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PodCastle 642: In a Field of Bone-Bonnets

Show Notes

Rated PG-13.

In a Field of Bone-Bonnets

Aimee Picchi

The hut shuffled to face the sunrise, a habit that pleased its old witch, and kindled the fire in its hearth for her morning tea.

The witch groaned as she wobbled from her bed and picked up a ragged note from the floor. The scrap had been slipped under the hut’s door in the middle of the night while the witch had snored in her feather bed. During the note’s delivery, the hut had remained still because the witch had told it many years ago that her customers were scared enough already and might be frightened off if a giant chicken-footed hut suddenly moved.

The witch and the hut both knew what the note would say. The messages were always the same, even if the words were different.

“Another woman needs my help.” The witch wheezed as she reached for her bag of medicines.

The ever-glowing skulls strung by the hut’s doorway clattered. You need to rest.

“My dearest hut, I must continue with my work until I can no longer. Stoke your fires at dusk. That’s when I will return.”

As she reached for her walking stick, she gave the hut’s central beam a pat.

The hut watched with worry as she limped into the woods in search of the young woman who had written the note and crept to the hut’s door in the middle of the night.

As the sun arced across the sky, the hut rotated on its chicken feet to follow the warmth. It opened its shutters and aired its insides, then closed the shutters when the afternoon air grew hot and humid.

As the sun was setting, the old woman stumped back, her breathing labored. Fatigue lined her face, and she stepped inside unsteadily.

You are too old to keep doing this, the hut clattered. (Continue Reading…)

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PodCastle 641: TALES FROM THE VAULTS — And Their Lips Rang with the Sun

Show Notes

This episode is a part of our Tales from the Vaults series, in which a member of PodCastle’s staff chooses a backlist episode to rerun and discuss. This week’s episode was chosen by associate editor Tierney Bailey. “And Their Lips Rang With The Sun” originally aired as PodCastle 111.

And Their Lips Rang with the Sun

by Amal El-Mohtar

There was once a Sun-woman, glorious as any of them, named Lam. She was nimble, lithe; she was all of eighteen, quite in her prime, while her bright-eyed acolyte had only just learned the sacred alphabet off by heart. She was a sensible teacher, and differed from her sisters in only one respect.

It was her custom, once the dawn-dance was done, to look out to the very farthest reaches of the horizon and imagine how far the fingers of the Rising Sun could reach, what they touched where her gaze failed. And when the evening was shaken out like a sheet between the arms of her sisters, then, too, rather than look to the closing of her palms, she would chase the last ray of the Sun as it vanished over the desert and the mountains, and wonder where She went, where She slept, and in whose bed.

These were unnecessary thoughts for a Sun-woman to have, to be sure, but perhaps none had loved the Sun quite so completely as she.

It happened one afternoon that Lam looked out, as was her wont, towards the west, and wondered. But while she thought her puzzle-thoughts, she became aware of eyes on her, and looked down to the great square before the temple of the Sun.

To continue reading, please visit Strange Horizons.

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PodCastle 640: Mist Songs of Delhi

Show Notes

Rated PG-13.

Mist Songs of Delhi

By Sid Jain

Rajaji had listened to three songs of the deceased that morning. He couldn’t help himself. Whenever he walked past a flickering portrait floating in the air — static, sanguine, and phosphorescent — the urge to reach out and touch the cloud with his fingers was more than he could resist. The cloud portrait would unspool itself into the departed’s soul song and fill the air around Rajaji with the lilting music of their lives.

The last of those three songs had left Rajaji in a heavy stupor. The voice of the departed sang but three lines in Urdu. The translation into Hindi seized some beauty as tax, but the words thundered in Rajaji’s heart in all the seven languages he knew:

I tolerated his passing as he had taken Hindustan as his second wife,

But my hummingbird had not yet learnt to fly when you clipped her wings.

O Tyrant, what sin did I commit that you saved me for last?

They rarely told the life’s story of the subject as if they were epic poems. No, most soulsongs captured a sliver of the lives, a representative snippet that encapsulated the life and times of those lucky enough to be turned into song by the Goddesses of Raagas.

And they were lucky. Seekers made pilgrimage from around the world to the temples of music in Delhi and Ajanta and even the little one in Calcutta. Germanic Persians, Frankish Egyptians, and some even traveling over ocean and continent from the Americas, hoping — praying — that they reach the temples still alive and with stories remarkable enough to be granted the gift of eternal music. (Continue Reading…)

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PodCastle 639: Kiki Hernández Beats the Devil

Show Notes

Rated PG-13.

The destinies of two women — one, a soldier; the other, a princess — become intertwined in C. L. Clark’s debut, The Unbroken. This is a story about war, betrayal, intrigue, and some truly sexy fight scenes in a desert kingdom inspired by North Africa. The cover art was released on io9 in July. Check out this incredible debut by PodCastle‘s co-editor!

