Dace & Ermane – II: The Gloaming (pt 1)

People trusted Enid for two very important reasons: she didn’t ask and she didn’t care. The money was too good and, Hell’s bells, she had mouths and habits to feed like everybody else.

This girl too, the goodhand’s assistant, she needed feeding. The wimple and the voluminous shift did nothing to hide that gauntness, that hopelessness. Even her cheeks seemed to be taking a bite out of her face.

“The body,” the girl said. Her voice was oddly flat and muffled, as if she was speaking from inside a tin box.

Enid reached back for a set of keys and also–when the girl wasn’t looking–a sharp dagger and bottle of vivificus aqua, just in case she had to deal with walking dead. Not to offend the customer, but it was hard to tell. The aqua, thankfully, remained clear in the girl’s presence.

Enid lead the way through the fetid corridor, swinging the keys around a finger. “Don’t mind the stench coming up, twiddle cakes,” she advised. “You’ll get used to it. Here we are.”

‘Here’ was an unmarked room that housed defunct hibernariums, their freeze mechanisms long since expired. Enid stopped at one and threw open its heavy lid, unleashing a fresh fug of decay that burned the eyes and throat. While the girl fought back her gag, Enid hauled out the linen-wrapped corpse with the arm of a pugilist.

“Been out there a good month or so, roasting nicely in the sun,” Enid said as the assistant bent down to inspect it. “The poor lass took everything they gave her. Fed her head to the pack dogs after she got snuffed. Due for incineration in two days but figured she’d fetch a good price, what being a skullsapper and all.”

The assistant tossed over two fat rolls of surrey weed and a small but weighty coin sack. She did not wait for Enid to count the coins, only picked the body up by the feet and proceeded to drag it back the way they came. Enid pitied her; those meatless, spindly arms wrangling with all that dead weight. Then what about the stairs? She’d only rip the linen going up and there’d be bits of skin and entrails all over the concrete.

“Here now, girl, wait.” Enid pushed the assistant aside and hoisted the body up onto her own shoulder. “Champion wrestler back in my day. Where to?”

“I have a float, by the back door,” the girl replied.

They walked on wordlessly, and occasionally the girl hummed a low and monotonous tune in her throat. It was a song unfamiliar to Enid. They reached the back door, which opened to the clamour of the Festival and an alley where a small parade float waited. The girl lifted a flap of cloth covering the platform and helped Enid shove the corpse into the space beneath.

“Hey,” Enid held the girl’s shoulder back, “if your master needs more, maybe we can work something out.”

The girl only turned away with the grace of someone weighed down, rolling the float and hidden corpse with her, melding in with the babble of paraders.

***

to be continued…

Dace & Ermane – I: Half Light (pt 3)

Dace swings her leg impatiently, its shadow like a pendulum going back and forth across the wall. Across from her, Ermane has her eyes closed, the crudely assembled circlet all but falling off her big head. Dace’s own circlet is no more sophisticated.

The girls are, as usual, up to No Good and Mother is not likely to look for them in Father’s library, not since he was arrested and executed. They have brightened the corners with some candles but, in all honesty, they like the dark. All sorts of things can grow in darkness–a seed, a thought, two foetuses.

“Are you thinking anything now?” Ermane asks. Her face is thrown up to the dusty ceiling, to better intercept those wavelengths.

“Mm hm,” Dace says. She’s thinking she’d like to draw a flower around that annoying mole on Ermane’s cheek.

“One word?” says Ermane, squeezing her eyes tighter, and Dace thinks: wind. Ermane won’t find that funny though, not when they’ve been at this for hours.

It was fun at first, collecting scraps of sentenium metal from the local magesmith, learning the transmitting spells and singing them into the metal as they plaited the strips together to fashion the circlets. Several modifications and ten thousand experiments later, they are no closer to accurate mental telepathy than ten thousand experiments ago.

“I’ve got something!” Ermane gropes for chalk and slate and scribbles. They both look down. Gooseberry.

“Not even close,” Dace says, “unless you count the time I ate too many.”

Ermane scrubs the slate clean with a fist. “Your turn,” she says.

Dace obliges by closing her eyes, but only because she needs help building a pixie net later. She opens her mind and focuses; she has no idea how but it’s what Ermane says she should do. She can hear her sister’s wet, wheezy breathing. She smells saffron and honey; they must be having goat stew again. Ah-ha! She seizes the slate and writes.

