Luke breathed in the sweet smell of grass and wet earth, feeling at ease despite the fact that a black sorcerer strode by his side. El was leading him through a large park by the river. Luke had previously only really seen this place at night. The park had been too busy for him during the daytime while he still lived with the fear of his curse. Even this early in the morning, they were not the only ones around. Now and then a jogger or a person walking a dog would briskly pass the two of them.
And whenever people did, Luke was relieved to notice that it was El, and not him, that their eyes lingered on. Even without his spectacular hat the little man — in his garish poncho and all the green and gold colored plastic that jangled softly as he walked — was way more attention-grabbing of the two of them.
Maybe it was that colorful and bizarre ensemble or the morning sunlight, but El seemed so utterly harmless now. On a deeper level Luke knew now that this was just a facade. Behind the rainbow of colors and cheap glittering baubles was a figure that commanded powers beyond human ability, beyond science. Luke had very limited knowledge about how man-made technologies like television and other such things worked, but he still knew the impossible when he saw it. And turning smoke into snakes that could hold a man prisoner and even stop bullets — that was not a trick or an achievement of science. El really could do black magic.
But who was he to judge him if El only used that power in self-defense, non-violently, and as it was, to help him out of his own predicament…
The little man must have caught his thoughtful glances because he smiled up at him, ”We’re almost there.”
The trees parted, revealing Graystone River, and Luke noticed El waving in the direction of a single weeping willow that grew on the river bank. Luke followed the man’s gaze in puzzlement. It took him a moment to make out a figure high between the drooping leaves and branches. The silhouette turned out to be a young woman, lounging in the tree like a large cat from a nature documentary. She waved back at them as they came closer.
“Good morning, El and new guy.”
“Hello there, Xenia, dear.” El grinned up at her. “I got you a little something. Had somewhere here, hm, just a moment…”
While the short man beside him rummaged through his bags, Luke just stared in silence. At first he thought there was a bright woolen shawl on Xenia’s head, but now he realized it was a curtain of strawberry blond hair. He had not seen such a mane since his previous life when he had found some peace living in a hippie commune. But that thought quickly brought back memories of how that life had ended. Luke shook his head and snapped back to the present just in time to watch El throw something up at the woman in the tree. She caught the item and unfolded it carefully. It turned out to be a pair of neon orange leggings.
“Oh El, you shouldn’t have!” Xenia exclaimed in delight and leaned back, holding the leggings up above her to better admire them. Luke instinctively stepped forward, afraid she was going to fall. But she regained her balance with ease and slid gracefully between the branches, now more like a snake than a cat.
Sitting a few feet lower now, Xenia began pulling the trousers on. Luke looked away, embarrassed, only to realize that she’d already been wearing a pair of leggings and was just slipping on another. After a moment’s confusion, he decided to stay turned away, it was still a woman dressing, so it was indecent. Not even the time spent with the hippies made him forget the Ordnung. Luke tried hard to live by it even though following the Amish rules strictly was no longer possible. He would just keep trying. When he looked back, Xenia stretched out a leg between the leaves and twigs until it caught a bit of sunlight and then began turning it around, to admire how the new layer of leggings looked on it.
“They’re simply gorgeous, thanks a lot,” she said with a smile. Then, much to Luke’s agitation, she began to move through the tree again. He was sure she was going to fall any moment now. But the young woman did no such thing. Noticing his frightened expression, she chuckled and twirled around a branch, and then suddenly she was standing on top of it, walking briskly above the sloping embankment and towards the river while not holding onto anything whatsoever. Now Luke was even more alarmed.
“Actually, I’ve got something for you too!” Xenia said, smiling down at El. And then, before Luke could grasp what was happening, she jumped into the river, disappearing in a splash of water.
Luke started, but El put a hand on his arm. “It’s okay, just give her a moment.”
“But she could drown,” Luke said urgently. He wanted to believe El, Xenia’s movements had appeared very confident, but he was too used to everything going horribly wrong. Did the woman really know what she was doing? And even if she did, what if his curse…
“She’ll be fine.” El insisted calmly. “Just give her a minute. Or a few.”
Luke gave him a baffled look. A few minutes seemed like too long for anyone to stay underwater. But then again, what did he know? He hadn’t ever attempted it… Feeling uneasy, but trusting El enough not to act, Luke stayed in place, watching the surface of the water.
