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PodCastle 514, ARTEMIS RISING: My Heart the Bullet in the Chamber

Author : Stephanie Charette Narrator : Robin McLeavy Host : Summer Fletcher Audio Producer : Peter Wood Artist : Geneva Benton Discuss on Forums PodCastle 514, ARTEMIS RISING: My Heart the Bullet in the Chamber is a PodCastle original.Rated R, for shootin’, cussin’, and rollin’ in the hay.My Heart the Bullet in the Chamberby Stephanie CharetteThey said I wouldn’t feel anything from the waist down but that was a lie from the first contraction. Yet when the good doctor took away the baby — healthy, crying — and offered that blood-christened Spencer Repeater in her place, I cradled its stock and barrel and felt the fires of justice in my hands.I will never know my daughter. She will be but one more child in the communal creche, just as I was, to be raised by women who choose not to take a gun.I earned my gun.For the rosewood in her barrel, and for my sister Rosamund, I named her Rosie.Rosie would get me my revenge.The doctor told me later I fell asleep with Rosie in my hands and would not let it go until the next morning. Had to pry it from blood-cracked hands.Just so.Two weeks later and I’m out from under Doc’s care. It’s the full-on miserable hot summer I’ve grown accustomed to hating, where the air is thick with flies and horse shit and everyone’s cross. I’m sore, too, chewing the doctor’s tablets while I lurk in the shadow of the saloon awning as a commotion starts up down the road. My tits are back to normal — Doc gave me a tincture to dry them right up — but my hips ache and sitting ain’t comfortable anymore. They tell me that’ll pass, so I just keep moving and hope my bones and insides knit together true.I fidget with Rosie’s leather sling, made myself in my seventh month, her name and mine stitched with tiny beads of garnet and hematite. Carry Rosie everywhere. When it’s not wrapped around me, I’m naked.Everyone’s like that with her gun. Guns of any kind: ones we’ve made, ones we’ve bartered for, ones we brought with us, ones we’ve stolen. A woman’s gun is her right, her privilege and her duty.A duty all of us must be ready to carry out.I watch him, a man, struggle to get up out of a muddy rut in the road. Three women not far behind him walk easy. They ain’t in a rush ‘cause they know, like everyone knows, there’s no place for him to go.Man’s blubbering. He gets up onto both feet but a sharp shot from a sling strikes an inch from his heel and sends him careening forward. I see Connie, dark mane loose in blistering wind, ready another stone. Sasp is not far behind, no weapon in her hand, but fury ripples like a shield before her. She’s howling without words at the man running ahead.Between the idiot and the two women is Abigail slotting in one bullet then another into her rifle, calm and unstoppable as sunrise.I’m not the only one watching. Some take up positions by a fence, a post. Others hang out of windows, making bets, calling others to witness. Mostly women but a few men, too. Even the creche center, least the older kids, are being made to watch and learn.The man, begging, thinks there’s another way out.I look at Sasp again. Her shirt is torn, one breast exposed. Blood on her hands. I grip the railing under the awning till my fingers are white and hard as quartz. They’re hungry for Rosie but I keep them where they are. He’s not mine to take.“I’ll leave!” the dead man screams.Abigail, cold as January, says, “We told you what’s what when you came. You agreed.”“It’s a misunderstanding.” He looks from face to face until he alights on one he thinks might help. “You know,” he says to another man nearby. “You know!”That man — decent, been here since before I was born — wisely turns away.“Please. Please.” He’s crying.Abigail raises her rifle. “No.”A singular shot rings through the town. The man crumples into the dirt. A few voices cry out in triumph, while others sagely nod. Sasp wanders over and kicks him several times. She’s not shouting anymore. I can’t tell if he’s breathing from where I am, but it don’t matter. It’s done. I watch two women move forward to claim the dead man for disposal as Connie leads Sasp away.Town’s quiet. Will be for a while.Now might be a good time.I stop dithering and go inside the saloon.A veteran is at a table near the entrance, gray-maned, scarred. Eyes red, lips grim, wreathed in tobacco and hashish. Her left leg’s wood from the knee down with the date of Founding carved into the calf and circled with thorny roses and rearing snakes. Her own gun, a six-shooter, is snug between arm and chest.She sees me, and a smile splits her face. “Little Miss is a Matron now,” she says. “That’s a big gun for a girl your age, don’t you think?”“I earned it,” I snap back. I show the tattoo on my arm — three kinked lines.She frowns. “That you did. Mighty young for it.”“Had to happen sometime.”She narrows her eyes. “You’re Alice, ain’t ya?”“What of it?”“Glad to see you ain’t following in your sister’s footsteps.”Spit catches in my throat. “What?”“Never had much sense, that girl.”My first instinct is something uncivilized and violent. I fight it down. Waited too damn long to blow it now for some veteran who don’t know my sister at all. I try to say mildly, “Why do you say that?”“You’re putting down roots,” she says, leaning back with an appraiser’s eye. “What do you think a gun means?”My fury is inarticulate. If I stay longer, I’ll say something stupid. “Good day, Matron.”“And to you, Little M . . . Matron.”I stalk over to the bar. Back before the town was abandoned and found again, so to speak, the saloon sold liquor. Town’s been dry since before Founding and all those shelves hold a range of repurposed liquor bottles filled with medicine, honey, dried herbs, teas, and of course, tobacco and hashish.I’m only interested in the one.To the bartender, I nod to the fat jar of knotted leaves. She asks me how much and I slide a fistful of dollars over the counter. In a minute she presents me a butcher-paper package tied with twine.The remainder of what I’ll need will come from the General Store. With what’s left, I’ll buy everything else: rope, hard cheese, traveling bread, and anything I can spare the coin on. It’s all I have, every penny I’ve saved since Rosamund, and it has to be enough. I can’t wait anymore.With the moon behind me, I set out on a borrowed horse that same night, heading to the mountains where Rosamund and I got lost.I spare a thought back at Founding as it retreats behind desert rock and scrub brush as like to bite you as to shelter you.Founding is only thirty years old. Those of us born here, borne after, don’t know what it was like before. You sit a Matron down with a fat cigarette after a long day and she’ll tell you why she left. Their stories are all different, but all the same, too.The rule, no matter whether you’re white settler, ex-slave, Chinese from the coast or Shoshone, Navaho, or Paiute: no man shall touch a weapon and no man will take what isn’t given. Any and all who will live by our creed are welcome. We never speak of Founding to outsiders, hell never speak to outsiders unless we’re veterans ourselves. Break either at your peril.That I can’t tell anyone in Founding what happened is on us, me and her. We broke our laws. Rosamund and I shouldn’t ever have been where we were. Founding means more to me than it ever did. I don’t want to leave, but Rosamund deserves her justice. If it takes some injustice to get it, well, I made peace with that the day after I got back and Rosamund didn’t and fucked that boy on the steps of the barn praying his fumbling seed would catch.I think of her as I ride, remembering her face in the lapis lazuli and beaten gold smearing the horizon. The mountain rears ahead, holding none of the fascination it once had. I know near all its secrets now. I’ll get the last one if it kills me.Rosamund knew the trails on the southwest side of Founding lands better than anybody. We had caches up and down our favorite trails and safe spaces to camp. We never went unarmed, but only knives and slings. We both learned to shoot — we all do, soon as we’re about ten — but you only get a gun after you’ve given life. She’d held off, like most do. At eighteen, Rosamund was near time to choose, Matron or Maid, but I held off on account of me. I did whatever she did, and having a kid at fifteen is pretty stupid.Any Matron will tell you that.We did just fine on our own. We’d take horses, bedrolls, sleep under the stars, be gone a week or more. Rosamund would point out Founding scouts watching us from afar on our first overnights. After a while they stopped, trusting we wouldn’t fall off a cliff or let a rattler bite us.We showed them.I get to the first cache sometime after dusk and send the horse back the way we came. No one will think to look for me yet, ‘cause leaving is allowed. Leaving is what everyone thought my sister had done — though they’re as wrong as they could ever be.When they asked about my sister, I told them she had wandered out one night towards the setting sun and never came back. Told ‘em I cried, I searched, and after a day turned around and came back. That any of them ever thought Rosamund would leave the town, or me, behind, hurt nearly as bad.Rosamund would have bred and bled for Founding, and for me.Now I owe ’em both.Night comes, and I send the horse on home with a slap to its ass. I don’t have to light a fire because the ground below me still bakes with the day’s heat but I do light a roll of hash and smoke deep. The stars above me are endless and cold. A thunderbird streaks across the cloudless sky, shedding lightning in its wake, and I take it for a sign. I sleep sound for the first time in ten months.When I wake, I can feel her there beside me but if I try to look at her, any sense of her shimmers away. No matter. I pick up my pack, sling Rosie over my shoulder, and walk another day until the second cache, this one hiding our girlhood treasures. I bed down beside it, holding ‘em tight to my face — the lucky horseshoe, the broken switchblade, the old spyglass — trying to catch the scent of her, anything.That’s when I see her.She’s smiling and she’s sad and I think she knows what I mean to do. Can see through her, too, the sun-baked mountains becoming her body, the high clouds streaking west her hair. Ghost or dream or something else, I don’t give a shit anymore.We’ll see if she’s still there when I’m done.I walk the last few miles slow, my ears and eyes at full attention. The desert doesn’t change much, unless it’s by our hands, so the path is still mostly my own until I get within an hour of the mountain.A cigar butt left to burn out in the rocks. Don’t know how old it is, but it’s about as obvious and out of place as a severed finger lying there. Powdery footsteps captured in drought-sundered earth head back to the mountain. I pull a mottled poncho around me, hunch over, and start picking my way from rock to rock. The shadows turn into long tongues while memories swarm thick as flies.The smell of horseshit gave them away the first time. Rosamund and I climbed the mountain and spent a day watching those horses and the leathered men that came with ‘em. They came and went with a couple donkeys and a cart and all kinds of scrap they’d scavenged from god knows where.It wasn’t until most of the rest had left for parts unknown, leaving two younger fellas behind to guard the cave, that Rosamund and I decided to see what they were up to besides being young and handsome. Founding is mostly women, maybe some third menfolk, so a few of us are a bit starved for company if we don’t find comfort among our own. One was tall and fair, with teeth round and perfect like a rattler’s tail, the other dark, smoky-voiced. He had kind eyes.He didn’t know what was coming.We threw rocks to get their attention, and surprised them when they ventured out to see what was causing the ruckus. We lied about where we came from, one well prepared. Daughters of a horse breeder, one that didn’t always buy and breed his own, a flourish we added once we were sure they weren’t above board themselves. We assured them we weren’t there to steal their horses and they assured us they weren’t about to steal our virtues — but were mighty interested should we decide to lend ‘em.We spent a companionable night under the stars, passing their white fire moonshine in a tiny flask and sharing our hash. The boys bragged how they were in charge of the still, promised to show us some real dynamite they’d used in the caves. Rosamund took the fair one, and me the other.An hour after the North star sunk below the mountain line and the moon marched out, the fair one asked if we wanted to see the still. Rosamund had an engineer’s eye and said yes to the pretense. “After,” she added with a wink.The blond took her hand, and his friend took mine. Lanterns in their other hands, knowing smiles on all our faces, we entered the caves and found each of us a bit of privacy.The cool earth beneath us warmed with our efforts. His breath was whisky-sweet on mine, his hands gentle.I will never regret that moment.I wish I could remember his name.After, when we were satisfied, haphazardly dressed, and still drunk on it all, they took us to see the still. The machinery was a piece of work all right, and Rosamund was stricken. Asked lots of questions as the blond fumbled for answers. I was much more interested in pressing my body into my lover, listening only to his lips in my ear.Never once occurred to me I might take him home, make him one of ours. Sometimes it keeps me up at night, thinking on it, long before the baby in my belly started kicking.Rosamund pressed the blond when he fell short of answers, and then took up a wrench to look for herself.“Hey now, that’s not for girls.” He put his hand on her.She laughed but it wasn’t light and it wasn’t friendly. “Can’t I hold a wrench just as tightly?” Her eyes narrowed to gold slivers in the lantern light. “Held yours just fine, didn’t I?”Even by rosy lamplight I saw his cheeks color, and the line of his mouth turn hard. “Not very ladylike, that kinda talk.” He hadn’t yet let go of her arm, the one with the wrench. Yanked her close, roughly squeezed. “I’ve shown you the still. Let’s get back to nicer things.”She stood her ground. “Remove your hand before I’m not so nice.”“We got ourselves a couple of calico queens! Looking to rob us, too.” He sneered. “I’d have paid good for you. Now I won’t.”She tried to yank her arm from him but he held tight. So Rosamund clocked him with her other hand.Blood spurted out of his lips and I think I heard a tooth crack. Silence as we all watched him put his hand to his mouth. Me and mine were not an inch apart, bodies stiff as we waited.The blond jumped Rosamund and they fought like barn cats, swinging punches, landing kicks. I screamed, tried to leap in after, but mine held me back until I shrugged him. It didn’t feel like two seconds had gone when he came back and fired a warning shot into the cave. Bullet struck metal before it ricocheted and found peace in the stone. The pair stopped, red dirt covering their clothes, sticking to the places where they were bleeding.I turned, cold and furious, to see the revolver in his hand still smoking, his expression afraid and angry all at once.You have to understand — no man touches a gun in Founding. Man touches a gun, his life is forfeit. No excuses, no second chances. Founding learned the hard way. That’s our law, drummed into us from the time we can talk. Instinct.Rosamund was just doing what she knew.She leapt up, the blond beside her forgotten, and threw herself onto mine. They fell together, her with a growl, him with a cut-off cry, behind a rise of rock.Grunting. Dust rising. A second gunshot.Rosamund stood up. Shaken, whole.Mine never got up again.The blond shouted, “You whore, you dirty whore!”Next I knew he had a gun, he was crying and spitting, and me and my sister were running ourselves deeper and deeper into the caves. She fired and missed but it was enough to let us bolt down a passage – going the wrong way. But there was no turning around. Bullets flew behind us, sending rock shards and dust onto our heads.“I’ll fucking kill you both!”He knew the caves. We didn’t. Rosamund only had the one gun and three bullets. No shooting blind. We’d need ‘em. Deeper we went, until Rosamund stopped and took a path that smelled like fresh air.Back on the trail, that smell surrounds me now.I shudder, push it away, look to the mountain.It’s not the first time that I wonder if he survived that night.That I might be nursing a grudge on a dead man.Then I smell ’em. Horses.They’re still using the place, even after. That’s one doubt dead, but it raises another. Indecision I can’t afford holds me still as I try to decide.I know the way to the cave entrance. Rosamund and I had found it two years back before them boys took it for themselves. Bigger than we could ever explore and hidden on the south side behind a rise of rock. Stays cool, shady, and the caves run at least a mile deep.But it wasn’t the way we left that last time.I look to Rosamund, who has walked with me all day, her expression flat like a river rock. She turns her face west. Towards Founding.“I have to look,” I say. “You would, in my place.”She shimmers like a heat vision.This takes more time because I have to pan through memories I don’t much like looking at. Not like I was paying close attention when I left, either. The split cactus. Rocks blackened from some ancient fire. I try hard not to think about the blood, but that was there, too.Caucus blooms among the base of the mountains, tops crowned feathery-purple. I slink shadow to shadow, trying to retrace year-old steps, and stop when I smell something stronger than horse – moonshine.Stomach churns like it’s making butter and everything I ate curdles hard and sour. Would do me no good thing to be sick, so I kneel, Rosie’s sling a rosary between my fingers while I wait for the urge to be sick, for the memory, to pass.. . . running through the caves, searching for something familiar, tunnels getting smaller and smaller at every turn until we had to squeeze ourselves sideways against the rock.I wasn’t making it easy. Kept turning around, fighting Rosamund with every step. “We can take him!”But Rosamund, two inches taller than me and a good twenty pounds heavier, wordlessly hooked my arm with hers and forced me ahead.The blond was right on our heels, his laughter certain and sharp.Heard hissing. Memory flaring of him nattering on about his Daddy letting him light the fuses.Sweat on my lip turns to mud with cave dust. “He wouldn’t!”“No sense in his head,” she muttered. “Move!”I planted my feet. “Just shoot him!”Last time she touched me, she pushed me hard like when we were little and fighting and meant it even though we didn’t know what we meant back then. I stared at her, shocked, shoulder smarting, and our gazes locked like two snakes waiting for the other to strike.Rosamund knew what was coming. She was the smart one.She raised her hand to strike me proper and I shrank back.It was just far enough backwards to put me where I could smell fresh air, see a different kind of black up above.She turned and howled into the passage we’d just come down, shooting off her remaining bullets in a burst until click, click, click. The glow of what I thought was a tossed cigarette resolved into a lit stick of dynamite bouncing between stones.Wasn’t thinking. Just leapt up, scrabbling at the rock.The explosion busted my ears to ringing, but I climbed and scraped and bled.And left her for the rocks to swallow.Left her behind as I ran back to Founding unable to say a word.My heart pounds like a tight Shoshone drum, as if everything has just happened, and I seethe. As if I didn’t wear a crown of grief a year old and hold a gun newly born? I clench my teeth, will not let my grief buckle me now, not when I am so close. I lean on Rosie and her cool barrel until I find myself again.Moonshine means the still works deep in the bowels of the mountain. I pop the last of Doc’s tablets to ease both the milk and my pains, then skitter sideways, holding on to the rock and knocking pebbles loose until I find it, the spot where I came out. Invisible from outside, unless you know where to look or ’cause you came up from underneath. Looks like any old shaft that finally collapsed. Only a few finger-wide spaces between rocks that lead down and inside. Maybe an enterprising snake can slip between the cracks, but certainly not me.Or Rosamund.I sit and clean my rifle to settle my nerves. Every movement molasses-slow yet precise — a meditation as the sun dips below the mountain and the last of the day’s heat ripples off the rocks. I clean until I can’t smell moonshine.Do no good to go in blazing. Not enough bullets, never mind the rights. I’m owed one. One bullet. Two if I’m careless. A long, slow hunt. That’s how I’ll play it until the end. We’ll see what happens after that.I load two rounds and climb back up out of the hole. Head down the footpath that will lead me back to where it all started and where it all ended and where I’ll end it for good.I slink across tumbled rocks. My streaked, hooded poncho masks my movements along the way. When I hear them — men, a good five or so — they’re shooting at bottles lined up along a plank of wood resting on two rocks. Drinking, eating, some kind of chili that makes my stomach groan, enjoying themselves while they wait on some younger boys to finish loading barrels into a cart with false walls. I watch all this chewing on cactus jerky and drinking the last drops from my water canteen.It’s well dark when they decide to leave and I am one of a hundred shadows. I count by lantern light: ten horses, two carts, and eight men leave. I wait until their lights are firefly-faint along the horizon before I head down. My grip is tight around the neck of the rifle, which I hold close to make sure it doesn’t strike the rocks and give me away.Dark entrance, but my eyes have eaten nothing but moonlight for long enough that I can pick my way across and inside.Voices, male, warp and weft inside the cavern that opens wide before splitting off into many side passages. Torches set in the wall throw pools of light, places to avoid as I skulk around. Hard to get a beat on where I should go. My memories are donkey-stubborn and don’t want to give up any recollection of the layout of this place unless I want the good and the bad with it, too.I can’t afford either right now. Not until I find him.Passages narrow and widen; then I hear dice clattering on stone and the sound of clinking glass. Two voices, or is that three? No, two.The impulse strikes me — to forget them and find Rosamund, wherever she lies — instead of the man that killed her. But where would I look, and what would I do?Rosie, heavy on my shoulder sling, reminds me why I’m here.I focus on their voices, slow my steps, hurrying only when they laugh. As I get closer to the lantern light, their shadows stretch like canvas onto the stone walls. I can smell moonshine and not just from the still.I could take both of ‘em. My shot’s that good.But only one deserves it.“Graham, you snake shit. You’re cheating.”“I ain’t! You’re just a poor player.” There’s a scuffling noise, as if a couple dollars are being snatched up from the ground. “Another round? Or are you chicken?”Graham! The name falls into place like a loaded chamber.Another game begins. Dice fall, they drink in turn.“Ever bring a girl back here?” the other asks.All sense of joviality ebbs back, and Graham says at last, “Not from town. Too far, and which of them would keep a secret?”“Too bad.” I falter a bit; this one sounds young. “Guess yer pa would have your skin, anyhow.”Someone spits. “I’m not his whipping boy anymore, and I’ve had a girl out here. Once.”The hairs on my arms stand on end.“Fucked her good not far from where we’re sitting. Tits like melons, but stupid. In the end, she got what was coming.” His voice dips low. “Goddamn calico.”My insides burn and it takes all I have to not just fly around the rocks from where I’m hiding and tear his face off.I throw a rock instead, a big one, and it thumps against a back wall. It’s enough to get them to stop their shit talking, but not enough to move ‘em. The second rock won’t be ignored.A sigh. “Check it out, Clem.”“Why me?”“Not to put a fine point on it,” Graham drawls, “but ‘cause I said so.”A mumbled curse, and then I hear the second man get up and leave.I ready my gun.He’s sitting all kitty-cornered with a glass bottle and a fistful of dice. His eyes are glossy and there’s a smear of haze from a guttering oil lamp nearby. He’s not really looking at me, this Graham, sure I’m his stupid Clem. I don’t look much like I did a year ago. Dust covered, cheeks smeared with rust-red mud, and my dappled poncho hanging loose on my frame. Never mind Rosie pointed his way.Takes him a second, and every line of him tenses as he gets his feet under him.Blinks hard, like he’s not sure he sees me. “You’re the one that got away.”“I am.”“You know how much trouble I got in? I went looking for you.”“We’ll I’m here now, ain’t I?”He gives up trying to stand and sits cross-legged instead, all while I stare him down my sights. He lets out a single chuckle.“What’s so fucking funny?”“You ain’t gonna kill me.”“Why, cause I would have done it already?” I cocked the gun. “Shit, you’re dumb. That ain’t why you’re still breathing.”“You want me to beg?”I laughed. “Try again.”“My friend will be back.”“You mean Clem? I got bullets to spare.”His bravado falters. “You were listening to us?”“For a while, as a matter of fact. You never mentioned me.”“Never fucked you.”“Fucked your friend, though, didn’t I? And where’s he now?”I twist the knife, but it cuts both of us. He slits his eyes.I grind my teeth, all but shouting in my head, say his name, say his name. I don’t dare ask for it, ‘cause then he’ll never tell.Guilt digs into me — I’m not here for some stupid boy I fucked. Rosamund. I’m here for Rosamund.“Take me where she died.”What color was in his face is gone. “Clem’ll get you.”“Move!”Graham gets up slow, deliberately knocks his bottle. His hopeful look that the noise might draw attention fades quick. I can’t be sure, but from the sounds of it we take a different passage than his buddy Clem, right to his left, narrower and dark, so I tell him to take the lantern. He does.Dust is pretty thick here, and I get the impression from his sad-sack shuffle that he hasn’t been down here in a while. Nothing looks familiar, but then again we were running and it was Rosamund leading the way. After a few minutes, the walls look less like walls and more like rocks fallen together.“Never told no one she’s here,” he says.I don’t answer.“Won’t tell them about you, either. When I’m done with you.”I jab him in the back with Rosie’s nose. “Keep walking.”“Guess you never told, neither.” He shifts around a spur of rock like he’s been doing it his whole life. “Else you and yours would have come right back for blood. No one to tell.”I clamp my mouth shut, ‘cause I don’t need to speak. My thumping heart is talking loud enough for both of us.He ain’t wrong. I could never go to the Founding elders and tell ‘em what happened. We broke everything — talking to outsiders, drinking, selling our hash. Being a part of Founding is a privilege, they are quick to remind us, one that can be revoked even for us born after Founding. Whatever it takes to remain sovereign.The tunnel ends in a shambles of rock. I can still see, still smell, the scorch marks. Gunpowder and something oily-sweet underneath it all.He’s standing in my way, all his lippiness and languor gone.“Out of the way,” I tell him.He doesn’t move, so I kick him and his drunk ass falls to his knees. The oil lamp falls, too, but rights itself after a tumble.One skeletal hand sticks out from under the rocks.All I see is red.I slam the rifle butt into his head, connecting with a good hard crack, and kick him a couple of times. He curls onto his side, his own hand not far from hers.“Fuck you,” he slurs through bloody lips. “Goddamn cunt. She got hers. Just like you will.”Hurts to think. Too many things pressing in, and I’m not talking about the walls. “Maybe,” I whisper, leveling the gun at him. “And maybe I don’t care. Do you even remember her name?”“Rosamund.” He spits, then his eyes gleam with understanding. “And you ain’t ever getting his.”A shot fires, and it ain’t mine. Misses though, sending a rain of rock dust down on us both.I turn and blast the shadow behind me without thinking.And when I turn back around, fucking Graham is bolting up, hands reaching for my throat.I fire straight into his face.Silence, after that. I can’t look at Rosamund’s hand just yet, so I look down at Graham. The shot knocked him back — spread-eagled on the floor, face up. Blood seeping out of what’s left of it.Two bullets, two down.I spit.My feet aren’t too steady, and my grip on the rifle is loose. Don’t want to carry it anymore. Too heavy. I lay it down next to Rosamund.Dust is choking thick now. I just want to be out. I pass the other dead man, which turns out to be Clem. Took the blast square in the chest. Guess all my practice with Rosie was worth it, but I feel sick inside.I’m caked in the red dust from the cave when I see him, their third. Just a boy, with his half chin of hair and still-round cheeks. Same age as me, if I were a betting woman.Those eyes, though.His eyes.Was he sleeping somewhere else and heard the shots?The boy takes one look at me with his brother’s eyes and goes sheet-white. I don’t know what he thinks he’s seeing: a ghost, a fury or just a woman, but he’s scared and he doesn’t have a gun.“Still’s gonna blow,” I say. “Run.”He does.Easy to find the dynamite. I stare at those carefully packed sticks a long time before I move the whole crate beside the belly of the still, not caring a whisker if that boy might come back to do me in.Hell, I might do me in.I take one stick in my hand, turn it around a couple of times, deciding.I light the fuse.January shreds the clouds and brings nothing but old memories. Rosamund and Graham and that Clem ghost beside me no matter where I go, what I do. And every night, I see that moonshine-fueled fire burn phoenix-bright after the dynamite blew it all to hell.My second child is due in three months.I hate waddling but that’s all I’m good for, that and any work I can do that lets me sit a while. Doc assures me everything’s fine. She asks, gently, if there’s anything I want to talk about.“Girls your age tend to stagger ’em,” she says, taking off a stethoscope that still bears the stamp of the New York doctor who used to own it. “Especially when you haven’t found a vocation yet.”I tell her no, I got nothing to talk about and to mind her business, polite as I can manage.I’m eager to go, as I have an appointment. Have to pass through the creche to leave Doc’s office. A whole passel of kids, toddlers up to eight-year-olds, playing, fussing, shouting, laughing. Older kids, already in their apprenticeship rotations, have outgrown the one-room classroom and are underfoot elsewhere. Several Maids, women who choose not to bear children, who will never bear arms, are frazzled but look happy as they corral their charges.It is a privilege to defend Foundling but there’s a price. A fair one. Every life you take in this world must be returned in kind. I owed one more.One Maid, only a few years older than me, carries a babe in a sling.The girl-child is about the right age to be mine. Don’t want to look, but I do.Those eyes of hers, so like his, that gentle whiskey-brown, and I know. And ache for him all over again.Putting down roots, like the Matron said.I rub the tears out of my eyes and leave. I’ve got to see a woman about a gun.The post PodCastle 514, ARTEMIS RISING: My Heart the Bullet in the Chamber appeared first on PodCastle.


20 Mar 2018

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PodCastle 613: TALES FROM THE VAULTS — Hoywverch

Author : Heather Rose Jones Narrator : Sarah Goleman Host : C. L. Clark Audio Producer : Peter Adrian Behravesh Discuss on Forums This story was a PodCastle original that aired back in 2015.Rated PG.HoywverchBy Heather Rose JonesElin verch Gwir Goch oed yn arglwydes ar Cantref Madruniawn wrth na bo i’w thad na meibion na brodyr. A threigylgweith dyvot yn y medwl vynet y hela. Ac wrth dilyt y cwn, hi a glywei llef gwylan. Ac edrych i fyny arni yn troi, a synnu wrthi. A’y theyrnas ymhell o’r mor. Ac yna y gelwi i gof ar y dywot y chwaervaeth Morvyth pan ymadael ar lan Caer Alarch: Os clywhych gwylan yn wylo, sef minnau yn wylo amdanat. A thrannoeth cyvodi a oruc ac ymadael a’y theulu a’y niver a’y chynghorwyr, a marchogaeth a oruc tra doeth i’r mor.Elin, the daughter of Gwir Goch, ruled over the cantref of Madrunion, for her father had neither sons nor brothers. And one day it came into her mind to go hunting. As she was riding after the hounds, she heard the cry of a seagull and looked up to see a white bird circling overhead. She marveled at it, for her lands were far from the sea. And then she remembered what her foster-sister Morvyth had said when they parted on the shore by Caer Alarch: “When you hear a gull crying, that will be me — crying for you.” And the next morning she took leave of her household and her warriors and her counselors and rode west for the sea.The scent in the air was just as I had remembered it: sharp and rich at the same time. I’d seen and heard the gulls for hours before my path topped the hill and the wide expanse of the Irish Sea spread out before me. The land curved to embrace it, gathering an armful of harbor to hold close and safe against winter storms. And there, where the hills rose past the outlet of the laughing river, the timbered walls and halls of Caer Alarch stood. My eyes were not for the court, but for the cluster of ships pulled out on the narrow slip of sand — ships with the look and build of Ireland. I let my horse pick her own way down to the shore and across the shifting flats where the tide had run low. Then we climbed the hills again to the eastward side where the gates of Caer Alarch opened.The men who watched the gate I knew of old, though the last time they’d seen me I had been a wild hoyden, racing my pony along the beach and daring Morvyth to explore the treacherous caves under the cliffs. Neither one knew me at first, until I called out, “Ha, Meurig! Am I so changed?”Then their faces split into grins, and one answered, “Elin!” He corrected himself quickly. “Lady! You’ve come in time, just barely.”With the foreboding already resting on my shoulders, his words would have chilled my heart if they’d not been spoken with such cheer. “In time?” I asked.“For the wedding feast,” came the answer.I scarcely noticed as they called for a stable boy to take my horse and gave me escort into the hall. Music and laughter spilled out of the doors into the frosty air. The room within was crowded and smoky and rich with the savor of roasting meat. My eyes darted to the upper end of the hall. A strange, red-bearded man sat in the place of honor with Morvyth to one side and her parents to the other. Morvyth’s eyes met mine with an air of wild disbelief, of mingled hope and despair. I saw how she sat: as far at the end of the bench as she could from the stranger. And I saw the white pallor of her skin against the raven-darkness of her hair and the dark shadows underneath her eyes. I thought I saw her lips shape the word please. And though I could not do more than guess at what had gone before, now I knew the shape of what had called me here.The gate-keeper, Meurig, announced my name and rank and a hush fell over the company as they turned to look—those of the court in surprised recognition, and the strangers in curiosity. Morvyth’s mother leaned close to the red-bearded stranger, whispering something to which he nodded. Morvyth’s father half-rose, staring at me in something between apprehension and guilt.“Foster-father, how does it come that I was not invited to Morvyth’s wedding feast?” I asked boldly, seizing the advantage that I saw. “If I had known, I would have brought rich gifts. Instead I must stand here a suppliant at your gates.”Morvyth’s father sat once more, his look doubtful and nervous. “There was no time. We did not mean to slight you . . .” His words trailed off. I had no doubt that they were true. When I was called home, he had been glad enough to see the last of me, but he would not have let that stand in the way of his own interests. Morvyth was my foster-sister; it would shame me not to bring rich gifts to her wedding. “What have you come seeking?” he asked with more confidence.I turned from him and eyed the stranger who stared at me in bemused fascination. I have heard tales of the great Irish queens of olden times, but I think that they do not now have a place for female lords. I think that he was trying to find a word to put to me. And for my part I must judge him quickly. Could I lead him into rash promises, or would he be wary? I said to my foster-father, “I seek nothing from you today. But you, my lord,” I said, addressing the Irishman. “Today is your wedding day, and it is right for you to make gifts and grant boons to all who come before you. It is with you that my errand must be today.” And though it galled me, I knelt before him with my arms upraised.He smiled, a little smugly, and reached over to take Morvyth’s hand in his. She allowed it — hardly noticing, for her gaze was locked on me. “So it is,” he said. “And whatever you ask, if it is legal and honorable for me to give it, you shall have it.”I caught my lip between my teeth as I rose. It was not the promise I had hoped to get. But perhaps it would be enough. “The lady at your side,” I said, “is my foster-sister. And she is dearer to me than life itself. When you marry her and take her home to Ireland I will never see her again in this world. Give her leave to visit me in my court for a year and a day before she weds you.”His eyes went wide and he looked over to Morvyth’s father for advice, protesting, “That is impossible.”I pressed my advantage. “It is legal; no one can claim that it is not. And how could it not be honorable to cherish the bonds of fosterage?” I looked meaningfully at the other well-born Irish strangers in the hall. He could not dismiss that claim in the face of his own foster-brothers. “You will have her the rest of your life. Grant her to me for one year.”I could see the thoughts flitting through his mind: an empty-handed voyage home; returning in a year to another round of whatever tears and pleas and threats it had taken to bring a white-faced Morvyth to sit stiffly by his side. But then the sweetening of her dowry he could expect for the delay and thoughts of Morvyth herself. When I saw that smoldering in his eyes my fingers curled into fists, frightening me with the force of my emotions. Was it only that Morvyth so clearly dreaded him? If she had smiled and pressed close to him would I still long to feel my hands on his throat? But at last he nodded. Indeed, what else could he do?Morvyth’s father beckoned to me. “Come, sit beside me for the feast. There is no need to waste it. In the morning we will begin to prepare things for her visit and you can ride ahead to make ready.”No, I would not fall into that trap. But for now I smiled and sat to share in the feast.I remember nothing of that evening: not the taste of the meat nor the sound of the harping nor any of what I must have said to my foster-father. But when the time came for the revelry to end, Morvyth came to me and took me by the hand and led me to her bed-chamber. The room had been prepared for the bride and groom, with sweet-scented wood on the fire and soft linens on the bed and a pitcher of mead on the table in case the wine that had flowed at dinner had not been enough to calm a maiden’s fears. And while I poured a cup for each of us, she set a bar across the inside of the door.“Will you drink?” I asked. I think she had touched nothing during the feast.“No,” she said and then, “Yes.” She took the cup and drank a long draught before setting it aside. Then she fell into my arms and began weeping.I stroked her long black hair and whispered, “Hush, hush,” until she stopped. “I’ve given you a year,” I said. “But at the end of it, Garvan will still be there. What will reconcile you to this marriage?”I knew, from her look, that it had been the wrong thing to say. She pulled away from me wordlessly and went to stand by the fire. She had ever been so when something worried her and I would always need to tease and coax it out of her. But this time, when I turned her face toward mine, she opened her mouth as if to speak, then shook her head. The gull, I thought, had been easier to follow. A line from a poem came to my lips, “Hoywverch, mae’r serch a’m dwg fel ser heno? Bright girl, where tonight is the passion that drew me like a star?” The poet, lamenting a girl’s maddening silence.Her eyes burned. “Where is the passion? If it drew you, need you ask?”I shrugged in confusion. “It was only a poet’s fancy.”She turned away angrily and was silent once more. I was tired from riding and tired from the long uneasy feast. Whatever her sorrow was, I would have a year to draw it out of her. I laid aside my cloak and stripped off my riding clothes, still spattered by mud.It was the softest of sounds that made me turn: the whisper of a gown falling to the floor. She held out her hand to me and whispered, “Elin.” A fire coursed through me and burned away the mist from my mind. I stepped toward her, pulled like a fish on a hook. We had shared a bed all through our youth, but there was no mistaking this invitation for those innocent days. The smooth sheets chilled me but the touch of her skin burned. She showed me — as she had not been able to tell — why Ireland should not have her and we made of it a marriage-bed after all.We rose early in the morning, before those with thicker heads could wake, and took short leave of her parents. I set her up before me on my horse, not because we could not have had a second for the asking, but for the joy of twining my arms around her as we rode. And when we came through the gates of my court, the household greeted her and welcomed her as my sister. Only we knew differently, though many soon guessed. We were not separated that year, by day or by night, and only the turning of the seasons cast a shadow.When the year was done and we returned to Caer Alarch, twenty men of my retinue rode with us, with pack-horses carrying gifts and a brace of greyhounds for my foster-father. The Irish ships were on the shore once more. Morvyth drew her horse to a stop when she saw them. “I hoped he would not come,” she said.I edged my horse next to hers and leaned close to whisper, “Never fear, he shall not have you. Do as I have said and I will arrange things.” She sighed and turned her face to kiss me.When we came within the walls, it was the hardest thing I had ever done to lift her down from her horse and watch her walk slowly to greet her parents.The hall was crowded that day, with my men as guests as well as the Irishmen. I waited until my foster-parents had sat, and Garvan beside them. I saw him looking around impatiently for Morvyth and came forward to address him.“A year and a day have passed,” I said. “And I thank you for your generosity. But now that the day has come, it is not easy for me to say farewell.” I signaled to two of my men in the doorway behind me. “You have travelled far and at great expense to win a bride. It would not be right for you to return home empty-handed. But perhaps you would find these gifts sufficient to please you in her stead.” The two men came in bearing a sack the size of a small child and laid it on the floor before him, opening it to show silver vessels and horse-trappings set with blue gems and fine garments trimmed with marten.He barely glanced at the treasures and said, “I am not to be bought. I will have my bride.”I watched his face carefully. I could hear his men muttering around the tables. The steward frowned from his place by the door, impatient to serve the feast.I signaled the men once more and four of them left through the door. “And you have been promised a fine dowry,” I continued, as if nothing had been said. “It should not be said that you were the worse for it if you should change your mind.” The four men returned, struggling under the weight of a sack the size of a half-grown boy. They laid it beside the other one and opened the mouth enough to show the glow of golden plates and jewelry set with red gems and garments embroidered with silk and pearls.I could see the faintest spark of greed light his face but he looked to either side at his companions and I could tell he feared to lose face by withdrawing his claim. He paused a long moment while those around the tables whispered curiously. At the end of the hall, the cook looked in to see what the delay was and scowled furiously. Garvan shook his head. “Your gold is not brighter than her eyes. I will have my bride.”I would have smiled too, if I had dared. He had given me the answer I needed. I turned to my men and signaled them once more. Eight of them filed out through the door. I faced him again and said, “It would not be right if you did not get a face-price, were you to give her up. There would be no shame for you if you accepted compensation.” My tongue lingered on the word “shame” and left it lying like a serpent on the floor of the hall. The eight men returned, bent double under the weight of a sack the size of a fully-grown youth. They set it beside the others and loosened the mouth of the sack enough to show the glint of the finest gold-brocaded silk.“Enough of this,” he said impatiently. You may keep your treasures — I will have my bride.”I stepped forward and gestured toward the sacks. “You have no interest in what I have offered? You refuse to take what you see before you and sail away in peace?”He rose from behind the table. “You test my patience, woman.”I needed something different from him. “You will make no claim on what is in these sacks?”“No!” he thundered.I think he realized, in that instant, what he had done. I pulled open the mouth of the largest sack and lifted aside the veil of gold brocade. Morvyth stepped from it and took her place at my side. “Then you have made a poor bargain,” I said. “But all here stand witness to your words.” My men closed the sacks again and bore them from the hall. I turned and bowed to my foster-father. “I have won her fairly from the man you gave her to. But this feast was prepared for him, and not for me, and I shall not begrudge him that.”I took Morvyth by the hand and drew her from the hall. Better to ride away now than to give them time to think. What needed mending could be done later. My men had the horses ready and once more I lifted Morvyth into her saddle.“And what if he had said yes?” Morvyth asked as we crossed the laughing river and climbed into the hills. “What if he had taken the price?”I pulled my horse to a stop as we crested the rise and looked out over the gray sea where the gulls circled and mewed. “If he had taken the first sack, we would have won,” I said, taking her hand and kissing it. “And if he had taken the second sack, we still would have won.”“And if he had taken the third sack?” she asked.I smiled. “Ah, but if he were the sort to take the third sack, I would have known it by the second. And there was a different sack standing ready.” One of the gulls broke away from the others and flew east into the hills. I set my horse’s head to follow it. “It would have been a heavy price, but I would have paid it gladly.”It was late afternoon already when we left Caer Alarch and soon it grew too dark to continue. We made our camp in Cwmnant and for the first time in a year I lay in Morvyth’s arms with no shadow between us.When we rose and mounted in the morning, Morvyth looked back along the track and said, “I thought I heard dogs barking, and the blowing of horns.”I listened, but there was only the stamping and snorting of our horses, eager to be gone. “Perhaps it was the sheep on the far hillside that you heard,” I said.We rode on that day and in the evening came to the abbey of Llanddwynwen and spent the night in the guest-house there. And in the morning we mounted again and rode on. As the sun rose to noon, Morvyth paused on the rise of a hill and looked back down the valley.“I thought I heard the neigh of a horse, and the sound of men shouting,” she said.I motioned my band to stand silently and listened, but I heard nothing. “Cariad,” I said, “perhaps it was only the scream of the eagle circling there on the mountain, and the muttering of the river on the stones.”She looked at me sharply. “Elin, I know the difference between a horse and an eagle, and between a sheep and a hunting horn.”I listened again, but still I could hear nothing, and finally Morvyth shook her head and led us on.We spent that night on the hill of Dinfran, where the bones of an ancient fortress give shelter from the wind. And in the morning we rose and mounted, and soon the walls of my court were in sight.As we reached the gates, Morvyth said, “I can hear the sound of horses, galloping behind us on the road.”I turned, still doubting her, and saw the dust of a troop of riders at the foot of the valley. And I knew that it must be Garvan following after us. So we went into the court and closed the thick oak doors at the gatehouse, and made ready to receive him.When the riders came close enough to see the closed gates, and my warband standing on the walls, they slowed to a walk and came forward as if they were ordinary travelers. Morvyth’s suitor rode up to the gatehouse and roared out my name. I looked down at him from the wall-walk and said, “I am here.”He stared up at me, squinting a little into the brightness of the sky, and said, “You have shamed me and insulted me with your trick. When have I ever done wrong to you?”His words struck deeply and yet I could not have done otherwise. “It was not I you wronged,” I said at last, “but Morvyth. But it is true that I owe you compensation. And I will pay you your face-price, as if you were a man of my own country.” And though I had been willing to pay dearly to win Morvyth free of him, now that I had her safe I found I grudged what I offered him.I think he had expected me to put him off. He sat and thought for a long moment, while his horse stamped and pawed impatiently. Then he said, “I will ask nothing in goods or gold, if you will give me three boons.”My first thought was that he must think me mad or simple. My second was that I might pay him cheaply after all. “I will promise nothing unheard,” I said. “Ask your boons and then I will decide. And if you ask more than is seemly to give, you will need to content yourself with what the law allows to you.”He nodded in agreement so quickly that I wondered, but he asked only, “Give a feast for me and my men, and let Morvyth serve me with her own hands.”I turned his words this way and that looking for some trap, but there seemed no hidden danger. “For my part, you may have the feast,” I answered. “But it is for Morvyth to grant the other.”She had joined me, there on the walls, and she answered in a clear, sweet voice, “Elin, now that I am the lady of your court, it is right that I should serve your guests at table. Welcome to them, and let them come in.”And so the gates were opened and they came in, while the men of my war-band watched them like hunting hawks. My steward set the cooks to roasting meat and baking bread and by the time evening fell there was a feast prepared for them that would not shame my hospitality.Garvan sat in the guest’s place and his men were scattered thinly among the people of my court so that they would be less inclined to make trouble. But though I watched him closely, there was nothing I could complain of, unless it were that he looked more hungrily at Morvyth than at the meat. When the food was served and Morvyth took her place at my other side, we passed the evening in pleasant conversation, as if we had been the best of companions. I thought that I had never spent a stranger evening.When the feasting was finished and it was time to go to sleep, I rose from the table and said to him, “My steward will arrange for your beds, and in the morning you may tell me your second boon.”“I will tell it to you now,” he said lightly. “I ask that I may spend this night lying beside Morvyth in the same bed.”A red rage came over me, and if it had not been for Morvyth’s hand on my arm, I might have killed him where he stood. But I looked at her, and a knowing smile twitched at the corners of her mouth. So I answered instead — though the words choked in my mouth, “That is for Morvyth to grant or not as she chooses.”And she laughed like the song of a lark and said, “What you have asked — only that and no more — I will grant you. Let a bed be prepared here in the hall, and let Elin and her men watch over us all night. And though we may lie in the same bed, if you touch me, you shall be the worse for it.”And so I ordered it done. A mattress was brought forth and laid in the middle of the hall, with sheets and blankets on it. And when Morvyth lay on one side and Garvan on the other, I took my sword and stabbed it through the bed between them, through the linen and straw and into the earth. And I stood and watched over them, with my men ranged on either side, until sunrise lit the lintels of the door. No one within that hall slept that night.And when morning came, and the bed was taken up and put away, I turned to the Irishman and said wearily, “If your third boon is like to your second, then you may save your breath and look to the law for your compensation.”But he smiled amiably and said, “It is time for my men and I to depart. And for my third boon I ask only this: that when we are mounted and ready before your gates, I may have one farewell kiss from Morvyth’s lips.”I was relieved that it was so modest a request, and so eager to see him gone that I said at once, “Yes, yes, you may have it, if that will quit you.”But when he had left to gather his men and see about their horses, Morvyth pulled me aside angrily and said, “My lips are yours, but not to give away! How could you be such a fool?”I was so tired I could only stare at her.“Don’t you see what he means to do?” she asked. “Mounted, outside the gates, with all his men around. As soon as I am within his reach it will be up and away, with you left to tumble after.”As soon as she said it, I knew it to be true. But I had promised, ill-advised though it was. “What are we to do?” I said. “I will have my men mount up and wait within the gates . . .”She shook her head and placed a finger on my lips. “Better to outwit him than that it should come to fighting. But how?” And as she thought, a wind came up, roaring through the trees outside like the sound of the sea. And the gull cried overhead, its call echoing strangely in the hall as if in a cave. Morvyth smiled suddenly and said, “Do you remember when we first kissed?”I thought about that night in her chamber, a year before, and frowned in confusion trying to see what she meant.“When we were children — in the sea-caves . . .” she continued.Then the memory came to me as if it had been yesterday. Was that when Morvyth had first known? We had been playing in the treacherous caves at the end of the point. And in following different passages, through the roaring, green-dappled dark, we had suddenly come face to face where a window pierced the cave wall between us. And, giggling, we had leaned forward to kiss through the window . . .Morvyth’s smile was echoed on my face and I said, “I will tell the carpenter to find a gimlet.”When the Irishmen were all mounted on their horses before the gates, Morvyth and I came to stand within the gatehouse. Garvan looked eagerly toward her and beckoned with his hand. “One kiss, and I am paid,” he said.And at that my men swung the gates to and laid the bar across them. Morvyth stepped up on a barrel to look out through the hole, bored just where a man’s head would be when he sat a horse. And I climbed to the wall-walk and gestured down at the gate. “There you are,” I said. “You are mounted and ready before the gates, and you may have your farewell kiss.” He raged and swore and would have ridden away, but I called out to him, “You could have had cattle and silver, as the law demands, and I would have paid willingly. It was you who chose the shameful trick this time. Take your kiss, so you can call your face-price paid. You’ll get nothing more here, unless it would be greater insult.”Then he sidled his horse up to the gate and leaned over to press Morvyth’s mouth with his own and rode away without speaking another word. We never saw him again and—if the tales tell rightly — he never again sailed across the sea to seek a bride.In time, Morvyth forgave me for giving her kisses away, but she demanded that I pay them back many times over before that day came.The post PodCastle 613: TALES FROM THE VAULTS — Hoywverch appeared first on PodCastle.