“Goat stew? No, that’s not it.” Ermane removes the circlet with a huge sigh. “Something’s wrong. What if we use something purer, like yellow nillium?”

“It’d break as soon as we put it on,” Dace says glumly. “Maybe the metal blocks our thoughts. I mean, we mindspeak well enough without it, don’t we?”

Actually, it’s only Ermane who believes in mindspeak. Dace knows they can predict each other’s words and movements so well because they’ve been together since they were born. She can’t tell Ermane this, of course, or Ermane might start crying like a baby.

“But don’t you see?” says Ermane. “If we can hone our wavelengths, make it more specific, we could sell this contraption! And the Alnight only serves to sharpen the connection.”

Again, not true. The Alnight blurs everything and turns lines into watercolours. But too late, Ermane is deep in thought, flicking her lower lip and trying to frown life into her circlet.

“What about copper lamnia? It’s not as malleable but it has more phantasmagorical properties.”

“Or maybe our wavelengths are so advanced they can’t be caught,” Dace reasons. “Maybe no one but the two us can understand them.”

Ermane jumps up with that look of vicious determination that Dace hates so well. “Come on, Dacey, let’s go back to Una’s workshop, see if he has some alloys or something.”

“But the roads are blocked and Mother told us not to go near the Festival.”

“We’ll be in and out before she even knows we’re missing.”

“But you promised to help me with my pixie net.”

“Forget about your stupid net. This is much better. Just think, we’ll be famous!”

Dace flings off the circlet. “You’re a liar! I’m not playing with you anymore.”

“Fine, be a sour baby!”

“Fine!” Dace says and stomps out of the library. It isn’t fair; they always do what Ermane wants. Plus they’ve been cooped up there for so long Dace is past hungry.

The kitchen is empty when she marches in, so she steals two sweet dumplings from the table, one for now and the other for Ermane later. She stirs the goat stew with a wrinkled nose, then, looking around, quickly throws a spoonful of salt inside the pot.

Mother must have left the back door open because there is a little zephyr making itself at home in the middle of the kitchen. As Dace walks into the scullery, the zephyr becomes cold and stinging. It raises a million spicules along her spine and a roar of blood to her ears.

This is what the future looks like: the trembling lid on top a boiling pot, the unswept sand cracking beneath her feet, the wind whistling through the house, breathing life in as one is whisked out, and Mother sprawled on the floor, her hair a question mark trail in the rushes.

***

to be continued…

Dace & Ermane – I: Half Light (pt 2)

Ferlis surveyed the dismay that was his workroom with a few murderous thoughts. Oromon, indeed. He’d not soon forget that name, see if he didn’t.

“Unsalvageable! The lot of it,” he declared to this assistant.

The chit was completely unsympathetic. She only held up his leather case and an oil lamp and said, “Your kit, sir.” At Ferlis’s blank look, she added, “An Attending, at the Tomlinsons’.”

“Right. Virgil,” Ferlis said, smacking his forehead. “See how this Oromon has befuddled me. Come come, give me the blasted bag then. And clean this mess up before you leave. I want a detailed inventory of the damage. I’ll send the bloody bill to the Academy, see if I don’t.”

“Yes, sir.”

Dead fish had more life, honestly. Still, beggars and choosers and all that, and trained assistants were hard come by these days.

Ferlis remembered to put his coat on before stepping out. The Alnight had a way of making the weather fickle, even in the middle of summer. Not a hansom cab to be had either, seeing as the Zangara had declared it a public holiday, which meant he’d have to go on foot. How he wished Virgil hadn’t up and died on today of all days, or that the boy’s father wasn’t an influential member of the Zangara’s council.

Ferlis hated Alnights, rare though they were. This was not the kind of darkness that eventide brought, where the moon softened and lightened. This was the kind of darkness found in nightmares or the naughty cupboard. He gripped the gold amulet around his neck, spouting off a round of mental litanies.

The streets were already thronging with parade floats and revellers. Ferlis intended to cross the city square, but they had cordoned off the entrance and were dismantling the criminal display case. This month’s exhibit had been a young woman suspected of necromantic activities. She’d undergone the usual way of torture–hooks, hydrochloric acid, confessions–and because she had been convicted of negative conjury, she had been beheaded, preserved and hung out in the square to be made an example of. The Zangara was most just, and bloodthirsty it seemed.

