said. “You a shoman or a neuter? Can’t tell at this distance, I’m afraid. We used to dress as our gender, in my day.”
The person made a face. “Dress as my gender? The way you do? Shall I call you man, with that hair?” Bet wore nothing but a man’s veshti, sour and damp with sweat, and she had not cut or washed her hair in some time, let alone styled her brows to match her pronouns.
“It is not I knocking about on stranger’s doors, requesting favors,” Bet said. “What am I dealing with?”
“I’m a pan.”
“That’s what I thought I was saying. What, is saying neuter instead of pan a common slur now?”
“We are in a desperate situation,” Abrimet said, clearly the elder, experienced one here, trying to wrest back control of the dialogue. “The Order sent us to call in your oath.”
“The Order has a very long memory,” Bet said, “I am sure it recalls I am no longer a member. Would you like a stuffed hydra?”
“The world is going to end,” Lealez said.
“The world is always ending for someone,” Bet said, shrugging. “I’ve heard of its demise a dozen times in as many years.”
“From who?” Lealez grumbled. “The plesiosaurs?”
Abrimet said, “Two rogue Plague Givers left the Sanctuary of the Order three days ago. Two of them. That’s more than we’ve had loose at any one time in twenty years.”
“Sounds like a task that will make a Plague Hunter’s name,” Bet said. “Go be that hero.” She began to close the door.
“They left a note addressed to you!” Abrimet said, gesturing at the pan.
“I have it,” Lealez said. “Here.”
Bet held out her hand. Lealez’s soft fingers brushed Bet’s as per put the folded paper into Bet’s thick hands.
Bet recognized the heavy grain of the paper, and the lavender hue. She hadn’t touched paper like that in what felt like half a lifetime, when the letters came to her bursting with love and desire and, eventually, a plague so powerful it nearly killed her. A chill rolled over her body, despite the heat. The last time she saw paper like this, six hundred people died and she broke her vows to the Order in exchange for moonshine and stuffed hydras. She tucked the machete under her arm. Unfolded the paper. Her fingers trembled. She blamed the heat.
The note read: Honored Plague Hunter Elzabet Addisalam, The great sorcerer Hanere Gozene taught us to destroy the world together. You have seven days to save it. Catch us if you can.
The note caught fire in her hands. She dropped it hastily, stepped back. The two in the boat gasped, but Bet only watched it burn to papery ash, the way she had watched the woman with that same handwriting burn to ash decades before.
The game was beginning again, and she feared she was too old to play it any longer.
Thirty years earlier…
The day of the riots, Hanere Gozene leaned over Bet’s vermillion canvas, her dark hair tickling Bet’s chin, and whispered, “Would you die for me, Elzabet?”
Bet’s tongue stuck out from between her lips, brow furrowed in concentration as she tried to capture the sky. For six consecutive evenings she had sat at this window, with its sweeping view over the old, twisted tops of the city’s great living spires, trying to capture the essence of the bloody red sunset that met the misty cypress swamp on the city’s far border, just visible from her seat.
The warm gabbling from the street was a prelude to the coming storm. Tensions had been hot all summer. The cooler fall weather moved people from languid summer unrest to more militant action. Pamphlets littered the streets; the corpses of dogs had been stuffed with them, as protest or warning, and by which side, Bet did not know or care. Not then. Not yet. She cared only about capturing the color of the sky.
Bet was used to Hanere’s flare for the dramatic. Hanere had spent the last year in a production of Tornello, a play about the life and death of the city’s greatest painter. She had a habit of seeking out and exploiting the outrageous in even the most mundane situations.
Hanere twined her fingers into Bet’s apron strings, tugging them loose.
Bet batted Hanere’s hands away with her free one, still intent on the painting. “You want to date a painter because you’re playing one,” Bet said, “I have to give you the full experience. That means I work in this light. Just work, Hanere.”
“Sounds divine,” Hanere said, reaching again for the apron.
“I’m working,” Bet said. “That’s as divine as it gets. Have some cool wine. Read a book.”
“A book? A book!”
Bet would remember Hanere just this way, thirty years hence: the crooked mouth, the spill of dark hair, eyes the color of honey beer widened in mock outrage.
The lover who would soon burn the world.
“Hanere Gozene,” Bet said, waving the two Plague Hunters inside. The name tasted odd on her tongue, like something both grotesquely profane and sacred, just like her memories of that black revolution.
Mhev barked at the hunters from his basket. Bet shushed him, but his warning bark convinced her to look over her young guests a second time. The appearance of Hanere’s letter had shaken her, and she needed to pay attention. Mhev didn’t bark at Plague Hunters, only Plague Givers.
“Neither of us is used to company,” Bet said. When she was younger, she might have forced a smile with it to cover her suspicions, but she had given up pretending she was personable a long time ago.
Abrimet sat across from her at the little table strewn with bits of leather and stuffing from her work on the hydras. The younger one, the pan, stood off to the side, tugging at per violet collar. Bet slumped into her seat opposite. She didn’t offer them anything. She picked up the half–finished hydra and turned it over in her hands. “City people buy these,” she said. “I trade them to a merchant who paddles upriver to sell them. No back country child is foolish enough to buy them and invite that kind of bad luck in, like asking in a couple of Plague Hunters.”
Lealez and Abrimet exchanged a look. Abrimet said, quickly, “We know Hanere left twelve dead Plague Hunters behind her, when she last escaped. If she’s out there mentoring these two rogues—”
“I’m over fifty years old,” Bet said. “What is it you hope I’ll do for you? You’re not here to ask me to hunt. So what do you want?”
Mhev stirred from his basket and snuffled over to Abrimet’s boots. He licked them. Abrimet grimaced and pulled the boots away.
“Did you step through truffled salt?” Bet asked, leaning forward. She used the shift in her position to push her hand closer to the hilt of the machete on the table. They were indeed Givers, not Hunters. She should have known.
Abrimet raised hairless brows. “Why would—”
“It is a common thing,” Bet said, “for Plague Givers to walk through truffled salt to neutralize their last cast, or to combat the plain salt cast of a Plague Hunter, which of course you would realize. It ensures they don’t bring any contagion from that cast with them to the next target. Mhev can smell that salt on you. It’s like sugar, to him. Regular salt, no. Truffled salt? Oh yes.”
