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Author : Dan Micklethwaite Narrator : Austin Malone Host : Setsu Uzume Audio Producer : Peter Behravesh Discuss on Forums PodCastle 638: Slipping the Leash is a PodCastle original. Rated PG-13. Slipping the Leash Dan Micklethwaite It is 1958, and Aloysius Proctor has survived a war, and survived the clap, and he is married to Delilah, with whom he has fathered two beautiful children, both of them sons, and he is the second-ranked salesman in the premier automobile showroom in town, and he should be happy with life, shouldn’t he, or at the very least content. He should have put this behind him; buried it deep with his friends from the Corps. You’re thirty-five, for Chrissake! — what his daddy had told him. You’ve got to grow the hell up! You’ve got to be a good family man, just like I’ve done. The belt-buckle scar tissue burns Louie’s torso, scorches his forearms, singes his back. The shrapnel scars too, on his upper right thigh. He tries not to laugh. He tries not to cry. Tries not to think that he should have stayed home, and spent time with his kids just to prove that he loves them. Shouldn’t be toting this battered black case, with the scratch-marks tattooed on the stainless steel clasps. Shouldn’t. Should not. All of these rules, these enforced expectations, they bristle the hairs on the nape of his neck. They carry him back to patrols in the forest, with gunfire and mortars, and the bark of trees splintering close to his head. Ears always ringing. Nose always streaming with the cold and the fear. Teeth always chattering, chewing through cigarettes before they caught light. And he couldn’t re-spark the Zippo, because what about snipers? Couldn’t retreat or go AWOL, because what about Freedom and what about God? What about whatever his daddy would say? His daddy knows nothing. Nobody does. They don’t understand that Louie can’t help it, that he cannot stop tracking the shape of the moon; all of the moons, a whole multiplicity. Nobody warned him there were so many out there, their gravities wrenching and leading astray. There’s the one in the chrome of a Cadillac’s hubcap. The three on the ’58 Thunderbird’s dash. The button on the front of his seersucker jacket, which pulls ever tighter the further he walks. Against ingrained discipline, he moves to undo it, and then the top two on his white shirt as well. At first, he just loosens his tie to make room, but then he removes it, slipping the leash. A trend of defiance that started with theft. There were souvenirs everywhere, even in churches — crosses they took for good fortune in combat, as they stood beneath angels that shimmered on glass. And sometimes they saved you and sometimes they didn’t. The ones left alive took from those who were dead. He had lifted the Zippo from a gut-shot lieutenant, and a watch from a sentry whose throat had been slit. Other men would pull teeth, which they studied like diamonds; they would claim a few fingers, which they planned upon rendering down to the bone. Would bear them around like the holiest relics, like pieces of saints in a pouch on their belt. Some even took skulls, so he’d heard, which stank to high heaven, and then worried which creatures the scent might attract. He sniffs the street deeply and stares at the sky. Feels the noise building, his vocal cords taut. His trumpet case shivers. But it isn’t quite the right moment. Isn’t quite the right moon. None of them, anywhere, are the one he wants most. And yet, they keep coming. Turning away doesn’t stop them, and drawing the curtains can’t hold them at bay. Neither can trying to be a good family man, to relax on the sofa, or sat at the table, where the dark varnished oak’s like a fragment of space. The bright silver cutlery orbits like Sputniks, and the plates seem to form a ceramic lunarium, each representing a different phase. The ingredients speckle the surface like craters, and even as he eats he feels hungrier still. He can’t find so much as a drop of tranquillity, let alone a whole sea. So, he rubs at his jawline. He licks at his lips. He gets up from his chair and walks out without speaking. He fetches the case from behind the shelves in the basement, where he keeps it concealed with a dust-sheet and tools. This was the biggest memento he salvaged, from one of his friends, in the wake of the shells. A reminder of nights when such mortars were distant, and they’d put down their guns and played music instead. He was certain that brass would be safer than bone, safer than Lugers, and that no-one would miss it because the man had no kin. He was sure that the scent wouldn’t tempt any scavengers, and he wouldn’t need to fear judgement when he brought it back home. But the belt-buckle scars flicker tracer-round bright, and the hairs on his forearms stiffen and tremble. Incisors and cuspids throb in his gums. No-one in his day-life is aware he still does this, and the men at these clubs, the ones lining this avenue, they don’t call him Louie, or Aloysius, or Lou. And the women he meets here don’t use those names either. He would like to keep both of these lives far apart, but as he stares at the nearest incarnadine sign, he understands that the boundary is a lot more like that: a raw neon trauma; a battlefield tourniquet, on a wound that won’t kill him but never quite lets him live. The trumpet case shudders. The doorman looks over, with his pinstriped suit straining at buffalo shoulders and his boots scuffing dust with the threat of stampede. Louie has seen this performance before, but the doorman does not seem to recognise him. Does not seem to register quite what he is. He shakes with frustration, so close but so far, and the white cotton shirt starts to squeeze at his ribs; the muscles start cramping, the bones glowing through. His hackles are rising. He taps the black case to the beat from the club. Not a simple four-four, it’s a fast seven-eight. The Devil’s own music, his daddy had called it. His daddy knows nothing, and Louie can’t stop. The doorman relaxes, the shibboleth noted, and waves him inside with a hint of a grin. The barroom is swirling with nicotine cirrus, the blue-grey of smoke from the grave of a bomb. Zippos like muzzle flash, matches like flares — but all of them lit without menace from snipers. The young men and young women sit carefree at tables, and their smiles coalesce and disperse in the mist. They seem utterly thrilled by the current performance, and the louder they cheer, the more nervous he gets; the more scared of being viewed as a tourist, a sham. He wants to turn back, to be safe, to be normal. But once you get bitten, you stay bitten, that’s what they remind him — the ghosts of the friends that he found in the Corps. They reach out to restrain him, invoked through these vapours. They steer him towards where he most needs to be. He rubs at his jawline. He licks at his lips. His fingers are flexing, clicking, extending; the nails become claw-like, curving and sharp. His suit becomes tighter. He struggles to breathe. A tease of piano, as the coda fades out, and he spots the pale face of the man sat behind it — the eyes wax in welcome, and then wane once again into partial eclipse. He can feel the tide turning, the gravity rising, and he salivates more as he reaches the stage. He sets his case down at the edge of the platform, and slips off his jacket before it can tear. Unfastens more buttons, and rolls up his sleeves. His forearms bear witness to damages past, with each scar and each bruise like its own purple heart, veined with a tangle of silvery hair. His sweat has a lupine, carnivorous tang, and it blends with the crowd-scent, these people in heat. These others who cannot find comfort at home. And yet, most at least seem to have found relief here. He might have lived through a war and got a wife and two children, but he still isn’t easy, can’t rest in his skin. Cannot keep his deviant longings in check. Climbing on stage, in plain sight, breaking cover. Sickened and weary from having to hide. He is shaking so much that he fumbles the clasps. More scratches on steel. More slashes in velvet. His lips are pulled back to show sharp, gleaming fangs. His panting gets louder. Blood hounds through his arteries, ruthless and slick. His white shirt is shredded, as soon as he stands, and the buttons burst outwards like splinters from bark. His belt is wrecked, too. His body gleams pewter, ragged with fur. His eyes flicker redly, then coruscate white. Reflecting the spotlight — the moon he wants most. It burns at his skin like the heat of a shell, and carries him back to the day when he lost them; back to the nights when they’d put down their guns. It shines through their ghosts in the smoke of the barroom, and it glows on the brass as he raises the horn. It slips down his throat as he whispers their stories, and it floods through his bones and the arch of his back. It highlights the dreams of their bodies all broken, throwing them up on the screen in his head. It makes him feel lucky and guilty and vital; it makes him feel maybe he should have been dead. And he places his lips to the mouthpiece for breathing, and he waits for the moonlight to fill up his lungs. And he knows in his heart this is no Devil’s music — see his palms either side of the trumpet like prayer. And he thinks about angels on windows in churches, and his bloodstream is lit and the brightness is blinding, and he feels a howl building inside like an omen, which there is nothing at all he can do to prevent. There is nothing at all he can do to revive them. Nothing at all he can do, except play. The post PodCastle 638: Slipping the Leash appeared first on PodCastle.
Author : Frances Rowat Narrator : James Thomson Host : Setsu Uzume Audio Producer : Peter Behravesh Discuss on Forums First published in Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet.   Rated PG-13. Ink, and Breath, and Spring by Frances Rowat The wheelbarrow thumped a jolt into Palwick’s arms with every third step as he led Mattish back to where he’d found the corpse, out in the northern reaches of the garden. The trees waved dimly at them under the grey sky, and the thin morning light crept across the rolling ground with its whispering carpet of dead grass. Out in the north of the garden, the wind never really stopped. Mattish had sent for a page when Palwick told her about the corpse, and had scarcely said anything since. She certainly hadn’t offered to take the wheelbarrow for a little while. The flat silver sun had cleared the trees and eastern wall by the time they reached the corpse. Palwick had found it on the ground, gloveless and naked. He’d wrapped it in his overcoat and set it upright against the bayberry bushes before going to find Mattish; he’d never dealt with a corpse before, but couldn’t stomach the indecency of letting it lie there. Three birds squabbled in the air above it; two crows and something paler. As Palwick and Mattish approached, the smaller of the crows darted off, shedding a feather. The pale bird shrieked after it, a flat sound in the wet morning. The corpse was a man who might have been a little taller than Palwick himself, but waxen and crisp as a rose petal. Its left hand was missing, and it had an oddly unremarkable smell, like laundry and a rasher of raw bacon. The skin left on it — Palwick’s coat hid the raw wound covering its back — had withered a little from the cold. He guessed it had been there a week or more, even if nothing had been at it yet. Mattish glared at the corpse for a minute. When it failed to apologize and leave, she reached for its remaining hand. The joints were stiff, but she wrenched it palm up and examined it. “Well,” she said after a moment, dropping the hand. “He’s soft-handed; unless he’s from inside, or new staff from somewhere else in the gardens, he must have come over the wall. The page’ll know.” She started working the corpse free of the bayberries, glancing up as the birds wheeling overhead screamed again. Palwick stepped up to help. The bayberries smelled bitter and bright, and the thorns bit at his gloves. Their branches were pliant and strong, snagging the sleeves of his overcoat. “Might be easier to pull him out,” he offered after a moment. “You really think he came over the wall? With one hand?” Mattish shrugged, pulling the bayberries free and keeping them away from the corpse with her elbow as she worked. She had thinner gloves than Palwick’s, but tough ones; the fingers were pieced and tanned leather, and she ignored the pricking thorns. “He might have been wearing more when he got in,” she said. “It’s still winter. If he snuck in and tried to hide in the garden, the cold might have taken him.” Palwick nodded. Cold wet wind wouldn’t kill as fast as a winter storm, but it would cluster blood around your gut and heart and leave you stunned and sweating. Then you’d do something stupid, like strip from the heat, and then there was nothing left but to pray you were found sooner rather than later. He’d found the corpse later, that was all. Still. “I didn’t find his clothes.” “Wind might have taken them.” The bayberries slipped under her elbow and sprang back to whip around the corpse and snag the overcoat anew, and she cursed and stepped back. “You’re right; get him out, and get the coat out later.” The second crow broke away from the squabble above them and fled eastward, tacking into the wind. The remaining bird wheeled down and perched on a thin bayberry branch. Its white feathers were banded and speckled with rich black, like paper dashed with ink. Mattish glanced after the fleeing crow, then straightened, brushing her gloves off on her coat. Palwick followed her gaze and saw a page approaching from the library. You could tell the pages at a glance, even from too far away to make out their white eyes and bare hands; they never seemed to carry anything, and they walked as if on carpets. He turned his attention back to the corpse, slipping his arms gingerly under the overcoat and around its torso. The thorns clung to his overcoat, but the corpse pulled stiffly free. The inkpaper bird bobbed its head and screamed as the raw bacon