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New Decameron Two: Leah Bobet

ONE HUNDRED TASKS FOR BONES

By Leah Bobet

Seventeen, eighteen, fear the god walking, nineteen, twenty, eat the god's plenty—

Lucia tripped over the skipping cord and Jessamin laughed, and from inside the kitchen, where Emory watched her daughters play, it was plain that Aunt Bea did not approve. She clattered the stoneware dishes in the basin, and Emory knew: when the girls came in they were going to get a scolding.

"Auntie," Emory said, in her most reasonable voice.

"What?" Aunt Bea snapped.

Emory sighed, not aloud but between her ribs. "Let me talk to them." There were iterations to this argument, like a folk song. They had gone through every version regularly since Jessamin's first word. Today, Emory skipped them all for the refrain: "I'm their mother."

"Then you of all people," Aunt Bea said, "should care who filled their heads with that nonsense."

"No one taught them."

"Well, they learned somehow," the old woman said, and passed Emory the last of the clean plates. Emory swiped her damp dishcloth over it and put it away. Mateo's lunch was on the counter and normally she sent Lucia with it — it was good for children to have small responsibilities, and to start them on it young — but with Aunt Bea on one of her grievances, it was best to leave the girls outside.

"Kids pick up things," Emory said, deliberately cheerful, and put her dishcloth on the rack. "We all did."

"And some of those things burn," Aunt Bea muttered, and stalked out of the kitchen.

Emory knew to count ten before letting out her breath. She couldn't fault Aunt Bea for caution: her aunt had grown older than anyone remembered on the farm upon the mountaintop, and the grains of sand that leaked through her memory were less random than outsiders thought. When she drew the shape of a weed, a town child found the plant around the dairy the next week, and it was poison. When she told a story about the river drying, Emory stored up water. She never let Emory write her prognostications down. "Your aunt," Mateo observed, "likes to be necessary." But she had traded not a little for her wisdom; most frustratingly, Aunt Bea forgot what it was to be a child.

The girls were still chanting outside the window: Jack Jumper this time, a more harmless skipping rhyme. The chance of a shouting match had likely blown by. Emory took Mateo's lunch, laid a gentle hand on each girl's head as she passed, and walked down to the barn.

Mateo had thrown the shutters wide despite the cool weather. Noonlight curled through the rough-framed windows and spattered on the floor. "There's a wizard on the road to town," her husband said from the far stall.

"How d'you know?"

Mateo wrinkled his nose. "Smells like lightning." He turned off the milking machine and gave Noser's flank a soft pat. "What does your aunt think about it?"

Of course she had told him. Marriage, children, the soft partitioning of a household, her smell on his pillows, his smell on her sheets was too much to ask without a little honesty. "She's in a mood," Emory said, and leaned her head against her husband's shoulder.

His hand came up and cupped her cheek. She had always liked the shape of Mateo's hand there. It was steady; it never took. She allowed herself the luxury of him for thirty seconds, and then the cow stirred, and he was busy again with the stool and Noser's anxious shuffle.

She could smell it too, from here, between the soft scent of hay and Noser's warm, thick funk: a taste of thunder.

"Should I say anything?" she asked, and Mateo shook his head.

"I'm sure she knows."

And didn't want to speak of it, Emory clocked, with a nod. "I'll go down to the village, then." She was the archivist, and that was something like a mayor in God's Head: the keeper of their scant and secretive past.

"Want me with you?" Mateo asked, and she let her hand drift, quite differently, through his brown hair.

"It's all right," she said, and set his lunch on the spare stool. "I won't be long."

The girls had moved on to skipping stones when she emerged. "Go help your father with the milk," she said, and took the path through their front gate toward the village square.

God's Head was a well-balanced town: a school, a shrine, a public house in Antonia Oldwell's front room, and elegant stone gutters along the main road to carry excess rain down the mountain. It had stayed that way for a thousand years, never rich enough to spill its boundaries, never poor enough to fade. There was an elegance to the middle distance, Emory thought, as she followed the taste of thunderstorms down the main street.

The scent of ozone pooled in the square, and its source was a long cargo carriage in front of the Oldwell house, hitched to a matched eight of fine black horses, their tack weather-worn. A groom in grey livery opened the grey door and the wizard stepped from the carriage in a helm of black iron, studded with two curved yellow horns. The horns were tipped with gemstones, a faraway kind, and they winked like beetle antennae in the thin, clouded afternoon light.

The wizard's brow was beetled too, above bushy black eyebrows that flew away from his face like slingshots. He looked around the town of God's Head with the air of an inspector, expectant, nostrils flared to taste the mountain air.

Emory lingered in the doorway of Hawn's general supply, another townie here for the spectacle. The groom negotiated board and bed with Antonia and the wizard lingered by his carriage, listening here, staring there, his lips moving in ways that might be complaint or a binding spell. Across the square, Pat Wellgood's children were watching, eyes like new coins. No: it was good she'd kept the girls at home.

Antonia came to some agreement and tucked back through her door. A gasp shushed quickly from the Wellgoods' windowpanes. The groom did not prostrate himself to that black robe, but bowed stiffly. "I'll take the luggage, sir."

The wizard looked around at God's Head one last time, sniffed deeply, wrinkled his nose, and made his way inside.

#

The wizard was, by Antonia's lights, a courteous guest. He tipped well at the bed and breakfast that was the closest God's Head had to an inn, kept his smiles away from Antonia's daughters, and spent a full hour browsing Pat Wellgood's pottery at the gallery she kept for summer tourists. His carriage driver was polite and taciturn, leaving his own small room at the front of the house only to tend and feed his black horses.

The carriage stayed unopened, parked in the village square. The town's children watched it, uniformly afraid to touch.

"Can't imagine what he needs that many horses for. You know we had to stable two of them in Patty's yard?" Antonia said, wiping down her dining table.

"It's a big carriage," Emory said.

"And for what?" Antonia flicked the cloth over her shoulder. "Came in with just one suitcase. It's vanity, I'm telling you. You know what happens when a man gets a big head like that."

The scent of ozone wafted softly across the windowsill: a wizard walking through the remains of Antonia's squash and chicory, taking the mountain air as the town's children whispered through the fence.

It was odd, was what it was. Aunt Bea had been in full thunderstorm for two days, since the wizard arrived, and despite Emory's best efforts to tempt her with baking and small acquiescences, her aunt was not proving prey to such distractions.

