Edited by W. H. Horner
Illustrated by Stephanie Pui-Mun Law
Trade Paperback • 6" x 9"
Direct Price: $13.60
This long-awaited continuation of the series once again features the magical art of Stephanie Pui-Mun Law and a selection of stories that travels across the sub-genres of fantasy.
Young men and women struggle to find their places in worlds harsh and beautiful. Lives are changed as people grapple with relationships and the consequences of their decisions. Greed and cunning are sometimes punished, and sometimes rewarded. Sometimes it is better to give than to receive, and sometimes a gift can be a curse.
Eighteen works of modern myth explore the many facets of the human condition, taking the reader on an emotional journey through fantastic landscapes.
Fantasy Short Stories
Trade Paperback • 6" x 9"
ISBN 10: 0-9713608-7-1
ISBN 13: 978-0-9713608-7-7
Table of Contents
Introduction by W. H. Horner
“Evelyn” by Michail Velichansky
“Imaginix” by Maggie Slater
“The Mermaid’s Silver Pool” by Jeff R. Campbell
“Abandoned Responsibility” by G. Scott Huggins
“Gratitude” by Margaret Yang
“The Benefits of Public Transportation” by Todd Austin Hunt
“The Song that Made Hell Hell” by Greg Beatty
“How Savio Arcaini Came by His Sword” by M. T. Reiten
“The Corn Bear” by Michael Penncavage
“The Desert Island Fifty” by Jason S. Ridler
“The Pit Fighter” by Alex Jackson
“A Plant’s Scream” by Christine Welcome
“Healing Hands” by Aliette de Bodard
“Dragonfly Savior” by David Walton
“Deathless in Manhattan” by Hank Quense
“A Night on Pope Lake” by James R. Cain
“Renewal” by Robyn A. Hay
“Chaos Theory” by Brandon Alspaugh
“Tell me a story,” Evelyn whispered.
“What? Um. I’m not really good at making—”
“Please? Just while we walk.” Evelyn thought she remembered, once, her mother telling Jeannie a story while Evelyn lay in her Mommy’s arms. Sometimes, stories made the night less scary.
“All right. I’ll try.” The dog walked in silence for a while. When he spoke again his voice was slower, steadier. “There was once a great queen of the cats, descended from those queens who ruled long ago in the many sunlit cities along the River of Life. She ruled well, and the cats prospered. She lived in a glass palace that shined with the light of a thousand reflected suns; when she was in heat, the cats wailed beneath her balcony, drowning out all other sounds—while she sat, regal, staring up into the sun. And sometimes she would choose a suitor, and their screams would roll over the city so that no one slept.”
As he spoke, they made their way through the swamp. A friar’s lantern flitted about in the distance, its light soft and eerie. Evelyn was afraid and excited; carried by the dog’s words, her mind jumped from the thick swamp-darkness to great queens and sunlit cities.
“One day, though, her advisors and slaves found her asleep, and when they tried to wake her, she would not stir. Nothing they tried worked. Their queen was gone. Yet she was not dead: she breathed, and ate when fed, and dreamed strange dreams.
“For years the cats lived like this. Many tried to wake her in different ways, but neither traveling wise men, nor gypsies, nor hairless cats from the East had any luck. Many took personal meanings in the queen’s sleep, believing it to be one omen or another, and none agreed. Some took it upon themselves to discover the villains behind it, and many creatures died in the night surrounded by sharp claws and yellow eyes. Many wars were started, and still the queen slept.”
They left the swamp. Trees grew thick about them. Daisies sprouted from their trunks, translucent in the moonlight. Mushrooms sparkled as they walked past. No insects buzzed here; no rodents scurried through the brush.
“Finally, the queen’s subjects and advisors got together and decided that they could not go on without a ruler, so they stopped feeding their queen, stopped setting milk in front of her. The queen’s body withered and shrunk, until she had no muscles left, and only bones could be felt beneath her thin, ragged fur—but still she lived.
“One of the queen’s many daughters was next in line, and it was she who ordered that the queen be killed. Without any real reluctance, the order was obeyed. All night the queen bled from her eyes and mouth and from her many wounds, until all her lives were spent and her shriveled body ceased to breath.”