11 Feb 2020

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PodCastle 486: Hyddwen

Author : Heather Rose Jones Narrator : Pip Hoskins Host : Rachael K. Jones Audio Producer : Peter Wood Discuss on Forums PodCastle 486: Hyddwen is a PodCastle original.Rated PG-13.Hyddwenby Heather Rose JonesMorvyth verch Rys na vynnei wr, o achaws y serch, a’r caryat a dodassei hi ar Elin, Arglwyddes Madrunion. A guedy daruot a dywedyssam ni uchot—anvon y gwylan yn llatai attei, a’r chwarae a’r got yn y wled, a gyrru’r Gwyddel i ymdeith yn waclaw—dyvod a wnaeth Morvyth hyt yn Llyswen. Ac yno y trulyssant teir blyned trwy digrivwch a llywenyd.Morvyth, the daughter of Rys, had no desire for a husband because of the passion and the love she had for Elin, the Lady of Madrunion. And after what we spoke of above—sending the gull as love-messenger to her, and the trick with the sack at the wedding feast, and sending the Irishman away empty-handed—Morvyth came to live at Llyswen. And there they spent three years in happiness and joy.At the end of the year—when the harvest has been taken in and all the land looks toward the long, dark winter—doors can open between the worlds and we, as well as other things, may come and go between them. Indeed, it was at the changing of the year four years past that my Elin first took me from Caer Alarch, and again at the next year’s changing when she returned to my father’s hall to win my freedom. And though Llyswen lay in as mortal a realm as the one I had left, it was a fitting time for such a journey.But the turning of the year is also the season for hunting. We were a company of two score that day—noble men and women of the court—and thought to hunt the wood of Coetmor, where the deer were said to be plump and the deep branch-vaulted shadows left running space for horse and hound.The wind was sharp and chill, with a threat of rain to it, but the clouds stayed off to the north. Elin was dressed in a short gray tunic, and rough hunting boots on her feet. Her only concession to rank was a scarlet cloak with golden borders and the gold fillet on her brow. For the rest, she put me in mind of the wild, bare-legged girl I had loved—more than I knew then—and had followed over the hills near Caer Alarch.When my horse stood ready, Elin came to help me into the saddle and I said, “You make me cold just to look at you!”She laughed and kissed my fingers. “So, Morvyth, it isn’t only modesty that keeps you in long skirts?”I laughed in return as I arranged my blue gown about my limbs where the leggings showed above my boots. Not modesty entirely, no, but she ruled here and I was her woman. That was enough to ask her people to accept. I had not yet found my own place so I had to be careful.The hounds yelped, eager to be off, and the huntsmen strained to keep them in check. I took my bow from the hand that held it up and fastened the quiver of arrows to my saddle. Like a flock of birds we were off. We followed the ridge up along the valley, past the fallow fields and into the scattered oak and hazel at the forest’s edge. The hounds were slipped and soon we could hear their belling through the trees.Elin would always be at the front, while I was content to ride in the crowd, so I rarely saw her during that morning. But as the day drew on toward afternoon and still we had seen no quarry, she fell back to my side and we rode easily together as if we had come for pleasure and not for sport.“It will be mutton again tonight,” I teased her. “Not even a hare for the pot if we’ve raised no chase by now.”“I’ll wager we bring something home,” Elin replied. “And what will be your forfeit if I’m right?”I looked into her dancing eyes. “Why, the same thing you will forfeit if you fail,” I said.“Then I will claim it now, and be done with it,” she laughed, and leaned over to steal a kiss. But at that moment, the voice of the hounds changed to an eager cry, and our horses pricked up their ears and pranced, and we were pulled apart. We spurred our steeds to follow and soon had the quarry in sight.It was a fleet-footed hind, running easily before the dogs. She was sleek and young; a trace of spots still lay along her flanks. We saw her once, and again, and then she outpaced us in the dappled shadows. The hounds still had her scent and we followed, little noticing that the rest of the court had fallen behind. We ran for some time, and then it seemed that the hind tired, for she fell back into view. I pulled an arrow from my quiver and set it to my bow. The shot was long and scarcely worth making, but I loosed it when the trees thinned enough to aim. She stumbled, as if it had brushed her in passing, but ran as fleetly as ever.Now the horses, too, were tiring, and some of the dogs fell to a walk and were left behind. We came out into a glade where the late sun slanted through the branches, and there she turned at bay. The hounds milled around her and Elin tried to shout them off for a clear shot. In the next moment, the hounds melted back, whining and fawning. And where the hind had been, there crouched a young maiden, her light brown hair making a cloak about her shoulders. Beyond that she was as naked as if she had just risen from a bath.My first thought was that some unlucky peasant girl had stumbled into the path of our hunt, and that the dogs, in their eagerness, had torn her clothes from her. But there was no sign or scrap of a rag, and there was no fear in her wide brown eyes—no fear nor anything else I could easily read. Elin was off her horse in a moment and at the girl’s side, raising her up and asking, “Are you hurt?”The girl looked down at her shoulder, where a thin scratch of red showed against her frost-white skin, and then turned those liquid eyes up into Elin’s face. They seemed frozen for a moment, with Elin holding her, and she looking at Elin, and the both of them leaning forward, and for an absurd moment I thought that Elin was going to kiss her.I slipped from my horse, calling sharply, “Elin!”They both started, and then the girl looked Elin up and down in surprise before her face became unreadable once more. Elin released her and I pushed between them, taking a part of my headdress off to bind the girl’s arm. “It looks like the graze of an arrow,” I said.“Yes,” she said, as if the fact of it didn’t touch her.“Then you must come back to my court with us,” Elin offered. “If our hunting has been so careless, I must make amends.”I saw deeper than she had. “Careless?” I asked. “That was my arrow, I think, and I hit my mark. Are you blind?” And to the girl I said, “I will redeem my offense, if you allow, but have you never considered the danger you risk, running before the hounds?”She laughed like the sound of bells and stretched her bare arms up toward the sky and said, “When the year changes and I hear the dogs singing to me, my feet start itching and I must run or die.” From the corner of my eye I could see Elin staring at her, entranced. “But I will let you redeem your luck,” she said. And to Elin, “I will come to your court.”We could hear the sounds of the rest of the hunt closing in. Elin came back from her trance in time to wrap her cloak around the girl and lift her onto her horse. I followed behind as we returned to Llyswen, scowling as she leaned into Elin’s arms and whispered in her ear. She told us her name was Hyddwen.I lent her my blue gown, and also my place beside Elin at the table, and I was secretly pleased to see that she turned her dark eyes on everyone who passed, and that half the men of the court were stumbling over each other to fall under that gaze.When the evening had gone late enough, I leaned over Elin’s shoulder and whispered in her ear, “Have you forgotten? You did bring something home from the hunt; I have a forfeit to pay.”She turned her head to look at me, as if waking from a dream, and leaned her brow against my cheek. “I’ve not forgotten,” she whispered back and rose from the table.Later, when we lay close and still in each other’s arms, my mind turned back to the day’s adventure. “I hope Hyddwen will not tarry long,” I said. “I fear what may come of it.”“And why is that?” Elin asked with a hint of sharpness.I tried to choose my words carefully. “She is a soulless creature…”“And is she to blame for it?”“No,” I countered. “But if you forget it, then you are to blame for that.”I rose early in the morning, before the court was much astir. It was a habit that I could not seem to shake even for the pleasure of Elin’s arms. So it was that I saw Hyddwen ask the porter to open the gates and slip through. The mist still lay on the fields and she looked out over them with a fierce eagerness. She looked back to see me watching and smiled a strange smile. Then she slipped her borrowed gown over her head and hid it in the hollow oak that stood before the gates. She stood there for a moment in her nakedness, then took on the shape of the deer again and bounded out across the fields.Elin was too good a host to ask after her guest’s comings and goings, but when Hyddwen returned to the hall that evening, I could not resist betraying her and asked, “How was the running today?”She turned her eyes to me, but it was not the same gaze that entranced the men of the court. I shivered where I sat. “The running was good,” she said, “but the dogs were not so good today as they were yesterday.”Elin started from her chair in concern and hung over Hyddwen like a doting mother. “But it’s perilous; you shouldn’t risk being caught up in a hunt. If anything happened…”I saw Hyddwen’s face change as she turned to answer. She seemed again a wild, innocent creature. “It is my nature to race the wind. How can I deny it?”Elin was held in that gaze for a long moment, but then she turned to her steward. “Madyn, send the word throughout my lands: no one is to hunt or let their dogs loose while Hyddwen is my guest.”And because Elin had turned away, she did not see the anger the swept over Hyddwen’s face, only to vanish again as quickly as it had come.For the rest of the evening, Hyddwen seemed to woo my lady, catching her in conversation, laughing with her softly, and granting her a smile now and again. I could only watch, and then I could watch no more. I went to our chamber alone and left the hall to Hyddwen.It seemed hours before Elin joined me. I had not dared to think what I would do if she did not. And though I had sworn to myself that I would not speak of the matter, when she slipped beneath the covers next to me, I begged, “Send her away!”I felt Elin draw away from me. “You know I cannot do that,” she said coldly. “I have offered her the hospitality of my hall.”“She means no good to you or to your folk,” I pleaded. “She is here on some strange errand of her own, and it will only mean trouble for us.”“You say that because you are in her debt,” she answered. “It eats at your conscience, and so you hate her.”“Did she tell you that?” I asked.The silence answered me. I turned away and tried not to weep while I waited for sleep to come.Hyddwen did not go running in the hills as a deer the next day. She stayed in the hall, and the courtiers all gathered around her like love-struck youths while the business of the court went undone. And that evening, and that night, were no different from the one before.On the third morning I rose early and once again followed Hyddwen outside the gates. This time she made no move to change her form, but only stood looking out over the hills.“You have come to Llyswen for some purpose,” I said. “What do you want from us?”Her gaze betrayed nothing of her thoughts today.“I will pay for the injury I did you,” I continued, “but Elin is too high a price.”She laughed in a way that did not put me at ease. “I do not ask that! How could she be your price? She is no more yours to give than she is yours to keep. But you may rest easy; I care no more for her than for any other. If she comes with me, it will be her choice, not mine.”“Comes with you?” I echoed. “What do you want from her—from us?”“Did you think you were the only folk who hunt?” she answered softly. “I am besieged and I require a champion of this world to defeat my enemy.”She had shed the illusion of youthful innocence. It was a haughty queen who stood before me now and I knew this was her true nature.“You run before the hounds,” I said, “hoping to trap some hunter into your debt.”She smiled in response.“But you did trap someone,” I countered.“You?” she said mockingly. “I need a warrior! You were a mistake.”I was a mistake, and so she had turned her charms on Elin and on the men of the court. I remembered that first moment when she had thought Elin was a man, and then when she realized her mistake. And then later when she realized who Elin was in this land and had returned to stalking her. And I? I was of no use to her. But she was wrong to think I could not be a warrior for Elin’s sake and for the sake of her people. Mine had been the hand on the bow that wounded Hyddwen. Mine had been the deed that gave her guest-right in Llyswen. But that also made me a shield against her wiles. The one who offends has the right to make recompense.I considered—perhaps not long enough—what sort of enemy a creature like Hyddwen might make, and what sort of battle only a champion of my world could undertake. And then I thought again of Elin and her court, wandering dream-lost after the fairy-woman, with her waiting for one of them to fall into her power. I knew what I must do.“You don’t have the choice to refuse me,” I said quietly. “I have wronged you and so the debt is mine to pay. It is my right to be your champion. Give me this one day to make ready, and I will go with you in the morning. But I swear this fate on you: refuse me and you will find no other champion in this realm.”Hyddwen grew angry and I saw her twist the offer in her mind to see how to escape it, but I had left her little choice. At length, she nodded.I am no warrior—she had the truth of that. I could not guess what weapons might give me a hope of victory and so I took none. When I slipped from my bed before the dawn, the only victory I needed was a victory over Hyddwen’s plans.There is an immense stillness in the court in that hour before the servants rise to stir the fires to life. There was no light except for the faint reflection of the moon through the shutters. I leaned over the pale glow of Elin’s face and left a kiss on her brow, then drew on her hunting tunic and trews and gathered up boots and a cloak.Hyddwen met me before the gate. The porter should not have been sleeping and I guessed her enchantments were at work. We passed by him unnoticed and I opened the gate far enough to slip through, then followed Hyddwen into the mist.The air closed in about us until I could see nothing but the blue shape of her gown before me. My gown. The mist grew lighter as we went on, lit by the unseen dawn, but there was no east, no sunrise. And though we had left the court in the direction of the hills and the woods, the land did not rise or fall beneath my feet, nor did a trunk or branch break through the grayness after we left the hollow oak by the gates of Llyswen.The first thing I saw before us in the mist was a tall stone gate. When it grew solid above and around me, I thought we must be descending into a hill-tomb, but the gray light remained the same on the other side. Indeed, the mist lifted so that I could see buildings and people around me.The crowd greeted Hyddwen with the courtesy one gives a lord, but me they ignored, save for sidelong looks. I stiffened my back and returned their gazes boldly. If they needed me to fight their battle, I had no reason to be ill at ease.At last, Hyddwen led me to another gateway and down through a field to a river bank. A white-plastered cottage stood there beside a broad shallow ford.“Wait here,” she said to me. “You may take shelter in the house. He will come at dawn.”I had not counted the passing of time. Surely it couldn’t be dusk already? There was no sun that I could see through the haze, but the light was dimming and there was a chill like that of dew settling.“And then what?” I asked.“Then you defeat him,” she said arching her brow. “Is that not why you have come?”“Who do I face?” I demanded. “What is his grievance against you? If you need my victory, give me tools to fight with.”“It would have been better for you to ask those questions before naming yourself my champion,” she said.I heard anger in her words, but I thought I heard fear as well. I had forced her hand as much as she had forced mine. What would my failure mean to her?“Your opponent is Llwydyn Mawr,” she said at last. “He is my neighbor who rules the lands beyond this river. He makes claim against me for injury to his foster-brother.”Her gaze grew distant as she looked across the ford, and her voice took on the rhythms of a storyteller.“It is a peculiarity of his that he may leave no pattern incomplete, and he took it into his mind to hunt in all the woods that border on his lands. He had hunted in every place except Iscoed, which lies in my realm, for Iscoed is the home of the Black Boar. It is perilous to hunt there; the Black Boar’s tusks are poisoned and it is not easy for a hunter to live if he is wounded by them. But Llwydyn could not let the matter be. It gnawed at him that there was one place forbidden to him. It was as if a fate had been sworn on him and he could neither eat nor sleep until he had hunted there.”I knew how such stories must end, but I listened in silence while Hyddwen continued.“Llwydyn Mawr gathered up his huntsmen and his hounds and rode out to Iscoed with his foster-brother at his side. When the Black Boar charged at them, it was his brother who fell. He lies still on his sickbed, neither living nor dying. Llwydyn has demanded compensation of me: the life of my first-born child. Is that a price you would pay gladly? But he allowed me a challenge instead. My champion is to meet him at this ford and face him from dawn to dusk for three days. If Llwydyn prevails, then I pay his price; if I prevail I am quit of him.”She turned to me once more. “No man of my people could face Llwydyn and live, and so I turned to mortal lands. And you are what I could find.”And she thought I would fail—that much was clear from her scorn. But I saluted her as if I were a warrior and said, “I will pay my debt to you, as I am able. And if I fail—” My voice faltered for the first time. “If I fail, I beg you to send word to Elin of my fate.”When Hyddwen left me, I tried the door of the cottage and found it open. The inhabitants might have left it only moments before, though I doubted they would return until the battle was finished. There was a low fire burning on the hearth where a small cauldron and a bakestone stood ready. A cut cheese sat on the table beside a pitcher of water. On the other side of the hearth was a low bed spread with a speckled blanket. A flax-dressed distaff and spindle completed the furnishings. A woman’s home, neat and tidy. The flagged floor was swept clean and the white-plastered walls were bright enough to reflect the candlelight into a warm glow.When I looked back through the doorway, the sky had grown dark. And so I began the chores of the day’s end, banking the fire for the night and snuffing the candles, before I tried the bed, doubtful I would sleep.Yet sleep I did, for a few hours at least. When I woke and looked out at the ford, there was the faintest hint of light. I couldn’t tell how long it might be until dawn and had no care to be caught unaware, so I poked the fire up once more. Hunger had abandoned me, but my hands needed occupation and there was a chest of flour beside the hearth. I found a bowl and set the bakestone on the fire and began to make oatcakes.The rhythm of the work was calming: mix the dough, pinch off a knob, pat it out thinly between my hands, set it on the stone to cook, turn it, and begin again. Every time I set another cake aside in the stack, I looked out through the door to where the river laughed quietly over the ford. Each time I looked, the light was brighter.When he came at last, I had no warning. A shadow fell across the door. My hands continued patting the dough to thinness as I looked up. He was tall and broad-shouldered, with a close-clipped black beard and a blue cloak pinned at his shoulder with a thick gold brooch. He wore a sword at his side but had not yet drawn it. His face was drawn into a fierce scowl.“Are you Hyddwen’s champion?” he asked doubtfully.“I am,” I answered.I would have set the unbaked bread aside, but he said, “Complete your task. Then we will do battle.”I picked the finished cake off the stone and replaced it with the one I had prepared. My hands had grown accustomed to the work and I pinched off a new bit of dough without thought.“Forgive me, my lord,” I said and returned the ball of dough to the bowl. “I will not make you wait.”“Complete your task,” he repeated with an edge in his voice.It is a peculiarity of his that he may leave no pattern incomplete.I returned to patting the dough as thin as leather and reached over to flip the cake on the bakestone. An idea began to grow. I would have caught at any chance to live for another hour.“My lord,” I said, “Hyddwen has left me with this chest of flour. It would be good to finish the baking before I meet your challenge.”I could feel his anger and impatience like the heat of the cookfire, but he said only, “Complete your task.”As the dough in the bowl grew small, I scooped in more flour and mixed it with the water in the jug. Llwydyn still stood in the doorway waiting.I gestured toward the table. “I would offer you hospitality if it did not break my duty to Hyddwen. If you please, you may have bread and cheese while you wait. I’m sure it will not be much longer.” The chest of flour was not so large, but perhaps it was larger than his patience.Llwydyn Mawr nodded at me without a word and went to sit at the table. He drew out a knife and carefully cut two slices from the cheese, each alike to the other.“If it does not break your duty to Hyddwen,” he said, “will you eat with me?”I accepted one of the slices of cheese and folded it within an oatcake, fresh and hot from the fire, as I laid the next thin loaf onto the stone.For a long time the only sound was the slap slap slap of my hands patting out the cakes and sometimes the crack of the wood in the fire when I put another log among the coals. Hours passed but the light out over the ford showed no change at all. Could I draw out the baking until dusk? How would I know in this land of twilight? Only the stiffness in my back told the passage of time.And then, when I reached for another handful of flour from the chest, Llwydyn said, “I can see the bottom.”My fingers touched smooth wood beneath the oats and fear ran through me. I mixed the dough again and pinched off a smaller piece than I had before, no larger than my thumb. Slap slap slap. It took longer to press the dough out to the size of my spread hand and now it was the thinness of parchment. It cooked more quickly and the bakestone stood empty for a time as I patted out the next cake. Llwydyn shifted in his chair and I held my breath, expecting him to call an end, but he said nothing.Each time I pinched a smaller piece of dough. Now the cakes were the thinness of fine linen and I could see my hands through them as I worked. Slap slap slap. I picked up the flour chest and tipped the last of it into the bowl.When the remaining dough was no larger than a walnut, Llwydyn stood suddenly. I expected to hear the sound of a sword leaving its sheath, but he only said, “I will come again tomorrow.”As he strode out through the door I could see that the light had dimmed to twilight. The first day was past and I had survived. Though my hands were shaking, I finished baking the last of the dough then banked the fire for the night, too tired to do more than chew on the last warm oatcake as I pulled the bedclothes over me.When I woke, the sky was so bright I feared that I’d missed the dawn and I rose hurriedly to make myself ready. But as I stirred up the fire and snatched a few bites of bread and cheese, my eyes fell on the distaff and spindle. The trick with the oatcakes had been by chance, but perhaps I had another weapon at hand for the new day. The distaff was full and there were two more stricks of flax in a basket beside it. I seated myself beside the table where the light was best, filled a cup with water to wet my fingers, and began to spin.I had barely wound on as much thread as could cover the spindle shaft from view when the light changed and I looked up to see Llwydyn in the doorway. “Good day to you,” I said. “There is bread and cheese on the table, if you feel able to accept my hospitality. I cannot bear to have idle hands, as you see, but I will meet your challenge as soon as you have refreshed yourself.”I laid the spindle aside and made as if to rise. He fixed me with a sharp glance that told me he knew what I was about. But he said only, “Complete your task,” and settled himself at the other side of the table.There was an easy rhythm to the work as there had been to the baking: drawing the flax, wetting the thread, winding the spindle. I was not accustomed to spinning in silence and after a time I asked, “Does the sun never break through the mist here in your lands?”I saw Llwydyn move as if startled, but his answer was even. “These are Hyddwen’s lands, not mine.”“But yours lie beside hers on the far side of the river, is it not the same there?”“It is the same and not the same.” He was maddeningly stingy with his answers.I spun in silence again for a time then said, “I was saddened to hear of your foster-brother’s wound. Does it mend?”I thought perhaps he would not answer me, so long he sat silently. When at last he spoke his voice was hollow. “It does not mend.”My fingers spun the spindle, drew the flax, wetted the thread, and wound it up again. I said more lightly, “I am accustomed to have a storyteller at hand when we spin. Would you care to hear a story?”“Is it a story that has an end?” he asked.I almost thought I heard humor in his voice. “It has an end, though I do not know it yet,” I replied.“Then tell it,” he said.And I told him the story of how I had been betrothed against my will to an Irish prince. And how Elin had come to my wedding feast and asked for my company for a year and a day before I wed. And then I told of her trick with the sacks of gold to win me free of Garvin’s claim, and how I had returned with her to Llyswen to live in her hall and share her bed. And I told him of the hunt, and how I had wounded Hyddwen and so put myself in her debt. And how I had claimed the right to be her champion to keep her from ensnaring Elin or the men of Madrunion.“So far the story runs,” I finished. “Perhaps someday you will tell the end.”The distaff was not quite emptied, but I took up the second strick of flax and dressed it over what remained. Llwydyn peered into the basket and saw the one strick remaining. I could not tell the time, but I thought the light had not yet brightened to its fullest.“Is there more flax in the house?” Llwydyn asked.I shook my head. “None that I could find.”“Then complete your task,” he said.I have always been proud of the fineness of my thread, but I drew it finer still. Draw the flax, wet the thread, wind the spindle. I could not abide the silence and filled it by singing verses I had learned from the bards in my father’s court: intricate webs of rhyme and image, knotted together, one word chained to the next. Songs of praise and songs of sorrow. Songs of love and songs of longing. Each time I began a new song I could feel Llwydyn stiffen where he sat, as if he were a drawn bow. And each time the final stanza fell into place, I heard him sigh.It is a peculiarity of his that he may leave no pattern incomplete.Each poem passed over him like a wave on the shore, dragging at him until the fabric of words was completed and the tension washed away again.I dressed the distaff a second time. The light out over the ford had brightened and waned again. “There is cheese,” I said. “And oatcakes from yesterday’s baking, if you are permitted to accept my hospitality.”Llwydyn cut two slices from the cheese, as perfectly alike as two leaves, and passed me one laid atop an oatcake. I nibbled at the edge, but it was like eating dust.I could spin the thread no thinner than it was: finer than a horse’s hair, than a cat’s whisker. Almost as fine as a spider’s web. The spindle was full and Llwydyn held it for me as I wound off the thread around my arm and tied the skein so it would not tangle. Was the light dimming? I tied a starting thread to the spindle and began again: draw the flax, wet the thread, wind the spindle.The thread was so fine it cut my fingers. There was blood in the water as I wetted the thread. Still I spun until there was nothing left on the distaff but drifts and wisps of tow.Llwydyn rose from his seat and I could hear the soft hiss of his sword leaving its scabbard as the last of the tow slipped through my fingers and the spindle clattered on the floor.But then I heard him say, “Ah,” in a sigh, just as he had sighed at the end of each poem. “It is dusk.”I looked up as he slid the sword back home. “Will you come again tomorrow?” I asked.He nodded. “I will come.” It might have been a lover’s promise. He left and I heard splashing as he strode across the ford.I could not sleep that night from the pain in my hands and the fear of the dawn. How could it be that I was more afraid now than that first morning when I’d had no hope of victory? I rose in the night and searched every corner of the cottage for some tool, some weapon, some task I could prolong. When nothing came to hand I began to weep, knowing that I would die on the morrow. Would Hyddwen take my message back to Llyswen? Or would Elin think I had abandoned her out of jealousy or spite? I could not bear the thought of that.I left the cottage to walk by the ford and stare up into the slowly-brightening mist. Somewhere above, where I could not see them, I heard the sound of gulls. The gulls of Caer Alarch had summoned Elin to my side when I most needed her. Perhaps they would serve again as my llatai, my messenger to take her word of my fate and of my love.A verse formed itself on my lips:Full of sorrow, like an arrow,From the bent bow now fallen short,Show returning words on swift wing,White gull bring to Llyswen’s court.Cry to Elin all that has beenLeft unspoken from loving heart.The sky above grew slowly brighter. My mind tripped from one stanza to another, catching the chain from the last and seeking the next. I could not hold it all on my tongue and went inside to take up a charred brand from the fire. I began to trace the words on the white plaster of the walls. If I were to die here facing Llwydan Mawr, I would leave a record for all to see of my love for Elin and how it pained me to be parted from her forever.I had filled the first wall from the doorway to the corner behind the bed when a shadow fell across the room and Llwydyn’s bulk blocked the doorway once more.“What task are you about today,” he asked angrily. His hand clutched at the hilt of his sword.“No task,” I answered. “Only a message for my Elin, to say goodbye and take my love to her.” I found the rhyme I needed and bent to write it, muttering over the words that might chain it to the next verse.Behind me I could hear Llwydyn reading through the lines. I heard the catch in his voice at the end of each verse as the rhyme leapt and reached for the next line.“There is bread and cheese on the table,” I said as I reached for another burnt stick from the fire. “I will not be long.”There was so much in my heart to tell, but the words seemed to slip from my grasp. I wrote a line, a second, then found myself empty of rhyme for the third and stood staring at the empty plaster.Llwydyn’s deep voice behind me said, “Ask.”I turned, a question on my lips, but it had not been an instruction. It was my rhyme. I turned back to the wall and as I wrote the word, the remainder of my line fell into place.Each time the words abandoned me, or led me off the path, Llwydyn was there, impatiently speaking the next link in the chain.It is a peculiarity of his that he may leave no pattern incomplete.He saw the patterns where I had only the flood of my sorrow and longing. When I stumbled, he caught me up. Between us we shaped a lament so keen it should have split the world in two.A second wall was covered. I had no thought of food or rest, only that Elin must know I had not abandoned her. A third wall. Llwydan paced and muttered, reading over my verses and drawing his sword halfway then sheathing it again each time one stanza gave birth to the next.But the soft gray light had waxed and waned. I had begun the work in despair; now hope began to stir once more. I had never meant the poem to fill the entire space of the day. There was no end to what I held in my heart but there was an end to the plaster. I turned the corner to the left of the door. Only half a wall remained.How long until dusk? The past two days there had been no change that I could see when Llwydyn called an end to the day’s challenge. I tried to slow my writing, but at every turn came Llwydyn’s insistent voice providing the next word. Would he let me step through the door and continue on the outer walls or would he demand an end?I began a new stanza.My guiding star you ever are,I’ve come so far at last to…I stopped, hearing Llwydyn sigh behind me like the last breath of a dying man. I looked to the right of the door where my poem had begun. Full of sorrow. The chain had linked head to tail. At last to fail. No other word would fit. There was no escape. The pattern was complete. I accepted my doom and reached out with the charred stick to write the final word.“No,” Llwydyn said and stayed my hand. He reached out and smeared the last three words then wrote, And now prevail.“It doesn’t fit,” I said quietly. “The chain is broken.”Llwydyn stepped to the other side of the doorway and added a few small strokes then smeared one word. No longer full of sorrow but of all sorrow. The chain was bound once more.I bowed my head and whispered, “As Hyddwen’s champion, I stand ready to meet your challenge.” And I waited to hear the hiss of his sword being drawn.And I waited.When at last I dared to raise my head, Llwydyn was staring out through the doorway and across the ford, like a quivering hound tensed and listening for a distant horn.His face twisted as if in a spasm and then he sighed. “It is done,” he said. “The third day is past. The challenge is met.”He looked back at me for one brief moment.“I, too, have loved,” he said. Then he turned and walked out into the waters of the ford. The mist hid him before he reached the other side.I had no mind to spend another night in the cottage by the river. I made my way up across the darkening meadow and pounded on the gate to Hyddwen’s court. A porter opened to me without a word and led me silently to the hall. Hyddwen stood there in a gown of silk and gold, looking like a queen.“Did you prevail?” she asked me sharply.There was no need to pretend to weariness when I answered. “I met with Llwydyn Mawr from dawn to dusk for three days and I am still alive. If you will call that victory, then I prevailed. And now I would go home.”“But is he dead?” she asked insistently.“He is alive, but he has declared the challenge met.”Hyddwen was angry, but she welcomed me into the hall and called for meat and drink and would have offered me rich gifts of gold and jewels.I refused, fearing what obligations her gifts might lay on me. “I have paid my debt to you,” I said. “Let us be quit of each other. But—” I looked down at my borrowed tunic, now dirty with charcoal, and stained where I had wiped my bleeding fingers on it. “But since you have no further need of my blue gown, perhaps you could return it to me.”Hyddwen waited as I washed and dressed myself and then led me back through the stone gateway. The mist rose in a wall before me. I waited for her to lead the way but she stepped back into the arch and said, “Your debt to me is paid, but you have paid it in poor coin. I can never rest, knowing that Llwydan Mawr still lives and hates me. Find your own way home, if you can.” And when she passed through the archway, even the stones disappeared.They say that time passes strangely in the otherworld. Three days I had spent in the cottage by the ford and I know not how many I wandered in that mist without even the waxing and waning of the light to count them.But as I came to despair, far above me I heard the crying of gulls. As their calls grew louder, I imagined I heard Elin’s voice calling to me. I shouted for her, staring into the whiteness until the dark shape of a horse rose before me.Elin cried my name and dismounted to throw her arms about my neck and cover my face with kisses.“I woke to find you gone and the gate open, and I thought I had lost you!” she cried. “I thought you had left me because of Hyddwen.”When I could speak again, I told her the story of Hyddwen’s errand, and the cottage by the ford, and the three days with Llwydyn Mawr, and the time spent wandering in the mist.“And I could have borne anything,” I said, “except to think that I would never see you again and you would not know that I had done it all for love of you. How did you find me here in the otherworld?”Elin listened and wondered at the story. “Though it seemed an eternity,” she said, “I have been searching no more than this one day. When I found the gate open, I called for my horse to follow you, thinking you were returning to Caer Alarch. Then I heard the gulls and they led me to you.”I looked around and saw that the mist was lifting and we were in the forest of Coetmor under the trees.“But never doubt,” Elin said, “I would have besieged the otherworld and challenged Llwydyn Mawr himself to bring you back.”I stopped her mouth with more kisses, but not for love alone. At the changing of the year, doors are open between the worlds, and I feared who else might hear and answer. The post PodCastle 486: Hyddwen appeared first on PodCastle.

5 Sep 2017

Rank #3

Podcast cover

PodCastle 611: Yo, Rapunzel!

