You spend the better part of the afternoon asleep. It wasn’t by choice. Your time in the Downside has been long and arduous. Your leg was bothering you that day, and the rest of the Nightwings insisted you rest. You would be at the Nest of Triesta in a day, and it wouldn’t do for their Reader to collapse from exhaustion before the Rite began.
You tried to argue they shouldn’t either, but Jodariel dropped a blanket on you and packed you off.
You are surprised to find yourself in the Blackwagon alone. It’s rare. Usually some of the other Nightwings are milling around. Bertrude mixing her compounds. Volfred with his letters. Or Tariq, tuning his lute without ever taking a breath. This time the wagon is entirely still. Not even the drive imps stir. You can’t make out their eyes blinking in the corners. The engines above you are still. You limp into the common area to take stock. It’s very strange. You’re about to call out, but then Hedwyn ducks in through the front door, holding some sort of bulbous root vegetable over his shoulder. It’s a sickly yellow and covered in blotches that look like eyes. It’s probably going to be dinner.
“Ah. You’re up,” he says. He rests the root next to his pot. He’s taken care to keep his cooking equipment as far from Bertrude’s research kit as he can. He’s seen what her reagents can do. “Didn’t wake you up, did I?”
You assure Hedwyn that you’ve been up for awhile now. You were just wondering where everyone was.
“Foraging,” he said. “We found a good spot to camp. You look pale.”
You note you are feeling a lot better.
“That may be, but are you sure you don’t’ want to rest a little longer?”
You’ve rested enough today. If there’s anything you’re tired of, it’s feeling useless. He insists on putting his hand on your forehead, to make sure you don’t have some kind of fever.
“Listen,” he says, close enough his breath rustles your hair. “Don’t talk like that. You’re the most valuable person here. I mean that.”
His hand doesn’t leave your forehead. He meets your eyes. He looks resolved to something. It’s hard to say what.
“I really mean that,” he says. His hand moves from your forehead to your cheek.
You put your hand up to touch his wrist. You remind him, very quietly, that he’s pretty spoken for, and also that he was liberated a cycle ago. You also ask how Sandra knows what he looks like. She did a really good job at this particular illusion.
Sandra, still wearing Hedwyn’s face, steps back with a deep sigh.
“Must you ruin my fun? You have no idea how years drone on in this place.”
You don’t, but you’re starting to get an idea. Sandra flicks Hedwyn’s headband in annoyance.
“Hmph. Your sympathies are noted and ignored, but, to answer your question: As though I need eyes . It’s no miracle. You leave your impressions with me. All you Nightwings do, during their trials,” she says, with an expression of pure exasperation Hedwyn never could have pulled off.
She shuts his eyes for him. You remember how carefully this Hedwyn stepped into the wagon: To make up for the fact he couldn’t really see anything inside.
“Does that alarm you? “ Sandra continues. “It should. You are so careless with what you give over to me. A little shadow of yourself for me to play with as I see fit. I like to dust a few off, from time to time.”
Why? You wonder. Sandra sits Hedwyn’s form down on the table behind her, crosses Hedwyn’s legs, and laughs in her customary way: chin held up and deep in her throat. It’s certainly a look on the nomad.
”You need to ask? May I remind you, lovely reader, that I am a wraith. Haunting is a bit of my business. It is one of my many deep and incomprehensible powers. Within the confines of my binding, of course. But enough about my pursuits. You are committed to your own boredom! Why not have a bit of your own fun? That nomad boy sounded charming, if a bit dim.”
Here, she waves her hand over her borrowed form, from shoulder to knee, like Falcon Ron presenting a new product.
You note to Sandra that Hedwyn was sharper than she gave him credit for. Also, still very spoken for. There was someone he never stopped thinking of, even in the Downside.
“But he was handsome, hm?”
Yes, you suppose he was. If one’s into that kind of thing.
Sandra smirks. It looks so strange on Hedwyn’s gentle features, you can’t help but laugh. You hang on to the dream just long enough to see the illusion break, and Sandra’s own eyebrows knit in confusion — but then you are really, truly awake, and Jodariel is asking you if you’d like some kind of supper. They found a strange root while foraging today, and Bertrude managed to boil it into some form of edibility.
The day after the Rite the Nightwings let you rest. You can hear them unraveling the canvases of the Blackwagon’s wings, prepping for flight. They started while you were asleep, none of them dared wake you up. You always sleep heavily after a Rite, and they are all very worried for your health.
“Well, Reader darling, can I offer you anything?” asks Pamitha when she checks on you. You can’t tell from the slight slanting through the windows, but it must be mid-morning. “Some sort of slurry? Stale biscuits? A strong drink? Never to early to start, you know, and it makes for an excellent seasoning.”
You groan and roll so your face is in the pillow. Moonshine is the last thing you want to think about. You’re already dry-mouthed and aching from the long night. A second later, you feel a light pressure on the back of your neck. The way it tickles tells you it has feathers. The way you feel a thumb press gently against the back of your scalp in a half-circle tells you it’s a harp’s wing. They all have thumbs, hidden in their down.
