Fiction: Love is the Reckoning

Summary: Two and a half years ago, Mara Hill took her depressed, dysphoric brother to Sirenne in the hope of saving his life. Now, Esher returns to Dead Horse Hill with two dogs, a blade, a new career and a new body—the shape of masculinity he always felt he should be. A miracle the priests who cared for him deny. A miracle the Grey Mages claim cannot exist without something precious sacrificed in exchange. A miracle Mara refuses to explain, even though Esher knows she is the only person willing to make such a trade.

Esher wants to know what she did and how she did it, but finding the truth isn’t just a matter of enduring stares, whispers and the condescending pity from those he left behind. Not when this isn’t the only secret Mara keeps from him…

Theme: A non-amorous, grey-asexual, aromantic trans man dealing with family, love, suicidal ideation, dysphoria and amatonormativity. Consider this story as about complications of these things against a backdrop of coming home, consent and an acceptance of mental illness as something that doesn’t always have a bow-wrapped cure.

Word length: 11, 561 words.

Content advisory: Please expect depictions of or references to terminal illness, depression, body horror, suicidal ideation, dysphoria, cissexism, heterosexism, allosexism and amatonormativity. Trans readers should note that Esher has undergone what seems a near-perfect medical (magical) transition, which may be difficult to read on a high-dysphoria day. I also have two characters who have engaged or will engage in actions I can only term as a voiding of Esher’s right to informed consent with regards his magical transitioning and soul ownership. Esher doesn’t have time or space to even begin to figure out how he feels, but most of his later stories are about, in part, exploring this and the consequences of a culture of denial and avoidance wielded by those who love us.

Note the first: This story takes place three years after The Sorcerous Compendium of Postmortem Query. There are a few references to Mara and Aunt Rosie that will make better sense if this is read first, but the passing of time between the stories is such that I think Love is the Reckoning is readable on its own. (Much of the history on which this story is concerned takes place after Mara’s night in the graveyard.) If you don’t read it, know that Mara spoke to her dead great-aunt one night for reassurance on her own lithromanticism.

Note the second: I am working on the digital editions for this and the aforementioned piece, for folks who dislike reading in a browser and would rather wait for a PDF or EPUB version. I’m posting this now, though, for the #AggressivelyAroSpectacular event run by @aggressivelyarospec.

Yes, and that’s what scares him: his erasure writ in the words of love.

Cluttered tables and stools crowd the barroom. Dogs snooze by booted feet while a grey tabby picks its way along the tarred rafters overhead. A low fire crackles in the stone hearth, wreathing the room in the tang of redgum smoke but not quite smothering the mingled reek of beer and sweat. Farmers and labourers, their voices a crashing wave of noise, chase down the day’s work with drink and gossip. Barrels take the place of proper chairs, patrons risk lockjaw by catching themselves on a protruding nail, and candle stubs burn in the windows because Reggie “doesn’t hold with that new-fangled witchery”. The floorboards underneath Esher’s heels show through the same scattering of straw and dirt brought in by farmers’ boots, surely unchanged in the intervening years, while the oft-polished bar still reflects the lamplight near as well as Da’s mirror.

Since Reggie stands behind the bar with a twig between her teeth and the same felt stockman’s hat slid so far back on her head its refusal to fall must be an eldritch miracle, a man may be forgiven for thinking that no time has passed in Dead Horse Hill.

Outside, perhaps, the sun rises and sets while the seasons dance through the year, but the inside clings to a dusty, stubborn timelessness. Here, people come in, sit down in workstained check shirts, nod over foaming glasses and get into the unchanging business of a village that can’t be held on the grass and in the yards. Esher stands inside the doorway, listening on the edges of familiar conversations: which mares should be next covered by Michael’s prize stallion, the best order for haying next spring, Isa and Ida Fisher’s arguing the history of local paddock names. Folks pass around a greasy cap, adding coins and notes before handing it to Mistress Hayes, who sits by Reggie and weeps into a voluminous lace handkerchief.

Two and a half years gone, and it seems both too long and not long enough.

One of Esher’s earliest memories has Pa and Da taking him here, to this strange world of talk made with lips instead of hands, to participate in a different kind of normal from the ease of his fathers’ home. He didn’t ponder, until a man on the road, what it cost them, to come to this place of boisterous noise so Esher and Mara can mimic this way of talking. Never for long, perhaps an hour at most, but every night they came, Esher, Mara and their fathers, while Mara and Esher exchanged a word or two with Reggie or the Fisher biddies, learning the vocal tones that the school and the world without deemed more necessary than those framed by movement and expression.

The pub, like the schoolhouse, feels home as much as his fathers’ crooked cottage and the smithy beside it, filled with memories, kin and a world of people who saw him grow to manhood. People who will recollect, with howling laughter and slaps to the shoulder, the time he climbed up the pub roof, lost his balance and fell into the water trough. People who will recollect, with soft voices and averted eyes, the shivering, weeping man Mara bundled into a blanket and the back of Thomas Kell’s cart before she took him away from everything Esher once called home.

It seemed unreal, on the road between here and Sirenne, as he reflected on that night two and a half years distant. Unreal, an experience refracted by time in the way water distorts light, impossible. From that time and place, his attempt was just a memory to recognise and label before putting it aside as best he can: in a hundred ways, Esher isn’t now that man. On the road, with his horse and dogs, it felt safely historical; in Dead Horse Hill, so peculiarly unmarked by time, it happened but yesterday.

Easier to kill himself, whispers the part of his mind that has no interest in the life Esher now lives, the part of his mind ready and willing to renege on the deal he made to look after Berta. Easier to kill himself, now, than to walk into that room and risk the stares.

No, not true. There’s nothing easy in suicide, just a pinnacle of despair and pain that lets it seem the better choice of too many wretched ones. Esher found, at Sirenne, that shared communion with his fellow patients in experiences the world insists on denying. He knows that that he wasn’t the only one, hurting and lost, for weeks, months or years of struggle before he came to a decision.

If it were easy, he wouldn’t have fought it for as long as he did.

Recognising the lie never diminishes the want as much as the priests suggest such awareness should. Survival, now, feels as though he’s caught betwixt two sides set on exaggerating everything until truth lies crushed and unrecognisable between walls of falsehood.

Truth? He can’t stay forever at Sirenne. Leaving before the Grey Mages arrive at the monastery prevents any awkwardness if they recognise Esher as the man who sought them in Rajad. He must talk with Mara, and she told him to meet her here.

He draws a breath and strides into the loud, bright barroom, a lean wolfhound as tall as Esher’s ribs at his side, a shaggy black and white herder trotting at his feet. A cavalry sword rests at his hip, two and a half years gone from the man who left Dead Horse Hill.

Too far gone and not far gone enough, but he’s here and he’ll endure until Mara joins him and, finally, gifts him her answer.

She changed him. He needs to know how and why.

The room stares as people do at a man who dithered too long by the door, a scattering of frowns and shaken heads. Esher looks as much a Hillman as any other here, with washed-out sienna skin, dark brown hair and hazel eyes. He moves with his head tilted so that he seems to glance at the floor but watches from the corners of his eyes, a habit that will name his fathers and kin more than his colouring and height. They won’t know the dogs, the beard, the shape of his body; he’ll be, Esher supposes, a strange enough collection of the alien and the familiar. Perhaps that will allow him to sit in the corner, undisturbed, while people wonder if they dare offend him by asking for a name.

