The words were barely out of my mouth when the rabbit Briar Girl held leaped from her arms. By the time it hit the ground, it was ten times the size. A wolf, almost as large as a horse, but with feathers instead of fur. The patterns, length, and direction of the feathers were reminiscent of flames curling in the air.
Rather than the wolf’s ferocious snarl, however, the demeanor was more fitting for a bird of prey or a reptile. Cold, still, and emotionless.
When I looked at the individual details, they weren’t fitting, either. The wolf’s claws were more like talons. The teeth too narrow and clean to belong to a real wolf.
“Saying that was a mistake,” the Briar Girl said. “My companion thinks we should kill you now.”
“Let’s talk it out first, and then we can mutually decide one way or the other,” I said.
She looked at her familiar, and then seemed to come to a decision. “Perhaps.”
“Behaim is the local powerhouse, with the Duchamps not far behind. You, Johannes, Maggie and I, maybe even Mara, we’re stuck on the fringes. Conservation of ninjitsu isn’t in effect here. Those families are big. Lots of practitioners, who’ve grown up into power, who have been handed everything they have. They’re scary. A fucking kid, half my age, give or take a couple years, tried to off me, just yesterday. I get it, if you’re too scared to go up against them.”
The Briar Girl smiled. “You’re so transparent. Appealing to my pride? I have little. Look at me. I forage in the snow for edible plants. I hunt for my food, and I clean it myself.”
She thrust her hands at me.
“With these hands, I’ve cleaned a deer. Hung it, bled it, removed its hide. I washed the shit from its guts with my hands and freezing water from a creek, so I could use them.”
She gestured towards the bird-mask things.
“For the feorgbold, I had to dig up and barter for the corpses no one would claim. I walked from here to Toronto and back, a full day and night to get there, longer to get back, dragging the body in a suitcase behind me. I purified them, I washed them utterly clean, I decorated them with care, and I gave of myself to bring them forth. Are you so power hungry that you imagine all of us are itching to depose the current powers?”
I didn’t really have a response to that.
Rose did. “More accurate to say every practitioner we’ve seen has been power hungry. Laird may have misled us on that front.”
“You’re bargaining from a position of stupidity. Ignorance. That does not bode well for you, Thorburns.”
“Thorburns, plural?” I asked.
“I know who she is.”
“How?” Rose asked, without hesitation.
For an instant, I thought maybe she’d given it away. Then I remembered that the Briar Girl couldn’t lie. That was one obvious trick from the playbook that didn’t work in this world.
“I live here?” Briar Girl asked. “In these woods. I’ve watched the Thorburn family for almost six years. Hoping, waiting. I can see the ties that bind you to the house. If you are not one of the Thorburns, you’re of the Thorburns.”
“I’m guessing she can probably smell it on you, too,” I said.
The Briar Girl smiled again. I noticed her teeth weren’t stellar, and there might have been one missing among the back molars. “Now it’s my turn to ask how you might know that.”
“If I were living in the woods, hunting and foraging for my food, probably selling what I could to buy creature comforts like clothes, I might try to wrangle the same thing,” I said. “I can’t help but notice the cold doesn’t bother you, either, so you’re doing some things to make life easier for you.”
Not to mention that your familiar might demand something along those lines. I glanced at the thing, and it huffed hot breath into the air, where it fogged around the snout and the intense yellow bird’s eyes.
If I didn’t have experience through Rose, I might not have even considered that the hot breath was purely for show. A spirit didn’t need to breathe any more than a vestige did.
“I’ve made a good few changes,” the Briar Girl said. Her attention flickered to her familiar, as well. “Not enough, it seems.”
“Your… partner, wants you to be stronger?” I asked.
“You’re back to discussing power,” Briar Girl said. She spread her arms. “Look at me, Thorburn. I gave up my power for this. What are you going to tell me that might change my mind?”
I don’t know, but I’d better figure it out before you decide to have me torn limb from limb.
“What’s ‘this’?” Rose asked. “What did you give your power up for?”
“A place in the world,” Briar Girl said. “This place, specifically.”
“Why this place?” Rose asked.
“Because this is where my friends are. When I left civilization, I came here first, and this is my home, this is where they are.”
“What if we moved them?” I asked. “Hypothetically. Would you and I be able to get along?”
“Try it. Try to move every spirit, elemental and Other to another forest. I would like to see it.”
Rose said, “To move the spirits, you’d have to move every single one of the trees and animals here, that the spirits are attached to. You’d lose ground if the animals returned to their old habitats or if trees started sprouting from the ground. I don’t even know you’d begin to move the elementals. You’d probably have to bargain with the Others on a one-on-one basis… it would be a lifetime of work, if it was even possible.”
