It’s long. It’s rough. It sounds like the intro to a dirty joke, but actually, it’s the resolution of that cliff hanger I threw at you.
It still needs a lot of polish, but…oh, well, caveat caveat, you all know the drill by now. My info dumps are graceless. I am aware. They’ll work themselves out, god willing, or not.
There is–hmm, actually we get the trifecta of violence, swearing, and adult situations! Neat!
Edit: Oh, and just in case you missed it, part one is at http://ursulav.livejournal.com/568891.html
A long time passed, although it was hard to tell, because the days were all so much the same. The trees on the lawn lost their leaves, and the girls were allowed to rake them up into vast red piles. Myra was particularly proud that she was allowed to help—it meant they trusted her with a rake, and that she was no longer considered dangerous. They wouldn’t let Yllsa or Caitlin have one. Yllsa still screamed every night, although not so long or loudly. Her stutter had gotten worse, though. Sometimes she couldn’t get through asking forgiveness at breakfast at all.
It snowed. Frost rimed over the windows and froze the iron bars over the windows. They were issued heavy sweaters and extra pairs of socks.
Winter passed, and spring came. They planted things in the garden, vegetables and flowers. When they went to the chapel, Myra spent her silent prayer time praying for the health of her seedlings. The Hierarchs and Ethan Tyrael had a whole country praying for them, but Myra’s vegetables only had Myra.
Two new people came to work at the Home. One was a priest, to replace the old priest, who had gotten too old and retired.
The new priest was young and handsome and very serious, but she liked him. His name was Father Maxwell. He didn’t preach about Sin so much. He also listened very carefully when he took confession, and when she told him that she was praying for her vegetables, he actually laughed.
“It’s probably okay, my child,” he said. “I’m sure God loves his vegetables too. But maybe you could say just a little prayer for the Hierarchs, too.”
Myra wasn’t terribly interested in the Hierarchs, those shadowy ruling figures she’d never met, but for Father Maxwell, she was willing to at least try.
The other new person was the new orderly. His name was Gant.
He worried her.
She wasn’t a child, and she knew that men and women did things, and sometimes it was Sin, and sometimes—in some vague and complicated way that probably didn’t apply to her—it wasn’t.
Her seedlings had barely sprouted when he started work, and they’d only gotten their second set of leaves by the time Myra became aware that Gant was doing things.
He mostly did them with Sarah, which was fine by Myra. The matrons wouldn’t be pleased, but Sarah seemed to enjoy it. Sarah was crazy anyway. She’d pinch you if you were in line next to her, or if she wanted your oatmeal, and they never ever gave her a rake.
If he’d just been pulling Sarah into a broom closet occasionally, Myra wouldn’t have cared. It was Sin, but so were a lot of things. You didn’t tell the matrons, because the orderlies could make life very unpleasant for you, and no one would believe you anyway. Even good girls were still orders of magnitude less trustworthy than orderlies. Orderlies could have all the rakes they wanted.
The problem was that sometimes Gant looked at Myra, and this was worrisome.
It was something about his eyes. They seemed to walk over her like insect feet. She always looked away when she saw him watching her, but it seemed like whenever she glanced back, he was still watching.
Myra didn’t know why. She wasn’t very pretty. She was angular and plain and had short black hair, and they kept it cut close in the Home, because it was easier, and there were always problems with lice. She had scars all over, including some pretty big ones, long white lines that pulsed red when she exercised. Sarah, on the other hand, was extremely pretty, if you ignored the crazy gleam in the back of her eyes, and the way she smiled when she thought no one was looking.
But he still kept watching.
The seedlings responded to either the sun or the rain or Myra’s prayers and began to split and branch, growing extra sets of leaves. Her nasturtiums grew tangled and leggy and spilled along the ground.
Gant still kept watching.
Maybe she was just being paranoid. Maybe she was thinking too highly of herself that anyone would want to do Sin with her. That was pride, which was sinful, except that she wasn’t proud of the thought at all. She just wished he would go away.
She thought about confessing this to Father Maxwell, except that it would have involved explaining about Gant, and that went right back to the original problem. If she was being sinful, therefore, it was just going to have to sit on her soul.
On fine spring days, the good girls were allowed to sit outside and work on knitting, a dozen or more women in pools of grey skirts, like drab flowers dotting the lawn. Myra took herself off under a tree and set down to work on her knitting.
They were knitting bandages to donate to the leper house. It was good, wholesome, charitable work, but you didn’t get any good colors. Presumably the lepers were grateful for bandages, but Myra couldn’t help but think that if she’d had leprosy, she would like bandages in pretty colors, just as a distraction.
Birds hopped around the branches of the tree, with tiny scuffling sounds of their feet on the bark, and little chirps that made Myra smile. The clicking of the needles blended in with the bird feet and the bird voices and the hiss of leaves in the tree.
She got an inch or two done on her bandages, and her shoulders were getting sore. She put her yarn down in her lap, and stretched, and looked around, to find Gant a dozen feet away, watching her.
She smiled, politely—you had to always be polite, being polite was good—even though she felt a little sick to her stomach, and she looked back down at her knitting.
He was still standing there. He wasn’t moving.
She picked up her knitting. The lepers didn’t seem quite so important any more.
After a minute, she looked up. Her eyes got as far as Gant’s feet, and she dropped them again.