“Mm, so tense,” murmured Pamitha. “You could let me give you a rub down, at least. It does do wonders. How do you think we keep our flight muscles so trim?”
You wonder how one can manage this without fingers. You don’t wonder long, Pamitha’s voice comes from close to the back of your neck now. She presses her knee against small of your back, and you must admit the pressure is nice.
“Plenty of ways,” she murmurs, lips near your ear. “We are nothing if not a creative people. The other’s will be occupied for a while yet. Let me make you feel good. I think we could both use the distraction.”
You also think Pamitha has some boundaries, and can be oddly guarded. There’s a lot that weighs on her. You’re not sure she’d ever be this open with you, even if did feel nice.
“Oh, fine,” mutters Sandra. Her exhalation is purely theatrical. It doesn’t stir the hair behind your head at all. You don’t feel her knee anymore. “But you must admit she would find the prospect entertaining.”
You agree she probably would, but only if asked first. You roll over to look at Sandra. This time she’s abandoned the illusion entirely. She’s perched with her knees up at the foot of your bunk. You’re surprised how small she looks like that.
You wonder how tall she was in life.
“How very relevant to the Rites.” Sandra bares her teeth when she smiles. “My lovely reader, your choice of distraction is absolutely puzzling. Have you no interest in such things?”
Some people don’t, and that’s absolutely fine, but Sandra already knows you aren’t one of them. You’re perfectly amenable to a distraction, if it’s with the right person.
“And who might that be, I wonder?”
You’re amazed she hasn’t guessed. You thought she knew all about your loves -- or lack thereof. That earns you a slight scowl. The ghost unfolds on the foot of your bed and stands up. She places a phantom foot on your chest. You don’t feel the weight of it. You wonder why you could before. Can she do that if she feels like it?
“Enough questions,” says Sandra, tilting her head. “I could reach for the specifics deep in your heart, as you sleep, as you dream – as you do now – but I suppose I yet enjoy some games in my half existence.”
So she enjoys spending time with you?
You find yourself staring up at the Blackwagon ceiling. A little sore. The force of your sudden waking rolled you right out of bed.
A day out from the Ridge of Gol, Rukey interrupts your vocations with a bag of contraband cheese and a grin.
“Hey, sis,” he said. “Heck of a moon out tonight.”
You point out you are definitely not Rukey’s type. The cur huffs and sits down, wagging tail stilling in the cobwebs.
He shuts his eyes. His regional accent disappears. “...and you think your humanity is so much an issue? He is more liberal you would think.
You do agree, but you’re also a little plain for him. He likes glamor, and possibly a rich heiress. Or maybe Pamitha. You hope he finds something like that in the Commonwealth. He was liberated two cycles ago.
“Details,” says Sandra.
You have always wanted to pat his head though. His coat seemed very soft. He always kept it shockingly clean, despite the trials of the Downside. One of the many comforts he insisted on keeping.
“Well,” says Sandra, leaning towards you with an especially toothy grin. Curs are, after all, obligate carnivores.
Ah, but that’s very impolite. You wouldn’t ever do it without his permission, even if it’s not currently him wearing that form. Sandra flops back across the wagon in Rukey’s body with an exaggerated groan.
“Oh, so you are one of the ones who cares about autonomy ,” she sighs. “Must you be so respectful? You are far more interesting than that.”
Well, if she’s so insistent on head scritches, you would be happy to do it in her own form.
You wake up with your face in the Book of Rites, on the chapter regarding the rescue of Soliam Murr. The text hums against your skin. You sigh and rub your stiff neck. You suppose you deserved that one.
There is a demon in the Blackwagon, but it is not the one you know. You have never been able to figure out how he moves so quietly in such a small space, but it once belonged to him.
You suppose he knows it better than anyone else.
“Shadow,” murmurs the demon, a low rumble like a coming storm. You can barely register your cane rolling across the floor. You don’t really need it, with his hand pinning you to the wall. It doesn’t hurt. For all the strength you can tell is behind it, he takes great care with you. He always has, for some reason. “They will use you. They will abandon you. Live no longer for this false hope. Come away with me, and be spared these wretched games.”
You stare up the arm that has you pinned. Despite his size, he is not as large as Jodariel. His robes hang off of him, a massive body that subsists on bare minimums, fueled by little more than spite. The demon’s face is ravaged and hollowed, from time and deep injury, eyes blazing with unmitigated grief. You reach for his face. His eyes don’t follow the motion. You touch his scarred cheek. You wonder how deeply Oralech must have loved Volfred Sandalwood, to hate him and his designs so. You suspect he might still love him. It must drive him absolutely mad.
“Oh, I know that,” Sandra bursts out, releasing you in her frustration, “but how do you ?”
