Summary: On the night of the Thinning, necromancer Mara Hill goes to the village graveyard to ask a question she can’t risk sharing with the living. The meddling dead, however, speak more than Mara expects about their once-living experiences of love and attraction.
Theme: The story features an a sapphic allosexual akoi/lithromantic woman, with a non-amorous aro-ace man and a bisexual aromantic woman as side characters. Several other (dead) village aro-specs also talk in light detail about their aromantic-spectrum experiences.
Word length: 8, 115 words.
Content advisory: The protagonist, the protagonist’s love interest and her mentor are all allosexual, so while there are no explicit sex references, there are references to having sex and experiences of sexual attraction. Discussions of amatonormativity and internalised hatred are a given. There’s also vague and non-detailed references to gender dysphoria and depression, as this story sets up further examinations of both (from Esher’s POV) in Love is the Reckoning. There’s a fair bit of discussion about experience of romantic attraction and the protagonist is fine with being the subject of romantic interest. I don’t recommend this story for people who have severe sexual and/or romantic repulsion.
Note the first: This is set in the Marchverse as a prequel to Love is the Reckoning, but it requires no prior knowledge of anything to read and takes place a good forty years before The Eagle Court books and Kit March. This said, if you’ve read The King of Gears and Bone, you may find interesting here a few further revelations about necromancy and Ein’s demons/angels (depending on your theological position).
Note the second: In a world where names have power, people get around this by having a secret true name (heartname) they share only with close family/trusted friends and a nickname or common name (shroudname) they use with everyone else. Some cultures consider a signed heartname to be more emblematic of true identity than its verbal equivalent. Additionally, naming customs in this region involve children taking their brood parent’s shroudname as a last name, given the commonality of non-cisheteronormative relationships and marriages. If there is no known brood parent, the sire parent’s name or the shroudname of the adoptive parent will be used instead.
Note the third: Yes, I did say I’d post this before Halloween, but tell that to my frozen shoulder. Apologies for the half-baked editing on this one. It is much in want of further going-over before I properly publish. Chronic pain is a hell of a thing.
In a small village where everyone thinks they know everyone else, conversations become dangerous.
When the hour approaches eleven, Mara Hill pushes back the covers, slips her feet into her boots, stands and ties a cloak over her nightgown. She reaches towards Saluria and Sillemon, drawing power enough from the demons that bind her to make both hands glow a soft rose—light to tie her boot laces and arrange her pillows under the patchwork quilt in the suggestion of a sleeping body. Most of the ephemera of her craft covers the small desk under the window, the expected clutter of herbs, oils and candles; she ignores it in favour of the loose board at the back of her wardrobe, one concealing a small leather satchel. She moves the board, swings the satchel over her shoulder, returns the board to its usual spot and, leaving the wardrobe door ajar, creeps for the hallway door.
Outside, soft snoring emanates from her fathers’ bedroom, Pa and Da grunting in rhythm. Mara shakes her head and tiptoes down the hall, past her fathers’ door, past the small hall closet. She halts at Esher’s door, but she scarce has time to draw breath before she hears the restless tug of blanket and creak of bedframe. Another bad night, but she can’t remember when her brother last had a good one. She didn’t realise, until she began these forays into necromancy, how poorly Esher sleeps.
How does she mention this to him or her fathers without betraying herself?
She saw a boy who spoke seldom but smiled a hundred times a day while kicking balls, climbing roofs and exploring the spider-ridden corners of the cellar shift, so gradually it took Mara months to notice, into a quiet, reserved man. Now Esher spends his free hours hidden away, as though he can’t bear to be around anyone. Even his enthusiasm for Benjamin’s books has faded to a weary indifference. Esher works and eats and reads, but Mara has the sense that he acts on the stage of his own life—not unlike the performance of love she makes for Benjamin and the village, a performance of normality.
Something needs to be done, but she doesn’t know what.
These last months, now the rhythms of Mara’s own life can no longer be ignored or denied, have been difficult enough. She well knows that she took up the art in Dot Hickmann’s book to keep from thinking.
Even if her pair of demons, Saluria and Sillemon, only confirmed her fears.
Mara waits for a lull in Esher’s movements before she creeps to the head of the stairs, taking the steps two and three at a time to miss the creakiest. Once downstairs, she returns the power to the demons, navigating by the moonlight shining through the front windows and the banked coals in the fireplace. Tonight, none of the cats approach her; three nights ago, she almost betrayed herself with Pa’s cat Sooty, who thought it a fine game to twine himself through her legs and then drape his tail, prime for treading on, over the doormat. Nothing now stops her from easing the oiled latch, opening the door, slipping the string through the hole and closing the door behind her.
She’s never understood why Da insists on having the latch string in at night when there’s nobody in Dead Horse Hill but the villagers themselves. Who’ll steal something when everyone here knows what everyone else owns? Her fathers, thankfully, sleep like the dead once they’ve taken their night tea, and while Mara suspects Esher wanders the house at odd hours, he isn’t the sort of man to notice the latch string.
They sleep like the dead most nights, at least.
Not, though, tonight.
