By Rachel Swirsky
PART ONE: LIVING
New Year’s celebrations crashed through the streets of Whitcry in a din of masks and swirling petticoats. Pottery smashed against cobbles, women’s shouts echoed from garrets, men groaned and fought and pissed. Sour smells of alcohol and vomit mingled in chill air. Revelers danced through alleys, tripping over each other’s feet and smashing into walls, laughter constant beneath the chaos.
In its midst, Vare stood solitary and composed, leaning against a small but expensive townhouse. It was the kind of home owned by the kind of man who wanted others to believe that instead of squandering his wealth, he was using his privilege over the poor for some noble purpose, the kind of man who used the phrase “noblesse oblige” without a trace of irony.
The owner was Berrat deLath, known to those who’d fought beside him as Berrat the Just, again without a trace of irony.
Berrat was the scion of a merchant house who, as a young man, had set out to prove that despite his lack of title, he still epitomized the ideal of “nobility.” He’d funded his own division of the church’s army, the Eagles and Hares, and used his own resources to fund the investigation and cleansing of villainous dens where other men flouted church law.
One such den had been a large and prosperous magitorium in the nearby city of Bitterbite which trafficked in the mundane, if illegal, business of charms, as well as darker things. Vare had been a procurer for the magitorium, one of a few hundred men who earned status and riches by supplying the needs of the dozen mages who were too busy casting and carving to gather their own metals and blood.
And what had been the magitorium’s crimes? Child sacrifice, yes, but only rarely. Berrat decried the enslavement of innocents, but what did the church care about such things? They had their own workhouses.
On a bright summer’s day, the Eagles and Hares broke into the magitorium, killed everyone they found inside, pillaged the goods, and left the remains in fire. All the mages died. The only survivors were those in the magitorium’s employee who, by lucky chance, had happened to be away at the time, among them Vare.
In one stroke, Berrat “the Just” had deprived Vare of both his wealth and position, his two most valued possessions. In return, Vare looked forward to depriving Berrat of his. The plan was some ten years in the making.
On this crucial night, Vare wore a red leather half-mask, sculpted into a hawk’s beak. He was certain that no one—not even his adversary—could recognize him bare-faced these days; the past decade had sunken his skin and turned him wan. But caution paid, and Vare was a man of deliberation.
With his ear against the carved limestone and a listening charm beneath his tongue, he tracked the movements of those within the house. During his months-long reconnaissance, he’d kept careful account of how many servants worked in Berrat’s house, along with their usual schedules. A young maid and footman were supposed to stay the night indoors despite the holiday, but Vare was certain their youth would be all the distraction he needed. What young person could resist the call of the revelries outside?
Sure enough, within the hour, he heard the careful footsteps that marked the servants’ departure. His enemy’s house was empty but for the girls upstairs—and soon, for him.
With the aid of a peppery balance charm, he scaled the wall in anonymity as, below, a pair of drunken sluts braced themselves against the wall where he’d been standing. He reached the girls’ balcony, withdrew the key he’d pilfered three days ago from the cook’s spare apron, and slid it silently into the lock. The doors clicked open and he was inside.
Life is a strange balance. Consciousness believes it controls the body, but even when the waking mind is numbed by sleep, the body remembers to salivate and digest and perspire. Its heart beats. It inhales. When exposed to the light, its pupils dilate or contract as appropriate.
Berrat’s girls lay side by side on their single mattress. Pale hands and faces emerged from their blankets. A candle nub burned on a bedside table–no doubt to comfort the girls against night terrors–though, of course, it was only the demons of childhood that could be vanquished with a little light.
Their eyelids fluttered with their dreams. Their chests rose and fell with the steady intake and exhalation of their breaths. Their stomachs churned to finish digesting their holiday desserts; their mouths produced saliva to lubricate their tongues. Their bodies functioned harmoniously, flawlessly. Two perfect girls.