What if Mara told them enough that they can make sense of the puzzle? What if they fear to call attention to the village madman, when they’ll risk misnaming anyone else? What if they recognise him and let him walk to the corner, too afraid to speak?

Does he hope to pass unrecognised or does he hope to be remembered?

He risks the horror of meeting eyes to survey the room, but there’s no sign of Mara waiting for him. Odd: when in her life has Mara ever been late?

Reggie peers over the counter, leaning beside Mistress Hayes who sits with her handkerchief frozen halfway to her face, both women staring without hesitation or awkwardness.

When Reggie reaches up and settles her hat firmly on the crown of her head, Esher’s heart sinks to his boots. She knows. Speak, then, before anyone else has the chance to say something awful. “G’d eve.” In this room, Esher’s new voice rings too loud and too deep, and for a terrible, desperate moment, he wishes he lacked the tone for which he so long yearned. “Drink and bread, mate?”

“G’day,” Reggie says, the kind of woman who never adjusts her greeting for the time of day or even those events that shouldn’t merit the word “good”: she wished Younger Ned and the village entire a “g’day” before officiating at Ned’s mother’s funeral. “Seat yonder, Esh. Where you been so long? How’d you get yourself a wolfhound? And that bitch ain’t from the Hill, either!”

“About.” Esher nods and waves a hand at Reggie. “Astreut, then over the water for a bit. Had an employer to Rajad.” The omission rings false in the too-quiet room, but they know where first he went. “Saw a man in Astreut beating his dog. Took the dog, Bill.” He ruffles Bill’s ears; Bill, never fond of gathering people, rests his not-inconsiderable weight against Esher’s leg. “The bitch is Berta. A friend gave her to me as a pup. Greet, Berta.”

Berta, all lithe black-and-white fluff capable of charming any human, trots up to Mistress Hayes, sits and extends her right paw, her feathery tail thumping against the floorboards. Mistress Hayes lets out a startled sob, bends down and gently shakes Berta’s paw before holding out her hand for Berta to lick.

“Sit down.” Reggie tilts her gnarled chin towards a table by the window. “Glad to see you hale.”

Esher nods, unsure if he agrees; he softly whistles Berta back to heel and turns towards said table. The best “seat” is a barrel by a window facing the peppercorn trees growing between the pub and the village square. Since the table rests flat—helped by blocks of wood shoved under two legs—and isn’t adorned with many protruding nails, it’s one of Reggie’s better offerings, close enough to the bar that Reggie, Mistress Hayes and half the room can talk to or at Esher if they wish. Villagers, neighbours and kin engage in elbow-nudging and whispering as he walks past, but Esher spots nobody too closely related to panic him—and then he jerks, flustered, as a man his age turns from the fire to stare right at him.

Esher wipes his sweating palms on his coat, voiceless.

Lis Sascha, commanding conspirator in Esher’s worst and best misadventures. Lis, who hated school and left as soon as legally able; who copied Esher’s spelling and grammar only to gift Teacher Evins a beaming, lying smile; who spent lunch outside with Esher, an enthusiastic participant in the sport of hitting each other with sticks, fence palings and bits of rope. Lis, missing two teeth because Esher knocked them out of his head during one furious engagement in which Lis broke Esher’s forearm—while Mara screamed from the front steps that they were both bloody drongos, she was going to die from embarrassment at just being related to them, and if they didn’t grow up, she’d sheep shit their boots until they did. Lis, who stands and crosses the room, following Esher to the uneven stool sitting across from Esher’s barrel, his gaze direct, his lips soft.

A man looks at a flying arrow coming for his heart in that same moment of twinned panic and clarity, knowing the moments he has left aren’t near enough to dodge and escape.

Esher settles himself on the barrel, pats his knee so Berta leaps up onto his lap and strokes Bill, sitting beside Esher’s feet, across the chest and flanks. In the taproom, Bill seems ridiculously oversized, but he doesn’t try to sit on Esher when there’s chairs and tables about. Only when Esher’s in his swag or sitting on the ground with a plate in hand does he find himself smothered by a stretched-out wolfhound.

Lis sits, staring. The stool rocks, one leg a good inch above the floor. “Esher…?”

“Lis.” What does Esher say to his best mate when there’s more than two years between them and Esher didn’t put pen to paper? What does he say when those months with the priests and the years following feel as insubstantial as daydreams, only his body and the dogs proof that they happened? What does he say when there’s a memory, refracted by time, but returning to this village and this room unravels the past until Esher can look out the window and see himself in that blanket, unchanged? What does he say when he feels again that he can’t endure the world, as though he has never been anything but a dream of something else? “Lis.”

He rocks back on the barrel, digging his fingers into Bill’s wiry coat, fighting to keep the madness tucked inside his own brittle skin where none but he needs see it.

Berta, a little too big to be comfortable on Esher’s knees but never reluctant to position herself above Bill, turns her head and licks him on the jaw.

Esher stayed with the priests for two months after crossing the Straits, holding those strange conversations with people who made an art of trying to patch together a mind with little more than words and a few medicines. Moll admitted their limited magic, never wasted a breath on false positivity and coaxed a tangle of reluctant fears from Esher’s lips, but even they didn’t prepare him for the years of change lost in the time needed for a man to walk across the room. For the old desperation and terror, new again—not a habit from a mind that lies but vibrant. For this, now leaving Esher with the shivering certainty that his stability is another lie, or why does he think this way, all for sitting down in the barroom and looking across at the man who was his best friend?

Which is truth, which the lie? What if the priests just told prettier, fancier lies?

“…your shoulders! But the beard, Esh! The beard!”

Esher reaches up with his free hand, navigated around Berta’s body, to stroke the close-trimmed brown hair on his chin. Long ordinary to him, now, but he doesn’t take the sensation he once lacked for granted. “Yes. I fill it in a bit.”

He had to, in Astreut. Safer, there, to be seen as a man born into the body he now owns.

Lis blinks, staring. Save for the missing teeth and a chin marked with nothing but a dimple and a scattering of freckles, a stranger to the Hill may reckon them twins. Cousins, but there’s only a month between them and they grew up in the same small village, their houses across the lane from each other. “Magic? Illusion? Or glue? It looks so real!”

Esher exhales, long and slow. Mara said she’ll come at seven, that they’ll talk about the magic that transformed Esher’s skin. He waits, his stomach knotting, people gawking and whispering, his mind running off the road and towards the ditch with the violence of a carriage team bolting from the wolves snapping at their heels. The moon calls the hour, but there’s no Mara here, just the curiosity of a village that must ask questions for which Esher has no answer.

I’m better, he wants to say, and it feels like the gravest of all possible lies.

“I grew it. Most of it.” His words sound stilted, but nobody will mind such a thing from Esher. Many locals applaud him for speaking verbally at all; a few of them have said as much to Esher’s face. “You look … well? Is your…”

“You have a beard,” Lis says, his eyes wide and staring right at Esher. In the ordinary way of things, Lis’s saving Esher from the torment of small talk comes as a relief; today, he prefers to stumble his way through questions about Lis’s marriage. “Esh, how’d you go and grow a beard?”

