A) This is for Jesse, because Jesse has been hella patient.
B) This is...queer fiction, I guess, and I labeled it slash because it's not femslash. In theory, however, it could be read as non-slash too.
Not officially one of those two things, but this is also un-beta'd for typos or content. One day I'd like to expand/develop/reuse this, so...critique welcome?
The skeleton perches on the cemetery fence.
Ira, who climbed up the muddy steps of the necropolis ahead of his brother and sister, spots it first. He stops short of the gate and cups his hands around his mouth. "You there," he calls, and the skeleton, who is really a child, starts, as if noticing them for the first time. "Are you a ghoul?"
The child, who is really almost grown, leaps down into the slush. "Professional mourner." Pierced tongue tracing a split lip, that voice has the lilt of a recent arrival, someone who understands the importance of such a service. "You got a few zloty on you, my friend?"
Ira opens his mouth to refuse, to insist that he, too, knows the rituals to summon the dead a final time, but then Antonia is beside him, digging through her pockets with gloved hands for her last copper-nickel coins. "She needs a real mourner, Ira. We're not going to bury her without a real mourner." She holds the money out with bare fingertips, presses it into the summoner's sticky hand. "This is all I have...we brought food, you're welcome to share it."
That placates the mourner. At some point, it begins to rain, but undeterred, they wind their way up the hill, somber as crows. Leading the way, Ira clutches the urn in his hands, the remnants of his mother. He can hear Antonia chattering in pidgin to Luz, but he can't make out just what she is saying, and so her words slur together in one smear of sound. When he tries to study the mourner with the intensity he applies to the rest of his waking life, Ira finds that he cannot concentrate on any defining feature. Eventually, he gives up and watches where he is stepping.
The alter sits aslant the knoll, ancient and ripe with power. It smells of sulfur and ash. The rains have washed away the carbon from the limestones, leaving them to gleam even beneath a curtain of clouds, but the lingering perfume of myrrh and charcoal persists. The siblings group around the circle. Ira opens and closes his mouth as a drowning fish in a silver net.
"You know the rituals, I expect." Antonia keeps her tone brisk, syllables clipped. Ira feels a rush of gratitude towards her. "If you can't do it right, I want my money back."
"I'm a fire witch," the mourner says, already circling the stones, reaching into deep pockets for the appropriate materials: flint and indigo and diviner's sage. Power surges up from the very core of the hill, rising into the bleak winter to serve its graceful summoner. "Trained a prophet in Ox Grave Marsh. If anyone in this city knows what they are doing, it's me."
The explanation seems to satisfy Antonia, because she takes a step back. Ira decides that explains a lot of things. Fire witches blur the boundaries of gender, life, and death— prophets and pariahs, seers and seekers. One trained as a prophet in the feverish Ethean mires would conduct an unimaginable amount of power through their being, and so it is no wonder the skeleton can't seem to choose just one shape as the ritual begins. Twisting, the way a storm might, all those bones melt together into one blur of sun-bleached white.
Ira still holds the urn, watching in fascination as the fire witch draws a seven-pointed star on a flat white stone. The rune stands out in brilliant blue, thrumming with energy that grows hazy and bright. Suddenly, the mourner snatches the ashes from his hands, and Ira, still reluctant to relinquish his mother, cries out.
Then it is too late. The fire witch thrusts the ashes into the center of the alter and sets them ablaze with a spark from his flint. Impervious to the rain, they burst into flames, producing a pillar of smoke the color of rust. The incantations become no more than howling shrieks.
His mother is there, suddenly. Waist-deep in sap green fire, Ema stands as she did before the first tendrils of the scarlet upset weakened her body, proud as Ira remembers. He hears his sister gasp and Luz hum, low in his throat, contemplative as ever. They stand in silence — the mourner, too, has come to still, no longer whipping about as the gale that shakes the leaf-bare trees.
"My children," Ema says in the wistful voice of the dead, which is not so different from the way she spoke in her last hours. Her eyes meet each of their gazes in turn, unflinching. "You've made me so proud. All of you. So unimaginably proud."
Antonia watches, enchanted, but Ira looks away when the magic grows too bright. He hasn't given her much to be proud of.
