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Rank #123 in Drama category

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PodCastle

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Rank #123 in Drama category

Arts
Books
Fiction
Drama
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The Fantasy Fiction Podcast

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The Fantasy Fiction Podcast

iTunes Ratings

389 Ratings
Average Ratings
303
47
18
13
8

Very could but

By Lorelei Faye - Sep 29 2019
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Could use more gay overtones and liberal propaganda

Good fantasy!!

By Organa57 - Jul 08 2018
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I enjoy their stories tremendously! Keep up the good work!

iTunes Ratings

389 Ratings
Average Ratings
303
47
18
13
8

Very could but

By Lorelei Faye - Sep 29 2019
Read more
Could use more gay overtones and liberal propaganda

Good fantasy!!

By Organa57 - Jul 08 2018
Read more
I enjoy their stories tremendously! Keep up the good work!

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PodCastle

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The Fantasy Fiction Podcast

PodCastle 422: Golden Chaos

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Author : M.K. Hutchins Narrator : Heath Miller Host : Graeme Dunlop Audio Producer : Peter Wood Discuss on Forums First published in Intergalactic Medicine Show #40 Rated PG Golden Chaos by M.K. Hutchins Being near Ingrid was the only good thing about living in a God-neglected frozen wasteland. Her face was round as the moon—a […]

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Jun 28 2016

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PodCastle 431: La Héron

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Author : Charlotte Ashley Narrator : Nadia Niaz Host : Graeme Dunlop Audio Producer : Peter Wood Discuss on Forums Originally published in Fantasy and Science Fiction. Rated PG-13. La Héron by Charlotte Ashley In the grayest hour of the evening of April 16th, 1699, when the sun had just vanished behind the great château that embraced […]

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Aug 30 2016

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PodCastle 457: Blade and Branch and Stone

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Author : Spencer Ellsworth Narrators : Graeme Dunlop, Wilson Fowlie and Kay Steele Host : Matt Dovey Discuss on Forums First published in Heroic Fantasy Quarterly read by Graeme Dunlop (as Lassan), Wilson Fowlie (as Dhar), Kay Steele (as Kahirun) Blade and Branch and Stone by Spencer Ellsworth Lassan The trees screamed. Mortars shattered white […]

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Feb 28 2017

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PodCastle 487: A Whisper in the Weld

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Author : Alix E. Harrow Narrator : Stephanie Malia Morris Host : Setsu Uzume Audio Producer : Peter Wood Discuss on Forums Originally published in Shimmer. Rated PG-13 A Whisper in the Weld By Alix E. Harrow Isa died in a sudden suffocation of boiling blood and iron cinder in her mouth; she returned to herself […]

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Sep 12 2017

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PodCastle 395: Winter Jinni

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Authors : Tim Pratt and Heather Shaw Narrator : Dave Thompson Host : Graeme Dunlop Audio Producer : Peter Wood Discuss on Forums PodCastle 395: Winter Jinni is a PodCastle original. Rated PG-13 Winter Jinni by Tim Pratt and Heather Shaw The day I emancipated Izzy, in the lull of winter break when the students […]

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Dec 23 2015

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PodCastle 387: The Half Dark Promise

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Author : Malon Edwards Narrator : Mandaly Louis-Charles Host : Dave Thompson Audio Producer : Peter Wood Discuss on Forums First appeared in Shimmer Magazine. Read it here! Rated R The Half Dark Promise by Malon Edwards The first thing Bobby Brightsmith told me when I moved to the South Side of Chicago from La Petite […]

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Oct 27 2015

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PodCastle 370: Congratulations On Your Apotheosis

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Author : Michelle Ann King Narrator : Christiana Ellis Host : Graeme Dunlop Audio Producer : Peter Wood Discuss on Forums First published in the anthology Unidentified Funny Objects 2, from UFO Publishing. Rated PG Congratulations On Your Apotheosis by Michelle Ann King As a life coach, Abby Fowler strongly discouraged magical thinking. It was […]

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Jun 30 2015

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PodCastle 438: Defy The Grey Kings

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Author : Jason Fischer Narrator : Wilson Fowlie Host : Graeme Dunlop Audio Producer : Peter Wood Discuss on Forums First appeared in Beneath Ceaseless Skies #180. Rated R, for frequent and bloody violence. Defy The Grey Kings by Jason Fischer There are many ways to kill an elephant. When that mountain bears down on […]

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Oct 18 2016

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PodCastle 516e: 10th Anniversary Special, The Best of PodCastle #1 – The Paper Menagerie

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Author : Ken Liu Narrator : Rajan Khanna Host : Alasdair Stuart Audio Producer : Peter Behravesh Discuss on Forums Originally published in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. Rated PG. Editors’ note: This episode originally aired as PodCastle 165. We are reissuing it to celebrate PodCastle’s 10th anniversary. This story was in first position […]

The post PodCastle 516e: 10th Anniversary Special, The Best of PodCastle #1 – The Paper Menagerie appeared first on PodCastle.

Apr 06 2018

36mins

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PodCastle 509: A Non-Hero’s Guide to The Road of Monsters

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Author : A. T. Greenblatt Narrator : Mike Flinchum Host : Setsu Uzume Audio Producer : Peter Wood Discuss on Forums Previously published in Mothership Zeta. Rated PG for Mild Language and Bold Monsters. A Non-Hero’s Guide to The Road of Monsters By A.T. Greenblatt 1. The Siren There are three basic guidelines that any […]

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Feb 13 2018

42mins

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PodCastle 413: This is Not a Wardrobe Door

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Author : Merc Fenn Wolfmoor Narrators : Dave Thompson, Jen R. Albert, Khaalidah Muhammad-Ali, Rachael K. Jones, Alasdair Stuart, Graeme Dunlop and Marguerite Kenner Host : Rachael K. Jones Audio Producer : Peter Wood Discuss on Forums Rated G Dave Thompson as The Narrator Jen R. Albert as Ellie/Ell Rachael K. Jones as Zera Alasdair Stuart as Misu Khaalidah […]

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Apr 26 2016

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PodCastle 434: The Ghost Years

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Author : Nghi Vo Narrator : Tatiana Gomberg Host : Graeme Dunlop Audio Producer : Peter Wood Discuss on Forums PodCastle 434: The Ghost Years is a PodCastle original. Rated PG-13. The Ghost Years by Nghi Vo The year I turned ten, the war almost ended. The Chinese army fell back beyond the northern border of […]

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Sep 20 2016

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PodCastle 435: Bilingual, or Mouth to Mouth

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Author : Lisa M. Bradley Narrator : Roberto Suarez Host : Graeme Dunlop Audio Producer : Peter Wood Discuss on Forums It was first published in Lisa’s first short fiction and poetry collection, The Haunted Girl, available on Amazon or direct from the publisher, Aqueduct Press. Rated R. Bilingual, or Mouth to Mouth by Lisa […]

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Sep 27 2016

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PodCastle 411: Hands of Burnished Bronze

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Author : Rebecca Schwarz Narrator : Cheyenne Wright Host : Graeme Dunlop Audio Producer : Peter Wood Discuss on Forums PodCastle 411: Hands of Burnished Bronze is a PodCastle original. Rated PG-13. Hands of Burnished Bronze by Rebecca Schwarz Night after night, I lie awake staring into the darkness, listening for the sound of scrabbling […]

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Apr 12 2016

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PC 476: Clay and Smokeless Fire

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Author : Saladin Ahmed Narrator : Khaalidah Muhammad-Ali Host : Khaalidah Muhammad-Ali Audio Producer : Peter Wood Discuss on Forums Originally published in Slate Magazine. Welcome to PodCastle’s first Eid issue! Rated PG-13 Clay and Smokeless Fire By Saladin Ahmed Qumqam stood upside-down atop a cell phone tower, twirling at its pinnacle on his fingertip. When […]

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Jun 27 2017

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PodCastle 538: Itself at the Heart of Things

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Author : Andrea Corbin Narrator : Blythe Haynes Host : Setsu Uzume Audio Producer : Peter Behravesh Discuss on Forums Originally published in Shimmer. Rated PG-13. Itself at the Heart Of – Poetry Generator! Itself at the Heart of Things by Andrea Corbin “The acts of life have no beginning or end. Everything happens in […]

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Sep 04 2018

29mins

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PodCastle 406: The Little Dog Ohori

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Author : Anatoly Belilovsky Narrator : Tatiana Gomberg Host : Graeme Dunlop Audio Producer : Peter Wood Discuss on Forums Originally published in the Mammoth Book of Dieselpunk. Rated PG The Little Dog Ohori by Anatoly Belilovsky   The young soldier jumps to his feet, snaps to attention. “At ease, Corporal,” the officer says. “And please, […]

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Mar 08 2016

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PodCastle 426: Sweeter than Lead

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Author : Benjamin C. Kinney Narrator : Jen R. Albert Host : Graeme Dunlop Audio Producer : Peter Wood Discuss on Forums PodCastle 426: Sweeter than Lead is a PodCastle original. Rated PG Sweeter than Lead by Benjamin C. Kinney I stood atop the wall and stared at the shifting black towers of the Nameless City, […]

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Jul 26 2016

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PodCastle 539: Godfall

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Author : Sandra M. Odell Narrator : Anson Mount Host : Setsu Uzume Audio Producer : Peter Behravesh Discuss on Forums Originally published at GigaNotoSaurus. This story also appears in Sandra’s collection Godfall and Other Stories. Content Warning: Gore, mild body horror. Rated R. Tully brought the skiff in from the south. The blue mountains […]

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Sep 11 2018

41mins

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PodCastle 346: The Pilgrim and the Angel

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Author : E. Lily Yu Narrator : Rajan Khanna Host : Dave Thompson Audio Producer : Peter Wood Discuss on Forums Originally published in McSweeney’s Quarterly 45. Rated PG. Greg Campbell, author and Navy Veteran needs your help! Click here to find out how you can help him and his children after a fire. The […]

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Jan 17 2015

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PodCastle 603: Copy Cat

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Originally published in Strange Horizons.

Rated PG-13 for cunning felines and strong language.

Copy Cat

 K. A. Teryna and Alex Shvartsman

Imagine a Russian cat. Not just any Russian cat, but a cat from Leningrad.

Those who claim passing familiarity with Russian literature might imagine a cat straight off the pages of Pushkin or Bulgakov. An eloquent cat, dispensing folk wisdom while chained under an oak tree, or schmoozing the Moscow intelligentsia at parties, probably in a soothing baritone. But those are fictions, lofty lullabies from literary luminaries. In real life, cats don’t recite fairy tales or ride the tram. In real life, cats don’t talk. 

This one is a typical cat from Leningrad. A mature cat, but not so old as to have one paw in the grave. He’s lived his whole life with a prim old lady. You know, the born-and-bred-in-Leningrad sort of woman, one who could recognize tourists and recent transplants at a glance by the way they carry themselves, and smack them with her umbrella for the temerity to ask for directions. Now, this old lady has not one but both feet in the grave. Which is to say, she died.

The cat is at a loss for what to do. On one paw, the old lady deserves a proper sendoff. She deserves a funeral with a small band playing sad music, a priest waving a censer, that sort of thing. On the other paw, the cat realizes how that would play out. As soon as the word of her having kicked the bucket gets out, some thrice-removed relatives from the boondocks will descend upon the old lady’s prime real estate — an apartment on Nevskiy Prospekt, no less. And they’ll evict the shit out of the aging cat.

 Not wanting to become a vagrant, the cat shakes off the indecision, comes up with a plan of action, and begins implementing said plan.

Back in the day, the old lady used to work as a radio announcer. Two of the three rooms of her apartment are packed with reels of magnetic Svema brand 6mm tape: hours upon hours of the archives of her broadcasts. It’s midnight in Petropavlovsk . . . In today’s news . . . We’re taking your requests by phone . . .  Broadcasting live across the Soviet Union . . . The first exercise in this morning’s radio calisthenics is . . . An Aurora reel tape player occupies a place of honor in the living room.

The old lady used to listen to these recordings, at all hours and at high volume because her hearing wasn’t so great. She would play the tapes and inflict the old Soviet broadcasts on her long-suffering neighbors. The neighbors became so indoctrinated by these obligatory concerts from the Soviet past that some had trouble falling asleep without them, and banged on pipes on especially quiet nights.

The cat, naturally, was part of the captive audience. He listened enough that he memorized many of the recordings, enough that he could’ve easily worked as a prompter for any radio announcer.

Given how sophisticated the old lady had been, it stood to reason that her cat wasn’t a simpleton fur ball, either. He was a well-bred and intelligent cat, and he, too, would probably whack uncultured tourists and transplants with an umbrella. But the laws of physics trump breeding and intelligence, so he couldn’t grasp an umbrella.

Little manicure scissors, on the other paw, those he could handle.

So the cat grabs hold of the scissors, the Svema tapes, and the concentrated vinegar, and gets to work.

The task is gargantuan to say the least. Think about it: the cat has to come up with a plan, sort through the tape reels, and do everything by memory because cat paws can’t hold a pen or a pencil. Loading paper into the typewriter and hitting the carriage return after each line is frustrating to humans with opposable thumbs, let alone felines.

The cat’s memory is excellent. He can name every dead relative of the old lady’s from her photo albums, and recite the price of milk for every year starting in ’63, even though he was born much later, in the year 2000. (Were he owned by a lesser human he might’ve been saddled with a terrible name like Millennium. But he got lucky; the old lady had way too much class to name him something like that.)

The cat starts out by sorting and organizing the many reels. The cat is a bit of a neat freak and feels both exhilarated and guilty to finally be in charge of the apartment. He wants to clean it up and live like a person — but to live like a person would take an inhuman (or infeline) amount of effort because those pesky laws of physics apply equally to cats. And so, the hellish marathon of work begins.

The cat loads tapes into the player one by one. He listens, selects excerpts, cuts the tapes with the manicure scissors and glues them together with vinegar. It would have been a difficult task, even for a human. But the cat perseveres. He is a Leningrad cat through and through, and not a bag of fur and bones from a lesser town. He manages to put together a decent-sounding montage by copying the excerpts together. It takes him just under two days.

The old lady’s corpse is beginning to stink.

His next quest is to get the Aurora player and the telephone next to each other. The telephone hangs on the wall in the hallway, next to a dilapidated ballpoint pen on a string. The wall is covered in fading phone numbers with names next to them in all kinds of handwriting, from the flighty young girl script to the shaking scrawl of a grandmother. Numbers that have been long disconnected, and names that over the decades have migrated from phone directories onto tombstones at various local cemeteries.

The telephone isn’t some modern plastic piece of junk but a rotary antique that weighs two to three times as much as the cat. So you can imagine the sort of effort it takes him to drag this hulking device all the way to the living room, looping the cable between the porcelain elephants, piles of books about the history of Soviet radio, and knitted doilies the old lady’s aunt bought way back in the day, when she was a college student.

Finally, he reaches the player and sets everything up.

He calls a funeral home and leaves a message in the old lady’s voice arranging everything. The message is a mix of instructions, threats, and an offer of a bribe — the cat estimates the old lady’s savings are enough for a bribe. 

Neither the Aurora player nor the cat’s understanding of human nature fail him.

At night the undertakers come with a coffin. The front door is open, and the old lady is ready, dressed in her finest clothes. There’s an envelope full of cash on the bedside table. The cat is hiding behind a wardrobe and scraping his claws unpleasantly against the parquet.

 The undertakers pick up the body and leave. She gets a burial somewhere on the outskirts of town. There’s no orchestra playing sad music or a priest with a censer, but it’s still a decent burial with a nice headstone even if it bears a foreign-sounding stranger’s name.

After having some time to think, the undertakers wonder if they should return and rifle through the empty apartment for valuables. But when they come back, the door is locked and the unpleasant scraping of claws against parquet emanates from the inside, followed by the stern sound of the old woman’s voice, insinuating something about criminal prosecution. They beat a hasty retreat.

Left to his own devices, the cat cleans the apartment. He organizes the tapes, stacks books onto shelves, and dusts the porcelain elephants. He doesn’t wash the floors though: there are limits to what a cat — even a Leningrad cat —  cando.

For several months, the cat lives his best life. He listens to his favorite recordings each evening, eats as much cat food as he wants, and occasionally treats himself to a frozen sausage from the fridge or a saucer of a cognac-and-valerian-root cocktail. He’s set for a long while. The old lady was a blockade survivor during the Siege of Leningrad, so every nook in the apartment that isn’t occupied by tapes, books, and porcelain elephants, is packed with canned food, including cat food.

After all that effort, he gets burned by something really fucking stupid.

Over the course of months since the old lady’s death, her mailbox gets filled with the sort of trash Remarque used to complain about from the World War I trenches in ’17. And while they aren’t advertisements for warm trench caps made from stinging-nettle, the flyers and letters inside are equally useless to old lady and cat alike. The mail carrier notices this. She sounds an alarm and summons the neighbors. Together, they keep ringing the doorbell.

The cat doesn’t answer, obviously. He’s trying to edit something appropriate from the tapes, but can’t do it in so short a time. He plays some recording on the Aurora, but all the mail carrier and the neighbors hear in the old lady’s muffled voice is a cry for help.

They call the police.

When the policeman arrives, he finds the door ajar. From inside he hears, “Come in, officer,” in a cheerful voice.

So the policeman enters, and the neighbors try to follow, but the cat appears at the doorstep and hisses at them until they draw back.

The policeman enters the living room. The cat follows.

While the policeman looks around for the old lady, the cat jumps onto the table and begins operating the Aurora player. He loads various tapes and plays phrases arranged into a hastily prepared confession.

At first, the policeman isn’t even listening. He pretty much loses his shit at the performance of the cat, who, over the period of months, has become so adept at controlling the player he could probably earn millions on YouTube.

The cat patiently rewinds the tapes and plays the confession again.

The policeman listens.

When the confession is done playing for the second time, the policeman coughs nervously, then speaks politely in a husky voice. He asks for a stiff drink and if he may please sit down, because his legs are trembling.

The cat nods toward the cognac, as in, “Go ahead. Make yourself at home.” He’d have a drink himself, but he feels that may be too much for the policeman to handle just then.

After the policeman has had a few drinks, he recovers his wits somewhat. With shaking hands he lights a cigarette, and the cat brings him an ashtray.

The cat answers questions by playing recordings and occasionally cutting bits of tapes and arranging them into new ones, which would shock the policeman even more, if that were possible.

Two hours later, the policeman emerges from the apartment.

He tells the neighbors to disperse and chides the mail carrier about the latter’s unhealthy interest in old ladies and how, while the postal worker is wasting her time, there are people out there anxiously awaiting their packages.

Ever since then, the policeman personally empties the mail box, once a month.

He visits the cat occasionally, bringing treats and cognac, because the cat is a very attentive listener, who only occasionally interjects with a clever comment in the old lady’s voice, better than any psychotherapist. Sometimes the two of them get drunk and sing the old Soviet songs from the balcony.

The end.

You must be somewhat disappointed. As an expert on Russian literature and a connoisseur of Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky, you surely expected more from the Leningrad cat. You figured he’d wander the banks of the Moika River and recite poetry on the Anichkov Bridge — his own poems, but with references to Remarque, Rimbaud, and someone else whose name begins with an “R.”

Perhaps you thought the cat might get a job as a conductor on a tram, then hijack the tram and drive it to Archangelsk, where he’d get hired on as a skipper for an expedition to the North Pole. When he eventually returned to Leningrad he’d discover that the city has changed too much for his tastes, and head for the Vnukovo Airport. He’d briefly become lost in the labyrinthine terminals and barely make it onto the flight to Paris by chasing after the plane on the runway and jumping onto the landing gear. He’d discover the plane is headed not for Paris but, let’s say, Uryupinsk. He’d hijack the plane and fly it to Australia . . .

But you must remind yourself that this isn’t a fairy tale. It’s a true story of a real cat. The cat isn’t interested in a life of action and adventure that writers or readers might be tempted to imagine for him. He couldn’t possibly give less of a shit about trams, expeditions, Australia, and — most especially — jumping onto the landing gear of a moving plane.

Instead, the cat curls up by the record player each night. He presses the Play button and closes his eyes, listening to the old lady’s voice as she cheerfully announces which song had been requested by citizens calling in and is about to play next.

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Dec 03 2019

18mins

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PodCastle 602: Franken-Puppy

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PodCastle 602: Franken-Puppy is a PodCastle original.

Rated PG-13, for revivified urges and the joys of transgression.

Franken-Puppy

By Derek Künsken

In the third yard, the puppy darted a suspicious look back at its tail. Then, as if remembering what he’d been doing, he swung his head forward, panted, and sat in the grass. Beyond the ratty picket fence, patched skyscrapers stood in the hazy blue distance like uneven teeth. The puppy delighted himself with a high bark. The red bricks of the house behind him were re-mortared, but straight. The puppy’s tail thumped the ground. He lay down, rolled onto his back, then looked at her, barking as his tail resumed thumping. Child fingers — some bright pink, others brown, sewn with tiny stitches to a strong dark hand — brushed wonderingly at the soft fur before wriggling and tickling.

“Who’s a good boy?” Francesca said.

The puppy stretched, then playfully wrapped his paws over her wrist and nipped at the tough skin with teething canines. Francesca giggled and yanked her hand away. The puppy yipped and followed her fingers, his swinging tail swaying his whole body. Two skinny arms, scarred and mismatched, lifted and hugged him. Her brown hair brushed the top of the puppy’s head. The puppy wriggled a bit, his tail stilling. One arm was across his belly and one was under his snout. He struggled uncertainly, his mouth opening wide.

“I love you sooooo much!” Francesca said, eyes closed, cheek against the softness of his head as she hugged him with all the love in her revivified heart. A snap sounded and the puppy stopped struggling. She loosened her grip. The puppy was limp.

“Mommy!” Francesca wailed.

“Oh no!” her mother said from the kitchen doorway. “Francie, I told you to be careful with real puppies! Dennis! It happened again!”

“This is the fourth one!” Melanie said. “Why do you keep getting the cheap ones?”

Dennis stood in the middle of the kitchen, a trail of oily steps leading from the garage behind him. His gray shirt was clean, buttoned to the bolts on his neck, sleeves ripped off at the shoulder seam, leaving his wiry, mismatched arms showing.

“Puppies aren’t cheap!”

Melanie eyed him skeptically from under hair piled into a dark beehive.

“Mommy!” Francie pleaded. She sat teary-eyed at the table, the plastic straw spearing her unsipped Mummy’s Curse juice box. Melanie wiped Francie’s tears with her palm.

“Puppies are filthy anyway!” Melanie said. “We might as well build a dog!”

“Don’t be crude in front of Francie, dear.”

Francie tugged on Melanie’s arm.

“Mommy. No! Pleeeeeease. I want a puppy, not a big grown dog!”

Melanie watched Dennis defiantly. “Why don’t you build one?” she said.

“Sew an animal? Don’t say adult stuff in front of Francie!”

Melanie’s muscled shoulders, both pale with a slight grayish tinge, slumped a bit.

