“The Upturned Chalice” by Santiago Belluco
Sawdust leaks from Sefton’s inner thigh, so he sits on a rickety stool at the bow of the small boat. The wound trailing up from his right toe to inner thigh is always the most problematic, its sutures not properly glyphed when he was first reanimated. As if moaning at the hot tropical air, the wound opens further, another handful of sawdust sliding out. He presses his legs against each other, hoping to minimize the leak.
Even the better-constructed parts of Sefton’s body strain against the endless rainforest on either side of the river, the forest’s trees interfering with the wood inside his body: the chalice cupping his heart vibrates slightly, the hum rattling his ribs, and the sawdust filling the space between his organs burns as if spiced with pepper. Even the properly calibrated sutures and staples on his skin twist in response to the ebb and flow of the forest.
“He’s waking up,” Etel mutters, and Sefton turns on his stool, careful not to lose any more sawdust.
Henry lies at the middle of the boat, his expensive clothing sooty and wrinkled. Etel shoves a bundle of cloth under his head to prop it up. “Where am I?” Henry asks, blinking and confused, “why can’t I move?”
Etel picks up her musket and retreats to the back of the boat, where she leans against the small wooden engine driving them upriver. She eyes Henry and Sefton with the attention of a hunting cat.
“I have stolen you from your father,” Sefton says, and waits for Henry to further deduce his circumstances. The boy has been training in corpse engineering since he was a child and is now an acting journeyman. He should be skilled enough to determine what happened since he fell asleep at his family manse in the Virgin Islands.
“Where am I?” he asks instead. Sefton sees a brief flash of alarm in Henry’s eyes, a subtle tension in the jaw. No attempt to register his location from the foliage in the distance, not even a play at deception. Sefton even trained the boy in precisely these situations. Shameful.
“We are in the upper Orinoco river,” Sefton answers, slipping into the old role of tutor with the ease of putting on a well-worn glove. “Soon we will enter the Rio Negro.”
How comfortable to retreat back into a noble’s world of cold, solid facts, away from the butchery of war and the horrors of an engineer’s surgical table. The years when he was tasked with teaching strategy to Henry were simple, a time of many little pleasures and numb contentment.
“What am I drugged with?” asks Henry, “Maiden’s nettle? Can’t be Buckminster ivy or I would feel my body.”
Sefton snorts. The boy can’t still be this stupid after half a decade at the academy. Nevertheless, he is reassured that many others also failed to properly make anything out of Henry. How unlike Etel, who hid in a ditch to survive the Aymoré torching of Vienna, then hiked hundreds of kilometers to escape the destruction of the rest of the Holy Roman Empire. He found her half-starved in a back alley at the outskirts of Marseilles, hunched over three dead men, a bloody piece of glass in hand. Even then she understood more than Henry ever bothered to learn.
“You are paralyzed by a demistaltic leech at the spine,” Sefton replies.
Henry gasps, then swings his head from side to side in blind panic. “Get it off! Get it off!” Sefton looks away, despite himself.
His stitches tighten, and Sefton considers feeding them more of the chicken blood he bought at the small Tupi village near the coast. Fresh blood is always better, however, and for a moment he considers bleeding Henry for some relief, but quickly dismisses the idea. His stitches might loosen as he applies the blood, and live human blood mixing with active sawdust will lessen the primary link of the corpse to its engineer, and also tether the blood’s owner to the engineer. To any other person this would be a horrible prospect, an enslavement of the most intimate kind. Being an Attington, however, means Henry’s blood might complicate the interaction. The last thing Sefton wants now is more complication.
Etel points to the horizon. “Building up ahead.” She is not loud, but still her voice cuts through Henry’s pointless blubbering.
The spire is dark with the most precious ironwood, wood older and stronger than any within the British Empire, wood that will allow Etel to finally free them both.
Sefton expected the Tabajara spire to look like an unearthed root, all tangled and knobbed, but it looks more like a needle piercing the sky. Not for the first time he is uncertain if they will even be granted audience with the Tabajara, despite all their preparation and the heavy canister of petroleum weighing down the back of the boat.