After the smoke clears, the day seems very still. The cemetery is small, sparse, so Antonia spreads out the red-and-white checkered blanket between two grey headstones. She reclines against the smaller, her face cast in the shadow of a slender tree trunk, and pours red wine into a paper cup. "Here," she says, handing it over to the fire witch, who now resembles a virgin instead of a specter. "You look thirsty."
Luz drinks wine from the corner of his own paper cup. "What's your name, anyway?" he asks. Ira elbows him. "Or do you not have names? I don't know what that was supposed to mean, Ira."
"Sky," says the thirsty one. "Prophets don't have names, but I'm not a prophet any more."
The confusion began the day of the Fisher twins' birth, a mild spring day darkened into early evening beneath clouds purple with rain; wild chickens pecked at the moist earth, rooting for earthworms to swallow before they stretched out their necks and crowed at the setting sun. Or perhaps the story began in the New Polish hospital one day in late summer, when the lady doctor pronounced that Ema Fisher would be having twins. "I didn't know it was possible," one of the nurses had said, in passing, when she thought no one was listening. "I thought Etheans always had...two-brain thing."
Maybe the trouble really began still months earlier, with the hastily-constructed city of iron and blood that sprung from the ground and shot up into the greenish sky as quickly as immigrants could populate it. They found New Poland as poor as the homeland they had left, but far colder. Some stayed in the drafty barracks while others, pock-marked and underfed, trudged home to Ethea in defeat. Ema, who had no interest in defeat, stayed on in the boxy apartment, determined to survive in the colorless wasteland.
The twins were born in a taxi cab parked on Zaufanie street, beside the river. Ira, first — tiny lungs demanded air, and he cried out shrilly when his back hit the cold, plastic seats. Luz joined him in the world, eventually, the weaker twin, and they two lay in the backseat, gleaming in the orange lamplight. Blessed by some unformed god, they had survived.
"They're so separate," Antonia had said, later, brushing her fingers over her brother's smooth skull. The three of them — Antonia and Ira and Luz — lay on the denim loop rug in the front room, between the wood stove and the broken window. Ira's grey eyes peered studiously up at his bleak surroundings. "They're going to grow into separate people instead of...one."
She thought of her own twin, one half of her single identity: the two then named Tru, both inhabitants of a thin, dark-skinned body, indistinguishable from one another. All her life, she had known herself of two minds, same as her countrymen, the way they had been born for centuries, since the Time of Shortages almost a millennium prior. She thought this in fewer words, then, as of yet unversed in the nuances of consciousness and uneducated in the great divide between her and her New Polish neighbors, but she had come to understand that there was, in fact, a difference.
Her mother sat in front of the television, watching reruns of the Carlos Valentine show and knitting blankets in purple and blue. The color had begun its return to her hollow cheeks. The world had never seen a frail Fisher woman, and Ema, no different, had fought a great many struggles— catching pigeons to survive and scrambling over a chain link fence only as high as her waist and forging a home from a single concrete column.
"They will grow up to be..." she trailed off, as if someone had abruptly shut off the faucet of her thoughts. Her knitting needles stilled a moment before resuming their frenetic clicking.
"Two," Antonia whispers, and that is the moment she swears she will protect them.
One day, a few weeks later, the skeleton spots Ira across the marketplace. The entire bazaar has been compressed into a performance space to shelter it from the ever harshening elements, but it threatens to burst from the confines at any moment. Sky, surely capable of attracting Ira's attention, considered calling out but decides against it, opting instead to stand on tip-toe, craning to see over adorned clergy and the glistening bald heads of priests.
No, Ira comes closer. The meandering crowd shuffles him past five stalls of pottery, the weaver, the flute maker. Sky leans out from beneath the stall's awning. "Amulets!" This shout joins a dozen others, blending into a cacophony of commerce. Groping for some oft-forgotten power, Sky tugs Ira closer, wills him to float nearer, struggles to harmonize the two parts of his mind.
I want to see you.
"Oh, you work here?"
And that is Ira's voice— clear as day and bright as a light at night. Sky suppresses the smallest of triumphant smiles at the successful manifestation of this desire. "Have to make a living somehow. You want to buy an charm? This one will protect you from demigods, and this one keeps away fire demons."