“Abrimet is a respected Hunter,” Lealez said, voice rising. “You accuse Abrimet of casting before coming here, like some rogue Giver? Abrimet is a Hunter, as am I.”
“You’re here for the relics,” Bet said, because most of the company who came here wanted the relics, and though these two had a fine cover story and poor ability to hide what they were, they would be no different.
“You did use them, then,” Abrimet said, leaning forward. “To defeat Hanere.”
Mhev nosed under Abrimet’s boot. Abrimet toed at him.
“Not every godnight story is entirely rubbish,” Bet said. She still held the bottle, though it was empty. Flexed her other hand, preparing to snatch the machete. “We went south, to the City by the Crushed Lake where Hanere learned all of her high magic. The relics assisted in her capture, yes.”
“We’ll require the relics to defeat her students,” Abrimet said, “just as you defeated her.”
Mhev, sated by the salt, sat at Abrimet’s boot and barked.
Bet made her choice.
She threw her bottle at Abrimet. It smashed into Abrimet’s head, hard. Bet grabbed her machete and drove the machete through Abrimet’s right eye.
Lealez shrieked. Raised per hands, already halfway into reciting a chant. Mhev’s barking became a staccato.
Bet grabbed one of the finished hydras on the shelf and pegged Lealez in the head with it. A puff of white powder clouded the air. Lealez sneezed and fell back on the floor.
“No spells in here,” Bet said to her. “That’s six ounces of night buzz pollen. You won’t be casting for an hour.”
Bet pulled the machete clear of Abrimet. Abrimet’s face still moved. Eye blinked. Tongue lolled. The body tumbled to the floor. Mhev squeaked and went for the boots.
“How were you going to do it?” she asked Lealez.
“I don’t, I don’t understand—” Lealez sneezed again, wiping at per face.
Bet thrust the bloody machete at per. “I have hunted Plague Givers my whole life. You thought I could not spot one like Abrimet? Did you know they cast a plague before they came here? Why do you think they stepped through truffled salt?”
Lealez considered per position, and the fine line between truth and endangering per mission. Bet’s face was a knotted ruin, as if she had taken endless pummeling for decades. Her twisted black hair bled to white in patches. She was covered in insect bites and splattered blood. The spectacles resting on her head were slightly askew now. She stank terribly. The little rat happily gnawed at Abrimet’s boots. Lealez had a terrible fear that this would all be blamed on per. Cities would die, the Order would be disbanded, because per had been too arrogant, and gotten perself into this horrible assignment. Abrimet, a Plague Giver? Impossible. Wasn’t it? Lealez would have seen it.
“I didn’t know what Abrimet was,” Lealez said. “I just want to make a name for myself the way you did. I was the best of my class. I’ve… I’ve already killed three givers!”
“If that’s true you should have a name already,” Bet said.
“If they find that you killed Abrimet, you will be stung to death for it.”
“A very risky venture, then, to let you go,” Bet said, and was rewarded with a little tremble from Lealez.
Lealez wiped the pollen from per robe. It made per fingers numb. As per straightened per robe, Lealez wondered if Bet knew per was stalling, and if she did, how long she would let per do it before stabbing Lealez, too, with a machete. “I can speak for you before the judges, in the end,” Lealez said. “You’ll need someone to honor you. Another hunter. We can’t hunt alone.”
“A smart little upstart with no talent,” Bet said.
“It’s true I’m an upstart,” Lealez said, “but you can’t legally hunt without another hunter.” Per smirked, knowing that even this old woman could not stand against that law.
Bet lowered her machete. “I’d have guessed the story you sold me was as fake as your friend, but I knew the paper, and I knew the signature. If I find you faked that too, you’ll have more to worry about than just one dead Plague Hunter.”
“It’s very genuine,” Lealez said. “We only have four days. They’ll kill tens of thousands in the capital.”
“The note said seven days.”
“It took us three days to find you.”
“I’ll hide better next time.”
Lealez got to per feet. Lealez found per was trembling, and hated perself for it. A woman like Bet looked for weakness. That was Abrimet’s flaw; their fear made them start to cast a plague, instead of waiting it out. A dangerous tell in front of a woman like this. Lealez needed to seal perself up tight.
Insects whispered across the pier. “Bit of advice,” Bet said. “The Order forgives a great deal if you deliver what it wants.”
“You need me.”
“Like a hole in the head,” Bet said, “But I’ll take you along. For my own reasons.”
“What’s more important than eliminating a threat to the Community?”
“You don’t get it,” Bet said. “The last time I got a note on paper like that, it was from Hanere. It’s not just two rogues you’re dealing with.”
“There must be any number of stationery shops where—”
“That was Hanere’s handwriting.”
“That isn’t possible.”
“I turned Hanere over to the Order three decades ago, and read about her death on all the news sheets and billboards.”
“She was drawn and quartered,” Lealez said.
“And burned up in the searing violet flame of the Joystone Peace,” Bet said. “But here she is. And why do you think that is, little upstart?”
Lealez shook per head.
“Somehow she survived all that, and now she’s back to bite the Community.”
“So where do we start?” Lealez asked.
“We start with the sword,” Bet said. “Then we retrieve the shield. Then we confront Hanere.”
“How will we know where to find her?”
Bet pulled her pack from a very high shelf. “Oh, we won’t need to find her,” she said. “Once the objects of power are released, she’ll find us.”
The Copse of Screaming Corpses loomed ahead of Bet and Lealez’s little pirogue. Great, knotted fingers, black as coal, tangled with the fog, poking snarling holes in the mist that hinted at the massive shapes hidden within. Sometimes the waves of gray shifted, revealing a glaring eye, a knobby knee, or the gaping mouth of one of the twisted, petrified forest of giants, forever locked in a scream of horror.
The copse was a good day’s paddle from Bet’s refuge. When she told Lealez the name, Lealez thought Bet was making fun.
“That isn’t the real name,” Lealez said. The dense fog muffled per words.
“Oh, it is,” Bet said. “It’s aptly named.”
“Does the name alone scare people off?”
