The first blow made Aurelio stumble. The second knocked him to the ground. He rolled into an uneasy crouch, his vision locked at floor level: dust, wood grain, the dull shine of his attacker’s boots.
“This abuse won’t go unpunished,” he said, but the words slurred, thick with his own blood. “The Accords — ”
“Please, Doctór. I don’t care about the Accords.” He kicked Aurelio in the shoulder. “The governor clings to them only because he fears your people.” Another kick, harder. “I don’t have such fears.”
“Perhaps you should.”
Cruel laughter filled Aurelio’s ears. “Why? Because of your magic? The cemetery has been cleared, Doctór. There are no bodies left for you. And any more shamblestone outside would kill you. You’re weak and out of resources.”
He walked across the room, inspecting the bookshelves. Silent, as if enjoying the sound of Aurelio gasping for breath.
“You got a telegram today,” he finally said. “From one of the merchant houses. A friend of yours is coming to take you home. And here I was just getting to know you…”
“Pity.” The word dappled flecks of crimson across the floor.
“Yes. I’ve been reading up on this necromancy of yours, Doctór. Spirit summoning. Soul shifting. Necromantic constructs. Fascinating subject.”
Aurelio was only half listening. While the man spoke, he put two fingers into his mouth, then daubed the blood across the floor in a series of arcane symbols. The blood glowed beneath his fingertips, as if smearing fireflies. He whispered a few words, heard the man gurgle, thud to his knees.
Aurelio eased himself into a stand, walked toward the man. He looked down at him. The man was wide-eyed, alive but unmoving.
“Reading up on necromancy,” Aurelio said with a snort. He rolled his tongue around the inside of his mouth, spat a gobbet of blood. “Clearly, Capitán, you haven’t read enough.
“Necromancers conserve everything. Bodies. Bits of flesh. What makes you think we can’t conserve power?” He smiled. Went to find his tools.
Fifteen minutes later, the screaming began. It took the guards outside several minutes after that to realize the screams weren’t coming from Aurelio.
A dreary sunrise strained against the ashen sky. Its light scrabbled weakly against the tombstones, casting thick bars of gray across the cemetery. Xiomara peered from the window as her coach drove by, a hiss of disappointment on her lips. Freshly turned earth, empty graves. Such a waste. She squinted, tried reading the names of the disinterred.
The coach entered Mezquisol, rattling over cruel cobblestones. The town was already awake. Xiomara checked her pocket watch. Not yet six. Another hiss. Fringelanders weren’t proper people at all.
They were staring. Mezquisol was unaccustomed to any traffic more complex than horses or donkeys or men with carts. The coach was a noisy monstrosity of dark wood and blackened iron, its sides emblazoned with the sigils of the Merchant Guild of Caldierra. People gawped, backed away, clutched their children’s hands. Those gossiping in doorways stopped mid-conversation. Those on their way to work stopped mid-step.
The coach rolled to a halt in front of the sprawl of interconnected buildings that made up the governor’s home. The coachman opened the door, helped Xiomara into the street. There was a rustle of thick fabric, a muted clatter of concealed weaponry. She smoothed the wrinkles from her long coat, buttoned the collar till it brushed against her chin.
“Stay here with the horses,” she told the driver, adjusting her sleeves with a few light tugs. “And you,” she said to the coachman, “can come with me. Take the chest down and follow me up.”
Xiomara pulled some paperwork from the coach, checked her watch again. Cursed.
She was in such a rush to get upstairs that she nearly collided with one of the guards standing outside. He was a foreigner, a freightlander, though the breastplate exposed beneath his coat was covered in the markings of Mezquisol. The left side of his face was horribly scarred. Most of his ear had been cut away. His eye was a dead, milky gray.
She nearly recoiled, but reminded herself she had seen worse. Much worse. “You’re a long way from the Freighter Ports,” she quipped, quirking an eyebrow.
The guard ignored the comment. “You must be Señorita Bocascura.”
“In the flesh.”
He appraised her for a moment, then looked disapprovingly at the coachman shuffling up beside her. “The governor’s been expecting you, señorita. He has a very full schedule today. Let’s get this over with.”
