I'm not looking for ghosts when I find Miki in the canal.
I'm not looking for corpses either. Actually, I'm looking for crawfish. But Miki is what I find. When a ghost's upset enough, it'll find a way to get noticed.
It's about an hour shy of midnight. It's never really dark in Verdichane, but on a clear night after the house lights are out, down by the West Canal where there's no street lamps, it can get pretty murky. All I can make out down below me is the white rag I tied to my crawfish trap. I can't even see the string going into the water. I'm dangling my legs over the lip of the canal and dreaming.
Mostly I'm dreaming of crawfish. I once caught ten in an hour not far from this spot. If I could leave my trap overnight, I could totally live on crawfish and then some. But if you leave a trap somebody will steal it, guaranteed.
I must be really hungry, or really tired or in some other way impaired, because the first I know Miki is there is when I see a sketchy twist of glow dancing up in front of me. It licks up real fast, right in front of my face, and it has eyes in it, and I yelp and swear and damn near piss myself just like I wasn't a witch at all.
It's gone in a second. It sure got my attention, though. People say ghosts don't show up to the eyes, and you're actually seeing swamp gas or something, but I tell you what, when you see a ghost, you know what you saw. I tie my string to a boat cleat and go looking for whatever the ghost is stuck to.
About five minutes later, I find Miki floating facedown with his feet bare and a chunk of his scalp hanging loose, and I sit down on the water stairs and cry. He was just some urchin, same as me, only he wasn't even a witch, just a junk picker and maybe a bit of a thief. So I cry because no one else will.
I didn't hardly know him, to tell the truth. Mostly I recognize his clothes and his hair. He always wore these stupid blue striped culottes he got from a Fioradine gunner, and since he was skinny as sixpence he tied them up with a piece of rope. He tied junk to the rope, anything shiny he could get a string around, mostly broken glass. He was a real light blond, still towheaded years after he should've outgrown it. You couldn't miss him, he was kind of part of the neighborhood scenery. And now someone's vandalized him.
He's mad as hell about it, too. I can't get anything out of the ghost for quite a while except a general sense of frantic and the twinge of recognition that made him light up at me. He remembers me, he remembers I'm a witch, and he wants something done goddammit, even if he isn't sure what.
When I'm done bawling, I go in and pull him out. The stairs are slippery with crud, and even though I left my sandals on -- you never know what you're going to step on in there -- I fall on my ass a couple times while backing up with my arms around his waist. Miki wasn't a big guy, but neither am I, so it's not a real graceful procedure.
Water pours out of his mouth when I get his face clear, like he's vomiting. For a moment I wonder if he isn't quite dead. Sometimes people's spirits will come loose if they're real close, but they'll go back. He's cold, though. Being folded over my arms and jouncing like that is just pumping him out like a pudding bag.
I lay him on the top step and flop down next to him. On a dark night like this, you can't tell a corpse from a drunkard just by looking. His eyes are closed. There's nothing wrong with his face. I smooth his hair back, starting to feel a little sniffly again.
My fingers encounter a softness at the back of his head. I pull my hand back in a hurry. I wipe it off on his shirt, scrub my eyes with the back of my wrist, and get out my jar and knife.
It only takes me a minute to get the tip of his little finger off. His ghost zags around my head, agitated. There's more blood than I'm used to, because he's so fresh and because his hand is flopped down one stair below the rest of him.
I touch my bloody knife to my tongue. It isn't a ritual thing, exactly. I just feel like it.
"I'm taking you home with me, Miki," I whisper. "You just hang on to this, okay?" I put the fingertip in the jar. A faint tendril of Miki curls around it, curious. "That's right. Keep hold of that, and you can come with me." I put the cork in the jar and the jar in my pocket.
Then I go back to my crawfish trap. I don't want to be found sitting next to Miki if someone comes along.
Nine tenths of ghost-herding is listening. You have to be patient, and you have to know yourself well enough to tell which thoughts aren't yours. Gram used to say that's why most witches are old women. She said young folks are full of fantasies, and old men are full of pride, but old women know themselves. She said the reason I'm good at it is because I'm an old soul, and since I'm bent I don't have all that manly pride to blind me.
Gram was talking out her ass. Old soul or not, sixteen is sixteen, and I have plenty of manly pride, thank you very much. But I do know how to listen.
Miki sure isn't hard to hear. He's not taking this quietly. He babbles, unloading like a heartbroken toddler.