“The smart ones, yes,” Bet said.
Ripples traveled across the bubbling water.
“What are these bubbles?”
“Sinkhole,” Bet said. “They open up under the swamp sometimes. Pull boats under, whole villages. We’re lucky. Probably happened sometime last night.”
“Just a hole in the world?”
“Had one in the capital forty years ago,” Bet said. “Ate the Temple of Saint Torch. Those fancy schools don’t teach that?”
“I guess not,” Lealez said. Per gazed into the great canopy of dripping moss that covered the looming giants above them. Their great, gaping maws were fixed in snarls of pain, or perhaps outrage. Lealez imagined them eating per whole. “Why put it here?” per said. “This place is awful.”
“Would you come here for any other reason but retrieving an object of power?”
“You have your answer.”
Bet poled the pirogue up to the edge of a marshy island and jumped out. She tied off the pirogue and pulled a great coil of rope over her shoulder. She headed off into the misty marsh without looking back at Lealez. Lealez scrambled after her, annoyed and a little frightened. Bet’s generous shape was quickly disappearing into the mist.
Lealez yelped as per brushed the knobby tangle of some giant’s pointing finger.
When Lealez caught up with Bet, she was already heaving the large rope over her shoulder. She sucked her teeth as she walked around the half–buried torso of one of the stricken giants. Its hands clawed at the sky, and its face was lost in the fog.
Bet tossed up one end of the rope a couple of times until she succeeded in getting it over the upraised left arm of the giant. She tied one end around her waist and handed Lealez the other end.
“Hold onto it,” Bet said. “Pull up the slack as I go. You never climbed anything before?”
Lealez shook per head.
Bet sighed. “What do they teach you kids these days?” She kicked off her shoes and began to climb. “Don’t touch or eat anything while you’re down here.”
Lealez watched, breathless. Bet seemed too big to climb such a thing, but she found little hand and footholds as she went, jamming her fingers and toes into crevices and deviations in the petrified giant.
Lealez held tight to the other end of the rope, pulling the slack and watching Bet disappear into the fog as she climbed up onto the giant’s shoulder. Lealez glanced around at the fog, feeling very alone.
Above, Bet took her time climbing the monster. She had been a lot younger when she did this the first time, and she was already resenting her younger self. Warbling hoots and cries came from the swampland around her, distorted by the fog. Her breath came hard and her fingers ached, but she reached the top of the giant in due course.
She knew there was something wrong the moment she hooked herself up around the back of the giant’s head. The head was spongy at the front, as if rotting from within. The whole back of it had been ripped open. Inside the giant’s head was a gory black hole where the sword had been.
She pulled the knife from her hip and hacked into the back of the head, peering deep inside, scraping away bits of calcified brain matter. But it was no use. The head was empty. She traced the edges of the hole carved in the giant’s head. Someone had hacked out the great round piece of the skull that she had mortared back into place with a sticky contagion years ago. Only she and her partner Keleb had known about the contagion. They would be the only two people capable of neutralizing it before removing the relic.
“Briar and piss,” she muttered.
Below, Lealez screamed.
Bet sheathed her knife as she scrambled back down the giant, aware that her rope had gone slack. Foolish pan, what was the point of a rope if Bet cracked her head open on the way down?
Lealez screamed and screamed, horrified by the rippling of per skin. Lealez had tilted per head up to follow Bet’s progress and left per mouth open, and a shard of the great giant’s skin had flaked off and fallen into per mouth.
Lealez gagged on it, but it went down, and now per body was… growing, distending; Lealez thought per would burst into a thousand pieces. But that, alas, did not happen. Instead, Lealez grew and grew. Arms thickened with muscle. Thighs became large around as tree trunks.
When finally Lealez saw Bet sliding down the tree, Lealez’s head was already up past Bet’s position.
Bet swore and leapt the rest of the way down the face of the giant. She took a fistful of salt from the pouch at her hip and threw it in a circle around Lealez’s burgeoning body. Lealez’s clothes had burst, falling in tatters all around per. Bet muttered a chant, half–curse, half–cure, concentrating on the swinging arms above her. Bet pulled a bit of tangled herb from another pouch, already laced with contagion. She breathed the words she had last spoken in a dusty library in the Contagion College and let the plague free.
All around them, biting flies swarmed up from the swampland, drawn by her cast. They ate bits of the contagion and landed onto Lealez’s body, which was now nearing the height of the petrified giants around them. Per skin was beginning to blacken and calcify around per ankles.
The swarm of flies covered Lealez’s body like a second skin. Lealez squealed and swatted at them, per movements increasingly slow. The flies bit Lealez’s flesh again and again while Bet squatted and urinated on the salt circle.
All at once the flies fell off Lealez. The pan’s skin began to flake away where it had been bitten. The body contracted again, until it was half the size it had been, still giant. Then Lealez fell over with a great thump.
Bet ran to Lealez’s side. The skin had turned obsidian black, hard as shale. Bet took her machete from her hip and hacked at the torso until great cracks opened up in the body. Then she pulled the pieces away.
Lealez was curled up inside the husk of per former self, arms crossed over per chest, shivering.
“Get out of there now,” Bet said, offering per an arm.
Lealez tentatively took her hand, and Bet pulled per out. “Dusk is coming soon,” Bet said, “I don’t want to get caught out here.”
It was warm enough that Bet wasn’t too worried about Lealez being naked, but Lealez seemed to mind, and went searching for per pack, which had been ripped from Lealez’s body. It was a stupid search, Bet thought, because the fog was getting denser, and they were losing the light, and Lealez’s things could have gone anywhere.
Finally Lealez found the remains of per haversack, and pulled on a fresh robe. But the rest of per things were scattered, and Bet insisted they move on and not wait.
“The College will be angry,” Lealez said. “My books, my papers—”
“Books and papers? Is that all you can think about? Hurry. Didn’t I tell you not to touch or eat anything?”
“You didn’t say why!”
“I shouldn’t have to say why, you dumb pan. When I was your age I did whatever my mentor said.”
“Are you my mentor now? You aren’t even officially a Hunter. You would never be approved as a mentor by the college.”
“Is everything joyless and literal with you?”
