12,800 Words

They left Abal in a hurry, after Ozma’s mother killed the constable. It was a shame, too, because business had been good. Ozma’s mother had invitations almost every night to one party or another in the finest homes of Abal. Rich gentlemen admired Ozma’s mother, Zilla for her beauty, and their wives were eager to have their fortunes told. Ozma, in her shiny, stiff, black–ribboned dress, was petted and given rolls and hot chocolate. The charms and trinkets on the ends of the ribbons that Ozma and her mother wore (little porcelain and brass ships, skulls, dolls, crowns, and cups) were to attract the attention of the spirit world, but fashionable ladies in Abal had begun to wear them, too. The plague had passed through Abal a few months before Ozma and her mother came. Death was fashionable.

Thanks to Ozma’s mother, every wellborn lady of Abal strolled about town for a time in a cloud of ghosts — a cloud of ghosts that only Ozma and her mother could see. Zilla made a great deal of money, first selling the ribbons and charms and then instructing the buyer on the company she now kept. Some ghosts were more desirable than others of course, just as some addresses will always be more desirable, more sought after. But if you didn’t like your ghosts, well then, Ozma’s mother could banish the ones you had and sell you new charms, new ghosts. A rich woman could change ghosts just as easily as changing her dress and to greater fashionable effect.

Ozma was small for her age. Her voice was soft, and her limbs were delicate as a doll’s. She bound her breasts with a cloth. She didn’t mind the hot chocolate, although she would have preferred wine. But wine might have made her sleepy or clumsy, and it was hard enough carefully and quietly slipping in and out of bedrooms and dressing rooms and studies unnoticed when hundreds of ghost charms were dangling like fishing weights from your collar, your bodice, your seams, your hem. It was a surprise, really, that Ozma could move at all.

 §

Zilla called her daughter Princess Monkey, but Ozma felt more like a beast of burden, a tricked–up pony that her mother had laden down with secrets and more secrets. Among Ozma’s ghost charms were skeleton keys and tiny chisels. There was no magic about how Ozma got into and out of locked desks and boudoirs. And if she were seen, it was easy enough to explain what she was looking for. One of her ghosts, you see, was playing a little game. The observer saw only a small solemn girl chasing after her invisible friend.

 §

Zilla was not greedy. She was a scrupulous blackmailer. She did not bleed her clients dry; she milked them. You could even say she did it out of kindness. What good is a secret without someone to know it? When one cannot afford a scandal, a blackmailer is an excellent bargain. Ozma and Zilla assembled the evidence of love affairs, ill–considered attachments, stillbirths, stolen inheritances, and murders. They were as vigilant as any biographer, solicitous as any confidante. Zilla fed gobbets of tragedy, romance, comedy to the ghosts who dangled so hungrily at the end of their ribbons. One has to feed a ghost something delicious, and there is only so much blood a grown woman and a smallish girl have to spare.

 §

The constable had been full of blood: a young man, quite pretty to look at, ambitious, and in the pay of one Lady V____. Zilla had been careless or Lady V____ was cleverer than she looked. For certain, she was more clever than she was beautiful, Zilla said, in a rage. Zilla stabbed the constable in the neck with a demon needle. Blood sprayed out through the hollow needle like red ink. All of Ozma’s ghosts began to tug at their ribbons in a terrible frenzy as if, Ozma thought, they were children and she were a maypole.

First the constable was a young man, full of promise and juice, and then he was a dead man in a puddle of his own blood, and then he was a ghost, small enough that Zilla could have clapped him between her two hands and burst him like a pastry bag, had he any real substance. He clutched at one of Zilla’s ribbon charms as if it were a life rope. The look of surprise on his face was comical.

Ozma thought he made a handsome ghost. She winked at him, but then there was a great deal of work to do. There was the body to take care of, and Zilla’s clothes and books and jewelry to be packed, and all of the exceedingly fragile ghost tackle to wrap up in cotton and rags.

Zilla was in a filthy temper. She kicked the body of the constable. She paced and drank while Ozma worked. She rolled out maps and rolled them back up again.

“Where are we going this time?” Ozma said.

“Home,” Zilla said. She blew her nose on a map. Zilla had terrible allergies in summer. “We’re going home.”

 §

On the seventh day of their journey, outlaws shot and killed Neren, Zilla’s manservant, as he watered the horses from a stream. From inside the coach, Zilla drew her gun. She waited until the outlaws were within range and then she shot them both in the head. Zilla’s aim was excellent.

By the time Ozma had the horses calmed down, Neren’s ghost had drifted downstream, and she had no ribbons with which to collect trash like the outlaws anyway. Zilla had made her leave most of her ghosts and ribbons at home. Too many ghosts made travel difficult: they frightened horses and drew unwelcome attention. And besides, it was easy enough to embroider new ribbons and collect new ghosts when one arrived in a new place. Ozma had kept only three favorites: an angry old empress, a young boy whose ghost was convinced it was actually a kitten, and the constable. But neither the empress nor the little boy said much anymore. Nothing stirred them. And there was something more vivid about the constable, or perhaps it was just the memory of his surprised look and his bright, bright blood.

She’s a monster, the constable said to Ozma. He was looking at Zilla with something like admiration. Ozma felt a twinge of jealousy, of possessive pride.

“She’s killed a hundred men and women,” Ozma told him. “She has a little list of their names in her book. We light candles for them in the temple.”

I don’t remember my name, the constable said. Did I perhaps introduce myself to you and your mother, before she killed me?

“It was something like Stamp or Anvil,” Ozma said. “Or Cobble.”

“Ozma,” Zilla said. “Stop talking to that ghost. Come and help with Neren.”

Ozma and Neren had not liked each other. Neren had liked to pinch and tease Ozma when Zilla wasn’t looking. He’d put his hand on the flat place where her breasts were bound. Sometimes he picked her up by her hair to show how strong he was, how little and helpless Ozma was.

They wrapped Neren’s body in a red sheet and wedged it between the branches of a tree, winding the sheet around and around the blankets. It was what you did for the dead when you were in a hurry. If it had been up to Ozma, they’d have left Neren for dogs to eat. She would have stayed to watch.

I’m hungry, said the constable’s ghost. Ozma gave him a little bowl of blood and dirt, scraped from the ground where Neren had died.

 §

After that, they traveled faster. The horses were afraid of Ozma’s mother although she did not use the whips as often as Neren had.

Ozma sat in the carriage and played I Spy with the constable’s ghost. I spy with my little eye, said the constable.

“A cloud,” Ozma said. “A man in a field.”

The view was monotonous. There were fields brown with blight and the air was foul with dust. There had been a disease of the wheat this year, as well as plague. There were no clouds. The man in the field was a broken stalk in a clearing, tied with small dirty flags, left as a piece of field magic. A field god to mark the place where someone had drawn the white stone.

Not a man, the constable said. A woman. A sad girl with brown hair. She looks a little like you.

“Is she pretty?” Ozma said.

Are you pretty? the constable said.

Ozma tossed her hair. “The ladies of Abal called me a pretty poppet,” she said. “They said my hair was the color of honey.”

Your mother is very beautiful, the constable said. Out on the coachman’s seat, Zilla was singing a song about black birds pecking at someone’s eyes and fingers. Zilla loved sad songs.

“I will be even more beautiful when I grow up,” Ozma said. “Zilla says so.”

How old are you? said the constable.

“Sixteen,” Ozma said, although this was only a guess. She’d begun to bleed the year before. Zilla had not been pleased.

Why do you bind your breasts? said the constable.

When they traveled, Ozma dressed in boy’s clothes and she tied her hair back in a simple queue. But she still bound her breasts every day. “One day,” she said, “Zilla will find a husband for me. A rich old man with an estate. Or a foolish young man with an inheritance. But until then, until I’m too tall, I’m more useful as a child. Zilla’s Princess Monkey.”

