The City Has Grown To Cover The Graves

The Empress has been given a pass by the Court of the Dead to return to the land of the living. There are people she must see, warnings she must give; typical portent business, but she has been granted a handful of days for herself to see how things are getting on.

Her empire, when she ruled it, was wracked with plague, choked with the dead. The wealthy fled to the hills to die, and the poor boarded themselves in their homes to die; the skies were thick with corpse ash, until even the tenders to the dead sickened and died. She has not been dead so long, but it is only the ghosts that still bear witness to that lost generation.

Near evening of her final day, she finds a small plague, set in the sidewalk. “Here,” it reads, “lie the remains of over 40,000 unknown plague victims, buried in haste in a great pit.” The street, bright with new stores, is so thickly crowded with the unsettled dead that she can hardly move for their pleading hands. “I would help you, if I could,” she apologizes, no more powerful in death than she was in life.

Those Who Could Not Keep Faith

for Jen Dolan

Nuncio handed Hoopla a pruner’s knife, a long blade on a longer stick. “What’s this for then?” growled Hoopla, who was out of temper with the messenger’s humor, and weary with the clamor of crows and the weeping of the trees.

Nuncio grinned, all molars. “Go on, then, and take it, for it’s certain I can’t stand here forever holding it while you’re after arguing with me. Take it and dig into the flesh of one or another of these dolorous shrubs that darken a dark night. Lop a limb or two, if it’s energetic you’re feeling. A little honest toil might soothe that crabbed soldier’s soul you’re sporting.”

Hoopla swung with a will, and a shadowed branch came plunging out of the canopy to land at their feet, its end red as carnelion. “Damn you, and damn you further,” cried the tree, “what am I to you or you to me? An age and again an age has passed since my pennies bought me passage to this shore, and even here I am hounded and harassed! Has the world learned nothing? Is it not enough that these murderous birds dig and gouge for their supper? Must I be again the sport of fools?”

“Peace, brother tree,” urged Nuncio, “as it’s the shears that bring the growing.”

“Ravens take your eyes, Linnaeus; you know nothing of our horticulture! We grow no taller, bring forth no flowers, drop no seeds. Pass on, you fulminating–”

“What happened?” asked Hoopla, after a moment.

“It’s the blood, y’see,” Nuncio said. “While it runs wet and fresh, so do they.” He thumped the trunk with his stick and an aggrieved moan bruised forth. “As it dries, so do they. It’s a fine, fitting fate, for they made their best, wildest speeches in just such a way when they were nimbler creatures. Think on it, I pray; there’s meat there for the chewing.”

“Doubtless,” said Hoopla, and dropped the knife among the roots.

The Magicians of Albion

The magicians ride through Albion, careless on their bicycles, cigarettes dangling obstinately from their lips. They are thin with hunger, dark from the sun. Their fingers are stained yellow and black with tobacco and mercury.

They dress exceptionally poorly.

The streets are narrow in the atelier district, asphalt cracked and pitted. The city can’t be bothered. The magicians tell stories about the old monsters, how they filled with rain and the townies would build rafts and swim in them until someone drowned.

The magicians shout to each other while they ride, talk theory and gossip, who’s sleeping with whom, the books they’re reading, the way the world should be run. Taxation and social theory. At nights they stagger from bar to pub, getting louder and drunker and happier until someone vomits or gets arrested.

They pile into the lab, reeking and unbathed, all greasy faces and hairy armpits. They take their robes and notebooks from their lockers, and get to work.

Within an hour the world has burned away.

Becalmed

Two weeks north-northeast of the Agdistis islands and becalmed.

Time weighed heavily on Skiff, and sea travel. Hot the sun on his fur, uneasy his stomach. His legs ached from pacing the deck, from seaswell, from confinement. Nights he dreamed of running on the wide pampas of his youth, of clean crisp cold air and not this muggy stillness. Days he watched the horizon for windsign, weatherchange, or sported unhappily in the water.

Palinurus set the men to fishing, barnacle shaving, sail mending, and was content enough. Wind would come, and supplies and spirits were high. He studied his charts, his stars, his orreries and anemometers. Shu waters: he sharpened his blade and kept his powder dry.

Hoopla was patient with the patience of millenia. Whose eyes had spent a century contemplating the slow growth of forests would not be outlasted by a windless season. In the high nest Hoopla sat and smoked and looked ever east toward the lost city of heart’s desire.