“You don’t know how the college is now,” Lealez said. “Old people like you tell us how things should be, how we should think, but this is a new age. We face a different government, and new penalties after the Plague Wars. We can’t all go rogue or shirk our duties. We’d be kicked out. The college is very strict these days. People like you would never make it to graduation. You would end up working in contagion breweries.”
“I’m sure you’d like to continue on with that fantasy awhile longer,” Bet said.
Once they were in the pirogue and had cast off, Lealez finally roused perself from misery and asked, “What about the artifact?”
“Someone got to it first,” Bet said.
“Only one other person knows where these are. I expect they were compelled to get it.”
“You think they are still alive?”
“No,” Bet said.
At least Lealez said nothing else.
Bet’s partner Keleb, too, had retired, but had chosen a canal that acted as a main trading thoroughfare into the city instead of a hard–to–find retreat like Bet’s. It took a day and a half to reach the shoman’s house, and Bet found herself counting down the time in her head. Lealez, too, reminded her of the ticking chirp of time as they poled downriver. The current was sluggish, and the weather was still and hot.
Despite the stillness, Bet smelled the smoke before she saw it. Lealez sat up in per seat and leaned far over the prow, knuckles gripping the edge of the craft.
The guttered ruin of Keleb’s house came into view as they rounded the bend. The shoman had built the house with Bet’s help, high up on a snarl of land that hardly ever flooded. Now the house was a charred wreck.
Bet tied off the pirogue and climbed up the steep bank. She counted three sets of footprints along the bank and around the house. They had stayed to watch it burn.
Bet poked around the still smoking house and found what was left of Keleb’s body, as charred and ruined as the house.
“Help me here,” Bet said to Lealez.
Lealez came up after her. “What can we do?” Lealez said. “The shoman is dead.”
“Not the body I’m here for,” Bet said. She walked off into the wood and chopped down two long poles from a nearby stand of trees. She handed a pole to Lealez. “Help me get the body rolled back, clear the area here.”
Lealez knit per brows, but did as per was told. They heaved over Keleb’s body to reveal a tattered hemp rug beneath. Bet yanked it away and used the pole to lever open a piece of the floor. Peeling back the wood revealed a long, low compartment. Lealez leaned over to get a better look, but it was clearly empty.
Bet sucked her teeth.
“What was here?” Lealez asked.
“The cloak,” Bet said.
“I thought there were two relics, a sword and a shield.”
“That’s because that’s all we reported,” Bet said. “Because we knew this day would come.” Bet saw the edge of a piece of paper peeking out from the bottom of the cache and picked it up. It was another note, made out to her in Hanere’s handwriting.
“What does it say?” Lealez asked.
Bet traced the words and remembered a day thirty years before, rioting in the streets, a plump painter, and a future she had imagined that looked nothing like this one.
Bet crumpled up the note. “It says she will trade me the objects in return for something I love,” Bet said. “Good thing I don’t love anything.”
Nothing but Hanere, of course. But that was a long time ago. Bet hardly felt anything there in the pit of her belly when she thought of Hanere. It was the time in her life she longed for, not Hanere. That’s what she told herself.
“What a monster,” Lealez said, staring at Keleb’s charred body.
“None of us is a sainted being, touched by some god,” Bet said. “But she’s missing the third relic. She’ll need that before she can end the world.”
Lealez shivered. “We don’t have much time left.”
“There’s a suspension line that runs up the river near here,” Bet said. “Let’s see if we can find you some clothes.”
“There are only shoman’s clothes here,” Lealez said.
“We all have to make sacrifices,” Bet muttered.
They walked away from Keleb’s house; two people, a woman and a pan dressed in shoman’s clothes, the vestments smoky and charred. Bet expected Lealez to talk more, but Lealez kept the peace. Lealez found perself following after Bet in a daze. For years Lealez had wanted nothing more than to prove perself to the Contagion College. It was beginning to dawn on Lealez just what per had to do to achieve the honor per wished for, and it was frightening, far more frightening than it had seemed when Lealez read all the books about Plague Hunters and Plague Givers and how the Hunters tracked down the Givers and saved the world. No one spoke of charred bodies, or what it was like to be cut out of one’s own plague–touched skin.
The great suspension line ran along the Potsdown Peace canal all the way to the Great Dawn harbor that housed the city. Bet sighed and paid their fare to the scrawny little pan who lived in what passed for a gatehouse this far south of the city.
“College better reimburse all this,” Bet said, and laughed, because the idea that she would be alive to get reimbursed in another day was distinctly amusing.
Bet and Lealez climbed the stairs up to the carriage that hung along the suspended line and settled in. Lealez looked a little sick, so Bet asked, “You been up before?”
“I don’t like heights,” Lealez said.
The gatekeeper came up and attached their carriage line to the pulley powered by a guttering steam engine, which the pan swore at several times before the carriage finally stuttered out along the line, swinging away from the gatehouse and over the water.
Lealez shut per eyes.
Bet leaned out over the side of the carriage and admired the long backs of a pod of plesiosaurs moving in the water beneath them.
After a few minutes, Lealez said, “I don’t understand why you didn’t tell the College there were three objects.”
“Of course you do,” Bet said.
“Don’t pretend you’re some fool,” Bet said. “I haven’t believed a word you’ve said any more than I believed your little friend.”
Lealez stiffened. “Why keep me alive, then?”
“Because I think you can be salvaged,” Bet said. “Your friend couldn’t. Your friend was already a Plague Giver. I think you’re still deciding your own fate.”
They rode in silence after that for nearly an hour. Lealez was startled when Bet finally broke it.
“Keleb and I couldn’t defeat Hanere ourselves,” Bet said. “I’d like to tell you we could. But she’s more powerful. She has a far blacker heart, and a blacker magic. We went south, Keleb and I, and got help from sorcerers and hedge witches. They were the ones who created the objects of power. The sword, the shield, and the cloak.”
“How do they work?” Lealez asked.
“You’ll know soon enough,” Bet said. “Not even Keleb knew where I kept the shield, though.”
“But, the other weapons—”
The carriage shuddered. Lealez gave a little cry.
“Hold on, it’s just—” Bet began, and then the carriage hook sheared clean away, and they plunged into the canal.
