By C.S.E. Cooney
This is a complete work of fiction presented by Black Gate magazine. It appears with the permission of C.S.E. Cooney and New Epoch Press, and may not be reproduced in whole or in part. All rights reserved. Copyright 2012 by New Epoch Press.
Part One: Lector
I was eight when I met Jaks. He was running away from home and I was trying to catch a fish in one of Viceroy Eriphit’s reeking public ponds.
“Um, excuse me, girl?”
I scowled up, more to protest the sun than in any quarrel I had with him. He flinched anyway.
Poor little boy, I thought. Puts me in mind of a broken cactus wren. I made my voice soft and syrupy.
“How may I help you, my crumpet?”
Crumpet is what Great Aunt Irlingard called me when she was in her opium mood. Otherwise, I was referred to as “thing.” Sometimes, “O Lone Grain in my Gilded Sandal.” Or in very bad moods, “Stinking young pit viper who never cleans its toenails!”
He glared at me. “I am nine –- a man grown, not a breakfast. And I just wanted to say that you’re not going to catch any fish with a piece of string and rusty nail.”
I sprang up, stunned. My makeshift rod plopped into the scum and floated.
“You don’t know me! You don’t know what I can catch! In fact, I’ll have you know…”
I cast around the park for inspiration. Obviously, the Viceroy hadn’t paid his architects enough when it came to the designing of grassy knolls here in the Pimples.
“This pond,” I informed him, “harbors a fugitive dragonfish from the Viceroy’s own High Temple to the Dead Kings of Koss Var. If you catch it at midday with a… an orphan’s sandal lace” (it was my sandal lace) “and a nail discovered by moonlight” (I had tripped over my sandal lace last night and fell on the nail, nearly but not quite cutting my hand open) “then the dragonfish will grant you three wishes.”
I had him. He heaped down beside me on the sharps of his knees and stared into the murky slime.
“Do you have another lace?” His voice was hesitant, humble.
I felt him there beside me, all along my right side, every thin bone of him. Whenever he twitched, I expected him to rattle like verdy branches. I untied my other sandal and handed over the lace.
“I’m Ro,” I told him. Why not? It was as good a name as any other, and no one had given me a real one. It burst sweetly on my tongue, like a freshly sliced orange.
“Jaks.” He nodded at me. “Your parents are dead?”
“Pretty much dead, yeah,” I agreed. “Buried down in Paupers’ Grave on the corner of B’ihbrid and Nilzi. I live with Great Aunt Irlingard who hates me.”
Jaks’s straight, dark eyebrows scrunched at the middle. His chin sank to his chest. The long scar beneath his lower lip turned a deep glistening red as his mouth bowed downward.
“I live with my father and sisters,” he said, “in my Mother’s house.”
After a pause, he added, “My Mother is eating my father. Very slowly.”
I didn’t get much more out of him that afternoon. Only that he had run away from home, and meant to stay away this time. He’d tried before, he admitted (several dozen times, I guessed, though I didn’t think he’d ever gotten as far as the Pimples), and by Ajdenia, if there were magic dragonfish in this spit-wad of a pond, he’d help me catch one –- tho’ it meant a fortune in rusty nails! Once caught, if the lady permitted (with a bow to me), Jaks would presume to cadge a single wish off my spreaghery of three.
Impressed, I offered him all my wishes. I’d have given him the sandals off my feet, too, with or without the laces, just for that bow, that grave courtliness, that vocabulary. He did something better than cuss! He discoursed.
Jaks thanked me for my kindness, but insisted a single wish would serve his purpose.
“I’d wish her dead, you see,” he said. “Dead, gone and rotted through. My Mother.”
The statement was sufficiently shocking that even I let it slide. Later, of course, he told me about her. As early as our first meeting, however, I had intimated that his Mother’s house was not a small one, that it was one of the great Audiencia Houses that serve the Viceroy’s court. And that Jaks, by his birthright, moved amongst nobility and had no business to be in the Pimples, playing with me.
“Yes, but is she human?”
“Nothing like human.”
It was several days after our first encounter. Jaks and I had taken to meeting up by the Shoshi Park pond scum. I’d bring the prickly pear jelly, he’d bring the flatbread. We’d share.
Jaks ran away almost as much as I did.
“But how does she get around?” I asked. “Why doesn’t the Guard capture her like the monster she is and string her up and hang her severed head from the alabaster gates of our fair city?”
“Nothing like human,” Jaks repeated firmly, adding, “except for how she looks. She looks…” He shrugged. “The Guard wouldn’t touch her.”
“Oh.” That was daunting. “What is she then?”
“Are you human?”
He slanted a glance at me. “Maybe.”
“You seem human.”
“I feel old.”
“But you’re not, right? You’re just nine. You said so.”
“Yes, I’m nine,” he said. But he sighed.
“How come, if your Mother’s a monster, you’re so nice?”
“My father was a nice man.” Jaks looked doubtful. “He was once a close friend of Vorst Vadilar, our Sovereign King. But back in the court of Koss Var, sometimes father spoke out too loudly, about Rok Moris and Viceroy Eriphit’s policies here. ‘Vorst Vadilar is a strong king,’ my father told me, ‘who sometimes forgets he is a good king.’ So my father argued with him, and the king said, ‘Jahaksi, we have arranged a marriage for you.’ And the king introduced him to my Mother, who is perilously beautiful. And my father loved her, and wed her, and she bore me upon her marriage couch.”
“Oh,” I said. I could invent a hundred stories, and they’d never be as clever as this one. Jaks rarely spoke so volubly, but when he did – pure and dewy glory!
“From the time I was an infant,” Jaks continued, “my father would creep into my bedroom and tell me stories. I think he believed me to be asleep, for I was always quite still and kept my eyes closed tight. My father spoke from his great loneliness and fear, and his stories grew dark and darker. This was back when he still could talk, of course.”
“Of course.” I nodded sagely, although all this was news to me.
“One night,” said Jaks, “right before the twins were born, my father came tiptoeing to my room, and knelt beside my bed. His tears fell onto my blankets. He whispered how Mother came from the Bellisaar Wasteland. That one night the desert opened up and spat her out. And she walked across the burning sands and into Koss Var the King’s Capital. There, she came to the king in all her nakedness, smiling with her teeth, and the king said, ‘Very well. You may live in my city, if you obey me.’ And Mother said, ‘Very well. Give me meat, and I will obey.’ And that is when the king called my father to his wedding vows.”
“But,” I blustered, “then the king knows she’s eating your dad!”
“One bite at a time,” Jaks agreed. His voice was flat and weary. “From the inside, so no one but the king can guess her game. She must have eaten my father’s language first, and then my father’s thought, because he doesn’t talk anymore. He just grows blanker. And thinner. This morning, at breakfast, he tried to pick up his fork, but couldn’t remember…” He trailed off, forehead scrunching and scar deepening. Then the words ripped right off his lips:
“I brought him his porridge, and he lapped it up like a dog!”
“Yuck,” I said. “Poor dad.”
“Yeah.” Jaks hunched again. “Mother has to go real slow on him, while she waits for me to grow up.”
I scooted in deliberate rotation on the burning pavement until I faced him. Our knees touched. We both breathed in and out as a single being, some strange desert creature with too many twiggy limbs.
“What happens? What happens when you grow up?”
My voice did not, thank the Lizard Lady, go high and squeaky when I was afraid. It got growly.
Jaks held my gaze. His eyes were burning, black like the sun when you look at it too long. His restless hands began dismantling our fishing poles. A pile for string, a pile for stick, a pile for rusty nails. The moldy bread had all but dissolved in the pond scum. I repeated my question. He sighed and answered me.
“What happens? Oh, Ro. Then it will be, as she calls it, Her Great Feast.”
“Who?” I knew already. “You?”
“Half of her went into my making, she says, so that I will last longer and taste better than my sire. But I am still half-human, like my father before me.”
His voice was steady, a man’s voice for all that it was gruff and light. The only boy-thing about him was his hands, with the fingernails bitten down to precise white pills. His hands, which were shaking. I grabbed them. Mine were much browner than his, for I’d been born in this desert, like the Bird People who fought the Audiencia from the sky – not like the invaders who’d come from the north to suck the life from our city. My hands, sun-stained and dirty in their calluses, closed around his wrists.
“Jaks.” I used my most serious, no-nonsense, tough-stuff, I’ll grow up to be Captain of the Viceroy’s Guard and Kill Your Mama voice. “If she so much as takes one lick of you, I’ll punch a hole in her tongue so big you can stick a rope through it. And then I’ll tie that rope to a ginormous camel and whack the camel loose into the Bellisaar Waste. I’ll send her back to the dust that begat her. I promise.”
Jaks smiled at me. For the first time since I’d met him.
I think that was when I knew I loved him.
Not long after that, he started bringing his young sisters along when he ran away to the Pimples. Every time they came, he swore it would be their last. That they would stay forever. With me. We’d have a house together and be happy.
“And you will always be Lady Ro,” he promised, “Knight of Bellisaar, Lady Protector.”
Beat being a mere “thing” any day.
But each night, as the sun dove into the dunes around Rok Moris, Jaks and the twins, hollow-eyed and mutinous, had to drag themselves back home again. I tried to hold them back. Sometimes they let me tie them to the verdy trees. But no matter how I begged, no matter how strong my rope, when the sun went down, they left me. No knot held fast.
“Can’t you hear her?” Jaks would ask. “Can’t you hear her singing?”
But I never could.
Hesper and Hester were two and a half years old apiece. They enjoyed twanging the King’s Marches on their mouth harps. Their sandal laces always straggled. Their presence perforce drew us away from the pond (where they might fall in and drown) to the playground, which consisted of an enormous clay duct painted all over with blue and yellow butterflies. It nested in a small sandbox, a pitiful thing compared to the vast dunes piling ever higher outside our city gates.
Jaks and I sat cross-legged on top of the duct, while the twins crouched inside, playing goblins in the cooler shadows. The air smelled of coriander and olive oil that day: elusive whiffs of cooking taking place in more joyous households than ours.
