Thursday, 16 July 2020

WILD THINGS

Ah, love. A many splendored thing. Here is a rather unusual love story, sweet and strange as could only happen in the post-magical reality of the Indigo Springs “event.” Blue Magic, the sequel to Indigo Springs was published in April and here's a tasty tale from that world to tickle a reader's fancy.

This short story was edited and acquired for Tor.com by Tor Books editor Jim Frenkel.

 

My swamp man wasn’t what you’d call a sexy beast, though I found his skin strangely beautiful. It was birch bark: tender, onion-thin, chalk white in color, with hints of almond and apricot. He was easily bruised, attracted lichens, and when he got too dry, he peeled.

Instead of hair, he grew whisper-thin stems. Every morning we made a ritual of shaving his scalp, breaking those new-grown shoots. Once when time got away from us and they were left to grow a couple days, he broke out in catkins, a crown of fuzzy, pollen-laden locks of gold.

He was always cold. I had to keep him out of the rain so he wouldn’t dissolve into the ecosystem, rooting in whatever soil was closest, erupting in clumps of moss while salmonberry runners snagged him, tearing him with their thorns. The bog (and Vancouver is surprisingly boggy, though you might not think it) wanted him back.

But when it was dry and summer-hot, Aidan stood with a man’s firmness and spoke with a voice deep as a drum, and he could almost pass for normal.

I first saw him standing in a streamer of dawn mist rising off the surface of Burnaby Lake.

I was running a loop around the park, fighting to pass the fitness exam for a job I wasn’t sure I wanted anymore, one my lungs had about given up on. I was gasping for wind on a narrow stub of beach when I spotted him, still as a stump in the slate water, thigh deep and surrounded by paddling mallards and their ducklings. The sun had only just crested the treetops behind him and he was just a well-formed shadow.

Wheezing, I raised my phone, taking a snap for Cutemeat. The blog was my friend June’s idea: join an online community, she’d said, show that department-appointed therapist you’re still interested in boys. Sign of mental health, right?

“Adonis, fishing without a pole,” I captioned the shot, hitting SEND.

Then I thought: And without hip waders. Isn’t he cold?

I looked closely. No sign of rubber boots or any other water gear. I squirmed involuntarily, imagining cold water lapping at the join of his legs.

The sunlight brightened and I realized I was looking at his bare ass. The phone bleeped, loudly, to say it had sent the photo. Startled, I dropped it on the sand.

“Don’t be afraid.” Bass voice, fog-cool, lapped across the lake. “Please . . .  ma’am . . .”

Just when did I become a ma’am?I scrabbled for a hefty branch, in case he came after me with a machete.

A machete hidden where? He’s got no pants!

But it had all been an illusion. As the mist gusted away I saw his limbs were wood, his nose a curl of bark. The ducks were gone.

“Who said that?” I shouted. The sound vanished into the brush.

I circled, club raised, then retrieved the phone, checking to see if someone had called, trying to explain the trick. But no. Apparently I was having a nervous breakdown.

Or was I? A year earlier, a couple witches in Oregon had spilled (or unveiled or unleashed, depending on whose spin you were buying) magic into the U.S. Actual friggin’ magic, as June puts it: flying carpets, people wielding lightning bolts, monster fish in Puget Sound, the whole nine yards. Mount St. Helens erupted and terrorist wizards sank a U.S. aircraft carrier. The forest north of Portland overgrew and jammed up with trees—weird, enchanted, supertall trees—and monsters too.

But Canada was supposed to be mostly clean: the government had gone to the expense of posting signs at Burnaby Lake, promising it was safe.

Would it be better if I was insane?

Maybe we were all a little crazy now. Last Christmas our biggest problems had been climate change, the recession, and war in the Middle East. Now it was glowing rabid raccoons sneaking around Seattle, magic-wielding cults fighting the FBI, refugees, missing persons by the thousands, tsunamis, hurricanes, volcanic eruptions, quakes in the news every week, and people turning into animals.

Plusclimate change, war, and an even worse recession.

I ran on. By the time I’d got as far as Piper Spit, it was obvious something was wrong with my phone. Sap caked the memory card slot, and the whole thing was cold, cold enough that water beaded on it, running down the screen. I pulled it apart, extracting the card, disconnecting the battery, and giving all the pieces a fierce rub with toilet paper cadged from the bathroom at the nature center. The sap tore at the tissue while sticking the paper to the phone itself. All I achieved was getting goo and paper stuck in the burn scars on my palms.

Magic it is, I thought. I stuffed the bits of the phone in my day pack, then shared out my granola bar with the ducks, starlings, and Canada geese mooching after handouts on Piper Spit. There were a couple of birders out with big cameras, seated under little neoprene sheets of camouflage-patterned plastic, breath puffing as they waited, waited, for the perfect shot to come along.

I picked at the sap on my palms, in the scars.

“Okay, this is good. It’s better if it’s magic,” I told the birds. “I can still pass that physical, show the doctor I got mental health by the truckload and a strong libido too, and get back into the firehouse.”

They scrabbled at my feet, in single-minded pursuit of my crumbs.

 

“Sometimes I ask myself, why do I feel this way? Why does it feel like my heart’s beating for us both? What’s this tie between us I can’t imagine cutting?”

“I wonder why you feel this way too,” Aidan said, in his syrupy Georgia drawl. “Lovin’ someone with my limitations . . .”

“I hate it when you get all ‘I don’t deserve you.’”

“Just not sure I do,” he said.

“Everyone has limitations,” I said—that much, I knew for sure. “Everyone’s a lot of work.”

“One good pourdown and I may yet fall apart. I get chilled, I stiffen up—”

“I’ll try to keep you warm.”

“I’ve got no papers, Calla, I’m in the country illegally. I should be under magical quarantine.”

“Shut up,” I replied. I’d man-napped him away from the bog, to a rented trailer in the heart of wine country, in the desert town of Oliver, near Lake Okanagan. Fleeing east down the highway, a six-hour drive from Vancouver, to a climate where it was drier and hotter and hopefully safer, had seemed like a great idea at the time. “Anyway, I’m contaminated now too.”

“Because of me.”

I waved that off. “My point is: why you? Why you and me, why this thing? We’ve both had lovers before. We worked at it, I know. When it ended, all those other times, I didn’t shrug it off, did you?”

“No, you’re right. I’ve had my heart broke.”

“I never had this feeling before, that cheesy teen romance thing where if you died, I feel like I would too. I’m a practical person, not some doe-eyed movie heroine.”

It was almost dawn. Aidan had found work making buns and custard cakes in the scorching heat, cash under the table, in a bakery that purported to be Portuguese. Now he was out on his break, in the alley. We’d missed each other too much to wait the six hours until his shift ended.

He said: “Maybe the clichés were true all along. Maybe there is one perfect soul mate for everyone.”

“Not a bunch of people who’ll do?”

“I didn’t believe either—I was a scientist, Calla.” He pulled me close and my heart trip-hammered. He had come straight from the kitchen, and his skin lacked its usual chill. He was almost as warm as a man. “Love at first sight . . . I never bought into that.”