The guard opened the office door, motioned Xiomara and her coachman to follow him inside. “The reclutadora from Caldierra is here to see you, señor.”
The room smelled of hot chocolate and wet ink. Papers sat in neat stacks on the desktop. A clock ticked away careful seconds, minutes. The hands shuddered to six o’clock, and chimes sounded the hours. The governor, his back turned, waited for the ringing to stop before speaking.
“Señorita Bocascura. I trust the hour isn’t too early?”
Xiomara yawned again. “Not at all.”
The governor leaned on the windowsill, peered into the main thoroughfare below. His short, oil-slicked curls caught the sunlight, reminding Xiomara of hundreds of tiny fishhooks. “I’ve outlawed necromancy in Mezquisol, señorita. Surely you knew that coming here. And yet your driver is clearly a grave laborer, and even your horses appear to be necromantic constructs. I can smell the chemicals from here.”
The guard grunted. “She’s brought one of them up with her, señor.”
The governor turned around slowly. His eyes widened at the sight of the coachman.
“Someone has to do the heavy lifting,” Xiomara said with a shrug. She snapped her fingers, and the coachman shuffled forward, staring ahead through long-dead sockets. Xiomara smirked. “I mean this in the most unironic way possible, señor: necromancy is a way of life in Caldierra. Surely you knew that before allowing me to reclaim Doctor Aurelio.”
The grave laborer’s arms creaked under the weight of the chest. Xiomara popped it open, revealing rows of glittering guildstamps. “Restitution. Or bail. Whatever you want to call it.”
The governor smiled as his eyes ran over the money. “Your ladyship is generous.”
“My ladyship knows the value of a good necromancer. You’ll never have to see him again; he’ll be attached to House Azulinda’s next project.
“Now,” she said, producing a pair of slim folios and dropping them on the desk, “let’s make this transfer legal, shall we? Sign at the bottom there. One copy for you, one copy for me. Then I’ll pick up Aurelio and be on my way.”
The governor had a seat, looked at the paperwork suspiciously. “These are official?”
Xiomara rolled her eyes. “They have the signature of Lady Azulinda herself, señor. They bear her seal. Any more official and they’d be written in her own blood.” She glanced over at the guard, who sighed heavily. “Better make it quick, señor. Seems like your freightlander is getting a little impatient.”
“Captain Próximo has good reason to want this over with quickly,” the governor said, inspecting the fine print with a careful eye. “The necromancer is the one who did that to his face.”
“He got more combative after he found out he was leaving,” said Próximo. “Even with the shamblestone he was finding ways to conjure up some small magic. We’ve since cut back his food rations. Hasn’t been a problem since.”
Xiomara frowned. “If I find out that Doctor Aurelio has been mistreated — ”
“He’s fine,” the governor said. Xiomara saw him shoot Próximo a withering stare. He quickly signed the paperwork and handed a copy back to her. “You’ll find him in his home at 68 Calle de Cisterna. I’ll have some of my men accompany you there,” he said, leaning back in his chair. “His house arrest was a…merciful gesture out of our immense respect for Caldierra.”
Merciful. Xiomara saw how his mouth formed around the word. “I’ll be sure to tell Lady Azulinda of your generosity.”
“Mmm. Yes. But do me another favor, señorita. A small favor. When you find the necromancer, leave immediately. I have no love for the man. If he ever sets foot in Mezquisol again, Accords be damned, I’ll kill him myself.”
When the door closed, the governor sat up in his seat, ears perked until he was certain he heard the last sound of boots in the hallway, the last faint shuffling of grave laborer footsteps. He glowered at Próximo. “Your stupid comment could get us into a lot of trouble, Capítan. The reclutadora could request an inquiry with the guilds.” He shook his head slowly. “Reduced rations…why not just admit to beating the man?”
Próximo folded his arms. “He’ll tell her anyway.”
“Yes, but it’s his word against ours. You don’t need to confess.” The governor slumped in his chair with a sigh. “Caldierra would respond accordingly, you can be sure of that. The necromancers are second only to the merchants in political power. And they’re far more creative with their punishments.”
“I’m sorry, señor.”
“I don’t have time for your apologies, Capitán. Capitán?”