I was trying to explain to Jaks why Hesper and Hester kept losing their sandals. The mystery had eluded us up to that point, but I thought I’d finally put my finger on it. All it took was a little invention…
“The twins, see,” I told Jaks, “are High Holy Priestesses of Ajdenia the Lizard Lady. And, as priestesses, right, they aren’t allowed to wear shoes on Holy Ground…
Jaks’s eyebrows pinched into a dubious crook, but his mouth was soft, almost smiling. He spread his hands, palms up. In the space between them, I found the rest of my story.
“And, and, so, Jaks,” the glee sprang into my cheeks, “wherever Hesper and Hester go is always Holy Ground. ‘Cause they’re priestesses! And that’s why they keep losing their sandals. The Lizard Queen decrees it so.”
“Oh,” he said admiringly. “Lady Ro, well done!”
“Holy gwound!” Hester’s voice echoed from the duct. “Mowching on the holy-moly gwound, gwound, gwound!”
Hesper took it from there: “And we all go mowching down! Down! To get out-ta the dunes, dunes, DUNES, dunes…”
Seized with the dusty mischief of some desert sprite, I scrambled to my feet on top of the duct and stared at Jaks. His head tilted up to watch me, black eyes ablaze beneath heavy eyebrows. His thin face was gilded in the late light, which glistened on his scar as on a row of garnets.
From my rope belt, I drew the long whippy verdy branch I used for my sword. Verdy trees were greener by far than anything else in the desert, and now in my hand, the branch seemed to glow.
“In the name of Ajdenia, Queen of the Waste, Lizard Goddess, Lady of the Sands, and by the powers ‘trusted to me by Saint Hesper and Saint Hester, Pilgrim Guardians of Her Temple, I confer on you, Jaks, the Sacred Order of Fiend-Grinder.” I drew a great breath, lest I pass out right on top of him. “Go forth!” I commanded him. “Go and wage war against Monsters of Sand and Void! Especially your Mother.”
Jaks looked solemn, as only a nine-year old boy can look the hour his Vigil ends and his Quest begins. He looked, in fact, like he might cry, so I cut in quickly:
“Jaks, good sir, it’s gonna monsoon soon. Let’s call it a day, hey?”
“No,” he whispered. “Not yet.” His golden skin bleached clay cold. Only the scar on his chin flashed red. He pointed to it, with an abrupt ferocity that startled me. “Do you see this?”
I shrugged, discomfited. I saw the scar everyday. It fascinated me. It gave him always the smell of fresh blood.
“This is where she kisses me,” he said. “Her teeth go right through.”
“Jaks, Jaks,” I cried, “why do you let her?“
“She’s going to have my baby brother soon, and everything will change.”
“Why?” My tongue tasted dry and hot, like I’d swallowed too much cayenne.
“He’s the last one. Two girls, two boys. She’ll sip the twins like wine through the years. Keeps her hair red, she says. And I’m the meat – that’s done. But my brother – he’ll be her cake.”
Jaks made a restless movement with his hands, two machetes dulling themselves against a jungle I had never seen. When his hands fell, he shivered.
“When my brother is born, the larder will be full. Then she’ll move us north. To Koss Var the King’s Capital. For seasoning.”
“That’s stupid!” I said. “That’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard. You don’t have to move!”
He shook his curly brown head. I was a year younger than he, but I knew even less than the twins. Who were quiet, down there in the duct.
“The desert is the place for laying dessert,” he recited. “The girls were born by the sea. I was born in our mountain palace, where the game throngs and the meat is strong. Don’t you understand?” Jaks cried in despair. “We will go to Koss Var when my brother is born.”
I didn’t understand, but it would be dark soon, and I didn’t want to send him home with that look on his face.
“Don’t be mad at me?” I gave him a quick hug. I’d never dared do anything like that before, though I’d known him a whole summer and all that time I’d wanted to. I expected Jaks to jump away. He shrank from rough play and loud words and my time with him had gentled me some. But now his arms wrapped like wires around me and he pressed his cheek to mine. His face was wet. The day was a scorcher, so it could have been perspiration.
“Don’t be sad!” I whispered. “Just stay with me. Stay here with me, in the Pimples. I’ll make you prickly pear jelly. We’ll catch the dragonfish. We’ll become soldiers for the Viceroy. Or priests for Ajdenia. Or snakeskin merchants. Or miners. Or spice guys. Or – or, we’ll join the Bird People and be revolutionaries and take back the city from the Audiencia! Just stay, Jaks. Stay. Don’t cry.”
“Ro,” he replied. “Ro, don’t let her take me.”
I tapped his back with my verdy branch. Nothing harsh, just a reminder.
“I’ll fight her for you. I’ll save you and the twins and your baby brother too. I swear it by the Lizard Lady. And by my trusty green blade.”
Hesper and Hester popped out of the duct to stand barefoot in the sandbox. They beamed up at us. Grit-dusted and mostly identical, the twins had only one thing in uncommon. Hesper had a set of dimples like craters (so did Jaks, for his rare smiles). Hester, somehow, had escaped that trait. But she did have a small, cherry-red mark just off center of her forehead. Its malevolent glitter reminded me of Jaks’s chin-scar.
The twins began to chant:
“Wo get mama dead. The Libbard Lady said. Wo get mama dead. The Libbard Lady said.”
Hesper’s voice was high and full of air. Hester had a voice like a bullfrog.
“Wo get mama dead, mama dead, mama dead…”
“Ro,” Jaks said, “look at the sky.”
Perturbed by the rapt luster on his face, I obeyed.
Rok Moris, where we lived, was a desert city. Brown, low to the ground (like me), it was designed in long ago times along neat canals and reservoirs. Even the Pimples adhered to that grid. Ours was not a beautiful habitat (Koss Var, I’d heard it said, was all silver and sapphire, with fountains as large as the Viceroy’s Palace, and a freshwater lake bigger than the Bellisaar Waste entire), but there was no beating Rok Moris for trophy sunsets. Especially during monsoon. At this time of year, during dusk, thunderheads would gather up from the distant horizons all the scarlet and gold and indigo our dusty city lacked and would shine it back to us like fire through stained glass.
That evening, as Jaks and his sisters left me, we had ourselves a cathedral sky. There was a rose window in the west, the radiant wheel of heaven, and its rays reached east in billows of sea satin and stars.
That was the last time I saw my friends for twenty years.
Part Two: Porter
Many things can happen in twenty years, but in my case, they didn’t. The decades rang with what I did not do.
I did not become Captain of the Viceroy’s Guard. Or a revolutionary who worked to bring it down. I did not succeed in escaping Rok Moris and following Jaks across the desert. I tried thrice, but each time the Gate Police caught me. The first time, they took away my prickly pear jelly sandwiches. The second time, they broke my green stick. The third time, they brought me to the orphanage, wherefrom Great Aunt Irlingard never came to spring me. Maybe she died and no one said. Maybe she was relieved to be rid of me. I didn’t see her after that.
I did not save him. So I forgot him – mostly, except in dreams.
The Bureau for Widows, Orphans and Veterans, by and large an overstressed establishment, was glad to emancipate me when I turned fifteen. To pay for the meager education the orphanage had forced on me, I was shackled into the position of undersecretary to a cadet lordling of the Audiencia. In his dim and boxy office that smelled of coffee and horseradish I stayed, doing nothing much for thirteen years but recording his social engagements, and burning the bills he ran up among the merchants of Rok Moris for every conceivable frivolity, and crowing in secret as reports of the Bird People’s insurgencies against the Audiencia increased – both in number and vigor.
On my twenty-eighth birthday I woke up and thought about killing myself. I didn’t have the energy. So I splashed my face, clawed my hair into order, and went to work like I’d always done.
About two hours later, my story finally started again.
Petty Lord Riasoro smiled at me.
“Good morning, Orphan Ro.”
This stood my hackles to attention. My boss only smiled in the aftermath of some rampant awfulness. The last time he’d smiled in my presence (this was several months back), he had just sold an enormous patch of treaty-protected acreage to a rancher from Leevland, which was further north even than Koss Var the King’s Capital. When the Bird People and their supporters showed up at the site to protest this violation, Riosoro had his hired thugs round up the recalcitrant hordes. He couldn’t catch many. Mostly the Bird People flew off on their carpets, taking with them any of their companions who found purchase on a bare patch of weave, or managed to grab a fistful of tassle. Those who did not escape were driven to the canyon that marked the southern boundary of Rok Moris. The Fallgate.
There they were forced either to ratify the bill of sale with their names or – as he phrased it – “Set sail on an ocean of air with no boat but hope, my desert friends.”
None of the protesters signed. The great raptor Rok with the diamond in her skull did not soar down from heaven to rescue them. The Bird People did not suddenly sprout wings. It was the Fallgate. They fell.
That day in Riosoro’s office, I wondered what my boss thought I’d done to merit the Fallgate. It would’ve been nice if I’d had the gumption to do anything brave or interesting, but coward as I was, I’d pretty much always behaved myself.
“Sir,” I greeted him. Monosyllablism is a harder habit to kick than the popping of mescal buttons like sugar pills. I should know.
“Orphan Ro, many happy returns.”
“Your birthday, Orphan Ro! I extend my fel-i-ci-ta-tions.”
Thing is, in the decade and loose change I’d worked under him, Petty Lord Riasoro had met my stare all of three times. His usual method was to direct his orders to a point well above my head, operating under the conviction that only other tall, angular, lordly people with vulturous noses and precision cheekbones were worthy of his address. But now his hard little hematite eyes were twinkling right at me, and the forked braids of his mustache quivered.
“Um,” I guessed, “thanks?”
He ignored me, fingering a bone button on his vest. “Well, well, well, well,” he said. “How does it feel to be an old woman, Orphan Ro? And you came to us such a stunted little thing. More like a tumor than the Rokka foundling you are. Neither beast, nor,” he paused, “bird. Nor anything like a real person. Just a piece of dirt that happened to walk upright and get her smudgy fingerprints all over my paperwork.”
I decided to save my more agreeable-sounding grunts for a worthier conversationalist.
“It is, I see,” he glanced at a notice he carried, “your twenty-eighth birthday today.”
That had been implicit in his fel-i-ci-ta-tions, I thought.
“Is it?” I asked. My boss was not the only jackass in the room who could drawl. I’d learned affectation from a champ.
“The last of your debt is paid, Orphan Ro.”
I sat up straighter at my desk. “Is it?”