Wizards, Aunt Bea pronounced instead, and then a slow leak of stories fell, dawn 'til dusk, from her lips. Wizards who stoppered up springs and cursed crossroads, who took the heads of their enemies without blade or noose-rope. Wizards who studied, to perfection, the anatomy of guts. And then the stories grew more gruesome and Emory sent the girls out for late blackberries, but her aunt's mutterings had wormed into the back of her own skull.

"Do you know where he's headed?" Emory asked, and refilled her own teacup from Antonia's warm pot.

"Nowhere particular. Historical sights," Antonia said, and Emory nodded. Nothing about that was new. There was little to see in God's Head except woodland and historical sights, although sometimes they got stargazers. The sky was especially fine at this latitude.

Emory walked home with fresh chive biscuits bundled in a handkerchief, bleeding heat and the cozy scent of churned butter into her palm.

The rugs were hanging from the clothesline when she returned home. They looked freshly beaten, the thick pile alive with blows. "Mateo?" she called, but the yard was deserted, the floor unswept, and the girls' toys littered across the bare stone hallway floor. The parlor — teapot left out, a cup, spoon and saucer used — was a disaster.

Emory's was the oldest house in God's Head. The joins had been carved out of solid rock at least a millennium ago, and it wept damp in the winter in the back bedroom. The floor, without the rugs laid, was ice-cold. Emory put Antonia's chive biscuits on the kitchen counter, fetched the rugs, and gritted her teeth as she scooped up the girls' toys. Aunt Bea was nowhere to be seen. She knew the markers, though: the tantrums young girls threw and those of old women were closer than one thought.

She was in the back bedroom when the knock came, hands full of wooden dolls. "Hello?" The voice was unfamiliar. Down the hall, and out of season, crept a curl of ozone.

The wizard was waiting, his thick brows drawn, when she opened the door. "I'm told you're the town archivist," he said without preamble.

"That's right," Emory said, and schooled her face still as she let the man in.

The God's Head town archive was a cabinet in Emory's parlor. Her father had kept it, and when Aunt Bea had decided Emory showed the aptitude, she'd inherited the task. Physically, it was one handbound book, births, deaths, and marriages, and three boxes of papers, the land deeds and diaries no one passed to their children – and Aunt Bea, who remembered with precision why each name mattered. Emory pulled out the boxes, sturdy ones made of cedar, and offered the wizard tea.

"No, thank you," the wizard said, and Emory filled the kettle for herself. So this, she thought, was why Aunt Bea had overturned the house. Even after everything, she thought Emory couldn't handle the fine scrutiny of a wizard.

She measured the tea out carefully, and Noser's fresh milk; waited for the kettle and seethed. She was thirty years old. She didn't have to dignify this. But Aunt Bea had a way of instantly returning her to thirteen — the very worst nights of being thirteen — and desperately, fruitlessly, she hated how well it worked.

When she came back the wizard was already sorting papers, his hands gloved in white linen stained with ink on the left palm. He glanced up. "This is all?"

Names and numbers: hundreds of lives, so spare reduced. She poured a cup and settled into her father's armchair. "God's Head doesn't produce much paperwork. We're a simple community, for better or worse."

"It's an odd name," the wizard added, and Emory shrugged.

"Town founders must have liked what they saw."

"Indeed," he said. "There's more whim and circumstance shaping our past than anyone imagines."

"You're a historian?" she asked, and the wizard regarded her with those impressive eyebrows.

"Anyone who takes seriously the study of magic," he said, "becomes something of a historian."

There was a crackle about him now, the taste of a sky pushed near to breaking, and Emory leaned back. She had said the right thing, or the wrong one. "Who knows why the ancients made the choices they made?" she added breezily, and sipped her tea.

The wizard cracked a thin smile. It was not, to her surprise, false or ominous: just a dry quirk surfacing on a face schooled to serious things. "The particular thing about history," he said, "is that you realize the ancients were just human. All the things they did? Familiar. People don't," and his expression flickered like lamplight, "really change."

He was watching her with intensity, the kind that might make someone who didn't live with Aunt Bea quail. Emory looked into her teacup and considered quailing for him. It seemed a bad choice to stand out as unexpected with a wizard of the modern towers. "That's depressing," she said, with a nervous laugh. "Is it?"

"I like to think we get somewhere. Move forward."

He leaned toward her. Emory had the sudden sense of sitting under a slowly tilting mountain. "History is a circle. Forces rise and fall. We cluster in cities, and then stream back out to the fields. We learn and forget and discover ideas again. In a sense it's optimistic," he said, and flashed her that thin smile. "Nothing ever really dies."
 The chill of that shadow deepened. She turned her teacup in her hand. "I suppose it's good to know things last." It sounded flimsy, even to herself: a frightened little woman hiding behind her china, unable to face the world outside her town.

"It's a comfort," the wizard said, and gestured to the papers. "I imagine you've nothing on the history of the region."

The region is the people, she thought, irritated, but took care to keep her tone casual. "There are some historical sites upslope. Early homesteads," Emory said, "dated back eight hundred years."

That sense of a rending sharpened. "Professionally dated."

"We do a brisk trade in folklorists and material historians here," she said with an uncomfortable laugh. "Most of the town has worked a dig one summer or another. The oldest Wellgood son does walking tours in the summer."

"And what were they digging for?" the wizard inquired. 

She'd stumbled, somewhere, without knowing how. This conversation was on the exact wrong path. "Perhaps I could help," she hazarded, "if you'll describe what you're looking for?"

"It would be large," the wizard said, and turned a water-stained page. "I imagine it fairly unmissable."

The door opened, and Lucia's irritated squeal — "No, let me! Jessamin!" — washed through the kitchen and down the hall. Oh, thank you, Emory thought, and stood. "I'm sorry. I need to get the children."

"Of course," the wizard said, polite as Antonia had judged him, and tidied the stack of spent pages.

"Jessamin, give it back—" Lucia wailed, and Emory set down her teacup and called, pre-emptively, "Girls?" She would have to think of some way to not actively reward Lucia for a tantrum, once the wizard was safely bundled out of the house.

"Mommy, she took the princess hat," Lucia called, homing in on the parlor, and then her little footsteps drowned in the unmistakable clomp of Aunt Bea's slippers across the floorboards.

Emory winced. She had almost made it; almost sent the wizard away for a season of harmless traipsing between historical sites, finding nothing but dirt—and paying Nick Wellgood handsomely for the privilege. And now Aunt Bea was going to ruin it all.