Outside, only a few guttering lamps made from carved turnips with wicked, grinning faces break the night. Crooked shadows fall on the glass and wood of windowsill and doorstep, twisting the light and dark. Woodsmoke, hay, wool and manure scent the air, failing to obscure a still, crisp scattering of stars over a velvet backdrop. Mara tips her head back, revelling in the night’s brisk kiss and thanking the Sojourner for the kindness of a clear sky: she’s always loved the bite of a frosty autumn morning or a sharp spring evening, and tonight she won’t lose her way to the graveyard.
She shivers, tugs her cloak about her and walks past the open shed and yards of Pa’s smithy, a lone shadow in the dark. Nothing moves, beyond a cat slinking past the draping peppercorn trees framing the hill end of the village square and a wisp of bluish shadow—her necromantic senses screaming spirit—flickering past the public house. While Mara used to move with hesitation, afraid of being seen by lategoers at the pub, two months’ midnight wanderings taught her that nobody but cats, rats and owls notice. Farmers rise with the sun, and the rest of Dead Horse Hill rises with the farmers.
Another spirit, undeterred by the toothy faces children this morning carved into root vegetables, flickers down the lane towards the Hayes’s cottage.
She draws a slow breath, revelling in the quiet as she passes the last of the houses on the far side of the square and heads out across the feed yards towards the schoolhouse and the graveyard. She walks for a purpose, but the rare peace is too wondrous not to mark on—a silent world, dangerous and vast, hers alone. If her stomach didn’t twist in terror at the thought of Aunt Rosie’s answer, she’d dance, a goddess of the dark, demon-empowered, liberated.
The night has always best belonged to witches and necromancers.
Her steps quicken as the hill slopes down into the plain surrounding it, Mara no longer troubling herself to silence the crunch of boot heel on the forgiving dirt and grass. Ahead, the schoolhouse seems nothing more than a small silhouette set against a sea of stars, the suggestion of a building rather than the actuality. Only a few trees, flattened shapes of pitch black, speak of a world not endless grass and sky.
In daylight, the plain that surrounds a rise only deemed a hill in this sun-baked land stretches forever, cloud-scattered blue above racing the yellow-brown below. Only a scattering of thin gums, shepherd’s huts, farm carts and sheep relieve the eye, but they do soften the plain’s harshness. At night, the same bewildering space feels as wild and uncontainable as the ocean: no boundaries, no roads, no fences, no easily-visible huts and trees to offer direction. Just a vastness both unknowable and untameable, forever reminding Mara that her people—even after so many generations—are guests here. She’ll never be more than a visitor flitting across its surface, the soil biding its time for the returning tread of its true guardians, and each night teaches her again that dark lesson.
A few flashes of bluish-grey, little more than bright sparks on a distant horizon, head northwards.
Mara shivers and glances back towards Dead Horse Hill, seeing nothing but the silhouette of the hill and its surrounding sky. This night of all nights, the night of the Thinning when the veils of this world and the next press tight against each other, this must work.
If she can’t reach Aunt Rosie tonight, Mara never will.
The quick, hissing cry of an overheard barn owl makes Mara jerk, and every so often she hears a rustling in the grasses around her, but she reaches the graveyard and passes through its rusted-open gates with nothing more than a pounding heart. Now she calls on her demons, both hands glowing rose, as she walks through the scattering of gravestones. A tumbledown stone fence and a copse of trees on all sides, as close as Dead Horse Hill will ever come to bush or forest, surrounds the cemetery—the fence collapsed enough to allow the odd sheep to feast on the tall grasses blooming around the dead. Rough mounds of dug-up and grown-over earth surround the headstones, and Mara keeps her eyes cast downwards, stepping around the hazards of rabbit holes, knee-high grass, blanket weed and thin patches of bracken fern.
The headstones, mottled grey and white granite, bear shallowly-carved names: her kin, her neighbours, her schoolmates’ parents. Patchy grey-green and yellow lichen, fern fronds and fallen gumnuts shroud the oldest, and she heads for a cluster of stones at the northern corner of the yard, the crunch of her boots on the leaf litter abominably loud in the windless night.
Even out of the corners of her eyes, she sees no sign of hovering spirits. Odd that a graveyard, during the Thinning, may be the safest place to be, but their absence relieves her just the same.
She stops beside the stone naming her great-great-great grandmother, the engraving of her name so weathered that Mara can scarce read it in daylight, and opens her satchel. A flask of Da’s favourite whiskey, a small porcelain cannister of salt Da gave Pa as a courting gift, three candles, several sheets of crumpled paper, a pencil and a tarnished silver hairbrush sit inside. Most precious is the battered book that sent Mara stumbling down this strange road: The Sorcerous Compendium of Postmortem Query, written by a necromancer styling herself as Dot Hickmann.
Mara found it in a Malvadan bookshop, two years ago, on the yearly village shopping expedition with Jackson Kell. Her fathers will read anything from pamphlets on the keeping of parrots to thick tomes on elfish history, but Mara wanted more than the simples and the tricks taught her by Mother Hayes. After grabbing anything thick and inexpensive for Pa and Da, she idled through the magic section, possessing money enough for one more book, unsure which will offer her the most—and then, browsing through a spine-worn botanical encyclopaedia, she found a curious half-sized book tucked inside the hollowed-out pages. How the seller didn’t notice, Mara couldn’t say, but she closed the encyclopaedia around the smaller necromantic grimoire and brought it and her fathers’ books to the counter, because a book hidden inside another book must be special—and then, while Mara and Kell collected the many orders placed by the village and began the long drive back to Dead Horse Hill, she spent the next few days itching to investigate this strange secret.