“What happened to us, Dennis? We were wild once.”

Dennis waved his arms at the kitchen, with its neat skeleton wallpaper, linoleum flooring, range and stove, and big white fridge with its polished femur-bone handle.

“We grew up. We’ve made a good life!”

“You changed, Dennis.”

“What does that mean? You want me to build a puppy?”

“Yes!”

They glared at each other as Francie looked from one to the other, one hand gripped tight in Melanie’s apron frills.

“I didn’t change!” Dennis said, stabbing his thumb at his chest. “I’ll build a damn puppy!”

“Yay!” Francie said.

Roshni was peeking over Dennis’s fence, straining her neck to better see the crackling blue welding light spilling from the garage into the evening. Roshni came to the foot of the driveway, then to the garage door. Two hanging bulbs lit dusty benches scattered with parts and tools. Roshni straightened her name tag. She smoothed her hair over a wide, hairless skin graft reaching almost to the crown of her head. Dennis was forcing the tip of the welder into small metal cervical joints, his welding mask lifted high so he could better see.

“Is that a dog skeleton?” Roshni said.

Dennis started, spinning to block the view with his body. The welder dropped. So did one of the metal legs attached to what looked like a spine.

“What? No! Hi, Roshni. How’s Suresh?” Dennis flushed.

“Don’t be embarrassed. I’m with the Frankensteiner church.”

Roshni picked up the leg from the floor and handed it to Dennis.

“Is your wife upset you’re building a dog?”

Dennis took the stiff skeletal limb, his fingers tracing nervous lines on it.

“She, uh . . . she experimented with xeno-grafts in college,” Dennis said carefully. “Just for medical research, of course.”

Awkwardly, Dennis turned to test the torque on a silver drill.

“Have you thought of letting Frankenstein into your heart?” Roshni said. “The Sewn Baptismal Church of Frankenstein opens its—”

“Look, I really have to build a puppy. I’d appreciate it if you kept this quiet. I didn’t tell anybody about that thing in your pool.”

Dennis positioned the drill bit against a metal vertebra. Roshni scratched at skin flaking around the bolts in her neck. Dennis’s muscles bunched as he leaned into the spinning drill. Steel shavings peeled off. It looked like the drill was going to get through and maybe pierce his hand when the vibrations shook off another leg.

“It’s so transgressive!” Roshni said, admiring Dennis’s work.

“We’ll keep it inside. No one will know,” Dennis said distractedly.

“Are you sure you don’t already believe in the Frankenstein?”

Dennis selected a long, crooked needle threaded with old electrical wiring and tried to figure out how to sew the fallen leg back into the joint where the weld had broken.

“You can make a puppy-sized body out of steel, but it’ll short circuit during the revival process,” Roshni said.

Dennis eyed her.

“My father sewed me together himself at night after the other factory workers went home. He taught me how to sew.”

Dennis lowered the needle and leaned the two-legged dog skeleton against the wall.

“Melanie and I killed fresh humans to make Francie. We sewed and electrified her together.” He looked at the needle and repurposed wire. “Now we seem to be angry a lot.”

“You made your own daughter with the same process the creator used to make the first sewn people. Why are you an atheist?”

Dennis put on his reading glasses and examined the hip joint.

“Come see the sanctity of the Frankenstein.”

“I have to build a puppy,” Dennis said.

He succeeded in forcing the needle through the small steel hole, but then the spine snapped. It all collapsed. Roshni touched Dennis’s arm.

“I’ll help you.”

Dennis and Roshni drove to the human town outside the city in a rust-colored Streamliner with a broken windshield. The sun shone bright as they pulled up to the high wooden palisade surrounding the settlement. Humans in the fields scattered. Dogs barked. Pitchforks and torches were brandished defiantly at the gates. Dennis stepped out, balancing coffee, sunglasses, and keys as dogs retreated.

“They must have sturdy dogs here,” Dennis said as they walked toward the gates.

“Anything not sewn breaks pretty easily,” Roshni said.

A human threw a torch.

The dogs cowered and tried to slink away from Dennis. He handed his coffee to Roshni and bent to examine one of them. He felt at its internal organs. The dog flinched and yelped and scrambled to run. Dennis let it.

“Even adult dogs are flimsy. Maybe if I sewed two together . . .” Dennis surveyed the pack still barking. “Grow stronger dogs!” he yelled at the humans. He took his coffee.

“Maybe check the free-range humans?” he said to Roshni. “Their dogs might be tougher?”

It seemed like a futile hope.

“Do you honestly believe one of these made us?” Dennis said, gesturing at the cowering humans.

“That’s why they call it a miracle.”

Dennis took one of Roshni’s forearms, looking at it through his reading glasses.

“This might make a good puppy foot.”

Roshni pulled away her arm.

“The church and law say the same thing: only sew with human parts. The sewn are sanctified because we have intelligence, but . . .” Roshni began whispering “. . . we’ve made some re-live animals.”

Dennis swatted Roshni’s arm.

“Pervert.”

“They’re at the freak show at the Bible Camp. Do you want to see?”

“Only perverts go to freak shows.”

One dog came close, barked loud enough to scare itself, and ran off.

“Yes,” Dennis said.

The sign above the driveway said: The Sewn Baptismal Church of Frankenstein. A number of buildings with off-white siding and cheap windows ringed a small lake with rickety boats, a listing dock, and a new volleyball net. Everyone was dressed like Roshni. Black slacks, white shirt, and collar with the sleeves torn, and name tags. Men had added black polyester ties. A group of sewn children were playing a game under the supervision of overly cheerful teens with whistles. A wooden effigy of Frankenstein stood in the middle of the camp.

“Capture the flag around statues to mythical humans to bring spiritual enlightenment?” Dennis said. “Really?”

“We’re a fully experimental Bible Camp!”

They walked past the grass parking lot, to a fair tent with a sun-beaten wooden sign that said Freak Show. Dennis peeked his head inside and whistled. Roshni looked in, grinning with pride. Big wooden tables lined the perimeter of the tent, stacked to bending with big jars of formaldehyde and floating animal specimens, many of which were sewn together.

“Imagine if we could recover lost arts, remake legendary monsters!” Roshni said.

Dennis bent close to a jar of preserved piglets, each sewn from pieces in a symphony of mismatches.

“No one knows you’ve been sewing animals?”

“We don’t want bad press,” Roshni said, “but if we brought back a real monster, who’s going to argue with our methods?”

“Wait a minute!” Dennis said. “They don’t have bolts. None have been electrified. They’re just corpses with swapped parts!”

Roshni looked sheepish.

“Trial and error. We need your help. You need ours.”

“So, you don’t know how to make puppies.”

Dennis stormed out of the tent.

“We want to! We really want to!” Roshni called after him.

Melanie lay in bed, propped on pillows, wearing a sheer night gown that revealed her many seams and scars. Dennis paced under the bare lightbulb. Wolves howled at a full moon.

“They didn’t know anything, Mel! Their freak show was a joke.”

“Freak show?”

He leaned on the windowsill, looking out at Roshni’s stupid pool, now filled with dirt. Melanie put a hand on his back.

“What kind of idiot walks around with a name tag?”

“What freak show?” she asked.

“They just want to look scandalous to get converts to feel dangerous.”

He turned. They were very close. She curled a finger around one of his bolts.

“Tell me you’re going to sew animals,” she breathed in his ear.

He pulled the cord on the bulb, leaving just the moonlight.

“I’m going to sew animals.”

“You’re such a monster!” she teased.

Their silhouettes merged.

Dennis hadn’t put on his tie. Melanie was still in her housecoat with her hands on his shoulders. He noted the latest answer from his calculator on the sheaves of paper laying on the table. Francie poured milk on her Mummy-Os cereal.

“There’s still too much resistance for the puppy’s body to take a full charge,” Dennis said. “It’ll cook.”

“You can’t do it?” Melanie said.

“Only a full-sized dog body could take revival voltage.”

“Daaaaddy! I want a puppy!”

“The grafting specimens gave me some ideas though,” he said.

“If we go to church, can I see the freak show?” Melanie asked.

“The Baptist church?”

“We’ll call it date night.”

“I don’t want date night at church.”

“Yes, you do.”

Francie giggled, not understanding. She watched her mother look strangely at her father, and then finally whisper in his ear. His expression became increasingly shocked.

“What are you saying, Mommy? Mommy, what are you saying?”

Dennis patted Francie’s hand. “Quiet honey. Mommy has some good ideas about . . . puppy-making.”

“Yay!” Francie said.

The clapboard walls of the church looked damaged and repaired and damaged and repaired. The sturdy pews had solid braces where pieces had been fixed. A painting of Victor Frankenstein glowered down from behind the pulpit. The pews filled with bare-armed, sewn people in their Sunday best. To the side was a confessional booth, and at the back stood tables stacked with pamphlets on “Letting Frankenstein into Your Heart.” A beaming Roshni pressed one into each of their hands.

“I feel silly,” Dennis whispered. “There wasn’t really a Frankenstein.”

“When do we see the monstrosities?” she whispered.

“See the paintings of the Igors and Draculas and wolfmans?” Roshni said. “Imagine if we could remake the angelic beings who helped the Frankenstein.”

“Some date night,” Dennis whispered.

A sewn man in robes mounted the pulpit. Dennis didn’t know many of the scriptural words, but the congregation only had to answer a few lines each time.

“Come back, Frankenstein!” they bellowed around him.

Dennis leaned to Roshni. “I—”

“Rage, children of transgression!” the preacher yelled, raising a fist.

The congregation roared like a herd of bulls. Dennis saw that even Melanie was getting into it. It was cute when she did.

The preacher’s sermon went on. It sounded like complaining, but when the congregation had to yell back, he tried to fit in, yelling, “Build us a family, Frankenstein!” before loud-whispering, “This is stupid, honey. We’re yelling at a painting.”

“Shhh, it’s date night.”

“As the creator took the power from god, so must we take the creator’s power!” the preacher said lifting a jar, sloshing with green liquid.

“Come back, Frankenstein!” the congregation said.

“The Frankenstein transgressed against nature for personal glory and then abandoned us!”

The congregation roared.

“Life comes in the marriage of tonics and voltage and flesh! The Frankenstein gave us superiority over every thing upon the Earth.”

“Make more of us, Frankenstein!” the congregation answered.

“Grace is in the revivification. Creating sewn people is an act of communion!”

The congregation roared.

“The Frankenstein looked upon the thing he created and wept!”

As if that was a cue, the roar within the church changed. The congregants wrenched and tore and hit the pews, the floor, the walls, bellowing, trying to rip up anything they could to smash. Dennis helped Melanie rip the pew out of the floor. They heaved together, barely missing a family punching the pulpit. Dennis and Melanie smiled in a sudden stillness encompassing only the two of them. Melanie tugged him by the hand.

“Let’s violate the confessional!”

Dennis looked around the confusion. No one was watching them. He followed her into the dark box.

The church was a shambles, as it probably was each week. Pews were smashed. Walls bore dents. Birds flew through broken windows. Everything was damaged except the painting of Frankenstein. A sewn man in coveralls with fine fingers swept the floor and barely looked up at the emerging couple. No one else was here.

“. . . wrecking the church felt good, but what’s the point?” he continued. “If there ever was a real Frankenstein, he’s dead and we don’t need him now.”

“We should go terrorize a human village,” Melanie said. “We haven’t done that in years!”

They held hands under the Frankenstein painting.

“Society says sewing animals is perverted, but I think people are just worried that if an animal can be sewn, what’s left about us that’s special?”

Her shoulders slumped a bit, but she smiled at him. “You don’t have to sew a puppy, honey. Francie will get over it. I just . . . I just got frustrated with asking, ‘Is this all there is?’”

He looked at her fingers, uneven, mismatched, different skin colors, all sewn to muscular hands. They were magnificently ugly, unnatural, and beautiful.

“Being sewn doesn’t give us grace,” he said. “Transgression does.”

“We take grace,” she said, smiling, “like everything else we’ve seized from nature and creators.” She kissed him again.

Dennis stood at the front door with Melanie. On her knees, Francie vibrated with excitement in the middle of the lawn. Roshni and a few neighbors looked over the fence, their scarred foreheads sweaty in the sun.

“Are you ready, pumpkin?”

“Yes, yes, yes!”

Dennis opened the door.

A big ghoulish dog bounded onto the lawn. Francie’s eyes widened in confusion at its deep chest and its wide mouth in its huge head, sewn onto a big neck, the skin still showing where he’d shaved the body parts.

It was a big dog’s body, capable of taking a full revivication charge without burning. The only problem had been that the vertebrae of different dogs hadn’t fit properly, so the massive head was actually sewn on upside down, the big wet tongue flapping from its snout, slapping one eye.

But it was puppy too. Four puppies. Every one of the puppies Francie had accidentally loved too hard. He’d sewn the upper bodies and heads of each of the puppies to the ankles where big dog feet would have been. As the dog bounded, the little heads yipped and barked and panted, squeaking in confusion, their faces smushed into the grass.

The dog barreled down on Francie but fell over its own head-feet, crashing to its back and going still, the big head apparently confused that it was right side up, with all four of the puppy half-bodies lifted high in the air, panting and barking.

Francie jumped on the dog’s chest, laying her head in the fur while head-legs tried to grab and lick her. Francie squeezed so hard that the big dog head wheezed, eyes bulging, tongue hanging like overcooked fettuccine. Then, she relented, and the big head began snuffling at the grass.

“It’s awful!” said one of the neighbors.

“Mommy! I’ve got five puppies!” Francie said.

“It’s a monster,” another said.

The dog rolled over, uncertain about stepping on the wriggling puppy heads again, confused by the tilt of its head attached upside down. It craned its neck and licked Dennis’s shoe. Francie giggled and tried to catch the slippery tongue.

“It’s a miracle,” Roshni said.

One of the feet barked. Another, the head of the youngest puppy they’d gotten Francie, started dozing off.

“It’s genius,” a neighbor said.

“It’s like the Frankenstein walks among us,” Roshni said rapturously.

“Get the pitchforks!” the first neighbor said.

Dennis and Melanie put their arms around one another, watching Francie jump up and down on her dog’s belly between four gleefully licking puppy heads.

The post PodCastle 602: Franken-Puppy appeared first on PodCastle.

Nov 26 2019

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PodCastle 601: A Thousand Tongues of Silver

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Originally published in Lackington’s.

Rated PG-13.

A Thousand Tongues of Silver

By Kate Heartfield

I am a book. My pages are purple.

This is how they made me. First, they flayed the calves, stretched and scraped their wet skins. Then they mixed lichen and leaves, rotted in human urine, to mimic the purple that comes of torturing sea snails to force the desperate spew of sedative. Soaked my pages in all that stink until they turned the colour of violence.

Then I was ready to receive the quill. Letters of suspended silver ink, with plenty of copper to prevent tarnish.

Why silver, you may ask?

Well, look how beautifully it shines against the purple. Isn’t that reason enough? It was reason enough for Amalasuintha. She didn’t question it.

Do you see the letter ? That is the letter the scribes call . It means the number 60, sometimes; it also means “year.”

The year of my conception was 534, by some reckonings. Let’s go there. To the city of Ravenna, on the northern coast of the Adriatic Sea. A woman perhaps forty years old rules all of Italy and much of the rest of Europe too. Her father’s kingdom. But her father, Theodoric the Great, King of the Ostrogoths, is long dead.

And when her father died, she was herself already a widow, and her son was a mere child.

So Amalasuintha rules — in her son’s name, but no one has any illusions, least of all the man who is brought to Amalasuintha in chains.

“Theodahad,” she says. “Cousin.”

She is wearing a stola of purple silk, gathered at the shoulders with two magnificent eagle brooches that leave most of her shoulders bare. At her ears, two more eagles dangle, silver inlaid with precious gems in all the colours of the world.

He is wearing fetters.

“Cousin,” he echoes. “Is it really necessary to bring me here in iron?”

“Was it really necessary for you to overrun all your neighbours’ land? Every farmer in Tuscany has come to me to complain about you in the last few months, Theodahad. I don’t have time for this. You’re stealing their land?”

He shrugs. “If they can’t see fit to protect it — ”

“You’re better than this.”

He isn’t. He knows he isn’t. Theodahad has always been the problem in the family. The product of her aunt’s youthful dalliance. Italian born and bred, but never quite accepted anywhere. He’s a decade older than Amalasuintha, and when he lets his long hair fall in front of his face to hide his snarl, it’s streaked with silver.

Then he tosses it back. “We always have to be better than everyone, don’t we, cousin? Better than the Romans, because we’re Goths. Better than the Goths, because we’ve taken the Roman throne.”

“We? You’ve taken nothing. Except for some hills and some goats.”

His face moves like an earthquake.

“How is your son, cousin?” he asks. “How is the king? He will be old enough to take the throne soon.”

She doesn’t miss his implication. He doesn’t miss the pain that rakes its invisible claws over her beautiful face.

Amalasuintha sinks into a chair of carved, dark wood. A Roman chair.

“Theodahad, if they had only let me have the raising of him! He was such a marvellous child. As sharp and bright as a pin. But my father’s old counsellors were so suspicious of his Roman tutors. They said I was making him unmanly, Theodahad.”

“They are barbarians.”

“They are Goths,” Amalasuintha says, in a tone that is not quite an excuse, not quite a rebuke.

“They’re old fools, just as your father was. So suspicious of everything Roman that they’ll starve rather than eat Roman food.”

“My father — ” She stops, remembering how Boethius died. The most brilliant man in the kingdom, left to die in prison because her father mistrusted Roman learning, Roman art, Roman politics.

She has no one she can trust. But she can’t afford to make enemies. She is not her father.

Amalasuintha takes a deep breath and starts again. “Theodahad, we have to be careful. Now more than ever. I am asking you, for the good of the family.”

“Why now more than ever?” he asks, keeping his voice even, although he knows, he knows. Theodahad thinks of the silver armband he gave the boy king, when the Goths took him to train him in the ways of war. Now you are a warrior, he said, and watched the child slip it onto his arm. Look, see how it bends. It will grow with the strength of your arm. The boy never takes it off except to clean it; Theodahad’s spies tell him so.

“They said he needed to be manly to rule,” she says, half to herself. “They sent him off with a gang of rotten thugs to be his friends. To learn how to kill. To boast of their prowess in the brothels. I don’t know what disease it was, or where he got it, but he’s ill, Theodahad.”

He can barely stop the corners of his mouth from dancing in triumph. The boy king is indeed sick, indeed dying! The silversmith did his work well.

“He will recover,” she says.

“Of course,” he agrees, but he knows better.

“But my boy is ill,” Amalasuintha says, pain and fear clouding her perception at that crucial moment. “And I am beset on all sides. My Roman subjects don’t trust the Goths, and my Gothic subjects don’t trust the Romans. How can I rule a kingdom so divided? How can I rule it if — if I am queen alone?”

There: do you see it? The moment of my conception. I germinate in Theodahad’s brain. He watches the ripple of purple silk against Amalasuintha’s breast, the contrast to the silver eagle on her shoulder. It reminds him of something, a book he has seen in Rome. A book with silver writing.

“I am sorry to hear that the young king has been ill,” he says, having composed his rebellious smile. “And I am sorry that I’ve added to your burdens. Let me make you a present to show my contrition.”

She waves him off.

“It will be a present of some use to you, I think,” he says, talking quickly, as schemes flow through the maze of his brain like quicksilver. “The Goths are worried that their children don’t speak their mother tongue in the streets, that the Romans mock them as barbarians. Yes? And the Romans are disdainful of the Goths, and of your authority as a Gothic queen.”

She nods, respecting his directness but not sure of his direction.

“Imagine a book. A book of the gospels, to display in your palace church. A book with pages in imperial purple — I’ve seen it done. But with one key distinction. This book will be in the Gothic language.”

Her eyebrows dance. “Wulfila’s translation of the Bible, then?”

He nods. “A book to bring two peoples together. I know two scribes at the cathedral in Ravenna. Our people. They speak our language. But they can write books as the Romans do. Let me take care of it.”

She does not trust Theodahad. But there can be no harm in a book. And she can see how right he is: a book in imperial purple, in the Latin style, written in Gothic. A book to represent a Romano-Gothic empire, and its queen.

Her chin dips with sharp approval.

He holds up his fettered wrists expectantly.

The letter is called , which bears the number 700, and the meaning “cauldron.”

Theodahad pays a visit to Dag the silversmith to thank him for the armband.

“It is working,” he says. “Slowly, but it’s working. You truly are a wizard.”

The smith wrings his hands. “I am a smith. That’s all. I know the properties of silver, and I bend them a little. Please, Your Grace. I’m just a smith.”

“I have another commission for you,” Theodahad says, pacing around the little charcoal forge, stooping so he doesn’t hit his head on the beams. “A gift for Amalasuintha.”

What do you know about silver? What do you know about how it excites, the smoothness of its touch, how it collects the moonlight? You know, perhaps, that old stories tell of it killing those who cannot be killed any other way. You know, perhaps, that it can save, preserve, enshrine.

Silver wards. The other metals do other things, and other smiths have sinned, but we are not concerned with them here.

Dag shakes his head. “I will not kill the queen. Please don’t ask me that. There must be some other way.”

“Kill the queen? No, I wouldn’t dream of it.”

And that, as far as it goes, and for the moment, is the truth. Theodahad has few friends among the Goths or the Romans. If Amalasuintha were to die, he would have a hard fight on his hands to take the throne from other, stronger claimants. But if Amalasuintha were to hand the throne over to him, as her father’s new heir, well. That would be different.

“I’m not asking you to kill her. No armband this time. I’m simply informing you that a monk will come soon, and ask you for silver filings and leavings. They’ll be making ink with it, you see. And I want the silver they use to have a certain effect on the queen’s mind.”

Dag grips the bellows, trying very hard not to think of the little boy who is in one of Theodahad’s many dungeons, and sick with guilt for trying not to think of him. “I’ve told you. I can’t ensorcell anyone. I can only work with the ancient properties of silver. To heal, and to…to kill.”

Theodahad spreads his arms wide. “And that is what I ask! I ask you to heal the Queen’s heart, when it comes to her cousin. And I ask you to kill her ambition.”

Dag hangs his head. “It’s impossible.”

“Then you will never see your son again.”

What is time to a book? An early page or a late, it is all the same to me. Flip the pages forward. Through one millennium and one century, during which time I am hardly noticed. I go from monastery to abbey, across Europe.

I am not missing, in these years. I am lying in wait.

Pause, there, in the year 1649. Find the letter . The letter my scribes call bears the number 3 and the meaning “gift.”

Queen Kristina has ruled Sweden since she was a child. They sent her father the king home in installments: first his bloody shirt, then his heart, then his body. He died in the same long war Kristina is about to conclude. One of Kristina’s many titles is Queen of the Goths, although that notion’s half fantasy.

Kristina stands in a great hall in Stockholm and watches as the plunder rolls through her doors. The fabled riches of the Emperor Rudolf. She sent her armies to Rudolf’s castle in Prague, with instructions to get it all to Sweden before the last signatures dried on the peace treaty.