“Therefore.” Riasoro took an unnecessary breath. “I must ask you to pack your belongings and vacate this vicinity. Your position of employment, may the dead kings have mercy on me, will be assumed by the next Ward of State.” He waved his thin hand. “Some fresh young foundling yearning, as once you did, toward legitimate citizenship.”
I bared my teeth in a grin. “Fresh meat?”
My ears began to ring. I went from having too much saliva to none at all.
“Your government-issued apartment will be reassigned.” He handed me a blue slip of paper. “The Bureau for Widows, Orphans and Veterans congratulates you on your citizenship and wishes you the best in securing new employment and housing. Here are your official documents. You may now leave Rok Moris as whim directs. No one will care to stop you.”
Taking the papers, I stood up from what had formerly been my desk.
“S-Sir,” I stammered, “a word?”
“Citizen Ro, I am really too busy…”
“Just – please – I beg you – let me say…”
I had to spring a bit, because he was a tallish bastard and I was not. Clinging with both hands to his shoulders, I kissed him full on his disgusting mouth, letting him have a slimy dose of what must have, to a stupid person like my ex-boss, seemed a desperate bid for security.
However. Citizen Ro had not brushed her teeth that morning. I made sure he knew it with my final exhalation.
I sprang back and grinned at his expression. My mouth felt funny, like I’d not grinned in years. Which, I realized, I hadn’t.
Petty Lord Riasoro had been so busy recoiling from the kiss that he never noticed me swiping the purse from his belt. Ringed to the strap of it was a bunch of keys whose jingling I muffled against my hip.
“So long, you Koss Varian piss-licker,” I said. “I hope your mouth falls off.”
And I stumped out the door, whistling happy birthday to myself.
Maybe mine wasn’t the stickiest palm in the Pimples, but by the Lizard Lazy, today it was the slickest.
I hadn’t done it for the money. Anyone with her ear to the dust of Rok Moris kens a petty lordling is too paranoid to carry much in the way of cash. The Bird People might swoop down from the rooftops and peck it off his person, gods forbid! But Riasoro did have some solid coin, plus his identity papers – which would be a hassle and a half for him to replace. And then there were his keys.
I removed myself and my booty straight to the Lizard Queen’s temple.
At the corner of Pel and Shezzad where the temple stood, I took a moment to stand quiet and sniff the air. First day of summer. Out in the Waste, the sarro blossoms would be withering against their spiky spines. Ghost roads swam above the real roads in shimmering mirage, and the sky was a skeleton of itself. Ornamental oranges baked on their branches, and their scent clung like mysterious messengers to every errant breeze.
My first breath as a free person. It caught in my throat.
Ajdenia’s Temple was a series of stuccoed hallways and open courtyards. People (often of the jobless, homeless variety – like myself, come to think of it) were welcome to sit on the cool stone in the shade of the walls and pray to Ajdenia of the Desert. Or, if they were feeling holy and self-flagellatory, they could stretch out facedown in the courtyards and worship the goddess under the relentless trumpet blare of the sun.
After negotiating a warren of increasingly slim corridors and doorways, I found the smallest, quietest courtyard. To make up for its lack of ceiling, the courtyard sported two olive trees for shade, a sheepish acacia and a diminutive but elegant verdy bush. There was also a square fountain, tiled in ancient lapis lazuli stones and built over a natural hot spring. The water smelled like bad eggs and would scald you to touch it.
I kicked off my sandals and sat at the fountain’s edge.
“Ajdenia, I have no money to offer. Or… Well…”
After all, it was best to be scrupulous with deities, since they know everything anyway.
“…I do have Riasoro’s money,” I hastily confessed, and then added, “but it isn’t much and there’s blood on it. Not literally. Maybe at one point, yes, but he’s a very clean criminal and I’m sure he bathed each coin twice in the tears of his foes. Anyway, I’ll probably need the coin for food, so I’m not gonna dump it down a holy fountain, no matter how much I like you.” I sighed. “As I’m sure you’re aware, Lady, I was fired today. Canned. Sacked. Given the iron sandal – square in the buttocks, as it were. For that I give you thanks. So, here. I brought you something. A souvenir.” I dangled the petty lord’s key ring over the foul brew of the fountain. “May it open doors to your mercy.”
I let the ring drop.
A hand sanpped out to snatch the keys right from the air.
“No, no, no,” scolded a voice. The purse, too, was peremptorily removed from my surprised fingers. “You have no grasp of the subtleties, Citizen.”
I twisted on the ledge – admittedly with some apprehension – to behold not the humorless city guard I expected but a raggedy youth. He had bare feet, a bold grin and the biggest, blackest eyes I did ever see.
“Heya, lady,” he said.
I shook my head. “That purse is hot, kid.”
“I know. I was eavesdropping.”
“Well…” I paused, then decided to give up. It didn’t matter much. Nothing did. “Just don’t get caught clutching it too close.”
He tossed the purse in the air, and the key ring too, juggling a brief, lopsided pattern before disappearing the items into his tatters and raggle-tags. When I didn’t so much as twitch, he bowed.
“What purse?” he demanded. “Which keys?”
He really was a beauty under all his grime. Eighteen years old at the top of my guess, but he might pass for five years his junior. Tiny white teeth. Skin the costly brown of mulled cider. Eyes, large and luminous and far too big for the embroidery needle bones of his face. Big translucent ears stuck out on either side of his head like butterfly wings. His hands were thin and long and dexterous. Outlaw hands, if I ever saw a pair. And I’d seen plenty.
“So you’re broke, huh?” the boy asked.
“Broke as a bad joke,” I agreed. “No thanks to you.”
“You’re a poet!”
He began to grin, and really, there was no help for it – a mouth like his? I had to grin right back. The expression felt fierce and half-forgotten. Did I now only use my mouth to bare my teeth? That must change in the next few days, I decided, before I died of hunger and exposure. I would smile more. I swore to it.
The boy continued, “I’m a poet, too. Mostly for my girlfriend, you know. She’s my inspiriation. My muse. My goddess. I compose love songs, villanelles to her beauty, sestinas to her manifold perfections. All sorts of sonnets. Things that end in couplets…” He trailed off dreamily. “But just this morning, I left off her supernal attributes for a few minutes and I made up something a bit more secular. Wanna hear?”
I looked around for rescue. Nothing. Even the trees were empty. Pigeons by the squalorful when you’re sick of the sight of ‘em, but not a single winged rat to distract a girl with cooing when she needs it most.
Shaking my head, I agreed, “Okay.”
“I’m in the market,” recited the boy, “for a magic carpet.” He paused. “A soft rhyme. Get it?”
I nodded again, politely.
“No!” The boy blew out his breath. “I really am. See, I got to Rok Moris by, um, Divine Intervention, I guess you’d say, but now I need to get back on my own mettle. Like a crucible. Will I test out to be true gold, am I made of the right stuff, walkabout and come-of-age sort of thing? Crisis is, lady, I’ve already been gone from home too long, and then I was looking for you all morning, and we really need to go now.” His hand clutched my arm. Not in an alarming way. Friendly, but urgent. “I always say, don’t you, that if you need to reach Koss Var in a tearing hurry, a flying rug’s the way to go. Don’t you agree?”
I didn’t get my nod in this time. He talked faster than I could think.
“I figure,” he continued, “with this here purse and from what I’ve rustled out of the charity box, you and me got enough jingle for at least a threadbare enchantment. That is, if we flirt with the right people.”
Trying not to smile again, I shook my head. “Look, kid, I don’t dabble in that…”
“Aw, come on. You’re game for anything. Everyone says you got more pluck than a dead hen in the Viceroy’s kitchen. And you’re headed my way.”
“I’m not,” I stated with certainty, “going anywhere near the King’s Capital. For one thing, it’s hundreds of miles away. For another…”
“Sure you are!”
“Ghoul.” I used my once and for all and I’ll brook you no argument voice, “You’re not even canny on my name. What in the Void makes you think you wanna travel the breadth of Bellisaar in my poor company? I might be anyone.”
“Poor is right,” the boy reminded me with a waggle of his eyebrows. “You don’t have a care in the world. No job, no home, no friends. And on top of everything, as of this morning you’re a low, foul, sneak-about, belly-down and dirty thief.” He pronounced this with unnerving admiration. “Come on, Citizen Ro. I’ve come all this way to fetch you. Let’s shake this dust and see the world.”
I came off the fountain’s edge as if those waters had leapt up and boiled me. But the boy – the boy who knew my name – was still grinning away, lovely and filthy, like I was the dumbest but nicest kid sister he ever had.
“Ajdenia?” I asked carefully.
Just in case. Sometimes there were miracles. Sometimes gods took flesh, and spoke in words of prophecy, even to the humblest…
The boy rolled his eyes. “Wrong again, O Blossom that Thrives in a Cracked Pot. I’m Wyll.” He took my hand and pumped it. I noticed he wore a silver bracelet shaped like a lizard eating its tail. “Come on.”
As he led – dragged – me from the courtyard, he glanced back over his shoulder.
“Oh, look, lady. In the tree behindja. It’s lookin’ atcha.”
Straining my head around, I caught a glimpse of something that might have been a monitor dragon, might have been my imagination, but whatever it was, it was huge and reptilian and had wrapped itself around a branch of the verdy tree. The great weight of its sleek saurian body bent the slender trunk nearly to the ground. In the emerald glitter of its plating was a vibrancy of green the verdy tree did nothing to contest.
The lizard blinked. An eye as yellow as lions.
“Awk,” I said, or the equivalent.
“Don’t gawp. It’s rude.”
Wyll pulled me through the door.
Twenty minutes and several blisters later, I realized I’d left my sandals back by the fountain. Undaunted, my companion adjured me to be comforted.
“Take it easy, Citizen Ro. Just means wherever you walk is holy ground.”
“That’s turd-talk, Ghoul.”
“All muck turns honey in my mouth! Ah!” Wyll had found a gloomy alley to his liking. “Turn here.”
I followed him past a few reeking middens to a mud-brick building where every door and window had been broken. The holes were hung about with rags for privacy.
Fool as I was, when Wyll entered this place, I went in after him.
Right into a nest of Bird People.