You can pre-order The Unbroken by C. L. Clark now!

Kiki Hernández Beats the Devil

By Samantha Mills

Kiki Hernández, rock legend of the Southwest, had seven devils on her tail.

They scurried through the roadside scrub, not even trying to sneak. She could hear their scrabble-claws and clacker-tails, their dripping maws and teeth. If they were trying to round her up for a crossroad deal-making, they were going about it all wrong.

That’s what happened when devils got hungry. They made mistakes.

Kiki hummed as she walked, watching eddies of dust form tornadoes on the road ahead. It was a swagger of a walk, born of a perfect record: Kiki 72, Devils 0. She would have been bored, if she hadn’t been so eager for an encore.

“Come on out!” she hollered.

They tumbled forth in a gray-green tangle of many-jointed limbs, an acrid smell preceding them: sulphur and grave dirt and candy apples stuffed with razorblades. Their voices tangled like a nest of snakes: Are you hungry? Are you thirsty? Are you vengeful? Are you sad?

For a moment she felt it—the thirst like three weeks eating salted pork, the grief that could only end in retaliation—and then Kiki popped open her molded-plastic carrying case and pulled out her guitar: Mona Lisa. (Continue Reading…)

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PodCastle 638: Slipping the Leash

Show Notes

Rated PG-13.

Slipping the Leash

Dan Micklethwaite

It is 1958, and Aloysius Proctor has survived a war, and survived the clap, and he is married to Delilah, with whom he has fathered two beautiful children, both of them sons, and he is the second-ranked salesman in the premier automobile showroom in town, and he should be happy with life, shouldn’t he, or at the very least content. He should have put this behind him; buried it deep with his friends from the Corps.

You’re thirty-five, for Chrissake! — what his daddy had told him. You’ve got to grow the hell up! You’ve got to be a good family man, just like I’ve done.

The belt-buckle scar tissue burns Louie’s torso, scorches his forearms, singes his back. The shrapnel scars too, on his upper right thigh. He tries not to laugh. He tries not to cry. Tries not to think that he should have stayed home, and spent time with his kids just to prove that he loves them. Shouldn’t be toting this battered black case, with the scratch-marks tattooed on the stainless steel clasps.


Should not. (Continue Reading…)

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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.” (Continue Reading…)

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PodCastle 636: While Dragons Claim the Sky — Part 2

Show Notes

Rated PG.

While Dragons Claim the Sky

By Jen Brown

[Note: This is Part 2 of a two-part novelette. Please visit last week’s post to read Part 1.]

When marble cracks, it isn’t loud — or at least, not in the way I thought it’d be. Thera the Thrasher demonstrated this by cleaving her warhammer into the space where Myra’d lain moments ago. Instead of shattering, the veiny rock split with a squelch that came from sliding against itself; too dense to crumble, yet still capable of being broken.

That rockface would’ve been Myra, had she not pitched away at the last second. Clambering up, she swayed gracelessly, swiping away the blood marring her chin.

She could’ve been killed.

That thought haunted me while I watched her match from a cramped stadium seat, wedged in between two bettors who could only complain about how boring the ‘underlands scruff’ were.

“How long?” I choked out to man one on my left. “How long have they been fighting?” I’d arrived minutes ago.

“Half an hour,” he grumbled. “Abyss and shit, let’s end it already. We’re all really here to see Giralt the Grand, am I right?”

He elbowed my side just as Myra rolled from another of Thera’s crushing blows — but this time her shield split, leaving her gasping for breath and clutching her side. I shot up, fighting nausea. (Continue Reading…)

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PodCastle 635: While Dragons Claim the Sky — Part 1

Show Notes

Rated PG.

While Dragons Claim the Sky

By Jen Brown

When a breeze shook the reed curtains in mama’s salon, I thought it might be another dragon gliding low, stopping to drink from Lake Mritil. ‘Course, mama and I weren’t afraid; we loved watching them soar overhead, wings gusting hard enough to free cotton fibers and coffee cherries across Gyrixëan farms, so that croppers only had to scoop them up.

So, you can imagine my disappointment when it wasn’t a dragon aloft, but a lanky huntress pushing into mama’s parlor. She burst through our straw door, letting in the noon sound of Gyrixëans haggling over pouches in the nearby spice house; testing winter tunics in the adjacent tailor’s gallery — but this wasn’t any old villager, like the rest of them.

Her wolf-pelt cloak, engraved walking staff, and curved daggers marked her as a traveler. And instead of looking journey-weary, her umber skin practically glowed beneath the gauzy afternoon light.

“Dragon’s ass!” she exclaimed, lilting accent stretching the vowels. “And I thought I wouldn’t find another black coif mage before I hit the goblin ferries.”

