PodCastle 536: The Threadbare Magician — Part 2

Show Notes

Note that this is one part of a two-part episode. You can read and listen to the first part here.

Rated R, for cursing wizards and magical desires.

See below for links to Cat’s projects:

Cat’s Patreon.

The Rambo Academy for Wayward Writers, which offers live and on-demand classes aimed at fantasy and science fiction writers. Fun fact: co-editors Khaalidah and Jen met at one of Cat’s workshops. They are highly recommended!

Some books and collections for sale: Hearts of TabatNeither Here Nor ThereMoving from Idea to Finished Draft.

The Threadbare Magician — Part 2

by Cat Rambo

[Continued from Part 1, available here]

I hadn’t consulted an oracle in years. Never in this area.

I went to a closet and took down the usual sorts of accumulated boxes before finding a box of cedarwood, holding a small red velvet pouch. I took out the contents and cast the runes.

And frowned at them. Had I been overly casual, insulted them?

I took the time to center myself and cast again.

The same result. Which couldn’t be right.

An Oracle here in Friendly Village itself? Pleasant, unmagical Friendly Village?

Only a few trailers away?

The singlewide trailer was small, and dowdy, but a profusion of flowers surrounded it. Hummingbirds clouded the standing fuchsia spilling blooms across the compact-sized driveway. Beside the door, a silver witch ball reflected everything around it, inverted and in miniature.

Before I could knock on the door, it jerked open. A long-nosed, wrinkled face above a solid body in an “Embrace Your Inner Crone” t-shirt said, “You don’t need me. Go see the god.”

“Beg pardon?” Behind her head, I glimpsed a living room decorated in white seashells and royal blue velvet.

“Go back to Osprey Lane. He’s at the end there.”

The door shut in my face.

I knocked again, but there was no answer. Very well. There’s nothing obliging an Oracle to help everyone that stops by. Some keep odd hours; others have odder restrictions, though the runes should have warned me of either.

And, technically, she had given me direction. A street name, even. And an idea about who lived there.

A god? One of the beings discarded by our age, living a prayer-to-prayer life in a forgotten corner of the world? Usually they were hard to find. But there was no reason why one might not have taken up residence here.

Jason had steered me to Friendly Village. Had he known of its double nature? Surely not, when I’d had no inkling. On the other hand, he’d been born in this area. He knew the history.

When you grow up someplace, you learn many of its secrets.

Perhaps not all. But certainly most.

Friendly Village loops and winds, narrow lanes scattered among the trailers. Every patch of landscaping is different: cacti surrounded one mobile home, followed by a forest of rhododendrons, then dahlias that might have originated in my own garden.

Up along the creek a little road ran, unlined with homes. It led to a trailer of a peculiar pearly hue that might have been mistaken for grime at first. It was a Nordic style, almost, simulated white pine beams, rough wrought ironwork on the walls. Its landscaping was bare: a line of rocks, two tiny fir trees, one slightly larger than the other.

Outside, a massive rock crouched beside the mailbox.

In Greek mythology, such stones were sacred to Aphrodite. But I didn’t think a Greek God lurked within.

A man stood on the front porch, watching me approach. His attitude was expectant, perhaps even impatient, as though my visit was overdue. His gray beard hung down to his belly, woolly as a blanket. His eyes were blue and a few golden strands showed among the silver on his scalp to attest to his Nordic heritage.

I stopped a few feet away, looking at him.

“You’ve come of your own accord,” he said. “It would’ve been easier if you’d just let them bring you.”

I acted unsurprised, and maybe I was. Occam’s Razor again. One) move to a new place. Two) be attacked by a powerful magical adversary. More than time connected that chain.

“I’m Forseti,” he said.

I searched through crumbs of mythology. My knowledge might have only the depth of a Wikipedia article, but it was wide. You learn the names of all the gods, once you realized most still exist in our world, acting out their own plans, few of which are constructed to advance humanity. Or even take it into account, really.

“Justice, right?” I said.

He dropped a slow nod.

“What justice is there in killing me?” I asked.

He said, “Perhaps you should come inside for tea.”

Inside the trailer, I could see its true aspect. Like many magical things, it was far larger on the inside than out. The roof littered as though made of silver and pillars of red gold supported it. The walls were gone — or clear —as though we stood inside an open pavilion, able to see Friendly Village’s trailers and hills all around, except at the back, where the home overlooked the low banks of Bear Creek.

