On Fighallow Street
Tilly Wintmin’s day hadn’t veered off course till just after lunch. She had been walking home from what started as a lovely meal with her friend Mayhap at the roast quisling place down Fighallow. Half an hour in, Tilly had—perhaps unwisely—brought up Mayhap’s consistently poor choice in men, and—more unwisely—had ladled out a potful of strongly seasoned advice for her. Mayhap had spat it all out, metaphorically speaking, and had then fled the restaurant before Tilly had enough time to recognize her mistake and take the words back. She’d left and was wondering whether this time she really had torn their friendship apart when along came a tall woman bundled in black furs, leaving a shop Tilly had never noticed before.
The woman caught Tilly looking at her and, apparently embarrassed, shoved whatever was in her hands into a big maroon bag. As she passed Tilly, she tripped on a sidewalk crack and onto the ground fell several somethings. Tilly couldn’t tell what they were—they were small, dark, somewhat round, and oddly blurry in a way that made her eyes twitch—but she knelt down to pick them up for the woman.
“Don’t even think about touching them,” the woman said just as Tilly’s hands scooped under the two closest blobs. “The nerve. How would you like it if I—forget it. Let go of them. Now.”
Tilly opened her hands and let the blobs roll back onto the sidewalk. Flustered, she ignored the odd scent of fish sauce that came barreling down the street and tried to avoid eye contact with the woman staring her down. “I’m…just trying to help,” she said, regretting it already.
It had been a long time since someone had sneered at Tilly. It felt just as uncomfortable now as it did then. Her instinct was to lower her head and shuffle away, but for reasons probably having something to do with the incident at lunch, Tilly straightened and returned the stare. Be kind, she tried to remind herself. Firm but kind. She’d poured the former out on Mayhap but, if she was honest with herself, had completely neglected the latter.
“Excuse me,” she said, “but that’s no way to treat people.”
The woman—who at this point had already turned and started marching off back toward the shop—stopped. “You’re absolutely right,” she said over her shoulder with what could only be interpreted as a wicked grin. “I’ve forgotten my manners.” The woman’s fingers went up into her thundercloud of black hair, pulled something glittery out, and then twitched.
A blur of sensations hit Tilly. Mainly, she felt like she was falling, falling off a tall cliff down farther than the earth could hold her, down into the middle of an ever-tightening windstorm that carried a heavy smell of loam and fresh-cut grass. Her head hurt. Her body hurt, everywhere. A buzzing sound clogged her ears and her throat. She could barely breathe. Is this what it felt like to be shot? On the edge of her mind she felt a thought flitting about, something she had to do that evening at six o’clock, but she couldn’t grasp it, and the buzzing grew louder, and everything hurt more and there was no more room for thought when, finally, a blessed relief as darkness engulfed her.
“It’s a pretty thing, isn’t it.”
Tilly was on the ground, practically hugging the sidewalk, though it didn’t feel cold to the touch. A slight panic seized her as she realized that while she could feel her head just fine, the rest of her body felt like it had shriveled away, like her arms and legs had all been turned to dust and blown away in the wind.
She looked up and recoiled when she saw an old woman bent down over her, sniffing her face. Not the same as the woman Tilly had tried to help; this one had a warmer countenance and a long tail of white hair over her shoulder. A bald toddler with enormous eyes huddled next to her, his hand outstretched.
“Do you feel the lovely texture of the petals, Charles? This kind is my favorite.” The woman’s touch on Tilly’s face felt rough and foreign. “No, we don’t pull off the petals. It’s not nice.” The woman stood up and began to gently lead the boy away.
The shock and weirdness began to wear off. Tilly mindlessly blurted out, “Wait!”
The boy turned round with a frown on his face. He couldn’t have been more than three or four. Bright blue eyes like the southern sea. “I hear something, Gramma. The flower talked.”
“I can’t feel my body,” Tilly said. “Something’s happened. I think I’m paralyzed.” Then the boy’s words registered. A flower? “I’m sorry, I’m not a flower, I’m a woman. I need help.”
The grandmother’s eyes were wide and she held the boy tightly as she took a step back. “Charles, something’s not right here. Plug your ears. It’s a hoax. Let’s go now, okay? I’ll carry you.”
“Wait! Don’t go!” Tilly called, but it was too late. Carrying Charles in her arms, the grandmother was now running with a limp down the sidewalk and was almost to the cross street.
Panic seized Tilly again. She clearly wasn’t a flower, except that now she looked down at herself—she realized she’d been afraid to ever since she’d woken up with her body missing—and saw a green stem with thin leaves offshooting it here and there, running down into a patch of soil nestled in a sidewalk crack. It didn’t make any sense, but yes, she did in fact appear to be a flower.
It could be worse, she thought to herself in a dazed attempt to try to calm down, to try to get the funny feeling in her head to go away. There were many, many other things that would have been far worse to turn into. The black-fur woman must have been some kind of witch—witches must be real, then, which Tilly had long suspected but never really voiced because she didn’t want to be seen as a nutjob—and Tilly was now somehow in her thrall.
She tried to breathe more slowly and then realized she wasn’t breathing at all, at least not the way she used to. This would turn out okay, she told herself. She’d figure a way out of this, a way that didn’t involve getting trampled or cut or eaten. She just had to stay sharp and not panic. That’s right, she thought, no panicking. Not allowed.
After a few minutes of panicking and what turned out to be the flowery equivalent of sobbing, Tilly pulled herself together. Assessing the situation was top priority now. She was a flower, though what kind she didn’t know, and she wasn’t sure how much it mattered. She needed to be turned back into a human. The witch could presumably do that, or at least would have a good idea where to start, but the witch also presumably had little interest in helping Tilly out. So she’d need to find someone else to help her. And she couldn’t walk around, and she didn’t have hands. But at least she could talk. That was something. The problem, though, was that people weren’t used to talking flowers, and Tilly didn’t blame them. As far as turning her back into a human went, if there was one witch, she reasoned, there must be others. But recognizing a witch wasn’t something she knew—learning how to do that was a priority.
This was never going to work.
“Help!” she cried out as loud as she could, not caring anymore whether she scared people off. “Help!” But nobody was on the street.
Maybe she could find a way to pull her roots up and then wriggle around. Mobility would give her a much better chance of finding someone, wouldn’t it. Maybe she could go to Mayhap’s place, though right now that didn’t seem like a very good idea. But then, assuming Tilly was still basically a normal flower, magical transmutation notwithstanding, she’d dry up and die unless she could get her roots back down in the ground. And she didn’t know if she’d be able to do that, not having legs or arms or fingernails.
Tilly tried to close her eyes to think, but she wasn’t entirely sure she even had eyes, and whatever was functioning in that role apparently didn’t have lids.
After staring straight down at the sidewalk for what felt like a hundred years, she heard a squeaking sound and looked up. Down at the end of the street, barreling in her general direction, was a young-looking man on a ratty old bicycle. He had some bags dangling off the handlebars and a forest of hair dangling off his head.
When he got close, Tilly called out, “Stop! Wait a minute!”
He skidded on his brakes and came to a stop in the street a few feet from Tilly. He stuck his hands up above his head as he looked around frantically. “I didn’t do it. I swear I didn’t do it.”
“I’m over here,” she said, tilting her head from side to side. “This is going to sound crazy, but hear me out. I’ve been turned into a flower. Yes, that’s me, down here. I need help—your help—to turn me back into a human.”
The man buried his head in his hands. “So much for the new elixir,” he mumbled. “Great. Just great. And now I’m talking to myself in the middle of the street in broad daylight. I’m going to take that doctor, so help me, and I’m going to—”
“What?” Tilly shook her head. “Listen, I don’t know what you’re talking about, but I’m real. My name is Tilly Wintmin, and I live on Cheddick Lane. I need you to pull me out of the soil and”—she didn’t want to do it but she had to; there wasn’t really anyone else—“and take me to my friend Mayhap. I don’t remember her address exactly, but I know what her place looks like. It’s over in the Saltswallow district, not too far away. This is crazy, I know, but I really need your help.”
“Oh really,” the man said, apparently unconvinced.
Tilly began to feel queasy. She wasn’t going to be able to find someone, was she. But she had to keep trying, before some dog came up and ate her. “Mayhap can confirm that I’m a real person. Which I am. If you just take me to her, she can ask me any question you like. Prove that I’m who I say I am. And she can take care of me after that, anyway. Please?” She took what amounted to a breath and relaxed a little bit. “What’s your name, by the way?”
“Giacoli,” the man said. “Let me think about this for a minute. I’m starving, can’t think straight. No wonder I’m hearing things.” He rubbed his ears. “So you want me to take you to your friend and that’s it, right? Nothing else? No justice you need me to set straight for you, no lingering business left undone here on earth? Just some chauffeuring?”
“That’s it,” Tilly said with relief. “Nothing else.”
Giacoli parked his bike, walked over to her, and knelt down so his face was inches from hers. He was unshaven and just a bit too thin. “Not to put too fine a point on it, but are you sure pulling you up out of the ground isn’t going to…well, you know…”
Tilly tried to shrug. “I have no idea what will happen. First time being enchanted and all. But I figure if I can’t get to safety, there’s no way I’ll ever be able to turn back into a human. Mayhap’s the best chance I’ve got.”
“I was thinking…” Giacoli scratched his head. “Don’t take this the wrong way, but should I try, um, kissing you? Fairy tales and all…” His voice trailed off with a slight bob of his adam’s apple.
If this was how she ended up finding a husband, she had a word to say to someone. But it was in fact something to try, and while she didn’t expect it to work, she also hadn’t expected to spend the second half of the day as a tulip or a lily or whatever she was. “Sure. A quick one.”
“Does it matter which part? I mean, it’s kind of hard to tell where your face is. If you have a face. I’m sorry, I’m not very good at this.”
“You’re fine. What kind of flower am I, by the way? I don’t have a mirror on me.”
He smiled a little. “I don’t really know flowers. You’re kind of pinkish-yellow, with the petals wrapped around each other.”
“Probably a tulip, then?” To be honest, Tilly didn’t know a wide variety of flowers either. “I guess you can kiss the top of the outside. If that doesn’t work, and I don’t think it will, then we’re probably good.”
Giacoli scooted in close and kissed her. She couldn’t feel a thing.
“Should I try again?”
“No, that’s okay,” Tilly said. “But thank you. That was very kind of you.”
Jangling sounds from down the street. A couple more men on bicycles. “Hey, Giac,” one of them called out when he noticed Giacoli. “You coming to Fratembo’s tonight to help with the loft?”
“Maybe,” Giacoli said, standing in front of Tilly. “I’ve got some other things going on, but if I finish in time, I’ll be there.”
“It’ll only take a minute if enough people come,” the man said as he stopped briefly. “You okay? What are you doing?”
“Nothing,” Giacoli said. Tilly could hear a slight quiver. Hopefully he didn’t say anything about her. “Thought I saw a quarter on the sidewalk. Just a rock. I’ll try to make it, okay?”
“I’ll call you,” the man said as he started riding again, the other men following after him. “Tembo needs it done before his in-laws get here tomorrow.”
When they’d gone, Giacoli turned back to Tilly. “Sorry about that. They’re good guys, really. Okay, where were we? Do I need to carry some dirt with me? How does this work?”
“Just be careful. And gentle. I think we’ll be fine on time—it takes a few days for a flower to die, doesn’t it?”