Mama couldn’t hear anything while her Sight was up. She was busy slicking greased fingers through Ama’ktu’s ‘locs, plying the hidden gossamer magicks that only us mages could materialize, to try and loosen the old woman’s phlegm. A few quick blinks sealed away her powers, returning sound and touch and every other sense the Sight dampened.

“What’d you say?” Mama asked.

“I’m looking to get Han’enfol twists. The long, chunky kind.” Pressing inside, the girl flung cold and snow and mud across our best mats. “Signpost says you specialize in healing coiffery, yeah? I’ve got a bad back that needs tending before I leave tonight. D’you take walk-ins?”

“Omani and I take payment for services offered.” Mama flicked her head in my direction. “Black opal, benitoite, copper stones. Even upland banknotes if you have ‘em.” Her lips flattened into an unimpressed line. “But I’ll bet you haven’t so much as a pebble on you, little girl.”

“Little?” The huntress snorted. “My eighteenth name day just passed, ma’am — ”

“Then you’ve adult currency, girl?”

She frowned, chin stabbing upward. “I will soon enough — ”

“Pah! I knew it.” Mama motioned her away. “Out.”

I hardly cared about the argument brewing. Instead, I was nestled on one of the salon’s colorful divans, neglecting all of my responsibilities — cleaning the wash basins, beating our yarn dyed throws so that waiting clients would go “Oh, how soft!” — to re-read a letter delivered via messenger raven last week:



Mistress Carolyn Ames

Department Chair, Coif Magery

Imperial College of Allied Mages



Omani Sudyha of the Gyrixëan underland,

Upon reviewing your application, I found your provincial use of “wish” magery an interesting method for the study of hair magicks. Therefore, I am pleased to offer you admission —


“Now, hold it ma’am!” The huntress backpedaled. “I can pay you easily in three days’ time!”

While mama and Ama’ktu fell out with laughter, I shimmied deeper into the divan, swathing myself in daydreams of meeting Ames; seeing the College’s campus. My imagination fissured around the letter’s last line:

At your earliest convenience, have your sponsor contact the bursar’s office to arrange payment for Fall term. 

Only a fool would apply to the empire’s oldest Department of Coif Magery, under a Professor who’d pioneered hair magicks for thirty-odd years, without having any idea how to pay for it — yet, that’s exactly what I’d done.

“I’m serious,” the huntress barked, loud enough to draw my gaze. “As a finalist in the Dragonscale Melées, I’m this close to becoming an imperial knightess. My winnings’d be large enough to pay back your kindness twice over!”

My next breath stuttered. “Wait,” I cut in, sitting up. “The melée in Ecrouxvér?”

Visiting merchers often spun tales of a biennial, three-day brawl in the floating uplands; one that covered the Imperial College’s outdoor amphitheater in white tents, while competitors sparred in gleaming armaments — competitors who often traveled with groups of tailors and smithies and pageboys. Could this melée be one and the same?

“Yeah,” the girl replied. “I’ve got a summons to prove it.”

Bolting upright, I practically toppled a stool near my legs. “I’ll do your hair!” I blurted, choking mama and Ama’ktu’s side chatter off. “If you’ll take me on retainer as your personal coif mage during the melée.”

Everything went eerily quiet as mama’s bone comb cracked to the floor. I abandoned the divan, rounding styling shelves and low tables to plead my case before the would-be knightess. After all, I’d wished for this; I’d cast my want into the hidden magicks netting our world, hoping a tuition-sized miracle might appear. And bumping into a huntress on her way to the empire’s largest tourney — who, if victorious, would receive an audience with the Empress and her favor, all at once?

That’s how mages won Imperial College scholarships.

“Omani, what foolishness are you on about?” Mama demanded. “You would make for Ecrouxvér now, while your nanu lies sick upstairs?” Her gold lip stud trembled; cowrie braids clanked, as she shook her head. “You would leave us behind?”

Heat flared my neck. Nanu was dying, and from a malady nobody understood. It couldn’t have been age, because that simply thinned her coiled tresses and creased her complexion, making prunes of her dimpled cheeks. No, this death stole her from us memory by memory; made her gurgle wetly as she forgot our faces.

Gods. I didn’t want to leave either of them.

“I know the timing’s bad, but …” Loosing a long, slow breath, I handed mama my acceptance letter. “I got in.” Her thick brows only crumpled as she read the parchment.   “I got into the Imperial College! And if I’m to accept, I need a patron who’ll cover my yearly tuition. You know who awards at least three incoming mages with Imperial College scholarships? The Empress herself.”

This time, mama’s laughter pitched high. It made her stagger and clutch Ama’ktu for support, before shifting into fury. “You think I took on Zareb’s cropping so that you could abandon us?” Mama barreled toward me then. “‘Mani, I do it so you don’t have to. So that you can keep our magery alive here.”

