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When the Wolf Comes Home

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Beside the dock there is a pile of fish heads bursting with gulls.  They birds clack their beaks over the choicest parts: the eyes and the red filamentous gill arches.  Baru strides past this, half a step ahead of Apparitor to show her eagerness, on the morning Tain Hu dies with the tide.

When she begs seasickness it is doubly an act; firstly she must practice a weak facade or be labeled a brute with no finesse, and secondly because her gorge rises at unpredictable intervals and she must have an excuse.  She thinks of ocean-cold skin and retches.  The smell of olive oil in someone's hair, the line of a body swinging confidently from rigging to deck, the slap of waves when they strike against the hull, all nauseating.  A sailor leans from her hammock to whisper a joke and her companion laughs, low and raspy and almost the same as -- and Baru must lean out of her own hammock to gag and spit and gag and spit again, fouling the hardwood below with revulsion and grief.



Somewhere a bell is ringing.



Falcrest perches over the swamp like a swan.  It sits on a hundred thousand whitewashed stilts, sunk into the delta silt.  The larger buildings -- the parliament and the palatial grounds -- are supported by metal pylons anchored all the way down in deep bedrock.  The city glitters like a bleached white shell amidst dune grass.

Instead of cobblestones it has boardwalks and swaying rope bridges.  It is the cleanest city Baru has ever seen.  All the filth of the streets drops between open slats and into the river to be flushed out to sea.  There is a program funded by parliament that directs chemical workshops to dump their lead-laced waste at the neck of the delta, to kill the blood midges and the crabs.  This deadens the smell of the sea.

She is handed control of the committee that sets tariffs like an unwelcome gift.

It is imperative that she split herself into a stable of identities, hollow Barus that can each be filled with misleading purpose.  But she finds she can only split herself into two: the Baru who can continue, and the Baru whose nerves are all severed by the cutting cry of please, please, I take it back, make it all undone.



The opposite of the bell is a cold cloth over her face, followed by the familiar sensation of drowning.



She is stronger than this.  Her purpose is bigger than the life of one woman.  It will not do to fail to balance this arithmetic of cost.

Hah.  Too late.

Baru gets roaringly drunk and climbs with the uncoordinated confidence of the intoxicated over the railing of the boardwalk.  She sits in a V of the scaffolding holding the city up.  It's darker here, and everything drips.  The wood is flaking with white lichen. The lichen matches the whitewash, and it grows voraciously wherever the paint has cracked. When Baru picks away a scab of lichen the wood underneath is soft and pitted like tripe.

She laughs convulsively, moaning with mirth at rot camouflaging rot.  Above her on the boardwalk passerby quicken their steps, fearing a ghost.



She wakes in the sea with a knife in her hand.



These soft Falcrest people with their leverage and their expected contingencies.  They make little nets like caddisfly nymphs, certain that one of their many threads will catch an unsuspecting rotifer.  They do not expect someone to cut out all the knots.

Baru stops trying to leverage the agents of her opponents and starts having them systematically killed.

They have no power over me, she writes in a letter to Tain Hu.  I fear no additional loss.  She throws these letters into the clean nothingness to the right of her folding desk.



Tain Hu leans over a shallow pool in the tide flats a few hours walk outside of Falcrest.  She has stopped to hunt a crab.  It steps out from beneath its rock and to its death.

As Tain Hu sucks the salty-soft guts from the crab, little more than a woman with a knife and a compulsion, she eyes the rocks for a route back to the road.

In her mind's ear, a bell rings, and the anticipation of action is sweet on her tongue.



Baru sees a ghost at a crowded society ball and knows the game is over.  She is finally mad.  It's an honorable loss, at least.  She played every chip to win.

Tain Hu walks through the clots of conversation toward Baru.  She is magnificent in wet, creaking leather.  Her hair is knotted on top of her skull, but strands have fallen and cling to the side of her face.

Perhaps it is worth being mad, to see Tain Hu again.  Baru swallows a whoop of triumph.

She had forgotten the weight of Tain Hu's body, how with every step she rooted her foot in the ground.  Every muscle is built for purpose, not for show.  What comedy -- the ghost in the room is the most real thing.

What a pity, though, that this is happening now.  So public, so bright.  There is a man to her left who controls over half of Falcrest's mercantile trade.  Morsy Ottinger.  He is not clever, just rich, but he will pay her a fortune in bribes to turn the tariffs his way.  She can always use money.

Ottinger notices she isn't paying attention to him.  "Who's that?  You two sisters?"  He lowers his voice, ready to say something provocative.  "I heard that in Aurdwynn sisters used to sleep in the same beds, and their husbands…well."

Baru reaches out and puts her hand over his face, dragging streaks into his makeup.  He squawks and then stills like a bird with a cloth thrown over its head.  This is a very offensive way to stop someone dull from talking, but Ottinger is too stupid to be useful.