Author : Kyle Kirrin Narrators : Alasdair Stuart, C. L. Clark, Summer Fletcher, Matt Dovey, Jen R. Albert, Peter Adrian Behravesh and Mur Lafferty Host : Summer Fletcher Audio Producer : Peter Adrian Behravesh Discuss on Forums PodCastle 611: Yo, Rapunzel! is a PodCastle original.Rated R, for ridiculous, with sprinklings of boardgames, box wine, and profanity.Yo, Rapunzel!By Kyle KirrinAnd lo, the Princess said: “Motherfucker, I am content.”“But Princess!” said the Knight, from the base of the Princess’ tower. His armor-clad ass was parked atop a huge black stallion, which the Princess found not only pompous, but entirely predictable. “You misunderstand; I’m here to save you from — ”“Hold up,” said the Princess. “Exactly what part of girl-lives-in-her-own-goddamned-tower implies a need for rescue?”“Well, I — ”“Do you have any idea how many women would kill for a tower off in the wilderness? I am fucking blessed.”“Princess,” said the Knight, “that’s all well and good, but this isn’t your place. You belong — ”“Perpetually pregnant in a castle that smells like chlamydia? Pass.”“M’lady, please. I only want what’s best for you.”“Oh God,” said the Dragon, which in both size and shape resembled a hairless cat with wings. “Here we go again.”“Do not. Fucking, M’lady me,” said the Princess. “And why is that a Knight I’ve never met gets to decide what’s best for me?”“M’lady,” said the Knight, “you aren’t seeing the whole picture here: I’ve spent the last three weeks traversing this kingdom of yours for the sole purpose of freeing you from the diabolical clutches of the Fire Dragon.”“Wow, I’m right here,” said the Dragon, who was kicking sand around his litterbox.“Just shove off, would you?” said the Princess. “We’re busy here.”“M’lady!” said the Knight. “How dare you dishonor me so after everything I’ve done for you! The King will have your head for this!”“I never asked you to do anything,” said the Princess. “This is literally the first conversation we’ve ever had.”“Just give him a Heart Quest and be done with it,” said the Dragon.“Why do I have to give him a quest?” said the Princess. “Why does every cantankerous fuck who’s capable of a fifteen-minute trail ride seem to think they’re entitled to a Heart Quest?”“In hindsight,” said the Dragon, “your father really ought to have built this tower a little farther out.”“You get a Quest, you get a Quest!” The Princess threw both hands into the air and waved them about. “Everybody gets a Quest! When exactly did I become the fucking Oprah of Heart Quests?”“Who’s Oprah?” said the Dragon.“Future stuff, never mind.”“You are spending entirely too much time with the Time Wizard,” said the Dragon.“Puns aren’t funny” said the Princess. “You’re not funny.”“Hello?” said the Knight. “Is anyone listening to me? I feel that I am being treated badly and I don’t understand why.”“That’s hurtful,” said the Dragon. “And I wasn’t trying to be funny. You’d know if I was trying to be funny — I’m hilarious.”“M’lady? M’lady!” called the Knight.“Fine,” said the Princess. “Here’s your Heart Quest. You ready?”The Knight removed his helmet and smiled up at her. “I’m relieved to see you’ve found your gratitude, Princess. And know that whatever trial you have in mind, no matter how grand, how impossibly difficult it might seem, no matter how many men have died trying to win your heart — ”“I want you to make every dog in the Kingdom fucking hate you,” said the Princess.“Consider it d — wait, what?” said the Knight.“You are a monstrous little thing,” said the Dragon. “And I’m here for it.”“Yeah, you heard me,” said the Princess. “Bite ‘em, kick ‘em — whatever you gotta do. Now off you go.”“But . . .” said the Knight. “I . . .”“Problem?” said the Princess.The Knight shrugged. “I just . . . I thought my Heart Quest would be more heroic. I really love dogs. I have three of them.”“Sounds like the perfect place to start,” said the Princess. “Happy travels.” She slammed the window shut. “How long do you think we have before my next would-be savior shows up?”The Dragon shrugged. “An hour, two at the most.”“I don’t really feel up to painting. How about a quick game of Settlers of Catan?”“This game kinda sucks with two people,” said the Dragon.“You’re just pissed that you’re losing again,” said the Princess.“That’s not it at all,” said the Dragon, who was a terrible liar.“Maybe you should consider an avenue of play that doesn’t exclusively rely upon establishing a sheep monopoly.”“I’m a fucking Dragon, Princess; we love sheep — we can’t help it.”“The whole point of creating a monopoly is to enable yourself to trade from a position of power. And if you’re in a position of power while in direct competition with exactly one other person, they’re never going to trade with you, because it’s always going to benefit you more. Just saying.”“Leave me and my dreams alone.”“M’lady?” said a voice outside. “M’lady?”The Princess dropped her head into her hands. “Please tell me you’ve got a Quest in mind. I am so fucking tired of this.”“Uhhh,” said the Dragon. “Drink the ocean? Swallow the stars?”“Too figurative,” said the Princess. “He’ll just come back in the morning with a loose interpretation and a scroll full of shitty poems. It’s fine, I’ll figure something out.” She crossed the room and threw open the window. “Yeah, what you want?”“I’ve completed your Heart Quest,” said the Knight, who — of course — was sitting atop a huge black stallion. “And I’ve come to slay the Dragon.”“Oh,” said the Princess. “Ohhhhh. Could you do me a favor and remind me which Heart Quest it was that I sent you on?”The Knight cleared his throat. “You bade me bare my asshole to the leaders of the Thirty-one Realms. And — ”The Princess snorted. “Sorry, please continue.”“And the High Warlock of Gul. And the Merpeople of the Shallows. And the Merpeople of the Deeps. And the Cannibal Kings of the Savagelands.”“And was your asshole well received?” said the Princess.“It was not,” said the Knight.“Very well,” said the Princess. “I shall confer with the Dragon as to the terms of your duel.” She closed the window. “So, he actually did it. What do we do now? Nobody’s ever finished a Heart Quest.”“I could just roast him right quick,” said the Dragon. “It’s not a problem.”“I dunno,” said the Princess. “I feel a little guilty about the whole asshole thing; I never thought he’d actually do it. And I can’t believe nobody murdered him! I mean, fuck, asshole is considered a delicacy in the Savagelands.”“Truly rotten luck,” said the Dragon.“Alright, alright, I’ve got an idea.” The Princess threw the window open again. “I have conferred with the mighty Dragon, and he has accepted you as a worthy challenger.”The Knight dismounted and unsheathed his sword.“There’s only one problem,” said the Princess. “The Dragon refuses to leave my side until he’s been defeated in combat. To keep me from fleeing the tower during the duel and what not.”“So I’ll ascend the tower and slay the Dragon where it stands,” said the Knight.“Yeaaaaaaah,” said the Princess. “About that.”“What is it now?” said the Knight.“Well, this tower’s cursed as fuck-all. The only way in is to climb its walls using, uh . . .” She looked around, but found nothing of use, and eventually, her gaze settled on her reflection in the window. “My . . . hair.”“No way he falls for that shit,” said the Dragon. “That is patently ridiculous. Even if you somehow managed to not get pulled out the window, your hair would rip right out of your scalp as soon as he started to climb.”“Not a problem,” said the Knight. “Rapunzel, Rapunzel, let down your hair.”The Dragon groaned and rolled his eyes.The Princess tossed her head as if to lower her hair out the windowsill, but the Time Wizard had recently given her a pretty sick pixie cut, so there wasn’t much to climb. “This is what we’re working with. I’m open to suggestions.”“Princess,” said the Knight, “I’m a man of twenty-five winters; I’ve only got a few years left. I’ll be dead before your hair reaches your waist.”The Princess shrugged. “That sounds like a you problem.”“I’m just going to throw you a rope,” said the Knight.“Very well, brave Knight,” said the Princess. “I just hope the Witch’s curse isn’t too severe.”“Did she . . . specify what the curse would entail?” said the Knight.“I can’t recall exactly,” said the Princess. “All I remember is the witch cackling every time she used the word decocked.”The Knight sheathed his sword and mounted his stallion. “Very well. I shall return . . . eventually.”“Right on,” said the Princess.“Yo, Princess,” said a voice from far below.“That’s a new one,” said the Dragon.“Bleh,” said the Princess. She pulled her paint respirator down around her neck and took a step back from the wall. A mural of the New York skyline at dusk rose before her, its skyscrapers bright and stylized, lit up in blurry yellows and golds, as if at night. The panorama spanned the entirety of the tower’s interior, and only the Chrysler building stood unfinished.“Just — ” started the Dragon.“Yeah yeah, I know, path of least resistance,” said the Princess. She set her spray can on the sill and threw open the window. “Heart Quest incoming in three, two — is that a donkey?”“Mini donkey, yeah,” said the Knight. “His name’s Steve.”The Princess cocked her head. “He’s . . . cute.”“Yeah, he’s a dick though,” said the Knight. “Anyway, Heart Quest? Then I’ll be out of your hair.”“Oh, right,” said the Princess. “Of course. Why don’t you . . .” she rubbed her temples with both hands. “I want you to travel the, um.” She sighed. “Sorry, I’m blanking up here. It’s been a long day.”“It’s cool,” said the Knight. “No rush.” He sat down in the grass, ruffled through a knapsack, produced a carrot, then alternated bites with his mount.“D’aww,” said the Dragon, who was hovering above the Princess’ shoulder.“You’re supposed to be guarding my heart,” said the Princess, “not cooing over strangers.”“Right, sorry,” said the Dragon. “Slipped right out. Won’t happen again.”“Sure it won’t. Fucking softy.”“That’s a pretty badass Dragon,” said the Knight.“Flattery will get you nowhere, Sir Knight,” said the Dragon, though his tail was wagging vigorously.“Can you give us a moment?” said the Princess.“Sure thing,” said the Knight.The Princess closed the window. “Help me out here, Dragon — I’m feeling a little flustered with the sudden departure from the status quo. We need a Quest.”“Maybe something to do with bees?” said the Dragon. “Sit on the bees? Eat all the bees?”“That’s not very concrete,” said the Princess. “All the bees in the kingdom, or in the land? You know, I’ve never really thought about it, but does the land include the kingdom, or is it the other way around? My father has to have a Venn diagram around here somewhere.”“Focus, Princess,” said the Dragon. “And what does it matter? The whole point is to get him gone, right?”“Well, yeah,” said the Princess. “Obviously. I just don’t want to phone in his Quest is all, otherwise people might start getting suspicious.”But in truth, the Princess desperately lonely — just not in the way her suitors assumed. She opened the window. “Here’s your Heart Quest, dear Knight: I want you to eat all the bees in both the kingdom and the land.”The Knight rose, removed his straw cap, and bowed. He was handsome, with dark skin and a full set of teeth. “Eat the bees, got it. Thanks — have a good one.” He mounted the mini donkey and steered it back toward the pines that surrounded the tower, flailing his legs around as the creature tried — and failed — to bite him.“What the hell do you mean, thanks?” said the Princess.“Princess!” said the Dragon.“I asked for a Heart Quest,” said the Knight. “And you gave me one, so, thanks? I don’t really understand what’s happening here, to be honest.”“But that’s a terrible thing to ask someone to do!” said the Princess.“Yeah,” said the Knight. “I mean I agree, but I’m not going to complete the Quest, so I don’t really care what it requires.”“You aren’t?” said the Princess.“Nah,” said the Knight. “Sorry, I should have been more upfront about that. The short of it is that my Ma’s kinda garbage, and she’s been trying to guilt me into getting her a grandkid before she dies, so I figured that going on a Heart Quest would — ”“Buy you a couple months of peace,” said the Princess, nodding.The Knight gave her a sad smile. “Exactly. I figured you’d understand, given . . .” he gestured at the tower. “This.”The Princess bit her bottom lip. “Hey, do you maybe — ”The Dragon fluttered in front of her. “What is it that you think you’re doing?”“What?” said the Princess. “It’s a three-player game at minimum — you wanna be sheep god or nah?”The Knight, still twisted in the saddle, stared up at her. “You were saying?”“Would you like to come up for a bit?” said the Princess. “I could help you figure out the perfect Heart Quest, if you’d like. Something that would buy you as much time as you need.”“Well,” said the Knight. “I don’t want to impose, but if you don’t mind . . .”“Door’s in the back,” said the Princess.“Fuck, I did not think this through,” said the Princess.“Obviously,” said the Dragon. “You are covered in paint, and you are not pulling it off.”“Where’s that goddamned Wizard? This place is a total disaster.”“She’s gonna be royally pissed if you summon her just to — ”The Princess grabbed a clock off the mantle and smashed it against the floor.“That was an antique,” said the Wizard, who was suddenly in the room wearing high-waisted blue jeans, a scandalously tiny blouse, and a pair of pink, heart-shaped eyeglasses.“Everything’s an antique to you,” said the Princess.The Wizard cocked her head. “Well played.”“Anyway,” said the Princess, “I wouldn’t have called if it weren’t an emergency. Would you mind . . .”The Wizard lowered her eyeglasses onto the tip of her nose. “Seriously? Again?”The Dragon flapped over to the Wizard and perched on her shoulder. “I told her not to summon you for something so trivial, but she never listens to me.”“I do too!” said the Princess.“And she said I’m not funny,” said the Dragon.“The fuck, Dragon?” said the Princess.“I know, sweetheart,” said the Wizard. She scratched the Dragon behind his right ear. “You are entirely unappreciated. But I brought you something to cheer you up.” She pulled a crinkly bag out of a back pocket and handed it to the Princess. “It’s called ca — dragon nip. Don’t give him too much at once; it’s pretty strong.”There was a knock at the door. “Princess?” called the Knight. “Door’s locked.”“Is that a boy?” said the Wizard. “Oh, oh oh oh — I get it.” She winked. “Emergency indeed.”“It’s not like that,” said the Princess. “We just needed another player for —”“Uh huh, sure,” said the Wizard. “Do you need me to wipe the mural too? And your hideous clothes?”“Clothes yes, mural no,” said the Princess. “I’m not finished with it yet.”“You should do Tokyo next,” said the Wizard. “I imagine that would keep you busy for a while. I’ll bring some phots next time.” She snapped her fingers, and the room lurched back in time four months, when it was most recently clean. As did the Princess’ paint-splattered, once-white dress.“This really isn’t what it looks like,” said the Princess.“Yeah yeah,” said the Wizard, “whatever, I’m not judging. And a fling might be exactly what you need. Get it out of your system, you know? Gotta be lonely up in here.”“Why does everyone think that my system needs — ”The Wizard vanished.“So you brought the donkey,” said the Princess. “Inside.”“I was worried he’d be cold,” said the Knight, who was alternating between staring open-mouthed at the graffiti skyline and squinting into the rulebook.“D’aww — sorry, sorry,” said the Dragon. The three of them were sitting at the table — the Dragon looking only slightly ridiculous in his high chair — with the boardgame between them.“Well, does Sir Steve need anything?” said the Princess.“Nah,” said the Knight, “he’s no trouble. He’ll probably shit on the floor at some point, but he’ll clean it up if we give him enough time.”“The mark of a noble beast,” said the Dragon.“Yeah, sure. So what’s the deal with the painting?” said the Knight.“They’re the towers of the future,” said the Princess. “People pay to live in them, get away from the street noise, look down on people and so on.”“They’re beautiful,” said the Knight. “I’ve never seen anything like them.”The Princess smiled — genuinely — for the first time in much too long. “Thank you.”The Dragon cleared his throat.“Okay,” said the Knight, “I think I’m ready to play. Who’s first?”“Dragons go first,” said the Dragon.“Of course they do,” said the Princess.The Dragon grabbed a blue settlement piece in a paw and set it down on a hexagon. Then picked it back up. Then set it down on a different hexagon. Then picked it back up again.“Any day now,” said the Princess.“You’re making me anxious,” said the Dragon. “Just let me think for a minute.”“What’s there to think about?” said the Princess. “We both know you’re going to pick the spot with the most sheep.”“I feel like I might need to reread the manual,” said the Knight. “I don’t remember sheep being all that important.”“They’re not,” said the Princess.“Maybe not to you,” said the Dragon. “How am I supposed to choose between two spots that offer an identical amount of sheep?”“Get comfortable, sir Knight,” said the Princess. “It’s gonna be a while.”“Well,” said the Knight. “Since we’re on the topic, I’m not really a Knight.”“Wow, I am shocked,” said the Princess. “Dragon, are you shocked?”“So shocked,” said the Dragon. “Immeasurably shocked.”“You both knew I was lying?” said the Knight.“You ride a miniature donkey,” said the Princess. “C’mon man. Just cause we’re pretty doesn’t mean we’re stupid.”“Aww,” said the Dragon. “You implied that I’m pretty.”“And I already regret it,” said the Princess.“That’s fair,” said the Knight. “But if you knew I wasn’t a Knight, then why’d you invite me up? Only Knights get Heart Quests. . .so. . .”“Settlers sucks with two players,” said the Dragon.“Oh,” said the Knight. His eyes dropped to the boardgame. “I see.”“Dragon!” said the Princess.“What?” said the Dragon. “You told the Time Wizard — did you just kick me under the table?”The Knight gave the Princess a small smile. “It’s alright — I never expected to get a Quest at all, really.” He shrugged. “I guess I’m just trying to say that I appreciate your help, regardless of why you offered.”“Okay,” said the Dragon, “I’m going to go with. . .no, never mind. Sorry sorry, one sec.”“Was the rest of it true?” said the Princess. “About why you wanted the Quest?”“Yeah,” said the Knight. “My family’s in the rat catching business, so I won’t be able to put kids off for long.” He clasped his fingers together atop the table, his many scars standing bright against his skin. “But a few months shouldn’t hurt. I figure Ma will let up for a bit if it seems like I’m courting someone.”“Sorry, I don’t follow,” said the Princess. “Why is it that you need kids?”“Tight spaces require small hands,” said the Knight, softly.“That’s pretty gross,” said the Dragon.“Dragon, manners,” said the Princess. “Somebody’s gotta catch the rats.”“What about you?” said the Knight. “How’d you end up locked away in a tower?”The Princess’ cheeks warmed. “Oh, this — it’s not like that. This tower. . .it was a birthday present. Sounds a little ridiculous compared to, well, your situation. Sorry.”“Oh, it’s fine,” said the Knight. “If someone gave me a tower, I’d live in it too. But I’m guessing there’s more to it than that.”“Yeah,” said the Princess. “I didn’t want to get married, but that’s just what you do when you’re the daughter of the King. It’s pretty much your whole purpose in life. So the tower was a compromise. I get to avoid all the courting bullshit, and when somebody in the kingdom — the land? — gets too ambitious, my father sends them here to seek my hand. And I get rid of them for a while with a Heart Quest.”The Knight nodded. “An elegant solution.”“You two done chatting?” said the Dragon. “It’s your move, Princess.”“. . . How did we let this happen,” said the Princess. “I am so ashamed.”“One thing just led to another, and. . .” said the Knight. “I feel physically ill.”“Ugh,” said the Princess. “This is the worst day of my life.”“I’m so glad my Ma isn’t here to see this,” said the Knight.“You may call me. . .Sheep Master,” said the Dragon.“How did we let him block all the trading ports?” said the Princess. “We’re totally cut off from everything.”“I have no idea,” said the Knight. “It doesn’t seem like this should be possible.”The Dragon clucked his tongue, and a little jet of flame licked out from his nostrils. “The game would be a lot closer if the two of you had spent less time flirting and more time strategizing.”“We weren’t — ” said the Princess.“We were just talking,” said the Knight.“What the fuck happened here?” interrupted the Wizard, who was now in the room again.The Knight tipped back in his chair and crashed to the floor. “Steve, save yourself!”The donkey quirked its ears, then went back to sleep.“Really?” said the Wizard. “That’s your first thought, dude? Wizard sails through the ocean of time only to magically poof into the center of the room and your gut instinct tells you that I’ve come for your undersized donkey? Do you believe the future to be donkey-less? It is not.”“It just kinda popped out,” said the Knight, who was climbing back into his chair. “I’m not proud of it.”“I think it’s sweet,” said the Dragon.“Of course you do,” said the Princess, “cause you’re a fucking sucker.”“Also,” said the Wizard, “why is there a donkey in here? Is that a pile of shit on the floor? And how is this game not over — am I seeing this correctly? Wow, you two suck at Settlers. You are like, preposterously terrible.”“The game hasn’t ended because Dragon won’t end it,” said the Princess. “All he has to do to win is build another settlement but he’s just wasting time collecting sheep.”“He is prolonging our suffering,” said the Knight. “Needlessly.”“I play by my own rules,” said the Dragon.“There is a literal rulebook on the table,” said the Princess.“Can we get back to the Wizard thing?” said the Knight. “She’s a Wizard? There are Wizards? Do I get a wish?”“Those are genies,” said the Wizard. “But you can ask me a question about the future, if you’d like.” She turned to the Princess. “Just wanted to drop off those drinks you asked for.” She set a wrapped package on the table.“I didn’t ask for any — ” said the Princess.“So, Mr. Knight,” said the Wizard. “You got a question for me? Better make it count.”“This is a lot of pressure,” said the Knight.“My my, how the tables have turned,” said the Dragon.“Ten nine eight seven six five four — ” said the Wizard.“When does the world end?” said the Knight.“Ohh,” said the Princess. “Quality question.”“Isn’t that a little fatalist?” said the Dragon.“All the cool kids are fatalist in the future,” said the Wizard. “Fatalism is totally in. And the world ends in 2018, far as I can tell.”“Far as you can tell?” said the Knight.“Yeah,” said the Wizard. “It’s pretty strange: no matter how much time I spend in that era, the year never quite manages to end — something’s seriously messed up in the continuum. Anyway.” She patted the package. “You kids have fun. Night!” She vanished.The Princess opened the package. “Wow. It truly never stops.”“Is that from the future?” said the Knight.“Yeah,” said the Princess. “It’s a box of wine.”“A box of wine?” said the Knight. “The future must be a truly confounding place.”“It’s like, a wineskin, but inside a box that holds it,” said the Princess.“So what’s the point of the box?” said the Knight.“No idea,” said the Princess. “Your guess is as good as mine.”“So,” said the Knight, “the Wizard’s trying to get us drunk. Am I wrong to assume she intends — ”“Nope, you’ve got it,” said the Princess. “Her too.”“Oof,” said the Knight. “That’s unfortunate. Well, maybe. . .”“Yeah?” said the Princess.“Never mind,” said the Knight. “Not the best idea. Does the Wizard ever bring you anything more substantial? Medicine, gadgetry, weapons?”“Spray paint aside, it’s pretty much just board games and refreshments,” said the Princess. “I imagine there are rules for what she’s allowed to bring back, but who knows — maybe she’s just holding out on us.” The Princess looked over her shoulder. The sun was setting, and her heart dropped just a little. She didn’t want the Knight to leave, so she twisted the nozzle out of the box. “What do you think?”“Well,” said the Knight. “I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t curious. Particularly about the role of the box.”“Are the stars spinning?” said the Princess. She and the Knight were lying side by side on the floor, their shoulders just barely touching as they gazed up through one of the tower’s skylights. “I think they’re spinning. Or is it just me?”The Knight squinted. “Definitely spinning. Clockwise. No, counterclockwise. No, both. I feel exceptionally nauseous.”“Boxed wine will do that to you,” said the Princess.“Villainous box,” said the Knight. “Hey, look: the little stars inside your towers are spinning, too.”“Ohhh, pretty,” said the Princess, “but I think it’s the room that’s spinning.”“How’d you come up with them, anyway?”“What do you mean?”“The towers.”“Oh, I didn’t make them up; those are actual towers that people live in, like, seven-hundred years from now.”“Ohhh,” said the Knight. “I keep forgetting about the Time Wizard thing. It’s a little hard to wrap your head around.”“Right. She brings me pictures — pictures are like, super realistic drawings, basically — and I spray paint the towers from those.”“Why though? I mean, if you already have the. . .pictures.”The Princess shrugged. “It makes me feel better, I guess. Knowing that there are people out there that want what I want, even if it’ll take a while for society to catch up. The paintings are a reminder that not everyone who lives in a tower is batshit-crazy for refusing to come down just to complete some stranger’s life.”The Knight nodded sagely. “Shit’s deep.”“I also just like painting, so. Hey, can you see the Dragon from where you’re lying?”“He’s still passed out on top of Steve. Look at him — his eyes are open. He’s full-blown catatonic.”The Princess snorted. “That’s funny.”“Why is that funny?” said the Knight.The Princess laughed, harder now. “I have no idea.” She snorted again. “But I think it’s funny.”“I can’t believe you gave the Dragon the whole bag of nip.”“We were never getting out of that game otherwise,” said the Princess.“Wasn’t the worst thing,” said the Knight.“We could’ve died,” said the Princess.“That seems a tad dramatic,” said the Knight.“I saved your life,” said the Princess.“I will be forever grateful,” said the Knight. “Is there any boxwine left?”The Princess sighed. “Nope. Nary a drop of box to be found.”“Ha,” said the Knight. “Nary. See, nary’s a funny word.”“Is it?” said the Princess.“Yeah,” said the Knight. “You know how a word starts sounding weird if you say it too many times? Nary’s like that, but you only gotta say it once.”“Nary. Narrrrry.” The Princess laughed again, high and clear.The Knight looked to the window, where dawn was just starting to break, and the smile slipped from his face. “It’s almost morning. I should probably get going.”The Princess rolled onto her side to face him, and he did the same. “You could crash on the couch, if you want.”“I appreciate it,” said the Knight, “but I’ve gotta get back to work. Rats aren’t going to catch themselves.”The Princess nodded. “Shame, that.”The Knight rose and crossed the room, then carefully lifted the Dragon off the donkey’s back. “I believe this belongs to you.” He handed the Dragon over.“Thanks,” said the Princess, as she cradled the Dragon to her chest.“C’mon Steve,” said the Knight, and the donkey yawned and clambered to its feet. “Good boy. Afraid we’ve got a bit of walking to do.”“I really enjoyed this,” said the Princess. “Tonight, I mean.”“Me too,” said the Knight. “Thanks for having us.”“Anytime,” said the Princess.“We should. . .well, goodnight,” said the Knight. He opened the door and Steve trotted through it.“Goodnight,” said the Princess.The Knight stepped down into the stairwell and shut the door behind him.The Princess grabbed the doorknob, swallowed the lump in her throat, then let her hand fall her to side.A few minutes later, the Dragon finally stirred. “What Quest did you give him?”“Motherfucker,” said the Princess.“Yo, Sir Rat Catcher,” said the Princess, who was sitting on the windowsill, one leg dangling over the side.The Knight, who’d just exited the tower, looked up and smiled.“I never gave you a Heart Quest.”The Knight laughed. “I completely spaced on that.”“Me too!” said the Princess. “We must have been having too much fun.”“Way too much fun,” said the Knight. He hesitated, and his gaze dropped to the back of Steve’s head. “But hey, look.”“Yeah?” said the Princess.“I don’t want to assume anything here, but I gotta say something really quick, okay?”The Princess frowned. “Alright. I’m listening.”“I don’t want to make this weird, but Princess . . . I think you’re awesome. And I’d love to see you again.”The Princess teared up at that. She already knew where this was going — it always, always went this way — but it still hurt her heart all the same. She’d dared to think this Knight was different. Stupid, so very stupid.The Knight cleared his throat. “But I just got out of a really serious relationship and I’m under a ton of pressure to settle down, and — oh no, Princess, please don’t cry, it’s not you, you’re wonderful, it’s — ”“No!” blurted the Princess. She wiped her eyes with the backs of her hands. Her sorrows had vanished at the Knight’s unexpected words, and a hysterical joy was building in her chest. “No, it’s perfect. This is so perfect.”“What is?” said the Knight.“That you’re emotionally unavailable,” said the Princess, who was grinning so hard her cheeks were cramping.“That’s a very strange thing to say to someone. I can’t tell if I’m insulted. Should I feel insulted?”“No, I mean: Sir Knight, what I’m trying to say is that I’m emotionally unavailable, too. And there are so many cities I haven’t painted and I’m big on alone time and — ”The Knight beamed up at her. “Seriously? You’re good with this?”“I am so fucking good with this,” said the Princess. “You have no idea how good with this I am.”“So,” said the Knight. “Friends, then?”“A thousand times yes,” said the Princess. “I feel like my fucking heart’s about to explode.”“Well, then that just leaves the Quest,” said the Knight.The Princess licked her lips. She felt like she could float right up out of the tower. “Sir Knight, from this point forward and into the indefinite future, I require you to attend me every Friday at sunset for a night of boardgames and boxwine.”“And maybe Tuesdays too?” said the Knight. “If you aren’t too busy?”“Fuck yeah,” said the Princess.The post PodCastle 611: Yo, Rapunzel! appeared first on PodCastle.


29 Jan 2020

Rank #4

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PodCastle 498: Chasing Flowers

Author : L. Chan Narrator : Julia Patt Host : Summer Fletcher Audio Producer : Peter Wood Chasing Flowersby L. ChanLian’s world is flat. Not just the landscape, which extends as far as the eye can see, horizon to horizon under the rolling twilight flux. Not just the houses, dotting the slate grey earth and the thunder cloud sky. Not just her folded servants, who used to pad around silently with their painted smiles and their unblinking eyes, unfurling from their hiding places to bring her the same dishes for breakfast, lunch and dinner for a hundred years.Lian ate regularly for fifty years before she realised that the food tasted of nothing but fire and ashes. Before she realised that she wasn’t hungry and had never been since her death. Not down here, where the sun peeks over the hills at the edge of the land and she still doesn’t know if it’s rising or setting because it’s been stuck there for the hundred years since she died.Diyu isn’t so bad. It’s better when you have money, but what isn’t? Lian doesn’t get money anymore. Body to bones, bones to dust. Her gravestone pocked by water, bleached by lichen and scoured clean by the wind. Her brothers and sisters ceased burning offerings for her shortly after her parents died. They’d be down here too somewhere, her entire family. If there was a torture here for those who’d broken their daughter’s body and dreams, she hasn’t found it yet. Bodies healed, dreams did not but Lian never found it in her heart to seek out her kin’s suffering.She’s been waiting for a long time. Not for money or food or even to expunge her hillock of karma. Not for her family, but for someone else. Lian’s been asking around, paying itinerant souls for information, roaming the eighteen courts herself when the money ran out, till her flat paper shoes were worn to shreds and the razor grit turned her footprints scarlet.The sky is raining ashes, grey snow; the air is heavy with hope. Once a year, the gates are open. Once a year, the dead are free for a month and then to return. The gates of Diyu are of stained wood; darkened by age, lashed together with the sinews of the dead and blasted clean by the screams of sinners. The gatekeepers flank the open portal, tall as houses, thickly muscled. One had the head of an ox, wickedly curved horns and nails of brass. The other had the head of a horse, mane tangled and matted, nostrils flaring and venting steam like a locomotive. Their eyes narrow at Lian’s approach. Not all ghosts get to leave hell and they can smell a runner a mile off. She’s not used to speed and she no longer has a beating heart or breathing lungs, but she pushes herself anyway. She’s through the gates even as the keepers turn. The chase is on.Mei’s world is flat. She’s on something. Rhymes with magazine but has too many Zs and Xs to be a real word. She gets it from a friend who buys in bulk over in Johore and peddles it on the right chatgroups. The pills suck the spit from her mouth and she only pees once a day but they soften the prickles of living in her skin so she buys them in unlabeled plastic bottles of a hundred each.Mei knows the names of the flowers by heart in more than one language, some alive, some dead. A riot of colours surrounds her; but the pills fade them all to a mushy grey at the edge of her vision. Flowers don’t sell well during the Hungry Ghost Festival, so she preps bouquets to die a slow death in the chiller. A flick of her wrist brings the metallic tool down the stalk of a rose, tearing away thorns. She imagines the rose crying a little with the scrape.Rose. Rosaceae. Meiguihua. Thorns give character. You don’t pick a rose straight up; need to look out for those little needles hiding behind leaves and petals, move your fingers just so that you avoid getting pricked. Not if it’s been stripped though. Then you just go for it. With another flourish, she flays the personality from the rose.She rubs the short buzz cut above her ears; runs a finger down the five studs on her left earlobe. An older lady walks by the shop, eyes lingering on Mei’s hair long enough to be on the wrong side of polite. Mei pegs her for a hydrangea person, just for the rarity and the expense, not the softness of the petals or the gentleness of their hues. The woman meets Mei’s gaze momentarily, averts her eyes and stalks off. In her world, flowers should be sold by willowy young things, flowing hair and bending at the waist like stalks in the breeze. Not by someone like Mei, with her bleached blonde hair, fringe over one eyebrow and sideburns shaved away. In her too tight jeans and her too tight vest under her shirt, moulding her body into the shape she wanted to be seen in. Still she was more akin to a clod of dirt than the flowers she clipped, twisted, emasculated, neutered and bundled. So much easier to love a rose without thorns, but what’s the point in that? Mei slips a pair of tens from the cash register to pay for dinner, adding it to the mental tally that she’d have to replace by the end of the following week or her boss would know. She breathes in the warm soup of the air outside the shopping mall, peppered with the floating ash of the ghost festival. She’s already sweating, spreading patches under her arms but she’s not going to roll up her sleeves, not when the gauze over her left forearm’s still fresh and the cuts haven’t scabbed over yet. Always on the back of the forearm though, too easy to get an intervention if it’s on the other side. Not that she doesn’t think about it; she thinks about it a lot. There’s a lot of time for that in between assembling bouquets and weaving wreaths. She’s walking a little faster now, pressing like an icebreaker through somnambulant floes. And then she’s running before the pills wear out.The moon hangs low in the sky, so fat and full that it would have pulled a person’s shadow long across the grass. Instead the shadows are cast by strange cool lights that burn orange like tallow flame. Lian doesn’t have the time to take in the shadows, or the lights, or the crowds of people in strange dress gathering around mesh cages or steel drums, doling out sheafs of rectangular paper into crackling fires; hell money for the dead.The two are never far behind and they are gaining. She can hear the bellow of Ox, reaching low into the bass, so low that it rumbles the grit on the road and blows hell money out of the hands of the crowds into little swirling whirlwinds. She can hear the whistling whinny of Horse, screaming like a tortured kettle, shrill enough to tease blood from the ears of babes.The two are tireless, but so is she. She has no wants, no aches, no pains, not here back on earth, where she darts between the huddled masses. Lian does this out of habit, the living offer little more resistance to her flight than would spiderwebs. But, just like running through a spiderweb, the experience was pleasing neither to the runner, nor the spider. She spends more time avoiding the hungry dead; those mournful fresh ones who have yet to forget the sensation of hunger, of being clothed, of a thousand pleasurable things. They throng around the offerings of money and food, reaching out to brush the cheeks of relatives, who flinch at the sudden coldness of the breeze.Horse and Ox are gaining, and when they do, they will rend her with their nails of iron and brass. They are not so large outside of Diyu, the realm of the dead. Not as tall as the shophouses that lined the river downtown, but still they still stand head and shoulders above the tallest of the living and the dead. Even here, there are rules and they send unfortunate shades flying out of their way in their pursuit of Lian. There’s little she can do against their strength, little that she can affect in the living world. The living and the things that belong to them are as ephemeral to dead as the shadows are to living. But with the worlds passing close; the dead were walking with the living and offerings were going up to the dead.Lian steered herself towards one of the mesh cages in the middle of a crowd doling out hell money and other effigies symbolizing food, luxuries like cars or even pale faced servants. The dead gathered, unseen, hungry for the feast to come, with more streaming in with each passing moment. The keepers were almost upon her, their breathing laboured enough to whirl glowing embers into dancing frenzies that look, for a moment, like screaming bodies. Nobody notices.Lian picks her target carefully, a girl, no older than twelve, mechanically feeding the fire with a stack of hell money, wearing a timeless, open-mouthed look of boredom. She sprinted through the girl, who gave a little yelp at the sudden chill. The stack tumbles into the flames, scattering ash and half burnt hell money. The living shy away, the dead press in and Lian slips into the night.Mei’s out of breath and soaked with sweat by the time she gets to the foot of her block of government flats. Her father might be home, the evening shift hasn’t started for taxis. He doesn’t ask her who she’s seeing anymore (not anyone that will give you grandkids, dad), doesn’t ask her how her day was (same, always some young kid arguing about how much roses cost. Like he doesn’t know. Roses don’t grow here, they’ve got to be flown in). Dad’s probably left for his shift early, needs to keep moving, his back curved by long hours behind the wheel, if he moves long enough and fast enough, nothing catches him. Not the traffic police, not the arthritis that locks his fingers into claws, not his own daughter.She’s not going up, not yet. There was a girl outside her flat a month ago, leaning over the parapet six storeys up, smoking light menthol cigarettes. Mei smiled at her; she had long fingers, high cheekbones and hair to the middle of her back. The girl offered her a smoke, Mei took it with thanks, retiring to an evening of mandopop and Warcraft. Not an hour later, the girl took the express route to the ground floor. The only thing the police left behind when they were done was the pile of ashes near Mei’s door and the smear of drying blood on the pavement below.Mei doesn’t much like to be alone at home after that, not in the ghost month. This country is tiny, they stack people like bundles of paper in concrete coffins. There isn’t a spot more than ten metres from the site of someone’s death anywhere on the island. No point in going upstairs anyway. There’s a getai below on a rickety stage, a concert for the living and the dead. They’ve got a traditional opera singer up there on stage. The singer’s resplendent in her silken sleeves and her elaborate headdress. Her lips are rose red and her eyes accentuated by lotus pink.The singer’s got range to rival Mariah, but owns the stage like a ballerina with her flowing sleeves swirling around her, more intimate than a dance partner. Mei doesn’t understand the words, it’s probably Teochew or Hokkien or some other dialect. The crowd’s got an average age of seventy, rheumy eyes straining at the stage, heads tilted so that the one good ear gets to hear the singing. Despite the dulling of their senses, the crowd leaves the first row empty. Empty save for a young woman Mei’s age, who’s watching the show with every bit as much enjoyment as the aged.The woman’s clothes are like nothing Mei has ever seen. A silk blouse with sleeves stretching to fingertips, birds frolicing amidst flowers from shoulder to waist in an intricate embroidered swathe. Her trousers are of the same material, a shimmering yellow, tapered to fine ankles and feet (Mei flinches a little when she see these) the size  of a twelve year old’s. Her features, Mei notes, are as delicate as her clothes. Her eyes, large and constantly wide with surprise, are dark enough to reflect the whole stage. Her lips are rosebud perfect, accentuated by a single vertical dab of lipstick. Mei wants to reach out and touch those lips but already she’s been staring too long. The woman favours Mei with a smile, her teeth small and even, just like everything else about her. Mei crumples into the hard plastic chair; the thin plywood board underfoot creaks and sags.“You should apologise to the Ah Ma whose lap you just sat on,” says the woman, her eyes bright with mirth. Mei looks around, the row is empty save the two of them. A little gallows humour, Mei thinks. There’s a time and place for that, outside of the seventh month. That’s been drilled into Mei’s head, part of the warp and the weft of the hodgepodge of animist, traditionalist beliefs that she’d grown up with. Don’t stick your chopsticks vertically into your bowl of rice. Moths at wakes are the spirits of the departed, come to see if enough tears are shed.The woman turns back to the stage. “I used to live here, before it was like this,” she says, bringing her arm, palm up, to indicate Mei’s block of flats. “There were nothing but straight backed trees of silver bark, far as the eye could see. Every morning, men would gouge lines into the trunks and bleed the trees of their white sap to boil and make rubber. Acres of scars.” She brushes Mei’s forearm and her touch is cold through Mei’s sleeve and the bandages. Mei relishes the sensation on her fevered skin. The woman’s voice is whisper soft, but it’s the only thing Mei hears. Her Mandarin is clipped, elegant; each word a speck of intent clothed in the nacre of formal language.Mei introduces herself. She does this slowly, as though she’s unsure of who she is, of who she wants to be for this stranger. The stranger smiles at Mei, she is generous with her smiles, they crinkle her eyes up at the edges and will leave crow’s feet there before long.“My name is Lian and I —love you she wants to say. You love me back, you just don’t know it yet. Mei’s dressed for the times, but Lian still sees the young woman that served her family in the old two storey bungalow which once stood not far from the getai stage. Mei’s menfolk were rubber tappers; her other kin, washerwoman and maids. The bungalow had whitewashed walls, louvers of dark wood to let in the cool breeze and the heated calls of jungle birds. It’s all gone now, the plantation and the house, replaced by things as tall as the mountains in Diyu. Mei’s still waiting for her to complete her sentence, but Lian leaves it dangling. She’s still got her hand on Mei’s forearm, fingers sinking through the weave of Mei’s shirt, down past the bandage, feeling a racing pulse under warm skin. If Mei notices the chill of the hungry ghost, she doesn’t say it.One of the Ah Mas a row behind sees Lian. She sees the others too, and has since her youth. The old lady has more friends and family dead than alive and she looks forward to the ghost month like a child awaiting Christmas.  She gives Lian a smile comprised of more gaps than teeth.The opera singer tells the crowd about love; the living and the dead nod back. Some of the dead are blurred around the edges. Old ghosts, so much so that they’re starting to fade, but still hungry. Some for food, some for possessions, but ghosts, most of all, hunger to feel again. Feeling like Lian feels right now. She tells Mei that there’s a story to share and the two of them are followed from the getai by the jealous eyes of unquiet spirits.As they walk, Lian wonders if the rubber trees screamed when they were bled every day. Mei doesn’t quite notice, but Lian’s feet merely brush the tips of the dry grass. Walking is a habit Lian recently relearned; the dead have no need for it above ground. She tells Mei about the big house which was high as the tallest tree in the plantation, of a lonely child that had a friend in the family’s serving girl. A friend and more besides. The child became a young woman and, as was custom, her Ah Ma arranged for her to meet the son of a family that had sprouted from the same province in China. The young man smelled of sweat, and of sticky black opium, and of sweet rice wine. She was to be his second wife; his first having borne him only daughters.And so the servant girl hatched a plan for the two of them to escape through the plantation, on a night when the moon was full enough to read by. The lonely girl’s feet had been bound in strips of linen and silk since her youth, crushing the forming bones so that their form might be more pleasing to the eye. She didn’t run very far before the both of them were caught, the servant girl was lashed with canes of young bamboo, supple enough to bend like whips to break the skin.There was a second plan between the pair, a promise for a second meeting when the moon again hung fat in over the treetops. The lonely young lady, now waiting for an auspicious day for her own wedding; the servant girl, a blood price paid to her family, her face scarred with hot water and sold to serve opium in the flesh dens by the docks.“What then?” asks Mei, as flecks of smouldering paper drift on the breeze.“They promised to meet in spirit, if not in flesh,” says Lian, slipping a silken sleeve up to show scars she’d kept for a century. Ghosts appear as they remember themselves to be; Lian hasn’t forgotten that promise, not for a hundred years. “One’s waiting, the other is lost, going round in circles.” Lian reaches through Mei’s sleeve to stroke rows of scars, etched every day, feeling the warmth leech from Mei’s skin as latest one continues to leak.Do the rubber trees scream when they’re cut? Bleeding is the only thing that makes them useful.“There’s something I need you to see, Mei. We’re going home.” Lian speaks to Mei, speaks to the servant girl with her warm hands and warm smile, who once laid cool towels on her brow to break a fever, and herbal poultices on her feet to heal shattered bone. She speaks as ghosts speak, past the ears and straight to the soul. There’s only a few hours left for Lian to do this, to bring Mei back home.Mei drifts as Lian whispers to her, leading her on by the arm. The other woman has given up the pretense of walking, she’s lightly brushing the tips of the grass, as though carried by the breeze, her connection to Mei the only thing anchoring her. The air smells of ash; and of cooked dinners; and of diesel fumes from the road. Despite the press of her body on Mei’s arm, Lian smells of nothing at all.“Where are we going?” she asks. Lian tells her. Mei snorts. “Every culture has a story about someone going to hell to save a lover. Orpheus and Eurydice. Ishtar and Ereshkigal.”“Mulian saves his mother,” says Lian, cutting Mei off.“This isn’t one of those stories, is it?”“In a way. It all depends on where hell really is.”Mei leaves it at that. She’s always wanted to be the hero of her own story, but she could almost believe that she was floating with the strange woman she’d known for half an hour and a lifetime. It’s getting late and they have a long way to go, so Mei flags a taxi for the two of them.The taxi driver says nothing, because it’s the seventh month, and to acknowledge things is to invite them into your life. One woman got into his taxi, but he sees two in the mirror. He doesn’t mind that the woman shorts him two dollars when she pays, because he’ll put it all in the temple donation box, offering incense to Kwan Im and sprinkling his seats with blessed water and flower petals.Mei watches the taxi hurry away; the driver’s got better places to be. It’s cold, cold for the equatorial climate. She doesn’t feel it; she’s leaning on Lian. The other woman’s colder than her, but she doesn’t mind at all. There’s a crowd here, amidst the headstones of marble and granite, amidst the burnt down joss sticks and the offerings of food; fruit, rice and sweets. Some are dressed like Lian, embroidered silk; others in garb befitting the times, and even others that Mei couldn’t make out, ones that were fuzzy around the edges, their substance bleeding out and fading into the background.She blinks and they’re gone. And back again. Mei’s drifting between stations, sometimes the crowd is solid, sometimes the quiet of graveyard comes to the foreground. The crowd’s got a destination, a queue forms. The dead are used to order. She knows (or has known for a while) that Lian herself is dead, but she doesn’t care because Lian’s got the same lines down her forearms and she leans in to whisper in Mei’s ear, growing more solid with each passing minute.They’re almost to the head of the line, Lian and Mei. Ox head and Horse face are there, no longer hunters, back to ushering the dead. Between them lies the gate to Diyu, the wood the colour of a rotted corpse, the wind rushes out from under the earth, glad to be away from the courts of hell, bringing with it the smells of ash, of blood, of pain. It smells like home and this time it’s forever.Ox bars their way with his weapon, a trident twice Lian’s height, its shaft thick as her calf. “You’ve come back.   They always do. Better to be full on meals of ash and dust than to be forever hungry up above,” he says. He points to Mei with one iron fingernail. “The living cannot pass. These are the rules.” His voice is the thunder of bison hooves, the rumble of a mudslide. Elsewhere, one of the ghosts in line weeps at the sound.“She is not long for this world.” Lian points to the specks of blood at Mei’s feet, dripping from her sodden sleeves and fingertips.“This is not her place,” says Horse, lowering his own spear, the spearhead a sinuous wave of a blade, seeming to writhing like a snake. “You know this to be true. This was your place and hers was to live and live again. Until the sun refuses to shine or until your karma is gone.”“We both killed ourselves.”“She killed herself for you,” says Ox. There’s something in his dark, liquid eyes now, a hint of something human in a visage inured to a millenia of witnessed torment.“So did I.”“No, did not. You did it for you. The rules are just,” he says, and says it softly, even as the steam from his nostrils blows Lian’s hair from her face.“There are other rules, gatekeepers. I walked the burning plains for her, I climbed mountains of glass, drowned myself to see if she was beneath the deepest lakes of hell. I have her and I will not let her go.” Lian raises herself to her full height and pulls Mei close. If the gathering crowd of ghosts saw a flicker of a palimpsest, of a shadow self pulled in front of Mei’s unresisting body, they say nothing.“She will be free to pass through the gates in a moment,” says Horse. His voice is high, womanish. “Remember that she accepted you as you were, then and now. Would you have done the same for her?”Lian is taking almost all of Mei’s weight now. Mei is doomed to repeat this (does she scream every morning when she scores lines on her arms, Lian wonders, do the trees scream when we draw blades down old scars?). Lian’s pressed in, bound by strips of linen and silk, duty and family, bones squeezed and shattered that she would be pleasingly shaped to her kin and the world. And she’s about to do it to someone else.The crowd parts before them as she half drags Mei away from the dark gate. Birds are waking up, their brains too small to care about the parade of spirits, getting ready to welcome the dawn.Ox calls after her, “The gates are closing. They do not open for a year.”She ignores him. Lian tears strips of cloth from Mei’s shirt and ties them around Mei’s arms to slow the bleeding. Mei’s getting lighter; soon she’ll be no more than smoke to Lian. There will be help outside the graveyard. She’ll go as far as it takes.“It is not for the dead to roam this world outside of the ghost month,” shouts Horse. “It is painful and lonely for a hungry ghost.”No, it’s not. Mei is still smiling, her eyes half closed, face pressed closed to Lian’s. With her free hand, Lian strokes Mei’s face. She lets Mei down and sets off into her first sunrise in a century.The post PodCastle 498: Chasing Flowers appeared first on PodCastle.


