Seven years ago, Matthew Magus lost everything to Faerie: his honor, his family, his power, and the use of his good right hand. Now Faerie needs his help, and its continued survival rests on what Matthew decides.
When I was working with Jim Butcher's agent on the paperwork for Working for Bigfoot, I asked her if any of her other clients had books that might be appropriate. She suggested Elizabeth Bear, and Whiskey and Water, part of her Promethean Age series, which was not available elsewhere, and it fit the bill. Elizabeth got a new cover painting done just for the bundle, and it's a great addition. – Kevin J. Anderson
"Addressing such wide-ranging topics as absolution, kindness and cruelty, Bear mixes classic and modern supernatural archetypes to craft a beautiful tale."–Publishers Weekly
"…fascinating, occasionally infuriating, never-dull…"–Booklist
Once upon a time in New York City, there lived a Mage with a crippled right hand. Once he wore ten iron rings upon his fingers. Once he had a brother. Once he had a calling. Twice, he touched a unicorn.
Once upon a time.
Streetlights might burn out in Matthew Szczegielniak's presence, or dim and flutter dark for as long as it took him to pass. Car alarms and stereos might deploy unexpectedly, computers crash, neon signs flicker messages they were never meant to spell.
He knew they were trying to say something, to play the oracle. But he understood only a fragment of what they told: that a powerful shadow hung over him, that a powerful shadow lay cupped in the scarred hollow of his claw-hooked hand. Beyond that, the signs were too wild for him to read as he would have, once. Or to control.
It was a frustration so intense that the only response he could manage was to kick it away, kick it aside, and carry on as if nothing was wrong. You could learn to run on an amputated limb. If you were stubborn enough. Adaptable enough. And didn't mind a little pain.
He wasn't mad, Matthew Szczegielniak. He had been lucky to venture into Faerie and return sane—more or less—and lacking only his good right hand. He taught his classes at Hunter College—British Literature (one section general, one section Elizabethan Drama, one section Elizabethan Drama and Poetry Other Than Shakespeare)—and he stayed away from the students' laptops, and he practiced until the chalk and dry-erase scrawls he wrought with his left hand formed words.
Matthew kept a magnetized iron knife in his left front pocket and he wore a ring carved of rowan wood on his right thumb. Ink in dark unsettling labyrinths marked his back and arms, and his nape under the clean blond ponytail. He wore steel-rimmed spectacles that twinkled compassionately when he tilted his head. He lived alone in a half-remodeled apartment; someone else paid his bills.
The someone's name was Jane Andraste. She was the former lieutenant governor of New York, and the only other Mage Matthew knew of, anymore. All the rest were dead, and whether that was Matthew's fault or Jane's, Matthew did not take her calls.
He ran in Central Park like a wild thing and lifted iron weights as he always had—although it took some cleverness to lash them into his right hand—but he no longer wore the iron rings on his fingers and in his ear that once had drawn him to oppose anything Fae that set foot on Manhattan. Iron and copper and bronze were anathema to Faerie. Matthew would not permit himself to be enslaved to his tools again.
Once upon a time, he bad permitted. It had cost him his duty, his honor, his brother, his heart's blood, half his soul, control of his magic, and whatever faith he'd managed to preserve through thirty-odd years of service. It had cost him the use of his good right hand.
Once upon a time.
* * *
Somewhere in Hell, a poet was packing his bags. He wasn't particularly circumspect about it; the master of the house would know of his actions, as Lucifer tended to know what concerned him, and so the poet rehearsed arguments as he folded shirts and found his rapier and a notebook. He didn't expect to be permitted to leave without some sort of confrontation.
All the same, he packed only what he'd need for a day or two. He could send for the rest, once—if—he got settled somewhere. And if the Devil proved recalcitrant, well. It wouldn't be the first time the poet had lost everything.
Things were only that.
He was pulling the drawstrings of his rucksack taut when a rustle of feathers by the door caught his attention, as it was meant to. He swung the bag onto the neatly made bed and turned, flipping his layered patchwork cloak over his shoulders in a practiced gesture. He crossed his arms over his chest and set his heels, and said, quietly, "Morningstar."
Lucifer's beauty was not the sort to which one could grow accustomed. It was composed of small imperfections—the long nose, the too-lush mouth—that amounted to a breathtaking gestalt, so every shift of expression revealed some new facet of the Devil's charm.
