After I spoke to the tablecloth, its edges unraveled and slid through the arm of Aakash the Undying, neatly stitching up the flaps of his recently purloined skin.
“That fucking hurts,” he said. “Can’t you make it not hurt?”
The serving boy had startled at the oath, but I made a tamping motion with my hands. The staff had become so jumpy since the hunt began. They’d all known her, I suppose, the cook’s daughter, whatever her name had been. The boy came forward, poured more arrack, then the third member of our party joined. Rina was incorporeal, nothing more than a thinly shimmering patch of air, until I tossed her a handful of ribbons, which she threw into the air, buffeting them from one hand to the other like a cat.
“You’re headed east?” I said.
The cook’s daughter was on a horse with ten thousand legs. East was her obvious destination. She’d fare well in the hills, much better than even the hunters, who sat astride the tall-goats. But if that was where she’d gone, Rina would fly to her, faster than anything on land could possibly go, and the girl would be dead by morning.
The ribbons spun faster and faster.
“We’ve no secrets from each other,” I said. “There’s no need to be so oblique.”
“But what if I enjoy being oblique?” Rina said. “Is that something you’ve considered?”
I held my glass up to the sunlight. Watched the light shimmer through the wine. The boy, jumping, went to draw the curtains, but I shouted at him to stop, then told him to go and check on the fucking food.
The gardens were so green. Not the color of emeralds. They were brighter than that, and more distinct, but shot through with a pale yellow that made each blade stand out. The cook’s daughter had lived in that collection of huts. She’d worked in the kitchens, over in that golden building with the paper walls. She must’ve walked across these lawns every day. Not a bad life, all things considered. But she must’ve thought otherwise.
“What would it take?” I said. “For you to let the girl escape?”
Aakash slammed his hand on the table. “You always do this, Thread,” he said. “Every single goddamn time.”
The ribbons plaited themselves into long braids.
“You know it,” Aakash said. “You know it, Rina. And what does he say next?”
“‘Not much of a life’,” she said.
I said nothing, but I didn’t think this was a true accusation at all. Sometimes the crimes were egregious: murder and torture. In these cases I ripped up the would-be magicians with no compunctions. But other times...
“Not much of a life,” I said. “The daughter of a cook.”
“A moment ago, you thought exactly the opposite,” Rina said.
“Well, indulge me,” I said. “And let me say—it’s not much of a life, being the daughter of a cook. Seeing people eat and drink things you’ll never get. Watching them laugh and dance all day instead of work. Hearing all the shit your father must take just to survive. Not much of a life. No dignity in it.”
“Agreed,” Rina said.
I smiled. Then I looked at Aakash. The sun was down a little bit. Off in the distance I heard the hoot of a bird, then the snap of wings. But I saw nothing. The peacocks and peahens must be hiding in that stand of trees, the only trees for miles
“You want me to argue?” he said. “Well I won’t. You forget where I came from.”
“Then we’re agreed. If we’d been born in her position, in this place, we’d have done the same—stolen whatever book she stole, summoned whatever demon, made whatever bargain. So why should we—”
Aakash slapped the table. “Okay, let’s do it. You’ve convinced me.”
I stuttered. “Wh—what?”
“I’m gonna go on down to that barracks and set it afire.”
“Don’t joke,” I said. “This is a matter of life and death.”
“And I’m serious. My mind is half-rotted, didn’t you hear? I’m full of sorrow now for poor little girls.”
The tangle of ribbons tumbled down into the seat and lay still.
“Well?” I said.
“He’s serious,” Rina said.
Aakash grinned. “You see?”
We sat there, and fear sprouted in my stomach. It was an insane thing. How could Aakash... he really wanted to fight all the Mansadar’s men?
“You’re a coward, Thread,” Rina said. She said it with a laugh, and the word didn’t offend me. I’d been called a coward many times, when I was growing up. A coward and a woman and a weakling.
The palace was built on a nodal point, as most palaces were, and I sucked its energy up into my stomach.
“Sit down,” I said. “If we do it, we’ll do it in the middle of the night.”
Aakash smiled at me. His teeth were very white but misshapen. He’d collected them from half a hundred dead men. And women too, I presumed. And the effect was not unpretty. It was startling, the teeth he’d found. You’ve never seen such white. His face, too, frequently changed. That was one body part that he didn’t suffer to wear out.
“You’re lying to me,” I said. I laughed and looked at Rina. “You’re both lying. You won’t do anything.”