She knows people will judge should they sight the book. Some shapes of magic, like drawn spells and herbs stashed in embroidered sachets, are useful, important and accepted, in no small part because visible limitations bind the magic worker. Some shapes of magic, like blood witchery, sorcery and necromancy, position a magic worker as a dangerous, boundless master of artifice and power, disrupting the natural order. For Mara, it was just curiosity; she never thought to follow Hickmann’s instructions, not until Benjamin pronounced her love. Even now, Mara isn’t sure she’s done the right thing. Dead Horse Hill needs Mara Hill, village witch; it won’t want Mara Hill, sorcerer and necromancer.
In a small village where everyone thinks they know everyone else, conversations become dangerous.
Nobody else, nobody but Aunt Rosie who travelled through Khaloun and Rajad and more places than Mara can herself name, will answer her question.
Mara strokes the cracking cover, removes the salt cannister and pours the white grains out into a thick line, approximately a circle, around her foremother’s grave. She holds her breath as the two edges of the salt circle join in a rough blob—the mark of a clumsy amateur, says Dot Hickmann in writing that Mara finds wonderfully instructive and unbearably condescending. It’s serviceable enough for Mara to sit, cross legged, before the headstone, straightening her nightdress and cloak over her knees before scrubbing away at the grass. She places a candle in the patch of bare earth, followed by a breath of magic to light it. The top of the candle glows a soothing yellow-orange, the light from the flame and her hands causing odd layers of flickering shadows on the grass under her feet and knees.
She draws a long, steeling breath, taking the hairbrush from her satchel. She has no bones, no hair, no fingernails, no part of the deceased body to link necromancer to spirit. Mara has only the hairbrush, used by so many generations of women that there’s no reason to think it will speak first to Aunt Rosie, but her ashes returned from Khaloun in an urn, any bones remaining from her pyre left there. Never has the brush shown affinity enough to summon her, even with Mara speaking Rosie’s heartname—but tonight this world and the next world, the world to which the Sojourner’s followers travel when their road calls and they can tarry here no longer, brush against one another. No better chance will she ever have to ask.
A shadowy blue-grey ghost, by the cemetery gate, flickers in the depth of the night.
She quests towards the demons. The pair push magic into her skin without pause or hesitation, magic Mara wills down her hand, into the hairbrush and out into the circle marked by salt.
“In the name of Saluria and Sillemon, let me today reach through the veil and speak with Great-Aunt Olive Rose Amara.”
Dot Hickmann lists the most common demon singles, pairs and triads in the back of The Sorcerous Compendium of Postmortem Query. One doesn’t choose a demon; Mara drew a circle in this same place and recited, from chapter three, the traditional request for any interested demon or demons to accept her soul in service, on her natural death, in exchange for their service in her life. Her childhood religious teachings talk with intent seriousness about the need to preserve ownership of her soul, but no witch or magician possesses power enough to break the boundary between living and dead. Besides, death must be sixty or seventy years off, so what does a soul matter when the dead can help her now?
Benjamin told Mara she loved her, so Mara recited the speech by candlelight and a pair of answering demons wove themselves into the back of her mind.
In the sleepless silences of star-filled night, she knows this trade must be too good to be true.
“In the name of Saluria and Sillemon, let me today reach through the veil and speak with Great-Aunt Olive Rose Amara.”
Saluria and Sillemon, according to Dot Hickmann’s knowing evaluation, are one of the older braces. More common in Ihrne and Astreut, often cantankerous or particular, middling powerful, best avoided where possible. Hickmann named them the Champions of the Loveless, the Guardians of the Heartless and the Defenders of the Indifferent—choosers of the strange, the disconnected, the isolated, the broken. Mara wept, shaking and bitter, on a night when she should have been thrilled at the newfound power answering her summons, for what does it say about her that such beings choose Mara? Only a dreadful, sickening confirmation, as if lovelessness should be protected!
She keeps them as far out of her mind as she can, afraid they will possess her if given the least foothold, more afraid that they will nurture and encourage the brokenness in her, but they don’t push at her or fight her. In truth, their relationship feels much like driving a team of willing horses. Hickmann wrote five chapters on demon management and the ways a human sorcerer should expect them to contest control, but Mara has yet to feel that Saluria and Sillemon are anything but willingly sharing their power now in return for her soul later.
At times their power feels like a wriggling, jumping, tail-wagging puppy greeting a new houseguest, all brilliant and unbridled enthusiasm—as though these demons, just as much as Mara, want her to talk to Rosie.
“In the name of Saluria and Sillemon, let me today reach through the veil and speak with Great-Aunt Olive Rose Ama—” Mara jerks, sitting up as the hair on her forearms and neck rises, the air inside the salt circle pressing damp against her cheeks and forehead. She gasps, for the world feels sharp and pregnant, not dissimilar to the moment just before and during a flash of lightning, but no lightning slices through the clear sky above and the moment, the magic pouring through her skin and out into the circle, doesn’t pass. It’s as though ten, fifty, a hundred lightning strikes are gathering and waiting to strike the earth in a single, terrible bombardment of energy. Her skin prickles and her hands burn, and, even though she’s shivering, she drops the hairbrush and reaches up to untie her cloak, unable to bear the weight of the wool over her shoulders for another moment—
No lightning strikes her, just a gust of bone-slicing cold as though the void between worlds spills its vastness out into Mara’s circle. She reaches towards her demons, heart hammering, but the salt holds and the candle burns as a score of bluish shadows, growing more distinct the longer Mara looks at each, forms a circle of their own, like small children holding hands, inside the salt line. Spirits? Why so many?