smell grew stronger. There were two small, blue dots on the corpse’s shoulder; he guessed they were a bit of winter mold. “There’s something wrong with his back,” he warned. Mattish peered as it was exposed to the thin morning light, then let out a disgusted bark. The corpse’s back was an expanse of raw flesh, studded with tatters of dead grass. The wound stretched the width of the corpse’s shoulders and the length of its spine, bordered by the tiny toothmarks of a sharp knife. “It’s flensed,” she said, her voice shivery, and gulped air. She took a step back as the page drew up beside her, gazing thoughtfully in the direction of the corpse with fog-white eyes. The page was a page of key; her marker hung around her neck on a green-black ribbon, a dark iron piece of teeth and scrollwork as long as Palwick’s hand was wide. Her hands were bare; none of the pages needed to wear gloves, within the library or without. This one was dressed for an indoor room, a single long skirt and a sleeveless cowled shirt. She wasn’t wearing shoes, but neither did the frost melt under her feet. “Which of you found him?” Her voice was mild. The pages all spoke mildly, even standing barefoot near a part-flayed corpse with a missing hand in a damp winter chill. “That’s I, milady,” Palwick said. The page appeared to consider the corpse, but you couldn’t really tell what they were looking at. There was a moment’s pause while Mattish wrestled with her gorge as quietly as she could, and the inkpaper bird grumbled screechily. “You found him here?” “On the ground.” Palwick looked away from the page’s bare fingers. “Didn’t seem right to leave him there.” “Have you ever seen such a thing before?” The page glanced between them. Being spoken to by a page calmed Mattish a little. “The cutting? I’ve not.” She gulped air again and blew it out slowly as she peered at the wound. “I think it was done a while back. See, he wasn’t bleeding; he must’ve begun to heal.” She pointed at the clean hard lines where the skin had been cut away. “Must’ve happened outside. Same time someone took his hand, maybe. No-one in here could have — he must have climbed the wall in, been desperate to get away. Then the cold got to him, and he died, and lay here until Palwick found him.” The page of key reached with bare fingers towards the wound’s border and the inkpaper bird launched itself towards her. Palwick threw his arms up between them, dropping the corpse, which tumbled to the ground like wet firewood. The bird’s wings beat the air like silk ripping, and then it sank its claws into his sleeve and ra-kaawwwked miserably. Close up, Palwick could see that the black and white on it wasn’t as crisp as he’d first thought; the markings’ edges smudged into ashy grey. He pulled his head back; the bird was the size of a rabbit or a cat, and he thought it might eat meat. Better to keep his face clear of its beak. The page of key looked to Palwick. “It’s a guest’s animal,” she said. “The guest is in the library. Will you mind it until it leaves or they come for it?” Palwick blinked at the bird. “Surely,” he said. But the bird flew away shrieking when Mattish bent to pick up the corpse, and he had to help her get it into the wheelbarrow after all, and roll it back for keeping in the cold cellars until the ground thawed enough to dig a grave. Palwick hadn’t dug the spring midden-pit in years, but Mattish was upset about the corpse, so when the frost on the ground thinned out four days later she put him on the job. The first morning, he went out to the fallow ground where Pemberly had chalked the outlines on the dead grass and lined up the spades. A woman he didn’t recognize waited there, huddled into a thick sweater and long skirt with a short-sleeved overcloak belted atop that. She had a long nose and mushroom-pale skin, and her brown hair had a bruised purplish tint. It was oddly long, but maybe the colour had put the wig-makers outside off buying it. A thin blue tracery spindled beneath her left eye, an uneven triangle with dots along its lines, looking like the lichen growing on some of the older garden stones. A bird the size of a cat squatted by her boots; Palwick would have thought it the one that had been by the corpse except it wasn’t as white, and its soft-edged markings were only slate grey. Mattish was talking to her, and she nodded with sober concentration as she listened. “Palwick, this is Essa,” Mattish said. “Mind her during the digging, would you? She’s new, from outside. Now, do you have —  oh, good,” she interrupted herself as Essa held up her hands to show that they were mittened in thick fulled wool. Mattish worried off, and the bird by Essa’s feet parped a low grumble and shuffled its wings. Palwick nodded politely towards it, then gestured at Essa’s hands. “You have something under those mitts?” She hesitated, then shook her head. “Ah. Right.” Palwick dug through his pockets. He wasn’t loaning out his good liners, but he had a decent enough pair left in his coat from summer that’d do. He held them out to her and she tucked them in the crook of her elbow as she peeled the mittens off one at a time. He wasn’t trying to stare, but she wasn’t shy about her hands and he couldn’t help but notice the lines and dots along her thumb, close cousin to the mark on her face. They weren’t raised as lichen might be; they looked like her veins had grown strange and pooled beneath the skin. He’d seen tattoos on some of the people who surrendered themselves to the library, but those were usually pictures of something, or trying to be. Essa tugged the liners on, then the mitts. The bird at her feet let out a grackling rumble, and she bent down to pick it up, tucked it into her overcloak where it nestled above her belt. Palwick started to ask if she’d had the bird long, but Essa interrupted. “You’re the one who found the body?” she said. “Out in the north garden. Is that right?” “That was me.” He knew gossip could carry, but —  oh, Mattish had made mention of his name as she’d introduced him. “It doesn’t happen often,” he added. Palwick wasn’t entirely sure what people outside the library said about them, but he guessed that bodies dropping around the place would unnerve anyone. He’d been unnerved, and he knew it didn’t happen often. “I guess people try to get in sometimes, but the gatestaff mostly keep ’em out.” “He came in over the wall, then?” “Must’ve,” Palwick said, shrugging and picking up a spade. Essa did the same. “He wasn’t one of us — I mean, he didn’t work here or inside — and he wasn’t a guest.” “He wasn’t?” “If he had been, the pages would’ve known.” That was what the pages were for, really. The library and its guests. Essa nodded stiffly. “What happened to him?” “We thought he froze to death,” Palwick said. “After whatever was done to him outside that had him climb the wall.  — did you mean what happened to the body?” “I guessed he was buried.” “Not yet.” Palwick jabbed his spade into the dirt. It went in with a crunching noise, like biting down on a raw onion. The earth he turned up glittered with ice. “The ground’s been too frozen for a grave.” It was hard enough to dig the midden-pit, which would be the size of a garden plot but only knee-deep, but that had to get done so the waste the library had sloughed off during the winter could be burned and the ashes used for the rest of the garden. A grave would be deeper, and for someone who hadn’t even been from the library, the work could wait until it was easier. “They’ll probably bury him in a fortnight’r so.” Essa put one hand to her mouth, hiding half her face behind the rough felt of her mitten. “Can anyone go?” The page of key came out to find Palwick in the garden a week later, clearing the land near the pale well. The midden-pit had been dug, and the kitchen staff was using it; Palwick was glad of the change in duties. The ground by the pale well grew stones before every spring, and if you didn’t root them out, they sprouted thin bone-coloured fingers in whose shadows nothing ever grew. Digging them up was easy work, as long as you did it before they burgeoned. Pemberly used them to floor her cold cellars. The page came moving across the grim dead grass as if all the winter-dirt and tangles of it were only a shadow over a carpet. Palwick straightened up, barely remembering to knock the dirt off his gloves before he wiped the sweat from his face. He didn’t care to have mud on himself in front of a page. It was the same page of key. Palwick wasn’t sure that mattered. Pages had quirks, but no-one was sure they were still people. Trees and bushes had quirks too, and so did a couple of the older garden spades. Her hands were still bare, and he noticed her nails were unnaturally clean before he pulled his gaze to her face. “Was there anything odd,” she said slowly, “about the dead man you found?” Palwick blinked. He hadn’t thought further than the oddness of finding a corpse in the garden at all. “Howso, milady?” “At all,” she said. “Was there anything left on the ground about him? Has the grass withered where he lay, or does anything of note grow there in another season?” “I don’t think so, milady,” he said. “I don’t . . .” He looked to the ground as he thought. “Out in this part of the north,” he said, “it’s just the wall. The gatestaff watch it, and the bayberries grow out from it. There’re other plants, but . . .” He shrugged and glanced back up. “Nothing grows where he was found that you can’t find two or three of in an hour’s walk.” The page nodded. “We have a guest,” she said, “that has been with us a while, now. He arrived at midwinter. And he goes into the rooms of books and he does his research, and that is fine and well.” Palwick nodded. “But of late he has been going into different rooms, and calling for different books. And I have been there when he comes and goes, but I have not seen him.” “. . . milady?” The pages didn’t put as much weight on sight as men or women did — no great wonder, with their eyes fogged white — but they knew the library, from moment to living moment. If a library guest was where he ought to be as far as a page was concerned, and yet not there to be seen . . . Palwick didn’t know how to make sense of that. She shrugged, gazing into the distance of the garden. Her hair was the colour of the moss creeping along the tree branches after winter, rich brown and slightly silvered. “I know he’s there,” she said. “As a page, I am sure of it. But I have not seen him. I have walked into a room where he is working, and he is nowhere in sight.” Palwick frowned. “Can anyone else see him?” She shook her head. “There have been other people in the rooms with him, and they don’t see him either. I’ve asked — Slinder, Marrabay, Quipperling. They each swear there is no-one in the room but myself and however many of them there are. And I asked another of the pages; it is the same for her. The guest has cloaked himself from sight in a manner I do not understand. I was wondering if . . . perhaps the man you found had been used in some way, before his remains were discarded.” “He. Ah. Was skinned,” Palwick said, and the page’s mouth grew narrow. Palwick swallowed. “You think he might have been . . .” He trailed off. Everyone who worked in the garden knew there were some nights and some places where you turned your coat inside-out; things that couldn’t see the inside of you got confused and left you in peace. He guessed you could do something close if you had the inside of someone’s skin, instead, and perhaps even that wouldn’t be strong enough to keep a page of the library from knowing where a guest was. “Perhaps,” the page murmured. “When did you last see him?” Palwick said. “The guest?” It took her no time to answer; Palwick wasn’t sure if that meant she’d thought about it, or just that pages had a good memory for guests. “Two weeks and threeday back,” she said. “Six days before you found the dead man in the garden.” “Well . . .” Palwick looked away from her hands. “What are you going to do about it, milady?” The page gazed at him for a moment, her eyes not-quite-frowning, and then her arm reached up and around her neck and hooked up the ribbon that held her key and drew it over her head. Palwick’s jaw dropped a little. He guessed that pages could take off their badges; he could throw down his tools, after all. But he’d never seen one do it; no-one that he knew had ever seen it, or ever spoken of it if they had. The key pirouetted on its ribbon, and swayed towards her like a lodestone. She didn’t pay attention. Her face had a new animation; it was rabbit-alive, eyebrows drawn down and mouth curled in frustration. “I can’t find him,” she said. “I’ve looked in his rooms; there’s nothing in them but his books and his notes. It’s not as if I’ve found a bloody knife or a flensed cloak — and if I did find such a thing, I could probably see him, as he wouldn’t be wearing it at the moment. If I did find him, if I could prove what he’d done, then perhaps I could have him gone. If he killed the outsider, then if nothing else, he’s interfering with the duty of the gatestaff to keep the walls safe and find the ways a stranger might get in. But he’s a guest, you understand?” “Who maybe killed a man.” “Maybe,” she said. Palwick was glad to see her anger, that human reaction she hadn’t had to the pale thin corpse in the bayberry bushes. “But a guest who attracts an unproven suspicion about what he may have done to an outsider is not going to be thrown out of the library.” “No matter what you’d like to see done?” It felt oddly daring to ask a page — if she was a page, now, without the key around her neck — about what she might want. There was a frown-line between her eyebrows, and they slanted like reeds in a storm. “No matter,” she said, and hesitated, and then slipped the key’s ribbon back around her neck. Her face smoothed out, and Palwick looked away again. “If I hear anything, milady,” he said politely, “sure I’ll tell you. I’ll . . . I’ll ask about, and see if anyone’s got a word of anything peculiar on the matter.” She nodded, and turned, and left him to digging stones. The tiny lizards that lived on the library’s outer walls came out to play in the