She will make Sweden the envy of the world.

A bit of a yawn, though, all these crates and cartloads. There are 500 paintings; she will need someone to catalogue them all. A jawbone purported to have been that of a siren. Sculptures and bronzes. Enough scientific instruments to tame the universe.

And at the last, one solitary lion, pacing the centre line of the hall, leashed to a nervous-looking man on each side. At that, everyone stands and applauds, because Kristina already is.

As the cheers soften and the lion is marched away, the man who led her armies in Prague appears in the doorway.

Karl Gustav. Her aunt’s son, and her childhood fencing partner. Twenty-six years old and more handsome than he was when he left, although you’d think that impossible. Warfare agrees with him.

He bows low, and she smiles.

“Cousin,” she greets him. “You have done well. But where are the books? You didn’t forget Rudolf’s famous library, surely.”

He shakes his head. “I saved the best for last.”

Her breath catches a little, despite herself. It’s a reflex. Everything with Karl Gustav is a reflex. When she was fifteen — seven years ago now — Kristina and Karl Gustav acted as if they were in love with each other, and she let herself get caught up in the notes and secret meetings. It was all so exciting, but it didn’t mean love. Not to her.

Her cousin, though, is looking at her more fiercely than the lion did.

He spoke those same words to her once before: I saved the best for last. As the prelude to their first kiss; very nearly their last kiss. He has made the memory of that kiss his nightly prayer, all these years in sodden tents, so far from her. Everyone knows they’re going to marry.

She holds out her hand and he leads her to an anteroom, where two great books are laid out on the tables. Just as he arranged. They are, at last, alone.

“This one, they call the Devil’s Bible,” he says, opening a massive volume, but gingerly. It is old. Near the back, she cries out with surprise, fear, delight. There’s a full-page illustration of a devil, with horns curving out of its head. It squats, with knobbed knees and splayed toes. She can’t quite decide whether it’s horrific or comical.

“And that one?” she asks, pointing.

He lifts the pages. They’re dyed a reddish purple, and the lettering is in silver, with here and there a flash of gold.

“The Silver Bible,” he says. “Or, the Codex Argenteus. A thousand years old, or more.”

“What a strange alphabet,” she says, walking over to it and standing beside him. “I can’t read it.”

“It’s written in the Gothic language,” he says. “Few people can.”

“Well, I’ll have to get some scholars here to decipher it. I can get anybody I want. I’m sending for René Descartes, you know.”

She reaches out to touch the silver letters, and he reaches for her hand. So familiar, these two hands together.

“The war is over at last,” he says, his voice thick. “I did what you asked of me. Everything you asked. And now I’m home. We can marry now, Kristina.”

She pulls her hand away. “I’ve decided I’m not going to marry anyone. I’m very happy ruling on my own.”

He looks her in the eye. “You know that’s not what it’s about, for me. I’m not interested in ruling.”

“You should be. You’re the only remaining heir to the throne in our family. If I go to feed the worms, you’re it, I’m sorry to tell you.”

He shakes his head. “Don’t. Don’t laugh at me.”

“I’m not.” She puts one hand on each of his shoulders, comradely. “I mean it. I don’t have any need to marry. I can’t stand the idea of letting a man use me like a peasant uses his field. The only reason they want me to marry is so there will be an heir, but you can be my heir. You, and your children, once you marry some lovely countess. You see? It all works out perfectly.”

As if she’s been listening outside the door and come to help — and maybe she has — Belle chooses that moment to walk in, dressed in blue velvet with a white lace collar. Beautiful Belle, the lady-in-waiting who now shares Kristina’s bed every night.

“My darling,” Kristina says, and decides to make everything clear to Karl Gustav.

He must understand that, for her to be queen, and alive, and happy, and herself, all at the same time, she must stand with her hands on her hips and stare the universe down. She can’t let her gaze fall or her attitude soften, not for a moment, or it will all crash down around her.

She kisses Belle on the mouth, and entwines her arm in her own.

“She is as beautiful on the inside as she is on the outside,” Kristina says, winking at Karl Gustav. “Do you know what she tastes like? No, of course you don’t, but I do. Sour cherries. It’s remarkable.”

Karl Gustav has been taken by surprise, but he is a man of quick intelligence, and he is nothing if not gallant. He nods, and bows to Belle. “It is a pleasure to see you again.”

Kristina loves him too, albeit fraternally. She smiles at him to show how grateful she is for him, how truly grateful she is for the treasures he brought home to her.

All three lean their heads over the table, and pretend to examine the book with pages the colour of scandal.

is the name of the letter , which holds the value 800 and means “inheritance.” There are many things Theodahad considers his own, by right. A little island in Lake Bolsena is one of them, but we have not reached that page yet. The kingdom of the Ostrogoths is another.

The day after the funeral rites for the young king, Amalasuintha calls her son’s murderer onto her private balcony, to offer him a crown.

She doesn’t know, will never know, that he murdered her son. She knows only that he gave her a book, some months ago, in the language of their fathers.

“They have destroyed my precious boy,” she says, facing away from him, gazing out over her perfect gardens. These gardens were a mess when she took them over, and look at them now.

“Yes. It is a terrible tragedy.”

She turns to look at him, her mouth a grim line. “I hear whispers, that they won’t accept a queen who rules alone, with no king at her side. But I won’t marry, and let the throne fall out of our family’s control.”

He nods, slowly, as if he doesn’t know what’s coming. The silver ink has done its work.

“You are family, Theodahad, and lately I have been thinking that it is irresponsible of me to simply hope the Goths and Romans will all accept you as king, once I die. You know as well as I do, what sort of machinations come when a sovereign dies.”

She refrains from saying: And you know how much they hate you.

“I do. It could tear our kingdom apart, and destroy everything your father built.”

This is the moment, he thinks, the moment when she will make him king, and she’ll go off to some nunnery and he’ll never have to look at her again.

This is the moment, she thinks, but can hardly bear to say the words. Still, if she doesn’t, the whispers won’t stop. She hears them even in the night, when she’s all alone, as if there are voices on the air, doubting her ability, warning of doom.

“That is why,” she says, and all the breath leaves her. She starts again. “That is why I am raising you up to be co-sovereign with me, Theodahad. I will continue to rule as I always have, but you will be at my side at ceremonial functions, and the people will come to accept you. The kingdom will have its king.”

She sees his look of surprise, misinterprets it.

He accepts, after composing his face. They make the announcement, and Theodahad is crowned.

Three days later, Amalasuintha wakes to find a rough hand over her mouth and rough arms tying her wrists and ankles.

means , which carries the number 30 and the meaning “open water.”

Between Rome and Florence sits a round lake called Lake Bolsena. On a rocky island in that lake, Amalasuintha looks out through the bars of her window. She sees only the shapes of trees, hears only the lap of the waves.

She is thinking about how easily a jackass with a few thugs at his command can bring down a nation.

Somehow, Theodahad bribed or killed enough guards to abduct her and bring her here. Not all the money in the world, though, could make the Goths trust him, and the Romans despise him. How could he ruin everything, even for himself? She was going to rehabilitate him in their eyes, so that his children could rule. He was supposed to buy her time to create a succession, to save her father’s kingdom.

Instead, he’s created a pretext for their rivals to invade. All she’s worked for. All her father fought for.

She curls her hands around the cold iron bars, rough with rust.

The kingdom’s best hope now is for someone to assassinate Theodahad and break her out of this godforsaken island. It is bound to happen. The only question is whether it will happen in time to save the kingdom from invasion.

The sun is low over the far shore and soon she’ll be in darkness. Her guards, Theodahad’s silent giants, don’t let her have a lamp or a candle, or even a change of clothes. But when the rescue comes, she will be ready. She will be a queen. She refuses to let them find her dirty or afraid.

There is a cold plunge pool in the adjoining room, where she can bathe. She takes a few steps on the cold stones, strips naked and eases herself in. The water seems almost as blue as the lake, an effect of the blue and green mosaic floor. In a kinder time, when these rooms were for guests rather than prisoners, this bath was heated. They could heat it now, for her, if they wanted. Theodahad is taking a great risk, treating her this way.

She doesn’t fathom that Theodahad doesn’t think more than a few days ahead. He has no strategy. That’s why he’ll fail. But until he does, that’s why he’s dangerous.

His thugs enter the room while Amalasuintha’s head is underwater, her eyes shut and her hearing dampened. A hand grabs her by her dark, wet hair, and pulls her to the edge of the pool. Her eyes are open and she struggles as a knife cuts her throat. The last thing she sees is her own blood swirling into the darkening water.

might mean “meadow,” or it might mean “joy,” or it might mean the possibility that vibrates in a person standing alone in a meadow, arms spread.

It definitely means 400.

There are a few more than 400 men gathered in the great hall of the castle in Uppsala. Queen Kristina sits before them, all these men in their stations. There are nobles and clergymen and burghers and peasants. A representative of each steps forward, bows low, and begs her not to abdicate.

She does not meet Karl Gustav’s gaze. Two years ago, she formally designated him as her heir. Tomorrow, he’ll be king. He isn’t happy about it.

He wonders, as he has wondered for months now, who has been whispering in her ear. Who convinced her that she could not be both happy and queen? Who suggested that she formally name her cousin as her heir?

Who suggested that she then give the cousin her crown while she is still alive? It’s utterly bizarre. Yet she insists it is all her own idea.

And he has to admit that Kristina has always had her own ideas about everything.

As the last peasant brushes away his tears, the queen stands, resplendent in yellow brocade, and everyone else quiets. They all protest to love her but they don’t love her newfound Catholic faith, or her refusal to marry a man. They don’t want her; they want her to be what they want.

A few months ago, some of the most powerful men in the kingdom conspired against her. They talked of killing her, before they were found and tried and executed. It was just talk, but one day it won’t be.

“I thank you all for your eloquence and sincerity,” she says. “My mind is made up and nothing can change me from this course. I am leaving Sweden, as soon as I can.”

She will always be a queen. But she will be a queen on ground that she has chosen. She will go to Rome, and talk with artists and philosophers, and live.

After Karl Gustav’s coronation by the grace of God and Christina — she has changed the spelling of her name — the queen without a country rises early, and dresses in black trousers and boots. She cuts her hair short and buckles a sword at her hip.

Her cousin finds her at her bedroom door, stops her.

“Another farewell?” she asks.

He swallows. “You never wanted to marry me, before. You didn’t want to lose your power. I understand. But now you’ve given all your power up.”

“My dear cousin, you think I’ve given up my power? I’ll be far more powerful now than I ever was. The Jesuits adore me. The Pope lauds me. I’m still queen, I’m still fabulously wealthy, and now I can do whatever I want. I can shape the art and philosophy of a generation.”

He shakes his head, laughing a little. “You’re really happy, then?”

“Ecstatic. Now get out of my way.”

He will, but not for one more moment. He goes down on one knee while she looks past him, half wondering if she might be able to vault over him. She’s only 27 years old, and vaulting and running are still in her repertoire.

“I don’t care if you travel the world,” he is saying. “I don’t care if you worship as you see fit. Just come home to me once in a while. Come home to me, as my wife.”

She throws her head back and laughs. “How can you be so clever and so dim?”

He shakes his head, rueful, then smiles a crooked smile. “I had to try. One last time.”

She embraces him, wraps her arms around him, pats him on the back. “I’m going to be happy, my friend. I’m going to see everything. Italy! Sunshine! I’ll be the talk of Europe, you know. I’ll send you back something pretty.”

is the letter that holds the number 40, and it is . Once upon a time, the words for both “man” and “human” were the same.

Once upon a time, the word for “woman” was the same as the word for “queen,” and they were both .

As for me, I am unbound, pinioned under glass like a dead moth. I belong to the people now.

My words remain, written on pages the colour of empire.

Don’t you hear these whispers in a thousand tongues of silver, telling you you’ll never be enough on your own?

All you queens, paying me no heed.

The post PodCastle 601: A Thousand Tongues of Silver appeared first on PodCastle.

Nov 19 2019

39mins

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PodCastle 600: Flash Fiction Extravaganza — Flash Fiction Contest V

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PodCastle 600: Flash Fiction Extravaganza — Flash Fiction Contest V is a PodCastle original.

Rated PG-13.

The Cost of the Revolution in Three Marvelous Confections

By R. K. Duncan

. . . Do you know what we really lost when Tarvagost’s corpse went over the railing and we got the republic?

I managed an invitation to the Spire that last night. I was out on the balcony when it started. You could see the whole city rise, the blue witchfire lights going out where the streetlamps toppled and the orange of the bonfires that replaced them.

They hurried us inside before the singing started in the streets and met us with pastries.

It was a nest of phyllo, full of hollow nuts, painted like robins’ eggs and filled with pepper-honey. They burst in my mouth like sweet fire, and the richness of the nut lingered, like the honeyed nuts the gleaners sell now but ten times more intense.

We all had to smile while Tarvagost watched us from his throne with its halo of gold and silver palm leaves. He had the guild leaders paraded up on a stage to pretend the city still supported him, and they all had to give speeches, and everyone clapped, because the whole of his guard was there.

They’d given up the streets already. If I’d been in our old room above the printer, I’d probably have gone out to try and steal a second court suit in the confusion.

It got so hot with everyone packed into the throne room clapping that they sent round iced wine and little tarts full of frozen berries. The cooks did it specially, drying them over a low fire and cooling them slow on a spelled stone so that the ice never burst the fruit. It stayed firm as fresh when it warmed in my mouth and twice as sweet. It chilled me down enough to shiver, but it tasted of spring and made me want to dance or fight or something.

I haven’t seen berries like that in the city since the revolution. I suppose they still pick them, but no one pays for fast horses and cold-spells to bring them in before they spoil.

I was barely watching when the Knight of Tears stepped out of thin air and put his sword through Tarvagost.

They’d just sent out the subtlety. Each of us got a little lemon-poppy cake shaped like a bird. They flew on wings of sugar glass, driven by sugar clockwork. It lasted just long enough to drop into our hands when it failed, and when we finished there was nothing left that we could not savor, just sweetness and light and the joy of how clever it was.

I hear one of Tarvagost’s chefs still has an eating-house in the city. It’s good food, but no one has the money for tricks like those birds.

That’s what we lost: not honor or majesty or any of the nonsense the legitimists are still preaching. We lost the wealth that paid for things that were perfectly useless and complex and beautiful. That’s what we traded for empty jails and everyone having enough.

By Jingly Bell, By Velvet Mouse

By KT Bryski

By jingly bell — by velvet mouse —

By shedding fur — by whiskered purr —

By ticking clock — by sweetest sun —

The cat weaves spells to call his human home.

Some nights, he’s left alone. Upstairs, footsteps fall quiet; darkness shrouds the apartment; his human does not return. On such nights, the cat readies his magic.

He arranges his toys in intricate patterns, yowling incantations over them. All through the night he works, until the rising sun blesses the whole. And then —

His human stumbles through the door, bleary-eyed and smelling of another human’s bed.

Every time, he casts his spells. Every time, she comes back. The magic always works.

Until it doesn’t.

For long hours, he crafts his sigils on the floor adjusting the angle between chirpy-bird and catnip pillow. With the dawn, he waits.

Nothing.

Sunlight drifts across the rug. The cat grooms and paces, his litter box full and belly empty. As twilight steals in, he tries again.

Again.

On the third day, the door opens. He bolts from beneath the bed, but it is only his human’s mother, caterwauling and leaking eye-water. Strange humans feed him, then stuff him in his carrier.

Sharp winter air rakes his fur, void of scent.

“So sad.”

“So young.”

The cat crouches low. When they let him out, he’ll get the pattern right.

A new house. Terrible house, wrong house. White lilies choke the air. His human’s mother feeds him without speaking, her lap cold and hard.

The magic has always worked. As the weeks pass, the cat’s spells spring wild as twisting vines. New angles. New designs. New charms screamed until his human’s mother locks him in the bathroom.

Hunched on the tile, he wonders —

Did he ruin the magic? Unintentionally — catastrophically — misjudge some power and banish his human forever?

By scream — by sniff —

By rubber band — by foil ball —

By squishy-fish — by chewy-bear —

Again. Again. Again.

The cat grows old. Still, he works.

With shaking paws, he bats his toys into place. It’s harder now. His legs won’t jump right. Dulled scents barely stir his whiskers. The old cat aches to sleep, curled on the rug, arthritic bones warming in the sun.

But he has not found the proper spell.

By falling tooth — by failing sight —

Jingly bell and velvet mouse lie side by side. Pink dawn caresses them both. Something has caught, the old cat thinks. Something has almost worked.

He stretches beside his spell. Too tired. Too sore.

But then —

The door opens. The cat’s ears prick.

His human stumbles in, shining-eyed and smelling of summer skies.

She gathers him up, light streaming behind her. The cat twists like he hasn’t in years, jamming his head into her cheeks, her neck, her chest. His human kisses his nose.

“I missed you.”

With a rumbling purr, he settles in her arms. His human carries him out — into sunlight — into love — into —

.

A Thousand Points, the Sky

By Michelle Muenzler

“Fold faster,” Auntie says, her arthritic fingers tucking the wings of the paper balloon like she’s twenty years younger.

I struggle to keep up with her pace, the paper awkward in my shaking hands. Smears of red stain my skirt where I’ve wiped the paper cuts, best I can. Even so, most of my balloons are dabbed in red amidst the black ink and white paper.

It isn’t important the balloons be pretty, though. Only legible once unfolded.

“How much time?” I ask as I stare in dismay at the current book splayed between my legs. Half its spine is a desolate fringe, the other half clinging weakly to what pages remain.

At this rate, I’ll never finish the book.

Auntie glances over her shoulder through the great library’s smashed window, down at the ground two stories below. “Enough, child, enough.”

But even as she says it, I see the wrinkle in her lip and know it’s a lie.

“They’ve got the wood stacked now, don’t they?”

Her fingers pause their folding. Between us, a skeletal pile of desecrated books, knowledge ripped from them page by page. To the side, all the rare tomes still in need of saving. Her mouth tightens, and she nods.

As if to taunt us, the first whiff of smoke bleeds through the broken window. Auntie rips a new page free. Folds faster.

I stare at my latest pile of paper balloons, my lopsided creations waiting on that final breath of life. The book’s contents aren’t completely folded yet, but time is short, so I gather up what I have.

Better half a book than none.

At the window, I take each hurriedly folded paper balloon, find the small hole in the bottom, and blow just like Auntie showed me when we began our task late last night. One by one, the balloons inflate, filled not just with air but with our need to save them. With our aching wishes that their words live on. With a gentle kiss, I send each out the window, where against all improbability they bob skyward, propelled by our want. The horizon is dotted with similar such balloons, a thousand points of knowledge spreading in every direction.

From below the window, a wave of heat sweeps upward, bathing my face.

The air fills with the snap and crackle of wood.

The library’s massive front doors are barred, of course. From the inside. And though there’s still a faint chance in this moment of escaping before the fire consumes us both, we know we won’t. Not at the cost of the books.

Ignoring the flames below, I sit back down. Rip a fresh page free. “Can you help me with this one?” I ask, squinting my eyes tight. It wouldn’t do to get the paper wet, after all. “It was one of my favorites. I’d hate to see it burn.”

“Of course.” Auntie deftly sets her own book aside.

And together, we fold.

Tōhoku

By Nathan Susnik

For Theda

At seventeen, Ayumi walks through the rubble of her old neighborhood. The mere ridiculousness of a ship in the middle of the street makes her want to laugh. But when she reaches her old house, she is solemn and says a prayer. Although she has not seen her parents’ bodies, she is not in denial. It has been months since the wave.

Why then has she not yet cried?

As she turns to leave, she sees a telephone booth in the middle of the field down the street. It stands alone among the rubble, so she goes to it. In the booth is a phone that’s not hooked up, but she picks up the receiver and dials her parents’ number. There are voices on the other end.  “Mom? Dad?” she says. “I miss you.”

And for the first time since the wave, Ayumi cries.

At university, Ayumi meets a man. He’s kind and understanding and tall, but not nearly as handsome as she had dreamed. Still, three out of four isn’t bad, she thinks. This could be it.

She asks Kaito if he would like to meet her parents. Together, they travel to her hometown. Many houses have been rebuilt, but the telephone booth still stands in the field. Ayumi picks up the receiver and dials. Her mother laughs and tells her that she would love to meet her boyfriend, but when Kaito takes the receiver, he frowns. “There’s no one there.”

They are married under a blue sky, surrounded by waving grass. The celebration is in a tent erected next to the phone booth. When the ceremony starts, Ayumi dials her parents’ number and leaves the phone off the hook.

When Mei is born, they buy a house in Ayumi’s hometown. She takes Mei to the field almost every day. Their giggles fill the telephone booth.

When Mei is fourteen, she refuses to go to the telephone booth. “But how will your grandparents ever get to know you?” says Ayumi.

“There’s no one there, Mom,” says Mei. “Stop being crazy.”

When Mei is seventeen years old, Ayumi sits in the telephone booth crying. She tells her parents that she is tired of fighting; she hasn’t spoken with her daughter in months. She has also taken her mother’s advice and seen the doctor about her stomach pain. She’s afraid to tell Kaito the test results.

Ayumi is in pain. She lies in bed, her body much too weak to get out. She sees Mei and Kaito. They tell her that it’s alright. There’s nothing to fear.

Today, Ayumi is better; today, she will go for a walk. The grass waves in the field, and the door to the telephone booth stands open. When she gets there, the telephone rings. She has never heard it ring before. It’s a pleasing little cling-a-ling. She smiles, picks up the receiver, and the voice on the other side is familiar.

“Mom,” it says. “I miss you.”

The post PodCastle 600: Flash Fiction Extravaganza — Flash Fiction Contest V appeared first on PodCastle.

Nov 12 2019

25mins

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PodCastle 599: The Two-Choice Foxtrot of Chapham County

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Previously published by The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, Sept/Oct 2017.

Rated PG-13.

Please check out the Kickstarter for a new anthology, Vital: The Future of Healthcare, featuring work by David Brin, Seanan McGuire, James Patrick Kelly, Annalee Newitz, Paolo Bacigalupi, Caroline M. Yoachim, Alex Shvartsman, Eric Schwitzgebel, Congyun (“Mu Ming”) Gu, and more!

The Two-Choice Foxtrot of Chapham County

By Tina Connolly

There were two things we girls all knew that summer.

One, that Tony Latham had turned into the finest drink of water ever to strut this two-bit one-horse no-account town.

And two, that Suzie Appleby was gonna have a stone-baby.

Suzie never was one for chasing the boys, that was the funny thing. She told me later she’d been sent to get a packet of tobacco for her da at the general store. And there was Tony, sorting out the threepenny nails from the fourpenny screws, and their eyes met over the hogshead fulla metal and that was that.

There’s only two choices if you’re gonna have a stone-baby, a course.

