Looking back, thought Wasp grimly as she lugged a barrel’s worth of cleaning supplies out to the little building behind the shrine, she just couldn’t seem to shake off those damn lurchers.
The winter kennels were just as she remembered them: long, low barns smelling of old meat and soiled hay, fronted by swinging gates through which the dogs could burst at a moment’s notice. Even now she suppressed a shudder, looking into the dark. It wasn’t for nothing that the upstarts had squabbled over who had to sweep them out—and it wasn’t for nothing that they’d shushed when Wasp finally volunteered and Sairy stepped up to join her.
“Ready for the scary part?” said Sairy now, nudging Wasp’s arm, proffering a smile. “I can’t believe that old slag-head didn’t turn tail from the stink alone.”
“Real brave,” said Wasp. “So I guess we have to be the scared ones.”
Sairy shot her a surprised look and nudged the gate open with the toe of her boot. “We’re tougher than that.”
Inside the stink was ten times as bad. They crouched to keep the splinters off their backs as they silently worked, handing off brooms and square-nosed shovels, sweeping all that dirt into the bright clean air. It wasn’t as dark as Wasp had expected; thin winter sunlight snuck in though the slats, hanging silvery in the dust they’d stirred up. It was as if the air itself gave off a vague luminescence. And then suddenly Wasp was back in the ghost place, her hands stained quicksilver with lurcher blood, seeing the kennels through memory upon memory upon gore-slicked blade—
“Hey.” A warm hand on her shoulder, a concerned pair of eyes set hard upon her own. “You okay?”
Wasp realized suddenly that she was spacing out, breathing too fast, one fist clenched by her hip where her knife should be. “Yeah,” she said, and brushed the hand away. “Thanks. Just tired.” She turned from the questions painted all too clear on Sairy’s face and jabbed her shovel at a rotten lump of straw.
It hit something soft. The soft thing made a noise.
Wasp and Sairy looked at each other. A rat, thought Wasp desperately. Mouse nest. But Sairy was already bending down, clearing it free of debris—and stopping. Pink, wriggling, and nearly hairless, it keened so high and breaking that Wasp was surprised its lungs didn’t give out. Almost unrecognizable save for the faint white star which marked it as Catchkeep’s, and therefore the shrine’s, own.
They were silent for a good minute. “I didn’t think there were any left,” said Sairy, to break it.
Wasp shook her head. There were two halves warring within her. One, the gutpunch reaction of an Archivist’s fear—to run as fast and far away from it as she could, that seeing it this close meant it had already caught her. Two, the confluence of all those dog-dreams, those bled-out memories—warm summer days fragrant with hay. The sweet black heat of a mother’s hide. A hand, on different men but always the same, raised to strike.
Wasp felt one side push and reluctantly give out. Stupid to be scared of something no bigger than two cupped hands. She dragged a hand down her cheek. “There’s always one left to remember by.”
"What are we gonna do with it?” Sairy asked. “We can’t just...leave it here.”
Wasp was already digging through the back for something to wrap it in, and she came up with a piece of fabric torn beyond recognition and covered in coarse black hairs. “Dunno. Take it back up to the shrine, I guess. See what the rest want to do with it.”
She scooped the puppy up, irrationally reluctant to let it touch her through the covering, holding it up to the light. It was colder than she’d expected. Shivering. How many days had it gone without its mother, out here in the winter air? Its little claws pressed through to her arm, seeking. It whined again.
Sairy watched her for a few beats, shook her head. Looked almost like she was trying to hide a smile. “Want me to run up and heat some milk?”
“Sure,” said Wasp. “We’ll finish clearing out later.” And Sairy bounded off through the snow.
Alone in the kennels, Wasp looked down at the cold thing shaking in her arms. She understood fear. The way the upstarts used to hate her just for being alive. How the townspeople turned away from her for what she was born as, or close enough. She remembered the old story the priest used to tell them, about how Catchkeep Herself burned the white star onto the dogs’ foreheads with the light of Her own, echoing over and over in the manner of their scars, and swore.
Wasp pressed the bundle to her chest to warm it as she walked. Damn lurchers.
The ghost watched Wasp go.