One moment she was bracing herself for what she expected to be the end of her life; the next, after a slightly worrisome snap down below, she was up in the air, in Giacoli’s hands.
“Sorry about that—a little bit stayed with the roots. Did it hurt?” He carried her over to his bike and put her in his front pocket.
“No,” Tilly said with relief. “I don’t think I have nerves to feel, well, anything. Thank you again for helping me. I’ll make it up to you later, if I have the chance. Do you know how to get to Saltswallow?”
Giacoli got on the bike and began riding, pushing through a horde of fleas that had appeared out of nowhere. “Yep. Which part is she in?”
“Near the park. Just south of it, in the apartments there.”
They rode in silence. Every few moments Tilly’s head would begin to sag and Giacoli would push her back upright again.
“I can’t believe I’m helping a talking flower,” she heard Giacoli mumble to himself as they went over the river and almost got hit by a wagon. Then, more clearly, “I’m sorry if I sound rude. I don’t mean to. It’s just that every time this kind of thing has happened, it’s been in my head.”
“I understand,” Tilly said. “I probably wouldn’t believe it myself if it weren’t happening to me. Thank you for trusting me.” She said a quiet prayer of thanks for Giacoli showing up and being willing to help, and they continued their ride through the packing district and along the train tracks.
When they pulled up to the apartment, Tilly could see a woman, probably Mayhap, peering down from the window. Shortly after that, though, the curtains closed. Of course, Mayhap wouldn’t have known that it was Tilly—to her, it was just a man on a bicycle. At least she was at home. If she didn’t believe them, though, Tilly would have to figure something else out. Or just die on Mayhap’s doorstep.
Giacoli carried her up the three flights of stairs and rang the bell.
After a long wait—more than a minute—Mayhap opened the door. “I’m sorry, I’m not interested,” she said and closed the door. Tilly didn’t have a chance to say anything.
Giacoli rang the bell again. “I’m not selling anything,” he said as soon as Mayhap cracked open the door, and at the same time Tilly said, “Mayhap, it’s me, Tilly.”
Mayhap pushed an auburn curl out of her face and gave Giacoli a cold look. “Is this her idea of a joke? She can burn in the fires of—”
“You’re not going to believe this,” Tilly said, “but I got turned into a flower by some lady after you left. This is me. It really is.”
Mayhap blinked. “Unbelievable indeed. A flower. She couldn’t come up with anything better than that? How much did she pay you?”
Giacoli—and Tilly—scooted back a couple steps. “She asked me to bring her, I don’t know what’s going on, I just found her like this—”
“Mayhap Constance Renst,” Tilly said, wracking her brains for what Mayhap would consider valid proof. “We’ve been friends for eleven years, longer if you count our first meeting at the school when we were seven. We had lunch on Fighallow earlier today. You had a breath of fire salad, which I said—and still believe—was a sure way to throw your heartburn into a gallop, and I had the quisling on a spit. I always comment on your shoes and my favorite pair of yours are the speckled flats you wore last month when Riviselle paid us a visit.” She paused, intending to apologize for what she’d said, but the words got stuck and wouldn’t come out.
Mayhap frowned. “Two questions for the flower. First, what book was I reading when my father’s mother died?”
“Your father’s mother isn’t dead,” Tilly said. “She ran away with the circus ten years ago. You were reading Whimack Silda’s history of the ten kingdoms next to me on the sofa—the burgundy one, not the teal sofa—when your father came in and told you. He didn’t know I was there.”
“Okay,” Mayhap said, “I’m convinced.” She narrowed her eyes and stared at the flower, then smiled.
“What’s the second question?”
“I don’t need one. How on earth did you get yourself turned into a flower, Tilly? Fitting, isn’t it.” She laughed. “You have no idea how tempting it is to leave you this way. But I’m not going to descend to your level, so I suppose we’d better make you human again.” She scrunched up her nose.
Waves of relief and anger crashed over Tilly. Mayhap could be a real pest, but maybe things were going to turn out okay after all. Mayhap took her from Giacoli and laid her down on the countertop, then said, “Witches among us. I wish Uncle Beek could have been here to see this. Enough of that, though. We need to get you in a pot and then find a good witch.”
“Thank you, yes,” Tilly said. “Giacoli, we can take care of it from here, I believe. I’m beyond grateful.”
“Hold on, I could use his help here,” Mayhap said in her honey voice with a slight twinkle in her eye. She reached out and held his forearm. “Would you mind filling this pot with some soil from downstairs? There’s a garden in the courtyard.” She handed him a clay pot she’d seemingly produced from thin air.
That was odd. Tilly wasn’t herself, but she could have sworn that Mayhap’s hands had been completely empty. After Giacoli left, she tried to frown. “Where’d you get it?”
“That pot? The north side of the market. A month or so ago, if I—”
“No,” Tilly said, “I mean right now. Before you gave him the pot, you didn’t have anything in your hands. And you’re too far from the counter. Unless you’ve started carrying pots in your clothes, I…” She trailed off as thoughts began to join.
“Good observation, dear,” Mayhap said, the corner of her mouth turned down ever so slightly. “Astute as always.”
It could have been sleight of hand, it could have been Tilly’s own senses betraying her, but the more she mulled over it, the more sure she became.
“Mayhap,” she said, “are you a witch?”
Silence swept into the room. Mayhap stared out the window and pursed her lips. “It had to happen someday.” Turning back to Tilly, she said, “No, not exactly. Not formally. And I’m not particularly fond of the term anyway. But yes, as a seventh daughter of a seventh son, I do have a bit of the talent.”
Unbelievable. Her best friend a witch all these years and she’d never known it. Which meant that contrary to everyone’s belief, Mayhap had successfully kept a secret—and a major one at that—for longer than seemed possible. She was not the inept liar she’d appeared to be. Tilly began wondering what other secrets Mayhap had been keeping, and whether they were the kinds of secrets that mattered or not. And what side Mayhap was on, if sides there were. And, considering what vengeance Mayhap might be capable of pursuing, whether Tilly had made a serious mistake in offending her at lunch. More pressingly, though…
“If you’re a witch, can you change me back?”
Mayhap rubbed her hands across her face. “Not a witch. Tilly, you need to do more listening and less talking. What you need to know is that—”
She stopped as Giacoli’s footsteps sounded on the stairs. Moments later he barreled into the room with the pot now overflowing with dirt. “Is this good?” He handed it to her.
“Even better than I’d expected,” Mayhap said, placing it on the counter. She made a hole and, lifting Tilly up, rooted her in it. To that point Tilly hadn’t noticed any difference being unrooted, but as soon as her stem touched the soil, she felt more alive and less tired. “This is perfect. Thank you, darling. If I need you again, how can I find you?”
Giacoli gave her his address and then, bidding goodbye, walked out the door. After he closed it behind him, Mayhap turned back and whispered, “He knows something. I don’t think he has the talent—at least it wasn’t evident—but he’s not what he looks like.”
“Seems to be quite popular these days,” Tilly muttered. “You were talking about how you can change me back?”
“Ah, yes,” Mayhap said, plopping herself down onto the sofa, “yes, there’s that. It’s a tricky business. These things are usually reversible. Ten or twenty rounds of being transformed between, say, frog and human turns out to be surprisingly demoralizing, which is a useful tool. But then you start running into consequences, things that don’t change back the right way, and my goodness, I’m rambling. I’m sorry, Tilly. I’ve just never been able to talk witchiness with you.”
Tilly was still processing that there was a New Mayhap she didn’t really know at all, living in the same body as Old Mayhap. It kept messing with her head. “After all this is over, I would love to talk magic with—”
“Oh no, don’t call it magic. That’s not what we do. That’s darker stuff. I know it’s confusing, and everyone does call it magic which bothers us to no end, but it’s called the talent. Magic is bad. Got it?”
“Okay,” Tilly said, now wondering who did magic and how to avoid them. “How do we change me back?”
Mayhap grimaced. “When a witch transforms someone, it’s reversible like I said, but usually only reversible by the witch who did it. There’s a kind of signature on it, basically.”
“Even if I had enough stores to change you back, my mismatched signature would break the reversal. Things would get…messy. I don’t know what exactly would happen. It’s finicky. Extra legs, missing ears, broken brain, I don’t know. Not worth chancing it.” She gave Tilly a cold look. “Even though I’d love to. You realize you have far less experience with men than I do, right? Spinster in the making.”
Tilly tried to ignore the jab. “So what do we do? To turn me back.”
Mayhap got up and paced around the room a bit. The first hint of sunset poked through the clouds and lit her silhouette. Her distinctly witchlike silhouette. But no, that was just Tilly’s imagination running crazy with its newfound knowledge. Mayhap looked like any other young woman in her early twenties.
“I can’t do it,” Mayhap said. “Too risky. Worse than being a flower.”
“Believe me, I know what I’m talking about. So, we either find the witch who did it and force her to change you back—which is risky of itself, no guarantee that she won’t throw in a little something extra that makes you bleed slugs out your ears till you’re gray—or we find someone who can do reverse transformations. Or you get used to life as a flower. Which I realize sounds heartless, which I suppose it is, but considering the lifespan of a flower, it wouldn’t be all that long, and we can try to make it as comfortable as possible for you. Goodness, I’m an awful person, Tilly. I really, truly am. But we can make this right. Let’s find the witch. Describe her appearance, please.”
Tilly told her as best she could what the woman looked like.
“Dark, blurry things? I wonder if those were hagaminns.”
Tilly was starting to get a slight headache from the overload. “What would that mean?”
“Oh, they’re used to make talent stores last longer. A preservative, kind of like salt.” Mayhap seemed more alive and more fully herself than Tilly had ever seen her before. “They’re foreign imports and hard to come by, so they might help us track her down. Ready?”
“To go back to that shop.”
A fear went through Tilly cold and quick. Wouldn’t it be better for Mayhap to go alone? After all, if the witch saw Tilly—assuming she could recognize her—it might make things even worse. “No,” she said, teetering on the edge of her decision, “but I guess I’ll have to be.”
A gang of rooks circled above the entrance to the shop. Now closed for the day, its battered windows were covered with some kind of cloth on the inside. Mayhap held Tilly and the pot in her left hand while her right knocked incessantly on the door. A drizzle had started to come down while they were riding the bus back to Fighallow, and it was now starting to pour more heavily. To Tilly, though, it felt wonderful.
“What are you doing?” Tilly said, noticing Mayhap trying to pry open the door. “You can’t just go in.”
“It’ll be fine,” Mayhap said. “I do this all the time.”
Tilly felt another wave of fear. “But…it’s against the law. Maybe you do it all the time, but I don’t. Principles, Mayhap. If extenuating circumstances can cast away all my morals like dust in the wind, who am I? Not to get philosophical on you, but still.”
Mayhap stopped and stared at her. She set the pot down on the sidewalk. “How’s the view from up there on Mount Superior? Tilly, I’m trying to help you. I’ve got other stuff going on—important, even kind of dangerous stuff that’s going to wreak havoc on my life if I don’t get it sorted out today or tomorrow—but I’m dropping everything to help you. I know this isn’t something you’d do, but it’s what I’m doing. I don’t know what else to do.” She picked Tilly up again. “If it’s any comfort, I don’t think you as a flower can be charged with a crime.”
