Faco had picked up a pet human. His name, as he’d told Ola with elaborate gestures when they first met, was Denny. Ola didn’t speak to him, or even look at him if she didn’t have to. He was large, and he always glistened with sweat, even when the room felt cool. He had hair in inappropriate places. Ola wanted him to go away and never come back, but she knew that Faco wouldn’t allow that. Even though Denny was a human, he acted as deferential as an Indel, and a Vargel without servants was hardly much of a person at all.
Ola did appreciate that Denny had provided them with a place to stay, even though it was filthy and crowded. Denny also bought food for them, and he started cooking it for them when he figured out that none of them could read the writing on the packages. Ola had figured out how to make pasta by watching him. She’d learned some English too, just from watching and listening. She didn’t let on, because she didn’t want anyone getting any ideas of treating her like a servant. She may have been an exile, but she was still a Vargel.
Faco appreciated that Denny knew about death. Denny was as fascinated by death as he was about faeries, and he was willing to tell Faco everything he wanted to know about killing people.
“Ola,” Faco called, motioning her over. “Give me your hand.”
Ola held out her cupped hand hesitantly. Faco dropped something into them, and she hissed, letting the pieces fall to the floor, where they clattered like rain on the floor.
“Leaves and Ashes!” she swore. “What was that?”
Faco grabbed her wrist and pulled it towards him. The skin of her palm was speckled with raw, open wounds. That’s when she noticed he was wearing latex gloves. “Cold iron. Feel how it burns!”
Ola glared, but said nothing. The skin of her palm told her full well how much it burned. Denny knelt and gathered the fallen pieces. They looked like flecks of sand or gravel, but they were all a uniform color and shape. He didn’t wince when he picked them up.
“What will you do with this hateful metal?” she asked Faco.
“Paisey died too quickly. He has another plan.”
Ola glanced at Denny. Denny had sat back down at the table. It was a spindly table, with folding metal legs, covered with torn vinyl. As it was the only table in Denny’s apartment, the surface was cluttered with paper plates, Fritos bags and other food waste. One of Faco’s Jal-Dit blades lay on top of a pizza box, cuddled next to its whetstone. The rest of the table had wire, wire clippers, and a small stack of hollow plastic cylinders with a brass cap. She reached hesitantly towards one, unsure if this, too, would hurt her. Denny picked it up and handed it to her.
She took it hesitantly, but it was just harmless plastic. Denny explained excitedly, pointing at the inside of that one, and then inside another one, then gesturing to a small pile of those hateful metal pellets.
“Will you tell me the meaning of his words?” she asked Faco.
“The human is packing the shotgun shells with a lighter charge, like you’d use for birds. This way, the pellets will only go under the person’s skin and not kill him right away. Instead the person will die painfully, probably over several hours.” Faco slipped between Vargel and English seamlessly. They all did these days. There were too many words that didn’t exist in Vargel. Too many words for food and death and sleep.
“You say person, which person do you mean?” Not her or Leat? Ola glanced at Leat, who was sleeping on the floor in the corner. Leat slept as often as he could, now that he’d figured out how to do it. He said he dreamed he was back home again. Ola didn’t know if you could die from sleeping too much. It seemed like you could die of anything here. She’d been as shocked as the rest of them when Paisey died from a tiny slice in the front of her neck.
“Vax,” Faco said. He was measuring out black powder and pouring it into one of the plastic cylinders.
“Why?” Ola asked carefully. She hadn’t mentioned running into Vax the day she burned the witches in the restaurant.
“Denny says Vax saved Tali’s witches.” Faco dropped the pieces of cold iron into the cylinder with his gloved hand.
“He broke open the door.” Faco didn’t sound angry, but Ola knew his moods were deceptive. He could smile while he took your head off. In fact, these days if he was smiling, it was probably because he was cutting someone’s head off. It’s all he lived for anymore. “He broke down your lock and let all the people out. He was on television. They called him a hero.”