“Who calls me?” A single spirit hovers above the candle, perhaps peering down at Mara but not possessing anything more than a floating, translucent vagary of humanoid shape—a suggestion of long hair merging into what might be a dress or coat, an inwards curve that suggests a head forming neck, a larger swelling for chest and belly. “Don’t you know I’m busy? Too many damn relatives to look on and only one night to do it in!”
Mara grabbed the hairbrush in trembling hands, running her fingertips over the raised, engraved pattern of entwined grape vines, but there’s no comfort to be found in the familiar touch of skin on silver. She draws a slow breath, trying to ease her chest and shoulders, and then she rests the hairbrush on her lap, raises her hands and, slowly, signs the question, using Aunt Rosie’s heartname: “Are you Aunt Olive?” She stops, pauses, pushes away the previous question with still-shaking hands and asks the question again in full, fingerspelling the shroudname “Rosie” and signing the true name “Olive”. “Are you Olive Rose Amara?”
“Yes. Who calls me, child? Which bloody one are you?”
Without bones or blood to bind the spirit to the mind of the necromancer, Mara has no way to know if the spirit answers truthfully: she can ask Rosie to talk, but Mara can’t compel any more than anyone else. She frowns, considering. Hickmann insists that the human dead have no power over the living, and Mara can’t see how another necromancer will be able to, never mind have reason to, summon Rosie’s spirit to compel from her Mara’s own heartname. She should be safe. “I’m Mara. Hela Mara Hill.” She fingerspells “Mara” and signs the secret word for “Hela”, her fingers skipping through the name that means her and her alone—a mingling of signs for “herb”, “walk” and “speak”. Even then, Pa and Da knew her as a witch. “Your great-niece. I’m Thomas Jess’s daughter, named for my brood father, Hill Cassia.”
Rosie crooks the suggestion of a head to one side, as if studying Mara, but her face is just an oval surrounded by that pale swathe of hair. Nothing indicates eyes, nose or mouth. “Last I knew you, you weren’t a niece.”
“Now you know I am,” Mara says aloud, letting her hands fall still into her lap. “Esh decided he is a nephew, if you still want one.”
Rosie sniffs. “Neither were you a…” She trails off, hesitates. “A witch.”
“I learnt.” Mara swallows, for while she has decent ability at small talk, this exchange isn’t getting her anywhere. “I want to ask you a question. May I ask you something personal?”
For a moment, she hears nothing but rustling and a soft thump from the grass behind her. Kangaroo, perhaps?
“If you’re calling me here, bothering at me—you’d better have bloody good reason.” A small protrusion of wispy light shifts away from Rosie’s ghostly form, perhaps a hand beckoning towards Mara. “Speak, girl. You’ll catch your death of cold out here in a nightgown. You’re not getting up to any panky, are you? Cute person? Cute boy? Cute girl?”
Somehow, she’d forgotten Rosie’s habit of asking sly questions and grinning, her lips horrifically broad, while her victim blushed and stuttered in response. Perhaps this wasn’t the best idea, and yet, when Mara thinks back on all her relatives, she can’t think of anyone who’ll come close to understanding. Just her great-aunt, Rosie the wandering adventurer who spent as much time travelling anywhere reachable by horse and boat as she did at home telling stories. Rosie, who died on the road she loved, a fitting end for any follower of the Sojourner. Pa and Da love Mara and believe her worthy of such affection, but they love each other with a quiet, deep passion—too much, in the ordinary way, to understand what she feels and why she needs a solution.
Mara can’t bear the thought of another month, another week, another day of pretending.
“Just the hanky,” Mara says, since, in a way, that’s the problem. “Aunt Rosie, I—”
“Why are you talking to a ghost, girl, when you should be out getting some?”
“If you’ll let me explain—”
“Ooooh,” Rosie says, her bubbling voice insufferably cheerful, “and when you were a little girl, you’d stomp your foot and scowl at anyone who annoyed you, just like that.” Two small protrusions extend out from her body and merge together as though she clapped her hands. She often did when living: a loud, self-satisfied clap followed all her worst evaluations and pronouncements. “Thought you would’ve grown out of it by now!”
Mara stills her expression as best she can and reaches towards Saluria and Sillemon, less for their magic than for the warmth of holding it in her skin—their presence a surprisingly comforting thing, despite what Dot Hickmann says about demons. The tingling heat helps steady her enough that Mara decides to ignore Rosie and plunge straight into the question. “There’s a girl. Benjamin. She’s pretty, she’s clever, she’s honest, she’s new. She thinks I’m pretty. And we can talk for ages—she’s the new schoolmarm and she reads. I’d like the panky. She does, too.”
