It was good tea, all things considered, and I really did admire his efforts at being a good host—but the fact was, I was there to kill him. This was, unfortunately, something of a trend in the profession.
He spoke with the confidence of his kind. “You’ve made a terrible mistake.”
“You’ve poisoned me,” I agreed.
That gave him pause. “You knew?”
“It was a necessary professional consideration,” I told him.
He didn’t have much to say to that. A clock ticked somewhere in the back of the parlor. A very fashionable parlor, full of the most fashionable things. Flock wallpaper, teakwood furniture, a sideboard from somewhere in the unpronounceable east. Beyond the damask curtains I heard carts and voices echo over widening streets. Master Zaleski was a well-heeled fellow.
He was also a monster.
“I’ve made a good life for myself here,” he said. “I’m an upstanding member of the community.”
I set the teacup down. “You ate that choir boy.” I’d found his bones in a church-side grotto. “Do you even remember?”
Dark streaks bloomed like ink at the corners of his clear, blue eyes. “Do you remember all your loaves of bread?”
Well, I suppose he had a point.
“This was my week,” he went on. “My year. My work’s in the most exclusive salons.” His skin, at first too pale, turned now to charcoal grey. “But you.” The voice now grated like grinding stone. “You’d ruin it all. I know what you are.” Claws extended from his fingertips, one at a time. The flesh split audibly. “You’re a Blue Widow.”
My order has a reputation among creatures like him. Not a vampire—some kind of striga, I thought. “I suppose this means finishing my fitting is out of the question?”
“You’ll be dead in three minutes.”
On the table I placed my very particular sword. “How fortunate. I only need two.”
I drew ancient steel.
Two howls filled the room: The cry of the striga, and the keening of a King’s Blade.
The striga struck first. He came fast as bowshot, low and hunched and hungry. I pivoted; claws caught; the bustle of my dress shredded in their wake. Pain bloomed where one claw’s edge lanced my thigh.
I liked that skirt, I thought, then cursed myself for indulging the complaint. The striga was coming back again. Even with the sword’s power, an unfocused moment could be deadly. Even an armiger, even a Widow, would die to a striga’s bite. I’d seen it happen.
So I urged the sword for power. Reluctantly, it yielded. I felt the thrill of it, the seductive heat. Time slowed, ever so subtly, as I watched the striga lunge. Thin and bloodless lips revealed his razored maw.
My sword caught his claws. Light flashed at the impact. We both screamed defiance.
I twisted in, pushing for leverage. I felt resistance as my blade bit slowly through the hard flesh of a grasping palm.
Howling, he twisted back, spine agile as a cat’s.
My steel was stained with black, but I did not relent. My boot took his chest before another claw could catch. I near cried for pain—the cut I’d already suffered split wider with the effort. Blood ran warm along my leg. A leg that gave out.
Stupid. Every woman should know her limits. I fell to a knee and tangled against an expensive chair.
Then I noticed the tingling in my fingers. The slow numbness creeping up my arms.
“I can see it in your veins,” the striga taunted me.
“Two minutes,” I reminded him, one corner of my mouth turned down.
“Just lie there.” He smiled a fanged smile. “Let it happen. I can see it—the thing you did, all those years ago. This will be a mercy.”
His words were all the motivation I needed. Leg aching, veins burning, I pushed to my feet. Overhead, I held my sword, both hands to the pommel.
The striga widened his stance. Our eyes met. He jumped.
My sword howled loud and then louder, wind and light awhirl around the blade. My elbows shuddered. My knuckles ached. And closer, closer came the claws.
Then I struck.
Steel and power and anger caught the striga’s brow. I shattered leathern flesh and iron bone.
When he hit the ground, he had nothing left that you could call a face.
Two minutes, surely.
Fingers trembling, I fetched a powder from my purse. I would not falter. Would not gasp. These were not luxuries allowed a Widow, and tears the least of all. I poured the powder in the monster’s tea and drank it.
The antidote took time to settle.
I looked around the ruins of the shop and wondered who might finish my dress.
The risen and hungry dead. Strigoi are sometimes born of those who die with their life’s work unfulfilled, but more often from dark magic. Concealed behind a pleasing mask of skin, they secretly hunger for the flesh of mortals, the sole thing that can sustain their accursed body. Strigoi have been known to resume their mortal lives and hide for years, only to suddenly snap and devour their own kin.
(From Astronarius’ ‘Monsters of Molovia’)
“You killed a tailor,” said the Mother Superior.
“He was a striga.”
“You killed the most popular tailor in the entire country.”
I couldn’t really fault the popularity. I was wearing one of his dresses; it was top work. Did I derive a certain satisfaction from knowing it was the very last one he’d ever put together? Maybe a little.
Somewhere in the Temple the bells were tolling. Services progressed out beyond the office’s echoing stone.
The Mother Superior struck the desk. Her teacup rattled in its saucer. “We have procedures. There should have been an investigation.”
“And by then,” I said, dipping my tea-bag beneath warm water, “He’d have been halfway to the next county, snacking on toddlers all the way. This wasn’t a tessin or a kikimora. Strigoi are clever.”