Próximo was wincing, clutching the bridge of his nose. He tried blinking away the blear in his good eye. “Headache again,” he said. “I’m fine, señor. They never last long.”
The governor grumbled. “I have to prepare for my next meeting. Go and check on Beatríz, will you? She’s been quiet all morning.”
Progress had been slow. None of the guards trusted Xiomara enough to ride in the coach with her, and they marched alongside as the horses adopted a slower, accommodating pace. She sat alone with the curtains drawn, enjoying the darkness and the rhythm of hooves on cobblestones. Outside, she knew, her grave laborers were making a point to stare at everyone they saw. Per her orders.
Xiomara’s eyes weren’t attuned to magic. She has never been a practitioner, never shown an inclination. But years spent living among necromancers had made her adept at identifying magic by smell. She could tell she was getting close to Aurelio’s home even before one of the guards tapped on the outside of the coach and warned her.
She peeked out the window. Necromancy had definitely been practiced in this part of town. Its scent lingered in the walls. But there was something else, something she hadn’t smelled before: a metallic, alkaline tang that felt cold inside her nostrils and nearly made her sneeze.
House number 68 appeared as the coach turned the corner. It looked like any of the other row homes that surrounded it: walls of sun-stained hardwood, shingles as warped and cracked as dry leaves. But the letterbox outside its door read “Aurelio Cuervocho de Caldierra, Doctor of Necromancy.” Armed guards stood at the bottom of the steps. And then there was that smell…
Copper brackets had been installed under the sills of the first story like austere window boxes. They burned chunks of some strange, yellowish substance that cloaked much of the building in a haze of chalky smoke. She had never seen or smelled shamblestone before, but she knew what it was, and knew why it was there.
The coach stopped. She got out without a word to the guards, who unlocked Aurelio’s front door and let her through without making eye contact. Xiomara closed the door behind her.
The room was poorly lit. The windows were boarded up from the inside. Sunlight oozed through the cracks in the planking, painting the first floor in muted blue-grays. The stink of shamblestone was weaker here, the scent of magic more prevalent. And ash paste, manganese, salt, ochre. And tobacco smoke.
There were a few lumpy sacks by the door, a narrow crate, an open chest. Aurelio had been packing. She peered into the chest, and in the gloom she caught the titles of several books: Sandoval’s Sangre y Nigromancia, Doslunas’ Libro de Plagas Olvidadas, Maledicta-Berríoz’s Manipulación de las Almas. Aurelio’s shelves and cabinets were empty of the rarer and more important items. All that was left were wire-bound skeletons, carefully preserved limbs and organs, jars of fleshy, floating specimens. All easily replaced.
She saw Aurelio lounging in a chair by the far wall, though the light revealed little save an outline of long hair and bare flesh. She saw a coil of smoke, an orange glow from a cigarillo. And whenever Aurelio exhaled, his breath burned the terrible blue of magic.
The lock on Beatríz’s door was made by a machinist in Todas Cosas, and guaranteed impenetrable without the key. Próximo drew out the iron chain from under his breastplate, put key to lock. Gears and tumblers chattered inside.
Próximo pushed open the door. The room was windowless, spacious but unpleasant. There was a large bed, a table, several upholstered chairs, paintings on the wall. But the cleaning staff did laundry in the quarters below, and while the room stayed warm in the ashier months, the floorboards were always clammy, and the air smelled of steam and damp linen.
Beatríz sat at the edge of the bed, reading a book — more out of a lack of anything to do than genuine interest. Próximo smiled, a weak smile, an attempt to comfort her. She had gotten so pale, so thin. He couldn’t bear to see her like that. Only her eyes betrayed the defiant energy that kept her going despite nearly a year and a half behind closed doors.
She looked at Próximo uneasily. “Is it really you?”
“Of course,” he said, sitting down beside her. He lowered his voice. “We’re leaving today. Everything has fallen into place. Did you gather your things?”
She motioned to the small bag by the door. “I packed light.”
“Are you nervous?”
“No reason to be nervous. Your husband is busy today with meetings, hiding behind a fortress of paperwork. By the time he notices anything, we’ll be far away from here.” He glanced at the clock. “I’ll be back for you in half an hour. The delegation from Puerto Cobre sent a runner earlier this morning. Their freighter is anchored a mile outside of town.”
