Science Fiction & Fantasy

Null States

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Fiction

A Meaningful Exchange

Quentin told lies to people for money.

Or drugs. Or kittens. Or anything, really. The particular currency didn’t matter, so long as what was being offered had value to the person who needed the lie.

Lying was Quentin’s one great talent. He enjoyed the activity, and would have told lies for free. He often did, in nonprofessional circumstances—lying was his favorite means of communication. Most people, he found, didn’t want the truth anyway. They wanted the edges smoothed off, the white, polite fictions.

However, in professional circumstances, no matter how happy it would have made Quentin to commit a dishonest act of charity, he insisted on payment. It was the payment that guaranteed the lie would be believed when someone other than Quentin told it.

Someone other than Quentin being able to successfully tell the lie was the key. Everyone needs a lie at some point, a lie that only they can tell. “No dear, I was home alone all night,” for example.

Quentin had tried to give the lies away to his clients in the early days. This had not been a successful endeavor. He would tell them how to speak, how to angle their bodies, control their breath, the widening of their pupils, everything they needed to know, but they would fail, stuttering and spattering out weak tea falsehoods. No one came to Quentin if they had their own talent for lying.

True magic required payment, so Quentin accepted—among other things—worn coins, rare bottles of wine, and, once, a rather extraordinary frock coat he never quite felt stylish enough to wear.

And he lied.

• • • •

Quentin was at a coffee shop, enjoying an excellent café Valencia—the chocolate bitter, the orange bright—when a beautiful woman slid into the chair across from him. She said nothing, not even hello. She just sat, staring.

Quentin didn’t particularly mind being the focus of attention, especially when the person doing the focusing was so attractive. He sipped his coffee, and stared back.

“How much?” she asked.

Quentin said nothing, and sipped his coffee again. It would depend on what she wanted, and she would tell him that soon enough. They always did.

She drummed her lacquered nails across the table, once. “I need a man to tell me he loves me. How much will that cost?”

“Any man? Because I could do that now, if you like. It would be my pleasure.”

“A specific man. Under specific circumstances. I need something from him. Something I can only get when he says those words.” She wasn’t smiling.

“Then I think perhaps you’ve been misled about what it is I do. I could help you convince him you loved him. Or if this mystery man, who has foolishly failed to be moved by your charms, were to come to me, and ask for those words as a lie you would believe, I could give them to him. But under these conditions, I cannot help you. Not for any amount.”

“Are you telling me the truth?”

“The one thing I don’t lie about is business, even to make a beautiful woman happy.” Quentin smiled. “Might I buy you a—”

But she pushed away from the table, and left.

• • • •

One week later, she perched, perfumed and red-lipsticked, on the chair next to Quentin at a bar. He was drinking a Manhattan this time.

“You can buy me one of those,” she said.

When she was halfway through her drink, she ran her finger around the rim of the glass and asked, “So if I bring the man to you, you can do what I need? Make him tell me he loves me?”

“Do you really need me for that?” Even as the question left his mouth, Quentin couldn’t quite believe he was asking it. He wasn’t in the habit of questioning his clients, an activity he avoided due to its proximity to suggesting they were liars. They liked to be able to tell themselves it was only this once, that if they were liars by nature they could have done the thing on their own. Quentin was a great believer in the polite fiction.

He continued, “What I mean is, there are certain circumstances in which many men will quite willingly say, ‘I love you.’ For some of them, it won’t even be a lie. Not while saying it, anyway. You may be able to get him to utter the words without my help.”

The woman finished her Manhattan, then touched her fingers to the back of Quentin’s hand. “Thank you. And I mean that sincerely. But if I didn’t need you, I wouldn’t keep asking.”

Quentin watched her weave her way though the crowd to the door, her stockings whispers of silk against each other, her fragrance a tease on the air, then ordered himself another drink. “Need you,” she had said. He doubted she did, at least for her stated purpose. She wouldn’t be so secretive if she were truly trying to hire him. Perhaps he was lying to himself, but he rather believed she was flirting with him. Still, if she needed to lie to herself in order to do so, Quentin was the last person to insist that she stick to the truth.

• • • •

The next time Quentin saw her was right after he had finished with another client. Another bar, cracked wood and dirty linoleum on the floor. The client had picked the place, and looked to Quentin as if he had taken up residence there.

“What did he want?”

“Do you really want me to expose my clients’ confidences?” Roses, Quentin thought. She smelled of roses, like a hint of springtime in Hell.

“I suppose not. It couldn’t have been that interesting of a request, anyway.”