She had a point. Tilly felt bad for justifying it so easily, so quickly, but as the wind picked up and slanting rain began to beat against the window glass, and as she noticed Mayhap shivering in the cold, she made her decision. “As you were.”
Guilt fell upon her—almost inexplicably, she thought, considering that she was a dead woman if she couldn’t find a way back. When her life was at stake, breaking into someone’s shop surely wasn’t significant, was it? Or was it more important to stay true to her principles even if it meant dying an avoidable death?
Mayhap got the door open and, picking Tilly up, slipped inside.
The darkness was heavy and thick, but Tilly’s flower eyes—she still didn’t quite know how exactly she was able to see, since she didn’t have eyeballs—seemed to see even better than normal. The shop ran tall and narrow and deep, with shelving along the sides and an occasional display table in the middle. Packed everywhere to almost overflowing, jammed in every shelf and spilling out on the display tables, were toys. Innocent, ordinary toys. Seeing them, Tilly let out a sigh of relief—given the witch’s association with it, she’d half expected a wicked shop of arcane evil, something that clearly said Bad Things Happen Here, but this was harmless. As she thought that, however, she wondered if that was in fact the intent, and if that intent was a mask. The toys took on a creepy cast. Tilly began to feel more vulnerable than she’d yet felt in her life.
“What are we looking for?” she asked as Mayhap carried her quietly down past shelf after shelf of dolls and boats and bats.
“Don’t know yet. Don’t talk. Just listen.”
They got near the back end of the shop, where a rusty old till sat on a table amidst overflowing piles of rag rabbits and cotton voles. Behind the table, a thin staircase had been squeezed into the wall, leading perilously up and down.
A trainful of second thoughts went through Tilly’s head. “Let’s go,” she whispered. “Not safe.”
Mayhap ignored her and set her down on a shelf next to a disconcerting thin clown doll. She then poked around in some drawers behind the till; Tilly assumed she was looking for receipts, since that would probably be the only way they’d find out who the witch was. Mayhap was quiet about it, but the longer they stayed there, the more nervous Tilly got. It was only a matter of time till someone else came in. And that was if there wasn’t already someone upstairs or downstairs—perhaps the proprietor lived here. While the rain beating against the front window was covering sounds they might make, they really had to go.
“May—” and she stopped, realizing that using their names wasn’t wise. “Let’s go. Please.”
Mayhap gave her a glare as she softly pushed a drawer back in, her sleeves covering her hands. She motioned for Tilly to stay put—which would have been amusing some other time—and tiptoed down the stairs.
Tilly frowned as best she could. She should have stayed outside. While Mayhap was apparently a witch, which admittedly meant she had powers Tilly didn’t know about, which could also mean they weren’t in quite as much danger as she thought they were—even so, Tilly would much rather be safe outside in the rain.
She looked around and tried to ignore the clown beside her. How had she gotten herself into this mess? Funny how a single, small event can change everything. If this lasted through the night, she’d have to ask Mayhap to tell Jhori and Paka, since she couldn’t very well clean the shop if she didn’t have hands, let alone bake anything. She’d been so close to getting permission to bake an ilora seed cake, too. So many things she’d never get to do. Marriage. Children. Growing old and cranky. In a way, though, it was better this happened now, before she had a husband and a horde; this way she wasn’t really leaving anyone behind. She’d still rather it not happen this way at all, though.
A scraping sound at the front of the shop drew her attention. There was someone talking outside, and the way the light coming in the door crack was shifting, they were probably trying to come inside. Tilly began to shake with fear.
“Psst,” she whispered quietly for a moment. No way to alert Mayhap. She’d just have to hope they left quickly, whoever it was. Probably the proprietor.
The door handle rattled and turned but got stuck. Tilly heard what sounded like cursing. After more scraping sounds, a click punctured the air and the door slowly swung open.
It was an older man, bald on top with wild tendril hair out the sides, a bit heavyset. Behind him followed a woman whose face in the dim light of the street lamp appeared to be made of makeup. The man closed the door behind them and they began to tiptoe their way through the shop.
Not good. Mayhap was surely going to come up any moment now, and while these people clearly weren’t the shop’s proprietors, the inevitable confrontation was bound to cause some noise. Tilly wished she had legs.
As the man and woman got closer, Tilly accidentally let out a quiet gasp. It couldn’t be. There was no way he was here, on Fighallow. Her mind felt slippery and tangled, mixed with fear and anger. They’d been sure he’d taken one of the wagon trains up north. It had to be someone else, someone who just looked like him. But the tarty woman fit the picture. He would never change, would he. Except he hadn’t been a burglar before—at least not as far as Tilly knew.
The man—her father, Nud—bumped into a rickety table and knocked several padded frogs to the floor. He and the woman both stopped dead still. After nothing happened, he put the frogs back on the table and moved further in, closer to Tilly.
“What does it look like?” said the woman in a husky whisper. Tilly hated her already.
“Quiet,” her father spat out. Yes, it was him. No question. But how did he get here? When? Had he been here the whole time? Tilly never would have come onto Fighallow if she’d known he lived around here. “They’re dark. Probably the size of your hand.”
Tilly was halfway through deciding whether to say something when Mayhap burst up out of the staircase and twitched with her hands, similar to what Tilly had seen the other witch do earlier that day. A vast sense of open, chasmic space erupted between Mayhap on one side and Nud and the tart on the other. A barrier, apparently. Tilly—who was on Nud’s side of the rift—knew Mayhap was only a few feet away, but it felt like she was a world away.
The tart had been wiping a bit of makeup off her face. Not more than a second after Mayhap’s trick, the woman spread her fingers and out came a ball of darkness that juddered down to the floor and grew until it was the size of a small, slouched child. It proceeded to lurch forward, eating the invisible space, munching away at the vastness. Mayhap looked panicked on the other side of the room. She was twitching her fingers more but nothing was happening. Finally, she glanced over at Tilly and mouthed a quick “I’m sorry” before dashing upstairs.
The darkness finished eating the space and lurched up after her.
Horror blossomed in Tilly’s mind, turning everything into a shaking frenzy. The tart was a witch. Mayhap was a witch. Was there anyone who wasn’t a witch? Did her father know the tart was a witch? He looked surprised, speechless, but that had been a common affect of his.
The tart slid across the rest of the room somehow and tromped up the stairs after her pet, scowling at Nud as she went by.
Scuffling upstairs followed by a thud.
Tilly couldn’t bear it anymore. Though she could scarcely breathe with the incessant pounding of her heartbeat, she cried out. “Dad! Stop! Tell her to stop!”
A scratching sound above, then silence.
A frightened, confused look grabbed Nud’s face, widening his eyes and dropping his jaw as he looked around trying to see where the voice was coming from. “It’s not me,” he stuttered. “It was all her. I’m not involved. I’m leaving now.”
“It’s me, Tilly,” she said. “Dad, listen to me.”
Nud stopped in the middle of a step. More calmly—almost too calmly—he said, “I don’t know what kind of magic this is, but you’ve made a mistake.” He picked up a solid-looking toy from the table next to him. “My daughter’s been dead five years.”
He hurled the toy right at Tilly. It clocked the clown and knocked it back against the shelf but somehow didn’t hit Tilly at all.
Nud’s change in demeanor confused Tilly further; while he was a man of many sins, this was a side to him she hadn’t seen before. And meanwhile Mayhap was almost certainly dying upstairs, which sent Tilly into another spiral of panic.
“It’s really me, Dad. I’m not dead. Never was. Please make her stop.” Begging her father for anything made her feel sick to her stomach, but it had to be done. “Ask me whatever you want. I can prove it’s me. But hurry, please.”
Nud cursed and threw the toy. It hit the shelf above Tilly and scattered a handful of small bunnies onto the floor.
“She’s dead,” he said, puffing. He walked over to the stairs and hollered up, “Are you done already? Let’s go.” Then, muttering to himself, “Place deserves a good burning.”
The tarty witch came down the stairs dragging Mayhap by the hand. Mayhap was still alive—terrified eyes blinking and all—but she’d been folded up into a suitcase shape, all but one extended arm whose hand now served as a handle. Tilly held back a scream.
“Took you long enough,” Nud said. “Now let’s get the minns and go.”
“Can’t,” the tart said. “Dawn.”
Nud spat on the ground. “What are you going to do with her?”
“This flower here is claiming to be my dead daughter. Needs a friend, I think.”
The tart smiled, and such a hopelessly malicious grin Tilly hoped to never see again. “Let Krotkadilly have them both? That’ll do. That’ll do nicely.”
Setting Mayhap on the ground, she swabbed more makeup off her face and twitched her fingers. Mayhap melted down into a wilted lavender-colored flower. The tart grabbed her and handed her to Nud. “You can do the honors. Quick, though.”
Nud laughed—Tilly wasn’t sure why—and pushed Mayhap into the pot with her. “A flower for my daughter, a flower for my wife. Maybe I’ll come back someday and pay my respects.” He laughed again and followed the tart out the door, waving to Tilly as he closed the door behind him.
“I am so sorry,” Tilly said to Mayhap. “I shouldn’t have said anything. It’s all my fault. Does it hurt? It looked awful.”
Mayhap didn’t respond.
“Mayhap, can you hear me? Can you move?”
Mayhap didn’t move.
Fear was swiftly becoming Tilly’s constant companion, and she wondered if she’d ever get used to it. Both of them were stuck here now, Mayhap was incapacitated somehow and no longer had fingers—the fingers seemed to be needed to use the talent, a detached part of her brain told her—and there was something or someone called Krotkadilly on its way and they sounded ominous to say the least.
Tilly had been sitting there next to Mayhap, whispering half-hearted assurances as the light of dawn began filtering in through the crack in the door, when something stirred upstairs.
An overpowering whiff of orange and lily blew through the room. Footsteps. Water running. Whistling. Tilly couldn’t hear it clearly but it sounded like “That Old Sailor.” A more subtle smell of vegetables frying came down and Tilly felt hungry. She needed sunlight and water. That’s what she needed, and soon. This wasn’t going to go well, she could tell.
“I don’t know what’s going to happen, Mayhap, but in case we’re near the end of our path, thank you for being my friend all this time. And for helping me out.” She paused as a wave of regret and sadness hit her. “I should’ve kept you out of it. I’m sorry.” She paused again. “And…I’m sorry for what I said at lunch. I shouldn’t have.”
How differently this day could have—and should have gone.
Tilly heard the footsteps—Krotkadilly’s footsteps, no doubt—get louder, and then whoever it was was on the stairs, coming down. Tilly tried to be as still as she could. Better to pretend to be a normal flower, she thought, at least at first.
Krotkadilly turned the landing and came into view, whistling the final chorus. She looked to be in her early forties, had ink-black hair up in a messy bun, and appeared to be seven or eight months pregnant. She waddled into the room and sniffed.
“Visitors, eh? You may as well show yourselves and save me the trouble.” Her voice was higher than Tilly expected.
Tilly debated whether she should say something. It wasn’t as if she and Mayhap could escape detection for long—this was Krotkadilly’s store, after all, and she was bound to find them quickly. Early compliance might be a boon here.
“We’re here,” Tilly said, her voice cracking. “I want to apologize. My—” and then she changed her mind, in case Krotkadilly decided to take revenge on them. An incomplete version of the truth would suffice, she decided, though she felt a little guilty about it. “A man and a woman put us here. I don’t know who they were.” Which was true, in a way, since her father had changed enough that she may as well consider him a different person. Still, it was a lie. She shouldn’t have said it.