meltwater before turning back into stone for another year, and the sun went from silver to white gold. The ground thawed well enough to dig a grave, and Pemberly was ready to scream bloody murder about the corpse being in her cold cellars a day longer than it needed to be, so the burial was the next day. It was a sparse event; the man Palwick had found by the bayberry bushes wasn’t groundstaff, so most of them didn’t come. Palwick went, since he’d found the man and felt he ought. So did Mattish, raw-eyed from lack of sleep. Palwick guessed she’d gotten up early to finish her morning’s work and make time for the funeral. Funerals for strangers were always at midday, so the ghosts could find their way on out from the body. A few gatestaff came, either out of guilt for the man getting over the walls and dying or from needing to be sure a troublemaker was dead. And Essa was there, with her bird. The page of key was there as well. The key lay against the pale grey of her sleeveless dress, the darkest thing about her. All else was the untrammelled cloud of her hair and the mist-coloured edges of thread rising up from her dress and her bare hands laced loosely together in front of her. Bemberwhist was the sexton, which most days only meant that he tended the graveyard and terrorized the younger groundskeepers who were sent his way. He’d been there long enough that no-one ever spoke of his predecessor, something of a feat in the back-a-day tissue of talk the groundskeepers spun. He was jut-jawed and tea-eyed, paler than anyone there save Essa and the shrouded corpse. He had a dark and steady voice, a welcome counterpoint to the tugging wind. It crept down Palwick’s spine, taking root from the air, and Palwick thought of the timeless calm that would come when he was held close by all the dirt pressing in on his shroud, and the silence waiting in earth too deep to freeze. He would lie there, one day, and the garden would grow above him, and its roots would reach blindly down towards his peaceful bones, and the earth would roll on with the seasons. He was smiling. So were Mattish and the gatestaff. Essa was crying, but softly, and held a hand over her nose. He hoped she’d have the sense not to wipe her tears; her mittens were still new and raw, and she’d likely get lint in her eyes if she did. Bemberwhist’s voice could take you like that, when he was reading to the dead. Essa huddled her other arm ’round herself, and Palwick saw the bird’s shifting weight under her cloak. It was always around her; either she carried it or it trundled and hopped after her like a slow rabbit or a mumbling cloud. It could fly — Palwick had seen it make clumsy leaps from the ground to tree branches, and by beating its wings it was able to turn in mid-air or rise up a little before falling — but not long nor well. He glanced at the page of key, and Bemberwhist’s voice grew irritated. Palwick dragged his attention back to the ceremony of cerements, trying not to look at the page again and doing his best to ignore Essa’s muffled sniffling. It seemed polite. The page of key was watching Essa well enough for both of them, anyways. Palwick asked the other groundskeepers if they’d noticed anything strange to speak of — easy enough to couch it as unease over the corpse making him worry — and heard nothing unexpected. The rabbits that pestered the garden had started hunting mice, but they did that before every spring. One of the plum trees in the orchard was turning slowly silvery, and the birds that nested in it sang in sad human voices in their sleep. The vines of ivy that crept up the library wall had plucked up two small trowels and a whetstone, and carried them up to the roof. But nothing strange, except that Hilwiss wasn’t usually so careless as to leave his tools within reach of the ivy towards winter’s end. Finally he took his gloves in hand and went to Mattish. She’d been born at the library and knew little enough of what use anyone might have for a man’s skin; but she’d been born at the library, and he thought she was a good place to start asking about whosoever in it might be studying the matter. She thought it over and gave him a name, and so Palwick found himself going into the library at a time when Mattish said he might find Slinder in the nearest dining room. Palwick had never actually gone in by the front doors of the library proper and saw no reason to start; he went through the garden patch and past the well and into the kitchen, along its grease-worn wooden boards and through the high smoky cooking room and up through the indoor herb garden with its great glassed window and the age-clouded skylights through which you could just make out the rest of the library stretching to the sky and then up the wide flat stairs and into what he thought was among the smallest of the library’s dining rooms proper. It wasn’t set for dining, but it had a constellation of small tables in the room’s centre. Lamps studded the tables, and burned what looked like a clear and smokeless oil. The several dozen petals of their flames moved gently in the breeze of his shutting the door behind him, and a squat man with hair the grimy black-red of foxpaws looked up towards him. “Slinder?” Palwick said. “Sir?” “I didn’t ask for anything,” the man said bluntly. Oh. He was one of those, then. “No, sir,” Palwick said. “Heard you were a learned man, is all. Wondered if I might have a moment of your time.” That seemed to work. The man straightened up, smiling faintly. He wore gloves as well; he was drinking some kind of tea, but reading a library book as he did so. They were indoor gloves, thin and close-fitted as skin. “I flatter myself that I’m one of the learned, certainly,” he said. “I suppose I can grant you a few minutes.” Palwick smiled back, politely. “Well, sir,” he said, “some of us were wondering. Is there any kind of hiding charm you know of, that’s maybe a little stronger than turning a coat inside out or soaking it in water under a new moon?” Slinder’s eyebrows shot up at that, and the smile vanished. “I am not in the business of helping people defy the gatestaff.” “Oh, no, nothing like that! Sir.” Palwick hesitated. “I mean, it’s only that there was a body found in the garden, last month. And . . . it had pieces missing, and the gatestaff aren’t sure how he got in.” They hadn’t mentioned having any idea how he got in, at least. “And we . . . we were worrying, in the garden, if whoever had done it might be around.” Slinder was silent for a moment. “I am sure that if whoever did it was around, the gatestaff or the pages would know.” “Well. Yes, sir. Only one of the pages was . . . curious?” His voice faltered. “Why wouldn’t she ask another page?” Probably, Palwick thought, because suspicions of a guest murdering someone in the library needed some kind of foundation. But he only shrugged. “Well, they know the library, but they don’t know everything in the library,” he said. “So I suppose they’d start by asking us if we’d noticed anything. And that only got me to wondering, sir, so I thought of course I should see to asking someone who might know.” “And why me in particular?” “Well. Mattish said that last year, you were asking about things from the garden that might be of use to that, for your own curiosity about the matter . . .” Slinder got slowly to his feet, and Palwick trailed off. “I have no interest,” Slinder said coldly, “in spending my hard-earned research on assuaging the hysterical fears of groundstaff who are seeing ghosts lurking in the shadows because an indigent climbed the wall and expired on the grass. I am sure that anyone of consequence who wishes to speak with me about the matter will know where to find me.” “Sir, I only — ” “Good day, groundstaff.” Slinder’s mouth was drawn thin as a thorn-scratch. He stayed standing, glaring at Palwick, until Palwick dipped his head and, embarrassed, hurried back towards the kitchens. The spring cleaning of the lawn was underway, raking the sodden debris of winter into cold crackling piles and setting them on fire. Essa and Palwick met at the midden-pit they’d dug; now that the kitchen staff was done using it for the inside waste, the lawn’s cleaning would be the pit’s last use before it was turned into a mulch bed. Early spring mornings brought dense and seeping mist, but at least the fire kept off a bit of the damp. Essa had belted her overcloak, and the bird huddled in its folds, grumbling softly. It looked awkward to work around, but she didn’t complain. He began raking up the coals. The morning was chill and bright, the leaves frosted with white damp from the night’s breath, and the air prickling with the teeth of the breeze. In the morning light, the flames were invisible above the dull coals, but their dry heat pressed against his face and sleeves when he bent over them. His raking pulled something heavy and ragged into the coals, and the bird screamed. It tore free of Essa’s cloak, evading her grab. Palwick threw up his hands and stepped back as the bird lunged towards him, all scream and beak, but it grabbed air in a clumsy buffet of wings and circled shrieking above the fire pit. Essa came running up, fell to her knees at the fire’s edge, and thrust her hands in. Palwick heard the sizzle of mist cooking off her mitts and then she scrambled backwards, pulling at the twisted lump that the bird had been circling until she could drop it on the chill damp grass. She sat back, tugging her mitts until they were loose and then flapping them off her hands as Palwick used his rake to drag hers out of the flames and came over to look. It was a dirty, greasy lump, perhaps the size of his forearm, with a texture like a leaf that had been rolled in someone’s fingers. The bird landed closer to it than to Essa, bobbing its head forward and then jerking back with a small cry. In the morning light, Palwick saw its markings had spread and faded like bruises; it was only a light ashy grey, blurred darker in spots. Palwick poked gingerly at the mass. It came unstuck from itself bit by bit. He thought at first it was a mess of meat from the kitchen, a clot of trimmings or a rasher that had gone rancid and been thrown away. “Does it want . . .” He trailed off, looking at Essa. She had to be feeding the bird something; it was always around her rather than out hunting. “Does it want bad meat?” Even the smoke could not disguise that the twist of matter reeked badly. “Cooked meat? We can do cooked meat, you know.” That last was to the pallid bird. It ignored him. Palwick preferred cats, he decided. Cats had ears. You could tell where attention and mood were at, with a cat’s ears. Birds were as hard to read as pages. The meat, under the dirt, seemed smooth on one side. Essa reached for it, but pulled her fingers back from its heat with the same kind of small cry the bird had given. “Careful with it,” she said. “Please. Please be careful.” Palwick brushed at its surface, smearing away clots of dirt under his gloved fingers. It was paler than he’d first thought. He rubbed at it gently, then spat on it, and the greasy mud came away a little better. The smooth side, barring a few ragged patches that might be scraping from the rake or the stones or his own rough gloves, was sleek as pondside mud and pale as a rose petal. He uncovered a blue pattern of lines and arabesques and dots, like a map of rain bouncing off a twining summer vine. There was another grackling noise. Palwick looked up to find it wasn’t the bird making it this time. Essa had her hands over her mouth and was staring at the matted roll, tears in her eyes. Palwick straightened. “You alright?” “Let me,” she said, going down on her knees next to it. “Let me, let me . . .” She stripped off the glove liners, and Palwick saw again the lines and dots patterning the back of her hand, winding up her fingers and circling wrist and thumb. Essa began teasing out the twist of flesh. One way it was not quite as wide as both Palwick’s hands stretched smallfinger-to-thumb, and the other way it was a little longer than that. It took him a moment to realize what it must be. “But,” he said, as an assumption knocked itself into a cocked hat; that the man had come over the wall, that the skin of him had been taken for some precious use, an ingredient valuable enough to be worth killing for. Not a twist of garbage to be snuck into a midden-pit in the dark of night and left for burning. “I should take that to — ” “Don’t touch it,” Essa said in a voice darker than Bemberwhist’s, and the bird spread its wings and hissed at him. Palwick took a step back. Essa looked up, and her eyes were full of tears. “Alright,” Palwick said after a moment. “Will you take it to a page?” Essa ran her fingers over the whorls and lines of the flesh. “I’ll bring it with me when I see one,” she said grimly. “And I’ll do that now.” Essa had moved faster than the bird could keep up with, and Palwick had scooped it up to keep it from shrieking. Now he hurried after Essa as she went through the kitchens, cradling the bird and trying to tell her you couldn’t simply decide you wanted to talk to a page, when they turned the corner and found the page of key approaching. “Where is he?” Essa said. “The guest I came looking for?” Palwick stopped and swallowed back I thought you came to be groundstaff. The page wasn’t contradicting Essa, at least. She blinked once. “In the wing of twice-bound books,” she said. “The Vancian collection of naming and making.” “He’s dead,” Essa said. The bird in Palwick’s arms gave a gutteral groan. “He’s been dead for weeks. He’s rotting.” She thrust the cradled skin forward, and even the page pulled back a little. “That’s the intruder’s skin,” Palwick said. “The man who came over the wall.” “This is the skin of Quayberry Tince,” Essa said. “He came here to study your works on the history and meaning of ink, and he died in the winter. And whoever you think is him, you are mistaken.” The page looked at Palwick. “His ghost,” she said softly. “If his ghost is still among the shelves — ” “That’s his ghost,” Essa interrupted, tossing her head towards the bird, and at the interruption the page drew herself up straight and the key about her