Ask Mara, he wants to say, but Esher looks down at his lap, wriggling the small book from the inside pocket of his coat out onto his knees. He doesn’t know if Mara made or bought it, but everything he writes copies itself inside a matching book she owns. She pressed it into his hands the day she left Sirenne, a small inscription written in her untidy scrawl inside the front cover: Remember Aunt Rosie. Esher flips through the pages, near three-quarters filled, but other than Mara’s last message, listing time, date and the strange request for Esher to meet her first at the pub, there’s no additions. No apology for lateness or any explanation of delays. Why isn’t she here?

Berta lowers her head to nose at the blank page.

Esh. Mate, you’ve got to tell me. How’d you grow a beard?”

Esher woke, alive when he didn’t wish to be, in a hard, narrow bed surrounded by a cocoon of sloughed skin and tissue, housed in a body that, for the first time since Esher knew anything about himself as a person, matched his mind’s expectations. Or, at least, a body that would, but he woke bloody and screaming after agonising nightmares of his body expelling organs and growing flesh anew. He doesn’t remember what happened after that, what Mara said or explained from her chair beside that bed. He woke in the kind of terror that brings priests with spells and medicines and carefully calm expressions, and later, when he understood what happened, when he could think and speak, Mara offered only a script of evasions and non-answers.

Even then, Esher knew enough of magic to understand that she bought the expensive if not the impossible. She stayed with him for those first weeks after, ignoring Moll’s glowering stares, avoiding elucidations. Mara admitted that she enabled the transition before Esher left Sirenne with a herder puppy poking out of his saddlebag, but nothing more did she tell him.

How does a man press over such a gift horse?

Yet he had reasons enough to look at its teeth: it’s no easy thing to be unexpectedly housed inside a body that moves and feels in different ways. Esher ached inside his body of birth, but the new suit of skin cladding his bones twisted him near as much. Not just things like learning how to shave without carving up his face or the sensations provided by new organs; not just the nightmares of waking up surrounded by his own sloughed-away skin and tissue, the bloodied remnants of another kind of man. Esher found torment enough in the smaller things: sleeping in a bed that smells like a stranger, alien-tasting foods, stubble under his fingertips, pimples on his back, desire contradicting the identity term he once thought unquestionable. For Esher, it lay deepest in one indisputable truth: his new skin didn’t erase the man who tried to kill himself before gaining it.

Mara changed so much about Esher’s body, but nowhere near enough of his mind.

He’s better in this new skin. He’s better.

He isn’t, though, a man who doesn’t spend half his pay on teas to drink morning and night so that he can stay alive for his dogs and horse.

When Moll judged Esher well enough, Mara returned home to Dead Horse Hill, their fathers and Benjamin. Esher, too new in this raw skin to even think of following her, went to Astreut for droving work, good money for a man who can handle both stock and sword, and when one of his employers took cattle over the Straits to Rajad, Esher went with her—thinking that there must be a magic worker in the Eastern Confederacy worth asking, and don’t the Grey Mages keep an outpost in most Eastern cities? By the time he reached Rajad, Esher had money enough to pay for an interview with a mage who pursed their lips, examined his body and told him only one craft, outside the Tower, can work such a miracle.

Sorcery.

Mara sold something to a deity or demon to pay for Esher’s skin—and only one thing humans own possesses value enough for trading.

After crossing back over the water and two months with Moll, Esher asked Mara if she’ll meet with him and tell him how she wrought his miracle.

She promised an answer, but the moon and stars now put them well past seven.

“Here.” Reggie stalks around the bar, her skirts swishing, a tray held in one hand, a well-polished truncheon hanging from her belt. She slides the tray onto the table between Esher and Lis. Bread, cheese, ham and beer, alongside the stringy offcuts from a side of mutton, the last placed on two small plates. “Eat. You’re come over all thin.” She rests one plate on the ground, about a foot away from Bill’s head; the other she places on the table in front of Berta’s nose. “What’re you lot looking at?

Even Lis the irrepressible holds his silence. Everyone else engrosses themselves in beer, whittling and card games; Reggie heads back to her accustomed position to survey the room with a brow-creasing frown.

“Eat,” Esher says to two bright-eyed, salivating dogs. Bill promptly scatters half the beef over Esher’s boots; Berta eats like a cat, delicately nosing a piece off her plate and chewing.

Lis scowls at Esher, shaking his head. “No, you’ve got more muscle, and how did you grow a beard?”

Esher grabs and swallows a slice of cheese. “Magic.”

It just wasn’t his.

What has Mara told their family, their kin, the village? Do Pa and Da know? If she hasn’t, how does he explain? He tried mouthing the words while riding home, but they all have such a ring of the pathetic, the truth that his sister, his capable and courageous sister, may have—and Esher doesn’t know for sure—sacrificed something beyond price, something that halts her road forever. If he’s right, she’s lost, no hope of his path crossing hers in the worlds beyond, and his stomach curdles the cheese. If he’s right, how does he live with that knowledge?

But what if his fathers know? How will they think of him?

Reggie snorts, leaning over the counter with her broad forearms resting on its polished surface, the cuffs of her shirt brushing her knuckles. She always wears them too long. “That ain’t priest magic, Esh Hill. That’s demons. Sorcery.”

The unspoken rhythms of madness are the silences. The gasping silence when someone looks upon him having broken all the rules about how a man treats his own skin. The horrified silence when he says something too honest about the mess inside his head. The demanding silence when his confessions come under question. The pregnant silence when a priest says something they think must change Esher’s heart and mind. The stifling silence when Moll looks on Esher and realises their profound words don’t reach him. Madness is the melody of sounds a man should never make followed by the rhythm of pauses and hesitations, and for years, now, Esher has been singing only to be greeted with such a terrible, poignant quiet.

Those cruel, bewildering, judging silences never become easier to endure. They feel like a blade to the heart, like a man wanting the blade to the heart. Nothing less final offers any kind of escape, and everything about Esher’s life prompts, time and time again, that chilling quiet.

Outside, alone, it won’t be difficult to free himself of this torment.

He shivers and rolls another piece of cheese between his fingers. “I know.”

Reggie tips her hat a little further back off her face. “You, Esh?”

Esher shakes his head. “Not me.” He looks over the top of Reggie’s head, close enough that she’ll read it as a glance. “I didn’t ask. I didn’t choose. I didn’t ask.”

“Seems to me,” Reggie says slowly, “that’s a hell of a thing to give unasked.”

“I know.” Esher shoves the cheese into his mouth, shivering despite the fire crackling in the grate and Berta’s warm weight on his lap.

Madness rings and silence sings, and Esher looks at the window, for the hour has passed and still no Mara has come, this time, to save him.

She made him promise that he wouldn’t go home, that they’d first meet here. He knows her hand, knows from the pressure her pencil made on the paper in the book she gave him that she means what she asked, and how can he do anything other for her?

Remember Aunt Rosie, she wrote: remember the night Mara swore on the name of their dead great-aunt that she would always make space in her world for him. Remember Aunt Rosie.

“Shades, Esh!” Lis heaves a long, drawn-out sigh that does nothing to fill the echoing space between them, and Esher thanks the Sojourner for their kinship in gender, because Lis won’t ask other questions about the composition of his body. “You look good, man. It’s good to see you … like this, after. If this magic means you won’t want to, need to, now … it’s good, really good.” He reaches over and plucks a slice of bread from Esher’s tray. “And your beard! It looks so good!”

