Axiom Thorne: I’ve been a contender

So that’s the way my gravel-voiced, knit-throated patron wants to play it? Give me powers, pit me against his other creations, and see emerges alive?

Bring it on, I say.

Though I also wonder what the Man with the Colorful Scarf and Diamond Shoes saw in that 12-year-old girl he lured into that alley with promises of magic. Maybe my mother’s aura was shining through me the way Aunt Lissie used to say it did — she was the nicest of the aunts, the most spiritual but the most ephemeral, having died when I was young.

One of my first memories was her voice saying “I see your mother’s aura in you.” I remember it because I didn’t know what it meant, as much as I desperately wished I understood everything that came from her sapphire-tinted lips. My mother used to say that Lissie, the first-born of the triplets, had drained her two other sisters of their elf blood before emerging from the womb with pearlescent hair and lips the color of emeralds. (They mellowed to a soft blue in her teen years.)

But elf blood doesn’t protect you from speeding wagons carrying green cakes to the market, especially when you’re in such a deep trance communing with the spirit world that you don’t pay attention to where you’re crossing the street. So 7-year-old me never really knew what Aunt Lissie saw that would make her say such a thing.

And now I suppose whatever glowing halo or rainbow-tinted haze she saw whenever she looked at Child Me had led to the events that put Adult Me in snakeskin armor, a Whip of Certain Death at my hip and the ability to summon demons and death in my hands, waiting to find out whether I’d become god or dust.

Fig explained the runes pretty clearly: The Man with the Colorful Scarf and his three fellow viziers each chose a mortal who could become their new god. They expect us to find and kill each other until the sole survivor ascends the throne. One contender already has attempted to murder me and half the Hydra crew, failed, and been reincarnated in the body of the blasted bird-monster that Urto’s been trying to raise in his tiny captain’s quarters.

This sick game reminds me of the town-wide mock-battles that we participated in as teenagers back home. The skirmish would last a month of every four summers. We would start with three or four “armies,” all soldiers armed with fake swords that we would use to tap our enemies on the shoulder or leg to signify a kill. By the end of the first week, the teams would succumb to in-fighting and friendly fire; new alliances would be made in the second week; and by the third, it would be every player for themselves. The last soldier standing, untouched by a wooden blade, would preside over a special party the day before the Crestbalm Fete.

I didn’t win the year I played, so don’t get your hopes up for a reminiscence of victory. Neither did Ansel. And you know the Baker’s Boy didn’t live long enough to even consider playing.

But there was something about the savagery of war touching our tiny, peaceful village that was so pervertedly delicious, so taboo, that even the most sage village leaders found themselves assisting in ambushes and placing wagers on who they thought might win.

So trust me when I say I’m not a stranger to the spirit of competition. I just like to know I’m competing before almost getting torn to pieces by the opposition.

I also like to know what I’m fighting for, be it a party or what the Man with the Colorful Scarf and his trilliant-bestowing companions are offering: Godly dominion over a city of undead who toil in the shadow of a black pyramid that strangely resembles the stone that seems to have taken the place of my beating heart.

And while the population of such a kingdom might deter some, I just come to the same conclusion: Real estate is real estate. A throne is a throne. And seeing as I feel like a god most days already, actually becoming one only seems like my logical next step.

Vignette: The Tinkerer

The bell above the entrance tinkled its chime — two back-and-forths of the tiny bauble, then the clink of the whole ornament against the glass as the door shut. Malfi looked down the row and saw a middle-aged woman in a periwinkle knit sweater set standing at the entrance, clutching a jewelry case that was too big for a bracelet but too small for a necklace.

“Back here,” Malfi called, hardly looking up from the porcelain duck she was fixing. She had to hold the beak to its head for no less than 30 seconds for the glue to dry, and she had just rounded on the fourteenth.

The woman looked down the aisle with trepidation, as if unsure she had arrived in the right place despite the bold gold lettering on the door announcing it as Icarus Antiquities and Repairs. Deciding she was better off by the door, she decided to stay put and shout her wishes across the cluttered shop floor.

“I need something prepared,” she announced.

“Back here,” Malfi repeated.

“I was told the owner can help.”

“That’s me, but I you have to come to the back of the shop,” Malfi said. Twenty-two seconds.

The linoleum tiles overlaying dull wood flooring groaned as the customer began her journey toward the back of the shop, dodging the chandeliers and braziers hanging from the ceiling like a jungle explorer ducking vines. Malfi’s 30 seconds were up long before the woman reached the back desk.

“I have an old pocket watch that needs fixing,” the woman said, not even acknowledging the broken ducktail that Malfi was now trying to match with the back of its glossy cream body. “I was told the owner could help.”

Malfi put the ducktail back onto the purple cushion where the other broken pieces sat.

“Let’s take a look,” she said, deftly sliding a drawer under the counter open so she could retrieve her jeweler’s glass.

The woman clutched the box to her chest as if Malfi had insulted the watch she had not yet seen.

“I was told the owner could help,” she said.

Malfi flashed her a disingenuously wide smile, as she all too familiar with this comment. At 28 years old, with jet black hair, a gold bar threaded through her left eyebrow, and a miniature version of Artemisia Gentileschi’s Judith and Holfernes tattooed on her right forearm, she wasn’t the person most people expected as the proprietor of a high-end antique resale and repair shop. The truth was that even she didn’t believe it some days, but leave it to that reclusive Uncle Pius to bequeath the shop to her — provided she allow keep the staff on in his absence.

“Ma’am, I am the owner of this shop,” she said. “If you’re looking for Pius Brown, he died a year ago. I’m his great-niece, and I would love to help you with your pocket watch. But first you need to take it out of the box.”