“I didn’t hear anything.”
“It’s likely a smuggler’s balloon. The wind drowns out their engines.” He paused, as if listening for something a long way off, something other than wind or engines. “I have to go now. Remember: half an hour. Half an hour and we’ll be free.”
Aurelio sat up slowly, snuffed out the cigarillo. “Good morning, Xiomara,” he said, reaching for the lamp on the floor and turning up the flame. Blue-gray retreated from pale orange, and Xiomara saw her friend for the first time in several years.
His hair was still worn long, and he was shirtless. He had always been proud of his markings: decorative scars, thick pictogram tattoos. But even those black symbols weren’t enough to hide the yellowing reminders of old bruises.
“You’re hurt,” she said.
“The swelling has gone down,” he said, and Xiomara could tell he didn’t want to talk about it, didn’t want to acknowledge he had been injured at all.
She hugged him anyway. Aurelio winced. “Nice to see you,” he said.
“It is, though I doubt you’ll get so warm a greeting back home. What were you thinking? The governor’s wife?”
“Beatríz is a remarkable woman,” he said. “And the governor doesn’t care for her like he should. He had long since fallen in love with power before Beatríz and I fell in love with each other.”
“You screwed up the plan.”
“I made my own plan.”
“The guilds don’t care about your plans, Aurelio. They wanted solid trade relations with Mezquisol. They wanted to spread the grave trade. This is one of the most populous towns in the Fringe; the human resources here are incredible.”
“The governor isn’t interested in the grave trade. He never intended to do business with Caldierra. He’s far too fascinated with the machinery of the Freighter Ports. Our magic means nothing to him. He’s suspicious of it. Even a skilled negotiator like yourself couldn’t convince him otherwise.
“The guilds don’t understand that, of course. They’ve already made their displeasure known,” he said solemnly. Then he smiled. “If you hadn’t come, they’d probably leave me here for the governor to deal with as he pleased. And before you ask, no, I don’t have any regrets. Adultery is a ridiculous crime to be locked away for.”
“Aurelio…she’s the governor’s wife! That’s not just adultery. That’s…that’s executive adultery. If it wasn’t for the Accords he would have killed you.”
“Only because he doesn’t have an imagination,” he said, almost wistfully. “If anyone tried to take Beatríz away from me, I’d do so much more than merely kill them…”
He sighed, carried the lamp to the table in the center of the room. “Help me finish packing, would you? The furniture’s all secondhand, but I have some more books and supplies that I can’t leave without.”
Xiomara agreed, helped Aurelio with his things. In silence. She didn’t speak again until the chest had been wedged shut, its clasps buckled into place and the catch locked. “I saw what you did to the captain of the guard,” she said. There was concern in her voice.
Aurelio nodded. His hand went to his side, as if clutching at some phantom pain. “He deserved it.”
“I’m sure he did, Aurelio. But it…it looked horrible.”
“Horrible?” he said, almost chuckling as he did. “Xiomara, that was a gift. A gift of dead flesh for my dear friend Próximo.”
She looked at him. “You’re keeping secrets.”
“Necromancers have many secrets.”
“Perhaps. But friends don’t.” She positioned herself between Aurelio and the door, her arms folded. “What are you plotting, Aurelio? What did you do to Captain Próximo?”
Próximo leaned heavily against a hallway table. He had jerked suddenly, like waking from a dream about falling. His head throbbed. His ears rang. Had he blacked out? He checked the clock, but any loss of time, imagined or otherwise, suddenly didn’t matter. The delegation would be arriving any minute. He had to be ready to meet them.
He tried to ignore his pain, forced himself to smile. It would be good to see his countrymen again. Sometimes Mezquisol, the entire Fringe, seemed too foreign to bear.
Nearly half an hour passed before Xiomara left the house. When she did, she was trying to carry Aurelio with her. He leaned heavily against her side, her arm around his waist, his arm draped across her shoulders. His eyes were closed, his body limp, as if unconscious.
“What’s wrong with him?” asked one of the guards.
