An angry knock on the door woke them all up. He’d been sleeping again. He never liked sleeping, none of them did, but sleep wasn’t something you could avoid forever. You could postpone it for a day or two at most, but then your newly mortal body would shut down for hours and hours, and you’d be aware of nothing but the strange images that made no sense. The first time it had happened, he thought he was dying. Now he was used to it, and slept nearly every day, but he had never learned to like it.
“That human man has come to vex us again,” Ola said, pushing herself up off the floor. She was wearing a sequined ballgown, which had become wrinkled and lost some of its sequins when she’d fallen asleep. “What brings him here?”
“Rent money,” Vax said in English, nodding at the pile of bills and notices he’d gathered from their mailbox.
Leat yawned and walked past the pile, but didn’t look at it. Like Ola, he couldn’t read. Vax was the only one of them who had learned how to read. They had a language spell that let them download a language from a human, and most of them were good enough to do it. Tali had done it, and Faco, and Vax, but Leat and Ola hadn’t been good enough mages to do it, and had to rely on others to translate. They could have done it if they’d been in the Realm, but here in the dying lands, mortality and the heavy static nature of reality dampened their mage-craft skill. What had been easy at home proved difficult here.
For some reason, reading wasn’t uploaded along with the rest of the language, so Vax had taken an adult literacy class at the Glenn Activity center. He’d done it as a way of making himself useful to their new clan, to ingratiate himself with Faco. He learned quickly; he knew how to read in his own language, so it wasn’t a completely new concept to him.
“Charm him again,” Ola said, and lay back down. Her gown had become torn on the back, making it only suitable for an Indel. Vax didn’t want any of her drama, so he pretended the gown was still flawlessly intact.
“I can’t charm him again,” Vax said. The pounding grew louder. “His spirit has already weakened. Any more and he may die of it.”
“So? What is that to us?”
“He is but a servant of those who own this building. His is not the fault we haven’t…paid our rent.” Vax had to switch back to English for the last part. The Vargel language didn’t have terms for money and payment and rent. They also didn’t have words for dying and aging and sleep, which is why Vax found himself using English more and more, not just when he spoke to others from the Realm but also in his own thoughts. He thought to himself in English. He’d started to compose prose in English, and sometimes he even dreamed in English. In some dreams he was at home again, in the Realm, in the palace of Clan Cypress, but he was eating and sleeping and speaking English. He’d heard of those who could dream so vividly that they actually went to the Realm of the Faerie in spirit and spoke to those they’d left behind, but he wasn’t good enough at dreaming to do that. In his dreams, he ate and shat and worried about the rent.
“Faco won’t like it if that human disturbs him,” Leat said. Leat tended to wring his hands, cringing, and Vax couldn’t stand him. If he’d been back in the palace of Clan Cypress, he wouldn’t have kept company with any of these people, but exile does strange things to ones social life.
“I will not carry the responsibility for his…undoing,” Vax said in the Vargel language.
The door to the bathroom slammed, and Faco appeared. Faco was no taller than Vax, but he had twice the weight. Instead of long, slender limbs and a tapered waist, his muscled torso formed a V, broad shoulders rippling with muscle. His forearms were especially ropy.
Back in the Realm, Vax hadn’t the rank and popularity to get seats near enough to see the sands, especially not when the famous and brilliant Faco Cypress was competing. The first time he’d met Faco, he’d been in awe, too terrified to ask for a scrap of his clothing as a souvenir. Now he was glad he hadn’t. He would be embarrassed by it now. He’d come to know Faco fairly well now that they were both exiled to the dying lands, and had more than enough chances to get a scrap of clothing, but he didn’t feel such awe anymore. Besides, anyone who would be impressed by it was back in the Realm.
“What is this wretched opera you sing, wailing of these human animals?” Faco had a melodious accent, as fine as the Elders he’d rubbed shoulders with, back when he’d been a famous Jal-Dit player, beloved of all the clans. “I care not for its libretto.”
“Honored one,” Vax said, “Charming him will not cause this to cease. There are issues which–”
Faco flung the door open. Mr. Beckmann was on the other side, as usual, worry creasing his chubby face. A cop stood next to him, hand on his belt. Faco glanced from one to the other, then grabbed the cop by the shoulders and pulled him close. The cop started to draw his gun, but like most humans, he wasn’t expecting a magical attack, and his arm fell limp as Faco made eye contact. Mr. Beckmann turned to go, but Faco growled an order, so Vax grabbed him.