You slide down the wall. You collect yourself cross-legged on the floor. The demon paces back and forth in front of you on all fours. He’s at the stage of his transformation where that’s almost a more comfortable way to move. You remember well the way he could gallop half way across the field in an instant like this, claws scraping in the dirt of the sacred grounds. You don’t have to wonder why Sandra would have captured this about him. He was a Nightwing. He is yet a Nightwing. He has never stopped being a Nightwing.
Instead, you tell her it wasn’t hard to piece together. From the way Volfred Sandalwood talked about him, and the ways he couldn’t talk about him. You’d had a hunch, one which Sandra herself has just confirmed.
“Ah!” roars the demon, who stops pacing. His horns and bristling mane melts back into the smaller form of Sandra, sprawled out on the floor of the Blackwagon. Her hand on her forehead, laughing bitterly at being so caught out. “How prescient! How tricky! I should give you nightmares for one hundred and five years for that! But I am almost impressed. Please, tell me you at least told that ridiculous Sap he is that obvious with it. He is so precious about his truths. He ought to be knocked down a peg.”
You decide not to mention the prayers you overheard the other night, deep within Volfred’s mind. Your reader skills have been growing. You’re not sure Volfred knows you’d managed to catch that much.
Instead, you ask why Sandra thought Oralech might be your type.
“Because you ache for him,” says Sandra. “You feel so very sorry for him. You do not even know half of what he has done.”
Yes. You do ache for Oralech. No, you don’t know what he’s done. You’re fine with admitting to both of those things. You just wish there were some solution to his problem. You wish there were some way for both him and Volfred to get what they want.
“One will not be satisfied until his ambitions are realized. The other one will not be satisfied until his foolish idea of justice is done,” says Sandra, loftily. “Perhaps you ought to inform the second that justice is in of itself a lie, whether it is as written by the Scribes or not.”
What about mercy?
“Eight hundred and thirty-seven years of bondage,” says Sandra, “was the Scribe’s idea of ‘mercy.’ Not that I have kept count, oh no.”
You wonder if Sandra thinks sympathy is the same as love.
That earns you a sneer.
“And what has put that idea in your head? And what is all this about ‘love.’ As though I have ever considered such a thing in my entire existence. In case you have not noticed, I am attempting to prey upon your feelings of ‘lust.’ For personal amusement. Mine, in particular. I am making fun. Of you. In case I have been unclear.”
Was that all? You pick up your cane and walk over to her. She is still lying on her back in the Blackwagon. You stand over her.
“Yes, and you have left me deeply disappointed on that count,” says Sandra. “I had hoped to at least leave you a bit flustered, but you have rather confounded me on all counts. If not your fellows, if not that disagreeable demon, than who? I do not suppose Sandalwood would do it for you.”
No, Sandalwood would have rather the opposite effect. Too familial, or at least what you guess must be familial. You have very little point of reference on that count.
“Oh, how touching ,” groans Sandra. “Would that I still had a stomach, I would be sick to it.”
You point out there is another form Sandra hasn’t tried.
“Don’t say the Herald. There is blasphemy, and then there is that .”
No, not the Lone Minstrel.
Sandra thinks about it. A vicious grin spreads across her face.
“The Archjustice? Oh, he would love that--”
You shake your head and let your cane hover over her face. You gently tock her in the forehead.
To your surprise, she lets you.
“Ah,” says Sandra. The grin collapses at the corners.
“You must be joking.”
You wouldn’t turn her down.
“Now I know you are joking.”
If she wants to spend some time with you, all she has to do is ask.
“Enough,” says Sandra, in voice that snaps like a book slamming shut. Her edges blur. She flows up through your cane, through you, reappearing behind you in her raiments, with the mask on, so you can no longer see her face.
“How foolish,” she says. “So foolish I would die from the hilarity of it, were it in my power to do so. Ah, well, that provides me some semblance of a laugh from this little game. A worthwhile diversion, if a momentary one. I suppose I shall think of another before our brief time is up. You have been marginally more amusing than your predecessors, I will grant you. A bit of blasphemy does so warm my cold, empty heart.”
You don’t mind a little blasphemy, and none of that is a no.
Her shoulders jerk, marginally, before she disperses completely.
You wake up by the campfire with Jodariel sitting over you. The Lone Minstrel is humming softly on the other side of the fire, working the chords of a song you have not heard from him before. You consider asking him, but you sense he is in one of his untouchable moods, as distant as the moon in the sky. You eat your dinner and retire soon after. You don’t want Jodariel to have to watch over you all night.
As you pass through the door of the Blackwagon, you think you feel a pressure on your sleeve. A soft brush of the wind, or maybe grasping hand – nimble fingers, a brush across the inside of your wrist. You reach back as quickly as you can, but the sensation vanishes. It may very well have been the wind.
It’s not just sympathy, you say to no one in particular. They don’t have to be afraid.
“Krii-hii?” says Ti’zo, blearily from his nest.
You tell him not to worry about it and head off to bed.