You’re the Tinkerer?”

Malfi was surprised to hear someone mention the Tinkerer by name.

“I’m not, but may I ask how you know them? A friend, perhaps?”

“My neighbor said they fixed their mantel clock,” the woman said. “I was hoping they could help me with my great-grandfather’s pocket watch. He found it in the war, see, and I want to give it to my son for his high school graduation gift.”

Malfi nodded and pushed the duck aside. She held out her hand for the box. Before the woman could hand it to her, however, the trap door behind the counter swung up and open with a bang that knocked the newly glued duck’s beak right off its face.

“Damn,” Malfi swore as she caught the porcelain piece just as it was about to hit the ground.

“I heard my name,” said the person now emerging from the cellar under the shop. “Did someone ask for the Tinkerer?”

“This lady’s got a pocket watch that needs repairing,” Malfi said. “Says you fixed her neighbor’s mantel clock.”

The Tinkerer emerged all the way out from their subterranean workshop, and Malfi got to enjoy yet again the expression on the face of any customer who had never yet met the shop’s star repair expert. Six-foot-seven with a feathery shock of white-blond hair, the Tinkerer was almost 80 years old but had failed to shrink in their old age. In fact, they seemed to have failed to age at all. The only sign of dilapidation on him was the inch-thick lenses they wore in his glasses, though Malfi had been told that they had always needed that strong a prescription. The Tinkerer’s daily uniform consisted of black pants faded to gray, a thick canvas-like button down that was yellowing around the cuffs and armpits, and a worn leather apron that caught all manner of soot, glue, metal shavings, threads, cotton fillings, straw, staples and more.

“Let’s have a look,” they said. A warm smile to the woman, and whether she wanted to or not, she was handing the pocket watch box over to them.

The Tinkerer opened the box and drew the watch out by its chain. It swung like the paper lanterns hanging above the counter, catching their light.

“Good casing. A few scratches but nothing that can’t be buffed out.” The Tinkerer opened the watch and examined its face. “Ah, but it has most definitely stopped ticking. We can get that fixed pretty easily — a lot of times these old watches just need a little cleaning and TLC. That means ‘tender loving care,'” they said, peering over their lenses at the woman, who stood transfixed. Her gaze was locked on the Tinkerer’s hair, which had a holographic effect that reminded Malfi of a plastic unicorn’s mane.

When the Tinkerer’s eyes fell back to the watch, they spotted something that even its owner hadn’t noticed. Malfi handed her jeweler’s glass to the Tinkerer, who then replaced their glasses with it.

“There seems to be some odd staining here, right above the 6 numeral,” the Tinkerer said, leaning even closer to it so that the jeweler’s glass in their eye almost collided with the watch face.

Malfi and the customer only saw the brow and cheek squeezing to hold the jeweler’s glass in place as the Tinkerer examined the watch. They didn’t see the horrors that were passing through the lens into the Tinkerer’s mind. Palm trees on fire. An ashen thatched roof blowing in the wind caused by a bomb blast close enough to raise the temperature in the tiny village. A skeletal child running through dirt streets crying for her mother, clutching the gold chain in her hand as the watch dragged across the pavement. A dying man pulling himself along the ground behind the watch, reaching for it in his last living breath, and disappearing as his fingers brushed the metal.

With a gasp, the Tinkerer pulled away and dropped the watch on the table. They ripped the jeweler’s glass from their eye and put the watch back in the box. The customer, unsurprisingly, looked concerned.

“I’ll need at least six weeks,” the Tinkerer said, trying to compose themself as they slipped the box into their oversized apron pocket.

“That’s not acceptable,” the woman said, the concern wearing down to annoyance. “My son’s graduation is in two weeks and I want to give it to him at his party that night.”

“Get him a keg and a laptop,” the Tinkerer said, their whimsical charm gone. “They’re better presence for an 18-year-old. Especially considering that if you give him this watch, he’ll be dead before he can get to college.”

Axiom Thorne: Four days to die

I’m not sure what the word is for walking amongst people who are all expecting you to die in four days. I’d say “surreal,” but there’s nothing dreamlike about everyone around you, in a morbid mix of concern and curiosity, checking their pocket watches and captain’s logs to see how close you’re getting to your predicted expiration date.

“Everyone I sleep with dies in two weeks,” Everwick told me, as if it would scare me. As if he doesn’t realize what I had to do to get here, what I’ve had to overcome to become his counterpart. Give me a break, sailor boy, and show me to your bed. I’ve waited to die before.

When I was 15 the Man with the Colorful Scarf and the Diamond Shoes told me that what powers I had displayed up to that point — the death of the Baker’s Boy, my mother’s own suspended animation — was merely a two-step compared to the bolero I would be able to perform.

As long as I survived the metamorphosis.

I walked around for one week feeling nothing. On the eighth day, I had a migraine that grounded me to the back stoop of the house. No one found me for three hours until Momma arrived home, and it took a sip of soup and three cups of her mother’s Elven tea blend to get me back on my feet. For the next two weeks, I felt an odd twinge in my neck once or twice, heard an unexpected crack or pop of a joint here and there. Then came the invisible knife that inserted itself into my stomach and amused itself by twisting anywhere from an inch to five revolutions any time I let food or drink pass my lips. I could barely make it up the stairs to my bedroom when the fourth week began, and from then on I was confined as an invalid, with Momma as my nurse. She said I slept four days straight, then cycled between yelps and dozy whimpers on the fifth. My memory places Ansel at my bedside for some of the days, but who knows if it was him, my imagination, or the Man with the Colorful Scarf distorting his own appearance.

At the end of the fourth week’s sixth day, I awoke as Momma peeled a wet compress from my forehead.

