sword & sorcery, fairies and goblins, etc.

Garden of Little Angels

“Katelyn, d-do you think they are p-poison?” Arabella asked me. Her voice sounded hoarse, the cold air sending small puffs of mist from her lips. Next to her, little Gregory bounced on his feet, the possibility of food giving the boy a sudden burst of energy. It was our third day alone in the Whispering Forest, our third day without food. The waterskin I had stolen from Father was almost empty, and dusk was fast approaching.

“I don’t know,” I answered. The bushy plant stood two paces high and held many clusters of berries. I pulled one from the clump. It was a juicy, deep crimson. A quick glance at Gregory revealed a string of saliva hanging from his chin, just above the sickening bruises where Father had strangled him.

“What if it’s baneberry?” Arabella questioned, her brown eyes both panicked and hopeful.

“No,” I answered, “baneberry has pointed leaves. I used to pick them for Mother when she had an ache in her belly.” One or two baneberries could remedy a stomach cramp. Six or more could stop your heart.

A sob escaped Arabella’s throat. She clutched my arm. “I miss her,” she murmured, and I immediately cursed myself for mentioning Mother. My little sister was only eight years old, and Gregory six. Our perilous escape into the Whispering Forest was wearing heavily upon them. I could see it in the hollows of their eyes, the sag of their shoulders. “As do I, little dove, every day,” I said softly, my mind wandering to Mother’s passing. It still held a great weight on us. She was the one who had held our family together, who made life in the Whispering Forest bearable. After her freakish death everything changed. Our world grew darker, the forest more threatening. But Father, Father had changed the most. In my mind I could still hear his scream as he strangled little Gregory, shaking him until the tips of his toes scraped the wooden floor of our cabin. “Don’t you shut that door, boy!” He had yelled at my baby brother. “Don’t you shut that damn door!” I remembered turning and seeing the cabin door closed and latched. Why shouldn’t the door be closed? I wondered, legs trembling, as Gregory let out a muffled yelp. His brown eyes pleaded for help, the skin on his face darkening as he struggled for breath. I picked Father’s sword off the dinner table. It felt so heavy in my hands. I walked to them…

Arabella’s sudden scream broke me from the spell of old memories. I spun and saw her lunge forward and swipe at Gregory’s face. But it was too late. Little Gregory smiled, his lips and teeth streaked red from the juice of the unknown berries.

“What are you doing?” I shouted, reaching out and slapping at his hands. He stepped backward, dropped the clump of berries to the forest floor, and started to cry. His face was chapped and the streaks of fresh tears made his pink cheeks glisten. I went to him, pulled him close. “How do you feel?” I said, trying to sound calm. “Tell me.”

He sniffled, wiped his nose on the sleeve of his deerskin. “I’m good,” he said. “It feels warm.” He patted his belly. I waited a moment, observing, yet saw no signs of sickness or poison.

While I was concentrating on Gregory, Arabella had wandered off a few paces ahead. “Katelyn,” she called out, “come see what I’ve found!” I guided Gregory through thick brush and found Arabella beside more berry bushes. Further beyond, a group of young saplings grew bunched together. Their bark looked sickened, taken with a fungus, yet as I drew closer I saw the smooth bark had in fact been painted on from the red juice of the nearby berries. Images of flowers and butterflies, of knights and dragons, wrapped themselves around the young trees like a child’s totems.

“Other people have been here!” Gregory shouted.

“And look,” I said, pointing to the nearby berries. “They’ve been picked from.”

“That means we can eat!” my sister said.

“Yes, I believe so.” Yet I wondered for a moment if the berries had been picked, not to eat, but only to decorate the saplings. Although I did not believe so—for what children would want poison on their fingers? And Gregory, he had shown no ill effects from the berries he had eaten, so we immediately began pulling clusters from the bush. I put three in my mouth and bit down. They were delicious and sweet. I felt a comforting warmth spreading in my belly, as if drinking from a glass of wine.