28 Nov 2017

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PodCastle 538: Itself at the Heart of Things

Author : Andrea Corbin Narrator : Blythe Haynes Host : Summer Fletcher Audio Producer : Peter Adrian Behravesh Discuss on Forums Originally published in Shimmer.Rated PG-13.Itself at the Heart Of – Poetry Generator!Itself at the Heart of Thingsby Andrea Corbin“The acts of life have no beginning or end. Everything happens in a completely idiotic way. That is why everything is alike.” — Tristan Tzara, 1922On the floor, I hiked my skirts up and began to disassemble myself, starting with my left knee.“How is that going to stop the Szemurians? How is that going to protect us? Can’t you help me, for God’s sake?” Benoît said this, sounding increasingly frantic, on each pass through the sitting room as he tried to gather up whatever he could — to board the windows, bar the door, barricade the entire house, as though that were important. He broke apart the dining table we had found on a trip to Lyon in 1921, so he could use the boards to block the picture window. It had been a good table, or at least we had good meals at it over the past three years.The house in Paris would stand or not, and Szemuria would come or not; they would try to burn down the house or not. Or rather, I heard they would, raining war down on us like they themselves were War. Of course the house was inconsequential, so I unscrewed my kneecap and set it on a bedsheet I had spread beside me for that purpose. It was a delicate process because I didn’t want to deny myself or others the option of reassembly in the future. The future was questionable, but no matter; I didn’t want to be destroyed. A small amount of blood spotted the sheet beneath my solitary kneecap.The Szemurians sent no messages or envoys, only dreams to every one of us a week before. Benoît and I had different dreams; the papers suggested everyone did, and visiting the café confirmed — “They came like colossi, feet crushing our belching, rattling cars, and they screamed smoke and fire into the air and burned us alive,” said Mme. Höch, a kohl-eyed woman, hands shaking as she picked up her espresso. The man with her, his beard sharper than Benoît’s and his cravat tighter like a noose, almost knocked the delicate china out of her hands and said, “They were like eagles, massive, claws grasping for each of us as we ran through the streets, claws digging into our flesh and bone, and dropping us from on high, but yes! Yes, they screamed, screamed like nightmares.” — but in the end these were only dreams, I said.Benoît loomed in front of me with a hammer in his hand and nails in his pockets while I carefully snipped and tugged and set my tibia apart from my fibula. “I’m going to need help later on, when I get up here,” I said, gesturing at my torso, my shoulders, my hands.“We’re securing the house, and then we’re going to the bomb shelter.” Having woken up to absent neighbors and quiet streets, he’d concluded everyone had decamped to shelters, like before.Benoît’s dream: He lay in bed with me and we couldn’t move, frozen while bombs dropped all around us, small explosions of dust, cratering the road and city, never touching us but deafening us. He said I tried to speak though neither of us could hear; he could barely see for the dust of the bombs, and he wanted to know what I was saying, what was I saying, what had I said?What the papers said, after the night we first dreamed of Szemuria, was that Szemuria was coming for us and we had to defend ourselves and our way of life. Defend our property, our values, the strength of character, the pure blood, the modern freedoms, and I stopped listening, feeling that the right thing to do was disassemble myself and wait. It took several hours to find the right tools, and to launder and bleach the sheet, and to clear the floor to lay out the sheet, and then Benoît stepped on it and I had to wash the dusty shoeprint off again.Boom! Boom! Here they came. I could hear them, like in my dream, the Szemurians at the edge of the air.An hour into my work, inside my right thigh I had found a key of unrecognizable substance. Heavy, like iron, but a faintly pearled sheen to it; rough, like iron, but always cool, no matter how long I held it; lastly, it was not black like iron; and finally it fit nothing I knew of. I put that key piece of me at the corner of the sheet, away from my dismantled legs, to let it watch over me as I continued to work. Benoît shuffled in, all the windows covered, all but one door sealed tight, and sat by my side. I could see the gleam of exertion on him, smell it on him. All that work he had done to protect something.“We have to go to the bomb shelter,” he said, again.“Do we?”“The Szemurians are coming.”The screwdriver pressed into my hip socket, sharp and painless. With a little more leverage I could — but when I leaned my head on Benoît’s shoulder and closed my eyes, I was transported back, back, back to a time before we bought the house. Before our marriage, before our dreams, before the war. Before all this. But not before the Szemurians. They were always there, whether we knew about them or not. With my eyes closed, I could feel toes in sand, wet sand at the edge of the beach, smooth and pale sand. We took the Métro through the city, a train farther still, until we were at the Mediterranean, in a chȃteau owned by his parents. The chȃteau is no longer there, or anywhere.It’s almost another country, the sea. The south. The warmth of the sun is different. You turn golden and caramel and rosy, or at least we did, me the rosy, daring the sun to burn me. Things made sense, then.Benoît took the screwdriver from my hand and threw it so hard that it stuck into the wall. He gathered the corners of my sheet, the key falling into the mess of bones and muscles and tendons and parts unidentifiable, so I’d likely never be able to put all my pieces back together without the aid of an anatomist, and I laughed as he picked me up. “Perfect.”Things never made sense. We only thought they did because of how little we knew.“I’ll take care of you,” Benoît said, scrabbling for a good grip on me. No knees to scoop his arm under. I held the makeshift satchel of myself, and he held me, and we left.The streets looked the same as always, except they were moving away from me as I looked over Benoît’s shoulder, my nose pressed to his wool coat, inhaling home and Gauloises with each breath, each step away. Boom! Boom! A great drum, out of sight.“Do you remember when we were married?” I asked into his neck.“You wore a beaded ivory dress and black silk top hat. You removed your shoes halfway through, to the alarm of the priest and my mother, who were unsettled enough by the hat. When you did, you put your hand on my shoulder for balance. I almost kissed you right then, but I thought it would’ve killed my mother to upend the order of the ceremony like that,” Benoît said, with that lightness to his voice that meant he was close to crying.“That was the day Germany declared us all at war.”Benoît’s hands tightened around me. “You toasted to all our deaths.”“Not until we were alone,” I said, it being important to remember that I have tact, sometimes.The streets were not full of retreating citizens, defending citizens, fighting citizens as we made our slow way. Everyone was gone. Not a one stayed to defend any way of life, after those dreams. All the Parisians were missing, and what was left but us?“We didn’t die,” he said.“Yet?”Benoît marched, breath harsh with effort.“You looked very handsome at our wedding. New waistcoat of sapphire, the hint of vines traced out in threads of silver, like kelp, like an ocean, like a garden, and you stood so tall and proud that I don’t even remember who else was there. Did you know? I don’t know if my own mother was there. I don’t remember taking off my shoes. I remember dancing with you, each of us with a daffodil in our hand, stolen from the garden,” I said, watching the arrondissement go by, the shadows deep. The sun hid himself behind thin clouds but the shadows were strong. “We fled to Zurich the next month.”“Zurich was nice.”“You were the last thing that made sense.”With a heaving sigh, Benoît stopped in the middle of the street. The air hummed like wind in empty bottles. When I was young, I would line up bottles on a shelf below the window and listen to them sing; this was the same. I closed my eyes. It sounded like something from heaven, or dreams.Benoît walked a short distance and set me down on grass. He took the white sheet from me, unbundling it and arranging the items with care, piece by piece. He peered at the key before setting it among my bones and sinews, where it gleamed like a memory I couldn’t place.“I’m sorry I threw your screwdriver,” he said and stretched out next to me. Under us, the grass was cool, dirt flaking onto my palms, and the wind still sounded like bottles. Benoît slid his fingers between mine. It was his first soft gesture since his dream.“The Szemurians are coming,” I whispered.“What can we do?”The sunset might have bloomed with orange fire, or pink and purple luminescence, or a shade of teal that no one had seen before, but no one saw it then, either, if it did. The low booms, still, like a heartbeat in the sky. Benoît broke the window of a corner shop and found scissors, a butter knife, a finicky wrench, and a mallet, returning to me with his arms full. He also carried a small sack. This is what was in the sack: two gas masks, a ball of red twine, a muslin shirt, a lady’s silk scarf with a pattern of peacock feathers painted on it, a handful of colored ribbons, and a jar of paste.When I saw that, I kissed him.“What have you done to your fingers?” Benoît asked. He took my hand, now lacking the pinky and ring finger, and kissed my palm, his lips dry and gentle.“I felt anxious, waiting,” I said.“Now you have to wait longer,” he said. He stretched his right leg out in front of me. In the sky, angular and pale shapes formed, like new clouds. “I can’t do it myself. Help me, please.”The day I was born, a lark sang. My mother told the story this way, as though a lark singing made a day any different from another. Larks sing every day. The day I began school, a lark sang, and the day my father died, a lark sang. The day I began school, my grandmother fell and never walked again. The day my father died, my mother wept, my cousins wept, my brother wept. The day I met Benoît, yes, a lark sang, and so did a robin, and boys and girls across the country, but also a lark was killed and devoured, and a robin, and boys and girls across the country fell ill or died. The day I married Benoît, the war started, a lark sang. The day we fled to Zurich, a lark sang. And the day my brother joined the army, and the day he died in a watery trench. A lark, singing. Always.A lark sang, invisible in some nearby tree, as Benoît and I took each other to pieces on the grass.“Don’t tell me about it again,” I said to Benoît, as he started to talk about his dream. The Szemurian dream.“I didn’t tell you all of it,” he said.His rib was being difficult. Next we would try the rest of my left arm. There wasn’t much more that we could do for each other. An arm each, a head each, leaving enough to hold each other, and not enough to come apart entirely. We would lay ourselves out in all our parts, reordered and useless. The closer we drew to that moment, the more my dread dissolved into a gas, transmuted into a cloud that could drift away and burn up in the sunlight.“The bombs fell. There was silence. You and me, in our bed. All of Paris gone, all of France, all of Europe. Our bed, in a wasteland. There was a great silence after the bombs fell,” Benoît said, and paused to grunt as I pulled away a set of ribs and lung, bone and flesh, parting with the sound of a boot in mud. “A great silence, then a voice. We were the last ones, all that was left. The voice spoke in a language I didn’t understand, hard consonants and guttural vowels stretched out into low melodies, but I knew that the nothingness was where we were going to spend the rest of our lives. No gardens, no country, no chȃteau near the sea. No trees, no larks, no friends, no art…no more anything.”I wanted to ask what he thought the voice said, but more than that I wanted Benoît to keep talking, so I said nothing.“After the voice, I could move. After the voice, I sat up, put my feet over the side of the bed to find the nothing coated in a powdery dust, colorless for the combination of every color that used to be. I stood. I turned back to reach for you, and you — you were gone.”Benoît put his whole hand over his face. I couldn’t live for his weeping. The last of me shattered, no matter how solid my shoulders, my neck. What was left of my mouth at last confessed, “I had a dream, too.”Surprised into calm, he said, “You never said.”With a soft twist, I pulled Benoît’s hand from his wrist and set it to the side. Carefully, I wrapped his other hand around the stump of arm that remained. “Hold that still,” I directed, and snapped my own hand off. Pressed it, wrist to base, until it took. “They can’t take me from you.”Boom! Even now, scattered, intermittent arrivals: boom!I wore a gas mask, the lower part torn away, the rest covered in muslin. Ribbons lined the edges, tracing in stripes from darkest to lightest. A braid of red twine drooped below my right eye, wafted in the air, tangled in my arms, looped around Benoît’s wrist, danced in a breeze, and connected underneath the left eye of Benoît’s mask. Benoît looked out from the eyes of two peacock feathers, the scarf pasted over his mask and hanging down, billowing with every breath of his. Or my mask was peacocks, and his ribbons, if you counted differently. His legs were longer than I was accustomed to, and I stumbled, needing more effort to skim the ground. He fell behind, needing slightly quicker steps on my legs to keep up. We ambled through the streets, learning our new parts. We wore masks. We walked, stronger with every step.Szemurians in strange vehicles rolled through the sky like smooth tanks, a shining mechanical cacophony supplanting the sight of clouds and stars. Some landed, and out walked Szemurians into Paris, like Parisians returned. They were shaped like Benoît and myself and everyone else we had known on the planet and yet entirely unlike us, which is to say, they were themselves.The building where we lived before Zurich, where we lived when we were first married, had a cluster of Szemurians looking up at it. One admired the flowers in the front garden, pulling them from the dirt. They chattered senselessly as we approached, their vehicle floating a few centimeters above the street like a lost bank vault. The outside was bright silver and muted steel. The door opened into a well-lit interior, with wood-paneled walls and a lush, intricately patterned carpet that reminded me of a garden path.“I dreamt that you came and nothing changed,” I said as we stood between those Szemurians and their vehicle. The Szemurians silenced their talk and looked at us, wide-eyed, shocked to the very core by us, by my words. One wore a morning coat of dove gray, another charcoal, dark fabrics; the dresses stood out like gems of emerald and garnet. A gala we had missed. “I dreamt that nothing changed, except everything was worthless. The franc was worth nothing again. French meant nothing, and my words went unattended the moment anyone recognized them as unrecognizable. I could do nothing. I was a ghost.”The Szemurians stared. The one in the top hat twisted his cane in his hands. “Drent?” he said, stilted, confused, imitating. “Goase?”I turned to Benoît, caressing his chin. “See? No bombs, my love. No craters or dust.”“But that leaves us ghosts,” Benoît said, worry tugging at his face. The Szemurians were starting to chatter again, around a building that grew increasingly strange to me.“This isn’t a dream,” I said. We pushed the scarf out of the way and we kissed, uncertain who was who, exactly, where he was and me, with his hand springing from my wrist, my wrist down to his arm, and back up to my neck stretching and my mouth kissing his.While the Szemurians stood in the streets of Paris, I ran, bringing Benoît and the rest of my self into the Szemurian vehicle. Before the closest Szemurian could follow us inside, we slammed the door. From my pocket, I pulled a pearled key, cool to the touch.Silence.No more booms.Outside, the stars made no sounds, and their lights reflected in our eyes. Back in Paris, a lark sang.The post PodCastle 538: Itself at the Heart of Things appeared first on PodCastle.


4 Sep 2018

Rank #6

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PodCastle 539: Godfall

Author : Xander M. Odell Narrator : Anson Mount Host : Summer Fletcher Audio Producer : Peter Adrian 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 of Maya’s feet rose against the sky, each toe adorned with a massive gold ring inlaid with cobras crowned with lotus blossoms. By the looks of the gold and white flags, the feet had already been claimed by the Vatican. It must have galled Pope Innocent XVI to accept the UN award for the feet of a Hindu god.The god’s legs rested to one side, knees slightly bent, thick thighs leading to the fleshy invitation of her belly. Tully couldn’t see the upper arms, but her lower right arm lay across her midriff, while the lower left arm lay flung to the side, a cosmic afterthought. Immense gold bracelets at the wrists framed the wealth of rings on both hands. Beyond her breasts would be the treasures of her shoulders and head. This looked to be a good haul. Plenty of gold and industrial grade diamonds in the rings; uranium and other heavy metals could be extracted from the bones.A rush of wind brought the mingled smells of iron, copper, patchouli, and a special scent that was distinctly . . . Maya. Tully couldn’t think of any other way to label it. The think-boy who figured out a way to bottle that scent would make millions.Marco nodded in the direction of the UN flyers patrolling the boundaries of the fall zone. “The dogs are out in force.”Tully allowed himself a moment to admire the view of the younger man against the fore rail. Dark skin, dark hair, nice ass. Too bad Marco had signed on as a helper. Tully made it a point to never mix business with pleasure.“They’re just doing their jobs,” he said.Marco looked up. “How long did you say we have?”Tully squinted at the flyers circling the distortion in the air high above Maya’s midriff. The tangle of colors, the improbable angles that echoed in his joints, made them want to bend in sympathetic symmetry. He returned his attention to the controls. Gates always made him a little queasy. “It’s still small yet. The UN says three days, maybe four.”He eased the skiff around Maya’s toes to the tops of her feet, dark with henna. Workers on the maze of scaffolding in the ankle creases watched them pass overhead. A message ping warned that the skiff had violated Canadian airspace and should depart immediately. With a slurp of coffee and an acknowledging ping, Tully turned the skiff over the ankles to Maya’s calves. The Canadians had ground-to-air missiles.Maya had settled into the ground five, maybe ten feet. In the muggy heat, it wouldn’t take long for the god’s skin to pale to a meaty gray, then she would start to swell. And stink. It would be bad. With any luck (and a returned call from Ali Bob), they’d be long gone by then.A mob maybe five hundred strong milled around the Red Cross tent city set well back from Maya’s outflung left hand. They screamed at the flyers, at Her Most Revered Corpse, at the scrapper teams plundering Maya’s remains, at the aid workers searching for survivors in the surrounding rubble of stone, steel, and shattered lives. Radio chatter claimed at least three million dead, possibly as high as five and a half million.Marco settled on the front deck. “You think the mummers are already here?”Tully took another sip of coffee. After the bumpy eighteen-hour nonstop to the sub-continent and the four-hour flight inland, the inside of his eyelids felt like 40-grit sandpaper. “I’ve never been to a fall where the mummers didn’t get there first.”Marco put his back to the railing, dada locks flapping around him. “I used to think about them all the time as a kid, you know? I still have every issue of the Mummers’ Parade.”Great, a fall fanatic. Tully hadn’t scoped that out when he took Marco on. It was going to be a long scrap.Dagda fell first, his ornate leather armor filled with the sun and his hair a gold tide in the Irish Sea. Millions dead, two-thirds of Dublin destroyed. Numb with grief and the scope of the devastation, the search for survivors continued until the sky split wide and the worms tumbled down for the feast.Massive, eyeless, segmented horrors, they swarmed over the body, tied themselves in knots to gouge out massive chunks of flesh and bone. They devoured every bit of skin or drop of blood, no matter where it fell — concrete, wood, stone, metal, or human flesh.Twelve hours later, the sated worms rose from the devastation and returned through the hole in the sky to the unknown, leaving a cold, sinking confusion in their wake.Tully set down at a clear point halfway between Maya’s ankles and the backs of her knees. Ten minutes later, the UN approved his acreage request, and together he and Marco secured the skiff, pitched their tents, and set the claim lines. This close, the smell of patchouli was overwhelming. It coated the inside of Tully’s mouth, clung to his clothes and hair.A dozen or so other independent scrappers had set up similar camps. A few had already set their hooks and started torching lines into the blue skin to mark for later harvest. So long as they stayed clear of the choice bits, most corps and countries didn’t have a problem with the smaller licensed operations picking at the scraps.While Marco made fresh coffee and heated dinner pouches, Tully went around to other camps for introductions and scuttlebutt. One or two crew chiefs greeted him with suspicion, newer claimants judging by their high-strung nerves and clean skiffs, but seasoned scrappers welcomed him with cautious camaraderie.Farther down the calves, he was pleased to find Lovie Tepaka leading her own team. They’d worked together at Maniitsoq when Sedna fell, and he’d pulled her out of the wreckage in Athens back in ’21 when a stretch of scaffolding collapsed under the weight of Athena’s skin.Lovie offered him a flask and a comfortable crate for a quick sit. “You hear about Richmond and his crew?”Tully took a sip, passed the flask back. “Yeah. Did any make it out?”“Not a one. The UN said they lost maybe a thousand men and a couple of million in hardware to the worms.”Tully let out a low whistle. “Were their estimates off for the gate?”She shrugged. “No idea. I’m just glad I got held up with repairs. You?”“Just came off of Apollo and couldn’t close on the payout in time. I did okay, though.” He did even better if he didn’t count how Edgars and Victor had walked after hearing the news, or how he’d had to scramble to find a new hand willing to sit on call until the next godfall. Tully couldn’t blame them, though. There were old scrappers and bold scrappers, but . . .Lovie nodded and took a drink. She offered the flask a second time, slipped it back in her shirt pocket when he refused. “It’s rough work, you know? Just because you make it in doesn’t mean you’ll . . .”Her words gave way to uncertainty, a touch of darkness and fear not at all like the Lovie he knew.Tully slid his foot to the side until his knee bumped hers. “Hey.”Lovie blinked, shook her head. She gave him a lopsided smile. “Sorry. Scrapper brain. You know how it is.”“All the time.”The touch of fear returned, then settled out in her shrug. “It’s like it’s on the tip of my tongue.”Tully understood that, too, fear and all. Scrappers made their livings off of death. Forgetting things was the best way to stay sane.Lovie looked past him and made a small, irritated sound. “Shit. Mummers.”“Hmmm?” Tully turned around in time to see a troupe of masked figures in brightly colored robes, playing drums and bells, go by in two skiffs. “Yeah. Marco was asking about them.”“One of your new boys?”“The only one.”Lovie looked at him sidelong. “He cute?”“Of course. Knows his shit, too.” Tully watched the troupe skirt the outside of the claims barriers. “He’s hot on the mummers.”Lovie spat in disgust. “You kidding me? When Ukko fell in ’23 they came skulking around our camp in the middle of the night saying they only wanted to touch our torch sites so they could celebrate him. We got so tight for time driving them off that we almost didn’t make it out before the alarm sounded. Nearly lost our entire haul.”The mummers stopped on the far side of Maya’s knees to make camp, well away from the Red Russians’ extensive claim to the thighs. The whisper of their bells was lost in the whine and sizzle of torches as nearby crews methodically butchered the dead god.Tully hitched his shoulders. “It takes all kinds.”She shook her head. “I never thought I’d see the day when you went soft.”He stood, putting his hands to his lower back. “It’s nothing about soft. I just don’t see a reason to pull a gun when the other guy’s got nothing but a butter knife.”Lovie laughed long and hard and got to her feet. She slapped him on the shoulder. “That’s the Tully I know. Hey, what about Maui? I thought you’d be busy fishing by now.”Tully grinned. “I get a big enough payout this time, and I will be.”She slapped him on the shoulder. “Keep the dream alive, man.”Best advice he’d gotten all year.Odin, Guan Yin, Raven fell in the space of a year. Tnee Kong and Jok two years later.Hardline Christians claimed the end times were upon the world, and all should repent. Buddhists saw the end of the Wheel and settled down to wait. Environmental activists blamed European conservatives, Israel the Hebrew States, Egypt the West African Collective, Canada the United States, Space Proponents the Grounders. Suicide rates spiked worldwide. Thousands of godfall survivors went mad. Troupes of godfall fanatics took to traveling from site to site to honor the corpses of the dead gods.Where had the gods come from? What had happened to them? And what were the worms?The top two inches of Maya’s skin curled over itself and dropped slowly to the deck of the skiff secured halfway up her lower calf. Properly cured, the epidermis could be fashioned into fireproof leather or body armor that could stop a .50 caliber round. The trick was getting it off the body without passing out from the stench of patchouli and burning meat. Tully extinguished the torch, set it on the plank, then climbed down the scaffolding to the skiff three meters below.Marco stacked the folds of blue skin into large, non-reactive plastic bins. Buckets at the corners of the box spigots captured anything expressed under the weight of the folds. He wore a godskin jumpsuit and industrial grade nitrile gloves identical to Tully’s. “This shit gets worse all the time.”The complaint sounded low and fuzzy through the comm in Tully’s breather.Tully stripped off the breather, gagging with that first breath. Someone had filled his mouth with dead rats and cotton and added lead weights to his eyelids. He and Marco had set to work immediately after dinner the night before and hadn’t slept more than a dozen winks apiece since then.He pulled off his welder’s goggles. “Still pays well, that’s all we got to . . . where the hell are the spare filters?”“Don’t ask me. They were there when I changed mine out a little while ago.”“Well, they’re not there now. I can’t work up there without . . . here they are. You got to put things back where they belong. We don’t have time to go looking for every little thing.”Marco stared at Tully for a tense moment then turned back to stacking. “Whatever, man.”Fuck. Tully ran a hand through his hair. “I’m going to make some coffee.”Marco shrugged.Tully went forward and set water to boil in the thermos. All around the skiff, scrapper crews worked double time stripping everything of value from the dead god, an efficiency of gore. Far above, a swarm of flyers surrounded the gate as it throbbed and thrummed, intent on mapping its every nuance.He was getting too old for this shit. His father had been a scrapper before he’d settled down to raise a family. Exercise, fresh air, good money, his father said. The good old days. He never mentioned the broken bones, the stench, having to leave a payout behind or risk not making it out in time.Tully dropped two coffee bags into the now-boiling water and waited. He would make it big with this haul and catch the first flight out to Maui. No more scrapping for him.When the thermos timer flashed, he filled two mugs and carried them aft. He nudged Marco with an elbow. “Hey.”The younger man looked over his shoulder, squinted through his blood-splattered goggles.Tully held out a mug. “Take five.”Marco pulled off his breather and accepted Tully’s apology.They sat together in caffeinated silence until Marco spoke up: “What’s it like for them, you think?”“For who?”“The Indians. They had another god fall. This is, what, the third? Fourth?”Tully rubbed his eyes. “India is a country, Hinduism is a religion.”Marco rolled his eyes. “You know what I mean.”The coffee was defective. Tully didn’t feel any more awake. “Yeah, but that doesn’t mean you have to get it wrong. Does India care? Sure they do. They just lost millions of people and a major city. Do the Hindus care? Of course. Ganga, Shiva, and now Maya. Three gods in eight years line a lot of wallets, but it can’t be easy on the faith.”Marco grunted. “You think they still believe?”“The Christians are still hanging on after Jehovah fell, so why not the Hindus? Seems to me they’d have the better claim. They still got hundreds of gods to go.”The silence stretched another few sips. Marco crumpled his cup. “I saw the mummers last night while you were setting up the bucket feeds down below. They were singing and dancing up a storm, the skiffs all lit up like they were having a party or something.”Tully stifled a yawn. “Mmmm.”“You ever think about them? Why they do all that shit?”“Not really.”Marco sucked on the ends of his mustache. “Why not?”Tully considered their progress since the first cut. They should be able to make it to the top of Maya‘s right calf by early afternoon. If they busted ass, they could make it a third of the way up her left calf before midnight. “No harm, no foul, so long as they keep away from my operation.”“Yeah, but what’s in it for them?” Marco persisted. “It’s not like the gods can hear them, so why the big party every time one of ’em comes floating down from the sky? You never hear about them getting excited about the scavengers.”Tully chuckled. “Dead gods don’t eat you if you get in the way.”The younger man fiddled with the cuffs of his jumpsuit. “Yeah. Listen, if it’s okay with you, I was thinking about heading that way tonight. Check them out, see what’s going on.”Tully shook his head. “No can do. I need you here.”“What’s to need? It’d only be for a couple of hours, and the radio says we’ve got two days at least.”Tully yawned with his whole body. Maybe he needed a coffee IV. “A couple of hours is another five yards of skin. You signed on to work, not get a leg up with a tambourine band.”Marco snorted. “Work shit. I can go when we bed down.”“If we can spare the hours, you’re going to need to sleep so we can keep going.”Marco laughed; the sound died when he noticed Tully didn’t join in. “That’s bullshit. You know that, right?”Tully pointed to the gate writhing far overhead. The unraveling knot of reality had taken on a blue iridescence the color of Maya’s skin. “I know what I see, and that says you stay.”Marco threw his cup into the garbage. “Fuck that, man. You can’t make me work all the time. I got rights.”Not enough coffee, never enough sleep, and Marco mouthing off. Not what Tully needed. “Sure I can. You work or I slash your percentage.”Marco got to his feet. “The hell you will. It’s a piss-ass fifteen percent, but it’s mine. We got a contract.”Marco glared down at him with such pure loathing Tully had to laugh. He stood, topping the younger man by a good three inches. “You got to live long enough to collect, kid. Get on up there with the torch, and I’ll spell you here. I want at least another eight yards before we break for lunch.”By the time Pele fell on Kilauea, humanity had learned to identify the look of the gate that set the tocks ticking for the worms’ arrival.The dead gods promised resources to a starving world: gold, uranium, calcium, iron, sulfur, phosphates, diamonds, and more. Soon every country had a plan to get scrapper teams to a godfall site and safely away before the worm gate opened.The faithful revolted against this final insult. The bombing of Mecca when Jehovah fell on Jerusalem and nations divided the remains. The dirty nuclear strike that wiped out Rio de Janeiro after Ci’s harvest. How the Odinists gutted the Icelandic president and eight members of his cabinet when they approved the butchering of beautiful Baldur.You will not take our gods from us, part them out like so many fish or bits of wood, they said. We shall remember. We shall overcome.The world answered with grim practicality. Look to the dead for your memories. We do what we must to survive.Ali Bob’s arrival an hour after lunch saved Tully from listening to more of Marco’s whining.The broker peered into the skiff’s hold with his flashlight. “Not much to show for your work, eh?”Tully snorted and leaned against the aft rail. Ali Bob claimed to have his father’s sex appeal and his mother’s love of fine clothes. Tully could have added bad breath, body odor, and a few less complimentary qualities to the list, but the man usually paid the best prices so he kept quiet. “Give me a break. We hit the clock last night and haven’t so much as stopped to take a piss.”Ali Bob dropped the flashlight in his linen suit coat pocket. “Ah Tully. Always so poetic.”Fifty meters overhead, Marco secured the last of the scaffolding to the topmost edge of the lower calf. “Good to go!”Tully moved to the skiff controls. “Hang on a minute.”He roused the engines, released the hooks, and guided the skiff up until it hovered below the top scaffolding planks. While Ali Bob wiped his hands clean, Tully helped Marco secure the mooring hooks. He passed Marco the torch. “Get on it.”Nearby crews crawled their way up Maya’s fleshy calves, ants conquering a tree brought down in a storm. Three acres ankle way, Lovie’s team peeled away massive strips of epidermis and sectioned off the first layers of the dermis from the lower calves. Above the knees, the Red Russians stripped muscle and fat from both thighs. Only that morning they’d shot down two skiffs that had nosed too close to their claim.The largest crews had teams on the ground to suction run-off blood and viscera into fifty-five-gallon drums. Radio chatter had it the Japanese working the left shoulders had figured out a way to automate the entire ground clean up.Ali Bob mopped his brow and gestured over the side of the skiff. “Those buckets are filled with blood?”Tully nodded. “Yeah, most of it from box run off, but three from burn weepage. We should have twelve, maybe fourteen, by the time we pack it in. Get me a couple more men and another skiff and I can double that, maybe triple.”The broker folded his handkerchief and returned it to his breast pocket. “My crews are already spoken for. You are aware —”The high whine of the torch split the conversation in two. Ali Bob’s penciled eyebrows expressed his opinion of the interruption. He leaned in towards Tully and continued. “You have heard that the gate is growing faster than expected?”“What? Really?” Bad news. Very bad. Tully looked at the sky. The gate still thrummed blue but didn’t seem any larger. Not really? Maybe? He didn’t have the sensors and gadgets to tell for certain. “Nothing’s come over the radio. Are you sure?”“Am I ever not sure when I share information?”True. Ali Bob always gave good intelligence. “Any idea why?”The broker spread his hands, palms up. “The humidity? The equinox? The phase of the moon? The average rainfall on the Serengeti? My sources did not say. Sometimes the gates open faster than others. You know that.”“Well, did you bother to tell anyone else?”Ali Bob arched a brow and sniffed. “Of course.”That was a load off. How long until word came across the radio? “How long do we have?”“Until midday tomorrow at the least. I would, however, make certain to stow your harvest in case of the unexpected.”Easy for him to say. “Crap.”“Have you seen the French water drill? Cuts through dermal and subdermal like that —” Ali Bob snapped his fingers. “— and straight to the muscle. Such clean lines, too. Three months ago at Hongor, I watched a team excise whole tendons from Ay Dede, three meters long at least. Now, you harvest muscle tissue and tendon and I can offer you double the going rate for your poundage. Doctors in Istanbul are scrambling for all the muscle tissue they can get to study limb regeneration.”Tully rubbed his face. He needed sleep, not borderline panic. “I’ll keep that in mind.”He pinged Marco’s comm. Marco grunted in acknowledgment. “Change of plans. Clear a space. I’ll be right up with a torch.”A three-note signal sounded over the radio. “Gate update on all channels. All channels, gate update in three, two, one . . .”Tiamat. Amaterasu. Dionysus. Osiris. Marduk. Hera. Monkey. Ah Muzencab. Xi He.Research hinted that more worms left a godfall site than arrived. Other research suggested the worms devoured one another in the frenzy, driving the numbers down. No hard numbers could be obtained to support either claim.Godstuff expanded new horizons of scientific discovery, lifted developing countries out of suffering, and challenged the underpinnings of philosophies and religions worldwide.Tully jerked his head up, blinking against the glare of a passing searchlight from a UN flyer overhead. An uncomfortable warmth spread over his left thigh and knee. He looked down, swore, and turned off his torch. How long had he been asleep? Couldn’t have been too long. “Marco?”The younger man was nowhere to be seen. Not in the skiff, not on the ground as far as he could tell. Louder: “Marco?”The comm line remained clear.Searchlights from UN skiffs swept back and forth over the beleaguered corpse, catching the glistening stretches of bare muscle and fat. Spotlights from the ground made taffy of the workers’ shadows, stretching them to impossible lengths. Local crews pushed themselves to eke out the last few feet of harvest before they had to abandon Maya to the scavengers. From farther up the body came the muted pop of ribs pulled free. Or maybe vertebrae. He was too tired to tell.Tully scrambled down to the skiff, hitting the deck two steps before he expected. He clutched the scaffolding until the world stopped shaking. “Marco?”In the musty, sour space below deck, he found Marco’s bloodstained jumpsuit and breather in a heap on the younger man’s bunk. “Shit.”The faint buzz of an echo came from Marco’s breather.Tully ripped off his own breather, swallowing past the upswell of bile. Suit and breather left behind, same with the rifle in the rack. He hurried back to the deck and looked thighward. No sign of Marco, and the mummer camp was lost in the glare of the work lights. “I don’t need this right now. I. Don’t. Fucking. Need. This.”What to do? What to do? Drag Marco back to the job? Had to find him first.Tully focused on the bloody expanse of his harvest claim stretching to an equally bloody gate far overhead. Red? How did it get red? What happened to blue? Never mind.Coffee. More coffee. Tully made himself a quick thermos, burned his tongue on the first swallow. “Fah.”He’d left the torch perched on the corner of the scaffolding. Should he pack it up? Another swallow, and a third. He’d have to finish the packing, secure the barrels of blood and plasma down below. Load the skiff himself. It would go faster if Marco had hung around. Fucking Marco. Fucking mummers. Fucking fuck fuck!The radio was filled with the usual prep chatter for clear out. Crews called in commands, supply requests. A few called in for load-out clearance. No news about the gate. If he held off until dawn to load out, he could get at the subdermal layers, maybe even the fat or some of Ali Bob’s muscle. A bigger payout meant fishing and no more scrapping. Ever.Screw Marco. Let him live it up with the tambourine brigade. He’d drop the kid off at the nearest bus stop on the way out.Tully carried the thermos, a spare breather, and the rifle back up the scaffolding. He was stupid tired, not tired stupid. You never worked a scrap alone without a gun in easy reach just in case.He sparked the torch to life and set to work. Forty grueling minutes later, the strip of epidermis came away and dropped to the skiff. He set to work on the dermis, not particularly concerned with size or shape, only finished work. No payout if he didn’t get the scrap out. He eased the first chunk down the first two rungs and let it drop. One down, who knew how many to go. He exhaled and kept working.Cut, twist, pull, drop. The cut lines blurred; his hands began to shake. Blood and bits of detritus splattered his goggles. Three pieces, four. Patchouli curled insidious and thick through the filter. Five, six. Had he finished the coffee already? Tully shook his head and kept working.The world began to run like watercolors in the rain, spilling over his hands. Maya smiled down at him, wide blue lips opening to devour his name in the wild abandon of her hunger. The torch traced a path across the sky, a bright white star carving his name on the back of her tongue. Maya would swallow him whole and let him fish out the rest of his days. Yeah, Marco could rot in the belly of a scavenger. It would serve him right, running off like that. Dumb kid. Dumb . . .The torch dropped from Tully’s hand. He jerked backwards and went down on his right knee. It popped, and a grinding fire exploded up his leg. His stomach clenched and he barely got the breather off before the coffee came rushing out of his mouth and over the railing.Bone ground against bone, screaming under the skin. Tully dropped to his side, praying someone would knock him out, cut his leg off, fucking kill him it hurt so bad. He lay there until the haze of red pain receded, staring up at the dull black sky. No stars, nothing but the occasional UN flyer and the red gate twisting in on itself.Tully began to cry. He couldn’t do it. No way he could pack it all in now. Make it down to the skiff and the radio? Hell, he couldn’t even reach the gun to fire a couple of shots to attract attention.You got to live long enough to collect, kid.Tully closed his eyes, only for a moment, and fell into Maya’s waiting mouth.Isis. Buffalo Woman. Inanna. Amadioha. Ngalyod. Pan.The godfall treasures inspired a greed that shattered treaties, destroyed governments, left millions dead, and millions more homeless.  The have-nots became the haves, the haves became the want-mores. Riding on the coattails of that greed came the realization that the worms could open their massive mouths and someday take it all away.One by one the gods fell, and humanity learned to adapt.Maya spit Tully out and he slammed into the railing. He put weight on his right leg to stand and fell back with a scream, a spike of fire rammed through his knee.The scaffolding lurched again. Tully gripped the railing and pulled himself upright, biting through his lip with the focus of a pain he could control. Voices and the clamor of sirens filled the night. Metal screamed against metal. The scaffolding bucked under him. Maya jerked, rumbled, twitched on the Richter scale. No, something inside her moved.Above spun the gate, an angry throbbing red. White threads curled around the edges and dropped from the hole, swelling, stretching, black mouths gaping. They fell on Maya’s belly like calving glaciers, ripples causing the body to convulse. Worms. The gate was open and the scavengers had come for him. “No.”He was going to die in the belly of a worm.Fear trumped pain. Tully tumbled to the skiff and dragged himself to the controls. Over the staccato radio chatter and the howl of lifter engines came a strange hollow chanting from below, the tinny jangle of tambourines. He pulled himself along the rail until he reached the front of the skiff.Far below, in the strobe and shadows of the UN searchlights, figures moved at the base of his claim. He caught the flash of gold, the swirl of scarlet. How many? Five? Seven? More? The figures gathered around the blood buckets, and there came the pop of a seal breaking open. Tully clutched the rail. “Hey! The gate’s open! Get out of there!”He swung the skiff spotlight around and down. A dozen mummers stood around the buckets, hands raised. One looked up at the light with a fixed, filigree smile, then turned its attention to a figure on its knees in front of one of the buckets.“Are you crazy? I said the gate is open!”Maya’s body jerked again, her flesh trembling under the assault of hunger. The skiff bounced against the god’s bloody flesh with a meaty, metallic squelch that trembled through the deck.The mummers didn’t move. The kneeling figure turned its face to the light, and Tully’s reality slid sideways. Marco stared up at him with filmy, white eyes, lids swelling and stretching to seal them away from the light. His mouth stretched beyond the limits of flesh, a lipless black pit ringed with jagged teeth. “I am become. I am become,” the younger man sang above it all. “I am hunger, and I am become.”Other voices joined his. Tully swung the light around and something twisted and maggot white bored through his mind. Worms as far as the eye could see. One scooped up a mouthful of people and debris. Another plunged headfirst into Maya’s bloody flesh, twisting itself to tear away chunks of muscle and fat.Crowds of mummers raised their hands and sang as the scavengers rolled and thrashed back and forth, shattering matchstick scaffolding, sending men and women screaming to their deaths. Worms everywhere, sliding over one another to reach Maya’s body. Fires burned unchecked, equally hungry and destructive. Black smoke poured from punctured fuel tanks, blotting out the stars.Reality jammed a railroad spike through Tully’s left eye, the god eye sacrificed for knowledge. He focused the light on his hired hand far below. No one left behind. No. One. “Marco! We have to get out of here! We —”Marco dipped both hands into the bucket and bent his head to drink. The mummer’s chant rose to a strange ululation that clashed with the strident voices coming over the skiff radio: “All remaining crews are to evacuate the site immediately. Repeat, all remaining —” “Get your skiffs out of here! Leave the carts, dammit!” “- immediately. UN forces —”And Lovie’s voice: “Tully, are you still there? Jesus Christ, get your ass out!”Marco lifted his bloody face to the light. His eyes bulged like blind fruits above the black maw, bone white hairs burrowing into his cheeks. In the pool of light, Marco stretched like old-fashioned newspaper putty, distorted along the X&Y to an infinity shown in his beatific, bloody smile.Tully’s mind filled with a throbbing sonic scream, the gut-wrenching sound to herald the end of all things. Death, rebirth, and death again. People, civilizations, gods. Changed, made new. Renewed. People made new. The death of faith, the birth of reason, someday to cycle round again.Marco expanded, became a bloated, corpse white, writhing creature of endless hunger for sweet god flesh and all reality beyond. As the newborn worm plunged into Maya’s bloody flesh, the mummers raised their arms and sang its praises.The spotlight popped and sprayed Tully with shards of hot glass. The world went dark for whole seconds before the gate aurora and the strobing lights of fleeing ships brought it back to life. Far below, the mummers, the thing Marco had become, were gone.Tully stood at the rail, unable to move, until a yellow spotlight from above pinned him to the deck. A voice, harsh and commanding: “Get your ass up here now!”He turned his face to the light, stepped away from the rail, and collapsed.A cargo skiff. Rough hands. Lovie’s voice from somewhere near: “Get us clear!”Up, up, up they went and headed north at full speed. Away from the god, away from the worms. And something else Tully couldn’t remember.Two men carried him down below to Lovie’s bunk space, stripped him out of his jumpsuit, splinted his knee. Lovie clambered down the stairs soon after, shaking with anger and something more. Fear. She was afraid. “What the hell were you thinking, huh? Were you trying to get yourself killed? Jesus, Tully, I can’t believe you.”One of the men shot him up with something. Tully’s bicep burned and then a languid warmth poured through him. “Sorry. I had to —”“Had to what? There’s nothing so important that you needed to hang around back there. You heard the claxons. You could have been killed.”“I wanted to get to the buckets.” Tully blinked the world back into focus. “Yeah.”Lovie dismissed the men, grabbed a towel, and began to clean his face and hair. “Next time leave ’em. What about your new man?”Something white and barbed slithered through Tully’s memories and out again. He looked at the bulkhead.Lovie swore and kept working. She fed him sips of whiskey until the world took on a golden hue. “I should have left you, you know that, right?”Tully nodded, drifting in the shallows of her words.“I should have, too. Those things were, were . . .”Her hands stilled on his cheeks. She looked over his head, her gaze distant, fixed on something he could almost see and was terrified he might. “There were things, weren’t there? I thought . . .”Tully licked his lips. “Thought what?”Lovie shook her head and chuckled under her breath, an uneasy, brittle sound. “Never mind. It’s not like I could ever leave my man Tully behind.”  She stood. “Anyway, I’m heading topside. You rest here, and I’ll check on you later.”He grabbed her hand. “Don’t leave me.”She leaned down and kissed him on the lips. “I got to check on my boys. I’ll be right back.”Tully couldn’t breathe. He smelled patchouli and blood, heard the distant ringing of tambourines. He held on tight to the only proof he had that he hadn’t been left behind while the scavengers devoured his world. “But you’re coming back, right?”He couldn’t make sense of the words, but they felt important so he said them.“I said I would, didn’t I?”He nodded — “Yeah, yeah you did.” — and let her go, his hand cold without someone to hold onto.Another kiss, and Lovie walked out, closing the door behind her.Tully settled back on the pillow, thoughts circling themselves like sharks. He’d ask Lovie for another shot of whatever it was when she came back. She was coming back, right? She wouldn’t leave him alone with . . . something.Tully shivered in spite of himself and burrowed under the thin blanket. He stared at the bulkhead until visions of scavengers gave way to fishing boats off the coast of Maui, and he closed his eyes.The post PodCastle 539: Godfall appeared first on PodCastle.