neck gleamed. The markings on Essa’s face stood out livid against her skin. “That’s his breath fading into grey smoke, and he was murdered inside your walls.” “He died of cold,” Palwick said hesitantly, no longer sure it was true, but wanting to find anything that would keep the two women from glaring at each other so. The bird screwed its head around and hissed up at him. “Let us go find your ghost, then,” Essa said bitterly. The page turned and stalked off, with Essa storming along behind. Palwick hustled to keep up. The page led them down the hall, through a row of stone-faced doors, and started up a twisting staircase with treads of a colour that put Palwick’s heart in his mouth. Any metal that shedding shade of red in the garden would have been replaced in a heartbeat. The bird quarked deep in its throat, staring at Palwick as he hesitated at the stairs while Essa and the page climbed. “It’s alright for you,” Palwick said. “You’re not falling, if they break.” It ruffled its feathers at him impatiently. There was another landing, and a door, and Palwick got himself off the rust-red stairwell with grand and sweating relief. This door opened onto a flagstoned corridor, smooth and grey and wider than it was high, with unshuttered windows studded along one side. A cold rain was starting to spit down out of the low white sky. He worried, suddenly, about the midden-pit fire he’d been tending. They drew up to a door of thick white glass, and the bird flexed its claws and hopped off, landing wing-spread on the flagstone floor. It thrust its head forward and let out a squall like iron pegs wrenched out of stone. The page of key knocked at the door. There was no response inside, but it swung open after a moment. The room beyond was filled with neat dark shelves, lined with books and studded with the occasional glass lamp burning that clear and smokeless oil. Slinder was at a book-laden table, straightening up from an open volume. “What’s going on?” “We’re looking for Quayberry Tince,” the page said softly. Slinder shrugged and glanced around. “I haven’t seen him in a while,” he said, then frowned. “What is that animal doing here?” The bird hopped across the floor, crooning peacefully, like a rock dove. “We found his skin,” Palwick said. Slinder drew himself up. He wore fine gloves, dark and shimmering mesh, with tiny silver bells hanging from the cuffs. His right hand twitched; his left was still as bone, and he caught it around the wrist with his right. “I’m sorry,” he said in a considered tone. “I beg your pardon, you found his skin? Are you sure?” Essa gestured with it, stepping forward, and Slinder’s mouth drew down in disgust. “What is that filth?  — madam,” he added to the page, “can you have these groundsfolk out of here with that? Animals and garbage are not appropriate for a room with books.” “It was on the midden firepit,” Essa said. “His skin was set for burning, and everything written on it would have been lost. That’s not appropriate either, not in a library. He shouldn’t have been burned.” Slinder’s mouth opened and shut for a minute. “You said you were looking for him,” he said weakly. “But you found his skin being burnt?” “He’s in this room,” the page said patiently. Her eyes were white, and she faced Slinder and the pile of books he was standing behind. “Those are the books he had out. He has been here since the morning; he is here now.” “But he’s dead.” Slinder blinked again. “A ghost? Do you think he’s a ghost?” He looked oddly pleased. “Murdered in the library gardens, and buried so far from home in an unmarked grave?” It sounded quite dramatic. Palwick thought of how annoyed Bemberwhist would be to hear any of his graves characterized as unmarked. “We found his skin,” Palwick said slowly. “Yes, you said that.” “I mean, we only found his skin.” Slinder blinked. “You mean you haven’t found his body?” “We buried his body,” Palwick said. “I dug the grave myself. He was the corpse from the garden. We haven’t found his hand.” The bird shrieked and leapt from the ground. Slinder threw up both his hands — the bird, ghost of breath or not, had a proclivity for going for the face — and it fastened on the left one, claws digging in. The glove’s silky black mesh billowed like silt, winding up around the bird’s claws. Palwick felt the bells of its cuff chiming in his teeth and fingertips. “Get it off me!” Slinder shrieked. Palwick stepped forward, thinking his own heavy gloves would be suited to the task and hoping the bird’s beak would not go for anything too soft or unprotected. But the bird struck down, driving its beak into the librarian’s wrist. The razor wisps of the glove wound up around the bird’s beak, tickling at its eyes as it wrenched and dug. Slinder’s hand fell off at the wrist with a wet splitting sound. The bird, claws sunken into the lump in the glove, flapped clumsily over to the table and landed. The page of key had taken two steps forward, but stopped with her hand outstretched. Essa hurried forward, setting the skin down on the table, and held her hand out to the bird. It didn’t go for her face. It had always liked her, Palwick thought. The page of key’s lips drew back from her teeth as if they had begun to ache. “How are you here?” she said to Slinder. “You’ve no right to be here.” “If that were true,” the man said, “you’d have known it when I entered.” His right hand was locked around his left wrist; peering, Palwick could see the stump protruding from the sleeve. It looked wet and rumpled, but whole, like a twisted cloth. “That bird has no right to be here. Those groundstaff have no right to be here. See to it.” “I am not groundstaff,” Essa said quietly. “I’m a guest.” Palwick felt absurdly caught short. “But you worked,” he said. Library guests didn’t work. Library guests didn’t even come out to the gardens proper, unless they were armed with notebooks and charcoal and teeny jars and possibly paint. They didn’t bend themselves to digging a midden-pit, and they certainly didn’t . . . . . . oh. They didn’t attend funerals. He looked at the page of key. “You knew?” “I knew she was a guest,” the page said, still staring at Slinder and the hand on the table. “Why shouldn’t she spend her time in the gardens, if she wished? There’s no rules to keep her out of them, not in the north.” Essa was ignoring them both. “You murdered him,” she said softly. “You cut off his hand and took it for yourself for his right to pass through the library. You bound his breath into a bird to make it seem as if he wasn’t dead. You cut off his skin so he wouldn’t be known and left him in the garden to be buried as a wanderer.” Slinder sneered. “Conjecture,” he said. “He could easily have died himself, of some ailment or of the cold.” The page of key frowned a little. “Perhaps I simply found his body in the garden. You have no right to pass judgement on me, and no proof besides.” “Even if,” Palwick said, “you shouldn’t have left him there.” Slinder sniffed. The page’s frown deepened, and she held an arm out to block Essa when the latter moved forward. “Slinder,” the page said mildly. “What.” He appeared to catch himself and added, grumpily, “Madam.” “You’re in the Vancian collection,” she said, “and you have no right to be here.” Comprehension just had time to dawn on Slinder’s face when her key gleamed, and he burst into white ashes. They pattered down with a faint rustling noise, like the leaves in the copse by the north-east fountain, the ones which did not turn colour, only crumbled from the edges and fell into pieces when the sunlight touched them on the day of the fall’s first frost. The ashes did not land on the pile of books, but fell neatly to the table around them, and to the carpet where he’d been standing. His clothes and glasses came apart with him, but his remaining glove landed with a tiny silver jingle before it began to uncoil into smoke. Quayberry Tince’s hand remained on the table. The page turned to Essa and bowed her head. “Madam,” she said. “I am so sorry.” Bemberwhist was furious when he heard the corpse needed to be dug up again. He yelled at Mattish for the better part of an hour, and argued with the page for longer than Palwick could have countenanced. In the end, he acquiesced sourly, and demanded Palwick be the one to help him dig the body up. Palwick shrugged and went to it. It wasn’t as bad as some work he’d done; the ground was still a little loose from the grave being filled in, and Bemberwhist set to with a will. The anger at digging the body up seemed to drive him; he flung spadefuls of earth out onto the greening grass beside the grave, and Palwick had to dodge his earth-laden swings twice. In the end, he sent Palwick into the library to find another shroud. By the time Palwick came back, the body in its stained cerements was resting on the clod-spattered grass at the grave’s edge and Bemberwhist sat beside it, knees drawn up and elbows on knees. His anger had blown out, and he asked Palwick in a slightly winded voice if he’d like to see the corpse off. It wouldn’t be interesting, but it would be an hour tomorrow when he didn’t need to garden. Palwick felt his bones aching, and accepted. He left without asking how Bemberwhist had gotten an entire corpse up out of a six-foot deep grave without a stool or ladder. The next morning, Palwick and Bemberwhist loaded the corpse into a small cart, and walked it to one of the gates. Two of the gatestaff were there, and Mattish, and a small donkey, and two pages. One of them was the page of key. Essa was also waiting by the gate. She had a small square case slung at her hip, and a larger scroll case buckled onto it. Palwick thought of the reek that had come spiralling off the skin of Quayberry Tince and breathed deeply, glad of the scraping clean scent of whatever Bemberwhist had doused the corpse with. The bird huddled grumpily on the donkey’s back as Bemberwhist and Mattish attached the cart to its traces. Palwick considered it for a minute, and looked at Essa. “What’s going to happen to it?” he said, gesturing to the bird. She looked faintly surprised at being spoken to, but not offended. “He’ll stay as long as he does,” she said. “No more than a year and a day. Breath fades quickly, is my understanding, and ours doesn’t last long once it’s uprooted from our ink.” Palwick nodded. “I’m sorry your friend is dead.” Essa studied him a moment. “Thank you,” she said, “for covering him, and lifting him off the ground.” Then the gatestaff opened the gate for her, and she went through. And Palwick stood there a little while, and then went back into the northern reaches of the garden. Spring was here, and he would have much to do.   The post PodCastle 637: Ink, and Breath, and Spring appeared first on PodCastle.
Author : Jen Brown Narrator : C. L. Clark Host : Emmalia Harrington Audio Producer : Peter Behravesh Discuss on Forums Originally published in FIYAH. Rated PG. While Dragons Claim the Sky By Jen Brown [Note: This is Part 2 of a two-part novelette. Please visit last week’s post to read Part 1.] When marble cracks, it isn’t loud — or at least, not in the way I thought it’d be. Thera the Thrasher demonstrated this by cleaving her warhammer into the space where Myra’d lain moments ago. Instead of shattering, the veiny rock split with a squelch that came from sliding against itself; too dense to crumble, yet still capable of being broken. That rockface would’ve been Myra, had she not pitched away at the last second. Clambering up, she swayed gracelessly, swiping away the blood marring her chin. She could’ve been killed. That thought haunted me while I watched her match from a cramped stadium seat, wedged in between two bettors who could only complain about how boring the ‘underlands scruff’ were. “How long?” I choked out to man one on my left. “How long have they been fighting?” I’d arrived minutes ago. “Half an hour,” he grumbled. “Abyss and shit, let’s end it already. We’re all really here to see Giralt the Grand, am I right?” He elbowed my side just as Myra rolled from another of Thera’s crushing blows — but this time her shield split, leaving her gasping for breath and clutching her side. I shot up, fighting nausea. Myra was losing. She might actually die here, among uncaring skyfolk, before I’d gotten a chance to — “Finally!” screamed the woman on my right. With a deft foot sweep, Thera pinned Myra’s weakened form with ease. Abandoning my seat, I practically vaulted the stadium stairs while the crowd roared anew. I had to get to her. Then, everything shifted in the span of a blink. Thrusting sharply, Myra rammed her knee into Thera’s spine. Off guard from the unexpected blow, Thera wobbled right into her grip, allowing Myra to slash up against the arm pinning her throat; then low as Thera staggered backward, welling her shin red. It was a game of quickness after that, one that ended with Myra smashing her mailed boot into Thera’s chest plate. Despite tepid applause, Myra shouted when the Empress called it, laugh-jogging to the preparatory tent as if her life hadn’t been in danger. Though when she saw me enter, her excitement dimmed. “There’s the non-believer,” Myra called loudly. “Convinced yet?” My lungs were still convulsing, breaths coming hurried. “Convinced? You could’ve died!” “It’s called a feint.” Myra rolled her eyes, though the left one had already grown puffy. “Anyway, shouldn’t you be heading toward the cloud ferries by now?” I deserved her ire, even if it stung. “Not without apologizing.” Though washrags littered the competitor’s tent, I tore cloth from my good trousers; pressed in close to hold it against the cuts peppering her chin. “I’m so sorry, Myra. For judging you unfairly. For doubting you.” Myra’s jaw quivered, but she didn’t back away. “Fine. Apology done. You going now?” “No,” I shot back. “Because I’m stronger than you think, and I’m not leaving until I find my way into the coif program.” Something gentle flitted over Myra’s features. She let me worry over her scrapes a while more before catching my wrists. “Look Omani, I was born with a shit back, but it never stopped me from skinning wolf-wraiths, tail to snout. Know why?” Her lips curled back. “Because of the