Tag Archives: The Colored Lens #30 – Winter 2019

The Glittering World

From far away they are coming, from far away they are coming.
From far away they are coming.

I am the child of Changing-Woman; they are coming
From the road below the East; they are coming,

Old age is coming for them; they are coming, from far away they are coming
From far away they are coming
From far away they are coming.

-The Old Age Spirits, Navajo Ceremonial Song


The Great Tree’s lethal foliage, blacker than jet, shades its dark inhabitants from the starlight. The branches merge and diverge above and below one another like the meeting of twisted highways. Small chittering beasts with angry red eyes, and smaller thorny insects sit amongst the leaves. The roots reach downward past layers of time, past Hell and the Underworld, and then farther down until the long black fingers dip into the deep wells of Earth’s molten core and feed upon it. The roots sip the liquid ores and convert them into fiery black magic that flows up through arteries. As it reaches the surface, it chars an obsidian gleam into the bark and wood. When lightning strikes the parched valley, it strikes this evil totem first, as if the gods of thunder and lightning hate the Great Tree and wish to watch it burn. But it never burns. And should any axe attempt to fell the Tree, that tool is shattered, its user cursed.

The land has travelled from Dark, to Blue, to Yellow, and then Man and Woman, guided by the black ants and climbing bamboo ladders, brought the Glittering World with them. The old spirits from the Dark World followed them. The Great Tree offered an oasis for Dark creatures in an ocean now drained, baked, and dried. Ancients lived in the sinister tree, primordial things that survived trapped by the change from ocean to land. Marooned from the early Dark World, they hated the Glittering World of Woman and Man. The English and Americans would call them Faerie; the Spanish, La Hada; the Diné call them Ch’indii. Once fair Yei spirits, they immolated their goodness and beauty in the pools of flames when Hashjeshjin, the Son of Fire and Comets, was young and creating the land. The Tree drinks from the calderas the Ch’indii once burned in when all was Dark and they were the only ones who could see. They were drawn to the sulfuric wooden heat; they couldn’t survive without it.

Once every century, always on the darkest moonless night of the year, the Ch’indii venture down the black trunk and creep spidery on all four of their lanky limbs towards the Diné sheltered in their circular fire-lit hogans. Their claws are hooked like fangs but leave no mark as they dig and scurry across the rocks and sand. Many stumble for they carry fruit plucked from the Great Tree, nightmares clutched tightly to their mangy chests. The terrors throw off their gait and make their snarls fierce and frenzied, while their hairy froglike faces cachinnate gleefully. Black beady studs rise on their bodies like warts on a Gila monster. Their wide flat teeth gnash and grin. They know the path to the Diné village by scent and only veer from it to play erotic games with the cactus needles and slap each other around on the succulents. They roam freely like in the Blue World, when they taught the animals how to kill. They rip the spines from lizards, eat newborn birds and mice from their nests, and repurpose many small unfortunates into bloody hoods to protect themselves from the blinding starlight.

They channel the speed of the Running-Pitch when the Jah-dokonth blasted all of the condensed saturation apart. The ritual must be completed, their hunger for fresh breath and new visions sprints them past the wind and down upon their prey.


Thankfully, the Diné, the Cultivators, friends of the well-mannered Peaceful Little Ones, sleep clustered together. The Ch’indii have dropped a few nightmares along the way, but still grip omens of Poverty, Old Age, Famine, Violence and Cold to their furry sunken ribs. They refuse to enter the hogan, as humans do- from the east where the sun rises. They hate the sun — the slayer of terror—Mother Dawn who dispatches Dark Creatures with her daggers of light. They trample the crops and scratch the animals, knocking them out. Their cackling awakens two people. As two men step out of the hogan, the Ch’indii’s pounce, ripping out the men’s eyes and stealing their voices. They suppress their happy grunting enough to form a straight line, and climb up the domicile to enter through the smoke vent exhaling from the center of the roof.

Their claws hook into the mud and pine ceiling, their drooling drips and collects on the floor. A few lose their grip and drop rolling themselves into furry shells, and bounce about unnoticed by the sleepers. Only embers remain of the communal fire. The slight firelight pains their eyes. The Ch’indii gravitate towards the lengthening shadows at the hogan’s inner circumference, circumambulating counterclockwise to stir up evil into the home. Couples, singles, children, and elders, no one sleeping more than an a few arm lengths apart from one another. They pull their blankets over their shoulders and chins, and drift closer together as the chill and effluvia spreads. The matriarchal sleeping arrangements assist in the spinning and casting of dreams and nightmares throughout the hogan.

The Ch’indii touch their nails gently to the temples of the youngest and oldest sleepers in the hogan and catch all the ages in between. They pull out the Great Tree’s fruit they had tucked away; microcosms of inevitabilities, small black eggs etched with molten constellations. The lumps are dropped into the mouths of the infants, toddlers and young children. The Ch’indii rub the children’s throats with their toe pads to encourage swallowing. They catch the human breath on their rotten lips and exhale it into the night; they steal more breath, again and again, and blow their own foul interior into the sleepers’ mouths. They inflate their neck pouches and a low rhythm hums from their voice boxes grating against their throats. Their chants lull the dreamers into a deeper sleep.

The fire has ended in a warm smoldering. The chanting shakes the air and quakes through the wooden beams. The Ch’indii’s former gill slits split open into ribboning crevices that ooze an oily tar, black sap hoarded from the Great Tree. They scrape the serrated inner edges with their claws and drip the foul nectar into the ears of the sleepers. They form a chain and swell their throat gratings so that the noise reverberates and swells. The dreamers swoon into a reverie as the Ch’indii wave their sinewy arms spinning Inevitable Truth by tight circles into the hypnotic web. Together, they could both see what is to come; the Diné could choose whether or not to believe.

Their chanting articulates into long drawn-out ghosts of words; “They are coming, from far away they are coming.”

The nightmare starts as a benign dream. The Men from Across the Water come at first starved, and then gleaming in impossible alloys and textiles. The Diné’s ears, eyes, noses and mouths fill with the pollen of precious things: magnificent crafts, jewelry, and trinkets, the inebriations that help them to forget. Consistent waves of people and things come from far away.

The Strange Men call them Apache, which means enemy to them.

“Navajo Diné.” They insist.

“Sí, Apache Navajo, pues.” The strange visitors answer.

Inevitability turns exciting new things nightmarish. Crossed pieces of wood and leather-bound sheets of pressed leaves hold a sacred power. The God provides Mercy, for His People need it. The Wet Death comes and wastes Navajo bodies. They survive. Friendly masks are removed so that demands can be made face-to-face. They fight. The God practices His famed benevolence by receiving, redeeming, and forgiving souls. They kill, and the Diné witness their grandchildren kill too, mastering the new weaponry and animals. Teaching dominates learning; the war pitting the Spirits against the God is lost.

“They are coming, from far away they are coming,” the Ch’indii whisper into the dreamers’ ears.

Steaming segmented metal worm-serpents charge through the northern mountains and into the desert valley. They breathe fire and belch smoke, they vomit out a chaotic civilization that nevertheless flourishes, or at least seems flourishing from the embellished style of dress, building, and living. There are more objects than people. The metal worm-snakes bring more and more so they lose the war of numbers, and the villages lose the war against the towns. The strangers dominate the valley and the Navajo lose the mountains.

“They are coming, from far away they are coming.”

The visions are terrible because they will be true. There will be mines that strip and degrade and create wastelands land with an ingenuity that kills magic. What the Diné have begun with their tools the Men from Across the Water will end with their machines. Machines that will swallow the world into White created from everything sparkling at once.