A nifty trick. I would’ve liked to have known how to do it. But I didn’t ask, just took the teacup my host summoned from thin air, and sniffed it. Gunpowder and lemon wafted on the moist steam.

I didn’t drink, although I nodded in thanks. Everyone knows better than to eat something conjured. You didn’t know what the caster had been trying to create, or even if she or he was likely to get it right, without a single molecule twisted out of place.

He smiled at that.

I guess I might’ve too. I had the poison he’d already given me, permeating me. It was highly unlikely he needed to add something else to it.

But cautious suspicion, as I’ve said.

The god addressed me, his tone formal. “Rahul Macomber. Mage.”

I nodded this time.

Forseti said, “I must protect this place. I am the one who does so. You know as well as I that it’s up to us.”

The truth that none of us like to dance with; what I’d told Jason. At the heart of it, there is no balance of good or evil. It’s all random. That sniper on the playground? No demon possessed him, no alien mind control set him off. It was all accident of chemicals and brain impulses.

We like to pretend, we gods and magicians, that we represent an order, but it’s all hollow. There’s nothing at the heart of it.

“You have a life, but you choose not to use it,” he said. “Who would mourn you? You’ve shunned connections. You hide. You skulk. You never dare.”

That seemed unfair to me. “I enjoy life, nonetheless,” I protested.

He shook his head. “Do you?” He gestured all around us. “Here in Friendly Village are others like you. But they dance and quarrel and fuck and love each other. They live. You don’t. You waste your life hiding from living it. Why is it not justice that I should take someone who has renounced life, and use them to protect those who have not?”

“How is it your decision?”

He drew himself up and suddenly was towering over me. “I am a god, one of the Æsir. And you question me?”

I squared my chin. “I do.”

“Protest as you will, mortal,” he declaimed. He could have made a fortune doing radio with that voice. It shivered down my spine and loosened my bowels almost to the point of accident.

He made a gesture and the beads sewn into my shirt exploded, one after another, striking me like blows. The air around me thinned with the magic’s dissipation.

“Neither magic nor love can save you,” he said.

No one fights gods. No one sane or long-lived, anyhow. I could see in his implacable gaze that his decision would not change. I set the teacup down on the ground between us.

“How long?” I asked.

He knew what I was asking. “One sunset more for you,” he said. “If you are willing to come lay your life at my feet, I will use it to protect this place. Otherwise you will fall to my curse and no good will come to anyone from your death.”

Less time than I’d thought. Not enough to escape to someone who might heal me, even if I knew anyone who might be inclined in that way. Not enough to research or dig out some solution, unless I was incredibly lucky. And I knew no way of binding luck: the forces of randomness are as implacable as any God.

I was tempted to try walking out through one of the transparent walls, but the thought of Forseti laughing at me after I’d broken my nose in an unsuccessful attempt prevented me.

Even in death, I’d retain my dignity.

For what little good it did me.

He said, as I left, “Will you be back?”

“I don’t know,” I said, and it was true.

Lorca was sitting on my doorstep. It should have alarmed me. The fact that it didn’t alarm me should have alarmed me. But I found myself smiling at the sight of him nonetheless.

What he said could have been a spell, but it was a love poem.

He said, “I will woo you with words like wine, like honey, like addictive smoke. I’ll insinuate my name into things until you won’t be able to look at a sunset, or the water, or even the smallest scrap of paper, without thinking of me. I will make you accustomed to me, till my absence becomes as marked as though your hand or foot were missing. I will make you drunk on me, will make you long for me. I will make you lonely without me, accustomed to me as though I were integral to your world.”

I said, “Why?”

“Do you not know that I love you? Isn’t that sufficient?”

Perhaps it should have been. I know it should have been. But as I said, I’m possessed of a suspicious nature and even here, with something that seemed too good to be true . . . well, as I said. Too good to be true.

I said again, “But why?”

“Who am I to decipher these things? I saw you and I knew you were mine.”

“And how many men have you known were yours?”

His gaze was steady. “I love you as I have loved no other.”

“You lust after me,” I corrected. “And had you seen me before you came to my door?”

“Countless times.”

His eyes glowed.

Now I knew who — or rather, what — I was facing.


No wonder Lorca had seemed so dark, so mysterious. So alluring. So unknowable in that way that every lover is unknowable, has unguessable depths that they will reveal.