Esher forces a smile, thin and brief. If Mara brought him his skin by dealing with demons, she can’t know that Esher returned to Dead Horse Hill via yet another sojourn with the priests. She can’t know that he stayed for two months, that he still isn’t sure how he survived the journey back to the West and the monastery after his words with the Greys. She only needs to know that Esher’s body matches the expectations of his brain, that he looks at his skin and feels, most of the time, comfortable with its present shape. Good? Close enough. “You said ‘good’ five times.”

“It’s a useful word.” Lis shrugs and helps himself to another slice of bread. “It’s so perfect that you’ve come back today! Rachel’s sibling is in, the youngest one, the carpenter. Brice. Ze’ll be by the pub in a bit, and I’m sure ze’ll be delighted to see you again—especially now! Beard and muscles!”

Lis has always talked over anything inconvenient by skipping right to the next safe subject—and Esher loves Lis Sascha how a man will always love the companion of his childhood, but what does Esher say to someone who won’t, perhaps can’t, listen?

“Brice?”

“Ze’s making new cabinets for the shop.” Lis flashes Esher a broad, gum-baring grin. “And ze’s building hir own house and workshop out on the road to Riversedge. A house, Esh, and ze’s unmarried!”

Esher draws a breath, wondering if Lis learnt subtlety in the years of his marriage. “I’m a stockman.”

It’s mostly true, although, like farming and smithing, Esher fell into the work.

Esh.” Lis shakes his head. “You remember Brice, don’t you? Taller than Rachel, a little shorter than you. You’ll look so good together!”

Six. Did Lis say the word before Esher started counting?

He remembers Brice, a couple of years older than Esher and Lis; ze used to sit with Mara and Rachel, the three sneering at Lis and Esher, both during lunch and from across the classroom. That suited Esher just fine, until a strange, incomprehensible shift took place and, somehow, two people who’d had nothing but disdain for the other developed an abiding and equal fascination in each other. Lis spent the whole day talking about Rachel’s beauty and demanding to know Esher’s opinion on the best ways to court her—hard to escape when they’re both pitching and trampling hay. What Lis never knew was that Esher would come home, sweaty and itchy, to find Rachel waiting in the kitchen with a list of questions on the dresses and hats he thought Lis will find most appealing. Shoving them both into the cellar, sitting on the shut door and reading an old recipe book until they both spoke to each other solved that problem, although Esher doubts either understands just how they tested his patience.

The problem since has been that neither understands his lack of interest in being shoved into the cellar with anybody else.

“Rachel hates mess in her shop,” Esher says, doubting he can achieve a successful deflection, but, shades, a man’s got to try. Looks? Since when did people become a matched team, harnessed together based on similar size and colouring?

“Brice is in town. Ze’s pretty, ze has a trade, ze’s building hir own house and workshop, and ze’s unmarried.” Lis sighs, long and loud. “Maybe you want to think about that, Esh, before everybody’s married up and you’re sitting out the front of the pub on your own, grizzled and grey, grumbling about running children? Like Pepper? And Mother Orrin? You don’t want to bloody end up like Mother Orrin!”

Lis does Mother Orrin no justice, but Esher won’t live long enough for such a fate to pass … and that’s the kind of bleak, fatalistic thought that makes Moll ask probing questions on why Esher believes it. No. He’s better. He won’t throw away Mara’s gift or abandon his dogs. He spent two months, again, on the quest to learn how to live with the brain he has, to learn how to manage its incessant want to end his life. That must mean something worth remembering. He’s better.

How many times has he thought that word since entering the pub?

The priests gave Esher words for his shape of personhood. Mara told Benjamin without rejection, and more of Esher’s ancestors were like him than he ever once imagined. Surely Lis, Esher’s cousin, will hear him? “I don’t think that I’ll work for Bryce, because—”

Lis sighs, the hissing gust of breath that says right now he wants nothing more than to smack Esher over the head for being an insufferably wool-brained drongo. “Esh.” He lowers his voice, and while now people talk quietly, as if deciding that they should appear to avoid obviously eavesdropping, half the village will still overhear him—enough to tell everyone who didn’t. “I know you—we know Mara took you to the priests. That doesn’t make you unlovable or unweddable! You’re back, you’re fine now, you’re good, it isn’t a problem! Why wouldn’t Brice be interested? Yes, you went to the priests, but you’re back!”

Lis’s high, twisted voice sounds, Esher thinks, like that of an Astreuch man, the kind who thinks he accepts his kin despite a culture and religion demanding the opposite, calling his cousin “transgender” or “homosexual” with that same strained stress. Why can’t words describing difference be said normally by outsiders? Why do they have to invent awkward, pitched euphemisms like “switching sides” or “riding on the wrong side of the road”? Dead Horse Hill uses the same voice to refer to Pa and Da with the word “autistic”, and while Esher should have expected its use, he feels as though drenched by ice water.

You went to the priests. Does Dead Horse Hill own crueller ways of saying it?

The room falls quiet enough that Esher can hear the slide of cards across the table as a group of farmers deal another hand.

“Say it. Say the words.” Esher’s voice rises, two and a half years of anxiety and fear tainting every syllable. “Kell offered his cart. Reggie brought a blanket. Ida and Isa sat with me when Mara fetched Pa and Da. Wouldn’t it have been gossip for weeks after? I tried to kill myself, Lis! Say it!” He hesitates, trying to calm himself, trying to avoid thinking about the village’s resulting conversations—more whispering behind his back. He isn’t better enough to fit back into the tapestry of the village, his attempted suicide unstitched or at least concealed, and now Dead Horse Hill will know it. “Just say it. It’s … it’s so hard to not be ashamed when you treat it as something too awful to speak. Just say it.”

Silence, cutting and cruel, sings a bright soprano. Esher looks out the window, resisting the urge to throw his arms around the dog devouring the last of her beef, but neither Mara nor Moll are here to save him from the consequences of such a speech.

In Dead Horse Hill, Esher will never be anything but a failed suicide.

How can he be? The village of people who love him will never understand that their silence near killed him. They built a world where things are talked over and around, a world where the illnesses of mind and heart go unvoiced, where shame and fear of judgement force the unpalatable to stay stoppered inside the skin. Mara may have found connection and identity that night Aunt Rosie taught them they’re not alone, but Esher saw an unrelenting, inescapable truth: nobody in Dead Horse Hill speaks. How can he survive here when the only words worth saying are said after death? His hands attempted the act, that he won’t deny, but the village holds truth in desperation and silence, never to be spoken by daylight.

Mara gained a knowledge that let her build the life she wanted with Benjamin, but Esher found a brittle despair that Mara’s happiness couldn’t ease or warm.

Dead Horse Hill sent him to the priests, another truth never to be voiced.

“I was saying,” Esher says, because even Lis won’t end that quiet with a short acknowledgement, “that I’m aromantic and asexual. I’m not interested in going with Brice or anyone. I’m not interested in marrying Brice or anyone. I’m just me.”

Esher reaches under the table, finds the wiry coat of his patient wolfhound, and digs his fingernails into Bill’s spine, listening to the soft thump of his tail against the slate floor.

