I Will Be Incandescence
I am sitting on his cold, stone stoop, burning my hope to keep warm while I wait.
That is how those of my Order usually die.
First the chill settles around our shoulders like a thick cloak, then the frost seeps into our bones, then our breath ceases to steam in the air. That is how they find us on the morrow, the street cleaners and ratcatch boys. Curled around our beliefs. Joints locked stiff. Dead.
I have some time left to go before my spark starts to gutter, so I take stock of my inventory. I have my dress, threadbare and simple, and I have the pouch on my belt. That contains three lucifers and a handful of coal dust. Not enough to anyone else, but I know I will get by on it.
The certainty burns in my soul, keeping me warm and alive.
The Piper's manse waits on the other side of the gate, bright and still. I have been here for some time now, but there is no indication that the guard I spoke to will come back. He had that dazed look in his eyes that nonfolk get in the presence of Pipers, and I am not sure he heard my request in entirety.
He may have simply heard the Piper's name and wandered off to be near him.
I shiver, that brief bit of cruelty cutting through my shields, then the flame in me reasserts itself. It will all be alright. I will speak to the Piper about freeing his servants after he has heard my other request.
High overhead, the heavens are blazing with constellations. I do not look up. That is also how we die. Sometimes the beauty is too much and the bright dream comes to take us.
I slip a hand into my pouch, finding the reassuring splinters of the matchsticks with my fingertips. One of them pricks, but it is a playful sort of nip. A reminder that they are mine.
A figure shuffles back into sight on the other side of the gate and I look up sharply. It is the guard, his features slack with adoration. "The Piper will see you," he says, operating the freezing lock on the ironwork gate to the manse. Hinges creak and it swings wide.
There is only one Piper in Hertzbrencht, and that is why I am here on this midwinter night.
The killings were a Piper's work, and I need to know that they were not his.
The inside of the Piper's home is elegant and restrained. There are high ceilings and solid hardwood furnishings, but there is no ornamentation on either. These are the aesthetics of a poor church, but without the poverty.
"This way," mumbles the guard, his eyes glazed as he leads me through the foyer and down a long hallway. He does not ask to take my coat. I do not have a coat for him to take.
The temperature inside the Piper's house is only marginally warmer than outside. Gas lamps burn at low-flame on the walls, shedding little heat. The guard does not seem to notice though his skin is prickled with goosebumps.
Up ahead, the passage opens into a wider room. Light is pouring out from its open doorway.
The first I see of the Piper, he is attending to his diner. A lavish one-person feast has been spread before him and he is carving off a slice of a crisp, golden game hen. He shears away a morsel, pops it in his mouth, and chews. His teeth are the white of starlight and his eyes are a brilliant green.
His glamour slides right off me, as it does for all Folklores.
The guard at my side stands hypnotized until the Piper finishes chewing, dabs at the edges of his chin with a cloth napkin, and says "you may go."
Face rapturous, the guard leaves.
The Piper sits up in his chair, straightening out of his comfortable slouch. "Will you join me?" he asks. "It is not unusual for my guests to stare at me, but it is rare for them to be able to provide me with meaningful conversation. The couchon is delicious, by the way."
I sit, skinny bare legs feeling at odds with the upholstered chair that he has pulled next to his. The table is long, running nearly the length of the room, but there are only candles at the end. I breathe in, sipping some of the heat. A place has already been laid out for me.
The Piper saws free another portion of the hen. He sets it on my plate still dripping and rich with juices. I want to behave decorously, using the silver fork and knife that have been left for this purpose, but instead I pick up the cut and tear at it.
It has been since yesterday that I've eaten.
The Piper speed-loads my plate with several herbed rolls. He is smiling indulgently.
"I am here to ask if you have comitted murder," I say. I am usually blunt. Living on a timer has done that to me. "Thank you for the meal," I add, not wanting to be ungrateful. My dirty fingers tear apart a roll and I stuff the two halves into my mouth. It is steaming on the inside and I feel my heart come alight.
The Piper, on the other hand, nearly chokes on his mouthful of sherry. "Excuse me?" he demands, though his tone is polite.
