Lady Mary was young and Lady Mary was fair, and she had brothers who loved her and lovers who adored her. But she was savvy, sly as a vixen, with hair like the color of the butchered sun. And of all the people she knew, of all the people who’d pledged their heart to her pleasure, she cared for only one: Mr. Fox. Mr. Fox, of course, had ginger locks and sharp white teeth, freckles like a map across his fair face and when he smiled sometimes, it wasn’t hard to see why they called him Mr. Fox and not Edgar, or Edward, or Egan.
By the time Quentin reached the Ketterly Riverboat, he was down to thirty-seven cards, not counting the two Jokers. He ran his index finger along the edge of the deck, tucked securely in his waistcoat pocket. He was unarmed, not the kind of man who ever felt comfortable with a pistol, though he had once regularly carried a knife on his hip. Back then, his playing cards had been as disposable as everything else in his life: his women, his possessions, his inheritance.
Like the Isle of Lenas upon which it sat, the town of Lodorest had been dying for decades. The final blow, however, came all at once. Outside of his father’s home, Manil shivered in the night air. He heard shouts and cries and screams, the roar of burning houses. Other sounds, too, drifting up the dirt streets, coming from the shadows as if the darkness itself was a monster feasting on the town: laughter; barking commands; angry bellows from deep-voiced men. Manil stood with his mother and his uncle. Manil barely came up to Uncle Janeed’s hip.
We were the first generation to leave that island country. We were the ones who on the day we came of age developed a distinct float to our walk, soon enough hovering inches above the ground, afterwards somersaulting with the clouds, finally discovering we could fly as far as we’d ever wanted, and so we left. Decades later, we brought our children back to see that country. That year, we all decided we were ready to return. We jackknifed through clouds and dodged large birds. We held tight our children, who still had not learned to fly. Behind us trailed rope lines of suitcases bursting with gifts from abroad. We wondered who would remember us.
The sunshine brings him to his knees. Every day he thinks, I am here, I am here, in this house that we raised above ourselves, with this woman who chose me. The girls are safe. The creatures are fed. The windowsill is pearled with dew. The spiders are friendly. We have made a life for ourselves, away from the world. We live in a church of infinite light. In these hours, he is left soft-footed and silent, walking the hallways in the farmhouse that he built with his wife Roksha. In their bedroom, she is nosedived into her pillow, and in the other one, his daughters’ silk hair feathers around them.
My father says he’s saved my life nine times. Once at my birth, once when we fled master and overseer through rows of struggling tobacco beneath a sky choked with stars, and the other seven paid out over all our years before the masts of ten different ships. The oldest two I must take at his word, as I have no memory of either. The first of the seven was the time Pop shut me below when I thought to skip up the rigging to the topmost yard of the Barbry Allen in a near gale off Barbados, the decks awash and the sea yawning up before us.
They met day-drinking. It was cold and wet, not quite raining but threatening to, in the way that storms do even when they don’t then intend on getting on with it; and though they each might have spent the day in a bar anyway, this one lent itself to being spent indoors and the atmosphere just kind of lent itself to drinking. It was late morning when they began, the first customers in a small-town corner joint that still smelled of the night before. They were at opposite ends of the bar and what with one thing or another they struck up a conversation.
For decades, the four plumbers had answered the call of old widows who’d dropped jewelry down their drains. Sometimes, the plumbers unscrewed the U-shaped trap under the sink, knocked out its splat of tobacco-colored crud, and fished out a golden ring. But other times, there was no reclaiming the lost diamonds and gold. They tumbled blind through the maze of pipes below the city, never to see the sun again. Whenever the plumbers left a house, the widows would ask, “Do you hear it too? The singing that comes rattling up from the pipes?”
Sydney’s cellphone rang and she ignored it, on the grounds that it was either her mother or news that someone had died, and either way she was too high to handle it. Her phone went quiet, then started ringing again, and anxiety clawed at her belly and then up her spine. Maybe someone wasn’t dead, maybe they were just dying, and if she ignored this call she’d miss her chance to say goodbye at the hospital. Everyone else would be there, and she’d be the only asshole who hadn’t made it in time.
When two swordsmen meet, no one knows what to expect. It’s a cold night in a cold city. Cold stone under cold starlight. He walks down a deserted street, sure of himself, sure of the weapon he bears. He’s not altogether surprised when the stranger steps out of the shadows. “Hey,” he says to the newcomer. “You hungry? I’m going to friends with a fire and a big pot always bubbling on it.” By which we see that it’s not just his sword that defends him, whatever he may think. The other stands very still. “You’re not what I thought you’d be,” he says flatly. “Why not?” the swordsman asks, curious.