Lightspeed: Edited by John Joseph Adams




La Alma Perdida de Marguerite Espinoza

La Alma Perdida de Marguerite Espinoza by Jeremiah Tolbert, Illustrated by Galen Dara

Marguerite Espinoza took her last breath as the sun slipped behind the Salt Mountains outside the expansive windows of her third floor bedchamber. Alvardo nearly missed the moment, eavesdropping to the gathered family’s whispered conversations. He had falsely predicted her passing four times in the past three days, but the passing was unmistakable. As Maestro Eusebio had said many times, “When the moment comes, you will know.” And he did.

The color from her eyes drained, leaving only pale white marbles that matched Alvardo’s own. Before the vessel could expel its final breath, Alvardo covered her lips with his own and inhaled sharply and deeply. There was no emotion in the act. It was a fact of his training, something that he must do.

The aching emptiness within his vessel filled with the sloshing of the elderly woman’s soul. The alma struggled against the barrier of his lips, then changed tactic and coursed to the back of his throat. Alvardo shakily retrieved the filter plugs from the pocket of his robes and lodged one firmly in each nostril. This is fear, he understood. The emotion had been described to him by the maestro.

But he also remembered this emotion, dimly, from a time that had been locked away deeply in some part of him. With the alma filling the crevasses within, memories awakened from his life before becoming the soulless custodio.

Fear was what he had felt scraping at his insides when he was just a boy and Maestro Eusebio had come to measure and examine him. To take him away from his parents, to separate him from his natural-born soul, then sell it off to some needy merchant family. Oh, yes. He remembered fear.

To be absolutely certain of the soul’s safety, to allay his new fear, he slipped the oil-soaked cloth mask from around his neck and over his mouth. He needed this job to go well, and he would not take risks. Feeling the soul struggle and send out waves of feeling, he knew that he never wanted to be empty again. He could not truly avoid it, of course, but if he was successful here, it would be a small step towards earning the money to buy back his own soul.

Only when he had secured his breathing orifices did Alvardo allow himself to take a small, hesitant breath through the filters. As he did, so too did the gathered sons and daughters of Espinoza finally take breaths of their own.

Seven days he had spent among them as an empty vessel. Alvardo’s knowledge of them had been limited to the facts. The Espinozas were a very wealthy family, merchants with dozens of ships sailing the Blanco, trading maize and silver for silk and spice. All four of the children were besouled with human alma, a sure sign of the elder Espinoza’s success in business, not that Alvardo had ever doubted. Hiring his services from Maestro Eusebio proved this.

Alvardo watched his reflection in a washbasin on a stand beside the deathbed as the alma settled for the moment and took up its temporary residence within. His eyes took on the old widow’s color, brilliant azure, the color of a young soul not many times embodied, still mostly free of sin. Perhaps not as free—no, certainly not as free—of sin as it had been when the old woman had become besouled after birth. Alvardo struggled to remember what color his own eyes had been before apprenticeship, but could not. They too must have been blue, but it seemed to Alvardo that the world had been born and died many times over since then.

He whispered the customary curse to El Dios Tacaño, completing the ceremony. The words of denial affected him much more deeply than before—their poetry stirring emotions from the alma. He raised his newly colored eyes to the family, allowing the emotions the soul felt for each to wash over him like the white-capped waves on the river after a summer storm.

Roberto evoked disappointment. The eldest son had spent his days carousing and gambling away his allowance with the bestial-souled boatmen at the riverfront. Squandered potential, such a shame, but at least he was not the only son.

The twins Imelda and Marianela, previously indistinguishable to Alvardo, were impossible to confuse under the soft guidance of alma. Marguerite had loved Marianela more. Alvardo wondered at this, then wondered at his own surprise. His own parents had not loved their children equally, after all. The alma loved both, but there was no doubting that the expectant daughter was favored.