Slipped beneath their tongues, poison charms spelled silent death into their bodies. First the older one, Delira, and then the younger one, Ayl. The older never even woke. The younger gasped and tried to scream, but magic silenced her. She clutched her throat, wide and terrified eyes fixed on Vare. He admired Ayl for the hate in her gaze, but he loved her fear more. It was a delicate and delicious morsel. It was the sweetness of penultimate satisfaction, both delightful in its own right, and thrilling with promise.
Ayl’s struggles weakened, though the hate in her eyes did not. A moment later, she died, and Vare achieved his ultimate satisfaction.
He stood back to admire them. Their cheeks held a rosy bloom even as they grew cold. Ayl’s angry eyes remained open. Delira lay contorted as if caught in a nightmare, dead fingers stretching out for comfort.
Lightly, Vare touched Delira’s lips. He traced delicate curves, soft beneath his fingers. He drew back the blanket and saw the rest of her, all curves and new womanhood. An expensive mix of floral perfumes scented her skin: jasmine and lilac and lavender.
He withdrew the blanket further and examined the juts and angles of boyish, bony Ayl. She would never flower as her sister had done, was cut off forever from the softening of womanhood. She smelled like the childhood that kept her: like a skinned knee, soil and exertion with a hint of blood beneath.
His enemy’s two dead girls. Vare had never seen anything so beautiful.
He rolled them off the bed, thunk onto the floor, and stripped a blanket off the mattress. He wrapped it around the two corpses, swaddling them together as if they were a single babe. With rope he’d brought for this purpose, he bound the bundle together and strapped it to his back.
His spine hurt with the good, dead weight of them. Bent, he shuffled to the door and down the stairs, biting a burn-you charm in case a servant should return early and discover them. No one came and he escaped into the darkness, one more reveler, though carrying an odd, heavy load.
PART TWO: FRESH
Once outside the city gates, Vare had planned to deposit the girls in some lonely place where wild animals would devour them before they could receive a decent burial. But in the morning, as he bowed beneath their bodies, he found himself unwilling to part with them.
Each ounce of their weight upon his back gave him a thrill of rich, red pleasure, the kind he’d never thought he’d feel again. Ayl’s bony elbows jutted into his shoulder blades. The uneven pressure of Delira’s curves created a jigsaw of pain across his back.
Their deaths had been his life’s obsession; their corpses were his prize.
He carried them out of the villages that surrounded wealthy Whitcry and onto the plains. Rosy-cheeked do-gooders, seeing an old, sunken man bent beneath his load, stopped to offer help. Vare grinned as he watched them discern the shapes in his pack, their internal arguments written on their faces: “Is that—? It couldn’t be—A sweet old man—”
“My daughters,” he’d lie with a terrible grin. ‘Dead of the plague.”
The word plague filled their eyes with alarm; shuddering with horror, they’d stumble back and flee. Their terror was almost as savory as the sweet rot of his girls’ flesh.
As the sky turned from navy to black, Vare crossed away from the road, cutting across fields to find a small, sheltered niche where he could set down his pack. He untied and unrolled the blanket, revealing Ayl and Delira lying side by side just as they had in their father’s house.
Blood pooled in their limbs, leaving their faces an ethereal blue. Rigor held their arms by their sides, their fingers curled as if reaching for something they’d never grasp. Blisters rose across Delira’s neck and face. Vare waved away the flesh flies that swarmed toward the girls’ scent, looking for places to lay their eggs.
He pressed his lips against first one mouth and then the other. Their lips were soft but cold. “Goodnight, my lovely,” he said to each, brushing his fingers across chilled cheeks.
He could have done more, but there was no need. Their bodies were already giving up their secrets to him. He would be there to watch as their flesh softened and broke down. He’d peel them back, layer by layer, revealing their viscera, and below that, their stark, delicate skeletons. They had no coffins to preserve their maidenly modesty. Throat and heart and stomach, they were all his.
He lay between them and prepared to sleep, one arm wrapped around each dead girl’s shoulders.