Once my stomach was full I spent a long moment enjoying my brother and sister. No longer hungry, their fingertips dipped into the berry juice and became crimson quills, creating the edges of a broadsword on an unmarked sapling. The sun had fallen lower, and the forest shadows grew long and thin. I closed my eyes, breathed in the cold air, and heard the sound of a giggling child.

I sprung to my feet.

The Gyre

In the middle of the Pacific Ocean the Gyre turns in a great lazy whorl. The current carries with it the trinkets of civilization: bottle tops, cigarette lighters, barnacled gym shoes, and Ziploc bags clear as jellyfish. Lost fishing buoys trail tangled nets, which in turn haul their unintended catch of dead fish, shredded Mylar balloons and schools of water bottles.

She spent her days collecting the most unusual items as they drifted past. Her hair, dark as kelp, brushed against her powerful cetacean tail as she moved through the water. She carried the things she found in a little flock of plastic bags. Plastic was all around her in various states of degradation. Their original shapes transformed under the agitation of the waves into a confetti that caressed her with its tendrils as she passed, decorating her hair, sliding past her shoulders and breasts, her hips and tail.

She hung the bags off her elbows and moved through the crystalline sunlight. Adrift, they looked ephemeral but inflated with seawater they felt heavy, solid. Her favorites were the ones with the big red letters. The words on the bags said:

Thank You.
Thank You.
Thank You.

Earlier that day she found a plastic doll, naked and missing an arm. She’d seen dolls and parts of dolls before, but this one was different – a miniature man. He rode in the bottom of a bag along with a pink, plastic flip-flop and a round container top decorated with the face of a pig-tailed girl.

She stopped, fished the tiny man out of the bag and looked into his still perfect face. Biceps stood out on his remaining arm. Bifurcated legs grew from his hips like the arms of a starfish, except bulgy and muscled like the rest of him. His limbs were jointed like a crustacean. She tried to put his legs through what she imagined was a walking motion and giggled. They must look ridiculous, these creatures, stomping around on land.

She hadn’t noticed the boat above, as a pod of whales had recently passed overhead, but its shadow lingered. Rising she saw a long pole with a small net at the end reach into the water and scoop up a glinting potato chip bag. The pole receded into the sunlight and disappeared beyond the edge of the boat.

She drifted closer. The pole returned, trolling through the water for another item. She searched her bags and pulled out a toothbrush with bristles so curled it looked as if it were facing into a strong current. She pushed it toward the seeking net, which scooped it up. As the pole retreated, the silhouette of a head and broad shoulders leaned out and over the boat’s edge. A second head appeared, and together they examined her gift.

She lurked in the shadow of the hull and watched them collect more items from the Gyre. She could just hear their voices, wavering and garbled, punctuated by staccato laughter.

Day faded to evening, but the ship did not leave. Only after the first small points of starlight appeared did she break the surface to get a better look. Lights twinkled along the mast. The bags drifted around the crooks of her elbows. She held the man-doll in her hand, not wanting to lose him. The ship’s engine gargled quietly as it had throughout the afternoon. The slick taste of diesel lingered in her mouth.

Three people moved about the deck talking and laughing. The man with the broad shoulders poured a dark liquid from a bottle into plastic cups the others held. She swam closer, keeping her head low in the water. He picked up a curved container made of fine wood and began moving his hands across the strings stretched along its length. She drifted along with them, enthralled. The sounds were both complicated and soothing. The notes progressed forward, then circled back to as if to find something that had been left behind.

In Glamourglass Court

Detective Inspector Mordan leaned back in his chair and frowned at the tidy stack of paper before him. The Lacey investigation had grown into a distinctly untidy mass of accusations, counter-accusations, and contradictory evidence, punctuated by a thorough lack of respect for the laws against murder and littering. The problem with humanity, Mordan had long ago decided, was its lack of respect for law. The world would be a far more orderly place if people stopped putting personal concerns ahead of duty and justice.

Quick footsteps crossed the hall outside. Mordan straightened, aware of dawn’s grey light seeping through his window. Good news rarely arrived so early.

“Sir.” A stout-boned woman halted in the doorway. She tucked her helmet under one arm, her blue tunic rain-spotted in the gaslights’ glow. Mordan gave her the nod to speak. “I’m Constable Kerr, sir, from Isleton Street. Commander Brant sent for you. We’ve a body in Safton Circle.”

