Liam checks the clock. Any moment now, this will be over.
He’s waited weeks as the Londres papers spread the news of his haul across the city, as word of mouth spilled between sips of tea and the tinks of fine silverware laid to rest on exquisite porcelain saucers.
(and the fucking girl, although Goddess knows where she is now)
—penetrated the heart of mountainous Hanga to bring back a treasure trove of artifacts, including his pièce de résistance: a fist-sized, jade statue of a woman crouching in obeisance, sculpted so that her knees, hands, and forehead all touch the floor. Given Liam’s sterling reputation, the provenance of the object is unquestionable, but if someone has doubts, they need only to hold the statue to feel the energy contained within.
He should’ve postponed the auction. A few more weeks, and news would’ve traveled past Parit and Madrid, would’ve stretched to far-flung Li’Ares and Yuan. Many explorers have attempted contact with the Hangan enclaves, but only Liam made it through, and his prize could rally frenzied armies of the rich, deliver them straight to the House of Triumph’s imposing marble steps, eager for the right to bid on something so coveted.
He needs the money—especially given how massive Cigar Carl’s cut as expedition financier will be, despite the many ways in which he screwed Liam over—but he can’t wait. Even now, he half expects to throw open the door and find the girl’s frozen body lying on the stoop. His dreams are filled with giant spiders and screaming, with the lightning-fast terror of falling and the heavy hammer-swing of failure.
He bares his teeth, and it’s only the feralness of that gesture that reins him in. He’s not an animal. He’s got to get a grip. The statue will sell, and he’ll quit, flee to a sun-soaked getaway, one where he won’t get picked apart by heat and wet and mosquitoes. Somewhere cheap, where the wine is good and the girls accommodating.
The statue will sell. The dreams will stop. And I’m going to get the hell out of here.
He glances again at the clock, but the needle hasn’t shifted.
Liam is the end of a long line of men (and very occasionally, women) that define themselves by the things they take—baskets, rugs, jewelry, pottery, instruments, head-dresses, sacrificial knives. Most objects are sold to museums or collectors for a pittance that barely scrapes the margins of food and board, but every decade or so, someone finds a relic that still holds some power thrumming through it. Collectors treasure these items and their inaccessible magic, tied to a world order that fell long ago.
Even as a boy, Liam understood that he and his (now departed) father were rescuers, diving into murky rivers to dredge skeletons from the sediment. By climbing and slashing their way through harsh terrains and harsher savages, they liberate odds and ends from obscurity. In Ang-Terre, these “artifacts” can be admired by a grand civilization, one so advanced that it discovered firearms and gas-lamps and lets its women own slaves. (Indeed, were any of the natives to observe the massive, incandescent shape of the House of Triumph auction house, they would understand the true meaning of empire, the lofty weight of so grand an endeavor.)
Liam is not a monster. His work occasionally troubles him; when he was thirteen, he watched a musket-ball in the belly bring a goat-herder to her knees, blood slowly frothing through her cracked lips. She refused to give up the clay jug on her mantel, even for the gold Liam’s father offered in grunts and gestures, and attacked them when they picked it up. A senseless loss for an ash-filled vessel sitting on a shelf in the middle of the desert.
But what really bothers Liam is that much of what he retrieves is locked away in private studies and libraries, although he knows it serves the common good. These sales pave the way for other, lesser pieces to make their way into public museums, along with the mandatory replicas the rich commission and donate.
In his own, little way, Liam is a hero. And if he happens to make some money in the process, well, what is so wrong with that?
The seeds of the Hangan expedition are planted in a whorehouse, although the madam would thrash Liam if she heard him call it that. The Red Within is infamous for its seduction magic, rumored to radiate from an exotic hairpin the madam keeps locked in a safe.
Liam has always been curious about the Red. Scores of collectors and scientists have invested fortunes in failing to unlock an object’s potential; the Red’s success is quite the feather in the cap. But access to the Red is reserved for finer clientele than a down-on-his-luck explorer, especially one so far behind on the taxes that Londres threatens to take his home.
And then a buyer finances an excursion into Tongjan—a country much picked-over, but Liam discovers an overlooked clump of temples nestled in a hillside, abandoned and marked with woven yellow charms his translator insists are bad luck. Brave Liam rifles through them and finds a number of jade stones. Just like that, he’s ahead again.
Clients often try to sate their hunger for the intrepid by spending time with Liam, trying to give truth to their fantasies of the grizzled explorer. Sometimes the overtures are sexual, but this buyer seeks only association. He invites Liam to dinner, to the opera, which Liam declines, but when he mentions the Red Within, Liam can’t refuse.
Liam follows the buyer down a winding and convoluted series of alleys to a door with a red eye painted on it. The buyer knocks, a pattern of varying tempos.
Spiders crawl up Liam’s spine: cold, exciting. The door swings open to reveal the building’s velvet and silk-covered insides—and Liam’s hopes are dashed.
This isn’t magic. This is stage trickery—clever mirrors, women dressed in cloth that shimmers different colors when the light catches it. Prisms built into lanterns in the ceiling that throw rainbows on the floor. The air is chokingly thick with something heady-sweet that makes Liam’s head and heart thump: poppy-smoke.
Just stepping foot into this place gets one high. Magic, indeed.
He waits upstairs in a small bedchamber as the madam selects a girl for him—he bristled at that, but his backer assured him the madam is never wrong.
The whore slips through the doorway. Her hair and eyes have the same opaline darkness he saw in Tongjan. Her face boasts thick lashes, a flat nose bridge, and an epicanthal fold on the inside of each eye. Clear foreignness, there.