I’ll never get any older, the constable said, mourning.

“I spy with my little eye,” Ozma said.

A cloud, the constable said. A wheel of fire. The dead did not like to say the name of the sun.

“A little mouse,” Ozma said. “It ran under the wheels of the carriage.”

Where are we going? the constable said. He asked over and over again.

“Home,” Ozma said.

Where is home? said the constable.

“I don’t know,” Ozma said.

 §

Ozma’s father was, according to Zilla, a prince of the Underworld, a diplomat from distant Torlal, a spy, a man with a knife in an alley in Benin. Neren had been a small man, and he’d had snapping black eyes like Ozma, but Neren had not been Ozma’s father. If he’d been her father, she would have fished in the stream with a ribbon for his ghost.

 §

They made camp in a field of white flowers. Ozma fed and watered the horses. She picked flowers with the idea that perhaps she could gather enough to make a bed of petals for Zilla. She had a small heap almost as high as her knee before she grew tired of picking them. Zilla made a fire and drank wine. She did not say anything about Neren or about home or about the white petals, but after the sun went down she taught Ozma easy conjure tricks: how to set fire dancing on the backs of the green beetles that ran about the camp; how to summon the little devils that lived in trees and shrubs and rocks.

Zilla and the rock devils talked for a while in a guttural, snappish language that Ozma could almost understand. Then Zilla leaned forward, caught up a devil by its tail, and snapped its long neck. The other devils ran away and Zilla chased after them, grinning. There was something wolfish about her: she dashed across the field on all fours, darting back and forth. She caught two more devils while Ozma and the ghosts sat and watched, and then came strolling back to the camp looking flushed and pink and pleased, the devils dangling from her hand. She sharpened sticks and cooked them over the campfire as if they had been quail. By the time they were ready to eat, she was quite drunk. She didn’t offer to share the wine with Ozma.

The devils were full of little spiky bones. Zilla ate two. Ozma nibbled at a haunch, wishing she had real silverware, the kind they’d left behind in Abal. All she had was a tobacco knife. Her devil’s gummy boiled eyes stared up at her reproachfully. She closed her own eyes and tore off its head. But there were still the little hands, the toes. It was like trying to eat a baby.

“Ozma,” Zilla said. “Eat. I need you to stay healthy. Next time it will be your turn to conjure up supper.”

Zilla slept in the carriage. Ozma lay with her head on the little pile of white petals, and the constable and the empress and the kitten boy curled up in her hair.

All night long the green beetles scurried around the camp, carrying fire on their backs. It didn’t seem to upset them, and it was very beautiful. Whenever Ozma woke in the night, the ground was alive with little moving green lights. That was the thing about magic. Sometimes it was beautiful and sometimes it seemed to Ozma that it was as wicked as the priests claimed. You could kill a man and you could lie and steal as Zilla had done, and if you lit enough candles at the temples, you could be forgiven. But someone who ate little devils and caught ghosts with ribbons and charms was a witch, and witches were damned. It had always seemed to Ozma that in all the world there was only Zilla for Ozma, only Ozma for Zilla. Perhaps home would be different.

 §

Ozma thought that Zilla was looking for something. It was four days since Neren had died, and the horses were getting skinny. There was very little grazing. The streambeds were mostly dry. They abandoned the carriage, and Zilla walked while Ozma rode one of the horses (the horses would not carry Zilla) and the other horse carried Zilla’s maps and boxes. They went north, and there were no villages, no towns where Zilla could tell fortunes or sell charms. There were only abandoned farms and woods that Zilla said were full of outlaws or worse.

There was no more wine. Zilla had finished it. They drank muddy water out of the same streams where they watered their horses.

At night Ozma pricked her finger and squeezed the blood into the dirt for her ghosts. In Abal, there had been servants to give the blood to the ghosts. You did not need much blood for one ghost, but in Abal they’d had many, many ghosts. It made Ozma feel a bit sick to see the empress’s lips smeared with her blood, to see the kitten boy lapping at the clotted dirt. The constable ate daintily, as if he were still alive.

Ozma’s legs ached at night, as if they were growing furiously. She forgot to bind her breasts. Zilla didn’t seem to notice. At night, she walked out from the camp, leaving Ozma alone. Sometimes she did not come back until morning.

I spy with my little eye, the constable said.

“A horse’s ass,” Ozma said. “My mother’s skirts, dragging in the dirt.”

A young lady, the constable said. A young lady full of blood and vitality.

Ozma stared at him. The dead did not flirt with the living, but there was a glint in the constable’s dead eye. The empress laughed silently.

Ahead of them, Zilla stopped. “There,” she said. “Ahead of us, do you see?”

“Are we home?” Ozma said. “Have we come home?” The road behind them was empty and broken. Far ahead, she could see something that might be a small town. As they got closer, there were buildings, but the buildings were not resplendent. The roofs were not tiled with gold. There was no city wall, no orchards full of fruit, only brown fields and ricks of rotted hay.

“This is Brid,” Zilla said. “There’s something I need here. Come here, Ozma. Help me with the packhorse.”

They pulled out Ozma’s best dress, the green one with silver embroidery. But when Ozma tried to put on her dress, it would not fasten across her back. The shot–silk cuffs no longer came down over her wrists.

“Well,” Zilla said. “My little girl is getting bigger.”

“I didn’t mean to!” Ozma said.

“No,” Zilla said. “I suppose you didn’t. It isn’t your fault, Ozma. My magic can only do so much. Everyone gets older, no matter how much magic their mothers have. A young woman is trouble, though, and we have no time for trouble. Perhaps you should be a boy. I’ll cut your hair.”

Ozma backed away. She was proud of her hair.

“Come here, Ozma,” Zilla said. She had a knife in her hand. “It will grow back, I promise.”

 §

Ozma waited with the horses and the ghosts outside the town. She was too proud to cry about her hair. Boys came and threw rocks at her and she glared at them until they ran away. They came and threw rocks again. She imagined conjuring fire and setting it on their backs and watching them scurry like the beetles. She was wicked to think such a thing. Zilla was probably at the temple, lighting candles, but surely there weren’t enough candles in the world to save them both. Ozma prayed that Zilla would save herself.

Why have we come here? the constable said.

“We need things,” Ozma said. “Home is farther away than I thought it was. Zilla will bring back a new carriage and a new manservant and wine and food. She’s probably gone to the mayor’s house, to tell his fortune. He’ll give her gold. She’ll come back with gold and ribbons full of ghosts and we’ll go to the mayor’s house and eat roast beef on silver plates.”

The town is full of people, and the people are full of blood, the constable said. Why must we stay here outside?

“Wait, and Zilla will come back,” Ozma said. There was a hot breeze, and it blew against her neck. Cut hair pricked where it was caught between her shirt and her skin. She picked up the constable on his ribbon and held him cupped in her hands. “Am I still beautiful?” she said.

You have dirt on your face, the constable said.

 §

The sun was high in the sky when Zilla came back. She was wearing a modest gray dress, and a white kerchief covered her hair. There was a man with her. He paid no attention to Ozma. Instead he went over to the horses and ran his hands over them. He picked up their feet and rapped thoughtfully on their hooves.

“Come along,” Zilla said to Ozma. “Help me with the bags. Leave the horses with this man.”

“Where are we going?” Ozma said. “Did the mayor give you gold?”

“I took a position in service,” Zilla said. “You are my son, and your name is Eren. Your father is dead, and we have come here from Nablos. We are respectable people. I’m to cook and keep house.”

“I thought we were going home,” Ozma said. “This isn’t home.”

“Leave your ghosts here,” Zilla said. “Decent people like we are going to be have nothing to do with ghosts.”

The man took the reins of the horses and led them away.

Ozma took out her pocket knife and cut off her last three ribbons. In one of the saddlebags, there was a kite that a lady of Abal had given her. She tied the empress and the kitten boy to it by their ribbons, and then she threw the kite up so the wind caught it. The string ran through her hand, and the two ghosts sailed away over the houses of Brid.