They walked through a grove of bamboo in shallow, filthy water. Many shafts were broken, as though something had forced a path through. Some ended in jagged points where they’d been broken.
“They left the body where they had killed it, in a secret place where cats go to die. The queen’s daughter was pleased, for she was strong and wise and ruthless. She felt that she would make a good queen, and that she had done right in murdering her mother. Her mother would have done the same. She celebrated for days in the old queen’s palace while a crowd waited outside to see their ruler. Finally, she walked out onto the balcony and proclaimed herself the new queen. A cheer went up, for the cats had been without a queen for years, and some part of them that even they do not truly understand longed for a queen to rule them.
“But the cheer changed to a multitude of screams; everywhere fur bristled and tails puffed.
“‘Imposter!’ they cried.
“Those at the front leapt up onto girders and fences, onto window sills and balconies, up telephone poles and fire-escapes. Lightning fast they moved, and before she could react, they were on the balcony with her. Her guards helped to cast her down among the crowd, and with their teeth and claws they tore her apart.
“For somehow, they had known—had felt—that she was not their queen. Ever since, the same has happened to all who tried.”
The dog looked up at Evelyn and wagged his tail.
“Thank you,” she said, scratching him behind the ear lightly. “It . . . it wasn’t very nice. Do you think they'll find it again? Whatever it is the cats lost.”
“Probably not,” the dog said. “Cats aren't very good at finding things. You need a dog for that.”
The morning came with a shock. Two large hands shook him roughly from sleep and he opened his eyes to see Christof’s face an inch from his own. The old man’s fingers dug into his arms, but before Torin could stammer a word, Christof shook him again and growled, “You’ve been working on her, haven’t you, you idiot! You haven’t even learned how to control your own thoughts, how could you think of touching my project?”
“Sir! Working on who, sir?”
The old creator cast a suspicious eye on him. “Don’t try to trick me, boy! A creator always knows every detail of his works! I know that child inside and out, and I remember creating everything about her. She has the heart of an angel and the curiosity of a kitten, but she’s smart as a scholar! But you . . .” He wagged his finger as Torin lay back on his elbows, mouth gaping. “You changed something about her! Now all she does is pile her hair on top of her head and make faces in anything that will reflect her image! She talks about beauty constantly, and you changed her hair! You made it brighter, shinier. Her eyes sparkle more, and on top of that, she’s got on a new dress! And you even made her figure fill it! She should never wear a dress like that!”
Torin’s face burned at the accusation and at the image that suddenly appeared in his mind. Unfortunately, it also materialized in the air not far from his head.
The old creator’s eyes narrowed and his face turned a bright red. “Just as I suspected!” He erased the image with a brusque swipe of his hand. Then Christof leaned very close to Torin, his nose snorting hot, tea-scented breath into his face. “Now you listen here,” he said, his bushy eyebrows pulled so low on his forehead that his eyes weren’t even visible. “You keep your mind off of her! I won’t have a young whelp mixing things up on me, you hear?”
“A mermaid is a beautiful creature,” Lockee said. “They say the sight of a mermaid knocks the breath from a man. Fair skin, voices like a song, hair with a lustre not even gold can match. To see them is to lose your heart. Once, when I was sailoring, I saw a man jump from the tall rigging and fall into the waves. Mate said the man had seen a mermaid and, even from up in the sails, he leapt down to be with her, made reckless with desire.”
A hush fell over us all. Instead of grief, our heads filled with imaginings of beautiful women dressed as a fish (which is to say, not dressed at all). Our thoughts were far from the darkened room in which we stood, out among the waves and the creatures glimmering beneath them.
Then someone asked, “That what happened to Holk? You reckon he jumped into the sea?”
Just one word, not even spoken loudly, but it hauled us back, pulled us hard into that blackened parlour. Dav’s voice, Holk’s son, reminding us where and why we gathered. The tale’s spell was broken. Shamed, the men turned and drifted away from Lockee.
“My father would not have jumped from his boat,” Dav said, his voice firm. “He loved my mother, and she’s beauty and magic enough for any man.”