herb-gatherers they stole from us beneath swollen moons; or the sick ones they maimed, just ‘cause they couldn’t lock their doors tight enough after dark. I fight because I believe in what I’m fighting for, just like Murinien taught me.” Sun-warm and kiss-soft, her fingers burned against my wrists. “So, don’t count me out again.” A small smile lit her bruised face. “And I won’t underestimate you again, either.” It was a plea and a compact and hope bound up in one; I latched onto it with both hands. That night, I made dragon scales of my emotions; thrust everything I had into a belief in our ability to conjure dreams. After stuffing ourselves with cured meats and rich breads in the victor’s tent, we retired to our lavishly decorated dorm room. By the time I’d fashioned her twists into a pompadour and flung her next wish into the world (this time, blessedly about easing her back pain), I practically fainted onto our only featherbed — but not before telling her about my meeting with Professor Ames. “Well, well.” Myra sounded genuinely impressed, legs dangling off her side of the mattress. “Good on you. Make her see what they’d be missing out on.” I yawned. “Oh, I intend to.” We lay silent, lulled by the sound of tempermages netting Sight threads to redirect strong winds every few minutes, until Myra cleared her throat. “You know, I’ll have real money if I win this. Which I’ll send back home,” she added quickly. “But . . . if this college thing doesn’t work out, it’s money I can use for other stuff.” Her eyes fixed mine in the darkness. “Yeah?” “Mm,” she returned. “You could come along while I guard Qu’hell. A real retainership, salaried and everything.” Shivers prickled my skin as Myra’s fingers grazed mine beneath the coverlet; as we hovered atop the precipice of a sudden, surprising want; one that stretched wide, strong enough to tremble us both. Then, it morphed. I’d come here to scrub my family’s debts away, the way papa’d always planned. Yet here I was, lying next to a fierce, unshakable girl, chasing wants my parents never could. “We should rest,” I whispered. Painfully, I withdrew from Myra; pressed my welling eyes into the pillow, so that she wouldn’t catch me crumbling over the way dreams claimed the space in my head where family should’ve been. Professor Ames enjoyed her Gyrixëan coffee black and scalding, dolloped with a bit of cream so that our cups matched my complexion. “Is this a staple in your house?” she asked over-shoulder, descending Kent’s wooden stairs as if floating. My saucer clattered melodically, punctuating our steps. “Sometimes. Mama likes to sell what’s left to the merchers, but we keep a little for special occasions.” “And your mother taught you wish coiffery?” Fat coffee droplets splattered my thumbs. Resisting the urge to lick them, I took the last three stairs with her, avoiding the portrait gazes of great mages lining the wall. “Yes, and no. I discovered it on accident.” I didn’t want to mention papa; didn’t want to see pity lining her eyes. Instead, I focused on how Professor Ames liked to be on the move. We flitted between classrooms to check on student mages while walking towards her salon, then sunk onto a divan just outside once we reached its polished doors. “One doesn’t luck into acceptances here. Tell me the truth of how you devised your wish magery.” Guess I had no choice. You’re strong as dragonscale, I reminded myself.  She’ll be the making of you. “I tried to wish my father alive.” “Ah.” She regarded me for a long while, wrinkled mouth puckering. “You lost him young?” “I was twelve.” Shifting, I set my saucer aside. “It didn’t work, of course. Which made me realize that coif wishing, and all magicks really, are bound to what the universe can actually deliver.” “Did you try other wishes?” She downed the rest of her coffee; smiled at another professor sweeping by. “Ones that might change the course of something large?” My brow crumpled. “Well, most wishes are about the client. Things like wishing for a good harvest, or — ” “What of wealth? Power?” I was at a loss, unsure of myself. Had clients come to me wishing for riches and notoriety? Of course. Braylon’s boys fancied themselves Gyrixë’s best tailors; they once asked me to shear spirals into their flat-tops, wishing that one of the merchants would take their wares upland. Maybe a noble might don one of their tailored coats, exclaiming: “Who are these designers? Name them — I must have more of their work.” They were still hustling, slogging to Han’enfol’s markets and peddling their clothing to anyone who’d listen. “Yeah, I’ve gotten such requests, but there are no guarantees. A lot of wish magery depends on what follows, with how you dance alongside the universe as it tries to rearrange.” I could tell my answer disappointed her, so I quickly added: “Though, I’m excited to test its limits in your department. Maybe we can discuss patrons who’d find wish magery compelling?” Professor Ames rose swiftly, so I stood too. “Patrons want to see what your gifts will buy them.” She eyed me closely. “Come. Let me show you magicks they value most.” Entering her salon was like traipsing into a fortress, brimming with students preparing for battle. Foregoing styling chairs and capes, they huddled around large oak tables and wide bookshelves that seemed to house all the world’s knowledge. Together, we approached a group studying in the rear. “Vincent!” A boy with smooth, gaunt cheeks looked up. “Professor?” “We have a prospective student all the way from Gyrixë.” He looked perplexed. “One of the underlands,” she added. “Please show her our coif specialty.” Vincent waved over another mage, a girl with wavy hair and narrow eyes. She knelt before him as Vincent blinked, his pupils dilating enough to swallow the amber in his eyes. Summoning the Sight, Vincent raised his hands, whispered the word rise, and levitated her hair with magicks alone. “Hold,” Professor Ames commanded, both with words and Ecrouxvérian sign language, so that her meaning reached him even without sound. Like gargoyles, they froze — Vincent stone-faced, awaiting instruction; the girl’s wide mouth slightly ajar. “Fascinating.” Pitching forward, I tried to predict his next move. Would he completely style her hair without touching it? Make the magicks slick it into some dramatic updo? “Raise Amelia.” Minutely, Vincent’s fingers pinched together. Up, he commanded. Her hair went rigid, stretching around an unseen tether to lift her torso-first. “Professor?” I sounded small. “Hold out her arm,” Ames went on. Grunting, Vincent pivoted his left shoulder, gritting out the word pull. Her right arm stabbed the air, sleeve felling away to reveal goose-pricked flesh where the hairs strained against her skin, as if they were being tugged. Sight scabs peppered her follicles like tics. “Excellent,” Professor Ames cooed. Then, reverently: “Now break it.” I turned sharply. “Professor.” It wasn’t a question, but Carolyn knew that, preferring to keep her eyes on the way Vincent’s fingers bent. Claw-like, he squeezed the air, slithering break between his sweat-stained lips. It pulled a muffled shout from Amelia, as red colored them both — him, bloody from the Sight carving crescents atop his clavicles; her pale arm bruising where Vincent clefted muscle and tendons and bone beneath — “Stop.” My command was cotton-soft, muted beneath the roaring in my ears. “Well done.” Professor Ames applauded like I hadn’t spoken, then signaled two students forward. “Would you escort her to the infirmary?” But Amelia wouldn’t go. Not without blinking rapidly into her Sight, round eyes impossibly wide. “Eat shit, Vince!” With her good arm, she punched the air; Vincent’s chin hairs wobbled before a sickening crack sounded. Wailing, he clutched his jaw. “Oh my.” Professor Ames laughed. “Any other volunteers? Seems they’ll both need a healer’s hand.” I watched them stagger from the room, cold and hot all over; like my body couldn’t decide what to be. “You see,” Professor Ames faced me, “patrons don’t fund stylists. They like charismatic diplomats. Keen politicians. Unstoppable assassins.” She pinned me with a wilting stare, crossing the distance between us. “Understand, that here? A patron funds your potential. Which means it — you — must be ruthless. That you must mold yourself into something they want to fund in the first place.” Around us, students returned to their wrinkled scrolls and bitter coffees and weighty desks, but Professor Ames raised her Sight, hovering her fingers around a single braid along my cheek. Softly, she commanded: unravel. Magicks uncrossed the plait, expelling the added braiding hair until only my coils zig-zagged before us. I knew what was coming. Knew it, even as my stomach bubbled wetly, last night’s dinner threatening to come up. Align. Her command stretched those coils until their spiral disappeared; until the hairs swung limply before my eyes. I caught it stiffly between my fingers, swallowing around a lump as it refused to spring back into place; as it blotched the picturesque view of student mages returning to a normalcy that didn’t include me. “Now, return to the melée grounds.” Professor Ames made for the door. “And tomorrow, I — and a possible patron or two — shall be watching to see if your potential proves ruthless.” That evening, Myra faced fiercer competition: an uplands bastard called Harric, who had plenty to prove. But this time I watched them fight with my Sight up, straining to reveal crystalline magicks sketched across the amphitheater. Blood slicked down my arms as I traced the webbing from treetops dangling overhead, to the crowded seats, to the Empress’s dais, and then down to my feet inside a quiet corner of the competitor’s tent — the most I’d ever revealed at once. It didn’t matter that my arm was on fire, or that, if spotted, ushers could disqualify Myra for my unsanctioned use of magicks during the melée. I had to risk it, in order to understand what I’d missed after years of self-study; to discover whatever ruthless magicks Gyrixëan coif mages hadn’t known to teach me. Edging forward, I traced the magicks Harric touched; saw them warble and twist others nearby, until I found one that seemed to run between my foot and his mailed legs. Examining it, I wondered how much force I’d need to tug the hairs lining his calves, canting his balance. Or to break his legs, bone-by-bone — My chest seized. I’d stopped breathing. Convulsing, I blinked and rubbed the Sight away until the sweaty heat and hard stone beneath me returned. Which meant I’d missed minute sixty-three, where Myra ended the match with a knife to his neck. I should’ve whooped and hollered when they announced her victory, but my stomach roiled instead; Myra was a finalist now — and tomorrow, Ames would eye us both while cupping my fate between her weathered palms. “You’ve made a believer outta me,” Myra said, swaggering into the preparatory tent. I hid my bloody arm. “Gods, my back felt great. And I haven’t been anxious about the pain coming back, like I usually am. Does wish magery quell that, too?” I shrugged as attendants poured us celebratory wine; tipped the glass back hard enough to knock my teeth. “Guess we’ve both cause for celebration?” Myra smirked. “Did Professor Fancybritches get you a patron on the spot?” My chalice felt molten enough to melt flesh. Fighting an urge to dash it against the stone, I threw Myra a tight smile. “Let’s do your hair!” I said, discarding my glass. My breathing harshened, tightening around a panic attack. One mama would’ve helped me slow, if I hadn’t left, believing the Imperial College would save us all. “Give me another wish to work with.” The word tasted acrid and wrong; I needed to twist it. Mold it anew, so that it fit me again. As I raced back to our dorm, scraping my shins on the brambles outside, Myra was right on my heels. “You didn’t answer my question! Was she impressed with you?” No. “She was,” I lied. “In fact, she’ll be there to see you fight tomorrow.” Fight. The imperial way, like Myra with her blades or Ames with her strings. Wishes did not fight; they hoped. I pounded up our dorm’s stairwell; this time, glancing at more paintings of great mages lining the wall, and met the challenge in their stare. “Would you gimme your wish already?” I yelled back. Bounding up alongside me, Myra laughed, successfully deceived. “Fine. It’s a simple one this time: I wish that we get everything we want!” After racing through our dorm’s humming hallways, we fell through our door breathlessly. “We’re this close, ‘Mani.” Myra said, approaching the room’s lone vanity mirror. “Mm, I’m thinking . . .” She squinted, letting her twists down. “Don’t hate me for this, but take ’em all out. I want it wild and loose, so the bastards all see me coming.” Her wish was too broad for working with, but that didn’t matter anymore. I unraveled each twist, wrapped her flowing coils in a silk square, and flung her last wish into the world even as the Sight reopened old scars along my neck — wounds that hadn’t bled since I’d tried summoning papa. Every gash felt like a betrayal, unstitching my resolve until old aches sprung free. So, I made instruments of my agony. After Myra fell asleep, I kept my Sight up; planted myself before the vanity, and held my ashen arm before the mirror. I manipulated its long hairs without a wish to speak of; whispered commands well into the night, until it was too dark to make out my reflection. Until it was impossible to distinguish where pain ended and I began. Our final melée came under a bruised sky as we met Empress Troxrin on the College’s wide athletic field; wavering grassland stretched on for miles, accented by the rise and fall of sloping hillsides marked with sigils denoting different magickal sports. There would be no amphitheater this evening; no roaring crowd watching from the hovering mage-stands. Just six finalists waiting, while their retinue watched from the sidelines. Though she lacked an elevated dais, the Empress commanded authority in polished chainmail while addressing a powerful cadre: College Chancellor Vihrane, flanked by distinguished faculty like Professor Ames; magistrates