For twenty years I’d been Ward and now was (as of this morning) Citizen of Rok Moris under the rule of Viceroy Eriphit. The instant my debt to the Bureau of Widows, Orphans and Veterans cleared I had achieved subjecthood to the Empire of the Open Palm and to his most Mighty and Magnificent Monarch Renowned for Piety, Virtue and all Gracious Government, His Sovereign Majesty, Vorst Vadilar, King and Overlord of Koss Var, Rok Moris, the Great Lake Q’ara Xel and the Sea.
To the Bird People, that meant I was the enemy.
I had been born in Rok Moris as they had, but I had done nothing to fight for it, to wrest it back from the invaders. I had worked for the Audiencia, the lordlings who had abused the land rights of the people of Rok Moris, kidnapped them, tortured them, enslaved them. I was part of what needed to be eradicated once and for all.
And the boy Wyll had led me right into their midst.
I could have smacked myself for not realizing where he’d been herding me. Of course. He’s said as much in his dithering. He was in the market for a magic carpet. Who else but the Bird People could sell us such a thing?
No matter how many spies the Viceroy sent ferreting for the secret, no one but the Bird People knew how to make thread fly. That’s why we called them Bird People.
“Hi, there!” Wyll shouted into the huddle of staring revolutionaries, all the time with that corky grin of his. “I gotta fly. Anyone selling?”
A woman, shorter, darker and squatter than I, rose to her feet, detached herself from the mass on the floor and, to my surprise, pulled the boy into a hearty hug.
“Hi yourself, Holy Fool.” Her black eyes beamed in the dim. She was round-faced, with a nose like a scimitar. She was fierce and beautiful. She was everything I wanted to be and wasn’t. “To what do we owe the luster of your presence –- and twice in one day?”
Wyll bussed her cheeks. “I’m brand new to Rok Moris. You’re my only friends. So kind to share your breakfast. Sell me your map. Point me in the right direction. You’ve been very helpful. See? I found her.” He jerked his chin at me, then turned back to the woman. “Say, how much for a magic rug?”
The Bird Woman took in my presence with a comprehensive cut of the eyes. Coal-raked, I bowed my head.
“Such vehicles come dear in this besieged city,” the woman said at last. “We have little enough for ourselves. We cannot spare thread for… charity.”
“Name a price,” said Wyll.
“Kantu!” Looking shocked, Wyll cradled the silver lizard on his wrist. “She’s not for sale!”
Kantu shrugged. “Nothing else on your person suggests wealth worthy of flight.”
“Ah!” Wyll squatted with the others on the floor and tossed Riasoro’s purse into the hunker of Bird People. “How ‘bout that?”
A man riffled the contents with strong, brown fingers. A carpenter, I guessed. A weaver. Maybe a magician. Or a murderer. A widower who had watched his wife fly off the Fallgate at a lordling’s word.
Examination complete, he glanced at Kantu.
“Some coin. Riosoro’s identity papers. And his keys.”
Kantu’s interest in Wyll and me took tinder and flamed. “Keys?” she asked. “To what?”
Wyll looked at the ceiling. “I’m in the market,” he murmured dreamily. “For a magic carpet.”
Kantu’s eyes met mine. “You’re Riosoro’s secretary.” It was not a question.
“I was,” I said. “For thirteen years.”
“My debt is paid.”
“How nice for you.”
I could have sliced myself on her voice. Would have, if I thought it would make a difference.
“Thanks,” I said glumly.
Kantu turned to Wyll. “We’ll deal,” she said.
At a snap of Kantu’s fingers, three Bird People came from a room beyond the one we stood in and dumped a roll of thick tapestry at our feet. It stirred with the sound of running water when Wyll bent to touch it.
“Hello, my pretty one!” he crooned, delighted. “Sing to papa!”
Kantu’s hand closed on my wrist. “Tell us.”
“What do you want to know?”
“About the keys. What they open. Where the doors lead.”
I glanced at Wyll. His smile was gone. He was looking right at me, through me, and in his black eyes I relived the abominations of the last thirteen years.
“Tell them everything,” he whispered.
I started talking. I went on for some time.
Wyll and I camped outside the city gates that night. Several miles outside the gates, in fact, perched on the peak of a large dune, that we could have a clear view as Rok Moris burned.
Not the whole city. Just a few important buildings with certain doors that locked. Barracks. Treasury. Food depot. Armory. Enough burned that night to ensure a whole cartload of manure for the man who’d held the keys. And triple that for me, who’d stolen them. If they ever caught me.
The wind smelled of smoke.
“Who’d have thought a broken down old fringe like this would cost an uprising?” Wyll asked cheerfully. Curly black head pillowed on the carpet roll, he stroked the silver lizard on his wrist. I couldn’t be sure, but I thought it made a noise. A metallic sort of purr.
“You sound just the slightest bit self-satisfied, Master Wyll.”
“Well, I only arrived this morning!” he explained, rolling over to glance at me from under his lashes. “I came to Rok Moris in a flash of silver light, to the sound of a seraphic choir and a shower of sparks. Where did I land? Right in the midst of those wonderful Bird People. Aren’t they marvelous? ‘Beated but ne’er defeated,’ as the rhyme goes. And then I found you. Talk of luck. Or not. Call it grace.”
He paused to kiss his bracelet. I stared, fascinated.
“And speak of a living legend!” he continued, detaching his lips from the silver lizard. “There you were, just sitting by a fountain, large as life! Though a bit shorter than I’d imagined. That’s okay. I like looking my legends in the eye. And after that, I flew my first carpet!”
Threading my hands behind my head, I snorted. “Where did you hear legends about me? I’m nothing. I’m not even infamous.”
“Oh, back home. In Koss Var, the King’s Capital.”
The winsome child dazzled another grin my way. He had a mouth like a kick in the stomach. All the stars in the sky pulsed. All sun scorpions and wind spiders and hunters of the night, in the instant of his smile, spared their scuttling prey that final, fatal blow. The moon rained manna. The desert bloomed.
Tamp down, I scolded myself. Kid’s at least eight years younger than you. And though a beauty, a child of the most extreme chaos.
“Listen, Ghoul,” I growled, “no one knows me in the King’s Capital. Who’s been telling you these tales?”
“Ro!” With a look of laughing incredulity, Wyll propped himself up on his elbows. “Your own name was the best bedtime treat. The greatest story I was told. Warrior Ro, Knight of Bellisaar. Ajdenia’s wild desert daughter. My brother and sisters are crazy about you. And my girlfriend talks about you all the time. You’re her favorite hero.”
He was lying. Or sun-touched. Or just plain blown in the brains. I was no one’s favorite person. Certainly no hero.
Well, I reasoned, but the kid is a poet, poor thing. And not a very good one. Completely addled. I decided merely to dose him with withering scorn, rather than completely boil him in his bones.
“Surely,” I drawled in my best petty lordling manner, “the corporeal reality of your most devoted friend and servant,” here I indicated myself with a negligent sweep of the hand, “cannot possibly measure against the expectation?”
“Oh, no,” he gently disagreed. “Just look at Rok Moris.”
The sky glowed, sullen and sultry, as my city burned.
How many nights did we fly across the Bellisaar Wasteland? Three? Thirteen? Thirty?
We lived off the flatbread and prickly pear jelly that the Bird People had provided us, and Wyll seemed to know where water grew. I say grew, because once or twice a day, when we were at our thirstiest, he’d spend a minute or two with his wrist cocked to his ear, then give his silver bracelet a loving pat and stride off into the desolate glare. I’d roll myself in the carpet for shelter and wait it out, worrying about scorpions. Wyll always returned within the hour, hands (miraculously unpricked) full of a spiny succulent which we’d suck and lay the dust of our throats.
Bellisaar, which had killed so many so cruelly, was kind to us.
And then, sooner than I’d expected or desired, the desert ended.
We had come to Koss Var, the King’s Capital. To the Great Lake Q’ara Xel. And the sea.
Part Three: Acolyte
The cityscape of Koss Var made Rok Moris look like a tombstone town. Towers scraped the sky like razors, and the trees were nearly as tall. Fountains spurted off rooftops in wild waterfalls. There were flowers everywhere. Wind from the east smelled of brine, and from the north of the clear glacial lake. My color-dry eyes ached. Truly this was a place of silver and sapphire, but also of lavish greens and rainbow petals and lush perfumes.
Our carpet, a meager scrap of magic to begin with, had gotten rattier the closer we flew to the city. Wyll conjectured this was due to interference spells cast by local wizards. I’d harumphed him.
“Ghoul,” I said, “don’t talk as if you were some sorcerer-saint know-it-all and not just a mad kid who can’t fly straight to save his life.”
Truth was, I’d come to love the kid already. But – and I told him so at least once a day – I was a bit terrified of him.
Turned out Wyll knew the city pretty damn well. He navigated us north toward the lake district, into neighborhoods where a single house, if the word may be stretched to include such structures, took up half a city block. The front yards were sculpted hills and deliberate woodlands.
I found myself harking back to my childhood – to Shoshi Park and a pond that was mostly scum. The ponds here were vast enough to harbor whole leviathans. Who knew how large a wish-granting dragonfish might grow in such waters?
Befuddled, benumbed and totally out of my element, I shut my eyes. For the first time in years, I experienced the strangeness of weeping. It so wracked my bones and snotted my nose and blinded me that, thus occupied, I hardly noticed when the wind in my ears hushed and the carpet slid me off its nap. I landed with a soft flump on the cool marble of an enormous front door stoop.
“Ro.” Wyll’s voice was low and urgent. I looked up in confusion to where he floated above me. But he kept his wary eyes on the door at my back.
“This is as far as I go, Ro.” He flashed his poet’s grin. It was tinged with apology, and tenser than any previous grin of his I’d encountered in the time we’d traveled together. “See you later, though.”
“Wyll, you… You! Ghoul!” I scrambled to my feet. “Don’t you dare leave me here!”
“You’re safe.” He directed the carpet just out of my reach. “But me, I can’t waltz right in through the front door. Sure, they love me, but they’d crucify me with questions. I’ve been gone a long time, and I can’t risk bringing myself to undue attention any sooner than tomorrow. Here.”
With great care, Wyll leaned over the fringe and detached the silver lizard from his wrist. It wound in frantic circles around his finger, mewling all the time, until it had spiraled to rest a blunt triangular head upon his fingernail.