Ira picks up the carved jade stone and examines it carefully. Bright lights make him look like a statue carved from clay, studious and enigmatic. Of course, a former prophet finds very little enigmatic, but Ira comes quite close; his words are measured and his intensity immense. Only one symbol has been carved into the smooth surface: luck.
"What does this one do?" he asks, dangling it in front of Sky's face.
"Keeps you from getting yourself killed," Sky replies. An impish smile crosses the fire witch's angular features. "You intending to go to battle any time soon?"
Ira shrugs. "I don't know. We all live battles." He sets the charm down and pretends to examine one of the skinny knives, long as his forearm and thin as a switch. "Do you make them all yourself?"
"Most of it. Not that." Sky nods to indicate the glittering silver knife in Ira's grasp. Here comes a laugh, rueful, wistful. "That's my sworn brother's handiwork. If only his attitude were as tempered as his steel."
Indeed, Aja can be sour as desert pears and prickly as rose thorns.
Ira sets down the knife. "I want one of those charms," he says. He leans on the table and examines each of them in turn, rolling a copper coin over his knuckles. "What does the yellow one do?"
"Makes people tell the truth. Very popular. I made a whole tub of them." Sky feigns great interest in sorting the nickel coins from the zinc ones. "You want to buy that? I can cut you a deal."
Someone's sworn brother won't be happy.
Sky decides that Aja will have to get over it and returns half the price to Ira. Their fingers brush, briefly, and Sky's neck flushes a deep red, concealed only by a dark complexion. Aja would scold for that, something about etiquette and maintaining a proper distance, but when Ira's not mourning the death of his mother, he really is very beautiful. An ember of attraction, tempered by the sobriety of death, flickers to life again.
"So how long have you lived here?" Ira is asking now. He looks genuinely interested, his face flushed from cold of the excitement that comes with new magic. The vibrancy suits him. "Didn't you say you were from Ox Grave Marsh? I have a cousin there, I think."
Hail so many gods Aja isn't here.
But Aja is hunting moonstones in the airless mountains, not set to return home for three more days.
"Almost a year." Sky's never spoken so quietly before. Ira leans in, closer, to hear. The air seems suddenly very dry. "I've lived here almost. Born in the southwest province, but I went to Ox Grave Marsh when I was nine. Learned the craft there."
Went sounds very different from was taken. Sky imagines that those scruffy traders, looking for fire witches amidst the filth of the river, had been guided by the hand of some unseen god, that purpose existed behind the years of meaningless beatings and scrubbing every tile in the convent with a toothbrush and the freezing rush of truth spilling out in an irrepressible torrent.
"I've lived in New Poland my whole life," Ira admits. "My mother was the immigrant."
They fall silent abruptly. Now, they are standing so close together that Sky can make out the exact hue of Ira's eyes, the blue-green-grey of a storm-torn winter. Like ice. New Poland, it seems, was built on the ever-melting ice, slipping with the poverty and sickening that had taken root in the worst of the slums. Sky has seen the scarlet grow bolder with time, living in a border town during the first few month of infection and finding quick work as a mourner on the other side of the border.
"I have to meet my brother a few blocks over," Ira says, when Ira speaks again. He pulls away, and Sky mourns the loss of proximity. "But it'd be good to see you again...are you here every day?"
Sky nods vigorously. Dark curls come loose of their bindings, falling down to frame the fire witch's thin face. "My brother won't be back for days, and I have to work here while he is gone." Perhaps Aja might be persuaded to take a detour. Sky has never had much practice at using power to serve selfish purposes, but now seems as good a time as any to start.
He won't come back.
Sky silences the skeptical mind. "It's slow in the morning. We set up about nine, but it doesn't pick up until midday." The marketplace opens at dawn, but the first swelling comes just after noon, when the dock workers take their lunch break and housekeepers come down, pale-faced children in tow, to buy fresh fruit and new linen. "I'll see you again?"
Ira grins, exposing a full mouth of oyster-white teeth, and disappears into the flurry of motion.
The funeral fell on a holy day.
It was neither the first nor the last. Lead by a younger, fiercer Ira, the procession climbed to the eastern cemetery by lamplight while, below them, the city teemed and thrived, alive with the burn of candles and competing hymns. They found the downs empty of prayers and light. Even in the first days of the plague, when people died in droves and the out-of-work prophets became useful again, no one ventured to the graveyard in the dark. Especially not on a holy day. Perhaps they were afraid of ghouls, but Ira had no place in his mind for fear.