He was still standing there. She was dead certain he was still watching her.
The birds chirped, and the leaves hissed, and the needles went click and I don’t like the way he’s looking at you.
Myra stiffened and drew a long breath in through her nose.
The voice. Was it the voice? Was it back?
She didn’t need this right now. She had troubles enough. It wasn’t fair.
It’s okay, Myra. We’re all being good now.
The little voice wasn’t frantic anymore. It sounded very calm now, almost painfully so.
I’m working on it, kid.
It was like having ice cubes in the back of your head.
It’s all good. We’re all fine. No one is upset about anything.
But I don’t like the way that Gant is looking at you, and you don’t like it very much either, do you?
This was true. Myra shook her head, almost imperceptibly, watching her fingers move over the yarn.
She thought about getting up to tell the matron that the voice was back, but Heloise was gone and it was a new matron, and Myra didn’t like her nearly so much. She smoked cigarettes, and that was definitely Sin.
Oh, god, what I wouldn’t do for a smoke right now…
The problem was that if she told a matron, they might ask what the voice had said, and then she’d have to tell them about Gant, and that was just more trouble than she wanted to get into. There was almost no way to come out of that conversation without being a bad girl.
It’s okay. We’re all calm, right? We’re all good. You’re good. I’m good.
The voice did sound much better. Perhaps it had decided to be a good voice.
Yep, that’s me. Turned over a new leaf. Very good.
Myra’s eyes strayed to Gant again. He was still watching her.
Tell you what, Myra, I can help you with Gant. I know all about men like him.
Pick up the knitting needles, Myra.
This did not sound good at all.
Work with me here, Myra. We’re not going to do anything bad, I promise. I don’t want to do anything bad.
That sounded promising, anyway.
You have to pick up the knitting needles. You’re a good girl, right? You wouldn’t do anything bad with them, right?
She picked them up.
Now, let’s see what Gant is doing…
Myra looked, and saw that Gant had finally walked away, and was talking to Sarah, on the other side of the lawn.
Good. Excellent. Now slide the needles up your sleeve…there we go.
“What if the matron asks where they went?” asked Myra, under her breath.
She won’t, because you’re going to go tell her you have a headache and you need to lie down.
This was a good plan. The voice sounded like it knew what it was doing. Myra got to her feet, and went to go tell someone she had a headache.
Myra slept through most of the afternoon. She didn’t really have a headache, but Yllsa had relapsed a bit last night, and no one had slept all that well as a result. It was pleasant to be excused from chores, and to scoot under the blankets and lie there for awhile.
The voice had one last order before she went down to dinner.
Put the knitting needles under the pillow, kid, and we’re off to see what slop it is tonight.
Myra bit her knuckle, amused.
What? It is slop. We ate better than this in the army.
There was a memory then, mostly a smell, of meat cooking, smoke, and a faint undertone of horse. A hot tin plate seemed to burn her fingers, and someone laughed.
This memory wasn’t nearly so alarming as the last one, and the food had smelled good. If the voice wanted to remember things like that, it was okay.
She went down to the refectory for dinner.
Everyone had to be in bed by the ninth hour. Slippers were laid out, prayers were said, blankets were pulled to chins. Caitlin always prayed too long, mumbling and twitching at the foot of her bed, and the matrons would have to come and prod her, not ungently, telling her that God would still be listening in the morning.
The lamps were extinguished.
There were rustles of cloth, and whispers for awhile. Someone got up to use a chamber pot.
Eventually, someone started snoring.
Myra was nearly asleep before the voice spoke again.
Now… it muttered, so quietly that Myra could barely make it out, to bait the trap…
C’mon, Myra! Up, up!
She opened her eyes. Moonlight streamed through the window. The iron bars made striped shadows across her blankets.
It was cold in the room, but it was warm under the blankets, where Myra was. She didn’t want to get up.
You want to get up. You want a drink of water.
Myra was pretty sure she didn’t want a drink of water.
Fine, then I want a drink of water.
Bossy voice. Myra sighed and got up, sliding her feet into her slippers.
Take the knitting needles, kid.
Myra wondered vaguely what use one could have for knitting needles on the way to get a drink of water, but she was too sleepy to ask.
We’ll knit a water cozy. Just grab them, will you?
She slid them up her sleeve again. The metal was cool against her skin, and they clinked almost imperceptibly when she let her arm drop.
Myra made her way along the row of iron bed frames. The shadows of the bars on the windows and the bars on the footboards cut the moonlight into thin slices at her feet. Her slippers were very quiet.
Someone rolled over in their sleep and sighed. At the far end of the room, Yllsa moaned into her pillow.
Myra got to the door and pushed it open. The corridor was lit with lamps, and light spilled past her into the dormitory. She slipped through, and pulled the door closed behind her.
The water jug was partway down the corridor, midway between Myra’s dormitory and the next. She trudged down the hall toward it. She could hear orderlies moving around, farther down the halls, and along the side corridors, but none of them took notice. You could get up in the night to get water, if you were a good girl, and nobody minded.
Myra reached the water jug, poured a drink into the little tin cup, and lifted it to her lips.
“Hello, Myra,” said Gant, behind her.
She squeaked and nearly dropped the cup.
Icy satisfaction seemed to radiate out from the cold spot in the back of her head. It frightened Myra, because there was nothing satisfying about this situation in the least.