11 Sep 2018

Rank #7

Podcast cover

PodCastle 504: Words Never Lost

Author : DaVaun Sanders Narrator : Dominick Rabrun Host : Summer Fletcher Audio Producer : Peter Wood Discuss on Forums PodCastle 504: Words Never Lost is a PodCastle original.Rated PG-13Words Never Lostby DaVaun SandersImala spat on the schoolhouse’s brittle timbers as she passed, slipping behind the Tyre Orphan School’s woeful outbuildings and through the fence. A lashing awaited anyone caught here, but she had broken her promise to meet Vachaspah one too many times.The soft crack of fledgling bone pulled her eyes up. An owl had perched atop a nearby saguaro, its dead barrel bleached white. Pitiful screeches and wet, tearing sounds floated from a wicked nest made entirely of long thorns. The owl’s wet beak dipped down again and again, skewering its floundering owlets. Bloodstained tufts of soft down littered the ground.Imala fled across the wash. The undergrowth traced fresh welts over the bruises on her sun-brown forearms, pulling her dark curls free of their twin-tails. Her schoolteachers scoffed at Apache ways, but owls heralded lurking ghosts as surely as Christian prayers brought calloused knees. She desired no encounter with the ghost bound to an owl that devoured its own young.A bizarre clearing stopped her flight. Angular letters left seeping wounds in the nearby palo verde like a wasting sickness. At the center of it all stood Vachaspah, gouging words into the earth with his bone-handled steel blade. Hair the color of rainless clouds swayed about his shoulders, tangled with the carved charms and turquoise amulets adorning his neck. Never before had Imala been so convinced of the shaman’s madness.“If anyone sees this …” Imala held in a shriek. “I promised you more paper!”“You promise many things.” Vachaspah did not look up. “You promise children who desire our ways.”“They’re afraid of you,” Imala lied. She feared him, and his lessons about the spirits. “And you never meet in the same place twice.”“Your pale teachers’ words twist the tongue even worse than the eye.” Vachaspah gestured to his careful scribbling. “This story speaks of how Coyote tricked the Mountain People. You should listen.”“We need words, not stories. Elan wants to write his father’s line, and Jacali’s afraid she’ll forget her aunt’s lullabies. They’ve all lost our tongue, except for me.” Older orphans spat in Imala’s porridge when she turned her back, for knowing more Apache despite her half blood. The younger traded her favors for teaching them, but Vachaspah need not know that. “Besides, your stories are too long to write.”“Easier to place them here instead.” Vachaspah’s knife traced a circle on the withered skin over his heart. “Without them we’re dust on the wind.”“I hid your words on my skin last time,” Imala insisted, holding out her purpled forearms. She had rubbed herself raw with soap for days so the ink faded faster. “Headmaster Seare lashed me every morning he saw them. No one else will come. Paper is better.”Stubborn, blind child.” Vachaspah snorted, stepping lithely across the mud to preserve his story. He pulled a hidden bundle from the drooping, thorny branches of an acacia and motioned Imala closer.“What’s this?” She eyed the offering like a scorpion’s tail.“Your mother made it before those lost men witched her away from us to live in their tomb. Her power saw far past day and night. I fear it stirs in you.”“My father was not lost.” Imala’s stomach clenched, though her fingers itched to open the flaking buckskin. Inviting memory of the dead gave them easier purchase among the living. “I’ll learn your story. Just … tell me more of her?”“My story,” Vachaspah repeated. “But is it yours?”Imala parted her lips, but his stern gaze refused any more lies. “I’ll learn,” she insisted.“We will see. Your power brought you here, yes?”“I don’t …” She remembered the owl’s evil yellow eyes, a nestling wing dangling from its beak. The omen curdled her bones no matter how she denied it.Death comes.“Child? What did it show you?”“An old man playing in the mud!” Imala snapped. “Spirits never help me escape the lash! I’m alone, except for you and your mad – ”She swallowed the cruel words too late. Suddenly weary, Vachaspah dug into a pouch at his waist as if all his long years had betrayed him at once. He produced a bundle of dried willow, dogwood and goldenseal. “This will help you endure the pain.”“Elder …” Imala bit her lip as he pressed the herbs into her palms. “My welts are already healed. I don’t – ”She spun at the sound of a snapping branch. Headmaster Seare slipped through the distant trees like a hunched-over spider in his dark overcoat. He wore a permanently sorrowful expression behind his wire-framed spectacles. “Child?” he called.The two men shadowing him on horseback made Imala’s feet itch to run. Each sported blue, sun-faded uniforms that gnawed at her memory. The cast of their eyes warned of the worst sort of strangers, the kind who made children’s blankets taste like tears.Vachaspah went rigid. “Death comes.”Imala snatched his knife away. “They’ll kill you!” she hissed, stuffing it in her mother’s bundle beside his herbs. “Stay quiet.”“Appears we’ve uncovered your discipline problem,” the first cavalryman drawled. His green eyes twinkled under the brim of his hat, full of secrets no one else cared to know. Imala wished for the Thunder People to send a lightning arrow straight for his head, but none came.The headmaster made the tut-tutting sound usually reserved for just before he fetched the soap and brush. “One willful child is easily rebuked, Mr. Parsons.”“Least we could do for your accommodations.” Parsons glanced at the graying sky. “Looking like rain again. Can’t have Newton catch a chill.”“Respect the elements, I say.” The second cavalryman leered down at Imala. A pink, puckered scar traced a jagged path beneath his hairline. “Nothing tame about this one. Halfbreed, too … more trouble than the mossback, I reckon.”“Yup. Only a matter of time before she’s sullied your whole school.” Parsons fingered the cord of a braided necklace hidden beneath his collar. “Hair could wash out a stewpot, at least.”Fury welled up in Imala at their laughter.Seare’s pinched gaze wavered uncertainly between Imala and Vachaspah. He abruptly turned on his heel. “My leniency caused this offense. I will see it rectified.”Cold sweat formed on Imala’s back as the soldiers prodded them forward. Vachaspah descended into his mad muttering. The shaman’s hidden knife grew heavier at the unspoken promise of lust in the cavalrymen’s eyes.A sliver of sun still kissed the sky as they were marched across the Tyre Orphan School’s yard, a miserable swath of dust separating the gate and schoolhouse, dotted with parched sage and mesquite.The soldiers dismounted, knuckling their backs. Two younger orphans emerged from the boys’ dormitory, sneaking curious smiles at Vachaspah.“No whippin’ post?” Newton’s lips quirked. “Small wonder there’s trouble. Fence will do.”“Unnecessary,” Seare said curtly. “We seldom – ”“Free lesson for everyone watching. Only costs you my tired arm.” Parsons grinned. “Now, which one will it be?”Imala’s stomach quavered as Seare murmured instructions for the two boys. They darted off. Within moments all of the school’s fifty-odd students somberly filled the yard, nudged forward by solemn teachers.Vachaspah peered into the twilight. “Evil is strong this night.” He clutched Imala’s shoulders, babbling urgently. “The morning will see you free from death!”“Use their words!” she pleaded. “He’ll – ”“Lucianna!” Seare’s face reddened. “Cease that devil’s tongue!”Parsons and Newton seized Vachaspah, dragging him roughly to the fence. They bound him with his own faded leathers. Whimpers spilled from the younger children. Approving teachers pressed them closer.Imala could bear no more. “I’ll speak whatever I’ve a mind to say!”The yard grew deathly silent. The cavalrymen stared as she continued in Vachaspah’s words. In her words. “Your ways are no better than ours. All your soap and scripture won’t change it!”Parsons stalked forward, face purpling. Imala’s hand plunged into the buckskin pack. “That filthy Apache will bring more pain than you ever – ”“Parsons, hold up.”“What?” Parsons snapped, spinning around.Newton peered into the dusk beyond the gate, pistol drawn. “Ain’t we the only couriers the colonel sent out?”The shadows released a lone rider. He wore the same blue uniform and hat as the cavalrymen, and rode a deep-chested blood bay that made less noise than a mountain cat.“Damnation. Those are officer’s stripes.” Parsons licked his lips. “Who goes?”The rider stopped just inside Tyre’s fence. The teachers’ lantern light revealed skin even browner than Imala’s, cradled by a salt-and-pepper beard. “Ernest Jackson, Ninth Cavalry.”Imala’s breath caught.“Ninth? Buffalo soldiers?” Parsons’s sneer set Imala’s teeth on edge. “Whereabouts you camped, boy?”Jackson’s mouth twisted ruefully. “Nowhere, presently. My men finally found what we’ve been ranging for.” He flashed Vachaspah a grin before his gaze settled on Imala. “I know you recognize me, girl. You best get over here before we both fall down.”The rest of the world shrank away as Jackson dismounted. Imala dropped her mother’s pack and dashed forward, burying herself in his embrace. The cavalrymen lowered their pistols uncertainly.“Papa … you were dead,” she breathed. “They all said so!”“I’m here now, child.” Jackson cleared his throat roughly and squeezed her tight. “I’m here.”Seare gaped at them both. “Lucianna? How is this …”Jackson pulled free of Imala’s arms, closing the distance in two strides. His backhand sent Seare sprawling. Shocked cries rose among the teachers. The cavalrymen snapped their pistols back up.“That’s what you do here?” Jackson thundered. “Learn folks outside of who they are? Get it right, or I’ll get you right!”The headmaster’s jaw tightened. “Imala … Two Rivers Crossing … Jackson.”“You said your men, before.” A tremor undercut Newton’s drawl. “What’s your rank and troop, soldier?”“J Troop. I suppose you could name me captain.” Steel entered Jackson’s voice. “And I’ve no time for men who don’t know their proper place in this world.”He let out a low whistle. Outside Tyre’s fence, the night gave way to a dozen more Negro cavalrymen.“Heaven’s mercy,” Headmaster Seare pleaded from the dust. “We’re God-fearing folk!”Chaos reigned as orphans and teachers scattered. Parsons and Newton broke for their horses, knocking down anyone underfoot. They mounted and tore around the dormitory, whooping for more speed.“Sergeant Pierce!” Jackson called.A cavalryman wearing a faded yellow sash around his neck trotted up on a gelding. “Captain?”“Send Franklin and King to walk them down.”“Yessir.” Pierce’s eyes snapped to Imala, and she blanched at the murder hidden there. “She looks like you, Ernest. What a blessing.” He wheeled around, bellowing orders. Two riders peeled away in a storm of hoofs.Imala found her wits and untied Vachaspah. He ignored her father’s outstretched hand.“Been hunting you a long time, medicine man.”“Papa?” Imala frowned as four Negro cavalrymen immediately surrounded the shaman.“Your kind are not welcome here,” Vachaspah growled.“We’re not welcome anywhere.” Jackson flashed a beleaguered grin. “That’ll change, once – ”Vachaspah spat at his feet. “Give the earth my blood. I will not aid you.”Enraged cries erupted among the soldiers. “If you knew what we’ve lost …!” Pierce hissed. He whipped out a pistol, trained it on the shaman from his saddle.Vachaspah stepped forward so the muzzle pressed into his forehead. “Then do this and lose what remains.”“Papa, stop!” Imala shouted.“We need him, daughter.”“Old buzzard’ll likely steer us wrong,” a soldier called. “What about her, Captain?”“No.” Jackson’s voice grew dangerously soft.“Her mother’s blood is strong in her face, too.” Pierce’s eyes weighed Imala intently. “Did this place beat your tongue out of you?”“I’ll speak for you,” Imala blurted, edging between Pierce and Vachaspah. “Just leave him be.”“Absolutely not,” her father said.“Captain – ”“I said no, goddamnit!”The buffalo soldiers exchanged sullen looks. Pierce holstered his gun, muttering darkly.“Papa?” Imala refused to believe that small sound was her voice. “You don’t want me with you?”“Of course I do.” Jackson’s leather-gloved hands closed over hers. “And we truly need you, Lord help us. Need us a translator.”“We’ll keep her safe, Captain,” Pierce called, a sentiment quickly echoed by the surrounding men.“I can keep myself safe,” Imala said. “I’ll be your translator. There’s nothing for me here.”Pierce let out a triumphant whoop. “Forward scouts, out!”“Okay then. Up you go.” Jackson extended his hand. “Hard riding ahead to reach the fort in time.”Flies swirled away from a patch of sticky blood on the bay’s flank, soiling Imala’s dress as she settled in behind him. Vachaspah extended her forgotten buckskin pack, face wooden. Imala accepted it.“You will need your mother’s gift,” he said. “When – ”His words were lost as Jackson heeled his mount, plunging J Troop back into darkness. Imala held tight, scarcely believing her good fortune.They slowed after two miles. J Troop used no lanterns. Low juniper formed indistinct waves over the countryside. Imala no longer remembered the stars’ real names, but they told her the cavalrymen rode west.“What did that medicine man give you?” Jackson asked.“Real clothes,” Imala whispered. Her pack carried soft moccasins, leggings, and more, along with the shaman’s knife and herbs. “My mother made them for me. Vachaspah said her power was strong.”“The strongest.” Jackson shifted. “You were so young when the army attacked us, Imala. We thought the desert had taken you both. I should’ve searched longer.”“Headmaster Seare told me some homesteaders – ” Imala stopped when her father’s shoulders slumped. “It doesn’t matter. You’re here now. I want to know everything about her and you. Everything!”“Fair enough.” Jackson chuckled softly. “Where to start? I met a great man, once. Victorio.” The other soldiers quieted, listening. “We were in a regiment that chased him to the border. Ain’t proud of it. He stole into our camp one night, on my watch – had me dead to rights. Victorio asked me a question I’ll never forget before he slipped off. ‘How long will Negroes be the glove that keeps Apache blood off white hands?’”“You hunted our people.” Imala nodded slowly. “That’s why Vachaspah hates you.”Jackson said nothing. Imala wondered if the shaman would hate her too, if not for her mother’s blood.“We deserted, not long after,” Pierce added quietly. “Gathered up any Apache who wanted a life away from the reservation, or damned schools like yourn.”“Founded us a place.” Pride rose in Jackson’s voice. “Fort Audacia. Your mother called it home.”“Then that means it’s my home, too.”“Halfway point,” announced a burly cavalryman who sat his saddle like a sack of flour. “Maybe stop and rest the horses?”Raucous laughter made Imala jump: guffaws from a soldier shaved bald save his whiskers, a high-spirited cackle from the bird-thin man whose eyes never stopped scouting the night.Jackson’s deep chuckle stirred a memory loose. “You used to laugh like that,” Imala said. “In … the water?”“A spring, yes. You splashed me whenever I dunked you. Now look at you … big enough to dunk me.”“I can’t wait to see it again.”J Troop approached a ridge topped by a dead cottonwood with shadowy branches. A distant shout made the quivering limbs explode in a chorus of ravens’ caws. Dozens of birds circled overhead. The soldiers drew rein, facing the rise behind them.Imala’s power whispered. Death on every side.“King and Franklin,” someone called.Two cavalrymen cut down the slope. The first to reach them offered a curt salute. “We didn’t catch ‘em.”“Cavalry’s hot on our backsides, Captain,” the second soldier added in a calm, gravelly drawl. They might be discussing what to throw in the stewpot for supper. “Two troops, I reckon.”“We ain’t got time for this.” Jackson slapped his reins against his palm.“Not to mention ammo,” Pierce interjected.Jackson twisted, grabbing Imala and settling her on the ground in one motion. His strength made her gasp.“You mean to fight them?” she asked.“I want you to know …” he paused, muttering to himself. “There’s good cover past that tree. Go! We’ll find you.”Every step tore pieces from Imala’s core. Broken eggshells crunched underfoot. The ravens … her power sang with danger. “No!” she growled at it. “I won’t lose him again.”Torches bloomed on the eastern ridge above a rank of pale faces. Imala immediately recognized Parsons and Newton, rifles drawn like all the rest. A knot clenched her stomach. They outnumbered J Troop three to one.A man with more golden thread on his uniform than any other led a roan forward. “Lay down them arms!”Jackson produced a white scarf from his saddlebags and waved it high. “Colonel, let’s talk! We – ”“I’ll waste no words on deserters! Send these bastards to hell!”Rifle fire split the air. Imala clapped both hands over her ears, screaming as the barrage kicked Jackson from his saddle. He sprawled backwards in a lifeless heap. Pierce and Franklin crumpled over until their screaming horses pitched them. The white cavalrymen whooped and cursed, reloaded and shot until every buffalo soldier lay still.Torchlight cast ghastly shadows on the colonel’s satisfied face. “Check for scouts. Relieve survivors of their worldly effects, but I want every last one of those uniforms burned.”Two cavalrymen galloped straight for Imala’s hiding place. She hunched low in the sage, biting her knuckle to hold in a wail.“I call first pickings!” Parsons strode toward her slain father. He slapped away Jackson’s bloodstained hat and drew a long knife, grinning as he gripped an ear. The blade dipped for her father’s temple, slicing back and forth.Imala tore her eyes away as the scouts crested the ridge.“Sick sumbitch,” he muttered. “Ain’t no one else out here.”“Not anymore.” The other scout jerked. “What in … there’s a girl hiding damn near in your pocket!”“It’s an Apache witch!”Imala scrambled to her knees. Dancing hooves blocked her escape. She screamed, but louder shouts drowned her out. Both cavalrymen twisted in confusion before tearing back down the slope.In the middle of the killing ground, Ernest Jackson rose to his feet. Imala’s relief faded to horror. Bullet holes marred his blue coat and dark blood soaked his beard. Parsons spluttered as her father’s gloved fingers tightened around his throat.“Dear God – ”A twist of Jackson’s wrist cut the plea short. Parsons’ limp body dropped.The white colonel crossed himself. “I never believed it,” he rasped. “You fools cut a deal with the devil!”Jackson’s smile didn’t light his eyes. “No devil out here ‘cept the ones that burned our home.”More buffalo soldiers stirred. Ragged rents spoiled King and Pierce’s coats; Franklin rose from a dark crimson pool. One by one they all stood, bloodlust in their eyes.“Say the word,” Pierce sneered. “About time we got some get-back.”Jackson raised his hand, but froze when his eyes fell on Imala. “I’ve no time for your reckoning tonight,” he announced. J Troop went dangerously silent.The cavalrymen scrambled for their saddles well before the colonel’s frantic order. “Mount!” he screamed. “Ride!”Imala pressed her arms tight around her sides as Jackson ran to her. “You’re all cursed,” she whispered. The owl … the ravens: all eating their young. She should have seen it. “My power warned me against you.”“I never wanted this.” A shadow crossed Jackson’s face as she flinched from his touch. “Imala, please – ”“I have no father, only a wandering ghost come to drag me to the underworld!” A wail clawed free of her throat, pouring from a wound she had thought scarred over. “I have no mother, no home anywhere … and I’ll have no part of you!”“We’d go, but we don’t know the way!” Pierce handed Jackson his sash. Her father tied it around his temple, hiding his mangled ear. “We need you to speak with the ones who can guide us.”Imala’s breath grew shallow. “Spirits?”“They’ll lead us home, I know it,” Jackson declared. “Heaven knows we don’t deserve it.”Another cavalryman brought up Jackson’s bay. Blood dripped from its snout. He mounted, hope glistening in his eyes. “Please. We’ve never been this close. We lose a little more of ourselves every day.”Pierce glanced skyward. “Still some night left. The old man can’t have gone far.”“No. She’ll help us.” Jackson beckoned to Imala. “You’re my daughter.”She wanted nothing more than to press her palms over the ragged holes in his coat, bandage his ear, pretend like all might return to the days she had lost. But her parents were dead, and her power sang against this evil, no matter how Imala denied it.The moment stretched. Jackson let his hand fall.Parsons’s mare whinnied behind them, her reins caught in a palo verde. Imala retrieved her buckskin pack and strode toward her.“I’ll go,” she said finally. “My mother’s heart would break to see what you’ve become.”Jackson’s face darkened. He wordlessly signaled the soldiers to mount. Their eyes bored into Imala the entire ride, cold knives in her back. Her mare barely kept to their merciless pace. The horses were just as trapped in this world as the dead men who rode them.Dawn grayed the eastern sky as they neared Fort Audacia. Imala dropped from the saddle, legs throbbing as she stared. The ruins lay cold and still; ash and windswept sand covered brick and crumbling mortar.“Shelled us to dust. Wouldn’t heed our flag, same as that colonel.” Pain marred her father’s recollection. “We got some families out. But us … ”“Rose from the dead, but no further.” Pierce wiped a hand across his eyes. “We’re praying you can tell us why.”J Troop gathered silently before the only standing wall. Imala pulled away when Jackson bent to kiss her forehead. He sighed and joined them. “Maybe we’ve got it all wrong. Maybe our gods are here now.”“Don’t wander, girl,” Franklin warned. “Your papa would hate if we had to haunt you.”The sun broke over the horizon, and J Troop vanished. A pile of bleached skulls rested where they had last stood, fixed in place with dried mud. A plank nailed into the stone held a carved warning:Let all who turn their backs on God and country suffer the same fate.A plaintive whicker pulled Imala back to her senses. The cavalrymen’s horses were gone, too – her mount remained. The morning will see you free from death, Vachaspah had said. She pulled the pack bearing her mother’s clothes from the saddlebags, looking around cautiously.A small hollow in the mountainside beckoned, uphill from the ruins and shaded from the rising sun. Broken potsherds led Imala to a path where acacia and sagebrush still grew. A pool with water clear enough to reveal the sandy bottom nestled under a sheer brown cliff, surrounded with clusters of blooming red cholla, tall willow and cottonwood.“Our spring,” she said softly. She drank her fill of water and washed her face, wondering what spirits would heed the pleas of these dead men. The clothes in her mother’s buckskin fit perfectly. “I never wanted this power, but Vachaspah says it’s mine. Speak to me now if that’s true!”Imala yelped as a rattlesnake slithered out from beneath the bristling cholla. She scrambled back, but it did not strike. Three thin, scaled tails hung from the serpent’s mouth. It stared at her before gliding out of sight on a swollen belly. Imala flung a potsherd after it.Exhaustion overtook her. She fashioned a sling from her torn dress, strong enough to tie her to a stout willow limb overhanging the spring. Slumber came, but no rest.She awoke to a rough hand on her shoulder. Pierce stood over her, his eyes glowing with unexpected hope. “Lost a bet, thanks to you.”Imala said nothing. The dead man shrugged and stuck two fingers between his lips, whistling loudly. Her eyes went wide. His knuckles shone with the white of slick bone. “He told you … we lose a little more each sunrise. Won’t be much left, soon.”J Troop soon converged on the spring. Doubt, hunger and hope warred on their faces. “Found it quick, didn’t she?” Jackson pushed through them with a triumphant smile.I was drawn here, she realized.The spring rippled. A toad emerged, covered with glistening, burned skin. Imala’s heart quickened. It circled the spring, round and round on its belly.“Worse than before,” Pierce murmured, shaken. “What does it mean?”Imala remembered Vachaspah’s words about her mother. Her power saw far past day and night. I fear it stirs in you. For the first time in her life, Imala did not hide from it. Her mouth went dry as Audacia’s ashes.“The spirits … are dying.”Moans rippled through the troop. “White men know how to kill gods,” Franklin whispered. “That’s their secret.”“Gods can’t be killed, fool,” Jackson snapped. “Otherwise what we doing here?”That set the whole troop to muttering. “Maybe we the gods now.”“Or devils.”“We get to lay the curses. Sounds about right to me.”“Quiet!” Imala’s vision wavered as she stared into the spring … beyond it. She took up a handful of dust and released it upon the surface. Not one grain sank. She twisted her power’s revelation into the buffalo soldiers’ tongue. “You’ll forever wander between day and night.”“We aim to change that,” Jackson said thickly. “We figure our gods live far off, across the ocean. We never learned their ways in life. It’s right fair we do in death. Tell them!”“I’ll … try.”Imala swirled her palms in the spring. The water churned brown. Her grip closed on something sharp. She jerked her hands free with a snap of bone. Pain lanced through her palm as a white antler pulled loose of the sand. Crimson stained the spring.Jackson gently took the antler from her trembling grasp. “This looks bad,” he said quietly, catching her eyes. She knew he meant more than the wound. “King, grab that rag.”The scout cut strips of Imala’s dress from the willow tree and proffered one.Pierce paced as Jackson carefully wrapped Imala’s hand. “Well? Speak up!”A wind quickened as Imala faced them, tugging at her twin-tails. “You don’t know the words of our spirits. But you don’t know your own gods, either.” She took a deep breath. “So they don’t know you.”The lost men raged. King spit into the rippling water. Franklin fell to his knees, pleading to the empty sky. “Merciful Father, why – ?”Pierce kicked him in the ribs. “I done told you! There’s no help, and she’s the proof!”“Why should we believe this witch?” another soldier screamed.“Saying no gods’ll have us! Someone will have us!”Jackson planted himself between them and Imala. She clutched Vachaspah’s knife, fist shaking. He gripped his cutlass hilt.“We’ve never turned on each other,” he pleaded. “She at least – ”“Papa …” Imala mumbled. A powerful gust of wind deposited yellow blossoms on the water. They promptly turned black. Imala’s power seized her tongue. “The spirits offer a bargain. ‘End us,’ they say. Then they’ll take you to your ancestors’ lands.”Shocked silence fell upon the soldiers.“End them?” Jackson asked, incredulous.“How?” the sergeant demanded. “Say the word and it’s done!”Unbidden, unbelievable words surged from Imala’s throat. “Speech binds us to our people, but we die as they forget. We seek rest. End our tongue forever … starting with this child. Choose now.”The unnatural wind rose to a howl. Imala clamped a hand over her mouth. The signs she had seen – owl, raven, rattlesnake. Her power had not warned against her father, but the tormented spirits of her own people.The buffalo soldiers cried out as more wind ripped over the spring, tearing at them with invisible claws. Pierce screamed as a hole near his collar widened to expose more bone. “Captain! Stand aside!”“Stand down!” Jackson roared, yanking his cutlass free. The rusted blade’s arc kept the men from descending on Imala. Another gust ripped at his trousers. The exposed patch of skin crumbled away into dust. “What’s to say they’ll keep their word?”Imala gasped as a lone coyote appeared behind J Troop. Pierce and King scrambled back, cursing as the animal loped through them for the water’s edge. A half-healed gash marred one eye, and white ribs protruded from her gray, matted fur.Ignoring the tempest, she dipped her head to drink.The spring’s surface shimmered. Lush lands appeared, rolling grass, men and women brown as her father, singing in villages that were alien yet familiar, impossibly tall trees and strange animals. The blue-coated men stared, still as statues caught in a lost dream.“There must be another way,” Imala whispered. The coyote’s yellow eye offered no escape.“I am sorry, Ernest.” Pierce aimed his pistol at Imala.“Go to hell, all of you!” Jackson lunged forward, bowling Pierce aside. The coyote leaped to meet him. Rotted teeth and rusted cutlass danced back and forth.“Imala, get to your horse!” Jackson stabbed the coyote through a back haunch. Its howl jolted Pierce and the rest from their daze. They dove into the duel. Within moments Jackson’s cutlass flew free.“Papa, no!” Imala screamed.A sharp yelp sounded. The soldiers abruptly pulled back. Jackson sneered at them, blood staining his teeth. Dust trickled from beneath his tattered uniform. One of his powerful arms encircled the coyote’s ragged neck.“Best back off,” he rasped. “Or no one goes home. Imala, get on to your school!”Pierce studied Imala, nodding to himself. “Killing it won’t change a thing … will it, girl?”Imala’s face crumpled. The fire leached out of her father when she didn’t meet his eyes. More coyotes appeared among the men. Jackson released the one-eyed coyote and rose, resigned. Imala clutched his hand as they retreated, back toward the spring. Her moccasins filled with biting cold water.“Please, Captain.” Franklin hefted Jackson’s saber. The wind had scoured the skin off his cheekbone; he had more skull than face now. “Don’t draw this out.”Jackson squeezed Imala’s hand. “These spirits are yours,” he whispered hoarsely, a desperate light in his eyes. “But my gods are, too. We’re blood. You … could come with us.”The one-eyed coyote peered at them knowingly. The spring water turned cold around Imala’s ankles, tight as death.“They will allow it,” she breathed.“Then come with us.”Imala thought of Vachaspah, the last elder she knew who kept their words alive. Kept the spirits alive. Her mind grew leaden, as if the numbing water had seeped behind her eyes. She remembered the young orphans who begged her for their words. “Papa …”“I can’t lose you again. Please.”“Papa, how long …” Her teeth chattered. She forced her lips to work. “How long will we be the glove?”Jackson searched her face, his eyes flashing. “Not ever again.” He pulled her free of the water with a shout. A protesting gust of wind shook the mountainside. The buffalo soldiers howled as their skin withered before it.Pierce pounced on Jackson in a flash, fingers more bone than flesh squeezing her father’s neck. “You’ll damn us for all eternity!”Imala raised the shaman’s knife. “Leave him alone.”The coyotes stood waiting as the dead men staggered closer. Jackson raged and wrestled. “Imala, run!”“Papa, let it be. I’ll see you home.”“But – ”“You’ll die if no one’s left to tell your stories.” Imala used her people’s words, pointing the blade at the one-eyed coyote. Her heart pounded with what she must do. “I and one other still know our tongue.” Imala touched the metal to her chest. “If we cannot speak, will you see these men home?”The coyote’s yellow eye shifted. The wind lessened. Her father and Pierce ceased grappling, as the pack howled as one. They accepted her bargain.Imala steeled herself. The strip of her white dress, still wrapped around her hand, gave her a firm grip. In her other hand, she raised the knife. Jackson’s eyes widened, but Pierce held him back.“Oh my God, Imala no!”Imala grasped her tongue. The shaman’s blade bit deep. A low keening poured from her throat as she cut, and the world went white with pain. Blood bubbled in her mouth, her throat, spilled down her lips. All of time froze as she sliced, back and forth, back and forth. The flesh tore free.She collapsed with a wordless shriek. Only her father’s embrace kept her from writhing into the spring.“Fool, fool girl!” He tore another strip of the sullied white dress and filled her mouth with it, weeping. Blood spattered her mother’s clothes when Imala coughed.The half-blind coyote limped up to the flesh that had once been hers. She gave Imala a piercing look and lapped up the severed tongue.“I will – ” Jackson stilled at Imala’s hand on his shoulder. She pointed feebly as the coyote loped to the water’s edge.The pack gathered close, each animal horridly mangled or scarred. One licked Pierce’s hand. He followed it into the spring, sinking deeper than the bottom accounted for.“Been an honor, sir. I’m sorry.” Pierce shot one last tormented salute to Jackson. “Imala … thank you.”The ripples stilled. No trace of them remained. Another coyote dipped his nose in the water, and another soldier stepped forward. “I’ll see you on the other side, Captain. May all of heaven bless you, Imala Jackson.”One by one the dead men descended, until none were left save her father. Jackson held her tight as the remaining coyotes watched.She coughed again. More blood dribbled down her chin. Fresh tears came as Jackson rested her gently beside the spring. She wanted to tell him farewell, at least. The pain overwhelmed Imala, slipping her into a dark quiet where no spirits followed.She awoke to an owl’s call.Long furrows etched the soft earth before her. Mud covered the heels of her moccasins. Imala touched a hand to her lips. Her face ached, but a coolness kept some of the misery at bay. Her bandage had been replaced, and the scent of herbs triggered some dim memory of Vachaspah, from a time before agony was all she knew. This will help you endure the pain.“Imala?” came a hopeful voice.A low fire burned nearby. The shaman’s knife lay beside it, the blade charred black. She stood on weak legs. Fresh pain bloomed in her mouth when she tried to answer, nearly folding her in two. A shadow stirred beside the flames.“Best … get over here before we both fall down …”“Papa?” A muffled, ruined sound escaped her bandage as she staggered forward, sobbing. “Papa, Papa …”Jackson crumpled to his knees, more dust and bone than flesh. His threadbare uniform shivered and flaked apart as he stretched his arms wide. Imala embraced him, crying out when rib splintered beneath the blue. “Had to quench your wound,” he rasped. “Didn’t trust them …”Yellow eyes circled beyond the fire’s light. The coyotes drew closer as she picked up Vachaspah’s knife and scrawled in the mud with a trembling hand. They trust me. Our words won’t be spoken, but they won’t be lost. I won’t allow it.A twinkle lit Jackson’s eyes. “Your mother taught me some stories. I remember Coyote … a trickster. You pulled one over on him. For us.”She kissed his cheek and wrote. For you.The one-eyed coyote awaited her father in the spring. Weak as she was, Imala helped him rise. Each step forward grew easier, lighter, as Ernest Jackson wasted away in her arms. He broke the surface with a gasp. “Your mother will be proud.”The water stilled and he was gone … home, to learn his words anew.The post PodCastle 504: Words Never Lost appeared first on PodCastle.


9 Jan 2018

Rank #8

Podcast cover

PC 472: The Chaos Village — Part 2

Author : M.K. Hutchins Narrator : Heath Miller Host : Graeme Dunlop Audio Producer : Peter Wood Discuss on Forums PC 472: The Chaos Village — Part 2 is a PodCastle original.The Chaos Village – Part 2By M.K. HutchinsSarsa was cooking some kind of coarse flatbread — it appeared to be made of wild roots and ground wild seeds — on a griddle slanted up toward the storage pit. Her hut was mostly empty otherwise, packed up into neat baskets still sitting outside the door. When she flipped a flatbread, it fell slightly sideways, hitting the tilted griddle squarely. The smoke didn’t rise straight up, but at an angle away from the storage pit and out the narrow window. That explained the lack of soot stains on the ceiling.She didn’t look up as Rob stepped off the ladder. “Are you ready to apologize, young lady?”“I’m not a young lady.”Sarsa screeched. She flung a flatbread at him. It made a partial orbit — Rob had to jump back to avoid getting hit in the nose — before splatting onto the only basket still in the storage pit.“I want to hear about what happened to my notebook.”Sarsa cursed and began scraping the half-cooked dough from the basket. “Gone. Tossed it into the Chaos. It turned into a rabbit.”Martu reported it had turned into a rock. Had the young woman not listened closely enough?Rob swallowed the lump in his throat. He would get a new notebook. With blank pages and a clean, unloved cover. But when he cracked the unused spine to that stark paper, he would have new information for it — he’d have answers to his other questions. “What happens if an object is between the gravity of the last person who touched it and the home it belongs to?”She stared at him, befuddled. Apparently that wasn’t what she’d expected him to say. She scraped the ruined bread into the coals, then held the basket behind and below the griddle. She flipped the flatbread into it. “I’ve never tried that.”Never tried? Rob felt like she’d crushed his innards.Sarsa licked her thumb and wiped a smudge of dirt off the basket, then set it on the floor. It stayed put, the center of the home having no pull on it. Even the steam from the bread drifted straight up.“How did you do that?” Rob asked. “Specifically, getting the basket to stay put. I’m well aware of how one doesn’t try a thing.”Sarsa kneaded dough in a deep clay bowl. Whenever she dropped it, the dough thunked against the side of the bowl nearest the storage pit. “Why are you still here? Haven’t I made it clear that I’m not your friend?”“You’re the only one who can tell me first-hand about my notebook.”She actually flinched. “I’m not helping you, spy.”“I’m trying to help your husband, too.” The man ought to be mourned, ought to have his death recorded. Rob wiped his clammy palms on the front of his dust-collecting tunic, which only made his hands filthy. Maybe Sarsa would just get mad, like Martu, but it seemed respectful to try again.Sarsa didn’t yell at him, though. She went rigid. The dough dropped from her hands and fell sideways, hitting the rim of the bowl. Half the dough remained inside, while the other half hung, slowly stretching in mid-air towards the storage pit.Sarsa ignored her dough, staring straight at Rob. She dropped her voice. “What do you know?”“I know a lot of things.” Odd. She hadn’t been interested in discussing his research before. What a vague question to start with, too.“Don’t…I…he…my Dabru means the world to me.”Means. Present-tense. He wasn’t dead, then. Rob wrote that down on his palm.“What are you doing?” Sarsa whispered.“Thinking.” She’d claimed he died in the Chaos on the way  back from negotiating with High Priest Naramgil. She’d come back alone. After Naramgil warned the village to behave or his spy would report back.“Has anyone new come into this village in, say, the past month?”Her mouth tightened. Her hands shook.“You’re the spy,” Rob said.“Keep your voice down!” Sarsa snapped. She glanced about, but there was no one else in the pit-hut. “High Priest Naramgil imprisoned Dabru, and he’ll kill him if things go poorly. So I told everyone that Naramgil had a spy, thinking they’d just leave. Now there’s going to be fighting….and I didn’t mean for…never mind. I don’t have to explain myself to you.”Rob help out a hand. “My notebook?”She scowled at him and flopped the dough back into the bowl. “Is that all you can think about? I knew when I told High Priest Naramgil about you, he’d want to see your book. I brought it to him. He kept it.”Rob exhaled slowly, the pain of hope threatening to crush his lungs.“Are you going to tell the rest of the village?” Sarsa asked. Soot and dough streaked her face and hair.“No.” He doubted they’d be of much help. At least they hadn’t been so far. Everyone was focused on fleeing or setting up defenses. “I’m going to get my notebook back. If you’re willing to help me, I think we can rescue your husband, too. Where is he being held?”She blinked, surprised, and her tone softened. “I don’t know. Not the Enzu prison — I looked. But it’s not enough to just rescue him. If we don’t save the village, we’ll have nowhere to live. I doubt the others will be…sympathetic if I show up in Lithopolis with him.”Rob rubbed the back of his sunburned neck. She was right. Besides, if he helped saved the village, he might finally get test volunteers. “Dabru, my notebook, and the village.” He paused. “We’ll send you to talk to High Priest Naramgil, carrying the millwinders. You can surprise-deliver them on the spot. Then we’ll figure out the rest.”She shook her head. “Naramgil arrested Dabru without searching him, fearing that he had the millwinders on him — which would constitute delivery. And he’ll only talk to me by note. We’ll have to be cleverer than that.”“You’re sure you’re not tricking me into helping with inane research?” Sarsa asked.She must not know the meaning of inane. Perhaps she meant incomparable? Rob hadn’t met anyone creating records like his own. Given how vast and far-spread humanity was, he hoped he simply hadn’t found any counter-examples yet. He couldn’t research everything in the span of his own, singular human lifetime.Sarsa stood about five meters from the center of her house, or three meters from the wall. She held a spoon out at arm’s length, giving Rob a distrusting glare. She dropped it.It waivered for a moment, then spun toward the house and clacked against her roof.“Take another half-step back. Too far. Not enough. Just — ”“Do you want me to throw this spoon at you?” Sarsa demanded.Rob pondered. “Wouldn’t the storage pit gravity make that rather difficult?”Sarsa flung the spoon outward. It arched around, slapping Rob across the face.“Ow!” He rubbed his stinging cheek, delighted and injured at the same time — a not uncommon phenomenon for him. The spoon continued, falling onto the roof. “You’re amazing!”“You’re some civilization-lubber. I’ve lived here all my life. It’s not hard.”Rob fetched the spoon for her. “Again? By which I mean the dropping, not the throwing. One quarter-step back, please.”Sarsa sighed, but did as he asked. The spoon quivered, rotated…and then hung still.“Perfectly suspended between two gravities.” Rob beamed. Boundaries provided such delightful research opportunities. “Can you walk around your house, keeping your distance from the hearth at the same?”Sarsa did so, moving slowly. Sure enough, the spoon followed her — occasionally wobbling, but she aptly corrected for it.If only he had his notebook to diagram this.“How does this help us get your notebook or my husband back?” Sarsa asked quietly, trying to mask the question from any unwanted listeners.Rob shrugged. “I don’t know. But it does seem like it could be helpful, doesn’t it?”“Seems won’t rescue Dabru or save the village.”“I know.” Rob tried to dust the front of his tunic off, but the grime fell back onto him. “Where’s the set of millwinders you’re supposed to deliver? And do you have a copy of the contract?”“Dabru had the contract with him. He probably still has it — High Priest Naramgil didn’t search him. As for the millwinder set, Naramgil’s barricaded himself, remember?”“I know,” Rob said. “But we have to deliver them anyway.”#The millwinder set was not well-guarded. After all, everything in the village already acted like an orbitstone, and millwinders couldn’t be legally sold into a city without a contract with the village. Civilizations and cities tended to demand official paperwork like that. Rob suspected it came from being ruled by deities, full of Order, who couldn’t break contracts. It was safer to have a written agreement, neatly laid out where one could search for loopholes, than a messy verbal one that could lock a deity into a bad situation.Matriarch Ishtat simply kept the millwinders in a basket in her house. And Ishtat took a nap every afternoon, during the hottest part of the day.“Are you sure you should steal it?” Rob asked as Sarsa shoved him down the ladder into her own house. He’d observed that people usually reacted poorly when someone else walked off with their property.“Shh,” she chided. “Stay here. If we tell anyone else our plan, they’ll know about Dabru.”Rob sat and rested his back against the cool, earthen wall. Sarsa was eager to help him get his notebook back. He doubted the rest of the village, who did not secretly have a Dabru taken hostage, would be half so zealous. They might also fume at Sarsa for her duplicity and do something rash.So Rob did what he did best, which was not waiting, but testing things. He gathered a few test subjects from the packed baskets outside. He dropped and threw them in a variety of ways to observe the arc of their fall. Quite unintentionally, he learned that shattered crockery, much like its intact form, also fell into the storage pit. This made cleaning up the sherds incredibly convenient.Unfortunately, the door opened before he could determine an equally convenient place to discard them. It was not Sarsa on the ladder, however, but Martu.“That’s my favorite pot!” She rushed at him, snatching a sherd from his hands and examining it to confirm. How admirably thorough. “You really are a monster.”“I’m sorry,” Rob said. And he meant it.Martu glared. “It wasn’t enough to insult my father, now you’re sneaking into my house and breaking my stuff? I’m finding Matriarch Ishtat and getting her to order your stinking bones out of the village.”Given that Sarsa was raiding Ishtat’s house as they spoke, that seemed like an especially poor plan. “Don’t.”“Your powers of persuasion amaze me,” she said flatly, then turned to go, black hair swishing around her ears.“It’s about your father.”She froze, one hand on the ladder. Then she glared, as unforgiving as the noonday sun. “If you’re going to mock him, I swear on the shifting sands of Chaos that I’ll…that I’ll…”Her hand tightened to a fist on the rung.“He’s not dead. Your mother lied to you.”For a moment, she gaped. Then she slid down the ladder. “I knew she was as crooked as a line through the Chaos.”If that were true, Martu wouldn’t have been so upset about Dabru’s death, but Rob refrained from pointing that out. He dropped the broken pottery, letting it all tumble back into the storage pit. “We’re rescuing him.”“Ha! And it’s too ‘dangerous’ for me, so you and Mother have been plotting behind my back this whole time. She’s been cold and distant so she wouldn’t let out the secret. And you — you made fun of my father’s death just to drive me away, didn’t you?”“Um. Yes. That’s exactly how it happened.”Rob knew he was a poor liar, but Martu smiled smugly anyway. “You’ve not as clever as you thought. I figured it out. And now, I want in. What’s the plan?”Rob cleared his throat. “I don’t believe I mentioned anything as…definitive as a plan.”“Oh, don’t be coy. I’m helping whether you like it or not.”That much was apparent.The door opened again. “Rob, I got the — Martu!” Sarsa scurried down the ladder and lowered her voice. “Martu. You need to leave.”Martu crossed her arms and jutted her chin up. “I’m helping you rescue Father.”Sarsa sighed, turning toward Rob. “You had to tell her the plan to keep her from alerting the village, didn’t you?”“Ah. Of course,” he said. Sarsa likewise didn’t question his poor lying skills. Also, why did everyone think he had a plan? “We’ll need to run some experiments inside the Akkad-Kumat Union itself, to make sure we’re certain how the physics will work in Enzu.”Martu jerked upright. “I’m coming!”Sarsa rubbed the back of her neck, but didn’t put up further protests.Rob thoughtfully twirled nothing in his fingers. “Martu, are you a Grounder or a Chaoswalker?”“Haven’t taken the tests yet.”“Tests?” Oh, how he needed his notebook. “Can you tell me more about these — ““No,” Sarsa cut him off.Martu was gazing around the hut — nothing but a griddle, a basket of flatbread, and empty space now. Well, and the sherds in the storage pit. When Martu spoke, her voice was husky. “If we don’t rescue the village and Father, we can’t come back, can we?”“I’m afraid not.”A moment ago, Martu had been snapping at her mother. Now they were hugging. Hugging, much like changes in the Chaos, often seemed random. Martu gathered up the basket of bread and laid the now-cool griddle on top. Then they all clambered outside.Sarsa pulled a backpack of tight-woven canvas from the bottom of one of the baskets outside. It had thick, padded shoulder straps and a neat row of buttons closing the flap.“That doesn’t look locally made,” Rob said, leaning closer. The buttons gleamed a soft white.“It’s not. Some traders from the Pahara Kingdoms came here once, and Dabru negotiated for it. He wanted me to have something solid to collect my Chaos findings in.” She shoved a few of her belongings into it, then took the basket with the bread and griddle from Martu. “Best to bring some food and important things with us, in case we fail and can’t return before the invasion.”No one tried to stop them as they left the village. A pair of stern-looking men covered in sawdust from carving sharpened sticks even wished them all good luck with their new lives in Lithopolis.In the Chaos, the ground turned into a criss-cross of russet ravines. Three suns twirled slowly in the cloudless sky. Martu clung to her mother’s arm. “Everything’s so…different”“Close your eyes,” Sarsa said gently. “I don’t know if you’re more of a Grounder or a Chaoswalker, but I can lead you through it this first — or last — time. Try not to think too hard about the way things should be. And don’t worry. The Chaos can’t change you or anything you’re touching. People have Order in them.”“The Chaos doesn’t have to transform you to kill you. It can just as easily slice your chest open with triangles,” Rob added cheerfully.Sarsa glared at him.“You weren’t being very thorough in your description,” Rob said. Sarsa added pursed lips to her glare. Rob looked away first.He wrote on his palm as he walked, thinking about Sarsa’s words. Did belief-filled Order of how the world should and shouldn’t work make the Chaos more or less volatile? Did acceptance of change keep the Chaos calmer?He’d never considered either variable.How could he ever name all of the factors in play? How could he devise enough tests to know how the Chaos actually worked?In those ravines and up in the cloudless sky lay a wealth of ungathered knowledge. Rob felt like he walked through the silence before the music. The stillness before dance. The wool before carding.One day, he would unlock the Chaos’ secrets and fill his notebook with that beautiful data, with the art, and —“ — Rob!?”“Hm?” Rob asked. He squinted against the harshness of the light. His tunic clung damply to him.Sarsa gaped. “I thought you’d gone deaf! I was calling for you to slow down — I can’t believe how easily you walk through the Chaos — but then you didn’t respond.”“Oh.”“How can you be that oblivious?” she asked, one arm around Martu, one arm around the bread basket. The young woman kept her head down.The ground before them turned to silver sand that floated gently toward the golden sky, slowly transforming into stars. Mysteries waiting to be researched. “I was thinking about my notebook.”#Rob almost felt disappointed to leave the Chaos — now full of purple canyons and flying snakes. He stepped onto a firm, unchanging hillside dotted with stands of grass and a variety of shrubs. Below spread a broad, verdant plain with a slow, blue-green river and a sprawling city — the colors only made richer by the cool evening light.“I take it those are barley plants?”“Well, the trees are date palms. But in the fields, yes.” Sarsa set down her basket and handed him the backpack. “Test whatever you need to with the millwinders.”The fabric felt slick under his fingers. “Is this waterproof? And what are those buttons made of? They have such a remarkable luster.”“That’s not important right now.”“All questions are important,” Rob insisted, hurt.Sarsa snatched the backpack away, fished out the millwinders, and thrust them at him. “Focus.”Rob frowned, but studied the millwinders in his hands. Apart from the gold sheen, they looked like any two ordinary rocks. “How did you cover these in gold? Were they dipped or — ”Sarsa glared. “If these aren’t delivered tonight, my village will be razed in the morning. Stop dawdling.”Dawdling? Rob blinked.“Do the tests. Like you did in the village. Talking to you is like talking to a child.”Rob pursed his lips. “In what way?”He was as tall as her, so she couldn’t mean height perspective. And he had an adult palette with adult pronunciations. His syntax was likewise developed. Perhaps she meant that children in her village liked to play with rocks? There had been an abundance of rocks, though he hadn’t actually thought to count them.“Just start the tests.”#As Martu had promised, the centerstone acted like a storage pit and the orbitstone worked like an object from its house. Soon, they had an orbitstone suspended in midair between the centerstone Rob held and Sarsa, who’d released it.Rob’s stomach fluttered. It was working. “If you would, take a step forward with me. One. Two. Three.”They moved together. The orbitstone between them bobbed gently and followed, floating over the dirt and hardy shrubs.“Nifty,” Martu exhaled, eyes wide.He should have his notebook to record this moment. To capture this possibility, this intertwining of physics from one place manifesting inside the geography or another. Beautiful.“How does this get us into High Priest Naramgil’s home?” Sarsa asked.Rob smiled. “Martu. Do you want to fly?”Martu hesitated.“Come grab the orbitstone. You’ll hang from it, and our motion will pull you along.”Martu did. But as soon as she touched the stone, it sunk into her hand — just like it would have in the village.“Icestorms,” Rob cursed. He should have realized that would happen.“This doesn’t look like flying,” Martu said.“I know. I know,” muttered Rob.And so he devised experiments. Dangling Martu from a rope tied to the orbitstone. Wrapping Martu’s hands in cloth. Wrapping Martu’s hands in the backpack. But regardless, she was still touching it, even if indirectly, and the orbitstone sunk into her gravity.How to make the stone move her without her affecting it? Head pounding with the heat, Rob plopped onto the ground, grasses scratching his elbows. The world smelled like nature when it should have smelled like fresh graphite and old paper.“Since we can’t create a buffer, we’ll have to devise some kind of air-blowing device to levitate you above the orbitstone.” Rob’s teeth itched to gnaw the back of a pencil. He didn’t have the first idea of how to accomplish this.“We do have a buffer,” Martu said.Rob blinked at her.“Gold. It insulates the rocks from being changed by the Order of this place. Couldn’t we do something with that?”Martu was brilliant. Rob beamed at her. “A gold link in the rope. Insulate it from Martu’s Order. Perfect.”They could search for gold in the Chaos, or peel some off the millwinder, but the rays of the setting sun glinted on a more promising prospect: a ring on Sarsa’s finger. “I know you’re probably attached to your wedding ring, but it will save time to test out Martu’s theory with it.”“Wedding what?” Sarsa asked.Rob frowned. Hadn’t he spoken plainly? “The thing on your finger.”“This is my security ring.”Rob blinked. “A what?”“So if I get lost in the Chaos and end up somewhere else, I have money for meals and lodging while I figure out where I am.”“Oh.” What an interesting tradition. “Do all human-Ordered villages do this?”She paused and peered at him. “Can’t you just call them Chaos villages like everyone else? No, I have no idea. But be careful with it — I’ve had it for a long time.” Sarsa peeled it off. Her finger was indented underneath and worn smooth.The ring wasn’t fat enough to tie two ropes through. Thankfully, Sarsa had brought her clay griddle. Rob found a piece of chert and began carving a shallow circle on the bottom of it.Sarsa stood behind him, peering over his shoulder. “I hope you’re not ruining my griddle for no reason.”“Even failed experiments are useful research,” Rob said, scraping away. “It won’t go to waste.”Oddly, she glared at him. Rob worked faster. Soon he had a secure indentation for the ring. He pocketed the chert to sketch later, once he had a notebook to sketch in. He had Martu and Sarsa suspend the orbitstone in midair, then tossed a towel over it for better friction. Carefully, he set the ring on top, then placed the griddle onto its grove. The orbitstone didn’t fall, even when he was touching the griddle.“Thank you, Martu,” Rob said. “You were right.”The young woman smiled warmly at him. Smiles in his direction were not a common phenomenon. He returned it.Sarsa did not look nearly as impressed. “We need to discuss this plan more. I’m not flying my daughter over Naramgil’s wall on that thing, and the guards will recognize me — they won’t send for Naramgil.”“That’s a correct assessment. We can only get this as high as we can drop an orbitstone. If the wall’s higher than two meters, I don’t see how we can clear it.”Sarsa glared. “The wall’s at lest four! All of this was useless! We won’t be able to make the delivery.”“Let’s go see Naramgil’s house,” Rob said.#The city itself was lovelier and grander than anything he’d visited in the Confederacy. Some of the square buildings had lintels carved from a fragrant, yellow wood. Others were all-brick. Inhabitants ate and chatted on the rooftops under the setting sun.Rob spotted an abundance of goats. Men and women wearing fine fringed shawls and wrap-around clothes carried tiny goats, not much bigger than his hand, in expensively-dyed baskets. Pets, perhaps? Long-legged, robust goats pulled carts. There were even penned-in middens where goats helped manage city waste.Rob only caught a glimpse of the closing market, but what a magnitude of goods! Vegetables and fruits, herbs and powders. Goat cheese and goat leather, and cloth in more colors than the sunset. What did they make cloth out of? He didn’t know the names of so many things in that open bazaar. “Do you think we could stop and ask someone how many deities the Akkad-Kumat union has?”“Definitely not,” Sarsa grumbled as the turned the corner, leaving the enticing opportunity for research behind.Enzu’s temple looked like a stack of children’s blocks — a jumble of tiers and plenty of corners. It rested on top of a greenery-covered hill. At the bottom of the hill sat High Priest Naramgil’s broad house. The wall was five meters high and surrounded rather thoroughly by twenty-three guards with goat leather helmets and bronze spears. Bronze! He’d heard of the metal and knew that the Union had a God of Copper and a Goddess of Tin, but he’d never seen it. It was more colorful than he’d imagined.“Stay put. Do you want them to see us?” Sarsa snapped, dragging him back behind a date palm and some of the landscaped shrubbery that covered the hill.“Ahem. Right.” Rob cleared his throat. “If we start at the top of this hill, the orbitstone will look higher, and you two can stay hidden in the greenery as we move forward.”“That doesn’t get us over the wall!” Sarsa kept her voice to a harsh whisper.“But it would get one of us arrested spectacularly,” Rob said.Martu pursed her lips. The sun was setting, stretching the shade of the plants thick and long across the grass. The palms completely shadowed her face. “I was almost beginning to think you weren’t insane. But I think I was right the first time.”“You’re missing the point,” Rob said. “Spectacularly arrested means someone will send for the High Priest, for his judgment in this strange matter. Then I’ll show him the orbitstone. Then you can jump out and show him the centerstone.”Sarsa crossed her arms. “That doesn’t save my husband.”“If we make the delivery, won’t Naramgil be obligated to sign your village’s contract? Didn’t you say Dabru probably still has it, since they didn’t search him? Even if he doesn’t bring Dabru out, Martu can watch and see where High Priest Naramgil has the contract fetched from. We’d at least know where he — and hopefully my notebook — is. We can’t rescue him without finding him first.”“This is the worst plan I’ve ever heard,” Martu said.“Do you have a better one?” Rob asked.Her shoulders sank. “No.”#Rob scraped his knee, but he managed to climb the date palm and balance himself on the buffered griddle hanging in the air. Sarsa and Martu moved slowly down the hill, floating him along with them. None of the guards noticed, let alone recognized, the two women creeping along behind the palms and bushes. Maybe they weren’t looking very closely, given how intently they stared at Rob. Yes, this was spectacular.Perhaps too spectacular. One of the guards shouted for someone to get High Priest Naramgil, but he followed it with a command to loose arrows.Rob flattened himself on the griddle. Bronze flashed by his eyes. Pain flared in his shoulder. His throat dried and his pulse pounded.Should he run? Or would that just make him a larger target?He glanced at the wound. What a clean cut. It didn’t look sharper than a cut made by obsidian, though. How would one, ethically, test that? What fruit or vegetable might make a suitable human substitute? The blood welled up, making him woozy.“Nock another arrow! Ready!”So much red, smelling sharp and bitter. Rob swayed, nauseated. He tumbled, taking the griddle with him.“Loose!”Arrows whispered overhead as he thudded to the ground, shattered crockery under him. The air fled his chest, leaving his lungs feeling as heavy as millstones. The stars fuzzed above him.Rob tried to push himself onto his knees. Where was the orbitstone? He had to show it to High Priest Naramgil.“Wrap him in a sheet! Quickly! And if anyone else appears, shoot them on sight!” The voice had impeccable enunciation, polished and bright as a silver horn.Uncounted rough hands spun Rob. Fabric tightened around his entire body while his insides lurched. Slowly, his lungs started to work again. One breath. Two. Three. Each one made the ribs on his right side burn, so he breathed shallowly. He prodded the fabric around him with his tongue. It didn’t taste like Confederate wool, nor was it as sleek as Sarsa’s backpack. “What kind of fabric is this?”Admittedly, said fabric muffled his words, and those around him were rather busy, but it was tiring to always have people ignore his questions. At least the pressure felt good against his injured shoulder.“High Priest, shall we search him?”“No, idiot! What if he has the millwinder set?” the polished voice said. “This was probably a delivery attempt. You, you. Grab him. Lock him up in the safe place. And then I need you to go hire someone in the marketplace to clean this strange griddle-contraption up. I don’t want anyone under my direct command looking at it, much less touching it.”Well. At least his approach had been spectacular enough to draw out Naramgil. Too bad the rest of the plan failed.Unknown persons carried him like a log, uphill, through doors, and downstairs. Rob squeezed his eyes shut against the nausea of swaying in a world that smelled like unwashed laundry.Shortly, Rob found himself lying still on a hard floor, breathing shallowly against the not-woolen-sheet. A door thudded shut behind him. Perhaps this was the most foolhardy thing he’d done for research after all.Something scraped against the wall.“Is there a person there?” Rob called through the cloth. A person was usually preferable to rats.“Yes. Just a moment.” The voice sounded soft and muffled. This room had to be small.  Hands pulled back the cloth around his face, bringing in air that was dank instead of stale. Unfortunately, it didn’t bring any additional light.“Are you hurt?” the man asked from somewhere above him.“Yes,” Rob managed, gingerly prodding his ribs. Pain shot across his chest, a nice match for his burning shoulder.“How badly?”How did one quantify injury? He’d contemplated this before, when documenting his personal injury rate in Chaos. Should he record the level of pain? A ratio comparing the mass of unhurt body to injured body? The latter would record a fracture as a small matter, though, and Rob suspected he’d a cracked rib.Eventually, Rob settled on the most precise answer he could give. “Not fatal.”“Let me help you sit. Are you bleeding?”Rob described his shoulder. The man tore strips of cloth from the sheet and tied it up. “What did you do to get thrown in here?”“I tried to deliver a set of millwinders to High Priest Naramgil.”“Ah. That would do it. Here.” The man pressed a cup into Rob’s hands.Rob drank, even though the water tasted like mud from the bottom of a river. “Where are we?”“Deep inside the Enzu temple. Naramgil didn’t want to put us in the prison, where we’d be easy to find. Who’d search a temple for prisoners? We’re below the inner sanctum, where no one will stumble across us.”“Ah. You’re Dabru.”“Y-yes. How do you know that?”Much explaining followed.“So your plain failed horribly, and now you’re locked up, too. That doesn’t sound like good news.”Rob admired Dabru’s skill at summary. “I do have a piece of chert in my pocket. Perhaps we can dig our way out.”“Given how beat up you are, I’ll start working on that first.”After an hour, Dabru had created a palmful of dust and decreased the pleasantness of the cell by adding an odor of sweat.“At this rate, we’ll be lucky to escape this year,” Dabru said.Rob didn’t know the exact mass of the removed mortar, or the total mortar they needed to remove — but conservatively, he’d estimate a month. In any case, not soon enough to save the village from destruction. He also had no idea what High Priest Naramgil would do with them, once the contract was broken. Let them go? Dispose of them in the river?The door swung open. Rob blinked rapidly against the light slicing across his cell. Guards? Perhaps High Priest Naramgil wouldn’t wait until the contract’s deadline passed.But no, Sarsa and Martu stood behind the door, both holding torches. A good deal of hugging and crying followed before Rob could get a question in edgewise. “How did you get here?”“I’m sorry you’re in here at all. I wanted to rush in when you fell, but Mom motioned for me to hide once Naramgil told the guards to shoot anyone who came near. We waited until they left, grabbed the orbitstone, then followed the guards here,” Martu said. She avoided looking at her parents, who were enthusiastically exchanging saliva. “After your escort left, there were still two soldiers at the temple door and two more in front of the inner sanctum. I think there are usually more, but High Priest Naramgil had most of them at his house — which actually worked in our favor.”The torchlight flickered across her coy smile. She offered up no more details. But for once, Rob knew exactly what she wanted him to say. “What happened?”“I thought you’d never ask. I told Mother to hold the centerstone and throw the orbitstone — she’s got great aim.”Rob knew that firsthand.“The guards expected the orbitstone to act like a regular stone, so they didn’t dodge correctly. Mother caught the orbitstone with the centerstone and struck again. She knocked them all out before they could figure out what was happening.”Rob had never considered using millwinders as a weapon. “That was very clever, Martu.”“Thank-you!” She looked as proud as a bear with a brace of fish. Then her shoulders fell. “It’s too bad we couldn’t save the village, though.”Right. The village. Rob tapped Dabru’s shoulder. “Do you have the contract?”Dabru stoically peeled himself away from his wife and pulled out a thick sheet of papyrus from his rough-spun, sleeveless shirt.Rob read. Most of it was as Sarsa had reported — dull, predictable contract language. But one statement snagged his attention. “…to be delivered to Goddess Naqidu of Enzu, to her representative, High Priest Naramgil.”“It names the Goddess first,” Rob said.Dabru shrugged. “Yes. Technically in the Akkad-Kumat Union, High Priests are just agents of their gods. They name the god first to show their own position and deference.”“Deference or not, it’s exactly what we needed.”#They found Naramgil’s office first, a stuffy room with goat-fat candles, clay tablets, and piles of papyrus. Rob looked everything over, twice, but he couldn’t find his notebook. He snatched a reed brush and unstoppered a vial of ink.“What are you doing?” Martu asked.“Amending the contract.” He added a line, near the bottom — that Rob’s notebook would be returned by High Priest Naramgil upon delivery of the millwinder, and that all persons involved in the delivery party would be granted safe passage through Enzu. Perfect.It didn’t take much longer to locate the dank pool-room. Sarsa lit the twelve torches waiting in wall sconces. The flames glittered off blue-glazed bricks painted with stylized, triangular goats.“Beautiful,” Martu whispered.Rob studied the floor — or more specifically, the quarter-meter deep pool set into the floor. Just like the pool he’d seen before, the water shone as if someone had added a few drops of soap or oil to the top of it.“How did you say you talk to a god through one of these again?” Sarsa asked.“Human blood. It has some small amount of Order in it.” Rob saw no reason for further injury. He used the chert to cut off a piece of his makeshift bandage, then tossed it into the pool. The bloodied cloth rippled and fell to the bottom, laying there like a dead eel.Dabru held the gold millwinders in his hands. “Are you sure this is going to work?”“No.” Rob wondered what set of conditions could make him sure of something. He wasn’t even sure that when he released the bandage it would fall down. He’d now visited a place where that wouldn’t happen. He’d seen deities far less often than he’d dropped things.The water glowed with a strange, hyper-clear light, turning the tiles around it a surreal cerulean.From the pool rose a woman. Her cream-colored dress was soaked. Still, Rob could make out two layers of cloth: the solid inner one, and the fine, tessellating lace over that. Well, probably tessellating. A two-inch ribbon around her waist covered part of the pattern. No sleeves, and the hemline just covered her knees. A long string of pearls hung from her neck.“You’re not Naramgil.” She wiped her sopping hair out of her face, blinking wetly.“I’m here to make a delivery, per our contract.” Dabru held out the millwinders.She wrinkled her nose. “Set them in the corner. How’d you get in here? How’d you know how to use the pool? And why isn’t Naramgil taking care of this contract?”Rob didn’t answer. He handed her the contract, along with the reed brush pilfered from Naramgil’s office. “If you’d sign?”“You changed it.”“Your priest imprisoned us. It seemed prudent. Are you opposed to amendments in general, or these particular ones? How often do you sign contracts? What kind of writing medium do gods write contracts on in the Godly Realm? What — ““Ugh. It’s a good thing you mortals all die so quickly, or I’d have to go through the trouble of firing Naramgil for this. You interrupted an amazing game of pinochle; I’d just melded a round robin. I thought this was an emergency.”The ink dried on the contract. Rob grinned. “Thank you. Now, about those questions…”Goddess Naqidu disappeared as quietly as she’d come.Rob pursed his lips, staring at the water. “If I bled in the pool again, do you think she’d come back?”“No.” Martu grabbed him by the elbow. “Let’s go.”#High Priest Naramgil threw a fit, but he couldn’t ignore his goddess’ signature. No, he wouldn’t be invading the village in the morning — he lacked justification, now. He did throw Rob’s notebook at his head, but Rob managed to catch it.He paid them the agreed-upon price — a small handcart of goat-leather. They set Sarsa’s bread basket on top, then headed into the Chaos. Sarsa pulled the cart, Dabru and Martu holding onto her shoulders on either side with their eyes closed. Rob walked next to them, one arm cradling his injured ribcage.In the Chaos, it was neither night nor day, but an orange-green twilight of circling stars and lavender moons bleeding tears that streaked sideways through the sky.Today, he had his notebook. Today, he could record this piece of reality and create art. Perhaps the most comforting thing about the Chaos was that it always changed. Always presented something new to explore.Soon, they stepped onto the hard-packed dirt of the village. The sunrise tinged the sky pink and orange.Sarsa took off her backpack and handed it to Rob. “For you.”He blinked, feeling the smoothness of the fabric beneath.“You should have someplace safe to keep your notebook. And after saving everyone…I feel like I owe it to you.”“Thank you.”Sarsa nodded. Then she and Dabru left to deliver the cart to the matriarch and tell everyone there’d be no invasion. They’d need to chase those who’d left to sell themselves into slavery at Lithopolis, too.Rob watched them haul the cart away. All the villagers acted pleased and surprised — not suspicious — to see Dabru again.“Looks like no one’s going to be mad at Mother,” Martu said. “Not getting attacked seems to have put everyone in a good mood.”Rob’s arms were full of his old notebook and new backpack. “I don’t suppose you’ll ever be making a contract with Enzu again.”“No. Never.” Martu eyed his backpack. “I need something out of there.”“Oh. Right.” He opened it, and she promptly snatched out a goatskin notebook.She blushed, hugging the book to her chest. “I stole it from Naramgil’s office. It’s blank. I…I still think you’re half-crazy, but the world is a big place. I thought I’d try writing some of it down.” She paused, worrying the corner of the book with her thumb and forefinger. “Like, when we were searching for you, I wished you had a centerstone and we had an orbitstone. Then we could drop it and know if we were within such-a-distance. If we were that close, the orbitstone would fall toward your location. Maybe I could figure out how to extend the range.”Brilliant. Perfectly brilliant. “Given your new interest in physics, I don’t suppose you’d be interested in helping me find volunteer test subjects to examine the rate of injuries in the Chaos as related to one’s thoughts?”“Oh, Rob.” She patted him on the shoulder. “You helped save everyone, but no one wants to be a test subject.” Martu paused. “Though I can tell you how to make things stay put. You wanted to know that, didn’t you?”She licked her thumb, pressed it to the underside of her notebook, and set it on the ground. It didn’t budge.Rob peered at it. Why wasn’t it flying up to Martu?“Your spit. It’s part of you,” she said. “So whatever-it-is will treat that as down. That’s how we bathe — we spit in the water when we’re done. The spit falls to the earth, and the water goes with it, forming a dome around it. I mean, you could tie one of your hairs to something or bleed on it with the same effect, but that’s a lot more work than licking.”What an interesting notion — spit as self. Rob opened his notebook — his musty, familiar notebook — to a fresh page and jotted that down.It was a beautiful morning. Before him stood a clever young woman — one who’d been bright enough to see gold as an Order-buffer, to think of millwinders as a weapon, and to come up with a way to use them as a locator. “Thank you,” Rob said.“For what?”“For being a counter-example.”Rob wasn’t the only researcher in the world anymore. The post PC 472: The Chaos Village — Part 2 appeared first on PodCastle.