Xiomara eyeballed him. “It’s this damned shamblestone. Don’t you see? You’ve made him sick! He’s lucky to be alive! The guilds will hear about this,” she said. She relished the looks on the guards’ faces, the taste of the threat on her lips. “Go inside and gather up his luggage! It’s the least you could do!”
The grave laborers helped her carry Aurelio to the coach. Xiomara climbed in after him, tried to make him comfortable in his seat. His head leaned back, and his eyes fluttered. A faint blue glow was visible beneath his eyelids. And even though Aurelio wasn’t smoking, Xiomara could see his breath.
The guards finished loading up the coach, sent it on its way. Xiomara knocked on the roof to get the driver’s attention. “Head out of town the way you’ve been instructed,” she said, looking uneasily at Aurelio. “I’ll tell you when to stop.”
There were greetings and handshakes and cryptic snatches of small talk. Then Captain Próximo ushered the freightlander delegation upstairs to the governor’s office. His head felt like it had been wrapped in gauze and broken glass, but he managed to fumble with the knob until the door was closed and locked behind him.
He bent over, hands on his knees, and breathed deeply. Each breath sounded like smooth pebbles against a rough stone floor. He nearly vomited. A minute passed, and his breathing evened out. He stood up, opened his eyes. And went to get Beatríz.
“The governor’s with the delegation,” he said when he saw her again. “We need to go.”
“Is everything all right?” she asked.
“Everything’s fine. We’re right on schedule. You’re sure you can make it?”
“Of course. I could make it if we had to run the entire way.”
“Good,” he said, “because we might have to.”
He knew they’d be seen. There was no way around it. There were guards at the entrances, on the roof, in the streets. But any resistance could be dealt with. Before an alarm could be raised, he and Beatríz would be too far away. He had chosen their path through Mezquisol well.
They crept down the hallway, toward the foyer. They heard footsteps at the top of the stairs. They froze. Looked up.
The governor was no longer in his office.
He was at the top of the steps, a fresh pile of paperwork in his arms. He looked down at them, saw them holding hands. Stopped. In one brief moment, the governor’s face twisted from business-as-usual to agonizing rage. The paperwork fell to the floor, individual sheets whirling around him.
“You…you traitorous bastard!” he growled. His gaze swiveled toward Beatríz like a piece of field artillery. “And you…! You miserable whore! How dare you do this to me again! How dare you!”
Próximo squeezed Beatríz’s hand, and shock became impetus. They sped toward the front door as the heads of various delegates peered from the office doorway. The governor’s face turned crimson. He began bellowing for his guards. “Capture them!” he screamed. “Bring them to me! And I don’t care if their throats have been cut before I see them again!”
The guard at the front door tried barring their path, but he was young and inexperienced, and the half-heard orders confused him. “Capítan? What’s going on? What does the gov — ”
Próximo cut his inquiry short with a full-body blow. The guard tumbled down the steps, wind ripped from his lungs. He gasped, coughed, fumbled about the cobblestones for his dropped sword. But Próximo and Beatríz were already into the thoroughfare and running southeast. Back in the house, the floors shook from the mustering guards, the walls from the governor’s terrible rage.
Beatríz and Próximo ran down the street, hand in hand, Próximo leading. He pulled her into a side street, and as the sounds of footsteps and shouting grew louder, he said, “Run. Run to the departure point, like we discussed.” He drew his sword. “I’ll meet you there. Go, quickly!”
He pressed his back against the wall, watched Beatríz run down the street. And waited.
The first guard to round the corner had his hand lopped off. His run became a surprised stumble, the others piling up behind his loss of momentum. Próximo attacked in the confusion. His strikes were precise: under the breastplate, into the armpit, through the side. Soon the first guard and three of his fellows were dead, and the remainder had backed out of the narrow confines of the side street and into the thoroughfare.
Próximo stood there, bodies on either side of him. Blood was pooling between the cobbles. He was smiling. “You’re smart men,” he said. “There’s no need to pursue us.”
“You’re under arrest, Próximo,” one of the senior guards said.
“Only if you can take me down. Which is unlikely.”
Próximo’s eyes began to glow. His good eye shone with a brilliant blue pinprick at the center of his pupil, but his dead eye was illuminated like an actinic flare. Beneath the scar tissue, magic pulsed in a spider web of inky purples.