from Ecrouxvér’s six provinces; sign language interpreters, in case College faculty were using their Sight — a slew of important somebodies who might as well have been nobodies to me. “Trusted colleagues,” Troxrin intoned. “Again and again, you’ve put our Empire above yourselves, sacrificing everything to see it whole. Now, it is time I show you the gift your patience bore.” Nerves should’ve made slush of my veins, as Troxrin began addressing Myra and her competitors. Instead, I blinked my Sight on and off like flint striking stone. Like playing my fingers over fire, ignoring the singe of it. Ready to strike, I sized up Myra’s more foolish competitors; the ones who’d clearly thought all coif mages simple healers. I took in the exposed neck hairs of one burly finalist, and the armpits of another who stretched to get limber. Somehow, I’d interject; make a key move look  like Myra’s actions, but really be mine. “Fighters, you must be wondering what stands between you and greatness.” Myra fidgeted, hands poised on her daggers, eager to start as the Empress continued. “You will be called upon to best one another soon enough. But first, you must face the empire’s greatest danger together.” Professor Ames clasped her hands tightly, grim mouth twitching. When she caught me staring, she inclined her head, giving me her full attention. “This year, my champion’s bounty goes beyond banknotes and knightships.” Troxrin approached, royal guards following. “What you fight for now is the very survival of our empire, and all who walk it.” An acrid smell drifted over us just as Troxrin raised her gauntlet, signaling something above. Distant Sight threads wavered as dark sky galleons crested the field’s western edge. Blinking out of my Sight, I squinted through the haze. Chains dangled between the airships, hauling something massive, muzzled — “The hell?” Myra yelled. A captured realm dragon flailed within the chains. The iridescent creature’s scales reflected sunlight in frost-blues and fuchsia-periwinkles; like a soap bubble bound against the skyline. Its muffled wailing increased as tethers gouged the fur tufting its belly, back, and snout. More rope dug into the membrane of its bat-like wings. Troxrin’s cadre rose, gape-mouthed as her warships settled it onto the field with a resounding thud. “Comrades, competitors!” The Empress called. “I gift you one of the dragonkind that deserted us.” Cacophony erupted: Troxrin’s senators cheered; Chancellor Vihrane hustled forward, jowls trembling. “What have you done? Empress, the old oaths. The dragonkind will come for us all!” Professor Ames’s perfect brows arched toward the heavens; horses reared up against their handlers in fear — “Wait, your majesty!” Myra screamed around the dragon’s muffled roars. “That — that’s Murinien.” Murinien. The dragon who saved Qu’hellain babes from soul sucking wolf-wraiths; who taught Myra’s Da to hunt, and then Myra herself; who’d watched over Qu’hell’s plains folk for three thousand years. “Myra.” Her name left me like a plea. I tried to make for her, but Troxrin’s guards blocked my path. “She’s Qu’hellain’s realm dragon,” Myra pleaded. “She — ” “Deserted her realm months ago, breaking the old oaths like all the rest of her kind,” Troxrin cut in. I stumbled backward as the Empress suddenly unsheathed a wraith-blade, made from the very creatures Myra’d kept at bay. Its icy surface matched her pallor. “Competitors, how long have you lived in fear of the dragonkind?” I flinched against the cry of upland warriors who’d never known dragons, or the lakes they liked to drink from. “Defeat this beast here and now,” Troxrin commanded. “And you’ll have your knightship. You’ll have my armies, too. And you’ll march on dragons littering the Eastern crag wilds before they know what’s coming!” Finalists charged with a collective battle cry. Troxrin signaled her mages — they trained levitating arrows on Murinien’s writhing form. Myra wept openly as noble conquerors readied to annihilate her protector. I thought of mama and papa. Of Gyrixëan summer nights, when we watched dragons circle overhead, clutching dying gryphons and ogres between their teeth, while trying to guess which realms they protected. Of the way papa kissed my frizzy curls when, at seven, I told him I wanted to be a dragon when I grew up. You can be anything you want, he’d responded, dark cheeks puffed with a smile. You just got to believe. Slack-jawed, I glared as Professor Ames’s tight expression broke open; felt rage boil through me as she smiled the way papa used to, whenever he saw dragons; as mage-arrows lashed through Murinen’s wings from above, and competitors slashed at her belly below. Reaching into myself, I discovered a smoking pit dense enough to swallow the sky. I recalled my Sight in one blink, revealing milky threads that stretched from Troxrin’s feet to the galleons above, running right through her guards before me. And then, ruthlessly, I spat a single word while my hands hovered over magicks kissing their mailed legs: move. In one motion, they buckled unnaturally, falling away. I strode over them like dust mites, keeping my left hand firmly on the magicks pinning them. No one noticed me yet — not the competitors hacking at Murinien; not Troxrin. Not even Myra, who still wept into her hands. So, next came the galleons. I searched their hull quickly, hungrily for — aha! A shorthaired avimage stood at the bow, forehead bleeding as she manipulated threads about her craft like a cradle. I didn’t need to bring the whole ship down; I just needed to get its captain. Raising blood-slicked fingers, I reached for the magicks stretching from her hair to my hands, yelling: throw. This time, the threads pulled at me, almost upending my legs. But I stood my ground as they lifted the avimage jaggedly, then flung her overboard. The leftmost galleon tottered in midair, tossing its soldiers in every direction. Troxrin spun, mouthing something I couldn’t catch, wraith-blade aloft.  I hunted for the right galleon’s captain, but the pinned guards quickly named me her adversary. Sighting me, Troxrin advanced, auxiliary guards falling into line as I scrambled backward, searching for an advantage against the incoming mob. But someone’s blade struck out, cutting the air between Troxrin and me. My heart lurched as Myra wedged herself between us, knives spinning for the Empress’s head. Troxrin snarled, quickly shifting between smoky silhouette and solid form to avoid Myra’s blow. Her wraith blade pulsed with the effort, lending her its power. Troxrin thrust its full might toward Myra’s torso. We wouldn’t last like this, with the world bearing down on us. Casting around, I searched for another move — but the magicks in my left hand suddenly severed, shearing painfully from my flesh as my fingers bent. I came out of my Sight with a scream. Professor Ames bore down on me, hands curled like talons, tight-lipped snarl frozen in place. “So, you would turn your ruthlessness against the empire?” Though chaos raged everywhere, I smiled. Finally, I understood my place. “No. I’m shaping it into something my parents would be proud of.” Summoning strength that mama and papa and nanu helped me tend, I called back my Sight even as Professor Ames fought for control of my body; as Myra failed to hit Troxrin, whose wraith-blade made landing blows impossible. I peered past all of it, out to the magicks surrounding Murinien’s chains and muzzle; counted every thread touching her fur in my mind’s eye. Break. I thought it, spoke it, flung it into the sky — until the threads around Murinien’s chains shattered, taking the iron with them, pushing air and matter and debris around so that her muzzle and shackles disintegrated. Aghast, Professor Ames staggered as the world behind her seared, bubbled, erupted. I squeezed my eyes shut as Myra launched into me, hurtling us aside. Murinien’s flames licked past, igniting everyone but us. And when the light flaring behind my eyelids faded, I opened my eyes; blinked my Sight away, taking in the destruction. Only Myra and I remained, sweaty and ash-soaked, amid the now-charred ruins. “How  —  how?” Myra stumbled ahead. We faced Murinien, whose pale eyes raked over us. “Your coif magery did all this?” I shuddered. “No. That was the College’s coiffery, at its finest.” My heart stopped, as realization dawned on me. “Troxrin?” “Not dead,” Myra muttered, dusting off her armor. “Stupid wraith blade saved her ass, yet again.” But those without such abilities were gone. Professor Ames. Magistrates and senators. Even the competitors, who’d been too busy hacking at Murinien to notice us. I swallowed. “You okay?” Myra asked. Murinien approached while I struggled to answer, claws crunching over the smoking field. Myra practically leapt into her belly, nuzzling tightly against her fur. Murinien brought her head low; the best hug a dragon could manage. Thank you for saving me. Murinien’s voice rang in my head, loud and clear as bell chime. I staggered back a little. “Y-you’re welcome.” Myra laughed. “You’re always so formal, Muri.” Which meant Myra’d heard her, too. Murinien exhaled a bit of smoke. And you are always so teasing. “But you love me anyway.” Myra put out her hand, beckoning me. And even though we stood amidst a field of ash, I took it, letting her warmth soothe my aching fingers. “Muri, my friend here doesn’t just do fancy, life-saving magicks. She grants wishes.” Myra pushed my hands into Muri’s soft belly fur. “She might grant yours, if you ask it of her.” I felt a part of me stir; the part that loved papa and mama, and the underland magicks I grew up with. “You have a wish?” I asked. Murinien paused. I have many. She rose up then, turning from us a little. But I abandoned Qu’hell against the empire’s orders. Left to join my kin who yearned for quiet, for freedom after eons of service. I knew the cost of this. Knew the humans I’d leave behind. So, kind as your offer is, I cannot accept. Myra scoffed, voice shaking. “Don’t you dare start that, Muri. Look, you made us strong. You made me strong. And now, we have to carry on those lessons you and the other dragonkind taught. I’d rather see you free, old oaths be damned.” Muri rumbled, sounding like a purring cat stretching beneath the sun, but she said no more. “I . . . didn’t grow up with a realm dragon,” I began, stroking her fur gently. “But I watched them fly overhead. Heard of the wars we took you into, the problems we made you solve.” I smiled, remembering papa. “But you gave my family something to dream about. And you knocked our crops free just by flying over, even though you weren’t meaning to.” Muri laughed in my mind, the sound coming like waves breaking against a moonlit cliff. Who said we weren’t trying to do just that? “Then you were always thinking of us,” I grinned. “Now, it’s time to think of yourselves. So, I’ll ask again — you have a wish, yes?” Far off, Ecrouvér’s emergency sirens wailed. Soon, Troxrin would bring her armies; would scour uplands and underlands alike for those who stole her victory. Myra squeezed my hand, as if sensing my thoughts. Well, mama had always told me: pick your battles one at a time, and I wouldn’t shirk her teachings now. Until Myra and I somehow made our way back to family, I’d wrap myself in her sayings until I forgot them, like nanu. Murinien rumbled. Very well. But may I wish for more than one thing? “Yeah,” I said. “I’ll send out whatever I can.” I wish to remain free alongside my kin, until the sun calls me home. And I wish for your safety — that this empire never finds you or your families again. There were no guarantees, but if there could be such things as dragons and underland girls who found their power above the clouds, I thought anything might be possible. “Once more, Muri?” I asked. I called back my Sight. Murinien roared, and the magicks crossing her fur illuminated brilliantly, shimmering up and over her horns to set the sky ablaze. See it done. Closing my eyes, I wove her wish into the world’s fabric. The post PodCastle 636: While Dragons Claim the Sky — Part 2 appeared first on PodCastle.