31 May 2017

Rank #9

Podcast cover

PodCastle 497: Six Jobs

Author : Tim Pratt Narrator : Stephanie Malia Morris Host : Summer Fletcher Audio Producer : Peter Wood Six JobsBy Tim Pratt 1.   Exterminator’s HelperI was eleven when a little man with watery eyes who blinked and sniffed all the time shuffled into my classroom, moving carefully, not brushing up against any desks or people. My teacher stood frozen with her hand pointed at a map of Africa, and the kids all around me were unnaturally still, too, stuck in whatever moment they’d been caught in when time stopped: note-passing, nose-picking, empty-space-gazing.I held my breath at first, hoping this strange person in the gray suit looking at a scrap of paper in his hand wouldn’t realize I was still conscious, still capable of movement. I didn’t know what he was, or what was happening, but I’d read a lot of books and seen a lot of shows about fairies and monsters and magic, and being in the middle of a story like that was so scary I was afraid I’d wet myself.He squinted around, peered in my direction, and bustled over. “You’re . . .” A glance at the paper. “Makayla?”“Kayla,” I whispered.A brisk nod. “Never saw the point of nicknames, but whatever makes you happy. I’m Sigmund. I need your help. Actually, all your friends and . . . so on . . . here at school need your help.” He rubbed at his nose and sniffled more. I wondered if he had a cold. “It’s not quite a save-the-world thing, but you can save this little part of your world. Won’t that be, um, fun?”Some adults love kids, and some don’t like them, but some just seem confused by us and don’t know how to talk to us at all: Sigmund was the last kind. I shrank away from him and shook my head, but I didn’t cry. “I don’t know what you want me to do.”“That’s okay. I haven’t told you yet. Maybe you won’t have to do anything. First I have to give you a little test.”Even back then, I really liked tests. I was one of the only kids who got excited about pop quizzes. I perked right up.He reached into his jacket and drew out a clear glass jar, like a baby food container, and held it up six inches from my face. Something inside the jar buzzed and writhed and made terrible muffled squealing noises: it seemed sort of like a wasp crossed with a spider, except it was endlessly turning itself inside out, wetly gleaming, and I retched and turned my head away.“I take it from your pukey noises that you see something in here?”I nodded.“Ah ha. The jar looks empty to me. I had to take it on as associate’s word that there was anything inside here at all. What you’re looking at is, hmm, a sort of parasite . . . do you know what a parasite is?”“Like . . . a worm that lives inside you and eats the food you eat?”“Very like!” He beamed, and I was (then and always) enough of a good student to feel a flush of pride. “This parasite likes to cling to people, but it doesn’t eat food, it eats . . . bad thoughts. Except it also creates bad thoughts — it makes the people it clings to think hateful things, and sometimes they do hateful things, and, well.” He put the jar away. “That one I showed you is just a baby. Come on. We’re after a bigger one.”“I don’t — ”He shook his head. “It’s okay, you don’t have to do anything except look, and see, and point, okay? I can’t see the little monsters, but you can. I know there’s one somewhere in the school, but I can’t narrow down my search any more than that. This time-lock won’t last long, it’s big magic, sucking up a lot of resources, but it’s too late for a real-time operation. We didn’t have time to bring in a seer, either, and if we hadn’t sensed your psychic spark, you’d all be doomed, really. So come on. I guess you don’t see anything in here? This parasite would be big, maybe the size of a housecat, probably clinging to the back of someone’s neck.”I looked around, but there was nothing like that . . . thing in the jar. Sigmund held out his hand, and I took it, and he dragged me at almost a run out of the room. We barged into all the other classrooms, the bathrooms, the teacher’s lounge, the principal’s office, the cafeteria, and the library, and he got more and more exasperated as I failed to find anything. “I’m really sorry,” I said, “I’m doing my best.”“Shit, oh, sorry, swearing, um, it’s okay.” He paused outside the principal’s office, took a tiny vial out of his jacket, tipped a little bit of something white like baking soda onto the edge of his hand, and then snorted it up one nostril. He shivered all over and made a sound of“What’s that?”“Medicine.”I frowned. “I think that’s drugs.”“That’s what I said. Damn it, kid, this school isn’t that big, haven’t we looked everywhere? Who haven’t we seen?”“Well, there’s the janitor, he’s got a shed out back by the playground where he keeps all his tools and stuff — ”Sigmund grabbed my hand again and we ran through halls and then outside, onto the playground. The bubble of frozen time extended out here, too: there was a bird stuck in the gray sky like a piece of art pinned to a bulletin board. As I watched, though, the bird twitched, spurting forward one wingbeat’s worth before going still again. Sigmund moaned and dragged me even faster.We reached the little wooden shed, and Sigmund hauled the door open. The janitor, who looked just a little bit older than a teenager, stood frozen amid sacks and tools and jugs and junk.I whimpered, because the thing stuck to the janitor’s back was bigger than a housecat. It was as big as my little brother, and he was five years old and already weighed fifty pounds. The parasite wasn’t frozen in time: it turned itself inside out, too, all red and green and purple, and an open eye with a yellow iris drifted across the surface of its body, like a leaf floating along on a stream, and I swear it looked at me.“You guys have a garden here?” Sigmund asked?I looked at him, grateful to stop looking at the monster for a moment. “No.”“I was afraid of that. That’s a lot of fertilizer piled up here. And cotton rags, and diesel fuel . . . yeah. This guy was gonna make a bomb. Or bombs.” Sigmund clucked his tongue. “He’s got a thing, right? Parasite? The noise you made, it sounded like a yes.”I pointed at his back.“Okee doke.” Sigmund reached into his jacket again — how did he have so many things in there? — and drew out a squat green plastic spray bottle, the kind you could fill with window cleaner or whatever. “This might stink. For you. Not me. I can’t smell it any more than I can see it.” He sprayed the contents of the bottle all over the man’s back, and wherever the droplets hit, the parasite writhed and turned black and shriveled up. It tried to get away, but it was stuck to the janitor’s neck, somehow, hooked in, and it couldn’t disentangle itself fast enough. The smell was like onions made of farts, and my eyes watered and I gagged. Sigmund glanced at me. “You have to let me know when it’s done, Kayla.”“It — it’s all black. Just like black shreds. Black confetti.”“Excellent.” He put the bottle away, and beamed at me again. He was only about a foot taller than me, it seemed like, because of how he hunched over. “Here you go. Payment for a job well done.” He reached into the jacket’s outer pocket and took out a few thick golden coins, dropping them one by one into my open hand. “Hide those good, you might need them someday.”“Are they . . . magic?”“Well, you can turn money into just about anything, so in that sense, sure, they’re practically alchemy, but no, they’re just metal. Really old metal, though, with interesting markings on them.” He hooked his arms under the janitor’s armpits and began dragging the boy backwards, like he was moving a mannequin out of a store.“What’s going to happen to him?”Sigmund sniffed again. “Oh, his blood is poisoned, so we’re going to give him . . . sort of a transfusion, sort of like dialysis. You know what that is?”My aunt was diabetic, so I nodded.“Right. We’ll fix him up, he’ll be back at work in a day or two, good as new. We’ll fake that he got hit by a car and was laid up in the hospital or something, don’t worry about him.” He disappeared out of the shed, but when I followed him, he was already gone. I could see a long way in every direction and couldn’t figure out how he’d vanished so fast, unless maybe he’d time-locked me, too. I looked at the coins in my hand. There were four of them, dark gold, old and worn, all the same, with a picture of a guy’s face in profile with leaves in his hair, and letters that I could almost but not quite read, except for an R and a V and maybe an F. (When I was in high school, I remembered about the coins, and found them in a shoebox with some ribbons and pretty rocks. I did some research, and found out they were Roman coins from around 30 AD. Selling them didn’t pay for my entire college experience, but I was careful, and they covered everything the scholarships didn’t.)I pocketed the coins, and the birds were moving in the sky again, and I gasped, because I was out of class, and I would get in trouble.I did get in trouble, but only for going to the bathroom without a hall pass, which wasn’t so bad. If anyone noticed me disappearing from my seat, poof, they had the good sense not to mention it. People are good at ignoring the impossible.The janitor never came back. People said he’d probably run off with some girl.That was my first job. 2.   SkiptracerI was sixteen, and it was summer, and my parents had made noises about me getting a job, but I was studying a ton in a bid to graduate high school a year early, and they decided to let me do that instead. I was in the reading room at the local college library (where I wasn’t really supposed to be, as a high school townie, but they’d given up on trying to keep me out), where I was working on Latin translations as a treat, because they were so much easier than Greek.A woman sat down across from me, and she wasn’t the kind of person you saw much in Pomegranate Grove, Georgia, even on campus. Bright red lipstick, model-pretty face, head shaved on one side, long braids in black and blue and green dangling down the other. She had these filigreed silver claw things on the ends of her fingers, and she tapped them on the table in front of me. They were surprisingly loud, and I thought someone would shush her, but no one seemed to notice. “Can you see and hear me?” she said.I frowned. “Yes?”Someone shushed me, and she smirked. “Good, then you are a seer. Kayla, right? You met one of my colleagues, what, three, four years ago?”I’d half convinced myself that whole experience with Sigmund had been a bizarre daydream . . . except I did still see things, sometimes, that no one else seemed to. Never more parasites, but once a thing like a great bird made of dark smoke flapping through the sky, and once a woman who walked through the back wall of the grocery store like it was a beaded curtain, and once a luminous winged thing sleeping in the high branches of an oak tree. By then everyone had figured out I wasn’t just smart, but really smart — no one liked to say “genius” but I could see them thinking it — and I told myself that sometimes geniuses saw strange things. We couldn’t contain our creativity, that was all, so I shouldn’t worry about it.Except of course I worried about it. I often wondered if I was schizophrenic . . . and now I was talking to a woman who no one else could seem to see or hear.I scribbled the name “Sigmund” on a piece of paper and pushed it over to her.She looked amused. She looked, frankly, like the sort of bitchy mean girl who was amused by everything. “Yeah, that’s him. He said you were helpful. I’m hoping you still are.”I looked down at my book and whispered, “Whatever happened to that janitor?”“I don’t even know what you’re talking about, and also I don’t care. Here, look at this thing.” She dropped what looked like a section of a human jawbone, complete with four teeth, on the table, and I must have jumped a little, because one of the other people studying glared at me. “Really look at it.”I did as she said, and after a moment, the jawbone sort of shimmered, and I saw. . . . “There’s a thread,” I whispered, as quiet as I could. “Like, a silver thread, stretching from the jaw, and . . .” I followed its length. “Disappearing through the wall.”“Hot damn. Sigmund said you were good even as a kid, and the gift usually gets stronger after puberty. I couldn’t even kill somebody with my thoughts until after I got my first period — back then I had to make do with a little maiming. None of the seers in our organization could do a thing with this. Our fugitive has too many obscuring spells clinging to him. Come on. I need you to follow this thread.”“I can’t — I have . . . I can’t just go with you.”She rolled her eyes. “I’ll make it worth your while. We’re not asking you to give to charity here.”That’s when I remembered about the coins. “More spare change?” I said.“Ha. A brick of cash, if you want, sure, but I was thinking you might want to learn a magic trick. Real magic.”“I . . . what kind?”“Depends how helpful you are.”“Will this take long?”“Nah. I have a ticket to the express line. You’ll see.” She beckoned. I was glad she didn’t take my hand, the way Sigmund had — those claws of hers looked vicious. When she stood up I saw she was dressed in bits of lace and spandex and not much else, and she was all bony hard angles. I usually coped with my body-image issues by studying so much I forgot I even had a body, but you couldn’t look at her without feeling fat . . . while also getting the sense she was thinking about how fat you were.“What’s your name?” I asked.“Wouldn’t you like to know? Mostly people call me Carlotta.”Probably a made-up name, I thought, more nastily than usual for me. Probably her real name was Jane or Mildred or something.“Stay close to me, we’re going to make some jumps.”“What do you — ” I began, but when I took two steps after her, everything around us blurred, and we were standing in the college football field, which was hundreds of yards from the library. A practice was going on around us, but no one took notice of two women appearing on the field. “Which way?” She sounded bored and held up the jawbone for me to see.The thread extended into the distance to the west. I pointed, she nodded, took a step, and everything blurred again. Now we were on the side of the highway, on the outskirts of town, easily five miles. “I — that’s amazing. The way we’re traveling. Can you teach me that?”“What, the long walk? Nah, it’s an enchantment thing. I’ve got a charm for it. I’ll teach you something better. Where do you need to go anyway? You’re in the same spot you were five years ago.” She made a face. “You couldn’t pay me enough to live in this hick town, and I’m not even black. I don’t know how you stand it down here in cotton country.”I stared at her. “I’m only sixteen. I live at home. This is where my parents live, where my family is from — ”“I’m so glad I orphaned myself. Which way?”We continued blurring, and it seemed like, with each step we took, the distances traveled got larger. We were moving mostly west, slightly north, and the sun began to visibly move in the sky. We mainly landed in empty spaces — fields, parking lots, woods — but once we stood on top of a skyscraper in the middle of some city, right on the edge of the roof, and I gasped with vertiginous shock. I whimpered — Carlotta snorted laughter at me — and I had to shut my eyes for the next step.We finally ended up in a dusty place, with small scrubby plants all around us, and the silver thread extended from the jawbone and disappeared into the ground. I pointed, and Carlotta knelt, dug around in the sand, and found the edge of a wooden cover. She levered up the square of wood, sand cascading down, and revealed a concrete hole the size of a coffin underneath. Inside were rags and bones.“Good job,” she said. “You’d make a good skiptracer. Give you a rag and a scrap and you could track down any fugitive. So. What do you want to learn?”“I don’t know what the options are.” I tried not to think about what the rags in the hole had once been, or about whey Carlotta had needed to find them. Instead, I thought of magic. “Sigmund did a thing where he stopped time.” I was thinking that, if I could pause time, I could do more studying. I was that kind of teenager.“Ha, no. Sigmund didn’t do that. He’s good with time, but not that way. We had this thing, like a clock if a clock were a flower, and… anyway, it wilted, it’s done, I can’t teach you that trick. Hmm. I could teach you to fly.”I got dizzy climbing ladders, and being on that rooftop was horrific. “I don’t really want to fly.”She sighed. “I can show you what I did, then, when I went to your library. How to be invisible, at least to most people. Yeah?”“I… sure.” I’d had enough beer cans thrown at me from passing pickup trucks by rednecks for a lifetime, and once an old man had sicced his dogs on my brother and me because he didn’t like black kids on his street. Not to mention the stuff I had to deal with just because I was a girl — men shouting what they’d like to do with me, demanding I smile, calling me a stuck-up bitch if I tried to ignore them. I could see uses to being invisible.I thought Carlotta would teach me an incantation or something, but instead she put those silver claw-fingernails to my temples, stared into my eyes, and exhaled a breath that smelled of peaches and burnt metal into my face.It worked, though. I knew how to go unseen. It seemed so obvious, in retrospect.“Okay, go home.” Carlotta made a shooing motion, and I felt something yank me backwards, every spot we’d passed flickering past me in reverse, at great speed, until I was back at the library, where I landed back in my chair with a thump and someone shushed me.“You shush,” I said back loudly.I was starting to get a taste for the work. 3.   Recovery SpecialistI went to college young, in a city as far away from my parents as I could get without leaving the state, and my social life was pretty terrible. Sometimes guys would flirt with me, then find out I was only seventeen, and back away slowly or joke about how I should call them on my birthday. I was also woefully straightedge, not into drinking or drugs, because I’d discovered they did weird things to whatever “sight” I had: weed and booze intensified the visions, and if I got so much as tipsy I started to see these little flickers everywhere, like reality was a video stream over a spotty connection. I had already gathered there was more to life than what I could see, but I wasn’t ready to find out just what, or how much. It was enough to no the veil was there: I was too cautious to go around trying to pierce it unsupervised.Between my reluctance to party and my basic introversion, I didn’t get out much, but that was okay: I was still a grade grind, and I lived in the library and the language lab. I did have a roommate, a pretty white girl who tried to include me in her social life (she never called me her “black friend,” at least, though I suspected her of thinking it), and she did indirectly lead me to my next job.I didn’t need to work, because I had good academic scholarships and the proceeds from selling the coins in my bank account for living expenses, but when my roommate was freaked out about losing her phone (“It’s like I lost my brain somewhere, why didn’t I ever set up that tracking app?”) I decided to use the trick I’d used with Carlotta. I wasn’t sure it would work, as I didn’t have a piece of the phone, but my roommate was so attached to it, the thing might as well have been an extra appendage, so I gave it a shot. I concentrated, and focused my intention. There it was: a silver thread leading from her hand out through the wall.I couldn’t blur through space on my own, but I also didn’t think I’d have to go thousands of miles, and indeed, I found her phone under a bush in one of the little gardens that made our campus so pleasant to walk through. That night I casually put it on her desk. She was astonished, and asked how I’d found it, and I said, “Oh, I have a knack for finding lost things.” She pressed me — I wanted to turn invisible then — until I blurted out, “I don’t know, sometimes I just get a sense, I can’t explain it — I’ve just always been able to find lost things.”She must have mentioned my gift, because one of her friends made a point of loudly lamenting that she’d lost her favorite earrings, and I obligingly squinted at her ears and found a thread to follow, recovering the jewelry from behind the toilet in a bathroom stall. (I opted not to ask how she’d lost them in there. Probably better not to know.) I refused her offer of a reward, but she sent me a cheese and fruit basket anyway. (I know. Random. It was pretty good cheese though.)From then on, I was a cottage industry. My gift didn’t always work — sometimes there was just no connection, no thread to follow, and I gradually came to understand that things people used or wore or touched a lot, or deeply cared about, created a connection I could use. I also just failed at a few searches deliberately, because I didn’t want a reputation for infallibility.The whole thing started to get out of control, though, and I got a reputation as a spooky weird girl. Some people started snidely saying I probably stole things and then “found” them to get attention. I was enraged and humiliated at the suggestion, and though my roommate defended me, I could tell she wondered if I’d done exactly that. Now when people lost things, they’d accuse me of stealing them. I’d stupidly thought that leaving high school would mean leaving behind that kind of nastiness and gossip, as if surrounding yourself with twenty-year-olds instead of sixteen-year-olds would really make that much difference.So I went invisible. I made myself unseen almost all the time, except when I was in class or needed to be seen at the language lab or had to talk to a librarian. I heard my roommate on her phone, talking to people about me when she didn’t realize I was in the room, speculating that I’d finally found a guy to “de-virginize” me and that’s why I was almost never in our dorm room anymore.I started to hate everything.Then, one day while I was sitting invisibly on a bench in a garden, a man who looked vaguely professorial — round-rimmed glasses, messy gray hair, a suit that had seen better days — sat down beside me. “I hear you’re good at finding things.”I checked my spell, and it was active. He shouldn’t have been able to see me… but he did. Did that mean he was like me? A seer?“I am,” he said. Then a pause. “Sorry. Shouldn’t snoop, wasn’t trying to, but the thought was right on top of your mind.”I scooted away from him on the bench. “You can read minds?”He seesawed his hand. “Eh, it’s more like looking into a pond. Sometimes you see fish moving around, sometimes you don’t. But, yes, that’s the main direction of my gift. I’m more interested in your specialty — finding things.”“I don’t do that anymore.”“I understand, but I think I can make you a good offer. You learned invisibility from someone — ah. Her? Really. She’s… a nasty piece of work.”I gritted my teeth, then stood up. “Stay out of my head. I’m leaving.”“All right, sorry, you’re right.” He made a placating gesture. My level of tolerance for old men taking liberties was pretty low, but he seemed genuinely contrite. I didn’t sit back down, but I didn’t leave, either. He seemed to know something of the twilight world I’d glimpsed, and I was always curious. It’s what made me such a good student, and so interested in languages — I hated the thought that there were texts out there I couldn’t read, knowledge I couldn’t access.He said, “I want you to help me find a particular book. The problem is, the book is disguised. It probably looks like something boring, a forgotten monograph on soil acidity, something like that. The illusion is so good even you and I couldn’t penetrate it to read the true text. But you have this other power, to find things, yes? If you can lead me to the book, I can take it to people who can dispel the illusion.”“Why should I help you?”“Because I’ll tell you things.” He shrugged. “Give you answers. Like, that woman you did a job for? Carlotta? She belongs to a secret organization, called the Table. They used to be knights, sort of, but their mission has changed over the centuries. Nowadays they’re… magical mercenaries, more or less, doing dirty jobs for the highest bidder. Nothing is beneath them — murder, theft, regime change. I’m so sorry that you got dragged into their world . . . that they used you. Oh, my, from the time you were a girl. Monstrous.”I’d gotten the sense that Carlotta and Sigmund were part of some kind of organized group, and it was easy to believe the woman was evil, but Sigmund? “No, Sigmund helped me, he saved my school from a bomber — ”“Did he really? Or did he tell you there was going to be a bombing, and then kidnap a sick young man?”He had a point. The janitor had never returned.“The blood of those who’ve been parasitized has potent magical properties — very valuable to the unscrupulous.” He clucked his tongue. “Such an ugly business. Of course, extracting the tainted blood kills the host, but why would the Table care? They’ve slaughtered thousands over the centuries.”I shivered. “Who are you?”He smiled. “Call me Agapius.”I snorted. “Greek philosopher, Neoplatonist, disciple of Proculus. You’ve aged well.”He grinned at me. “You are learned.”“I do old languages. It’s my thing.”“How wonderful.” He patted the bench, and after a moment’s thought, I sat down. “I work for an organization called the Black Earth. Sounds a bit sinister, I know, but the name is more about the idea of fertile soil, you see? Bringing forth bounty.”It did sound sinister. I remembered seeing, in history class, photos from a sunset town in Texas somewhere, with a banner hanging over main street that proclaimed proudly “The blackest earth, the whitest folk.”Agapius went on. “We seek to collect and catalogue knowledge of the secret world. The text I’m looking for was the grimoire of a great natural philosopher-slash-alchemist, and if it contains the secrets we think it does, we could use it to make desert soil arable and feed millions of hungry people. Would you like to help?”“I can’t just find things. There has to be some connection, either physical or from long contact — ”He moved his left hand in a magician-ly flourish and suddenly held a plastic sleeve with a torn bit of paper maybe three inches wide and two inches high tucked inside. I saw spidery brown handwriting in a language I didn’t immediately recognize. . . . which was surprising. I would have bet good money there wasn’t a single written system of language I couldn’t identify at that point. (I had a lot to learn about the secret tongues back then.) I squinted, and there was a silver thread, stretching to the north.“Shall we?” he said.I’d been proud of helping Simgund that first time because I thought I’d been doing something good. Maybe I’d been wrong about him, but that desire to help was still present in me. “Can you teleport or whatever Carlotta did with me?”“Not exactly that way, but something like. Where are we going?”I pointed. He took a small notebook from his breast pocket, affixed reading glasses to his face, squinted, and read off a few harsh, guttural lines.Everything went black, like we were birds in a cage that had been abruptly covered, but then light returned, and we were somewhere else, but still seated on the same bench. I looked around at the ancient gravestones on all sides. “Where are we?”“Cemetery. The spell I used, it’s a bit of grave magic. There are connections among the dead that the living may follow. Fortunately, there are graves all over.”Weird. I thumped the bench. “You had to bring this?”He shrugged. “It helps to have a conveyance. Which way now?”We hopped through half a dozen more graveyards, always heading north, until we reached a small town and the angle of the silver thread abruptly shifted east. “Let’s walk a bit,” Agapius suggested.We strolled down sleepy country lanes for a while, past rock walls and apple trees. “Where is this?”“New England somewhere.”I shook my head. “I’ve never been out of the south. Well, except for helping Carlotta.”“Stick with me, and you’ll see the world. More than that. You’ll save the world.”The idea thrilled me as much at eighteen as it had at eleven.We found a small town library in a stone building, and followed the thread inside. The librarian looked at me funny — not a lot of people of color in New Vermontshire or wherever we were, maybe, or just not in the company of white dudes two decades older? — but then shrugged and went back to her reading behind the desk. Our target was in the children’s section, and it looked like a beaten-up picture book from the ‘50s or something, a “Tour of the World” full of amazingly racist illustrations. Agapius took the little notebook from his pocket, read from another page, and the illusion flickered, for just an instant: the picture book became a thick volume bound in what looked like mottled, diseased skin. He breathed out, and his hands trembled. “Oh, well done, Kayla. This . . . yes. This is wonderful.”He tucked the book away inside his jacket and we left without setting off any alarms, returning to the graveyard. He chattered about how delighted his colleagues would be by this acquisition, and what a valuable asset I’d proven myself to be. We sat on the bench and grave-leaped back to campus, where he bid me adieu.I was so dizzy from the teleporting and the idea of helping the world that I didn’t even think to ask about payment. When I got back to my dorm, absentmindedly forgetting to make myself invisible, all my possessions were gone. My roommate looked at me, wounded. “You could have told me you were moving out, or at least warned me the movers were coming. I was in my underwear when they got here!”An envelope on my desk held two sets of keys — one for a decent used car parked outside the dorm, with the title made out in my name tucked into the glove box. The other set of keys went with an address scrawled on a sheet of paper: a tiny but adorable cottage just north of campus. The Black Earth was taking care of me.I helped Agapius off and on through the rest of my undergrad career, tracking down rare books, mostly, but sometimes strange magical components: urns and globes and orbs and salvers. After I graduated — I had to graduate, my parents would have never forgiven me — I decided against grad school and went to work for the Black Earth full time. They had a more interesting set of libraries than Columbia did anyway. 4.   Food Truck CashierThe summer after my junior year, when Agapius was off on an extended research trip, I was momentarily unemployed. A friend of mine in Atlanta ran a cupcake truck, and she needed someone to help her operate it one summer when there were about a million street fairs and festivals going on. She paid me in cupcakes, as per my request. The red velvet remains the best thing I have ever tasted, and I’ve tasted a lot of things.Sure it was magical. There are all different kinds of magical. 5.   Double Agent“We’d like to give you a promotion.” Agapius smiled at me across my kitchen table. I’d been working for the Black Earth full-time for three years, though Agapius was still the only one I’d ever met. Occasionally, on my infrequent visits to the Archive — their headquarters — I caught glimpses of figures in dark robes, but they were obscured by deep magics that not even my psychic abilities could see through. There were soaring shelves of books there, cavernous cathedral rooms full of ancient volumes, and every once in a while Agapius let me peruse a few books (I’d learned angelic, demonic, and nephilimic scripts that way, and gained a passing familiarity with the mysterious mystic language known as Aklo), but most of the books were locked away behind transparent cages of force, and I wasn’t permitted to touch them.I leaned forward. “Will I get access to the stacks?”“Better. You’ll get access to the Table’s library. There’s a book there we desperately need. It’s crucial for the great work.”I nodded. The “Great Work” was making the world Eden again, basically. Conjuring up enough food, enough water, enough fuel, enough everything, for everyone, to ensure there would never again be war or strife, because why would anyone need to fight, when everyone had everything? The Black Earth wanted to make the world a paradise. At first Agapius had promised incremental progress, gardens in the desert in such, but later he said the interlocking systems were so complex that in order to make paradise eternal and self-sustaining they’d have to do all the magic at once . . . and we were very close to pulling it off.“This is literally the final piece, an ancient spell some say was written by God’s half-sister herself. I didn’t realize the Table had stolen the scroll, but all my researches point that way. None of our other agents can get into their library . . . but you have a relationship with them, you see?” He explained his plan, and it was scary, but also exciting: like being a spy, a secret agent, and a cat burglar all at once.“Let’s do it,” I said.Five months later, dressed in ragged traveling clothes with a duffel bag slung over my shoulder, I pounded a precise rhythmic tattoo on a brass door in a city underneath another city, neither of them on any map anyone in the mundane world had ever heard of.The door swung open, and Sigmund was there, looking a bit older, and a lot smaller, than last time I’d seen him. I grinned at him, said, “I found you,” and then collapsed face-forward in a faint I didn’t even have to fake. He caught me. Somehow, I’d known he would.I woke up in a small stone room that might have been a cell but was more like a monk’s quarters. Sigmund sat in a chair at the edge of the bed, his knee bouncing up and down in an endless jitter, and I wondered if he still did cocaine. “Kayla. What are you doing here? Oh, here.” He handed me a stone cup of water, and I sipped: it was cold and tasted like the deep Earth.I gave him a wobbly smile. “I’m good at finding things. You — you and Carlotta — you showed me magic. Did you think I could just live without it?”He stuck his finger in his ear and twiddled it unselfconsciously. “Well, no. We thought we’d wait to recruit you until you finished grad school, when you had a good grounding in languages, but then we lost track of you, and . . .” He shrugged. “It’s been busy here. Our, ah, leader, I guess you’d say, the head of our order, he passed away suddenly, and the new boss has been running us ragged. Recruitment has been low on our list of priorities.” He smiled, all toothy goofiness, and I tried to think of him as a murderous mercenary who’d drained the blood from my school janitor for profit. It was hard. “You found us, though, huh? You are good.”I laid out the trail I’d followed — a totally plausible one concocted with Agapius’s help — tracing the Table through various rare texts, darknet websites, and inhuman sources of intel. I’d legitimately spent almost half a year hiking, hitchhiking, and teleporting around the magical underworld, following clues I knew would be just where I looked for them. The result was that I looked like a simply amazing tracker, and I could tell Sigmund was impressed.“I’d like to introduce you to my boss,” he said. “Let me make that happen.”An hour later I sat in a much larger stone room, looking across a rickety card table very much at odds with the chamber’s grandeur, at a young woman with ferocious eyes. She was called the New Doctor (I opted not to make a Doctor Who joke), and was the leader of the Table. “I’m told you can find things,” she said. “It’s fairly impressive that you found us, so I believe it. You want to join the Table?”“The only time my life felt real and important was when I helped Sigmund and Carlotta.” I shrugged. “I want to feel real and important all the time.”It was hard to focus on her face, because I could see a silver thread stretching through the air behind her, connected to the tome that Agapius wanted me to steal. He’d shown me a withered, severed hand — the hand that had written the book, apparently — and the connection was strong, the trail clear. Sigmund was lounging against the wall and the thread disappeared right into his chest.The New Doctor was talking about quests, and grails, and relics, and how I might be able to help them find something that could lead to something else that could lead to something else, and so on, until they found the ultimate object of their quest, but I wasn’t really listening. I kept looking toward the thread, and every time, I caught Sigmund looking at me.“Would you like a little tour?” the New Doctor said. “Sigmund tells me you’re interested in books and old texts.”“I’d love that.” Would this be that easy? I’d been prepared for deep cover, to live and work here for months if necessary. I felt a stab of guilt. Sigmund had initiated me into the world of magic, his colleague had taught me to become invisible, and now his boss was going to let me see their secrets. I was going to betray them, and work against them. Was this a job I wanted to do?I hardened my resolve, and reminded myself that Sigmund had lied: the janitor hadn’t come back.Sigmund beckoned and led me through doorways, following the path of the thread, though he didn’t know it. We passed row after row of bookshelves, and there were people working in the stacks, young and old, not sparkling in and out of existence like the researched at the Black Earth’s archive did.“Our librarians,” Sigmund said. “I was supposed to be a researcher like them — that’s really where my talents lie — but I wanted to be a field agent instead. I don’t regret it, but it’s not for everybody. I wonder if you’d like it? All that secret agent junk?”“I just want to learn,” I said. “And fix the broken world.”He nodded like I’d said something profound. “Come on, I’ll show you the rare book room. I mean, they’re all rare, but these are really rare.” He took a heavy keyring and opened an iron door, ushering me into a small room that held three shelves, one of gold, one of brass, and one of silver. Each held a handful of books and scrolls. . . . and the silver thread ran straight to a wooden scroll case halfway up the golden shelf.I had tiny stones in my pocket, enchanted with destructive magics and obscuring magics to hide their destructive powers, and I started to reach for them . . . when a man came around one of the shelves, pushing a broom.“Oh, look, an old friend of yours,” Sigmund said. “Well, an acquaintance, anyway.”I stared.“Hey.” He was older, but I recognized him, because I’d seen him on the most memorable day of my life: it was the janitor from my school. “Kayla, right? Sigmund said I might bump into you. Thanks for saving my life. For saving my soul. The things I was thinking about doing . . .” He shuddered. “You changed everything.” He smiled, then pushed his broom past me and on out of the room.I closed my eyes. I felt like everything was spinning.“So Kayla,” Sigmund said gently. “Remember when I said my power was suited to being a researcher? The thing about me is, I can look into the past. When you showed up at the door, I looked into your past, and I saw someone I recognized. Someone . . . well.” He reached out and touched the scroll connected to the silver thread. “Did he send you for this?”I nodded. “He said we needed it to make the world perfect.”“Oh, honey,” he said. “Oh, Kayla, you sweet kid.”“He calls himself Agapius? Ha.” Carlotta snorted. “A gaping asshole, more like.”“There is no organization called ‘the Black Earth.’” Sigmund said. We were sitting on overstuffed couches in some kind of lounge, far less austere and grand than everything else I’d seen at the Table’s headquarters.“But I saw other people . . . well, or flickers of them.”“Shades,” Sigmund said. “Enslaved spirits of the dead. The man you know as Agapius is a . . . well, not to sound ridiculous, but he’s a necromancer. He wants to rule the world, but not the living world. There are more dead people than living, even using a pretty strict definition of ‘people,’ and Agapius wants to . . . flip the poles of reality. Send the living into a shadowy underworld, and transform the Earth into a world of the dead.”“But why?”“Because he’s crazy as fuck and everyone he ever cared about has been dead for centuries, mainly,” Carlotta said. “That thing you came to steal is the last bit of magic he needs to make his nuthouse dreams come true.”“Look.” Sigmund unrolled the scroll I’d been sent to retrieve on the table. “Can you read this?”It was a jumble of languages, including a few non-human ones, but I was good at those, and I could make out most of it. A shadow empire . . . the graves pour forth . . . the dead usurp the living . . . I moaned. I thought of the magic Agapius had shown me: traveling through graveyards, speaking to ghosts, draining energy from the living around me to give myself strength. “Oh, no. Oh no, oh no, oh no. I didn’t . . . he told me . . . I’m so sorry.”“Don’t be sorry,” Carlotta said. “Fix it.”Sigmund glared at her. “You don’t have to, Kayla. You don’t have to do anything. But if you wanted to. . . . You could help.”Agapius had lied to me, and almost made me ruin the world. I gritted my teeth. “As long as helping hurts him.”I stumbled into the Archive with soot smeared on my face, and held out the scroll with trembling hands. “Here. I . . . it nearly . . . here.”Agapius smiled, and it wasn’t a nice smile. He snatched the scroll case out of my hands and removed the contents reverently. He gestured, and suddenly the room changed, illusions even my perception hadn’t penetrated falling away to reveal a great round chamber festooned with bones, candles, orbs, urns, dying vines, and unidentifiable objects that made my eyes water when I tried to look at them. “Oh, yes,” he cooed. “Oh, yes, this will do.”I stared around. “Agapius? What is this place?”“The throne room of my new kingdom.”“What — what are you talking about?”Some part of me, deep down, had held out hope that the Table was lying, and that Agapius was what he’d claimed to be. When he looked at me now, his face was changed: the flesh rotting and greenish, his teeth yellow and black. He was dead, or so connected to the dead he’d taken on their features. “You stupid girl. You were so easy to lead. Soon you’ll be in Hell with the rest of the living.”I started toward him, but two hooded figures materialized from the air. They grabbed me with hands that felt like icy wind, but were firm enough to hold me in place. Agapius stepped to the center of the chamber, held up the scroll, and began to intone the words written there.The words the New Doctor, herself a dab hand with strange languages, had written on an otherwise exact copy of the real scroll.Power gathered. Dark clouds swirled around Agapius, flickering with red lightnings. His voice rose as he neared the end of the incantation —And cut off abruptly when a magical cage, just large enough to contain him, appeared, its bars shimmering and opalescent. He screamed and shook the bars, then hissed, drawing his smoking hands back.The incantation had transported Sigmund and Carlotta here, too, and they sauntered in from the shadows. Carlotta pricked the spirits holding me with her talons and they vanished in puffs of smoke. Sigmund, limping a little, stood in front of Agapius’s cage and squinted at him. “Wow,” he said. “You have had a very long and very horrible life. I almost feel sorry for you.”“What happens now?” I said.Carlotta looked me up and down. “If it were up to me, we’d drop your ass back in Georgia and leave you to a life of boring mediocrity.” She shrugged. “But Sigmund convinced the New Doctor you were worth some trouble, so what happens next is . . . a job interview.” 6.   Junior Assistant LibrarianI sat curled up in one corner of the bed in the monastic cell at the Table’s headquarters, staring at nothing, thinking of the lies that had defined the last few years of my life. “I only wanted to make the world perfect.”“We . . . can’t do that.” Sigmund sat on a chair beside me. He sucked air in through his teeth. “Perfect? The idea sounds kind of terrible to me. In a perfect world, where do I fit in? I’m a total mess. But, Kayla . . . we can make the world better.”“How? What are you trying to do, really? Agapius told me you were mercenaries, but . . .”“Ah.” He looked past me for a moment. “The best lie has some truth at the heart. We do hire ourselves out, sometimes, but only to raise funds for our real purpose. The Table began as a religious order, but not a religion you’ve ever heard of. Our goal . . . we’re trying to track down God. Not Allah, or Zeus, or Jehovah — the forgotten God who made the world, and then turned and walked away from Its creation. We have some relics, though, and if you can follow the trail of those relics to some other relics, they might, eventually, lead us to something God touched Itself.”To touch something touched by someone who’d touched something touched by God? What a thing even that would be. “And what then?”“We believe, if we can find God, we can ask It questions . . . and compel Its answers.”I stared at him. “But . . . then we could know . . . we could understand . . .”Sigmund shrugged. “Everything.” He unleashed that toothy grin at me again. “Want to help?”I’ve worked here ever since, and hope to remain until the end of my life or the end of the world, whichever comes first.The post PodCastle 497: Six Jobs appeared first on PodCastle.


