Vax went to the Pygg and Wassail, hoping that Jackie was there, though he didn’t know her schedule. He pushed the door open to the dark restaurant, and when his eyes adjusted to the dim light he blinked and looked around. It was empty except for a few early drinkers at the bar. He guessed by the burgundy and silver boar logos on their shirts that they were University of Seabingen students.
He glanced around for Jackie, but the only other waitress was Aisling, a tiny woman who was almost as aloof as Jackie. He approached her, and she turned to walk away, but he sped up and cut her off.
“Is Jackie here?”
“She’s not on until later,” Aisling said. “And what did you do to her anyway? She was totally into you before she found out you were an asshole.”
“Nothing. When will she be in?”
Vax turned to see who had called his name, and Aisling took advantage of the distraction to vanish into the kitchen. He saw Tali sitting at a large table in the corner. She had an earthenware mug of spiced hot wine in front of her, the Pygg and Wassail’s signature drink. She waved him over.
“What are you still doing here?” he hissed, pulling out a seat next to her. “He knows you’re here! It’s not safe.”
“Where would I go?” She had a set of books spread out on the table in front of her. He mouthed out the words of their titles. Natural Magic. Modern Witch. Pagan Spirituality. Tali finished the page she’d been looking at and shut it. She read the books as easily as if they were poetry scrolls written in Vargel. She’d always been clever. She’d always been good at magic too, and it looked as though she were picking up earth magic as easily as she’d pick up a Clan Tamarisk accent.
“I know you’re building a life here, but you can’t stay.”
Tali took a sip of her drink as naturally as if she were born on earth. Reading, eating, drinking, wearing blue jeans—if he didn’t take the trouble to peer under her glamour, he could presume she was as human as Jackie. She wouldn’t fool Faco though.
“I have already fled one home. I do not wish to flee another.”
“Just for a while, just until—”
“Until when?” At his silence, she continued. “My witch friends are protecting me. Their spell is strong. Faco could be in the same room as me, and he won’t be able to see me.”
“Faco knows about these witches.”
Tali set her cup down with a thump. “Who would have told him this?”
“I have no idea how he found out, but he knows. He knows who some of the witches are. Maybe Ola told him. She’s no good at magic, and she can’t speak English, but she’s still cunning.”
At this, Tali looked a little worried. “I still don’t have anywhere to go, Vax.”
Vax sat down and put his chin in his hands. He sighed.
“What about you? Weren’t you courting that human woman?”
“Jackie found out what I do. She doesn’t want anything to do with me now. She says I’m a thief.”
“Oh, Vax,” Tali said gently.
“I want to be something better. I don’t want to be the kind of person that Jackie is ashamed of. I love her, Tali. I don’t know how to win her back.”
“If you become a better person, she will sense that.”
“Faco won’t let me stop enchanting people for money. I’m the best at it.”
“Faco leads you on the path to perdidition. Those who keep company with wolves will howl as they do.”
“He won’t let us go. You saw what happened to Paisey.”
“Good deeds may yet win her over.”
“I’ve been trying.”
“Have you returned the money you’ve stolen? Undone the enchantments you’ve cast?”
“I don’t have the money.”
“It’s going to take time, Vax.”
“And how do I break away from Faco’s clan? He’ll kill me if he thinks I’m disobeying him.”
“Maybe you can leave town.”
“I can’t leave Jackie.”
Tali picked up two of her books, closed them, and stacked them on top of one another. “My witch friends are meeting me here in a few minutes. Perhaps they will extend their aid to you as well.”
“Why would they do that for me? I’m a blue-clad nobody.”
“They don’t care about that, Vax. They want to help because they are good people.”
Vax shook his head. He wanted to have Tali’s optimism. He could see why the witches would help her. She was sweet, talented, high born. She walked away from a life of fine gowns and servants because she could see who Faco really was. She had been wiser than any of them, and yet she seemed to have forgotten what she’d fled the Realm for.
You couldn’t defeat Faco. He was unstoppable, in the arena as well as anywhere else. You couldn’t stop him, or block him, or deflect his anger. You could only do as he bid, and not be the one standing before him when he swung his blade. How had she forgotten? How was she clever enough to read a human language, and yet not clever enough to know that fleeing Seabingen was her only way of remaining safe?
A woman approached the table. Tali stood. She curtseyed a proper Indel greeting, and somehow she made it come off as charming instead of foreign and inappropriate. They hugged. The woman, presumably one of the witches, was short, with a thick middle and slacks cut loose to accommodate. She had long hair in a braid, wrinkles around her eyes, and jewelry that looked like ornate knots laid flat.
As soon as Tali pulled back from her hug with the first witch, two others approached. These were a young man and a young woman in their late twenties. The man was very skinny with thick dark hair and tortoiseshell glasses. The woman had a smooth complexion and a sweater dress that showed off an amazing figure. They turned and waved at the fourth witch, a pot-bellied guy with a grey beard and frameless glasses who carried a stack of books in one hand and a mandolin case in the other. They called out each others’ names and hugged and said “blessed be.”