Ever since he’d left her that night on the high ledge of the hill, he’d felt—not responsibility, exactly, but something close enough—for her. He lingered still, silently watching her as she stumbled bloodied through the snow to put the high man in his place, as she learned how not to kill, as she mended and grew and healed. Even after Foster had fixed her up and there was jack shit they could do he’d hovered over her like a nurse, and Foster had let out a strange little laugh, as if it were a joke she couldn’t quite remember.
After all, he’d put those wounds in her side. He’d dragged her miles and miles without rest or respite. He’d nearly killed her, in the end, and he wasn’t sure if he would ever forgive himself for that.
And so the ghost watched, and Foster followed.
Today was a little strange for a few reasons. One was that Wasp looked very afraid. That was understandable, considering it had only been about a week since she’d returned and relations with the temple and the town were a little iffy, but he’d seen her pull herself out of messier situations before. Two was that she carried something in her arms, gingerly, as if it might blow up in her face at any moment, and that the something had come from the long low barns out back. He’d sensed a situation out of the ordinary and come running. It wasn’t hard to put two and two together, now.
Foster and the ghost watched Wasp’s tracks fill up with snow.
“That girl,” said Foster. “Are we ever going to see her again? Why are we still hanging around?”
The ghost shook his head. “This place isn’t stable, after what she did. We won’t leave until...until it’s safe.”
“But they’ll never be safe. Right?” Foster knit her brows together. Tried to shape her mouth around words, rejected or forgot them, and sighed. “Because of what you said. They’re like us.”
“Were,” he corrected her automatically, then wondered how much that was true. “Anyway. They’re learning.”
Foster raised a questioning eyebrow. “Hard to unlearn that.”
He closed his eyes, thought back lifetimes ago, millennia now, to when the point of this conversation had been aimed at his throat. Thought maybe there was a chance that seeing someone just as angry, just as stubborn, just as kind would help her realize she’d once been the one holding that point. “If anyone can do it she can.”
“Hope so.” Her smile was fierce and bright as ever. “We’ve got her back, though, huh?”
He offered her a thin smile of his own. “Always.”
Unseen, they watched Wasp trudge through the snow and waited.
By the time Wasp reached the shrine quarters, twilight had come on and the upstarts had begun to light the ghostgrass lanterns. Instinctively she tamped down the sharp dread that rose in her; a week of living here again had not yet worn down that old fear, and still she listened for the whispering footsteps of the Catchkeep-priest. In this soft blue light, though, with smoke curling from the chimney and wintersweet drying by the door, it was the closest Wasp had ever gotten to home.
She looked down and sighed. The dog was still nestled in the crook of her arm, making small noises in its sleep. She wondered if it would feel like home much longer.
“Wasp!” An upstart rounded the corner of the shrine, startling her. The upstart—Holly? Hazel? it was hard to remember now that Wasp actually wanted to—was breathless, her dark eyes wide. “Sairy said you—"
“Brought you all a surprise? Yeah,” said Wasp. She shifted the bundle in her arms so the upstart could see. “Not a very good one.”
She wasn’t sure what reaction she expected, but the upstart just narrowed her eyes thoughtfully. “Oh, it’s so small.”
Wasp realized with a shock that she was not afraid at all. Then she realized that she was so young that she had probably only just landed in the clutches of the priest—passed around like an old bone and unloved, sure, but unaware all the same.
“I’m taking it back so we can decide what to do,” said Wasp after a too-long silence.
“Huh,” she said. “We should name it.”
Wasp opened her mouth to argue just how bad of an idea this was, but the upstart had already disappeared into the shrine. Wasp could think of nothing to do but follow.
Inside the shrine was bustling with activity. A fire roared in the hearth, and an upstart hovered over it, stirring a pot of thick stew; Sairy chopped potatoes at the table as she chatted with a girl chopping onions; and everywhere girls talked and sang and worked and laughed and for a moment Wasp felt something warm and bright swelling in her chest. Then she heard the talk itself and the feeling stilled.
“Is it true Wasp found a shrine-dog?”
“How little is it, I wonder—”
“Those things half scared me shitless—”
“I’m back,” Wasp said.
Twelve faces turned towards her. Sairy got up from the potatoes and fetched a pot of goat milk. It was, thought Wasp with bitter amusement, a little like that bright longago morning she’d limped back into the ring—only this time it wasn’t Wasp coming back from the dead. The puppy in her arms mewled pitifully.