"A Piper charmed three nonfolk and killed a Hunchback this morning," I tell him. "The Council would not tell me much more. They do not like my involvement in these matters. They would rather give them to a Woodsman or a Wolf."
"And this happened here?" asks the Piper. I have no doubts that he could simply have me destroyed here in his place of power, but I believe he will choose not to.
It is easy for me to believe the best of people.
"It was down in Poorside," I say. "There were witnesses, but they were too dazed to be of much use."
The Piper frowns. "We are not the only Order that can charm, you know. This could as easily have been a Gingerbride or a Bogelmann." He sets his drink down, eyes piercing.
"I went to see the witnesses," I say. "They were in love. Still are. It's made them catatonic. This was a Piper."
The Piper sighs. "Then I am relived to be able to inform you that it was not me. I have witnesses for this," he frowns, "but they are all glamoured, of course. Has the Council reached the same conclusions as you have?"
An impeccably dressed man emerges from a side-room to bring me a glass of sherry. I drink too deeply and the red washes like syrup down my throat.
"They have," I manage, coughing, "and even if you say you didn't do it, I'm afraid they may not listen."
"How do you know I didn't do it?" The Piper asks sharply, his eyes narrowing.
"You just told me that you didn't," I stumble over the words in my reply.
"Forgive me," says the Piper. "Perhaps I should introduce myself. My name is Piedmont and you already know my Order."
"I am Ella," I tell him. "A Cinderkind."
He nods, satisfied. "That rather explains that. Would you help me with something, then?" he asks.
He knows that those of my Order have trouble declining a request, but this does not bother me. I am not being manipulated. I would have offered if he had not asked.
"I will help you find the culprit," I tell him.
In my soul, I can feel ashes rekindling. Burning bright.
"You really shouldn't keep the nonfolk at your home in slavery," I tell him. We are walking the cobbles now and the wind is cold on my bare arms. The stone is freezing against my unshod feet too, but my heart is alive with purpose and the discomfort cannot touch me.
Piedmont is wrapped in a thick peacoat. His hands are shoved into his pockets. With his dark hair under the moonlight, he looks like the glossy shape of a raven at rest.
"Beg pardon?" he asks as we round the corner onto Canterly and Barrow.
"Your servants," I clarify. "Before they came to you, they had lives and jobs and - "
"And I had not one to serve my meals or to keep the fireplace lit," says Piedmont peevishly. "Besides, they are happy. Especially for non-Folklores. Almost deliriously so. Would they be more content as cobblers or seamstresses or ragpickers? I keep them clothed and fed. I do not need to do that."
He is correct in his point, but I do not surrender the field. "It's still unkind. They are living a life that is not theirs. You have denied them choice."
"Choice is an illusion," says the Piper.
I want to rejoinder, but we have arrived at our destination. The solid stonework facade of Saint Marguerite's Home For The Curse, Charmed, and Otherwise Ensorcelled looms out of the darkness before us. The front doors are made of stubborn oak and sealed on the other side with an iron bar to prevent nighttime intrusions by Wolves.
"Give me a minute," says Piedmont and then scrunches his brow like he has a headache coming on. A beat later, we hear footsteps coming down a staircase and then slapping across the floor. The metal bar shifts with a groan. Then the door opens.
A dazed night-shift nurse is standing before us. Her eyes are slack and her expression is vacant.
"We'll be coming in," says the Piper, and he leads the way.
At Piedmont's prompting, the nurse tells us where Mr. Arnault, Mrs. Havisham, and Ms. Treaudeau are quartered. She provides us with a bristling keyring and then stands exactly where Piedmont tells her, the door open and blowing in the wind. It is dark inside the Home, so he takes the nurse's candle.
That fluttering flame lights the way upstairs to where the isolation cells are.
Treating hexwork is a difficult, complicated process, made all the more challenging by the extreme specificity of each Folklore's disenchantment condition. One Gingerbride's curse might be sundered by the sound of silver scissors cutting silk. Another's by three days of immersion in swamp mud and soap, and there is no way to know which. Only careful experimentation and guesswork can find the cure. Or the caster's death.
Or the application of another Folklore's power.