“Maybe it wasn’t true all along,” I said. “Maybe when all that horror-movie stuff escaped near Portland, fairy-tale things came too—”

“Things,” he teased.

“Love at first sight, like you said.” I poked him in what should have been his ribs. “Someday my damn prince will come.”

“One glass slipper, one foot to fit? Happily ever after?”

Nose to nose, we giggled nervously. If we got caught we’d be separated, locked away just for being freaks. Maybe all this nigh-painful joy was just the knife edge of secrecy, the intensity of being cut off from normal life. We had to be everything to each other; we couldn’t trust anyone else. “We’re not Cinderella and Prince Charming, Aidan. More . . . Bonnie and Clyde.”

“Without the guns,” he said, and I found myself wishing he’d denied it. “Thelma and Louise.”

“Without the big kersplat?”

“Let’s hope.” He kissed me and I savored those lips, that warmth. “My break’s over.”

One more squeeze and he was gone, with a blast of hot air from the baking ovens and the clang of a fire door. I was alone in the alley with a couple of hopeful, garbage-seeking grackles and my thoughts, which tended to the grim.

 

My swamp man made love more or less as a man did. He was shaped right, even if the feel of him against my skin lacked an animal’s heat. I had to learn not to bite him, ever, because the marks lasted for weeks, and the acrid tang of plant juice on my tongue was too much of a reminder of how far removed from human he had become.

I couldn’t think about his swampy self, about what he was like in the rain. Instead I watched his face as I moved over him, his expressions twisting in normal, undignified, apelike contortions of pleasure. He groaned and shuddered and came like any man, and sometimes when he did, there was a rush of sound, wind through poplar leaves, and I’d feel something titanic, an internal battering wind, irresistible, pleasure so intense it was as though it might fling me across the room. I’d feel him and me, locked around each other, and our problems became as ephemeral as tissue paper.

Also, he wasn’t uptight: he let me name that part of him Woody.

We kept to ourselves out of necessity, playing hermit to protect our secret, and so we made love a lot. Our days in the desert were sex and TV, book reading and naps, walks together in the heat, sleeping odd hours and as much cash work as we could get. Warmth and sunshine for him, food for me, all the money we could squirrel away. We were always poised to flee: cash in the truck, a packed suitcase, full tank of gas and the endless speculating. Where next?

“Alberta’s dry,” he said one day as we were strolling through an orchard, six-foot trees laden with green, rock-hard apricots.

“The winters are cold,” I said. “You’ll stiffen up.”

“You’ll keep me warm.”

“If I can.”

“We don’t know that you’ll hibernate.”

“We don’t know that I won’t. We should try to get into the States, Aidan. Hotter country and more people to hide among. A whole culture of illegal migrants. I could be someone’s nanny.”

“How would you get me through the border?” He was American, but he was on the missing list. The bog, ever a jealous lover, had eaten his ID along with his clothes and his research team.

“I’ve already seen the Prairies. I want—”

“Just one winter. Longer we’re loose, the better our chances are,” he said. This was his mantra, that thread of hope I didn’t quite believe in. If the mystical apocalypse kept getting worse, he thought, governments might run out of resources for chasing those of us who’d been contaminated by magic.

I took a long whiff of the sandy air, trying to dry the tears that threatened whenever we had these conversations. As long as we didn’t look at it square, I wasn’t unhappy. When we did, I got to thinking: is it really going to be marginal jobs and fear of the cops and the packed truck ready to go, for as long as we live?

Aidan must have sensed the storm building in me, because he changed the subject. “What happened that day in Vancouver? The day you lit out for here? You’d kicked me out of your place, told me to get lost. Why’d you change your mind?”

“I can’t get out of the habit of rescuing people?”

“Don’t be glib.” He adjusted his glasses on his nose; he didn’t need them anymore, but somehow he’d hung on to them through it all: they were the only past he had left.

I thought back to the storm: standing on my back porch with a paper birthday hat melting on my head in all that warm, pouring rain. Aidan had been hunched in a corner, semiconscious, obviously hurting. Cedars and maple saplings were sprouting on his legs, using him as a nurse tree. Black slugs and leopard slugs pooled in his elbows and in the hollow of his neck. A stack of shelf fungus was fluting out on his rib cage.

It was an unsettling, unpleasant memory; this was what I screwed every day, after all, this guy who just needed a good soaker to reduce him to a spongy mass of rotten vegetation.

If I’d left him where he was that night, he’d be gone, absorbed back into a forest that wanted its mind back.

“Calla?”

“I was trying to get back on the job. There was the physical stuff, with my lungs.”

“Which are improving.”

“Love heals,” I said.

“Not the dry air? Or the magical contamination?”

“Love,” I insisted. “There was this physical I had to pass, and the therapist with her questions. Why’d I go into that building again when I knew it was unsafe, why did I risk myself and the guys from my firehouse? How’d I feel about the civilian dying? Civilian, she’d say, like he wasn’t even a person. How’d I feel about being burned? She seemed to think I needed friends and hobbies . . .”

“Friends and hobbies and a normal life?” he asked, a little wistfully.

“It was stupid, I told her. Plenty of time to putter in the garden and go for drinks with the guys: give me my job back. Who am I if I’m not a firefighter?”

“Who are you now? A fugitive.”

“I’m yours.” I wrapped my arms around him, locking eyes until the sadness went, until he nodded that I should go on with the tale.

“You kissed me, Aidan, and we argued. You didn’t square with getting my job back, and I was scared. So I forced myself to tell you to clear off.”

“You stormed out,” he remembered. “‘Be gone ’fore I’m back from physio,’ you hollered.”

I’d never made it to the physiotherapist’s: I’d gone down the road to the public library, locked myself in the women’s bathroom and sobbed until they kicked me out. Instead of telling him that, I said: “My friend June had hatched this plan to show my shrink I had a social life on the go. A surprise party, for my birthday. She’d been waiting for me to leave for physio.”

“She had a key to your place.” Aidan nodded. “I was about to leave when she came into the house with a dozen people. The decorating committee for the birthday party. I had to sneak upstairs.”

He’d been cowering in the closet when I finally made it up there, hours later. Safe enough, but miserable. And I was so relieved. “Don’t go, don’t leave, I’m sorry,” I had begged him, and we ended up necking like horny teenagers. I remember that crazed teen romance part of me thinking it was capital-D Destiny, that June had saved me from a terrible mistake.

Destiny was nosy. She set me to cutting a cake and went up to investigate what her guest of honor had gotten up to. It all turned a bit French farce, after that: Aidan had to climb out the window and down to the porch to escape her, and that’s when it started to pour.

ONE

One,” by Nancy Kress, is a science fiction novella about an angry young boxer who, after experiencing a concussion in a bout, is able to sense what people are thinking and predict their every move. He finds this useful in boxing but not great for personal relationships and turns to artificial means to deaden the sensations.

This novella was acquired for Tor.com by consulting editor Ellen Datlow.

“I doubt if anyone ever touches the limits at either end of his personality. We are not our own light.” —Flannery O’Connor, private letter, 1962

 

 

I.

