Authors: Ekaterina Sedia
“Don’t touch it, unless . . . unless . . . ” She takes a deep breath, and forces herself to look Ani in the eye. “You have a choice. I can destroy the computers, bring the whole system crashing down. But if you touch this chip, you’ll be infected with my memories, with the fox-girl I used to be. You can help me spread the disease, bring war to the Crow Lords one human at a time.”
Behind her, Fox-Ani feels Yuki stiffen, understanding her betrayal. The real Ani’s bruised face doesn’t change, her eyes still shine and she lifts her chin a little higher.
“No more war.”
Fox-Ani nods. “Then you should leave now. I’ll come find you when it’s done.”
She turns, unable to bear the human woman’s eyes any longer. If she saw anger there, she would understand, but there is only a kind of sadness, and the fox-girl feels young and foolish again. How is it that she, who walked the earth for ages before the first humans ever raised their heads to look up at the stars, could be so much less wise than them?
The fox-girl hears the humans retreat, footsteps soft on the carpeted floor. She counts them along with her breath and her heartbeats, waiting until she can’t hear them anymore, and kneels. She opens the panel beneath the desk, seeing where the chip fits back into the computer. The next time one of the humans tries to access something from the chip’s memory, the essence of everything she was will infect the system, wipe it clean.
A sound that isn’t a sound makes Ani’s head snap up. Crow Lords—she can feel them coming, she can smell them on the air, a scent like oil and shadows and blood. She snaps the panel closed and rises, running for the hall.
Ani climbs, spiraling up into the dark. At the top of the stairs, she steps out onto the roof. Crows fall from the sky, screaming at her. Ten of them, whose taste she knows, throw their bodies between her and the bodies of their brothers, fighting beak and claw. She beats his brothers back, snapping with human teeth, trying to gather the birds belonging to her Crow Lord.
All around the edges of the roof, men with hollow eyes watch her while their shadows do battle. Only one does not have hollow eyes. His eyes are full of fox-light. He trembles.
Her gaze fixes on him, ignoring the feathers that snap against her skin and the beaks that draw blood.
“Trust me,” she whispers.
Ani holds up cupped palms. She can feel hot, sticky blood, running down her skin. She won’t fight the Crow Lords, not here, not now, not like this. Her war will be a quiet war, infecting the Crow Lords from within as she would have infected the humans. One of her birds lands, awkwardly in her out-stretched hands. She draws it close and holds it against her heartbeat. Then she lifts it to her lips.
Across the rooftop, the man with full eyes twitches. His Crow Lord shadow melts between her lips, sliding down her throat. He surrenders. The nine birds remaining flock to her. She opens her arms wide, opens her jaws, and devours them all.
When she has swallowed the last of her Crow Lord’s shadow, Ani screams at his brothers. “I’m one of you now! Your Fox Brother, your Crow Sister.”
The Crow Lords shriek their rage. They slash at her with beak and claw. Twelve birds lift, swirling around one of the hollow eyed men at the corner of the rooftop. They coalesce, and his shadow lies long beneath him. He steps forward.
“We still have your name.” His chuckle becomes a crow-caw. Ani answers with a fox-grin.
“I don’t need it anymore.”
She turns towards her Crow Lord. He is on his knees now, but he raises his head. His eyes are full of light. Even though he is shaking, she feels his shadow inside her, stronger than ever. He knows her name, and he will whisper it to her in the dark. His eyes are a promise. It is all she needs.
He grits his teeth, and speaks. “Trust me. Jump.”
She drops four paws onto the ground and runs for the edge of the roof. She leaps, trusting the shadow beneath her skin. She falls and the city streaks towards her from below. In the screaming wind, her shadow shreds, tatters, and spreads impossible wings. She soars.
She bares fox-teeth, laughing, and tasting the stars. She is free, and she is alive.