But Wyll was relentless. “Easy, my love,” he said in soothing tones. “It’s Ro. You like Ro. She needs you more than I do right now.”
Prying the charm loose, he set it with great care onto my shoulder. There was a soft hiss near my ear, and I could feel chilly little legs and a lashing tail disappear under my hair. It found a place to cling –- not entirely uncomfortably –- on the back of my scalp.
“Take care of her?” Wyll begged. He tried so hard to smile.
I clutched one corner tassel of our carpet. Now that it was about to fly away without me, I’d never felt so fond of it. That musty, friendly, ragged, magic thing.
“Where am I, Wyll?”
His worried gaze flickered back to the door. I resisted the urge to look behind me.
“Ro,” he whispered, “you’re home!”
At that, the wrecked warp and weft that had brought me across the Bellisaar Waste abandoned me, and my last connection to Rok Moris disappeared. I uttered a short, despairing scream.
The lizard charm bit me. I slapped at it, albeit softly, and cried, “Avaunt, damn you! Eat some lice or something.”
The sting subsided. So did my control. I contemplated crying again (the activity didn’t seem such a wanton waste in this city of water), but an odd voice interrupted my ascending hysteria:
“Are you all right?”
Jolting upright, I realized three things at once.
One. Other people still existed. My time in the desert had weirded me. I had almost forgotten about my fellow humans (Wyll, of course, did not count), except in theory.
Two. I was sitting on the front door stoop of an affluent and probably highly influential person. You did something like that in Rok Moris, you’d end up hanging by your toenails from the crossbar of a scaffold, with script decrying you as an “Impudent Rowdy” pinned to your shirt.
Three. The voice was odd, because it wasn’t one voice. It was two speaking together. I knew this, because I was looking at two people, and both their mouths were moving as they repeated the question. The words registered as a single sound.
“Are you all right?” they asked again.
One voice was wide as a foghorn. The other whistled like wind through a wire. Together they blended into something familiar, and the speakers’ faces came totally into focus.
There really were two of them. But so alike! I almost thought my eyes were crossing, or that I was sun-sick and seeing double. Their names blazed to the forefront of my brain.
I fainted before I could voice them.
Some time later, I came to with my head resting against a marble step. Two girls crouched over me, examining me with worried eyes.
“Hester! Hesper!” Lying there, I spread my arms and pronounced their names in my grandest, maddest manner. I was a great mimic, after all, and had recently spent a lengthy period of time in the company of a poet. “How deliriously good to see you again!”
The twins glanced at each other, and at me.
“We are they,” they said.
“My!” I exclaimed, heedless of inanity. “How you have changed!”
They were no longer two and a half years old, for example. Somehow, I had not been prepared for that. Or them. Or any of this, for that matter. Damn Wyll! And damn his cheerful ease of omission! Everything was falling into place. After all, what other friends had I ever possessed? Who else would tell stories of me, and so fondly? Only them. Only – him.
But he was not standing before me. They were. The twins. One thing at a time. Or two.
By my reckoning, those girls had twenty-two years apiece by now, but their appearances belied that. Their faces were that of much older women. Their garb, that of children. They wore their lank, thinning hair in pigtails. Hester’s with cherry-red bows, Hesper’s with blue. Their bodies were gawkily prepubescent -– or perhaps withered like the malnurished elders of Rok Moris, who died in gutters and were buried in Paupers’ Grave like my parents had been. Hollows for hips, scars for breasts. Even the skin of their faces was wizened –- and stretched, somehow.
I had been raised in a home for Widows, Orphans and Veterans. Judging by the harrowed history in their eyes, those girls could have been all three.
I asked, “Remember me?” with little hope of an affirmative.
Hester crossed her arms. Hesper put her hands on her non-hips.
“Ro,” they said in unison. “It’s about time!”
After another brief crying jag, and a mop up with various handkerchiefs thrust upon me, I sat up and twitched my rags to order. My voice came out half quavering, half lordling.
“Dear the Ladies Hess, I must apologize for my disreputable attire. I am barely ramshackle today. I shall see about some clothes at once. And, um, shoes.”
Though how I’d do so with no money, no food and no place to live, I did not know. I smiled widely at them, hope and mania surging up and freezing the expression into place. Hesper smiled back, her dimples blooming. She had more dimples than face.
“You’re all right,” she assured me in her soothing pennywhistle voice. “Really. We know you’ve come a long way.”
Hester rolled her eyes and croaked, “Come on. Let’s get you cleaned up.”
They took my arms and guided me up the steps. But when Hester turned the knob on that enormous, ornate door, I… Well, I yipped.
Hester growled a laugh. “We know why you came. You couldn’t help it. We called you.”
“No, Hess,” Hesper corrected gently. “In our hour of despair, we cried out to Her, and She called Ro. Ro is sworn to Her temple. Like we are.”
I opened my mouth to deny all allegations, to try and explain about the fountain and the lizard and Wyll and the uprising and the surprising velocity of carpets.
Nothing came out but a squeak; I’d been swamped in twins. One of them clamped her hand to my mouth. The other clenched my arm.
“Don’t say Her name!” Hester whispered. Or maybe it was Hesper. I couldn’t breathe. A strong smoky scent was upon their skin, in their breath, their sweat. As if they’d spent a lot of time praying in a close room, lighting stick after stick of white pepper incense. “Not here. Not on these steps or within these walls, but only under open sky with the earth beneath your feet. Yes?”
I nodded. I’d have nodded at anything.
“Very well,” said the other, whoever she was. “You know the rules. Now do you want to see Jaks?”
There it was. His name. I repeated it, miserable.
”But I lost my green sword.”
“Ro,” the twins harmonized, “you are the sword.”
Like a dog gone mean, that house needed putting down.
The front doors fit together to form a colossal archway, like the woebegone mouth of an ancient fiend. We set our hands against the hand-carved hardwood, a dark and gleaming red, like it had first been stained with, then lacquered in, blood, and we pushed. It took all our strength together to budge those things. The only doors I’d seen to compare with this present immensity were back home in Rok Moris, at the Viceroy’s High Temple to the Dead Kings of Koss Var. I’d never been inside that one, though. Nobody born in Rok Moris actually prayed there.
The doors opened onto a reception hall lit with crystal lamps and a tinkling spiderweb of a chandelier. The tall windows rising to either side of the front archway were beveled and barred. Ornate but empty picture frames hung on every wall. A hint of chambers beyond the hall gave an impression of airiness, of high ceilings and walls of cream.
Having just come from a month in the desert, I felt the atmosphere to be murky and suspect. The air was oppressive. It moved moistly. There was something slightly septic about it all.
As we ventured further into the reception hall, Hester warned me, “Don’t breathe too deeply here.”
“Our room is clean,” Hesper added. “So is Wyll’s. We say the prayers every night. We keep faith. But you get anywhere near Jaks, the air itself will drop you. So be careful.”
As she spoke, she broke free of her twin and me to dart up the staircase, taking the steps two at a time. Hester stared after this exuberance, her mouth pulled tight.
“Sometimes,” came her deep, rough rasp, “we are so tired, we have to crawl up that damned thing.”
“Not today,” I said.
Hester smiled. “No. Not today.”
There was a commotion upstairs. Phrases like, “I’m serious, Jaks!” And, “No, it’s not a trick –- have I ever -–?” And, “Jaks, I’ll throw you off the balcony if you don’t come down this instant!” drifted down.
And then –- Jaks.
Jaks was walking –- was being tugged –- was walking –- down that creamy coiling staircase, the staircase that seemed to be grinning –- like the house, moist and breathing –-
Some nightmare wrenched me. Jaks falling. Jaks breaking. My boy shattering before I could save him.
I plunged up the first step to catch him if he –- when he – stumbled. He did not. But he saw me. And he froze in place.
Hesper, who had been gamboling down the steps at his heels like a joyous coyote pup, stopped short and giggled. I strained to reach him. Something held me back, something was clutching at me…
“Get off!” I bellowed.
Hester’s fingers purpled where they’d clenched on my arm.
“Jaks,” her big voice broke, “she’s real. Come down.”
Jaks’s rigid, bony, blue-tinged face gentled.
“Sweetheart,” he told his sister. “You’re hurting her.”
Hester jumped. She laughed like a broken bagpipe, or perhaps sobbed, and liberated my elbow. I staggered, nearly colliding with the banister but veering in time to avoid its slyness. I tucked my hands into my frayed pockets. Hesper pushed past Jaks to comfort her twin. I felt it when they clutched each other, for the air clicked like a key to a lock.
But they were behind me now and I had no eyes for them.
“Hi, Jaks,” I said softly, and asked for the second time that day, “Remember me?”
Jaks was not so small and thin as he had been at the age of nine. Nevertheless, at almost thirty, he was still a small, thin man, and he was still frowning. His straight eyebrows scrunched the way they used to, only the line where they met was deep now, and permanent. The scar burned beneath his lower lip, thicker and redder and juicier than ever.
It seemed these days, I noticed with instant and melting approval, Jaks was sporting spectacles. So when he gave me one of his long-suffering, tragic-hero glances (he’d always been very good at those), his spectacles slipped right to the edge of his nose.
“Ro Dragonfish,” he said. “Lady Ro,” he said. And then, just, “Ro.”
Of course, I had to reach up and push his spectacles back into place. His black eyes kindled.
And then I had to touch the end of his nose to make sure it was really there.
There was that click again. We were in it now, for sure.
So I shoved past the invisible smothering something that hazed all around him –- some perfume or fog or poison –- and I slammed right into his chest. He wrapped his arms hard around me and put his nose to my neck. I think his spectacles went crooked. Neither of us cared.
For the first time in twenty years, I felt thoroughly, unnervingly, spectacularly loved. Just standing there barefoot, sweating like that.
And how I returned it! And how!
No one had to introduce Jaks’s wife to me when she joined us on the staircase.
So young and creamy a creature –- who else could she be? She was barely dressed: a black satin dressing gown picked out in purple orchids, and under that, strategic black lace. She had red hair and red lips and deeply golden skin. You could not find my truer opposite if you traveled across the Bellisaar Wasteland in search of her. Which I had.
I saw the band of white gold on her finger, the matching band on Jaks’s. The world –- Wyll, Jaks, the twin Hesses –- vanished with a sick slurp.