Discuss on Forums Originally published in FIYAH. Rated PG. While Dragons Claim the Sky By Jen Brown When a breeze shook the reed curtains in mama’s salon, I thought it might be another dragon gliding low, stopping to drink from Lake Mritil. ‘Course, mama and I weren’t afraid; we loved watching them soar overhead, wings gusting hard enough to free cotton fibers and coffee cherries across Gyrixëan farms, so that croppers only had to scoop them up. So, you can imagine my disappointment when it wasn’t a dragon aloft, but a lanky huntress pushing into mama’s parlor. She burst through our straw door, letting in the noon sound of Gyrixëans haggling over pouches in the nearby spice house; testing winter tunics in the adjacent tailor’s gallery — but this wasn’t any old villager, like the rest of them. Her wolf-pelt cloak, engraved walking staff, and curved daggers marked her as a traveler. And instead of looking journey-weary, her umber skin practically glowed beneath the gauzy afternoon light. “Dragon’s ass!” she exclaimed, lilting accent stretching the vowels. “And I thought I wouldn’t find another black coif mage before I hit the goblin ferries.” Mama couldn’t hear anything while her Sight was up. She was busy slicking greased fingers through Ama’ktu’s ‘locs, plying the hidden gossamer magicks that only us mages could materialize, to try and loosen the old woman’s phlegm. A few quick blinks sealed away her powers, returning sound and touch and every other sense the Sight dampened. “What’d you say?” Mama asked. “I’m looking to get Han’enfol twists. The long, chunky kind.” Pressing inside, the girl flung cold and snow and mud across our best mats. “Signpost says you specialize in healing coiffery, yeah? I’ve got a bad back that needs tending before I leave tonight. D’you take walk-ins?” “Omani and I take payment for services offered.” Mama flicked her head in my direction. “Black opal, benitoite, copper stones. Even upland banknotes if you have ‘em.” Her lips flattened into an unimpressed line. “But I’ll bet you haven’t so much as a pebble on you, little girl.” “Little?” The huntress snorted. “My eighteenth name day just passed, ma’am — ” “Then you’ve adult currency, girl?” She frowned, chin stabbing upward. “I will soon enough — ” “Pah! I knew it.” Mama motioned her away. “Out.” I hardly cared about the argument brewing. Instead, I was nestled on one of the salon’s colorful divans, neglecting all of my responsibilities — cleaning the wash basins, beating our yarn dyed throws so that waiting clients would go “Oh, how soft!” — to re-read a letter delivered via messenger raven last week:   From: Mistress Carolyn Ames Department Chair, Coif Magery Imperial College of Allied Mages   To: Omani Sudyha of the Gyrixëan underland, Upon reviewing your application, I found your provincial use of “wish” magery an interesting method for the study of hair magicks. Therefore, I am pleased to offer you admission —   “Now, hold it ma’am!” The huntress backpedaled. “I can pay you easily in three days’ time!” While mama and Ama’ktu fell out with laughter, I shimmied deeper into the divan, swathing myself in daydreams of meeting Ames; seeing the College’s campus. My imagination fissured around the letter’s last line: At your earliest convenience, have your sponsor contact the bursar’s office to arrange payment for Fall term.  Only a fool would apply to the empire’s oldest Department of Coif Magery, under a Professor who’d pioneered hair magicks for thirty-odd years, without having any idea how to pay for it — yet, that’s exactly what I’d done. “I’m serious,” the huntress barked, loud enough to draw my gaze. “As a finalist in the Dragonscale Melées, I’m this close to becoming an imperial knightess. My winnings’d be large enough to pay back your kindness twice over!” My next breath stuttered. “Wait,” I cut in, sitting up. “The melée in Ecrouxvér?” Visiting merchers often spun tales of a biennial, three-day brawl in the floating uplands; one that covered the Imperial College’s outdoor amphitheater in white tents, while competitors sparred in gleaming armaments — competitors who often traveled with groups of tailors and smithies and pageboys. Could this melée be one and the same? “Yeah,” the girl replied. “I’ve got a summons to prove it.” Bolting upright, I practically toppled a stool near my legs. “I’ll do your hair!” I blurted, choking mama and Ama’ktu’s side chatter off. “If you’ll take me on retainer as your personal coif mage during the melée.” Everything went eerily quiet as mama’s bone comb cracked to the floor. I abandoned the divan, rounding styling shelves and low tables to plead my case before the would-be knightess. After all, I’d wished for this; I’d cast my want into the hidden magicks netting our world, hoping a tuition-sized miracle might appear. And bumping into a huntress on her way to the empire’s largest tourney — who, if victorious, would receive an audience with the Empress and her favor, all at once? That’s how mages won Imperial College scholarships. “Omani, what foolishness are you on about?” Mama demanded. “You would make for Ecrouxvér now, while your nanu lies sick upstairs?” Her gold lip stud trembled; cowrie braids clanked, as she shook her head. “You would leave us behind?” Heat flared my neck. Nanu was dying, and from a malady nobody understood. It couldn’t have been age, because that simply thinned her coiled tresses and creased her complexion, making prunes of her dimpled cheeks. No, this death stole her from us memory by memory; made her gurgle wetly as she forgot our faces. Gods. I didn’t want to leave either of them. “I know the timing’s bad, but …” Loosing a long, slow breath, I handed mama my acceptance letter. “I got in.” Her thick brows only crumpled as she read the parchment.   “I got into the Imperial College! And if I’m to accept, I need a patron who’ll cover my yearly tuition. You know who awards at least three incoming mages with Imperial College scholarships? The Empress herself.” This time, mama’s laughter pitched high. It made her stagger and clutch Ama’ktu for support, before shifting into fury. “You think I took on Zareb’s cropping so that you could abandon us?” Mama barreled toward me then. “‘Mani, I do it so you don’t have to. So that you can keep our magery alive here.” “Well maybe I wanna make it so you don’t have to crop!” I yelled. Mama stopped, reeling like I’d struck her, and my whole body trembled as the truth rushed free. As if I needed reminding that papa was gone; the evidence was all around us. After he passed, ma took up his cropping rotations to cover our debts: coffee, cotton — all Gyrixë’s best-known exports. I hated that she picked year ‘round, only to send half her haul to the cloud ferries for upland distribution. “Attending the College would mean graduating alongside nobility,” I reasoned, slicing the silence with calmer tones. “And I’d make good money doing upland heads with my wish magery. Every stone could help buy back our lands.” “Mama threw up her hands. “Worrying about finances is my job, ‘Mani. Yours? Is not to lie like you have!” She slumped, tiredness etching itself into her slackening expression. “How could you keep all of this from me?” Movement prickled the edge of my vision; I caught the huntress glaring between us, backing away as if she regretted stumbling in at all. “Stay!” I barked at her. “Ma, please — ” “No.” Her gaze turned glassy. “You wanna go? Fine. Gon ‘head. Join your new friend. Honor your ridiculous contract.” “I haven’t agreed to anything!” The huntress bellowed. “But don’t you dare come back here after it all blows up in your face.” Backpedaling, I fought the angry comebacks scrabbling at my throat. I could tell she meant every word from the way she clutched her arms, like she was already getting used to holding herself up without me. Guess I’d have to learn to do the same. “Knightess-hopeful — ” Don’t cry, I commanded myself. Don’t. “It’s Myra,” the girl replied. She’d been halfway out the door before mama’s ultimatum, but lingered now, fingers playing at the mosaic tapestry on her left. “Myra, then.” I gripped my hands ‘til the nail beds whitened. “Look, I’m the best coif mage you’ll find in Gyrixë. I’ve mastered healing coiffery, and I even made up a new kind of magery when scalp divination and strand summoning didn’t suit me.” Myra edged back inside, trailing her guarded gaze along the length of me. “Then your coif magery …?” “Molds your wildest wishes into the fabric of our world, so they might come to life.” A smirk plumped her dark cheeks; sharpened her now-expectant gaze. Behind us, Ama’ktu began coughing anew. Mama went to comfort her, but the din of it all sounded far away. “Take me on retainer, but keep your winnings,” I continued. “In return, I’ll twist wishes into your hair every day of the melée. Just give me a chance to make my wish a reality.” That night, I feigned strength as we rode out beneath a gloomy half-moon; as Gyrixë’s farmhouses, quiet windmills, and wending streams faded behind us. Once we hit Han’enfol, and our neighboring realm’s tarped night markets came into view, Myra slowed us to a trot to clear the bazaar’s throng. That’s when I spied the fire lamp glow of Madame Ellerie’s Coif Menagerie haloing the darkness, where papa had gifted me an “unbreakable” bone comb. At nine, all stubby legged and squat, I could barely reach heads for styling. Mama had gazed on excitedly anyway, proud to have a real Ellerie piece in our salon’s collection. Now it jangled inside my rucksack, bumping grease tins and iron clips to the tune of my façade fraying at the seams. A miserable sob shuddered free of my throat at the memory. “Nope, none of that.” Myra loosened her hold on the reins to squeeze my arm. “Look, I get it — leaving after a fight’d chafe anyone’s ass. But you better ready yourself with whatever strength you’ve left.” Clicking her tongue, she spurred her mare into a gallop so that we’d make the last departing cloud ferry. “We’ve a melée to win, and dreams to earn. Your ma’ll come around.” I didn’t exactly feel better, but she was right. Sucking tears from my lips, I focused on everything but memories of home: my cramped thighs clinging to our horse, Myra’s smooth staff resting against my lap, the tang of anti-inflammatory salve wafting through her furs. We rounded Han’enfol’s bordering slaughterhouses. Hours later, the breathlessness of Vanar’s hulking cloud ferries rose into view as we entered the last southern realm I’d see before taking flight. My sense of splendor quickly disappeared after it took every stone I’d saved to board. Which came after Myra negotiated the avimage captain’s asking price down, and threw in her horse for good measure. “Come on now, friend. Who’s trying to fly with all these dragons about?” She winked, further wrinkling his bearded glower. “Might as well cut your losses and get what you can, ‘cause these docks seem pretty damn empty tonight.” Mama said only birds were meant to fly, so I held my breath when we pushed off, until Vanar and Han’enfol and Gyrixë and every other little underland realm disappeared below dense clouds. It was win, or beg our way back home. Abyss below, I should’ve asked Myra to do a backflip or a blade toss or something to prove she could fight. Still, she had enough bravado for us both. “Now,” Myra said, swaggering into our modest cabin below deck. “Let’s hope you’re half as good as you claim. I still wish I’d begged Kellarin to do my hair before leaving.” I couldn’t decide whether I admired her caution, or found it annoying. “Kellarin?” I began unpacking my styling tools atop a rickety writing desk. “My sister.” Myra unfurled herself across our straw bed, long limbs dangling over the side. “She does healing coiffery like your ma, which means I know my way around coif mages. I’ll know if you’re playing me false.” Annoying, then. Definitely annoying. “Will you now?” I tried to clear the acid from my voice. “Why didn’t you beg Kellarin, then?” “Because…” Myra canted her head defiantly. “She took up fighting Qu’hellain’s wolf-wraiths in my stead.” “Oh.” Iron hairclips fell through my fingers, pelting the writing desk awkwardly. I don’t remember how old I was during Gyrixë’s last wraith massacre; I just know I’d never been more frightened than when mama clutched me close, her breath lancing hotly against my ear while villagers called for aid outside: don’t let them in, no matter what skin they’re wearing, she’d begged before going into the darkness with papa. They left me trembling in nana’s room with a torch bigger than my torso, so that I could burn wraiths out in case everyone else failed. Now Myra’s sister would exchange bone combs for obsidian blades and magicked arrows, to help keep them at bay. “I’m sorry,” I whispered. “Why?” Myra challenged, rearing up onto her elbows. “Da taught ‘Rin to wield the knife too, same as any Qu’hell huntress.” Something jagged caught Myra’s tone, deflating her bravado to a paltry simmer. “And she’s in good company. She’ll travel with the last hunters Murinien trained, before she — ” Myra hesitated, eyes widening. “Nothing. Before nothing.” Oh. Oh Gods. “Wait, don’t tell me Qu’hell’s realm dragon left, too?” Would this kick off a second wave of the so-called dragon exodus? The first had come like a torrent, with droves of them taking flight after failed negotiations at the Empress’s imperial summit. Upland pamphleteers reported that the dragons were heading east, claiming faraway crag wilds to build army hordes; that they’d come back and burn every city if we didn’t stop them. ‘Course, that was the stupidest thing I’d ever heard. Upland realms knew nothing of dragons, or their thousand-year-long relationships with underland village families. “Uuugh,” Myra mumbled into the bedsheets. “Me and the other hunters promised we’d keep it secret, for long as we could.” She flipped over onto her back, eyes faraway. “Muri traveled by ground during the day, so Her Arsehole Majesty’s airships wouldn’t catch her flying.” Gyrixë wasn’t big enough to boast its own realm dragon, so with Qu’hellhain being so close … Murinen felt like my family, too. I’d often race to watch her soar overhead in the spring, scaly form carving the clouds. “Is that why you want to become a knightess?” I asked, but Myra’s expression stiffened around a stony glare. I guess letting me in wasn’t part of the deal. “Okay, then. Let’s get to your hair.” I steered the conversation back into comfortable territory. “Now, you might know regular coif magery, but wish styling is about binding what we most desire into the tapestry of magick itself. You know about the Sight?” Myra rose, flinging off her furs. “Sis says it’s like looking at cobwebs or something.” “Exactly! Mage-sight exposes the raw webbings of magick that overlay our world.” Setting a chair beneath the cabin’s only window, I gathered blankets to create a makeshift styling cape. “Now, you just need to focus on your wish — think it, speak it, doesn’t matter.” I made Myra sit, and began dampening her loose coils. “The rest is my job: binding it so that magick’ll rearrange the universe to make it true.” “Can’t possibly be that simple,” Myra sputtered. “What if I wished for the world to end? Or to raise the dead?” I winced. Dark memories from moons prior roiled to the fore: my chubby knees pressed into the salon’s floor, as I raked magicks through my hair. I wished for papa to come back, so he could pepper us with scratchy kisses; demanded that the universe reverse time, pump blood through his heart again. I cursed Ama’ktu for delivering the news, for telling us he dropped mid-cropping. “There are things magick just can’t do.” Breathing through the rawness aching my chest, I changed the subject. “Anyway, you got nefarious plans I don’t know about?” “Maybe.” Myra wiggled her eyebrows. “Kidding, kidding.” Her tone shifted, turning husky. “Well, I don’t fight good when I’m worried. So … I wish for ‘Rin’s safety.” Surprise clotted in me, stilling my hands. Myra could’ve wished for anything. Strength. Speed. Agility during the melée’s battles. Clearly, I wasn’t the only one aching for home, and I suddenly didn’t feel weak for doing so. “All right.” Loosing a breath, I squinted ‘til the world turned fuzzy, then paused; waited