The Diné watch their heritage and future generations shepherded on the Long Walk as the world around them marches faster. The Navajo are taken to a Round Forest, neither a forest nor round; the Pale Riders expect them to grow one and live off it. They are reserved there, and then somewhere else. The metal worm-serpents segment further, divide and charge like angry buffalo flattening the land. The Navajo integrate carrying their ways and traditions like shadows. The night loses its darkness. They find each other in the white brightness through voice, movement and feeling. The Ch’indii rake their claws softly on the inner arms and thighs of the dreamers, and they lose each other to the shadows again.

“They are coming. From far away, they are coming.” The dread in their gravel grinds to a climactic pitch.


The chanting stops. The Ch’indii abandon the dreamscape and release the dreamers from the conduction. The monsters gather bewildered by the true nature of the Glittering World.

“They will leave nothing but White light!” The oldest goblin starts.

The others hiss. “It will overshadow the stars and sun!”

“Poison the rain!”

“Level the mountains!”

The Old One speaks again, “Lightening and thunder will be stolen and reshaped into unrelenting brightness. Even their God will lose His luster to the Glittering. There will be no Dark spaces left. No purpose, no power left for us, only White.” The White, The Last World, the final expansive bang before the universe contracts to start all over again in the Dark. Fresh breath will not be enough to restrain the forthcoming human tidal wave, they will need fresh life.

A sacrifice. The Diné will receive black magic, and in return, give up a son or daughter to follow the Coyote by walking in its skin. The effulgence towards White could be delayed by merging the powers of the Dark and the Glittering. The Ch’indii scurry about and find a boy a few years in age, just beyond toddling, with enough mettle to endure the liquid fires of the Great Tree. They pull themselves up to the shoulders of the mother cradling her son. The Ch’indii massage the temples of both to increase the weight of their dreaming.

“They are coming, they are coming. From far away, they are coming.” They whisper to each other.

The Old One hobbles forward, about the same height and width as the young human, although far more horrible and hairy. He explores the soft body with the tips of his nails as if drawing a map. He sniffs under the arms, neck, and legs, and uses his breath, nose and tongue to taste and smell the cavities and skin. He lifts the mother’s arm as his comrades pull the child away and settles into the vacancy. He is in the crook, just before the small feet are swept away, and lowers her arm upon his mangy shoulders.

The skinniest runt jumps forward, extends his long thin arm, and carefully, like a surgeon, reaches into the child’s mouth. Reaching deep, and, carefully, so as not to grace the sides of the gullet or mouth, the runt retrieves the fruit they had planted earlier, frees the nightmare from its host, and holds it up for the others to view. The tiny fruit had voluminous depth packed with stormy red seeds.

The runt holds high the shrunken universe of pain, as another opens the lips of the mother with a gentle pull on her chin.

“Fear makes delusion,” the runt whispers placing the nightmare on her tongue and caressing it down her throat.

The Ch’indii bring the human child, headfirst over to the changeling so that he and the wide sleuthing grin are face to face.

“Breathe.” The Old One says.

The child obeys and the monster’s cavity inflates like a ribbed bladder and deflates the inhalations back into child. He captures the young breath and it charges his power. He breathes it back into the newborn.

The tough hair and mange sheds to the ground and dissolves in cinders. The Changeling’s features become rounder and his skin smoothens into pliable softness. He grows a thick patch of feathery black hair on the top of his head and eyebrows to match. A perfect replicated likeness to the child. Only the rolling eyes and crooked grin, the impulses to impale grasshoppers could alarm the Diné family and tribe to his innate wickedness.

The Ch’indii bear the child, level as a casket, out the eastern entrance they despise. The blue hints in the night hurt their eyes.

“Yah-zheh-kih!”

“Dawn Light!”

They curse the Mother of Coyote and they quicken their pace; the two devilish critters at front can hardly keep the head balanced, their fingers petting the supple forehead so that the dreams remain unsettled.

They cry out as the color seeps back into the landscape and dark blue creeps into the sky. The unburdened wretches race past the others, charge up the Great Tree’s trunk, and hop on the branches like fat excited monkeys howling at their brothers and sisters to move faster.

The first crest of the sun peeks over the horizon and the air loses humidity as the temperature rises. The Ch’indii bearing the child grow tired. Their skin tightens and sinks into their bony skeletons. Horripilation, the fur bundles twist together and harden into barbed spines. The white streaks in the sky hit their backs searing them. They bite their tongues and scratch their bellies to distract themselves. They rush down the last slope and slow at the slight hill hosting the Tree. Their arms are unsteady and shaking the child, sometimes dragging an arm or leg.

The Ch’indii at the front lose their hold on the child’s head. It hits the ground with an eruption of throaty anger that scares away the carriers.

“Graahgyyye!” They scream and dash away; a few make it up the trunk of the Tree and are helped by their brethren.

Two of the most determined monsters turn around, they stumble and pull themselves forward flat to the ground, their hides cracking and steaming. They fail to reach the child and roll into scaly blistering balls screaming into the ground.

The Great Tree shakes with murderous, ravenous activity. They hug the trunk and stretch their tongues to collect the fiery sap between the bark, replenishing themselves.

The blue above them shoots quivers down their knees. They had seen all too clearly the full regalia of the Glittering World. The machines that would refine and sack the same raw energy the Ch’indii thrived on. It would not end in fighting or violence, just sucked dry and run over. Their ultimate defense lies on the ground writhing and crying: their Skin Walker, the warrior of both Dark and Glittering. Charged off the hatred in the Tree they bark and nudge each other off the branches.

A few courageous Ch’indii jump to the ground, scramble to the crying child and match its screaming. They maneuver their arms under his back and lift him. Their bodies steam and crackle, their eyes pool and boil. They drag the child by the arms, banging the soft head on the roots as it continues to bawl. Joints stiffen in their arms and lock their legs, but they still manage to drag the child until the base of the Great Tree and rest him against its trunk. Their muscles stick to their skeleton and harden against their shells. Their last wells of energy are spent climbing by the tips of their claws up into the Tree. There are still two Ch’indii laying exhausted at the roots, Daybreak has sent the Lady Rays of Sunlight, their nemesis, Mother of Women, and she strikes them down— blasts them into the ground as they gag on their melting organs.


The child’s howling reaches the Ch’indii’s in the Tree and tears through their earholes. They cover them and slough away from the great sun-daggers. The effort has claimed more than half the tribe.

The Ch’indii feel the Men from Across the Water crossing it, breaking through the unanimous blue. Eventually, they will destroy even that vastness. They will leave no mystery unrevealed; obliterate every unknown.

The child squelches his crying enough to turn over and begin crawling and walking away from his kidnappers.

The Ch’indii watch their last hope amble away. A sacrifice has never returned to the people. The child was too strong and willful. The Changeling will lose his magic if the son is reunited with his mother. The valley will lose both Witch Doctor and Skin Walker.

The ancient spirits huddle deeper into the leaves of the last Dark refuge shaking and quivering, too fearful and alert to sleep though their exhaustion demands it.

One of the last five remaining Ch’indii leans against the Tree’s rough trunk, stands and gestures at his brethren, their crooked arms and legs singed, slung and hanging from the branches. He licks his burnt lips with a dry tongue; the black iris in crystalline red is lazy, fixed upwards and to the right, as if betraying a lie. His voice is a high snare, a sustained death rattle. He speaks in words that predate language and linger in the air like smoke petroglyphs.

“They are coming, we will wait. We will hunger, we will shrink. Man and Woman are weak. They will doubt and they will die, we will hate and survive. We are older than Death, younger than the End. The Slayer of Monsters will die too, the Dawn Mother and Dusk Father will be eclipsed and forgotten. We will wait. Let us return to the Tree and sleep in the fire, for they are coming.”