What are you doing? the constable said.

“Be quiet,” Ozma said. She tied a knot in the third ribbon and stuck the constable in her pocket. Then she picked up a saddlebag and followed her mother into Brid.

Her mother walked along as if she had lived in Brid all her life. They stopped in a temple and Zilla bought a hundred candles. Ozma helped her light them all, while the priest dozed, stretched out on a prayer bench. Couldn’t he tell how wicked they were? Ozma wondered. Only wicked, wicked people would need to light so many candles.

But Zilla, kneeling in front of the altar steps, lighting candle after candle, looked like a saint in her gray dress. The air was thick with incense. Zilla sneezed, and the priest woke up with a snort. This would be a very dull game, Ozma thought. She wished that Zilla had charmed the constable instead of killing him. She had not been at all tired of their life in Abal.

 §

Zilla led Ozma through a public square where women were drawing water from a well, and down a narrow street. The gutters smelled of human sewage. In Abal the finest houses had been outfitted with modern plumbing. There had been taps and running water and hot baths. And a public bath — even if Brid had such a thing, Ozma realized — would be out of the question, as long as she was a boy.

“Here,” Zilla said. She went up to the door of a two–story

stone house. It did not compare to the house they had lived in, in Abal. When Zilla knocked, a woman in a housemaid’s cap opened the door. “You’re to go around to the back,” the woman said. “Don’t you know anything?” Then she relented. “Come in quickly, quickly.”

There was a vestibule and a front hall with a mosaic set in the floor. The blue and yellow tiles were set in a spiraling pattern, and Ozma thought she saw dragons, but the mosaic was cracked and some of the tiles were missing. Light fell down through a vaulted skylight. There were statues standing in paneled niches in the wall, gods and goddesses looking as if they had been waiting for a long time for someone to bring their coats and hats. They looked dowdier than the gods in Abal did, less haughty, less high. There were ghosts everywhere, Ozma saw. Somehow it made her miss Abal less. At least Brid was like Abal in this one way.

She didn’t care for the gods. When she thought of them at all, she imagined them catching people the way that Zilla caught ghosts, with charms and ribbons. Who would want to dangle along after one of these household gods, with their painted eyes and their chipped fingers?

“Come along, come along,” said the housemaid. “My name’s Jemma. I’m to show you your room and then I’ll take you back down to the parlor. What’s your name, boy?”

Zilla poked Ozma. “Oz–Ozen,” Ozma said. “Ozen.”

“That’s a foreign name,” Jemma said. She sounded disapproving. Ozma stared down. Jemma had thick ankles. Her shoes looked as if they pinched. As she hurried them along, little eddies of ghosts swirled around her skirts. Zilla sneezed.

Jemma led them through a door and then up and up a winding staircase. Ghosts drifted after them lazily. Zilla pretended they were not there and so Ozma did the same.

At the top of the stairs was a hall with a door on either side. Their room had a sloped roof, so there was barely room to stand up. There were two narrow beds, a chair, a basin on a small table, and a window with a pane missing.

“I see there’s a fireplace,” Zilla said. She sank down into the chair.

“Get up, get up,” Jemma said. “Oh please, Miss Zilla, get up. I’m to show you down to the parlor and then I must get back to the kitchen to start dinner. It’s a mercy that you’ve come. It’s just been the two of us, me and my da. The house is filthy and I’m no cook.”

“Go on,” Zilla said. “I’ll find the parlor. And then I’ll come find you in the kitchen. We’ll see what we can do for dinner.”

“Yes, Miss Zilla,” Jemma said and made a little bob.

Ozma listened to Jemma thumping down the stairs again as if she were a whole herd of maids. Some of the ghosts went with her, but most remained crowded around Zilla. Zilla sat in the chair, her eyes shut tightly.

“What are we doing here?” Ozma said. “How could there be anything in this place that we need? Who are we to be?”

Zilla did not open her eyes. “Good people,” she said. “Respectable people.”

The constable wriggled like a fish in Ozma’s pocket. Good liars, he said quietly. Respectable murderers.

 §

There was water in the basin so that Zilla and Ozma could wash their hands and faces. Zilla had a packet of secondhand clothing for Ozma, which Ozma laid out on the bed. Boy’s clothing. It seemed terrible to her, not only that she should have to be a boy and wear boy’s clothing, but that she should have to wear clothes bought from a store in Brid. In Abal and in the city before Abal, she’d had the most beautiful dresses and gloves and cloaks, and shoes made of the softest leather. It was one thing to dress as a boy on the road, when there was no one to admire her. She slipped the constable out of the pocket of her old clothes and into the pocket of her shirt.

“Stop sulking or I’ll sell you to the priests,” Zilla said. She was standing at the window, looking out at the street below. Ozma imagined Brid below them: dull, dull, dull.

 §

Ozma waited just outside the door of the parlor. Really, the house was full of ghosts. Perhaps she and Zilla could start a business here in Brid and export fine ghosts to Abal. When Zilla said, “Come in, son,” she stepped in.

“Close the door quickly!” said the ugly old man who stood beside Zilla. Perhaps he would fall in love with Zilla and beg her to marry him. Something flew past Ozma’s ear: the room was full of songbirds. Now she could hear them as well. There were cages everywhere, hanging from the roof and from stands, and all of the cage doors standing open. The birds were anxious. They flew around and around the room, settling on chairs and chandeliers. There was a nest on the mantelpiece and another inside the harpsichord. There were long streaks of bird shit on the furniture, on the floor, and on the old man’s clothes. “They don’t like your mother very much,” he said.

This was not quite right, Ozma saw. It was the ghosts that followed Zilla and Ozma that the birds did not like.

“This is Lady Rosa Fralix,” Zilla said.

So it was an ugly old woman. Ozma remembered to bow instead of curtsey.

“What is your name, child?” said Lady Fralix.

“Ozen,” Ozma said.

“Ozen,” Lady Fralix said. “What a handsome boy he is, Zilla.”

Zilla sneezed sharply. “If it meets with your approval, Lady Fralix, dinner will be served in the small dining room at eight. Tomorrow Ozen and Jemma and I will begin to put your house in order. Shall we begin here?”

“If Ozen will agree to help me cage my friends,” Lady Fralix said. “We can go over the schedule tomorrow morning after breakfast. I’m afraid there’s been too much work for poor Jemma. There are one or two rooms, though, that I would prefer that you leave alone.”

“Very well, madam,” Zilla said in her most disinterested voice, and aha! thought Ozma. There were birds perched on Lady Fralix’s head and shoulders. They pulled at her thin white hair. No wonder she was nearly bald.

 §

Zilla was a good if unimaginative cook. She prepared an urchin stew, a filet of sole, and because Jemma said Lady Fralix’s teeth were not good, she made a bread pudding with fresh goat’s milk and honey. Ozma helped her carry the dishes into the dining room, which was smaller and less elegant than the dining rooms of Abal, where ladies in beautiful dresses had given Ozma morsels from their own plates. The dining room was without distinction. It was not particularly well appointed. And it was full of ghosts. Everywhere you stepped there were ghosts. The empty wineglasses and the silver tureen in the center of the table were full of them.

Zilla stayed to serve Lady Fralix. Ozma ate in the kitchen with Jemma and Jemma’s da, a large man who ate plate after plate of stew and said nothing at all. Jemma said a great deal, but very little of it was interesting. Lady Rosa Fralix had never married as far as anyone knew. She was a scholar and a collector of holy relics and antiquities. She had traveled a great deal in her youth. She had no heir.

Ozma went up the stairs to bed. Zilla was acting as lady’s maid to Lady Fralix, or rifling through secret drawers, or most likely of all, gone back to the temple to light candles again. Jemma had started a fire in the grate in the dark little bedroom. Ozma was grudgingly grateful. She used the chamber pot and then bathed as best she could in front of the fire with a sponge and water from the basin. She did all of this behind a screen so that she was hidden from the constable, although she hadn’t been so modest while they were traveling.