Why do it? Why risk your life with this necromancy business, or any form of negative conjury for that matter? One must be whole of body to reach Eltavari after death. But a beheading: it was the easiest way to incomplete a person. To keep their body on this earth was to consign them to limbo and deny them redemption and freedom. It was the ultimate betrayal of Danar’s teachings, the ultimate imprisonment. The poor soul would never find peace, and Ferlis could think of no greater punishment. He shuddered and touched his amulet again. The Zangara was most just, and unforgiving indeed.

The Tomlinsons were ostensibly sombre when Ferlis arrived. He gave them a perfunctory round of condolences and immediately asked to see the boy. No time to waste with the new dead; they had to be Attended to immediately, or they might start getting ideas about staying.

Virgil was laid out on the floor of his room, washed with saline and dressed in a plain linen shift as requested. His face was pale and reposed, his palms placed neatly atop his rotund belly. Someone had rubbed rouge on his cheeks but it only made him look garish and girly.

Ferlis sighed. Death by chicken bone, such a waste. At least the boy would not go to Eltavari hungry. He thought about the headless girl up in the square and prayed for her too.

Ferlis lit a large tallow candle and secured a long red jute string to its base, tying the other end around Virgil’s big toe. He gathered the family close, opened his arms and spoke solemnly: “Let this cord be your path, this light your guide. Let Danar take your soul, Vironas your flesh.”

The red string snapped straight and quivered gently, Virgils’ soul having been called and sufficiently attached. Ferlis relaxed. Nothing worse than trying to explain an absent soul during an Attending. The mother choked on a sob, and Ferlis encouraged her to touch him, to coax him along.

“Go peacefully, child,” she said, smoothing hair back from the boy’s forehead.

The candle’s flame fluttered violently then. The light tautened, almost to breaking point, and tugged insistently on Virgil’s big toe. One of his arms slipped down and flapped listlessly at his side like a broken wing.

“Oh dear,” said Ferlis, “he’s a little stubborn today.”

“It’s the chicken, you know,” the mother explained, dabbing an eye and placing Virgil’s errant arm back where it belonged. “He was loathed to let it go.”

Ferlis nodded sagely. “Of course, some of us just need a bit of help letting go, that’s all.” He patted her shoulder. “Let Danar’s Heart convince him there’s a better life on Eltavari.”

From beneath his collar, Ferlis drew out the chains of his amulet. Danar’s Heart, imbued with the faith of the Danar devout, so easy to forge yet so arduous to empower. He could feel all the hours of prayer notched into its flat edges. It seemed to flare triumphantly in the candlelight. Take that, Alnight!

With utmost care and mounting emotion, Ferlis held Danar’s Heart high up in the air…whereupon it promptly snapped in two.

Someone gasped, another made an ‘oh’ of disappointment. Ferlis stared at the jagged pieces of Danar’s Heart in his hand, wondering (not yet with anger) how and when pure gold had become plated lead.

He looked down at stubborn Virgil, whose head still rocked side to side as if caught in a wave, his soul resisting the call, then back at the fake amulet, now impotent against any sort of convincing, and he said, “Fuck.”

***

to be continued…

Next I: Half Light (pt 3)

Dace & Ermane – I: Half Light (pt 1)

Oromon wiped a circle out of the begrimed windows and peered across the street. “Of course I’m not implying you’re a corpse-lover, Ferlis,” he said over his shoulder, “or that you’re harbouring one. I’m simply making enquiries.”

Ferlis carried on about insulting respectable goodhands and how it wasn’t to be borne, all of which Oromon duly ignored. Outside, in the odd greyscale gloom, the nightwatch boys were lighting the lane sconces. It was only mid-morning but the Alnight would be here soon. Four hours, give or take. Soon the entire realm would be plunged into darkness for one day and one night.

It was a big event, this Alnight, a once-in-a-decade sort of thing. On his way over, Oromon passed homes decorated with demon masks and dancing charms in preparation for the Festival. He wondered why people bothered with such superstitions; it was only the simple geophysics of one realm eclipsing another.

He turned back to the sitting room when Ferlis’s gormless assistant set down the tea service.

“Take that back,” Ferlis ordered his assistant. “Academy dogs don’t deserve the civility of tea!”

“Come now, Ferlis,” said Oromon, “we’ve been nothing but civilised.”

Something crashed ominously upstairs where Vasan and Padbury were searching. The expensive kind of ominous. Oromon winced. Civilised, yes, but he wished his crew were less noisy about it. He gazed forlornly after the disappearing tea tray…and he had so been looking forward to that slice of poppyseed cake.