After an eternity of flight, of devouring the moonlight and drinking the world, she touches down. Four paws come to rest on dirty asphalt in an alley that smells of rotten food. Red neon spreads puddles of light beneath her feet. When she rises to stand on two legs, she is clothed in a coat as black as a crow’s wing. It hides her torn and bloodied skin.
Yuki steps out of the doorway where the fox-girl first saw him, the human Ani behind him. She looks smaller away from the glow of the machines, half-broken by all that has been done to her.
Fox-Ani closes her eyes and places her hand to her mouth. She tastes the stone, Crow Lord magic, smooth and cool on her tongue. It has been there the whole time, but she can touch it now. She pushes it onto her palm and opens her eyes, holding out her hand.
Ani looks at her, questioning. “What is it?”
“Forgetting. If you want, you can start over again.”
Ani considers a moment, then holds out her hand. The Fox-Crow-Girl tips the stone onto the human woman’s palm. The woman considers it a moment, weighing it, then slips the stone into her pocket.
She turns away. Yuki moves after her. “Ani! Wait!”
The human woman turns, a sad smile moving cracked lips, pulling bruised flesh tight around her eye. “That’s not my name anymore. I’m no-one, now. A ghost.”
She turns again and walks away. This time Yuki doesn’t try to stop her. Fox-Ani steps close and slips her hand into his, pressing warm skin against skin. “I’m sorry.”
“Don’t be,” he answers, but she can feel the sorrow rolling off him. The air around him smells like tea and tears. “I never really knew her. I only had an image of her in my head that I wanted to love. Now there isn’t enough of her left to know.”
“Maybe she’ll come back one day.”
“Maybe.” Yuki shrugs. He turns to look at Ani, his tea-brown eyes clear. “What are you going to do now?”
“Run. Fly.” She lets go of his hand and whirls, changes, a blur of fur and feathers, then she is a girl again.
“Thank you for everything.” Her voice is soft in the neon tinted dark. She means the words more than she has ever meant any words before. Though it was the Crow Lord’s shadow she devoured, Yuki has changed her, too.
“We’ll see each other again,” she says. “If you want. We can eat noodles on the rooftops, up under the sky. The world is going to change soon. I’ll tell you what it looks like from above.”
A smile touches Yuki’s lips, shadowed with pain, but still a smile. “I’d like that.”
He lifts his hand to wave goodbye, and she is flying, fox and crow and girl, lifting up above the city to taste the light of the stars.
THE POISON EATERS
I trust that your bonds are not too tight, my son. Please don’t struggle. Don’t bother. You’re soft. All princes are soft and these cells are built for hardened men.
It is a shame that you never met your grandmother. You are very like with your tempers and your rages. I imagine she would have doted on you. How ironic that father tried her for being a poisoner. Right now, especially, Paul, I imagine irony is much on your mind.
The morning of her execution she had her attendants dress her all in red and braid her hair with fresh roses. Wine-colored stones cluttered her fingers. There are several paintings of it; she died opulently. It was drizzling. I was to walk her to her tomb. It was something like a wedding processional as she took my arm and we went together, down the steep steps. The place was dark and stank of incense. My mother leaned close to me and whispered that I looked splendid in black. I remember not being able to say anything, only taking her hand and pressing it. Outside, the rain began to fall hard. We heard the shrieks of the assemblage; aristocrats don’t like to be wet.
My mother smiled and said, “I bet they wish they were down here where it’s dry.”
I forced a smile and made myself kiss her cheek and bid her farewell. The masons were waiting at the top of the stairs.
My mother and I were not close, but she was still my mother. I was a dutiful son. I had commanded the cooks to put the sharpest of my hunting knives beneath the food they had prepared for her. I wonder if you would do that for me, Paul. Perhaps you would. After all, it cost me nothing to be kind.
See this cup? A beautiful thing, solid gold, one of the few treasures of our family that remain. It was my father’s. He had a cupbearer bring him his wine in it, even as his other guests drank from silver. I have it here beside me, just as you filled it—half with poison and half with cider, so that it will go down easy.