"Mrs. Havisham?" asks Piedmont gently, opening a door into inky pitch. We are both assailed by a musty odor as his candle illuminates the woman's treatment cell.
The old lady inside is sitting on a bench, staring at her hands, her eyes glassy. The wispy white hair on her head is uncombed and she smells unbathed.
"Mrs. Havisham? Can you understand me?" continues Piedmont, stepping over the threshold. The woman does not acknowledge him.
Beneath his coat, I can see his muscles braid as his hands clench into fists.
"He left her like this," the Piper snarls. "You don't just abandon nonfolk when you're done with them. You finish with a tool and you put it away properly. To do anything else would be disrespectful." He kneels down in front of Mrs. Havisham, looking up into her eyes. "This is likely to be trying on my power," he tells me. "Bring me smelling salts if I collapse."
I do not have smelling salts. I have matches and coal dust and hope, but I do not tell him that. I let him work. I know he will succeed.
Piedmont gazes up into Mrs. Havisham's eyes and his back arches. He shudders.
She takes a breath.
It comes back out in a sigh.
"I was having such a dreary dream," she says, "and now I wake up dark and cold. Where am I? Who is there?"
"You were enchanted," says Piedmont, straightening, and Mrs. Havisham notices him.
"I am enchanted," she says slyly, eyeballing him. "Doctor...?" she continues.
"Just Piedmont," says Piedmont. "Would you have a moment to explain a few things to me?"
"I'll teach you anything you'd like," answers Mrs. Havisham, winking. "I have all the time in the world for you." She looks him up and down.
Piedmont coughs uncertainly. "Earlier today, you were beguiled. Could you tell me who it was that charmed you?"
In the candlelight, Mrs. Havisham's expression sours. "I don't see why we have to talk about that," she says. "Not when I would rather forget it. But she was tall. Brunette. Dressed in leathers. She told," here Mrs. Havisham stops. "Well, it doesn't matter what she told me to do. It's done with. Do you want to tell me to do anything?" She smiles.
Piedmont backs sharply away. He murmurs something that sounds like "no" and "thank you for your time" and "we'll tell the nurse you've come around" all at once and shuts the door on the way out.
Standing in the hallway, candle-holder in his hand, he looks shaken.
"She's just an old woman," I start to say, but he interrupts.
"The Folklore who was killed," he counters. "Where did she live?"
There's a lot of nonfolk who might say Hunchbacks are a pitiful sort and that confinement is no way to live. These are people that misunderstand the fundamental truth of all Folklore: it is beautiful to be who you are.
The Hunchbacks are no exception.
Abellina's Grotto is on Westonce and Present; a tumbledown heap of masonry shrouded in moss. It has a doorway and a curtain across that, but nothing to bar entrance for a stranger looking to get in.
Hunchbacks have other defenses – at least while they live.
Anyone who sets foot in a Grotto is known instantly to its owner. Their location, status, even the way they move becomes instant information for the Hunchback who lives there. Moreover, the Grotto is exceedingly difficult to damage from the outside, and what it looks like from within is entirely at the whim of the 'Back who owns it.
Abellina's is an opera house, and Piedmont and I step though the door onto center-stage. The show curtains are wide but the audience rows are empty. Ghostlights burn down in the pit.
I did not know Abellina well, but it is hard for me to dislike a Hunchback. The disfigurements that they are saddled with are a distraction, and often one that is lovely in its own way. Not everyone sees past this, and I feel sorry for those that don't.
Piedmont moves brusquely across the stage to a writing table that is waiting in the wings. Fishing a pen-knife out of one pocket, he pries its drawers open and peers inside. He face darkens against the wan light.
"Did you know her?" I ask.
"She was holding onto something for me," he replies. "How did she die?"
The Council had not been free with the details. I give him the best I can. "The man and women in the Home for the Ensorcelled knocked at the door until she answered, and then they dragged her out into the street." If they hadn't kept her from getting back into the Grotto, she would have eventually mended.
I wrap my arms around my waist.
Piedmont looks up at me sharply. "Are you cold?" he asks.
That means something very different to me than it would to another Order or the nonfolk.
"I'll be fine," I say, because that is instinctually what we do.