“It’s a long way to fall, Zack.”

Zack scowled up at Anne, wishing she would go away. Bad enough to be lying on this damn hospital bed in a thin cotton dress that left his ass bare. Bad enough to be going into surgery for something wrong in his brain. Bad enough to not understand what that something was, not even after one of all those doctors had explained it, just the same way he’d never understood that kind of intellectual crap his whole stupid life. But having his sister loom over him, upright when he was down—well, wasn’t that just the icing on this particular shit cake?

“I’m fine,” he said shortly.

“Of course you’ll be fine,” Anne said.

“So go back to work. I don’t need you here.”

“I’m on break anyway,” Anne said. She wore her nurse’s scrubs, her brown curls tied back. She, or the curtained cubicle, smelled of disinfectant trying to smell like pine trees. “I just wanted to remind you that when they put you under the anesthetic, it can feel like a long way to—”

“I got it, I got it already! Now go away!”

Behind her, Gail—and who invited her to be here, anyway?—said, “Knock it off, Murphy. She’s just trying to be nice.”

“Nobody asked you!”

“If anything happens to you in there, do you really want your last words to Anne to be ‘go away’?”

Gail was right, the bitch. Gail was right, Anne was right, the doctors were right—only Zack was wrong. Like he’d been wrong his whole life. But if they’d just leave him alone for five fucking minutes to think, he couldn’t think with both of them jabbering at him . . . And it wasn’t like Gail cared what happened to him in surgery.  She might love Anne, she might have married Anne in a state where they could do that, but Zack was just so much spoiled meat to Gail. Always had been, ever since she and Anne got together. Gail, lean and muscled and as welcome here as a bad uppercut to the chin.

A second later, the other too-familiar feeling swamped him: regret that he hadn’t been nicer to Anne. Why was that always so hard to do?

“Please,” Anne said in her soft, pleading voice. “Please don’t fight again, you two.”

“I’m sorry, Anne,” Gail said.

“Sorry,” Zack muttered. Sorry, sorry, sorry. He was always apologizing to Anne.

“I know you didn’t mean it,” Anne said.

Another, older nurse came into the curtained cubicle and glanced quizzically at Anne, who began explaining that she was a relative, Zack’s next of kin, not a member of the surgical team. The other nurse nodded, not interested. “Ready, Mr. Murphy?”

“Yeah.”

“Wait—what’s that black eye? Does Dr. Singh know about this?”

How should Zack know what Dr. Singh did or didn’t know? Zack wasn’t a damn mind reader. He said, “I box. We get hit. We get black eyes.” It came out nastier than he intended. So, all right, maybe he was nervous about this operation. It was on his brain, after all. Maybe his brain wasn’t much, but it was the only one he had.

His sister, the brainy one, launched into a history of all the doctors Zack had seen in the last week, what they’d said about the tumor in Zack’s head, the concussion he’d gotten in the fight against DeShawn Jeffers, a bunch of other medical bullshit. Finally—finally!—the women finished talking and an orderly wheeled him into the operating room.  Almost a relief. Anne, Gail—it was too much sometimes. And Jazzy not there only because he’d forbidden her to come. She hadn’t liked that, but he’d been firm. Three months of seeing each other, even with great sex, didn’t mean she could invade every corner of his life.

The last thing he saw before the OR doors closed was Gail, her arm around Anne, staring fixedly at Zack like she could erase him from the Earth. He wanted to give her the finger, but he didn’t get his arms free of the blanket in time.

He transferred himself from the gurney to a table, someone holding his IV tubes out of the way. The room was full of masked people, only their eyes visible. A bright light overhead like a mirrored UFO with a handle sticking out of it. Humming machinery. One nurse lifted Zack’s wrist to read his name band; another assisted a doctor with gloves.

A third doctor sat on a stool beside Zack’s head while something was injected into his IV. “Relax, Mr. Murphy,” she said. “You’re just going to take a little nap. Now, count backwards from a hundred.”

Don’t tell me what to do. He counted forward instead, picturing Jeffers lying there in the ring, that was it, Zack should have won that fight, one two three four . . .

A weird drifting took him. What the . . . he wasn’t . . . this . . . .

It’s a long way to fall, Zack.

 

He woke in a cubicle with a curtain around it and a bedside table holding a barf bowl shaped like a fancy swimming pool. Plastic tubing ran all over him. From somewhere came the smell of coffee. Everything seemed fuzzy. Someone—not Anne, not Jazzy—fussed with machines. Zack tried to say something and couldn’t.

“Rest,” the someone said. He slept.

 

But the next time he woke, he was in a different room, and it was full of people. Scrubs, white coats, two men in suits.  None of them were looking at him. They clustered around a screen, looking at something Zack couldn’t see.

“Not possible,” someone said.

“It has to be possible because there it is,” someone else said, irritated and impressed and scared.

How do I know all that from looking at his back? Zack thought drowsily, and slept again.

 

The third time, he came fully awake. The plastic tubing was all gone. The room had pale blue curtains and a view of the parking lot. Only Anne, wearing an off-duty skirt and top, sat beside his bed, her head bent over a magazine. Unexpectedly, gladness at seeing her flooded him.

“Hey,” Zack said. It came out a croak.

Anne looked up. Instantly, Zack thought: She’s scared. Really scared.

“You’re awake!”

“Yeah. What’s wrong?”

“What do you mean?”

“Don’t lie to me, Anne! Something’s wrong and it’s, like, major. Am I . . . am I dying?”

Her hand shot out to rest on his. “Oh, no, Zack, nothing like that! You came through the surgery just fine. Nothing’s wrong.”

“I said don’t lie to me!” He could feel her fear—no, wait, what did that mean? But it was true. 

He knew she was afraid, and wary of him, and at the same time . . . curious, her mind open and searching for answers . . . How could Zack know all that? He was no mind reader. No, he knew it from the way Anne held her head, the way her eyebrows shifted, the set of her mouth . . . He simply knew. Just like he knew a second before she stood up that was what she’d do next.

“I have to get Dr. Jakowski,” she said. “I told him I’d send for him as soon as you woke up.”

“Who’s Dr. Jakowski?” Hadn’t his surgeon had some Indian name, not a Polack one?

Anne didn’t answer. She left, and Zack lay in the bed testing his hands and arms and legs. Everything seemed to work all right. He made a fist, two fists, sat up. Still in that damn bare-ass cotton dress. A man in a white coat strode into the room ahead of Anne.

Eager as a rookie before his first fight. Thinks he’s way better than anybody else. Looks at me like a lab rat. He’s going to ask me a lot of questions but tell me nothing.

“You’re quite an interesting phenomenon, Mr. Murphy. I’m going to ask you some questions now.”

“No, you’re not,” Zack snapped. The man is going to hold up his left hand. Cold slid down Zack’s spine, icing his bones. How do I know what he’s going to do before he does it?

Jakowski held up his left hand. “Purely routine, Mr. Murphy. Now, when you—”

“It’s not routine and you know it, you bastard.”