Aunt Bea stopped at the parlor door and peered in. Her hair was askew, her dress covered with a filth-stained smock faint with chicken waste. Lucia skidded to a stop just behind Aunt Bea's right leg, turned abruptly uncertain by the black-clad man in their parlor.

"The oven's gone to ash," Aunt Bea said sharply, and Emory barely bit back the retort as she pushed past and scooped her youngest up.

"Ser Wizard," Emory said tightly. She had never asked the wizard's name. "This is my aunt."

Bucket in hand, fresh from the coop, Aunt Bea looked straight at the wizard in her parlor and wrinkled her nose.

Emory went cold with embarrassment — and a prickle of fear. All those stories about what passed when one offended a wizard — all those stories Aunt Bea had herself told — and yet the wizard watched her with dark probing eyes until she kept on down the hall to the cellar.

"I'm sorry. She's elderly. She takes against things," Emory explained weakly, feeling an absolute traitor. Lucia squirmed in her arms, and Emory hefted her more securely. "Let Mom finish with the man and then we'll talk with your sister."

The wizard regarded her, thick black brows drawn together like magnets. "I'll take only a little more of your time."

His presence lurked like a thundercloud at her back as she sorted, soothed, and separated the girls. When she could peek again into the parlor, the wizard was doing nothing unforeseen. He went through the papers again, births, deaths, and land transfers, with that same scientific focus — and then, with a few pleasantries, saw himself down the walk.

#

Everyone in town knew the story, of course. Once upon a time, a thousand years past, the God Arici walked the hills and shrouded woods around these parts, and a band of Low Tower wizards beat him and bound him, divided and dismembered him, and the rivers ran red with his blood. Marius the Dodger, Constantin the Narrowed, and Beatitude Margaretha the Tender, who was so gentle-hearted that she wept at Arici's fall, brought the god down where heroes and armies had failed by dint of their cleverness and magic.

They scattered his giant bones across the continent — a femur in the crypt at Eritae, a knuckle entrusted to the college of magic at Marwis — but his skull lay where it lay; none had the strength to shift the disarticulated skull of a god.

It was bigger history than theirs. The fall of Arici shook dynasties, rewrote borders, and shoved the course of history into different riverbeds. There was documented evidence, too; most stories that old sat until their roofs fell in, but her father had gone down the mountain once, to the archival library in Periston, and read accounts written in their chroniclers' own hands. It had happened, he told her when he returned. There was no knowing the weights or dimensions, the what or why. But something happened.

Here, the fall of Arici had turned a land of mud and blood into six quiet, remote peaks. Green shoots fuzzed over the rough stone, and people settled: a line of villages and towns up and down the Aranees, never quite rich enough to spill their boundaries, never quite poor enough to fade. They took in hikers and farmers and raised sheep, and in the summer, tourists came to take the crisp mountain air. It was a popular spot for academics: stargazers, botanists, restless professorial types doing battle with their manuscripts. And folklorists, by the dozen.

"It's a parable," one had said, ten years back, holding court to the youth of God's Head in Antonia's front room. "If we took geological samples, we'd find volcanic soil."

She'd kept her mouth shut. It was a safe theory: a story warped immeasurably over a thousand years, and it was peculiarly attractive to think the ancestors who'd lived here, in her hulking stone house, just saw through eyes lensed by gods and monsters. A volcano, a weather pattern, an ancient king prone to murder beheaded on the peak. There must, the folklorist insisted, be a rational explanation.

He had taken her and a few friends into the woodlands looking for strange geological formations, or just lumps of volcanic rock. It was an interesting summer of hiking, until Aunt Bea got cross with her and drew her back home to the farm.

"You have responsibilities here," Aunt Bea told her, standing over where Emory squatted among the kitchen garden weeds. She knew what her aunt was truly saying: Do not let this mystery be solved. She sulked for a few days among the potatoes and peas, and then asked, because she was still young then: "What's up there?"

For the first and last time, her aunt regarded her straight on, and said: "Nothing."

At the end, that snipped all speculation at the root. Her aunt said there was nothing on the mountain, so the mountain was empty. There could be no reply.

#

Aunt Bea must have been waiting for the sound of the front door. She emerged just as the wizard faded down the path and threw the kitchen windows wide. The red curtains flew flag-free into the autumn breeze, sweeping the scent of ozone through the halls and out the door.

"Why," she began, and Emory braced herself, "did you let that man into my house?"

"Auntie," Emory protested. "He came to see the archives. How would I turn him down?"

"He is a wizard."

"A wizard," Lucia breathed, scandalized, from under the kitchen table.

"Lucia," Emory cautioned. "Wizards are just people too."

"He is filth," Aunt Bea said evenly, and Lucia backed up, her eyes wide at Aunt Bea's voice. There was a tenor and a force in it that Emory had never heard before, a thrum and rattle like rocks tumbling down the mountain ridge.

Lucia started to sob quietly — again — and Emory pushed down utter rage. "Enough. I have had enough of this."

The sobs beneath the table choked, and when she dared glance down, Lucia was milk-pale. Not you, she thought desperately, and it was too late. Her baby was watching her with terror in her eyes.

She reached out for Lucia, and took her hesitant weight up against her shoulder. There was torn grass in her curls. The battle over the princess hat had been more heated than she thought. "I'm not angry with you, sweetheart," she said into that messy hair, soft as she could muster. "I promise. Mommy and Auntie are frustrated, that's all."

Lucia was small and tense against her chest, too big to hold like this for long. She clearly wasn't buying it. "I promise," Emory said again, around the fist forming in her throat. "Pinky-swear."

She shot a glare at Aunt Bea over her daughter's curly head, and carried her down the hall to the girls' bedroom, where the toys had crept back out of their cedar box. "I think it's a good time for a nap."
 "I'm too big for naps," Lucia wailed, with the utter despair only a three-year-old could muster.

"Oh, honey, I know," she said, and shut the door gently behind her. She was tired of sending the girls away to have fights behind closed doors. It would set a dirty precedent. It already had.

Surprisingly enough, her aunt was still waiting in the kitchen. The look on her face was so pitiful and so hopeful Emory fought to moderate her voice. "I've had enough of you going around me instead of working with me," she said evenly, "and I've had enough of how you treat my daughters."

Aunt Bea had clearly been running the argument in her head while Emory put Lucia down. She turned crisp on one heel and fixed Emory with a barely restrained glare. "There is a wizard in town, Emory Mae. There is no time for your bickering."

So that's how it's going to be, she thought, and crossed her arms to keep them from shaking. "No," she said. Her voice was shaking too. "Not this time."