In truth, Benjamin Lisabet is likely somewhat autistic. Enough to say straight out what she thinks and wants, unbothered by any social expectation that dating should involve suggestion, hesitation and an awkward game of trying to decide what the other thinks. She just stared at Mara over a crooked table in the pub, leant forwards and announced, far too loudly for the public house of a village where everyone has a terrible and unsuppressed interest in the goings-on of everyone else, that when Mara wants to move past hand-holding and walking out, she’s willing. Unashamed and unselfconscious, one booted foot hooked around Mara’s leg, Benjamin paused only to shoot Lis a dark glare when Esher’s best friend and Mara’s cousin started choking on his beer at the next table over. While Mara admits herself entranced by Benjamin’s plump figure, dimpled chin and short-cropped red hair, just the right length to run a hand over, that declaration, not to mention the three chests of books Benjamin brought with her to Dead Horse Hill, should have stoked the smouldering fire in Mara’s heart.
“I love you,” Benjamin said, her cheeks flushed, her hands flapping, her green eyes bright even in the flickering light of the burnt-down candle stubs on the windowsill, her bodice and neckline tugged low for Mara’s appreciation. “I love you, Mara. When you want to do things, I want them. Say when.”
Benjamin knocked on Pa and Da’s door shortly after she arrived in Dead Horse Hill. Mara watched, entranced, as Benjamin introduced herself with a terrible curtsey, dropped her bonnet on the floor and, while flashing a goodly amount of creamy bosom in trying to retrieve it, bosom angled right at Mara, announced that Reggie—publican, mayor and font of all local knowledge—told her that some of the villagers communicate in sign language. “I’d be obliged if Masters Cassia or Jess or someone can teach me. So I can understand all the students.” Benjamin spoke with her eyes fixed on Mara, intense enough that even Da noticed and elbowed Pa out of the room. Mara found herself in the kitchen, showing a few common words, while Benjamin did her best to copy them and laughed like a snorting pig, swishing her hands and fingers, every time Mara corrected her.
On that wonderful, blissful morning, Mara Hill fell in love with Benjamin Lisabet, just as Mara Hill has fallen in love with nearly every other girl of age in and around the village. That night she placed her candle on the windowsill and prayed to the Sojourner that her love, so weak and fickle, remained true for the dream girl who knocked on her door, everything Mara ever thought to want in a wife and more besides.
It didn’t, because Mara Hill is a heartless witch claimed by Saluria and Sillemon, possessed of no ability to remain in love with the girl she yearns to bed. She looked across at Benjamin that night in the pub, hearing that precious declaration, fearing what must follow.
The love that flared in the kitchen, wild and heady, was nothing after that moment but lust and friendship.
Three weeks later, she took Dot Hickmann’s book to the graveyard and decided to become a sorcerer.
“Girl,” Rosie says, with a short, tired-sounding sigh, “when you got a girl like that, you bloody take her out behind the schoolhouse. So why are you talking to me?”
“Ben said she loves me.” Mara hesitates, pressing the hairbrush’s bristles into her palm hard enough to hurt. Surely the fact that Saluria and Sillemon chose her explains all? “I loved her, at the start, but it doesn’t … it doesn’t last! I feel for a girl, everything, all at once, and it’s … like being drunk, all warm and wonderful and happy, and I love her so much, and then she tells me she loves me, because she thinks I love her, because I do at the beginning—flowers and kisses and hand-holding, the excitement and the bubbling, I yearn for all that, the way it’s more important than anything else in the world … and it’s gone. Nothing. Every girl, every girl, and if there’s any girl I should love, it’s Benjamin, but it’s gone, and I don’t know how to get it back! I want it for her! I want to love her like I did! I want to stop lying, stop pretending, because she deserves better, but I can’t bear to let her go, to see her with someone else. I want to love her like she loves me, and I can’t. I can’t.”
So many awful words, bottled up inside for Mara’s adult life, spill out into the world like a flooded stream breaking the dam, and she sits, shaking, dizzy—but they’re there, truth indelible.
Rosie sighs, long and deep. “Do you like this girl? Do you care about her?”
Hasn’t Mara suggested as much? “Of course!”
“Do you want to be with her in some way?”
“Yes! But I’m not in love with her—”
“Who cares about love as long as you’re both kind to each other?” Rosie claps her hands again—or, rather, allows two protrusions of her ghostly attempt to mimic the living body to merge, soundlessly, together. “Does nobody bloody talk about how they feel? Is a bloody conversation unfashionable now? Take your girl, sit down, tell her that you don’t love her romantically, that your romantic attraction fades when it’s recipro—girl, do you mind that your girl loves you romantically? It doesn’t sound like you do?”
Mara stares, blinking and bewildered, up at the bluish spirit hovering above the flickering candleflame. “I don’t understand what you’re saying.”
“Of course you don’t.” Rosie huffs. “If I’d known this nonsense was going to happen! Girl, does it bother you that your girl loves you romantically? Or does it only bother you that you can’t love her this way?”
“The problem,” Mara says, teeth gritted, “is that I don’t love her—”
“No, you don’t mind. Easy, then! Girl, sit down with your girl, tell her that your romantic attraction fades when reciprocated, that you’re not and can’t be in love with her, but you still care about her, you still adore her and you still want to be with her—mention the panky. Definitely mention that you want the panky. Tell her why you think she’s wonderful, and then ask her if she minds that you can’t feel one thing for her, because if she really likes you, how does this one thing matter? It doesn’t. And if it does, that’s on her and you find another girl!”
