Mike and Jessie were walking in the park. The trees high above their heads stretched to touch each other, their leaves letting only the tiniest slivers of light through. Mike watched the freckles of light spot Jessie’s brown face, her shirt, her arms. He tried to snub them out with his fingers. It was a long day for them. They’d spent a few hours walking around the park, just talking. About old dreams and new ones, black riots and urban decay, the secrets of their hearts and the mysteries of the universe.
Some kids do that—they imprint on empty objects, they give them stories and opinions and a will, until they feel half-inhabited even to grownups, who have to pretend that they care how Chrissy’s blanket feels about things for so long that one day when Chrissy’s at school they step on the blanket and apologize. I did it with anything, when I was young; my toys were always in the middle of some intense plot that nobody outside could understand.
By the time he returned home after all his years of wandering, Magnus Diarisso had come to prefer a fire burning on cold days rather than the elaborate hypocaust system that heated the mage house. The sound of wood settling, sparks popping, and ashes sighing helped him relax. He told his nephew the mansa, the powerful cold mage who was head of Four Moons House, that he did not want to live in the main house with its comings and goings and the children’s chatter.
Here’s what I know: When Mom discovered she was pregnant with me, my parents had been separated for some time. Dad had left her for another woman in another town, and Mom had filed for divorce. I was conceived during a short-lived Christmas reunion. Dad wanted her to get an abortion. She refused. On the eve of the date when the divorce would’ve become final, Dad caught a train back to New York.
The creatures come out at night, while we’re asleep. My husband says they are harmless. “Probably mice,” he says. “They’re not harmless,” I tell him. “They are very much not harmless,” I say. “They’re gathering information on us. They’re looking through our things, examining our lives, deciding if we are good or if we are not.” “That’s ridiculous,” my husband says. “They’re singling us out. Deciding which ones to take away.”
If you have a worry your heart can’t seem to hold, take your troubles to the trees, my grandmama would say. That was in the Old Time, when I was a small girl with scraped knees and ashy legs, a neck full of sun. Her words would comfort me as I grew older, my baby fat yielding to strong woman curves and hips. Then I would fling my arms around my secret tree and whisper my sorrows into her knotty breast.
Wild Bill “The Buck” Williams rode into town for a drink, but he stayed for the pretty boys. He was as mean as they said but not so tall: a lean, hard man with a rocky face and a broad mustache, slicked at both sides from a tin of fat he kept in a satchel round his waist. That first night he broke a man’s jaw for cheating him at poker. I didn’t just hear the story, I saw it—how Wild Bill clocked the fucker upside the face, emptied the last of his drink, and knocked out half the man’s teeth with his mug.
Isabeau came to Castle Coeurlieu as a girl of twelve, and its lady: She had been married two weeks before to the Comte de Coeurlieu, who was thirty-two and very large, with an always-angry hatchet face slashed and pierced through the left cheek where he had taken a crossbow bolt at the battle of Leprans, full six years ago. She had been excited beforehand: She knew it was a grand match, beyond her family’s deserts, and he was famous.
You’ll see them someplace you’re going when you’re trying to make the most of your time. They’re standing at the top of the steps to the public library (the amazing branch where they do the photoshoots, not the squat concrete one you go to), or they’re on the balcony at a concert you overheard someone talking about. They’ll be at the greatest altitude you can reach while still seeming effortless; they like being able to look down.
The monkeys are white-faced capuchins. Small things, their lean, black-furred bodies stand in stark contrast to the white tufts of their faces and shoulders. The Russians have cannons that can blast an airship apart in ten minutes and armored steam knights called kolotar, but of the many dangers I face on a warship a mile above the Black Sea, I fear the monkeys I tend most.
“Do not tarry,” a man whispers behind me. “They eat meat as well, boy.”