He pulls apart the Great Tree’s black bark with his last remaining strength and breathes in the heat and hatred radiating from the core. The rest of the Ch’indii decrease to the size of upright pockmarked mice and trunkle into the red-orange glow. The last shrinks and steps through the bark curtains before they seal behind him.

The child loses his momentum halfway back to the tribe, and surrenders belly and cheek down to the ground. The vultures circle above him, swooping lower and lower to inspect the breathing carrion.


The Diné have awakened each feeling a bit disturbed, as if someone had rearranged them in their sleep. They find the men made blind and mute. Their looms, baskets, gourds and pottery are shattered and broken. The sand paintings are scratched away and their crops and food storage are ruined, trampled and fouled by excrement. The sheep are prematurely shorn by hacking strokes and shivering, and the goats are upturned with their legs waving in the air, their horns fast into the ground. They scout the surrounding area and follow a lizard-like trail of tracks to the wake of vultures pecking at some fallen life. They shoo away the raptors. The child is passed out, bloody and scraped but still alive. They wrap him in a blanket and carry him back to the village.

The tribe gathers around the mysterious child and they all recognize him and bring forth the mother carrying the Changeling. It cries, spits, writhes and slaps its face in her arms. She sees her son cradled by her brother and screams. The creature’s skin crackles and cooks, it dries, blackens and grows too hot to hold. The mother drops the feverish body and the tribe step back as the Old One bursts into flames and charges towards the bloodied sacrifice. The warrior holding his nephew stamps out the shrieking flames before it can pounce.

The mother takes her son and cleans away the dirt, grime and blood and feeds him. She kisses his bruises. As he takes mouthfuls of water, he rests his sniffling head on her breast— she can feel the nightmare that they had shared lodged deep within her chest. There is dread, a precariousness that hadn’t been there before; a fear they will carry with them as they weave mystery into story.

They hide the name Yehtso-lapai, the grey fish-eyed monsters, and call their visitors Ch’indii, Old Ghost Spirits. Cover the nightmares with dreams of better places and better things. They have no use for Dark magic, for they are the Diné of the Glittering World, and they had yet to meet anyone who could shine brighter.

Travel Onward, Funani

The video was well-preserved, and when Commander Arie stared into the camera, it was like she was looking into your eyes, divining the desires of your heart.

“The stars are not the distant dreams they were in the past,” Arie said, and her voice cut like a sliver of diamond, and it made you tremble to hear her voice. “The stars are our neighbors, and I will not rest until I have met every neighbor, and seen their backyards, and sat in their homes, and welcomed them into mine.”

Arie dropped her gaze, and when she looked up again her normally stony glare twinkled with a light and warmth that made her look twenty instead of a formidable forty-five. Years had distinguished her, and maybe her beauty faded a little, but her presence had outgrown her slender frame.

“I pride myself on being the perfect hostess.”

The reporters laughed. They asked her questions about Star Cluster 9, and Alpha Zeta, and Satellite Planet 41-003, and she smoothed down her long hair, already silver, a respectable color on her, and she answered their questions with a steady stream of knowledge, glowing with the wonder she felt whenever she visited a planet, the wonder she wanted all of Earth to feel. And they did feel it. At least, Funani felt it, and even when she was six years old, watching this video in her little bedroom covered in posters of galaxies instead of from the inside of her small quarters on an exploratory space vessel, she knew that she would follow Arie into the darkest hole of space.

Funani turned off the video.

“Nolwazi, how much longer until we arrive?” she asked her vessel.

“In three point two hours, we will reach the destination,” answered Nolwazi.

When Funani travelled with other astronauts, they complained that Nolwazi’s voice was too cold, too stern, but Funani designed the AI to be like another woman she respected. She designed her voice to sound like the familiar cut of a diamond. Nolwazi did not share Arie’s passion, but she shared her vast knowledge of the mysteries of space.

Funani turned on another video.

Arie was smiling in this one, and she rarely smiled, possibly because she was embarrassed by her crooked teeth, though Funani guessed she could afford the technology that would fix her smile instantaneously. Arie was not smiling at the camera, she was smiling at a creature nearly twice her size that seemed to be composed entirely of tar. The blob creature had a gaping hole near the top of its shapeless body that could have been a mouth, and several blobby appendages that could have been arms, but it was probably just Funani’s mind trying to understand a shape that was entirely foreign to her.

“Arie!” a reporter off-screen shouted. “How did you manage to decipher the language of the people of Sept Printemps?”

“Most of the deciphering was done by the Sept Printempians,” said Arie. “I am just honored that they chose to reach out to me for first contact.”

The Sept Printempian gurgled, spitting a tarry blob at Arie’s feet. Are smiled, and shook his hand, and did not cringe or gag as her hand was engulfed in the creature’s gelatinous exterior. She pulled away, her arm stained black, and reached into a large blue duffel. She always brought her large blue duffel when she was meeting a new alien. Funani thought of the duffel as a treasure chest when she was a little girl, and it was still hard to see it as anything else. Arie pulled out a small bag, presenting it to the Sept Printempian, and the reporters laughed.

“You think aliens like maple candy, Arie?”

Apparently they did, because the Sept Printempian ate the entire bag, including the plastic wrap.

Funani loved that video. She loved any video of Arie meeting aliens, because Arie enjoyed it so much. Arie inspired Funani to become an astronaut, then join the exploratory astronaut’s league led by Arie. Funani missed home, she missed Earth, she missed people that looked like people and planets that looked like civilization, but if Arie was leading her, she would continue to travel deeper and deeper into the unknown.

Though the league followed Arie from planet to planet, they were always a few planets behind her, then a few more, until their leader no longer responded to their efforts to reach out to her. The other ships gave her up as lost, for forty years they gave her up as lost. But Funani refused to give up. If they gave up, then she was just far from home, and terribly homesick, with nothing guiding her forward. If Arie was not pulling her forward, then Earth was pulling her back.

She turned on another video of Arie.

“We will reach our destination in one hour,” said Nolwazi.

The others had given up. They had programmed their vessels to search for Arie’s form, copied from thousands of videos, but there was nothing like Arie in the universe. Then they programmed their vessels to search for life forms in the deepest, most sterile parts of the neighboring galaxies, and they found life forms they would have never believed could exist, but they did not find Arie. They decided to keep her alive through their exploration, and leave the hopeless search to Funani. Funani instructed Nolwazi to search for a blue duffel, far from any other signs of human civilization, and Nolwazi found it.

In this video, Arie was pulling a long scarf out of her bag, and wrapping it around a wide-eyed, multi-eyed, slug. The duffel was a treasure chest. And Funani followed Nolwazi’s treasure map to her hero.

The Pregnancy Room

The three-story stone house murmured discreetly of old money. Could this mansion really be her university residence? Lyra Fong checked the number once more, took a deep breath, adjusted her grip on the bulging cardboard box that held her old pre-med textbooks, and labored up the front stairs.

“Hey. Let me get the door for you!” Blonde ponytail lashing, a girl strode past Lyra, slapped her residence card against the lock, and thrust the door open. “You moving in here? I’m Karine.”

“Thanks!” Lyra walked carefully toward the doorway. The box felt as though it might give way at any moment. “I’m Lyra Fong.”

“Welcome to Bix House!” The girl looked at Lyra appraisingly. “You haven’t joined our Facebook group yet, have you? Amanda was supposed to invite you.”