21 Nov 2017

Rank #10

Podcast cover

PodCastle 489: Emshalur’s Hand Stays

Author : Anaea Lay Narrator : Cian Mac Mahon Host : Summer Fletcher Audio Producer : Peter Wood PodCastle 489: Emshalur’s Hand Stays is a PodCastle original.Rated PG-13Emshalur’s Hand StaysBy Anaea LayI returned to Irishem with three sources of power: a letter from Kelian, a clear memory of why I left, and the space between my hands. The letter proved my right to enter as a citizen at the outer gate. It also got me past the boy keeping Kelian’s door when I arrived, though the house was closed for the evening. “Sealed save for family and Emshalur,” go the ritual words of denial.Though the boy gave me entrance into the hallway, I had another obstacle to pass before admittance to the hearth room. Before seeing Kelian again. A young woman with Kelian’s narrow eyes and full lips, but a flatter nose and a head of glossy curls, emerged from the depths of the house mere moments after the boy disappeared to fetch a member of the family. “Tyman says you have a letter to admit you. You will show it to me.”I handed her the narrow slip of paper. It still smelled of smoke and incense, the rusty brown text fading into the tan grain of the thin sheet. Emshalik blight. Come back. Such a short message, yet I could taste great depths of meaning in them. She grew up, she had a family, she loves them, she still doesn’t keep the faith. She’s still angry with me.“Who are you?” the woman demanded.Such a tricky question, so soon after meeting. “Kelian’s brother.”“Kelian has no brother.”“We shared no blood until after she left the womb but trust me, little niece, I speak the truth. Would she send such news outside the family?”Kelian’s eyes, distrustful, stared at me from the young woman’s face, but her lips curled with acquiescence. “Welcome to our hearth and home, and may Emshalur stay his hand while you visit, Uncle. I am Kelian Drurr.”Drurr. I tasted the name, savored the hints of Kelian’s life wrapped in it. I had assumed the woman was Kelian’s daughter, but I’d been gone longer than that; this was her granddaughter. Loved, cherished. No passion, but a quiet contentment. No adventure and romance for my dashing little Kelian, then. Perhaps that was for the best. “I embrace the warmth of your hearth,” I replied, and waited to see if she marked the part of the ritual I ignored. She did not.“Follow me.”Long years had passed since last I walked the hallway of Kelian’s home, and those years had visited like an artist, painting from a pallet of age and dust, filming the walls over with tidy, well-loved decay. Like the rest of Irishem. But the hearth room was still warm and bright. Kelian was there, in the matron’s place before the fire. Her hair, straight and black when last I saw her, was now wispy and gray, her skin covered in age spots. Oh, my poor Kelian, I would have spared you the blight of years if you’d let me.“Grandmama, Uncle has answered your summons.”Kelian answered with a short, impatient nod. Only then did I notice it, wrapped in black swaddling that neatly blended into the folds of Kelian’s mourning robes, the infant. “Leave us be, child. Uncle and I have much to discuss.”“Yes, Grandmama.” Drurr pressed her first two fingers to her lips, raised them to the room – a silent invocation of Emshalur’s blessing—then withdrew.“She keeps the faith?” I asked, surprised, and strangely gratified.“The whole of Irishem has turned faithful, these last years. And she has yet more cause.”“But not you,” I said.Kelian leaned forward, tilting the infant out so I could see its face, see the purple stain of an angry hand print across its face. The Emshalik blight. “And see how I am punished for it.”Sit quietly a moment and I’ll tell you a story. My gift is with beats and ballads, not simple tales, but this one I know well enough to share.In the middle of the river Irish’ur, where it runs widest and deepest, there is an island. Three cities rose on that island, each in turn drowned by the river sheltering them, rotted from beneath by the rage of a wet spring following a long, deep winter. The first was called Aklyne…but no, this is not the story of those cities. This is the story of Irishem.Irishem, blessed of Emshalur, beautiful beyond expression, practical beyond criticism, fierce, vibrant. You are the fourth city built in the isle of Irish’ur. The first to last.When the spring floods receded and the ruins of the third city, Talian, rose once more over the water, few of those who’d lived there remained. But those who remained were devoted, possessive, undaunted. They returned to their isle, determined to build again, and this time, to succeed. On the first night of summer, when the ruins had dried and the sun had baked the isle, they rowed out in boats and put the ruins to torch, condemning what had survived the flooding to death in this new disaster. These people would accept no part of what had failed before. They gave their city to the flame, and they ringed the isle, dancing and shouting their joy at the new beginning, their rage at the fury that had threatened them.Emshalur, god of the relentless beat, heard the drumming of their dance and he came. He watched them, enchanted by the grace of their bodies, and he was intrigued.Emshalur, god of the clapping hands, saw their fire, the sacrifice they made of their city, and he danced. He felt the pulse of their determination, and he had an idea.Emshalur, god of implacable time, tasted their dream in the air, and he offered. He took their isle between his hands, sheltering them against all catastrophe that would seek to find them.But no matter his love, his fascination, his devotion, Emshalur cannot be what he is not. The god of life’s rhythm must tap out his tune, must ferry all things from their beginnings to their ends. He might stay his hand, but it is only temporary, a pause, a rest, a delay. A stolen moment before the final beat.In the temple of Emshalur they take their tithes of days, offered up by the willing. For every true tithe given, for every day sincerely sacrificed without duress or expectation of reward, Irishem is granted another day within the shelter of Emshalur’s hands. So it has been since the fourth city rose over the waters of the Irish’ur, and never have flood waters touched it.But now, look up into Irishem’s wide open sky, and you see them: two hands, looming, ready to clap.Emshalur no longer accepts his tithes, and Irishem’s time is coming due.“It is not to punish you, Kelian,” I said. I reached for the infant, but she pulled away. At first I though she was afraid of me, but then I saw the tightness in her lips, the way her brow pulled down over her eyes. Not frightened. Angry. Not the old anger, either, though it was certainly still there. Fresh and raw and coated in her grief, this new anger stung me fresh.“Then whom? Drurr? She was born in this house and yet she remained faithful.”“No, Kelian.” Kelian, Kelian, Kelian. I let her name roll through me, drumming out the memories that wanted so badly to carry me away. She summoned me there and I was determined to be there for her. I had not realized how old she must be, how close I’d come to missing her entirely. My little sister, my dancing girl, my precious Kelian, nearly passed beyond my grasp forever, and I wouldn’t have seen her again.Tears glistened in her eyes, her voice cracked with anger and age. “The child, then? He gave offense from the womb?”“It is not a punishment.”“Then take it away,” Kelian said.“No.”“My great-grandson. The fourth generation, in the fourth city. I’ve seen the sky. I know what this is.”I went to her and dropped to my knees, put my hands on hers. “Don’t borrow the language of the faithful now, Kelian. Emshalik blight is their name for it. That’s not what it is. You know that. Have you forgotten? You can’t have forgotten.”She didn’t answer me. Instead, she seized a bell by her hand and rang it so hard the infant in her arms woke with an angry howl. A moment later the boy who met me at the door came in. “Tyman, show my brother to the rooms we prepared for him.”I let the boy lead me away. My hands clutched at my robes and I clenched my teeth. I knew before I returned that it would hurt. To see my beloved city in crisis, how could I expect anything else? To feel Kelian’s anger and rejection so close again, of course it would tear me open once more. But though I’d known what it would be, I nearly suffocated when faced with it. I hoped the boy Tyman would linger with me a while, give my grief time to pass before I was left alone with it. But he stayed at the door and then, with a hasty, “Emshalur stay his hand for your sleep,” he fled.I clenched my fists all the harder. And then, because the house was closed for the night and I would not be permitted out the door, I slipped through the window and dropped down to the street.Irishem, lovely Irishem. I missed you while I was away. Your blood flows in my veins, just as Kelian’s does. Time has been a meticulous artist, chipping away at your stone blocks, weaving you a cloak of tarnish and dust. But your sky is just as high and wide, the pattern of stars overhead barely shifted. Looking up, my vision is filled with graceful spires and inky black night. And the hands, of course. Irishem, I have loved you, stayed true to you, even while I was away. Why didn’t you do the same?The steps up to the temple were worn before I left, sagging at the middle where the crowds tread, and in the dark I didn’t see evidence anything had changed in my absence. It was still the most glorious, imposing structure built by mortal hand, the stones polished and shined until the walls reflected even the meager starlight into a soft glow. As I entered the temple my hands relaxed, calm at my sides for the first time since I entered Irishem.“Emshalur, we implore you, stay your hand against destruction. We offer you our tithes of days, given by the willing, expecting nothing else in return. Let us continue to please you. Let us continue to love you. Love us, Emshalur, and we will dance for you yet more.”There are always services happening at the temple to Emshalur. The metronome god does not stop, and neither can the worship dedicated to him. I let the chanting wash over me, let it flow through me. I had missed this, the communion, the bonding to mutual purpose. Irishem is a doomed city, constantly thwarting its fate, and nowhere else do they cherish the rhythm of life than in a place chronically confronted by its inevitable termination. And with the hands looming overhead, Irishem was all too aware of what it was.I passed an hour there before any priest paid me enough mind to recognize me. I pressed my finger to my lips, silencing him, when I caught his expression. Then, with my other hand, I gestured for him to come forward and speak with me.“You have returned!” he said, his voice quavering with excitement.“I was summoned by one I could not deny,” I replied.“Then we are saved. You will stay your hands.”I shook my head. “That I will not do.”The priest seemed to crumble into himself, his rounded face going taut and tense in response to my refusal.“Do you still have a votive altar?” I asked.The priest nodded, then led me off to the side of the temple, where a series of small rooms dedicated to the different aspects of Emshalur were built from green marble. Past those, we turned a corner and found ourselves in the tithe room. A circle of priests stood before the gong as a line of tithers went up to them. Each tither cut open their palm with a dagger and let the blood spill into a low, wide basin cut from rough soapstone. Then the priests hit the gong. One day offered, one day longer for Irishem. That is, if Emshalur accepted the tithe.The offered days brushed against me like pebbles. Dusty and soiled and tainted in purpose. I paid them no heed. The answering chime never came. Had not come since just before I left.Before the altar were rows of low benches. I knelt before one, pulled a votive candle from my pockets, sat it on the bench and lit it. The gong rang out. I could taste fear and desperation in the sound. With as many tithes as the temple collected every day, Irishem should be secure for centuries. Emshalur’s hands loomed over the city and soon, they would clap the final beat of the city’s existence.“You would make an offering?” the priest asked, confusion twisting his features like a dishrag.“There are words I would send away from me,” I replied. “In solitude.”The priest nodded, pressed two fingers against his lips in blessing, and withdrew.“Emshalik blight. Come back.” Kelian’s note. Delivered to me in a cloud of smoke and incense, summoning me back to the city who broke my heart, who turned tithes into an obligation for citizenship and trapped my Kelian. I set the edge of the paper into the flame of the candle, sending it on, past the reach of Emshalur’s hands, to the place where all things end. It was what proved my right to be there, to enter Kelian’s hearth room, but I could not bear the anger and accusation wrapped up in the words. So I sent them away from me forever.Two sources of power remained to me.I broke my fast in the hearth room the next morning, watching with relish as the house was thrown open to accept daylight and strangers. There was no sign of Kelian, either that she’d been there or was likely to come. The boy, Tyman, served me in silence, his eyes barely ever raising to look on me. A small swarm of tiny mosquitoes wended their way in through the open windows. One hovered over my breakfast plate. I watched it a moment, listening to the buzz of its flight through the air, opening myself to its search for blood and nourishment. Then I clapped it between my hands, crushing it.Tyman flinched.“You need not fear me,” I said.“Yes, Uncle,” the boy replied, but he still didn’t look at me.“Grandmama is up and ready, Tyman,” Drurr said as she breezed into the room, infant in arms. “Go see to her. I’ll tend to Uncle.”The boy fled the room. I watched him go, reluctant to stare too openly at the babe though I was hungry to see my youngest nephew. I sensed none of Kelian’s anger in Drurr, but the wound of Kelian’s rejection was still fresh from the night before. “May I take the child?” I asked.She hesitated, then offered him to me. He was still quite young. Three weeks passed between Kelian’s summons and my arrival. She could barely have waited from the discovery of the mark to her summons. It was an impulse, then, not a considered decision. An impulse she seemed to regret now. I pushed the swaddling away from the child’s head, let my fingers trace the purple mark over his face.“Do you believe yourself punished?” I asked.“Not personally, no. The blight strikes many. Irishem has failed and we are all punished for it.”I shook my head. “It should never have taken that name. It is not a blight, child. It is a distinction. He is chosen of Emshalur.”“He cannot tithe.”Citizenship in Irishem is offered to all who tithe time from their lives, however little of it, to the city. Citizenship in Irishem is offered only to those who make a tithe.Those bearing the purple hand of Emshalur will not have their tithes accepted. The god has marked their days as too precious to him to be spent on the preservation of Irishem. Most flee the city before they are sixteen.“He cannot waste a portion of his life on preserving a cursed city and a corrupt people. All of his days will be his.”“Irishem is the greatest city of the world and he has the misfortune to be born to it, and denied it as no pilgrim or foreigner ever could be,” Drurr countered.I looked down into the face of my little nephew. He had his mother’s nose. Kelian’s mouth was gone. Most of his physiognomy must be credited to his father. “What do you call him?”“Why name the damned? I will raise him for his exile, and I will send him away. He will not be burdened by ties to a home he cannot have.”Emptiness in the air where his name should be. I let it roll through me, ran the taste of it over my tongue. A pause, a rest, a pregnant moment in the rhythm of his life. And in that space, the boy’s fate matched another’s: Irishem.I looked up from nephew to niece and saw Kelian’s eyes piercing me, staring me down. Drurr knew what she’d done when she denied her child a name. She knew it, and she sat there daring me to protest. “Grandmama says you could remove the mark, but you refuse.”“Did she tell you why?” I asked.“I don’t need a why. I am faithful. His father was faithful.” Her two fingers tapped her collar bone, a blessing for those who’ve passed beyond the reach of Emshalur’s hand. “The city is faithful. I need nothing, Uncle, save the reward owed to faith.”Irishem, my city of the pause, of the sheltered rest between beats. My precious nephew, child of the pause, city’s avatar. Your mother tied the one to the other and stared me down. Hers was not Kelian’s rage, but I was just as helpless to answer it.“Emshalur is a slave to the rhythms that drive him, to the inevitable. Obligation is anathema to him. There is no reward that can be demanded in exchange for faith.”“Then perhaps it is time for Emshalur to reevaluate what is inevitable.”I don’t mean to be cruel. I don’t look for pity. I would tell you, if I could, the story of Kelian and the dancing god. But to reach for that story, even with time enough to erode Kelian’s youth, brings me too close to my breaking. Kelian was chosen of Emshalur and when she, a girl of eight dancing at the summer bonfire for the first time, caught his eye, their friendship was immediate.And later, when they shared blood, it was made lasting.But Kelian could not tithe. Could not become a citizen of Irishem. Not even to rescue her father from bankruptcy and escape service in a Flower House.I can give you only a moment, from that tale. The one that comes after the god wounds himself to remove the mark from the girl, then stands in his temple. He stands unnoticed on the side as the knife flashes, pierces her skin. He makes himself watch as her blood falls and she offers a day of her life, precious beyond measure, to Irishem. His body vibrates with the sound of the priest’s gong. Always, up to then, the gong was answered by the chime, a call and response that together picked out the tune of Irishem’s protection.This is how you break a god.The priest’s gong sounded, and the chime did not answer. One beat. Two. A full measure.“I’m sorry, child,” the priest says to Kelian. Blood still drips where the knife cut her.She turns to her friend, her brother, the unnoticed god watching from the wings and shaking with the sound of an offering he cannot take. An offering made not of her own free will, but to protect another. To save herself. Her tithe was an obligation met.“He did not hear. Sound it again,” Kelian says, turning to the priest.“You were blighted,” the priest says.Kelian seizes the knife, makes another cut. Offers a week. A month. A year. And when the priest does not move, she rings the gong herself.Stop. Kelian, stop.The chime answers.Emshalur breaks.I have wondered, in these years since, what the priests and acolytes found in the place where Emshalur stood that day. What flesh and matter remained of a god shattered by turning so far against his nature that he swallowed the poison of a tainted tithe to spare his little sister her grief and pain. Did they have any clue, any sense of his rage at them, for creating the situation? His horror, at discovering the price of his sacrifice?I have not been coy. I’ve not been deceptive. Emshalur lost himself the day his tithing gong refused to ring. He fled his city in despair because he could do nothing else. Death is beyond him, and the rhythm he’ll allow Irishem is funereal.I had no answer for Drurr. She knew Kelian was born with a mark she no longer bore. Drurr could not understand why that would never happen again. None could. They looked to the sky and they saw Irishem’s fate looming over it. They didn’t see the cracks, the pain, the exile that lay behind it. Kelian saw only hesitation, reluctance to follow through on my promise, followed by abandonment.“Do you dance?” I asked Drurr.She leaned forward, her eyes sharp upon me. “At festivals.”I pressed the babe close to my chest, tasted the stillness around him. “No other time?”Kelian’s familiar frown painted itself across her granddaughter’s face. Two fingers to the collar bone. “Nights, my husband and I would dance in the roof garden.”“Dance is sacred to Emshalur. It gives him strength, guides him.”I don’t know what I hoped for or what I meant, but it was all I had to offer. It was what Kelian understood the first time she recognized Emshalur. She danced with him, spinning madly, but with purpose. Nudging the rhythms of the summer and their affection until he broke himself apart to save her. And she never understood why it failed. All who now speak of service to Emshalur do so in terms of obligation. They are taught to fail.I did not leave the house all through that day, but sat instead in the hearth room, waiting, hoping. Kelian did not come. Tyman saw to my needs, Drurr bustled about, seeing to the business of the house and child. I waited, alone, hands pressed to my knees. The heat was stifling but I did not budge. I could feel myself breaking apart anew. I shouldn’t have returned. Now that I had, I shouldn’t have stayed. I could not give them what they wanted, what they needed. I was naught but the broken pieces of a god they’d failed utterly to understand.Though, they understood some things.A nameless child trapped in the same moment as the city he could not protect. Blood of my sister’s blood. Avatar.That night I was drawn to the roof and I followed, hoping to find Kelian. But it was Drurr, her hair falling loose, her child clutched to her breast. She swayed under the moonlight, humming to the babe. I stood in the shadows and watched her. The air prickled my skin, growing tense and electric. Her feet began to move. Her body twisted. My breath caught in my chest. There was no music, no drums, just the pulse of unsheltered night in Irishem and Drurr was falling into it. She whirled, the heavy fabric of her clothes flaring about her, the child cooing, the rhythm pinning me in my place even as I longed to join her. She abandoned herself to the beat and in that moment I was myself again, ecstatic, powerful, a young boy merrily ferrying all that is mortal along their paths with relentless, joyous verve. I came back to myself, trembling and potent, and as she paused for breath, I broke loose of the web just enough to step forward, revealing myself.And then I tasted it, her hope, her expectation. She’d known I was there. It wasn’t a devotion at all, but a performance.  A hope for her son. She reached out, offering him to me. I was trapped, newly returned to myself. But it could not last, for the path Drurr created was a false one. And yet, the boy, my nephew, the only chance for my city…Kelian’s blood went cold in my veins, stopped flowing, turned sour. She was dead, just then. I sank to my knees, falling all to pieces once more, frightened that now I’d never find my way back.Drurr had known. These were her grandmother’s last moments, and she’d traded them to come to the rooftop and lure me away from my path. To bring me back to myself so I might break once more upon the gong of an insincere tithe.“The boy’s mark is as far from my reach as Kelian,” I said. My heart broke for the little sister I hadn’t saved and would never again see. Kelian was gone, and my last moments with her were a fresh rejection. I can’t even press my fingers to my collarbone, for the dead are beyond my reach to bless.“Then what good are you to us?” Drurr asked.“I love you.”“Love comes with obligation, else it is not love.”She pushed past me and withdrew into the house.I slumped to the ground, felt the cold, dead presence of Kelian’s blood, tasted the path it took as it left my realm and passed on to the next realm.My dancing girl.If there is no love without obligation, then I broke myself the moment I chose to love Irishem and all this time has just been a feint, a false coda.Or I did not love Irishem, not truly, until the moment I understood its betrayal.I went to Kelian’s funeral a creature unmade. Drurr had brought me to myself for a moment, and when I fell back to my pieces it was as something different. Kelian’s blood left me, and took with it some of the damage done to me.They burn the dead in Irishem, and they dance around the fire.My dancing girl was gone from me, but her leaving gave me pure dance, for at a funeral there is only grief and the escaping of it. The dead have no expectations to fulfill. The mourners circled and stomped and gave themselves to the rhythm. I melted into it, my hands loose at my sides, and then I joined them. I had nothing left. No paper to invite me, no memories to banish me. Just the space between my hands and the knowledge that I was broken and my city’s time had come.The air was thick with the notes of Kelian’s life, the years I’d never seen and never shared. The mourners dissolved into their grief, and I used them to pave my way to her, to turn the beat of her final departure into an overture to the life she’d had without me.“Your hands stretch over the city,” her ghost said when I reached it, the last vestige of her as it fled beyond my reach on the smoke of her pyre.“The time has come. The pause is over,” I told her.“It was never a fair bargain,” her ghost said. “Only death is free from obligation. Our doom frees us. Our freedom obliges us to it.”“Yes. I understand that now.” She wavered in the smoke, this last trace of her. She was eight again, as young and fierce as the day I’d met her. I reached out my hand. “Will you dance with me, little sister?”“I’ve no veins to hold your blood, no blood to fill your veins.”“True. But you will be my sister so long as any part of you still answers the beat.”“You will care for him, then?” she asked.I nodded my assent.She took my hands, smiled as her hair caught the breeze, and we danced.Her pyre burned down, the last embers smoking as the sun rose. The other dancers had long since collapsed from exhaustion, and not even her ghost remained to me. But I still had some piece of her, as my feet carried me across the bridge spanning the Irish’ur and through the city gates. I doubt Drurr understood what she did when she handed her son to me, pressing her two fingers to her lips in blessing as she departed to bed. It will not matter for long.Do you see it there, my little nameless nephew, in the distance? The spires rising gracefully into the sky, the great pyramid temple to Emshalur at the center? That’s Irishem, the fourth city to rise on that isle. I am giving you its name, and now your fates are no longer bound.  Look at your namesake. See how it fills the space between my hands?Now, hear me clap.The post PodCastle 489: Emshalur’s Hand Stays appeared first on PodCastle.

26 Sep 2017

Rank #11

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PodCastle Miniature 101: National Geographic on Assignment: The Unicorn Enclosure

Author : Sarah Monette Narrator : Jen R. Albert Host : Jen R. Albert Audio Producer : Peter Wood National Geographic on Assignment: The Unicorn Enclosureby Sarah MonetteIn the unicorn enclosure, all five unicorns are clustered along the fence, batting their long eyelashes beguilingly at a troop of girl scouts. The girls ooh and aah and argue about which one is prettiest, and the unicorns trail them patiently down the perimeter line.These unicorns are captive-born (two from San Diego, one from Brookyn, one from Mexico City, and the stud all the way from Manchester in an attempt to maintain genetic diversity in North America’s captive breeding program); they’ve never hunted anything but sides of beef. But they’re too smart not to recognize their natural prey, even through plexiglas. The zoologists call the behavior I’m witnessing “playing,” in the same way a domestic cat “plays” with a mouse. Seen from the mouse’s standpoint, it’s not much of a game.Unlike cats, unicorns seduce their prey. And evolution has brought them prey that wants to be seduced.Even with FOIA, it’s hard to find accurate statistics on unicorn-related injuries and deaths. People don’t report them properly, the zoologists say, in the same way that battered spouses often don’t report their abusers. And it’s not just preadolescent girls, not just preadolescent boys, although certainly children who have not reached puberty are more vulnerable. One of the women whose portraits I took this week was the daughter of a man gored by a wild unicorn while hiking in Yellowstone. “Dad was too smart for that,” she told me grimly. “He was too smart for that, and it got him anyway.”Some people say unicorns are the planet’s smartest predators. Some people say they’re smarter than human beings.I must make some kind of motion, even though I’m not aware of it, because suddenly the boss mare’s head shoots up. She’s from Mexico; the blood of the conquistadores makes the spiraled groove of her horn deeper than is common in American or Canadian unicorns. Her head is beautiful, gently dished and short muzzled, her eyes large and dark and soft as smothering velvet. Even knowing what I know, even knowing that she would gore me for fun although I’m too old for her to bother eating, I feel the pull of her beauty, the pull that has the girl scouts wide-eyed and open-mouthed — the same pull that lures an ant into a Venus fly-trap.The Mexican mare tosses her head, frustrated that she can’t smell me through the plexiglas; her mane whips in the soft breeze like the pennons of a conquering army. One of the girls, entranced, reaches out to try to touch, forgetting the plexiglas, forgetting what she must surely know, that the beauty she longs for is nothing but death.All five unicorns lock on that outstretched hand, the stud’s lip lifting just enough for his teeth to gleam, vicious behind the delicate beauty of his face.I take a deep breath — emerging from the dream I’ve been sharing with the ten- and eleven-year-old girls who can’t tear themselves away from the unicorn enclosure — and take the picture.The post PodCastle Miniature 101: National Geographic on Assignment: The Unicorn Enclosure appeared first on PodCastle.


1 Dec 2017

Rank #12

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PodCastle Miniature 100: Seven Things That Oughtn’t Cut Me

Author : Jessi Cole Jackson Narrator : Dagny Paul Host : Jen R. Albert Audio Producer : Peter Wood Content Warning: Self-harm/suicideSeven Things That Oughtn’t Cut MeBy Jessi Cole JacksonThey say troll girls appear only in brilliant shades of armored green. Their skin is faceted, unpierceable, and gleams in the sunlight like emeralds. They say we cannot be drab or fragile. They say we cannot bleed.If only.1. A volleyball, round and hurtling. I jump to smack it down and a jagged edge of the plastic air hole catches the skin of my palm. It tears. I wipe the smeared blood on the spandex of my shorts, already damp from sweat.2. Rhys, smelling of rum and cheetos. He kisses my sore hand, before moving to my arm, then neck, then mouth. His kisses are sloppy, wet and sticky, but he is a golden fae boy and I am a greenish troll girl, so I let him keep kissing until he blacks out. When he comes to, we emerge from our kissing closet, and no one believes he hasn’t just had me, we were away from the party for so long. He smirks and let them keep their beliefs. I smile at the secret we share.The next day he ignores me, brushing past in the hall.3. A perfect score in French. I move to tuck the successful quiz away, before the others see and mock me. Troll girls shouldn’t be so smart, but here I am doing twice as well as my kin. In my haste to hide the quiz, the edge of the paper grazes my wrist. I hiss at the sharp pain of the small cut, then dab away the tiny dots of bubbled blood.4. Gwendolyn, sharing a secret. She tells her faery sisters that I hide my mother’s locket, embedded with a single onyx stone, in the toe of a crumpled sock in my locker while at practice. The thieves steal the necklace, melt it down, and reset the stone. Gwen wears a 24-karat blob with a tiny onyx bit around her neck, proof of her wealth and nature. She shrugs when I accused her and does not care that she lost me.5. Pebbles at the zoo. I speed past the zebra enclosure, dodging a happy, shining family of vibrant green trolls. My mind loops at the last time I was at the zoo with my class. We were still children. The others compared me to a crocodile. Dull, olive skin, bumpy and hard. I veer too close to the edge of the path, trip on a stick, and fall. Gravel tears through my pants, then the skin of my knee, but I jump up and resume running. My leggings soak up the blood.6. My mother’s note. She left for the airport, booked a flight for the old country. She cannot stand cohabitation with the short-lived mortal any longer, in this world where fae and human and trolls mix. She leaves me behind with my human father, believing I am more like him than her. He is the reason my skin is more moss than emerald. He is the reason I grow too quickly, age too fast. He is the reason I am weak. She cannot stand the thought of watching me die in a short eighty years, so she left before becoming attached.7. A safety pin. Gripped in my hand, one hard-pressed swipe and Mom disappears from my swirling, ceaseless thoughts. Another, for Gwen. One for Dad, two for Rhys, more for school and maturing and failures. I carve into the flesh of my thigh and hush the chaos inside me. I am nothing but a moment and a small, controlled throb. And I am at peace.Until I finish. And then I rub my torn flesh with alcohol, cover it with a bandaid and crumple, more broken than ever before.They say troll girls’ thick, impenetrable skin mirrors our thick, impenetrable souls. They say our hearts cannot be pierced with sorrow or slashed by pain or torn by uncertainty. They say we cannot bleed.If we cannot bleed, we cannot heal.But beneath the bandaid I wear proof that I can.The post PodCastle Miniature 100: Seven Things That Oughtn’t Cut Me appeared first on PodCastle.


14 Nov 2017

Rank #13

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PodCastle 596: The Satyr of Brandenburg — Part 1

Author : Charlotte Ashley Narrator : Summer Fletcher Host : Matt Dovey Audio Producer : Peter Adrian Behravesh Discuss on Forums Originally published in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, March-April 2018.Rated PG-13.The Satyr of BrandenburgBy Charlotte AshleyBy 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.