Ghost babble is like a bad dream, a barrage of images and feelings, all jumbled up and so strong they hurt. Ghosts don't talk in words. Not fresh ghosts, anyway, and Miki isn't even sure he is dead, even while he's throwing conniptions about being hit on the head and drowned. That's how ghosts are. They can be hollering at you about punishing their murderer, and at the same time complaining how they can't feel their legs.
It's never fun. They're always mad. Scared. Hurting. They wouldn't be ghosts if they weren't. I live through it with them. We go around and around until the pain fades. That's how you tame a ghost: you suffer with it. Nobody would do it if they could afford legal magic. But down here on the West Canal, it's witchery or nothing. I charge two talims to cure an infected cut, four for a fever. Most people can scrape up that much if they pester their relatives. I really should charge more. I can hardly live on that. And ghost-taming, as I mentioned, hurts like fuck.
I caught my first ghost when I was twelve. By now I can get murdered with Miki and catch breakfast at the same time.
After a while I hear thunder in the distance, so I pull in my trap. Four crawlies. One of them is too small to bother with, though, so I pick it out and throw it back. Maybe I should put Miki's body back in the canal so he can feed the crawfish. The thought bothers his ghost, but it doesn't bother me. Things eat other things and then get eaten in turn, that's how it goes. Maybe later I'll eat a crawfish that ate part of Miki. Nothing wrong with being part of the world.
I don't throw Miki's body back in the water, though. I'm not going to be a dick to him when I don't have to be.
At home, I put the crawfish in a bucket of clean water to purge overnight, eat a quick snack of leftover rice, and then go to work on Miki's finger. He writhes in my head while I clean it, but he isn't angry, just a little disturbed. If he tried seriously to escape at that point, I would let him. He's done me no wrong. We might've been friends if we'd gotten to know each other. I don't want to torture him or anything. There's curiosity along with his disgust, though, and a little prickle of mental fingernails in the back of my mind, like he's holding on to me all the while.
When the bone is clean, I burn the binding into it with a piece of wire heated in a lamp. Gram swore by carving, she said burning's no good, but it's always worked fine for me, and it's a hell of a lot faster. Maybe she didn't burn hers deep enough when she tried it. You have to actually char out a groove or it'll just rub off. I burn in everything but the spiral. Then I show Miki the bone.
He hesitates. I feel that prickle of clutching fingernails again.
With you. He's forming words now. Good sign. Not in a... thing. In you.
"I'll keep it with me," I promise him.
The bone will be cold. The canal was cold.
"I'll wear it next to my skin. I won't let you get cold." The prickle eases, but doesn't let go. "Miki, I won't let you get cold, I promise."
Still he hesitates. But when I'm about to speak again, he suddenly lets go of me and grabs onto the bone. I burn in the final sign, the spiral, the gateway. A false gateway that leads nowhere. I feel the bone vibrate a little in my hand, as if Miki is shivering.
I get a bit of leather cord and tie it around the bone nice and tight, then wet the knot so it'll shrink tighter. There's a little knob on one end of a fingertip bone and a flare on the other, so as long as the knot doesn't come undone it isn't coming off. I tie the cord around my neck so the bone rests in the hollow of my throat.
Miki settles against me with a sigh, like an affectionate dog. I can almost feel his weight.
I blow out the lamp and get into bed. I lie there listening to the thunder, waiting for the rain, feeling Miki getting used to me. Getting used to him in turn. This isn't my usual procedure.
"My Gram said to never sleep with a ghost trap on," I murmur. "I never did before. I mean... you can't really get cold. Can you?"
You're warm, he tells me plaintively.
"Well, anyway, it's all right if it's you. You never harmed anyone. At least, not that I heard. You seemed nice. Were you a nice guy, Miki?"
I don't know.
"Yeah, I think you were a nice guy. A bit weird. I like weird, though."
I laugh softly. "Yeah. I guess I am. We should've been friends."
I belatedly realiz he's not trying to get my attention, he's confirming that he knows my name. Names are important, and ghosts forget quick. "Yeah, it's Julin. Julin Drum, remember, the witch?"
Jule, he sighs in my mind, satisfied, and again I can almost feel his weight.
"You sure are a cuddly ghost."
A sense of laughter. You know what? I was scared of you.
"Well, I'm a scary guy."
He laughs some more.
"Seriously, the earth shakes when I walk, I'm like a god on --" I break off with a yelp as thunder cracks right overhead. My ghost laughs his insubstantial ass off at that.
I sigh and stroke the bone with a fingertip as we both calm toward sleep. Rain begins to hiss down outside. I roll over and pull up my blanket, gathering the corner of it in my arms as if I'm holding someone. Like maybe a skinny towheaded dead boy who needs a little comfort.