Magicians wrestle power away from Death. Or try to, at least. Sometimes we succeed, sometimes we don’t. Sometimes we are transformed. No one is ever unchanged by the encounter. But when we first begin to practice power, even if we’re very young, we begin to rehearse that exchange, from which we will emerge a true magician, rather than a dabbler, because we know we can never be prepared enough.

And I wasn’t ready either. Yes, my fifty-fifth birthday had hit me hard but not because I thought I was about to meet death. But because inside, like everyone else, I’m a teenager wondering what the hell this aging thing is all about.

When had I gotten old, when had gray crept into my hair, when had the spring in my step begun to ebb? I wasn’t getting old — just more mature. Perhaps even distinguished.

I told Lorca, “I know who you are.”

“Then we will dissemble no longer.” He stretched out a hand, palm upward. Blue lines of veins throbbed there; a blood magician might have given way to that temptation. “Will you give yourself to me?”

Hope and sadness mingled in his tone.

This wasn’t how I’d expected this to happen. Every mage’s encounter was different, I knew that, but I’ve never heard of an amorous Death.

Perhaps no one had wanted to admit it, to set such a thing down.

Or perhaps I was either very lucky or very unlucky.

I’d had enough confusion.

“You can’t wait for the poison to take me?” I said, a little bitterly.

He said, “Take my hand and I will heal you.”

“That is not at all what I expected of Death,” I admitted.

He laughed. “The main purpose of expectations is to be defeated.”

“Is this,” I said cautiously, “the traditional encounter with Death all mages encounter at one point or another?”

That only made him laugh all the harder, till he was almost roaring, doubled over.

I felt small. And foolish.

Finally he said, “No. No, it is not. This is something entirely different.”

I had no idea what to make of that.

Lore is carefully guarded among magicians. The ultimate currency, more precious than gold (you can always coax that from gnomes) or gems (you can only steal those from dragons) or any other object ever coveted by humans: tulips, spices, molybdenum, stamps, or other rarities like mummy amulets, or the bezoars taken from the heads of certain toads.

And within the categories of that lore, oneiromancy or speaking to trees, or anything else, knowledge of Death is among the most precious. Not what happens to the body after death — forces of decay and decomposition are easy enough to decipher, given how our bodies function. No, something more particular than that: the entity we know as Death, who doesn’t turn up usually as a robed skeleton. Instead he or she takes forms that seem unprepossessing: a little old lady in a purple hat, a flaxen-haired farmboy, a pregnant woman (though pregnant with what, no one knows).

So it was not unprecedented, this sexy form.

But the proposition, that was something else.

“Why me?” I asked. “And entirely different how?”

For the first time he looked perplexed, as though he didn’t know the answer either.

It was an unprecedented opportunity, though.

And, of course, it had presented itself at a time when I had nothing to spare it.

Save myself first. Then talk to Death.

He said, slowly, “Something about the quality of your loneliness, I guess.”

His eyes seemed very human.

Have you ever fallen in love over the course of seconds? At first, they are unremarkable and then, like a lens slipping into focus, they’re entirely different and yet the same. They haven’t changed it all, of course. Instead your position has changed; you’re in a different alignment with the universe.

Magicians know love is petty and small, a thing built of pheromones and proximity. At least most of it. Fantasy books talk about love as though it were the most powerful force in the universe. But it’s not. It’s an entity as ineffectual as any of us. We can resist it. At least, in my experience. I’d never had a long-term relationship — Jason and I might have come close, but in truth a real relationship would have distracted me from my work. Would have made me a lesser magician.

I said, “You know I don’t have time for this.” And then, less harshly, “No matter how tempting.”

That brought a flicker of a smile.

“Another sunset,” he said.

His eyes searched mine.

“You have but to speak and I will hear you,” he said, almost shyly. And was gone.

I unlocked my door and went inside to sit down on the couch.

I had been so small and ignored, by choice as much as anything, all my life. And now here I was, with a god wanting to sacrifice me and Death wanting to woo me.

I said there was one thing to keep in mind about magic, but really there are two. The first is that a magician’s focus affects their power. But the second is that there are magic things that anyone can do.

They are not truly magic; they are the result of being able to read the Universe. A combination of semiotics and micro-expressions and maybe, just maybe, a thin thread of fortune telling, the vague and swimmy kind that you see in the I-Ching, changing to match the situation.