“Zack!” Anne said. She turned to the doctor. “I apologize on behalf of my brother, doctor. He—”

“Don’t apologize for me, Anne. You’ve done it my whole fucking life. I’ll talk to somebody, but somebody who isn’t a high-and-mighty prick.”

The doctor mottled maroon. Another man in a white coat entered the room. “Mr. Murphy is awake?”

As eager as the other one, but this guy’s human. Hasn’t got a stick up his ass. Quiet but not timid, he’d go the distance in a fight, featherweight maybe, good shoulders . . . He’s going to reach out his right hand, ask me how I’m doing . . .

“How are you feeling? I’m Dr. John Norwood, a neurologist.” He held out his right hand to shake hands with Zack.

Zack shook and nodded, all at once too confused to speak.

Anne said, “Zack, does your head hurt?”

“No.” Something easy, something he could answer. Zack clung to it like a life raft in a choppy sea.

“Good,” Norwood said. “I’d like to ask you some questions, if that’s all right with you. May I sit down?”

“Sure. But Dr. King-of-the-World there, he goes.”

Anne looked startled. Jakowski stalked out. Norwood sat and smiled, so slightly that no one could have seen the tiny movement of his lips, too brief for interpretation.

FREEZE

As a nearly immortal Valkyrie, Mist is the guardian of the greatest of the Norse god’s Treasures—Odin’s spear Gungnir. But Mist believes all the gods are dead, and she’s slowly settling into a normal life in San Francisco. Just when Mist is ready to give up the duty the All-father laid on her, she meets a mysterious woman, Bella Stratus, and a man who helps her save Bella’s life:  Eric Larsson, the perfect embodiment of a Viking warrior. He’s charming, good-natured, and nearly her equal in strength; and for the first time in centuries Mist has found someone she might be able to love… and trust. “Freeze Warning” is set in the world of Susan Krinard’s Midgard series.

This short story was acquired and edited for Tor.com by editor Melissa Frain.

 

Gungnir seemed to hum in Mist’s hands as if it had a life of its own.

And it did. Odin’s life. The life of the All-father, who sat in his throne before Mist and her sister Valkyrie, a father stern and uncompromising and pitiless.

Outside the walls of the vast hall known as Valaskialf, the battle raged: Einherjar and Alfar against Jotunar, the Aesir facing Loki and his fell children. Surtr and the fire giants on their way from across the sea, and the World Tree, Yggdrasil, groaning and writhing as its roots began to rot.

But it was only the beginning of the Last Battle. And when it ended . . .

“By your sacred oaths, you will protect these Treasures with your lives,” Odin said, sweeping them once more with his burning, one-eyed gaze. “No matter what transpires in the other Homeworlds, you will remain on Midgard, and you will see that no one finds these objects of power.”

“But if this is Ragnarok,” Mist said, daring Odin’s wrath, “all the enemies will be destroyed. Whatever becomes of Midgard—”

“Silence.” Odin scowled at her, with an expression that could knock any of the Aesir off his feet if the All-father chose. “You forget yourself, Valkyrie.”

Mist lowered her head, trembling with fear and anger and the desperate need to join the other warriors of Asgard in battle. But the sword she wore at her side was only symbolic, and Gungnir—the Swaying One, the Spear that never missed its mark—was not hers to wield.

“You will be set down in the Northlands of Midgard,” he said, relieving Mist of his terrible attention. “You will be concealed from Loki and his allies. Even the Aesir and Alfar will not be able to find you.”

Because they will be dead, Mist thought. Odin will meet Fenrir and be destroyed. The Homeworlds will fall, and there will be nothing left but ash. Midgard may become a paradise as the seeress foretold, but no one will ever come for what we guard, neither ally nor enemy.

We will be utterly alone.

“And our mounts?” Bryn asked in a soft, very respectful voice.

“They remain in Asgard until the end. You will have but this one purpose. Do not fail.”

The Sisters looked at one another, fearful and bewildered and desperate: Hild gripping the reins of Odin’s eight-legged steed, Sleipnir; Regin with mighty Mjollnir, Thor’s Hammer; Bryn with Freya’s cloak, which let its wearer fly like a falcon; Sigrun with Gleipnir, the chain that could not be broken, which had snapped when the world began to crumble and released the Great Wolf Fenrir upon Asgard.

The others—Kara with the Gjallarhorn, already sounded by Heimdall to mark the beginning of the end; Eir with the apples of Idunn, which kept the gods forever young; Horja, Olrun, Rota, Skuld, Hrist, each with her own Treasure—waited without speaking. Waited for the final command.

“Go into the antechamber,” Odin commanded all but Mist, “and wait for me there.”

The others drifted away, some stumbling in shock, others feigning acceptance Mist knew they didn’t feel. When they had closed the doors behind them, Odin beckoned to Mist, calling her up to the dais where he sat on his golden throne. His wolves, Geri and Freki, sniffed and circled her as she climbed the steps.

“You have ever rebelled against your Fate, Valkyrie,” he said, Draupnir glittering on his finger as he gestured his disapproval. “Yet now you have been given a greater one than ever you imagined.” He reached inside his coat and withdrew a leather cord. At the end of it hung a piece of stone, carved with a raven and Rune-staves of power and protection. “Take this. You will wear it as a sign of my favor, and as a ward against evil.”

Mist bowed her head, stunned by Odin’s favor. “Why am I worthy of this?” she whispered.

“Ask not what I will not tell you.” He draped the cord around her neck. She gripped Gungnir so tightly that she thought her fingers might break.

“It is done,” Odin said, rising from his throne. He sighed, the first time he had shown even the slightest weariness or regret. “Join the others. I will follow presently.”

RIDING

It’s twenty minutes, maybe a half hour, from my office to Mandelbaum’s. My office is in the Languages Building—excuse me, the Randall J. Simonson Foundation Languages Building. You lose points if you forget to name the benefactor. The university knows which side its bread is buttered on. Oh, you bet it does. When there’s butter. Hell, when there’s bread.

By the time I got to the bar, I needed a beer a lot more than I had when I set out. Somebody a couple of blocks from the campus side of Mandelbaum’s had walked in front of a car. Not just any car, either. A Lincoln Navigator. Dead, of course. Never knew what hit him, I hope.

Cops and paramedics couldn’t have pulled up more than half a minute before I walked by. They’d thrown a sheet over him, but it was still pretty bad. Worse than you see on the news, ’cause the news cleans up the gore or cuts away. You didn’t only see it there. You could smell it, all thick and rusty. Made my stomach turn over.

A couple of little animals or birds were scurrying around the edge of the pool. I couldn’t tell what they were up to—maybe scouting for chunks of meat in the soup. Believe me, I didn’t check it out too close.

The woman who’d been driving the Navigator was talking to a cop. She was sleek and blonde and middle-aged: plainly part of the one percent, not the ninety-nine. Things like this weren’t supposed to happen to people like her. But one had. She still sounded stunned, not horrified. “I couldn’t do a thing, Officer,” she was saying. “Not a thing. He didn’t even look. He just walked out in front of me—and bam!” Bam! was right.

When I walked into Mandelbuam’s, Victor drew me a Sam Adams and slid it across the bar. Then he eyed me and said, “You okay, Stan? You’re kinda green around the gills.”