“You took a hunt without a letter of marque. There was no bounty, Teresa.”
Ah. And there it was.
“You’re one of the better hunters in the Order. But you don’t understand economy. You don’t understand our code!”
“No marque is necessary,” I said, “When a Widow acts in self-defense.” The poison, I mentioned, was a professional consideration.
“I imagine you think antivenin of that caliber grows on trees.” The Mother exhaled.
It’s not that I didn’t understand her position. But I hoped I never sat a desk so long that I forgot what the real work was. Ledgers, balances—who had any use for that when people were dying? Besides which, I’d look positively awful in a nun’s habit. I was lucky that I got sent to a lay order; the Order of the Blue Cross had little patience for clerical vows.
“I knew you would be trouble the moment you were chosen by that sword,” the Mother groused. “Everyone who’s ever carried it has been trouble.”
Without children, without a trade or a fortune, joining the clergy seemed really the only sensible choice. They let widows remarry in the south, I’m told, but in the Temple marriage is eternal, binding beyond death. Better a sister than a spinster, I figured.
Of course, every clerical novice is tested for possible sympathy to relics. I was no exception. It was my lot to be chosen by a Blade’s whim. I tried to insist on the convent regardless; they wouldn’t let me go. You can’t hurt monsters with common steel, they told me. They needed every Blade. I must wear the Blue.
I was not a killer, I’d insisted, not a hunter.
But the first time I spilled blood, something awakened in my own.
“So give me a contract,” I said. “A proper one. Marqued.”
Just like that, I’d fallen for the Mother’s trap. “Oh,” she said. “Oh, I have just the thing.” She handed a letter of marque to me, already stamped with my personal seal.
I looked at it. It spoke of disappearances, deaths, mysterious circumstances. A hamlet in need of an expert investigator and monster hunter. Exactly the sort of thing to excite my imagination and occupy my mind. So why, then, was the Mother’s smile so cruel?
“It’s in Molovia. Bit of a trip, but we already had your things packed.”
My stomach sank. “Molovia?”
“East Molovia, as a matter of fact.” Oh, no. “A little village called Elik. Perhaps you’ve heard of it?”
“I have some familiarity.” I hadn’t been for seven years. I’d resolved never to go back.
It was where my family lived. It was where my husband died. It was home.
I couldn’t think of any place worse.
“Your train leaves in fifteen minutes,” said the Mother, smiling as she produced my ticket.
Molovia is an entire country in the sky. In the City that’s romantic; in Molovia it is necessary. Ten months of twelve, the land is swallowed up by a single storm, a tempest as mysterious as it is reliable. Clouds choke the hollows and the valleys. Thunder tears at anyone who journeys on the roads. Were there not so many buttes, no one could ever have lived in such a dreary land. Each village, each farm, becomes an island built on high—full of people who might spy one another through a telescope, but never speak face-to-face.
It wasn’t until I left that I realized how queer that was. The storm broke but once a year, and all the times between seemed like dreaming. Every Storm’s End brought fevered excess in travel and trade and romance. My marriage came of an End. My husband’s death came of a Storm. As I peered out the window, I dreaded what might come of this one.
Someone spoke. “I can’t believe they’re sending us to this inbred hamlet.”
The train shook as it traveled down the tracks, chunk-chunk, chunk-chunk, like the beating of an iron heart. I let it beat a while longer before I looked for the speaker.
The car’s only other occupant was a balding priest.
“I was born there,” I told him.
Others might have been chastised. This priest only groaned. “Good God! And you have to go back. What a dreadful business.” He leaned in his seat. “Miserable place, the stormlands. Though I heard it’s not really the storm that’s the trouble, but the women.”
I gave him a look.
He grinned knowingly. “Not ones like yourself. The shades. Likho, Poludnica. Jealous, white-gowned Vila. Born of the storm, doomed to pull men down to it.”
“Creatures to put fear in your heart,” I told him, having killed their kind before.
He produced a flask. “I have just the cure for fear.”
I took it and drank. I scarcely felt the burning.
The priest looked me over. “I’ve read about Blue Widows in the paper. You couldn’t make up stories like that—no one would believe them if they weren’t real.” He leaned in, too interested. “Does the sword speak to you?”
“No,” I said.
But if it does, the Mother warned me once, Then you’ll know it’s time to give it up.
A particular mesa grew steadily larger in the window, looming over buttes and a line of windswept pines. Little lights and homes dotted its flattened peak. There was home: There was Elik.
The Storm was no more than a week away. Perhaps the Mother hoped I’d get stranded in it.
That was the thought I had in mind when the first of the strangeness happened.
The lights atop the mesa caught my eye. I figured them candles inside of houses, torches alighting fields. And yet they rose. They rose like sparks from a fire, glittering golden yellow in the sky above country dark. And then I saw a butterfly.
It was much like any butterfly. Yet I saw it clearly in the night. Gold was its color, aglow like a lantern, and I swear by the stars that I heard it speak.
Don’t come home.