Thirty years earlier…
Hanere had always loved to watch things burn. Bet sat with her on the rooftop while riots overtook the city. They sipped black bourbon and danced and talked about how the world would be different now that the revolutionaries had done more than talk. They were burning it all down.
“If only I could be with them!” Hanere said.
Bet pulled Hanere into her lap. “You are better off here with me. Out there is a world of monsters and mad people.”
Hanere waggled her brows. “Who’s to say I’m not a bit of both? Come with me, we are out of bourbon!” She held up the empty bottle.
“No, no,” Bet said. “Stay in. We’ll sleep up here.”
Bet had gone to sleep while the world burned. But that wasn’t Hanere’s way. While Bet slept, Hanere went out into it.
It was the edge of dawn when Bet finally woke, hung over and covered in cigarette ash, hands smeared in paint from her work earlier in the day. It was not until she sat up and saw the paint smearing the roof that she thought something was amiss. Her gaze followed the trail of paint that was not paint but blood to its origin. Hanere stood at the edge of the rooftop, wearing a long white shift covered in blood.
Bet scrambled up. “Are you hurt? Hanere?”
But as Hanere turned, Bet stopped. Hanere raised her bloody hands to the sky and her face was full of more joy than Bet had ever seen.
“The government is nearly toppled,” Hanere said. “We will be gods, you and I, Bet. There’s no one to stop us. It’s delightful down there. You must come.”
“What did you do, Hanere?”
“I am alive for the first time in my life,” Hanere said. She opened her hands, and salt fell from her fingers. She murmured something, and little blue florets colored the air and passed out over the city.
“Stop it,” Bet said. “What are you doing? You can’t cast in the city outside the College!”
“I cast all night,” Hanere said. “I will cast all I like. Come with me. Bet, come with me, my Elzabet. My love. We can take this whole city. We can burn down the college and those tired old people and repaint the world.”
“No, Hanere. Get down from there.”
The joy left Hanere’s face. “Is that what you wish for us?” she said. She came down from the rooftop and walked over to Bet. She placed her hands on Bet’s stomach. The blood on her hands was still fresh enough to leave stains. “Is that what you wish for our child?”
Bet sucked in water instead of air, and paddled to the surface, kicking wildly. She popped up in the brown water and took in her surroundings. Lealez was nowhere in sight. She dove again into the water, feeling her way through the muck for Lealez. Opening her eyes was a lost cause; she could see nothing. Her fingers snagged a bit of cloth. She grabbed at it and heaved Lealez to the surface.
Lealez coughed and sputtered. Bet kept per at arm’s length, yelling that all per splashing was going to drown them both.
“Head for the shore,” Bet said.
Lealez shook per head and treaded water using big, sloppy strokes. Bet followed per gaze and saw the hulking shapes of the plesiosaurs circling the carriage.
“They eat plants,” Bet said. “Mostly.”
Bet hooked Lealez under her arm and paddled for the shore. The plesiosaurs kept pace with them, displacing great waves of water that made it more difficult to get to the shore.
Lealez gasped. “They’ll crush us!”
“More worried about the lizards on the shore,” Bet said.
Two big alligators lay basking along the shore. Bet made for another hollow a little further on, but they were closer than they should be.
“They only eat at night,” Bet said, reassuring herself as much as Lealez. “Mostly.”
Bet and Lealez crawled up onto the bank and immediately started off into the brush. Bet wanted to put as much distance between her and the lizards as possible. Massive mosquitoes and biting flies plagued them, but Bet knew they were close enough to the city now that they might find a settlement or—if they were lucky—someone’s spare pirogue.
Instead, they found the plague.
The bodies started just twenty minutes into their walk to the shore, and continued for another hour as they grew nearer and nearer the settlement. Soft white fungus grew from the noses and eyes and mouths of the dead; their fingers and toes were blackened. Bet stopped and drew a circle of salt around her and Lealez, and sprinkled some precautionary concoctions over them.
“Do you know which one it is?” Lealez whispered.
“One of Hanere’s,” Bet said. “She likes to leave a mark. She’s expecting us.”
“Is this where you left the shield?”
“Hush now,” Bet said as the swampland opened up into a large clearing. Nothing was burning, which was unlike Hanere.
Bet stopped Lealez from going further and held up a finger to her lips. Two figures stood at the center of the village, heads bent in deep conversation. One wore a long black and purple cloak. The other carried a sword emblazoned with the seal of the Contagion College.
“Stay here,” Bet said to Lealez. She pulled out her machete and stepped into the clearing.
The two figures looked up. Bet might have had to guess at their gender if one of them wasn’t so familiar. She knew that one’s gender because she’d been there during the ceremony where he’d chosen it. It was her and Hanere’s own son, Mekdas. The other was most likely female, based on the hairstyle and clothing, but that didn’t much concern Bet.
A trade for something Bet loved, that’s what Hanere had written.
“So it was you who broke away from the Contagion College,” Bet said.
Mekdas stared at her. He was nearly thirty now, not so much a boy, but he still looked young to her, younger even than Lealez. He had Hanere’s bold nose and Bet’s straight dark hair and Hanere’s full lips and Bet’s stocky build and Hanere’s talent and impatience.
“I left you with the college so you could make something of yourself,” Bet said. “Now here you are disappointing me twice.”
“That’s something Hanere and you never had in common,” Mekdas said. “She was never once disappointed in me.”
Bet searched the ground around them for the shield. If they had gotten this far they must have found that too, no matter that Bet was the only one who was supposed to know where it was. Had Hanere used some kind of black magic to find it?
“Give over the objects,” Bet said, “and we can talk about this.”
“Have you met my lover?” Mekdas asked. “This is Saba.”
Saba was a short waif of a woman, a little older than Mekdas. As much as Bet wanted to blame this all on some older Plague Giver, she knew better. She had done her best with Mekdas, but it was all too late.
Bet held out her hand. “The cloak, Mekdas.”
“You’re an old woman,” Mekdas said. “Completely useless out here. Go back to your swamp. We are remaking the world. You don’t have the stomach for it.”