"We don't have a mourner," Lucjan had pointed out. One of his girls leaned hard against him and he shoved her off dispassionately. "Hey Ira, you're a darkie...don't you know the rituals?"
Luz bristled, but Ira simply shrugged. Luz hadn't known Konrad, and so seeing him properly laid to rest did not carry the same urgency. "Well enough," he said. The scarlet upset had taken root in the immigrants' quarter, and the city didn't have nearly enough mourners to guide every soul across the waters of death. The rituals, though taxing, were far from complex; Ira had seen them performed a hundred times, memorized the incantations and the exact mixture of herbs to toss into the flames. Mouth thin, Luz had shot him a warning look. Unsure how to interpret it, Ira simply took the wicker basket from Lucjan, a little surprised at its weight. "This is heavy."
"They aren't ashes," said Lucjan. "I brought his heart. Some hair. Part of his nose. A few fingers, I think. Took what I could, but the Bone Gang didn't leave much of him left."
Ira imagined Lucjan, who had never said a kind word about anyone, kneeling beside Konrad's limp body on the cold pavement, slicing out his heart to ensure the safety of his soul. Konrad had died in a skirmish over an acre or two of borderland — a brief fight, just the three of them against six or seven Bone Gang thugs, and now the memories had blurred into a smear of unformed magic, bright knives, quick draws, blank eyes.
Lowering his gaze, Ira turned towards one of the stone alters, hefting Konrad's remains. Suddenly, they seemed too heavy, and his hands began to shake as if with cold. So many opportunities to flounder, to fail.
"Come on, Ira. Everyone know you're full-on capable," Luz said abruptly. Ira's eyes snapped to look at his twin and he was met with a sudden rush of understanding, that this was as encouraging as Luz knew how to be. Sometimes, he wondered what would have happened if they had been born in one body— would they have learned to comfort each other as two halves of one mind, or would that distance so apparent have ruined them?
"Your faith in my abilities is astounding," Ira grumbled, rolling up his sleeve and drawing himself up. He'd brought the necessary tools with him, contained in a rawhide pouch with a draw string, and they felt almost as heavy as Konrad in his wicker urn.
The whole ritual felt very archaic. It felt very archaic even when Leo from the top floor performed it in the emptied-out swimming pool: "They were going to make this into a hotel," he had said, wiping his indigo-stained hands on his work pants, "but now it's for us instead."
When the last seven-pointed star had been drawn, the flames flickered a greenish color and spat forth the image of their fallen comrade. Konrad flickered for a moment between the two worlds, eying them the way he had in life, moving his mouth to form unintelligible words. They sounded like whale songs and, paired with Konrad's piercing gaze, utterly unbearable. Ira shoved the drawstring back back in his rucksack and covered his ears, averting his eyes to the ground.
"Go," he shouted. Everything went dark, and it took him a moment to realize that he had shut his eyes. He tried to remember the comforting words that Leo from the top floor used. "You'll like it, on the other side. It's not as dark as it seems."
"I can see it," said Konrad. "A pit...a ladder..."
"Climb into it," Ira pleaded. He'd lowered his hands, but his eyes remained fiercely shut. The others, behind him, shifted about uncomfortably. Luz's hand came to rest between his shoulder blades, but he ignored it, determined to serve his purpose gracefully. "You can do it. We all believe in you."
"You were...the best friends I've ever had."
Ira opened one eye in time to see the specter's glow disappear into the gaping earth. The necropolis went silent and dark, leaving the four of them in front of smoldering fires. They poured well-water into clay cups and drank greedily, as if the taste of dirt could eradicate that of salt and death.
And, later, Ira and Luz and a near-silent Lucjan had gone down to the pub and drunk ale until they forgot the dead man's stare.
Sky grew up on the river, amidst red clay and the walking dead.
"Oi, you there. Hoping you can help me find something..." One of the half-rotted prostitutes swaggered up to him, digging into her coin purse for a few Ethean dinars. Mummified flesh poked through her translucent stockings, but her face still held the supple glow of a living woman. "You got a light?"
Summer's dry heat crackled around them. Sky held out a hand for her cigarette, and she obligingly pressed it into the outstretched palm. "Here." Gentle embers glowed at the end of it, and Sky handed it back. "What're you looking for?"