Krotkadilly lifted her head and came over to them. “Aha. Talking flowers. Let’s see, are you darlings carrying a trap?” She picked up the pot and turned it around. “No. Some kind of recording charm, then? Spell’s a bit amateur, though. I’m not getting anything. Wait. That smell. That one, yes, that one. It’s as if…no, why would they do that? Incompetents. But that has to be it.”
So Krotkadilly clearly had the talent. Maybe she could change them back, but why would she? They were trespassing, and if she was any good at running this shop, she surely wouldn’t reveal who her customers were. While Tilly felt that she should just tell her everything and hope for the best, staying quiet seemed the more prudent path, at least for now.
“Who were you, before this?” Krotkadilly had placed them back on the shelf and was now folding her arms and frowning. “Come on, I have to get things ready for the day. Almost time to open.”
“I was…” Tilly began. Should she give her a fake name? She still didn’t know if Krotkadilly was dangerous or not. “I’m Tilly Wintmin. I’m a nobody.”
“Nobody is a nobody,” Krotkadilly said. “But that’s unfortunate. I’d hoped for someone famous.”
Tilly took a breath. “Can you turn us back? Into humans?”
Krotkadilly bit her lip and swatted at a fly that had gotten in. After an agonizing silence, she said, “Sure. It’s dangerous, you know, but yes, I can do that. Wouldn’t have gotten much for you anyway. Hold still.” She let out a little giggle.
“Thank you,” Tilly said, ignoring the joke.
“Quiet! This takes concentration. Okay. Here goes.”
Krotkadilly tapped her nose a few times, then held the bridge of her nose as if she had a headache. “I’m sorry, give me a minute. I know this. It’s just been a while.”
Tilly began to worry. Krotkadilly may have the talent, but that didn’t necessarily mean she was any good at it. If she didn’t know what she was doing, wouldn’t it be better to find someone else? But who?
“Okay, for real this time. One, two,” and then Krotkadilly sneezed. “Sorry. Oh! I almost forgot.” She pulled the pot off the shelf and put it on the floor. “That would’ve been embarrassing. Even more for real now. One, two, three!”
On three, Krotkadilly twitched her fingers. Tilly felt something swell up inside her, up into her head, like a balloon inside being blown up by someone in a hurry. It hurt. But she felt herself growing larger, rising up toward the ceiling. She saw stars burst and heard the wind suck in and then, teetering on her feet, she looked down and found that she was human again.
“Thank you so much!” she said to Krotkadilly. Tilly turned to see how Mayhap was doing. But the person standing next to her was not Mayhap. No, it was some middle-aged man Tilly had never seen before—reedy thin, eyes wide, his hands up in the air. Something had gone wrong. Where was Mayhap?
“Please don’t kill me, please please, please don’t,” the man mumbled. “Wife and kids. Let me go, please. I won’t say a word.”
Definitely not Mayhap.
Tilly tried not to panic. She tried to think through the possibilities to calm herself. Mayhap was still missing. Tilly thought the person folded up into a suitcase had been Mayhap, but maybe it was someone else, in which case Mayhap might still be upstairs. Or perhaps the tart had turned someone else into a flower, in which case Tilly had no idea where Mayhap was. Or perhaps Krotkadilly’s talent wasn’t very good after all and she’d messed things up and turned the flower into someone else, in which case she also had no idea what to do. One thing was sure, though: the person standing next to her wasn’t Mayhap, and Tilly was pretty sure he had never been Mayhap either.
“Okay, there you go,” Krotkadilly said. “Mind helping me get the shop ready? Repayment and all.” She eyed the man. “I’m not going to kill you. Stop blabbering.”
“That’s not my friend,” Tilly said. “My friend’s a woman. Her name is Mayhap. That’s not her. I don’t know who this is.”
Krotkadilly shook her head. “I did what I could. That’s who was in the flower. Sorry. Can you get that broom over there? Behind—yes, that’s it. Make sure you get the dust under the tables. It’s ridiculous how much new dust there is every morning. I could swear there’s something going on, just haven’t been able to figure it out.” She was now going through the till’s drawer.
Tilly found herself sweeping the floor. She hadn’t quite intended to, but it just happened. “What about my friend? How do I find her?”
Krotkadilly shrugged and started whistling again, this time a tune Tilly didn’t know.
The frightened man had composed himself. “This is bizarre.” He coughed.
“I’m sorry you got pulled into this,” Tilly said to him. “Where were you before it happened?”
“Sitting on my front porch,” he said. “I’m going to leave now.” He turned to Krotkadilly. “I don’t know if you’re the one who pulled me here—” Krotkadilly shook her head. “Well, thank you for changing me back.”
“Good luck,” Tilly said.
He ran out the door. As he left, more of the orange and lily scent wafted through the room.
“He was extraordinarily helpful,” Krotkadilly said with a scowl.
“He was scared. Didn’t deserve any of this.”
Krotkadilly shoved the till drawer shut and began waddling around the room, tidying shelves with one hand and rubbing her swollen belly with the other. “That’s presumptious. What if he beats his children? How do you know he doesn’t have a dozen bodies rotting in his backyard? Even if he’s innocent, though—whatever that means—does anyone actually deserve anything? Things happen to everyone. I’m not convinced deserts have anything to do with it.”
In the middle of Krotkadilly’s philosophizing, Tilly remembered Mayhap—how had she managed to forget her only a couple minutes later?—and almost dropped the broom. “I…I have to find my friend.”
The fly buzzed by again and landed on one of the clowns.
“Wait! Can you see if that fly is her?”
Krotkadilly raised an eyebrow. “Pretty sure it’s just a fly.”
“Can you check, though?”
“You’ve swept what, maybe three feet of floor? Gratitude appears to be a dying art, doesn’t it.”
“I’m sorry,” Tilly said. “I appreciate what you’ve done. Thank you.” She began sweeping more vigorously. “If I had the talent, I would do it myself.”
Krotkadilly, who had finished tidying shelves and was now writing out some price tags, stopped and straightened. “But…you do have the talent.”
Tilly’s heart gave a little twist. Impossible. Nothing anything like magic had ever happened to her, and she was sure she’d know deep inside if she harbored some latent talent. “How can you tell?”
With a grin, Krotkadilly waved her off. “Maybe I shouldn’t have done that. You don’t actually have the talent, but wasn’t it wonderful for just a moment to believe that you did?”
Tilly’s soaring hopes crashed into a tangle of emotional weeds. “That was mean,” she said, feeling like a child even as she said it. But she wasn’t the one she should care about here—Mayhap might be in that fly. With a faltering voice, she continued. “Can you see if she’s the fly?”
“Last favor,” Krotkadilly said. She scrunched up her face. “I don’t know why I’m wasting my stores on you. If the Bones come by today, I’ll be serving you a heaping mound of regret, that’s what I’ll be doing.” She reached out and easily plucked the fly off the clown. “Let’s see. It’s not easy to tell, by the way. Some auras are obvious, but some are shaded, hidden under layers of…stuff.”
“Stuff?” Tilly realized she was tapping her foot against the ground and forced herself to stop.
Krotkadilly took a deep breath and held the fly up to her face. “In the middle of this. Layers. It doesn’t matter. Sometimes I can see through them, sometimes I can’t.”
“So if you can’t see an aura, that doesn’t necessarily mean she’s not in there.”
“Right. I’m not getting anything. If this is her—and I’m telling you, I really don’t think it is—then she’s tucked away deeper than I can go. If she’s going to be found at all, you’ll have better luck somewhere else. Watch that table, it has a loose leg.”
She was right. The chance of the fly being Mayhap was small, though still there. It would make more sense for Tilly to find her father and the tart. With another twinge of guilt, she said, “The man and the woman who took us here—they were talking about minns. Maybe hoggaminns, hangaminns? I can’t remember.”
Krotkadilly bit her lip. “Never should have agreed to it. Nothing but trouble.” She sank down into a chair. “This man and woman—who are they? And why didn’t you tell me earlier?”
“I tried,” Tilly said. “I mean, I did tell you. Maybe you didn’t hear me. The man was pudgy, balding, sad eyes with big bags under them. The woman had a mountain of makeup on her face and was otherwise, um, forgettable.”
“What did they touch? In here. Which specific things?”
Tilly thought she had been paying attention back then, but her memory was starting to get a little fuzzy. She could barely remember what the woman that morning looked like, or who that man was who helped her on the bicycle. Perhaps flowers didn’t have great long-term memory. “He threw something at me. It fell on the floor. Over there, I think.”
Krotkadilly went over to the table where she’d placed the toys that had fallen onto the floor. “This one?”
“I don’t know.”
“I’ll figure it out later. For now, I should just put a ‘no hagaminns’ sign on the door. That’ll do it, no doubt.”
Tilly looked at her. “Do you really think that would—” and then realized Krotkadilly wasn’t serious. She blushed. “I need to find my friend before it’s too late. I’ll come back later after I’ve found her and sweep some more. Thank you again for helping me.”
“Fine,” Krotkadilly said. “What’s your name again?”
“Not my style.”
“Trying to decide what I’ll name the baby. Good luck finding your friend. What’s her name?”
“Mayhap,” Tilly said, opening the door. “I wouldn’t recommend it.”
Tilly stepped out into the street. The sun was so bright that she had to close her eyes. It felt good to be outside again.
She hadn’t taken more than a few steps down the sidewalk, however, before the skin on her arms and face began to sting. Rubbing helped some, but not enough, and the stinging was getting stronger. An allergic reaction to being human again? Or some side effect from her time as a flower? She noticed that the pain only affected her skin that was exposed to the sun. To test that, she stepped into the shadow of a thin alleyway between shops. Sure enough, the stinging faded away.
This was going to be inconvenient.
But maybe it would be a temporary condition, Tilly told herself. Rather than panicking now, she should give it a few days and reassess it then. Hopefully at that point it would be merely an uncomfortable memory.
After another minute of walking out under the sun, the stinging had begun to feel like weevils burrowing under her skin—not just the physical discomfort of a million tiny pokes, but also a deep, convincing feeling that her body was home to things that were not her. She tried to keep walking but just couldn’t do it. She ducked into the shade of the next alley.
This was more than inconvenient. If she couldn’t leave the alley soon, she had that much less of a chance of finding Mayhap before it was too late. She needed to cover her arms and face somehow.
She could go home, but it was still too far away. She could buy new clothes, but there weren’t any clothing shops in this part of Fighallow, and as she felt at her pockets she remembered that she’d only taken enough money for the roast quisling. She could beg, but she couldn’t see anyone on the streets. A memory hazily floated up into her mind—there was a festival going on by the train station sometime soon. Maybe that’s where everyone was. That reminded her that Mayhap’s apartment wasn’t too far away now that she was human size again. That might be—
“My alley,” a voice croaked from behind a pile of wood slapped up against the brick. “Not room enough. Off with you.”
“I’m sorry,” Tilly said, “I didn’t mean to intrude. My skin is—”
“Go away, or I’ll sic my dog on you.”
Tilly heard a low growl that sounded suspiciously like the voice. She put her hands up. “I’m trying to leave, but—”
An old, shriveled woman climbed to her feet behind the wood. She pulled her shawl tighter around herself and spat on the ground. “Get her, Snake.”