So I told him why I was green around the gills.

“Oh, Jesus!” He pointed to the beer. “On the house, man. That same thing happened to me last month. Still creeps me out—I’ve woke up from nightmares in a cold sweat, like, two or three times. Mine was a gal.”

“Makes it even worse somehow,” I said.

“It totally does.” Victor nodded. Then he did it again, in a different way—toward the pint of beer. “So get yourself outside of that right away. It’ll take the edge off. Then have another one, slower, and you oughta be good to go.”

“Sounds like the right prescription, Doc,” I said, and set to work on the first part of it.

There were only a couple of other people at the bar, but it was early yet. Things would perk up. They always did. Mandelbaum’s is a good place. It’s half town, half gown, you might say. Not a meat market bar, though there are a gay one and a straight one within a few blocks. Mandelbaum’s is more like a permanent floating cocktail party. You run into all kinds of people there, some fascinating, some . . . well, not so much.

But you do hear some out-of-the-ordinary answers when you get around to asking, “So what do you do, then?”

I started talking with somebody who came in a little while after I did. By then, I was halfway down the second Sam Adams. I definitely had a little buzz. I wasn’t smashed or anywhere close—I’m a big guy (six-three, two-twenty—oh, all right, two-forty, but I am gonna start working out again RSN). Still, the alcohol put a transparent shield between me and that poor damn fool dead on the asphalt. Smashed on the asphalt. Puddled on the asphalt. I might need one more to firm up the transparent shield a bit.

“So what do you do?” he asked.

“Germanic languages at the U,” I said. “Specialize in Gothic.”

“In what?” he said.

Which was the same thing everybody said, including my mother. Well, except for a few who said Never heard of it. But the ones who came out with that were usually less interesting than the other kind.

“Gothic,” I said again. “Oldest Germanic language that got written down. Bishop Ulfila translated the Bible—most of it—into Gothic in the fourth century A.D.”

“That’s a while ago now.”

“Uh-huh.”

“Anybody still speak it?”

“Not since the eighteenth century,” I told him. “Some of the Goths settled in Italy. The Byzantine Empire conquered them in the sixth century. Some settled in Spain. The Arabs conquered them in the eighth century. A few stayed behind in the Crimea. They were the ones who lasted longest.”

“If no one still uses it, what’s the point to studying it?” he asked.

That was the other question everybody came up with—also including my mother. But he didn’t ask it in a snarky way. He sounded as if he really wanted to know. So I answered, “You can learn a lot about how the younger languages grew and changed if you compare them to one that didn’t grow and change so much. And I have fun doing it.”

“There you go!” he said. “If you can get paid for what you get off on anyway, you’re ahead of the game. I do it, too.”

“Do you?” He’d listened to me. The least I could do was pay him back. “How?”

And it turned out he was a farrier. I found out more about shoeing horses and horseshoe nails and trackside gossip than I’d ever imagined. He didn’t just work at the track. He had a regular business with the horsy people in Woodlawn Heights, which is where the horsy people mostly lived.

After we’d talked a while longer, it also turned out he’d watched somebody get clobbered by a car—by a pickup, as a matter of fact. He’d seen it happen, poor guy. I told Victor. By then, I was most of the way down my third beer, so letting Victor know seemed uncommonly important.

He clicked his tongue between his teeth. “Must be something going around,” he said. And he also let the farrier—whose name, I haven’t told you, was Eddie—have a free one. Mandelbaum’s is a class joint.

IN THE SIGHT

Claire’s lover has no tongue. A slave liberated from a heathen temple, Aya cannot tell the story of her stolen voice, or of her and Claire’s unfolding love. She cannot speak her pain, her joy, or her sorrow. And if she sees that which eludes the blind goddess of justice, she cannot bear witness. “In the Sight of Akresa” is a tragic fantasy romance from debut author Ray Wood.

This novelette was acquired and edited for Tor.com by acquiring editor Carl Engle-Laird.

 

 

This is how they took your tongue:

There is a wedge, short and made of steel, used to prise apart the teeth. The skin on your lips splits as the slave-maker pushes it into your mouth. Hard Yovali hands hold you all over, keeping your arms behind your back, your knees on the ground, your face towards the sun. Metal crunches against your teeth, scraping, swiveling, pushing. Your incisors feel like they are bending inwards.

You part your teeth before you lose them and the wedge shoots in, followed by foreign fingers that hook into your cheeks. They taste of rust and salt. The blood-priest finds your tongue between his thumb and forefinger and grips it where it starts to fatten, near the root. He pulls. The slave-maker accepts a slender, silk-wrapped something from a loinclothed woman.

Saliva pools around your bottom lip.

The something is the haraad-kité, the voice-cutter. The slave-maker draws it with a flourish from its half-moon sheath and holds it high, his fingers curled around its spine. He is still, his tall, lean body blocking out the sun. Then, all at once and with a scream, he plunges. The blade dips into the meat of your tongue like a finger into water.

 

Cecil’s books are vague about the rest. I have lain awake more nights than one wondering about what must have followed: the blood pooling in your mouth; the hollow throb of pain; that terrible emptiness behind your teeth. The heat of the cauterising iron biting at the mess of open flesh.

Forgive me. This story remains the only one I have of you; of your life before me. You must know how it pains me that it comes from Cecil’s library rather than your lips—oh, your sweet, battered lips!—and that it would fit a hundred other slaves as well as it fits you. Perhaps none of the accounts that I have read is even true.

Oh, my love. I know so little of you.

 

We met on the second Sunday after Harvestfest, when the leaves were browning and the men returned from the Yovali lands. My mother and I watched from the wall as Father’s host approached, feeling the wind whip through our dresses. As the column of knights drew closer I could see the breath fuming from the nostrils of the horses.

We went down in our finery to welcome them. Father came in first, as was customary, with Garrick at his right. Their shields were splattered with mud. My brother seemed taller than he had before going on campaign: newly tanned and mountainous, with fresh muscle packed beneath his skin.

“Claire,” he said by way of greeting once they had dismounted and the ritual welcomes had been spoken. I saw Father looking over at us.

“Welcome home, Garrick.” I touched my lips to both his cheeks. “I hope there’s a gift for me among your spoils.”

“Oh, yes.” He grinned and beckoned a boy over to undo his armour. “These heathen treasures will make you doubt your eyes.”

The great hall was prepared, the fire lit; slopping wineskins were handed round above head height. A singer accompanied herself on a vielle. Father spoke to me briefly, in between carousing with his knights and sitting with my mother. “You’re a young woman, now, Claire,” he said. He drew back and looked me up and down as if my breasts were new developments.

“You sound surprised, Father.” The cheek he bent to me was warm and bristly. “It’s not been so long since you left.”

He nodded sadly and drew me in to walk beside him, his arm around my shoulders. “We brought back wonders,” he said.

Wonders indeed. The revelers were silenced; a circle was cleared in the middle of the crowd as the chests were carried in. Behind me, people jostled for a better view as one of Father’s richer knights knelt to open the first casket. The stones around the fireplace blasted heat into my back.