“Thanks, Sairy,” said Wasp, kicking off her boots. “Okay, can everyone—”
“Why’d you bring that in here?”
“—come for a meeting,” Wasp finished. For some reason she felt oddly defensive of it. “To decide what to do.”
They gathered into a circle, muttering.
Some of them leaned in closer to look; some leaned away. Sairy was the only one who came up to her, carrying a milk-soaked rag, and the others seemed to waver.
“We’re not killing it,” Sairy said firmly to the assembled upstarts. Something tight in Wasp’s chest unwound. “If anything separates us from that monster it’s mercy.”
Murmurs of assent. It seemed almost as if they had gotten over the initial shock of seeing another ghost from their past and now—now they were commenting on its smallness and the shiny little thumbprint of its nose and how its eyes were closed as in dreaming. How relieved they were that no weighted sack lay in the corner, no priest steepling his hands as he deliberated over which would make up its contents. They got louder, then fell silent.
“We could train it,” said an upstart with short hair and hazel eyes—Bex, Wasp remembered with a burst of triumph.
“And we still have a duty to Catchkeep,” added another—Lissa. “Those dogs are supposed to be Hers, not that shitheap’s.”
“I volunteer my milk portion this week,” said Meg.
“We should take shifts, to feed it at night.”
“We should name it.”
The meeting dissolved into argument, and Wasp tensed, but it was the easy kind, the sort of bickering found between friends and old couples. It amazed her how fast they were willing to turn towards kindness instead of cruelty, eager to cast off their old lives. How they could get rid of the past so quickly, when Wasp was still convinced she was half ghost—
She shook it off. Sairy had that look in her eye again.
“Give the milk here,” said Wasp, and Sairy was still staring at her weird but she handed the rag to Wasp anyway. Wasp had no idea what to do with it. She pushed the milk towards its face, but the puppy pushed back. There was now milk all over its nose and on her hands and somehow in her hair. As far as she could tell, none of it had made it into its mouth.
“Shit,” said Wasp.
“Let me take a look,” said Lissa, pushing her way through the onlookers. “My upstart-family used to raise guard dogs. I kind of know about them.”
She looked a little wary, like saying so much about herself might reveal some hidden weak point. Also maybe a little embarrassed. Wasp shrugged and handed her the bundle. They all still carried their own Ragpickers on their backs.
Holding the dog up to her face, her long black hair pulled back and a look of intense concentration in her eyes, Lissa looked serious as a midwife. “I mean, he hasn’t had food for a few days and that’s slagged him a bit but otherwise—oh.” She rolled it on its side and parted the fur there. The skin was marred by a shiny red cut. “That’s not good.”
A chorus of hisses. They’d all had injuries like that, knife-wounds left too long to fester out of negligence or fear, and knew the boiling fevers that followed. Seen what came after that, too. But judging by the color the infection was early—it might live if it were strong enough. Wasp understood all too well that that was the problem.
“Someone clean that up and wrap it,” said Lissa. “He night take that milk up better if you make it hotter. We’re gonna have to find another mother-dog pretty quick, though.”
There was an uncomfortable silence. The brew-mistress had one, Wasp knew, but it was full dark now and none of them were willing to cross that chasm just yet.
“So. Shifts for tonight,” said Sairy, as if she could read Wasp’s mind. “We’ll see about what else in the morning. I’ll take one.”
Wasp surprised herself by saying, “And me, too.”
But the night drew on, and the wound ran through a cycle of not-right colors, and the shine in the upstarts’ eyes dimmed with the dog’s strength. Soon its only movement was the shallow rise-fall rhythm of its breath. Wasp caught herself wondering what could have possibly happened to it, and the answer came too fast. She imagined the ghostly arms of the Catchkeep-priest reaching out over the temple one last time, come to claim the first thing the upstarts could really call their own, and closed her eyes. It was late. She tamped down the fire in her chest and drifted off into an uneasy sleep.
Sometime after the full moon rose and the embers in the shrine-grate coughed up one last spark and died, two pairs of heavy bootsteps sounded all the way up the entry path and stopped.
“And you’re sure this is a good idea,” said the ghost dubiously as Foster teased a ghostgrass lamp loose with the tip of her sword, slid it quick to the ground and tamped it out.