"I'm going to sleep now," I whisper. "It might be confusing for you. You might dream my dreams with me. But don't worry, they're only dreams."
Me too, he says uncertainly. I'll dream too.
I don't know if he will or not, since all I know about sleeping with ghosts is that you're not supposed to. If not, at the worst he'll get a little bored. We're going to find out, anyway, since I can't stay awake much longer. I let myself drift away.
The whole vastness of the world is around me in colors so bright they taste in my mouth like fruit and salt and skin and metal. All the people are talking so cheerfully in musical bird languages. Up on their roofs they're talking, on the shiny teacup tile roofs of the houses leaning tall and far apart like crocodile's teeth, with so much colored world between. I can go everywhere. I can go so fast. My legs can run so fast it's like flying. The birds in their flagflying silk scarves applaud me as I go.
And he's clinging to me like a backpack, like a baby, like a lover behind me and murmuring in my ear like soft thunder, "Jule, slow down, it's too much all at once." His voice is deeper than I thought it would be.
The rush of affection I have for him is a shocking tsunami of sugar and heartsblood, and as I turn to hold him at arm's length and wonder, it encloses us somewhere darker, smaller. He sighs relief and sinks down with me on our knees in the soft yellow sand. Night folds around us like a cloak, a small night but starry, made of my tidal surprise just for him.
"I didn't know I liked you so much, Miki," I tell him.
"You didn't." His smile is just a pulling back of sidemouth. Too old for him.
Poor Miki. I wrap my hand around his head to soothe him like a baby, and my fingers sink into wet warmth.
"Don't," he says without a change in his smile, but his eyes dampen. "Don't, you're the one who saw it, you brought that here."
"I know. I'm sorry." I take my hand away. I show it to him cupped in my palm: not blood. Just canal water. Palest yellow green like tea. "I did like you, too. I liked to see you around. But I thought you were simple."
"I am simple."
He's not. His eyes glow with awareness. They're brown green like the canal on a cloudy day, funny to see with his pale hair, darkness like hollows, and I want to put them in my mouth and suck on them in the form of glass marbles. I kiss the skin beside one. He leans against my shoulder and sighs.
After a while he starts crying.
"Jule? Am I really dead?"
I pluck a blue crystal star from my warm velvet night and try to distract him with it instead of answering. He's having none of it. Shaking now and crying harder. I want to cry with him, but what good would it do? The only reason he's here to be comforted is because he's dead.
"I don't want to be dead," he moans. "I don't get it. They weren't even mad. They didn't even rob me."
He shakes his head. He winds around me like a vine. His body is thin and hot and trembling with angry life, and I have never ached like this. The mad fancy takes me that I could wake up and go down to the corner by the fruit market and find him there, that having realized how sweet he was I can now have another go at meeting him, as if I was an ignorant fool and not a witch at all. As if I wasn't fed on death from my mother's tit and schooled by ghosts instead of priests.
I want a miracle, and that's an uncomfortable thing when you don't believe in them.
"Stay with me, Miki," I command.
His breath flutters against my neck. Around us, our warm water-stars-cloak-cave is fading into brightness like paint washed down a gutter. I'm beginning to feel the sunlight on my eyelids.
"Stay with me," I beg.
I will. Don't let go.
His breath still tickles my skin as I open my eyes, and the charm feels heavy as a kiss pressed to the cup of my collarbone.
"Miki?" I whisper. Not sure why it's a question. His awareness is so present it almost has me spooked, and I don't spook easy.
Where did it go? His voice is startlingly clear. The stars. You made me stars.
"It was a dream."
Go back to sleep. Dream it again.
"I can't sleep all day, sweetheart. Got things to do."
His reply is a sigh I feel on the back of my ear. Only then do I realize what I called him, but I can't bring myself to be ashamed of it. The way he clung to me in the dream... whether it was as a child or a lover, he's earned some pet names from me. I doubt sweetheart will be the last.
So this is why Gram said not to sleep with ghosts. You never want to get out of bed.
Despite my late night, it's still morning. The sun just cleared the roof across the courtyard. Halfway between dawn and noon. I hear my downstairs neighbor pounding rice, and the next-door lady's chicken chortling outside my door and no doubt shitting all over my piece of the balcony. When the hell is she going to eat that thing already?
I want a pet chicken, Miki tells me.
"You want breakfast," I say, "and so do I."
I... eat? What? A sense of bewilderment, yawning into hollow horror as he remembers he has no body to eat with, that he's a ghost chained to a bone. Jule! It's a moan I can almost hear with my ears.
"Ssh, baby," I soothe, fingers pressing the bone as I shuffle loose of my blankets. "It'll be okay. You're with me now. Trust me."