Mordan let his eyes narrow. Safton Circle lay halfway across the city, and the local patrols were quite capable of handling fresh corpses. Indeed, in that section of the capital, it was an unusual morning when they failed to encounter any. There were only two sorts for which they would summon Mordan.

“Do you have a dead wizard,” he said, “or someone killed by a wizard?”

The constable’s upper lip twitched, wanting to curl, but her voice remained even. “A wizard, sir. The commander thinks he’s from Clan VanMere. Shot to death, so far as we can tell, sometime last night.”

Mordan rose and lifted his leather case of tools from its shelf. VanMere? Interesting. Usually they were more courteous than to end their disputes in the public squares. Cavenaugh would have scathing things to say. If internal Clan politics had led to the death, though, at least Mordan’s unofficial partner would be a reliable source of information on them.

“Has anyone summoned VanMere Richard Cavenaugh?” Mordan asked.

Constable Kerr shifted her weight back, not quite bracing herself. “It’s his gun they found at the scene, sir.”

Mordan stiffened, sharp questions caught on his breath. The constable stared at the oak paneling behind him.

“Commander Brant says the dead man looks to be someone else, sir, and there’s a gun in his own holster, but no one can be sure of anything and they want you to look it over as soon as possible.” She cleared her throat. “There’s a hansom cab waiting, sir.”

Mordan snatched up his hat and strode past the constable with a haste just shy of indecent.

The Wolf who Howls at the Hollow Moon

These are our lands—the hills and the valleys, the corn fields and streams. We know these paths as a man knows his own body. People think they kick us out of their towns with their ugly stares, but honestly there’s no place we feel more at home. There’s dust in our throats, grass at our backs, and a warm fire always within reach. I’ve never been happier than with the caravan, watching alongside my family as the stars come out.

But there has always been one thing in Skadi that has drawn me away.

I sit on the edge of the carriage as it trundles up the hill, reaching along the familiar paths into the air and plucking a blossoming star out of the dimming sky. Once it’s milled down, I pinch a bit of stardust from the bowl of my mortar and rub it between my fingers. The dust is cool and soft, but beneath that there’s an energy like liquid lightning as it turns my skin from the heather of my people to the pale white of the mud walkers. I hate having to do this, but I know that it’s worth it.

By the time I finish, the hillside is alive with music. The wagons have been pulled into a circle, the cook fires glow in the center while the people sit and play their lutes and tell their stories. Each old story is fresh, never the same from one telling to the next, and it fills my heart with a secret thrum. The old, weathered voices travel a familiar road into my being where they will live in my bones until I’m little more than dust in the sky, long gone.

Two of my family are sitting by the bridge that crosses into Skadi. One of them has tied a string to a stick and is trying to fish in the river while the other picks at a lute that he hasn’t yet mastered the trick of.

“Orri!” the fisher says, turning so the pale moonlight washes over his face, flashing his eyes both green and gold when he laughs. He runs a thumb across his cheek. “Almost didn’t recognize you like that. Sneaking into town again? You know what will happen if the mud walkers find you.”

“Hakon! Ah, let them throw their stones, it’s worth it.” I clap him on the shoulder and lean across the gorge, peering down into the water below. The night sky twinkles in the slow waters. “No luck today?”

“’Fraid not, the fish don’t want to come out.” Hakon frowns, furrowing his brow and twitching the stick. He thumbs back across his shoulder to the lute player. “I brought Petur out to help me call to them, but…”

“Say no more. I think your lute needs an adjustment is all.” I squint up at the sky, counting the stars that halo the moon.

“It’s not the lute, I just need more—” Petur begins but soon stops, gasping.

“Here, try this.” I fish my hand through the black sky and call down two stars. They alight on the tips of my fingers, sending shrill and cold rushes across my skin and making my hair prickle. My breath is held in my chest when I touch my fingers to the lute and only releases when I feel their power leave, humming sweetly through the maple wood and fine strings. “The fish will come to your call now, surely.”