Marianela’s husband, a trader from the south that Alvardo only knew as Vasco, patted the swelling of her belly and smiled. For him, the alma’s feelings were mixed. The wedding perhaps had been hasty, due to Marianela’s condition. Alvardo did not know the details, as such things were not carried in the alma. Still, it was of little surprise to Alvardo that the matron had bequeathed her alma to the couple. Imelda was unmarried, as were her brothers. The inheritance that the others would receive would no doubt allow for the purchase of true alma for their children when they did marry. Best to pass her alma to the next generation quickly, rather than waste coins storing it with a custodio like Alvardo for years instead of months. The old woman was very shrewd with money. In that regard, her youngest son was most alike.

Alvardo regarded Tonio last. Such immense pride, but some scorn as well. Alvardo knew only a little about the man that did not come from the alma. He was not much older than Alvardo, but had studied in the province’s capital at a very prestigious school for the sons of merchants and traders. In the days leading to her death, before the son’s arrival, Alvardo had listened to the family matron speak of the hopes she had pinned to her youngest and dearest. He was to run the family’s affairs now that the widow had passed. After his arrival, his first action had been to lock himself in the study and go through the accounts. This was the source of the alma’s scorn, Alvardo suspected. Or perhaps it was because of them all, he was the only one who did not have tears in his eyes. He wasn’t sure.

As an empty vessel, he had observed the family, but he had not understood their motivations, their feelings. He’d had no means of comprehending them without an alma. Now, with the borrowed soul of Marguerite, those memories too opened like lily blossoms to deeper truths.

“Please, custodio, take the greatest care until our baby arrives,” Marianela said softly, startling Alvardo back to the present. It was not like him to lose himself in memory that way. It must be the fault of the precious alma. He chastised himself, ordering his mind to focus and ignore the distractions of the whispering, struggling alma. It offered him things—money, power, glory—all if he would free it to the final destination.

You can offer me nothing, for you are dead and will pass on to your next life soon.

Oh, but I do have things I can offer you, memories I retain from my former life. Things of value to you and your deepest desires, echoed the alma. Alvardo did his best to ignore it.

“Six of my best will escort you to the maestro’s tower,” Tonio said. Already, he did not say “our,” but “my.” She had passed only moments before and he had already taken control of the family. Alvardo wished that he could risk a sigh, a small one, but his breathing was carefully controlled. Any force and his filters and mask might not prevent the alma’s departure to the miserly God. Instead, he nodded and motioned towards the door. To remain in the familiarity of the alma’s former home would only incite it further. Its escape attempts would be endless and exhausting. The bland surroundings of the meditation chambers of Eusebio’s tower would provoke it less.

The family stepped aside to allow his departure. Outside the bedchamber, Alvardo was immediately flanked by two slender dog-souled men wearing doublets and axes at their belts. Their soft brown eyes avoided meeting his gaze. The men’s almas perceived Alvardo as dominant, as was the natural order of things. Alvardo accepted their presence with a nod as he made his way into the streets. Outside, they were joined by the three others, similarly armed. They too had the bestial souls of dogs. No one with a true alma would stoop to bodyguard work.

An unnaturally tall woman with the red, slit eyes of a reptile leaned against the gate. She displayed the casualness of someone in a position of authority—the guard captain, Alvardo assumed. She carried a tightly wound pistol openly in each hand. With her in the lead, the citizens would clear the way quickly.

The Espinoza family manse towered over the narrow, winding passages of the Ruby Quarter, casting a deep shadow over Alvardo and the guards. The city’s founding families had built their homes from imported marble and granite, unlike the limestone of the poorer neighborhoods where Alvardo had been born. At least in the poorer, newer districts, the streets were wide enough to allow the passage of springcarts. One would have allowed for a much safer return to Eusbio’s tower atop the hill overlooking the bend in the River Santhe. A much less exhausting climb as well. Perhaps they could hail a cab when they reached the Camino Grandioso? That should be safe. At least, Alvardo hoped so.