“The voice is clever,” Briar Girl said. “And she’s right.”
“Would it help?” I asked. “You seem poised to treat us as enemies so long as we own this land. Would we be able to get along if this wasn’t an issue?”
“No,” Briar Girl said.
“Your kind is dangerous. Even you… you stink of something foul. I can smell it and they can smell it.”
“When I’ve barely interacted with anything?” I asked.
“Yeah,” Briar Girl said. “Can’t you see it? The animals don’t like you.”
I looked over the crowd of spirits that had surrounded me. The animal spirits… they were bristling, alternately retreating and advancing, trying to look aggressive. Their snarls were small, barely audible, but constant.
“Once upon a time, when humans weren’t much more than animals, we relied on our dogs to scare off the Others who wanted to prey on us and do mischief. Cats hunted and fought with the lesser Goblins, returning to owners with torn ears or small injuries. They still have those instincts. To destroy things of darkness, foulness and blight, before rot can set in.”
“Rot?” I asked.
“The way I was told it,” Briar Girl said, “Many of the worst of them were architects. Call them spirits, or divine servants of the god or gods who put the world together, or lesser gods. Doesn’t matter. They put things together. Stars in the sky, mountains, oceans, they gathered the animals and gave them the instincts that each species would pass on to others of their kind, and to the species that came about, later on. But things reached a certain mass, and a counterweight was needed.”
“Some of these builders switched roles,” Rose said. “Doing the inverse of what they’d done before.”
“Like the one the lawyer mentioned to us,” I said. “Put the stars in the sky, now calls them down.”
“Meteor showers or something,” Rose said.
“Meteors?” Briar Girl asked. “No. The stars are sources of light and energy. A being like you describe would be powerful. A leader of others of its kind. Meteors? With one action, he might bring fiery death down on your enemies, but the world would pay a cost. Every light humanity uses might be dimmer. Every source of fuel and energy might be a fraction less effective. Food, fuel, electricity.”
“People would notice,” I said.
“Never when they were looking,” she said. “No. A general or a duke, whatever he might be, this being you speak of, he should be a commander. Imps, you might call them. If he brought a darkness to the world, he would do it by scattering imps across the world. These imps would work as spirits do, but with intelligence. Ensuring that a flashlight grew dim when it might reveal a murderer or rabid animal. That a car ran out of gas where it might carry a sick man to a hospital, spelling his death. One action on your part, fire and devastation, but you never see what comes out of it. Hundreds of incidents a year, for decades or a century, before the imps are dealt with or spent of their power.”
“The rot sets in, so to speak,” Rose said. “Humanity fights back, maybe unknowingly, by having dogs beside us, or good luck charms, or other things.”
“Which is why your kind is dangerous,” Briar Girl said.
“The books went into some detail about the origins you just talked about,” Rose said. “They also said that particular story was disproved.”
The Briar Girl shrugged. “It’s what I was taught.”
“And some of the things that are in the books aren’t devils and demons, or anything that devours the world. Some are particularly nasty goblins, or other things we don’t have labels for.”
Another shrug. “Close enough. It’s about taint, about rot. Once those things get hooks in the world, the world starts coming apart at the seams.””
I frowned. “Says the girl who takes homeless people’s bodies and turns them into…”
“Feorgbold, life vessels,” the Briar Girl said. “Recycling. Death, consumption and rebirth are parts of the cycle of nature. Some of my favorite parts. I could do what I do a hundred thousand times over, and there would still be balance. Your things, they are not balanced, not in any way we want to deal with. Never simple death, but oblivion, annihilation. Helping the universe to reach zero, with screams, darkness and pain every step of the way.”
The nature spirit bristled.
“Which is why,” Briar Girl added, as if she were translating, “You should give me this territory. If someone will use it to give them a foothold, don’t give them the chance. Give it away, at least the parts you haven’t already tainted by association. Curl up into a ball, make yourself insignificant, and don’t touch a thing.”
“Laird said something similar.”
“Laird isn’t wrong,” Briar Girl told me.
I frowned. “Those aren’t words I want to hear out of anyone’s mouth. Negotiation has to be possible between us, or you wouldn’t have agreed to hear us out.”
“Agree to give me the territory, and I won’t kill you right now. There. Negotiations done.”
“You know it’s not that simple. I’ve already gone into why. I don’t own the property yet.”
“You want flexibility from us, you flex on that,” the Briar Girl said. “We can start with you signing an oath by bloodline. If you die, one of your line gives me territory here.”