“I only got accepted to med school last week when somebody cancelled. Since then I’ve been so busy I could have missed it.” She gazed at the dark-varnished oak doors, framed in wide antique molding, with ornate roundels at the upper corners. Houses back in Oklahoma just weren’t like this. Chris was going to love it.

“No shit!” Karine paused, mid-hallway. “Which room did you get? It’ll be 4, 8, or 9, they’re the only ones still empty.”

“Room 4,” Lyra said. “My grandfather will go totally apeshit when he hears.”

“Huh?”

“Dad’s folks are from China, and Yeh Yeh is superstitious. Feng shui, burning ghost money for our ancestors, all that stuff.” (There was the room, her room, right there at the bottom of the stairs!) “Sometimes I think he really believes it, sometimes I think it’s just a link to where he grew up. But number four is totally the worst luck. It’s pronounced ‘sei’ in Cantonese, which is like the word for ‘death.’ Can you hold this while I get my swipe card?” She passed the box to Karine.

Karine waddled in after her. “That’s hilarious – I’ve got room 13! Hey, we could swap if you want.” One corner of the box began to give way; Karine dropped it onto the bed with an audible sigh of relief.

“Thanks, but Yeh Yeh isn’t the one living here. And I’m totally not superstitious.”

“It’s got an awesome view,” Karine said. “You’ll like it.”

Lyra thought about the offer. In a house this size, Room 13 would probably be on the top floor, like her snug little attic room back home. It did sound appealing. And if it helped her make a friend… “Can I take a look first?”

“Sure! Then I’ll help you move your stuff in, and you could help me move mine down here. It’s still in boxes, mostly. And then we’ll go for pizza!”

Three hours later, over pizza and beer, Lyra had learned that she was now a “Bixie”; that it was the most awesome grad residence in Sutherland University; and that she should totally ignore the sorority girls, especially Beta Phi Phi, who were all stuck-up immature airheads. And that Karine was doing a MFA and was going to have to be a novelist, because her family were all too whitebread boring for her to be able to write a good memoir. And–after the third beer–that people said there was a ghost in Bix House, but Karine had never seen it, and would just die if she did.


Two days later, Lyra lay on her bed, in pajamas, listening to music and sipping hot chocolate. Room 13 was the fanciest room she had ever lived in: it clearly hadn’t needed much remodeling when they turned the old house into a residence. The floor was real hardwood, with a nice carpet, the desk was in a fantastic three-windowed dormer that looked out over a sea of green treetops, and the closet was huge. You could be Emily Dickinson in a room like this. Or whoever the medical equivalent was.

Two Dali prints and three photographs of Chris made it feel like home. Lyra had even made a calligraphic poster for her wall, three elegant Chinese ideographs in black ink saying “THE DOCTOR IS IN.” While the nights weren’t very cold yet, the heating system seemed adequate in its eccentric way, occasionally emitting puffs of hot air from a register she still couldn’t locate. She thought back to her shared cookie-cutter shoebox at the University of Oklahoma, and wondered how she had ever survived.

Her phone chirped with an incoming text: Sarah, another med student, whom she had met that afternoon at the rugby tryouts.

-Where you?

-My room at Bix

-Which room you got?

-13, top floor, it rocks!

-ZOMG!! The pregnancy room! O__o

-Huh?

-They say 17 girls in room 13 pregnant in 40 yrs 🙁 YOU BE CAREFUL!!!

-I’m in med, duh!

-Yeah right 🙂

So that was why Karine had been in such a hurry to swap? Well, if the dumb girl didn’t understand about birth control, maybe this awesome room should go to a medical student. No point feeling guilty about it. She stretched luxuriously and took another sip of hot chocolate. All this room needed to be perfect was a visit from Chris.


Over the next week, it seemed to Lyra that she’d met more people than she’d ever known before; and so many of them seemed to know the reputation of her room that she wondered if she should just wear a “Baby On Board” T-shirt and be done with it. Hah! That would be totally awesome for Halloween.

“Do I have to hide the pickles yet?” asked Sarah on Monday afternoon, as they waited for the Medical Ethics lecture to begin.

“You know, they should give whoever lives in my room a day’s extension on all their assignments,” Lyra said. “Just to make up for time wasted listening to lame jokes.”

“Sorry.” Sarah held her hands up in surrender.

“Hey, I’m kidding. But, look, I’m on the pill, okay? Everybody can just chill out and quit staring at my belly.”

“Yeah, for sure. But they say a lot of the girls who got pregnant were on the pill, too.”

“The failure rate’s one in three hundred woman-years, okay? Used right. Do the math. If they got pregnant it was because they weren’t taking the pills properly.” She hoped she’d remembered her own pill that morning. She could remember popping the little teal disc out of its blister… but was that today or yesterday?

She sat through Ethics, Genetics, Epidemiology, and Physical Diagnosis in an agony of uncertainty, then sprinted across the campus, scattering pedestrians and inline skaters as she went. By the time she reached her room, she was out of breath, and sweat plastered her T-shirt to her body.

Today’s pill was still in the package.

Her fingers were trembling as she pressed it free and took it, but maybe that was from the sprint. There had to be an app for this, some sort of med-reminder. Once her fingers were steady again, she picked up her phone: sure enough, there were dozens of choices. She found one that was free, with an interface that didn’t assume that she was senile, and downloaded it.

Maybe she should look into getting an IUD – or even an implant.


The Two Goats coffee shop was noisy, and Lyra was having difficulty paying attention to her Medical Ethics assignment. (What were horny small-town GPs meant to do, if they had the only practice in town? Date Christian Scientists? The textbook wasn’t clear.) She put the book face-down on the table, took a long sip of her chai latte and a bite of her pumpkinseed cookie, and looked up to see Karine hovering with a steaming mug.

The only empty chair in sight was at Lyra’s table.

“Hi, Karine,” she said. “Want to join me?”

“Thanks, Lyra!” Karine put her coffee on the table and plunked herself into the chair. “Is this where you usually study? Must cost you a fortune, the drinks here are so expensive. They’re a buck cheaper at the Student Union, did you know that?”

“I wanted a change. And I thought this might be a quiet place to work.”

“Hey, don’t mind me. Just keep reading. What’s the book?” She turned it around to see the title. “Sooner you than me! But, seriously, I haven’t seen you at Bix for days. Or on Facebook. Everything okay?”

“I’ve got a lot of classes. And rugby practice. And the rest of the time I’m mostly in my room studying.”

Karine sipped her coffee and put the mug down. She paused, took another slow sip, then another. “Uh, how’s the room?” she asked, cautiously.

“Oh, it’s totally cool! No monsters under the bed at all.”

Karine looked at her and laughed nervously.

“Sure you don’t what to swap back?” Lyra asked. “I feel kind of guilty, the view’s so much better than the ground floor.”

“No, we made a deal. And you wouldn’t want to have to fill out all those room change forms again, would you?” Karine took another sip, and stood up, leaving the half-full cup on the table. “Anyhow, I’ve got to go. Good luck with the rugby, okay?”

“Bye, Karine,” said Lyra. She took another bite of her cookie, washed it down with lukewarm latte, and turned back to her textbook.


-Guess what, Sarah?

-What? (Guessed it 🙂 )

-Chris called! He found a $60 flight for the weekend

-ZOMG 🙂 sweeeet! happy for you!!! Can he stay to watch us play sunday pm?

– 🙂 Has to fly back sunday noon.

-Sucks. But overnight 😉 you won’t have much sleep before the game.

– 😉

-You be careful, Room 13! 🙂

-FFS, I’m in med!!!

-Bye 🙂

-Byeee!