“You’re right, of course,” Lockee said. As the others turned away, Lockee stepped right up to Dav as if he’d said nothing wrong. “Holk would not have jumped. Likely the mermaid leapt from the water as dolphins do. Jumped out of the water and snatched up Holk in her arms, carrying him down to her city.”
We winced to hear Lockee carry on so, meeting with the boy’s grief with such foolishness, but it was his way. A sailor’s comfort, the solace of a tale, it was all Lockee had to offer.
“It’s a beautiful city Dav, or so they say. Gates of copper, stripped from the hulls of sunken ships—”
“My father would come back to us. If he lived, he’d come back to us.”
Later, in bed, I rested my head on Klaus’s chest and listened to his heart. It sounded strong and healthy. Perhaps my stews and concoctions were doing more good than even I’d hoped. Klaus rested comfortably on the pillows, absently rubbing my back. Now was my chance to ask about Jak. I took a deep breath and willed courage for myself. This shouldn’t be so very difficult. Humans, I knew, asked for things all the time. Klaus received hundreds of letters each year from children asking for toys. They didn’t seem to find this behavior at all shocking. But we were different. Asking for something was so completely foreign, I didn’t know if I could do it.
Still, for Jak’s sake, I had to try. I thought about the house we’d visited today, the life a factory worker lived. If Jak became a stablehand and moved inside the village, he would be so rich and happy that he’d forget all about wanting to leave.
I took a deep breath and squeezed Klaus tight. “I want to ask you something.”
“Anything, my love,” Klaus said sleepily.
“I want to ask you for something.”
Now I had his attention. “Yes? What is it?”
“It’s about Jak. He’s . . . he has a great need.” No, that wasn’t right at all. There had to be a better way. “He very much wishes to serve you.” Better. I lifted my head to look at Klaus in the fading light, hoping to see his reaction before proceeding. He simply looked at me curiously. Even so, the words would not come. “Jak is very hard-working and very good with animals,” I blurted. “His fondest wish is to become a stablehand and work with the caribou.” There. It was done. I held my breath, waiting.
“Whatever for?” Klaus asked. “It’s a horrid job. Messy.”
“He seems not to mind filth,” I said. That much was true, anyway. “Can you do this for him?” I looked into Klaus’s eyes, forcing myself to speak, despite my shaking voice. “For me? Please?”
Klaus nodded. “Done! If it means that much to you, you may fetch him in the morning, and I will show him what to do.”
“Truly?” I scanned his face to see if this was one of his many jests, but it was too dark, and I did not dare light a candle.
“Truly,” Klaus said. “Anything for you. I adore giving you gifts, Rheva. You are always so pleased to get them.”
“Oh thank you, Klaus! Thank you!”
“He was right! You are nothing, Nigel. How long do you think we can live on my savings? I’m weary of you walking through that door with bad news.” Virginia sat at the head of the kitchen table, her face furiously red. Thornberry blocked out her voice and wondered why he had ever married this pig. Virginia had a svelte figure, but her head was pink, round, hairless and fat. Well, he thought. She does have some hair. Hanging from her chin and ears.
“Are you listening to a damn word I say?” she shouted, which caused her jowls to shake. “Our babies deserve only the best, but the way you’re going, we’ll never be able to save enough to get both of them into university.”
Thornberry sighed. The babies sat on the sofa in the adjoining living room, watching their favorite video. He had lost count of the times he had kept himself from grimacing at the sight of the boys. Paulie and Gary were identical twins, identical blue eyes peering voraciously at the television screen, identical creamy-white tapered scalps peaking identical chubby segmented bodies. Why are my sons grub worms?
Paulie and Gary held hands and chuckled at the video, which played the same short, confusing scene over and over again. It showed a darkened room where two crouching, shadowed forms played with spherical objects on the floor. The figures froze less than a minute into their play, then scurried out of the picture, leaving the tiny spheres all over the place. A moment later a larger figure came into the room, falling down and lying there for a few seconds until the whole thing restarted. Paulie and Gary giggled gleefully.