“That’s asking for a lot,” Rose said. “I don’t think anyone is pretending Blake is long for this world. Giving you a guarantee? Or as close to a guarantee as you can hope for? That’s big. Making a promise that might not get fulfilled, one that could easily be beyond our power to fulfill? That’s bad karma we’re taking unto ourselves and giving to our family. Not to mention the biggest thing, which is that we’re removing any incentive for you to help keep Blake alive.”
“I’m pretending I’m long for this world,” I protested.
“We need guarantees,” the Briar Girl said, “If we’re going to put ourselves out in the open and risk retaliation from Laird.”
“Okay,” Rose said. “Let’s turn this around. Blake, tell her what you want.”
I could see what Rose was doing. I silently approved.
“I want a helping hand,” I said. “Some specific knowledge, some power. You’re at no risk, and it shouldn’t really point back to you, so long as we cover our tracks.”
“What knowledge? What power?”
“To start with,” I said, “perhaps some information about the bonds between Others and practitioners. Controlling it, using it. You have a close connection to your familiar. I’d like to use your expertise and example to prevent dangerous connections to Others.”
“Ah. Keeping the rot out?”
“Among other things,” I said.
The Briar Girl was an example, to be sure, but she was a bad example. I wanted to figure out what not to do, among other things. Like I’d told Rose, I believed the Briar Girl might have some sort of information we could use. Information that might be invaluable, if Rose was infecting me somehow, taking me over or transforming me.
By phrasing it this way, I hoped to make it hard for her to refuse without admitting weakness.
“What else, Blake? Let’s lay it all on the table,” Rose said.
“I’d want some tricks, and I don’t see myself making these Feogrund things.”
“Feorgbold,” the Briar Girl said.
“The Vessels,” I corrected myself. “But a lesson or two, or a gift I could use more than a few times, I think that’s S.O.P. for practitioner dealings?”
“It’s how most have traditionally gathered knowledge,” the Briar Girl said. “Apprenticeship, servitude, favors, or being born into the right family.”
“Gotcha,” I said. “We already talked about you changing yourself, but I’m leery of that. I don’t want to weaken myself if some rot sets in and starts changing me.”
Or if this change with the tattoos continues.
“Depending on the effort you put in,” she said, “It could make you stronger. Learn to control your body’s shape, and you can flex that muscle when something else tries to.”
“That so?” I asked. “Thanks for the info. It could weaken me, too, I presume?”
“Anything could,” the Briar Girl responded. “It looks like something or a lot of somethings already have.”
“It’s been a rough few days,” I admitted.
“My partner thinks we should let you die, or help you along on your journey,” the Briar Girl said. “No deal is going to see fruition, when you’re this weak. You have very little power, for the most recent member of a very long, very learned lineage.”
It kept coming back to that.
“The ones who come after me aren’t going to be any better,” I said. “Do you want to know why? Let me think. What was the order? Kathy was next.”
“Kathy’s the oldest of the possible heirs. She’s hard as nails, mean, ruthless and greedy. A chef in a restaurant, ex-businesswoman, a parent of one, best described as a ‘mother bear’, with helicopter tendencies,” Rose said.
“That’s pretty much it,” I said.
“I don’t see the problem,” the Briar Girl said.
“If she were here instead of me,” I said. “I think the home would have been turned over to the lawyers already, or she would have struck some deal to try and return to her everyday life. The only way it wouldn’t work out that way would be if my grandmother put some measures in place to twist her arm. In which case she’d be stubborn, mean, and she’d never give up the territory.”
“I agree,” Rose said. “I know her better than Blake does, and it’s true. Briar Girl, if you got five words out of Kathryn that weren’t insults, I’d be surprised.”
I waited. Let the Briar Girl sit on that.
“So we kill her before she gets a chance to sell the place. Move on to the next.”
She was so casual about it. She’d raised her hand to vote for Maggie’s execution, hadn’t she?
“Probably,” I said. “Which brings us to…”
“Ellie,” Rose said.
“Career criminal, and not in an impressive way. Never worked a day in her life, she was staking everything on getting the house, I figure, because it was the only way she’d be able to get by. Zero impulse control, hates everyone, especially those who give any clue they’re smarter or better than her, which winds up being pretty much everyone,” I said. “Not because she’s dumb, but because she interprets anything as an attack.”
“She’s not dumb,” Rose said. “I remember her getting up to an awful lot. Surviving on schemes, jobs. There’s a certain cunning that comes with living the life she’s lived.”
“Right,” I said. “But I don’t know if she’d need a good excuse to send demons after people. She’d need any excuse, even one she made up.”