Aunt Bea did not alter her flat, imperious stare, but Emory imagined she saw doubt creep in. "Girl, you know what your responsibility is."

"I have a lot of responsibilities, auntie," she snapped. "I'm responsible for the farm, the house, the town, and I am responsible for my children. I am their mother."

It flew by her, as it had a hundred times before: Emory was their mother, and a parent was the centre of the universe. Every wobble in her gravity would be felt by Lucia and Jessamin; every failure of temper magnified. She and Mateo were the world they were learning, and she dared not be anything but her best for them. The responsibility was too grave.

"I've told you a hundred times," she ran on, quick and low. "You're rough with them. You scare them. They're growing up learning they should be afraid. I know it's your house," she said, before Aunt Bea could override her. "But they are my children."

"They'll toughen up," Aunt Bea said.

"Jessamin is six," Emory managed. "No child should have to toughen up at six."

Aunt Bea looked at her as if it should be obvious. "One of them's going to take the vigil someday."

The part of Emory that loved her children — that had not understood how big a room love could be until Mateo put their firstborn to her chest — sank into her stomach. "No. No way. They're too young for that to start."

"We were all," Aunt Bea said, "too young for it," and Emory's temper flared.

"You were a grown adult."

"I was a girl—"

"Don't give me that," she interrupted. "You were grown and trained. You had a profession. You weren't six, and you chose to stay up here. You can leave anytime you want."

She had never said that before. It touched something in the old woman like a dry match. "You have no idea what you're speaking of," she snarled, and her hands crackled with a dark light, invisible, tasteless, filling all the air and space.

Emory drew back, and Aunt Bea dropped her hands. Blinked at Emory desperately, looked down at her hands, and breathed hard. When she looked up, she was glaring through her sharp black eyes. It occurred to Emory for the first time that the eyes she was used to, her aunt's commonplace eyes, were the shape and darkness of a hunting hawk. "I wish we got to choose our burdens," she grated out, voice shivering with ghosts, "but we don't. Responsibilities weigh down. That is what they are: weight. We bear them with grace, or we fail and people die. We don't choose them. And the sooner you accept that, the better everything will go."

And to her that was the end of it: a pronouncement, rooted in secrets; a pronouncement and a threat. "And you want me to put that weight on my children."

"Someone has to tend it," Aunt Bea said, as imperturbable as if she'd had this conversation a hundred times before. She might well have, Emory realized with a chill. Emory's breaking point might just, to Aunt Bea, be another in a series of predictable rebellions. This was what her aunt had traded for her wisdom: she forgot what it was to love someone so much you could not sacrifice their joy. There was a dead thing haunting the Arenees, and to Aunt Bea, everybody else came second.

"I did this for you," Emory said, low and fast so she could not take it back. "Not because I had no choice in the matter. I did it because you're my aunt and I love you."

Aunt Bea's expression rippled. Surprise. Shock.

"I chose to keep your secret. I chose to keep the archives," Emory pushed on. "And it ends with me, okay? I'm not forcing the girls into this life, or any life."

"You turned out fine," Aunt Bea said, tighter.

No, welled up inside her. I have, but I haven't. And then she was thirteen years old again, resentful and helpless — or six, transfixed by the thought of monsters outside the house — all the work she'd done to make herself kinder, braver, better stripped instantly away, and hating it. Hating that she could be rendered so weak.

"You are not their mother," she pronounced, with all the finality she could muster. "And you will control yourself around my children."

"Or else?" Aunt Bea mocked.

Emory's folded hands trembled. She held them firm and stared back until Aunt Bea's eyes flickered away.

She only turned at a shuffle in the hall: Mateo's step. "What's going on?" he asked, breathless, and for a moment she was soothed by her husband's voice, her husband's habitual steady calm, which made so much right.

Aunt Bea didn't jump in to set the official record. To her, Mateo still wasn't family, which meant his opinion didn't count.

"Auntie understands that she will respect our parenting decisions," Emory said, affecting an utter mildness. It still came out with an edge.

Mateo looked between them, one to the other, and said: "I see."

Aunt Bea scowled. "It's weight. Everyone struggles beneath it. Imagine the weight of what I never pass on."

Despite her rage, an ominous quease rose in the bottom of Emory's gut. "What's up there?"

"Nothing you can carry," her aunt said, and those falcon eyes glared at Emory and then through her, into a distance beyond their walls. "He's full of bull pucky, you know, girl," she said, a minute later, quieter. "Things do change."

"Then change," Emory shot back, and Aunt Bea shook her head and left them in the kitchen alone.

#

This was the story no one in God's Head knew: Nothing ever truly died, and there was no way to kill a god. They had beat him and bound him, divided and dismembered him, but a god was never dead. And so the three Low Tower wizards, the three who were left after their brethren burned and died, planned by night a longer strategy.

They scattered his giant bones across the continent — a femur in the crypt at Eritae, a knuckle entrusted to the college of magic at Marwis — and broke the rest up with chisels, with spells. There were dangers in a god's remains; it took so little coaxing to make them walk again. They sent messengers to the far reaches of the settled world, begging them to take a fragment of Arici's corpse. But none were strong enough to shift the disarticulated skull of a god. So Beatitude Margaretha, the youngest and weakest of the Low Tower, to whom all the worst tasks fell, stayed on the mountain.

"They said they'd be back in a few months," Aunt Bea had said, on that chill afternoon behind the chicken house. "That they had to find stronger powers."

Once those words had dripped with bitterness. Emory only heard them spoken once, but there was a ghost of broken fury behind them, its tones habitual, worn down like the groove in an old chair. Marius the Dodger, now head of the Low Tower, said they would come back. They did not. She was alone.

The skull grinned on the mountain slope across from where Beatitude Margaretha made her camp. Birds stripped its last godmeat; the ground cooled. Quiet green shoots spread tentatively over Arici's battered land. At some point unspoken, Beatitude Margaretha gave up and carved her house into the rock.

New settlers drifted in: families from neighbouring smallholds, encouraged upward by poverty and small wars and rumours that, with the god gone, the soil had grown rich in the Arenees. They set up small industries. There was, then, a town. A town that was safe and would stay safe, so long as no woman, man, or wizard remembered how long the old woman in the stone house had lived, or why she built her house in God's Head.

It is all forgotten, Aunt Bea had told her. By everyone except Aunt Bea, Emory's father, and now Emory — because someone had to know which facts to not put in the archives.