I noticed I was gripping my sword most tightly. For a time I only stared, flask in hand.
Then I asked the priest: “Do you see that?”
He blinked, as though awakening from a stupor. “See what?”
I pointed. But there was nothing there.
“Never mind,” I said. There was no point worrying him.
The priest shrugged and took back his flask. We were quiet for a while.
“You know,” he finally said. “That’s a very fine dress.”
“Bespoke, I’d wager. City work.”
He leaned in, conspiratorial. “Is it a Zaleski?”
I stared at him until he moved to a different chair.
“We sent for a monster hunter. Not an old lady.”
A woman does not discuss her age, but rest assured that I am not an old lady. There was no point telling the militiaman so; that would only be accepting the premise as meriting a response.
The station lay in the very shadow of the mesa, cut halfway into rock. Steps spiraled up the mesa’s entire exterior, their edges rounded by the wind and rain of years. Two guards’ crossed spears barred the way. Men I recognized, older now. They did not recognize me. The priest, of course, they let up without a second glance.
I laid my hand upon the pommel of my particular sword. “Do you know what this is?”
He looked at me like I was daft. “Letter opener?”
“It’s a King’s Blade.”
“Horseshit. You’re trying to trick us into giving you shelter when the Storm hits. Well, we’ve got our food squared, and we don’t need another mouth.”
The other fellow looked more nervous. There I sensed my advantage. “My name is Teresa Kowalczyk. I come in the name of God with a weapon of God. Any who would keep me from Elik are an enemy of God.”
The two sotted fools who passed for a local militia were not immune to invocations of religion. They moved.
My feet made dull clacks on the stone stairs. Everything was of stone, here. The thrusting cliffs, the leaning buildings, the walls, the wells; everything was dark, everything grey. Folk tilled terraced fields, beating hoes into unyielding earth. The adjoining buttes were shorter than the mesa, narrower; fields had been worked into their tops and rope bridges connected them all to one another.
It was a very long drop. I possessed a native’s appreciation for the danger of a sudden breeze.
“You are late,” said a bearded man I did not recognize.
I held a hand to my hat, to keep the brim from whipping. “I took a bloody train,” I told him, ascending the final steps. “Do you suppose I could have flown?”
That was a mistake. He hadn’t been angry with me before, but now he had a reason. “A man died last night. Died while you were sipping vodka in a cabin.” He added, “We wanted a knight.”
I produced my letter of marque. “You got a Widow.”
A monocle enlarged his eye while he studied the contract. I doubted he even knew how to tell a fake.
I had ideas about how my homecoming would play out, all of them by now inaccurate. Aside from a few farmers, I saw not a soul in town. All the windows were shuttered. The doors were painted with the moon-and-star, to ward off evil.
“Seems a little sleepy for noon,” I said.
That set him off more. “Sleepy,” he all but cursed. “You don’t know the half of it.”
“Where’s the mayor?”
“I’m the mayor. As of last week.”
I looked at the man, then. Really looked at him. “Lazarevic?”
“Welcome back, Teresa.”
“A not-unusual side effect of seven years passing,” said Lazarevic, scratching at that voluminous beard. When I left he could scarcely grow one; he’d hoped to marry some woman from the mountain to the east. Had he? “If you read the letters your parents sent you—“
“Show me where he died. Bring anyone who saw anything.”
“There may be a slight difficulty,” said Lazarevic. “They’re all asleep.”
“I’ll be happy to wake them.”
“I’ll be happy if you can.”
Normal practice was to get to know the people first, see who could be trusted. I had an advantage in that I already knew the locals—and held a corresponding desire to see as few of them as possible.
I didn’t get my wish. The town slowly came alive. Some came out to meet the priest, since Elik had no priest of its own and was surely in need of one to witness marriages. But I was the greater spectacle. Folk slowly opened their doors to peer at the woman returned from the capital, to murmur disapproval, not for the dress or the sword but for the memory of scandal. Few dared come outside. Was the monster so bad as that?
Lazarevic led me to one of the buttes, across a rope bridge. Somehow it seemed sturdier when I was a child. On the other side was a two-story building, inelegant and wide. It passed locally for an inn.
“We moved the afflicted in here,” he said. “All the Storm’s End visitors already went home.”
Scratch marks were visible on the floor where beds had been unceremoniously dragged. A half-dozen souls drowsed upon those beds, all scarcely breathing.
“The mayor was the first,” said Lazarevic. “He fell asleep, murmuring about seeing his wife again, and couldn’t be raised for days. When he died, we didn’t think twice, since he was old. But then went the miller, and then the clerk, and now these farmers.”
I pricked two of the sleepers with a needle. Not a stir. “How many dead?”
I didn’t need to test with hazelwood to see that a curse was in effect. The question instead was what kind of curse.
“I don’t see the latest body.”
“He’s out back.”
We went out back. There, in a disturbed circle of grass, lay a corpse with windblown hair.
“You left him on the ground,” I said, approving.
Lazarevic misapprehended my intent. “We didn’t want to interfere with the investigation.”