Before Tilly had time to think about much of anything, a large white dog leaped out into the alley—large enough that there was no way she wouldn’t have been able to see it before—and gave a loud, keening howl that set Tilly’s bones a-shiver.
As she popped out of the alleyway, her skin crawling and her heart juddering, she turned in the direction of Mayhap’s apartment and prayed the dog or wolf or whatever it was would give up the chase now that she was off its owner’s turf. She glanced behind. No such luck. It loped after her, still angry, but another glance revealed that it had a limp. Maybe she would be able to outrun it after all. She was already almost out of breath, though.
Past the river she ran. She wondered if swimming would help relieve the pain. Her arms felt like they were wrapped in hives of angry bees. The good thing, though, was that it didn’t seem to be getting much worse than that. It was annoying and it definitely hurt, but it wasn’t incapacitating.
She ran next to the train tracks. In the distance ahead she could see the station, and there was indeed a festival encircling it. Maybe she could lose the dog there. As if it could hear her thoughts, it barked at her.
Her legs felt like lead weights, her right calf was on the verge of getting a cramp, and her mouth felt more dry than it had ever felt in her life. Tilly muttered a few impolite words under her breath at the dog and wondered again whether her life would ever return to normal. If only her arms really did have bees that she could send in the dog’s direction.
The festival buzzed with people. Groups of people sprawled out on picnic blankets on the far side of the tracks. A small town of tents had been set up flanking the station, with all kinds of activities going on. Tilly weaved her way through the pockets where the most people were, ignoring the tenters yelling at her, ignoring the delicious smells of cooking meat, and ignoring the fact that it wasn’t long before she would have to stop and catch her breath and rest her legs.
She looked over her shoulder. Thankfully, blissfully, the dog was at last gone. She still expected it to jump out at her from behind a tent, though.
She cut across to the side and found a stump that someone had left next to a tent. “Is it okay if I sit here?” she said in the direction of the tent, not really expecting an answer.
“Aye,” came a deep voice from inside. “Sit away.”
She maneuvered the stump into the shade and slumped down on it. Her heart rate was starting to slow down. Her arms and face still felt as prickly as a spineflower’s kiss, but she’d be okay. She’d made it. She relaxed.
In spite of her determination to stay awake along with the loud sounds from the festival, she found herself drifting off to sleep.
“Time for you to be moving on,” the deep voice said, waking Tilly. The voice belonged to a short girl who couldn’t have been much older than her. The girl’s face was painted ghost-white, with an unhealthy amount of rouge smeared onto her cheeks. “It won’t be as safe here once I’m gone.”
“Thank you,” Tilly said. She sat up and rubbed her eyes. It looked to be around noon, based on the sun. There was still a chance Mayhap had gotten home somehow; she would have clothes there, too, so it made the most sense to go there.
The girl hadn’t moved. “I need the stump,” she said.
“Oh, I’m sorry,” Tilly said, standing and moving away from the stump to the edge of the remaining shade. “I’ll go now.” She tucked her arms inside her blouse and got ready to go.
“You must be the new lady in Kadilly’s troupe?” The girl had rolled the stump onto its side and was pulling things out of a compartment built into it. “Armless wonder?”
“No, sensitive skin,” Tilly said. “The sunlight hurts me.”
“Oh,” the girl said, long and drawn out. She mimicked a mosquito sucker. “You’re a vampire. I get it now. Not all that obvious, though.”
Tilly shook her head. “I’m not a vampire. I’m not in any troupe. It’s a long story. What do you do here?”
The girl began making a rumbling, ululating music down in her throat, a monotonous but entrancing stream of sound.
“That’s lovely,” Tilly said. “I wish I—”
A man in a gray suit came around the tent. “Amaline, one minute till curtain, and I need you to help Otto get into his suit if you have time.” He stopped as he saw Tilly. “What’s this? Armless girl? Mother earth below, Kadilly is losing his touch.” He ran his hands through his thinning hair. “Well, there’s no time for a new costume. Get out there and sing or dance or something.”
“I’m not part of the show,” Tilly said, blushing and putting her hands up.
A scowl crept into the man’s mouth, and she was sure then that any tolerance he had for her was about to reach its limit. “That’s what they all say. Sister, as long as I’m paying you, you’re part of the show. Go help Amaline.”
“I told you—”
“Now!” His cheeks were getting red. “Any more lip from you and I’ll cut the coins for the whole troupe, you hear? Talk to Kadilly and tell him that. But not till after the show. Go! Now!”
Tilly wanted to grab the man and shake him till he started listening to her, but he seemed the sort that might do something drastic if pushed too hard. She didn’t want Kadilly’s troupe—was Kadilly related to Krotkadilly? she wondered—not to get paid because of her. With luck, she could probably slip away without the man noticing, and she doubted he would even remember what he’d said. As soon as Amaline turned her back, Tilly would be off.
“Let’s go before he makes good on it,” Amaline said, grabbing Tilly’s arm through the blouse and pulling her hard across the grass toward another tent. Tilly tried to resist but the girl seemed made of iron.
“I really need to go,” Tilly said. “I’m not part of the troupe.”
“You’re an honorary member now. Their lives are already hard enough. Don’t make things any harder.”
Bother. Any hope she’d had of Amaline turning sympathetic to her cause now drained away. Her urgency to find Mayhap aside, Tilly really didn’t want to go up on the stage as part of a curiosity show, as something to be ogled at. The thought made her sick to her stomach.
“I’m sorry about the troupe,” she said. “Truly, I am. But my friend is missing. I have to find her before she can’t be found anymore.”
Amaline stopped at one of the shorter, burlap tents, from which a heavy burnt odor curled. She looked at Tilly and said, “Hold it till after the show. I know someone.” She flung open the tent flap and swore when her finger caught on a nail that had been dangling from it. “Otto, get your tubby mass out here where I can see you, and bring that filthy suit.”
Tilly wasn’t entirely sure what she’d expected, but the young, thin, curly-locked blond boy who emerged was not it. This child couldn’t have been more than three or four. Tilly felt a maternal urge seize her—this boy belonged in the arms of a loving mother, not on a festival stage to be jeered at.
In his hands he hefted a furry suit that looked like a coon, tail and all. He dropped it on the ground in front of Amaline and folded his arms.
“Get it on,” she said. “Less than a minute.”
Tilly waved to him. “My name’s Tilly.” She stuck her hand out for a shake.
“This suit,” Otto said, “is a disgrace. It’s ugly, it doesn’t fit, and as far as I’m concerned, it should be dropped in a bonfire. If you want me parading about that infernal stage, you’ll need to find me something more appropriate for a man of my ilk.”
Tilly blinked. This festival was turning out to be a garden of surprises. She slowly withdrew her hand—which Otto had ignored—back into her blouse.
Amaline grabbed hold of Otto’s arm and, paying no heed to his curses and squeals, stuffed him into the suit. When she finished tying the buttons together and stepped back, Tilly couldn’t help but admit that the boy had become adorable.
“When I get my height back,” Otto said, making several rude gestures at Amaline, “I’ll remember that you’re among those who conscripted me into this unsightly affair. Be warned.” He ran off in the direction of the stage.
“Come on, we’ve only got a few seconds left,” Amaline said to her.
Tilly followed her and Otto through a trail of mud that wound past several tents and led to the side of the stage. From there they climbed the rickety steps, made their way through a horde of costumed people donning makeup, and ended up behind a tall, black curtain. Tilly didn’t have time to notice anything more before Amaline pushed her up next to the curtain and whispered, “Make me proud, armless girl.”
Two short, gnarled old men tiredly tugged on a rope off to the side. The curtain opened. The show had begun.
The crowd engulfing the stage erupted into mocking applause as Tilly stumbled forward. Otto and half a dozen other performers flanked her. They seemed comfortable under the gaze of the masses, she thought, whereas she felt like her face and body had been lit aflame. She had to get off the stage. Especially before the flotilla of clouds above sailed off and left her to the harsh light of the sun.
She began slinking as surreptitiously as she could back toward the bunched curtain at the side.
“Fight! Fight! Let’s see a fight!” A disheveled young man in the front held pitted peach halves in one hand and a dagger in the other. He gave a chilling wolfcry and tossed the blade onto the stage.
Nobody had said anything about fighting. This wasn’t like any festival she’d been to before—stages were for performances, not cockfights. Everyone knew that, didn’t they? Had things changed so much in the past few years? Tilly tried to calm the out of control beating of her heart and stepped back again.
“No fights,” shouted a man who emerged from somewhere behind Tilly. She stopped. His fluid movements and radiating self-assurance, deadly but calm, reminded her of a panther she’d seen at the Halcyon festival long ago. The man kicked the dagger back to its owner. “Savagery is beneath us.”
“Coward.” The young man spat on the wood in front of him as he sheathed the dagger.
The man ignored him and moved up near the front of the stage. Otto and the others gathered in a semicircle behind him. Tilly stepped back again, almost to the curtain, but Amaline poked her head out and hissed at her to join the semicircle. Tilly shook her head.
“Gentlemen and ladies and rabble,” the man said, clasping his hands together, “My name is Kadilly. Some of you have heard of my illustrious troupe. For those who haven’t yet seen our performance, rest assured that the rumors are all mercilessly true, as you’ll see for yourselves momentarily. First, though, introductions.”
Tilly was halfway through another step backward—maybe she could take off running and get away in time, as long as Amaline didn’t catch her—when Kadilly stepped quickly toward her and grabbed her shoulder. She froze.
“This,” he said, his grip firm and almost painful, “the newest member of our troupe, is the Turtle. She was born in the watery depths of the Insalay, where I found her last year. I prefer her new human form—don’t you? As you can see, though, she hasn’t shrugged off her old shellish habits just yet.” He laughed and patted her blouse-hidden arms.
Oh please oh please let it be over, she thought, blushing so deep she was afraid she would never be able to stop.
“I don’t know who you are,” Kadilly whispered with his lips barely moving, “or what you’re doing here, but we’re shorthanded, so thank you.” For the audience: “Please welcome our Turtle!”
As he moved on to introduce the other performers, her panic began to fade away, even though she was still exposed and onstage. He’d woven that story whole cloth just now, hadn’t he. She admired that, and his unexpected gratitude made her feel almost at home. She still had no idea what she was supposed to be doing as part of the performance, though.
Trying to swallow the rest of her fear, Tilly looked out over the audience. Hundreds had gathered, old and young alike. Hundreds more wandered among the scattered tents. Buskers, merchants with wares aplenty, and, on the far side, the food tents. The smell of grilled meat wafted past her and lit a craving in her stomach. She hadn’t eaten in far too long, she realized. What she wouldn’t do right now for a nice, juicy—
She blinked. At the edge of the crowd watching the show, just in front of a pair of gaudy old tents carrying the signs of the milliner and the cobbler, she could have sworn she’d just seen Nud and the tart.
Kadilly was introducing Otto, saying something about his illustrious parentage. Otto was surprisingly well behaved.
Tilly looked again. Yes, it was them. Nud had some kind of pastry in hand, the sight of which set off another hunger pang. The tart wore a ridiculous tall fowl-boat hat and seemed to be fiddling with the wooden pole the cobbler’s sign had been nailed to.