He shrugs out of his coat, crosses the stage, and hands it to me. I move to refuse, but it's like someone kindled the sun in the pit of my stomach. "You'll go cold," I say.
"Not for long," he responds. "We're going home."
"Why?" I ask. "There's still a Piper on the loose."
"Hamelin knows where to find me," Piedmont responds promptly.
Taking me by the hand, he leads me out of the Grotto and we leave the shell of Abellina's life behind.
Hamelin, Piedmont explains, is a piece of the past he thought he had left in Alemani.
I keep my silence open until he feels compelled to fill it with speech.
They had met during the Great War, amidst the thunder of cannons and the re-drawing of borders. He had been disenfranchised nobility – explosively disenfranchised by a rain of artillery – and she an orphan. Together they had picked over the scraps and memories of the dead, eventually sealing them into a glass pendant for safekeeping,
The war had dragged on, and over time they had amassed the beginnings of a fortune in Hex fuel.
It was Piedmont who cut and run, panicking after an undetoned shell cooked off near him on a silent battlefield.
The way he tells it to me, Hamelin could have gone back to living on the streets with no difficulty. If she had betrayed him first, he would have been dead within the month.
I am unsure whether I see the tinge of regret when he says this, or if it is a trick of the wind against his exposed face.
"Why kill Abellina?" I ask him.
"She never would have let Hamelin near the pendant," he answers. "A Strega could do much with the thoughts and dreams of that many dead," he continues. "I sold off just enough to get myself established here. I was keeping the rest as insurance."
I do not ask him insurance against what.
"You will need my help," I tell him.
He nods as if that were a question.
"And when we are done, you will let go of your slaves."
He stares at me, eyes wide, but I meet them and his resolve buckles. His kindness with the coat is still burning bright in me. I am fueled. I feel like I could take on the entire Council of Elders and come out on top.
"You know nothing about what you are asking for," he says, "but if that is your wish..."
He does not withdraw his offer.
The moment passes unchallenged.
"She will very likely say something," Piedmont begins.
"If you tell me it's going to be lies," I say, "I'll believe you."
"It's going to be lies," says Piedmont too quickly.
"I believe you," I answer honestly.
Silence stretches wide like black ice between us. Neither of us steps out onto us.
Eventually, we are back at Piedmont's manse again and neither of us has said anything further.
The guard, however, is missing from the gates.
A chill creeps down my spine.
"I didn't give him the night off," says Piedmont, detailing the obvious.
"I did," says the shape of a woman , gliding into view.
Hamelin is taller than I am. She is dressed in traveling leathers and has proper shoes on her feet. Her hair is a torrent down to her waist and in one outstretched hand is dangling a length of jewler's chain with a glass bead at the end of it.
"So this is where you've been hiding," she says. Her voice is sonorous and rich. "I should have guessed you'd joined the other side."
"It's not treason if I never fought in the first place," replies Piedmont levelly. "Neither did you for that matter, so don't pretend this is about loyalty."
"It is about loyalty," snaps Hamelin, "but not that kind. Not that I'd expect you to know much about either," she continues. "Who's the Folklore?" The Piper angles her head at me. "Is she your bodyguard?"
"My name is Ella," I tell her, my voice sounding like an intrusion. "I am a Cinderkin."
"That explains your involvement," says Hamelin. "If I say I was real sorry for merking that old baggage, will you let me go?"
My nature is to trust her. To believe anyone who talks to me in that even tone of voice. To be pleasant.
I fight it.
"She had done nothing to you," I say.
Hamelin smiles sweetly. "That's the way the world works, dear. Sometimes it's the innocent that die."
I try to unhear the words, but the sight of Abellina's Grotto without her in it is still too fresh. They twist through my insides, dampening the flame within me. I shiver.
"Sometimes the guilty die too," mutters Piedmont, his eyes flashing.
"Then I'd love for you to join them in the ground," declares Hamelin, and she snaps the fingers of her free hand.
From the streets behind us, there is a joyous moan. Out of alleyways and buildings, villagers totter. They all have the same glazed, half-stupid look in their eyes.
Hamelin smiles, then throws a punch that puts Piedmont on the cobbles.
"They never expect that," she says, self-satisfied. "As if Woodsmen are the only ones who ought to learn how to fight."
