Old Au saw the thief first. Squatting in the garden, she commanded a long view of the east road; gray flagstone straighter than nature amid the green scrub and bramble. Rich soil breathed its scent around her as she took an offending root in one hand and her garden knife in the other. Between the moment she began sawing and when she pulled the first tangle of dirt and pale vegetable flesh out of the ground, the thief appeared, a dot on the horizon. She worked as he approached. His cloak hung limp in the humid summer air.
The Wizard Niccolo was not happy. At the age of 183—youthful for a wizard, but improbable for an ordinary human—he had thought certain things well out of his life. Sudden changes in his daily routine were one. And romance was another—even if it was his familiar’s romance, and not his own. “Could make an omelet with it, I suppose,” he grumbled to that familiar, the tiny dragon Olivia. She sat on the cluttered mantle, wrapped around her egg, still marveling at its production and entirely too pleased with herself.
All winter, the sisters make their beds in fruits. Ingrid sleeps in a pomegranate, Yasmin in a persimmon. At night they enter the cocoons they’ve carved from each warm globe. The flesh conforms to their flesh. Mornings they emerge sticky, and Yasmin, the smaller one, coats her legs in a lotion of persimmon pulp. The pulp is like soft, wet hair. Ingrid thinks this style flatters Yasmin, as if she’s wearing fashionable stockings. Ingrid, on the other hand, emerges like she’s been caught unawares in heavy rain.
In the very heart of winter, the forest holds its breath. Frozen earth sleeps without dreaming; brittle sunlight breaks and scatters in gasps between the trees. The girl walks through the woods, boots crunching the crusted snow. There is always such a girl, walking alone. Little footprints point the way back to a clutch of hovels; she peers half-dazzled through shadow and snow-flash. A basket hangs dispiritedly from her arm. Sausage end. Hardened loaf. The creeping doubt in spring itself.
On the morning after my tenth birthday, spring sunlight dapples the stone slabs of the road in front of our house through the blooming branches of the pagoda tree. I climb out onto the thick bough pointing west like an immortal’s arm and reach for a strand of yellow flowers, anticipating the sweet taste tinged with a touch of bitterness. “Alms, young mistress?” I look down and see a bhikkhuni. I can’t tell how old she is—her face is unlined but there is a fortitude in her dark eyes that reminds me of my grandmother.
I woke early—or perhaps didn’t sleep. My body is still adjusting to the time zone hop from Southern California to the islands north of the Scottish mainland. Orkney. A series of islands, many of them uninhabited, in the cold North Atlantic Sea. To the east is Norway. To the West are Iceland and Greenland. In other words, it’s chilly even in the summer when there is endless light. It’s stunning, aside from the dead guy currently at my feet.
In winter, the snow comes down as softly as feathers. I have always loved to watch it. It’s different, of course, once it’s fallen: thick, heavy, difficult to walk through. In Boston, the snow plows come out almost as soon as the first flakes land on the sidewalk. They make narrow paths, and the snow piles up on either side, so when you walk to class, it’s between two mountain ridges, like a miniature Switzerland. That’s how Kay described it to me one morning, while we were sitting in my dorm room.
Forty-six minutes and a trickle of seconds remained before the end of the world—this world, anyway—and I was trying to evacuate the second-last client on my list. Some apocalypses come in with horns blaring and guns blazing and cascades of fire. Some apocalypses like to be obvious. This wasn’t one of them. The humans had various names for their world. My partner Rawk and I called it Seedworld 722.11.15, which was our superiors’ label. We’d seen a lot of Seedworlds perish, she and I.
Prince Aretas, son of the Ever-Hungry Queen, had gone into the forest. Yarchuse knew the truth even before ae coaxed the story from the prince’s bootprints bruising dry earth. Ae shivered, hand splayed above the trail. Dammit. Ae heard the prince’s naïve belief etched into his tracks: I can end this war without more death. I will speak to the Heart of the Forest and find peace. You foolish child, Yarchuse thought, clenching aer jaw against a spurt of panic. The forest would never relent.
Red slays the wolf, and another bursts through the kitchen window and bites her in the stomach. Glass gets in her hair. She smashes the chopping knife into its head, then runs out the back door, gulping for air. She doesn’t stumble. The wood must be at war with itself: Some trees let her pass, others scratch her. The howling recedes; the howling’s at her ear. Eventually her boots skid on marble and she falls, her heart a hammer against her ribs. She curls up to make herself small. At least I’m all bones. They won’t enjoy me.