Magicians know things. They know that demons do not like the smell of rosemary but can force themselves to touch it, and that they can be caught in pocket mirrors at certain times, when the light is right.

We know how people’s eyes tend to flicker when they lie and what words they will use to convince themselves that they are speaking truth. We know how to charm ourselves to sleep and that smiling makes you feel happier. We know all the practical little things, the shortcuts and tricks, that let a magician navigate life more easily than most.

Death hadn’t been lying to me. I would have known.

I took a shirt covered with white orchids, their throats scarlet, and sewed white barkcloth into it. I would try purification. I put every healing and cleansing charm I knew into it.

When I put the shirt on, I had a few moments of hope that it was working, that it was drawing out the poison. I saw the mouths of the orchids waver, grow cyanotic over the scarlet. But then they twisted, driven awry by the magic, and I felt it wrench at my bones again, as though in admonition.

I managed to stagger to the shower, ran it hot and stood in the steaming water, letting it run over me as though I had any hope of it cleaning the taint from my core, and retched, over and over again.

I was almost wretched enough to speak Lorca’s name.

There was no reason not to, was there? Aren’t we all a little in love with death? Look at our culture and the skulls haunting it. Death, sexy Death, walking backward behind the mirror.

I stumbled out of the shower and stared at the lines on my own mirror, and the steam collected between each squiggle. I toweled off with a vast bath towel of the kind I like, savoring the softness of the Turkish cotton, the absorbent dryness, the smell of lavender clinging to it.

One more sunset.

Some people like to think about that sort of thing. Their bucket list. If you had twenty-four hours to live, what would you eat and see and do and all of that? What people would you make confessions to or tell off?

What was the joke about the magician who sees Death in the morning? As I heard it, he saw Death in the fish market in the early morning in Paris, and Death looked surprised to see him. So he fled immediately, by boat and carried in afreet arms and then by foot, high on the slopes of Mount Ararat and there he saw Death again. And Death said, There you are! I saw I was to meet you here tonight; however did you get here so quickly from Paris?

I contemplated my wardrobe. I took out an abstract orange-on-black floral, shot through with blue streaks of pistils, over jeans and sneakers.

I poured rum and vodka to my household gods and the three ancestors whose photographs I keep in the shrine beside my bed.

“If I don’t come back,” I said to them, pouring vodka, “haunt the fuck out of whoever buys this place. I give you full permission.”

What if Lorca was some trick of Forseti’s? The old man was a god, after all, capable of all sorts of subtle illusions. Gods were a different kind of magic. They weren’t limited in the way that magicians were. Although Forseti had a focus, just as I had my shirts. His was justice.

That seemed to be of little help under these circumstances. There is no cosmic justice that would ensure he had to play by the rules.

He was too perfect not to be some trick.

But on the other hand, isn’t that how one imagined death? The ultimate lover, the soft voice who’d draw you down into oblivion in a Bob Fosse montage dance number?

Lorca was so damn sexy.

So sexy it almost didn’t matter whether or not he was an illusion.

And Lorca had said he’d remove the poison, hadn’t he? There had been no accompanying, And then carry you off to the underground, at least that I could remember. I thought about calling him to me, asking him for clarification. But what if I only got one chance to call him?

I went into Seattle to get my car. I’d been taken from the Value Village on Capitol Hill, part of my usual circuit.

Yes, for some people the car wouldn’t have been a priority. But I like my car, and the thought of it just sitting there in the lot until it got towed away as abandoned bothered me.

I bought it used, from a couple that lived in the same complex as Danny, Villa Encantada. It was an Isuzu Vehicross, once a fancy muscle car, leather interior and no rear view visibility whatsoever. Now, the black hood had faded to a subtle gray, and the orange and black leather upholstery was worn, cracking along one side. It was a car of great character, and the magic I’d woven into it didn’t hurt at all. I had named it the Contessa. Something about its lines.

It was sitting in a corner of the lot. I took a moment to look the lot over, make sure no one was lurking, waiting to sweep me up. But who would have expected me to come back for a car when I was dying of poison? It made little sense.

But very few things had made sense over the past twenty-four hours.

I felt better once I was behind the wheel. At fifteen years old, the car has some quirks and creaks, but there’s a Hawaiian dancing girl doll on the dash, a lei dangling from the rear view mirror, and some much less visible cantrips.