“Spoils won from the Yovali in the name of King Lucian XXI, awarded by His Majesty to His Grace the Duke of Rouchefort!”

Treasures shone like sugared fruits. The first chest was full of gems and gold, the second bronze and porcelain. There were bulky crescent bangles stained with dye, discs and trinkets patterned after constellations, plump ornamental pots and jars. Another casket held a nest of looted weaponry. Endless spoils were revealed and marveled at: big flasks of wine that smelt of foreign spice; great oiled pipes with bowls like ladles, and the herbs meant to be smoked in them; a set of ceremonial masks; what looked like the bones of some vast lizard dipped in gold. My interest in them shattered the moment you were brought into the hall.

“Liberated by His Grace himself, and granted to his service by His Majesty the King, one slave of the Yovali. Her tongue was ripped from her mouth to prevent blasphemy against their heathen blood-god.”

The last statement drew a collective gasp. My chest was suddenly too tight for my heart; I stood up on my toes as a knight stepped sideways and blocked my view. Shadows danced among the roof beams.

Shall I tell you how you looked to me, that first time? I was expecting a hunched, shrunken creature, grubby head bowed as if in shame at the emptiness behind your mouth, but you stood with your shoulders back. Your mass of unwashed raven hair fell several inches past the base of your neck. Your skin was tanned. I remember how you held your hands: clasped in front of you as if you were in church, in what would have been your lap had you been sitting down. Your breasts pushed against your tunic.

Torches burned behind your eyes.

“. . . shall live in the castle as your equal.” Father was addressing the assembly, his hand resting on your shoulder. You looked toned and lean enough to knock him flat, if you so chose. “She is now a free Lucean woman, and free to labour for her bread upon De Rouchefort lands as long as she may live.”

“A whore without a tongue,” Garrick murmured in my ear under the ensuing applause. His breath was spiced with wine. “Now there’s a treasure for you, Claire.”

The hairs lifted from my neck.

 

Aya. I heard my father call you Aya.

The name burned in me like a flame those first few days. I realised later that it could not have been your real one, but even now it remains the only one I have for you. When I used it for the first time you simply stared at me for a moment and then dipped your head back to your work, as if it didn’t matter what I called you.

Of course, I wondered how my father chose it for you. I did not like my conclusion—that those were the first, desperate syllables that flopped from your tongueless mouth when he first bore down upon you, sword in hand, believing you Yovali—but what else was I to think? He would not tell me where he found you. Had he plucked you from some heathen temple? A blackened, back-breaking mine? The reeking pleasure bed of some Yovali blood-priest? Each was an abhorrent thought.

Not yet having Cecil’s library at my disposal, I obsessed over the mystery of your missing tongue. Had it been ripped out whole, or did some misshapen stump remain for you to gag on? What became of the missing flesh once they took it from you? I examined my own tongue in the glass while Letia brushed my hair. I flexed and wiggled it—strange, throat-filling worm that it was—as I imagined histories for you.

I saw you again three days after the men returned, when Father called a Justice Circle. I suppose you had not been to one before, but they held no novelty for me. Every second month my father and his trusted council would hear testimony and evidence of all the crimes and grievances committed on De Rouchefort lands, and come to an impartial verdict. Attendance was mandatory for all. This time was much the same as any, except that morning I made Letia take extra care with my hair and spent the first two cases writhing in my seat to see if I could spot you.

I picked you out eventually among the stable hands, near the foot of the Akresa statue. I must have seen the marble likeness of the justice goddess a thousand times, but I had never wondered, until I saw her next to you, what lay beneath the sculpted crinkles of her blindfold. Were her eyes meant merely to be closed, or were there gristly, scooped-out hollows in their place?

You had washed, and your dark hair was sleek and lustrous. I stared at the back of your head, willing you to turn around and meet my eyes. I did not look away until Garrick stood to speak for the good character of the accused. One of Father’s lesser knights was standing trial for the rape of a peasant girl. When judgement had been passed and the girl was being led away, I saw Garrick squeeze my father’s shoulder.

After that day I watched for you in the castle, eavesdropping on the servants to see if you featured in their gossip. Once or twice I considered simply asking about you, but I knew how rumours spread and didn’t want anything to get back to Garrick. So I waited. Then, down by the buttery one morning, I overheard Letia whispering to her brother’s sweetheart:

“Hugh says his birds won’t come near him since he took that tongueless witch as an apprentice. Says she’s put her heathen magic on them.”

I was gripped by a desire to have her tongue pulled out for speaking of you that way, but I contented myself with being sullen and contrary when she clothed me that evening, making her lift my arms to get my dress over my head.

Your role among the staff discovered, I needed only to contrive an excuse to speak with you. That afternoon, I told Father that I wished to take up falconry again. He was surprised, I think, but then any interaction between us tended to surprise him. He had a servant bring my bird up from the mews. She was a proud, white, staring thing—I’d forgotten what I’d named her—who twitched her head from side to side and could not sit still on the glove.

I brushed off my mother’s suggestion that hunting was something that Garrick and I might do together and instead went down to the forest on my own, stopping on the way to borrow a small knife from the kitchens. I spent an hour with the falcon tethered to my wrist, cooing and crooning until she grew used to me. When she was settled enough to consent to my touch, I took out the knife and snicked along the roots of several crucial-looking feathers. She jerked as I maimed her: when I released my grip on her wing she flew shrieking to the full length of her tether, squawking panic and displeasure. I batted her away from my face and waited out her pain. Eventually, after a great deal of shushing, she calmed down enough to be taken back to the castle and tied up in my chamber. Her left wing was slick with blood.

“A cat attacked my bird while I was hunting,” I announced at dinner. “I thought I’d take her down to Hugh this evening.”

I knew that Hugh would not be there—I had it from the bucktoothed boy in the stables that he met with a lady in the village tavern every Wednesday after nightfall—and that, with any luck, I would have you to myself. In my chamber, the falcon perched warily on the back of a chair, ducking her head round to pick at her injured wing. I brushed my hair until it shone. Cold air whistled through my sleeves as I crossed the darkened courtyard.

It was never completely silent in the mews: I could always hear the rustling of feathers or the clacking of a beak, or the scratch of claws on wood from within the screened compartments where the falcons slept. My nose wrinkled at the smell of guano.

You stood there with your back to me, humming. I’d heard Hugh sing to the birds before—it was part of a falcon’s training that she be sung to the same way each time she was given food—but the notes echoing in your hollow mouth climbed straight up my spine. I had heard no tune like it.

“My bird,” I said, and your eyes flashed fear at me for a second as you turned. You stared at me. “I think she’s been injured by a cat. I thought that maybe you could examine her.”

My blood thumped as you put down the bird you had been feeding. It was the first time I’d been so close to you; I realised that you stood two inches taller than me, and that your lips were scabbed with scar tissue. You held a hand out for the bird.

“Thank you,” I said. “She’s very dear to me.”

I think you caught the waver in my voice. Your eyes plunged into me, direct as daggers, and I had to let mine drop. My fingers lingered on the leather of your glove as I handed the bird over. I had seen enough, in that look—I had seen, in the way your eyes hesitated on my hair and then my lips, that you shared something of my desire.