Lyra stood by the curb, waiting impatiently for the taxi. There was so much to tell Chris – and so much not to. Hey, Chris! I’m keeping a log of my birth control pills now! Obsessive much? And how last week, with only three of the white placebo pills left in her blister pack, she’d been so sure she was overdue that she’d hardly slept. Her period had started the next day, and it had been almost that late other times: but the whole thing was driving her crazy.

The taxi pulled up. Chris’s blond dreads were unchanged, and he had a new T-shirt with a white-on-blue architectural sketch of the Toronto CN Tower. She threw her arms around his neck and kissed him slowly and thoroughly.

“Get a room, guys!” That was Karine’s voice, behind her.

She whispered in his ear “I do have one, remember? Wanna come up and see it?”

“Totally. But after that, let’s eat, okay? I missed breakfast to catch the plane.”

She took his hand and led him into the house. She glanced at the door of room 4. Should she tell him about the swap? He paused at the bottom of the stairs, ran a fingertip down the fluting on the elaborately carved baluster, and raised his eyebrows. “Wow. I think I’m moving in!”

“Hey, doofus, you’re here to see me, not the woodwork!” She began to climb the stairs, pulling him along. When they reached her room, she waved him in ahead of her, and wondered whether to tell him about all the pregnancies that had supposedly started there.

She took a deep breath, braced herself in the oak doorframe. “Karine, that’s the girl who was leaving, says the house has a ghost.”

Chris made woo-woo noises, then pulled her inside and closed the door. They began to kiss in earnest. Soon they were lying on the bed, rediscovering each other’s bodies after four weeks apart. His hand found her breast, and the thought flashed into her mind: We’re about to have sex in the Pregnancy Room. She pulled back, and gently moved his hand away. “Not now.”

“But I thought…”

“C’mon, Chris. You wanted me to show you around Sutherland, remember?” What’s happening to me? Is this dumb myth turning me into a prude? “You’re hungry. Let’s go check out the food court!” She pulled him to his feet, hugged him, and led him by the hand out of the room.

They wandered across campus, Lyra acting as tour guide. “Here’s the student union building. And over there is where the Engineers did their frosh week Godiva parade.”

“Do they really do that?”

“Yeah. It’s totally dumb. Just a bunch of engineering students marching behind a woman on horseback who’s waving a slide rule.”

“I’d have liked to see that.”

“She was wearing a body stocking, you perv.”

“No, silly, the slide rule. I haven’t seen one of those for years,” he said. She laughed and punched him in the ribs, then took his hand again.

They ate at the Two Goats. She told him about classes and rugby, filling in the cracks from a month of texts and phone calls. They wandered around the campus, and he told her about architecture school, and pointed out features of the buildings they passed: spandrels, Corinthian columns, architraves. They did both loops of the hike by the river, her loins hinting at every step that there were better ways to spend an afternoon. They watched the sun set, went out for dinner, and took in a Renaissance music concert at the Student Union building. It was getting late, but she insisted on going back to the Two Goats for hot chocolate. Around eleven thirty, having done everything else there was to do, they went back to her room, holding hands and saying nothing.

Chris spoke first. “Is there something wrong, Ly?”

“No.” She guided him over to the bed, sat next to him. “It’s just that I’ve been worrying about my birth control pills recently. With all the changes in routine, I’ve been a bit careless taking them this month, and I don’t feel safe.” It was the truth, if not the whole truth, and she felt better. “You don’t have a condom, do you?” Barrier methods weren’t the best, but surely the two together–and a little luck–would be enough?

“No, I don’t. I’m sorry.” He kissed her, guiding her gently down onto the mattress, his hands moving over her body. “But that’s okay. Remember that first night at my place, before you were on the pill?”

“Mmmm. Of course I do. We haven’t done that for a while, have we?”

“Let’s. Or we could just snuggle if you’d rather.”

“Right now I need a lot more than a snuggle.” She started to unbutton his shirt.


Lyra woke up slowly, luxuriating in the feeling of Chris’s naked body spooned around hers. The sun was already up, so she must have had a few hours’ sleep somewhere. It would have to do.

Behind her, Chris started to stir. His hand felt its way blindly to her breast, and she felt her nipple harden in response. His fingertip, featherlight, traced a winding path down her side, circumnavigated the globe of her buttock, and wandered forward to her belly. She rolled onto her back and spread her legs in anticipation. His hand moved downwards, touching her, making her ready. She closed her eyes, losing herself in the moment. He started to get on top of her.

Suddenly she remembered.

“No!” She pulled her legs together, rolled convulsively away from him, swung her legs over the side of the bed, and crossed her arms over her breasts.

“What’s wrong?”

“I don’t feel safe, I told you!”

“I’m sorry, I forgot. You’re not usually like this.”

“Oh?” She crossed the room in three strides and took her bathrobe from its hook. “Well, too fucking bad, but that’s how I am right now.” She knew she was being unfair, but it was easier than explaining. Birth control pills maybe don’t work in this room. Just another of those weird traditions that older universities have, ‘kay?

“Lyra!”

“I’m sorry, Chris. Maybe I’ll feel better after a shower.” She tied the sash of her bathrobe and stalked out of the room.


It was mid-October, and the green ocean outside her window had turned to a dragon’s hoard of gold, amber, and garnet. The sun was setting, and there would be frost tonight; but the room was warm, with its strange drafts of even warmer air.

Lyra had a quiz the next day, but her endocrinology textbook lay open and ignored beside her as she tried to put together a text that would tell Chris what she hadn’t been able to say in three increasingly awkward phone calls.

Dearest Chris, I’m sorry I was so cold…

She went back and corrected: that sounded as if she’d meant it.

Dearest Chris, I’m sorry if you thought I was cold to you when you were here. Your last text sounds as if you think I might be having second thoughts about us, and I can see why you’d think that. But when I got here they told me that there’s some sort of curse on this room and that girls who live here end up pregnant. I know it sounds silly, but so many people believe it that it’s starting to feel real to me. Maybe next time you’re here we can get a hotel room. Or I’ll be more sensible…

There was another warm gust. She paused, midsentence, and looked up. It was dark outside, and reflected in the window, standing behind her, was a short, stout woman. Her hair was scraped back into a bun, and by some trick of reflection in the windowpane, it seemed as if Lyra could see the door though her, as if the woman was translucent. Heart in her throat, she spun her chair around.

The woman, about as old as Lyra’s mother, wore a long dress that could have come out of a silent movie. It wasn’t a trick of reflection: the boundary between the door and the white-painted wall was clearly visible through her. Weirdest of all, her skin glowed with an eerie red-orange, like an ember.

Lyra drew in her breath with a harsh croak, felt the hairs lifting on her neck and arms. For a moment she felt faint, then made herself take deep slow breaths.

The woman did not go away, nor become opaque. Some sort of hologram? “You’ll pardon me, won’t you?” she said. “I was just having a peek at your textbook. So much has changed – fascinating! I don’t suppose you could turn the page for me?”

“What are you doing here? This is my room,” Lyra said, thinking as she said it that it sounded stupid.

“I’m sorry, dear. It used to be mine, long ago, and I can’t really leave it. Not properly. I can be here, or I can be… Nowhere. Those are my choices.”

“Why are you here, then?”

“Well, maybe you’ve heard that when women reach a certain age there’s a change?”

“Menopause.” Lyra pinched her thigh, hard, and did not wake up. Right. She was talking endocrinology with a ghost. At least till she thought of a more logical explanation.

“Exactly. It’s good to hear women use the right words for things.” She looked at Lyra’s face carefully. “Especially…” She let the sentence die, as if she had thought better of it.

“I’d better: I’m a medical student.”