I have a story to tell you. You’ve always been restless, too busy to hear stories of people long dead and secrets that no longer matter. But now, Paul, bound and gagged as you are, you can hardly object to my telling you a tale:
Sometimes at night the three sisters would sleep in one bed, limbs tangling together. Despite that, they would never get warm. Their lips would stay blue and sometimes one of them would shake or cramp, but they were used to that. Sometimes, in the mornings, when women would bring them their breakfasts, one might touch them by accident and the next day she would be missing. But they were used to that too. Not that they did not grieve. They often wept. They wept over the mice they would find, stiff and cold, on the stone floor of their chamber; over the hunting dogs that would run to them when they were out walking on the hills, jumping up and then falling down; over the butterfly that once landed on Mirabelle’s cheek for a moment, before spiraling to the ground like a bit of paper.
One winter, their father gave them lockets. Each locket had the painting of a boy inside of it. They took turns making up stories about the boys. In one story, Alice’s picture, who they’d taken to calling Nicholas, was a knight with a silver arm, questing after a sword cooled from the forge with the blood of sirens. At night, the sword became a siren with hair as black as ink and Nicholas fell in love with her. At this point the story stopped because Alice stormed off, annoyed that Cecily had made up a story where the boy from her locket fell in love with someone else.
Each day they would eat a salad of what looked like flowering parsley. Afterwards, their hands would tremble and they would become so cold that they had to sit close to the fire and scorch themselves. Sometimes their father came in and watched them eat, but he was careful to never touch them. Instead, he would read them prayers or lecture on the dangers of sloth and the importance of needlework. Occasionally, he would have one of them read from Homer.
Summer was their favorite time. The sun would warm their sluggish blood and they would lie out in the garden like snakes. It was on one of those jaunts that the blacksmith’s apprentice first spotted Alice. He started coming around a lot after that, reading his weepy poetry and trying to get her to pay him attention. Before long, Alice was always crying. She wanted to go to him, but she dared not.
“He’s not the boy in your locket,” Mirabelle said.
“Don’t be stupid.” Alice wiped her reddened eyes. “Do you think that we’re supposed to marry them and be their wives? Do you think that’s why we have those lockets?”
Cecily had been about to say something and stopped. She’d always thought the boys in the lockets would be theirs someday, but she did not want to say so now, in case Alice called her stupid too.
“Imagine any of us married. What would happen then, sisters? We are merely knives in the process of being sharpened.”
“Why would father do that?” Cecily demanded.
“Father?” Alice demanded. “Do you really think he’s your father? Or mine? Look at us. How could you, Mirabelle, be short and fair while Cecily is tall and dark? How could I have breasts like melons, while hers are barely currants? How could we all be so close in age? We three are no more sisters than he is our father.”
Mirabelle began to weep. They went to bed that night in silence, but when they awoke, Mirabelle would no longer eat. She spit out her bitter greens, even when she became tired and languid. Cecily begged her to take something, telling her that they were sisters no matter what.
“Different mothers could explain our looks,” Alice said, but she did not sound convinced and Mirabelle would not be comforted.
Their father tried to force Mirabelle to eat, but she pushed food into her cheek only to spit it out again when he was gone. She got thinner and more wan, her shriveling, but she did not die. She faded into a thin wispy thing, as ephemeral as smoke.
“What does it mean?” Cecily asked.
“It means she shouldn’t be so foolish,” said their father. He tried to tempt her with a frond of bitter herb in a gloved hand, but she was so insubstantial that she passed through him without causing harm and drifted out to the gardens.
“It’s my fault,” said Alice.
But the ghostly shape of Mirabelle merely laughed her whispery laugh.
The next day Alice went out to meet the blacksmith’s apprentice and kissed him until he died. It did not bring her sister back. It did not help her grief. She built a fire and threw herself on it. She burned until she was only a blackened shadow.