PART THREE: BLOAT
Compared to noisy and colorful Whitcry, Houndsmouth was drab and soundless. The effects of countryside famines echoed through the city. Refugees crammed the slums, bringing filth and disease. As more mouths competed for the city’s depleted food supply, paupers fought bloodily in the streets, clawing each other for coins and scraps. The losers starved, eyes huge in their desiccated faces.
For several years, Vare had rented a decaying manor house in what had once been a wealthy part of the city. Now the building faced tenements and the river view which had once distinguished its location looked down on one of the most polluted bends in the city, choked with trash and starved corpses.
When he arrived at the once-grand façade, Vare pushed through the creaking doors and slung his package onto the parlor floor.
Hearing his arrival, his housekeeper rushed in. She balked at the parlor entryway, clapping her hand over her nose to protect herself from the stench. Horrified eyes tried to discern what in the hells Vare had brought home with him, but the girl knew him well enough to still her tongue.
She saw the package’s contents soon enough as Vare unwrapped the girls and demanded the housekeeper’s help shifting them. Ayl went onto a threadbare daybed. Delira lay across the thinning velvet of a loveseat, still-growing mahogany curls draping over the arm.
The housekeeper spoke hesitantly. “Should I fix them a room…?”
Vare looked the girl in the eye. She was forgettable, broad-faced and middle-aged. Drab, blondish hair fell out of her bun and across her face. Worried hands clenched at her sides. She’d been in his employ for years—the last of a small group of worn-out servants he’d found cowering near the burned-out magitorium—but he didn’t remember her name. Her face recalled a vague memory of what she’d been like ten years ago as a maid, younger but equally anxious, always scouring and scurrying.
“I haven’t decided yet,” Vare said.
“They won’t be… I mean, how long do you think they’ll…” The girl choked down vomit. “They aren’t moving in, are they, sir?”
“For now, of course they are.”
Vare sat on the loveseat, settling lovely Delira’s legs across his lap. Flowery perfume still hung on her skin, blending sickly with the rot.
“Some brandy,” Vare demanded. As the housekeeper turned to go, he added, “And hot milk for the girls,” just to watch the frightened hitch in her step as she hurried from the room.
Ah, at last, relaxed at home and alone with his girls. Vare stroked Delira’s plump calves. Their cold stole the heat from his palms.
Day by day, since their deaths, his girls had continued to change. It was as if their bodies remembered that they needed to rush toward womanhood, but since the girls had lost the warmth of life, they’d also lost their way. They felt the urgency of metamorphosis, but each transformation away from girlhood led them toward something very different from their original destination.
Their bloated stomachs pushed, bulbous, against their nightdresses. The effect was much more pronounced on skinny Ayl’s frame; she looked as if she was pregnant, ready to give birth to whatever horrors grow inside dead girls. Their mouths frothed. Strange liquids oozed from their noses, their anuses, and any other orifices from which they could escape. Grey, veined flesh resembled marble.
How perplexing, the matter of what to do with these hard-worn trophies. Display them? Perhaps. He could have them stuffed and mounted. In any guise he liked. As servants… as prisoners… as whores, all painted and teasing… Or perhaps he should leave them as they were, rosy and innocent, swaddled in lace and white linen, to emphasize what he’d stolen.
No, the idea seemed—like taxidermy itself—too contrived.
He needed something else. Something clever and unique. Something suitable for his girls.
PART FOUR: LARVAE
Late at night, Lano arrived, knocking, at Vare’s manor house. The housekeeper opened the door but refused to admit him, not knowing whether her master would want a visitor to see the two corpses, still sitting in the parlor.
Vare, roused by the knocking, descended the stairs in his nightclothes. When he saw Lano, he smiled. They’d known each other a long time, since before the sacking at the magitarium. They’d been unfriendly then, but now that they both belonged to the tiny fellowship of survivors, their interests had come into alignment, bringing friendship along with them.
Vare shooed the girl out of the entranceway and led Lano inside.
“I saw you were back,” Lano said, doffing his coat.
Vare clapped his old friend on the back. “Good to see you. Are you overrun with famine rats?”