They waited, nerve-wracking moments stretching. Finally Xenia re-emerged, half-dragging, half-rolling something behind her up the river bank. Luke had never been to the movies, and he never tried popcorn, but he knew what a popcorn machine looked like. Mostly because there were a few of those standing around El’s place and this one was much like them — a metal and glass box on wheels that also said ‘POPCORN’ in big white letters against a red backdrop.
“Ta-da!” The woman smirked. All wet she draped herself around the machine, presenting it to them.
“Oh Xenia, you shouldn’t have!” El clasped a hand over his heart dramatically.
“Only for you, El!” She laughed melodiously and wheeled the machine over to them.
El looked at the water trapped inside the glass, slowly trickling out through the cracks. “Hm, seems cleaner to me, but what do you think?”
“It is cleaner.” Xenia grinned. “And fish are coming back too. Much less lonely down there now.”
“Splendid. He’s trying for us, you know.” El opened the glass door and released a miniature flood.
“I know, he’s a real treasure. Say hi from me when he drops by again.”
“I will.” El smiled. “Well, kids, I’ve got to go. Luke, this is Xenia, Xenia, this is Luke, and you’ll figure out the rest soon enough.”
Luke looked from El to the woman, then back to El. He opened his mouth to speak, but the small man was already walking away, humming to himself as he rolled the popcorn machine ahead of him. “But… El…” Luke almost followed him in bewildered desperation.
“Let the busy man go.” The soaked young woman blocked his view. She made a few quick circles around him, tilting her head from side to side as she sized him up from every angle. “So you’re the new star of the show, hm?”
“I…” The word ‘star’ rang menacingly in Luke’s ears. “W-what do you mean exactly?”
“Nothing, I meant exactly nothing.”
Luke hugged himself, disturbed by the thought of his curse and the possible hint it could one day be used again. But El said he wouldn’t… And Luke somehow trusted him. Such a blatant betrayal was too dark a potentiality to go to, so Luke abandoned it and focused on the here and now. “Why was the popcorn machine in the river?” he asked.
“Ah,” she waved her hand, smiling. “It’s just our little pastime. Maize, as in corn, is sacred to El’s people, so one should be thankful for it and prepare it with care if one wants to eat it. You can’t just make it go pop and munch on it for entertainment, it’s sacrilege and just plain rude. So we run a little sabotage every now and then. It’s fun!”
“El’s people? Like you and me?”
“No, silly! Like the Maya. But yes, I guess also like you and me. El’s very inclusive and we’re all one big family.”
The Maya… Luke couldn’t pin the meaning of the word, but he felt it had something to do with native inhabitants of the Americas. And El did look like he had non-European ancestry. Luke did not get to dwell on it, because Xenia went on.
“El asked me to take you on a little tour around town. Looks like you’re gonna be sticking around, so it’s time to learn your ABCs. In case you haven’t realized yet, El’s network doesn’t end in the Rat Trap. He’s got many other places, and you need to know what’s where.” The young woman led him away from the river and into the streets and alleys. She walked so briskly that Luke had trouble keeping up, and yet from her movements he got the impression that Xenia still wasn’t walking as quickly as she would have liked to. Dragging behind her, Luke beheld the cascade of her shining, almost copper hair. It was still dripping, leaving a trail of water behind her. Xenia’s shoes left wet tracks as well. They were mismatched just like her socks, one of which was longer than the other. Luke had never before seen a woman wearing a skirt on top of trousers, not to mention two skirts on top of at least two pairs of leggings.
“Come now, come. You can ogle me later, now pay attention to where we’re going and make sure you remember the way!”
Luke felt his cheeks color and murmured heartfelt apologies.
“Remember these oaks. These are important,” she said as they passed a yard with a cluster of trees. “And this painted RV,” she told him as they walked through a parking lot. “The cat in that window. This statue, the square with the fountain. Oh and this corner café, I just love the smell of their crêpes”, she said and pointed at the store front as she jaywalked between the cars on the amber traffic lights, pulling Luke behind her, even though he tried his best to resist crossing the street against the rules.
She rushed him on, dispensing similar information, until they reached their first checkpoint. It was a low building situated strangely between two tall ones, and there was a man with a dog sitting on the steps outside. As they drew nearer, the man spared them just a single glance, got up and turned away, walking back into the building. The dog lingered on the steps and then followed him inside.