The first one, and best one, is you get the daddy to marry you, and if you’re quick enough, you can catch most of it in time. Sure, the baby’s born with a little flint toe, or a patcha marble back of her left elbow, but that ain’t too uncommon in this town. Mildred Percy’s got a whole swatch of granite on her skull, where the hair don’t grow. She combs it over and we pretend we don’t notice. Our fathers maybe give Mildred’s mother an extra wink in the grocery store, and we pretend we don’t notice that too.

You get good at pretending things here, and we got real good that summer.

Because, thing was, Tony Latham knew he’d turned into the finest drink of water, et cetera.

And he didn’t have no interest in tying himself down to poor Suzie Appleby.

The hot summer rolled on, the air heavy and wet. The boys worked in the fields and swam in the watering hole on their days off. We girls picked the gooseberries from the thorny bushes nearby, our arms scratched through our tight sleeves, and tried not to watch the boys dive into the cold, enticing depths.

We jammed the berries and put up the plums and we watched poor Suzie get hotter and heavier day by day, weighed down by her stone-baby. And finally her da came home from the haying, and he saw it too.

There are two things a parent can do when they find out their daughter’s rocked up.

One, you go hunt down the stone-daddy and you make him marry your daughter, and that right quick.

Suzie’s father chose the other way.

I guess I’d been nicer to Suzie than I oughta be, cause when he turned her out, she came to me. It was thundering, too, lightning fit to crack the skies, and Suzie all drenched, the cotton wrap she’d let out twice clinging to her rock-hard belly.

There are two choices for a girl in my situation.

One, ask her in, and have my da turn me out, too.

Two, turn Suzie away, and go back to embroidering pillowcases that say His and Hers in real fancy writing.

But I looked at Suzie’s eyes and I listened to that rain and somehow I went off-script.

I hollered to Ma, “Hog’s out again,” and off I went into the downpour with Suzie to find the witch.

The witch lived out past the watering hole. Her place was nothing special, just a one-room cabin going all mossy.

She scolded Suzie for being soaked, and then she looked at me like I oughta have stopped the rain somehow, got Suzie here dry. I didn’t have any experience of what my choices were to say to that. We’d run right off the map. The witch’s sharp eyes measured me, then she told me to go pick some peppermint by the third willow past the oak.

You try picking peppermint by the third willow past the oak in a thundering downpour. I was soaked in rain and mud by the time I got back, which I expect was what she wanted. She’d pulled the whole story out of a hiccuping Suzie, who by now was snuggled in a nice-looking wool blanket, the kind Mildred’s ma makes.

The witch shook her head and said stuff about how Suzie oughta have come before the stone-baby started, but it’s hard to imagine how a girl would be desperate enough to do that before it happened, you know? One visit to the witch’s house and you might as well be carrying a stone-baby. I shifted uneasily, knowing what choice I’d already made tonight.

The witch said to Suzie, “You got two choices.” She laid them out real quiet-like, but I guess we already knew them.

One, keep that stone-baby. Keep it all yourself and keep it forever. That’s the sorta choice that ain’t much choice at all, lessen you wanna be an outcast witch yourself, and I expect she knew it.

Two, you go to the watering hole. You take this particular mix of herbs. After a lotta pain and suffering, that stone-baby will slide outta ya, right down into the watering hole, and be just another rock in the mud.

Suzie paid the witch with her favorite dress of Liberty-print violets, and we went through the mud-slick rain back to the watering hole. The rage of the storm had passed but it was still trickling down, and the path was slimy beneath our feet.

We stood on the edge of the water. It was black as night.

Suzie said, “You think it would be bad? To keep it?”

“Awful lonesome,” I said.

“Would you come visit me?”

That ain’t the sort of choice I really had either, but once you get off-script you don’t exactly stop, and I said, “Yeah.”

I reached out my hand and her fingers gripped mine and I thought that maybe going off-script wasn’t all bad if I could lighten her burden.

She stared at the herbs in her other hand.

That’s when Tony appeared on the other side of the hole.

“Easy, easy,” he said to Suzie, like he was gentling a calf. “Don’t you go do nothing foolish. We can fix this.”

“You’re—you’re coming back to me?” Her eyes lit with hope.

“Guess so. Your da’s pretty insistent.” He rubbed his chin where a purple-blue bruise was spreading.

Guess her father decided it wasn’t too late to make the other choice after all.

The light dimmed in Suzie’s eyes. The moon lit the watering hole as her chin set, hard as granite. “I ain’t coming back to you,” she said. She pulled away from me, cast the witch’s herbs into the water. Gone.

I knew her future then. Living alone at the edge of the woods, with a quartz-edged girl by her side. And I would go back and forth to see her, each visit a crack, a chink in my wall. Each visit lifting her burden but weighing me down, for the weight of shame is a fixed price, leastways in a two-bit no-choice place like this. Ain’t no way to lighten it for everyone, and it suddenly made me mad I couldn’t.

Suzie turned to go, and her foot slipped in the mud. Heavy with the stone-baby, she slid down the lip, straight into the pool. I grabbed for her—got nothing.

Tony did dive for her, I give him credit for that. Or he didn’t want to carry that guilt, heavy as stones. But ten minutes passed and even if he had found her she wouldn’t have been there to be found.

I helped haul him up the mud, and he panted on the side of the rocks. Even through his guilt he looked at where my dress was plastered to me, and I saw then how stone-babies could spread. That Tony would wink at me in the store like our fathers did at Mildred’s ma, and everyone would look the other way and be certain I was no better than I oughta be.

I backed away from Tony. Crossed my arms and glared at him till he left.

I stayed there till dawn, long after Tony had gone. Mourning Suzie, and something else I didn’t have a name for.

But those who stick around see things, and so I saw it.

The stones like birds, rising from the water.

Little stone figures, no bigger than a hard round belly. And a massive mother-shaped one at the front, rising on invisible wings.

They rose slowly, gaining their bearings. They spread out into a V. And then they went south, a migration like none had ever seen.

There are two things you can do if you see something that’s never been seen before.

One, you go back to Ma and Da, your hem-stitched pillowcases and your uneasy dreams of stone geese. Stay silent when they say they dredged the watering hole and found nothing.

Or two, you rise one morning, your feet light as biscuits. Fill one of those pillowcases with everything you think you might need.

It’s a long walk to the south. But it’s worth it, if you find a city of women living there, hard

The post PodCastle 599: The Two-Choice Foxtrot of Chapham County appeared first on PodCastle.

Nov 05 2019

15mins

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PodCastle 598: The Sound of His Voice Like the Colour of Salt

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Previously published by The Dark.

Rated PG-13 for ghosts and the terrors that make them.

The Sound of His Voice Like the Colour of Salt

By L. Chan

The ghost boy was the colour of bone, of gossamer spider web, of salt trails of dried tears. He still had his shape, his outline. No one had said his name in thirty years, even though he’d scarred the house with it, carved onto a tree in the garden, scratched into the paint under the outdoor kitchen. Scars unseen, name unspoken. The house had stood for close to a century, waking to kiss the sea breeze decades before, still standing when the red dirt roads had hardened to dark tarmac and the state had stolen the sea from it.

The house called the dead unto itself, and so the boy persisted, him and the others, outnumbering the living. Walls skinned with the colour of the ocean meeting the sky, a driveway of parched and cracked stone, girded with the garishness of bougainvillea and the shyness of orchids. The newest owners had furnished the house with a television screen the same size as a car door, computers in every room, tiny bulbs the size of candles with the glare of lighthouses; ripped out the old worm-eaten flooring in favour of inky Burmese teak. Now, you can do that, strip a house down to the bone, flay the walls from it and pull tiles like teeth. But the marrow of the house remained, so the living never stayed and the dead never left.

On the thirtieth anniversary of his death, a new ghost came to the house.

The ghost boy first consulted with the lady of the house, as was custom. Bibik Neo was a colourful woman in life, and so she was in death. According to her wishes (and such was her power that no one countermanded them), she was interred in the peony pink of a finest nyonya kebaya, slick across waist and hips, flowers twining round the waist, climbing to the collar and back down long sleeves.

“Bibik,” said the ghost boy, head bowed.

The dowager approved his salutation with the slightest of nods, inviting him closer with a crooked finger weighed with a heavy band of jade. Her throne room was the kitchen, the heart of a home, and that was where the lady of the house spent her afterlife. She watched over the servant girls cooking in the black and white and sepia days, she watched over the domestic help in the high definition days.

“Rendang cannot come out of a bag, you see, boy? No pounding of the rempah, no slow heat of charcoal,” she sighed. The ghost boy, who had never cooked in his life, save the time his brain baked in his skull from the fever, said nothing, only looking at Bibik Neo for permission to continue. The lady of the house had a face that was immaculately powdered, ground talc filling up furrows like so much grout; eyebrows delicately tattooed; lips rouged blood red. Her tongue hung low, down to her collarbone, as it was rumoured in life, so it was in death.

Bibik Neo sucked at her teeth. “Speak boy, and then leave me be.”

“There is a new one in the house, I’ve seen her. A girl that tastes of static and smells like fresh plastic.”

“There is nothing new in this house, boy. No ghosts come and go without my say-so. This is my place.” She leaned over the bubbling pot, waving steam to her face to check the cooking. Force of habit; her hand did not disturb the steam and ghosts could not smell. Unsatisfied, Bibik Neo called forth the flames from the cooker, singing the hands of the helper, who knocked the entire scalding pot to the floor in her haste to evade the fire. The lady of the house smiled; a mirthless press of the lips.

Seeing that he was no longer welcome, the ghost boy took his leave, wondering it if were possible for a ghost to be haunted.

Perhaps age would reveal something to the ghost boy that power did not; so he sought out Ye Ye, the oldest ghost in the house; in appearance, if not in haunting years. Ye Ye loved the sitting room, a slow room for a slow unlife. He’d lost definition around the edges, reduced to a little more than a smudge. Ye Ye, of all the ghosts, was the most fortunate. Fortunate that his mind had passed before his body, that he did not remember the tears of his family, the slow ossification of their hearts against the terror of a mind becoming unstuck in memories. When his body eventually, stubbornly, gave up life by the fingernails, he reappeared amongst wailing kin who hid their smiles and sighs of relief at his passing from the stern funerary portrait at the foot of his coffin. It would have been hell if he had anything other than a mind like moth-ravaged curtain.

“Did you see the new girl, Ye Ye?” asked the ghost boy.

Ye Ye shook his head and gibbered, moving the rocking chair so hard that it raised clouds of sparkling dust. Undeterred, the ghost boy tried again.

“You never move, she must have passed by.”

The old man seemed to draw himself together, become more distinct, but lost the battle with himself. He held his bony knees to his chest and sank through the hardwood floor, down amongst the concrete pillars that held the home above the ground and snakes, deep to the foundations amongst the bones of those the builders mixed in mortar to bless the building.

All ghosts knew three things: that they were dead, that they were tragic and that they were alone. There were other ghosts, of course, but ghosts don’t count for company, ghosts don’t count for family.

The ghost boy roamed the rooms, his naked feet leaving cold patches on the hardwood. New owners couldn’t tell whether the chill was from the ghost boy or the air conditioners that belched frigid air. They couldn’t hear him pacing, couldn’t hear the creaks of wood above the violence of television, mouse and keyboard.

He saw the new girl again; if only for a heartbeat (although, truly neither seconds nor heartbeats mattered to him). She smiled at him in the subliminal frames between the change of channels on a screen, laughed through the crackle of static on the speakerphone. But never face to face.

Rusty fences marked the end of his world. Not the end of the world, just his. None of the ghosts could go beyond the gate or the fences that bound the house. They were creatures of place after all. But places were impermanent, the ghost boy knew this as sure as he remembered singing the colour of salt to the sea that retreated from his prison, the government replacing the ochre sands with harsh grey concrete, the sea birds with massive four legged beasts of steel, arranging the twenty-foot and forty-foot containers and piling them up like firewood.

The sisters patrolled the gardens in their starched and stiff secondary school uniforms. Death had stretched them out, like pastry rolled too thin. Their faces, sallow in life, were now eternally the off-yellow of over-steamed chicken with a smattering of teenage acne to scar them forever. A semi-trailer had borne down on them at sixty kilometres an hour, pulping a hundred bones between them and giving them the limp and sinuous motion of sea snakes. They were forever hiding, in the tall grass, behind the trees, behind your right shoulder; with their unhinged jaws and their fingers as long as their forearms, always taptaptapping like the impatient legs of spiders.

He found one of them back where the high tide line had been fifty years prior; now heavy eighteen wheelers fed the port with trailers only metres from the fence. Her fingers rattled the metal links. Tap tap tap. Death had come because they were too slow, too still; as a result they were always moving, wriggling and fidgeting.

“There’s another ghost in the house.”

“Too many to count,” whispered the second one from behind him. He turned, and there she was, sitting down, tap tap tap on the dry grass. Always one sister out of sight, in your blind spot, lurking at your ear. It was their way, clever girls. Lithe fingers the shape and length of overgrown okra tapped their way up his ghost leg, and if the boy could feel anything, he imagined they’d feel like slugs inching their way up his calf. They moved the same way.

“New ghost. Girl. About this tall?” He held up a hand to his eye, snapping it back before the sister could gnaw at it. Punishment was at the whim of the lady, and even the sisters submitted to her authority, but the house was far away, as the sisters liked it to be.

“Not in the garden,” said one.

“Not in the driveway,” said the other, starting to circle him.

“Not under the house,” said the first, from behind him.

“Not in the rafters,” said the second, tap tap tapping his shoulder.

“Ask the mirrors,” they said.

At that he ran, back to the blessed safety of the house, chased by the hoarse laughter of the sisters, and above that, something higher and cleaner, in the vibrations that only dogs could hear, the giggle of someone else.

The mirror ghost lived in the micron between glass and silver, in the aqueous humor of the eye, in the space of a blink. His place was the bathroom, the vanity and the ornate carved antique piece by the main door to reflect bad luck. His name, if said three times, or five, or seven, called him out, whereupon he would chase the unfortunate with his mosaic body of broken glass, his shattered bottle smile and his shards fingers. But like all the other inhabitants of the house by the sea, his name had been forgotten.

The ghost boy rapped on the mirror and considered the view of the bathroom, as he had no reflection of his own, having forgotten the look of his own face. The mirror cracked and the other ghost stepped through. More of a child’s story, the mirror ghost was, always preening spending his life looking into mirrors, he now spent his time looking out of them. He was a good listener though; or appeared to be, always taking after the body language of the speaker by force of habit. A sigh like the tinkle of fractured glassware escape the mirror ghost’s lips.

“Ah boy, always so curious, macam monyet.” Like a monkey. The mirror ghost had a deep baritone that rattled glassware and pipes alike.

“The sisters said I should ask you,” said the boy.

“Oh ho! Knowledge is a strange thing, only dangerous in small amounts. There is no new ghost in the house, ah boy.”

The ghost boy turned to leave, for there was no ghost in the house that saw more than the mirror ghost, because the spaces behind mirrors were all but one space, and the mirror ghost inhabited them all simultaneously.

“But she’s not really in the house is she?” asked the mirror ghost.

In the walls, flashes of light in glass cables winked at the ghost boy.

The ghost boy glared at the solid black rectangle of a computer screen; back in his day televisions had been larger than fishtanks with lushly curvaceous screens. “I know you’re in there,” he said. Ghosts found it no less ridiculous to talk to themselves in an empty room and the ghost boy could not even blush to show his embarrassment.

The new girl was a palimpsest of a ghost; an afterimage of smiles, grimaces, frowns, tears; blinking one into another, a channel surfing kind of spirit. When she laid a flicker of a hand on him, it was the first thing he’d felt in decades. Warm.

“You’re a ghost,” she said, and her voice was the hum of static, the wail of a dial up connection.

“So are you,” said the ghost boy.

“I suppose I am.”

“Where’s your haunt? Why don’t you have a place?”

The new ghost stepped back through the computer screen, her voice continuing through the speakers. “I suppose there’s a bit of me still here in this refurbished hard drive; a cache. I’m also a server farm somewhere in California, but it’s boring and loud there. I’m in a phone on a bulk export to Indonesia to be sold secondhand and everywhere in between.”

The ghost boy had never heard of a server farm and he wondered what they grew there that was so loud. Pigs maybe. One thing ghosts don’t do well is learn anything new. The silence between them grew wider than the years between their deaths, and the ghost boy felt alone, tragic and dead again.

“It’s Amber, thanks for asking,” she said.

“What is?”

“My name, silly. What’s yours?”

To this the ghost boy had no answer, it was a wound afresh whenever he discovered his lack of a name, or that none of the other ghosts had names. The sisters, the mirror ghost. Even Yeye wasn’t a name at all.

“I don’t have one.”

“Everybody has a name.”

“Ghosts in this house don’t.”

“Why’re you stuck here?” the new girl asked from the screen, twirling her neon hair with an immaterial finger. Not just with the standard translucency of a spirit, the new girl moved fluidly through looks as quickly as she changed expressions. The ghost boy was reminded of a kaleidoscope he once had, all moving, shifting colours. So it was with the girl.

“I’m anchored here,” said the boy. “It’s where I died.”

The flickering girl bit her lip for a moment, cycling through a scowl and a grin before she looked back up. “My profiles are my bones; my comment history, my flesh. Both entombed forever in silicon. My place is the internet, and there’s more ghosts there than anywhere else in the world.”

The words made little sense to the ghost boy, who listened only for the pleasure of hearing Amber speak. “What’s an internet?” he managed. Amber didn’t answer, only pushing a hand out of the screen, palm open in welcome.

The ghost boy and his new friend found Bibik Neo supervising the destruction of the mirrors; standing, arms folded, behind one of the helpers in the house while the latter punched at the glass with bare knuckles already lacerated to flapping meat. The dusky skinned lady had tears streaming down her face, hapless under Bibik Neo’s will.

“Bibik,” said the boy, head bowed, but eyes looking towards the lady of the house.

“There you are, and you have a friend,” said Bibik Neo, and her voice was dark thunder, so much so that even the fluorescent lights pulsated in fear.

“This is Amber, Bibik. I’m leaving the house.” Amber gave a wave that died halfway, the greeting stillborn in her awkwardness.

“You’ve saved me the trouble then, I was going to deal with you two after I’d seen to the mirror ghost. Silly children and your silly games. Nothing changes in this house.”

“My farewell is a courtesy, Bibik Neo. I don’t need your permission,” the ghost boy said, words a little braver than he felt. But he had tasted freedom from the house; and freedom is most addictive in small, stolen doses.

Bibik Neo drew herself up, looming far larger than the five feet she had been in life. “You’re part of the house, boy. You died here, in my place, you gave me your name.” The outburst drew Ye Ye from the floor. A muffled tapping told the ghost boy that the sisters were near. Them and other ghosts besides, murmuring at the spectacle.

The lady of the house plucked at the cloth buttons on her kebaya, peeling off the silk that covered her, as tight as skin. When she lifted it away from her torso, the smooth material uncovered bleached ribs, the light from behind her visible through the back of her blouse. Bibik Neo was hollow. At this, the assorted ghosts fell silent, and only the forgotten helper was left to sob over the ruins of her fingers. The ghost boy became aware of a light scratching, as if of many chitinous legs across hard ground. Bibik Neo’s bones weren’t bare, they were covered with dense writing, the words themselves moving endlessly over the ivory surfaces like so many insects.

“I have your name, boy,” said the matriarch. “I have all your names.” This to the assembled ghosts. “A man only dies when his name is said for the last time. None of you die without my permission.”

The ghost boy knew then that Bibik Neo, the terror of the house in life and in death, whose only power was in the veneration and fear of others, was perhaps the loneliest ghost of all, and he felt something a little like pity for her. Beside him, his new friend, an internet ghost, an echo of a person in a shifting landscape that had no borders. But he knew that the fight was his and his alone. And one more secret to Bibik Neo’s power besides. He took Amber’s hand, turned and walked.

Immediately he felt the pull of the house, Bibik Neo working her magic on him through his name. A terrible gravity it was, the attraction of tragedy to tragedy, of the hurt to the hurtful; forever in the prisons of their own devising. The ghost boy had ruminated long and hard on the nature of his haunting; his body long turned to ash, his grave unswept. Yet misery of a life ended too soon paled next to an eternity wasted. At the end, when family had passed on, when names were lost and tragedies worn down finer than dust, all ghosts haunted were themselves.

“My name was given to me, it only has as much power over me as I give. You have only as much power over me as I give.” He felt the bonds of the lady of the house give, stretching like dough, tearing. Or perhaps it was him that was now free, a bubble of sea foam, no longer prisoner to the depths, about to join the breeze.

Bibik Neo gave out a cry and the ghost boy heard the rush as she chased him, fearing that he would soon feel her hard little hands around his wrist, or his neck. Running away would give the victory to the lady, and the ghost boy was determined to leave on his terms. The clutch never came and when he craned his neck for one last look at the old house, he saw Bibik Neo fighting off a hand made of broken glass, holding onto her bony ankle. The other ghosts, sensing weakness, were beginning to stir.

The ghost boy didn’t wait to see the end, he still didn’t have his name and he doubted that he would ever get it back. Amber had gone ahead, already through the screen to a space between spaces. And so he followed to a place where a ghost didn’t need a name, or could swap names easier than changing clothes; leaving behind nothing save his cold footprints and the fading echo of a voice the colour of salt.

The post PodCastle 598: The Sound of His Voice Like the Colour of Salt appeared first on PodCastle.

Oct 29 2019

23mins

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PodCastle 597: The Satyr of Brandenburg — Part 2

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Originally published in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, March-April 2018.

Rated PG-13.

The Satyr of Brandenburg

By Charlotte Ashley

[Note: This is Part 2 of a two-part novelette. Please visit last week’s post to read Part 1.]

Donshead Doombellows accompanied La Héron to confront Piacere, for she knew better than to go alone. “Witnesses,” she told the ogre. “We can remember each other. That will help.”

The satyr was in the villa’s common room entertaining a party of young nobles from the castle, fiddle at his chin and wine at hand. There was an air of camaraderie in the room, the warm togetherness of a family feast, cloying and intimate. One by one, guests drifted into the satyr’s orbit, their expressions and demeanors softening as Piacere’s presence enchanted them. The smell of roast boar and uncorked wine embraced them, delicious on undertones of crackling cedar logs.

“This really is a fine tavern, though,” Doombellows murmured, moving to sit at a table by the fire. La Héron pulled the chair away from him before he could settle into it.

“Focus,” she snapped, slamming the chair down. “Watch me, not him, or you’ll be applauding as he peels the skin from my bones.”

The ogre shook his head and affected an intimidating grimace. “Brokemasts and bracken,” he swore. “He’s good.”

La Héron grunted in acknowledgement and pushed her way past the satyr’s admirers to his table. The satyr returned her scowl with a merry smile.

“La Héron!” he cried. “My old friend! Sit! You will drink at my generosity tonight, in celebration of your great victory!” Drunken revelers raised their cups to her, roaring congratulations as the rosy-cheeked tavernkeeper arrived with an armload of bottles for the table. La Héron crossed her arms.