Lano straightened his collar. “My cook sweeps them off the porch in the morning.” He glanced at the housekeeper, who stood on the threshold between the parlor and the adjacent hallway leading to the kitchen, waiting to see if they had an order. “Sad though, isn’t it? Watching the children go off into the gutters to die? I have to keep an eye on the larder or the servants would throw half of it to the brats and then we’d all be starving.”
The housekeeper paled but said nothing. Vare eyed her, mentally noting the need to revisit this conversation with her later to make sure that if she had been stealing from him, she would never do so again.
Now was not the time. “Is standing here the best you have to do?” Vare snapped.
Silently, the housekeeper bustled toward her tasks.
Lano strolled further into the parlor, surveying the broken mantel and hard-worn furniture. The room had been grand at one time, but now most of its floor-space lay empty, only an island by the door populated with the ruined remains of the home’s former elegance.
Lano was a tall man, the kind who always walked with a self-conscious hunch that worked to his advantage; it nudged people into underestimating him. Pulled to his full height, he looked like a line drawn crookedly on a page, spindly and precarious on slightly malformed legs.
He looked down at Delira in repose and then walked over to Ayl. “Famine rats?”
Vare grinned. “Look closer.”
Bending nearly in half so that he could reach the skinny girl, Lano pried Ayl’s clenched fingers apart. Even in their current state, the girl’s hands were unmistakably smooth and callous-free, a rich girl’s hands. Lano looked up with a query on his face.
Vare’s grin widened. “Berrat’s brats. Both of them.”
Awe brushed Lano’s voice. “You did it.”
He turned back to regard the girls again. He moved toward Delira and swept the mahogany curls away from her cheeks so that he could see her eyes, those same grey eyes that stared out of Berrat’s face in the portraits that hung in every church in the city.
“I don’t believe it,” Lano said.
“They’re mine now,” Vare answered.
“Why did you bring them back?”
“For proof!” It wasn’t the truth, or not the whole of it, but Lano seemed to accept the answer.
Lano stroked Delira from forehead to throat. Her skin moved beneath his hand, loosened by insects that lived within.
He’d been a powerful man once, Lano. He’d kept the books for the mages, his finger on the pulse of the money flowing in and out, much of it into his own pockets. He’d been at the center of a vast network of underground activity. Money-man to money-man, he’d coordinated the exchanges between magitoriums. He’d sat to dinner with dukes, been rewarded by queens, all for slipping the right charm between the right lips for the right price.
How reduced he looked in his shabby shirtsleeves, touching the face of a girl he could once have bought and sold.
“What are you going to do with them?” Lano asked.
“I haven’t decided,” Vare said.
Lano tugged his collar. “The famine rats are in everything. They fight and steal. The duke’s men are strung thin keeping them from killing us all. There’s no one to stop us trading more than minor spells.”
Vare raised his brows.
“Rusk has a shop set up on Headrow,” Lano continued.
Vare considered. “He has something for corpses?”
“He has something for everything.”
PART FIVE: MAGGOTS
Rusk’s shop was barely a few feet square. It stank of vomit, sweat, and sawdust. Probably, the space had once been the back room of some tavern where sluts took patrons who had a few extra coins.
Rusk sat on a three-legged stool, jammed in the back corner, boxes piled at his feet. Metal fragments glistened, an array of springs and tools and other things that would be completely useless if one didn’t know how to assemble them. He looked the same as he always had, short and somewhat fat, wearing an expensive suit of clothes that had been worn past repair. His fur collar looked like it wanted to strangle him.
Rusk had been the magitorium’s mechanic, preparing mage-rendered goods for use by public hands. These days, he played both mechanic and merchant, treading carefully through the shadowy stalls of the black marketplace.
He raised his hand to greet Lano and then looked at Vare with surprise. “You’re back! You whore’s son!” He got to his feet to hug his friend, but halted when he saw the wheelbarrow at Vare’s feet. He leaned toward the strange, lumpy bundle. Gagging, he covered his nose. “The hells?”