The constable did not have much to say, and Ozma did not feel much like talking, either. She thought of a thousand questions to ask Zilla, if only she were brave enough. When she woke in the night, there were strange cracking sounds and the fire in the grate was shooting out long green tongues of flame. Zilla was crouched before it, adding things to the blaze. She was burning her ghost tackle — the long needles and the black silk thread, the tubes and ointments and all of her notebooks. “Go back to sleep, Ozma,” Zilla said, without turning around.

Ozma closed her eyes.

 §

 Zilla woke her in the morning. “What time is it?” Ozma said. A thin gray light was dribbling through the window.

“Five in the morning. Time to wake and dress and wash your face,” Zilla said. “There’s work to do.”

Zilla made a porridge with raisins and dates while Ozma located a broom, a brush, a dustpan, and cloths. “First of all,” Zilla said, “we’ll get rid of the vermin.”

She opened the front door and began to sweep ghosts out of the front hall, through the vestibule, down the front steps and into the street. They tumbled in front of her broom in white, astonished clouds. “What are you doing?” Ozma said.

“This is a respectable house,” Zilla said. “And we are respectable people. An infestation of this kind is disgraceful.”

“In Abal,” Ozma said, “fashionable homes were full of ghosts. You made it the fashion. What is different about Brid? What are we doing here?”

“Sweeping,” Zilla said and handed Ozma a brush and a dustpan.

They went through the smaller dining room and the larger dining room and the breakfast room and two sitting rooms, which seemed to Ozma pleasant at best. Everywhere there were souvenirs of Lady Fralix’s travels: seashells, souvenir paperweights, music boxes, and umbrella stands made from the legs of very strange animals. They all seethed with ghosts. There was a ballroom where the ghosts rinsed around their ankles in a misty, heatless boil. Ozma’s fingers itched for her ribbons and her charms. “Why are there so many?” she said.

But Zilla shook her head. When the clocks began to strike eight o’clock, at last she stopped and said, “That will do for now. After Lady Fralix has dressed and I’ve brought her a tray, she wants your help in the front parlor to catch the birds.”

But Lady Fralix caught the birds easily. They came and sat on her finger, and she fed them crumbs of toast. Then she shut them in their cages. She didn’t need Ozma at all. Ozma sat on the piano bench and watched. Her hands were red and blistered from sweeping ghosts.

“They need fresh water,” Lady Fralix said finally.

So Ozma carried little dishes of water back and forth from the kitchen to the parlor. Then she helped Lady Fralix drape the heavy velvet covers over the cages. “Why do you have so many birds?” she said.

“Why do you have a ghost in your pocket?” Lady Fralix said. “Does your mother know you kept him? She doesn’t seem to care for ghosts.”

“How do you know I have a ghost?” Ozma said. “Can you see ghosts, too? Why is your house so full of ghosts? In Abal, we caught them for ladies to wear on their dresses, but the ladies only pretended that they could see their ghosts. It was fashionable.”

“Let me take a look at yours,” Lady Fralix said. Ozma took the constable out of her pocket. She did it reluctantly.

The constable bowed to Lady Fralix. My lady, he said.

“Oh, he’s charming,” said Lady Fralix. “I see why you couldn’t give him up. Would you like me to keep him safe for you?”

“No!” Ozma said. She quickly put the constable back in her pocket. She said, “When I first saw you I thought you were an ugly old man.”

Lady Fralix laughed. Her laugh was clear and lovely and warm. “And when I saw you, Ozen, I thought you were a beautiful young woman.”

 §

After lunch, which was rice and chicken seasoned with mint and almonds, Zilla gave Ozma a pail of soapy water and a pile of clean rags. She left her in the vestibule. Ozma washed the gods first. She hoped they were grateful, but they didn’t seem to be. When she was finished, they had the same sort of look that Zilla wore when she was bamboozling someone: distant, charming, untrustworthy.

Ozma’s back and arms ached. Twice she’d almost dropped the constable in the pail of water, thinking he was a clean rag.

Zilla appeared in the vestibule. She reached up and touched the robe of one of the gods, a woman with a wolf’s head. She left her hand there for a moment, and Ozma felt a terrible jealousy. Zilla rarely touched Ozma so gently.

“Be careful with the tiles,” Zilla said. She did not look particularly dirty or tired, although she and Jemma had been beating bird shit out of the carpets and upholstery all afternoon.

Lady Fralix came and watched from the balcony while Ozma cleaned the mosaic. “Your mother says she will try to find tiles to replace the ones that have been broken,” she said.

Ozma said nothing.

“The artist was a man from the continent of Gid,” Lady Fralix said. “I met him when I was looking for a famous temple to the god Addaman. His congregation had dwindled, and in a fit of temper Addaman drowned his congregation, priests, temple and all, in a storm that lasted for three years. There’s a lake there now. I went swimming in it and found all kinds of things. I brought the mosaic artist back with me. I always meant to go back. The water was meant to cure heartsickness. Or maybe it was the pox. I have a vial of it somewhere, or maybe that was the vial that Jemma thought were my eye drops. It’s so important to label things legibly.”

Ozma wrung dirty water out of a rag. “Your mother is very religious,” Lady Fralix said. “She seems to know a great deal about the gods.”

“She likes to light candles,” Ozma said.

“For your father?” Lady Fralix said.

Ozma said nothing.

“If your ghost needs blood,” Lady Fralix said, “you should go to the butcher’s stall in the market. I’ll tell your mother that I sent you to buy seeds for the birds.”

 §

There was nothing to do in Brid. There was no theater, no opera, no chocolate maker. Only temples and more temples. Zilla visited them all and lit hundreds of candles each day. She gave away the dresses that she had brought with her from Abal. She gave away all her jewels to beggars in the street. Zilla did not explain to Ozma about home or what she was planning or why they were masquerading in Brid as a devout, respectable housekeeper and her son. Zilla used only the most harmless of magics: to make the bread rise, to judge whether or not it was a good day to hang up the washing in the courtyard.

She made up simple potions for the other servants who worked in the houses on the street where Lady Fralix lived. She told fortunes. But she only told happy fortunes. The love potions were mostly honey and sugar dissolved in wine. Zilla didn’t charge for them. Neighborhood servants sat around the kitchen table and gossiped. They told stories of how the mayor of Brid had been made a fool of, all for love; of accidental poisonings; who had supposedly stuffed their mattresses with bags of gold coins; which babies had been dropped on their heads by nursemaids who drank. Zilla did not seem to pay any attention.

“Lady Fralix is a good woman,” Jemma said. “She was wild in her youth. She talked to the gods. She wasn’t afraid of anything. Then she came to Brid to see the temples and she bought this house on a whim because, she said, she’d never been in a town that was so full of sleepy gods. She claims that it’s restful. Well, I don’t know about that. I’ve never lived anywhere else.”

“There’s something about Brid,” Zilla said. She looked cross, as if the word Brid tasted bad. “Something that drew me to Brid, but I don’t know what. I don’t know that I’d call it peaceful. Ozen finds it dull, I’m afraid.”

Ozma said, “I want to go home.” But she said it quietly, so that Jemma wouldn’t hear. Zilla looked away as if she hadn’t heard either.

Ozma developed calluses on her hands. It was a good thing that there was nothing to do in Brid. She spent all her time mopping and dusting and carrying firewood and beating upholstery. Zilla’s nose was always pink from sneezing. The constable grew bored. This was not what I expected death to be like, he said.

“What is death like?” Ozma said. She always asked the ghosts this, but they never gave satisfactory answers.

How do I know? the constable said. I’m carried around all day in a young girl’s pocket. I drink the stale blood of market cattle. I thought there would be clouds of glory, or beautiful lecherous devils with velvet bosoms, or a courtroom full of gods to judge me.