Jule, I'm dead.
"Happens to all of us. Not everybody gets to make friends afterwards, right?"
He lets that cheer him some, more to humor me than because he actually feels better. No ghost has ever come through so clearly before. It's almost like he's bound to me rather than the bone. Unsettling thought, but... not as unsettling as it probably should be. Gram would kick me so hard if she was still around.
I check on my crawfish. All still sluggishly alive. I grab my cookpot and slog down to the courtyard pump to wash the rice crud out and fill it with clean water. Some girl tries to talk to me while I'm doing that; I give her I-just-woke-up face and grunty answers, but she still follows me halfway back up the stairs before her mother calls her.
Back in my tiny two-room, I light the stove and plunk the pot on. And by 'stove' I mean 'high-sided open fire pit with a bent iron grill on it' -- this tenement is like two hundred years old. There isn't a even a chimney, so I have to leave the shutters open whenever I cook. Which is extra awesome in the summer, since my mosquito netting has holes in it.
Is she your girlfriend?
An echo-image of the girl's faded red dress and cheerful chattering voice. Is she?
"I don't even know her name." I shake a generous pile into the lid of the salt box and dump it in the water. There are things I skimp on, but salt and hot peppers are not among them. Salt and hot peppers can make anything taste good. "Why, are you jealous?"
Miki growls, and I feel a scrape like teeth on the back of my neck. As I put my hand up to the place, his growl moves to my ear. I should've called dibs on you when I had the chance.
"Now I have a raging boner, thanks a lot," I grumble. No way am I going to point out that he's only hitting on me because he's got nothing left to lose. When he was freaking out a few minutes ago, it just about made me cry, that's how intense he is. I like him better laughing, which is what he's doing now.
A ghost has a crush on me. How weird is that.
I have a crush back, that's even weirder. Only... it's just the kind of pointless, morbid, yet oddly not depressing thing I would do.
My grocery basket is pretty close to empty. I decide to just go ahead and finish off everything that's left. I sing to Miki as I peel vegetables. He seems to like that.
Lots of carrots, he says. I like carrots.
"This is all the carrot I have, baby." I snick it into the pot, reserving the last bite to eat raw. Miki makes a frustrated sound. I feel a feather touch on my lips, as if he's trying to snatch the crunch of it from my mouth. I was going to feed him when my food was done so we could eat together, but I guess he's too hungry to wait.
"Here's how it works," I say, and dig the point of my knife into my arm. "That's your food. You eat blood, not carrots."
A moment's shock. Sick longing. Then he's lapping up the blood as fast as it can run, going sorry sorry sorry all the while. Red steam twists into the air and vanishes, my life essence given freely, the only nourishment he can take now.
"Don't be sorry. I knew I'd be feeding you when I took you home with me."
"Not hardly," I chuckle, and go back to my veggies while his insubstantial lips suckle at my arm. I keep munching bits raw, because goddamn I'm hungry, but at least half the veg goes in the pot. The cut on my arm starts to clot up around the time I'm finished.
"Now you heal it up. You should have enough energy to do that."
"It's something spirits can do. It's why witches keep them. Well, except for I'm keeping you because I like you and you didn't want to go. But you can help me too. Just close the cut, it's only a little one."
I don't... I never... But even while he protests, the cut pulls closed, itching madly as the skin knits.
"Perfect," I say when it's done. I lick my thumb and rub away the clot. "Like it was never there."
Weeeeird, he intones, and I have to laugh. If people knew ghosts think it's kind of freaky to do the things they can do, witches would get a lot less elbow room on a crowded street.
"Blood is a life essence. I'm giving you some of my life." I get down my little mortar and pestle to grind up some dried peppers with oil for sauce.
And then I drop the pestle on my foot, because Miki's invisible hand just totally grabbed my dick.
I want more of you, he whispers. I feel his lips on my throat. I can feel his hand, every thin cold finger. It's a good thing I have to kneel on the floor to cook, or I would've faceplanted. As it is, I flop back on my hands and nearly put my foot in the fire.
Is... that... life essence too?
"I don't know," I gasp. "Miki, this is a little strange." It's a lot strange. Part of what's strange is how sexy it is. "I can't touch you."
You've been stroking my bone all morning. His laugh is bitter, but there's no cruelty in his hands. Which are not letting up for a second.
I scoot back away from the stove so I won't kick ashes everywhere. His touch stays with me. I can't get a feeling for where he thinks the rest of his body is, whether he's kneeling over me or what, just those hands on me right through my pants and his soft mouth all over my neck. Teeth tugging my earlobe. I scramble to open my pants so I won't make a mess in them. He redoubles his efforts.