“She’d be one of the scary kinds of diabolists you hear about,” Rose said. “Bringing us to Roxanne…”
“I actually don’t know her that well,” I said. “Only that she’s spoiled, she’s twelve or so, and comes with all of the problems that entails.”
“When Callan’s girlfriend wound up in her classroom as part of getting her teaching certificate, Roxanne made accusations that ended the woman’s career,” Rose said. “No telling if her mom and dad put her up to it, but she doesn’t strike me as the moral and conscientious character who’d be polite and reasonable in dealing with devils, or neighbors.”
I could only imagine Rose’s face in the mirror that hung around my neck, giving the Briar Girl a pointed look.
“My sister,” I said. “Is two. Good luck with that. You want to wait for access to the territory so you can get the Demesne? Waiting for Ivy could mean a seventeen year wait, if not longer.”
“And Paige would be your last chance,” Rose said.
“Another amoral person, to help me build a picture of who you are?” the Briar Girl asked. “All set to call demons into this town on a whim?”
“No,” I said. “She was my friend, I respect and trust her. And I honestly think you’d have a harder time negotiating with her than you would with me. She’d see the long line of deaths that preceded her, and she’d play it smarter than I could, I think. I don’t think she’d give you anything, especially when you tried to kill me.”
“But you’ll cooperate with me?”
“I’m not in a position to hold grudges,” I said. “I meant what I said. I want to remove Laird and the Duchamps from their positions of power. I want to hit them in their powerbase, I want to scare them, I want them to suffer for Molly’s death. I’ll hurt them physically, if I have to.”
“That doesn’t matter to me,” the Briar Girl said.
“What if, theoretically, I could remove them from power, and I could move away? If I could shift my powerbase to another location. I could try and see if it’s possible to move the house or the essential contents to another location.”
I could see the interest, even as she tried to hide it. “Not possible.”
“Who knows?” I asked. “Let’s open negotiations with that. You agree to help me against Laird, I agree to take the time to verify whether it’s possible to move away. It’s information you want, and it’s something you could use against any of the ones who come after me. Trick them, deal with them, whatever.”
“I let you walk away alive, you agree to take the time to investigate,” the Briar Girl said.
“I walk away alive and unharmed,” I clarified.
“With no deleterious magics, workings or malfeasance at play,” Rose added. “We leave freely and unaccompanied, unmolested in body, mind, possession or emotion.”
The Briar Girl thought, then nodded.
“Deal,” I said.
“Deal,” she said.
I felt a wave of relief. With those simple words of agreement between us, the Others seemed to react, dropping away from the vantage points where they’d been poised to attack me.
“Give me some tools or knowledge I might use,” I said, “Instructions on how to perform shapechanging, or give me a power source, and I’ll cede you this square of territory right here, if and when I’m able.”
“Double the size,” the Briar Girl said. “And promise to double it again if Laird discovers my involvement. I don’t want any trouble from him. He’s a bastard.”
“If he discovers your involvement and it’s because I made a mistake,” I say. “Nothing from you.”
“Or yours,” Rose added, quickly. “No summoning or orders to a minion to tell him so he finds out.
“Nothing from me or mine,” the Briar Girl said, frowning a little.
She was totally planning something like that.
“And if you can’t give me the territory?” she asked.
“I’d promise a good faith effort to give some other form of repayment for the gift,” I said.
“There’s only one form of payment I want,” she answered me.
“Take it or leave it,” I said. “This is the closest you’ve gotten in a long time, I’m betting.”
She considered, then looked at her familiar. “Okay.”
“Okay,” I said. “So… what can you give me?”
“Before we get into that, I want to suggest something else,” the Briar Girl said.
“What?” I asked.
“In exchange for me not alerting Laird about what you’re planning… double the territory, to start with.”
I stared at her. She smiled, her teeth just slightly yellow, strands of hair having escaped her hood to brush against her face. In that instant, she looked more animal than her familiar.
I didn’t have a ready answer to that. I was already short on bargaining chips.
“What do you think, Rose?” I asked.
“I’m thinking about Demesnes, the book. The rules. Since it’s related to what the Briar Girl wants.”
I thought about the book, my mind running through everything it had said.
“We should claim the forest,” Rose said. “Or part of it.”
I could see the Briar Girl visibly tensing. The familiar bristled.
No rush. We’d been promised safety. I allowed myself a smile. “We could take something smack dab in the middle of it. Once it’s taken, it’s taken, right? You can’t have something for your demesnes if someone else has already claimed that ground.”