15 Oct 2019

Rank #14

Podcast cover

PodCastle 522: Extinctions

Author : Lina Rather Narrator : Summer Fletcher Host : Summer Fletcher Audio Producer : Peter Adrian Behravesh Discuss on Forums Originally published in Shimmer Magazine in March 2017.Rated R.ExtinctionsBy Lina RatherYour mother taught you three things, up in the great white wilderness, before she went and shot that man: How to kill an animal quickly and mercifully. How to kill the veiled things that prowl in the shadows at the edge of your vision. These are harder and faster beasts, but they all fall like deer in the end, and that’s the best advice your mother could have given you. How to sew and mend the veil of the world so the secret things cannot escape. Truthfully, this was your grandmother’s teaching, but your mother would have taken credit for the sun, had God not claimed it first. After your mother went to prison, you stayed with your grandmother, and after she died in her sleep, you went to the city. Odd girls on their own in the city come to bad ends, but you come from a long line of people who made their livings fixing and killing, and that sort of work never goes out of style. These days you have work that suits you better, in a tattoo shop in the low-rent part of the city where you spend most of your days doing flash and sweethearts’ names.Sometimes you take the kind of job your mother and grandmother did. You never wanted a legacy — the second sight, or the power in your blood — but they might as well go to good use, so long as you don’t make a habit of it. Your mother fought monsters under a hundred skies, and look where it got her. You’ve seen ghosts and you’ve seen demons, and you’ve killed a thousand monsters, but unlike your mother, you don’t make a life out of it, or so you tell yourself.Hell, you’ve even got yourself a girlfriend these days who makes you dinner and tells you you’ve got pretty eyes, which is more than your bastard, runaway father ever gave your mother. You met her when you tattooed her from the cut of her pelvis to her collarbone, from scapula all the way around to breastbone. As it turns out, six 6-hour sessions is a lot of time to get to know each other. It’s your best work, and you say this because it’s true, not because it’s on your girlfriend. The tattoo covers up a mess of other work — another girl’s name (one you’ve never asked about); a vinyl record drawn by someone with a nervous tic; the band name of a no-hit wonder. She’s got your picture on her keychain, between a bottle opener and pepper spray.Maybe you love her and maybe you don’t, but you think it doesn’t matter yet.So when the red-haired woman comes, you’ve got something to lose. It isn’t like when you were alone and ready to tear open the throat of any monster that crossed your path. You got sick of sleeping on other people’s couches by twenty-two; now there’s a lease, and groceries. Monster hunting and exorcisms don’t pay the bills (and look at where that got your mother).The red-haired woman is beautiful. You know the instant she comes through the door that she isn’t here for a tattoo or another set of earrings. She wears a petitioner’s grimace, determined and sick, and she knows which tattooist you are without having to ask.“I’m here for help,” she says, and out of her breast pocket comes one of your mother’s cards. If she’s got one of those cards, she must be older than she looks. But people aren’t what they seem, and time is rarely anything but an illusion.“I don’t honor old bargains,” you tell her, though you’ve never turned anyone away. There’s a stack of your mother’s cards tucked away under lacy bras you never wear, and another in the urn that your girlfriend thinks holds your grandmother’s ashes. The jobs were mostly small, ridding houses of wailing ghosts or putting curses to rest. Killing small beasts, with words or blades, whatever fits the task. Your mother handed out cards to anyone who accidentally pierced the veil. Magic, she told you, spreads like a disease, with one impossible thing breeding another. Best to call in professional eradication, which, these days, comes down to just you. You suppose there must be others out there — there were monsters up in Juneau, and there are monsters down here below the 49th, so it stands to reason that they’re everywhere else too — but you’ve never met one.The woman smiles. “I never struck a bargain. I was told to ask for help if I needed it.”“I only take cash.” You intend it as a joke, but she takes a stack of twenties from her purse and sets it on the table between you. It’s thick as your thumb, and that’s got to be a month’s rent, at least. Of every strange thing you’ve ever seen in your lifetime, this might just top them, and the weight of it feels more like a bribe than a payment for services rendered. She smiles as though reassuring a child before an unpleasant procedure.“I have no one else to turn to,” she says.“There must be someone else.”“Who?”You shrug. Probably someone just as lonely and silent as your life in Juneau, when it was you and your mother and your grandmother in a trailer out at the edge of what could still charitably be called the city. The heater in the trailer wasn’t enough to beat back the frost, and when you went to elementary school you realized that your bedtime stories were not the same as everyone else’s. You’ve a hard time imagining an extrovert doing this job. One month’s rent. Either she’s desperate or she’s got an ulterior motive, but her money’s good either way.When you tell your girlfriend you’re leaving, she’s standing in front of your bathroom mirror, twisting her hair into box braids. Packs of extensions sit at her elbow and she’s only just begun, so it’ll be hours before she’s finished. Her left eye twitches as her fingers work through a section of hair she can’t quite see over the crown of her skull.This is unfair of you. This is what she does when her dissertation isn’t going well or when the jackass at her lab has been making snide jokes about women in biology again. For a woman who rails against new-age bullshit in all its iterations, this is a kind of meditation. Her attention isn’t on you. This is how you get away with it.“Is there a convention I forgot about?” she asks. “You’re supposed to come with me to dinner. That guy I told you about — he’ll be there. The one from Yale.”The man from Yale. The golden ticket. Groundbreaking work on eurypterids. Your girlfriend’s specialty is extinct Mesothelae, but apparently the two are related. You wouldn’t know a Mesothelae from a Mesopotamian, had you not inked one on her arm in honor of her thesis defense. The dinner is important, especially in this job market, but you’ve never known how to make a good impression on purpose, and the only extinctions you can speak on are the ones you brought about yourself.“You’ll still be here when I get back?” you ask when you’ve packed.She laughs. “This won’t take me that long, I hope. If I don’t answer the phone tonight, send help.”You don’t explain what you actually meant.These are the stories your mother told you about why she shot that man, some in letters, and some in person, and some you put together yourself: She was losing her sight. She thought he was a wolf. (She hit a ten-point buck from a hundred paces the day before, right between the ribs. Your grandmother made a stew from the offal.) He was stalking her, and it was self-defense. (You had never seen him before, nor heard his name, and when you looked up the city he was from it was one your mother never mentioned visiting). He was possessed, a monster and not a man, and her job was to kill such things. (The autopsy showed no sign he was a monster, and ghosts don’t move through blood and bone without leaving evidence of their passage. There was neither scarring in the stomach, nor the image of a hand clenched around the heart.) It was an accident. She was half-drunk and fired the rifle just for fun. She didn’t know there was anything but birds in the woods. It was private property; he shouldn’t have been there. (For all her faults, she never would have been so stupid.) The truth, probably: this life made her paranoid, and when she saw movement out in the woods she thought of all the biting, scarring, killing things it could have been, picked up the rifle and pulled the trigger before she saw it was a hiker and nothing more. (She told you this through gritted teeth, and only in pieces. No truth like this is easy. This, you can bring yourself to believe, only because it hurt her to tell it.)Juneau is much like you remember. It’s a good thing the red-haired woman didn’t mention where she lived before you agreed to go because you might have refused out of spite. You fly in at four a.m. but it’s already light out and the blinding, sleepless summers of your childhood all come back to you at once. You’re still blinking stupidly at the anachronistic sun when the red-haired woman appears in a Land Rover.She’s a storyteller, which wouldn’t be so bad if you weren’t punch-drunk tired with your knees aching from the airplane seats.“Your mother saved me once,” she says, while she drives you down once-familiar roads. There were days you wandered this town in a pack of equally dispossessed children, all odd and outcast, causing trouble with cheap vodka and matches. Now the capitol building shocks you, appearing on a street you didn’t expect, like a phantom. “I was fourteen. Lonely. Though everyone here is lonely in December. You’ve noticed that, right? Everyone in Alaska is sad in winter. Without the sun.”You nod and try to remember which road leads to your grandmother’s grave.“Fourteen and lonely,” she says. “I went to the ocean at night without my dog. I don’t know what I was doing. No — I was looking for trouble, and I think I would’ve found it even without him.” She swallows, coughs. Truths hurt the throat. “He was waiting for me in the waves. He looked like a boy I liked at school, but his brown eyes were even more beautiful. Like river rocks. Like sandstone. It was only when I saw his claws that I realized the truth, and there was no getting away then. I was already ankle-deep. But your mother came out of the trees and ran down the sand and slit his throat before I could even scream. He turned back into an otter when he hit the water. I still see things I shouldn’t, even though he didn’t drown me to make me one of them. Ghosts, sometimes. Other creatures if I watch. On blue moons I dream futures. He touched my soul, your mother said, and no one comes back from that the same.”“Kushtaka.” After all these years, you still remember what people fear, up here in the white. You close your eyes and imagine the girl on the pebbled beach with the freezing water soaking her tennis shoes, the thing that wasn’t a boy beckoning her in.After you’ve slept nearly all day, she takes you to the window and points down the road, towards West Juneau and Mt. Troy. She lives above downtown, in a little house painted teal that perches on the fat feet of Mt. Roberts. When you and your girlfriend went to San Francisco last summer, the Painted Ladies reminded you of this hill, all these brightly colored houses standing out like lighthouses in the snow. Your girlfriend laughed at this and said that the Painted Ladies were happy things, not the only sparks of color in an unforgiving wilderness. You suppose this is true, but seeing Juneau again makes you remember watching these houses glow in a midnight summer sunset.The red-haired woman points again, and now you see him standing in a copse of old pines just beyond the turn in the road. He’s got a man’s body and he wears a nondescript suit. Even his eyes are human, until you see that they never are the same eyes twice. His mouth gives him away entirely — it’s sewn shut with twine, weeping blood down his chin and neck. He doesn’t act like he’s in pain, but pain means little to things that are not men.“I see him everywhere.” The red-haired woman whispers, as though she thinks he can hear. “In the supermarket. Following me down the street. Outside my bedroom window.”“That’s what they do.” You speak more curtly than you intended, but right now you are imagining all the ways this not-a-man can hurt you when you try to kill it.“What is it?” She’s gripping the windowsill now.You lean into the glass and the thing’s eyes flick to you for an instant before they return to the red-haired woman. You are not what it wants. “It’s a guilt-eater. It licks your soul until you kill yourself.” Some lost familiar of Anubis maybe, adapted to the New World. That was your grandmother’s story, but you have no way to know if her theories are true.You noticed the fresh cuts on the red-haired woman’s inner arms on the drive up the mountain and the way her hands shook. Like the others, the haunting has hollowed her out.“This is an old house. Could it be mistaking me for someone else?”Guilt-eaters don’t work that way, but you leave it. “It doesn’t matter. I can kill it.”You’ve brought your mother’s weapons and your grandmother’s tools. The grimoire and cup, the needle and sinew, the silver bullets and the familiar revolver, and the short sword. The sword weighs oddly at your hip and unsteadies your gait. You haven’t worn it since you were eighteen, on your own and alone, catching myths in the darkness for money. You don’t know why you brought it, except that it’s been a long time and you wanted to be prepared. You could’ve bought a hunting knife once you arrived instead of checking your luggage, but the sword feels right in your hand.You keep it all in a box shaped like a trumpet case. There’s a rose burned into the oak shell. Your grandmother said that in Latin, sub rosa symbolizes secrecy. Monks and politicians met under rose murals to swear each other to silence, and now half your life is spent under the rose. You stuff the case back into your suitcase.As the red-haired woman watches, you strip down to a sports bra and shorts that cling to the long-unused muscles in your legs. Your mother wore a flak jacket, but you’ve always preferred freer movement to cumbersome armor. The tattoos that ring your arms from wrist to collarbone shine in the darkness, supplications to a hundred gods written on your skin. You don’t believe in gods, not really, but you believe in precautions and in beauty, and these are both. Magic is about intent and effort anyway, and you’ve poured years of pain and exertion into these spells. The red-haired woman averts her eyes, like you’re something profane.Fog shrouds the guilt-eater. The pack swings heavy on your back. You drop the revolver and the bullets to shed some weight and take up your sword. The guilt-eater bends its knees to fight.It snarls and hits you with a wave of all the bad things you have ever done, from stealing an extra cookie after bedtime when you were six, to kissing that woman with the lovely hands at a party two months ago while your girlfriend was in Asia digging up sea scorpions. The guilt-eater shows you yourself, shiftless girl, adrift for a decade, going nowhere fast. It shows you those hungry times you don’t talk about, even to yourself. It shows you the years of letters from your mother that you stopped opening.You crouch low to the ground and howl at it, and it runs.It’s fast, the way that liminal things are, skipping between the bits of reality that slow you down. Your legs burn, your ankle twists on a slick rock. You skin your hand on a tree when the guilt-eater turns faster than you ever could. It’s leading you up the mountain, away from the trail. There was a time when you ran track and could catch a rabbit with your hands, but now you take public transportation and buy meat from butcher shops.The guilt-eater crashes through the underbrush, its unstable form shifting from step to step, and blink to blink. It stretches and shrinks, clawing its way through the clinging mountain plants. Its blood hisses on the cold earth from nettle scratches. Halfway up the mountain, your endorphins take over and you move. One long jump and you’re nearly upon it.You laugh a laugh ripped from your chest and you leap after it. The smell of it sings in your bones. Your marrow knows magic, the way blood knows kin. You don’t need a dog to follow it. Every movement it makes echoes in you.You drop the book by a stunted pine, your last sight of the road. You shed the chalice soon after. You’ll find them later. They will find their way home.As you crash through the trees, the sunlight fails. Your body no longer remembers these short nights. Your mind tricked you and told you it was evening, but this is the witching hour. The guilt-eater shrieks like a murder of crows. Shapes shiver beneath the bushes and in the darkness beyond the trees. A branch, or a claw, takes a chunk out of your leg. You bite your lip and taste your own blood.The guilt-eater screeches again. Its voice recites your sins. Were you a different sort of woman, you would fall to your knees and weep, but you smile a hunting dog’s smile and your feet drive into the ground. You’re gaining on it. The guilt-eater smells like long-decomposed regrets and the unfinished quests of dead men.You didn’t go to the funeral. Your grandmother was the only person to stay and you didn’t even see her off.You gain ground.You will never stop wandering.You gain ground.You leave, like she left. You have inherited a restless heart that will seek and never be satisfied. Doesn’t the truth of it taste like nails in your throat?You gain ground.It fails to strike you down.This body is all you are, condensed, beyond your past and your sins real or imagined. You loved this fight once, and love it still, despite yourself. The blood pounds through your ears like cocaine in the veins. The guilt-eater is the whole world now that you’ve scented its blood. You are a wolf, a woman, a weapon, a witch. You are Diana of the hunt, falling upon your prey with the force of a hundred flaming arrows. You are only your sword and your sword hand. You are teeth that ache for the monster’s acidic flesh.The guilt-eater stumbles and throws its hands out like the man it might once have been, but it’s too late. It tumbles down the slope, limbs flailing awkwardly, inhumanly, a broken-jointed doll.Your blade glints in the moonlight like a new star. One flick of your wrist and you’ve slit through the twine fastening its lips. Blood spurts. If it screams, you don’t hear, or don’t care. The blood is brown, made of dead things, but you don’t mind that it splatters on your shoes. The only way to kill this thing is to open its mouth and make it speak all the secrets keeping it alive.Sins pour from its open lips into the dirt. Your secrets, and the red-haired woman’s, and the secrets of everyone the creature has ever laid eyes on. Its body deflates. The litany of other people’s confessions sounds like weeping.You’ve still got the needle and sinew, stuck into the seam of your pants.“Hush,” you tell it. It’s perfunctory mercy; your mind is as a predator’s, shaking at the meaty scent of a dying animal. You sew up the ragged cuts in its lips, the slash of destruction across its face merely a mouth again. The sword is for breaking and the sinew for fixing, but some situations require both. The thing’s jaw falls open and it leaks secrets into the night until there is nothing left of its body but scraps of a suit and bones that don’t make up a full skeleton. It tells you the red-haired woman stood on the edge of the rocky beach with someone’s lost cat in her arms, a year after your mother saved her from the kushtaka. She slit the cat’s throat and let it bled into the sea, but the kushtaka didn’t come, didn’t give the red-haired woman another heady glimpse through the veil, and your pulse beats hard.It tells you everything, but it dies all the same.Sweat streaks between your shoulder blades. Your legs are trembling and you sit down against a tree. The guilt-eater’s bones turn to dust while you watch. The chill night air shreds your heaving lungs.Another thing you’ve forgotten: how very long the shadows get when the sun finally deigns to leave. When the branch breaks behind you, it sounds like a gunshot, and you’re up with the sword at her throat before she can shout.The red-haired woman freezes. You lift the blade and she’s forced to lift her chin. She picked a bad time to follow you; your logical mind barely keeps you from slitting her throat, and you can’t puzzle out who she is until manages to open her mouth. “I just wanted to make sure it was dead.” It’s a plea.The sword wobbles in your hand. She closes her eyes and breathes out so slowly, like her breath alone might set you off. You’ve seen many things die and they all go still when they know that death is standing next to them.It takes too many heartbeats, but you put down the blade and point to the last scraps of the thing’s clothing. She picks up a shirt cuff and it falls apart in her fingers. She watches you the entire time, not unlike she watched the guilt-eater. I understand, you want to say, but the words cannot work themselves out of your animal throat.When you finally get ahold of yourself, you start back to the road before you have the chance to do anything more regrettable.Hiland Mountain Correctional Center, unlike Juneau, is exactly as you remember it. The last time you entered its halls, you were sixteen and didn’t have much choice. Maybe you still don’t. Life leads you by the hand sometimes. Your grandmother claimed she had seen a vision of her entire life when she was five, right up to the moment of her death. You don’t know if you believe that, but your grandmother did guess her death to the minute. You’ve never had any such vision, but you’re smart enough to understand a sign when you’re smacked in the face with one.Your mother is old. That shouldn’t be surprising, but it nearly knocks you off your feet. In your mind, she’s thirty years old, kneeling beside your ten-year-old self with one arm around you while you try to pull a bowstring without your arm trembling. Her hair was dark brown, like yours, but now it’s mousy grey, her skin pale from being trapped inside.Her mouth goes flat and straight when you sit across from her at the metal table, like she’s stuck between crying that you’re finally here and screaming at you for staying away so long. You bite the inside of your cheek to keep from saying anything you shouldn’t.You buried the sword and the revolver and the chalice in the courtyard behind your apartment building, right after your return six months ago. No one goes out there except the landlady’s senile aunt, so they should be safe, even from you. You kept the book because it has a family tree in it that you’ve never looked at, and you kept the needle because you think you might like to try your hand at fixing things.“I heard you went back home,” she says, as if either of you can call Juneau home anymore. “Did you miss it?”Of course she’s heard about it. The woman has a spy network out of an eighties Bond film, built out of all the people whose lives she’s saved, or ruined, or some of both. “One of your contacts approached me. I killed a guilt-eater.”She beams. “You’re not going to lie and say you hated it, are you?”You shake your head.“That’s how you know you’re my daughter.” She leans back in her seat like she’s expecting a fight. But you’re beyond hating her. You’ve spent too long dreading the fact of her, as if destinies are encoded in your genes like eye color and left-handedness. Your grandmother, bless her, believed in destiny and thus saw your mother in you. The first time you brought home a rabbit you killed, she stared at your rust-colored hands with such sad eyes. It wasn’t until later that you realized what your grandmother saw was your mother at eight years old, still a child and yet already on her way to this small room.You roll up your sleeve to let your mother see what you’ve done. The sword and cup and bullets curl from your hand to your elbow. Above them you’ve tattooed a red rose, so that it is all sub rosa, and yet, right there for all the world to see. A reminder for yourself, and penance maybe. You’re done listening to monsters repeat your own unpleasant truths. “I know why you killed him now.”“Oh?” She sounds amused. Never once in all the letters you read did she ask forgiveness, for shooting him, or for leaving you.“You were scared,” you say. “That part was true. It’s not the whole truth, though. Maybe you don’t even know what the whole truth is.”“If I wanted to be analyzed, I’d talk to the psychologist.” She crosses her arms but stays.“I almost killed that woman, the one you saved when she was a girl.” At the word killed, a corrections officer glances at you, and you lower your voice. “After I finished the guilt-eater, she came up behind me, and all I could hear was her blood. When I looked at her face, all I could see was a monster. I had her by the throat. Do you know how easy it would have been? And I didn’t have a gun.”She laughs, as one does when handed something unexpected.You lean over the table. You get so close to her that the guard glares at you. “I only do this when people ask for help. You were at it for so long that I think it scratched away your soul. You stopped being able to tell what was a monster and what wasn’t. I bet you looked at that man, on our land, and you couldn’t begin to tell what he was.”You lean back. The silence stretches.“Maybe it was mercy,” she says, working the words over in her mouth. “They said he was human, but he could have been a monster. Look at you. Look at me. Think of all the things we’ve done. Who’s to say that we’re good anymore, that we’re human? Maybe I shouldn’t have shot him but he shouldn’t have been where he wasn’t supposed to be. I took precautions.”This is the truth you expected, not the one you wanted. Neither of you offers a hug when the officer calls an end to visiting hours, but that’s okay. Some things are what they are, and it’s time to stop fighting old fights.You go home, for good this time. The sword and the gun stay buried, though you trace the lines of your tattoos sometimes and ache for their weight in your hands. You knew how to feel powerful while killing things, and it’s hard to learn other ways of being strong.Your girlfriend has cut her hair down to an inch, so that it crowns her head in tight coils. The man from Yale has hinted that there might be a position for her after she defends. In your absence, she has become someone, or maybe she’s just found the woman she was always trying to be. It seems you might be leaving for New Haven soon. You’ve spent your entire life in view of the Pacific but you don’t think you’ll miss it much. There’s a whole other ocean to see. You can learn the rhythms of a New England winter, and how to cook crab, and what a mountainless horizon looks like. You still don’t know if this is love, but you’ll follow her wherever she goes.Some nights, you dream about monsters, and death, and evil things knocking on your door. You wake up at the sound of the wind howling, or at the sound of too much silence, and for an instant your heart clutches. On these nights it takes a long time to fall back asleep, but you learn to whisper a bedtime prayer of guilt you no longer wish to carry, and the prayer keeps you from digging up the sword again.The post PodCastle 522: Extinctions appeared first on PodCastle.


15 May 2018

Rank #15

Podcast cover

PodCastle 507: The Rocket Farmer

Author : Julie C. Day Narrator : Lisa Hicks Host : Summer Fletcher Audio Producer : Peter Wood Discuss on Forums Previous published in Interzone 271.Rated PG-13. Take cover: contains more than 5 F-bombs.SarnaiI sit at my kitchen table and watch as my soon-to-be ex-husband, David, assembles cardboard boxes and labels each one in neat block letters. This is David’s third packing weekend and once again our daughter has made herself scarce; Sophie has no problem with late-at-night drunk mom or lonely stoned dad, but watching us sort through the flotsam of our former marriage — it’s too much.“What’s up with those burn marks on the driveway?” David says. “I can set up the fire pit if you want.”“No. Thanks.” Burn marks? I have no idea what he’s talking about. Not that I’m going to admit that particular fact, or any of the other “wrongness” that has invaded my life. These days I wake up sweat-soaked each morning from the same dream: a rocket-launch conflagration — my charred body no longer screaming beneath the flames. The dream is bad enough, but there are other more corporeal sources of anxiety: Sophie’s almost complete silence. The way she locks herself in the shed for hours at a time.David bends his head as he frames another box, intent on overlapping the flaps, then pauses.“Hey.” I hesitate. “Did you see the mourning doves at the bottom of the yard?”“I can’t find the fucking packing tape.” David glances in my direction. “Wait, what? Mourning doves?”“Tape’s to the left of the box. The birds are missing chunks of feathers. Looks like someone maybe pulled them out.” Even to my own ears, my voice sounds too tight. “Poor bastards. I don’t think they can fly.”David holds the tape as though momentarily unsure of its use. “Didn’t see them.” He seals the bottom of the newly folded box, then begins wrapping one of his mother’s rose-infested china plates in newspaper. “Not sure what you want me to do.”“It’s fine. I’ll handle it. I can set out some bird food or something.” I take a sip of my coffee, consider how wrecked my face looks in the bright morning light. “Well put together” is not a phrase anyone would ever apply to me. An aging soon-to-be divorcée, an Asian-American, a transplanted Floridian, those are my special labels. Along with rocket farmer, though that is a label I keep to myself.“When’s the last time you bothered to clean up, Sarnai? This place stinks.” I watch David’s gaze take in the dirty dishes, the toppling stacks of mail, laundry, and God-knows-what-else.“The house smells just fine,” I reply, and I realize that I’m lying. Underneath the coffee grounds and the overfull compost bin, there’s something new and yet all too familiar; the house smells of Florida sunshine and car exhaust. More than that, it smells of my father’s fields of aluminum and titanium, his barrels of carbon fibers and all those fuels: ammonium perchlorate, kerosene, gunpowder. Lord, I’m such a fool.For weeks now, Sophie’s hands and arms have been pockmarked with angry, red scars, the same marks I got as a kid working in Dad’s hidden rocket field. It’s not just the scars. There was a flush on Sophie’s face last night when she’d told me — weeks too late — about Sam Pesce’s “slanty-eyed Chinaman” comment.“But Mom, we’re Mongolian,” Sophie said, as though the real problem was the boy’s grasp of geography.I know my daughter as well as anyone can be said to understand her. She’s always been determined to solve her own problems. Still, those poor birds. We’re the only house for a half mile in either direction.“Why the hell did you give Sophie that chemistry set?” I snap at David, trying to hold down my fear.“Chemistry set? Because she asked.” David looks genuinely confused as he clutches the latest newspaper-bundled plate to his chest.“Right.”I never wanted a child like Sophie. Truth be told, I never wanted children at all. But I love her. Even if I didn’t, I’m a Baatar. I grew up in the secret rocket fields of central Florida. And some things, like the smell of rocket fuel and newly-grown ignition systems, a rocket farmer, even a lapsed one, just can’t ignore.After David drives away with his latest stack of boxes, I pull on my boots and head over to the shed. It’s 10 p.m. and the lights are still seeping around the edges of the door. Sophie commandeered the shed in the weeks after David moved out. She carries the key with her when she’s not inside. The key swings from the chain around her neck as she refills the birdfeeders. Feeding the birds used to be David’s job. Tonight his job was to help me track down that key’s twin. Sophie’s privacy is no longer my friend.I take a slow breath, twist the key in the lock, and edge open the door.My daughter stands at the wooden workbench, pouring a black, coarse powder into a metal crucible. Theory confirmed. The shed has become Sophie’s private laboratory. A weighted scale and a collection of glassware fill the space, along with an Erlenmeyer flask that sits atop a soot-stained tripod. Near the front of the bench, David’s vice-grip holds a three-inch mechanism in place. A rocket engine. My stomach twists as I take in icy blue flame erupting from the engine’s cone-shaped nozzle. In the far-right corner, away from the flames, one of David’s packing boxes is tipped on its side. It overflows with feathers: the cream and gray of a mourning dove, the black iridescence of a grackle, and brown feathers that remind me of so many birds. A robin. A sparrow. A nuthatch. All of the birds that visit our many feeders.“Sophie.”Sophie starts and turns toward me, her eyes huge and fierce. “Mom.”Her neck looks so fragile. Sophie’s hair is pulled back, exposing her pale brown skin and the darker birthmark on the left side of her neck. Behind her on the workbench rest two scale-model rockets, less than three feet tall: a tiny Mercury Redstone and Saturn IV. Dear, Lord. How can my science child be so foolish? Her test engine and the nearby car battery and coil of nichrome wire; none of it carries enough power for an actual launch. And the box of bird feathers. Is she also trying to recreate the rocket-propelled arrows of the first rocket farmers? Rocket farming is a disaster-strewn practice more than a thousand years old. Sophie may not know it yet, but the entire shed reeks of failure.“Sophie, we’re taking down the bird feeders.”“What? Mom, you can’t.”“Actually, I can do a lot of things.”The RocketSome truths Baatar rockets know even before they emerge from the Florida soil. Dedication and consistency are below-the-ground, boot-up knowledge. Other truths, like corrosive impatience, aren’t even supposed to be codable. Then again, land-bound is supposed to be a transitory state.The Wayfarer III has waited in its Florida field for over a decade, surrounded by the sounds of the nearby St. John River, the feel of rain against its metal sides, the sight of all those autumn winds bending the Cyprus trees.It’s years since the rocket blossomed into a tower of metal sheeting and insulation, yearning for the sky. Yet the old man still drags in barrels of ammonium perchlorate and canisters of liquid oxygen, trying to force a hypergolic reaction. Despite the old man’s care, the rocket’s fuel fails to spontaneously ignite. The four bolts that hold the rocket to its launch pad have tightened with rust: twenty-eight inches of aged rocket-grade steel. Though the bolts are necessary to hold it upright on the launch pad, the Wayfarer III no longer trusts its explosive charges will tear those bolts apart when its fuel finally ignites and liftoff occurs. Just as worrying: the supposedly retractable claw that holds its nose cone in place has yet to be tested.The rocket’s self-diagnostic program keeps unearthing strange new patterns in its processing routines. Is that feeling resentment? Anger? Fear? The rocket is unsure. Each season the old man’s hands feel more gnarled and uncertain, and still the rocket’s automatic ground launch sequencer fails to start. Its capsule sits empty. The rocket knows its launch window isn’t infinite. The data on system degradation indicates that soon it will be a rocket-failure, no different from the crop of Delta rockets, Atlas intercontinental ballistic missiles, and its own older siblings: Wayfarer I and Wayfarer II.SophieMom is so completely stupid. The way she looked at my propellant test when she snuck into the shed, as though I was the fuckup. The flame was small, sure, but that wasn’t the point. It was a test. She grew up in Florida with Grandpa and his family secrets. She watches NASA’s YouTube channel late at night when she thinks I’m in bed. How can she not know rockets are meant to burn flame-blue?Those Space X engineers aren’t rocket farmers, but they get some things right. Methane is the fuel of the true star traveler. Those old standbys, liquid hydrogen and oxygen, might ignite on contact, but they’re a one-shot deal. There won’t be any refueling after launch.The last Sunday of each month I listen to Mom and Grandpa Baatar talking over Skype while I’m supposedly sleeping: rocket-farmer secrets revealed one conversation at a time. Grandpa talks about chemical formulations and issues with the combustion chamber, as though the launch sequence is the point of it all. And Mom just gets all silent and mumbly, though she won’t ever just disconnect.Of course you keep the rocket and engine block attached to the capsule it’s working to set free. Of course you choose a replenishable fuel like methane that allows the rocket to extend the journey indefinitely. A rocket is a precious thing. It’s meant to bathe in Titan’s lakes, to soak up some as yet unknown moon’s methane rain. This solar system, this spiral arm of our galaxy, this entire fucking universe is fueled and waiting. Why can’t Mom and Grandpa see it? Aim, fire, nail a single target, mission complete: that’s the idiotic Baatar-version of events. They entirely miss the point of space travel.A fact I’d rather not know: big or small, all birds scream. They struggle, twisting away so violently you have to pin their wings so they don’t break. Afterward, splotches of red rise where their feathers used to be. I tried so many other things, but it’s not like a class at school. I’m the one who has to figure out how flight actually works. If I had a farm like Grandpa Baatar, I wouldn’t get it wrong. I’d feed my seedlings until their metal wings stretched wide. I’d spark their fire and watch as they launched toward the dark unknown.The way I move across the earth, it doesn’t seem to be how most humans work. Mom is convinced I’m broken. She’s wrong. My true secret: I’m a traveler, not a farmer. I’m the Baatar who’s meant to fly, no matter what changes star-flight will require.SarnaiI stare out our kitchen window, the phone’s smooth plastic cool against my ear. Even as I speak the words, I know it won’t go well. “Dad, when’s the last time you brought a rocket to escape velocity? Or even liftoff?”“Not the point, Sarnai.”Twelve hundred miles apart doesn’t change what I know. Dad’s hands are curling the phone cord round and round, testing the strength of the wire inside. It’s the same test he performed every night of my childhood, tending those rockets in our family field: the capsules with the two-stage rockets, the small and slender missiles, all those metal hulks hidden away in the Tosohatchee Wildlife Management Area’s Cyprus swamp. Like so many of life’s truths, there’s what people think and then there’s reality. Everyone knows this country’s rockets are designed in the laboratories of Florida’s Space Coast and the commercial labs out in California. The Baatar truth: what everyone knows is only partially correct.My childhood memories are like a series of curated movie scenes. Dad watching as I mixed the liquid fuel in one of our many metal barrels and poured the contents around the base of my first LOCAT rocket. Dad explaining: The Buddha said, “Three things cannot hide for long: the Moon, the Sun and the Truth.” Sarnai, this little rocket yearns for all three. Dad watching as I stroked the molded plastic fins of my very first seedling, checking to make sure the fuel was soaked up by the ground.It was never enough. Despite the portable heaters and tarps, despite the drums of ammonium perchlorate and lengths of wire, Dad’s field has always been filled with withered hulls and rotted seeds. Rocket disappointments, just like me: the daughter too angry to reach for the sky. Too sick of the endless waiting.“Dad, I’m bringing Sophie down to visit.” I prod. “Dad?”“You haven’t come to see me in four years, not since your mother — ” Dad pauses. “Children don’t demand, Sarnai.”“I thought you needed help with the field.”“That’s true.” Dad’s tone is flat.“Dad, it’ll be fine. I promise. Look, I’ve got to go.” I leave the specifics unsaid: I need to call in sick, curl under the covers in a darkened bedroom. Getting Sophie to the fields before she flares out — only love could drive me back to that Florida swamp and its looming, metal skeletons.In the end, no matter how hard you try, blood will tell. Sophie’s cravings are as dark as the void that separates the universe’s thankfully countless stars. My star-traveler. My rocket-girl. She burns for it. Dear, God, tending the field with Dad has got to be her salvation.SophieEverything has gone to shit. The birds avoid the feeders. Somehow, Mom and Dad can’t “remember” that I need to restock my chemistry set. Worst of all, none of my engines have managed more than a three-minute methane burn before the combustion chamber flakes out. Fourteen years old and already an engineering failure. And still Mom won’t let up.“How about that Explode Every Day exhibit at Mass MOCA? That sounds great don’t you think?”“No. Not really.”“People don’t want you to solve their problems,” she used to say when I failed to connect with the new class, the new teacher, the whatever-person I was attempting to figure out. “They want you to listen and be on their side.”“But, Mom, I am on their side.”“I know, honey. I know.”Now here she is acting just like eight-year-old me, burying me with all her wrong solutions.Sarnai“I hate you,” Sophie says, her tone matter of fact.I flinch. The two of us are sitting on the wooden bench in the middle of the backyard. It’s June. Dusk. The peeper frogs are out in force.“You know how those phone calls with Grandpa go: Hello, Grandpa. Yes, I’m fine Grandpa. No, I’m in eighth grade, not sixth grade, Grandpa. Jesus, Mom. Even without a clueless Grandpa, summer in Florida sucks.”“It’ll be fine. You’ll see. And Grandpa needs our help. He’s getting pretty old.” I hold back from all those things I want to do. I don’t raise my hand to stroke her dark brown hair. I don’t cup her freckled cheek.“I hate you. I really, really hate you,” Sophie repeats. Her voice is strong and unquavering. “First you toss Dad out. Now this. You’re a monster. A blight.” Despite her even tone, her face is flushed and ruddy. She won’t look at me.“Your dad makes his own decisions. And a divorce takes two. Get that fucking straight.” My voice is suddenly anything but gentle. As it turns out, even in Vermont, Baatar children can take you that way.The RocketOne of its most basic subroutines: the rocket monitors its immediate environment and notes any changes, then it flags the data that requires further analysis. These days the analysis routines are constantly processing.The old man cries with increasing regularity. The tears don’t correlate with challenges to the integrity of the man’s physical vessel, burns or scrapes. These days, the old man’s tears are closer to summer rain, a seasonal deluge, but saltier and less useful. The rocket reviews the historical data, finds one more data point, though not enough to form an actual pattern. Statistically insignificant. And yet…the rocket keeps returning to that singular second fact. Little Sarnai was the same and then she was gone and only the old man remained.SarnaiWhen I was a kid, younger than Sophie, I used to stand on the concrete driveway with my four-square ball for hours at a time, playing my own private game: one bounce per passing car, two bounces if it was a delivery van, five if it was one of those converted school buses full of kids praising their Lord.That dedicated, ball-bouncing girl is long gone. Though other things haven’t changed; the stucco bungalow has the same faded paint job, the same corrugated tin roof, and patchy crabgrass lawn. Though there is one obvious difference: Mom is four years dead.I park my car in the driveway and climb out, briefly stretch my arms overhead. It’s just a few steps to Dad’s concrete stoop. Sophie follows a few feet behind, enveloped in fifteen hundred miles of angry. No airplanes. No flights. I drove the two of us from Vermont, wheels safely pressed against the tarmacked ground.“Remember to be polite,” I mutter, then press the doorbell.“Right.”I have a sudden urge to bolt down the street. Hide in the car. Anything but step inside this too empty house. Dad isn’t supposed to live alone.Mom might not have been a Bataar by blood, but she was as much a true rocket-believer as Dad. That last night, it was Mom who stood outside my bedroom door, calling me an “ignorant and selfish daughter,” demanding I stay. “Your father needs your help, Sarnai. We both do.” As though that was the winning line, the one-two punch of logic that would force me to stay.I didn’t.I feel Sophie’s outraged presence looming behind me as footsteps approach from inside the house, and then it’s too late: the door opens.“Sarnai,” Dad says. “Sophie.”“Hello, Dad.” The lines across his face: it’s like some invisible hand has crumpled his skin, bending his spine, as well. He used to stand so upright.The kitchen has the same dingy painting of a lotus flower and the same gray, speckled Formica table. Though in the four years since Mom’s funeral, there is one notable change. The plastic Meals-on-Wheels trays are gone. Instead, a frying pan and dirty dishes are stacked neatly in the sink. As well as rocket farming, it seems Dad has taking up cooking.Sophie settles herself in one of the vinyl dining chairs, sighs. I catch her smile, quickly hidden, as she watches Dad light the gas stove and sets the kettle to boil.“Dad, I thought Sophie could take my room and I’ll take the couch.”“That’s fine.”Dad shuffles to the table in his worn house slippers and I take the remaining seat between the two of them.“Wait. You still have a room here?” Sophie asks.“You know I do. Remember we stayed in it for the funeral. It has that white-and-gold furniture and — ”“French Colonial, Mom.”“Right. As I was saying — ”“Sarnai, the tea,” Dad cuts in. The kettle has started to whistle.Sophie’s expression is one of disbelief as she watches me silently get up and walk over to the stove. This is not how grown-ups talk to each other — at least not in her world. I spoon oolong from the dented canister into the metal teapot, feel the heft of the factory-processed metal against my hand. Florida is a different land.“Come. Take one,” I hear my father say. When I glance over, he’s offering Sophie an orange wedge, even attempting a smile. Both his hand and the plate tremble. I thought it was just a story I told Sophie. Turns out my father really has become an old man.Sophie is attempting her own smile. “Mom says you need help with something, Grandpa?” Polite conversation. A Florida miracle.“Yes, I do. What has your mother told you about this family?”Sophie shrugs, glances in my direction. “Nothing.” The smile’s gone.“I was going to get to it, Dad,” I say, setting three cups of tea on the table and taking my seat again.Dad gives me a withering look. “Sophie, this is the story of how our family found its calling. You will pay attention, yes?”“Yeah, sure.” She actually looks interested.“Good. It all started in China. During the battle of Kai-Keng, our great great great many times over ancestor was part of an invading Mongol army. The Chinese defenders though had their own plan to push the Mongols back. Instead of bows and arrows or extra cavalry, their solution was rockets.”“Huh.” Sophie isn’t smiling anymore. This is not the story she was expecting.Dad takes a sip of tea and continues. “Those first rockets were launched with gunpowder-filled cylinders, but really they were just arrows tipped with flaming resin. Despite that, great grandfather recognized their power.” Dad pauses and flaps one hand, displacing the steam rising from his cup so that it spreads across the table. “The field was filled with smoke and sulfur. The darkness mixed with points of orange flame as the arrows propelled upward. Yet somehow in that chaos, the miracle occurred; our great grandfather felt something new, something no one had ever felt before. He discovered our family’s true purpose, our one passion, bringing rockets to flight.”“Dad,” I cut in. Why was he always so blind? “Those arrows killed people. God damn it. Rockets still do.”“Yes.” Dad nods his head, unconcerned. “Sophie, rockets have all sorts of purposes, but no matter what type of rocket blooms or how long it takes to mature,” he shrugs, gives me a sidelong glance, “Our family’s task is to care for them.”“Grandpa, I don’t want to kill anything.”Warning. Warning. Warning. The danger signals are flashing. There’s a frown line between Sophie’s eyebrows, and despite her even tone, she looks downright furious.“You’ll understand once you see our rocket field,” Dad says, missing all the Sophie-cues. “Your mother loves rockets, no matter how much she complains.” He leans across the table, grabs Sophie’s hand. “And you will, too.”“You’re kidding me, right? Rockets are supposed to be about flight. Exploration. It’s people like you who mess them up.” Sophie pulls her hand away and stands. “I always knew Florida would suck.” And just like that Sophie is storming down the hallway, the front door slamming behind her.The look Dad gives me — like I’ve, of course, fucked up. “Exploration? Are we travelers now?”How does he manage to fit all that judgement into those two sentences? “Jesus, Dad. She’s not exactly wrong.” Then I’m turning away from my father, chasing Sophie out the door. I find her almost immediately. She’s sitting in my parked car. Not only that, she’s locked herself inside.I knock on the passenger side window, press my face against the glass, hand shading my eyes. “Sophie, please. Ignore him. At least check out the field.”“What the hell, Mom! Our family grows killing machines? How can that be the point?” Sophie’s yelling. Actually yelling.“We raise whatever emerges from the ground. It’s not a choice, baby.” The words sound pathetic, even to me. We always have choices. And twenty years ago, my choice was to leave. Look where that choice has brought us.“Take me home. Now. At least there I can get some real work done.”“Sophie, please.” I laugh, not a happy laugh, feel tears rising close behind. God and Lord Buddha, I hate Florida, too. Always have. She’s right. Why can’t any of us just fly away?It’s not until later that night, after I’ve coaxed Sophie back into the house with half-true promises of an early return home, that I realize my daughter never once questioned the existence of our family’s rocket field.One thing Dad and I agree on: there’s no point in delay. We head out that very night, just before dusk arrives, and make the thirty-minute drive from Titusville to the town of Christmas and the Tosohatchee Wildlife Management Area. Dad parks his pickup truck on the verge off of Power Line Road. Underneath the canvas tarps, the truck bed is filled with stacks of dewars canisters full of liquid oxygen, buckets of paint, and the volatile “candles,” metal tubes containing enough lithium perchlorate to produce six hours of breathable oxygen, way more supplies than Dad could manage alone. He’s clearly taking advantage of the extra help.“You’re about to see something wonderful,” Dad’s says, the argument of the afternoon seemingly forgotten.“Sure,” Sophie replies, refusing to take the bait. She opens one of the duffle bags Dad brought, filling it with the boxes of insulating paint powder. The powder is a microsphere ceramic compound we’ll mix with the paint before loading the sprayer. Rockets may excrete their own coating, but over time they require a little, or more than a little, touchup.“Got your bug spray on?” I ask as I load the “candles” into one of Dad’s special backpacks.“Yeah, Mom. Of course.”“Let’s go,” Dad cuts in. His good moods never last long.“Okay.” And then for the first time in over twenty years, I’m following Dad through the Cyprus swamp, Sophie trailing close behind. The undergrowth is sparse: a scattering of downed trunks, ferns, and those distinctive root-bound Cypress knees. Less than twenty feet into the trees and already the sweat is running down my back. It doesn’t take long for my arms and shoulders to join the discomfort parade as I try to manage the uneven terrain and the metal canisters I’m lugging in one of Dad’s specially rigged backpacks.“So we have to haul all this stuff through a swamp?” Sophie says in that even tone of hers as she pulls her boots free from yet another stretch of boggy ground. “You know that’s really dumb, right?”“Grandpa knows what he’s doing,” I declare, wishing I felt even a fraction of Dad’s confidence. I’m heading to our family farm. But, the truth is I’ve never once seen our rockets fly.We continue on, following the rushing sound of water — the St. John’s River — rather than any particular path, and then we’re pulling Dad’s old fishing boat from its hiding place in the brush, crossing to the other side and that years-worn dirt path that leads straight to the field.Sophie seems ready to vibrate right out of her skin, electrified, as she loads the supplies into a wagon Dad keeps for just this purpose.“I’ll keep the oxygen candles in my pack,” I say. They need to be handled with care.“Is that what they are?” Sophie looks surprised. “Backup oxygen generators are for manned missions.”“We raise whatever germinates,” I reply, shrugging. I don’t mention that none of our farm-cultivated Soyuzes and Space Shuttles, tried and true designs in the manufactured world, have ever come close to launch.And then it’s bump, bump, bump with the wagon as we follow Dad to the tree line and the southern edge of our family’s field. As we distance ourselves from the river and the cool-water-generated air currents, the field’s chemical-ozone tang shifts from a ghost-scent, barely visible, to a miasma determined to sink deep. Despite the coughing, the weight of all that rocket air feels so damn good. And the sight when we finally reach the edge of the trees — the field is full of empty seed pods, cracked pieces of plastic and twisted metal. Fragments of dried metal stalks and wilted wire stems also lie strewn across the ground. But towering above all that debris are our own beautiful giants: rockets five, twelve, even twenty feet tall. The unfortunate truth: underneath their coats of paint and support wires, many of them are little more than fading hulls, false starts incapable of blooming. But, no different from when I was a kid, I can sense something else in the field, something hopeful. Maybe it’s the tarps Dad has carefully spread around the base of one of the rockets in the western corner of the field where I used to tend my own little seedlings, or maybe it’s the strange shape of one particular rocket now so much taller than I remember. Its sprouted form isn’t the usual Altas or Titan shape. In fact, it doesn’t look like any craft I’ve ever seen.“Mom — ” Sophie is gazing at my first baby’s paint-free exterior.“I know,” I say, turning to look at Sophie’s beaming face. “I know. Isn’t she amazing?” The worst part of it: neither of them feels even close to mine.Sophie“Come on.” I grab Mom’s hand, drag her behind me. Ignoring whatever Mother-angst has struck her now. She’s probably just missing her nighttime drink, who am I kidding, her nighttime drinks. I’ve never known anyone quite so ready to ruin someone’s — anyone’s — rush of rocket joy. I trail my fingers along the black text at the base of the rocket’s body. “Wayfarer III? What happened to I and II?”“Over there.” Mom waves toward the middle section of the field where Grandpa is busy tending tilting and weathered old hulls.“For fuck’s sake. Don’t you guys know how to do anything?” I start to pull the viney undergrowth away from the hardened base of the launch pad, then step back and consider the vine and wire wrapped exterior of this land-bound creature. She’s so ready to fly, but the soil, the field, this whole crazy earth disagrees. What I can see of her hull is smooth and unblemished. Perfect. But she’s wound inside a web of wires and vines. She looks like a spider plant being consumed by her own offspring.“What’s wrong, baby?” It’s Mom. I hold the ugly words at bay — bitch, idiot, land-bound fool — feel the tears on my cheeks. Torture — that’s what this field has become. A lost battle full of sky-desperate beings bound to the ground. It’s up to me now.At first I assumed the hull of the rocket’s squat and bullet-shaped body was unmarred by any opening, which goes to show you how stupid being earthbound all my life has made me. There are port holes, a hatch, a way inside. The Wayfarer III has been waiting for someone to notice what needs to be done. She’s been waiting for me.The RocketThe data stream is overwhelming. The rocket can feel itself practicing a new kind of rocket-patience, slowing down, its processors no longer able to analyze at full speed. Sarnai is back. Wider. Her hull cracked in places, but Sarnai all the same. She was the first designer, the engineer of the rocket’s birth. She set up the temporary metal lattice that held it upright in those first months. When she left, the rocket felt a strange heaviness that took years to go away.Still, it is the new one, the not-Sarnai that takes up most of the rocket’s working memory. The new one doesn’t fill the sprayer with unnecessary paint. She doesn’t even check all those human-design echoes that fill the field, the unlaunchables. And that moment when she first touches the rocket’s hull feels like both the jolt of an electrical charge and the slithering of ice on a frost-filled morning. Connection made. Rocket pairing begun.This not-Sarnai is a creature of the void. She is a traveler offering up the emptiness between all those too-small places. She is the reason rockets, at least this rocket, exist.SarnaiTonight a rocket launch is scheduled over at Cape Canaveral. Near the Titusville shore, people will be wrapped in blankets, waiting for the miracle to occur. Dad, Sophie, and I, though, are busy. In the three-quarter moon, I can see Sophie’s furious glowing face. No matter what she says, or doesn’t, she is so damn happy. The promise of fire is close at hand.At Sophie’s direction, I help her clear the vines and wires, load the oxygen candles inside while Dad watches from the other side of the field. He looks so small.I don’t question my daughter’s plans. With us, conversation never leads to anything good. It takes so little time to clear off the Wayfarer III, to inspect and stock the interior cabin. Eventually, even Dad helps, passing up the supplies, though he still hasn’t said anything.Now the three of us stand just outside the cabin opening on the launch pad’s wire-and-vine-strewn service structure.“Go on,” I say, as though I don’t want to fly toward those damn stars, not one little bit. I can feel the inferno forming inside the combustion chamber farther down the rocket’s body. I can feel the darkness calling as banks of lights in the cabin come to life, and for that one second I want to stay with Sophie inside this metal shell. Honesty time: I want to take her place. Claim that pilot’s seat for my own. For that one breath of time, I’m not too old, too human, too rooted to the ground to ignite and launch.And then Sophie is holding me. Whispering words in my ear before she steps inside, and suddenly it is the best of possible goodbyes.Dad watches me tighten the hatch door. He looks so uncertain. Of course he is, even if we weren’t launching my child, every flight is a miracle. Every miracle a moment of terror. He doesn’t stop me though. Of course he doesn’t. I can see it in his face. After all these years, we’ve finally found the secret to a successful rocket launch: our family’s very first rocket girl.“This is not how I imagined it, Sarnai.”I grab Dad’s trembling hand, slip my arm around his bent shoulders. “‘Take care of the other babies,’ she said. This isn’t the end, Dad. There are more seedlings that we can help find their way.”I was supposed to love the smell of space and the night-dust that settled on my skin. Instead, everything I tried to love came out twisted and burnt. My Sophie shall shoot fire. She will drag the universe’s dark spaces behind her like skeins of her own hair. More than that: she’ll laugh, breathing in the black metallic scent, the frigid night of those distances between suns warmed for an instant by her flames and the power of her need.The post PodCastle 507: The Rocket Farmer appeared first on PodCastle.


30 Jan 2018

Rank #16