Her eyes widen when she sees him, but she recovers quickly and sits down on the bed. “I’ve been waiting for you.” Her voice is aloof, just a bit gravelly.
He laughs. At night, this girl probably stoops on the step and smokes a cigarette with dirty fingers, same as everybody else. “Is that so? Waiting for me? Or waiting for someone like me?”
“Waiting for you, Liam.”
He stiffens. Damn that buyer and his mouth. He wants to chide her—it’s too familiar, too fast, she should know better than to treat a client like this—but then she gets to work, and Liam lets it go.
It’s only after, when they share a cigarette, trying not to get ash on the sheets, that he remembers his complaint. His head buzzes; although there isn’t any visible smoke in this room, he still feels the effect of the poppies.
He opens his mouth, but she speaks over him. “I’m going to tell you a story. Close your eyes.”
He bristles at the command, but he’s curious.
There’s no foreplay. She just launches into her tale, delivering the entire thing in a breathless rush.
“There is a snow-covered mountain in Hanga known as the Mysterious and Fragrant Mountain. On top is a caldera, which holds a small village. An old woman lives there with a statue, worth more than anything else you’ve ever laid your eyes on. The jade isn’t pale-green; it’s a dark, emerald green—imported from some other place to the south, blessed by a true shaman. It’s magic, the real shit.”
He blinks his eyes at her sudden vulgarity and turns his head to the side. The bed is empty. He bolts upright, his heart thudding—but then the room rings with laughter.
She stands in the corner, her legs spread, cleaning herself with a damp piece of linen.
Ugh. His stomach flops as he turns away. Why let a client see the banalities of what comes after? It’s like she doesn’t know how to do her job at all.
“I could take you there,” she says. “I know where it is.”
He squeezes his eyes shut and tries to think about anything else. “No, thank you.”
“You’ll change your mind. Come find me when you do. My name is Eunji, but you can call me Spider.”
After a long silence, he dares to look. She makes a lascivious gesture with her pelvis while rolling her arms around her, as if she has eight appendages instead of four.
Liam takes exact change out of the money the buyer gave him, leaves it on the bed, and scrambles from the room. When he breaks into the clean air, the buzzing in his head finally recedes.
It takes him an hour to find his way home through the stupid maze of alleys. His head thumps as he crawls into bed. Later, he ignores the buyer’s letters.
For a while, Liam has odd dreams about a jade statue—dark green, with sparkling red rubies for eyes. Much like the girl’s story, he ignores them, until he forgets both.
But two years later, a different girl—one Liam doesn’t remember having met before, but it’s hard to remember them all—shows up on his doorstep with a baby on her hip, and Liam can’t deny the resemblance.
He feels a brief pang when she tells him she doesn’t want him to be a father. Just some money, that’s all. He selflessly gives her everything he has left—not a lot, but she can make it last a year, if she’s careful.
That night, he lies in bed, floating in the strangeness of the day. He’ll have to get another job soon, but he finds that after laying eyes on that girl and her child, he has no desire to venture back into the world and fight the good fight. He doesn’t even want to get out of this bed.
And that’s when he remembers the Red Within, the girl with the terrible manners. It’s like a wasp-sting—the hot knife-edge of pressure, the sore throbbing afterward.
If there really is an artifact like she described, and he can find it, he can retire and be done with all this.
Later, he’ll wonder if maybe the Red really does have some magic inside, because the next thing he knows, he’s knocking on the big door with the red eye, with no memory of walking through the alleys.
The Hangan Expedition will be Liam’s greatest achievement, if he can just figure out how to get there. The obvious choice is by sea, but when he consults with the head scholar in Oxcam’s department of Exotic and Oriental studies, she informs him that once he docks, the Hangans won’t let his crew leave the ship, due to their fear of foreign disease.
“What about landing outside of a port city?”
Her hair is pinned back so severely, it pulls at her eyebrows as she speaks. “Dubious. Their navy protects the coastline without fail. Those savages have cannons, and their warships are cloaked in metal armor.”
“That seems awfully advanced.”
“Who knows where they got the technology from? But the relevant point is that they’ll sink your boat, and with you still on it.”
He considers. “We’ll have to approach overland, then.”
She scoffs, and he doesn’t blame her. The mountain passes to the north of the Hangan peninsula are world-renowned for their brutality, for elevations so steep climbers suffocate, for winds that sweep the earth with icy fingers long enough to render the permafrost unbreakable.
“Thank you for your time.”
Liam brings the trip plans to Cigar Carl, his best investor.
“You’d have to be a bloody mountain goat to have a remote chance of success in this endeavor,” Carl says, as he smokes one of his eponymous tobacco-filled cigars.
Liam takes the cigar and taps it meaningfully on the silver plate Carl keeps for ash. The journey to bring back the tobacco leaf for Ang-Terre’s perusal had also been one Carl loudly decried as impossible—yet here is the proof of Liam’s success, going up into a pungent cloud of smoke. The truth is that without Liam, there is no Carl.
“You owe me this,” says Liam.
“I disagree,” says Carl, who has the right of it. Any debt he owed to Liam he paid long ago. “But I’ll bite—for forty percent.”
It’s Liam’s turn to balk. Carl usually only takes twenty—thirty, for something particularly risky, although the tobacco expedition had been thirty-five. But forty? Forty is too much, incredibly greedy.
But even with sixty percent, if what the whore says is real, and if Liam can pull this off, he can retire. Since the visit from the girl and her baby—the family he almost but didn’t have—he feels like he’s continually fighting a fever. His bones ache. At night, his legs tingle with pins and needles, twitches like shocks of static. Sometimes, he wakes from garbled dreams to find that he’s filled with a heavy ennui, as if something dark, shiny, and mandibled grinds away at him in tiny, almost negligible bites.