“Still so pale,” she fretted, clearly to herself, as she hadn’t realized I was awake.

I opened my eyes, and she jumped backward, then recovered herself like any good mother does when shocked but afraid of alerting her child to any sort of danger.

“What is it?” I asked. My entire body was tingling, but the pendulum ticking down the time until my death had frozen mid-swing, To some, it may have been threatening: Any second it could drop, sending me into the dark abyss that I had stared into for the past 27 days.

Momma didn’t say anything. She squeezed my hand almost as hard as she squeezed her eyes shut, and rose from my bedside so she could turn her full back to me. I straightened up from my pillows with ease, all trace of weakness vanished. My heart’s metronome clicked steadily.

The mirror above my tiny dressing table betrayed what she was keeping from me. The muddy brown of my eyes had dissolved into an crystal green that glowed against the bright orange sunset exploding through my window. No other physical attribute had changed, but inside I could tell that nothing was the same. Just looking at the mirror, I willed the light to fade, and soon it was as if a large cloud had covered the sun’s fading light. I looked at Momma and wished that the fraying cuff of her sleeve would mend: As she bent to light a candle against the new darkness, I watched the threads weave back together and finish themselves in an intricate lace. I turned to the bowl on the bedside table and boiled away the water within so that the dry rag was plastered against the bottom of the basin, like it had been left there for months in the summer heat.

The Man with the Colorful Scarf and Diamond Shoes had promised that if I survived the metamorphosis, I would be more powerful than my mother. More powerful than her mother, or her mother’s mother. Their magic had diluted through the generations and was little more than amusements now, leaving me cursed with nothing but minor prestidigitation. I could barely conjur sparks, while my ancestors could blink wildfires into existence. But The Man with the Colorful Scarf and Diamond Shoes had promised that if I survived, I would awaken with capabilities that they had never even fathomed. And survived, I had.

“Axiom?” My mother had asked once she had steeled herself against my flaming eyes. Her tone was forceful as she tried to hide the quiver in her voice. “How are you feeling?”

“Momma,” I said, looking at her repaired sleeve, then at my own hands, pale and ghostly in the flickering candlelight. “I feel like a god right now.”

Excerpt: “What kind of afterlife is this?”

Sylvia’s knees buckled under her as the ground met the soles of her boots. Her palms scraped across the cobblestones as she caught herself from fully face-planting, and once she had regained her balance, she saw Raff hadn’t been so lucky. He lay supine about five feet from her, one arm and both legs bent askew in a nasty, broken way.

Before she could crouch down to check on him, he straightened out and lifted himself on all fours. His face was dirty, but unharmed.

“What the fuck just happened?” He asked. “There was a car coming, and you appeared out of nowhere, and then the world disappeared.”

Sy chewed the inside of her cheek, trying to find the way to begin explaining, before Raff’s attention was turned elsewhere. She followed his gaze upward and realized he was looking at the same castle that had been embroidered into the tapestry that hung above her crib as an infant and bed as a child.

She had never seen it in person, but it lived up to the legend that passed through the witches in her family. The sky surrounding it was an ethereal lavender that reminded her of summer dawns captured through an extreme Instagram filter. The castle itself was sepia-colored stone, with tall glass windows and sharp spires lining the parapets.

“Erris,” she breathed in reverence. In doing so, she snapped Raff from his speechlessness.

“What the hell is this place?” He asked, turning to her. “Where have you kidnapped me to this time?”

His last two words and the emphasis he placed on them particularly stung, even if they weren’t accurate. She hadn’t kidnapped him at all, not this time nor the time before. That was all the Tersus’ doing.

“Well,” she said, canine teeth catching on to a particularly swollen piece of inner cheek. “Remember how you almost died last spring?”

“How could I forget?”

“Well, before you almost died, I gave you some medicine—”

“Spare me the euphemisms. Just call it a ‘potion.'”

“Right. A potion. So, it was a potion that would save you from dying—”

“So you did cure me with magic,” he scoffed, throwing his hands in the air. “You promised me you didn’t. You swore that I pulled through from — what did you call it? — ‘my own human strength.'”

“You did!” Sylvia exclaimed. “You did, Raff. The potion I gave you was just a precaution in case you didn’t survive. It was a potion that would save you from dying like a human. Instead you’d die like a witch, and you’d end up here.”

She waved around, and felt the sheer absurdity of it all as her eyes caught on to the dichotomy of the place. While the castle was exactly as she had expected, nothing else in this realm was as it had been described. The bridges that were once “shrouded with dark, lush forests” instead rose from clumps of ashy, empty dead trees and stretched across dried-up riverbeds. A carrion crow landed up the road and picked at a large carcass that Sylvia hadn’t even noticed. As it pulled meat from the bones, the body shifted, and the light glinted off something narrow and metal sticking out of it.

“What, in hell?” Raff asked, his voice echoing in the quiet. “What kind of paradise is this?”

“It’s not supposed to be like this,” Sylvia said. “It’s supposed to be lush and green. A sort of Witch Paradise.” She started walking toward the crow and its meal.

“Don’t walk away,” Raff said, giving in when she didn’t slow down and hustling to catch up. “This is really a great heaven, by the way. Great place to spend the afterlife. You witches really are fu—”

“Raff, something’s wrong,” she said.

“No shit,” he said. “If I’m in the place where you decided I should go if I died, then that means I’ve died. So since you’re here, too, that means you can figure out a way to magic us back or something so you can save me again.”

Sylvia reached the crow. Try as she might, she couldn’t shoo it away — instead, it glared at her with its red eyes before dipping its beak back down to take another bite. Now that she was closer, she could see that the body on the road was indeed human. The light had reflected off of a long narrow sword that had been plunged into its chest.