Luke stopped, unsure what to make of it, was this rude, or was it normal?
As he stood there, he saw several different faces briefly appearing in the window, but nobody came out to meet him.
“Don’t worry, it’s not like we have time for this now.” Xenia made short work of his hesitation. “The point is, memorize the place. We call it ‘The Valley’ because of these larger buildings on the sides. You’ll be expected to find your way back here later, when someone tells you to travel to the valley, this is where you go, unless you think of a better one. Across the valley, means in through the front door, out through the back door, they will let you through, that’s all. Now, let’s go.” Xenia was already dragging him away. It seemed when she said ‘a tour around town’ she meant literally that.
And so they continued on, and hardly any street went without commentary. For example, Luke found out that the old lady who had him feed the pigeons on the roof was Mrs Balodis, an immigrant from Eastern Europe, one of many in that block. And in a short walk from that tenement there was a bakery run by a man known simply as Claude, who Luke had actually previously heard about. Claude regularly left the unsold bread out for the homeless. Luke had never had the chance to meet the man in person, but had overheard good things. Xenia assured him he would have the chance to meet Claude. And countless other helpful souls whom Luke tried hard to memorize.
Similarly the ‘The Valley’, Xenia showed him ‘The Woods’, ‘The Meadow’, ‘The Lake’, The Crossroads’ — though she said that any would do, whatever that meant — and many other locations that did not always look the way they sounded. An hour in, Luke’s head was overflowing with names and landmarks and a very mixed understanding of their importance. He had known many of these locations from before, but that didn’t help much because now he also knew that the dog behind the fence on Burgundy Street liked sliced apples, and that there was a golden carp in the duck pond in Memorial Park.
Xenia kept adding more and more to that list, offering little to no context. She wasn’t the best guide, or maybe she was a great one. Luke had lived in New Coalport for over a year now, and yet he felt almost as if in that time he’d seen less of the city than he had in the last hour. Previously he’d been too scared to really look around, of course. He just skulked from place to place, trying to stay away. From the innocents his curse would harm, and from the criminals that came looking for him. But now, even though Xenia kept leading him through squares and streets with dense car and pedestrian traffic, Luke had simply no time to be afraid. He had no time to enjoy the view either, but at least he felt… more normal than he had in years. Even though his guide was a drenched wild-haired woman in mismatched clothes.
In the next few hours Luke walked his feet sore, while Xenia seemed as fresh as when she first jumped off the tree. She also made a point of walking through all the rain puddles that still remained on the pavement after the night’s downpour. Luke didn’t even question that. Physical exhaustion was taking its toll, as their only breaks were brief stops at the other retreats, most of them with their own peculiar names like ‘The Castle’ or ‘The Den’, where similarly to the first place they would spend a minute at best, while the inhabitants looked at them from a distance.
Finally Xenia took mercy on him, and they entered one of those retreats to rest for a while and eat together with its dwellers. The people living there seemed kind, they all praised El and told stories of how he took them off the streets. El seemed like a good man for a black magician, and it appeared he genuinely liked helping people, Luke felt guilty to have even questioned this in his mind before.
Names were exchanged at the table and Luke tried his best to memorize them, but his head was brimming with information. Soon they were on their way again. Xenia was tireless. Somehow her hair was still wet — or was it wet again? Luke wasn’t sure at this point.
Wyatt sat stiffly in the backseat of a cadillac limousine and pondered his existence. He’d never been inside a limo before. When he was younger, he used to imagine that one day when he was rich and famous, he’d maybe get to ride in one of those once or twice. But this was not how he envisioned that day. He wasn’t rich, or famous, and he didn’t even get to choose whether or not he wanted to get into the car. He had no say in where the limo was going. And worst of all, Hector was sitting next to him, affectionately hugging his shoulders with one imposing arm.
The only thing that cheered Wyatt up was that he’d managed to convince the man over the phone not to pick him up from his apartment this time. Hector had inquired for the reason of course, but somehow once again Wyatt managed to maneuver out of the situation (what if the landlord thinks I’m rich now and doubles my rent? No please, Hector, there is no need for you to have a serious chat with him). He wished he was able to do that with some other things the mobster had in mind for him. This was going to be his fourth ‘date’ with Hector Viteri, and he didn’t even know where they were going.