He decides to go through with it. He’ll feel better when his worldly concerns are nothing more than a fresh glass and a nubile thing in his bed. With sixty percent, Liam can spend the rest of his days living in the lap of luxury, sweet-talking women with tales of his adventures.
He nods. They shake on it. Liam refuses Carl’s offer of a glass of wine and leaves to assemble his crew.
The going is rougher than Liam anticipated. Half the men die before they even cross the border into Hangan territory, although their bearings are too nebulous to be sure when that is. The cold burns through their clothes, right into their bones, and the dogs—the ones the Iskerian trader swore up and down would save them—can’t handle the changes in elevation once they get too far south.
They run out of food. They start eating the dogs.
Somehow, Liam and the dwindling team press on. By the time they move out of the tundra, and their piss no longer freezes mid-air, there are only ten men left—ten men, and the girl from the Red Within, who sits on the sledge and doesn’t lift a finger, except to point the way. Her sense of direction isn’t impeded by the shift of the clouds over the stars or the glare of the sun off the snow, and they make decent time, until the altitude makes it hard to breathe.
And then one night, right after the stars disappear to make way for the coming dawn, Liam, the girl, and the last seven men summit a flat-topped mountain and look down into a caldera that makes him picture its peak being lopped off by some Iskerian god. A small village nestles in the center of the crater.
Lack of air and exertion already make his heart beat faster than a hummingbird’s wings, but he manages an extra burst of speed. They descend as quick as they dare, flying down the sloped side and toward the small huts. The eight buildings are laid in a circle, oblong shapes and roofs made out of some material he can’t make out through the snow.
Black wisps curl up from the smokeholes, but there are of course no gardens or crops, no herded animals, no fruit trees. He wonders what these people eat. He turns to the girl. “All right. What happens now?”
She stopped answering them two days ago, opting instead to just point her finger when spoken to. She does this now, and he gives up. He readies his trusty matchlock and makes his way to the biggest hut while preparing himself to pry this artifact from the natives’ clutching hands.
Liam pokes his head into the first building, his men following in his footsteps, but except for the rising smoke, there are no signs of life. He moves to the next, and the next, searching for the statue, but each hut is the same, until the last one, where he comes upon a woman lying full length on a thick quilt on the ground.
Despite the stains and the way the colors have faded, Liam picks out the shine of good silk, and he wonders how the woman came by it.
He exits to find the girl, as they’ll need her for translation. The small sledge is deserted. Liam searches the snow, but there are no traces of her footsteps; she’s vanished into the screaming wind.
Liam swears and steps back inside, picking his brain for how to tell the woman what he needs. “Hello,” he says, keeping his tone friendly. When dealing with natives, tone is the most important—that and holding eye contact, if his instincts tell him to.
“Hel-lo,” says the woman, and she erupts into giggles.
Liam waits, dumbfounded, as she stands. She takes a kettle from the fire and pours steaming liquid into a cup, before handing it to him.
It’s yellow-brown, like a weak tea, and it smells like grass. He takes a sip and is surprised that although it tastes burnt, it’s also good, with just a hint of sweetness. It fills his belly with its warmth.
He smiles and makes a show of sucking the liquid down, but he stays aware of the environment. His seven remaining men stand behind him, waiting for his order. With the deaths of their comrades, their initial shares have swelled into semi-fortunes.
The woman refills his cup, before giving them all some of the odd grain-tea. She sits down on the floor.
Liam follows her lead, his head spinning from the positional change. It feels like the floor reaches up to grab him, like his bones melt into its surface.
He scans the room. His men’s expressions alternate between impassive and wary. Maybe they’re surprised to see him share tea with this woman, but the truth is that while Liam is certainly not opposed to violence, he’s also not opposed to getting his hand on the statue through easier means.
Plus, the longer he looks at her, the more she reminds him of the girl. He’s not sure, because all Hangans look alike—even if it’s not popular to admit that in public, anymore—but something in the way she holds her head just so grates on him.
He momentarily allows himself to imagine her naked. Surprisingly, he is not repulsed by the image, despite her advanced age.
The door opens. Liam reaches for his weapon, but it’s not at his side. From the shouts of his men, they’re having the same problem.
A stranger stomps in, clad in thick furs with a hood that obscures his face. Before Liam and his men can react, the newcomer holds up his hands and says, “Don’t shoot.”
Liam’s mouth falls open. In the moment, he forgets they have no guns to shoot with. “The King’s Ang-Terre. Are you a countryman?”
“No, although I was, once.” The man pulls back his hood. His eyes are brown, and his skin an awful tan, but there is no mistaking the cast of his features or the cut of his accent. This man is one of Liam’s own.
Liam’s thoughts should be racing, but the warmth and the tea and the exhaustion have all done their part, and they trickle sluggishly. He can do no more than stare, dumbfounded, as the man gestures at the ground. “I see that you’ve met my wife,” he says, with a smile at the old woman.
Wife? Liam’s heard of people taking foreign wives—has seen those couples in the street—but those women are usually young and beautiful. This one could easily be the man’s mother. And there is something under his smile, some hint of a reproach, nay, a fear, that Liam doesn’t understand. Perhaps, after a night of drunken reverie, the woman convinced the stranger that she’d fallen pregnant, and in a moment of misdirected morality, he decided to stay.
The story makes no sense, but Liam clings to it like a life raft. He looks from husband to wife, wife to husband, as if watching a cricket match.
The woman brings the man a small teacup, one of fine Ang-Terre porcelain. The pair then sit side by side on two cushions and wait expectantly, until Liam uneasily copies their example.
“I suppose you’re here for the statue,” says the man.