I kneeled, as well as Zaleski’s dress allowed. I looked for bites, for trauma. I found none. I touched a stick of hazel to his extremities. Sure enough it blackened, crisping at the edges, like it had been thrown into a fire. So then I turned the man over to inspect his face.
The eyes were gone. Burned out of his skull, seemingly from within, if the burn patterns told true. I felt a sudden nausea. That was ridiculous, I told myself; I’d seen death before and in far nastier flavors. Why should it get to me now?
Perhaps because this was a familiar face. “It’s Karol,” I said. “The miller’s son.”
“It figures you’d recognize him, and not me.”
I didn’t take the bait. “When’s the last time someone saw Karol alive?”
There were plenty of people to ask by then; at least a dozen onlookers clustered around the door. “Just after sundown, the innkeep went to bed. Come the morning we woke up and here Karol was.” He added, “Now the innkeep’s sleeping, too.”
I weighed options. Lots of monsters manifest in Molovia. A noon-maid’s touch could strike a man dead in seconds, if he said the wrong things. But a noon-maid rarely came out in autumn, and never at night. A Vila was possible, but no one had seen one for years. “Might be a Polevik,” I decided. “Karol always had a drinking problem.”
That drew a few ungrateful mutters from the thickening crowd. Which told me Karol’s habits hadn’t much improved in the years I was gone. I didn’t blame him; there wasn’t much else to do in Molovia but drink, when the storm was up. An especially vindictive Polevik might have cursed the whole town as punishment.
This is your fault, I heard, on the wind. My fingers twitched and my eyes searched, but I found nothing.
I asked the crowd, “Who’s the biggest drinker in town?”
No one spoke. A lot of them looked a certain way. I noticed the priest standing there and sighed.
“I suppose you’ll do,” I told him.
“You catch a monster the same way you catch anything else. With bait.” I told the priest, “You’re going to sit out here all night and drink.”
The priest smiled, flask already in hand. “Onerous. But I’ll try to soldier through.”
My bait caught worse things than I bargained for.
These grass-haired dwarfs appear promptly at noon or night, dressed only in white and black. Born from the passing of a bitter spendthrift, they loathe the lazy and the indolent. A farmer asleep on the job or a drunkard lazing in the field might find themselves cruelly murdered by a Polevik’s hand. They are, however, often propitiated by gifts.
(From Astronarius’ ‘Monsters of Molovia’)
Waiting for the night I dozed. The dream was vivid.
My husband Serafin stood on the highest of our town’s high peaks. Scaling it is perilous, but from the top the whole of Molovia reveals itself. On clear days we could see the next town over, clouds roiling in the lowlands in between. On those nights we watched the stars. I sat cross-legged beside him of an evening while he showed me the constellations, and spoke the stories of their naming. I am not sure at what point my interest shifted from the stories to the man who told them. The change was gradual, too slow to notice, as water wears down stone. Only by weeks and months did my heart’s armor erode. Serafin was a clerk, but he dreamed, I think, of navigating the ocean.
In the dream, Serafin spoke. I listened. My sister Agata joined us halfway through, with a bright laugh that warmed my heart. I spoke some question, when it was all done, and we moved to descend the steps, near as steep as ladders.
My foot slipped. I fell. Farther, and farther, through mist and wind and fog . . .
I startled awake.
Wind stirred my hair. I was sure I’d left the inn room’s window closed, but it was open. I might have worried, but a knock interrupted.
“There’s an old couple here to see you.”
Lazarevic’s voice, from the hallway. “I’m getting dressed,” I lied. Then realized it was a good idea.
I fixated on the mirror. Not for reasons of vanity, but because I never had much luck with the lacing on my hunter’s coat without being able to see it. Unfortunately, this forced me to reflect on just how many scars I’d accumulated over the years, and why I always insisted on hats.
Finally the coat button caught. “Did they give names?”
Lazarevic recounted them. My parents’ names.
I’d wondered, of course, whose will would break first, mine or theirs. I had imagined a wintry spell of disregard, them not noticing me, my not noticing them, and finally some kind of halfhearted apology upon my leaving that I would deign to halfheartedly accept. I hadn’t been ready for an earnest and open greeting.
I peered through the window and there he was waiting, my old father, marginally older, silver hair turned white and eyes drooping deeper beneath a wrinkled brow. My mother, severe in a church-approved dress that surely choked around the collar. No sign of my sister, which would have been the only pleasant detail; had she finally been married off? Bad enough that father kept sending letters that I ignored; far worse that my sister Agata never sent anything at all.
There was no way to leave without running into them. I stepped out.
“Teresa,” he started.
“Father,” I answered.
“We were hoping you’d come to dinner.”
They were my family. Would it be so bad, I wondered, to give them a second chance? I studied the lines of my father’s face, waiting, though for what I could not say.
Then I remembered the old words, exchanged in anger. I stepped right past him.
I was on the hunt, I consoled my conscience. Family could come later.
The priest passed out sooner than I expected. Liquor spilled from the flask and stained his trousers. I did not help. I waited to see if a spirit took offense.