Suddenly his chalice is ringing like a bell. Caught unprepared, Sefton leans forward and throws up a quarter-liter of fish-oil, his vision blurring. Etel is by his side, carefully lowering him to the hard planks, cradling his head. She always touches him with such tenderness.
“Attington again?” Etel asks, her question more of a resignation. Even through the pain he can still enjoy her touch—never more than a touch, nothing that Lord Attington could ever steal from him. Sefton would rather the world burn than let the old man feel the full warmth of Etel’s embrace.
“Yes,” Sefton replies, his chalice subsiding. “Your countermeasures are wearing thin. Soon he will be able to reach me fully again.” Attington might write off the loss of his lackluster child, but not the loss of his primary chalice. Sefton’s chalice is rare even among the British nobility, a full controller grail carved in gold and fresh cuts of Elm from the oldest Attington groves. It was instrumental in Attington’s many campaigns, allowing the aged Lord instantaneous access to Sefton even on the other side of the globe—full control of his eyes and ears and voice. And touch.
Henry stops his sobbing and looks at Etel. “Whatever he is paying you, I can double—nay, triple—your pay. Just return me to my father, I swear on my name to have him forgive your betrayal.” How like him to think he can buy his way out of his troubles, not bothering to notice that the glyphs on Etel’s arms and legs are covered in gauze laced with Undlela root. She is far beyond the chance at rejoining Attington’s forces now; bypassing a soldier’s glyphs is treason to the Crown itself, punishable by death. Or undeath, if it pleases the soldier’s Lord.
Etel ignores Henry, a response that likely troubles the boy more than anything else she could say. Clever, fierce Etel. “How much longer do we have?” she asks Sefton.
Sefton counts the faint ticking within his chest, straining to catch the pattern in Etel’s handiwork. “A day,” he whispers, his voice weak. “Maybe less.” The small plank of Ash they stole from Attington’s storehouse at the West Indies is probably not enough—wood taken from a tree too young for the glyphs she needed to carve.
Etel looks at the spire in the distance and furrows her brow, then lowers Sefton’s head and returns to the back of the boat. “I’ll get the engine to go faster.”
Sefton feels pathetic in his weakness. Perhaps he should just die and give his chalice to Etel; without any fresh wood it is still bound to Attington, but not worthless. She could sell it to some lesser lordling with the arboreal resources to turn over the chalice to his control, perhaps using it to power ships or enhance the durability glyphs on his soldier’s sabers. Lord Attington is one of the few Britons who would even consider using a full grail to control but a single man—one of the many bold and vicious strategies that brought the old man his considerable power and influence.
“Why this treachery, Sefton?” Henry’s voice shudders and he swallows a sob. “My father returned you from death’s grip, we gave you everything. We welcomed you into our home.”
Sefton rubs his face in disappointment. Another failure of the young heir, another way he is turning into his father. “I tried with you for so long, I really did,” Sefton replies, looking out at the jungle as the river twists and turns. He often forgets how much time passed since his chalice was a lowly Second Lieutenant’s whale-bone and Henry just a child doing cartwheels at the lawns of the Attington summer manor. The lawns were green and smooth as the wide plains of Tanzania, before the battle of Pwani stained the grass and tore up the earth into broken rubble. Another piece of the world he helped carve up in his long service to the Attingtons.
“Then don’t give up now!” Henry continues. “Tell me your grievance, I have always cared for you fondly, should you harbor some issue you wish addressed, we can solve it still. Perhaps even arrange your emancipation. You have served us for so long, I am certain you have more than paid your due.”
Sefton laughs at Henry’s willful ignorance. He probably never saw an emancipated corpse in his life, much less knows of the ills that befall them, the painful rotting away from poor upkeep or being pressed into service to yet another Lord. It is no life worth living.
“I need your body, Henry.”
“Please Sefton,” Henry mutters, a sickly smile on his face. “You must not believe the base rumors of corpses deriving some profit from the flesh of their creators, such myths violate the most fundamental laws of reanimation.”
“With British engineering, perhaps.” Sefton turns to Henry and reaches for his neck, moving slowly should Lord Attington launch another attack.
“Please no, I don’t want to die, I don’t—”
Sefton prods the leech and Henry’s head goes limp, turning to the side, mouth gaping. The figure of the sleeping boy should be less disturbing than his begging, but Henry looks too still to be alive. Sefton returns to his stool and stares at the coffee-black water.