Ola waited, but he didn’t say anything more. Faco seemed to be concentrating on packing the shotgun shell. When he was done, he admired it in the light, and reached for another one. She swallowed.
“I’ll get us more food,” she said quietly, wanting to leave.
“Ola,” Faco began, sweetly.
“I told Denny that if this succeeds, you will take him as a lover. You won’t make a liar of me, will you?”
Ola’s lip curled up. She took a breath and released it slowly. Without turning to face Faco, she replied as neutrally as she could. “Of course not.”
“Good.” Faco said.
Ola turned to Denny. She pushed his shoulder to get his attention, and when he looked up, she mimed writing.
Denny said something in English she didn’t understand.
She frowned, but she knew it would be faster if she just spoke a few words in their barbaric tongue. “List. Eating list.”
Denny smiled and reached into his pocket, handing her the grocery shopping list. She glowered further. She didn’t like running errands, but she consented to do this one because when she had a list at the supermarket she could pretend she had servants again. With the list, she didn’t need to get her own groceries. She just thrust it at the man behind the customer service desk and he walked around the store, putting items in a shopping cart for her. The first time he wouldn’t let her leave with the packages, and Denny had explained (through Vax) that she hadn’t brought any money. Going home without getting what she had gone for had not made Faco pleased. She wouldn’t make that mistake again.
She thrust out her hand for the money, and Denny gave it to her. She took it with a huff and left on the errand. Leat was as good as dead, and Denny’s star was rising. She had to make herself useful to stay on Faco’s good side.
As she waited in the line at the grocery store, watching the bags of marshmallows and cans of tuna rolling past her on the conveyer belt, she looked at the pictures of smiling faces on the tabloids. People in the dying lands had varied colored faces and hair, features as unique from one another as the Pilell from the Indel, but the women in the photos looked as alike as sisters. She didn’t know why this land valued a slender physique and yellow hair above all other features, but she was grateful that whatever god had given her a glamour made it resemble these women. It made the people at the supermarket fetch things for her. It made Denny want to be her lover.
Leat was going to die. She knew that. She didn’t know how he would die, if it would be from too much sleeping and weeping or if it would be from a severed head. There were problems you couldn’t solve by severing someone’s head, but you couldn’t tell Faco that. You couldn’t tell him anything these days. Maybe Paisey had the right of it, to leave and make a life for herself untethered of anyone from the Realm. But Paisey had died. So maybe Paisey had been the fool.
And to think of fools, when she got back to the apartment, she found one of the greatest ones she had met, standing in the lobby. It was that human, Kit. Hadn’t Vax wiped her mind? He’d probably done it too lightly, not wanting to destroy another human’s mind, and now look what had happened. It was a cruelty to be too kind. If her mind had been blocked enough to keep her away, she could have lived a safe and happy life.
The human babbled something at her, of which Ola understood perhaps one word in ten. She pantomimed, sketched and used some barbaric pidgin which for some reason she thought Ola might understand. Ola sighed.
“You’re a fool, and if you knew what was good for you, you’d leave and never return,” Ola told her, but of course Kit was just a stupid human who didn’t know a single word of Vargel. She had to use some English words which she had learned, though she disliked speaking in their language. It made her feel self-conscious.
Ola told Kit she’d meet her in Ipswich Park in an hour, and accompanied it by gestures, scribbles and even a few words in English until the human woman nodded like she understood.
She waited until the human had enough time to take the elevator downstairs and leave the building before she went down the hall to Denny’s apartment. She closed the door behind her quietly, and tried to slip into the kitchen before they noticed she’d returned.
“Who were you speaking with?” Faco asked, with deceptive calmness.
“That human woman was here again. She overcame Vax’s block.”
“What did you tell her?”
For a moment, Ola thought about lying. She could say she told the human to go away and never come back. She could say she put a charm on her. But Faco knew she didn’t have magic enough for that, and Kit was dumb enough to keep coming around until she got what she wanted. Anything Ola could say would just come back and bite her later. And for what? Kit had doomed herself the moment she overcame Vax’s block.
