Kit walked out of the third bridal boutique, grinding her teeth. She’d taken the afternoon off for this, and had zero luck. Apparently, bridal gowns were made for seven foot tall women, because none of the dresses had hems that didn’t drag on the floor. And apparently, every tailoring shop in the town was staffed by monkeys, because when she asked if she could get it hemmed and back to her in 24 hours, they sighed and tutted and shook their heads. Hemming a wedding dress took at least ten days. Everything had to be just perfect, you see, because it was her special day. She was glad she’d left her gun in the car, because if she heard “your special day” one more time she was pretty sure she was going to kill someone.
Prom dress. Maybe the mall would have some prom dresses? So Kit went to the mall, and sure enough, they had some prom dresses on the discount rack, but the only sizes left were zero and four. She asked if they had any other dresses, but then she mentioned she wanted a white one. That was a mistake. They saw the emerald ring on her finger and got that gushy look, and the next thing she knew they were ushering her to the bridal section and seating her in front of page after page of gowns which had to be special ordered and wouldn’t arrive for six weeks minimum. Fucking bridal crap. As soon as you attached the word “bridal” to anything, something as simple as buying a dress suddenly became as complicated as getting mining permits in endangered wetlands.
She got back in her car and slammed the door. Fucking bridal crap. Fine. She would just wear the hideous polyester thing. She got her gun out of the glove compartment and slipped back into the shoulder holster. She’d just wasted two hours, and she still had three hours of work to do, which meant she’d be late for her phone call with Fenwick, which was her only spot of sanity these days. She took out her phone to text him, and found that she had a voice mail. It was from a number she didn’t recognize.
“Kit, this is Vax. I did something to you and I’m very sorry.” His words came out in one breath, after which he sighed deeply and paused so long that she thought it might be then end of the voicemail, but then he continued. “I’m trying to make amends. I’m trying to be a better person. I enchanted you so that you wouldn’t talk to Faco or any other faeries about Paisey. I was gentle about it. It’s not a hard block, just a minor deflection, so if you talk to one of us again the block will leave, but…look, I know you have no reason to trust me, especially since I enchanted your memory away, but please believe me when I tell you that you’re safer with your memory gone. So, uh. That’s it.”
She ran a hand through her hair. What the hell? Memory block? She couldn’t even remember meeting Vax except for that one time at the Pygg and Wassail. But wait. She’d seen him since then, she was sure of it. He’d asked to talk to her and met her…where? She couldn’t remember where, but she remembered the wooden table and someone throwing cookie crumbs to sparrows. Who would remember?
She looked at the calendar on her phone for a meeting with Vax. She had a lot of meetings scheduled, mostly with bankers and lawyers and other people who stopped working the moment it grew dark. She’d had a meeting with Holzhausen’s landscaper so she could supervise the work he was having done at his house. She’d had a meeting with the florist to substitutute white roses for peach roses, even though she’d told the florist that her mother was arranging everything. Meetings and meetings and meetings. Most of what she did was drive around town and talk to people.
There. She’d met Vax a week and a half earlier. A week and a half?
Kit drove to the address listed, and found herself pulling into the parking lot of the city library. She’d never been there before. Or had she? She didn’t think she’d ever been there before. It was busier than she expected, full of retirees carting books and movies, people collecting signatures, and young mothers pushing strollers with small children running around and behind them. She couldn’t help glancing into the strollers. They were going to have a baby soon, her and Fenwick, as soon as they could.
It wasn’t until she saw the bench where she and Vax had met that her memories came back to her.
He was right, it had been a gentle block. She had sat here with him. She remembered the sparrows eating cookie crumbs, and then she looked up and saw the flag snapping in the breeze, and she remembered his posture as he sat on the bench next to her, and then she remembered the way he wrung his hands as he told her that Faco was a very dangerous person.
Vax had told her everything. He’d been forthcoming and honest, which is why when he looked at her nose and said “you have something in your eye” she trusted him enough to let him lean forward and meet her gaze. He slipped inside her mind and put a milky shield over everything he had just told her. It melted away as fast as a dream does after breakfast.
But as she sat on the bench, watching sparrows searching for cookie crumbs, it came back to her piece by piece.
Kit went inside the library, found scraps of paper and a tiny pencil by the computer, and wrote everything down, folding it over and tucking it into her pocket. She didn’t think she’d forget again, but she touched the paper in her pocket, comforted by the mnemonic.
As she drove to Morales’ apartment, even more of the memories came flooding back. Vax had obscured not only their conversation, but also all memories of Faco and Paisey. She’d talked to all of them. She’d been to the apartment and talked to Faco. She’d talked with Tali. She’d met the people that Paisey had enchanted at the Vietnamese sandwich shop. She knew what happened.
Kit picked up her phone and dialed Morales.
“What?” he sounded sleepy.
She looked at her watch. It was two p.m. “Sorry to wake you, but I figured it out. I know who did it.”
Kit started speaking, and the more she said, the more her memories came back together. She told him everything.