He framed himself in the poet's bedroom doorway as if standing for a portrait. His wheat-colored hair dragged in disorder over the black velvet shoulders of his jacket, and even in the dim light of the gas lamps his eyes were sharply blue. His white wings rustled as he folded them against his back to step into the room, and rustled further when he let them fan wide. :I wondered when thou wouldst make thy mind up to go.:
"I made my mind up some time ago," the poet said. "I've no reason to stay, with Murchaud gone." :Thy old Devil beguiles thee not, Kitten?:
The poet's smile felt tight across his teeth as he chose not to answer the question. "You know I hate that nickname."
:Then perhaps thou shouldst have kept thine own name. What wouldst barter me, to have it back?: The poet picked up his bag and slung it over one shoulder, and stepped wide around the Devil on his way to the door.
He was almost there when the flagstones shuddered under his feet, in time with an enormous hollow thumping. He sidestepped, almost tripping, and Lucifer steadied him with an outstretched wing. "Were you expecting a visitor?"
:I know that knock,: Lucifer answered. He swept the poet forward with the leading edge of his wing, and followed him through the door.
The poet's footfalls were hushed on long silk carpets, but the vast emptiness of Hell's corridors gave the sense that they should echo. The poet shivered, gathering his cloak tighter in his left hand, tugging it over the rapier he wore on that hip. You could feel the loneliness here, the constant awareness of exile. It had the weight of oppression: whatever was in Hell was forgotten, shunned by the larger world.
"What would bring him here?" the poet asked, as much to fill up the silence as because he cared to know.
Lucifer's shrug lifted his wings. He gestured with one long hand as if brushing a curtain aside. :Perhaps he's come to see thee off. Or to invite me to a ball. It is All Hallow's Eve—:
Someone stepped into the corridor before them: a big man, bearded, his red hair twisted into a club at the nape of his neck. The freckles across the bridge of his nose made a striking discontinuity with his glower. "There's a Devil on your doorstep," he said.
:Thank you, Keith,: Lucifer said. :I had noticed. You will accompany me to greet him.:
Keith MacNeill, the Dragon Prince—and so in a metaphysical manner the heir to Arthur Pendragon and Vlad Dracula—shook his head. "You can hold me captive by my oath, but I won't be compelled to fight your wars, Morningstar."
Lucifer smiled through his curls. :Shall it come to fisticuffs?:
"You're on your own if it does."
The poet chuckled, but Lucifer took no notice. Instead, he strode into the lead, leaving Keith and the poet to spin in his wake, hurrying to keep pace.
The great doors to Lucifer's palace stood open and unguarded, and beyond them, in the courtyard, waited Satan. Another poet's Devil, that one, a batwinged horror with his upswept horns and smoke rising in coils from wings that radiated sooty heat like fire-charred stone. Lucifer stopped the poet and the Dragon Prince in the doorway with a sweep of his hand, and stepped outside to meet his brother.
The poet folded his arms again and leaned against the doorframe to watch. Beside him, Keith stood squarely, frowning, shoulders tense. They didn't spare each other a word, but Keith did offer the poet's rucksack a raised eyebrow. The poet answered with a shrug.
In the courtyard, the devils circled like tomcats. The poet could imagine their mantling wings—Satan's stone-black and membranous, Lucifer's shining white under the sunless sky—transformed to lashing tails and flattened ears.
:Satan,: Lucifer said, with all his exquisite mocking politeness intact. You haven't the look of one who comes seeking society.:
"I heard a rumor," Satan answered. His voice sifted dust from the stones, and the poet flinched from it, covering his ears with his hands. Keith winced, but held his ground. "I came to find the truth in it." :You presume I know of which rumor you speak.:
Satan paused. He held out one black, knobby fist, the talon on his thumb projecting between his fingers. He loosed them, and a wad of paper slipped free, smoking slightly from his touch.
With a swift, careless gesture, Lucifer swept it up in the curve of a wing and flicked it into his own hand. He uncrumpled it, the paper weighty and soft, and smoothed it between his fingers. After studying whatever was written there for a moment, he looked up, tilting his head back to meet the other Devil's sullen stare. Satan seemed a monolith beside him, though Lucifer was both well-made and tall. : It is a letter by my hand, requesting conversation with Him who exiled us. What of it?:
"Morningstar," Satan said, his voice low and reasonable, "see you who stands in yonder doorway, watching you? You have a Dragon Prince, my brother. You hold in your hand a weapon even God must respect. But wield it, and all the devils in all the Hells will stand beside you."