The tart would know where Mayhap was, wouldn’t she? While she probably wouldn’t deign to tell Tilly anything—not to mention the risk that she’d turn her back into a flower—perhaps Nud would listen and somehow persuade her to help. Right—and perhaps the sun was actually a plucked chicken, too. Tilly’s father wouldn’t help, she was sure of that. But she had to try.
Running straight off the stage had its appeal, but a glance showed that Amaline was still backstage, and even if Tilly didn’t get caught, pushing through the crowd would be slow and would draw too much attention anyway. She could try to set off a distraction of some kind, but she had nothing to work with. Bother.
“And now,” Kadilly said with raised arms, “let the show begin!” He bowed and walked backstage, ignoring Tilly as he went.
Otto and the others moved into a circle. Tilly’s panic surged. She still didn’t know what she was supposed to be doing—was this an acrobatic act? A dance? A freak show? Amaline made music, so perhaps a dance, but Tilly knew none of the moves. She shuffled over and stood behind the circle.
“Yellow mark,” Otto hissed. “You’re in the wrong spot.”
She looked around and—aha—saw a splotch of yellow paint on the floor off to the side. She shuffled back and stood on it, her face even redder, praying this misery would end soon. Sadly, the delicious smell had disappeared. A flock of geese flew overhead.
Amaline’s throat-singing began, pulsing low, and to its beat Otto and the rest marched in place. The crowd went silent, except for one baby who’d been wailing the whole time and gave no indication of stopping anytime soon.
“The circle,” Kadilly said from behind the curtain, “is now formed and prepared. Behold!”
Otto jumped straight up, and to Tilly’s surprise and the crowd’s gasp, he landed a few feet off the ground. Standing there in the air and raising his head to the sky, he crowed a melody that went beautifully with Amaline’s music. It also gave Tilly goosebumps. What was she supposed to do? She suspected she wasn’t going to like it much.
One of the other performers, a tall, wispy woman with shock-white hair, waved her arms around as if she were washing a window. A flash of light went off, and when Tilly’s eyes adjusted, she could see through the woman. A ghost. Several people in the crowd screamed.
In that moment, Tilly realized she already had her distraction. She needed to act now. As the next performer did his trick—porcupine needles from his fingertips—she slowly edged her way to the back of the stage. Amaline didn’t seem to notice. Nud and the tart were still next to the cobbler’s tent, watching the show.
Tilly made it past the curtain, safely offstage, and relief swept over her. She turned to find the way out and bumped into Kadilly.
“Get back out there!” he said. “You’re up next.”
“I can’t,” Tilly said, her heart fluttering with resurrected panic. “I’m not even supposed to be here. My friend’s missing—someone took her—and I have to find her. I’m sorry.”
Kadilly watched her closely for a long moment. His face fell. “And you had so much potential. Fine. You put me in a difficult situation, mind. If there’s any way you can stay, I’d greatly appreciate it. But if not, go, find your friend.”
“Thank you,” Tilly said.
But Kadilly was already moving toward the costumed horde milling about, presumably to find a replacement. Tilly felt a little bad for potentially ruining his show, but the performances were already captivating enough without her—what would she have been able to add?—and her relief at being safely offstage was profound. Now to find Nud and the tart. If the latter couldn’t or wouldn’t find Mayhap for her, at some point she’d have to come back and beg Amaline—who surely wouldn’t be happy with her—take her to that person she’d mentioned.
Tilly made her way through the backstage area and out into the sun, which had come out from behind the clouds. Her face began to sting again, but goodness if it didn’t feel like the best thing that had happened to her today.
Avoiding the show crowd, Tilly walked among the tents toward Nud and the tart. They hadn’t moved, thankfully. Tilly began to feel an icy fear slide into her chest as she remembered—more vaguely by the minute, it seemed—her time as a flower. The tart wouldn’t do something like that in front of everyone, though. At least Tilly hoped she wouldn’t. And if she did, surely Tilly would be able to get someone to take her back to Krotkadilly’s shop.
The one thing she hadn’t thought much about yet was what her father had said in the shop, that she’d been dead five years. When the plague came, her mother had fallen ill first. Tilly caught it next and was bedridden for several miserable weeks, the last of which turned dreadful when her mother passed. Shortly after that—she was unclear on just how long it had been—Tilly started to get better. A day or two before she was able to get out of bed, Nud left. She thought he’d gone to get some bread from the neighborhood bakery. He never came back. But Tilly had clearly been recovering—why would he think she had died?
The only thing Tilly could think of was that perhaps Essalire—Nud’s sister—had lied to him, and that he had been too torn apart by grief to bear returning. But that made no sense. More likely, Essalire had had nothing to do with it and there was another explanation entirely.
Regardless, imagining Nud’s reaction—he’d think Tilly a ghost, no doubt—made her smile. She covered her mouth and tried to stifle a laugh. Facing him required a stern, stone front. He’d abandoned her, after all. Not that he’d been an ideal father before that, and she couldn’t say she’d been entirely sad to see him go, but the principle was the thing. Fathers shouldn’t leave their children.
She drew nearer. Her heart began to hammer and her face again felt flushed. After all this was over, she thought to herself, she’d need to take a good, long time to rest and relax, free from fear and everything else that had been wrenching her soul.
She left the tents and began to cross the yard. The tart was still fiddling with the pole, though what she was doing, Tilly couldn’t tell.
Nud turned, saw her, froze. The last bit of pastry almost fell from his fingers but he managed to catch it.
Tilly stopped too, though she hadn’t meant to. She could feel tears pressing against her eyes, but she held them in. She regained her composure and forced herself to keep walking, no matter how badly she wanted to turn and run.
Her father rubbed his eyes and began to speak. Tilly was still far enough away that she couldn’t hear him, but he was probably talking to the tart anyway—the woman had just finished what she was doing and came next to Nud, linking her arm in his. Nud seemed to come to himself at that point, and an animated conversation between him and the tart followed. The woman glanced at Tilly and seemed to dismiss her.
Tilly began to run toward them. She couldn’t let the tart get away. Not after what she’d done. She’d grab her and—
The tart swabbed some makeup off her face.
Tilly stopped, caught her balance, took a few steps back. The memory from Krotkadilly’s shop came crashing upon her. She couldn’t let that happen again. She didn’t know how the tart’s talent worked, but standing out here in the open suddenly seemed unwise. How had she ever thought this was a good idea? She ran to the side, into the crowd thronging the stage.
From in the midst, she couldn’t see the tart or her father anymore. But that wouldn’t help her get Mayhap back. She had to go back to them, even though she was now trembling at the idea of being turned into a flower again. She had to be brave. The tart was the best chance she had of finding Mayhap.
Tilly slowly made her way through the crowd, moving toward the far side of the cobbler’s tent. She’d have a better view from there without being seen, and then she could decide what to do.
They weren’t standing where they’d been before. She swallowed and kept going, looking over her shoulder every chance she got, half expecting the tart to jump out and…do something to her.
There they were, huddled behind the tent. The tart was making careful motions with her hands, more deliberate and studied than what she’d done in the shop.
Tilly didn’t want to run into a trap, and without any way to counter the tart’s talent, there wasn’t much she could do other than try to talk to the woman, if she could get close enough.
She moved back a little, shielded by a large man impeccably dressed. The man raised an eyebrow and went back to watching the show.
With a nod to Nud, the tart snapped her fingers. A splotch appeared on the canvas of the tent, waist-high, and grew into a dark, yawning hole, its edge alive with sparks. When it was tall as a man, the woman bent over, stepped through the hole, and disappeared.
This was it. Her chance to talk to her father alone. “Dad!” Tilly cried out in haste laced with fear. She ran toward him.
Nud already had one foot through the hole. Her cry turned his head, though, and the tart must have been watching—a pair of hands reached out through the hole and twitched.
Tilly dropped to the grass and rolled to the side, toward the front of the tent, out of sight. Goodness. Why the tart was so intent on using the talent against her, she didn’t quite know. Nud must have realized she had been a flower after all. He must know she’d seen them break into Krotkadilly’s shop, had heard them talk about the minns. Perhaps that was all it took. She’d thought her father wanted her out of his life, but perhaps he wanted her dead as well.
Her heart was hammering again. No, she told herself. Don’t assume the worst. There was no clear indication that the tart had been trying to kill her. Neutralize and kidnap, maybe, but as far as Tilly knew, everything had been non-lethal. Even if the intent wasn’t as murderous, though, if she were to get transformed again, Mayhap could be lost forever.
Lying exposed on the grass wasn’t a winning strategy, however, so Tilly got up—ignoring the stares and mockery from some of the children on the fringe—and made her way back into the crowd.
The first thing she noticed as she returned to her original spot was that the hole had vanished, and her father and the tart along with it. Disappointment crept in, but it was a minor detail compared to her relief. No more getting near the tart if she could help it, she decided. Too dangerous.
The second thing she noticed was that the large man was conspicuously not there anymore. She looked around. Nowhere in sight. That was odd. It had only been a few seconds; if he’d walked off somewhere, she should still be able to see him. Maybe he’d run after Nud and gone through the hole after him. That seemed unlikely, though. More likely, she realized with growing horror, was that when Tilly had ducked, the tart’s talent had hit the man instead.
She knelt down and examined the ground. His footprints were easy to spot, though smaller than she’d expected. Between them, half-buried in the packed dirt, lay a stone. That had to be him. She dug it out and walked over to where the hole had been, away from the crowd.
“Can you hear me?” she whispered to the stone, then held it up next to her ear. There was a faint buzz in the air, along with a swampy smell, but the canvas itself betrayed no trace of the hole.
A tiny, tremulous voice responded. “What have you done to me?”
“It wasn’t me,” Tilly said, blushing. Of course he would assume it was her—she’d been near him, he’d been facing the other way and hadn’t seen the tart, and now she was holding him. “But I’ll figure out a way to get you turned back.”
The man was silent for a moment. “Turned back from what?”
Tilly decided that being straightforward was best. “You’re a stone.” She examined it more closely. “Not sure what kind, if that matters to you. It’s a nice stone. If I can find some water or a mirror somewhere, I’ll show you.”
“Could be worse, I suppose,” said the man. “Would you mind holding me up so I can watch the end of the show?”
His request seemed a little ridiculous given his circumstances, but Tilly dutifully held him up facing the stage. She began to look more closely at the tent.
The hole was gone. The tart was gone. Nud was gone. The tent remained, but its canvas looked normal and responded to her prodding as expected, complete with grumbled cussing from the cobbler inside the tent.
Tilly walked around the tent to the sign pole in front. It stood around ten feet tall and was a hand’s width thick. The cobbler’s and milliner’s signs had been nailed in high above. As far as she could tell, there was nothing for the tart to fiddle with.
Weary in both body and mind, Tilly sank down to the ground—ignoring the stone man’s protests at not being able to see over the crowd—and leaned against the pole, grateful for the cloud cover.
This was hopeless. The tart was too dangerous; even if she did have Mayhap with her or at least knew where she was, there wasn’t any way for Tilly to get close enough to negotiate. She could go back to Krotkadilly’s shop and look for clues there, but it didn’t seem promising. It was probably time to give up and go home.
Sorry, Mayhap, she thought to herself. I’ve failed you. You’re on your own now, and I hope you can get out from wherever you are. Somehow.