“I’m Claire,” I said. “Lord De Rouchefort’s daughter. I . . . I saw you in the great hall.”

Your head was bent over my falcon’s injured wing. In the distance, I heard a bucket clank against the inside of the well.

“You will be well looked after here.”

I knew that I was gabbling, but the emptiness behind your teeth seemed to be sucking the words out of me. “My father treats his villeins fairly, and there are lots of holidays. You—” I stopped. You had the falcon’s wing pinched between your thumb and forefinger. You looked at me and ran the first finger of your other hand along the flat, regular wound inflicted by my knife blade.

“Yes. Um.” I swallowed. “It’s a nasty wound.” Once a few seconds had made it clear that my story about the cat was not going to be believed, you turned away and went to find a salve. I took a step closer. The torchlight rippled in your hair.

“They call you Aya, don’t they?” I said as you dipped your finger into a little cup of unguent. It smelt of vinegar. You flashed a look at me, then bent your head to brush paste onto the injured wing. Your fingers were slenderer than mine, I realised, and more supple. I held my breath as the falcon stood twitching on your wrist.

“Are you finished?”

You lifted the bird towards me, not quite far enough for me to take it without stepping closer. I moved forwards and reached out my hand.

You flinched as I touched you. Some spark jumped between our skins. The falcon squawked and drew its talon through my finger; you jerked back and collided with the bracket of a torch. The torch crashed to the ground, the gravel snuffing out the flame. The slighted bird flapped noisily up to the roof beams. Cold crept up my forearms.

“Aya?”

You touched my hand. The room was too freshly thrown in darkness for me to see anything, but I could feel your strong, calloused fingers squeezing each of mine in turn, probing for the wound. You lifted my hand up to your face. Your breath shivered on my broken skin.

I moved the finger to your lips.

“It’s all right,” I whispered. You had gone very still, like an animal backed into a corner. “It’s all right.”

You had more to lose if your instincts were wrong: I had to be the one who crossed the threshold. I slid my free hand behind your neck. “It’s all right, it’s all right.”

Your lips opened like a flower. My finger slipped between them, softly, until it was submerged up to the knuckle in the warm wetness of your mouth. Your damp, empty mouth. My eyes strained in the darkness, but I didn’t need to see. You drew my finger in until I felt the slightest touch of a shrivelled, shorn-off tongue against my fingertip.

Revulsion and desire rose in me like quicksilver.

 

Oh, my love—the night we passed among the birds still echoes in my dreams. Next morning, when I woke up in my bed and pieced myself together, I thought it was a dream. My stomach tingled when I realised my mistake.

“You look happy this morning, my lady,” Letia said as she helped me dress. At breakfast, Garrick was rather less kind.

“You’ve a grin like a demon.” He’d spent the night drinking with the guardsmen: his eyes were bloodshot, and several of the serving girls looked ashen-faced that morning. “What’s wrong with you?”

“Nothing,” I said sweetly. “I’m just happy that you’re back with us.”

He grunted and bit into a bruised apple.

Father was preoccupied that morning, as usual, and I wasted no time in putting my plan into action. I’d been so impressed, I told him, with how ably you had mended my falcon, that I had asked you to tutor me in all the outdoor arts: falconry, hunting, fencing, riding. It would save him the expense of a tutor from the capital, I added quickly, as well as keeping you out of Hugh’s way during the afternoons.

“I see no reason why not,” he said, after giving me that same look he had on the night of his return—vague surprise at what his daughter had become in his absence.

If only he knew.

By the time Letia had finished dressing me for the outdoors, the morning had evaporated. I took a servant’s corridor by way of a shortcut to the armoury. It was dimly lit, illuminated only by a slit in the wall that opened out onto the courtyard, and I was already halfway along it by the time I realised I was not alone. A couple stood in the shadow of the far wall, joined at the lips.

The girl was slight and boyish, dressed in servants’ grey, with enviably sleek, chestnut-coloured hair. The man had shoulders like a mountain range.

“Garrick?”

I immediately regretted speaking. The girl sprang back, hand leaping to her mouth, and dropped her gaze as soon as she realised who I was. Garrick just turned around and stared at me.

“I was, um.” I looked away. “I’m on my way to the armoury.”

I felt Garrick’s eyes on my back all the way along the corridor.

 

“You are going to tutor me,” I said, and tossed you one of the wooden training swords. You caught it in one hand. The birds were awake and eating, the midday sun throwing light on all the crevices and corners that had been wrapped in darkness during our last encounter. Your fingernails were outlined with dirt.

“I’d like to learn the sword this afternoon, I think.” I smiled at you. You made no response. I thought for a moment that you were going to deny what had happened between us, but then a blush blossomed in your cheeks and you ducked your head.

“Come for your gyrfalcon, milady?” It was Hugh, bandy limbs twanging as he hurried over, eager to attend to me.

“I’ve come to borrow your apprentice, actually,” I said. He was only too happy to part with you.

I found us a secluded spot just inside the northern wall, beneath a sycamore. I’d really only brought the swords to support my cover story, but you unwrapped one from its sheet as tenderly as if it were an infant and tested its balance in your hand. You began to limber up.

“Be merciful,” I said, once I had watched you flex the long, thick muscles in your thighs and stretch your arms behind your head. With your hair tied in a scarf you looked almost like the statue of Akresa, raising her blade to smite the guilty. My own sword sagged and tilted in my grip.

You came at me like a rush of wind: you fanned my sword aside and touched yours to my throat, just hard enough to be uncomfortable. With the tip you gently lifted my hair away from my cheek. I drew back, breathless.

“Teach me.”

You did so delightfully. You corrected my posture after each engagement, standing with your body behind mine as your warm, firm hands posed me like a mannequin, your breath fluttering in my ear. Again and again your sword swept through my guard. My back would meet the trunk of the great tree, the bark hard and knotted between my shoulder blades, and you would pin me there and kiss me. Then we would break apart and I would submit again to your manipulation of me: let you lift my hands higher, pull my arms out straighter. I spoke as little as you did. We had another language for that afternoon.

I was glad that Garrick caught us sparring with our swords and not our lips when he came to fetch me for the evening meal.

 

It is strange—we spent almost every hour that we could between then and Winterfest together, and yet I hardly knew a thing about you. My lessons continued. You taught me how to use a bow, how to hunt, how to ride. How to love my body as much as I loved yours. We fell into each other’s patterns when we were together: either I would talk enough for both of us, telling you about my life before you came and my guesses as to yours, or we would spend hours in your silent world, talking only with a touch on the arm or a stone thrown in the lake.

Every now and then, when the mystery of your past frustrated me, I turned my guesses into direct questions, hoping that if you could not speak then you could try at least to draw or mime. But you only smiled, and kissed me, and gave me other things to occupy my thoughts.

When the leaves had turned entirely yellow, my father announced his intention to host a tournament. It would be held just after Winterfest, and half the knights in Southern Lucea would be invited to attend: the barons Crawdank, De Lyre, Cheal, and Faxsly had already expressed their warmest interest. Several had sons or daughters of marriageable age.