“I’d say pick the pockets for identification, but it doesn’t look like this guy has pockets left,” Raff said, crouching down next to Sylvia. His cold demeanor had started to thaw.

“Raff, it’s not supposed to be like this,” she said again, turning to him. “My grandmother is supposed to be here. My great-uncle, too. But it’s all destroyed. The forests, the streams — something terrible happened here.”

“I don’t think I’ll be much help figuring out what,” Raff said gently. “But why don’t you send me back before you start searching?”

“Raff, I can’t send you back,” Sylvia said. “The only way you got here is because you died. The same goes for me — my Earth body is pancaked out on Lake Shore Drive just like yours is right now. We have to stay here and figure out what happened before whatever got this guy,” she motioned to the body before her, “gets us, too.”

“How do you die in an afterlife?” Raff said.

Almost on queue, the body before them began to stir. Its arms unfolded themselves from around its head, and its neck straightened so that the face looked straight up at them. One eye socket was empty; the other was so coated in blood that the blue of its iris almost glowed against the deep black stain. The mouth opened, and from it came a gasp that should have been a scream, but for the slashed vocal chords dangling from its opened throat.

“You don’t,” Sylvia said, putting a hand on the body’s shoulder in sympathy. “And sometimes that’s worse.”

Axiom Thorne: Waking up on the Reiver

The Reiver. Morning’s first light.

Captain Whatshisname — Everwick, as it turns out, now that the wine fog clouding my brain has dissipated — is far from the first man I’ve fucked, but he is the first one I’ve shared a bed with. Darvin always retired to his own pallet inside the closet, and Ansel and I spent nights out in the woods, curling into each other on top of soft mud or leaves rather than sheets and a down mattress. Everyone else has been a passing thrust in the dark corners of bars or alleys, and that’s how I like it. It gets the job done without any risk of attachment.

I probably wouldn’t have stayed all night on the Reiver if it hadn’t been for Everwick’s blunt warning as he stood from his chair, wrapping his own colorful striped scarf around his neck, all debonair-like. It’s a scarf just like mine, given to him by a figure who sounds suspiciously similar to the Man with the Colorful Scarf and Diamond Shoes.

“Everyone I sleep with dies,” he had said. I expected him to smirk. Instead, he was stone-faced, the only movement on his face a wisp of hair caught in the sea breeze.

That makes two of us, I had thought, remembering Darvin’s screams as the dragon ground his body between its teeth. I didn’t know what had happened to the handful of others after they had slipped in and out. They were dead in those same bars and alleys, for all I knew. As for Ansel: His fate was worse than my own death. But I haven’t told you all of that yet.

“Everyone dies,” I had shrugged.

“Horrible, agonizing deaths,” Everwick countered.

Sounds fun, I had almost said, but he was walking away now, his scarf catching the wind and snapping like a sail. I wasn’t sure if I was meant to follow, but I did — it would be easy to blame it on my ego, as my shipmates were back at the Hydra, probably taking bets on how long I’d be, but I’ll admit that there was something about Everwick that was irresistible to me. Maybe it was the idea that he was a kindred spirit, a warlock locked in the same war with the same devious patron.

An open door awaited me; and an open door shut behind me as soon as I crossed the threshold into Captain Everwick’s chambers.

It did flit through my mind that if he hadn’t detected the obsidian trilliant hidden literally inside my chest as I stood before him in my armor, he might certainly notice it once I was lying flat on my back, undressed and unguarded. But as things had progressed, it became clear that finding the match to the black stone he had brandished before me on the deck was the furthest thing from his mind now that I was in his bed. And eventually it was just as far from mine, too.

I wake up to soft light filtering into the ship’s cabin. Everwick is still asleep, his arm draped over my waist. His hand is disturbingly close to where I inserted the trilliant into my chest, and I swear I feel it beating against my bones with longing to meet its companion, which I had last seen disappear into the captain’s fist. Or maybe it’s just my heart, fluttering through feelings of fear, dread, ecstasy and…no, just those three. Nothing more concrete, and certainly nothing to do with having any sort of feelings toward the man lying in bed with me.

Even without prior experience of sharing a bed with someone, I know I can’t move his arm without waking him up. So I shift and turn into him, smelling the salt on his skin. It’s different than Ansel’s dried leaves and spice scent — fresher, and metallic with Adrenalin. In some ways I like it better: It’s the scent of someone who’s trying to pretend he’s chasing something, rather than being chased. The trilliant in my chest beats harder.

I close my eyes, tempting sleep to come back to me. The window isn’t bright enough for it to be much later than first-light, and the crew of the Hydra is probably still sleeping off the drinks from the night before. They won’t miss me.

Just as I’m about to doze off, Everwick begins to stir. His arm tightens around me and pulls me closer as he murmurs, “Still alive?”

“As far as I know,” I say, my breath warming his cool skin. “Did you want to sleep with me just to see if I would survive?”

The logic makes sense — if it is indeed our shared patron killing off our lovers, it stands to reason the Man (or, in Everwick’s case, Woman) in the Diamond Shoes wouldn’t kill both his magical servants just because they fucked each other. It seems like a morbid form of forced matchmaking, but after experiencing Everwick’s prowess in bed, I won’t complain.

“What if I say yes?” Everwick asks, a mischievous grin cutting through his morning stubble.

“Then I’d say you’re smarter than I thought,” I say, pushing him over on his back so I can straddle him. “Or at least more pragmatic.”

“Thanks, I guess?” he says, pulling me in for a kiss. I oblige for as long as I feel like before getting off him, getting off the bed, and snatching my breeches from the floor.