Tonio had not demonstrated paranoia by assigning so many of his men to escort Alvardo. Even in the Ruby Quarter, Alvardo knew that custodios de alma were at risk of capture. Not more than three weeks ago, the student of a rival maestro had been taken in a fierce and bloody battle. A young, proper alma could be traded for a dozen ships to the desperate noble family with a child on the way and no available inheritable alma. At the very least, the soul and its guardian could be ransomed back to the family for a nearly equal sum. In the recent incident, Alvardo had heard that the family paid the ransom and the soul was returned, but the soul-thieves responsible had not been caught.

Even more cause for caution, the widow Espinoza’s prolonged illness was well known in Barcelenia. Alvardo reached within the folds of his robe and assuring himself that his dagger remained fastened to his belt. He was trained in its use for defense, but with the alma inside of him, he was not certain he could kill with it.

Alvardo fretted as he made his way down winding gravel streets. The guards pressed in close, sniffing the air. Each blind corner was met with a rising flutter of fear within his chest. The soul struggled to escape. Three times, Alvardo was forced to stop and gather himself. The guards whined then, giving him pleading eyes until he took up walking again.

It was not until he began to relax at the sight of the Camino Grandioso not far ahead—the most broad and well-trafficked avenue of Barcelenia—that the bandits struck. Tightly-wound spring pistols fired, the metal coils cracking like the sound of a turtle’s jaws narrowly missing its prey.

Alvardo’s guards barked and howled. Two men forced him to lay prone on the street. Gravel bit sharply into Alvardo’s hands. Unable to see the struggle, Alvardo could only hear the fight. Thrown axes whistled through the air. More pistols fired, the sounds seeming to come from all directions at once. The body of a guard slumped atop him, painfully driving the gravel even more deeply into his flesh.

The heavy, wet-fur odor of the bestial almas was strong enough to surpass his nasal filters. Alvardo had never witnessed the dissipation of a bestial soul before. They did not escape toward the heavens and the miserly God, but instead diffused into component odors. It made the lives of the poor seem that much more pointless to him. I will never be the vessel to such a weak, intransient thing, he thought.

The battle was over so quickly that Alvardo had only just convinced himself of its reality when rough hands dragged him to his feet. Ahead, a large springcart slowed to a stop at the alley exit, casting a dark and ominous shadow. The red-eyed woman had drawn a thin dagger and was occupied with slitting the throats of guards whose alma still clung to flesh. A traitor, then. Alvardo made to flee the way they had come, but his escape was blocked by the two ox-souled figures that had lifted him from the ground.

Their once-human frames twisted with grotesquely overgrown muscles. One’s head drooped under the weight of heavy horns that sprouted from his temples. These men had received their bestial almas far too late in life for their vessels to resist the bestial taint. Their lives were mostly miserable ones, and despite their line of work, Alvardo felt a pang of sympathy for their hard existences. They did not appear to feel any sense of kinship for him. They motioned for him to continue to the cart while slotting new-wound springs into their pistols. Even as an empty vessel, Alvardo would have understood their unspoken threat.

His legs shook as he stepped into the waiting springcart. His sandal soles stained blue and magenta with the draining humors of the guardsmen as they oozed into broad puddles among the bits of gravel. The alma within Alvardo writhed like the alma of a snake at the sight of the bodily essences. He quietly recited a poem of becalming written by Carlos the Younger.

The cart’s gears spun up to a cranking frenzy. It lurched forward, swerving madly into the busy traffic. A whip-thin boy holding a rapier in one hand pulled the cart door shut with the other, all without taking his bestial besouled eyes off Alvardo.

The bandits had blackened the viewports of the springcart with soot and grime, and so Alvardo could just barely make out the restless figure of the boy across from him. The blade glinted even in the low light, and was impossible to ignore, pointed at the nexus of his four humors as it was.

You should have listened to me before, whispered the alma. Now you will be murdered and I will escape, leaving you with nothing as your empty vessel takes its last breath.