I swung onto I-5. The day was so dazzling bright that it lifted my spirits, as least for just as long as it took for me to think about it possibly, quite probably, being my last day, and then my spirits sank again.

The radio said there was a prayer vigil at Westlake Center tonight. For the playground victims.

Forseti wanted me to surrender to him. To die and have meaning brought from my life, a few years of protection for the inhabitants of Friendly Village. Did they know that a god watched over them? Or did they attribute the placid, untroubled nature of their lives to some other force?

I was still thinking about that after I left 520 and turned into the complex. Struck by some whimsy, I went widdershins rather than clockwise, began to circle the complex, examine the tiny streets, barely worthy of the name, named Steelhead and Pilchuck, Salish and Snoqualmie.

I’d done this once before, when I was first thinking about buying into the complex. But I hadn’t looked hard enough then. I’d been complacent. Now I looked as deep as I could and found the clues I’d missed before: a swarm of leprechauns living in a lilac bush; a multitude of bird baths in a yard, shaped in a long curve to fetch fairies to the waters; orange and green witch-balls making a boundary between one trailer’s demesne and another’s.

What a fool I was, to have missed this.

But the supernatural isn’t like it is in fantasy books. Bits of it are farther between, fewer than they’re depicted. Most folks can go all their lives without seeing a ghost. I saw three as I circled this new Friendly Village — two suicides and a regret-filled natural death. Forseti had bound them to the place as watchers. Each trained its gaze on me, uncaring and cold as an ice cube, but vigilant, as I passed.

It would not take long for the god to know I had returned. He wouldn’t wait for me to come to him. He was too worried that the death he’d started growing in my bones would go wasted, that he wouldn’t be able to pluck it, harvest it. Use it.

And to tell the truth, what good was my life doing anyone right now? I didn’t defend the world from anything. I existed and observed. I didn’t even have the excuse that most magicians did that, because most of them managed to live as well.

To do amazing things. And I, I lived in a trailer park and spent my days putting tiny, almost invisible stitches in Hawaiian shirts.

I left the keys in the Contessa when I parked her. I wasn’t sure I’d be driving again.

As I was coming in the back, there was a knock on the front door. It sent a shock of adrenaline through me, even though I knew it had to be someone ordinary, a neighbor asking about something to do with lawn care, or the mail carrier with a package.

But Jason stood there when I answered it. He’d never been to this place. I wasn’t sure how he’d found it. He must have asked around.

His eyes were so blue in the sunlight. I thought to myself that perhaps I should resign myself to dying from this and just grab what gusto I could in the time I had left. I should pull Jason into the bedroom and one of those sessions of sex so good it almost became tantric. I’ve been with sex magicians and you’d swear he’d been trained by one.

Maybe that’s just partiality talking. Not love. I was sure it wasn’t love. He’d been good in bed but so bad elsewhere. He was arrogant about his beauty, felt he deserved the last cookie in the package, the best seat in the house, to have things set aside for him or given him.

If they weren’t given, sometimes he’d take them, assuming you would have given them to him if you’d just thought of it. Yet another reason why we’d broken up. I felt taken for granted.

And sometimes, I thought, I deserved that last cookie. At least every once in a while.

All these thoughts flashed through my head, fast as the little barn swallows flickering through the air outside.

Still, I stepped aside and gestured him in.

He came in like a cautious cat, sniffing the air, looking around to inspect everything. When we had been together I’d been living in an apartment in an older building. It had a certain charm but I’d moved out because I could feel the press of people all around it, felt them pushing at my dreams when I was sleeping, trying to get in. They made things too random.

“Nice place,” Jason said. “You’ve been here, what, a couple of months? I’d think it would look more lived in.”

I tried to see it through his eyes. Yes, it was sparse. No decorations, no curtains, nothing to draw dust. My furniture was IKEA-simple, straight lines and no distractions. Uncluttered. The only place that wasn’t was my workroom. I glanced towards its door and saw it was closed. Relief. I didn’t need him snooping through there.

“What are you doing here?” I asked.

He spread his hands. “Look. I said some things I didn’t need to say.”

“You were being honest,” I said. “I’d be irritated too if someone showed up to use my spring.”

He shook his head. “It’s not that. You could have asked me. Why didn’t you tell me you needed help?”

“That’s not how I work,” I admitted.

His eyes were serious blue. “Why not? What would happen if you asked for help?”