"You, it seems."
Young then, too young to understand the importance of a secret, Sky turned to appraise her. "Me?"
"Fire witches." Her mouth spread into a wide grin and she reached out to rest a decaying hand on his shoulder. What was left of her skin felt clammy as ice. "They're paying twenty dinar a head, you know."
Panic took sudden, firm root. "What?"
Sometimes the river folk told stories of traders who bought and sold fire witches as property, but Sky had always assumed them to be just that— stories. Surely there were enough prophets, locked up in the convents, retelling a future they could do nothing to change.
"You seem like a nice kid." The corpse considered, rubbing her chin in contemplation. "You got something to trade? I'll let you go."
Breath quickening, Sky dug through the pockets of the rucksack perched on the muddy bank. They seemed impossibly deep, impossibly empty. "You want this?" The chunk of bronze glittered in his hand, a statuette shaped into the form of Jesus of Nazareth, lord of rebirth.
"That doesn't look like it's worth twenty dinar."
Sky paused, mouth open, before he drenched her in fire and took off running.
Midsummer made the valley hot and sticky. Even at eight in the morning, the oppressive smell of burning fuel and scorched sage permeated the air. Ira shuffled down the narrow alleys at the edge of the immigrant's quarter, hands tucked firmly into his pockets.
"Hey, I seen you around." The skinny boy leaned against the brick wall of the general store, leering. Everyone knew Konrad, the butcher's son, and to stay away from him, lest he cause more trouble than he was worth. Ira had known him in primary school, and they'd been almost friends. "How you been, Ira?"
That had been a long time ago.
"Fine," said Ira, without breaking his stride, although he did spare the briefest of glances in Konrad's direction.
"You interested in some money?" Akimbo, rolling a nickel coin over his knuckles absently, he resembled one of the gypsies from the west, lean and sharp. "I have a proposition for you."
Ira stopped walking. "What do you want?" he asked, one hand on his hip. A scowl wrinkled into his face. "I don't have all morning, you know."
"You think you can kill a man?"
"For three thousand zloty?"
Konrad grinned, briefly, before molding his features back to neutrality. "I thought you looked the type," he said, turning and motioning for Ira to follow. Ira, who was sure that almost anyone would kill a man for three thousand zloty, followed tentatively. Any other time of day he would have refused, but he could feel the knife on his hip, long as his forearm and sharp on both edges, and that imbued him with courage. "I have some people you want to meet."
They made small talk on the way there. Ira didn't remember much of it later, except that Konrad seemed far too friendly to be a contract killer. Still the same boisterous boy Ira remembered from school, Konrad spoke with his hands, enthusiastic about every topic. Knew his Ethean history, too, which was more than Ira expected out of the other white boys: the story of the war, cleaned up but mostly accurate, was nearly identical to the version Ira's mother had told him years ago.
"My sworn sister Ica told me that story," Konrad explained, turning a corner at the edge of the district and heading west towards the forest. "I don't go to school no more."
Ira, who still went to school most days, shrugged. "School's not so good in the way of history anyway."
Konrad stopped at the edge of the forest. He cupped his hands in his mouth and imitated the call of a red-necked grebe, pausing briefly before repeating it. Almost at once, the dark shapes of the forest shifted. "I brought Ira with me."
When five or six boys have emerged, the shadows stop moving and they stand in the clearing. "This is it?" Ira asks. "You're the Crescent Gang?"
He was expecting a more impressive turnout from such an allegedly bloodthirsty crew. The havoc they wreck was unmatched, if the papers are to be believed, which they aren't. And for a bunch of larcenists and mercenaries and murderers alike, they all seemed so...knock-kneed, honestly.
Ira crossed his arms over his chest.
One, the one Ira would one day know as Lucjan, as brother, stepped forward to inspect him. "Konrad spoke highly of you," he said. "Can you kill a man for three thousand zloty?"
Ira, still wiry with youth, made his decision early.
"You can't...date a fire witch," Antonia wails, when Ira tells her he is going to meet Sky the next morning. She stands in front of the stove, looking as out of place as she always has. Perhaps he still expects to see his mother there, though she hadn't cooked a meal in years. Antonia flips over one of the pancakes with her silver spatula. "There is a reason they keep them locked up in convents, you know."