"Do you understand?" her aunt asked, and Emory nodded, because she could not grasp the enormity of what she didn't understand. The next day she went through the archive in a near-frenzy. There was no mention of the skull. There was no mention of Aunt Bea herself. Just a regular procession of generations, incomplete: tilling soil, selling crops, wedding mostly each other. A story too normal and boring for inspection.

She searched that pruned paperwork and lay awake all night, not daring to ask friends or neighbours, imagination running wild. Finally: "What did you do with it?" Emory asked, just thirteen, her world splitting at the caulk lines.

"Better for you not to know," Aunt Bea said, and patted young Emory's hand.

It was an insufficient answer. She chalked it up to being young. For a few years, as she tried on maturity, it was the peak of wisdom, and then it was insufficient all over again.

Time moved. The attestations yellowed to folktales; the mountains wore down by inches and took on their regal carpeting. And in her thousand-year house, Beatitude Margaretha the Tender stood guardian over something, surrounded by her secret and unanointed priests.

#

She did not sleep. Mateo held and hushed her, and she railed in a low, bitter monotone for hours, because the girls slept in the next room and she didn't dare scream.

"She told me there was nothing up there. For years."

"Oh, Em," Mateo said. It was all he'd said since they'd snuffed the lamp. When it was obvious she and Mateo were to be married, she had told him the story. She'd told him Aunt Bea's entire epithet, not the one in the folktales, so he knew he could not expect her to be kindhearted.

"She lied to me like I was a child," she said, and tears pricked the pillow. He gathered her in, and Emory pressed her face to Mateo's shoulder, where it was safe to be useless and small.

"What do you want here?" he asked.

"I want her to back off the girls, and maybe act like I'm grown," she started, and shook her head. "She won't. She'll toe the line for a few weeks, and then it'll be the same argument." When Emory was old and housebound, she'd be a child to Aunt Bea. No lifespan could compete with the endlessness of a wizard of the old high schools. Emory lay, caught like a fishbone between her actual life — mother, wife, householder, archivist and mayor in her town — and the dizzying scope of Aunt Bea's geological years.

She was asking too much. People did not change. People had been fighting and loving and tending the soil and sabotaging each other in little ways for millennia, doing foolish human shit under the long shadows of walking gods, and they did not change, just pruned their archives: buried their little shames, their silent failures. If there was any hand shaping the course of history, it was soft and silent, and burned letters in the grate before dawn.

"You know my opinion there," Mateo said.

Emory did. She sighed. "I know it's not happening, but Teo? I want it."

He stroked her hair. He was being patient with her, she knew it, and she had so few ways to repay that. She never had to be reasonable about his parents while he cried, brooded, or flailed. Mateo's family lived downslope, in a foothill village, to all impressions absolutely normal and sensible. They made clocks. They wrote weekly, and had brought her a sturdy pair of plum saplings for a wedding gift, remembering her fondness for plum jam. They would have happily apprenticed either their son or daughter-in-law in the business, or helped them scrape up the beginnings of a new upslope farm.

In Mateo's family, they were always strategically forgetting those little debts, those perpetual imbalances. It had amazed her just how easy that made the task of loving.

"And now I have to deal with that wizard, whatever he wants."

"The god," Mateo said.

"That's what Aunt Bea thinks," she said, and shivered. There were parts of the story Aunt Bea never told; not to her, Emory's father, or the relatives hand-picked for centuries to tend the pruned archive. In years of fingering that story, wiggling through the holes, Emory was well acquainted with where it was too thin. There was no knowing if Aunt Bea had forgot those untold years or was just keeping secrets habitually, or if there was truly something dangerous in the quiet green hills and woodlands of her home.

"I don't know," Mateo said softly. "If a dead god was on the mountain, someone would have found it by now."

"They would've, right?" she asked anxiously. "It's been a thousand years."

That one sweaty summer with her folklorist, a blur of strained muscles and blackfly bites and childish mapping, had turned up nothing: endless vistas of sunlight through young trees, carpets of pine centuries deep and sleeping, old boulders where he excitedly traced faded marks that might have been burn scars. She told herself she would have led him off course had they truly found the god. But his excitement had been a magic, a slow one that crept. When Aunt Bea called her back she had been truly ensnared by it: the prospect of understanding something shrouded in myth.

No — in truth, the prospect of understanding Aunt Bea: what unspeakable thing she had done with the god's skull, so unspeakable she'd spent centuries forgetting? There were some things one shouldn't forget; how was Emory to know if Aunt Bea's vigil was among them if she could not hear the full story herself?

"She's still afraid."

"From what you've said," Mateo said equably, "coming here destroyed her entire life."

Emory nodded. It was and always had been the most likely answer: that Aunt Bea was just an old woman — a very old woman, caught out of time — who, centuries out of danger, could not let go of the past.

"The worst thing is," Emory said, and tossed with a thump and huff, "I've spent years trying to convince her nobody was coming, that it's over, and here he is. And now all the ways she treats the girls — she'll think they're justified."

"That doesn't make it true."

"Try telling her that."

"I have," he said quietly, and she turned, surprised. She had no idea her husband had taken a run at Aunt Bea on their behalf.

"Didn't work?" she asked, quieter, more conciliatory.

"Didn't work."

"I'm sorry." This was worse for Mateo sometimes. He'd accepted Aunt Bea as part and parcel of marrying Emory, and for all intents and purposes spent his life voiceless in his own home because Emory couldn't stand up to one old woman.

"Here and now," she said, and propped herself up on one elbow, "what do we do?"

It was, some nights, a dangerous question. It led into an argument as well-worn as a folk song, but at least arguing with Mateo wasn't such an intractable affair. It was the two of them, exhausted and frustrated, circling the knot of need and circumstance that kept them apart, trying to defeat it together.

Mateo let out a breath. Wet his lips. "What won't you do?"

That fist of frustration and grief clenched, again, in Emory's throat. "I think this might be a good week to visit with your parents."

Mateo reached out, turned her with his strong fingers until they faced each other full. "You're serious."

This conversation usually went the other way: Mateo calmly suggesting leaving God's Head, just for a little while, as she fretted: but I'm responsible for it, and he touched her hair and said, okay, but the girls aren't. She resisted because it was the unspeakable first step: a week outside the mantle of her duty, a taste of a different life. It was the beginning of leaving.

Emory took a deep breath. "I'm serious."

Mateo looked down at her over his straight, sunburnt nose. "The Wellgoods can look in on the cows."

She felt the spike of panic: Noser and Maurice. "Aunt Bea can't handle them. The chickens, fine, but at her age—"

"Pat will do it."