The boy appeared then, with half a dozen other servants in his wake. They brought vegetables fried with spices, and a rack of strange doves whose bones were so soft that they could be chewed up and swallowed, and fruit that was something like a grape except twice as big and golden and with a bitterness to go with the sweet. That and ten or twenty more things.
In their presence, we relaxed. Rina became more and more visible, and I remembered how young she was: her face was unlined and her hair still mostly black. She wore, as always, a silver sari whose trailing end disappeared into the aether.
I asked about her children, and she gave me a sad look. They were all still in the other world, she said, waiting until she found a safe place for them. I wondered, privately, if she was really looking. It was my opinion—had long been my opinion—that she didn’t care a whit for these children of hers, and that her search would never end, because it had never begun.
She narrowed her eyes, and I knew then that she’d read the thought, but I didn’t care. These two were engaged in some strange game, trying to spit me on my words and roast me alive, but I wouldn’t let them.
“Nice place,” Aakash said, as the servants cleared one course and laid out another. “Good cook.”
I looked down at my plate, and I wondered then if the cook who’d made this food was the father of our fugitive. Surely not. They must have other cooks in this province.
“What was her name?” Rina said suddenly. “The cook’s daughter.”
I scratched my head. They’d told me in the beginning, long before giving me the other details. The Mansadar had shouted it several times. I believe it started with a T.
“Tara?” I said.
“Something like that,” Aakash said.
One of the boys glanced up. He knew. But I didn’t ask him. I was suddenly weary of this place. Of this girl, with her silly ambitions. Of the night itself, which had brought a cloud of moths to launch themselves ceaselessly against the muslin screen that the servants had lowered around the pavilion.
When finally we were alone again, I said, “If you’re serious about helping her, then why the change of heart?”
“You convinced me,” Aakash said.
“I never said my heart was any different,” Rina said.
All these years I’d known him. No matter how far you travel, you see the same people. We criss-cross the globe, but we do it along the same trade routes and find ourselves in the same great cities. And he’d never been one of my favorites. He always seemed too fully inhuman. He was so exactly the reason why people hated people like the three of us. Aakash cared for nothing more than perpetuating his own life.
“Thread doesn’t like you,” Rina said. “Thinks you’re selfish.”
Aakash laughed. “I’m not the type to care about that.”
Rina turned to me. “Aakash’s feelings about you are more complex. He is, in all, a larger person than you give him credit for being. He wants... I think he wants you to be better than you are.”
The crack of bones and the slap of flesh against wood. Aakash was expanding, sloughing off his skin. This was not something he did lightly. With his skin, Aakash is merely an unpleasant sight. Without it, he’s terrifying.
“Don’t need all that,” he said. “Considering all the dead bodies we’re about to make.”
His eyes flickered, and his many mouths snapped open and shut, and I experienced in that moment a sense of terror. I was not made for a life of violence. I was a boy who’d read a book. That was all I’d done. I never wanted to fight monsters or hunt runaways. I’d simply wanted to be free to read books and drink fine wines and have high-sounding discussions over dinner.
“Sit down,” I said. “Sit down. They won’t yet be asleep.”
“You’re afraid,” he said. “Don’t need Rina to tell me that.”
I gulped. The moths made a noise as they beat against the cloth screen, and my heart made that self-same noise as it beat against my chest. I was so damned human. Usually I was proud of my humanity, but not at this moment.
“You haven’t mentioned that girl again,” Aakash said. “That poor girl we’re gonna kill. Or not. Mostly not, right? Certainly not after we’ve cut down every able-bodied man in this palace.”
I didn’t know what to say. I was an insect laid out on a table, waiting for the collector’s pin to pierce its wings and affix it there forevermore.
“Maybe I’m gonna fuck that girl,” Aakash said. “Maybe I’ll steal a penis off one of these guards, and I’ll go to her and she’ll be so grateful for what I’ve done that she’ll let me fuck her. What about that? How’s that for a reason?”
I glanced at Rina.
“She’s not gonna tell you anything I don’t want her to tell you,” he said. “Because she’s scared of me. And she’s right to be scared. I’m not like you, Thread. Not like her either. I’m like nobody in this world. I’m too alive.” He closed his eyes, and all of his many mouths let out a single sigh.
“And my opinion doesn’t matter?” Rina said.
Aakash didn’t open his eyes, and I didn’t turn away from him. His whole body dripped yellow ichor.
He waved his fingers. “I love you to pieces, Reeny,” he said. “So go on. Fill up my ears.”
“I say we do our job,” she said. “I say we roam high into the hills and find this girl, and I will stop her heart and you, Thread, will suck her brains out through her eyes, and Aakash can for a time wear her face, and the rest of her we will eat.”