In answer, Vare stooped to lift out the still-wrapped girls, Lano bending to assist. He unloaded them on the floor and began untying the ropes. “You won’t guess who they are,” he said.
Rusk leaned even closer, still holding his nose, and watched as Delira’s arm flopped out of the bundle. He grabbed her shoulder and tugged her free of the blanket. Her flesh made strange noises under his grip, threatened to slide off like cooked turkey skin. Mahogany curls fell aside and Rusk saw the grey eyes.
“Berrat’s!” Rusk exclaimed. “No! Both of them?”
Vare freed Ayl’s hand from the blanket so that she lay beside her sister. “Assuredly.”
“You whore’s son!” Rusk repeated. “How did you do it?”
Lano’s face mirrored Rusk’s curiosity, for in the fuss of discovering the girls and helping Vare move them, he hadn’t had a chance to ask the question himself.
Vare recounted the tale of his past ten years, including the parts to which Rusk and Lano had been witness. Rusk had provided (at cost) the mage-charms that kept Vare safe in Whitcry, and Lano had pulled his connections’ strings until he found a forger that could get Vare into the city without being questioned. The two of them sat patiently through the familiar parts of the tale, knowing that they led to the reward, the details of how Vare had infiltrated Berrat’s household, how he’d delivered the poison, and how the girls died.
“Did you see him?” Lano asked, meaning Berrat.
“From a distance.”
Lano looked disappointed.
“He might have recognized me,” Vare explained.
Lano’s brows drew down as if he didn’t believe that was the reason. In part, he was right; Vare looked so little like the man he’d been ten years ago that it was hard to believe anyone, even Berrat, would recognize him now. Perhaps it was cowardice that had kept him in the shadows, masked and silent. But still, wasn’t that why Vare had succeeded where others had failed? He hadn’t risked the thrill of seeing Berrat face to face, and unlike anyone else, he had managed to carry out his plan.
Rusk broke the uncomfortable pause. “Berrat must be bellowing. Tearing out his hair. Any news from Whitcry on how his holiness is taking it?”
Both Rusk and Vare looked to Lano whose connections made him most likely to know. The tall man shrugged his hunched shoulders.
“Ah well,” Rusk said. “He must be devastated. Any man would be. Let’s look at the beauties then, shall we?”
He pulled on a glove and began to examine Ayl. The skinny girl’s blonde hair was loose on her scalp. Where Rusk tugged, a clump threatened to come out entirely. He pried open her jaw. Fat, yellow maggots wriggled in froth that had once been saliva.
Lano turned toward the corner and retched. Rusk made a derisive noise; the mechanic had always indulged a disdain for those who gave in to fear or disgust.
“I have a pair of charms,” Rusk said. “Powerful ones. I got them in trade for an unpaid bill.”
He rapped his fingertip against Ayl’s nose, stretching the suspenseful moment.
Vare grimaced. “Out with it, then.”
Rusk lifted his hand and pulled off his glove. He examined his fingernails with mock fascination. The man would take his own damn time; he always did.
“The charm animates the body in lifelike animation. Moves it around. Like a marionette. They walk. They talk.” Slipping the glove back on, he paused to close Ayl’s right eye. “They flutter their lashes.”
“I don’t want to bring them back to life,” Vare protested.
“Lifelike imitation,” Rusk repeated. “Get them upright and send them back to Berrat. A dilemma for his holiness. Will the grieving father kill his daughters all over again? Or will he let them live as monsters?”
Lano broke in. “Will the charm do anything about the…” He gestured toward the girls’ decaying flesh.
Rusk shrugged. “Superficially.”
Vare considered. The girls’ decomposition had given him a great deal of pleasure, but the chance to revenge himself on Berrat all over again—this was what he’d been seeking, something vicious and rare.
“The best part is the question of what happens to their souls while their bodies are walking and talking. Does the soul get caught? Half here, half there? What will his holiness do about that?” Rusk snorted. “Make the gods-licker shove the church up his own ass, that’s what I say.”
Vare looked down at Ayl’s winking corpse.