“Orri, you can’t use magic to solve all of your problems,” Hakon says but he’s laughing and I can see him licking his lips already as he adjusts his fishing pole.

“At least for tonight it won’t hurt.” I wink at Petur, who is already testing his fingers on the new strings. The sound is as quick as lightning and as sweet as a flower. The fish jump in the water below, adding a tinkling melody just beneath.

I’m already halfway across the bridge before they notice I’m gone and start shouting their thanks. I look back to see the glistening shape of a fish on the line. Hearing the laughter trill across the way is enough to make me smile.

Grandma’s Shoes

Becca climbed out her bedroom window, grabbed a shovel, and ran to the graveyard. Becca’s mother had ordered her grandma buried in Becca’s favorite pair of shoes, and homecoming was approaching fast.

Becca figured she’d take the jewelry, too, while she was there. Her grandmother would have wanted her to have it. She didn’t let herself hope for anything more.

The full moon illuminated the graveyard well enough for her to dig without any other light. The soil was loose, but she still worked up a sweat in the heavy late-summer air. She’d never done much digging before. Her arms burned and her back ached. She wished she’d thought to borrow a backhoe. She wished she knew how to use a backhoe. She wished that her mother wasn’t so horrible, and that her grandmother was still alive.

After what felt like an eternity, her shovel thunked into the hardwood casket. She removed enough dirt to clear the top half of the lid, then she jerked it open. A thin stream of dirt cascaded down the side of her hole, onto her grandmother’s waxy face.

The stink hit Becca like a bag of hammers, and her stomach lurched. She managed to turn enough to throw up on her own shoes instead of on her dead grandmother’s carefully arranged gray curls.

She scowled down at her already-filthy canvas sneakers. They were going to be a total loss. But the shoes might have been a lost cause anyway, and it would have been wrong to throw up on her grandmother. Aside from the puffiness, she looked almost normal. And Becca had loved her grandmother.

That, more than homecoming, was why she wanted the shoes back.

She covered her mouth with her shirt and took a few slow breaths. She could do this. She reached in for the necklace, and her fingers brushed her grandmother’s neck. The flesh was the same cool temperature as the dirt and too soft–like a foam mattress.

Her grandmother’s eyes snapped open, she grabbed Becca’s wrist. Her swollen fingers felt like refrigerated sausages. Becca yelped and tried to step back, but her feet slipped, and she fell to her knees. “What are you doing, Rebecca?” Her grandmother’s voice was wet and distorted, but recognizable.

Becca’s terror eased. Her grandmother wasn’t mindless–she remembered who she was. The hope that Becca hadn’t let herself feel spread in her chest, and she grinned. Even dead, her grandmother wouldn’t hurt her.

“I’m here for the shoes,” Becca said. “It’s nice to hear your voice again, too.”

Her grandmother blinked at her. “Which shoes?”

“The red pumps.”

“I gave those to you,” her grandmother said. “Why would I be buried in them?”

Becca shrugged. “Mom decided. I don’t think she wanted me to have them. She always hates–hated it when you gave me things.”

Her grandmother sniffed. “I raised her better than that.” She released Becca’s wrist and started wriggling around. She placed one red pump, then a second, on top of the casket. “Since you’re here, you should take the jewelry, too.”

She tried to pull off her rings, but they were trapped on her swollen fingers. She couldn’t work the necklace clasp, either. “This whole dead thing is quite frustrating,” she said.

Becca reached in and unfastened the necklace. The smell hardly bothered her at all now. “I can imagine.” Becca put the necklace on and picked up the shoes. “Is there anything I can do for you?” she asked.

Her grandmother shrugged. “I can’t think of anything. I don’t really need much. I’m dead, after all.”

Becca blinked back her tears. She’d already cried for her grandmother. “Okay. I love you.”

“I love you, too, dear. It would be nice if you’d come and visit.”

“I will.”

“And don’t worry too much about your mother. Things will get better. Eventually.”

“I–I’ll try not to let it get to me.”

Becca reached for the lid. “Grandma?”

“Yes, dear?”

“What’s it like?” Becca asked.

“What’s what like?”

“Being dead.”