“Are you sure you want to kill him?” asks Etel, carefully, as if probing a wound. “With bark as dense as Brazil-wood I can free you from Attington’s control without having to do more than drain some of his blood. We might even be able to ransom the brat for some coin.”
Sefton nods, slowly. “If we get Brazil-wood, yes, but it seems likely that even here the tree is rare and treasured.”
“Not as rare as what we bring them,” Etel smiles at him, her easy confidence reassuring. “I will see you freed, my love.”
Sefton smiles back, the mere sight of her cutting through his pain and doubt.
“Body of Christ,” Etel mutters as they turn a bend to face the Tabajara spire again, its scale fully evident now that its base is closer. How many cities of London could be packed into the structure? Fifteen? Twenty? Sefton never witnessed such grandeur and raw display of power, not in France or Britain, not even during the sack of Nanjing.
“We won’t reach it in time,” Etel says, dismay seeping into her voice. “It will take us well over a day to reach that thing.”
Etel carries her sharpness with ease, so tall and grim. War suited her; it made her stronger and more determined over the years. Sefton’s stitches tighten when he looks at her this carefully, when he thinks how much she risks by coming with him. The glyphs etched onto her skin are simple, not even close to the most invasive set a living person can bear, and are thus easily thwarted with her skill and humble enough reagents. She could find herself a quiet life away from the ever-expanding reach of the British Empire, a place with roots and sparse shrubbery—and away from the siren call of old wood and oil. Yet she chooses to stay with him.
“We might not need to reach the base,” Sefton replies. “I doubt anything gets this close to the Tabajara capital without being accounted for. Soon enough we should be accosted by a patrol of some sort.” Sefton is less sure than he makes himself sound, the Tabajara likely being far more powerful than he anticipated. They might simply blow the boat out of the water and spare themselves the trouble.
Another few hours pass, a storm clashing into the spire. Clouds tumble into the structure in vain, lightning hitting the dark wood over and over yet leaving no mark.
“Galvanic reinforcement,” Etel mutters, clearly astonished, “maybe even galvanic extraction.”
Sefton looks at the surface of the spire more carefully, noticing that when lightning strikes it spreads over the wood like water on a cobweb before fading. This is indeed not mere grounding as with the toppled minarets of Constantinople.
After a blinding flash a raft is on the river ahead of them. On its surface stands a short pedestal, the severed head of an elderly man resting on it. Etel notices and in a quick, fluid motion grabs her musket and takes aim. Sefton forces himself to be still and keep his seat, trying to radiate calm and control.
The raft barely touches the river and has no visible engine yet still manages to keep up with their boat. The strange vessel seems to be made of rock, but it’s too uniform, as if poured into shape, not carved.
The head opens its eyes. “What brings you to us, Europeans?” it asks in clear, slightly accented English. The man’s dark skin and hair suggests the head once belonged to a Tabajara man.
Etel lowers her musket but keeps standing, no longer alarmed but still ready to strike.
“We request a barter,” Sefton replies.
“We do not trade with your kind. Leave our lands immediately.”
Sefton scrambles to the back of the boat and unfolds a heavy package, suddenly very nervous. He did not test the flame-producing attachment to the canister before, the oil being too rare to waste, but he did expect to have to quickly and dramatically prove to the Tabajara that what he carries is indeed oil.
He turns a gear and a wisp of blue flame rises from the nozzle, barely a finger’s-length tall, but still the sound of bursting flame overwhelms the river’s quiet murmur. Then the power of the jungle subsides like a fist gone limp. Sefton stoppers the canister to extinguish the flame. The raft’s severed head raises an eyebrow.
“What is the source of such wood-inhibiting fire?” the head asks, “gaseous or solid?”
“Liquid. Crude petroleum.” Sefton hopes the demonstration didn’t deplete much of the dreadfully rare oil, even if the flame was small.
“You will wait.” The head mutters then slackens, as if allowed to stay dead.
“They must be using a form of scintillate corpse-puppetry,” Etel says, “but how do they manage to keep the head from rotting away without a body… Does it have a chalice somehow?”