Lucifer turned and looked, as if Satan's words could indeed come as a revelation to him. Kit knew him well enough to read irony, however, and even Satan could not have missed it when Lucifer turned back with an elaborate shrug.
Satan curled a lip off his fanged teeth and snarled, "Do you expect the rest of us to bear idle witness while you crawl to Him,begging forgiveness? I will not have it."
Lucifer tossed the slip of paper over his shoulder. An unseen servant, swift and mindless as a gust of wind, swept it aside to be disposed of. The Morningstar tilted his head and smiled. :Darling,: he murmured, :that is but a request for an audience. Do I seem to you the sort that crawls?:
For a moment, the poet thought Lucifer might actually get away with it. And then Satan moved, his right arm straightening on a swinging blow that caught the other angel across the stomach. Lucifer doubled around the blow. The second one smashed him to his knees, while the stones of the courtyard groaned under Satan's moving weight.
So fast. The poet realized that he had started forward only when Keith's hand locked on his right biceps and dragged him back into the door arch. "That's not your fight," Keith said, but the poet noticed that Keith's other hand had dropped to the pommel of his sword.
Keith asked, reluctantly, "Will they kill each other?" He wasn't over-fond of the poet, or vice versa.
"No more than Fae are likely to, outside a field of war or honorable combat," the poet muttered in reply. "If Michael would not strike them down, but only hurl them from Heaven, they'll not destroy each other so easily. There are"—he grimaced—"forms for these things."
The pause was brief, and then both men winced when Satan kicked Lucifer, a swinging blow that sent him sprawling on the courtyard flags. He strode after, the earth groaning under his feet, and caught Lucifer a sweeping kick under the ribs that lifted the fallen angel into the air.
"Exile's a possibility, though," the poet continued. "Or imprisonment. And seizure of chattels."
"Meaning you," the poet said. "I'm a free man."
"Hah," Keith answered. "You think he'd care about that?"
Both re-covered their ears as Satan raised his stinging voice again. "That seems a creditable approximation of crawling to me." Lucifer pushed himself to his knees, his wings sagging on either side of his shoulders, his velvet jacket torn at the elbow. Satan stepped forward, foot swinging—
Lucifer got one foot under him, knee bent as if making obeisance, and the poet flinched. But then Lucifer rocked aside, dodging the kick, and rose to his feet with a bar of light flickering in his left hand like a tongue of flame. He extended his arm en garde.
:So draw your sword.:
Satan folded his arms over his stony chest. "You won't meet me with fists, Morningstar?"
Lucifer smiled. Right-handed, he wiped blood from the corner of his mouth, and flicked it sizzling on the stones. :It's easy to forget that I stood against Michael too, isn't it, brother mine?:
"Stood," Satan said. "And fell."
:A flaw we both endure. Come. I'll show you the door.:
"Don't bother," the poet said, stepping forward, his cloak swirling heavily against his calves. "I'm headed that way myself. I'll see the Devil out."
* * *
The year Matthew Magus turned forty, Halloween fell on a Sunday. He'd canceled his classes for Monday and Tuesday, and now he stood before an antique silver-backed mirror in a wrought-iron frame and made ready for a duly more sacred than teaching. First he bound his bobbed hair into a stubby ponytail, the end twisted with copper wire. Once, he would have worn a camouflage jacket, buttons buttoned and zippers zipped. But he had no intention of blending into this night, even if he still could; sympathetic camouflage did not suit his purpose now.
Instead he wore a patchwork tailcoat, red velvet and copper brocade sewn with bugle beads, fringes, droplets of amber, silver and steel bells and chips of mirror, a phoenix embroidered on the left lapel and a unicorn on the right. Matthew wouldn't wear a shirt under the talisman on Hallow's Eve, so the skin from his collarbone to his belt shone bare, revealing the black edges of the spells etched into his skin. The coat smelled of nag champa and dragonsblood incense; he kept it with his aromatics so the odor wouldn't fade.
The owner of the vintage shop he'd bought it from—without haggling, as was right for a ritual tool—had claimed it had belonged to Jim Morrison. This was a lie. Joey Ramone had tried it on once but hadn't bought it, but the real magic of the coat lay in salvaged fabric and beads: a skirt panel from the original Broadway production of Kiss Me Kate; a harness bell from Andrew Carnegie's carriage horses; a fragment of a busted bathroom mirror from The Bitter End; enough baubles to buy Manhattan twice over (purple and white wampum sawn from the shells of quahog clams, a handful of love beads thrown away by Robert Crumb, a tourist's charm shaped like the Empire State Building which somebody had given to Gregory Corso, once); a steel jingle made from a valve cover off Peter Beagle's motor scooter; a horseshoe nail lost when the nag bolted in the Five Corners; a penny John Coltrane picked off the floor of Birdland—heads—and ran through a press at Coney Island in 1963…
Matthew brushed the gold fringe on the epaulets until it fell properly. He double-knotted his steel-toed boots and stared at the man in the mirror one more time: a little more gray in the hair, a few more lines beside the eyes, the ink in his tattoos starting to fade and blur a little, here and there.