It was unlikely the boy would actually murder Alvardo. Even the slightest puncture or prick could risk the escape of the alma. Alvardo’s training had prepared him for the possibility of capture, but it did nothing to calm him.

Eusebio had lectured most sternly: “If you should be captured while bearing a patron’s alma, you must be as docile as the deer and as complacent as the well-fed sow. The alma may provoke you to act foolishly, but you must guard against such emotion. It is the alma’s nature to desire a return to El Dios Tacaño. You cannot trust it.”

Alvardo’s memories of the lecture were punctuated by his master’s yellow eyes, a sign of the owl’s alma he favored when not bearing almas for the elites of the city. His master had long ago earned enough money to purchase a human alma, but Eusebio’s dedication to his role of guardian was most admirable. Alvardo suspected that even should the maestro fall ill, Eusebio would not purchase a true alma to ensure against the oblivion of a soulless death. He might get well again, and where would that leave his business?

“How’s it feel to have the old crone fluttering around in there?” the boy asked with a curious tone. A beam of light illuminated the compartment briefly, allowing Alvardo to make out the boy’s dark, rodent-like eyes.

“Uncomfortable,” Alvardo whispered.

The boy nodded, satisfied with the answer. “You won’t have to bear it much longer.”

Alvardo flooded with relief from the alma, but he was unsure of the meaning of the boy’s words or whether he could trust the relief. He chose to believe it meant that arrangements would move quickly for his release. It was easier to accept than the alternative.

“What’s your name?” the boy asked. Alvardo hesitated. “I am Victor Cresketio.”

“Alvardo de Silva,” he whispered. “I cannot say that it is an honor to meet you.”

Victor laughed, and sheathed his rapier, an awkward move in the confines of the springcart. “Is that your sense of humor, or the old crone’s?”

Alvardo shrugged. The bandit’s easy friendliness was as false as Horatio the Fishmonger’s wooden leg. Alvardo would not let it draw him into complacency. The alma urged him to draw his dagger and cut his way free from the cart, but this too he resisted. Eusebio could call him many terrible things—lazy, stubborn, ugly—but “fool” was not among them.

They rode the rest of their mysterious journey in silence. Victor fidgeted often, occasionally reaching within a small satchel and withdrawing bits of dried apple upon which he gnawed furiously. He offered a piece to Alvardo with a laugh, then ate it without waiting for Alvardo to turn it away. To eat now would be of the utmost foolishness, of course.

In the silence, the alma tempted him once more. You desire to buy back your own soul, do you not? I-as-Marguerite hid away treasures that could buy you this and more in preparation for the next life. If you agree to free me, I will share their location with you, and you may take them. I do not need them where I go next.

Hush, thought Alvardo. We’re arriving.

When the springcart clanked to a halt, Victor hopped from his bench and burst out of the cart into the open air. The sudden brilliant sunlight blinded Alvardo momentarily. When his vision cleared, he saw a barrier of thick trees stretching across the horizon. Ah-ha. So the bandits would take refuge within the Caspar Forest. Much safer for them than trying to hide within the city, where Capitan Vega’s informers might turn them in.

A bass voice from the driver’s seat at the front of the cart scolded Victor. A man leaned around the corner to glare at Alvardo. He wore a neatly trimmed black beard, and his hair was styled in a fashion Alvardo recognized as being popular in the provincial capital. His eyes were most definitely human, to Alvardo’s great surprise.

“Damn you, Victor, you were supposed to blindfold him,” he spat and climbed from the driving seat.

“I’m sorry, Ricardo, I forgot,” Victor said, shrinking back from the larger man’s raised fist. “I will do it now.”

“Don’t bother. He has already seen my face.” He said this with a tone of finality that chilled Alvardo to his core, but filled the alma with glee. Ricardo turned his attention to Alvardo. “You may live yet, custodio. When this is done, I will be very far away, so knowing my face will do you little good. Now, get out. Don’t dally; you are already a parchment’s thickness away from a very unhappy fate.”