“It’s the most convenient location. Close to the house. Secluded…
Briar Girl’s familiar growled.
“If you keep talking like that, there won’t ever be another negotiation between us,” the Briar Girl said.
The words had a power to them. It was damn close to being an oath. It was a statement.
I shut my mouth, stood straight, and waited.
It was good to let the idea hang there, terrifying to her, a way to interrupt her plans. We could take a part of her territory from her forever.
The wait extended. I could see the Briar Girl shifting her weight. Periodically glancing at her familiar. No doubt communicating by some means.
“Agree to rescind the threat,” she said, “and I won’t tell Laird.”
“Excellent,” I said. “Deal. It’s good to do these things in threes, isn’t it? Makes it more powerful?”
“Close enough. So I’ve got to teach you to change your form.”
“Yes,” I said.
“Get the still-warm blood of an animal, as much as possible. Strip yourself of all clothes. Douse yourself, slowly, to allow yourself to feel the power instead of having your wits dashed from you. Put power into the parts of it you want to keep. Gorge the spirit, and draw the spirit into you. Fail to exert enough will and focus, and the power inherent in the blood will bleed over into other parts of you, you might physically change, you might experience other side effects, or your mind might slip away until it fades. If you don’t exert enough power, you’ll get far less effect for what you have spent. With practice, you learn how much to put in, and where your attention needs to go.”
That was… somewhat more perfunctory than I’d expected.
“Where do I draw the power from?” I asked.
“There are hundreds of possibilities.”
“How do I apply it to the shapechanging rite?” I asked.
“Depends on where you draw the power from,” she said.
“Can you give me an example?” I asked.
“Yes,” she answered, “But I’ll demand other things before I do.”
Meaning she considered her end of the bargain met. She’d told me what to do. Given me instructions.
“That’s unsporting,” Rose said.
“No,” I said. “Nevermind that. Look, Briar Girl…”
I pulled off my glove. I held up my hand, showing her the locket.
I could feel the attention the locket got. As the eyes of a number of Others and the Briar Girl fell on it, the hair extended, winding around the chain and pulling it tighter.
It’s fragile, I reminded myself.
“Can you at least tell me if I power it with glamour?” I asked.
She frowned a little. “Glamour isn’t the province of humans. It must be freely given. It is too fragile to handle otherwise. Too personal to each Faerie.”
“That so?” I asked. “Huh.”
“Who gave it to you? The only unbound Faerie here are the exiles.”
“Answer my question first. Can I use it?”
She frowned. “Give me the power, and I’ll give you another power source.”
“I’m partial enough to this that I can’t see myself giving it away,” I said. “Answer my questions, I’ll answer yours. Otherwise, I think I’ll be leaving to go plan against Laird.”
“Yes, you can use it to power the shaping, but you shouldn’t.”
“Why not?” I asked, momentarily concerned.
“If you want to change your form, using the glamour itself is enough. More flexible. More fragile, but I don’t see you fighting each and every member of Laird’s family, and if you’re in a position to have a glamour broken, you’re also in a position to have your shape stolen from you, leaving you in your ordinary form, helpless and naked. I would use glamour by itself, in your shoes.”
“I don’t have much of the glamour,” I said. “It grows, but not fast.”
It’s growing now, though.
“Use all you can. Layer it on thick. Render it into a form you can handle, dilute it, powder or paint yourself with it, mold yourself, and avoid letting that mold break. It’ll wear over time, as it’s challenged. Every doubt is a crack, and you can repair the cracks with power. Good illusionists can wear the same glamour for years, if they attach it to some power source. Some never change their clothes, only changing the glamour.”
I made a mental note of that.
“Who gave it to you?”
“It was fairly taken, after a duel.”
“What would it take for you to give the original piece to me?”
“I want to ask a question, before I answer that. What are the limitations?”
“There are few. My teacher told me many Faerie take refuge in audacity. Keep the rules of the change simple, without too many twists and turns, and you can paint any sort of picture. Your power and the glamour’s power is only truly expended if the glamour breaks. Cracks, frays, fades, peels, or breaks entirely. You’re deceiving reality, and reality can only make you pay for the sheer difference in forms when it finds out.”
“Okay,” I said. “That sounds far more workable. Can someone look at the connections, break it that way?”
“Not if you’re careful to mold those as well.”
“Okay. Opposite question, then. What if I deceive reality too well?”
“You don’t. You leave a tell. A key, if you will. Something deliberately wrong, often something that calls back to you, specifically. Anyone who notices it will see through the glamour, but you can notice it to do the same.”
“Eyes the wrong color, or you’re flipped left to right, like an image in a mirror, or you keep an old scar.”