Liam almost drops the cup, but in a moment, he rights himself. No point in feigning ignorance. He has no gun, so he calculates the likelihood of throwing his cup and hitting the man in the eye, and whether it will give his crew enough of a head-start that they can take this man down. He didn’t come all this way for someone else to take his prize.
He feels a throb of guilt at that—he didn’t set out to murder a fellow countryman, either—but needs must.
“All right,” says the man. “I’ll ask her.”
He turns to the woman and spits out a stream of words in a nasal language that Liam doesn’t recognize, despite his training with the Oxcam professor. The woman stands and retrieves an object wrapped in cloth from a chest in the corner. She places it at Liam’s feet before sitting down again.
Even through the cloth, Liam can feel the pulse of its magic, a bending and quickening of the air like a warm sigh. He wants to shuck the covering and hold the statue to his skin, to be one with it, to feel himself inside it—
The woman says something, and the man nods. “She says you can have it in trade.”
Liam goggles at his good fortune. Convincing people to accept they will be giving up their treasured objects is the hardest, most brutal part. Everything that comes after is just a matter of degrees. “What does she want?”
The pair converse again, rapid fire, a stream that ends with the woman erupting in a peal of laughter. It is the joy of a younger woman, and when she tosses her head back, her face is suddenly beautiful.
The man’s brows come together. “It’s hard to explain, and I can’t say I understand all of it. It sounds like she’s asking for some kind of religious sacrifice.”
A sacrifice? Liam turns the word over, taking care not to meet the eyes of any man in this room. He’s seen more than one ritual that ended in a dagger through the heart or a lopped-off head—but he’s lost too many men already. If someone dies here, today, it will be in a fair fight.
The woman speaks again, before tapping herself delicately on the head, on the heart.
The man sighs, relieved, and nods. “Sorry. I think I translated wrong—it’s not a concept I’m familiar with, or something that I think the Ang-Terre even have a word for.” He exhales hard, and the fibers of his mustache ripple like seaweed, making Liam wonder at the uncanny impossibility of the facial hair’s movements. “She says she’s impressed by the Ang-Terre. She knows they are respected and feared around the world. She wants you to be an emissary for the King, and in that role, pay … her ancestors? Maybe spirits is the better word—she wants you to pay them a kind of tribute. Like a performance. She says this kind of honor grants them power.”
Liam swallows, carefully as he can. He can’t believe his luck. Instead of gold, or glass, or weapons, this woman is asking him to—what? Sing? Dance? He’ll perform an entire operetta naked in the snow if it will net him this statue. “What kind of performance?”
The man relays Liam’s question. The woman’s answer is softer, almost a murmur.
“She says that when you get back to Ang-Terre, you must sacrifice something with great reverence by burning it in a ceremony. Something of equal history and value as the statue.”
Liam holds in his laugh. Who knows what this hag values? But that’s not important. The woman is offering to give Liam the statue, right now, for free. “I accept your terms.”
The pair speak again briefly. “One last thing,” the man says. “She says that if you do not hold up your side of the bargain, she will send for the statue, and you will have nothing.”
Liam suppresses a snort. Let her send for whatever she wants; once the auction is over, the statue will be gone, and good luck proving in Ang-Terre’s courts that Liam hasn’t held up his end of the deal—or that there was even a deal in the first place. “I accept.”
The man kisses his wife briefly. They touch foreheads, a gesture so tender that Liam would be torn with envy, if he didn’t find the woman so repulsive.
“All right.” The man stands and puts on his coat. “Let’s go.”
Liam’s eyes narrow. “I beg your pardon.”
The man gestures at the door. “My wife is worried that given how many men you lost on the way here, you won’t make it back by yourselves, and the statue will be lost. She feels obligated to ensure you leave Hangan territory safely. I know a route that will take us through some communities I have ties to, with consistent access to food and water the whole way.” He gives his wife a smile, boyish and full of longing, before looking back at Liam for an answer.
The offer is tempting, although Liam has his doubts. The man could ambush him at night and take the statue back. But if he would do that, why give it to Liam now?
And Liam has so few men left, and the girl that guided them here is gone, which means the way will be even harder than before. Assuming the man is earnest, Liam has a moral obligation to agree.
“I won’t double-cross you,” says the man, as if picking Liam’s reservations from his mind. “I’ll only take you as far as the border. And my wife will pack us plenty of tea. As long as we drink it every four hours, we won’t freeze to death.”
Liam feels it then, an odd, cold sting on his shoulder, like a spider-bite. He pulls his arm out of his sleeve and searches his skin for the offender—a dart, a claw, a needle—but there is nothing, and when he looks up, the married couple and his men are all staring at him.
“Very well,” he says. “Although you’ll have to tell us your name.” The men break into smiles, tension dispersing into the air, but Liam feels vaguely unsettled, as if his piquant victory has somehow been diluted.
When Liam looks down again, he finds his rifle in his hands, warm to the touch.
The man’s name is John Smith—definitely false, which makes Liam wonder if he’s a criminal—but he’s true to his word, if a bit strange. Although he refuses all conversation about his wife or his life before coming to the Hangan territories, his manner is warm and capable, and he quickly proves to be a competent guide. They stop at small outposts along the way, bunking with copper and golden-skinned people that live in tents and trade in fur. Liam and his men take the tea religiously, every four hours, and are astonished to find it offers a bracing armor against the cold.
Liam studies John like a cat watches a mouse-hole, waiting for the slightest hint of betrayal.
It is a clear day when they catch sight of Reynavuit, the outpost’s border wall rising in the distance like a dark crown.
“This is where we part ways,” says John. “You should be able to hire a guide to take you to the capital, some three weeks travel, though the terrain is not nearly so harsh. From there, you can book passage on a boat.”