Her hand slid through the crook of her husband’s elbow, stroking his arm, caressing and knuckling and kneading him. Her touch left thin, red, glittering trails on his bare skin. He was very still at her side. Blue and cold and still. The silver lizard on the back of my scalp twitched.
The world widened again.
“Hello there,” Jaks’s wife greeted me. “What a little thing you are indeed.”
Her exotic oval eyes were a heavy golden color. They were lined in gold paint, and her lashes were gilded too.
Looking into the magnificent ore of those pupiless depths, I thought many ardent things. Most included a harpoon.
Teach her to call me thing.
“Hello yourself,” I said in my friendliest voice.
“Jaksy,” Jaks’s wife oiled her arm around his waist. “Who is your little Bellisaarian bird? Did she fly north for the summer? How long will she stay with us?”
When Jaks said nothing, she glanced my way again, the skin of her smooth forehead worming to form the question.
“Don’t know, really,” I replied in a breezy, lordlingish way. “Found myself in the neighborhood today. Out for a stroll. First time in the King’s Capital. Thought I’d sightsee. Drop by the famous Q’ara Xel District where the houses are tall and the water is wide. Look up my old fishing buddy. Maybe take him and a couple of fishing poles out to the lakeshore…”
“Yes, but for how long?” Her arm tightened around him. He made no sound, but his ribs did.
“Forever,” Hester and Hesper announced. “We invited her. She’ll sleep with us.”
“Impossible,” Jaks’s wife said. “You girls catch every nasty airborn illness. She’s from the outside; she’s probably a carrier.”
“She carries nothing,” said the twins. “She came alone. With nothing.”
Jaks’s wife shrugged her satiny shoulders in a gesture of surrender.
“Oh, fine, fine. Have it your way. She may stay the night and sleep in our guest suite.” She nuzzled her husband’s neck. Her hard, little, white tongue slipped out to taste his chin. A strong smell of iron flashed in my nostrils. This time Jaks did make a noise. I almost went to him then, but his look stopped me.
Hester cleared her throat. “Ro can sleep in Wyll’s room,” she said.
Hesper added, “Since Wyll is not here, his bed is free. Wyll wouldn’t mind. Besides, who knows when he’ll be back?”
The first time Wyll’s name was mentioned, Jaks’s wife recoiled. The second Wyll drove her up the stairs to the landing. She kept hold of Jaks, though, her arm braced against his chest. As if he were her shield. Her eyes burned wine-gold.
“Splendid. Yes –- put her in, in your brother’s room. This once.” She turned to me. “In the morning, little bird, you will fly away home. It is my youngest child’s birthday tomorrow. A day for domesticity. Foreign intrusion would be tantamount to sacrilege. Please, yes, do enjoy your stay in Koss Var.”
I bared my teeth. “I sure do mean to, Missus, thanks.”
“Come with us, Ro,” the twins invited me in hushed voices. “We’ll show you Wyll’s chamber.”
“Jahaksi,” Jaks’s wife whispered, “Let’s go upstairs. You must sing to me. You must brush out my hair for me.”
The lizard dug in, claws biting my skin. A quick ping-ping-ping as several hairs were yanked out of my scalp. A bitter memory of mescal flooded my tongue. My vision sparkled. A waking dream rushed upon me: Jaks’s tired hands stroking a river of blood where the pale bodies of my friends floated.
“Brush out my lovely hair for me,” I heard Jaks’s wife say again. And I knew she meant war.
Jaks did not bother to lower his voice as the twins dragged me away.
I dreamed that night of the pond at Shoshi Park. The dragonfish down in its devious muck had grown massive. It did not grant wishes. It ate wishes –- and dreams –- and people too. It gobbled everything.
I knelt on the artificial embankment and rolled up my sleeves.
Jaks asked, “What are you doing?”
“I have to catch the dragonfish. My lizard is hungry.”
He hunkered down beside me. I wondered why a nine-year-old boy had so much white in his hair.
“It will make her sick,” he pointed out. “It’s a monster.”
“That’s all right,” I assured him. “She likes when they have teeth. Good crunching, she says. Like fried locusts.”
The lizard on my shoulder scurried and scuttled and danced in her eagerness to eat. Sometimes the lizard was green. Sometimes she was a young girl. Right now she was the color of polished silver and she drooled down my neck.
“Help me?” I asked Jaks, getting ready to plunge in. “I left my fishing pole at home.”
“I can’t,” he said. “I was born in that pond.”
I woke to the blackness of an oubliette. I was not in the desert, for there were no stars above me. I was not in Rok Moris, for I was happy. The air I breathed was dry and cool. It did not move. Wyll’s room. A safe room. I wondered who was touching my face with such gentleness.
But that was foolish. Gods did sometimes take flesh and walk, but not for me. I knew the names of those who loved me. I could count them on my hand. And I knew who touched me now.
“I was just dreaming about you.”
“I know.” Jaks’s fingers brushed my jaw, my ear, the tips of my hair. Memorizing me by touch. “Ro,” he breathed. “I’m a coward.”
“Jaks. No.” If I moved, he might stop stroking my hair. “You’re the bravest Fiend-Grinder in this galaxy or the next. I don’t knight just anybody, you know.”
“Do you like my house?”
The question deserved, and got, a disgruntled “Hmph.” All the headiness from his blind intimacies dried up and rattled. I dug deeper into the pillows, feeling harassed. His sigh was dreadful with weariness. When he spoke, his voice sounded so sad I almost started bawling again.
“What made you come here? You should never have dared.”
I blurted out the truth I hadn’t even known. “Jaks! Dear Jaks, my best boy, you know I’m here to save you.”
I thought I felt his fingers drift across my collarbone. A moment later it came to me that my silver lizard had crawled off the back of my head and started exploring. Knowing that, I knew at once that Jaks was not touching me at all anymore.
But I felt his breath on my face.
“You cannot save me. No one can. I cannot even leave the house now before my blood betrays me, calls me back. The girls can venture no further than our own woodlands and are often too weary to walk them. Only Wyll moves freely, and he is gone. He has been gone a month, and we don’t know where, and her wrath is…” There was a long silence.
“Tomorrow,” he finished, his voice distant, “on Wyll’s birthday, his freedom ends. He will lose the elasticity of his youth, and she will sing him to her side where he will be devoured. We are hers entirely. She made us.”
Something rustled. I feared Jaks was going away again, as quietly as he had entered. Grabbing for his hand, I overshot and ended up with a fistful of shirt. He hissed. The cloth was damp and sticky. That iron smell again. It had been with me since I woke up, but it was so huge, so pervasive, that I had not noticed until now.
“Are you hurt, Jaks?” In the silence, I pressed on, “What is this? Are you sick? Are you smote mortally?”
He took my fist and flattened it against his chest. That was when I felt it, the blood seeping up and soaking his shirt. A warm, slow ooze with every pulse. Blood slid over my fingers, flowed down my wrist, dripped along my arm and into my lap. My palm slipped against bare skin, finding the hole.
“Something,” I guessed in a voice that sounded eerie and flat and far away to my ears, “tried to burrow…”
The skin over his heart was a ragged and imperfect flap, like a sodden piece of paper draped over a rushing wound. I said his name again, but could not hear my own voice anymore, or if he answered. My head pounded. I tried to close his wound with my hand, but he took away my palm and brought it to his face, leaning to kiss me. His mouth was slick and hot as oil in a skillet. Either he bled from tongue and gums, or his lungs were washing heart-stuff up his throat. Rusted pennies in my mouth. I kissed him anyway.
The lizard charm was getting lively now, making mewling noises as it ran to and fro on my chest. Her little claws tapped a tattoo against my skin, and then, in a determined scrunch, she leapt off my collarbone and onto Jaks’s shoulder. He moaned.
Her tail twitched and lashed. She glowed silver in the darkness, delicate and transparent, with lion-yellow eyes. And then she blinked at me, and disappeared into the hole in Jaks’s chest.
“She’ll fix you,” I said, or thought I said. In any case, it seemed more important to go on kissing Jaks than to repeat myself. Ajdenia would fix him. Had to. If I could just keep breathing for the both of us. I twined my legs with Jaks’s. He fell against me with a sigh, muttering something awful, something like, “I want to die like this,” which made me cup the back of his neck more surely in protest.
That was when I discovered the torn edges of another wound, a knob of exposed bone. I covered it with my hand.
“Hold on, Jaks,” I said. “Just hold on now. You have to want to live. My best boy. My beloved. We have to keep living – we have to rally and be strong! Like the Bird People who stood at the Fallgate. As staunch and as true as they, though no Rok swept down to save them. Though they were dashed to their deaths, still they were not defeated. Stay with me and fight!”
But Jaks groaned, slumping off the side of my bed. I followed him to the floor, crying like a child.
“No! You can’t! I just got here!”
I leaned my cheek against his, and Jaks’s hands closed around me again. He did not say anything. He had stopped breathing.
“I’ll take care of everything,” I promised, and set my mouth to his.
I would breathe for him. I would save him. To do that, I would have to stop crying. So I did, though it was the hardest thing I have done. I breathed into his bloody mouth. And I kissed the scar on his chin, which was running freely. And I kissed the wetness at the back of his neck, and his face, where tears of salt and iron mingled. What I kissed I also breathed upon, and my breath was silver and sparkled in the darkness.
After a time, minutes or hours, I grew dizzy. Then knew no more.
The body next to mine was still warm when I woke up. It moved –- it sighed –- he lived!
I rolled on top of him and put my hands on his shoulders. He did not open his eyes, but his mouth began to smile. He was smiling, with dimples deep as Hesper’s, and the scar beneath his chin was old, old, old. Silvery white.
“Oh,” I exclaimed. “Oh, look! Oh, good!”
His shirt, foul with dried blood, fell open to reveal a blood-streaked torso. Tacky. Crusted. Brown blood. Dried. Nothing fatal. I checked for wounds. Only dim silvery traces remained (though many of these) like stitchery. Three marks were particularly brutal. The thickest lay over his heart. Another sliced the crest of his hip like a sickle. A third vivisected his belly. These scars seemed to glitter.
“Show me your neck. ” I pulled back off his chest. “The back of your -– quick!“
I was weeping. Again. I’d left the desert and run mad. Back home in the Pimples, such a water-waster as I’d be executed by the City Guard, my meat left for buzzards and flies. Or so my Aunt Irlingard used to tell me, when I cried.