His stare almost wills my clothes out of my hands, but I don’t capitulate. Once I’m back in my armor of snakeskin, metal, and colorfully striped wool, I’m at the door.

“Until next time?” He asks.

“Who says there’s a next time?”

“Your whip does. You left it on the chair.”

I didn’t do it intentionally, but protesting that fact would only convince him that it was a scheme to be invited back. Once I secure it to my hip, I go straight to the door. The creak of the bed indicates that Everwick is just a few steps behind me, and before I can open the door, his hand pushes it harder into the jamb.

“Don’t tell her, er, him — them — about this, will you?” Everwick asks. It’s a plea, not a threat. “I haven’t spoken to them in 30 years, and now isn’t a good time for a reunion.”

“I promise,” I say, and I mean it. I don’t feel like looking into the leering face of the Man with the Diamond Shoes today — or possibly any day after this.

I leave without a kiss goodbye, but I feel Everwick’s eyes on my back as I walk up to the deck. Out of his gaze, I smile into the wind while passing his gold-cloaked crewmates on my way off the ship, and it’s a grin that stays in place all the way back to the Hydra’s gangplank. In my private glee, I forget to take the tiny step up on the platform and find myself sprawled out on my belly, facedown on the walkway.

As I start to push myself up to my feet — face warm with the sting of embarrassment and palms warm with the sting of several splinters — my eyes catch on my own reflection, shining back at me hundreds of tiny times from a man’s jewel-encrusted boot planted just inches from my face.

“Have something to tell me, Axiom?” His gravel voice asks. I bring myself to my feet, pushing his helping hand away. My arm goes right through him, but he’s still standing there.

“Yeah,” I say. “Leave me alone.”

I walk through him and up toward the ship. The trilliant in my chest beats hard.

Excerpt: A stop at Sy’s dad’s place

Dad’s eyes look Raff up and down before nodding at him to sit on the couch. Behind the brown irises I can see him rereading his memories of the texts I sent him — both those written as I beamed in the back of a taxi after our dates, and those sloppily typed while crying over how this man broke my heart — and he’s trying to piece together exactly why I’ve brought him home for dinner.

“Should I be nice?” He asks me.

“Yeah, you can be nice,” I say, taking my usual seat in the overstuffed armchair that gives both him and Mom back pain.

“OK, then,” Dad says tepidly. “You’ve had a long day on the road. How does a drink sound?” 

“I’ll take the darkest beer you have in the fridge,” I say.

“Chewable brew for Sy,” Dad says, “And how about you, Raff? I’ve got beer, cider, wine, whiskey — actually, I just got this new 12-year scotch—“

“Not that nice, Dad,” I say.

“Beers all around, got it,” Dad nods, bending down into the small fridge hidden inside one of the entertainment center cabinets. If I had my way, it would be lukewarm tap water for the non-Harris in the room, but Dad’s kinder than me.

~

“I’m heading to bed,” I say. “Thanks for having us, Dad.” I give him a hug and make my way to the door, expecting Raff to rise and follow, presumably give Dad one of those hearty, endearing handshakes. 

But he doesn’t move.

“You going to bed, too, Raff?” I ask. It’s hard seeking clarity on this, as we’re not even staying on the same floor of the house.

“Yeah, in a minute.”

“We have another long drive tomorrow,” I say.

“I know. Don’t worry.” He smiles one of those disarming smirks that makes me do nothing but worry. “I just want to talk to Mr. Harris a bit longer.”

I shrug and walk out of the room, closing the French doors behind me and heading upstairs.

When I was 15 and got my first potion book from Mom, I concocted an amplifying polish that I then applied to the doorframe of those very same French doors, which allowed me to hear whatever was going on inside all the way up in my room, where I kept the jar containing the other half of the polish. Once the doors shut behind me, I race up the stairs to the back of my old closet where, embedded in a box of magazine clippings meant for some decoupage project that never got finished, I find the polish and dipped an ear close to the contents.

“—but I didn’t mean to hurt her,” Raff is saying. “I need you to hear that, because I think you might be the only one who could possibly believe it.”

“Why, because I also fell in love with a witch?” Dad asks calmly, understandingly. The way he’d listen to my excuses about failing a math test because Jason Werth was trying to copy me and got us both in trouble.

“How did you know you were actually in love with her and not under some kind of hex or something?” Raff blurts out. 

“I believe it’s a little thing called trust,” Dad says. “And faith. It seems you need a little of both.”

“Raff, I am very happy with my wife. We’ve been in love with each other for three decades. We have a beautiful, smart daughter. I have never tasted anything weird in my food or felt any strange pricks in my sleep — not that I ever expected to.

“I’m not saying that you and my daughter are meant to be and your suspicions and paranoia have deprived you of true happiness. In fact, I believe she could be a lot happier with someone who has more faith in her integrity as a person. But take this advice from one grisled old man to a young one: Stop thinking you’re such hot shit that a woman like Sy would need use an ounce of her power to bewitch you, let alone elect to.”

Raff mumbled a “Yes, sir,” thanked Dad for the hospitality, and the French doors creaked open as he left the room and his footsteps faded in the direction of the first floor guest room. 

I put the lid back on the jar and hid it away in the box again. As I stepped out of my room and into the hallway to wash up before bed, Dad came up the stairs. He passed me without a word — just a wink.

Axiom Thorne: Invitation to board the Reiver

The folded piece of parchment is heavy as a stone in my pocket and twice as conspicuous. Standing on the deck, swaying as much from drink as from the swells of the waves under our feet, I feel everyone staring at it, thinking about the three-word invitation scrawled across it: “The Reiver. Midnight.”