“It will be different when Zilla has done what she needs to do,” Ozma said. “Then we’ll go home. There will be clouds of glory, and my pockets will be lined with lavender and silk. Everyone will know Zilla, and they’ll bow to her when we drive by in our carriage. Mothers will frighten their children with stories about Zilla, and kings will come and beg her to give them kisses. But she will only love me.”

You think your mother is a blackmailer and a thief and a murderer, the constable said. You admire her for what you think she is.

“I know she is!” Ozma said. “I know what she is!”

The constable said nothing. He only smirked. For several days they did not speak to each other until Ozma relented and gave him her own blood to drink as a peace offering. It was only a drop or two, and she was almost flattered to think that he preferred it.

It was hard work keeping Lady Fralix’s house free of ghosts. Ozma said so when she brought Lady Fralix’s breakfast up one morning. Zilla and Jemma had gone to a temple where there was a god who, according to his priests, had recently opened his painted mouth and complained about the weather. This was supposed to be a miracle.

“Your mother wants me to let my birds go free,” Lady Fralix said. “First the ghosts, now the birds. She says it’s cruel to keep things trapped in cages.”

This did not sound at all like Zilla. Ozma was beginning to grow tired of this new Zilla. It was one thing to pretend to be respectable; it was another entirely to be respectable.

Lady Fralix said, “It’s considered holy in some places to release birds. People free them on holy days because it pleases the gods. Perhaps I should. Perhaps your mother is right to ask.”

“Why do the ghosts come back again and again?” Ozma said. She was far more interested in ghosts than in birds. All birds did was eat and shit and make noise. “What do you want to wear today?”

“The pink dressing gown,” Lady Fralix said. “If you let me keep your ghost in my pocket today, I’ll give you one of my dresses. Any dress you like.”

“Zilla would take it away and give it to the poor,” Ozma said. Then: “How did you know I’m a girl?”

“I’m old but I’m not blind,” Lady Fralix said. “I see all sorts of things. Ghosts and girls. Little lost things. You shouldn’t keep dressing as a boy, my dear. Someone as shifty as you needs some truth now and then.”

“I’ll be a boy if I want to be a boy,” Ozma said. She realized that she didn’t really think of herself as Ozma anymore. She had become Ozen, who strutted and flirted with the maids fetching water, whose legs were longer, whose breasts did not need to be bound.

Be a girl, said the constable, muffled, from inside her pocket. Your hips are too bony as a boy. And I don’t like how your voice is changing. You had a nicer singing voice before.

“Oh, be quiet,” Ozma said. She was exasperated. “I’ve never heard so much nonsense in all my life!”

“You’re an insolent child, but my offer stands,” Lady Fralix said. “When you’re ready to be a girl again. Now. Let’s go down and do some work in my collection. I need someone with clever fingers. My old hands shake too much. Will you help me?”

“If you want me to,” Ozma said, ungraciously. She helped Lady Fralix out of bed and into a dressing gown and then she combed what was left of Lady Fralix’s hair. “How old are you?”

“Not as old as your mother,” Lady Fralix said and laughed at Ozma’s look of disbelief.

 §

There was no door to the room in which Lady Fralix kept her collection, but Ozma felt sure she had never noticed this room before. There were four or five ghosts brushing against the door that wasn’t there. They stayed on the threshold as if tethered there. “What are they doing?” Ozma said.

“They want to go inside,” Lady Fralix said. “But they’re afraid. Something draws them. They want it and they don’t know why. Poor little things.”

The room was very strange. It was the size of a proper ballroom in Abal, only it was full of paintings on stands, altars, and tables piled high with reliquaries and holy books and icons. Along the far wall there were gods as large as wardrobes and little brass gods and gods of ivory and gold and jade gods and fat goddesses giving birth to other gods and goddesses. There were bells hanging from the ceiling with long silk ropes, bells resting on the floor so big that Ozma could have hidden under them, and there were robes stiff with embroidery, hung about with bells no bigger than a fingernail.

Where are we? said the constable.

Lady Fralix had stepped inside the room. She beckoned to Ozma. But when Ozma put her foot down on the wooden floor, the board beneath her foot gave a terrible shriek.

What is that noise? said the constable.

“The floor —” Ozma said.

“Oh,” Lady Fralix said. “Your ghost. You had better tie him up outside. He won’t want to come in here.”

The constable trembled in Ozma’s hand. He looked about wildly, ignoring her at first. She tied him to the leg of an occasional table in the hallway. Don’t leave me here, the constable said. There’s something in that room that I need. Bring it to me, boy.

“Boy!” Ozma said.

Please, boy, said the constable. Ozma, please. I beg you on my death.

Ozma ignored him. She stepped into the room again. And again, with each step, the floor shrieked and groaned and squeaked. Lady Fralix clapped her hands. “It’s almost as good as going to see the orchestra in Oldun,” she said. She walked in a quick odd pattern toward an altar carved in the shape of a winged fish.

“Why don’t you make any sound when you walk?” Ozma said.

“I know where to place my foot,” Lady Fralix said. “I keep my most precious relics here. All the things that belong to gods. There. Put your foot down there. There’s a pattern to it. Let me teach you.”

She showed Ozma how to navigate the room. It was a little like waltzing. “Isn’t this fun?” said Lady Fralix. “An adept can play the floor like a musical instrument. It comes from a temple in Nal. There’s an emerald somewhere, too. The eye of a god. From the same temple. Here, look at this.”

There was a tree growing out of an old stone altar. The tree had almost split the altar in two. There was fruit on it, and Lady Fralix bent a branch down. “Not ripe yet,” she said. “I’ve been waiting almost twenty years and it’s still not ripe.”

“I suppose you want me to dust everything,” Ozma said.

“Perhaps you could just help me go through the books,” Lady Fralix said. “I left a novel in here last summer. I was only halfway through reading it. The beautiful gypsy had just been kidnapped by a lord disguised as a narwhal.”

“Here it is,” Ozma said, after they had hunted for a while in companionable silence. When she looked up, she felt strange, as if the room had begun to spin around her. The gods and their altars all seemed very bright, and it seemed to her that the bells were tolling, although without any sound. Even Lady Fralix seemed to shimmer a little, as if she were moving and standing still at the same time.

“You’re quite pale,” Lady Fralix said. “I’d have thought you wouldn’t be susceptible.”

“To what?” Ozma said.

“To the gods,” Lady Fralix said. “Some people have a hard time. It’s a bit like being up in the mountains. Some people don’t seem to notice.”

“I don’t care for gods,” Ozma said. “They’re nothing to me. I hate Brid. I hate this place. I hate the gods.”

“Let’s go and have some tea,” Lady Fralix said. She did not sound in the least bit perturbed to hear that Ozma was a heretic.

In the hallway, the constable was tugging at his ribbon, as if the room was full of blood.

“What is it?” Ozma said. “There’s nothing in that room, just boring old gods.”

I need it, the constable said. Be kind, be kind. Give me the thing I need.

“Don’t be tiresome,” Ozma said. Her head ached.

Before Ozma could put him in her pocket, Lady Fralix took hold of her wrist. She picked up the constable by his ribbon.

“Very curious,” Lady Fralix said. “He’s so lively, such a darling. Not the usual sort of ghost. Do you know how he died?”

“He ate a bad piece of cheese,” Ozma said. “Or maybe he fell off a cliff. I don’t remember. Give him back.”

“It’s a good thing,” Lady Fralix said, “that most people can’t see or talk to ghosts. Watching them scurry around, it makes you dread the thought of death, and yet what else is there to do when you die? Will some careless child carry me around in her pocket?”

Ozma shrugged. She was young. She wouldn’t die for years and years. She tried not to think of the handsome young constable in her pocket, who had once thought much the same thing.