An important quality in my profession is the ability to forgo sleep. Much that is ill can only be met by moonlight. I waited until dark settled deeply. Fingers of mist slithered in silence beneath the bridge. My knees creaked temperamentally, but I kept the vigil all the same. Kept it until the sky turned and the pole-star rose. Briefly I wondered if the locals were deluded, if there was no monster, and whether the Mother sent me just to illustrate her point about thoroughness in investigation.
Then came the butterfly.
Gold were its wings and gold its eyes. The same color as the lights I saw on the train. Entranced, I watched it alight upon the priest. Its wings beat once, twice. Then, ever so slowly, it dissolved—turned to faintest crumbling dust.
The sleeping priest shed his own body. As a soul might detach from flesh, a golden spirit stood up from the chair, leaving skin behind. The spirit was younger, head full of hair, waist bereft of paunch. Yet it was unmistakably the same priest.
Eyes unseeing, the spirit rose, expressionless. Up into the sky it drifted, until it looked like a glittering star. More lights lifted from the houses of the town. Dozens, at least. I suspected they all took the shape of men.
Could I intervene? Would it make things worse or better? Surely no Polevik did this.
A hand seized my wrist. My eyes widened and I nearly drew my sword. But I held back.
I was, after all, looking at my sister.
“You didn’t come to dinner,” Agata whispered, crouched behind a tree.
“I’m busy,” I whispered back, which was true, but also made me feel about twelve.
I looked back to the sky. The moment had passed. The shades were gone. The only stir was a murder of crows dozing in the trees nearby, moonlight catching off their silvered beaks.
Agata had scarcely aged. I suppose she’d been living here, in a land perpetually shaded and idle, whilst I’d hunted across two continents. Perhaps she hadn’t even had children. Her eyes were the green of damp moss, her dress blue and loose and simple.
“Mum and Da waited hours for you,” she said. “They love you, you know.”
“They have a strange way of showing it.”
“It’s been seven years, Teresa.”
“I don’t have the patience to sit and hear about how my absence ruined harvests, or how I could have been schoolmarm for the village children, or how I was responsible for—”
“You couldn’t have known you’d get Serafin killed,” Agata murmured, quieter than a whisper.
“I did not kill him,” I told her, hands so tense they hurt. Yes, it was a tragedy. Yes, he wouldn’t have died if he’d married her, instead. But this was not the time. “We’ll talk. Later. I’m busy trying to save your fucking lives.”
“Our lives don’t need saving.”
I might have said more. But then came the butterflies.
They came over the edge of the butte, a glittering golden cloud. Dozens. Hundreds. They did not hurry. Tiny wings beat steadily; it would have been stately, had I not seen the priest before.
I dreaded what might happen at their touch.
“Teresa,” my sister started.
“Go,” I told her, stepping forward. “Go home and close the door.”
While she fled I drew the Blade.
On the butte’s edge I stood, weapon held on high. My eyes narrowed with focus. Wind began to howl about the steel. Moment by moment, it built more thickly, more violently. I held until my wrists ached, until a tempest wreathed the sword.
Then I cut.
The wind soared through night-dark air, a distortion visible to the eye. It slammed into the wall of butterflies. Their flight turned erratic.
My throat caught in a moment’s surprise. They did not simply turn aside. They turned to pieces. The butterflies disintegrated into a cloud of golden, dusty pollen.
Distantly, something shrieked.
The pollen fell about the nearby trees. It dusted the wings and beaks of crows.
One by one, golden light blossomed in their eyes. The whole murder twisted their heads in unison. They stared at me, unmoving, unblinking. A faint wind ruffled their feathers. Intellect glimmered cruelly in their gaze.
One bird is a nuisance, I reflected. A murder is named so for a reason.
From the tree, they dived. My leg was near fully recovered from the striga’s claw, so I was quick on my feet, in trousers instead of skirts. I danced backwards as I cut. One stroke severed two birds from breast to wing.
The golden color vanished from their eyes, snuffed like a silent candle. Diminutive bodies hit the earth, bleeding, unmoving. I darted behind a tree.
Claws tore skin and bark alike. I couldn’t afford to hold back.
The Blade sparked and the night brightened as from lightning. I swung. Black wings parted before me, cleaved in twain.
I immediately felt an ache, bone-deep. I let the Blade ease the pain, knowing that would eventually make it worse. All power has a price.
Birds wheeled, above and below. More caws echoed from distant buttes; they’d surely be here soon. I needed to be inside.
I darted for the nearest bridge.
But I didn’t make it across.
In the sky hung the shape of a woman. Her skin was white like statuary, bloodless. Her eyes were the green of hard-cut jewels. A drape of gauze hung about her shoulders, insubstantial, halfway wrought from the wind and mist itself. Her toes blurred in the breeze.
Hatred smoldered in her eyes.
Definitely a Vila, I remember thinking.
Her drapery flared and fluttered. Wind whipped the grasses of the mesa and rattled shutters in the village. She gathered air about herself like armor—then pointed at me with a solitary finger.