How Captain Whatshisname found time to procure a quill, ink and piece of parchment in the short seconds following Scarlet and my intrusion upon his table was still baffling, and in turn it made the entire situation feel even more suspicious. Everyone’s acting like this is some coy invite to an amorous tryst, and while I’ll be the first to admit that nights on the Hydra have been lonely — particularly since Darvin’s betrayal and subsequent death in the jaws of a dragon — I’ll be the last to walk my horny ass into a honey trap.

That said, Captain Blonde-Beard was enough to make me forget Darvin. He was almost enough to make me forget Ansel, had it not been for the fact he has the same eyes: The color of forget-me-nots, as poetically trite as it sounds.

The first night I spent with Ansel was in the same woods where I killed the Baker’s Son — not that Ansel would ever know that. The muddy bank squelched under us, but it was as soft as any mattress, and it wasn’t like we had come there to sleep, anyway. As we watched the sun rise over the trees the next morning, Ansel jumped into the river to wash off. I would have followed, if not for the tight grip of a hand around my wrist.

“You can play with him, but your still mine,” growled a voice like gravel tumbling in a barrel. “And we have work to do.”

The Man with the Diamond Shoes didn’t leave a footprint in the mud as he left, and Ansel didn’t notice anything strange when he pulled himself halfway onto shore so he could tug on my ankle to invite me into the water with him.

“Five minutes to midnight,” Yalma squawks above me, circling and landing on her captain’s shoulder.

If I plan on making the rendezvous, I should disembark and walk across the docks to Captain Whoknows’ ship. From here I can see The Reiver, two stories taller than ours and draped in sails of regal purple, bobbing on the light waves. The rhythmic motion of it riding up and down, up and down, conjures thoughts in my head that make my toes curl inside my boots and fingers tighten around the whip coiled at my waist.

The wariness of what awaits across the docks hasn’t left me, but I can’t let the crew know that. So I turn, give an impish smirk as I pat the whip at my hip, and take my first step off the boat, knowing that even if my crew mates stay on the Hydra, there’ll be someone keeping an eye on me.

Excerpt from “Stet:” Hibiscus blossoms

It was like when you think you smell smoke in one inhale, but then never catch a whiff of it again — but you’re sure you smelled it, and now you’re looking for fire.

I find the fire: She’s dressed in all black, form-fitting and intimidating. Her dark hair is exactly as Agatha had described it, cropped in the back and dangling long in the front, stick-straight and glossy.

As she steps up on the porch, heeled boots clump-clumping on the soft wood, something in the corner of my eye hooks my attention. The blossoms on the large potted hibiscus bush have puckered like raisins, wilting down under the weight of whatever demon she’s brought with her.

“You must be Agatha’s editor,” she says, dark cherry lips lifting, as Agatha said they did, to reveal perfect white teeth. “She spoke very highly of you.”

“Only one of those things are true,” I say, settling for a tight smirk that won’t betray my coffee-yellowed smile. “From what Agatha told me, you must be Maeve.”

“I’m certainly not Handel,” she smiles. “He’s finishing a call in the car. Another client needs our help, and rather desperately, so we won’t take up much of your time today.”

I wonder if the client actually exists or is their escape route when I start asking harder-hitting questions than Agatha ever posed. I’ve listened to all the interview recordings, remember: I know the softballs she lobbed about whether they believed in an afterlife (obviously) and what their most challenging house was to purge (“They’re all challenges, but they’re all learning opportunities”). I prefer to play fast-pitch without a catcher’s mit.

“I don’t think you have to worry too much about that,” I say.

“No, I don’t suppose we will,” Maeve said. “Unless, of course, you want to come with us to this client?”

Now I understand how Agatha fell under her spell, as I feel a strange pull around my shoulder, as if Maeve has put her arm around me to gently guide me toward their car, even though she’s still standing three feet in front of me. I have no doubt now that the client is fake; that I’m being tricked into my own abduction; that Handel is in the car, ready to drive me to an undisclosed location where I’ll either die or be driven mad as Agatha was; and that all of this is exactly as it should be, exactly as I want it to be.

“Good? Good,” Maeve said, turning on a heel. “We’ll take you with us. You’ll enjoy it, I promise.”

As we walk down the steps, I feel something crunch under my foot. It’s one of the hibiscus blossoms, just moments before a Tropicana pink saucer, and now a shriveled, veiny ball of tissue player crumpled beneath my heel. A puff of black smoke seems to cough out of it as my shoe grinds it into the floor.

Axiom Thorne: The first night on The Hydra

No new statue on the bow was going to fix the fact that this ship was being run by our ragtag team of misfits. We scrubbed it clean, loaded new cannons, relettered its name “The Hydra” on the side in silver that tarnished on contact with the salty air, and yet it was just the same as our former vessel — the one that had carried its crew to a port for us, and a grave for it.

The traitor Darvin was long dead, swallowed by a monster in a cave. I did not grieve him, no matter how Captain Urto anticipated my heartache. It was futile to explain that Darvin held not a single string of my heart, no matter how many nights he retired to my quarters. He was merely a filling for the one I had left behind; the one who had forgotten me long before I found myself afloat on the tenacious sea.

Now something else had taken Ansel’s place — a stone, cold and black and powerful, sent by the Man with the Colorful Scarf and the Diamond Shoes. It was possibly the greatest gift he had bestowed upon me, though I did not yet understand why.

The first night aboard the Hydra, I nestled within my bedsheets, still musty with dust and dried sage. The lamplight swayed with the ship, dancing to the tune of waves lapping against its sides and my heart beating against the black gem implanted within it. Here in the quiet, however, thoughts of Ansel started oozing from the cracks between animal and mineral, and I was awash with the memory of his eyes looking at me curiously, wondering who I might be as I cried in self-pity at the foot of his bed.

