A Mosaic of Stars: Short Stories From Other Worlds (2 page)

BOOK: A Mosaic of Stars: Short Stories From Other Worlds
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I looked away guiltily, but she took hold of my chin, turning me to look at her.

“See.” She flicked her hand, her face crumpling in pain at the effort. Bright droplets sped across the room, spattering tiles all the way to the foot of the throne. Each tile the blood touched shone brightly against the darkness, like a mosaic of stars. “Now I will always be here with you. In every ceremony, every council, every tedious meeting, my beauty will be here to lift you up.”

From somewhere beneath the weight of my grief and exhaustion, a glimmer of our old light returned.

“Who said you were beautiful?” I asked, raising her hand to my lips.

“Your eyes,” she replied with her final breath.

Years have passed since then. I have lived a lifetime, with all the pain and the joy it brings. But every time I see those tiles shining on the floor of the hall, I hear her voice once more, a whispered wonder amid a mosaic of stars.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Swallowing Lies

 

‘Lying is an art,’ Falling Leaf said, pouring from the small earthenware teapot. ‘I do not go to such lengths for those I despise.’

Aoandon’s clawed blue fingers reached across the low table and closed around her teacup. Her lips parted, revealing a flash of teeth as sharp as her horns. Falling Leaf shuddered and fought down the instinct to flee. After all the pains and preparations to reach this point, she could not give up now.

‘Lying is as much my realm as any other story,’ Aoandon said. ‘It would help you little today.’

Falling Leaf straightened the folds of her second best kimono.

‘Is something wrong with the tea?’ she asked, noticing that the oni had not yet taken a drink.

‘Lying is one thing,’ Aoandon said. ‘Poisoning another. A matriarch will do much to rid her village of a menace.’

Falling Leaf inclined her head.

‘You are wise,’ she said. ‘My tea is just the same as yours.’

She took a sip from her own small cup. This was the finest tea she had, the freshest young leaves from the tip of the bush, harvested and dried under moonlight. But today even this tasted bitter.

She drained her cup and poured another. The oni smiled, drank, and held her cup out for another serving.

‘What does it benefit you to haunt us?’ Falling Leaf asked. ‘To traumatise children, frighten old people to death, make men so scared that they will not go into the fields for the harvest?’

Aoandon smiled. In any other face that smile would have been a thing of grace and beauty, but it sent a shiver through Falling Leaf.

‘Your people’s fear is to me as rice or fish or fine tea,’ Aoandon said. ‘It sustains me. It invigorates me. It makes my life worthwhile.’

‘You lived in the shadows for so long,’ Falling Leaf said. ‘Showing yourself in only in the moments after ghost stories had ended, feeding off the fear of those moments. Is that not enough?’

‘Barely.’ Aoandon held out her empty cup again. ‘And one can never have too much. Your people told so many stories, so many lies, I no longer needed to hide from the light. Would you stay in others’ shadows, given the choice?’

‘I raised seven children.’ Falling Leaf filled her own cup too, enjoyed the soft scent of the steam. ‘One of them is head man, as his father was before him.’

‘Half truths are still truths, but I am the devourer of stories, I see through the gaps. You are trapped, just as you have always been. You come here reluctantly, the village’s pet story teller sent to bargain with a demon. But all you really want is out. Please, deny any of it – I will know if you are lying.’

Falling Leaf looked down at her own trembling hands. The creature knew her better than her husband had, better than her children did, better than she had even known herself for many years. All that time forcing herself to be good and diligent, until it was too late to follow the craving for freedom she finally recognised. Until she was as scared of her own broken heart as of the oni that plagued her people.

She looked up, tears running from her eyes.

‘This is good tea,’ Aoandon said, reaching out and pouring for herself. ‘But you cannot have hoped to persuade me with just tea. So tell me, why should I seek out the life that you yourself cannot accept? What words can possibly persuade me?’