“Hence the textbook. Of course. So you know that as well as no longer menstruating, a perimenopausal woman gets other symptoms?”

“Hot flashes?” Lyra thought of the unexplained gusts of hot air that she’d never been able to find a source for.

“Precisely. And, let me tell you, for some women it’s damned unpleasant. Nausea, headache, fever – like the influenza compressed into half an hour. Well, I was perimenopausal when I died, it’s been eighty years, and I still haven’t got over it. It doesn’t look as if I ever will.”

“That sounds totally dire. But why did you come here? I’m not a doctor yet, and they aren’t going to teach me how to treat ghosts even when I am.”

“I didn’t come here to be your patient, dear. Just being around you young women makes me feel better. So get on with your work and ignore me.” Was the glow fainter?

That was easier said than done. “I’m Lyra Fong. You’re?”

“Dr. Emilia Bix.”

“Why are you haunting my room?”

“I was murdered here.”

Lyra shuddered, surprised that she was taking this as calmly as she was. Well, a doctor needed objectivity. “How did that happen?”

“I was the only doctor in the state who provided safe, professional abortions. When a girl got into trouble, the grapevine would send her to ‘Doctor Emmie’ and if she wasn’t too far along I’d help her.” The glow was definitely fainter now.

“Providing abortions was dangerous back then, right?” Lyra’s medical ethics class had talked a lot about the history of contraception and abortion last week.

“Ten years in prison, if they’d ever charged me. After a few years I was fairly safe–enough influential men knew it was because of me that their daughters’ reputations were intact. They probably thought I’d name names on the witness stand, too. I wouldn’t have, of course: professional ethics. But it’s what they would have done in my place, so I was safe. Until Jeremiah Salter came along.”

“Who was he?”

“Oh, he was a piece of work, girl. Twenty-dollar gold piece on his watch chain, hundred-dollar suit, picked his teeth with the penis bone of a raccoon, and had advanced gangrene of the soul. He got a girl pregnant, and when she asked him to marry her, he gave her a black eye and told her to go to hell. She came to see me, saying she’d kill herself before she’d bear Jeremiah Salter’s child. I got her sorted out, but a week later, he came to my house with a shotgun, pushed his way past the maid, and shot me, right in this very room. And the jury set him free. So, yes, I reckon in the end it was dangerous.” She shook her head. “But it needed to be done. Women should be able to choose when they have babies.”

“The Supreme Court thinks so too now. Roe vs Wade.”

The ghost, now completely nonluminous, smiled. “That’s good to hear. Anyhow, Miss Fong, from what I remember of medical school, you’ve got plenty of work to do! I should disappear and let you get on with it.” She matched her action to her words.


-Sarah, you will NEVER EVER believe this

-Try me 🙂

-I just saw the ghost O_o

-You kidding me?

-No

-OMFG whats it like?

-Dr Emelia Bix. Google her she’s for real. Murdered in my room in 1933

-Eew! GROSS!

-She left the house to Sutherland U for a women’s rez. They didn’t want it because murder and other stuff but they were broke (1930s right?) so they took it

-What’s she like?

-Bitchin cool lady 🙂

-You get all the luck 🙂

-Lucks a big thing in Chinese culture MMMMMMMMM 🙂

(lion dance smiley)

– 😛

– <3


Lyra made her peace with Chris, but knew that there’d be more unhappiness unless she could get to the root of the problem. All those pregnancies couldn’t just be a fluke, could they? So what could the risk factor be?

The final piece fell into place as she was walking back from her Physical Diagnosis lecture. Professor Green, an energetic little man with a West Indian accent, had been explaining about syndromes and Occam’s Razor. “So, ladies and gentlemen: when you see two or three symptoms at once, then you just stop and you ask yourselves–what could they have in common? Because one condition is more likely than two.”

What did a string of pregnant students and a perimenopausal ghost have in common? There was something at the back of her mind, waiting to become clear to her, but what? She reached Bix House, climbed the stairs, entered her room, and sat at her desk, waiting for the next hot gust and trying to coax the idea into reality.

The sky outside slowly darkened from orange to blue to black. She turned the desk light on and continued to wait. Finally she felt the heat, like an invisible hair drier pointed at her cheek. She stood up, faced the direction it seemed to have come from, lifted her hands above her head, and intoned, in the most necromantic voice she could manage, “Doctor Bix, I summon you!”

The ghost materialized in front of her, flushed with that eerie glow. “Good evening, Miss Fong. No need to shout, I’m always nearby. And don’t start chalking pentacles on the floor, it doesn’t work and it’s bad for the carpet.”

“I’ve got a question for you, Dr. Bix. You may not think it’s my business, but I sort of think it is. Why does being in my room help with your hot flashes?”

The ghost was silent for a long time, biting her lower lip. Finally she said, quietly, “I don’t quite know how it works – but when I’m here with you, I can absorb your excess hormones. I hope you don’t mind too much.”

“Excess hormones? What excess hormones?”

“I think it must be good diet and all the exercise you young women get these days. Is that really a football over there?”

“Rugby football, yes.”

“So sensible. And not wearing corsets. Well, there was one young lady a few years ago who wore one, but her whole wardrobe was unusual. Brass goggles, and a top hat, and the strangest underwear.”

“I bet she didn’t dress that way for class.”

“I’m not so sure, she seemed rather eccentric. Anyhow, a lot of you modern girls have unusually high levels of estrogen and progesterone. I can sense it when I’m near you, like electricity in the air just before a thunderstorm. So you can easily spare a bit for an older lady who needs it.”

“Dr. Bix! In the last forty years, seventeen of the girls living in this room have got pregnant.”

“I knew about a few of them, and wondered about some others, but they left before I was sure. But seventeen? Really?”

“You died in 1933, right?” Lyra asked. If she didn’t get a straight answer right now, Dr. Bix’s tombstone was going to need a second death date added.

“Yes.”

“So the words ‘oral contraceptive’ don’t mean anything to you.”

“Well!” Doctor Bix put her fingertips to her lips. “As a doctor, I know that many couples do that, and that’s their business, even though it’s illegal in most states. And of course diseases can be spread that way too, so using a contraceptive sheath would be a good idea–but I don’t think I’ve ever heard the words used like that, no.”

Lyra suppressed a snicker. “It’s a pill, Dr. Bix. It was introduced in the nineteen-sixties. For as long as a woman takes it, she won’t get pregnant. Then when she wants a baby she can stop. It’s about ten times more effective than condoms. At least when women remember to take them.”

“But that’s wonderful! If I’d been able to prescribe that to my patients-” Suddenly she fell silent.

Lyra said nothing, waiting for her to work it out.

When the ghost spoke again her voice was flat. “Oh, God. How does it work?”

“The pills contain female hormones, estrogen and progesterone. It’s a long story, but raising the levels of those hormones prevents ovulation.”

“And I’ve been sucking it out of them. Out of you. Like–like some kind of vampire.”

Lyra sighed. “Looks like it.” It was hard to stay mad at the woebegone ghost.

“They thought they were safe. They were in my house. And I was responsible for them getting pregnant.” The ghost began to cry, quietly at first, then putting her face in her hands and sobbing so loudly that Lyra wondered if the rest of the house could hear.

Lyra wondered how you could hug a ghost. “You didn’t mean to.”

The weeping slowly died away to sniffles. “But I didn’t keep up to date on my professional knowledge. Never let that happen, Miss Fong! Of course, I’ll stop immediately. Which means it’s back to the fire and brimstone for me, when the hot flashes hit. And I’m so, so sorry for what I’ve done.”

“We have treatments for menopausal symptoms now,” Lyra said, and immediately felt foolish.