“It’s not bad. But it’s not great either. It’s certainly not something you should rush into.”

“Right. Thanks Grandma. I’ll remember.”

“You do that.”

Becca closed the lid. It took less time to fill the hole back in. She left her vomit-covered shoes next to the headstone and walked home in the red pumps.

Her mother noticed when she wore the shoes to homecoming, but neither of them mentioned it.

Jamie Lackey has attended James Gunn’s Science Fiction Writer’s Workshop at the Center for the Study of Science Fiction in 2010. Her work has appeared in The Living Dead 2 and Stories from the Heart: Heartwarming Tales of Appalachia. Another of her stories is forthcoming in Daily Science Fiction. Jamie Lacky is also a slush reader for Clarkesworld Magazine.

Those Who Do Not Reap

The world is water.

From horizon to horizon, water. Trade winds go from west to east, and carry weather and fish with them. Wind and weather bring us news of the world, in the form of all manner of things that float. A string of islands are our own, we and the cousins. Fifteen islands, from tiny Ike to the largest, Yuhime. Ours is the northernmost, Liipil, an island that catches the winds, the volcano beneath dead as our ancestors. As you go south, the land becomes more active, and the cousins become more numerous.

The world is water, and we are at its center.

The youngling who had been assigned to the northern heights plummeted into the village, calling shrilly. “Wings! Wings! The ikei are returning!”

“From where?” I asked, straightening from my crouched position over the morning’s treasures.

The youngling pointed with one wing. West by north. “Did you see which they were?”

“Sun behind them.” That would be no, then.

“Find Lilleloi, tell her,” I told the youngling. “She’s in the fields.” Without further comment, it crouched and leaped upward, beating wings frantically upward. I watched the youngling’s attenuated body and great wings catch the breeze and soar upward, sun glinting off of waxy leaf-scales. I wrapped up the day’s gather into a large leaf and carried it in one arm, using the other to help me climb up to the platform where I stored the sea-treasure I had not yet completely studied.

After putting my work away, I swung down, landing heavily at the base of the great starflower tree that the platform was built in. “I’m getting too old to do this,” I muttered. I was going to have to start climbing down rather than swinging, soon. I had years yet before I would be too heavy to use the platforms altogether, when I would have to have those younger than I fetch and carry from the platforms.

Not too old yet to run, though. I trotted through the village, joined by younglings and adults, down to the landing field. We’d fired it less than a month ago, before the winter rains had made it far too damp to burn. It was a good and welcoming landing place for the ikei, our pelagics who spent most of their time at sea, circling the world with the trade winds, following the great sea-herds of whales and fish. It was better than we had managed some years, when the summer had been far too wet for the burn and we’d had to settle for clearing the field by hand.

Kii and Liiloka had brought food with them, voyage-fruit and sweet tik-tik, and we settled down to eat and wait. A flock of younglings arrived, swirling down to land lightly, grabbing and squabbling over tik-tik. A few stretched out, settling to turn the leaf-scales on their backs to the sun.

Kii stumped over to me, her massive body and her fronds of lichen making her seem like a particularly mobile boulder. She held a quarter of a voyage-fruit out to me, and I accepted with a murmur. “Anxious?” she asked, her voice low as distant surf.

“Every year,” I said. “Every year I think is going to be the year that Thiol does not return.”

The elder snorted. “Foolish to get attached. I try new ones every year.”

“He makes fine eggs,” I told her. “I haven’t had one be fallow since he became my favorite.”

The Forest Gate

For Alex, the wagon ride was almost unbearable. He’d spent every day of his thirteen years in the city, where the horizon in every direction was formed by a physical object one could touch after no more than a few minutes’ walk. Now here were tiny villages, beyond them isolated farms, beyond them vast, empty plains. Above it all was the greater emptiness of the sky, with no crowding rooftops to divide it into pieces small enough for the mind to accept.

In the twilight of the first day, the horizon ahead was an unblemished line. By the next morning, it had cracked and broken, and ran like a jagged scar along the junction of earth and sky. There, Alex knew, were the mountains. Each day they grew closer. By the time darkness closed off the seventh day, the wagon was winding stubbornly up their foothills.