“Yup.” She hooked it back up, dark now, in the same careful motion. “Unless you have any better ones.”
The ghost let out an exasperated sigh. “No, but—”
“Or unless you want to, you know, talk to her like a normal person.”
He stalled. “We’ve been over this, she doesn’t need any more reminders—”
Foster chewed her lip. The row of lamps was all out now, only winking in the chilly light of her sword. “I think she tolerates you more than you’d like to admit.”
“She’s not ready anyway. And this was your idea in the first place.”
“So?” Foster whirled past him and into the living-quarters before he even had time to react. Then, in a whisper pitched so only someone with such perfect hearing as theirs could ever hope to catch: “Besides—you’re the one who said I only have good ones.”
A million warnings bubbling up his throat: no, what if they hear you, what if that light gets in their eyes and wakes them, what if they bind you blood-and-salt, Christ Foster, if they catch you stealing—
But she was back out in a blink and he felt stupid for thinking all those things. A small black shape was in her arms.
“All asleep,” she said, tilting her head backway. “Including this one.”
“Foster. This is a terrible idea.”
“You want to do something good for her or not?” She flipped the puppy over, gently; there was a greenish laceration running up its side. “Even back home this would have needed a vet, or something, and all they have is shitty alcohol and a prayer. It’ll die without us.”
“I know. But if it gets better for no reason they’ll look at it and think it's...” He ran a hand over his head. He wasn’t sure what they’d think.
“Fairies,” finished Foster, grinning. "C'mon. He's cute."
He thought about how Wasp tumbled easy as a house of cards at even the smallest suggestion of the past, and how this one would be like putting a fist through it. Then about Wasp’s stories of the Catchkeep-priest, and how the cruelest thing he did was to watch them suffer even though he could stop it, and that maybe his own inaction would result in a more crushing reminder than any proof he was here.
Foster looked at him. He had always been so hesitant, even here, now. Should have learned his lesson when he’d paid for it.
“Fine,” he said, and it was like something had released the springload of worry in his chest. “Just don’t make it too obvious.”
Foster hummed in amusement. “I knew you’d say yes.”
She worked quickly but carefully, brow creased, lip worried between her teeth. She daubed the cut with a dark, sludgy ointment that brought to mind asphalt on a hot summer day. (They’d found cases of it in the tunnels; it would be nice, he thought, to leave it somewhere conspicuous for Wasp to find.) Then she shielded it from the cold wind with her arms and waited.
Already the puppy was beginning to stir in its sleep. It let out a whine so ragged it was almost a sigh, nosed futilely at her arm for warmth. Foster ran a thumb down the velvet nap of its ear and it quieted. There was a faraway look in her eyes—not sad, exactly, but strained. Contemplative.
“This reminds me of something,” she said, and if the ghost had breath it would have caught in his throat.
“What,” he said at the same time her words poured out: “I don’t know what exactly but it’s the feeling. I’ve done this so many times before, I know I have, and maybe it wasn’t this exactly but—” She shook her head. Her voice had gone all weird at the end. Instantly, helplessly, the ghost realized she was completely overcome. “You’re going to have to help me out.”
“Foster.” He put all the care in the world into his next words. “My memory is not...in optimal condition. Ours may not match.” But he would do anything, absolutely anything to fix this, and he turned away before he could see her face fall. “I’m trying.”
Foster let out a small noise of disbelief. “What, it doesn’t have to be a sick puppy. I think. Just—have you ever looked at something and felt this way before?”
“You helped a lot of people.” He kept his voice neutral. “Do you see anything about a kid you saved? Hostage situation? Healing people with that little light?”
Foster said nothing, but that brief fire faded in her eyes. He hated failing. It was like losing her again, every time. “No.”
“All right,” he said, and blew out a long breath. “All right.” Still, something was nagging at the back of his mind. Something he’d missed. He felt as if he’d reached into the dark for something and hadn’t retrieved it but brushed against it, just out of his grasp—
Something he’d said to Wasp that day. About people and their dogs. Real people, normal people. With families and houses and—and pet dogs and—
Sunlight broke through the dark of his mind. Foster, scritching a stray between the ears, both of them covered in war-dust. Foster, stopping to fill a cratered pothole with her water bottle for a bunch of hollow-eyed mutts. Foster, offering the last of her rations to a dog with its ribs showing through. Using up the dregs of a healing light’s power to heal something small. Hefting up the remains of a building to allow a puffball of a creature to escape, yipping even as the evacuation sirens wailed, into its tearful family’s arms. Tossing small kindnesses whichever way she could. Foster being Foster, through and through.