“Well maybe I wanna make it so you don’t have to crop!” I yelled.

Mama stopped, reeling like I’d struck her, and my whole body trembled as the truth rushed free. As if I needed reminding that papa was gone; the evidence was all around us. After he passed, ma took up his cropping rotations to cover our debts: coffee, cotton — all Gyrixë’s best-known exports. I hated that she picked year ‘round, only to send half her haul to the cloud ferries for upland distribution.

“Attending the College would mean graduating alongside nobility,” I reasoned, slicing the silence with calmer tones. “And I’d make good money doing upland heads with my wish magery. Every stone could help buy back our lands.”

“Mama threw up her hands. “Worrying about finances is my job, ‘Mani. Yours? Is not to lie like you have!” She slumped, tiredness etching itself into her slackening expression. “How could you keep all of this from me?”

Movement prickled the edge of my vision; I caught the huntress glaring between us, backing away as if she regretted stumbling in at all.

“Stay!” I barked at her. “Ma, please — ”

“No.” Her gaze turned glassy. “You wanna go? Fine. Gon ‘head. Join your new friend. Honor your ridiculous contract.”

“I haven’t agreed to anything!” The huntress bellowed.

“But don’t you dare come back here after it all blows up in your face.”

Backpedaling, I fought the angry comebacks scrabbling at my throat. I could tell she meant every word from the way she clutched her arms, like she was already getting used to holding herself up without me.

Guess I’d have to learn to do the same.

“Knightess-hopeful — ” Don’t cry, I commanded myself. Don’t.

“It’s Myra,” the girl replied. She’d been halfway out the door before mama’s ultimatum, but lingered now, fingers playing at the mosaic tapestry on her left.

“Myra, then.” I gripped my hands ‘til the nail beds whitened. “Look, I’m the best coif mage you’ll find in Gyrixë. I’ve mastered healing coiffery, and I even made up a new kind of magery when scalp divination and strand summoning didn’t suit me.”

Myra edged back inside, trailing her guarded gaze along the length of me. “Then your coif magery …?”

“Molds your wildest wishes into the fabric of our world, so they might come to life.”

A smirk plumped her dark cheeks; sharpened her now-expectant gaze. Behind us, Ama’ktu began coughing anew. Mama went to comfort her, but the din of it all sounded far away.

“Take me on retainer, but keep your winnings,” I continued. “In return, I’ll twist wishes into your hair every day of the melée. Just give me a chance to make my wish a reality.”

That night, I feigned strength as we rode out beneath a gloomy half-moon; as Gyrixë’s farmhouses, quiet windmills, and wending streams faded behind us. Once we hit Han’enfol, and our neighboring realm’s tarped night markets came into view, Myra slowed us to a trot to clear the bazaar’s throng. That’s when I spied the fire lamp glow of Madame Ellerie’s Coif Menagerie haloing the darkness, where papa had gifted me an “unbreakable” bone comb. At nine, all stubby legged and squat, I could barely reach heads for styling. Mama had gazed on excitedly anyway, proud to have a real Ellerie piece in our salon’s collection.

Now it jangled inside my rucksack, bumping grease tins and iron clips to the tune of my façade fraying at the seams. A miserable sob shuddered free of my throat at the memory.

“Nope, none of that.” Myra loosened her hold on the reins to squeeze my arm. “Look, I get it — leaving after a fight’d chafe anyone’s ass. But you better ready yourself with whatever strength you’ve left.” Clicking her tongue, she spurred her mare into a gallop so that we’d make the last departing cloud ferry. “We’ve a melée to win, and dreams to earn. Your ma’ll come around.”

I didn’t exactly feel better, but she was right. Sucking tears from my lips, I focused on everything but memories of home: my cramped thighs clinging to our horse, Myra’s smooth staff resting against my lap, the tang of anti-inflammatory salve wafting through her furs. We rounded Han’enfol’s bordering slaughterhouses. Hours later, the breathlessness of Vanar’s hulking cloud ferries rose into view as we entered the last southern realm I’d see before taking flight.

My sense of splendor quickly disappeared after it took every stone I’d saved to board. Which came after Myra negotiated the avimage captain’s asking price down, and threw in her horse for good measure.

“Come on now, friend. Who’s trying to fly with all these dragons about?” She winked, further wrinkling his bearded glower. “Might as well cut your losses and get what you can, ‘cause these docks seem pretty damn empty tonight.”

Mama said only birds were meant to fly, so I held my breath when we pushed off, until Vanar and Han’enfol and Gyrixë and every other little underland realm disappeared below dense clouds. It was win, or beg our way back home. Abyss below, I should’ve asked Myra to do a backflip or a blade toss or something to prove she could fight. Still, she had enough bravado for us both.