“Why not?”

“Look at what he gave you.” She gestured to the garish pink necklace Quentin was tucking in his pocket.

Quentin thought of the man who had just left. Who had given him the last item his daughter had touched before she had been abducted. He thought of the quiver in the man’s voice as he told Quentin he had kept the necklace so he could give it to the girl when she was returned, something the man no longer believed would happen. The lie he had bought it with would cause his wife to believe that he hadn’t looked away from their daughter in the shop, not even for a second, and certainly not to flirt with the pretty woman at the register. He hoped the lie would give him some small piece of his life back, he told Quentin.

“The magic doesn’t care about the monetary value of the item. It cares about what the item’s loss means to the person giving it away. The loss of the item needs to balance the gain from the lie.”

“How do you know when the person who wants the lie is offering something that’s worth enough?”

“People so rarely offer something that isn’t.” They might once, or even twice. But the people who sought Quentin out, who bought dishonesty and falsehood in order to reshape the direction of their lives, they came to Quentin because they knew what truly mattered. They knew, down to the breath, how much those lies were worth.

“Still, wouldn’t you rather be the one to decide how much the lie costs? I mean, so you don’t get stuck with useless plastic crap for your work?”

Quentin ran his hand over the necklace in his pocket, felt the worn path of someone else’s fingers. He thought of a string of pigeon’s blood rubies he had been given, the same size as the plastic beads. He thought of the woman sitting in the bench across from him, wearing nothing but those red stones. “These things tend to work themselves out. Magic generally does.”

She nodded.

“Still, isn’t there something you would rather talk about?” Quentin asked. “Really, what I do isn’t that interesting.”

“It is to me,” she said. “I want to know everything about it.”

“What about the man?” he asked. “Did he ever say that he loved you?”

She smiled, dropped her eyes. “Speaking of not interesting,” she said. “I should go.”

Quentin watched her leave. One truth he knew: She would return.

• • • •

Quentin ran into the woman a number of times after that. He learned her name was Thea. He asked her what she did.

“I collect rare and unusual things. Things difficult to acquire, and unique in all the world. It’s a talent of mine.”

“Perhaps sometime I might see your collection?”

“Perhaps.” She smiled, and there were secrets in it. Quentin wanted to know them.

Thea asked Quentin many questions, and, more and more often, he was shocked to discover he answered them with truth. He wanted to lie, could taste the words hovering on the edge of his tongue, but truth would come out. Quentin was very uncomfortable with truth. Its transmission struck him as awkward and sweaty.

Still, Quentin wasn’t worried. He could lie to anyone who bought his services. Just that morning, in fact, he had accepted a da Vinci sketch, believed by all major scholars to have been lost in the seventeenth century, from a woman who needed to swear under oath that she had not engaged in any treasonous activity. As she was still alive in the afternoon, he had conclusive proof he hadn’t lost his abilities.

And he could lie to Thea, he knew he could. He just didn’t. It was a compliment to her, he told himself, that she made him engage with the messiness of actual feelings, speak through the strange acrobatics a sentence made of truth did as he composed it.

Just because he had magic, Quentin thought, he didn’t need to use it.

He said as much to Thea, over dinner that night, as he explained his disturbing tendency to be truthful when in conversation with her.

“But how do I know you’re not lying to me now?” she asked, squeezing his hand. “It would break my heart if you did.”

The touch of her hand burned against his skin. Quentin opened his mouth, and he told the truth. “I’m not lying. I love you.”

Quentin shuddered, then removed his hand from the grasp of the woman who sat across the table from him. He had no idea who she was, and only the vaguest recollection of how he had gotten to the restaurant in the first place.

Thea watched Quentin leave, then smiled, the movement of her lips the luxurious stretch of a cat. “I know you did,” she said, and ordered another drink. She felt the lies that had once belonged to Quentin twisting through her blood, like the bubbles of champagne.

All magic has its price. In certain circumstances, it’s possible to make someone else pay it. They always offer something that’s worth enough.

Among her other talents, Thea tells lies to people for money.

Kat Howard

Kat Howard by Shane Leonard

Kat Howard is the author of Roses and Rot, named one of the best SFF books of Summer ’16 by Publishers Weekly. Saga Press will also be publishing her next novel in late summer ’17, and a short fiction collection, A Cathedral of Myth and Bone, in early 2018. Her novella, The End of the Sentence, co-written with Maria Dahvana Headley, is available from Subterranean Press. Her short fiction has been published in a variety of magazines and anthologies, a finalist for the World Fantasy Award, and performed on NPR.