The jungle’s power keeps away, as if hesitant to come back, so Sefton stands and stretches, enjoying the brief illusion that his body is his own. He turns to smile at Etel and take in the sight of her pale gray eyes. They are the most concrete fact he can hold on to—equal parts balm and cutting knife.
“Please step onto the platform, your audience will begin shortly.”
Sefton is surprised by the severed head’s voice, not expecting it to return so soon. How could such a vast city have such an efficient chain of command? Having interacted with customs and trading offices before he finds that particular feat more impressive than building ten spires.
He turns to the raft—or platform, as the head called it—but Etel stops him with a hand to his shoulder.
“Let me go first.” She is right, in a sense. He is weak from the jungle and Attington’s attacks, but then again, at this point the Tabajara could easily brush them off, ideal combat posture or no.
“Of course,” he says as he steps back, letting Etel probe the platform with her foot before stepping on. Sefton then helps her drag Henry off the boat, followed by the petroleum canister.
“Do not reach out beyond the confines of the platform,” the head says, as if reciting an often repeated instruction. “And please make sure your trading item and sacrificial victim are secure.”
The platform charges downriver, the forest blazing past. Sefton looks around, disoriented. The motion feels strange, with no wind or barely any feeling of acceleration, not even the sound of the river anymore. Just an impossible speed.
The spire gets closer and closer, its bulk even more imposing. Sefton expected the forest to get thinner near the spire, the mundane needs of civilization often being at odds with allowing nature to grow old enough to be useful, but the forest seems unchanged, might even be denser than before. If only England knew not to cut their old trees so hungrily, scouring land after land for every scrap of ancient wood, maybe they too could have spires like theirs. Or perhaps just a larger and more brutal empire.
“Look,” Etel points at the river, “are those guide lights of some sort?”
Pale blue lights the size of fists shine within the river, also charging towards the spire. One gets larger, and a sphere bigger than a lord’s carriage rises from the water. It’s made of similar material to the platform and keeps emitting a hazy light. All around the river there are now dozens of similar lights, hundreds perhaps.
Etel turns to Sefton, her expression pinched with worry. “How is this even possible?”
He smiles at her, trying to sound confident. “To the natives of Tanzania your musket seemed as impossible, I’m sure.”
She nods once, her icy composure returned. This is just another battlefield, another situation calling for the subtlety of tactics. Except this time they are on the side destined to lose.
A few of the other lights also grow larger and rise from the river, most the size of the first but a few much larger, one even dwarfing Saint Paul’s Cathedral. No wonder they emit light, thinks Sefton, the river is very deep but still they must be careful not to crash into each other. Even with the incredible wonders of the Brazilian empires it is all just engineering; their skills can be learned, in time even defeated. Some small part of him laughs at the thought, at his grasping hope.
The platform slows, as do the spheres now crowding the air above the river. The larger spheres are far above the smaller ones, as if sorting themselves by size.
Sefton now sees that the forest looks denser because structures are built between the trees: thick poles that reach the canopy, at least one per tree, with a series of thick, black lines connecting them. There are intricate carvings of the poles, but they are too far away for him to make out. Even the Queen’s own forest is but ten thousand trees, all barely fifty years old, if that, and only half are linked by copper wiring to power her forges and shipyard. Here millions upon millions of trees must be linked together, each one centuries old. An impossibly large shadow indeed.
Close to the base of the spire are many tall, long slits that at first seemed like black paint, but are in fact openings. Spheres enter and exit these, the largest ones barely fitting, their illumination casting light against the dark walls. The platform stops at the riverbank closest to the spire, as if waiting for a gap in traffic. The jungle feels unbearable to Sefton now that they are so close, but he tries to maintain his bearing despite the strain. Etel shifts towards him, a small, careful gesture to indicate concern without showing it. Sefton gives her a nod but keeps looking forward.
At a lull in the spheres, the platform lifts up several meters into the air and quickly flies over the small stretch of naked earth between the river’s bend and the spire’s openings. The walls inside are ordered strands of wood, but a lighter hue than the outer surface. Immediately upon entering, the forest’s pull on Sefton subsides significantly, even feels better than at the middle of the river. He stifles a sigh of relief, turning it into a yawn instead.
