The great sage Jamarg was absorbed in his meditation when the calm of his hermitage was disturbed by the thunder of a thousand hooves. Frowning at being disturbed from his meditation, he rose and went to see why mounted men had come to this remote place. His wife Rukunyi was hurrying back from the river, bearing a heavy earthen pot filled with fresh water. Her face glowed with excitement. “It must be my father,” she said to Jamarg.
Het had eaten nothing for weeks but bony, gape-mawed fish—some of them full of neurotoxin. She’d had to alter herself so she could metabolize it safely, which had taken some doing. So when she ripped out the walsel’s throat and its blood spurted red onto the twilit ice, she stared, salivary glands aching, stomach growling. She didn’t wait to butcher her catch but sank her teeth into skin and fat and muscle, tearing a chunk away from its huge shoulder.
Witchcraft is a gift. Imelda would wave her steel spoon at Mercer and insist on this as he measured ingredients for her, whether she was boiling potions or a pot of farfalle pasta. Watch the salt, a teaspoon only, never pour too much. Don’t overheat the sauce. Bottle the hawks’ gizzards separate from the basilisks’. Never half-ass a gift, Mercy. Her perpetual imperative. Mercer is alone now. His hands are unsteady—they’ve shaken like a drunkard’s since they held Imelda as she passed—and he is no witch.
Once upon a time, in another part of now, there was a girl. She was graceful and talented and pretty as dawn—though no more than she ought to be—and she was lucky enough to be the daughter of a very minor king, rich but provincial, with few real responsibilities. She was delighted with life, and with her own way of living in it. She loved stories, and music, and most especially, painting. She loved to create small strange worlds on paper and had set up a gallery in several rooms of her home for her art: the royal version of the family refrigerator.
I have heard it on the rumors that when the tale-spinner’s guild gathers in their secret places a full half of them are sworn to never tell the truth, and the other half to never tell a lie, even if it mean their life. Being one of that trade myself, I can tell you that that’s more or less the shape of it, and I tell you so you’ll know that this tale I tell you is true, just as it happened and just as it was told to me, for I am one of the ones sworn to the truth. The name I’m called is Dusty Boots, I come from the valley of Erwhile, and I am in love with a girl that I can never have.
Olivia blew into town with the storm and headed straight for the Grand Silver Hotel. Pots and containers of sauces and marinades clattered in the trunk of her Toyota, packed in with the rest of the groceries she’d brought from Phoenix. The evening sky hung heavy with dark clouds, but the shrinking Arizona sun still burned her arms through the car windows. Bisden was one of those mining towns that had sprung up in the eighteen hundreds, flourished for a while, and then all but died once the silver ran out.
It has become increasingly clear to your guidebook writers that the beauty of any destination should be measured not simply by the magnificence of its architecture or the lushness of its landscape, but by the splendor that its citizens collectively produce. In cities where mayors make sure flowers are planted every spring and the baker sends us off with a free roll, the streetlamps are bound to burn brightly with the warmth of welcome. In fact, the wonderful time we’ve had in any destination was due almost entirely to the kindness of those we encountered along the way.
I dream again that I am lost in the tunnels of our cities. The fires extinguished, but still a cool blue glow lights my way. The faster I run, the higher I ascend in the city toward the surface, and the light becomes brighter and burns my skin. I fill with knowing, knowing the place where I am going. More and more light fills each room. My skin burns and then becomes darker somehow. And then I am there at the door in the surface, and if I climb through, death and freedom await me. I stand there looking up. Up.
After Sumé left her last home in ruins, there was no place left to go except back to the island she’d abandoned years ago. Except when her boat scraped against the shallows, she found the island’s dock slumped from rot and disuse. And the path leading from the docks was smothered by vines and ferns, so overgrown it was almost invisible. The stink of stagnant water and algae assaulted her. The emptiness, the neglect confirmed her worst fears. She was the first person to step on the island in twenty years.
The swan boy lives in an abandoned church in a sleepy, green town by the river. He is small and young-looking still, though he is sixteen now and has been the swan boy for years. His hair is dirty and grown out long enough to cover his shy face. His clothes are striped with greasy white stains, radiating down from the shoulders of his rough shirt. No one would give him a second look if not for the huge, white shield of a swan’s wing that he has in place of a left arm. The people in town do not talk to him.