“You’re right,” Bet said. She didn’t know what to say to him. She had never been good with children, and with Hanere dead, she had wanted even less to do with this particular child. He reminded her too much of Hanere. “I don’t have the stomach for many things, but I know a plague village when I see one. I know where this goes, and I know how it ends. You think you can take this plague all the way to the city?”
Saba raised the sword. “With the relics, we will,” she said, and smirked.
“Hanere tell you how they work, did she?” Bet said. “The trouble is Hanere doesn’t know. There is one person alive who knows, and it’s me.”
“Hanere will show us,” Saba said.
“You shut the seven fucking hells up,” Bet said. “I’m not talking to you. Mekdas—”
“Why are you even here?” he said.
“Because Hanere invited me,” Bet said.
That got a reaction from him. Surprise. Shock, even.
Bet already had a handful of salt ready, but so did they. The shock was all the advantage she had. Bet flicked the salt in their faces and charged toward them. She bowled over Saba and snatched the sword from her. They were Plague Givers, not warriors, and it showed.
Mekdas had the sense to run, but Bet stabbed the sword through his cloak and twisted. He fell hard onto a body, casting spores into the air.
Bet yelled for Lealez.
Lealez bolted across the sea of bodies, hand already raised to cast.
“Circle and hold them,” Bet said.
Lealez’s hands trembled as per made the cast to neutralize the two hunters.
Bet tore the cloak from Mekdas’s shoulders and wrapped it around her own. She dragged the sword in one hand and crossed to the other side of the village. Bet found the tree she had nested her prize in decades before and hacked it open to reveal the shield, now buried in the heart of the tree. Sweat ran down her face so heavily she had to squint to see. She picked up the shield and marched back to where Saba and Mekdas lay prone inside the salt circle.
“Now you’ll see all you wanted to see,” Bet said to Mekdas. “You will see the world can be made as well as unmade, but there are sacrifices.” She raised the sword over her head.
“No!” Lealez said.
“Please!” Mekdas said.
Bet plunged the blade into Saba’s heart and spit the words of power that released the objects’ essence. A cloud of brilliant purple dust burst from Saba’s body and filled the air. Lealez stumbled back, coughing.
Bet quickly removed the cloak and draped it over Saba. All around the village, the bodies began to convulse. White spores exploded from their mouths and noses and spiraled toward the cloak, a great spinning vortex of contagion.
Lealez watched the cloak absorb the great gouts of plague, feeding on it like some hungry beast. A great keening shuddered through the air. It took Lealez a moment to realize it was Saba, screaming. And screaming. Lealez covered per ears.
Then it was over.
Bet stepped away from Saba’s body, but tripped and stumbled back, fell hard on her ass. She heaved a great sigh and rested her forehead on the hilt of the sword.
“What did you do?” Mekdas said. His voice broke. He was weeping.
Bet raised her head.
All around them, the plague–ridden people of the village began to stir. Their blackened flesh warmed to a healthy brown. Their plague–clotted eyes cleared and opened. Soon, their questioning voices could be heard, and Bet got to her feet, because she was not ready for questions.
“They’re alive!” Lealez said, gaping. “You saved them.”
Bet pulled the cloak from Saba’s body. Saba’s face was a bitter rictus, frozen in agony. “They only save life by taking life,” Bet said. “Now you know why I separated them. Why I never kept them together. Yes, they can give life. But they can take it, too. It’s the intent that matters.”
“We have one of them, at least,” Lealez said. “We can take him to the Contagion College.”
“No,” Bet said. She raised her head to the sky. “This is not done.” While the people of the village stirred, the insects in the swampland around them had gone disturbingly quiet.
“What is—” Lealez began.
“Let’s get to the water,” Bet said. “Take Mekdas. We need to get away from the village.”
“Listen to me in this, you fool.”
Lealez bound Mekdas with hemp rope rubbed in salt and pushed him out ahead of them. Lealez had to hurry to keep up with Bet. Carrying the objects seemed to have given her some greater strength, or maybe just a sense of purpose. She forged out ahead of them, cutting through swaths of swampland, cutting a way for them all the way back down to the water on the other side of the river.
Lealez stared out at the water and saw two pirogues attached to a cypress tree another hundred steps up the canal. “There!”
“Take my machete,” Bet said. “You’ll take one boat on your own. Follow after Mekdas and I.”
Lealez took the machete. “You’re really going to turn him in?”
Bet glared at per so fiercely Lealez wanted to melt into the water.
“All right,” Lealez said, “I wasn’t sure what I was thinking.” Lealez waded out toward the pirogue. Lealez noticed the ripple in the water out of the corner of per eye and turned.
Bet saw the ripple a half moment before. She yelled and raised her sword, but she was too slow.
A massive alligator snatched Lealez by the leg and dragged per under the water. Bet saw Lealez’s upraised arms, a rush of brown water, and then nothing.
Bet swore and scrambled after him. She fell in along the muddy bank, and then something else came up from the water for her.
Hanere emerged from the depths of the swamp like a creature born there. She head–butted Bet so hard Bet’s nose burst. Pain shattered across her face. Bet fell in the mud.
Muddy water and tangles of watercress streamed off Hanere’s body. Her hair was knotted and tangled, and her beard was shot through with white. She grabbed hold of Bet’s boot and dragged Bet toward her.
Bet held up the sword. “Revenge will get you nothing, Hanere!”
“It got me you,” Hanere said, and wrenched the shield from Bet’s hand and threw it behind her.
“You feel better with me here?” Bet said, gasping.
“A bit, yes.”
“And when your son is dead? If I don’t kill him, someone else will.”
“They were in love, like we were,” Hanere said. “It was easy to convince them to burn down a world that condemned them, and me. Even you. This world cast even you out, after all you did.”
“Not like us. They’re both criminals.”
“You became a criminal when you fucked me, and kept fucking me, even when you told them you were hunting me. You and your soft heart.”
Bet kicked herself further down the bank, holding the sword ahead of her. “I thought you dead,” Bet said. “For thirty years—”
“That’s a bunch of shit,” Hanere said. “You know they’d never kill someone like me. You know what they did to me for thirty years? Put me up in a salt box and tortured me. Me, the greatest sorcerer that ever lived.”