Mara runs her tongue over her lips, too stunned to know what best to say. “That’s not how it—”
“Girl, you don’t know anything. If she’s flashing that much glorious bosom at you while you talk history, I doubt your missing one teensy bit of attraction matters. Just talk. If you admire her directness, be direct in return! You’re probably just confusing the hell out of her now by not talking! What are you people learning in school, if not this? Long division? Prepositions? The ten duties of a Malvadan notary? How bloody pointless are those things if you don’t know how to talk attraction and preferences with another girl?”
Never did Mara, in all her imaginings, see the conversation going like this. “I never mentioned any of that! How are you knowing—”
“You should have,” Rosie says, the words followed by another spiritual handclap. “I never loved a girl romantically, or wanted it either, but oh did I do quite a bit for a night or two with a girl who had a chest like that. Especially when she’s not shy, although I prefer boys who are. Girl, you’ve always got to mention a girl’s bosom–or her legs, especially when they’re thick and muscular.”
Mara never considered Benjamin’s legs in any way but holding up the rest of her body, covered in thick layers of skirts and petticoats as they are, but Rosie’s pronouncement does make Mara feel better about her own. Maybe Benjamin will like—shades, how is this helpful? “But I’m still not in love, still brok—”
“Were you this unnecessarily stubborn as a child?” Rosie jerks both arm-like protrusions, although this time Mara realises she glows a little brighter about the head and chest, the energy swirling closer to the centre of her spirit. “You don’t experience romantic attraction when it’s reciprocated. I don’t experience it at all. Didn’t experience it? Don’t. Shades, it’ll be a cruel thing if the Sojourner made me romantic in the next life!” This time her whole body, from shapeless hair to the fading light of her legs and feet, quivers like jelly knocked off the dining table. “You do relationships however best suits you. You seem to want this girl as a partner, so ask her how she feels if you regard her as a best friend, sharing hanky, panky and books. If she’s got the least amount of sense, she’ll realise there isn’t nothing better in the world than bedding and marrying a friend, and if she doesn’t, she’s not worthy of you. This isn’t complicated, girl!”
Mara jerks her hands, frustrated. How can Rosie ride roughshod over Mara’s anxieties, as though she’s ridiculous to fear her inability to feel something the world of books, songs and poems reckons a vital part of the human experience? She signs, hands held close to her body, arms trembling hard enough that she struggles to place her fingers. “Not…” She jerks her hands, fumbles the sign and sweeps her hands to clear it away, starting afresh. “It’s not normal!” She stops, stills her hands again. She came to ask a question, didn’t she? “You’ve travelled. Is there magic to fix me? Is there magic or sorcery to make me love the way I should? The Greys, maybe? Do you know of anything that could help me?”
A pitched howl, two voices crying in twain, sweeps through the circle. The scream rings loud enough that Mara moans and claps her hands over her ears—all to no avail, for there’s nothing to hear in Saluria and Sillemon’s rage, yet their screech reverberates in every bone in Mara’s body.
“Girl, you’re a bloody—”
“Excuse me.” A quiet voice sounds from the circle—and Mara realises she forgot the other spirits, paying a heretofore silent witness to the conversation. One of them flickers brighter, shifting perhaps half a step closer, and Mara remembers that voice, of course she does! Mother Orrin, sire mother to Isa and Ida, sat out in the square almost every day for the first eleven years of Mara’s life, curled up in a blanket-covered wicker chair under the hanging peppercorn trees, grandmother to the village entire. Lecturing the village entire on not running indoors and sipping instead of gulping water! “I don’t fall in love with someone unless they’re near close as kin. All the boys wanted to go out walking with me; I only ever felt anything for one of them when I did. Darrel helped me bury Boots in the back garden when I was five. Only him. Only ever him.”
A frantic susurration sounds from the ring of spirits.
“I married my wife,” says the deep, crackling voice of Kell Sunita, the man who taught Mara and Esher how to cheat at dice and cards, “but I never felt any kind of attraction to her. I just wanted that kind of relationship with someone for children, but I didn’t feel it myself.”
“I only fall in love with strangers. It doesn’t last when I get to know them!” Older Ned cackles, a spirit flickering and pressing close to Mara; she flinches as she feels the ghost of a hand brush over her hair before he backs away. “I married the notary anyway. Turned out he wasn’t in love with me at all. He laughed when I fessed up; he was trying to figure out how to tell me that he’d rather I didn’t come home Fridays with another bunch of flowers! Maybe your girl is the same? You go ask her, Mara!”
“I fall in love,” says another, slow and hesitant, and Mara freezes, for Grandba Jess Amara passed when Mara was seven, little more in Mara’s mind than the click of knitting needles and the smell of dried lavender, but she remembers the way ze spoke aloud, awkward and formal; like Da, ze best preferred talking with hir hands. “I do love that way. But it comes and goes. Some days it spills over everything and some days there’s nothing but cracked earth. But even people who love like the stories say don’t love like that all their lives. Build your house on something else.”
For a moment, Mara thinks she smells something that isn’t melting tallow, grass and eucalyptus leaves. Must-tinged lavender, the smell that clung to Grandba’s clothes whenever Mara sat in hir lap. The smell ghosting Mara’s stockings and drawers for a few moments after dressing, for she stores her underthings in the same wooden chest in the same house Grandba Jess—and Great Aunt Rosie—must have played, slept and fought in as children. The same house in which every spirit here must have taken tea; the same house past which every spirit must have walked hundreds or thousands of times. Old and a little crooked, its floors worn down by generations of feet before hers.