And if the cows weren't milked and tended they'd get mastitis, and the small hoard of money Emory and Mateo'd saved up to send the girls to day school would go downslope to the vet, and they'd be back where they started: handing Jessamin and Lucia Emory's dead-end future. A farm, an aged overbearing aunt, and a secret. The kind of secret that tied you down for life.

Tears stung her throat. Responsibilities had so much weight.

"What if you took them down the mountain?" she asked.

She knew she had hurt him by the abrupt drop of his voice: a word shaped and then abandoned into silence. "Mateo," she said. "Are you okay?"

"I knew what this was when I married you," he said softly.

"Is that your way of saying it's not okay?"

He looked away, and then let out a breath. Met her eyes again. They had never been much good at putting anything past one another. Bowed under Aunt Bea's secrets, she had never much wanted to.

"Is this the part where you're leaving me?"

"No! No. Mateo," she choked out, and took his arms in her hands; tried to draw him closer, but he didn't move. "I never stop loving you," she said, desperately. "Not today, not ever."

It wasn't enough. Usually he leaned into her touch, and they leaned together. Now he was straight and stiff as rock. She swallowed, frozen with dread. "Mateo, I swear."

"Come down the mountain with me," he said.

"The girls' school money," she said. "The cows. I want to, I swear."

"You can't."

She nodded miserably.

"Are you ever going to be able to?" he asked, and she opened her mouth and couldn't speak. All the years she'd imagined ahead of them — the girls grown, Mateo greying in that soft curl behind his earlobe, her house full of pets and neighbourhood children — those years were decohering before her eyes. Because Aunt Bea was always been there, in those idle fantasies. Every family in God's Head had their struggles with love, elderly relatives and fights over who took the reins, but Aunt Bea was a wizard of the ancient Low Tower. There was no natural, awful time when she would go and Emory would grieve, and then become head of house and set her own duties and cares. She did not die.

Emory let out a low wail. She clapped her hands over her mouth, but it was too late. Aunt Bea would have heard her, the girls. She was supposed to keep it together — for her daughters, for God's Head's notion of a normal, quiet household — and she was failing, coming apart at the grout, falling down and the whole house, her whole family, with her.

She looked up at her husband, trapped, and buried her face against his shoulder. But for the first time she could remember, his hand did not wrap itself in answer around her waist.

#

They packed the girls up in the morning: two little rucksacks filled with summer clothes and distractions. It was warmer, this time of year, in the foothill towns. Lucia and Jessamin bickered over who would carry their latest fascination, an alder branch stripped and fashioned into a magic wand. Kids picked up things, she reminded herself, as Jessamin insisted she was the wizard, and Lucia the groom. No one fed it to them. Kids just tried you on like a spare shirt.

Emory packed everything in the pantry that would do for trail food: packets of dried apple rings, hard-boiled eggs, jerky and pickles. The girls would not eat the pickles, but maybe Mateo could get them to try.

She was tired, and kept having to lean against the shelf when the room swam around her: fatigue or grief. This made no sense: throwing haphazard provisions together at the end of someone's world.

The girls had picked up on it. She could tell. They vibrated with uncertain excitement. Children weren't stupid; they knew when something between their adults was unsound. Jessamin kept glancing back toward her mother warily, and then to the doorway, looking for Aunt Bea, but Aunt Bea's touch of prognostication was keeping her well out of the way.

I should tell her, Emory thought. Tell Aunt Bea that the girls were going down the mountain today. She might want to say goodbye.

I am their mother, Emory told herself, and kissed each of her daughters on their curly head, held them tight. "Give grandma and grandpa twenty kisses for me," she said, and made them both promise, pinky-swear, cross their hearts. Lucia clung to her leg, a study in absolute resistance, until Mateo coaxed her off with soothing hands and five different promises.

"I'll write when we get there," Mateo said, and she brushed her nose against his cheek. They had decided early on to not withhold affection in front of the girls, as Emory's parents had done. A child needed to see that their parents loved each other. They needed a model for what love looked like.

"Be careful," she said in his ear. She felt his nod against her cheek. She swallowed, hard. "I never stop."

He did not answer. The girls were right there.

She could not push.

Emory walked them to the gate, and then watched until they dwindled down the lane, to the downslope road out of God's Head. The girls jumped and waved, circled Mateo, looked back. At some point they stopped looking back and went to specks, lost against the horizon. When she turned back, the farm's emptiness was familiar: just her, Aunt Bea, and the weighty past.

She went through the cedar box that afternoon for the first time in months: straightening the papers the wizard had disordered, rereading the twined lineages of the families of God's Head. There was nothing Aunt Bea could not have kept herself. The documents said less than nothing: names, dates, and land transfers. A flat substitute for lives.

Aunt Bea moved evasively through the afternoon chores, her steps reduced to little petulant shuffles when they both knew her capacity for stomps. Emory leaned back in her father's parlor chair. She was supposed to go comfort her aunt now, to either mend the fence or burn it — no, just mend it. Aunt Bea antagonized in little ways, overbore and dominated, but she never pushed so far so that Emory might leave.

Then she might have had to cook the meals herself, Emory thought bitterly, but that wasn't it. Then Aunt Bea and her secrets would have been alone.

Emory turned her away from the door, weeping into her hand. It was not good to imagine too long what this household would have looked like if her aunt had been honest about why she needed an archivist.

She had forgotten how to fix dinner for two. She overmeasured everything, and ended up with enough squash casserole leftover to fill the coldbox. The house was too quiet; the absence of Mateo and her girls ached like beesting. All she could feel was the space where his hand should be, the silence where their voices were supposed to rise and fall.

There was still time. She could pack and hit the road. She'd come upon them before nightfall. You couldn't travel fast with two small children at your heels.

The chickens, she told herself deliberately. The cow. Our winter stores.

She had made such a mistake, staying behind.

At sunset Aunt Bea came out to eat, like a scorned feral cat creeping up to the table. "You stayed with me," she said, and Emory bit her lip until she knew she would not scream her aunt's fool head off.

#

She was still not speaking to Aunt Bea two days later, when she smelled the rain coming in under a clear blue sky. She knew before the knock: it was the wizard at the door. This time, the grey-liveried groom stood behind him, and with a blade.

"There was no aunt in your births register," he said.

The wind blew quiet through the farmyard, where the girls were supposed to be. She had been wrong. She had not made a mistake at all.

Emory eased herself out the front door and shut it behind her.