“How did you—”
“Does it matter?” Hanere said, and her tone softened. She crawled toward Bet and took hold of the end of the sword. She pressed it to her chest and said, “Is this what you wanted? To do it yourself? Or did you wait always for this day, when we could take the world together?”
Tears came, unbidden. Bet gritted her teeth in anger. Her own soft heart, betraying her. “You know I can’t.”
“Even now?” Hanere said softly, “after all this time?”
Bet shook her head.
Hanere reached out for Bet’s cheek, and though it was mud on Hanere’s fingers and not blood, the memory of Hanere’s bloody hands was still so strong after all these years that Bet flinched.
“We are done,” Bet said, and pressed the sword into Hanere’s heart.
Hanere did not fight her. Instead, she pulled herself forward along the length of the blade, closer and closer, until she could kiss Bet with her bloody mouth.
“I will die in your arms,” Hanere said, “as I should have done.”
Mekdas screamed, long and high, behind them.
Bet sagged under Hanere’s weight.
Mekdas bolted past her and ran toward the two pirogues.
Bet turned her eyes upward. Soft while clouds moved across the purple–blue sky. She wanted to be a bird, untethered from all this filth and sweat, all these tears. Thirty years she had hid, thirty years she had tried to avoid this day. But here it was. And she had done it, hadn’t she? Done everything she hoped she would not do.
She heard a splashing from the water, and heaved a sigh. The lizard would take her. Gods, let the lizard take her, and the relics, and drown them for all time.
When she opened her eyes, though, it was Lealez who stood above her, dripping water onto her face. The pan was covered in gore, and stank like rotten meat. Lealez held up the machete. “Told you I was the best in my class,” Lealez said.
“Didn’t know you learned how to kill lizards,” Bet said.
Lealez gazed at Hanere’s body. “Is she really dead?”
“I don’t know that I care,” Bet said. “Is that strange?”
Lealez helped her up. “The boy is trying to figure out the pirogue,” Lealez said. “We aren’t done.”
“You take him.”
“He’s your family,” Lealez said.
“I just thought… You would want to take the credit.”
Bet huffed out a laugh. “The credit? The credit.” She heaved herself forward, slogging toward the pirogue.
Mekdas saw her coming and pushed off. As she approached he stood up in the little boat, unsteady already on the water.
Behind him, Bet could just see the lights of the city in the distance. Did they all know what was coming for them? Did any realize that there were Plague Givers out here who wanted to decimate the world and start over? Would they care, or would they be like Hanere, and wish for an end?
“You must kill me to save that city, then, mother,” Mekdas said. “Will you kill me like you did Hanere? You won’t bring me in alive. You must make the—”
Bet threw her sword. It thunked into her son’s belly. He gagged and bowled over.
Bet waded out to the pirogue and pulled it back to shore.
“You killed him,” Lealez said. “I thought—”
“He’s not dead yet,” Bet said, but the words were only temporarily truth. He was gasping his last, drowning in his own blood.
“I’ve heard ultimatums like that before,” Bet said. “Hanere gave me one, and when I hesitated, I lost her. You only make a mistake like that, the heart over reason, once. Then you take yourself away from the world, so you don’t have to make decisions like that again.”
“Blood means little when there’s a city at stake,” Bet said. She gazed back out at the city. “Let’s give them to the swamp.”
“But we have to take the bodies back to—”
Bet raised the sword and pointed it at Lealez. It was only then that she realized Lealez was favoring per right leg; the lizard had gotten its teeth in per, and Lealez would get infected badly, soon, if they didn’t get per help in the city.
“We do the bodies my way,” Bet said, “then we get you back to the city.”
When they came back to Hanere’s body, it was encircled by a great mushroom ring. Green spores floated through the air.
“Is she dangerous?” Lealez said.
“Not anymore,” Bet said.
Together, they hauled the body through the undergrowth, avoiding the snapping jaws of swamp dogs and startling a pack of rats as big as Bet’s head. Bet was aware of Hanere’s stinking body, the slightly swelling flesh. When they dumped her into the hill of ants, Bet stood and watched them devour the woman she had spent half her life either chasing or romancing.
“Are you all right?” Lealez said.
“No,” Bet said. “Never have been.”
Mekdas was next.
While they stood watching the ants devour him, Lealez glanced over at Bet and said, “I know this is a hard profession, but there’s honor in it. It does a public good.”
“No, we just murder people.”
“We eliminate threats to—”
“Can you even say it? Can you say, ‘We murder people.’”
“This is a ridiculous conversation.”
“On that, we can agree,” Bet said. She glanced over at Lealez. “Something I noticed back there, in the Copse of Screaming Corpses. You never showed me your credentials.”
“Don’t be ridiculous.”
Bet grabbed per arm and yanked back per sleeve before Lealez could pull away. There was the double ivy circle of the order, but no triangles.
Bet released her, disgusted. “What happened to being best in your class? Apprehending three Plague Givers? That’s what your duplicitous friend Abrimet said, wasn’t it?”
“I came out here to make a name for myself.”
Bet stared down at the little pan, and though she wanted to hate Lealez more than anything, she had to admit, “I suspect you have indeed done that.”
Lealez smoothed per coat and mopped the sweat from per brow. The great Summoning Circle of the Contagion College was stuffed to bursting with fellow Plague Hunters. The map case Lealez carried over per shoulder felt heavier and heavier as the afternoon wore on to dusk. The initial round of questions had worn down into a second and then third round where Lealez felt per was simply repeating perself. Not a single apprentice or hunter with fewer than three triangles was allowed into the space. By that measure, Lealez wouldn’t have been able to come to per own trial just a few days ago. Lealez swallowed hard. In front of per lay the relics per and Bet had spent so much effort retrieving.
Lealez knew it was a betrayal, but per also knew there was no triangle on per arm yet, and this was the only way.
The coven of judges peered down at Lealez from the towering amber dais. The air above them swarmed with various plagues and contagions, all of them meant to counteract any assaults coming from outside the theater. But the swarm still made Lealez’s nose run and eyes water. Lealez felt like a leaky sponge.
“Where are the bodies?” Judge Horven asked, waggling her large mustache.