All his life—until one night with Mara and the ghosts of Dead Horse Hill—Esher believed the unquestioned assumption that his happiness lies in romance, marriage and family. He felt abraded by it, yes, but he still knew it as a non-optional experience. Moll, before Mara gave Esher his gift, asked questions about partners and people able to look out for him; Esher’s answers led to the provision of unnatural-sounding academic words, a language for the stories told by the dead. Mara, of course, knew without the name to put to it; his sister did the work and duty of a partner despite her own pregnant wife.

“I don’t know those words, Esh. I don’t understand.” Lis exhales, overlong and overloud, his eyes darting around the room. “It’s okay, Esh. You’re back, and that’s the important thing. It’s … good, too, to talk about it.”

Seven? Or is it eight?

“I don’t desire other people. I don’t feel attraction.” The words feel awkward in his mouth, and Esher can’t help the feeling that there’s something wrong in his speaking them. How did he mention his gender to Lis or his fathers? So long ago, he doesn’t remember, but perhaps they differ only in that those words have a well-trodden road Esher can follow; these words have nothing more than an odd slash in the trees, a goat track leading somewhere unexplored and mysterious. These words, words the dead didn’t have to speak in life, require explanations. “I don’t want to make a life with another person or people. I don’t need to be matched with someone. Some people don’t feel attraction and still wish to couple or triple. Mara does. I don’t.”

It isn’t a lie; it isn’t the whole truth. He doesn’t understand the appeal in romantic partnerships or even the non-romantic intimacy Mara and Benjamin built for themselves. “Aromantic” feels accurate. Esher doesn’t know if his previous absence of attraction came from depression, dysphoria or the simple lack of someone suitable, but since Mara’s magic, his asexuality is a fluid, flickering thing—large, ordinary periods of dispassion disrupted by moments of fleeting, temporary sexual interest, bewildering in their inconsistency. Since Esher doesn’t desire a partner, it’s easier to behave as though his attraction doesn’t exist, easier to use the word “asexual” without modifier. Acknowledging that he has sexual attraction in some form seems too often an invitation for ignorant listeners to insist on his still having an intimate relationship.

He draws a breath, exhales, waits. In a world built on assumptions that people bond in specific ways for a lifetime of nesting and child-raising, Esher doubts he grasps the entirety of what it means to be distant from it. Lis, who sees nesting and children and rings on fingers as the road to a satisfied contentment, can’t understand. Can he accept? That, Esher doesn’t know—but Benjamin accepts Mara.

Where is Mara? Esher peeks again at the book, sees no new addition. Why hasn’t she sent him a message?

“That sounds so lonely.”

Esher lives for the peace and warmth of his fathers’ home, his sister’s laughter, the weight of Bill’s head resting on his left boot, the warmth of Berta’s coat under his hand, the roll of the dice shared between drovers by a campfire, the days planned around his horse and his dogs, a town with kin and roof waiting for him whenever he wishes to return. A life where he buys the food he wants to eat, wears the clothes he likes without regard for another’s opinion, sings while he washes the dishes knowing there’s nobody to laugh at his off-key voice, sleeps with a dog at his back and another at his feet. There’s danger, perhaps, in a fall or broken leg, but he’s never alone in the bush—and there’s danger in curling up at night with a partner under a roof, too. Of all the things Esher fears, dying alone isn’t one of them.

He is broken in other ways. Never in this.

“I’m not lonely.”

“Esh!” Lise sighs and shakes his head. “People don’t just marry for love! They marry and fall in love after, they marry for companionship, they marry for politics and finances, they marry to be cared for. You’ll…” He stops, swallows, his eyes fixed on Esher’s face. “You’ll die alone out there, and we won’t know what happened to you.” He stops, shakes his head again, swallows—as close to tears as Esher has ever seen him. “We don’t want you to go through that again.”

We. Has he spoken to Mara or Benjamin? To Pa and Da? Reggie? Did Mara mention Esher’s return? Did Dead Horse Hill start whispering plans and schemes to keep him here, keep him safe? Is Mara late to give Lis time to speak, even though she should understand? Esher shifts on the barrel, his free hand resting on Berta’s chest and his food forgotten, for the future stretches before him like a prison sentence, a future of watchful eyes and tense anxiety. Esher, who came home by the priests, can’t say with any certainty that they’re incorrect, for better feels as insubstantial as an ashy log crumbling under the poker.

Good, better. Such vague, clumsy words: hopeful but imprecise, used with equal desperation by two men who need them to be true. What does either mean? An illusion, he supposes. The aberration of attempted suicide plucked from the tapestry, a return to the world where Esher lived unaware of any desire to kill himself, but that knowledge can’t be erased. He doesn’t recollect a life free of it, for while Lis didn’t see past Esher’s skin, the ghosts of melancholy and depression have long existed in his mind, sure and inescapable.

Better can’t be a return to what never existed.

Esher exhales, long and shuddering.

“I went to the Greys. I asked them. I asked them what Mara did to me. How.” He relaxes his hand, resting his fingers on Bill’s grey head. “They told me it was sorcery, and they told me how someone becomes a sorcerer.” He hears an indrawn breath from the bar, and Reggie, who doesn’t hold with magic, understands too much. Why didn’t Esher question her reluctance? Why did he regard it as a foible, tolerated to her face but mocked behind her back? Why did he fall in line with the village’s conspiracy of silence, the denial masquerading as tolerance? “I didn’t come straight here from Rajad. For two months, I stayed at Sirenne. I went there myself, to keep myself alive. I’ve learnt to do that, Lis.” He stops, exhales and tries to still his hands, one on Berta’s chest and the other over Bill’s ears. “You don’t know how hard that is.”

“Esh.” Lis breathes a deep, huffing sigh, his hazel eyes fixed on Esher’s face. “I’m just trying to help you. We want you to be safe. We want you to love and be loved. We just want you to be happy.”

Esher stares at the boy who beseeched Esher into allowing the copying of his work. For so many years, he couldn’t deny that gaze. Why does it touch him so little now?

Because Lis knows the world of attraction, vibrant and compelling; he can’t understand living without an experience so seemingly natural that its absence must be an aberration, a symptom of illness. The priests never regarded it that way, but the conflation is why Esher keeps Sirenne to himself when talking to most employers and drovers. It’s hard enough for Esher to explain that he doesn’t experience the romantic attraction many take for granted without his audience latching onto his illness as the reason.

In Lis, Esher thinks, is love seeking a simple solution; is it any different to Mara’s selling of a soul for the sorcerous power to transform a body?

One love looked at Esher and tried to make him happiness in how he said he wished to be. The other looks at Esher and tries to make him happiness in how Lis thinks he should become.

Why must he be reshaped into a man who looks into someone else’s eyes and falls deeply into the want for an intimate relationship? Why must he feel and live like everyone else when he knows his own road?

Love is the reckoning of a good man, or so says every story that matters, so why do the stories fixate on only one of its many shapes? Why can’t Lis see the love of family and friendship extant between them, trusting that while it may not save Esher, forcing it into unnatural shapes won’t halt that possible end? That anything else, desperate and fragile, will shatter under force like a sugar cake dropped from a roof?

“I’m just trying to help you, Esh.”

Yes, and that’s what scares him: his erasure writ in the words of love.

His erasure justified by Lis’s compassion.