“You eat them?” Aakash said.
“Not for sustenance,” Rina said. “But simply because I can. I find pleasure in it. When they’re young. When they’re beautiful. It pleases me, and I know why it does, but I think you will not find this interesting. Let us instead say we will do with it what we wish, and then we will come back here and a revel will be held in our honor, and instead of going in three separate directions, we will bind a cord round our wrists and pull it tight until it disappears and then forevermore we shall be linked.”
Aakash blew air through his many teeth. The noise was not unpleasing. It was like the whistling of wind through a barely open shutter.
“You’re a dreamer,” he said. “Us three?”
“And why not?” she said.
She’d risen up, floating above our table, and for the first time I saw the tiny bright children swirling beneath her cloak.
I did not need to be a mind-reader to see that all three of us were immured within our pasts. The cook’s daughter would be as well, if she lived. I wondered what she’d be like. Maybe she’d hate taking orders. Maybe she’d kill anyone who tried to hire her. I’ve known a few magicians like that.
But perhaps it wouldn’t be that simple. Maybe she’d be good and nice and well-behaved until something simple, perhaps only a word—a word like ‘coward’—set her off. Or something else. I didn’t know. Aakash, lying back in his seat. He was so—
“Watch out!” Rina screeched, but it was too late. I acted without thinking. The threads in his arm snapped tight, and chunks of flesh fell away. Then they wriggled through his body, moving faster than any worm, and inside of a second, the life had gone out of him.
I turned to Rina, and the thought I should kill her too must’ve flashed so quickly through my mind because she blasted outward, but the ribbons—those little ribbons. They lashed around her limbs and pulled her apart.
With a few more words, their bodies vanished in the wind. I lay back in my seat, exhausted, and when the next course came, I told the confused servants to bring it all, as quickly as they could. I set myself to eating, and when morning came I was covered in grease and spice and flecks of sauce.
I didn’t bathe. The Mansadar’s men held their noses as I came close, and their horses reared away. We ventured far up into the hills, traveling for many weeks, until our rations got low. I went out, hunting, bringing back game, leading them further and further away, making them more and more dependent on me. And then suddenly I was gone. I’m told a few of them would’ve made it home, if they hadn’t unfortunately encountered the girl and her horse with ten thousand legs.
For years, I searched for her on the byways. I imagined telling her that I was the one who’d saved her. But then one day I was in some far-off court, down in some land where they wear feathers instead of cloth, and as I knelt in front of some strange king, I looked to the side at a new arrival, and I knew instantly it was her.
We were domiciled in a distant pyramid, right at the edge of the city, and after a captive was slaughtered and his blood drained into a cauldron, we were left alone to eat. Her cloak was slightly frayed, and, with her permission, I pulled a few golden threads from the ground and mended the collar for her. She was thankful but remained mostly quiet, answering my questions with only a few words. Vermilion was her name now, but I knew her for what she was: Tara, I think. Or perhaps Tila. Something short. I stared at her. She was no youth anymore. She must’ve consumed the horse long ago, because I saw it, those ten thousand legs, moving just beneath her skin.
After a few minutes, she said, “Why are you staring at me?”
The stone blocks beneath us were rusty with old blood, and the noises of the people down below were muted beneath the sound of the wind. The legs pushed out from the sides of her shoulders, forming bulges that stretched and twisted her aged flesh.
“It’s not much of a life,” I said.
“Are you one of the gnomic ones?” she said. “I hate how we can become so gnomic.”
“No,” I said. “I try not to be. I was just remembering—”
“That’s what always infuriated me when I was young. Serving all these learned magicians as they talked their nonsense to each other. Speak clearly, I wanted to scream at them to just speak clearly.”
The legs pushed and pushed against the confines of her body.
“Well?” she said. “What’d you have to say to me?”
I could see now the madness in her eyes, and I’m sure I too shone with the same desperation as I struggled to weave a pattern with my words. I wanted so much to be clear. “A long time ago,” I said. “When I was a boy, I found a skein of golden thread, and instead of giving it over to my—”
“Do you think I have time for this? Always wasting my time... all of you... just the waste...” The legs had sprouted now from her torso, popping through the flesh. “Well? Speak up. I’m telling you to speak. Or are you too frightened?”
My mouth opened, but no words emerged. She stood now on her ten thousand legs, and her head was so far above me that I could only see her chin. But she still wore the cloak I’d mended, and as she turned away from me, its golden threads unspooled and tightened around her neck.