Thornberry got up and pounded the OFF switch. “What is this, Virginia? Why do they always watch this?”
Paulie and Gary made keening noises behind him.
Virginia looked away and said, “Oh, it’s just something that all the kiddies like to watch nowadays. Leave the babies alone! Let them watch.”
Thornberry stared at her for a second then shrugged. He grabbed his coat from the tree and muttered, “I’m going out for a bit.”
The closed door only muffled Virginia’s whine. “Don’t you dare drink any of that gin!”
A whisper moved through the song. It mixed with the Styx’s splash upon the rocks, shaping a susurration of warning and wonder.
. . . pheus, Orpheus, Orpheus.
I had heard of Orpheus. Even barbarians knew that his songs make warriors weep, and brought offers of love from men and women alike. Now, as we came to the unlit shores, Charon fought for a place to land his boat. The dead, who are ever and always alone, crowded together to whisper of Orpheus, the greatest musician.
When I stepped off the boat I learned why. The whispers were uneven, but worn smooth, like scraps of cloth passed hand to hand. For a woman. The gods let him. Eurydice. For Eurydice. You must see her. Orpheus yet lives. His song persuaded the gods.
I first thought that there was some great mystery, and that the other dead were trying to piece together Orpheus’s reason for being there while still alive. When I looked my first dead man in the face, I knew they whispered for another reason. The dead spoke in scraps because the whole cloth was too rich with awe. To speak it was to burst asunder with the purest envy: that of the dead for the living.
And more: the envy of the ordinary for the extraordinary. Think, if you will, of what makes men content with their position in life. We are born rich or poor, slave or free, and for the most part we remain so. We are content with these inequalities because of the two greater equalities that yoke us all: we do not choose our places in life, and we all pass through the light but once before entering the eternal shadow.
“I am a trainer of ghosts and wish to assist you in your next contest of arms.”
“Ghosts?” Malignari barked out a laugh. “Like the tales of haunted castles my nonna would tell me as a child?”
“Do you know how difficult it is to have a spirit abandon the earthly vessel of the body after death? No. Stories of hauntings are made and promoted for reasons known only to the living.” Savio placed the architect’s orb on the table. He took a saltcellar from a hidden pocket and dropped a large pinch next to the glowing orb. He offered a magnifying glass to the duelist. “Watch what can be done.”
A small cathedral built from the grains of salt slowly formed on the table, like a fairy castle of ice. The ghost of the architect made spires and arching domes that rivaled in miniature the most fantastic structures of Venice, Florence, or Rome.
“And how can this magician’s trick aid me?” Malignari ignored the glass and wiped the salt onto the floor.
Savio forced a smile, though to Pietro it had the same warmth as a crocodile’s grin. “You, sir, have knowledge of the fighting arts far exceeding my own, but may I ask how much steel is between a fatal thrust and a parried blade?”
“It depends.” Malignari held his scarred hands over the table with his index fingers apart. He moved them closer together as he spoke. “Four inches. An inch. A hair’s breadth.”
Savio drew the rapier. The two orbs set within the basket hilt shed a ghostly radiance. He offered it to Malignari. “I have bound spirits to this blade. Have you heard of Liberi and Renzo Pelligrino. . . ?”
Malignari frowned at the rapier, but he leaned forward. “I didn’t know Liberi had died.”
“These trapped ghosts enhance the hand that wields the blade. That hair’s breadth will turn the point every time with reflexes not slowed by mortal flesh. And the expertly guided inch will find your opponent’s heart with vision that sees beyond living sight.”
Roger looked at the old man as if he had been doing more than just gathering bottles down in the cellar. “What exactly is a Corn Bear?”
“The Corn Bear is . . . well, I’m not really sure what it is. They live in the cornfields. Everyone who grows up in these parts knows about them.”
“What do they look like?” Stewart asked, trying desperately to keep a straight face.
“Big and wide.” Jake used his hands to show the width.
“Cows are big and wide,” Drew said.
“And they live in the corn?” Laurie asked. “What happens after the weather gets cold?”