“Now,” Myra said, swaggering into our modest cabin below deck. “Let’s hope you’re half as good as you claim. I still wish I’d begged Kellarin to do my hair before leaving.”

I couldn’t decide whether I admired her caution, or found it annoying.

“Kellarin?” I began unpacking my styling tools atop a rickety writing desk.

“My sister.” Myra unfurled herself across our straw bed, long limbs dangling over the side. “She does healing coiffery like your ma, which means I know my way around coif mages. I’ll know if you’re playing me false.”

Annoying, then. Definitely annoying.

“Will you now?” I tried to clear the acid from my voice. “Why didn’t you beg Kellarin, then?”

“Because…” Myra canted her head defiantly. “She took up fighting Qu’hellain’s wolf-wraiths in my stead.”

“Oh.” Iron hairclips fell through my fingers, pelting the writing desk awkwardly.

I don’t remember how old I was during Gyrixë’s last wraith massacre; I just know I’d never been more frightened than when mama clutched me close, her breath lancing hotly against my ear while villagers called for aid outside: don’t let them in, no matter what skin they’re wearing, she’d begged before going into the darkness with papa. They left me trembling in nana’s room with a torch bigger than my torso, so that I could burn wraiths out in case everyone else failed.

Now Myra’s sister would exchange bone combs for obsidian blades and magicked arrows, to help keep them at bay.

“I’m sorry,” I whispered.

“Why?” Myra challenged, rearing up onto her elbows. “Da taught ‘Rin to wield the knife too, same as any Qu’hell huntress.” Something jagged caught Myra’s tone, deflating her bravado to a paltry simmer. “And she’s in good company. She’ll travel with the last hunters Murinien trained, before she — ” Myra hesitated, eyes widening. “Nothing. Before nothing.”

Oh. Oh Gods. “Wait, don’t tell me Qu’hell’s realm dragon left, too?”

Would this kick off a second wave of the so-called dragon exodus? The first had come like a torrent, with droves of them taking flight after failed negotiations at the Empress’s imperial summit. Upland pamphleteers reported that the dragons were heading east, claiming faraway crag wilds to build army hordes; that they’d come back and burn every city if we didn’t stop them.

‘Course, that was the stupidest thing I’d ever heard. Upland realms knew nothing of dragons, or their thousand-year-long relationships with underland village families.

“Uuugh,” Myra mumbled into the bedsheets. “Me and the other hunters promised we’d keep it secret, for long as we could.” She flipped over onto her back, eyes faraway. “Muri traveled by ground during the day, so Her Arsehole Majesty’s airships wouldn’t catch her flying.”

Gyrixë wasn’t big enough to boast its own realm dragon, so with Qu’hellhain being so close … Murinen felt like my family, too. I’d often race to watch her soar overhead in the spring, scaly form carving the clouds.

“Is that why you want to become a knightess?” I asked, but Myra’s expression stiffened around a stony glare. I guess letting me in wasn’t part of the deal. “Okay, then. Let’s get to your hair.” I steered the conversation back into comfortable territory. “Now, you might know regular coif magery, but wish styling is about binding what we most desire into the tapestry of magick itself. You know about the Sight?”

Myra rose, flinging off her furs. “Sis says it’s like looking at cobwebs or something.”

“Exactly! Mage-sight exposes the raw webbings of magick that overlay our world.” Setting a chair beneath the cabin’s only window, I gathered blankets to create a makeshift styling cape. “Now, you just need to focus on your wish — think it, speak it, doesn’t matter.” I made Myra sit, and began dampening her loose coils. “The rest is my job: binding it so that magick’ll rearrange the universe to make it true.”

“Can’t possibly be that simple,” Myra sputtered. “What if I wished for the world to end? Or to raise the dead?”

I winced. Dark memories from moons prior roiled to the fore: my chubby knees pressed into the salon’s floor, as I raked magicks through my hair. I wished for papa to come back, so he could pepper us with scratchy kisses; demanded that the universe reverse time, pump blood through his heart again. I cursed Ama’ktu for delivering the news, for telling us he dropped mid-cropping.

“There are things magick just can’t do.” Breathing through the rawness aching my chest, I changed the subject. “Anyway, you got nefarious plans I don’t know about?”

“Maybe.” Myra wiggled her eyebrows. “Kidding, kidding.” Her tone shifted, turning husky. “Well, I don’t fight good when I’m worried. So … I wish for ‘Rin’s safety.”

Surprise clotted in me, stilling my hands. Myra could’ve wished for anything. Strength. Speed. Agility during the melée’s battles. Clearly, I wasn’t the only one aching for home, and I suddenly didn’t feel weak for doing so. “All right.”