My eyes shot open, hoping the dark ship wall would save me from the vacancy of his face and the weakness of my past. And they might have, had Ansel not been sitting at the foot of my bed now, his eyes twinkling with recognition.

“I miss you, my love,” he said, smiling that crooked grin that made my insides turn to gelatin. Even the black rock in my chest became jam more than gem.

I lunged forward without thinking, hoping his arms would catch me like they always had, and instead slammed my face into the wall. Ansel was gone, replaced only by a knock from the other side and Azha’s half-concerned, half-annoyed, “Everything OK in there, Ax?”

“Fine,” I said, unsure if the tears in my eyes were from the pain blossoming outward from my nose, or from the memory of my greatest failing.

Axiom Thorne: The Crestbalm Fete

It was all my aunt’s idea, sending me in my mother’s wedding dress dyed with indigo I had collected from the riverbank. She proudly presented this plan to us while showing off one of three gowns she had just commissioned from The House of Raheem in Dragon’s Head.

The dress has been stored in her attic since my father had died — Mamma had asked her sister-in-law to take care of it, as we needed the extra closet space for my clothes now that they no longer fit in the little prayer chest at the foot of my bed. My aunt had grumbled and eventually obliged by shoving the dress in a crate. I can only assume that’s where it had spent nearly 12 years when she drew it from her wardrobe. In no way had the the wrinkled mess been hanging there for longer than a couple days.

“You’ve got the same stick-straight boy build as your mother,” she said, lifting the creased fabric up to me. “Just add some beads and use some of those flowers from behind the house to dye it, and it’ll be a whole new dress.”

“That should be fine, thank you,” Mamma said, our eyes locking as I dared her to laugh and she dared me to spit in her sister-in-law’s eye. Neither of us felt confident enough to do either, so we shoved as many scones from the tea tray into our pockets before gathering the dress and bidding my aunt farewell.

The Crestbalm Fete arrived a week later. Ansel arrived at the door in his oldest brother’s best suit, clutching a bouquet of forget-me-nots in his hand. They had gone limp from the heat in the air and the sweat from his palms. As my mother hugged me goodbye, I saw the blueish-purple under her fingernails and remembered that it would likely be another three weeks before they were cleaned from the memory of late nights filled with stinky dye and strained eyesight.

Mamma’s alterations had turned her simple white wedding gown from a heavy bundle of wrinkled satin to an indigo dress so light that it almost floated. The four layers of skirts we removed were now blanketing our beds — a luxurious addition to our tiny boudoirs — and the final one hovered gently on the breeze, tickling my legs as Ansel took my hand in his and led me down the street toward the village square where the annual striped tent had been erected, its walls draped with vines and fragrant flowers.

Gardenia Smote and Louie Berenger met us at the mouth of the tent, inviting us to their table. I knew they liked Ansel and more-or-less tolerated me, but compared to the many others whom Ansel called friends, they were far more tolerable. Louie once threw a rock at the baker’s boy for calling me a slug when we were six, and Gardenia made a fuss over my dress and how she far preferred it to the fuchsia organza gown she had inherited from her sister.

We were hardly the only girls there in a hand-me-down or makeshift dress. In fact, those who had new gowns from the Dragon’s Head fashion houses or even Porfery’s Emporium in town were mocked behind their backs for their extravagance. Who would spend a single gold coin, let along fifty, on a dress for our tiny town’s annual fete? In this way, the Crestbalm Fete every year saw the same dresses, suits and robes swirling around different bodies.

Ansel had just returned to our table with two glasses of sparkling wine when the tent dimmed and the center of the room illuminated to reveal Mayoress Andreu in periwinkle taffeta that glistened against her red tiefling skin. She wasted no time in launching into the speech she likely gave every year.

“In Crestbalm we have a saying, ‘The fete is the future taking flight,'” her voice lilted, almost in song. Her gossamer wings unfolded, glowing in the magical spotlight. “And what a beautiful future, indeed!”

With one pump of her wings, she launched into the air and disappeared with a crack. The tent relit itself, and a band no one had noticed before began playing soft dinner music as waiters delivered platters of chicken, potatoes, carrots, greens, waffles, berries, scones, noodles, spare ribs, grapes, hollandaise-coated asparagus, salmon, quail eggs, and more. Dinner at the fete was traditionally donated, so each table received what their families had worked together to provide. Our table was ladened with Gardenia’s family’s brisket, arugula salad from the Berengers’ garden, corn pancakes cooked and salted butter churned on Ansel’s farm, and Mamma’s signature green tea cakes, and creme d’violete custards that almost matched my gown.

We stuffed ourselves silly, the sauce from the brisket staining our mouths and the green tea cakes crumbling into our laps as we licked the frosting from our fingers. The sparkling wine in our glasses magically replenished, though whether it was at the hand of our wizard mayor or stealth waiters, we weren’t sure and didn’t care to ask.

Doreena Cowl started the dancing by dragging her date to the middle of the floor, and the band took her lead by playing a louder, faster tune. I recognized her pale green dress as the one her sister had worn two years earlier — it was new, then, and those of us still too young to go to the fete had salivated at the notion of wearing something so fancy. Now there were hints of mud stains along the hem, and the left strap kept sliding down Doreena’s shoulder, but it was still as magnificent as the day we first saw it, glittering with the cut glass that encrusted the bodice.

“Pretty, how the light flashes off it,” said Ansel in my ear, and I turned to agree but found myself face-to-face with someone I hadn’t seen in a year.