I nodded. “To answer your question, it would take a hell of a lot for me to hand this over, but ask me later, and we could maybe negotiate. I have ideas on what I want to do with it, right now. That is, assuming we can negotiate in the future?”
“Don’t threaten me, and it’s possible,” the Briar Girl said.
“Excellent,” I said. But no promises. “On the subject of questions and answers… can I ask who or what your teacher was?”
There was a reaction to that. Surprise. Annoyance.
“No,” she said.
“Okay,” I said. “Do you have another question you’d like to ask?”
“None that I’d be willing to exchange an answer for. We’re done,” she said. She waved her hand, and the remaining Others began leaving. She paused. “I hope you fail. But I hope you don’t fail so badly you die.”
“Thank you,” I said. “I’m going to aim for one of those two.”
She frowned a little, but she walked off. I turned to trudge through the deep snow to get back to the house, pulling my glove back on.
When we were well out of earshot, I groaned. “I can’t believe I washed that ink off my hands.”
“You didn’t know what to do with it. It could have been dangerous.”
“But it was useful. Fuck me, I left the mortar and pestle sitting on the bottom of the sink while I washed my hands, I rinsed away the remaining ink. I could have used that. Maybe done my hands.”
“Why? What are you thinking? And please don’t make this one of those things where you only explain things at the last second, in general terms, and leave it up to me to say yes or no.”
“I’ve only done that once, haven’t I?”
“Just now, you mean? Or when you were dealing with the bird-skulls and you threw the stone onto the ice? Or when you went up to the front of the church and announced your deals?”
“Damn it,” I said.
“Given the state you’re in, I’m betting you want to swear you won’t do it again. Don’t. But keep it in mind, especially if something comes up, and the tables are turned?”
“I think I could do that,” I said, speaking slowly and carefully. “Why do I feel like you already know what that something is?”
“Because I do.”
“That’s ominous,” I said.
“How does it feel, Blake? Not fun, is it?”
“When I do it, it’s not intentional,” I said.
“This was. But we’re aiming to trust each other more, and this is one step in that. It’s something we need to test, and that test might distract from whatever you’ve got going on in your head right now.”
“It might,” I said.
“So let’s hammer this out, first. No more sudden announcements about what we’re doing. Where does all this lead?”
“We’ve got Briar Girl on our side, pretty much. She doesn’t want to kill us. We could probably negotiate for a vote against execution, in a pinch. The door’s open.”
“In terms of Laird, well, I’m thinking we need to pay a visit to Maggie next. You’re right. She was the middleman. Talking to Briar Girl was a bit of a test, as it wound up. Dealing with the girl who tried to kill me. Kill us. I’d like to think I handled that pretty amicably.”
“Better than I might have,” Rose said. “I never had many friends.”
“Well, now we can deal with another person who’s done a reprehensible act against us, only this one deceived us to our faces. We’re going to get Maggie’s help. Then maybe we talk to Mara or Johannes, if we can wrangle it. I don’t know where they are or how we could get in contact with them, and I’m not sure they’re the types where I want to shout their name and see if they answer. My gut tells me that’s the wrong way to go about it.”
“You’re talking to the outliers. Why? Where does this lead?”
“Laird said he was aiming to do something tonight. I’m aiming to stop him.”
“Somehow. Interrupt the ritual, distract him, I don’t know. But this glamour thing is useful, because it’s a way we could maybe navigate the city. No connections tracking us, a different face… maybe I get closer to Laird.”
“Oh boy,” Rose said. “There are so many ways this can go wrong.”
“Which is why the next step is getting my face on,” I said. “Then we talk to Maggie. We need soldiers, and those paper goblins are sounding awfully good right now.”
“You’re expecting a fight?”
“I don’t know what to expect. How does a guy like Laird get revenge?”
“He doesn’t seem like the type for violence,” Rose said. “Is violence the answer?”
“I don’t know,” I said. “But I wouldn’t mind dealing with him outside of his element. He probably knows his way around most of the scary stuff we could throw at him, but you don’t try to out-scheme the schemer. You do something like send twisted midget psychopaths to stab the schemer and leave him unable to think straight.”
“Midget is offensive.”
“I don’t think political correctness matters when you’re talking about goblins.”
“Point,” she admitted. “You really want to murder Laird?”
“Something like sending goblins to kill him. I’d settle for a little bloodletting. Or something to remove him from play. But we need him out of the picture. We need to destroy him, on some level, and we need to do the same for his family. You get that, right? We’re on the same page?”
“I hate the word ‘destroy’. But yes. It’s destroy or be destroyed.”