“Yes,” he said. “It sounds just the thing.”
PART SIX: ACTIVE DECAY
They woke with bright, blank eyes.
It was strange seeing them restored to smoothness. Their cheeks remained pale, but the flesh was firm again, resolutely attached to the tissue below.
The housekeeper was sent out with instructions. When she returned, the girls were dressed in froths of white lace. Only the colors of their accessories set them apart: touches of green matched Ayl’s eyes, and touches of pink hinted at Delira’s nascent womanhood.
They sat, prim and proper, on the velvet loveseat, which still held the scent of Delira’s decay.
“There you go, girls.” Vare handed them a chased-silver hand mirror. “What do you think?”
Ayl gave herself barely a glance, but Delira looked lingeringly at how her curls swept under her hat and the way her bodice flattered her neckline.
“The gloves are too tight.” Ayl tugged at the mother-of-pearl clasps.
Delira swatted her lightly. “Be kind. Say thank you.” Delira set the mirror down on the table. Nodding toward Vare, she said, “Thank you.”
“Thank you, papa,” Vare corrected.
Ayl frowned, but Delira repeated, “Thank you, papa.”
Ayl had not capitulated, but this could be remedied later. Vare perched on the edge of the daybed and leaned toward the girls. “Do you remember yourselves?” he asked. “Anything from before?”
Delira paused. Her eyes clouded as if she were staring at a shape she couldn’t discern. “My name is Delira.”
“Yes, yes,” Vare said, “but do you remember anything?”
Delira’s tone was wistful. “No…”
“There was a shop,” Ayl said. “Then we came here.”
Vare gestured excitedly. Their amnesia was perfect. It made them moldable, perfectible. His girls.
He got to his feet and began pacing the room. His words came out in a rush. “There was a man, you see. Your father. Berrat. He kept you in his house. He tortured you.” Vare made a noise of disgust. “Terrible, terrible things. They don’t bear repeating. The important thing is I rescued you. Me, you understand? I snuck into your father’s house and pulled you out. No one else would have done it.”
Delira put her hand to her collarbone. “It certainly sounds like it required great fortitude.”
“So you see,” Vare continued, “You must stay with me. Your father is a bad man. A devil. You’re lucky to have me.”
“I should say so,” said Delira. Still distracted by her glove, Ayl fretted at the calfskin and said nothing.
Vare leaned in to kiss Delira’s cheek and then Ayl’s. As he did so, he realized he’d never send them back to Berrat. Not ever. “The Just” man didn’t deserve them, even dead. Wasn’t it crueler this way? To hold their souls hostage?
But Vare needed to look at them. To look at his girls. Just for a moment.
“Now hold still,” he told them. “This may be unpleasant, but it will be over in a moment.”
He reached into their mouths–in tandem so as not to scare them–and pulled the charms out from under their tongues.
There. There they were. Maggots in frenzy, beneath their skins, in their mouths, in their anuses. Flesh oozing strange fluids. His girls.
He slipped the charms back into their mouths and they were fleshed again. Ayl looked put out, bored as any child forced to sit in a parlor wearing scratchy clothes. Delira sat with her hands folded in her lap, demure as anything.
Vare patted Ayl’s shoulder. “Go upstairs. Go play. I’ll send the housekeeper with milk.”
PART SEVEN: LIQUEFACTION
By day, he took them strolling in the park with their parasols. Ayl wore a bathing gown and dangled her feet in the river. Delira sat politely on a blanket, attracting the gazes of young men. Vare enjoyed watching them watch her, imagining the expressions on their smug faces should they ever have the opportunity to kiss her sweet lips and pull out her charm with their tongues.
He took them to fancy dinners, one on each arm, and tucked them in at night with bedtime stories.
It had come to the point where even he could barely stand to be with them when he removed their charms. What had once been a trickle of strange liquids was now a veritable flood. Their stench was such that he could not inhale without feeling faint, the remnants of his last meal hot in his throat. He wore a scarf over his mouth and inhaled deeply before he pulled the charms free and often replaced them before he was forced to inhale again.