The wind hit me like a carriage. A wall of pressure flattened my coat against my body. My cheeks rippled. My eyes screwed shut. Slowly, I gave ground, step by painful step, until I teetered at the very edge of the bridge, clutching desperately to rope.
The Vila clenched her fist. Currents wrenched my fingers, one by one, until my grip on the Blade slipped. It fell into the abyss, down into midnight dark. Weakness hit me instantly, harder than the storm.
Wind howled. Bridge-ropes flailed. I reached for them—reached until they popped from their moorings.
The bridge fell, and me with it.
So here we are, I thought. I was afraid to die, surely. But even more, I was angry. Bad enough that I’d failed. Worse that everyone at home would see me fail. They’d all been proven right. Teresa’s bad judgment killed her man, and now it killed her. A bitter draught to swallow.
I struck the earth.
But I didn’t die.
I lay in a cemetery, built on the low ground far beneath the mesa. The constellations were fading, but I saw the sign of the Hierophant, whose eye gleams bluest of all stars. I remembered the way Serafin told that story. His grave lay down there, somewhere.
I figured my spine shattered, my limbs immobile. But I soon realized I’d moved my neck to gaze upon the headstones.
A breeze breathed into my ear. Go back to the city.
Spared. I’d been spared by the Vila. A monster had looked upon me, taken my measure, and found me not worth killing.
I was definitely not including that in my report.
Everything hurt. Her wind had softened my fall, it was the only explanation, but “soften” is a relative word, falling from such a height.
Only by sunrise did I find my feet. One of the dead crows brushed my time-scuffed boots. I picked it up and trudged for the station.
The militiamen barely tried to stop me. They stared, agape.
Step by step I trudged the stairs, to the very peak of the mesa. Morning’s light had not yet burned away the dew that clung to grassy earth. I stepped past the houses, all the way to the far end, to an old blacksmith’s abode. He’d be up by now, the old workhorse, probably complaining about breakfast. I did not knock when I opened the door.
And sure enough, my father puttered about the kitchen, the sun coming in sideways through the windows.
I thrust a bloody, beheaded crow upon the table. “I brought dinner.”
I allowed myself to faint.
Wrought of air and magic, the Vila dwells in the narrow space between life and after-life. Beautiful and terrible, she is marked by capricious jealousy, born from the passing of frivolous or love-struck ladies. No two are fully alike. Some change shape, some intoxicate the mind, some dance upon the wind. To possess her hair or flesh is to command her. To burn it is to slay her. Vila are among the most powerful monsters, often obsessed with worthy men.
(From Astronarius’ ‘Monsters of Molovia’)
“I had the strangest dream,” I heard my mother say, before I managed to open my eyes. The grandfather clock, our one luxury, quietly clicked.
“You’re not the only one,” said Lazarevic. Who’d invited him?
“I remembered being young again, with Jakub. Lovely days. But then I became a bird. Can you imagine? Teresa was there, but when I saw her, I tried to eat her. She fought me. Hurt me.”
I heard the familiar sound of my father pouring ale. “Dreadful dream.”
“I had the same one,” said Lazarevic. “Half the village did. Were you even asleep?”
“No,” my father admitted. “Thought of my girl out there with whatever-it-was kept me awake. I should have gone after her.”
“That wouldn’t have helped,” I spoke, my voice rasping.
The three of them all descended to fuss over me. They prodded scrapes and cuts and dirt-marred hair. They ignored my complaints. My mother ran her fingers across my scalp, sighing out sympathies.
I quailed with irrational fear. They’d taken my hat away. I tried to push them off, but I couldn’t manage.
My mother’s fingers traced the three deep furrows that run across my skull, the wide claw-marked scars where hair will never grow again. Pink-colored ruts, carved through twisted and half-burned flesh. My vanity could scarcely endure it.
Serafin, I suddenly remembered, bought my very first hat. When I caught onto the wide-brimmed hats of city ladies, he made it his mission to see that I would have the best of their kind in Elik.
“It’s not so bad,” my father lied, not unkindly. “You don’t need to cry.”
“I don’t have the time to cry.” Seven years hadn’t been enough. I didn’t mean to slow down, now.
“Goodness,” said my mother. “I’m going to get all misty. You’d better pour me an ale, too.”
“And me,” I croaked.
“Not for you,” father said. “This instead.”
He put tea in my hands. He must have brewed it a while ago. It was still warm and I was glad to have it.
“Look, this is all very touching,” said Lazarevic. “But what is it? Did you kill it, or not?”
I asked, “Where’s Agata?”
My father stared at me. Mother inhaled sharply.
“Teresa,” father said quietly, “You never read the letters, did you?”
“No,” I admitted.
“Agata died six years ago.”
For a time I only heard the clock.
“It happened the winter after you left.”
But I’d just seen her, part of me wanted to say. What a tasteless joke, another part wished to believe. But in the twilit places between City society and the wild country, the truth was often bitter.
“She’s the monster,” I told myself, as much as them.
They all thought I’d killed my husband. Now I knew I’d have to kill my sister.
“I’ll not hear it spoken,” said Father, stern as on church-day.