Tali introduced him to her friends, these humans who, in the few years she had been in the dying lands, had grown to love her enough that they would risk Faco’s ire to protect her. Vax felt a the pain of envy. Did he have any friends who would put themselves in danger for him? Would Jackie ever care for him as deeply as Tali and her witch friends cared for each other?
And if these witches could really protect her, how had Faco found out she was in Seabingen?
“If you see Jackie, will you tell her I want to see her again? Will you tell her I’m—” he didn’t want to say it in English, so he continued in Vargel, quoting a popular opera. “I strive daily to be worthy of the hem of her garment.”
Tali smiled. “I will.”
Vax waved goodbye and walked out the door. The afternoon had grown warm, and he wished he were immodest enough to wear short sleeves as the humans did, but unlike Tali, he still felt like a Vargel of Clan Cypress rather than a human who lived in America.
The thump of bass and the scent of spilled beer came out of bars along the street, patronized by students who felt that a warm and sunny Saturday afternoon was the perfect time to be inside a windowless building. He walked past an outdoor patio, holding his nose against cigarette smoke and exhaust from someone idling on the street. He crossed the street to the edge of campus. Students lay on towels and blankets on the grass between the gothic English department and the brick revival engineering building. Some of the women had removed their shirts and lay supine, bikini tops untied. He stared at them, and in his mind, they were all Jackie.
He heard a humming noise, and turned to one of the lilac bushes. Bees hummed over its sweet flowers, industriously doing whatever it was bees did. He’d never seen an insect until he came to the dying lands. They were mentioned in the oldest poetry. He thought they were mythical, like the earth fey, until he saw his first butterfly and stood gaping at it. Jackie said that the earth fey were real too, and that she worked with one at the Pygg and Wassail, but he’d only met her coworker Aisling, who didn’t seem anything other than human to him.
Jackie, Jackie, Jackie.
He needed her. He wanted to be with her as badly as the bees wanted those lilacs.
Was she at work yet? He had work to do that day, a new apartment to find, and real work to find too, work that didn’t involve enchanting people out of money. It was hard, and going to be even harder. He had to see her. He had to see the woman he was changing for. If he just had one glimpse of her, he knew he could make it through the rest of the day that much easier.
Vax turned back towards the Pygg and Wassail. The sun had grown even warmer, and he wiped sweat off his forehead. It was so different here than the Realm, with the sweating and hunger and eating and sleeping and heat and cold and insects and a thousand things he never knew existed, including a fiery cinnamon-haired barmaid who had deftly plucked his heart out of his chest and kept it. They called it the dying lands, but they could just as easily call it the living lands. He didn’t want to go home again. He wanted to live here and win Jackie’s heart and make a human life for himself.
He retraced his steps back to the Pygg and Wassail. Jackie, Jackie, Jackie. If she didn’t want to talk to him, he would leave, but she had to know he was still interested, that he wanted a second chance. She had to know he wasn’t giving up.
He was thinking about Jackie so intently that he almost didn’t recognize Ola when he ran into her by the corner convenience store. She hadn’t altered her glamour, but she was wearing shapeless overalls and a floral print cap pulled down over her head. It was almost like she was trying to disguise herself.
Ola looked startled and backed away, bumping her hip into the box that dispensed the student newspaper.
“Why have you come along this path?” he began, speaking in Vargel. And then he figured it out. This is how Faco was learning everything about Tali. “O, treacherous rabbit, you have been my shadow.”
“I? What tale is this you spread of me? Why should I trail you? I think you paint yourself too fair.”
“You are the mouse that squeaks tales back to the one who would destroy my friend.”
Ola folded her arms, leaning against the newspaper box in a way that didn’t quite come off as casual. “Tali has also been painted too fair. What charm does she possess, that would make you risk everything to protect her?”
“She has a heart as clear as sky.”
“A clear heart is a burden that only children can bear. Past infancy there are only those who are strong, and those who are crushed if they stand in the path of the mighty. I will not be crushed. I will abide long enough in this wretched place for the Elders to rescind my exile and let me return home.”
“You told Faco that Tali lived in this city.”
“That little worm cost Clan Cypress the pennant. If she would have just bonded with him, he would have—”
“Do you hear the words that come from your mouth? You know what manner of beast he is. Can you imagine the torment of being bonded to him?”
“Proper Indel put the needs of others before their own.” Ola said, she flipped her hand in a dismissive gesture.
Vax then noticed a peculiar smell. It smelled like a car, almost, but it was coming from Ola’s hands. He grabbed her wrist and brought it to his nose. Gasoline. “What have you done?”
“What have I done? I have avoided being crushed by the mighty.”
A rushing sound, like water or traffic, came from a block to the east, in the direction of the restaurant. A dark cloud rose from above the buildings and poured down the street. Vax let Ola go and ran towards it.
When he arrived, the Pygg and Wassail was already in flames.