When Alex woke, in the gray light of the eighth day’s dawn, the wagon had stopped, the stillness sickening after seven days of almost constant motion. They’d arrived at the edge of a camp, whose tents and stalls covered the floor of a narrow valley, and lapped up along the lower reaches of the surrounding hills. The mountains towered just beyond. Far across the field, the dark green of the forest showed through the seams of the camp.

He was startled badly enough to chafe his wrist on the manacles that bound him to the wagon’s bed when a voice bellowed, “Up! Wake up, you pigs!”

The man opposite Alex spat back, “Get down to the pit yourself, devil.”

A moment later the man flinched forward, and Alex saw the glint of a spearhead receding through the bars of the cage at shoulder height. The guard behind it said, “Next time it goes in.”

A few feet from the back of the wagon stood a fat man in flowing red robes, his long gray hair stirring in the cold breeze, his attention divided between inspecting the prisoners and haggling with the leader of the city guards who’d brought them.

Were Alex free, and back in the city, now would be the time to sidle inoffensively near, to find with furtive glances the fat man’s purse, to probe the place with practiced fingers, to move casually away, triumphantly unnoticed, five or ten or twenty gold pieces richer.

Only after the fantasy had passed did he begin to listen, with a burst of heat in his cheeks.

“It’s less than promised because you’ve delivered less than promised,” said the fat man.

“Sixteen by my count.”

“Fifteen and a half is not sixteen. How much do you think that babe you’ve brought me can carry?”

“I heard carrying’s not the main point, but running.”

“You go in there and try running. I’ll give you ten percent on anything you bring out. That’s twice what I give my best eggers.”

“I wouldn’t run.”

“Fight then? Fighters don’t last. Fighters get eaten up in our world, shat out in the one beyond the gate.”

The fat man dismissed the guard with a single step toward the wagon. To the men inside, he growled, “My name is Dern, and you belong to me. Do your job, and you’ll gain your freedom, and more money than you’d make in a year of mugging. I always tell my men, eggs are heavy, but so is gold. When you—”

“One of them things give you that?” Alex looked to his right to see the thick, bald man three spots down the line grinning raggedly. “One of them gate-dogs?”

The scar began just below Dern’s left ear, and ran jaggedly down the side of his jawline before dropping off his chin and out of sight. Dern gave the man a tight-lipped smile. He must’ve known how it made the scar twist and crawl like a living thing, or a dead thing unnaturally revived. “No gate-dog, as you city people call them, did this. One gets close enough for that, it does more. Much more. So you needn’t fear for your lovely face, oh my fair one.”

Tired laughter filled the cage. The man who’d spoken twisted his head back and forth to scowl at his fellow prisoners, reserving none of his feeble wrath for Dern, whom he’d apparently identified, too late, as an unassailable foe.

“That inquisitive nature will serve you well as a scout, my fair,” Dern said. He turned to one of the guards. “Take this one to Farrier. And… Scout,” he said, pointing to another man. “Scout,” he repeated, pointing to another. When he came to Alex, he raised his arm in a dismissive wave. “And.”

The Right Game

A motorized carriage trundled down the street, splashing dingy water and filth onto the crowd. Avery waited until it had passed before crossing the street, leaping over puddles and maneuvering around people. A man stuck his hand out and Avery denied the entry to his inner jacket pocket with a twitch of his wrist before slipping down the alleyway created by two leaning buildings. Water dribbled down the eaves and wet his face while two youths exchanging goods and money looked up quickly and scurried out the other mouth of the alley.

“Don’t ignore me!” Davis hissed as he caught up, hands stuffed into the pockets of his trim, red waistcoat. “You can’t just tell me they’re going to hang Caelie and then walk away! Are you really just going to just let them do it? You two practically grew up together.”

“I’m not going to let them do anything.” Avery plucked a hat from the head of a sleeping street dweller, settling it onto his head as he moved down the alley. “I imagine they won’t consult my opinion at all. Of course, if they did, I would be happy to speak on her behalf.”

“I’m sure the thought keeps her warm at night.”