 §

By the time Zilla and Jemma returned from the temple, Lady Fralix had made up her mind to let the birds go, as soon as possible.

“I only kept them because the house seemed so empty,” she said. “Brid is too quiet. In the city of Tuk, the god houses are full of red and green birds who fly back and forth carrying holy messages.”

Zilla and Jemma and Ozma carried cage after cage out onto the street. The birds fussed and chattered. Lady Fralix watched from her bedroom window. It was starting to rain.

Once the birds were free, they seemed more confused than liberated. They didn’t burst into joyful songs or even fly away. Ozma had to shoo them out of their cages. They flew around the house and beat their wings against the windows. Lady Fralix closed her curtains. One bird flew against a window so hard that it broke its neck.

Ozma picked up its body. The beak was open.

“The poor little things,” Jemma said. Jemma was terribly tenderhearted. She wiped rain off her face with her apron. There were feathers sticking out of her hair.

“Where do the ghosts of birds and animals go?” Ozma said quietly to Zilla. “Why don’t we see them?”

Zilla looked at her. Her eyes glittered and her color was high. “I see them,” she said. “I can see them plain as anything. It’s good that you can’t see them, Ozen. It’s more respectable not to see any kind of ghosts.”

“Lady Fralix knows I’m a girl,” Ozma said. Jemma was chasing the birds away from the house, flapping her own arms and her sodden apron. The rain fell harder and harder but Zilla didn’t seem to notice. “She said something about how I ought to be careful. I think that perhaps I’m becoming a boy. I think she may be right. I stand up when I piss now. I’m shaped differently. I have something down there that I didn’t have before.”

“Let me take a look at you,” Zilla said. “Turn around. Yes, I see. Well, it has nothing to do with me. You must be doing it yourself somehow. How enterprising you’ve become. How inconvenient.”

“Actually,” Ozma said, “it’s more convenient. I like standing up when I piss.”

“It won’t do,” Zilla said. “It’s not very respectable, that’s for certain. We’ll take care of it tonight.”

§

I liked you better as a girl, the constable said. You were a nice girl. That girl would have given me what I wanted. She would have found what I needed in that room.

“I wasn’t a nice girl!” Ozma said. She stood naked in the attic room. She wished she had a mirror. The thing between her legs was very strange. She didn’t know how long it had been here.

Ever since we came to this house, the constable said. He was sitting in the corner of the grate on a little heap of ashes. He looked very gloomy. Ever since your mother told you to be a boy. Why do you always do what your mother tells you?

“I don’t,” Ozma said. “I kept you. I keep you secret. If she knew about you, she’d sweep you right out of the house.”

Don’t tell her then, the constable said. I want to stay with you, Ozma. I forgive you for letting her kill me.

“Be quiet,” Ozma said. “Here she comes.”

Zilla was carrying a small folded pile of clothes. She stared at Ozma. “Get dressed,” she said. “I’ve seen all that before. It doesn’t particularly suit you, although it does explain why the housemaids next door have been mooning and swanning around in their best dresses.”

“Because of me?” Ozma said. She began to pull her trousers back on.

“No, not those. Here. Lady Fralix has lent you a dress. I’ve made something up, although only a liar as good as I am could pull off such a ridiculous story. I fed Jemma some confection about how you’ve been dressing as a boy as penance. Because a young man had fallen in love with you and committed suicide. You’re handsome enough as a boy,” Zilla said. “But I don’t know what you were thinking. I never cared much for that shape. It’s too distracting. And people are always wanting to quarrel with you.”

“You’ve been a man?” Ozma said. The dress felt very strange, very confining. The thing between her legs was still there. And she didn’t like the way the petticoats rubbed against her legs. They scratched.

“Not for years and years,” Zilla said. “Gods, I don’t even know how long. It’s one thing to dress as a man, Ozma, but you mustn’t let yourself forget who you are.”

“But I don’t know who I am,” Ozma said. “Why are we different from other people? Why do we see ghosts? Why did I change into a boy? You said we were going home, but Brid isn’t home, I know it isn’t. Where is our home? Why did we come here? Why are you acting so strangely?”

Zilla sighed. She snapped her finger, and there was a little green flame resting on the back of her hand. She stroked it with her other hand, coaxing it until it grew larger. She sat down on one of the narrow beds and patted the space beside her. Ozma sat down. “There’s something that I need to find,” Zilla said. “Something in Brid. I can’t go home without it. When Neren died —”

“Neren!” Ozma said. She didn’t want to talk about Neren.

Zilla gave her a terrible look. “If those men had killed you instead of Neren…” she said. Her voice trailed off. The green flame dwindled down to a spark and went out. “There was something that I was supposed to do for him. Something that I knew how to do once. Something I’ve forgotten.”

“I don’t understand,” Ozma said. “We buried him in the tree. What else could we have done?”

“I don’t know,” Zilla said. “I go to the temples every day and I humble myself and I light enough candles to burn down a city, but the gods won’t talk to me. I’m too wicked. I’ve done terrible things. I think I used to know how to talk to the gods. I need to talk to them again. I need to talk to them before I go home. I need them to tell me what I’ve forgotten.”

“Before we go home,” Ozma said. “You wouldn’t leave me here, would you? You wouldn’t. Tell me about home, oh please, tell me about home.”

“I can’t remember,” Zilla said. She stood up. “I don’t remember. Stop fussing at me, Ozma. Don’t come downstairs again until you’re a girl.”

§

Ozma had terrible dreams. She dreamed that Lady Fralix’s birds had come back home again and they were pecking at her head. Peck, peck, peck. Peck, peck. They were going to pull out all of her hair because she had been a terrible daughter. Neren had sent them. She was under one of Lady Fralix’s bells in the darkness because she was hiding from the birds. The constable was kissing her under the bell. His mouth was full of dead birds.

Someone was shaking her. “Ozma,” Zilla said. “Ozma, wake up. Ozma, tell me what you are dreaming about.”

“The birds,” Ozma said. “I’m in the room where Lady Fralix keeps her collection. I’m hiding from the birds.”

“What room?” Zilla said. Her hand was still on Ozma’s shoulder, but she was only a dark shape against darkness.

“The room full of bells and altars,” Ozma said. “The room that the ghosts won’t go in. She wanted me to find a book for her this afternoon. The floor is from a temple in Nal. You have to walk on it a certain way. It made me feel dizzy.”

“Show me this room,” Zilla said. “I’ll fetch a new candle. You’ve burned this one down to the stub. Meet me downstairs.”

Ozma got out of bed. She went and squatted over the chamber pot.

So you’re a girl again, the constable said from behind the grate.

“Oh, be quiet,” Ozma said. “It’s none of your business.”

It is my business, the constable said. You’ll go and fetch the thing that your mother needs, but you won’t help me. I thought you loved me.

“You?” Ozma said. “How could I love you? How could I love a ghost? How could I love something that I have to keep hidden in my pocket?”

She picked up the constable. “You’re filthy,” she said.

You’re lovely, Ozma, the constable said. You’re ripe as a peach. I’ve never wanted anything as much as I want just a drop of your blood, except there’s something in that room that I want even more. If you bring it to me, I’ll promise to be true to you. No one will ever have such a faithful lover.

“I don’t want a lover,” Ozma said. “I want to go home.”

She put the constable in the pocket of her nightgown and went down the dark stairs in her bare feet. Her mother was in the vestibule, where all the gods were waiting for dawn. The flame from the candle lit Zilla’s face and made her look beautiful and wicked and pitiless. “Hurry, Ozma. Show me the room.”

“It’s just along here,” Ozma said. It was as if they were back in Abal and nothing had changed. She felt like dancing.

“I don’t understand,” Zilla said. “How could it be here under my nose all this time and I couldn’t even see it?”

“See what?” Ozma said. “Look, here’s the room.” As before, there were ghosts underfoot, everywhere, even more than there had been before.