Her stomach knotted. She turned around, very slowly.
Gant smiled at her. He was wearing a leather jacket over his grey orderly uniform. His lips were wet, and she didn’t like that smile at all.
Relax, Myra. I won’t let anything happen to you. It’ll be fine.
How could she relax? Gant was right there, and there were no matrons anywhere in sight, most of the matrons went home at night, the only person she might be able to find was Father Maxwell, but she didn’t know where he was.
Gant was still smiling. “I’ve seen you watching me a lot, Myra,” he said, very quietly. “I keep wondering what you’re thinking about.”
I just bet you do… hissed the voice.
Oh, god. Myra had to set the cup down because her fingers were shaking. What if the voice was working with Gant? It was a bad voice after all, and Gant wanted Sin, and maybe the voice wanted—
I’m a little offended, kid. I have standards. This wet-lipped little weasel isn’t fit to lick my boots.
“What’s the matter?” asked Gant softly. “Cat got your tongue?” He reached out and tilted her chin up with the edge of one finger. Myra’s skin crawled.
“N-no…” she stammered.
Doin’ good, Myra. Keep it up.
What could she possibly be doing right?
It’d take way too long to explain, kid…
“Can’t sleep, hmmm?” he asked.
Myra was perfectly willing to run back to the dorm and give sleep another try.
Tell him no. Tell him that Caitlin snores, the voice ordered.
“No,” she said, almost inaudibly. “Caitlin snores.”
Gant chuckled warmly. “Does she? I’m not surprised…” He reached down and took her hand. His palm was damp.
“Tell you what,” he said, smiling down at her, “we’ll go for a walk on the grounds. That’s just the thing to get you sleepy.”
The sense of cold satisfaction got even deeper and colder. Myra shivered.
“Come on.” Gant led her down the hallway.
She glanced around as they walked, looking for anyone who might help her. No one appeared.
They passed a guard, but he only lifted his head and watched them walk by. Gant nodded to him, and he nodded back.
Swear to god, this whole place needs to be put to the torch—
The voice choked itself off with difficulty. Myra shivered again. If the voice started getting frantic again—no, she needed the voice right now, it was the only thing keeping her together, or she’d fall in a puddle at Gant’s feet and cry, and that would be bad—
That would be very bad, yes. Don’t worry, kid, I’m here. I’m calm. It’ll be okay. I promise.
They reached the door to the outside.
He pulled a ring of keys out of his jacket and unlocked the door.
The door opened, and the night lay in front of her. Cold air rushed in and made her nightgown billow.
She tried, one last time, to save herself.
“I should go back to the dorm,” said Myra, almost inaudibly. “I’ll get in trouble.”
“You won’t get in trouble if you’re out with me,” said Gant, smiling.
She turned, desperately, to the voice in her head. It wasn’t a good thing to do, you were supposed to ignore the voices, but it hadn’t been frantic at all this time, except for a little right at the end. And the voice seemed to know what it was doing, and it didn’t like Gant either.
She was surprised when it said Go with him.
Do you have the knitting needles?
She could feel them inside her sleeve, the metal slowly warming.
Then go with him. Trust me.
It wasn’t ice cubes. It was a whole frozen lake back there, and something moved under the glittering surface, but the voice continued, calm and conversational and almost a little amused.
It’ll be okay. I won’t let anything happen to you.
Outnumbered, Myra surrendered, and followed Gant out onto the grounds.
The night was cold, the moon ringed with frost. The grass crunched under their feet as he led her away from the building.
The shadows under the trees were very long and very deep, much darker than the shadows of the barred windows inside.
“I’m cold,” said Myra meekly, hugging herself tightly.
Oh, good lord, aren’t we the perfect victim? I don’t know whether to retch or applaud.
Was the voice mad at her?
Not at all, you’re doin’ great. It’s just…painful to watch. Keep it up.
“I’m sure we can find some way to warm you up,” said Gant.
Saw that one comin’…
He opened his jacket and stepped toward her.
Myra took a step back, her eyes wide.
“Come on,” he said, still smiling, his eyes full of shadows, “I’m not going to hurt you…”
Not if I hurt you first, you bastard…
“Skinny little thing, aren’t you?” he purred, and took another quick step, and his hands closed over her hips.
Myra squeaked and tried to wriggle away, but Gant’s hands were very strong. “Come on, now, you said you were cold…”
The ice in her head was miles thick. Gonna be real cold where you’re going, buddy…
His fingers dug into her flesh.
Ohmygodohmygod That was Myra’s thought, there, red and frantic. Ohmygod—
Myra. The words in her head were outlined in frost. Myra. Myra, listen to me. Myra, you’ve got the knitting needles, get them out now. Do it now, Myra. Myra, do it.
You had to obey the orderlies, you had to, it was Sin not to, but this was Sin too, and what did she do, she couldn’t think, she had to do something—
Myra, get the goddamn needles!
She couldn’t think, she couldn’t do anything, what did she do—
Something happened in the back of her head. Myra had a sense of something uncoiling, a great dark presence flowing out of that icy lake, and her fingers closed on the knitting needles and Gant looked down into her eyes and…faltered.
Sorry kid, the voice murmured, as ice crystallized across her brain, but I really can’t allow us to die for this foolishness.