Liam rubs the exhaustion out of his eyes, one at a time. He is careful at night, now that the object is in their possession, lest one of the men decide his share of the proceeds is too small. He sleeps only in fits and snatches, gasping awake from garbled dreams of tigers and winged snakes and gigantic spiders that crawl through Londres, knocking buildings down to their foundations. “I know Reynavuit.”
There’s something wrong here, wrong with John, but Liam’s mind feels like he’s trudging through mud, and he’s irritated that a man who barely knows him feels comfortable telling him how to handle his own expedition. Before he can say anything else, though, John turns and walks away.
Liam’s vision swims, and when it clears, John is gone.
Liam lies in his berth, the boat rocking with endless creaks and groans. He should be ecstatic—they’re headed home, their precious cargo in tow. After weeks of blistering cold and sleeping with one eye open, he has a small private stateroom with a door he can lock, which means that for the first time since laying hands on the statue, he is free to sink completely into sleep.
He waits—ten minutes, twenty, an hour. The soft sway of the ship and the odors of seaweed and sweating wood should be more soporific than any herb, but it’s as if his body has mounted a protest. Both his hands shake—faint, but he can feel it, trembles like the shifting of the sea-floor. His mouth is dry and tastes of salt. There’s an odd pressure at the back of his head, one that winds like a string around a violin peg.
Each is a clue to his malaise. He’s sure—there was something addictive in that tea. Liam wouldn’t have given it up, not when it saved his men from freezing to death, but he can feel the wind, wind, wind of his mind crying for it, the aches of his body as it clamors for his attention, far louder than it would’ve been without the tea’s influence.
Take, for example, his shoulder. He knows he felt it sting in the moments after making the deal, even if he couldn’t find the proof until the next day, when an angry dot with a bright cherry center bloomed at the apex of his collarbone and grew until it was the size of his thumbnail. The bite quickly blistered and turned purple, some unknown venom filling it with the bruise-crush of blood, but it faded almost as quickly. All that remains is a faint paint splotch of yellowish-green. It usually doesn’t hurt, save a dull ache when he presses his finger into it, but now, the pain is like a fire, hungry and throbbing for his attention.
He clenches his fists. How disconcerting this is—the insect bite, the properties of the tea. For some reason, a number of warnings that should’ve sparked his attention during the expedition slipped away from him and rested beneath the surface of his mind, like the massive submerged stretch of an iceberg. Now that they journey in safer waters, a thousand questions and insults thrust their way to the surface. Where did the whore go? What happened to their guns when they first entered that old woman’s hut? And who in bloody fucking hell is John Smith?
Something snaps in his chest. It tightens until he can barely breathe, and his hearing amplifies, until it sounds like all the bells of Santa Lucia’s cathedral are ringing and clanging and roaring at once. In all his death-defying travels, he’s never felt dread like this.
He puts his head between his knees and gasps for air. It feels like fists are pummeling his body, like hands are rifling through his brain—and still, the ringing drones on, sounds distorting until they become the old woman’s laughter.
It ends, all at once, with him vomiting into a bowl by the bed.
He takes a moment to steady himself. A fear passes through him, one too absurd to observe openly. He turns it around in the back of his mind, feeling for its sharp edges.
For the first time since they left the old woman, he entertains the idea of keeping his end of the bargain and burning something to honor her ancestors. It feels like a thought planted—but as soon as it occurs to him, his body fills with relief, cool and sweet. Braced, he seizes the idea, as if it is an academic exercise, and not because he’s afraid of what waits for him in the night.
What would those spirits like to receive, in exchange for their magic statue?
He answers this question over and over, each time with a new goal, a new avenue, making a game of coming up with as many propositions as he can. He could burn, for example, a newsstand copy of a great work of fiction, cheap and priceless at the same time. The woman said it had to be something with history; he prides himself for thinking of the King’s throne, a shingle from the Iron Nail—which he’s sure is actually the oldest drinking establishment in Londres—and a lace kerchief, stolen from the grave of a statesman.
Liam could burn the most expensive thing he owns—his house—or the most valuable thing to him, which is the tattered mantle his father left, its surface covered in rips and tears, lovingly repaired in a way they could not equal when it came to the old man’s body.
He touches each idea like a worry stone, and, finally, sleep overtakes him.
Of course, when he wakes, Liam decides it was just a game. He will burn nothing.
The headache the tea left in its absence waxes for three days and peaks on the fourth. The men grow crabby from withdrawal. The fifth day, it breaks like a storm, and an ease overtakes them.
They sit on the deck and strip off their shirts to take in the sun. They sailors hoot at their semi-nakedness despite the cold, but Liam and his crew do not care. Compared to the tundra, this is paradise.
When Liam lands in Ang-Terre, he finds that the news of his success has somehow outpaced him, reporters and fans alike forming a shifting crowd on the docks. He sways, his feet on solid earth for the first time in months, but as soon as he recovers, he hails a carriage to take him straight to the bank, where he deposits the statue in a safety deposit box. With his last outlay funds, he procures an insurance policy so extensive, he almost hopes for a theft.
He heads to Cigar Carl’s and tries to ignore the way the driver wrinkles his nose the entire trip. Liam’s shame burns even hotter when he realizes he must ask the driver to wait in front of the house until he returns from inside with the fare, but it is only a temporary humiliation. As soon as Carl’s butler escorts Liam through the iron gates and into the sitting room, he feels like singing.
Carl appears, massive as always, a smokestack made flesh. “Is it true?”
Liam breaks into a smile, one so bright he can barely see. “Already at the bank.”