“And I won’t say it again. But the truth won’t change.” I looked at Lazarevic. “Help me up.”
“You’re in no state,” he told me, helping all the same. Enough to sit, at least. “And you don’t have your sword.”
“It’s down there, somewhere.” Not that it’d do me any good. Finding it could take a week or more, and the Storm would come sooner than that.
Lazarevic tried to stop me when I stood. “You can’t kill a monster without proper tools,” he said. “Anybody knows that. We’ve not got any.”
“She’ll be weaker in the day,” I said, looking through shelves for a hat. “And a Vila has weaknesses.” I found a battered and sweat-stained tricorn, a hundred years unfashionable. I shoved it on my head and already felt halfway recovered.
“She could be anywhere,” said Lazarevic. “You’ll never find her.”
I buttoned my coat in silence. I allowed my mother to help with the trickiest button. Then I turned up the tricorn’s brim and rotated it to a rakish angle. “I know exactly where she’ll be.”
Worse than a nightmare is the hallucination born of fever. I touched my brow, but it was cold. This hallucination, I wagered, was Agata’s doing. Or at least, the creature who held that name in life.
In front of me, on the steps to the town’s highest peak, I saw myself. Young, unscarred. Arm-in-arm with Serafin.
“If anyone finds out,” my image told him, grinning with the energy of youth, “We’ll be in the worst kind of trouble.”
I watched him sweep me off my feet, one arm around my back, one beneath my knees. I laughed with the thrill of danger, the potential of a drop, even as I trusted in his strength. How did a clerk keep so fit, anyhow?
“I don’t care,” Serafin said. “They’re going to find out eventually, anyway. I’m not going to marry Agata.”
“You’ll have to break the betrothal,” I told him, finger at his chin.
“It’ll be a mess,” he agreed, uncaring. It was not our first tryst.
It all made me ill. I stepped through the image. It dissolved. Step by step I rose higher, until at last I attained the peak. The butte towered over all the others, too narrow for homes or fields. I braced against wind and trudged ahead.
There slept Agata, half-human in her aspect, yet still with dress and hair of white. Around her glittered golden shades. Six in all, one each for the villagers caught in unnatural slumber. When I looked at them, more delusions shimmered.
A farmer, traveling down a stormless road, in company of his friends. A spinster, remembering the passions of her youth. A militiaman, imagining past adventures, embellished beyond all reason. And somewhere, in the depths of those dreams, there was Agata. A passing happenstance, a chance meeting, or even as friend and lover. I am not sure how long I gazed. The images were half real, half in the mind. All moved with the irregular time of dreams.
Agata slept upon the grass. It grew unnaturally tall around her, as if spurred on by magic. All I needed, I consoled myself, was a single hair. And there were so many. Closer, I crept. I became aware of the creaking of my bones, the faint nose made by leather.
She did not wake. Delicately, I kneeled behind her. With my teeth, I removed my glove. I reached for the hair, plucked for a single strand.
Nails dug bloody furrows in my wrist. “I told you,” whispered Agata, “To go home.” Green eyes opened.
One after another, the shades winked out, faces twisted in alarm.
“You’re killing them,” I told her. “Slowly, but all the same.”
Agata stood, then. No—floated. “Yes, there have been accidents,” she admitted. “Dream-weaving isn’t easy. But they’re all miserable. Everyone is miserable, Teresa.” She twisted a perfect mouth, face more beautiful than I remembered. “Lives of dirt and dust and nothing. When they sleep, I give them dreams. Dreams of wonder. Dreams of love. They love me. I love them.”
“I loved you, too.”
Agata’s face stretched. Her lips curled unnaturally wide, a ghoulish sneer. Her skin split along the edges of her mouth. Cracks and furrows marred her face like brittle porcelain, the skull as white beneath. “Then why did you come here?” She howled with the gale of a Storm. I struggled not to tumble.
“I left my sword behind,” I told her, heart thudding. “I didn’t know it was you, before.”
Agata’s eyes softened. Translucent mist filled the graven hollows in her face. “You killed him, Teresa.”
I could not argue. Agata had emptied the air from my lungs.
“You killed him. You killed me.” About her hands glittered golden dust. Dust like that of the butterflies. “Remember it.” She blew, and the dust took my eyes.
“You said it was the only day like it in a hundred years. The only day anyone could see the comet.”
“That’s right,” said Serafin, bleary-eyed. “But if I don’t finish this copy by tomorrow, I’ll have nothing to sell at market, which means another hard Storm season.”
“There’ll be other market days. Other market years. This is your only chance to see a . . . what did you call it?”
“A star unmoored,” he muttered, self-conscious about his poetry. He fussed over his quill.
“Well, you’re not the only one who sells things at market.” Goodness knows it had been effort hiding my piecework from him. I laid the product of that labor on the table. Its brass body made a solid, satisfying clunk.
“Is that . . . ?”
I unwrapped a cloth from around the telescope. “We’re using it tonight. You do not get to disagree.”
He wore a crooked, white-toothed grin. “Maybe I could take a break for a couple hours.”