But Jaks showed no signs of pulling a black mask over his smile or polishing his ax. Still mostly asleep, he turned into the pillows that had fallen from the bed and bared the back of his neck to my tears. I lifted his stiff, spiky curls, scarcely daring to breathe.
The skin there was a mass of scars, old tooth-marks, ravages, gouges. While they had not healed into the delicate filigree of his other wounds, they were all well scabbed-over and looked to be at least a week old.
“Oh,” I breathed. “Good! This is good, Jaks.” I kissed his wounds, lightly. He turned over –- much quicker this time –- his eyes open.
“Ro,” he said solemnly. “You must do that when I am facing you.”
I was just about to oblige when some private agony seized his features. His eyes squeezed shut. I clutched his shoulders in fear, but found no new rip or upwelling of blood.
“What?” I asked. “What is it?”
“It’s sunset,” said Jaks.
I glanced at the window. The light was long and olden gold and puddled down in the west. We had slept the whole day. I started looking around for sheets I could tear into strips to bind him with. My knots would hold this time. They must.
“Yes.” Rip. “Sunset.” Rip. “What’s wrong?” I seized his hand and wrapped the first strip around it, and wrapped that around the clawed foot of the bed. “Are you bleeding again?”
“She’s singing,” he said, beginning to tug against his bonds. “Can’t you hear her?”
“No.” Another knot completed. “Remember?” And another. “I never could.”
“She’s singing,” Jaks struggled to sit upright. He swayed and strained. “It’s Wyll’s birthday. She calls him for the feast.”
And I thought of the bizarre and beautiful boy who had fetched me from the jaws of my desert life. The wild carpet ride we had shared. How he had cradled thorns in his hands, how the thorns had cradled the water we craved. How he had slaked our thirst with thorns.
Then I thought of the creature with murder in her hair and pitiless eyes, who loved only to eat, who ate what I loved.
“I’ll kill her,” I said, surprising myself. Jaks did not hear me. The knots had all undone themselves and fallen away. He had stood up, was already halfway to the door.
“Ro. We have to go.”
Part Four: Exorcist
In vain we searched the first floor for the twins. Nothing. Their bedchamber on the second floor was empty as well, but we heard a moan from the bathroom adjoining it.
Hesper and Hester lay tangled in the bathtub. This was full of cool, pinkish water. They must have soaked for hours; the very skin of their faces was puckered. Their hair straggled around their shoulders like limp black weeds.
In grim silence, Jaks and I hauled the twins out of the tub, lowering their frail bodies to the cold tile.
“Are they breathing?”
Jaks’s lips compressed so tightly that the scar beneath his chin leered like a clown’s white mouth. “Barely.”
Weak streams of blood ran from thin incisions beneath their collarbones. From their foreheads and nostrils, too.
As Jaks wrapped the twins in towels, I cursed their Mother with the entire contents in my cabinet of invention, ending with, “And damn the hole where her heart should be. She really glutted herself last night.”
“She was angry.” Jaks snatched a roll of bandages from the cabinet. “She did not expect you. Did not expect the girls to defy her for your sake. And Wyll has always frightened her. When he disappeared a month ago –- she went berserk. Sent out her song to him most every night, but he did not return.”
“Wyll was with me,” I told him, chafing the twins’ skin with a length of bath linen. “He sniffed me out in Rok Moris. We burned down the city and flew away on a magic carpet.”
Jaks stopped what he was doing, just for a second, to stare. Despite the somber work at hand, and the urgency of the silent song that drove him, he shook his head and began to grin.
“Wyll,” he reminisced, “always did get hopping mad that he missed the grand adventures of our childhood in Rok Moris. Of course, I embroidered our Shoshi Park pretends into hazardous enterprises and holy crusades for the sake of his bedtime stories.” He bit his lip and breathed out. “I should have guessed. If he went anywhere, he’d go to Rok Moris. To you. Lady Ro. Knight of Bellisaar.”
When I said nothing, Jaks returned his focus on the twins. Was it relief I felt? Disappointment? I only knew that the weight of his regard made me feel luminous and nervous and not at all in keeping with the gravity of the situation.
He said, to answer the question I did not ask, “I did not whisper my stories in secret, hoping they would fall on sleeping ears. I always made sure to wake Wyll. And the twins too. No need for all of us to live without hope.”
“Just you, Jaks?”
He did not answer. With great gentleness, he began to bandage his sisters’ wounds. Hesper made a cooing noise of discontent. Hester moaned like a sick camel. They opened their eyes at the exact same moment.
“Jaks!” Hesper cried. Hester burst into noisy tears.
“Jaks –- she said you were done!”
“Dead and dry and gone.”
“We wanted to die!”
“We asked her to take us, too!”
“She drank and drank.”
Jaks gathered both of them into his lap and rocked them. They laid their withered cheeks against his and wept.
“It’s all right,” he whispered. “Ro fixed me. She brought your Lizard Lady, who crawled inside my wounds and turned them to silver. You were right to call Her. I know I said it wouldn’t help –- that nothing would. But it did –- and I can’t thank you enough. You are both so brave, my dearest ones. You are both so strong and brave!”
For a woman who’d spent twenty loveless years eating mescal buttons and never being touched, this display of tenderness was almost unbearable. I longed to look at my friends forever, to watch them and learn something of devotion, but I found I could not do this and keep my courage. The urge to whistle some slangy song from the Pimples sprang to my lips. I clamped them shut. Even I, gauche and sore, standing on my right foot while my left scratched my ankle, as a sodden heap of towels dampened my borrowed nightclothes, even I realized that making any sound louder than a sigh would be a kind of blasphemy.
So I sighed. And I stared up at the ceiling instead of at my friends.
When I saw what was happening there, I squawked.
“Um,” I cleared my throat. “Hester. Hesper. Jaks. Look up.”
For the first time since it had healed Jaks last night, I felt the presence of the silver lizard. She –- she, apparently, had become a she overnight –- had crawled into my hair while I slept, and had been so still I had not realized she was there. Now she stirred, curious, and climbed onto my shoulder to observe the source of my unease. The lizard, the twins, Jaks and I all gazed upward in revulsion.
It wasn’t water, and it wasn’t blood, but it was thick and pale and viscous; it had eaten through the ceiling plaster and crystallized into small stalactites. The stain spread as it dripped, from the corner near the door to the lamps above the mirror.
The stalactites gave off acrid smoke. A droplet of that moisture fell onto my face, where it froze and began to burn. Yelping in pain, I tried to wipe it away.
“Ro!” Jaks shouted. “Don’t touch it!”
I feared the stuff would burrow through my skin like acid, would melt my teeth and turn my tongue to slime, but the silver lizard reared on her hind legs and began licking my face. Immediately the pain eased.
“Thank you,” I told her. I looked at Jaks who was staring at the ceiling, his face stony with dismay.
“That’s from your Mother, right? What she turns into? Something toxic?”
“Yes,” the twins replied together.
I grimaced. “And you think Wyll is with her?”
“Yes,” Jaks affirmed. “It is after sunset. Like most desert predators, she hunts at night. And it is his birthday. He is no longer protected.”
“What does it do?” I watched the ceiling in horror. “What is she doing to him?”
“Holding him still.”
The twins, we discovered, were too weak to move. We helped them to their beds, heaped them up with blankets and tried to say goodbye. They would not allow us to leave before pressing a long, slim, cloth-wrapped package upon us.
“Don’t open it until you’re in her room,” Hester said.
“Otherwise, she’ll bar the door,” Hesper added.
“Bless you, the Hesses,” I said with a weak laugh. “She tries that, I’ll kick down the door with my iron-shod boots.”
Of course I was barefoot, but the twins smiled politely anyway. Jaks tucked the package beneath his arm, kissed the twins, and whispered something I could not hear. We left them and went to mount that last flight of stairs.
“Jaks,” I said, “I’ll serve her heart to the Lizard Queen for what she did to you.”
“You said it yourself. She doesn’t have a heart.” He took my hand.
The staircase did not want us. It tried to pitch us off, leaving Jaks and me two broken piles on the marble far below. It breathed and heaved, glossing over first with ice then with ichors, but Jaks held fast to my hand, and I to his, and we set our footsteps against the abomination.
“Steady, Ro,” he said once, when I slipped.
“Just tying my sandal lace,” I retorted, wishing for any kind of sandal at all. The staircase burned the soles of my feet like slow poison.
Below us, in their bedroom, trembling with weakness and rage, the twins muttered high priestess prayers for our safety. I could not hear the girls with my ears, but I felt their incantations at work, a holy gibberish that resolved into a battle hymn. It summoned to memory my desert sky, swollen with cathedral thunderheads.
If any prayer ever worked, that one did. We did not fall.
Up and up we climbed, our ascent lasting lifetimes. The great span of my lost years became as nothing in the stretch of it. The staircase grew slimier and stickier and lumpier the higher we slogged. I sweated and ached in every muscle. Jaks was grim, so tense I feared he’d fly apart, and the sweat pouring down his scalp was dark as blood.
The fluid I had spied on the bathroom ceiling flowed over everything now, hardening into small but evil hills and pale volcanoes. Every surface smoked with cold.
And then we reached the top.
There was a hallway like boiling tallow. The door at the end of it was like wet red velvet, and it pulsed. Jaks and I stood, fists fastened together, staring at the faces that poured out of wall and floor and mocked us.
“I’ll go first,” Jaks said on a breath. “She thinks I’m dead.”
“Wait, Jaks. The twins –-“
“Oh, yes. Their gift.” He seemed impatient, thrusting the package into my hands. His face had gone gray from the song I could not hear. I had barely peeled back the first layer of cloth wrapping when Jaks sprang off without me, his thin body speeding across the melting hallway. He hurled his whole weight against the red door. It burst inward, swallowing him in a moist and ravenous redness. I followed.
The room –- their Mother’s room –- produced, fomented and discharged vapors that seethed and churned and stank of noisome decay. The air was red because the light was red, but like the rest of the house, the walls and floor and ceiling were the color of rancid cream.