I hesitated. Why indeed? Why had I chosen this solitary existence, why did everyone accuse me of keeping them at arm’s length?

What was wrong with me?

Aside from the poison burning in my veins.

I would have answered, but a wave of dizziness swept me up and I fell forward. The last thing I saw was Jason’s eyes, as blue as falling towards the sea.

There was chanting.

There was the smell of my own bed, and someone tucking me in it.

Then there were dreams, but why bother telling dreams?

When I awoke, I could hear voices in the other room. I was, indeed, in my own bed. By the look of the light it was heading towards my last sunset. Forseti hadn’t said how long I’d linger after that.

I could feel the poison, like a lazy snake along my spine, heavy water pooled in the muscles of my back, my buttocks, and thighs. It didn’t hurt, but it hovered there with a strong intimation that it could hurt, and could hurt very much indeed, under certain circumstances.

I focused on listening to the voices. Jason’s and what I thought was Forseti’s.

“No, back then it was very different,” Forseti’s voice said. “Just a few trailers. I nudged an old friend into buying the lot, setting up a perpetual trust.”

“And the name?”

“Things become what they are called. You should know that, Guardian.”

My eyelids were heavy. I blinked, and the sunlight bars crawled a good inch across the pale blue plaster of my bedroom wall in that momentary darkness. The snake writhed along my back once as I thought about stirring, and I discarded the thought.

“You knew what you were doing when you gave him the Friendly Village flyer. You knew he’d take a look.”

Jason murmured, “It was up to him to examine things.”

“He didn’t because he trusted you.”

Jason coughed out laughter. “Yeah? A momentary lapse on his part, no doubt. Not his practice.” Then, as though startled at his own bitterness, he said, “But I didn’t mean for it to come to this.”

Silence, which was Forseti’s way of saying Didn’t you? At least that was how I read it.

“What now?” Jason asked.

A creak. Forseti was in the leather-covered armchair closest to the bedroom door. Jason would surely be on the couch confronting him.

Jason, who had wished me ill enough to feed me to this ancient god.

The thought hurt, hurt badly.

Forseti said, “He has a few hours. He’ll wake soon. If he hasn’t already.”

Silence again. I imagined the two of them looking at the half-closed bedroom door.

Jason said, “Is there still time to heal him? If I willed the spring to do it?”

“No. You’ve delayed too long, waiting for him to ask you for help. You thought you’d win your lover to you forever, make him incur a debt to you he never could repay.”

I inventoried the magic close at hand. But I was so tired, I couldn’t imagine using the handful of charged marbles in the bottom drawer of the bedside fixture, or even going so far as to extract the thin silver blade, small enough that someone might think it a letter opener, that I’d slid between the two mattresses as one of my first acts of moving in.

I was dying. Was this what death was like, this heaviness, like bags of sand holding down my bones, as though everything, my flesh, the air in my lungs, the bedclothes heaped on me, were growing thicker and denser, more difficult to move? As though I were becoming frozen in a block of glass, unable to even change the direction of my helpless stare?

There was only one alternative.

But still I hesitated. I stretched out my consciousness, tried to extend it beyond the bounds of Friendly Village. But something deftly caught my thought tendrils, twisted them back around to this trailer, this room.

I could call Death.

Death, who claimed to love me.

Love, the same force Jason claimed motivated him.

What would happen if I abandoned myself to love?

Love was a rasping frustration, a teeth-grinding experience of shouting against the wind. Love was feeling small and misunderstood and feeble-minded and sad.

And yet a desire one came back to, again and again, because sometimes it wasn’t that. Sometimes it pulsed in you, a song teeth-achingly sweet, a sound that hollowed out your heart, cored it like an apple, and replaced it with something else, fierce and hot as brandy and flame and drumming along my veins as though they were full of swallows, swallows battering themselves against me from the inside, soft insistent buffets like a toddler’s blows.

Was that what would come about with Lorca? Was it possible? You can’t force love, after all. And love traded for something else, whether money or some other commodity, like your life — what did that do to it?

Think of what Forseti could do with my death, after all. He’d use it to keep these lives serene and who was to say they didn’t deserve a little peace and spots of luck in their declining years? Particularly creatures of the supernatural, increasingly driven and hounded by forces of technology, disbelief fraying away at their existence? Imagine how much protection a magician’s death could buy them.

But no one wants to die.

So I whispered, so soft that only I could hear it, “Lorca.”