“I am a singular man. I am content as a singular man. I will look after myself as a singular man. I will be safe, or not, as a singular man. And … and I won’t suffer the world making me into something I’m not just to make better sense to you.” Esher draws a breath. “I’m sorry, Lis. I’m sorry for hurting you. I’m sorry for being born and raised into a village where to speak of anything painful and real was so impossible for me, the only thing I thought I could do was kill myself.” He shifts his feet, just enough that Bill raises his head and Berta jumps down off his lap. He pockets his book and stands up from the barrel, forcing himself to look at Lis’s face. “Tell Rache I wish her well, Lis. And, and I hope Brice survives the cabinetry and returns home to hir own quiet house … unencumbered.”

He doesn’t watch Lis for a reaction.

Esher just turns away, man, sheepdog and wolfhound together fleeing the small, cluttered pub of Dead Horse Hill.

He’ll find Mara; he’ll ask her what she paid. He’ll tell her what he said to Lis so she knows he sought help, this time, himself. He’ll tell her that the price of her soul weighs on his bones, but he will try his hardest to keep hold of her gift to him—that it means the world to him that she thought enough of him to make it. He’ll tell her that he doesn’t know if he’s better, but he’ll try. He’ll find her and trust that she’ll hear him, that her love can again encompass Esher without faltering, and then he’ll go with her to his fathers and say again the same words. Go back to two men who can’t easily travel but are always waiting for Esher’s road to lead him home, for how can any man who cherishes someone else ever be truly alone?

He hears the footsteps that follow him out into the night before her rusty voice: “Esh.”

He stops and turns.

Reggie settles down on the rough wooden bench outside the front window, the candle’s flame flickering in a halo of light above the crown of her hat. “Sit.”

He takes the seat beside her, stretching his legs out across the pavers, both dogs at his feet. It’s pleasantly cool outside, the stars crisp in a cloudless sky, but lamps above and beside the pub door provide light enough to see by. The witchlights adorning the trees growing over the square and the gables of the buildings abutting it lend the square a festive appearance.

“Did you tell Mara about sorcery?”

Reggie’s lips crook into a twisted smile. “In a way.” She reaches up to push back her hat. “She was trying magic from a book, bored of Mother Hayes, several years before—before. I sat her down, right here. Told her what it costs.” She moves her right hand to the cuff of her left shirt, unfastening the button. “Wanted to tell her that magic has answers, too many of them than right or safe.” She pushes up her sleeve and holds her forearm out towards Esher. “You visited the East. Seen this?”

A tracery of scars marks her forearm, most thinned and narrowed by time, faded to the almost-translucent paleness of scars years in the making. They’re too straight and too close together to be accidental, and while their age explains something about Reggie’s avoidance of magic—she has given up the art before Esher’s memory—he wonders why three raw cuts, the skin still red around the healed slice, sit by her elbow.

“Yes.”

Reggie pulls her arm away and rolls down the sleeve. “Didn’t know if you would. Even there, you don’t show.”

No. In a world where magic workers are as common as farmers, some few still wrap their art in secrecy, relying on trusted customers concealing their real trade from officials. “Astreut. This body. Getting it, living with it, wasn’t … simple.” He swallows. Esher only speaks this much inside a closed courtyard with a priest garbed in red. “An employer in Raugue took me to a blood witch. Had need to do so.”

Anything more he doesn’t dare mention. How does he explain the confusion and the need in his skin without seeing people judge and, worse, imagine?

“I ain’t surprised at that, Esh.” Reggie snorts and shakes her head. “Thought nothing of it, then. Thought she was just reading. Not until she came back after she got you to help, years after that conversation. Took her a few weeks to tell me what she did. Sorcery. From another book.”

She speaks the last word as though she’s about to hawk and spit, even though Reggie uses her truncheon on any person who looks to do so inside her pub.

It says something that a former blood witch speaks of sorcery with that note of disgust.

Esher dares the question: “She sold her soul?”

“Nothing else to sell. Nothing else demons want.” Reggie shrugs. “You can’t undo it. Neither can she. Just love her back and hold on as best you can. Easier to say, but still truth.”

Esher nods, shivering.

Mara sold her soul. He made her do it.

“I want to ask you something.” Reggie’s words are soft, but the phrasing rings wrong enough that Esher tenses. “Easy, Esh. I just want you to promise me. That’s all.” She places her hands on her knees, close enough to reach out and grab Esher should it be necessary, and while her eyes don’t rest on his face, he can feel her watching him. “Promise me, on the only name that matters. Promise me you won’t surrender your soul.”

He stares at her crinkled face and dark brown eyes, stares because he can’t think why Reggie asks such a thing of him. His soul? “I’m not a magic worker. Don’t want to be.”

“I don’t want you giving your soul to Mara. Maybe you’ll mean it well, trying to make up for it. Don’t. Let her gift be. Promise me, Esh Hill. Promise me you won’t surrender your soul.”

Why Reggie? Where’s Mara? At the same time, it seems an easy enough promise to make: Reggie knows his heartname, Esher has no interest in magic and the Sojourner insists on the importance of retaining one’s soul. It seems odd that Reggie is worried about Esher’s meeting Mara and trying to offer his soul to replace hers—should he feel guilty that he never thought of it? It doesn’t mean anything to him, though, but it seems to mean something to her. Perhaps that’s good enough?

If Mara wanted Esher’s soul in recompense, she wouldn’t have avoided explaining to Esher what happened that day at Sirenne.

She loves him. He just didn’t know, then, how much.

“My name is Avery Esher Hill,” he says, moving his hands into the signs his fathers gave him and told him to never use unless revealing his heartname, “and I promise on that name that I will retain possession of my own soul.”

Too many names in verbal languages are shared, but the names formed by hands aren’t just an arrangement of letters with historical meaning. They’re crafted for that individual, personal. One fingerspells a shroud name but is given a sign or series of signs for a heartname. The Sojourner won’t know Esher from any other man called Avery, but the sign Da and Pa gave is a true reckoning in the eyes of the divine.

Reggie jerks her chin. “Come, Esh. I’ll take you to Mara.”

He stiffens. “Take?”

“She asked me to meet you.” Reggie pushes herself up onto her feet, groaning. “Come.”

“She said for me to meet her!” Esher leaps to his feet, Bill brushing against his leg, but he has no eyes for anyone but Reggie. “She said—” Why isn’t Mara here? Why did she want Esher to meet her at the pub instead of going first to her and Benjamin, or even Pa and Da? Why did he have to wait for so long only to get angry at Lis and walk out when she wasn’t coming herself? Why didn’t Reggie take him aside and tell him immediately? No, wait—why did Reggie talk to him the way she did inside when she already knew about Mara’s sorcery? “No, what is this…?”

Reggie rests one broad hand on his shoulder. “I needed to know the man you are now, and I needed to make sure you ain’t doing nothing rash.” She walks across the square, her footsteps steady and sure, while Esher jigs and jerks beside her. “Mara’s … dying. Growth in the lungs. The doctor from Malvade thinks she has … weeks. A month, maybe. Two on the outside. They’re just trying to keep her comfortable, now.” She pauses. “They tried everything, Esh. I tried everything. Everything that’s reasonable, and I ain’t her. I ain’t apologising for that. What she did ain’t reasonable.”