The thought of Mayhap being stuck or lost or dead weighed down on Tilly, turning into stifled sobs and rubbed eyes. She hoped nobody in the crowd was watching her.
Then she heard a quiet, familiar voice nearby. Tilly? Can you hear me? It’s me. Mayhap.
Tilly cried more, this time with relief. “My goodness, I thought you were gone forever,” she whispered. “Where are you?”
“I’m still here,” said the man in the stone.
“No, not you,” she said. “I’m talking to my friend.”
The man remained silent, but somehow she could sense his confusion.
You can hear me! Mercy, I didn’t think that would work. She tied me to this pole—you won’t be able to see me, I don’t think.
“I can’t,” Tilly said, examining the pole and seeing nothing that looked like a spirit or a soul. “Does it hurt?”
Not much. But listen, I have to find my body. Soon, before it starts to decompose.
Tilly had a sudden vision of Mayhap’s rotting corpse lumbering around in search of its owner. A squeamish feeling settled in her gut. But no, that was silly—it hadn’t decomposed yet—and besides, she needed to help. “How do we do that?”
I know roughly where it is—over in the Olamatya quarter somewhere—but I can’t move without a body.
Right. So if I can hitch a ride, that’d be the best news I’ve heard all day.
“I don’t know how to do that,” Tilly said, ignoring her hesitation, “but yes, of course you can. Do whatever you need to.” She waved her hand around the pole. “How do I pick you up?”
There’s a method the Havagathrians discovered. I read about it a while back. Let me think. Most of it is a pattern I make, but what I need you to do is to find some kind of object I can wrap myself around. In theory, I can sort of knot my spirit legs together and keep from floating off to who knows where.
That didn’t sound so bad. “What kind of object?”
Something small, but not too small. You have to be able to carry it, of course.
Tilly looked at the stone in her hand. “Would something like this work?”
I can’t see very well in my spirit state. What is it?
“It’s a stone, but this one already has a man inside it.”
There was a bit of a silence. So you’re a collector now?
Tilly blushed. “Goodness no. The woman with my father, the one who turned you—”
That was your father? Back in the shop?
Tilly realized Mayhap had never met Nud. “Yes. They disappeared through a hole she made in the tent and then she tried to hit me with some kind of magic—”
“Magic,” Tilly insisted stubbornly. “I ducked, this guy got hit instead and was turned into a stone. We need to try to turn him back. For now, though, let’s focus on you. I’ll find another stone—just give me a minute. Will I be able to talk to you again when I come back? I don’t want you to get lost again.”
As long as you’re somewhat close to here, I think you’ll be able to hear me. But we do need to hurry. Hopefully there aren’t any bugs nesting in my body yet.
Tilly tried not to think about that as she put the manstone down—ignoring his protests—and went in search of a vessel.
The festival grounds were flat, grassy, and well trodden, and with all the people in the crowd it was hard to see any stones underfoot. She reminded herself that she could use something else instead, but even so, there weren’t many small, loose objects for the taking. The children had probably already pocketed all of those.
In turning round to decide where to look next, she absently looked over at the stage. The performers were in the middle of some kind of group acrobatics that looked like it involved a few birds in small cages. Tilly was glad she’d gotten out before she’d had to do anything. It was a miracle Amaline hadn’t caught her and pulled her back.
Tilly shuffled off toward the busker tents, beyond which lay the edge of the festival and a better hope for finding some loose rocks. Why Amaline was so intent on making her go through with the performance, she didn’t know. Perhaps the girl wanted to be in the troupe and didn’t want her association with Tilly to damage her chances. Whatever it was, Tilly hoped she’d find someone else to latch onto, and soon.
She was on her way back, hefting a fist-sized black stone that should do the job nicely, when someone grabbed Tilly’s leg tightly.
“You traitor,” Amaline said, pulling her around to face her. “Selfish swine. Cur would be too kind.”
Goodness. Rather than the shame she would have expected, Tilly felt a stab of anger. “Let go of me. I’m not part of the troupe, I never will be, and I really do have things to do.”
“You should have thought of that before you sat on the stump,” Amaline said, digging in with her nails. It hurt.
Tilly gritted her teeth and tried to pry the girl’s hands off, with no luck. This was about the stump? How childish. Then again, Amaline was probably only twelve or thirteen at most, now that Tilly thought about it. “You said I could sit on it. I’m grateful. Now get away from me.”
“Everything has a price,” Amaline said.
“That’s a rather mercenary way of looking at life, and you didn’t disclose the price beforehand. Let go, please.”
Amaline shook her head. “People like you—you need to learn that you can’t just take, take, take from other people. Time for your lesson.”
“Not now,” Tilly said, trying to dampen her growing anger and frustration while also ignoring the sudden impulse to hit Amaline with the rock to make her let go. Violence wasn’t the answer here. It rarely was. “With all due respect, we’ve already gone through this. I’m sorry I left the stage. The troupe will be okay. And Kadilly gave me permission to leave.”
Amaline scowled at her. “If I go back there and find that you’re lying…”
“It’s the truth.”
“But…but did you tell him what Gopta said? About not paying the troupe?”
Bother. “Not exactly, no, but he was fine with me leaving. I have to help my friend.”
Tilly twisted to the side and started walking back to the cobbler’s tent. It was going to be slow going, with Amaline trying to pull her to a stop, but it would be progress. The sun was starting to come out, though, stinging Tilly’s skin again.
“So you only help some people,” Amaline grunted, “but not others. Not the people who help you. And you lie. And you leave.”
“Goodness,” Tilly said. “Let it go, little girl.” She regretted that almost immediately, and not only because Amaline dug her nails in even more. “I know the troupe means a lot to you. I don’t know why you’re obsessed with me and that guy—Gopta?—but Kadilly gave me permission to go. I haven’t lied.”
She got back to the cobbler’s tent. The area in front of it was no longer in shade. Her skin felt almost as if it were on fire. She had to do this soon. Getting rid of Amaline first would have been nice, but there wasn’t time.
“A parasite,” Tilly said and again regretted it immediately.
Amaline glared at her. “I don’t understand.”
You found something?
“Yes—this stone will work, right?” Tilly said. She tried again to pry Amaline off, this time throwing in a few kicks for good measure, and again had no luck.
Amaline looked around. “Who are you talking to?”
“The friend I’ve been trying to help,” Tilly said, hugging her arms as close to her body as she could. Another group of clouds looked like it would be moving in front of the sun soon, thankfully.
“But…there’s nobody else here.”
Can you maybe stop talking to her? Take the stone and hold it up next to the pole. I’ll guide you.
Tilly nodded. After a little bit of back and forth between her and Mayhap, she got it to the right height on the pole.
Now don’t move.
And of course that was when Amaline started trying again to drag Tilly away.
“Stop! I’m in the middle of something,” Tilly said.
“Something weird is what it looks like. Probably illegal. Let’s go see Kadilly.”
“Amaline, I am trying to be civil, but you’re about to pull me over the edge.”
“I’m stronger than you,” Amaline said, though clearly that wasn’t true since Tilly had been able to drag her all this way.
Amaline was puffing at this point, digging into the dirt with her heels. Every time she tugged, it jerked the black stone in Tilly’s hand. “Sorry,” Tilly said. “It’s this girl. She’s mad at me and won’t let it go. Or me.”
Almost there, almost got it.
With regret, Tilly grabbed Amaline’s face with her free hand and started squeezing. It was juvenile, but she didn’t know what else to do without hurting the girl. This wasn’t at all how she’d expected things to go.
Amaline bit her. Several times. On the hand, then on the leg.
Tilly screeched and let go. In the shock of getting bitten, she accidentally dropped the black stone—right onto the manstone, from the cracking sound that filled her with dread. Amaline tugged hard and managed to drag her ten feet before Tilly had the presence of mind to resist her.
“Oh no,” Tilly whispered. “Look what you’ve done.” The black stone was all in one piece as far as she could tell, thankfully, but the stone with the man inside had cracked cleanly into two jagged halves. Mortification seized her with a chilling touch—she had almost certainly just killed the man. No, she told herself, there was a chance that his essence wasn’t evenly distributed throughout. Too early to panic. She needed to wait and make sure first.
She kicked the leg Amaline was holding—which hardly moved, thanks to the girl’s hold on it—and began slowly walking back.
“It’s fine,” Amaline said. “It’s just a rock.”
“I wish that were true,” Tilly said. Her arms stopped tingling. She looked up and saw to her joy that the sun had slid behind the clouds. A cool breeze swept through the festival grounds.
They reached the stones. Tilly managed to get down to the ground, fully expecting Amaline to leap on top of her and start clawing at her face, but that didn’t happen. Tilly picked up both halves of the manstone and said, “Are you there? Are you okay?”
After a dreadfully long silence in which Tilly’s imagination painted everything in bleak colors, the half in her left hand said, “Yes, I’m fine. Can’t see the show, though. Would you mind?”
She hadn’t yet allowed herself to feel any relief when a moment later, the half in her right hand said, “You’re clumsy and stupid and ugly. Throw me as far away from you as you can. You’d be doing both of us a favor.”
Her dread turned into confusion tinged with a hot embarrassment. Something had gone wrong. Was the second voice a different person somehow? Or maybe it was a fragment of the original man—his cruel half, perhaps. Either way, the man wasn’t dead, which was a wonderful thing.
Amaline was watching with wide eyes. Her surprise left her motionless at the moment, though her grip was still as strong as ever.
Tilly wondered briefly whether the girl’s hands would ever grow tired, then turned her attention toward the black stone. She picked it up, held it close to her ear, and said, “Mayhap?”
I’m here. Barely.
“Let’s go, then.” Tilly turned to Amaline and pointed west. The sun passed behind the clouds. Relief at last. “We’re going that way, toward the Olamatya quarter. If you don’t let go of me, you’re coming with us whether you want to or not.”
Amaline scowled and tightened her grip. “You are the weirdest person I know, and I know a lot of people.”
Tilly ignored her. “Man in the stone,” she said, kneeling again, “we have to go, but we’ll be back for you.”
“Don’t bother,” said the one. The other didn’t say anything.
A little unsettled by that, Tilly managed to get to her feet—no thanks to Amaline—and began the long walk west.
By the time Tilly left the festival grounds, Amaline had finally let go of her leg. The girl continued however to tag along, muttering vile things along the way.
As Tilly listened to Mayhap’s directions, they wound through the market district, went up the avenues (crossing the ancestors’ day parade at one point, which meant two more days had passed than Tilly had realized), along the baby river (as Tilly called it), and into the Olamatya quarter, which abutted the far side of the Saltswallow district. The wind had picked up and was now cold enough to raise gooseflesh.
Finally, as the first hint of dusk came across the sky, they reached a corner that turned onto a lane.
“I’m not going past this point,” Amaline said, stopping cold.
It’s on this street.
“That’s wonderful,” Tilly said to the girl.
Amaline frowned. “This is some kind of setup, isn’t it. How much are they paying you?”
“I have no idea what you’re talking about.” Tilly wondered why Amaline had reacted as if this street was dangerous. She turned the corner.
See it? It’s that house. It’s almost overwhelming, like it’s flooding my bones. Except my bones are there, not here. Walk faster! Mercy, I hope I don’t smell like rot after I’m back in it.
“You’ll smell fine,” Tilly said absentmindedly.