He hadn’t changed, but the scarf had. When I saw him after my thirteenth birthday — weeks after visiting Hanso Jon in her swamp and almost losing my mother — he had already started creating a new scarf from the magic the stole from others. This one was almost twice as long now as the one hidden under my floorboards from anyone’s eyes and touch but mine. Every time I saw him, it seemed to get longer: Tonight it had four new stripes of burnt sienna, dark mauve, sky blue and light lavender: the same color as Mayoress Andreu’s gown.

“Of course, not as pretty as you,” he said, paternally patting me on the head with his long-fingered hand. “I see young Stephan’s totem came with you tonight, but not my scarf.”

I whipped around, looking for someone, anyone, to be staring at us. In a tent full of 18-year-olds, the grizzled Man with the Colorful Scarf and Diamond Shoes would surely stand out.

“They can’t see us or hear us, my dear,” he smirked. “But if it makes you feel better, we can step outside so I don’t feel like my ass is in your date’s face.”

Sure enough, Ansel was still sitting in his chair, drinking the sparkling wine while emphatically nodding to something Louie was saying. I rose from my place and walked toward the side flap of the tent and into the chilling night air.

“Do you have to appear at every major event of my life?” I asked.

“Only when you don’t bring me along. I see Stephan’s viper fang accompanied you tonight,” the Man with the Colored Scarf and Diamond Shoes tapped the gold totem hanging from my neck — a souvenir from watching Stephan burst into beetles five years before. “I feel dishonored, Axiom. Why not wear my gift, too?”

“It clashed with the dress,” I said dryly.

“Such is the foibles of fashionability,” he sighed, the gravel in his throat rattling ominously. “You’ve probably guessed by now that my gift to you was not given without expectations. I need an apprentice. I can provide the powers and direction, but this body of mine is no longer able to handle as — complicated — of deeds.”

“But I take it mine can?” I asked. In the dark I couldn’t see his face, but I could feel his breath pouring from his mouth and into my face.

“There’s nothing holding you back, Axiom,” he rattled. “The fete means you’ve reached adulthood, independence. Your mother won’t expect you to stay in your little cottage with her any longer.”

“Ansel wants me to marry him,” I blurted.

“You and I both know that’s not true,” the Man with the Colorful Scarf scoffed. “He asked you to the fete; he didn’t propose. Don’t lie to me, Axiom. I always know when you are, and it makes me angry.”

The breath in my face was suddenly cool compared to the heat building around my neck. At first I thought it might be anger, but soon I felt a searing pain against my skin. Reflexively I snatched the viper fang from around my neck and tore it away. My hand stung with the burn even after I had tossed the necklace away into the grass.

“Now,” the Man with the Colorful Scarf said, his words deliberate. “I don’t want to ruin your evening even further. Tonight you should go and dance with your date, and tomorrow I will leave you a little reminder that great things are expected of you.”

And with that, I was alone.

I should have been more incensed that no one had noticed I was gone, but it was hard to feel anything but numb the rest of the night. Every bounce of the light off of a glittery shoe made me wonder if the Man with the Colorful Scarf had returned, and I started seeking out dresses and robes that matched the new stripes on his scarf, paranoid that I might be dancing beside one of his newest victims. Mayoress Andreu was nowhere to be found the rest of the evening.

To combat the cottonmouth feeling, I drank as much sparkling wine as I could — it peppered my mouth and reminded me that I was still alive, still 18, and still expected to have a good time.

When Ansel took me home, his fingers fidgeting between mine.

“I hope you had fun,” he said. “I’m not sure you did.”

“It was a wonderful night. I think I just drank too much sparkling wine, is all.” The words drunkenly tripped out of my mouth.

“Can I kiss you goodnight?” He asked, and suddenly every worry I’d had all evening melted away as I nodded and he took me in his arms.

Everything I had read in books about first kisses pointed to a spark that ignited in your chest, or a hook that pulled you up from your belly. I kept waiting for one of those things to happen — to assure me that this was what I wanted, what I’d been waiting for — but all I felt was warm, wet human lips against mine.

I closed my eyes, thinking maybe that was the issue. It changed nothing at first, and then it became the stuff of nightmares as my mind turned to the Man with the Colorful Scarf and Diamond Shoes, snarling on the inside of my eyelids.

Ansel pulled away gently, and I turned to open my front door. The curtain in the side window shifted just slightly, and I knew my mother was still awake.

“I’ll see you tomorrow Ansel,” I said.

“Tomorrow, Axiom,” he nodded, absentmindedly scratching his bottom lip with his thumb.

Mamma was up, but the lights were off, and I allowed her the pleasure of thinking she had gotten away with watching us from the window by running right past the tiny parlor and up the stairs to my bedroom. Hiking my dress up to my waist, I dropped to my knees next to my bed and started scratching the wood floor for the loose board. A moment later, I had found it.

There it was, the striped scarf. And on the end of it, a new stripe — tiny, barely a hem: Aquamarine, like Ansel’s eyes.

It wasn’t the only new stripe, either. One the color of a blueberry stain; another mahogany. In the years I had left the scarf under my bed, another two feet of material had grown on it, capturing the colors of the magic I had subconsciously stolen from people by accidentally brushing against them in the market or grazing their hand when giving them change or loaning them a quill.

My fingers caressed the tiny aquamarine strip at the end of it. I think I fell asleep praying that it wouldn’t get bigger, even though I knew that Ansel likely had no more magic to give.

The next morning I awoke, suffocating under the heavy satin fabric from Mamma’s wedding dress. The floorboards looked undisturbed, and I wondered whether I had put them back myself the night before — it was hard to recall everything I did with adrenaline and sparkling wine coursing through my veins. As I lifted myself out of bed, a headache pressing behind my eyes, the sun caught a glimmer of something on my bedside table: A golden viper fang on a chain.