Loosing a breath, I squinted ‘til the world turned fuzzy, then paused; waited until the ferry’s creaking hull faded, until I couldn’t feel the softness of Myra’s curls in my hands. Until all sense, except Sight, fled me.

My next breath rippled a gleaming sliver of webbing nearby, which brought another thread into view, and another — until the whole cabin was sketched over with fibers of magickal essence just waiting to be molded. I tapped Myra’s shoulder, signaling her to focus on her wish. When she spoke, the threads crossing her hair undulated.

I worked quickly to form medium-sized Han’enfol twists, though we stopped twice so Myra could stand and stretch, making the threads cascade down her back like strung stars. Eventually I wove the magicks through each twist, creating a corded lattice that made her hair shimmer. By the time I reached the front section, even her lashes were aglow like some woodland fae from the stories, angular cheeks and wide nose bathed in light.

But like always, my Sight exacted its toll.

Nearby magicks began writhing while I worked, tendrils undulating wildly before stabbing into my skin. As thin rivulets of blood welled up from the cylindrical wounds, I snipped the base of each by pinching them between my nails (mama taught me to never cut them low). The leftover bits eventually settle beneath your scabs, but I learned early on to work fast, which also meant hitting my favorite part sooner: gathering the magicks.

Once Myra’s twists were finished, I mouthed: to me. Churning, the threads unlatched themselves from her twists, coiling into a yarn-like ball that hovered atop my left hand.

Make it so.

They scattered, crawling across the room’s magicks with renewed purpose.

Work done, I softened my gaze; watched the webbing trickle away until feeling crept back into my hands. Sound and taste and smell flooded into me once more.

“I’m guessing this isn’t an instantaneous kinda thing?” Myra teased, stretching as she stood.

“Not exactly,” I laughed woozily; Sight work always left me drained. “Give it time.”

With the horizon still blue-black, we had hours to go before reaching Ecrouxvér. But as I cleaned up, Myra’s calloused hand caught mine.

“Thanks, Omani.”

Heat bloomed where she touched me — the same spot Mekiah, the tailor’s son, pressed a kiss to last summer. A similar feeling torched my core.

“Uh, none’s needed. I’m your retainer, right?”

Holding my gaze, Myra surprised me by tearing some of her tunic to wrap my Sight wounds. Some stung worse, having reopened previously healed scars.

“Da thinks knights are pompous and stupid.” Myra’s jaw twitched as she wound cloth about me. “He doesn’t get what it’d mean for Qu’hell to have a real knightess, even though Muri’s gone. He said if I left, it’d be as good as killing ‘Rin myself.” Her hands lingered, even though my bandages were secure. “I want to become a knightess so that I can help our people.”

We stood there with our hands clasped. Nothing to return to. Everything to lose.

“And I can do that a little easier, even with my back, knowing she might survive the week.” Myra grinned, a real smile this time, unguarded and brilliant. “Thank you for that. And for, y’know, tagging along. I haven’t, uhm … traveled like this with anyone since Muri left.”

I returned her grin, but mine was a flimsy, strained thing. Why didn’t I feel brilliant and brave and unguarded, too?

I wondered about this long after Myra climbed into bed, tired eyes watching the inky horizon out our keyhole window. Thoughts of mama came to me then; of her roasted yams and belly-splitting jokes; of the way her summer sundresses caught the light, or how she stretched onto her tippy toes to plait braids into my crown, even when her back ached from picking.

Of how I hadn’t looked back, when she watched us ride away beneath the murk.

Of how she was probably watching nanu right now, in case she woke confused or tried to wander off. Shame boiled hot in me, since we used to take turns protecting her. Who’d change places with mama now? Who’d make sure she slept and ate while nanu wasted away?

My worries bled into something with claws, rooting deep until the marrow of me felt raked through. Those worries only worsened with the sunrise. Soon, daylight flooded the horizon, revealing landmasses.

Dozens of them.

Ahead, upland realms jutted against the skyline. They loomed like gilt behemoths, cast in grandiose shades of bronze and azure, tops aglow with sprawling cities. Spiral towers needled into thin, pristine points, while bulbous temple domes reflected a patchwork of mosaic artistry. I traced granite roads bisecting the land like arteries to waterfalls spilling over the world’s edge, where their stalactite bottoms knifed into the clouds below, blotting out the underlands beneath.

The next morning, Myra woke in agony, back aflame as we skirted Ecrouxvér’s crowded port with nothing but walking sticks for balance. Jitters knotted my insides as we avoided throngs of bird-fishermen, grumbly merchers, and eager tourists — all of which only heightened the coiled tension of watching her struggle.

“At least let me help.” I rounded her other side, but Myra shooed me off.

“Stop fretting and keep up. We gotta book it! Ferry docked later than I’d hoped.”