But the Storm was unkind. By nightfall, the wind howled enough to shake every rope and mooring. One of the militiamen, just sober enough to intervene, barred the path to the highest peak.
“Sorry,” said he. “It’s too dangerous. Wind’s up too high. Couldn’t conscience it in safety.”
“We can try from down here,” suggested Serafin. He didn’t look optimistic—there was far too much fog. We couldn’t see fifteen feet ahead, much less the stars.
“Nonsense,” I told him. “I’ve got an idea.”
The piecework, of course, was herbal. If Molovia has one thing in excess, it is herbs. Things grow beneath the cover of the Storm that thrive nowhere else. I knew which to grind and which to brew to make an especially potent emetic. I knew how to add it to a drink to hide the flavor. And I knew a certain militiaman who would not turn down a drink.
So while he spent the night divesting himself, I grasped Serafin by the hand, and let him up that accursed peak. When the wind struck us, I laughed, full of the invincibility of youth.
Cross-winds came. Earth slid like gravel. Serafin tumbled, the telescope with him, and I could but crouch and watch, lest I die the same.
Come Storm’s End we found him broken and bloated, gnawed upon by beasts.
The story came out, of course. Weeping, I admitted to the crime of poisoning, if not to culpability in death. They certainly could not prove me responsible, said the militiaman, but then, the only witness had conveniently tumbled off a cliff. Who knew what lurked in the heart of woman.
You bring misery to everyone you love, my father told me.
I didn’t push him, I swore, and they believed me.
But you’re still the one that killed him, said my mother. I thought my infidelity absolved by marriage. Apparently I’d been the only one so fooled. This is God’s punishment, make no mistake.
I left to join the clergy, blaming everyone but myself.
Agata tried to follow, but knew not the way I traveled. Down the high road she wandered, until the Storm forced her home. There she dwelled in melancholy, deeper by the day. None dared draw her close, lest they be tainted by association.
One day she slipped from a precipice. No one knew how intentional the death, but everyone had their own idea. Really, said the mayor, it was inevitable.
Agata looked upon me contemptuously, toes not quite touching ground. “Now he would see me. Now he wouldn’t dwell on you. I’m as beautiful as I always deserved to be.”
Light passed through her beautiful face, translucent, to reveal bone and socket.
“It’s a striking look,” I told her.
She wrenched me up by my hair. “Oh, isn’t that just like you, Teresa. Always the jest, to hide what you really think. So tell me! Tell me what you really think.”
“You were right,” I told her.
She hadn’t expected that. The color slowly returned to her face, to her hair. She looked again like Agata, the woman. Agata my sister.
“I seduced your fiancé,” I confessed, believing it. How long had I resisted the desire? I’d relished surrendering to it. “I stole your marriage. I pushed Serafin into danger. I never spared you a thought.”
Agata grasped my shoulders. “As long as you understand. You have to understand, Teresa.” She put her arms around me and hugged. My stomach fluttered, as I put a hand to the back of her head, to hold it against my shoulder. Her touch was cold, like marble. “This is . . . who I am, now. What I am. I can’t change it.”
“Which is why,” I said, fingers coiling at the nape of her neck, “I have to take responsibility.”
My fingers wrenched. Hair came free.
Agata shrieked like the siren. She fell backwards, all at once transformed into the thing with eyes of green. I saw it on her face: The hurt. The betrayal.
My ears rang. When I spoke, I could not hear my own voice. “Hear me!”
She lay seized in stillness, bone-white.
“Go, now,” I told her. “Leave here. And do not come back!”
Nothing happened, for a moment.
And then all that remained of her was a vanishing breeze.
I fell to my knees. For a while, that was all. But soon I remembered my duty. I remembered the hunt. No marque was complete until the monster was well and truly slain.
There was brush enough to make a campfire. I’d learned how ages ago; the Mother had shown me, before her promotion. There was comfort in the ritual, the friction of sticks and branch. Just enough to take my mind off what I must do.
I held a single wisp of hair above the flame. White strands drifted in the fire’s rising heat, as I bent down to stir the embers. Fire warmed my hands.
It wasn’t her, I told myself. It was a beast, born of her passing.
I tried to believe it.
Come the morning I sat on the edge of the precipice, boots dangling in open air. Storm-clouds roiled in the distance. Townsfolk had come, words were spoken, marque papers stamped to satisfaction. There would be more marques waiting in the city. There was always more monstrosity born from the hearts of men.
“The train leaves in ten minutes,” said the priest, behind me.
“I can’t go back yet,” I said. “Have to find the sword.” I hadn’t bothered looking.
The priest set down the Blade, somehow reunited with its scabbard. “Your father found it by a grave. Someone your mother recognized.”
He waited a moment, hoping I might say something.
Eventually he left.
On my smallest finger lay a knot, tied from strands of hair. I watched it stir, while the Storm drew closer.
Copyright © 2017 J.P. Sullivan
Baen Books is pleased to announce J.P. Sullivan as the grand prize winner of the 2017 Baen Fantasy Adventure Award for short fiction for his story “The Blue Widow.”