There were noises, and they were not human, coming from a large scalloped shadow at the center of the room. There were wet noises, and slurping noises. Sloppy, glopping, greedy noises. Thick lips smacking, swollen tongues licking, saliva foaming, grunts of awful hunger. And there was the sound of singing.
I heard her song at last.
It was like something you might hear calling from the far side of a caved-in mineshaft, or at the bottom of a well ruined by a suicide. At the sound of it, I wondered if I would ever hear anything but that voice again.
It was not I who cried out. It was Wyll’s voice, plaintive and afraid. He was sobbing, lost somewhere in that red fog. I missed the moment Jaks blurred into action, launching himself toward his brother’s call for help. I went after him as quickly as I could, my blind hands ripping the twins’ gift from its swaddling.
The thing at the center of the room stopped me dead in Jaks’s tracks.
It was not a woman. It was a secretion. The vilest tower of molten, golden wax, studded everywhere with pitiless eyes and swirling blood rivers of hair. And as surely as it had transuded itself all over the room and down the staircase, it now wound an oozing cocoon about Wyll.
Wyll, up to the chin in the wet silk of this creature, looked like one of those corpses discovered in the ancient catacombs of Rok Moris, their bodies so well preserved that a living man once fell in love with a dead woman’s dark eyes, though she had been entombed five hundred years.
But Wyll was not dead, for his eyes were still moving. He was crying, and I saw again how young he was, and how afraid.
Jaks sunk his fists into his Mother and began ripping chunks away from Wyll. The more he tore, the more that crawling gore covered him, came alive in his hands, snaking like great creamy serpents around his arms and legs. Jaks fell and the stuff squeezed over him, winding and binding him. Wyll screamed.
I just stood there.
I might have stood another twenty years, or fifty, like I always had, weak and impotent as ever I had been, but the lizard on my shoulder had other ideas.
She nipped my chin, chattering a scold at me.
And looking down, I realized what I held in my hand. The twins’ last gift.
“Oh, hello!” I swished it once for good measure. “I thought you were a-goner.”
The slender verdy branch shone green and clean in the air, cutting through the red fog like a slash of lightning. Still chattering, the silver lizard slid down my arm and wrist, throwing herself onto the branch the way a child in the Pimples might negotiate various splintery scaffolding for fun. When she touched it, the green stick changed in my hand. The wood took on a gleam like steel or terrifically hard stone. The new, sharp edge glistened green as emeralds. The etching of a silver lizard snaked sinuously down its length, jaw cracked wide, breathing silver flame. Wyll’s lizard charm was gone.
I kept my grip casual. This sword knew what it was about. All I had to do was not get in its way. All I had to do was walk forward, walk tall, walk strong, walk right squishing into that thing.
Before I could properly assimilate my actions, I moved to confront the king’s own monster, Mother of my friends, and I skewered my sword into the pinwheeling oils of a great golden eye.
The fiend from the Wasteland screamed. It screamed and bucked, and I thought the small bones in my ears would shatter. Then it wrenched the blade from my grip. Rearing, the fiend spat Jaks from its main bulk and moved, half-slithering, half-gobbling towards the door, dragging along Wyll in his goop-sack.
But escape by that route was stymied at the threshold. Two shining creatures stood there. They held in their hands slender wands that glowed at the tips and smoked with the smell of white pepper. These creatures smiled, and the fiend recoiled from their terrible black eyes.
Screeching with rage, it folded fatly back on itself and began undulating my way. I stood my ground, heart pounding, sick in my guts that my trusty blade now stuck out of the thing’s seeping eye like a tusk. As it approached, a fanged maw widened, and I saw all of its teeth and pale tongues. Its breath stank of copper and sweet gangrene.
I leapt. I leapt, knowing that even if it killed me, still this thing would not win, would never have dominion over me -– because I chose my death. I chose to fly. I hit the oozing ichors of its soft flesh sideways, grabbing the hilt of the green blade and yanking.
The impact dropped me to my knees. I fell hard and adjusted the slippery hilt so that the blade pointed up like a spire. A word ripped from my throat – “Ajdenia! ” – and I lunged forward, willing my knees not to give way beneath me, and I drove the sword’s point deep into that pale, pulsing place beneath the fiend’s drooling jaws.
Acid splashed down. Scalded, I covered my face with my arms and dove clear. The cocoon encasing Wyll came away with a slurp and tumbled off with me. I reached over, grabbed whatever I could of Wyll –- which happened to be his hair –- and dragged him a safe distance, to one corner of the room. I tried, as best I could, to unwrap him.
“Got you, I got you,” I kept saying. “Got you. It’s okay.”
Soon as I scraped his arms free, Wyll began helping me, his shaking hands scrabbling at his body like he could not loose the bindings soon enough. His skin was welted, blistered in patches. He shivered, bleeding from several small holes in the creases of his elbows and the corners of his mouth. His teeth chattered and his face was green as the sky before a dust storm. But, being Wyll, he was grinning the whole time.
“Heya, lady,” he croaked.
His eyes searched for the silver lizard on my shoulder. At her absence, he turned even paler and swooned. I caught him, and grabbed his face, and directed it toward the gelatinous mass of his Mother on the floor. How even now it was vomiting itself dead. He cried out at the sight.
“She didn’t go inside it? Ro, she didn’t!”
“Don’t worry, Wyll.”
I wiped the tears from his fine-boned face, as if he had been my own youngest brother, weeping for his lost love.
“The Lizard Queen is a little god, a desert god, but she is old and canny. And she has to get born somewhere.”
Our dying nightmare gave a final belch like dynamite exploding. Gobbledygook splattered the white walls. Chunks rained down.
And Ajdenia stood at the center of the mess.
Ajdenia, in girl form, born from the belly of the beast, looked very satisfied with herself. She was licking her own face clean with a forked tongue nearly as long as the quivering white quills of her hair. She was completely naked except for her tattoos, which glowed in the dark.
She beamed a wide grin about the destroyed room, spotted Wyll –- who was still mostly sunk in his cocoon –- and trotted over to him, pausing once to do a little dance in the middle of the floor. When she danced, the remains of the shell imprisoning Wyll liquefied and gushed out everywhere. Mostly on me. He fell into his beloved’s arms. She lowered him speedily to the ground.
“There, there now,” said the Lizard Queen. “I’ve got you. My boy-love.” She spoke in a quick, dry staccato. Three beats to a measure. Accent on the second beat. Like a patter of claws on burning pavement. “You’re safe here! You’re with me.”
“My lady!” he whispered.
“Stop talking!” Ajdenia ordered. “Just breathe now. Just keep still. You’re safe here.”
A scene of consummate tenderness followed, and this between a goddess and her chosen acolyte. Where to look? Where to fix my eyes, that I might not break down before them? I spied Jaks.
He had been knocked-dark, lying in what looked like a pile of moldy pudding. Not moving.
My battered knees slid in the white stuff as I hunkered beside him. I leaned close, touched one finger to his lips, tapped once. Even before his eyelids fluttered open, Jaks smiled. My breath exploded out in relief.
“Hail, Lady Ro.”
I could not think of anything else half so clever after that, so I kept silent. My face hurt fiercely; my grin was too wide to hold it. I could have stared at him for the rest of the day, watching him watch me like that. But there was a time, and there was a place, and right then, in his late Mother’s feeding room, it was neither.
Ajdenia was still crooning over Wyll, but when I looked over at her, she spared me a glance from her lion-yellow eyes. Wild white hair haloed her head in spikes like a dozen slender swords. She winked. I remembered how she was my oldest friend. My confidante. How I had known her even before I knew Jaks.
I winked back.
Jaks allowed me to pull him to his feet.
“Here,” I told him. “Put your arm around me.”
For support. Purely.
As the bad vapors began to clear, I was able to see across the chamber to its crooked threshold. Hesper and Hester stood there, dousing two sticks of incense with the tips of their tongues. They, too, caught my gaze and grinned.
The twins were illuminated. They gleamed like hammered gold. It was as if, to replace the bruises, abuse and lacerations of their old skins, they had been given an integument of the daintiest scales forged of precious metals. Their robes hung from restored bodies, white and billowing, woven of the finest gossamer. Their hair had grown in thick and green as underwater weeds, slow-moving in a divine wind I could not perceive with my mortal eyes. Deep inside those tresses, the glitter of emeralds.
Jaks’s sisters were young again, god-radiant. Their wounds had been turned to jewels.
I recalled my own sorry state. The bare feet. The borrowed clothes. The goop.
“Oh, five hundred hells,” I said.
I became suddenly afraid to look at Jaks, lest I behold the bright mark of Ajdenia on his face and be cast into its shadow. I did not think I could stomach my shame.
But then his filthy, sticky fingers touched my chin, canting my face up to look at his. Qualms or no qualms, I risked the glance.
And Jaks was just Jaks. Plain old wonderful Jaks, whose face I missed every time I looked away. Just Jaks, who, standing there, was as familiar and strange as my own reflection. He looked the same, except without his frown. And he had lost his spectacles in the fracas. And the scar beneath his chin had entirely disappeared.
“Where to now, Lady Ro?” His question was like a caress, free of care, full of tenderness. “Shall we perhaps go fishing at last?”
With a sigh, I let my arms creep around his waist. No thought, really, of what they might do when they got there.
“Jaks, Jaks, Jaks.”
We were of a height, for I was brown and low to the ground, and he was small and slight.
“I hate to say it, my best boy –- truly, it pains me, for you know I adore you –- but some things –- and I have to admit, Jaks, there are very few – well, they take priority over fishing.”
His smile widened. My breath stuttered in my throat.
“Better than fishing, Lady Ro?” His mouth was solemn, his eyes alight. “Whatever can you mean?”
So I showed him.
C.S.E. Cooney’s fiction and poetry can be found in Rich Horton’s Year’s Best Science Fiction and Fantasy (2011 and 2012), Clockwork Phoenix 3, Apex, Subterranean, Strange Horizons, Podcastle, Pseudopod, Ideomancer, Goblin Fruit, and Mythic Delirium.
Her collection of story-poems How to Flirt in Faerieland and Other Wild Rhymes is available on Amazon, as is her fairytale-with-teeth novella Jack o’ the Hills. She was the recipient of the Rhysling Award in 2011 for “The Sea King’s Second Bride”.
She lives in Rhode Island, where the monsters are. (Whether they were there before she arrived is up for debate.)