Paisey had been living with them. Like Vax, she had been able to download English, so she had a leg up when it came to fitting in here in the dying lands. She’d gotten a job at Cherry Picker’s. Easy money, she said. Could you believe that they’d pay you for having sex? They’d even pay you to pretend to do it! She brought drinks and yes, she was serving, like an Indel, but she was saving up money to move out. She was going to move in with a co-worker and change her glamour so that Faco couldn’t recognize her anymore.
Faco hadn’t liked that. He hadn’t given her permission to leave their shared apartment, permission to have a life that he didn’t have control over. He told her to move back. She refused. She thought Rosenkranz could protect her.
Faco had gone over there and killed her and her host both. The others had kept quiet because they were terrified of him. He had them in thrall. He was a famous athlete who got exiled for his brutality, and now that he was here, he had developed a taste for killing people.
“So it wasn’t that Rosenkranz was murdered and Paisey was an innocent bystander. It was the opposite way around. He came there after Paisey. It explains so much, why he was able to enter the apartment uninvited, why Rosenkranz was decapitated so neatly, why there appeared to be no motive for Rosenkranz’s death.”
“Wait, go back. You said he was a fairy? Like, sleeps with men fairy, or flutters around with Peter Pan fairy?”
“No, he’s a faerie from the Realm of the Faerie. An immigrant.”
“Is that a real place?”
“Yes, it’s a real place. Jesus, Morales, why aren’t you listening to me?”
“And this sport invoves cutting peoples’ limbs off? Why would anyone play this game? And even if they could, who would play it more than once?”
“Because in the Realm of the Faerie, you don’t die. They can reattach your limbs.”
“Ohhh, right. I see.” Morales sounded like he was talking to a child. “And you just remembered this now because, wait, one of them cast a spell on you, is that right?”
“But he took the spell away because…why is that again?”
“Because he’s—you’re not taking me seriously.”
“Fairies don’t exist, Melbourne.”
The mocking condensation in his tone made her clench her teeth. “Vampires don’t either.”
She heard the faint sound of typing in the background. “I just googled, what was his name? Faco Cypress? Nothing. You sure he’s famous?”
“They don’t have the internet in the Realm of the Faerie, Morales. I know you think I’m making this up, but this guy’s a killer. He’s an expert in a sport that involves severing limbs, and he doesn’t tolerate dissention. Paisey tried to break away from his hold and move away. Faco found out about it and killed her to make a point for the others. My source said he’s going to kill Tali, too, if he can ever find her.”
“Tali Willow. She works at Cherry Pickers.”
“Is she a faerie too?”
“I’m not really concerned about imaginary people killing each other.”
Jesus fucking Christ. Could Morales really be this stupid? A muscle over her eye began to twitch.
Morales went on. “Listen to yourself, Melbourne. A fairy, who is a famous athlete that no one has ever heard of, who plays a sport that no one would ever play, cut off the head of a vampire older than me. Somehow, even though Rosenkranz had survived decades of people trying to kill her, including escaping Austria during the holocaust, she got offed by some knife wielding fruitcake with wings. Then, even though you found out about this weeks ago, you had your memories wiped by another fairy, who just now gave them back.”
“What kind of proof would you need in order to believe me?”
Morales scoffed. “I dunno, a taped confession?”
She was so angry she felt a scream well up inside her, but she held it down. When she spoke, her voice sounded clipped and overly civil. “I will see what I can do.”
Kit fumed on the way to Faco’s apartment. Morales might not believe even a taped confession, but Holzhausen would. Holzhausen was going to need proof as well. Vax wouldn’t talk to her any more, nor would Tali, but what if one of the other faeries had witnessed the murder? If they had, and if they were willing to talk, maybe Vax could translate.
Kit couldn’t remember where the apartment was, but she still had the address programmed into the GPS of her phone. Ah technology. So useful for when your mind got wiped by Vargel enchantments.
She pulled herself invisible as she got off the elevator onto their floor, but when she saw the eviction notice on the door, she released her spell. She crept closer to the door, tiptoeing as if, well, as if a dangerous murderer with really sharp blades lived inside. She pressed her ear to the door and listened, but heard nothing from inside.
She pointed her hands at the door and concentrated, hoping she could make it unlock with her mind.
Even though she accidentally unlocked things all the time when she got upset, she was almost never able to do it intentionally. So, she was locked out. Now what?
Kit went to the elevator and pressed the down arrow. She needed a backup plan. She knew who had killed Rosenkranz and she knew why. She just needed proof enough that Holzhausen would carry out the next phase, which would no doubt involve a deep hole in the woods and a bloodless corpse.
The doors opened, and Kit reflexively pulled herself invisible. Good thing, too. Ola stood there, holding a bag of groceries. She wore a shimmering lavender gown with a chunky russet cardigan thrown over it. She walked past Kit to the door and tried the handle, but the door wouldn’t open. She cursed and kicked the wall. She turned as Kit released her invisibility glamour.
Ola pointed at Kit and said something in a foreign language. Kit knew how to speak two of the languages of the Realm, one pidgin and the Pilell’s language. Neither of them helped her out much when trying to understand Ola, except that she thought a nod was yes.
“I want to talk to you about Faco and Paisey,” Kit said, using first the pidgin of the Realm and then English.