Carl pops the cork of a mysterious green bottle and fills a glass with frothing amber liquid. He hands it to Liam, who raises it in victory, and together the men toast to Liam’s coming retirement.
Liam drinks until the world turns sideways and it feels like he’s back on the ship. He won’t be able to keep his eyes open much longer.
He giggles like a girl as he thinks of the driver he forgot, until the man came up to the gate and banged his beefy fist against it, shouting for his fare; the man is long gone. Liam will have to find another.
He stands and sways. Goes to shake Carl’s hand and misses. The financier shakes his head and offers the use of an upstairs bedroom, and Liam gladly accepts.
He languishes in the soft bed while breathing deeply. He catches an ephemeral scent he can’t place, but it’s not enough to keep him awake.
That night, he dreams of a familiar room with prisms in the ceiling. In between the rainbows they throw on the floor, the shadows shift and break apart, until they become a roiling sea of tiny black spiders.
At first, Liam is amenable to waiting for the international buyers to come in, a process the auctioneer says will take half a year.
But then, the solid feeling of the world around him wavers. It’s subtle and vaguely claustrophobic, easy to explain away and yet disturbing, like the creeping expansion of a waistline.
It starts with sleeplessness. He has been plagued with insomnia since the herb wore off, alternating cycles of energy and exhaustion. He stays up days at a time, until it becomes torture, his body so desperate and aching for rest that he is forced to drink it into submission.
Liam has more than one distant relative that died of a similar slow poisoning. When he was young, and his father hale, they laughed at the ghosts that haunted those poor saps; now, it is not so funny. Some quiet voice in the back of his mind wonders if the old woman planned this all along, a depraved joke to offset the loss of her statue.
Time blurs. Awake, awake, drink, sleep. Awake-awake-drink-sleep, awake—
His environment changes, as if by the hands of fairies. A book from his shelf wedged under his pillow, another in his stove, only discovered when he accidentally sets it to smoking. Awake-awake-drink—he collapses on the couch. He surfaces, and someone has made his bed.
He frantically cleans the house, so that any changes will stick out like footsteps in new snow. He drowns, wakes, and there are cobwebs floating in all the corners. Did he miss them? Or has he merely lost time? His intrusions into the bottle are getting longer, too long.
He stays awake and painfully sober for two days, until he can stand it no more. Awake-awake—
He makes a contingency plan. He recites the date, over and over, before writing it in black ink on a stiff sheet of paper. He circles it as he tucks into his whiskey, finally feeling in control.
He wakes to a heavy drumming on the door. He stumbles and checks, but no one is there. He remembers the note and staggers back, nearly losing the contents of his stomach in the process—without the rhythms of sleep to regulate it, it’s always sour—and he cannot find the paper.
He tears through all the drawers of his desk. Nestled in the bottom right is a sheet of paper with a large, circular ink-blot, the date blacked out completely. The dried ink is cracked, liked desiccated mud, and its border crawls with spindly, vein-like offshoots.
If he tilts the paper just right, the image resembles a spider.
He makes it to the Red Within a few hours later. At first, despite his certainty he has recreated the knocks, the door does not open—but then he remembers a final three raps, and it creaks back to reveal the whore-house’s velvet insides.
“What do you want?” asks a woman, wrinkling her nose. People around him do this constantly now, wrinkling the nose, raising the lip, drawing together the brows. As if he radiates a heat that shrivels their faces. “You can’t come in here.”
“I just need to talk to the Spider. It’s important.”
The woman shakes her head, but she glances over her shoulder, as if fearful of something—or transmitting a message.
She’s here. He can’t believe it, but he’s also not surprised. From the moment the girl disappeared from the expedition, something has gnawed quietly at his stomach—a feeling that she stepped through a portal back to the Red, or worse, that she never left at all.
The woman goes to close the door. He snaps like a mongoose and muscles his way in, but when he takes in the empty lobby, he scrambles to a halt.
She screams for help as he runs up the stairs, straight for the room where he saw the girl last. He throws it open, but there is no one—
Strong arms grab him and drag him backward down the stairs. “You don’t understand!” he screams. “I need to see the Spider!”
His words have no effect. He digs in his heels, punches and flails—
“What’s going on here?” The imperious voice of the madam rings out above him.
The goons wait as she descends, her steps as light as a cat’s. She takes his face in one gloved hand and lifts it to meet her gaze. “You’re that explorer,” she growls. “I should’ve never let you in.”
“I need to talk to the girl I saw that night. I’ve—” He bites his lip at the garish silliness of his next words. “I worry that I’ve been cursed. Perhaps.”
The madam’s eyebrows float up. Her mouth draws into an amused rosebud that sits side-saddle on her face. “I see.”
Pinned between her goons, his shame threatens to drown him. He almost turns and runs, but then she drops his face and stands. “He wants to talk to Mi-Jung. Bring her here, but keep a close watch on him. He does not appear altogether stable.” She pulls at each of the glove’s fingers, before peeling it back delicately from the wrist, as if tearing off the rind of a soft, exotic fruit. “And send this to be washed.”
His heart soars when he sees her—black hair, a flat nose bridge, those epicanthal folds at the inner corners of her eyes—but of course, it is not the Spider. The girl swears up and down that she serviced him, that he was not threatening, a mediocre lover but a bad tipper—and although each detail she gives rings true to his memory, he is sure this is not the same girl.
The madam does not deign to bring him another before throwing him out into the street. He lies on his back and struggles to breathe, the air knocked out of him by his landing.
One of two things is happening. He’s either going mad, or he’s really cursed. The first, he can do nothing about, and so he resolves to find a solution for the second.