Mr. Beckmann provided no resistance. He had been enchanted too long, and by too many different people, with too little regard for subtlety and safety. Vax pushed as gently as he could, but he felt Mr. Beckmann’s psyche crumble, like one of those blocks of green foam inside a floral display which disintegrates when you push your finger to test the wetness. Vax drew back.
“I can’t do this,” he said, in English.
Faco shoved him aside. Vax’s shoulder crashed into the wall and then he fell, landing on his hip. He glanced up to see Faco making eye contact with Mr. Beckmann. Vax was too afraid to protest. He rubbed his bruised shoulder as Faco used his will like a Jal-Dit blade, severing what little resistance Mr. Beckmann provided. When he was done, Mr. Beckmann crumpled to the ground, eyes unfocused.
“Our time here is done. We may not tarry longer,” Faco said. He reached down and grabbed the front of Vax’s shirt, curling the fabric in his fist and lifting until Vax met Faco eye-to-eye. “To make amends for your failure, you are to find the new palace of my clan. Go, now, and find what I desire before the day grows dark.”
Faco shoved Vax outside and slammed the door behind him.
It was already after noon, and in this city, he wasn’t likely to find any vacancies before dusk, much less ones where the owner could be charmed into handing over keys to a group of people who never once paid rent. Vax glanced at Mr. Beckmann, vacantly staring into the distance, and decided he did not want to tell this to Faco. He couldn’t succeed, but perhaps Faco’s anger would have faded by dusk, and he could be appeased with a gift of some kind.
Vax lifted Mr. Beckmann gently to his feet and led him back to the rental office. He didn’t think Mr. Beckmann would ever be sane again. Even his people had few mages of a skill to undo this sort of damage, and here in the dying lands, they had to rely on weak human witchcraft.
When he got to the door of the rental office, he let go, and Mr. Beckmann stood there, staring into the middle distance. Perhaps if they were able to get him to the Realm of the Faerie, they’d be able to find mages and healers who could repair his broken mind. But Vax, like the others, had been exiled–for them there was no return. And anyway, he wasn’t mage enough to open a portal. Vax was a pretty good mage, but opening a portal to the dying lands took supernatural skill. Even one of the Queen’s Guard couldn’t do it alone.
“I’m sorry,” he said to the broken Mr. Beckmann.
Mr. Beckman said nothing.
Vax turned away, and forced himself not to look back.
Vax came back after dark, carrying two new shirts as a peace offering for Faco, since he wasn’t able to find a suitable new apartment for them to move into yet. The shirts were scarlet, which even the darling Jal-Dit hero of Clan Cypress didn’t have the rank to wear, but here there were no Elders to chastise him about anything.
He knew as soon as he got to the door to the apartment that someone else was there. Leat stood in the foyer, and glanced up quickly at him and then away. Leat was an Indel, and while he wasn’t as properly demure as Tali was, he didn’t have half her skill in mage craft either.
“Who?” he mouthed to Leat, but Leat shook his head and backed off.
A second later, he had his answer, because as he opened the door, he saw Kit Melbourne speaking with Faco.
She didn’t look afraid, which meant that he was dumber than he’d thought. “I’m sure that you’re as interested in discovering Paisey’s killer as the rest of us are.”
Faco stepped closer, probably trying to be at a more reasonable speaking distance instead of the arm’s length these humans preferred. Kit immediately backed up another step.
“More so,” Faco replied. Stepping closer. “But this is a dangerous thing you seek. Perhaps you had best leave justice to our people.”
“Are you threatening me?” she asked, retreating again until her back was at the wall next to the kitchen.
“Not at all,” Faco said, stepping closer.
He put an arm up, resting his palm against the wall so his body arched over her. She was taller than average, for a human woman, but next to Faco she looked tiny, scaled down, like one of the lesser cousins, whom the humans called the earth fey. Now that Kit couldn’t retreat any further, Faco leaned down until his face was only a few inches away. She averted her eyes, but by her glare and the way she clenched her fist, that was out of self defense rather than respect.
“Why do you even care what happened to Paisey?” Faco asked.