And then Tain Hu is upon her, and she clasps Baru's forearms like a soldier, and then cups Baru's chin like a lover, as she did at that first dance but gentler.  There is a low murmur in the hall.

"You look like a technocrat," Tain Hu says, an backhanded compliment and a joke all wrapped up in one.  "Like a drunk technocrat," Tain Hu amends, so fond, so close, and pulls the tails of the ribbon securing Baru's mask until it falls from her face.  It hits the floor and cracks down the middle.

"You're not real," Baru breathes.  Counterargument: Ottinger saw her.  The hall is turned toward them.   Rebuttal: Ottinger thought Baru was looking at someone else.  The partygoers heard her mask crack.

Baru reaches out into thin air and finds fingers that feel real.  She rubs the side of her forefinger against the ridge of calluses on Tain Hu's palm and it's perfect.  Tain Hu's hand is corpse-cold; she reeks of salt and kelp.  But when Baru's grip tenses she feels warmth beneath the chilled skin, and in the back of her throat she tastes the rich tangy smell of Tain Hu's body curled close under soft fur.

Tain Hu looks to Baru's right and her face twists in unhappy recognition.  "It's the red haired man," she says.  Baru spins and there he is, grimacing sheepishly.  He has brushed and oiled his hair until it falls in shining waves down his back.  His mask is a daringly transparent mesh of aluminum.  It must have cost a fortune for the metal alone.

"Neat new trick we have," Apparitor says.  "Heat packs to warm the body and bellows to inflate the lungs.  She's here, Baru."

Baru discovers that hope and terror are the same emotion.

"I have to do something, dearest," Tain Hu says, and smiles a beatific smile.  It looks alien on her face.  She steps away, out of arm's reach.

Tain Hu pulls a knife from her belt.  Apparitor catches Baru's shoulder before she can leap forward.  Tain Hu lifts the knife to her own throat.

Tain Hu's eyes don't leave Baru's face.  "Shhhh, kuye lam, it's okay.  Don't worry.  It's okay, it's okay."  The blade presses into her neck.  Tain Hu makes a little sawing motion to open the skin.  Blood seeps out, just enough to color the blade.

"Do you want the word that will stop her this time?" Apparitor asks, his grip tight on her shoulder, like he is in pain as well.  "Hesychast gave it to me.  Let me tell you."



The knife sings in her hand.



"Fuck you," Baru snarls, and grabs Apparitor by the throat.  "What did you do to her?" she screams in his face.



It feels so good.  Her actions fill her up with bells and sweetness, she is good, she is good, she is good.

It hurts to look at Baru's face.

Baru's face adds a discordant note to the knife's song.



"I'm sorry," Apparitor says, his throat working under Baru's fingers.  "I am, Baru, please believe me."

"Please don't look like that," Tain Hu cries, the knife trembling.  "This is good, it will all be okay."

Baru feels the trap springing closed.  Her opponents knew along that she could make the terrible choice once, but she could never make it twice. 

"Tell me."






Tain Hu drops the knife.  Baru does not drop Apparitor.  "I could kill you," Baru hisses.

Apparitor closes his eyes, the picture of aching compassion.  He looks like a marble statue of a young martyr.  Baru hates him.  "You're worse than leveraged, Agonist.  You can't protect Tain Hu from a knife in her own hand.  You lost this round."

Tain Hu steps forward and pulls Baru firmly away from the red haired man.  The mask of bliss slid off her face with Hesychast's word, and she looks focused and concerned.  "You cannot be here any longer," she says, and although she surely cannot fathom the depths of the politics here, she must see Baru is vulnerable and must want to protect her, even after all this.

They walk together like a crab with four legs across the boardwalk to Baru's apartment.



The bells are so quiet.

Tain Hu grips Baru's skull in strong fingers and kisses her, licking the taste of expensive whiskey off the front of her teeth.



Baru stands at the window, her body canted so she can see the entire field of the sky without turning.  There are no birds in the air above this city.  There are no crabs for them to eat here, and the lead makes their eggshells thin.

"It will be so much harder now," she explains to Tain Hu.  Her lover lies among their bedsheets to her right, which is hard for Baru.  When Tain Hu disappears into her blind side, it is like she is dead again.  However, it is sometimes easier to say things to Tain Hu when she is a ghost, so Baru keeps watching for birds.

"Do you have regrets?'' Tain Hu asks.  Her voice comes to Baru like smoke on the breeze.

"So many," Baru says, her voice rough even in her own ears.  She feels like she has breathed in hwatcha smoke.  Everything burns.  There is a monster made of lava-flow under her skin.  It has destroyed so much, plowing through forests and homes.  How can she stop it now before it reaches the sea to build new land?

She betrayed Aurdwynn.  She killed Tain Hu.  She wants to tear off her skin in penance, to let the lava-flow free.

But Baru turns away from the birdless sky, and Tain Hu is alive again.