until the ferry’s creaking hull faded, until I couldn’t feel the softness of Myra’s curls in my hands. Until all sense, except Sight, fled me. My next breath rippled a gleaming sliver of webbing nearby, which brought another thread into view, and another — until the whole cabin was sketched over with fibers of magickal essence just waiting to be molded. I tapped Myra’s shoulder, signaling her to focus on her wish. When she spoke, the threads crossing her hair undulated. I worked quickly to form medium-sized Han’enfol twists, though we stopped twice so Myra could stand and stretch, making the threads cascade down her back like strung stars. Eventually I wove the magicks through each twist, creating a corded lattice that made her hair shimmer. By the time I reached the front section, even her lashes were aglow like some woodland fae from the stories, angular cheeks and wide nose bathed in light. But like always, my Sight exacted its toll. Nearby magicks began writhing while I worked, tendrils undulating wildly before stabbing into my skin. As thin rivulets of blood welled up from the cylindrical wounds, I snipped the base of each by pinching them between my nails (mama taught me to never cut them low). The leftover bits eventually settle beneath your scabs, but I learned early on to work fast, which also meant hitting my favorite part sooner: gathering the magicks. Once Myra’s twists were finished, I mouthed: to me. Churning, the threads unlatched themselves from her twists, coiling into a yarn-like ball that hovered atop my left hand. Make it so. They scattered, crawling across the room’s magicks with renewed purpose. Work done, I softened my gaze; watched the webbing trickle away until feeling crept back into my hands. Sound and taste and smell flooded into me once more. “I’m guessing this isn’t an instantaneous kinda thing?” Myra teased, stretching as she stood. “Not exactly,” I laughed woozily; Sight work always left me drained. “Give it time.” With the horizon still blue-black, we had hours to go before reaching Ecrouxvér. But as I cleaned up, Myra’s calloused hand caught mine. “Thanks, Omani.” Heat bloomed where she touched me — the same spot Mekiah, the tailor’s son, pressed a kiss to last summer. A similar feeling torched my core. “Uh, none’s needed. I’m your retainer, right?” Holding my gaze, Myra surprised me by tearing some of her tunic to wrap my Sight wounds. Some stung worse, having reopened previously healed scars. “Da thinks knights are pompous and stupid.” Myra’s jaw twitched as she wound cloth about me. “He doesn’t get what it’d mean for Qu’hell to have a real knightess, even though Muri’s gone. He said if I left, it’d be as good as killing ‘Rin myself.” Her hands lingered, even though my bandages were secure. “I want to become a knightess so that I can help our people.” We stood there with our hands clasped. Nothing to return to. Everything to lose. “And I can do that a little easier, even with my back, knowing she might survive the week.” Myra grinned, a real smile this time, unguarded and brilliant. “Thank you for that. And for, y’know, tagging along. I haven’t, uhm … traveled like this with anyone since Muri left.” I returned her grin, but mine was a flimsy, strained thing. Why didn’t I feel brilliant and brave and unguarded, too? I wondered about this long after Myra climbed into bed, tired eyes watching the inky horizon out our keyhole window. Thoughts of mama came to me then; of her roasted yams and belly-splitting jokes; of the way her summer sundresses caught the light, or how she stretched onto her tippy toes to plait braids into my crown, even when her back ached from picking. Of how I hadn’t looked back, when she watched us ride away beneath the murk. Of how she was probably watching nanu right now, in case she woke confused or tried to wander off. Shame boiled hot in me, since we used to take turns protecting her. Who’d change places with mama now? Who’d make sure she slept and ate while nanu wasted away? My worries bled into something with claws, rooting deep until the marrow of me felt raked through. Those worries only worsened with the sunrise. Soon, daylight flooded the horizon, revealing landmasses. Dozens of them. Ahead, upland realms jutted against the skyline. They loomed like gilt behemoths, cast in grandiose shades of bronze and azure, tops aglow with sprawling cities. Spiral towers needled into thin, pristine points, while bulbous temple domes reflected a patchwork of mosaic artistry. I traced granite roads bisecting the land like arteries to waterfalls spilling over the world’s edge, where their stalactite bottoms knifed into the clouds below, blotting out the underlands beneath. The next morning, Myra woke in agony, back aflame as we skirted Ecrouxvér’s crowded port with nothing but walking sticks for balance. Jitters knotted my insides as we avoided throngs of bird-fishermen, grumbly merchers, and eager tourists — all of which only heightened the coiled tension of watching her struggle. “At least let me help.” I rounded her other side, but Myra shooed me off. “Stop fretting and keep up. We gotta book it! Ferry docked later than I’d hoped.” We trudged the city’s cobblestoned streets, rounding obsidian spires where tempermages shifted winter’s chill into manufactured humidity. It might’ve been nice — if we weren’t sweating and stinking through our furs near gilt parliamentary temples, or needing to cool our damp cheeks against the Imperial History Museum’s marble colonnades. To make matters worse, Myra’s staff kept slipping on the stones, skidding her into stagecoaches cluttering the street. She refused my help yet again, as we passed towering emporiums where Gyrixëan salt mix went for twice the banknotes they did back home, and veered from the spray of merchers beating sky-dew out of their fabric wares. We spent fifty minutes wandering, lost and sore-footed, along avenues where ruddy kids played around aqueducts plunging off the city’s edge, before finally discovering the Imperial College’s campus. “Melée’ll be up there.” Ditching her staff, Myra pointed out a distant amphitheater that loomed between brick-topped departmental buildings and a massive belfry. “You ready?” I could hardly see Myra past my worries, let alone respond. So, I followed as she hobbled along manicured gravel walkways, smothering an impulse to retrieve her stick while battling darker thoughts: could Myra win while in such pain? Yesterday, she was all flair and cockiness, believing our destinies within reach. Now I wasn’t so sure. Doubt dogged the minutes we spent walking toward the theater’s entryway, and I’d barely caught my breath before an attendant spotted us. “Competitors, both of you?” the robed usher asked. “This way.” Sweeping inside, my stomach knotted upon seeing so many sky-folk filling the stands: wig-clad men puffing on thick cigars, little girls garbed in chainmail, peering through binoculars to spy the fighters below. Myra elbowed me, just as we rounded the theater’s circular stage. “Look, the asshole of the hour.” I followed Myra’s gaze. Downstage, a grave-faced woman surveyed the grounds from a painted dais, flanked by royal guard. That could only mean one thing — Empress Troxrin would preside over the melée herself. “Does she usually call these matches?” I asked. “Not this early,” Myra whispered. The attendant led us into a rear preparatory tent, handed Myra a placard identifying her opponent, and warned that the melée would begin in minutes. She flung herself behind a screen to change. “She’s only supposed to show up on the final day, to knight the winner.” Gods. Which meant now, the Empress might see Myra lose early. Might narrow those beady eyes, easily forgetting the underland girls who’d given up everything to be here. Clammy and cold, I coughed around the stench of competitors dressing and smoking nearby. “Maybe we should style your twists again, real fast.” Drawing closer to the screen, I whispered: “You could wish away your pain.” A kind of thick, strained silence met my words, leaving me space to really hear what I’d just said. Gods! I wanted to snatch the words back with my bare hands, but my fingers felt like claws — monstrous, gnashing things that’d shorn away mama and nanu, and now Myra. “Look, I only meant — ” “Oh, I know exactly what you meant.” Myra came out from behind her screen, clad in dazzling armor: richly dyed leather, accented with a plackart and greaves made of interwoven iron that mimicked dragon scales. My ribcage thudded as I took her in — a real dragoness, towering and lithe, poised for flight. “Abyss below, this was one helluva mistake,” Myra muttered. Her forehead smoothed, shifting what’d been a taut grimace into something serene. “Go home, Omani.” Her tone was soft, yet cutting — a broadsword piercing silk. Like a final sundering of something that was once whole. “W-what?” I stammered. “Your services are no longer needed,” Myra replied. After fastening her knives, she turned to join the other melée competitors who’d begun lining up. “Shoulda known you weren’t strong enough to see this through.” A million little things occurred, all at once: competitors took the marble stage to the sound of opening trumpets; I called out to Myra, but ear-splitting crowd roar swallowed the words whole. Pitching backward, I knocked into platters of wine and cheese while ushers and tailors and press pamphleteers and sky peoples frowned at the sight of tears carving my cheeks. I’d ruined everything. So I ran from the theater, plunging downhill as the melée’s host, Duke something-or-other, announced Myra’s opponent: “Thera the Thrasher,” a pale, tree-trunk of a woman from the underlands below Ecrouxvér who probably believed victory her birthright. The crowd’s applause faded as I scraped past manicured quadrangles and ivy-coated libraries. By the time I stopped, rucksack clanking, chest heaving, I was all sweat and snot; ashamed of myself for doubting the one person who believed in me; afraid of slinking home to mama and watching her crop until she collapsed like papa. If she’d even take me back in. I was so absorbed, I didn’t catch the alchemist who’d stopped before me. He had a kind, round face, and carefully balanced a chemical tray full of beakers and vials against his crisp student robes. “Got your midterms back, eh? I know that feeling,” he said, sounding upland proper. Lifting a knee, he rebalanced his samples. “Don’t worry, it gets easier after your first term.” It felt worse being mistaken for an actual student. “I’m not — ” “You know, why don’t you chat up your advisor?” He leaned in close enough for me to count the freckles splashing his cheeks. “They want you to think you can’t argue a grade, but you always can. What’s your department?” Department. Like gears whirring into motion, that word planted the seeds of a plan into my addled mind. “Coif magery.” “Well, strike that,” he laughed. “Professor Ames is known for being a hardass.” Reeling, I remembered my offer letter; recalled the way Professor Carolyn Ames signed her name to it. “Where can I find her?” The boy frowned. “Hasn’t Physical Magicks always been in Kent Hall, behind the clocktower?” I left him there looking utterly perplexed, but was firmly set on my plan: find Professor Ames; impress her, regale her, do whatever I needed to win her interest. Then, plumb her for ideas about possible sponsors! Wealthy skyfolk she might know. Gods, she had to know some, right? College faculty were practically nobles, themselves. And if I was brave enough to keep fighting in my own way, then I was strong enough to find Myra later; to apologize for everything, and pull my own weight. To rally her and trust myself — trust us both — like I should’ve all along. I raced toward Kent Hall; pushed through the department’s heavy oak doors, wincing beneath the over-bright feel of hallways humming with electric light; poked into empty lecture halls and scanned wall signs until I found her office placard, written in the same flourished hand from my acceptance letter: Department Chair, Carolyn Ames. Unfortunately, her door was slightly ajar, which meant my creeping steps swayed it with a nasty creak. “Who’s there?” She called. Her boots echoed as she whipped the door back, revealing crimson professorial robes and a stern face pockmarked with recent Sight scabs. Uniform, layered scars hid beneath them, resembling sharpened scythes. “Professor Ames,” I croaked, throat dry. “Hi.” Her lips pinched, as she took in my sweating, disheveled form. “Are you here for office hours?” “Not exactly.” Chewing my tongue, I dug through my rucksack before retrieving and extending her my offer letter. After skimming it briefly, she arched one perfectly shaped brow. “Ah. Yes, the underlands talent. I remember your application.” She swept greying bangs from her eyes, as if to see me better. “Prospectives usually come begging to get in, but you’ve already done that.” So why are you here? Her tone implied. Gods, I had to choose my words carefully .  Twisting the edge of my traveling cloak between tingling fingers, I stuttered, “I came here to win patronage from the Empress.” Her narrowing eyes only worsened my stumbling speech. “I am — was working as a personal coif mage for one of her melée competitors.” Professor Ames chuckled sharply, mouth agape. “And when that unlikely plan fails? As it already seems to have, since your coif work is a past-tense activity.” Heat crawled my ears, dulling sound so that I had to flatten my tongue to feel the press of every syllable thudding out. “Then I’d like to discuss other options, Mistress. To prove that I’m worth investing in, to whoever’ll have me.” Perfect brow lowering, she returned my letter; swept keen emerald eyes over me. “Meet me here tomorrow ‘round nine, before morning lecture. I promise nothing but coffee and a chat. Let’s see what you take from it, shall we?” The door creaked shut before I could respond. This concludes Part 1 of “While Dragons Claim the Sky.” Click here to continue reading the story. The post PodCastle 635: While Dragons Claim the Sky — Part 1 appeared first on PodCastle.
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