“You cannot even pretend, can you, Piacere? The match ended not an hour ago—I am the first to arrive. How could you know I won, if you had not intended Angeli to lose?”

“Why, I know because you are here and he is not! My great friend Don Angeli, he would have come straight to my table to drink by my side if he could.” The satyr’s smile turned into a sneer. “He is, I must conclude, with the barber. I hope you did not hurt him too badly.”

“I? Let us speak plainly, Piacere; your companions are too befuddled to need lies. You know bloody well what is become of Angeli, and you’d better produce him alive and unharmed or I will have your reputation made clear to the marquess and every noble in Sardinia.”

“My dear Héron, are you saying Angeli was not alive and unharmed when you left him?” Piacere affected a shocked look. “How is that possible? How could you, such a decorated duelist, who is always so careful, who is so celebrated for her control and sangfroid, have left him otherwise?” The satyr leaned back in his chair, tipping it onto its rear legs. He plucked the first notes of a dance on his fiddle, narrowing his eyes at her. “Unless you had dispatched him deliberately.”

“Do not threaten me,” La Héron growled, laying her hand on her hilt, “unless you intend to answer for it. You forget that I know you, satyr. You have not the courage to face anyone in honorable combat. I can speak to your record. My name carries my word.”

“Truly?” Piacere’s eyes grew black as he leaned forward. “You, who has just killed a man in front of an audience of the best blood in Sardinia? And not for the first time, hm? Perhaps they would like to hear about Muscovy, in the year of Gavriil Ivanovich?” La Héron’s fist tightened around her sword. “Yes, Héron, you are not the only one with a long memory. Leave off your threats. They are unbecoming.” His expression lightened again and with it, the room’s lamps appeared to burn brighter. “Drink with me. We could be friends again, you and I who have so much in common.”

La Héron took an inadvertent step forward, then pushed herself back. “I’ll drink with you in hell, satyr,” she growled. “We were never friends.”

“Very well, I applaud your strength of will. You have changed since Muscovy. But don’t tattle tonight, ma chère. I have been invited to dine with the marquess himself. It would be a shame to ruin the joy of that table, don’t you think? I understand there will be a particular young lady there, a Mademoiselle Louise-Alexandrine de Saint-Georges. She seems like a very charming companion!”

“Elfballs,” Doombellows swore under his breath. La Héron forced herself away from the table, one stiff step at a time, grinding her teeth.

“You will have to face me sooner or later, Piacere,” she said after clearing her throat. “On the field or elsewhere. I do not have to tell you what will become of you if Mademoiselle de Saint-Georges is not there to watch me trounce you, sound of mind and body.”

“You hear how she threatens me, friends?” the satyr complained, and the faces at the table grew stormy, turning thunderbolt eyes on her. Piacere shrugged. “But you should have seen her back in the day, when we were still close. You have never beheld so wicked, so cruel, and so reckless a duelist. But such fun we had together! Remember the brawl at the Tzar’s Mews? Remember the nymphs at Bakhchysaray? The sweet nectar of sap, the trickle of glossy blood, their whimpers—”

“You know I cannot remember,” La Héron said, voice low. “That was not me. That creature even you are not foolish enough to summon again.”

“No,” the satyr said, voice low to match hers. “I know better than to try that again. But I have other ways of taming you, my dear.”

White with anger, La Héron turned, wordless, from the table, shoving aside her shaken and confused companion. She threw open the door of the tavern with such force that she very nearly brained the person about to enter.

“Héron!” Alex exclaimed, stepping lithely out of her path. “There you are! I’ve come to tell you—”

La Héron did not slow her stride, but took her companion by the collar and moved her bodily into the shadows by the hay station.

“Alex,” she hissed. “You must not dine with the marquess tonight.”

“What? Ow, Héron, leave off. What has gotten into you? You berate me and beg me to fraternize with my peers and then threaten me when I do? Are you drunk?”

“No—no. My apologies.” La Héron let go of Alex’s collar, uncharacteristic confusion playing across her face. “But our situation has changed. You cannot dine with the marquess. The satyr will be there. You will stay with me.”

Alex’s shoulders drooped with disappointment.

“But—Héron, I have been invited as the guest of the marquess’s son, Sebastien. You must realize what that means? One satyr at a table, surrounded by guests, attendants, and servers-at-arms! He could not possibly harm us. And this opportunity—”

“He can, and will. Alex, he knows. He knows you and I travel together—and he will take you to hurt me. None of them will raise a finger to stop him. You have no notion of the danger in his power, Alex. You would not be yourself.”

Alex frowned and crossed her arms over her chest. “Héron, do you not know me at all? I am always me. For better or worse—usually worse, honestly—I cannot be anything else.”

“I thought that, too, once.” La Héron’s eyes flashed gold, pupils receding. In the shadows, her cape could have been mistaken for great, folded wings. “And for people like us, people without pretense or guile, people who are so much themselves that there is no room for anything else—we fare the worst by him, for when he takes away our selves, there is nothing left but emptiness.”

“You make no sense, Héron, and you are not trying very hard to explain yourself. I admit, the satyr has a certain unnatural charm about him. But I am not incompetent. I am perfectly capable of skewering a foe when I see one!”

“Of course, Alex, but this is not a matter of skewering. If you relax your vigilance even for a moment with that creature—”

“Then I will not relax.” Alex’s eyes flashed angrily in the moonlight. “Do you think that just because you bought me a dress that I will sit like a faun at the feet of Vico Zonza instead of standing by my first friend and teacher? Do you think I will fall, giggling, into the arms of that silly boy and forget all my debts, all my oaths, and my honor? Do you think me inconstant? Lords of the Depths, you are worse than Sebastien!” She squared her shoulders again.

“Alex, stop. You must listen to me—”

“I’ve been listening, Héron, but you have said very little! Just orders and rants and some very rough handling. Something has gotten into you and it is unpleasant. So no, I won’t be staying here. I have been invited to dine with the Marquess of Soleminis as the particular friend of his son and heir, and I don’t give one bloody tick who else will be there. Sebastien will take my hand in public and we are going to have a lovely time and with any luck, I won’t ever have to return here, to you, again!” The younger woman stepped back into the golden light cast from the window. She fixed La Héron with a glare at once angry and pleading.

“By the blood of Christ, Alex, I swear I am sorry for my outburst. But you mustn’t go. You mustn’t.” La Héron reached out and put her hand on her friend’s shoulder, but Alex shrugged it off.

“Your reasons are very poorly articulated indeed,” Alex muttered. “As you say, I am not your charge and you are not my matron. If you want our bond broken, then you are going about it exactly the right way.” With a last frustrated snort, she circled the hay bales and mounted a chestnut mare barely tied to the bars. Within seconds, she spurred the beast to a gallop and was on the road full-pace toward the castle.

“Shit!” La Héron cried, after a moment’s stunned silence. She jerked open the tavern door again only to find the common room vacated of all guests. “Where . . . ?”

“That jolly fellow thought you and your lady might like some privacy,” the tavernkeeper said quietly from the kitchen door. His moustache drooped in disapproval. “They’ve all left now.”

La Héron marched up the stairs to her room without another word.

With Don Angeli gone, there were only three planned duels left in the Exhibition before All Saints’. La Héron was due to fight Donshead Doombellows on the 26th; Doombellows would face Piacere the night after; and eventually La Héron would get her crack at the satyr.

“Only I don’t believe for a minute he will face me in the arena, nor you,” La Héron whispered to Doombellows as she readied for their match after two spent in her room, brooding upon Alex’s dinner at Vico Zonza. “Watch yourself, my lad. It wouldn’t take him a quarter of an hour to draw everything Doombellows out of you, leaving just your artifice. You’ve held up to him well so far, and you’ve brought no friends to weaken you, but that is no reason to grow complacent.”

Doombellows continued lacing up his bracers as she chattered.

“We must stick together, you and I,” she continued. “He clearly intends for one of us to destroy the other. If we stay alert, stay ready, he will be forced to face or flee. His hold on the others must break, then—”

The lights in the Chamber flared up and she was interrupted by an outburst of laughter and applause from the gallery. Their stage had been revealed.

The Chamber of Demonstrations had changed once again. The entirety of the marquess’s conservatory appeared to have been emptied out into the Chamber, crowding most of the floor with a steaming jungle of mixed greenery. Mughal palm trees stood draped with masses of English ivy, while rows upon rows of lush ferns, cacti, and flytraps were set out at intervals designed to surprise even the most careful explorer. In the middle of this imaginary forest was a clearing set with a large iron cauldron.

“Put out the fire,” La Héron insisted. A terrified servant did as she bid. She turned to Doombellows. “Well, let us get this over with.”

The costume La Héron was meant to wear for her duel against Donshead Doombellows was a great deal less elegant than the previous one. The marquess’s Director of Stage had evidently decided to leave off the pretense that La Héron was any part respectable lady and had committed entirely to the myth of her giant-size heritage. She was allowed to wear her own tunic and breeches, so long as they were filthy, but the costumers provided for her a necklace of bones, a crown of crude arrowheads, and an enormous leopard pelt meant to be worn about her shoulders.

Donshead Doombellows wore exactly what he had been wearing for the last three days.

This time, La Héron made certain that her rapier was capped and safetied, though Doombellows could return her no such courtesy. Although he had a captain’s smallsword at his belt, the weapon he intended to fight with was a solid stone club bracketed with iron spikes, each half a foot long. These had been blunted, but a swing of this boulder could flatten anyone, blunt or not. La Héron saluted him as he joined her in the clearing, then the audience.

The marquess stood. “My friends, my guests. We have seen wonders these last days, but none yet as strange, as savage as the battle you are about to witness! Watch, but do not approach, our next challengers as they clash in the depths of darkest Brunei!” From somewhere deep in the servants’ gutter came the march of a great drum.

La Héron started to say something sarcastic to her comrade-at-arms, but Doombellows left her no chance. He snapped his club through the air between them, then launched at her a vicious backhand that might have sent her sailing over the trees, had she not leaped backward with only inches to spare. She regained her footing instantly, her dismissive jollity forgotten. Nothing on Doombellows’ face suggested this match was anything but deadly serious.

Despite his weapon’s great weight, Donshead Doombellows wielded it with the speed of a foil. He swung it to and fro, lunging into each stroke to lend it yet more deadly force, pausing only to change direction when his quarry was forced to roll under a blow here, or leap over a shrub there. La Héron fled, watching Doombellows with calculating yellow eyes, but not daring to remain close enough to launch a counteroffensive.

La Héron took her attacks where she could. A quick lunge out of a copse here, a slice at his elbow there. Still, she made little progress in this fashion and it seemed that soon the ogre would fell the entire forest and be free to pulp her.

She skipped sideways into the bush, shielding herself with a stout shrub that Donshead merely tore from its pot. She chanced a quick jab at his meaty forearm, but his leather bracers were too thick for her blunted tip. She backed deeper into the staged woods, slipping between the dense foliage where the ogre could not fit. He bashed it away using his club like a scythe.

“Not you, too, man! Wake up! Come back!” La Héron barked between breaths. “Come, Donshead, shove Piacere away. You are going to kill me if you keep up like this!” She stumbled over a fallen palm, rolled to a stand, and shook off her skewed crown. “At least put down that damn club and take up your sword so we can have a fair fight!”

The ogre did not reply. He lurched into a particularly mighty overhand smash that La Héron avoided by swinging around a load-bearing trellis and kicking the ogre behind the knees. He buckled slightly, turned, and brought the club overhead in an arc. The crowd hooted and jeered, the more brutish of them calling for her blood.

La Héron spared a glance at the gallery as the ogre lumbered toward her. The marquess smiled placidly at her, swirling a finger in the air as if to indicate that she should continue. At his side, Alex was as white as tallow with one hand to her lips.

La Héron looked back at her opponent, who would be within range to attack in seconds.

“Donshead Doombellows!” she cried. “I forfeit! The match is yours!”

But the ogre did not slow. He raised his club and hurtled into a renewed attack. La Héron dashed to the side just in time.

“Did you not hear me?” she panted, looking up at the marquess. “I forfeit! Lay off, Doombellows!”

The marquess glanced expectantly at the ogre and, seeing no capitulation from him, shrugged.

“Lay on,” he called. “Come, My Lady, neither of you has even drawn blood!”

“My Lord,” Alex said, clearing her throat. “I am not sure MonsieurDoombellows is quite in his right mind. La Héron has forfeit. Should you not—”

“Mademoiselle Alexandrine, your compassion is charming. But he is a wild creature, hm? If the savagery of this battle dampens your spirits, perhaps my son could take you back to the music hall for some air—”

Doombellows launched yet another deadly succession of attacks with his great weapon. La Héron was forced to flee again into what was left of the jungle, tearing off her leopard cape as she ran. When the ogre bent double into the last of his blows, she threw it in his face, stepped on the end of his club, and lunged full-weight into his throat. Her blade sank into the rolls of flesh, but no blood followed. He lifted his weapon once more and La Héron was thrown to the ground.

“You see?” the marquess said. “The giantess has life in her yet. What fun!”

La Héron recovered her feet and tore through the brush, emerging on the far side by the gutters. Doombellows had shaken loose the cape and was turning quick circles, seeking his opponent.

La Héron faced him like a torero, waiting with an unshakable calm.

She produced a tiny knife from the folds of her breeches and tossed it to her off-hand, twirling it with surgical precision. Anticipating Doombellows’ swing by inches, La Héron stepped to one side and slashed his belt in two, causing his sword to dangle. She scooped the weapon from its sheath, pivoted, and placed her boot on the ogre’s enormous backside, giving him a mighty shove. The ogre stumbled, stepped on his lose belt, and fell straight forward, hitting the ground with a thud that shook the gilded rafters and set the chandeliers ringing.

La Héron wasted no time leaping atop the ogre’s back and swinging hard with his big blade. She hit his wrist with a hard thunk, severing his hand entirely. It rolled away, a knotted block of wood.

“So this is what is left, is it?” La Héron muttered, looking at the wooden limb with resignation. With a twist and a lunge, she took the sword in both hands and drove it deep between the ogre’s shoulder blades. He stopped then, arched, and fumbled at his back. From the audience, gasps and jeers arose from all sides.

“Villainy!”

“Cheat!”

“. . . in the back, why, how could even she?”

La Héron ignored them. With one boot planted firmly on his neck, she wrenched the sword from his trunk-like torso, then plunged it in again, this time into the base of his spine. The ogre’s arms dropped and he fell still. Though no blood emerged from either wound, his only movement was a rising and falling of his back; his only sound a hollow clicking from deep within his chest.

Leaving the sword where it was, La Héron jumped off the thing that was left of Donshead Doombellows, and bowed to the marquess and the dumbstruck audience.

This time, nobody applauded.

The guests of Vico Zonza turned to gossip and conspiracy. Had not the Inquisition been at least a little bit right about these Otherworldly persons? They were, at best, soulless; at worst, they were bloodthirsty savages. What further horrors could the finale bring?

They could not wait to find out.

La Héron, savage and murderess, would face the charming Satyr of Brandenburg on the eve of All Saints’. The Chamber of Demonstration had become a ballroom of black and white marble, black velvet hangings on a bright white backdrop, Comedia masks of saints and devils adorning the false walls. The saint resembled the smiling face of Piacere; the devil wore La Héron’s habitual scowl.

“His Lordship has taken sides,” La Héron muttered to herself, surveying the room. Eager as she was to finally match swords with the satyr, she knew he would not simply fight her. The true threat could come from anywhere, could be anyone.

The gallery was packed to the walls with glassy-eyed fops and flush-cheeked ingénues chattering excitedly, the gutters with equally feverish servants tracking her with unusual engagement. In the box of honor, Alex sat at the elbow of her young beau, while the marquess engaged in close conversation with Piacere. Seeing this, La Héron marched into the ballroom.

“Piacere!” she called. “Won’t you join me down below? I believe we have an appointment.”

The satyr turned his grin on her and leaned lazily on the rail. “I could never forget an engagement with you, my dear,” he drawled. “Do you have a speech prepared for your concession, or should I just send someone down to collect your sword?”

La Héron spat. “Spare me your theatrics. Just get down here. I don’t believe it will take more than a minute of your time.”

A petulant scowl marred Piacere’s face as he stood straight. “I don’t understand why you must ruin my fun, La Héron. What are the others to you? You could have given up at any time. This all could have ended, bloodlessly and joyfully, if only you had played along.”

“I won’t promise not to spill your blood, it is true. I owe you too much, Piacere, for Angeli and Doombellows—and Muscovy. You would have been better advised to stay as far from me as you could for the rest of eternity.”

“I cannot believe you are still angry about Muscovy, Héron! How was I to know you would make such a terrible companion? I had never met one of your kind before. I have danced with empresses and dined with goddesses, caroused with pixies and slept with y­ōkai. But I had never before met someone who was nothing but what they are.” He grinned. “I think you are very special. Doesn’t that flatter you?”

“You are too old to be this stupid, Piacere. It is precisely because there are others like me that I must kill you now.” She paused and watched the marquess for his reaction, but no one in the galleria made a sound. To a body, they sat still and obedient, like dolls set out at a dinner party. Her gaze roamed over the marquess’s handsome son and landed on Alex, as still as the rest of them.

Piacere followed her gaze over his shoulder. “Ah, this one. I see why you like her, La Héron, she’s quite jolly. We have spent a great deal of time together these last nights. I count her now among my very best friends.” He gestured, and Alex rose at his side. “I don’t expect she will allow you to simply kill me.”

“Come down here and we shall see,” La Héron growled, drawing her sword. “If you think I cannot kill you and rescue a simple human girl in the same breath, then you have learned nothing of me at all.”

Alex descended the stairs first, a vanguard for the bored-looking satyr who plucked idly at his fiddle. Though she was impeccably turned out in a yellow gown with white ribbon, she had apparently been armed with her own rapier as well.

“You say you don’t remember Muscovy, La Héron, but I never forgot it,” Piacere continued as the tall woman backed into the ballroom, giving them space to safely exchange blows. “You loved my music. You succumbed to my company as readily as anyone. But once you had given yourself over to me, there was nothing left. No shell, no face. No façade. What was that thing, then, that sat at my table? What drank my spirits, ate my food, fought my duels? It was a bloodthirsty thing, reckless and relentless. That creature was no friend of mine or anyone’s.” Piacere closed his eyes at the memory. “That was too much, even for me.”

La Héron said nothing, but turned to align Alex and Piacere with her blade.

“You think you fought your way back to the space that thing had taken, but in truth, I let you go. I did not want it near me for one more day. It was amusing at first but—” He shrugged. “Is that what lives in the space between everything, do you think? Or is it only your kind who have such unholy shadows?”

“You should have given up your trickery and never had to find out. The next time you try to steal away someone like me, you might meet a very unpleasant fate.”

“Give me some credit, Héron. I have learned to pick better companions. After all, how many of you could there possibly be? I have not met another these four hundred years.” He lifted his soft hand and pointed at her. “Mademoiselle de Saint-Georges, I leave you to your work.” He turned his back on them.

Meeting La Héron’s eye, Alex smirked.

With a backstep and a twist, Alex caught Piacere by the ponytail, pulling him toward her. The satyr stumbled with the ambush.

“What? Impossible!” The satyr coughed as Alex reeled him in by the hair and brought her saber’s edge to his throat. “How aren’t you listening to me?”

“I don’t listen to anybody, you goat-turd,” she growled, eyes sparkling. She looped his long hair through his belt and hauled him around by the waist to face his nemesis. For the first time in days, La Héron enjoyed a genuine smile. “Do you really want to kill him, Héron?” she asked.

“Yes,” La Héron replied. “But, like all things that feel very good, that is probably not wise.” She sheathed her sword and snatched Piacere’s fiddle from his hands, smashing it on the ballroom floor. His lower lip curled in grief. “Let us take him far from here so that these people might be released from his spell. We can decide his fate on the way.”

They had descended barely halfway down the tunnel toward the servants’ exit when they heard the astonished cries of the crowd behind them. They made greater haste.

“Saint-Germaine? Are you mad?”

“There is a prison there for the likes of this fellow. I should never have taken my eye off of him. I will not repeat that mistake.”

“But Saint-Germaine, Héron! Could we not take him to the Hague?” Alex rode slowly behind her friend with a rope gathered in her hand. At the other end, Piacere, gagged and filthy, stumbled to keep up on foot. “It’s just that—is it wise for me to enter Saint-Germaine?”

“The world is stirring, Alex. I think the time has come to apply ourselves differently. A great man is currently in hiding in your father’s lands, and I think we should avail ourselves to him. Taste the wind, Birdsong. A rich master might be just what we need right now, and your blood will recommend us to him.”

“I don’t understand. Why now?”

“Because you withstood Piacere. I misjudged you, even after all this time, and I am sorry for that. I thought it was only a fairy curse that kept you by my side—” She slowed her horse to allow Alex and the satyr to catch up. “But now I see that you are something more. You are like me.”

“I could have told you that,” Alex grumbled. “I ought to be angry with you still. How could you think I’d let Piacere muddle me?”

“Perhaps,” La Héron said with a sigh, “I did not think at all. I let my fears rule me. It has been so long since I had any, I had forgotten what they feel like.”

“Does that make me your weakness, then?” Alex’s eyes sparkled with amusement at this.

“I can see your heart is well and truly broken by the loss of Sebastien whatever-his-name-was, Alex, for it has addled your brain. I have lived a good, long time alone and I could manage it again.”

Alex snorted skeptically and La Héron patted her hand.

“But I do not want to. I am . . . glad for your company.”

“And I, yours,” Alex returned fondly. “So, to Saint-Germain. Very well. Perhaps our fate lies there.”

“Who knows?” La Héron sighed. “Who ever knows? We’re both ruled by unknowable winds. Let us just see where this road takes us.”

The post PodCastle 597: The Satyr of Brandenburg — Part 2 appeared first on PodCastle.

Oct 22 2019

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PodCastle 596: The Satyr of Brandenburg — Part 1

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Originally published in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, March-April 2018.

Rated PG-13.

The Satyr of Brandenburg

By Charlotte Ashley

By the inebriated light of dawn, October the 23rd, 1700, a swarthy figure skulked in the rosebushes lining the Villa del Sulcis, outside the Sardinian town of Soleminis. The lurker clambered onto the tavern’s windowsill muttering badly hushed curses, then clumsily mounted the trellises. After a noisy minute of climbing, the figure leaped for the nearest second-story balcony, catching it by the fingertips.

Only the most carefree of slumbering inhabitants could have ignored such a racket. Draperies parted, hinting at drawn pistols and blades at the ready as several sets of wary eyes sought the cause of the disturbance. After a short investigation, a tall woman with hair the color of moldy straw threw aside her thick curtain and leaned out over the railing of her window.

“Alex?” she demanded, holstering a pistol. “What in the hells are you doing?”

