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Igms issue 29, p.6

IGMS Issue 29, page 6

 

IGMS Issue 29
 


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  He strung out Didesda and Dalian's secret liaisons, showing Dalain slipping off behind tapestries into hidden passageways and riding away from the group while the King was off hunting. He didn't show them making love; to do so was crude and missed the point. Didesda wasn't a sex object to Dalian. He loved her innocently and purely. That way when she came to him desperately one night, clothes torn, and told him that the king had assaulted her honor, his anger was righteous.

  Of course the downfall of the kingdom was a climactic battle. He shaped the entire cloudwall into the Kingskeep, had dozens of arrows arching out from it, had Dalian leading the rebels as they used a battering ram to knock down the gate. Completely independent of what Case was doing, lightning flashed cloud to cloud during the battle.

  The younger ones in the crowd, the ones who hadn't heard the story before, cheered when Dalian confronted the king, bow raised. Here, Case used Jenivette's words again.

  "My guard you are,

  and friend.

  Would you then strike me down?"

  And Dalian answered silent,

  love and justice

  so dreadfully mixt in his heart.

  And with his bow,

  his mighty bow,

  did he pierce his liegelord's breast,

  not once but thrice.

  For thrice was his complaint,

  once for Didesda's honor,

  once for friendship broken,

  and once for the King's crown defiled.

  Lightning lanced out again. Let the other cloudsingers scoff at him for using stormclouds; you didn't get lightning with the white fluffies. He left Dalian standing over the king's corpse, and had Didesda come in and place the crown on his head. It couldn't have happened that way, obviously, but it was better for the story.

  He dissolved the scene with a swipe, and constructed a crowd cheering as King Dalian wed Didesda. When they retired to the royal rooms for their wedding night, Case brought out Didesda's snake hair in painstaking detail, having Dalian see it for the first time.

  "Come, my love,"

  saith she.

  "Embrace me as wife."

  And with great arms encircling,

  did she stab the heart

  so wrongly giv'n.

  "The King never put hand to me.

  and so shalt not you.

  The royal diadem is my lover.

  Its pleasures wilt I not share."

  And as Dalian dying lay,

  his soul was thrice shattered.

  Once by the knife.

  Once by the words.

  And once by the bow

  against the king drawn.

  Thus Dalian closed his eyes,

  by love most cruel undone.

  And with last breath,

  did silent stay,

  til death his soul had won.

  As Case's final words hung over the silent audience, he loosed his hold on some of the clouds overhead, letting them rain softly upon the hill. The crowd got up and dispersed slowly, several coming past him and bowing to Case in respect. He tried to maintain a serious demeanor, but he was energized by his performance. It could hardly have gone better. Yes, that line of soldiers had gotten blurred when he'd shot all those arrows over their heads during the storming of Kingskeep, but he bet hardly anyone noticed. The faces of the departing audience were solemn, thoughtful. They would take this story with them back to their reaping scythes and blacksmith's hammers. He could tell.

  As the small town went back to work, Case looked up at the clouds happily and let all his control fade away. Thunder ripped through the sky and the rain poured down a little harder. Not unpleasant though. Case always liked the rain.

  When he looked back down, an old man stood in front of him, teetering on a cane. His head was bald, but a thick grey beard was matted down across his chest with the rain.

  "Right in so many ways," the old man said, "but wrong in others."

  "Come again?" asked Case. The man was frail, but his face could have been full once. His sunken eyes might have looked cunning in a young man with more flesh on his face.

  "The hair of snakes. It was right. The pleading of the king." He shook his head, and scrubbed an arthritic hand across his face. He didn't look like he should be standing in the rain.

  "Let's talk about it inside," said Case.

  The man shook his head. "The rain suits me." He grabbed Case's bare arm then, and though Case tried to flinch away, the old man's grip was strong. "The ending," said the old man. "The ending's wrong. Underestimates her."

  Case took the old man's hand, trying to remove it from his arm, and brushed against rough callouses at the man's wrist. He remembered the verse about Dalian's left wrist, scarred and calloused from years of shooting a bow with no guard. Surely there were other ways to get such scars. Surely. "What happened, then?" Case asked.

  "Didesda was far too clever to be caught with a weapon in her hand." The rain was coming down harder now, and the man had to raise his voice. Water tumbled down his wrinkly face and dribbled over the tip of his long nose. "She took power bit by bit, while Dalian stood stupidly by. He was always just an archer, see, even when he had the crown.

  "When he finally noticed what she was doing, started asking questions about why his decrees never seemed to come to fruition, she took him down not with a knife, but with rumor. She used paints and powders to inflict herself with violent bruises, had the servants talk of pregnancies lost to the rage of a drunken husband, spun tales about him sleeping nightly at Harlot Row." The old man shook his head, flinging water droplets to the left and right. "There were riots in the street, calling for his head."

  Case found himself gripping the man's arm harder. He did a quick calculation in his head. If Dalian were alive, he'd be roughly eighty six years old, eighty-six and the only person around that cared that the story was told wrong. "So he ran away?" Case said. "Came out to a village in the middle of nowhere? Grew old?" The man looked up into Case's eyes and nodded very deliberately. "But first, he talked to a young Cloudsinger named Jenivette." A smile crept across his age-lined face. "Even when she was just starting out, she had a way with words. A little like you. The force of public opinion . . . changed slightly."