One morning, as Vare went out to hire a carriage to take the girls shopping, he was taken aback when he saw Lano and Rusk heading toward the manor house, expressions dour. He began a cordial greeting, but their scowls put him in a foul mood. Instead, he spoke abruptly. “What do you want?”
“We need to talk,” Rusk said.
Lano slipped his hands into his coat pockets and nodded.
Reluctantly, Vare admitted them to the parlor. He sent the girls upstairs and gestured for his guests to take the loveseat. Vare did not sit himself, but rather leaned against the mantel, enjoying the advantage of height.
Rusk leaned back against the cushions, opting for insouciance if he couldn’t manage intimidation. Lano, clearly more nervous, sat with his knees jammed up to his chest, too tall for the modestly proportioned furniture.
“You said you’d send them back to Berrat,” Lano blurted.
Vare feigned nonchalance. “I changed my mind.”
“You’re parading them around town! Everyone can see them. Someone will find out who they are eventually. They’ll trace them back here and then trace you back to us. I stayed the hells out of prison after they destroyed the magitorium. I’m not going now.”
Vare let Lano run his speech into silence. He allowed the following pause to grow while he considered his reply, but Rusk was the first to speak.
In a slow, even tone, Rusk said, “You’re a fool.”
Vare couldn’t mask his indignation. “Pardon?”
“You plotted against Berrat for ten years,” Rusk said. “You got away with it. Now you’re going to get yourself caught? For what?”
“Look,” Vare said, abandoning his pose by the mantel to approach the other men. “You’re right. Berrat will come eventually. And what will he see? His daughters, his horrors, living their semi-life with me. Two virgin girls and an ‘evil’ man. What do you imagine he’ll think?”
Lano looked like he was going to choke. “You haven’t.”
“No. But if you were Berrat, would you believe it?”
The answer didn’t assuage Lano’s disgust. “You’ll get us caught,” he repeated plaintively.
At the sound of footsteps on the stair, Vare looked up and saw Ayl, dressed in a green day gown, one hand on the railing as she stared down at the parlor.
Vare took the opportunity to move toward the door. “Gentlemen,” he said, pointing the way out.
They stood off in the entranceway, Lano and Rusk glaring at Vare while he glared back. They could all see the calculations written on each other’s faces. They knew too much about each other to be taken lightly. If one of them crossed another… With men like these and pride involved, any action could lead to mutual destruction. All three reached the same conclusion; it was safest to part on bad terms and avoid each other, for now.
A few days later, when Vare heard through other sources that Lano and Rusk had sold their belongings and left the city, he was not surprised.
He was surprised a few days after that when he woke to find that his housekeeper had also disappeared, taking the lion’s share of the larder with her. When Vare asked the girls if they’d seen anything, Delira confessed, “She was in our room last night, papa. She took out the charms, the way you do, and when we came back, she’d thrown up on the floor. She said she didn’t care about your threats, not anymore. She called you an abomination.”
Delira covered her mouth with one discreet gloved hand.
“I’m sorry,” she said.
“Whore,” Vare muttered, meaning the housekeeper. He’d kept his servants bound to him for years with threats detailing the charms in his possession. With the right charm under his tongue, he’d find the escaped harridan, wherever she’d tried to run.
He would—but perhaps after he took the girls to dinner. They ate roasted chicken and drank white wine. Afterward, they listened to a violinist by the river. On the way home, Delira fell asleep with her head on his shoulder. Life was too pleasant for Vare to bother with an old, menial shrew.
PART EIGHT: DRIED
In the morning, Delira led the way down the stairs, Ayl trailing behind. “Papa,” she said.
Vare looked up from his perch on the loveseat. He set down his brandy among the scattered glasses on the table, all used and filthy, much like the rest of the house now that the whore of a servant had fled.
“Yes, child?” Vare asked.
“We heard someone talking about our father,” Delira said, descending to the floor.
“About Berrat,” said Ayl.