His jeans had a steel zipper and copper rivets. He wore a black leather glove on his clawed right hand. The healed scar where a unicorn's horn had pierced his heart shone white and crescent-shaped among the black lines on his skin.
He slapped his hands together, the strong one and the shattered one, and let himself out through dead bolts, chains, and the police lock to see what Hallow's Eve would bring.
Sunset gave the illusion of warmth to a city whose nights were already chilling into winter. New York had never been one of those cities where Halloween became a ritual, a citywide block party and an excuse to riot all rolled into one. San Francisco claimed Halloween; New York's saint's day was New Year's Eve.
But Halloween was Halloween, and New York also wasn't a city that missed an excuse to throw a party. Or a parade. So Matthew armed and armored himself, and went out like Gawain—or perhaps like Don Quixote—to defend the innocent. Or the best approximation he could find, in New York City.
He walked south through the Upper West Side under the watchful eyes of gargoyles: leering faces and twisted animals bent in manners foreign to their anatomy. A green man watched him pass; a beaked creature something like a wingless hippogriff twisted in its skin of stone to follow him with a weathered granite regard. In the bright eyes of buildings only sleepily alert to the mayfly existences of their creators, Manhattan's last Mage burned with iridescence, a dragonfly catching sunlight through lazy summer air.
His city knew him still.
Matthew headed for Greenwich Village. The noise of the city followed like a lover's whispers. He jingled with every step. The Fae were in the city tonight, this night of all nights, though they usually gave New York the respect due a graveyard.
Matthew couldn't keep them out, not alone, and he was too tired to try.
He couldn't keep them out. But he could try to make sure they stayed out of trouble. And they knew his name, both the Daoine Sidhe and the Unseelie, even if the residents of his city did not. They remembered a bridge of iron and Matthew's own heart's blood that had carried a war into Faerie.
New York remembered a woman on a white horse and a dragon with black iron wings that had carried that same war back to the heart of the city. And Matthew preferred it that way. He could walk through New York unheralded, the new gray streaks twisted into the blond of his hair, wearing the city's essence like a hermit crab's home on his back, and play its warden in the dark, with no one but the gargoyles the wiser. It was a lonely existence.
But it would serve.
The buzz of his cell phone pulled him from his reverie, but when he read the display, he saw the name Jane Andraste. His right hand ached when he thought about it, so he stuffed the phone back into his pocket and rubbed the scarred palm with his opposite thumb, trying to chafe some comfort into the old wound.
He settled against a brick wall, his shoulder to the traffic, and fussed with his glove for a minute. A car alarm buzzed across the street, the flashing lights attracting his attention. He dropped his hands to his sides and turned, scanning the crowds moving along the sidewalk, faster pedestrians wending between slower clumps.
Matthew spotted the follower before he quite caught up. The man was easy to pick out of the crowd, not because his head was bowed over a PDA, his lips moving in concentration, but because Matthew could not have failed to notice the twisted, dark-colored rings encircling his thumb and forefinger.
Matthew didn't know this apprentice. But Matthew knew what he was and also knew why his phone had rung just then.
Matthew had it in his hand already when it rang again. He didn't bother answering, because at the sound of his phone, the apprentice's head came up. He turned until he faced Matthew directly. He was good-looking, Irish or Swedish extraction, with freckles scattered across his cheekbones and the bridge of his nose, and wavy dark red hair. The young man's face rearranged itself around a positively dazzling smile as he slipped up to Matthew, who found himself ridiculously at bay with his back against a brownstone wall.
"Matthew Magus?" the apprentice asked, and stuck out the hand that didn't have the PDA in it: his right hand, and Matthew didn't reach to take it. He didn't care to offer his crippled paw to shake like a well-trained golden retriever.
"I am," he said. "What does Jane want?"
Matthew should have asked the man's name; his eyebrows drew together at the sting of that slight. He recovered, though, and lowered his hand. "I'm Christian Magus," he said, smoothly. "I'm here on behalf of Jane."