After a few minutes a light appears ahead, and suddenly he is engulfed by sunlight. Perhaps they crossed the entirety of the Tabajara spire, but soon Sefton’s eyes adjust and he realizes they are in a large cavern of sorts, a broad, domed area nearly half a dozen kilometers across carved into the spire.
The walls in the distance are indented with windows and the ground almost a quarter of a kilometer below is covered by a forest lit by a shockingly bright ceiling. The forest looks sparser than the jungle outside, more like Lord Attington’s forests in Sheffield, but far more extensive. Looking closely, each tree is at the center of a small grassy garden surrounded by a bright purple line about a meter thick. The entire forest is a repeating pattern of such gardens, a tightly ordered tessellation of countless shapes. Many Tabajara people wearing brightly colored sashes and loincloths walk among the trees. Some collect slivers of wood with small tweezers into glass vials while others inspect the trees or their dividers with a variety of equipment. This must be a vast laboratory.
Sefton looks at Etel, her gaze tight on the activity below. This is the sort of place she should have studied engineering, not by stealing scraps of knowledge here and there from the tight-lipped British nobility. Sefton is rarely angry at much anymore, but the idea of her talents being wasted as a mere soldier never fails to set his teeth grinding.
The platform drifts to the far wall and lands on an outcropping surrounded by a thin yellow railing, a narrow path at the end leading to a plain door against the wall. Beside the door stands a young man, his chiseled brown features stark against his white loincloth.
“I will be your guide,” the young man says, raising a hand to his left breast in the typical Tabajara greeting. “Please follow me.”
The door slides to the left as he walks towards it, Sefton and Etel close behind. They carry the petroleum canister between them, each holding one of its top handles, and Etel carries Henry over one shoulder. Sefton is ashamed of not helping her further, but they cannot risk his dropping Henry in a sudden flash of pain. With all their luck Henry would fall at an odd angle and break his neck, killing him too soon.
Sefton expected the hallway to wind organically, like a tree’s branches would, but instead the paths are neat and straight, the lines of the walls and floor perfectly parallel and equidistant. They walk past many Tabajara men wearing a startling variety of dress and a larger number of bare-chested women. The Tabajara look at them in surprise, the sight of two foreigners no doubt being rare within the spire. Countless doors and side halls line the wide hallway, some leading to massive rooms with ornate equipment that almost stops them in their tracks to gape.
The guide points to a nondescript door near a junction and lifts his hand, this time cupping his right breast. “In here, Guarandara Irasema will see you now.”
The office within is smaller than Sefton expected, the walls adorned with silk paintings and a few onyx bas-reliefs. Simple art, minimal like Japanese scrolls, yet of rich, rare materials.
An elderly Tabajara woman sits behind a large desk at the end of the room, looking intently at a pile of paper in front of her—actual pure-white paper, far more than Sefton ever saw in his entire life—and gestures for Etel and him to sit on two chairs facing her. A variety of intricate tools fill the rest of her table, many clearly for sap purification and separation.
“You wish to trade your petroleum, is that correct?” the Guarandara asks.
“Yes,” replies Sefton, “this four liter canister.”
“Refinement.” The Guarandara is still examining the paper on her desk, occasionally marking it with a quill that looks more like a bird’s talon than a feather.
“I beg your pardon?”
“Tell me how it was refined. And where.”
“The oil is mostly from eastern Tanzania, but much of it is from Algeria and the south of Turkey.” Stolen cupful by cupful, carefully draining Lord Attington’s most precious resource, the greatest source of his income. Sefton is pleased he was able to steal a good third of his Lord’s total production year after year without him noticing. After all, the fog of war obscures much, and every stitch of Attington’s territory is dense with conflict, as if the man himself were made of a fine, bloody mist.
Irasema looks up, frowning. “I asked about refinement, not acquisition.”
Sefton clenches his jaw, worried that the oil might not be as pure as they would require. “Unrefined. It’s raw oil.”
She laughs, shaking her head as she turns back at her paper. “You want to convince me that you have four liters of earth-pure black? I find that highly unlikely.”