Ira crosses his arms and scowls. The pancakes do smell good, and he becomes concerned that he will not be able to remain angry with his sister while eating them. "They're not all dangerous. Isn't magic about intent?"
"You wouldn't understand the difference," says Antonia sharply. She flips another one of the pancakes. Enough for the two of them, it seems, and he wonders absently where Luz has gone. "It's complicated."
"I eat very slowly. We have plenty of time."
Growing, Antonia shovels the pancakes three-high onto Ira's plate and sets them on the rickety kitchen table before moving to take the spot opposite him. "You can't understand," she says emphatically. Ira catches a hint of exasperation in her tone, but something else lingers, some unspoken resentment that he doesn't know how to decode. "When an Ethean woman carries a male and a female twin which then attempt to co-exist in a single body...well, most die, but the ones that are left—"
"Are fire witches. I know this already. What about it?"
Antonia drops her fork back onto her plate with a clatter. "It makes a person unstable! It's hard enough bickering with yourself half the day as it is." Now, he recognizes the sort of determined irritation that crosses her face— the expression she wore when she stalked into the courthouse to change her name despite their mother's wailing or shuffled them off to school all those mornings or hiked up the slippery path to the alter the day of that summoning. He wonders what she is thinking. "It doesn't make a person bad, it just...complicates things. And you need to understand that before you get in too deep."
"I can take care of myself," Ira insists, even as he wonders about the truth of his sister's claims. "I'll be careful."
With a sigh, she leans over to kiss his cheek. "I know," she says.
So Ira leaves. Winter is in full swing now, cold and biting as a northern wolf, and so he shoves his gloveless hands as far into his pockets as they will go and trudges along the pavement with his head down. To the west, the clock tower chimes the quarter-hour: almost ten. Ira keeps his head down and quickens his pace.
And today, Sky looks beautiful.
"Hello." Hair like mambas, carefully coiled and bound with silver ropes, rests atop the fire witch's head. Eyes like steel peer out from their sockets. Here, Sky looks nothing like the skeleton they encountered in the graveyard. "I didn't really expect you to stop by."
"I said I would, didn't I?" Ira doesn't remember. "It really is empty."
Indeed, the marketplace feels suddenly spacious without the hundreds of bodies crammed into the narrow aisles. Instead, only a few shoppers mill about, stopping at each of the different stalls before deciding that they don't want anything. None of them seem interested in Sky's wares, even going so far as to avoid the tarp altogether.
"I told you. Doesn't get busy until midday."
Ira pretends to be interested in the charms. Most of them are simple, just stones with incantations to bring luck or familial harmony. He spots a basket marked 'true love,' filled with irregularly-shaped stones the color of rosebuds. "How much are these?" he asks, picking one up gingerly and examining it.
"Twenty-one zloty," says Sky. "They work, too."
Ira is not sure when exactly they become friends.
Sky lies on the grass, staring up at the star-freckled sky. Inexplicably, it isn't cold. The night feels eerily still around them, silent except for the far-off city song. "I made you something," says the fire-witch. A smile spreads across those otherworldly features, illuminated by the coin-round moon. "It might be of use some day."
Ira accepts the charm, octagonal and blue. "What does it do?" he asks, slipping around his neck. It fits as well as the truth charm, which he lent to Luz, and far better than the true love charm, which he passed along to a romantic Antonia: the enchantment thrums through him, radiating from the place above his heart, swamping him with a power he doesn't recognize.
"It's not much," Sky admits with a sigh. "Basic protection charm. If you're intending on being stabbed sometime soon, you might have to reconsider your plans."
"It's a possibility."
Ira knows, now, where this came from: the whole story came spilling out, days earlier, in a moment of equal weakness and strength. One moment, they had been sitting in Sky's grimy kitchen, drinking amber fluid from prismatic glasses, and the next moment, Ira was explaining that he had once shot someone over five kilos of wheat.
"It's okay," Sky had said. "Or...it's not okay. But not as bad as you think."
And now, Sky is looking at him with that same expression of compassion, although they are closer now and Aja isn't sitting in the next room, listening for indecency. Their palms find one another, heart line to heart line. Ira mumbles some thank you with opaque breath and then they are still, stiller than they've ever been.