“Legend says that it dies when the crops are harvested and is born anew with each spring thaw. Its strength comes from the crops—the higher the corn grows, the stronger and larger it gets.” Jake poured himself a beer from the tap. “And I can’t recall a season that the corn has grown so high as this season.”
“Have you ever seen one?”
“Only once. I was driving along not far from here when I saw something dart across the road ahead of me. It was gone in a flash and for a minute I thought it was the heat reflecting off the road, playing tricks on me. I got out of my car and walked into the grass. About twenty feet off the road, just inside the first row of corn, was a spot where a few of the stalks had been crushed and flattened out. Then, deep in the cornfield I heard a sound so terrible that it made me jump into the truck, take off, and never look back.” In one gulp, Jake drained half the mug’s contents. “I always kept one eye on the cornfield after that.”
“Please put your name and address here. After that, all I need is a list of all your favorite authors, ones that you respect and admire and wish you could write like. We’ll formulate your regiment from this data.”
“Sure,” Charlie said, confused, hopeful and desperate. “And what happens then?”
“You’ll produce the books you want.”
“Just like that?”
“Think of it as magic, if it makes it easier.”
Easy was Charlie’s speed, effortless his style. He started writing down his favorite authors.
“But, Mr. Pritchard, they must be living authors.”
Mr. Hecatomb grinned. “It has to do with intellectual property and all that. Using the dead is more troublesome and less cost effective. Don’t fret; all of this is to protect you from harm.”
Charlie laughed. “Mister, if want me to sign in blood—”
“No need. Just get as many names down as you can.”
Charlie started with his desert-island-five and then some, but at thirty he drew a blank. Then he thought of all the blurbs he’d wanted to read on the back of his own books and the writer’s block fizzled. “Pritchard’s work reads like Margaret Atwood on acid!” “Forget Barker, Rice and King, Pritchard is the new Dean of Horror.” Or, his personal favorite, “Pritchard has the grace of Amy Tan, the heart of Lewis Shiner, and the soul of Grace Amundson.” And that did it. He capped the list at fifty. His wrist hurt. It was the most writing he’d done in years.
Gumm dug his feet in, stood bolt upright, straining his body against the twine that bound him to the wooden pole. The pole shifted in the sand. Sweat crawled down his shaven head. He was remarkably strong for a little man.
Then he stopped and looked up over the stone walls of the pit, his black eyes glistening in the lamplight. He could take the time to look into the audience. His opponent, a meaty southerner with a tangle of red locks, was badly beaten and hung limply from the pole to which he was tied. Welts had begun to form about the southerner’s face, a string of foam dangled from a swollen lower lip.
As Gumm stared up at me, a shifting haze seemed to hang before his face as though he were looking up at me from underwater. And my heart beat high in my chest as his voice rasped inside my head.
How sad you are now. How unfortunate. Watch closely.
I found myself looking at the floor, my head shaking back and forth. I heard the sounds of flesh smacking flesh. When I looked up, Gumm was pounding his opponent’s face with his fists. The stout southerner’s head bobbed about as if he were a doll in the hands of an overzealous child. Flecks of blood streaked Gumm's arms and face. I hated pugilism. But more than that, I loathed Hortice Gumm.
She became a part of the jungle in the same way a motionless green and brown lizard on a tree trunk was indistinguishable from the mottled bark.
When she was angry at the apes for carrying a joke too far or at herself for forgetting where a particular fruit grew or perhaps at some stray thought intruding from that other place, the jungle roared and prowled, struck and killed, and torrential rainstorms burst with great white bolts of lightning, leaving her nostrils filled with the scent of ozone. When she was tired, deep night came and there was a cave or tree bole or netting of vines in which to curl up and rest.
It was like being the Peter Pan of her own Neverland, but she had no Lost Boys, no Wendy, and she was so lonely.
Ianthos ran his hands over each block, feeling for imperfections, for hidden flaws within the wood which he would not see until he uncovered the core. He felt nothing; his gift was not for that. He picked one at random and, vaguely frustrated, went to the shrine of Aenora.