Sefton reaches out and grabs an empty ceramic cup from among her equipment with an exaggerated gesture. The Guarandara looks up, then leans back on her chair, hands patiently on her lap. Sefton places the cup under a nozzle to the side of the oil canister. A tight, quick curl of the nozzle releases a teaspoon of petroleum. Sefton holds up the cup for a moment, letting the Guarandara wait, but she is impassive, her features unreadable.
“Raw.” Sefton places the cup on her desk and slides it to her. “Unrefined.” Good thing that corpses don’t sweat.
Irasema lifts the cup and swivels it in her hand, letting the oil slide side to side. With a soft hum, she brings a series of lenses up to her eyes, then dips thin, glowing sticks into the cup, their bright colors changing as they touch the liquid.
“What do you want in barter?” she finally asks while looking down at the cup through a tube of spun seashell. Sefton is relieved that she has the equipment to so quickly determine the purity of their oil. Crude oil when refined expands into chalcic fluid, each cup of oil yielding many metric tons of wood-inhibiting chalcic, but it’s hard to detect chalcic fluid doped to pass as crude. At least for the British.
Sefton turns to Etel and touches his right thumb to his chin. Time to start negotiating.
“I want full access to a Brazil-wood tree,” Etel starts, “at least one hundred and fifty years old and ten meters tall. I need to extract sap, leaves, and wood.”
Irasema shakes her head and stands up. “Unacceptable.” The Guarandara starts pacing behind her desk, as if to punctuate her disapproval. “We do not lightly trade in living wood. And absolutely not the highest ironwood.”
Sefton expected this response, but it seems a bit too smooth and dignified for genuine indignation. He taps his right leg with his index finger twice, his signal for Etel to keep pressing and not compromise.
“I also need to borrow tools to harvest these materials.”
The Tabajara Guarandara sits back down. “No. Not Brazil-wood. Perhaps some Bagassa or a Cajueiro.”
Unfortunately that will not do. It could be a smaller or younger tree but they need real ironwood. Sefton taps his index finger again.
“No, it must be Brazil-wood.”
Irasema is still, trying to stare down Etel. For all their sophistication, it seems like Brazilians negotiate very much like the Turks and some of the eastern Europeans. This could end well.
Sefton’s chalice starts to vibrate. He grips the seat of his chair with both hands and lets the ringing shake his body. The ringing becomes worse, quickly the worst it has ever been, and he uses his every shred of self-control to keep from retching. The Guarandara turns to him with a look of barely contained contempt.
“Your corpse appears to be malfunctioning.” Her voice cuts like broken glass.
“Immaterial.” Etel replies, cold and efficient. “I can always build another later.” Very good, show no weakness, give no ground without cause.
“No, you care for this one. You try to hide it but I am over a hundred years old. I can see right through you, girl.”
Etel shrugs, her dismissive wave a work of art. “You see what you want, it still stands that I need Brazil-wood.”
Sefton’s chalice shakes violently, his stitches burning against the skin. This is it. Etel’s defenses have fallen and the old man is not bothering to call him back. Sefton is going to burn to a skeletal husk, primary chalice or not.
Sefton reaches out to Etel, but can’t before falling to the ground in wild convulsions. She is above him, holding his head back as she brings her mouth to his eye. He sees her bite her lower lip, hard.
He wants to mutter a definitive “No” and turn away, but his voice is garbled and she easily swings his face back to her. She is tethering herself to Attington to buy him some time, and the glyphs on her gauze will not be enough to keep him away for long. This is a screaming fact, a fact that bleeds and tears as Etel kisses her blood into his eye, a wave of relief cascading down his body.
The convulsions stop, but Sefton still shakes, his bones cold and heavy. “What have you done?”
Etel draws her face away. She is trembling as well, her lips bright red.
Irasema stands to the side, her face tight with disdain. “Such pitiful weakness. No wonder your kind are so undeveloped, with your laughable attempts at broad, wide empires of no depth. Sickly trees with shallow roots.”
Sefton gets up with difficulty, one hand grabbing the edge of the table, glad for its solidity. “An Ipê tree will do,” he says, voice wavering.