“Why do you care so much? You know how it was between us.” Avery paused at the mouth of the alley, fishing in his coat pocket for his pair of binoculars. Spying across the way, he could see the broken glass of a window at the top of an apartment building; the wind and rain let in to shake the damp curtains; their destination. No shadows inside, no light, no occupants. The police had already given it up. He folded up his binoculars. “We rarely lasted more than two days without property damage and we hated each other at least half of the time that we were around one another. Tell me, would you risk your neck for that?”

“Damn it, yes! Half the time is about as good as a person as volatile as you is likely to get,” Davis said, forced to shout as they crossed the busy intersection and grunting as he pushed past the people and dodged the rare motorcar. “Show me the woman who can put up with you for more than half of the time and I will gift you a unicorn for your next birthday.”

“Oh, don’t tease me, Davis. You know how badly I want a unicorn.” Avery fished the parchment from his pocket, unfurling it as he looked up from the stairwell of the building. “Room two-two-one, should be a straight flight up. Best be quiet now, better that no one know why we’re here.” Avery pushed open the door, leaning in.

“Do you have to be so cavalier?” Davis dragged him back a pace onto the stoop, staring. “Sometimes I think she was the only thing in the world keeping you human. At least when she was around you were always busy.”

“Busy hunting her down, you mean. Busy being berated for losing track of her again.”

“Oh, spare me. The only thing you care about is your ego and the fact that she just might be smarter than you.”

“Well, she wasn’t smart enough this time, was she? Honestly, caught stealing from the king.”

“I shudder to think what you would do if it were me in that prison cell.”

“At this juncture, I’m not disagreeable to the notion of an entirely paper-based correspondence.” Avery pulled his hat lower and entered the building, not looking back. “Stay outside if you’re going to be difficult. We’re here to solve a murder. Try to keep your mind on the king’s business. Honestly.”

“That’s rich, coming from you,” Davis grumbled and shut the door behind him.

The Korgun

“Prepare! Prepare!” The squeal came from behind Philip, and then above him. “He comes today. He comes to return that which is due.”

Philip’s hands shot over his head. A snap of air rushed up the back of his neck. A few strands of hair were plucked form his scalp. The tiny thing had flown in through the window. It had come in right behind him, filling the room with the sound of frantic wings and a smell like that of boiled ham left on the stove for too long.

“The Korgun comes today.” The thing was moving up in the rafters now. Its voice came from right above him, and then from near the door. “Surely you have been waiting for this day when you can take back that which is yours, when the Korgun shall return that which he took so long ago.”

Blood rushed to Philip’s head. He held his breath for a moment before forcing it back out through his nose, and then set his chisel back on the table, taking care to put it in the exact spot where it belonged so that he could retrieve it again when needed.

“The Korgun? You are mistaken.”

The thing flew down to the table, landing with a great clattering. “Yes, the Korgun. He comes today to give a blind man back his sight.”

Philip closed his hand over the misshapen lump of wood that had just started to take shape, massaging shallow grooves that needed more time with the chisel. “But I sent word to the Korgun. I sent notice that our arrangement should be final.”

The thing seemed to almost tiptoe up to him, making a tack-tack-tack noise on the table. Tools rolled across the tabletop. One fell over the side, toppling to the floor. “You have no choice, human. Such things were decided long ago.”

Philip bent to retrieve the tool, wondering how long it would take to get them all back in their proper place. The smell of the creature almost overpowered him, wiping out the warm sweet scent of wood shavings that he never got completely off the floor no matter how often he swept. “Well, he has wasted his time then. He need not have made the journey here.”

As if on cue, there came a loud rap at the door, a firm knock that echoed into the room and was quickly followed by two short taps.

“You had best answer.” The thing seemed to be grooming itself now, each word was punctuated with a wet sucking sound. “The Korgun does not wait.”

Unexpected Pigment

Ted knelt beside The Painter’s statue and tried to pray himself out of existence. He’d managed a few minor miracles during his training–he’d captured the scent of a still-life lily and animated a painted dove–surely The Painter wouldn’t make him go through with this ridiculous marriage? He visualized himself fading like a watercolor left out in the rain, his pigments washing away drop by drop.