Over the next five days, Liam consults every mystic, psychic, and faith-healer offered by the city of Londres. A good number keep irregular hours. Thrice, he knocks on a door too long, only to be informed by a neighbor that the psychic in question was just run out for graft.
He procures an advance from Cigar Carl and spends a small fortune: herbs, crystals, oils, tinctures, salves, things to bury, things to burn. Yet always, he can feel it, the trickle of spiders on his back, and when he presses his finger into the bite on his shoulder, it aches softly, right down to the bone.
He no longer needs the alcohol, for he has decided he will not sleep. He toughs it out through the shaking, the roiling of his stomach, the alternating constipation and watery bowels, the bells and gongs clang, clang, clanging in his head. He papers his walls in notes to himself, things to do, things to remember—yet the body cannot be avoided forever. He sits, only for a moment, just a quick breath in a chair—
The next instant, he lands face-first on the floor. Even his chairs are not safe.
He changes tactics. He takes out another advance from Carl and pays a young, strapping man a week’s wages to post watch—a stranger, for he is sure there is no one left he can trust, besides Carl. He crawls under the bed with his gun, and only there, in the cramped confines underneath its surface, does he feel safe enough to embrace sleep.
When he wakes, the lad is gone, as are the rest of Liam’s guns, his candlesticks, and all his silverware.
He resolves that he has been ridiculous. If there is a curse—impossible, but say there is—then the easiest course of action is just to give the woman what she asked for.
He sorts through his remaining belongings for something valuable, something with history. In the end, he decides on his father’s mantle and all the books on his shelves. Many are unquestionably valuable, rare first-print tomes of knowledge and artistry that he has held onto in case of a rainy day, but it is the mantle that most pains him.
He lights the fireplace, stokes it until it roars. He forgets if there were specific instructions to the ritual, a way to address his gift to the proper recipient. He settles on holding an image of the old woman in his mind and thinking her ancestors, her ancestors, her ancestors, before throwing in the mantle and the books.
They crackle and light immediately—and he suddenly feels as if the nightmare sitting on his chest has finally climbed off.
He sinks back into a chair and lets himself relax. Just a bit. Just a moment.
His eyelids grow heavy.
He’s awakened by a terrific banging on the door.
His heart hammering in his chest, Liam stands.
A woman’s voice, one he recognizes. The Spider, he thinks, and he runs for the door and throws it open.
His heart falls. It is not the Spider. It is, instead, the other girl, the one that showed up at the base of the stairs and testified against him. Mei-Ling or Mi-Young or something equally ridiculous, if that’s even her real name.
“What do you want?” he growls, and he’s gratified to see that she pulls into herself, crumpling as if she’s afraid of him, but then she gives herself a shake and stands tall.
“Carl sent me,” she says.
His mind swims. Carl? Cigar Carl? What would his wealthy financier have to do with a slip of a girl like this one? But he can think of no way to ask the question that doesn’t imply something sordid, and so he just says, “What do you want?”
The girl’s gaze sweeps his form. She holds a hand to her chest, obviously unsettled by his appearance. At least her nose does not wrinkle—a single wrinkled nose more, and he really might just burn his whole house. “I … Carl is worried about you. Your, um, encounter at the Red was mentioned to him, and he sent me to see if there wasn’t something I could help you with.”
Liam narrows his eyes. It sounds fishy—or does it? He’s spent the last several days trying to dispel a curse; even he can recognize his judgment is likely impaired. “There isn’t,” he says, finally, before moving to shut the door.
Her little foot darts in between the door and the frame, so quick he pulls backward—and this, too, is infuriating, so maddening he could slam it for the obscene pleasure of breaking each of the bones in her delicate foot.
“I just want to say one thing,” she says, her voice a murmur. “If you were cursed—”
“Hold your tongue!” he barks, although that, too, makes no sense. He said it to the madam, plain as day, and in front of witnesses. Here, there is no one save her, nobody else to add to his shame.
Something glints in her eyes. She ignores his outburst. “There are many kinds of curses. Some are tied to a person. Others, to an object. If it’s an object curse, then transferring the ownership of said object might also transfer the curse.” She looks down at her fingernails. They’re stained with some kind of red tint. It must be fresh, because there’s no way he could’ve missed that.
She waits for an answer, but he cannot think of one, and his mouth is as dry as the hot air floating over the desert. He watches, helpless, as she turns on her heel and strides away. When he can no longer see her, a thought turns in his mind, Carl sent her Carl sent her Carl sent her—
Suspicion, slithering its way into his heart.
There is no motivation Liam can find for Carl to resort to this—to driving him mad. If Liam rushes to sell, they both to stand to lose a fortune.
There remains the chance that Carl was not the one that planted this girl and her suggestion to sell the object, thereby passing on the curse—but Liam doubts it. When he reflects back on her, he can almost smell the rich echo of a cigar.
He considers ignoring all this. Considers stocking up on food and water, and then coming back and nailing all the doors and windows shut until the auction. There’d be nothing Carl could do, no way to play fairies while Liam sleeps.
He glances at the fireplace, lost in thought, but what he sees makes his tongue stick to the roof of his mouth.
The fire is dead, its fuel somehow all burned up. The ash clumps in odd configurations, like a big pile of black beans.
The more he stares at it, the more it resembles a giant nest of spiders.
Fuck this, he thinks. He doesn’t care about his revenge—he just needs this to be over.
He grabs his coat and leaves, straight for the auction-house.
There are six auction-houses in Ang-Terre, but none hold a candle to the House of Triumph, a massive structure both curved and squat, made to resemble one of the ancient coliseums.
Liam tears into the front door and past the greeter so fast, a guard sprints to intercept him. Just as the guard prepares for the tackle, another man intervenes. “Liam?”