It lay at the top of a plateau on the outskirts of the city; the steep path leading to it started at the end of the street on which he lived. As he walked, the thatched houses with white-washed walls and painted wooden shutters became marble, sandstone, and granite. The earthen path transformed into a large, paved road. Small temples to lesser gods and heroes littered the ascension. He stopped to sacrifice a black crow to Yrger, patron of artists and messengers, and resumed his climb. The sun had risen and was mercilessly burning the skin of his exposed back. He wished he had taken more than a short tunic for the day, but he was too far away from his home for it to matter. He thought of Rheana, cared for by old Mera, and suddenly realized that the city which lay before him had been silenced by the plague, reduced to a shadow of itself, and that the death of Liadhes was only one more step towards decline.
What are you thinking? We survived the tidal waves and the barbarian invasions; we lived through harsh weather and fires and rebuilt our city. The plague can’t harm us. We’ll live on. Some of us will.
Dewdrop, astride his mantis, was leading the snake away from the river, dodging its lunges and slashing out with his mount’s spiked forelegs. There was no hope he could hurt it. Hickory wondered why he didn’t just try to escape. Then he saw the other mantis behind the snake, its body crushed, and beside it, a slumped, motionless form. Marigold. Dewdrop was leading the monster away from her, making himself the target of an enemy many times his size.
The snake moved with deadly grace, as smooth and fast as the water falling from the rocks behind it. The battle could not have been raging for long, or Dewdrop would have been dead. The snake lunged again, just as Dewdrop was slashing forward, and he was thrown from his mount. The snake opened its mouth, fangs bared, to finish him, but at that moment the weasels attacked. They tore into its unprotected throat; the snake writhed, ripping itself away, but fell twitching, belly up, onto the sand. By the time Hickory and Cori arrived, it was dead.
The soldiers helped Dewdrop to his feet, clapping him on the back. They draped Marigold, still alive but unconscious, over one of the weasels to send her back to the fielding.
“That girl will kill somebody one of these days.” Cori kicked at the ground so hard that Hickory jumped a step back. She relaxed just as suddenly, though, laughing a little at her own emotion. “I’m just glad it wasn’t today,” she said.
“What’s your name?”
“How’d you get here?”
“I ran away from Daddy to play a joke on him.”
“And you came down here to hide?”
“Yeah. Daddy was talking to someone and didn’t watch me.”
It was possible that no one was around to stop him. During off-peak hours, the platform was frequently empty. “Okay. Let’s get outta here.”
She led Alex up the stairs at the end of the platform where a middle-aged woman glared at them. Ida was used to people doing that.
On the surface at Lexington Avenue and 68th Street, the brilliance of the sunlight blinded her for a few moments. Once she regained her sight, she scrutinized the boy. The blackness of his hair accentuated his pale skin. Brown eyes peeked out of an almost handsome face.
When they reached the corner of 70th Street, two squad cars from the Nineteenth Precinct pulled up, each with a pair of NYPD cops. One jumped out of the first car and said, “Back away from the boy. Do it.” The cop had his right hand on the butt of his revolver and made an effort to position himself upwind.
Great! The cops were busting her for helping a lost kid. She was proof that no good deed went unpunished.
“I was tryin’ to take him home.” Ida released Alex’s hand.
A policewoman got out of the second car and took him by the shoulder. Alex stuck his thumb back in his mouth.
Ida’s shoulders sagged as she watched him get in the car. The kid was having a rough day. But not as rough as hers.
God knows why Dad decided to go fishing that night. Pope Lake was twenty clicks beyond Bodie, down a rugged drainage channel that passed for a road on Water Board land. It was not an easy place to get to; not on the tourist map, anyways, but Dad knew the mountains well. He used to visit Pope Lake as a kid, and told me about it more than once. I guess that was the attraction of the place, though, wasn’t it?
It was an ideal place to be alone.
It was an ideal place to die.
I know he was depressed. Mum was dragging him through the courts for child support for my kid brother at the time—the usual trumped up stuff. That woman held a chip on her shoulder. She felt cheated that Dad had left, maybe, and took every opportunity to make his life hell. Dad needed to escape, I guess. I get that way sometimes. It gets so that solitude’s the only thing to clear your head.