We trudged the city’s cobblestoned streets, rounding obsidian spires where tempermages shifted winter’s chill into manufactured humidity. It might’ve been nice — if we weren’t sweating and stinking through our furs near gilt parliamentary temples, or needing to cool our damp cheeks against the Imperial History Museum’s marble colonnades.

To make matters worse, Myra’s staff kept slipping on the stones, skidding her into stagecoaches cluttering the street. She refused my help yet again, as we passed towering emporiums where Gyrixëan salt mix went for twice the banknotes they did back home, and veered from the spray of merchers beating sky-dew out of their fabric wares. We spent fifty minutes wandering, lost and sore-footed, along avenues where ruddy kids played around aqueducts plunging off the city’s edge, before finally discovering the Imperial College’s campus.

“Melée’ll be up there.” Ditching her staff, Myra pointed out a distant amphitheater that loomed between brick-topped departmental buildings and a massive belfry. “You ready?”

I could hardly see Myra past my worries, let alone respond. So, I followed as she hobbled along manicured gravel walkways, smothering an impulse to retrieve her stick while battling darker thoughts: could Myra win while in such pain? Yesterday, she was all flair and cockiness, believing our destinies within reach. Now I wasn’t so sure.

Doubt dogged the minutes we spent walking toward the theater’s entryway, and I’d barely caught my breath before an attendant spotted us.

“Competitors, both of you?” the robed usher asked. “This way.”

Sweeping inside, my stomach knotted upon seeing so many sky-folk filling the stands: wig-clad men puffing on thick cigars, little girls garbed in chainmail, peering through binoculars to spy the fighters below.

Myra elbowed me, just as we rounded the theater’s circular stage. “Look, the asshole of the hour.”

I followed Myra’s gaze. Downstage, a grave-faced woman surveyed the grounds from a painted dais, flanked by royal guard. That could only mean one thing — Empress Troxrin would preside over the melée herself.

“Does she usually call these matches?” I asked.

“Not this early,” Myra whispered. The attendant led us into a rear preparatory tent, handed Myra a placard identifying her opponent, and warned that the melée would begin in minutes. She flung herself behind a screen to change. “She’s only supposed to show up on the final day, to knight the winner.”

Gods. Which meant now, the Empress might see Myra lose early. Might narrow those beady eyes, easily forgetting the underland girls who’d given up everything to be here. Clammy and cold, I coughed around the stench of competitors dressing and smoking nearby.

“Maybe we should style your twists again, real fast.” Drawing closer to the screen, I whispered: “You could wish away your pain.”

A kind of thick, strained silence met my words, leaving me space to really hear what I’d just said. Gods! I wanted to snatch the words back with my bare hands, but my fingers felt like claws — monstrous, gnashing things that’d shorn away mama and nanu, and now Myra.

“Look, I only meant — ”

“Oh, I know exactly what you meant.” Myra came out from behind her screen, clad in dazzling armor: richly dyed leather, accented with a plackart and greaves made of interwoven iron that mimicked dragon scales. My ribcage thudded as I took her in — a real dragoness, towering and lithe, poised for flight.

“Abyss below, this was one helluva mistake,” Myra muttered. Her forehead smoothed, shifting what’d been a taut grimace into something serene. “Go home, Omani.”

Her tone was soft, yet cutting — a broadsword piercing silk. Like a final sundering of something that was once whole.

“W-what?” I stammered.

“Your services are no longer needed,” Myra replied. After fastening her knives, she turned to join the other melée competitors who’d begun lining up. “Shoulda known you weren’t strong enough to see this through.”

A million little things occurred, all at once: competitors took the marble stage to the sound of opening trumpets; I called out to Myra, but ear-splitting crowd roar swallowed the words whole. Pitching backward, I knocked into platters of wine and cheese while ushers and tailors and press pamphleteers and sky peoples frowned at the sight of tears carving my cheeks.

I’d ruined everything.

So I ran from the theater, plunging downhill as the melée’s host, Duke something-or-other, announced Myra’s opponent: “Thera the Thrasher,” a pale, tree-trunk of a woman from the underlands below Ecrouxvér who probably believed victory her birthright. The crowd’s applause faded as I scraped past manicured quadrangles and ivy-coated libraries. By the time I stopped, rucksack clanking, chest heaving, I was all sweat and snot; ashamed of myself for doubting the one person who believed in me; afraid of slinking home to mama and watching her crop until she collapsed like papa. If she’d even take me back in.

I was so absorbed, I didn’t catch the alchemist who’d stopped before me. He had a kind, round face, and carefully balanced a chemical tray full of beakers and vials against his crisp student robes.

“Got your midterms back, eh? I know that feeling,” he said, sounding upland proper. Lifting a knee, he rebalanced his samples. “Don’t worry, it gets easier after your first term.”