‘None,’ Falling Leaf whispered.

‘And what lies could possibly trick me?’

‘None.’

‘So you see, I am going nowhere.’ Aoandon tilted back her head, raised the teapot and poured its contents straight down her throat. The finest tea in the village, gone in five long gulps. She slammed it down on the table so hard that the pot cracked. ‘Delicious.’

With a click and a small thud the teapot fell in two, spilling damp green leaves onto the pale wood of the table. Tiny black berries stood out amidst the debris. Aoandon stared at them, her face crumpling in outrage and then fear.

‘The fruit of the drifting tree,’ Falling Leaf said. The trembling had spread to her whole body now. ‘I traded my best kimono for them.’

‘These will kill me,’ Aoandon said. She jerked to her feet, staggered and fell shaking to one knee. Her terror finally made that blue face beautiful. ‘But you… It will kill you too.’

‘Yes.’ The tears had turned to blood now, and Falling Leaf’s vision was fading.

‘Your people asked you to do this?’ Aoandon’s words were turning into a rasping wheeze. ‘Yet you would die for them?’

‘They did not ask me,’ Falling Leaf said. ‘They never would.’ The world was black now. She lay down. The floor was soft and warm. ‘I told them I had come to make peace.’

 

 

 

 

 

 

Pale Wings

 

Anna lifted the horseshoe from the fire, laid it over the anvil and began hammering. The shoe had been close to the right fit to begin with, the best out of all the ones hanging for luck and for stock around the smithy. Holding up the glowing hoop, she glanced at Covrey’s new grey mare and nodded to herself. She had a good eye for these things. This shoe would be right.

Steam hissed from the bucket as she plunged the horseshoe in. Covrey’s mare looked at her accusingly.

“I know not everyone favours shoeing.” Anna took a hammer and nails from the workbench. “But your master does, and that means you’re getting this.”

The horse whinnied in alarm and bolted for the door.

“What the hell!” Anna dropped her hammer and ran after the horse, leather apron flapping against her legs.

She was halfway across the village square when she heard what had alarmed the mare. Not the threat of being shoed, but the drone of an approaching demon. It soared above the crenelations of the minister’s mansion, narrow body like an arrow in flight, stiff wings as pale as death.

Around the square, everyone was running for cover. Even the youngest children knew to hide when a demon came. Abandoning her chase, Anna turned and dashed back toward the smithy.

Dirt flew up behind her as the demon spat its bolts of death. Heart pounding, she leapt through the open front of the smithy and out of sight. The wards of her home hid her from the demon. It ceased its battle roar.

But instead of returning to the soft buzz of its flight, the demon let out a sputtering noise as it flew low over her roof. A moment later there was a crash on the common land.

Emerging cautiously from the smithy, Anna peered around the outside of her hut. The ground of the commons had been torn up, the wings and tail of the demon protruding from a mound of dirt at the far side. Most of the villagers’ pigs had scattered, though two lay dead, little more than red smears in the path of the demon’s fall.

Anna had heard that such things happened, but never seen them, and her curiosity was overwhelming. Many others were poking their heads out, looking to see what had happened. Only Anna crossed the commons, approaching the twisted white body with increasingly tentative steps.

As she got near, a hiss emerged from the hole the demon had torn in the ground. It wasn’t dead, just wounded. How badly though? Anna took a step closer.

Something glinted on the side of the demon. She peered at it. Was that a blinking red eye? Was that how demons saw so much, eyeballs attached to their bodies? They truly were abominations.

There was a sudden roar and a flash of light. A fierce wind hurled Anna from her feet. Pain stabbed through her leg.

Gripped by fear, she scrambled to her feet and dashed away across the commons. Looking back from the safety of her smithy, she saw that the demon was gone, only flames and blackened ruin in its place.

So it was true. God struck down any demon that touched the earth. She sank to her knees and prayed in gratitude for her salvation from the angry, hissing thing.