She didn’t imagine that these people come before her will have their own unspoken secrets, their own truth erased from family history or village gossip. She didn’t know they too couldn’t love like one should, and Mara hunches forwards, hot tears rolling down her cold face, unsure why she weeps but knowing the stopping to be beyond her.
Two spirit protrusions rest clammy on her shoulder, one scented of lavender, the other rose.
They pay witness, the ring of shades from generations past: people who never fell in love, people who never wished to fall in love, people who felt no attraction and died contentedly single, people who felt no attraction yet ringbonded others for a wealth of reasons, people whose love wasn’t strong enough to act on, people whose love waxed and waned, people who didn’t love in any way, people who chose friendship or companionship over romance, people whose love couldn’t fit the uncomplicated shape of poem or song—people who lived and laughed and died as proud villagers of Dead Horse Hill. People whose stories were never told in this village where everyone thinks they know everything, and they talk over each other now in their enthusiasm, a cacophony of the chattering dead speaking everything that wasn’t shared in life.
They think they know everything about everyone, but Mara knew nothing, and if so many people here tell now these stories, how can the living be any different? How can she be the only one in this village who can’t love like a heroine from a storybook if all these people, her relatives and ancestors, express a wild, wondrous, human inability to do the same?
In knowing the truth of nobody else, how can she know her own?
Because it’s there, shimmering and bright: if her people lived how their hearts dictate, so too must she.
Saluria and Sillemon rest warm and quiescent at the back of her mind.
She doesn’t know much time passes until the hubbub of sharing ghosts lessens; Mara just sits, cold and quiet and shivering, listening, until the spirits return to their silent position by the perimeter of the salt circle. Then there’s nobody near Mara but Aunt Rosie, floating above the guttering candleflame.
“Do you bloody well understand, girl?” Rosie sniffs. “It’s not normal? Honestly.”
Mara nods, swallows, decides she doesn’t trust her voice and signs one word: “Yes.”
“Good.” Rosie flows backward to the ring, merging with the shadowy blue spirit beside her. “Then get up, break the ring and go to bed, because tomorrow you need to talk to the girl with the magnificent bosom. Make sure your schoolmarm teaches something useful about people, too, because I’ve too many to fuss over. And talk to your brother. Listening at his door each night isn’t going to help, girl. Talk. Oh, the problems you’ll solve if you just use your hands or lips!”
“Thank you,” Mara signs, fearing to risk responding to the rest. “Thank you.”
“Break the ring, girl.”
Mara nods, leans forwards and reaches out to drag her hand across the circle of salt—and then she stares, blinking, at an empty, silent starlit night, nothing left but the broken circle, one burnt-out candle and the soft rose glow of Mara’s own hands. She pulls her cloak tighter, trembling, and plucks the hairbrush from the ground, brushing dirt and leaves off its bristles before stowing it in her satchel.
Mara yanks at Siluria and Sillemon, dragging as much power as she can from the demons into her hands, bringing up a glaring red glow—and in the moment before her eyes water and snap shut, just as she realises that she knows that voice, she sees Esher, leaning against the closest headstone, a poker clasped in each hand. Then he howls, dropping one poker to fling his hand up over his face, and Mara, whimpering herself, dulls the light back to a soft, gentle glow, not yet daring to open her eyes.
“What are you doing here?” Mara shrieks back. “How long…?”
Did he see the book—no, it’s in her satchel, safe. She never removed it. Did Rosie mention the word “necromancy”? Does Esher know?
Mara opens her eyes before Esher answers: he stands hunched over, his long-fingered hands shrouding his face, the pokers scattered on the grass before his feet. Like Mara, he appears an odd combination of dressed and undressed, wearing old breeches underneath a long nightshirt and his fleece-lined coat over the shirt, untied laces tucked inside his boots. Looking at him seems much like looking at Mara herself, since they’re both the spitting image of Da—tall and hazel-eyed with smooth sable hair, overlong nose and sharp cheekbones, soft sienna skin. Her hair hangs long and braided; Esher cuts his into a short tail. He stands slightly the taller, for which Mara is grateful; the Sojourner perhaps finds amusement in the truth that each possesses a body more commonly held to match the nature of the other.
Mara doesn’t mind so much; Esher does.
She scrambles upright, rests the satchel comfortably against her thigh, remembers Aunt Rosie’s opinion on girls’ legs and smiles before glaring back at her brother. “Esh! What are you doing here? Spying—” Mara stops, gulping, since Esher heard Rosie and perhaps that’s an accusation best unmentioned. “What are you doing here?”
Another shuddering moment passes before Esher lowers his hands, reaches down and grasps the pokers—both lengths of twisted black iron with a rounded point, both wrought by Pa’s hands, neither weapon Esher’s preferred longsword. Did he fear Mara’s going out alone tonight?
He draws a breath and jerks an elbow at her, so Mara stops and waits, giving him time. Esher only pushes himself upright and turns towards the village, his boots crunching leaves as he falls into a ground-eating stride, the pokers thumping into the ground every few steps.
It wasn’t, Mara realises, a kangaroo.