No, no, no, this wasn’t right, you couldn’t do this to the orderlies, this was terrible—
Her body was not her own. She seemed to be trapped behind a wall of ice, beating her fists against it and shrieking inside her head. Her body belonged to some much more decisive person, who flipped the knitting needles around in her hand and whipped her fist up and sank them both deep in Gant’s right eye.
The noise they made, and the sensation that jolted up her arm, of metal punching through bone and gristle and softer things, were the stuff of nightmares.
He shrieked and fell down, clawing at his face.
Something snapped inside her head.
Released from the ice wall, Myra staggered backwards, one step at a time, watching Gant move like a beetle with its shell crushed, in horrible jerks. He hands twitched dreadfully at the end of his arms, but he didn’t shriek again.
In a very short time, he stopped moving.
She might have continued backing up until she reached one of the walls around the Home, but a tree root turned up under her feet and she fell over backward.
One of her slippers came off.
Oooooh… The little voice didn’t sound so good. Ooooh, shit, that hurt a lot. Oh, sweet mother. I gotta sit down.
Under other circumstances, Myra might have found the idea that a voice in your head would have to sit down rather funny, but at the moment all she could see, over and over, was Gant’s mouth open in a shriek and the red ruin of his eye.
Oooh, motherfucker, I’m glad I didn’t know how bad that would hurt…
They sat in the grass together for awhile, the dead man and the girl and the voice in her head. It moaned, and it kept moaning for awhile, a lot longer than Gant had.
Okay, it said finally. It sounded hoarse. Okay, we gotta get moving.
Myra, stop that.
It had been such a horrible sound. It wasn’t a scream, like when Yllsa screamed at night. A scream might have been okay. This had been an awful throttled sound, like an animal being butchered.
Damnit, Myra, we don’t have time for this.
She’d killed an orderly. That was bad. That was clear beyond Sin and out the other side. What he’d wanted to do had been bad, Myra knew that, but her reaction had been much, much worse.
Oh, sure, let’s just lie down and let them kick us again—no. I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have said that. Myra, it’s okay. Listen to me. You need to calm down.
Myra balled her hands into fists and raised them toward her face. There was blood on one of them.
She made a thin cry of disgust and began wiping it furiously on the damp grass, over and over again.
Myra, listen to me.
The blood had mostly come off, and now it was damp little balls of grass and bits of dirt, but she kept wiping her hands, both of them, trying to get rid of not just the blood, but the memory of the jolt up her arm.
Damn, I am going to hate myself in the morning for this… The voice sighed, a breath of wind sliding off the icy lake. Myra! Calm down right this minute, or I’m going to count!
One, said the voice implacably.
She wiped her hands a final time on her nightgown and sat up. Her hands fell neatly into her lap.
“I’m okay,” she whispered.
There was a peculiar, almost painful tension in the back of her head, like suppressed tears, but the voice stayed steady. Good. I didn’t want to have to do that. Now, then. Can you get up and find your other slipper?
It was lying a few feet away. She put it on.
Now. We’re going to have to leave, Myra. Can you do that?
Hush! Keep your voice down!
Leave the Home? The voice was mad. The doctor had been right. You couldn’t leave the Home, certainly not alone, not in the middle of the night. Maybe on an errand, if you were a very good girl and the matrons trusted you, but you went in pairs, always, never alone.
Myra, calm down. You’re not alone. You’ve got me, right? That’s—err—two of us. And then, much more quietly, At least, I think that’s two of us.
She couldn’t leave, though. She’d killed Gant, and if you did Sin, you went and confessed it right away. Trying to hide Sin was almost as bad as doing it in the first place. The matrons were very clear on that, and the priest too. It was okay if you sinned sometimes, because no one was perfect, but you had to confess it immediately.
No. No, Myra, we’re going to…ah…we’re going to go get help for Gant.
Myra was pretty sure he was dead.
Well, yes. But do you know what a Threnodox magi is?
She had a vague idea. They were evil wizards or witch-men, or something. Part of the Threnodoxy, which was definitely evil all by itself. The Hierarchs had defeated them, or God had, in the form of Ethan Tyrael, which was the same thing. They were supposed to still be around, though. They hadn’t had anywhere else to go.
This was a very stupid thing for the voice to be asking about, in the middle of the night, on an icy lawn with a corpse a few feet away.
No, hear me out. I’ve been thinking about this, and I think it’s our best shot. They’re supposed to be the best healers in the world. I saw one heal a man once, and I would have sworn he was past anything human hands could fix. If we can find one, maybe he can help us.
“They can bring back dead people?”
Uh…yeah, sure, why not? If we can find one, and bring Gant back, then maybe no one will yell at us. And they’ll all know what a good girl you were, to bring back help like that.
Myra surrendered in the face of this superior logic. Bringing back dead people sounded vaguely sinful, but it probably wasn’t nearly as sinful as making them dead in the first place.
Good point. Now, we have to go find one. So, let’s get up—there’s my girl—and now…
The voice paused.
Okay, you’re not gonna like this part.
Myra hadn’t liked any of it so far.
We need Gant’s jacket.
Myra’s eyes traveled very slowly over the ground to where Gant lay, a limp form in the moonlight, like a drift of leaves.
She’d jammed a knitting needle in his eye, and now she was supposed to take his clothes?
You’re cold, right? So if we take the jacket, we won’t be. He won’t care, he’s dead.