“Hm,” Rose answered. “While you’re figuring out the glamour stuff, I might get to reading a book on it. Go in with our eyes open.”
“Good idea,” I said. I opened the door, and, without thinking, I held it open for Rose.
Nevermind that she wasn’t here.
“You keeping up with the reading?” she asked, apparently oblivious.
“Pretty well. I’ll need to sit down tonight to get more done, or devote a full day to it tomorrow.”
“Good,” she said.
Back in the kitchen, I went through all of the tools, getting the mortar and pestle, and emptying the residual, very diluted ink over my hands. I rubbed it into my arms.
I cut off all of the hair that had reached beyond the confines of the locket itself, and ground it up before creating a fresh batch of ink, but I balanced it out with more hair, rendering it thicker. I rubbed it into my face and rolled up my sleeves to get it along the length of my arms and get full coverage on my hands.
“I just realized I’m going to need your help on this, Rose,” I said. “I can’t see myself in the mirror.”
She was gone. Finding the book, no doubt.
I ran my hand along my arm, so the skin that stretched between thumb and index finger dragged along the surface.
I willed it to change.
The effect was minimal at best.
What had Ms. Lewis told me about the Faerie?
I did it again. This time, I relaxed and let myself believe it would change. A leap of faith. I visualized my hand peeling away the paler skin, revealing my normal skin tone beneath.
It was eerie, seeing it take hold. My tattoos as they’d been before, less beautiful, but still gorgeous and entirely mine.
I’d heard two things from two people. The Briar Girl had told me I could use shaping to teach myself to deal with any hostile incursion or infection. Ms. Lewis had said something else, warning Rose about the fragile nature of glamours.
If this broke apart, would I lose ground in this war against whatever was going on with my body? Some spirits or some part of Rose that was bleeding into me, taking advantage of the personal power I’d spent?
I ran my hands along my face and over my hair. I couldn’t see the change, but I didn’t doubt it had worked.
That doubt could be dangerous and costly.
I checked the closet, and started rooting through it for anything I could wear. My grandmother’s coats, spring jackets, rain jackets, umbrellas…
I was debating wearing my winter jacket when I heard Rose. A yelp.
“You startled me.”
“I look different?”
“About ten years older, dark haired? Yeah.”
“Good stuff,” I said.
“It’s supposed to be harder than that,” she said. “Pretty sure.”
“Good thing you didn’t tell me before I tried anything,” I said.
I ran my hands along my arms. The skin color changed to black. I left the tattoos intact.
I did my face and head. When I ran my hands along the top of my head a second time, I found my head shaved as I’d imagined it. I scratched it and found all of the nerve endings responded. I could feel the stubble, the tiniest details.
“Crazy,” I commented. I ran my hands down the length of my throat. Then said, in a different voice, “Crazy.”
“Definitely supposed to be harder than that,” Rose said.
“Stop saying that,” I said. “If I believe it, it might become true. Ignorance is power, in this case.”
I could see her frowning at me in the reflective side of the toaster.
“Maybe it’s an advantage,” I said. “I’ve expended personal power, there’s more spaces for it to get traction? There’s less of me to modify?”
“I don’t buy it,” she said. “Remember, all power has a price. What’s the price for that little tidbit?”
“I’d like to think nearly getting killed by the faerie swordswoman and beating her in a duel was a pretty fair cost,” I said.
Rose seemed to internally debate the idea, before saying, “Maybe. Point taken.”
I started spreading the stuff over the rest of my neck, shoulders, and beneath my shirt. “But if this proves to be more useful than that duel was dangerous, I agree, we should be suspicious.”
The glamour was really fucking useful, as it turned out. Damn it.
I waited outside of the school as the students filed out. All grades, kindergarten through twelve, were present. Children who still wet their pants and young adults who were working their first jobs, all in the same general mob.
Behaims and Duchamps of various ages passed me without a first glance, let alone a second.
I joined the parents who were waiting for their kids. An ordinary, unassuming guy.
Maggie came out, headphones on, a bag slung over one shoulder. The checkered scarf was in place.
I walked over to the exit and fell into step beside her.
She stopped right away.
“Sorry,” I said, in a stranger’s voice.
“No need to be sorry, Mr. Stranger Danger. Why don’t you walk away?” Maggie suggested. “Go find a nice middle aged woman to sleaze on.”
She was so casual, so everyday. I wondered if she’d lost any sleep after ordering her goblins to tear Molly to pieces.
“You don’t hold back,” I observed, burying the surge of emotion.