"You're doing it wrong."
Aja perched on the jade couch beside Sky. The dim light of the convent's porch did nothing to diminish the glitter of his sun-dark skin or pearl-bright teeth. Beyond them, the swampy lowlands of Ox Grave Marsh bubbled acrid and sour in the new heat of early summer.
"What do you know?" Sky growled, eying the charm pinched between thumb and forefinger. Small, the size of a dinar coin, supposed to render the wearer impervious to drowning. Elder Reu had assigned the work days ago, but Sky had always worked slowly. "It should at least keep you dry in the rain."
"So do cloaks," Aja pointed out. "You have to draw the rune before you say the incantation, otherwise it halves the power. Here, let me see."
With a sigh, Sky passed the tiny amulet over to Aja, a tiny sliver of jealousy worming its way into his heart. Aja, it seemed, had a natural talent for enchantments— he knew dozens of them, one for every purpose, always prepared. Sky's skills extended to only a few practical applications, mostly in the prevention and easing of burns.
"I'd trade you in a second," Aja would say, whenever Sky dared to complain. "I'd rather be a fire witch than a enchanter any day."
They sat in companionable silence as Aja examined Sky's charm. His fingers plucked at the horsehair strings, checking their tautness. He dipped his pinky finger into the pot of indigo ink and smeared it across the surface, and Sky observed the glow that emitted from it.
"Like this," said Aja, leaning over to show Sky. "Now you say the incantation."
Sky squeezed his eyes shut, trying to remember the exact combination of words. "I don't even remember who I'm invoking."
"Florian," supplied Aja helpfully, reclining on the stone, eying Sky through half-masted lids.
The nonchalance did little to sooth Sky's nervousness. "In the name of Florian and Iba, water will not swallow but sanctify the bearer of this charm." One eye opened, flicking to Aja for reassurance, but found only amusement. "By the seven gods, so it will be done."
The amulet grew warm in Sky's palm.
"See, that wasn't so hard," said Aja. He reached out to run his hand through Sky's tangled hair. "You'll be a proper prophet yet."
"I somehow doubt that." Sky stood, brushing imaginary dust from the apprentice's robes. They adhered to sweat-slick skin, hot even in the early hours of the day. "I have to bring this to Elder Reu. I'll find you later, okay?"
Aja nodded and let his eyes slip shut. "Good luck, darling," he said lazily. "I'll be right where you left me."
Sky found Elder Reu on the opposite side of the convent, standing before the still pool of divining. "Are you finished?" she asked, without turning around. Nodding, Sky met her eyes in the reflection. "Good. Bring it here."
Tentatively, Sky crossed the voluminous room, coming to stand at the very edge of the water. "Here." The charm, wrapped twice around a slender wrist, dangled on its string, twisting and writhing as if alive. "It's done."
"Can you swim?"
Then, Elder Reu shoved Sky into the water.
Ira, ignoring the command, whirls around to face his assailant. His hand flies to the dagger at his waist; perhaps it is not the most effective weapon, but it comforts him to know that he is armed. Beside him, Lucjan has already drawn his pistol, hefting it in his hands, aiming it at the chest of the tall man in the center.
There are four, all Bone Gang. The one in the center looks familiar, and Ira wonders briefly if he is the one who killed Konrad. "What do you want?" he asks irreverently, and he sees Lucjan tense beside him. "We don't want a fight if we can avoid it, but we won't hesitate to—"
The sound of a shot going off interrupts his speech as the middle man falls to his knees, clutching his belly.
Ira supposes this is the one who killed Konrad, and feels no remorse for his impending death. Two others step forward, their weapons drawn, and launch themselves forward. Lucjan rattles off another shot, it misses, and he's suddenly engaged in hand-to-hand combat with the fatter of the two.
"Get back," Ira snarls. "I'll kill you."
And he does. Kill one of them. He goes down just as his comrade did, although he cries out as he dies, filling the air with his agonized cries. The one entangled with Lucjan hesitates, but the other has no such reaction, aiming another blow at Ira's chest.
"Looks like the Bone Gang's toughened up a little," Ira sneers, dodging easily. "I'm impressed, I suppose."
He keeps a firm eye on the wall, making sure it's never too close to his back. Things go well, until he trips over a cadaver and finds himself on the concrete beside a dead man. Pain shoots through his leg, and a quick glance tells him that's it's definitely broken.