“I told her we’d meet her in Ipswich Park.”
Faco stood and stretched. He was so graceful, so elegant, each movement parsed like a flawless stanza. She couldn’t help admiring him. He looked no less imposing here in the dying lands than he had in the arena, even among the filth of Denny’s apartment. He strode across the room and took down his best blade, unsheathing it to admire the mirror-like finish. He tested the blade against his thumb, then took it back to the table and picked up his whetstone.
The slow rasping sound of blade against whetstone filled the air. Ola wanted to tell him to hurry, that they only had an hour, but she knew better than anyone not to say anything to Faco when he was holding a blade in his hand. Holding a Jal-Dit blade in his hand, he looked more natural, like a bird in the air or a fish in water. He missed slicing through flesh the way Leat missed the stage and she missed the court gossip.
As his blades were already sharp, it didn’t take long for Faco to finish honing them. He packed his whetstone up and gave the blade one final polish with the oil rag.
Denny drove them to the park and dropped them off close to a place where children were playing on metal ornaments that moved. Faco led the way as if he knew where he was going, and she half worried and half hoped that they’d search the park without finding her at all.
They found Kit easier than Ola expected. She hadn’t bothered to hide herself. She stood next to a clump of birch trees and ignored their approach even though their feet crunched leaves and snapped twigs.
Faco paused, as if he wanted her to turn around so she’d have a sporting chance, though how much sport could it be against an unarmed woman who had never been trained? After a few breaths, he grew weary of waiting. Or perhaps his hunger to sever a head had grown too great.
Faco executed a flawless decapitation. The blade sliced through her flesh and spine so cleanly that for a moment her neck appeared whole. Then her body fell, and her head bounced free, an expression of surprise on her face, followed quickly by fear. Faco glanced down at the head, his shining blade dripping with blood. He looked sad, almost, disappointed that it had been so easy.
Ola heard a sound and turned to see a small face peering at them from behind a tree. It was a human boy, half grown, with a dirty face and teeth covered in lines of metal. The boy turned and ran. Faco got a cruel smile, a hopeful smile, and took off after him. Ola followed.
The boy had the kind of shoes that runners wear, but it didn’t make him run very fast. He scurried over rocks and down into the gulley with the creek in the bottom, scrambling over the mossy rocks as gracefully as a box of lamps falling down a flight of stairs. Faco and Ola, trotting gently behind him, managed to catch up with him quickly. The boy kept turning around to look, and every time he did, he slowed down a little more until the distance between them was shorter than Faco’s arm and blade.
He glanced behind one final time, and then lurched forward, tripping and splatting face first into the soft mud of the creek bed.
Ola had seen dead before. She knew what dead looked like. She saw Paisey dead, and Paisey’s friend in the apartment. She knew that glassy-eyed stare, the stiff limbs. She didn’t know what caused him to die. How does anyone die here? Death was a mystery to her. It seemed to come so easily.
Faco nudged the body with his foot. The body was stiff. It smelled bad already, the gaseous reek of decay. He touched the boy’s skin with the tip of his Jal-Dit blade. It left a red mark on the boy’s leg which oozed thick blood. He poked the kid twice more. The new wounds wept blood, but the boy didn’t move.
Ola glanced at Faco’s face. She recognized that expression. Disappointment. A bout cancelled. A tourney already won.
They went back to where Kit’s body had fallen. At first she thought they’d mis-traced their steps, but she recognized the white trunks of the birch trees, and the wet red loam where her neck had spewed out blood. They could even see the depressions where her limbs hit the soft earth.
But her body had vanished.
They heard someone running along the path above them, a jogger, most likely. Other humans would summon authorities, and she’d seen from television that bad things would happen to the one holding a bloody blade with two bodies in the woods. Faco cast an invisibility spell over himself. He didn’t make it large enough for her, so while he vanished, she remained visible to anyone walking past. She set her mouth in a frown and slunk off as quickly and quietly as she could, once again cursing whatever god made her weak at magic.