Ola’s eyes widened briefly, as if in alarm or wariness.
“I want to talk to you,” Kit said, louder and slower, wincing when she realized that it was ridiculous. If Ola didn’t understand English, speaking loud and slow wasn’t going to inject miraculous comprehension.
Ola’s eyes narrowed. She said something in her own language, and then she shook her head and looked up at the ceiling as if solving a math problem in her head. When she spoke, it was with the weirdest accent Kit had ever heard. “What what? Faco Paisey? No. Danger. Yes. Speak.”
They spoke back and forth, using wild gestures and sketches on a pad of paper that Kit pulled out of her purse. Finally, with much effort, they managed to agree to meet in Ipswich Park in an hour. At least, that’s what Kit thought they agreed on. She may have just told Ola that she’d travel around the sun in a wristwatch named Ipswich. She at least mentioned Vax twice, so Kit hoped that Vax would be along to translate.
Kit headed for Ipswich Park. It was getting later in the afternoon, and kids swarmed on the sidewalks and the grass despite (or perhaps because of) the heat. Some of them were trying to get a kite to fly, but the listless dragon refused to budge more than a few feet off the ground.
She parked her car in the lot by the playground, locked it, and headed towards what passed for forest. Her feet kicked up scent as she trod on cedar chips and freshly cut grass.
As she edged down into the wooded ravine, the shouts of children faded behind her. She heard the trickle of the runoff creek and the buzz of insects. As she walked further into the patch of woods, she felt Yseulta.
Walking into the woods and feeling it turn its gaze towards her in recognition was simultaneously terrifying and elating. As her shoes treaded on the loamy ground, she felt enveloped in awareness. This small tendril of forest knew she was here, and welcomed her, as she welcomed Kaa when he came home.
Kit walked deeper into the woods, following the stream until she could no longer hear the hum of traffic and the occasional footsteps and panting from the joggers on the paved path above her. It was getting dimmer now, the sun about an hour away from twilight. She took care along the riverbank not to slip on the algae-covered rocks. If she got her pants muddy, she’d have to go home and change before meeting with Holzhausen. Old people tended to be anal retentive about appropriate attire.
She stopped in front of three birch trees which grew together in a clump from one trunk. Their barks were paper white, black here and there from knots and the scarring of graffiti. The trunks looked like the skin of Yseulta’s dryad shape.
In the woods, with no one around you, you can do anything you like.
Kit reached out and hugged the trunk, resting her forehead against the bark. She started to let her awareness slip inside the tree.
She felt guilty again. This felt like…it felt like love. To feel safe, to feel welcomed by this vast, inhuman being, to feel Yseulta lapping away from her for thousands of miles, broken and yet unbroken by her sister-gods the oceans and tidelands and prairies. Kit was a part of that now. She felt small. She did not deserve this honor.
A sound behind her made her pull away from the trunk and her reverie.
“Gonna kill you. Oh yeah? You gonna kill me, with what army? With this one! Pew pew pew!” The bushes rustled, and a kid came out of them, holding two plastic army men. He froze when he saw her.
He was a scrawny kid, an underfed twelve or thirteen, with greasy brown hair in a mullet and a face ravaged by acne. His cut-off jeans looked like they’d been dragged behind a truck, his braces had food in them, and his tee shirt had a logo obscured by fading. The rat-like tail protruding from his cut-offs seemed so in keeping with the rest of his mien that it took her a split second to realize what she was seeing.
Her bindi was letting her know that she’d found the lycanthrope Fenwick had warned her about. A moment later, the boy’s head was replaced, briefly, by the image of his second-form animal, an opossum.
She smiled at him, shyly, telling him without a word that she’d pretend she hadn’t seen him being dorky if he’d pretend he hadn’t seen her hugging a tree. He smiled back, as if agreeing, and with a rustle of leaves, the kid disappeared into the undergrowth.
In the woods, with no one around you, you can do crazy things and they feel less crazy. Kit closed her eyes again and touched her forehead to the bark. She extended her awareness in through the trunk, concentrating like she was feeling a rail to see how far away the train was.
“Ma’am?” she said, softly. “I know I ran away earlier. I was frightened. I didn’t expect this. And, I’m still frightened, I guess, but I’m also, well, I guess I’m in awe. And I’m grateful. Thank you for choosing me. It’s an honor to be your familiar.”
The forest attached itself to her, seeing through her eyes, feeling what she felt. It felt blissful, inhuman, peaceful, and also unnerving. She heard footsteps behind her, but she didn’t even turn. Let the dorky little kid see her communing with nature. She didn’t care. This was where she needed to be right now.
The footsteps came closer, but she didn’t turn, still touching the tree with her fingertips, her awareness drenched in the rhythms of millions of acres of forest, some at dusk, some at dawn, crawling with animals and breathing with a million green leaves.
She barely felt the blade sever her head from her body. As her head bounced on the damp loam she saw first Ola, then her own body slumping to the ground, and finally she saw the upside-down image of Faco Cypress, with an expression of grim triumph and a Jal-Dit blade, dripping with blood.