"Looks like the Crescent Gang's still clumsy as ever," sneers the man towering above him. Ira can tell from his tone that he is not impressed. "Prepare to die."
Only he doesn't. Die, that is.
The knife is coming, down and down and down like rain, and then it's clattering to the ground and Ira finds himself pinned beneath the bloated, bleeding body of the Bone boy. He gasps for air, struggling to roll the corpse off and examine his aching limb. Lucjan, above him, sways for a moment before dropping to his knees to aid in Ira's attempts to free himself.
"Where's my three thousand zloty?" Ira asks, although the pain makes humor seem futile. "They owe me a check."
Lucjan laughs numbly and helps the other to his feet.
Ira can pinpoint the exact moment they became more than friends.
They stand in Ira's bedroom. Ira balances on one crutch, leaning against the wall. Sky looks less like a ghost now, standing by the bureau and fed by Antonia's infinite pasta plate. Winter is almost over, and outside, the snow has begun to melt and the blossoms peek out from their cocoons.
Ira's grip tightens on his slender familiar and he buries his face in the smooth curve of that swan-like neck. His fingers twist into Sky's tightly-coiled hair. "Stay with me tonight," he whispers, breath warm and hot against Sky's own flushed skin. The primal part of him wants to name, mark the one that is his— seeking with his mouth now, he maps the sweep of a jaw, the hollow of a throat.
Hands push him back. Ira snarls at the cold that ravages his bones. "Why not?" When he searches Sky's features, he finds the face of a stranger, cold as winter iron.
"I don't need to feed your curiosity," the fire witch spits, digging sharp talons into Ira's upper arms. Ira doesn't flinch, and this prompts Sky to dig deeper in hot-blooded desperation. "The answers aren't under my clothes."
A knot pulls tight in Ira's chest, a tension swelling so rapidly that, for a moment, he is afraid it will kill him. A moment later, however, he is still alive, standing in his sparse bedroom, and it seems no divine intervention is coming: all he can do is try to articulate the ache that plagues him.
"I need you." And this is the truth, except he doesn't know how to articulate that he needs to feel integral and necessary, to be part of something that has been denied him his whole life. Instead, he leans forward again until his mouth finds Sky's, brushing their lips together in another brief, intense embrace. They fit together as two halves of the moon, flushed and ripe as wheat. "Please stay."
Sky scowls, but Ira can see the resolve cracking behind those slate eyes. Lust burns bright as sunlight, buried beneath not tears but nearly tears; suddenly, their mouths fuse together again. Sky gasps and Ira takes the opportunity to slide his tongue past those pliant, red-bitten lips. His hands tangle into the fire witch's hair, pulling hard enough to earn a sharp cry of...
Pain. But something else.
Ira presses Sky into the wood paneling. His hands slide beneath the rough cotton, seeking to touch and examine; they find sensitive skin and, in curiosity, press against it. Sky's eyes squeeze shut, that illuminating grey stare given up to the sensation of pleasure. A satisfying victory, it seems.
Ira has had his fair share of ill-fated romance. He's seen a lot of people naked, just as he has seen a lot of people dead, but he has never been overcome with something besides basic wanting, the raw and uncouth. Sky he wants to study, the way he might study the wings of a pinned butterfly. Sky he wants to swallow whole and consume as night consumes the day.
Ira steers them both back to his mattress. The metal springs squeak when they land sideways, but neither of them hears the sound. Tentative hands strip away layers of clothing and resistance, leaving only the blank canvas of skin and bone. Compelled to fill the void, Ira dips his head to kiss the gully of Sky's chest, to draw his lips down the firm expanse of belly to the juncture of hip and leg.
Sky trembles, back arching, when Ira's mouth finds its goal, but no sound passes those piquant lips. It becomes apparent when fingers find Ira's hair, yanking on it insistently, that the resistance is gone, the fear replaced by wanting. Some invisible fire drives the winter from their bodies, but Ira still shivers when he presses in, burying his face in the crook of Sky's neck, crying out in the ecstasy of nearness.
Later, they lie satiated on Ira's rickety bed, smoking Antonia's cigarettes, tangled together beneath paper-thin sheets.
Happy holidays, everyone.