“Shit,” the climber grunted, getting hold of the balcony’s iron bars and struggling to lift her foot over her head. “Héron, help me up. I think I’ve got a thorn in my thumb.”

The tall woman stood straight, crossing her arms over her chest. “You’re drunk.”

“So?” Alex snorted. “Come on, woman, your hand.”

“What would you do if I were not here to drag you up? What if the window were locked? What if one of the others mistook you for a villain?”

“Have mercy, Héron, will you give me one of your lessons now? I haven’t slept all night. Give me your hand, a cup of wine, and a bed. Then let us resume my training.” Alex’s foot dropped and she dangled from the iron bars expectantly. Her mistress shook her head and vanished into the room. “La Héron? Héron! All right, I see now, this was not a well-thought-out affair. I apologize! Héron? Héron!”

For a futile minute, Alex struggled angrily, swinging her legs from side to side in an effort to gain purchase on something. When La Héron reappeared on the balcony, she had slung about her a length of linen that looked quite a lot like Alex’s bedsheets. Alex took hold of the makeshift rope and allowed herself to be hauled up.

“Why, for goodness’ sake, did you not just wake the landlord and come through the door?” La Héron asked, taking Alex under the arms and pulling her into the room. “You are on the guest roll. You have every right.”

“You told me I should not be seen with you,” Alex mumbled, lurching over to her pallet and collapsing. “And I suppose it is hard to shake my old habit.” She grinned at her own joke, an allusion to a more cloistered youth.

“You’re not a nun anymore and I am not your circuitor.” La Héron frowned. “You are the daughter of a count and a good woman. You have your own room!”

“My room is cold.” Alex rolled over and shut her eyes. “As for the other thing, I cannot recall the Comte de Saint-Georges, and I certainly cannot recall any noble impression he ever made on me. You won me from Herlechin fair and square. Stop trying to foist me off.”

La Héron shook her head. “I’m due at the castle after lunchtime. The marquess has sent an entourage with instructions and . . . costumes. I have to get dressed.” Alex groaned and started to lift herself from bed, but La Héron waved her away. “No, you get some sleep. You should be at your best when you are presented to the court.”

“I told you, I do not care about the court, the marquess, or my birth. I won’t play the part of a poised lady that I am not.” Alex gestured at her worn riding clothes, her notched belt, her rapier. “I want to stay with you. I want to be your squire. You know I’m nearly as good a duelist as you. I could dazzle them with my swordplay instead of my dancing.”

“No, you won’t,” La Héron snapped. “This tournament is for grotesques only. You are going to act like a lady and you’re going to impress them. I have arranged for you to be introduced according to your title and you are going to use that opportunity to find a place for yourself in human society. I am not your people, Alex. They are. You’re a fool if you can’t see what they offer you.”

“Ugh, stop. You make my head hurt worse than ever. I will go, but only because I want to sleep in.” Alex drew the thin blanket over her boots and turned toward the wall. “Wake me if you need my help.”

La Héron opened the trunk at the foot of her bed and removed an elaborate gown of blue silk hung excessively with ribbons, rosettes, and a stomacher of gold embroidery. She gave it a grim stare. “I have relied too long on your help, I think. It is past time to break the hold I have over you.” She braced herself for a denial from Alex, but the girl was already asleep.

Castillo de Vico Zonza, the newly fashioned seat of the Marquess of Soleminis, was hidden deep in the pines of the Campidano forest not five miles from the village. It was difficult to find by design and difficult to reach by necessity, but in the months since Charles II’s Junta Magna had begun leaning on the Spanish Inquisition, the castle had become a choice destination for the bored and repressed nobility of Sardinia.

A new construction, the palace had been appointed wielding the full wealth of Spain and the latest mechanical arts out of Naples and Rome. Subterranean rotundas were layered like a trifle under the mountain Bruncu Cirronis; ballrooms with rotating floors, terraced indoor baths linked with waterfalls that flowed both ways, a cavernous musical theater fitted with the bellows of a gargantuan autoharmonium, and a labyrinth. The exact number of underground floors was a mystery to everyone, but the potential for secret, possibly forbidden, experiences made an invitation to Vico Zonza all the more sought-after.

“You cannot know what I traded to get you this invitation,” La Héron hissed, her sharp knuckles needling Alex’s spine like dagger points. “Get up there and mingle.” With a shove, both women stomped off to play their respective roles.

“Welcome, guests!” The silver-haired Marquess of Soleminis opened both arms wide, encapsulating in his greeting both the extravagantly dressed lords and ladies in the gallery and the odd assortment of duelists on the floor of the Chamber of Demonstrations. La Héron took her place on the floor, tugging her skirts as she squinted under the room’s thousand lights. “It is my great pleasure to introduce you all under such festive circumstances. May you enjoy my hospitality during this—ah—first of many Exhibitions at Vico Zonza.”

La Héron hid the impatient clicking of her shoes under the polite applause of the nobles. She cast an annoyed glance at Alex, who stalked about the balcony box, glaring with open hostility at those around her.

On the floor, the eight-foot-tall ogre next to La Héron looked down at her with open mirth on his face. “His hospitality?” he murmured. “S’pose that means he’ll let us stay in the castle instead of that shithole villa?”

“To my most esteemed of guests,” the marquess continued, indicating the motley crew in front of him, “I extend the welcome of the Kingdom of Sardinia. Too long have you been shut out of our beautiful country. I hope this Exhibition will herald a new age of exchange between Sardinia and the Otherworlds.

“And to my lords and ladies, I present our champions, the most remarkable swords in all of Christendom.” In the gallery, titters. The Inquisition would never count these exotics among good Christians. The marquess was being naughty. “First, the famous Don Ennio Angeli of Naples, the World’s Oldest Man; once companion to Orlando Furioso himself!”

A dashing man of no obvious age dressed in the antiquated garments of a knight of Charlemagne stepped forward, flashed a lascivious smile at a young woman in the gallery, and waved. The audience cooed, whispered, and applauded.

“Impressive, yes? A-hm. Will he be the match of our next competitor? Lords and ladies, behold the dancer, the singer, the charming and dangerous Satyr of Brandenburg, Piacere!”

La Héron’s eyes grew wide as a goat-legged fellow pranced forward with a fiddle under his arm. He bowed, tucked the instrument beneath his chin, and played a quick pasacalle. Every eye in the room turned glossy and wet with emotion and enchantment—every eye, but these: the ogre watched Piacere with the same hard glare as La Héron. When their gazes met, he acknowledged their shared suspicion with a curt nod.

“You know him?” he whispered.

“Unfortunately,” La Héron grumbled. “He’s dangerous, and a cheat. Banned from the Caucasus to Teamhair na Rí.”

“Hmm.”

“From the Isle of Logres,” the marquess continued, “hidden from men but scourge of the Northern Seas, I present to you the mad, the terrifying, the mercenary ogre, Donshead Doombellows!”

The ogre winked at La Héron. Then he took one stomping step forward, saluted, and returned to his place.

“And finally, my friends, famed throughout the Kingdoms of the Bourbons and Habsburgs for her beauty, grace, and strength at arms . . . the, ah, giantess, La Héron!”

La Héron grit her teeth and stepped forward. The marquess shot her the briefest of frowns as she started to bow. Steeling herself, she tucked her ankles together in a clumsy curtsy instead.

“My friends,” the marquess said as he turned to his gallery, appeased. “We will see wonders this fortnight! Our champions will do battle on the shifting grounds of the Chamber of Demonstrations every night for your entertainment. We shall tally their wins and losses, and on the Eve of All Hallows’, I will crown a Supreme Champion of Vico Zonza!” He clapped his hands over his head. “May the best sword win!”

The gallery applauded and laughed, heated more by the afternoon’s libations than any interest in the martial arts. The champions and their attendants waiting in the servants’ gutter were, however, more grave. The purse the marquess had offered to whoever he judged the winner of his play-tourney was enormous, enough times a standard tournament win that La Héron was willing to suffer the indignity of the foolish costumes and incorrect title.

“What an idiot,” Donshead Doombellows boomed afterward, making no attempt to keep his opinions from the disapproving staff forced to scatter from his path. “This jackanapes has no idea what he has invited into his pretty home. But you know, don’t you?” Despite his greater height and girth, his bare, taloned feet the size of hay bales, and his iron-capped tusks, the look he gave La Héron was cautious. “You are no giantess. But what are you? You smell like fish.”

La Héron shrugged. “I am La Héron. Nothing more. You’ve a good nose. What did you smell of that fiddler?”

Donshead scowled. “Resin. Herbero. Semen. And the heady stench of the damned. Nobody I ever knew stunk like that.” He shook his head. “A cheat, eh? I don’t want any trouble. I don’t need gold that badly. This is supposed to be my blasted vacation. Some wine, some laughs, the sun of Sardinia. What do you say we take him on now, hey? After his cups, when all the humans are asleep. The two of us, we could best him, whatever he is.”

“You look to be a sturdy fellow, Doombellows, but you would not fare well against Piacere if he were cornered.” La Héron pursed her lips. “Let me tell you about Piacere: he does not cheat in the arena. He will not even appear in the arena, if he has his way. He will swindle and sway, needle and pay. He will manipulate the fates of the rest of us until we fell each other and leave only him standing. If you were to meet him in a dark alley, you would find your mother at your back with a knife in her hand, or your knife at her throat. No,” She shook her head., “I would leave off this idiot tournament now if I did not have to be here. And the gold may mean nothing to you, but I need this purse. Let us just keep on our toes. We’re all of us best advised to meet with him only under the bright lights of the castle halls.”

The ogre shook his head. “Maybe you’re right, maybe you’re right. Will you instead do me the honor of walking me back to Soleminis? I’d still feel safer with you at my side.” His meaty lip dipped into a roguish grin that La Héron matched.

“I like you,” she said. “Eat supper with me. They’ll do a goat à la tartare for you at the villa.”

“And that pretty thing you travel with?” Doombellows raised an eyebrow suggestively. “Will she be joining us?”

“With any luck, no. I have arranged for her to stay upstairs, where she belongs.”

The ogre blew a very wet raspberry. “Smelling like she does? Not bloody likely.”

“What?” La Héron stopped walking.

“She smells like you, my lady. Fish and feathers and, I don’t know, bracken. You’re all over her.”

“Shit,” La Héron muttered, and continued walking toward the exit.

“If you want to be rid of her, why not just leave her? Release her from her contract. Break her heart, send her away.”

“It doesn’t work like that.” She sighed. “I won her soul in a duel. It will take something stronger to separate us. An oath, maybe. A vow.”

“She’s under some kind of curse, hey? Ahh, I smell it now. You’re hoping she’ll fall in love,” the ogre said, catching up. “You’re hoping she’ll get married. Hum.” He considered it. “Great bonds have been broken by less. Best of luck to you both.” He sounded unconvinced.

They passed through the servants’ gate into the autumnal sun filtering through the pines and started the long walk back where they belonged.

The Chamber of Demonstrations had changed, as the Chamber of Demonstrations was built to do. The opulent gallery remained as it had been the previous evening, raised boxes overlooking the room lit with twinkling candelabras, filling now with the arrival of chattering Sardinian lord and ladies.

The floor, which yesterday had been set with nothing more than polished wooden boards, was now a painted replica of the pass at Thermopylae, complete with movable mountains and a fanciful Mouth of Hades containing the open flames of a furnace. Beneath the lip of the gallery, La Héron scuffed the heels of her dress shoes on the sand strewn across the floor to test her footing and grunted with satisfaction.

“I think those are real flames,” Donshead muttered as he helped fasten a fleuret to the point of La Héron’s rapier. “This should be interesting.”

“It won’t be if Angeli fails to show up. I shouldn’t be surprised if the marquess orders you into his costume to replace him.” La Héron squinted into the shadows of the servants’ gutter. “This is troubling. He was with Piacere last night.”

“Then he’s probably hungover. He’ll stumble in before long.”

“If he has succumbed to Piacere—wait—there’s the man.”

Don Ennio Angeli of Naples hobbled out of the gloom into the glittering light of the Hall looking every one of his supposed nine hundred and seventy-five years. Gone was the healthy strut of yesterday, replaced with a stilted march, like someone being pushed from behind toward the gallows. He teetered past Donshead and La Héron without so much as pausing, his glassy eyes tracking them as he passed.

“This will be . . . unfortunate,” Donshead said.

“I’m afraid so,” La Héron agreed.

Don Angeli continued his reluctant march to the middle of the field of battle, turned to face the audience, and offered a stilted bow. La Héron joined him, saluting the audience, then her opponent. When he neither met her eyes nor returned her pleasantry, she turned to stand on her mark.

“Welcome, my guests, you who are about to be witnesses to an epic battle! Who shall rule the pass—the Giantess, or the Ancient Hero? Only when one champion admits defeat will the other claim victory!” The marquess met the eyes of each duelist in turn, soliciting nods that confirmed they understood the stakes. “Lay on, my champions! May the greatest of you be victorious!”

Alex, who had secured a choice position at the marquess’s elbow, rolled her eyes. La Héron grinned in return and eased into stance.

As was her custom, she was armed with only a heavy rapier, an off-hand dagger tucked politely into its sheath at her side. For his part, the Don had been saddled with a fancifully decorated falchion reminiscent of the courts of the Medici. Seeing the honed edge of his curved blade, La Héron subtly flicked the fleuret off her own weapon. Though the old man wavered in his stance looking too weak to heft the sword, she would not chance her blood being shed without the ability to return the favor.

He charged first, suddenly, his sword raised over his head like a butcher’s cleaver. La Héron waited until Angeli was close then ducked away from his stroke, sidestepping and allowing him to tumble past her. She turned in a flourish of silk as he skidded to a stop in the sand, twisted, and raised his arm again like a marionette. The nobility in the gallery cheered gamely and some bolder or drunker persons began calling advice to the duelists:

“Stab him in the heart! He’s open!”

“Behind, before he turns!”

Tajo! Cut her open, you idiot!”

Angeli charged again. This time the slash came sooner, his blade driving hard for her forearm where a buckler might have been in another age. Undefended and unarmored, La Héron skipped back, nudging the tip of his blade off course with her own and returning a quick lunge. Her point caught him lightly in the rib, drawing first blood.

If Angeli noticed, he did not show it. His blade circled up again, slashing twice more in quick succession crosswise, first at her shoulder, then at her belly. La Héron parried both blows easily and extended her arm, this time piercing the man in the shoulder.

She drew back and put up her sword, giving Angeli a meaningful look. He was bleeding from two small wounds now and she had barely exerted herself. The crowd laughed and applauded. In the gallery, Alex sat with Sebastien, Vico Zonza’s heir, a hale-looking youth with shining black hair and dark eyes fixed intently on the former nun. The marquess caught La Héron’s eye and waved a hand, indicating that she should continue. Despite her dominance thus far, Angeli was making no move to concede.

“Very well,” La Héron muttered, and settled into stance once more.

This time, she took the offensive. Angeli had raised his weapon again, exposing everything vital with little more than a thick doublet to protect him from her thrusts. She took two quick steps forward and lunged for his breast, ready to dip under his parry, but the defense never came. Instead, he stepped into her attack, her blade slipping deeper into his flesh than she intended as he drove his blade down. He hit her cross guard with such force that her rapier tore over his ribs before she dropped the weapon.

“The blazes, Angeli!” La Héron cursed, stumbling backward and drawing her dagger. Blood gushed freely from the wound that cut him from breast to bladder, but he merely raised his arm once more. “Stand off, man. You need a barber!” Angeli’s glassy eyes contained not a hint of acknowledgement.

“La Héron!” the marquess called from the gallery. “Do you forfeit?”

La Héron looked back and forth between the bloodied man set to advance, and their patron. “I? No, no, My Lord. But, Angeli—”

“One doesn’t live to be the world’s oldest man without a hint of the immortal, hum!” Vico Zonza laughed, allowing his guests to release their own nervous titters. “Lay on, then!”

The man’s front was now entirely drenched with blood that was starting to trail behind him as he marched toward her. La Héron leveled her little dagger reluctantly.

“No immortal I ever knew bled so much,” she hissed at him. “Don’t make this worse than it has to be. It’s only gold!”

Angeli said nothing, but dove at her again, hacking with circular strikes, quicker and harder than ever. La Héron wove this way and that, dancing up the wooden planks of the fake canyon and over stones of papier-mâché, waiting for an opening. Angeli seemed hardly to see her, spinning blindly like a wind-up toy.

She took careful steps back until she felt the heat of the furnace behind her. Gathering her skirts up in her fist, she narrowed her eyes and threw her dagger.

The thin point took him in the wrist, sinking halfway to the hilt. Angeli appeared no more bothered by this wound than the last, but his grip loosened. La Héron wasted no time taking her advantage. She charged in close and caught his sword-hand in her own. With her other hand she gave him a shove, spinning him around and twisting his injured arm behind his back. The falchion fell to the floor with a thud.

“Yield,” she barked at him. Angeli did not reply, but thrashed about like a fox in a trap. La Héron caught his other arm and pushed the man forward, face to the open furnace. “Yield,” she repeated.

The crowd jeered and laughed, but La Héron frowned and hesitated. The man was as frail as ice and weighed little more than a large dog. His violent struggles served no purpose but to pump more blood from his growing wounds. La Héron tried to hold him still.

“There is no honor in this for either of us, you fool!” she hissed, leaning in to his ear. “Yield, before you kill yourself.”

Angeli quit his struggling. La Héron loosened her grip and sighed. “Good man. Now—”

All at once, Angeli wrenched forward again. The motion caught La Héron off guard and she stumbled, tripping over the man’s heels and propelling him toward the flames. With a yelp, she recovered and caught the back of his jerkin just as his wounded arm dipped into the mouth of the fire.

Don Ennio Angeli did not even shout. La Héron yanked him away from the furnace, but his sleeve had already caught fire. In the space of a breath, his whole hand flared up like a torch, then his arm, then his collar.

“No!” La Héron shouted, but the flames spread with the speed of a spark in a barn. She pulled away, shielding her eyes with her arm as Angeli’s entire body exploded into a crackling bonfire.

And, as quickly as it had started, the fire flared out, exhausted. Where Angeli had stood a moment ago, there was now only a tumble of ash followed by the clattering of dry bone. The remains did not even smolder.

This did not lessen the horrified reaction from the marquess’s guests. The gallery erupted into a cacophony of shocked exclamations and screams. Foppish youths swooned, red-faced gamblers shouted, and bored hedonists licked their lips. The marquess, the heir, and Alex had all leaped to their feet, ready to act, but there was nothing further to be done.

“A scarecrow,” La Héron muttered, dazed. She turned to the gallery and bowed theatrically. “Most Illustrious Lord, I have vanquished my foe and sent him down the flaming river to Tartarus. The pass is mine!” The audience’s hysteria subsided, slowing to mere confusion. “I, uh, hope you have . . . marveled . . . at the mysteries of the Otherworld.”

Alex took the lead, launching into polite applause. Sebastien Vico Zonza followed, and slowly, enough of the audience participated in the nervous ovation that the rest were left to wonder if, indeed, they had just witnessed nothing more than a marvel of stage trickery. La Héron tipped her head in acknowledgement and fled the field.

“What in every sodden hell was that?” Alex cried, meeting La Héron as she stormed off the floor and into the servants’ gutter. She jogged to keep up with La Héron’s long stride. “‘Mysteries of the Otherworld’?”

“That damned satyr and his tricks,” she seethed. “What was I going to say? They’d have tossed me in a dungeon—they still might. Piacere has the real Don Angeli, somewhere.”

“That wasn’t Angeli?”

“That was his shell, his pretense. His soul has been seduced away by Piacere’s fiddle. The satyr was to fight Angeli in the next round, so he set me up to finish off his façade. He’ll get a pass tomorrow.”

“We’re going to find Piacere, then?” Alex hiked up her skirts to better match her friend’s pace. Her dark eyes gleamed with anticipation. “Make him tell us where Angeli is? Get him to confess, or—”

“Absolutely not. You are going back upstairs. I will deal with the satyr. You can’t risk yourself in this mess, and I can’t be restrained by you.”

“Pfft.” Alex waved a hand. “You needn’t restrain yourself on my account. Nobody need know—”

“Louise-Alexandrine.” La Héron stopped short, turning to look at the girl. “Piacere is too dangerous. And if he should try his trickery on me again—”

“Let him try! I will send anyone who lays an evil hand on you to hell or worse!”

“It’ll be to hell with all of us if you don’t keep out of it! Piacere is not an opponent to be bested in a fight. I don’t need a second and you are not to seek him out on your own. He cheats, Alex. He flouts every rule I know.”

Alex looked about the empty hall, face reddening with frustration. “We have fought cheats before. Together.”

“I’m not talking about tournament rules, Alex,” La Héron said. “Now, go upstairs.”

This concludes Part 1 of “The Satyr of Brandenburg.” Click here to continue reading the story.

The post PodCastle 596: The Satyr of Brandenburg — Part 1 appeared first on PodCastle.

Oct 15 2019

34mins

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PodCastle 595: The Feast

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Previously published by Carve Magazine.

Content warning for violence against women, suicide, and cannibalism

Rated R.

The Feast

By K.C. Mead-Brewer

We took Emmaline on what promised to be a particularly stormy night. It wasn’t hard to do, especially since all the police and alarm company people were right there in the mob with us. Her mother, Rebecca, had to be restrained by five different people; the sheriff had to lock her in a holding cell to keep her secured.

We brought Emmaline to the closest beach and tied her to a giant lightning rod that we’d planted in the sand not far from the water. The choice of sacrifice via lightning strike surprised a lot of people, but we didn’t have a volcano to toss her into or any grand golden steps like the Mayans to push her down from. And if we were going to make the sacrifice count, if we really wanted our crops to flourish and satisfy, it made sense to us that the more drama we could build up, the better.

The noises she made! She sounded so much like an animal it actually became easier for us to see it through to the end. We waited all day and half the night with her until finally the promised rain began to fall and a flash of light slipped down to snatch her up. Our fillings all buzzed in our teeth and Mrs. Johnson lifted a hand to her heart as her pacemaker gave a startled little jolt in her chest.

The lightning-struck sand turned to liquid glass around Emmaline’s bare feet. We all agreed to let it harden some before trying to move her body. But when old Maurice and a couple of his fishing crew finally went to untie her, they discovered she was still twitching. Of course, we’d all dissected frogs in school and killed plenty of chickens for plenty of dinners, so initially this didn’t worry us much. But then Maurice put his entire callused hand up against her throat.

Heart’s still beating, he told us, and some part of this revelation must’ve made him real itchy, because he took to scratching the back of his neck and the crusty caps of his elbows.

We were all surprised at the news, but mostly we were disappointed.

Emmaline came back to her senses around the time her feet finished cooling. She started begging all over again, saying that her survival was proof the gods didn’t want her dead, but it wasn’t enough to convince us. If anything, it only seemed like her life might make for an even more valuable sacrifice. Something hard-won and fought for. So, Maurice and his crew hauled her up into one of their rowboats, her chunked-glass feet clunking against the wood as they did so.