“I don’t suppose the pharmacopoeia gives the dosage for ghosts,” Dr. Bix said.

An idea came to Lyra. “Not the Western pharmacopoeias, no,” she said. “But half my ancestors are Chinese. Did you ever hear of chi bo, ghost money?”

“No nickels in this gal’s pockets. Wish there were, I could buy myself a nice cold sarsaparilla and cool off a bit.”

“They’re like counterfeit bills that we burn for our ancestors so that they’ll have a prosperous afterlife. My grandfather does it regularly for our ancestors back in China.” She turned to her computer and googled “hormone replacement therapy, images.”

“So how does that help?”

“Well, it’s not just money. They make paper images of clothes, cars, furniture. They even make paper Viagra tablets, though my grandfather thinks that’s tacky.”

“Viagra?”

“It’s a drug that helps men get erections,” Lyra said. “Yeh Yeh says he’ll do a lot for his ancestors but he’s damned if he’ll organize their sex lives for them. Anyhow, it gave me an idea. Let’s see if it works.” She opened her desk, took out a sheet of her Chinese calligraphy paper, put it in her printer, and printed the image that she had found.

With a great feeling of occasion, she took out her best pen and wrote a prescription for “chi bo transdermal patches, estrogen-progesterone, one per day as needed. Unlimited refills.” Pausing occasionally to bite the end of her pen, and once to consult a well-thumbed dictionary, she wrote it out again in Chinese ideographs, and signed it with an illegible flourish that she had been practicing during dull lectures. She folded the picture and the prescription in the special way that Yeh Yeh had taught her.

Now Yeh Yeh would pray. What to say? She thought back to her Medical Ethics class, and the old Hippocratic Oath. “Whatever house I enter, may it always be for the benefit the sick,” she recited solemnly. She should have burned a joss stick, too, but she didn’t have one. She clasped her hands and bowed to the ghost. “Dr. Bix, you helped so many women during your life. I hope that this will help you.” She cleared a few paperclips and a highlighter out of a red-glazed earthenware bowl, put the papers in and set fire to them, sending them to the Spirit Kingdom in the proper manner.

“Heavens, I feel better already!” said the ghost, her glow dying like an extinguished light bulb. “You’re going to make one hell of a fine doctor! If I may, I’ll drop by now and then to keep you posted on the progress of the case.”

“Please do, Doctor Bix. It’s been an honor to meet you,” said Lyra. But she was speaking to an empty room. She sat for a few minutes, then picked up her phone and called Chris.

“Chris here,” said a familiar voice. “I’m not available right now. Leave a message, ‘kay?”

Should she tell him now? No, she wanted to hear his response. “Hi babe, this is Lyra. Call me! I have some very interesting news.” She turned off the phone, and realized that she was starving. She mentally inventoried her supplies in the Bix House kitchen. Unless she wanted to dine on dry cereal with marmalade and soy sauce, it was food court time. The Two Goats closed at eight: better hurry!

She grabbed her backpack and raced down the stairs two at a time. At the bottom she almost bumped into Karine coming out of Room 4. “Whoops! Sorry, Karine!”

“Hi Lyra! Uh, how’s it going?”

Lyra patted her stomach and grinned. “It’s going to be a girl.”

Karine stared at her, open-mouthed. “You’re kidding me? Right?” she finally said in a small voice.

“Well, duh!” Lyra said, and snickered. “You should have seen the look on your face.” Her phone chimed, muffled by her backpack: she had it in her hand by the second ring. “Hi Chris!”

Karine stepped into the doorway of her room, took out an emery board, and started to pay elaborate attention to her nails.

“Hi, Lyra,” Chris said. “Got your message. Everything okay?”

“Oh, it’s more than okay, babe,” Lyra said, her voice low and sultry. Let Karine wonder!

“Yeah? What’s up?” Chris asked.

“Remember that little problem with my room? Well, I’ve totally solved it. Think you could come and visit me real soon? I think we ought to test it out, y’know?” She snuck a glance at Karine, who had given up all presence of manicure and was staring openmouthed.

“You bet!” he said. “This weekend okay? I’ll look for tickets. I should be able to find something.”

“Awesome! And I’ve got the weirdest story to tell you.” She opened the front door and stepped out into the moonlight.

The Stray

Masura Kazamune rode untouched through the packed but silent street. The fingers of his right hand brushed against the scabbard of his sheathed sword, his left hand adjusting the position of two large sacks tied to his horse’s saddle. A soft drip accompanied the beast’s nimble steps. The bottoms of both bags were stained a dark red.

He ignored every stare, jaw set, focused instead upon the padding of his stallion’s hooves upon the parched earth. It seemed as if every man, woman, and child in that nameless backwater town had gathered to watch his return. Faces lined the building walls, the doorways, even peeked through the open windows. But none dared speak. Not in the presence of a man such as him.

His destination was a large structure at the end of the wide dirt street. The thatch on its sloped roof was new. Lean wooden columns supported the austere frame, built upon a foundation of assembled stones rather than stout stilts like the other nearby dwellings.

Masura squared his shoulders. In the old days, he had accompanied Lord Akano through many towns similar to this one, though the reception then had been far different. Inquisitive faces would’ve peered at him as now, but the women would’ve clasped their hands in gratitude, the children cheering, the men giving low bows. Lord Akano would’ve waved back, dismounted and walked among the gathered crowd on foot. A sign of deep respect for the peasantry. The lifeblood of the Hiratan Empire.

An aging male servant in a loose brown robe greeted Masura at the sliding entrance door of the elder’s residence. The old man didn’t bow, though he kept his eyes downcast while taking the reins of Masura’s black Kiyoso stallion. Masura ascended the shallow steps, a soaked cloth bag in each hand. A second male servant wearing an identical robe beckoned him forward.

Two figures waited for him at the far edge of the audience room. Horio Tamekage stood erect, feet shoulder-width apart, his receding hair tied in traditional topknot fashion. But Masura gave the man only a furtive glance, his gaze lingering instead upon the kneeling woman beside him. Suroda Tamekage was far older, her posture stooped, strands of long white hair pinned back around her shoulders. Unusual for a woman out here in the Marchlands to retain the role of elder rather than passing it onto a son, though such practices were becoming increasingly common throughout the Eight Provinces. No doubt a result of the Luminous Throne’s influence?and that of Hirata’s new Emperor.

Another twelve men stood along the walls in their black and gray robes. Daylight streamed through the windows to reflect off a dozen hands gripping the hilts of their sheathed single-edged swords. None of the scabbards or hilts bore the mark of the yejin, unlike Masura’s own sekari steel blade. The tart scent of bowstring oil was rampant. They likely had archers hidden behind the one-way partition at the back of the room.

Masura’s mouth twitched, though he stopped it from becoming a full-fledged frown. He gave a slight bow. “I dispatched the brigands, as requested.”

He tossed the two cloth bags onto the floor before either of the Tamekages could reply. The sacks rolled forward with a soft squish and left a pair of red smears along the wooden planks.

Horio Tamekage used a foot to prod the nearest sack. Strands of close-cropped black hair protruded through the open top, still attached to their scalps.

“Where are the rest?” Horio wiped the bottom of his blood-stained boot across the floor.

“They couldn’t be salvaged.” Masura had tried being careful this time, but when it came to properly cutting off a criminal’s head or staying alive?priority went to the latter.

“You had explicit instructions.” Horio kicked the sacks aside. A nearby servant was quick to gather them up. “Bring back every one of those brigands’ heads, or don’t bother returning at all.”

“Too many to carry.” Masura shrugged. “There were twenty of them.”