"Oh fuck," I groan. "Miki..." I close my eyes, and he kisses me. Teeth, tongue, everything. As long as I keep my eyes closed and my hands at my sides, I can imagine he's alive with me. I pretend if I wanted to I could reach up and slide my arms around his skinny body. I pretend if I opened my eyes I'd see his sandy eyelashes and freckled cheek.
Then he whispers my name even though he's still kissing me, so I can't pretend his voice is coming from his mouth, and shivers crawl over me from head to toe. And because I am a perverse bastard, that's what sets me off.
I open my eyes at the end. He's there above me, prone in the air like a reflection of me. A sketch of glow like what I saw last night, but a lot more Miki-shaped than it was then. His eyes even have a touch of green to them. And as I twitch with the last of my orgasm, I see my semen evaporating in midair just like my blood did.
That's better than blood. His voice comes from beside my ear, though I see him above me, and even while I watch his lips curve in a fond smile I feel them brush my forehead.
I am so, so, so creeped out. And also kind of in love. "Anytime," I pant.
He settles on me as he fades. I feel his weight along my whole body for a moment. Then it's gone. Only the bone is heavy. I close my eyes and just breathe. My eyes are stinging a little. This is way more emotion than I'm used to dealing with. I mean, I can ride the grief and rage of a fresh ghost all night, but that's not my pain. Whereas Miki... oh Miki, oh hell, Miki is dead and I don't want him to be.
My door suddenly shakes in its frame as someone pounds on it.
I jump, scrambling to pull myself together. Whoever it is out there, they sound like they're in a hurry. Must be an emergency. Looks like Miki's going to get to try out his new healing skills right away. I'm a little bit grateful, actually. Nothing like saving somebody's bacon to take your mind off your troubles.
"So much for breakfast," I say as I turn the latch, trying to grin.
The first thing I see is a City Watch uniform. I try to slam the door. It bounces off a booted foot. The watchman shoulders in, a tall rawboned woman who looks like she chews nails for fun, and I pinwheel back, trying to remember if there's anything below my window that would save me if I dove out.
"You need to come with me right now," she says, and I freeze.
Wait a second. I know her. It's Daisy Wheeler. Local girl who used to wait tables at the Red Goose, and bounce too when things got rowdy. Last I heard, she got a better job and moved to a nicer-smelling part of town. So this is her new job? "Daisy? I didn't know you turned copper."
"Somebody's got to look out for you lot. Now come on. No time to argue. Forget your fucking soup!" she snaps as I glance toward my boiling pot. "They don't know where you live, but it won't take them long to find out."
That's not the kind of statement you can ignore. I shove my feet into my still-soggy sandals and book it out the door with Officer Daisy right behind me.
At the bottom of the stairs, she grabs my wrist and hauls me off toward the little alley by the manager's apartment, which leads to a different little alley that no one uses. It's clogged with garbage and saplings. She won't let me slow down for those, so I scuff myself up pretty good. Then, when we hit the street, she speeds up even more.
The few people out on these back streets stare at the mean-looking copper dragging a scruffy boy by the arm like an angry mom, and they grin or snicker. Folks aren't afraid of the City Watch down here. Sure we always get the short end of the law, but that just means we feel justified in fighting back, and anyone you punch in the teeth more than twice is something like a friend.
Not that I'd punch Daisy. She'd kick my ass.
"Oi, Daisy," I say when the hauling doesn't let up. "You going to explain anytime soon? Because I'm kind of freaking out here. Am I arrested?"
"You will be if you don't hurry up."
I hurry up. I don't know if she's threatening me or saving me. It sounds like hurrying up leads to not being arrested, though, which I like. Daisy knew my Gram, knows what Gram taught me to do. If she was going to bag me just for witchcraft she'd have done it long ago.
Miki's nails prickle my scalp. What's happening?
"Hell if I know," I mutter.
Finally, we come out on West Market down by Carters' Row, and Daisy slows down enough for me to catch my breath. Come to think of it, with a name like Wheeler, this is probably where she grew up. Everyone's more relaxed on their home turf.
"About an hour ago," she says, "TD gave us an order to go pick you up for questioning."
"Who did, now?"
"Thaumaturgic Division. They deal with magical crimes."
Like, for instance, illegal forms of magic? Oh, shit. "Is there a crackdown on witches or something?"
She shoots me a sharp glance. "So you don't know what this is about?"
I shake my head. "If that's not it..."