The last of the birds were in the trees: God's Head was a migratory stop on their annual trip south. The birdwatching was rich, if not spectacular, by the second week of fall. They pointed like compasses toward the wizard's wide cargo carriage: a mass of vehicle parked at their front gate. The back door hung open, a parted mouth, and as the breeze ebbed it swung lightly on its hinges. What she glimpsed within it made no sense: the edge of an impossible, ancient bone.

"Ser Wizard," she started, and forced a smile onto her face. There was a blade drawn, on her land. How dared he, her stunned voice whispered.

"Who is she?" the wizard snarled.

"She's my aunt," Emory said, smaller. "We're a small town, and our records—"

"Don't lie to me."

It was more frightening that he said it cold, his face carved like glacier ice. He knew. He knew something. Emory stared at him, frightened, exhausted beyond belief. It was not the right time to throw her apron on the ground and leave Aunt Bea to fight her own fights. It is never the right time, she thought, heart pounding in despair.

Perhaps the wizard confused it for quailing. Perhaps he thought he could cause that much grief. He leaned forward, a mountain collecting up its shadow, and she just looked at him, her heart already dulled by everything that was gone. "You haven't even introduced yourself," she said heavily.

The wizard smiled.

"They name me Auroch the Gatherer," the wizard said, and grounded his foot on the path. "I have come for the god Arici's skull."

Emory's breath fluttered in her chest. "Of course you have," she said, with a wild little laugh. "Why would you show up for anything worth having?"

The wizard looked at her as if she was dissembling or mad or both, and Emory almost could not find it in her to care. Here it was before her, the yawning door, the trap, the regular lot of middle-aged women: taking on someone else's burden and its weight because everyone with less conscience had cleared the field. She could just walk away. She had chosen to tend the archive, to stay in God's Head like a fool, and sent the people she loved most in the world away. She could choose not to keep up the lie now, when it mattered, and save herself a sword embedded nobly in her gut.

The problem was, of course, she loved her aunt. And with love, it was so hard to choose.

"That's a story," she said, and wet her lips. "My father went down to Periston once about it—"

"Don't lie to me. I smell it," the wizard said, with a wild flash of teeth. "Everywhere in this town has a stink of magic. It's here," he snapped, and waved a hand wildly. For a moment, the ground, the house's white plaster, her fingertips shimmered with iridescent blue. She shook them, horrified. They stung like blood coming back in; like something asleep waking.

He saw her shock and smiled: the same smile he'd offered in the parlor three days ago, awful now in triumph. "I know," he pronounced, "I have the right place."

There was a shuffle on the path from the kitchen garden: Aunt Bea, her basket abandoned, her bare feet planted in the rich mountain earth. She squinted across the yard at the wizard and Emory sucked in a breath, prepared for rockfall and volcanoes. But Aunt Bea leaned on her walking stick and fixed the wizard with a glare. "I knew you were the kind to pull the wings off flies."

Auroch the Gatherer sized up Emory's aunt in efficient strokes: "Flushed you out, did it not?"

Aunt Bea rolled her eyes. "You're very clever, young thing," she said, and eyed the cargo carriage. "A clever, sneaking little thief."

The wizard's beetle brows drew in. "Who are you?"

Aunt Bea fixed him coolly in her sights. "Beatitude Margaretha the Tender. Get off my farm."

The folklorist had said, that summer, that names held power. Emory understood it as a philosophical point. But it had been fifteen years since she had heard her aunt speak her own earned name aloud, and it reverberated through the air like the afterimage of waterfalls: a clap and mist that lingered even when the words were gone.

The second shock came softly on its heels: Aunt Bea had told her secret. She loved Emory more than her secrets after all.

"Auntie," she said weakly, and Aunt Bea held up a hand. She backed up, no idea where to look or be.

"That's not even a good lie," the wizard Auroch said. "I've read the annals. Beatitude the Tender died in the Ten-Year Cataclysm."

"Oh, is that what they said about it?" Aunt Bea said, with a bitter twist. "Well. I suppose history is written by the victors."

"You would have had to live a thousand years."
 "More than that," Aunt Bea said, and slowly blinked. The passage of centuries was behind her eyes. It frightened even the wizard Auroch. "Arici's head is gone. You won't raise him. Go home."

"There is godstuff everywhere on this mountain," he snapped. And yes, he was afraid. His groom, behind him, readied the sword. "You will tell me what you did with him, or I will level this town."

Aunt Bea shrugged. "You want to know?"

"Auntie," Emory gasped.

Aunt Bea smiled. And Emory realized only some of this was about love, and some about what Aunt Bea had craved for generations untold: someone who could fully appreciate what she did.

"There are a hundred tasks for bones," she said casually. "Pottery, fertilizer, chicken feed. They're reliable. They build up the soil."

You could count on one hand the people who had lived to see a wizard go white. Emory felt the universe stretch to admit her to that secret company. Auroch the Gatherer caught his breath like a wild fish, one which struggled against the line. "You didn't."

"I am not in the habit of inaction," Aunt Bea said, in the same crisp tone she used to chastise Emory, and Emory staggered under the slow realization of what her aunt had said.

A god's bones ground and scattered, enough bone to turn a whole mountain from desolate burn land into soft places; the kind of rich soil a settler might venture up for, hearing the death god of the Arenees was gone. Bones flecked into every shred of her life: the plates she washed daily; her mother's stoneware mug; the eggshells of their chickens. The delicate fingerbones of her daughters.

The entire town of God's Head was the unliving skull of Arici. They had guarded it a thousand years and, abandoned on the mountain peak, Beatitude Margaretha had appointed one in each generation so she could tell herself one person, somewhere, knew her sacrifice and ingenuity. One person in the world knew the deed she'd done.

She should have gone with Mateo and the girls. She should be holding them, her hands run through Mateo's hair.

"You'll have to gather the whole town," Aunt Bea said, and took up her walking stick. "Sift each speck from base matter. Turn all the topsoil. It's a monumental task, and that still won't account for the fragments sold off the mountain over the years. Frankly, I don't think your heart will take it."

Auroch the Gatherer's eyes were ice and fury. They were want, and they were triumph. "You have not tasted my heart," he said, and spoke the cursed words.

#

It felt like this:

The sun sharded into stained glass, and then the colours peeled each from the other and ribboned, endless, unspooling through her eyes. Emory ran into the house and the house shivered and melted from the rock. Each particle of the land she was born on, the land she'd tilled and watered, rose speck by speck into the air. The mountain was glimmering, a firefly storm in midafternoon, each particle signaling wildly for purchase. The mountain clung to itself as parts of it were chosen and parts set aside, the fireflies whirling and coalescing, the divinity lifting from it in tree and mica, like a coat. And still the magic worked on it, flayed it apart, searching for the god.

