Chapter three

When I’d finished talkin’ to the mer-elves I pulled together what I had a’ courage and went lookin’ for Suora. Suora was pretty terrifyin’—she was a messenger, she’d defeated the necromancer and been in the battle a’ nightmares, which accordin’ to rumour had driven those unlucky enough to witness it mad, and the second time I’d been there she’d invited Death to her campsite and he’d come. Searchin’ for her, however, was safe enough I reasoned, cause if she didn’t want to be found she could probably make it impossible for anyone to find her, ‘specially someone ordinary like me. So it was a bit unnerving when I did find her, sittin’ by her wagon just outside the circle a’ firelight, smokin’ her short-stemmed pipe. She beckoned to me.

On an impulse I sat down beside her, facin’ a little away from her and on her left side. Aris had told me once that when a king was entertainin’ a sorcerer or prophet whose power was so great that they could be considered above even the king, tradition dictated that the king surrender his own throne to the guest and sit on the left side, facin’ a little away. It was a symbol a’ submission before a superior power. It was also the way knights and warriors sat in the presence a’ the king, the idea bein’ that while the warrior may have been able to take the king out with one swing, he wouldn’t do it cause he’d surrendered that power.

She almost smiled. Suora was old enough that she’d been around when the custom was still in practice. She was probably the oldest being to walk the earth with a body, and as a messenger she was a lot older than that.

“Do you come as a king or a warrior?” she asked.

“I’m nothin’ much at the moment,” I replied, sighin’. “It’s been two months and I ain’t heard anything to tell. I’m not complainin’,” I added, hurriedly and untruthfully. “I’m just restless.”

“You are still mourning,” she replied. “For you the grief is still too great. You must be restless a while longer, and learn to control your grief.”

I’d seen what had happened to fighters who acted outta emotion in a street fight. Hell, I’d seen what happened to vamps who let their version a’ emotion, which was bloodlust, take over. It didn’t end well for them. Mostly in ended on the point a’ my silver stick.

“Right,” I said, and it was clear that I agreed with her however much I didn’t want to. “Can yeh give me a quick update, then?”

She sighed.

“We are not keeping things from you, se hela kiram. We have told you nothing because there is nothing to tell. The vampires are hunting, that is all. We are watching Azare, and your professor as much as we can, but the battle of the heart has thrown everyone’s plans into disarray. Perhaps you can tell me something.”

I pulled out a cigarette and lit it.

“Eastwick’s angry,” I said. “I can tell things aren’t going well for him, and I’m guessin’ that it’s cause a’ the battle, but a’ course I can’t be sure. D’yeh know how the black market business is going?”

“Badly,” she said, and smiled.

“That’d be it, then,” I said. “I’ve been down to the southeast slum bars and everyone there is a little on edge. They know somethin’s up, but whatever it is doesn’t concern them, so I guessed it was the black market business again. One other thing,” I added, and paused to think. Suora smoked her pipe in silence and waited. “I don’t think Eastwick’s runnin’ the business. I may be wrong, but I think there’s an edge a’ fear to his temper. And I think he’s been tryin’ to recruit outta our class. I heard about a couple students havin’ private meetings with him that weren’t about grades, or at least, not only about grades.”

Suora drew her breath in.

“We missed that,” she said. “He is well protected at home and at the college, and we can only watch his movements and not always those. Can you counteract it?”

“I can try,” I said doubtfully. “I know he’s got no chance with Er and Mare, and I can get at Ben through Mare, but I ain’t sure about Dev and Kate. I don’t think he’s tried Ara or Pearl or Lisa yet, and I ain’t sure he’s tried Ben, although Ben would be an easy play. He’s going after power, now, if I’m any judge. If he takes a shot at Chris that’ll be tricky cause I’ve never spoken to the guy, and if he goes after the underclassmen or the seniors I don’t think I’ll be able to do anything, but…sure. I can try.” I paused for thought again, breathin’ smoke. “I’ll get in with Er as much as I can. The others tend to look up to him. Even Dev. Even some a’ the seniors.”

Suora nodded.

“And you wish to take Aiden with you tomorrow. How are your parents doing?”

“Gettin’ better all the time,” I said. “I ain’t told them about Eastwick yet, but give it another day or two, a week at the most, and I think I’ll be able to. They don’t like him much more than I do, so that ain’t a problem, but it would be nice if I could tell them somethin’ that would stop them worryin’ about me. Fashers don’t take on sparks,” I added, “and I ain’t told them about se hela kiram either, and even if I did I doubt they’d find it any comfort. I don’t.”

Suora nodded, slowly.