Alvardo slid from the cart and found that again his legs shook and wobbled. He had felt something like fear from Eusebio when he was an empty vessel, but it was nothing like the fear he felt while bearing an alma. That had been the simple fear that a vessel has, the meat’s desire for survival and little more. It was a lesser thing, like hunger or thirst or the need for sleep. Even as the fear washed over him, he guiltily reveled in it. It was something true and meaningful.

He had on several occasions temporarily carried bestial alma as part of his training, but this was his first human since his own trueborn alma. New souls were the rarest things in the world. El Dios Tacaño made few new almas in his abandonment of mankind, but the custodios stood between God and the continued existence of the human soul. But only the trueborn could become a custodio, having been born knowing the bonds of the human alma.

Those few new trueborn souls arrived ignoring all barriers of class. Eusebio had confessed to Alvardo while drunk on cherry wine late one winter’s evening that Alvardo’s parents had at first wished to keep and raise him. But life in the shantytowns of the capital was difficult, and Alvardo’s alma could fetch far too much to the maestro custodios. His parents had auctioned him and his alma at the soul market. They had fled with the proceeds of the sale across the Blanco to a better life. No doubt they had given birth to another son, perhaps purchased him an antique alma, and forgotten about Alvardo entirely, a dark secret from their past that could never reach them.

“Money will always win in the end, boy,” Eusebio had said, with what Alvardo now realized was sadness. “The only force more powerful than greed is revenge, but you need not concern yourself with that. Greed will be the force in your life when you bear a soul and when you do not.”

Greed was indeed responsible for his current predicament. As Ricardo and Victor gathered packs of supplies from the rear of the cart in preparation to depart into the forest, another springcart arrived. The ox-men sat on either side of the snake-souled woman. She moved languidly as she stepped down from the cart and casually flipped a long red braid over her shoulder as she stepped into Ricardo’s embrace. They kissed for a long moment before standing apart. Alvardo’s heart beat faster than it had during his capture. He pushed the strange sensation away. Why had none of the bandits ridden within the compartment of the springcart?

“Carmella, my beauty. Were you followed?”

She smiled. Her teeth were sharp like needles. When she spoke, her words were soft and full of breath. “Espinoza’s men are combing the riverfront. The false trail leads to the warehouse as intended.”

“Very good. You deserve a reward later,” Ricardo said with a lick of his lips. Carmella blushed. Alvardo wondered how such a relationship could be. After all, bestial souls were vastly inferior, as ordained by God. May he rot in Heaven, Alvardo added to the thought hastily.

The lovers drew close and held counsel in whispers that Alvardo dared not attempt to overhear. They are distracted, a faint echo of the old woman’s voice spoke within Alvardo. Flee!

The compulsion from the alma overwhelmed his flesh with fear. He leapt away, across the road and over an irrigation ditch into the rows of late summer maize. He ducked just as one of the ox-men fired his spring pistol, scattering maize in all directions when the shot missed its mark.

“Don’t shoot, imbécil!” someone shouted from the road. “Get the nets.”

Alvardo ran, ducking and weaving between the rows. He already regretted his escape attempt, but the bandits would most likely punish him even if he were to return. Perhaps if he could escape, the Espinozas might offer him some small reward, a fraction of the cost of a ransom?

Alvardo glanced over his shoulder. The ox-men waded into the maize. Each carried a thick-woven net weighted with lead shot along the edges. He was sure that he was further than even the ox-men could throw until one hurled the net through the air. To avoid it, Alvardo tripped over a clod of dirt and tumbled. The net missed him only narrowly.

He felt a sharp, stinging pain in his side and his strength quickly sapped as the pain grew worse. He struggled upright and raised his hand from his side. His fingers were slick with green humor.

The dagger. In the fall it had sliced him deeply. That he would be laid to rest by his own weapon was a delicious irony to the alma. It began to writhe again, seeking to flee through the puncture. Alvardo clamped his hand over the wound, hoping that he could remain conscious long enough for the ox-men to capture him. He had no medical supplies with which to bandage himself.

