I am never the first to know the demons have returned.
This time, I am at Ukaya’s house, trimming the hooves of her goats, because her joints are too swollen and stiff to wield a knife. The morning sun prickles my back and rough goat hair prickles my belly as I whittle off thin curls of hoof.
Ukaya tells me stories about my late father, who climbed a mountain at fifteen, and went on to sail foreign ships, dive for pearls, slay monsters, and rout a nest of bandits just to bring my mother back her wedding jewelry, all before I was born. At least, I think to myself, someone in our family made himself remarkable before he died.
Making friends with Ginevra was like taming a stray cat. First I started hanging around in areas where she might be found. If she showed, I didn’t approach her. I just stood there, smoking, or I read something, glancing at her secretly from behind my hair. Then I started catching her eye once in a while. Then I started smiling.
Then I started dating Christopher Potter; I dumped him after a few weeks, but that got me introduced to Pete Janaczek, which got me the invite to Pete’s party, which got me in the same room as Ginevra while she was tipsy and expansive, and then-finally-it happened.
All that was a lie, you know. As if I could plan anything like that. It’s only in hindsight that I realize why I started spending time in the smoke-hole in the first place. So many of the things we do, we keep from ourselves.
A girl sits cross-legged in the dirt before the unlit pyre, her face dotted with yellow clay and her dark hair unbound. The girl has just seen her ninth summer. The man on the pyre is her father. The old woman at her side, bent and gray, is no relation.
The girl does not cry. She looks at the pyre with coal-bright eyes, her jaw set, her fists clenched. The pyre is covered in the flowers of the season: purple, blue, and yellow. Their scent is carried on the breeze. She fidgets with the curled edge of her tunic as the aurochs horn sounds in mourning, and she knows she will never enjoy the scent of summer flowers again.
The three of them—the girl, the old woman, and the corpse—sit in silence while the sun traces its slow arc across the sky. The girl knows that this silence is expected of her. She is satisfied with it, because if she is not silent then she will scream. She does not know the right word for the anger she feels, the rage and wanting in her heart that threatens to burst from her chest and lay waste the entire settlement and everyone in it, seek out the men who ambushed and murdered her father. There is a word for it, but it is taboo to her people, and never expressed.
If she knew the right word, she would say that what she wants is vengeance.
Rated R. Contains violence and disturbing imagery.
Doctor Adoulla Makhslood, the best ghul hunter in the great city of Dhamsawaat, was weary. Two and a half bars of thousand-sheet pastry sat on his plate, their honey and pistachio glazed layers glistening in the sunlight that streamed into Yehyeh’s teahouse. Adoulla let out a belch. Only two hours awake. Only partway through my pastry and cardamom tea, and already a panicked man stands chattering to me about a monster! God help me.
He brushed green and gold pastry bits from his fingers onto his spotless kaftan. Magically, the crumbs and honey-spots slid from his garment to the floor, leaving no stain. The kaftan was as white as the moon. Its folds seemed to go on forever, much like the man sitting before him.
“That hissing! I’m telling you, I didn’t mean to leave her. But by God, I was so scared!” Hafi, the younger cousin of Adoulla’s dear friend Yehyeh, had said “I’m telling you” twelve times already. Repetition helped folk talk away their fear, so Adoulla had let the man go on for a while. He had heard the story thrice now, listening for the inconsistencies fear introduces to memories– even honest men’s memories.
Adoulla knew some of what he faced. A water ghul had abducted Hafi’s wife, dragging her toward a red riverboat with eyes painted on its prow. Adoulla didn’t need to hear any more from Hafi. What he needed was more tea. But there was no time.
The usual bidders were there, of course: Dame Eleanor in her sensible pantsuit, Miss Hawes and Miss Singh in their black leather jackets, the full brocade skirts of Mrs. Perriwhite. For whatever reason, we women have always made up the majority of phoenix egg collectors, and nowadays we did not have to send male proxies to do our bidding for us; now we could cordially hate each other directly.
There were other women, less serious than we five, and three men in the auction room: the auction house manager, Mr. Samoilenko himself, and John Weadsleigh. John was one of us, and we accorded him the respect of cordially hating him without regard to his gender. Even Miss Hawes, whom I suspect of hating men in general, did John the courtesy of hating him individually, as a competitor for phoenix eggs rather than as a man, which may be the most generous thing I have ever known her to do.
This was not a situation that encouraged generosity.
Find out more about Lakeside, the Jay Lake documentary, here.
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