Err, for the moment.
Myra thought she’d probably rather be cold.
You say that now, but it’s going to take a while to find the magi, and that’s a very nice jacket. He won’t mind. I’m sure if he knew that you were getting help for him, he’d want you to take it.
The logic of this was definitely on the shady side, but Myra had a horrible sinking feeling that she was already in too deep to back out.
She shuffled a few steps toward Gant.
What if he wasn’t dead?
Trust me, he’s dead.
What if he wasn’t? Myra’d never seen a dead body before. How could you tell?
I have, and I can tell. Of course, if you’d rather roll him over and check for a pulse…
Don’t worry, this won’t be that bad. He had it unbuttoned, thank god. Just pull your sleeves down over your hands—very good, yes—now grab the edge of that sleeve, and pull…
It was horrible. It was hard. Myra’d never had reason to consider how hard it was to get clothes off a corpse. The little voice was not at all helpful, since it kept saying things like Be glad he’s not stiff yet.
That was easy for it to say. She was the one having to do all the work.
She kept her eyes fixed on his feet. She didn’t want to risk seeing Gant’s face again, or the ruin of his right eye.
Once she’d gotten one arm off, the rest came easily enough. Tugging on the other sleeve rolled his body a little toward her, and then it came off.
Myra, I’m very proud of you. We’ve got you stripping bodies like a trooper. Now…
She had to sit down. She was going to be sick. She was sick, violently, in the grass not far from Gant’s head. Her stomach lurched and clenched like a fist.
Okay, I should probably have seen that coming. Sorry, kid. You did really, really well.
This was not particularly comforting. She cried into her hands.
And then there was another memory, coming up from that dark place in the back of her head. The smell came first, a faint scent of clean laundry and skin, and there was cool air on her face and warm arms around her. The person holding her was warm, and she could almost remember the even sound of their breathing.
It was not as good as having someone hold her while she cried, but it was at least a little like it.
After awhile, Myra sniffled and sat up. She was very cold, and the grass was wet.
The jacket’s right there, Myra. If you put it on, you won’t be so cold.
She closed her eyes and sighed.
“Who was that?” she asked softly. It might have been Sin, but it hadn’t felt like it. She knew it hadn’t happened at the Home—no one ever touched you at the Home, unless it was like Gant—but it had felt like something that had really happened, somewhere, to someone else.
Who was what?
“What we just remembered. There was somebody there…”
There was a long moment, while a few high clouds slipped across the face of the moon.
I can’t remember, said the little voice sadly. I think he’s dead. I’m sorry.
Myra sighed again. It was cold, inside and out.
She wanted to go back inside, where it was warm. But she’d killed Gant, and she’d taken his jacket, and if she didn’t make this right—no, she had to. You had to make things right. Crying and being cold and sick were just penance for having done Sin, that was all. She deserved it.
Uh, sure. Now, about that jacket…
She picked the jacket up. It was leather, and too big for her, and it was still faintly warm.
She tried not to think about that.
You’re doin’ good, kid. Now, let’s button that up, and head over to the wall…
The wall was stone, and it was higher than Myra’s head. It reared up across the lawn, and grass never grew in its shadow. Myra stepped into the shadows now, and shivered. It had been cold enough, but in the wall’s shadow, it was positively icy.
Sorry, Myra, can’t help that right now. You’re doing good. Now, let’s just keep going…
She followed the snaking line of the wall around the edge of the grounds. It didn’t take as long as she would have expected. Somehow she’d thought the Home was bigger.
Okay, kid, stop, that’s the gate up ahead.
Myra halted obediently in the shadows. Her teeth were chattering, and she rubbed her hands up and down her arms to keep warm.
The gates of the Home were large and ornate, made of iron, and very closed. A guard sat in a little brick house just inside, slouched against the back of his chair.
Damn! I was hoping he’d be asleep…
The guard looked depressingly awake.
“Maybe if we tell him what we’re doing, he’ll let us go through,” whispered Myra.
I have my doubts, Myra. Besides, there’d be a lot of explanations, and a lot of time wasted, and Gant would…err…keep getting deader.
Myra had not previously realized that there were more and less types of dead.
Sure. There’s…err…dead and deader and sort of dead and…uh…undead…
Look, this isn’t helping. Anyway, they can’t be bringing all the food that place needs to keep running through the main gates. Turn around, go back along the wall—careful, don’t want him to spot us—and let’s see if there’s a back entrance.
The gate here was two long wooden slats, nailed horizontally, and Myra could fit easily between them. Unfortunately, there was also another guard.
This one also had a little house, and he was sitting in his chair with his hands tucked into his armpits to keep him warm.
Myra could hear the little voice muttering to itself, very quietly.
Run? No, not in slippers…talk? Not the kid…Seduce him? Yeah, right…
After a moment, it said Okay, Myra, we’re going to have to wait for something to change.
“I’m cold,” whispered Myra.
I know, kid. We’re both cold. It won’t be much longer, and you’re doing very well. Everyone’s going to be impressed at what a brave girl you are.
Myra crouched down in the shadow of one of the pillars and watched the guard.
After what seemed like hours, the guard got up, walked out of the little house—Myra tensed—and then strolled around the other side. A moment later, there was a sound of liquid hitting leaves.
Ha! Go, Myra, now!