"You're going to be charged with the attempted murder of a boy I found by the canal this morning. TD says you were the last person to touch him. And apparently you took a trophy." She stops suddenly, and plants a hand on my chest so I have to stop too. "You want to tell me about that necklace, Drum?"
I gawk. Only one thing out of all that stuck with me. My mouth works. She waits, scowling, while I choke on my words.
At last I get them out: "Attempted murder? Miki's not dead?"
Her narrow stare gets narrower. "Your Gran was a good woman. I don't want to believe she raised a killer."
"Answer my question!" I yell, my voice cracking. "Look, I found him, I pulled him out because I couldn't just leave him there -- but there was a fucking hole in his head, he was cold and he wasn't breathing -- and now you're telling me attempted murder?"
She has no mercy. "So you're saying you're not the one who hit him over the head and tried to drown him."
"Is he alive?" I beg.
"Technically." One more long moment's glare. Then she sighs and grips my shoulder. Hard enough to hurt, but I think she means it kindly, because she goes on, "He was breathing when I found him. I took him to the Kaleyan temple, and they healed him as much as they could, but he's not waking up."
"Oh. Wow." My legs give out; I just barely manage to sit on the curb instead of in the gutter. "Oh wow. Miki. Miki, did you hear that?" I grasp the bone and squeeze my eyes shut. I can feel Miki's hope-fear-confusion fluttering in me like it's my own.
"That's why I had to warn you. You pull shit like this on a public street. You have no sense of self-preservation, kid." She shook her head. "I couldn't believe you'd kill anyone, and I know your Gram didn't teach you to be a soul slaver. I figured you thought he was dead when you took the finger. But I'm just a patrolman, Drum. The situation looks real bad, and my word doesn't count for much."
I look up at her, begging with my eyes. "Let me see him -- if he's not dead -- maybe he can go back --"
"And what will he tell us if he wakes up? That you captured his soul and used it for a reservoir? You sure you want him to wake up?"
"I'd give anything," I say hoarsely. Dammit, I'm getting too emotional. This isn't persuading her. She's not a sentimental woman. "Maybe he can tell you who attacked him. That's what you want to know, right? That's why you got him healed." Even the Kaleyans charge for healing; if they did it for free, they'd be buried eyeball-deep in minor complaints. That's why people bring those minor complaints to me.
She studies me, brows knitted. She nods. "Come on."
I'm off like a shot. Now I'm the one setting the pace. I'd be running if Daisy would let me, but she holds me back. She's still got some talking to do, it seems.
"This isn't about -- what'd you say his name was?"
"This isn't about Miki. You know that, right? In a better world than this, we'd all care what happens to every urchin kid and beggar, but in the real world, nobody gives a shit about him but the Mother of Mercy and apparently you. Problem is, there's been a whole bunch of these murders. Same method, same total lack of motive, never any witnesses. We're tearing our hair out. TD wants to throw it at you and see if it sticks."
"I can't afford a truthseer." Normally I'd be shitting out my guts in fear at the idea of being accused of murder, because even if I did get an expert to testify for me, I'd get sent up for ghostbothering. But all I can feel is this great big choking hope. Miki might not be dead. It's so big I can't even feel it all.
"More to the point, while you're being tried, we're not looking for the real killer. I'm not going to let anyone else die because of our mistakes."
I'm sure she has a point, if I could just think about it properly, but I can see the temple now, and next thing I know I'm running.
It's a bit of a blur for a while. I'm usually pretty alert to people and spaces, but right now I'm like a dog straining at a leash. The only reason I don't run off ahead of the nun Daisy talks to is because I don't know where she's taking us.
And then there he is. On a little cot, looking pale and deflated, and breathing and I'm on my knees next to him hanging on to his hand and it's warm and I can't ever have been happy before because I've never felt like this in my life.
Is that me? Miki sounds totally bewildered. I look really sick.
"Is he healed?" I look up at the nun. The white apron she's wearing over her dark blue habit has bloodstains on it. "His head was... it was really messed up."
Daisy explains, "This is the boy who pulled him out of the canal."
The nun suddenly smiles at me, sweet and approving. "You saved his life, then. He wasn't drowning very fast, because he was so profoundly unconscious, but he would've been dead before Officer Wheeler found him if you hadn't left him lying on his side so his lungs could drain." She bends to smooth Miki's hair. "We've healed him as much as we can. It's in the Mother's hands now."
But he isn't in there. He's in the bone. I pick up his hand and run my thumb over the smooth scar where his finger stops short. "May I... have some time alone with him?"