“I have something for you,” she said. She stood up, and went into her wagon, and came out again a moment later with a book. It was a small book, one that I could easily fit into my pocket. She handed it to me.

It was a book of runes. I remembered the first time I’d seen the Gamblers. Lawrence had asked after a fourth soul, and one a’ the Gamblers had scratched a rune into the dirt.

“Learn the language of Death,” she said, handin’ it to me. “Be ready when he chooses to meet you.”

“More homework,” I said and sighed. “I wish Z were here. He would a’ loved this.”

Suora put her hand under my chin and lifted my eyes to hers.

“Never forget the price that was paid to set him free,” she said. “Learn to seek truth without him to guide you.” She paused, and looked like she was tryin’ to remember a word or a phrase she’d heard once. “Make him proud of you.”

It was such a human phrase for a messenger to use that it was almost quaint. I nodded, and put my hand over my eyes for a moment till I stopped cryin’.

“There is one final thing I must tell you,” she said, when I looked up again. “The scarred elf has been across the river. We think he was looking for you.”

“What?” I exclaimed. “Even with Death and all? I thought the elves would be stayin’ the hell away.”

“Korata’s bravery is legendary among the elves, and even we have heard of it,” Suora said solemnly, “but in your actions he has seen a bravery to match his own. You are most likely in no danger from him, so long as you stay out of the elf wood. But watch for him, and be cautious. We do not know what his intentions are.”

I nodded. And to think that when I’d arrived an hour ago I’d been wantin’ somethin’ to happen.

“Now go,” she said abruptly, and added, under her breath, “before Aiden falls into the fire from impatience.”

I went, and spent the next couple a’ hours tryin’ to wear Aid down to the point where he’d let me sleep. I managed to drag him to bed eventually, and got a couple hours sleep.

I woke up at dawn when I felt him crawl outta bed. For a few minutes I lay still, fuzzy with sleep and wonderin’ whether it was worth the effort a’ crawlin’ outta bed to find out where he’d gone and why. Eventually I did, and found him sittin’ by last night’s fire starin’ at the east with a look of concentration on his face. I walked over to him and sat down. Frost covered everything, and it was so cold my fingers were numb after five minutes, but he never moved, except to glance up at me and return to starin’ eastwards.

“Tell me,” I said softly after a moment.

“You and Z used to sit out here sometimes watching the sunrise,” he said. “I thought maybe he’d be here still, at least a little bit.”

I gazed at the sunrise too, and lit myself a cigarette. Aid glanced up at me again and smiled.

“He is here, now,” he said.

“How d’yeh know?” I asked.

“Isn’t he with you still, at least a little bit?”

Aid was a funny little creature, even for a halver werewolf. His notion a’ reality was a little different from most people’s and not strictly wrong either, just confused. He confused the symbol a’ somethin’ for the thing itself. He sometimes called bones and weapons Death or a hug a love and didn’t seem to fully understand why that wasn’t quite right. It was probably because he’d been a were since he was very young. To animals, the symbol and the thing often are the same, cause their minds can’t separate them, can’t form notions like Death separate from the simple fact a’ dyin’.

Sometimes, though, I wished he was right. I wished yeh could hand someone Death or Love the way yeh could hand them a spoon and that would be the end a’ it.

“If yeh come out here rememberin’ how he used to come out here, isn’t he with you a little bit too?” I asked. Aid crawled on my lap, a habit he picked up from bein’ a wolf one night a month, and leaned his head on my shoulder and I could feel a little patch a damp startin’. It didn’t last long. He got warm with my arm around him and fell back asleep, and I threw my cigarette butt away and carried him back into the tent and got a few more hours myself.

Chapter eighteen

I got up and watched the sun rise. I was so numb that moving was difficult. I barely made it down the stairs cause I couldn’t feel when my foot touched the wood a’ the next step. I could feel my heartbeat slowin’. One flight was enough to make me breathless.

I stepped out onto the lawn just as the first golden rays a’ mornin’ lit the river on fire. I’d forgotten my jacket but I couldn’t feel the cold. I put my hand out and saw the sunlight touch it and turn the veins beneath my skin blue. The blood was beginnin’ to drain out a’ them. I was on the edge a’ death. Tonight would be my last night.

When the sun was well up I went back inside and upstairs, and got the book a’ runes out a’ my jacket pocket. To be ready when Death came for me.

I spent the afternoon sittin’ on the steps out front, practicin’ writin’ the runes in the snow with my finger. I wore my jacket—not that it made any difference to me, but I didn’t particularly want to be buried with white patches a’ frostbite up and down my arms.