He was there.

He seemed so real somehow. Realer than real. Like something in a movie about to burn a hole in the film with its presence.

His breath was cool on my cheek as he leaned over to whisper, “You want to be healed?”

There was a bargain being made here; I just didn’t know its terms.

How do we read Death? You can begin with what signifies Death — a skeleton carrying a sickle, a grinning skull. A glimpse of the inside of things.

And the message of such things is to remind us of our own mortality. To tell us to live.

How odd, that we should say Death when the message is Live.

But when the thing itself, not the icon, stands before you with long-fingered elegant hands, and a mouth like a sunset’s sigh, how do you read that?

Because surely, what it’s saying is something entirely different.

My hand went up to touch his cheek. Yes, I said, without any words at all.

“Stop,” Jason said from the doorway.

He stood there, Forseti just behind him. They both looked angry. I doubted that either had factored an appearance of this sort by Death into their plan. Jason had meant to drive me to asking him for help, thinking that it would change things between us.

Well, it certainly had changed things.

Lorca said, “Will you heal him, or shall I?”

“I will,” Jason said. He stepped up. In his hand was one of my wine glasses, filled with a clear liquid.

Lorca looked at Forseti. “It is not the Guardian’s decision, but yours. It will not work unless you allow it to.”

“Which I will not permit,” Forseti said. “A death was promised me.”

All of this flew over my head, because I found another wave of lethargy washing over me, forcing my eyes closed. Each breath was long and labored; I could feel the room waver whenever I exhaled.

Jason’s voice was small and subdued. “Will you take a substitute?”

No, I wanted to say, but the air pressed too tightly in my lungs. Lorca’s hand was on mine, holding it. His fingers remained cool.

Forseti said, “That is not for me to decide.”

I couldn’t see who he indicated, but it must have been Lorca, for he spoke. “Rahul has chosen to live, or so he says. But he must agree to take on certain obligations if he is to exchange places.”

How do we read Death, even in the flesh?

Always, he’s that voice saying live. The message is unchanged. The signifier changes; the signified does not.

That’s what the universe was telling me.

So I chose, and Jason chose.

Later, I woke. Lorca was sitting by the foot of the bed, drowsing in a chair that he must have brought in from the kitchen. It was fully dark outside, and there was no light on in the room. In the faint, faint light, he looked sinister, then childlike as a car passed outside and its headlights spilled over his face for a moment.

He said, without opening his eyes, “Go back to sleep. There is plenty to do in the morning. Forseti wishes to move the spring here.”

“Why does the spring need a guardian?” I asked. The question had never occurred to me before.

“It doesn’t. But it wishes one, and there is always someone willing to do it. Now it’s your turn.”

“What do I get out of it?”

“The same thing that comes with caring for anything. Irritation and petty annoyance, and the occasional flush of happiness.”

He opened his eyes to regard me, underscoring his words.

“Why don’t any Hawaiian shirts have pictures of Death on them?”

“Because no one wants a postcard that reminds them of mortality.”

Why did he want my heart, as threadbare as an old shirt, too worn and tattered to keep out the wind?

But he did.

“Everyone wants a little happiness now and again,” he said. “Even Death.”

“It occurs to me,” I said, “that Jason’s death benefits you a little. Removes a rival, in a sense.”

He cocked his head and gave me a dazzling smile.

And I let that slide.

For now.

About the Author

Cat Rambo

Cat Rambo lives, writes, and teaches atop a hill in the Pacific Northwest. Her 200+ fiction publications include stories in Asimov’sClarkesworld Magazine, and The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. She is an Endeavour, Nebula, and World Fantasy Award nominee. Her 2018 works include Hearts of Tabat (novel, WordFire Press), Moving From Idea to Finished Draft (nonfiction, Plunkett Press)  and the updated 3rd edition ofCreating an Online Presence for Writers (nonfiction, Plunkett Press). For more about her, as well as links to her fiction and her popular online school, The Rambo Academy for Wayward Writers, see her website kittywumpus.net

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About the Narrator

Graeme Dunlop

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Graeme has been involved with Escape Artists for many years, producing audio, hosting shows, narrating stories and keeping the websites going. He was born in Australia, although people have identified him as English, American and South African, amongst other nationalities. He loves the spoken word. Graeme lives in Melbourne, Australia with his wife Amanda, and beautiful boy dog, Jake.

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