The nun looks at Daisy for the okay. Daisy nods; I am safe to be left alone with unconscious people. I suppose I look pretty disreputable, so I can't blame her for wondering. As they go out, I wonder absently if it's odd for Miki to have a room to himself, since he's a charity case. Then I remember he's their only witness. The door shuts with a gentle click.
I take the bone from around my neck. Miki clings to me so hard I can feel every one of his fingers digging into my shoulders. "It's your body," I tell him, not understanding why he's hanging on. "Miki, you're alive. You didn't die after all. You can go back in your body and wake up."
His fingers dig in harder. His distress and confusion twist my gut. After some moments of this, he manages to speak: I look sick. I'm scared. I want to stay with you.
"You will," I hear myself promise, and the only surprise is that I'm not surprised. He's just as welcome alive as dead. So what if he can't help me with healings? The city is full of ghosts. So what if my apartment's about the size of a bread box? We can share the bed.
"You will, Miki," I repeat more solidly. "You can come live with me. I'll be able to hug you back."
But what if I'm sick? And I'm stupid and I don't work hard and I'll eat all your food and --
"I know you're kind of a goof. I love you anyway."
The force of his gratitude just about knocks me over. Then yes.
So I hold the delicate little bone in my palm against the metal frame of the cot and press down until I feel a tiny crunch.
There's a commotion in the hall. Hurrying feet and raised voices. The door bursts open. Two watchmen I don't know come charging in, reaching for me. Daisy is right behind them, surges ahead to get between them and me.
One of them says angrily, "Wheeler, you're on very thin ice. Step aside."
Daisy doesn't budge. "Drum found the kid in the canal and pulled him out. He didn't kill him, he saved his life."
"Orders aren't a goddamn suggestion! It's not your call!"
"You want to arrest him for saving a kid's life? You want the broadsheets getting hold of that? You know how they love to paint us as hamhanded bullies!"
While they argue, I pat Miki's cheeks and stroke his hair. "Come on, baby," I murmur. I can see him sinking in, squirming around like he's trying to get comfortable. "Don't worry about those assholes. You just focus on you." I'm pretty sure they're going to arrest me, and Miki will wake up alone. But at least he'll be alive. And who knows, maybe I'll get off clean. I didn't murder anyone, after all. I shove the broken bone under the mattress so I won't get caught with evidence of witchcraft on me. "Even if they take me, I'll come back. You can stay at my place until I do. I'll come back, however long it takes."
Maybe the prospect of having me hauled away gives him extra motivation, or maybe he just finally finds his fit. His cheeks flush, his chest rises in a deep breath, his fingers twitch.
His eyes fly open. Clear and dark and beautiful, the green of a stormy sea. I watch them struggle for focus while my own start to blur.
The argument behind me reaches a crescendo that involves someone getting shoved. A heavy hand lands on my shoulder. I twist away desperately. "Wait," I beg, my voice high and cracked like a little kid's. "Just one more minute --"
"C'mon, you little bastard, don't make me get rough." The man tugs at me again, and again I squirm loose.
Miki gives a great whooping gasp. He takes two fistfuls of my shirt and hauls himself up into my arms. I clutch him tight, and we both start bawling.
"Jule," he croaks. His throat must be really dry, he sounds like sandpaper. But under the rasp is the surprising deep voice I heard from his ghost. "I'm not dead. I'm not dead, Jule."
"I'm so fucking glad," I sob.
After some minutes of this, I realize nobody's trying to pull me away from Miki. Maybe they have some respect for miracles. I know I do now. I'm going to sacrifice to Kaleya on this day every year from now on. I don't care if She forbids my craft. She's still the real deal.
"As I said," Daisy says dryly, "Julin Drum found his friend in the canal and pulled him out. Mistaking him for dead, he left him lying on his side, and thus unknowingly saved his life. And provided us with the first witness we've had since this string of murders began. Instead of trying to arrest him, we should be giving him the reward."
Miki and I both slowly turn toward her. I say, "There's a reward?"
"It's only ten talims," she shrugs. "But if Miki can give us a good description..."
"That breakfast you made me leave on the stove... that was all I had."
One of the watchmen, the one who wasn't grabbing me, sits down suddenly in the room's only chair. He starts unbuttoning his uniform jacket as if he means to stay a while, and that's when I know it's all going to be okay. "What about the finger?" he says, but without any heat.
"What about it?" Daisy says.
"Defacing a corpse is a serious crime."
"I don't see any corpses here. If Miki wants to press charges for assault, he can talk to me. Assault's a district matter, boys, and this is not your district, it's mine."
Miki clears his throat. He shakes his head slightly. "He just wanted to keep me with him. So I wouldn't be lonely. Leave him alone. I'll tell you what I saw if you promise not to bother him."