We all pitched open our umbrellas as the rain picked up and lifted our flashlights high to watch as they rowed her out and dropped her in amid the waves. Weighted down by her glass slippers, she sank feet-first through the purple dark. We waited a long while, perhaps expecting another lightning strike or some other divine message confirming Package Received, but it only continued to rain and rain as if we’d done nothing at all.

Blond, beautiful, lemon-fresh Rebecca was famous across our little island for her preserves: jams, pickles, jerkies—she knew how to make things last. She knew how to bring out flavors that even the foods themselves hadn’t been aware of.

Don’t you know by now? she’d say to her food. You are Large. You contain Multitudes.

But while Rebecca’s preserves were adored from top shelf to bottom, it was her daughter Emmaline we all considered the true prize. Emmaline whose adaptable, energetic nature kept both Rebecca and herself preternaturally young and healthy. It was well-known across the island that Emmaline possessed the curious ability to instantly rejuvenate herself and, by extension, her mother, whenever a finger was accidentally diced along with their cilantro or a toe lost to a piranha while wading out in search of this spice and that. We were all quite used to peculiar things, though, so we never paid it too much mind in those salad days. No, what we best knew and loved Emmaline for wasn’t her rejuvenation, but her talent for finding and procuring newer and newer flavors.

Why not try adding some maple sugar to these trout filets? she would suggest to her mother. Why not add some hickory to the smoked rattlesnake? Some pumpkin seed and peppercorn to the pickled lemons?

They were close, Rebecca and her Emmaline. They used their shared culinary art to bind and re-bind themselves tightly-tightly together. Still, Emmaline couldn’t help her desire for travel and Rebecca had never been able to deny her daughter anything, and so Emmaline left us as soon as she was able. She sailed all around the world in search of inspiration, hopping from one grand continent to the next, learning how to preserve much more than simply food, but smells, sounds, and even sensations of touch as well. And when she was ready to return to us, she brought with her suitcase after suitcase of jars filled with the pickled scents of wet fur and antique brass; the brine-soaked music of whales moaning and vegetables being chopped; the petrified feeling of fingers dipping into a cool lake, the soft luxury of warm bread between your teeth.

When she finally arrived home to us, though—no doubt eager to share all she’d learned—she discovered an island changed. An island of failed crops and starving children.

Well, not that the crops were dead exactly. Not that our fields were barren or our orchards dry. It was simply that they’d suddenly ceased to satisfy. No matter what or how much we ate, nothing filled us. Four meals a day, five, eight, ten—our bodies still dragged heavily, exhausted, needing fuel. We shoveled in food by the cartload, but it never made any difference. Our kitchen tables splintered under the weight of the meals we’d begun serving each night. Our dishwashers broke from overuse. The tines on our forks bent beneath our frenzied, constant biting.

We watched with dark eyes as Emmaline unloaded her new wares in Rebecca’s shop. Our lips curled back from our teeth, our stomachs growled, our wallets ached—what she’d brought back wasn’t food at all, but art. Useless.

It wasn’t long after that, that the crops themselves did cease to grow. We’d over-farmed, our resident experts said. We’d exhausted the soil. Why hadn’t we kept more food in storage? Was Rebecca really the only one who’d restrained herself enough to build up reserves? Was she the only one for whom food still sated?

There were many nights we all laid awake in our various beds across the island, our stomachs yowling like cats and our thoughts tangled around Emmaline and Rebecca, knowing they must be sleeping soundly with their stomachs full and busy and comfortably weighted, doing exactly what stomachs were always meant to do. Was it their pickling that did it? Was there some secret satisfaction-agent in the brine?

We bought up jar after jar, bag after bag, can after can. Rebecca couldn’t keep food on her shelves no matter how quickly she restocked, and Emmaline grew weak from the strange, constant work of rejuvenating fingertips nicked at the cutting board or sliced open while collecting shards of glass from the jars we’d dropped during our crazed shopping. But none of it ever worked for us. Never even made a dent. The hunger cored us faster than we could swallow.

Many tried leaving the island to seek their satisfaction elsewhere, but there was nothing to be found for them. No matter where we went, hunger followed, as if the famine had tied itself to our backs—everyone’s but Rebecca’s. Everyone’s but Emmaline’s.

Rebecca bought two luscious mansions right on the water with all the money she made taking advantage of our need, and though it’s true she turned one of them into a successful shelter for battered women, we all still knew exactly what she was doing. Flaunting her brutal extravagance in our time of brutal desperation. Flaunting her happy, humming digestion.

It wasn’t long before whispers broke out of divine wrath and hubris-induced suffering: Sin! Greed! Gluttony! God’s punishment! —And the louder everyone shouted, the more it made a queer sort of a sense. What other explanation was there? Hadn’t the crops always been enough for us before? Hadn’t the annual sacrifices of honey, goats, and beer always been enough? Yet there we were, starving.

You aren’t starving, Rebecca told us again and again, parceling out her preserves like a miser. How could you be? Look at you!—your broken tables! Your bent forks!

But it was Rebecca who wasn’t looking. It was Rebecca who couldn’t see the truth of things. Full people, happy people, never can. And it wasn’t long before we realized exactly what needed to be done. It was time for Rebecca to be made to understand us. It was time to give her something to starve for.

People started seeing Emmaline’s ghost up and down the beach. Some said they saw her howling in the sand, promising her revenge. Others said they saw her clawing her way out of the water, dragging her glass-encased feet behind her.

Maurice had an especially hard time dealing with it, muttering to the hull of his boat as if she was still lying there pleading for her life. Most of us stopped buying his fish after that (what few fish there were). There was just something about his delusions that made the catch taste off somehow, as if the death in them was suddenly more pronounced. It wasn’t long before Maurice was poorer and hungrier than the rest of us, and no one was much surprised when we found him one morning with his neck in a rope and his feet off the floor.

Funny that he died with his feet gone weightless, someone said, seeing as Emmaline died with the opposite.

And it might really have been funny too, but none of us mustered a laugh.

Not many of us ended up going to Maurice’s funeral, but Rebecca made an appearance. It was the first time she’d dared show her face since that stormy night and all of us gasped at the sight of her haggard look and wrinkled, hanging skin. She must’ve been seventy-five years old by then, but she’d never before looked a day over thirty thanks to Emmaline’s rejuvenating effects. Her once golden hair had turned a coarse, yellowy-gray, and even the flowers she laid over Maurice’s coffin were shriveled and falling apart.

Couldn’t she have at least dried them first? we whispered, ducking our words behind the church bulletins. She used to preserve flowers with such skill it looked as if they’d never died at all.

You look so tired, someone told her, not meaning to be mean. You didn’t have to come out for the ceremony, you know. I didn’t even think you liked Maurice.

Rebecca didn’t respond, but the more reflective of us already knew her reason: Maurice was the only one besides herself who’d bothered to mourn her daughter.

Some people said it was because Emmaline was haunting us and that ghosts don’t count as dead-dead. Others said it was because she hadn’t died properly with the lightning strike so her sacrifice hadn’t been accepted. In the end though, the reason doesn’t really matter, because none of it changes the fact that it was all for nothing. Emmaline’s entire, lovely life: all for nothing. The crops failed us again and again and the fish stopped coming by our island until there was nothing left to eat but palm fronds, tree bark, and the occasional rash of bugs. Rebecca had stopped her preservation work, and her storehouse of supplies—its location long kept secret—was eventually discovered and ransacked.

There was nothing, nothing left.

A few of the more desperate among us went so far as to break into Rebecca’s house one afternoon to try forcing her to resume her work.

You already have what you need, she told us. Her voice was wet and empty as a cave. Hardly a voice at all. Haven’t you survived all this time? And yet here you are, demanding more.

Haven’t we survived? we all shouted, mystified. On leaves and grass and nothing!

If only you would preserve the bugs, some of us argued, or even just the palm fronds, show them their hidden flavors, then we wouldn’t have to suffer so miserably.

At least that way we could taste something, others said, even if it wasn’t filling. You could bring out their multitudes to sustain us.

But it was to no avail. Rebecca could hardly pull herself out of bed, let alone go to work bringing out the dormant flavors of island refuse. Every day she aged more and more intensely, each hour without her beloved Emmaline weighing on her like a year, two years, a decade.

Eventually someone decided that perhaps Rebecca’s grief was the reason why the gods’ hadn’t recognized our offering. Perhaps the gods saw her suffering as just another form of claiming the dead and keeping it from belonging fully to the Divine and the Beyond. For this possibility, they snuck back into Rebecca’s house and cut her throat in the night. Her blood seeped out over her white skin, white hair, white sheets, white carpet until everything was red and to see her bedroom was to wonder if anything could ever truly be white again.

What none of us knew, however, was that the gods’ sacrifice wasn’t spoiled by ghosts or a mother’s endless despair. What spoiled it was the fact that Emmaline had never done us the courtesy of dying at all.

As she’d sunk down, down, down, she managed to clear away her panic just long enough to put her years of traveling and experimentation to work. After all, it was no longer simply her mother who knew how to make things last. So, as she sank, Emmaline traded oxygen for salt, taking in gulp after gulp of thick seawater, filling her body with it from every orifice, until she herself was pickled. Preserved.

Her joined-together feet dragged her all the way to the ocean floor. There she waved like a lone tendril of seaweed, subsisting off the ocean’s salt until her skin was as bright and butter-soft as her mother’s jarred lemons. And eventually, after months of work and failed attempts, she gained the strength to pump her bound legs like a mermaid’s tail, moving herself from one watery haven to the next. As she went, she let herself be tasted by fish and whales of all shapes and sizes, and they in turn gave her secret knowledge of the deep and all their aquatic wisdoms.

Her body rejuvenated as it always had, and so she was forced to constantly re-pickle herself as each new bite healed afresh. It was only when a lonely nurse shark wandered by one day and bit off the entirety of her left arm that Emmaline realized the limits of her regenerative abilities. A finger? An ear? A soupçon of breast or thigh or back?—these she could handle. But regrowing an entire arm…

She looked down at her naked, lonely shoulder. She felt the emptiness of it first. But then, slowly, she recognized the new beauty of her unornamented side. She saw the cleanliness and Zen-like simplicity of its contours, and soon she felt like herself again. Whole. Complete.

For years she existed rather happily this way and, for some inexplicable, hungry reason that she couldn’t define, she was careful never to wander too far from our island. She considered returning to the surface every now and again, especially on stormy nights when she found herself missing her mother most, longing for the beauty of dry things—blankets, socks, wings, books—yet she never did. If her friends and neighbors missed her, she figured they would’ve come looking for her. But in all her time below the waves, not one diver or submarine ever tunneled down in search of her. And what would she do on the surface now, anyway? How would she survive with her skin so vulnerably soft and her body in need of so much salt?

It was only when a storm felled the great ship Theodosia that Emmaline was drawn back once more toward the sky.

Most of Theodosia’s crew were cast into the sea and killed on impact, their necks snapping as if the waves were cut with steel, but one man survived, fighting against the tumult even as it sucked him under. As he drifted downward, his eyes popping and limbs shaking, Emmaline thought she recognized him. There was something bright about him. Something multitudinous. Captivated, she plunged downward and grabbed hold of him with her strong, singular arm. Struggling against his sinking weight, pumping hard with her glued-together legs, she managed to pull him ashore.

The dry sand abraded Emmaline’s delicate skin and the friction pulled thick locks of hair straight out of her scalp. But despite any pain, she lingered with the man there on the beach. His name was Jamal and, for several long minutes, all he could do was cough up more and more water.

Word passed quickly about the shipwreck and we all rushed out in hopes of harvesting whatever cargo found its way to land. Preoccupied with the work, only a few of us spotted Jamal and the woman who’d brought him to our shore, and even fewer of us recognized her for who she was through the dark and the waves and the hunger.

You’ll be alright, she was heard telling him.

Are you her? Jamal asked. Emmaline’s ghost?

If she answered, no one heard.

How can I ever repay you for my life? he asked.

Most of us continued on, oblivious of them, distracted as we were by the loot and debris still drifting in. We stormed forward, grabbing at crates and beating them open with crowbars. We stuffed our mouths fuller and fuller, unable to stop ourselves, sand and splinters mixing in with whatever actual food we could find. We wouldn’t realize until much later just how many of us had actually caught sight of them.

Why didn’t you say anything at the time? some people demanded.

We didn’t think we’d be believed! the rest of us countered, and though no one could deny the strength of this argument—Emmaline’s ghost had already been supposedly spotted by so many—we all knew the truth: We couldn’t have said anything even if we’d wanted to. Our mouths had been too full.

Please, Jamal, Emmaline said—though this is according to only one lip-reader among us who’d thought to bring binoculars and just happened to look the right way at exactly the right moment. All I’ve ever done is feed others, she said. Find food, cook food, become food—but I want to be fed for once. Would you do this for me?

Jamal, being a good man with a fair mind and romantic heart, readily agreed to the deal. Of course, this was before he’d recovered from his near-death experience (and likely head injuries) enough to remember that it was a starving island full of starving people he’d landed on.

Some claim they heard him offer to break the glass from around her feet, but she declined.

If you break the glass, she said, you may very well break my feet clear off my legs.

So, as we continued picking clean what remained of his ship, Jamal lifted up Emmaline in his two arms and carried her away to a nearby, long-abandoned cabin. Maurice’s old place, it turned out.

What we know of their cabin life together is rather limited. Jamal was a private man even in the best of times and, though his sailing life had brought him to our island many times over the years, we never learned that much about him. Some of us recalled old times when Jamal had visited Rebecca’s shop while in port, lingering to try and catch glimpses of Emmaline. Hadn’t he and Emmaline once gotten coffee together at the Mt. ReadMore bookshop? Hadn’t they once shared a bottle of wine at The Thirsty Boatman?

This time, though, Jamal made an art of avoiding us. We were lucky to catch more than five minutes with him put together. And for a shipwrecked loner on a lonely island, he looked surprisingly…healthy. He looked so sickeningly well. He looked, we realized, well fed.

The mysteries of Jamal and his watery savior expanded in our imaginations hour by hour until it wasn’t just food we were hungry for anymore. We wanted their secrets as well.

As word spread that Emmaline had finally been well and truly sighted, some of us decided to go to Jamal’s cabin and see what was what for ourselves. Whether we intended to finish the job of sacrificing her or not, we weren’t sure. All we knew for certain was hunger and want and more want and endless wanting and wanting and wanting. There is nothing worse than wanting.

We decided to wait until we could be sure that Emmaline was alone. Jamal had been venturing out at random times for short bursts of errands, always returning home as quickly as possible.

While he was out, he searched for the oddest things: Does anyone have any salt? he would ask. Any pickle jars?

Pickle jars! Does it look like we have any pickles to spare?

No, not pickles, he’d say. All I need is the brine left in the jar. Just the brine. Even banana pepper or jalapeno brine would work.

And though he refused to tell us why he would ever want such things, we soon learned it was a lie—it was much, much more than brine he was looking for. He left Mt. ReadMore with armloads and armloads of books. He bought The Beat Farm out of all their best albums. He perused our local galleries for the finest paintings, drawings, and photographs.

As far as we knew, Jamal was pouring his entire life savings into these purchases. To fill a dead fisherman’s shack on the edge of a starving island? We tried asking him about it, but all he ever did was smile and say, Isn’t it obvious?

We finally enlisted Martha Peters, proprietor of our local sculpture garden, to keep Jamal distracted while we went to investigate his cabin for ourselves. Most of us were fairly skilled at breaking-and-entering by then, so it was no trouble getting in. The cabin was thimble-sized compared to Rebecca’s grand mansions, but unlike her cavernous, wide-open rooms, Jamal’s were filled to bursting with colors, art, flowers, books, music—he’d turned the house itself into a feast. A feast for the senses, the mind, the soul. A feast for Emmaline.

And though we figured Emmaline likely couldn’t run or hide too well because of her crippled feet, we still found ourselves creeping quiet as thieves down the busy, rainbowed halls. Fortunately, we didn’t have to creep far. We found her in the bathroom.

Jamal had placed her in the tub and filled it with a pungent broth of salts, brines, and seawater. Her glass-encased feet glinted beneath the brew like a massive, alien gem. We all crowded into the little pink-tiled room, ready for something we-didn’t-know-what. Whatever it was, though, it hadn’t been her. Nothing could’ve readied us for the way she looked then, so utterly open and unsurprised. As if she’d expected us. As if she remembered each and every one of our names and faces, though we’d aged and thinned and hunched grossly inward since she’d last seen us. She, by contrast, shone brightly as ever. Her body looked tight as an apple; her skin looked soft as brie.

No wonder Jamal seemed so well and satisfied. No wonder he was never hungry. Our minds raced and we all blushed because we knew exactly what each other was thinking: What would it be like to taste her? To have her tender fingers melt salty-sweetly in your mouth? What would it be like to have her look at you with those dreamy, chewable eyes and offer you everything you’ve ever wanted?

Are you here to kill me? she asked, and her voice, so up close to our ears, made us all want to weep and reach out for one another—it was too lonely to bear, and too delicious.

We don’t know why we’re here, we confessed, and felt suddenly that it was wrong we were still wearing shoes. There was something about her consumable, consuming presence that made the little bathroom seem hallowed.

Her chin trembled. My mother? she asked.

Dead, we told her and, for the first time, sincerely regretted the fact.

The news bit through her with a gasp and charged us all with a bolt of longing. There was something about her salt tears over her salt skin that was almost seductive.

None of us were quite sure of when we’d begun nibbling at her legs and slurping up her hair, but suddenly we were. Swallowing her down, we saw visions of her life beneath the sea. Visions of her swaying and sinking and swimming. Visions of her pulling Jamal ashore, accepting his gifts, accepting his kisses and hands and secrets. She tasted like everything we were never supposed to know about. She tasted rich. She tasted like the lives we’d had before she first left us all those years ago. Her body regenerated beneath our mouths and we felt the stolen pieces of her expand within us, making our stomachs stretch with the effort of fitting all our desires inside.

Please, she said, squeezing her eyes shut against the feel of our tongues and our teeth. Please don’t. Please stop. You’re taking too much—

But it was too late. Her entire life she’d given and given and given until she was someone from whom it was all too easy to take and take and take.

We worked our way up her hips, over her breasts, across her heart until our mouths were too stuffed to scream when she finally kicked up her glass-covered feet and slammed them against the base of the tub, shattering herself free. Her quivering, oyster-raw toes, her heels, her ankles, they bent at a bad angle to her legs, but remained attached. She snatched up a shard of the wild glass, cutting open her own palm in the process, and slashed the air before us.

We backed away, too stunned even to chew. Mr. Granger started choking a little but none of us were present enough to help him.

You keep away from me! she shouted. You keep the hell away!

We were all wondering the same thing: How badly could she cut us before we managed to subdue her again?

Except then there were more weapons, this time pointed at our backs: the tip of Jamal’s knife, the barrel of his gun, the grave look in his dark, inedible eyes.

We returned the next day with knives and guns of our own, only to find them gone. There was no trace of them save for the shards of glass she’d left glittering in the tub.

Everyone wracked their brains trying to think of where they might’ve stolen away to. We combed the entire island. We checked every cobwebbed room in Rebecca’s mansion and looked under every bed in the women’s shelter. We tore through Jamal’s art feast, stuffing book pages down our throats and scraping paint off canvases with our teeth like children digging out the centers of Oreos. We scooped up desperate handfuls of Emmaline’s tub brine, needing to taste her again.

I heard some weird splashes last night, one of the youngest of us finally admitted. But I figured it was just a dream, because when I went to see what it was, there was nothing there but the storm clouds coming in.

We all rushed out to the beach where the splashes had been heard. The same beach where Jamal had first washed up. We waded deep into the water as if we might still find them somewhere amid the litter and broken shells. Was there an extra scent there in the water? A hint of banana pepper? A cut of jalapeno?

We threw back our heads and howled at the loss. At the flavors we would never experience again. At the light we’d struck out of our lives forever.

They’ll be back, we all said, we all keep saying. They’ll be back. They’ll never be enough to sustain each other. Because if there’s anything the gods have taught us, if there’s anything we know with absolute certainty, it’s that nothing is ever enough.

The post PodCastle 595: The Feast appeared first on PodCastle.

Oct 08 2019

36mins

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PodCastle 594: The Deliverers of Their Country

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From Edith Nesbit’s classic collection The Book of Dragons, which is in the public domain. You can find the whole thing here.

Rated PG.

The Deliverers of Their Country

By E. Nesbit

It all began with Effie’s getting something in her eye. It hurt very much indeed, and it felt something like a red-hot spark — only it seemed to have legs as well, and wings like a fly. Effie rubbed and cried— not real crying, but the kind your eye does all by itself without your being miserable inside your mind — and then she went to her father to have the thing in her eye taken out. Effie’s father was a doctor, so of course he knew how to take things out of eyes — he did it very cleverly with a soft paintbrush dipped in castor oil.

When he had gotten the thing out, he said: “This is very curious.” Effie had often got things in her eye before, and her father had always seemed to think it was natural — rather tiresome and naughty perhaps, but still natural. He had never before thought it curious.

Effie stood holding her handkerchief to her eye, and said: “I don’t believe it’s out.” People always say this when they have had something in their eyes.

“Oh, yes — it’s out,” said the doctor. “Here it is, on the brush. This is very interesting.”

Effie had never heard her father say that about anything that she had any share in. She said: “What?”

The doctor carried the brush very carefully across the room, and held the point of it under his microscope — then he twisted the brass screws of the microscope, and looked through the top with one eye.

“Dear me,” he said. “Dear, dear me! Four well-developed limbs; a long caudal appendage; five toes, unequal in lengths, almost like one of the Lacertidae, yet there are traces of wings.” The creature under his eye wriggled a little in the castor oil, and he went on: “Yes; a batlike wing. A new specimen, undoubtedly. Effie, run round to the professor and ask him to be kind enough to step in for a few minutes.”

“You might give me sixpence, Daddy,” said Effie, “because I did bring you the new specimen. I took great care of it inside my eye, and my eye does hurt.”

The doctor was so pleased with the new specimen that he gave Effie a shilling, and presently the professor stepped round. He stayed to lunch, and he and the doctor quarreled very happily all the afternoon about the name and the family of the thing that had come out of Effie’s eye.

But at teatime another thing happened. Effie’s brother Harry fished something out of his tea, which he thought at first was an earwig. He was just getting ready to drop it on the floor, and end its life in the usual way, when it shook itself in the spoon — spread two wet wings, and flopped onto the tablecloth. There it sat, stroking itself with its feet and stretching its wings, and Harry said: “Why, it’s a tiny newt!”

The professor leaned forward before the doctor could say a word. “I’ll give you half a crown for it, Harry, my lad,” he said, speaking very fast; and then he picked it up carefully on his handkerchief.

“It is a new specimen,” he said, “and finer than yours, Doctor.”

It was a tiny lizard, about half an inch long — with scales and wings.