He leaned into it and remembered.
“You always were a dog person,” he managed.
Something new had come into Foster’s eyes. It wasn’t remembrance, exactly. But it wasn’t nothing either. It was so much more than that terrible blankness they had both become accustomed to, and because of that, it felt distinctly dangerous.
She looked from the dog to the ghost and back again. “I think,” she said slowly, “I agree with you.”
It took far too long for the ghost’s hyperintelligent brain to process that his something dangerous was hope.
The puppy was breathing easy now; the swelling and unnatural coloration of the cut had faded. Even so Foster was reluctant to put it down. She caught him staring and smirked. “You want to hold him?”
The puppy’s fur looked very soft. It had a button nose and a thumbprint-sized star on its forehead and tiny whiskers that twitched with its breathing. The ghost settled for scratching its ears. “I’ve always been more of a cat person.”
Foster rolled her eyes. “Suit yourself. But you’re holding him next time.”
“You think we’re not going to check up on him after this? We’re like his foster parents now.”
“I mean—I guess—” He had not expected this situation. “Foster. We are not his—oh my god, that is terrible.”
“I’m putting him back to bed,” said Foster, grinning. She was gone and running in a flash. “And you’re a terrible liar,” she sang over her shoulder.
The ghost shook his head in wonder. Over and over again he underestimated just how easily the world turned over in her wake. Foster crested the hill back towards him, the sun rising just behind.
There was someone shaking Wasp’s shoulders. There were multiple people shaking Wasp’s shoulders, and now there was someone pulling her warm blanket off, too.
Wasp knuckled the grit from her eyes and glared balefully at the upstarts assembled around her sleeping-alcove.
“Wake up, Wasp,” said Sairy, too bright. “You’ve been sleeping for ages.”
“It’s almost noon,” Lissa added helpfully. “And there’s something you want to see.”
Wasp hauled herself up, grumbling. “What the hell would I want to see now.”
Then the events of the past day came surging back, and a knot of anxiety tightened inside her chest. But the upstarts didn’t seem anxious. In fact, they looked downright relieved. Wasp followed them towards the big fireplace center hall, her confusion giving way to a grudging curiosity.
The rest of the upstarts were waiting there, ringed around the pile of blankets they had set aside for the puppy last night. The milk-pot beside them was noticeably less full. Standing in the middle was Holly, her hands cupped around something small, loudly announcing that Mouse was a stupid name for a dog.
Wasp looked on, not quite believing their luck. “It lived?”
“Holly found it this morning with that cut all healed up,” said Bex from behind, startling her. “Like it had never even gone bad. It’s taking milk now too.”
Wasp went stock still. Wounds that disappeared mysteriously, with no evidence of what had healed them—something painful tugged at the back of her mind and so she shook herself. Not possible. Stupid to run herself around things that could easily be explained away. “Must have been lucky,” she said eventually, and Bex nodded in agreement, shouted out a name of her own. In Wasp’s mind the Catchkeep-priest’s fingers uncurled and fell away, dissolving back into memory. She let out a long breath.
All this talk of names had gotten her thinking.
Probably the Catchkeep-priest would have named the puppy something vicious. Beartrap or Her Fury, Sun-Eater or Tooth. He would have trained it until it grew into that name, scraped away at its capacity for gentleness till only the sharpest parts were left. No more than a knife for personal use.
If Wasp had been a knife once, now there was no hand or violence that fit her. She found the name fit wrong now, too.
Here, now, with light streaming through the scavenge-glass windows and laughter bouncing down the hall, breakfast cooking and the hearth crackling and girls building upon each other’s ridiculous suggestions until Sairy said one that left them all howling, she found it didn’t quite matter yet. There was work to look forward to. Sweeping out the shrine. Making supper with the girls she no longer felt quite comfortable calling upstarts. Raising something untouched by the terror of this place, all of them teaching it and caring for it and allowing it love, and an early spring after that.
For the first time in years, Isabel closed her eyes and let go.