Piedmont spits blood from between his front teeth. The villagers move closer.
I dig a match from my pouch.
I am outnumbered but that has never mattered to me.
I know, just as every matchstick girl has known since the inception of our Origin Story, that I cannot lose here. That I will not die.
This reckless certitude has killed a lot of members of our Order, but I am different.
I have to be.
The match in my hand flares and the fire in my innards turns to wings that rise and explode out of my back. I spread pinions formed of radiance and ash and I step in towards Hamelin.
Phoenixing burns through my reserves quickly, and already I can feel the cold creeping over my edges. Piedmont's coat is destroyed now, with two charred holes ripped through the shoulder blades, opening out onto living flame.
"Surrender yourself to the Council," I start to say, and Hamelin uses the opportunity to punch me in the jaw.
The wings do not protect me from violence, but I catch her with a flare of feathers on the way down. The scent of cooked meat floods the air and the villagers are upon us.
Piedmont heaves himself to his feet, trying to find an angle where he can look them in the eyes and overpower Hamelin's charm, but theirs are tightly shut – under orders from the other Piper, no doubt. Some run into the edges of the gate and the stone walls surrounding the estate, but others make it through, heading for the sounds of battle.
If they touch me, they will burn. Likely fatally.
I roll away, leaving a trail of fires across the lawn.
The villagers reach Piedmont instead.
Quick as a snake, he darts out and pulls open a woman's eyelids, staring in. The other blind villagers pile into him, bearing him down in a heap of kicking, biting flesh.
I scramble back up to find Hamelin cradling her burned hand. "He had no business involving you," she hisses.
"I go where I am needed," I counter, and this much is true. Cinderkind are drawn to peril like moths to a candelabra. "Let him go and I will not pursue you."
I do not want to kill again.
I do not want to be the person that I was. Homeless and meek is a better fit for me.
But Piedmont is dying, and he gave me his coat.
Hamelin must see the change come across my face, because she begins whirling the little glass bauble. A specter trickles out of it, dressed in an Alemanian uniform and carrying a rifle. He is made of mist and his left shoulder's is a cannon's ruin of splintered bone. A second phantasm coalesces beside him.
I step through them like so much water vapor and they boil away.
Hamelin tries to run, but I embrace her.
After a minute, the sound of villagers beating Piedmont comes to a stop. The surviving Piper drags himself out of the jumble. His clothes are torn. His right wrist hangs at a bad angle and one of his eyes is already beginning to purple.
The villagers' eyes are clear now and they are watching in horrified silence.
"You can go home," Piedmont manages, waving his bad wrist once and nearly doubling over from the pain. "Get out of here."
The nonfolk scatter.
The Piper and I look at Hamelin's body; or at least at the scalded, smoldering remnant of it.
This did not have to happen, I think, and then all at once I am freezing, dropping to my knees on the lawn, which burns brightly as the last of my head and hope leaves.
I try to turn my face up towards the stars, but instead I pitch forward into my story's end.
Or maybe not yet.
The spoonful of broth awakens me as it is burning at my lips. Piedmont pulls it back and blows on it. His broken hand is resting crookedly at his side.
"I'd be obliged if you drink this," he says. His face is a patchwork quilt of indigo and scabbing red lines. "Considering it was such a bother to cook one-handed."
He is sitting beside me on the floor of the dining room. I am wrapped in blankets and positioned by the hearth, which is roaring with a fire. Piedmont is wearing a buttoned shirt and trousers, and they look like less than adequate protection against the chill of the house.
I take an experimental mouthful of broth.
In the depths of my body, banked coals stir. The nutrition is the watery soup does nothing for me. Instead, I feed off the kindness. Unasked goodwill stokes my reserves.
It is this and only this that keeps me from death.
"Thank you," I murmur. "Why aren't you having the servants do this?"
"I dismissed them," says the Piper, fishing out another spoonful of broth from the pot at my side. "Which is really a bit of a bastard, because I have no idea how to work a splint."
A chuckle slips out of my throat, surprising us both. "I think I can manage," I tell him, and this is true.
Another sip from the spoon carries heat into me.
One good turn deserves another.