“We disposed of them,” Lealez said. “Elzabet was… understandably concerned that Hanere Gozene could rise again. As she had risen once before.”
“Then you have no proof,” Judge Horven said.
Lealez gestured expansively to the relics. “I have brought back the relics that Elzabet Addisalam and Keleb Ozdanam used to defeat Hanere Gozene,” Lealez said. “And you have the testimony of the two of us of course.”
Judge Rosteb, the eldest judge, held up their long–fingered hands and barked out a long laugh. “We are former Plague Hunters, all,” they said. “We know that testimony between partners can be… suspect.”
“I stand before you with all I have learned,” Lealez said. “Abrimet was unfortunately lost to us along the way, through no fault of either Elzabet or myself. Their death was necessary to our goal. I regret it. You all know that Abrimet was my mentor. But we did as we were instructed. We stopped Hanere and the other two Plague Givers. I retrieved the relics. Both of those things cannot be contested. Because even if, as you say, you see no body, I can tell you this—you will never see Hanere again upon this soil. That will be proof enough of my accomplishments.”
The judges conferred while Lealez sweated it out below them. Not for the first time, Lealez wished they had let Bet inside, but that was impossible, of course. Bet had murdered Abrimet, and done a hundred other things that were highly unorthodox in the apprehension of a Plague Giver. The judges would already worry that Bet had been a terrible influence on Lealez. Lealez would be lucky to get through this with per own head intact. At least Lealez would die in clean clothes, after a nice cold bath, which was the first thing per had done on entering the city.
Finally, the judges called Lealez forward.
“Hold out your arm,” Judge Rosteb said.
Bet waited for Lealez outside the great double doors of the theater. Plague Hunters streamed past Bet as they were released from the meeting, all pointedly ignoring her. No one liked a woman who could kill her own family, no matter how great a sorcerer she was. The better she was, the more they hated her.
And there was Lealez. Lealez walked out looking dazed. Bet frowned at per empty hands. Lealez had gone in with the relics to make per case for destroying them, but Bet had a good idea of what had happened to them.
“Let’s see them,” Bet said, and snatched Lealez’s arm. They had tattooed the mark of three successful hunts there. Bet snorted in disgust. “All three, then. You really learned nothing at all, did you? I could kill you too, but there are hundreds, thousands, just like you, crawling all over each other to do the bidding of the City Founders. You’re like a hydra, spitting up three more scaly heads for every one I hack off.”
“You don’t know how difficult it is to rise up through the college now,” Lealez said.
“You kids talk like it was any easier. It wasn’t. We got asked to make the same stupid choices. They wanted the relics when Keleb and I came back, too. But we held out.”
“You were already famous! Your reputation was secured!”
“Shit talk,” Bet said. “You’re just not tough enough to give up your career so young. I get that. But think on this. It’s easy to destroy a country with plague, but how do you save your own from it? You’ll all unleash something in the far empires and think we’re safe, but we aren’t, not with a thousand relics. All killing gets you is more killing. You pick up a machete, kid, and you’ll be picking it up your whole life.”
“None of it matters now,” Lealez said, and sniffed. Lealez pulled a cigarette from a silver case, but for all per insouciance, Bet noted that per hands trembled. “They have the relics. What they do with them now doesn’t concern me.”
“Dumb kid,” Bet said.
Lealez lit per cigarette with a clunky old lighter from per bag, something that would have weighed per down by an extra pound in the swamp. Lealez took a long draw. “I gave them the sword and the shield,” per said, “just so you know.”
“The… sword and shield. That’s what you gave them?”
“Yeah, like I said.” Lealez pulled a leather map case from per shoulder. “Here’s the thing I promised you,” Lealez said.
“I see,” Bet said. She took the case from per. “You know the relics don’t work unless they’re all together?”
“Don’t know about that,” Lealez said. “I’m just a dumb kid, remember?”
“I’m sorry,” Bet said.
Lealez shrugged. “Just get out of here. You aren’t suited to the city.”
Bet tipped her head at Lealez. “I don’t want us to meet again,” Bet said. “No offense meant.”
“None taken,” Lealez said. “If we meet again it means I’m not doing my job. I know how to play this game too, Bet.” Lealez handed Bet the lighter and walked back into the college.
Bet pocketed it and watched per go. Lealez did not look back. When Lealez opened the great door of the College to go back inside, per hand no longer trembled. That pan was going to make a good Hunter someday, like it or not.
Bet shouldered the map case and began her own long walk across the city. It took nearly two hours to cross the dim streets, navigating her way based on which roads had functioning gaslights. She went all the way to the gates of the city and into the damp mud of the swamp before she risked opening the map case.
Inside, the cloak artifact was rolled up dry and tight. Bet rented a skiff upriver and spent the next week trudging home on foot and by whatever craft she could beg a ride up on.
When it came time to do what needed to be done, she wasn’t sure she could do it. What if there was another Hanere? But so long as the relics existed, the world wasn’t safe.
Bet burned the cloak there in the canopy of the cypress trees while swamp dogs snarled and barked in the distance. She watched the smoke coil up through the dense leaves and moss, and let out a breath.
It was decided. For better or worse.
She had retired to the swamp because she liked the color. The color was the same, but she was not.
Bet leaned over the dim light of her firefly lantern, pushing her stuffed hydra into its glow. She eased the big sewing needle through its skin with her rough, thick fingers. On the shelves behind her were dozens of cast–off hydras, each defective in some way that she could not name. The College knew where she was now, and it made her work more difficult to concentrate on in the many long months back at her damp home. She sweated heavily, as the sun had only just set, and the air would keep its heat for a long time yet. She was tired, but no more than the day before, or the day before that. She had made her choices.
Mhev snorted softly in his basket with a litter of four baby swamp rodents, all mewing contentedly out here in the black. She wished she could join them, but her work was not done.
Outside, the insects grew quiet. Bet had been waiting for them. The waiting was the worst part. The rest was much easier. Whether it was child or Hunter or Giver or beast who stilled their call, she had made her choice about how to defend her peace long before, when she first condemned Hanere to death. She had already killed everything they both loved then.
That left her here.
Bet took hold of the machete at her elbow, the machete she would be taking into her hands for the rest of her life, and opened the door.