She jammed her hands into her jacket pockets, shoulders hunched forward, defensive, one glance going over her shoulder, as if she were checking her escape routes.
I knew full well that she was getting her hands on a weapon of some sort. The glance would be to see if people were looking, which they were. Kids and teenagers still milled around us and between us.
“I mean you no harm,” I said. “Please don’t stab me. Or throw a goblin at me.”
I could see her studying me. Was she identifying flaws or tells in the disguise, picking it apart with her eyes? Or was she reinforcing it, feeding into it?
“Who the drat are you?” she asked.
Yay, I thought.
There was a freedom to this, a high, almost.
Her eyes moved to something or someone behind me.
I turned before they could touch me. A man, dark haired, heavyset, wearing a flannel button-up shirt.
“Can I help you?” he asked.
I looked and I saw the connection between him and Maggie. For someone who’d just moved to this city, for that connection to be that strong…
“You’re Maggie’s father?” I asked.
“Yes, and you know my daughter how?”
“We have a mutual friend,” I said. “I believe Maggie knows of a girl with a thing regarding mirrors?”
I saw Maggie go still, surprised, confused. Her eyes darted over me.
Trying to find connections?
“This is funny business, isn’t it?” her father asked.
“Yeah,” Maggie said. “Funny.”
I glanced at her dad. He knows.
That made things simultaneously easier and more tricky.
“I have a message for you,” I said. “Forgiveness won’t be particularly easy, nor fast, not for either of us, but help is needed.”
“No need to be impossibly cryptic,” she said. “I tell my dads almost everything.”
“Almost?” her dad asked.
“So dish,” she said. “You want to mess with the Thorburns?”
“What if I did?”
“I’d tell you I’m done with that. Fool me once, and all that jazz.”
“If you’re trying to embroil Maggie in something else like-”
“No,” I said. “No. Because I have… I won’t say I have no quarrel with the Thorburns, but I’m looking to help the family. If Maggie wanted to make amends for what happened to Molly Walker, I could use a hand. A loan of resources.”
“The dead girl?” her father asked.
So he didn’t know. I could see concern on her face.
I decided to pull her ass out of the fire, here. Karma, if nothing else. Or did it not count if I recognized it? “More about what happened yesterday, when we last talked.”
I saw a glimmer of a connection. She was figuring it out. Only so many people I could be. Maybe she suspected me of being the lawyer in another guise? Easier to figure out, easier to explain?
“This would be a hell of a lot easier if you told us who you were,” her father said.
“Can I walk you to your car?” I asked. “I could explain there.”
“You can explain right here,” her father said. “Or you can walk away.”
Hopefully I’d reinforced the glamour enough it could take a hit. If not, I could derail all of my plans.
Glancing around, I verified nobody was looking, and then unzipped my jacket. I revealed the bike mirror pendant I wore.
Maggie’s eyes went wide. “Blake?”
“A mirror?” her father asked.
“It’s Blake,” she whispered. “Blake Thorburn.”
Each time she said my name, I could see the connection striving to appear, hammering at my glamour, like a battering ram slamming into a heavy door.
Her father’s continued confusion helped.
“Stop,” I said. “Enough. Can I walk you to your car?”
Maggie nodded, pulling on her dad’s sleeve.
As we walked in silence to the car, I tried to gauge the damage to the glamour. I could use blood to fix it, but that was suicidal, at this point.
Better to let it mend on its own.
“Don’t say my name,” I said. “Do let me know if I can borrow some goblins.”
“They’re work to get under control,” she said. “Not easy.”
“I’ll settle for goblins in paper prisons I can’t control,” I said. “I’m making a move against Laird. Soon.”
I saw her chew her lip.
“Maggie? I’ll need you to explain,” her father said.
“I’ll try, I promise,” she said.
I felt the impact of that statement, saw the connection form.
I blinked to clear my field of vision. Couldn’t rely on it too much.
“Three paper goblins,” she said. She pulled her hands from her pockets, depositing three folded papers in my hand. “And a whistle.”
“A whistle for who or what?”
“He’s called something I’m not allowed to say,” Maggie said. “It’s written on the whistle.”
“Here,” she said. She took the whistle back, then blew.
Something hit the car. Heavy.
A goblin. Hairy, bearded, lurking in the shadows.
“He obeys the holder of the whistle,” Maggie said. “Try.”
“Crud,” Rose said, a murmur. I could see Maggie’s father react.
“Dickswizzle, come,” I said.
He didn’t budge a muscle.
“Dickswizzle, come,” Rose said.
Dickswizzle approached a few paces.
“That thing I wanted to talk to you about…” Rose murmured.