Eyes widened at that. Horio’s and those of the guards. Only Suroda Tamekage’s expression remained unreadable.

“Liar.” Horio jabbed a finger in Masura’s face. “No lone stray could take down twenty armed criminals. Not honorably.” Several nearby guards nodded. “Tell me, did you resort to using a coward’s poisons? Or perhaps you slit a few of those men’s throats while they were sleeping?”

Masura neither moved nor blinked. Horio wasn’t entirely wrong in his assessment. Masura had caught the brigands by surprise. Most had been too busy with other less honorable pursuits to even notice him. Captured farm girls for their pleasure, along with an open cask of distilled liquor seized during one of their recent raids.

Criminals and their victims?more casualties of the droughts ravaging Hirata’s rice crop in the Glimmering Terraces to the north, now well into its fifth year. Destitute men could be led to commit all sorts of heinous acts.

“Nothing to say in your defense?” Horio paced back and forth before Masura. He tapped his thumb against the hilt of his blade. “You present yourself with only six of these supposed twenty, and with no further evidence the other brigands are dead. How do we know you didn’t just raid a farmer’s field upon our lands and cut off the heads of six random peasants?”

Masura inhaled a breath, but not too deep. The wound at his side, hidden beneath the folds of his blue robe, still throbbed. The brigands’ leader had been neither drinking nor whoring, and had proved a worthy opponent, more skilled than his nineteen subordinates put together. Another yejin turned stray, just like Masura. Bandaging the wound from that man’s marked blade had been a hasty thing. It would need proper treatment and suturing to prevent infection, and soon.

“Ride into the hills and take a look for yourself. I’ll even draw you a map.” Masura kept his gaze level. He wouldn’t lower his eyes or bow to anyone who dared call him a liar. “And if you’re still unsure, question the husbands, parents, and siblings of the women I freed from the brigands’ bondage.”

All but one, anyway, whom two of the criminals had gutted during the chaos in a failed attempt to bargain for their lives. The other women had fled once they realized who Masura was. None had even bothered to thank him.

Horio’s mouth snapped shut, instead matching Masura’s glare. The man’s grip tightened on his sword hilt.

“It is of little concern to us.” Suroda Tamekage’s voice was quiet and frail, yet it cut through the ensuing silence. “We will pay you what you’re owed.”

She signaled behind her. A young female servant approached, head bowed, and knelt in front of Masura. The girl held out a leather coin pouch.

Masura seized the offering with one hand and counted the hollow-centered silver discs in the other. With each metallic clink, more whispers and mutters flared from every corner of the residence. The guards, the servants, the archers lurking behind the rear partition, even the elder and her son. Convention dictated Masura should wait until the meeting was concluded before verifying his payment. A gesture of respect and trust to the other party, though he had long since dispensed with such pointless courtesies.

Lord Akano certainly wouldn’t have approved. It was easy to picture his master’s heavy-lined face giving him a stern frown, seated in the manor study by lamplight, calligraphy brush frozen between fingers and paper. Lord Akano’s desk would’ve been piled high with letters to his many contacts throughout the empire?correspondence to secure labor agreements for desperate Hiratans eager for work.

But the dead couldn’t protest.

“This is only a third of what we agreed upon.” Masura tossed the pouch back at the Tamekages’ feet.

Horio sprang forward. “Be grateful we’re even giving you that, you oath breaking?”

“Enough.” Suroda raised a hand, and Horio fell silent. Her dark eyes settled on Masura. “What we’re offering is more than generous, considering you only brought us six heads. Do you think you deserve more, based on our prior agreement?”

The guards reached for their weapons?thumbs’ lengths of sharpened steel now visible. Masura’s gaze remained fixed upon the partition behind the Tamekages. The archers likely had their bows drawn, aimed at his heart and head.

He grasped the hilt of his own sword. Deflecting arrows was no small feat at such close range, even with the ethereal nimbleness of his sekari steel blade. But it could be done, as could taking on a room of twenty odd men, if necessary. It seemed to be his lucky sign.

He’d fought that same number when pursuing his master’s murderers. Twenty assassins from House Narisane led by the High Lord’s third son, dissatisfied with so many of those lucrative labor contracts given to Lord Akano in his father’s stead. Each of the twenty had fallen to a single swing from Masura’s sword?a wildfire tale that had spread throughout Hirata to become legend.

As had the rumor of Masura’s refusal to die after Lord Akano had been avenged, as yejin tradition demanded. A life of disgrace chosen over an honorable death. The life of an outcast. A stray.

Masura tensed, a sneer splitting his facade. These Tamekages had called him a coward and a liar. With their deaths?he would simply be defending whatever shreds of honor he still had left.

He exhaled his held breath. And be branded a murderer, hunted down like a common criminal. Like the assassins who’d killed Lord Akano. Like the brigands he himself had executed. And like their leader, the former yejin he’d dueled and defeated.

Masura released the grip on his sword. There had been far too much death in these hills already. Lord Akano would’ve been aghast if he knew his old gift was being used for such a purpose, especially if he was watching from the Other world. The last thing Masura needed right now was another name added to an ever-growing list. Masura the Quick. Masura the Oath Breaker. Masura the Stray.

Masura the Butcher.

“Well?” Horio said. “What’re you still standing there for? Take your payment and go?or you won’t be leaving at all.”

Masura gritted his teeth. Horio wasn’t the first to utter such a threat to him, nor would this elder’s overgrown whelp be the last. But he hadn’t come all the way out to this backwater town to answer their pleas for help, only to cause trouble after.

Time to move on.

It took Masura considerable effort not to press his hand to the crude bandage beneath his robe. Probably better to enlist the services of a healer elsewhere, though the next nearest town was more than a full day’s ride.

“I thank you for your generosity.” He left the coins on the floor and turned, perhaps a little too quick. Careless of him. He might take a blade in the back for his trouble, just like Lord Akano had. Horio Tamekage would be more than capable of giving that order, even if he wasn’t the type to swing the sword himself.

Masura breathed easier once his boots touched the compact earth outside the elder’s residence. That same elderly servant waited alongside his Kiyoso stallion. Masura mounted up and rode at a trot down the main street.

The crowd still lingered, pulling back at his approach. Women clutched children to their chests, men shook their heads, youngsters spat at his feet. Masura straightened himself in the saddle, one hand on the reins, the other hanging loose at his side, as far away from the hilt of his sword as possible. It wouldn’t do to show fear among the peasant folk. Not under the terms of this continued existence.

If he’d had his way, he would’ve killed himself upon avenging his master’s death. A short blade to the gut, in typical yejin fashion, to join Lord Akano’s remaining retainers in their sojourn to the Other world. But it hadn’t been up to him. All of Hirata didn’t understand, would never understand.

He was no coward.

A silent messenger had delivered a sealed letter the day after Lord Akano’s murder. Masura had memorized its contents, the characters scrawled in his master’s elegant but unmistakable hand.

Masura,

The fact you are reading this means I have met my end in a most unexpected way. I bear no ill feelings against whichever house was responsible. Seek vengeance if you must, but I do not wish you to follow me into the Other world. Not yet. Thus, my final order to you:

Live.

Should the droughts continue, you and your talents will be of far more use to the troubled people of Hirata, even broken and reviled as you will be. Pledge loyalty to no house. Speak of this to no one. Protect those who cannot do so themselves for as long as you are able.

Your services will always be needed.

Masura had burned the rest, kept only a small crinkled fragment tucked deep within the sleeve of his robe. It bore but a single smudged character.

Live.

The thatched roofs of that nameless town faded from the horizon into memory. He would be visiting many more like it in the days to come.