“Filthy things,” Zilla said. She sneezed. “Why won’t they leave me alone?” She didn’t seem to see the room at all.

Ozma took the candle from Zilla and held it up so that they could both see the entrance to the room. “Here,” she said. “Here, look. Here’s the room I was telling you about.”

Zilla was silent. Then she said, “It makes me feel ill. As if something terrible is calling my name over and over again. Perhaps it’s a god. Perhaps a god is telling me not to go in.”

“The room is full of gods!” Ozma said. “There are gods and gods and altars and relics and sacred stones, and you can’t go in there or else the floorboards will make so much noise that everyone in the house will wake up.”

Bring me the thing I need! shouted the constable. I will kill you all if you don’t bring me the thing I need!

“Ozma,” Zilla said. She sounded like the old Zilla again, queenly and sly; used to being obeyed. “Who is that in your pocket? Who thinks that he is mightier than I?”

“It’s only the constable of Abal,” Ozma said. She took the constable out of her pocket and held him behind her back.

Let me go, the constable said. Let me go or I will bite you. Go fetch me the thing that I need and I will let you live.

“Give him to me,” Zilla said.

“Will you keep him safe while I go in there?” Ozma said. “I know how to walk without making the floor sing. The ghosts won’t go in there, but I could go in. What am I looking for?”

“I don’t know,” Zilla said. “I don’t know, but you will know it when you see it. I promise. Bring me the thing that I’m looking for. Give me your ghost.”

Don’t give me to her, the constable said. I have a bad feeling about this. Besides, there’s something in that room that I need. You’ll be sorry if you help her and not me.

Zilla held out her hand. Ozma gave her the constable. “I’m sorry,” Ozma said to the constable. Then she went into the room.

§

She was instantly dizzy. It was worse than before. She concentrated on the light falling from the candle, and the wax that dripped down onto her hand. She put each foot down with care. The ropes from stolen temple bells slithered across her shoulders like dead snakes. The altars and tables were absolutely heaped with things, and all of it was undoubtedly valuable, and it was far too dark. How in the world did Zilla expect her to come out again with the exact thing that was needed? Perhaps Ozma should just carry out as much as she could. There was a little wax god on the table nearest her. She held up the hem of her nightgown like an apron and dropped the god inside. There was a book covered in gold leaf. She picked it up. Too heavy. She put it back down again. She picked up a smaller book. She put it in her nightgown.

There was a little mortar and pestle for grinding incense. They didn’t feel right. She put them down. Here was a table piled with boxes, and the boxes were full of eyes. Sapphire eyes and ruby eyes and pearls and onyx and emeralds. She didn’t like how they looked at her.

As she searched, she began to feel as if something was pulling at her. She realized that it had been pulling at her all this time, and that she had been doing her best to ignore it, without even noticing. She began to walk toward the thing pulling at her, but even this was hard. The pattern she had to walk was complicated. She seemed to be moving away from the thing she needed, the closer she tried to get. She put more things in the scoop of her nightgown: a bundle of sticks tied with strips of silk; a little bottle with something sloshing inside of it; a carving of a fish. The heavier her nightgown grew, the easier it became to make her way toward the thing that was calling her. Her candle was much shorter than it had been. She wondered how long she’d been in the room. Surely not very long.

The thing that had been calling her was a goddess. She felt strangely annoyed by this, especially when she saw which goddess it was. It was the same wolf–headed goddess, who stood in the vestibule. It seemed to be laughing wolfishly and silently at her, as if she, Ozma, was small and insignificant and silly. “I don’t even know your name,” Ozma said, feeling as if this proved something. The goddess said nothing.

There was a clay cup on the palm of the goddess’s hands. She held it as if she were offering a drink to Ozma, but the cup was empty. Ozma took it. It was old and ugly and fragile. Surely it was the least precious thing in the entire room.

As she made her way back toward the hall, she began to smell something that was both sweet and astringent, a fragrance nothing like Brid. Brid smelled of cobblestones and horses and soap and candles. This fragrance was more agreeable than anything she had ever known. It reminded her of the perfumed oils that the fashionable ladies of Abal wore, the way their coiled, jeweled hair smelled when the ladies bent down like saplings over her and told her what a lovely child she was, how lovely she was. A drowsy, pearly light was beginning to come through the high windows. It settled on the glossy curves of the hanging bells and the sitting bells, like water. The two halves of the stone altar and the tree that had split them were in front of her.

All the leaves of that strange, stubborn tree were moving, as if in a wind. She wondered if it was a god moving through the room, but the room felt hushed and still, as if she were utterly alone. Her head was clearer now. She bent down a branch and there was a fruit on it. It looked something like a plum. She picked it.

When she came out of the room, Zilla was pacing in the hallway. “You were in there for hours,” Zilla said. “Do you have it? Let me have it.”

The plum was in Ozma’s pocket and she didn’t take it out. She pulled the things from Lady Fralix’s room out of the gathered hem of her nightgown and put them on the floor. Zilla knelt down. “Not this,” she said, rifling through the book. “Not this either. This is nothing. This is less than nothing. A forgery. A cheap souvenir. Nothing. You’ve brought me trash and junk. A marble. A fish. A clay cup. What were you thinking, Ozma?”

“Where is the constable of Abal?” Ozma said. She picked up the clay cup and held it out to Zilla. “This is the thing you wanted, I know it is. You said I would know it. Give me the constable and I’ll give you the cup.”

“What have you got in your pocket?” Zilla said. “What are you keeping from me? What do I want with an old clay cup?”

“Tell me what you did with the constable,” Ozma said, still holding out the empty cup.

“She swept him out the door with all the other ghosts,” said Lady Fralix. She stood in the hallway, blinking and yawning. All her hair stood out from her head in tufts, like an owl. Her feet were bare, just like Ozma’s feet. They were long and bony.

“You did what?” Ozma said. Zilla made a gesture. Nothing, the gesture said. The constable was nothing. A bit of trash.

“You shouldn’t have left him with her,” Lady Fralix said. “You should have known better.”

“Give it to me,” Zilla said. “Give me the thing in your pocket, Ozma, and we’ll leave here. We’ll go home. We’ll be able to go home.”

A terrible wave of grief came down on Ozma. It threatened to sweep her away forever, like the ghost of the constable of Abal.

“You killed him. You murdered him! You’re a murderer and I hate you!” she said.

There was something in her hand and she flung it at Zilla as hard as she could. Zilla caught the cup easily. She dashed it at the floor, and it broke into dozens of pieces. The nothingness that had been in the cup spilled out and splashed up over Zilla’s legs and skirts. The empty cup had not been empty after all, or, rather it had been full of emptiness. There seemed to be a great deal of it.

Ozma put her hands over her face. She couldn’t bear to see the look of contempt on her mother’s face.

“Oh, look!” Lady Fralix said. “Look what you’ve done, Ozma,” she said again, gently. “Look how beautiful she is.”

Ozma peeked through her fingers. Zilla’s hair was loose around her shoulders. She was so beautiful that it was hard to look at her directly. She still wore her gray housekeeper’s uniform, but the dress shone like cloth of silver where the emptiness, the nothing, had soaked it. “Oh,” Zilla said. And “oh” again.

Ozma’s hands curled into fists. She stared at the floor. She was thinking of the constable. How he had promised to love her faithfully and forever. She saw him again, as he was dying in Zilla’s parlor in Abal. How surprised he had looked. How his ghost had clung to Zilla’s ribbon so he would not be swept away.

“Ozma,” Zilla said. “Ozma, look at me.” She sneezed and then sneezed again. “I have not been myself, but I am myself again. You did this, Ozma. You brought me the thing that I needed, Ozma, I have been asleep for all this time, and you have woken me! Ozma!” Her voice was bright and joyful.

Ozma did not look up. She began to cry instead. The hallway was as bright as if someone had lit a thousand candles, all burning with a cool and silver light. “Little Princess Monkey,” Zilla said. “Ozma. Look at me, daughter.”