The wood caught at her nightgown and her hair and hissed against the leather jacket as she wiggled between the slats, but she was skinny and the gap was more than wide enough.
“Is someone there?” the guard called, but she was through and they were out of the Home and into the shadows of the street.
This is a really nice neighborhood, the voice observed.
“That’s good, right?” said Myra worriedly.
Not really. People tend to notice when people are out of place in a nice neighborhood, and we are very out of place.
There weren’t very many people out, and they both agreed that that was good. She’d already had to hide behind a shrub while some people walked by on the other side of the street, but fortunately, it was very late, and too cold for most people to be walking.
Myra would have been willing to trade the lack of people for warmer weather, or at least warmer clothes.
The jacket was good. Taking the jacket had been a very good idea, however horrible it had felt at the time. The rest of her clothes…well, it was a long nightgown, and normally very warm, but it just wasn’t made for this sort of thing. Cold air seemed to drift up from her feet, chilling her legs. Gant’s blood smeared down the front stuck disgustingly to her skin.
They turned down streets, and turned again. There were mansions on every corner, set far back from the road behind hedges and iron gates.
Funny, you’d never know the Home wasn’t just one more of these big houses. Isn’t that interesting?
Myra did not find this interesting. Myra was cold.
Sorry. If we keep following the main road here, we’re bound to get to a nastier part of town eventually. Head for the smell of the river.
It took hours. Myra’s slippers were not made for walking, but her feet were so cold she couldn’t feel the blisters.
She would have given up and gone back to the Home, except that she was no longer sure how to get back there.
It’ll be fine, Myra. We just have to find a magi, and it’ll be fine.
“Do you even know where to find one?” she snapped.
No, but we will.
Not as cold as Gant.
Myra bit her lip.
The houses got smaller, and closer together. The air began to smell less like grass and trees, and more like an open sewer. Myra wrinkled her nose. Her face was so cold, she could hardly feel herself do it.
Now we’re gettin’ somewhere…
Oil lamps hung outside buildings, casting warm yellow pools of light. There were more people on the street on this side of town, but they didn’t seem to be interested in her.
Keep your head down. Don’t make eye contact. Anyone out at this hour has business of their own, or is a copper, or is stinking drunk. The first kind won’t bother us, but the other two could be trouble.
Myra wouldn’t mind seeing a copper. They always said at the Home that if you somehow got lost, you should go and find a copper and tell them where you were supposed to be, and he’d help you.
Yeah…let’s not do that.
They kept walking.
She passed an alley, and someone threw a bottle at her feet. She jumped and scurried away, hearing a drunken voice yelling after her.
It’s okay, Myra, just some of the local color. Keep on going. You’re doing fine.
They passed a doorway, similar to a hundred other doorways, but the voice said, Stop here.
Myra looked up wearily. “Is this where the witch-man lives?”
No, but hopefully we can get directions.
She pulled open the door. The handle was very cold under her fingers, but warm, moist air spilled out, along with a smell of spilled beer and sawdust.
“This is a bar!” Myra hissed, quite shocked.
A mind like yours was wasted in an asylum.
“Bars are sinful!”
The good ones, yes. Please observe, however, that this is a reputable bar. The sawdust is relatively fresh, there are no drunks in the gutters immediately outside, and the sign’s been re-painted in the last year.
Now quit talking to yourself. I’m still not quite sure what I was, but I’m damn sure I was not a derelict who raved to herself on street corners. Let’s have a little dignity here.
Myra pressed her lips together and looked around the room. There was hardly anybody there, except for the bartender, who was looking at her dubiously.
“We’re closing,” he said, as she approached the bar.
Tell him you know that. Tell him you don’t want a drink, you just need some directions.
Myra repeated this dutifully.
The bartender frowned. He was nearly bald, but had an extravagant mustache. “Are you lost, ma’am? It’s awfully late to be wandering around…” His eyes moved down, taking in the nightgown and the ragged slippers.
We’re not lost. We’re looking for a Threnodox magi.
“A what–? A magi? At this hour? Honey, let me call you a carriage, have somebody take you home. Somebody’s got to be worried about you.”
Myra thought that probably a lot of people would be worried about her.
“I’m fine,” she said dully, in response to the internal prompting. “I just need to find a magi.”
His frown got even deeper, until his mustache looked like it was eating his chin.
No help for it, said the voice wearily. Myra—cry.
Cry. You know, sniffle, choke, tear up a little? You were doing fine earlier.
She couldn’t just cry on command.
The voice sighed. Ice seemed to swirl around it.
You just killed a man in a brutal fashion. You know, I think you’ve probably been quite a bad girl…
Myra couldn’t believe the voice was turning traitor like this. It had been the one who killed Gant, not her!
Nobody’s going to know that. Nobody’s going to believe you. You killed Gant, and now you’re in a bar, and only bad girls go into bars, and we know what happens to bad girls, don’t we—
Myra sniffled. Her face felt hot.
“Oh, no.” The bartender held up his hands. “Oh, no, don’t be turning on the water works—“
–such a bad girl, going outside with Gant, running away, going to bars, going to come to no good end at all—
A tear slid hotly down her cheek.
“Fine,” said the bartender wretchedly, “fine, it’s your business. I’ve heard there’s some kind of Threnodox witch-doctor down in the gutterside district. But you really can’t go down there, honey, they’ll eat you alive—“
Thank him, the voice ordered, smoothly cutting off its recriminations.