“I care who killed Rosenkranz, or, more to the point, the Guild cares who killed Rosenkranz.” She sidestepped to get out from under his arm. He was so much larger than she was that she hardly had to duck. “Paisey was probably killed by the same person.”
“What, exactly, do you think we know about this?” Faco stepped towards her again.
“Why don’t you tell me?” She stopped, planting her feet and leaning towards Faco as if she were going up against him in a Jal-Dit match. She may have been annoying and stupid, but she didn’t lack for courage, Vax would give her that. “Why don’t you stop playing games and let me know what’s going on? What did you know about Paisey? Why did she move out? Did she have enemies who might have tracked her down to Rosenkranz’s house? Were there people who weren’t happy she was Rosenkranz’s host? I’m trying to help you people. Don’t you want your dead to be avenged?”
“She wasn’t one of ours.”
“Oh? She wasn’t a Vargel, or she wasn’t a Clanfaerie? Because I was under the impression that she was of Clan Cypress, and that until a couple of months before her death she had been living here in this apartment. How is it that she wasn’t one of yours?”
Vax caught sight of Ola, standing in the kitchen. Like him, she looked as if she wanted to disappear. No one talked like this to Faco. No one. Faco’s hands were clenching and unclenching as if he might strike her, even without a blade in his hand. “Paisey died. This is the dying lands. That’s what people do here. They die.”
She narrowed her eyes and stared at him. He couldn’t see Faco’s face, but he could read Kit’s enough to sense that she didn’t like him. She may even think that Faco had something to do with Paisey’s death. That she had even found their apartment in the first place was a bad sign. Had Tali talked to her? He hoped Tali had more sense than that.
The silence thickened until he could hear the sound of his own heart and breath. Kit had one hand under her jacket, as if she were touching the hilt of a gun, and Faco clenched his fists. If she drew the gun, he wasn’t sure who would win the fight. Gun might beat fists, but this was Faco Cypress. Surely she couldn’t kill the greatest Jal-Dit player ever?
Kit slid her hand out from under her jacket. “I think I’ve asked enough questions for today. Thank you for your time.”
She walked towards the front door, and Vax backed out onto the landing to make room for her. She glanced at his shirts, and then at him, face dour as if she were judging him, as if she knew that he had charmed the owner of the store into letting him have the shirts for free, as if she knew that he’d never paid for any meal or any day of rent or anything at all with money he earned since he came here. Her mouth turned down like she knew all these things and she was going to go straight away to tell Jackie, and then Jackie would never want to be with him because he was a thief.
Or maybe she didn’t know anything.
“Hello Vax. Turns out I didn’t need your as translator after all. Your friend Faco is quite charming,” she said facetiously.
“He’s famous. He’s a famous athlete,” Vax said.
“Well, that excuses everything.” She rolled her eyes and turned to walk towards the stairs.
“Have you seen Jackie?” he asked. “She hasn’t been to dance practice since two weeks ago. She won’t return my calls.”
Kit gave him another contemptuous look. “Maybe she’s just not that into you.”
Faco slammed the door open, he turned towards where Kit had been standing, but she had disappeared, vanishing completely, like one of the lesser cousins.
“She knows too much,” Faco said. “You need to cleanse her mind of anything that may bring strife back upon us.”
Vax nodded. It had to be done, and better him than Faco, who could do almost as much damage inside someone’s mind as he could in the ring.
“Someone has been advising that human,” Faco said, dangerously. “Where did she acquire counsel on our doings?”
“I did not do it,” Vax said. “I swear by the Tree I told her little of Paisey. She is guessing, bluffing. She knows nothing of what we do.”
“She knows aught.”
“I will see to it that she knows naught.”
Faco grunted and turned to go. Vax felt his shoulders relax, and he exhaled slowly. Faco paused with his hand on the door. “Did you know that Tali Willow has made her home in this very city?”
“Tali Willow?” By some boon of good fortune, his voice didn’t quaver.
“The portal that brought her into exile had its egress no farther than any of ours, and here she remained within my grasp, had I but known.” Faco turned back to regard him.
Vax swallowed and fought to keep his face blank.
“Can you believe she requested the aid of human mages? She has hid herself from my sight with witchcraft. Ola discovered it.”
“Would you like me to wipe her mind as well? Or perhaps you would like to make her desire you?”
“No,” Faco smiled. “I have no more patience for that one. For her insolence, she shall be reminded of why these are called the dying lands.”