“So… where are we going?” Wyatt managed to successfully stage a small smile but his furrowed eyebrows betrayed him. Luckily, Hector seemed to find that troubled expression ‘adorable’.
“We’re going to pick my son up from baseball. It’s the right time for you two to be introduced to each other,” Hector said.
“Oh,” Wyatt kept his practiced smile on. “That’s great.” It was going to be wonderful. He simply couldn’t wait to meet Hector Viteri Jr., the heir of the Man’s criminal empire.
“I apologize in advance, Junior will probably not take well to you,” Hector said. “I haven’t been with anyone permanently since his mother… left us.”
That brief pause, it spoke volumes. Junior’s mother left, as in, departed from this world and Hector helped her make that trip somehow. And Wyatt was going to take her place, first by Hector’s side, and then, in an unmarked grave.
* * *
Not taking well to Wyatt was an understatement.
The gangly young man glared at Wyatt like he wanted to stab him. Multiple times. Or club him to death with his baseball bat, which he brought into the car with him. And no amount of terrified smiling on Wyatt’s part seemed to help. An awkward silence had fallen after the greetings and introductions were done with. Hector was busy watching Wyatt fondly, ignoring his son’s disapproving stare. Hector Junior also remained deadly silent, only his glare was slowly killing the unwelcome invader. To break the silence, Wyatt tried screaming internally, but that did not make things much better.
He didn’t really know how to behave in this situation. ‘Awkward’ did not do it justice. It wasn’t just that. Just like on the boat, he felt trapped. Only this time it wasn’t between Scylla and Charybdis, it was between Cerberus Senior and Cerberus Junior. And while Hector claimed to be an avid fan of the Greek mythos, the thief had a feeling that he shouldn’t let him in on that particular comparison.
Hector’s offspring, for better or for worse, did not share his father’s love of formal wear. Instead the young man was dressed in studded leather and torn jeans. His nappy black hair was in cornrows. There was a studded leather collar on his neck. He looked like the kind of bad crowd mothers warned their kids to keep away from when sending them to college. Wyatt wished he could do just that.
“So, how was baseball?” Hector broke the silence at last.
“Two home runs. But guess what — that jackass Daniels just won’t get off my case! He threw the baseball at my head again! They shouldn’t even let him be catcher when I bat. He does that one more time, I swear, I’m gonna kill him!”
Wyatt expected to hear nothing else. He braced himself, waiting for them to start discussing how exactly they would kill Daniels together, and how they would dispose of the body.
“Language, Junior. Have you tried just talking to him?” Hector asked.
“Talking? What do you think I am? Some kind of fa-”
Hector arched his eyebrows.
His son shifted uncomfortably, glaring at Wyatt and Hector in turns. “Whatever.”
A moment passed in silence.
“Did I mention that Wyatt here is a geologist? I thought he could help you with geography.”
“But I already passed geography!”
“The geography course at your school was pitiful. They hardly taught you anything at all. I won’t be satisfied until you know all the world capitals. Or at least most of them. You need to be well-educated.”
To one day control your father’s domains, Wyatt finished in his mind. He wasn’t too thrilled by the fact he would have to teach geography, or anything really, to the Man’s son. Not only did Junior already hate him, but Hector didn’t even ask Wyatt if he’d do that before casually proposing it now. He knew he could only say ‘yes’, but it would still be nice to be asked and at least pretend he had a choice.
“So, it’s settled. You can start next week. I’m sure Wyatt would love to share his knowledge with you. He’s been telling me about tectonic plates and minerals at every opportunity. Haven’t you, professor?” Hector ruffled Wyatt’s hair affectionately.
That was the moment when Wyatt regretted his tactic of escaping into a geology rant each time he wanted to avoid some topic or situation. Like for example bursting into a monologue about sedimentary rocks earlier today, when he had to prevent Hector from using the silence in the car to his own devices. Hector seemed to like listening to that stuff. And it made Wyatt seem really enthusiastic. But of course, as always, everything he said could and would be used against him.
“I sure have!” Wyatt smiled. “And I’ll be more than happy to help your son.”
Hector Junior looked like he just moved Wyatt to the top position on his personal death list, even above Daniels.