  Case barked a laugh. He'd studied his history. The civil war following Didesda's short reign was the reason the realm had been split in three. Had Jenivette really started that? Jenivette and this old man standing before him? "Why didn't he go back once Didesda was dethroned?"

  The old man looked up at the sky, rain splashing directly down onto his face. "Because, my boy, he was a far better man up in the clouds than he ever was on the ground." He brushed Case's hand away from his arm and turned to leave.

  "Wait!" Case called. "I have questions. Let me talk to you inside." The old man kept walking, so Case came up alongside him. "Please, Dalian."

  The old man put his hand on Case's shoulder. Case thought he was about to say something, but instead the man pushed him away so hard that Case slipped and fell backwards to the ground. "Dalian's dead, boy. You said it yourself."

  Case sat in the mud and watched the old man trudge away, watched him disappear behind curtains of rain. But as he did so, history reshaped itself in his mind, like clouds coalescing to form a shape. He smiled at what he saw.

  "He won't be dead for long," Case promised the rain.

  He got up and went back to his room at the Inn. He had some revisions to do.

  For Lenore

  by Kenneth Kao

  Artwork by Nick Greenwood

  * * *

  People always ask me why I do it. They wonder how a man can stand in front of a rift-bomb and calmly defuse it, knowing that at any moment it might suck me into oblivion.

  I never answer them, or answer the question myself, but today is different because floating in front of me is the rift-bomb that will kill me. I recognize it. It was meant for me, designed for me. I am its trigger.

  I should turn around and let someone else deal with it.
But I don't.

  No one is sure who sends the bombs or why. Are they sent to our reality by terrorists? By bored alien children looking for amusement? No one knows. But they began appearing a decade ago, popping up as tiny balls of antimatter in technological shells, waiting for the right trigger. We thought we could contain them within our shield zones, little areas where nothing could come in contact with the floating devices and absorb the antimatter should it explode, but there are too many bombs now. We can't keep up.

  And if the right trigger comes in contact with the right rift-bomb, without a shield zone --

  Kaboom. No more world. Our reality is gone.

  That's what our scientists believe, at least.

  These days, defusing the rift-bombs only seems to serve to make room for the newer, more advanced rift-bombs that continue to clamber into our reality.

  So I tap in the code on the keypad, the clear, vault-thick door slides open and I step in. I put all my tools down because they won't do me any good right now. This bomb is the most advanced bomb I've ever seen. It doesn't even seem to have a shell, though physics say it has to; it looks like a floating ball of spinning black matter.

  The reason I can do this job is not because I'm brave. Or talented, or smart. I do this because I am afraid.

  I stare at the spinning black hole. It seems to call at me. Not like music, but something deeper, an emotional yearning, or a sense of unity.

  I fear my wife, Lenore, will leave me.

  It's not that we don't have a "loving" relationship, but I am afraid she'll realize that I'm incapable of filling the void inside her -- her own internal rift-bomb.

  Hers is a pure love. A simple love. She loves me because I seem to love her. She sees how much effort and care I put into the flowers I bring her before each mission. She believes the little notes I leave on her bedpost. The romantic dinners and the scented baths. She thinks our relationship is the perfect relationship. But I only do these things because each and every waking moment, I worry that some other man will meet her and be the man that will love her better than I can. I'm not romantic because I love, I'm romantic because I have to be.

  I might die today, as I think I will, staring at this device from another dimension, sent by a terrorist or alien child I will never meet. Never know. Never understand.

  He will make me a hero. I will die a heroic death. And my wife --

  Wife to a hero.

  He will save me because then it wouldn't be my fault when Lenore finds someone else. It won't be because I failed her, or because there was someone better for her.

  That's why my hand doesn't shake as I reach out to touch this rift-bomb with no box, structure, or container. Merely a black, empty space, floating in front of my eyes. It shouldn't be able to exist without sucking the entire universe into it. How is it held together?

  Something is, something has to be. But I can't defuse what I cannot detect.

  So I will touch it to find out how it's being stored. You aren't supposed to touch rift-bombs without knowing how their shell works and how to disarm them, especially with the way this one makes me feel. But it insists that I touch it, protocol be damned. It tells me that if I do touch it, the world will believe I'm not a coward, my wife was a devoted wife, our relationship was bliss.

  So I touch it. As my matter touches the rift-bomb, I realize it is not a bomb at all . . .

  . . . it is my own construct. It is a gateway for me to come through and switch realities and switch bodies.

  And it worked.

  This is what all of the rift-gateways are. Unsatisfied people with nothing to lose by leaving their own reality, hoping their twins in another dimension might feel the same and offer to switch places with them. Fishing, we call it.

  I stare at the fingers of the hands that once belonged to my other self. The rift-gateway is gone, the transfer between us immediate and undetectable.

  I realize that in this reality, Lenore might still be with me. Maybe she didn't commit suicide when I had an affair.