I only half listened. You and I had gone out to the lake the night before, and my head was full of images of moonlight pooling over darkened water. We undressed beneath the stars. Hugging my nakedness, I curled a single toe and placed it in the water, then yelped and drew back from its icy bite. Had you not pushed me in I doubt I would have braved it.

You were easy in the water, and I watched enviously as your limbs slid in and out of it, as you flicked your head with each broad stroke to keep your nose and mouth above the surface. You swam across to me and held me, hands wet and slippery on my arms. Your lips parted as you bent your mouth to mine . . .

“Claire?” My mother was looking at me as though I was sick.

“I’m sorry,” I said, putting down my knife and ignoring Garrick’s frown. “I was just trying to remember the name of Lord Faxsly’s eldest son—I’ve heard he’s quite the scholar.”

My parents shared a smile.

Winterfest drew nearer. Nights began to settle earlier, and what sun we did have hung in the corner of my eye and blinded me. Mist seeped into the mornings. The fires were fed perpetually. I began to swaddle myself in furs whenever I stepped outside and put sheep fat on my lips to keep them moist. When I passed you in the courtyard your hair was sugared with frost.

Tragedy struck in the last week of October: Letia tripped on the stairs down from my chamber and struck her head upon the stone. Her funeral was short. I said some words over the pyre and made sure her family was given enough food and gold to see them through several winters. Ivarus, the god of death, watched unhearing from the shrine. Just as the justice goddess is blind, the god of death is without ears, and cannot be begged or reasoned with.

We prepared for winter. You and I went hunting in the forest, where I managed, with a little luck, to bury an arrowhead in the warm neck of a deer. The blood had frozen by the time we hauled it to the castle, and my fingers were numb from the frost packed into the fur. We ate together for the first time. I watched, openly curious at first, then with acute embarrassment, as you swilled your stew around your mouth and trickled it gently down your throat to avoid choking on your shorn-off tongue.

OLD MEDIA

They were in the back room making out. What else were they supposed to do on a slow afternoon when nobody came into the store? Michael had taken his goggles off and John was kissing the soft skin of his eyelids while simultaneously groping for some kind of access point into Michael’s extremely tight pants.

Out front, Bella was reading the music feeds in her goggles and not even remotely pretending to ignore them.

“You sound like rutting moosen!” She’d taken to using a fake plural form of “moose” for her own whimsical reasons. “Don’t get any fluids on the goddamn merchandise!”

For some reason, John could not stop laughing at the moose plural joke. Every time he caught his breath, another fit of giggling would rob him of it, until at last he sank dizzily to his knees. He steadied himself by hooking fingers into Michael’s waistband and looking up at his friend, also laughing, amused by John’s amusement.

Michael was studying paleontology at the University of Saskatchewan, and had been trying to grow authentic dinosaur feathers on his head for weeks. Thick red and white down stuck out of his pale blond hair on flexible quills, perfectly framing his wide blue eyes and the short puff of his beard. John thought the full effect made him look almost comically Western, like an English barbarian from the old anime feeds he liked to watch.

But it was also kind of sexy. And here he was, right in the perfect spot to unlock the grippers holding Michael’s tight pants in place. Even when Bella started making extremely realistic moose noises, John was undeterred in his quest to make Michael tremble with more than laughter.

Afterward they both slid to the floor, resting their slightly damp backs against the wall. A languid sense of goodwill spread from John’s extremities upward to his brain. He liked it back here beyond the Employees Only sign, staring at the dusty, half-biodegraded boxes of recent arrivals. Bella bought most of her merchandise from estate sales and warehouses on the prairies, but a lot came from customers in Saskatoon too. Tuesdays and Thursdays were buyer days, and there was always a boisterous line of what seemed to John a completely random assortment of people: aging hipsters with party clothes from the ’20s; college students wanting to trade armor for shreds or vice versa; grandmothers with unbelievable treasures like the ash pleather 2090s boots he was wearing right now; and people from far up north who’d heard the kids were obsessed with old all-weathers and wanted to make a few credits while their families loaded up on supplies at the farm co-op.

It made John think of times before he was born, long before his shit life, or at least the shitty parts of his relatively okay life. Last year at this time… he didn’t want to think about it. Every night he told himself he was safe now, gone legit with a name and a franchise. Nobody owned him anymore. He stared harder at a box overflowing with self-repairing scarves from indeterminate time periods. Maybe they were made yesterday. Maybe sixty years ago.

Michael was nuzzling his neck, dinofuzz tickling John’s ear. He tugged John’s collar down to get a better angle and made a murmuring noise when he saw the brand.

“I like your sexy scar. What do these numbers mean? Zed-nine-one-four-three-zed?”

John pulled away and felt every muscle in his body stiffen. The familiar numbness oozed down his neck into his torso, killing contentment as it spread.

“It’s nothing. Just from when I was young and stupid.”

“Is it a special date or something?”

“That was my identification number when I was a slave, sweetie. Didn’t you know?” John made his tone so sarcastic that Michael snorted out a chuckle. Sometimes the truth, told right, was the best lie.

Beyond the door, John heard the sound of customers—a big group, their voices merging into a wave of indistinct, excited sounds. Probably party shopping. Bella might need help. He stood up abruptly and left Michael lounging among piles of textiles that proved the world had existed long before John was in it.

BERLIN

For over 25 years, the Wild Cards universe has been entertaining readers with stories of superpowered people in an alternate history. “Berlin is Never Berlin” by Marko Kloos draws upon the seedier side of the city, beyond the dance club lights and all-night parties, as one bodyguard with a certain feline distinction goes on the prowl….Khan only had one job: chauffeur and guard an American wealthy socialite and her friends. When his client Natalie Scuderi gets nabbed by the Georgian mafia, this joker-ace has no choice but to go underground and rescue her. “Losing the man’s daughter on the job would be a fatal black mark on his professional resume. Khan had never lost a client, and he wasn’t about to start a habit.”

 

 

The plane was only three hours into its flight when Khan was entertaining the thought of a massacre for the first time.

The surroundings were posh, and it was easily the most comfortable air travel he had ever enjoyed. Sal Scuderi’s private jet had the full executive luxury package, and the club seating in the Lear was so roomy that even Khan, all six foot three and three hundred pounds, could stretch his legs a little. There was a bar stocked with premium liquor, and he didn’t even have to pour his own drinks because they had a flight attendant on staff. The surroundings were more than fine. It was the company that triggered homicidal thoughts in Khan before they had even made it out over the Atlantic Ocean.

Natalie Scuderi, Sal’s daughter and Khan’s protectee for the week, traveled with an entourage. There were only four, but Khan suspected that she had picked her friends after a long and thorough vetting process to find the vapidest rich kids in the country. They had started with the champagne right before takeoff. Five minutes after wheels-up, they had commandeered the impressively loud luxury entertainment system in the cabin and started listening to Top 40 shit at high volume. It was a seven-hour flight to Iceland and then another three-hour hop to Berlin from there, and Natalie’s entourage seemed determined to party all the way through the trip.