Skyglass: Chapter 11
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Rhythm and Raze
I’d grown up around goats, but found their eyes as strange as ever. I perched on a nurse log outside the paddock at Sable and Yunayuna’s, trading stares with a baby goat. Its eyes were creepy and yellow, bisected by a black squiggle. It bleated and looked pointedly at the steaming mug of broth in my hand.
“Sorry,” I told it. “I’d love to give you some, but see my guard?” I tilted my head toward Marko, who was crouched on the other side of the enclosure, trying his best to be nonchalant about the whole situation. “Yeah. I know,” I said to the goat. “So, much as I’d like to give you my soup, I can’t. I was only allowed out here on the condition that I drink every last drop. If I breach their trust, they’ll probably stick a leash on me.” The kid bleated again, in what I decided was commiseration.
I coughed up soup when someone poked me from behind. Hot liquid slopped over my hand as I swiveled around and found Phoenix at my side, wet from the forest, vapor rising from her warm, dark skin. She clambered over my perch and sat beside me on the mossy log.
“Don’t you worry, Marko,” she called, as he glanced in the direction of our shadows. “It’s just Phoenix, returned from her illustrious quest.”
He hesitated, then nodded. He gave me a smile and went back inside, guard duty complete.
I bit my lip, faltering. I forced myself to ask the obvious question.
“And was your illustrious quest successful?”
She smirked. “Failed quests can’t be illustrious, Moss.” She lifted something over her head and my heartbeat snagged. “These are for you.”
My hands were so limp I nearly dropped her offering.
“Which is which?” she asked.
“The goat was Mom’s,” I said, trying and trying to swallow down the heaviness in my throat. It wouldn’t go. “The woman’s face is Dad’s,” I added, moments later. I stared at that face, a face I had only allowed myself to see covered in blood for the past four years. A strong, narrow nose, wily hair, a sharp hollow between throat and jaw–a face like mine. I clenched my hand around the carving to escape its stare.
“Whose face?” Phoenix asked. “Your mother’s?” I nodded. “May I see?”
I handed it over reluctantly. She pressed her mouth to its wood and gave it back. “I miss my mother, too,” she whispered. “And yours would make you drink that soup.”
“It’s cold,” I said. “And, if she’d really cared, she would have stuck around.”
“Oh, Moss,” Phoenix sighed. “Not everything is about you.”
“I know, but–”
“But shut your rotting pisshole. I got you the coms–even charged them on my way back. Now get inside and pick their brains.”
I shifted uneasily. “I’d rather be out here.”
“Fine,” she said. “But if I find you’ve run off again, I’m chopping off your legs. All three of them. Also, I’m gonna bring you some bread and butter.”
“Okay.” I didn’t watch her go.
I wanted to cry–and all because of these…these things. Disembodied heads. These relics. Part of me hated what she had given me. Part of me couldn’t thank her enough. The rest of me was terrified.
Phoenix returned with food a moment later–not bread, but an oven-hot sticky bun spilling chopped hazelnuts from its folds and slathered in a horrific amount of butter. She left as soon as the plate was in my hands, which was kind, and therefore unexpected, of her. She knew I wouldn’t eat it if I had an audience. When she’d gone again, I stared at the coms. What if they did have all the answers? Did I really want them? What if the truth was worse than all the stories I’d told myself these four long years?
I couldn’t do it. Not then. Sometime soon, I thought. Just not now. I wasn’t ready.
The bun was a mess of caramel and burnt sugar spreading across the plate, and it smelled shamefully good–which was how I felt as I began to eat it. Shameful. Like eating was a betrayal. But starvation had nearly killed me and, as dead as I sometimes felt, I didn’t actually want to be dead. So I shut off the accusations and the agonizing, and I just ate.
The next day, we were out of the Gut, and I was allowed out on my own–conditionally: I had to keep my p-com with me at all times and send Phoenix a text every ten minutes exactly; I had to eat something, document myself eating it, and promise not to regurgitate it later. (She wouldn’t believe that purging wasn’t my thing, but it really wasn’t; vomiting had always seemed like cheating.) I even had a rotting curfew: back before nightfall. The rules were annoying, but I thrived on structure–and, if I had to be honest, it was kind of nice to have someone care so unapologetically.
If that was what Phoenix was actually doing; it was tricky to tell with her. She probably had some ulterior motive that had nothing to do with me–we were leaving for the Ventriloquist in just days. Maybe she was trying to make sure I didn’t faint during the performance. Whatever her reason, it was nice to pretend she cared.
I wandered down the local market’s salad bar with an open snaplid, filling it up with a pound or more of food, as per Phoenix’s instructions. I crammed most of it with water-dense vegetables and spicy mustard, but added half a scoop of cottage cheese just to make my housemate happy. Anyway, vegetables were still food.
A man approached me as I was struggling to latch the box closed. His hair looked like he slicked it back with wet clay; his skin looked dusty. He had shadows around his eyes.
“Uh, hi?” I said, hoping desperately I wasn’t about to be cornered by another murder.
“Hello,” he said. “Need some help?” He spoke fast, the words leaning into each other.
“No.” I’d just managed to snap the container shut.
“Well, can I ask for your help?” he replied.
“This,” the man rasped, and held up Zinn’s com–the one Phoenix had been hoarding ever since she and the bassist had met.
I took it numbly. “How do you have this?”
He shrugged. “She dropped it. She’ll want it back, I’m sure.”
“Okay,” I said. “Thanks?”
“I suppose that’s the proper thing to say–though maybe not, considering the circumstances.”
“What? Wait, who are you?” I stared him hard in the eyes, trying to understand, and as I did, he grabbed my salad and dropped it on the market floor. The box sprung open, spilling an explosion of kale, carrots, and the seed-smear of a burst tomato over my boots.
“Rot,” I cursed, looking up to glower at the rotsucking bastard–but the creeper had gone. I scoured the small market and then stuck my head out of the entrance, but all I could see was a dim, rainy street.
Bastard. I returned to my ruined dinner. It was just me, Zinn’s com, and the salad bar. I cursed again and began to wipe up the spill.
Proceed to Chapter 11, page 2–>