The sitting man smiles at him. It's a kind smile, not fake like people usually use when they want something from you, but real like he sees what actually matters. "We have no reason to bother him now. Your name is Miki?"
"The person or people who attacked you have killed nine boys just like you, Miki. We want to catch them. Will you help us?"
Miki looks at me. He tugs my sleeve, directing me where to go. "Be my backrest." Once he's arranged me to his satisfaction, he sinks back against me with a sigh. He's still pretty weak. His hands lie in his lap like they're too heavy for him to lift. Talking sounds like an effort.
"There was a woman," he says. "She hired me to light her way. I don't usually do linkboy work, cuz men think you're up for something else, but she was a lady, you know? She looked... respectable. Like a shopkeeper. When we were walking by the canal she stopped and started talking to me. Asking my name, what I like to do, you know? Not like she was hitting on me, but like... like she was killing time. Then I heard somebody step up behind me, and that's the last I know. I think it must've been a man. From the footsteps. Heavy. But I didn't see. I can describe her, though."
While the watchmen patiently pick details out of him, making him repeat everything in the hope of finding some scrap he overlooked the first time, I rest my arms around his thin shoulders and listen to my joy burning up through me like a house fire.
I didn't hardly know him before. I barely knew his name. Now he's this important to me. I don't even know how that happened. I just know I'm going to take care of him now, and maybe he'll take care of me too. We can watch each other's backs. It could just as easily have been me floating in the canal last night. We'll go together from now on. I'll have to make another crawfish trap.
The watchman in the chair folds his notebook. "Thank you, Miki. You've been a real help. We may need to talk to you again; where can we find you?"
"Jule's place. He said I could stay with him." He turns his head to smile at me.
"Good. Drum -- we're sorry for the misunderstanding."
"It's fine. I understand."
Daisy says, "Pay them the reward now."
The man raises an eyebrow. "Out of my own pocket?"
"Ten talims is a lot of money on the West Canal, and it's pocket change to you. We don't want our only witness getting sick."
He chuckles. "I wouldn't say it's exactly pocket change. It's my whole month's rent." But he digs out his purse and counts them out, ten little silver coins all in one place. He leans over and puts five into Miki's hand and five into mine.
Miki grins at him, then at me. "Carrots," he demands.
"All you can eat."
Miki sits against the wall under the window, propped up against the new mattress I got him, with his legs sprawled out on mine. The window netting billows around his shoulders, pinned back by his head. It's raining again, but that's okay. We don't have to go out for a while. My grocery basket's full to the brim.
"You put them in alive?" he says as I pop the crawfish in the pot, one two three.
"They die pretty quick. Some people clip their spine with a scissors first, but I don't think it makes a difference. They're dumb even for fish."
"Are they really fish? They look like bugs."
"They do, don't they? I think the main difference is they taste better."
"I like some bugs. There's a lady in the market who does dry-fried grasshoppers. They're really cheap. A whole bag for a penny."
"We can get those next time we go shopping, if you want." I settle down beside him and hand him his share of boiled vegetables. I start picking carrots out of mine and plopping them into his bowl.
He grins and kisses my cheek. "What's your favorite?"
He sorts the little squares of bamboo shoot out of his bowl and puts them in mine. We end up having a bit of a chopstick fight. Then the crawfish are done, so I bring those over. He needs help getting his open, and by the end of the meal he's leaning against me with his eyes half closed.
"I'm tired, Jule."
"I can see that," I chuckle. I set his empty bowl aside and put my arm around him.
He sighs. "Did I tell you I used to be scared of you?"
"Yeah. A lot of people are. I guess just because I deal with the dead. You're not still scared, are you?"
Miki pulls himself upright so he can look at me properly. It's a little weird that he's taller than me. I never noticed before; he didn't look tall when he was schlepping around the market looking for scraps. Wow, his eyes really are pretty.
"How could I be scared of my best friend?" he says.
I feel a great big grin break across my face. "Because I'm just so damn imposing. My footsteps cause earthquakes! My farts cause hurricanes! And when I sneeze --"
Thunder cracks sharp outside, and I yelp and jump. Miki laughs and hugs me. "Poor little witch, I'll save you from the scary thunder."
"Eh, shaddap," I grin into his shoulder. To distract him from teasing me, I start working my hand up under his shirt. A little later we blow out the lamp. We never do get around to making up a bed for him.
Gran wouldn't approve of this either. But I know she wanted me to be happy. And I think she'd be glad Miki is alive. We do it for the living, after all.
~ end ~