It isn’t until Reggie stops and turns that Esher realises he stands in the middle of the square. Stands, shifting his weight from one foot to the other, swaying in the way Teacher frowned upon and the drovers thought childish. He didn’t care then and doesn’t care now.

“Esh?”

“Dying? She didn’t say—” Too late he understands what Reggie did to him with that cursed promise, what answer she stole from him, what debt he can never pay back. The sister who brought him his body with her soul is dying, and the one thing he can spend to save her is bound to him by heartname. His mouth hangs open, dry and speechless, but even his fingers can’t form words that go together. He jerks his hands, trying to clear away the mess of signs, and then it seems to Esher that there’s one language left to him, right and reasonable: his knuckles graze Reggie’s chin. “You took—

Reggie grasps his wrists and pulls Esher close to her chest. Her lips move, and Berta barks, but he can’t hear anything but her hoarse voice speaking two words: Mara’s dying.

She’s dying, and he can’t give for her as she gave for him.

She’s dying, and he didn’t know, wandering off to find an answer to a question that just doesn’t matter. She’s dying, and he spent two months dallying with the priests because he’s too broken and craven to return home like any healthy man. She’s dying, and he let himself get caught up in Reggie’s trap. She’s dying, and…

She’s dying.

“She asked me to make sure you ain’t giving your soul for her. She asked, Esh.” Reggie’s voice cracks. “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. She said she ain’t living to see you lose your soul. She said for you it’d be a debt, not a gift. She said that ain’t right. I did this for her, Esh. That’s why.”

She! She with her wife and babe! She—”

“Don’t you dare.” Reggie’s voice lowers to a dark growl, but she stands, her arms now wrapped around Esher’s shoulders, his head pressed against her chest, rocking them both. “Those words you said in there ain’t null now. We ain’t less because our road leads elsewhere! We ain’t less than parents and wives and husbands and partners!” She exhales, one hand reaching up to snag itself in Esher’s braided hair. “She didn’t ought to have gifted you that skin how she did. Now she’s drawing a line, trying to protect you and hurting you more, but it was already hurting you, what she did. She’s trying to end it, Esh, because nobody wins but demons in the sale of souls.”

“She,” Esher whispers. He sobs into a thick shirt that smells of wine and smoke, sobbing with the shattered desperation of a man left with no way out. Mara will die. A demon will take her soul, forever sundering her from the journey through the worlds, forever chaining her spirit to servitude. If Esher had only been braver, stronger, she wouldn’t have made such an exchange.

Love is the reckoning, say the stories, but love is just as much the breaking.

He sobs, gasping, jerking, and Reggie stands steady right down to her worn work boots. She waits until his gasping slows and then walks them both across the square, walking them down the lane to the crooked little house tucked behind the back of Rachel’s dry goods store. His feet know the way: he knows every step and stone inside Dead Horse Hill, the angle of the light spilling out onto the porch, the groan made by the hinge-stiffened door Benjamin and Mara still haven’t fixed.

He jerks his head up, scuffing his feet on the doormat. Mara doesn’t care, but Benjamin can’t abide mud on her floors.

Inside waits a tall woman sitting in a rocking chair by the well-blacked stove, her waxy skin drawn so tight over her bones that her skirts and blankets can’t soften the feeling of looking at a skeleton. A stained rag clenched in her left hand and the basket filled with similar cloths at her feet only punctuates the nightmare. Esher last saw her smiling, waving at him from the back of a cart, her lips bright and her eyes shining, but now she appears to fight to sit upright.

They got their stubbornness from both their fathers; Esher and Mara never had a hope of being anything else.

He hears the door thud shut behind him, Reggie say something to Benjamin about coffee, Benjamin exclaim over Bill’s size, the stool by the rocking chair creak under his weight, the click of Bill’s claws across the wooden floor. A small child cries out the words “pony dog” and rushes towards the wolfhound. Some unconscious part of him watches Bill to make sure he doesn’t startle at the onslaught of patting child, but it’s all uncanny and distant. Nothing else in this warm, cluttered kitchen touches him, because there’s just Mara in her chair, smiling at him. How many times has she smiled at Esher with nothing to smile about?

“I’m sorry.” The words are small and pathetic, blabbering, but what else can he say? What else? “I’m sorry I made you do this. I’m sorry—”

Mara jerks her head. Dried lavender hangs by the grate housing a crackling fire, but Esher still chokes on the air leaden with bitter herbs, sweat and sourness. “I knew this was going to knot you up. Bet Ben ten chips that you would! Did Reggie make you promise?”

Startled, Esher just nods.

Berta, tired of being ignored by a child uninterested in an ordinary sheepdog, jumps up onto Esher’s knees, scrambles into a sitting position and licks him on the cheek.

“Thank the dead for that.” Mara folds her arms, glaring. “Esh, shut up and listen—Ben, pass me that spoon, would you? So I can rap Esh over the head if he says the word ‘sorry’?” She glares at Esher until Benjamin, thinner and greyer than Esher has ever seen her, hands over a long wooden spoon. Mara clenches it in her free hand; he’s seen soldiers with less fearsome a glower than this gaunt witch in a rocking chair. “Esh. I didn’t sell my soul for you. I swear to you I didn’t. I sold it nearly a year before. I thought—to find a solution, a love spell, something to make me not…”

Esher stares. “Is that why—Aunt Rosie?” He thought she wanted to talk to Aunt Rosie during the Thinning; he never considered that she may wish to hold converse with the bones—necromancy. “The dead? You summoned them? After the Thinning? Or before?”

Mara jerks a nod. “And that’s how I knew to take you to Sirenne, too. So that isn’t on you. I was already a sorcerer. But the power Saluria and Sillemon have is limited. How much depends on the demons and the sorcerer both. That didn’t matter, then—I thought I could save you, and I’d already traded my soul, so why not?” Her wet, bubbling cough makes Esher’s stomach knot. “I thought I could fix you. How could you want to be like that, when I thought I knew the problem? You woke up … screaming, but after a while you were better than I’d seen you in ages. I fixed you.”

Is this supposed to help? Perhaps she didn’t sell her soul for him, but the result makes no difference to the outcome. “There isn’t power left after me for you to … save you? Save yourself?”

“I was the older sister who saved my brother. A hero from the stories, and you didn’t need to know. Heroes don’t seek out reward.” Mara’s laugh, hoarse and bitter, ends in another bout of coughing. “A nice little story. Helped me sleep at night.”

Esher runs his finger over the whorl above Berta’s chest. “It isn’t—”

A wooden spoon to the ear, he learns, hurts.

“Shut up,” Mara says, while Esher, grunting, rubs his left ear and stills Berta with his other hand. “It’s a story and I liked it. Reggie called me a hundred kinds of fool when I told her, but I laughed at her. How could I have hurt you? Even some of the things you wrote about … well, I’d given you something I thought you wanted. How can that be wrong? And you were living in Astreut with your dogs.” She hacks again, gasping. “But of course you’d figure out that the only way for me to change you was sorcery, and that’s different now—now I’m dying. So I decided, and I’m not sorry for that. I’m sorry for what I did for you without asking, and I’m sorry for the pressure I’ve put on you, and I’m sorry for the pain I’ve put you through now trying to fix a problem that shouldn’t be. I’m sorry, Esh.”