Ozma would not. She felt Zilla’s cool hand on her burning cheek. Someone sighed. There was a sound like a bell ringing, very far away. The cool silver light went out.

Lady Fralix said, “She’s gone, you stubborn girl. And a good thing, too. I think the house might have come down on us if she’d stayed any longer.”

“What? Where has she gone? Why didn’t she take me with her?” Ozma said. “What did I do to her?” She wiped at her eyes.

Where Zilla had stood, there was only the broken clay cup. Lady Fralix bent over and picked up the pieces as if they were precious. She wrapped them in a handkerchief and put them in one of her pockets. Then she held out her hand to Ozma and helped her stand up.

“She’s gone home,” Lady Fralix said. “She’s remembered who she is.”

“Who was she? What do you mean, ‘who she is?’ Why doesn’t anyone ever explain anything to me?” Ozma said. She felt thick with rage and unhappiness and something like dread. “Am I too stupid to understand? Am I a stupid child?”

“Your mother is a goddess,” Lady Fralix said. “I knew it as soon as she applied to be my housekeeper. I’ve had to put up with a great deal of tidying and dusting and mopping and spring–cleaning, and I must say I’m glad to be done with it all. There’s something that tests the nerves, knowing that there’s a goddess beating your rugs and cooking your dinner and burning your dresses with an iron.”

“Zilla isn’t a goddess,” Ozma said. She felt like throwing more things. Like stamping her foot until the floor gave way and the house fell down. “She’s my mother.”

“Yes,” Lady Fralix said. “Your mother is a goddess.”

“My mother is a liar and a thief and a murderer,” Ozma said.

“Yes,” Lady Fralix said. “She was all of those things and worse. Gods don’t make very good people. They get bored too easily. And they’re cruel when they’re bored. The worse she behaved, the more she forgot herself. To think of a god of the dead scheming like a common quack and charlatan, leading ghosts around on strings, blackmailing silly rich women, teaching her daughter how to pick locks and cheat at cards.”

“Zilla is a god of the dead?” Ozma said. She was shivering. The floor was cold. The morning air was colder, somehow, than the night had seemed. “That’s ridiculous. Just because we can see ghosts. You can see ghosts, too, and I can see ghosts. It doesn’t mean anything. Zilla doesn’t even like ghosts. She was never kind to them, even when we were in Abal.”

“Of course she didn’t like them,” Lady Fralix said. “They reminded her of what she ought to be doing, except she couldn’t remember what to do.” She chafed Ozma’s arms. “You’re freezing, child. Let me get you a blanket and some slippers.”

“I’m not a child,” Ozma said.

“No,” Lady Fralix said. “I see you’re a young woman now. Very sensible. Here. Look what I have for you.” She took something out of her pocket.

It was the constable. He said, Did you bring me what I need?

Ozma looked at Lady Fralix. “The fruit you picked from the tree,” Lady Fralix said. “I see it ripened for you, not for me. Well, that means something. If you gave it to me, I would eat it. But I suppose you ought to give it to him.”

“What does the fruit do?” Ozma said.

“It would make me young again,” Lady Fralix said. “I would enjoy that, I think. It gives back life. I don’t know that it would do much for one of the other ghosts, but your ghost is really only half a ghost. Yes, I think you ought to give it to him.”

“Why?” Ozma said. “What will happen?”

“You’ve been giving him your blood to drink,” Lady Fralix said. “Powerful stuff, your blood. The blood of a goddess runs in your veins. That’s what makes your constable so charming, so unusual. So lively. You’ve kept him from drifting any further away from life. Give him the fruit.”

Give me what I need, the constable said. Just one bite. Just one taste of that delicious thing.

Ozma took the ghost of the constable from Lady Fralix. She untied him from Zilla’s ribbon. She gave him the fruit from the tree and then she set him down on the floor.

“Oh yes,” Lady Fralix said wistfully. They watched the constable eat the fruit. Juice ran down his chin. “I was so looking forward to trying that fruit. I hope your constable appreciates it.”

He did. He ate the fruit as if he were starving. Color came back into his face. He was taller than either Ozma or Lady Fralix and perhaps he wasn’t as handsome as he had been when he was a ghost. But otherwise, he was still the same constable whom Ozma had carried around in her pocket for months. He put his hand to his neck, as if he were remembering his death. And then he put his hand down again. It was strange, Ozma thought, that death could be undone so easily. As if death was only a cheat, another one of Zilla’s tricks.

“Ozma,” the constable said.

Ozma blushed. Her nightgown seemed very thin, and she wondered if he could see through it. She crossed her arms over her breasts. It was odd to have breasts again. “What is your name?” she said.

“Cotter Lemp,” said the constable. He looked amused, as if it were funny to think that Ozma had never known his name. “So this is Brid.”

“This is the house of Lady Fralix,” Ozma said. The constable bowed to Lady Fralix, and Lady Fralix made a curtsey. But the constable kept his eyes on Ozma all the time, as if she were a felon, a known criminal who might suddenly bolt. Or as if she were something rare and precious that might suddenly vanish into thin air. Ozma thought of Zilla.

“I have no home,” Ozma said. She didn’t even know she had said it aloud.

“Ozma, child,” Lady Fralix said. “This is your home now.”

“But I don’t like Brid,” Ozma said.

“Then we’ll travel,” Lady Fralix said. “But Brid is our home. We will always come back to Brid. Everyone needs a home, Ozma, even you.”

Cotter Lemp said, “We can go wherever you like, Ozma. If you find Brid too respectable, there are other towns.”

“Will I see her again?” Ozma said.

And so, while the sun was rising over the roofs of the houses of the city of Brid, before Jemma had even come downstairs to stoke the kitchen stove and fetch the water to make her morning tea, Lady Fralix and the constable Cotter Lemp went with Ozma to the temple to see her mother.

Originally published in The Coyote Road, eds. Ellen Datlow & Terri Windling, 2007


More from Kelly Link:

Kelly LinkKelly Link’s debut collection, Stranger Things Happen, was a Firecracker nominee, a Village Voice Favorite Book and a Salon Book of the Year — Salon called the collection “…an alchemical mixture of Borges, Raymond Chandler, and “Buffy the Vampire Slayer.” Stories from the collection have won the Nebula, the James Tiptree Jr., and the World Fantasy Awards.

 

Her second collection,Magic for Beginners, was published in July 2005. It was Book Sense pick (and a Best of Book Sense 2005 pick); and selected for best of the year lists by Time Magazine, Salon, Boldtype, Village Voice, San Francisco Chronicle, and The Capitol Times. It will be published in paperback in September 2005 by Harcourt.

 

Kelly has taught or visited at a number of schools and workshops including Bard College, Annandale–on–Hudson, NY, Brookdale Community College, Brookdale, NJ, Lenoir–Rhyne College, Hickory, NC, the Imagination Workshop at Cleveland State University, New England Institute of Art & Communications, Brookline, MA, Clarion East at Michigan State University, Clarion West in Seattle, WA, and Clarion South in Brisbane, Australia.

 

She is an editor for the Online Writing Workshop and has been a reader and judge for various literary awards.

 

With Gavin J. Grant and Ellen Datlow she edits The Year’s Best Fantasy & Horror (St. Martin’s Press). She is also the editor of the anthology, Trampoline.

2 Comments

  1. This story was fantastic! I’ve only just begun my journey into the world of literature and this was the very first story I’ve read from ANY literary magazine. Ozma and her mother are surprisingly dynamic characters, given the short span of time they had to develop, and the overall premise of ghost-collecting witches I found to be refreshingly original. I’m so glad a I stumbled across this story. What a way to begin my adventure.

    • Oh wow, your first?! That’s not fair to yourself, as Kelly Link is literally one of the top 5 short fiction writers of our time.

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