A net cast over him then, forcing his hand from the wound. The alma squeezed between the folds of flesh, but Alvardo took a sharp breath, drawing it back in long enough to clamp his hand down again. He was dimly aware of being lifted up.

“This one is not responsible for the wound,” the ox-man grumbled. His voice once again brought the world into focus.

“He fell on his own blade,” Victor said with a laugh.

A fleshy slap echoed across the plains, followed by Victor’s sharp cry.

“If you had done your job from the beginning, he would not have had the weapon. We should’ve never hired a rat for men’s work,” Ricardo said.

Alvardo focused enough to recognize that he lay prone on the road. The bandits were gathered above him and encircled a familiar face. Tonio?

The alma radiated betrayal, hurt, and confusion. Marguerite’s youngest son worked quickly at Alvardo’s injury, his studied hands coating the bandage with thickening plasters and sealant wax.

Tonio looked him evenly in the eyes, searching for signs of blanching, then nodded. “You will hold.” He addressed Ricardo over his shoulder. “True men are a rare commodity these days. And men who can do a simple job without nearly ruining it are even more uncommon.” Ricardo’s silence was sullen.

“Betrayer,” Alvardo hissed. “Thief. You would steal from your own family?”

Tonio helped Alvardo up from the ground, checking his work by poking and prodding the wound. Alvardo winced, but the patch was well-made.

He addressed the bandits. “Give us a moment. I wish to speak of private matters.” The ox-men turned away immediately. Ricardo and Carmella were hesitant, but they obeyed after meeting Tonio’s gaze. Ricardo grabbed Victor by the hair and dragged him along. The boy screeched and flailed, but the bandit leader ignored his cries.

“It is . . . a business decision,” Tonio said once they were alone. His tone was apologetic. “Feelings and sentiment were not part of the equation leading to my decision.” Alvardo did not know if Tonio was speaking to him or the alma. The alma had ceased its struggling entirely. Alvardo felt cold.

“When you sickened, my siblings,”—Tonio hissed the word with as much disrespect as one might hold for the miserly God—“plundered the coffers with abandon. You were so angry with me for tending to the ledgers when I arrived instead of waiting at your side, but the ledgers proved what I had feared. Our accounts possessed barely enough to maintain the staff. We are nearly insolvent, madre. Another month, and then everyone in the city will know. Then the vultures will truly circle.”

Tonio sighed and massaged his temples. When he spoke again, his tone was sharp. “Your worst nightmare. Your life’s work, wasted. The ships moored, unable to be crewed. Our warehouses empty and collecting dust. I made this plan in haste, not knowing how much longer you would have. I have made so many sacrifices for this family . . .” His face softened for a moment as he was lost in thought, but hardened quickly once more. “Your alma will earn the family enough to continue our business. But do not fret. I have acquired a seventeenth generation soul for a very affordable price. Anyway, your grandchild is destined to be rotten, no matter which alma it receives. A young soul would not have done much to change that.”

“You hate me?” asked the alma through Alvardo.

Tonio’s hands formed fists, his knuckles turning white from lack of anything to strike. “You demanded that I be the responsible one. I was never allowed to play or relax. Figures and charts for me while my brother and sisters had such fun gambling, drinking, and dancing late into the evenings. The burden could have been shared.” He laughed bitterly. “But you carried it yourself, after father died. So I must shoulder it alone? But even now, I do the responsible thing while the others pretend to mourn and wait to collect their inheritances.”

A moment passed in silence. Alvardo searched Tonio’s eyes and found a loathing that even an empty vessel might recognize.

“Your alma will pass on to a child of a nuevo rico. It is the only way I can wrong you now, as you have wronged me all my life.”

Words boiled up from within Alvardo—dusty, weathered sounds. So weary. “I am ashamed that both my sons have turned out to be such failures—” It trailed off.