“Thank you,” snuffled Myra.
Okay, let’s get out of here.
The bartender watched her go, chewing on the ends of his mustache.
Once they were outside, and part of the way down the street, the voice said quietly You’re not a bad girl, Myra. I just said that so you’d cry.
“I know,” Myra said. She’d known even while the voice was saying it. It just hadn’t made it hurt any less.
Sorry. Desperate times…
“I don’t like you very much,” she whispered.
S’okay, said the voice glumly, sometimes I don’t like myself very much either.
Myra pulled herself together, and kept walking.
Myra was exhausted. They’d been walking for hours, and the voice kept pulling her off the street and into alleys and doorways, avoiding people. The voice seemed to think that there were a great many bad people in the world.
You don’t know the half of it, kid.
They’d finally made the gutterside district, which was not a nice place at all. There was trash piled up in the streets, and there were no sidewalks to avoid it. The storm drains were clogged with garbage and stank of dead rat.
She didn’t see a tree anywhere. The broad, manicured lawns of Home seemed very far away.
You’re doin’ good, Myra. I’m proud of you. You’re being very, very brave. Now, down this street, and let’s look…and all clear. Okay, here we go…
They crossed another street.
“Do you know where we’re going?” asked Myra wearily.
Now that we’re in gutterside? Not at all. We’ll need to get more directions. Look for a whore.
Myra was mildly surprised that she could still be shocked anymore. She—actually, she hadn’t really believed whores existed. She’d thought they were a mythical monster, something only mentioned in sermons, like incubi and sodomites.
The voice made a truly indescribable sound in the back of her head.
If whores were real, then they were definitely Sin, and Myra wanted nothing to do with them.
Oh, relax. We’re going to ask directions, not ask her for a—look, nevermind. We don’t have the money for it anyway.
Myra kept walking.
Look for oil lamps. It’s too damn cold for the whores to be out, but some of them probably are anyway.
They kept walking.
Finally, they turned down a street, choked with trash on every side, and there was a woman slouched against the wall, under the light of a single guttering oil lamp.
The woman looked as tired as Myra felt. She had dark circles under her eyes, and she had rags wrapped around her feet.
“Get yer own corner,” she growled, as Myra approached.
This was such a nonsensical statement that Myra didn’t know what to say in reply.
“I don’t want your corner,” she said slowly, listening to the instructions from the back of her head. “I’m…uh…not working.”
“’Kay then.” The woman shrugged.
Tell her we’re looking for a—
“I’m looking for a Threnodox,” she said mechanically.
The woman grinned. She was missing several teeth. “Ain’t we all?”
Heh heh heh. Tell her we’re looking for a magi.
Myra wondered if they were speaking in some kind of strange code that she didn’t understand. “A magi,” she said dutifully.
“A mag—oh! You want the doctor. Mister Scarn.”
That sounds promising. Tell her yes.
“Yes,” said Myra. She felt very far away. Maybe this wasn’t really happening at all. Maybe she was having a nightmare.
Don’t pass out on me now, kid, we’re almost there.
The whore eyed her up and down. “Wouldn’t think it to look at you, heh heh.”
Myra said nothing.
The woman smiled conspiratorially and reached out to pat her shoulder. There were rags around her hands, too, and her fingernails were yellowed. “S’okay, hon, happens to all of us sooner or later. Mister Scarn’ll fix you right up.”
Your guess is as good as mine. Ask her where the shop is.
The woman gave her directions. Myra thanked her, and shuffled off again.
Only a couple more blocks, kid. You’re doin’ fabulous. I’m sure the magi’ll fix us right up.
God willing, he’s got something to drink, too…
The sign said “Scarn’s Remedies and Cure-alls.” There was a grimy shop window full of bottles. Myra pressed her nose against it and read a few of the labels by the flickering glow of the oil lamp.
“No. #34 Patent Remedy! Guaranteed to relieve most ailments of a delicate condition! Just paint on and watch sores disappear—like magic!”
Oh, dear lord…
“No. #81 Tea! Unfortunate burning got you sweating? No. #81 puts out the fire!”
This is our great hope? A Threnodox magi, and he’s selling cures for the clap?
A sign down in one corner said “Discreet Consultations – By Appointment.”
Shit, I am so doomed.
“You shouldn’t say that word…” said Myra tiredly.
Sorry, said the voice wearily. It’s been a long night.
Myra chewed on a knuckle.
After a minute, very quietly, she asked “What’s the clap?”
If ice could give an embarrassed cough, it would have sounded a little like that. Heh. Ah—you know, never mind. Ask me sometime when we’re not standing around in a bloody nightgown in the middle of the street.
“Is it Sin?”
Close enough. Let’s try the door, shall we?
The inside of the shop was dark, and Myra didn’t expect the door to be unlocked, but she put her hand to the latch dutifully anyway. It rattled, but didn’t open. The voice sighed.
Okay, kid, you’re doing great. Now, listen close, and we’re going to learn to pick a lock…
Myra frowned. Breaking into a shop? That was Sin, definitely. Even if you didn’t take anything, you didn’t go through locked doors. Doors were locked for a reason. There were many locked doors in the Home, and only very bad girls would try to open them.