He stares at her in bewilderment. “You didn’t hurt me. You saved me.”

Mara gives him the slightest of head-shakes. “Do you really believe that?”

He stops, lips parted, the word yes silent on his tongue. All the stories about his world unravelled two and a half years ago, but the new stories, the ones he tells in their place, are no more substantial than smouldering logs falling in the grate and smashing to coals and ash. Better? What does it even mean? “I … the last two months. With Moll. Again.”

Her smile startles him, a warm familiarity framed by a face unfamiliar in its gauntness. Same hazel eyes, same sable hair, same crooked front tooth, changed woman. “Good! If you can go back yourself when you need it, I won’t worry.”

“Lis,” Esher says, knowing that these aren’t the right words but trusting Mara to understand, “told me how ‘good’ things are eight times.”

Mara snorts and hacks into the rag, a cough that rattles her body and sets her to gasping. “I’ve heard enough of that,” she says finally, but Esher doesn’t miss the way she buries the cloth in her fisted hand. Even here, even in front of him, she hides; he can’t decide if it’s guilt, stubbornness, the bone-deep aversion to revealing suffering, or some torturous mix of all three. “I know you’ve had all of minutes with this, and I know I’ve hurt you, but … just stay with me until the end. Give me my family until the end, as normal as we can. That’s all I want.” She shakes her head. “I know you said he was a wolfhound, Esh, but I didn’t think he was that big! And Berta’s all grown now!”

Berta sits up and holds out her paw to Mara, her wagging tail smacking into Esher’s belly; Mara rasps a laugh, shakes Berta’s paw and trails her free hand over the rocking chair’s arm to work her fingers down Berta’s ears and neck.

Esher, though, looks down at Bill, lying stretched across the hearth: Olive curls up beside him, their head resting on his flanks. Bill doesn’t know Olive any more than Esher does, but while he’s wary of adults, he’s gentle with children. It seems right, in a storybook happily-ever-after sort of way, to see Bill and his nibling rest comfortably together, to see Mara petting Berta. Family together, and Esher travelled to the East certain in the knowledge that these people will await his return, a knowledge now fragile and faded.

“My memories,” he says aloud, teasing the words out because Benjamin may not understand if he signs, “of that night, here, are … I know what happened, but I know it in the way Da talks about the day you were born. I don’t remember it like I was there. Odd, that.” He breathes out, watching the steady rise and fall of Bill’s ribcage and the glow of the goals making Olive’s auburn hair shine red. Pleasant, but not calming enough, so he ducks his head, resting the side of his face against Berta’s shoulder. She noses his ear while Esher breathes in the comforting, familiar smell of dusty dog. “I don’t remember it like I was there, but you said that over your bones would you let me kill myself. I think I screamed at you that it was what I wanted. It felt desperate then and it felt logical, reasonable, at Sirenne. To me. Not to you.” He looks up and meets Mara’s eyes. “Don’t say that to me, Hela—that the end is what you want. Don’t ever say that to me.”

Mara’s lips tremble. “There’s nothing else, Avery.”

Because she stopped him from trading a soul. Why did he let himself break so far after seeing the Grey Mage? Why did he waste two months at Sirenne that he should have spent with Mara—and Esher jerks, startling Berta. No! He went to Sirenne!

What seems like a failure of spirit may be an opportunity, shining and perfect, if only he acts now.

If the priests could have treated Mara’s illness, they would have. When no witch, magician or priest answered the question of his body, however, Esher went to the Greys. Powerful, dangerous, expensive—magic workers famed throughout the East and West alike, wielding power possessed by no magician or witch, working minor miracles for a price. They gave Esher an answer, but everyone knows they can halt a cancer grown too far for a blood witch or magician to survive the magic needed, if only one can pay. If the Sojourner means for Mara to go now to her end, why have Moll mention the Greys’ arrival? Why have Esher decide to go back to Sirenne if now is Mara’s time?

Does Moll know? Surely Mara, earlier in her illness, went to the priests? How long did she hide this from Esher?

He wrote message after message in the mirror book while Mara coughed and withered, silent. Lying.

Just as he didn’t tell her about returning to Sirenne.

“There’s three Grey Mages visiting the monastery—they come every hand of years. They arrived yesterday and will stay for a few weeks, Moll said.” Esher threads his fingers together and looks right into Mara’s sunken eyes, the words babbling over his lips so fast even Esher struggles to parse them. “They’re excited—they discuss and trade developments in spell constructs and medicines. The Greys are at Sirenne. Let’s ask.”

A startled gasp sounds from the table; Benjamin’s eyes bore into Esher’s back. Benjamin, who adored Mara the day she arrived in Dead Horse Hill, who said the right things when Mara spoke to her of romance and love, who let her wife go with Esher to Sirenne and never complained about her absence—at least not so that Esher ever heard of it. Benjamin, who must be enduring her own hell of watching the woman she loves sicken and wither in a town long distant from her blood kin. Benjamin, whose feelings about her sorcerer wife being unable to heal herself because of Esher’s body cannot be uncomplicated. Did Mara too twist her out of a choice, making sure Olive has one mother in this world and the next?

Mara, though, just stares at Esher.

He can’t do anything about Mara’s soul, but what if he can give her a life with Benjamin and Olive? What if she dies of old age, at least having the solace of seeing her child grow to adulthood? What if he can give her the life she gave him? If he works for the rest of his life to pay back the Greys, what of it? He’ll have all the worlds that come after; Mara has but this one.

“We can’t afford—” Mara stops; Esher shakes his head. “Esh! Nobody here has that kind of money! We can’t go asking without money!”

For the first time, he understands why Mara called this a story. Aren’t the tales spoken around fires, immortalised in song or remembered even when the heroes are long dead extolling the sacrifices made for romantic love? How is this any different, save in love’s shape? Esher looks across at his sister, thinking. No, he doesn’t know how to feel about souls and trades and magic; he lacks any decision on what Mara should have done to him. He doesn’t have to understand or agree to be certain that she loves him, however, and he long ago forgave her discarding of his desire to die.

Mara talked Reggie into manipulating him out of saving her life by sorcery, all for love of him, but nothing will stop Esher from riding back to the monastery and finding out what he’ll pay for the Greys to save her.

He turns and looks at Benjamin, her white skin so pale that her brown freckles look like livid sores, the red hair she once used to cut fingernail-long grown out shaggy to her ears. Wasn’t she a bright, plump, smiling woman who twirled in her skirts just for Mara’s appreciation? How did she grow so tired? “I’ll find a way,” he says, disregarding Mara as much as Mara once disregarded him. “She gave me this,” and he flickers his hand towards his body, “so I’ll find a way. I swear by Aunt Rosie. By Aunt Olive Rose Amara. You know what that means?”

Benjamin gifts him the slightest of exhausted smiles. Permission, not belief, but it’s good enough.

“Esher—”

“Aunt,” he says, glaring back at Mara, “Rosie.”

He’ll go, ignoring her, just as she ignored him when needed. Even he knows it isn’t much, just a vague glimmer of hope that he can save someone who never once forgot the vow she made, but if this isn’t reason enough for a man to live, he doesn’t know what is.

For Mara, Esher will find a way to convince the Greys and survive his own mind while doing so.

By Aunt Rosie, he will.

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