Liam staggers. It is his given name, which means this is a close acquaintance, and yes, the voice is familiar. “Carl?”
“Do you know this man, Mr. Ashworth?” The guard is deferential; Cigar Carl has made an enormous sum for the House of Triumph, and it would not do to unnecessarily alienate him.
Carl steps forward, worry written on every one of his massive features. For each step he takes, Liam takes one of his own, straight back.
Carl stops and holds up his hands. “Liam … what are you doing here? Are you well?”
His voice radiates concern, but Liam does not let himself be soothed. He clenches his hands into fists, focuses on the stretching in his knuckles. “I want to move up the auction date.”
Carl’s face goes blank. He holds his palms up, an offering. “Liam … let’s think about this. It’s a lot of money.”
“There’s nothing to think about. We move it up, or there will be no auction at all,” Liam bluffs. The truth is that he has almost, but not quite, tipped over the edge of just giving the damn thing to Carl—
A signal light flashes in his mind. But of course. That’s what he wants. Carl has known Liam for a long time—would’ve known that Liam doesn’t hold up well to shit like this. Might’ve predicted, even, that Liam would resort to signing it over and just waiting for Carl to give him his cut.
He digs in his heels, the decision made. “Move the auction up, or I’m taking the statue and leaving the country.”
“You’ll do no such thing,” says Carl. “This statue is forty percent mine.”
“And it’s sixty percent mine. Which means what I say goes—doesn’t it?” Liam turns to look at the greeter, some lower-level peon of the House of Triumph.
“Well, I’m not sure,” says the man, his eyes downcast, as if he’s terrified to even look at Carl. “Were Mr. Westenra to leave with it in his possession, there could be a legal case made for theft—but I do believe a majority owner could potentially request an earlier auction date. Although that is something of course that could be contended, and then it would go to the courts—”
Carl makes a dismissive grunt, and the man stops talking.
“Listen,” Carl says. “I don’t think you should do this. We go a long way back, and I think … I think maybe you need some help.”
“I need a beach and a stiff drink,” says Liam. “I need to be rid of this statue.” He does not add the dark words in his heart, that this is all your fault.
A strange expression crosses Carl’s face, pained and confused and sad all at once. He shakes his head, and when he speaks, his voice is gentle. “All right, Liam, but only because I am your friend. We’ll move the auction up.”
Liam studies Carl’s face, but the language written there is one he can no longer read.
Liam waits, rocking, as the minutes pass. Waits for the courier to arrive with the letter and tell him how much money he’s made. Waits for all of this to be over.
Despite his anticipation, he jumps at the rap at the door. He throws it open with a bang, and there is the courier with Liam’s letter. He grabs it from the courier’s hands without a word and rips it open, ignoring the man’s exaggerated sniff.
AUCTION HAS BEEN CALLED OFF. COME TO THE AUCTION HOUSE. WE NEED TO TALK.
Liam sags as if he’s been shot—and in his mind’s eye, he’s a boy again, and there’s the goatherd, protesting and then burbling as they take the vase from her mantel.
Seconds drum by. On the heels of this blow comes a rage, one so murderous, it drives his body like a marionette’s. Liam grabs the courier and throws him to one side, before snatching up his gun and running out the door. Liam will give Carl more than talk.
He sprints down the sidewalk, people exclaiming with affront as he blazes by. He hails a carriage and climbs in, roars directions, and they are off.
Halfway there, something hot and sharp pierces the back of his neck. He slaps it, hard, and when he brings his hand up to his face, a small, black body falls away from his palm, to be lost on the floor.
Liam leaps out of the cab without paying, his mind frantically turning over thoughts like Carl storming through his newly cleaned home. He makes it as far as the House of Triumph’s steps before the driver’s shouts penetrate his ears—Stop! Stop!
And then the earth shakes under him, throwing him off his feet. The tremble is over as fast as it starts—did he imagine it?
He lies on his belly. His face hurts. The driver is still shouting, but Liam can’t make out the words. His picks up his head and brings his hand to his lip. It’s bleeding.
Another earthquake shocks through the ground around him. Dust rattles off of buildings. People scream—perhaps they have been screaming, all along—
In front of him, there comes a great crack, a roaring, a tearing, like something being ripped from the earth. A number of long, black projections grow out from the side of the House of Triumph. They are straight, like stalks of wheat, and still they grow, grow until they’re as long as the building is wide, stark lines like the oars of a long-boat.
All at once, they bend in the middle, as if neatly jointed, until their tips touch the earth.
Liam holds his breath. He recognizes this shape—the round body, the eight legs. It’s plagued him since he met that demon in the Red, and here, it is made devastatingly huge and whole.
The black legs flex, and the House of Triumph is lifted from the ground, dirt and rocks and bricks all falling to the earth like rain.
The legs all shift at once, a scuttling pattern, and the building lurches forward. Liam doesn’t have to pull out his compass to know it’s headed east, toward Hanga, to finally settle his debt.
|A prolific writer of short fiction, articles, essays, and poetry, Maria Dong‘s work has been published in Lightspeed, Apex, Augur, Fantasy, Apparition, Khoreo, and Nightmare, among many others. Her debut novel, Liar, Dreamer, Thief comes out from Grand Central Publishing in January of 2023. Although she’s currently a computer programmer, in her previous lives, Maria’s held a variety of diverse careers, including property manager, English teacher, and occupational therapist. She lives with her partner in southwest Michigan, in a centenarian saltbox house that is almost certainly haunted, watching K-dramas and drinking Bell’s beer. She is represented by Amy Bishop at Dystel, Goderich & Bourret. She can also be reached via twitter @mariadongwrites or via her website, MariaDong.com.|