When the sun was setting and Luke couldn’t absorb any more information no matter how hard he tried, Xenia took pity on him and lead him back to the Rat Trap, which he felt grateful for, because at this point, he didn’t even know where they were anymore.
The sight of the familiar tenement filled Luke’s heart with warmth. His legs felt like they were made of lead — and he was used to walking for hours on end. Xenia seemed just as fresh as when they’d started. Somehow, she seemed to have also failed to dry. “And this is what we generally call ‘The Grotto’ or ‘The Cave’, because of that gaping hole up there,” she pointed at the tenement and burdened him with the final piece of information.
Luke nodded one last time. “Thank you for showing me around. It was a pleasure to meet you Xenia.” Then, with a pang of dread he realized something. “Ehm, would you like me to escort you to where you live? It’s getting late, it wouldn’t be safe for you to go alone…”
Xenia laughed, like this was the best joke she’d heard in years. “Oh, silly, rather it wouldn’t be safe for you to go with me! But thank you for the sentiment. Don’t worry. I’ll be just fine.”
“Ehm, very well.” Luke guessed Xenia was one of those people El said could protect themselves. “Have a good night then!” He waved her goodbye and went indoors. He barely set his foot inside as Alena yelled his name, calling him to come help with tidying the kitchen. Luke smiled and hurried to her, relieved to be back.
Xenia lingered outside the condemned building, drawing patterns on the surface of a puddle with the tip of her shoe. Bored of that, she went up to the mound of items and lifted the edge of the tarp, starting to browse.
“Would you like to trade?” Penny materialized right next to her as if summoned.
“Maybe I would.” Xenia assumed a ponderous pose. “How about you trade me some clothes and I’ll trade you a message you should pass to El.”
“Bah, a message. And not even for me. I don’t want it.” Penny crossed his arms on his chest. “A message!” he grumbled. “You can’t even put it in a box. Unless you write it down, I suppose…”
Xenia stood up and jerked the belt off of him with a skill of a magician pulling a tablecloth. She held the belt in front of Penny and raised her eyebrows. “A message and a belt then.”
Penny grimaced as his oversized pants fell to the ground, revealing cartoonishly garish boxers. He did not uncross his arms. “You drive a hard bargain. I’ll have to think about it.” He looked away and tapped his foot, but it quickly got caught in the fabric. Penny grunted and bowed down, picking his pants from the ground and pulling them up. “Very well. You’ve got a deal, but only this once.” He held the pants up with one hand and went indoors.
He came back a few minutes later with red leather gloves. He dangled them in front of Xenia. “A set of two matching gloves. In exchange for one pre-owned belt and an immaterial message. You’re practically robbing me blind. Take it or leave it.”
Xenia extended the belt to him. Penny narrowed his eyes. He grabbed the belt just as she snatched the gloves. They gave each other mildly scornful looks.
“What’s the message?” Penny asked.
“Oh? Now you want it?”
“It was part of the deal.”
“Very well,” the woman conceded. “You tell El I’ll have this boy wrapped around my finger in no time. I’ve shown him the ropes, even as he couldn’t keep his eyes off me. If he cannot muster the courage to play El’s little game, I’ll make sure to inspire him.” She smirked confidently and tilted her head, letting the waterfall of her hair fall mostly to one side.
Penny adjusted his belt. “El will like this message, I fancy.”
“He better. Well, pleasure doing business with you.” Xenia made a mock-curtsy and strode off, vanishing behind the corner before Penny was even done buckling his belt.
⚞ ¥ ⚟
Yen’s ears caught the words ‘Ancient Egypt’ and ‘calendar’ coming out of Nakhti’s mouth and his instinct to duck and roll kicked in full force. When the nerds aligned, there was no sanctuary, not even in his own room, or well, his half of the room that he shared with Sam. One could have thought having Nakhti in close proximity to his bed late at night would have been promising, but this was exactly why they always shagged at Nakhti’s place — the goddamn conversation starters plastered all over Sam’s side.
“The New Year is not as far as you think, look we’re merely two months away from the flood,” Sam argued, pointing to a heavily edited calendar on his wall. Mid-August was marked in red and surrounded by hand-written notes so dense none but Sam could hope to decipher them.
“Two months is plenty,” Nakhti pointed out calmly. He walked to stand behind Sam, and analysed the calendar, peering over the shorter man’s shoulder.