“Esh, please try and word it somehow. Please.” She matches him stride for stride, for while Esher can outpace everyone else in Dead Horse Hill, and frequently does when annoyed, he’ll never outwalk her. She lets her hands glow a fraction brighter, silently thanking her brace of demons for light enough to see the worst of the missing stones as they approach the tumbledown section of the wall. “I don’t care how. Please. What were you doing here?”
“I don’t.” His words are slow and hesitant, his voice higher than his preference. He rests a foot on one fallen slab, places his palms on the top of the wall and vaults over, heedless of the footing on the other side; only a soft grunt betrays that he may have landed poorly. “Love, romantically. Or want. Attraction, she said? I don’t have it for anyone, in any way. And I don’t want a partner, not like Older Ned. I just want to be me.”
If he didn’t hear everything, he heard enough to understand.
Mara heaves a long sigh, clambers over the wall with more caution and less ankle-breaking disregard, runs to catch up. Why didn’t she think about Esher this way? She assumed that he hadn’t found the right person or people, but even when he wasn’t hiding from the town, he spent more time avoiding walking than he did going about. Esher’s interests can be summarised in a list of two: training with his sword and the borrowing of whatever books the village owns that Esher hasn’t yet read. He works in the smithy and on the plain depending on who needs him most—he’s spent the spring shearing and haying, but when summer quickens he’ll go back to Pa—and he labours hard, always willing to lend a hand, but perhaps that’s just a way to avoid complications through the appearance of activity, a man too busy to walk out.
She knows, in a disconcerting, nebulous way, that there’s something going on with him for which she doesn’t have the language or understanding, something he doesn’t voice any more than she dared speak of her fickle—no, fading—romantic attraction. How much of his distance can be explained by his lack of it? How much can’t?
“I think I want to be with Benjamin. If she’ll let me not be in love with her back.”
“I think you love her,” Esher says after another long hesitation. A soft bluish spirit flickers off to his left. “It just isn’t romantic love. In love. Otherwise you wouldn’t want to do anything not, well…”
Mara raises both eyebrows. “Casual panky behind the schoolhouse?”
“I never knew why people did that.” Esher shakes his head, shuddering. “But if that’s all you wanted, you’d be doing it. You’re not, so you want something different. It just isn’t romantic for you.”
She reaches out, slides a hand underneath his forearm and pulls him close to her, breathing in sandalwood, sweat and wool. “I feel like I should’ve known about you. I should have seen it.”
“I didn’t.” Esher softens and leans into her, and while Mara still doesn’t think he’s all there with her, that there’s a part of Esher long sundered from her, their fathers and the village entire, he isn’t pushing her away. He told her the truth about himself. He came out this night with iron in hand. “Not with you.”
“There’s two of us, now.” Mara squeezes his arm. “And you don’t need someone like that. Why would you? We’ve got Pa and Da … and maybe you’ll have me and Benjamin. If she says yes. Family.” She isn’t quite sure what’s best to say, but Rosie told her to speak. “Wherever I am, whoever I end up with, however it all works, there’s always space for you if you want or need it. Promise. I swear by Olive Rose Amara.”
A breath of sharp, cold wind tugs at Mara’s hair—even though there’s not breeze enough to stir the grass or her skirts.
“Tonight. Before. She came to me, in my room. She told me to follow you out. She told me that if I followed you out, to the graveyard, I wouldn’t…” Esher trails off, his head turned away from Mara’s face. “Aunt Rosie told me to follow you out. Before you called her, before she came to you. She came to me, first. So I came. I didn’t know you were going to talk to Rosie about all this.”
For Esher, it’s nearly a speech, but that isn’t what has Mara staring, stunned. Did Rosie sense all the nights Mara tried and failed to summon her? Did she wait until this night, the Thinning, to cross over, to answer—and bring the deceased of Dead Horse Hill with her? How much, Mara wonders, do the dead know of the living?
She drops her free hand inside the satchel, stroking the worn cover of The Sorcerous Compendium of Postmortem Query. She won’t be able to ask anything of Rosie for another year, but some of the other spirits that bequeathed their stories are buried within the cemetery, their bones accessible to a curious necromancer. There’s no reason why she can’t ask, now she knows that Rosie and Mara aren’t the only loveless villagers to walk the streets of Dead Horse Hill. There’s no reason why she can’t ask to hear their stories about love … and perhaps the bleakness taken root in Esher’s mind.
The loveless shared their secrets, freely, for the ease of the heartless and indifferent.
What is loveless, Mara wonders, but the perception of those outside, knowing nothing of the secrets housed within? What is loveless in a world where those who don’t love with that heady romantic abandon still care about the people around them, even after death? What is loveless in a world where a man who ghosts through his own life still comes after Mara with pokers in hand? What is loveless but still a quality deserving of championship, even if only seen by the dead, by a pair of demons, by the rare people who dare speak their truth to another?
“And you know,” Mara says, never more certain of anything, “that Rosie will make sure, at least one night a year, I keep that promise.”
Esher’s lips curl into a momentary flash of smile. It isn’t the joy or ease she wishes to see in his face, but he lets her hold him close and they walk together, two heartless souls heading towards a village of people who may be more like her than Mara ever dared imagine.
Tomorrow, if Benjamin is truly the woman with whom Mara yearned to fall back in love, perhaps they will be three.