It didn’t work.

Marcie, the prime cause of his unhappiness, stomped up behind him. “I figured I would find you here. You need to stop moping.”

Ted sighed. “I am not moping.”

“No?” He could hear her arched eyebrow. “What would you call it?”

“I’m praying,” he snapped. Maybe if he didn’t look at her, she’d go away. All he wanted was for her to go away.

Marcie sighed. “I don’t like this any better than you do. I’m not exactly head-over-heels for you. But our fathers have decided that we’re going to be married, and that’s that.” She laid her hand on his shoulder, and he flinched away from her touch.

“I’m a priest. I have devoted myself to the church,” he whispered. “The path before me is toward the divine, not the secular.”

“Sometimes the canvas of our lives is covered with unexpected pigment.”

Ted looked up at her. He hadn’t been expecting her to quote scripture.

“I was trained at the temple,” she said. “I never got beyond mixing paints, but I was happy there. Then my brother died, and I was called home.”

“Don’t you miss it?” Ted asked. “The magic? Feeling The Painter’s hand upon you? Knowing that your life has a purpose?”

Marcie shrugged. “I guess I just found a new purpose.”

Marcie was as pretty as a picture in her simple wedding dress. She walked up the aisle like an angel, and he couldn’t see a trace of bitterness in the smile she gave him.

How could she be so content? She hadn’t chosen this path, either. Ted’s eyes ached from angry weeping, and he’d painted nothing but dark, twisted self portraits for weeks.

The priest–lucky bastard–sang the marriage vows and painted gold rings on each of their palms.

Ted hesitated. Every eye in the chapel fell on him. Marcie squeezed his hand, and her eyes pleaded with him. They were the color of the sky after a rainstorm. A pale, fresh blue. How had he not noticed that before?

Maybe she didn’t resent this marriage because she actually wanted him. The thought sent unfamiliar butterflies dancing in his stomach. It felt almost like magic. He bowed his head, plucked the heavy ring from his skin, and repeated the vows.

His old dreams fell away, but as he slid the ring onto Marcie’s finger, new dreams replaced them.

Marcie curled beside him in their bed. Figures danced on the insides of Ted’s eyelids. No matter how he tried, the estate’s books never seemed to balance. He’d always hated math. He missed painting.

“You know,” she said, “I can handle the books.”

Ted blinked at her.

She snuggled into his side. “You’ve done nothing but work since our wedding. It can’t be making you happy.”

“No,” Ted admitted. “It’s making me miserable.”

“Let me help. We’re partners now, remember?”

Ted had never had a partner before. He kissed her forehead. “I’ll try to keep it in mind.”

Ted squeezed Marcie’s hand while the midwife urged her to push. Something was wrong–Marcie’s strong fingers were limp in his, and her colors were faded and distorted, like a picture that had been left out in the sun too long.

“Don’t leave me,” Ted whispered. “We’re partners. I need you.”

“You’ll be fine. Find a new path.” Her eyes slipped closed. “Take care of our baby,” she whispered. Her voice sounded far away. She slumped back into her pillows, and her hand slid from his.

Ted’s tears fell on her faded cheeks.

Long moments passed, and he pulled himself together. Then panic clutched his chest. “Why isn’t the baby crying?”

Ted returned to the temple. He poured all of his energy into his training. He performed scores of miracles. People traveled for hundreds of miles for his blessing. He had everything he’d dreamed of as a young man.

He painted Marcie and their stillborn son a thousand times. But no miracles touched his brush, no life ever moved the painted faces.

Still, he held onto hope–onto faith. The Painter had placed him on this path–surely this wasn’t his destination. He picked up his brush and started again.

Jamie Lackey has attended James Gunn’s Science Fiction Writer’s Workshop at the Center for the Study of Science Fiction in 2010. Her work has appeared in The Living Dead 2 and Stories from the Heart: Heartwarming Tales of Appalachia. Another of her stories is forthcoming in Daily Science Fiction. Jamie Lacky is also a slush reader for Clarkesworld Magazine.