“No, not with our current budget. The Beautiful Feast of the Valley had cost more than we had planned for, we will need to adjust our plans this year.”
Yen got off of his bed and passed the two Egyptians with a sour look on his face. “I’m going to watch TV, before your water-works-based calendar damages something irreplaceable in here.” He tapped his forehead with his index finger.
“Oh yes, television is surely the less damaging alternative,” Sam quipped skeptically.
Yen rolled his eyes. Sam could make the ancient, possibly alien, civilization that worshipped furries into such a borefest sometimes.
“I’m out of here, have fun doing accounting!”
Sam grimaced at the door slamming behind Yen, but did not comment, instead he turned to the calendar again. “Opet in September is going to be costly, that’s a long festival, so we have to be mindful during the summer and spend conservatively. Maybe cut a few of the lesser festivals. It’s not like the others would even notice.” He glanced at the door with disapproval.
“I wouldn’t be too concerned with the others. We can still celebrate those.” Nakhti came up closer still, and embraced Sam from behind. “Just the two of us, you know.”
Sam gently but steadily removed Nakhti’s arms and stepped to the side. He frowned up at his friend. “We can celebrate, but none of that. We talked about this.”
Nakhti smiled, a bit sadly, as he let go of him reluctantly. “We didn’t really. You talked, I listened.”
“Then clearly, you did not really listen.” Sam’s frown faltered, replaced with a sad, tired expression. “Nakhti, I love you, you are my best friend, you are like a brother to me… now. Yen is your boyfriend. You had a choice. You chose him.”
“It’s not how I feel about it. You know how Yen is. I’m not his only one either. He doesn’t mind, I don’t mind, Ancient Egypt doesn’t mind. He didn’t steal me from you. I’m still here, yours, whenever you finally get over yourself.” He reached out and touched Sam’s face, brushing his thumb across the other man’s cheek.
Sam withdrew. “I can’t do this. You two are into open relationships, I’m not.” He turned to look at the reproductions and photos of Ancient Egyptian murals on his wall. “It’s not something external, Nakhti, I can’t get over it. It’s how I am. If it’s not just the two of us, I don’t want it. It would hurt way too much. Please, don’t do this to me.”
Nakhti sighed, his arm dropping to hang at his side. “I don’t want to hurt you, but I don’t want to lose you either. I wish I’d known this was how you felt from the start.”
Sam said nothing.
Nakhti too remained silent for a while. He looked at the door, then back at Sam. “You know how Yen is though. It’s been a while, he might find a new boyfriend any moment now.”
“When he does,” Sam said, “then we’ll talk.”
“I guess that’s fair enough.”
* * *
Clack. Clack. Clack.
Went something against stone steps, interrupted by heavy breathing.
Clack. Clack. Clack.
“It really beats me…” Penny rasped as he reached the top of the stairs, “Why I always need to go up to find you. Down, that I’d get, down would make sense. This here makes no sense. Why can’t you be down one of those wells instead?”
“The view is nicer from here, helps me think.” El welcomed him with a smile.
“The view… and what about my poor old rattled bones.”
“I’m sorry. You could have just waited downstairs, you know.”
“Guess I see why people would just agree to lie down and die here, it’d almost be a relief. Anyway, there’s a message from the bad hair day. She says she’ll fix your fairytale boy up in no time. She’ll inspire him, she says.”
“Oh, I like the sound of that.” El rubbed his hands together with a grin.
“I knew you would.” Penny wiggled a pinky finger in his ear and studied the spoils. “However, I can’t say I share your optimism. It’s going to be a scythe and a stone meeting, or they say here an unstoppable force and an immovable object kind of situation. He’s a tough cookie.”
El smiled. “He’s the dough rather. He’s the clay that can be shaped. He is the wood that can be sculpted into form. He’ll be perfect. Maybe. Maybe not, but it’s worth a try. And I’ll make sure there won’t be another monkey incident. There cannot be one anyway. The spark is already in him.”
“When you say dough, you mean corn dough? It’s always corn with you.” Penny did not sound convinced. “I’m sure it’s going to be ah-maize-ing.”
El laughed heartily. “And here I thought I was the one with the corny jokes. But yes, yes, my friend, you are quite right about that.”