He smeared the blood from his sword across his left hand, clenched it, wrenched it upward like a tug of invisible strings. And the dead guards rose. Limp and vacant. Blood still oozing from their wounds.
“Necromancy!” someone shouted. “Captain Próximo knows necromancy!”
They were simple things. Little better than fleshy puppets. Their bodies were too fresh to be of any real use, not like grave laborers, which were properly mummified and could last several lifetimes. But Próximo didn’t need longevity. He didn’t need strength or dexterity or clever fingers. He needed terror.
The corpses moved like men walking across a field of springs; they had only the magic to hold them upright, and Próximo had to spread it among the four of them. He didn’t stay to watch the results of his handiwork. He ran. As he did, he could hear the cries of alarm, the clatter of weaponry, the hurried sounds of escape. He pounded down the street. Confident. Things were working perfectly.
The bolt hit him so hard in the shoulder that he fell backward. A second imbedded itself in his armor. He looked up. Crossbowmen, on the rooftops. More guards were arriving at the opposite end of the street. They had cut him off. Ambushed him. He grimaced at the idea. Nearly laughed.
There was nowhere to run. It suited him just fine. He pulled himself upright even as another bolt clipped his ear. With a grunt, Próximo walked to the building where the crossbowmen lurked. He drew a symbol in blood upon the wall. It glowed. He heard the men collapse.
A bolt to the leg. The stomach. Two more in the breastplate. They were firing at him from the other end of the street. Firing and advancing. He tried to summon up another spell, but couldn’t find the strength. Próximo fell to one knee.
He pawed the ground for the magical strings that bound the risen guards. No luck. He had run too far. Out of range. The spell was broken.
He was greeted with drawn swords and spearpoints and the winching of fresh bolts.
“You’re under arrest.”
“Well done,” he croaked. “You got me.” He tried to rise. Found it impossible. “Tell me,” he asked, steadying himself. “Where is Beatríz? The governor’s wife, where is she?”
He could see the answer on the guards’ faces before any of them spoke. “We don’t know,” one of them said. “She got away.”
As the guards moved to shackle him, the glow in his eyes flickered, faded, died. The veining beneath his scars dulled. He convulsed, violently, then toppled forward. He was still. Corpselike.
When his eyes opened again they had a look in them none of the guards had seen before on their captain’s face. Fear, and genuine confusion. Próximo screamed.
“Where am I?” he cried. “What…what’s happened? Why am I…? What have you idiots done?” His voice was shrill, punctuated with pain. “Oh…oh god…”
The dead eye began to ooze.
Xiomara sighed when Aurelio finally came out of his trance. “Are you done?”
He nodded. He was breathing heavily.
“That was too risky,” Xiomara said. “I didn’t even know you could do that.”
“Dead flesh. All a necromancer needs is a little dead flesh. And an eye can be a gateway, a door to complete control.” He leaned forward, exhaled loudly. “Necromancy is always risky, Xiomara. But the risk was worth it. You’ll see soon enough.”
They waited in the coach at the edge of Mezquisol, but not for long. Soon there came a soft rapping against the window, and Xiomara shot Aurelio an uncertain, questioning glance. The necromancer only grinned. And opened the door.
There was a woman outside. She was breathing more heavily than Aurelio, and nearly doubled over from exertion. Sweat beaded on her forehead. But when she looked up into Aurelio’s face, her tired expression nearly melted into tears of relief. “I made it,” she said, her voice a thin whisper. “And you…you’re actually here…”
Aurelio pulled her into the coach, and they embraced. “Beatríz,” Aurelio said, kissing her on the forehead. “Of course I’m here. I told you I would be.” He smiled. “Nothing comes between a necromancer and his plans. And nothing could ever come between you and me.”
|Andrew Kaye is a writer and cartoonist from the suburban wilderness of Northern Virginia, where he lives with his wife and three children. He’s written several stories set in the same world as “A Gift of Dead Flesh”; these can be found in Electric Velocipede (“A Reason to Fear Life, a Reason to Crave Death”), Daily Science Fiction (“Caput Mortuum”), and The Ways of Magic (“Aggressive Corpse”). Feel free to bother him on Twitter @andrewkaye.|