Noon came and went and still I weren’t hungry, or cold, or tired, or anything except numb. The thought a’ my parents drifted across my mind, but even that had no effect on me except a flicker a’ regret that I wouldn’t be there to comfort them when they got the news I was dead. I knew I weren’t going to call them. It was too late for that.

The afternoon waned and so did my attention. The book a’ runes slipped from my fingers and lay in the snow where it fell, and I took no notice a’ it. The sun drifted down toward the river, and I thought, briefly, a’ Anatek, and how she’d saved my life the last time I almost died. She’d been badly wounded in that fight and her only reward was to have the one she fought for slip from her grasp a second time. It seemed a poor reward, but I could make it up to her now.

I picked up the book a’ runes and carried it inside, and left it on the kitchen counter next to a note for Sebas askin’ him to return it for me, and tellin’ him goodbye. I left no note for my parents. I couldn’t think a’ what to say.

I left the house again and went down to the river just as the upper edge of the sun disappeared behind the horizon and left the world in delicate gray twilight. I paused, just on the edge a’ the water, to look around one last time, then waded out into the stream, to a rock that jutted out a’ the knee-deep current. There I sat and watched the stars come out.

Weren’t more than five minutes before there was a ripple and a splash and Anatek rose out a’ the water before me. She swam up next to the rock and rested there, lookin’ up at me with large, dark, happy eyes.

“Hello, Anatek,” I whispered. She tilted her head and smiled. “I never thanked you for savin’ my life last time.” There was somethin’ oddly pure and innocent about her. She was achingly beautiful, and when she held her hand out to me, invitingly, there was no bitterness, no grudge. I’d pushed her off a pier and tricked her into fightin’ a vampire, but it didn’t matter to her. With single-minded constancy it was me and me only that she wanted, and she was nothin’ but happy to get it. Still I hesitated.

I glanced up at the stars again and thought a’ Z, the reason I’d pushed her off a pier in the first place—the reason I was what she wanted. I was so close to him now that it almost felt like he was sittin’ beside me, laughin’ softly and askin’ for a cigarette. The first time I’d met him I’d made fun a’ him for his name, then the day after someone else had made fun a’ him and I’d landed one on his nose cause I’d decided no one would be allowed to make fun a’ him but me. Aris, so old for bein’ so young, his father only just buried, had smiled through his tears and thanked me, softly, and with no pretence and no fear, and the world had changed. Twelve year old Aris, tellin’ me angrily that my parents loved me more than anything and I was a fool if I didn’t see it. Seventeen year old Aris, shakin’ his head over my first cigarette and revealin’ that he’d been smokin’ for almost a year already. Twenty year old Aris, sayin’ goodbye the first time, sayin’ goodbye the second time a month later. Tellin’ me I had to go on livin’. Tellin’ me not to be mad because I was the one who got left behind.

I was cryin’.

Anatek lowered her hand till it rested on mine, watchin’ me, curious and confused. She took my hand in both a’ hers but didn’t pull me into the water to die. She looked up at me again and smiled. She reached a hand up and wiped my tears away, and I could barely feel it. She put her hand to her lips and tasted love and sorrow.

For a moment she was still and shaking, her chest heavin’ with new pain. Then she clutched my hand to her heart and bent over it with a low cry, soft and desperate like a dyin’ animal. She was still shakin’, and when a moment later she raised her head her eyes glistened like the stars above us.

Anatek was cryin’, too.

She put her hand to her face and wiped off the tears, and looked at her hand for a moment. Suddenly she put her fingers on my lips, and I tasted salt water. Then she slipped away from me, back into the river, and was gone. For a moment I just sat there, uncertain what had happened, then I stood up slowly and waded back to the shore. The moment I stepped out a’ the water the numbness started to fade, leavin’ bitter cold and pain behind. I was dizzy, too, and a little sick, and a thick, warm feelin’ was spreadin’ through my back and chest, as though I were drownin’ in honey. As I crossed the lawn I heard voices callin’ me. I tried to call back, but my throat felt choked, like I had a bad cold.

Sebas saw me first, and called to Edmund and Lawrence and Lydia and they came rushin’ to me.

“Tam,” Sebas said, and I could hear the relief in his voice. “Good god, what have you been doing? Where were you? When we found your note—”

“I think I accidentally gave Anatek a part of my soul,” I said.

“What?” Sebas gasped.

“How?” Lawrence asked. I opened my mouth to answer and choked. Blood was drippin’ down my chin and I had pins an’ needles all over. The dizziness was worse—it felt like the whole world was spinnin’.

“Tam, what happened?” Sebas asked. “Tam. Tam!” I tried to say somethin’ but no sounds could make it through the blood in my mouth. The world started to spin faster and just before I fell into blackness I felt someone catch me.