PodCastle 637: Ink, and Breath, and Spring

Show Notes

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.


About the Author

Frances Rowat

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Frances Rowat lives in Ontario with her husband, their dog, and a not-quite-startling number of cats. She was born in Canada, and while growing up spent time in England, Algeria, and Switzerland. She spends most of her time behind a keyboard, where she frequently gets lost in details. She enjoys coffee, puzzles, rain, and post-apocalyptic settings, and can be found on Twitter @aphotic_ink or online at aphotic-ink.com.

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About the Narrator

James Thomson

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James is an actor and director who trained at École Jacques Lecoq in Paris; he studied English Literature and philosophy in London. As a theatre maker James has been nominated for both the ‘Most Promising New Playwright’ and the ‘Best Male Performance’ by the Off West End Awards. He has performed in a number of venues in the UK and Paris including at the Battersea Arts Centre, Oxford Playhouse, King’s Head Theatre and Le Centre Pompidou.

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