So now the doctor and the professor each had a specimen, and they were both very pleased. But before long these specimens began to seem less valuable. For the next morning, when the knife-boy was cleaning the doctor’s boots, he suddenly dropped the brushes and the boot and the blacking, and screamed out that he was burnt.

And from inside the boot came crawling a lizard as big as a kitten, with large, shiny wings.

“Why,” said Effie, “I know what it is. It is a dragon like the one St. George killed.”

And Effie was right. That afternoon Towser was bitten in the garden by a dragon about the size of a rabbit, which he had tried to chase, and the next morning all the papers were full of the wonderful “winged lizards” that were appearing all over the country. The papers would not call them dragons, because, of course, no one believes in dragons nowadays— and at any rate the papers were not going to be so silly as to believe in fairy stories. At first there were only a few, but in a week or two the country was simply running alive with dragons of all sizes, and in the air you could sometimes see them as thick as a swarm of bees. They all looked alike except as to size. They were green with scales, and they had four legs and a long tail and great wings like bats’ wings, only the wings were a pale, half-transparent yellow, like the gear-boxes on bicycles.

They breathed fire and smoke, as all proper dragons must, but still the newspapers went on pretending they were lizards, until the editor of the Standard was picked up and carried away by a very large one, and then the other newspaper people had not anyone left to tell them what they ought not to believe. So when the largest elephant in the Zoo was carried off by a dragon, the papers gave up pretending— and put ALARMING PLAGUE OF DRAGONS at the top of the paper.

You have no idea how alarming it was, and at the same time how aggravating. The large-size dragons were terrible certainly, but when once you had found out that the dragons always went to bed early because they were afraid of the chill night air, you had only to stay indoors all day, and you were pretty safe from the big ones. But the smaller sizes were a perfect nuisance. The ones as big as earwigs got in the soap, and they got in the butter. The ones as big as dogs got in the bath, and the fire and smoke inside them made them steam like anything when the cold water tap was turned on, so that careless people were often scalded quite severely. The ones that were as large as pigeons would get into workbaskets or corner drawers and bite you when you were in a hurry to get a needle or a handkerchief. The ones as big as sheep were easier to avoid, because you could see them coming; but when they flew in at the windows and curled up under your eiderdown, and you did not find them till you went to bed, it was always a shock. The ones this size did not eat people, only lettuce, but they always scorched the sheets and pillowcases dreadfully.

Of course, the County Council and the police did everything that could be done: It was no use offering the hand of the Princess to anyone who killed a dragon. This way was all very well in olden times— when there was only one dragon and one Princess; but now there were far more dragons than Princesses— although the Royal Family was a large one. And besides, it would have been a mere waste of Princesses to offer rewards for killing dragons, because everybody killed as many dragons as they could quite out of their own heads and without rewards at all, just to get the nasty things out of the way. The County Council undertook to cremate all dragons delivered at their offices between the hours of ten and two, and whole wagonloads and cartloads and truckloads of dead dragons could be seen any day of the week standing in a long line in the street where the County Council had their offices. Boys brought barrowloads of dead dragons, and children on their way home from morning school would call in to leave the handful or two of little dragons they had brought in their satchels, or carried in their knotted pocket handkerchiefs. And yet there seemed to be as many dragons as ever. Then the police stuck up great wood and canvas towers covered with patent glue. When the dragons flew against these towers, they stuck fast, as flies and wasps do on the sticky papers in the kitchen; and when the towers were covered all over with dragons, the police inspector used to set fire to the towers, and burnt them and dragons and all.

And yet there seemed to be more dragons than ever. The shops were full of patent dragon poison and anti-dragon soap, and dragonproof curtains for the windows; and indeed, everything that could be done was done.

And yet there seemed to be more dragons than ever.

It was not very easy to know what would poison a dragon, because, you see, they ate such different things. The largest kind ate elephants as long as there were any, and then went on with horses and cows. Another size ate nothing but lilies of the valley, and a third size ate only Prime Ministers if they were to be had, and, if not, would feed freely on servants in livery. Another size lived on bricks, and three of them ate two thirds of the South Lambeth Infirmary in one afternoon.

But the size Effie was most afraid of was about as big as your dining room, and that size ate little girls and boys.

At first Effie and her brother were quite pleased with the change in their lives. It was so amusing to sit up all night instead of going to sleep, and to play in the garden lighted by electric lamps. And it sounded so funny to hear Mother say, when they were going to bed: “Good night, my darlings, sleep sound all day, and don’t get up too soon. You must not get up before it’s quite dark. You wouldn’t like the nasty dragons to catch you.”

But after a time they got very tired of it all: They wanted to see the flowers and trees growing in the fields, and to see the pretty sunshine out of doors, and not just through glass windows and patent dragonproof curtains. And they wanted to play on the grass, which they were not allowed to do in the electric lamp-lighted garden because of the night-dew.

And they wanted so much to get out, just for once, in the beautiful, bright, dangerous daylight, that they began to try and think of some reason why they ought to go out. Only they did not like to disobey their mother.

But one morning their mother was busy preparing some new dragon poison to lay down in the cellars, and their father was bandaging the hand of the boot boy, which had been scratched by one of the dragons who liked to eat Prime Ministers when they were to be had, so nobody remembered to say to the children: “Don’t get up till it is quite dark!”

“Go now,” said Harry. “It would not be disobedient to go. And I know exactly what we ought to do, but I don’t know how we ought to do it.”

“What ought we to do?” said Effie.

“We ought to wake St. George, of course,” said Harry. “He was the only person in his town who knew how to manage dragons; the people in the fairy tales don’t count. But St. George is a real person, and he is only asleep, and he is waiting to be waked up. Only nobody believes in St. George now. I heard father say so.”

“We do,” said Effie.

“Of course we do. And don’t you see, Ef, that’s the very reason why we could wake him? You can’t wake people if you don’t believe in them, can you?”

Effie said no, but where could they find St. George?

“We must go and look,” said Harry boldly. “You shall wear a dragonproof frock, made of stuff like the curtains. And I will smear myself all over with the best dragon poison, and — “

Effie clasped her hands and skipped with joy and cried: “Oh, Harry! I know where we can find St. George! In St. George’s Church, of course.”

“Um,” said Harry, wishing he had thought of it for himself, “you have a little sense sometimes, for a girl.”

So the next afternoon, quite early, long before the beams of sunset announced the coming night, when everybody would be up and working, the two children got out of bed. Effie wrapped herself in a shawl of dragonproof muslin — there was no time to make the frock — and Harry made a horrid mess of himself with the patent dragon poison. It was warranted harmless to infants and invalids, so he felt quite safe.

Then they joined hands and set out to walk to St. George’s Church. As you know, there are many St. George’s churches, but fortunately they took the turning that leads to the right one, and went along in the bright sunlight, feeling very brave and adventurous.

There was no one about in the streets except dragons, and the place was simply swarming with them. Fortunately none of the dragons were just the right size for eating little boys and girls, or perhaps this story might have had to end here. There were dragons on the pavement, and dragons on the roadway, dragons basking on the front doorsteps of public buildings, and dragons preening their wings on the roofs in the hot afternoon sun. The town was quite green with them. Even when the children had gotten out of the town and were walking in the lanes, they noticed that the fields on each side were greener than usual with the scaly legs and tails; and some of the smaller sizes had made themselves asbestos nests in the flowering hawthorn hedges.

Effie held her brother’s hand very tight, and once when a fat dragon flopped against her ear she screamed out, and a whole flight of green dragons rose from the field at the sound, and sprawled away across the sky. The children could hear the rattle of their wings as they flew.

“Oh, I want to go home,” said Effie.

“Don’t be silly,” said Harry. “Surely you haven’t forgotten about the Seven Champions and all the princes. People who are going to be their country’s deliverers never scream and say they want to go home.”

“And are we,” asked Effie — “deliverers, I mean?”

“You’ll see,” said her brother, and on they went.

When they came to St. George’s Church they found the door open, and they walked right in — but St. George was not there, so they walked around the churchyard outside, and presently they found the great stone tomb of St. George, with the figure of him carved in marble outside, in his armor and helmet, and with his hands folded on his breast.

“How ever can we wake him?” they said. Then Harry spoke to St. George — but he would not answer; and he called, but St. George did not seem to hear; and then he actually tried to waken the great dragon-slayer by shaking his marble shoulders. But St. George took no notice.

Then Effie began to cry, and she put her arms around St. George’s neck as well as she could for the marble, which was very much in the way at the back, and she kissed the marble face, and she said: “Oh, dear, good, kind St. George, please wake up and help us.”

And at that St. George opened his eyes sleepily, and stretched himself and said: “What’s the matter, little girl?”

So the children told him all about it; he turned over in his marble and leaned on one elbow to listen. But when he heard that there were so many dragons he shook his head.

“It’s no good,” he said, “they would be one too many for poor old George. You should have waked me before. I was always for a fair fight — one man one dragon, was my motto.”

Just then a flight of dragons passed overhead, and St. George half drew his sword.

But he shook his head again and pushed the sword back as the flight of dragons grew small in the distance.

“I can’t do anything,” he said. “Things have changed since my time. St. Andrew told me about it. They woke him up over the engineers’ strike, and he came to talk to me. He says everything is done by machinery now; there must be some way of settling these dragons. By the way, what sort of weather have you been having lately?”

This seemed so careless and unkind that Harry would not answer, but Effie said patiently, “It has been very fine. Father says it is the hottest weather there has ever been in this country.”

“Ah, I guessed as much,” said the Champion, thoughtfully. “Well, the only thing would be … dragons can’t stand wet and cold, that’s the only thing. If you could find the taps.”

St. George was beginning to settle down again on his stone slab.

“Good night, very sorry I can’t help you,” he said, yawning behind his marble hand.

“Oh, but you can,” cried Effie. “Tell us — what taps?”

“Oh, like in the bathroom,” said St. George, still more sleepily. “And there’s a looking glass, too; shows you all the world and what’s going on. St. Denis told me about it; said it was a very pretty thing. I’m sorry I can’t — good night.”

And he fell back into his marble and was fast asleep again in a moment.

“We shall never find the taps,” said Harry. “I say, wouldn’t it be awful if St. George woke up when there was a dragon near, the size that eats champions?”

Effie pulled off her dragonproof veil. “We didn’t meet any the size of the dining room as we came along,” she said. “I daresay we shall be quite safe.”

So she covered St. George with the veil, and Harry rubbed off as much as he could of the dragon poison onto St. George’s armor, so as to make everything quite safe for him.

“We might hide in the church till it is dark,” he said, “and then — “

But at that moment a dark shadow fell on them, and they saw that it was a dragon exactly the size of the dining room at home.

So then they knew that all was lost. The dragon swooped down and caught the two children in his claws; he caught Effie by her green silk sash, and Harry by the little point at the back of his Eton jacket — and then, spreading his great yellow wings, he rose into the air, rattling like a third-class carriage when the brake is hard on.

“Oh, Harry,” said Effie, “I wonder when he will eat us!” The dragon was flying across woods and fields with great flaps of his wings that carried him a quarter of a mile at each flap.

Harry and Effie could see the country below, hedges and rivers and churches and farmhouses flowing away from under them, much faster than you see them running away from the sides of the fastest express train.

And still the dragon flew on. The children saw other dragons in the air as they went, but the dragon who was as big as the dining room never stopped to speak to any of them, but just flew on quite steadily.

“He knows where he wants to go,” said Harry. “Oh, if he would only drop us before he gets there!”

But the dragon held on tight, and he flew and flew and flew until at last, when the children were quite giddy, he settled down, with a rattling of all his scales, on the top of a mountain. And he lay there on his great green scaly side, panting, and very much out of breath, because he had come such a long way. But his claws were fast in Effie’s sash and the little point at the back of Harry’s Eton jacket.

Then Effie took out the knife Harry had given her on her birthday. It had cost only sixpence to begin with, and she had had it a month, and it never could sharpen anything but slate-pencils; but somehow she managed to make that knife cut her sash in front, and crept out of it, leaving the dragon with only a green silk bow in one of his claws. That knife would never have cut Harry’s jacket-tail off, though, and when Effie had tried for some time she saw that this was so and gave it up. But with her help Harry managed to wriggle quietly out of his sleeves, so that the dragon had only an Eton jacket in his other claw. Then the children crept on tiptoe to a crack in the rocks and got in. It was much too narrow for the dragon to get in also, so they stayed in there and waited to make faces at the dragon when he felt rested enough to sit up and begin to think about eating them. He was very angry, indeed, when they made faces at him, and blew out fire and smoke at them, but they ran farther into the cave so that he could not reach them, and when he was tired of blowing he went away.

But they were afraid to come out of the cave, so they went farther in, and presently the cave opened out and grew bigger, and the floor was soft sand, and when they had come to the very end of the cave there was a door, and on it was written: UNIVERSAL TAPROOM. PRIVATE. NO ONE ALLOWED INSIDE.

So they opened the door at once just to peep in, and then they remembered what St. George had said.

“We can’t be worse off than we are,” said Harry, “with a dragon waiting for us outside. Let’s go in.”

They went boldly into the taproom, and shut the door behind them.

And now they were in a sort of room cut out of the solid rock, and all along one side of the room were taps, and all the taps were labeled with china labels like you see in baths. And as they could both read words of two syllables or even three sometimes, they understood at once that they had gotten to the place where the weather is turned on from. There were six big taps labeled “Sunshine,” “Wind,” “Rain,” “Snow,” “Hail,” “Ice,” and a lot of little ones, labeled “Fair to moderate,” “Showery,” “South breeze,” “Nice growing weather for the crops,” “Skating,” “Good open weather,” “South wind,” “East wind,” and so on. And the big tap labeled “Sunshine” was turned full on. They could not see any sunshine — the cave was lighted by a skylight of blue glass — so they supposed the sunlight was pouring out by some other way, as it does with the tap that washes out the underneath parts of patent sinks in kitchens.

Then they saw that one side of the room was just a big looking glass, and when you looked in it you could see everything that was going on in the world — and all at once, too, which is not like most looking glasses. They saw the carts delivering the dead dragons at the County Council offices, and they saw St. George asleep under the dragonproof veil. And they saw their mother at home crying because her children had gone out in the dreadful, dangerous daylight, and she was afraid a dragon had eaten them. And they saw the whole of England, like a great puzzle map

— green in the field parts and brown in the towns, and black in the places where they make coal and crockery and cutlery and chemicals. All over it, on the black parts, and on the brown, and on the green, there was a network of green dragons. And they could see that it was still broad daylight, and no dragons had gone to bed yet.

Effie said, “Dragons do not like cold.” And she tried to turn off the sunshine, but the tap was out of order, and that was why there had been so much hot weather, and why the dragons had been able to be hatched. So they left the sunshine tap alone, and they turned on the snow and left the tap full on while they went to look in the glass. There they saw the dragons running all sorts of ways like ants if you are cruel enough to pour water into an ant-heap, which, of course, you never are. And the snow fell more and more.

Then Effie turned the rain tap quite full on, and presently the dragons began to wriggle less, and by-and-by some of them lay quite still, so the children knew the water had put out the fires inside them, and they were dead. So then they turned on the hail — only half on, for fear of breaking people’s windows — and after a while there were no more dragons to be seen moving.

Then the children knew that they were indeed the deliverers of their country.

“They will put up a monument to us,” said Harry, “as high as Nelson’s! All the dragons are dead.”

“I hope the one that was waiting outside for us is dead!” said Effie. “And about the monument, Harry, I’m not so sure. What can they do with such a lot of dead dragons? It would take years and years to bury them, and they could never be burnt now they are so soaking wet. I wish the rain would wash them off into the sea.”

But this did not happen, and the children began to feel that they had not been so frightfully clever after all.

“I wonder what this old thing’s for,” said Harry. He had found a rusty old tap, which seemed as though it had not been used for ages. Its china label was quite coated over with dirt and cobwebs. When Effie had cleaned it with a bit of her skirt — for curiously enough both the children had come out without pocket handkerchiefs — she found that the label said “Waste.”

“Let’s turn it on,” she said. “It might carry off the dragons.”

The tap was very stiff from not having been used for such a long time, but together they managed to turn it on, and then ran to the mirror to see what happened.

Already a great, round black hole had opened in the very middle of the map of England, and the sides of the map were tilting themselves up, so that the rain ran down toward the hole.

“Oh, hurrah, hurrah, hurrah!” cried Effie, and she hurried back to the taps and turned on everything that seemed wet. “Showery,” “Good open weather,” “Nice growing weather for the crops,” and even “South” and “South-West,” because she had heard her father say that those winds brought rain.

And now the floods of rain were pouring down on the country, and great sheets of water flowed toward the center of the map, and cataracts of water poured into the great round hole in the middle of the map, and the dragons were being washed away and disappearing down the waste pipe in great green masses and scattered green shoals — single dragons and dragons by the dozen; of all sizes, from the ones that carry off elephants down to the ones that get in your tea.

Presently there was not a dragon left. So then they turned off the tap named “Waste,” and they half-turned off the one labeled “Sunshine” — it was broken, so that they could not turn it off altogether — and they turned on “Fair to moderate” and “Showery” and both taps stuck, so that they could not be turned off, which accounts for our climate.

How did they get home again? By the Snowdon railway of course.

And was the nation grateful? Well — the nation was very wet. And by the time the nation had gotten dry again it was interested in the new invention for toasting muffins by electricity, and all the dragons were almost forgotten. Dragons do not seem so important when they are dead and gone, and, you know, there never was a reward offered.

And what did Father and Mother say when Effie and Harry got home?

My dear, that is the sort of silly question you children always will ask. However, just for this once I don’t mind telling you.

Mother said: “Oh, my darlings, my darlings, you’re safe — you’re safe! You naughty children— how could you be so disobedient? Go to bed at once!”

And their father the doctor said: “I wish I had known what you were going to do! I should have liked to preserve a specimen. I threw away the one I got out of Effie’s eye. I intended to get a more perfect specimen. I did not anticipate this immediate extinction of the species.”

The professor said nothing, but he rubbed his hands. He had kept his specimen — the one the size of an earwig that he gave Harry half a crown for — and he has it to this day.

You must get him to show it to you!

The post PodCastle 594: The Deliverers of Their Country appeared first on PodCastle.

Oct 01 2019

34mins

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PodCastle 593: Balloon Man

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Author : Shiv Ramdas Narrator : Kaushik Narasimhan Host : Setsu Uzume Audio Producer : Peter Behravesh Discuss on Forums Originally published in Giganotosaurus. Rated PG. Balloon Man By Shiv Ramdas If it hadn’t been for the camel, Mithun might never have noticed the old balloon seller at all. He almost didn’t notice the camel […]

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Sep 24 2019

1hr 8mins

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PodCastle 592: TALES FROM THE VAULTS — The Axiom of Choice

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Author : David W. Goldman Narrator : Eric Luke Host : Craig Jackson Audio Producer : Peter Behravesh Discuss on Forums Originally appeared in The New Haven Review, Winter 2011. Rated R for language, violence and sexual content. This episode is a part of our Tales from the Vaults series, in which a member of PodCastle’s […]

The post PodCastle 592: TALES FROM THE VAULTS — The Axiom of Choice appeared first on PodCastle.

Sep 17 2019

55mins

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PodCastle 591: His Giant Heartbeat

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Author : Natalia Theodoridou Narrator : C. A. Yates Host : Jen R. Albert Audio Producer : Peter Behravesh Discuss on Forums PodCastle 591: His Giant Heartbeat is a PodCastle original. Rated PG-13. His Giant Heartbeat by Natalia Theodoridou I smoke with my back to the caravan while I wait for B and his client to […]

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Sep 10 2019

19mins

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PodCastle 590: Labyrinth, Sanctuary

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Author : A.E. Prevost Narrator : Lisa Hicks Host : Setsu Uzume Audio Producer : Peter Behravesh Discuss on Forums Previously published in Sword and Sonnet, edited by E Catherine Tobler, Aidan Doyle and Rachael K Jones. Rated PG-13. Labyrinth, Sanctuary By A.E. Prevost Constance carves her timeworn tracks into the thirsty rock. With silent […]

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Sep 03 2019

32mins

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PodCastle 589: The Horrible Deaths of Helga Hrafnsdóttir

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Author : Christine Tyler Narrator : Sigríður Gunnarsdóttir Host : Setsu Uzume Audio Producer : Peter Behravesh Discuss on Forums PodCastle 589: The Horrible Deaths of Helga Hrafnsdóttir is a PodCastle original. Rated PG-13 for the horrible deaths we hope won’t come to pass. The Horrible Deaths of Helga Hrafnsdóttir By Christine Tyler The day […]

The post PodCastle 589: The Horrible Deaths of Helga Hrafnsdóttir appeared first on PodCastle.

Aug 27 2019

15mins

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PodCastle 588: Willing

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Author : Premee Mohamed Narrator : Peter Behravesh Host : Setsu Uzume Audio Producer : Peter Behravesh Discuss on Forums First published in Principia Ponderosa anthology by Third Flatiron Press, March 2017. Rated: PG-13, for the harsh demands of gods. Bought bred, the new cow had cost three thousand dollars, and so as night fell with […]

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Aug 20 2019

23mins

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PodCastle 587: Strange Waters

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Author : Samantha Mills Narrator : C. L. Clark Host : Setsu Uzume Audio Producer : Peter Behravesh Discuss on Forums Originally published in Strange Horizons. Rated: PG, for a parent guiding herself home. Strange Waters By Samantha Mills Fisherwoman Mika Sandrigal was lost at sea. She knew where she was in relation to the […]

The post PodCastle 587: Strange Waters appeared first on PodCastle.

Aug 13 2019

43mins

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PodCastle 586: The Masochist’s Assistant

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Author : Auston Habershaw Narrator : Matt Dovey Host : Matt Dovey Audio Producer : Peter Behravesh Discuss on Forums Originally published in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. Rated PG-13, incl blood, violence, and many deaths (sort of)! Make sure to check out Broadcasts from the Wasteland, a new podcast featuring chats and […]

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Aug 06 2019

59mins

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PodCastle 585: Getaway

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Author : Jennifer Hudak Narrator : Jen R. Albert Host : Setsu Uzume Audio Producer : Peter Behravesh Discuss on Forums PodCastle 585: Getaway is a PodCastle original. Content warnings for disordered eating, body dysmorphia, and mild body horror. Rated PG-13. Getaway By Jennifer Hudak Ten days after her family installed themselves in their summer […]

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Jul 30 2019

19mins

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PodCastle 584: TALES FROM THE VAULTS — In Metal, In Bone

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Author : An Owomoyela Narrator : MarBelle Host : C. L. Clark Audio Producer : Peter Behravesh Discuss on Forums Originally published in Eclipse Online. You can read it here! Rated R, for reference to war and wartime atrocities. In Metal, In Bone by An Owomoyela Colonel Gabriel met him in a circle of canvas-topped trucks, in […]

The post PodCastle 584: TALES FROM THE VAULTS — In Metal, In Bone appeared first on PodCastle.

Jul 23 2019

30mins

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