“That maniac,” Vare said. “That devil.”
“They said he was a good man,” Delira continued. “A man of the church.”
Vare pulled her into his lap. She sat like a girl half her age, smiling innocently. Ayl waited silently behind them, her fingers on the edge of the loveseat, digging into the velvet.
“This is something you should learn,” Vare said. “Some men put on a good front for the world, but they’re evil in their hearts.”
Delira nodded. “Just so,” she said, as if she’d had more than a few scant months’ experience in the world.
A noise called Vare’s attention up to Ayl. Typically fidgety and bored, she’d begun to pull the charm from her mouth. For a moment, she flickered into corpse-form. Jagged bone fragments jutted like teeth through her dry, shrunken skin.
Delira screamed. She swung her arms around Vare’s neck, clinging for safety. He pushed her roughly aside as he reached for Ayl, shoving the charm back into her mouth.
Ayl was back, frowning at Vare’s harsh treatment. She moved out of his reach. “That hurt.”
“Never do that,” Vare said. “You hear me?”
Delira’s gaze dropped to the floor. She rubbed her arm where he’d pushed her. “Yes, papa,” she said.
Ayl said nothing. Vare chose to ignore her.
PART NINE: REMAINS
It was night when they came to him, all warm hands and loose, white gowns. Eyes shone in the near-dark, Ayl’s green and Delira’s grey. Fingertips ran up Vare’s spine. He felt his skin heating. His girls. That which had been a whispering breeze began to howl. His girls.
“You shouldn’t,” he said, pushing them away. He meant it. He did not want them to be like that.
With only candlelight behind her, Ayl looked paler than she did during the day, and even more slight. The fingers that reached across Vare’s chest—his girls—were as narrow as sticks.
Ayl’s fingertips brushed against Delira’s mouth. Her lips parted, red and wide—his girls!—and Ayl reached inside.
“Stop!” shouted Vare, but it was too late, Ayl’s fingers had already slipped under Delira’s tongue, already withdrawn the charm. It glinted between Ayl’s fingers, polished with Delira’s spittle. Ayl smiled as Delira shrank into corpse-form. The dead girl didn’t smell any longer, was too dry and brittle for that. Her flesh had withered away, exposing the white branches of her skeleton, which lay over Vare’s lap like a strange blanket. Through his clothing, he could feel the contours of her vertebrae, her pelvis, her femurs. Her skull lay against his shoulder, empty nose nestled against his collar.
Despite the nettles creeping along Vare’s skin, it felt good, it felt right, holding his girl, his girl as she was, bare and bleached and defenseless.
Ayl stared down with hard, green eyes. “Why?” Vare asked.
“She wasn’t brave enough,” Ayl answered, charm still shining in her palm.
She was on Vare before he could react, her fingers prying open his jaws, her unnaturally strong body pinning him in place even as he flailed, her dead hand impervious to the pain of his biting as she lifted his tongue and thrust the metal beneath it.
Sweet like cinnamon. Stinging. And then a strange shift. A malformation.
He wasn’t himself anymore, didn’t even remember what himself was. Memories gone, he sat slack, a blank figure, waiting for someone to tell him what to do.
The skinny girl in front of him took his hand. “Come on,” she said, handing him a coat. “Button up.”
He stood. Bones scattered to the floor.
“Where are we going?” he asked.
“To our father,” the girl said, pulling him forward. “To Berrat.”
Rachel Swirsky holds an MFA from the Iowa Writers Workshop where she learned to A) write fiction and B) be cold. Her short fiction has appeared in a number of magazines and anthologies including Subterranean Magazine, Tor.com, and Eclipse 4, and been collected in several year’s bests. It’s also been nominated for the Hugo Award, the Locus Award, the Sturgeon Award, and the World Fantasy Award, and in 2011, she won the Nebula Award for best novella. Her first collection, Through the Drowsy Dark, came out from Aqueduct Press in 2010. A second is forthcoming from Subterranean. You can find her on most social media under some variant of the extremely creative user name “Rachel Swirsky.”