Damnit, kid, if you say one more goddamn word about sin, swear to god I’m going to—
There was a brief silence inside her head, the silence of someone who is absolutely, positively, not going to lose their temper. It was a worrisome silence. Ice creaked under it.
The voice said, very carefully, Okay. We’re both tired, that’s all. We’ll just have to knock, then, and hope that he’s a night owl.
Knocking Myra understood. Knocking was alright. You could knock on a locked door, and if someone opened it, that was okay.
Then knock please, Myra?
She lifted her hand to the door.
Scarn couldn’t believe someone was knocking at this time of night. It was maybe an hour or two to dawn, at most.
Admittedly, he’d only just sat down on the bed, and he still had his pants and his boots on, but it had been a late night even by his standards. The last solution had taken hours longer than it should have, and he would have given it up as a bad job, except that it had taken so long to get to that point, he had to see the whole process through to the end. He was exhausted and seeing nearly double by the time things had finally combined, bubbled, turned clear, and coughed up a fine white precipitate.
To most people, this wouldn’t have been particularly interesting, but for a certain segment of the population that had been noticing a distinct burning in parts south, that precipitate was worth its weight in diamonds.
That was his excuse, though. What possible excuse could anyone else have for banging on his door at this hour?
Scarn ran a hand through his hair and suppressed a groan. The bed creaked.
They must be hoping to mug him. It was a stupid way to go about it, but perhaps they were worried about the wards on the shop, and they were hoping that if he came down and opened the door, that would give them an opening.
He thought about just letting them bang on the door until they gave up and went away.
The knocking came again.
No. Threnodox warriors did not shun battle when it came to them, even tired, middle-aged ones who had been up half the night hunched over test tubes.
He reached out and picked up the leather-wrapped pipe he kept leaning against the night stand for just such incidents. His eyes lifted briefly to the scabbard slung across the foot of his bed, but no. Street scum didn’t deserve the blade.
Bugger if he was putting his shirt back on just to beat someone up, though.
Pipe in hand, Scarn stomped down the stairs. They creaked underfoot, and the knocking redoubled.
“I’m coming, I’m coming…”
He set a hand on the doorknob, his wyrdsight picking up the wards strung about the door like bits of brightly colored string. Scarn raised a hand to them, and they drew back, whispering. They knew their master.
Gods of my ancestors, grant me strength in battle and a glorious death—
He tightened his grip on the pipe and swung the door open.
A woman was standing there. She was wearing what looked like a leather jacket over a shredded and bloody nightgown, and a single slipper.
It was a sad commentary on Scarn’s life, but she wasn’t the most tragic thing to fetch up on his doorstep in the middle of the night. She might not even be in the top five.
She looked at him with a curiously slack expression. One hand, which had been raised to knock, dropped.
Scarn looked at the lead pipe in his hand, looked at her, and snorted explosively.
Thanks, gods of my ancestors. I get all worked up for a fight, and it’s a lost hooker.
“If you’re a prostitute looking to make your quota, I’m not interested.”
She frowned at him, still oddly slack. Her lips moved when she frowned, but the rest of her face didn’t seem to.
Scarn lowered the lead pipe a few inches. This was ridiculous. Was she the front for a team of burglars? If so, it was a very strange front. On the other hand, he hadn’t slammed the door in her face yet, so maybe it was an effective tactic, but—no. Too bizarre. Prostitute, almost certainly.
“She said that you could help,” she said, her voice very soft.
Ah. Definitely a prostitute, but in search of something other than business. Scarn sighed.
“If you want to buy a cheap cure for some unspeakable social disease, come back tomorrow. I don’t start saving the world, one hooker at a time, until after eleven in the morning.”
She frowned that odd, slack frown again. Scarn wondered if there was something wrong with her besides just the clap.
Oh, lord, probably another abortion. He had no great qualms about giving them, and it was an easy enough process—find the little web with wyrdsight and snap a few links, hand them a mug of Tea No. 17, and the rest took care of itself—but the ones that came in looking like this always left like ghosts, and they never came back for a follow-up. He hadn’t trained in the halls of the Mater Megatherium just to send girls out to bleed to death in alleys, and the gods knew, he couldn’t handle this tonight.
“If you’re looking to rid yourself of an unexpected development, again, come back tomorrow.”
Her lips moved, but no words came out. She looked utterly baffled.
There’s definitely something wrong with this one. The way she wears her face isn’t normal.
Scarn had owned a shop in the gutterside district for almost four years now—the war had ended, the Threnodoxy had lost, and you had to live somehow—and he knew better than to try and save anyone any more. But by god, if I meet the pimp who’s sending this obviously retarded girl out on the streets, I’ll bash the bastard’s brains in.
“She said you’d help…?”
He set the lead pipe down. It was too late for this, and being tired always made him snappish.
“My dear girl, I am exhausted and I have better things to do than to try and figure out what you want at this unholy hour. Whatever trouble you’re in, whatever itchy misfortunes are plaguing your nether regions, I assure you, another eight hours will not make a difference.”
He moved to shut the door.
She caught it.
He tried again. “Come. Back. Later.”
A line formed slowly between her eyes. Her lips parted.
“She says…you’re a real smartass, mister.”
Scarn’s eyebrows shot up.
“She says…she’s an old enemy of the Threnodoxy, and you should let us in.”