It felt worse being mistaken for an actual student. “I’m not — ”

“You know, why don’t you chat up your advisor?” He leaned in close enough for me to count the freckles splashing his cheeks. “They want you to think you can’t argue a grade, but you always can. What’s your department?”

Department. Like gears whirring into motion, that word planted the seeds of a plan into my addled mind. “Coif magery.”

“Well, strike that,” he laughed. “Professor Ames is known for being a hardass.”

Reeling, I remembered my offer letter; recalled the way Professor Carolyn Ames signed her name to it. “Where can I find her?”

The boy frowned. “Hasn’t Physical Magicks always been in Kent Hall, behind the clocktower?”

I left him there looking utterly perplexed, but was firmly set on my plan: find Professor Ames; impress her, regale her, do whatever I needed to win her interest. Then, plumb her for ideas about possible sponsors! Wealthy skyfolk she might know. Gods, she had to know some, right? College faculty were practically nobles, themselves.

And if I was brave enough to keep fighting in my own way, then I was strong enough to find Myra later; to apologize for everything, and pull my own weight. To rally her and trust myself — trust us both — like I should’ve all along.

I raced toward Kent Hall; pushed through the department’s heavy oak doors, wincing beneath the over-bright feel of hallways humming with electric light; poked into empty lecture halls and scanned wall signs until I found her office placard, written in the same flourished hand from my acceptance letter: Department Chair, Carolyn Ames.

Unfortunately, her door was slightly ajar, which meant my creeping steps swayed it with a nasty creak.

“Who’s there?” She called.

Her boots echoed as she whipped the door back, revealing crimson professorial robes and a stern face pockmarked with recent Sight scabs. Uniform, layered scars hid beneath them, resembling sharpened scythes.

“Professor Ames,” I croaked, throat dry. “Hi.”

Her lips pinched, as she took in my sweating, disheveled form. “Are you here for office hours?”

“Not exactly.”

Chewing my tongue, I dug through my rucksack before retrieving and extending her my offer letter. After skimming it briefly, she arched one perfectly shaped brow.

“Ah. Yes, the underlands talent. I remember your application.” She swept greying bangs from her eyes, as if to see me better. “Prospectives usually come begging to get in, but you’ve already done that.”

So why are you here? Her tone implied.

Gods, I had to choose my words carefully .  Twisting the edge of my traveling cloak between tingling fingers, I stuttered, “I came here to win patronage from the Empress.” Her narrowing eyes only worsened my stumbling speech. “I am — was working as a personal coif mage for one of her melée competitors.”

Professor Ames chuckled sharply, mouth agape. “And when that unlikely plan fails? As it already seems to have, since your coif work is a past-tense activity.”

Heat crawled my ears, dulling sound so that I had to flatten my tongue to feel the press of every syllable thudding out. “Then I’d like to discuss other options, Mistress. To prove that I’m worth investing in, to whoever’ll have me.”

Perfect brow lowering, she returned my letter; swept keen emerald eyes over me. “Meet me here tomorrow ‘round nine, before morning lecture. I promise nothing but coffee and a chat. Let’s see what you take from it, shall we?”

The door creaked shut before I could respond.

This concludes Part 1 of “While Dragons Claim the Sky.” Click here to continue reading the story.

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PodCastle 634: When I Was a Witch

Show Notes

Rated PG.

When I Was a Witch

By Charlotte Perkins Gilman

If I had understood the terms of that one-sided contract with Satan, the Time of Witching would have lasted longer — you may be sure of that. But how was I to tell? It just happened and has never happened again, though I’ve tried the same preliminaries as far as I could control them.

The thing began all of a sudden, one October midnight — the 30th, to be exact. It had been hot, really hot, all day, and was sultry and thunderous in the evening; no air stirring, and the whole house stewing
with that ill-advised activity which always seems to move the steam radiator when it isn’t wanted.

I was in a state of simmering rage — hot enough, even without the weather and the furnace — and I went up on the roof to cool off. A top-floor apartment has that advantage, among others — you can take a walk without the mediation of an elevator boy! (Continue Reading…)

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PodCastle 633: The Night Bazaar for Women Becoming Reptiles

Show Notes

Rated PG-13.

The Night Bazaar for Women Becoming Reptiles

By Rachael K. Jones

In the desert, all the footprints lead into Oasis, and none lead out again. They come for water, and once they find it, no one returns to the endless sand. The city is a prison with bars of thirst and heat.

Outside the gates the reptiles roam: asps and cobras, great lazing skinks, tortoises who lie down to doze in the heat. Where they go as they pad and swish and claw their way through the sand, no one knows, save the women who look over the walls and feel the deep itching pressure in their bones, the weight of skin in need of sloughing. (Continue Reading…)