"Christian Magus," Matthew repeated. "She's recruiting. It figures. How did she find you?"
The young Mage wore a copper-colored brocade blazer over a black turtleneck. He dropped his hands into his pockets and drew the brocade around himself, fist balled around the PDA. There was a bit of Mage-craft on it, Matthew could guess, a spell to help find Matthew through the link established when Jane called his phone, whether he chose to answer or not. Simple enough magic. The sort he would have worked without thinking, himself, once upon a time.
Christian didn't answer his question. "Jane wants to talk to you. Just talk."
Matthew stared through his eyeglasses. The apprentice didn't drop his gaze, but met him glower for glower. He wondered how long Jane had been recruiting apprentices, how many new Magi she'd collected … whether she was planning on moving against Faerie again.
"Jane needs everybody," Christian said. He held out a granite-colored business card; when Matthew didn't take it, he tucked it into the breast pocket of his gaudy coat with a sort of charming insolence. "She needs as many of us as she can get. She just wants to talk to you."
"How many of you are there now?"
"About twenty," Christian said. "And growing. I've been with her five years, and I know she's sincere."
Matthew put his phone away again and smoothed his left hand over his hair. "You know why she doesn't have any Magi left, Christian?" he asked. "Why she's starting over from scratch?"
Christian bit his lip, frowning. "The Faerie War."
"Because she got the last batch all killed," Matthew told him. "And she'll get you killed too. No."
He turned away, showing Christian the back of his hand. "No," he said. "I won't talk to Jane. I have a city to take care of. Leave me alone."
* * *
Two young women and a man in their early twenties hesitated on the platform, bewildered by the rumble of trains, the reek of grease and the arch of yellow metal against swallowing darkness. The train had breathed them into Penn Station like a dragon breathing particles of soot onto the air. The chambered heart of a vast beast echoed around them, sound ringing off granite blocks laid with a master's precision. The three exchanged glances, their own hearts thundering in their chests as New York's thundered in their ears.
They ascended the narrow escalator single file, passing through a gap in a dull, corrugated walkway suspended above the platform like a vast air-conditioning duct. Inside, grimy cement was punctuated in long rows by the alien luxuriance of cobalt tiles, blue as a madonna's robes against char.
The city noticed their coming.
The train watched them climb, calm in its long steel body, and the sidewalks took their weight in knowing silence when they ascended into the indirect brightness of a New York morning.
The eldest of the three was Althea Benning, who bought a white T-shirt from a vendor. It was marked in black and red and blue with a map of the New York subway system that stretched across her breasts when she pulled it over her tank top.
The boy was named Geoffrey Bertelli; his mouth twitched side-ways when he was amused. It was twitching now, as he raked bony, beautiful hands through his matted, matte-black-dyed red hair and said, "Everyone will know you're a tourist."
"Everyone will know I'm a tourist anyway, and this way, if we get lost, all you have to do is stare at my tits." Althea checked her reflection in the shopwindow; Geoff laughed at her, shifted his knapsack, and dropped an arm around the third companion's shoulders.
She only smiled.
She was the one who might have seemed most Fae, at least to someone who had never seen the Fair Folk. She was called Juliet Gorman, known as Jewels, and she was scarred and tattooed and pierced through fair freckled skin, her ears altered to points and a terrible homesickness in her flinching gestures.
She wasn't Fae. She was Otherkin, a peasant child dreaming she was a stolen princess … who knew that her real parents—who loved her—would be along any moment to reclaim her from unkind but temporary mundane bondage.
Jewels slid from under Geoff's arm and stood atop a subway grate, the warm wind swirling her skirt around her ankles. She'd braided her hair and pinned it so it covered her ears, mostly at Geoff's insistence.
"Look at me," Althea said, spinning in place, colliding with a hurried pedestrian whose fluffy lemon-yellow skirt hung low on her hips, two sunflowers with gnarled stems wrapped in a plastic supermarket bag dangling head down from her left hand.
Althea skipped aside and laughed. "Sorry."
The city girl tossed her a look like acid, and the city breathed in hope and breathed out dreams, and the dragons rumbled under their feet in the long darkness of Penn, jointed snakes in oil-slick squalor. "Where to first?" Althea asked, dropping her chin to stare down at the map across her chest.
"I don't care as long as we're in the Village by six to see the parade," Geoff answered.
He glanced at Jewels, who cocked her head and pursed her lips. "Times Square. I want to see where the war started."