There it was, halfway down the lane. A rickety old house surrounded by abandoned high-rises. A group of black-clad teenagers leaned against the building to the right, chatting among themselves while watching Tilly with hungry curiosity. Maybe they were the cause for concern—perhaps Amaline knew one of them. Or had been accosted by them in the past.
Tilly decided it would be better not to take the stone with her, in case it looked like a weapon, so she set it on the ground up against the corner building—a factory of some kind—and gave Amaline a look. “Don’t touch this.”
“I hate you,” Amaline said.
As Tilly walked toward the house, she found herself wondering what she’d do if the people in the house didn’t want to give the body back. She’d been imagining Mayhap’s body as having lain lost in some weeds all this time, but perhaps someone had noticed it. Perhaps they’d seen it arrive when it transported—for clearly it had transported, just like the man—and then carried it off somewhere, perhaps with other plans for it. Fishermen seeking out empty bodies for sale and then stuffing them with abandoned souls, maybe. She wrapped up this disturbing line of thought and put it aside for later; far more likely, the body had ended up in some room and the people in that house didn’t want it or perhaps didn’t even know about it yet.
Ignoring the teenagers, who thankfully now ignored her in return, Tilly marched across the dirt yard, up the porch—which was more sturdy than she had expected—and knocked on the faded blue door. She could see Amaline hiding behind the corner at the end of the lane. She hoped the girl wouldn’t do anything to Mayhap’s stone.
The curtains in the front window shifted. Moments later, the front door opened an inch, and a suspicious eye appeared behind the crack. “What you want?”
Tilly put on a chipper smile and repeated the gist of what Mayhap had told her to say. “Hi, this is kind of awkward, but my friend got terribly drunk earlier and I think she wandered off and fell asleep around here. Have you seen her? Brown hair, short, slim.”
The person behind the door didn’t say anything.
“I’m worried about her,” Tilly said, conjuring some fake tears. “Her father’s with the police and they’re looking everywhere for her.”
The person quietly swore—to someone else in the room, it seemed—and shuffled around a bit, mumbling to themselves. Finally, after a protracted silence, the door stubbornly swung open. “She’s here,” a desiccated old woman said in a thick Olamatya accent, motioning them to come inside. “Not sure you like what you see, maybe.”
So they’d wanted to hide the body, for some reason. Better to be careful.
Tilly gave a small wave to Amaline—who scowled back—and slowly stepped over the threshold, into the warmth of the home. She took a deep breath, hoping that these people weren’t dangerous.
The old woman led her past the front room—in which an old man lounged on a beaten-up grey sofa, with a game in progress on the chessboard on his lap—and slowly down the hall, limping as she went. “We find her this morning, no good, no good. Broke in, must have. Pity. Too heavy to move.”
“I’m glad you found her,” Tilly said.
“We’re old,” the woman said. “Police, they don’t like us. Pavolamat. You know it? Anyway, they find body here, we die, probably. Simple. Me, I’m ready, but Wostchazik not ready. Unfinished business.” She said the last two words with special emphasis, as if Tilly was supposed to know what she was talking about, and gestured for her to walk past her into the final room on the right.
There she was. It, rather. Mayhap’s body. It looked foreign and disturbing, curled up on the floor at the bottom of another ratty old sofa. Overflowing oak bookshelves lined the walls of the room, perhaps to keep out the mice Tilly could clearly hear chittering behind them. A slightly rank smell filled the air. “I’ll take care of her,” she said, looking down sadly at the body.
“She’s dead,” the old woman said, shaking her head. “Too much to drink. I’m sorry. Please drag her out before police come.” She wiped her forehead. “You can hurry, please.”
Tilly knelt and tried to pick up the body. It was heavier than she’d expected. “Would you be able to help at least a little?”
The woman shook her head vigorously. “Dead is dead. As my name be Patsha, that girl is a gravewalker. No pulse. No air. I check all of it. Time for mourning begins.”
From the front room Tilly heard Wostchazik call out. “Somebody’s coming.”
Patsha waved her hands at Tilly. “Pick her up. Go.”
“I’m trying.” She got her arms around Mayhap in an awkward hug and managed to stumble to her feet. It was then that she noticed the framed picture on the wall. It was a drawing done in pencil, but the likenesses were clear—Patsha and Wostchazik standing in front of a tree, Amaline nestled between them. The girl’s hesitation to come down the lane suddenly made sense. Did they know where she was? Did they care?
“Wait,” Wostchazik said. “Never mind, they were just going to Serja’s. There is nobody. I am alone here. Patsha, it’s your turn.”
She almost told them Amaline was down the corner, but that seemed a betrayal of trust. They could sort out their own family issues.
“In middle of this,” Patsha called back. “You can wait.” She turned back to Tilly. “But you, you don’t wait.”
It took a long fifteen minutes, during which Patsha chattered about her husband’s feud with her cousin, Pavolamat persecution, the corruption of the police in the last twenty years, how good mazink biscuits tasted in the old country, and her aching back and bones, but Tilly finally, mercifully got Mayhap’s body out the front door. She rested for a moment before Patsha urged her out of the yard, extracting a promise that the police wouldn’t hear a word of all this body business.
Over the next twenty minutes, with several more breaks during which she glared at the wide-eyed teenagers till they finally left, Tilly got the body down the lane and back around the corner to Amaline and the stone. Thank heavens for the shade the high-rises threw on the street.
She had to admit, she’d been sure Amaline would be long gone and the stone with her. But both were there. Tilly set the body on the ground as gently as she could. Her muscles burned.
“That’s…she’s…they killed her?” Amaline’s hand covered her mouth. “But they’re old. They couldn’t have done it.” She paced back and forth. Then, in a whisper: “Were they dead too?”
“Your mother and father? Alive and well,” Tilly said, picking up the stone and raising it to her face. “What do we do now?”
“How did you—”
I’m so glad you found it! The Havagathrians said the soul’s path into the body is through the ears, so assuming they knew what they were talking about, I think you can just put the stone next to my head. I’ll figure it out from there.
Tilly placed the stone on the ground and scooted it slowly up next to Mayhap’s head.
“How did you know?” Amaline said.
It’s not working. Not sure why.
“Do you need to be closer?” Tilly pushed the stone until it was touching Mayhap’s cheek.
“Absolutely not,” Amaline said. “They’re—”
Still no good. But I have an idea—the affinities may be off, going from inanimate to animate material. Even though my corpse is hardly animate. But that change was fairly recent, and I think that’s what matters.
“Then you’re stuck,” Tilly said, her hope beginning to peel off and crumble.
I’m thinking, I’m thinking.
Tilly ignored whatever Amaline was asking her and, putting her hands to her temples, tried to think as well. Mayhap was in some kind of ephemeral spirit state. She needed to re-enter her body, which was physical matter—a skin-wrapped sack of clay at that point. Entering through the ear wasn’t working; she could try the mouth or nose or eyes.
Or maybe the skin was what was getting in the way. She didn’t want to hurt Mayhap, but if they couldn’t get her back in, it wouldn’t matter much, would it.
“What if I cut a hole in your cheek?”
Then we wouldn’t be friends anymore. But really, going in through the bloodstream? Could work. Life’s vital essence and all. Not much blood flowing through my body right now, but the pathways might be enough to pull me in. Cut my neck, though. More likely to work.
Tilly shuddered. “More likely that you’ll bleed out when you get back in your body.”
Oh, I can stop the bleeding once I’m in. Don’t worry about that.
“Are you positive?”
Amaline watched with evident curiosity as Tilly took the stone—it was the only sharp object around—and held it up near Mayhap’s throat. She had never imagined that she’d be doing this. Yes, the body was already dead, but even so, it felt like she was murdering Mayhap all over again. She felt sick. She had to do this, though, or else Mayhap really would be dead, in a way. She pushed the sharpest edge of the stone up against the skin. She closed her eyes for a moment. Was there any other way to handle this? Not that she could think of. And Mayhap did say she’d be able to stop the bleeding, so she needed to just do it. With her free hand, she pulled the throat skin tight, so the slice would be easier.
Fighting a wave of nausea, Tilly made an inch-long cut in her friend’s throat.
I honestly didn’t think you’d actually do it.
Tilly held the stone next to the cut skin. She realized she was trembling, almost shaking. “Did it work?”
Hold on. Still checking. Can you turn the stone around?
Tilly rotated the stone slowly.
“You’re even more messed up than I thought,” Amaline said. “Desecrating dead bodies. Add that to the list of your depravities.”
“She needs this,” Tilly said, unsure Mayhap actually did. What if this didn’t work? Then she’d gouged a hole in Mayhap’s neck for nothing.
Stop! Keep it there.
“She’s dead,” Amaline said. She scratched her head, clearly working up the courage to say something. “How did you make those rocks talk? The ones back at the festival. Are you a witch?” She gestured at Mayhap’s body. “And are you going to revenant her so she can do your dark bidding?” She paused just long enough to catch her breath. “And have I made myself your enemy by being an idiot? I did not consider the consequences. I will be quiet now.”
Before Tilly had time to think of a response, Mayhap’s body coughed and sat up. “Mercy,” Mayhap said, rubbing her eyes open. “It’s good to be back.”
A month later, Tilly walked down Fighallow again. It was her first time back on the street; until now, the mere thought of returning felt like dark fingers clamped around her heart, warning her that bad things had happened there. But she was an adult, and she could overcome her fears, so help her. Besides, she’d developed a fierce craving for roast quisling.
After Mayhap’s reawakening, Amaline had yelped and run off, disappearing down another side street. Tilly hadn’t seen her again. She’d had half a thought to go back to that rickety house and talk to Patsha and Wostchazik about the girl—something wasn’t right there—but it really wasn’t her business.
Physically, Mayhap had recovered almost entirely, with the sole exception of a faint scent of decay that no perfume seemed able to mask. She couldn’t smell it herself, but knowing about it made her distraught day and night.
Perhaps because of that, she had been unable to reverse Tilly’s sunlight affliction. She’d tried—Tilly had to give her full credit for that—but nothing worked. After the last experiment, Tilly took a bite of bread and it tasted like raw meat, so they decided it would be good to stop experimenting.
Tilly passed Krotkadilly’s shop, which had a paper stuck to the door reading “Out Having a Baby” in large letters. Adjusting her wide-brimmed hat and her long-sleeved dress, she carefully stepped over the cracks in the sidewalk. A tremor took hold of her hands. As she tried to shake it off, she wondered, as she’d wondered many times since, whatever had happened to that woman with the hagaminns who’d set her life on a different course, and why the minns were so important. She also mused about where her father and the tart had gone and what on earth they were doing.
More than anything else, though, Tilly wondered how she could learn to use the talent.
Mayhap flatly refused to teach her. It was the Havagathrian philosophy, she said; a woman must find the path on her own. Tilly felt sure this was hogwash and that there must be someone out there with the talent who wouldn’t mind passing their knowledge on. Some of that knowledge surely was already written down in books somewhere—she just had to find the right ones. And then she too could wield the talent, master it, teach it. She had to—not to rid herself of this skin sensitivity, for she’d grown used to it and even a little fond of it, in what surely had to be an unhealthy set of mind which she knew she’d need to address someday, but to do good in the world. What that meant, exactly, she didn’t know, but there was time for that.
Tilly reached the roast quisling place and opened the door with a gloved hand. The delicious smell of meat on the spit wafted out. Goodness, she’d missed this.