You must let me go, the alma whispered within. Tonio slapped Alvardo across the face with an open palm. He shouted something that Alvardo could not understand over the ringing of his ears.

But you will pass unto Him who has abandoned his creation! You would make me a failure as well?

The alma was silent. It radiated its anger without words. Anger with Alvardo, with Tonio, and especially with God.

Alvardo understood the anger at betrayal for one’s family. This too he remembered from his early life in the time before the maestro had severed his alma and sold it away to a noble family. In that moment, both vessel and alma wanted revenge for everything. Alvardo was surprised at how easy it was to let go of the fear, and how quickly anger replaced it.

Yes, the alma whispered. You understand now. Memories poured into Alvardo’s mind from the alma, showing him the solution to his own desires. He cast his decision then, certain of their path.

“Perhaps I will have taught you one final lesson of value,” Alvardo and the alma said as one.

Alvardo tore his mask away, plucked out the filters and let them fall to the earth. He tipped back his head, opened his mouth, and exhaled the alma back to God.


Alvardo was hollow again. This was a fact he knew. A man stood before him. He knew this man. He knew the facts of the man’s existence. Those were easily recalled. But he did not know why the man wept, nor why hot tears rolled down his own cheeks.

The man shouted things, shoved Alvardo to the ground and pummeled him with fists. Alvardo did not listen, could barely feel the blows. The shock of what he had done had settled over him like a smothering blanket.

The man stormed away, shouting more unintelligible words to the bandits before taking his springcart and departing as fast as the gears could spin. The bandits gathered into the other cart and departed soon after. The failed bandit Victor gave him a hidden wave from the wagon bed.

Alvardo examined the city behind him. Even from this great distance, he could just make out the rooftop of the Espinoza estate.

Before departing to God, the alma had shared with him secrets from Marguerite’s life. She had been afraid for the future as illness and death crowded closer. Marguerite had not been an ignorant woman, and she had known her children for what they were.

Under the cover of night while her children had slept, she had gathered up her most valuable jewels and placed them in a box. She’d felt her way down the grand staircase in the darkness and into the small garden outside. Under the light of the moons, she had emptied out a planter, scooping the rich black soil with her arthritic hands. She placed the box inside the hole and covered it, then stared at the scene, committing the memory to her very soul.

Remember this, she had told herself. Hold onto this until you are a child once more, and recover it. My children do not deserve these possessions. I will take them with me.

Would it have worked? The memories of one life faded over the years of a new one. Perhaps the jewels would have gone undiscovered for many years, forgotten by the grandchild with her grandmother’s soul. Alvardo did not know, and it no longer mattered.

He waited for the cover of darkness, and then he went to collect the bribe that the alma had offered.

No guards were posted outside the estate. Those that had survived the ambush were no doubt searching the city for Alvardo. He slipped through the gate and uncovered the jewels quickly, then darted back out and down the streets for the edge of the city.

To the south lay the provincial capital and his birthplace. Perhaps his trueborn soul lived there still. There was work to be had for a disgraced custodio in the shadowy alleys and backstreets of the capital while he searched. Useful connections to be made with people who knew how to find lost and stolen things. He did not feel hope—only emotionless possibilities.

Alvardo walked southward, quickening his pace to a jog despite the ache of his wounds.

© 2012 Jeremiah Tolbert.

Enjoyed this story? Consider supporting us via one of the following methods:

Jeremiah Tolbert

Jeremiah Tolbert has published fiction in Lightspeed, Fantasy Magazine, Interzone, Asimov’s, Analog, The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, and Shimmer, as well as in the anthologies The Way of the Wizard, The Mad Scientist’s Guide to World Domination, Seeds of Change, Federations, Polyphony 4, and Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy. He’s also been featured several times on the Escape Pod and PodCastle podcasts, and his story “The West Topeka Triangle” was nominated for the Shirley Jackson Award. In addition to being a writer, he is a web designer, photographer, and graphic artist. He lives in Kansas, with his wife and son.