"Jessamin!" she called, and then for Lucia, and the world shifted to shadow. From the niches where they were tucked and folded she heard the great groan of old things sleeping; old things coming awake. Emory, in the palm of the whirlwind, saw her chickens flicker by, a roof tile, her mother's favourite stoneware mug. She had sent away her daughters and Mateo, she was losing them, and she cried out for them into the storm.

Her fingertips glowed and then unraveled, nail to root. There were fireflies in her bones, and they nudged her skin, begging freedom to be again.

The universe coughed quietly, and came apart.

And then it flashed together, and the chaos-god Arici, Warbringer, Undoer, Stitch-Cutter, Earth-Boiler, looked up at the sky reborn.

#

There was nothing left on its mountain. What was once wood and water, what were buildings were reduced and stacked fastidiously: hydrogen, iron, thin plant fibres, each atom broken apart. There was nothing but an empty cargo carriage with a matched eight, a man in a black robe on his hands and knees, a dead groom, an abandoned walking stick, and the unpatched ruins of a town.

"Stitch-Cutter," the wizard croaked, alive with the afterimage of great magic. His hair had gone white. "I've done it. I put you back together."

The god Arici stretched its unfamiliar arms. It had once looked much harsher than this. It was fifty feet tall and furred in treetops, sharp as a fox coat; its arms veined river blue. And it was unfinished. There were molecules missing, flecks of its essence like candles in a sea of night, and it could feel them: in the shape of hand-thrown pots lovingly painted and meals in the bellies of folklorists, carried into the lower lands. In the shape of children holding their father's hands as they fled their only home.

Its toes crumbled, and it struggled to hold them together. This would not do. This would not do at all.

"Stitch-Cutter," the wizard said. His life-light was flickering hard. "Let me make sacrifice."

The half-assembled god looked down at him, this curious man, lost in contemplation of crop and yield, water, fireflies, the distinct memory of its fingers caressing a loved one's hair. A cow's low across the fields at sunrise, and chive biscuits, rich with butter. Warm love for a husband; fierce love for a child; desperate, tangled love for a rough, aloof old woman.

There were other memories, red and gold, hot and violent, but the land here had been so unceasingly well-loved, and there are things that change you. There were hills in its nature now, earned calluses, and eggshells. It had been a long time with slow things, touched by hands, lips, rainfall. Responsible for life.

Its arm shed autumn chicory. They were three days downslope, and it was already crumbling. It had to tell them it loved them. It did not have much time.

The birds were making comet trails above. The god brushed them gently away, and the god rose from the village, following their pathways down the gentle slope. It had made so many mistakes, it thought. It had chosen wrong. But death became soil. Clay became pots. It was not too late.

The god Arici stretched above the Aranees, and it walked. As the wizard followed behind it, begging, then railing, then weeping, the people of God's Head descended the mountain to cradle the last of their children, each footstep sprouting peaceable soil.


************************************************************************************

"That was great," he says, putting the book down and leaning back on his chair.

"Why did they have a milking machine?" Maya asks. Her lower lip is quivering.

"What?" He turns to her, startled. The cat wakes up and starts licking his front paw.

"A milking machine. That was too high tech for the rest of the village," she says.

"You read a story with a giant god, the bones, the people, a thousand years, and you're quibbling about a milking machine? Didn't you like it." He looks incredulous. The cat swipes at his ear. "I loved it!"

"I don't believe it," Maya says stubbornly.

"The milking machine?" He raises his eyebrows, perplexed. "You believe the god's bones ground into the village but not the milking machine?"

She doesn't answer, but a tear has slipped down her face.

"Or is it something more than the milking machine?"

She chokes out the words. "The god's bones I believed. But that family. The parents. They really love each other. They love the children so much. That's not realistic."

"Oh I see now why that was hard for you. But it is," he says, gently. "It can be. And that was one of my favourite things about the story. I really liked the world and especially the ground up god, but I loved the family."

"Did you have parents like that?" Maya asks, scowling.

"Well I'm not real, I didn't have parents at all." The brindled cat turns around on his lap and sits upright, curling his tail around neatly, like a heraldic cat.

"Did she? The person who wrote you?"

"Her father loved her," he says. He pets the cat absently.

"If it is real then I hate them for having that when I don't," she says, crying.

"Hush, hush now," he says, soothingly. "We should be glad some people do, even if we don't, but I can see that might be a difficult one. Here, have a chive biscuit." He unfolds a napkin and the scent of warm freshly made chive biscuits wafts out. Maya stops crying and stares at him. He takes a bite, dropping crumbs on the cat, who bats at them. "Go on, they're good. Have one while they're warm."

"Where did you get those?" she asks, accusingly.


"Out of the story," he says. "They were right there. Have one. They're really buttery and good."

Slowly, tentatively, she reaches out and takes one. She turns it in her hands, looking at it, then glancing back at him before she bites it. The tears are still on her face, but her expression is wonder. She bites, chews, swallows. 'You're right, that's amazing."

"Leah Bobet is a good writer," he says. "Even of the story upset you. These chive biscuits are wonderful, so flaky and delicious."

"Let's read something else," she says. "We could read more of your book." She touches it.

"No, no," he says, hastily. "Let's find something to cheer you up. Something you already like."

"Re-read?" Maya asks.

He grins. "No. A sequel to something you enjoyed. How would you feel about The City in the Crags?"

"What? Really?" she almost jumps out of her chair. "The Steerswoman series is one of my favourite things in the history of ever. The Steerswoman, The Outskirter's Secret, The Lost Steersman, The Language of Power, that's my favourite. Unless The Outskirter's Secret is my favourite. I've been waiting for the next one for such a long time. Is it really out?"

He puts his hand on a book on the table. "It's not. This isn't all of it. Rosemary Kirstein is a wonderful writer, one of the very best, but it has to be admitted that she doesn't work fast. I've been waiting for this book for years. Longer than your whole life, I think. But one day it will be done. And meanwhile we can read the beginning."

"How is it even here?" Maya asks.

"This is a magic library in time of plague," he says. "I mean look at it."

It is so familiar to Maya that she hardly notices the frescoes, the colonnade, the statues. She barely gives them a glance. It is the books she comes for. "Is that how come you're here?"

"I'm always ready to be rescued from where I'm trapped by any child who needs an imaginary friend," he says. He hands her the book, and together they read.

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