“No!” Etel grabs him by the shoulder and turns him to her. “We need Brazil-wood now more than ever!” She tries to hide it, but Sefton can tell she is in pain. Attington is reaching out to her now as well. No time to hold out for the purity of Brazil-wood—Ipê is a lesser hardwood but it can still be used with Henry’s blood to convert his chalice to her. She will have it in full, enough to power ships and raise corpses, to unlock the full potential of wood and oil.
“Etel, please, take the Ipê.” Etel looks at him, the fight still wild in her eyes. She knows any further negotiation is hopeless, the Guarandara now fully aware of the desperation they were trying to hide. If anything they are now lucky to get any wood at all.
Irasema nods and walks back to her desk. “A guide will be here shortly to take you to your Ipê.”
Etel grabs Sefton’s forehead, shoulders, neck, her hands tight and probing, as if searching for something. He smiles at her, but she is very serious, gray eyes still lost in the intensity of calculation, likely trying to think of some glyphic trick that could salvage his situation.
“Please follow me.” A guide is standing by the opened door, a different Tabajara man this time, hand on his chest.
Sefton disentangles himself from Etel and walks to the door. Etel grabs Henry but takes one long look at the petroleum canister before leaving. They follow their new guide down the hallway and a pair of long staircases, soon ending at the edge of the forest they flew over. The tight purple dividers between the gardens are as orderly as they looked from above.
“Please stay within your allotted plot,” the guide smiles, pointing at a nearby garden with an Ipê tree at its center. The tree is larger than Sefton would have expected, the trunk over half a meter thick and slightly red, with a single visible knot near its base. “Step on the divider boundary to summon a guide should you need anything.”
Etel drags Henry to the base of the tree and looks at the tools on the ground, all neatly arranged on a rectangle of white silk. She picks up and closely inspects each one. Sefton can recognize some of them, but most are beyond his understanding. This is her realm now.
As she prepares, Sefton lies beside Henry and looks at his former student. Henry’s hair is matted to his forehead and streaked across his face, so Sefton pushes it aside and readjusts the collar of his jacket.
Etel prods the back of Henry’s neck. “I need him awake for this, Sefton.” Then she steps to the other side of the tree, out of sight.
The boy gasps, eyes wide in panic. “No no no no no.”
“I’m sorry,” Sefton whispers, “it’s unfair that you should suffer in your father’s place, you did little to deserve such an early death.”
“I have a wife now, my dear Sefton, we married in the spring. I love her fiercely, even if I had little choice in the arrangement.”
“I know, Henry.”
“She might be pregnant, you see, before I left for the islands she had gained some weight.”
No more of this. “Henry,” Sefton’s voice is hard, and the boy snaps to attention. “I killed children in your father’s name. Butchered entire families as he rode me like a horse. I cannot feel sorry for you, my pity is buried under a pile of corpses.”
“Then tell me what do you want from me!”
Sefton sighs a final disappointment. “This is not about you, Henry.”
Etel rushes from the other side of the tree. “I need him,” she says and drags Henry away, the boy still whimpering and pleading. His foot sticks out from the back of the tree, suddenly free to writhe as Etel’s tools snap and click. After a few moments, the foot is still.
Sefton looks up to see Etel staring down at him, the outline of her obscured figure shimmering in the warm light above. “I can’t release you from Attington with this tree, even with his son. The wood is not dense enough.”
“I know.” Brazil-wood was a foolish dream, but a pleasant one while it lasted. Still, Etel will survive this with her glyphs dissolved in fresh sap and a bounty of precious hardwood. More than just free, she will be able to claim his chalice with Henry’s heart and use it to her own ends, might even be able to become a Lord herself, powerful enough to mold reality into facts of her own. This is a victory.
Etel lowers herself to rest her head on his chest, one hand touching his cheek. Sefton can feel her looking at him, but he can’t move his head, a tightness in his neck spreading as the chalice starts vibrating again.
She rises, a scalpel in hand, and starts to cut off his stitches, each a pinprick of pain as the hum in his chest grows more distant. His body sags as the sawdust falls from him in a dry slither. Maybe he will be able to feel something of himself as Etel’s chalice, her hand gripping his stem, his wide mouth open to the sky.
Santiago Belluco lives in Italy, where he writes speculative fiction and studies the neural circuits underlying vision. He can be found at www.santiagobelluco.com and @SantiagoBelluco on Twitter.