“Check the permit again, my good man. Signed by the Zangara herself,” Oromon said soothingly.

“I don’t care if it’s signed by Danar the Divine,” the goodhand cried. “You cannot waltz in here with your thugs and accuse me of-of-of…skullsapping!”

Oromon made a face. “I do hate that term. It’s so crass. Anyhoo, have you noticed anything missing from your workroom in the last few months? Reagents, preservatives? Necrobiological texts, cadavers, phylacteries, amulets, so on and so forth? Anything a necromancer might find handy?”

“I am a servant of the Zangara, you rot!” Ferlis paced indignantly, looking like a frowsy-haired worm. “A Danar devout! A disciple of medicine and learning! We abhor tampering with the unnatural; the Academy has no cause to suspect me or any other goodhand.”

“Ah but you are mistaken, Ferlis my dear. Goodhands are perfect candidates for necromancy.” Oromon paused to cast over Ferlis what he liked to call The Appraising Eye. “I like you, Ferlis. I like you because, despite the pea up your backside and all your hullabaloo, you are telling the truth–and I can always tell the truth–thus I will reveal to you my rationale.”

Oromon sat down with a sudden zeal that stopped even Ferlis in his tracks. “As both healer and priest, goodhands are almost always first to attend the sick and the dead, you agree? You are also required to update and practice your knowledge frequently, are you not? And, especially as you’re under the employ of the Zangara, you receive more than adequate funding for said practices. What necromancer’s guild wouldn’t want to recruit a goodhand? It’s unsurprising the number we’ve ferreted out from the underground, and among them how many are government-appointed. Goodhands are only human after all, even those belonging to the Zangara, bless the good queen.”

Far from looking convinced by this theory, however, Ferlis narrowed his eyes. “I wasn’t aware the Academy was involved in surveillance of negative conjury,” he said.

“My dear Ferlis, the Academy created the laws forbidding negative conjury.”

“Yes, and left it to the local terraforces to uphold those laws. A bit out of jurisdiction for you men of books and thaumaturgy, isn’t it?”

“We are a new branch, I will allow.”

“And what branch would that be, pray tell? Voodoo Patrol? Order of the Occultist Exterminators?” Ferlis smirked at the breadth of his own wit. “You dabble with necrophiles and the curious perverse; who’s to say this branch of yours is incorruptible?”

Now Oromon remembered why he found goodhands so irritating, but he smiled his best condescending Academy smile and rested his chin atop steepled fingers.

“Have you seen necromantic arts at its most depraved, goodhand?” Here, Ferlis scoffed derisively. “Oh, I imagine you think you have. You only know about the average gravediggers and body-takers, and the poor man looking to earn quick blunt by selling their body parts for a Speaking. Or those demon-worshippers of Vironas who think the only path to their god is to become a necromancer’s minion.

“Have you ever witnessed a Rending and, in turn, the ways to Tether that poor soul to a corpse? Did you know the dead can not only walk but spout philosophy as cleverly as they can eat your flesh? Would you even know one if it approached you on the street? Have you seen a newborn possessed and dance to beat of the dread-drum? Do you know how many necromancers a man will visit, the price he offers his soul, just to see his deceased wife and daughter? Do you know there are child prodigies who, before their thirteenth birthday can raise their own mothers–from the dead, that is?”

Oromon had drifted back to the window. He saw Ferlis’s scepticism reflected there.

“The best and most terrible works of necromancy come from the unexpected, the ordinary,” Oromon continued. “That’s why my goodhand theory is so delicious, because it is perfectly boring, perfect unexpected and perfectly logical. People think necromancy is like vampires or good politics–they hear of it but they never see it–but I tell you it exists. We must all of us be vigilant leading up to the Alnight, when the link between the living and the dead is most obscured, and thus, most tempting to whole conclaves of necromancers preparing to harness its might.”

“Ah, Vasan, Padbury,” he said as his two agents came in fighting cobwebs and sneezes. “What have we?” They shook their heads and filed out at the flick of his finger.

“Congratulations, Ferlis. You come out clean,” he said. “But if there are activities of special interest going on here, or anywhere else, you can be sure we’ll find it.”

“I’m filing a complaint,” said Ferlis.

“Your prerogative, of course. Here is the forwarding address. The name’s Oromon.”

***

to be continued…

Next I: Half Light (pt 2)