Dad’s aluminium boat and rusted Ford turned up six days after his disappearance. A Ranger stumbled upon them while looking for noxious plants. The boat floundered in the reeds, with an Esky of warm beer, and a bottom strewn with emptys. There’d been a maggoty bag of worms beneath the seat. Dad’s fishing rod was recovered from the mud on shore. Its hook and sinkers were missing. The line had been snapped.
Typically, one learned to chant before learning the more intricate lessons of the wood. Believing Tivon and the moss needed time to heal, Ferro shied away from the music drills and instead explained the natural cycles of life within the forest. During the next afternoon, they took a rambling walk. Ferro showed him the varying breeds of plants that grew within our borders. It was important that Tivon recognize the name and purpose of each. He absorbed the knowledge like drops of water in a lake.
Everything Ferro taught returned to the art of creation and building a connection. We believed Tivon needed to find the correct melody and understanding would follow.
“Again,” Ferro said.
Sweat dripped off Tivon’s nose. He reached forward with trembling hands and touched a wilting ghost flower. She was a short, blooming albino plant that grew only in dark, wet places. For this lesson, he did not have to sing, simply whisper a command. He spoke softly but with fervid intensity. The flower strained to respond, but outwardly, she remained lifeless.
Seeing this, every doubt we’d had dissolved. For decades, our kingdom lay unprotected. Yet, that is better than leaving it to someone unsuited for the task. We’d already made that mistake once with Harlan. Apparently, one didn’t necessarily have to sing to tame the wilderness. Sometimes a simple touch can express everything.
She tried to slow more, to prolong the glide, but Zhad’s weight on her back dragged at her.
Even without him, she could not have flown, and the injustice of this still tore at her. As a child she had promised herself that when she was grown she would fly away, like her mother, and never see Ekkaia again. Bad enough to be a freak, dusted with emerald scales all over. Bad enough to have spider‑veined wings in place of arms. Bad enough to be the only half‑human, half‑dragon in the whole Great Disc of the World, but to be so here . . . and not even to be able to fly away. Oh, she was light enough. Her bones were hollow, or so the ship’s doctors had said. She could glide for minutes at a time; but always, she sank lower and lower, eventually ending up back on the deck where her mother had set her.
The story had been told to her since she understood words. How near the beginning of Ekkaia’s voyage, a dragon had appeared and left her. The dragon said she had great need and would hold Ekkaia responsible for her when she returned. Her mother had left nothing else. No clothing, no secret talisman—not even a name. And so they called her Responsibility, lest any other name displease the dragon. And they kept her in her high cell, lest any harm come to her. They took great pains to see that she stayed healthy. Even Ekkaia’s bulk and arsenal was no match for a dragon.
But for now—nearly twenty seconds—she was free. No longer Responsibility, but Arz . . . Ezr . . . the name failed her. Was it a fragmented memory? Or was she just stupid, like Jaal down in the cattle decks, whose parents had died when he was two, and who kept prattling on about how his real parents were a pirate king and queen? All things considered, she supposed it would be miraculous if she were sane.
In less than a breath of quicksilver, he was borne in the air, two angels to his left and four to his right. Certain none noticed, he angled towards the residence of Samael.
If any were to ask, the spark told him, he was to say he was exploring some quantifications of ‘beauty,’ a subject Samael was renowned for her knowledge (and possession) of. But none would dare ask.
The other half of his fractured mind railed against what he was doing, pleaded with him to return to his duties. But he wouldn’t. The spark drove him inexplicably onward.
He alighted in front of her dwelling, his bare feet taking notice of the cool marble, so different from the metal and porcelain of the City proper. Another oddity: there was some kind of blockage in the point of entry, barring him from entering directly. Gabriel had no time to ponder on the significance of this. The portal disappeared as if it never was, and he was pulled inside.
Before he said a word, he felt a cruel pain explode onto his lips. Her face was pressed against his, her mouth on his, and for a moment he stood there, frozen and burning.
Samael released him. “Darling! You came! And alone, too!” She laughed. “Won’t you sit and join me? Oh, of course you will, what am I saying? Come, sit, sit!”
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