  I leave the shield zone and tell my boss I'm quitting, then rush home, filled with hope.

  I find her. She's alive. She loves me, and she has these flowers I never bought her.

  When I see her, I tell her how much I've missed her and how I'll never leave her again. And when she replies, telling me I've only been gone a few hours, I begin to cry.

  Dark and Deep

  by Holli Mintzer

  Artwork by Anna Repp

  * * *

  The wind slaps at me as soon as I open the door. It's bitter cold in the predawn grayness, especially after the warmth of the cabin, but Mama's been out hunting and she always leaves the meat outside the door. It keeps best in the cold.

  It's a deer this time, or most of one, what's left after Mama takes her share. She's skinned it neatly for us, jointed and cleaned it and bled it off, and it steams a little in the dry cold air. I heave a haunch of venison onto my shoulder, turn, and duck back through the door into the firelight.

  J.R.'s still sleeping, just a lump of quilts unmoving in the big bed. She needs the sleep.

  Mama would have said, once, that J.R.'s growing and needs the rest for her bones to stretch. My bones are all done stretching, so I wake up early.

  Some of the venison goes into the stewpot; some gets cut into strips, to dry on the rack in front of the fire. The rest will go into the cold cellar, to keep until spring.

  By the time I'm done with the venison, J.R. is stirring. Once she's up and dressed, teeth cleaned and hair braided, I send her out to check the curse nets. She grumbles, though it's been her job every morning for going on three years now. I promise her hot porridge by the time she's done, and that gets her moving.

  The porridge doesn't take long, and I find myself with a moment to steal before J.R. comes back. I pull a book off Mama's shelf, and sit down to read.

  The book falls open to my favorite poem, the way it always does. I smooth a hand over the faded page, my eyes trailing over the words. Before I get very far, though, the door swings open and J.R. tromps back in, trailing snow over the floor. And then the day is started, and there's too much to do, and I have no time for poetry.

  There's wood to chop and food to cook and venison to carry to the cold cellar; there's J.R.'s lessons and my own; and there's laundry and sewing and darning and spinning. There's spells to make up, of course, and a new curse net to weave. Installing it in the high bare branches of the oak outside the house takes up precious hours.

  It's a long day, and we don't see Mama at all. By the time the light is fading I'm bone tired, and J.R. is yawning. The two of us change into our nightdresses, brush out our hair, and climb under the heap of old quilts that Mama made for us, once upon a time. I'm half-asleep before I hear the heavy tread on the porch, and the knock-knock-knock at the door.

  Mama doesn't come in, of course, but the knock is enough. She's all right. Reassured, I fall asleep between one breath and the next.

  The next day goes similar, and the next. It's the deepest part of winter, and J.R.'s and my world narrows to the cabin and the few yards clear of snow around it. Sometimes we bicker, the way sisters do, but this is our third winter on our own, and we're pretty well used to it. After a particularly nasty fight, one that leaves J.R. in tears, I use some of our precious store of bought flour to bake her a little cake, filling it with jam we put up last summer. She takes it for the peace offering it is, and I don't turn her down when she offers me a bite.

  Things change when the man comes from town to buy a spell. He comes by snowshoe, tossing up a cloud of powder with each careful step. When he hammers at the door, I am in the midst of washing dishes and the sound makes me startle and drop the heavy ceramic mixing bowl into the stone sink. Thankfully, it doesn't break.

  The man is fair-haired and bearded, his cheeks and nose pink with cold, and he carefully stamps his boots clean of snow before he comes into the house. This endears him to me, just a little - so few people take the right kind of care
when they come to a witch's house. Ordinary politeness is all that's called for, really, but we don't often get it.

  He looks around the cabin while he pulls off his heavy coat and muffler, his hat and rabbit-skin mittens, and I can see that his pale eyes are sharp, missing nothing. They linger on J.R. for just a moment, but jerk back to me when I clear my throat at him.

  "Sorry," he says, a little abashed. "Never been out here before. I'm here to see the witch-woman."

  "Well, here we are," I say, just a little tartly. "What do you need?" Folks aren't expecting two girls well shy of twenty when they come here, that's fair enough, but there's no need to assume we don't know what we're doing.

  He takes the rebuke for what it is and acts mannerly again. "It's my wife," he says. "She's in a delicate way, and I want to be sure the birth is easy. We weren't expecting this one - thought we were too old for another - and the last one near killed her. I don't want my children motherless."

  I nod, because this of all things is a commendable reason to go to a witch-woman. "I've got some herbs that will ease the labor," I say, "and I can weave you a curse net to hang from the bedstead. Have you got a midwife who knows her trade?"

  "She lives in town," he says, and names a village two days' walk from here. He must love his wife, I think. "Don't know if she'll make it out to the homestead in time, come the day."

  "I'll teach you what I can," I say. "We've got some books and I've attended a few difficult births." I don't mention that I was twelve last time I did it, not even J.R.'s age, and only watching over Mama' shoulder. "Now, we ought to talk payment."

  He nods. "I've got a little cash, and eight yards of calico, and I brought a few jars of honey from our bees. That sound fair to you?"

 
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