At last she looked down at her injured leg. A sliver of something protruded from her flesh, like a foot long nail. She pulled it out and wrapped the wound. Once she had rested she would go to Mother Golding for a poultice to help her heal. In the meantime she sat staring at the shard of metal. One side was bare steel, high quality beneath a smear of soot. The other side was white.

Part of the demon.

In horror she cast it into the fire, watched as it started to glow. Later, she would smelt it down and ask Mother Golding where best to bury it, to prevent the demon from haunting the village.

A whinny made her look up. Covrey stood in the entrance to the smithy, concern wrinkling his long forehead, the new grey mare beside him.

“You still alright to shoe her?” he asked. “I mean, I can come back later if…”

His words petered out.

The glow of the shard in the fire caught Anna’s eye again. How could a metal creature like that ever come to be? Was this how demons began, by hammering iron onto innocent beasts?

Lifting the horseshoe out of the bucket, Anna went to the wall. The trembling of her hand made the horseshoe rattle as she hung it with the rest

“Not everyone favours shoeing,” she said. “Your mare will be fine without.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

Shades of Loss

 

Strange, rusted shapes crunched beneath Mantaj’s feet as she approached the ruins, holy book clasped in her hand. When she was young, she and the other children had come here often, rummaging through the rubble in search of these ancient artefacts from before the dark time. This place of excitement was now one of terror, for her even more than for the other villagers. But they were not priests, and so the exorcism fell to her.

With trembling steps she walked through the high doorway, the flames of her torch making shadows dance around the hall within. A fresh pile of rubble lay ahead of her, a dark stain at its edge. The stain of her mother’s blood.

As she approached the rubble, a ghostly figure appeared in the air further down the hall. Terrible, wrenching loss at the sight of her mother’s face was replaced by fear for her life. This was the unnatural thing that had sent others running, a spirit from the beyond. It was said that the walking dead could devour your soul, and the fear of the beyond that had led Mantaj to become a priest now made her feet falter.

“It’s all so beautiful.” The ghost smiled, then looked up in alarm. Some invisible force struck it to the ground, head caved in just as her mother’s had been. A moment later it was upright again. “It’s all so beautiful.”

As she watched her mother die over and over, Mantaj’s fear was replaced by guilt. She had been fearing for herself, not mourning her mother’s loss. The feelings twisted up together, freezing her in place.

“I shall make shadows out of loss,” she said, reciting her favourite scripture for reassurance. “Angels shall become demons at my hand, and demons shall become angels.”

She walked with trembling steps across the hall, forcing herself not to flee as the invisible rubble crushed her mother and the roof creaked overhead. Her duty was to keep the village safe, and to help her mother move on.

A hiss came from the side of the hall, a feral cat prowling through the ruins. For a moment it seemed to glow, and the ghostly image was broken by the animal’s silhouette. Behind the cat, something glowed.

She turned and walked toward that point of light. One foot sank into a hole in the floor. Yelping, she fell to the ground.

As she pulled herself back to her feet, her mother’s voice was replaced by an echo of that yelp.

Mantaj looked back. The ghost no longer took her mother’s form. Now it looked like Mantaj herself, caught over and over in the act of tripping at that hole, crying out again and again in alarm.

She trembled with fear. If that was her ghost, then what had happened to her body? Had she fallen and cracked her head open? Was she now just a remnant waiting to pass on, her mortal flesh lying dead on the ground? She forced herself to look down, to face the terrible reality of her fate.

There was no body. Only the hole, the ground, and Mantaj standing on it.

Relief lifted her spirits, and she walked more confidently toward the glowing light.

“Demons shall become angels,” she said, holding the book out in front of her like a talisman. No-one trained village priests to perform exorcisms, but she knew that holy words could drive out unholy spirits. “Demons shall become angels.”

BOOK: A Mosaic of Stars: Short Stories From Other Worlds
12.93Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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